We will organize our children…and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way…
One of Mary Campbell's earliest memories is of hiding under her bed, salt rough and scratchy beneath her bare knees. She can still remember holding one hand over her mouth to keep from sneezing at the dust bunnies hiding there with her.
In her other hand she clutched the doll Nana gave her on her third birthday, hugging it close. Her fingers worked the colorful threads knotted into its dress, their patterns offering familiarity and comfort.
"Don't make a sound," her mother whispered, and then she was gone.
Mary's daddy had taught her how to be as quiet as a mouse, and so she held as still as she could. She smiled when she thought of Daddy's voice, deep and warm when they played together.
"Mice aren't quiet, Deanna. They make all kinds of damn noise, rustling in the walls, can't even tell if they're really mice, or –"
"Hush," Mary's mother had said, putting a finger over Daddy's mouth and laughing. "Go on now, you two. Mary, you show your daddy how quiet you can be. Don't worry about any mice."
Mary nodded and slipped out of the kitchen when Daddy covered his eyes with his hands and started to count. They'd been practicing, and Mary could walk across the hall and up the stairs without making any noise at all. She knew each step and had figured out which ones made noise when she trod on them.
It took Daddy a long time to find her when they played hide'n'seek that day. She was huddled inside the linen closet at the end of the upstairs hallway, and he had been so proud of her that he kissed her on the cheek and told her she was his best girl.
I'm Daddy's best girl she thought now as she breathed slow and quiet. The dust bunnies in front of her barely moved, and Mary knew she was doing a good job. She wanted her Daddy to be proud of her.
Something scary was in the house, but she was safe under the bed as long as she was quiet and as long as the salt stayed just the way Mommy sprinkled it.
Mary wanted to run her fingers through the line of salt that encircled her. She liked how it felt, and she wanted to draw designs in it, maybe just like the designs on her doll's dress. She knew they were special designs. Her hands made tiny fists as she resisted the urge.
There was a scream, the kind of screech Mrs. Wilson's cats made sometimes when they played under Mary's bedroom window at night. Mary jumped a little when she heard it, but she didn't make a sound.
She waited, barely breathing, and soon Mommy lifted up the bedspread and peered under the bed at Mary. "It's okay, baby, you can come out now. Everything's okay."
Mary frowned at her mother and hesitated. She wasn't sure she liked the screeching noise, but Mommy nodded reassuringly, so Mary scooted out from under the bed and flung herself into her mother's arms.
"I'm sorry," she said into Deanna's neck. "I messed up the salt when I came out." She clutched her doll and shivered.
"That's all right, honey. The scary thing is gone now. The salt is fine." Mommy held her tight and said soothing words as she rocked her in her arms.
"Can you tell Daddy I was real quiet?" Mary asked, looking at her mother with wide eyes.
Mommy smiled. "Yes, baby, I'll be sure to tell him. In fact, he should be home soon, and you can tell him yourself."
Daddy had been proud and said she was a good girl. He told Mary to go play, and then he shook his head and frowned at Mommy.
"How did it get in here?" Mary heard him ask as she went in the other room to find her doll.
"I don't know," her mother said, and after awhile Mary had forgotten all about the scary thing and the salt under the bed.
She learned, though. Over the years she learned about a lot of scary things. She learned a lot of different ways to kill them, too, and all about how to ask people questions so they didn't think you were crazy or dangerous.
Sometimes it was fun, and sometimes it was terrifying.
Sometimes she just wanted to go to the movies with her friends.
When she was six, Mary's father taught her to use a gun.
When she was seven, he started teaching her how to fight with her fists and her feet.
When she was eight, her mother taught her how to handle a knife. How to protect herself with it and how to kill things with it.
When she was ten, they started teaching her about all the scary things that were out there in the dark: what they were called, what they did, and how to kill them. She read books that were nothing like the books she read in school.
Sometimes she dreamt about the things she learned, and she'd come to breakfast hollow-eyed and quiet.
Her mother would look at her knowingly and give her extra orange juice to drink, but no one ever told her she didn't have to read the books anymore.
For Mary's sixteenth birthday, her parents gave her a silver charm bracelet. She thought it was beautiful, until she actually looked at the charms. No poodles or ballerinas or hearts for her charm bracelet. Just signs and sigils and amulets - things to keep her safe.
Maybe it's beautiful after all. She wears it every day.
She's gotten really good at sneaking out of the house, climbing easily out of her bedroom window, and after she meets John Winchester, she gets even better at it.
"Daddy, I really don't see what your problem with John is," Mary says, taking the bowl of mashed potatoes from her mother and dropping a spoonful onto her plate. "Why are you so uptight?"
Samuel rolls his eyes, stabbing his fork at his pot roast. "I'm not uptight. John Winchester is a mechanic." He says mechanic with the same scorn he reserves for anything that's not hunting-related. "He's young and he's soft. There's no way –"
"Samuel, that pot roast hasn't done anything to you, and what's more, the cow it came from is already dead." Deanna turns to Mary. "What your father is trying to say is that no boy will ever be good enough for his little girl. My father said the same thing about him before I married him." She smiles fondly at her husband.
"He was in Viet Nam, Daddy," Mary says with determination. "He's a Marine. He's not soft."
"War isn't the same thing as being a hunter," Samuel insists, putting down his fork and frowning at her.
"Thank God," Mary says, glaring right back. "I don't want to marry a hunter –"
"Marry? Who said anything about marriage? You're too young to be thinking about that, and you're certainly not going to marry John Winchester. Are we going to have this conversation every time we sit down to eat a meal?" Samuel shakes his head.
"You're real talented, Mary. You have a lot of skills, a lot of knowledge. You going to let that all go to waste to live some normal, ordinary life?" he asks. He says normal as if it's a dirty word.
Not normal, Mary thinks. Safe. But she doesn't say that out loud. The last thing she wants is for her father to think she's afraid of this life. She isn't.
She just hates it, that's all.
She loves John Winchester, and she wants to marry him. She wants to have his children. And while she doesn't blame her parents for her life, it's not a life she wants for her own family.
She wants her children to be safe from the things that hide in the dark.
And then a hunter named Dean shows up at their door, and Mary's life goes to hell. For one shattering, heart-stopping moment she thinks she's lost everything.
When the demon uses her father's dead body to speak to her, when he offers her John's life and the promise of safety, the only thought in Mary's head that has any meaning at all is John.
She can't make sense of anything else.
"Mary? It's a good deal, so what do you say?"
She's aware of Dean in the distance, screaming at her, but she barely hears his words of warning. She cradles John's head in her lap and says yes.
The demon's eyes glow yellow in the black night.
John is her rock, helping her deal with her dead parents, with the police and all their questions. Her parents' deaths aren't the only ones – the yellow-eyed demon has been busy, after all. Mary manages to persuade both the authorities and John that a deranged lunatic is on the loose, and that she and John were lucky to escape him.
She's not sure when she became such a good liar.
Mary wants to give her parents a hunter's funeral, but there's already too much attention on her, and besides, John would think she'd gone insane.
Arranging for their cremation is the next best thing she can do, and if Mary quietly pours salt in their caskets as she says her goodbyes, well, nobody sees her do it, and she sleeps better at night.
She and John get married, and they live in her parents' house. It's not perfect, but it's everything she's ever wanted.
Mary loved her parents very much, and she grieves for them. When John is at work she writes letters to other hunters, people whose names she finds in her father's journal, telling them about her parents' deaths. She only hears back from the few she's met before, offering their sympathy but no real shock or surprise.
That sense of inevitability is why Mary wanted out in the first place, but now that she's out, she'd gladly trade her safety for her parents' lives.
Not John's life, though. She doesn't think she'd trade John's life for anything.
Time passes, and Mary becomes skilled at pushing things away. Memories, guilt, fear; she pushes them all away and gets on with her life.
There's really not anything else she can do. She doesn't have much of a choice.
Mary Campbell Winchester gives birth to her first son on January 24, 1979. She names him Dean after her mother.
He's a beautiful baby, with big green eyes that stare up at her curiously when she sings her favorite Beatles' songs to soothe him to sleep.
She is fiercely protective of him. She's afraid sometimes, when she lets herself think. There are protections and sigils all around the house, and Mary does what she needs to with salt. John never notices.
"Angels are watching over him," Mary says, smiling down at her son in his crib.
"Really?" John teases. "Angels?" He eyes the white porcelain angel that sits on the nursery shelf and shakes his head. Mary pinches his arm, and he ducks away from her. "Ow."
"Yes, angels," Mary says. Her father always told her angels weren't real, but Mary figures that if there are demons, there must be angels, and she's sure they're keeping an eye on Dean.
"He's a cute kid," John says, gazing with pride at his sleeping son. "I think he looks like your mom." John sounds uncertain, like maybe Mary wouldn't want to hear that, wouldn't want to talk about her mother.
She doesn't want to, it makes her remember things she doesn't like to think about, but Dean has her mother's eyes and her fair skin and light hair. Mary can see her mother in his happy grin.
Dean is a good baby most of the time. He wants Mary's attention, needs it like air or water most days.
"Your son," she says, verging on exasperation when she finally gets Dean down in his crib, eyelids fluttering in his sleep, his tiny lips sucking while he dreams. She snuggles next to John on the couch, yawning.
"He needs you, just like I do," John says, smiling, his arm around her waist pulling her close.
Mary tips her head over onto his shoulder and sighs. She feels such contentment in her exhaustion that the memory of what she lost seems very far away.
She feels nothing but relief that no one is telling her what a good age might be to introduce Dean to the idea that maybe he'd like to grow up and learn how to kill things.
There's no timetable telling her now, now, Mary, it's never too soon to teach him how to be afraid, better get started now.
She cleans her house and cooks meals for John and takes Dean for walks in the park in his stroller. She's filled with a peace she never thought she'd have.
Fear slips away, and with it, guilt. It wasn't her fault. What choice did she have?
Soon, nothing scares her.
As time goes on, though, Mary finds herself missing her parents again. It's as if she spent the first year of Dean's life in a fog, and now she feels herself emerging from that hormone-bathed anesthesia, shaking her head to clear it.
Her grief strikes without warning, leaving her trembling with loss when she's using a simple kitchen knife the way her mother taught her, the way that can either slice a banana or carve up a shapeshifter.
She wishes her mother were here to see Dean, to watch as Mary starts a family, becomes a mother herself.
Mary sings Dean the songs her mother sang to her, but she doesn't tell him the bedtime stories her father told her.
Her father never made Mary feel like he wished he had a son instead of a daughter. His wife was a skilled hunter and so was his mother, and he had no sexist notions about gender and skill.
His bedtime stories were all about strong men and brave women, battling monsters and saving the innocent townsfolk. Mary thought they were wonderful, and she wanted to grow up to be one of those strong, brave people.
And when she did, she realized the stories left out the most important things. They left out how real the blood is, how the acrid stench of burning flesh stays in your nostrils for days. The brave men and strong women didn't mention the way grave dirt gets under your fingernails and packs into the soles of your shoes, until you almost don't notice it anymore.
You don't notice it until your best friend at school wrinkles her nose and asks you why you smell funny.
The stories leave out the screams and the blood and the fear.
Mary doesn't think she can forgave her father for that. He was her father, and she loved him. She misses him with a terrible grief and emptiness, but she would rather die than ever tell her son one of those stories.
Dean is a very determined two-year old. He comes up with more ways than Mary would have thought possible to convey the concept of NO.
And then he smiles at her and she melts. Her son is a charming two-year old as well as a determined one.
John is even less able to withstand Dean's chubby-faced grin than Mary, and it makes her laugh.
"You're such a pushover, John," she says as John sets Dean's rejected cup of apple juice down on the kitchen counter in defeat.
John shakes his head. "Kid knows what he wants and what he doesn't want, Mary," he says, pride evident on his face. "Nothing wrong with that." He grins at Dean. "And apparently what he wants is milk, not juice."
He reaches into the refrigerator and pulls out the carton of milk Mary bought that morning. Mary just laughs again as John pours apple juice down the drain and rinses the cup out. He turns the faucet off with his elbow and grabs the milk.
When John hands Dean his cup, Dean wrinkles his nose suspiciously, peering up at his father as if unsure whether to trust him or not.
John laughs. "It's really milk, Deano."
Dean grins triumphantly and drinks his milk, blowing bubbles at his father. Mary smiles at them both. This is the life she was meant to live. No blood, no violence.
No death. She's not a killer, and she won't raise her son to be one, either.
There's a darkness in John, something he keeps mostly hidden, but Mary is an expert at darkness. She sees it.
His memories of Viet Nam, of war and death, flash in his eyes, and that's when the darkness shows itself.
Sometimes Mary wonders what John would think if he knew about her previous life, the life she was raised in. If he knew she'd been a hunter and what that meant, the kind of things she'd done. If he knew about her parents, about ghosts and monsters.
Or about demons with yellow eyes. She wonders if he would believe her.
If he would hate her. Or worse, fear her.
Sometimes she wants to say, Do you have any idea what I've done? What I can do?
There's a house, a safe house, far out in the country. It has iron floors and salt in the walls, protective sigils and devil's traps everywhere. Mary mostly puts it out of her mind, but on bad days, days when she lets herself think too much, or days when John is struggling to hold on, she's tempted to drive out there, just to reassure herself that it's still standing. She hopes to God she never needs to take refuge there, but it's somehow comforting to know she can.
Mary wants to try for another baby. She wants a brother or sister for Dean, but John's work has been erratic lately. The garage where he works isn't always busy enough to need a third mechanic, and some weeks he barely earns enough to cover the bills.
It makes him angry and short-tempered with her and Dean. She understands his frustration at not being able to provide for his family. It makes her love him all the more.
Mary doesn't bring up the idea of another baby more than a few times, not wanting to add to the pressure John's feeling. She doesn't want to push him.
One day he comes home with a secret smile, a pleased look on his face that Mary hasn't seen in far too long.
"What?" she asks, arms wrapped around his waist, gazing up at him. He's so handsome, her husband, and she never gets tired of seeing him alive and healthy.
She's tried so hard to forget what he looked like, crumpled dead on the ground with his neck snapped, with that yellow-eyed bastard wearing her father's body and grinning at her, and she's mostly been successful. The image haunted her dreams for years after her parents died, but now she only sees it once in a while, usually when John's sleeping with his head tilted at certain angle.
She always wakes him up, makes him move, and he looks at her strangely.
Now Mary shakes her head. "What?" she asks again, and John laughs, cupping her face with both his hands.
"You know that garage on Maple? The one that opened last year? I've been talking to Mike Guenther, the guy that owns it, and he's agreed to sell me half." His eyes are bright with satisfaction.
Mary stares in astonishment. "Sell you half?"
"The money from my dad's insurance, Mary. It's enough. I don't have to work for somebody else any more. I can be my own boss. Well, half of one, anyway." John grins from ear to ear, waiting for her reaction.
Mary bounces in his arms and kisses him fiercely. "I love you," she says.
They celebrate that night with steak and strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream, and a big bottle of cheap wine that John brought home.
Dean senses their mood, and he claps his hands and laughs along with them, whipped cream all over his face.
Later, when Dean is settled down for the night, curled on his side surrounded by his toy cars, John makes love to Mary with a sweetness and joy that she's been missing.
When the final papers on the garage are all signed and secure, Mary stops taking her birth control pills.
Mary's second son is born on May 2, 1983, and he's beautiful. He's solemn where his big brother is gleeful, but he's just as forthcoming with his needs and demands as Dean is.
She names him Samuel after her father.
Dean calls him Sammy.
Life is more complicated with a newborn to look after. Dean may love his brother but that doesn't stop him from wanting his mother's undivided attention sometimes. She cuts the crusts off his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pours him glasses of cold milk to go with his favorite apple pie.
His sweet smile is more than enough reward for the effort.
"It's Sammy's turn to eat now, honey," she tells Dean. "Is that your new truck over there? Why don't you go play with it while I feed your brother." She looks at him with pleading, tired eyes.
Dean stares at her, considering. He reaches out and pats her cheek. "Okay, Mommy," he says. There's something almost like sympathy in his gaze. He leaves her alone for the rest of the afternoon, lets her and Sammy drift in an exhausted haze on the couch.
"Daddy!" Dean calls out, and Mary blinks herself awake. She hears John come in through the kitchen door from the garage, and she opens her eyes to see him lift Dean in his arms and swing him around. Dean giggles gleefully.
"Hey, there, kiddo," John says. "You being good for your mom today?" John looks over and smiles at Mary and Sam.
"I was good, Daddy," Dean assures his father. "I was real quiet and I letted Mommy and Sammy sleep."
"That's my boy," John says.
Sometimes she and John fight, just like all married couples, Mary thinks. There are some nights that Mary goes to bed while John stays up, sprawled on the couch staring at the television. She knows he has nightmares about his time in Viet Nam, so she doesn't push.
Sometimes John's a little too fond of hanging out with his buddies, and there are nights he stumbles home long after Mary and the boys are in bed, and he smells of whiskey.
Sometimes he doesn’t come home at all, and Dean is quiet those days, and affectionate, hugging her, kissing her cheek, lips sweet and sticky with Kool-aid.
"Shh, Sammy," she hears him whisper to his brother. "We hafta be quiet today, Mommy's sad."
Sammy is on a blanket in the middle of the living room floor, inching himself along on his stomach, grunting and drooling and grinning toothlessly at his brother. Dean sits cross-legged on the blanket beside him, playing with his Matchbox cars.
Mary watches them from the kitchen doorway, wondering if John will come home tonight. It's the responsibility, she thinks, the responsibility of her and the boys that weighs on him sometimes. She knows he loves them more than anything in the world, and she knows he's strong, stronger than her father ever gave him credit for.
She knows he'll come home.
She knows something else, too. It's been almost ten years since her parents died. Ten years since she made a promise to a young hunter that when Sammy was six months old she wouldn't get out of bed no matter what she heard.
The demon said he'd be back in ten years.
Think about it, he'd said. You could be done with hunting forever. The white picket fence, station wagon, couple of kids, no more monsters or fear, I'll make sure of it.
And he had. She'd been safe for ten years, no monsters in sight.
Relax, as long as I'm not interrupted, nobody gets hurt, I promise.
Mary doesn't understand what he meant by that, but she wants to stay safe, and most importantly, she wants to keep her family safe.
She has a garden outside her kitchen door where she grows cherry tomatoes and radishes, and a little patch of lettuce, the leaves green and curly.
Hidden among spiky radish tops are the tiny white flowers of anise and chamomile, with fennel and bright orange marigolds mixed in. The yellow of St. John's Wort glows in the sunshine.
Mary burns the St. John's Wort and makes a wreath of marigolds to hang on the front door. She places fennel at the windows and keeps chamomile tea steeping in her kitchen. There's bloodroot in pots on every windowsill and anise leaves scattered around the yard.
These are the things her grandmother taught her. These are the things her mother did. And now it's Mary's turn to protect her house from evil.
The salt is harder to hide from John, but Mary tries to make sure the windowsills are lined, even if she has to spread it on the outside sills and replace it everyday. Fall is here, and the sharp wind blows leaves and salt grains around the yard.
If she's still awake after John falls asleep for the night, Mary quietly slips downstairs and pours salt along the front door, covering it with a welcome mat. She manages to do it most nights and tries not to think about the nights she's asleep before John, nights when her home goes unprotected.
Mary and John have an argument in the middle of October, the kind of fight that unsettles her for how fast it turns nasty.
It's not the first fight they've had following a phone call from one of John's war buddies. There's one in particular, a guy named Deacon, and sometimes just talking to him is enough to make John stay away from home for a night or two.
He told Mary once that memories of the violence made him feel like he was contaminating her and the boys, and he had to stay away from them for their own safety.
Mary's never met Deacon, but she thinks he and John saved each others' lives over there. John doesn't often talk about Viet Nam, never offers details, so she really doesn't know much about what he went through, but it's what she attributes his occasional drinking binges and sudden bouts of temper that seem to come out of nowhere to.
This time, after John spends half an hour on the phone with Deacon, he and Mary are screaming at each other.
"You son of a bitch," Mary yells in frustration. "You have a responsibility here, John! These are your children, too. You can't just leave like that." She wants to throw something at him, she really does, and her fingers curve around the handle of the pot of spaghetti sauce she has on the stove.
But her aim is strong and true, and she can't let herself do it. She would never use her skills against him. Forgiveness would be too hard to come by, from either herself or John.
"Responsibility? That's all I have here! That's all there is for me," John yells back at her, and his words cut Mary to the quick. Everything she's done, everything she lost so she could have this life with him. He knows nothing about being responsible for someone else, about having to make decisions about life and death. How it feels to save someone. Or to lose someone.
He thinks he does, but he doesn't really.
Her father was right. John is soft.
"What do you know about being responsible?" Mary asks him. "Nothing." She folds her arms tightly across her chest, both to protect herself from his words and to protect him from the things she's capable of doing.
John looks at her, his face pale. "You don't know the things I've done. The things I've had to do. You think Viet Nam was some kind of picnic? You don't know what I had to do while you were back here, safe -" John breaks off, like his breath is caught in his throat. He looks at her, stricken. "Mary –"
Mary turns her back on him, hands shaking, and after a moment of terrible silence, he walks out of the room.
"Mommy?" Dean says, and Mary jumps. She thought he was upstairs, but he's right at her side, looking scared yet determined.
Mary bends down, and Dean's arms come up around her neck. He hugs her tight and whispers, "Don't be sad, Mommy. I love you."
"I love you, too, Dean," Mary whispers back.
After that, John starts coming straight home from work, and he spends less time watching TV and more time with Dean. He takes Dean and Sammy to the park the Saturday before Halloween, giving Mary some much-needed free time. She uses the afternoon to make Dean's Halloween costume, and together she and John take the boys Trick-or-Treating around the neighborhood.
"Avast there, me hearty," John growls at Dean, grabbing him up in his arms and tickling him. Dean squirms and giggles, and Sammy watches them from Mary's arms, bright-eyed and grinning toothlessly.
"Don't mess up my costume, Daddy," Dean says as John sets him back on his feet. He reaches up to fix his eye-patch as John straightens the small stuffed parrot attached to his shoulder.
"Sorry, Deano," John says. He turns to Mary with a smile. "You land-lubbers ready to go get some treasure?"
That night John takes Mary to bed, and they make love with a passion that lately has been redirected into anger and resentment. For the first time since Sammy's birth, Mary feels herself relax.
Two nights later, she's roused from sleep by the flicker of lights and the sound of something whispering in the dark. She gets out of bed, pushing the covers back and listening hard.
John is in Sammy's room, so she goes downstairs to warm up a bottle.
Except that John is on the couch, dozing in front of the television.
Mary races back up the stairs, remembering too late that Sammy is six months old today. Remembering too late the other Dean's long-ago warning not to get out of bed.
Her heart pounds in terror.
She bursts into Sammy's room, and the man hovering over the crib turns around to smile at her. His eyes glow yellow in the dark of the nursery.
"You!" she says, as she reaches desperately for her son.
John slumps over the table in Mike Guenther's kitchen, exhausted. He closes his eyes and listens carefully, but he doesn't hear anything.
Thank God. Sammy is finally asleep. Dean's been asleep for hours, but Sam's got two new teeth coming in, and apparently it hurts like hell, judging by the amount of fussing and crying he's been doing.
John doesn't remember Dean being this miserable when he was teething, but he guesses Mary dealt with it, like she dealt with everything.
He tries not to think about Mary, except that's all that John seems to be able to do. Thinking about Mary is the only thing that gets him out of bed in the morning to take care of her sons. The only thing that makes him go to bed sober enough to hear them if they cry out in the night.
John's trying desperately to step up to the plate. He owes it to Mary. He hates himself for every time he was weak, every time he let her down.
Sighing, John straightens up, moving his head from side to side to ease the kinks in his neck. There's work he needs to do tonight, a book he wants to read, and a teething child is no excuse for shirking his duty.
