The Man In The Yellow Hat

"Okay, Sammy. What story would you like to hear?"

"Curious George!" Sam says, handing the book to his father and scooting a little closer to where John sits on the bed. John takes the book and drapes his arm around the six year-old, the boy's small body warming his side. Dean groans from the other bed

"Curious George? Again??"

"Your brother gets his pick, too, Dean," John reminds his eldest, who drops back onto his own mattress in defeat. Sam leans around his father's chest and sticks his tongue out. "Sam."

"What?" The little boy blinks up at him innocently, snuggling in closer.

John shakes his head, opens the book and begins. "'This is George. He lived in Africa. He was a good little monkey and always very curious.'"

"Like me!" Sam chirps, and John chuckles.

"Yeah, kiddo, just like you." And John continues to read, about George trying on the man's hat, and a sailor rowing the man and George to the big ship, until Sam's eyelids begin to droop under the soothing rumble of his father's voice. "'George promised to be good. But it is easy for little monkeys to forget...'"

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

"'Easy to forget?'" Dean asks, frowning at his little brother's ramblings. "Forget what?" Sam was fine when the three Winchesters returned to the Shady Pines Motel the night before. The slaub they were hunting was salted and burned, the ashen husk smoldering in the cool air, and the weary hunters slid into their beds just two hours shy of dawn. When Dean woke this morning he had two things on his mind – pancakes and the stacked waitress from the adjoining diner, and not necessarily in that order. A feverish and lethargic brother was not on the menu.

"Anything unusual happen when we were separated last night?" John Winchester asks, patting Sam's flushed cheek firmly. The eyes flutter, but his son can't quite seem to get them open. John frowns.

"No, sir." Dean watches Sam shiver in the sweat-soaked sheets. The slaub was easy enough to locate, its lair littered with bones and the ugly, unpalatable shoes of its victims. Dean and Sam came across it first, and Dean put a bullet in its brain just before John arrived.

"Was he injured?"

"Well, no." Dean scowls suddenly. "He didn't say so."

"Where are his clothes?"

"His clothes?"

"Dean." Dean points to Sam's bag on a chair, and John unzips it and starts sifting. He riffles through a few things before pulling out the shirt Sam wore the night before. He holds it up, the dark stain on the back of the right shoulder impossible to miss.

"Son of a bitch," Dean mutters. When you wake up, Sammy, you've got some explaining to do.

John tosses the garment aside. "Let's get his shirt off."

Dean puts his arm under his brother and eases him upward, supporting Sam in a sitting position as John deftly slides the t-shirt over Sam's head, the older man wincing at Sam's moan as the cotton tears away from his wound.

"Easy, Sammy," Dean murmurs, eyeing his brother's pale face with concern. The younger boy's body is damp with perspiration, the skin beneath Dean's hand uncomfortably warm.

"Get him on his stomach." Dean turns Sam towards his father, waits for John to take Sam's arm before pulling his brother's far shoulder toward him. The action elicits another piteous whimper from Sam, and Dean grits his teeth as he and his father roll Sam onto his stomach. John grimaces at the dual puncture wounds marking his son's right shoulder. "Looks like he got himself clawed," he says, his careful fingers probing at the hot and tender flesh surrounding the open wounds. "He wouldn't be able to clean these by himself. Why the hell didn't he say something?"

"Maybe because you warned us not to turn our backs on it?"

John grunts his assent, but doesn't look up from his examination. "The claws can splinter on impact and cause infection; we need to get the shards out now. I'm gonna need the first aid kit."

"Yes, sir," Dean says, already moving.

"And some hot water and towels," John adds. "This is gonna take a while."

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

"How is he?" Dean asks, as John finally pulls a chair up by a sleeping Sam.

John rubs a hand across his face. "I think I got all the splinters, and it's bleeding clean."

"So what now?"

"We wait. The antibiotics should take care of the infection, but he's gonna be down for a while. Slaub wounds are a bitch on the immune system; he could relapse."

"Great. I guess this new job's gonna have to wait."

John shakes his head. "They sounded desperate. I'll take care of Sam; you go check out this thing in Antioch."

"What? Me?" Dean shifts slightly on his feet, glances at Sam's long-limbed form sprawled across the covers. Then, "You don't want to go?"

"Is this gonna be a problem?"

"You tell me." Dean manages not to flinch at the look that gets him. But his father and Sam have been butting heads for the thousand or so miles since Lawrence, which just goes to show that even killing a demon doesn't change everything.

"He's not making it easy."

"So why stay? He's gonna be a pain in the ass," Dean points out.

"I know," John says, with what Dean swears is grudging pride. "I can handle it." Dean still looks skeptical, though, and John sighs. "We'll be fine, Dean. Kid gloves all the way, I promise."

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

John sits, riffles through his newspapers and watches Sam sleep, soaking up every familiarity that's eluded him the last three years, the long-limbed sprawl, the tenderness in Sam's face that even six plus feet of scars and sinew can't erase, the soft, open-mouthed snore. The kid's cheeks are still flushed, and John frowns. The fever will last several days, and he's uncertain they've seen the worst of it.

Every so often, when the silence stretches too far into the evening, John rises and lays his hand against Sam's forehead. The heat sends tingles into his palm, and at one point John can't help a small hiss of apprehension. The small sound causes Sam's eyes to roll open, dark and bright and blurry with fever.

