Title: Reverent, Clean, Thrifty and Wise
Challenge: Psych 30 Chart.
My Prompt: #20, Learned Helplessness
Genre: Gen, pre-series
Word Count: 10,450
Rating: R (for language, just to be safe)
Disclaimer: I don't own the boys, I'm just stalking them for a while.
Summary: Sammy was sitting on the couch, eating potato chips, watching John like he was some kind of science experiment that was getting ready to render an interesting result any moment now. God only knew what that boy would consider interesting.
Reverent, Clean, Thrifty and Wise
John woke with a start. It took him a moment to figure out why, but once he did, he knew exactly what to expect when he opened his eyes.
Sammy was sitting on the couch, eating potato chips, watching John like he was some kind of science experiment that was getting ready to render an interesting result any moment now. God only knew what that boy would consider interesting.
"Hey, Sammy." John stretched in his chair, unknotting a multitude of kinks that had tied themselves into his back and shoulders from sleeping upright. "I thought I told you not to stare at me when I’m sleeping."
"I wasn’t staring," Sammy said. He popped another chip in his mouth. "I was just watching."
"Right. Well don’t watch me when I’m sleeping then, okay?"
"Because I asked you not to."
Sammy sighed. It was clear he thought that a tragically substandard reason, if not down right stupid, but he agreed with a casual "Okay."
That wasn’t a good sign.
Sammy only agreed to do something he considered unjustified in the asking for one reason: he had something more argument-worthy on his mind. Or in the vernacular Sammy preferred: debate-worthy. Because – as he’d informed John just last month – asking for clarification as to why, exactly, he should do what John told him to do wasn’t arguing about every little damn thing, it was debating about every little damn thing.
And reasoned debate was a healthy thing was Sammy’s contention.
Maybe for professional debaters, John had responded. Not so much for eleven-year-olds with dads who were done debating.
Scratching at the back of his neck, John struggled to clear the cobwebs of interrupted sleep out of his head, to un-muzz the specifically muzzy scatter of his thoughts. Watching Sammy watch him, he had to wonder how in the hell he’d managed to draw the lot on this kid. Dean was pretty much a gimme: that was simple Genetics 101. But Sammy? The only possible explanation for Sammy – as far as John could see at least – was that he was the exception who proved the rule.
As much as John usually tried to take the mental stance that his younger son just favored Mary’s side of the equation the way Dean favored his, it wasn’t really accurate. True, Sammy was smart like Mary had been. And he was gentle, too, and intrinsically sweet in a kind way that had to be Mary because it sure as hell wasn’t John.
But to say he was like Mary simply wasn’t accurate. He wasn’t like Mary at all. At least, not in any way John could make heads or tails of.
As much as Mary had occasionally flummoxed him to a point where she left him stewing in his own juices, frustrated to a standstill by her way of thinking or of doing or of simply being the way she was – which included debating every little damn thing he said at times – he’d always felt like, on a core level, he got her. He understood her. He at least had a clue why Mary did the things she did, or responded the way she responded.
And even when he didn’t totally understand her, even when he most disagreed with her, they still spoke the same language. Or at least as much the same language as a man and a woman were ever going to speak.
The way John had it calculated, she was smarter than he was by at least half again; but he was far cagier and significantly more strategic, so all in all, it equaled out in the end. And while Mary was inarguably unpredictable at times – at least, unpredictable to him – her unpredictability factor was spice in the way she applied it.
It kept things interesting, kept things lively.
In fact, her unpredictability was a large part of what John most loved about her. He loved that he could never afford to bet too heavily on knowing what cards she had up her pretty little sleeve. He loved how much of an enigma she could still be even after they’d been married long enough to fall into familiar patterns of domestic behavior.
He loved that he knew her in ways no one else ever would, he could trust her in ways he could trust no one else; but even so, she was never going to become such known territory there wouldn’t be surprises around the next bend, things he couldn’t possibly anticipate over the next hill. He loved there was never going to be a time when he could discount the possibility of a fight over a subject he thought was safe, or laughter over something he thought would get him laid, or a moment when she looked at him like he was everything just because he did something that wouldn’t have occurred to him not to do.
Everything he didn’t understand about Mary was part and parcel to everything he loved about her; but even on his days of greatest failure to understand her, there was never a time John didn’t understand Mary the way he didn’t understand Sammy.
John loved his son. He loved the little mutt to a degree it almost scared him sometimes. But he didn’t get the boy at all.
Sammy had a completely incomprehensible way of thinking things through that wasn’t intriguing, it was frustrating. He had a ferocious thirst for knowledge that gave him the impression he knew more than everybody he’d ever met by the time he was nine, which might not have been entirely inaccurate, but which certainly was incredibly frustrating. And he had a civil right’s activist’s need to argue every little damn injustice he perceived to the wall, which was so far beyond frustrating to an ex-Marine it occasionally made John walk away just to keep from calling his own son a commie.
But the cherry on the sundae was Sammy’s unpredictability factor. The boy had unpredictable down to an art form. And he didn’t use it as a spice, the way Mary had. Sammy had enough unpredictable in that little body for a seven-course meal. Plus desert.
And he was unpredictable in a way that didn’t keep things interesting so much as it kept them absolutely and utterly chaotic. Or chaotic by John’s standards, at least. So while unpredictable wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – chaos could be invigorating in small doses – it sure as hell was a frustrating thing.
Very, very frustrating.
But unpredictability wasn’t the worst of it. As frustrating as it was to consistently fail to anticipate his own child’s behavior or way of thinking or any other damn thing about the boy, it was ten times more frustrating to be out-thought by the unpredictable little bastard. Because no man should be out-thought by his own kid before that kid cleared a decade by at least two years. It just wasn’t natural.
And it was happening more and more often these days. Often enough, in fact, John had begun to wonder if Sammy wasn’t already significantly smarter than he and Dean put together and just playing nice for the sake of the slow kids at the back of the class. Those slow kids being his old man and big brother … as well as most of his teachers and probably the guys who ran the country, to boot.
