This fic was written for Eloise, who nurtured and wooed it like one would a timid little bunny rabbit, and never threw things at me when it wasn't finished. Thanks for everything, sweetie. J


Deep Water


"Get down!"

It happens too fast for Dean to think. The command from their father, and then the split-second that Sam hesitates in the snarling face of the charging shifter. Dean doesn't hesitate, doesn't consider. The weight of his own body knocks Sam from his feet and rolls them both into the bushes. There's the loud crack of a gunshot, and in the ensuing silence Dean feels his skin start to burn and sting, caught by the thorny branches of the shrub. He coughs some dust from his throat, rubs at his eyes. Beside him, Sam whimpers.

"You boys okay? Sammy?" John asks, dropping to his knees beside his youngest and reaching to pull him from the brush. His hands skim over him as Dean rolls to a sitting position, gritting his teeth as pain flashes in his shoulder.

"D-dad?" Sam's wide dark eyes are fearful. "It was gonna eat us," he quavers, "like it ate that lady - " The boy suddenly lurches to one side, emptying his stomach in the dirt. John keeps a gentle hand on his neck until he finishes, then pulls him into his shoulder.

"S'okay, Sammy," he murmurs, his hand rubbing over the mop of dark hair.

"The bushes cut me," the eight year-old mumbles.

John glances down at one of the boy's arms, frowns at the angry cuts and scratches marring the tender skin. "You, too?" John asks, looking over Sam's shoulder at Dean. His eldest pauses in brushing dust from his jeans, his eyes meeting John's uncertainly.

"Yes, sir."

John squints in the failing light, just making out the raised scratches on Dean's cheek and forearms. Damn ghul. The first bullet should have taken it out. He glances over his shoulder, where the buckled remains of the hyena are slowly reverting back to human form. The boys were meant to observe this hunt, not be part of the action. His jaw tightens. "Always scope out your cover, Dean," John says curtly, rising and setting Sam on his feet. He offers a hand to Dean, pulling him up as well. "Come on; let's get out of here. Pastor Jim's is just an hour away - we'll clean you up there."

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

"Do you think Pastor Jim will have cookies again?" Sam murmurs drowsily, as they make their way into the town of Blue Earth.

Dean looks down to where Sam is nestled against his shoulder, ignoring the damp spot his little brother has drooled onto his shirt. "He might," Dean replies quietly, cautious of their father's mood. The hunter hasn't said a word since they left the woods. Dean risks a glance at the rearview mirror, finds his father's brow furrowed, his stubbled jaw set tensely. A dull ache begins in Dean's stomach. He hadn't meant to get Sammy hurt. And he had scoped out their cover. But when the younger boy hadn't dropped, the force of Dean's body had sent them hurtling from their mark. Didn't matter, though. "No room for mistakes, champ." Nope. There was nothing he could say, no excuse he could give. He'd just have to do better next time.

John slowly winds his way through the few traffic lights of the small town, absently listening to the hushed conversation of the boys in the backseat. The few days at Jim's will be good for them; fresh air and room to run, a chance to be boys outside the four walls of smoke-saturated motel rooms and littered parking lots. His hand flexes on the wheel. Such simple things, things his boys should have been able to take for granted, would have been able to take for granted… He shoves down a surge of self-loathing as he waits for an old woman and her basset hound to cross the street, just picking up Sammy's latest question behind him.

"Where's Pastor Jim's wife?"

Dean's reply is longsuffering. "He doesn't have a wife, Sammy."

Sam frowns. "Why not? Doesn't he like girls?"

John blinks, his hand slipping on the wheel. The Impala's horn blares, causing the old woman crossing in front of the car to jump and glare at him. "Sorry." John lifts his hand apologetically. The white-haired lady shakes an accusing finger at him before continuing to drag the long-eared dog across the street. "It was an accident," he mutters, disgruntled.

"We know it was an accident, Dad," Sam chirps from the backseat.

John smiles, his tired eyes finding the boys in the rearview mirror. "Oh, yeah?" he asks, suddenly grateful for their innocent faith. "And how do you know that?"

"Because when you mean it, you say 'son of a - '"

There's a muffled sound as Dean's hand quickly claps over his little brother's mouth. John sighs, resisting the urge to drop his head to the steering wheel. The light changes and he pulls forward, turning onto the long, dirt road that leads to the pastor's home. He glances once more at the boys. Dean's removed his hand, and Sam's arms are crossed indignantly as he scowls at his brother through unruly bangs. No time like the present to remind them about expectations. "Boys. Pastor Jim's been kind enough to let us stay with him, so I want you both on your best behavior."

Sam's brow wrinkles. "Our best behavior for what?"

"He means don't swear, say please and thank you, and try not to break anything," Dean explains.

"And stay together," John adds on a stern note. "That river's running fast right now, and I don't want you boys near it unless I'm with you. Dean, you watch out for your brother."

"Yes, sir."