"Dad?" Sam licks his lips, trying to focus on his father's grim features.

"Yeah, Sam."

Sam's forehead crinkles beneath his hand. "Are you mad?"

John's confused for a moment, then makes himself smile softly. "No, Sammy, I'm not mad." He feels a twinge of conscience at the relief passing over Sam's unguarded face.

"Hurts," Sam mumbles, the easy admission as telling as the perspiration beading on his waxen skin.

"I know," John says, stroking back the sweat-soaked hair from Sam's forehead. "Can you sit up for me?"

Sam groggily pushes himself up, and John puts an arm around his back when his son's arms wobble. "Here," he says, his free hand fumbling for the medication on the nightstand. He manages to pop the lid with one hand and retrieve an antibiotic. "Open up." He puts the pill in Sam's mouth and reaches again, this time for a bottle of water.

"Are you going to work?" Sam asks sleepily, a question John remembers him asking when he wore Thundercat footies.

"No, Sammy," John tells him, lifting the bottle to Sam's lips and waiting for him to swallow. "I'm staying right here."

Sam closes his eyes and slumps back against John's arm. Even the simple act of swallowing the meds seems to have tired the kid, and John feels a pang in his chest. Sam's next words are barely audible. "Where's Dean?"

"He went on to Antioch; he'll be back in a few days."

" – girls in Antioch?" Sam mumbles, as John gently lowers him back to the pillow, and a wry smile tugs at John's lips.

"Well, if there are, your brother will find them. Now, sleep," John whispers, weary but oddly content as Sam once more slips into slumber.

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

John's always been a light sleeper, even before his sniper days in Vietnam, when the slightest disturbance would find him reaching for his M40A1 rifle before his conscious mind even registered a threat. The vigilance has served him well as a hunter, and his eyes snap open in the dim light of the motel room, a shift in the stale air alerting him to movement. Sam is standing by the bed on shaky legs, and John jumps up from his chair, reaching his son's side in a few quick strides.

"Sam." The single word holds both censor and relief as John wraps an arm around the kid's waist. Sam's tee shirt is drenched, and John hopes the fever is close to breaking. "What are you doing?"

Sam actually looks embarrassed. "I gotta go."

John blinks. "Go where?"

"Dad…" Sam actually whines, and then John gets it.

"Oh," he says, trying not to smile. "Well, let's get you in there, then," he says, slowly beginning to usher Sam toward the bathroom door. They've only gone a couple of steps when Sam balks, weakly resisting John's propelling arm.

"I can do it myself," Sam tells him.

John shakes his head. "You're one step away from falling on your face; we do this together."

"I'm not - " Sam's face colors even more. "You're not helping me with that."

"Too late," John tells him. "How do you think you've gotten there so far?"

Sam groans, and John can't quite suppress his chuckle. "Come on, kiddo. I promise not to look." The remark earns John a glare from his youngest, but Sam grudgingly permits him to help him to the bathroom, and as promised, John turns slightly to give Sam as much privacy as safety allows. He waits for the sound of the commode flushing before slowly turning back to his son. Sam's studying him warily, as if he's not quite sure what to make of all this.

"I wanna take a shower." The statement is made with the same determination that's plagued John since Sam turned thirteen.

"Bath," John counters.

"I don't want a - "

"It's a bath or nothing," John says firmly, with an unwavering stare that Sam is just no match for at the moment. He can see the moment his son acquiesces, the tightness going out of the kid's face, and John knows he must be tiring. He reaches over and flips the lid shut on the commode. "Have a seat," John tells him, gently pushing Sam down to sit. "I'll run the water."

It's been a while since John's ran a bath for one of his boys, ten years at least, but he still carefully checks the temperature of the water, still puts the non-slip mat down on the bottom of the tub to avoid any spills. When he finally shuts off the water and looks back at Sam, he can see the kid's gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering. "Let's get you in," John says, his brows drawn in concern.

Sam allows his father to pull the damp tee shirt over his head, unable to bite back a moan as his shoulder flares with pain. John gives Sam a moment before helping him stand again, then hooks his fingers in the waistband of Sam's sweats, surprised when Sam smacks his hands away. "No. Just – please?" Sam's bloodshot eyes peer at him pathetically, and John sighs, releasing his hold on the sweats and turning his back to his son.

"You'd better not fall," John warns gruffly, listening carefully for any potential sign of distress, and relieved when he finally hears a couple of small splashes, and then a soft "Okay" from Sam. He turns to find his son sitting with his knees drawn up, a washcloth protecting his modesty. "You've got ten minutes," John tells him. "I'm gonna get you some clothes."

John leaves the door open and returns to the bedroom to go through Sam's duffel. He finds a clean tee shirt with a scarab design on it and a pair of light blue pajama pants, pausing when hearing a few low curses emerge from the bathroom. "Sam?"

"I'm fine," snaps Sam's voice from beyond the open door, and John frowns. He gives his son a few more minutes before venturing back into the bathroom. Sam's dark hair is wet and plastered to his forehead, still soapy in places, and John doesn't even want to guess how he might have tried to rinse it. He retrieves an empty water bottle from the bedroom trash and returns, filling it with water from the tap and ignoring Sam's baleful gaze as he approaches.

