Title: Don't Ask, Don't Tell
Challenge #1: Jeffathon: #8 John + Dean + "Don't ever ask me that again."
Challenge #2: Firsts Chart: First Dance
Genre: Gen, Pre-Series
Word Count: 7,850
Disclaimer: I don't own the boys, I'm just stalking them for a while.
Summary: "If we got in a wreck, and Sammy and I were both unconscious, and the Impala caught on fire so you only had time to save one of us, who would you save?"
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
"If we got in a wreck, and Sammy and I were both unconscious, and the Impala caught on fire so you only had time to save one of us, who would you save?"
John looked up from the book he was reading on the significance of color in protection and resurrection rituals to fix his son with an unblinking gaze.
"What?" Dean protested. "It’s a valid question."
"It’s a stupid question, Dean. The stupidest question you’ve ever asked. And that’s saying something, because you are the master of stupid questions sometimes."
Dean took a bite out of his sandwich, watching his dad as he chewed. "I thought there was no such thing as a stupid question," he said just about the time John went back to reading.
"Yeah, exceptions to every rule, son. And you’re a master of that, too."
"Finding the exceptions."
"That wasn’t a compliment."
"It never is."
John looked up again. "What did you say?"
"I said it never is." Dean’s eyes were calm, his expression impassive. He took another bite of his sandwich.
"Oh, I’m sorry, son," John said after a long moment. "Am I not being supportive enough of the unique and special person you are? Come over here and give me a hug. I’ll hold you and rock you and stroke your hair while I tell you how proud I am of you, and what a fine young man you’ve grown into, and how proud your mother would be of who you are, deep down in your heart, and in your soul, too."
"Hey," Dean protested. "Mom’s off limits when you’re being bitchy."
"Watch your mouth," John said, going back to his book.
"What are you reading?"
"Oh, for Christ’s sake, Dean!" He slammed the book shut with a sharp enough noise to flinch Dean in his chair. "Don’t you have something better to do than torture me?"
"Evidently not." Dean finished his sandwich in one last, over-sized bite, then licked his fingers clean. "You want me to make you something to eat?"
"I want you to let me work," John said. "Go find your brother and torture him for a while. Or study your Latin. Or go burn the school down or something. Just let me get back to what I’m doing."
"Fine," Dean said, pushing to a stand. "Sorry I bothered you."
He took his plate with him when he left the table, dropping it to a clatter in the sink as he passed from a height designed to prompt a reprimand. John gritted his teeth.
"Dean," he said.
Dean turned in the doorway, looking at him with that calm, level gaze that said "fuck you" and "who me?" at the same time.
"What is it?" John asked.
"What is what?"
"What do you want?"
Dean’s expression twitched so subtly someone else might have missed it entirely, or mistaken it for a hidden smile. John didn’t. He knew better. "If we got in a wreck, and Sammy and I were both unconscious," Dean said again, "and the Impala caught on fire and you only had time to save one of us, which one of us would you save?"
John studied his son, trying to figure out where the anger was coming from. He cast back in his head, trying to find some point of conflict they’d had over the past couple of weeks, but came up clean. Sam could hold a grudge for years, but two weeks was pretty much Dean's limit. Whatever he was angry about, it was something fresh, and something his old man hadn’t been paying enough attention to pick up on when it happened. Which, now that he thought about it, might be exactly what Dean was mad about.
"Why the hell would you ask me something like that?" he asked finally.
"Because I want to know."
John sighed. "Sit down."
"I thought you wanted me to go away."
"Sit. Down," John said again.
Dean came back to the table and sat down. He’d grown a lot in the past couple of months, but he didn’t sprout like a summer weed the way most kids his age did, outgrowing his own skin and then gangling about like some awkward marionette without a puppetmaster while he waited for the rest of his body to catch up. Instead, Dean just kind of stretched himself taller, filling out as he went, gaining mass through the shoulders and chest in particular, bulking up with his weight training now rather than simply getting stronger the way a child does.
The changes in him were more comprehensive than just a growth spurt though. He’d taken on an agility that superceded how athletes grew into their skills; started moving with an economy of motion that was the fruit born from years of training, of discipline, of challenges met and exceeded. There wasn’t much wasted in how Dean reacted to his physical environment now. He had a body awareness that showed in every line of his posture; he knew exactly where every limb was at any given moment in time, and how that position related to every other limb should the need to move quickly and efficiently arise. Even when he was being a petulant pain in the ass, there was a smooth grace to the way he walked that had begun to look almost predatory.
It was beginning to mark him an outcast at school.
