Title: Of Bastard Saints
Authors: Nix and Teesa (aka nilchance and beanside)
Rating: Adult
Disclaimer: We make no claim of ownership on the Brothers and Daddy Winchester. No infringement is intended, no money is made.
Author Notes: Set after the episode "Devil's Trap."

****

1


It was never good to see that smile, Sam thought. It was worse, he realized, when you weren't sure where the hell you were. As his brain started to work, the thoughts pulling free from the mire, memories started to flood back, and he realized what might be worst of all. When it was John Winchester giving you that half-pitying smile. "Dean?"

John shook his head, eyes falling. For a moment, Sam thought he saw a sheen in them, but that had to be a trick of the light. "No."

Sam was silent, trying to remember how to breathe around the pain. "No," he repeated. Then he shook his head, hard, like he could shed this. "It's someone else. It's not him."

"Sam," John gritted. "I know. But he was already hurt before the truck-"

Deep inside his head, Sam heard himself screaming. That was the only thing that kept his voice level now. "It's. Not. Dean. It's never- he always gets back up."

"They did their best, but he was too- they lost him." John took a breath, forcing down the sob that threatened. Sam needed him now. He had to be strong. Just a little longer. "He wanted to be cremated-"

"No. Not yet."

An edge slid into John's voice. "Sam, he was pretty specific."

"I said no!" Sam thundered. Outside the room, he heard a nurse's footsteps falter, then hurry away. "Goddammit, I never got to say good bye to mom, I never got to say good bye to Jess, I'll be damned if I let this family rob me of the chance to say goodbye to someone else I loved," he snarled. His breath faltered in his throat as he realized the slip, that split second absence of faith that let him stack Dean with the rest of the dead. No. Faith. If this was just some stupid nightmare, some vision or test, then he had to hold steady and not blink. "That I love."

John raised his head. For one moment, there was that old, dangerous light in his eyes. "This family?" he asked, almost mildly. "This family robbed you? That demon robbed us. It took Mary, Jess and now Dean-"

Sam felt his fingers twist in the sheets, his grip tightening until it hurt. He pushed himself upright, the hurt searing down him and taking his breath away. John's hand jerked, like he wanted to steady Sam. Wobbling on his arms, Sam bit off, "That's all this is to you? Just one more reason for your fucking crazy crusade?"

John didn't flinch. "You know that's not it. Lay back down."

"But hey, why should I be surprised? That's all it ever was with you. You knew he was hurt in that goddamned cabin and you didn't even- not even a word to-" Sam faltered to a stop, both at the awful look on his father's face and at the silence where Dean's voice should've been. No one to buffer him. Nobody to referee. Just he and Dad left to tear each other apart. Because this wasn't a demon Dean could dodge, or a threat he could laugh off. There was no battle in the white coffin of the hospital room, nothing they could fight. He swallowed, sliding onto his back again, and stared at the ceiling as he tried not to blink. "Did they, um. Did they say if he-?"

"He went in his sleep," John murmured. His hand settled on Sam's, careful of the IV as he squeezed gently. "He'd be pissed."

Sam almost choked on a laugh. Outside, he could hear a nurse pacing past their door, waiting for a good time to interrupt before one of them went for the other's throat. All Sam's energy had drained suddenly, leaving him barely enough to turn and look at John again. He knew this ritual, trying to scrape together enough to smile and play at being alive. Funny; for a few months there, he'd almost bought into that himself. "Are you okay?"

Stupid question. Still, John nodded, leaning back into his wheelchair. "I'mÖ managing."

Wait. Wheelchair? Hospital lawyers, or-? Sam tensed. "Dad. That truck hit on your side."

John's fingers tightened fractionally on the grips of his wheelchair. Then he braced himself on the rails of the bed, pushing himself back just a little, and tugged the blanket on his lap aside. His expression didn't give an inch.

Sam looked at the empty pajama leg, neatly tucked up and pinned. The abrupt end where his father's leg should have been. He blinked, struggling to make that image make sense. This was his father. The man who taught him how to drive stick and who could probably have outrun him right up until that truck hit. And now-

Sam put a hand over his mouth to quiet his breathing. After a minute, he managed a strangled, "Okay."

John tugged the blanket back into place. "If you need a bucket, say it. God knows I did."

Shaking his head, Sam closed his eyes. The world felt like it was tilting on its axis, into chaos. Men like his father didn't survive active duty or years of demon-hunting to lose a leg in something as bizarrely banal as a car accident. Men like his brother didn't die before they reached 30. Sam was supposed to be the one who went first, if one of them had to die.

In other words, this sucked out loud.

The thought almost made him smile. Dean had never been able to explain how that was worse than plain old sucking. It faltered almost as quickly. God, DeanÖ

The door opened, and somehow, he still almost expected to see hazel eyes and a quicksilver smile. Somehow, he thought he always would. Instead, the nurse gave him a solicitous smile. "How's my best patient?" she asked sweetly.

He thought about pointing out the irony that the unconscious guy was her best patient. "I'm here."

"Of course," her smile dropped away, eyes looking anywhere but his. "Poor little lamb. I'm so sorry about your brother."

Poor little lamb. Poor Sam. Hadn't he heard this before? All the people who looked at him with pity, like he would fall to pieces. He'd never told Dean that leaving Stanford was almost a relief.

Dean hadn't pitied him. Hadn't babied him. Dean had looked him in the eyes and told him that it sucked, and helped him to do something about it.

He'd be damned if he'd fall to pieces now.

The nurse looked at him expectantly, and he shook his head. "Sorry, what?" Dean was counting on him.

"Is there anything you need?" she asked gently.

Sam nodded, eyes hardening. "Yeah. When do I start PT?" And if it was the last thing he did, he'd kill the son of a bitch who took his brother from him.

****

2

It was his birthday, Jason realized abruptly, looking at his stolen watch. Fuck. Somewhere between St. Louis and Kentucky, he'd lost a day. Again.

The sign said that he was about a hundred and forty miles from Chicago. He'd be able to find work there, get some cash. Some food. When he checked his pack this morning, the perishables he'd swiped from the Adler family were just crumbs and empty wrappers.

Nice folks, that family, or so he'd assumed from the pictures scattered across their cabin. Nice of them to donate clothes, cash and food to a passing stranger, even if they weren't actually in the house to know that they'd donated. Like the guy in the hospital lot who'd donated his car, all the best charity was kept quiet. Especially from the donors.

A truck whipped past, spraying dust and making Jason flinch. He edged further into the shoulder of the highway, walking a little faster. His lungs were aching again, his muscles burning. He'd tried to hitchhike, but no one had even paused as they tore past him. A few even sped up, which said that Jason needed to grab another shower before the highway patrol decided to pull over for him.

Luckily, Jason could see the truck heading towards a gas station up ahead. As he drew closer, he could see a field of trucks that had pulled over for the night, and a sign declaring that you could get a quick shower for cheap. It was better than trying to clean off with stream water, which left him grimier than he'd started. Besides which, the claustrophobia of the forest made his nerves crawl.

Maybe that was a hint. Maybe not. For the moment, Jason's mind was tired from prying at that particular lockbox. He walked faster, striding towards the station in as close to a run as he could manage. When he reached the glass doors, he paused long enough to case for security cameras. Once he'd found them, he lined up his path like a pool shot, keeping his face averted and his body mostly in the blind spots between the angles of the cameras. Better safe than sorry. The bulky sweater, its hoodie pulled up, didn't help him look any less like a mugger, but Jason didn't need to look conspicuous on film. If it was choice between static from a truck-stop manager or from the people hunting him, Jason would take the manager.

From the wary look the girl behind the counter gave him, Jason's care wasn't lost on her. He flashed her a quick smile, which made her jumpier. Definitely in need of a shower. He dug out a few crumpled bills, bought a shower and a bag of peanuts. Cheap protein. He'd need it.

The girl put the tokens on the counter rather than in his hand, and turned half away, like he couldn't see her still watching him. They all were watching him: the girl, her manager, the cluster of patrons in the rest stop's all night diner. It didn't worry him anymore. He'd checked for cops. Other than that, no one would actually remember what he'd looked like once he was gone.

"Thanks," Jason drawled. He'd been doing that, trying out accent after accent to see which felt familiar in his mouth. That one didn't work, but it was still better than his botched attempt at sounding Scottish.

The girl gave him a pale smile, apparently reassured enough that she turned all the way away from him. Jason scooped up his dinner and his tokens, and followed his narrow path to the line of doors labeled 'Showers'.

They kept staring. Very Bob Seger.

The shower was a horror show of stains, mildew and dim, flickering lighting. Still, Jason was in no mood to be picky. He locked the door behind him and set his pack down, grimacing as he faced his reflection in the mirror. No wonder no one stopped. His stubble had grown out from vaguely rogueish to America's Most Wanted, and there was mud in his hair from where he'd stopped to sleep in a ditch somewhere. He didn't remember doing that.

"Dumbass," Jason told the mirror. His voice, already flat, seemed flatter as it echoed off the walls. The lights flickered, making his reflection seem to move on its own. His hand twitched towards the knife in his boot, a cheap steak knife that was the only sharp thing he could find in the cabin. Edgy, edgy. "Happy birthday."

The silence made him feel like an idiot. He bent, pulling out the bottle of peroxide bleach that he'd swiped from the Adlers' teenaged son. Then he started to peel off his clothes. As the layers of them fell away, the scent of his own sweat made his nose wrinkle. It was warm enough outside that he could afford to soak his clothes as he showered, continue on with them still damp. The mechanics of running for his life.

Happy birthday. Two weeks old now. At least that was what he thought he'd seen on the calendar in the Adlers' cabin, but the days had kind of blurred after that. Hallucinations and nightmares and what Jason hoped like fuck weren't his memories.

He remembered cutting off a white strip of a hospital bracelet that read, not helpfully, 'John Doe' and an admission date from weeks ago. He remembered coming up with a new name from a Metallica album sitting on their stereo and a Ludlum novel on their coffee table: Jason Hammett, born to the proud parents of a head injury and an attempt to avoid the police. Burying that bracelet, the last link between him and whatever the hell lay behind him, hiding it under a heavy rock and hoping there wasn't a mudslide.

(Not quite the last link, actually. There was the pendant on its leather thong, shoved into the bottom of Jason's pack. He couldn't make himself bury the thing, ugly as it was, but he couldn't make himself put it on either. It was the only other thing he'd taken from that hospital, and he couldn't afford anyone to connect the dots. People were stupid, but all it'd take was one coincidence and Jason would be back in that room, strapped to the bed and drugged until the cops came for him. It wasn't worth that much to him. Nothing was.)

The shower's lights weren't kind. With the last of his clothes gone, Jason backed towards the shower and cranked it on, still watching the mirror. The thought of it at his back made him unaccountably twitchy. The water was lukewarm and yellowish with rust. Jason beat a handful of chemical-smelling soap out of a dispenser on the wall and started scrubbing, grimacing as the suds burned on the scratches and gouges earned from a few days running through the woods.

As he washed, he inventoried scars. There were several scattered on his chest, shallow furrows that were still pink and tender; they'd opened and wept with infection while Jason was at the Adlers', making him burn with fever. There was another new one low on his stomach, but it was clean and clinical. Surgery, matching up with the wristband and his memory of the hospital.

No, the ones that worried the hell out of Jason were the others. The older ones. Pale, very old burn scars on his hands. The scattering of scars across his chest, like a spray of buckshot had hit him. Another set of furrowed scars across his hip. Four points just under his ribs, like someone had been trying to dig through his skin and into his heart. Knife slashes in too many goddamn places to count. The little notch in his collarbone and in more than one rib that said they'd been broken. The slight unevenness in the bones of a few of his fingers. The way his left shoulder ached in the rain, and the right was a little weaker like it'd been wrenched out of socked too many times. The thin scar in his hairline, right above his temple.

The headaches. Jesus, the headaches. Jason could handle the fucked up dreams if it meant the headaches didn't hit him like a-

Truck?

Of course that's familiar. You're in a truckstop, idiot.

The Adlers' DVD collection had been surprisingly helpful while Jason was too feverish to do anything but hole up and hope his weakness passed. He'd watched the Bourne Identity too many times, taking notes because it was the closest thing to a handbook he was getting. That may have been why he grabbed the bleach, but he got the feeling it was more than that. It was an unnerving talent in staying off the grid.

He nearly unhinged his spine trying to keep the bleach out of his cuts, but it paid off. Not just because the smell drowned out the sweat-sickness that had been clinging to Jason's clothes. When he looked in the mirror again (still jumpy; what the hell was he expecting, an attack from a damned inanimate object?), he didn't look like the grubby dark-haired man who had entered the shower. Instead, he looked like a grubby blond.

It'd have to do.

Jason rinsed the rest of the way off. Grabbing the knife, he shaved quickly as he let the cooling water soak his clothes. After only a few minutes of holding still, he felt like pacing just so he could be moving again. It didn't matter that his lungs hurt and his knees felt shaky. Jason needed to be somewhere not here.

He squeezed the water out of his clothes, shrugged into them again and pulled on the hiking boots that he'd already nearly destroyed. Slid the knife in its makeshift duct-taped sheath. Tugged the hood up, hiding his hair. Shouldered his pack and strode out of the bathroom, back into the path between cameras.

Despite the blank spots, Jason felt better for having bleached and showered. Oddly, he felt much better when the cashier glanced up and gave him the once over before she recognized his clothes. Then she blinked, but didn't stop checking him out. It was a good feeling. He winked at her, and she blushed a little.

Okay. So. Jason had been a playboy. The wink felt too familiar, muscle-memory, sheer impulse. One detail down, a few thousand to go. Still, knowing he could get around would come in plenty of handy for his free time, if nothing else.

Sure. 'Do I have any STDs or a wife? Or a husband? Well, let me get back to you on that, honey...'

He toned down his smile and kept walking. It figured that it would start to rain as soon as Jason showered, a miserable cold drizzle that would cut to the bone in a few hours. Sliding his hands in his pockets, he glanced around in case of police cars. No Lincoln Continentals, no flashing lights. Just one guy on the other side of the lot, similarly hunched against the rain. A smoker, judging from the burning smell, though Jason couldn't see a cigarette.

Something whispered that he needed to walk faster. Now.

As if on cue, the guy raised his head. He was aggressively plain, with the mild features of an accountant. His smile when he met Jason's eyes was completely normal, but it made Jason tense as hell anyway. The guy pursed his lips, and for a second Jason was afraid he was about to be subjected to wolf-whistling. Not that it wasn't flattering, but the accountant wasn't his type. If Jason had a type. And hopefully he had enough sense to avoid people so banal that they were probably serial killers in their spare time.

A whistle cut through the air, low and eerie in the rainy quiet. After a moment, Jason's mind caught up with him enough that he could recognize it. I see a bad moon rising, I see trouble on the way...

The bland man stared at Jason, levelly, still smiling. Jason's fingers itched for the knife, but he stilled that instinct. For fuck's sake, the guy was only humming. Even if the constant staring was unnerving, Jason couldn't afford to do something as stupid as assaulting somebody in a parking lot.

So he kept walking, turning as he went to keep an eye on the whistling man. The whistler didn't move to follow, but his eyes felt like they were burning Jason's skin. Jason made himself keep walking until he cleared the edge of the parking lot, where he couldn't be seen. Then he sped up.

Jesus. Had that been a fed? Was he in that deep?

Maybe. But as he'd turned away, there had been a truck passing. Its headlights slid across the whistling man, and his eyes- its eyes-

No. Just too much time walking and too little sleep. That was all. Jason had enough trouble without being bugfuck crazy on the side.

After a while, he started to run, and he didn't look back.

 

*****

3

"Just take it easy," Chloe murmured, urging Sam to his feet. "Slow and steady on the stairs."

Sam nodded, carefully grasping the rails and easing himself out of the wheelchair. It had been a week and he still could barely walk from his bed to the bathroom without resting. Not to put too fine a point on it, it sucked.

He wobbled abruptly, and out of the corner of his eye saw John reaching towards him as though he could help from across the room. Giving him a slight nod, Sam steadied himself, dragging his foot up the six inches to the stair.

The pain hit then, familiar and overwhelming. Fuck. Vision.

He gripped the rail tighter, gasping for breath.

John's eyes widened. "Sam?"

"M-Migrane." He fell backwards, into the chair, and clutched his head as it threatened to split in two.

The screaming ricocheted though his head, and for a second he thought it was his own voice, but then the vision snapped into place, and he could see the child, a little girl, cowering against her headboard, screaming for all she was worth as something dark advanced on her.

The vision shifted, and he saw the child's mother-her only parent, he somehow understood-running down the narrow hall and skidding to a stop, a baseball bat gripped in her hands. Then, the thing turned on her, invisible claws slicing through her skin like butter, blood spraying onto the walls. The thing liked that. Almost as much as it liked...

Sam shook his head, trying to shake the vision, not wanting to see what would happen. For once, the universe was listening. Instead, he only saw the aftermath.

Oh God. The child, the little girl... His stomach clenched, and he gagged hard. Strong hands curled around him, callused fingers stroking his hair as his father's rough voice soothed him. If his head didn't hurt so badly, it would be almost funny.

"Can I take him back to his room, then come back for my session?" John asked the physical therapist softly.

Chloe nodded. "Of course. Why don't we plan on pushing your session back to five?"

"Thanks."

Chloe pushed Sam back to their room, and John made himself useful, closing blinds and getting Sam some water to down his aspirin with. As soon as she left, Sam curled on his side, hands over his face. If he'd been facing away from John, John would've left it be, as he usually left these things be. But pissed as Sam had been at him on a fairly constant basis for the last several years, from simmering resentment to outright rage, he hadn't rolled away.

This was one of those times when John really could've used Mary. Mary had known how to be a decent parent, nursing scraped knees and hurt feelings in a way that put the boys back on their feet again. Granted, they'd been small at the time, with smaller hurts.

Hell, Dean had been better at wrangling Sam, poking and prodding and teasing until he could get a watery smile. Gone now. One more of many holes in John's life, both the ones that the hunt had taken and the ones John had carved out himself.

What the fuck was John supposed to say? 'It's all right' was a lie. 'It'll get better' was a worse one, which John had heard too many times to pass that bullshit on to someone else.

"Psychic thing?" John asked flatly.

Sam nodded, letting one hand drop away from his face, his fingers still covering one eye. "I thought-had hoped-that they'd gone away."

Well, hell. John took his hand, squeezing when he felt Sam start a little. "Want to talk about it?" he tried, awkwardly.

"Not really."

John nodded, letting Sam fall silent.

After a long few minutes, Sam sighed. "I'm not surprised."

John looked up, startled by the flat, dead sound to Sam's voice. It wasn't like he'd never heard that tone before, but the only other times had been other hunters, other Marines, men pushed too hard, too fast and too far. His heart twisted in his chest for this son it turned out he barely knew. "Why?"

"Penance."

"What?"

The sharper note in John's voice made Sam jerk. For a second, Sam didn't answer. When he did, his words were low, not pitched to carry. "For four years, I pretended to be normal. A demon could have walked up and tap danced on the bar in front of me, and I'd have looked away. As long as it wasn't one of mine-" Sam swallowed. "The only thing that got me back into it was that thing killing Jess. Now, when all I want is to get back to hunting, I can't. Penance."

John exhaled slowly, leaning back into the support of the wheelchair. "You can't think like that, Sammy."

"Why now? Why not five weeks ago, when it could have done some good? Before Dean-" Sam stopped, breathing hard. It took him a moment to add, fiercely, "Before we all got hurt."

John closed his eyes. "Listen," he began.

"No." Sam shook his head, clutching at his temple as the pain intensified. "No."

John nodded, feeling useless. Was useless. Couldn't even walk to the bathroom without help. "I'm sorry," he said softly. Another useless sentiment. It was all he had these days.

They sat for a long time like that, John holding his hand, Sam curled in on himself. Finally, as the afternoon sun stretched long shadows through the slits of the blinds, Sam started to speak. Each word was painfully careful, an olive branch extended. "I think it was a shadow demon, but it had a taste for children. Their fear tasted better."

John nodded slightly. "Yeah."

"It didn't want to kill her right away. Wanted the pain and the blood to spice the meat," Sam swallowed hard, like John couldn't see that he'd gagged. "It hasn't happened yet. And here I am."

"You can't win them all," John said. Hypocritical, maybe. But he could see that this would eat Sam alive. "Even when you're healthy, sometimes..."

After a moment, Sam prompted, "Sometimes?"

"Sometimes, the good guys lose, and bad shit happens to good folks," John said. "And you can't always be there to stand between them."

"I'm not used to losing," Sam said. "Dean and I. We had some setbacks, sure. But dammit, he always came-comes through."

John laid his forehead against the cool rails of Sam's bed. "Wish I had your faith."

"There's no other option," Sam said simply. Then he added, a bitter almost-laugh in his voice at some private joke John didn't get, "I won't take dead for an answer. We usually don't."

"Mm." John lifted his head, shifting to put one arm on the rail and rest his chin there. With the luxury of knowing Sam couldn't see him, he searched his son's face. There were new lines there, shadows carved under Sam's eyes that said his faith wasn't as solid as it sounded. He sighed. "You ought to sleep."

Opening one eye, Sam gave him a thoroughly exasperated look.

There was such an echo of his mother in that expression that John managed a tight, tired smile. "Look. I carved a devil's trap in the doorframe. Here and in the PT room. Even if I hadn't, there were weeks of opportunity for that thing to come in and kill us both. It didn't. That's as safe as it gets."

Which was probably right up there with handing his child a shotgun for the closet monster in John's list of insensitive parental crimes, but pulling punches now was pretty damned useless. Sam was a smart boy, and he knew things were bound to get worse before they got better. If the demon was giving them breathing room, it was only because it was about to hit them harder. John made a mental note to call in Bobby to cover their asses until they could-

Could what? Run? Hide? Sam wasn't going to accept that. John wasn't sure he could, either. Fight back? They'd gotten their asses handed to them even before John was one leg and one son down.

It was one thing to sacrifice his own life for his boys, for the sake of taking this thing down before it hurt someone else. In a perfect world, Sam would've pulled the trigger back in that cabin and taken out John and the demon at once. No trying to piece together his life afterwards. No more grief. No more pain. No more of the demon cutting through children and mothers. Only silence.

That wasn't an option anymore. For one thing, John was a fucking cripple. It'd be a long while, if ever, before he was back in hunting shape. For another, if that bastard somehow survived, if John made a mistake and got himself killed without taking it with him, then Sam would be alone. It didn't matter that Sam was a good hunter in his own right. He would be one man alone against a demon that had killed thousands.

And the demon didn't want Sammy dead. It needed him too much for that. Next to what that thing wanted, death would be a kindness. John had relived it again and again, the poison the demon had left in him twisting his dreams with flashes of his son, his Sam, turned into-

No. That wasn't going to happen. John would kill Sam himself before he let it come to that. Pulling the trigger would be the end of John, but he'd fucking well do it to keep the demon from getting its hands on Sam and breaking him.

But for now, Sam was alive. Staring at him, eyes narrowed slightly. Sammy had always had that look that said he saw right through John, even when he was just a squirming thing cuddled against Mary. It was an unnerving look long before John knew that listening in could be the least of all the things his son might do.

Reaching out, John pushed the hair out of Sam's eyes. He needed a haircut, getting that shaggy look that made him look like a gawky 13 year old to John. "Take the painkillers when I get back. I'll watch the door."

Sam gave a grudging nod, his old eyes still on John's face. He didn't twist away from John's touch, which was something, at least. They both knew that when John got back, Sam might manage a bit of dozing, but mostly they'd end up staring at the television into the early hours.

A gentle tapping came on the door. John took his hand back, wheeling carefully to avoid bouncing the chair off a wall. He could parallel park the truck with only inches of clearance and his eyes closed, but the rickety chair was beyond him. He needed to get something with an engine. John glanced at Sam as he turned towards the door, caught Sam's look, and pulled the curtain closed as he went.

Sam lay still, listening as Chloe asked after him and the rasp of his father's voice as he answered, waiting until he heard the wheelchair's squeaking faded into the rest of the background noise on the ward. Despite the Devil's Trap, he knew he wouldn't relax until he saw his father come back into the room. Faith was one thing, but sight was belief.

He wouldn't believe that Dean was dead. Not until he saw the body, tucked away in the morgue of another hospital. (There was a story there, something about a seven car pileup that came in just before they did and a full trauma ward and another hospital having a better trauma unit than neurology and a lot of other things that added up to mean: "you can't see the body until we decide you're good to travel.")

But at the same time, there was that nagging sense that something was wrong. It ate at Sam, whispering in the quiet hours that there should've been some sign. If Dean was alive, he'd be battling his way in with a fire axe if he had to. Even if he couldn't reach them that way, he'd have worked out a message to let Sam know that he was okay.

Maybe he was out there hunting, covering for Sam and John until-

Yeah. And maybe Jess wasn't dead, either. Maybe she was living in Iowa, pig-farming under an assumed name.

It hurt to roll away from the door, his muscles trembling as he moved, but Sam managed. He curled up on that side, closing his eyes against the room's dim light. His head was pounding, increasing in tempo until he could hear his pulse in his ears. His face felt hot, feverish. His throat hurt.

No. Damn it, he wasn't doing this. He was going to fucking well hold it together. He was going to use it, bury it, anything but this self-pitying bullshit. He was alive, and Dean wouldn't have wanted- wouldn't want-

Sam put his knuckles against his mouth, barely in time to muffle the noise that wanted to escape. He fumbled for his pillow, pressing it against his burning face, setting his jaw until it hurt.

No. He wasn't going to grieve. Grieving meant he'd given up. Grieving was throwing that last shovel of dirt on Dean without checking to see if he'd be buried alive. Somebody had to believe. Somebody had to keep the faith, and be looking out for that sign when it came. Dad had already swallowed this, just one more death, and it was killing him. Sam had to be the one to keep his feet.

Hadn't let Dean die before. He wasn't doing it now. They'd gone through too much shit together. Dean needed to be there for Dad. He needed to be there when they buried the bastard that killed their mother. Dean needed to be there when Sam finally graduated, slouching in the back of the courtroom with that shit-eating grin when Sam had his first closing statement to deal with. Dean needed to be there when Sam had kids, to buy them beer and to teach them bad habits.

Except Sam was swallowing too hard, again and again, fighting with the choking pain that wanted to double him over. And Dean wasn't here. He wasn't a phone call away. He wasn't-

Dean wasn't coming back.

Sam fisted his fingers in the pillowcase until it hurt. He felt the wetness on his face, but the sobs choked off in his throat. He squeezed his eyes shut, tensed and silent, and waited for it to roll past. It didn't leave him empty.

There was rage. An anger so deep and pure it was almost stillness. There was strength in it, a solid ground to stand on. The pain was bearable. He could make it if he just didn't...

They had one more bullet. One more shot.

Sam opened his eyes. The cup on the edge of his nightstand was built heavy, solid for those patients with hand tremors. He'd held that cup, felt the smooth plastic against his fingers and the weight of it in his hands. He knew its dimensions. Start easy. Start small.

Go on, psychic boy.

He stared at the cup. It didn't move, didn't move, didn't move. Frustration bled into the anger, spark to gasoline. Sam tightened his grip on the sheets again, willing it to move. He'd done this on accident, so he could do it on purpose. It would move. It would move. It would-

The pain in his head seared suddenly brighter, like something giving way. Sam felt his breath hitch, his concentration faltering. There was wetness on his upper lip, and when he tasted it, it was coppery. Blood.

But the cup had rocked in place.

Sam breathed out, sinking into the bed. He felt wrung-out, exhaustion seeping into his limbs. Grim, bitter triumph made him smile.

****

4

Jason stared at the Sears Tower. It was a good distance from where he stood, in the warehouse district on the wrong side of Greektown. Still, it was Chicago. Finally.

The crowds flowed around him, people giving dirty looks to the transient stopped in the middle of the street. Even if his legs and lungs hadn't been burning, he wouldn't have moved. Jason felt contrary like that.

He'd stumbled over a cabin just over the Illinois border, an old still for bootleg moonshine, but there was food. It had been enough to get him here, and keep him alive for a while. Now, he only needed money. Ergo, he needed a job.

Waiiiit. Ergo? Did that mean he was educated? Had he gone to college?

"Whatever, college boy."

Jason grabbed one temple as a warning spike of pain ricocheted through his head. Damn. Migraine coming. Again. Better find somewhere to hole up.

Hadn't he passed a burned-out tenement a few blocks back, on the other side of the interstate? That should be pretty safe. Safe as he got these days, anyway. At least he'd found a real knife in the still, a solid hunting knife with a whetstone on the scabbard. The weight against his calf comforted him.

Jason paused for a moment, leaning against a lamp-post as he breathed hard. His body hated him. He seemed to be in decent shape otherwise, but his breathing and the legs weren't reliable. There was no way he could get a job like this, especially not the types of job he was likely to get with no ID, no references, no social security number, and no address. The tenement beckoned ahead, and he started walking, trudging down the street.

He turned into the burned out building, his stride faltering. Jason managed to pry a board back enough to crawl inside, its comparative shadows and quiet a relief. Then it was time to sit, apparently. The pain in his head was spiking again, building behind his eyes. Soon it would blind him, narrow his world to a thin line of agony. He was getting to know this rhythm too damned well.

With a sigh, he pulled the plastic bottle of moonshine he'd swiped. It burned like fire going down, but it would help to dull the pain a little. It had the annoying side effect of dimming his reflexes, and probably blinding him if he hit it too hard. Then again, so would the pain if he didn't do something.

Damned if he did, damned if he didn't, he thought. Then he curled in on himself, praying for sleep. As much as he prayed, anyway.

The nightmares came again. Twisted monsters, with and without human faces. A blonde girl sneering at him from the chair she'd been tied to, Jason's hand impacting her cheek with vicious force, her dying at his feet. A leathery faced creature that was there for his death, to literally suck his life away; there had been no fear then. Only relief. Death, it seemed, was his companion. Had been the only constant in his life.

"That's your M.O., isn't it?"

Jason jerked awake, shaking. His clothes stuck to his sweat soaked body, harsh gasps of breath in his ears.

Jesus, what the hell was he? Psychopath? Serial killer? He had killed. That much, he knew.

Jason looked at his hands, their scars, their strength. "I'm a killer." Somehow, that didn't feel right. "I'm a soldier."

"On your feet, soldier!"

That had to be it. He'd been in the military. Now, he was a spook?

Too many questions, and no answers. With a soft, frustrated noise, Jason got up, pacing the small room. The row of townhouses had burned. This one in the middle was intact but gutted, pipes and wires all showing. Only the brick and a bit of roof remained. Fortunately, it was an old brick house, so it was still pretty sturdy.

Not a bad place to hang out for a few days. Maybe get into some sort of shape.

Jason nodded to agree with himself. Which really, he thought wryly, wasn't a good sign for his sanity.

No time like the present, right? Without waiting for his own answer this time, he stripped his jacket off, reaching for one of the overhead pipes. Isn't that how the movies always did it? What was that one, with the hot buff chick doing the chin-ups in the loony bin. Terminator 2, yeah. That'd been it. Hot-ass Linda Hamilton.

He could certainly do chin-ups.

Ha. Jason managed five before the shoulder protested, giving out on him.

Wow, he sucked. Maybe sit ups?

Oh, hell no. Bad idea. Baaaad idea. Stomach scar didn't like that.

