Author's Note: This was written for the prompt 'Bedtime' on the 50 Prompts page.


Of Dreams and Nightmares


"Christ." Bobby looks over to where John Winchester's sitting in the corner of the study. The hunter's scowling face can barely be seen above the piles of worn books and files that decorate every inch of flat surface. "You call this a system? I can't make heads or tails of this mess."

Bobby grunts. "Yeah, because that serial killer wallpaper approach of yours is so much better."

"Damn right it is," John mutters. Dean and him have been for three days now, and John still hasn't found the information he's looking for in Singer's teeming library, some mention in the old tomes that will link the electrical storms he's been tracking to that demonic son of a bitch.

"Be a sight easier if you'd tell me what you're looking for," Bobby says, now eyeing the man with frustration. Winchester's a fine hunter, but the former Marine's close-mouthed tendencies often make Singer long to fill his hide with buckshot.

"I'll know when I find it." John shuts the volume in front of him, coughs slightly at the rising dust. They've been cooped up in the small space all morning, and his legs are starting to ache. He rubs a hand over his unshaven chin. "Let's get out of here for a while, get some air."

The two hunters end up walking outside, blinking as they emerge from the darkness of the small house and into the South Dakota sun. The heat of summer is easing off as they near the end of September, the warm days punctuated by increasingly cold nights. It's still pleasant, though, and they leave Rumsfeld to his nap on the porch, wind their way through the salvage yard to the small clearing where the younger Winchester is training with the crossbow.

Bobby frowns at the sight. Something's missing here, and it's not just Dean's little brother trailing at his heels. Boy's a mite quiet, but it's more than that. It's those eyes, Singer thinks. Not even a spark when Bobby mentioned his makeshift flame-thrower, and that's just plain wrong. Nope, the piss and vinegar's gone out of the kid, no doubt about it, and it's apt to get him killed. He watches Dean absently pick up the crossbow, drawing the arrow back with a definite lack of enthusiasm. Bobby's seen enough.

"Can I speak plain here?" Bobby asks, adjusting his cap as they stare into the field.

"Can I stop you?" John squints in the bright light, watches grimly as Dean draws and releases repeatedly, two of the arrows flying wide.

"None of my business - "

John's frown darkens. "You're right; it isn't."

" – but I love these boys like my own. Sam's gone, and maybe there ain't nothin' to be done about that just now," he says, watching a muscle jump in the other man's jaw. "But that boy is still here. He's missing his brother; doesn't need to be missing you, too."

John stiffens, and Bobby's reminded of why other hunters don't tangle with the man. "What are you talking about?" Winchester asks coldly, sparing the salvage man an impatient look.

"I'm talking about you having your head so far up your ass you can't see what's right in front of you," Bobby tells him. "You ain't noticed the hours he's keeping? Kid's as like to fall over as hit a target."

"Dean's fine," John retorts, even as guilt pierces his conscience, has him taking a second look at the twenty-two year-old. Dean's been quieter than usual, that's for sure; less smartass, less attitude. He hasn't had to take the kid to task since – well, in weeks. Since Sam. As usual, the thought of his youngest fills the hunter with an angry ache. He doesn't know whether to feel relieved the boy's out of this life, or betrayed that Sam wanted out.

Bobby scoffs. John Winchester might be a stubborn son of a bitch, but he's far from stupid. "Right. Those two were thicker than fleas on a dog; you really think Dean's happier on his own?"

"He's not on his own," John growls, watching Dean reload the crossbow.

Bobby lifts a brow. "He know that?"

*********************************

"Dean."

Dean bites back a groan at his father's voice. Bad enough, missing his shots, but missing in front of the older hunter brings a whole new level of suck to the moment. His dad doesn't have much tolerance for mistakes, especially when their lives are at stake. "Dude, look alive; this stuff's important." Thing is, nothing's as important as it used to be with Sam gone. Everything Dean's done – hell, everything he's tried to do - and his little brother's still more than half-way across the country, still ignoring Dean's messages. Pouting always was the kid's specialty.

Especially when Sam's feeling wronged.

"Come on, Dean, how can you defend him?" The tone was scathing, but it was the accusation in Sam's eyes that hurt; more than Dean wants to admit. Hasn't he always looked out for Sam? So why the surprise that Dean might be worried, too? They see a lot of dangerous shit on the job, and in Dean's mind, staying alive pretty much trumps anything they teach in college. Besides, John needs them. Even if he is too stubborn to admit it. Dean releases the breath he's been holding, turns to find his father and Bobby standing on the edge of the field. Lowering the crossbow, he trudges toward the men, lifting his chin as nears. "Hey."

John's eyes assess the young man, notes the weary apprehension hiding behind the boy's steady gaze. Kid thinks he's about to take a hit here. And why wouldn't he? You haven't exactly been a ray of sunshine these last few weeks, Winchester. "Little off your game," he remarks. "You feeling okay?" He lifts a hand to feel Dean's forehead, but the boy's already stepping from reach.