Because although he could be wrong, John was pretty sure none of them would have known that – not counting the United States – Brazil was the world’s largest producer of soybeans either. At least, not off the top of their head. As far as John was concerned, Soyland was a pretty good guess for pulling an answer out of his ass at the drop of a God-knows-why-Sammy-asked-that hat, and it didn’t deserve an eye roll from an eleven-year-old.
Because seriously, other than Sammy, who knew that kind of shit? And more importantly, who cared?
Apparently, the same people who cared what a Brazilian dollar was called, or that it wasn’t pronounced the way any English-speaking individual would pronounce any other collection of r’s and e’s and a’s and l’s so much as it was pronounced like you objected to someone stepping on your foot. But John Winchester spoke English, dammit. So really, in the long run, shouldn’t that be the deciding factor on how John Winchester and John Winchester’s children chose to pronounce words?
John Winchester’s children including Sammy, all evidence to the contrary.
Good God how John had learned to hate Brazil. He’d been there once, and it was a beautiful place full of predominantly congenial people; but he could honestly say none of that really mattered any more. It could be the freakin’ Garden of Eden and Nirvana all rolled up in one, and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to how much John hated Brazil. And sixth grade Social Studies homework. And sometimes, his youngest son’s brain. And always, his youngest son’s capacity to roll his eyes in a way that made his old man feel like an idiot.
But most of all, John hated knowing there was a reasoned debate in the immediate offing, and no one had bothered to give him a week’s notice on the subject up for debate.
Or in the vernacular John preferred: argument.
Scrubbing one hand across his face, he picked up the book he’d been reading when he dozed off. It was a couple of hundred years old, and it smelled like mold … and those were its good points.
But even so, diving back into the can-anything-actually-be-this-boring? pool seemed a safer alternative – ego-wise, at least – than finding out he didn’t know who the world’s largest producer of jelly beans was either. Because while Jellystone Park would both crack Dean up as an answer to that question and earn bonus points in the awesome dad category, all it would get from Sammy was another damned eye roll.
And probably a lengthy debate about why bears didn’t really have sidekicks and shouldn’t be fed sugar because that constituted irresponsible management of natural resources and could lead to bear diabetes or some damn thing.
"How’d your hunt go?" Sammy asked between chips.
Oh, crap. As much as Sammy’s failure to debate John’s tragically substandard reasoning on why he shouldn’t be stared at while he was sleeping wasn’t a good sign, Sammy actually asking about a hunt was a bona fide emergency broadcast beacon on full blow.
He didn’t give a sweet tinker’s damn about hunting. If John made it home relatively on time and without any undue shedding of blood, it was all good as far as Sammy was concerned. So him actually asking about last night’s cluster fuck of a fruitless skeet shoot? Yeah, so not good. God knows what subject that question was breaking ice for.
Probably Brazil. Or soybeans. Or, God forbid, Star Trek.
"Went pretty well," John lied without looking up from the book. "It was long though. Really, really long. Got home very late. Didn’t get much sleep. Haven’t really slept since Thursday, in fact."
Dean would have taken the hint. He would have realized John talking about long hunts and late arrivals and not getting any sleep meant he didn’t want to be bothered. Or quizzed about dinosaurs. Or asked if he knew who, other than the United States, was the world’s largest producer of soybeans. Or given the short course on quantum physics and how Star Trek only got it part right. Or asked any other question he didn’t know the answer to, or told any other piece of valuable information he didn’t have the energy to pretend he gave a crap about when he almost certainly didn’t.
Give a crap, that is.
Dean would have taken the hint, but Sammy didn’t. Sammy never took the hint. Instead, he took John’s comments about sleep deprivation as permission to speculate on what might be the end result of not getting enough sleep as he, Samuel Tyler Winchester, saw it based on Exhibits A, B and C, all of which were observations made while watching his old man snore like a buzz saw in the Lazy Boy.
"That’s probably why you fell asleep in your chair," Sammy said reasonably.
"It probably is," John agreed. Then, trying once more for the leave-me-alone or pick-a-subject-I-can-talk-about combination, he added, "Although this book is pretty boring, too. It might have put me to sleep right in the middle of a Packers game."
Sammy nodded, but that was it. Crap. Football was a class A distraction for Dean: It worked every single time.
It didn’t even ding Sam.
He didn’t even look like he knew who the Packers were. Which, as far as John was concerned, was just another point to the whole ‘exception proves the rule’ theory. Because Winchesters? Winchesters knew who the Packers were.
Maybe if he tried Star Trek ….
Of course, John didn’t know much about Star Trek either, so while that subject did have a better chance to successfully derail his son from whatever was on his mind, it likely wouldn’t prove to be a much better topic of conversation for John than Brazil would be. Because honestly, he had no idea how those damned transporters worked, or whether or not you could actually de-molecule a guy, send him somewhere else, and then re-molecule him back together again without running the risk of getting his eyeballs in backwards. All of which was evidently Dean’s big sticking point when it came to why Star Trek was a stupid-ass show only a geek would watch while another channel was running Batman.
"Nice day outside," John noted.
"Why don’t you go ride your bike or something?"
Sammy popped another chip in his mouth. "Nah. I’d rather stay here with you."
Double crap. "Well, I’m kind of busy right now, Sammy. And I’ve got a long way to go before I’m finished reading this one." He lifted the book out of his lap a little to show his son the impressively old-as-hell binding. That might work: Sammy freakin’ loved books.
Books were right at the top of his things-I-love list.
But evidently not today.
"That’s okay." Sammy took a break from the chips to chug-a-lug out of a pop can he kept close at hand by wedging it between the couch cushions in a way that would have made Mary break out in a cold sweat. "I’ll wait." He started to put the can back, then thought better of it and held it out to John instead. "Want some pop?"
Double crap with a heaping spoonful of crap on the side. John shook off his son’s offer of sugar-in-liquid-form as he warned, "Might take me all day."
"I’ll still wait." Sammy jammed the pop can back in place. "I have something I want to ask you. Want some chips?"
Ah, shit. Sammy wanted to ask him something.
