John pulls up outside the warehouse and is out of the car before he can even think of putting it in park or turning off the engine. He hears it roll forward again as he sprints across the cracked parking lot, and then he’s bursting through a rust-flaked side door and he can’t hear anything but his pulse pounding in his head.
There’s no consideration or tactical analysis, not after the message he received on his cell three hours ago. He has his gun out, though, and he’s sure as hell going to put a bullet in anything that tries to come between him and his destination.
Once inside, there’s no doubt which path to take. There are scuffmarks on the grime-caked floors. There’s blood spattered on the walls.
Not his, please God, John prays, although after hearing the message he knows better.
He sprints through a blood-smeared door and into a wide, open space. For the first time since he checked his messages back at the motel, he skids to a stop. His breath sticks in his throat and then wheezes out again in suppliant whisper.
Dean hangs from his wrists, manacled to a chain that rises up into the rafters and out of sight. Big as the room is, there’s no missing him—not with a perfect spill of moonlight filtering through a cleared skylight and striking his body like a spotlight. He’s naked, his clothes folded in a tidy, mocking pile at his feet and the rest of him on display.
He’s also unconscious, which is the only mercy. He has to be unconscious, because John can’t bear the alternative.
John launches himself forward, stumbling in his haste to cross the space between them—empty space, no one here but them; John’s quarry is hours gone. He slows as he nears his boy, his left hand unlocking from the gun and rising to cup his mouth as he fights the urge to vomit. Tears blur his vision, and he blinks them furiously away.
His boy has been whipped.
Thick weals cover Dean’s back from nape to knee, crisscrossed with deeper lines that have flayed open his skin. Bloodied slices curl over his flanks onto his sides, marring the broad strength of his thighs. One of Dean’s shoulders has developed a grotesque extra joint—dislocated at some point in the ordeal when he jerked too hard against the chains. Blood streaks his arms where they’re stretched over his head, and John knows it’s because his boy fought the manacles when they strung him up here. He fought to get free with everything he had.
John knows because he got to listen.
He circles to Dean’s front because he hopes it’ll be easier to look, then bites the inside of his cheek as his bile rises.
Dean’s chest and stomach are a mottle of bruising. There’s a clear boot print over his ribs, some of which must be broken. The whip marks extend even here, lashes that coiled around his side and bit into his front. His lip is bloodied, but his face is otherwise unmarked, although his eyes both look blackened in comparison to the pallor of his skin.
There’s a placard hung around his neck, meant for John.
Next time, I won’t be so gentle.
It isn’t signed, and the voice on John’s phone never identified itself, but John knows who it was all the same. He knows what it was.
For an instant, he thinks about obeying the warning, taking his son, and leaving all this behind.
Then he thinks about the sound of Dean screaming in the background while the son of a bitch murmured onto John’s machine—should take better care of what’s yours, Johnny; my he’s a screamer, isn’t he; such a foul tongue, maybe I’ll cut it out.
Sudden fear suffuses him and he steps forward. His hands are on Dean’s face before he means to touch and Dean’s eyes snap open—thin rim of intense green around pupils so dilated he looks almost alien.
Dean jerks away from John’s hands without seeing him. His breath comes in shallow, hitching gasps and he jerks again at the manacles like a live wire. It doesn’t last long. One pull against his dislocated shoulder and his mouth opens in a silent scream (tongue present and accounted for, thank God for small favors). Then his eyes roll back into his skull, and he collapses once more into unconsciousness.
It takes John almost half an hour to figure out how to get his boy out of the manacles without harming him further, and by then Dean has come around twice. He seems to recognize John a little the second time.
The third time Dean surfaces, John has his son propped against his chest—cradling him carefully, so damn carefully, but he can still tell from the shift in Dean’s breath that he’s hurting him.
“Shh, don’t try to talk.”
“Dad, ‘m sorry. Jumped me. Stupid.”
John’s throat clenches and then unlocks again. “Don’t worry about it, son. We’ll talk when you’re better.”
“Should’ve seen ‘em comin’,” Dean persists. “M’sorry.”
Grimacing, John shuts his eyes. “Wasn’t your fault, buddy,” he breathes, and soothes a hand through Dean’s hair—stiff with sweat and stray drops of blood from his wrists, but the caress seems to calm Dean some. He shuts up and lies silently in John’s arms.
“Dean,” John says when he’s waited as long as Dean can afford. “I have to carry you to the car. It’s going to hurt.”
Dean huffs a laugh.
“You have a preference for how I do this?”
Dean hesitates, then says, “My back, I can’t—” His voice breaks, and that’s the moment John understands what a massive mistake the son of a bitch who killed his wife just made.
He’ll pay, he thinks, cupping the back of his boy’s head.
That bastard will pay if it’s the last thing John does.