Author's Notes: Italics denote thinking.

Marksman

'Bat-Boy terrorizes Santa Anita.' John looks at the headline and puts a giant X through it. He's been looking through the newspapers for an hour now, but is short on leads. Whatever their next job will be, it isn't going to include 'Bat-Boy'. John hears the squeak of a shower being shut off, and then the familiar sounds of Dean rattling around in the motel bathroom. Since turning seventeen, Dean goes out more frequently on travel nights. Maybe to hustle pool, maybe to charm cute girls. Although more recently John suspects it's to remove himself from the line of fire. Glancing over at Sam's dark expression as he works at the suite's small table, John can't say he blames him.

As if on cue, John's youngest son huffs in agitation. "This is impossible."

"You can't tell me you can't find what you need in one of those books."

"Yeah. In one of them. One book doesn't make a bibliography, Dad."

"It's one report. It's not gonna make or break you," John tells him, still scanning the paper. He doesn't remember Dean giving him this hard a time at thirteen, but then his eldest son rarely gives him a moment's worry. Unlike Sam… "Now, bow hunting, on the other hand - " John mutters, mostly to himself.

"I just don't understand why I couldn't stay home and go to the library."

John lowers the paper to find Sam flipping through one of the volumes, his stiff posture radiating resentment. "What we do is important, Sam."

"So is this," Sam insists, reaching over for his notecards and starting to take notes from the text. "If I had internet access I'd be done already. Right, Dean?" he asks, hearing his brother come out of the bathroom behind him.

John sighs and returns to his newspaper. "You can write a report without a computer. Use the resources you have. When I was your age, we didn't even have computers."

"How about fire and the wheel?" Sam mutters, and jerks forward as Dean's hand unexpectedly slaps the back of his head. He twists and scowls, but Dean's already getting his watch from the nightstand. Sam doesn't expect his brother to care about something like internet access, but a little back-up when dealing with their father would be nice. He turns back to his books, not bothering to look up when Dean returns to his side.

"Later, geek-boy." Dean musses Sam's hair. "Don't be a pain in the ass and I'll bring back some candy."

"What am I, six?" Sam keeps looking between the text and his notecards, highlighting methodically. "It better be chocolate," he grumbles into the book.

Dean shoots his father a quick grin. Sam's not easy, but he can be had. "You want anything while I'm out?"

"I think we're good here."

"Okay." He cocks a brow suggestively. "Don't wait up."

John snorts and flips a page. "Be back by eleven."

"Come on, Dad – what am I gonna accomplish by eleven?"

"Nothing. That's why it's eleven."

Dean doesn't miss the glint of humor in John's eyes. "Ha, ha. That's hilarious. Maybe we should get Sammy here a drum set and you two can take it on the road." Dean picks up his coat from a chair and shrugs it on. He's just opened the motel room's door when he's stopped by John's voice.

"Stick with the restaurant bar and steer clear of the roadhouse."

"More money at the roadhouse," Dean supposes.

"Not for you."

Dean's quiet for a moment. Then, "Eleven, huh?"

"Still."

"Yeah, that's what I thought."

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

"You're worried."

John looks away from his youngest's penetrating gaze. "I'm not worried, Sam."

"So all the pacing's just for exercise?"

"Your brother must have lost track of the time, got caught up talking to a pretty girl or something. I swear," John mutters. "That kid has more hormones than common sense."

"He does everything you ask him to," Sam says in Dean's defense.

"And yet, he's not here," John counters, rubbing at the back of his neck. Eleven-thirty. Half an hour. It's not such a long time, but an uneasiness creeps up under his skin, refuses to let John relax. And there's no sense in sitting in a motel room when it's easy enough to locate Dean himself. Suddenly making a decision, John grabs his own coat. "Stay here and keep the door locked. Anything busts in, shoot it."

"Where are you going?"

"I'm going over to the restaurant. Just stay put; do you hear me?"

