I. Time Trials
Eight-year-old Dean Winchester aimed the blaster at the screen and fired continuously, blowing up aliens and racking up points. In another thirty seconds he'd have enough for another free game.
Something tugged on his sleeve. "Bedtime, Dean."
Dean nodded. "Just another fifteen hundred points, Sammy," he said to his little brother without looking away from the screen. "Then I can put my initials up on the board."
"I wanna go."
"You're four now, dude. You can stay up longer." Dean bit his lip as he concentrated. And there went the Mother Ship! Score!
"I'm sleepy now!"
Dean winced and glanced around the convenience store they were in. Yeah, people were looking. Time to give in before Sam really made a show of it. Besides, Dad said that a good leader always took care of his sub—subor—took care of the men under him. He sighed and turned from the black metal console. "Fine, brat! Bedtime it is. Let's go."
He grabbed Sammy's hand and tugged him out the door and across a field to their latest motel room. "You better remember this the next you're screaming to stay up late," he said with a small jerk of the hand in his.
"You're mean! I'll tell Daddy!" Sammy said as he stumbled behind his brother.
"Hey, I didn't tell Dad you flushed one of his silver bullets down the toilet, so you keep your mouth shut about us going to play games."
"You played," Sammy pouted.
"And you colored. You like coloring, don'tcha?"
"Yeah. I color good, don't I?"
"Yeah, Sammy, you're real good at it." He slid the key into the lock and opened the door. "Go on and get ready for bed, kiddo."
An hour later, Sam was completely out and Dean was completely awake. He really wanted his initials on that game. It would be totally cool to come through the town again when he was really old—like twenty—and see DW up on the screen. He fingered the free game token he'd won. Sammy was sleep. And the motel was only a few yards away. And it wouldn't take him long.
And it'd be really cool.
Carefully, he slipped out the door.
Sammy wiggled his nose in irritation. Something stunk. He coughed then woke up completely. He blinked as white stuff danced in front of his face. Smoke. "Dean, you playing with matches again? You know what Daddy said!" He sneezed. "Dean!"
Worried when his brother didn't answer, Sam clambered out of the bed and into the other room. Daddy called it a suite, but he called it yucky. The paint was all messed up and Dean wouldn't let him eat anything that fell on the floor. Not even if he blew on it.
The room was empty, but smoky. With a cough he headed toward the door. He pulled it open just enough to stick his head out and call, "Dean!" Nothing. He turned back toward the now gray room, then nervously stepped all the way outside. "Dean!"
"Baby boy, what're doing out here all by yourself!" He looked up at the kindly face of a woman with dark hair. "Come on, child! There's a fire!"Fire. Fire took Mom. "Dean! Daddy!"
"It's not safe here, baby. Come on. We'll find your Dean and daddy when we're safe, okay?"
Sam stood looking around indecisively. Going somewhere without Daddy or Dean wasn't good. But neither was fire. The lady took the decision out of his hands by scooping him up into her arms and up against her shoulder. "We have to go, little one."
Sam ended up looking back at the room and wondering where his family was.
Dean barely looked up as the tiny bell over the convenience store's door sounded. He was just about—yes! He could put up his initials. Score one for Dean Winchester!
"Yeah, something's burning over there at the motel. Fire trucks on their way and everything."Dean turned so fast he almost tripped over his own feet. "What?"
A tall, thin man with a cigarette hanging from his lip nodded toward the motel. "Fire over there. Might be bad."
Dean's heart was pounding so hard he couldn't hear what else the man was saying as he was already out the door and flying across the field. He didn't stop until he saw the flames.
Mama! his mind screamed. "Sammy!" he yelled aloud.
He moved forward, only to be jerked back by a hand clamping down on his wrist.
"Stay back, kid! There's a fire!"
No shit, asshole, he thought. "Let me go!" he said sharply, kicking out blindly. "My brother's in there!"
He jerked free and ran toward the door he'd left Sammy behind. There was a pop and suddenly he was flying in the opposite direction. "No!" he cried out just before his world went painfully dark.
John Winchester turned away from his steamroller route to the emergency room's main desk and headed toward his friend and fellow hunter, Jim Murphy. "Jim! Where are they? When you called Caleb's cell phone you said there was a fire at the motel? Are my kids hurt? Is that why I'm here at a hospital?" John knew the answer to his questions even as he asked them. Why else would Jim had directed him here if Sam and Dean were okay? A fire. Shit. Goddamnit! "Was it what got Mary? Where are my boys, Jim?"
"John, I suggest you get a hold of yourself before Security kicks you out of here," Jim warned softly. John finally took notice of the staring nurses and attendants and forced himself to take a deep breath before he nodded. Jim led him to a line of chairs in the far corner. "It wasn't—a demon didn't do this, okay? Bobby was just an hour away when I got the call. Dean apparently had my number written in his jacket."
"They told him to do it at school. Yours was the only permanent number he knew. Guess I need to get one of those big ass pocket phones, too, huh?" John said uneasily.
Jim nodded. "I came to the hospital while Bobby checked out the site. Your neighbors were running a drug lab in the next room. Things went—wrong."
"The boys?" John forced himself to ask calmly.
"Dean's upstairs in the pediatric ICU. An explosion sent him flying into a wall. Concussion, dislocated shoulder, broken elbow."
Jim reached out and grasped both his wrists. "Bobby searched. No one saw a little boy, John. And...and the firemen says it'll be at least two days before anyone can safely go in—"
"No." John looked down at his captured wrists and did nothing to free them. "No, no, no. If Dean got out, then Sammy did, too. He wouldn't have—Have you talked to him?"
"He's been unconscious since they brought him in. But if there had been any sign of a lost child..."
"I need to see Dean."
"Okay." Jim ushered him into an elevator. "He's not in a coma or anything. He responds well in stimulus tests and they expect him to wake on his own in a little while."
"Good. Then he can tell us where Sammy is. Probably stashed him somewhere and told him not to come out unless he recognizes the voice. The boys are always playing games like that. Dean's version of training. The boy has good instincts."
God, the sympathy in that one word. Jim needed to shut the hell up. "You'll see, Jim. Dean's protecting Sammy. I know it."