He pulls his new leather-bound journal closer and opens it to a clean page. Mary kept a journal and thought John should, too. So now he is, too late to please his wife. He's only written on the first few pages, and the vast emptiness of the thing is daunting.
There's so much he needs to learn.
John's been feeling an urgent need to be on the move. He told Missouri Moseley that yesterday, and she looked at him with sad eyes.
"John Winchester, you do what you need to do. I can't tell you things I don't know, and I don't know if those boys of yours are safe here or not."
Missouri loves his boys, and they've taken to her easily. John's not sure he should leave Lawrence, but he knows he can't stay with Mike and Kate any longer. He can't stand the pity in their eyes. Or the judgment.
They think he should move on, get over what happened to Mary. It was tragic, yes, but sometimes these things happen. He should move himself and the boys back into the house after the damage from the fire is repaired and go back to work at the garage.
John tells Mike he can go to hell, then he hands him the paperwork that will give him John's half of the garage. Mike stares at him as if he's lost his mind.
John packs up the boys and leaves Mike and Kate's house a few days before Christmas, moving into a small apartment near the University. They watch him go, Kate looking helpless, Mike shaking his head.
He stays far away from his house. John can't bring himself to set foot in the place, especially after Missouri tells him that true evil was there the night Mary died.
She doesn't know what it could have been, and John needs to find out, same as he needs to breathe. He needs to know what killed his wife and reduced his life to ashes.
Lawrence won't be able to hold him much longer.
But right now the University of Kansas has libraries full of books, and John spends his days pouring over them, trying to find an answer to the darkness that came uninvited into his life.
He finds someone to watch the boys. Kate would do it, even after the way John left them, but he won't ask her. There's a woman named Naomi, with a son of her own, and she keeps Dean and Sam for him a few hours every afternoon, while John searches through book after book in an attempt to find the answers he needs.
Dean looks up at John with wide, frightened eyes whenever John leaves. He clings to his father in a way he never did when Mary was alive, and he barely says a word, except to John or Sammy. Every morning John finds him in Sammy's crib, curled around his brother as if he's trying to keep him safe.
It breaks John's heart and fills him with guilt. This isn't how he wants life to be for his boys. Dean should never have had to carry his brother out of a burning building at the age of four.
John should have been able to keep his family safe.
Sometime after Dean's fifth birthday, in the chill of January, John realizes the University libraries have nothing left that's of any use to him. He gets ready to leave, loading as many of the boys' clothes and toys as he can fit into the trunk of the Impala.
"Where will you go, John?" Missouri asks.
John shrugs. "I don’t know. I just know I have to."
"I have a name," Missouri says slowly. "He's a preacher in Minnesota. He might know something." She hands John a piece of paper, and he tucks it into the pages of his journal.
Bending to kiss her cheek, he says, "Thank you."
Missouri looks at him, sympathy and understanding on her face. "Now don't be a stranger, John Winchester. You bring those boys back to see me once in a while."
John nods, but he thinks they both know he won't set foot in Lawrence again unless he has no choice.
Jim Murphy, the paper says. Blue Earth, Minnesota. John gets out the map after he settles Sammy in his car seat. Dean's in the back with his brother, surrounded by his collection of Matchbox cars. He's clutching his favorite red Mustang in his hand as he watches his father.
"Okay," John says with a tight smile. "Let's get this show on the road."
Dean looks at him, and the trust in his eyes terrifies John. He doesn't have the slightest idea what he's doing, dragging his boys to some unknown place, but the urgency to be gone is more powerful than the need to hunker down in one place.
The trip should take seven hours, eight at the most, but John hadn't realized how much two little boys would slow him down. Sammy in particular is fussy. John can't figure out how one baby can produce so much pee over the course of the day, but he thinks he spends more time changing diapers than he does behind the wheel of the car.
Dean is quiet and helpful, trying to keep his brother entertained, and they finally both fall into a fitful sleep around mid-afternoon.
No way is John showing up at this Murphy guy's place at dinnertime with two tired and hungry little boys, so he finds a cheap motel outside of Blue Earth to spend the night.
He pauses in the doorway of their room, Sammy in his arms and Dean peeking in around his knees. The walls are covered in virulent green wallpaper with mustard yellow flowers scattered all over it, and there are pictures of carousel ponies above each bed.
John shakes his head, blinking, and shuffles inside, Dean clinging nervously to him. "It's just a decorator high on acid, Deano, don't worry about it," he says, dumping his duffel on the bed closest to the door.
Sammy wakes up and peers around the room, his eyes bright and curious. He points a chubby finger at the pictures of the horses and smiles, wiggling happily in John's arms.
"Okay, then," John says. He dumps Sammy on the bed and says, "Let's get you changed again, buddy boy." Sammy's diaper isn't just wet this time, and John wonders what the hell he could have fed him to produce the noxious sludge masquerading as shit in his diaper.
Dean backs away, wrinkling his little nose in disgust. "How about you unpack your backpack, kiddo," John suggests, and Dean nods.
Dean works quietly, and by the time John looks around the room trying to figure out where to dispose of Sam's toxic diaper so they can all breath freely again, Dean has both his and Sammy's things unpacked and carefully arranged on top of the dresser. He hands John a plastic bag, and John accepts it gratefully. Opening the front door and looking carefully around for onlookers, John places the bag outside on the sidewalk. He'll find a dumpster later.
Dean's perched on the bed next to Sammy when John comes back inside. "You hungry?" John asks him, heading to the sink to wash his hands. He's not sure he'll ever get rid of the smell.
Dean nods solemnly.
"Good job with the unpacking, son," John says as he bundles Sammy back into his coat, pulling a soft wool hat down over his ears. Dean's proud smile is good to see.
Sammy tugs irritably at his hat as John gets the boys back in the car. John knows he saw a diner down the road a ways, and he hopes there's something on the menu he can smush up enough for Sammy to eat. He tucks a jar of baby food into his coat pocket just in case, but he'd like to save that for when he really needs it.
He'd been thinking during the drive up of ways to make enough money to keep the boys fed and in clothes that fit, and he's come up with a few ideas, but for now John just wants to locate this Jim Murphy guy and find out what he knows. It's like a constant itch in the middle of his back, this need to know who or what killed his wife.
"It's cold out, Sammy," Dean says, pulling Sammy's hat back down over this ears. Sammy laughs and gums his fist, drooling down his chin.
Dean grins at John, and John smiles back. Tonight at least they'll be warm and well-fed.
In the morning, they go look for answers.
Jim Murphy is a preacher of some kind, with a church and everything. John worries about what that means, if he's going to be some kind of holy-roller, spouting off about sin and retribution, but Murphy turns out to be nothing of the kind.
John feels like an idiot, standing there in the church vestibule clutching his kids and saying, "Missouri sent me," as if he's part of some secret underground movement, but Murphy just looks him over carefully and then nods, like John's passed some kind of test.
Weirdly relieved to have met the man's approval and sensing somehow that he's finally found someone who can help, John feels himself relax for the first time since Mary's death.
Murphy holds his arms out and nods at Sammy.
"Here, let me," he says, and John gratefully lets someone else carry his son's weight, even if only for a short time.
Dean looks as if he isn't too sure about this turn of events, and Murphy smiles down at him. "Come on, let's go see if we can rustle up some lunch."
He leads the way through a narrow passageway that goes from the church to a small house next door. They end up in the kitchen, John at the table with a beer and Dean with a mug of instant hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows, a coloring book, and a handful of broken crayons. The marshmallows seem to be making him quietly happy. Sammy burrows into John's chest, gumming his shirt, as Murphy says, "So, John, what brings you here?"
John watches Dean for a moment and makes a decision. If he's going to do this, Dean is going to have to be with him all the way. The boy only just turned five and has barely started speaking again, but John is a big fan of telling the truth.
He looks at Jim Murphy and starts talking.
Bill Harvelle dies because John is inexperienced. That's why he'd been working with Bill in the first place, because he's still so new at this hunting thing, and he wanted to learn.
They're in California; someplace called Devil's Gate Reservoir. Figures the damn place really is a Devil's Gate, and it's not just imaginatively named.
And it all goes to hell in a hurry when John's foot scuffs through the salt line, and he doesn't even know he's done it. Fucking hellspawn is all over Bill, and then Bill's dying, and John's got no choice as Bill begs him to put a bullet in his heart.
The drive from California back to Nebraska with Bill's body in the back seat of the Impala is the longest twenty hours of John's life. He cleans Bill up as best he can and wraps him in the extra blankets he carries in the trunk in case of a snowstorm. It won't do for him and the boys to get stuck on the road somewhere without extra blankets.
John pulls the car to a stop in front of the Road House, shifts into park and sits, waiting. Waiting to tell a child that he'd failed to protect the most important person in her world.
Ellen comes out, a shotgun held at her side, fear in her eyes. She sees John sitting alone in the car, and watching the realization dawn on her face almost guts him.
He makes himself watch, doesn't let himself look away. He doesn't deserve the relief that would bring.
Ellen stumbles to a halt, and John gets out of the car, moving swiftly to her side. She drops the gun and sags in his arms, dry-eyed and silently trembling.
"I'm sorry," John whispers into her hair. "I'm so sorry." It's all he can say, and it's so grossly inadequate that the words get stuck in his throat.
Then Ellen is pushing him away, moving towards the car and oh, god, John doesn't want her to see, but she's going to, she has to, Bill is her husband – was her husband, and she has the right to see.
"Ellen," John says, but then he stops, because he can't think of anything else to say.
She pulls open the car door and unwraps the blanket that covers her husband's face, and John is at least grateful that he didn't have to shoot Bill in the head.
There are a couple of guys in the bar, other hunters that John doesn't know, and they help him and Ellen get Bill's body inside and into the backroom. They lay him on the bed, and Ellen stands and stares at him, motionless, until she comes back to herself with a start.
"Jo," she says. "She'll be up from her nap soon. I won't let her see him like this." She looks around with determination.
One of the other hunters, a grizzled guy in an old Army fatigue jacket, says, "I'll go check on her, keep her occupied," and Ellen nods. "She knows me."
The two men leave the room, sending curious looks John's way as they close the door behind them.
"Tell me what happened, John," Ellen says. Her voice is devoid of emotion.
John tells her. She's looking at him in horror by the time he's done.
"Get out," Ellen says, her eyes hard. Two words, but they're more than enough.
John bows his head and says, "I'm sorry," then turns and walks out of Bill and Ellen's bedroom and out of the Road House.
John feels hollow inside. He's lost so much here; a friend and a mentor, maybe a surrogate family. A friend for Sammy and Dean. Jo is only four, but he'd thought about how they might play together sometime.
The grief he can live with. He's been living with grief for a while now. It's the guilt that's almost overwhelming, and he has no idea how to handle it other than to get drunk.
Three days later John wakes up in a run-down motel somewhere in Nebraska with little memory of how he got there. He cleans himself up and gets back on the road.
John drives straight to Bobby Singer's place to pick up his boys. He tells Bobby about Bill and waits for Bobby to throw him out, too. To his surprise, Bobby shakes his head with some degree of sympathy.
"We all make mistakes, it comes with the job," Bobby tells him. "It's what you learn from those mistakes that counts." The words are commonplace, almost clichéd, but the way they're spoken tells John that Singer knows something about mistakes and regret.
John's found a cabin where they can spend the summer, and he loads the boys and all their crap into the car. Dean waves at Bobby as they pull away.
The cabin isn't much, but it's good enough to call home for now. John knows when fall comes and school starts he's going to have to stay in one place, at least for a while.
Last year John made an executive decision that Dean would be just fine if he skipped going to kindergarten, but come September, he knows he'd better have Dean enrolled in the first grade, or Jim Murphy is going to be on his ass about it.
Their current phone conversation is making that pretty damn clear.
"I understand, John, I really do, but this is going to take some time. Whatever killed Mary isn't going to make it easy for you to find it, and in the meantime, you have to think about the boys."
John massages his right temple, where a headache is threatening to blossom. "I know, Jim," he grits out. "I got that the first ten times you said it." He sighs. "I know," he repeats, less irritated this time.
Looking around the rough cabin at the toys spread all over the floor and the rumpled blankets on the two narrow beds, John says, "I guess this place isn’t so bad. There's a creek for the boys to play in and some trails in the woods and –"
"And you're using those trails to teach Dean how to track, aren't you?" Jim voice is amused rather than accusatory, so John admits it.
"Hell, yes, I am," he says. "It's a perfect place. And I'm just teaching him the basics, stuff I learned in the Marines about tracking and covering your trail. He thinks it's a great game."
There's silence on the other end of the line, as they both ponder the idea that John is teaching his six-year old things he learned in the Marines, and then Jim says, "You know they can stay here with me anytime you need them to."
It's an offer he's made before, and John appreciates it, he really does. "I know," he says for what feels like the hundredth time. "But I'm not hunting anything right now, not looking for anything, just taking some time to hang out with the boys in peace."
Neither one of them mentions the changeling John killed a week ago. Neither one of them mentions how it had almost ended up the other way around, how the creature had almost proven to be too much for John's rudimentary hunting skills.
But both of them know the price of inexperience and lack of knowledge, and they're in silent agreement that John needs to take some time to learn how to do this right if he's going to do it at all.
He had no idea this world was even possible, that these things existed, but now that he does, he can't unlearn it. Somewhere out there is the thing that killed Mary, and John knows that someday he'll find it and kill it.
There's not another choice for him.
But there's also apparently plenty that needs killing in the meantime. Who knew?
"I gotta go, Jim," John says. "Sammy's awake."
John checks Sammy's diaper and is pleased to see that it's dry. Some days he thinks Sammy is more determined to get the whole potty training thing out of the way than John is. And as John has learned over the past two years, Sammy can be one determined little boy.
"Come on, Deano," John says, scooping Sammy up in his arms and tossing Dean a plastic bag full of old pop cans he'd picked up along the highway. "Let's get in some target practice."
Dean's face lights up, and he bounces to his feet from the spot on the floor where he'd been taking a small plastic truck apart with a screwdriver and a fork.
They head out back, and John sets Dean to lining up the cans on the top rail of the fence that separates the small yard from the dark woods behind the cabin.
"Like this, Daddy?" Dean asks as he carefully balances the can on the uneven wood.
"Spread them out a little more, dude," John says, and Dean nods and does his best to arrange them so they don't fall over.
"Okay, come here, let me show you this," John says, and Dean complies eagerly.
John takes just a moment to go over it in his head one more time while he gets Sammy settled with a pile of blocks on the ground, safely behind the action.
This is a good idea. It's even necessary, and it's not too soon.
The boys need to be safe. It's John's job to keep them safe, but if he can't, he needs to know they can take care of themselves.
He pulls a sawed-off shotgun out of the duffel bag he'd dropped at his feet and says, "I'll show you how to clean it later, because a man always has to take care of his guns, but for right now, let's see if you can aim this thing."
Dean's eyes light up, and he takes the gun almost reverently in his hands. It's too big for him, and he'll need both hands to hold it up, but there's something about the sight of his son holding a gun that makes the weight John's been carrying around lift a little.
He knows that's all kinds of fucked up, but that's his life now. Whatever it takes.
By any means necessary.
He shows Dean how to hold the gun, how to aim, and after he loads it for him, John takes a step back to see what his son can do. He doesn't expect much. The kid is only six, and it's his first time firing a gun.
Dean takes his tongue between his teeth, holds the gun up in front of him, closes one eye, and fires. He hits one of the cans, and his face lights up like the Fourth of July.
"Daddy, I did it!" Turning back to the fence, he fires again and again. In all, Dean hits a total of five cans, and John is beyond impressed. He smiles from ear to ear at his son, and Dean's grin is blinding in return.
He's so caught up in Dean's triumph that he jumps at the sudden tug on his pant leg.
John looks down at his other son, who is clinging to his leg and grinning up at him, and his heart stutters in fear.
"Sammy! I told you to stay over there," he says sharply, and Sam's smile disappears. His lower lip trembles, and his eyes fill at the angry words. John picks him up and gives him a little shake. Sammy whimpers in distress.
"Sammy," Dean says, carefully putting the gun down before coming over to them. "It's okay, Sammy. I shot the cans, didn’t I, Daddy?" Dean looks up at John, his expression uncertain.
"Yeah, kiddo, yeah, you did," John says, and he ruffles Dean's hair. Dean looks relieved, and Sammy tucks his head into John's neck, hiding his face.
John pats him on the back, forcing himself to calm down. It wasn't Sammy's fault. He's just a baby. John needs to do a better job of watching out for his boys.
He still has so much to learn.
John likes to drive. He doubts he'd be following his current lifestyle if he didn't, because there's a fuckton of driving involved in criss-crossing the country what sometimes seems like ever other day.
But right now, right this minute, he wishes he'd never learned how to drive. He wishes he could pull over to the side of the road, park the Impala, and leave her there. Just walk away and never look back.
And he'd leave his damn kids in the car while he was at it.
Sighing, John rubs his hand over the back of his neck and checks the rearview mirror for about the hundredth time. Sammy is still sitting with his arms folded across his chest, his lower lip stuck out in a very impressive pout. Coupled with his fierce frown, it's a very scary face indeed.
Based on experience, John figures he has roughly five minutes to find a place to stay for the night before his three-year old explodes.
He can't decide if Dean's trying to help the situation or not. His efforts are definitely making things worse, but what John's not sure of is if it's on purpose or not.
For Dean's sake, he hopes it's not.
Up ahead on the right John spies a motel, and he raises his eyes to heaven and thanks a God he's not sure he believes in for coming to the rescue.
"Sammy, come on, look, here's your favorite soldier," Dean's saying cajolingly. He holds a green army man in front of Sam's face, and Sam bats at it with lofty contempt.
"Don’t want that one, Dean," he says furiously. "Don't like that one. Want the other one."
Dean rolls his eyes and holds out his other hand, which contains what looks to John like an identical soldier.
Apparently it does to Sammy, too. "NO!" he yells. "NOT THAT ONE."
"Sammy, that's enough," John growls as he swings the car into the motel parking lot.
The Greenbrier Inn is painted a dusty green, a row of ten rooms on either side of the main office, with an empty swimming pool behind a rusty chain link fence. There's a diner down the road and a convenience store next door, and it's John's idea of heaven right about now.
He parks the car and turns to look at his pain-in-the-ass sons. His annoyance fades when he sees the distress on Sammy's face. They've been driving all day, and the boys have actually been pretty well behaved considering they've been cooped up in a car for hours on end.
Dean looks exhausted, his eyelids drooping, and John notices for the first time that's it almost dark. With a guilty start he realizes they haven't eaten in almost six hours. No wonder Sammy is on the verge of a meltdown.
"Stay here," John says, fixing Dean with a firm eye. "I'm going to get us a room, then we'll get dinner."
"Yes, sir," Dean says, the sir swallowed by a yawn. Dean blinks groggily a few times and looks at John. "We will." Kid's almost asleep on his feet, and John could kick himself.
"I wanna come," Sammy demands, and John watches his lower lip tremble.
He makes a command decision. They can get a room and then go right to dinner. The car can wait to be unpacked later. "Okay, let's go."
Sammy's frown disappears, replaced by a blinding smile. Dean laughs at his brother, and both boys scramble out of the car when John opens the door.
Sammy takes two steps towards the Office, obviously prepared to dart across the parking lot, and John grabs at the collar of his jacket.
"Whoa, buddy, slow down there. What's the rule about parking lots, or any other place where there are cars?" He looks sternly down at his son.
Sammy looks like he's going to start pouting again, but Dean nudges him with his elbow, and Sammy says, "Watch out for cars before I go?"
"Right. And did you?" John asks.
"No." Sammy's lower lip goes into its trembling act again.
"No, sir." Sammy's voice is subdued, and he stares down at his feet.
"Well, don't you think you'd better?"
"Okay." And Sammy looks right, then left, then right again, and then up at his father, a hesitant smile on his face. "Okay?"
"Okay. Let's go," and John trails behind them as the boys race each other to the building.
Dean hangs back while John talks to the desk clerk, but Sammy pulls on John's pant leg until John picks him up, then he engages the clerk in friendly conversation while John pays for the room. He's going to have to find another job sometime in the next week or so, judging by the amount of money he has in his wallet. Or doesn't have, to be more accurate.
The clerk gives Sammy a last smile as they turn to leave, room key in John's hand. "The meat loaf at the diner is really good," he says with a wave.
John nods, and the three of them head across the parking lot to the restaurant.
It's late, but there are still a lot of folks eating, so John figures the food can't be too bad. He herds the boys into an empty booth, sliding in beside Sammy, nodding at Dean to take the other side.
He runs his eyes down the menu and silently thanks God when he sees French fries and macaroni and cheese. He knows he should make some kind of an effort to get his boys to eat the occasional vegetable, but that's not gonna happen tonight.
Add in chocolate milk and apple pie, and Sammy and Dean are in heaven, the weariness of the road lifting as if it had never been there. His boys are resilient; John will say that for them.
So resilient, in fact, that he eventually has to resort to a growl to get them to sit still and eat. It doesn't make him any happier to be forced to endure the reproachful glare of Sally, their forty-something waitress, who makes him feel like some kind of monster just because he wants his children to behave themselves when they're out in public.
But that's where the pie comes in, because Sally is apparently a soft touch, and by the time John pays the check, everybody, including Sally, is smiling again. In fact, the smile she's sending John's way now looks a lot like an invitation.
She's not bad looking, tall and blonde with great-looking tits and a laughing, red mouth, but he can't. Not with the boys, and he may be a crap dad, but he's not going to leave them alone in a motel room just so he can get laid.
He smiles regretfully at Sally and gathers up his sons. Sammy is quickly losing steam, and Dean is fading fast, freckles standing out on his pale face.
"Goodnight, and thanks," John says, holding the door open with his hip while Sammy droops in his arms. Dean scoots out ahead of them and carefully looks both ways before he nods back at his father.
They get settled in their room, which isn't as crappy as John had been anticipating from the look of the cluttered office. The boys curl up together in the bed farthest from the window, instantly out like a light.
John sits on the other bed, elbows on his knees, hands hanging loosely between them. This has been one hell of a long day. He misses Mary desperately on days like these. He's angry that this is his life, that this is the life he's been driven into, and that he's been forced to drag his children into.
Sammy's soft snores reach his ears, and John blinks at the sudden prickling behind his eyes.
He needs to keep them safe. Whatever it takes, whatever he has to do, he'll do it.
"What the fuck is a rugaru?" John snaps, frowning at the man seated across the table.
"It's a monster. It looks human, but it'll turn once it gets a taste of human flesh. It's inevitable." Travis shrugs and puts his coffee cup down.
"But this guy looks just like a guy," John says, flipping through his journal until he finds a blank page where he can start writing. "How do you know he's a rugaru?"
John shakes his head. Ghosts, sure, werewolves, black dogs, poltergeists, he's dealt with all of those and it doesn't surprise him anymore that they're real.
But rugarus? That doesn't even sound like a real word. It sounds like something from one of those cartoons Sammy likes to watch in the morning – Puffalumps and Bumblelions. How can something like that be real?
Travis says, "Because I've been watching him. And because there have been two deaths here in Wichita that match the pattern, that make it obvious there's a rugaru in the area." He shovels in a forkful of eggs and sausage, chewing like sitting around discussing a man-eating monster is the most ordinary thing in the world.
John pushes his plate away. He seems to have lost his appetite. His coffee cup is empty, and he wants more, but he sure as hell doesn't want their waitress coming over here while they have this bizarre conversation.
"How do you kill it?" he asks, almost afraid to hear the answer.
"Burn it. Gotta burn it alive," Travis says. He smiles grimly at the expression of shock John knows is on his face. "It's not pretty, I know, but it's the only way, and John, this thing has to be stopped."
John knows that. This rugaru has killed and eaten at least two people, maybe more, and if what Travis says is true, the two previous victims have only whetted its appetite.
He makes careful notes in his journal while Travis finally motions the waitress over to refill their coffee cups. Once he's written down everything Travis tells him, he looks at his watch.
