Summary: Things never have gone well for Sam when he's tried to have a normal life.
Warnings: Rated R for adult themes that some people may find disturbing.
Dean could still smell smoke three days later, not that this was actually possible. Sam had thrown away everything he'd been wearing the night Jessica died, even his jacket, kind of a waste if you asked Dean, although he did understand the value of ritual purging. Dean had gone the more practical route, opting to wash his stuff, three times in fact, at two different laundromats. He never could quite get the stink out of it, something worse than char lingering in the fabric. Finally he just gave up, tossed it all into a dumpster out back of a 7 Eleven, even his favorite Van Halen T-shirt, also a waste, but what could he do? Nothing that gave off the scent of nightmares was worth saving.
Route 36 stretched out in front of them, a ruler dividing the darkness. If Dean drove straight through the night, they'd make it to Abilene in time for biscuits and gravy. Not that Sam was likely to eat anything. He'd existed on coffee since they'd hit the road. Dean, on the other hand, enjoyed a good Southern breakfast. It was important to have little things to look forward to, that's what this life had taught him.
In the back seat, Sam shifted fitfully in his sleep. Dean turned the music down a notch, just in case. The last thing he needed was for Sammy to wake up complaining about Blue Oyster Cult. Dean had had enough trouble convincing him to get some rest in the first place.
Three forty-five in the morning, and most people had the sense to be in bed. The road was utterly deserted. That left Dean with nothing to do but think. If he let himself, he could still taste the soot in the back of his throat, feel the rage of heat on his skin, the same last Sunday night as it had been twenty years ago. If he let himself. That was another trick to living this life. Don't think about it.
So he thought about his brother instead. It never had gone well for Sammy when he'd set out to be normal, either time he'd tried it. The first attempt had come when Sam was ten, that year they'd lived in Deerfield Heights, a white-flight suburb of Detroit, all strip malls and cookie cutter houses on postage stamp lawns. It was the longest they'd stayed in one place since their mom died, Dad with a steady job, driving a truck for the local bottling company, bringing in enough money for an actual apartment for a change. The building had been kind of shabby, paint peeling off the walls like it had a death wish, a veritable lake that formed on the front walk whenever it rained. Deerfield Heights was a town of homeowners, not renters, and there wasn't much incentive for the landlord to maintain the place. Still, they had space, all three of them with their own rooms. There was cable TV and a kitchen with an honest-to-God stove, not some crusty hotplate, a far cry from the tumbledown motels where they usually stayed.
If they were any other family, it would have looked like things were on the upturn at last, but they were Winchesters, and settling down was a sign something was wrong, not right. Dean would wake up in the middle of the night, the sense of things off kilter. When he'd get up to investigate, he'd find his father sitting in the kitchen, a beer open on the table in front of him, his dad staring off into space. In the mornings, there would be a pile of empty bottles at the bottom of the garbage, carefully hidden beneath old newspapers, clinking together every time somebody bumped into the trashcan.
Sam had been too young to notice or to understand if he did. Or maybe that was just Sammy's gift for survival, a certain obliviousness where other people's despair was concerned. From the beginning, he seized on Deerfield Heights as his opportunity to have "a real life like other people," something he'd been lobbying for ever since he was old enough to know the difference. Dean could still remember how Sam looked sitting at that formica-topped table in their faded avocado kitchen with its flickering fluorescent light, eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, watching cartoons before he left for school, in absolute heaven.
It wasn't long before Sam fell in with a group of boys in his class, sturdy, freckled Midwestern kids with names like Joe and Pete. Sam walked home with them after school, went to their houses for sleepovers, took his lunch in a brown paper bag every day, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because that's what the other boys did. He even joined the junior soccer league, the fifth-graders' sport of choice in Deerfield Heights.
The first Saturday morning of practice, Sam was practically vibrating with excitement, proudly wearing his Big Red Machine team uniform like it was some sort of triumph over the Winchester way of life. His baggy shorts flapped around his legs, and one of his red socks kept sliding down. Sammy was tall for his age even back then and too skinny, and they'd gotten the uniform second hand, all their father could afford. Sam didn't seem to notice the drooping sock, though, much less mind it.
Dean had given him a hard time, of course. "Hey bro, you practicing to be a yuppie?"
Sam rolled his eyes. "It's called being normal, Dean." He let the door slam shut behind him, the ten-year-old's version of "fuck you."