Jim didn't say anything else as he led John to the monitoring island in the middle of the intensive care unit. John explained who he was and was led to a glass cubicle where his son lay hooked up to beeping and humming machines. Both arms were in some kind of traction/torture devices and his face was pale, except where it was bruised.
The boy needed a haircut. Which surprised him because it was always Sammy who needed the haircut. Sammy...
"Remember you have only fifteen minutes, John. I'll be in the waiting room."
He nodded at Jim, rolled a narrow stool close to the bed, and sat down. "Hey, kiddo. I really picked a winner this time, didn't I? A motel with a faulty drug factory. Wait till OSHA hears about that, huh?" Dean was still except for the tiny hitch of his chest. Up. Down. Up. Down.
John pinched the top of his nose. The last time Dean was this quiet was after the fire—the um, first fire. Damn. This had to be doing a number on his little psyche. No wonder he'd stashed Sam away somewhere. When he was awake, they'd go find Sammy, and maybe take a break. Go to Six Flags Over Texas or maybe the Grand Canyon. His boys deserved some fun, some kid time. Yeah, that's what he was gonna do as soon as Dean woke and told him where Sam was.
It took five visits to the cubicle before John noted that something was different. "He's close," the nurse explained. "See how his eyes are moving under the lids? Push the button as soon as he wakes. We'll need to do some tests as soon as possible."
John watched as Dean's eyes crinkled in the corners like they did when he concentrated. He'd seen that look a hundred times during target practice. "You can do it, Dean," he coached softly. "Wake up, son."
"Sammy," Dean hummed.
John tensed and leaned closer to Dean's mouth. "That's right, Dean. Tell me where Sammy is."
Dean's eyes flew open. The terror in them had John backing away before he knew he was moving. He took a shaky breath and gathered himself. "Dean, I know if you got out, Sammy did, too. Where is he, son? Where's your brother?"
Dean's eyes closed and John shivered as he saw the tears start to flow from the creases. "I was...I was never...in, Dad. Sammy...was there...by himself. I..." He turned his head away, his eyes never opening. "I was across the street at the store playing video games. Sammy was alone. I—I left him there to die alone. I—He's dead, ain't he? I killed my brother, didn't I?"
John froze, a chill suddenly covering him from head to toe. His first numb thought was that there had to be a ghost nearby. Then he thought maybe it was the storm whose thunder was crashing against his ears. But it wasn't thunder; just his heart pounding away, trying to escape its cage of bone and sinew. Then it wasn't even just the pounding, but the discordant noise of monitors tripped by a small boy who was now conscious of his great sin.
Cain had betrayed Abel because of a video game.
Not even a damn blessing.
He turned toward the twin sound of his name. Jim and Bobby. A hand each on his arms.
He staggered away from their touch. "My baby's dead."
Later, there was a lid tightly clamped over the screaming anguish in his heart, the utter devastation that was matched only by what he'd felt in November of 1983. Now, he sat beside his remaining son, whose lullaby of nearly silent monitors was directed by the sedatives in his system, and while he kept watch, he planned and schemed.
He knew as soon as Dean came out of it, the boy would be on a suicide watch. The staff psychologists had been called in when Dean went nearly catatonic after finding out Sam was dead. They were worried that he was planning on following his brother in death. They'd shared with John their fears, what counseling Dean would need, what drugs might be necessary, the precautions about keeping him away from sharp objects and sheets that could be made into nooses. He never told them that Dean not only had access to guns, knives, accelerants, etc., but that he knew how to use each and every one of them quickly and efficiently. Hell, knowing Dean, he could kill himself with just the machinery in the room long before anyone could stop him.
But John really wasn't worried about that. He had a plan. He was going to make sure Dean lived by telling Dean that if he died, his dad would be right behind him. Kill yourself, kill your daddy. Yep. He was going to lay that on his son, put that kind of responsibility on a eight-year-old's shoulders. And since Dean figured he'd let his brother down, there was no way in hell he'd do the same to his daddy. No. He had no doubt that Dean was now going to be the most responsible, obedient, and safety-conscious son on the planet.
Dean always was a quick learner.
Too bad he had a blind spot where his totally irresponsible father was concerned. He knew the boy would never blame the right person for Sammy's death. He'd never take John to task for leaving his boys in a fleabag motel alone with drug dealers and probably child molesters, serial killers... Of course, he'd left them in the car while he chased ghosts, werewolves, and ghouls... No difference, really, was there? He'd been a bad dad, was going to continue being a bad dad. Blackmailing his son into living? Check. Dragging him along on hunts because hunting was now John's drug of choice? Check—and really unnecessary because although he'd ignored them, he'd heard Jim and Bobby's offers to take Dean in, to give him a proper home. But, no, Bad Dad John wouldn't be giving Dean up—not his child, not his only child.
"I'll keep him alive for you, Sammy. He may not thank either of us for that, but he'll be alive. I know I made your mom that same promise, that I'd keep both of you alive and...well, I failed. But not this time. For better or worse, Dean and I, we'll carry on, Sam. For you. For Mary. We'll carry on."
John tapped his foot in time with the beat of Dean's heart monitor.
Senior year in high school was hell.
Dean turned the composition book in several directions as he tried to decipher his notes. He really needed to work on his penmanship. Squinting, he finally managed to figure out what he'd written and tapped it into the computer.
He hadn't been too happy with his dad when John came up with the grand idea of renting an apartment and settling in Waterloo, Iowa (and, yeah, after a semester of European history he got the joke) for the entire school year so that Dean could graduate. He himself had suggested getting a GED two years ago when he'd turned sixteen, but Dad had nixed that idea with a sad glance that Dean interpreted to mean, "your mom and your brother would want you to graduate." And since they were the only dead that could push Dean Winchester around and get away with it, for the past year and a half, he'd faithfully become the "new kid in school" in any place they stopped for more than a week. Because of the way the world worked—his world anyway—all their cases during that period were in small towns and, of course, there were more jerks per capita in small towns than in metropolitan areas (he'd seen that just last week in the back of his Social Studies book—in more general terms but he'd read between the lines). But he'd gritted his teeth, ignored the jackasses he could and beat down the ones he couldn't, and had earned a small smiles from Dad for every passing report card.