Not that Dean ever really fit in, but he fit in less now. He was being pushed farther and farther away from the standard of normality his classmates strove to match shoe-for-shoe simply because those classmates had begun to see things in him they didn’t possess. Strength. Balance. Agility. Instinct. Dean had always had those things; but before, they didn’t show so much. Now, they did. He was starting to look as dangerous as he was capable of being.
Other boys who’d either ignored Dean in the past, or sought the lee side of his protective nature to take shelter from the attention of bullies were beginning to see him as a threat. He was being perceived as more than just competition, more than just another kid who fell on the high side of athleticism to the end of being admired as a stand-out rather than feared as a freak. They were starting to see him as someone to band together against, someone far enough outside the range of their own physical capabilities that pre-emptive measures were the only way to make sure he wasn’t anywhere near them if he decided to do what he now looked like he could do: really hurt them.
It wasn't fair, but it was the way people were. They ostracized those they feared, or didn't understand; and Dean was both. He’d always been both, but more of his peers were seeing it now – seeing him for what he was and what he could do, if he wanted to – and the pressure of how they responded was changing Dean. It was isolating him more than he already was, defining him as someone who wasn’t allowed to seek companionship from kids his own age rather than merely someone who chose not to.
Dean fidgeted under the weight of John's scrutiny. "Dude," he said, very nearly over the line in the borderline insolence of his disrespectful tone. "Take a picture. It’ll last longer."
And he was developing a mouth. A disrespectful mouth. His enthusiasm for the hunt, for training, for every aspect of the way they lived was turning more truculent by the day. He was beginning to resent his father for how alone he felt, beginning to show signs of belligerence that weren’t the kind of thing a CO could tolerate, but were exactly the kind of thing every father since the dawn of time had either learned to tolerate or had given up on, giving in to the urge to beat it gone. While he was leaning to the tolerating end of the spectrum, John had not entirely ruled out the option of beating the disrespect of his son’s tone gone.
"I’d save Sammy," John said finally. "In that situation, if I had to choose, I’d save Sammy."
Dean’s expression didn’t change. He just nodded. "Yeah. That’s what I figured."
"Why?" John asked.
"Why did you think I’d say Sammy?"
Dean shrugged. He looked away, developed a sudden interest in the wallpaper on the kitchen wall. "I don’t know. Just figured you would."
"Because he’s younger?" John asked.
"Yeah," Dean said quietly. "That’s why."
"Because he’s more vulnerable, and less able to take care of himself?" John pressed.
Dean shrugged. "I guess."
"Because he’s my favorite?"
Dean pushed himself away from the table and stood. "I’ve got things to do," he announced, turning to walk away.
"Sit down," John said again.
Dean kept walking.
The sound of his name – or perhaps the tone of John's voice saying his name – stopped Dean, but he didn’t turn.
"Put your ass back in this chair, or I will come over there and do it for you," John said.
Dean turned, walked back to the table, sat down again. His whole expression was shut down. It was as if someone had just turned him off, like flipping a light switch to the down position.
"Is that what you think?" John asked again. "That Sammy’s my favorite, so I’d save him instead of you?"
Dean didn’t answer.
"I asked you a question, Dean."
"Whatever," Dean said. "It was just a stupid question. You weren’t supposed to actually answer it."
Leaning forward, John rested his forearms on the table between them. Dean wouldn’t meet his eyes. He was looking straight at him, but his eyes wouldn’t engage. They were short focused, fixed on a point between the two of them just to keep from having to meet his father’s eyes.
"Never ask a question unless you're prepared to hear the answer," he said.
"Yes, sir. I’ll remember that."
The way Dean said "sir" was an insult. It was his idea of a rebellion, using an expression of respect as a disrespect. He’d been doing it for a while now. John had let it slide. He didn’t let it slide this time.
"You call me ‘sir’ in that tone of voice again, and you and I are going to dance, boy," John said grimly. "Do you understand me?"
It was the first time he’d ever threatened Dean with an outright beating. Perhaps it was long overdue. He didn’t like the idea of dominating his sons, or of giving them the idea he might actually kick the crap out of them if they pushed him too far rather than just turning them over his knee for the kind of application of hand to ass that Dean had outgrown by the time he was seven. But as much as he didn’t like it, sometimes that was all a kid Dean’s age understood. Threats rather than promises. Discipline rather than affection. Loyalty rather than love.
He wondered passingly what Mary would think of that as a parenting doctrine. He didn’t let the thought take hold and stick around because he was pretty sure he knew what the answer would be, and he didn't have time to feel guilty and still put down a full-blown, teenager rebellion before it escalated into something worse than it already was.
