Author: Nocturnal08

Prompt: #47 – Graduation

Rating: PG

Type of Story: General

Author's Website
Nocturnal08's LJ

Author's Note: Summary: Sam's been hiding something from his family. In this story Sam is 18 and Dean is 22. Thanks to minx999 for all her help!

Testing the Limits

John doesn't hesitate when the phone rings, absently picking it up on the second digitalized buzz.

"Winchester," he announces gruffly.

"Yes, hello," the woman on the other end of the line responds. "May I speak to John Winchester, please?"

"Speaking," John says guardedly.  

"Hello. This is Cindy Thomas from Jefferson High School?" It annoys John that the woman phrases it as a question, as if she isn't sure of her own name and only he can legitimize it for her.

Suppressing a sigh, John looks at his watch. Mild displeasure forces his mouth into a thin line. Since Dean graduated from school, John us somewhat out of practice dodging school authorities. Unlike his older brother, Sam is a model student and rarely gets in trouble at school, going to great lengths to keep his father and brother at arm's length when it comes to academics.

"What's the problem?" John demands, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. He'd been on his way out the door and is in no mood to suffer through some lengthy discussion with yet another administrative do-gooder sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. 

John puts his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone, leaning out of the doorway to yell up the stairs for his youngest.  "Sam, get down here!" he hollers, hoping to take care of whatever it is as quickly as possible.

"There's no problem, sir," Cindy states, voice tinged with disapproval. "Sam missed the deadline to request extra seating at graduation, and I was just wondering …"

"Oh. We won't be needing any," John interrupts curtly, cutting the woman off mid-sentence.

He can guess how callous that sounds, but Sam made it quite clear with his sullen glares and acerbic comments that Jefferson High School sucked big time and he was counting the days to graduation and freedom.   Ever since the family moved here a couple weeks ago, Sam had been huffy and brooding, constantly bitching to anyone who would listen about not having any friends to hang out with and once again being the outsider. John knows they'd all be happy to leave Cedar Rapids behind, and figured the best thing would be to head out right after classes ended, making a clean break. He would take the boys and go, keep moving like they usually did during the summer break. It was just safer that way.

"Mr. Winchester, your son is playing an important role in the ceremony," Cindy remarks reproachfully.

John blinks, taking a moment to digest her statement.  "He's what?" he finally mutters, confused.

Cindy's tone becomes glacial as she explains, "Being Valedictorian of the high school class is the highest honor for a graduate of our school, Mr. Winchester.  It is a testament to your son's hard work and academic achievement.  Now, Sam will be making a significant 10-15 minute speech to the entire assembly of students and family members on graduation day. I'm quite sure he'd appreciate a little moral support from his family," she finishs brusquely.

. John's eyes narrow in anger at the woman's implied criticism. He hates getting blindsided like this. Sam is the Valedictorian? How is that even possible? he wonders.  The kid had only been at the school for three weeks!

"SAM!" John bellows, this time listening impatiently for his boy's puppy-legged scramble above his head, followed by the noisy clomp of boots down the stairs. The eighteen-year-old skipped the last few steps to land with an annoyed huff at the bottom of the stairwell.  He trudges down the hall, boots scuffing the wooden floor, and leans into the doorway, glaring at John, eyebrows raised in a mocking challenge.

"What?" Sam demands, voice tense with attitude. 

John offers Sam a glower of disapproval and snaps his fingers loudly at the disrespectful slouch, letting his son know he is seconds away from serious trouble.  With a sigh and an eye roll, Sam straightens up, but keeps the "I'm much too busy to listen to my father" look on his face for good measure. One of these days John is just going to give in to the impulse and wring the boy's neck.

John suddenly realizes with a bit of embarrassment that Cindy what's-her-name was still rattling on in his ear about Sam and graduation, while he'd been pre-occupied with getting his son downstairs. 

"Yeah, okay. We'll get back to you," he says, cutting Cindy off mid-lecture once again.  He hangs up the phone a little harder than absolutely necessary and turns, leveling a stern look at his youngest son.

"You bellowed?" Sam inquires, suppressing the urge to squirm under John's hard glare.

"You're the Valedictorian?" John asks, a mix of surprise and irritation in his voice.

Sam's face falls, and John inwardly winces, realizing he's said something wrong, letting his youngest child down once again. Well, there goes father of the year. What had Sam been expecting? Valedictorian isn't exactly low profile.

"Yeah," Sam replies with an insolent shrug. "So?"

"You didn't think it would be a good idea to mention it?" John asks, trying hard to keep his rising temper in check.

Sam lets out a harsh bark of laughter. "Well, you've already made it pretty damn clear how you feel about my education, Dad!" he spits out moodily.

"You watch your mouth," John threatens, his voice low and angry.

Sam gives a huff of aggravation, but subsides, knowing when to push his luck. "I didn't think you'd care."

"Well, I DO care," John insists lamely.

"Care about what?" Dean asked, brows raised in curiosity as he saunters into the kitchen with a greasy white bag of takeout under his arm.

"Sam's the Valedictorian," John informs Dean.

"Way to go Sammy!" Dean crows, smirking as he pockets his keys. "The geek-squad finally crowned their king."

"Shut up," Sam retorts with a faint smile.

John turns back to Sam, teeth clenched. This is so like Sam.  Kid never tells him anything these days. 

"So, they want you to give a speech?" he presses, still trying to process the information that has just been thrown at him.

"I already KNOW we're leaving as soon as classes are over," Sam says, bitterness making his voice hard. "I TOLD them I couldn't come, but they didn't listen to me."

"Okay, well, hold up…" John says, feeling flustered, "you could have asked…"

"What? Begged you to let me go to my own graduation?" Sam accuses heatedly, his green eyes glinting with contempt. "And what would you have said, Dad?" he challenges. 

John pauses long enough for Sam to lose control of his temper. "Yeah, that's what I thought," the boy snaps. "Do you have any idea how hard I worked for this?" Sam demands, jaw jutting out in hurt disbelief.

"Sammy—" John starts, holding his hands up in front of him in an attempt to placate the boy, but Sam cuts him off, shaking his shaggy head.

 "Know what?" Sam bites out, anger and disappointment coloring his voice. "Just forget it. I'll take care of it, okay?"

"Yeah, alright." John says, defeat in his voice. He feels like he is slowly losing his youngest son, one stupid fight after another.

Sam's glare is anything but satisfied. "Fine," he replies coldly, his eyes flat and unreadable. "Can I go now? I have Chemistry to finish before we train tonight."

"Yeah, you can go," John dismisses gruffly, slightly annoyed at the disrespectful tone but letting it go this time. He has to pick his fights with Sam these days. Kid has him at his wit's end. All the disrespect, belligerence and questioning was wearing him down.

"Hey, Sam!" Dean calls as the high-schooler turns on his heels, taking a little of his frustration out on the floorboards as he moves back towards the stairs.

"What?" Sam questions testily, half turning back to offer Dean an agitated scowl.

"Don't forget your dinner!" Dean replies, pulling a burger wrapped in crinkly blue paper from the takeout bag and lobbing it towards his brother.

John instinctively responds to the missile as it flies past his face, snagging it mid-air and palming it neatly.  He turns to glare at this oldest. "DEAN!" he barks in exasperation.

"What? You sending him up without supper?" Dean jokes, imprudently smirking as John deposits the smashed burger into Sam's hands. John takes a menacing step towards this oldest son, brows creased in displeasure. 

"DON'T. Throw. Food." John reprimands with a growl, grabbing Dean's arm and turning him sideways to lay three thunderous swats on the seat of Dean's jeans.

Dean jerks a little from the jolting sting of his father's hand. "Yes, sir," he quickly agrees, managing a cocky grin at John's expectant look.

That boy is not easily cowed
, John notes with a weary sigh and then turns back to finish his "conversation" with Sam. But, the younger boy has taken advantage of the distraction and disappeared upstairs again.

John stares up the empty stairwell, running a hand over his stubbled face in regret.  For a minute, he wishes he were the type of TV Dad that cooked dinner every night and checked homework, the kind that could boast to his friends about his son's academic achievement instead of being terrified about what this new challenge would do to their family. Hell, John thinks wearily, maybe if I was around more I'd have some idea what was going on with my own kid.

John glances up to spy Dean digging into a burger laden with onions, catching the  smell from a few feet away.  "Drink some milk," John orders, as Dean takes another huge bite of his burger, ketchup dripping and spattering the bag still clutched in his other hand.

"Milk?"  Dean asks.  What was he? Five?  Who the hell drank milk at his age, unless it was the sugary residue left over in a cereal bowl?

Catching the skeptical look on Dean's face, John raises a wry eyebrow.  "Yeah, you know," he quips dryly, "The other dietary staple?  Besides peanut M&M's and caffeine?"

"Hey, I hear chocolate is good for you. It prevents cancer or… something," Dean says, trying to sound authoritative.  He flicked his gaze over to John, who remains unconvinced.  "Hmm… okay," Dean shrugs, giving in.  "Remind me to pick some up next time I go grocery shopping."

John sighs, shaking his head. "Sometimes I wonder how you two survived to adulthood," he says thoughtfully.

Dean grins. "Yeah, well, it doesn't look like it stunted Sasquatch any," he snorts.

"No, I meant you're lucky I haven't killed you," John deadpans.

"You LOVE me!" Dean protests, grinning wider than ever, mouth full of burger.  He squawks as John throws a playful arm around his neck, pulling him close. "What are we? Hugging now? Dude, that is so—Dad, the hair!" Dean grouses, ducking away as John purposefully musses the short tawny-brown spikes, grinning at how cute Dean looks.

John's eyes are twinkling with mirth as regards his oldest, wondering when his little boy got so grown up. "You know, maybe if you hadn't been hooked up to a coffee IV since you were 12, you wouldn't be so short," he chuckles.

"I'm NOT short!" Dean retorts, outraged. He throws a half-hearted punch at John's midsection, which escalates into a playful tussle and ends with John easily putting the drop on his 22-year old son.