So to keep the smiles coming, he was now in Waterloo for the fifth straight month—raising his eyebrow at the new students who transferred in at the beginning of the semester. Unreal. However, he now knew why it was important not to change schools this crucial year—papers and projects and testing every fricking week it seemed like. There was no way he'd get enough of anything to graduate without staying stationary. Of course, he was the only one who stayed stayed. His dad just used the apartment as a base between hunts.
"I'm so boring in bed that homework is a better option?"
Dean turned and smiled at the robe-clad woman walking up behind him. "Not boring at all, Ms. T. Just trying to finish my paper before I go home. My dad's back in town tomorrow, so if I don't get it finished now, I'll have to sign up to use a machine at the library. I'll never get it done that way." During "paper season" students could only sign up for one hour segments. It royally sucked.
Aileen Tierney was, among other things, Dean's guidance counselor. She was the reason he had to do all these papers and stuff in the first place. On his first day at Waterloo East High School, Dean had been kicked out of his math class for knowing too much and sent to Ms. Tierney for placement testing. Dean got math, because, hey, a hunt was all about vectors and probabilities and shit. English and foreign languages weren't too much of a stretch either because much of it was Latin-based and he'd studied Latin as soon as he could read; Pastor Jim got a hard-on for Latin and Dean had always liked Pastor Jim. Science? He liked taking things apart and also blowing things up—science was way cool. He was, however, slightly deficient in history—Ms. T's assessment, not his. Now, the history of some of the worst crimes imaginable (usually supernatural-based even though most people weren't aware of that), he could recite off the top of his head, but when it came to normal history, he was a little behind. For example his knowledge of the US Civil War history was limited to the location of battlefield/burial grounds because soldier ghosts could be angry bastards. Modern US history? He barely knew the current president's name. The invention of the sewing machine and Henry VIII's court—um, come again? Since he placed in advanced classes in his other subjects, Ms. T had offered to tutor him in history so he could be fully on the advanced track.
Along the way, she decided to tutor him in something else.
He was more eager in one subject than the other, but Ms. T's reward plan worked well in both.
"I'm going to have to do without you for several days and you want to spend our last moments together typing a paper? Where," she said as she straddled his lap, their groins only separated by the threadbare jeans he'd donned when he climbed out of bed, "did I go wrong?"
"I'm just trying," he paused as she pulled back the robe and sort of jiggled a nipple in his direction,"to live up to your academic desires for me." He gave the nipple a lick because Ms. T had taught him to be very oral.
She leaned in for an open-mouthed kiss. "I have other desires at the moment. Leave your notes; I'll finish the paper for you during my very lonely evenings."
"You're the teacher," he agreed happily. He stood and she wrapped her legs around him, making him so very glad for all his dad's physical training exercises. Older women had a lot of stamina.
At first it'd been weird, not the sex part because the women in the bars his dad liked to hang out in, well, they weren't exactly shy. But Ms. T was a teacher! He didn't know they did the things she did. He hadn't even been sure she was hitting on him.
When he'd finally understood that, yes, she was coming on to him, he'd figured it was just a tease, a play for power. When she'd invited him to her apartment, he'd been wary but he was seventeen and she was offering sex. No was never an option. However, while she was asleep, he'd cased her place for clues—black altar, Voodoo dolls, maybe a hidden camera so she could make some quick cash on Craigslist. But all he'd found was a few school books with various names inside. The school's library had yielded past yearbooks and by putting faces to names, he'd deduced a pattern. Ms. T was just a woman with a specific kink: athletic-looking loners (no club participation) who were seniors. Probably the best way to keep old toys from new toys.
Finding out he was being used was a relief. There would be no scooping up of his bodily fluids to use in spells—he'd overheard his dad and Bobby talking about a case in Tennessee where that had happened. No seeing his naked ass on YouTube. No chance of her becoming a future stalker. She merely wanted forbidden, dirty sex with a teenage boy. And in return, he got sex (yay!), use of a computer (yay again), and someone who cared for him (sorta, like the neighbor's cat that someone took in while the owner was away). She fussed at him when he didn't try in his classes and praised him when he did. She pretended he mattered. And he was okay with that because then he could pretend that he could matter to someone.
On some days, when the apartment echoed around him and Dad hadn't checked in or stopped by in a couple of weeks, pretense was the only thing that kept him going.
"The toys I ordered from the catalog should be here by the time your dad leaves again," she whispered as he shed his jeans. "You'll like them, I promise."
There was an eager desperation in her voice that bothered him. Didn't she know he didn't care what she did to him? If he could make her happy, it was more than he'd done for someone in a long time. "Whatever you want, Ms. T. Whatever you want."
"Hey, Dad!" Dean called as he let himself into the apartment after school. He'd seen the Impala sitting in front and had nearly run up the steps.
"Hey, Dean." John gave his son a one-armed hug as Dean dropped his book bag on the sofa. "How's school?"
Dean shrugged. "How's hunting? You find whatever was killing those guys in Trenton?"
"A lady in white."
"Awesome. Caleb's man come through yet with that ordnance order you made?"
"Yep. It's all good." John sat on the sofa and Dean could see the research spread across the coffee table. A short visit then. "Picked up the mail. Jim sent you a birthday card."
Dean glanced at the yellow envelope on the table. "Yeah, he mentioned it the last time I talked to him. Said it was strange having a real address to send it to and not some P.O. box. What time did you get in?"
"Pretty early. Probably just after you'd left." John straightened a stack of notes, evening up the pages at their corners.
"Should've let me know. Could've skipped today."
John looked up with a smile. "Never did like going to school on your birthday, did ya?"
Dean grinned. "Still wish I was a summer baby."
John laughed. "Nah, that would've been too easy. You just had to be a blizzard kid—I was that close to having to deliver you myself. Scary shit. But, hey, no blizzard today, so let's go out to dinner."
"Can I get a beer?"
"You're eighteen, not twenty-one."
"Can I get a beer?"
John rolled his eyes. "We'll see."