"Yeah. But - " The door slams shut and Sam hears John lock it from the outside. Sam slaps his book shut and slumps back in his chair. "I thought you said you weren't worried…"

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

Dean can't remember when he's been so glad to be outside. He pauses in the gravel parking area of the roadhouse, sucking in the cool, smoke-free air. Not bad for a night's work. Four hundred dollars for the kitty ought to go a long way in cooling his father's temper; that is, if John ever finds out. Maybe even help with that computer Sammy's been yapping about. Not that his father would ever admit they need the money. John is always taking odd jobs here and there – the Ford monstrosity currently parked in their garage, for one – but it's barely enough to cover their business expenses, let alone keep growth-spurting Sam in jackets and shoes.

Dean whistles under his breath and checks his watch, struggling to make out the numbers in the darkness. Nine thirty-eight pm. Okay, that's wrong. It was nine thirty-eight the last time he checked, and that was at least an hour ago. "God damn it," he grumbles, as music blares behind him from the bar's opening door.

"Leaving so soon?" Dean recognizes the voice as tonight's mark. He hadn't been much of a challenge, really, A) because he was drunk, and B) because he wasn't all that bright to start with. But he'd had a nice enough girlfriend, and Dean had enjoyed talking to her while he cleaned the guy out. "You didn't even say goodbye."

Dean turns and smiles. "I hate long goodbyes; they're just so dreary."

A shaft of pale light from the doorway falls across the drunk's face, and Dean can just make out the man's sneer. "Just a couple of games, just for fun. Just a few lucky shots. Think you're as lucky outside as you are inside?"

"Look, why don't you go back inside?" Dean suggests. He's not worried about defending himself, especially when the other guy can't walk straight, but he's pretty sure drawing attention isn't a good idea. "Your girlfriend is probably looking for you."

The man grabs Dean's jacket and pulls him forward. "Don't even think about my girlfriend. I saw you looking at her - "

"Hey!" Dean feels himself yanked backward as John Winchester steps in between Dean and tonight's lucky victim. Even in the near darkness, the tone is unmistakable. Oh, God. And he's pissed... Dean's stomach twists into a knot. "Back off. What's going on here?"

"Mind your own business," the man growls. "We're talking."

"He is my business," John says, glancing over at Dean. And I'll deal with you later. "So I'll ask you again: what's going on?"

"That punk stole four hundred dollars from me, that's what. And I want it back."

Dean sees his father stiffen. "My son doesn't steal."

"Are you calling me a liar?"

There's a world of ugly in the words, and John lowers his voice. "We don't want any trouble. We just want to go our way."

"Then you hustled the wrong guy." The man shifts slightly, unsteady on his feet, and then Dean sees it flash in the darkness. Gun. The word hits his conscious mind along with the deafening crack of a shot. The man's hand is shaking, the gun wobbling as it points at John Winchester's head. Somehow his father is still standing. Oh, God. Is he bleeding? Did he miss? How could he have missed?

John doesn't waste time mulling it over, just draws his fist back and slams it into the drunk's jaw with the force of a sledgehammer. The man drops as John intended him to, sprawled out in the gravel among the cigarette butts and other wet debris. John seethes with disgust. "I hate a crappy shot," he mutters.

Dean stares at his father, a little dazed, then doubles over and throws up all over the ground. The sudden splashing sound seems to bring the blood pounding in John's ears down to a dull roar, and he turns and goes to his son. He crouches at Dean's side, a gentle hand at the back of his neck. "Slow breaths," he says softly, his eyes scanning the parking lot for potential witnesses. Beneath his hand Dean trembles like a nervous colt. "We need to get out of here," John tells him.

Dean closes his eyes briefly. "I've got it," he says, his voice sounding odd and hollow even to him.

"Good boy. Let's go," John urges, taking Dean's arm and pulling him to his feet. He keeps one eye trained behind them as he steers Dean toward the car.

Good boy.
Dean tries not to throw up again as they trudge through the gravel and wet, tries to stop hearing the whistle of the bullet slamming past his father's head. Stupid. Monumentally stupid.

"Dean." It's a low command, and Dean blinks in sudden awareness. "Get in the car." Dean's standing in front of the Impala, and by the look on his father's face, has been for some time. He gets into the car and brushes woodenly at his face, unsure if he's crying or if it's just started raining again.

