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Apocrypha

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When he goes to Heaven,
To Saint Peter he will tell:
"Another Marine reporting, Sir.
I've served my time in Hell."

--Epitaph for a Marine who died at Guadalcanal

 

Now

John Winchester will die less than five minutes from now.

It's about time. This day is nearly thirty-five years overdue, and he's long past tired.

Death won't be any kind of rest, though, and it won't be peaceful--not where he's going. He's not scared, not yet, but he knows he should be.

It's just that he can't imagine anything that could be any worse than the fires that have burned in his memory since nineteen eighty-three. He can't imagine anything worse than his son dying.

He tells himself not to think about it too much. He'll find out more than he ever wanted to know soon enough.

Little things distract him more than they should. A page over the hospital PA. A nurse passing by, quirking a smile at him and nodding hello. Laughter fluttering out of one of the rooms along with a scrap of bright conversation. The elevator dinging open to signal a dance at the door as people try to get on and off at the same time.

A fluorescent light flickers overhead and he looks around, but it's just one of those things.

Other than the light, there is nothing ominous--not in the oldest sense of the word--about the moment. This feels wrong. There should be a heaviness in the air to match the weariness in his bones. Something to signify the moment.

There's nothing. Nothing to tell of the huge burden he dropped on Dean's shoulders just now.

He wishes his last memory of his boy could be something other than that look of shock and horror, but he reminds himself it is better than standing by helplessly and watching as the rise and fall of Dean's chest slows and then stops.

For a moment, he actually considers turning around.

There is so much he wishes he could have said, but the more he said the more he realized it was all too little, too late. Dean was already starting to panic at the strangeness of it all well before John told him about Sam.

If only he had more time.

John reminds himself that Dean now has the time that he no longer does. He has bought Dean that time. And Dean will do anything--anything--to protect his little brother. It's not much, but it's just enough hope to hold onto.

Despite everything, part of him still believes in happily ever after. Dean will find a way, and John hopes he won't lose himself in the finding.

By the time Dean finally pulls himself together enough to call out Dad! Come back! What the hell is that supposed to mean? John is far enough away that he can pretend not to hear.

It's better this way, he tells himself. By the time Sam gets back with coffee (the sudden thought of the coffee going cold and undrunk is sad in a way he can't put words around), it will all be over. He has made what peace he could with Sam, not that it's much.

He won't let himself hope for forgiveness. Not any more. Understanding, maybe, but no more than that.

There's no sign or portent, but John pauses at a window just the same, wondering if a storm (he is struck by a sudden memory of gray-green skies, howling wind, jubilant and bitter laughter cut short) will whip up at the last minute. Maybe he hasn't been careful enough, maybe what little he told Dean was enough to attract--

Enough, he tells himself. There is nothing more than a stray cloud in a blinding blue sky. He is safe, or at least he is for the next minute or two.

John passes the window unnoticed and unremarked, and walks into an unoccupied room. When he pulls out the Colt, a passing thought--one bullet left, one shot is all it would take--comes with it. God help him, he actually wonders for a split second if he could make himself toss Dean's life away and just end all this madness right here, right now.

He dismisses the thought and hands over the Colt. No fuss, no foolery, just a solid thump as he sets it down on the table.

"Okay."

"'Okay?'" Azazel grins and then laughs as John's eyes skid away from looking too closely at his mouth and the memory of the kiss that sealed the deal. "That's all you've got to say, John? Seriously? You're coming up on the last words you're ever going to speak on earth, you know that, right?"

"There's nothing else to say. You held up your end of the bargain, I'm holding up mine. That's it."

For him, anyway.

"Really? No last-minute pleading? No pathetic attempt at trickery? No taking one last chance to tell me what you really think of me?" Even now, coming out of a different throat, the voice is the same one that has haunted him for the past ten years.

John shrugs. There's no point in dragging this out any more. Dean is alive. He'll take care of Sam. Dean won't let Sam die, and Sam won't let anything happen to Dean. He holds on tight to that thought and waits for whatever happens next. He knows it is beyond imagining, so he doesn't even try.

"You're not even going to ask me what it's all about? You, who actually managed to find out about my special children? That's impressive, John. Truly impressive. And now you're not even going to ask me why?"

"Hadn't planned on it. It's not my problem any more."

Yellow eyes narrow and flicker with gold fire. If he didn't know better, John would say the demon is disappointed in not having himself a nice floor show at the end.

"You don't even want to know what your own part is in this, John? Because you still have a part to play... a big one." The words whip out as Azazel takes John's chin in his hand. "You're up for a best supporting actor nod, but damned if you don't even know it."

John doesn't move, no matter how badly he wants to.

We've already sealed the deal. Get this over with.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," he says, although he finally knows the truth.

The truth is--and it's a hard truth--this is not his story. It never has been.

He just hopes that whatever ending his boys find is better than this one.

The demon frowns, then catches himself, and there's that mocking laughter again. This time, though, John thinks he hears something like relief. He draws away, and the sudden chill when flesh leaves flesh is numbing. "Let's not waste any more time. I may know how this ends, but hey, I'm not going to spoil the surprise for you. I'm nice that way. But I will tell you something--it's a killer ending."

He laughs, then rests two fingers on John's eyelids, closing them with obscene gentleness.

"Good night, John-boy."

First, there is blackness. Then there is a fire that burns like no fire has ever burned before. Fire upon fire and nothing but fire, just as it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end...

 

October 2005

The fire burst down at him just like it always did. One minute, John was in the nursery reaching for Mary, the next he was outside the house fighting to get in. He forced his way back inside like always, but this time, the fire caught him as he was going up the stairs.

Over and over again, he would try to fight his way through to her, but the fire always threw him back, hissing and laughing at him.

Then it rang at him. Persistent, penetrating, clanging at him over and over even after he opened his eyes. It took him two seconds to recognize the sound, and that was two seconds too long.

Phone. Room phone, not cell. John thumped the end table a few times, almost knocking the remains of his dinner to the floor before he got hold of the phone.

"H'lo?"

"Is this Bert... Aframian?" The pronunciation was tangled with laughter and too much liquor.

"Depends. What the hell do you want?" John sat up, rubbing his eyes and wondering who could be drunk dialing his current cover identity at three in the morning. It wasn't like good old Bert was an FBI agent or a U.S. Marshal or anything like that. He was just a traveler, passing through. Nobody in particular.

"Or am I speaking to John Winchester?"

John cradled the receiver against his shoulder and eased his gun out from under the pillow. The curtains were drawn, so he couldn't see if anyone was outside. At least it also meant no one could see in.

"Who is this?"