-:- -:- -:-
Dean looked at the papers his dad handed to him. They'd had a great time at dinner and he was feeling vaguely mellow from the single beer he'd been allowed. "What's this?" He frowned as he read. "The rental agreement has been switched over to my name?"
John nodded. "You're eighteen and legal. I've paid through June."
"Well, that's how long we were staying anyway, right? I mean, graduation's in June."
John plopped onto the fuzzy brown recliner that'd come with the apartment. Most of the furniture had actually. "Have a seat, son." Dean perched on the edge of the sofa. "You're a good hunter, Dean. Your instincts are on point, your aim on target. We were in a group of six experienced hunters over Christmas and you brought down more of that werewolf pack than any other hunter there. Everyone was impressed."
"Thank you, sir."
"I wasn't too shabby myself."
Dean grinned. "Hell, no. Best damn hunter I know," he said proudly.
John gave him a slight smile, then sobered. "But the thing is...what I've discovered while you've been in school...is that I'm a better hunter...without you."
Dean jerked as if he'd been hit. "What?" he almost stuttered.
John leaned forward. "You're my son, my only child. I—hesitate when you're near. I'm—too concerned about you when we hunt together. You understand?"
"You don't trust me." It hurt to hear it. It hurt to say it. But he'd known it since he'd let Sammy die. Hell, he hadn't trusted himself since then. He let John make all the decisions and when John wasn't there, he let Ms. T make them. Because it'd been his decision that had killed Sammy. His choice to leave a baby alone in a motel room.
Bad choices were all he ever made.
"It's not a matter of trust." John's hands flexed as if he wished he had something to fiddle with. "It's a matter of—focus. My attention should be on the hunt."
"And it's not when I'm with you," Dean said. Because you don't trust me to watch out for myself. You don't trust me to watch out for you.
"Exactly. Probably why you don't see families hunting together—just friends or acquaintances. It's like doctors not working on family members or cops not investigating their loved ones."
"Clouded vision," Dean said softly. "Second-guessing yourself."
John reached out and patted him on the knee. "I knew you'd understand, son."
Dean bit his jaw, then asked, "What do you want me to do, sir?"
"The choice is yours, Dean. As I said, you impressed the hell out of several hunters. I'm sure one of them would love to take you on. Also, I saw your semester grades over Christmas. Maybe you wanna try a community college or something? Work on your research skills?"
Dean nodded. "Sure, Dad."
"Good man." John stood and stretched. "I better call it a night. Got to hit the road early tomorrow. Give me a ride downtown? I have to pick up something."
A ride? "I don't have a car, Dad."
John smiled and tossed him the keys from his pocket. "Yeah, you do. The Impala's yours, son. Happy Birthday."
Dean stared at the keys in his hand long after John had gone to bed. He'd always wanted the Impala. It reminded him of the good times; his mom up front, Sammy strapped in his car seat in the back. But now it was going to remind him of something else. That in return for its possession, he was losing his dad.
He snorted at himself. Who was he fooling? He'd lost him ten years ago, hadn't he?
Well, at least now he'd have more time for Ms. T. Of course, there was no way in hell he was going to tell her about this. Not that she could do anything like tell Child Services—he was eighteen—but she would probably pity him or something. And that would suck. No, he'd just have to pretend Dad was home every so often and it'd be fine. No one would know. No one would know that he'd finally lost the last family member he had.
With a shrug that held just the briefest echo of a sigh, Dean went to bed.
Bobby Singer sat on the hood of his faded blue truck and stared at the black Impala parked just across from him. School security sucked. No way he should be in student parking just sitting around.
"Good going, Winchester," he muttered to himself. "Serve you right if I was a predator looking to go after your boy." Of course, said "boy" could probably kick his ass, tie it in a bow, and ship it FedEx. But that was beside the point.
In Bobby's opinion, John Winchester had screwed up a lot more than just in choosing a high school. When the man had stopped by his house a few days ago looking for information on demonic presages, Bobby had known something was wrong. After an aptly applied bottle of Jack, John had confessed that he hadn't seen his son in weeks, that he'd essentially cut Dean out of his life.
"S'better this way, man. I'm close, damn close to finding that sonovabitch who got Mary. I don't...Dean can't be with me...I can't risk him."
It had taken Bobby a few minutes to wrap his head around what he'd heard. For years, he and Jim had been after John to let Dean stay with one of them, at least during the school year. Now, here the boy was about to graduate and suddenly John was ready to be separated from him. He'd raised the boy to be a hunter and now he was what? Cutting him loose to go hunting on his own? "You left that boy on his own in Iowa? What's he supposed to do, John? He's a kid!"
"Told him to do wha'ever he wanted ta do. He's a man, now."
Wait. Maybe this wasn't just John's decision. Had Dean suddenly found his voice again, told his pappy he was a man, stood up for himself? If that was the case, well, Bobby'd say it was about damn time. "Dean come up with this, John? Did he finally get tired of you just throwing out orders?"
John had laughed. "Dean? Hell, Bobby, I could tell Dean to go jump into a Hell's Gate, and he wouldn't even look back to see if I was comin' along. That boy don't care nuthin' ‘bout himself, nuthin' at all. Scares me, man. That's why he needs to be far away from me. Far, far away..." His voice faded off to a whisper.
Well, fuck. It was as bad as he thought. "What didya tell him, John? Didya tell him why you were leavin' him? Did you make sure he knew it was because you were trying to protect him?" Bobby had asked angrily. "Or did you tell him he was a piece of shit you were tired of dragging around on the bottom of your shoe?"
John had stared at him with the wide-eyed expression that only a drunk could achieve. "No, Bob, man. I just explained—explained how he was a good hunter, but a dis—distraction to me. He understood."
Bobby had looked at the man in disgust. Even if John didn't, Bobby remembered Dean just after the motel fire. He wasn't so much suicidal as he was depressed. Nothing had excited him, grabbed his attention, sparked his interest. He was just this ghost of a kid trailing around behind his dad, looking back for the little brother who should've been on his heels. The only thing that kept him going was John's subtle blackmail. Oh, yeah, he and Jim had picked up on that—how John would say shit like, "Your mom and Sammy loved school. They'd be proud if you did well." Or "Come on, son. You need to learn how to do this to protect my back. I need to know you have my six." They hadn't said anything because it was working, bringing Dean back to actively living. But now John was taking all that away from the boy.