"Yes, sir." A dull flush creeps into Dean's cheeks. His father's hardly glanced at him in weeks, the inattention a welcome relief. His dad sees through him all too easily, knows him too well. "Was up a little late, going over the file from Caleb." That much is true, thank god. Sam's always been the smart one, the one good with the books and research. And now Sam's gone, and there's only Dean to fill up the empty spaces.

"The hunt will wait; sleep won't. You know better," John tells him gruffly, taking in the dark circles under Dean's eyes. How long have those been there?

Dean straightens at the reprimand, mentally kicking himself for allowing fatigue to effect his performance. He does know better, should be better; the older hunter is counting on him for back-up. If he's not careful here, his father is going to start asking questions, and Dean doesn't even want to think about that conversation. "Sorry, sir."

John frowns, sensing the kid's withdrawal. He hasn't seen this look in years. "You know I'm not stupid." "I know you're not. But it only takes one mistake, you got that?" "Just watch the clock." It's a mild enough censure, and Dean's face relaxes a bit. John's encouraged. "I don't want to see you this tired again."

"You won't," Dean says, relieved that the subject seems to be at an end. He shrugs. "Turning in early tonight."

"Make sure you do," John says dryly. "You keep up with this schedule and I'll be the one wearing you out." His mouth quirks slightly when Dean's eyes widen; it's not often he catches his oldest off-guard. "Hey. Can't have my second in command drumming himself out of the ranks."

Why not? You let it happen to Sam, says that traitorous little voice in Dean's head; the one he spends so much time silencing lately. Then again, Sam always did know which buttons to push to bring out the worst in the man. Dean glances over at Bobby, the good-natured humor creasing the hunter's weathered face. Research must be going well, then. Somehow Dean manages to find his voice. "Guess not," he agrees carefully.

"Okay, then."

Dean offers the men a small smile and turns to resume his practice, only to feel his shoulder caught in a firm grasp. He turns to face Bobby, meeting the man's twinkling eyes with a questioning look.

"Wrong way, son," Bobby drawls.

"Training's over today," John informs the puzzled kid. "Go get some of that sleep you were talking about."

Dean huffs, uncertain. Since when do they pass on training? Hell, if he took a nap every time he was tired… "C'mon; it's just - "

"Dean." It's a single word, but a fortress all the same. Impenetrable. Dean fights the urge to sigh.

"Fine," he replies, a little sharper than intended as Bobby's hand leaves his shoulder. He's just starting to head for the house when his father liberates the crossbow from his grip, his hand smacking solidly against the seat of Dean's jeans. Deans startles, his gaze darting apprehensively to the older hunter.

John levels a mock stern look on his son, hopes the boy will get the message. Dean appears stunned for a moment, then smiles shyly. John doesn't blame the kid for being wary. The older man's not much for play these days, especially when there's work to be done. Too many jobs, and not enough time between, although there's more action and less talk since Sam… The thought of his youngest sobers John instantly. Unfortunately, Dean's train of thought seems to be running on similar rails, because suddenly the boy's mouth is tightening, Dean nodding his compliance again before turning and heading for his room.

"Don't even say it," John warns Bobby, as he and the other hunter watch the young man walk up to the house. You're 0 for 2, Winchester. He's been so preoccupied, he's let Dean slip from radar.

"Wasn't going to," Bobby says, sounding affronted.

"Stubborn kid." John tucks the crossbow up under his arm, running his free hand along the back of his neck. Dean's not a talker; not like Sam. Kid will be wanting to work this through on his own. And if he can't – well, John will just have to force the issue.

"Don't know where he gets it."

John pauses, casts Bobby a shrewd look. "That mouth is gonna find you trouble, Singer."

"Yep," says the man, smirking as John turns and starts back across the yard. "Usually does."

***************************************

Dean runs a hand over still-damp hair, stares at the text with bleary eyes. Damn he's tired, but no use in lying down again. He'll only be back up, the self-loathing stronger than ever. He sighs, flips another page. Boring, esoteric crap. Esoteric crap that could save your ass, Dean reminds himself. Sam's underlined most of the key information, though, stuff he and Dad might find useful on the job.

He wonders what Sam's doing in California, if he's keeping up with salting the doors and windows, setting the simple protective wards John's drilled into them since they were old enough to wield Crayolas. Dean remembers how excited Sam was when a waitress first gave him a box, the gap-toothed smile when he held the bright blue crayon to the light.

"Damn it, Sam," he mutters, rubbing at his right eye with the heel of his palm. "And damn him, too."

***************************************

"Never thought I'd see the day Dean was late for a meal." Bobby sets the plate of country ham on the table, shiny with the salty broth of grease and coffee. He's compensated for the arterial sabotage with a bowl of boiled vegetables. Two oughta cancel each other out.

John grimaces as he reaches for a napkin. "He's angry." Not so surprising he hasn't noticed before now. No tantrums, no angry recriminations like there would be with Sam; just quiet, and lots of it. Then again, quiet rebellion's something Dean's always been good at.

Singer's lip curls beneath the mustache. "Oh, you just getting that?"