Jason lay back, wheezing. So what the hell was he supposed to do? His body hurt like his muscles were screaming for exercise. "This sucks out loud," he muttered. "Wait, what the hell does that even mean?"

Didn't matter, really. What mattered was the voice he'd said it in. That was his voice, the one he'd heard in the flash of memory that had spiked the migraine.

Something clicked in him at the realization. Not memory, unfortunately. But something close to whole. Whatever it was, this was part of him.

Jason looked at the pipe again and took a deep breath. "S'only pain, right?"

His shoulder protested as he grabbed on, hoisting his weight. Then his stomach protested as he brought his legs up, until he hung from his bent knees like a kid on the monkey bars. A charred bit of timber provided a foothold, and he let go with his hands, crossing his arms over his chest, Dracula style. Moving slowly, he tightened his stomach muscles, tucking his body up, towards the bar.

It hurt like hell. But his body obeyed. That felt important to him.

When Jason let himself down, his legs shook and his stomach burned. That was nothing compared to the sense of accomplishment. He could do this. Had to.

Jason spent most of that night twitching awake at every stray noise outside his door. After a while, he gave up on sleep and paced. Back, forth, again. His lungs screamed and his throat hurt. He kept at it.

The next day, he managed more chin ups, and more hanging sit-ups. The day after that, still more. It hurt, but as the scars had suggested, his body was used to pain. He found he could compartmentalize it, could recognize the difference between "muscle stretching, getting stronger" pain and "you fucked up" pain. He could push through.

Most of his pain was getting this body back in fighting form, apparently. He learned not to push the shoulder too much, or it would rebel on him, but the stomach wasn't a huge problem. It seemed to be the surgery scar pulling, a twinge here and there. That got better with time.

Slowly, as Jason forced himself to go on, things improved. He could breathe a little bit better, could feel his stamina improving. By day four, he'd started jogging around the area, wearing a pair of ill fitting running shoes he'd found in a dumpster. That sucked at first, though the wolf whistle from a bunch of teenagers on a tour bus certainly boosted his ego.

Finally, by day five, with his food supplies dwindling, he decided it was time to start looking for a job.

The docks were an utter bust. They'd gone union last year and now everything had to be carefully kept track of and above board. Bastards. The foreman bought him a hotdog and a cup of coffee, though. Coffee tasted like piss, which made it the best coffee Jason'd ever had, at least as far as he knew. He hadn't found a machine in the Adlers' cabin, which hadn't helped his headaches.

As Jason was leaving, one of the younger guys on the crew motioned him over. "Did I hear that you were looking for a couple weeks of work?" the guy asked, when Jason warily joined him.

"Yeah. Know somewhere I should look?"

"Place I worked for the last year, warehouse over on the North side by the Red Line. Hang on, I'm going on break, I'll write it down for you. Tell them John sent you."

"John," Jason said slowly, wondering why the name sounded familiar. Was he John? That would be pretty funny actually, what with the John Doe. Nah, he just didn't feel like a John. A John should be... tough, hardass.

A patron of hookers named Bertha. Jesus. Yeah, the most generic name for a guy ever sounded familiar. Big fucking deal.

The guy -John, Jason thought with a smirk- handed him a slip of paper with an address and a five.

Jason stared at the bill, then shook his head. "I don't need-"

"Just take it. When you've got it, help someone else." John turned over his arm, showing an impressive line of track marks. He looked at Jason for a moment. "Jesus, hasn't anyone ever done you a favor?"

"Not that I can think of."

"Well, now you can think of this. Good luck to you, man."

Jason walked away, still shaking his head. Somehow, he'd rather steal the cash than have someone take pity on him. Pity just didn't sit well.

The warehouse, to put it kindly, was a shithole, sandwiched between a lumber yard and the L station. But, it was a job. And pay. Money, glorious money. The first thing Jason did when they handed him his wages was head down the street to the Goodwill store. His hiking boots were holding together with duct tape and a prayer at this point, worn down to almost nothing.

He was able to get a couple changes of clothes, then headed towards the shoe section to see if anything caught his eye. He was looking at the nondescript lace up shoes when sleek black leather caught the corner of his eye. Turning, he found a pair of motorcycle boots, complete with metal "O" ring and steel toes sitting forlornly on the top shelf.

They looked big enough, maybe. Maybe too big.

Wait, did spies wear biker boots? Fuck it. This one did.

Jason slid one on slowly, waiting for the inevitable collision of his toes with the front of the shoe. It never failed.

It never came.

"Like Cinderella," Jason muttered, adding them to his purchases. "Fucked up biker bitch Cinderella."

There was just enough cash left to pick up some food. Heading back to his burned out tenement, Jason felt almost content.

The next day was the same as the one before. Get up, jog to work, his lungs only burning a little. Work for ten hours putting labels on office supplies, take the cash and head back to the tenement to work out until he exhausted himself for a few hours sleep.

Two weeks later, he picked up his last pay a changed man.

Chicago had been good to him. Where there had been atrophy and softness, there was muscle. Where there had been confusion, there was clarity. Where there had been bleached white-blond hair, there was blue, thanks to a bottle of hair dye he'd picked up. His clothes were black and threadworn but his, dammit. Jason Hammett's. And better yet, the ride to Minneapolis was his, courtesy of his former employers. It was a start.

Best of all, he knew a little more about Jason Hammett. He liked classic rock and Metal. Nu-metal sucked ass. He could charm the ladies with a smile, but some of them freaked when they saw the scars. Of course, some of them just wanted to make it all better. He liked those ladies. He also liked the guys, especially the one transvestite just off Navy Pier who could do things with her mouth that made his vision white out.

He also knew too much about killing people. He knew he hunted in his dreams, even the ones that weren't memories or nightmares. Stalking the woods with a knife or a shotgun, tracing the distant scent of smoke and blood. Circling something, hunting it even as it hunted him, a spiral closing down to...

And that was where the dream always ended.

Jason had bought a gun (probably hot, but whatever) off one of the small-time dealers, and carried it at the small of his back. It helped ease some of the edginess.

His last night in Chicago. He'd grown oddly fond of the skyline, but not enough to shake the urge to keep going. It felt like the city was closing in on him the longer he stayed put. So here he was, heading out.

The L was deserted as he headed back from the going away drinks his co-workers had insisted on buying. Good people. Solid. Alcoholics, every last one of them.

Jason almost didn't notice the guy following him when he stepped off, lost in plans of heading west. Maybe Seattle. Somehow, that sounded familiar. Couldn't be because he liked grunge, because he'd wanted to claw his ears off when the one guy had insisted on playing Nirvana...

A whisper of footsteps behind him. Jason tensed a little, but didn't go for the gun. The guy was good, keeping quiet pace with Jason. But Jason figured he was better.

At only four weeks old, he was bound to make some mistakes.

The guy slammed him against the wall, face first. Jason pushed back, but the guy had arms like iron. The mugger hissed, pressing a thin blade at the base of Jason's neck and pressing in

Jason swallowed, trying not to choke. "Look, settle down. Here, here's my money. I don't have anything else." His muscles felt tight, coiled for a fight. Stupid. Jason made himself offer the mugger the bit of cash he'd kept in his pocket, and glanced back when the mugger didn't respond.

Oh shit. The guy's eyes. Black, inky black, glistening in the light from a streetlight.

Run, whispered a voice in his head.

With a hoarse noise, Jason twisted, pushing off the wall. The mugger's grip faltered, startled by the idiot that actually moved into his knife.

Ignoring the trickle of blood from his throat, Jason bolted.

The mugger could've brought him down, but he didn't. Jason made it down the stairs, to the street, to his tenement. He leaned against the wall, panting, relieved.

It wasn't until he was in the truck the next morning that Jason shook over the beer and the hangovers, and started to wonder why he'd been let go.
***
5

"And how does that make you feel?" Dr. Freud asked Sam gently. "Your brotherís death?"

Sam knew his lines. He was supposed to spill it now, sum up his feelings in a neat package or, barring that, rip himself open. The doctor wanted the messy details: anger, abandonment, despair. Or hell, maybe he was just taking out what had happened in the asylum on this poor idiot. Sam shrugged and answered, "Sad."

"Good. Can you tell me more about that?"

Sam slanted a look at his father. For a moment, they shared a "is this asshole for real?" sentiment that almost brought Sam into reach. Then he looked back at the shrink, gone again. "Not really. It makes me... sad that my brother isó dead," Sam forced the word out.

Had to say the right things. It was bad enough that Chloe was looking at him oddly during
PT, wondering where the new intensity had come from. Dr. Jackass could put Sam away if he thought Sam was unstable. Could keep him from finding Dean, a motive which pretty much said that Sam was unstable. Knowing that Dean was probably dead, knowing that his faith was misplaced, Sam held on anyway, clinging with both hands to keep from drowning.

So, Doc. Can I get a pass from therapy today? I need to train so I can hunt the demon that totally didnít murder my not-dead brother Iím supposed to be grieving. Did I mention that it possessed my father? And the trucker who Ďfell asleep behind the wheelí was possessed, too? Or, that if my father's leg hadn't be so screwed up, you would've see the wound from where I shot him?

Yeah. Thatíd go over well. And for his next trick, Sam would tell Dr. Phil here that he could move things with his mind. Because he was chosen by fate to look like a goddamned paranoid-schizophrenic.

Apparently realizing Sam was done for the moment, the shrink turned to Sam's father. "And John, how are you coping with the loss of your leg?"

"With a wheelchair," John drawled, his level stare daring the good doctor to keep prying.

Sam had a suspicious coughing fit and grabbed for the glass of water on his bedside table.

Dr. Feelgood looked like he was getting the idea that heíd lost control of this session the moment he decided to put his patients together to save time. Or carthasis, or whatever; John had no patience for shrinks, and Sam seemed to have lost his trick (developed from a lot of well-intentioned school counselors) of bludgeoning health professionals with sheer wide-eyed
earnestness. Sam had been the kind of kid who could make a nurse believe that heíd actually walked into that door. Heíd been to a few eye doctors because of it, but better that than foster care. Like it was better to have his son bruised and trained than happy and vulnerable. It killed John to make that call, but it was a call that had to be made.

Before Dr. Headshrink could get any ideas about pestering Sammy, John cleared his throat and went on. "Iíll deal. That which doesnít kill youó" his voice faltered for a second. "Well. You get the idea."

He glanced at Sam, silently warning him to play along with Dr. Jung for the time being. Sam just looked at him, toying with the little tokens on a chain around his neck. John had called Bobby and asked him to salvage the weapons locker in the trunk. Bobby had been decent enough to ask if there was anything else Sam might want. So Sam had a reminder of Dean, all tied up in the radio knob and a single bent screw with a dark splotch on it. John didnít ask, and Sam didnít tell him, if that was blood, mud or motor oil.

There was a lot John didnít ask about these days, because asking got him shortly and brutally shut down. That door was closed. If Dean had been here, Sam mightíve-

John worried his wedding ring, rubbing it in circles around his finger. A nervous tic, like the way Sam was starting to fidget with the screw when he was anxious. A decent shrink, and John had met a few, wouldíve caught that. Dr. Touchy-Feel was too busy making sure security was outside. John got the feeling he wasnít the one the doctor worried about, because Sammy was getting the edgy look of a man about to climb the proverbial clocktower.

Heíd raised the boys to be this driven, this intense about the hunt. He'd seen the ghost of Sammy left after the demon killed Jess, the slow burn of his fuse winding down shorter and shorter. But that hadnít prepared John to see Sam now, all rage, all focus. Sammy was always the one with the easy smile, Maryís smile, to crinkle up the corners of his eyes and coax John into smiling back. Heíd been focused about getting the demon after it had killed Jess, but it seemed that Dean had pulled him back just enough that when the time came, when it was a choice between revenge and saving his family...

Sam hadnít pulled the trigger. John wished sometimes that Sam had.

Dean wouldíve been in the front seat. Crippled, yes, but alive.

Theirs was the sort of family clusterfuck that a shrink could spend years writing articles about, and John could already see the bastardís mouth watering. But it wasnít coming out, because the truth never did. Theyíd make up some bullshit story about a fire, the wreck, the fight over Sam leaving for college. A quick, easily fixed story. The shrink would buy it. Theyíd move on. And Sam wouldnít get anything out of it. Heíd still be waiting for Dean to waltz through the door.

There wasnít a damned thing John could do to change that.

Dr. Glib squinted at Sam for a moment, like he could almost force things into focus. Then he set the tissue box on Samís table, like a silent demand. "Do you want to tell me about your brother?"

"No," Sam replied simply. "Do you?"

"Sam," John murmured, glancing at him sidelong.

Mouth tightening, Sam looked away. After a minute, he muttered, "Sorry," and came back. His eyes were shining. It was a really good act, and John mightíve bought it if he didnít know the mulish look on Samís face. "Itís just- really hard, yíknow?" Sam asked, his voice hitching.

Dr. Walking Ad for Scientology nodded sympathetically. "Yes. Yes, grief is hard."

No shit. You needed how many years of school to figure that out? This man didnít know grief.

Sam sniffed. John had seen him pocket the pepper that came with lunch. Cheap trick, but hey, the classics held up. A moment later, Samís eyes started to water. He made a hitching noise and covered his face with one hand, bowing his head so that hair fell in his eyes. After that, the doctor would supply whatever reaction he wanted to see.

Yeah. Johnís boy wouldíve been one hell of a lawyer.

"Shh," the doctor soothed, nudging the tissue box forward. "Let it out." He glanced at John, prompting. Before he got any ideas, John turned away to awkwardly rub Samís back. When he felt the knobs of Samís spine, he winced and rubbed a little less briskly.

Johníd been in the military, so heíd seen a lot of bullshit. And if this wasnít the biggest bullshit performance John had seen in his life, he wasnít sure what was.

Sam breathed deep, shaky, and leaned into Johnís hand. Conveniently, it let him sniff a little more pepper. The noise he made was a smothered sneeze, but Dr. Gullible seemed to take it as a particularly explosive sob. John resisted the urge to roll his eyes at them both.

Finally, Sam sniffled and lifted his head. The tear streaks were impressive, particularly with the dark circles gouged under Samís eyes. If he didnít crash soon, John would start sneaking Benadryl into his coffee. With a deep sigh, Sam reached up and scrubbed at his eyes. "Mísorry. Didnít mean-" His nose scrunched up, lips drawing back from his teeth. Little bastard still had pepper on that hand. "Oh God. I, um. I canít-"

"Shh," John warned. When Dr. Stalker looked his way, oddly, John busied himself with rubbing Samís back. "You donít have to say anything." Shut up now, Sammy, for Christís sake. This isnít the Lifetime channel.

Sam sniffled again, wiping at his eyes with the other hand. "I know. It just hurts so much."

Finally, the truth. Such as it was. "Iím sure," John said dryly.

"Itís all right. Grief is a gradual process." Dr. Buddha nodded sagely.

Thanks for the fucking update. Jesus. Like John needed pointers on still hurting years after the body cooled? He set his jaw, rubbing Samís back harder. Probably too hard.

Sam made a little noise again, a sad attempt at clearing his throat, and straightened with a hard sigh. Through the tears, his eyes slid to Johnís and held them. There was a resolve in that look that didnít bode well. "I canít believe heís gone."

"Well, he is," John bit off. When he felt Sam flinch, he took his hand back. "I know itís hard, son, but-"

For a second, Sam looked at John like he was about to tell him to fuck off. Never mind the shrink or whatever agenda Sam was pushing. Then his eyes flicked to the doctor, catching himself just in time. His shoulders slumped. He stared at the floor, reaching up to fiddle with the chain. "I keep thinking," he murmured, "that I shouldíve done what you told me. If I did, heíd still be alive."

If Sam had killed him. If the boys hadnít come looking to be sure John was alive. If John had ordered them away from that last fight. If Sam had stayed gone. A lot of hypotheticals for Sammy to torture himself with in the small hours.

"Think that didnít occur to me?" John asked tightly.

The look Sam gave John through his hair couldíve frozen an inferno. "Yíknow, Dad? I really did."

The roomís single window rattled a little. There was no wind outside.

Dr. Perceptive looked between them, suddenly uneasy. "Oh! Iím sorry, I lost track of time.
But youíre doing really well. Especially you, Sam. To come so far in one hour gives me hope for-" he aborted a glance at John, slightly too late. "Well. Iíll just leave you two to-"

"Thanks," John said tightly.

Sam lowered his hands from his face, his expression set as he held Johnís stare. He didnít glance away as the doctor left the room, pulling the door close to shut behind him.

There was a pause, long enough that the doctor wouldnít see. Then the door groaned quietly closed.

John raised his hands and clapped slowly, sarcastically. "Hell of a performance."

"Thanks." Sam grabbed a handful of Kleenex, wiping at his face. It muffled his voice, but not the venom in his words. "Wouldnít want any honesty to get involved. Not with us."

"Weíre not discussing this now. Itís not secure-"

"Would that be secure like your plan with Meg, or secure like the backseat?"

Damn. John had forgotten what Sam could be like when they fought. He looked at the ceiling, counted slowly. He made it to about four before his patience ran out. "Fine. You want to start this, boy, weíll start it. I fucked up. We both fucked up. But figuring out who fucked up worse isnít going to bring Dean back. Heís dead, Sam. I saw the backseat of the Impala before I passed out. I saw-"

"Stop," Sam snarled.

"- that it was covered in blood. He was hurt bad to begin with, even before the truck hit us. The Impala was bent in half." John shook his head, trying to lose the image of the crumpled car, the bloody upholstery, Deanís desperate gasps for air. "Heís gone. Tearing each other up wonít help that, and itíd piss him off anyway if he knew we were doing it."

Sam made a harsh noise. "And now you care what he wants?"

"Wanted," John said. "And damned if Dean ever knew that himself. No. I know Iím the last person who ought to say this, and I wonít blame you if it pisses you off, but you need to hear it. Let it go. If you go hunting like this, that thingíll tear you apart."

"Iíll manage."

"You goddamned well wonít!" John barked, his voice ringing off the walls of the narrow room. If he couldíve paced, he wouldíve. Instead, he was stuck trying not to come across to Samís bed and shake him hard. "Youíre in no shape-"

"I donít care."

"I canít go in with you." John leaned back hard against the unforgiving bedframe, using it to brace himself against the words. "I canít protect you, and I will not lose you both."

Sam turned away from him, rolling on his back to stare at the ceiling. For a minute, he was quiet. Then he drew in a deep breath, and John braced for screaming. He hadnít braced for the low, almost gentle, "Deanís the one who raised me, not you. Protected me. And neither of us could protect him when it mattered. The least I- I canít give up on him."

John grimaced, tightening his grip on the rails until his temper eased. When he could trust himself, he said, "That for him or you?"

Sam made a harsh noise in his throat. "You werenít hunting that demon for Mom. None of us were. This has never been about the dead-"

"No. Not for her." For Sam. For his boys. Because heíd thought of that thing bent over Samís crib and known somewhere deep that it had never been about his wife. But that wasnít the sort of thing Sam needed to start kicking himself over now, and John wasnít the one flinging any old resentments he could find. "Dean knew what we were fighting for."

"- Because the dead donít need it." Sam didnít move to look at John. "Dean was a soldier in your personal army. Is. Probably always will be."

"Yeah. Dean figured that out." John sighed. "Didnít exactly turn him down when he was helping you look for it after Jess died, did you?"

That, Sam moved for, his head whipping around to glare at John. John had seen him move glasses and crack windows, but nothing came winging at him. The shine in Samís eyes was traitorous and real.

Standoff. From there it could only escalate to screaming nonsense or getting violent, but it never got this far. There was supposed to be another voice in the middle of it, pleading, shoving, mediating and making them stand down. As one, they realized that and sat there, staring at each other.

"Damn," John murmured finally. "Fucking thing was right. Dean was the only thing keeping this family together. Never got a chance to tell him-..."

"Yeah," Sam answered, and didn't clarify if he was agreeing or admitting his own guilt.

Quiet.

Finally, Sam turned his head to look at John again. "I hate that fucking thing being right. We could try to... we could manage. Without him. If Iím wrong. Which Iím not."

"Mm." John shifted, easing into a place where he could lay down. Tonight he might actually accept the painkillers. He felt beaten. "Suppose we could work on that."

"Maybe."

"I donít want you to be wrong, Sam. Thatís not what-"

"I know." After a moment, John heard Sam breathe out hard. "Fuck. Iím sorry. I shouldnít have-"

John made a sharp, silencing gesture, and Sam shut up. Sammy didnít mean the apology, and so John didnít want to hear him lie for the sake of Deanís absence.

More quiet. The door clicked open, letting in the bustle of the hallway.

Ceasefire on the Gaza Strip that was their screwed up goddamn relationship. John wouldíve rather been back in the Marines than dealing with this. "Huh," he offered. "Look at that. We acted like grownups and shut it down ourselves."

Sam snorted. "Letís face it, we could use the practice."

John hesitated a second. Shouldn't offer another shovel-full of false hope. Sam was neck-deep as it is. But if it kept him going for a while yet, just until he either found his feet or got to a place where he'd let John talk him down when the truth came... "Deaníll be proud."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sam look at him sharply. John didnít look back, in case that set off another round. After a moment, Samís mouth twisted into a faint smile. "Heíll just be amazed there wasnít IV dueling. Stabbing each other with pens. You know."

"One of these days, heíll learn to stand back and sell tickets."

"Yeah." Sam sighed, tugging the blanket up over his shoulders. He reminded John suddenly of the tired boy whoíd wait up too late for him after hunting trips, blinking owlishly until John pushed him at a bed. Johnís chest hurt. "God. Dad, I-"

Now that sounded like the beginning of a real apology. Few years ago, John wouldíve listened to it, nodded and accepted it as due. Now... well. There was nobody around who could tell his boys the stupid, angry shit John had said after Mary died, when the numbness changed to fury. That was for the best.

"Shut up, Sammy." John turned his head to look at him, and felt his own mouth tug in a smile. "Get some sleep. This isnít Steel Magnolias."

Sam actually laughed, briefly, and closed his eyes.

Score one for the old man.

****

6

An owl hooted, and Jason came awake, gun trained on the sound. Two wide eyes stared out of a little feathery head.

With a hard sigh, Jason glanced around and re-holstered the gun. Great, Hammett. Just blow Fluffy over there out of the tree. Next thing he knew, PETA would be after him.

He glanced at the horizon. Almost dawn. Time to start moving again.

Jason forced himself back onto his tired legs. All the strain was from the walking and the hitch-hiking. He didn't seem to have a problem hiking in the biker boots. They felt right on him, like the heavy denim jacket and jeans did. So in his previous life he was undercover as a redneck?

Humming Dixie, Jason reached for the battered map he'd picked up, at one of the many rest stops trying sadly to pimp the many glorious tourist opportunities of Minnesota's frozen tundra. According to it, the road he was on would (eventually) turn left. If the trucker was right, there would be an all night roadhouse there called Valhalla. It was situated outside of one of the little ethnic enclaves found in the Midwest, this one a heavy Norse population. The trucker'd said it wasn't to be missed. He wouldn't explain why, but he'd been smirking. Jason figured the guy was a fan of Led Zeppelin.

Sure enough, after about another half hour of walking, the road turned. There in the middle of a clearing was a huge log building with a big-ass ship's prow sticking out of the front. It was carved in the shape of a scantily clad buxom winged woman.

Jason grinned. His kind of place, between the half-naked cheesecake statue and the forest crouching on all sides. If he needed to bolt again, he'd have plenty of cover. The woods had shifted from claustrophobic to almost familiar, the weight of the gun at his back and the knife in his hand giving him comfort. It was safer than the highway in the daylight, where Jason didn't necessarily trust a dye job and a few extra pounds to keep him unnoticed if they were looking for him.

He wasn't sure who 'they' were anymore. If they were the feds, they sucked at tracking him, particularly since they'd have surveillance and intelligence on their side. If it was the cops, he'd crossed enough state lines that they should've stopped hounding him by now. But still he felt something shadowing his steps, like any second he might hear whistling from behind him just before-

Before what?

His memory stayed an unhelpful blank. Better that than the headache that seemed to accompany any attempts to push too hard. Jason let it go, stepping up to the bar's heavy wooden door. He could hear a clamor from within, the click of pool balls, friendly yelling and the pulse of music. Metal. He liked these people already.

When he pushed open the door, a chaos of scents assaulted him. Leather and spilled beer, fried food and sweet smoke. The bar was cluttered, noisy and packed wall to wall. Apparently the good people of Ragnar, Minnesota, didn't have much else to do on a... fuck, was it Saturday? And what the hell were these people doing in a bar when it was pushing dawn?

The song was right: in Minnesota, there was a drinking quota. Somebody, a remarkably tall blond, wandered past with a beer in each huge hand. He wore a t-shirt that declared it to be Moose Days.

God, this was a weird country.

Sheer, fascinated horror kept Jason in the doorway for a moment. He recovered as the songs switched and a few more of the fucking huge blonds yelled, jumping to their feet to dance with a certain plastered style. Were all of them like that? Jason could see a few brunettes wandering around, a handful of African Americans, two groping lesbians-heyyyyy-- and one very drunk guy in a yarmulke and fur on one of the tables, but mostly it was a sea of very tall blond people in... was that a horned helmet?

Yeah. There was a little too much community pride going on for Jason not to get made as a stranger within seconds. He stepped back, trying to ease through the door before somebody looked up from their beer. Granted, they were all pretty focused on their incoming cirrhosis, so he had plenty of time as long as no one-

"Welcome, stranger!" perked a voice at his elbow.

"Fuck me," Jason muttered, then forced a smile and turned to look at her. The smile froze a little as he took in the long legs, the sweet curves and the bounteous cleavage. The owner of said cleavage was shorter than him, but not by much. Enough that Jason had a mighty nice view down her low-cut top. Catching the pleased smirk, he gave up and let her have the slow up-and-down stare. "And what a welcome it is. Sorry, honey- and believe me, I'm really sorry- but I took a wrong turn and I'm late for-"

The bit of strawberry-blond fun had a dangerous smile. She went up on her toes a little, giving him a better view down her shirt as she touched his arm with light fingers. "But you just got here," she purred. "Come on in. Have a beer. It's a long way until the next road stop. Besides, it's the Moose Days!"

Wow. Hot and crazy. "Well," Jason glanced at her handily available nametag, "Idona, I'd hate to intrude on that. So-"

A man glanced up from his pool game, noticing Jason for the first time. Viking boy frowned, then leaned over to share a word with one of his buddies. Fuck.

"Oh, please?" Idona asked, cocking one hip to the side. Her smile went wicked. "My shift's almost over, and I could use the company while the shooting's going on. And Sven Morgan's been all hands most of the night, so..."

Was she worth a bar full of pissed-off Vikings with guns? Jason gauged what he could see of Idona, which was quite a bit. She was the kind of girl who could make a man thank God for eyesight and imagination, let alone for his... stamina.

Idona smelled blood in the water, because she winked and handed him a beer from her tray. "Here. I'll be back with you in a few."

Jason took the beer like an idiot and watched her stride away. It was a nice view. Kind of like watching a horror movie while you screamed at the dumbass about to get himself murdered over a piece of ass. Hey, that sounded familiar.

Hoo, boy. Jason took a swig of the beer and shook his head hard. There was trouble, and then there was trouble. He'd just track her down, pay for the beer and- probably end up staying anyway, because there wasn't much blood going to his brain at the moment. He had just gotten laid in Chicago, hadn't he? A lot?

Christ, no wonder he was scarred up. Maybe he should be watching over his shoulder for brothers, fathers and husbands. (Or wives, for that matter. Jason wasn't picky.) With pitchforks and shotguns for the wedding.

With a sigh, Jason shrugged off his bag and set it against one wall. Then he took another swig of beer and started deeper into the crowd of humanity. He'd at least try to catch up with her, and then let his brain catch up with him.

He made it about to the pool table. That was when there was suddenly a blond man in his goddamned face, seething at him.

Jason pulled sharply to a stop just before they collided, feeling someone jostle him from behind. There was precious little room, and a whole lot of people between him and the door. Wise tactical call there, Hammett.

"Why are you watching Idona?" the blond bit off. He had the flushed look and shot pupils to match the line of empty bottles on the pool table. His buddy loomed behind him, looking no less plastered.

Jason set the bottle carefully down and held up his hands. Then he stepped back. The person he'd bumped was now like a solid wall between him and escape. "Dude. It's cool, all right? I don't want any trouble." When they continued glaring, Jason sighed and tried, "C'mon, now, you don't want to sully the good traditional fun of Moose Days."

The bar was too quiet around them. Jason heard someone call, "kick his ass, Sven!"

"Sven," Jason said. "Sven Morgan?"

The blond thrust his chin out, wobbling a little with the motion. "Got something to say about it?"

The crowd parted beside Sven, letting through Idona. She'd pulled out her ponytail and buttoned her shirt until it was almost demure. She lay her hand on Sven's arm, her eyes dancing as she said, "Oh, Sven, don't fight over me."

Sven turned to frown at her. "Step back, little sister."

Little sister? Oh, fuck, he'd stumbled into the Norse Waldens from hell.

Idona shook her head, all wide-eyed innocence. "Really, it's okay. He just looked down my shirt, but it's not like-"

Sven looked sharply at Jason. "You dare?" he snarled.

Irritated, Jason replied, "It's not like I could miss them, man. I don't want a fight here, just calm the hell-"

Sven surged forward, shoving Jason hard enough to knock him back. The bad shoulder wrenched, sending pain down Jason's arm, distracting him so that he didn't see the punch coming before it put him down.

Jason hit the floor on his hands, rolling out of the way just before he caught Sven's boot to his face. He grabbed at the pool table to pull himself up and run like hell. The pool cue rolled into his hand, and Jason grabbed on. He crouched there for a moment, wondering if he could make it to the back exit, assuming there was one.

Then Sven's fingers knotted into his hair, jerking him upright. Jason went with it, and brought his fist up with him. He checked it halfway there, nailing Sven in the face with the heel of his hand. Sven rocked back, teeth clicking together. Behind him, Jason saw a flash of strawberry blonde hair disappear into the crowd.

"Look, I'm sorry if I dishonored your sister, okay? I mean, not that I-oh, Christ-I didn't touch her," Jason added hastily, seeing Sven's eyes darken in fury.

Other hands grabbed at him, and Jason swung the pool cue without thinking, feeling the satisfying crack as it impacted.

Something welled up from the base of his spine, loosening muscles, readying him for the fight. Yes. This was right. This was what he'd been born for, the fight, the hunt, the kill-

Wow. Cute and crazy. No wonder Jason'd liked Idona.

Fight, he sternly told his body. No kill.

Muscles humming, Jason pivoted. Whipping the cue around, he cleared himself enough room to move. Before the wall of bodies could close again, he leapt up onto the pool table, giving himself the higher ground.

Before he could find his balance, Sven was there, swinging for all he was worth. It was too late to dodge, so Jason took the punch square to his jaw, letting himself fall back onto the table. Sven started to lean over, totally missing the steel toed boot coming for his nuts. At least until the kick connected. That was hard to miss, even if you could ignore the sympathetic groan from their gathering audience.

Fight however you have to, son. Fight dirty. Just live.

The impact sent Sven tumbling off the table, and Jason kipped up, ignoring the protest of his stomach muscles. Some sixth sense warned him, and he glanced to the left just in time to jerk his head back from the bottle that some asshole lobbed at his head.