John gets them out of the parking lot, turns the heat on. Dean is staring at his hands, not saying a word, and John is reminded of those months after the fire, all those years ago, when his son hovered at his side like a small, silent ghost. He's not sure whom he's angrier at; Dean or himself. He's made it his life's work to give both his sons the means for survival, the skills to ward off and slay any evil creature that might threaten. And yet it's obvious Dean's lost his last shred of innocence tonight – an innocence John thought long trained out of him. You taught him to be wary of every kind of evil; except the kind that isn't supernatural. And it almost got him killed.

John's still brooding the point when he and Dean return to the motel room. Sam is lying on his stomach on the bed, watching television. He immediately raises up on one elbow as John and Dean trudge inside. Heading off the round of twenty questions that's certain to ensue, John turns to his eldest. "Get ready for bed." Dean wordlessly complies, and John begins to move Sam's books to one side of the table so he can work.

Sam watches the bathroom door click shut behind his brother before turning wide eyes to his father. "What happened?"

John retrieves his papers and journal from the chair. "It's late and I'm tired, Sam. Did you brush your teeth?"

"Yeah," Sam says, still waiting to see if John will expound on the night's events.

"Then hop in bed. It's past your bedtime," John tells him, sitting down and starting his own research.

"It usually is," Sam remarks under his breath, climbing under the covers to wait for Dean. He doesn't have to wait long; a minute later Dean comes out of the bathroom, switching off all the lights except for the one their father is working by. Sam's eyes strain to see Dean's face as his brother crawls into bed beside him. "Dean," he whispers to the darkness, "Where were you, man?" Dean answers by rolling over so that his back is to his little brother. "Dean?" Sam tries again.

"Am I going to have to separate you two?" John asks from his small circle of light. And Sam waits for Dean's typical "Would you?", but it never comes.

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

The roar of a shot. Dean sits up in bed, the sound of gunfire ringing in his ears. Slowly he makes out the corners of the motel room in the darkness, the dimly-lit table where his father still works. His breathing makes a gradual return to normal. A dream. Not a nightmare. He's too old for those anymore, and much too old to seek comfort for one. Dean glances again at his father, only to find John watching him with discerning eyes. Dean swallows and looks away uneasily, lies back down and buries into his pillow, grateful that Sam's a sound sleeper. Dean closes his eyes, the weight of John's stare still heavy upon him. Like an extra blanket, it covers him until sleep comes once more.

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

John Winchester has always requested a certain amount of respect from his sons. Still, if Dean doesn't volunteer something other than "Yes, sir" soon, John's pretty sure he'll lose his mind. It's been almost a week now since the night in Riverside – plenty of time for Dean to move past what happened. At least it should be. John even decided to "take a break from hunting", as he explained it to the boys the day after they returned home. Just a week or two. Sam, as expected, had been grateful for the reprieve. Dean had simply pushed himself away from the dinner table, wearing the same shuttered expression that John's become so familiar with the last few days.

At least one son still talks back to me
, John thinks wryly, hovering in Sam and Dean's doorway. It's past eleven, and his youngest son is sitting at the boys' desk, still engrossed in whatever subject has caught his interest tonight.

"Hey, Sammy. Lights out," John says, walking up behind him.

"Just five more minutes."

"Forget it," John tells him, reaching over Sam's shoulder to shut his book. "Five more minutes of studying isn't going to make you any smarter, kiddo. But five more minutes of sleep might make you easier to get up in the morning." He pulls the desk chair out and gives Sam a tug upward.

"Wouldn't count on it," Sam grouses.

"Bed," John repeats, turning Sam in that direction and propelling him forward with a light swat to the behind. Sam throws him a look over his shoulder, but goes ahead and crawls into the twin bed. John takes a seat on the side, pulling the covers up around his youngest. The tuck-in isn't a ritual Sam allows him to perform much these days, and the lack of protest is a testament to how tired his son actually is. "Where's your brother? I thought he was with you?" John asks, brushing some hair from Sam's eyes.

"He's out in the garage."

"Still?" John frowns. Dean's spent more time in the garage this week than in the house, training on the old punching bag John has from his Marine Corps days. "He was out there this afternoon. He never came in?" Sam shrugs. John gives Sam's hair one last pet and presses a quick kiss to his forehead. "Sweet dreams, Sammy."

"G'night, Dad," Sam mumbles, his lids already growing heavy. John switches out the desk light and starts to leave, only to hear Sam call after him. "Dad?"

