“If he wakes up.”
The words echoed in John’s head, Sam’s voice thick with emotion as he repeated the doctor’s prognosis for Dean.
Death, nipping at their heels since that night in November, had never felt more real to John; had never felt so present and taunting.
There had been many close calls, of course. Injuries to himself and the boys; visits to the hospital that had elicited judging stares from doctors and nurses alike. The Winchesters managed to escape death’s grasp each time and John knew the longer they hunted the shorter they were for this world. Death was a foregone conclusion for a hunter; but even John knew that now was too soon for Dean.
Honestly it was never Dean that John worried about. From the beginning John had always assumed that if something happened to one of his sons, it would happen to Sam. Mary had died in his nursery and as he learned more about what had killed her, John couldn’t help but think that something wanted his younger son. That someone or something would try to take him, try to use him. When John finally understood the truth behind what had happened to Mary, and more recently when he learned what yellow-eyes meant to do with Sam, he still never gave real thought to Dean being in danger.
John was suddenly very aware of how naïve he’d been. He knew now that he had underestimated the demons. He knew now he should have been concerned for both his sons equally.
John sighed again and called for a nurse.
Dean was unconscious, lying in a hospital bed with a thin sheet draped over him. Unable to breathe on his own, kept alive by machines. The sight of him so vulnerable and unprotected stirred strong, unexpected emotions inside John. He forgot he was a hunter and for a brief moment was simply a concerned father.
Dean’s expression was relaxed, free from the perpetually present creases on his normally furrowed brow. He looked much younger than his 27 years. John’s mind flashed back unexpectedly, to that last night before all their lives were irrecoverably changed.
He was holding a young Dean and teasing him about tossing a football with a baby Sam. John could almost feel the pressure of his young son’s tiny but strong arms holding tight around his neck and his heart suddenly ached to feel that again.
His thoughts suddenly shifted and John recalled the agonizing hours the yellow-eyed demon possessed him. He had fought hard to remain in control but he hadn’t been strong enough. He had heard the demon laughing at him inside his own head, calling him weak and pitiful, calling him unworthy, unloving, telling him he was deserving of watching his family die by his own hands. The resulting rage John felt had only weakened him and he’d felt what little control he’d had slip from his grasp. In the end it had been Dean’s painful pleas that finally gave John the power he’d needed to overtake the demon, if only for a moment.
The car accident had certainly contributed to Dean’s critical injuries but John knew it wasn’t the sole reason his son was lying here, dying before his eyes. At the cabin he had watched, powerless, as the demon bled his son to death both inside and out. It was entirely likely Dean would have walked away from the wreck like Sam, had he not been so gravely injured by a demon-possessed John.
Dad, don’t you let it kill me.
The pain on his son’s face, in his voice, had been enough for John to wrestle back control but now he was afraid it was too late. Now he fought the guilt.
There had been more than just physical pain inflicted on Dean. The demon, through John, had said so many hurtful things to his oldest son. Trapped in his own body John had plainly seen the look of painful realization cross his son’s face at the brutal words. All their lives John had spent every day emphasizing the importance of family to his boys, and he knew how much Dean had taken his lessons to heart.
The things that yellow-eyes had said weren’t entirely true, but they also weren’t entirely false. John loved both his sons equally but since the fire he’d put far more effort into making sure Sam was taken care of. He’d never been as equally concerned about Dean.
Why? John wondered now, aware it was likely too little, too late.
Was it because Sam had been a baby at the time of the fire? Was it because he had thought Dean was self-sufficient enough that John could pretend he hadn’t needed as much care? Had he really thought that Dean, just a few months shy of five years year old when Mary died, was suddenly capable of being a surrogate parent to Sam while John wallowed in self-pity?
He realized now how much bullshit that was. He was beginning to see that the pressure he had put on Dean to take care of Sam had not been fair. He felt ashamed as he thought about how much he had put on Dean, and how quickly and easily he had assigned Dean the role of being Sam’s protector. Sure, John was Sam’s father but unless they were talking about hunting or protection against the monsters out there John didn’t speak to his younger son. Later, as Sam got older, when they talked about anything at all, all they did was argue. Sam wanted to play baseball, or go on field trips, or have friends over. John denied him at every turn, except once, when he worked a months-long job in the late 90’s. Sam played soccer that year. John never saw a game, but he knew Dean attended them all. Through all the fighting Dean tried to make peace, but John only saw danger when it came to Sam, and he kept a tight-leash on him.