"You're an asshole, John Winchester," he'd told the man. "And when your drunk ass is sober enough to hit the road, I want you to scratch my place off your map."
"I just want him safe," John had mumbled.
Bobby got that. Demons—demons meant death. He was intimately familiar with that. But he knew Dean would take this as punishment for what had happened to Sam, knew Dean punished himself every day for Sam's death. He also knew John was too busy punishing himself to ever notice what Dean was going through.
As soon as John had left, Bobby was on the phone with Jim. It was a quick conference, perhaps too quick because somehow or another, he'd ended up being the one chosen to check on Dean. That was a ten hours drive for him, compared to Jim's two from his home in Blue Earth, Minnesota. He'd tried to point that out to Jim.
"Dean gets to be a little boy with me," Jim had said. "He gets to be a man with you. I think, for the moment, he needs to be a man."
For a pastor, Jim could sling bullshit with the best of them.
He turned to see Dean loping toward him. The boy had parked his car in the back corner of the lot, away from the revving engines of children now set loose from their daily captivity. Smart kid. "Your daddy's fine, as far as I know," he said, forestalling the question he could read from a distance.
"Oh." Dean came to a stop beside him. "What's up, then? You need back-up for a hunt? I got a couple days off for Spring Break."
Bobby shrugged. "I was over in Cedar Rapids at an estate sale."
Dean grinned. "You were out—antiquing? That's cool, man. I have nothing against alternative lifestyles. Whatever floats your boat, you know? Revs your engine. Cocks your trigger, as it were."
"Now wait a goldurn minute," Bobby interrupted, a little slow to figure out what Dean was getting at. "I ain't antiquing, you idjit! The deceased was a book collector." Dean laughed and Bobby knew he'd been had. "Found a grimoire I've been tracking down for a while. Anyway, thought I'd stop by on my way home."
"Bull, Bobby. Since you knew to look for the Impala, I suppose Dad told you what he did. I'm an adult now. I don't need you to check up on me," Dean snapped.
And Bobby forgave him for the brief snit because he could see beneath the bravado, see the boy who wondered why his daddy had tossed him aside. "You might wanna give that attitude a rest, son."
The starch went out of his shoulders. "Yes, sir."
Conditioning had its moments. "Actually, I'm here for myself. I—" Bobby removed his cap and scratched his head. "Don't laugh at an old man, yeah?"
Dean leaned up against the truck, sympathetically striking his shoulder. "Spit it out, Bobby. You know I'm here for you, man, alternative lifestyle and all."
Bobby rolled his eyes and continued. "I always wanted to go on one of those John Deere factory tours." Yeah, Waterloo was known for its John Deere factory, but he was still gonna kill Jim for putting the excuse into his head. But they both knew Dean was a good boy. Even if he laughed, he'd play the good host and make sure his guest got to do what he wanted.
Dean did laugh, but it wasn't a mocking one. "Jonesing for John Deere, huh? They do that whole engine disassemble/assemble thing, don't they? Aside from the fact it's a tractor engine, it sounds kinda cool. I don't have to buy one of their caps or anything, right?"
"Aw, c'mon, Dean. Gotta love the green and yellow," Bobby teased.
"Actually, I don't." He sighed dramatically. "It really scares me what I'll do for family and friends."
Bobby laughed. "I'm not askin' for a kidney, boy. So I read you gotta make an appointment for the damn tour. Put me up for a day or so?"
Dean patted his shoulder and moved toward the Impala. "You're talking to a guy with a two bedroom bachelor pad. Tour first, party later. Right, dude?"
"I ain't said nuthin' about partying," Bobby muttered good-naturedly as he climbed behind the wheel of the truck and pulled out behind the Impala. But if the boy wanted to drown his sorrows in a six-pack or two, well, at least he'd be there to keep him from dying in his own puke.
Surrogate parenthood could be a bitch.
"I can't believe you ordered a piece of pie to bring home. Where you gonna stuff it, kid?"
Dean grinned and patted his stomach. "Some of us are still young enough to have a metabolism that works." He took the mail he'd grabbed from the box downstairs and tossed it on the table.
"And some of us are old enough to have ‘senior moments' in which we reveal who we went on the John Deere tour with."
"Nah, man, you swore to take that secret to your grave!"
"And you're the one who keeps tellin' me I got one foot already in it." Bobby glanced at the mail as Dean went to put his pie in the fridge. The logo on one envelope looked familiar. "You plannin' on college or something?"
Dean placed a beer in front of him. "Got a school counselor who has a great incentive program for getting her students to apply to places."
"What? Gold stars and lollipops?"
"Well, there was some licking involved."
Bobby bit back a sigh. Everything was sexual innuendo to teenage boys. "South Dakota School of Mines & Technology? That's up in my neck of the woods."
Dean shrugged and took a long draw of his own beer. "Ms. T said my SAT scores and math grades would be interesting to technical schools. They don't seem to care as much about my lack of liberal arts successfulness. Or some such shit."
"You thinking about going?"
"If you're worried about money, I could put you up—save you on room and board in exchange for some help in the salvage yard and maybe a hunt or two."
Dean scratched through short hair. Bobby hadn't seen it long since that terrible time in El Paso. The doctors had shaved off a strip of hair because of the concussion and as soon as the boy was out of the hospital, John had cut the rest. "Hell, Bobby, I don't even know if I've been accepted yet."
Bobby hefted the envelope. "Rejections are usually a lot thinner than this. It's a good school."
"Yeah? What do you know about it?" Dean gave an exaggerated burp.
Bobby fingered the label on his beer. "I sorta graduated from there."
"No shit?" Dean's eyes widened, then narrowed. "Man, why didn't I know that?"
Bobby kind of wondered why he was knowing it now. Aw, what the hell? This could be good for the boy. "I don't really talk about it. I was what you call an older student. Went there after a tour in ‘Nam."
Dean looked scandalized. "Damn, Bobby. What other secrets you hiding? You a Marine like Dad?"