"Yeah?"

"Can we get a computer of our own? It'd be really great for school, and I could do research for you and Dean, too. It'd be a lot of help on hunts; I know it would," Sam insists drowsily.

John doesn't know whether to be annoyed or amused. If there's one thing Sam gets from him, it's dogged persistence. Never say die. "We'll see. Now sleep. Dean'll be in soon."

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

True to John's word, Dean had been in soon, but he certainly hadn't been very happy about it. John sits at the kitchen table armed with a gallon of milk and a plate of burnt toast. The milk is warm and the toast is cold. This isn't what usually comes to John's mind when planning an ambush, but then he's never hunted a creature as elusive as his eldest son. Bait and flush.

"Twenty-four down: Russian majority…" John stares at his crossword blankly. "How do they come up with this crap?" He looks up as Dean walks past him into the kitchen, book bag in tow. Can you call it a book bag if it never actually carries books? "Hey."

"Hey."

"You sleep okay?"

Dean spares him a glance from his rummaging of the refrigerator. "Fine."

"Uh, huh. Come here." John watches as Dean locates his lunch and shoves it into his bag. "I want to see you." Dean slings the bag over his shoulder and approaches the table. "Closer." John puts down the paper and looks him over. He looks like roadkill. "No training today. Take it easy when you get home."

"Yes, sir." There's a flash of something on Dean's face John doesn't quite recognize, but there's no time to ponder it before Dean is heading for the front door.

"Hey! What about breakfast?"

"No time. Can't be late."

"Since when?" John asks, as the door slams shut behind his oldest son. So much for that plan…"It's like he's possessed," he mutters to himself.

"Who's possessed?" Sam asks, walking into the kitchen and heading straight for the refrigerator.

"You notice anything weird about your brother?"

"All the time," Sam says.

"That's not what I - " John stops. He's been down this road with Sam before, and it leads nowhere. "He's acting strange. What's going on?"

"You're asking me?"

"Sam."

"Okay. Geez." Sam reaches up into the cupboard and grabs a bowl, then grabs the box of Lucky Charms and a stray spoon from the countertop. "I don't know. Yesterday I broke one of his cassettes, and he didn't even pin me down and drool on me."

John blinks. "Dean drools on you?"

"You really have no idea what goes on around here, do you?" Sam pulls a chair out with his foot and sits down. "I'm just saying. He's been off since you guys came back to the motel that night. What'd you do to him?"

"What? Me? Nothing." John watches Sam pour his cereal. "I think I was pretty damn sensitive, considering he almost got his head blown off."

"What?" Oat bits and rainbow-colored marshmallows scatter across the Formica table top.

"Look. It doesn't matter. I don't think it was anything I said."

"Then what?" Sam asks, but his father shakes his head. "What did he say?"

"Nothing, actually."

"Nothing at all?" John shrugs. "Not even 'sorry'?"

"He didn't need to say sorry; you know your brother. I knew he was sorry."

Sam grabs the milk and pours it into his cereal. "Huh."

"'Huh', what?"

"Just 'huh'," Sam replies, replacing the cap on the milk and shoving it back to the center of the table. "Remember what happened when Dean broke your 'Home is Where the USMC Sends You" mug?"

John grunts. "I had to drink out of a Styrofoam cup."

Sam resists the urge to roll his eyes. "And?"

"He said he was sorry and bought me a new mug," John says impatiently.

"He seems to feel pretty bad about what happened."

"It was a mug, Sam."

"I'm talking about Riverside."

"Sure." John nods, expecting it to come clear any second, then frowns when it doesn't. "So?"

"So why not say sorry this time?" Sam asks, in between spoonfuls of cereal. "Unless he thinks you won't forgive him."

"What?" John leans back in his chair. "That's ludicrous."

"Yeah?" Sam swallows. "'Cause you're usually so soft and cuddly?"

John rubs his face with both hands. "Fine."

"You're gonna talk to him?" Sam asks, pushing away from the table and grabbing his backpack from the floor.

"Yeah. Sure."

Sam looks dubious. "Do you know what you're gonna say?"

"I'm the Dad, Sam. I always know what to say."

"Bolshevik."