Pausing to slap someone's hands off his boots, Jason picked up a pool ball and winged it at the guy's head. "Batter up, bitch," he yelled, watching as the guy went down. Seeing another man about ten feet out readying his own missile, he got a better grip on the pool cue, and kicked the returning Sven in the stomach, leaving him bent over.

Sven, with his broad shoulders, made an excellent springboard for Jason to launch himself at the knot of men.

After that, the fight became a blur of fists, bodies flying past. There were people calling wagers, cheering Jason and Sven on until the fight devolved into complete chaos. At some point, Jason realized that several of the guys, including his buddy Sven, had switched sides and were now covering his back. God, these people were weird.

The fight was winding down when the sirens cut through the night. Jason froze automatically.

"Oh, dammit. Who called the cops?" Sven cursed. "Was just getting fun." His heavy hand landed on Jason, tugging him towards the kitchen door. "Idona! Get him out the back way."

Idona grabbed his jacket, practically dragging Jason to the back door. "Just go into the treeline," she ordered as the crowd parted for them. A few people thumped Jason on the back as they passed. "Don't leave. It's okay."

"What?"

"I still owe you another beer." Idona grinned. "Haven't seen a brawl like that in years."

Jason shook his head to clear it, wondering if that ever actually helped. Not so far. "What?" he repeated.

She snorted, then grabbed his jacket, jerking him down for a scalding kiss. When she let him go, she smirked. "Don't go far, stranger."

Then she opened the door and shoved him out into the snow. As Jason fumbled upright, she slammed the door on him. He grinned after her, then tore ass for the trees.

It was a long, cold wait. His jeans were damp from someone's beer, and the bruises started to hurt if he didn't pace. So he paced, watching as the cops did an exasperated, impatient sweep through the lot. He got the feeling that this wasn't the first time they'd been called to break up a bar fight in Valhalla. With Idona gunning for whatever poor bastard stayed still, Jason wasn't surprised.

He should've left, but something kept him. Probably the promise of getting laid. Damn, that was sad. As the adrenaline faded, he could feel it leaving empty spaces behind. He'd been missing that, or something like it. Jason clenched and unclenched his fists, trying to hold onto the feeling, but it slipped through his hands.

Finally, the crunch of snow announced that the police were heading out. He heard Sven's voice, strident and still pretty drunk-sounding. Jason risked glancing around the truck that had been his refuge, only to be blinded by a bright flashbulb. Jason ducked back, blinking against the afterimages, and watched in the side mirror of another truck to be sure no one had noticed him.

Apparently not. It'd just been some schmuck with a press pass taking a picture of Sven talking with what looked like a police chief. Must've been a slow news day. Amazing, what with Moose Days.

Jason relaxed warily, leaning against the truck to listen in.

"A wolf, Mr. Morgan?" the kid asked tiredly. "Again?"

"Yes," Sven said staunchly. "Came out of the woods, wandered into the bar. Seemed more scared to see us than-"

"The other way around. Just like the other times."

"Exactly," Sven said.

"Yeah. Funny how those pool cues were broken."

"Nature is funny," Sven replied. "Very rich with unusual creatures. Like the platypus, or the giraffe, or-"

"The lucky wolf," the police chief sighed. "All right. Thanks, Mr. Morgan."

"Thank you. Sorry to have called you out for nothing." Sven shook the man's hand, ushered him to his car and stood in the parking lot, waving, until the last of the police cars had pulled away. Then he laughed. "You hear that, lucky wolf?"

Jason slid out from behind the truck. "You people are fucking psychotic."

"Yes," Sven agreed. He felt gingerly at a nasty gouge above one eyebrow, grunted, and reached out to thump Jason's shoulder. "Come. Idona's making breakfast."

Jason winced, making Sven grin wider. They limped towards the bar. "What about Moose Days?"

"Big bust. No moose."

"Sorry."

"Nah. It's mostly an excuse to get drunk, fight and eat. I'm sure there were moose at some point, but we've never seen them. Which is another excuse to get drunk, fight and eat."

Jason paused, letting Sven get ahead of him. "Wait. So you and Idona- you weren't pissed?"

"Ah. Idona." Sven turned, leaning against the doorframe. His smile went fond as he spoke about Idona, making something beaten and sentimental in Jason's chest twist. "Let me tell you about my little sister. I love her dearly. I as much as raised her. But I tell you now, she's a great lover of men. It's a small town. Not many men. But I don't trust strangers. This is our way of coming to know a man."

"Uh-huh. Getting a cut of the betting profits probably doesn't hurt."

Sven smirked. "Have to keep the bar running somehow. Nobody ever pays their tab. Come in, lucky wolf. You will have pancakes."

"It's Jason," Jason told him.

Sven blinked at him, mildly. "You tell yourself that. My name's actually Brian. And Idona's Gina. But when the old one has given you a name, that's the end of it. And she's decided to give you one."

It was said so plainly that Jason couldn't find a good way to argue. Particularly since Jason wasn't his real name, either, just a borrowed one a few weeks old. "Nice custom," he said lamely.

With a shrug, Sven opened the door and walked into the bar. The place really was wrecked, broken balls and splintered table legs everywhere. There was a semi-circle of people, who'd all paused when Sven came back in. Even the ones with the beer mugs halfway to their mouths stopped, staring at Jason like they'd never seen him before.

In the heart of the circle was an old woman, sitting in the one chair that hadn't been destroyed. She was bent and wrinkled, covered in a black shawl over her black dress. She held something in her hands, working it between her gnarled fingers. Her eyes were closed, her lips working. In the reverent quiet, Jason heard her dry whispering.

This was odd. Not like horror movie odd. It was the kind of odd that went on in small towns, behind closed doors, in places where nobody but the neighbors would understand. Small folklore, little rituals that people did just because they'd always been done.

Jason wondered why he knew that.

Idona knelt by the old woman's chair, respectfully. She winked at Jason, but any play slid away from her as she looked up at the old woman. When she spoke, it wasn't English. The language was harsh, rhythmic. When she'd finished, Idona touched the old woman's hand.

The old woman kept whispering.

Idona nodded, like that made sense, and looked at Jason. "She wants you, stranger," she murmured.

Sorry. Not my type. Jason hesitated, but the sudden narrowing of Idona's eyes made him decide otherwise. It was just a weird old custom. He could bear with it, smile and nod, and try not to piss them off again. He went, feeling somehow like he ought to apologize for being so much bigger than this woman who had the entire bar scared shitless. He settled for kneeling in front of her, carefully out of reach. "Ma'am," he said. "Nice to-"

The old woman's eyes snapped open. They were gray, pupil and iris, and completely focused as she looked at Jason. They were the eyes of a woman who missed little. Jason leaned back without thinking, and the old woman gave him a dry smile. She raised her hand, and Jason made himself hold still as it came towards his face.

When she touched him, the whole bar sighed. Jason set his jaw, refusing to look away from her as she tried to stare him down. Her eyes were like deep water, reflecting back, and they were making Jason's head hurt. As she stared, he could feel a migraine barreling in on him. Then she touched him, unexpectedly gentle, her fingertips sliding up to trace the scar in his hairline.

That didn't mean a damned thing. It was the easiest scar to see.

The old woman's face cracked in a crooked smile. She stroked his cheek. Jason wasn't braced, and so he jerked when she suddenly spoke with unexpected strength. "Eyolf!"

"Eyolf!" The bar echoed.

Great. "Thanks," Jason said, going to push himself up.

The old woman planted a hand on his shoulder, making him stop. The bar drew in a collective breath. The script had been disrupted. The old woman was adlibbing now, apparently.

Like she heard, the old woman shook her head, her smile going bittersweet. She squeezed his shoulder, then held out her other hand. In the palm, chain twined around her weathered fingers, was the pendant Jason had brought with him from the hospital. "Eyolf Garm," she said firmly. Then she slid the chain over his head, letting it drop with unexpected weight around Jason's neck. It lay where his pulse beat, the metal warm from her hand, like it belonged there. "Lucky wolf, who guards the gates of hell."

Jason stared at her. "Where did you get that?"

"Eyolf Garm!" Their audience chorused, and broke into ragged cheering. Apparently they were really pressed for entertainment around here.

There were hands on him, pulling him up and away from the old woman. Jason resisted, struggling to get back and ask her how the hell she had gotten into his bag. Had Idona helped her? Fucking crazy bastards, all of them.

That didn't explain why it felt the pendant felt so right around his throat. Why he could remember other hands, bigger callused ones that were gentle as they put the pendant around his neck and told him never to take it off, because-

And then it was gone, swallowed by a jab of pain that made him gasp and stagger.

Luckily enough, Sven was there, thumping his back hard. "Two names!" he bellowed, as someone turned on the jukebox again. "Grandmother's never given two. She likes you."

"Lucky me," Jason muttered. It was a whole family larceny thing, between the grandkids starting barfights to gather the winnings and the grandmother picking through people's stuff. At least she'd given the pendant back. Must not have had much street value. "Grandmother, huh?"

"She's been the Grandmother since the times of our grandparents," Idona's voice broke in. She laid a hand on Sven's head, ruffling his hair. "She's very wise."

Yeah. And she was either a great actress or senile as hell. Still, Jason couldn't point fingers over petty theft and a good con job or three. He smiled at Idona. "So. Pancakes."

"Indeed. And if you're lucky-"

"I am lucky," Jason said. "Weren't you listening?"

Idona grinned. "Then you'll get a little something more."

"That's the best thing I've heard in...well, as long as I remember," Jason grinned, following her to the kitchen.

*****

7

"Come on, Dad. You can do it."

John barely glanced up at Sam, who was waiting at the end of the walkway as John continued to struggle with each step. "I'm working on it." His hands hovered over the parallel bars, fighting to walk without support.

"Jesus, you call that walking? Grandma Moses moves faster, and she's dead," Sam snarked.

John's head came up, eyes finally focusing on Sam. "Screw you, son. You're not too old for me to put over my knee."

"Fine. Go for it. But I'm not coming to you."

"I'm," John began to step forward again, picking up the pace. "Going. To. Wring. Your. Scrawny. Little. Neck." Each word was punctuated with a step. It was a halting, painful step, but it was movement. Finally he stood in front of Sam, breathing hard, arms shaking with effort.

"See, wasn't that hard, was it?" Sam taunted. "I'm sure you can make another lap."

"Sam-"

Sam hurried back to the other end, flashing Chloe a smile. She'd long since given up on them. Now, she just sat back and enjoyed the free entertainment.

"C'mon, old man."

"Going to spike your food with Benadryl, I swear. Too damn much energy." Despite the words, John turned and began the halting walk back to the other end. He couldn't even work up much annoyance at Sam. It made him so damned happy to taunt his father into pushing himself. It was better than the all-consuming drive John got subjected to the rest of the time.

And it was definitely better than the bouts of rage or despair that Sam seemed to be more and more prone to with each passing week. Now it was John reminding Sam that Dean was still out there, waiting for them. Sam didn't seem to really believe any more. John never really had. This wasn't fair to either of them, the false hope, the bullshit faith, but-

But John could see the strain written on Sam's pale face, and he couldn't bring himself to let Sam bear the full weight of Dean's death. Not yet.

One late night, as they both sat awake, staring at the ceiling, Sam's grief had boiled over. "Why hasn't he called? Sent a message somehow? It's not like Dean."

"I know. Maybe he can't, though. We don't know what kind of shape he's in. We'll find him," John had said softly. One way or another. Either somewhere out there, or in the County Morgue. At this point, John wasn't sure. What he was sure of was that the sliver of hope was keeping Sam going, keeping him from losing it completely. There was vengeance, and then there was complete self-destruction. John knew the latter too well not to recognize it now.

If Sam was wrong, if John had misjudged what Sam needed, this would get ugly.

John shook his head, coming back to the shabby PT room. He pulled himself to the end of the bars, and Sam was there, offering his arm so that John could turn himself and ease into the wheelchair. The prosthetic had come in last week, finally. The trucking company had paid for the top of the line, anything so that they didn't sue for Dean's wrongful death at one of their driver's hands. The prosthetic was flesh colored with gleaming joints, made to his body's specifications. John hated it. It wasn't just the pain where the plastic cut in, wasn't the clumsiness. He hated that it marked him as less. As a cripple.

Despite that, he was getting pretty good with it. He could walk fairly well with crutches, but he was determined not to need them.

Sam thumped John's shoulder and headed for the door, his own limp still evident. Jesus. They were a pair.

"I'm going to go hit the 'net caf?. I'll be back in a few. All right?"

John nodded. "If you see any interesting stories, print them out."

Sam nodded and left. When he was clear of his father's watchful eyes, he exhaled slowly. It was one thing to know that his father had lost his leg. It was another to watch Dad fight his way back, the pain as Chloe made him stretch and walk. Every inch of ground they gained was earned with hours of agony.

Sam limped down the corridor, flashing the nurses a quick smile. They gave him their best professional smile back. Dean would have had them all charmed within a day. Shame he wasn't here, instead. Sam could use help trying to convince them that he had been taking his painkillers, not palming them until he could get to the bathroom and flush the damned things. It hurt, sure, but at least that way his head was clear.

The computer room was about empty when he got there. It suited Sam fine. The kind of things he was going to look up didn't need an audience. He quickly went to one of the news search engines and put in familiar terms, looking for anything paranormal.

Three hits came up. The first was a bullshit website, no better than the geeks he and Dean had tangled with. God only knew what these idiots were going to end up creating. He made a mental note to keep an eye on the site. Just to be on the safe side.

The second was a Minnesota paper, something about a wolf attack in a local bar. That sounded promising. Maybe a lycanthrope? Clicking the button, Sam printed it out the two pages.

The third was a dead link. Was evil on its winter vacation? That old clich? about things being quiet, too quiet, preyed on Sam at night. Where was the demon? Why wait to hit them again when now would be the perfect time? Even his visions had been fewer and fewer.

With a sigh, Sam paid the surly attendant and took his print-outs. Briefly skimming, and a glance at the pictures accompanying the article, told Sam everything he needed to know. For one thing, the wreckage in no way looked like the aftermath of a lycanthrope attack. Aside from bruises and property loss, there had been little damage. A lycanthrope would've torn the occupants apart and eaten half the remains.

No, the bruises one man was proudly showing off was definitely from a long, blunt object. Probably a pool cue. Still, the sight of these people in Viking helmets and trucker hats proudly trying to cover their barfight with a complete BS story made Sam smile.

He headed back to the room with the story in hand, glancing in first to be sure Dad was mostly together. His father preferred that Sam give him room to recover after a PT session, a brief time to hurt where Sam couldn't see him. If the curtain was closed, Sam gave him space. Dad gave him the same courtesy when Sam had PT. Fucked up, maybe, but it left them some pride.

The curtain was open. Sam wandered in and flopped on the edge of his father's bed, careful of the other man's legs. He slapped the article down. "Quiet newsday in Minnesota. There's a sighting of the mysterious Viking truckers."

John snorted, paging through the article. Sam watched him read, noting the tired smile on his father's face as he saw the horned helmets. Especially the one tall guy in front of the truck.

"Hey." Sam leaned into John, frowning at the picture. "What's that by the truck?"

Raising his head, John blinked at the picture. Then he pushed it at Sam. "You've got better eyes."

Sam took the page, bringing it up close to squint at it. There was a figure by the truck. Too big to be an animal, and Sam figured that an animal wouldn't be wearing boots anyway. Or a denim jacket. Or...

Or...

His father's voice broke the sudden quiet. "What is it?"

Sam wondered when his hand started shaking. He lunged over John, fumbling for the red pen on the nightstand, and circled the figure. Then he pushed it at John, managing a choked, "Look closer."

John gave him a long, gauging look. Then he nodded and brought the picture up, studying it with all the focus Sam had seen him give a rifle scope. For a long second, nothing. John frowned, leaning in closer.

Sam knew the moment it clicked, watching the color drain from his father's face. John lowered the picture to his lap, letting it slide from his nerveless fingers. He drew in a slow, shaky breath, nodded, and looked up at Sam. His eyes shone, but the tears didn't spill over as he met Sam's eyes.

"All right," John said.

"Dean's alive," Sam murmured. He wanted it said, wanted to be sure he wasn't losing his mind. "He's in Minnesota."

An uneven smile tugged at John's mouth. He nodded, slowly, and looked back at the picture. His fingertips brushed the figure's face, as if he was afraid that it would disappear if he touched it too hard. "Adopted by Vikings. Only your brother."

Sam's laugh was a little hysterical. He leaned hard against his father, cautiously covering his hand on the picture.

With a sidelong glance, John felt a fond smile tug at his mouth. "There'll be no living with you after this, will there?"

"Won't rub it in too much." Sam closed his eyes. "Dad, why hasn't he-"

John didn't stop to think about it. He just slid an arm around Sam and shook him a little. "We'll deal with it, Sammy. Whatever it is, we can deal."

"Not from here."

"No. It'll be a couple days. We'll need a car. Get the doctor to check on you one more time."

"Dad, I'm-" John gave him a look. Sam muttered, "Yessir."

"Damn right." John went back to the paper. There was Dean's face, blurry but real. Alive. With a bad dye job, but whole. John trusted it enough to close his eyes, to think. "Okay. I'll call in contacts. Bobby's got our weapons. My journal."

"Oh! The body." Sam's head snapped up. "They've got somebody in the morgue, Dad. Some guy whose family doesn't know. We can't take off without at least telling them."

"Right. Settlement money. And they've probably got access to the handicapped vans-" John blinked at Sam. "That's... not what you meant, was it?"

Sam shook his head, slowly. "Not really, no." Then he grinned. "And I was the one heading for law school."

"Funny. Smartass." Against his side, John felt the slow tremors slide through Sam. He looked at the top of Sam's head. "Hey."

Sam opened his mouth to say he was fine, but he couldn't manage the words. He breathed out, slowly, and leaned his head on his father's shoulder. The picture of Dean's face got blurrier.

John studied Sam, the weight he'd lost, the bandages and the scars. He remembered the chunks they'd torn out of each other before Stanford, and again in their grief. Now he had Sam leaning on him, and for the first time, they could understand each other in silence. With a sigh, John gave in. Like he hadn't in years, since Sam was old enough to yowl and squirm away, he kissed the top of his boy's head.

Sam stilled, breath hitching in his throat.

John laid his chin on Sam's head. "You did good, Sammy."

Sam let his breath out slowly, his body relaxing in a way it hadn't in weeks. Probably longer.

John laid his head back, arm still firmly around Sam and closed his eyes. His boys. Both of them. You'd be so proud of them, Mary, he thought. Sam's got your good heart and my stubbornness, and Dean's got his... He thought for a moment, trying to summarize Dean into a few words, gave up. Dean's got his Dean-ness. The thought trailed off and he smiled, finally feeling the tears slide from the corners of his eyes. Dean. Alive. Whole.

His boys.

****

8

South Dakota basically sucked, Jason decided. In a huge, uninteresting way.

Sure, the bikes around Sturgis were sweet, but otherwise, it was boring. Compared to three days with the Vikings in Ragnar, Minnesota, it blew.

Sven and his buddies had proven to be astoundingly generous, supplying him with food, and weaponry. Sven's wife was a metalsmith, and had been happy to provide the lucky wolf with a custom made machete. Much to Jason's chagrin, he'd been... adopted, somehow. Those damned names had been proof enough that he was one of theirs. They'd thrown another party the night he left (mostly because damn, that town loved a party; another group of decent alcoholics), and had given him Old Man Anders' motorcycle. It was a temperamental bitch, but it ran.

Jason looked around the deserted road, and kicked the bike. It ran some of the time, at least.

"Have a problem?" a smooth voice asked.

Fucking hell! Jason hadn't heard steps. He started, hand going to the gun at his back, and spun towards the sound. A tall man slipped out from behind the wheel of a softly purring Corvette, and headed towards him. Nice car. The guy, not so much. He stank of cigarette smoke.

Jason stepped back, unease curling in the pit of his stomach. "Nah. Just ran out of gas. My buddy left to get some, should be back soon. But thanks for stopping," he added, forcing a smile.

"Your buddy?" the man asked, and laughed. "Oh, I think we know better. You're all alone."

'We'. That didn't bode well for Jason's evening. He glanced on all sides, which were nothing but open cornfields, and didn't see anyone else advancing. "Dude. You need to back off."

The man continued forward in slow, measured steps. It brought him too close, close enough to grab. Jason started backing up, and Corvette followed him. "No, I don't think I do. We're supposed to watch you. See where you go. I think it's bullshit. Just another smokescreen. I say we end it now."

And the man came for him, arms outstretched and grabbing, his face twisted in hunger.

Jason pulled the gun and fired, point blank at the man's chest.

The man fell backwards, arms flailing, but he didn't go down. He should've gone down, what the- but the man stopped his backward momentum, straightening with that same twisted smile. "Nice shot. My turn." His arm swept out, hand catching Jason with tremendous force, sending him flying.

Flying? That couldn't be a good thing, shouldn't have been able to- shouldn't have-

Landing, Jason quickly found, was worse. He ended up in a heap, nearly fifteen feet from the bike. "The fuck," he wheezed, scrambling to his feet.

The man smiled, looking down at the hole in his chest, and Jason's breath came faster. Shit. Couldn't be happening, couldn't be happening. Oh fuck. Its eyes-black. Like the mugger. Like the whistler.

Jason could hear an engine rattling down the road, possible help, but it would be too late. Wouldn't matter. It was all up to him. With a hiss of metal, the machete slid from its sheath.

The thing moved towards him, a look of amusement on his face. "That's more like it, more like a-"

Jason didn't let him finish. Instead, he snapped a kick at its knee, dropping to avoid its grasping hands. It stumbled back, snarled and flicked a hand at him. Jason felt something grip his throat. The invisible vise squeezed, and he struggled, trying to breathe around it.

"Pathetic," the thing crooned, sadly shaking its head. "You'll die just like your brother, on your knees and begging for mercy."

Even in the chokehold, Jason felt his head snap back from the searing pain within. There was something, some memory- Fuck this. He hefted the machete, drew his arm back and let it fly.

The creature's eyes widened as the machete sliced into its throat, and the phantom hand released Jason. Jason stumbled but kept his feet, stalking towards it, scooping up the gun as he went. "Sonofabitch," he croaked.

It stared at Jason, eyes wide, hands trying to clutch at the ruin of its throat. "No," it rasped. "Wouldn't- you wouldn't- the body-"

"You don't want to die?" It shook its head, and Jason smiled. "Too bad. Die on your knees. Begging for mercy."

Emptying the gun into its head made a satisfying crater where the face should have been. It hit the pavement, jerking through its last muscle movements. Jason watched, bracing himself to kick in the wet remains of its skull if it tried to go for him. Normally decapitation worked, didn't it? It did in the movies.

Finally, the thing stilled.

Jason arched his back, listening to the series of pops. Rolled his neck to the side. Then he knelt, gingerly grabbing its body by the arm to drag it off the road.

The truck was still coming, slowly. Jason waited for it to keep going, tensing as it groaned to a stop beside him. As the driver's side door opened painfully, Jason said without much hope, "Um, it wasn't... human." At least he'd get the insanity plea.

"No shit, Sherlock." A tall, solidly built man slid out of the truck, his gun trained on the still form on the ground. He didn't look up at Jason, focused on the thing. His twang was thick as syrup. "Has it dusted yet?"

"Dust-what?" As the words left Jason's mouth, a tornado of black, brackish sand slid from the hole in the things face, whirling away on an unseen breeze. "Oh." Definitely the insanity plea, then.

The truck guy glanced up, one eyebrow crooked. His look intensified, taking Jason in for a long moment before he swore. "Shit. Thought you were a hitchhiker. You-Jesus, boy! Your daddy is worried sick over you. And what the holy hell did you do to your hair?"

Another spark of pain. First that thing about his brother, now his father... one second he was an orphan, and now he had more damned family than he knew what to do with. Jason shook it off, backing up another few steps to put room between him and the truck guy. The gun was still in his hands, but he'd emptied the clip. Jason held it out anyway, aiming it in the truck guy's general direction. "I think you've got the wrong guy," he warned. "Happens a lot. Why don't you just keep driving?"

Truck Guy stopped short, tilting his head to one side. He squinted at Jason. When he spoke again, his voice was lower. It was the voice of a man used to dealing with big, mean and stupid dogs. Talk them down, get them to heel. "Son, it's Bobby. I've known you since you were a pup. C'mon, now."

"I don't know you," Jason bit off. "Get back in the goddamned truck."

"No. You sure don't seem to, do you." Bobby slid the gun back into a holster at his side and held both hands up, open and empty. "All right. Put that thing away."

Jason ignored Bobby's open hands, looking instead at the center of Bobby's body. Bobby's posture said that he would be on Jason if Jason so much as lowered the gun. Bobby looked older, but he had more mass behind him. He could put Jason down if he got a chance.

Fucking ow, Jason's brain hurt to look at Bobby. There was a flurry of snapshots in his mind, quick impressions there and gone before Jason could grab at them. A junkyard, like a graveyard for classic cars. A gun range. A punching bag. Bleeding knuckles, stinging eyes, bruises on bruises from sparring. Sitting on the floor of a rickety shack, a makeshift bed of blankets and coats in front of an old potbellied stove with Bobby telling war stories to... to who, damn it? It was so close Jason could fucking taste it.

And then there was the last, brightest flash. The one that stayed. With terrible clarity, Jason could see the blond girl again, slumped in the chair she'd been tied to. Blood spilling out of her mouth as she looked up at Jason, human eyes in her beaten face. He'd seen that bit before; what was new was the memory that he hadn't been alone.

Bobby had been there. He'd helped Jason kill her. No, that wasn't quite- there had been someone else, someone-

For a second, the pain was so intense Jason thought he'd been shot. His fingers went numb, and he fumbled the gun, unable to see or to think. He caught it before it hit the ground, barely.

Then Bobby caught him by the scruff of his jacket, hauling him in a rough circle at arms length. Jason struggled to refocus, managed to get his hands up in time to avoid being bounced off the hood of Bobby's truck. The gun clattered away under the truck, out of reach.

"-get you back to your family," Bobby was saying, talking low and steady and fast. "Gonna be all right. There was an accident- goddammit, Dean, listen-"

Someone was screaming in Jason's head, a chaos of too many sounds. He didn't think. He reacted, whipping an elbow back and up. There was a crunch as Bobby's nose broke, the beginning of a choked curse. Bobby's grip eased up just a little. Enough. Jason spun in the close quarters between him and Bobby.

Jason didn't give Bobby time to hit him back. Twenty seconds. Five hits. Military fucking precision.

Bobby went down in the road, and he didn't get back up. Jason stared at him, chest heaving, until he saw that Bobby was breathing. Then he lurched over to the edge of the highway and threw up.

When he finally could straighten, the pounding in Jason's head had eased up. He swallowed hard, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand. He got to his feet and went to the body of the Corvette guy, wiped off his machete on the thing's white dress shirt, and returned that to its sheath. As an afterthought, he grabbed the keys to the Corvette in case the bike wouldn't start. Then he nudged the body into the drainage ditch on the side of the highway.

It was a few minutes' work to follow it down, covering it with the rubble and trash that it had landed on. Jason found it unnervingly easy, his hands quick and efficient on auto-drive.

What the hell was he? What had he been? What the hell had happened to his brother? Why was his family hunting for him? Was Dean a first name or last?

Never mind. He didn't have time now. That was the third encounter. Each time, these things got bolder, more violent. And it had said 'we'. There were more on the way, watching Jason, waiting. And now, apparently, he had humans to deal with too-

Jesus. He'd snapped.

Tiredly rubbing at his eyes, Jason sighed and stepped over Bobby. He slid onto his stomach, retrieving his gun. Reloaded it, cursing as his sweat-slick fingers almost fumbled the clip, and put the safety on before he returned the gun to the small of his back.

The keys were still in the ignition of the truck. Jason gunned its engine, slid out of the cab, and left it to run itself down. Hopefully Bobby would stay down until the gas ran out. Should shoot him, remove the one witness, but...

Yeah. But. But there were limits to what even Jason would do, and shooting an unconscious man was one of them. Not that it would have stopped him once.

He quickly went back to the bike kicking the starter with a little more force than was strictly necessary, but it seemed to work. With a muted roar the bike turned over, purring happily under him. Thank god.

With a last look at Bobby, he put it in gear, heading away as fast as he could go.

Next stop, Seattle. Fuck knew why, but at least it wasn't here.

***

9

Hospitals were all the same, Sam thought. Sterile, clinical, and utterly depressing. And the area outside the morgue had to be the worst of all. The cheerful needlepoint banner above the door with that damned Psalm on it wasn't helping. What the hell did most of these people know about walking through the valley of the shadow?

"If you don't stop bouncing your legs like that, I'm going to stab you," his father murmured, not looking up from the three-year old magazine he was thumbing through.

"Sorry." Sam stilled with effort, looking at the doors again. "Wonder what's taking so long?"

"Don't know. Think you could look a little less eager? You're identifying your brother's body, not waiting for your first date," John whispered.

"Oh. Yeah," Sam quickly schooled his features into a quiet sadness. Or something.

"Once we get Dean back, remind me to have him give you some acting lessons," John snorted. His cellphone chirped, and he scooped it up. "This is John."

A blast of sound came from it, and John pulled the phone back from his ear. "Slow down, who is this?"

Sam leaned closer, trying to hear. It wasn't that hard.

"This is Bobby, you misbegotten son of a bitch!"

"What'd I do this time?" John asked, lips twitching.

"Not you, that boy of yours!"

In unison, Sam and John sat straighter. "Dean? You saw him? Is he all right? Is he with you?" John asked. "Where are you?"

"South Dakota. Damned right I saw him." For a moment, Bobby hesitated. "John, there's something not right with him. He didn't know me."

"Damn," John breathed.

"They're following him. I pulled up as he was fighting a demon. He's not the Dean I know."

"What do you mean?" Sam demanded.

"Hell, son, I helped to train you two. I know what your dad taught you, and I know that with Dean, most of it didn't stick. He fights like he lives, rough and tumble. This... I got into it with him," Bobby admitted. "He was spooked. I figured I'd take him out, get him in the truck, bring him to you. Faster than trying to explain this clusterfuck."

"Is he all right?" John asked, hoping Bobby hadn't had to put him down too hard. Bobby'd been Special Forces once, drilled so hard that he once clocked John for startling him in his sleep.

"He's great. I've got a broken nose and two busted ribs."

"The hell?"

"Remember how you tried to teach him your fancy Marine moves? They stuck." Bobby sighed. "It'd be a damned beautiful sight to behold, if he hadn't been beating my ass."

"The demon? You took care of it, right?"

"Wasn't much left. Dean unloaded a clip in its face. Mind you, he'd already thrown a goddamn machete through its throat at that point."

A human victim. John blinked. "Dean? Are you sure?"

"Dean. Looks like you, with his momma's eyes, and with blue hair. He looks good, John. Really good. Don't think there's an ounce of fat on him right now. Plenty of new muscle, though. He hits like a damned mule."

John rubbed his eyes. "Shit, I'm sorry, Bobby. I never thought-"

"S'okay. You're on your own getting him back, though. He's heading west, if that's any help. I'll put the word out to the others, tell them not to approach him, but if they see him to let you know." Bobby hung up without a goodbye.

Sam stared at John with stricken eyes. "Amnesia?"

"He took a pretty wicked hit to the head," John noted.