"Oh, yeah?" Dean yelled after him. "Well, there's no such thing as normal."
That was something their father always said. Dean found a certain comfort in believing it.
If Dean had been picking out friends of his own, he would have gravitated toward the guys who hung out in the parking lot at lunchtime. He'd spot them out the window on his way to the cafeteria, in their jeans and black T-shirts, talking about cars most likely, sneaking a smoke when they thought they could get away with it. Sometimes seeing Sammy with his pack of friends made Dean almost consider going out to join them, earning his place with an indifferent slouch and a strong opinion about V8 engines. But then he'd remember the feeling he always got whenever he tried to have more than a passing conversation with people, like there was some impossible gulf separating him from them, and nothing they said even came close to reaching him.
Nothing to hunt and no friends to hang out with--that was how he justified sneaking down to the park the first Saturday Sammy's team had a match. He loitered at the back of the crowd, behind the aggressively blonde parents in Big Red Machine sweatshirts and L.L. Bean jackets, screaming at their little Justins and Bradleys to "stay with the ball, stay with the ball," like it was the Olympics and not the Deerfield Heights junior league.
Watching his brother was a revelation, though, all long-limbed grace out on the field, something nowhere in evidence in the rest of his life. Sammy was going through an awkward phase, to put it kindly. He couldn't seem to get from point A to point B without bumping into three things at a minimum. He looked so different caught up in the game, face pinched with concentration, working the field like a chess board, while the other kids just seemed to be running around for the hell of it. Of course, there had been a lot more opportunity for Sam to develop a head for strategy. Dean doubted the other kids had ever needed to outwit a pack of goblins to stay alive.
Time began to run out, the game a scoreless tie, and suddenly Dean could see everything with the precise tunnel vision he got when hunting, the right moves so plain to him, dart to the left, zag to the right, straight to the goal. He held his breath, as much like a prayer as anything he knew. Sam darted and zagged, and then all the little boys in red were jubilantly piling on top of him. The parents erupted in celebration, as if the achievement had somehow been their own. Out on the field, the coach told the kids good job, gave Sam a congratulatory ruffle of the hair. It was all so normal.
Dean didn't know when he began to suspect there was something wrong about the soccer coach, Mr. Parsons. Maybe he just seemed too normal, with his nylon warm-up suits and his easy platitudes, "it's not winning, it's how you play the game," always said with a toothy milk-commercial grin. He was divorced, but even that seemed ordinary. His two little girls came every other Saturday to the games to play cheerleader. They stood next to their dad on the sidelines, and every so often Mr. Parsons would pull out a Ziploc bag of raisins for them or tell some joke to make them laugh.
There was something about him that Dean just didn't trust.
Maybe it was the number of times Sammy mentioned him during the average dinner conversation. "Mr. Parsons says if people planned more for the future, they'd save themselves a lot of headaches down the road," he would announce out of the blue.
"Mr. Parsons doesn't think it's a good idea to drink pop. It rots your teeth."
"Did you know Mr. Parsons can bench press over two hundred pounds?"
"Maybe you're just a little jealous," Dean's father said when he brought up his concerns, "because Sammy's spending so much time with other people."
Dean did his best to swallow the irony. His father would surely have believed him if he'd suspected vampire activity in the area or a malicious banshee on the loose. So he redoubled his vigilance, looking for evidence his father couldn't ignore. At Sammy's next game, he observed the coach closely, taking mental notes. Right handed. Bites his nails. Wears a lot of plaid. Of course, his preoccupation made him forget he was supposed to be laying low, not letting his brother know he was there.
After the final whistle, Sammy came loping right up to him, rolled his eyes at Dean's caught red-handed look. "I knew you were here the first day you came."
"Yeah, well," Dean said with patented big brother superiority, "that was the point. To see if you were staying sharp."
Sam made a skeptical face, equally patented, not buying a word of Dean's bullshit.
"Anyway," Dean told him, "you played real good today. Kicked those other kids' asses." He flashed a grin, held up his hand for a high-five.
Sam broke into the crooked smile he got when he was pleased and trying not to show it.
"Isn't it a tradition or something to get ice cream afterwards?" Dean asked. "Your big bro's treat."
Sam darted a glance back at the team. "Well, actually, Mr. Parsons was going to take us for pizza."
A torn look in Sam's eyes, and Dean played it cool. "Some other time. Just remind me."