The Impala finally pulls up to Jim's modest house, birds scattering in the rising dust. The pastor rises from his seat on the porch, wearing the easy smile of a man who believes God stands behind him. John hasn't worn that smile in a long time; maybe never. It's only when he climbs from the car with his duffel that he realizes how truly weary he is.

"It's good to see you," John tells the bearded man, shaking his hand and clapping him on the shoulder. "It's been a while."

"It certainly has," Jim says, his twinkling eyes moving to the two boys leaning against the side of the car. "Why, you boys must have grown a foot since the last time I saw you." The pastor frowns then, noting their torn shirts, the cuts and abrasions marking the young skin. "Been in some trouble?" he asks, glancing over at John.

The hunter's face darkens. "A run-in with a shrub." He can go over the details with the other man later. But for now… "Would you mind…?" he asks hopefully, glancing over his shoulder at the house.

"Of course not," Jim says, quick to pick up on the hunter's deflection. He offers the boys another smile as John puts a hand behind each child and steers them toward the house. "First aid kit's still in the bathroom off the hall."

John nods, feeling another twinge of guilt when he sees his sons' injuries in the warm light of Jim's living room. Every blood-crusted scratch glares at him in mute accusation. Never should've happened… "Dean, go wash up and clean out those cuts," John says brusquely. "I'll take care of Sammy here."

Jim sees emotion flicker briefly in the older boy's green eyes, but then the child squares his shoulders, straightens to attention. "Yes, sir," he replies, before turning and heading toward the bathroom.

John takes a seat on the couch, setting his duffel to the side. "C'mere, kiddo," he says, beckoning to his youngest. The dark-haired boy moves to his side, allowing his father to lift his shirt over his head and off. John tries not to flinch at the few raised and angry cuts he sees. He gives Sam what he hopes is an encouraging smile. "Let's see what we can do here, huh?"

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

Dean winces as he pulls his shirt off in the bathroom, refusing to indulge the tears of self-pity burning at the backs of his eyes. He screwed up, and his father has every right to be disappointed. And he's not a little kid anymore; he's done this himself a million times when Dad hasn't been around. Dean rummages in the cabinet, finding the first aid kit and laying it out on the counter. Antiseptic and Neosporin ought to do the trick. He lathers a washcloth with soap and warm water and begins, gritting his teeth as he cleans at the deeper scratches on his cheek and arms. The worst scratch, the one on the back of his shoulder, he can't quite reach. He wipes at it as best as he can before he sets in with the antiseptic and ointment. His fingers are deft and confident for a child's, and by the time the pastor cracks open the door, he's nearly finished.

"Dean?" Jim tries not to look surprised at the myriad of cuts and scratches decorating the boy's arms and chest. Whatever bush the two boys had the misfortune of rolling into, Dean obviously took the brunt of its wrath. "You need some help there, son?" he asks kindly.

The boy swipes the last of the ointment coating his fingers onto his chest and hurriedly pulls his shirt back on, grimacing slightly. "No, sir," he answers politely, his soft voice tinged with some indiscernible accent. "I'm good."

Of course you are, the pastor thinks wryly. The Winchester pride is famous. And likely genetic. Realizing any further offers of help will be declined, Jim simply holds the door open in invitation. "Then why don't you come help me find something for dinner?"

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

It's always the same dream. Blonde hair and blood streaming from the ceiling, Mary's pale face whispering silently above him, limbs sprawled like a pinned butterfly's. The heat from the fire is like hell itself, and the smell of burning flesh fills his lungs in a sickening rush. He's paralyzed, dumb, and he wonders when Dean has appeared in the doorway, Sammy already clutched in his four year-old arms. There's a roar in the air suddenly, a crashing sound rumbling through the structure that John can feel in the pit of his stomach.

"Take your brother outside, as fast as you can! Go!" he shouts, unable to resist glancing back at Mary. The golden hair has burnt away, her skull charred and blackened, and John's terrified to see her jaws still moving. He turns back to Dean, who's staring at him, wide-eyed. But the roar is suddenly deafening, shaking the walls. A wave of water bursts through the hall, sweeping his children from his sight, knocking him from his feet as it floods the room. "Dean!" he screams, but the cry is lost in a tide of ash and blood…

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

John sits up on his cot, his hands automatically flexing for the comfort of a weapon. It's always the same dream. He breathes in and out, using a forearm to wipe the sweat from his face as he looks over at the boys. They're nestled peacefully in each of the room's twin beds, the sound of their mingled breathing soft and steady. John closes his eyes for a moment, relieved. Safe; they're safe. He remembers coming home from Nam, what a tough guy he thought he was. Thought nothing could scare him after the atrocities he witnessed in country… He was wrong.

He's on his second finger of whiskey when Jim appears in the doorway of the kitchen, wearing his plaid – robe? John shakes his head, swallows, the alcohol making its slow burn down his throat.

"What gave me away?" he asks, his voice rough as sandpaper in the dim light.

