There's a noisy family of five just a couple hundred feet down the shore from where John's own children are wading tentatively along the reservoir's edge. From time to time one of the parents shouts ineffectively from where they're sitting at a dilapidated picnic table, nursing beers and playing cards.
All the yelling reminds John vaguely of his stint in the Marines--this whole summer has, what with Frank staying at the bunker to ride his ass. The Council might say it's simply a routine check-in on a new warder, but John knows better, has overheard Frank questioning Dean about what kinds of things he does with his father. And Dean tries to give the right answers, but John's man enough to admit he hasn't given his son a whole lot to work with.
Hence this little trip--if he has his way, his boys will never need to know how to swim and pitch a tent, but it's a good enough excuse to get out from under Frank's eye for a couple days, to look like just a slightly-harried single father taking advantage of having a fellow warder available to mind the shop. If nothing else, maybe it'll get Frank to stop the heavy-handed reminiscing of when his own son was Dean's age. Apparently the kid had been a real hellion, though Frank seemed to get a kick out of that fact, for some reason.
Dean, on the other hand, is currently following John's orders and slowly leading Sam out to where the lake's deep enough for them to start paddling experimentally, their underwear reflecting bright against the dark water. John hadn't seen any point in buying them swim trunks--once they're properly submerged it's not like anyone will be able to tell the difference.
Over the shrieks of the other kids, John can just make out Sam's complaints to Dean about how cold the water is, his voice shrill enough to carry across to where John's just finished laying out their camping gear, back underneath the treeline. "And the bottom feels all slimy!"
"Well, if you get deep enough to swim, you won't have to touch the bottom," Dean says, ever the ten-year-old voice of reason. Sam doesn't look much impressed, but he follows his brother in a little further, until they're up to their shoulders and there's a sudden yelp of shock from Sam, followed by a wild flurry of splashing--though Dean's obviously still solidly planted, so there's no actual danger.
But John heaves himself up with a sigh, strips down to his boxers and heads over to rescue Dean from Sam's sudden stranglehold. "Relax, Sam," he orders and Sam glares at him, but reluctantly complies, thin arms loosening around Dean's neck. Dean doesn't react beyond shifting his weight a little and tightening his own grip around Sam's waist, but that's the opposite of what they need right now. "Dean, let him go--he can't learn to float if you keep holding him."
Dean bites his lip at that, but obediently says, "Yes sir," taking a couple steps back until he's shoulder-deep, arms naturally coming up to give him more stability against the water. John follows him in, forcing himself not to flinch at the temperature--Sam was right about it being cold, but John's not going to validate his complaint.
He takes Sam's wrists and pulls him away from Dean, earning him a "Hey!" from Sam, who reflexively grabs at his arm, but he ignores that. If he reacts to everything, they'll be out here all day, and he just wants to get this done as efficiently as possible. "Boys, pay attention. This is how you do a dead man's float."
The lesson doesn't go as quickly as he'd like, but Dean is careful and focused and Sam mimics Dean--awkwardly, but well enough for things to progress. John takes them through floating and treading water and the other basics, and it's almost surreal to be doing this in relative quiet with his children instead of being surrounded by a grumbling platoon of draftees. To feel the sandy mud between his toes instead of being trapped in water-logged boots.
"This way?" Dean asks and John just silently corrects him,
"Thank you for teaching us to swim today," Dean says, looking up at John, almost shy. The way his cheeks and nose have begun pinking up, he'll be in a world of pain tomorrow once the sunburn has ripened overnight. Nothing John can do about it at this point. "I--Sam had a lot of fun." He bites his lip, eyes darting away. "Maybe ... maybe we could do it again sometime?"
"Your grandpa Henry taught me when I was about your age, just the two of us in a dinky motel pool," John says, rests his hand on Dean's bony shoulder. From his wince, that's probably going to be lobster-red in the morning as well. "I thought it was kind of drag at the time, but it came in handy when I was in the Marines and half the guys in my squad almost drowned themselves trying to pass the swim test." Dean's lost his reserve and is staring up at John, rapt by even this tiny piece of history.
For just a moment, John hesitates over what to say next, but he's always believed it's best not to allow his sons to develop false expectations. "I'm glad you and Sam had fun, but that's not why I took you swimming today. It's a skill you should have just in case, although you'll probably never need it." Dean's biting his lip again, head down a little like he's braced against what he knows John is going to say. "I was able to take you only because of Mr. Frank being here. Once he goes home, I won't have time for this sort of thing again."