John drops his hands and raises his brows. "Excuse me?"

"Twenty-four down." Sam grins and snatches a piece of toast for the road. "It's Bolshevik."

John looks down at the crossword. "Huh. I'll be damned..."

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

The call from Caleb later in the morning is the final straw. John rolls out from beneath the Ford truck to grab the portable phone.

"Yeah?"

"John. It's Caleb."

John wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand. "You got something for me?"

"Not what you'd think." There's a pause on the other end of the line. "Got a voicemail from Dean yesterday."

"You did?"

"Asking me what he'd need to start hunting with me… What's going on, John?"

John sighs, suddenly feeling much older than any of his driver's licenses happen to say. "I don't know Caleb, but I'm going to find out. Don't worry about Dean - he's with me."

Caleb chuckles. "Didn't imagine you'd let him go."

"Not this time," John says. Not this time at all.

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

John waits in the hallway, leaning silently against the wall. It's been about fifteen minutes since he heard Dean arrive home, and his son had headed straight for the shower. It still amazes him that a boy who had to be forced to take baths once a week could become a teenager requiring several showers a day. Spot your quarry before it sees you. John hangs back as the shower turns off, and a few minutes later Dean wanders into the boys' room, wearing a faded t-shirt and a pair of old pajama pants. He reaches into his book bag on the floor and tosses a Hershey bar onto Sam's bed. And that's about all the time John's willing to give him.

"Hey."

Dean looks startled to see him in the doorway. "Oh. Hey. Hi, Dad."

"So you remember me." John moves a little closer. With the wet hair and bare feet, Dean looks even younger and more vulnerable to the ex-marine. His dark eyes narrow as he spies Dean's uneaten lunch in the open book bag. "You don't call, you don't write..."

"It's been busy," Dean says lamely, his eyes moving over the room in an attempt to avoid the older man's gaze.

"What's going on, Dean?"

Dean hesitates, his hazel eyes flickering for just a moment. "I don't know what - "

"Dean." Best cut him off at the pass. John crooks a finger at Dean to join him as he moves down the hall and into the living room. Dean approaches warily, but allows his father's hand on his shoulder to propel him forward. "We need to talk."

Dean stops moving. "You want to talk?" he asks slowly, as if the words might belong to some strange new language.

"What?" John asks, frowning. "I can't do that?"

"Uh... I don't know."

John holds back an exasperated sigh. "I do. Now, sit," he says, giving the younger man a gentle shove toward one of their two couches. John discovered long ago that one couch was simply not enough for one man and two lounging adolescents. Dean looks as though he might protest, then sighs himself and sits down, his hand plucking absently a loose thread he's discovered on the knee of his flannel pants. John folds his arms and leans back against the arm of the opposing sofa. "What's new?"

"Uh, well... You know - "

"Seen any movies?"

"No. Not lately. I guess."

"Any new girls?"

"Well, now. There was this - "

"Decide to take up hunting with someone else?"

Dean flinches. "It wasn't like that."

"Wasn't it?" John frowns. "Why didn't you come to me about this?"

"I don't know." Dean shrugs, looking away. "I guess I thought it might be awkward."

John stares at his son. "You think?" He shakes his head in faint disbelief. Well, here goes... John paces a little in the small space, uncertain how to start this. "Look, Dean. I know you're still a little spooked about that thing back in Riverside - "

"Oh, yeah. The thing." Dean's mouth twists grimly. "You mean disregarding an order, letting some guy get the jump on me. Not to mention almost getting a bullet put in your brain... Am I leaving anything out?"

John tries not to flinch at the self-loathing diatribe. Has he been sitting on this for a week? "You had a lapse in judgment; you learn from it and move on."

"Please, Dad. I get it. Just go ahead and say it."

John stops pacing. "Say what?"

"That you don't want to hunt with me anymore."

"I don't want to - . What are you talking about?"

Dean's actually speechless for a moment. John makes a mental note to document the occasion. "I - I thought - ." Dean looks down at his hands. "You said we needed time off. And you've been so - " Dean breaks off, uncertain.

"So 'what'?" John asks, genuinely confused.