"Shit. I've got to go pick up the boys. Mary Ellen Robinson's been watching them for me this morning, but I told her I'd be back by eleven." He gathers his things and pulls a ten out of his wallet to cover his share of the check.
Travis nods. "Okay. I'll get the things we need and meet you tonight in the park." He pauses and looks at John curiously. "You got someone to watch the boys tonight? Mary Ellen?"
"No, not yet," John says. "Mary Ellen's busy. I'll find someone, don’t worry." He doesn't have to add that leaving the boys with Mary Ellen twice in one day might make her ask too many questions about where he was going and what he was doing.
"Pretty great kids you have there," Travis says, looking up from his coffee. "Dean seems like a real smart boy. You been training him up?"
John smiles, digging in the pocket of his jacket for his car keys. "Yeah, sure have. You should see him with a shotgun, handles it like a pro. Got a great eye."
"Does he know? What you do, I mean?" Travis asks, his eyes curious, and John pauses.
"Pretty much. Not a lot of the details, but he's known from the beginning. I decided early on not to hide it from him. I make sure he knows he's safe, and that I'm teaching him how to look after himself and his brother."
Travis nods. "Makes sense."
John jerks his head toward the door. "Better get going."
"Right. Eight o'clock." Travis drains his coffee cup and stands up. They walk out to the parking lot together.
"I'll see you tonight," John says.
When John gets to the Robinson's, Dean greets him at the door. "Dad, Sammy's sick." Dean's face is pale, and he's frowning up at John as if it's somehow all John's fault.
There are voices coming from the back of the house, Sammy's with the petulant tone he gets when he's sick and Mary Ellen's more soothing voice telling him his daddy is going to be here soon.
John pinches the bridge of his nose. Great. A sick kid, no babysitter, and a rugaru that needs killing.
"Let me in, Dean," John says impatiently, and Dean steps back, letting his father at least get his foot in the door. "Now, tell me what's wrong with Sammy?"
"He started coughing right after you left this morning, and he just now threw up all over the kitchen table." Dean makes a face like that's the grossest thing in the world.
Wouldn’t that be nice, if it really was the grossest thing Dean will ever have to deal with.
John sighs. Sammy must have heard his voice, because he calls, "Daddy?" and the next thing John knows, his knees are being held captive by two skinny, pajama-clad arms.
"Hey, Sammy," John says, hoisting his youngest son up to sit on his hip. Sammy buries his face in John's neck, and John can feel both heat and snot.
"Lemme see," he says, nudging Sammy's head back and peering into over-bright eyes. He runs his hand across Sammy's forehead, slightly alarmed at the heat radiating from the little body in his arms.
Also alarming is the fact that his normally talkative four-year old hasn't said a word beyond that initial Daddy. Sam's running chatter is a constant, the soundtrack to their lives, always there.
Mary Ellen appears from the back of the house, smiling ruefully at John. She looks worn out, and John feels a momentary pang at having placed his burden on her shoulders, even for a little while. She's a nice enough woman, but Dean and Sammy are his, and he's the one who should be taking care of them. He's the one who needs to make sure they come to no harm. That they're safe.
"Dean, get your stuff together," John says. "Come on, dude, shake a leg," he adds, when Dean seems reluctant to tear his eyes away from his brother.
Dean nods and shuffles reluctantly down the hallway toward the back of the house. John cuts him some slack, doesn't bark at him to move his ass, because he knows how Dean gets when Sammy is sick.
John manages to drag his wallet from his back pocket and extract a couple of bills to pay Mary Ellen while Sammy clings to him like a limpet, his arms so tight around John's neck they threaten to cut off his air. Kid's gonna have a hell of a choke-hold when he gets older.
Dean's back a lot faster than he left, and John manages to get Sammy settled in the back seat of the Impala while Dean loads their crap in the front passenger seat. He crawls into the back with Sammy and doesn't even complain when Sammy sneezes all over him.
They're staying in a roadside inn with rooms painted the color of mud, dull blue curtains at the windows, and some kind of green patterned polyester bedspreads that look like camouflage. It's a damned depressing place to be sick in, and John thinks of their house in Lawrence, the sunny kitchen and brightly colored bedrooms Mary fixed up for the boys.
But it does no good to go there, they all suffer when John's thoughts turn to Mary, so he shakes it off and deposits Sammy in the middle of the bed he's been sharing with his brother.
Sammy whimpers and refuses to let go of John's neck. John's stuck bent over the bed, and his back twinges as he tries his best to gently extricate himself from the determined grip Sammy's obviously not going to have the patience to wait until he's older to develop.
"Let go, baby boy," John says.
"'M not a baby," Sammy protests, but he relinquishes his grasp on his father's neck, and that's all John can ask.
"I know," John says. He reaches down and smoothes Sam's hair off his sweaty forehead. Sammy always seems to need a haircut.
Dean's dragged all their stuff into the room. Sometimes John marvels at the amount of crap necessary to maintain and entertain two little boys.
Although, now that he thinks about it, Dean's not so little anymore. John hates to do it, but it wouldn't be the first time he's left Dean in charge of Sammy while he's been gone. And it'll only be a couple of hours. Dean's a good kid, tough and smart.
John really doesn't have an option. It would be the first time Dean's had to deal with a sick Sammy all by himself, but he's probably a more patient nurse than John is.
Another half hour of arguing with himself while he gets Sammy settled in bed with a can of Coke from the motel vending machine, the waste basket next to the bed, and a towel over the pillow in case he throws up again, and John's made a reluctant decision.
"Hey, Dean," he says, motioning Dean over to the small table in front of the window. "I have to go out with Travis for a couple of hours tonight."
Dean's eyes widen, but he nods seriously.
"Here's the children's Tylenol." John's made sure to keep some in their first aid kit ever since that nightmarish occasion when both boys were sick, and he had to decide between leaving them alone while he made the fastest trip in history to the drug store, or taking two small, feverish, whining boys with him on that errand from hell. "Give Sammy some more at 9 o'clock, okay?"
"Yes, sir," Dean says. He suddenly seems a lot older than eight. He looks around the room. "Is there more Coke for later?"
"I'm going to go get you boys something to eat before I leave," John says. "I'll bring back some Ginger Ale."
At 7:30, Dean shuts the door behind John, armed with the usual strict instructions not to open it unless he's positive it's John, and that he's alone. John stands listening until he hears the deadbolt slide into place, and then he heads for the car.
It turns out it's relatively easy to kill a rugaru, but it's also one of the most disturbing things John's ever been a part of, and that's saying a lot. Between Viet Nam and hunting, there's not a lot he hasn't seen, but this is brutal and ugly. John hopes he doesn't have to do it ever again.
When he gets back to the motel, he waits for Dean to open the door, eyes peering anxiously up at his father as he lets him in.
John knows his clothes smell like burning flesh, and he keeps his distance from Dean. He nods, telling Dean it's okay to stand down. "Get some sleep, son."
Dean hesitates, looking at him with worried eyes. "You okay, Dad?"
John gives him a tired smile. "Yeah, kiddo, I'm okay. How's Sammy?"
"He's good. Sleeping. He's not as hot as he was before, and he didn't puke again." Dean yawns, and it seems to catch him by surprise.
"Bed," John orders.
"Yes, sir," Dean yawns again. He's asleep before his head hits the pillow.
The shtriga is long gone by the time John gets back to Fort Douglas. Fucking thing's just vanished, and John has a bad feeling that it keeps to some kind of cycle, which means it won't make another appearance for a long time.
Goddammit. If Dean had just shot the damn thing when he had a chance…but Dean only had a shotgun, and even if he'd taken the shot, there weren't iron rounds in that gun, only bullets, ordinary bullets that were fucking useless, and what had John been thinking, leaving Dean with something so fucking inadequate to defend himself and his brother?
And what had Dean been thinking, leaving Sammy alone for even five minutes? John shakes his head. He's only a kid wars with he fucking knows better, until John has to pull over to the side of the road to get his head straight before he crashes the Impala into a tree, or something equally stupid.
The road to Jim Murphy's isn't long enough, and by the time John gets there he's still angry and terrified at the thought that the shtriga is still alive, and at how badly he'd screwed up.
Every time he closes his eyes, all he can see is Sammy in that - that thing's grip, with its hood lowered, sucking the life force out of his baby boy. He can't imagine that he's going to be sleeping well for a long damn time.
He thought his anger at Dean had faded, but when he pulls up in front of the Rectory and sees Dean laughing and chasing Sammy around the yard, it catches him by surprise again, sharp and bright.
Gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles are white, John bows his head and takes a deep breath. Sammy sees him and breaks away from whatever game he and Dean are playing, running to the car yelling, "Daddy, you're here! Daddy, watch what Dean showed me how to do!"
John looks up to see that Dean's no longer laughing. He's standing stock-still, staring at the car but not at his father. His face is blank, devoid of expression, which isn't something John is used to from his eldest. Dean is almost always animated, frowning in concentration when he's shooting at tin cans, laughing at Sammy, or just looking lively and interested when John is showing him how to do something.
This still, pale face reminds John of how it was in the months after Mary's death, and he feels most of his anger fade away, enough that he's able to open the car door without his hands shaking, and he can offer Sammy a reasonable facsimile of a smile.
"Hey, Sammy," John says, scooping his youngest into his arms. Sammy giggles and throws his arms around his father's neck.
"Hi, Daddy," Sammy says. "You're back!"
John's laugh actually makes it past the tightness in his throat. Sammy has a real talent for stating the obvious, and he does it with an uninhibited childish joy and enthusiasm that almost always wins John over. Right now isn't any different.
"I am? Are you sure?" John teases, and Sammy laughs merrily.
"Me and Dean were playing hide 'n seek," Sammy informs him. "I hided real good, but Dean found me, cuz he's so smart." Sammy beams proudly as John carries him into the Rectory. Jim's standing in the doorway, watching.
John walks past Dean on his way inside. "Dean," he says, nodding at his son.
Dean's eyes flicker toward him, then quickly away. "Hey, Dad."
John sits at Jim Murphy's kitchen table with Sammy on his lap, alternating his attention between Sammy's cheerful chatter and Jim's careful questions about the shtriga. His answers for Jim are mostly grunts and headshakes, while he nods at Sammy, every once in a while saying, "Is that so?"
It takes almost fifteen minutes and two cups of coffee before John realizes that Dean is still outside.
So, okay, he's a little slow on the uptake, but he's been legitimately distracted. Jim stands up and says, "Sandwiches for supper," disappearing into the refrigerator and emerging with cheese, lunchmeat, bread, and mustard.
"Can I have bologna, Pastor Jim?" Sammy asks, like he couldn't possibly think of a better treat. John kisses the top of his head and stands up, plunking Sammy down on the chair in his stead.
"Chill for a minute, dude," John says. "I'm going to go find your brother."
Sammy nods and is immediately chatting happily with Jim about the merits of bologna versus ham sandwiches. John hears him start singing in his off-key little boy voice about his bologna having a first name, as the screen door swings shut behind him.
Dean's sitting at the beat up old picnic table at the side of the small yard, looking dejected. He glances up when John pokes his head outside the kitchen door but doesn't meet his eyes.
"Supper's ready, Dean." John waits, but Dean doesn't make any attempt to get to his feet. "Dean." It comes out sharper than John intended, but it gets Dean moving.
John holds the screen door open, and Dean slides inside. It almost seems to John that Dean is holding himself so that he doesn't brush against his father when he slips past.
"Dean, look, bologna!" Sammy says happily, and Dean smiles at him.
"Dork," he says and goes to sit in the chair next to his brother.
"Wash your hands, Dean," John says. He doesn't always remember the niceties, but sometimes he hears Mary's voice in his ear, reminding him of the things that make life a little more civilized. Clean hands in a bright, sunny kitchen, coffee brewing and pie in the oven, these are the things he remembers. And to get a piece of Mary's pie, you had to have clean hands.
John's surprised to see Dean flush at the reminder. What the hell, he didn't mean it as a criticism, but he recognizes the look on Dean's face as one of mingled embarrassment and chagrin.
John looks over to see Jim frowning at him. His confusion grows. He gives Jim a look that says he'll be getting more information out of him later, when the boys have gone to bed.
John can't figure out how Sammy manages to eat two sandwiches, because he doesn't think the kid stops chattering for the entire meal. It's almost as if he's trying to make up for Dean's silence, and then it hits him.
That's exactly what Sammy is doing. He's done it before, on other occasions and other times when Dean's been silent or withdrawn, especially if John was upset with him about something.
But John isn't upset, at least not anymore. Okay, he's not exactly happy that Dean disobeyed him, that he left the motel room in Wisconsin, left Sammy in danger. But he doesn't think Dean will pull a stunt like that again, not after how close the shtriga came to –
John shakes his head to clear it of the image of that thing hovering over Sammy. He imagines he'll been seeing that in his nightmares for a good long time, and he suspects the same will hold true for Dean.
There's no need to belabor the point. Dean made a mistake, but so did John. He expected too much.
Dean isn't ready.
The boys go back outside to play after supper, catching fireflies at dusk as the last rays of the sun disappear.
John and Jim settle on the back porch, drinking beer and watching them chase bugs around the yard.
Before John can speak, Jim says, "He feels terrible."
John nods. Part of him wants to retort that Dean should feel terrible. He almost let a terrible thing happen.
"He thinks you hate him." Jim's voice is calm, but John feels the censure in it.
"I don't hate him," John snaps. The need to defend himself is powerful. "That's ridiculous."
"John, what do you think would have happened if Dean had been in that room, too? If he hadn't behaved like the child he is instead of the soldier you'd like to think he is, just for a little while?" Jim honestly sounds curious, and John stares at him in dawning horror.
"I could have lost them both," he says hoarsely.
Jim nods and puts his empty beer bottle down on the table between them. "So why don't you cut him a break, and at least give him a smile and a fucking pat on the shoulder."
John finishes his beer in silence, never taking his eyes off his boys.
They stay with Jim for a week, until John hears about a poltergeist in a small town in Indiana.
"Sure you don't want to leave the boys here a while?" Jim asks. "They're more than welcome." John can't figure out why Jim's looking at him with that mixture of sympathy and impatience that's been annoying him for days.
Shaking his head, John says, "Thanks, but I'm gonna take 'em with me. We need to figure out somewhere to stay put for a few months at least, once fall gets here. School."
He says it with dread. It's not that he wants his sons to grow up to be illiterate and uneducated, but school has turned out to be the biggest pain in John's ass ever. Who knew it would be such a hassle?
It keeps him from moving around as much as he'd like, and it means contact with other people, people whose job it is to pay more attention to Dean than John is comfortable with. And this year Sammy's starting kindergarten, and Sammy doesn't have a clue how to keep quiet, how to go unnoticed.
Sam also can't think of any reason why he should. John can hardly wait.
He's also going to have to figure out how to get more money than the occasional part-time job gives him. He's been mulling over the idea of fake credit cards for a while, trying to figure out how to make it work.
Jim hesitates the way he does when he wants to say something he knows John isn't going to like. "John, I think Dean –"
And John cuts him off right there. He knows his son better than anyone, and he doesn’t need any more advice from a man who's never had a kid of his own.
And he mostly seems to be. He's extra attentive to Sammy, who's completely basking in it. Sammy thinks his big brother is the best thing since sliced bread, and that kind of faith is enough to pull anyone out of the doldrums.
Not that John can accuse Dean of moping. John wouldn't tolerate it if he was, but that's not quite it. He's quiet but not silent; serious, but he laughs with Sammy.
He's just a little…off. John spends a lot of time searching for the right word, and he thinks he's finally found it. Subdued. Dean is subdued.
The drive to Indiana is uneventful, for which John is inordinately grateful. The boys play quietly in the back seat of the car with the bag of mismatched Legos and the new supply of green Army men John added to the pile of clothes he bought for the boys at the Goodwill Store before they left Minnesota. They're growing like weeds, and it seems every time John looks at them, their anklebones are sticking out past the end of their pant legs.
John finds a run-down trailer located on the outer edges of a sad-looking trailer park where the rent isn't much more than he'd pay for a motel room. He'd like to hang around for a while, give all of them a chance to catch their breaths.
On their second night there, John decides he might as well take care of the poltergeist. It's the reason he picked this place, after all.
Poltergeists are mean sons of bitches, but it's really a one-man job, and John isn't worried. He isn't worried until the exact minute he's about to walk out the door at six o'clock on a Friday evening.
He doesn't expect to be gone for more than a few hours. If it's done correctly, ridding a place of a poltergeist can be a violent undertaking, but it's a straightforward job, nothing mysterious about it. Poltergeists are just mean, and they don't take kindly to being ousted once they've settled in somewhere.
And God help him, John doesn't want to, and he doesn't mean to, but he can't help looking at Dean and wondering. Doubting. Can he trust him to do this? To look after Sammy and keep him safe?
He sees the same doubt in Dean's eyes. In the end, John hadn't said anything to Dean about what happened in Wisconsin. He'd lightened up, knowing Jim was right, nodded and smiled and patted Dean on the back, all the while never actually talking about what had happened.
Dean made a mistake, and John wasn't about to sugarcoat it by telling him it was okay. And if he's honest with himself, John's choking on enough guilt of his own that the conversation would have been difficult at best.
So he let it go, but now he's second-guessing himself. He doesn't like the self-doubt he sees in Dean. A good soldier needs to have confidence that he can do the job. But his commanding officer needs to have that same confidence in his troops, and right now John just doesn't, there are no two ways about it.
There's also no choice. That poltergeist isn't going to leave of its own accord just because John's unsure about trusting his older son to watch his younger one.
So he looks away, doesn't meet Dean's eyes when he tells him he'll be back in a few hours and to look after Sammy.
Dean doesn't meet his when he says, "Yes, sir," he just closes and locks the door behind his father.
The poltergeist is a stubborn bastard, but John's home by midnight, with a bruise blossoming on his cheek and a sprained left ankle, but not really much that much worse for wear.
Entering the trailer quietly, he locks the door behind him. Hobbling over to the couch, he sits and bends over to take off his boots.
When he straightens up, Dean's standing there in his pajamas, a bag of frozen peas in one hand and an opened beer in the other. He doesn't say anything, just hands over what he has to offer.
Wordlessly, John takes the beer and tips his head back, taking a long pull. He closes his eyes in gratitude at how much he needed that, then reaches out and takes the bag of peas, holding it up to his cheek. He nods his thanks at Dean.
Tentatively, Dean reaches out a hand and pats his father on the shoulder, just once, then draws it back. He turns and goes back to the room he shares with Sammy.
Six years. It's been six years to the day since Mary was killed. It seems like a lifetime ago. John almost can't remember what it was like when he had more than memories, when the warm, sweet smell of his Mary was more than something he can only have when he dreams.
It actually was a lifetime ago – Sammy's lifetime. Sammy has no recollection of his mother at all. Sometimes John envies him for that. He didn't know Mary, so he can't feel any grief over her loss. He talks about her without pain.
He'll occasionally ask why the other kids at school have mommies and he doesn't, but because he never knew her, Sam has no idea of the magnitude of what he's missing.
Dean, now. Dean knows. Dean knows what they lost that night in the fire.
"Goddammit," John growls. "Goddamn piece of shit furnace." He bangs a big-ass wrench futilely on the old furnace, which doesn't do much more than wheeze in response. "Fuck!"
John may or may not be three sheets to the wind, but he knows his boys have to stay warm, and he knows it's fucking cold in Montana at night in November, so he has to fix this fucking furnace right fucking now.
There's a part of his brain, the part that's not numbed by a combination of grief and Jack Daniels, that's trying to tell him he might have better luck fixing the furnace when he's not hammered. He tells that part to go fuck itself and tips the bottle up one more time, draining the last of the whiskey.
He hears footsteps on the basement stairs and tenses up, ready for either fight or flight. God alone knows what could be down here. The house is old and falling down around them, but with old shirts stuffed in the gaps around the windows, he hopes they can weather the winter here.
If he can fix the fucking furnace.
He sways as he hefts the wrench, holding it at shoulder level, poised and ready for whatever is heading down the stairs.
"Dad?" Dean's head appears around the corner at the bottom of the steps. "Are you okay? Sammy heard a noise."
John lets out a breath and drops the hand holding the wrench. "Goddammit, Dean!"
Dean stops, looking from John's face to the wrench in his hand. He looks wary but not afraid.
"Fucking furnace," John mumbles as he sways on his feet again. He feels light-headed, and he lets Dean take the wrench out of his hand and put it carefully on the floor near the furnace.
"It's okay, Dad. Sammy just heard a noise down here. I knew you were fixing the furnace." Dean places a hand on John's arm and tugs him towards the stairs.
John jerks his arm out of Dean's grasp. "It's cold," he says, and the feeling of failure is overwhelming. He couldn't save Mary, and now he can't even take care of her sons.
"It's okay, Dad. Me and Sammy got out the sleeping bags. It's pretty warm in the bedroom." Dean tentatively reaches out to take John's arm again. "Let's go to bed. We can fix the furnace in the morning."
He tugs once more, and this time John lets himself be led up the stairs. He stumbles a few times and lets Dean support more of his weight than he should. Dean doesn't let him fall, though, and John is grateful.
He knows he'll be ashamed in the morning, ashamed that he allowed his ten-year old son put him to bed, but the knowledge is distant and unimportant. Right now he lets Dean settle him under the sleeping bag that's spread on top of his bed, lets Dean pull off his boots and roll him onto his side.
The room spins as John closes his eyes, and he hangs onto the bed, riding it until it stops moving. He dozes, then passes out, sleeping fitfully. Every time he shifts his position, he sees Dean huddled in his own sleeping bag, sound asleep in the threadbare armchair that he's pulled into the doorway of John's bedroom from the living room.
Mary, John thinks as he loses consciousness again. I’m sorry.
John wakes up to the sun stabbing his eyeballs with laser beams of fire, and he clutches at his head. Looking around, he sees that the armchair is no longer in the bedroom doorway and he smells the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee.
God, he wants to stay here all day, stay here and wallow for his dead wife and for the life he's forcing her boys to live. But the boys are out there, waiting for him to wake up, to get up and reassure them that it was only this one night, this one night when everything closed in on him to the point where he had to escape it.
Disappearing into a bottle of Jack once a year is a less than healthy way to deal, but at least he doesn't do it every night. John knows some hunters, he knows men he served with in Viet Nam, who need the anesthesia of alcohol every damn day.
John has to be stronger than that. He has Sammy and Dean, and he has vengeance to keep him focused.
Dragging himself out of bed, John pushes aside the sleeping bag that's doing its best to suffocate him. It's warmer this morning than it was last night, but he knows he has to get the furnace in working order. He can't subject his boys to a Montana winter without proper heat.
Staggering into the bathroom, John studies himself in the mirror. It's not a pretty sight. Bloodshot eyes, dark circles, pasty color, rough stubble. Pissing, he debates throwing up and decides it's a bad idea. He splashes water on his face instead.
The smell of coffee and bacon draws John to the kitchen, where he finds the boys parked at the table, Dean with a battered Superman comic book John knows for a fact that he's already read a million times, and Sammy with a pad of paper and a pencil, practicing writing his name.
They both look up at him with identical expressions of sympathy, and it almost sends him to his knees. He's their father, their teacher, the person who's going to keep them safe at any cost, but on this one day a year, he's a man who lets grief and anger and loss overwhelm him, take all control away from him, and turn him into someone his children have to care for and be wary of.
Somehow, he doesn't think Mary would be impressed by the way he honors her memory, and he resolves to do better next year.
It's the same promise he makes to himself every November. He has yet to keep it.
John watches his boys chase each other around the motel pool, running barefoot on the hot concrete. He tries to ignore the fact that the water is a shade of green it probably shouldn't be and is also a little more opaque than he'd like. The usual smell of swimming pool chlorine is noticeable only by its absence.
Dean is sturdy and strong, his lean muscles working hard as he runs after Sammy. Sam screeches as Dean reaches out, plants a hand between his shoulder blades, and shoves.