John shoots the man a dark look. If there's a god, he's sent Bobby Singer to be a thorn in his ass. "He'll get over it."

"Uh, huh," Bobby says, pulling out his own chair. "How do you figure?"

"I'm his father; he'll do what I tell him."

Bobby snorts. "Yeah, because that's worked so well for you so far." He reaches to take the ham from Winchester, before the other hunter decides to flatten him with it. "Maybe it's time to explore your cuddly side."

"I don't have a cuddly side," John growls, saved from further idiocy when Dean shuffles into the small kitchen, scooting behind John's chair to take the seat next to his father. "You're late."

Dean gives Bobby a rueful smile as he reaches for a piece of bread. "Sorry, Bobby."

Unlike the older Winchester, it's damn near impossible to resist this one's charm. And damned if he don't know it, too. "You just make sure you don't disappear when it's time to clean up," Bobby warns, but the kid's smile only widens. It's still just a shadow of Dean's usual grin, but it's something, and the salvage man is used to working with what he can find.

The table goes silent as the hunters get down to eating, tucking away the ham and slathered bread with a muted enthusiasm. Bobby's not much of a cook, but he makes up for it with generous portions that come hot and stick to their stomachs.

John's half-way through his third piece of ham and a second slice of bread when he finds himself studying his son. Even after the nap, the kid looks pale and tired. He notes the small, green globes that Singer dropped to the side of Dean's plate remain untouched. "Eat your vegetables."

"What?" If it's possible, Dean would swear his father blushes.

"You look like crap; they're good for – just eat them," John finishes curtly.

Dean glances at Bobby, but the other man seems mesmerized with buttering a piece of bread. Nope, he's on his own here. His brow furrows as his gaze returns to his dad. "I don't eat Brussels sprouts."

"Maybe that's the problem. Nothing wrong with putting something green in your body for a change." John spears a bite of the vegetable and pops it into his mouth for emphasis. Christ, it's vile. He doesn't remember the grub they came by in Nam as being this foul. Still, like the soldier he is, he determinedly chews and swallows, then raises his brows at his son, waiting for Dean to do the same.

Still dubious, Dean follows suit, trying not to twist his lips at the taste. "Mmm," he murmurs weakly, chewing without enthusiasm. His father seems satisfied, though, and nods his approval before going back to his dinner. Trying not to gag, Dean spits the remaining vegetable into his napkin the first chance he gets. He doesn't fail to notice later when clearing the table that several of the disgusting miniature cabbages remain in the chipped serving dish.

"You wanna save these?" he asks Bobby.

The salvage man shrugs. "Never touch the stuff myself; tastes like sewage." He smirks at the twin scowls the admission nets him, settles his cap a little lower on his forehead as he pushes back from the table. "Anyone drinking coffee besides me?"

"I'll drink a few cups," Dean says, emptying the last of the vegetables into the trash and setting the dish into the half-filled sink.

"Not tonight, you won't," John tells him, rising to hand the kid his own plate and silverware. "New house rules; you're in bed at nine."

Dean scoffs. "Nine? I haven't gone to bed at nine since I was nine."

"And?" John asks pointedly, his dark eyes leveling on the boy in paternal challenge. He knows he's won when Dean blinks, shakes his head.

"Nothing, sir. Just a swell little trip down memory lane," Dean mutters, turning on the tap. Terrific. First Sam up and leaves, and now Dean is Sam. Since when does he need babysitting? He's been his father's right-hand man for as long as he can remember; Sam's the one that needs looking after. So what the hell are we doing here?

************************************************

It's not like a dream he has after a bad hunt, when Dean wakes already halfway to his feet, fingers wound tightly around the base of his Bowie knife. No, he wakes the same way he usually does these last few weeks, to the heavy drumming of his heart, his skin chilled and damp from his own sweat and tears. He blinks in the darkness, eyes moving through the cramped, attic room and over to the small window. Outside the stars have turned, and the sky is lighter; must be early still.

Dean drags in a shaky breath, tries to quell his racing vitals. That's it. No amount of sleep is worth putting up with this crap, and certainly not the hour or two he's managed to get here. After a minute he sits up, pausing as he swings his feet to the floor. No footsteps or muted voices float from below; the older men must still be sleeping. Satisfied his patterings won't be detected, Dean rises, picking up the thick Solomonic grimoire he's been reading from the small table beside the bed. He switches on the lamp, settling into the worn armchair he's pulled from the corner, and waits for sounds of life from below.

************************************************

"You ready for some exercise?" John asks, biting back a smile as Dean's head jerks up from where he's finishing waxing the Impala. Caught off guard, then. The hunter wonders if any flesh and blood woman will ever inspire that kind of devotion in the boy. She'll have to be a classic.

Dean tosses the cheesecloth he's holding onto the pile of old terry towels he keeps for this task and glances up at his father, afternoon sunlight glinting from his short-cropped hair. "What'd you have in mind?"

John stretches, pretends to consider. Another day of spent buried under a mountain of dusty books has him a little stir-crazy. "Knives?" He expects some resistance; Dean's mostly trained with Sam these last few years, but the kid merely shrugs.