John had taught his sons how to defend themselves, how to hunt, and how to protect themselves and each other, but he never gave them his love or his affection. His approval came after a clean round of target practice, or a successful hunt. It was only now, at this moment, watching Dean’s still form that John finally realized how little nurturing he actually gave both his sons. He was heartbroken to think what Mary would think of him because of it.
Suddenly a memory, buried for over 20 years, came rushing to the surface. It had only been a few days since the fire…
John felt his body rock slightly as a tiny hand shook him.
“Daddy! Wake up!”
John opened his eyes and saw Dean standing at his bedside looking at him with a brow drawn in serious concern. That expression, aging Dean far beyond his years, never left his face after the fire.
“What? What’s wrong,” John slurred as he started to sit up. When the room began to tilt he fell back against the pillows. Empty beer cans rattled on the headboard.
John glanced at the alarm clock on the bedside table and groaned inwardly; 9:34 AM. The curtains were drawn tight but John could see bright sunlight fighting to get in through the crack. He still couldn’t understand how the world was continuing to go on with Mary no longer a part of it.
“Sammy’s hungry and I don’t know how to make his bottle,” Dean said, his eyebrows knotted together with worry.
John stared at his son for a moment. Dean was still dressed in his clothes from the previous day. There was dirt and food smeared across his chin and his blond hair was sticking out at weird angles all over his head.
“Okay,” John croaked.
His throat was suddenly very dry and he desperately craved a glass of water. He took another moment to compose himself, making sure he wouldn’t puke when he stood. When he was sure he could do so, he slowly rose to a sitting position. The creaking of the bedsprings and the rattling of the beer cans mixed with the soft cries of a fussy Sammy.
Dean watched his every move, the concern and worry on his face more pronounced.
Meeting his young son’s eyes John tried to smile, but it felt wrong on his face. Dean didn’t return the gesture, backing up a few steps when John stood. He too was still wearing the clothes from the previous day and he could smell himself. He needed to shower; and he needed to clean up his sons. Suddenly overcome with emotion, John bit the inside of his cheek, hard enough to draw blood, in an attempt to stem the threatening tears. Ruffling Dean’s already messy hair, John moved over to the small portable crib that held baby Sammy.
There had been precious little remaining in the house that was useful as far as baby supplies. Most of that stuff had been kept in the nursery and had burned. The police and fire departments had taken up a collection, and the church near their house had also done the same on their behalf. As such they had mountains of diapers, roughly one case of powdered formula, a mound of baby and toddler clothes, and a rag-tag collection of toys and other necessities like the portable crib as well as a well-used car seat. John wouldn’t need to shop for Sam for quite some time.
Standing over Sammy in the crib, John immediately noticed that he was clean and dressed. Picking up the fussy baby he checked his diaper; it was dry. Upon being lifted from the crib, Sam immediately stopped fussing and reached out and grabbed at John’s face. John felt his son’s tiny hands grasp at the three-day growth on his chin as he offered a slight chuckle. Sam gurgled happily in response.
“Did you take care of your brother, Dean?” John shifted Sam to one arm as he moved a few feet to the small kitchenette of the motel room. Popping the plastic lid off one of the cans of formula, John looked down at the small form of Dean standing next to him. Dean nodded proudly.
John felt overwhelming love and pride that quickly turned to sadness. Dean’s eyes were bright and with the smattering of freckles across his nose and his blonde hair he looked just like Mary. Chest tightening, John felt his limited control threatening to escape him. Quickly pushing down the emotions, bottling them up, John turned his focus to the task at hand.
“How ‘bout I show you how to make Sammy’s bottle,” he said thickly and Dean nodded, offering what was the first hint of a smile John had seen since the fire.
Yep. That must have been when it started. That moment was when he began relying on Dean to take care of Sam. It had been easier that way; easier for John.
The hospital machines beeped a steady rhythm as Dean’s chest moved slowly up and down, the equipment breathing for him; keeping him alive. John stared at him. Even as a young man his resemblance to Mary remained; his now ashy-blond hair; his green eyes; the smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks.
Dean had been a sensitive and affectionate child before the fire. He had worn all his emotions on his face; joy, sadness, love. He loved to be hugged and he had always been eager to help John in the yard, or Mary in the kitchen. No wonder it had been so easy for John to assign Dean the task of taking care of Sam after the fire. What John never noticed was that the joy that used to color his older son’s face had completely disappeared.