Sammy's arms windmill as he goes flying into the pool. He comes up sputtering and spitting and again, John tries to keep his mind away from bacteria. It's good for the boys to rough it, and a little dirty water isn't going to kill them.
"Dean, you jerk!" Sammy yells as he scrambles up the ladder and out of the pool. He resumes pursuit of his brother as if the game hadn't been interrupted by his detour into the pool.
"Try and catch me, you little dweeb," Dean laughs, and to John's surprise, Sammy manages to do just that. The look of shock on Dean's face as Sammy tackles him and they both fall into the pool is priceless.
John turns his attention back to his journal, trying to get the details of the wendigo he killed two days ago as precise as he can. The sun beats down on the top of his head, and he thinks for a moment about joining the boys in the pool. Mississippi in July is a bitch.
But he needs to get this down while it's all still fresh in his mind. And then he needs to figure out where they're going to go next, or if they can stay here for another few days.
He'd like to stay. There're some woods nearby, and a dusty, deserted road alongside the motel. If the questionable bacteria level of the pool doesn't bother the boys, he'd like to do a bit of training. He wants to work on their physical stamina and the current heat wave is just the thing, while having the pool ready and waiting for them afterwards is ideal.
John lets his mind wander to the nurse he'd met in Minnesota, which has been happening more often than he's comfortable with lately. It's the heat of summer, he knows, slowing the world down. He thinks about Kate, about what it would be like to have a place to go back to when this is all over.
He knows other hunters who stay in one spot. Jim Murphy, Caleb, Bobby, they have homes; some of them even have families.
Bill Harvelle had a family.
There are other hunters more like John, who keep traveling. People like Travis, or Creevey and his RV, who are always on the move.
And they're not the kind of hunters John is ever going to expose his boys to.
But John can't imagine staying in one place. He knows that's hard on the boys, especially now that they're in school. Sammy in particular fights it, always wants to stay wherever they are, no matter where it is or what it's like.
But John can't do it. He needs to keep moving. He feels like he's two steps behind the thing that killed Mary, and if he keeps putting one foot in front of the other, someday, maybe someday soon, he'll be two steps ahead.
Kate had provided a warm smile and a warm bed, and for just a moment, John had been tempted. They've exchanged the occasional phone call since he left, but he doesn't honestly think he'll ever go back.
Sammy's shriek of protest makes John look up from his nearly finished sketch of the wendigo. Dean has his brother in a headlock and is apparently attempting to drown him. But Sammy's quick and clever and slippery, and John feels a clench of satisfaction when Sam escapes with a twist and a well-placed elbow to Dean's head.
Dean's none too pleased by that. John shuts his journal and tucks it away in his jacket pocket, which he leaves draped over the back of his chair. No way is his journal getting anywhere near the pool. He stands up and puts two fingers to his lips, gives a piercing whistle. They boys stop what they're doing quickly enough at the signal that John doesn't bitch at them, considering they were half underwater when he whistled.
"Yes, sir," Dean says, bobbing in the pool and sending a glare at Sammy.
John waits for Sammy to catch his breath so he can add, "Yes, sir?"
"Time to get out of the water. Come on, lunchtime. Then I have some training drills I want you boys to do."
Dean looks happy enough at the thought of food that the idea of training doesn't seem to faze him in the least, but John hears a suppressed groan from Sammy.
John's not stupid, he knows Sammy is only seven years old and has no idea why they do what they do. He doesn't know why they move around so much, or what John does when he goes away for days at a time, when he leaves them alone with Dean in charge. He doesn't know why John drops them off to spend time with Jim or Caleb or Bobby.
And he sure as hell doesn't know why every once in a while his father wants him and his brother to run sprints down a deserted road or around a motel parking lot, or practice wrestling sticks away from each other.
There's no way John wants him to know, either. Dean knows John will kick his ass if he tells Sammy, and Dean seems to want to protect Sam from the knowledge as much as John does.
There are things John suspects about the night Mary died, things involving Sammy, that scare the shit out of him, but the longer his baby can stay innocent, the happier John will be.
So he and Dean operate in a constant state of conspiracy to keep Sammy in the dark for as long as they can.
That doesn't mean John can't make a game of training and teaching them how to survive, how to hunt. Dean's already got impressive skills with a gun, and while Sammy's shown no interest there, John's sure he won’t want to be outshone by his big brother forever.
The three of them troop back to their room. The air conditioner immediately raises goose bumps on the boys' wet skin, and John throws them a couple of towels from the bathroom. "Okay, go get your sneakers on. Leave your shorts on, they'll dry after we've been in the sun for awhile."
After a quick lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, wolfed down at the table by the pool and washed down with canned lemonade, they're ready to go.
They cross the motel parking lot and walk a ways down the dirt road, raising clouds of dust in their wake. John draws a line across the road with the toe of his boot and tells them to wait there. He walks another hundred yards and draws another line.
"Ready, set, go!" he hollers, and they take off in a flail of limbs and dirt. Of course Dean wins, but Sammy's used to that, and while Dean may be pleased with himself, he doesn't gloat. John nods down the road toward the first line. "Back you go." The boys run back down the road, Sammy a little closer to Dean this time.
John has mixed feelings about setting them against each other. On the one hand, he wants the boys to do their best every time, and he thinks the competition is good for them. But if Dean always wins, just because he's older and bigger, Sam's going to stop trying, and John doesn't want that.
He knows Dean lets Sammy win once in a while, and he figures as long as it's not too often, he'll let it happen. Someday Sammy's going to surpass his brother in height, John can see it in the shape of his feet and the length of his fingers. Dean won't be holding back then, John knows.
"Again," he calls. And "again."
Dean's face is red and shiny with sweat before John declares it enough. Sammy's breathing hard, but he's young enough that running is still pure joy and energy. "Okay," John says, pointing to the woods across the road. "Now, head on in there, and pay special attention to the trees. First one to bring me a leaf from five different kinds of trees gets to cool off in the pool." Sammy's eyes get wide. He knows what John's not saying. The loser has to stay hot and sweaty, watching his brother enjoy the water.
The boys take off running again. John trusts they won't go far enough into the woods to get lost. There are about ten different kinds of trees that he can see from here. They'll be fine.
He can hear them calling to each other, not in order to cooperate, but just to keep track of each other. Sometimes John sets them tasks that require them to work together to succeed, sometimes he encourages them to compete.
It only takes Dean ten minutes to emerge triumphantly from the woods and cross the road back to his father, waving a handful of leaves over his head like a conquering hero. He hands them to John and waits while John checks them out.
"Do you know what you've got here, Dean?" John asks.
Dean carefully studies the leaves in his hand. "This one's an oak leaf," he says slowly. "And maple?"
John nods. "Right. And this is from a hickory tree, and this one's an elm leaf, and here's a cypress."
Sammy comes puffing up to them, looking disappointed and frustrated. He's got four leaves clutched in his hand, and he thrusts them at his father. "Here."
John's eyes narrow at the attitude, and Sammy amends, "Here's my leaves, Dad." John nods in approval, and Sam looks a little less sullen.
"Let's see what you've got. Hmm, hickory, oak, maple, elm, same as Dean. But look here, Sammy, Dean found a cypress leaf." John makes himself sound impressed, and both boys smile widely.
They're covered in dirt, with that sweaty crease around the front of their necks that all boys seem to acquire every time they leave the house. The three of them cross the road back to the motel, and at John's nod, Dean toes off his shoes, gives a loud whoop and cannonballs into the pool.
Cool water hits the concrete around the pool and immediately starts to evaporate in the mid-afternoon sun. Sammy seems to wilt at John's side as he watches his brother horse around. He takes his sneakers off, probably just in case John changes his mind, but doesn't say anything.
John sweeps Sammy up in his arms without warning and tosses him into the pool. The water closes over his shocked face, and he comes up grinning and spluttering.
John grins back. His boys did good today. He sits down at the rusty metal table under the wobbly umbrella and starts to think about maybe having pizza for supper.
Two weeks later John drives to Jackson to check the PO box he's got set up there. He finds a letter from Kate, a letter that tells him he has another son.
He finds a bench to sit on and doesn't move for an hour.
She says they're fine without him. She says that he has important work to do, and he should do it. She promises to let him know if they're ever in real trouble. She wishes him well.
John doesn't know if that makes it easier or harder for him to stay away from Minnesota.
John grits his teeth as another wave of nausea hits. He swallows and takes a deep breath and swallows again, waiting for it to pass.
His right hand grips the wheel as the road curves more sharply than he'd expected, his left hand useless in his lap. He's right on the edge of driving too fast to be able to control the car with one hand, but he's so close now he can't slow down. If he slows down he'll never get there, and he has to get there.
He holds onto that thought - he has to get there. He has to get to Bobby Singer's house before he passes out from blood loss or pain or whatever the fuck is making him so goddamn light-headed.
He's on the deserted roads of rural South Dakota, with two terrified boys in the back seat, and he has to get to Bobby's.
He should have let Dean ride up front the way he wanted to. John can't remember why he didn't let him. Something about blood, or maybe not wanting Dean to realize what bad shape John was really in.
But now he could use some support, maybe some help holding the wheel steady, or something. Shaking his head to clear it only makes things worse. There's fog creeping in around the edges of his vision, and it's all he can do to keep his focus on the road ahead of him.
When this is over, he's going to teach Dean how to drive, even if he is only twelve.
The boys are whispering in the back seat, Dean reassuring Sammy that everything is going to be fine. John has no idea what story Dean is telling Sam about what happened while John was out on a "business call."
There's not a shred of doubt in Dean's voice as he talks to Sam, John can hear that even with the state he's in. He knows every nuance of Dean's voice, and while Dean is scared, he's still got all the faith in the world in his old man's ability to get out of a tight situation.
It makes John feel like an asshole even as it gives him the strength he needs to go the last mile. The pain in his arm and shoulder is so bad by the time the car skids to a stop in Bobby's yard that John vomits as soon as he gets the car door open, narrowly missing his boots.
"Shit," he mumbles. He practically falls out of the car, but there are two sturdy arms to keep him from face-planting in his own puke.
"Come on, Dad, steady, it's okay," Dean says. "Sammy, go get Uncle Bobby. Now!"
John hears Sammy scurry off, setting Bobby's mongrel dogs to barking. He stumbles, and Dean's grip on his good arm tightens. "Easy, Dad."
Just as his vision grays out completely, Bobby is there. John sinks gratefully into oblivion as he hears Bobby say, "Dammit, John, now what have you gone and done to yourself?"
When John comes to, he's laid out his side on Bobby's lumpy couch. His eyes water from the years of dust that have settled over every surface in the house, and his nose itches from the countless piles of musty old books.
There's a hand holding a cool cloth on his head, and someone is shoving a red-hot poker into his left shoulder.
"Son of a bitch," John says, and he tries to sit up and take a swing at whoever is trying to rip off his arm. It’s a pretty clumsy swing, and it glances off someone behind him.
"Goddammit, John, hold the hell still. Dean don't need no more bruises." It's Bobby, and he sounds pissed. The hand with the cool cloth disappears with a small ow.
"Shit," John mumbles. "What the fuck, Bobby?"
"You 'bout tore your arm clean off," Bobby says. Small hands hold John steady while the fog in his brain lifts some, and John realizes the red-hot poker is actually a needle. "Just puttin' a few stitches in. Stop wiggling around before I sew your shoulder to your ass."
John leans into Dean. He guesses he's lost even more blood than he'd known if he's weak enough to need Dean's support for a couple of stitches.
"Damn fool, driving in that condition. I'm surprised you didn't run yourself and those boys of yours right off the road. You got any idea a' how much blood you lost?" Bobby keeps up a running commentary while he works the needle in and out of John's skin.
After what feels like an hour, Bobby finishes taping down a dressing, and together he and Dean arrange John more comfortably on the couch. Dean pulls a ratty old blanket up to his chin, and Bobby presses a glass of some foul-tasting liquid to John's lips and tells him to drink it in a voice that brooks no argument. John does, and then exhaustion washes over him, and he closes his eyes.
The next time he wakes up, John feels sunlight on his face. It's pretty feeble, filtering through Bobby's dirty windows, but it's warm and almost cheerful enough to make opening his eyes worth the effort.
He has to piss, so he pushes himself up into a sitting position, remembering enough of what went on yesterday that he doesn't use his left arm to do it.
Rubbing his good arm over his face, John's trying to decide how likely he is to fall on his face if he tries to stand up, when he hears Dean's voice.
"Dean? What are you doing down here?" The boys sleep in one of the upstairs bedrooms when they're at Bobby's, and it seems pretty early for Dean to be up.
"Just making sure you're okay," Dean answers. "Just felt like sleeping down here." He sounds unsure, like maybe John's going to be mad at him for worrying.
"You slept down here? All night?" John's bladder is not happy with the delay in getting to the bathroom, and he moves carefully to the edge of the couch.
"Yeah." Dean waits, but John doesn't really know what to say. He feels shitty enough that he's grateful for Dean's presence. For his care. That's what Winchesters do, they look out for each other, and Dean is a Winchester through and through.
"What about your brother?" John asks.
"He slept with Uncle Bobby." John bets Bobby enjoyed that. Dean hesitates. "I told Sam you fell down some stairs."
That's pretty unimaginative for Dean. John would have expected a better story than that. "Yeah? He buy it?"
"Yeah," Dean says. He shrugs. "I didn't want to make up anything too scary."
"Good thinking," John says. "Hey, Dean, give your old man a hand up, would you?"
Dean's face lights up at the fact that John needs him, but then he looks doubtful. "Why do you need to get up?" he asks.
"I need to piss, son, and the longer I sit here, the more likely it'll be that Bobby's couch will smell worse than it already does."
Dean makes a face at that. "Ew. Okay. Here, put your good hand on my shoulder, that should work."
Together they manage to get John into the bathroom. Dean looks doubtful again, and John has to admit he has a point. John feels like someone spent the night beating him with a tire iron, and his left shoulder hurts like a son of a bitch.
"Just get my belt buckle, would you, Dean? And maybe get the zipper started? I can take it from there."
Dean nods, all business, his face serious as he reaches for John's belt.
"Hey," John says, and Dean looks up. "Thanks, dude."
Dean smiles. "Sure, Dad."
The boys are happy to stay at Bobby's while John's arm heals up enough for him to drive. John's grateful for a few days' rest.
He wasn't kidding about teaching Dean to drive, either. Bobby's place is perfect for that. John considers using one of the many junkers sitting around, then decides if Dean needs to drive in an emergency, he might as well learn how in the Impala.
It's a big car for a twelve-year old to handle, but Dean's a fast learner, not to mention fucking thrilled at the whole idea.
It's probably a good thing that John's left arm is injured, because it makes it harder for him to just reach out and grab the wheel whenever Dean looks like he might drive them off into the cornfields.
"Turn left! No, your other left! The brake, Dean, hit the brake!"
Dean grins. His feet barely reach the pedals, even with the seat shoved forward as far as it will go.
"This is awesome, Dad!"
John guesses it is. He returns Dean's grin as they swerve down the road.
Bobby's place isn't exactly the Hilton, but its comfortable and familiar. On the fourth day, John pronounces his arm healed and says they'll be heading out in the morning, right after Bobby takes out his stitches.
Sammy's face falls, and Dean looks anxiously between his father and his brother. Bobby doesn't say much of anything, just sits back and watches.
"Dad," Dean says. He hesitates a minute, then looks up at John with determination. "Dad, can I talk to you in the other room?"
John feels a little irritated by all the mystery, but he follows Dean into Bobby's cluttered living room.
He doesn't mean it to come out so brusquely, but really, his stitches itch, and Dean's playing games here.
"Could we stay another day?" Dean looks up at him pleadingly. "Bobby was going to go into town and get pizza and a cake tomorrow."
"What the hell do we need a cake fo –" John starts, and then it hits him. A cake. Of course. Tomorrow is Sammy's birthday.
John rubs a hand over his face. He's an idiot. "Sure we can, Dean." There's no way he's going to admit he'd forgotten Sam's birthday. He hadn't really been paying attention to the date, but that's no excuse, and he knows it.
"Do you think if Bobby lets you go into town with him, you can find a card or something for your brother?"
Dean grins happily. "Yeah, sure," he nods.
In the morning, Dean and Bobby head off in one of Bobby's beat up old cars, while John and Sammy hang out at the house. Sam's not pleased to be left behind at first, but John makes some sandwiches, fills their canteens with iced tea, and they sit at an old picnic table together, outside next to the Impala.
John listens while Sammy chatters about everything under the sun. The kid sure can talk. It's actually pretty impressive.
When Sam pauses to take a breath, John tells him a couple of stories about Mary. They don't talk about her often, because it seems to bother Dean, but John thinks Sam should know about his mother. So every once in a while, when Dean's not around, John talks to Sam, shares his memories about the mother Sammy'll never know.
"She was beautiful, Sam, and she loved to grow flowers. She had this garden, right outside the kitchen door." John smiles, thinking of how Mary's hair gleamed in the sunshine when she worked in her garden.
Sam nods, his eyes rapt. John imagines Sam feels left out sometimes, the way John and Dean each have things they remember about Mary, while Sam doesn't have anything but the things they tell him and a few faded photographs.
"She loved you very much, son." She died protecting you. Sam's not ready to hear that yet, so instead John tells him the story of the abandoned kitten Mary found in the alley two blocks down from their house, how she brought it home and nursed it back to health.
"She named it Mr. Socks," John says, rolling his eyes, and Sam laughs.
When Dean and Bobby get back, they sit around Bobby's kitchen table and eat pizza and birthday cake.
"Happy Birthday, Sammy," John says, ruffling Sam's hair.
"Thanks, Dad," Sam says.
John has no idea what Sammy thinks is living in his closet. It's one of those rare times when they're actually living in a house. It's even a house that isn't falling down around them, which John has to admit is nice for a change.
There was a guy who'd been pretty damn grateful when John got rid of the vengeful spirit wreaking havoc in the stairwell of his newly acquired apartment building, and he'd offered John the use of his second vacation home in Phoenix for the summer.
Never mind that Phoenix in the summer is hotter than hell, or that Sammy had been none too pleased at being dragged away from the summer soccer league he'd been hoping to play for in Nebraska.
It's a house, it's pretty damn nice, and it's free.
It's even air-conditioned, and there are enough bedrooms that the boys don't have to share. The way Dean's dealing with puberty puts John in mind of a bull in a china shop, and he would have thought Sammy would be grateful for the opportunity to escape from his brother and his raging hormones once in a while.
Sam apparently is grateful, at least at first, and there's relative peace and quiet after the boys go to bed at night.
Dean thinks he's too old to have a set "bedtime," and while John pretty much agrees, he's not about to slack off on the idea of having a regular routine. Routine is important; it's how you get things done, and it's how you know when something is out of the ordinary.
Something that might be a threat.
John puts up with the eye rolls when he sends Dean off to bed because he remembers being thirteen. Thirteen to fifteen is some rough going, but John knows when Dean comes out on the other side of all those hormones, he'll be a man John can count on and be proud of.
Around midnight, after he locks the doors and salts the windows and turns off the lights, John heads to bed himself. Poking his head into the boys' rooms to check on them, he realizes Sam's room is empty. He finds Sammy in bed with Dean, curled up sound asleep.
John shrugs. It doesn't matter to him if Sam wants to sleep with Dean, as long as Dean doesn’t care. He just doesn't want any fighting about it.
In the morning, though, that's exactly what he gets.
"Get off me, you dork," Dean yells. "Why are you in here? You have your own room, which should make you happy, since you're such a little girl."
"Shut up, jerk," Sammy says, giving Dean a shove just as John shows up in the doorway.
"Hey," he says sharply. "What the hell is going on in here?"
"Sammy keeps coming in my room," Dean says, as if the presence of his brother in his bedroom is a violation of some major international treaty. "The little dweeb is afraid to sleep alone," he adds, his voice rising in pitch. John isn’t sure if he's making fun of Sam, or if it's just the hormones fucking with his voice.
"You're such a jerk, Dean," Sammy yells. He obviously has no problem deciding that Dean is mocking him. "I hate you." Under all the righteous indignation, John can hear real fear.
"Sammy?" he says.
"It's nothing," Sammy mumbles, not looking at Dean. The tips of his ears are red.
"The little –" Dean starts.
"Dean, that's enough," John says mildly enough, but the warning is there. It's time for Dean to shut up, maybe take his newly acquired testosterone for a run. "Why don't you get in a couple of miles before breakfast." It's not a punishment, it's just to help him let off a little steam, and Dean takes it in the spirit in which it's meant.
"Sure," he says. "Gladly." He rummages around under his bed, emerging triumphantly with his sneakers, glaring at his brother.
"Sammy, let's you and me fix some breakfast," John suggests. Sam nods without saying another word and follows John into the kitchen.
They rub along together fairly comfortably, Sammy getting eggs and bacon out of the refrigerator, watching the toast while John scrambles the eggs, and pouring orange juice into three glasses while John gets down some plates.
John pours two cups of coffee, leaving plenty of room for milk in the cup he sets by Dean's plate. Dean's all about drinking coffee these days, now that he's all grown up. Sammy looks at the cup and rolls his eyes.
That's the opening John's been waiting for. "So, kiddo, spill. What's going on with you and your brother?"
"He's a je –"
"Besides the fact that he's a jerk," John interrupts. "I already got that part."
"Well, he is," Sam says. John just looks at him, and Sam sighs. "You're gonna think this is stupid." He shakes his head. "But there's something in my closet."
John waits for more, but no more seems to be forthcoming.
"I'd guess there's a lot of things in your closet, son," he says. "Your clothes, your shoes, couple of soccer balls." John winces slightly, not wanting to revisit that sore subject. "I'm not sure what you're getting at here, Sammy."
Sam is staring down at his plate. "Something scary. It makes noises at night. I look in there during the day, and I don't see anything. It's only at night," he adds defensively, like he doesn't think John will believe him. Like he expects John to call him a dweeb or a baby, too.
"What kind of noises?" is all John says. Sam looks up, surprised at being taken seriously.
"Scratching noises. Sometimes it thumps, and sometimes it sounds like it's whispering." Sam's watching John like he's still waiting to be accused of being a girl again.
John nods. "Okay. Wait here." John leaves the table and goes up to his bedroom, dragging the duffel bag of weapons out from under the bed. He sits and looks through the different guns for a minute before choosing a small sawed off shotgun. It's a lot like the one Dean made last year when he was in the sixth grade. John heads back to the kitchen to find Sammy still sitting at the table, staring at John's empty chair.
His eyes widen when he sees what's in John's hand. "Here. After breakfast I'll show you how to use it."
John has to hide a smile at the expression on Sam's face. He'd hoped handing Sammy a gun in such a matter-of-fact way would take his mind off whatever was in his closet, and it looks like it's working.
"A gun? You're giving me a gun?" Tentatively, Sam reaches out to touch the gun, looking uncertainly up at John.
John nods encouragement. "Yep. Keep it in your room, and if whatever's in your closet bothers you, blow its head off. If it has a head," he adds as an afterthought.
Sammy looks incredulous. "Dad, you're supposed to tell me there's nothing in my closet, and that there's no reason to be afraid!" He seems pretty indignant that John's not offering meaningless platitudes, but John supposes that's natural, since Sammy has no reason to think there's anything more scary in his closet than a spider or two.
He's going to have to tell him the truth sooner or later, John knows, but he wants to keep Sam innocent just a little bit longer. He's only nine years old, and while Dean's known more or less from the beginning, Dean also remembers the night his mother died.
Dean watched his father's evolution from grieving widower to a hunter determined to find and kill whatever murdered Mary. And they've both been complicit in protecting Sammy from that.
John's going to have to have a talk with Dean, though, find out why, instead of taking his brother seriously, he'd made fun of him. If anyone knows enough to be afraid of what's waiting in the dark, it's Dean.
But still, the day is coming when they're going to have to let Sammy in on the family secrets.