"Uh..." Dean shifts uncomfortably. "Well, nice," he says, eyeing his father warily. "I thought - well - "

"You thought I was being nice to you because I wanted you out? Are you concussed?" Am I that much of a hard-ass? John wants to kick himself. He should have discussed this with Dean a week ago when it happened; should have read him the riot act and then some. But then he knew that nothing he could do to Dean would be worse than the guilt his son already felt. John simply hadn't guessed that things would go this far. And there's the problem. So much for that Father of the Year award…

"Maybe - I don't know. I was expecting yelling and threats of violence; I got 'nice'. Sorry, but it's really starting to freak me out."

John runs a hand through his hair and prays for patience. "You're my son. I don't want you out."

"Maybe you should," Dean says quietly.

John sighs, taking a seat on the couch he'd been leaning on earlier. "It was a mistake, Dean. It's a hard life; there's gonna be some glitches."

"Glitches?" Dean repeats, eyes filled with disbelief. "That's what you think it was? A glitch?"

"An unnecessary one," John says pointedly, "but - yeah."

"Look, I know this is you being - sympathetic - so thanks. But I was there, okay? And I remember everything. Too much." Dean grimaces. "Hard to miss you were pissed."

"Yeah. Well. It's easier for me than scared shitless." He waits as Dean glances at him in surprise.

"Dad. I didn't mean - "

"I know you didn't," John says gruffly. "Now, listen. What happened outside wasn't your fault. You didn't make the guy pull a gun. And it's not your fault the girls think you're pretty."

"Handsome," Dean mumbles at the floor, suddenly unwilling to meet his father's eyes again.

"Dean." John uses the firm, steady tone his eldest has always responded to, and Dean looks up again. "I want to know you understand what I'm telling you here." And I need to know you believe it…

"Why are you making excuses for me?"

"Dean," John warns.

"Yes, sir… I understand," Dean adds softly, coloring slightly; with shame or embarrassment, John doesn't know. John can tell Dean doesn't believe what he's saying. Words aren't going to be enough to fix this one. John isn't terribly surprised. He's learned long ago how stubborn Dean can be - how stubborn both his sons can be. Dean's not moved by words like Sam. Touch works so much better - a hand on the shoulder to steer him, a gentle squeeze on the neck to encourage, the occasional well-deserved shake... Maybe the situation calls for a more hands-on approach. This has gone on long enough...

"That's my boy." John infuses the words with approval, giving his son a moment to absorb the praise before allowing his pent-up annoyance to flood his voice. "That's one thing settled. You're in enough hot water already."

"Uhhh - "

"Don't bother. How many times have we been over this?"

Dean's brow furrows. "Well, now - "

"Do you even know what you did wrong here?" John demands.

"Are you kidding?" Dean asks. The conversation seems to have taken a surreal turn.

"What's always been the number one rule for you and your brother, no matter where or what we're doing?"

Dean freezes, and John watches with satisfaction as it dawns on the teenager just what this is about.

"Dean," John prompts, as his son bristles with suppressed indignation. Ah, there you are, kiddo. Good to have you back...

"Don't wander off," Dean mutters.

"Smart kid. I knew you could do it. 'Don't wander off.' Right up there with 'Don't take candy from strangers.'"

Dean winces, unable to miss the familiar sarcasm. "So you are angry."

John smiles grimly. "Oh, you bet I am."

"Shit," Dean murmurs. Then, "Sorry."

"Just what gets into that head of yours?"

"I thought I could get more money."

"And did you think there might be a reason that bar was off-limits? I've known seasoned soldiers who wouldn't go into a place like that, and you jump right in - "

"I didn't think - "

"Damn right you didn't. But that changes now."

Dean swallows nervously. "What do you mean?"

"You think you deserve to be punished. Well, I agree."

"You do?"

"I do."

"You do." Dean shakes his head. "No, of course you do."

"Right, then. Let's finish this. Over here." John pats his knee invitingly. Dean stares at him, uncomprehending. John wonders if maybe his blood sugar is low. "Dean?"

"You, uh, want me to sit on your lap?"

"What?" Oh. For crying out loud... "Think again, son," he replies, careful to keep the amusement from his voice as relief washes over Dean's features. The expression doesn't last long, though, before it's replaced with apprehension.