Jim lifts a brow. "You think just because a man gives a few sermons he can't keep his edge?" John just stares at him, waiting. "You stepped on that third floorboard."

John's mouth twists in what's meant to be humor, but the effort reminds Jim more of a grimace. "Right."

Jim slips into the room, recognizing the companionable silence as an invitation. He pulls out the chair next to John's and sits down at the table. "The boys sleeping?"

John nods. "Out like lights."

"Must be hard for you, being out there on the road all the time."

"Has its moments." A rueful smile touches John's eyes, his fingers moving thoughtfully over the rim of his glass. "They're fine boys. The folks – mine and Mary's – they never could understand why I took them away, why I packed them up and kept them moving round."

"You haven't kept in touch?" Jim watches John shake his head. "You could always call them; visit…?"

"No." The word comes curtly, and John's quick to follow with, "No, too risky." He glances up at the other man, slightly sheepish. "Never know when the wind's gonna turn, when instead of me chasing this SOB, he'll be chasing us." He frowns, looks down into his now empty glass. "Can't take that chance."

"You look tired, John." The observation is made quietly, without judgment. Dark eyes raise to Jim's again.

"I'm good." The pastor keeps looking at John with that same damn patient expression that always has him shifting in his chair. "What?" John growls finally, when the silence grows too uncomfortable. "Is this confession now?"

"Would that make it easier for you?"

John sighs, rubs a rough hand over his chin. "There's nothing easy about it," he admits wearily, mentally cursing Psych professors who allow pastors to audit classes. "This is what's left. Protecting the boys. I can't doubt myself, Jim; can't risk making them vulnerable…"

Or yourself. Jim reaches for the open bottle of whiskey on his kitchen table and pours the hunter another drink. "Doubt's only the beginning of the journey," Jim says, pretending not to notice the skeptical quirk of John's brow. "One must doubt before he can truly believe." He sets the bottle back down and smiles as he pushes his chair back from the table.

John snorts softly, once more lifting the glass to his mouth. "That from your latest sermon?"

"Came printed on the new box of herbal tea," Jim replies, retrieving a glass from the oak cabinet. "They're a very progressive company." The pastor returns to the table and sits down, once more reaching for the bottle and pouring a generous portion of drink for himself. He looks up when he feels John's gaze upon him. The hunter's eyes crinkle with faint amusement. "What?"

"You're a strange man, Murphy."

"That I am, John," he agrees, letting the whiskey baptize his own throat with liquid fire. That I am…

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

Dean finds his father sitting on the shaded porch, where the hunter has taken to doing his research the last few days. A small, rickety table holds a stack of dog-eared books as John thumbs through the volume of the hour. He doesn't look up as Dean approaches, and the boy bites at his lower lip, uncertain if an interruption will anger the man. It didn't used to be this hard. Dean remembers when his mother was alive, her goodnight kisses and whispers of angels, the sparkle in her eyes when she was teasing. His father used to laugh more and shout less; used to do things with Dean that didn't involve research and weapons. Maybe someday he will again...

"Hey, Dean." John studies the symbol in front of him. "Where's your brother?"

Dean inches closer. "He found Pastor Jim's books."

"What's he reading?"

Dean knits his brow, trying to remember. "The Peaceful Warrior?"

John groans, but there's a slight curve to his mouth as he continues to study, and it gives Dean enough courage to ask his question. "Dad?"

"Yeah?"

Dean shifts; just once. Now or never. "Think we could go fishing?"

"What?" John glances up in surprise, meeting his son's hesitant gaze. Mary stares back at him from the green eyes, and a familiar pain lances the hunter's chest. Lips tightening, he turns back to the book on the table, his fingers tapping the page firmly. "I'm working, Dean; you know that."

Dean nods, careful not to drop his shoulders under the censure. "Yes, sir."

"Why don't you practice throwing that blade I gave you? A weapon is worthless unless you know how to use it."

"Yes, sir," Dean repeats, not that it necessarily matters. His father is already reabsorbed in his research, his forehead furrowed in concentration. It's the same look Sammy gets when he's trying to figure something out, a determination that defies all intervention.

"That's my man," John responds absently, as Dean disappears from his peripheral vision. He finishes his current chapter, then releases a sigh. Protection would be a lot easier if he knew what he was protecting he and the boys from. He sits back in his chair and stretches his aching back. Frowns. Fishing. Where the hell had the kid gotten that idea? Christ, John hasn't been fishing since…

And then John remembers. Just weeks after Sam was born, swinging Dean onto one shoulder and their gear over the other, just the two of them and a smooth expanse of lake. Hadn't caught a thing except a hell of a sunburn, but Dean had been thrilled, nearly talking John's ears off before slumping into sleep on the ride home. John's jaw tenses as he flips the heavy book shut, closes his eyes against the glaring sun. He's mastered weaponry, memorized Latin. Can find his way out of dark woods with an internal compass. Sometimes the only thing he can't do is forget.