"Uff," Dean grunts as he hits the hardwood floor.

"Gotta stay sharp, son," John admonishes teasingly.  He bends down with a smirk, offering Dean a hand up. The hunter catches the devilish glint in his son's eye too late as Dean wraps a hand around John's wrist and yanks with expert precision, throwing the older man off balance.  John rolls, falling hard beside Dean, who chortles in amusement.

"You ingrate," John says wryly, smiling as he hoists himself to his feet and snags dinner from where it lies crumpled beside Dean on the floor.  Digging out his own burger, John leans casually against the kitchen counter, tone serious once again. "I'm heading out, tonight," he tells Dean, "You think you can get this thing with Sam straightened out?"

Dean lets out a long breath before gracefully pulling himself from the floor. He glances carefully at his father.

"What's to figure out?" Dean says with a casual shrug. "You said we're out of here, so we're out of here as soon as the brat finishes his tests."

"You really think your brother's gonna make it that easy on us?" John asks, rubbing his jaw and shooting Dean a questioning look.

Dean's mouth quirks up briefly. "He'll be fine," he answers, sounding more confident than he actually feels.  Sam never makes anything easy where their father is concerned.

Before heading out, John goes upstairs to check in on his little trouble maker.  "Sammy?" he calls, knocking twice on the closed door before opening it and entering the room.

"I didn't say come in!" Sam snaps in mild annoyance, glancing over his shoulder from his desk where he's seated with his Chemistry book laid out in front of him. 

John's eyes narrow at Sam's ornery tone. "This is my house, Samuel" John reminds him gruffly, his flinty eyes boring into his son. "I don't have to ask, I do it as a polite gesture."

"So you keep reminding me," Sam grumbles under his breath, scratching a couple of notes on the loose leaf in front of him.

"I just came up to say good-bye," John replies slowly, biting back the reprimand he has ready.  He doesn't want another altercation, especially not right before he takes off on a job. "I'm heading out in half an hour, Sam. Dean'll be here the whole time, if you need anything, all right?"

"Yeah, okay," Sam says shortly, leaning purposefully over his textbook and pointedly not meeting his father's gaze.

John leaned awkwardly on the door, trying to think of something to say. The silver-tongued con man felt suddenly tongue-tied around his sullen teenager. "So…school's going well?" he asks with a slight grimace, knowing it sounds lame.

Sam stiffens, jaw clenching as he flips the page in his book with a harsh snap.  "No, Dad, school sucks," he replies shortly, eyes firmly glued to his textbook. "Thanks for asking." There's a hint of snark in the tone, which John's valiantly ignoring.

He tries a different route. "Okay, but you're keeping your grades up, that's good, right?" he offers hopefully.

Sam slams his pencil down, finally twisting around to glare resentfully at his father.  "Dad, I was more than halfway through four AP classes at my last school," Sam states heatedly. "This high school doesn't even offer advanced placement."  He lets out a bitter snort directed at John.  "This school is a total joke compared to my last one. Why do you think I'm Valedictorian? My weighted GPA is a 4.3! I could sleep through my classes here and still get an A."

"Well, you don't have to go, you know," John says irritably, his patience slowly fraying at the accusations in Sam's voice. "You could just graduate early and start focusing on more important things."

"What? Like hunting?" Sam challenges, his lip curling in disgust at the idea.

 John's eyes darkens, fury glinting in their shadowed depths. "Yes, like hunting!" he snarls.

"I don't want to hunt, Dad!" Sam retorts, his voice rising in familiar frustration. This isn't the first time they've had this argument. "Not right now- I told you, I want to go to college!"

"And I told you no, Sammy," John growls angrily, pointing a finger at the teen. "Now, I don't want to hear about it anymore. You understand me?"

"You can't just say no!" Sam shouts, jumping to his feat so abruptly that he almost sends his chair crashing to the floor.  He glares at John with open resentment.

"Like hell I can't!" John seethes, his own wrath bubbling to the surface as he takes a step towards Sam. "I am your father!"

Sam's fists clenching at his side spasmodically. Apparently, junior was ready to do battle. "Technically, I'm an adult," he snarls. "I can make my own decisions!"

John's expression turns cold, his voice carrying a clear warning. "Buddy, you are so far from grown…" John says, cutting the boy off with a dismissive hand gesture, chest lip curling in rage at the attitude Sam's throwing at him.  "You think just because you're eighteen, you suddenly know more than your old man?" John challenges as he continues to scowl at Sam. "Is that it?"

"Dean may let you run his life for him, but I won't!" Sam gripes snidely.

 "Don't you dare disrespect your brother!" John thunders, pointing a finger at Sam.

Sam drops his gaze, immediately regretting his words.  Dean doesn't deserve to be thrown under the bus for the sake of Sam's own pride, he knows that, and it's not like Dean ever chose a side in these battles. But he's furious at his father and himself and the whole friggin' world for that matter, and Dean makes an easy target to lash out at.

Sam turns his back on John, jaw working as he tries to regain his composure. He sinks angrily into his desk chair and loudly flips open his chemistry book again. John isn't pleased by Sam's impatient dismissal or fooled as Sam pretends to study intently despite his father's eyes on the back of his neck.

"Sam. I'm going," John says flatly, turning to head out the door. 

"Good. Don't hurry back," Sam replies snottily, hunching over his textbook with a casual contempt that sends John's blood pressure through the roof. 

"That's it!" John snaps, fury evident in his low growl.  He stride angrily over to the desk, hoisting Sam up roughly by his right arm. In seconds, John has his "adult" son bent indecorously over his homework and is reaching for the ruler laying on the desk beside Sam's head.  Without further ado, John raises the thin piece of wood high and snaps it down smartly on Sam's upturned behind five times, the cracks loud and sharp.

Sam hisses angrily at the pain lancing across his backside, but doesn't struggle or move to get up until John releases him.

With a fiery glint to his eyes, Sam straightens up and turns on his father, his tone and posture full of angry indignation. "That's assault!" he spits out angrily.

"No, Samuel, that's your father paddling your butt for getting mouthy," John corrects firmly, dropping the ruler back onto the desktop with a clatter.  He gives his youngest one last, baleful scowl, and then stalks toward the door, his jaw clenched so tight it ached. "Mind your brother while I'm gone and keep up with training," he orders, slamming the door so hard the windowpane across the room shudders in sympathy.

John seethes to himself, trying not to stomp like a teenager as he moves down the bare stairwell, grabbing his duffel from the floor next to the couch and hoisting it to his shoulder.  When had everything become such a battle between him and Sam?  If John said the sky was blue, the little smartass would say it was green just to disagree.  Every conversation they had these days ended with shouting matches and hurt feelings. 

Dean glances up from where he's parked on the couch, reading the paper. The cardboard wall of the rental house they're crashing in aren't much in the way of sound-proof and he has heard the entire exchange between his Dad and brother. John knows he's ready to make excuses for Sam's behavior, but right now he's just not in the mood. He refuses to meet Dean's reproachful gaze as he heads out to the car. He doesn't have the energy to deal with one more person telling him he was being selfish and hard-headed. 

Upstairs, Sam leans stiffly over his desk, knuckles white as he clutches the edge of the wood. His butt still stings, and the chemistry book lies opened and ignored as he bites down on his lip till he tastes the blood from the hole he has worried into the inside of his lip.  Sam's chest tightens in anguish, tears welling up in his jade eyes, but he stubbornly refuses to let them fall. Instead, he takes his anger out on the ruler, picking it up in his hands and forcing the two edges together, feeling the tight muscles strain. The wood splinters with a loud crack. Sam stares hard at the two jagged pieces clenched tightly in his hands before tossing them into the wastebasket with a small, angry sob. Gingerly, Sam sat back down at the desk and opened his book again, trying hard to focus his watery gaze on the words staring back up at him from the page.

When he was ten, Sam'd had a fantasy, one he'd never told anyone about. He would imagine he had a normal house, a normal family, a normal dog. He'd pretended to have a dad AND a mom, and his pretend dad had been proud of him and had coached his soccer team. It was stupid, stupid for a Winchester to pretend he was anything other than a hunter. Nevertheless, Sam had still wished for that alternate life.  And at times like these, Sam can't help wishing to be far away from their crummy, run-down rental on the desperate edge of town. Someday I will be, Sam promises himself, clutching at his dream, his only life-line.

They'd been through Palo Alto last summer and Dad had hated the place, which was maybe the reason, at least initially, that Sam liked it so much. He felt a certain affinity for the throngs of college students Dad had immediately judged as liberal, lazy and clueless. Sam made a point of annoying the hell out of his dad by quoting the institutions' high academic achievements. The more John tried to disparage the university, the more Sam had defended it.

But pissing his dad off wasn't enough reason to make him drop everything, defy his father, and move half-way across the country, and it certainly didn't have anything to do with the hot California babes his brother kept gushing on about, although that certainly didn't detract from its charm, Sam smiled to himself.  No, it was the library, the coffee shops, and the conversations that had nothing to do with vengeful spirits or the undead that had drew Sam like the proverbial moth to the flame. Sam just hoped he wouldn't get burned. 

In December, Sam mailed off his future, stomach twisting painfully as he dropped three heavy envelopes into a mailbox before hurrying to meet Dean and run the training course Dad had left for them. Stanford, Reed College, and UCLA: he rehearsed the names of the schools he'd solicited for admission as his private litany, pounding the words out in the hand-to-hand exercises with his brother. He'd been all nerves since, but the destiny that had been weighing heavy upon him seemed to lift a little, and a small ray of hope gleamed through the inevitable shadow-life that was their father's legacy.

The nights were still hard for Sam, his secrets swelling inside of him. He lay awake, just listening to Dean's breathing and obsessing about how he would tell his Dad. There were times when Sam seethed at his own selfishness, hating the decision he'd made. How could he possibly consider leaving Dean, or his Dad for that matter? Much as the ex-Marine embodied everything Sam hated about his life, the teen knew that some of the animosity he felt was due to the ice-cold claw of fear that the next hunt could be Dad's last.  Sam knew that any day could be the one when his Dad's obsession led him into the abyss he'd been skirting since their mom's death. Eighteen freakin' years, and Sam still didn't get the man, couldn't trust him not to pull everything out from under his feet with another move, another hunt.