"It is Winchester, right? Winchester or Remington or Wesson--something about guns, but I'm fairly certain it's Winchester." There was a slosh and a clink of ice against glass at the other end of the line. "Yes, Winchester. That sounds right. John Winchester. I remember Bill talking about you, and I've heard some bits and pieces over the years, hither and thither and yon. You know how it is."

Bill? The only Bill he knew... and that explained it. John hadn't spoken to Ellen in over a year, but she still had his cell number. She could have given it to this yahoo.

This yahoo who had called him on the room phone, not the cell phone. Shit. He should be more on the ball than this, even with the wake-up fog. No one should know this cover identity. Dean knew who was on the current run of credit cards and drivers licenses, but he had know way of knowing which name John was using right now.

"Whoever this is, you got three seconds to explain before I hang up."

It shouldn't take long to trace the call. Star-69 might do it, and if that didn't work, it would take only a few hours to get hold of the motel's phone records.

"You're hunting down a Woman in White," the caller told him. "In case you still had any doubt, and you probably don't, you are absolutely one hundred percent correct about the Constance Welch lead."

John cast a quick glance at the articles tacked up on the motel room walls even though they were only patches of gray in the dark. "Great. Since you know so damned much, how about you tell me where the hell she's buried before she kills somebody else."

"Hmm. Maybe I could... but I won't. What I will tell you is that right now you have salt lines in front of your door and along the windowsill as well--smart man. There are also some cats-eye shells. I'm not certain how many, and I don't know exactly where, but I would suspect you placed them at the cardinal points and at the corners of every possible entry."

Through the drunkenness, John thought he heard a trace of accent. Maine? No--not quite, but close.

"At least, that's what I or any other right-thinking person would do," the man continued. "Although they are spooky little things, aren't they? Quite aptly named--they always make me feel like someone or something is spying on my every move." The man snickered as if he'd just told a really good joke.

"Who is this?" The shells were still in place, exactly as the stranger described. They should protect him against most scrying magic, and this guy didn't sound like a big player. Chances were he'd done some recon earlier and was now drunk enough to do something stupid with the information. "You tell me who you are and why you're jerking my chain, right now, or we're done."

On the one hand, he didn't have the time or patience for these stupid horror movie games. On the other, another kid had disappeared, and even though it was probably too late, it might not be. Not yet. Maybe this idiot had information he could use.

There was a long pause at the other end of the line, but John heard the sound of a cabinet closing and something glass being set down on a hard surface.

"Me? Oh, I'm no one important. No one you know. I was merely checking some information, and hoping to find out I was wrong. I suppose if I was wrong, you would have hung up on me already, and dismissed me as just another crazy. You certainly wouldn't have asked me where Constance was buried. Which unfortunately means I'm right. Damn it all to hell."

The laughter that had run underneath the caller's words until then was gone. He sighed, long and hard, and there was the sound of liquid splashing into a glass. "I shouldn't have called. I wish I hadn't, but after I called the registrar's office at Stanford--"

"You stay the hell away from my son." The words whipped out without thought.

There was dark, drunken laughter. "Of course! Not after what happened when I got through to the office. When I tried to find someone who knew Dean's number..." in the background, he heard something whistling like wind through rafters, rising like feedback, "...even worse...warn..." sputtering and rattling and blowing and hissing and shrieking "...know what happened that night...eighty-three... happen again..."

"Hello?" John could barely hear words through the howling static. "Warn? Warn me? Warn Sam? What do you know about--shit!"

John flung the phone across the room. That last burst of feedback was so sharp he expected to feel blood when he rubbed his ear.

When he picked up the phone, it was still intact but the shrieking had faded back to a dial tone. Star-69 only got him a 'service not available' message.

Fine. He would track down the number some other way, but it would be several hours before he could do anything about that. He got out his cell phone and called Dean.

The call went right to voice mail, but John didn't leave a message. He would wait until he had a little more intel on this call. Besides, Dean had enough on his plate with the New Orleans job.

There was another number he could call, but he wouldn't. Sam. The asshole had also tried to track down Sam. Had tried to track down Sam first.

Palo Alto wasn't all that far away. John had mentally traced the route out there when he started this job. If he left now, he could check the situation out in Stanford and be back in Jericho before lunch.

If nothing was wrong. Then he would track down that phone number and find out who the hell had been spying on him and his boys.

John grabbed his keys but stopped mid-stride before he reached the door. Whoever it was had mentioned Bill, but Bill had died back in ninety-five.

August, ninety-five. Just a little over ten years ago. John's hand squeezed tight around the keychain, and the truck key dug deep into the old scar on his left hand.

Ten years. Just as he had feared, demon sign had started going exponential back in January and even though he had connected the god-damned nursery fires in March and April to incidents of demon activity in ninety-five, it only showed him how much he still didn't know. The ridges of the key pressed against the scar, and once again he felt like he should be further along than this, that the answer was right there if only he could dig it out of his brain.

He had been told ten years ("...give or take. Or not.") and while things had been ramping up, there hadn't been anything to indicate that the demon's end-game for this cycle. had actually started. Or maybe this phone call was the signal, the first and maybe only warning cry he'd get.

...know what happened that night...eighty-three... happen again...

He put down the truck keys and picked up his journal.

He was probably wrong. He hoped he was wrong, but in case he wasn't, he scribbled a quick note towards the end of the journal. Dean would understand it, but few others would.



Dean 35-111

There were always dozens of jobs on the to-do list, and more being added all the time. The question was, which ones to take, which ones could wait, and which to hand off to someone else.

Jobs that were far away from where he planned to be working were good ones to hand off--and not just when he couldn't spare the travel time. A Wendigo-hunt deep in back country ought to keep Dean off the radar and out of John's hair after he finished up in New Orleans. After that, the rest of the journal might keep him safe if worse came to worst. Him and Sam.

There were other people who needed to be kept safe, but in their case, safety meant ignorance and invisibility. He and Adam had spoken last several weeks ago, and even though it was clearly their last conversation, the boy and his mother still had a connection to him someone might try to leverage.

Besides, Adam's existence wasn't something he wanted Dean to find out about by stumbling across it by accident.

John riffled through the journal and tore out a chunk of pages from 2002. He would get rid of them somewhere far from here. Then, he tossed the journal back onto the nightstand and headed out.

Instead of picking up 580 West, John took a different route than the one he'd run in his mind over and over since he took this job. Palo Alto was off the menu for now. Now, he was headed south on I-5 towards Pasadena, telling himself that if all went well, he would be back in Jericho by nightfall.

He also told himself he still had plenty of time to figure out what was going on and what to do about it, but he knew that was just a pretty little lie. Otherwise, he wouldn't have chanced leaving the journal behind.

He had been given ten years to sort this mess out, and now he had what, a few months? A few days? That was no kind of time at all.