John took the bag his son was holding out and popped several chips in quick succession to soften the blow of finding out Sammy didn’t want to tell him about transporters or political parties in Argentina (fucking South A-damn-merica Social fucking Studies anyway). He didn’t want to tell John what ‘castigate’ meant or how the definition of that word differed from ‘castrate’ which is what Dean said even though he really meant ‘castigate,’ which actually Dean didn’t, he said exactly what he meant.
Hell, Sammy didn’t even want to tell him why you should never stare a dog straight in the eyes or wiggle your butt too much around one unless you were willing to make the time to play. Because evidently, that’s what butt wiggling meant to dogs. While eye staring, on the other hand, meant you were going to try to kick their ass, so if they had any doggie cahoonies – Sammy thought they were called cahoonies, so John just let him keep on thinking that because God forbid he should correct the kid only to find out they really were called cahoonies – they’d try and kick yours first.
No, Sammy didn’t want to tell him any of those things, he actually wanted to ask John something. And with John’s luck, the odds were astronomically high it would be something he didn’t know the answer to. Like how warp drive worked, because if you traveled faster than light, wouldn’t it tear you apart or send you back in time or turn your eyeballs inside out or something?
While John was contemplating the daunting concept of what Sammy could possibly want to ask a man who’d only had six hours of sleep since Thursday – four of those hours being right here, in this very chair – Sammy went ahead and asked. Or at least, he asked the first part of his question, because none of Sammy’s questions ever had only one part. That was the first rule you learned about Sammy questions: There was always a follow-up, and it usually involved the words "why" or "what country."
And the first part of Sammy’s question was, "So can I ask you something without you getting mad?"
Double shit. If Sammy was willing to actually ask permission to ask whatever it was he wanted to ask, it was worse than John thought. Which took some doing because John always assumed any question Sammy wanted to ask was about as bad as bad gets without involving things that react violently to salt or Latin or silver.
"I can’t make any promises, bud," John said. And that was the truth, at least as it applied to Sammy’s multi-part questions. Because as much as he’d like to say otherwise, John really couldn’t promise he wouldn’t get mad at whatever it was his youngest son intended to ask. Because Sam asked some pretty maddening questions sometimes. Sometimes he asked ones that could actually turn a guy’s eyeballs inside out.
Or make his head explode.
Or provoke his mouth into actually forming the words "you damn commie" before said guy remembered he was talking to his eleven-year-old son, and he couldn’t actually say that to an eleven-year-old. Or at least, he couldn’t say it unless he was willing to commit to the idea there was no such thing as life after death, and thus no reason to think he was ever going to see Mary again and have to explain that one to her.
Which, truthfully? He’d seen too much to ever bet on. There not being life after death, not Mary kicking his ass for calling his own son a commie. Or any other eleven-year-old, for that matter.
Sammy took the bag back from John and popped another chip in his mouth. And waited.
What the hell was he waiting for?
"Well?" John prompted finally.
"I’m not going to ask until you promise not to get mad," Sammy said.
It sounded so reasonable when he said it John almost felt like a stone-cold idiot for not having realized what the hold up was. He sighed. Sometimes facing one of Sammy’s questions was like setting a broken bone. You could try and wait it out, but the sad truth was, the bone wasn’t going to get any less broken with the passage of time. And Sammy’s question wasn’t going to get any easier to answer. So sometimes it was just as simple as jumping in with both feet and getting the damn thing over with.
Set the bone, so to speak. Rip the band aid off fast.
"All right," John conceded. "Fine. I won’t get mad. What do you want to ask?"
"Do you like Dean better than me?"
Sammy had good instincts: The question made John mad. He tried not to show it, but he wasn’t very successful. He could hear the strain in his own voice as he asked, "Why would you ask something like that, Sammy?"
"I just want to know," Sammy said.
"Why do you want to know?"
"Because I do."
That was the single most frustrating thing about Sammy’s debate rules. He absolutely considered "because I do" to be reasoned debate when he said it even though he adamantly refused to acknowledge "because I said so" as reasoned debate when John put it out there. And he had the gall to call John unfair.
"Of course I don’t love Dean more than I love you," John said.
He tried to put a definitive, close-the-book-on-the-subject tone in his voice just on the off chance that could be the end of it; but he knew it wouldn’t be. Not with Sammy. At least, not unless he was willing to shut Sammy down completely, which he tried not to do more than seventeen times a month.
He was already up to fifteen, and it was only the seventh.
An inspiration hit John as he finished his answer, so he tacked on, "That’s kind of a stupid question for such a smart kid, don’t you think?"
Good idea, but no go. Sammy didn’t rise to the bait. Whether or not he recognized it as bait was anybody’s guess, but be it through intention or inattention, Sammy didn’t go for the only counter measure John had to deploy: implying such a question was below Samuel Tyler’s estimable level of impressive intellect.
John wanted to just close his eyes and go to sleep. He was out of his depth here, and it would only get worse. Feigning narcolepsy seemed like a good evasive strategy in such a scenario. The only reason he didn’t indulge it was because he didn’t feel like hearing everything Sammy had ever read on the subject of sleep disorders.
Which, despite the fact he was only eleven, was probably enough to scare a true narcoleptic into insomnia.
"I didn’t ask if you love him more," Sammy announced. "I asked if you like him more."
Ah. Love, like: details, details, details. When it came to pronunciation on Latin (as compared to Brazilian) exorcisms, John was hell on wheels for details. But apparently, when it came to listening to what Sammy said, he was a little lax. Or the teacher thought so, at least. John was already failing the class, and he hadn’t even made it to the test yet. He should have studied harder, maybe stashed Dean under his chair as the ultimate cheat sheet for Sammy 101.
"Well I don’t like him more either," John said. No way the right answer was going to be that simple, but it never hurt to try the obvious.
"Dean says you do," Sammy said.
It was a good thing Dean wasn’t stashed under his chair at the moment. It was also a good thing Dean wasn’t the kind of kid to hang around the house on a sunny Saturday afternoon, eating potato chips and staring at his dad while the old man tried to get a little long-overdue shuteye. Because if Dean had been that kind of kid, he’d be such a dead kid right now. Absolutely dead. And buried. And grounded. Until he was seventy. Three.