"He's not staying?" Dean asks, weight shifting underneath the pressure of John's hand.
"No," John says. "He's not staying."
"Oh," Dean says, quiet. "Will anyone else be coming to stay after he leaves? Like when Warder [Smith] was here?"
"Maybe," John says, "though they wouldn't be Warder. That's my job now."
"Does that mean you'll be staying home like Warder Smith did?"
And normally John would answer with an honest "probably not", because the whole point of him getting the Wardership was to finally be able to make use of the bunker's lists of contacts without having anyone around asking awkward questions, but he hasn't managed to get rid of Frank yet, and he can't risk the nosy bastard
"Dad, who taught you to swim?" Dean asks after a couple minutes, as they swing south and the setting sun's no longer at the perfect blinding angle. "Was it--" he hesitates for a moment, and when John glances over he's biting his lower lip. "Did you learn in the Marines?" he finishes, tone carefully diffident.
Normally John discourages questions about the past--too many painful memories, potential distractions from the current set of tasks. But it's been a good day, and he's still feeling mellow from the beer and meat and sun, so he answers, "Actually, your grandfather taught me when I was just a little older than you are. We were visiting your grandmother's parents and their neighbors had a pool. Nobody else was interested in swimming so it was just the two of us. At the time I thought it was kind of boring, but it did come in handy [[what's already written about passing the marine swimming test]].
Dean says quickly, "I didn't think it was boring, and Sam didn't either. You could give us more swimming lessons and we wouldn't complain or anything."
"Did you have fun?" John asks, dry as he can, because he can guess what the answer's going to be, and he hadn't even considered this contingency until just now.
"Oh yes," Dean says, forgetting his reserve, face aglow with more than just the dying sunlight. "Sam and I both agreed that it was the best thing ever."
John had somehow missed that little piece of conversation, or he would've nipped it in the bud. "I'm glad you had fun," he says slowly, eyes fixed on the road in front of him as he tries to come up with a way to tactfully shut down this whole line of thought. While it was nice to get away from [[Frank's]] scrutiny for the day, he definitely has better things to do with his time. "Do you know how much I swam between Grandpa Henry teaching me and having to pass the Marine swimming test?"
This is how Sam and Dean learn how to swim: John takes them up to the reservoir because he needs an excuse to get away from the Council spy who's been minding him for a month and a half. Oh, sure, everyone says it's a "routine visit" meant to provide him with "an experienced senior warder who can offer advice as needed", but that's just a fancy way of saying "we don't trust you not to go off the rails and wouldn't have picked you to succeed Warder [Smith] but he was a senile fool and you have a fancy pedigree so we can't call shenanigans without your father's friends getting pissy about it".
He can feel himself breathing a little easier the moment they're out on the road, just the three of them in his old car, surrounded by the empty fields, windows rolled down despite the summer dust. Been too long since he's been able to get out and stretch his legs a little, not have to worry about putting on a proper show for the higher-ups.
"Are you really going to teach us how to swim?" Sam asks from the back seat, shrill voice almost lost in the rush of air going by.
"Might as well," John says. Not that they'll ever need to, but it can't hurt to teach them, just in case. And it'll give Dean something better to tell the busybodies other than how many ways he's come up with to make macaroni and cheese.
The reservoir's beach is mostly deserted when they arrive, making it easy to pull in under a couple of large trees, the lake just visible over the brush lining the gravel road.
"Is that the ocean?" Sam asks, hands and face pressed against his window.
Usually John would remind him to stop touching the glass, but he's still riding the brief headiness of being out from under the council's thumb, so he just says, "That's the reservoir--everybody out." Dean's spent the entire forty-five minute drive curled into the corner of his seat, but he straightens up at that and does as told.
They troop down to the beach, a tiny parade of three: Sam with the towels, Dean struggling a little with the half-cord of wood they'd bought at the park entrance, and John bringing up the rear with the cooler full of ice and beer and hotdogs. He probably should've packed at least ketchup for a vegetable, but he'd been distracted by Dean's hovering during the process, like he didn't trust that John could manage to provide them with an actually edible meal.
Not that John's given him much evidence to go on, but still--a son ought to trust his father.
To be fair to Dean, when John tells him to strip down to his skivvies and take his brother wading in the reservoir, he does so without any backtalk, though he does hesitate before pulling his trousers off, carefully bundling Sam's clothes with his and finding a mostly-clean rock to place them on. Sam squawks a bit when they start wading in, complaining loudly about the temperature, but Dean keeps chivvying him on until he's about chest-deep.