"Lean your head forward," John commands, and thankfully Sam does. The rest of the shampoo is rinsed from Sam's hair, and then John hands him a towel before once more turning his back. He hears Sam get out of the tub, and there's a minute of quiet rustling behind him. "Sam?"

"I told you I'm fine."

Exasperated, John turns to find Sam's managed to get the pajama pants on, but is struggling with the shirt. John walks over and helps his son get his arms into the sleeves, ignoring the protests and complaints that accompany the gesture. He sits Sam back on the commode, checks and carefully redresses the wound, satisfied they're making progress. The bath seems to have refreshed Sam temporarily, and John's suspicion is confirmed just moments later when Sam refuses to get back into bed.

"I want to sit up," he insists, staring at the piece of furniture as if it's made of nails.

"Maybe tomorrow; you need to rest. Now get back in bed," John tells him, reaching for Sam's arm, but his youngest jerks away with a scowl.

"I don't want to."

John just resists rolling his eyes. "I know you don't, but you're gonna."

"No." There's a belligerent spark in Sam's eyes only partly due to fever, and John realizes he needs to reclaim his son now, while Sam is still susceptible and his defenses weakened. John feels slightly ashamed, but he's never been a man to waste an opportunity, and this might be his last. He puts his hands on his hips and levels a stern stare on his youngest.

"I'm gonna count to three, and if you're not back in that bed, you're gonna be one sorry little boy. One."

"What?" It's a near-squeak.

"Two."

"Dad!" Sam protests, eyes widening.

"Three." John sighs, and steers Sam to the bed, sits down and pulls him over his lap. Either Sam's still pretty out of it, or weaker than he thinks, because he doesn't put up much of a fight as John tugs down his pajama pants and delivers several stinging swats to the kid's bare backside. It only takes five smacks for Sam to burst into tears, and the moment he does, John stops spanking. "Are you ready to rest now?"

Sam nods tearfully, and John doesn't press him for a "Yes, sir" this time.

"Am I gonna hear any backtalk?"

This time Sam shakes his head.

"Okay, then." John gently replaces Sam's pajamas and helps him off his lap and under the covers. He pulls the blankets up around the young man, brushes away an angry tear that lingers on Sam's flushed cheek. "It's been four hours. How's your pain?"

Sam doesn't look at him. John gets the bottle from the nightstand and once more gives Sam the pills, and Sam reluctantly puts them in his mouth, washing them down with the water he's handed.

"Good boy," John says softly, pushing the damp hair from Sam's gaze, and the warmth and approval in the tone cause Sam's eyes to well up again. John pretends not to notice and pulls his chair up to the bed. He picks up the worn book he dug out of the truck earlier, clears his throat awkwardly, and starts to read. "This is George. He lived in Africa…"

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

Sam studies his father from beneath half-closed lids as the older man sits at the shabby desk, flipping through his journal. He doesn't seem to be a shapeshifter, and yet…

"Christo," Sam mutters under his breath, and waits for John to flinch. But his father simply looks up from the book, the suggestion of a smile tugging at his mouth.

"What's that, son?"

"Nothing," Sam grumbles, looking away and twisting his fingers restlessly in the bedspread. His face grows even hotter as he remembers the brief spanking his father gave him the day before. Sam's always complained the man treats he and Dean like children, but this – this is going too far. He has no right. And yet, the large hands had been soothing afterwards, cooling his forehead or smoothing his covers. Even when John started reading that ridiculous book, Sam hadn't been able to muster much resistance, just slipping off to sleep beneath the soft rumble of his father's voice. No nightmares, no restlessness, as if the man's mere presence alone can banish Sam's perpetual demons. Sam grimaces at the thought, but doesn't have time to dwell on it as a cell phone rings.

"Winchester." Sam glances over to see his father has picked up his phone. "Hey, champ. How are things going?" John pauses, pushing slightly back from the desk as he listens intently to whatever it is Dean has to say. "Have you been to the county records office?" There's another silence, and then John smiles a bit, obviously pleased by his eldest's response. "Nice work, son. Just finish the job and head back south. What? Sam? Of course he's still alive," John replies, glancing at Sam and rolling his eyes. "What? You've gotta be – fine," John concedes, rising from his chair and walking over to Sam's bedside, holding the phone out. "Your brother wants to talk to you. I'm gonna go down to the office and pick up another paper."

Sam scoots up and takes the phone, waiting for his father to pick up his coat and the motel door to close behind him before speaking urgently into the phone. "Dean. Man, when are you coming back?"

Dean sounds oddly relieved to hear his voice. "I don't know, kiddo. Couple of days? A week?"

"No; no way. You can't leave me with Dad for a week."

"What are you talking about? What happened?"

"He hit me."

There's a fumbling on the other end of the line before Dean seems to regain control of the phone. "What? Did you have a fight?"

"No. Not exactly..." Sam feels himself blushing all over again. "I didn't want to get in the stupid bed and he hit me."

There's silence on the end of the line, and then Dean chuckles. "You mean he swatted you."

"Whatever, man; I don't care. He's gone mental… He's - he's reading Curious George."

"About the monkey?"

"Is there another Curious George?" Sam hisses. "Look, Dean, you can come pick me up; I'll do this job with you - "

"No. I'm sorry, Sammy, but Dad's right. You need time to heal."

"Dean - "

"No."

"Traitor," Sam mutters, sinking back against the headboard in defeat.