"Dean’s just teasing you," John said.
"I know he’s not serious, but I got to thinking about it, and I think maybe he’s right anyway."
Good God, his son was eleven going on twenty-seven. And a law degree. From Stanford or Yale or some other stick-up-its-ass ivy league geek tank. "What makes you think that?" John asked, stalling.
"Because you do stuff with him."
Do stuff. Okay. That wasn’t so bad. John could handle do stuff. "I do stuff with you, too," he said.
"No you don’t. Not like you do with Dean."
Oh crap. Crap, crap, crap, crap. And shit.
For a man who set traps for supernatural evil on a daily basis, John wasn’t very good at avoiding them. Hell, he’d just fallen ass-over-teakettle into a big pit dug by a bored eleven-year-old who John was only now realizing must have doing stuff on his mind, instead of Brazil or soybeans or Star Trek.
"Yeah, I do," John said. "We do stuff all the time."
"Like what?" Sammy demanded.
Oh good. Sammy wanted examples. Example time was John’s favorite. He racked his brain, came up with nothing. He didn’t do stuff with Sammy. What the hell was he supposed to say when the kid called him on a we do stuff bluff?
"Well … we’re doing stuff right now, aren’t we?" John pointed out.
Trying to fly that one was a little like trying to take candy from a gorilla. A smart gorilla. A smart, big gorilla who really wanted that candy a whole, whole lot. "You were sleeping, Dad," Sammy said, his tone the verbal equivalent of an eyeroll. "And I was watching you sleep. That doesn’t count as doing stuff."
"That may have been what we were doing, but we’re talking now, right? Just you and me? Man to man?"
That so would have worked with Dean. The whole man-to-man thing was the ace of hearts in Dean’s deck of cards. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even the two of clubs with Sam.
"But we don’t do stuff do stuff. Not like you and Dean do."
John found himself considering narcolepsy again. He thought he might actually be coming down with a true case of it, he wanted to close his eyes and go back to sleep that damn bad.
Sighing a combination of exhaustion and surrender, he gave in for the second time in a single conversation by admitting, "I don’t know what to tell you, Sammy. Dean and I do stuff together because he likes working with me. We train a lot. He helps me track things, and he helps with the logistics of my hunts."
"And you work on the Impala together," Sammy pointed out.
"Yeah. We do that, too. But you don’t like doing any of those things, do you?"
"No. But Dean does."
John was pretty sure he should be smart enough to figure out what his son meant by that and how it was going to trip him up in the end; but he wasn’t, and he didn’t. Maybe it was lack of sleep, or maybe it was just woefully inadequate parental skills; but either way, John had no idea what Sammy was driving at, or why in hell he might want to drive there. "Sorry, buddy," he said finally. "I still don’t know what you want me to say."
"You do stuff with Dean that he likes to do," Sammy clarified.
And then John got it. He so totally got it.
He was screwed now, and he knew it. "I think it’s more along the lines of Dean doing things with me that I like to do," John said, trying to avoid a pre-determined fate he should have seen coming from the moment he opened his eyes to Sammy watching him. "Or that I need to do."
Sammy wasn’t buying. "Uh uh. You do way more stuff with him than you do with me. And it’s always stuff he likes to do. Is that because you like him better than you like me?"
Game over. Game over, done, finished, put to the showers and filed in the history books. The fat lady was done singing her fat ass off and had gone to the bar with the last man standing for a nightcap.
But John still had one more silver bullet, so he took his last shot if for no other reason than to say he went down fighting. "No, Sammy. That isn’t why Dean and I do things together. And I don’t like him better than I like you. Dean and I just have more in common than you and I do."
He should have stopped while he was beaten.
Sammy blinked like he hadn’t actually considered that, then his face fell like someone punctured him with a pin. "Oh," he said quietly. "Okay."
Great. Just fucking peachy. John just copped to thinking he had nothing in common with his own son. Which he didn’t, but still. You weren’t supposed to admit something like that to the kid. He would have never admitted something like that to Dean. Of course, it wasn’t true about Dean, but that really wasn’t the point.
John rubbed at his face again, tried to figure out how to pull his foot out of his mouth without taking all his teeth, too.
"That didn’t really come out the way I meant it," he said finally. "I just mean Dean and I like to do the same kind of things."
There were times John would have considered trading several relatively important parts of his anatomy for Sammy to be just be a little bit dumb. Just enough to let his old man slide once in a while on an answer that wasn’t really an answer, on a revision that wasn’t really a revision.
But Sammy wasn’t dumb. Not by a long stretch of any imagination was that boy dumb.
"How is that different?" Sammy asked, his voice teetering on the edge of wounded.
"It’s different because …" John scrambled around for something, found nothing, "… because it means I have a better idea of what kind of things to do with Dean. What kind of things he’ll want to do."
You had to give John an A for improvisation skills. He had excellent improvisation skills in a dig-yourself-out-of-one-hole-and-bury-yo
"You’re a little bit harder to figure out sometimes," John added, praying like a son of a bitch Sammy wouldn’t take that statement as a repeat of saying they had nothing in common. "I’m not sure what kind of things you’d want to do, so I guess I’m just not as good at coming up with things to do with you as I am with Dean."
Sam perked up a little. "I know what kind of things I like to do," he offered. "You could ask me. I’d tell you."
Oh perfect. His improvisation skills were evidently dig-yourself-out-of-a-hole-and-bury-your
Well, there wasn’t any way around it now, so he might as well dive on in. "Okay, Sammy," John said. "What kinds of things would you like to do together?"
"Boy Scouts," Sam answered immediately.
John could actually hear the sound of the trap snapping closed on his ankle. Big trap. Big bear trap, by the sound of it.
He waited, tried to give his son the impression he could offer a whole list of suggestions for consideration. But Sammy didn’t play that game. He had one suggestion, and this was it.
"You’re kidding, right?" John asked hopefully.
Sammy looked a little punctured again. "No."
"You want to do Boy Scouts together?"