Right now, he couldn’t afford to be Dean’s mother. What Dean needed was a father. And since he’d served in both those steads since Dean was four, John was pretty sure he knew when he could, and when he couldn’t, afford the luxury of trying to be both. This was one of those times. Right now, Dean needed the hardcore hard line of his father much more than he needed the compassionate understanding of a mother he’d never really had, or at least hadn’t had long enough to understand how woefully inadequate John had always been at trying to mimic that parental aspect to acceptable end result.
"Yes, sir," Dean said. The tone of his ‘sir’ wasn’t as disrespectful this time, but it wasn’t as far from it as John would have liked. Dean was a stubborn little bastard. Sometimes he was so much like his old man it made John ache that he hadn’t been able to instill more of Mary in the boy.
"Now answer the question," John ordered. "Is that what you thought?"
"Is what what I thought," Dean returned as if he didn’t remember something he wasn’t going to ever forget.
"That Sammy’s my favorite, so I’d save him instead of you."
Dean’s eyes focused in then. Fast, sudden, fierce. One moment, he was gazing at that point midway between them, and the next, he was glaring into John’s eyes, every line of his expression hurt and outraged and angry. Very, very angry.
"Is he?" Dean demanded.
"What do you think?"
"Yeah," Dean said, his tone vitriolic. "I think maybe he is." He nearly spit the words at John, he was that hurt, that angry, that threatened by the thought his father had a favorite and it wasn't him.
John leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, deliberately distancing himself from his son’s emotion. This wasn't where he wanted to go, but they were here now, and he couldn't afford not to deal with it. "Fine then. We ever get in a wreck, and the Impala catches on fire so I only have time to save one of you, I’ll make sure I save you and leave Sammy there to burn up."
It was the lowest blow he’d ever thrown. And perhaps the most necessary.
Dean blinked. His face went white. His anger just drained away, like someone pulled the plug on him. Which is exactly what his old man had done.
"No," Dean said. "That’s not what I meant."
"Sure it is," John said. "You want me to pick between you and Sammy. I can only save one of you, and the other has to die. That was the question, right? And if I save Sammy, you think that means I love him more than I love you. So fine, Dean. I’ll save you. Problem solved." He picked up his book, flipped it open to a totally random page. "There’s your answer, son. Now go find something else to do. I have things to read I might need later."
Dean leaned into the table. "That isn’t fair," he said.
John didn't look up from a page he couldn’t have actually read right now if his life depended on it. "And your question was?"
"You should save Sammy," Dean said.
He still didn’t look up. Still pretended he was reading when he wasn’t. Still pretended his son’s sudden anxiety didn’t matter to him when it did. "But I won’t. I’ll save you."
He did look up then, met Dean’s gaze with one of his own, as flatly, coldly, inflexibly indifferent as he could make it. "No, Dean. If I save you, Sammy will think it’s because I love him more. And if I have to pick a way for one of my sons to die, that’s the one I’ve got to go with. At least that way, he’ll die understanding I love him so much I’m doing everything I can to save what’s most important to him in this world. And for Sammy, that’s you. So I’ll save you. For Sammy. And hey, that works out well for you, too; doesn’t it? Winners all around."
"Dad." Dean's features were twisted up, his expression agonized. There were tears in his eyes, and he was fighting with everything he had to keep from falling.
"What, Dean?" John asked, counting to himself to keep his mind off how much he wanted to reach out and pull Dean to him, hold on to him, assure him he’d find a way to save them both, that he loved his sons that much that nothing would ever succeed at making him choose between them. "Isn’t that what you wanted to know?"
Dean hung his head and cried then. He let it go and just cried.
John put the book down and pushed to a stand. His joints ached, and he felt a thousand years old. He wanted Mary so much right now it was hard to breathe. He needed her here to compensate for what he’d done, to hold Dean and be gentle with him, to heal the wounds his father inflicted to keep deeper wounds from taking hold.
He needed her there to explain this to Dean while she let him cry, to keep their son from ever thinking Sammy was his father’s favorite. To keep Dean from ever giving in to believing he was less important in his father’s eyes just because Sammy was vulnerable while Dean was strong; so when push came to shove, it was Sammy John invariably worried about, invariably tried to save.
He needed Mary to do that for him; but she wasn’t here, and if he tried to do it, Dean would never learn what he had to know. The most important lessons were always the hardest ones. The most painful ones. And this one was going to cut them both to the bone. It was going to leave a scar that would never heal, but at least it would be a scar, and not an open wound that rotted Dean from the inside out every time he indulged the fear that, in his father’s eyes, Sammy was more important. That his father loved Sammy more.