"Okay." Sam started to run back to his friends, turned for a second, "Thanks, Dean."
Dean waved his hand in the air. "Don't go getting all girly on me, Sammy."
Sam snorted a laugh and ran off to catch up with the others. Dean could still remember how it had felt to watch him go, like having a block of ice in his stomach.
He became a regular at Sam's games after that, even cheering him on when he thought no one was looking. The rest of his free time he spent spying on Mr. Parsons, trying to solve this mystery in khaki and flannel. On weekends, he'd ride his bike over to the man's house, follow when he went out to do errands, to the dry cleaners and the grocery store and Home Depot. After dark, when no one would spot him, he'd sneak up on the porch to check the threshold for a scent of sulfur that might indicate possession, scanned the lawn for the slime trail a shape-shifting demon would leave behind, some indication that this painfully average guy was actually something evil out to get his brother. But there never was anything to find. Dean would peddle back to the apartment at the end of a long Sunday, feeling slightly hung-over from the tedium of Mr. Parson's life.
If he was ever going to know for sure about the soccer coach, it occurred to him, he was going to have to get inside his house. Some Saturday when there was a game, but his daughters weren't with him, just in case Dean got caught, just in case it got ugly. Unfortunately, the day he picked was the day of the big match against the Big Red Machine's archrivals.
"The Freemont Kickers. Bunch of jerks," Sammy told him. "Bobby Jameson has a cousin who lives over there, and he said they were going around talking about how they were going to wipe the field with us. Just because they won last year. Jerks." He stopped, eyes fastening on Dean. "Are you going to come watch me?"
"Aw, Sammy, I wish I could, but I got something I need take care of." He felt kind of bad about it, but first things had to come first.
There was a flash of disappointment in Sam's face, but it was quickly whitewashed over. "Okay. Whatever." He was a Winchester through and through.
The coach's house was silent when Dean let himself in. He'd snuck through the backyard and picked the lock on a side door. He drifted through the house, getting the lay of the land, a three-bedroom ranch with a basement and two-car garage. Then he began to search in earnest, methodically, room by room, careful to put everything back just the way he'd found it. Everything was neat, not a single dish in the sink. There were trophies on a shelf in the living room, the accomplishments of teams past. In the home office, binders were lined up neatly on the edge of the desk, Workers Compensation Manual and Protocols for Homeowner's Claims. Sam had mentioned that the coach was an insurance adjuster.
In the master bedroom, Dean finally discovered what he'd come looking for, a shoebox under the bed. He pulled it out and took off the lid. At first the pictures seemed harmless, snapshots of the boys out on the field, during practice, during matches, maybe one of the coach's daughters had taken them. As Dean kept sorting through them, though, that thought began to change. There were boys in pajamas in what appeared to be a hotel room, maybe during some soccer trip, the same boys looking sleepy the next morning, in the middle of getting dressed. There were shots from a locker room. During the regional tournament the junior league teams got to play on the field at the local community college, Sam had once told Dean, and that was probably where these had been taken. Some of the shots were innocent enough, glee-faced boys jumping up and down in obvious celebration, groups mugging for the camera, their arms thrown across each other's shoulders. Others, though, were of boys taking their shirts off, boys in their underwear, boys in the shower.
Dean sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. He knew what he would find if he kept going, but he made himself do it anyway, sift through all the pictures until he came to the ones of Sam. There were a few of his brother in his uniform, smiling proudly, standing by a tree in the park, caught up in conversation with one of his teammates, that little pinch between his eyebrows when he was utterly absorbed. Then there were the rest, some candid, some posed, Sam naked in all of them. One had been taken on that very bed, Dean recognized the comforter, Sam's half of a pillow fight, the same spark of mischief in his eyes he got whenever he and Dean play wrestled, only he wasn't wearing any clothes, and at the other end of the pillow fight had been a pervert with a camera.
He fished his lighter out of his pocket, would have liked to burn all the pictures, erase them right out of existence, but they were the only evidence of what the soccer coach really was. So he just lit the ones of Sam, tossed them onto the bed. It would smolder for quite some time; bedspreads were made to be flame retardant, something he'd learned from their misadventures in motel living. He put the shoebox with the rest of the pictures on the dresser where they'd be safe, opened a window. He'd need someone to call 911 eventually, and it took a while for people in the suburbs to notice things.