 

Now

At first, there is no time to think in Hell.

There is literally no time.

There is nothing but an eternal present of fire and iron and pain swirling, merging, and flowing into one another. He is on the hooks, he has always been on the hooks, he has been there for less than a heartbeat. Nothing changes, and yet there are patterns in the red morass that stands still and moves infinitely fast in all directions.

They are patterns he might begin to understand if things flowed in order and did not just exist all at once. There is sound--a bone-shaking bass chord that would pin him in place even if the hooks were not there--but there is no sense.

It is forever, it is an instant. Thought cannot move forward.

But then (because there can finally be a then) a slit opens in the red, and Azazel has Alastair take him down from the hooks and lash him to the rack with his own guts.

Now (because there can finally be a now), there is time. There is plenty of time.

John knows time is passing because Alastair pulls his skin away from his body with finicky slowness. He starts with the legs.

"This is just the first course, John. It's just a taste of what's to come."

Azazel insists on being there for John's inaugural session. Alastair is not happy about this, and there is an extra dig of the knife at every interruption. John tries to scream, but his throat is full of his own blood.

There is plenty of time, but he cannot think of anything besides pain.

It is only when Azazel speaks again that John can focus beyond the torment.

"You should be grateful, you know. Remember, thanks to me, you had thirty-three extra years to enjoy." Azazel laughs. "And now you get... Alastair. When he puts your hands back on, I'll expect a thank-you note."

He pats what's left of John's head and slips back into the boiling darkness.

If it weren't for the pain that has become his everything, John would laugh because Azazel knows so much less than he thinks he does.

John didn't have thirty-three extra years to enjoy. Azazel is wrong.

He had thirty-five.

 

1971

It should have ended when John Winchester was killed in action nine days before he was due to ship back to Camp Pendleton.

He had already had five pieces of mortar shrapnel taken from his side, leaving him with a Purple Heart and a few scars to show for his trouble. He'd shed his blood, he'd put in his time, and in just a little over a week, he would be heading home.

He knew better than to count days, but the knowledge that he was down to single digits burned at the back of his mind like a flare. All he had to do now was survive.

The day he should have died was a foul dishrag of a day, so humid and so hot that the on-again off-again rain made walking feel like swimming in dirty bathwater. The sun cut through the clouds from time to time, and each time it did, the air got so thick it stuck in his throat and clogged his lungs.

John was on his last scheduled patrol, taking point with Deacon on slack. There was no sound but the rain pattering through the triple canopy and the occasional sucking squelch as a boot pulled free of muck. He still kept looking up and around sharply as if he heard people whispering up in the trees. More than once he was sure he heard his name. The ant-prickle feeling of being watched was nothing more than the single-digits jitters, he told himself, but he didn't believe it.

Something was about to happen. He knew it like he knew his own name.

Nine days before he was due to go home, at three minutes and twenty-two seconds past thirteen hundred hours, John Winchester was destined to have been blown to kingdom come, leaving Francis Deacon spattered with bits of blood and gristle that used to be his friend. As for Deacon, he was slated to stop the nightmares three years later by putting a bullet through his head.

Neither of these things happened.

John flicked a hand signal at Deacon. They needed to shift direction away from a too-open space in the jungle. Just before John made the turn, the sun broke cover for just a second, and the raindrops blazed searing white.

John slowed his pace and squinted against the light. He stepped forward, but a harsh whistle stopped him mid-stride, so sudden it felt like someone had grabbed hold of his collar. He turned towards the sound to see Deacon standing stump-still, his face so pale it nearly glowed. John cocked an eyebrow.

What? he mouthed.

Don't. Move.

Deacon pointed at John's legs. The sun was under cover again, and at first John couldn't pick out what Deacon wanted him to see. He almost crouched down to check closer to ground level, but he caught on just in time. He almost didn't, though. The camouflage patterning on his pants masked the rise in his cuff where the fabric brushed the tripwire.

John eased back slowly, careful not to jog the wire. After taking a few seconds to breathe, he peered through the leaves to see what had nearly killed him. It was a standard issue claymore mine, with the words THIS SIDE TOWARDS ENEMY embossed across the front. Friendly fire, then, but that wouldn't have made him any less dead.

He checked to find where the tripwire ended, and then the two men set off again, circling well clear of the mine.

They concluded their patrol without any further incident, and without any more feeling of being watched.

The next eight days were nothing more than the usual 'hurry up and wait,' and the boredom was its own kind of torture.

The night before they were due to head back stateside, John and Deacon finally had the drink they had wanted a week ago. The rest of their buddies were celebrating their last night in-country more boisterously, but John wasn't in the mood for that kind of noise. At least, that's how he explained it to himself.

Whatver the reason, he didn't quite feel like being around people just then. He wasn't sure what it was, but he couldn't shake it. He'd come much closer to death before--hell, he'd been wounded badly enough they'd nearly sent him home--but this was different. A week had gone by, and John still felt like something was off-kilter, unbalanced, wrong. Like maybe he really had died and was only walking around like he wasn't because someone had fucked up the paperwork.

Deacon didn't understand the problem, but he sure as hell knew a solution: he liberated a bottle of Wild Turkey from somewhere (John didn't ask), and found them a quiet spot between a couple of Quonsets. For a while, the two of them just sat there, butts on sandbags and backs against sheet metal as they passed the bottle back and forth.

"You owe me, you know," Deacon said. He took another slug and passed the bottle over. "For saving your life. Again. Just in case you forgot or something."

John said nothing. He took a drink and thought about Mary hearing of his death. The brass would've gone to his dad's house a week ago to break the news. Someone else would have had to tell Mary. Would his dad have thought to do it? Maybe she would have heard it third or fourth hand days later, maybe even in passing as she overheard someone saying what a pity it was about the Winchester boy.

He imagined it all, so vivid it was as if it had really happened. Like maybe he really was dead, and the taste of bourbon and the ridges of corrugated metal jabbing into his back were part of some miserable, low-rent afterlife.

Deacon grunted in agreement to whatever John had not said. "Those were some crazy odds, huh?"

They'd hashed this out before without benefit of alcohol. By rights, John should not be alive, but the sun had broken through the clouds for just long enough at just the right moment. Deacon was standing at just the right place and looking in just the right direction at just the right time to see beads of water flare into a line of white light along the tripwire. He was clearheaded enough to know what it meant and to signal John. If that last step had carried John forward another inch, if he hadn't stopped so fast when he heard Deacon's whistle, if he hadn't seen the tripwire and known just how to step back...

"Hell, damn near miraculous," Deacon said when the silence grew too long.

John laughed, soft and low. "Guess you could call it that, but I dunno..." He shook his head.