His chest tightened. He had directly caused the loss of Dean’s innocence. Sure it had begun innocently enough with taking care of Sammy day to day. It hadn’t been long before it had became more though; for John to make Dean responsible for protecting Sammy from everything bad in the world. At the time he didn’t realize that while Dean was watching out for Sammy, there had been no one watching out for Dean. Not even John, even when he was around, not in the way that mattered.
John cradled his head in his free hand as more memories played before his eyes.
He saw Dean singing Sammy to sleep with “Hey Jude”, the song Mary used to sing to them. Dean knew the melody of the tune but not all the words so when he got to a part he didn’t know he’d just make stuff up. The first time John heard Dean singing to Sammy after Mary’s death, he’d spent nearly 30 minutes in the bathroom crying. Sammy was nearly five before he stopped asking for Dean to sing to him and John had been inwardly relieved when he did.
When John started investigating the circumstances around Mary’s death he’d leave the boys with Pastor Jim. At first he’d only be gone for a few days at a time. Quickly that turned into weeks, and at one point he was gone for nearly two months. The joy on Dean’s face each time John returned would quickly disappear when instead of sweeping up his son in his arms as he used to do before the fire, he simply ruffled his hair as he and Jim would retreat to the study to discuss the things John was learning. After about a year, Dean had stopped rushing to meet John when he returned at all.
Thinking back, John was shocked at how quickly he had lost his desire to remain the man and father he had been before the fire, while Mary was alive. All he thought about after Mary’s death was what had been stolen from him. And revenge. He loved his boys, of that he was sure, but when Mary was taken from him it was as if part of his heart died too. He didn’t even realize until much later that Mary had also been taken from the boys. By then it was too late to be the sympathetic, loving father. He had hardened himself against affection, and his boys had suffered for it; he knew now how much he had failed his sons as a father.
Almost from the beginning Dean had to know the truth, or at least part of it. He didn’t understand why John left all the time, and Jim used to tell John that Dean was constantly peppering him with questions. So when Dean was just about to turn six, John told him the truth about what was out there. It was only a year later the first time Dean helped take care of John after he came back from a hunt bloody and beaten…
“Dean, scissors,” John grunted as he fell into the chair. He was all cut up, bleeding from everywhere it seemed.
Dean, only seven years old, silently handed his dad the scissors from the First Aid kit that lay open on one of the two double beds.
Cutting his shirt up the middle John peeled it from his torso, grimacing as it pulled away blood clots and fresh scabs. He saw Dean scrunch up his face in disgust at the same time he felt the warm trickle of blood start down the front of his chest.
“Dean, I’m gonna need your help,” John set the scissors and the bloody, cut t-shirt on the table.
“I help?” Sam piped up from the couch. His disheveled mop-head appeared suddenly over the backside.
“Sammy, watch your movie,” John grumbled as Dean immediately moved towards the couch and tucked Sam back into his blanket, out of view of the bloody figure of John.
Moving back towards him, Dean stared at John expectantly.
“Go to the bathroom and soak a few towels in the sink,” John ordered as he lowered his head to try and assess the damage.
He’d fallen out of a two story-window, only it hadn’t been just any window. It had been one of those large picture windows. When John had hit it, it had broken into large shards of glass that cut and scratched at him as he went through. It was a miracle he hadn’t pierced his body on any pieces when he’d landed. As it was he had only a few minor scratches, and one deep cut that would need more than a bandage to stem the blood flow.
With Dean in the bathroom wetting towels John stood, feeling the painful stretch and pull of the tightening skin around the cuts on his body. Twisting, he ignored the pain as he tried to get a look at the deep laceration in his side. It stretched just far enough back that John was certain he wouldn’t be able to sew it up on his own. He cursed to himself; he needed a hospital. But this small town in Montana didn’t have one.
Dripping towels in hand, Dean returned from the bathroom.
Wordlessly, John took one towel and after wringing it out on the already stained carpet he started cleaning the area around the cuts on his chest, reassessing the damage as he went. He instructed Dean to gently clean the blood off his back at the same time.
“I need you to go to the motel office and ask for a needle and thread. If anyone asks tell ‘em your dad needs to patch his jeans and no he doesn’t need any help,” John looked at Dean as they both tossed bloody towels to the floor beneath the table. Of all things to lose; John cursed and made a mental note to be more careful when packing up the car, and to remind Dean not to let Sammy play with anything that wasn’t his.
Dean nodded, his expression serious as he pulled on his shoes and bounded out into the night. John waited for Sammy’s head to pop up from the couch at the sound of the door, but he remained silent. John hoped he was asleep.