He still had plenty of time.
From his surveillance, Dean knew the coach would be home soon, and he went out to the living room to wait, made himself comfortable in the bastard's leather recliner. At last, he heard the key turn in the lock, voices, and then Parsons and Sam came through the door. Both froze when they saw Dean sitting there.
Sam lost his smile. "Dean?"
"Go home and wait for me there," he said sternly.
But Sam wouldn't budge.
Parsons put on a fatherly display, "Can I help you with something, son?"
Dean smiled, showing his teeth. "I think so. See, I have this photography project for class, and I could use some advice. I heard you're the man when it comes to taking pictures. Isn't that right?"
The coach was ordinarily the color of bleached bones anyway, and at this he turned so pale he was practically translucent. Sam looked nervously from him to Dean.
"Sammy, go home," Dean said in a gentler tone. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
Sam just stood there, eyes big and scared. Dean thought he was going to have a serious fight on his hands to get him to go, but finally Sam turned and reluctantly left.
Parsons waited for the door to close behind him before spinning excuses, "It's not what you think--"
"So you're not taking naked pictures of my ten-year-old brother?"
The coach did a weak imitation of a laugh. "Son, it was just for fun. A joke."
Dean drew his arm back, and he'd always remember the look on Parsons' face when his fist connected that first time, mouth a round "o" of surprise, because all Parsons saw when he looked at Dean was a high school sophomore, no idea who he was dealing with.
"Let's just talk about this, okay?" Parsons said frantically, throwing up his arms to shield his face.
The next punch sent him reeling backwards, into a table, a collection of glass knickknacks hitting the floor with a ringing shatter. That was good, that was satisfying. The coach cowered on the floor, staring up at Dean, and there it was, the telltale hollowness in his eyes, the beginning of fear. That was even better.
"You saw a boy whose father isn't around much, " Dean loomed over him, "and you thought you had an easy target. You thought nobody was looking out for him. Well, you were wrong. Because I am looking out for him. " He jabbed a finger into his own chest. "I always have been."
The fear was pouring off Parsons by then, a familiar reek. "I-- I care about Sam, too. I'd never hurt him. Honestly!"
If he'd been trying to pick the worst possible thing to say, he couldn't have done a better job. Dean kicked him, as hard as he could, several times. Parsons pulled his knees in tight to his chest and whimpered.
"What else did you do to my brother?" Dean thundered at him. "Tell me, you sick fuck!" He kicked him again.
Parsons stared up at Dean pleadingly. "Nothing! Just-- the pictures. I swear." And then in his desperation, he started to babble, "Those boys they know how beautiful they are. I swear to God, they wanted me looking at them. Begged for it. They loved every minute of it." He nodded, like he could convince Dean, convince himself. "They really did."
Dean could see it then, the glinty-eyed crazy thing that lived in the man's head, not a demon or a spirit at all, just plain old human evil. Dean had fought all kinds of monsters, like it was second nature. Monsters were easy compared to this. Put a hatchet through one's heart, and that was that, the end of it. You didn't have to worry about winding up in the penitentiary, either.
"If I find out that you--" He couldn't bring himself to say the word, he could barely stand to think it. "If you laid a hand on my brother, I will come back, and I will kill you."
The coach's bottom lip trembled. Clearly he understood that Dean meant it. That was something at least. Dean could hear the distant sound of fire engines, and he waited for them to get closer. The coach sniffed the air, realization dawning on his face. "What did you do?"
There was the tramping of boots on the sidewalk, and Dean just smiled. "Remember what I said."
He went out as the firemen came in. "Better check the bedroom," he told one of them. "There's something in the shoebox on the dresser you should see."
A moment later, two firemen dragged Parsons from the house, kicking and protesting, "But there's something in there I really need to get!"
Dean lingered down the block to watch. The fireman he'd spoken with came back out, his mouth a thin, grim line, holding the box. He signaled for one of the cops who had been helping to manage the crowd. A look at the pictures, and out came the cuffs. Dean crossed the street, cut through a yard, before anyone could decide they wanted to ask him questions.
He knew Sam wouldn't have actually gone home, his brother wasn't much on doing what he was told, but Dean also knew where to find him. Sam liked to have a hiding place wherever they were. Currently it was an old lean-to not far from their building, a fruit stand during the season, abandoned the rest of the year. Dean went around back, opened the door, and there was Sam, huddled in a corner, knees pulled up to his chest. Dean knelt down beside him.
