With thanks to Eloise, my Beta, whose suggestions made this a much better story, and to Snow White, who inspires me even when I don't want to be inspired!

Passage

"But, Dad - "

"I don't want to hear it, Sam," John Winchester says, his fingers tensely gripping the steering wheel as he drives his youngest home. He glances grimly at the fourteen year-old, whose jaw now juts out in defiance. "We don't need this kind of attention. Since when do you fight at school?"

"They were bullying Alex, and - "

"You let Alex worry about Alex," John tells him. "We're out of here in a week, and I don't want any more trouble. You got that?"

Sam shifts his jaw in frustration, but at another dark look from his father grits out, "Yes, sir." John nods, satisfied, and Sam turns and looks out the window, watching the street fly by though his shag of dark bangs. After four months, the town has just started to feel like home, and Sam begins to imagine what a normal life might be; walking home to the same house after school, making jokes and sharing secrets with friends other than his brother. But as usual, John Winchester has other things on his agenda, and Sam had better not fuck it up. Sam bristles at the thought, crossing his arms and sitting up a little straighter in his seat.

John watches his son from the corner of his eye. Sam is nearly rigid with resentment, and John shakes his head. He hasn't heard the last of this. Not by a long shot…

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

Dean trudges up the front steps of the Winchesters' small rental house, dumping the bundle of collapsed boxes he's carrying onto one side of the porch. He wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve and wishes once more that he had a car already. Something black and sweet and a lot like their father's Impala, glistening from where it's parked in the driveway. The sight of her alone usually makes him smile, but today the familiar sound of his father and brother's raised voices causes his forehead to furrow. *Not again.* His father and Sam have been on shaky ground for months, and John's announcement that they're packing it up again has only made things worse. Dean can hear the terse words even before the door opens.


*"You're just gonna pack us up and drag us off anyway, so what the fuck does it matter?"

"What did you say?"
*

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

"You heard me!" Sam shouts, his fists curled at his sides. "I'm sick of this - why can't we just be normal like everyone else?"

John's voice is level, tightly controlled. "You know why."

"Yeah, and I don't care."

The recklessly flung words sting, and John wonders just when the hell it was he stopped being the kid's hero and became his archenemy. "You'd better start caring, because lots of lives depend on what we do."

"And what about my life? Or don't I get one?" Sam demands. "All you care about is what you want; I'm just expected to shut up and go along with it. I wish the stupid demon *had* taken me!" Sam knows he's gone too far the moment the angry words leave his mouth, the moment his father's eyes narrow. But before he can stutter a hasty apology, firm hands are already reaching for him.

John props a foot up on the coffee table and hauls the boy over his knee, ignoring Sam's struggles and protests as he delivers a flurry of sharp swats to the seat of his jeans. He continues until Sam's cries are slightly higher in pitch and his hand burns from his efforts, then abruptly sets his son back on his feet. The kid is breathing fast, his eyes wide with hurt and anger and bright with impending tears. John's breathing pretty hard himself. "Don't you ever say that," John tells him angrily, taking in the tremble to Sam's chin and feeling a sharp pang of regret for the sweet kid he remembers.

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

Dean watches from the entryway as Sam glares at their father, practically vibrating with suppressed emotion. Dean half-expects the shouting to begin again, but then Sam bolts, running smack into Dean as he heads for the hallway. His face jerks up to Dean's, tearful and flushed, before shoving past him and onto their room. Dean sighs and wanders into the living room. His father is sitting at his desk now, his hands rubbing over his face.

"Hey, Dad."

"I don't want to hear it, Dean." The older hunter's voice is weary and graveled. Revenants and demons can't make him pause, but his youngest son might very well take him out.

"Hear what?" Dean asks casually, shoving his hands in his pockets.

John drops his hands. "Did you know he was in a fight at school?"

"Really?" Dean looks impressed, then quickly sobers as John gives him a look. "Didn't notice any bruises on him."

"Yeah, well, I guess I've taught him something," John grumbles, pulling an open book toward him and examining the notes he's written in the margins.

"Come on, Dad. You know Sammy would never start something like that."

John shrugs, trying to make sense of the hastily jotted scrawl in front of him. "He might not have started it, but he stepped right into it when he didn't have to, and all because of this Alex kid he's been hanging around with."

Dean raises a brow. "Alex?"

"You know, the one your brother can't stop talking about."

Dean grins to himself, shakes his head. "Dad. That 'Alex kid' is a girl."

John looks up from his book. "What?"

"You remember girls, Dad. Skirts and perfume, the way they eat ice cream off a stick - "

"I remember, smartass," John growls, before Dean tells him way more than what he wants to know. "Are you sure?"

Dean smirks. "Oh, yeah."

John frowns, uncertain whether this new information makes the situation better or worse. He looks back at his book, his blunt fingers tapping at the page just once. "Ran into your guidance counselor at school today," he says gruffly.

Dean's smirk disappears. "Yes, sir?" His father's tone is deceptively casual, but Dean knows better. There's no such thing as casual when it comes to John Winchester.

"Said she talked to you about taking some electronics classes at the JC."

Dean shrugs, shifting awkwardly. "Yeah, well. Classes don't exactly fit into our schedule."

"No, they don't," John agrees, eyes still trained on his text. "Still, if you'd rather take some classes than hunt - "

Dean blinks. "What? No," he says quickly. "I mean, maybe someday. You know, when this is over." *And I don't have to worry about you and Sam killing each other.* "School can wait – learn more on the job, anyway."

Some of the tension eases from John's shoulders. "Good." He clears his throat, then, "Did you get those boxes I asked you to?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then take them to your room and get started; this is gonna be a short week."

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

Dean expects to find Sam sulking, and he isn't disappointed. His little brother is sprawled over his bed, scowling into one of his giant textbooks. "Hey." Dean dumps the armload of cardboard to the side of his own bed. Sam will get most of the boxes, for books and science experiments and for a mangy teddy bear that the other two Winchesters pretend not to know Sam still has.