The narcolepsy thing started knocking on the inside of his eyelids again. "I think I’m a little too old for Boy Scouts, son," John said.
Dean would have laughed at that. Sammy didn’t. "You could be a leader," he suggested helpfully.
Oh good God this was worse than puberty. Puberty would be a freakin breeze compared to this. For Sammy at least. Puberty was already proving to be a demonic bitch from hell when it came to Dean.
As much as anything was a demonic bitch from hell when it came to Dean. Demonic bitch from hell as compared to Dean snapping to and doing whatever John told him to do, down to the letter, simply because John was the one doing the telling. Which was worse, actually. Much worse. Dean was fifteen. He was supposed to think his dad was an idiot.
As compared to being eleven and able to prove it.
"I can’t really do that, Sammy," John said carefully. "You know I have to stay flexible so I’m free to hunt things when they show up on the grid without warning and start hurting people. Trying to take on a long-term responsibility like being a Boy Scout leader —"
"You wouldn’t have to be a permanent leader," Sammy interrupted. "You could be a temporary one."
John blinked. That sounded like a trap. "Temporary?"
"I didn’t think Boy Scouts had temporary leaders." Okay, that was a wild ass guess. John had no idea what Boy Scouts had other than geeky little uniforms and lots of chubby little geeks stuffed into those geeky uniforms. And not chubby in a healthy way like Sammy was, but rather chubby in an I-haven’t-been-outside-in-a-decade way like most chubby kids were.
As far as John knew about chubby kids at least.
But while chubby in a different way than Sammy was, geeky in exactly the same way. Which was to say likely smarter than John and even more likely to ask him some damn question no other kid on the planet would think to ask him.
It was hard enough fielding that kind of thing from his own son. He had no intention of taking it from someone else’s son.
"My Boy Scout troop does," Sammy said.
He had a Boy Scout troop? "You have a Boy Scout troop?" John asked.
"You joined Boy Scouts?" John repeated, just for the sake of clarification.
John huffed a little in surprise. "When did that happen?" he demanded. "I thought you needed my permission to do something like that."
"You gave me permission," Sammy said
Okay, he knew how to deal with this one. "When?"
"Last week. You signed my permission slip. Don’t you remember?"
"No, I don’t remember. Are you sure I knew what I was signing?"
"You signed it," Sammy said like that made it an acceptable answer.
John studied him for a long moment. Finally something he recognized from the experience that was Dean at this age. In fact, something he recognized a little too well, now that he thought about it. Something exactly like the way Dean used to try and slip things by him, and the way he used to let Dean think it worked.
The kid was taking lessons from his older brother. Or at least advice.
No, wait. They were setting him up.
And just that quickly, everything John was thinking changed.
He saw it like somebody flipped a light on in his brain. He would have seen it much sooner if he hadn’t been mentally hobbled by sleep deprivation out the ass.
Which he was sure was all part of the plan. Part of Dean’s plan.
Because this whole thing was Dean, right down to the question itself. Do you like Dean more than you like me. How could he have failed to catch that? Sammy was smart, but he wasn’t cagey, wasn’t manipulative. Not like John. Not like Dean.
John saw the whole, elegant design now, and he recognized the pattern as surely as he recognized his own face in the mirror. The misdirection? The strategic manipulation that shoulder-checked any deviation from the plan to jar it right back on course? The subtle way Dean had of lulling you into thinking you were fine right before he pulled an emotional jackhammer out of his ass like it was nothing more than a popgun he kept there for emergencies?
Pure, patented Dean: All of it.
Of course, Dean was usually doing it unintentionally. Or at least, John thought he was usually doing it unintentionally. But still, so recognizably Dean as to be utterly unmistakable.
Now that he saw it.
John almost laughed. He didn’t – he didn’t even grin – but he wanted to. He really, really wanted to.
"Well you did," Sammy said, overplaying his hand for the first time since he’d laid his first bet to the table.
"Huh," John said. Let him stew on what that meant for a while.
Sammy looked at him a little funny. The boy had some good instincts all right. He knew something had changed, he just didn’t know what.
Which was very much to John’s advantage. An advantage John had no intention of giving away. As much as John didn’t get Sammy, he absolutely got Dean. So as long as it was Dean driving this car, he wasn’t nearly as far out of his depth as he’d thought he was.
"So when do you go to meetings?" John asked when Sammy was simmering at a nice bubble of uh-oh.
"On Tuesdays after school."
"And Dean knows this?"
"Huh," John said again. That made Dean nuts. And he just realized, at this single moment in time, it made Sammy nuts, too. "I’ll have to have a talk with him about that."
Score. Dean was Sammy’s weak spot. Thinking he’d narcced his brother out, even unintentionally, threw Sam completely off his game. "Uh, no, I mean … he knew I was staying after school, but not why." Sammy was scrambling. He was so scrambling. "I mean, he didn’t know it was Boy Scouts I don’t think. He probably would have told you if he knew that, so since he didn’t, he probably didn’t know."
Okay, now John was dealing with an eleven-year-old. For the first time in he didn’t know how long, he actually had some idea what he was doing here. It was a strange feeling in the context of talking to Sammy instead of Dean. It made him feel less awkward about interacting with his own son, made talking to Sammy without knowing the agenda ahead of time something he didn’t feel such a strong need to avoid at all costs.
"So you’ve been to, what, one meeting then?" John asked.
"Yeah. But I have one next Tuesday, too."
"And you want me to go with you?"
"You can if you want to."
Uh oh. Score one for Sammy. That was a loaded answer if he’d ever heard one. Was he supposed to want to? Was that part of the whole ‘having stuff in common’ thing? John wasn’t sure, so he changed up his direction a little by asking, "How long is a temporary leader a leader?"
And for the first time John could remember since Sammy was half way between seven and too-damned-smart-for-his-own-good, he let John change the direction. Sammy let John step to the lead instead of always feeling like he was three steps behind and an utterly inadequate father for being so.
"Just one overnight," Sammy said.
"Just overnight, huh?"