"Thought that didn't actually happen that way," Sam started to reply when the morgue doors opened.

"Wynn? John and Sam Wynn?" a small solicitous looking man asked. "I'm Dr. Burrow."

John glanced at Sam, got a small nod in return. Showtime.

Sam rose from his chair like a sleepwalker, reaching for Dr. Burrow's hand. He'd slept better in the last few nights, but there were still circles like gouges under his eyes. Sam, Lord love the boy, played it up. "Hi. Can we-..."

"Of course," Dr. Burrow said smoothly. He turned on his heel, started to head off through the double doors.

John levered himself up off the chair, and the prosthetic creaked a little. When Dr. Burrow looked back, raising an eyebrow, John grabbed for Sam's arm and grunted. "Need a little help up." To the doctor, he gave a pale smile. "Sorry. My leg-" Is more singular than it used to be, you asshole. Bet you park in the handicapped spot. Fucker. Not entirely faking his struggle upright, John managed to steady himself and shrugged sheepishly. "It's new."

To his credit, Dr. Burrow hurried back. Probably didn't want the crip falling on his watch. Little did he know how much his night was about to suck. "No, sir, I'm sorry. I didn't realize. Take your time."

Yeah. And John hadn't needed the extra time when he was coming to identify his son's body.

Behind Dr. Burrow, Sam rolled his eyes.

"Thank you kindly," John said dryly, squeezing Sam's arm when he saw him about to snicker.

John had seen a lot of morgues in his time. They didn't differ much, except maybe the shade of industrial paint they slapped on the easy-to-rinse tiles. John found himself casing the room with a professional eye, listening for any rattling coming from the drawers. The room had cold spots all over the damned place, but that was the vents. And anyway, he wasn't here to work.

Finally, they came to the last slab in the room. The sheet had been drawn up over the body, but a white tag dangled. Someone had hastily scrawled 'Wynn, D.' Despite the alias and knowing that his son was elsewhere, safe, John felt a chill. This was someone else's boy, some poor bastard's kid. It could've easily be one of his.

He squeezed Sam's arm again, tighter. Sam gave him a sidelong look, paler than he'd been in the hallway. So he'd felt that, too.

Dr. Burrow came to the head of the slab, his gloved hands touching the sheet. "I can give you a moment."

"Just do it," John said, not bothering to hide the harshness.

Mouth thinning, Dr. Burrow nodded and pulled the sheet back.

Jesus. The kid didn't even look like Dean. Same short hair, maybe, but that was pretty much where the resemblance ended. For one thing, there was a neck tattoo that John recognized distantly as a street gang's sigil. Old track marks from when the kid had gotten desperate enough to inject into the jugular.

Sam leaned into him, one hand coming up to his mouth, a quiet sound escaping him. John got the feeling that much wasn't entirely faked.

John dragged his eyes up, letting Dr. Burrow feel the full weight of his displeasure. "What the hell is this?"

Dr. Burrow blinked. "Excuse me?"

"This. Is not. My son." Taking the kid's wrist, as gently as he could with the rigor and the embalming that'd kept him basically together for the long weeks since the wreck, John turned the body's arm over. There were track marks up and down it and, to John's regret, an old Semper Fi tattoo. Poor bastard. "This young man was an addict. My son was- is not."

Sam was doing a good job of faking hyperventilation behind him. Dr. Burrow looked between them, beyond alarmed. "I- oh- I assure you I had no idea-"

"Get somebody who does," John growled. "Now. Best run. My other son's a lawyer."

His other son was wheezing, propped up against the table. Good thing his hair was long, because that was the only thing saving him right then. Not that John could blame him for hysterics. It was one thing to have a picture and Bobby's word. It was another to hold that toe tag in your hand and know the doctors had screwed the pooch, that it'd be some other family clustered around this table in a few hours. The bullet had grazed them, but it'd missed this time around.

Dr. Burrow whipped past them, his voice carrying back a panicked apology. He must've been spooked, to leave them alone in a room full of cadavers. A curious tech glanced in, but left them alone.

Sam reached out and plucked off the toe tag, pocketing it. "Dean'll want that," he said, not looking up. From the way he rubbed the tag like a touchstone, Dean would be lucky to pry it out of Sam's hands. "Your other son's a what now?"

"Lawyer," John said staunchly. "Best one around. Or you will be. What the hell kind of settlement money were you going for there, Sammy?"

"Heh. Just wanted him to go away, actually." Sam lifted his head, considering the corpse with more comfort than a 22 year old should. Fuck; 23 now. John felt strangely guilty for not sending along a card or something. "You know, this morgue's really... clean. Like ghost clean."

"Yeah. Noticed that myself. Feels like Pastor Jim's old place."

"It should," broke in a third voice. "He trained me."

Christ, a few weeks in bed and they both got rusty. John felt his hand twitch for a gun that wasn't there, looking sharply up at the young man in the doorway to the morgue.

The young man flashed a crooked smile and a nametag that declared him 'Fr. Andrew', a title that didn't suit him in plain clothes. "Good to see you, Mr. Winchester. If I'd known it was you-"

"Andrew?" Sam broke on. "Andrew who used to kick my ass in football? Andrew who plastered the rectory walls in Playboy?"

Andrew grinned. "The Lord works in mysterious ways, my son. And fuck off, those Playboys were totally your brother's. Anyway, if I'd known it was you I'd have saved you the walk. I've been trying to tell this people for the last month that they'd screwed up two 20-ish white males that came in that night. If I'd known it was Dean, I'd have thrown down harder, but..." he shrugged at John. "Sorry, sir. Can't keep track of everything. They put me in charge after that blond psycho-bitch offed Jim, and we're up to our goddamned eyebrows. So to speak. I was off the night Dean came in, and by the time I got back, he was gone."

Yeah, John thought with a sigh, Andrew still talked too much and way too fast. "S'all right. Just tell me what you know."

Andrew's eyes flicked to John's leg. He paled. "Oh, hell. What-?"

"Focus, Andrew." John's patience was creaking with the strain. "What happened?"

"I don't know. Trauma's not my ward." Andrew didn't bother not staring baldly at John's leg, his expression shifting from shock to regret, to a sort of tired 'ah, well, them's the breaks.' "They transferred me there after Dean trashed the place. They screwed up their paperwork, like I said. Dean Wynn didn't have a record. Our friend here did. But there was a huge fucking wreck on the interstate, they came in together, both unconscious and were on the same ward with the same basic kind of trauma..." Andrew shrugged, grimacing. "Dean Wynn, who wasn't actually Dean, got the ID and the doctors were told not to give him morphine, because he'd react badly. Josh Mitchell, who was Dean, got I.D.ed as a repeat offender, with cops hanging around his room waiting for him to be solid enough to haul to jail. But they gave him morphine to go with that major surgery he needed. You can probably see where this is going."

Tipping his head back, John closed his eyes. "Jesus. Yeah, I can, but tell me anyway." As an afterthought, he glanced at Sam. "Dean has bad reactions to sedatives. He gets paranoid-"

"I remember. I was there when we found that out." Sam winced. "And he couldn't remember who he was. And there were people hovering, cops hovering, when- oh, fuck."

Andrew sighed, removing his glasses to press his palm hard against his eye. "Yeah. And then he started having nightmares. Started trying to get out of bed, looking for-" Andrew glanced at Sam, then back at John, "-for someone he couldn't identify. They put it on his report, upped the sedatives. He got more out of control. One of my new guys got worried, tried to run an exorcism. He almost got choked to death with an IV tube for his trouble. Which was when they decided to strap Dean down."

It was like a car wreck, the worst possible combination of factors. John looked down at the corpse, feeling his pity drain away. Sam was silent beside him, that bright mind following this down to its conclusion.

"He stayed that way for a few days. Must've come to at some point," Andrew continued. "As far as they figure, Dean got hold of the cord to his heart monitor, bit his lip so he was frothing blood, and pulled the cord. Faked a cardiac. When they came running, he looked like he was seizing, so they pulled the straps off. He grabbed the adrenaline needle they brought in. Shoved it in his chest and took the dose. Proceeded to demolish the whole fucking place, including two cops, in seven minutes with an IV rack. Somebody from security timed it from where they were hiding down the hall. Should've figured he was yours then, actually. Then Dean tore ass out of the hospital. Hot-wired a car after picking the lock with said adrenaline needle. He's the fucking Macguyver of hospital escapes."

John felt his lips tug in a pained smile. "That's my boy."

Sam blew out a long, slow breath. "Wow."

John shot him a sidelong look. "Wow?"

"Dad, if I'd woken up like that? I'd still be there." Sam stretched, letting some of the tension drain from his shoulders. "I-"

Andrew tensed, glancing back towards the doors. "They're coming." He quickly assumed prayerful posture, looking up as Dr Burrow came back in with two other people-one, a doctor, and one in a suit.

John stood there, arms crossed, face thunderous. "Have you figured out what happened to my son yet?"

The doctor flushed, and Dr. Burrow stepped a little closer. Still out of reach, John noted wryly. "This is Dr. Moran, he treated your son."

"I-There's been an unfortunate mistake made," Dr. Moran stammered. "The night you and your sons were in the accident, there was another accident up the road a few miles-an SUV with Mr. Mitchell driving plowed into a school bus, among other vehicles. The children were on their way home from a football game- it was a particularly bad accident."

"This has to do exactly what with my son?" John snarled, limping forward. "Where is Dean?"

Sam laid an artfully shaking hand on his arm. "Dad, settle down, please-"

Okay, so maybe Sammy didn't need those acting lessons.

"The helicopter that airlifted your son here also brought Mr. Mitchell-we're a small county, Mr. Wynn. We only have one trauma ward," Dr. Moran said, wringing his hands. "Somewhere along the way, their files got switched."

"You switched my son's records with a drug addict?" John said softly, eyes slashing across the three men across from him.

"Dealer," Andrew noted, staring beatifically at the ceiling. He had the smug look of a man who knew he couldn't be fired. "Felon, technically."

"You have to understand- your son had track marks, too!"

"He was in the hospital for a near-electrocution!" Sam said sharply. "They drew blood, put in an IV! "

"Oh. I-" Dr. Moran began.

The suit stepped forward smoothly. "Mr. Wynn, I'm sure you understand, we had nearly twenty trauma cases coming in that night-"

Ah, the hospital lawyer. Now, the show could really begin. "All I understand right now is that I've spent over a month thinking that my son-" John covered his face with his hand, unexpected emotion welling up in his throat. "My Dean," he continued, voice far from steady, "was dead, laying on a slab."

Sam's hand stroked his back lightly. "Dad," he murmured.

"And now you're telling me it was a mistake." John's face tightened. "I'm not going to ask you again, gentlemen. Where is my son?"

The last sentence was boomed with such force, such menace, that it was all Sam could do not to step back from his father.

The lawyer seemed ready to speak when Dr. Moran blurted, "We don't know."

John turned the full force of his glare on the little man. "Excuse me?"

With a pained look, the lawyer stepped forward. "Why don't we move this to my office?"

Giving John a sideways glance, Sam stepped forward smoothly. He had that smile that promised trouble. "I think that'd be a good idea."

****

10

Three days, and two more of those damned black-eyed things later, Jason pulled into Seattle, parking outside an enormous storage unit. Or at least he assumed it was a storage unit, what with the blank industrial exterior and the total lack of signage.

Hell. Might as well go out and admit to himself that he had no idea what the hell he was doing, or why he remembered going through the building's gray double-doors.

He parked the bike, and headed for the door. How the hell was he going to explain this? 'I think I have stuff here, but I don't know the unit, or my name.' That would go over big.

As he reached the door, a small screen blinked to life. It welcomed him to Secure-store, and invited him to press his left thumb to the scanner below. Fingerprint recognition?

Jason's hand hovered for a moment, almost afraid of what he'd find. If it didn't pan out, there'd be alarms. Guards. Even if it did-

He'd killed three people in the last four days. Things were rolling faster, and if he didn't know enough to get out of the way, he'd be flattened.

"Fuck, just do it, Hammett."

Glancing around, he laid his thumb on the scanner. It chirped, making him jerk guiltily.

The screen cheerfully welcomed 'Mr. John Smith' back, and informed him that it was deactivating the alarm on unit number 550. Creative, Dean-or-Mr.-Dean. Why not call himself 'Pseudonym McAlias' while he was at it?

Or maybe Jason hadn't been the one to set up this account in the first place.

The door opened with a soft whoosh, and Jason stepped in, letting his eyes adjust. An open stairwell rose in front of him, and he started up them. Unit 550 was one of the larger units, a ten by fifteen foot room with a steel sliding door barring the way. The lock picked fairly easily, and Jason paused there, hand on the door as he took a deep breath.

He'd seen enough to know he didn't really want to see more. Police officers, scars, a father who may or may not have been hunting him (at least if Bobby was with the other people who were hunting Jason), a dead brother, the ease with which Jason killed, the wrenching pain every time he tried to remember back before waking in that hospital bed...

Exhaling slowly through his teeth, Jason told himself, "Stop being such a whiny-ass pussy." Then he pushed the door open.

Je-sus Christ. He'd been a weapons dealer? A few seconds too late, Jason glanced down the hallway for signs of surveillance. He didn't see any. Apparently the building's owners had chosen the plausible deniability route, which was good. The walls were bristling over with shotguns, crossbows, pistols, machetes and... was that a flamethrower? Goddamn, it was just like Christmas.

With a last glance over his shoulder, Jason stepped into the room and shut the door. For the first time, up to his knees in weaponry, he felt safe. Grounded. This much, he knew he could trust and control. He ran a reverent hand down the barrel of the blue steel shotgun, feeling himself slowly uncoil.

Aside from the weapons, there was an old duffel bag and a cot shoved in one corner. On top of the cot, neatly made like a kid at summer camp, there was a leather bound book. Jason sat on the edge of the cot, only to get up quickly as something glass clinked against the gun in the small of his back. He reached back and found a full bottle of Jack Daniels.

"Good old liquid courage," he murmured. "Guns plus liquor. I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, am I?"

The book fell open in Jason's hand like it had been waiting for him, to a page scrawled full of his own messy handwriting. Jason made a face and leaned closer to read.

A letter to his (dead) brother in the event of his death. Sentimental, in its own screwed up way, but completely unhelpful in that it didn't name names. One thing was clear: a man had to love somebody like hell to set them up a weapons locker and to leave them about $5,000 in cash.

Jason rubbed his thumb across the roughly scrawled 'tell Dad I'm sorry' at the bottom of the dead letter. No incriminating details, in case this place was ever made. With a silent apology to himself, or at least who he had been, Jason pocketed the cash and turned the page. There was a small stack of about ten credit cards, a few fake I.D.s, several badges. None of them had the same name on the front. Jason thumbed through them until he found one that read 'Dean'. A Kansas driver's license issued to Dean Winchester, born 1-24-79. Damned thing had expired months ago.

With a disgusted sigh, he put that one along with the rest in the pocket of his jacket. Kept paging through lists of phone numbers, scribbled names that didn't trigger any memory. Hopefully he didn't need to worry about all these people hunting him down. Because that? Would suck.

When he got bored with it, he put them aside and turned back to the shelves. There were a handful of books with esoteric names on the spine, and one without any name at all. That was the one he picked up, another leather bound one that fairly bulged at the seams. Jason's fingers met metal on one side, and he turned it that way.

Bolted onto the front of the black leather was a golden plate with a simple inscription. "For Dean. Good Hunting, Dad."

He staggered, the pain in his head sharpening as a memory forced its way free of the mire. His birthday, or something. He and... someone had gone out hunting, and he'd bagged... something. The other person had given him this, wrapped clumsily in brown paper with a stupid blue bow on top. Callused hands and a gentle smile, dark regretful eyes.

Fucking ow. Okay, never mind. Not worrying about that. Instead he'd see what the book had to say.

'Cthulu,' said his handwriting. 'Not crazy-making. Kind of nauseous, slightly itchy. False advertisement. Old god, my ass. Old god of fricking ping-pong.'

At least it was interesting reading material.

Fifteen minutes later, Jason sat the book down. He'd only gotten a few pages in. His notes were dense, but a lot of it was short-hand that Jason could only assume had made sense to him at the time. "Great, I'm insane," he muttered. "Why do I want to kill the Snuggles bear? And... there are demons. A lot of them. I mean, it explains why I'm comfortable with the weaponry, but great. I'm delusional. Just fucking great."

He paced around the storage locker, raking his fingers through his hair. "I mean, it makes some sense, with the things that keep chasing me, but then again, maybe those are delusions, too. And now, I'm talking to myself. Good job, Jason- Wait. Dean," he mused. "Dean."

"Okay, Dean. What are we... what am I going to do next?" His eyes slid to the bottle of whiskey. "Yeah. That sounds about right."

He broke the seal and opened the bottle, downing a healthy swallow. It burned like fire, but the warmth that spread through him afterwards was a welcome change from the cold, empty space inside that never filled. Something was missing.

His brother. He'd loved his brother, and now the kid would never see this shelter. Never use these guns.

Maybe he should leave him another letter. He grabbed the pen tucked inside his journal, and taking another gulp of the whiskey.

"How do you start a letter like this?" he mused. "Ah, fuck it."

I think my name is Dean, he wrote.

By the time he was finished, he felt battered, bruised by the things he couldn't remember. Half the whiskey was gone. He dropped onto the cot and closed his eyes, reaching up to rub at his face. His hand didn't make it there before sleep took him.

It was the first good sleep he'd had in a long while. With the scent of gunmetal and liquor around him, the leather journal clutched in his hand, Dean could almost reach the memories that haunted him. He remembered the backseat, stretching out with the seatbelts biting into him, someone's heavy jacket thrown over him. He remembered cheap hotel rooms with single beds, switching off on shifts, curling up and knowing that the other person would be watching out for him. He remember safety, comfort, trust.

"Dad?"

"S'all right, soldier. I've got it. Sleep."


Pain woke him, and the feeling that something wasn't quite right. Dean looked around the small room, dimly lit by the overhead bulb. Nothing. Just shadows and a vicious hangover.

Then a shadow moved. Behind the gunracks, large and fast.

It peeled away from the wall, coming towards him. Dean froze, staring in horrified fascination. This was bad. A very, very bad thing. His face was burning, he remembered blood-

As it neared him, motor control returned. Dean dove from the cot, fast enough that he only felt the slice of the claws on his shoulder. "Goddamnit!" he roared, grabbing a gun.

It didn't hesitate. The shadow (this was insane) slammed him up against the wall, let him fall to the floor, and hit him again. Claws hooked into the meat of his shoulder and tossed him like a fucking ragdoll before he could twist, before he could make sense of what he was seeing.

He landed by one of the shelves and looked wildly at the contents, searching for inspiration. Couldn't shoot a shadow. Had to-

His eyes lit on a pile of flares, and memory sparked. He grabbed one, slamming it into the floor.

Oh, Christ. On the hangover, the wall of light that erupted hurt more than the damn demon had. When his vision cleared, he saw that it worked. The demon had left. Which was damned good, because if it hadn't Dean was half-blind and out of ideas.

It had left something else, too, he realized, looking at the trickles of blood flowing down his arm. He fumbled for the package of sterile gauze beside the flares and started wrapping the gashes as best he could. At least it hadn't gotten a vein.

Proof. The demon had given Dean solid, bloody proof.

He wasn't delusional. There were demons. And he killed them. Him. Dean... Hammett, since he didn't know who knew about that Winchester thing. He'd killed a demon. He could kill more. They'd started this. He could finish it.

It was a start. And a purpose.

***

11

The van was a bright, obvious cherry red. John stared at it in something approaching horror. "It's...very...nice," he said, lips twisting in an attempt at a smile.

The hospital administrator beamed. "I'm glad we could provide it for you," he lied. "Now, if you'll excuse me-"

John nodded, offering his hand. "Thank you for all your help," he said cordially. They'd won, no sense in rubbing it in.

The administrator shook it, and headed back for the hospital without a word for Sam. Then again, Sam was looking rather pleased with himself.

"I don't think he likes you, much, Sammy," John remarked.

"Sam," Sam said, with the tired tone that said he'd explained this to Dean already.

"Huh?"

"I hate being called Sammy."

John's mouth twitched. "Good to know."

Sam glared, but it looked half-hearted. "I don't know why we couldn't have worked on them a little more-"

"Sam, you got us close to two hundred grand. That's good enough." John climbed into the van, adjusting the seat for his tall frame. It was a dual control, meaning that it had both pedals and hand controls. Handy when you figured that Sam would probably insist on driving some of the time. Dean had spoiled the boy.

"It's because of the non est factum thing, isn't it?" Sam asked, climbing in on the other side.

John sighed, laying his head against the steering wheel. "Sammy-"

"Sam," he corrected.

"Sam. Non est factum is fine, whatever the hell it means. Non est factum, dude, on the other hand..." John had to bite back the smile at Sam's pissy noise.

After along moment, Sam laughed softly. "Yeah. I think I've been around Dean too long." He abruptly clutched his head as a vision swam into his brain. "Ow."

John winced, watching as his boy fought back the pain, gasping. He laid a gentle hand on the back of his neck, trying to help.

Finally, with a sigh, Sam sat back.

"You okay?"

"Yeah. Head north."

"North?"

"Towards Illinois. Route 57."

John's eyes narrowed. "Dean?"

Sam looked over, smiling slightly. "Yeah. He was there-I don't know how I know, but he was there." Something close to triumph colored his voice.

John nodded, reaching for the hand controls of the van. "In that case, let's see what this baby can do."

The pleasure in his father's voice as he whipped the van out of the spot made Sam smile in earnest. He could see where Dean got it from. With a sigh, he reached for the radio.

John smacked his hand, a smile touching his mouth. "Driver picks the tunes," he said. "Besides, my luck, you like hip-hop."

"Nah, Celine Dion," Sam deadpanned. "I know the drill. Passenger shuts his hole."

John smiled wider. "Dean's taught you well." He fiddled with the knobs until he found an oldies rock station. "Now that's more like it."

Funny how Sam had forgotten, with the luxury of a few years of not driving with his father, how the man's habits could drive Sam absolutely bugfuck insane. For instance, there was the drumming on the steering wheel thing. The humming thing. The constant switching of the radio station thing, whether the station was going to commercial or not. Didn't matter. If the song was over, the station was changed unless the DJ managed to get out something about news or traffic before it switched. And John's tastes were? eclectic. If the station came in without static, it could play Bulgarian pipe music for all John seemed to care.

At least Dean would pick a tape and stick with it after the Impala's radio died a noble death a few years back. Come to think of it, though, Dean had drummed on the wheel, too. And at least Sam didn't have to worry about Dad trying to sing. Emphasis on the 'trying'.

Sam revised his opinion after his father's absent-minded rendition of Proud Mary. His father was a man with a lot on his mind, and lyrics weren't one of those things he remembered well.

Sam was almost grateful when the headache started to hit. Then it sharpened. Fuck, never mind. He reached across the emergency brake, swatting at his father's shoulder and jabbing his finger at the sign they'd just rolled past.

"Welcome to Mattoon, Illinois!" the sign perked.

Some welcome. All Sam got was double-vision, a blurry impression of the highway on a rainy night. Fear. Pain, like a burning in his lungs and across his chest. Gritting his teeth, Sam struggled to focus as he searched for some clue, some landmark where they might figure out what Dean was heading for. The weakness Sam could feel in the vision made him uneasy, making it hard to think clearly. Dean (and hell, if Sam was following around the tracks of someone who wasn't Dean, he'd be beyond pissed when they caught up) felt sick. Vulnerable. And if the demons were following him, vulnerable was something Dean couldn't afford to be.

Finally, his vision snagged on the impression of neon, a row of trucks... "Truckstop," Sam rasped. "Keep driving, it's on the right." Then he let the vision go, held his breath, rubbing at his shoulder. The nausea would ease up on its own. Hopefully.

The radio turned down. Sam felt the car slow and turn, as gently as a car on rough highway could, into the smoother path of a parking lot. The van grumbled as it stopped and turned off. When Sam opened his eyes, there was a bottle of water in one of John's hands, a painkiller in the other.

Gingerly, Sam shook his head. "I need to think clearly-"

John crooked an eyebrow and didn't move. After a long moment, Sam swore and took the pills with bad grace.

Learning to use his power, or the trauma from the wreck, had... changed the visions. They were sharper now, clearer, letting Sam pull in and focus where he needed. But the pain lingered where it had faded before, and the visions came faster and closer together. If he didn't take one of the pills, he'd be curled around his knees in a few hours. It wasn't like Sam could hide them in the narrow confines of the van. Didn't need Dad worrying about him, particularly since Sam didn't put it past his father to dump him on Bobby and leave to keep hunting.

"Okay," Sam said shortly, and climbed out of the van.

The truckstop was kind of a shithole, with a diner attached to its side. The smell of grease and rich food made Sam's stomach twist. They took a table near the door. John watched Sam over his stained menu, frowning.

"I'm fine," Sam murmured.

"I know." John glanced down, making a face at the menu. "To borrow your brother's phrase, this sucks." He quickly shifted further into the booth, putting his cane next to him on the seat.

"What?"

"I think the hospital corrupted me. None of this looks good."

Sam hid a smile behind the menu. "I'm sure they have a plain chicken breast or something."

"Of course we do," the waitress said, smiling. "It comes with bacon and cheese on top."

"I'll have that. Bacon and cheese on the side, though," John said. "And a cup of coffee."

"And for you, sugar?"

"Coke. And um. Something light."

"Plain toast," John supplied. "And one of the breakfast steaks, medium well."

Sam nodded miserably. "Thanks."

As the waitress hurried away, he held his head, forcing the vision into focus. "It was her," he hissed. "She saw Dean."

"Good job. Now, try to let the vision go. You've gotten what you need from it, just let it go." John reached over, touching Sam's hand, trying to get his attention back to the real word. "Sammy."

"Sam," Sam said sharply, annoyed.

John bit back a smile and asked, probably not without snark, "Better?"

"What?"

"The headache. Is it better?"

Sam considered for a moment. "Actually, a little. Wait, you were trying to piss me off?"

"Pretty much. I figured if you'd focus elsewhere, it would help the headache, maybe block the signal a little." John shrugged. "They had me trying to meditate in the hospital," he added sheepishly. "To deal with the pain, and to focus on...things."

Sam tried to fake another coughing fit, hand flying over his mouth. After a second, he gave up, head tilting back as he laughed. It was one of the best sounds John had heard from his boy in weeks. Still grinning, Sam started folding and refolding his napkin.

The waitress came back, giving Sam a flirty smile. "You look like you feel better."

"Yeah, a little." Sam dug in his coat pocket, coming up with a picture of Dean. "I was wondering. My brother was backpacking out this way, and we're trying to find him. Have you seen him, by any chance?"

"Oh, is there a problem?"

"Our grandmom is sick, we're trying to find him, bring him home before..." Sam looked down, eyes sad. "They've always been close."

John nodded, giving Sam a concerned face. "We'll catch up to him, Sammy."

Through his hair, Sam glared, wondering if he could choke his father with the paper straw wrapper. "I know," he said shortly. He put on his best concerned smile, and lifted the picture for her to see. "This is my brother Dean."

"Oh, the hottie!" she perked. "I thought he was homeless."

John's head dropped forward. "That's how he normally dresses, I'm afraid."

"Oh." Suddenly, Ms. Hormone didn't seem so hot for his boy. "He came in looking rough, but then, after he showered and shaved, he cleaned up pretty well. Bugged out of here pretty quickly."

"Why?"

She shrugged, chewing her gum. "I don't know. He may have talked to one of our regulars outside, but I don't know. Chuck was out there when I went out after him, to give him a coffee, but your boy was halfway down the road by then."

"What was Chuck doing?"

"Humming, well, whistling really. What's that song? Oh yeah, y'know." She took a breath. "I see a bad moon rising..."

John held up his hand quickly as Sam twitched. "Got it."

"He was going north, so he was probably heading for Chicago. 57 don't go nowhere else."

She brought their food, and they ate quickly, eager to get back on the road. She'd just brought their check when Sam stiffened looking sharply behind him. "Dad?" he said tentatively, feeling the cold chill slide down his spine, the scent of brimstone wafting to him.

"Got it. Demon, small fry."

"What are we going to do about it?" Sam asked.

"I'm down a leg, and you're high on drugs," John said reasonably. "Why is the jukebox moving? Sam? Samuel Gabe Winchester, stop that," he growled.

Sam looked at him. "I can do it."

"Not in public, you can't. There are cameras."

Sam didn't move, but there was a sharp 'pop' from the direction of the cameras. John felt the chill ease up his spine as Sam smiled and asked, "How about now?"

John laid a twenty on the table and turned, sliding out of the booth carefully.

"Dad, if I can't-I'm pretty fucked up with the painkillers. I don't know how much help I'm going to be." Sam followed him towards the door. "Is it following?"

"Yeah. Have some faith in your old man," John murmured with a surety he didn't feel. "I've got it covered."

They were nearly to the van when it made its move, out of view of the patrons of the diner. It was humming cheerfully behind them.

"I hate that fucking song," Sam whispered.

"I know." John slowed down, trying to make it grab him instead of Sam, but it wasn't playing that game. Instead, its claw-like hand snaked out, grabbing for his boy. John turned, using the prosthetic as his pivot and brought his cane down on the demon's wrist. As it turned towards him, he whipped out the nose spray bottle full of holy water and spritzed it in the eyes.

Sam turned, ready to--well. Do something, if whatever the hell Dad had planned didn't work.

John held up a small crucifix, and took a deep breath. Thank fuck Elkins had trained as an auctioneer at one point. "Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei. Patris omnipotentis, et in noimine Jesu Christi Filii ejus, Domini et Judicis nostri, et in virtute Spiritus Sancti, ut descedas ab hoc plasmate Dei, quod Dominus noster ad templum sanctum suum vocare dignatus est, ut fiat templum Dei vivi, et Spiritus Sanctus habitet in eo. Per eumdem Christum Dominum nostrum, qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos, et saeculum per ignem," he rattled, mouth moving at an almost impossible rate, pausing only to breathe and cross himself.

The host stiffened, and opened its mouth. A torrent of black dust flew out, and the man stumbled, going limp. John, stepped back, letting him hit the ground as he put away the crucifix and nose spray.

"Dad!"

"One leg, Sammy. Not like I could catch him."

Sam knelt next to the guy, touching his back. "Are you all right? You just fell over."

"You should probably get that checked," John said dryly.

Sam helped him over to the entrance of the diner, then came back, glaring at his father. "You can be a real asshole, you know that?"

"Yup." Smiling, John walked around to the driver side, and climbed in. "Let's get a move on. We need to make up for lost time."

****

12

Bruce Campbell had lied to him.

Dean hit the edge of the park bench and rolled off the back, onto his hands. The monster (a huge fugly scaly thing that had no right to move that fast, goddamn it) charged up the bench after him, pouncing on Dean before he could struggle upright. Its fingers latched around his throat, squeezing hard, its long legs wrapping around Dean's ribs. Dean snarled and whipped his elbow up, knocking its arm enough that its grip slackened. Then he jerked his head back, feeling its teeth impact with his scalp and the wet snap of its nose giving. It let him go long enough that Dean could scrape it off on the bench and roll away, reaching for the shotgun in his back-holster.