"Hey," Sam mutters, still buried in his book and reminding Dean more than ever of their father. Dean brushes his hands off on his jeans and walks over to hover at the edge of Sam's bed.

"Hear you got in some trouble."

Sam stiffens, throwing Dean a sideways glance. "It was the right thing to do, Dean. They weren't gonna leave her alone."

Dean nods. "They gonna be bothering you again?"

"No." Sam's eyes drop back to his reading.

"Good man." Dean reaches out and ruffles Sam's shaggy hair until his little brother knocks his hand away.

"Jerk," Sam grumbles, but a flush of pleasure spreads over his lowered face.

"So have you kissed her yet?"

Sam groans. "Dean."

"I'm just saying. After this knight in shining armor crap you pulled today, you must want to."

Sam's face goes from pink to red. "We're friends."

"Uh, huh." Sam glares at him, but Dean just grins, unrepentant. "That why you're suddenly giving Dad shit about leaving?"

Sam looks away again, down at his book. "He doesn't care about anyone but himself."

The remark wipes the grin from Dean's face. "You know that's not true."

"Yeah? When was the last time he listened to anything either one of us had to say?"

"This isn't a democracy, Sam. Dad leads, we follow; that's the job." Sam refuses to acknowledge that remark. "You know why he does what he does. At least you used to."

"You're going to miss graduation, Dean; don't you even care?"

Dean scoffs. "What? A ceremony to celebrate me knowing my ass from my elbow?" He pulls over the desk chair and drops into it. "Think I'll pass."

"Is that you talking, or Dad?" Sam asks, and Dean gives him a look. Apparently Sam's sarcasm isn't just for fathers anymore. But his little brother isn't intimidated by his annoyance, just stares at him in mute challenge. When it becomes obvious Dean isn't going to respond, Sam sighs and drops his gaze to his book again. "I need to finish the next three chapters before tomorrow, Dean."

And just like that, the conversation is over. Dean swivels back toward the desk and picks up a munitions catalogue, surreptitiously glancing over at Sam as he flips through it. If he wasn't sure about his decision before, he is now. School can wait a couple years, until his father eases up some; and until Sammy grows up a little and forgets about all his books and strange theories, realizes that he's always going to be a hunter, that there's no better life than the one they have. Taking out the bad guys, saving the good guys, kicking evil's ass... His eyes widen as they light on a custom flame-thrower, and his murmured words are full of reverence. "Now *that* will kick some ass."

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

Sam enters the kitchen warily, uncertain what the morning will bring. He hasn't seen his father since their argument yesterday, and the impromptu spanking still rankles. The thought causes him to frown, even as his brother glances up from the table.

"Good morning, sunshine."

The frown becomes a glower. Did Dean have to be so damn cheerful in the morning? "Morning," Sam mutters, pulling out his chair and taking a seat. He eyes the box of Corn Pops on the laminate table. "No Lucky Charms?"

John looks up from the newspaper spread out beside his coffee. "Sorry, kiddo. We'll get some more on our next supply run."

"Great." Sam issues a beleaguered sigh and reaches for the cereal. John watches as his youngest opens the box and pours cereal to the top of his bowl, which from years of observation he knows will inevitably result in an avalanche and flood of Pops the moment Sam adds milk. He opens his mouth to say as much, but stops himself. When he'd pulled Sam's blankets up in the wee hours of the morning, there was still a damp spot on his pillow, and John had tucked the covers around the kid's shoulders with a rising sense of frustration. Maybe things got out of hand yesterday, but he'd be damned if he was going to take that kind of lip from a fourteen year-old.

"How come you didn't tell me this Alex kid is a girl?"

Sam shrugs, reaching for the milk. "Like you wouldn't have beat my ass anyway."

John points a warning finger at him from where he's holding his paper. "You got your ass beat for smarting off, and it's gonna happen again if you're not careful."

Sam rolls his eyes. "Yeah, like I didn't see that coming."

"How'd you do on your History final?" Dean asks quickly, before his father decides to reach across the table and strangle Sam.

"It's next week," Sam tells him, pouring milk into his cereal and then jerking back as a wave of milk and Pops spills over the rim of his bowl. "Shit."

"Sam."

The "Sorry, sir" comes automatically, much to Sam's annoyance, and he gets up to find some paper towels to clean up the mess. "There's a study session after school today – it'll be about an hour," he adds, looking over at his father.

"Fine. I want you home right after, though. There's a lot of packing to be done before we're out of here."

"I'll pick you up," Dean offers, always eager for any chance to drive the Impala.

Sam shakes his head as he mops up the tide of milk and cereal. "That's okay. I'm – uh – I'm gonna walk."

John and Dean exchange glances. "Walk?" Dean asks, with a quick smile at his father. "Why would you want to walk?" Then, "This wouldn't be because Alex is walking, would it?"

"No," Sam denies quickly, feeling heat rush to the tips of his ears. "Maybe I just don't need my big brother following me around everywhere I go."

"Ouch," Dean says, watching with amusement as his little brother tosses the wad of wet paper towels in the trash and sits back down to eat his now-soggy Corn Pops. Sam doesn't say another word, just shovels down his cereal before grabbing his backpack and heading out the door.

John takes another sip of his coffee, his eyes perusing an article on unemployed quarry workers. "You gonna be home right after school?"

Dean's brows raise, and he shoves his own cereal aside. "Yeah… Why?"

John set his coffee cup down on the table. "We got a job to do."

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

"So, okay," Dean says, trying not to sound quite as confused as he is. "What's with the stake-out?"

His father doesn't look at him, his hunter's gaze fixed on a point beyond the Impala's window. "We're looking out for your brother."

Dean glances around the suburban street. "What – why? Are you afraid he's gonna take candy from a stranger? Didn't we have that talk with him last year?"

"Hey." The rebuke is more habit than heat. John shifts the car into Park. "Look sharp. Girl could be a succubus; we need to be sure."

Dean snorts. "So in other words, we're spying on him."