"Heh. That's right. You're one of those godless atheists. Practically a fucking commie. Huh. Maybe I shoulda let you die, ya damned pinko." Deacon mock-glared at him. "You know what they say--'better dead than red.'"

Deacon said that last with all the scorn it deserved, and followed it with a big gulp of whiskey. They'd drunk-talked about that before, and neither could think offhand of a situation where dead was the better option. Even if they got taken prisoner, there was always the chance of escape, right?

"Not my fault the old man likes to sleep in on Sundays." John's father had little patience for church and prayer or anything else he thought of as 'damnfool superstitious nonsense' and wasn't about to put John through the kind of craziness and misery he'd endured growing up. "Anyways, doesn't matter if it's dumb luck or some kind of 'guardian angel' deciding I needed to be spared--I'm alive and that's all that matters."

Alive and going home. It still didn't feel real. He wondered if it would feel real when he got on that plane, or when he stepped on home soil. Maybe it wouldn't feel real until he got back to Kansas.

No, it wouldn't be real until he was back with Mary. Seeing Mary would make it real. When he saw her, that's when he would finally feel like things hadn't just been put on hold, leaving him in some sort of limbo.

It still surprised him, still scared him, how much he loved her. Sometimes it felt as unreal as being alive did right now.

"Dumb luck or an angel, huh?" Deacon pursed his lips and nodded slowly. He was a profound drunk, which John often thought was a lot more annoying than an angry drunk or a mopey drunk. "Have to say, I think dumb luck sounds better to me."

"Hmm? How so?" John knew he would regret asking. Deacon's logic often took the kind of twists that were hard enough to follow when he was sober.

"Dumb luck's just dumb luck, y'know? Numbers. Odds. Math." He looked sidelong at John, so serious he had to be four or five sheets to the wind. "Ain't nothing personal about math. Angels, now, they'd want you saved for a reason."

"And that's bad?" John asked, laughing. He'd have a hell of a hangover tomorrow, but right now he didn't much care. He was loopy from the booze, but at the same time, it grounded him. Made things seem less unreal. He'd have to remember that.

Deacon shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. But you know how it is when the brass volunteers you for a job. Might be important, but it ain't hardly ever pleasant." He took a swig, then passed the bottle back to John. "And you and me, we're a-headin' back home. This ain't the time for some higher-up--some way higher-up--to be sending you back into the shit."

John knocked back another shot, then nodded, sharp and certain.

"Well, thank god I'm an atheist, then!"

He raised the bottle in a salute as Deacon laughed himself sick.

 

1983

Deacon sat down on the bed next to John and handed him a flask. He said nothing, and John was grateful for it.

He was already sick and fucking tired of all the platitudes everyone kept inflicting on him.

I'm so sorry.

Let me know if there's anything I can do.

We'll be keeping you and the boys in our prayers.

Sorry didn't fix anything, there was nothing anyone could do to bring Mary back, and prayers didn't do shit.

Whiskey, though, whiskey could dull things just enough to where he could think without wanting to howl and put his fists through the drywall. Whiskey would burn as it slid down his throat, taking his mind away from those other fires.

"Thanks, Deac," he rasped. He handed the flask back over before he gave in to the urge to drain the whole damned thing.

"Any time." Deacon took a swig, then capped the flask and tucked it back in his jacket. He looked around the motel room, and his eyes rested on the other bed in the room. A lump that slowly rose and fell under the denim bedspread was the only sign of two sleeping little boys. "How long are you three gonna be crashing here?" he asked softly, mindful of Sam and Dean.

"Just 'til tomorrow. Mike said Katie'll have a room set up for the boys by then. Not sure how long we'll be staying there, or where we'll go after, but at least it's not here. A fucking motel's no kind of home."

Nothing was home any more. He didn't see how anything ever could be again.

Deacon grunted in assent. "Sorry I can't stay for the funeral." There was a long pause. "You need any kind of help with that?"

"I'll get it figured out."

He didn't even know where to start.

When his dad died a few years back, all the plans had been made well in advance, everything was already signed off on and paid for, and a draft obituary had even been tucked in the file along with the paperwork from the cemetery. The obituary was sorely out of date, having been written shortly after John had enlisted, but John had to do little more than add and his grandson, Dean after survived by his son, John before sending it off to the paper. At the time, he had wondered who would have edited the obit if he had died before his dad did, and if the confident declaration about being survived was the only way his dad could pray that his only child would make it home safe from the war.

John should have been similarly prepared, but why the hell should he be thinking about his wife's funeral when a month ago he had made the first deposit in his youngest son's college fund? He should have taken the time to write down somewhere that he would be survived by his wife, Mary, and his sons, Dean and Samuel. If he had, maybe everything would be different.

When was he going to wake up from this? This all had to be a dream, right? Nothing this wrong could possibly be real, could it? He closed his eyes and felt his throat tighten against the truth.

"Look, I appreciate you coming all the way out here on short notice, Deac." He should have asked about this on the phone, but when he'd tried, he couldn't string the words together in a way that didn't sound insane. Besides, if Deacon was here, in person, he would find it much harder to placate John with an easy lie.

"Not a problem," Deacon said breezily, even though John knew the visit meant a seven-hour drive and losing a day's pay. "You'd do the same for me. You owe me, remember?"

John let out a harsh laugh at that. He was just starting to put words around the idea that Deacon hadn't done him any favors by saving him for this when the lump on the bed whimpered and wriggled. Dean poked his head out to look over his shoulder at the adults. His eyes (so much like Mary's) were wide with fear at first, but they narrowed with suspicion when he saw Deacon.

If Deacon hadn't saved his life, John wouldn't be sitting here right now feeling like he'd been ripped in two. But there also wouldn't be a little boy with green eyes (just like his mom's) glaring at him as he curled around his baby brother.

"Hey, there pal. I'm your uncle Deacon." Deacon patted a spot on the bed next to him. "Whyn't you come on over here and say hi?"

Dean said nothing. He continued to give Deacon the stink-eye.

"Not much of a talker, huh? And here I thought your daddy told me once you were a real motor-mouth."

"Go back to sleep, Dean. This is grown-up time," John said. Dean blinked in surprise, then yanked the covers back up over himself and Sammy as if they were twin turtles retreating into their shell.

Deacon raised an eyebrow at him. "I was half expecting him to give you a 'yes, corporal,' after that," he whispered.

"Sorry," he said even though it wasn't Deacon he should be apologizing to. What he'd meant to be calm and soothing had come out with a sharp bite. "I'm no good at this. Not alone. Dean's not normally... he hasn't spoken much, no, hasn't spoken at all, not since..."