He put everything on the line in those applications, and half-dreaded the day in April when the response letters came, all three mixed in with a mish-mash of junk mail in the P.O. box he'd opened in his own name to keep his family out of the process.

Sam did his best to hide his anxiety, downplayed it even to himself, reasoning that he probably wouldn't even be accepted. Even so, when he finally badgered Dean into giving him a ride to the post office, now located one town over since they'd moved again, Sam was literally trembling. He tried to be casual as he rifled through the pile with shaking hands, glancing out the large picture window at Dean, who sat in the Impala with a bored look on his face.

He'd snaked the Stanford envelope from the pile first and hastily ripped it open, scanning the letter eagerly. His heart pounded as he'd caught the word "congratulations" and he'd then hastily skipped to the second page, eyes widening in shock when it mentioned something about a scholarship. Suddenly everything became a little too real for him. What the fuck was he supposed to do now? Sam wondered, staring down at the acceptance letter tightly clutched in his hand.

At the sound of his brother laying on the horn, Sam had started violently and guiltily stuffed the mail in his backpack, managing an annoyed glare at Dean as he slid back into the passenger seat, though his heart wasn't really in it.  He offered Dean a bold-faced lie when his brother asked him if he'd gotten anything good, blushing red when Dean put his awkwardness down to erotic content he was trying to conceal. Sam hadn't contradicted him, willing to let Dean believe anything, even if it meant being called "pervy porn boy" for a month, so long as Dean didn't find out the truth.

And that was pretty much where we are today, Sam thinks. You coward, he accuses himself, glaring at the Chemistry book and reflecting on the past few months of lying. While he's terrified of what Dean and his father will say, what really scares him shitless is the thought of striking out on his own for the first time, with no older brother or dad to watch his back. But he can't very well admit that, even to himself. It's far easier to channel those fears and misgivings into fighting his dad and running Dean ragged with his rebellious pouting, than to admit that he isn't sure if he can do this. That Stanford must have made some mistake, or that he has.

At this point, the old man will probably be glad to see the back of him, Sam muses. Before they left Ohio, after yet another throw down at the Winchester residence, Sam mailed in his acceptance letter, penned a thank you note to the scholarship committee, and filled out a roommate preference form. All that is left to do is finish up high school and find some way to tell the two people who mattered most to him that he is going to desert them, go AWOL from this private war.

Dean opens the bedroom door, startling Sam from his reverie.

"Could you knock please?" Sam bitches immediately.

"Could you remove that stick from your ass, please," Dean said mildly. "It's my room, too."

"You're such a jerk," Sam huffs by way of rejoinder, going back to his schoolwork.

"If classes are as lame as you whine about, then what are you studying so hard for?" Dean asks, rooting though his clothes for something semi-clean.

Sam squirms briefly on his sore butt, thinking fast. He is planning on pushing through the material on his own and taking the AP tests next week at a private school in the neighboring town, but he can't tell Dean that. You only need advanced placement when you have college plans.

"I just care about my education," Sam says curtly, wanting to drop the subject before Dean gets too curious.

Dean doesn't react to the jibe. He says nothing, glancing in the mirror as he combs his fingers through his hair. "I'm going to the roadhouse tonight, if you want to come," he offers casually.

"Thanks, but no thanks. You heard what Dad said he would do to me if he caught me there again."

"You scared to get your ass whupped, little boy?"

"Uh, yeah," Sam says, unapologetically. "I'm pretty sure my ass has had enough action for one day, thanks."

Dean's mouth quirks a little, glad to see Sam usual sarcasm return.

"Should know better than to talk to Dad like that," he says mildly, raising his eyebrows when he catches sight of the ruler carnage in the wastebasket.

Sam blushes at the gentle reprimand and squirms a little in his seat, reaching a long arm out to snag a pillow from his bed. "I got the message, thanks," he says caustically, using the pillow to pad his seat.

Dean grins. "Don't get too comfortable. We gotta train in a few minutes."

"I'm kinda in the middle of something, Dean."

"Oh yeah? What?" Dean demands.  Sam remains silent, and Dean just smirks evilly, "You gonna come train or do you need me to beat your ass some more to get you moving?" he teases, taking hold of the pillow on Sam's seat.  He yanks hard, pulling the pillow out before Sam has a chance to adjust.

"Ow!" Sam protests as the hardwood chair assaults his sensitive tail. "You jerk!" he squawks, jumping to his feet and gingerly rubbing his bruised hind end.  

"Oh, save it, bitch" Dean says, using the pillow as a shield when Sam aims a punch at his shoulder. "Meet me downstairs in five, Samantha," he orders cheerfully, "or I'm sure I can find other ways of motivating you." 

Dean quickly ducks out of the room, letting the projectile Sam lobs at him hit the door instead, smirking as he jogs down the stairs.

During his free period on Monday, Sam hits the computer lab to double check his AP test registration. Pulling up the information, his mouth drops open, eyes narrowing as he scans the text. Shit! It cost eighty-four dollars per test! Jesus Christ, how the hell is he going to come up with that kind of money? Any opportunity for financial aid has long since passed, he thinks in panic. He's signed up for English, U.S. History, Government and Chemistry. That means…. $336 total, if he really wants to go through with this. Sam bites down on further profanity, trying to think of some way to make this work.
Later that night, with Dad still out on the hunt, Sam slips upstairs to his room, making sure Dean is occupied watching TV in the family room. Closing the door softly behind him, Sam drags his duffle from under the bed. He pulls out the roll of money he keeps buried under everything else; every spare dime Sam earns hustling pool (not much when Dean is around), plus whatever he manages to keep of his lunch money, goes into his private stash. It isn't much, not enough for the tests or for much of anything, really. It isn't like Sam's got the free time for a part time job or anything. School and hunting keep him busy enough without trying to pull in minimum wage at the local soda shop. He's got a grand total of $128 to his name.

He'd been hoping to hold onto the bankroll, knowing he might need it when he left for college. The thought of blowing his entire life savings in one go almost makes Sam give it up as a lost cause. Besides, he wonders grimly, where is he gonna dig up another $208 on such short notice? The dilemma continues to eat at him, rankling. Other kids' parents were happy (or at least willing) to shell out a little cash for their kid's education, but not Sam's. Hell, if his dad even suspects what he's up to, Sam's ass is toast.

Dean always says the one thing Sam's inherited from John is his stubborn streak, and right now that's the only thing keeping Sam from giving up on this crazy idea. He just can't, not after all the work he's put into this.

It would be easy enough for Sam to forge his dad's signature on a note to get excused from class Wednesday and Thursday. The tough part, aside from the money issue, is going to be finding transportation over to the test site. He could ask for the Impala, but that would require an explanation. And Dean hasn't been real keen on letting his little brother behind the wheel since… well, he has never really been okay with it. In fact, the twenty-two-year-old still drags himself out of bed every morning just to drive his brother to school even though Sam's eighteen and perfectly capable of driving himself.

But the Impala is Dean's baby, out and out. Always has been and always will be. They'd never gone halfsies on it. According to John, Dean earned the right to the Impala with the work he'd put in under the hood, and Sam didn't dispute the fact that Dean had put a hell of a lot of effort and care into the car's upkeep. It's probably the most committed relationship Dean has ever been in, Sam snorts, and the two of them definitely deserved one another.

The only thing that gets under Sam's skin about the arrangement is that his Dad never made a similar effort to reward Sam's hard work in academics. He works his ass off, maintains a spotless school record and is now in high demand by one of the most competitive colleges in the country. But, does he get any special acknowledgement from dear old Dad? Any equivalent of a dream car? Hardly. He can't even get a ride to take his friggin' entrance tests. If it doesn't have to do with hunting, hustling, or cars, Dad isn't even interested.

It sucks to be the kid with straight A's, sky-high test scores and yet, still be anything but the apple of his dad's eye. Ah, well, what's Dad's favorite saying again? Life's not fair… Sam has been hearing that his entire life, and if he was the type of kid to let that stop him, he wouldn't be Stanford's top recruit.

Pulling up the bus schedules doesn't prove to be the answer Sam's looking for. He groans, realizing he would have to leave at 5:45 AM to catch the bus over to Coralville in order to make it in time for the first test. Then there is also the small problem of there not being another bus back home until 11:35 at night. Yeah, I'm sure Dad'll have no problem with that. Sam would somehow have to come up with a believable excuse as to why he was going to be leaving at the crack of dawn and getting home way after curfew for two days in a row...Fuck, Sam thinks. That is SO not going to work for him.

"Dammit!" he curses, startling a sophomore checking her myspace profile next to him.

He doesn't have enough money to cover the tests, much less pay for a taxi ride, so that isn't going to work, either. Walking that far isn't feasible either, even though training keeps him in pretty good shape. He doesn't bike (or have a bike), so that was out. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave him with a lot of options. Man, the only way he is going to make these tests is if he steals a friggin' car.

Forget it, Winchester
, Sam snaps immediately. He'd be risking his scholarship if he got caught and arrested, not to mention Dad would murder him. But the idea just won't go away. Am I seriously considering boosting a car? Sam asks himself, a little taken aback. Not that he hasn't been trained to do just that, argues the stupid part of his brain, the part that is going to get him into SO much trouble. Dad showed both boys how to hotwire a car and Sam could probably do it without getting caught, as long as he doesn't do anything monumentally stupid, that is…

"Yeah, like steal a car," he snorts wryly, and the blonde next to him flashes her eyes at him again. Sam smiles to show he's harmless, but she's not impressed. Great, now I'm talking to myself, Sam thinks.

The logical thing to do is just NOT take the stupid tests, but there's a part of Sam that knows he's going to ace these exams and he just CAN'T sit by and let one more opportunity like this go by. And so, it's with a mixture of guilt and determination that Sam finds himself lying to his brother, something he rarely does.