"Oh... Oh." Dean licks his lips, wondering why his mouth suddenly feels as dry as a stone. "You're - not serious?" he guesses hopefully.

"Yeah, I am."

"Won't that be a little - awkward?"

John shrugs. "You acted like a six-year-old; let the punishment fit the crime. No," he warns, as Dean opens his mouth to speak. "My command, my decision, no arguments."

Dean flushes and squirms in his seat. "No, sir. I mean, I wasn't going to - I'm not. But I don't think - " he fumbles to find the words.

"Dean." Just slow down and tell me what you're thinking.

"I'm not some kid."

"No, you're not," John agrees, leaning forward and resting his forearms on his knees, his hands clasping neatly together. "But you still have a few things to learn."

"Shouldn't we talk about this?"

"Enough talking. You could repeat Latin at nine, Dean, and I can't get you to remember three simple words. Do you see the irony?"

Dean looks away, gives a small nod of concession. He's not willing to give his father any more reasons to be disappointed in him than he already has. "What about Sam?" he asks.

"He's out for a while. It's just you and me." John raises his brows and waits. When Dean doesn't move, he says, "This might be easier if you move a little closer."

"Sorry," Dean says, a little pink-faced, and slowly stands up. He wipes his palms briefly on the legs of his pajamas before approaching his father's side. "Ah, well… How do you want me?" he asks, trying to sound like this is a perfectly normal conversation and not one preceding what's bound to be one of his top ten humiliating experiences.

"Let me worry about that," John tells him, his fingers wrapping gently around Dean's wrist and pulling him forward across his lap. He takes a minute to get Dean situated, using his left arm to pull his son firmly against him, making sure the teenager's legs have some support on the sofa. It's been a while since John's had him in this position, and he notes with pride that time and training have done their job. Dean's always been lean, but there is sinew there, too – strength and heart in equal measure. There's no doubt in his mind his firstborn will surpass him as a hunter. If I can keep him alive that long. John glances down to where Dean has buried his head in his arms. "Okay?"

"Uh, huh."

John doesn't make him wait any longer, just begins spanking the seat of his pajama bottoms with a steady rhythm. Other than a small intake of breath at the start, Dean is quiet, and John knows it may take a while to get to where they need to go. Watching his son carefully for cues, he proceeds to land smack after smack in a uniform pattern, moving from the backs of Dean's thighs to the top of his buttocks and back down again. And though John isn't swinging full-force, after a few minutes he senses Dean's resistance waning.

Dean bites at his lower lip, trying to contain the strangled gasps and groans that climb steadily up his throat. He's endured broken bones and stitched gashes all without a whimper, and the idea that he might crumble beneath a spanking causes him to blush furiously. It's been a couple of years, but it hurts every bit as much as Dean remembers. How do kids take this? Just as he's starting to feel frantic, the stinging smacks stop coming, and Dean sags in relief. But instead of releasing him, the arm around his waist tightens. Dean sucks in a breath as his father's fingers move to his waistband and the soft pants are tugged to his knees. "D-Dad?"

"Easy, champ. We're not done here. That part was professional. This next bit's just for me." Dean gasps out loud as his father's calloused hand smacks down on bare skin. The burn is shockingly more intense without the meager protection of his pajamas, and he finds himself panting with each jarring blow. Panic twists in his stomach as he realizes he's not going to be able to endure this without crying, without falling further in his father's esteem than he already has. So much for taking this like a man…

"Dad, wait! Please... You have to stop!"

"I decide when to stop," John tells him, moving his swats to the tender undercurve of Dean's backside.

Dean hisses and tenses, his entire body vibrating with his effort not to shatter. The sudden sting in his eyes makes him desperate enough to throw his hand behind him, hoping for even a moment's reprieve to rebuild his defenses. The hope is dashed, though, when John easily deflects the hand and pins it to his back, all without missing a beat.

"Dad!" Dean's voice slides up a pitch. "Please – stop! You don't have to – you don't have to hunt with me anymore."

"You're right; I don't. But I'm gonna. And you're gonna stay close – no more hare-brained stunts. You got that?"

"Yes. Yes!" Dean can barely choke out the words before his entire being shudders and gives out in a sob, and he can't remember ever feeling so broken. "I'm sorry, I'm s-sorry…" He collapses over his father's lap, his tears puddling onto the sofa.