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

"Outside again!"

Dean brushes the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. "Just warming up," he yells to Sam, glancing back to where his father and Pastor Jim are talking on the porch. Satisfied his lack of accuracy has gone unnoticed, Dean narrows his eyes again at the wooden target wired to the fence, shakes out his arm and tries not to wince. The heat and pain in his shoulder is already becoming stiffness, and he's not sure how much longer he'll be able to ignore it. "Ready to see a bullseye?" he boasts to Sam, though his heart isn't in it.

"Ready!" Sam calls from his post near the target.

Up on the porch, John hears the brag from his eldest, and both men pause in their conversation to watch the kid throw. It happens in a second, the drawback, and then the knife flies wide of the mark, Sammy stepping back as it clunks into the fence mere inches from where he's standing.

"Jesus, Dean," John says, quickly rising from his chair and jogging down the porch steps to Dean's side. "Your aim is better than that – are you trying to kill him?" He regrets the thoughtless words instantly as his son pales beneath his freckles. "Dean?" He takes the kid by the shoulder to turn him, surprised when Dean flinches at the grip. It's then that John registers the heat creeping through Dean's thin shirt and into his hand. He moves to lift the garment, but the kid pulls away, tries to shrug.

"No – I mean, I didn't - " He breaks off, shrugs again. "Must be having an off day."

John crooks a finger at him. "You don't have off days. Now let's get that off."

"What for?" Dean fires back, a hint of panic coloring the unexpected defiance.

"Am I gonna have to repeat myself?"

Dean wavers, then sighs beneath his father's pointed stare. This time when the hunter reaches for his shirt, he stands in place, allowing the cotton to be pulled up and over his head. There's a low hiss from John, and Dean grimaces, wishing he were anywhere but here.

"Looks like you've got a bit of an infection there, son," the pastor remarks quietly, from where he's come to stand behind John.

"You know you can't reach to clean that properly," John tells the kid, the reprimand harsher than usual even as his fingers gently probe the tender, angry flesh at Dean's shoulder. "Where was your head?" And where was your head, Winchester? He should have checked the boy himself, should have insisted on it.

"Sorry, sir," Dean mumbles, looking away and trying to stifle the burn of threatening tears.

"So am I," John tells him, straightening and handing his son his shirt. "We're gonna have to reopen and clean that. And then it's time we had a refresher course on wound disclosure and treatment."

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

It's late, and Dean turns restlessly beneath his blankets. He's been in bed an hour now, just since he finally memorized the chapter on cuts and scrapes John had indicated, reciting it back to the hunter's satisfaction. At that point Dean wanted nothing more than a soft pillow and some sleep, but apparently his body isn't going to cooperate. His redressed shoulder throbs and aches, refuses to quiet.

Dean cast a quick glance over at Sam's bed. His little brother is snoring softly; limbs sprawled over the covers in unconscious abandon. Dean smiles to himself before silently climbing from his own bed, padding slowly from the bedroom. He'll ask his father or the pastor for Tylenol, and it might be enough to let him sleep.

He's half-way down the hall when he pauses, hearing the low voices of the two men in the kitchen. Dean wonders if he should just go back to bed without the Tylenol, rather than face his father again so soon, but then the words float from the open doorway, and suddenly his feet are frozen in place, refusing to move forward or retreat.



"You were pretty hard on him tonight."

John's jaw tightens at the observation. "The kid knows better, Jim; knows how to handle himself."

The pastor leans back in his chair, surprisingly relaxed in the face of the other man's ire. "I admit he's grown up faster than most kids his age. But he's still twelve, John."

"I know how old he is," John snaps. "You don't think I wish he was in Scouts and playing softball?" His voice softens with something like pride. "I ask a lot of him; I know I do. Kid's practically fearless."

"Or so he'd like his father to believe."

John huffs. "I don't worry about Dean; he can take care of himself. Now, Sammy, on the other hand…"



"You were pretty hard on him tonight."

"The kid knows better, Jim; knows how to handle himself."



Dean's throat tightens. His father's disappointment isn't lost on him. And he did know better than to let a wound fester; he just hadn't wanted to be further trouble. Good job, there… His self-berating comes to a halt as he once more tries to discern the conversation coming from the other room. His father's voice, gruff and dismissive:



"I don't worry about Dean; he can take care of himself. Now, Sammy, on the other hand…"



Dean sucks in a trembling breath, then slowly turns back toward the bedroom, foregoing the Tylenol. He doesn't sleep that night, but he hardly feels his shoulder at all.

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

Thunk!

Dean scowls as his knife once more sinks into the outer perimeter of the target. The pain in his shoulder has faded in the two days since his cut was redressed, but the muscle is still stiff enough to throw off his aim. He stalks over to retrieve the weapon, soft laughter carrying down from the porch. His father and Pastor Jim have been trading stories since lunch, and Sam is all ears from his perch on John's lap. The conversation is warm and easy, and Dean ignores the lump in his throat, jerking the knife roughly from the pocked wood.