He had to use the shotgun to prod the damned thing back, pinning the monster to the base of the bench. It snarled and clawed at him, hissing, "Your mother still screams in he-"

Dean pulled the trigger, twitching his head out of the way of the splatter. He watched through narrowed eyes as the thing went through its death throes, then pushed himself wearily up to his feet.

The sight of someone standing by, watching, made Dean glance at the skinny teenager gawking at him. Dean reached into his pocket and flashed a badge. "Animal Control. Move it along."

The teenager hesitated, then reached into his own pocket and pulled out his own card. "PETA, man! Is that jacket leather?"

"Aww, crap," Dean muttered. "Yes, that is a shotgun, thanks for asking."

"Gun control now!"

"... Damn." Dean squinted at the kid. He could shoot him from here. It'd be really satisfying. The Dean (Hammett? Winchester?) handbook of demon hunting, coauthored by Dean himself and by too many horror directors to mention, didn't explicitly tell him not to kill innocent, annoying bystanders. But then, they told him that shooting monsters made them stay down, and that the big ones tended to be slower. Dean had a few new scars that said otherwise.

Screw this. Time to go back to locker, sweet locker. Dean fired another shot into the monster, making the teenager squeak and twitch, then reholstered his shotgun in the back-holster. "Take it up with your congressman."

Funny enough, the teenager seemed to think it wise not to harass Dean as he left.

After a hunt that felt like it'd had him running from one side of the city to the other, Dean had ended up in a city park a few blocks from the locker. He was scratched, bruised, bloody and drenched from the ever-present rain. No wonder every band that came out of this damned city sounded like they needed anti-depressants. Said the man who needed anti-psychotics.

Dean paused outside the storage building, pulling out the battered, water-stained journal. He flipped through his own notes from the past few days, all those things that his old self had apparently thought too obvious to mention.

Some of it was more boring than Dean had expected: research methods, what search terms brought up the best results, because unlike in the movies news bulletins didn't pop up just when Dean was starting to get frustrated. He'd done some digging on amnesia. Enough to see that he apparently didn't have it. Whatever the fuck was wrong with him, he didn't need a neurologist to fix. Maybe an exorcist and a shrink, but not a neurologist.

The rest of it was better. How to shoot a zombie to make sure they stayed down. Why a chainsaw, while satisfying, wasn't a really inconspicuous weapon; it was too hard to get on the bus without people looking at you funny. Also, it had an alarming tendency not to start.

He pulled out a pen and added, Ugly lizard things run faster than you'd think. Shooting in face works. After a moment, Dean wrote, When in doubt, always try shooting in face. And don't make wiseass comments, because that just irritates them.

As he was putting the pen back in his pocket, a slip of paper escaped. Dean grabbed for it automatically, closing the journal one-handed as he studied the Chinese fortune. "There is strength in numbers," Dean mused. "In bed."

There was a warning twinge from Dean's head, along with a sense-memory: Kung Pao chicken from the box, a cheap hotel room with two beds circled by a chalk line, a couple empty beer bottles, warm rough laughter from someone who didn't normally let himself.

"No, really." His own voice, lazy with alcohol and the knowledge he was safe. "These things make so much more sense if you put 'in bed' at the end."

"Son, that's how you deal with everything."

"And?"


Dean closed his eyes and pushed the memory away. He was better off if he left the unnecessary shit alone. Focus on what he needed to survive.

On the other side, someone had scratched out the lucky numbers and written a phone number in its place. Minnesota area code. Well, he'd had good luck with Minnesota so far.

There was no way it could get worse than the frustrating night he'd spent trying all the numbers in his old address book. First he'd had to decode the damned things. He'd used a simple cipher, but it was mind-numbing busy work trying to go through it all. There had been about three pages crammed with numbers. After a while, Dean had just focused on the ones that had a star next to them.

Five of them, he'd gotten an answering machine that told him bluntly, "This number has been disconnected." All the messages had been delivered by the same blank slate of a voice. No explanations, no offering to let Dean try a forwarding number. It was like those people had been wiped cleanly off the map. It'd made Dean's conspiracy-sense tingle uncomfortably.

Three of them, Dean had gotten another, different kind of message. A woman's voice: "This message is in the event of my death. Please tell my children."

"This is Caleb. I'm sorry."

"Elkins. If I'm not answering, I'm probably dead." After a long, grudging moment, the man's rough voice had added, "If you hear this, call John."

Two of them, Dean had dialed and had someone pick up. That was where he got the feeling that in whatever world he was part of, everyone was on high alert. Mostly because he had two very angry people barking that they didn't know where he got this number, but to never fucking call it again, and then hanging up on him.

One of them, the last one Dean'd called, had picked up with a curt, "Jackson Towing." When Dean hadn't answered, recognizing Bobby's drawl, Bobby's voice had sharpened. "Dean? That you? It's all right, boy. Where are y- fuck, don't tell me, the line's not secure. Hold on. Hold on." The shuffle of Bobby struggling with something on the other end of the line. "All right. You okay?" Silence. "Okay. That was a helluva question, I know. We need you to come back in. There's something on your tail. Can't fight this one alone. We can sort things out if you-"

Which was where Dean had hung up on him. He might've taken a head injury, but he knew stalling until a trace could be made.

So. Was it worth the risk of being made? And why the hell was he so afraid of these people catching up with him?

Dean rubbed the worn slip of paper with his thumb, closing his eyes. The memory that had accompanied the fortune had been a good one, one without remembered pain or fear. It'd been a while since Dean had felt a memory that didn't leave him trembling or enraged.

He'd felt... safe. He hadn't felt that way since waking in that hospital bed, somebody rattling off Latin above his head. The locker had given him weaponry, given him control. It hadn't given him someone who could help him figure this whole clusterfuck out.

One of these hunts, quick thinking might not be enough to compensate for going in blind. Dean didn't know a lot about who he'd been, but he knew he didn't want to die.

"Dad- Dad, don't you let it kill me!"

The paper slid through his nerveless fingers. Dean grabbed blindly for it, leaning hard against the wall until the pain eased up again. Jesus. That'd been a bad one, the worst one yet.

Dean reached up, rubbing absently at the scars on his chest. Then he set his jaw and headed to the payphone. Even if the call was a bust, it was only a waste of a few minutes. If they picked up and he got spooked, he'd have time to hang up before they could put a trace on the call.

Bullshit. He just wanted the comfort of that voice again. His luck, the man was dead.

He leaned against the wall beside the payphone, stretching the cord so that he could put something solid against his back. Then he put the money in, drew in a deep breath, and dialed.

This was stupid. So, so stupid. So unbelievably-

"You are being forwarded!" chirped an automated voice. "Hold, please."

Stupid. With a sigh, Dean raised his hand to hang up and walk. Hopefully the fucking thing would give him his quarters back, because he needed to do some laundry. So much for his old self's resources-

After half a ring, the other end picked up. Dean heard that voice answer, "John Winchester."

Pain, searing, unforgiving. Dean heard a pained noise escape him before he could choke it back, doubling around the receiver he was clutching like a lifeline. A thousand images shot through his mind all at once, too much to catch, too fast to focus on. Hurt, comfort, regret and love, trust, and yeah, even a bone-deep quiet happiness.

Dimly, he heard the voice sharpen. "Dean? Son. Stay on the line. I'm coming, it's all right. Where are you? "

Beneath the man's voice (John Winchester, the father Bobby had mentioned, the owner of the voice from the fortune cookie memory, the John Elkins had mentioned, fuck) there was another voice. Dean caught the edge of "-is that?-" before the pain went nova. Like something from a nightmare, he felt the receiver slide from his fingers and couldn't do anything to hold on. His knees started to go out from under him.

Something caught Dean, a brutal grip around his throat pulling him back. Dean watched the phone hit the end of its cord and swing, the distant call of those voices sparking another wave of pain to distract him.

"You see?" came a voice in his ear, poisoned honey slow and sweet. "I told you they didn't need you."

Knowledge locked together, like a clip sliding cleanly into place. Dean knew that voice, knew its poison, knew it was really fucking bad that it had chased him down. The scars at his chest burned. He choked, twisting in its grip, and felt his feet leave the ground as it hauled him up. His vision swam. Dean swung out blindly, trying to hurt it anyway he could.

A second later, Dean hit the wall hard enough that he felt the shotgun cut its long bruise down his spine. His feet still didn't touch the ground. He scrabbled for another weapon, unable to tear his eyes off the horror smirking up at him.

It was a woman, small build and pigtails. The burning eyes didn't match its pointed, sweet face. There was no way it- she- it should've been able to hold him up. Except it wasn't actually touching him, both arms folded across its chest in a stance that was somehow... male.

It let him pull the gun. It let him aim. Dean knew that, knew it couldn't be a good sign, but he did it anyway because that was the only thing he had. It was like trying to put out a bonfire by spitting on it, but at least it was something.

Its eyes searched his face, mouth curving in a smirk. "Go on. Shoot a mother of two in the face, like you did that poor boy on the Interstate. You know, he was going to ask his high school sweetheart to marry him. Tragic, really."

Dean felt his hand shake, traitorously. He shook his head.

"What? That bothers you now? You murdered at least two that I know of-" The thing stopped short, its eyes narrowing suddenly as it stared at Dean. It wasn't the hungry animal look the monster had given him, or the blank-eyed stare of the zombies. It was the look of Valhalla's Grandmother. It was the look of something old, something smart. The thing tipped its head to the side, slowly. Then it smiled, baring teeth in a way that wasn't entirely human. "Now that is interesting. You didn't know. Does that sting? Because I'm telling you now, boy, that's only the start of it. "

From the phone, Dean could hear a terrible quiet. They were waiting, he realized. Waiting to hear him die.

Dean bared his teeth at the thing, at the demon wearing some kid's mother like she was a cheap costume. "I know," he said. "I just don't care."

It opened its mouth. Dean pulled the trigger and watched the woman's head go to wet pieces, barely feeling it as the power dropped him to the concrete. He watched the black ash billow out, leaving only the woman. Only the mother of two, who was never coming home.

The demon had put her in the line of fire. Dean had just finished it. Dean had just-

The murmur of voices from the phone. Dean could hear relief. Even though he'd dropped this woman, John Winchester was relieved.

Couldn't let it have him. Couldn't lead that thing to his father. Couldn't let it kill him, too.

Dean was making noises in his throat. He swallowed them down, and set his teeth until he could trust himself not to make them anymore. Then he stepped over the body and went inside, back to the locker, back to the weaponry and the alcohol. Back to the part of his life that made sense.

He threw up. He shook. He survived.

He started planning, bricking up the hollows inside.

***

13

4 AM. John sat in the cheap hotel room's only chair, watching Sam's uneasy sleep. They'd had to stop for the night in a place that didn't have a gym attached, so with a silent apology to Chloe, John gave up on PT being regular until they found Dean. That left no way for John to burn off the restlessness that chewed at him in the small hours after he'd snatched a quick catnap.

If had been before the wreck, before John had been crippled, he'd have paced. Instead, he took the familiar position of watching over his boy. It didn't matter that they'd sealed the hell out of the room. It didn't matter that John had the dawning suspicion they weren't the ones being hunted anyway, not unless they got caught up in the wake of whatever was trailing Dean.

John wasn't used to full nights of sleep, anyway. Not after the last few years.

Sam mumbled something in his sleep, hand fisting in the pillow. John watched, waiting for him to settle, not sure what he was going to do if Sam didn't. Mercifully, Sam sighed and settled back in. His deep, steady breathing was a comfort. Always had been. It was the only thing that convinced John to sleep back in the day, knowing that his boy was safe and whole.

There was something missing, a nagging absence that kept John from peace. He shouldn't have one of them with him and not the other. There should be soft snoring, the occasional company as Dean stirred enough to check on his brother. He'd always been protective of Sammy, the baby, the troublemaker, the one most likely to need watching over. Dean had been steady, the one John didn't need to worry about. Dean had been gravity.

Not fair to either of them, but there it was. They should've had their mother, if they were talking about fair. John should've been able to sacrifice his life for his boys back in Jackson. John should've been able to keep them safe, give Sam his chance at his normal life, give Dean his chance to... what, settle down? Accept a life where he knew John had died for him?

Yeah. Except John was suddenly getting why Dean never would've taken that well. Looking down at the void where his leg used to be, John felt the loss of the hunt he'd never wanted to take up in the first place. He'd sure as hell felt the loss of their fucked up family when he'd thought he'd have to bury Dean.

John was getting the uncomfortable feeling that he'd been wrong about a lot of what he'd thought he'd wanted, what his boys wanted. What he thought he could live with.

What he was willing to sacrifice.

He hadn't been ready to be a father. Sure as hell hadn't braced himself for being a single father of two small boys in a world that was uglier than he'd known. Honestly, if John had realized what was waiting for his sons, he'd have been more careful about birth control.

He didn't regret one minute having them once they were there. They'd kept him steady, especially Dean. Dean, who was always there, constant as a compass pointing true north. There had been bad nights where John sat in the dark, gun in hand, thinking about it, thinking about it...

Dean seemed to know. He'd always wake up, or call, or drop in on John without warning. Luck, maybe.

Funny. Dean'd been the difficult baby, fussy and restless and loud. About drove Mary to drink once or twice, until she'd finally stomped over to John and shoved his son (that was how she put it, "his son") into John's arms.

The doctors had said Dean was a colicky baby. John never had any problems with him. The moment Mary had put the squalling, red-faced thing in John's arms, Dean had quieted, looking up at him with calm, trusting eyes.

Mary had flipped him off and stomped off to bed, grumbling under her breath. John had called out sick from work the next day, and spent it teaching his son how to assemble a carburetor. Bit more of John assembling, with Dean watching and occasionally clapping happily. Dean had eyed him with such fascination as he explained each part, and what it did, that John had been sure his son was a genius. Mary had laughed at him, but she had to admit, Dean was definitely Daddy's boy. And Daddy, well, his heart had belonged to Dean. When Sam arrived, he'd taken his own claim out on John's heart, on his life.

Some things didn't change, John thought, looking fondly over at Sam's sleeping form.

For a second, John almost didn't recognize the trill of his phone. He grabbed for it and flipped it open, glancing to make sure Sam hadn't heard that. It was probably one of his contacts. Again.

Too many of those calls. 'Is it true your boy attacked Bobby? What're you going to do about it?' 'Can you bring him down, John? If it comes to that-'

"John Winchester," he murmured.

There was a small noise, a little intake of breath. Easy to dismiss.

John sat up straighter, suddenly awake. "Dean?" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sam bolt upright. John gestured him silent, listening hard to the sound of breathing. He knew the way Dean breathed when he hurt and was trying to stay quiet about it. "Son. Stay on the line. I'm coming, it's all right. Where are you?"

Sam was climbing out of bed, coming over to lean against John's side and listen. Whatever he heard made his expression sharpen, and he looked at John to whisper, "Is that-?"

There was a hard 'clunk' of the phone hitting the end of its cord, another as it hit the wall. Over that, John heard the edge of that voice, that fucking hated voice. "-they didn't need you."

Choking. A meaty thump.

From the way Sam stiffened, he'd heard. John switched the phone to his other ear, ignoring the fury he saw on Sam's face. He closed his eyes to focus, listening to that thing taunt his son, listening to Dean choke and fight. He could hear his own voice, harsh as he whispered a litany of, "Shoot it, Dean. Shoot it. I don't care. Shoot it, we'll deal with it, just live, just-"

He listened as-

Oh, Jesus. It knew. It knew Dean was alone.

John heard the sharp snarl of Dean's voice, harsher than he'd ever heard it, and the retort of the shotgun. The sound of the shell hitting its target, the thump as the body hit the ground.

Sam was pale, his hands locked on John's arm. He'd heard the shotgun, the thump.

After a second of heart-rending silence, John heard his boy's tortured breathing. The low, animal sounds of pain, horror, rage. John closed his eyes and exhaled, fumbling a hand out to cover Sam's and squeeze. To comfort him, because he couldn't reach Dean.

Dean was alive. Sam didn't need to know anything but that.

There was the sound of footsteps. Silence. The low, steady sound of rain hitting pavement. John would have to check the weather reports, see what parts of the country were getting hard rain, but for the moment he couldn't make himself hang up.

He wasn't surprised when he heard the phone being picked up. That low, poisonous murmur; it had picked a male, having realized that picking mothers wouldn't change a damned thing. It adapted. "John? Are you there?"

"I'm here," John said evenly.

"I thought you would be. Your boy's looking a little frayed around the edges. I knew you weren't father of the year, but damn, John. I thought we were pretending you loved them both, not just the one who reminds you of Mary."

John didn't flinch. "Best leave him be."

"Or what, exactly? You'll come to his rescue? That worked so well last time." The demon shifted tones, sliding into dangerous territory. "Is your favorite there? Are you listening, Sam?"

Sam's teeth clenched so hard John almost heard them creak. "I'm here."

"Good. You've earned a little vacation, boy. I think you'll keep until I'm done here. You just got less interesting. Isn't that what you wanted? Someone else to take your hit so you can have the picket fence?" It switched back to John. "Nice of you to train our boy for me, John. To fill him up with all the things you use against us. It'll come in handy when I've broken him. Thank you."

John bit off, "I've got better information than he does. There's things he doesn't know. Let me-"

"Been there. I've scraped out whatever usefulness you had." John heard the thing smirk. "Besides, I'm not interested in a cripple for a pet."

John's breath hissed out slowly as he remembered that night in the cabin. The things that the demon had wanted John to do to his son. Hurt him, degrade him, turn Dean into... "I'll shoot him first. You know that."

"Maybe. He's already straining. He shot a mother. Things will get worse before they're over, and you're not here to protect him. Not that you were ever interested in that." The demon stopped short, making a surprised noise. It sounded a little too much like delight. "Is that you, Sam? Very good."

John glanced sideways, and saw Sam's nose bleeding freely down his chin, onto his shirt. Sam's eyes slid half-closed, only the whites showing. John hissed, "Stop."

Sam ignored him, paling as the blood slid that much faster. His hand gripped John's arm hard, bruising. John reached over, gripping Sam by the back of the neck and shaking him. "I said stop, Sam." The blood was flowing faster. Sam's eyes fluttered like he was seizing.

"He's good, John. Talented. But it may come down between your boys. Can you choose one? Condemn the other? Can you-"

John hung up and snapped his hand out, catching Sam under the chin hard enough to snap his son's head back.

Sam gasped, jerking back to the hotel room, scrabbling at the chair. "Wha- I-" His eyes narrowed. "I almost had him."

"You almost had the body," John answered. He reached up, clicking on the room's light, and staggered to his feet. "Stay there. I'll get you ice. That'll bruise."

"You punched me! Of course it'll fucking bruise!" Sam started to push himself up, wobbled, and sat back down. "I could've stopped it. I could've given Dean time."

"You could've hemorrhaged."

Sam shook his head, furiously. He watched John as he got ice and a new shirt, his silence a warning than Sam was trying to come up with the worst possible thing to say. John let him stew, balling up the ice in a shirt and pressing it to Sam's chin, not gently.

"It's right," Sam said finally. "Isn't it?"

"Yeah. That's exactly right, Sam. I'm so fond of you I'm dragging you into hell to find Dean." Tiredly, John rubbed at his eye. "I'll start throwing your stuff in a bag. We can be back on the road in a few."

Couldn't protect them both. He was going to get them both killed by trying. Maybe he ought to leave Sam with someone until John could figure out a plan. Maybe he should stop trying to plan until he could think past that wounded, ragged sound Dean had been making before he bolted.

On his best day, Dean had his weaknesses. Now? Without anyone covering his back, without Sam to focus on? Loose cannon didn't begin to cover it. He was alone, afraid, hurting.

John washed Sam's blood off his hands. He tried not to remember. He tried to focus, to slide back into the tunnel vision that had always come with the hunt.

His focus was gone. He had been able to before, to make himself react like Dean was any other resource lost in the field that was too valuable to leave behind. It wasn't until he heard Dean's voice, distant on the line, that he'd been able to let himself believe that... Jesus. He'd died in that hospital when the nurse looked at him, told him he'd lost Dean and was fast on his way to losing Sam. He'd shut down. Easier that way.

Dean was alive. Breathing. Hurting.

Now John couldn't carve out the worry or the nightmare that would be facing down his own son. Even beyond the fact that it was Dean, his Dean, it would be a frighteningly competent soldier who'd been training since he was 8. It would be a man with access to every level of John's resources, who could disappear and make sure he was never found. That John had been able to track him this far said that Dean was still off his game, but John's boy recovered fast. Always had.

John met his own stark gaze in the mirror, the eyes of a man he wasn't sure could do the job this time. "Mary," he said hoarsely, "I'm sorry. Just... just tell him to hold on."

Like every other time, every other prayer, his only answer was silence and the rhythm of his son's breathing.

Closing his eyes, John breathed in, out. Tried to force the memories away. Of the things it wanted Dean for.

He turned away from the mirror, losing his balance and falling to his knees, the shock of it traveling up the prosthetic to what remained of his leg with a jolt of pain. He barely felt it, wrapped in agony. His stomach churned, and he felt blindly, barely reaching the toilet before it revolted.

Shakily shoving things in his bag, Sam heard the thump, the soft pained noise from the bathroom. He shook his head, refusing to let it thaw his anger.

Then, the retching began.

Fuck. Somehow pissed that his father was ruining his perfectly justified anger, Sam stalked to the sink, and unwrapped one of the little plastic cups. He dumped an Alka-Seltzer in, following it by a splash of water. Without knocking, he opened the door. John was back on his feet, looking at him with an inscrutable expression on his face.

Sam shoved the glass at him. "I'm almost packed."

"Good," John replied, accepting the fizzing liquid. "Thanks."

"Mmmph." Sam stalked back into the bedroom, stuffing more things in the bag with unneeded force.

After a few minutes, John came back out, looking a little better. "Sam, I-"

"Not talking now, Dad," Sam gritted.

John nodded silently. "Okay." He grabbed his bag. "I'm throwing this into the van." He walked out, breathing deeply of the cold air.

Dean would hold on. They hadn't come this far to lose him. They would find him. Anything else was unacceptable.

***
14

As Seattle faded behind him, Dean started to relax. Not much-he wasn't stupid enough to think that it was going to leave him alone. But at least he was doing something. One thing he was doing was research. A quick stop at a local new age shop secured a book on demons, with a couple of potential binding spells. They didn't sound quite right to him, but he could work with them.

Old Man Anders bike had turned out to be a classic, netting him enough money to get an old truck without having to dip in the money in the locker. The body was made of steel, a real tank. It comforted him, made him feel safer somehow. The tarp stretched over the bed also helped to hide the arsenal he'd brought with him from the locker-enough ammo and guns to take on a small army.

The shotgun and journal were laying on the seat beside him. If the highway patrol
wanted to stop him, oh well. He got the feeling it wasn't the first time he'd had to talk his way out of trouble, if it came to that.

The cool, wet weather of the northwest gave way to clear, sunny skies as he drove down the coast, sliding into California just before nightfall. He didn't bother to find a hotel, just pulled off and slept in the truck, stopping to etch a sigil he'd found in the demon book on every window of the truck. The book called it a Devil's Trap.

The next morning, he unfolded himself from the seat and drove onwards, not stopping until he reached a truckstop an hour later.

Then, the rapidly sliding fuel gauge and the lure of coffee conspired to convince him that it was time to take a break. And a piss.

The truckstop was one of the soulless, corporate kind. Dean preferred the grubbier ones, the weird little family-run slices of Americana that differed from Massachusetts to Georgia. The newer stops were cleaner and more efficient, but if he saw one more McDonalds-giftshop-TCBY-Starbucks mini-mall, he was going to lose his mind. Such as it was.

He'd cut out and saved the obituary on Rachel Adams, mother of two. He'd see her face whenever he closed his eyes. So he scrimped on sleep, these days.

Thankfully, this particular mini-mall didn't have a Starbucks. There was a cart of overpriced coffee drinks, with a young man sitting on a stool behind it. He looked like he was nursing a monster of a hangover, complete with sunglasses and tousled dark hair hanging in his face. He looked up and offered Dean a pale smile. "Good morning."

"Afternoon," Dean said. "Rough night?"

The kid gave him a grin that scrunched up his nose. Dean felt something ache in his chest, gone before he could reach for it. "You have no idea. Coffee? We have a latte special-"

Ugh. "Just... caffeinated. Regular is fine. Thanks." Dean paid the kid in crumpled bills and put the change in his mostly empty tip jar. "Can you hold that for me?" He jerked his head meaningfully at the bathroom. "I'll be back in a second."

With a nod, the kid settled back on his stool. Even with the sunglasses, Dean got the distinct feeling he was getting the full up and down once-over. Flattering. Horrifying, since the kid was basically trying to get in the pants of a serial killer, but flattering.

Before the kid could say anything about Dean hanging around until his next break, Dean turned and headed into the bathroom. It was empty. He took care of business, went to wash up from the night in the truck. His roots were starting to grow out from under the blue. Not entirely attractive, but damned if Dean felt like messing with-

The bathroom door opened and shut. Dean started, tensing automatically, and relaxed when he saw the kid. There was that nagging sense of familiarity again, of wanting to warn the kid not to talk to strangers or follow them into the bathroom. No matter how devastatingly handsome they were, if Dean said so himself. "Hey. Who's manning the cart?"

The kid gave him a slow, crooked smile as he deliberately locked the door. Then he crossed to the sinks, his long legs eating up the distance. "I want you," he said. "Now."

Yeah. Somebody obviously got their dirty talking 101 from bad porn. Dean turned to look at him, readying a smile. "Not that I mind spontaneity, but-"

The kid's hands locked around his hips, spinning him with unexpected strength. Dean's hands slapped against the wall just before the kid pressed him there, hot and hard against his back. He smelled good, clean.

"Relax," the kid ordered, his voice smoky and surprisingly low. "I'll take care of you."

Dean opened his mouth to snark at him, something about the kid waiting until his balls dropped to make claims like that. Then the kid's hands were moving, touching, and Dean shut up. Stroking lightly, the kid slid one hand under Dean's shirt, steadying him with the other. He didn't have calluses, smooth fingertips teasing over Dean's flat nipple, making him hiss and jerk.

The kid purred, rubbing his head against Dean's shoulder like a big cat. There was something about that, the way it moved-

It.

"Fuck," Dean swore, trying to turn on it.

The demon moved, locking an arm around his hips and holding him still. It ground against Dean's back, slow and devastatingly good. "That's the idea. You're objecting late in the game, boy."

Its other hand was still moving, still touching Dean with surreal gentleness. Dean snarled, twisting in its grip to try to bring his legs up, to push off against the sink. It shoved him forward hard into the mirror. Dean heard something crack. He sincerely hoped it was the glass.

"Don't make this difficult," the demon suggested. "I can be nice."

Dean gritted his teeth as the memory hit him, sharp and distracting. An old cabin; fear; the wall against his back. That voice, that rough comforting voice gone cold and oily. Begging for his life. A pain-blurred impression of his father's face, stricken and pale as he looked down at Dean. It had used his father, it had wanted to do this then. It had planned to rape him there on that bloody floor while Dean choked and died.

And that would've just been the start.

Dean swallowed hard before he could gag. He made himself relax, sinking back into the demon's borrowed body. He slid his hands down the shattered mirror, feeling for the catch that meant he could pry a shard loose. He felt his hands get slippery with blood.

"Good boy," crooned the demon, nuzzling him. "Ah, Dean. You're going to make things interesting. Don't think I believe you."

No, it couldn't be a stupid demon, could it? Dean bit back a shudder as he felt the demon shift, felt its fingers slide down the loose front of his jeans. He'd lost weight since Chicago, he hadn't thought it mattered, he hadn't thought-

Think, Dean, don't fucking panic. Think.

"Go on, Dean, get that piece of glass. Kill this body, like you killed the last. Kill him like I killed your brother." When Dean choked, the demon laughed low in his throat. "Oh, you remember that much. Do you remember why? It was because you failed him. You weren't good enough, fast enough. You never were. He died hating you-"

Dean grabbed for the bits of the ritual he'd memorized, forcing out, "Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde-"

The demon hauled him back, cracking Dean's face against the mirror again, staggering him. "Party tricks, boy! I expected better. If you're not going to try, I'll just go back to your father. He'd rather it had been you, you know. You instead of your brother. You instead of your whore mother."

Dean blinked against the blood trickling into his eyes, struggling to grab onto the memory. The exorcism eluded him as hard as he tried. "In nomine Dei. P-patris omnipotentis, et in... noimine Jesu Christi-"

It let him go. That much, Dean couldn't miss. If it had wanted him, it would have had him.

He slid down the mirror, rolling over to blink up at the demon. Then he spat at it, the last few words he remembered. Not enough. Not nearly enough. "Christi Filii ejus, Domini et Judicis nostri."

The demon scratched its jaw, yawned, and turned its back on him. It strode over to the bathroom door, unlocked it, and paused in the doorway. "You're never safe, you know. Next time, I'll make sure we have time enough to enjoy ourselves. Think about what I've said."

And it left him there, bleeding on the ground.

****

15

"Oh, my-" Sam's voice trailed off as words failed him.

"God," John finished. He slowly pulled himself out of the van, staring at the enormous Valkyrie mounted on the front of the bar, Valhalla. It was...

"Dean must have thought he was in heaven," Sam said, fighting a smile.

John chuckled. "Yeah. There's the truck he was behind. At least we know someone who saw Dean is still here."

Sam nodded. They were up the first step before it occurred to Sam to think of his father's leg, the accident. Jesus. Not the kind of thing he should be able to forget, but Dad was reacting like the wreck had never happened. Sam hesitated on the second step, debating on whether or not to offer John his arm up. Probably not, if Sam wanted that arm back in one piece when his father was done. Besides, John seemed to be managing.

As they neared the door, a low growl from inside made them both still.

"Was that-"

John nodded. "I'd bet on it."

"You armed?" Sam asked, reaching to the small of his back.

The look his father shot him could have flash frozen hell.

"Yeah, I figured," Sam grinned. "Shall we go work on community relations?"

John nodded. "Go in fast and hard."

Sam nodded, shifted his weight and slammed his boot-heel into the seam of the doors.

The demon was doing a pretty fair job of terrorizing the handful of locals who were in the bar at mid-day, but they weren't going down without a fight. John tossed Sam a bag of salt. "Circle it," he ordered. "Gotta contain it."

Sam glared for a moment at the barked order, but scrambled to do what it anyway. "Got it."

Before too long, he had a passable circle on the floor of the bar. "Done, Dad!"

"Everybody out of the circle," John barked. "Now."

As the locals scrambled to get out, John quietly stepped in, noting that Sam had done the same. A tall blonde man, the one from the picture, stopped next to John. "He's possessed! Don't try to-" He stopped, whatever he'd seen in John's eyes stilling the words. "Be careful," he amended quickly.

John pulled out the holy water and cross.

"John," the demon purred. "John Winchester." It looked over his shoulder. "And Sam, too. This is such a pleasure. Imagine the glory it will bring to my name when I kill you both."

John held up the crucifix. "In the name of God, I command and compel you to leave this body." The demon moved like a striking snake, slapping the cross away from him, and John sighed. "Not the easy way, then?"

It punched him, hard enough to knock him off his feet, and Sam lunged forward. "Dad!"

"Age before beauty," the demon sneered. "I'll get to you."

It turned its attention back to John, in time to get a face full of holy water. It rocked back, clawing at its eyes, and John scrambled to his feet. He reached back for the gun and touched emptiness. Shit. Must have lost it. Not like he really wanted to shoot it in front of witnesses, but without it, he was kind of screwed. Knife wouldn't do much to stop it.