And then John gets up, sighing, and goes in after them. He's never been much for swimming, but he knows enough to teach the basics--and he can't risk that prying bastard Frank getting Sam to tell him all about how John just sat on the beach drinking beer instead of joining them in the water.
It's not unpleasant--the sun's hot enough that the water feels pleasantly cool in contrast, and both boys are eager learners, despite Sam's predilection to over-enthusiastic splashing. But he can't shake the feeling that he ought to be on the road, ought to be out tracking down leads, hunting down answers to the questions that still haunt him after six years. When he'd taken the role as first Second and then Warder, he'd only been thinking of the access both would give him, not the increased scrutiny and expectations.
Once he's certain that Dean, at least, is adept enough to stay afloat and keep his brother more or less safely corralled, he retreats back up to the shore, settling down in a patch of shade with a beer and the journal half-full of notes from his long-running investigation. Not that there's anything new to go over, thanks to his unwelcome guest, but no harm in revisiting what he's learned over the past six years. Never know when some detail might catch his eye, opening up some previously-overlooked set of possibilities.
He keeps an ear open for sounds of distress, looks up whenever Sam shrieks a little too loud, but otherwise it's a relief to reimmerse himself in his neglected work--he's kept the journal safely stowed away in the car's hidden compartment, not wanting even the slightest risk of Frank "accidentally" getting his hands on it. No doubt he'd use it to argue that John's priorities are out of order or some other bullshit.
His patch of shade has shifted enough for the sun to be slowly searing its way up past his knees by the time Dean pads up to him, freckled and pink and dripping water everywhere despite his towel. "Can we eat now?" he asks. "Sam's hungry, and his lips are nearly blue." He hesitates a moment, then adds, "If you start the fire I can probably cook the hotdogs okay by myself."
According to John's watch it's nearly quarter past four, so Dean's request is reasonable enough. And he's right--once John gets the fire going (though it takes a couple more matches than he'd like and another handful of dry leaves as scavenged by Sam), actually roasting the hot dogs proves to be well within Dean's skill set. The first one gets a bit scorched, sacrificed to mapping out the fire's hot spots, but after that he produces a steady stream of perfectly-cooked hot dogs until Sam starts to look a little green around the gills and John's comfortably full of meat and beer and feeling mellow in a way he hasn't for months--maybe years.
He'd planned on driving back straight after they'd eaten, but the sun's still fairly high above the treeline and it's quiet, just the three of them as far as the eye can see. So for once he gives in to Sam's pleading and lets the two of them splash around in the water for a little while longer--though he's gratified to see that Dean's carefully practicing the few strokes John had shown them, even as he teases Sam by staying just out of reach.
The shadows are starting to shift long out over the lake when the boys finally stagger back up the beach towards him, Sam quite definitely blue and even Dean shivering a bit. John's finished the last of the four-pack and pulled the fire to pieces so it could burn out, so it's just a matter of getting the boys mostly dry and dressed again, though they have to go commando because John hadn't thought to have them bring extra underwear.
Not like it matters, though--they're just going home and straight to bed.
The drive back is even quieter than the one over, Sam slumped against his window and asleep within ten minutes, Dean silent on the passenger's side, seemingly transfixed by the scenery going by.
"List five creatures that live in fresh water, including their strengths and weaknesses," John says to Dean as they leave the outskirts of Lebanon. The sun sits higher in the sky than he'd planned, but there'd been a request from Portsmouth that had taken longer to answer than anticipated. ("Get yourself a good second and this wouldn't take even half as long," Frank said to him this morning. "Got a list of names all set whenever you're willing to look at it. I know you're still getting your feet under you, but it's been almost six weeks since George's death. Not that I don't treasure our little tete-a-tetes, but I have my own business to tend to--can't stay and hold your hand forever." And John had needed to bite his tongue for nearly a minute before he'd been able to put on an amiable tone and say, "I'll think it over today." Men of Letters or Marine Corps, still had to make nice with the brass to get his way.)
"Sharks!" Sam pipes up enthusiastically from the back seat. "They have like a million teeth that keep growing in, but you can punch 'em in the nose and they'll go away." Looking in the mirror, John can see him demonstrate the blow, though his fist is all wrong, would break his wrist or thumb if it landed.