The haunting just outside Leawood had been nothing much – a child tied to the altar of grief her mother and father had built by the side of the road. The closest thing to a gentle exorcism John Winchester had ever performed, it was a matter of moments to break the link and send the spirit on.
He set the tattered teddy bear, its body cavity now packed with rock salt, back against the graying scar in the tree trunk, and straightened. The altar looked no different, not to passing motorists and, more importantly, not to the child's parents who returned weekly to the crash site with armloads of fresh flowers, but there were changes enough to keep the child's spirit from returning.
The cards fluttering like pinned butterflies against the bark suggested the child had a sibling. John couldn't tell for sure if it was a brother or a sister; Robin could go either way; but he hoped like hell the living kid was getting at least as much attention as the dead one.
Maybe he was mellowing as he got older but he thought he understood the pain that kept those poor pathetic parents coming back. If he lost either of his boys he didn't think he'd be able to go on. And maybe it had taken him too damned long to realize that; hell, Sammy'd turned eighteen back in the spring, a man with opinions of his own and a good four inches on his older brother; but he'd had his nose rubbed too thoroughly in the possibilities to deny it now.
Back in the truck, he pulled out onto 71 and continued north toward Joplin; the shopping trip appended onto the job the real reason he'd left the boys behind in Racine. Living in each other's pockets like they did, privacy often required a little adjusting of the facts. Dean, at least, had suspected something was up but had only winked and told him to take his time.
John grinned as he pulled out to pass a transport. His older son had a bit of a one track mind but he couldn't fault that; at twenty-two he hadn't thought of much else either. Survive another day at a dangerous job; get a little. Okay, his job had involved a uniform and the Viet-Cong but the differences were superficial. Thing was, and his grin faded, he'd wanted more for his boys.
It took him almost no time at all to find the shop he'd seen advertised on late, late night TV and a lot less time than he'd expected for the craftsman to put together his order. Helped that they did engraving on site. Helped more that they didn't ask questions.
He'd told the boys he'd be away for at least a day and a half but eleven seventeen that night found him pulling into the motel parking lot. It was pouring down rain, the kind of rain that sounded like a freight train passing as it pounded the truck and likely sounded about as loud under the motel's cheap tin roof and crap insulation. He parked a space away from the Impala; never hurt to have a little maneuvering room -- checked that the new purchase was locked safely in the glove box, tucked in by the paperwork that went with it, then he turned up his collar and ran for the overhang.
There was a bar of light at the edge of the boys' window where the cheap curtains belled away from the frame. John stopped, noted the salt line, realized he was looking at the big, rectangular mirror over the low dresser, realized the reflection showed him pretty damned near the whole room.
Sam sat at one side of the room's small table with a book and Dean sat on the other side, packing shotgun shells with rock salt. The wet heat had them both stripped down to jeans and undershirts; the claw mark across Dean's shoulder from that Harpy over near Wakefield seemed to be healing well. It was a domestic scene kind of specific to the Winchesters and John found himself smiling almost foolishly as he watched his sons enjoying a peaceful moment.
No surprise really that it didn't last.
Dean flicked a bit of salt onto Sam's book. Sam ignored him. A bit more salt. Sam ignored that too although John was pretty sure he'd seen the corner of Sam's mouth twitch. When Dean flicked an empty shell casing onto the book, Sam kicked him under the table and it was on.
John winced as Dean's chair went flying – the boys were hard on furniture, although, in all fairness, that small explosion down in New Mexico had been his fault and he reminded himself once again to check the best before date on any dynamite he bought. Sam rose to meet his brother's charge; and kept rising. That was taking a bit of getting used to particularly since he'd started getting bulk to go with his height. But Dean was older and Dean fought dirty. John nodded in approval at the last minute shift and the leg sweep that almost toppled Sam to the carpet.
Almost. Because Sam for all his new size was still fast on his feet. He grabbed his brother's arm, whipped him around, and flung him onto one of the beds, throwing himself down directly after, before Dean could bounce back up and into the fight. Using his height to its best advantage, he got Dean's arms crossed behind his back, so Dean's own weight as he lay face up on the bed, helped to hold them in place. Straddling his brother's hips, hands gripping his wrists, legs bent and bare feet hooked over ankles to lock the lower body in place, Sam had Dean pinned.
John frowned. To his critical eye, it'd seemed like Dean had given up a bit easily.
Sam leaned forward and although John couldn't see his face, he could well imagine the maniacal glint in his younger boy's eyes. "Say it," he growled and it wasn't until then that John realized the window was open about three inches and the rain had let up enough for him to hear.