Sam nodded, but wouldn't look at him.
"I need you to be straight with me, Sammy," Dean said, in the calmest voice he could manage. "Did he ever touch you? Anywhere he wasn't supposed to?"
"No," Sam's voice cracked.
"But he did take those pictures?"
His brother plucked anxiously at the hem of his shorts. "He said it was a game. He said the other kids did it."
There was bitter taste in the back of Dean's throat--bile or maybe just irony. They'd worked so hard to make sure Sam could spot a succubus, avoid spriggans who liked to abduct children, knew all the different kinds of malevolent spirits and what do to do about them. In the process, they'd completely overlooked the basics. Don't take your clothes off for strangers. How hard would it have been to remember to tell him that?
Sam must have misinterpreted Dean's distraction, because he folded in on himself a little more, eyes fastened on the ground. "Don't be mad, Dean," he whispered.
"Hey." He touched Sam's chin, made him look at him. "I'm not mad at you." He slid an arm protectively around Sam's shoulder. "That's just not the way grownups are supposed to act with kids, you understand, Sammy?"
He bit his lip and said, "Yeah."
"If anything like that ever happens again, you come and tell me, okay?"
"Okay," Sam said softly.
"Good." He stood up. "So how about we go home now?"
Sam nodded, and Dean held out his hand, pulled him up, tucked him close to his side, so he could feel that Sam was safe.
They walked along for a while, and then Sam asked, "Mr. Parsons isn't going to be the soccer coach anymore, is he?"
Dean shook his head. "No, Sammy. He's not."
"The other kids are going to be mad at me."
"No, they're not."
They rounded a turn, and the apartment building came into sight. Dean stopped, turned Sam around to face him, hands on his shoulders. "I just want you to remember two things, Sammy, and forget all the rest of this. Nothing was your fault, and your big brother Dean is always going to be watching out for you. Okay?"
"Okay," Sam said, looking a little relieved.
Dean pulled him in, hugged him hard, kept an arm around his shoulders as they walked to the door.
Sam asked uncertainly, "Do we have to tell Dad?"
Dean stared ahead, imaging their father sitting at the kitchen table, all the lights turned out inside him, nobody home. He shook his head. "No, I don't think we have to do that, Sammy."
They trudged up the stairs, and their Dad was right where Dean had pictured him, forehead resting on his hand. "How was it?" he managed to ask.
Sam mumbled, "Fine."
Their father frowned, as if he could tell something was wrong just by the tone of Sam's voice. His gaze met Dean's, and then his frown deepened. From the night their mother had died, a fire had been burning in their dad's eyes. Dean would look for it sometimes, for reassurance, to remind himself why they did what they did. That fire had been cold ashes the whole time they'd lived in Deerfield Heights, but now it sparked back to life.
Their father got to his feet, turned down the hall to his bedroom, putting a hand on top of Sam's head as he went. When he came back, he had his book, flipping pages. "I heard something about a Lady of the Lake down near Biloxi. Been several mysterious drownings. I thought we'd investigate it."
Sam hung his head. "I'll go pack." He trudged off to his room.
His dad couldn't quite meet Dean's eye when he asked, "You want to fill me in?"
Dean shook his head. "I took care of it. Sam's okay."
His dad nodded approvingly. "Good."
That had been all they'd ever said about it. The next morning they'd left Deerfield Heights and never looked back. Later on, when Dean checked, he found that Parsons had plead guilty, been sentenced to eight years on child pornography charges. That was before there were sex offender registration laws in Michigan. As soon as he got out, he changed his name, moved on, started over. But Dean hunted things for a living. Every so often, he made it a point to get to Oregon, down to Florida, Missouri, wherever Parsons had gone next. He'd follow him, find out where he worked, send off a copy of his criminal record to his boss. Then he'd park outside his house and wait there until Parsons spotted him, froze like a deer in the crosshairs. He liked to make sure that Parsons understood. Dean knew what he was, and he'd always be watching.
The last song on the tape wound down, and Dean popped in Lynyrd Skynyrd for a change, He glanced back at Sam, to make sure he hadn't woken him. Sam had his hand tucked under his chin, sound asleep. By Dean's calculation it was getting about time to pay the old soccer coach another visit. After all, not every kid had a big brother to look out for him.