Again, Deacon knew better than to say anything. He just made a grumble that could have been 'I see what you mean,' or 'I'm sorry,' but was far more honest than either of those two would have been.

John hunched forwards, resting his elbows on his knees. He watched that small, denim-covered lump and counted every rise-and-fall of breath as if everything in the world depended on it continuing.

"The other day, I told Mary we needed to install an 'off' switch on the boy, he talked so damn much." He heard Mary laugh and saw her roll her eyes at the quip. It was just the other day, and it was so long ago. "Never thought we'd find it."

Deacon didn't laugh, which was good, because the joke he told Mary wasn't funny any more, not when Dean should have bounded right over and started crawling all over Deacon, demanding his attention and telling a rambling story about a bug he'd found and what cartoons he's been watching and what one of the girls in his preschool class had said to him.

John took a deep breath, but it did nothing to make what he had to say any easier or any clearer.

"Deac? When I called you, how much did I tell you about what happened? About how Mary died?" He kept his voice low so Dean wouldn't overhear.

"Just that there was a fire, and you barely got the boys out in time." Deacon spoke with the same kind of care he had used when walking though the jungle, wary of traps and tripwires. "You also said you'd tried to go back in to get Mary out, but the fire'd gone wild by then."

John shook his head. He'd told the police something like that right after, while everything was still happening over and over and all at once in his mind until he couldn't tell what had happened in what order. At the time, he couldn't remember for sure if he was inside or out, upstairs or down when he'd passed Sammy to Dean and told Dean to get Sammy to safety. He could picture it so many ways--Dean at the top of the steps, Dean out on the porch or all the way out on the walk, Dean standing in the doorway of the nursery and staring up at the ceiling...

It didn't matter. Whatever he'd said had made enough sense that the police had taken his word for it. As for the things that hadn't made sense, he kept his mouth shut. All those things he'd seen, it was just his mind jumbling things up and playing tricks on him. It had to be.

He spun the story out slowly, constantly checking to make sure he was telling Deacon what he remembered and not what he thought must have happened. The two were already starting to become indistinguishable.

That night, he hadn't gone to bed when he normally did, even though he'd told Mary he would be up in a few minutes. He was tired enough, but before he could call it a night, the kitchen light flickered, then flickered again in tandem with the porch light. That knocked him back awake again, and he went down to the basement to check the fuse box. He looked it over for a good ten minutes before deciding that nothing looked off or seemed to be running hot, and that he would tighten the screws in the distribution panel in the morning. The thing hadn't been touched in years and was due for some maintenance anyhow.

("So they think that's what started--" "Yeah, but that's not what I wanted to tell you.")

Dealing with the lights and the fuse box didn't take long, but it left him feeling too jangled and wide-awake to try to go to bed just yet, so he figured he'd watch TV for a bit. The late movie had already started, but it was one he'd seen a few times before. It was just the sort of thing that would help his brain quiet down.

"I must've fallen asleep, because next thing I know, I hear... I hear Mary screaming up in the nursery. I thought something was wrong with Sammy--"

There had been so many scares, both before and after Sam was born, that the old terror had snapped into place immediately. Even now, that familiar, gnawing dread came back just thinking about it, and John had to breathe in time with his sons for a while before he could continue.

"But then it went quiet. I couldn't hear Mary, but I could hear Sammy making noises like he does when he's watching his mobile." The mobile that was now gone just like everything else in the nursery, and how much fucking longer would these stupid little things keep blindsiding him like this? "So, I go up to the nursery, but Mary's not there. Sammy's looking up at the ceiling happy as can be, but then I see--thought I saw--something dripping on his face."

He didn't say anything about reaching down and rubbing the warm slickness between his fingers and knowing at once what it was. The details of what he saw snapped out clipped and unadorned.

Mary, on the ceiling, a gash across her belly.

He said nothing about the way his sanity burst and flowed away like water. Or about how Mary struggled to breathe, struggled to talk, and how she looked at him just before...

"Next thing I know, there's fire covering the whole ceiling. It just... burst out from behind her. I remember grabbing Sammy and getting him out of there. Dean had come running when he heard the noise, and I handed Sammy over to him and told him to get outside as fast as he could."

"Wait. You're saying Dean saw what happened?" It wasn't the first time Deacon had chosen to interrupt, but this time it was with a question John was in no way prepared to answer.

"I don't know!" John caught himself too late, but his shout didn't seem to have disturbed the boys. They should have taken this outside, but John was not letting the boys out of his sight any more than he absolutely had to. His voice dropped to a low hiss. "I don't know if there was anything for him to see. Aren't you going to tell me I'm crazy? That there's no fucking way I would have seen Mary up on the ceiling like that?"

Deacon made an exaggerated 'I don't know' face and shrugged with his arms held out wide. "Is that what you want me to tell you? I can, if that's what you want, but you haven't told me the rest of the story. What happened after you told Dean to get out of there?"

John just gaped at him for a second, then let out a frustrated huff and finished the tale. "Not much," he grumbled, even though this was the part that kept changing on him and kept haunting him. "After I sent Dean off with Sam, I went back to the nursery to get Mary. I guess I still didn't believe what I was seeing. But when I went back into the nursery, the whole room exploded into fire. It was like napalm times ten. No, worse than that. I still don't know how the hell I got out of there in one piece--it felt like the fire just knocked me all the way downstairs and out to the front porch. Dean was still standing there just outside, and I got the three of us clear only just in time. The house went up like a bomb had gone off inside."

He didn't say he was done. He just waited while Deacon thought. The flask made another appearance, but Deacon was too caught up in whatever he was thinking about to offer it to John. Just as well, probably.

"That all sounds pretty fucked up, John," he said after a bit. "You think that all really happened?" It wasn't a challenge--it was a sincere question.

"How? It's what I remember, but..."

"But?"

"I guess maybe I do want you to tell me that I'm crazy," John said after a while. "It's not like it's not rumored to run in the family--I know I told you about my grandmother. So, yeah, crazy. Or maybe... remembering something?"

He didn't know which would be worse.

Deacon's brow furrowed. "Not sure I'm following you, Johnny."

"What I saw, I know it's impossible, but it feels real. Every bit of it. Even now. And there's something else. It keeps getting mixed up with something that feels like a memory. There's not a lot of details, but I keep thinking I remember a fight... well, the end of one. It wasn't looking good for us, whoever 'us' was. I was pretty much down for the count. After that, it gets even fuzzier."

John stared down at his hands, and the thin, straight scar that looked like an ivory thread draped across his left palm. It had something to do with this particular memory, but he didn't know what.

"When I try to remember more, I can't. It just comes in bits and flashes, and over and over there's this image, this memory of seeing a woman looking up at me and burning to death. She's on fire, and it's something I did. To her. It feels real the way seeing Mary..."