There's suddenly a break in the banter, then, "Dean! Come over here." John calls to him from the shade.

Pretending not to hear, Dean makes his way through the tall grass to the other side of the house. He presses the heel of his hand hard against one eye and then the other, furious with himself. That's it. I've gotta get out of here. Snatching up his red windbreaker from where he left it at the back door, he ties it around his waist and sets off across the property.

Dean's destination has him crossing in front of the house again, but fortunately his father and the pastor are still deep in conversation, making it easy for him to head down the slope unnoticed. He's out of sight and just beginning to relax when the small voice calls from behind him.

"Dean, wait!" Sammy pants, his shorter legs stumbling to catch up with his brother. "Where are you going?"

"For a walk," Dean replies, eyes never veering from his course.

"Can I come?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm going fishing, and Dad told you not to go near the river."

"He told you that, too, and you're going."

"He won't mind; believe me."

"Deannn…"

The older boy sighs, stopping so that the younger practically barrels into him. "Look, Sammy, if you just go back to the house, you can play with my army guys - all by yourself, okay?"

"Really?" Sam asks, looking up at Dean suspiciously. Dean hasn't let him play with his army men since he flushed several down the whirling vortex of death.

"Yeah. But keep them out of the bathroom," Dean warns. "You mess up Pastor Jim's plumbing, and Dad'll be mad."

"Okay!" Sam agrees enthusiastically, and runs back toward the house.

Dean shakes his head. "Whirling vortex of death," he mutters. Kids…

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

"Dad? Will you come play cards with me?"

"Still got a good hour of work to do here, Sammy," John tells him, handing Jim the book he's just finished with and opening his journal. "Why don't you ask your brother to play something with you?"

"He's not here."

John looks up from the leather-bound pages, a frown shadowing his eyes. "What do you mean, he's not here?"

"He said he was going fishing, and he wouldn't take me."

Fishing. Son of a bitch… "When?"

Sam blinks. "What?"

John takes hold of his shoulder. "When did he leave?"

"I don't know," Sam says, blinking at the change in his father's demeanor. "After lunch?"

John shoves his chair back from the table, gets up and heads down the porch steps. His long legs cover the ground in a hurried stride. "Dean!" he shouts, crossing the slope and approaching the bank of the river.

"Wait up here, son," Jim says to the wide-eyed boy, before brushing past the child to join his friend. By the time he reaches the long grass near the river, John is already performing a sweep of its banks, checking for any signs of his eldest. "He probably went upstream to the pool, John," Jim tries to reason, seeing the increasing tension in the other man's movements. Eight years and the man has never shirked his vigil, and it's obvious the tenuous control he's gained over his fears is faltering. Troubled, Jim watches as the other man suddenly freezes, much like a Pointer spying its quarry. Jim opens his mouth to call out, but then the hunter is stumbling into the cold water, splashing through its rushing current toward something red washed up against a rock, something – Dean's jacket.

John snatches the dripping nylon from the water, swallowing back the bile that's risen in his throat. It doesn't mean anything; doesn't mean shit, he promises himself, even as he finds himself clutching the garment to his chest like a last hope. His gaze darts upstream and downstream, praying he won't find anything else in the churning waters, nothing that resembles a twelve year-old kid. He suddenly recalls that first visit to the park with the adventurous toddler; Mary's gentle teasing ringing in his ears. "Don't lose him, John." John slogs toward the bank again, oblivious to the cold water numbing his lower limbs. This time he heads upstream. "Dean!" he shouts, as if somehow the force of his own voice can summon the boy. It has to. He'll keep shouting until Dean answers.

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

Dean walks tiredly back toward the pastor's house. Not only has he not caught any fish, but he's lost his jacket somewhere along the way, too. "Great. That makes today just about perfect," he grumbles, stepping around some brush and into the clearing near Pastor Jim's. He lifts his head when he hears the shouting, puzzled to see his father hiking toward him, Pastor Jim and Sam nearly running to keep up.

"Dean!"

"Dad?" The hunter's clothes are soaked and he's got something balled in his fist. Dean's forehead furrows, his makeshift pole dragging behind him. He's more worried when his father doesn't break stride, instead moving purposefully toward him and hauling him up against his chest. Dean drops the pole, squirming to find a position where he can drag in some air. His father rewards the struggling by slinging him up and over his shoulder. "Dude," Dean puffs, finally getting his breath back and starting to blush at being carried like some little kid. "Put me down; I'll walk," he says, his eyes flicking worriedly to the pastor's and Sam's surprised stares.

There's no response from the hunter, though; something Dean finds increasingly unsettling as his father makes his way up toward the house. Over the man's broad shoulder, he sees Pastor Jim and Sam hurrying behind, trying to keep up with his father's unflagging pace.