"Rumsfeld chained?"

John snorts. Last time he feigned an attack on the boy, the animal nearly took a chunk out of his hide before Singer called him off. Of course, the salvage man seemed to take his sweet time about it, too. "Yeah. And don't think I haven't seen you sneaking that dog sausage. Bobby catches you, you're gonna find yourself on permanent KP."

Dean smirks. "Who do you think told me he likes it?"

Shaking his head, John goes to retrieve the weapons from his truck, and Dean waits until the man's obscured by the open compartment before taking a moment to slump against the Impala. The heat's making him almost dizzy today, and he snags his water bottle from the ground, takes a few sips. He splashes some on his face for good measure, breathes deep, and by the time his father's gathered the equipment, he's steady on his feet again.

They walk to a cleared space in the yard, take their weapons and step apart. Dean tightens his fingers around his blade in a hammer grip, his body instinctively moving into the combat stance he's adapted for these drills. There's a slight tremor to his weapon, and Dean locks his wrist. He blinks, tries to focus his too dry eyes on the practiced advances of his father as they circle.

"You're too open; get that knife up."

The command shakes Dean from his momentary stupor. Flushing, he does as ordered, careful to keep the weapon between him and the ex-Marine, his shield hand hovering near his chest to protect his vitals. They do some long range play, trading forward and reverse grips, warming to the exercise, then move on to the drills.

Dean paces himself through the slash and punching combinations, determined to ignore the wavering of his peripheral vision. His father hasn't even broken a sweat, and there's no way Dean's about to cry off now. He keeps the wrist of his weapon hand flexible as John takes up the reverse grip and moves into position for one of their defensive drills.

"You look nervous," John says, a predatory smile curling his lips.

"Bring it on, old man." Dean doesn't rise to the bait. It takes all his concentration just to track the older man's moves. He hovers on the balls of his feet as his father attempts to close the distance between them, evading the man's high stab with an attempted slash to his weapon hand.

"Too slow," John warns, flipping to a forward grip as he moves into their stab and counter stance. He's not smiling anymore, his brows drawn together in suspicion. Something's off here; this stuff oughta be old hat for him. His discerning eye takes in the faint shine of perspiration on the boy's skin, and his gut urges caution as he and Dean begin a back and forth exercise, falling into several step exchanges of stabs and parries, varying the angles and footwork in an elaborate dance.

Dean doesn't know how it happens; maybe it's the warm air, or the comfortable one-two rhythm of the drill, but suddenly time slows for him. He's taking his stab at his father when the man parries and catches Dean on the half-beat. One moment Dean's being hacked aside, and the next his father's knife is catching the forearm of his weapon hand, leaving a thin line of blood welling in its wake.

"Damn it, Dean," John growls, sheathing his own blade and moving to the kid's side. If he hadn't pulled back in time… "Let me see." He doesn't wait for Dean to offer up the arm, just takes the boy by the wrist and pulls the arm forward. It's hardly more than a scratch; God knows Dean's had worse. Never should've happened, though. Cutting the weapon hand is the oldest method of disabling an opponent known to man, and if the paling of Dean's face is any indication, the kid damn well knows it.

"It's nothing – we can - "

"Training's over," John tells him, for the second time in two days. "Get on up to the house."

************************************************

"You're lucky that's only a graze," John says, his harsh tone belied by the careful swipe of disinfectant to Dean's forearm. Years of running drills paid off when it counted, and John's blade barely nicked the skin, the bleeding stayed with just a bit of pressure. Still, not much of a comfort when Dean could make the same mistake on the job.

Dean shifts uncomfortably on Bobby's kitchen chair and quietly endures his father's ministrations. He's more than a little embarrassed at having John fussing over him like a kid with skinned knees, and even more embarrassed that Bobby's here to see it. It's not like it's the first time one of them has been injured during training, and it won't be the last.

"You can't afford to be slow. You catch up on that sleep yesterday?" John asks, tossing away the stained dressing as Singer closes up his first aid kit and replaces it under his sink. The man hasn't uttered more than a handful of words since John and Dean returned to the house. The other hunter might be sympathetic to the boy, but when it comes to safety, John has his complete support.

Dean shrugs, looks away. "You saw me go to bed."

John's gaze sharpens on the dark smudges beneath his son's eyes. Back to stab and counter, then. "What time you fall asleep?

Dean squirms in his seat again. He's a master of the quick lie, the evasion, the con; used to keeping his thoughts to himself. But he wavers under his father's intense scrutiny.

"I don't know." Great. He'll never see through that.

"What was the last time you checked your watch?" John persists, obviously immune to Dean's brilliant obfuscations.

"Uh, yeah. Four."

John frowns and folds his arms. "Yesterday afternoon?"

"This morning." The older hunter looks disappointed at the news, and Dean's chest tightens. What does it matter? Whatever he does, it won't be enough; won't bring Sam back, or make them a family again. Realizing first aid is over, Dean pushes back from the table and stands up, feeling better able to defend himself when on his feet.