Dean bared his teeth. "Not going to happen."
They were both sweating freely enough that during Dean's brief struggle for freedom, Sam almost lost his grip but, somehow, he managed to hang on. "You know I can make you beg."
"So make me." A shift of Sam's hips and Dean arced up off the bed, his head back, tendons showing in the long curve of his neck, heat in his voice, "Jesus, Sammy..."
Dean groaned out a response.
"A little louder, Dean." Sam's growl had become less of a threat and more of a promise. "I didn't quite catch that."
Neither had John. Fingers clutching the window sill so tightly that the cheap, peeling paint flaked off under his grip, he leaned forward, heart drumming behind his ribs, terrified of what he was about to hear.
"Please, Sammy, fuck me."
John had heard his elder son cry out as a Harpy's claws laid open his back. He'd seen him slammed up against a dozen walls by poltergeists. He even dug him out from under a collapsed cottage. He'd never heard him beg. Not until now.
Sam made a sound half triumph, half want and released his brother's wrists, huge hands coming up to wrap around Dean's head as he bent to his brother's mouth. Dean dragged his arms out from behind his back and buried his hands in Sam's hair, his legs falling open so that Sam could settle between them.
That kiss killed any hope his boys had fallen into a buddies in a foxhole thing. Given the way they lived, he could have understood that. He wouldn't have been happy, but he'd have understood.
No one kissed with that kind of desperate need when they were only scratching an itch.
They were moving now, rocking against each other and when they finally broke apart, Dean drew his tongue over wet and swollen lips and said, "I swear to you Sammy, if you make me come in my jeans you're doing the fucking laundry."
"What's the matter, old man; no staying power?"
It sounded like snark and counter snark but these were John's boys and he heard what they weren't saying. He heard need and desire and a shared history that created the kind of trust they'd never had a chance to find with anyone else.
When Sam's fingers began fumbling with Dean's fly, John backed away from the window. Backed all the way to the side of the truck, opened the door, slid inside, and put her in neutral so he could roll back to the other side of the lot before starting the engine. They hadn't heard him drive up, but the rain had eased off and they'd both been taught to be aware of their surroundings regardless.
Truck in gear, he drove slowly out of the lot and up the road to where he vaguely remembered seeing the flickering neon lights of the closest bar. He needed a drink.
He pulled onto the shoulder and stopped the car, getting the door open and hitting the gravel just barely in time to empty his stomach by the side of the road.
His boys were...
Right now, this very minute, they were...
Eventually, he had nothing left to throw up. Lifting his face to the rain, he opened his mouth and let it wash away the taste of bile. Why hadn't he stopped them? Why hadn't he kicked the damned door down and demanded to know what the hell they thought they were doing? Why hadn't he dragged them apart and reminded them they were brothers? He was their father, for fucksake, he should be...
What? What should he be? Did a should even exist for fathers who just watched their older son begging his younger brother to fuck him? John very much doubted it.
The bar was closing when he finally reached it.
"Sell me a bottle, then."
She looked at him, up and down, and he knew he looked like shit standing there, wet clothes dripping on the scuffed hardwood floor. Then she studied his face for a moment and hard eyes, bracketed between a double fringe of heavily mascaraed lashes, softened. "Rough night."
She nodded, like she'd had a few rough nights herself, and went behind the bar. "Give me twenty," she said, pulling a bottle of Jack from the shelf. "And don't drink it out front of my place or I'll call the cops myself."
He ended up another five miles down the road in a Wall-Mart parking lot where a half a dozen transports were laying over. He parked the truck in the shadows and opened the bottle. When almost a third of it was gone, he realized that the moisture on his face was too warm to be blamed on the rain water running out of his hair.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd cried. In the early years after Mary's death there'd been a few times when he didn't think he could go on, when the knowledge that he'd failed to keep her safe had been the only thing in his head, but he'd had the boys and he had to be strong for them and their life didn't leave much time for grieving.
Turning his wedding ring around his finger, he let the tears fall. He'd failed Mary. He'd failed his boys. Her boys.
No secret that parents wanted better a life for their children. Until tonight, John had thought it wasn't too late for his.
Eventually, he scrubbed his sleeve over his eyes and found a tissue in the jacket crammed down behind the seat. Clearly his subconscious was smarter than he was; he hadn't gone charging in, guns blazing demanding to know what the hell was going on because Sam had spent the last few months just aching for a knock-down, drag-out fight and, in this particular instance, if he'd challenged them, John had no doubt Dean would side with his brother and he'd lose them both.