"Bitch. Is it gonna kill you to do what he says for just a few more days?"

"It might," Sam grouses. "Fine. But don't say I didn't warn you." He snaps the phone shut, his mind still working diligently. Dean might not be coming to the rescue, but there's always more than one solution to a problem, and John Winchester is not a patient man. Playing nursemaid is going to get old after a while, especially if his charge is as needy as a six year-old. Eventually, his father will either find an excuse to take off, or pack both of them for Antioch. Either way, it's a win. Sam smiles smugly, tossing the phone onto the bed, and wonders what's on television.

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

"Sam. Can't we turn that noise off for a while? I can't even hear myself think," John says, casting a weary glare at the room's small TV. Sam's had on that damn music television since yesterday afternoon. And to think John's folks had thought his music was bad….

Sam somehow manages not to snicker, rolling his eyes weakly toward his father. "But I'm bored and the music helps me sleep," Sam says plaintively, his gaze soft and pleading. He waits for John to toss the set out the window, but his father simply turns the volume down on the appliance and gives Sam an appraising look.

"You should try to eat something; how about some tomato soup and Saltines? Think you could handle that?"

Sam lets his eyes drop, heaves a little sigh. "I don't know… Dean gets Chicken Noodle…" He expects a terse dismissal, even a reprimand, but when he glances up, John is looking at him with a faintly indulgent expression.

"Chicken noodle, huh?"

"Uh, huh," Sam says, trying not to let the surprise enter his voice.

"I suppose I could make a run to the store. If you promise you're gonna stay in bed," John adds on a stern note.

Sam blushes. "Sure."

"Okay, then," John says, reaching out a hand and tousling his hair. "Anything else?"

"Uhhhh…" Sam racks his brain. "Jello. Pineapple Jello."

"Pineapple?" John makes a face. "They actually make that?"

"Yeah; it's my favorite," Sam says, putting a note of longing in his voice.

John smiles at the tone, shakes his head. "Fine. Pineapple. Got it. I'll be back in a while."

Sam frowns at the door long after his father has left. That didn't go exactly as planned. Apparently the older hunter is still suffering from some temporary sense of obligation, but it won't last. And this time Sam isn't going to be left disappointed. After a few hours shopping and a day or two of waiting on Sam hand and foot, John will be more than ready to go. Annoyingly, the thought doesn't comfort Sam the way he thinks it should, and he's relieved when his cell phone rings from the nightstand.

"Saved by the bell," he mutters, and reaches for the device. It's Dean, making a pretense of needing a phone number he already has. Sam banters with him for a while, assures him he's getting better even though his fever is still over a hundred and his legs seem to buckle after only a few minutes of being on his feet. There are some things Dean just doesn't need to know, and he's having a hard enough time convincing Dean he's ready to join him. "You shouldn't be there alone, Dean."

"I'm fine, Sammy," is the long-suffering reply. "And dad says you're gonna need a lot of rest."

"Don't worry about, Dad. Just give me a couple of days."

"Sam. Whatever you're doing, or thinking of doing – just - don't."

"What?" Sam asks, turning a bottle cap between the fingers of his free hand. "Who says I'm doing anything?"

"Whenever you and Dad are together for more than a few days, one of you loses your temper and then you end up doing something stupid."

"It's not stupid," Sam says.

"So you are doing something."

"No," Sam denies.

Dean huffs in exasperation. "Sam, you just said - "

"No, I didn't"

"Yeah, you did."

"No, I'm – Dean," Sam complains. "It's fine; nothing's going on."

"You better hope so, because I'm not gonna be there to save your sorry ass this time."

"When did you ever save my sorry ass?"

"What about the time you broke that lamp playing ball in the house?"

"You broke that lamp, Dean."

"Yeah. And did I blame it on you?"

Sam rolls his eyes. "Goodbye, Dean."

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

Sam soon realizes he's underestimated the shopping prowess of John Winchester. His father is nothing if not a hunter, and he shows up two hours later, grocery bags in hand. "I had to go to three different place, but I found the Jello. Are you hungry?"

"Starved," Sam replies without thinking, then mentally kicks himself.

"Good," John says, moving to drop the bags down on the counter of the small kitchenette. "How 'bout some soup?" he asks, retrieving a can from the bag and holding it up. "Chicken noodle, right?"

"Oh." Sam lets his face fall.

John frowns, setting the can down on the counter. "What is it?"

Sam plucks listlessly at the bedspread. "It's just, that kind has the spirals; Dean and I always get the kind with the stars."

"Sam. It's noodles," John tells him, his hands moving to rest on his hips.

"I know. But the spirals taste funny..." Sam trails off with a sad sigh, feeling the weight of his father's stare heavy on his face. His pulse quickens at the long silence, and then there's a low curse from the older Winchester. Oh, god, here it comes…

"Stars… For crying out – I'll be right back," John growls, grabbing his keys and once more leaving the motel room. Sam stares after him, stunned.

"Sure. When you want to get rid of him…" he grumbles, then leans over to reach under the bed where he and Dean always keep their junk food stash. Sam pulls out a rolled up bag of Ruffles and smiles. Careful not to make too big a mess with the crumbs, he lies back on the bed and munches contentedly. Sam eats about a quarter of the bag, until his hunger pangs dim and he feels slightly sick. Fatigue creeps into his limbs. Despite his improved mental faculties, Sam's body still hasn't caught up with his mind, and at some point during the music station's top ten countdown he drifts off. He doesn't wake again until there's a bump outside the motel room door.