"I've got this thing for school," Sam says casually, "over in Coralville. Just for the day…" he trails off at the impassive look on Dean's face.

"Skip it," is the older boy's sage advice as he continues to flip through the car magazine he has spread out in front of him on the kitchen table.

"Dean, this is important to me. I was just wondering if I could have the car for the next couple days."

"Have? Have the car? My car?" Dean says skeptically, not even raising his eyes from the magazine.

"Borrow the car, Dean," Sam corrects, trying not to tack on a much deserved eye roll.

Dean finally looks up. "Uh, let me think about this...NO."

"Dean, please!" Sam begs, eyes big and puppy-like.

"Sam, no!" Dean repeats. "What is so friggin' important about this school thing, anyway?"

"It's nothing, Dean," Sam lies.

"Well, if it's okay with Dad, I'll drive you…"

"NO!" Sam barks quickly, surprising both of them a little with his vehemence. What was he thinking? This is not going to work.

Not trusting himself to keep his mouth shut about the whole AP/college thing, Sam storms away, slamming the door in a fit of pique. He waits until he is sure Dean's content to let him stew, before digging his money from the bottom of his bag again, counting it once more to be sure. Yeah, he's still short, and, no, there is no way to ask Dean for money without making his big brother even more suspicious than he already is.

Under normal circumstances, Sam isn't a thief. Out of all the Winchesters, he is the one most prone to pangs of conscience about credit card scams and the other less-than-honest habits that support their hunter lifestyle. But he is pissed. Mad at Dad for not supporting his academic endeavors. Mad at Dean for not loaning him the Impala, for asking questions that Sam doesn't want to answer. In fact, Sam is pretty much ticked at the whole fucking world. Seriously, Sam thinks angrily, why do things have to be so screwed up that his own father has to spend all his time saving strangers rather than paying attention to his own family?

Even so, it takes a few minutes to work up the nerve to go across the room and grab Dean's pants from the foot of his bed, eyeing the pocket bulging with Dean's winnings from the poker game last night. God, Dean is going to tear him a new one for this. Glancing guiltily over his shoulder, Sam digs through the pants, fingers quickly finding the wad of cash and lifting it. He carefully replaces the jeans, leaving them right where he found them, and hastily counts the money before stuffing the $110 in the front pocket of his book-bag.

For the rest of the evening, Sam wrestles with his guilt. Stealing from his own brother. It makes him almost physically sick to think about. Really, what kind of selfish bastard does something like that? A selfish bastard who wants to go to college, that's who, Sam thinks fiercely.

It's just a matter of time before Dean discovers he's missing his "hard-earned" cash and jumps to the logical conclusions, Sam thinks uncomfortably. And Sam's under no illusions; that'll mean a serious ass-kicking. Getting screwed over doesn't usually bring out the sharing and caring side of big brother.

Sam rolls over in his bed, trying to ignore his conscience, determined to get a good night's rest in preparation for the tests.

Sam wakes up well before dawn, adrenaline pumping through his veins, setting his nerves on edge. His stomach churns, unhappily protesting the early hour and his guilty conscience chimes in, adding its own blend of misery to the mix. Talk about test anxiety, Sam thinks, trying to calm his rebellious innards as his night-vision takes in the shadowed form of his brother.

It's easier to leave a room without being detected than it is to sneak in, Sam knows. Nevertheless, Dean's a pretty light sleeper, and Sam's seen the knife Dean keeps under his pillow. Just one more reason Sam's needs to be extra careful getting by Dad's "watchdog" without a challenge.

The lanky eighteen-year-old slips into a pair of jeans and a dark shirt, all the time keeping an eye on Dean and listening for any telltale catch in his steady breathing. He gently levers his bag to his shoulder. It's well stocked with an assortment of No. 2 pencils, scratch paper, a lock picking kit and one of the 'slim jims' from Dad's hunting gear. Just what every kid needs for his first day of exams, Sam thinks, managing a quiet smile despite his nerves. He makes no noise as he tiptoes past Dean to the hallway.

Allowing himself a brief sigh of relief, Sam pads quickly towards the stairs, still moving carefully so the boards don't creak. He's planning on leaving a note, but wants to be out of there long before sunrise makes lifting a car harder than it has to be. No way he wants to deal with commuters or curious early-morning joggers.

The money problem is still an issue, but he has an idea. Truth be told, it doesn't make him feel all that good about himself, but he hasn't got a lot of options at this point. Moving down the hall, Sam spies the weapons bag lying against the wall where Dean left it after cleaning the guns the night before. He crouches down beside it, deftly sorting through the revolvers and semi-automatics piled inside until he finds a couple small caliber pistols and pulls them out, storing them carefully in a smaller satchel he's brought along with him.

The teen tenses as he hears the creak of a floorboard outside on the porch. Reaching for one of the handguns, Sam grabs up a 9mm Glock. His practiced hand snaps off the safety and chambers a round as he straightens, bringing the compact pistol up in front of him in a standard two-handed grip, the move fluid and effortless. He hugs the wall as he moves towards the front door, a silent shadow, finger resting next to the trigger of the gun. Reaching out his palm, he crawls his fingers across the painted expanse of the door to the knob and then up a little further to the deadbolt. Sam counts to five in his head and then smoothly turns the lock, swinging open the door and training his weapon on the source of the noise.

"Easy there, son," John says, flashing a white smile at Sam.

"Hey… Dad." Sam says, a little startled. He quickly stows his weapon, tucking it into the back of his pants and steps back hastily, allowing his father access into the house. Sam takes a deep breath, his mind reeling as he tries not to let his blaringly guilty conscience show.

Sam wipes sweaty palms on his jeans and blinks from the sudden glare as his dad hits the light switch.

"You're home," Sam states, quickly tucking the satchel of guns behind the couch while his dad's back is turned.

"What are you doing up?" John demands, hoping that it doesn't sound too much like an accusation. The way they'd left things hadn't exactly been pleasant, and he didn't want a fight on his hands before he even gets through the door.

"I… uh… couldn't sleep," Sam lies, wincing even as he says it. He's never been able to lie worth a damn to Dad or Dean.

Tired as he is, John can see right through Sam's poor attempt at subterfuge. Something is definitely up. Sam's shifting gaze just confirm his suspicions. "Well, get to bed. You have school in the morning," he orders, hoping to deal with whatever this is in the morning, when he isn't so brain-dead from a night of hunting.

"It is morning," Sam retorts before he can stop himself.

John's eyes narrow. Right, and if I say it's night, he'll insists that it's broad day. Instead of arguing, John just turns and deadbolts the door. "It's a quarter to five, Sam. You could get two more hours in," he says reasonably (as reasonably as he can at this unreasonable hour).

Sam's mind is spinning, but he can see Dad's not going to yield on this. "Uh… yes, sir," he concedes quickly, a small frown on his face.

"Good night," John says, hauling his bag into the kitchen. He's expecting Sam to head up to bed, but instead, he hears the click of the deadbolt being released and catches the draft as the front door opens and shuts with barely a sound.

Turning on his heel, John storms out into the entryway, his face a mask of disbelief. No sign of Sam. Anger rising, John charges out onto the porch, but Sam's gone and there are no obvious signs to where he's headed. Dammit! John swears, whirling around to grab his jacket.

He growls angrily, locking the house behind him. That boy is grounded till his next birthday, John resolves grimly. And it's gonna be that long before the kid can sit comfortably, too! He fires up the truck again, before the engine even has time to cool, and pulls out of the drive, cursing his youngest.

John's cursing himself an hour later he's back, with nothing to show for the slow crawl around the neighborhood, on the lookout for dancing shadows which might materialize into his son. He's regretting every hunter's trick he ever taught Sam. The sun is rising and he has no idea where his boy is. John lays his head wearily on the steering wheel, trying to organize his thoughts and come up with a plan.

Teenagers are supposed to sneak out on weekends, go to parties, break curfew, sure, but what the hell did Sam need to do at 5am on a Wednesday? Jesus, he was out of his league with this one. Dean never made him feel like this: lost, completely out of his element. Dammit, Sam! John cursed again.

There was nothing to do but go inside and try to think of more places his wayward child might be. He'd start looking again after coffee and a few hours of sleep, and God help him if Sam wasn't back by evening because John was running out of ideas.


The moonlight is bright, its pale silvery glow pressing against the darkness, when Sam hits the streets. He waits until John is occupied in the kitchen before slipping out the door with the bag of contraband weapons. Sam heads towards the park a few blocks away, the cold, pre-dawn air numbing him, making him shiver. He keeps off the road, covering his tracks through the empty lots and brush carefully, because he knows Dad'll be hot on his trail as soon as the man hears the creak of the screen door.

Sam scouted a couple of possible places earlier in the week, picked out a couple of spots where it wouldn't be too hard to boost a car: parking lots with minimum surveillance, where neighbors didn't look too closely. That's where he heads now, smiling when he immediately spots a dinged up late model Honda Civic, a layer of dirt covering its surface, thick enough to make it look gray. Obviously, the car hasn't been driven in awhile, so no one's going to report it missing right away. He's pretty sure the coast's clear, but keeps an eye out for pedestrians or passing cars. It would suck to get caught ripping off the car before he had a chance to implement phase two of his plan.

Sam forces himself to relax while he pulls the slim jim from his backpack, snaking the thin metal strip in between the window and the rubber seal around the door, catching the locking rods inside the door and yanking up on them. He grins at the satisfying click of the lock opening and slips inside the car, tossing the tool onto the passenger seat next to him. His palms are sweaty as he fumbles under the dash for the yellow and black ignition wires and blue starter wire, splicing them until the engine growls, coming to life. Sam lets out a breath, his heart thumping hard in his chest. There's no turning back now.

The car is nothing special, a homogenous, red 2-door coupe that smells like stale french fries and cheap pine air freshener. This makes Sam feel a little better, because it seems like the type of vehicle that most owners would be happy to get rid of, would collect the insurance money with a smile on their face. They're probably gonna be disappointed when it turns up in a few days, Sam tries to convince himself as he maneuvers out onto the open road.