He continued to clean his torso of blood until Dean returned with a wicker basket full of spools of thread and a pin cushion with several needles and pins poking out of it.
“The lady said to be fast and bring it right back,” Dean said breathlessly as he set the basket on the kitchen table.
John sighed. This was where it was going to get difficult.
“Dean, attention now,” John started, pulling a long length of black thread and cutting it with his teeth. He threaded the smallest needle he could find in the pincushion.
What he was about to ask of Dean was too much, and John knew it. But he had no other choice. The laceration in his side was deep and steadily bleeding. It needed sewn up and he couldn’t wait until they were nearer a hospital. John could do most of the stitching, but the cut wrapped awkwardly up and around his back, climbing towards his upper ribs and there was just no way he could twist his arm to reach. He tried to convince himself that this was a good skill for Dean to have, even if the lesson was coming far too soon.
“Watch now,” John ordered as he popped the top off the bottle of whiskey he had been drinking and poured it over the needle, then the laceration. Gritting his teeth against the stinging he gave Dean a curt nod. The anxious expression was gone from his young son’s face, replaced by a curious and focused determination that never failed to make John proud.
Slowly John began stitching up the wound, eyes moving between Dean and his wound as he worked from the front to the back. While he stitched he talked to Dean, explaining how the alcohol killed germs on the needle and in the wound; how he knew this particular cut needed stitches when the other cuts on his body didn’t. He showed Dean how to make proper stitches; not to go too deep into the skin, but to get deep enough to hold the wound closed.
Slowly sewing the laceration closed, the limits of John’s reach were met and it fell to Dean to finish.
“Okay Dean, I need your help now,” John held the needle out to Dean. It was bright red with John’s blood. The black thread trailed between them, terminating at the jagged line of stitches in John’s side. It wasn’t pretty and would likely leave behind a nasty scar.
Dean slowly reached out and took the needle. His determined expression hadn’t changed but his face had whitened. John felt another flutter of guilt in the pit of his stomach. This was all wrong, but there was no one else to help. John didn’t have any contacts near enough to help and the old woman running the motel might call the police if asked. If he called the authorities himself there’d be too many questions. John had learned very early on that he needed to avoid authorities at all costs when he was injured, and especially when he was with the boys.
“You can do it,” he prodded and the reaction from Dean was immediate.
John watched as the young boy set his jaw and focused his eyes on the task, his brow deeply furrowed with concentration. John took a swig of whiskey as Dean made the first of his stitches. He went in a little too deep and John had to bite his cheek to keep from calling out in painful surprise.
The pain eased as Dean worked, and when he’d finished the last stitch John cut the thread and explained how to tie the ends together so the stitches wouldn’t come loose. He couldn’t help but notice how easy and natural it was for Dean. Once again the pride he had for his son was overwhelming, even as it mixed with the guilty knowledge that he was likely damaging his young son’s psyche forever.
Sitting in the hospital watching Dean struggling to survive had John feeling incredibly powerless. It was a feeling he was not accustomed to. His entire life Dean had followed John’s orders and taken care of Sammy. He’d done everything John had ever asked of him. His whole life had been what John forced upon him. The responsibility of his little brother, the job of hunting ghosts and demons and all the other evil things they encountered. Dean never complained; he was loyal, almost to a fault.
Had Dean ever wanted anything else? Yes, John thought sadly as another memory flooded forward. He’d wanted his mother back...
John started awake. He instantly knew what had awoken him, even if for a moment he couldn’t place it. The low moan from the bed next to him reminded him.
It was happening again.
“No,” Dean, his voice lower in octave since he’d hit puberty, murmured as he thrashed under the covers. John sat up in his own bed, watching impassively as his eldest son struggled to free himself from the tangled bed sheets.
John glanced over at Sam, asleep on the pull out couch and unaware of his brother’s nightmare.
“Mom,” Dean’s voice wavered, choking on the word.
John felt the cold pit that lived in his stomach grow hot. The nightmare, this same nightmare, had been following Dean since the fire that night.
At first John had reacted as any parent would; he would shake Dean awake then hold him as he cried himself back to sleep, calling for his mother all the while. He could feel his own fragile resolve breaking each time he had to cradle his son and sooth his cries.
After a few months John couldn’t handle the emotional turmoil anymore and he stopped waking Dean up. He hated himself for it. John had no one to do that for him when he had nightmares and a part of him resented having to offer that comfort to Dean. He knew it wasn’t fair. He was the father and it was his job to offer comfort. Yet still he let his older son suffer his nightmares alone. Eventually the nightmares slowed, occurring with less frequency and coming only once or twice a month, even into Dean’s teenage years.