"John! Wait." John barely registers the other man's plea. His heart is still pounding against his chest as he climbs the shallow slope, Dean clasped tightly to him. Dean. His son. Warm and solid and breathing. Damn well fine. The panic that's been burning through his veins slowly forges into determination. The kid knows better; he's drilled the rule into him for years. Whatever pre-adolescent rebellion this might be, he's putting an end to it right now.

"Dad," Dean protests again, wriggling in his grip. "Come on, just – ow!" He can't swallow the yelp as his father's large hand slaps his jean-clad backside. He blushes at having an audience for the rebuke, but then his father is climbing the stairs to the porch, each step jolting Dean against his shoulder. "What's going on?" he gets out, breathless as his father bangs open the screen door and carries him inside. He's dropped to his feet in the front room. Frowning, he reaches a hand behind him to rub out the sting. Dean glances up into his father's face, unable to stop himself from flinching at the man's obvious fury as John tosses the sopping red nylon at the boy's feet. Dean looks down at his missing jacket, then up his father's dripping form again. "Uh, oh."

"What's going on?" John repeats, his shaking fingers curling in frustration at the mingled confusion and apprehension on his son's face. And then he's shouting. "What the hell were you thinking? What did I tell you about that river?"

"John." The soft, reasonable tone of the pastor cuts through John's anger. "You're soaked. Surely this can wait until you've showered and changed?"

And calmed down? The other man doesn't add the unvoiced suggestion, but John hears it all the same. He wills his breathing to slow, still focused on Dean's wan and faintly belligerent features. "Right," he says, after a tense silence. "I'll do that."

Relief has the pastor putting a hand on Sam's shoulder. "Good, then. Well, Sam and I will just run out and get some dinner while the two of you get cleaned up - right Sammy?"

"I guess so. If Dean's okay," the younger boy adds, eyeing the other two members of his family warily.

Dean tries to ignore the glare from his father. "I'm fine, Sammy," he says in a low voice, letting his brother feel the reassurance of his gaze. "Go with Pastor Jim."

Sam allows himself to be led from the house by the pastor, his piping voice carrying back through the screen door. "Pastor Jim? Do you like girls?"

John waits for the rumble of Jim's old car starting before turning to his son again. He takes Dean by the shoulder and steers him into an empty corner. "Don't. Move," he warns the kid.

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

Dean fidgets in the corner, eyes a scuff on the toe of his sneaker. He feels like he's been standing there for hours, although it's probably only been minutes since his father left the room to take a shower. Stupid corner. He glowers at the walls. What is he now? Sam, for crying out loud? He draws his foot back, contemplating giving the baseboard a satisfying kick.

"Don't even think about it," John warns from behind him.

Crap. Dean hadn't even heard the shower switch off.

"Turn around and report."

Dean turns, his face set in a mulish expression. "I went fishing."

John nods, his hands moving to his hips. He's warmer now, but the shower's done little to soothe his temper. "Yeah. I got that. I want to know why."

"I didn't have the stuff to make a surfboard."

John grabs the kid's shoulders, furious to get lip now, of all times. "You little - " John stops himself, gives Dean a small shake. "Do you have any idea what I went through today?"

Dean looks away from his father's accusing stare, shrugs. "Why? You don't worry about me," he says quietly, trying to keep his voice steady as he repeats the words.

John stills his hands, realization dawning on him. "You heard that?" Dean doesn't answer, his averted face suddenly looking younger, more fragile, and John's stomach twists. "Look at me."

Dean's jaw tightens, but he doesn't look at his father, blinks fiercely as his eyes begin to sting.

"Dean." John makes it an order, hating himself just a little as his son turns to him. Dean's posture is stiff, his mouth tight. "You misunderstood me, champ."

"No, I didn't." Dean shakes his head, looking away again as a traitorous tear tracks down his cheek. He brushes it angrily away.

John sighs. Stubborn kid. He doesn't waste time asking for compliance this time, simply takes Dean's chin in hand, turning the boy's head back toward him. "Yeah, you did. I said I didn't worry about you. That didn't mean I wouldn't."

Dean flushes, tries to pull his chin from John's grasp. "I'm not Sam; not a baby. You don't have to - "

"Yeah. I do." John drops his hand back to the boy's shoulder again, gentling his voice to a low rumble. "I'm your father. I'm always gonna worry about you. You got that?"

Dean's eyes slide hesitantly to John's, study him carefully. After a long moment some of the tension eases from the boy's small frame. "Yeah, but…"

"But what?"

"I let Sammy get hurt, and you were mad…"

Aw, hell. John wishes he were better equipped for this stuff. "Mad at myself. Mad at life, maybe. But not at you. We are gonna practice scoping out our territory and allowing for surprises, though."

"Okay. I mean, I got it. Sir."

John gives him a brief smile. "Good boy. Now, go in and get ready for bed."

"Bed?" Dean's nose wrinkles. "But it's not even seven."

"And you've had a big day. Besides, we still have some unfinished business to attend to," John reminds him sternly.