Because no matter how much this hurt, that hurt more. And he wouldn’t let Dean feel that. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. Not that. Not ever.
"I’ve got things to do now, son," John said. "If you have any more questions, I’ll be in the garage."
He walked out of the kitchen, leaving Dean behind, crying. With the possible exception of tearing himself away from Mary as she was burning on the ceiling of Sammy’s nursery, leaving her behind because the only way he could show her how much he loved her as she died was by leaving her to save her sons, it was the hardest thing he’d ever done.
John straightened, wiped quickly at his face, struggled to structure his voice before he answered. It surprised him how calm he sounded, how unemotional his voice was when he said, "Yeah, Sammy. What is it?"
"Yes. I know. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t have anything to do with you."
"Don’t worry about it?" Sam was ten, and he sounded twenty seven. There was a level of disdain to his demand he’d learn to express before he rounded the bend on eight.
John could hear Sammy threading his way through the crap that littered the garage. He wiped at his face again, then cleared his throat as he picked up the knife he’d been sharpening on a whet stone and went back to the work of trying to look busy.
Sammy was right beside his shoulder. John turned his head, looked at him. Only a couple of months ago, Sam had been short and pudgy. Now he was thin as a rail and almost as tall as Dean, trying to outpace his brother to the end of ending up nine feet tall.
"Kinda busy right now, Sam," he said.
Sam looked at him, studied him. "Are you crying, too?"
John laughed in a way that was more a burst of air than actual laughter. "Marines don’t cry, son. They kick ass."
"Why are you crying?" Sam asked. A panic had started in his eyes. It was spreading like a virus through every line of his posture.
"Hey," John said firmly. "Stop it."
And just like that, Sam calmed down. He quit panicking, his expression settling back to one of confusion and concern.
John knew his ability to be that for Sam was on its last legs. He could see the end of it coming in how much Sam was already beginning to question everything he said and virtually every order he gave. In just the last year, Sam had shifted from worshiping the ground his daddy walked on to thinking his old man might possibly be a domineering asshole who issued orders just because he could. John hated to see it happen, but he’d known it would be the way he and Sam ended up long before now.
Sammy was simply too much like him in all the wrong ways and too much like his mother in all the right ones. The combination was a recipe for nitro, and thinking nitro would come to any end other than eventual combustion was Army thinking, not Marine thinking. Which was to say: Wrong.
It was inevitable that he and Sam were going to spend most of their lives toe-to-toe in a way he and Dean never had; but for right now, Sam was looking at him like he still knew the secrets of the universe, or at least had some clue what they might possibly be. Like he was still the begin-all end-all of what a man could be, or at least someone worthy of respect and obedience. Like he hadn’t just left his fourteen year old sobbing in the kitchen as if he couldn’t be bothered to take the time to comfort him, or at least hadn’t left him there without a damn good reason he was going to explain now, because it sure needed explaining as far as Sammy was concerned.
"This isn’t about you, Sam," John said. "And it isn’t something you need to worry about."
"How can I not worry about it?" Sam demanded. "You’re crying. Dean’s crying. What happened? What did you say to him?"
There it was: Sam giving him a hands-on demonstration of the kind of relationship they were going to have by the time Sam hit Dean’s age. At the tender age of ten, he thought he had the right to call his old man to an accounting for actions taken he would never understand because it would never occur to Sam to believe his father loved his brother more.
"You can not worry about it because I told you not to worry about it, Sammy," John snapped.
Sam looked at him, dismayed, upset, worried. "I can’t just not feel something because you tell me not to feel it, Dad," he said, his ‘you aren’t being reasonable’ tone just about enough to make John want to smack him. "It doesn’t work that way."
"Really," John said. "And just how does it work, Sammy? You being an expert on this kind of thing and all."
The implication that he was out of line didn’t work on Sammy. It never worked on Sammy. "It works this way, Dad," he said reasonably. "You say something that hurts Dean, and Dean gets hurt."
John just looked at him. He studied his youngest son in the garage’s crappy lighting for almost a minute, wondering when in the hell this child had surpassed him in the ability to win an argument by any means other than being able to yell louder than the other guy. Sam had his mother’s brains as well as her capacity to cut John off at the knees. You say something that hurts Dean, and Dean gets hurt. How does a man argue with that kind of logic?
"Yeah, you’re right, Sam," John said tiredly. "That is the way it works. Thanks for explaining that to me." He went back to sharpening his knife. "Why don’t you go talk to your brother. Tell him stupid jokes to cheer him up or something."
"Dean’s crying, Dad," Sam repeated. "He’s not bummed; he’s crying."