"You were up at dawn. Not exactly the kind of rest you need for a hunt." John lets the statement fall on silence, waiting for Dean to confide in him, offer some sort of explanation for his actions. The kid's not disobedient just for the hell of it; knows the value of following orders.

Dean fights a rising agitation. He's a grown man, for crying out loud; a hunter. He can go without a few hours sleep. He makes a conscious effort to keep his hands from tightening into fists. "Sir, with all due respect…"

"Yeah," John replies, raising his brows in anticipation.

"I'm good to go. Even if I do get injured, Bobby or Caleb can always take my place."

Bobby winces as Winchester's eyes narrow dangerously. Like gas to a fire. He wonders if Dean's going to have to hide behind Rumsfeld tonight.

"That so?" John asks, in a deceptively mild tone. "And what if I don't think you're replaceable?"

Dean blinks, confusion dissolving his previous irritation. "I don't - "

"No," says John firmly, tempted to haul the kid over his knee then and there. "This discussion is over. We've got nothing so urgent that you need to be running yourself into the ground; thought I made that pretty clear yesterday. I want you in your room - I'll bring up dinner later." He pins Dean with a warning look when the kid would protest. The green eyes spark indignantly, but the boy refrains from interrupting. Satisfied, John continues. "After you eat, I want you sleeping.

Dean can't quite hide his dismay at being sent to bed like some cranky toddler. "It's not even dark."

"Good. That means you'll get plenty of sleep, right?" John asks. His son doesn't reply, but he blushes furiously, and John watches him struggle to contain his frustration. The display of temper is unusual for Dean, and John recognizes how truly fatigued the kid must be. "I'll be in later to check on you, and you'd better be asleep."

"Yes, sir," Dean replies tightly, and with a quick glance at Bobby, the kid stalks out of the cluttered kitchen.

"That didn't sit well," Singer remarks, as they listen to Dean march upstairs.

"Neither will he if he keeps it up," John grumbles. He's not done raising the boy yet; that much is obvious.

"C'mon, Johnny." The other hunter claps John on the shoulder as he heads for the refrigerator. "Boy's on his way to a good night's rest. Time for a beer and some rest of our own."

Some of the tension eases from John's shoulders, and his mouth twists wryly. The suggestion has appeal. With Sam gone, he doesn't sleep all that well himself.

*********************************

John creeps downstairs, careful to miss the creaking seventh step as he descends into what Singer calls his parlor. He might not have bothered. The other hunter is kicked back in one of the old chairs nursing a longneck, watching the ex-Marine with amusement. John clears his throat, pretending he hasn't just been caught hovering. "Didn't see you there."

Bobby nods. "Too busy bein' quiet," he drawls slyly, stretching his legs out in front of the fire. The nights get cool now, and both men like the easy companionship in watching the crackling flames. "You look in on your pup?"

"Knocked out," John replies, unable to keep the satisfaction from his voice.

Bobby chuckles. "Boy's pulled the wool over your eyes."

John's brow furrows. "How?"

"Hell, Rumsfeld hears him prowling around up there right now," Bobby says, nodding at the dark beast snoring at the foot of the stove.

John snorts. "Rumsfeld's had more than you."

Bobby scratches his chin. "What's your point?"

John's about to reply when there's the barely audible sound of footsteps from above, and Rumsfeld cocks an ear in his sleep and whines.

"What'd I tell you?" Bobby asks, taking another pull off his beer.

John looks at the ceiling and frowns. Even as a little boy, bedtime wasn't something Dean fought him on; John's oldest might be active, but the kid loves to sleep. Or at least he used to. Whatever this is, it needs dealing with, and no time like the present. He treads upstairs again, pausing outside Bobby's guest room, then silently eases the door open. Dean's bed, as told, is empty. A glance toward the other side of the room finds his son flipping through one of Bobby's old texts.

The boy's wearing an old t-shirt and his flannel pants, his feet bare as he pads back and forth reading, seemingly oblivious to the cold. With his tousled hair and unguarded features, he looks painfully young to the ex-Marine, closer to adolescence than the already seasoned years of a hunter. John holds back a sigh, the edges of his irritation soothed by gruff affection. Singer's right; for better or worse, Sam is gone. And John will have to bear that burden. But he still has one son he can protect.

"You should be wearing shoes," John says quietly.

Dean startles, the book in his hands dropping to the floor. He flushes guiltily, his eyes lifting to John's. "Ah; well. It's not what you think," he says quickly.

"Oh?" John asks, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. He moves across the room and takes a seat on the kid's rumpled bed. "So you didn't just pretend to be asleep when I checked on you?"

Dean hopes the dim light hides his hot face as he reaches to pick the heavy volume up from the floor and set it on the chair. Second in command, and caught up after bedtime. Smooth. "It's what you think," he admits, hardly able to look at the older man. "Sorry; it won't happen again."

"No," agrees John, noting Dean's distress and making a decision. "It won't." He crooks a finger and beckons to the boy. "C'mere, son."

"Sir?"