"Uh, yeah," Dean shifts uncomfortably, knowing exactly what kind of business his father has in mind. "Sure you don't want to give that a pass?"

John lifts a brow. "You don't think you deserve a spanking?"

"It's not that – it's just, well," Dean makes a face. "I thought you wouldn't care."

"I guess you thought wrong then, huh?"

"Yes, sir."

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

When Dean comes out of the bathroom, his father is already sitting on the edge of his bed, and he feels his stomach flutter at the too-familiar sight. The hunter is staring at Dean's sodden jacket, hanging from the back of the room's only chair. He doesn't even seem to hear Dean, and Dean moves forward hesitantly.

"Dad?" he asks softly.

The eyes that turn toward him are dark and haunted; focused on someone or somewhere else. Then the hunter's gaze is back, sharp and clear, the sudden resolve in the man's face rooting Dean to the spot.

"Front and center," John commands, pointing to the floor in front of him. The kid looks years younger in his bare feet and worn pajamas, no match for the power or jagged rocks of the water. John has no patience for preliminaries tonight; as soon as Dean steps into reach, John shucks down the kid's pajama bottoms and pulls him over his knee.

John hates spanking either of the boys, dreads the sound of their tears, but tonight the solid warmth of Dean stretched over his lap provides a sort of comfort, tempers the fears that threaten to overwhelm him. He tugs the kid up firmly against his stomach, for several minutes letting his hand do the talking for him. Dean gasps and ows, and John steels himself against his son's pain, determined to see this done.

"I don't care what's happening between us, you don't wander off, and you always let someone know where you're going. You got that?"

His father's voice is rough with grief, distressing Dean even more that the stinging smacks heating up his backside. Tears blur his eyes. "Yes! Dad, I promise – I won't do it again."

"Damn right you won't," John tells him, tightening his arm around the boy's waist and continuing to swat him with an almost desperate intensity. Dean squirms and yelps at the onslaught, and John chokes on his own emotion. "I thought I lost you," he scolds hoarsely.

Guilt swells painfully in Dean's chest and erupts in a sob. "I'm sorry," he cries, both ashamed and frantic the punishment isn't going to stop. "Daddy – please…"

It's the 'Daddy' that stills John's hand. He rests it on Dean's flushed behind, his throat aching as he listens to his son's tears. He hasn't been 'Daddy' to Dean in a long time. 'Dad', sure. 'Sir', more often than not. 'Daddy' was the man who had time for bedtime stories, for Sunday morning pancakes or tossing a ball in the yard. Dean had never doubted that man. John rubs his hand over his face, wiping away his own tears before reaching to ease up the boy's pajama pants. Dean whimpers as the fabric brushes over his blazing bottom, and John murmurs soft reassurances as he repositions the clothing and turns his son in his arms.

"Shhhhh," he hushes, gathering the boy up against him and tucking Dean's head beneath his chin. "It's okay, champ, I got you." John turns his cheek against his son's head, lets the soft scent of clean twelve year-old calm his own breathing. The boy's body hitches and shudders against his own, and John rubs his hand soothingly up and down Dean's arm. "Just breathe," he whispers thickly.

Dean shakes his head against his father's chest, longing to bury himself in the familiar warmth and comfort of the man, but not quite able to take solace there. He'd put that look in his father's eyes. That same look he'd seen the night of the fire, after his mom had died. He shouldn't have doubted him, he shouldn't have; only the words had hurt, made him afraid… "I'm s-sorry," he stammers through his tears, hating how he sounds like a baby. "I didn't mean to…"

"I know you didn't; it won't happen again," John assures him, lifting his hand to stroke the boy's hair. "I'm sorry, too," he confesses. "I'm sorry if I gave you the impression - " The words lodge painfully in John's throat, and he swallows hard. "You and your brother – you're all I have." I can't lose you. He knows the words are heard and accepted when Dean finally slumps against him, muffling the occasional hiccup in what's now John's second damp shirt of the day.

Dean leans against his father's shoulder, blinks wetly against the exhaustion threatening to overcome him. He feels just as safe here as he did when he was four, when his father could chase away any bad dream, any scary thought. But he's not four, and after several minutes he shifts uncomfortably, moving to get up.

John tightens his arms around the kid. "Hey. Not so fast," he tells him gruffly, reluctant to have the boy out of his reach for even a second.

Color rises on the tear-streaked face. "I'm too big."

"That right?" John asks, pretending to consider the idea.

"M'almost thirteen," Dean mumbles. His limbs feel heavy and warm, and he relaxes against his father again.

"Thirteen, huh?"

"Uh, huh," is the sleepy response.

John drops his cheek against the top of Dean's sandy head. "Humor me."

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

It's dark when Dean wakes, and he blinks against his pillow. He's lying on his stomach, and an attempt to roll to his back reminds him why. John hadn't spanked him so much harder than usual, but the memory of his father's distress has his throat tightening again.

"Dean? Are you awake?" comes the loud whisper from the other bed.