John delivers one last spank to Dean's backside before resting his hand gently on the back of Dean's thigh. For several moments the only sound in the room is Dean's ragged breathing as he fights to drag air into his lungs, punctuated by the occasional hitched sob that tells John his son is still crying. John swallows around the lump in his throat and rubs his thumb soothingly over the palm of Dean's still-captured hand, his other hand moving to carefully reposition Dean's pajama pants. A muffled whimper follows, and John releases Dean's hand.

Working as gently as he can, John eases his son into a sitting position on the couch. Dean sucks in a breath and shifts, trying to find a less painful arrangement. He keeps his head low, avoiding John's eyes as the tears keep slipping down his cheeks, still fighting to square his shoulders. John watches, a sudden tenderness in him unable to allow the struggle. He pulls Dean in against him, his hand weaving into the sandy hair as warm tears begin to dampen his shoulder.

"Hey. It's okay," he murmurs. "It's over; just let it go."

"I d- didn't - "

"Give yourself a minute." After a bit John moves his hand to rub up and down Dean'sback in a lulling rhythm, giving him time to piece himself together. And it doesn't take long. After several minutes of quiet comfort, his son slowly pushes from his embrace.

"Okay?" John asks, concerned by the lingering wetness on the Dean's face.

Dean brushes the tears away angrily. "Don't you dare feel sorry for me."

"I don't. You had that coming." John softens the words with a gentle squeeze to the teenager's neck. Some of the tension seems to ease from Dean's shoulders, and John feels encouraged. "What's really wrong here?"

"You'll never trust me again."

Aw, Christ.
"Of course I will. I do."

"I almost got you killed."

"I don't take it personally."

"How can you not?"

"I'm a swell guy." Dean rolls his eyes. "Besides. You did real good this last hunt."

"Yeah?"

"You're still in one piece, aren't you?"

"No thanks to me."

John frowns. "Do we need to continue with this reprimand?"

"Uh – no," Dean says quickly, blushing. "Totally unnecessary. Thanks. I think…" he mutters, looking away.

"You're welcome." John puts a hand briefly to his son's cheek. "Now go find something to do that's taking it easy; you look like shit. I've got a truck to finish."

"I'll help," Dean says, climbing stiffly to his feet. "Let me just get the - "

"Dean."

"Dad?"

"That wasn't a suggestion."

"Oh. Right."

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

The first thing Sam notices is the giant-size Hershey Bar sitting on his pillow. He drops his backpack at the foot of the bed, puzzled. "What – oomph!!" he grunts, as Dean hits him from behind and send him sprawling onto his mattress. "What the – you – damn it, Dean!" he sputters, as Dean straddles his chest, his hands pinning Sam's to either side of his little brother's head. Sam bucks, growling when Dean doesn't budge, then mutters a few choice words.

Dean grins above him. "Ah, ah. Language, Sammy. You don't want Dad to break out the soap again, do you?"

Sam scoffs. "Like you're gonna tell him." He goes ahead and relaxes, since it's pretty obvious he's not going anywhere. For the moment, anyway. "What's with the chocolate?"

"I promised you candy."

"That was a week ago, Dean," Sam informs him.

"Yeah. Well. It's been busy."

Sam snorts. "Busy? You've said like maybe four words total to me since we got home."

"Miss me?"

"If I say yes, will you get up?"

The grin fades. "Sam."

"Yeah, Dean?"

"There is something I've been wanting to ask you."

"What?" Sam asks.

"What happened to my Judas Priest cassette?"

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

"Dad!" John pauses as he rinses the dishes, hearing Sam yell from the boy's bedroom. He waits, listens. There's a couple of thumps, a crash, some swearing (Dean's), shortly followed by laughter (definitely Sam's). John shakes his head and resumes his chore, cringing as a moment later the sound of something breaking echoes down the hallway. The entire sequence begins all over again. He smiles to himself then, letting the familiar sounds of home fill his memory. In just a few days, they'll be back to training, and this time John intends to be thorough. More than thorough. He'll cover everything; demons and drunks, guns and guilt. Pray that they'll remember it when it comes time to take their shots. Because even at home, there are some times you can't afford to miss.

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