In the meantime, after breakfast he'll teach Sammy how to handle the shotgun, and then while Sam and Dean hang around outside before the heat becomes unbearable, John will check out Sammy's closet and get rid of whatever supernatural son of a bitch is lurking in there, trying to scare his son.
"Okay," Sammy says. His eyes are hooded, and John knows damn well that Sam doesn't believe a word John is saying. He feels the muscle in his jaw twitch – the one that he's taken to calling the Sam muscle.
Sam hasn't even thought about puberty yet, and John thinks he'll be lucky if he gets through the next few years without developing either TMJ or chronic headaches from all the jaw clenching he's already doing.
They have a different perspective on things, he and Sam.
John has no idea how Sammy figured out the hunting thing, but he did.
A few months ago, just before Christmas, John had been on a hunt, tracking a crocotta through Nebraska. The damn thing had been elusive as hell and John had been gone longer than he'd planned.
When he finally made it back to the boys, after taking the time to stop at a Walmart to pick up a few presents along the way, it was to find Sam giving him the cold shoulder.
At first John thought it was because he'd missed Christmas, and he figured he owed Sam for that, so he let Sam sulk and ignore him for a few days. He noticed the brass amulet Dean was wearing, and he was under no illusions about whom it had originally been meant as a present for.
That was fine, Sam was still a kid, and Christmas was still important to him. He was allowed to be pissed at his old man.
But finally John had enough of the attitude, and he and Sam had words. Somehow Sam had found out about hunting, and he accused John of lying to him his entire life, which, he wasn't wrong, but John doesn't know what Sam expects him to do about it now.
Dean swears he didn't tell him anything, or at least that he didn't volunteer the information. John believes that. But Sammy apparently figured something was up and managed to somehow coerce, or more likely, coax, the rest of it out of his brother.
In spite of all his bluster, Dean never can resist Sam when Sam really wants something.
So, Sammy is calling it lying. John calls it shielding him from certain disturbing information. They've been at an impasse since Christmastime.
And John is damned if he knows how Sammy can make him feel like such an asshole when he was only trying to protect him. Now he knows how Dean feels when Sam manipulates him into getting his way.
"Sammy," John says. "I'll be back in two days. I have to pick up some supplies in Saginaw." Sam's stony face gazes back at him.
"Okay," Sam says. John's actually impressed with how much scorn Sam can pack into that one word.
Dean's watching them quietly, his stance guarded as his eyes travel back and forth between his father and his brother. He looks anxious. John can't say as he blames him. Every time he and Sam butt heads, Dean seems to get caught in the middle. Or maybe he puts himself there, John isn't always sure.
Whichever it is, John doesn't like it. He doesn't like anything that disrupts the dynamic between what he hopes to someday be able to call a well-oiled fighting machine.
"Sam, just where exactly is it you think I'm going, if you don't think I'm going to get supplies?" John demands.
"I think you're going after some monster. I think you're going out to hunt something. Something that could hurt you, or follow you back here and hurt Dean and me." Sam doesn't blink, doesn't look away, just meets John's eyes and gives it to him straight. As annoying as that it, John has to admire it.
"No, I'm not." John holds up a hand to forestall Sam's protest. "Not this time. But the next time I do, I'll be sure and let you know." Part of John wants to blast Sam for his insolence, but the fair part of him knows he has no one to blame but himself. Sam never did take well to being lied to.
"I promise," John adds.
And that Sammy has to believe. John's never said that before and not meant it.
"Like you promised you'd be back in time for Christmas? Like you promised we could stay in Tulsa for the rest of the school year?" Now Sam's arms are folded across his chest, and his chin juts out defiantly.
John hears Dean sigh. "Sammy."
Okay, John always means his promises, but occasionally he's not always able to keep them. Trust Sammy not to cut him any slack on that.
He gives up. He doesn't have time for this. It's easier to leave than it is to keep arguing.
"I'll be back in two days. Dean, look after your brother." John slings his backpack over his shoulder, grabs his shotgun off the table, and walks out the door of their motel room.
Three days later, he walks back in. Or rather, he limps back in, his hat pulled down to hide the gash on his forehead.
It's not his fault there was a chupacabra outside of Saginaw. Damn thing was hanging around a petting zoo, taking a goat or two a night. There were kids around. He doesn't know what Sammy would have expected him to do.
Both boys are sitting on the bed, an enormous bag of potato chips between them. The TV is loud enough to explain why neither one of them heard the Impala pull up. She's not exactly a quiet car.
John slams the door behind him, and the boys look up at him guiltily. He takes a quick step into the room to dump his backpack on the bed and hears Dean gasp. He's up off the bed in two seconds.
"Dad? Are you all right? What happened?" Dean already has John's jacket halfway off, running his hands over John's shoulders, checking for injuries.
"I'm fine, Dean," John says, sitting down heavily on the edge of the bed, his left leg out in front of him. "Just a couple of scratches." He avoids even looking at Sammy. It was a hell of a drive back from Saginaw, and he really doesn't have the energy for a showdown with his ten-year old.
"Take your jeans off, Dad," Dean says. "Let me look at it." John feels a swell of pride when he looks at Dean's face. While it's obvious that John's not gravely injured, there's no trace of panic, no fear; just a determination to fix what needs to be fixed.
John stands up, finds himself wobbling just a little. There's a hand at the small of his back, steadying him. He looks down at Sam, and there's so much fear and anger in his face that John swallows. He nods his thanks, and Sammy nods back.
John slips his jeans down his legs and sits back down, Sam's hands still around his waist for support. Dean unties his boots and pulls them off, then studies the long tear that spirals from the middle of John's thigh to the back of his knee.
Standing up, Dean asks, "How's your head?" He pokes gently at the cut on John's forehead.
"It's good, just needs to be cleaned up a bit. The leg might need a stitch or two."
"Sammy, go get the first aid kit," Dean says, and Sam obeys without question.
Dean shows Sam how to clean the cut on John's head, shows him what to use and how to fix a couple of butterfly bandages across it, then leaves him to it.
When he's done, Sam watches Dean clean up the wound on John's leg, a mixture of fascination and revulsion on his face. John knows they're not done with this, and he's proven right once Dean's put a few stitches where the wound is deep, covering them up with a clean bandage.
"So, what was it?" There's accusation in Sam's voice, and betrayal, although the fear is gone.
"A chupacabra," John answers simply. He nods at his duffel. "There's a book in there, mentions them some. Bobby's got better books. You can read up on 'em next time we're there."
Sam looks thoughtful. "Okay." He deals better with things when he can read about them in books. Books seem to convince Sam that John's not just making shit up.
"Sammy, I didn't go after it. I mean, I did, but I didn't know it was there until I got to Saginaw and heard about it. I really did go for supplies." He watches Sam, gauging the expression on his face. It tells him nothing.
Dean watches them as if the outcome of this conversation is the most important thing in the world. Maybe it is.
"There were kids, Sammy. It was at a petting zoo, and there were kids, and it could have hurt them."
This is everything right here. Why he does what he does, and it's a plea for Sam's understanding.
Sam stares at him a moment longer, then shrugs. "I'm glad you're not hurt worse," he says.
John thinks that may be the best he can ask for.
John's got PO boxes all over the country. He has people he stays in touch with, and each PO box brings news and information from different sources.
The one in Topeka almost always has a letter from Deacon in it. Deacon doesn't live anywhere near Kansas, but that's the address John gave him. It's not like Deacon doesn't know that John never stays in one place for very long.
The letter is as chatty as Deacon ever gets, which isn't much. He talks a bit about his wife, updates John on some of their old Marine buddies. Looks like Jack Green finally gave up on trying and drove his car off a bridge. The only thing surprising about it is that it took him so long. Patty Green's been grieving for the boy she knew before he went to Viet Nam for a long time now.
Deacon's wife just had another kid. That makes a grand total of five, which John can barely imagine.
That's five more souls in the world, John, than there would have been if you hadn't been there to save my life, Deacon writes.
They don't often talk about Nam, but it's there in their conversations anyway.
So is the usual invitation to stop by, come and see the kids, if ever there's a crazy ghost in Little Rock.
Thinking about Nam always puts him on edge, in a way monsters no longer do.
John flips through the rest of his mail while the boys are next door at the laundromat. They were more than overdue for clean clothes, and Sam and Dean have been at it for over an hour. John pushes open the door, the tinkling of the bell and the smell of detergent in the warm, damp air of the place all threatening to overload his senses for a minute.
He makes a face, and Dean looks up at him and grimaces his sympathy. "Last load's almost done, Dad."
Sammy pauses in his sock-matching to ask, "Anything good in the mail?"
Sam can be like a gossipy old woman sometimes, but John supposes it's because, as Sam never gets tired of reminding him, John always forces him to leave his friends right after he makes them. So Sammy likes to hear news about the people that are constants in his life, like Jim Murphy or Bobby Singer. Or Deacon. People that when Sam leaves them, he knows there's a chance he'll maybe see them again.
John joins Sam at the big table where he's working. He picks up a sock and begins searching for its mate.
"Deacon's wife had another baby. Little girl this time," John says.
Sam wrinkles his nose at that. "That's three girls to two boys." Sam doesn't mind girls, but he doesn't yet have the appreciation for them that his older brother does.
"You think they should have another boy?" John asks as he finally finds two socks that match and rolls them into a ball.
Sam shrugs. "I think six kids would be a lot of kids to have." His voice is wistful, like the idea of being surrounded by a houseful of siblings sounds like the best thing ever.
It probably does. Dean makes friends easily, but he also leaves them just as easily. He doesn't get attached to teachers or yearn to play team sports. He's only fifteen but he seems to have a girlfriend everywhere they go, cute little things that cling to his arm and smile up at him like they can't believe their luck. John doesn't remember girls being quite so…hot when he was fifteen. He remembers braces and pimples and awkward attempts at cleavage.
Dean's good at loving 'em and leaving 'em.
Sam, though, every friend Sam makes is for life in his mind. John wants to shout at him to get a clue, there is no forever in this life they lead, and there never will be. There's only blood and death and vengeance, and the sooner Sam realizes that, the better.
John looks at his son, pawing through a pile of grayish-white socks with holes at the heels, frowning in concentration at such a mundane task, and he feels guilty. It's an unaccustomed feeling these days. Life is what it is.
But his boys, his babies, aren't supposed to be living a life of blood and death and vengeance. They're supposed to be living the life Sam thinks is so important.
A life of permanence.
Sam looks up at John and grins in triumph at having matched up all the socks with no leftovers. His smile falters at whatever he sees in John's face, and John shakes himself out of it and smiles back.
"Deacon says they named her Jennifer." Sam smiles and nods his approval.
They make their way to Des Moines after John gets word of something he suspects is a rawhead holed up in a farmhouse. It's already taken two kids, and as they speed along the highway, Dean sprawled asleep in the backseat, Sam curled up in the passenger seat beside John with his eyelids drooping as he gazes out into the night, John vows there won't be a third.
There isn't, and when John gets back to their motel room, both boys look at him with pride as he tells them it's done. He spends some time discussing rawheads and how to kill the sons of bitches. Dean is fascinated, as always. Sam gives him the impression he'd rather be doing algebra homework, but when John quizzes him on the information, he's obviously been paying attention.
John frowns at him anyway. "This is important, Sammy."
"I know, Dad," Sam says, and John guesses he does.
It's September, and John thinks maybe they should stick around for a while. There's nowhere else he needs to be right now, and the boys might as well get a few weeks of school under their belts before there's another monster to see to someplace else.
John uses the time to do research, perusing the local library and picking up some extra cash working a few shifts at a small auto repair shop.
At some point during the last couple of years he'd finally given in and started filling out the credit card applications that sometimes show up in his PO boxes. He uses fake names, and after a while he can't remember why he was so reluctant to do it. It makes life on the road a hell of a lot easier.
By the second day of school, Dean has a girlfriend. She's a tiny thing, blonde and perky, and the top of her head barely reaches Dean's chin. John meets her because she and Dean are joined at the hip and apparently can't bear to spend any time apart.
She peers around at the house John's renting by the month, looking somewhat dubious at the beat up furniture that came with the place, until Dean tugs on her hand and says, "Wanna come see the back yard?"
Her smile brightens, and they spend the rest of the afternoon sitting in the old glider at the edge of the lawn, making out.
John thinks her name is Brandi with an "i," and he wonders if she dots that "i" with a heart. She goes home at five o'clock, declining his invitation to stay for supper. Dean grins at him after she leaves, his lips red and smeared with lip-gloss.
John shakes his head as he stirs orange cheese powder into the pot with the macaroni. "Watch those hot dogs," is all he says, pointing to the frying pan.
They see a lot of Brandi over the next two months. If she's not at their house, Dean is at hers. John has threatened Dean within an inch of his life about using condoms – his version of a safe sex talk – so he's not too worried about becoming a grandfather just yet.
Sam seems content at school, coming home and talking John's ear off about this kid or that, his awesome math teacher, the school play he might try out for.
The only thing that seems off is Sam's unexpected hostility toward Brandi. He usually ignores Dean's girlfriends, rolling his eyes and saying, "Gross," whenever Dean talks about what a ladies' man he is.
But Sammy really doesn't like Brandi, and John is just bored enough with all this domesticity that he tries to figure out why.
"C'mon, Dean," and it's almost a whine.
"I said no, and stop whining like a little bitch," Dean says, pushing Sammy out of the way as he tries to get to the front door.
Sammy plants his hands between Dean's shoulder blades and pushes back. Dean stumbles a bit before he catches himself, and he whirls on his brother, fists raised.
"You little jerk," he snarls. Sam just glares up at him, not backing down an inch.
"Hey," John says sharply. "Not in the house. If you're gonna fight, you can spar in the backyard. Do it right or don't waste the energy."
"I gotta go," Dean says, lowering his hands.
John considers making him stay, making him and Sam really do some sparring out back. But Sam's just pissed enough that it would get ugly, and that's not really the point of the physical training he wants the boys to do.
Sometimes when they're at each other's throats due to living on top of each other, a little hand-to-hand helps them blow off steam, but it doesn't feel like that would help much in this instance.
So he lets Dean go and watches Sam scowl after him. "Stupid Brandi," he mumbles as he flops down on the couch.
John knows better than to try a direct question. Sammy's the king of stonewalling, and John likes to think he's smart enough not to beat his head against a wall. He likes to think he's smarter than his youngest kid.
"I like her," John says offhandedly, casually flipping through the pages of his journal. He sits at the kitchen table with a cup of cold coffee and some notes Bobby Singer sent him about how to track demon activity. "She's kind of cute."
Sam stares at him like he's grown a couple of extra heads and for a moment, John wonders which way it's going to go. It hangs in the balance until Sam seems to decide he's pissed enough that even his father will make an acceptable audience for his grievances.
"She's always around! If she's not here, he's at her house. She doesn't even talk much, she just stares at him with that stupid expression, like Dean is God or something!" Sam sounds ten kinds of indignant, and John tries to hide his smile.
Sammy is jealous. He's used to being the main focus of Dean's attention. He's not used to sharing his brother quite this much.
John gets it, he really does, but it's not like Dean is doing anything wrong. Sam's just not quite there yet when it comes to girls.
He grabs his journal and gets up from the table. Motioning to Sam, he says, "Come on. I'll show you how to track a black dog."
Sam looks rebellious for a moment, but then his curiosity gets the better of him, and he follows John down the hall to the biggest bedroom, the one John claimed as his own.
The walls are papered with drawings and news articles and diagrams. John's been perfecting his system of laying out a case, clues and reports and pictures that to his eye, tell a clear story, once he gets them in the right order.
Then the pattern is obvious.
"Here, Sammy, pay attention. See if you can figure out where the most recent sighting was." John stands back and watches as Sam studies the wall.
He turns and looks at John with dawning comprehension. "Albuquerque? Are we leaving?"
Sammy is nothing if not direct. John nods. "I think so. Probably in a couple of days." He waits. This is usually the point when Sam gets pissed and starts listing all the reasons why he doesn't want to move again. "Maybe we'll go visit Deacon after that," John offers, hoping to forestall an argument.
But Sam just nods and turns back to the wall. "Cool," is all he says, as he stares at a drawing of an ugly-as-fuck dog, with blood-flecked black fur and drool dripping off its sharp canine teeth.
Dean's just as cool about leaving as Sam is. There's a part of John that's disturbed by how easily Dean's ready to go, as if he hadn't just spent the past two months doing a masterful impression of a man head over heels in love. He wonders about Dean's ability to connect with anyone besides his father and brother.
But mostly John's glad to see it. This life certainly doesn't lend itself to long-lasting relationships, so it's just as well if Dean doesn't form them.
Besides, the kid's only fifteen. It's not like he and Brandi with an "i" were a love story for the ages, anyway.
Dean is so excited John almost changes his mind. He doesn't want to, they need to get this done, but he has to reel Dean in, or this hunt is gonna be over before it ever gets started.
"Dean, you need to calm the fuck down right now," John says. His voice is barely over a whisper, but Dean recognizes the tone of command and swallows hard.
"Yes, sir," he says. He stills himself, takes a couple of deep breaths and shakes his head slowly. He looks over at John and smiles a little, looking embarrassed. "Sorry."
John nods. In the back seat, Sammy stirs in his sleep.
It's not like this is Dean's first hunt. John has no idea what has him all fired up for this one. For all John knows, Dean's figuring on using the nighttime excursion as an excuse for not passing a history test or something. He'd wonder what Dean thinks he's going to tell his teacher except that he doesn't really give a fuck. He just wants Dean to focus.
"Okay, now, look, the full moon's gonna make it as easy for him to see us as it is for us to see him," John says, pulling the car onto the shoulder of the road. "So remember what we talked about."
The highway is deserted, and John eases the car between two trees that have gone rogue from the rest of the forest and are situated close to the road. "Dean."
Dean nods. "Yes, sir. We circle around behind it, make sure we stay upwind until we get close."
John nods back, satisfied. Their eyes meet, and John sees his perfect soldier looking back at him, focused at last. Dean looks determined and alert, and the small twitch at the side of his mouth is the only thing giving away how excited he is.
Leaning back over the seat, John nudges Sam's shoulder. "Sammy. Hey, Sammy, wake up." Sam opens his eyes and blinks up at his father.
"We here?" He sits up, peering out of the car at the dark woods. He frowns, looking doubtful.
John knows Sam's not afraid, at least not for himself. He worries about Dean getting hurt, worries that John will lead them into danger, and Sam will be left alone. John would be insulted if he didn’t know how easy it is to fuck up out here.
"Lock the doors and stay down, out of sight," John instructs. It's not like Sammy doesn't know this part, but John has to say it anyway. "I don't care what you hear, your ass stays in this car. We won't be gone long. Show me your gun."
Sammy reaches under the seat and pulls out John's second best handgun, the Beretta he's had since Caleb gave it to him ten years ago when he first showed up at his place, desperate for any help he could get.
Sammy checks it without being asked, says, "Two silver bullets."
"Okay. That's for just in case. Don't shoot your brother and me when we come back to the car." Sam scowls but doesn't say I'm not an idiot, which are the words that are clearly on the tip of his tongue. Thereby proving that no, in this instance anyway, he's not an idiot.
Dean and John get out of the car, and John listens as Sam locks the doors. He shoulders his crossbow, and they set off into the woods.
John's been teaching the boys how to move quietly in the woods for what seems like most of their lives. He and Dean move almost silently through the trees. They stop every few minutes, looking for tracks, listening for any sound that they shouldn't be hearing.
This can't be a normal werewolf they're hunting. Its behavior is too erratic and unpredictable, and for some reason, it's chosen to hole up in the woods. But there's a full moon tonight and erratic or not, it's still a werewolf. It won't be able to resist the smell of humans.
And then John hears the snap of a twig and the movement of branches in the dark. They're deep enough into the woods that the moon can barely penetrate the clearing where they find the hairy-ass son of a bitch just standing there, waiting for them.
John nudges Dean with his elbow, and when Dean turns his head, John wordlessly offers him the crossbow. Dean's eyes widen in the dim light, and John nods impatiently. Dean takes the crossbow almost reverently, and John pulls his gun out of the back of his waistband. He motions toward himself and then in a circle to the left.
Dean nods, and John slowly, stealthily moves sideways, away from Dean. He sees Dean raise the crossbow and take careful aim, just the way John taught him.
The werewolf hears John moving, and his head turns sharply in John's direction. Now, Dean, John thinks. Now would be good.
He hears the noise of the bow, and a split second later he sees the werewolf drop on the spot. Dean starts forward, and John gestures at him to wait. John approaches the pile of dirty rags on the forest floor slowly, carefully, but there's no movement, no sign of life.
Kicking the creature, he turns it flat on its back and squats down beside it to have a closer look. The silver-tipped arrow is embedded in its chest, straight and true. John looks up at Dean and nods.
Dean comes forward, and John straightens up and pats him once on the shoulder. Dean looks at John for permission and then tugs the arrow out of the body. It's harder than it looks, John knows this from experience, and Dean frowns a little as he uses both hands to pull it free of the dead thing on the ground.
Together they douse the werewolf with lighter fluid. John lets Dean do the honors with the matches. He pretty much ends up setting the whole book on fire, but John doesn't say anything. It works, and it's the kid's first big kill. He lets him have his moment.
They stand and watch it burn, the firelight reflected in Dean's eyes like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Dean loves to burn things, and John has no idea what that says about his son's psyche. Fire is how Dean lost his mother, how he lost his home and his childhood, but John got him and Sammy out before he actually saw his mother burning on the ceiling. Maybe that makes it okay.
John makes sure there's not anything left of the werewolf before they kick dirt over the ashes. As they head back to the car, Dean practically bounces at John's side. John gets it, he's familiar with the exhilaration Dean's feeling. Putting his hand on Dean's shoulder again, he presses down gently.
"Cool it, kid," he says, not unkindly. "We're still in the middle of the woods, and there's no guarantee we're alone. Don't get cocky."
"Yes, sir," Dean replies, and he manages to dial it down at least a notch or two.
When they get back to the car, Sammy is watching for them. The relief on his face punches John in the gut, but he still growls, "I thought I told you to stay down," when Sam unlocks the car door for them.
"I heard you coming," Sam says, his voice wavering, and John doesn't have the heart to give him any more shit about it.
"Follow orders next time," is all he says. Dean tosses the crossbow in the trunk and then gets himself buckled into the passenger seat. John's not sure why he's bothering to ride shotgun, he's going to be twisted around in his seat the whole way back to the motel, telling his brother all about the hunt, every detail of it.
Dean's trying to play it cool, like the whole thing was no big deal, and Sammy is too, trying to act unimpressed while his big brother tells him all about the werewolf he shot through the heart with unerring accuracy.
But neither one of them can keep up the façade for long, and John has to hide a smile at both Dean's enthusiasm and Sammy's hero worship. Sam may get pissy about their day-to-day lives and how much he hates the drudgery of hunting – he actually used that word the other day, drudgery, as if he were talking about doing the laundry or something equally mundane – but he admires the hell out of Dean and has a hard time hiding it.
John's just glad the hunt went as smoothly as it did. Dean got some experience, nobody got hurt, and Sammy got a reminder that it's not all drudgery, at least not when seen through his brother's eyes.
John watches the road disappear under them, right hand on the wheel, as he drives them back to the motel. His left hand fidgets on his thigh, his thumb working his wedding band around and around his finger.
John doesn't think he can remember a hotter summer. Indiana isn't really his favorite place in the world to begin with. It's hot, it's flat, and both the summers and the winters are brutal in their own way.
He and the boys are holed up for the summer in what is essentially an old barn, complete with outhouse. At some point someone added a shower stall outside, and there's an actual water pump in the yard.
There's something about showering outside that the boys think is the coolest thing ever, so John's not too worried about the accommodations. It's a good enough place to spend the summer.
The boys are shooting in the field next to the barn. They set up targets on hay bales that look as if they were baled several decades ago. Dean threw them down out of the hayloft and dragged them into the field, where Sammy drew targets on old newspaper and fastened them to the bales with pins.