"Dad!" Sam yelled. "Incoming!"

John looked up, in time to catch the pool cue Sam had lobbed his way. He gave the demon a smile. "Thanks, Sammy."

"Sam," Sam sighed.

"Sorry," John said, voice utterly unrepentant. He tested the weight of the pool cue, carefully balancing himself. It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do.

Idona's eyes widened as the older stranger whipped the cue around him, driving the demon back. Grandmother touched her arm, nodding sagely. "Garm."

"Got that feeling," Idona murmured. "Damn, they make 'em good wherever they come from."

Grandmother pointed at the younger man. "Garm, also."

"Seriously? He looks like he belongs in a co-eds gone wild video," Idona muttered. "Cute, but seriously? Garm?"

"Geirolf. Spear of the wolf."

"Jason-Eyolf? His-"

Grandmother nodded.

"Damn. Never would have bet on that one." Idona turned back to the fight.

John rocked back as the demon's fist caught him, but the pool cue worked as a cane, steadying him. His fist lashed out, impacting hard enough to set the demon back. John limped forward, using the cue to give him the extra second to find his balance. "Sam? Could use a hand pinning this bastard."

Sam quickly set about making another circle with the salt, this one smaller to give the demon less room to fight. "Ready when you are," he yelled.

John nodded, turning his body and slamming the cue into the demon's throat, following it with a sharp jab to it's stomach. Finally, it was in the circle, and John slammed the cue against its temple with all his strength, stunning it.

"Got it." With a last bit of salt, the circle closed, imprisoning it. Sam hurried over to John, laying a hand on his shoulder. "You okay?"

John wiped the blood off his mouth, spat on the floor. "Yeah."

"Why didn't you exorcise it?"

"Smell."

Sam took a deep breath. No brimstone. "What the fuck?"

"Not all demons can be exorcised."

"Nice time to tell me that one, Dad."

"He let it in, Sam." John eyed the snarling man on the other side of the circle, his expression shadowed. "He wanted the demon, wanted the power. You can't get rid of that. I might be able to exorcise the demon, but he'll die anyway. It's too deep in him. That's why he couldn't use its telekinesis-he's not a strong enough host. You take it willingly and you carve out a piece of yourself. Makes it easier for them to eat you alive. Which is no better than they deserve."

The demon wiped its mouth with the back of one hand and sneered. "You should know, meat-puppet. How'd it feel to hurt your b-"

John didn't flinch, hitting it with more holy water in the face.

"Well, what the fuck are we supposed to do with him?" Sam asked.

The blond (the owner?) stepped out from behind the bar, hefting a large machete. "Here."

John nodded. "Thanks. I wasn't carrying anything big enough." He glanced at Sam. "You might want to stand back."

"Dad, you can't just-"

"Sam," John said gently. "It's the only way." He took the machete from the blond, and looked back at Sam. "I'm sorry."

John left the 'that you had to see this' unspoken.

Sam watched, eyes wide, as his father turned back to the demon. John spritzed the demon with holy water, murmuring a barely audible prayer before he let fly with the machete. A thump. The head rolled unsteadily across the floor, and then half under the pool table.

Gingerly, Sam put his foot under the table and fished around until he could push the head out. He could feel them being watched by the few people left in the bar. He wasn't sure exactly how to explain this one, what with the 'power of Christ compels you' and the beheading and such.

As he bent to pick up the head, something thunked down on the table. Sam jumped, looking up into the face of an attractive young blonde. She grabbed the head by the hair, and nodded at the beer she'd just put down in front of Sam. "I'll put this out back."

"I- but- what?" Sam looked over at his father for help, and found that the blond who'd handed Dad the machete was already hauling the body out. John had pulled a picture out of his coat and was talking at the blond full-stop, his voice low and intense as the blond nodded. Sam blinked at the crazy Viking people, then grabbed his beer. "...Do you need any help?"

The blonde, whose nametag declared her to be Idona, shrugged. "It's one head. I'll manage. We've had worse this last week."

"There were the imps," the male blond mused, hefting the body over his shoulder like a sack of garbage. "And the zombies."

"Ugh, don't remind me. I just got my clothes clean." Idona waved them at a table, one of the few left standing. There were long gouges along the side. "Go on, sit. Enjoy your beer."

"Thanks?" Sam said slowly.

She gave Sam a tired wink and trudged out of the room after the other blond, presumably a relative. Sam sat, wincing silently as he saw the careful way his father lowered himself into a seat across from him. He'd pay for that fight later tonight.

Raising his own beer in a sardonic toast, John took a deep drink. "They've seen Dean," he said finally, when he came up for air. "He took off a few days ago. Left his fake ID. Sven there tracked him a few miles before he gave up on catching up him, but he went far enough that he's pretty sure Dean's heading west. Don't drink too much of that beer. You might need codeine later."

Not for the first time, Sam wondered how the hell his father got that all out in one breath without sounding rushed. Necessity was probably the mother of invention there, seeing as John didn't want to risk giving Sam an in to interrupt him. "S'okay," Sam said. "I'll skip the beer. You take the codeine, I'll drive."

"I'm fine."

"Sure."

They looked at each other across the table.

"I don't take your orders," Sam said finally. "I've hunted on my own, and I don't need directions."

"You've hunted with Dean. Whole different animal from hunting alone."

"Fine." Sam pressed the sweating beer to his temple, the dull ache of clenching his jaw to keep from snarling at John. "I wasn't going to tell you not to kill him. I was going to tell you to take it out back to save on clean-up."

"Oh." John stared moodily at his beer for a moment. He started to say something, then stopped, frowning at the old woman who had materialized beside their table.

Sam nudged his father with his toe. "Don't decapitate this one."

"Old," the old woman said sharply. "Not deaf."

Sam tried to hide his smile, and gave her his best eyes. The ones that got free coffee from waitresses and the last fries from Dean. "Sorry, ma'am."

John had another deep drink of his beer, not quite looking at either of them. After a moment, he said, "Do you need a chair, ma'am?"

The old woman gave John an arch look, then ignored him completely in favor of reaching for Sam. Out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw his father tense. He shot him a warning look and leaned over to let the old woman do whatever she was going to. Probably pinch his cheeks. Annoying, but not harmful. Actually, the way she pushed the hair out of his face was kind of nice.

"Tired," the old woman said finally. "Both sons and father. Long hunt."

"It'll be over soon," John said grimly. "You saw my boy?"

The old woman squinted at John, then gave a crooked smile and nodded. "Your boy. Yes. Garm." She pointed at Sam. "Your boy."

"No," John said, frustrated. "The other one."

"Leave him, Gunnolf. He leads it off. Take the sacrifice." The old woman spread her wizened hands. "Take the sacrifice, and this hunt will end."

John's face tightened, his hand clutching the table until it creaked. Sam tensed, wondering if he was going to have to keep his father from smacking the old woman. Cause that would suck, and honestly, Sam wasn't sure he could anyway.

When John spoke, though, his voice was quiet, almost even. "Dean is not a sacrifice. He is my son. And if I have to follow him into hell, I will not give up on him."

"It would end the hunt. It would be gone, your quest over. Vengeance satisfied."

John shook his head. "No."

"More will die. Maybe you. Maybe him," she jerked her head at Sam.

John met Sam's eyes levelly. "If either of them died, it would kill me anyway. And Sam's made his choice. We're going after Dean."

She touched his face, and cracked another almost-smile John leaned back in his chair. "Gunnolf, fighting wolf. Garm, he who guards the gates of hell." She turned, looking at Sam. "Gierolf Garm, the spear of the wolves. Eyolf Garm, the lucky wolf. Your Dean." Her eyes closed for a moment. "Seattle."

"Seattle?" Sam asked. "Dean went to Seattle? He hates grunge."

"Oh, shit," John murmured. "The lockers."

Sam swiveled back, eyes narrowing. "Lockers?"

"One of the older hunters, he made a big vault of an old building on the bad side of town. It's like your general public storage type place, but seriously secure, with fingerprint entry. I have one there, with weapons, I.D.s, extra cash. A few years back, not long before you started college, Dean opened a vault for you in case something happened to him and you needed it."

Sam shook his head. "He couldn't take leaving for college for an answer. Never could."

The old woman touched Sam's cheek lightly. "Because. They both always knew it was about you, child. It always wanted you."

Across the table, John closed his eyes.

Oh, Jesus. It was one thing to suspect it, looking at Max and Rosie and the other children that the demon had hunted. It was one thing to let it keep him up nights, wondering if he'd just never met Jess, if he'd just lived with contacts instead of friends, whether more people would still be breathing. It was one thing to have the demon taunt him with how 'special' Sam was, how much Sam was worth to it.

It was entirely different to see that look on his father's face, and know all those things that haunted Sam had been the truth. No matter what Dean said to comfort him, no matter what Sam told himself to keep going.

Sam lifted his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the old woman had shuffled over to an unoccupied chair. Her damage was done, apparently. "Dad?"

"I never wanted you to hear that, Sam," he said softly, voice thick. "I'm sorry."

"You knew it might come back," Sam said quietly.

"No. I didn't know you were having visions. If I had known-"

"You should have told me!" Sam yelled. "I would never have left Jess- hell, I never have gotten anywhere near her in the first place! I got her killed! My damned gift. My special gift. If I'd known-"

He'd have denied it. He'd have chased that picket fence.

"We didn't know." John answered, pitching his voice low. "I didn't know. Not for sure. Not until Jess- until that thing came for you in Stanford. It'd been quiet for years."

"Then I should've known that you had suspicions. I could've..." Done exactly nothing. Sam stared at the bottle, twisting it in tight circles on the tabletop. When he spoke again, the anger slid around like a compass needle to put back at Sam, at the place where the guilt really lived. He could be pissed at John, yell about the fucking 'need to know basis' bullshit, but at the end of the day... "I should've known. I should've warned Jess. And Jesus, Dean could've-"

"Don't start with that." Looking tired, John rubbed at his eye. "We should focus on finding your brother, not on hypothetical bullshit."

"Bullshit?" Sam echoed, dangerously.

"I thought you had a chance, for Christ's sake!" John barked, the sudden burst of sound making Sam start. "Do you think I wanted Dean to be a hunter? Do you think I wanted this for you? I tried, dammit. I just wanted you to be able to protect yourselves. I wanted both of you to have normal lives!"

Sam blinked, startled by the force in his father's voice. "Dad-"

"But your brother..." John sighed. His lips curled in an almost smile. "Every time I tried to go on a hunt, I'd find you two somehow in the back seat. He learned how to strip a gun watching me. The one night, I dragged myself back in after a hunt and just left my stuff on the floor. By the time I woke up, he'd cleaned them, put them back together and reloaded them for me. He was 6. Maybe 7.

"That's a father's goddamned worst nightmare, finding your boy with a gun in his hand. Scared the shit out of me. I tanned his hide and told him not to do it again. Couple weeks later, something snuck in through the window of the babysitter's. Damned near killed Dean. If I hadn't come home early that hunt-" John stared distantly at his beer bottle. "I trained him. When you were old enough, I trained you. I'm not proud of that, but it was what needed to be done. It was that or leave you two unarmed. Risk Dean stealing one of my guns to protect you without knowing how to be safe about it. I wasn't doing that. From the beginning, I knew Dean wasn't getting out of this life. But you..."

"You told me to get out." Sam stared at his father, struggling to make this make sense. "You told me I abandoned you and Dean when you needed me. And now you're telling me you didn't want me on the hunt?"

John's mouth thinned. He drained the bottle, then got up. "We ought to get back on the road. We're about a day behind him as of Seattle, and God only knows where he's got to now."

Yeah. The Dean Sam knew might've holed up in the storage locker with a Devil's Trap and a whole lot of guns, but that Dean would also figure backup was coming. That Dean wasn't alone and hunted by something that had damned near killed them all. With a grim nod and a look, warning his father that this discussion wasn't over, Sam got up.

The old woman was suddenly there, blocking Sam, though he would've sworn that she was still sitting when he started to move. His hand twitched towards the knife strapped to the inside of his jacket, but he stilled it with an effort and forced a smile. Half the reason he could still his hand was that he felt his father at his back. Frustrating and painful as John Winchester was, Sam trusted him to provide cover. "Excuse me, ma'am. We need to go."

The old woman shook her head, reaching underneath her tattered shawl. She came up with a thin red cord, threadbare and stained with age. She offered it to Sam at the end of her fingertips. "For the pain. Easier to be blind at first. They need your sight."

"Oh." Gingerly, Sam took the cord out of her gnarled hands. He slipped it over his head, feeling kind of like he was twelve again with one of Pastor Jim's congregation trying to force-feed him and make him itchy sweaters. The cord was cool against his throat. It didn't help with the pain as far as he could tell, but it was nice of her anyway. "Much better. Thanks."

She grunted and turned away, apparently done with him. Putting out a hand, she stopped John in his tracks. Her voice was crisp and quiet as she said, "Mary will try."

They exchanged a long look in silence, John searching her upturned face. The raw look on his father's face made Sam glance away. The seconds ticked by, making Sam edgy. He cleared his throat and murmured, "Dad."

John shook his head and came back, his eyes dark with focus. Without a word to the old woman, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys. "Go start the van. I'll tell Idona and Sven who to call if they need help and how to reach us if Dean calls."

Sam went. The van grumbled in the cold, threatening to stall out, then woke with a muffled roar. Sam took a moment to sketch a quick Devil's Trap on the hood and the back window. By the time he finished, his father was back with two go-cups of coffee. It was a sure sign of marathon driving. Sam was good with that.

In silence, John handed him the cup and settled back with his own. His expression was shadowed in the full sunlight, like he didn't quite belong there.

The quiet gave Sam too much space to think. After a few miles, he turned the radio on, skipping from traffic report to traffic report. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his father worrying his wedding ring, already worn smooth and thin in places.

He could've married Jess. She could've gotten pregnant. They could've had kids. Was it mercy that she'd died before Sam got the chance?

No. It was a lot of things, but it wasn't mercy.

Sam pushed the gas pedal down. Drove faster. Drove most of the day and into the night, until his leg was stiff and his hands were unsteady and his eyes didn't want to focus anymore. They paused long enough to switch places, kept on driving like it was a vigil or a wake.

They need your vision. What the hell made his vision worth this? His father's life was destroyed. His mother and Jess were dead. Dean was being hunted down. And for what?

The road had no answers. Only a lot of empty space. He and his father both still flinched as they passed a truck, the roar of its engine and the smell of its exhaust. Sam's head hurt like hell.

Hold on, Sam thought, staring at the twin beams carved out by the headlights. Hold on. Hold on.

****

16

Palo Alto, home of Stanford U. It was strange, Dean thought. He'd felt pulled through Seattle, unfamiliar with any streets but the ones that drew him towards the storage locker. Palo Alto, he knew like the back of his own hand. It had the feel of a city he'd driven through a lot and at all hours, doing paces through it until he could navigate it dead asleep.

Until he reached the heart of every path through the city, the burnt out building like an amputated limb. That hit him like discord, his heart twisting in his chest. He'd damned near gotten into a car accident on the first pass when he stomped on the brake to stare at it, the pain like a flare igniting in his brain.

The cute little thing working at the disgustingly trendy coffeeshop deep in campus had been surprisingly helpful when Dean stopped to ask her. "Oh, that place? Ugh. Creepy, isn't it? There was a fire a few years ago. A girl died. Kinda sad."

"In that OJ way," had snarked her coworker, who bristled with piercings and a faux Billy Idol sneer. "I can't believe they didn't bust her boyfriend for arson."

The cute one had rolled her eyes at Dean, privately. "Yeah. Some people say it went up in minutes. Couldn't find any gas or anything, though."

"Whatever. The guy took off as soon as the funeral was over. Classic admission of guilt."

"Sure, Oliver Stone. Anyway, it's our local legend. Especially since the last time they tried to build over it, it just burned down again. They're still trying to figure out what to do with it so people stop using it as a make-out spot." The cute one had handed Dean his coffee, frowning. "Hey, you okay?"

Okay. Okay didn't begin to cover what Dean wasn't. Between nearly a week without sleep, too crowded with research and recon to let himself sleep, and the tangible sickness that hit him whenever he looked at that burnt-out wreckage...

He slid the truck he'd picked up in Seattle into an empty spot on the street, stopping to look up and down the sidewalk. It didn't look like he'd been noticed. It was a three-day weekend for the college kids, which meant there were less people hanging around waiting to be turned into collateral damage.

Dean got out of the truck he'd nicknamed the Beast, thumping its side fondly as he headed for the truckbed. Thank fuck there had been a reasonable one available, in black, no less, because that had let Dean bring a small arsenal with him from Seattle and still fit his recent purchases. He touched the Home Depot bag, feeling his nerves stir uneasily at the thought of what he was about to try.

He was Dean Winchester. That meant something. He had to have something that spooked the demon if it was hunting him so hard. Which meant that he had a shot at surviving his stupid psychotic plan.

No more. It ended here.

But first, a couple hours to get ready. It would let him get ready, he knew that. It was waiting to see what he'd do.

Sunset found Dean leaning indolently against the doorway to what had to have been the bedroom. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

He looked around the room, sighing. It was familiar. But no memory sparked from it. Nothing of the brother who he'd lost. Nothing of the father he barely knew. God, he'd give almost anything to remember-

Pain spiked through his head, the memory swimming into focus as though it had just been waiting for him to ask.

They were in a familiar place- a shithole apartment, after the... after something had happened. His father was there, younger, sadder. Like whatever had turned them into this was closer, the grief new.

Dean could see himself there, a five year old version of him. There was a picture book in his lap, and he was reading it quietly, glancing up anxiously once in a while to be sure his father was still there. He was always quiet. Hadn't wanted to talk since their lives had been shattered. Had to be strong for Dad, for-

A soft giggle caught his attention, and Dean looked up at the chubby baby on the floor.

"I think he's getting ready to try to walk," his father said softly from the kitchen table where he'd been sitting, reading, smiling. To the baby, he murmured, "Go ahead, kiddo, you can do it."

The baby pulled itself up, and Dean'd closed the book, focusing on the sweet little face.

His brother let go, wobbled for a moment, and tumbled to his diapered butt with a thump. He didn't cry. Hardly ever did, really, unless it was late and he was crying for their mother. Just screwed his face up and dragged himself up again.

Dean had leaned down, scooped up a rattle and shaken it, getting his little brother's attention. He was closer than his father, easier to reach. "Come on. You can do it. Come on, Sammy," he'd urged.

His father's breath had slid out hard, looked at Dean with such pride, such relief. Such love.

Sam had taken a hesitant step, arms flailing. Then, abruptly, he grinned, toddling over like he'd been doing it for years. He plunked down in front of Dean, grinning toothlessly and grabbing for the rattle.

Dean had scooped him up, kissing his head like he'd seen his father do. "Good job, Sammy."

Then his father was there, pulling both of them into a hug. "Sammy's lucky to have a big brother like you," he said gently.

Dean had smiled up at his father, until Sam had started to squirm, stuck between them. "I don't think Sammy likes that, Dad."

"Too bad for him. I love you, Dean."


The memory slid away, leaving Dean on his knees, tears sliding down his cheeks. "Sammy," he whispered. His brother's name had been Sammy- no. Damn. He'd always hated being called that. It'd been Sam.

Jesus. How could Dean have forgotten that? How could he have lost that? Lost his brother without ever remembering him?

The bricks around the dark void in his chest crumbled, buffeted by a sudden, growing rage.

That thing had taken everything he loved. Everyone who'd loved him.

The rage, the hate, flowed through his body, made the scrapes and bruises fade into the back of his mind. The exhaustion was gone, replaced by hot, singleminded purpose. He would end this. Kill the son of a bitch, and get it over with. And then...he could go home. Go back to where it all began. Then he could rest.

"You want me? Come get me, you evil son of a bitch," he yelled.

"Really, Dean. That's a little dramatic." The demon stepped into the front door, pausing for a moment to give him a sickly sweet smile. It had chosen someone who looked a bit like the man from the memory-like his father.

"You haven't seen dramatic, you cocksucker."

It gave him a delighted smile. "This is fun. What's lit the fuse on your tampon, boy? What do you think you can do to me? I've seen empires rise and fall. Buried a few myself."

Dean bared his teeth and shot from the hip, putting four slugs into the demon's torso. "I think I can kill you," he gritted.

The demon laughed, tilting his head back. "Oh, Dean. Always an optimist." Its hand moved, and Dean found himself flying back, cursing loudly as his back slammed into the crumbling wall. It gave under his weight, the sharp remains of a nail gouging him as Dean twisted to avoid it.

It let him fall, and Dean showed his gratitude by lobbing a set of twin daggers at it. Both caught, stuck in the meat of the host's thigh. "Party tricks," Dean snarled. "What, afraid to get your hands dirty?"

"Y'know," it said, stalking towards him, "you are starting to get irritating. I was going to offer you a place at my side, but now, I'm beginning to think your daddy was right. You're more trouble than you're worth."

Despite the demon's annoyance, the taunt worked. This time, it backhanded him with flesh instead of power. Which was great, except the force of it sent Dean airborne again. Towards the remains of the front door's frame. Shit, wrong direction, Dean thought. He fought to his feet, pulling the shotgun from its sheath. "That all you got?"

"I'm going to kill you," it crooned. "Going to bleed you slowly-no Daddy here to stop me this time. I'm going to take what I want from you, and then, I'm going to go kill your father slowly, just for producing two useless whelps like you and your brother."

Dean pulled the trigger, taking out the host's knee, and scrambled to his feet to stumble towards the bedroom.

"Can't run from me, boy." Its hand grabbed his hair, hauling him back.

Dean turned, ignoring the pain, and kicked it squarely in the stomach. It managed to throw him off balance, too. Dean fell to his back, half in the bedroom, half out.

The demon was on him in a flash, kneeling on his chest. Dean felt its fist impact his jaw, whipping his head to the side, blinding him. The demon reached for the front of his shirt and shredded it, glaring with disdain at the pendant that laid against his breast bone. "Pathetic. Did you think that would save you?"

"Funny," Dean snarled, "you're still not pulling it off."

It planted its foot on Dean's chest, resting weight hard on it to keep him still as the demon reached up to yank off a piece of burnt timber from the doorframe. The demon bent, sliding it under the pendant, preparing to rip it off. As the cool metal eased off Dean's skin, he felt pressure bearing down on him hard. The demon saw his discomfort become pain, and smiled. "All that training, all that time your daddy spent, honing you into his perfect soldier, and this is what it gets you. Just as dead."

"You know one other thing my father taught me, you son of a bitch?" Dean growled. "Fight dirty if you want to win." With every ounce of strength he had, he grabbed the demon's collar, and brought both his feet up into its groin, launching it over him... right into what had the bedroom.

It hissed, coming to its feet, and charged towards him. Three feet away, it stopped, brought up as though by an invisible wall.

Dean climbed to his feet slowly, offering it a smirk as he pulled the black chalk out of his pocket, and pointed at the charred shell of a ceiling. "Seal of Solomon, you son of a bitch."

It laughed, sounding genuinely delighted. "Clever." Eyes on Dean, it paced, pressing at the edges of the Seal. "Won't hold me forever, boy. I'll find you wherever you run."

Dean hefted the machete. "Who said I was going to run?"

He cocked his arm and threw, letting the blade fly at the demon's throat.

There was a satisfying moment as the demon's eyes widened in shock, then a sickening tearing noise as the blade shredded down to the spine. A wet thump as the body caved down, taking the demon to its knees.

Dean smiled, stepping into the room. He moved into the corner to grab his most recent purchase, a top of the line wet vac, charged up and slightly modified. Amazing what a fake credit card and a quick stop for holy water could get you.

The demon stared at him, eyes narrowed. Its ruined throat burbled and convulsed like it wanted to taunt him. But- Jesus, was the fucking thing starting to smirk at him?

Not good. But it had to be better than this.

The machete cleaved the thing's head off with ease, and Dean quickly powered up the shop vac, pressing the widest mouthed attachment he could find to the human's neck. "With water, I bind you," he said. "With earth, I bind you. With fire and air, I bind you."

The demon evacuated the body through the decapitated neck, as Dean had expected. The flowing holy water carried him through its tubing, directly into the crappy goth-ed out hourglass he'd prepared for it with flame, earth, air and water.

When it was done, he opened the body of the vacuum and pulled out the hourglass. Spitting a bit of blood into the holy water, which swirled angrily as the demon struggled to find its way up and out, Dean smiled. "With blood, I bind you, you son of a bitch."

Then he slapped the seal on the end with its etched Devil's Trap, the sound heavy and final.

Quiet. The demon raged in circles around the hourglass, surging violently against the glass. Dean could almost hear the screaming in his head.

Dean slumped against the wall, suddenly fucking exhausted. It was over.

So why did his head feel like it would spilt, his chest aching like he was teetering on the edge of that void?

****

17

"So, where's the sign that says "drug dealers and weapons runners apply here?" Sam asked, looking at the heavy security around the locker complex.

"Seattle's not exactly the smuggling hub of the universe," John said, shooting him a quick, tight smile.

Sam started to reply when pain suddenly spiked in his head, blinding and sharp. The landscape swam out of view. He felt his balance go and flailed for a second, trying to go down. "-Dad?"

Before Sam could fall, John was there, solid against his back. An arm looped around Sam's stomach, tucking him against John's hip before Sam's knees buckled. A hand touched his cheek. Contact. "Sam-"

The world was swallowed.

Sam found himself, elsewhere. From the warm solid weight of his father's arm around him, he knew that this time, he'd dragged his father into it too. "Dad?"

"I'm here." John looked out, over the room. Sparse furniture, water-stained wallpaper, dismal and cheap. Dad seemed to recognize it. "Oh, God."

Sam looked around the cheerless room, noting the much younger version of his father, and the small baby on the floor. "That's me? Oh fuck. Dean's pulling me into his memories, isn't he?"

"Or something like that. And I'm getting dragged along for the ride."

The memory played out. Sam felt something wet on his shoulder, heard the soft intake of breath as his father said hoarsely. "I don't think I ever told him that again. That I loved him."

Sam was silent, lost in his own pain. You're my brother, and I'd die for you. It had never occurred to him how far Dean would go. Had Sam ever thanked him for pulling him out of his burning house...twice, for not letting him fall into the pit of despair after Jess had died?

He had. Dean never accepted it. Protecting Sam was just what he did, whether Sam wanted it or not, whether Sam thanked him or not.

The scene shifted, and they felt Dean, felt the raging anger that filled him. Felt his determination to avenge his dead-oh, shit.

John sucked in a hard breath as the demon appeared, seeing that Dean's resolve didn't change as he saw the horror draw closer. "You can't kill it, Dean, run. Get out of there."

The fight, that horrible sound of fists on flesh as Dean got beaten to hell. The binding, which Sam missed most of because he couldn't breathe past the fear, the anger, the petty little voice that demanded why Dean was the one to drive the knife home, why Sam couldn't have-

Sam felt his father tense, going rigid as Dean bent and spat blood into the open end of the hourglass. John bit off, like Dean could hear him, like he could stop it, "Jesus, Dean, no-"

In slow motion, the blood welled through the holy water. As it spread, it brushed the ash that made up the demon, mingling-

With a sickening snap, the ash seemed to devour the blood. The ash darkened, strengthened, welling up against the glass. As the demon got stronger, Sam saw Dean gasp and stagger. Automatically, Sam reached out to steady him. His hands touched Dean's shoulder, and Sam jerked at the force of something ricocheting through the contact.

There was an aching emptiness, a feeling of walls buckling under the strain. The demon was pushing, hard, and Dean was losing ground.

Without thinking, desperate, Sam reached for Dean, using whatever power he had, his fucking gift to press against those walls, to keep them up, give them reinforcement. Behind him, he felt his father doing the same. What the hell?

The walls held. Trembling, groaning from the strain, but God, they held.

The vision released.

Sam staggered, only his father's grip keeping them both upright. "A shop vac? " Sam rasped, a hysterical note in his voice. "He bound a greater demon with a shop vac? Is that even possible? I mean, the black shit is non corporeal, right? He bound it with a shop vac?"

"Not all the way," John said quietly. His voice was steady, almost calm. "The holy water would suspend the demon, make the black stuff corporeal enough. Then, to throw it in a container with the devil's trap..." John nodded. "That would do it. But he added blood. He tied himself to the binding. Unless he seals the hourglass away, the demon can still get to him. It'll talk to him, try to tempt him. Try to drive him insane. This is bad, Sammy."

There was something in his father's voice. Something he hadn't heard before. It took a moment to place the sound. Fear. John Winchester was afraid, and that scared the hell out of Sam. "Dad," he said fiercely, "this is Dean. Dean's always been solid. He doesn't want money, he doesn't want anything for himself. He'll be okay until we get there."

John's silence was an answer. Not a good one. He steadied Sam, then took a step back. When Sam didn't fall on his face, John went to the thumb-pad lock. It recognized him as 'John Smith', but didn't open. John glanced at Sam.

Still shaking his head (Shop vac? Jesus, Dean), Sam stepped up beside him and pressed his thumb to the pad. The system welcomed 'Samantha', which would've been funnier and more irritating if Sam wasn't still reeling. He followed his father deeper into the storage locker, a labyrinth of empty hallways and lights clicking on one by one to illuminate the blank walls.

Dean wasn't solid. Not this Dean. That absolute blistering rage, that feeling that something vital and solid was about to collapse under the strain...

Because Sam wasn't there. Because he thought Sam was dead.

Sam felt the cool metal of the radio knob under his fingers, and realized belatedly that he was fidgeting with the chain again. Comforting, but not helpful if someone attacked. His head was pounding dully in the aftermath of that vision, and the memory of the look on his father's face as he realized what Dean had done gnawed at Sam in the silence.

Finally, they reached a place where John stopped. Out of habit, Sam waited for his father to pick the lock and was surprised to see that no, he actually had a key for this one. Go figure.

The locker opened into a skeleton of a weapons hold, most of the brackets empty now. There was a small stack of cardboard ammo boxes by the wall, a rumpled sleeping bag on the room's single cot. The room smelled like hell, liquor and gun oil and sickness. There was blood streaked across the floor and one wall. Sam went to sit on the cot, watching for a moment as his father ran his fingers over one of the remaining guns. A flash of white in the corner of his vision made him turn his head, picking up the crumpled piece of paper. Sam recognized the mess of Dean's hand-writing, which was pretty much encryption to anyone who hadn't had to deal with it most of their life.

Hey, read the note. If you're here, something's fucked up your chance at college. If it's me, get your ass back to class and that girl, dumbass. And yeah, I know about the girl. If it's zombies, ration out the hollow-points for the newer ones. They're less squishy.

"I know that," Sam murmured at the note. "Jerk."

So here's the big brother advice, and yeah you have to listen. I'm dead, bitch, let me lecture you. The keys to the Impala are in the stock of the Winchester rifle (ha ha) with the blue inline. You put a dent in her and I'll haunt your ass. Stop listening to Metallica around the Load era, because everything after it is crap. Marry that girl, she's hot and she doesn't take your shit. If you have kids and name one after me, make it the handsome one or I'll haunt your ass for that, too. (If it's a girl, I'm talking full-on chain rattling here, dude. Seriously.) Take it easy on Dad. Be happy.

In less steady handwriting: Tell Dad I'm sorry.