Okay, now he was hearing something that made a hell of a lot more sense than chubby kids in geeky uniforms. Dean wouldn’t map out a strategy to help his little brother be more of a geek than he already was. But Dean would totally map out a strategy to get Sammy out in the woods doing guy stuff with his old man.
It was something John had been trying to get Sammy interested in doing for just about as long as there’d been a Sammy. He might have mentioned that to Dean. He might have mentioned he sometimes felt like a complete failure when it came to Sammy, might have mentioned he didn’t feel like they had anything in common because Sammy simply wasn’t interested in doing any of the things John knew how to do.
He knew he probably shouldn’t be telling one son things like that about the other, but sometimes it just came out, usually when he and Dean were under the Impala, cussing out this or that damn thing in language Dean wasn’t allowed to indulge anywhere except the garage. Sometimes John said things when they were re-building a carburetor, or changing out points, or checking the timing on the timing belt that he wouldn’t say otherwise. Things he wouldn’t say to his son if that son wasn’t the only person, other than a preacher who lived more than five hundred miles away, John felt he could confide in about things that scared him, things that frustrated him, things that made him feel like a fucking failure as a man and a father.
He knew it was probably his greatest failing when it came to Dean, but it was also part of why they were as close as they were. He’d had to decide early on to either shut Dean out or let him in. Either protect him from his father’s pain or confide in him about that pain.
John chose the confiding road, at least in part, so Dean wouldn’t feel so alone in the world they shared after Mary’s murder. And in part so he wouldn’t feel so alone in that world either.
There were times John regretted that choice. But there were also times he thought it might be the only reason they’d both made it through.
"As in tents and campfires and marshmallows?" John asked like he wasn’t quite sure what an overnight was.
Sammy grinned. The over confident little geek. "Uh huh."
"For just one night?"
"No. For two."
"That’s more than just one overnight then," John said, playing his dumb card like a pro now that he had a game in which the dumb card was an asset rather than a sign of failure.
"Uh uh. One overnight, it just last two nights. We leave on Friday and come back on Sunday."
"Which Friday?" John asked.
Because this was Dean’s strategy, he already knew the answer to that one. Dean would know better than to give his old man time to think himself out of the deal. He wouldn’t give John the lead time to find a vengeful spirit in Kentucky or a raw head in Michigan to pull out as a deal breaker under the auspice it couldn’t be helped.
Dean would anticipate that, plan for it. Sammy wouldn’t, but Dean absolutely would.
"Next Friday," Sammy said innocently.
John just looked at him. He sat there in his chair and just looked at him. Didn’t say a word, didn’t make a comment. Just looked at him.
Dean would have lasted about thirty seconds before he started to fidget. Sammy was still sitting rock solid after almost three minutes of dead silence.
John was impressed. He rewarded a job well done by breaking first, repeating, "Next Friday, Sammy?"
"Uh huh." Sammy said it like he totally didn’t hear the censure in his dad’s voice. And he did a good job, too. If John didn’t know better, he might have bought Sammy’s way of thinking was so fucked up he didn’t actually understand how frustrating that answer was to his dad. And in buying that, John would probably have just steamed about it rather than trying to explain something to a child who thought so differently from the way John did he wouldn’t have a chance in hell of accomplishing anything with an effort to interact other than prompting another endless debate in which he didn’t want to engage anyway, so why bother?
But John did know better this time. And it felt pretty good, actually having some idea what was going on in his son’s head.
"That’s pretty short notice," John observed like he was pondering it.
"That’s when it is," Sammy said.
"I don’t know, son. Not sure that’s doable. Might have been able to swing it with a little more warning, but next Friday? I’m not sure I can make that."
That hit the bulls eye dead on. Sammy faltered, started second-guessing his brother’s strategy. For a minute, he wasn’t sure what to say, wasn’t sure whether to offer the alternative of going on a later overnight or to stick to his guns and insist on this one.
Odds on, Dean hadn’t told Sammy the importance of choosing Friday because it represented a fine balance between lead time and lack of lead time. He hadn’t told Sammy this wasn’t a negotiable element, but rather something that had to be protected or the whole strategy would fold in on itself and self destruct.
But even without that justification – even without any specific explanation of this particular point to prove to Sammy’s satisfaction that his brother knew what he was doing so Sammy should stick to the plan and not question every little damn thing – Sammy had enough faith in Dean to trust him.
Trust him enough to follow Dean’s strategy even when he, Samuel Tyler Winchester, thought there might be a better play to make.
All or nothing, as Dean was prone to saying.
"That’s what I want to do," Sammy announced. "You asked what I wanted to do, right?"
His voice was just hesitant enough on what should have been a rock solid stance to give up his bluff, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that Sammy chose to bluff with Dean’s cards instead of his own.
John felt a small flush of pride. Not so much that Sammy stuck to the original plan, but more that he’d put enough faith in his brother to do so. To take the risk and damn the consequences.
Dean was a good leader. He deserved that kind of faith, that kind of commitment. But Sammy was a rebel to the bone, and he always thought he was just a little bit smarter than anybody else in the room. And unfortunately – at least in the context of an eleven-year-old ever learning a lesson by getting put in his place – he was usually right, a circumstance that made it damned difficult to convince him he should ever just do what he was told simply because the guy issuing the order was the boss.
Or his dad, as the case most often proved to be.
But as much of a constant struggle as it had become over the last couple of years for John to get Sammy to back down and toe the line on nothing more substantial than being told to do so; Dean evidently had that baby licked from the get-go. Sammy saw their strategy going south, saw an apparent opportunity to fix it by going off the reservation, and he opted to follow his brother anyway.
He trusted Dean that much to just trust him.
As far as John was concerned, that was huge. He would have gone on ten overnights just to lock this one moment into place, not only for Dean, but for Sammy, too.
Because as much as Dean deserved to get his shot at being a leader, Sammy needed to learn how to follow. That boy was never going to need to be taught to trust his own instincts, to go his own way – it was as much his nature as it had always been John’s – but he was going to have to learn to accept orders now and again. That was always going to be the challenge for Sammy the same way it had always been the challenge for John.
Not that he and Sammy were anything alike, because they weren’t.
Not by a long shot.