John knew Dean remembered his mother. When the boys were younger he used to overhear Dean telling Sam little things about her. How she baked the best pies; that she liked The Beatles; that it was her that used to sing them “Hey Jude”. How she smelled like summer and that she was smart and told good stories; the kind of things that a four-year-old would remember about a mother.
Dean had never talked about Mary to John, or in front of John. He knew it wasn’t a good thing but it was also something John didn’t press. He knew he couldn’t talk about her with him either and as Dean got older he stopped talking about her altogether, even when John would overhear Sam asking.
Dean was Mary’s son in looks and attitude and for John it was both a blessing and a curse. He was reminded of her every time he looked at Dean, which not only fueled the fire of revenge, but reminded him of everything he’d lost.
“Mommy,” Dean murmured, his tone evoking a child’s voice; his nightmare seeming to finally end as his struggles eased and his breathing evened out.
John lay back down on his own bed, crossing his arms over his eyes as he wished for an end to his son’s pain, if only so that it would end his own as well.
John thought back to Dean’s first hunt; he had been ten and he had been asking for months to start hunting. He was good with a gun when target shooting, and truthfully John was eager to see what he could do. Over the Christmas break from school, and leaving Sam with Bobby, John had taken Dean on a very simple job involving a benign spirit that was haunting the new house of a retired couple. He’d shown Dean how to use an EMF meter and together they’d gone to the local library and researched the history of the house and the man who had died there. John explained how to use the microfiche and how to find information from old newspapers. After they’d determined where the man was buried they worked together to dig up the grave. When the bones had been salted and doused with lighter fluid, John presented Dean with a gift; a silver lighter.
John wondered now if Dean still had that lighter, or if it had been lost along the way, like so many other things.
John let Dean accompany him off and on over the years, just enough to help him learn but not enough to give the authorities anything to notice. It was a few months before his 18th birthday when Dean informed his father that he was dropping out of school. He’d already scheduled the GED exam. He was ready to help his father hunt, more full-time.
John knew it was wrong to be proud of Dean’s decision. He knew he should want Dean to graduate High School. He also knew that Dean didn’t care about those things. Not like Sam did. So John had let him drop out, and they drank together when he’d passed his GED. As a gift, John gave him the keys to the Impala. They started staying in motels nearer the jobs, and during the day when Sam was at school Dean would work with his father. For the next several years this was the pattern. Sam grew more volatile towards John, and Dean worked harder to keep the peace.
Then Sam left for Stanford…
“You leave now don’t you ever come back!”
He could feel blistering anger that radiated from Sam as his younger son squared up to him nose to nose, looking him straight in the eye. For a moment John thought Sam was going to hit him but then he turned and without pause stepped out the door of the motel and was gone.
Dean had been out getting food when Sam and John had started arguing and when he’d returned John had been forced to tell him that Sam was gone.
It was the first time John saw anger and disappointment from Dean, directed at him. Immediately Dean wanted to leave, to chase after Sam and drag him back. But John refused to go and Dean stormed out into the night intent on finding Sam on his own.
Instead he sat up all night, cell phone in hand as he waited for any word from Dean or Sam. Early the next morning Dean returned alone and with a visible weight on his shoulders. John never asked Dean what had happened, but he knew that Sam was the one person that could affect Dean so severely.
Dean didn’t talk to John for days after. He followed John’s orders and did his job but at the end of the night he would disappear. After the first few nights John stopped waiting up for him, knowing Dean would find his way back to the motel by morning; he always did. He wondered if Dean was talking to Sam; if they were keeping in touch. He never asked, and Dean never said.
A few months after Sam left, John began hunting alone. Occasionally they’d work together, though he mostly sent Dean to work his own jobs. They’d meet up every few weeks to swap stories and check in. Neither Winchester spoke of Sam to the other. John began to notice that Dean was different. He still followed John’s instructions, but that air of approval, of acknowledgement for a job well done was no longer there.
John slowly realized that he had directly been responsible for breaking Dean’s heart.
Sitting alone with Dean, with the monitors beeping and the distant calls of doctors and nurses drifting in the door, John made a decision. Now was the moment he could redeem himself. He could choose his son over his need for revenge.
It had been years since the three of them had been together yet John saw it immediately; Sam needed Dean more than he needed John. Now was the time that he could make the choice, the decision that was best for his sons.
He could be a father.