Sam closed his eyes, rubbing his thumb over the last line. "Love you, too," he said softly. Then he raised his head.

There was another note in his father's hand, a drawn look on his face. It was bad. John glanced up, catching Sam's eyes, then shook his head and went to pitch it in the trash.

"Dad," Sam said fiercely.

John hesitated, his hand poised over the trashcan. Sam watched him struggle with something, some decision. Then he sighed and turned back, passing Sam the second note. His hand locked on Sam's wrist before Sam could start reading.

"Your brother," John began, then stopped. He sighed, sitting on the cot beside Sam. "You have to understand what happened when you went to Stanford. We had to separate. He started to-"

The cell phone trilled. John started, then swore and picked up the phone.
"Winchester." A pause. John released Sam's wrist. "I know, Bobby. I've got it under control. I need you to run interference before any jackass gets the bright idea that he's been turned back on us, all right? We've got enough goddamn problems without trying to protect him from our own. He bound the demon." Silence as John listened, his eyes closing. "Yeah, I remember Sinclair. But Dean isn't her. We can get to him. I just need you to give us the time."

The messy scrawl was the only common link between the two. The words were starker, no asides. There was a smear of red across the paper. Sam skimmed it, feeling his heart sink.

I think my name is Dean. Dean Winchester. That doesn't mean anything to me.

I don't know who I expect to read this in a locked room left to a dead man, but I've seen stranger. There are demons, apparently. Or I'm insane. I have dreams I don't understand, nightmares that aren't mine. I have scars I don't remember. I shot a guy on the Interstate and felt nothing. I punched another guy and felt like a monster. None of this makes sense to me. I'm tired, but I keep running because there's something behind me. I remember killing a girl. I have a father, but I don't remember his face. Bothers me. I don't remember a mother. I had a brother. Had a younger brother. I couldn't protect him. I can't even remember his name.

They killed my brother.

I'll kill them all.


Sam closed his eyes and cursed.

There was a click as the phone closed, a creak as John turned to him. John said, softly, "All right, Sam. It's time I tell you something about your brother." John scratched his chin. "Hell, about the whole damned family."

Sam looked up, waiting.

Before John could open his mouth again, the locker door started smoking, and a moment later, a hideous scaly creature stood in the hole it had created.

Without bothering to really look, Sam pulled the rifle off the cot, blasting it point blank with pure rock salt. Unlike Dean, it didn't get up.

"Maybe family sharing should wait until we're out of here," John said, re-holstering his revolver.

***

18

Dean'd had a lot of dreams in the last few weeks, but never one like this.

For one thing, there was a nursery. Quiet. Light slanting in through the window shades, spilling across a floor cluttered with toys and comfortable mess.

Dean wavered in the middle of that serenity. He was grubby, sticky with blood. There was a knife locked in his hand. He didn't belong here. He should go before they found him and tossed him out. He should-

Footsteps behind him. He turned, fingers tightening automatically on the blade, slackening again as he saw the woman in white the doorway. She tipped her head, a gentle smile curving her lips. She was so familiar it made his chest hurt. "Hi, baby."

Dean shook his head, backing up a step. He left footprints, rust red on the pastel carpet. Something moved in the corner of his eye, a mobile spinning. A breathy noise from the cradle.

"Dean." The woman's eyes were sad now as she searched his face, one graceful hand coming up towards him. "Honey, it's all right. I'm here now."

Dean shifted, moving between her and the cradle. He didn't want her touching Sam. He'd stand between Sam and hell itself if it came to that. But he'd been too late, too late to-

He glanced in the cradle, his breath choking out at the sight within. The blood.

"He didn't die easy," the woman crooned, coming towards them. "Poor little lamb."

Dean felt his vision swim. He shook his head again, over and over. The knife slid from his fingers.

"But you can make things better, Dean. You can." The woman drifted to him, her hands coming up to frame Dean's face. The gesture was too intimate for a mother. She smiled. "You can bring him back. Both of us. You can save your father."

Dean drew in a breath, feeling the heat and strength of her hands. He couldn't think. He was tired. He couldn't- "How?"

She let him go, curling one hand maternally over her flat belly. When she let it drop, there was a slash of red across the white field of her nightdress. "Lawrence," she said gently. "Lawrence, Kansas. Come on home, sweetheart."


Dean jerked awake, cursing as he barked his knee against the steering wheel. He automatically looked at the hourglass in its place beside him, evil strapped in the passenger seat. He'd sealed it as well as he could, wrapped it in duct tape and bubble wrap emblazoned with a Solomon's seal. So far, it had melted through two wrappings. He was running out of packing materials. Should stop somewhere, get more. Get food. Get sleep.

Right.

His face was wet. He smeared it dry, cleared his throat, and put the keys in the ignition.

He'd thought about staying in Palo Alto. It felt oddly familiar to him, a comfort. Then, the old lady who owned the cheap-ass hotel he'd been staying at showed up with blacked out eyes, and a seriously bad attitude.

The exorcism had worked on her, thankfully. He'd have had a hard time shooting an old woman who'd pinched his ass when he'd checked in.

Would have done it, though.

Lawrence was going to take a couple of days to get to, even if he wasn't planning on much sleep.

The desert outside of Vegas seemed to stretch on forever. It was peaceful, somehow. A good place to think.

The migraines had eased a little after he'd bound the demon. He had a sinking feeling it was only a temporary reprieve, but he'd take it. Something niggled at the back of his mind, something that told him his problems had just begun.

For now, though, he was ignoring it.

Then, the hydra ran across the road in front of his truck, two vaguely familiar men and a woman right behind it.

Wait, hydra? Dean pulled to a stop and closed his eyes for a moment. Yup. That was most assuredly a three headed lizardy-thing, Dean thought tiredly, looking down at the hourglass. "Seriously? You've got to be kidding."

With a tired sigh, he unholstered the shotgun from under the dashboard and swung out of the truck. Might as well, he thought, watching it spin and head his way. "Fuck. You're just like a giant target on my ass, aren't you?" he muttered.

The hydra screamed, and he winced, patiently lining up his shot, waiting for it to come in range.

The other hunters stopped, staring in shock at the man standing quietly in the middle of the road, stance cocky despite the enormous creature bearing down on him. "Shit," the woman breathed. "It's Dean." She gripped her gun tighter, striding towards him.

Dean waited until the hydra was almost in striking distance, then let fly with both barrels of the shotgun, hitting it full in the chest with rock salt laced buckshot. The hydra staggered, but didn't go down.

Oddly, he couldn't say he was surprised.

The hydra came closer, one of the three heads whipping out, needle sharp teeth aiming for his throat. "Come on, you ugly bitch," he growled, using the gun as a club, slapping the heads away. Something in the back of his mind told him that he couldn't use the machete, the heads would just grow back, two for each one he took off.

But the heart- Yes. The heart would kill it.

He slapped another head away, not noticing the third head coming up behind him. Thankfully, he managed to turn just before those teeth could tear his face off, taking the impact through his leather jacket. It took him down, bruised him, but that was the worst of it.

Except for the holes in the jacket. Dammit, Dean'd liked that jacket.

Dean grunted, picking himself up from the sand, and glanced at the tall, handsome woman who'd just run up. "Hey, sweetheart. Think you can keep her attention for a few minutes?"

"Asshole," she spat. "You got a plan, Dean?"

"Yup. Just keep big bitch here busy."

She nodded, turning to the other hunters and gestured them into a defensive formation as Dean slid two daggers from their sheaths. They obeyed her, with only a wary look at Dean. Which was good, because Dean was having enough trouble remembering anything about the woman. He didn't need to try to con all three of them into thinking he knew what was going on.

"You can't," the woman started, gesturing towards the blades. Her eyes had narrowed, suspicion in them.

"I know. The heads. I'm not going for the heads." Dean gave her what he hoped was a charming smile, and headed off at a jog.

The hydra's one head followed him, and Dean sighed. Couldn't be that easy. When he was well behind it, he turned, looped around and started running directly at the damned thing. The first dagger hit it about two feet off the ground, the second about three feet above it.

This was possibly one of the dumbest things he had ever done, bordering on complete insanity, Dean decided about ten feet away from the creature. But if it worked...

With a yell, he launched himself, foot hitting the lower dagger, digging his fingers into its rough skin to help him balance. His other foot found the second dagger, propelling himself to a precarious position half-standing on the creature's back. Without hesitation, he pulled out both handguns, pressing them at the base of all those heads and started pulling the trigger, over and over again.

It took four clips in all before the hydra stopped twitching. Dean hopped off, landing in a crouch in front of the hunters, feeling their stares acutely.

"They think you're a loose cannon."

Dean twitched, hearing the voice in his head. Never a good sign. He glanced at the two men standing point behind the woman, checking to see if they'd said it. The poison sweetness of it didn't match, too familiar. He knew the cadence too well from half-remembered nightmares, from the rest station bathroom and the burnt out apartment where he'd bound it.

'I bind you with blood.' Fucking brilliant, Winchester. Jesus.

It was in his head. In here with him.

"Very good, boy. Now stop staring at nothing. You're making the children nervous. They've just been waiting for you to slip up, for a reason to take you down."

Great, Dean thought. Like the insanity plea needed any help. He stood upright slowly, pulling a rag to wipe the machete clean. "Everyone all right? I've got a first aid kit in my truck." And a bound demon in my brain, he added silently.

They didn't answer, just stared, hands still on their unholstered weapons. The woman looked at him curiously, and he got a tiny flash of memory, of their bodies pressed together, the slick feeling of skin on skin, two loners taking comfort on a long cold night. Thank God. If he couldn't use libido and charm, he was kind of screwed, because his brain was currently working on half power. "Hey, Kitten, no hello kiss?" he asked, forcing a crooked cocky smile he didn't feel.

Her face darkened, and for a moment, Dean was sure he was done for. Great, survive the demon to get put down like a fucking dog by humans. It rankled.

Then, she stalked forward, drawing back a hand and punching him in the jaw squarely. "Sonofabitch," she growled.

Okay, then. Dean spat in the dirt, managed a sheepish smile. As he was opening his mouth, the memory came in to save his dumb ass. "This is for singing Freebird out the back window, isn't it?"

She snorted and grabbed his shirt, pulling him upright. Her hand slid into his hair, pulling him down for a hard kiss. She released him with a little shove and smiled at him. "Good to see you're not dead."

Dean let the smile widen. "Good to be not dead," he returned.

"What happened with Bobby?" one of the men asked, still eyeing him suspiciously. Big guy, ugly scar on one cheek. J something. Jimmy, Jack, John... Jerry... Jericho.

Dean gave him the megawatt cocky smile. "I was busy, dude. And, c'mon, you know Bobby. He's a little heavy handed sometimes, though to be fair, the first week after I left the hospital, I was a little," he twirled a finger at his temple. "Took a good knock on the head." He flashed a smile at the woman. "But hey, chicks dig scars, right?"

She made a soft derisive noise.

"Anyhow, I was confused for a few moments, Bobby came on strong, I reacted badly, end of story." He took a breath, took a chance. "It's not like I didn't have plenty of time to shoot his ass if I'd been so inclined, but I didn't. It's me. Dean. You all know me. Right?" He spread his hands wide, giving them his best "aw shucks" smile.

They seemed to relax a little, and Dean thought he heard the other man (older, long-haired, hippie- guy fucking reeked of patchouli) mutter agreement.

"You got somewhere to get to?" The woman asked.

"Afraid so, sweetheart. Mind dealing with the clean up?"

She smiled, shaking her head. "Take care, Dean."

"You too. Kitten," he added.

She threw a barely articulate curse over her shoulder at him as she stomped back to the hydra.

Shaking his head, Dean slid back into the truck and started out again. It wasn't until the group faded from his rearview that the shakes started.

Close. Way too close. He'd have to be more careful from here on out.

But in the meantime, he was alive. Half crazy, covered in hydra blood, stuck with a demon, but alive.

With a soft, contented noise, he flipped on one of the cassette tapes he'd liberated from the locker, and blasted some AC/DC.

Highway to hell, he thought. How appropriate.

****

19



"Dad, when are you planning on that family talk thing?"

John sighed, looking at the signs. "I guess it's a good time as any."

Yeah, that was reassuring. Sam laid his head against the window, considering the fine lines gathering around his father's eyes, the tension around his mouth. "Okay," he said. "I know Dean's bound a greater demon, and I know it's bad. But you don't get this freaked out. Ever. What's going on? And don't give me the need to know bullshit."

John stared through the windshield, his eyes distant. Then he exhaled slowly through his teeth. "Jim told me once that hell was like the worst military hierarchy clusterfuck you can imagine. The demon we're dealing with is up there. Not Satan up there, but up there enough that there are a lot of small fry gunning for its position. If Dean dies without releasing the demon, he'll be dragged into that hourglass with it and stuck there for the rest of eternity. Takes out two birds with one stone for hell. So not only is he being worked over by that demon, but he's enemy number one right now for all of those bastards. There are a lot of them, one of him, no backup. Dean doesn't know we're coming."

Sam was kind of sorry he asked. Against his better judgment, he said, "Okay. Now what about the family stuff?"

John was quiet for a long moment, then took a deep breath. "I haven't even told Dean most of this. You know how some families, usually the kind of weird ones, have stories? Of family members who had prophetic dreams, or could stop watches, or who predicted the day of their death."

"Don't most of them?" Sam asked.

"You'd be surprised," John said. "Anyhow, sometimes, when two of those families mix, you get children with... gifts."

"Like me," Sam said flatly.

"Except that normally, the first child gets the gift. Dean didn't, or so we thought. Which made you doubly interesting to the demon." John looked back at the road and cursed, realizing that he was about to sideswipe a truck. Twisting the wheel sharply, he avoided the truck. "Fuck. I'm pulling over. I don't want to, but I can't do this while I drive."

Sam's eyes widened. "But, Dean-"

"I'll talk fast, Sam." John quickly pulled the van off at a city park. "I wanted to stretch my legs- leg." He hurriedly limped over to one of a line of chessboards set up, and lowered himself onto the stool. "Okay. Where was I?"

"Gifts."

"Oh yeah. So, Dean got jack-all. Except he didn't. Dean's got a fair amount of latent power, that he kind of uses as he needs." John's lip curved into a smirk. "Mostly, he seems to use it to get laid, to be honest. Or to get out of trouble. Or to make that phenomenally lucky shot. Or to heal faster than he really ought to be able to."

"I kinda noticed that one," Sam muttered. "After the daevas, I was still scabby and he's got girls fawning all over his new scars."

John smiled. "I doubt you were hurting for girls to coo over your scabs, Sammy."

Sam ducked his head, slumping onto the other stool. "Did we have a weird family?"

"Yeah. Your mom got prophetic dreams. Not like perfect movie reels of what would happen, but a grain of truth. The kind of thing I didn't put much stock in until after... after." John rubbed his eyes. "And I had this ability to fix anything you put in front of me. Basically latent. But apparently, physical trauma can force latent abilities into the forefront." John reached into his pocket, pulling out a quarter.

"Meaning?" Sam asked.

John flipped the quarter up into the air. It flew up, then started to fall down. At about eye level, it simply stopped. Just for a few heartbeats. Then it dropped. John pocketed it again. "That's about the extent of it, but it's more than I could do before."

Sam shook his head. A few years ago, that'd have been mind-blowing. His father, who was very much a cold beer and loaded shotgun kind of guy doing no-handed coin tricks still made Sam's brain hurt, but these days it was basically a Tuesday in the Winchester world. "So you think Dean has some ability?"

"I think that's the only way he could have bound that demon. Now that it is bound, I can tell you that it was Belial-"

"Why can you only tell me that now?"

"Names are power. Didn't want to call it down on us when we were sleeping, which is about how the bastard operates. Anyway. Belial's a lieutenant of hell, only slightly below Satan's five Princes. There's no way anyone should be able to bind a third tier demon. It doesn't happen. Even Crowley... maybe he managed a fifth level demon. Fourth, if you really believe his press."

"Or it was the LSD."

"Yeah." John grinned. "Probably that."

"So Dean lucked out. Or used his latent... whatever. Dean-ness." Sam shrugged tiredly. "Weird, and he'll gloat for years, but I'm not seeing how this is a stop the car conversation."

"There's more." John rubbed absently at the place where the prosthetic met his leg, his expression growing serious. When he spoke, it was clipped. "There was a girl back in the day. A hunter. One of the best I'd met, and that's with Elkins and Bobby. Amanda Sinclair. Her mother trained her early after her father and brother were torn apart by shadow demons. Starting when Sinclair was about 9. Sound familiar?"

Sam nodded, glancing sidelong as a jogger paused a bit too long beside them. She winked at John and kept jogging, looking back over her shoulder. Sam took his hand off his gun. "Yeah."

"Her mother died when she was twenty."

"Demons?"

"Carjacking. We tried to keep track of Sinclair, Bobby and me. No other family. She seemed solid enough, and I had other things to keep track of. I let it go. Things were quiet for a while. We'd hunt together once or twice a year. Think your brother had a crush on her. He was about 14, 15. Then she changed. Started acting-" John started as his cell phone rang, then grabbed for it. "Dean?"

Sam leaned close and heard Bobby say, "Sorry."

John grunted, then levered himself back to his feet. Jerking his head at the van, he waited until Sam nodded and started walking towards it. "If this isn't news, I'm hanging up."

"If you're sweet on me, John-"

John snorted.

"Yeah, thought so." Bobby said, "That all-points I put out for people to call if they saw Dean got an answer, and your boy just bought you some time. He met up with Katya's group. Charmed the pants off them, got them to buy that it'd been a problem with a concussion and that he was okay now. Also killed a hydra."

"A what now?" John paused mid-step. "They're supposed to be extinct."

"Like vampires?" Sam muttered, and grinned as John swatted him.

"Not so much. Things are going bugfuck out there. West coast's the center, but that's moving down with your boy. And they aren't peachy anywhere, what with a gate of hell opening in Lawrence-"

"Gate of hell? You didn't fucking call me?" John barked.

Sam offered a sheepish wave at the next jogger who paused to stare at them.

"I just got the word myself, John. The bad guys are throwing everything they've got. Folks are sighting the Horde again, for God's sake. Haven't seen them since-"

Just before Hiroshima. Hell's warrior caste. Brutal, unstoppable, sadistic. Destructive. Too goddamn smart. Hell only ever sent out one. It only ever had to send out one. John stopped mid-step, grimacing. "Tell me you're fucking with me. Where?"

"Where else, John? Goddamn Lawrence. Cover your backs. They want Dean, but a lot of these demons are just looking for a damn meal. And your other boy, or you, are big fucking targets."

"Okay," John said distractedly, stopping by the van to rummage for his keys. "Anything else?"

There was silence on the other end of the line. Then Bobby sighed. All teasing gone, he murmured, "John, he bought you time. But you know how it's gonna look when people realize what he's been up to. It looks like fucking Sin-"

"He's. Not. Sinclair." John growled. "You understand me? It won't come to that. He's got me, and he's got Sammy, and we won't let it come to that."

"But if it does." Bobby's voice was iron. "You couldn't pull the trigger on Amanda. You gonna pull the trigger on-"

John flipped his cell closed and put it back into his pocket. He looked at Sam. "You ready to go?"

His answer was something whipping past his head. John followed it with his eyes, watching as the trashcan slammed into the twisted thing hunching on the hood of the van. Damn. He was off his game. Shooting a glance at Sam, John drew his gun and moved around the van to catch up with the demon. There was the trashcan, but no demon.

"Dad!"

John dropped as Sam yelled, rolling out of the way as the demon's enormous fist slammed down where his head would have been. It gave him a second to study it, trying to place what they needed to do to kill it.

It was hideous. Barely humanoid, with elongated arms that seemed to be little more than bony sinew. Three milky eyes stared out at them above a gaping maw with jagged teeth.

"Fuck, ugly," John muttered. "Aim for the eyes, Sam."

"You think?" Sam yelled back, reaching for his gun. "Shield your eyes, I've got the magnesium clip."

"Sam-" Before John could finish, a brilliant white flash streaked across the park, imbedding itself in the creature's skin.

"Shiiiit!" John yelled, scrambling to his feet and hurrying away, to the other side of the van as fast as he could manage.

The creature went up like a three-week dead Christmas tree, a nearly ten foot tall bonfire. Then, to Sam's dismay, it turned, coming towards him. In the flames, he could see the skin cracking, twisting onto itself. "Oh, ew."

"Sam, get down."

"Huh-" A sharp, whistling noise came from the thing, and Sam hit the ground, diving behind a trash can.

The whistle ratcheted up until it was a piercing siren wail. Then, it stopped.

"Stay down!" John barked.

Before he had finished, with a thunderous noise, the creature blew, raining flesh and blood over the park. John scrambled to the back of the van, ignoring the bits of creature raining down around him. "Get ammo, now. No fire!" he added.

"Dad, it blew up. All gone. Boom," Sam added, stepping out from behind the trash can he'd used for cover.

John threw a shotgun to him, following it with a box of shells. Over Sam's shoulder, he saw that the civilians had scattered. Good. Less damage control. "Look again."

Sam turned, looking at the remains where the thing had been. The bits of flesh were wiggling. They moved, growing larger, until a dozen smaller creatures stood there. "Oh, crap."

"We call them gremlins."

"Oh, that's just great," Sam snarled. "We don't have time for this."

John shrugged. "They're not hard to kill at this size. It's just rounding them all up. You can shoot them, you can chop them. Hell, once upon a time, I wiped out about ten with a hockey stick. Even a good kick'll do it, if you aim right."

Sam stared at the gremlins starting to move, shuffling around as they found their bearings. He looked past them, at one of the heavy steel and wood picnic tables.

"Sam?" John asked.

Sam stared, feeling the spike of pain in his head intensify. Then, with a grating noise, the picnic table flew up from the ground, flipping in mid air. He brought it to a stop above the gremlins and then simply let go. He turned to his father. "Will that work?"

John nodded, eyeing Sam. Finally, he smiled. "Yeah. That'll do it."

******

20


Colorado. Or was it still Wyoming? Damned if Dean could remember anymore. After nineteen hours of driving, he could feel the states running together in a blur of adrenaline and fatigue. It was another state that was all long roads and dry earth and silence. The power rippling off the hourglass had fried the radio a few hundred miles ago. Dean didn't want to know what that power was doing to him after this many hours of exposure.

Christ. He was so fucking tired. He tried thumbing through the journal, but the words stopped making tense. He tried pulling off for a nap, but the dreams- and besides, he'd woken up with something scratching gouges in his windshield.

Dean poured himself another cup of coffee. He could feel the gas station's night cashier watching him, waiting for the inevitable hold-up. Ignored him. Couldn't blame the guy. Dean knew he looked like hell, between road grime and no showers and blood. Some of the blood was even his.

He'll call the cops, boy. Best shoot him.

Dean shook his head. Not because he thought he could push the whispering away; he knew better than that. Because he was answering the voices in his head now. No, he wouldn't shoot the college kid working night shifts. No, he wouldn't, because he didn't want to waste the ammo.

Palming at his eyes, Dean grabbed a bag of pre-shelled peanuts in passing. Protein. Muscle mass. Yeah. He tossed it on the counter, set his coffee down and waited to be rung up. His attention wandered to the road map pinned up behind the kid's head. I-80 to I-15 to I-80 to I-25 to I-76 to I-270 to...

Big hands on his hips, drawing him back into a warm body. Clean soft sheets, a cup of coffee on the nightstand, beer in the refrigerator. He was naked, and he didn't hurt. Those hands touched and soothed, teased and comforted as they slithered over his skin.

The rough voice in his ear: "Come on, baby. I'll take care of you. You'll never hurt again." Long callused fingers slipping under the covers, going all the way south. "Just let me in. I'll love you. Not like they do. Not like-"


"Sir?"

Dean jerked upright again, stalling his hand halfway on its automatic path to his gun. The cashier was staring at him, wide-eyed. Then again, Dean would probably stare too if he saw somebody start to doze on their feet.

Coffee was important. Dean gave the kid a pale smile and a couple crumpled bills, taking his purchases and going out the door. He scratched a quick Devil's Trap on the glass door as he left. These things followed him, and he didn't want a dead cashier on his conscience.

It was surprisingly cold out, a shock buying Dean a few more minutes of alertness. He cleared his throat, absently casing the parking lot, then looked at the truck. There had to be a better way. There just had to be.

With a sigh, he reached in his pocket, pulling out a handful of change and headed to the payphone.

"Jackson Towing," Bobby said, voice hoarse with sleep.

"It's Dean."

"Dean-"

"Just shut up for a minute. I think I fucked up."

Bobby, bless him, didn't hesitate. "We'll fix it, then. What's going on?"

"I bound the demon. In an hourglass. By earth, air, fire, water and blood."

Bobby sucked in a hard breath.

"I bound this sonofabitch to me, didn't I," Dean said flatly.

"Yeah. Yeah, you did. That's...not good." Which sounded like a massive understatement. "You need to come in, Dean. We can find a way-" Bobby started.

"Tell me how to do it," Dean demanded. "I'm not putting anyone else at risk."

"You can't. Someone else has to bind it or the shock'll kill you. We can still fix this, it's not too late-"

"No." Dean sighed. "It's way too goddamn late. Look. Thanks. Sorry I kicked your ass."

"Dean," Bobby said. "Your daddy is about a day behind you. He's looking for you. Turn around, or just stay there, let him come for you. He's the best at what he does. He can handle it."

"No. Tell him to turn around. Don't let him walk into this. I can't- just promise me you'll tell him," Dean said, clutching the phone as though he could will Bobby to obey him.

"Son-"

"Thanks for your help, Bobby. Tell Dad I- I love him. Gotta go." Dean hung up the phone quickly, before he could do something stupid like beg Bobby to come get him or to ask where his father was.

Feeling suddenly even more alone, he walked back to the truck.

The seals were intact, all three layers of them. It was a pain in the ass to seal the hourglass every time he got out to take a piss, but it was relief to get away from the pressure of its power constantly threatening to crack the small bones of Dean's body, the car windows, anything.

He could run. Leave the truck and keep going west, east, anywhere but in the cab with that thing.

He'd bound it. His problem.

Dean undid the seals and climbed inside the cab, wondering what the hell he was going to do if it was raining and he had to piss or get gas. As he closed the door, the power settled in around him. He swallowed hard and locked himself in with the hourglass.

It was silent again. It usually did that after a dream or a stretch of whispering. All the better to make Dean doubt his own mind. It'd been better with the radio.

The truck grumbled sullenly as Dean turned the key, but eventually rolled over. He backed out of the spot and onto the road again, drinking the coffee so fast it scalded his throat. He tossed the plastic cup into the small graveyard of plastic collecting around the hourglass. The plastic was quietly starting to warp where it touched the hourglass, just like the upholstery had scorched a little around it. The glass was cool under Dean's fingers when he'd touched it to check, just to check.

He wanted to stop and call Bobby back. Call John again, and damn the headache. He wanted to stop and lay down arms and wait for them to catch him.

The demons and the things that went bump would catch him first. He'd be pinned down in the truck, surrounded with a limited amount of ammo. The whispering would start. The dreams would come. He'd crack. He'd-

That hadn't been his thought.

Dean reached across the seats, grabbed the hourglass, and shook it hard. Snarled, "Don't fucking do that, you son of a bitch. I'm not an idiot."

There was the fleeting warmth of a hand covering his own. I know that. Why would I want you otherwise?

Shuddering, Dean took his hand back and planted it firmly on the wheel again. It was better if he didn't touch the thing. He needed gloves. He needed to watch the road, empty as it was. But then the hypnotic hum of the tires started to get to him again.

More viciously than necessary, he tore open the peanuts and ate a handful. The crunch and dryness in his mouth made him think of bones. Things moved on the side of the road, white things with black black eyes. Dean didn't look at them, ate quickly. He needed water. Dehydration. Couldn't live off peanuts and coffee indefinitely.

Can't live without sleep, either.

"Fuck you. You're not getting to me." Dean locked his eyes on the road, ignoring the fact that something seemed to be moving on the passenger seat. If he looked, as he'd looked the last thousand times, there would only be the hourglass again.

C'mon, boy. It wouldn't do anyone any good if you drive off the road.

Deliberately, Dean hummed to cover its voice. It was psychotic, probably, but it filled up the loaded silence of the cab. Metallica. Ain't My Bitch. Good times. Road-tripping with the devil. They did say he had the best music-

Dean, the voice sighed, the warm exasperation so familiar it raised the hair on the back of Dean's neck. You only hum Metallica when you're nervous.

It knew the inside of Dean better than Dean did right now. Shaking his head fiercely, Dean gave the road his single-minded focus and started humming louder. The voice fell silent.

In that silence, Dean heard the wings beat. Once. A cracking, leather sound. It was the only warning before there was suddenly a huge clawed scaly thing swinging down in front of his truck.

Dean cursed sharply, swerving into the other lane. The dragon (dragon? Jesus!) swung past him and screamed loud enough that Dean felt the windows vibrate, a terrifyingly human sound. In the rearview, he saw the dragon swoop back up into the darkness above. A brief flash as it blocked out the moon. Then nothing.

"Fuck. Me." Dean leaned into the steering wheel, fumbling for a gun one-handed as he tried to find it again. Black dragon, black sky; he wasn't having much luck. Couldn't be a fucking white dragon, no...

His heart was beating too hard against his ribs. He couldn't think past something in his brain screaming that this didn't happen, that dragons didn't hunt anymore, that there was nothing you could really do against them anyway but die. The journal had said that. His father had told him that. His father-

I was wrong, son.

Dean flicked an annoyed look at the hourglass. "Okay, fucking Vader, you're not my father. Shut the hell up until you can be helpful."

Unfortunately, that didn't provoke any flashes of demonic brilliance.

Okay. Dragons. Okay. Virgins? Well, he was screwed in that category, and he thought that was probably unicorns anyway. If the world was going all fluffy fucking 13 year old girl gone psychotic on him-

That scream tore the night again a split second before Dean felt the impact, a howl of metal as the truck's frame bent on the passenger side. He grabbed the hourglass, hauling it onto his lap and between his knees as a talon probed through the fractured window, tearing the upholstery as it searched for the place where the demon had been. Dean saw golden eyes peer through the window, animal and old as they found him. The dragon stared for a long hungry moment, balancing on the side of the truck as Dean wrenched from one side of the road to the other. The weight was too much, they'd roll into the ditch-

Then the dragon launched itself, gone again.

Dean stared at the crumpled frame, the gaping holes in the shape of the dragon's claws. He remembered- "My car."

The hourglass was silent, hot between his thighs.

"You motherfucker," Dean said slowly. "You trashed my goddamn car."

A shadow fell across the moon. The dragon was coming back for another strike. It was going to-

He remembered his father handing him the keys, the weight of them in his hand, the affection on his father's face. He remembered bleeding on those seats. He remembered Sammy in the passenger seat, laughing. Baby seats and long car trips and tape-decks and literally riding shotgun. His family.

They'd taken everything now. Everything.

The truck shuddered and squealed as the dragon landed hard, its nails scrabbling on the roof for a moment before tearing into the buckling frame. The window came over an inch and hit Dean's shoulder, the splintering glass spraying across his legs and bare arms, tinking softly as it hit the hourglass. Dean heard the leathery rustle of the dragon opening its wings to take off, to haul the truck up and drop it from a few hundred feet.

"Fine," Dean said quietly. "Fine."