John rests his hands on his knees, meeting the kid's confusion with a patient gaze. "Already said I couldn't have you drummed out; this'll have to do."

Dean's stomach flips as he realizes his father's intent. Please let me be dreaming again. "I thought you were kidding." Sam had never gotten too old for this treatment, but his father hasn't spanked him in – well, months, anyway, and that's only counting a few token swats for language.

"You thought wrong. What we do is too dangerous; you can't see reason, I'll give you a hand." John congratulates himself on the clever entendre.

"But - " Dean bites his lip. The proposed humiliation is unthinkable, but he's too ashamed to commit any further defiance.

"But what?" John prompts, hoping that the threat of an impending spanking will be enough to produce a confession from the twenty-two year-old. Maybe Singer's right, and he should be doing more of that touchy-feely crap with the boy. But that's always been Sam's thing, not theirs, and John and Dean – well, they understand each other just fine without it. Well, until now, anyway.

Dean swallows, his throat as dry as a stone. "I'm not a kid."

John leans forward onto his knees. It's an old and familiar argument, the one Dean's been toting out since he was thirteen and believed himself much too old for a paternal butt-warming. But the hunter knows this script well, and so does Dean, and John has no intention of going improv here. "You're my kid. And I've been distracted lately, or this never would have gone so far. The running yourself ragged crap ends now." John sits up and pats his thigh. "C'mon, let's just get it over with."

Unwilling to fail his father further, Dean forces himself to cross the distance between them, moving slowly to John's right side. He stares at the man's lap, suddenly unable to continue.

"Dean," John says, when the kid hesitates. "You got something you wanna tell me?"

Dean grimaces, his momentary lapse dispelled by John's rumbling voice. "Sorry. It's been a while."

"Too long," John remarks wryly. So they're doing this the hard way, then. Can't hurt to reset the boundaries. "Okay, then. Pajamas down, and over my knee."

Suppressing a groan, Dean unties the drawstring of his bottoms and pushes them down over his hips, then quickly lowers himself over his father's lap. Ironically, he's pretty comfortable, his upper body firmly supported by the bed. John adjusts him slightly, then reaches to pull the pants down to the kid's knees.

"Do you need me to hold your hands?" John asks. He's never demanded complete self-control from the boys, as that shouldn't be possible with a good spanking. Both his sons do plenty of squirming in this position, and he doesn't expect that to change.

Dean's convinced he's never blushed this much in his entire life. "No, sir," he replies, folding his arms and burying his face in them. Surely he and Dad have done this enough times that he won't completely disgrace himself. A lump comes to his throat. A better soldier would never find himself in this position, would never let a stupid dream keep him from following orders. He had acted like a kid; no wonder his father's disappointed.

John doesn't draw it out, just raises his hand and lights in spanking, the swats falling at a steady, measured pace. There's a slight hiss of indrawn breath from Dean, but the kid holds his position, and the hunter can't decide if that makes him sad or proud. He wants – no, needs his boys to be strong, and he won't be making any apologies for that. But being self-sufficient isn't the same thing as being alone, and John wonders if he should have made the distinction. Frowning, he tightens an arm around Dean's waist, hoping the boy will find some comfort in the contact.

For several minutes there's nothing but the sound of calloused palm smacking bare skin bouncing from the nearby walls, and Dean shifts restlessly over his father's lap, tries to ignore the rising heat licking up the backs of his thighs, the stinging of his behind. He finally lets exhaustion call to him, lets himself retreat into the shadows of his consciousness. The weight of his father's arm, the smarting punishment, Sam; all still here, but at a distance now, bearable.

"You know better, Dean," John scolds the kid, although his heart isn't in it. The boy's backside is a radiant pink and must burn like hell, but there's none of the usual confessions or pleas for clemency. The hunter can't remember the last time he felt this useless. First Sam, now Dean. "Almost over," John murmurs thickly, lightening his swats. "You're doing real good, champ."

The softly-uttered praise jerks Dean from the darkness, back into the blazing pain of light and fire. This isn't the familiar cadence of his commanding officer, the one he hears so often since Sam's been gone. This is his father, whose roughened hands have nursed him through fevers and stitched his wounds. Who's returning his repeated defiance with gentle encouragement. Dean shudders, hot tears suddenly trickling against his folded arms.

"Dad." The small word is enough to take John out by the knees. He realizes he can't remember when Dean last used the term, wonders how much more he's missed since he let Sam walk out the door.

"Yeah, Dean," he assures the boy, somehow finding his voice. "Still here." He lands the last few spanks to Dean's tender sit-spots, sighing in relief when the kid bursts into ragged sobs. He ends the spanking then, resting his smarting hand on his son's hot behind. His other hand reaches over to stroke Dean's hair. "Shhhh. S'all over, kiddo."

"I - I'm s-sorry, sir," Dean gets out, burying deeper into his arms, desperate to stifle his sobs. He struggles for a coherent explanation for his behavior, but the scorching heat from his backside consumes all thought. "I didn't mean – I mean, I w-wouldn't - " The words are blurted on their own accord, and Dean's not even sure what the hell he's trying to say, but his father seems to get it anyway.