There's no phone service here, although they do have electricity. Sammy had been very persuasive when he'd seen where they were going to be living, and he'd finally convinced John to get a cell phone. They managed to find one that wasn't as big as John's head, and John has to admit that Sam had been right. It's weird to be able to call people from anywhere he happens to be standing, but it sure is convenient.
"What'll they think of next?" John says, and Dean grins wide while Sammy rolls his eyes.
John leans in the open doorway of the barn and watches the boys as he calls Ellen Harvelle. He likes to keep in touch, check in with her every month or so. He'd never say it out loud where she could hear him, because she'd kick his ass, but he needs to make sure things are going okay for her and Jo. She forgave him a long time ago for what happened to Bill, but that doesn't mean John forgave himself.
"Hey, Ellen, it's John Winchester."
"Hey, John. How's things, sweetie?" Ellen never asks him where he is. "Boys doing okay?"
"Yeah, they're fine. Listen, I thought I'd let you know I got a cell phone, give you the number."
There's silence, then a soft chuckle. "A cell phone, huh?
Why, John Winchester, look at you. You joined the twentieth century almost in time for it to end."
"Sammy talked me into it. Kid was right, it's a handy thing to have."
There's another pause, then, "Listen, John, are you looking for something to do? 'Cause I got a case here seems right up your alley, if you're interested. Over in Ohio, towards Cleveland."
"Where and what is it?" John asks, already calculating the distance between here and Cleveland in his head.
"Seems like a vengeful spirit of some sort," Ellen says.
"Hang on, let me get something to write with," John says, ducking back into the barn.
Ellen tells him about something that's killing librarians in Cleveland, and John nods, writing it all down. "Okay, got it. Thanks, Ellen, I'll go check it out."
He hesitates. Ellen wouldn't be giving him information about a hunt and teasing him about his cell phone unless everything was okay, so it's best not to ask. It gets her a little touchy when he does that.
Instead he says, "How's Jo?"
"Trouble. That girl's gonna be the death of me yet. Twelve years old and already playing poker with the assholes who come in here. Got quite a lot of money in her college fund already." Ellen snorts. "Not that she wants to go to college, the little shit."
John laughs. "Give her a hug for me, and tell her to stay out of trouble."
"Hell of a lot of good it'll do me," Ellen says.
Later, after the boys have come back from the field, both of them claiming victory - Dean by reason of his superior skill and Sammy by reason of Dean being a dirty cheater, John tells them he's heading out for a couple of days.
"Some kind of spirit in Ohio. Killing librarians in Cleveland. Probably won't take me more than a couple of days." He'd take them with him but he wants to keep their claim on the barn for a while longer. He likes living here.
That thought surprises him. John doesn't give much thought to where they're living most of the time. Some places are nicer than others, some places are a real pain in the ass to deal with. Motels, trailers, abandoned barns, rundown houses, hell, even a tent in the woods, it's all the same to him.
None of those places will ever be home, so what does it matter? As long as they have the car, they have a home base.
"Oh, no, dork - librarians. That's right up your alley," Dean snickers, ruffling Sam's hair as he moves behind him, shotgun cradled in his right arm.
Sam bats at Dean. "Quit it, asshole."
"Knock it off," John growls. "Get those guns cleaned. Take care of your weapons…"
"…and they'll take care of you," Sam mutters. His shotgun is already on the old table shoved against the wall of the barn.
Goddamn smartass kid. Goddamn hormones. John wonders when he'll ever be free of hormones. "Sam! You want to clean all the weapons, whether they need it or not?" He glares at Sam, and Sam glares right back.
When Sam drops his eyes, John won't admit it out loud, but he's relieved Sam's not going to make an issue out of this. It's not like there's an actual issue for them to butt heads about in the first place.
Sometimes John thinks Sam argues with him for the sheer sport of it.
"No, sir," Sam says, and John can see the effort it costs him to give in, even a little bit. He shakes his head. He's proud of the kid, but, damn. A little less adolescent angst around here would be a helluva good thing.
John spends the evening watching the boys. There's not much to do at night in an abandoned barn out in the middle of nowhere, but after some (a lot) of initial bitching about no TV from Dean, they manage. There's light, and there's a battery-powered radio, and Sammy can read the stash of books he drags around with him. Dean tinkers and fiddles with an old broken Walkman and any other electronic crap he can find, and after a full day of training in the hot sun, they all tend to hit the literal hay pretty early.
John leaves at sunrise the next morning, Dean up to see him off. He knows Dean wants to come, but he doesn't argue, just nods and says, "Yes, sir," when John tells him not this time.
"It's a ghost of some sort. I can handle it. I know you'd have my back, but I need you here to make sure Sammy's safe."
"I will," Dean says.
Three days later John's back home, swearing the whole way at the goddamn holiday traffic. He hadn't even thought about it being the Fourth of July when he hit the road.
The barn is still standing, his children are alive and in one piece, no one is missing an eye or anything, so John can't figure out what the air of suppressed excitement emanating from Sam is all about.
Dean has an awesome poker face with everyone except his father, and Sammy still lets his annoyance show when he's trying not to give anything away. It gets him in trouble every time. This isn't annoyance, though, and the way Sam is acting reminds John of when the boys were younger, when John wasn't the worst father in the history of the world by Sam's standards. When Sam looked up to him, and they actually had fun once in a while. When moving was an adventure, not a perceived punishment.
Except whatever it is definitely doesn't involve John in any way. Sam keeps shooting looks at Dean, his eyes sparkling with suppressed glee.
But John doesn't figure out what they've been up to until he sees the field furthest out away from the barn. It looks like someone set fire to it, and he can only imagine what might or might not still be standing if it hadn't obviously been raining for the past day.
No one offers any information, and John doesn't ask. He finds the opportunity to poke around the blackened field, though, and he finds the remnants of fireworks.
Dean's doing, no doubt.
He spends a long time debating with himself about what he should do, whether he should say anything, but in the end he lets it go.
He's enjoying the smiles on his sons' faces too much to do anything else. It never would have happened if he had been here, but he decides to give them this one.
Fall finds them still in Indiana, but on the move again. John leaves the boys at a school named after a President – Truman, he thinks. He's only going to be gone a couple of weeks, so he sets them up in a motel at the edge of town.
"Dean, I know you're eighteen," John says as they check the trunk, making sure everything is in its place before he takes off. "But there are still rules."
"I know, Dad," Dean says, and he sounds content, happy even. Dean's a good kid, doesn't make a big deal out of stuff, just does what he's expected to do. What he's told. Dean does his job.
Sammy, on the other hand, seems to be put out about the fact that it's only November, and they're on their third school already. And it's not like John doesn't care, except that, honestly, he really doesn't. What the hell does it matter where they go to school?
They go, they learn to read and write and how to use a library, and then they graduate, and the Winchesters keep killing every evil son of a bitch out there that needs killing. Eventually, they'll find the thing that killed Mary. John can't see beyond that. He hasn't seen the point for a very long time.
None of the rest of it matters, and he's tired of hearing Sam bitch about it. It'll do him and John both good to spend a couple of weeks in separate states.
And it'll do Dean good, too, not to be caught in the middle. John isn't stupid. He's well aware of Dean's self-appointed role as family peacemaker.
"If we're just going to be here a couple of weeks, and you're going somewhere without us, I don't understand why we couldn’t have stayed where we were," Sam says, watching from the motel room door as Dean helps John unload their crap from the car.
"Sammy," Dean begins, his tone placating.
"It's Sam," the sullen fourteen-year old in the doorway says. "My name is Sam. I'm not a little kid."
"If you don't want to be called by a little kid's name, then quit acting like a little kid," John says. He sees Dean's shoulders tense up out of the corner of his eye. Tossing his duffel in the trunk on top of the stash of holy water and the first aid kit, John turns to glare at his youngest. "Knock it off with the attitude, Sam," he says. For Dean's sake, he refrains from calling the little punk "Sammy."
Without waiting for a response, because in spite of what his son thinks, he knows how to pick his battles, John turns to Dean. "Two weeks. You have the cell phone I got you. Only call if there's real trouble."
Dean nods to all of this, looking serious. Sam just looks mutinous and bored at the same time. It's a real talent.
"Get your backpacks, I'll drop you off at school on my way out of town. And watch what you say to people, the both of you."
Sammy grunts what could be "goodbye" as he slips out of the car at the school and slams the door, looking small and vulnerable under the weight of a backpack that's almost bigger than he is.
As Dean slides out of the passenger seat, John says, "Look after Sammy, Dean."
Dean closes the door with a little more care than Sam and sticks his head back in the open window. "You know I will, Dad." He hesitates and then says, "Be careful," as he pulls his head out of the car.
John watches them in the rearview mirror as he drives away. Sammy hasn't had much of a growth spurt yet, although John still thinks he's going to end up being taller than his brother, and won't Dean just love that. They walk up the steps of the school together, elbows bumping companionably.
John feels the usual combination of pride and fear that grabs him every time he leaves them.
It's a seven-hour drive from Sioux City, Indiana to Buffalo, New York. The job Bobby Singer filled him in on is in Ohio, but there are a few things in John's storage unit in Buffalo that he needs in order to do it properly. He also has another curse box to add to the collection he has stored there. It contains a rabbit's foot that apparently bestows good luck on the owner until they inevitably lose it, at which point they die.
John shakes his head at the kind of shit people insist on making. The foot will be safe in the storage unit, tucked away where no one can get to it and inadvertently win a million dollars and the girl of their dreams before they end up falling under a bus.
John pulls into the parking lot of Castle Storage and digs in his duffel for the key that opens the unit belonging to "Edgar Cayce."
He disarms the booby traps he set the last time he was here and sets the curse box down on the shelf with the others. Singer does nice work, John has to give him credit.
The storage unit is an odd conglomeration of things John's picked up along the way; the curse boxes, old artifacts, a few ancient texts he really ought to take to Bobby, and leftover crap from a life lived raising two sons on the road.
He hasn't been here in a couple of years, and as he tosses his duffel on the dirty floor, he looks around.
There's dust everywhere, which is a pretty convenient method of being able to tell if the place has been disturbed. Nothing looks out of place, and the amount of dust on everything looks fairly even.
John rummages around in his bag and digs out the soccer trophy Sam won a couple of years ago. They'd actually been able to stay in one place long enough for him to play on a team, and he was so goddamned proud of this trophy.
It seemed to represent something very important to Sam. John guesses it's the fact that he fit in somewhere, even if it was only for a short time. That desire to fit in is something John lost a long time ago. He can't think of anything less important, but he knows his life is very different from Sam's, even if they live them side-by-side.
John stares at the trophy; cheap, shiny plastic with the words District Soccer Champions, 1995 engraved on a small plaque screwed onto the side. They'd fought about it, him and Sam. John thought Sam could find about a hundred better uses for his time, but Sam was damned determined.
Dean had finally convinced John that all the running involved in the game was good training for Sam. John thought about Mary, could picture them together, watching Sammy play soccer, watching Dean do whatever he would have wanted to do if John hadn't turned him into a soldier by the time he hit the third grade.
They'd have been a family. The pain of that loss is still as solid in his belly as it's ever been. It's not as sharp now; it's been dulled and honed into something unyielding, something to be reckoned with.
John dashes a hand across his eyes and puts the trophy on a shelf next to Dean's first sawed-off shotgun. He'd made it himself, when he was around twelve.
At this moment, John has no idea which object means more, the trophy or the shotgun. One is emblematic of what they lost, the other of what they are now.
John grabs a couple of dusty old books from his collection as payment to Bobby for making the curse box. He sets up another trap in the entrance, a simple gun and trip-wire.
With a last glance around, he leaves, locking the door behind him.
He takes care of the job in Ohio, a nasty son of a bitch who'd been fond of killing prostitutes when he was alive and just kept right on doing it after he died.
Dean sounds relieved when John calls to tell him he's on his way back. He'd think about letting them stay a while longer, but he needs to get to Minnesota to see Jim. The boys have been to the school in Blue Earth before, and they can go there again.
Both boys seem subdued when he picks them up at the high school in Sioux City. Sam's his usual sullen self, although he seems truly worried about leaving someone behind. John overhears him talking to Dean about a kid named Barry while they're packing up the motel room.
Dean's pretty quiet, too, and John wonders what his problem is. What the hell could have happened in two weeks' time?
But he doesn't ask, and it seems as if Dean is steeling himself for a conversation he thinks his father isn't going to want to have.
They're still a day's drive away from Jim's when Dean finally brings up what's been eating him.
"Hey, Dad, I was thinking." He fidgets in the passenger seat, fingers restless on his thighs, knee bouncing. John watches as Dean makes himself relax. He can practically see the breathing exercises as they happen.
"Yeah? About what?" John has no idea where this is going. It's Dean. It could be going anywhere.
"I think I'm done with high school. I could take a test, get a G.E.D. when we get to Pastor Jim's." He sends a quick glance at John to see how he's taking this. John keeps his face expressionless, waiting for whatever else Dean might have to say.
After a moment or two of silence, Dean says, "So, what do you think? I could be doing other things with my time. Helping you, stuff like that."
He's right, John thinks. Dean's never been the world's best student, although he's a hell of a good pupil when it comes to the things he wants to learn. When it comes to the things John can teach him.
"You sure that's what you want? You don't want to walk down an aisle, wearing a cap and gown, waving a diploma around?" John's voice is light, almost teasing. He thinks it's a fine idea, but he wants Dean to be sure.
"Fuck, no," Dean says vehemently, and again John wonders what the hell went down while they were in Indiana. But he knows he won't get anything out of Dean just by looking at the set of his mouth, and if Dean won't tell John, then it doesn't have anything to do with the supernatural.
It's not really important, then, and John lets it go.
"Fine, if that's what you want," John says. He hears Sam snort from the back seat.
"Shut up, Sam," Dean says, and there's something in his voice that makes Sam do just that.
They've been in Colorado Springs for about a month, while John spends hours either on the phone with Bobby, Caleb and Jim, or at various libraries, doing research. The boys have been spending the time training. All in all, it's not been a bad place to spend the spring.
Things have been quiet for several weeks on the supernatural activity front, and John finds himself longing for the peace and quiet of hunting a pack of rabid werewolves. Or maybe a pissed off banshee, or a bored and mischievous poltergeist.
Any one of those things would be easier than dealing with a fifteen-year old Sam.
Even Dean has been coming under fire, and he walks around with a look of long-suffering resignation on his face. It takes a lot for Sam to reach Dean's breaking point, but he's been pushing buttons John didn't even know Dean had these past few months.
Sam seems hell-bent on making fifteen harder than it needs to be, which is really saying something, because as John remembers it, fifteen sucks.
Go to hell is in every glare Sam levels at John, except for when it's replaced by fuck you and the horse you rode in on.
John's had just about enough.
"Sam, goddammit, I’m not going to tell you again. I don't give a fuck what you did in gym class today, get your ass out there and run like I told you to. Three miles," he says through gritted teeth, then adds at Sam's glare, "Unless you'd like to go for five."
"Come on, Sammy, let's go," Dean says, using that coaxing tone of voice that makes John want to clock them both. It shouldn't be this hard to get Sam to go for a simple run. It shouldn't involve so much drama.
"Fuck off, Dean," Sam spits. "And my name is Sam."
John stands up, the newspapers he's been frantically searching for any hint of a case forgotten on the couch.
"Your name's gonna be mud if you don't move it," he threatens, and silently apologizes to his own father for pulling this same kind of crap when he was fifteen.
"Dad, we're going," Dean says, tugging on his brother's arm to get him moving.
If looks could kill, all three of them would be dead in the resultant explosion, John thinks, as he returns Sam's glare.
In the end, the boys do their run, Dean naturally accompanying Sam on the extra mile John tacked on for attitude. By the time Sam's done with adolescence, he's going to be able to run a marathon with no problem.
Taking advantage of the blessed silence and lack of teenage hormones polluting the apartment they've been living in for way too long, he calls Bobby to see if he knows of a case anywhere.
He and Sam need a break from each other. He's sure Dean would appreciate a temporary cessation of hostilities, too.
"There's been a couple'a suspicious deaths in Lincoln, Nebraska," Bobby tells him. John can almost hear him shrug over the phone. "Could be a wendigo, maybe a pissed off ghost." He sounds pretty doubtful that's it anything supernatural, but John doesn't care. He's desperate.
"I'll take it."
When the boys come in, sweaty and out of breath, Sam's laughing at whatever Dean's saying. Judging by the expression on Dean's face, it has to do with a girl. John's surprised that Sammy's laughing. He's usually a real prude when it comes to girls, which of course only makes Dean talk about them more.
John can only hope that at least half of the shit Dean slings on the subject isn't true.
He tells them he'll be leaving in the morning. The set of Sam's shoulders gives away his relief and John thinks, Oh, kiddo, you have no idea.
Dean wants to know all about where he's going, what he's hunting, and John has to embellish some details to make it sound like it's anything even interesting, let alone supernatural.
They spend the evening in what passes for harmony these days. John even orders pizza in some weird attempt to recreate the days when they were a real team, the days before Sam decided John was the biggest asshole on the planet.
If the weight he feels lifting off his shoulders as he drives away the next morning comes with a side of guilt, well, that's the way it goes.
Turns out there actually is a case in Nebraska. A wraith has been terrorizing the good people of a small neighborhood on the outskirts of North Platte, freaking them completely out and then feeding off of them.
John decides he could use some help, so he calls Daniel Elkins. Manning isn't that far away from North Platte and Daniel shows up the next day.
It takes them almost a week to find it and kill it, and if Daniel hadn't been there to pull his ass out of the fire, John would probably be dead. It wouldn't be the first time Daniel's saved John's bacon.
"So," John says over a bottle of Jack in his motel room after Daniel's shoved John's shoulder back into place. "Any word on the Colt?"
John's heard stories of a gun that can kill anything, even demons, and those same stories say Daniel Elkins knows all about it. They say Samuel Colt made this gun, and John wants it.
Daniel isn't any more forthcoming on the subject than he ever is, but John ends up learning some new things about vampire lore, so he counts it as a win.
In the morning, he slaps Elkins on the shoulder and drives back to Colorado.
Where he finds an absolutely frantic Dean.
"Dad, oh, shit, Dad," is all he manages when he sees John. John doesn't think he's ever seen Dean this terrified, not even when he was fourteen and a rawhead had him cornered, right before John killed it.
He's almost in shock, pale and speechless.
"What's wrong?" John growls, grabbing Dean's shoulders and shaking him roughly. "Dean! Where's Sam?"
Dean just stares at him wide-eyed, and John has to swallow down bile as his stomach lurches in fear.
"What happened? What did you do?" He's in Dean's face, hands fisted in the front of Dean's shirt, needing answers right fucking now.
"He's gone," Dean says hoarsely, and John has no goddamn idea what he means by that.
"What the hell do you mean, he's gone?" He shakes Dean again and then slams him into the wall. "Answer me, goddamn it! What do you mean?"
Dean's face is white as a sheet, and somewhere under his fear and anger John knows he should be concerned about his eldest son, but in the moment all he knows is that something has happened to Sam, and that's all he's can think about.
"He left. He ran away," Dean whispers, swallowing hard.
John is stunned into silence. Of all the terrible things he was imagining, this is so far from what he expected that he's having trouble processing it.
"He was pissed," Dean continues when John doesn't say anything. "He left me a note. A fucking note." And beneath the fear, John hears the bitter anger.
John slowly lets go of Dean's shirt, releases his son from his grip, but he doesn't take his eyes off Dean's face. "When did he leave? Where did you look for him? Why aren't you out looking for him right the fuck now?"
"Five days ago. I've been looking everywhere, Dad, but I can't find him." The desperation in Dean's voice grates.
John knows he should offer some comfort to Dean, assure him it's not his fault that his hardheaded brother decided to up the already high level of family drama. He should reassure Dean that they'll find Sammy, that they'll bring him home safe and sound. Dean doesn’t even have a car, and John wonders how the hell he's been searching for Sam.
But he can't. He can barely hear what Dean's saying through the white noise of rage roaring in his head. Sammy is gone, in God only knows what kind of danger, and it happened on Dean's watch.
"One job," John says, his voice deadly. "You have one job, and you can't manage to do it. Keep your brother safe, Dean, it's all I ask from you. How fucking stupid are you that you can't even do that one simple thing?"
Something is screaming in John's head, telling him to shut the fuck up right now. He knows he's going to regret this, but he can't stop, can't take it back.
Dean looks like John hit him, flinching back as if he'd been slapped. "I'm sorry," he chokes out, closing his eyes. He slides down the wall, landing on his ass, legs sprawled out in front of him.
John leaves him there, walks away and just leaves him sitting there on the kitchen floor.
It doesn't take John long to figure out that Sam probably went south. If he hitchhiked along the major highways, he could easily have gone to Flagstaff. Sam was always trying to get John to stop at the Grand Canyon whenever they were in Arizona, as if they had time to sightsee like they were tourists. As if they were on vacation like normal people.
He folds his map and goes back to the kitchen, but Dean's not there. John's fists clench, and he stands in the middle of the kitchen and yells his son's name.
"Dean! Where the fuck are you? Goddammit, answer me!"
Dean appears in the doorway, silent and pale.
"Pack your shit. We're heading out," John says, not looking at his son.
Dean slips away without a word, and ten minutes later both his and Sam's stuff is in the car. John looks around the apartment one last time to make sure they aren't leaving anything behind. It's too bad, he would like to have stayed here longer.
It takes ten hours to drive from Colorado Springs to Flagstaff. They stop once for gas and once to eat.
Neither one of them says a word the whole way.
It's another three days before they find Sam. John knows exactly the kind of places Sam would stay in, and sure enough, they finally find him squatting in an abandoned trailer, surrounded by empty pizza boxes and a Golden Retriever.
Sam's always wanted a dog. John had never considered saying yes.
John doesn't have any idea what to do with Sam now that he's found him. Sam seems happy enough to see them, says he's fine, hasn't run into any problems. He doesn't seem to be sorry at all.
He seems more upset at the prospect of leaving the damn dog than he does at the situation he finds himself in, which is that he ran away from his brother, and his father wants to strangle him.
John knows he and Sam both have a lot of work to do to make things up to Dean. What Sam did is almost unforgiveable, although all Dean did when he saw Sam was to grab him into a hug so tight Sam's face turned red, and then refuse to speak to him for the next two days.
John wasn't wrong in the things he said to Dean, but he wasn't right, either. If Sam was determined to go, there probably wasn't much Dean could have done to stop him.
Sam hadn’t taken a lot with him when he left, and John still has no idea what the hell he was thinking, but it doesn't take long to get his stuff in the car.
Sam's already in the back seat, and Dean reaches for the passenger side door. John hesitates, then says, "I'm gonna catch some z's. You want to drive for awhile?"
Dean looks at him for a long moment and then nods. John tosses him the keys as they pass each other going around the car.
It’s the best he can do, and it's going to have to be good enough for now.
"I don't know, Sammy. I'm not sure it's possible for you to be any more of a geek." Dean reaches out as he passes Sam, sitting at the kitchen table with what looks to be about twenty books spread out in front of him, and scatters the stack of papers he's been hunched over for the past hour.
"Quit it, asshole," Sam snarls, slapping at Dean and missing as Dean dances out of the way. "You're such a jerk, Dean."
John doesn't look up from his journal, just keeps making notes on the Devil's Gate in New Jersey he and Travis closed two days ago.
He'd been surprised when he got back to the boys and found that they thought he'd gone missing.
"Five days, Dad," Dean says. "It was five days after you said you'd be back, and you didn't call, or answer your phone." He doesn't sound accusing, he just sounds relieved.
John shrugs. "Shit happens, Dean, you know that." He studies Dean's face, sees the fear Dean is trying unsuccessfully to hide. "I should have called. I will next time."
Sam had just snorted.
"How do you ever expect to get laid, Sammy, with your nose in a book all the time?" Dean says. John recognizes Dean's I'm bored so I might as well annoy Sam voice.