He and Dean were alike.
He and Sammy were as different as night and day.
"So what do temporary leaders have to do?" John asked.
Unlike Dean, Sammy’s poker face ended at the bet. He showed himself an eleven-year-old again by bouncing on the couch in excitement at thinking he’d just pulled one over on his old man. "Just go with us," Sammy said. "The real leaders go, too; but they can’t take us unless there are at least three adults, and we only have two leaders."
"The real leaders, huh?" John smiled. "So I wouldn’t be a real one, just a temporary one?"
Sammy laughed. "It will be so awesome, Dad," he said, sounding just like Dean. "We get to camp in tents and make campfires and roast marshmallows and tell ghost stories and take nature walks and … but you can’t tell any real ghost stories, okay?"
John laughed at that. "Fair enough," he agreed. "Can I tell temporary ones?"
"You can tell fake ones if you want," Sammy said. "That would be really awesome. I’ll bet you could tell really good fake ghost stories."
"So you and I would share a tent?" John asked innocently.
Sammy froze to a dead standstill. The look on his face was almost payback for how far John’s stomach dropped into his shoes when Sammy first asked if he liked Dean more than he liked him.
"No," Sam said after a long, awkward beat. "I’d sleep with the Boy Scouts. You’d sleep with the leaders."
John frowned like he hadn’t taken that into consideration when he signed on. "I’d sleep with the leaders?" he asked. The question put Sammy to fidgeting on the couch in a way simple silence hadn’t.
"Uh, yeah," Sam said. "It would be totally geeky for me to sleep with you, Dad."
John almost laughed in spite of himself. Totally geeky. Now that was funny, coming from Sammy. "Totally geeky, huh?" John said. "Well we wouldn’t want that."
Sammy grinned again. "I told Dean you’d do it," he announced.
Whoa. Major tactical faux paux. A guy couldn’t ever afford to give up his CO on a covert mission. That was rule number one. Or maybe number two. But definitely in the top five. He was going to have to talk to Dean about that, tell him where Sammy’s soft spots were when it came to the chain of accountability.
"Dean?" John repeated, pointing out the error, giving him a chance to recant.
"Yeah," Sammy said, failing his brother a second time. "Dean said you’d never do it. But I told him you would."
It wasn’t a failure of enthusiasm, then: It was a failure of ego. Sammy gave his brother up like some bitch snitch looking for an ego fix. He wanted John to know he was right and Dean was wrong. As much as he stuck with Dean’s strategy, he wanted credit for the endgame – credit for knowing what the endgame would be – even if getting that credit meant outting Dean’s part in the plan.
That wasn’t something John could let pass.
"Oh you did, did you? So you and Dean planned this then? I didn’t realize I was being set up."
Sammy’s face froze. John could see him trying to figure out exactly how to respond. He gave Sammy a moment to redeem the failure, to offer himself up in his brother’s stead the way he had earlier, but he didn’t. Instead, he said, "But you’re still going to do it, aren’t you?"
"I never actually said I’d do it in the first place," John pointed out.
Sammy’s expression hardened with a flicker of rebellion. "Yes you did," he argued.
Not debated. Argued.
But John didn’t want to argue with him. He wanted to teach Sammy something, wanted to help him understand what he’d done in serving his own ego at Dean’s expense. Because as much as he didn’t always feel like he really got Sammy, the one thing he did get about the boy was how much he would never intentionally hurt his brother.
Sammy idolized Dean. He’d rather cut his own tongue out than give Dean up, if that’s what he realized he was doing.
So he needed to realize that’s what he’d done. He needed to see it so he could learn from it, so he wouldn’t do it again. So he wouldn’t do it when the stakes were higher than they were for selling Dean down the river with the old man to the end of getting his brother grounded; so he wouldn’t do it when the stakes were high enough that indulging a selfish agenda could get his brother killed.
John wanted to teach Sammy that not for Dean’s sake, but for Sammy’s. Because it would kill Sammy if he ever did something out of ego that put Dean up for grabs in a situation where the stakes were life and death. John couldn’t imagine anything that would hurt Sammy more, and he didn’t ever want Sammy to feel that. He didn’t ever want his son to fail himself that way because his father didn’t teach him how to see the dangers of his own inherent nature.
"If I did," John said, defusing the ‘did not, did so’ argument before it took root, "that was before I knew about Dean’s involvement. Before I knew the two of you set me up."
Sammy stared at John like he’d just figured the whole thing out. Like he’d just realized this was a rigged game from the onset, and his old man was some kind of mean jackass who got his jollies by letting Sammy play it down to the wire just so he could jerk it away and do a mean dance at Sammy’s expense.
Damnit. That wasn’t the message John wanted to send. That wasn’t what he wanted Sammy to get out of this. He wanted him to realize he shouldn’t punk his brother out, not that John didn’t have anything better to do than torture an eleven-year-old with promises he never intended to keep.
John felt sick suddenly. Felt sick like he used to when Dean was grieving so hard John didn’t know how to help him. Felt sick like he did when he realized he couldn’t reach his own son through the pain, through the fear, and everything he tried to do to that end seemed to blow up in his face and make things worse instead of better, all at Dean’s expense.
He found a way to reach Dean, but every time he thought he understood Sammy enough to get through, to find common ground, he failed again. Failed just like he was failing now.
He wished Mary was here. He needed Mary to understand this kid. He needed Mary to help him figure this kid out so he wouldn’t fail the boy, so he wouldn’t fall short in being the kind of father to Sammy he didn’t have to work so hard to be for Dean.
Everything came so instinctively to him when he was dealing with Dean. But he didn’t understand Sammy. He was so out of his depth with Sammy that every time he tried to teach him something, tried to help Sammy start becoming the man he deserved to be, he just fucked the whole thing up.
"Dean didn’t do anything wrong," Sammy said, his tone belligerent, but in a hurt way rather than an angry one. "He just didn’t tell you what I was doing. Which you wouldn’t have wanted him to do because that would have made him a narc."