"I know that, Sammy. God help me, I know it."
If he let himself cry in front of Dean, it would have crashed Dean’s entire world. But Sammy was different. He could let tears run down his face in front of Sam, and Sam always understood them for what they were. So that's what he did. Sitting in his garage on an overturned bucket, sharpening a knife that was illegal in three states and already so sharp it could cut a man without him ever feeling it, John let the tears roll down his face, not worrying they existed so much as just simply pretending they weren't there.
Without bothering to give his old man a head's up or any other kind of warning, Sammy reached out and wrapped his arms around John chest, putting his head on John’s shoulder as he said, "Don't worry about it, Dad. Whatever you said, Dean will forgive you."
"Ah, shit, Sammy." John thrust to his feet, breaking free of his son’s embrace so roughly he almost knocked the boy over. "Don’t say something like that to me."
"Like what?" Sam asked in genuine confusion as John walked away from him.
John found himself in a corner, glaring at a scatter of greasy tools neglected on a workbench he hadn’t touched since they moved into this place over a year ago. You could have eaten with his shop tools in Lawrence, he kept them that spotless, that perfectly maintained. But he’d lost that somewhere, lost the ability to be responsible in how he treated the things he loved, be they tools or children or anything else.
"Just … just go somewhere else, will you?" he said. "I can’t talk to you right now."
"That isn’t fair."
"It isn’t fair," Sam repeated. "Dean’s crying, and you’re crying, and you want me to just go somewhere and pretend like it doesn’t matter? That isn’t fair, Dad."
"Yeah? Well welcome to being my son, son. Life isn’t fair, and neither is your old man."
"I’m not a kid." Sam wasn't indignant so much as he was informative. "You can talk to me. It's okay to tell me what happened; it won’t freak me out or anything."
"Nothing happened," John said.
"That’s pretty stupid," Sam countered. "Something obviously happened. Why won't you tell me what it is? What did you say to him?"
"Watch your mouth, Sammy."
Sam’s exasperation was almost palpable. It was a good match for John’s level of frustration. "Did you ever think that maybe it wasn’t what I said to him?" John demanded a little tersely.
Sam thought about that for a moment. "No," he said finally.
John laughed in a coarse burst of sound. "Well why the hell not?"
"Because what is Dean going to say to you that makes him cry? That doesn’t make any sense."
"Sometimes life doesn’t make sense."
"Okay. Fine. What did he say to you then?"
John sighed. "Never mind, Sam. You're right. He didn't say anything to me. He just asked me a question."
Sam didn’t say anything else. He was quiet for so long John finally turned around to see what was going on. Sam was just standing there, staring down at his feet, looking ten again instead of sounding twenty seven.
"What?" John prompted.
"He asked you the car question, didn’t he," Sam surmised quietly.
John frowned. "You have a name for it? The car question?"
"Yeah. The car question. The one about the car and the fire and saving only one, right? It’s a stupid question."
John walked back across the garage. Crouching down so he could look at Sam eye-to-eye, he said, "Yes, Sam. He asked me the car question. Why would he ask me something like that?" He felt a bit like a fool, requesting insight on his fourteen year old from his ten year old; but he did it anyway, if for no other reason than because Sammy shared so many personality traits with his mother, asking him things sometimes gave John an idea what Mary would have said in response.
There were times he could almost swear Mary was speaking to him through Sammy. He knew it was a stupid, indulgent, frivolous thought; but even so, there were times it still felt like that’s what she was doing.
"It’s just a thing that’s going around at school," Sam explained. "You’re supposed to take your two best friends and think of which one you would save if you were in a car wreck and you could only save one of them."
"How do you know about this?" John asked. "You and Dean aren’t even in the same school."
"’Cause he asked me the same thing."
"He asked me the car question. He said if you and him were in a car wreck, and I could only save one of you, who would I save."
"What did you tell him?"
"I said him," Sam answered like the fact that John even had to ask made him the stupidest dad ever.
"Because you’d kill me if I let him die to save you."
John just stared at his son. He could feel tears starting to run down his face again, but it didn’t really occur to him to wipe them away.
"What?" Sam asked. "That’s the right answer."
"Yeah," John agreed. "It is."
"So why are you crying then?"
"I think maybe I've sprung a leak."
Sam snorted. "So what’d you say?" he asked. "You told him me, right?"
"Yeah," John said quietly.
"Because he’d kill you if you let me die to save him. See? That’s the whole point of the question. Which is why it’s a stupid question. That and because somebody always ends up getting their feelings hurt. I think maybe that’s the point of it, too. Which makes it double stupid."