"I know you didn't. Forgiven and forgotten, so hush now; just breathe." John moves his stroking hand to the boy's back in an attempt to soothe him. After a minute or two, the hitched breathing seems to quiet, and Dean lies limp across his lap.

"You know why that just happened?" John asks gruffly, still letting the kid feel his presence.

"Because - I didn't follow orders," Dean chokes, dismay returning along with a new wash of tears.

"No, Dean," John says, hoping like hell his son will know where he's coming from here; that he won't make him spell it out. "Not for that, son, although it will if this gets to be a habit. It happened because you didn't mind your dad."

The words wring more tears from Dean's blurry eyes, but he's too tired to care. He lies slumped over John's thighs, drawing comfort from the man's solid strength. He aches wretchedly, but something in his chest feels looser, makes breathing easier. The warm hand circling his shoulders is coaxing him into heavy, peaceful lethargy the same way it did when he was a kid. He's too old for lap-sitting now – just hell, no – but he allows himself a small measure of contentment in the contact before pride demands he remove himself.

"Can I get up now?" he asks hoarsely.

"Sure," John replies, keeping a hand out to steady the boy as Dean eases stiffly from his lap and turns away, drawing his sleep pants gingerly over his bright red backside. John stands as well, pulling back the covers on the bed. This isn't the end of it, the hunter's sure of that, but they're not going to be making any more headway until Dean gets some sleep. "Get on in there; you've put this off way too long."

Dean doesn't protest this time, just crawls between the sheets, careful to remain on his side and avoid any contact to his punished behind. The kid looks lost in all those covers, and John takes a seat on the edge of the bed, thumbs a tear from beneath the swollen eyes.

Dean risks a glance at the older hunter, caught off guard by the indulgent curve to his father's mouth. "What?" he asks, brow crinkled.

"You gonna sleep now that you've had your spanking?" John teases, "Or do I bring on the drummers?" He's surprised to find himself holding his breath, waiting for the boy's reply.

"Should've offered that choice to begin with," Dean grumbles, suddenly drowsy as he hasn't been in days. Getting spanked always has made him sleep like the dead, although he's smart enough not to mention that to his father.

John chuckles at the plaintive response, his deft fingertips now brushing over the kid's tear-streaked face. "Hey, now, what kind of strategist does that?" He pauses. "Close your eyes."

"Sir?"

"I'm staying a while. Sleep, Dean."

***********************************

It's like surfacing, as Dean jolts from sleep with a suffocating gasp. He shivers, blinks the perspiration from his eyes, then suddenly recognizes the pain flaring from his scalded behind. He yelps and rolls to his side, startling again when John's large hand falls to his shoulder.

"Whoa; take it easy," John soothes, keeping his voice low as he leans over the boy. "You're a little shaky." Dean's distress had roused him from his armchair vigil. It's not the first time one of the boys has had a nightmare, although Sam's always seemed more susceptible to these things.

"No," Dean denies, grateful his father has already turned on a lamp, creating a small pool of light. He takes a trembling breath. "It'll stop."

"Had this dream before?" John asks, his thumb rubbing over the kid's collarbone.

"I guess." Dean closes his eyes, not able to face the older hunter's reaction.

"Recently." John waits expectantly, but Dean doesn't deny the assertation. John sighs, a soft echo of mingled exasperation and regret. So that's why we're not sleeping… "Something like this starts happening, you need to tell me."

The kid's eyes open again, but he still avoids John's gaze. "Look, it's no big deal; only a wuss would be scared of some nightmare."

"A wuss? Is that what you think?" John reaches over and turns Dean's face toward him, unwilling to leave room for misunderstanding here.

Dean scoffs, squirms slightly under the penetrating stare. "What else do you call a guy who's afraid of his dreams?"

"Human?" John releases Dean's chin, but continues leaning forward, his forearms now resting comfortably on his knees. "Hunters have bad dreams, Dean. You know that. No one sees the things we do and sleeps well at night."

"It's not that kind of dream," Dean confesses quietly, making intent study of the sheet beneath his fisted hand. "It's just some kiddy production."

"I'm listening."

Dean keeps staring at the plaid pattern woven into the sheet, wishing fervently he were anywhere but here. Vegas, Atlantic City – even Hoboken…

"Wouldn't think you were so eager to be over my knee again," John remarks mildly.

Dean's jaw drops at the implication. "Aw' c'mon, Dad..."

"Up to you, but I'm pretty sure my arm's gonna last longer than your behind." John's expression doesn't waver, and the kid finally sighs, obviously not up for another round of bare-bottomed persuasion.

"Fine… We're back in Galveston, okay? When we stayed so I could finish seventh grade? Sam and I are playing Hide and Seek in that boarded up house." He glances up at John again, wondering if the man remembers the forbidden childhood hiding place.

"I remember," John says. He hadn't been able to keep the boys out of that building, no matter how many times he spanked them for it.

Dean shrugs. "It's dark, and it's my turn to look for Sam, only when I look for him, he's missing… I can't find him, and we're supposed to be home." Dean gulps, his throat painfully tight. "That's it, really. It's dark, and no Sam."