And just that quickly, John was okay with his son thinking he was a total jackass. Sammy could hate him as much as he wanted as long as he learned the things he needed to learn to protect himself, to protect his brother. If John could just reach Sammy enough to help him learn those things, he’d pay the bill by letting the closest thing he had left to Mary hate him, if that’s what it took.
"So you’re saying Dean wasn’t involved?" John asked.
"He just said you wouldn’t be a Boy Scout leader. But he didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t even know I was going to ask you today."
"So this is all on you?" John pushed. "You set me up all by yourself?"
"I didn’t set you up," Sammy snapped, pushing back and pushing hard. "I just asked you, Dad. All I did was ask. Jeeze. I’m sorry I did now. I just thought maybe you’d want to do something together. All Dean did was say you like to camp so maybe you’d want to do that. I came up with Boy Scouts all by myself. If you’re going to blame somebody just because I asked you, then go ahead and blame me. I don’t even care."
John studied Sammy for a long, quiet moment.
"What?" Sammy demanded. "Do you want me to go? ’Cause that’s all I wanted to ask you. It’s no big deal. It was just a question."
"No," John said quietly. "I don’t want you to go, Sammy. I want you to sit here and talk to me like a man."
Sammy blinked. "I’m trying to," he said finally.
"I know you are," John returned. "I can see that. So let’s keep trying, okay? I will if you will."
"Oh." Sammy sounded like he wasn’t quite sure what to do with that. "Okay."
And then he just sat there. He didn’t want to lead this time. He wanted John to lead.
"Why don’t you explain to me how we’d be doing something together if we’re not even sleeping in the same tent," John suggested. "That sounds more like you doing one thing and me doing something else. Isn’t there something you’d like better than camping? Something that’s more us doing something together instead of apart? Maybe a museum or something?"
God, he hated offering that option. Camping was such a good choice for him. Even with the geeky uniforms, he might actually have fun camping with Sammy. But it wasn’t about fun. It was about figuring his kid out a little, about making some kind of connection between them. And he could probably do that at a museum. If he was lucky, maybe Sammy would pick a train museum or something.
Sammy gave him the funniest look. It was a look that seemed exactly like John usually felt when he was talking to Sammy. It was a look that made it seem like Sammy had no more idea how to deal with his dad than his dad had about how to deal with him.
"But you like camping, don’t you?" Sammy asked finally. "And we’d get to sit together at the campfire. And we’d be together on the nature hikes and all the stuff like that. And we’d even eat together, so the only thing we wouldn’t do is sleep in the same tent, which we don’t do here either – in the same bedroom, not the same tent – so why does that matter?"
"Wasn’t your original point that we don’t do stuff together you like to do the way Dean and I do stuff together he likes to do?" John asked. He couldn’t believe he was actually trying to talk Sammy out of camping, but there was more at stake right now than what they did or where they did it. They were actually having a conversation. Not an argument. Not a debate. Not a series of endless questions that only one of them was even remotely qualified to answer.
But a conversation.
They were actually talking. Actually listening. And damned if he didn’t think they might even be understanding each other just a little. And John wanted that. He wanted it a hell of a lot more than he wanted to avoid a trip to the museum. Even if it was a Star Trek museum. Or one about soybeans and their importance to the economy of Brazil.
"But still, you should like it, too," Sammy said. "If we’re both going to do it, it shouldn’t just be something I like, right?"
That was Mary. Right at that moment in time, John looked at his eleven-year-old son and saw Mary.
"Yeah," he said after a long beat. "Okay. That sounds fair."
"And we could sleep in the same tent if you want to, I guess," Sammy added. "I don’t think there’s any rule that you have to sleep with the leaders or anything."
John smiled a little. "Well, that would be kind of geeky, I suppose," he allowed. "And Dean’s right, you’re already are enough of a geek that we wouldn’t want to encourage that kind of behavior."
"You think I’m a geek?" Sammy asked.
Oh, crap. He didn’t say that, did he? He didn’t actually call Sammy a geek so much as just … call him a geek. Oh, double crap with a side of fucking hell.
"Because being a geek just means you’re smart," Sam said. "Being a nerd is bad, but being a geek is kind of good, isn’t it?"
Oh, thank God. Sometimes he loved that kid just for the fucked up way he had of looking at things. "Absolutely," John assured him. "I meant you’re a geek in the good way …"
And then he got it. Got that Sammy was screwing with him again, but not by Dean’s design this time so much as by his own.
"… as compared to a geek in a way that would be more nerdy, like if we shared the same tent," John finished, just to tell Sammy his old man wasn’t quite as dumb as he might look. Almost that dumb, but not quite.
Sammy gave him a sneaky grin that was exclusively Sammy’s.
But even being one hundred percent Sammy, it still reminded John of Mary. It reminded him of absolutely everything he loved about that woman; of everything she was he could never predict but could always appreciate when it ambushed him out of the blue into realizing she was so much smarter than he was in a way she was never going to view as her being smarter than he was.
"So does that mean you’ll do it?" Sammy asked.
"Sure. Sounds like it might be fun. And it’s something you want to do, too, right?"
Sammy’s grin came out from playing hide and seek in his expression to nearly split his face in two. He’d started bouncing on the couch again when he said, "Yeah. I really, really, really want to do it."
"Okay then. I guess you and I are doing stuff next weekend."
"Awesome," Sammy said. "That is so totally awesome." He was already up, heading for the back door at a half run. "I’m going to go tell Dean," he called over his shoulder. "I told him you’d do it. I told him."
And this time, it was okay for him to say as much. Because this time, Sammy was just being enthusiastic about sharing triumph with his brother instead of giving Dean up to serve an ego in need of stroking.
The house seemed empty when the door slammed shut behind Sammy. The quiet was little disconcerting after the vibrancy of an excited eleven-year-old bouncing on the couch, eating potato chips and putting his best effort into conning his old man into doing something John would have done if the boy had simply asked him.
Or maybe he wouldn’t have. He wasn’t actually sure.
But either way, he was doing it now. No way around it. After all these years of avoiding such a dreaded fate, John Winchester was finally going to be a Boy Scout.
And he actually couldn’t think of a single thing he’d ever wanted to do more.