John reached out, put his hand along the side of his son’s face. "You’re right," he said quietly. "It is an incredibly stupid question."
"That’s what I said. I told Dean that. I told him not to ask you."
"What did he say to that?"
"He said he wanted to know." Sam started to say something else, but changed his mind.
"What?" John prompted.
"Don’t nothing me, Sam. Tell me what you were going to say."
Sam shrugged. "I was just going to say I don’t think Dean gets it. I don’t think he understands the point of the question. I’m not saying he’s dumb or anything," Sam added quickly, "because he’s not. I just don’t think he gets this particular question. Which since it’s such a stupid question, that kind of makes him smart to not get it. In a way. Sort of, if you look at it right."
"Why do you say he doesn’t get it?"
"Because he got mad at me when I said him. He got really mad. He even hit me. See?" Sam pulled up the sleeve of his shirt to show John a small bruise on his upper arm.
"Why’d he do that?" John asked quietly.
"Because he told me if I ever let you die for any reason, he would kill me himself. Especially if saving him was the reason. I tried to explain to him that you’d kill me if I saved you instead of him, and he said he didn’t want to hear it. That it wasn’t a game. That if it ever came to a call between him and you, I had to pick you. He made me swear it. Which is stupid, isn’t it? Like I’m going to pick you if something like that ever happens just because I swore I would."
John laughed quietly. "Come here," he said, reaching out to pull Sammy into a hug. Though the embrace seemed to surprise him a bit, Sammy responded easily, wrapping his arms around John’s neck and hugging back in a way Dean never would, but Sammy always did.
John held onto Sam for several minutes, taking comfort in the small knowledge that whatever else he’d done wrong as a father, he’d at least done something right with Sammy. Or Dean had. One of them had raised a hell of a smart kid. Or maybe it was both of them who’d raised him.
When he let Sam go and stood, Sammy grinned up at him. "That’s two hugs in ten minutes," he said. "According to Dean, that officially makes you a girl."
"Oh it does, does it?"
"Well this girl is still the one in charge around here, so I guess we'll find out how you boys like taking orders from a girl."
"Oh, Dean’ll love that," Sam said, his grin splitting wider. "Are you going to go talk to him?"
"What? Are you psychic now?"
Sam laughed. "No. I just know you, and you’re a real girl when it comes to Dean crying."
John reached out, bipped his son on the back of the head. "Don’t call your old man a girl," he said. "It’s disrespectful."
"Yes, Ma’am," Sam said smartly.
John looked down at Sam for a long moment, then said, "Thank you, Sam. You helped me out here."
"I did?" Sam sounded surprised.
"Yes. You did. Sometimes it helps to get somebody else’s opinion. And you have good opinions. Especially when it comes to your brother."
Sam looked very proud of himself. "Cool," he said. "So that means it really would be me you’d save over Dean then, right?" And then he snickered.
"Don’t ever ask me that again, Sam," John said.
"Oh come on. I never asked you in the first place. Dean asked you." Then, as if it had suddenly occurred to him his dad might do otherwise, Sam asked, "You are going to say me if he asks again, right? Because you will totally make him mad if you say him."
"Absolutely," John said.
"But if I ask, you’re supposed to say him. You get that, right?"
"Are you suggesting I’m stupid, Sammy?" John asked.
Sam looked a little embarrassed. "No. I just thought I should make sure. You know: better sure than sorry."
"I’m going to go talk to your brother," John said. "Why don’t you make yourself scarce for a while?"
"Okay. Then can we go out for pizza?"
"Sure, Sam. Then we’ll go out for pizza."
"But you have to promise to drive really careful," Sam added. And then he grinned. " ’Cause you wouldn’t want to get in a wreck or anything."
"Oh, you’re hilarious," John said.
"Yeah," Sam agreed, shoving at his dad by pushing against his arm just because it happened to be close enough he could do it. "I totally am."
It took him a while to find Dean, but when he did, he wasn’t terribly surprised where they ended up. There was a small creek not far from the rental, and it was where Dean liked to go when he wanted to be alone.
He glanced up when he heard John pushing through the underbrush, but didn’t say anything, just watching while John worked his through the weeds and dead sticks until he made his way clear of them. He was sitting on a muddy bank half a dozen yards above the actual creek itself, his knees drawn up to his chest, his arms resting on his knees.
John took a seat beside him, laying his legs flat against the bank because his knees were much older and more incautiously used than Dean’s were, so they no longer liked to bend the way Dean’s knees were bent.
"Hey," Dean said, looking back at the small trickle of water running through the scattering of rocks below. It was almost too pitiful to even be called a creek, but it was what they had, so he was making do, tossing small stones into the path of it like that made time pass a little more quickly. Or more easily.