He swallowed hard against the bile that rose up.

"It feels like something that really happened, Deac. The fire, and me setting a woman on fucking fire." He clutched at the side of his head, but that did nothing to stop the pounding that started when he tried to remember, tried to see something more than a charred, screaming face looking up at him in fear and despair. There was a flash of red somewhere in the image, but he couldn't tell what it was. Not fire, though, and not blood.

Deacon waited for him to continue.

"Every time I dig at that memory I see Mary, and whenever I think of Mary on that ceiling, it always turns into, well, something else." He took a deep breath and took the plunge. "Deac, you've got to tell me, and I need you to be honest--did something happen? Did I do something? You know, back when we were in-country?"

Deacon stared at him for a second, slack-jawed. Then he started to laugh, but cut it short before it disturbed the boys. He shook his head, smiling sadly. There was no sign of defensiveness or deceit.

"'Do something?' You mean like as in some sort of Mai Lai shit? That kind of thing? Oh, hell no. Yeah, you and I went on a couple of real benders off-duty, but other than that, it was all squeaky-clean U.S. Marine. Worst you and I ever saw was that mortar bombardment that killed Don and Lewis, and damn near killed you."

John moaned and tried to dig his fingers through his skull. So, he was just going garden-variety crazy, then. What did that mean for the boys? Where could they go? Mary had no family left, or at least none she cared to acknowledge. All John had were some way distant cousins out in Delaware, but he didn't even know their names. You couldn't call that family.

"Well, there's one possibility you haven't mentioned," Deacon started, but John held up a hand to cut him off--Sam had started crying softly. Just whimpers, but John knew that sound would be followed by impossibly loud screams if he didn't act quickly.

John got up and walked over to the other bed and pulled back the covers. Sam was squirming, and his face was starting to grow red and twisted in rage. The faint shhh, shhh from Dean was the most noise the boy had made in nearly two days.

"C'mon buddy, let's see what's wrong. Let go, Dean--I've got him. Go back to sleep, 'kay?" He scooped up Sam and took a tentative sniff.

"He need to be changed?" Deacon asked in a tone of voice that indicated he'd make himself scarce in a hurry if the answer was 'yes.'

"I don't think so. Shouldn't be hungry, either." He rested Sam against his shoulder and patted him gently on the back. Sam settled well enough, although there were soft, discontented whimpers every couple of breaths. John closed his eyes for a moment, and like Sam, wished it could be Mary there to hold him instead. He wished he knew how to explain why she wasn't.

He sat back down and glared at Deacon when Deacon scooted a few inches further away and looked at Sam as if John was holding a live hand grenade and not a baby.

"Too bad those two can't tell you what they saw." Again, Deacon was sidling gingerly past traps and tripwires.

"I'd rather know they didn't see anything," John said. He leaned his cheek against the top of Sam's head and wondered if the boy was running a fever and if he would be able to tell if so.

"That's kind of what I was getting to." Deacon wasn't looking at John, and his hands were fidgeting as if he was struggling to keep himself from reaching for the flask. "The way you keep talking, it sounds to me like you really saw something. You ever think that maybe you did?"

Too many thoughts, too many images, clanged around in John's head for him to answer.

"Look. I know how you are. You'd rather think you--you of all people, for Christ's sake--might be another Lieutenant Calley than believe in any kind of supernatural woo-woo crap, but I don't know. There's things I've seen over the past ten years that make me think that maybe there is. Not that I like to think about it much, but ah, hell... Let's just say there's a reason I'm not writing you off as nuts."

The flask made a reappearance and was handed over, and this time John took two good swallows before passing it back. Sam grumbled at the jostling.

"Couple of years after I got my discharge, I was working as a guard at a psych hospital. Old place, nasty history. Anyhow, I saw something I'm damn sure was a ghost, and I also saw what this guy did to get rid of it--you want to talk about some seriously weird shit, that'll top the list. It worked, though. Seen a few other weird things since then, too, like someone all of a sudden flipped some kind of switch ten years back and all the rules changed." Deacon flumped back, and his head bounced on the edge of the mattress. "Ah, crap, I know this ain't what you wanted me to tell you, Johnny, but I don't think you're a killer, and I don't think you're crazy. I think maybe you saw something, but damned if I know what, or what to do about it."

John almost told him to get the hell out right then, but Deacon had saved his life twice and Deacon had just driven seven hours to get here. John also didn't have that many friends that he could afford to drive one away, especially now.

"I can't believe that, Deac. I won't."

If there was a thing that had killed Mary, then it was still out there. It would have had a reason. It might be waiting. But waiting for what? And what the hell was he supposed to do about it? Sam squirmed on his shoulder, sleepily protesting as John held him tighter.

"Then forget I said anything," If Deacon had sounded huffier about it and less like he was offering genuine advice, John would have felt less guilty.

"I'm sorry, but even if I saw it, I won't believe it," he said as if Deacon had not just pulled back his suggestion. "You say I'm not a killer, so that means I must be crazy. That's the only answer I can accept."

"Okay, I know you didn't napalm a village, but all those memories could still be one of them, you know, Post Toasties things or whatever the head shrinkers are calling it now." Deacon made a scrambling motion at the side of his head as he sat up. "You were able to pull it together enough to get your boys out of the house, though. That's gotta count for something, right?"

"Still don't know how I did it. The way the fire--hold on."

Sam had finally fallen back asleep, but from the way Dean was fidgeting under the covers, John suspected he was about to have another crisis on his hands. He thought for a moment, then gently placed Sam back in the bed. Dean's arm went right around his little brother almost faster than John could see. The fidgeting stopped, and as John watched, Dean's breathing dropped back into the evenness of sleep.

John pulled the covers back over them, then sat back down next to Deacon. He kept his voice low, just in case. "The way the fire exploded, the way it went wild so fast... If Dean hadn't been standing right there, I wouldn't have gotten both him and Sammy out in time."

Even a glancing thought about that particular what-if made his guts twist violently.

Deacon stayed quiet, but John recognized the kind of quiet that meant thinking. They hadn't seen each other since John got married, but as soon as Deacon had showed up at the motel, everything slipped right back into a familiar rhythm despite the years.

"Sometimes, dumb luck is on your side," Deacon said after a while. "Sometimes, it ain't. It's like I told you a long time back--it's not like math is out to get you or anything."

John shook his head, and he let out a sigh that was close to being a laugh. "Yeah, I remember that talk. Angels. Shit."

Angels are watching over you.

That was what Mary always told the boys every single night. If he concentrated, he could hear her saying it right now. He remembered how she had picked up that little not-quite-a-prayer before Dean was born, and how she would rest her hand on her belly and give her unborn son that gentle reassurance.