"Oh shit." Sam hears a key turn in the lock and immediately leans over and stuffs the bag of potato chips back under the bed. He sits back up just before John shoves his way through the door.

"Okay, here it is – chicken noodle – the kind with the stars," John announces with weary triumph, as if he's just taken out a pack of werewolves. He drops the bag onto the desk and slides off his coat. "Just give me a minute to heat it up."

"I'm not hungry anymore." The look on his father's face is priceless.

"What? I thought you were starved?"

"I think I was just really nauseated."

John stares at his son. Sam looks innocent enough, but between he and Dean, he's always been the more dangerous. And there's a spark in the kid's eyes that tells John there's more to this than just some damn noodles. "Fine. I'm gonna take a shower; shout if you need something."

"Sure, Dad." Sam watches the bathroom door slam shut behind his father, pushing down the guilt that threatens to surface. He has nothing to feel badly about. John Winchester has never been the father he's been the last few days, not for years and years, and Sam will be damned if he's going to start regretting things now.

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

"No, Sam."

"But why not?" Sam demands, thumping his hands down on the bed in frustration. "Even you said I'm getting better."

"And you are," John replies, tossing out some take out he'd brought home with the groceries. "But you're still in no shape to travel. You're barely able to make it to the bathroom without swaying, and you think you're gonna take on a poltergeist?"

Sam grinds his teeth. "Dean shouldn't be alone."

"Dean's got it," John tells him, growing impatient with the argument. "Your fever should be gone in a couple days; we'll talk about it then."

"But - "

"No," John repeats firmly, walking over to take the seat at Sam's bedside again. "That's the end of it." He ignores the mutinous look that crosses Sam's face and reaches for the first aid kit. "On your stomach, Sam."

"I don't want to. It's boring."

John counts to ten in his head, reminding himself that his son is sick. "I know it is, but I want to change the dressings and that wound needs air."

"It's fine, Dad. Why won't you just believe that I'm feeling better?"

"Maybe because this morning you swore you were dying?"

Sam shrugs. "I rallied."

John puts the first aid kit back and picks up Curious George. "What if I read to you a little?"

"I don't feel like it." Sam glares at the book. "It's a subjugist narrative, anyway."

"A – it's a what?" John asks, raising his brows. "It's a guy and his monkey, Sam."

"It's George, Dad. His name is George. And maybe George doesn't want to be his monkey anymore."

"Why wouldn't he want to be his monkey?"

"Because maybe George is his own monkey, okay? Maybe he would have liked to stay in Africa; nobody asked what he wanted."

"Sam, no one wants to stay in Africa."

"You see? That's exactly the kind of imperialist thinking I'm talking about."

John blinks, trying to pinpoint exactly when he lost control of this conversation. "He has three meals a day and his own bed; I don't see the problem."

"All he does is try to change him, because he thinks George is a pain in the ass," Sam gripes. "And maybe George is sick of it. Because he's never gonna be the monkey he wants him to be. So why wait around to get dumped in some shitty zoo?"

John flips the book over. "Is this an abridged version?"

"This is bullshit – we should be in Antioch," Sam fumes.

"That's enough," John warns him, setting the book down on the cluttered nightstand. "It's already been settled, and you aren't going anywhere."

"I don't need you to take care of me, I did fine without you for years. And now we're just sitting here, and Dean's out there hunting that thing on his own. And for what? I don't even know why you're here." Sam finishes the tirade on a bitter note, his anger spent in the exhausting rush of adrenaline. He expects his father to flatten him, shout, or anything but sit there with this look on his face; a look that on anyone else Sam might think was pain.

"Well." John looks at his son, not surprised to see regret and confusion already welling up behind his son's furious gaze. "Maybe that's something you're gonna need to think about." John rises tiredly from the chair, feeling every year of his age and more. "I'm going out for a while," he says, pulling on his coat and grabbing his keys from the desk. "You need me, you call."

And this time when the door closes behind his father, there's no satisfaction in it for Sam at all.

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

John doesn't stay out long, just long enough for a beer and several cigarettes and a chance to pretend that Sam's words hadn't cut him to the bone. His son is right, about a lot of things, but John is trying. And Sam – Sam's hard. Dean will always be his, his little soldier, his comrade in arms, the son that remembers John when he was more of a hero and less of a drill sergeant. It's Sammy that always asked the questions he couldn't answer, always pushed the envelope; always wanting more than John could give and whose accusing eyes haunted him long after the kid left for Palo Alto. But with that evil son of a bitch finally put to rest, this is John's second chance, the one that he's always hoped for, and there's no way he's going to let it pass him – or Sam – by.

When John returns to the motel, Sam is still awake, sitting up and watching the television. His face looks pale and splotchy, and John wonders if it's due to fever or tears.

"I thought you quit." Sam's quiet voice reaches John as he pulls off his jacket. He tosses the garment onto a chair and shrugs.

"It was just a few."

"You shouldn't smoke, Dad."

John manages a small smile. "I know, Sammy. Shouldn't you be asleep?"

"They've got racing on."

John glances at the television and nods, impressed. "That one of those 24-hour racing channels?"

"Yeah."