"We don't spy on people."

Dean stares at John in disbelief. "Yeah we do."

"Well, we don't spy on family."

"Then why are we here?"

John reaches for his binoculars. "Because we're bad people. Now point her out."

Dean sighs, and looks again at the trail of kids wandering down the sidewalk with his little brother. "Wait. That's her."

"Which one?"

"The brunette." They wait as the girl in question skips up beside Sam, her dark ponytail bouncing as Sam says something and she laughs and nudges him with her shoulder. They pause on the pavement, the other kids moving around them like water around a stone.

"What do you suppose they're talking about?" John murmurs, setting aside the binoculars. Sam is close enough now that he can just make out his animated features..

"Hopefully not the stuff he talks to us about," Dean replies. "Wait, is he taking her books? Aw, come on, Sammy, that's never gonna work..." He blinks in amazement as the girl leans over and kisses Sam's cheek.

John chuckles. "Just did."

Sam leans in and quickly kisses her mouth, their lips pressed together for a brief, intense moment, and Dean beams. "That's my boy."

John watches in silence, his humor slowly replaced by something darker as he sees the joy shining from his youngest son's face. He jerks the car into Drive. If they hurry, they'll have just enough time to gas her up before Sam gets home.

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

"So thanks. You know, for yesterday and all. That Lyle Falk is a jerk."

Sam shrugs, smiles. "It's no big deal."

"You almost got suspended," Alex points out, as the two of them walk the quiet, suburban drive.

"But I didn't. Besides, enough is enough. He's been bullying kids all year."

"Not you."

"Yeah, well." Sam doesn't mention that Dean's made it pretty clear his little brother is off-limits. In most cases, Sam couldn't find a fight if he tried.

"Where'd you learn to fight like that?"

"My dad used to be a Marine. He's kinda a fanatic about us being able to defend ourselves."

"You don't talk much about him."

"Not much to say."

"Does he hit you?"

Sam nearly stumbles. "What?" A blush climbs Sam's face. He hadn't been able to keep from squirming just a little in his seat today, and if Alex realized he'd been spanked… Sam's stomach plummets.

"It's just that – I mean, the bruises – I've seen them, and I thought maybe your dad, or your brother - ." Alex trails off uncomfortably.

"No," Sam says, shocked, then erupts in a small laugh. "Sorry. It's just - . No." He shakes his head, relieved. "Dad can be a hardass, but you don't have to use your fists when you can yell that loud. And Dean – well, if you only knew," Sam tells her, his expression one of long-suffering.

Alex smiles a little. "That bad, huh?"

"They treat me like I'm some dumb kid who can't think for himself. It's degrading. I can't even get home late from school without it being a federal case."

"My parents wouldn't notice if I didn't come home at all."

Sam's brow furrows. "That's not true."

She doesn't answer, just grins and nudges him again. "Hey. I was at Sherri Botello's until one in the morning last night."

"You hate Sherri Botello."

"She's my best friend."

"I know; it's weird."

"Saaaaaaam."

"Okay, okay. I'm listening." Sam suddenly remembers a piece of unsolicited wisdom Dean's dispensed on the female of the species: *'Just nod your head and pretend you understand whatever the hell they're talking about, and don't even think about asking for an explanation without a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way out.'*

" – and then she said she would be Posh Spice, which is so not true because I'm much more like Posh Spice. If anything, she's Scary Spice – I mean, have you seen her perm? It's like she's wearing a poodle for a hat." Sam wonders what kind of response even Dean could make to that, but fortunately, none seems to be required. "And then Danny Bruckner showed up and puked all over her front lawn."

Sam grimaces. "Ew."

"Yeah, there were these little bits of hot dog everywhere."

"Flu?" Sam asks, mentally putting hot dogs on that list of things he never wants to eat again.

"Tequila. You should have heard him. Allen Diaz and him were drinking out at the quarry, and he kept going on and on about some guy chasing them with a shovel."

"Sounds about right."

"Yeah, except Danny said half his head was bashed in and you could see his brains and everything."

"Do you believe him?"

Alex snorts. "He also said that aliens were trying to contact him through his Gameboy – I went home."

Sam pauses, nods at the white, green-trimmed ranch house in front of them. "Speaking of which, uh - I think we're here."

Alex pauses, looking a little surprised they've walked so far. But then she reaches over and takes her books from him, smiles and pinkens a little. "Thanks."

"No problem."

"Sure you don't want to come in?"

Sam shoves his hands in his pockets and shakes his head. "Thanks, but I gotta get home. I've been told boxes don't pack themselves."

Disappointment flashes on her small face, but only for a moment. "See you later then?" she asks.

Sam shifts feet, suddenly feeling awkward. "Sure."

"Okay." She leans over and plants a quick kiss on his mouth, then turns and runs up her driveway. Sam's tongue touches his lower lip. Peaches. She tastes like peaches.

"Huh," he mutters to himself, wonder slowly spreading over his face. He waits until she slips inside her front door before turning and heading for home.

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

"Sam!" John heaves an exasperated sigh as he drops the slightly-burned Geronimo's pizza onto the kitchen table. "Dean. Go get your brother for dinner." Besides the few hours of physical training John insisted on, Sam has spent most of the week holed up in the bedroom, staring at that damn computer. And sure, there was a time when Dean spent a lot of time in their room, too, but at least John understood what *he* was doing in there. Sammy – well. With Sam, you just never knew.

Dean looks up from where he's sharpening his knife in the living room, instantly on alert as he takes in his father's stiff movements as the older man flips the switch on the oven and jerks off his oven mitts. "Yes, sir," he replies, setting down the weapon and rising from the chair. He finds Sam at their desk, parked in front of the computer.

"Hey," Dean says, watching with some amusement as Sam quickly reaches to switch off the monitor. "Surfing porn again?"

"Actually, I was doing some research and guess what I - "

"School is over, Sammy," Dean reminds his little brother, casually nudging the box in front of Sam's bed with the toe of his boot. Sam lifts a brow at the disinterest.