The first five miles are excruciating for Sam. He keeps glancing out the rear window, sure that any minute he'll hear sirens, or worse, catch a glimpse of the Impala or Dad's truck bearing down on him.

Fifteen miles later, though, Sam starts to relax a little. He runs through his notes in his head as he sips the coffee he picked up at a McDonalds on his way out of town, starting to think he just might get away with all this. But, he can't even go there, because all he has room for in his overactive brain right now is the chemistry test he'll be taking first up. He'll deal with everything else at 2:50pm, after his last test of the day. After that, he'll drive the stolen car to the nearest pawn shop and sell the guns that don't belong to him to raise the money for tomorrow's fees. And maybe money for a motel room too because he knows one thing for sure: he can't go home tonight. Dad's already pissed that he ducked out against orders and if Sam has any hope of getting back to Coralville tomorrow for the next round of tests, he's gonna have to evade arrest and his father for the evening at least. Maybe by tomorrow morning, his mind will offer up some way to save his hide, but Sam's not overly optimistic about that.

Dean's in full-on panic mode when he wakes up to discover Sam's missing. By the time John's back at the house, the younger man is up in arms, nearly hyperventilating.

"Dad!" he exclaims as John comes through the door, "Sam's—"

"—gone," John finishes for him, moving slow from lack of sleep. "I know, Dean, he ducked out around five this morning and I haven't been able to track him down. Did he say anything to you?"

"No," Dean responds, shaking his head, trying to think despite the early hour. He bites his lip, hesitating a moment before spilling, "Dad, there's some cash and weapons missing… I think the little brat musta taken them…"

The Winchester men share a look, both thinking the same thing. It isn't the first time Sam has packed up and left, though usually they had a huffy declaration of independence or a scathing goodbye note to point them in the right direction. It had been easy enough for John or Dean to track the kid down, drag him back to whatever crummy motel room they were calling home, and light into the kid's tail, so as to discourage any more escape efforts on Sam's part. Thought I took care of this habit… John thinks, recalling the last time he lit into Sam's butt for taking off like this.

"You think this is because I…" John starts but trails off, thinking of the punishment he'd meted out before he left on the hunt. He scrubs his face with one hand, his frustration rising.

"He seemed fine. I mean he was okay," Dean says, thoughts still a little fuzzy from the rude awakening. He frowns, shaking his head. "Why the hell does he keep doing this?" Dean demands, anguished.

John hates seeing the pain on Dean's face. He knows how seriously Dean takes his job of looking after his little brother, that he's as invested as any parent in keeping the baby of the family from harm.

"He's gonna be fine, Dean," John says to reassure his oldest. "At least until I get my hands on him," he adds ominously.

Dean smiles wryly, scrubbing his face in an unconscious imitation of his father. "Dad, you look beat. I'm gonna go scout out the high school, see if he turns up for class. Why don't you crash for a couple hours and I'll call you if I find him," Dean offers, taking in his Dad's unkempt appearance and slumped shoulders.

John reluctantly agrees, keen to hit the sack before he keels over and trusting Dean to look out for his younger brother.

About an hour before the first bell, Dean pulls the Impala into the loading zone in front of the high school, scanning for Sam's slouch among the early drop offs. The minivan behind him honks angrily, but Dean ignores it and continues to watch for his brother.

He spots a pair of students, trudging towards the main doors. Dean quickly wrenches down the car window as he moves the Impala up alongside them.

"Hey! Hey kid!" Dean shouts, leaning out the window. They glance mistrustfully at Dean and keep walking. "I'm talking to you!" Dean snaps.

"Uh, yeah?" The taller boy answers sullenly. He keeps his distance from Dean, who's starting to feel a little sketchy trolling after them as they continue to walk towards the front of the school.

"I'm looking for Sam Winchester. You seen him?" Dean asks.

The boys look at each other blankly, and Dean rolls his eyes, giving a soft sigh. Probably should have asked someone more nerdy looking, he thinks.

"You know, ridiculously tall, geeky senior…looks like he desperately needs a hair cut? Ringing any bells here?"

"Is that the new guy?" asks the shorter of the two, the one wearing a blue jacket.

"Yeah, that's him," Dean says, leaning forward eagerly.

The taller one grins, coughs deliberately and makes a strangled noise that sounds a lot like loser.

Dean's eyes narrow because a) he's not in the mood for some punk's smart ass attitude this early in the day and b) nobody messes with his little brother, except him, of course. Don't make me get out of the car to beat your scrawny little ass, he thinks.

Dean growls, giving the boy a long, hard stare meant to intimidate. "Care to repeat that?" he says, revving the engine threateningly.

The kid starts as the Impala jumps closer, knocking into his friend as he scrambles away.

Dean smirks as the kid struggles to look cool. Don't hurt yourself, junior. "So, you seen him or not?"

"No!" the kid snaps.

Dean nods over to the other kid. "What about your girlfriend there? She seen him?"

Short dude reddens and chokes. "No," he says stiffly, shaking his head as the two of them stalk off.

Dean rolls his eyes, and pulls over, putting the car in park. He nurses his cup of caffeine, keeping an eye on the doors to the school.

Where the hell are you, Sammy?
Dean thinks, beginning to feel desperate.

Sam runs the stolen Honda through a carwash, hoping the transformation from motorized dustpail to shiny red car will help disguise the theft. The owners probably wouldn't even recognize it now, he thinks with satisfaction as he collects his book-bag from the front seat.

He leaves the car about twenty blocks from the local high school, unobtrusively parked next to a small playground. The hike over to the test center gives him the time to discard the escaped convict guilt, just feel like a normal student for once. He may be deluding himself, but sometimes the only thing keeping Sam sane is pretending he doesn't know the first thing about hotwiring a car or dismantling a security system. He doesn't want to be that guy if he can help it. There's a bit of determination in his step as he leaves that part of him behind.

The building's small, the lawn in front neatly tended. The floors inside are carpeted and the place looks nice, reeking of money. He checks in at the main office, smiling endearingly at the secretary and then hands his picture ID to the proctor. He listens intently to the instructions, tucking his long legs under the desk which isn't quite big enough to sit up straight in and goes to work filling in the little bubbles carefully with his No. 2 pencil, tongue peeking out from between his lips as he concentrates.

"Excuse me," Dean says, flashing an ingratiating smile while leaning over the counter to ring the small bell next to the shiny nameplate in front of Mrs. Eleanor Carbuckle "My brother, Sam Winchester, forgot his lunch…" Dean improvises.

Unfortunately, something about him just reeks of delinquent to the high school secretary.

"I'll be with you in a moment," the fiery grandmother says pointedly, looking up at him from behind her thick rimmed spectacles. She rapidly types in the remaining three names into her spreadsheet before turning again to Dean, who's been tapping his fingers impatiently on the broad countertop while he waits.

"Sam said something about a class trip, in Coralville?" Dean prompts, remembering Sam had asked for the car to head a few towns over. "If I could just get the address…"

Mrs. Carbuckle pulled up Sam's class schedule. "No, you must have misheard. There are no field trips planned for today. And your brother was marked absent from his first period class."

, Dean thinks, what the heck are you up to Sammy?

"Oh, uh…yeah…" Dean thinks fast, coming up with a plausible story for why his brother wasn't in class to avoid further questions. "He had a doctor's appointment early this morning and it must have run late…so, um, if I could just get his locker number and combo, I'd like to leave his, uh, lunch for him…"

"Mr. Winchester, unless you are Sam's legal guardian, I'm afraid I can't give out that kind of information."

Dean's face goes dark, eyes taking on an angry glint. "Listen, lady—"

Mrs. Carbuckle has been the secretary of Jefferson High School for over forty years. Her eyes snap upward at the challenge in Dean's voice, eyes flashing at the disrespectful tone. She isn't about to bullied by some whippersnapper, no matter how gorgeous his pouting lips might be.

So instead of muscling his way past a fragile old lady, Dean finds himself dealing with a formidable force of womanhood. Her piercing eyes soon put him in his place and, after a scathing lecture about showing proper respect, Dean finds himself redirected out the front door, cursing irritable old women. He's no closer to tracking down his brother than he was before.

He revs up the car, coffee now cold in the cup holder, as he peels out of the school parking lot, heading towards Coralville.

After six hours spent combing the small town for Sam, Dean is about ready to give it up. He calls John, who woke up and started checking around the local joints as soon as he was up. There's only so far Sam can go with the $100 he snaked from Dean's pocket, even if he was also using the $130 he had stashed in that duffle of his. That's where the guns come into play, Dean concludes. Sam was probably gonna try to pawn them somewhere.

That gives Dean a place to start, anyway. A town like Coralville didn't have too many pawn shops. He checks the nearest one, a tiny rat trap on Crescent street, but comes up empty. There's another over on 9
th Ave according to the clerk at the last place, and Dean heads that way, his nerves beginning to fray under the growing strain of the situation.

The bell jangles as Dean walks through the door. He whips out a police badge from his pocket, flashing it with a measure of confidence.

"Have you been here all day?" Dean asks the greasy-haired clerk.

The tall, pale man behind the counter nods cautiously, his eyes riveted on the badge in Dean's hand, looking about ready to bolt.

"I'm looking for this kid," Dean says, pulling out a snapshot of Sam from his wallet. "He may have been in here looking to unload a couple of pistols?"

"Look, what kind of place do you think we run?" the man protests, defensively.

"Cut the crap," Dean barks, in his best cop voice, "Answer the damn question."

The guys smiles, revealing a set of stained and crooked teeth, "don't remember," he shrugs and leers back at Dean.

The smile falters when Dean's hand shoots out and grabs a fistful of the guy's shirt. "Look, tell me where he went, you little shit, or I'll haul your ugly ass downtown as an accessory but not before I rearrange your face!"

"Okay, okay!" The clerk caves, holding his hands up before him, eyes wide with fear. "He said something about going down to Rosie's to try and double up. Didn't think I paid him enough for those pieces of crap he was carryin'."