"Then there'll be racing tomorrow," John tells him, switching off the set. He bites back a grin at Sam's nearly concealed pout, and puts his hand to Sam's forehead. Reassured that Sam's fever isn't climbing, he switches off the lamp. "'Night, son."

"Night, Dad," Sam says softly, as John stretches out on the opposite bed. The older hunter closes his eyes, listening. He waits for his son's breathing to slow and fall into a steady, peaceful rhythm, and then sleep claims him as well.

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

Sam wakes to a thin shaft of light penetrating the dingy curtains and falling over his face. He rubs his forearm over his eyes and eases up on his elbows, looking around what appears to be an empty motel room. "Dad?"

His voice sounds strangely small in the near-vacant room, and Sam swings his legs to the side of the bed and gets to his feet. He catches sight of a piece of paper on his father's bed, and he takes two shaky steps over and snatches it up in his hand. His eyes move over the hastily scrawled lines.


Sam, got a call on a job.
Stay put. Dad


He left. Sam sits down on the edge of the bed. So that's what John Winchester's good for. Five nights and a monosyllabic Dear Sam letter. Now he can go after Dean. The victory sticks in Sam's throat. Only five nights to remind his father why he'd wanted Sam to leave in the first place. A stellar performance; even better than Our Town.

As soon as the tears blur his eyes fury overtakes him, burns through Sam's senses like a wildfire. There's a whirring in the air, a hum, and a splitting white pain fires in his skull. Crashes echo from every wall, the shattering of glass, and then Sam falls to his knees among the ruin, ignoring the shards of glass that bite angrily into the knees of his pajamas. He hangs his head, his fists rubbing crossly at his streaming eyes. It's over. Over. And it's time to move on.

For the longest time he doesn't move. Then slowly Sam staggers to his feet and begins looking for his clothes.

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

Sam slings his duffel a little higher on his shoulder, trying to ignore the sweat rolling down his face and back and the tremors that keep making it necessary for him to sit down on the side of the highway. He looks like a crack addict in the midst of a withdrawal, and it's no mystery to him why the cars keep speeding by him. At this rate, he'll never make it to Antioch, let alone the next town. He thinks about calling Dean on his cell, but his brother doesn't have the time to fetch him right now, so he leaves the device off, determined to save the battery for emergencies only.

Sam stumbles a bit, wondering how many more hours – or minutes – he can go like this before he'll have to find somewhere to rest his failing body. He dashes the sweat from his eyes with the back of one hand as he hears the approaching roar of an engine, and he prepares for another ride to just pass him by. He's surprised when the black truck swerves and screeches to a stop on the shoulder in front of him, the motor coming to an abrupt halt. John Winchester jumps from the cab, its door slamming shut behind him.

"Sam!"

Sam blinks the perspiration from his eyes, wondering if this is some weird mirage. "Dad?"

His father keeps striding forward until he's standing in front of him. "Are you hurt?" The dark eyes move over Sam in quick assessment.

"What? No." Sam has an awful thought. "Did something happen to Dean?"

"Your brother's fine."

Sam still frowns. "What are you doing here?"

"What am I doing here?" John's incredulous, then shakes his head, taking Sam's bag. "Come on; get in the truck."

"Wait - why?"

John stalks over to the passenger door and yanks it open, tossing the duffel behind the seat before pinning Sam with a steely gaze. "Samuel. I'm not gonna count this time."

Sam's jaw tenses, and he flushes a bit, but he slowly walks over to the truck and gets in. A moment later John climbs in on the other side, and he starts the engine and turns them onto the highway, this time heading back towards town and the motel. "So. Do you want to tell me what the hell happened today?" John's knuckles are white where he's gripping the steering wheel.

Sam looks away out the window, confused and angry. Why is he back?

"No? Okay, then. Maybe you'd like to hear about my day. I woke up, left a note with very explicit instructions for my sick and injured kid, and went downtown. I get back from the mechanic's - "

"Is something wrong with the truck?" Sam asks, turning in surprise. Is that why you're still here? He listens for a moment, but the vehicle sounds okay.

"I went to see about a job, Sam; remember?"

"A job?" Sam asks weakly. 'Got a call on a job.' A job. Oh. Oh, no…

"Yes, Sam, a job. I thought it might be good to pick up a little extra cash while we're in town. So I get back from the mechanic's, I walk into a motel room that looks like it's been hit by a daeva, and no sick kid in sight. Wanna guess how that made me feel?"

Sam's stomach flips nervously. "Uh. Annoyed?"

"Annoyed." John shakes his head, looks over at him. "You thought I left."

Sam flushes, unable to deny it. "Well, why wouldn't I?"

"Wasn't that what you wanted?"

"Yes," Sam shoots back defensively. Then, wilting a bit, "Maybe. I don't know."

"Yeah; I think you do. And I think you were mad as hell. So instead of following orders and staying put, you took off with an infected wound and a fever."

"I was feeling better - "

"After pitching a full-scale tantrum and trashing private property?"

Sam stares at his hands. "Well, when you put it like that, it sounds kinda bad..."

"You think?" John reaches into his coat and pulls out his cell, flipping it open and punching a few buttons.

"Who are you calling?" Sam asks.