Sam had always dragged the older boy around by the short and curlies.
Bitter laugh at the truth of that.
He didn't blame them for finding comfort in each other; he accepted the blame, added its weight to the guilt he already carried. He didn't blame them. But it had to stop.
Leaning across the cab of the truck, he opened the glove compartment, pulling out the two envelopes and the gift box.
The first envelope held a letter to Samuel Winchester from Stanford University, explaining when he needed to arrive on campus in order to complete the paperwork for his scholarship. John had taken it out of one of their post office boxes back the end of July. God, he'd been so proud. So proud that a dozen different schools and the life he'd been forced to lead hadn't kept his Sammy from shining. He took after his mother. They'd been his boys for so long that he'd almost forgotten they were her boys too. She was smart. Had been smart.
John took another long drink of the whiskey. Smarter than he'd deserved. Took him almost eighteen years to realize what he'd been doing to their sons, the knowledge hitting him like a kick in the teeth as he read that letter from the university.
The gift box held a heavy pen, the expensive kind that lawyers used except lawyers' pens seldom came with a small silver blade in the handle. The blade was no more than two and a half inches long but Sam had a thing for blades, drove him and Dean nearly crazy the chances he'd take getting in close. John'd had the blade engraved with a protection rune on one side, and on the other: Mightier than the sword, love Dad.
The second envelope held a mechanic's license made out in the name of Dean Winchester. No way John would let Sam go off on his own. Dean could keep him safe, maybe hunt a little, but maybe start to make a life for himself as well; find a girl, settle down, open his own garage in time, open the beer when his dad came to visit. Make a place for John to come back to when the hunt was finally over.
Sam had a way out and a place to be. He just needed to be convinced to leave his brother behind. To walk away from the comfort and closeness they'd found in a life that gave them bugger all options for anything else.
Dean didn't know about Stanford, John would bet his life on that. He didn't know why Sam hadn't told his brother, but suspected it was because he knew Dean couldn't, wouldn't keep the secret. He was waiting until the last minute, planning to force Dean's hand.
Right now, having seen what he'd seen, John had no illusions which of them Dean would pick. Dean loved the hunt, but he clearly loved his brother more. John rubbed his thumb over the official seal, calluses catching on the raised print. It was too dark in the cab of the truck to read it, but he knew it was a good forgery -- he'd paid top dollar for it. A little research had shown him there were two garages that specialized in classic cars within twenty miles of Sam's school.
Uesless paper now.
Sam needed to go in such a way that he'd stay gone. It had to be a clean cut, the kind that would heal with the least amount of scarring. He had to have a chance to make a life for himself, a normal life, the kind of life his mother would have wanted for him. John's mouth twisted up into something not quite a smile. Fortunately, his younger son had his temper and for the last couple of years it had taken very little to bring things between them to the flash point.
Dean though, Dean was the peacemaker, throwing himself between his father and his brother with little thought for his own hide.
John took another swallow of whiskey and rubbed his thumb over the license again. Dean Winchester was afraid of only one thing. Oh, he was properly cautious on the hunt but that was training; the only thing that cut through his cocky self-confidence was the fear of losing what was left of his family. That particular button had been installed the night Mary'd... the night she'd...
...the night he'd lost his wife and the boys had lost their mother and it nearly killed him to have to use it, to use it as a weapon against his own son, but he didn't see as he had much choice.
Eventually, he slept a little and, at first light, he drove back to the motel. He let the engine roar in neutral for a minute, as though he were fumbling for the pedals, and hit the gas not the brake -- letting the boys know he was here and that he'd been drinking. He parked at the end of the building to give them enough time to hide the way they'd spent the night, then he drank a little courage and scooped both envelopes and the box from the passenger seat.
One envelope and the box went into the motel's dumpster. Lost and buried like the hope he'd allowed himself to have.
He took a deep breath when he reached the door and, as he slid the key into the lock, put his game face on. That last swallow of whiskey burned in his gut. It wasn't enough, but he'd need to be smart if this was going to go according to plan.
Because he had a plan; sacrifice Dean to save Sam. Use that old pain to convince Dean he'd been betrayed. Use Sam's stubborn temper to goad him into walking out, into burning his bridges. He'd tie his older son to his side with yet more grief to allow his younger to go free and he'd pray to a God he no longer believed in that someday, somehow, he could make it right.
As he kicked open the door, letter from the university in one hand, the other curled into a fist to hide the way his fingers trembled, he couldn't stop thinking of the altar by the side of the road where grieving parents continued to mourn the child they'd lost...