Funny thing, but there were times John found himself believing it, or maybe just wanting to believe it. Not any more, though. What kind of guardian would let his boys' mother be taken away from them like that? Would let her burn like that, looking up at him and bursting into flame and screaming as he touched her shoulder?

No. That wasn't how it happened. Mary was looking down, and he couldn't reach her, no matter how he tried. She wasn't in some abandoned wreck of a house, she was in Sam's room, and her blood was on Sam's face, and why was it in Sam's room, what was it doing there, was it after Sammy, was it...

His hands clenched and his nails dug deep into his palms. It was impossible. Mary had passed out from smoke inhalation and when John went back to get her after getting the boys out, he saw the nursery ceiling collapse on her. That's what he told the police. That was what had happened. Anything else was just his mind turning things round-about and upside-down. It had to be. Nothing was after Sam. Sam was safe, and John was going to make sure he and Dean stayed safe.

He would start asking around about a shrink first thing tomorrow. No way he was going to put his boys through what his grandmother put his father through. No one deserved that.

"So, you gonna be okay?"

John started to give Deacon one of the pat answers he gave to all the platitudes. I'll get through this. One of these days. At least I've got the boys. I'll manage. Eventually.

But this was an honest question and it deserved an honest answer.

"No," he said plainly.

It didn't matter if it was due to dumb luck or angels; he couldn't imagine any torture worse than this.

 

Now

The torture continues.

When he is off the hooks and their never-moving present, John is very aware of how time passes. Every second. Every minute. Every day.

Every year.

There have been five of them. Years. He thinks they're years. That's what they are in this place, at least.

In the deepest parts of his mind, John feels time skidding past at different speeds as he is stretched out on the rack in Alastair's workroom. Slower, faster, backwards, in loops. Time, spooling out in all directions at once even as he endures his torture second by second by second.

This information doesn't do him any good, but what interests him--and distracts him in the too-brief pauses while Alastair changes instruments--is why he can feel it. It's a sense of distant rivers, some flowing lazily, others churning into whitewater or swirling into treacherous eddies.

At the half-decade mark, Azazel tells him that this is still only the first course. Alastair and his apprentices have taken him apart from top to bottom and from bottom to top in more ways than John even thought were possible.

Recently, Alastair has moved from dissection to desecration, but he informs John that he's still just getting warmed up.

"All this is merely preparation, my friend."

John does not ask him for what. Neither does he tell Alastair he is not his friend.

The only thing that changes is that Alastair occasionally offers him a turn, a chance to take the pain out on someone else. He opens the door from his cramped and dingy lab to a hallway that changes every time John sees it. Alastair then gestures with a flourish and depending on his mood, he holds out a knife, a bonesaw, a vial of acid.

"Wouldn't it be nice to have a turn of your own? To take it out on someone who deserves it? Not someone who came down here of his own free will out of some misguided noble impulse. You didn't have to end up here, remember?"

John never answers.

Knowing that he's genuinely tempted by the offer has become its own form of torture. So is the growing sense that giving in is inevitable.

This continues for a few months. Then, during one of Azazel's occasional visits, Alastair's question is interrupted by a hiss that hits every nerve ending like acid.

"I thought we just had ourselves a nice little talk about timing, Alastair." Azazel is not wearing his favorite meatsuit, or any meatsuit for that matter. A sharp smile bends the darkness out in the hallway, then moves into the workroom, warping the cement and steel in ways that hurt him as much as Alastair's knives.

John tries to cringe away from it, but the nails in his arms and legs hold him fast and the pain jolts through him.

"Do we need to have it again?"

"I don't understand why you're surprised," Alastair drawls. "You of all people should know that patience is not one of my few virtues."

It's a good show of bravado, but in their years together, John has learned a fair amount about Alastair. He would take more satisfaction in Alastair's fear if he weren't trying to fold up in terror himself.

"Besides, he's nowhere near ready yet." Alastair holds up a knife and admires the way its edge glints hellfire red. "The meat still needs to be a bit more tenderized before we can really get cooking... so to speak. I know what I'm doing," he snaps.

Azazel's smile bends everything again. There is a sound like a million insects buzzing and scuttling in the darkness. "I'll be watching."

The petty hacking and slashing Alastair indulges in after Azazel leaves does not hurt as much as Alastair no doubt intends.

By now, John has learned a little trick. He picked it a month or two back. At least, it feels like it was that long.

He does not know how he learned it, just as he does not know how or why he can feel time slipping by at different rates depending on where he looks. All he knows is that one day, when he was within one breath of accepting the knife, he heard a quiet, familiar voice deep in his head explaining how he could simply... step aside and pull a thin curtain between himself and whatever Alastair is doing to him. To his body.

He can still feel the pain, but it is off to the side somewhere. It doesn't reach the soul any more.

It's not just detachment. Alastair knows how to spot that sort of thing and work around it or tear it to shreds. He has already defused all the little mental tricks for dealing with pain that John had picked up in life.

Whatever this new thing is, Alastair knows even less about it than John does.

Alastair croons to himself and John about tenderness, and how he will achieve it. John is listening to something else, however. Something Alastair cannot hear.

The manifestation of the body in this place is a shield for the soul. It is also a bridge to the soul. It must be sufficiently weakened and befouled before they can begin the true work of corruption.

That fact slides into John's mind the instant he wonders why the torture has mostly been physical up until now.

How does he know this? An old memory flutters to the surface of his mind, and a woman bursts into flame.

Then, the woman becomes to Mary, and he reaches up to her but cannot save her.

He can never save her.

That's the only problem with this little trick he's learned: It gives him time to think.

So, while Alastair turns him over as a plaything to an apprentice who is already more demon than human, John tortures himself far more effectively behind his curtain.

He tortures himself with endless rounds of 'if only.'

If only he had realized...

If only he had remembered...

He tortures himself with the vision of Mary striding into the nursery and calmly blowing Azazel's fucking head off and ending his existence before even one drop of demon blood could fall into Sammy's mouth.

If only. If only...

 

1973

John lingered at Mary's house until nearly midnight Saturday. He would have stayed through the night, but she retreated further and further into herself as the evening drew on. When he tentatively, fearfully asked if she'd rather he went home, she nearly cried with relief.

Still, she said "Come by first thing," after he kissed her goodbye, and how could he even think of saying no? Less than eight hours later he was on his way back over as promised.

At this hour of the morning, all the casserole and condolence-bearing neighbors should be getting ready for church. Over the past two days, John had nearly worn himself out holding his temper and his tongue as busybody after busybody came by to congratulate themselves on how nice and compassionate they were being to the poor girl whose parents had both died on one terrible night.