"You know, if you ever actually studied, you'd get better grades than me."

"Nah. There's only room for one geek in this family, Francis, and you're it. I'll just have to get by on my good looks."

"Good luck with that," Sam tells him. "And stop kicking my box," he adds with a frown.

Dean looks down at the box again, notes the single, furry ear sticking up from under the pile of books and grins. "Seems kind of light for a box full of books."

"Never mind that," Sam says. "Look. About that research? I think we should stay in town a little longer."

"What?"

"Boys!" The shout echoes through the small house, but neither boy moves.

"I think there's a job right here, Dean," Sam insists earnestly.

"Oh, god." Then, "Sammy, I know you wanna stay, but - " Dean breaks off as he hears the footsteps coming down the hall, straightening to attention when his father's voice rumbles from the doorway.

"Is there a reason neither of you boys seems able to make it to the table?"

"Dad," Sam says, standing and ignoring the warning look from his older brother. "I was just telling Dean – I think we should stay in town."

John feels the irritation he's been fighting all week rise to the surface. He wipes a hand tiredly over his face. "We've been through all this, Sam. We're not staying. Now come and eat your dinner," he commands, turning to head back toward the kitchen.

"The quarry's being haunted," Sam blurts, and Dean groans as their father turns back around with a frown on his face.

"What?"

"You know, haunted. There was a spirit sighting just last week."

"A sighting." Then, "By who?"

Sam winces. "A couple of Alex's friend's friends."

"A couple of - " John shakes his head. "And what were they doing out at the quarry?"

"Well, drinking, I guess, but - "

"So some kids you hardly know come up with this story, and you want to forget the people being eaten by werewolves in Florida and hang around here for a few days?"

"Isn't dinner getting cold?" Dean asks, looking between his father and little brother, but Sam is already moving to switch the monitor back on.

"Look," Sam says, standing back as the news article he's been perusing appears on the screen. "Mason Henry. He's been missing since a week after the quarry was closed." A picture of a stocky man with grey hair and a worn, leathered face accompanies the article.

John leans over to peer at the screen, then shakes his head. "No. I remember this guy; there was no evidence of foul play – his friends said he'd been talking for months about moving up to Alaska or something... A smart man goes where the work is," John adds pointedly.

"Okay; maybe," Sam concedes. "But the kids who were out at the quarry said the spirit was an old guy with a shovel. Guess what Mason Henry did at the quarry?"

"Macramé?" Dean asks, earning him a scowl from both his father and little brother. He holds up his hands placatingly. "Sorry."

"He loaded trucks from the stockpiles," Sam announces, and waits for his father's reaction, but the older hunter's expression doesn't change. "I emailed the photo to one of the kids who was out there, and he said this was the guy – well, minus the bashed-in skull," Sam amends, looking at John expectantly.

John sighs. "That's nice, kiddo, but all you've got here is a couple of coincidences, an unreliable witness, and some wishful thinking. Now your brother's right; dinner's getting cold."

"That's it?" Sam asks incredulously. "That's all you're gonna say?" He feels his jaw tighten. "I knew you wouldn't listen!"

"What do you want me to say, Sam?" John demands, hands moving to his hips.

"I wanted you to say you'd at least check it out, but of course you won't. Because that would mean putting off what *you* want to do, and we all know damn well that's never gonna happen!"

Dean sees a muscle jump in their father's cheek and quickly intervenes. "Come on, Sammy; Dad's right – these kids are probably just pulling a prank."

"And you're taking his side?" Sam asks him incredulously. His mouth twists bitterly. "Can you even talk if he's drinking water?"

"Hey!" Dean snaps, taking a quick step toward his brother, but then a large hand falls on each of their chests, and John gives them a small shove apart.

"That's enough," he says quietly, but there's steel beneath the soft command. His sons glare at each other, and John feels pretty close to losing his patience himself. "We don't have time for this tonight. Now go on in and eat."

"Yes, sir," is the grudging, stereo response, and then Sam slides past him and stalks toward the kitchen. John turns to say something to his eldest, but Dean simply brushes past him as well, his mouth tight with anger.

"Well," John mutters to the suddenly empty room. "That's just great."

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

Sam drops the last of his books into a box and shoves it up against his bed with the others, using just a little more force than necessary. Of course Dad wouldn't listen to him – when does he ever? But he'd at least thought Dean would be on his side. "Traitor," he grumbles to himself, glancing over to where all Dean's belongings are already nicely packed and waiting to be loaded at the snap of their father's command. The two of them are out at the cleared kitchen table now, performing a late-night cleaning of the family arsenal and talking about the upcoming job.

Sam wishes he felt a tenth of the older Winchesters' anticipation. It's not that the house is so wonderful, or anything – just a shitty two-bedroom rental pre-furnished with even shittier furniture – but in just a few months he's come to think of it as home. And then there's Alex… Sam frowns and turns from the boxes, realizing he hasn't checked his e-mail since before dinner. He walks over and sits down in front of the computer, switching on the screen. Sure enough, there's a message from Alex.

"Shit," he mutters, hoping she's not in bed already. He clicks open the message and reads it. Blinks, then reads it again. "Oh, man." It only takes Sam a moment to make his decision. Moving quickly, he finds his duffel bag and empties his clothes onto the bed, then moves to the closet. He's relieved when his hand wraps around the muzzle of the shotgun kept there for emergencies. John and Dean will be looking for it later, but for now, it's coming with him. Sam stuffs the weapon into his duffel bag and deftly zips it up, hoping it will be enough. He keeps one careful ear tuned to the muted voices of his family as he opens the bedroom window, stepping back as salt drops from the sill to the carpet. Then slinging the duffel over his shoulder, Sam slips from the house.

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

"Is that it?" John Winchester asks his eldest, rubbing at the kink in the back of his neck. He tells himself that it's age and long nights catching up with him, and not the cumulative effect of raising two teenage boys.