"Nah, just regular drafted Army. If I'd had any sense, I would've gone to college and got one of those deferments straight out, you know? Always been good at studying. Should've stuck with what I knew. But I was young...stupid. Listened to idiots who claimed books couldn't make me a man. Neither did ‘Nam."
He wanted to rail and ask Dean what he knew of "rough." But this kid knew what it meant, had known it since he was four. "In the hunting world, I'm mainly known as a resource person...books, research, and crap like that. If you want someone in the field, go to people like your daddy. Me? I had enough duckin' and dodgin' and wadin' through blood and guts in country to last a lifetime, thank ya very much."
"So why are you a hunter at all?" Bobby didn't know what showed on his face, but Dean quickly added, "Sorry, man, I shouldn't have asked. None of my business."
Bobby cleared his throat. "Let's just say I kinda know where John Winchester's coming from."
Dean nodded solemnly and lifted the envelope, weighing it speculatively. "As long as you don't expect me to be all up in the books, I think it'd be kinda cool going to your alma mater. If I can swing it, I mean."
"We can swing it," Bobby said decisively. He'd waited years to do something for this boy and now he had the chance. Come hell or high water, Dean was going to that school. "Relatives of alumni get in-state tuition. Let's not waste those ten years of calling me Uncle Bobby. And your permanent address is gonna be with me. Get you a couple of loans...Any chance of a scholarship?" He had no idea of how well or how poorly the kid was doing in school.
Dean shrugged. "I am dirt-poor."
"Ah, plead hardship. That works pretty well." Bobby held out the envelope. "Between our shuckin' and jivin', kid, they gonna be paying us for your education."
Grinning, Dean ripped the envelope open. "I love it when a plan comes together."
Bobby nodded, surprised at himself for getting the A-Team reference. "So do I, son. So do I."
Jim was gonna be so proud of him.
Senior year in college was just as hectic as senior year in high school.
But a hell of a lot more satisfying.
Dean stretched as he made his way through the parking lot. He loved working on his senior mechanical engineering project, but he got so into it that he often forgot about the time and for the second time this week he'd spent six straight hours in the lab without realizing it. Good thing he hadn't had any classes for the rest of the day.
"Why are you doing this to me!"
Dean looked toward the yelling. An open hood. An idiot staring at guts of his car in horror. He shook his head. Laymen should definitely stay out of the operating room. "Problem?" he asked as he altered his route.
"It won't start."
Dean nodded. "Why don't you get in and try to crank it for me? Probably something's just worked loose."
The guy, redheaded as heck, raised a hopeful eyebrow. "You know something about cars?"
"I'm a mech major."
"There is a God!" He bounded into the car and ten minutes later, the engine was purring enthusiastically. "Tim Lovett, sophomore," he told Dean as he shook his hand.
"Dean Winchester, senior."
"Winchester? Wouldn't know anything about guns, would you? Lord knows, if you could help me with that, I think I'd have to marry you."
"What'd ya need to know?"
Light blue eyes widened and Dean was reminded of a ghost-possessed marionette he and his dad had wasted back in the day. "How to shoot the darn things. I'm ROTC and an embarrassment. The colonel's about ready to kick me out."
Dean rubbed the back of his neck. He didn't have time for this, but he was pretty sure he was genetically incapable of not helping someone in need. "I can't make any promises, but I can give you some pointers."
"That's great! How long you been shooting?"
"Five or six years?"
"Since I was five or six," Dean clarified before he realized what he was saying. Thankfully, Tim looked impressed and not horrified.
"You busy right now? We could go talk to the colonel, get you permission to use the indoor range. There's a lot of security crap, you know?"
College kids and guns? Yeah, he hoped there was a lot of security. He glanced at his watch. Bobby was out making the "geezer rounds" as he called it, checking on some of his older, housebound friends and wouldn't be home until late. "Sure, if you think he's in his office."
"Oh, he's there."
Tim's mouth ran the entire time it took to reach the lieutenant colonel's office. Dean was impressed by his new acquaintance's lung capacity and his knowledge of campus gossip. If a hunt ever came up at the school, he'd know who to go to for the 411.
The colonel insisted on seeing Dean shoot, not only to gauge if he really knew how to handle weapons, but also if he would be teaching Tim bad habits. Dean shrugged and checked the pistol the officer handed to him when they reached the shooting range.
Col. Benton watched him break down the weapon and reassemble it. "You military?"
"No, sir. But my dad's a former Marine. Taught me everything I know about shooting."
An hour later, Dean laid down the rifle he just used. That had been after the colonel had tested him on shotgun. "Anything else, sir?"
"Yes. Who do you shoot for?"
" What club? Organization? Where do you shoot?"
"My uncle's backyard."
The colonel's jaw dropped. "I have to make calls," he muttered. "At least we have four full years to get you ranked and introduced. Never thought..."
"Sir?" Dean asked, glancing over at Tim to see if he understood what was going on. Tim just gave him a stupid grin which wasn't much of a clue. "Can I help Tim out?"
Col. Burton gave a similar stupid grin. "Son, you're gonna be helping out a lot of people."
Bobby eyed the uniformed man on his porch with distrust. "Who wants to know?"
"I'm Lt. Col. Mack Burton, the commanding officer of the ROTC program at M & T."
"Yeah?" Bobby asked, unimpressed.
"I'm here about your nephew, Dean Winchester."
Bobby pushed the door open further, inviting the man in. "He in some kind of trouble?"
"No! Not at all. Your nephew, Mr. Singer, has an incredible gift. But he seems a little reluctant to use it, and I was hoping—"
"Dean's a grown man. He makes his own choices." He indicated the man could sit if he wanted. "What gift ya talkin' ‘bout?"
"He has extraordinary hand-eye coordination, which makes him a natural at shooting."
"Yeah, he's good," Bobby replied, wondering if Burton was ever gonna get around to saying what he'd come to say.
Burton looked him dead in the eye. "He's better than good, sir. Get a club behind him, get him entered in the right competitions, and he could be headed for the 2004 Olympics."
Bobby was skeptical. "Some kinda shooting Olympics?"