"Hey," John returned.
They sat for several minutes in silence. "Sorry I asked you that," Dean said finally. "It was a stupid question, I guess."
"Yes," John agreed. "It was."
Dean shot him a quick glance out of the corner of his eye, then went back to staring down at the creek. "Guess I made myself sound like a real punk, huh?"
"Yeah. You kind of did."
Dean nodded. "Sorry," he said again.
"It’s okay. Everybody’s allowed to be a punk once in a while."
They sat there for a while, not talking, just sitting.
"I’d want you to save Sammy," Dean said suddenly, his voice quiet, his eyes carefully averted from anything John might be able to engage. "If something like that ever really did happened. That’s who I’d want you to save, okay?"
"No. It’s not okay."
Dean sighed. "You aren’t going to let me off the hook?"
"No. Not for asking a question like that."
"Fine," Dean said. "Whatever." It wasn’t disrespectful this time, just weary.
"Do me a favor, Dean," John said.
"I know. Don’t ever ask you that again."
John smiled a little. "Well, okay that, too; but I was actually thinking something else."
"Oh. Sorry. What?"
"Put your head some place for me. Just for a moment."
"Okay," Dean agreed.
"Think about being in a position of having to choose between me and Sammy if you could only save one of us."
"I don’t want to think about that," Dean said quickly.
John turned his head, looked at his son. Dean was still staring down at the creek. He wouldn't look up to meet John's eyes.
"Look at me, son," John said quietly.
Dean obeyed, his gaze completely deferential, almost to the point of submissive.
"Don’t cow in front of me. Look at me."
Dean swallowed hard, but he squared his shoulders a little and engaged John in a more equal manner. His eyes were raw, wounded. He’d taken a hit he didn’t want to show, but he was showing it because John ordered him to. He was obeying. It was both an apology and a plea for forgiveness.
"That’s my point," John said quietly. "What you feel just thinking about thinking about it? That’s what I feel when you ask me who I’d save between you and Sammy. That question isn’t a game for you and me like it is for your school buddies. It isn’t fun; it isn’t something to do because you’re bored. That’s my worst fear, Dean. That and the fact that no matter which of you I chose, the other might think I love them less because of the choice I have to make. Can you see that, Dean? Can you see how much asking me a question like that puts my head somewhere I don’t want to have to go?"
Dean nodded. He’d broken away from John’s gaze again and was looking at his hands. "Yeah," he said hoarsely. "I realized that after you left. Sorry. I didn’t mean to do that to you."
"You know," John said gently, "you and I’ve kind of been partners since your mother died, in addition to being father and son. I depend on you a lot more than most fathers depend on their kids. Maybe more than I should sometimes."
"I’m up to it," Dean said quickly.
"I know you are. And that’s a big part of why I can do it. But I probably shouldn’t. Actually, I know I shouldn’t. But sometimes I just can’t see any other choice."
Dean looked up, met his eyes. "It’s okay, Dad. I like being partners with you."
"Well the hard thing is, Sammy’s not like that. He’s not like us. He got lucky: He had you to help raise him instead of just depending on me."
"That’s not fair. You did a good job raising me."
John offered his son a small smile. "Well, certainly I got a good end product, so I have to figure I did something right. But what I’m trying to say to you is that Sammy’s not a partner like you and me. He’s more of a kid. He’s vulnerable like a kid. That’s why I’m always telling you to take care of him. Not because I think he’s more important than you, but because you’re my partner, and Sammy needs taking care of. You’re the only one I trust to do that other than me."
Dean nodded. "I know that, Dad."
"Do you?" John asked quietly.
Dean’s eyes narrowed, questioning.
"Do you know the part about him not being more important than you, Dean?" John asked. "Because sometimes I’m not sure you do. Sometimes I think me asking you to take care of him makes you think you’re expendable, and he’s not."
"That isn’t what I think," Dean said. His voice was convincing; his eyes were less so.
"Are you sure, Dean? Because that seemed like the question you were asking me. That seemed like what you wanted to know."
"I know you love me," Dean said.
"Yeah. But do you know I love you just as much as Sammy?" He hesitated a full two seconds, then added, his voice almost a whisper, "If not more?"
Dean looked away. He stared at the creek, looked into the underbrush on the opposite bank, glanced up at the sky that was starting to go grey with the first indications of coming dusk.
When he finally looked back to John, his eyes were three years old again. He was a little boy, sitting on John’s lap, eyes filled with tears, face twisted with fear as he asked, But will you love him more than me, Daddy? You won’t love him more than me, will you?