Dean nods, trying to mask his growing anger. "Yeah, okay," he says, giving the man in front of him a stern glare as he lets go of the clerk's shirt front. "I'm going to need to see the weapons he brought in for evidence…"

Sam lets a relieved smile spread across his face as the eight ball slides smoothly into the side pocket. It isn't that he's a bad pool player, he's just never been the showman Dean tends to be. And as the designated geek, Sam tends to get upstaged by his big brother whenever they are together. It actually feels good to be out of Dean's shadow for an evening, to be out on his own, free to do what he wants, when he wants. And with that little epiphany, Sam suddenly realizes that he's enjoying himself, really and truly enjoying himself. The warmth from the alcohol he drank earlier to bolster his confidence is finally melting the icy claw rooting around in his gut. Happily, he accepts his winnings, earning the loser's good humored congratulations.

"Where'd you learn to shoot pool like that?"

Sam blushes. "My brother taught me," he says, ducking his head shyly.

"Wouldn't want to play him, then," jokes Sam's opponent.

Sam smiles, glancing over at the entrance absently while chalking up the pool cue for another go. He freezes, nearly dropping the stick when he spots Dean, all attitude, swaggering through the front door, acting like he owns the place.

Is all Sam has time to think because Dean is coming directly toward him. He looks around frantically for some place to hide, but there's nowhere to duck unless he wants to try crawling under the pool table and that would just cause way too many curious stares. Sam quickly turns away, holding out the last strain of hope that Dean won't recognize him in the crowd of bodies, despite the fact that he's the tallest person in the room. But, of course, Dean spots him right away; there is no way he can avoid the older hunter's piercing gaze. Sam can feel it drilling a hole in the back of his head as he starts weaving his way towards the back door, his heart doing a jittery dance in his chest.

The hand on his shoulder is not much of a surprise; Sam knows how light Dean can be on his feet and how quick he can work his way through a crowd. He feels himself being whirled around, knows instantly that his luck had just run out.

"You little shit!" Dean lays in immediately, reaching up to snag Sam's right ear between a thumb and finger, not caring a bit when the boy blushes bright scarlet. He's beyond caring about appearances at this point in the game.

"Dean, let go!" Sam pleads, embarrassed to be treated like an errant twelve-year-old. He's forced to lean down to Dean's height, shuffling awkwardly after Dean as the older boy heads immediately for the door.

"Oh, no," Dean says grimly, shaking his head. "You're getting a friggin' leash, you hear me? Move it!" Dean punctuates his instructions with a sharp slap to the seat of Sam's sagging jeans, making the boy jerk in his grasp.

Sam's only too happy to get out from under the amused glances of the patrons, but balks as Dean tries to manhandle him into the car.  

"I'm not going with you!" he protests, trying to wrench free from Dean.

Dean easily catches Sam's flailing arms and whips his little brother about, slamming him roughly face down over the hood of the Impala. Sam finds himself staring stupidly at his own reflection in the shiny black paintjob as Dean leans down on Sam's back, effectively pinning him in place. He slams a hand brusquely down on the upturned behind in front of him.

Sam yelps as the swats rain down, his alarm more from embarrassment than from the sting of his brother's hand. Dean's not really able to get a good swing while he's occupied holding his brother in position, and Sam's jeans are offering more than a little protection from the heavy handed thrashing he's trying to deliver. Even so, Sam's face flushes red with shame and anger.

"Get OFF me!" Sam bellows as Dean continues to beat his ass with his open palm, the smacks echoing loudly off the brick wall of the building next to them.

"Get in the car, Sam, or your jeans are coming down right here," Dean hisses quietly into Sam's ear, low enough that only Sam can hear him.

Sam stiffens, wanting to offer a smartass rebuke, but he can tell from Dean's tone that his big brother is dead serious. Dean's stopped paddling him, but continues to hold him down, waiting for an answer. Sam nods tightly, and finds himself being pulled up and then shoved unceremoniously into the passenger seat.

Dean's fuming, driving so erratically that he earns several honks from surprised drivers.

"You're gonna get pulled over," Sam points out snippily.

"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Dean explodes, twisting in the seat to glare daggers at Sam, his chest heaving from anger.

Sam blanches, quickly snapping his mouth shut and prudently taking his brother's advice.

There a few more near misses, but Sam's not about to comment any further on Dean's driving skills, for fear of bodily injury – he's about to get his fill of that, he think, shifting on his warm behind. Instead, Sam bites his lip and winces every time a horn blares or Dean slams on the brakes suddenly. Finally Dean seems to realize he's not in complete control and he yanks the car over to the side of the road. Sam braces himself so as not to slide over into the door. After a heavy silence, Sam risks a glance over at his brother and is more than a little surprised to see tears shining in Dean's eyes.

"Dean?" Sam questions, searching for the words that might somehow make all this better.

"Don't Sam," Dean snaps, angrily swiping at his eyes.

Sam looks down at his hands, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness. He doesn't know what to do. Dean was the big brother, the one who is supposed to always know what to do. Sam still feels like a little kid; seeing his brother's game face slip scares him. He suddenly feels close to tears himself, but sniffs them back.

Dean takes a couple of deep breaths, staring hard at the steering wheel clenched in his hands, and then eases the Impala back out onto the road. He doesn't go far though, only a couple of blocks, before he pulls into a hotel parking lot down the road.

"Are you going to run?" Dean asks seriously, voice emotionless, not even looking at Sam.

Cautiously, Sam shakes his head. Dean nods once and kills the engine, sliding out of the car, slamming the door hard enough to rock the entire vehicle, and walks towards the lobby, digging a credit card from his pocket to pay for the room. Sam's left alone with his thoughts and the frightened flutter of his heart. Jesus, this is going to be bad, he thinks.

Five minutes later Dean's back. He gets in and starts the car up without saying a word, driving around the corner of the building, and parking the Impala a couple of feet from their room.

Dean suddenly seems more tired than mad. "You got a bag?" he quietly asks, not looking at Sam.

"It's in my- the car…" Sam admits, voice quavering as he trails off self consciously.

A spark of anger animates the icy stare Dean turns on Sam. "You stole a car?" he questions.

Sam can only nod. He's never felt more ashamed than he does right now, seeing himself from Dean's perspective. I'm such a screw-up, Sam thinks as his big brother sits there in disappointed silence. There's anger and hurt in Dean's eyes.

"Sorry," Sam whispers, barely able to get the word out.

"Just get inside, now."

Sam jumps at Dean's commanding tone and scurries from the car, tripping over his feet as he tries to hurry inside the hotel room ahead of his brother.

Dean waits until Sam's safely inside the room before pulling his phone from his jeans pocket and dialing John's cell.

"You find him?" John asks immediately.

"Yep, tracked him down. I think we're gonna crash here, head back in the morning."

"Alright, I'm on my way," John says tightly, the wrath in his tone not fully masked.

Dean makes a face. Their father's presence will only make things worse. Mad dad's more likely to annihilate Sam, really hurt him in his anger. The relationship between Sam and his father isn't up for that, not tonight. Dean knows that Dad and Sam both need a little time to calm down before they face each other, so he makes a decision.

"Dad, I got this," he offers, hoping the resolve in his voice leaves no room for discussion.

John's quiet for a moment. Dean holds his breath, knowing that if Dad decides to make the trip, there won't be much he can do except stick around to pick up the pieces.

"Fine," John finally says, voice clipped. "I'll see you boys in the morning, then."

"Yes, sir," Dean replies, grateful that his dad's backing him up on this one.

"You take care of your brother, Dean," John orders. There's no mistaking what he means by that order. "I don't want this happening again."

"Yes, sir," Dean says, seriously. "I'll make real sure Sammy understands that."

Sam's waiting nervously, when Dean finally crosses into the small, orange and red motel room. The younger boy guiltily scrambles to his feet, a pleading look in his eyes. "Dean, please, just let me explain-"

"I'm not interested Sammy," Dean snaps, cutting his brother off mid-sentence. "There's nothing you can say that could possibly justify this. You lied, dude. You lied to me and Dad! And you stole- from your own family! What the fuck, Sam?"

Dean's harsh admonishment leaves Sam empty, staring at the carpeted floor in front of his shoetips. His throat is so tight he can't get a word out, so he remains silent, shoulders slumped.

"You got nothing to say?" Dean demands, his anger growing. "How many times have you been told never to take off like that?" Dean challenges him. "How many times, Sammy?"

"I know," Sam whispers to the floor. He's got no defense. His gaze creeps back up to Dean's stony countenance. "It was wrong, okay? I know it, Dean. I know I shouldn't have…" he stops, sighing heavily in defeat. "I'll pay you back, honest."

Dean's brows rise. "Oh really? And how're you gonna do that, Sammy?" he demands, "Can you give me back the day I spent looking for you, not knowing where you were or if you were in trouble?"  

Sam looks down at his hands, not knowing how to make this right. "I'll do whatever it takes," he says softly, voice quavering despite his resolve.

Dean looks at him sharply, eyes narrowing. "I'm gonna take a shower," he says. "You sit right there, and don't you dare move a muscle."

Sam nods his assent, following Dean with his eyes as the older boy stalks into the small bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Soon Sam hears water running. Goosebumps crawl across the flesh of his arms as he begins to quake, his insides roiling. The desire to bolt for the door and flee is strong, but Sam fights it, tamping down his fear because it's important that he obey his brother. He needs to prove himself, show Dean he cares more about their family than saving his skin.

Ten minutes later Dean emerges, wearing the same clothes, rubbing his wet hair with a thin hotel towel. He drops the towel onto the back of a chair and sits down opposite Sam on the bed near the door.

"You need to use the bathroom?" he asks.

Sam silently shakes his head even though he kinda does have to pee.

"Then come here," Dean orders. He reaches down to his waist, snaking his belt free of the loops as Sam stands up and walks over to him.

Sam stares wide-eyed at Dean's belt, his heart in his throat. But he's feeling repentant and so he tries once again to explain. "Dean, please—"

"Jeans down," Dean orders, tone implacable.