"Maybe I don't want to sleep with every girl I meet, like you do, Dean, did you ever think of that? Maybe I'm not a man-whore." Sam sounds pretty sure of himself, but John can hear the mortification under the bravado. Sam stacks his papers neatly in front of him, hitting the edge of them on the table about a dozen times. It's a nervous tell of his. John's been watching him do it for years.
Dean grabs a beer out of the refrigerator. "Then you’re an even bigger freak than I thought," Dean says, grinning at his brother, letting the "man-whore" remark slide right off. The tips of Sam's ears are red, and that's John's cue to step in.
He slaps his journal down on the coffee table loud enough to make both boys jump.
"Dean, that's enough. Stop being an asshole. Did you clean the weapons like I told you to?" He uses his best drill sergeant voice, which never fails to gets Dean's immediate attention. Some days John swears Dean got stuck at age twelve, developmentally.
"Yes sir," Dean answers. John sees Sam smirk out of the corner of his eye and sends him a glare. Sam subsides back into his never-ending homework vortex, looking sullen. John doesn't really blame him, though. Dean can try the patience of a saint some days, and god knows neither John nor Sam is very saint-like.
"Okay, Travis is coming over tonight before he heads out. I want you boys on your best behavior." Seriously, he's been saying the same things to them for over fifteen years. Sometimes he feels like a broken record.
"Yes sir," Dean says again. Sam doesn't answer, but his nose is buried in his math book, so John lets it go.
"So, Sam, you're a Mathelete," Travis says a few hours and as many beers later.
Dean grins, and Sam turns red, looking as if he wishes the couch would swallow him whole, like he wants to just disappear into its depths and never come back out.
"Your dad mentioned it," Travis says, looking over at John, amusement on his face.
Sam and Dean both stare at Travis, then at John, then back at Travis again. It irritates the hell out of John. They act like he's never uttered a word of praise about either of them to another person in their lives.
"Whatever," he says gruffly. "I'm heading out again tomorrow." He puts up a hand to stall Dean's inevitable protest and request to go along. "I know, but I want you here with Sammy." He looks his son in the eye. "There'll be plenty of hunts, Dean. The world isn't going to run out of monsters."
John sees a tiny flicker of rebellion in Dean's eyes, and then he nods curtly at his father. "Yes, sir."
"Good. I'm heading to Bobby's, won't be gone more than a week." He hauls himself up off the chair and gets two more beers from the fridge. He pauses, shrugs, and gets a third one out for Dean. Won't hurt to remind the kid that when he behaves like an adult, he gets treated like one.
He doesn't mention that there's no hunt. Bobby Singer called a while back and said he's got some information John needs to know, and he refused to talk about it over the phone. This is the first chance John's had to go see him without the boys.
John hopes it's about the thing that killed Mary.
He gets a lot more than he bargained for.
"John, the demon that killed Mary. It's more powerful than your ordinary, garden-variety demon. I don't know what it wants, but it's got a plan." Bobby throws back a mouthful of whiskey, and it doesn't escape John's notice that he's not looking at him. "There's something else you should know."
John waits, his own glass held tightly in his fist.
"It's got something to do with Sam."
Fear grips John, tightens his throat, makes his tongue thick. His worst fear is being confirmed.
"I don't know what the demon wants, but the son of a bitch's got yellow eyes. Yellow, not black, not red. I ain't never seen that before, and I don't know of any other demon that's got that color eyes."
John stares at him blankly for a moment, then snaps, "I don't give a fuck what color his goddamned eyes are! What the hell does it have to do with Sam?"
"Hey, don't yell at me. I'm don’t make this stuff up for my own amusement, you know. But you'd better get on to Elkins again, see if he's any closer to finding that damn Colt." Bobby's watching him now, looking concerned.
"You know that son of a bitch won't tell me," John growls. "But you didn't answer my question, Singer." John makes his voice as menacing as he can. "What about Sam?"
Bobby looks down at the piles of notes and books and dusty old journals spread out on his desk. He puts his glass down, folds his hands, and looks straight at John.
"That yellow-eyed son of a bitch mighta done something to him that night. Something that'll maybe give him…" He trails off, looks down at his desk again. "Might be something dark. Powers." There's an even longer pause, as if Bobby is steeling himself. Then, "Has he ever manifested –"
And John's heard just about enough. The roaring in his ears keeps him from hearing the rest of Bobby's question, which is probably the only reason Bobby is still alive right now.
He won't apologize for that.
He's not even aware of getting to his feet, of the weight of his knife in his hand, but then Bobby knocks some sense back into him with the barrel of his shotgun right to the middle of John's chest.
"I just thought you should know what I found. If you're gonna shoot the messenger, then get the hell out of my house." John's heard that voice from Bobby before, but it's never been directed at him.
He knows better than to ignore it.
"If you say a word, tell a soul –" John doesn't even know how to finish that sentence. He gathers up his things, keeping one eye on the business end of Bobby's shotgun, and makes it out the front door, backing towards the Impala.
"You can go straight to hell if you think I'd tell anyone anything about this, Winchester. Now get the hell offa my property and don't come back, you hear me?"
Goddamn son of a bitch, John thinks as he peels out of Bobby's salvage yard, gravel flying from under the Impala's wheels. Bobby's always been a friend, and John is grateful for the information, but there was no way he was going to sit there and listen to the implications of what Bobby had to say.
He's fucking terrified, and he has no idea what the hell to do now.
John shakes his head ruefully as he barrels down the highway, back to his boys. Chalk another one up, add Bobby Singer to the list of hunters he's had a falling out with.
It's getting to be a long damn list, and he has a feeling it's only going to get longer before this is over. And that's fine. Word travels among hunters, and if anyone got even a whiff of there being something strange about one of John Winchester's boys, there'd be hell to pay.
He won't let this touch Sammy.
"What do you think, Dad?" Sam's voice cracks on the last word and he scowls. Dean shifts restlessly against Sam, and his breath catches on a groan. As John watches in the rearview mirror, Sam's scowl disappears, replaced by a look of alarm. "Hospital?"
John shakes his head. As far as he can tell, Dean has a dislocated shoulder and probably a mild concussion. There's a lot of blood, but scalp wounds always bleed enough that they seem worse than they really are.
It's unfortunate that most of that blood is all over Sam. Sam's stoic as hell when he's the one who's injured, but when it comes to Dean or John getting hurt, Sam has a tendency to freak out.
"Don't look at the damn blood, Sam," John says sharply. "It's a head wound, it's gonna bleed." He makes an effort to soften his voice. "Just keep his shoulder and arm from moving around too much."
Just as he says that, the Impala hits a bump and Dean lets out another groan, something he'd never do over something as minor as a dislocated shoulder if he didn't have a head injury, too. John tightens his hands on the wheel and drives, ignoring the reproachful look Sam sends him from the back seat.
Reaching the trailer they're calling home this month, John pulls the Impala to a stop. Together he and Sam manhandle Dean as gently as they can out of the car and up the two steps into the trailer. Sam keeps Dean's arm immobilized at his side, and John makes sure Dean stays upright.
"Put him here, on the couch," John says, and they lower Dean into a sitting position. He immediately starts to tip over to the side. "Dammit, Sam, hold him."
Sam tightens his lips, but doesn't say anything. John goes to the back bedroom and comes out with the duffel bag that serves as their first aid kit.
"Okay, first I'm going to put his shoulder back," he says to Sam. No point in saying it to Dean, who's more out of it than John's really comfortable with. "Keep him still."
This should get Dean's attention and wake him up. Then John can better evaluate his head wound.
With an ease born of too much practice, John positions Dean against his chest, Sam on his other side, and gives a sharp shove, pushing Dean's dislocated shoulder back where it belongs.
Dean gives a yelp, sounding more surprised than anything, and he stares at his father indignantly, if a bit fuzzily. Even though there's nothing funny about the situation, John gives him a grim smile.
"You with me, son?" John asks. "Dean, hey, you hear me?" He digs around in the duffel and finds a black cotton sling that's seen a hell of a lot of wear over the years. They've made good use of it since they first got it when…John can't really remember who was the first of them to dislocate a shoulder, but suffice it to say, the sling's been used a lot.
"Don't needa damn sling," Dean says woozily. "Slings're for wusses. Slings're for Sammy," and he giggles as he tilts to the side. If John didn't know any better, he'd have sworn Dean was as high as a kite.
But John hasn't given him any pain pills at all, not with a concussion. So it must be the hit on the head that's making Dean revert to age twelve. John sighs.
"Sam, help me get him undressed. We're going to have to take shifts, keep him awake and check his pupils every hour." John shuts up. Sam knows the drill as well as John does.
"Yes, sir," Sam says. Sam has two modes whenever Dean is hurt. He either follows every order without question, or he lashes out and fights John every step of the way. It all depends on if he blames John for the injury or not.
Apparently the sins of the ghost of a child molester who was killing his former victims aren't going to be laid at John's door by his youngest son.
How nice. It makes John feel all warm and fuzzy inside, really.
Working together, which they do very well when they allow themselves to, John and Sam strip Dean down to his t-shirt and boxers and arrange the sling to keep his arm and shoulder nicely tucked into place. They get him settled on the twin bed in the small bedroom where Sam's been sleeping, pillows stuffed behind him.
"I'll take the first shift," John says, and Sam nods. He heads into the living room to stretch out on the couch Dean's been using as a bed since they moved in here. It's nice to take a break from motels, but John has to admit the trailer is pretty cramped with the three of them.
"Wake me up when you need me," Sam says, with a last worried look at his brother. John nods.
It's a long night. John and Sam trade places every few hours, making sure Dean's okay. Dean gets more annoyed every time they wake him up to shine a flashlight in his eyes and ask him what year it is, which John takes as a good sign.
"I don't give a fuck who the President of the goddamn United States is," John hears him bellow at Sam. "And why're you asking me anyway, Sam? I thought you were so fucking smart, don't you know?"
John looks at his watch. It's five in the morning, and the sky has the almost imperceptible aura of coming dawn when he pulls back the curtains.
Sam's voice is tired and frustrated when he answers Dean, although John can't make out the words. He hauls himself up off the couch and makes his way into the back bedroom.
The sight that greets him is enough to make him smile for the first time in over twelve hours.
Dean's pushed himself into a sitting position, cradling his arm across his chest. There's a pout on his face that makes him look five years old.
Sam looks equally stubborn when he says, "Okay, I'll give you a hint." He affects an absurdly bad Southern accent when he says, head tilted to the side, "Ah did not have sex with that woman."
Dean's eyes light up, and he points a triumphant finger at Sam. "Bill Clinton!" The sudden movement seems to make his head hurt, because he frowns and rubs at his right temple. "Ow."
Sam smiles at him and says, "Okay, now what year did the first Star Wars movie come out?"
Dean frowns again. "Sam, you fucker, you're making my head hurt."
John walks in the room, and both boys turn to look at him. They frown in unison. "Hey, what did I do?" he asks.
"My head hurts and Sam won't let me sleep it off," Dean complains. He's still pale, but nothing like he was last night. He has dark circles under his eyes, which are bloodshot and exhausted looking. John figures he can conservatively lay at least half the blame for his appearance on lack of sleep rather than brain damage.
"You've got a hard head, son," he says. "I think we'll count this one as a win." John turns to Sam. "Sam, go get your brother some orange juice and make him some toast."
Sam's frown doesn't lighten up as he turns to leave the room, and John barely refrains from rolling his eyes. Now that the danger's past, apparently he and Sam are assuming their usual adversarial roles.
John approaches the bed. "You need to take a leak?" he asks, and Dean looks like he's giving it some thought. Finally he nods and then winces.
"Okay, let's go," John says, and he helps Dean out of bed. He stands there weaving like a drunk on a bender, and John grabs his uninjured arm so he doesn't face-plant right there in the bedroom.
"So, do you remember what happened?" John asks as he steers Dean toward the bathroom.
Dean frowns again, and John wants to tell him to stop, he'll make his headache worse, but he doesn't. He just waits Dean out.
"There was a spirit," Dean starts as John delivers him to the bathroom door. "It was pretty pissed off."
"Uh, huh," John says. That could be any one of a hundred cases. He needs a few more details to determine just how scrambled Dean's brains are, but he gives him a gentle push toward the toilet.
"Right," Dean says with a grin. They've all peed in much more dire circumstances than one-handed in a real bathroom, so Dean doesn't need any assistance until he's done, when he wants help getting toothpaste on his toothbrush after he declares his mouth tastes like warmed-over shit.
Sam's back in the bedroom with buttered toast, a glass of orange juice, and the same frown. It lifts though, when he sees Dean up and walking.
"A mere flesh wound, Sammy," Dean says as he settles back on the bed. Sam grins at him.
John hates to bring Sam's frown back, but he needs to know just how clear Dean's head is this morning.
"So, Dean, tell me what happened last night," he says, tone sharp like it always is when he's asking for a report.
Dean straightens, and to John's surprise, Sam doesn't scowl at him. He looks at Dean with the same intensity John feels. They both wait for Dean to speak.
"There was a pissed off ghost," Dean says again. He's speaking slowly, like he's trying to remember the details. "And he was killing people he'd hurt when he was alive. Dad, you and Sam were digging up the grave, and I was just waiting with the lighter fluid and the matches. I had the shotgun, loaded with rounds of salt." He's gaining confidence as he remembers, and then he looks up at John. "Fucker caught me off-guard," he says, the tips of his ears turning pink.
John nods. "You weren't paying attention," he says, but it's a mild reproof, nothing compared to what he would have had to say if Dean wasn't suffering from a concussion. They'll discuss it in depth when Dean doesn't feel like his head is going to explode.
It's not mild enough for Sammy, however. "We should have been watching out for him, too," he says, glaring at John.
"Sam," Dean starts.
"We were doing our jobs, Sam," John snaps. "And I expected Dean to be doing his."
"Dad's right," Dean says, his eyes pleading with Sam to drop it. Sam opens his mouth to argue, but John beats him to it.
"Enough, Sam. Your brother needs some pain pills and some sleep." He nods at the untouched toast on the nightstand. "Eat that and I think we can even break out the Vicodin. I'd say your head's clear enough."
John turns to look at his toughest critic. "Sam? Vicodin?"
Sam looks guilty, like he forgot Dean probably has the headache from hell and that none of them got much sleep last night. He nods and turns on his heel to go in search of the pain pills.
John moves over to the bed and rests his hand on Dean's cheek. He tilts his head to the side and looks at the small cut behind his ear. Running his hand gently over the top of Dean's head, he says, "Didn't even need stitches. Like I said, you got a hard head, kiddo."
Dean smiles tiredly back at him and takes a bite of toast.
"Excuse me, what did you just say to me?"
"I said, I don't give a fuck what you want, I'm going!"
John doesn't think he's ever been more terrified in his life, except for the night Mary died. That fear fuels his anger, making it burn red behind his eyes.
He and Sam are toe-to-toe, almost nose-to-nose, and it's all John can do to keep his hands off his son.
He wants to grab those broad shoulders, shake some sense into Sam, shake him until he takes it back.
"You're not going! There's no fucking way I’m letting you go to college! To Stanford." Somewhere in the dim recesses of John's mind, he recognizes how ridiculous it is to make Stanford sound like the deepest pits of Hell. In another life, he and Mary would have been proud to have a son who scored a full ride to Stanford.
But this isn't another life. This is a life where a yellow-eyed demon has designs on his son, and John will be damned if he's going to let him out of his sight for four days, let alone four fucking years. Sam's safety matters more than Sam's need to get away.
John does grab Sam then, fists the front of his shirt and shakes him. "You are not leaving this family!" he shouts. "That is not happening, do you understand me?"
John's aware of Dean hovering on the periphery of the argument, and he shoves Sam away, turning on Dean in a fury.
"How the hell did this happen? What the fuck were you thinking, letting him –"
He doesn't get any farther because Sam's suddenly between them, pushing John away from Dean. John gets only a glimpse of Dean's stricken expression before Sam's back in his face, so angry spittle flies when he yells at his father.
"Don't you dare blame him for this. Don't you fucking dare." There's enough guilt in the depths of Sam's eyes, blazing with fury, that John immediately understands that Dean didn't know anything about this. This is as much of a shock to Dean as it is to John. Something twists in his chest. How could Sam do this to Dean, of all people.
"You secretive bastard," John snarls, shoving Sam again. "You're a selfish prick."
"Oh, what, like if I'd told you, you'd have helped me fill out the financial aid paperwork?" Sam sneers, shoving John right back.
John looks around at Dean again, realizing he's been subconsciously waiting for him to intervene the way he usually does when John and Sam fight.
Sam's still yelling. "Secretive, Dad? Who the hell do you think I learned that from, huh, you and your need to know bullshit?" John takes a step forward, making himself as intimidating as he knows how.
"You're not going. You're not leaving this family. If you walk out that door," he says, stabbing a finger in Sam's face, "don't bother coming back."
Somewhere lurking in the last vestiges of John's common sense, he knows that was a damned stupid thing to say. Nothing sets Sam's back up like an ultimatum. John's learned that from bitter experience.
But he can't keep the words from spilling out, and he can't force them back in once he's said them.
Sam looks at him, stunned into momentary silence. John catches a glimpse of his sweet little boy, his Sammy, and then it's gone, replaced by the ugly, stubborn rage of this man-child who thinks he's ready to go out into the world by himself.
"Fine," Sam says. "If that's the way you want it." And he walks away from his father, walks into the back of the house, to the bedroom he shares with Dean, and slams the door.
John wants to go after Sam, tell him no, of course that's not the way he wants it, but his anger holds him back.
He's still shaking with fear and rage when he pushes open the front door to find Dean standing on the sagging porch, elbows planted on the rough wooden railing. He turns his head, but when he sees that it's John who's come after him, he turns back without a word, looking out over the neglected yard.
The sun is just dipping below the horizon, and it's too dark to see Dean's face. John joins him at the railing, tilting his head up to watch the stars appear, one by one.
"When's he leaving?" Dean asks, his voice dull.
John feels a flash of irritation that Dean's given up so easily.
"He's not." It's a statement and a promise.
Dean doesn't answer him.
John and Sam don't exchange more than a handful of words over the next week. He has no idea what Sam has been saying to Dean, but Dean's been walking around looking sick and somber and like somebody fucking died, and John is goddamn tired of it.
And then on Saturday morning the boys disappear in the Impala without a word to John. He watches until the dust she kicks up settles before he goes back inside and pours himself a cup of coffee.
He knows he blew it. John knows there had to have been a way to keep Sam with them, but turns out it was a task far beyond what he's capable of.
Mary would have known what to do. Mary could have made him stay.
When Dean comes back alone a few hours later, his eyes are red-rimmed, and his face is pale.
They don't talk about it.
Turns out John and Dean make a hell of a team. Not that John's surprised by this. He trusts everything Dean knows because John's the one who taught him.
Dean's his perfect soldier, the one who respects the chain of command, who knows the importance of following orders and having your partner's back.
But Dean's not blindly obedient, not by any stretch of the imagination. He has his own thoughts and ideas, and John values his input. Dean is also perfectly capable of communicating those thoughts and ideas without getting in John's face, or arguing over every detail, or questioning every word that comes out of John's mouth.
They work together like a well-oiled machine. It's smooth and easy, and John likes it.
He's been keeping track of Sam, of course. Whenever they're in California he manages to swing by Stanford and check up on him. Sam never notices him, probably wouldn't think to look for him. Sam probably assumes John doesn't want to see him again, and that hurts, but John knows full well whose fault that is.
He'll make it up to Sam one day. John's got some leads on the yellow-eyed demon, got a few ideas of his own about what's going on. He's learned a lot over the years, learned a lot from Bobby Singer especially, about tracking demonic activity.
He'll figure it out, and then Sam can have his education and that normal life he wants so badly. Maybe Dean can have a family of his own some day, if that's what he wants.
John will take care of this first, and then he'll make it up to his boys.
Meanwhile, they've been in Athens, Ohio for a couple of weeks, and Dean's acting weird. The only word John can think of to describe it is cheerful. He hasn't seen much of that from Dean since Sam left.
John's decided it must be a girl. He's even seen her once or twice. She's beautiful, John thinks, dark skin, long dark hair. She seems classy, not Dean's usual type. John thinks her name is Cassie.
Athens is a college town, and John's not surprised to see Dean hook up. There's a lot to choose from and Dean's never been hesitant about taking advantage of any opportunity, however fleeting. He never lets it distract him from the job, and that's all John really cares about.
The job is over, though, and it's time to head out. He's been on the phone with Ellen, and there's something in Kentucky she wants them to check out. He and Dean are close enough to drive there in a day if they get on the road soon enough.
"What?" Dean looks at John as if the idea of them moving on had never occurred to him.
"I want to get an early start in the morning," John says again, impatiently. It's not like Dean to make him repeat himself. They could even leave now, but Ellen said it wasn't urgent enough to drive all night. Just a routine haunting, she said.
"How do you even know there's something in Kentucky?"
"I got a phone call," John tells him. He doesn't mention Ellen by name. The boys have never met her, or most of the dozens of other hunters out on the circuit. Not everyone who hangs out at the Roadhouse is a friend.
Dean nods slowly. "Okay. I'm gonna head out. I'll be back in time to load up in the morning."
John lets him go, doesn't argue. He has no problem with Dean having a last night with his girl. He spends the evening packing, gathering up the debris of two weeks in a motel room.
He's startled awake at midnight by the sound of Dean coming in. It's a hell of a lot earlier than John expected to see him.
"Dean?" he says, on the alert for problems, although he can't imagine what they could be.
"It's fine," Dean says. His voice says things are far from fine, though. There's something there, hurt, maybe anger, discernible even in those two words.
John listens to him move around the room, pulling off his jacket, hears his boots hit the floor with two quick thumps in succession. John's lived in close quarters with Dean for a very long time, and he can tell when he's upset. His movements sound agitated, and he's doing a lot of sighing and cursing under his breath.
It takes Dean some tossing and turning and pillow-punching to fall asleep. John's just about to tell him to knock it the hell off when he finally settles and begins snoring softly.
John expects a lot of bitching and moaning the next morning, but Dean's quiet while they load up the car. He's quiet during breakfast and picks at his food while downing three cups of coffee.
He hides behind a pair of sunglasses and pretends to sleep while they make their way across Ohio and down into Kentucky.
The job turns out to be a water wraith, and that's different enough from their usual cases that John's surprised at Dean's lack of enthusiasm.
He never does spill about whatever or whoever it was in Athens that got him so bent out of shape, but it's not as if he and John are the sharing and caring type, at least not with words.
John gives him space, doesn't call him on his moods, and eventually, Dean's back in the same quiet, subdued place he's been in since Sam left.
After a while, John forgets all about it.
John can't remember the last time he and Dean stayed in one place for more than a week. Right now they're somewhere in Pennsylvania, dealing with a poltergeist that's been kicking their asses.
"Fucking poltergeists," Dean grumbles as he ties off the last bag of Angelica root, graveyard dirt, and the rest of the pile of crap that goes into poltergeist-repelling bags.
He's right, this one's been a little rougher to deal with than most, but John's more than confident that after tonight they'll have rid Jerry Panowski's home of its unwelcome visitor.
He and Dean shoo Jerry's family out of the house, and John tells him he'll call when it's over.
The poltergeist does everything in its power to prevent John and Dean from placing the bags where they need to, but in the end, it's driven out of the house, screaming in fury.
"Jesus Christ," Dean pants, looking up at John from the floor behind the couch, where the poltergeist last tossed him.
John nods and extends a hand to Dean, hauling him up and checking for injuries. They're both a little banged up, but it's nothing more than some minor cuts and bruises, really.
"Thank God," Jerry says when John calls him. While they wait for Jerry and his family to come back home, John and Dean straighten the house up a bit, righting the toppled bookcase, shoving the furniture back into place.
"Thank you so much," Jerry says gratefully, shaking John's hand and still looking a little wide-eyed at the whole affair. He glances at John curiously, waving his hand, including Dean in the gesture. "So, you and your son do this sort of thing all the time? Just the two of you?"