So, when he pulled up to Mary's house, he was surprised and not at all happy to see a strange truck parked smack by the front walk. It had Colorado license plates, and when John brushed past, the hood was free of dew but barely warm to the touch. It hadn't been there overnight, but it had been there for a little while.

The front door was unlocked. He knocked on the doorframe as he walked through. "Mary? It's me. Is everything okay?"

Of course everything wasn't okay. It was as far from okay as you could possibly get. But there was the kind of not okay that was to be expected at present, and the kind of not okay that arrived in trucks with Colorado license plates.

"We're in here, John." He recognized that particular tightness in her voice, and he instinctively tensed, wondering what he'd done wrong this time.

Mary was in the living room. She had cleaned it up some, but she couldn't completely erase the signs of the break-in that had ended in her mother's death. John didn't understand how she could bear to be in that place, but she stood her ground well enough as she stared down a stranger.

Whoever the bearded man was, he wasn't a condolence caller. He seemed as annoyed with Mary as she was with him, and he was dressed more for cutting down a tree or shooting a bear than for a neighborly stopping by.

"Ten years," Mary said to the stranger, continuing whatever had been interrupted. She cut a glance over towards John. She might not have been angry at him, but she was less than happy to see him. "That's what he said."

John tried to remember what he might have said that had to do with ten years, and felt a flash of something ugly when he realized he had nothing to do with whatever was going on here.

The stranger shook his head. "Like I told you, it won't be a problem by then. You can trust me on that, Miss Campbell. It will all be over." He looked over at John and shrugged. "Legal nonsense. Contracts. You know how it goes."

"Yeah, I know how it goes." He knew all about the tedium that followed death, and how the paperwork had kept his father busy and sane after his mother died. But the stranger's words were too fast, too glib. And what the hell kind of probate took ten years? He moved over to Mary's side, and was gratified that happy to see him or not, she scootched over to press up against him ever so slightly. "But I also know this really isn't the time, friend."

An expected death, after years and years of illness, was bad enough, even with half your mourning done in advance. But something like this, something you couldn't brace yourself for--that was something else. John had seen his share of sudden, violent death in the war, but this was beyond him.

"I'm only in town for today," the man said. He held out a hand. "Daniel Elkins. Mary's folks and I were in the same business."

Mary looked like she wanted to rip his face off with her teeth.

Elkins sighed, and drew back his hand and ran it over his beard. "Look, I know this is awkward as hell, but I hadn't heard they'd died when I headed out here for a visit." He looked at Mary, and this time the mule-stubbornness had softened. "I had no idea what I was walking into, honest. And I am sorry. And I will take care of that problem for you. I swear it. As far as you're concerned, it's over. The whole thing. You're quit of it."

For a moment, it seemed that Mary wouldn't back down, but in the end, she broke. She looked like she was about to cry, but before John could reach out to her, she did an about-face that would have made his drill sergeant proud and headed back to the kitchen.

"John Winchester." John finally extended his hand. Elkins loooked startled, but took John's hand, staring at him with unsettling curiosity.

"So you're..." He cleared his throat. "Mary warned me you'd be coming by. I think that was meant to clear me out."

"No offense, Mister Elkins, but I think you've worn out your welcome."

Elkins nodded, and had the grace to look abashed after his effort at jocularity fell flat. "If I'd known, I would have waited a week." Then he glanced into the wreckage of the kitchen and grimaced. "Or maybe I should've come sooner."

"I don't see how it would've done any good." Near as anyone could tell, the would-be burglars fled the scene after Deanna confronted them. Maybe one of them shoved her, or maybe she fell while running for help, but either way, she'd hit the counter hard, breaking her neck.

Then, adding cruelty to cruelty, Samuel had been out tracking down Mary for whatever reason, and was so enraged to find her about to run off with John that he keeled from a heart attack on the spot.

John didn't remember much of what happened. He thought that maybe Samuel had taken a swing at him. All he knew was that one moment, Samuel was bellowing like a madman, and the next, John was waking up with his head in Mary's lap and she would not stop crying.

It still felt unreal. Strange. Like a dream. The last time he'd felt that, it was in the days after Deacon had saved his life, when he kept expecting someone in an officer's uniform to track him down and tell him that it was all a mistake, and it was time to get into his body-bag now.

"Shit. I knew I should have tagged along after him..." Elkins said, but he was speaking to himself, not John.

John started to ask who Elkins was talking about, but Mary came back into the room. She had a hinged leather case with her, about the size of a large dictionary. She handed it over to Elkins, but she looked like she was tempted to snatch it back at the last second.

"There. Gun and ammo both. Just like you were promised." She lifted her chin and squared her shoulders. "Now you can go."

Elkins didn't say anything, but he did open the case. John caught a glimpse of an antique revolver. Samuel had quite the collection of weapons, but this wasn't anything like what John had seen before.

"Like I said, I'll take care of that problem for you," Elkins said as he closed the case.

"Good. You do that. And don't bother coming back here." Mary took a step towards Elkins, and John matched her, ready to add muscle to the threat if need be.

"I won't have cause to," he said. "You can count on that."

He nodded farewell to John, then saw himself out.

There was a long silence, broken only by the thud of the truck's door and the rumble of its engine as Elkins pulled away.

John rested a hand between Mary's shoulders and began to rub small, slow circles. "Mare, who the hell was that? What's going on?"

Mary's face was blotched red. She shook her head and tried to say something, but only a squeak came out.

"Mary?"

He tried to hold her to him, but she wrenched away and yanked at the charm bracelet she always wore, tearing it from her wrist.

She screamed in rage and flung the bracelet across the room. It hit the wall with enough force to send one of the silver charms spinning off into a corner.

Not knowing what else to do, John went after the bracelet, but Mary stopped him with a harsh "Don't."

"Mary..." He needed to know what to do. What he could do. The night her parents had died, she had wanted to leave them behind. Instead, she had been left.

"Just--" She rubbed at her wrist, smearing blood from where the bracelet had broken skin. "Don't."

He was afraid she would ask him to leave, but she said nothing. She didn't do anything when he walked over to her and pulled her into a hug, but she didn't collapse into his arms so he could help take on her burdens. It was a long time of stroking her back before she let herself lean against him. She didn't sob, although before long he felt the warm wet of tears through his shirt.

"Don't," she said into his chest. "Don't leave me again, John. I'm so sorry. So sorry about everything. I couldn't lose you, too."

She wasn't making sense, but this was not the time to question it. He just stood there as long as she needed, feeling more helpless than he had ever felt in his life.

He had no idea what had gone on here today, and he didn't think it would help him any if he did know.

So he did all he could do: he didn't leave.