Sam sees that there's no use in trying to justify what he's done. He fumbles with the button on his jeans, letting the loose pants drop to the floor. He stands, exposed and shivering, sorrow written across his face. He drapes himself over Dean's lap without a fight, needing to make amends.

"I'm so sorry," Sam chokes, a few tears escaping even before the first swat falls.

"I know you're sorry, Sammy," Dean replies quietly, shucking down Sam's boxers as he continues. "But you gotta stop this. You're tearing this family apart with the selfish shit you keep pulling."

Sam lets out an anguished cry as Dean follows his words with a hard smack to Sam's right butt cheek. It leaves a reddened mark which is soon matched by one on his left side as Dean smacks him again. Dean raises his hand high, bringing it down full force on Sam's behind over and over until the teen is bawling openly and jerking over Dean's lap with each unyielding swat.

"You will not steal things from your own family!" Dean reprimands as he continues to light a fire across the younger boy's butt.

"Ow, ow! Owwwwww!" Sam whines in misery.

"You will never take off without telling us where you are going again!"

"I promise! Dean, I PROMISE!"

Dean continues to slap the boy's butt, watching Sam's behind transform into a mass of overlapping red handprints under his stinging palm. Sam goes limp moments before Dean reaches for his belt. He swings the strip of leather, cracking it down onto Sam's swollen, red behind with some force.

Sam jerks, letting out a wet holler as the belt meets his tender flesh again and again, cracking down like a line of fire across his upper thighs.

By the time Dean drops the belt, Sam is sobbing uncontrollably, his chest heaving as he gulps in air and lets it out in a shuddery blubber. Dean runs a hand gently over Sam's back, trying to calm the teen down.

"Hey," Dean says gently. Sam continues to sob even as he allows Dean to pull him up from his prone position and gather him in his arms, cradling him to his chest. "It's over, buddy."

But Sam is inconsolable. His wails get louder as he soaks Dean's shoulder with his tears, hiccupping pitifully. "I-i-it's not fair!" he bawls.

All of his anger now spent, Dean studies his brother with growing concern."What isn't fair?" he asks, puzzled. "Huh?" He teases his fingers through Sam's long hair.

Sam's struggling to get his tears under control, hating that he's crying in front of his brother, showing weakness. He shakes himself free of Dean's arms, carefully pulling up his boxers, but he kicks off his shoes and shucks the crumpled jeans onto the floor. His butt's way too sore to handle the scratchy denim just now.

"You wouldn't understand!" Sam pouts, lip quivering. He crawls up onto the bed, stretching out and turning his back to Dean while taking a few deep breaths.

"Don't give me that!" Dean snaps. "I wanna know what's so damn important that you had to sneak out in the middle of the night and steal a car just to get to Coralville, of all places," Dean states with disgust.

Sam shakes his head silently, a few more tears spilling down his cheeks, making warm, dark splotches on the pillowcase. "I can't," he whispers.

"You damn well better," Dean barks, swatting Sam's over his boxers.

Sam yelps in pain as the large hand connects with his sore butt.

"Dean, don't!" he whines, hand going back to rub at the renewed throb. Sam shifts across the bed, moving his tender behind out of easy reach.

Not satisfied, Dean leans closer to Sam, hand raised, letting his brother know he's not far enough away and never will be. "Tell me why, Sammy," he threatens, voice calm but sending a warning. "Tell me or you're getting another ass beating. Why did you run away this time?"

"I didn't run away," Sam protests, turning on the bed, eyes pleading for understanding. "I went to Coralville so I could take the AP tests!"

"What?" Dean says, confusion and anger warring on his face. "That's what this is all about? Some stupid tests?"

Sam doesn't answer at first, his temper rising, jaw clenching. He's sick to death of having his dreams ripped apart. "They're not," he starts, voice harsh, then he stops, trying to calm down. He continues voice struggling to say even. "They're not stupid, Dean. They're for college…"

"What are you saying, Sam?" Dean asks, frowning.

"I want to go to college, Dean," Sam implores, eyes shining as he lifts them up to look into his brother's eyes. "I am going to go to college." The statement is wrenched from the deepest part of Sam, and the confession rings with conviction.

Suddenly, it's Dean who can't breathe. All this time, Sammy's been trying to tell him, but he'd been too stubborn, too afraid, to really listen. "," Dean entreats, near to begging.

"I got in to Stanford, Dean. I got a full ride…" It all comes rushing out, the floodgates finally opened.

Dean's too stunned to say anything. He just stares and blinks in response.

"Please don't tell Dad," Sam begs, feeling vulnerable. "Please, Dean."

For a minute, Sam's afraid Dean's gonna hit him. He flinches when Dean reaches out but instead he finds himself crushed against Dean's chest as his brother draws him close. Slowly, Sam starts to relax.

"You're such a girl," he laughs, poking Dean in the ribs.

Dean gives him a sharp smack on the rear in return, smirking when Sam gives a high pitched yelp. "Who's the girl now, Samantha?" he teases, releasing Sam shoving playfully, making the younger boy roll onto his sore behind.

Sam groans and quickly arranges himself on his side. "Dean, I really am sorry I lied to you, and that I took your money. I shouldn't have done that."

Dean smiles. "Just don't do it again, junior."

Sam nods seriously, before fluffing up his pillow. "Dad is going to kill me," he groans, burying his head in the pillow.

"Yeah, well, no arguments there," Dean chuckles, and Sam gropes with one han d for a pillow to throw at him.

Dean smiles, switching off the light on the nightstand between the two beds. "Get some sleep there, kiddo, you got tests in the morning."

Sam looks up in surprise. "You're gonna let me go?" he asks, brows raised in disbelief.

Dean pauses, something about the wording making him struggle a little. Yeah, Sammy, I'm gonna let you go. "Yeah," he finally says, clearing his throat. "But, I'll be driving you this time, 'sticky fingers'."

"But what's Dad gonna say?" Sammy presses.

"I'll talk to Dad, okay? We'll get it sorted out," Dean reassures him, giving Sam a pat on the shoulder. He grins. "Besides, it'll serve you right, having to sit on that sore ass of yours all day long. Remind you not to do anything this stupid ever again."

Sam grimaces at the thought. "Yeah, that's gonna suck," he observes grouchily, reaching back to rub at his well warmed backside. He shoots Dean a sour frown. "Jerk."

"Bitch," Dean happily retorts, a grin crossing his lips. "Get some sleep."

"Okay, Dean," Sam says, yawning. He's exhausted from crying himself out and yet warm with the relief of finally telling his secret to his big brother.

Despite the painful twinge in his butt, which was still warm and pink as of that morning when he checked his ass in the mirror , Sam feels a sense of relief when he finishes up his last exam in history and finds the Impala waiting for him as expected in the parking lot.

Sam slides carefully into the passenger seat, squirming a little, trying to find a comfortable sitting position on the leather.

"How'd it go?" Dean asks.

"It went well," Sam replies, grimacing as he shifts position again. "Though, it was a little harder to concentrate with this pain in my ass," he snorts.

Dean smirks. "Serves you right for being a pain in mine," he responds unsympathetically.

"Did you take care of the car?" Sam questions nervously, glancing over at his brother.

Dean nods as he pulls the car out into traffic. "Yep, I ditched it while you were doing your 'college' thing."

It seems weird that Dean now knows but Sam's doubly grateful for the uneasy allegiance.  The burden of hiding this from his family was crushing him, and having his brother sharing the burden, made the weight almost seem bareable. "Thanks, Dean," Sam says, and means it.

"Well, don't expect me to keep cleaning up after you," Dean grumbles, though Sam can't help smiling at the sentiment hiding beneath the gruffness.

Dean takes his eyes from the road to glare at Sam. "I mean it, dude. If you're going to go to college, you can't be pulling shit like this." He leaves the I won't be there to protect you unspoken. 

Sam blinks at him. "I didn't know what else to do," he confesses softly.

"You should've told me," Dean says harshly.

Sam directs his gaze out the window. "I couldn't," he says quietly.

"Dude," Dean objects. "When have I ever left you out to dry?" 

"It's not that Dean," Sam protests, turning to face his brother. "It's just…things with Dad…"

Dean's jaw tightens. "Yeah, well, regardless, he doesn't deserve most of the stuff you throw at him,  Sammy."

Sam doesn't say anything, but there's a spark of defiance in his gaze as he glares out the window.

"And you're not going to start anything over this, either, you hear me?" Dean adds, giving Sam 'the look'.

The car gets quieter as Sam silently protests the statement, jaw jutting out in irritation at once again being told what to do.

"Sam," Dean warns, "You're gonna be the most obedient and contrite son he's ever seen. Got it?"

"I'm not going back with my tail between my legs!" Sam bursts out heatedly.

Dean's eyes go dark. "You promise me right now, or we're pulling over here to have another 'talk' about respect," he growls angrily.

Sam's bitchy chuff of disbelief nearly sets Dean on edge. "I don't believe you, Dean! Dad never even—" Sam starts, but Dean's sharp-edged volley cuts him off mid-sentence.

"He's just trying to look out for you, Sam! He does the best he can!"

"Yeah, well, it's not good enough," Sam mumbles moodily, his feelings ruffled by Dean's reproachful outburst.

The car jerks suddenly as Dean swerves to the side of the road. Sam's stomach churns with apprehension at the pissed off look Dean's wearing. Not only is he so not up for another spanking, but he hates seeing Dean mad at him like this.

"Do not talk about Dad like that," Dean barks, eyes flashing recrimination.

Sam glances up at the furious face briefly, before his eyes flick down to his hands, knotted in his lap. "Sorry," he whispers.

Dean nods once in acknowledgment, eyes never leaving his brother. "So, what's it going to be, Sam?"


Dean speaks slowly, letting the coolness in his tone lend muscle to his words.  "Are you going to pull your act together and apologize to Dad, or are you and I going to have to have another little talk?"