Dean looks down at the floor, and John clears his throat. "Yeah. Dean's brother used to help us out, but he's away at college right now."
Dean looks up at John, surprised. John smiles at him.
"Yeah, Sam's at Stanford," Dean says, allowing a note of pride in his voice.
"Wow," Jerry says, looking impressed.
"Sammy's pretty damned smart," John says. Dean cocks an eyebrow at him and smiles back.
'Well, thanks, the both of you, seriously. I've got your number if I ever need your help again," Jerry says. "Which I pray I never do, no offense." He laughs nervously.
"None taken," John says. He nods at Dean. "Ready, Dean?"
They shake hands all around, and John and Dean head out.
John's been thinking lately that he and Dean could use two vehicles, but it's the letter he finds in the PO box in Ohio that makes the decision for him.
I hope this letter finds you well. I know we agreed that Adam would be better off if you two didn't meet, given what you do, how dangerous it is – which I know firsthand – and how impossible it is for you to stay in one place for very long.
But Adam is twelve now and asking a lot of questions. So many questions. I can't help but think that if he could just meet you, just once, it would help so much. You could explain how things are yourself. I'm not sure he believes me anymore about why you're not here, or if you even exist.
If you can't, I understand, but I was just really hoping. I won't expect an answer, but I'll be looking out the window occasionally, hoping to see that big, black car of yours.
So John takes out a loan that he has no intention of paying back, using the name "Howard Wilson," and buys a truck for himself.
When he hands Dean the keys to the Impala, Dean looks dumbstruck and thrilled at the same time, and John can't help his smile of amusement as Dean stares down at the keys.
"Well, I can't drive two vehicles at the same time, now can I?" He gives Dean a stern look. "Take care of her."
"Yes, sir," Dean says, his eyes lighting up like a Christmas tree.
So they drive in tandem, and if Dean says Looks like we got us a convoy!" enough times that John worries for his sanity, well, he enjoys seeing Dean happy, so he tries not to bitch too much.
"Hey, Dean," John says, about a month after he gets the letter from Kate. He digs around in the old green cooler that belonged to Mary's dad and pulls out a beer. He hands it to Dean and says, "You know that haunted campground in Arkansas we've been looking into? I want you to go take care of that."
It's not the first time Dean's gone on a hunt by himself, but there haven't been very many, and John was always nearby.
Dean looks surprised for a minute, and then more delighted than a person should look because they're going to go get rid of a ghost.
He grins and says, "Yes, sir. Where are you going?"
"There's a case in Minnesota," John says. "It's, well, it's complicated." Dean opens his mouth to ask, so John quickly says, "It's a ghoul."
"Okay," Dean says. John pretends not to notice the weird looks Dean is giving him, and they finish their beers talking about the best way to kill a ghoul.
They go their separate ways in the morning, arranging to meet back up in Chicago in six days' time.
John spends the drive trying not to think about what he's doing. Or rather, why he's doing it. He has no idea how the boys would feel about having a younger brother. They know he's hooked up with women every now and then. Mary was his whole life but he's still a man, and occasionally he's given in to the needs of his body.
He thinks Mary would forgive him.
Sammy, on the other hand…John laughs quietly as he remembers the time in Jolene when he wasn't as circumspect as he should have been, and Sam caught him leaving his motel room early in the morning to drive – damned if he can remember her name, but she was a sweet redhead who didn’t make him feel like too much of a schmuck.
Anyway, he was going to drive her home, and Sammy must have heard the car start up. He poked his head out of the separate room John had gotten for the boys and seen them, John rumpled and rough-looking, a pretty woman beside him in the car.
Sam was probably about twelve, and Jesus, John thought he'd never hear the end of it. Dean didn't say much, but he finally told Sam to shut the fuck up, that it wasn't any of their business, but if that was any indication of what their reaction would have been to a brother in fucking Minnesota of all places, well, John didn't want to find out.
He's been determined to stay away from Kate and Adam, in a large part for their safety, and Kate understood completely. After all, he'd met her in the hospital when that damned ghoul had tried to eat him, and it was pretty hard to keep it a secret from her. She knew what had happened, what he and Joe Barton had killed.
He hadn't stayed in the hospital long, but by the time he'd gotten out, he and Kate were fast friends. John spent a week in her house and her bed, knowing the boys were safe with Jim Murphy.
If he had come around to see them, Kate and Adam, John would have had no choice but to try and teach Adam the things he'd taught Sam and Dean. It was selfish of him, he knew, but he wanted one son who he could be just a father to, even an absent one, instead of a commanding officer.
He's curious about Adam and anxious to see Kate, though, now that he's finally decided to go.
John expects some hostility from the boy when he meets him, but all he gets is a nod and a handshake. He's not sure what Kate's told Adam about him, about why he's never there.
Kate looks good and John tells her so. She smiles and John thinks maybe he's missed her. "Adam," she says, motioning between them, "this is John."
John ends up staying a little more than a week, calling Dean to tell him he'll be a couple of days late. Dean doesn't seem bothered by that. He tells John he took care of the vengeful spirit, and that there are plenty of things to occupy his time in Chicago.
John can only imagine. He tells him to have fun but to be careful, to pay attention to what he's doing and to what's going on around him. It occurs to John that it was Sam's birthday a few days ago, but neither one of them mentions it.
He wonders if Dean had tried to call Sam.
Adam's a nice kid. He's quiet like Sammy, but with a sense of humor that reminds John of Dean. He looks more like Dean, John thinks, and then the light will hit his face at a certain angle, and he'll look just like Sam.
John misses Sam with both an ache that never goes away and a constant, underlying fear. He knows he's partially to blame for the continued silence between Sam and his family, but for now John is content to gather as much information as he can and let Sam be at Stanford.
Adam likes to fish, so he and John spend a lazy afternoon on the bank of a small stream, fishing and getting used to each other.
John takes him to a baseball game, a couple of local teams playing on a sunny Saturday morning. They chat a bit. Adam talks about school, tells John he wants to be a doctor when he grows up.
Kate cooks dinner every night, and it's the most surreal week John's had in a very long time. He stays at her house and he intends to stay out of her bed, because there's no need to make things any more complicated than they are.
But Kate has other ideas, and his resolve doesn't last past the first night.
John leaves with a promise to keep in touch, and he means it. He won't be a part of Adam's life, that's much too dangerous, but he can't see the harm in dropping by once in a while.
He's not sure Adam believes that John will be back, though, and he drives away with a feeling of guilt that he has no idea what to do with.
Dean's in Indianapolis investigating a cursed object that's making people run each other over with their cars, and John is in Oklahoma on the trail of a nest of vampires.
It's unfortunate that he and Daniel Elkins parted on such…unfriendly terms. If anyone could help John with this, it would be Daniel. John's never met anyone who knows more about vampires than Daniel does.
John's convinced Daniel knows more about Samuel Colt's gun than he's letting on, too, and that irritates the hell out of him. He's pretty damned sure the time's coming when he's going to need that gun, and Elkins' refusal to tell John where it is just pisses him off.
It's obvious that there's another hunter in town, although he and John haven't actually met. He seems to be after the same nest John is.
John thinks it's about time for them to have a conversation.
The vampire nest is on the outskirts of town. John's been doing some reconnaissance, and he figures there are three males and four females. That's a lot for one man to take out, and maybe he could use the help, but he also doesn't want this other guy to get in his way.
He's pretty much ready to make his move, and he waits in the shadowed parking lot of the other hunter's motel, still and quiet.
He doesn't have to wait long. Tall and black, the other man moves gracefully from his car to the door of his room. John takes a step forward and freezes when the guy turns around and says, "You might as well come in and have a drink while we figure this out."
John's pretty damned impressed. He's never seen this guy before, but he's obviously sharp. Moving out of the shadows of the building, John nods and follows him into his room, alert and wary, his hand on his gun.
"Gordon Walker," the guy says, not offering to shake John's hand. "And you're John Winchester."
"I am," John says, trying not to let his surprise at being known show.
"Please," Walker says. "You have quite a reputation, John. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn’t know who you were." He picks up a bottle of whiskey from the dresser and pours them each a drink after unwrapping the plastic wrappers from a couple of motel glasses.
There's a table in the room, and they each take a chair, seated on opposite sides, sizing each other up.
"Lotta hunters don't think vampires are real," Gordon says with a friendly smile. "Gotta figure you'd know all about them, though."
John really doesn’t like the way Walker has the advantage here. Not knowing everyone out there is one of the downsides of avoiding hunter hangouts like the Roadhouse.
He sizes Walker up and decides he neither likes nor trusts him. Not that this guy seems incompetent; just the opposite. He's a little too arrogant, seems almost evangelical when he talks about killing vamps.
But they're both here, and it goes without saying that neither one of them is going to bow out gracefully. It's a big nest, and John decides they might as well go in together.
They make their plans, and the next night they carry them off without a hitch. Seven dead vamps, nest all cleaned out. But John decides he was right in his first impression of Walker.
The guy seemed to get an awful lot of pleasure out of killing the vampires. John likes to kill monsters, he enjoys ridding the world of evil, making it safer for those who are weak or helpless.
But he doesn't get off on the kill itself. It's clear Walker does, or maybe it's just something about vampires. Either way, John doesn't like it.
"Good working with you, John," Gordon says, holding out his hand. John shakes it and nods.
"You, too." He climbs into his truck and drives away, leaves Walker looking after him. The back of his neck tingles until he's out of sight.
John stops for a couple of nights in a run-down motel outside of Tulsa. He needs to organize his thoughts, but first he needs to organize his evidence.
He hears things. He talks to people. Whatever friends he has in the hunting world are well aware of what he's after.
John's been tracking signs of demonic activity for almost a year now. It feels as if he's chasing his tail, but there are patterns emerging, both old and new. There are cattle mutilations, electrical storms, and temperature fluctuations, all the things that happened in Lawrence before Mary died.
Now they're happening again.
His phone rings and he looks up, startled by the noise.
He's covered the walls with paper; charts and pictures and news articles, string and thumbtacks everywhere. It makes so much more sense to look at things this way.
Dean is on the phone for their usual check-in. John thinks about telling Dean to stay away from Gordon Walker, but he's distracted by what he's seeing on the walls, and he lets it go.
He listens with half an ear to Dean's report about what he did in Indianapolis and says he doesn't know where he's heading next. They agree to talk again in three days' time.
John spends most of the night studying his walls, moving things around to get a clearer picture, and by morning he's come to several inescapable conclusions.
Sammy is in danger, but no more than he has been all along. John is content to leave him at Stanford for now. Or maybe, if John disappears, Dean will go get his brother. That would be best.
The yellow-eyed demon knows John's after it. It knows that John is looking for a way to kill it. John thinks he's found a way, but that's going to take some time. Elkins has already proven himself to be uncooperative.
The thing that's the hardest, the thing he doesn’t want to do, is to leave Dean. But he needs to do this by himself. Dean will make him more vulnerable; it's one of the reasons John is leaving Sam alone.
His children are a weakness he can't afford. He can't be reckless with their lives and expose them to the demon before he's found a way to kill it.
He stopped feeling guilty a long time ago for the life his boys have led. He didn’t ask for this, none of them did. When that yellow-eyed son of a bitch killed Mary, it made certain things inevitable. His sons being raised as hunters was one of them.
But he doesn't think he's ever been deliberately careless with their lives, and he won't start now.
John begins to poke around, looking for a hunt in California. He may be okay with Sam staying in school, but he'd prefer it if Dean were around to keep an eye on him. It's time they got back in touch with each other.
It's easy enough to find the trail of a woman in white in Jericho, not too far from Palo Alto.
He meets up with Dean and shows him a couple of newspaper articles about men who've been killed outside of Jericho. John tells Dean he's going to go check it out, tells him there's a voodoo thing happening in New Orleans, and maybe Dean would be interested in seeing what's going on down there.
Dean agrees. On impulse, John pulls him into a hug when he leaves. "Be careful, son," he says.
Dean nods and pats him on the back before he lets go. "You, too, Dad." He looks curious but doesn't ask any questions.
It's a simple matter after that for John to find a motel room in Jericho, plaster the walls with the information he's gathered, and leave Dean a voicemail with EMF on it.
He debates a long time about leaving his journal behind. Everything is in there, everything he's learned about every evil creature in existence. He finally decides his boys should have it. After all, he won't be hunting anything now except the thing that killed Mary.
And then he turns off his phone.
"Dad? I know I've left you messages before. I don't even know if you get 'em. But I'm with Sam. And we're in Lawrence. And there's something in our old house. I don't know if it's the thing that killed mom or not, but…I don't know what to do. So, whatever you're doing, if you could get here. Please. I need your help, Dad."
John listens to Dean's voice break as he pleads with his father for help. All of Dean's grief for his mother is there in John's ear, and hearing it only makes him more determined to see this through to the end.
He allows himself to go to Lawrence, but he doesn't reveal his presence to his boys. Whatever is in their old house, it's not the demon. He trusts Missouri to help them figure it out.
She gives him holy hell for that.
"John Winchester, I could just slap you. Why won't you go talk to your children?" Missouri's glare is formidable, but it's no match for John's resolve to keep the boys safe. If he sees them now, if he talks to them, it'll be too hard to convince them to let him go again.
"I want to. You have no idea how much I want to see them. But I can't. Not yet. Not until I know the truth."
There are other phone calls, other pleas, from Dean and Sammy both. John keeps tabs, he has his network, and he always knows they're okay.
John has faith in Sam and Dean's hunting skills. What kind of teacher would he be if he didn’t?
He heads straight for Nebraska when Sam calls and says Dean is dying, but then he hears about a preacher's wife controlling a reaper, and how it had brought about the saving of one life over another. John's not interested in who has to die so that Dean can live, only that someone does.
He knows Sam will make sure of it, and he turns around and goes back to hunting the demon.
There's a trap set for him in Chicago, not the first one by any means, but it's the first time they use the boys as bait.
God, it's so good to see Sam again, to wrap his arms around him and hold on, to feel that he's real and warm and alive after all this time. Their angry words from the last time they saw each other finally fade away.
John lets himself be tempted by the idea of the three of them hunting the demon together, but as usual, Dean sees what Sammy doesn't want to.
"Dad's vulnerable when he's with us. He's stronger when we're not around."
It was never supposed to be this way. They were supposed to be stronger together, not apart.
John finally gets his hands on the Colt. That son-of-a-bitch Elkins had been holding out on him all this time. He's sure the gun will kill anything, and he proves that it will at least kill vampires.
He's back with the boys again, and he can't kid himself – in spite of the circumstances, John welcomes it.
The tension is running high between the three of them, though. Dean doesn't automatically fall into line when John speaks, and that's unexpected. It shouldn't be, the boys have been on their own for a while now, and John did effectively ditch Dean, but it's jarring.
Still reeling from Jessica's death, Sammy obviously hasn't let go of his anger, and he's pissed at being left out of the demon hunt on top of that. He's stubborn and determined not to let John get away with a thing.
It's like looking in a mirror.
Dean's in the middle, as always, and John can see the weariness in his eyes. All Dean's ever wanted is his family intact, and that's something John's never been able to give him.
Naturally, Sam wants to blame himself for Mary and Jessica's death. Kid's flair for the dramatic hasn't eased up any in the years they've been apart, that's for sure.
Sam and Dean make a hell of a team, but John wouldn't expect anything less. The deference he's used to from Dean seems pretty rough around the edges, worn thin by the stress of the past couple of months. John's willing to let it go for now.
When Caleb calls to tell him that they've killed Jim Murphy, it's the closest John's come to losing it since Mary died. He drives alone in his truck, grieving for his friend. When he glances in the rearview mirror and sees the Impala behind him, he remembers the day he loaded up the boys and drove that car to Blue Earth, desperately hoping that Missouri was sending him to the right place. That Jim could help him, give him the knowledge John needed to find he answers he wanted.
It seems so long ago that John had sat at Jim's kitchen table, Sammy on his lap, Dean watching him carefully. Jim had proven to be one of the truest friends John's ever had, and he will not let those demonic sons of bitches get away with killing him.
Whatever it takes, by any means necessary.
He honest-to-God believes, just for one brief, shining moment, that if they can do this, if they can kill this demon, his boys can have the lives it's been impossible for him to allow them to have. Sammy can go back to school, Dean can settle down, make a home somewhere.
John is completely ready to sacrifice himself for that. It's the least he can do.
Sammy's visions come as a nasty shock, and John is terrified for his son. He's so consumed with grief and fear and rage after listening to Caleb die that he gets reckless.
He's almost not surprised that the chance to kill the demon comes down to his boys. It's what he raised them to do, after all, what he spent their entire lives preparing them for. It's not as hard to walk away as it should be.
Things go south quickly in Jefferson City, and as John slowly regains consciousness, he's horrified to realize someone else has control over his body. Something else.
Azazel. The demon's name is Azazel. And it's got such a hard-on for Sammy that John wants to throw up. Only he can't, because his body isn't his anymore.
Azazel is strong, too strong for John to break through. The son of a bitch laughs and tells him to be patient, that he'll be seeing his boys soon enough.
That he'll be watching them die.
And when he does see them, it breaks his heart. They're so strong, so good at their jobs. Dean knows, senses that something's off. But he's wrong about why. John's not upset that Dean used a bullet from the Colt to save Sam's life.
That's Dean's job, to save his brother's life. Killing the demon is more important than John's life, but he's not about to sacrifice his sons to it. John's willing to die to make sure of it.
He thought Sam understood that. He thought they saw eye-to-eye on this thing.
When Azazel shreds Dean, both emotionally and physically, it makes John strong enough to wrest control from the demon. He needs that son of a bitch to die now.
But Sam listens to his brother, not his father. Sam lets the demon go rather than kill John.
After all these years, how does Sam not know John better than that?
He has the boys and he has the Colt, but the demon is still out there.
And then a semi broadsides the Impala, and Dean lies dying in a hospital bed. John will do whatever's necessary to save his life.
He's known all along that it would come down to a choice. He knew the demon wasn't going to just let him waltz in with the Colt and kill it.
There are different ways to set a trap, though, and John can only pray that he gets this one right. He doesn't want to surrender before he can kill the demon, but he knows that sooner or later, the boys will get the job done.
This is more important, this is Dean's life, and the decision comes easily.
The worse part is not knowing if he's done enough. John has spent the past twenty-six years teaching and training and talking. Persuading and convincing. Making sure that Dean accepts whatever John tells him without question, especially when it comes to Sam. That he only asks how high when John says jump.
He hasn't been as successful with Sam, but that doesn't matter as much. John knows he never really stood a chance with Sam. Looking at Sam is like looking in a mirror, and that scares the hell out of John.
So he puts it all on Dean. Mary will never forgive him for that, but John knows now that there will be no happy meeting in the afterlife for Mary and him.
He doesn't fool himself that Dean won't figure out what he's done. He loves Dean more than his own life, and that alone is enough to make this deal a no-brainer. But John also knows that Dean will do everything in his power to insure Sam's safety.
John has faith.
He has faith in Dean's ability to do what's necessary if he has to, to deal with the worse case scenario that's been haunting John's dreams ever since he learned the truth about Sammy. It's a chance he has no choice but to take.
If he tells Dean that if he can't save Sam, he has to kill him, he knows Dean will save him.
John has all the faith in the world.
He and Sam argue, and John is just so tired of it. He wants to tell Sammy goodbye, doesn't want their last words to each other to be spoken in anger.
"Can we not fight? You know, half the time we're fighting, I don't know what we're fighting about. We're just butting heads. Sammy, I've made some mistakes. But I've always done the best I could. I just don't want to fight anymore, okay?"
Sam looks surprised, and he backs off. John asks him to go get some coffee. He takes one last look at Sam's face, the angles and planes of it, and smiles.
He tells Dean how much he loves him, how proud he is of him.
"Dad, you're scaring me."
As he bends down to whisper in Dean's ear, he pushes all thoughts of his dead wife out of his mind. She'd never understand what he's asking Dean to do, what seeds he's planting in her son's head. She could never comprehend that sometimes saying "the lesser of two evils" means just that, and that sometimes a deal has to be made with something that truly is evil.
Dean pulls his head back, shock and confusion on his face.
John nods and smiles. His eyes burn as he gazes at his beloved first-born for the last time, then he slips out the door, Dean's wide-eyed stare following him.
"Okay," he says, and he places the Colt on the table.
The demon smiles and John takes his last breath.
Take care of your brother, Dean. Watch out for Sammy. Keep him safe. He's your responsibility. It's your job, Dean.
Dean slowly straightens up, wiping his hands on his jeans. He looks around the crossroads, watches the clouds scud across the sky, obscuring the moon. There's no light pollution out here, and the stars shine in the black sky.
Life without his brother is unthinkable. No price is too high to pay.
Frantic despair fills him, and he spins around. "Show your face, you bitch!" His voice reverberates in the empty air.
When she shows, eyes glowing red, and the deal is done, Dean thinks his father would be proud of him.
Sam doesn't understand. Maybe Ruby could explain, but she won't. She just looks at him with that mixture of impatience and pity that he's gotten used to over the summer.
His mother made a deal. In fact, she made a deal with Azazel, which Sam thinks is pretty damned impressive. Mary Campbell didn't just promise to stay out of the way of any ordinary, run-of-the-mill demon, no, ma'am, she made a deal with old Yellow Eyes himself.
She was desperate, she would have done anything to save the man she loved. She didn't think about the consequences, she couldn't have known what they would be. Could she? Would she have still done it if she'd known what would happen to her second-born son?
Sam takes another swig from the bottle of whiskey clutched in his hand. He can't put it down on the table. He made that mistake earlier, learned his lesson, yes, sir. You put a bottle of whiskey down on a table, chances are you'll knock it over when you go to reach for it again. No, better to just hold onto it, that way you're sure it's always gonna be right there in your hand when you need it.
John, now he made a deal with old Yellow Eyes, too. He traded away the Colt, the only weapon that could kill the son-of-a-bitch.
The son-of-a-bitch that killed Mom and Jess.
Sam kicks out at the chair next to him, and it skids across the floor with a sharp sound. His whole life, that's all he heard.
"Gotta find the thing that killed Mom, Sammy."
"Gotta find the thing that killed your mother, son."
After a while, Sam didn't know who was parroting whom, Dad or Dean. And then, after Jess, Sam started talking that way, too. The thing that killed Mom and Jess. The Winchester version of the Holy Grail.
Sam thinks about Jess, poor innocent Jess. Collateral damage in a world she never knew about, used as bait to pull Sam back in.
And when Dad had the chance, he gave the Colt away to save Dean. He could have just shot Azazel and been done with it. But in the end, he cared more about Dean than about revenge. Sam almost couldn't breathe at the idea of that kind of love, but he understands it now.
It was for Dean.
Saving Dean was worth any sacrifice.
It still is.
Saving Sam wasn't worth sacrificing Dean. The idea that Dean didn't know that cuts into Sam like a knife. He failed. He failed at the most important thing he's ever had to do in his life. He failed to make Dean understand how loved he is. How essential to Sam's very existence he is.
Sam blinks the sweat out of his eyes. This shithole dump where he's squatting is hotter than fuck, and Sam would trade his soul for a nice breeze, he really would.
But no one will take his soul. No one will make a deal with him. No one is interested in sending him to Hell in his brother's place.
This is the lesson he learned from his family. From his parents, from his brother. The consequences don't matter. Fuck the consequences. There is always a way to save someone you love. There is always a deal to be made.
Except when there isn't.
"Sam?" Ruby takes the bottle out of Sam's hand. He thinks about fighting her for it, but he doesn't have the energy. "Sam, it's time to stop this. Time for you to get your shit together."
Sam tries to tune her out, but her voice is soft and persuasive. He lets her help him stumble to the filthy mattress on the floor. Rolling away from her, he closes his eyes, drifting off when the mattress stops spinning.
There's always a deal to be made.
Except when there isn't.