"No."

There's a pause in the darkness, then the predictable, "Yes, you are."

Dean ignores the accusation, sniffling a little as he burrows deeper into his pillow.

"Are you crying?"

"No," he denies sharply, hoping Sammy will take the hint and go back to sleep. No such luck. He hears the eight year-old roll from his bed and pad over, pausing at Dean's bedside.

"It's okay if you are," Sam tells him seriously. "You're supposed to cry when Dad spanks you."

Dean huffs in reluctant amusement, drags the back of his hand across his damp eyes. "Yeah? Why's that?"

"So he can make it better."

Fresh tears well in Dean's eyes, and he clears his throat. "Yeah, well. If he comes in here and catches you out of bed again, he's gonna have to make it better for you, too. So go back to sleep."

Dean hears the eight year-old shuffle in indecision, and then the sound of Sam returning to his own bed. Relieved, Dean rolls over, careful not to put undue pressure on his behind. He's startled when he rolls right into Sam's teddy bear, obviously a loan from the younger boy. Its button eyes stare mutely at him.

"And what are you looking at?" Dean whispers, daring the bear to say anything. It doesn't. "Thought so." With an agitated huff, he flings an arm around the abomination and once more closes his eyes.

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

John's never been at home in the kitchen. Hopeless with the toaster, a hazard with the microwave. Thank god for peanut butter and jelly. He finishes slathering a final piece of bread with grape jelly and slaps the last sandwich together, staring out the window into the thin morning light. He's wrapping his creation in Saran when there's a muted rustling behind him, and John looks over his shoulder. "Hey. You're up early," he says with faint surprise, as Dean hovers in the kitchen doorway.

"Heard you get up."

"You did?"

Dean shrugs. "Third floorboard," he supplies, and John sighs. Dean wanders to a chair out of habit, then quickly reconsiders. He settles for leaning against the counter where John is working.

John drops the sandwich he's been wrapping into a pack on the counter and turns toward his son. Deans shifts under the discerning gaze, looking at the table, the floor, until John finally curls a hand around the side of the boy's neck, using his thumb to gently tilt his face up. The face is a little pale, the eyes slightly swollen. "How you feeling, champ?"

"I'm good," Dean says, blushing somewhat at the scrutiny. He'd rather not sit down. But other than that…

John's features soften in relief, and he gives Dean a half-smile and a small squeeze to the neck before dropping his hand again. He continues putting the rest of the sandwiches in the bag.

"What are you doing?"

"You missed dinner last night, thought you might be hungry."

"So you're packing up all the food?"

John shrugs himself. "We need to get going."

"Going?" Dean asks, frowning. "Where?"

"Thought you wanted to go fishing."

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

"Any bites?" John asks, the disgust in his voice causing Dean to fight a smile. They've been pacing up and down the banks for a couple of hours, casting their lines repeatedly into the rushing water.

"No, sir. You?"

"Not a damn thing." John drops his pole to the bank and straightens, stretches.

"I didn't know Pastor Jim fished," Dean remarks, reeling in his line again. The expensive equipment feels strange in his hands, but he thinks he could get used to it.

"Lots of things you don't know about Jim," John tells him. "Lots of things you don't want to know," he adds dryly, intending to qualify the statement when his cell phone rings. John grabs the phone from his pocket and snaps it open. "Winchester here… No, we haven't caught anything," he replies, rolling his eyes at Dean. "What's going on?"

Dean finishes reeling his line in and rests the pole over his shoulder. His father is listening intently to the person on the other end of the call, his responses shorter than usual.

"Yeah, I remember him… No. I can't… Tomorrow," the hunter insists, rubbing the back of his head. "What? Then send Caleb - "

"Dad, wait."

"Hold on, Jim." John claps a hand over the cell's mouthpiece and looks toward his son. "Yeah, Dean?"

"Is that a job?"

"There's a poltergeist south of Jefferson City, needs looking into."

"Aren't we gonna go?"

"I told you we were going fishing."

Dean stares at him for a moment, comprehension slowly lighting his eyes. Then, "You also told me people die if we don't do our job."

"Well. They don't always die," John amends, a little disconcerted at the thought.

"We should go, Dad."

"You think?"

"Yeah." Dean grins, the first real grin John's seen in days. "Fish'll still be here."

John's mouth curves in the beginning of a smile, and he takes his hand from the mouthpiece. "Jim? We'll go. Tell Sammy we'll be up in an hour to pack up." He snaps the phone shut, all too aware of Dean's questioning gaze. "What?" he asks, casually reaching for his pole again. "We'll make up the time on the road." From the corner of his eye, John sees Dean sling his pole from his shoulder and bait his hook again, whistling as he finds a new post to cast from. John smiles to himself, fingers fumbling for his own bait. The sun is warm and friendly on his back, and for once, John thinks maybe he's done the right thing; that there are some things the waters won't wash away. Tries to believe that.

This time, anyway.

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