The implied threat does its job, making Sam's heart beat a little faster.  He swallows hard. "I… uh… I'll apologize," he manages to choke out unhappily.  The words come out reluctantly, but are sincere enough.

"Good choice," Dean says quietly and checks the side mirror before pulling back out into traffic.   
Sam spends the rest of the ride home hunched over in defeat. Dean turns on some music to lessen the tension, but both boys are quiet as they pull into the driveway behind their dad's truck.

"Dean, what if he…" Sam asks,  his panic rising.

Dean closes his eyes, knowing that in all likelihood, Sam's in for another hiding. He hates it, but John Winchester is not the type to ignore this level of rebellion from one of his sons. Sam's blatant disregard for the rules has landed him in deep shit.  Dean knows that Sam's looking to him right now for support Hell, the kid's already half-way to hyperventilating.

"Whatever Dad hands out? You take it, Sammy," Dean advises,. "It'll blow over, okay? It always does."

Sam nods, taking a shaky breath, brow furrowed with apprehension. "Dean, what do I do? Should I tell him?" he asks, trusting his big brother to steer him right.

Dean lets out a puff of breath that he hasn't realized he's been holding. He knows his father better than anyone, and Sam's news is not going to sit well with the old man. There's enough to deal with at the moment without bringing the whole college issue into the mix. "Not yet," he decides, glancing over to Sam to make sure there's agreement on this.

Sam nods slowly, then levers open the car door, sliding out and bravely heading up the walkway. As always, Dean has his back.

Sam's hands are visibly shaking as he fiddles with the front door lock, the key missing the lock opening twice before he almost gets it in, only to have the door ripped open in front of him. The key falls to the porch, forgotten, as Sam stares up at his father, gulping back his fear.  The night apart from his boys has given John's anger time to cool, which is the only reason Sam doesn't find himself  getting throttled right there in the doorway.

"H-hey, Dad," Sam says, nervously, a false smile on his lips.

"Get in the house," John seethes, biting off each word.

Sam tries to slip by his father, cringing away from the swat that he knows is waiting for him, but John anticipates the move, and his hand crashes down solidly on Sam's butt. The teen stiffens, grunting in surprise.  John takes advantage of the pause to land another two smacks onto Sam's behind for good measure before the kid maneuvers out of his reach and darts inside the house.

"Where the hell were you?" John demands as Dean quickly follows Sam into the house.

Sam looks desperately at Dean and, as expected, his older brother reports truthfully. "I tracked him down in Coralville."

"Doing what exactly?" John asks, the hint of danger in his voice making Sam's insides quail.

"He was hustling," Dean answers smoothly, telling Sam to follow his lead with a look.

 John catches the silent exchange and it pisses him off. He doesn't like to be "handled."

 "What took so damn long, Dean? I expected you back first thing!"

Dean offers a little shrug to his dad. "I had to take care of the car Sammy stole, make sure it couldn't be tracked back to us," he says carefully, hoping it's enough of an answer for his old man.

John reluctantly accepts the excuse, although he's not happy to hear Sam's now added grand theft auto to his repertoire of skills.  "You hand him his ass last night?" he demands.

"Yes, sir," Dean reports seriously. "And since then, he's been a model citizen, Dad." Okay, so that wasn't exactly the whole truth, but Sammy needs all the help he can get.

"You mean he didn't snake your car keys while you were sleeping?" John says sarcastically, "I guess that is an improvement!"

Like you've never stolen a car?
Sam thinks in bitter outrage, but he keeps it to himself.  He promised Dean he'd behave and so he holds up his end of the bargain. "Dad, I'm sorry," Sam pleads instead, feeling some actual remorse.          

It's not exactly what John's expecting to hear, given the chip on Sam's shoulder as of late. But while the apology seems sincere, it sure as hell doesn't make up for all the shit the boy's pulled.

"Yeah, well, you've got good reason to be sorry, Samuel," John responds darkly. "Go to your room," he orders and Sam gladly flees.

"Did you recover our stolen property?" John asks, turning back to his oldest son.

Dean nods. "Yes, sir. The guns are in the trunk, and I took a down payment on the cash he took," Dean responds tiredly.

"Alright, I want you to bring in the equipment and get it checked out," John orders.

"Yes, sir," Dean replies, moving immediately towards the door.

"Hey, Dean?" John calls softly, and Dean turns back, hand on the doorknob.

"Yes, sir?"

"Thanks for bringing him home."

Dean feels something clench inside of him, wants to warn John about the rocky road they're all headed down, but he can't bring himself to do it. Instead he offers a wan smile and heads out to the car, his heart heavy.

Sam hears the creak of John's boots on the floor of the hall and his mouth goes dry. Still, he steels himself for the confrontation. Just take it one day at a time, he tells himself, breath rushing out as John shoves opens the bedroom door, making no pretense of knocking this time. 

Sam's sitting on his bed, shoulders hunched over, his shaggy head hanging down guiltily. He glances up at John with large, pleading eyes.  "Dad, I'm sorry," he repeats helplessly, when his dad comes to stand in front of him.

"So you've said," John says, casting a wary eye down on his son. "But it doesn't excuse what you did, Samuel. And frankly, I'm having a hell of a time figuring you out these days."  His dad sounds weary, and a touch cynical.

Sam's vision blurs as he blinks back tears. He hates that he still needs his father's approval, but can't deny that there's still a part of him that bleeds every time his father looks at him with disappointment in his eyes.

"Dad, I won't do it again," he blurts out contritely.

"You won't do it again?!" John echoes, a hint of scorn coloring his voice. "That's what you said the last time you ran off, Sammy!" He shakes his head decisively. "I am just so sick of this!"

Sam doesn't know how to respond to the tiredness in John's voice. He concentrates hard, trying not to let on how much his father's words are hurting him.

John sees those hard blinks and stops himself. He's a kid, not a soldier, John reminds himself. 

"Stand up," John says curtly, instructing Sam to drop his jeans and bend over the bed.

Sam obeys, legs shaking as he leans over the bed, face down, gripping the blanket tightly in his hands. He hears the jingle of John's buckle as he takes off his belt and forgets to breathe.

"I know Dean already laid into you pretty good last night, and that is the only reason I'm not gonna whip you raw myself. Still, we've got a few things to discuss," John states evenly, folding his belt in half.

"Yes, sir," Sam responds stiffly.

"Tell me what you've learned from all this," John demands as he positions himself behind his son.

"Not to take off without telling you where I'm going," Sam says, wanting to get the worst crimes out of the way early.

"There's a good reason I don't want you wandering around alone after dark and you know it," John reiterates, raising the belt to shoulder height.

The strap cracks down, and Sam cries out in pain, eyes squinching tightly shut. He immediately clamps his lips together in a tight grimace, breathing hard as seven more stripes of red hot pain lance across his hindquarters.

"What else?" John asks, outwardly unmoved by the boy's obvious discomfort.

"Don't lie," Sam hisses, voice rough.  He can't help tensing up as the belt comes whistling down twice more, the intense sting making it hard to think straight.  Fuck that hurts!

"What else?" John's voice cuts through the buzz of pain in Sam's head with a cold clarity and he swallows hard, forcing himself to answer his father.

"Don't s-steal from you or Dean," Sam hisses out between gritted teeth.  He lets out two hearty yells as the belt bites into his butt twice more, not sure how much more of this he can take.

"Is that all?" John questions sternly.

"I'm s-sorry!!" Sam finally wails, unable to hold back the broken sobs any longer.

John drops the belt next to the bed, and places his hand tentatively on Sam's upper back, his palm warm and steady against his son's shaking form.

Sam struggles against the urge to turn and bury himself in his father's arms. Instead, he chokes out "Can I get up now?"

"Yes," John says immediately, heart aching as Sam staggers away from him, hitching his jeans up brutally over his abused flesh, flinching quietly at the pain.

"You're grounded for a month," John states as he rethreads his belt back into his jeans, flicking his gaze to Sam who is still hiding his head in his hands, shaking with suppressed sobs.

John buckles his belt and stands a moment, running a hand over his haggard face as he studies his weeping child. He takes a step towards Sam, putting his hand on the quivering shoulder and gently guiding his tall son into a secure embrace. This time Sam doesn't have the strength to resist. He buries his head into John's shoulder, letting out a few tight sobs.

"Hey, hey, hey," John croons as he hugs Sam softly, running a hand though the boy's long, shaggy hair as he waits for Sam to calm.

Sam doesn't anything, just clutches his father's shirt in his large hands, gripping hard as if trying to leech some of the hunter's strength. He's so tired and he feels broken.

"Talk to me, Sammy," John entreats as Sam's sobs slow to the occasional sniffle. "What's going on with you, bud? Why are you doing this?"

"It's s-school…" Sam gulps out, in spite of himself.

"What? This graduation thing?" John asks, holding his son tightly in his arms.

Sam lets out a small sob, unable to answer and John uses a thumb to massage Sam's neck, slowly loosening  the tense muscles.  

"I've been thinking, kiddo," John starts, a little awkwardly. "If you really want to, we can stick around an extra week instead of leaving right after the last day of classes. I know you've worked hard for that award and I understand how much you really want to do the college thing. I'm sorry it's not going to work out…"

Sam turns away from his dad sharply, stiffening up once again.

"Sammy…" John coaxes, rubbing his son's back.

Sam nods tightly, and a sad smile appears on John's face. .He gives the boy a tight squeeze before pulling Sam in to kiss his sweaty temple, the way he used to when the boys were younger and more open to such displays of affection.

"I wish it could be some other way, son, but we have a job to do," John says, a trifle more sternly, giving Sam a final pat on the back. "You're still on restriction, Samuel."

"Yes, sir," Sam whispers, because he knows it would be crazy to say anything else. Besides, at this point it really doesn't really matter, Sam thinks sadly.

"Alright, go lie down," John orders. "I'll wake you when dinner gets here."

Sam nods, feeling tired, wrung out. He slides onto his bed on his stomach, drawing a couple of shaky breaths and closing his eyes.

John lingers a moment over his baby boy, before he goes quietly to the door, closing it softly behind him.

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