I’ll never love anybody more than you, Dean-o, he’d said then. And he meant it. He’d meant it then and he meant it now.
"Sammy’s a lot like mom," Dean said. "I know you see that because I see it."
"Yes," John agreed. "He is."
"So …?" Dean stopped then, waiting on his answer, dying inside while he tried to look like he already knew what it would be.
"I’ll never love anybody more than you, Dean-o," John said.
He hadn’t called his son that since before Mary’s murder. It was a nick-name that died with her, along with so many other things that both of them needed and loved and wanted.
Dean let out the breath he was holding in a small puff. He looked away, nodding as he stared down at the creek. "Okay," he said, his voice a tremor on the acknowledgement.
"Will you remember that for me, son?" John asked. "Even if someone tells you differently some time? Even if someone tries to use it against you, tries to make you feel like Sammy’s my favorite just because I have to worry more about him than I do you? because you’re my partner, and he’s the one both of us are in charge of protecting? Will you remember it isn’t true? Will you remember this conversation? Remember that I’ll never love anybody more than I love you? Never? No matter what?"
"Yes," Dean said. "I’ll remember."
"I already told you that once, Dean. Do you remember it?"
"Yes," Dean whispered.
"Do you think I was lying to you?"
"Do you think I changed my mind?"
"I’ll remember it this time, Dad," Dean said. "I promise, okay?"
"You have to, Dean. I’d do anything for you. I’d trade my life for you. I’d trade my soul for you, and consider myself lucky to get the chance to do it. I love you that much, son; and more. You’ll understand some day when you have kids of your own; but right now, you just have to trust me on this: You only have one first child. I love Sammy. I love Sammy more than life itself. But not more than you, Dean. Never more than you."
"Okay." Dean was nodding now, his breathing harsh, ragged, his eyes staring at the mud between his feet like it held the secrets to the universe. "Okay, Dad. Okay. I’ll remember."
"Good," John said. "Because the only thing I can think of that’s worse than having to pick between you and Sammy would be to have you think I picked Sammy for any reason other than because that’s what I know you’d want me to do."
"I would," Dean said. "I really would, Dad."
"I know that. And you know the same about me, right? Because family comes first. Before revenge, before anything. Are we on the same page with this?"
Dean was still nodding, still staring at the mud between his feet. "I’d pick Sammy for you, Dad," he said. "That’s the right answer, right? That I’m supposed to pick him for you, right?"
John reached over, put his hand on the back of Dean’s neck, pulled his son’s head close, into his shoulder, speaking down to him, whispering near his ear as he said, "You save yourself, Dean. And you save your brother. That’s how you love me, okay? That’s the way you show me you love me."
Dean nodded. "Okay. I will, Dad. I will."
"I know you will, son. I trust you."
He held on to Dean like that for several minutes longer, Dean leaning into his shoulder, trembling; his mouth near Dean’s ear where he could tell him secrets he didn’t have to actually say for Dean to hear them and know they were true.
John released him finally, patting Dean’s shoulder in a way that told Dean to sit up, re-structure himself, clear his throat, clear his eyes, pretend like nothing monumental or important had passed between them. Dean obeyed the way he always did. The way he always would.
He could trust Dean. He could count on Dean.
"Sammy’s jonesing for pizza tonight," John said when his son was staring at the creek below them like a bored teenager rather than a shattered child. "You up for that?"
"Figured you would be. Let’s head back to the house. I’ve got some reading to finish before we go."
John stood, and his son followed suit.
"What are you reading?" Dean asked as they walked back to the house.
"Just boring ritual crap," he said. "But you never know when that kind of thing will come in handy. Who knows? Some day I might want to come back from the dead to kick your ass for salting my bones the wrong way. Hate to have the only thing standing between me and that end being the color of the candles I burned."
"You’re never going to die," Dean said. "You’re invincible."
"Yeah. Me and Superman."
"Dude," Dean said, grinning. "Ego check. You are not Superman."
John lifted an eyebrow at him.
"Superman's kind of a geek," Dean clairifed. "Batman is way cooler. And he’s one hundred percent Human. No super powers. No alien from outer space. He’s just a regular guy who’s pissed off enough to do what has to be done."
"So … that makes me Batman then?"
Dean laughed. "Hell, yeah. You can be Batman if you want, as long as I get to drive the Batmobile, and you don’t start calling me Robin."
"If not you, then who?" John asked, grinning, too.
"Gimme a break. The Boy Wonder? Who else could that be but Sammy?"
They both laughed at that, and were still laughing several hours later, eating pizza with Sammy as the three of them took turns asking each other stupid questions.