"The real Olympics, sir—the Summer Games. The shooting competitions don't get the kind of airplay that some of the other sports get, but medals are awarded just the same."
Finally impressed, Bobby cocked an eyebrow. "And you think Dean is capable of that?"
"You know he is."
Bobby cleared his throat. "Well, I'll pass your message on, but as I said before, Dean's a grown man. He makes his own decisions." A lie, but a man like the colonel didn't need to know that.
After he'd shown the colonel to the door, Bobby headed to the computer. He laughed at the amount of time Olympian shooters had to take their shots. Shit. Try wasting all that time when a Wendigo was on your ass. He read on. Pistols. Rifles. Shotguns. Skeet. Hell, Dean could do all that with his right hand tied behind his back and a knife sticking in his gut.
And, yeah, it was a bitch to realize the boy had already been there and done that.
By the time Dean made it home that evening, Bobby had secured some fried chicken and made some candied yams—the only vegetable Dean didn't have to be cajoled into eating.
"Who died?" Dean asked as he eyed the table.
"Somebody died or—Don't tell me: Mrs. Kawalsky needs another tune-up. I'm charging her for each feel she cops this time. I swear we need to look into creatures with multiple hands that appear and disappear at will."
"What the hell are you goin' on about, boy?" Bobby set two beers on the table.
Dean glanced at the table again. "You're fattening me up for something."
"Oh." He really hadn't been very subtle, had he? "We, uh, need to talk after supper." He winced when he saw a fleeting glimpse of panic on Dean's face. "It ain't nothing to get het up about—not like I'm gonna tell you I'm pregnant or somethin'."
"Whew! That's a relief," Dean teased, but Bobby could still see the worry in his eyes. "‘Cuz that would be one ugly ass baby. Unless, of course, it took after me."
"Of course," Bobby agreed dryly. "You want this chicken or not?"
Feeding Dean was one sure way of getting him to shut up.
"So, what's up?"
They had "retired" to the living room. No cigars and brandy, but the JB was a decent substitute. "A Lt. Col. Burton came to see me today."
Dean looked confused. "What? Why? Oh, no. Not that shit about the Olympics? I told him I wasn't interested. How the hell—I had to give my student I.D. to get access to the shooting range. Guess he ran my info. I'm sorry about this, man. I'll talk to him tomorrow."
"Why won't you do what he asks?"
A frown. "Shit, Bobby. It's just wasting ammo at stupid targets. I got better things to be doing."
"Um, like shooting ammo at the big, bad things that go bump in the night."
"What says you can't do both?"
Dean leaped from the sofa. "You can't be serious. I'm already leaving you shorthanded when I go to work for Walechi Racing. Between that and this Olympic thing, I'd never have time for hunting." He turned quickly to Bobby. "Is that what you want? This your way of telling me I ‘cloud' your vision, too, that you can't focus with me around?"
Bobby got out of his very comfortable recliner. "Don't be confusing me with your fuckin' daddy, boy. If I didn't want you around, I'd tell you to your face. Understand me?"
"Then what, Bobby?" Dean asked, his frustration so evident. "What do you want from me?"
"It's not about what I want or your dad wants or what the colonel wants. It's about what you want, Dean. When you came home and told me about taking a job designing performance engines for Walechi, I was tickled pink because I could see how excited you were. You wanted it and you got it. That's a good thing, son." He reached out and lightly squeezed Dean's shoulder. "And it was good for me, too, because Walechi is just right down the road. Even if you decide to get your own place, you won't be going far. I like having you around, Dean. I focus just fine with you beside me. Okay?"
Dean took a deep breath. "Okay. So you really think this competitive shooting shit is my kinda thing?"
"You've always had an unhealthy fascination with guns and things that go boom. Thought your daddy was a plumb idjit for giving a six-year-old a gun—'til I saw you shoot. You're a natural, kid. Go for the gold, you know you wanna."
A slow grin. "Yeah, I wanna."
"It's in Athens, you know."
"The 2004 Summer Games. Athens, Greece."
Dean paled. "Tell me they have boats to Greece."
Bobby grinned and settled back into his recliner. The first and only time he'd talked Dean into going by plane to a hunt, the boy had muttered the Rituale Romanum the whole way there. They ended up renting a car for the trip back. "Yeah, they do. But that ain't the way you'll be going."
"I thought you said you liked me," Dean whimpered.
"I do; I'll send you off with a bottle of JB for company—and teach you the Greek Orthodox version of the exorcism ritual."
"You're all heart, Bobby."
"Yeah, I am," he agreed with a smirk. His boy was going to the Olympics.
Dean hated to fly. He knew that even before that flight with Bobby. Despite doing reasonably well in his physics classes, he just couldn't get his mind to accept the fact that a plane had every "right" to stay up in the air with no strings attached. Yes, plane travel was scientifically valid and the empirical data was indisputable. But being up in the air with no visible support was just something that was always going to shake him to his core. He'd made his peace with that and was determined just to grit his way through the flights he couldn't avoid.
But what he didn't know, until he walked into Terminal 4 of JFK, was that he was capable of hating the airport independently of the plane itself. For most of his life (he wouldn't say all because who knew where his mom had taken him), he'd avoided going into a mall. Everything he'd ever needed was found in second-hand shops, Army/Navy surplus stores and when something specific was needed—Walmart. But stepping into Terminal 4 was like stepping into a retail hell. It may have been a teenager's dream, but it was a hunter's nightmare. Why did people need so much stuff? And what the hell was the stuff to begin with? He'd seen voodoo stalls in New Orleans less cluttered than the walkway he had to stumble through. Never was he so glad to go through Security and confirm he had nothing lethal on him, besides the salt-stuffed travel pillow Bobby had given him.
The gate area was a little better but then he began thinking about his flight and started to pace. Needed to get the blood flowing, right? Air travel could cause—what was that?—DT?—DVT, that was it! Deep Vein Thrombosis. Blood clots. Be a shame to die of a blood clot at twenty-five. Or in a plane crash. Over a big ass ocean.