"Think so," Dean replies, setting down the cloth he's just used to wipe down their weapons. The smell of gun oil and lubricant feels heavy on his skin, and he can't wait to get a shower.

"What about the bedroom guns?"

"No, sir."

"Go and get them then. It's late and we could all use some sleep."

Dean pushes himself back from the table, hoping Sam is in a better mood now than what he was when he left the table earlier. His little brother was ordered to finish packing, and for a couple of hours afterward, the older Winchesters worked to the sounds of slamming and banging from the boys' shared bedroom. But at some point in the evening, Sam has quieted. Even now, standing outside their closed bedroom door, Dean doesn't hear a sound. *Probably pouting*, he thinks. And as irritated as he is, Dean feels himself soften.

"Hey, Sammy," he says gently, opening the door slowly so as not to startle the younger boy. His effort is in vain, though; his brother isn't here. Dean's gaze falls to the cracked window. "Dad!" He doesn't bother waiting for his father to get there, just keeps looking around. He notices the e-mail still up on Sam's screen and is scanning it when his father shows up.

"What's wrong – where's your brother?"

"Gone," Dean says, stepping back from the desk and moving to check the closet. "Read the e-mail."

John leans over the desk chair, his eyes skimming hurriedly over the text. "What the – you don't think he - "

"Shotgun's gone," Dean announces grimly, shutting the closet door.

"God damn it," John growls, turning and striding across the hall to his own room. He's back in seconds, his own shotgun in hand. "Come on; let's move."

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

Sam scrambles through the roadside brush and scrub, his flashlight bobbing with every jerking movement as he approaches the perimeter of the quarry. He's hitched a ride and stolen a bike to get this far, and he still doesn't know if he's made it quickly enough. Alex and the others should be here already, but the area is silent except for the chirping of crickets from the nearby woods.

He feels a little better when his flashlight lands on the car parked by the chain-link fence. At least he knows he's in the right spot. With a renewed sense of purpose, he makes his way along the fence until he finds a section that's peeled away from its post. *Point of entry*, Sam thinks, and drops the duffel bag to one side of the makeshift door. He kneels down and pulls out the shotgun, hoping that the one shot will be enough, then ducks through the opening of the fence.

Sam squints in the darkness. There are some dim lights below, emergency maybe, casting a dull blue light over the contents of the pit. Sam can just make out a couple of conveyor belts and some other pieces of machinery that no one's bothered to recover. He begins making his way along the lip of the quarry wall, keeping an eye to the steep slopes for any sign of a path. A few minutes later he finds his descent, a rocky switchback disappearing into the pit. Keeping the gun held close to his side, he navigates the trail as fast as he dares. He's about half way down when he hears the screaming.

The screams are accompanied by shouts, and the pounding of footsteps, and Sam picks up the pace as the path begins to level out. The footsteps grow louder in the darkness, then suddenly several teens rush by him and up the path; three guys he doesn't recognize, and then Sherri Botello stumbles past him. The last girl Sam catches by the arm.

"Alex."

She lets out a shriek and tries to jerk away from him, but Sam holds fast. "Alex, it's me! Sam. Is it down there?"

"W-what? Sam?" There's a small hitching sob, and then she grabs his sleeve. "What are you doing here? We've gotta leave. Right now, Sam!"

"Alex. Did you see the man? Mason Henry?"

"Yes!"

Sam releases her arm. "Follow the others up and don't come back down, no matter what you hear," Sam tells her, turning to head down the trail again.

"You can't go down there!" Sam hears the panic in her voice and realizes she isn't making any move to start her way back up the quarry wall.

"Listen to me, okay?" he asks, with the soft and urgent voice he's heard his father use in similar situations. "This is what we do, where I get the bruises. I'm armed, I'll be fine. But you need to get out of here. I'll see you at the top." But Alex still seems rooted to the spot. "Go!" Sam shouts, and is relieved when the girl is jolted into movement. Tightening his grip on the shotgun, Sam takes the final steps into the mouth of the quarry.

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

John pulls up beside the car parked in front of the quarry's chain link fence, his eldest jumping from the car before it's even come to a complete halt. John pops the trunk and climbs out of the car as Dean grabs a shotgun and heads for the fence. "Over or under?" John asks loudly, grabbing his own gun and slamming the trunk.

"Under," Dean replies, locating the gap in the fence. "His bag's right here; this is where he went in." He ducks through the hole, his eyes narrowing like a cat's as they adjust to the dim light of the property. A moment later his father moves up beside him, his hunter's gaze performing a brief topographical survey.

"This way." John jerks his head slightly to the right and leads, his feet sure and steady upon the rocky ground. "There's gotta be a trail." They trudge along the edge of the quarry wall for a few minutes, until John's terse voice breaks the silence. "Here."

The two older Winchesters have just started down the sloping grade when Dean suddenly stops. "Do you hear that?"

John pauses as well, hearing the muted voices and pounding footsteps. "They're coming fast," he remarks, trying to ignore the way his pulse kicks up. Still, he moves forward again with a growing sense of urgency, hoping his youngest is with the group he hears hurtling up the side of the quarry. Moments later, a string of kids fly toward them. "Sam," John shouts, but the kids brushing past them don't slow.

"No Sam here, man," one teen pants, before continuing up the switchback.

"Fuck," Dean mutters, and John has to agree. Then he recognizes the straggler of the group, just slipping past him.

"Alex?" John asks, taking her shoulder. "Where's Sam?"

The girl blinks owlishly in the darkness, her wide eyes taking in the pair of armed hunters and putting it all together. "He's down there; I couldn't get him to come with me!"

Before John can respond to that, there's the sound of hard weight skidding through gravel, and he turns just in time to see Dean slide down the steep incline that borders the path and disappear into the black. "Dean!" he shouts, mentally cursing the impulsiveness of teenagers. He opens his mouth for a more vocal expression, then realizes he's still gripping the girl's shoulder. "Get to the top and you stay there – you hear me?"