John makes himself reach over, cover Dean's hand with the weight of his own. "Sam'll be back, Dean. He just needs to try this, needs some time on his own to figure things out." Some time to reconcile that his dream of picket fences and perfect families will never be a reality for them, never can be. Not until that evil son of a bitch is dead.

A frown creases the boy's face. "You really believe that?"

"Yeah, I really do." I have to. If only to ease his own conscience.

"You could've stopped him," Dean accuses, angrily dashing a tear away with the back of his free hand. It's the same little boy voice John remembers Dean using when the kid's goldfish died, and he'd wanted John to make him better. He used to be everything to the boys, when they were young; Sam, too, in those days. Doesn't know why he didn't see it. Maybe he didn't want to see it, see their eyes light up at the end of some crappy hunt, trail after him each time he drove away. The way they looked at him; like he could do anything…

John smiles sadly. "No; I couldn't." He gives the fingers beneath his a small squeeze. "You still got me."

Dean considers. "You gonna keep beating my ass?" he asks warily.

John quirks a grin at the question. "Been told I need to be more caring," he confides.

Dean groans, still all too cognizant of his aching posterior. "Your caring is gonna kill me."

"Entirely up to you," John replies cheerfully. "You think you can get some sleep now? I'm not going anywhere," he adds, before the boy can ask.

"You don't have to - "

"But I'm gonna," John tells him, giving Dean's hand a parting squeeze before getting up and switching off the light. He returns to the armchair, moving the heavy book from the seat to the bedside table and sinking into the old leather. Closing his eyes, he stretches his legs out in front of him and settles in for the night. The room grows quiet again, but the hunter can still make out the faint sound of rustling sheets. "Sleep, Dean."

"Okay, D - " Dean catches himself. "Yes, sir."

"No, Dean," John says softly, even as he hears the kid's breathing level out into a slow, steady rhythm. "You had it right the first time."

****************************

Something warm slops wetly against Dean's face. In the vague twilight between sleep and waking, it's oddly pleasant, until Dean's eyes snap open in awareness.

"Hey!" He pushes Rumsfeld's giant head away. The dog stares at him unrepentantly, tail wagging, tongue lolling, from where his giant paws rest on the edge of Dean's bed. "Get down; you know you're not supposed to be up here."

It might be Dean's imagination, but he'd swear the animal grins before dropping down to all fours and lumbering off toward the stairs. Dean grimaces, wiping the slobber from his cheek and glancing toward the empty armchair. His father's up already, then. He wonders how late it is.

He slowly sits up, wincing a little at the weight on his sore backside. Sitting in Bobby's kitchen chairs is going to suck, but Dean supposes it's an acceptable trade off for finally getting a good night's sleep. Sighing, he throws back the covers and swings his feet to the floor, hearing the distant clatter of dishes below.

"Good boy, Rumsfeld," Bobby's voice drifts up, and Dean rolls his eyes. Perfect. Even the dog's been turned against him. He changes into his clothes and stiffly makes his way downstairs, finds the two older men lingering at the kitchen table.

John looks up from his coffee. "Nice that you could join us." His dark eyes move over the boy. Dean still looks a little pale, but a few hours of sleep look to have done a world of good here.

"Thanks for the invite," Dean says, nodding at Rumsfeld, who's lying at Bobby's feet. He hesitates then, uncertain. There's a box of half-eaten donuts on the table, but the thought of sitting… His face grows hot, and he avoids looking at the hunters. In the end, the glazed rounds prove too tempting to resist. He pulls out a chair, but his father's voice stops him before he can take a seat.

"Oh, no you don't," John tells him sternly, trying not to smile when the kid's wide eyes lift to move between him and Singer. "You got work to do."

"What do you mean?"

"Heard tell of a possible job in Phoenix, want to be out of here tomorrow." John picks up his coffee, his free hand sliding a plate laden with donuts toward the boy. "Put together an inventory of all our supplies, and get me a list of anything we're low on so we can pick it up this afternoon. You wanna eat, you take your plate outside with you."

Dean straightens. "Yes, sir." So back to business, then. Good. And he'll be able to eat standing up, too. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Dean grabs the plate and heads out front, Rumsfeld trailing at his heels.

Bobby leans back in his chair and watches the boy go, smiles as Winchester lifts his coffee to his mouth. "See you found that cuddly side after all."

"Don't know what you're talking about."

Bobby raises a brow. "Inventory, John? You know what's in those trunks down to the last grain of rock salt."

Winchester swallows the last of his coffee. "So does Dean. You wanna get the rest of those books put in order, so they won't become another piece of furniture?"

"Hell, they'd be better than most my furniture," Bobby replies, as the other man pushes back from the table and makes for the study. The salvage man shakes his head. Doesn't matter how long he knows John Winchester; the man never fails to surprise. "You need some help? Got my own system going there."

"Finish your coffee; I'll figure it out."

And this time, when Winchester says it, Bobby thinks the man just might be right.

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