"Your brother. I imagine he's gonna have a few things to say to you himself," John says, waiting for his eldest to pick up. "Hey, Dean… Yeah, I got him," John says, glancing at Sam with a nearly tangible annoyance. "Doing a Jack Kerouac… No, he's fine. For now," John adds pointedly, and Sam can't help slinking down a little in the seat. "Yeah, okay. Here he is." John holds the phone out. "Your brother wants to talk to you."

Sam looks at the open phone and groans.

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

Sam sits quietly on his motel room bed, following his father's terse instructions to stay put, quiet, and only breathe enough to keep himself alive. The silence gives him plenty of time to contemplate. His conversation with Dean had been brief and scathing. His brother had left mid-job and was u-turning back toward Antioch, and though he didn't have time for the ass-kicking Sam apparently deserved, he still managed to fire off a few choice words that had Sam wincing on his end of the line. That call ended with an ominous "later", and Sam has to hope that it will be much, much later. Unfortunately Dean isn't the only Winchester who's pissed at him right now.

Sam was shocked to see the damage to the room again, but his father didn't give him time to dwell on it. He was steered carefully to the bathroom and put in the shower, then directed once more to change into some clothes his father had provided. Sam only opened his mouth to protest once, and the look he received was so fulminating that he abruptly shut it. Even now, sweeping up glass and righting furniture, there's an intensity to the older man that has Sam biting the inside of his lip. Especially when one sweep of the broom edges the bag of potato chips out from underneath the bed.

John gives his son a penetrating look. "Is that why you weren't hungry?"

"Uhhhh…"

"Never mind."

It takes a good forty-five minutes for John to get the room in some semblance of order, and he continues to set things upright and straighten pictures while glancing surreptitiously at his son. Sam looks nervous as hell. And he damn well should. When John had seen the destruction in their room, he'd panicked, assumed the worst… John realizes he's holding his breath and releases it, willing himself to calm. He looks again at Sam, who's staring at the pattern on the bedspread like he's performing a cryptanalysis, and decides this has gone on long enough. It's over. And it's time to move on…

John pushes the chair back under the desk and walks to the center of the room, studying his son with a thoughtful gaze. "So. You ready to talk now?"

Sam shrugs, not quite able to meet his father's eyes.

"That would be 'yes, sir'," John prompts him gently, taking a seat on the opposite bed.

"Yes, sir." Sam swallows, his throat feeling like sand.

"You thought I left." John waits for a response, but there is none. He suddenly misses the vociferous Sam of earlier years. "I don't blame you." Sam's eyes lift in surprise. "It's not like I've given you a hell of a lot of reasons to trust me."

But I want to
. Sam winces. "Dad - "

"I know I haven't been the best father, Sam. And if you want to give me shit, I guess I can take it. But I've got zero-tolerance for reckless behavior, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna let that slide."

"But, Dad - "

"No, Sammy. Not this time. You want a normal dad? Well, you got one. You scared the hell out of me today. And you know what normal dads do when their kid scares the hell out of them?"

Sam shifts uncomfortably. "Ask them nicely not to do it again?"

"Wrong answer." John pats his lap.

"No," Sam says, hating the panic he can hear in his voice. "It's not fair. You don't just get to pick and choose when you're my father."

"No, I don't. And you don't get to pick and choose when you're my son." Sam looks deflated at the pronouncement. "Sam," John reminds him gruffly.

"Please, Dad. Not," Sam swallows, "not like this."

"So now you're afraid of me?" His father leans forward on his arms, his dark eyes moving over Sam's face.

"What? No," Sam says quickly, shaking his head. "But I don't want you to spank me."

"That's why it works, son." John pauses, raises a brow. "You really wanna tell me you don't deserve it?"

Sam's eyes dart away, his stomach dropping, and he tries to think of something, anything that might excuse why he's apparently lost his mind. "Uhhhh…"

"I'll take that as a no." John sits up and steels himself. "Now, Sam." Sam jumps a little, and reflexively stands up, wiping his palms on the legs of his sweats, and slowly shuffles to his father's side. There's no discussion, no lecture; John simply takes his arm and pulls him over his knees, waiting for Sam to settle his chest and most of his legs upon the mattress. Not wanting to aggravate Sam's injured shoulder, John wraps his left arm tightly around Sam's waist, making sure Sam's right arm is pinned there as well. "Is that comfortable for your shoulder?"

"It's okay," Sam says, burying his face in the crook of his free arm.

"Good." And before Sam can blink, his father yanks his sweats to his knees and a large hand cracks against the seat of his briefs in a blazing swat. And it doesn't stop there. Smack after smack rains down on Sam's vulnerable backside, and Sam bites his lip and tries not to cry out or kick too much in response to the veritable fire being lit behind him. His resolve lasts only minutes. The spanking hurts every bit as much as he remembers, and his father isn't kidding. Sam's breathing quickens, and he can't help squirming over John's thighs.

"Dad – ow! Dad, please… I didn't – oww! I didn't mean it!" Sam pleads desperately, hot tears filling his eyes, but John's only response is to tug his briefs down to join his sweats, and then the spanking continues. The stinging smacks brand Sam's bare skin in a horrible, awful rhythm, and he can't stop the tears from spilling over his cheeks and puddling to the bedspread beneath him. His world dissolves in a haze of heat and grief, and worse than the searing pain is the shame that tightens his chest with every choked sob, and the humbling realization that maybe this time – this time – John Winchester is right. Sam slumps over his father's lap, any thoughts of resistance long since abandoned. He doesn't know how much longer the older hunter spanks him after the sobbing begins, but the answer is somewhere between not too long and much, much too long. At some point his clothes are repositioned and Sam's lifted from his father's lap and sat on the bed, John's strong hands gripping his shoulders.