She nods, and John gives her a small shove in the right direction before turning and heading down the path, his steps now falling into a deliberate trot as the ground flattens beneath his feet and the pit becomes visible below. His face hardens with resolve. He now has two sons to find.

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

"Shit!" Dean exclaims, the heels of his boots skidding in the loose gravel near the base of the quarry. His side burns a bit where his shirt rode up on the way down, but for the most part his clothing has protected him from the abrasive slide down the face of the quarry wall. He rubs the dust from his stinging eyes, checks his gun. All set. "Sam!"

Dean begins edging around the rusting equipment and conveyors scattering the floor of the pit, his weapon cocked for action. He hears a slight rustle ahead and to his right, and slowly moves in that direction. "Sam?" he calls warily.

"Yeah," is the weary reply, and Dean feels some of the tension leave his shoulders as his little brother steps out from behind one of the crushers. His face is smudged and he's a little dusty, too, but Dean doesn't see any obvious injuries.

"You okay?" Dean asks, still on alert for potential threats.

"I'm fine," Sam sighs, lowering his gun as he moves toward his brother. "I've been all over this place, and nothing. It's gone."

Even as he speaks, there's a wavering in the air behind Sam, a wisp that becomes a stocky form and a swinging shovel – "Get down," Dean barks, firing even as Sam ducks on command. The blast of rock salt disperses the spirit before it can even fully manifest. Sam releases a deep breath.

"Or not," Sam amends weakly, as his father runs up behind Dean, his own shotgun raised and ready. John's eyes do a quick sweep of the area.

"We clear?" he asks shortly.

"Yes, sir," Dean replies, lowering his weapon.

John takes a last look around, then thrusts his gun into Dean's free hand. "Go on to the car." Dean hesitates, looking between John and his brother's pale face. "Now, Dean."

Dean throws Sam a sympathetic look, and Sam's stomach sinks as his brother turns and heads back in the direction that their father's come from. He tentatively raises his eyes to his John's. "Dad. I can explain - "

John strides toward him, and Sam can't help taking a step back at the barely-contained emotion gripping his father's face. He closes his eyes as a large hand wraps around his arm and pulls him forward. But instead of the ass-kicking he's anticipating, he finds himself yanked against John's chest, the older hunter's arms wrapping tightly around him. It's like being smashed against a brick wall, but Sam's too stunned to squirm.

"Damn it, Sam," John mutters, pressing a hard kiss onto the top of his dark head. "Of all the dumbass, hare-brained stunts…" His voice cracks, and he clears his throat, tries to gather some semblance of authority. The words come in a growl. "You pull something like this again; I'll be kicking your ass into the next millennium. You got that?"

"Yes, sir," Sam mumbles into the scratchy shirt in front of him, taken off-guard by the sheer relief in his father's voice. Relief, because he'd been worried. About *him*. Sam swallows thickly. "Uh, Dad?"

"Yeah, Sam."

"Can't breathe."

John's confused for a moment, then realizes how tightly he's holding his youngest. He relaxes his grip, and Sam shuffles backward, the uncertainty of the movement making him look much younger than his fourteen years. John sighs, taking Sam's shotgun with one hand and dropping the other to Sam's shoulder. "Come on, it's late. And your brother will be getting antsy."

The two of them make there way up the trail, and for a while there's just the sound of their slightly labored breathing and the crunch of loose gravel. "You know," Sam finally ventures as they near the top, allowing John to steer him through some rubble littering the path. "This is probably a good thing."

John raises an eyebrow. "Sam…" he warns.

"No, really. I mean, no more mysterious occurrences at the quarry. The town's free of terror, evil is vanquished – that *is* what hunting's all about, right?"

John's mouth curves in the darkness. "Sometimes, kiddo," he says, his hand guiding Sam around some broken glass.

Sam risks a look back over his shoulder, but can't quite make out his father's expression in the black. "Still in trouble, huh?"

"Oh, you bet you are."

"Sucks to be right."

"You have no idea," John tells him, and pushes him toward the car.

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

John's surprised when he and Sam climb through the chain link fence near where the Impala's parked. "What's the girl still doing here?" John asks Dean, watching as the kid runs over and hugs his youngest son.

Dean shrugs. "Her friends wouldn't stay, and she didn't believe me when I told her Sam was okay – had to see for herself."

John shakes his head. "Come on," he says, loudly enough for Alex and Sam to hear as well. "Let's get out of here before someone calls the police. Alex, we'll give you a ride home."

The girl swallows, her eyes darting nervously toward the hunter. "Uh, I don't want to be any trouble. I could call someone, or - "

"That's an order, not an invitation, young lady," John tells her, throwing Sam's gun in the trunk and then climbing into the car himself. Both kids watch as Dean also slides into the front seat.

Sam jerks his head toward the car. "You better get in. He's not really kidding about the order thing."

"Yeah, I'm getting that," Alex says, but she follows Sam's lead as he gets in and slides over to sit behind his father. Alex takes the seat behind Dean, and then John starts the engine. Except for Sam giving John Alex's address, the car is silent for the first few minutes of the drive, and then John glances at the girl in the rearview mirror.

"Nice friends, leaving you in the middle of nowhere at this hour."

"They're not my friends," Alex blurts, a little defensively. "Well, Sherri is. But the boys are her friends."

John recalls the tall teens that had fled without a look back for the girls they were with. They might have been Dean's age, maybe older. "They're way too old for either of you to be seeing."

"But I'm not. I mean, Sam is my – uhhhhh," she stammers beneath the older man's scrutiny. "Yes, sir," she finally manages, and Sam can practically feel the heat of her blush from across the car.

"This is what happens when you go looking for trouble. You know what would have happened to you kids if Sam hadn't gotten your e-mail?"

"We'd have gotten our heads bashed in?"

"Or worse," John mutters darkly.

Alex glances over at Sam. "What's worse than that?"

Sam shakes his head. "You don't want to know."

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

John pulls quietly up to the curb in front of the white ranch house and puts the car in Park, leaving the engine running. He slings his right arm across the top of the seat and turns to Sam's all-but-declared girlfriend. "I don't suppose it would do any good to talk to your parents?"