Dean's thoughts flashed on the top-of-the-line iPod in his bag. Jim had presented it to him when he'd been in Blue Earth for the Fourth of July (the city council loved fireworks in a BIG way. Of course, they also loved the fuckin' Jolly Green Giant, but he'd promised long ago not to hold that against them). "Fill it with soothing music and your spirit will carry you safely over the sea," Jim had said. So Dean loaded up a little bit of Black Sabbath, a taste of Aerosmith, a healthy helping of Metallica, and a main course of Zeppelin. He also invested in earphones that were guaranteed not to leak sound so he could play it loud without bothering whoever he had to sit with. Hopefully, the familiar tunes would keep him from freaking out.
Jim getting him an iPod. It was hard to say who was giddier about this Olympics thing—Bobby or Jim. For four years at least one of them had been at his competitions, silently sizing up his opponents and dismissing them with a glance. They knew nobody was better than their boy, and Dean could sense their fierce pride in him. That could've led him to be arrogant, but each man had a way of letting Dean know that beating a bunch of yahoos in a regimental, directed competition had nothing to do with their world. It was a hobby, nothing more.
And that was why, even though in a few days he was going to be competing against the best in the world, he wasn't the least bit anxious. Although his challengers had become stronger as he made his way through the years of competitions and shows, they hadn't challenged him. He'd instead challenged himself, making sure he got the score he wanted when he wanted it, hitting the target in the corner of his choosing. He really didn't think the best of the world was gonna be much better. And if they were? He'd just go after a perfect score and let the chips fall where they may. He was just there for the chicks.
"Hey, man, they called us to board."
Dean nodded his thanks to the helpful fellow traveler, straightened his shoulders, and hefted his carry-on bag. He could do this. Winchesters could do anything. What would Dad think if he saw him acting like this? Fear could be a good thing, but in this case—when adrenaline and hyperawareness didn't increase your chance of survival—it was just a hindrance and needed to be shoveled to the back of your brain or out your ass.
He was glad for the covered ramp to the plane. The less he could see the better. Glancing at his ticket, he searched for his seat. First class. Not because he was important but because he was in the MAN section—Medicate As Needed. Medical staff armed with Olympic Committee-approved drugs roamed the aisles. Swollen joint? Here's some ice. Allergies? This won't show up in your blood test. Scared to fly? This'll knock you out. And oh, by the way, first class accommodations brought to you by your local drug dealers—er, pharmaceutical companies (Our Drugs Pass Drug Tests—We Hope! ©).
Thank God his dad knew nothing about any of this. Not about his fear of flying. Not about his competitions. Not about his national ranking. Hell, he wasn't even sure if the man knew that he'd gone to college and graduated. The only reason he knew his father still lived was that Pastor Jim always started his conversations by saying, "Your father's fine."
It was hard being a son once removed—or whatever the hell he was.
He found his seat, and as he shoved his bag into the overhead compartment looked at his seatmate who was sprawled in the window seat. "Hell, I thought the basketball team was flying with the go-go girls and champagne," he said to the very long and lanky form.
"I'm on the swim team." The guy gave him a beleaguered smile that said he was tired of having to explain.
"So what do you do? Stand on the platform and just reach across to the other side of the pool?"
Stretch gave a genuine laugh and shoved back a lock of brown hair that apparently wouldn't stay where it was supposed to. Nothing a haircut wouldn't solve. "Haven't heard that one before. What brings you to the crippled end of town?"
Dean shrugged. The guy was going to figure it out when he saw Dean crush the seat arms at takeoff anyway. "Nervous flyer. You?"
"Migraines. I don't get them often, but with the changes in air pressure, Coach wanted to be sure."
Dean settled in and checked his lap belt. "Um, can we talk about something other than air pressure changes?"
Stretch gave him a sympathetic look. Normally, he'd beat that sort of look off a guy's face (he was okay with chicks giving him that look; pity sex was sex, too); however, these were not normal conditions and if it got the dude to stop talking about scary things, well "sympathetic" away.
"So, what part of the world you from, man?" Stretch asked, agreeing to his request.
Dean tried to relax. However, the question didn't take a lot of thought. "South Dakota. You?"
"Home is with my mom in a little town outside of Tucson, a suburb called Oro Valley, but I'm currently at Stanford." He gave Dean the once-over. "You don't look stoned, so I take it you only have problems with long flights?"
"There's such a thing as a short flight?" Dean replied with a shudder.
Stretch gave a confused frown. "You said you were from South Dakota, dude."
"Yeah, and my car is parked in long-term parking here at JFK."
"You drove all the way from—"
"Hell, yeah. And if there was a bridge across the Atlantic, I'd be on it right now." Dean took a deep breath as they started rolling down the tarmac. "Swimming, huh? So what's your specialty?"
"Backstroke and freestyle. I'm not on track to medal in anything, but who knows, right?"
"Life's just a luck of the draw," Dean agreed. He hesitantly glanced out of the window. Stretch pulled the shade.
"What about you? What do you do?"
"I'm on the shooting team."
Stretch looked impressed. "Really? What are you? Military? LEO?"
Dean was glad that there had been enough law enforcement officers involved in the tournaments that he'd been in that he actually knew what LEO stood for. "Actually, I'm a mechanic."
"For real." They had a fancy name for him at work, but that was what he considered himself to be. Under the hood made so much more sense than the rest of his life. "What about you? Plans for after Stanford?"
"Law school, marriage."
So, Stretch was one of those guys, the ones who had their whole lives already mapped out. Too bad, as the master once said, "You can't always get what you want." But Dean gave him an "A" for effort. "Yeah? Got the girl already?"
"Her name's Jess." He fumbled in his pocket for his wallet and that was when Dean realized they were up in the air and the seatbelt sign was off. He took the offered picture gratefully. The blonde smiling back at him was smokin' hot.
"Niiice. What she doing with you?" he said teasingly.
"I wish I knew."
A figure came up behind them in the aisle. "How you doing, Pole?"
"I'm good, Coach."
The coach moved on, maybe looking for another one of his guys.
"Pole? That fits," Dean said with a smirk.
"Short for Polanski. Sam Polanski." Pole held out his hand for a belated introduction.
Dean did the same. "Dean Winchester," he said with a firm grip.