"Don't you ever, ever, scare me like that again. Do you hear me?" John demands, punctuating the question with a small shake.

Sam can barely make out his father's face through his blurry eyes, but he nods ardently, and John feels some of the tension drain from his body. With a soft curse he pulls the kid into his arms, relieved when Sam's forehead drops against his shoulder and the tears begin soaking his shirt. "I'm sorry," Sam gulps between sobs, as John's hand moves in slow circles over his back. "I just – I didn't mean to - "

"I know, Sammy," John murmurs against his dark hair, his throat aching painfully. "It's okay. Everything's okay." They sit like that for a long time, until Sam wearily lifts his head from his shoulder, dashing at his eyes with the back of his hand. John smiles softly at the childish gesture, watching as Sam straightens. His son grimaces as he shifts positions, and John suspects he won't get any arguments about Sam spending time on his stomach tonight.

John clears his throat self-consciously. "So. This guy in the yellow hat..." Sam's tearstained face looks up in surprise. "I've been thinking," John admits gruffly.

"Yeah, Dad?"

"Maybe you were right, and he can be a hard-headed son of a bitch. But maybe there's a reason he took George home, a reason he keeps taking him home." Sam's eyes widen slightly, and John shrugs. "Maybe life isn't very interesting without George around. Maybe he doesn't even know how to live without him."

Sam swallows. "The guy could change his mind."

John shakes his head, his calloused thumb reaching out to brush away another tear. "That'll never happen, Sammy."

"How do you know?"

"I read ahead." The assertion draws a watery chuckle from his youngest, and John can't quite suppress a grin of his own. "Come on," he says, standing and tugging Sam to his feet as well. "Let's get you back in bed. We're gonna be lucky if you don't relapse. And I'll make you some of that Jello later, okay?"

"Uh, Dad? About that?"

"What now, Sam?"

"I'm allergic to pineapple. What? Ow!"

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

Two more days and Sam's fever breaks, three and he actually feels like a normal human being. There have been several more discussions with his father, one about wound disclosure, and quite a few on following orders, but Sam has been attentive and said "Yes, sir" a lot, and John seems satisfied that Sam's got the message. Sam shuts the water off and climbs out of the shower, enjoying his privacy again as he pulls on his clothes. There's just something about having your father in the bathroom with you that strikes Sam as inherently wrong.

As he steps from the bathroom, Sam's surprised to hear someone rattling around in the kitchen. "Hey, Dad – I thought you went to work - "

"Hey, Sammy." Dean washes down the rest of his pop and plunks the can down on the counter. Sam wanders into the room and takes a seat at the head of his bed, watching Dean warily. The last time he spoke to Dean, he was threatened with bodily harm, and he's not too certain his brother wasn't serious. "What? No welcome home?"

"How'd it go?"

"I smoked the evil son of a bitch – how do you think it went?" Dean walks over and picks Curious George up out of the chair still positioned by Sam's bed. He sits down, holding the yellow volume in his lap. His jaw is held unusually taut, and Sam tenses for the blistering lecture that's certain to ensue. "So," Dean says, "I hear someone was a naughty monkey."

Sam's head jerks up, and he realizes that Dean is now hunched over, his shoulders shaking with silent hilarity. He yanks the pillow out from behind his back and smacks Dean in the head with it. "Jerk," he accuses, causing his brother to burst into genuine laughter. Sam tries to scowl at him, but he's too happy to see Dean to work up much of a temper, and he feels a smile tugging at his own lips. "Ha, ha. Very funny."

Dean waits until his amusement has dwindled to the occasional chuckle before speaking. "Dude. I told you not to mess with Dad."

"I told you that stripper in Pensacola wasn't just a stripper, but I don't remember it stopping you."

"At least I got something out of it."

"Yeah, about a week's worth of penicillin."

Dean grins, fondly nostalgic, and Sam shakes his head. They both smile, content in the easy silence. "You okay?" Dean asks after a while.

Sam looks up in surprise. "Yeah. Of course." He lifts a brow. "I don't know if I'll ever get over the memory of Dad reading Curious George, though…"

Dean snorts. "You and me both."

Sam's forehead furrows. "What do you mean?"

"You don't remember?" Dean shakes his head. "Man, you used to make him read it every night – this is your book."

"What?" Sam scoffs. "That is not my book."

Dean tosses the volume into Sam's lap. "Read it and weep, Sammy. Check out the bottom corner of the back cover; you chewed it off when we had chicken pox." Sam picks up the book and rubs his thumb over the jagged edge in wonder.

"But why? Dean, why would he keep this all these years?"

"Well, you know Dad," Dean says dryly. "He's just full of surprises." He slaps Sam on the leg and stands up. "Any hot water left?"

The bathroom door soon swings shut and Sam hears the water begin its run through the motel's noisy pipes. He slowly turns the book in his hands, pausing for a moment before opening it. Sam stares at the loose handwriting on the inside cover.


For Sammy
Love, Dad
Christmas, 1988


"Yeah," Sam murmurs, and smiles just a little. "Yeah, he really is."

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