"Probably not," the girl admits, and John frowns at the hint of sadness in the reply. There are enough dangers out there for a kid her age, even discounting the supernatural; too many for any decent parent to not know where she is.

"You gonna keep in touch with Sam?"

"Sure," she says, her brow crinkling in confusion.

"Then I don't expect to hear about any more midnight ghost hunts. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good girl. Sam," John says, and his youngest straightens in his seat, startled.

"Yeah, Dad?"

"It's polite to walk a lady to the door."

Sam stares at him blankly. "You want me to – oh, yeah – sure. Okay." Sam stumbles over the words. "Come on, Alex."

The two of them slide from the car and walk quietly to her front door, standing awkwardly on the shadowed porch. "Sorry about my dad," Sam offers. "He gets a little intense sometimes."

Alex shrugs. "He seems nice."

"Yeah, people said the same thing about Attilla."

"He came for you."

Sam glances over his shoulder at the car, then nods ruefully. "Yeah, I guess he did.

"And you came for me."

Sam shoves his fists into his pockets. "I'm gonna write, Alex. I promise."

"I know," she says, moving a little closer to touch the sleeve of his hoodie.

Sam instinctively leans in, then stops, gives her a sheepish half-smile. "My dad and brother will be watching like hawks," he explains.

Alex smiles back at him in the darkness. "That's okay."

Sam's eyes move to her lips. "Oh, screw it," he mumbles softly, and kisses her anyway.

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

"So," Dean says, glancing over to the porch where his little brother is now kissing his girlfriend. "Seems he had it right."

John glances at him sharply. "He made a guess; he's damn lucky he didn't get himself killed."

Dean nods, thoughtful for a moment. Then, "Makes a cute hero, though."

John snorts, looking over at the kids himself. He has to agree.

"Couldn't hurt for you to give some of the research to him."

"It couldn't?" John asks, giving Dean a doubtful look.

Dean shrugs. "It'd keep him busy."

"Huh," John says noncommittally, but Dean can tell the idea has appeal.

"Hey, Dad?"

"Yeah." John takes another look at his watch, shakes his head.

"On the way back through the pit tonight – I found a body. Sticking out of the stockpile."

John sighs. "Mason Henry?"

"Hard to tell, but that'd be my guess."

John's fingers tighten on the steering wheel. He'll tip the authorities when they're well on their way to Florida.

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

Sam thinks of his father as a man of few words, or at least as few words as it takes to get the job done. Unfortunately, if the man's current diatribe is any indication, Sam's latest fuck-up is a damn big job. Sam winces and sinks a little lower on the couch as his father continues to pace the living room, intent on delivering a scathing lecture. Sam's ears grow warm as his John ticks point after point off on his fingers.

" – was damn stupid, wasn't it?"

Sam blinks. Did he miss something? "Well, I - "

"You have years to go before you're ready to fly solo; you should have come to your brother and me as soon as you got that girl's e-mail."

"But you wouldn't have listened, and people could have gotten hurt."

"And that would have been my fault, not yours."

"But this is what we do - "

"I don't care!" John shouts, the words ringing against the walls. He pauses, takes a deep breath, aware of his youngest's wide-eyed stare. "If Dean hadn't gotten there when he did - " John's jaw tightens. Does Sam really believe he'd put the safety of strangers above that of his own son? "This isn't up for discussion; I give the orders around here. You follow orders and do your job, end of story. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," Sam replies softly, looking down at his hands.

John stares at him for a moment, but Sam's bangs hang over his eyes, concealing whatever he might be thinking. Still, from the ensuing quiet, John assumes he's gotten the message. "Good," he says, now sounding more tired than angry, even to his own ears. He walks into the kitchen area and grabs one of the chairs, bringing it over and setting it down in the middle of the living room. John takes a seat and motions to his youngest. "Now come over here."

Sam rises from his seat, wiping his palms on his jeans before reluctantly approaching his father's side. "Dad…" Sam's voice trails off. For once he doesn't know what to say, and he simply stands there and waits for instructions.

"Jeans down," John tells him, watching the color creep into his son's cheeks as Sam fumbles with the button. The compliance is a first, as is John's doubt. The kid had been right, even if he had made some unsubstantiated leaps. And there's a part of him that's proud as hell. But even courage should be tempered with caution, and John intends to make sure Sam thinks twice before heading out on his own again.

He waits as Sam shoves the jeans to his knees, then takes his arm and tugs him over his lap. The kid's taller than he used to be, but the position still feels comfortable enough, although he's sure Sammy would disagree.

Sam braces himself with his hands on the floor, biting his lip as his father pulls him in closer and wraps and arm around his waist. His stomach twists into that familiar knot as he feels his father's fingers at his the waistband of his briefs.

"Dad, please," Sam pleads, and chokes back a sob as his underwear is shucked down to join his jeans. He squirms in misery.

John rubs a hand over the small of his son's back, trying to ease some of the tension there. "Sorry, Sammy, but you know how this works. I have to be able to see what kind of damage I'm doing." He gives Sam's back one last rub, then not wanting to drag this out, promptly begins spanking.

Sam jumps at the first stinging smack, then bites his lip again as his father begins landing swats in a steady rhythm, methodically working his way from the top of his behind, down to his thighs and back up again, leaving Sam certain he's been scalded. Tears blur his vision, and he blinks them back fiercely. He hadn't meant to worry anyone, but he did the right thing; he *did*. His fingers curl in the carpet at the injustice of it all, and he fights to keep his sobs lodged painfully in his throat.

John continues swatting, listening carefully to the sound of Sam's ragged breathing and feeling the tension traveling his son's form like a taut wire. Any other kid his age would be crying already. Not wanting Sam's stubbornness to prolong the punishment, John delivers several sharp smacks to the boy's already tender sit spots, relieved when his son bucks and bursts into tears. Satisfied that the worst of it is over, John slows his swats, putting just enough force behind the blows to produce a slight smart, although Sam hardly seems to notice. The broken sobs coming from his son aren't just because of a hot backside, and John swallows hard, wishing not for the first time his wife was here to advise him.

Sam doesn't know when his father stops spanking, but it doesn't matter. The tears and the stinging continue, even as he feels his father's now warm hand circling the small of his back, hears the soft rumble of his reassurances. But it's not okay, it might never be okay, and Sam finds one hand wrapped around his father calf as he lowers his head and just cries. He has a vague sense of his briefs and jeans being replaced, and then his perspective shifts suddenly as John lifts him from position and turns him over on his lap, the strong arms wrapping around him with a comforting intensity. Sam buries his head against the scratchy shoulder, trying desperately to stop his furious tears.

"I'm not s-sorry," he sobs bitterly. "I'm n-not."

A lump tightens John's throat. "I'm not asking you to be," he says gruffly, one hand stroking his son's dark head. "Just don't do it again, okay?"

Sam stiffens in surprise, sniffles. Did his father actually *ask* him not to do something? "Okay," he agrees softly, his tears waning now. He suddenly realizes where he's sitting and shifts uncomfortably. "Uh… Dad?"

"Yeah, Sammy."

"I'm a little big for this."

John fights back a smile at such a typical Sam remark. "Fine. Let's move to the couch." He sets Sam on his feet and stands himself, guiding the kid over to sit beside him on the battered sofa. He waits patiently while Sam tries to find a comfortable position. After an unsuccessful moment or two, the kid settles for squirming restlessly in his seat. John clasps his hands together and leans forward on his knees, looks over at Sam's tear-streaked face. "I know you wanted to stay."

Sam shrugs, even as a few new tears spill over his flushed cheeks. "We never stay."

"Hey," John says. "One day, I promise; we're gonna get this thing… 'Till we do, some things gotta wait."

"Yeah, but how do you know? What makes you think we're ever gonna be any closer than we are right now?"

John looks at Sam's open face, the smooth brow drawn in earnest frustration, remembers the feel of his six-month old son, warm and solid in his arms as their home smoked in the cool autumn air. His sturdy little body, now all gangling limbs and shaggy hair. John's mouth quirks. "Just a hunch."

Sam glances at him, reading the dryness at once. He's taken by surprise for a moment, then chuffs in reluctant humor. "Right."

There's a comfortable silence, then, "So. This Alex girl; what's she like?"

"She likes unicorns." Sam rolls his tear-swollen eyes.

"Yeah?" John smiles, nodding to himself. Sounds about right. He remembers Mary being nuts about horses.

"But she's nice; she wears peach lip gloss."

John raises a brow. Well, some things have changed. "You know; there's always a chance we'll be through here again," he tells Sam.

"It won't be the same."

John's lips twist sadly. "No, I don't guess it will."

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

Sam wanders toward his bedroom, his father's promise to be in shortly following him down the hallway. He enters the room quietly, not wanting to wake Dean if he's already asleep. Sure enough, he makes out the dark shape of his brother on the bed opposite. Dean must have showered while he was getting – talked to. Sam blushes all over again. He remembers the sense of calm that overcame him the second he realized Dean was with him in the pit, and glances regretfully in his brother's direction as he shuffles stiffly from his jean and climbs carefully into bed.

"You kissed her."

Sam raises up on one elbow, startled at Dean's voice penetrating the darkness. He looks over to see Dean's rolled toward him, his silhouette mimicking Sam's pose. "Yeah," Sam says, glad his brother can't see how pink his face is. "I did."

"Knew you could do it." There's pride in the softly-spoken words, and Sam flinches.

"Dean. Man, I'm sorry for - "

"Forget it, Sammy," Dean tells him. "I should have been watching your back tonight."

Sam shakes his head. "You were watching my back," he replies quietly, and he can just make out Dean's smile in the dimly-lit room.

"Yeah, well. Just try to stay out of trouble for a while, huh?"

"No kidding," Sam mutters, his hand reaching unconsciously to rub at his still burning backside.

Dean clucks in sympathy. "Bad, huh?"

"Remember when we wandered off at that carnival in Biloxi?"

"Ouch." Dean sounds amused. "Good day, though."

Sam snorts. "Yeah, until Dad caught up with us. And who knew he could hit so hard? I mean, isn't he supposed to be getting old or something?"

"Who's getting old?" John asks from the doorway, trying not to smile at the way both boys jump in their beds. He leans against the doorframe, his hands shoved into his pockets.

"Not you, Dad," Dean replies, his good humor still apparent.

"Uh huh," John drawls, not needing to mention he's overheard most of their quiet conversation. "I thought I told you boys you needed your sleep tonight."

"Yes, sir," says Sam, and John straightens and walks over to the bed, taking a minute to pull the covers up around Sam's shoulders.

"Get some sleep, kiddo." John gives the kid's arm a light squeeze before walking over to Dean's bedside.

"I'm a little old for the tuck-in, don't you think?" Dean asks, looking up at the dark shape of his father.

"You're also a little old to wander off. We've had that discussion before." Dean winces at the memory. "The next time you jump off the side of a cliff without warning, we'll be having it again. You got that?"

"Yes, sir."

John pats his shoulder. "Okay, then. I'll see you boys in the morning." He leaves the room and there's the sound of another bedroom door opening, then the hushed rustle of clothing being removed.

Sam waits a moment, then leans up on his elbow again. "You jumped off a cliff?" he whispers in amazement.

Dean huffs. "Only a small one, probably wasn't even fifty feet."

"Boys!" Their father's voice booms in the dark house. "Don't make me come back in there."

Sam rolls his eyes again, guessing Dean is doing the same, but he lies back down anyway, careful to stay on his stomach. Sitting all the way to Florida is going to suck. He thinks of Alex again, smiling as he recalls kissing her on her front porch. Yep, the drive will suck, but it was worth it. *More than worth it*, Sam decides, closing his eyes. And when he dreams, he dreams of peaches.

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