Then he shoved the gas pedal to the floor and twisted the wheel to the right as far as it would go.

The truck howled, forced into a tailspin at 70, 80, 90 miles per hour. Dean heard the dragon snarl, felt the blast of heat as it spewed fire in a loose circle around them. The fire sprayed back into the cab, should've burned Dean. Didn't. The only thing that burned Dean was the hourglass.

Around, around, around. Dean heard the roof's metal tear as the dragon peeled it back, struggling to crane around and blow fire. It stank of brimstone, and it was angry, furious. Its anger was nothing compared to Dean's.

Dean met those old, awful eyes and snarled, "Die. All of you. Die."

90, 100, 110.

There was a wet pop, a brittle snap. Dean watched the dragon's wings snap like wood, wrenching back from its body, twisting it so hard that its spine broke. It fell, and it took the truck with it. Dean didn't think. He tucked his body around the hourglass and braced.

The truck rolled. Again. Again. Into a ditch. Down.

Crunch. The truck rocked in place. Stillness.

Dean hung upside down in his seatbelt and was distantly glad for gravity. It kept the blood from running into his eyes. He could hear himself breathing fast and ragged. He could feel the hourglass burning marks into his hands. He was alive.

That's my boy, murmured that rough voice. That's good, Dean.

Dean heard the crunch of gravel. A distant, lowing moan. Funny how zombies sounded like cows.

He turned his head and watched them stagger, counting pairs of rotting legs. He got to thirty before he stopped. He tightened his grip on the hourglass.

You know what you have to do. All you have to do is let me in. Just a little. Won't touch you. I can give you power. I can give you strength.

"Stop," Dean said savagely. Couldn't think, he needed space to think. He couldn't reach his ammo without letting go of the hourglass, which might let the zombies take it and shatter the bindings. He had six shots. He had-

I only want to help you, soldier. I want to get you home. Everything can be fixed.

Something caught Dean's attention on the other side of the truck. More feet, at least twenty more zombies. They moved slow, but they had numbers. He was alone. The windows were shattered, wouldn't keep them out.

He felt strength in his hands, slow and sure and warm. He felt the promise of borrowed power whisper through him. He could live through this.

Do whatever you have to. Just live.

If they killed him, they'd start on his father. They'd start on the others. It had to end with him.

The first of the zombies shuffled close enough to reach him, close enough to touch. It sniffed, moaning as it recognized the scent of blood. Dean pulled his gun, fired off a shot. The zombie tumbled back. The others got louder, stronger, pushing forward towards him.

Five shots. Fifty zombies.

Don't be a damn fool, Dean!

It had to end with him.

Dean closed his eyes.

The power wasn't foul or painful. It flowed in through his hands like it belonged to him, like it had been there all the time. Dean choked anyway, trying not to gag, and flung it out blind.

A second's hesitation. He'd pushed too hard; he felt the backflow of blood in his throat, he felt the pain in his head like something had burst.

Then the fire swelled out in a circle, consuming, devouring. Dean turned his head and watched as the zombies burned. The fire kept going, the circle thinning out as it ate dry grass and bugs and old bits of trash. Finally, too far out, it died away.

Dean realized he was shaking. He should move, run. Had to get to Lawrence. Had to-

Closing his stinging eyes, Dean felt the dampness run up into his hair. He gasped in air and breathed, "Oh god. Oh, god, Dad, I'm so fucking sorry. I'm so-"

Shh, whispered the thing that wasn't his father. It's all right. It's all right.

 

 

******

21




After the gremlin, John had let Sam take over the driving, catching a few hours of sleep while they drove. It was just before dawn when Sam poked him. "Dad? Something up ahead."

John came awake with no pause between sleep and alert. "Where?" His eyes narrowed. "Oh, hell. It's Katya, and her crew."

"The ones who saw Dean? Maybe they can-"

"No," John said sharply. "They can't. Follow my lead, and don't answer any questions. I'll explain once we're clear of them."

"Why are we stopping, then?"

John raked a hand through his hair, looking so much like Dean in his frustration that it made Sam's breath catch. "Because if one of them looks up and sees us, it'll be suspicious if we don't stop."

"Oh." Sam pulled the car to a stop, and John opened the window, giving Katya a practiced smile.

She strode over, all tanned skin and loose-limbed grace. Same Katya that Sam remembered from when he was a kid, with her crooked smile and new gray starting at her temples. "John, good to see you. And is that little Sammy? Jesus, I'm getting old."

John offered his hand through the window, and she shook it. Then she reached past to offer Sam her hand, her shake warm and firm. "How do you think I feel?" John said. "Boy's taller than me."

"You're about a day behind Dean," Katya said bluntly. "Was kinda surprised to see him alone, to be honest. He never leaves you two be unless something's wrong."

John shrugged. "I'm not as fast as I was. With the gates of hell opening in Lawrence, we figured one of us should be there."

She nodded, still eyeing him. Over her shoulder, Sam saw Jericho lope over and winced inside. If the ex-con got too close to the van, odds were good that Dad would just shoot him. They'd never gotten along after that machete fight Jericho and Dean got into while Sam was in high school. "Glad to hear it," Katya said, her voice dangerously even. "Because you know, a lot of us were worried that it was like Amanda all over again."

"Yeah, I figured. But you know Dean."

She nodded. "Yeah." She reached into the pack at her hip. "He left these behind."

John stared at the two blood encrusted daggers, then took them through the window with a tight smile. "Ill be sure to deliver them. And remind the boy about taking care of equipment."

Katya looked at Jericho and sighed, then leaned in the window a little. "John, I'm gonna say this, and you know I think the world of Dean. Get to him quick, before someone who knows him but won't cover his ass sees him."

"What do you mean?"

Katya flipped her short hair out of her eyes. "He's not Dean. Not the Dean I know. Close, but... off. Wrong. And the way he went after that hydra- Jesus. He buried the daggers in its ass and used them as step stools."

"Seriously?" Sam blurted.

"Like he thought he was Lara fucking Croft. Just stood up there and unloaded about forty rounds in its heart, with the heads snapping at him the whole time. Dean's good, but-" Katya broke off, rubbing her eyes tiredly. "Just get to him. People are starting to talk."

John nodded. "Thank you. You need any help?"

"Nah. Fucking zombies. We'll be here all day between shooting and burning. You have more important things to do." She gave John a smile. "Tell him I said hello. And take care of him. He's one of the good ones."

John smiled. "Thanks, Katya."

Sam pulled out smoothly and continued down the highway.

After a few dozen miles had passed, John sat up a little straighter. "There's a rest stop at the scenic overlook in five miles. Pull in there. "

Sam nodded, not sure he liked the faintly grim note to his father's voice.

As soon as the van stopped, John stepped out, walking over to the railing, looking out at the valley.

"Dad?" Sam followed him warily, peering at his father's face. He couldn't read John's expression, but between them, that was nothing new.

"After her mother's death, Sinclair started killing humans," John said starkly. "At first, it was murderers, rapists, pedophiles. I'll be honest. No one cared. Hell, a lot of us were sorry we didn't have the time or energy to do it. Then, it became drunk drivers, or domestic disputes. Both parties in a domestic dispute."

"She became a serial killer," Sam said.

"More or less. We finally had to take action, since the police were getting edgy. Caleb got in a spot of trouble for being in the same area as Sinclair just after she'd killed again. Elkins, Bobby, Dean and I went out to find her-to take her down. I found her first." John looked at the ground. "She was pregnant."

Sam sucked in a hard breath.

Not very, just that first little bulge of the stomach. I couldn't do it. All I could remember was how protective of your mother I was, and how fiercely she'd loved you, even before you were born. How Mary would've done anything to make a safe world for you and for your brother. Amanda was making that safe world. One bullet at a time, she was making it.

"Sinclair was gone, out of her mind. Just... nothing of the Amanda I knew left. Like the only think keeping her sane was her mother, and with her gone, she'd gone over the edge. She kicked my ass, and was about to put a bullet in my head when Dean showed up."

"Dean?" Sam echoed.

John nodded, his expression distant and haunted. "His face when he saw her holding a gun on me... I never wanted to see him look like that again. He didn't hesitate. Put a bullet right between her eyes. Elkins saw the whole thing. He told me I was going to have to keep a leash on Dean, because otherwise, if I went down, he'd blow up like Sinclair."

Protective anger flared up unexpectedly in Sam, making him bristle. "Elkins was an asshole. That's such a load of shit."

John shook his head. "I wasn't so sure. So, I started thinking. I figured I'd die in the attempt to kill Belial. I didn't want to take Dean down with me. But there was you. I knew you weren't going to be a hunter, even then. So I aimed every ounce of Dean's protective streak at you. Figured you weren't going to die before either of us."

"You make it sound like he was just another thing to fix," Sam said.

"I did what I felt was right," John returned.

Sam paced away, then came back, eyes dark with anger. "Jesus, is that all we are to you? Pawns to move the way you see fit? You see something you don't like, you brainwash him, make it better?"

"That isn't the way it-" John started, temper rising.

"Jesus, Dad," Sam continued, not even pausing. "No wonder Dean's running from you-"

John felt something in him snap. "Fine. How about what you've done to him?"

"What do you mean?" Sam blinked, backing up a step. "I haven't- if you don't remember, you're the one who left him to go on your hunting trip. I'm the one who stayed with him this last-"

"What did Dean do to you?" John bit off, moving into Sam's space. "As far as I know, he was always there for you, on your side. Staying up all night to help you piece together your past schooling so you could apply to college. Cheered you on, and drove you to fucking Stanford, even though it killed him to see you go."

"Yeah. And you told me never to come back," Sam snarled.

"Yeah, I did. And that was fine. You were safer away from me, anyhow," John growled. "But Dean. That boy loves you. Thinks you hung the moon. We split up so he could take the west side of the country, so he could be closer to you just in case you needed something."

"I-"

"And every few months, I would get a call from him, 'Sammy got honor roll, Sam did this, or that. Sam's got a girl.' And there was always something about those calls that bothered me. So when he said, "I'm going to visit Sam," I figured it was a good time to find out."

Sam shut up. He just stood there, stone faced, knowing what was coming and hating his father a little for each word.

John gave him a sour smile. "So, I got to Palo Alto and I looked for the Impala. Big car, college town, shouldn't have had problems. Couldn't find the damned thing anywhere. So I followed you, in your cab. Fifteen miles outside of city limits. To a diner. Where you didn't even have the cab leave. And ten minutes later, you were on your way back to your apartment and your girlfriend."

"It wasn't like that-"

"And then, a few months later, I'm up Bobby's way, and Dean shows up looking like shit. He was coming to ask Bobby to keep an eye on you for a few weeks. It took a lot of tequila, but I finally got the story. You didn't want to hear from him, wanted him out of your life," John thundered. "And even then, Dean didn't blame you. He loves you, would kill or die for you, and you treated him like he was fucking contagious."

"Fuck you, it wasn't-"

"But then the demon turns up and suddenly, Dean is useful again," John said sarcastically. "Sammy, you're my boy, and I love you, but sometimes, you're a selfish son of a bitch."

John didn't see the punch coming, but he sure felt it. It caught him square in the jaw and rocked him back until only his grip on the railing kept him upright.

Sam threw another punch, all temper, but his father deflected it. He didn't hit back, Sam realized. He just kept blocking or deflecting, letting Sam use all his energy. It was infuriating. Without thinking, Sam pulled his power and shoved his father, trying to get that patronizing frown off his face. Instead it sent John toppling over, the prosthetic making a little rattle as he landed on his ass.

Oh. God. Sam felt his heart wrench sideways, looking at his father in the dirt. Sam stared down for a moment, then he turned to walk away a few steps, to make his heart slow down and stop hurting like he was dying.

The worst of it is that his father hadn't said anything he hadn't thought himself. That was why you were so pissed, he thought. Because he was right.

John tensed as Sam came back towards him, wondering if he should be gearing up for round two. He loved his son, but if Sam did that again, he was going to put him over his knee, twenty three or not. Then he saw the tears in Sam's eyes.

"You're right," Sam said softly. "I treated him like shit. I told Jess you were an alcoholic. I told her Dean was a drifter."

After a long moment, John nodded grudgingly. "I know."

Sam blinked, startled, and rubbed quickly at his face. "You knew? How?"

John smiled tightly. "Jess told me."

Sam glared.

John shrugged. "When Dean says you're serious about a girl, I'll be damned if I'm not going to meet my daughter in-law. She was a good woman."

Sam sighed. "Yeah. She was." He offered his hand to help his father up, absently brushing the dirt off his father's jacket.

John took it, coming to his feet and meeting Sam's eyes. Word by painful word, he managed, "Sam, I've made a lot of mistakes. And I'm not proud of them. I should never have said the things I did to you when you left. I'm sorry I was an ass. At the last second, I just... panicked. All I could think was how much I'd miss you, and that I couldn't protect you, and I don't do well with panic."

Sam blinked rapidly, swallowing, getting himself back under control as he stared at John's jacket. "I'm sorry I believed you when you said not to come back."

John smiled sadly. "Me too. For what it's worth, I know I'm a selfish son of a bitch, too. What I've never understood is how, with all that, I got Dean."

"Because." Sam looked down at his shoes. It was ridiculous to say after he'd just knocked his father on his ass, but... "Because. As bad as it ever got, there was good in it. And we knew you'd do anything for us you could. So." He shrugged. "Dean."

Silence from John's quarter.

Sam jerked his head at the van. "We should go. Stubborn jerk's still headed east."

Nodding absently, John tossed the keys at Sam's chest. Sam caught them easily, and headed for the driver's side without looking up. John stopped a minute to watch him.

He knew the sweet-tempered baby, the innocent boy, the sullen teenager. He wasn't sure what to do with Sam now, a grown man with a new deep strength to go with the old spit and vinegar. And it had taken strength for Sam to swallow his pride and tell John that he understood.

Which was good. Dean would need that strength. Hell, John might need it before the end.

He couldn't pull the trigger on Dean. Couldn't put his own boy down in the dirt, like some fucking rabid dog. It'd be easier to. God, knowing what John knew of demons and the way they crept in the cracks of your mind, it might even be kinder. But this wasn't about kind or easy. It was about family.

Sam poked his head out of window. "Dad?"

Once, before Mary and their boys, John didn't know how much he'd come to see in that one word. He gave Sam a lopsided smile and climbed into the van. Pulling the door shut, he said, "You know, Sam?"

"Mm?"

"I really hated Palo Alto. Not Stanford," John added quickly as Sam glared. "Just the town. Fucking granola crunchy bullshit. I stopped at a bar, and ordered a beer. They offered me a vegan currant ale. How the hell is that beer?" John looked down, taking in the well worn jeans, flannel shirt. "Do I look like I even know what a currant is?"

Sam's mouth quirked a little, like he was trying not to laugh at his old man. "Did you try it?"

"Hell no."

"Good. Tasted like moldy sweatsocks." Sam grinned. "I always stuck with soda when I was there. Drove Jess crazy. I'd get home and down a six pack of Molson, which she'd remind me was more expensive than $1 tap night."

"Man was not meant to mix fruit in his beer," John said firmly. "Or chocolate, or any other things for that matter." He tilted his head at Sam. "Can't see you in there somehow."

To John's surprise, Sam's cheeks went pink. "I, um. Used to go there to hustle pool to earn a couple extra bucks."

"Seriously?" John couldn't have been more startled if Sam had announced he'd danced on the bar for tips. They'd taught the boy to hustle pool, and poker, and any number of tricks to use when between credit card frauds. But Sam, in his infinite Sam-ness, had always balked. "You?"

"Yeah."

"I'm so proud," John smirked. "My little boy, all grown up."

Sam smiled wryly. "Once a Winchester, always a Winchester, I guess," he offered, holding his breath to see if his father would take the... well, as close to an apology as Winchesters would give.

The smile slid from John's face, replaced by something almost tender. "Glad to hear that."

 

*****

22



Hands, callused fingers, ghosting over his skin, gentle touches that made him ache, somewhere deep inside. Then, sliding lower, and a new ache, a drowsy warmth that made his breath hitch, made his hips move against the touches.

This wasn't real, Dean thought, even as his breath quickened. He shuddered as teeth nipped at his shoulder, and he realized that he was on his stomach, bent over something. Wasn't real.

"Real as you make it, son," said the familiar voice, that rough, slick growl in his ear.

Fuck.

Dean started to fight, to squirm away, but the thing came with him, purring filth against his skin, its hands never still.

"No," Dean snarled, even as a hand slid down his spine, curling around his ass to-

Oh God.


The sharp clatter from below woke Dean.

He jerked upright, scrambling away, until his back touched the wall. Jesus. For a moment, he couldn't quite pull free of the nightmare into the real world, looking wildly around for something that wasn't there.

Then, his breath hissed out on a sigh, and he looked at the duffel bag that held the hourglass. "You son of a bitch."

No answer.

The noise from below came again, and he peered over the edge of the catwalk in the warehouse he'd chosen. It housed a variety of medical supplies, which came in handy when he'd stitched up the gash the rollover had left on his arm. It'd had a loft for stashing old things that had broken or expired, which Dean figured would give enough time and cover for him to sleep. It'd been that or passing out.

Nobody pulled over to offer him a ride. Hadn't for several hours of walking. Dean figured it had more to do with him having muttered conversations with the demon in his bag than with the signs telling people not to take on hitchhikers. Thank God zombies were relatively easy to outrun and fucking loud about breaking and entering.

Anyway. Demon. Downstairs. Christ, Dean's concentration had gone to hell.

Another sharp clanging, and the demon staggered around the corner. It was in the body of a woman again, a long-limbed one who might've been pretty before she'd been torn nearly open. Its stricken face rolled loosely on a broken neck, the bones grinding together with each of its awkward swinging steps. Its eyes were locked on the ceiling, which explained why it kept walking into things, but it took deep heavy sniffs of the air. Tracking Dean's scent.

Your fear. Dean had that brief warning just before there was a phantom touch, a hand on his back that wasn't really there. It doesn't see well from that far off, but it can drink your fear down and get straight to you. Goes faster the closer it gets to the source.

If Dean tilted his head and stopped thinking for a while, it almost felt familiar. With a little pain, memory let him see why: old hunting trips with his father, kneeling in high brush, learning by observation of the best hunter around. The man had been a master, when he didn't let the rage get the best of him.

Valuable lesson for somebody else, maybe. Dean was too deep now.

Watching the demon, Dean shrugged the phantom hand off and felt blindly for his shotgun. When his fingers touched metal, he silently eased it up off the catwalk and onto his lap. He aimed, but his aim wasn't as steady as it needed to be. Too much caffeine.

Then there were hands on his own, adding their quiet strength. Dean gritted his teeth and lived with that, because he couldn't make a kill-shot without that steadiness. He fired, and watched the demon's head snap back with the impact. It wavered on its long Barbie-doll legs, then steadied. Its head rolled in a slow arc around the neck, what was left of it coming around to lock eyes with Dean. With half a face, it smiled bloodily and staggered towards the stairs like a bad stop-motion nightmare.

Dean swore and pushed himself upright, glad for the adrenaline. He strode for his stash of guns, the smaller amount he'd been able to pull out of the truck and carry. He'd collapsed without cleaning half of them, he'd had to use ammo on the way here, so which ones were-

He had his hand on one of the barrels when the guns suddenly wrenched away. Dean let go before the force of it snapped his wrist, and the guns were thrown skittering across the floor of the loft by an invisible hand. There was one crystalline, sleep-deprived moment as the guns swung out into open air before they dropped and hit the floor.

"Motherfucking son of a bitch!" Dean turned on the hourglass, snarling. "You fucking trying to-"

Get him killed. Obviously. Because it was an evil goddamn paperweight, and he was a dumbass for letting himself forget that for even a moment.

Breathing out through his teeth, Dean pulled the machete from its sheath and moved towards the stairs. It was mostly to the top, slowed only by its unsteady gait. The head rolled back, staring up at Dean with one blank doll eye. It crooned, hands reaching towards him.

The machete connected with the thing's neck with a meaty 'thump' and... stuck, not even severing the muscle that held the head on. The machete had dulled; Dean hadn't stopped to sharpen it. Stupid mistake.

The thing twisted with more strength than it should have. With the options of letting go or being hauled out over a thirty foot drop, Dean let go of the machete. There were other knives and a gun in his bag.

Momentum ripped the machete out of the thing's throat. It joined the other weapons on the warehouse floor.

Dean, purred that voice. You know what you have to do.

"Shut up!" Dean said savagely, not tearing his eyes from the demon in front as he backed quickly up. Had to think, had to fucking think. There were other ways to get through this. There were other options if he could just-

The demon clumsily cleared the last step. It paused there, sniffing the air, smiling. That gave Dean crucial seconds to move towards his bag, bending to scoop it up by the strap. The hourglass was heavy as hell now, and getting too close to it made Dean's vision swim. He dug through the bag around it, feeling his cuts peel open as he touched the cool glass, feeling the exhaustion crowd in on the edges of his vision.

The voice whispered fondly, Do this and you can rest a while.

Dean found a knife, finally, and lowered the bag back to the floor. (Couldn't drop it, never drop it, never let it get out.) The bag hadn't quite touched the floor before the demon swiveled towards him and moved with fast, twisted spider-grace.

It was on him as he raised the knife. They both hit the floor. The demon's head jerked around, impossible jarring speed, as it gibbered and squealed. Its cool mouth pressed against Dean's cheek, his eye, his throat, kisses like sips of water before a meal. Dean snarled and drove the knife up into it, again, again, savaging its torso. Blood and wetter, heavier things ran between them, burning his hands where it flowed around the knife, and still the thing didn't stop.

Its teeth sank in on Dean's left shoulder, worrying at it like a dog tearing at a chunk of meat too big to swallow at once. A howl of rage and pain that Dean barely recognized as his own voice, he twisted, trying to wrench it off. The demon's grip slipped, torn off Dean's shoulder, teeth leaving furrows in Dean's skin. It slobbered a wet word, drooling into his wounds, and set on him again, teeth closing on Dean's collarbone.

There was a lot of blood, its and his. Dean felt the fight want to slip away, felt himself start to give in. Tired, dizzy with pain and whatever the hell the demon's blood and spit was doing to him to make him stop struggling, Dean felt his head thump against the floor. His eyes rolled back. His fingers, slippery, lost the knife in the mess of the demon's stomach.

No.

The demon tore something loose, leaned back to chew.

No.

Dean shoved it, body and power. He meant to shove it off and away from him, just enough to give him space to breathe. The power gave him more than that. The demon swung up and off him, hitting the far wall with a dull 'thump'. It snarled and slavered, twisting in his grip, helpless. Powerless.

The voice in his head purred.

Dean got up, glancing briefly at the damage done. His shoulder had a half-moon of teethmarks. His collarbone had been gnawed at, bone showing through in places, but the bone itself was intact. He flexed his fingers, testing the waters. His hand still worked.

He looked at the thing on the wall. His knife had fallen out on its path to the wall, so Dean retrieved the knife and sheathed it in his boot. Then he went to stand in front of the demon, still struggling to get free.

Hands settled on his shoulders, steadying Dean, a silent encouragement.

Dean looked at the demon, broken, ravaged. It'd be easier to behead it now. Hell, he could walk down and get a gun. But he didn't want to. He wanted it to hurt.

Yes, whispered that rough voice in his ear. Hurt it. Kill it. For me, for your mother. For Sam.

Dean shook his head, trying to clear it. If he reached, he could get to the exorcism he'd memorized. "Exorciso te-"

The demon got an arm free and swung out for Dean's face. It was a slap, barely felt, but Dean reacted. The demon hitched up another foot along the wall, leaving a long streak of blood. Once it was there, Dean kept pushing, watching it crawl along the wall and slither until it hit the ceiling. It should die there. Only right. A few drops of blood rained on his upturned face.

They burned on the ceiling.

Jess. His mother. They burned on the ceiling.

Stomachs cut, like this. Eyes on Dean, like this. Just like this.

Dean stared at the woman's borrowed, blank face. Her hair spread around her like a halo, her eyes wide and pleading, dancer body twisted and torn. Dean could feel the heat up there, the beginning of the power itching along his skin to be freed. The flames would spill over her like a tide.

The phantom voice in his ear whispered, You can fix it, Dean. We can kill every one of them. No more dead mothers. No more dead children. It could end here.

The demon's mouth moved, Dean's blood coating its chin, and he thought that maybe the demon was struggling to abandon its host. To leave her to suffer those last few seconds of pain and heat and hell. Like his mother had suffered.

Just tell me yes.

Dean felt his hands clench into fists, nails cutting into his palm. He met the woman's eyes, the human so close to the surface that she could see him to plead. He held her eyes, her not quite human eyes, and he thought about how easy it'd be to watch her burn.

And he let her drop the thirty feet to the floor.

A sharp 'crack'. Silence.

It's all right, soldier. You did what you had to. It needed to be done. Should've been man enough to carry it through, but it's a start.

Dean watched to be sure she stayed still. When there was no change, he turned his back on her and went to his bag. He touched the hourglass to move it aside, and felt its approval like a caress. His fingers found the cool metal of the gun.

Not much longer. Tomorrow night is the full moon, and the very gates to hell will open, just on the edge of Lawrence. Just where you need to be.

Dean picked the gun up and went back to the edge of the loft. He fired into the still body once, twice, three times, four, five. He watched, feeling the gun cool by degrees. She stayed still, dead, released.

Last shot.

He could do this. Could finally rest.

Not yet, soldier. Your job's not done yet, the voice said, harsh with something that sounded like desperation. Fear; the demon was afraid. And Dean felt the power of that like a chill.

Dean staggered over to a box, barely sat before his knees gave. The gun was warm, comfortable in his grip. He stared at it, noting the bloodstains, the worn spots on the grip where his fingers rested.

On your feet, son, the voice in his head barked. I gave you an order!

It continued speaking, raging, but Dean's focus narrowed to the weight of the gun.

One bullet left.

He could join Sam. Lay down his burdens at last. Didn't he deserve that much? To rest? He'd done what he could, hadn't he?

The grip felt odd, wrong when he reversed it, slid the barrel under his chin. One pull. That would be it. He'd never even hear the shot. He was starting to shiver, the gun sliding on the blood-slick skin of his throat.

Or maybe it was better to put it in the mouth? Isn't that how they did it on television? He looked at the barrel, grimacing at the bits of blood and flesh stuck to it. Pulled his tattered shirt out of his jeans- too easy, had lost more weight- and swiped at it, trying to clean it off a little.

The absurdity struck him then. Trying to clean the gun barrel off so it won't taste bad while you kill yourself. It was almost poetic. Or something. Hard to focus now. Something in the bite, maybe. It was burning like fire, and his vision was swimming.

The barrel still tasted like shit, the metallic tang of blood gagging him, making him nearly retch down the barrel. Dean wondered idly if it would still fire.

He closed his eyes, breathing shallow. Aimed the gun so it was tilted up in a kill-shot. Just like he'd done to- someone. Pretty girl, pointing a gun at... Dad. Oh god. His father. Dean focused on his memory of the girl, noting the loose clothes, the bulge of her stomach, felt the blind rage that she would dare to threaten his father, felt his finger tighten on the gun's trigger in memory and in the moment.

She deserved to die, the voice in his head said sharply.

He deserved to die. The things he'd done, no one could come back from. No one should come back from.

It's the venom, Dean! For fuck's sake-

Dean looked at the lightening sky outside the dusty windows. Another day, the world went on. It would still go on without him. He steadied his hand, closed his eyes.

I'm sorry Dad. Just couldn't wait any longer, he thought.

His thumb closed on the trigger, gentle pressure. It wouldn't take much. Not with this gun- Dean staggered, the gun sliding from his mouth as another memory swam to the surface.

Warm hands, so much bigger than his, curling around his fingers, showing him how to position them.

"Good. Now, this is a revolver. You could just fire by pulling the trigger, but that kills your accuracy."

"So, cock it first," his younger self said dryly, pulling the hammer back until it caught.

"You've got it," his father murmured, voice laced with approval. "Now, point it at the target, and hold it at eye level."

Dean complied, the gun heavy in his small hand.

"Now, take this hand," John murmured, moving Dean's other hand up, to cup around the base of the hand holding the gun.

"But you don't shoot like that," Dean protested.

"When your arms are more used to it, you won't need this, but for now, just try it this way," his father said, lips curled in an understanding smile. "Now, see the bump at the end of the barrel?"

"I put that right on what I'm aiming for?"

"Not exactly. You line it up between the notches right here," his father said, pointing to the back of the gun. Then, let them blur out in your sight, and focus on what you want to hit." He stepped back, and motioned towards the paper target. "Whenever you're ready, give it a try. Don't jerk the trigger, just squeeze it gently, because jerking it-"

"Will kill my aim," Dean finished. He took a deep breath, steadying his hands, and smoothly pulled the trigger, just like he'd seen his father do.

The paper target jerked, a small hole blooming near the center.

"I hit it!" Dean turned to grin up at his father, careful to keep the gun pointed away. "Look, I hit it, Dad!"

"I see. You're a natural, son. Go ahead, there's six rounds. See what you can do." His father's hand rested lightly on his shoulder as he quickly squeezed off all six.

When his father pulled in the target, six distinct holes clustered within a few inches of the center. His father had stared at it for a moment, an odd look on his face. Then, he knelt next to Dean, hugging him tightly. "You really are a natural, Dean. Man can shoot like that, he can do damn near anything."


The memory faded, and Dean laid his head on the barrel, his breath hitching.

His father believed in him. He had to finish this. There was no other option. He would walk into hell, and he would finish it. And then, maybe Dad would be proud of him again.

Boy, your father doesn't give a shit about you. Do you think he'd do this for you?

"No." Dean said hollowly, then pushed himself up and picked up the bag. "But that's not the point. And that, you son of a bitch, is why you lost."

With a heavy sigh, he went to collect the rest of his guns, and forced his shuddering body out into the new dawn.

 

****

23


It was the cursing that woke John, just before twilight.

He sat up quickly, looking for the threat, but there was nothing but the road, and the soft sound of asphalt beneath the van's wheels. "What?"

"Look ahead. To the left," Sam said darkly.

At first, it looked like nothing more than a felled tree, a twisted mass of black branches. Then, shapes detached themselves from the mess: the spines of a wing. A long, curved spine, twisted around a blackened hunk of something. Then, last, the skull, like something out of a horror show.

"Shiiit," John muttered.

"Dad, that looks like-"

"A dragon. Another thing that's supposed to be extinct. Sam, do me a favor. If I say something's extinct, don't believe me." And damn, Sam must've been tired, because he didn't even make a smartass comment. John leaned closer to Sam's side, studying the burnt out metal husk. "What's it curled around?"

"It's-" The vision hit him hard, a flash like backdraft igniting. Sam sucked in a breath, his hands twitching on the wheel. He let off the gas pedal, fumbling for the brakes. "Oh, God."

John laid a hand on his shoulder, waiting until they slowed. "What, Sam? Somebody still in-"

"It's Dean's truck," Sam whispered.

John was out of the car almost before it stopped, stumbling a little as the prosthetic got in his way. The truck was a mess, windows busted, blackened. His stomach clenched as he got closer, seeing the bodies around the truck, charred creatures sprawled in their death throes.

Jesus. No. Not after all this. He couldn't be- Dean was supposed to be holed up in a bar somewhere, flirting and drinking and getting into fistfights, demon be damned, because that was just what Dean did. He survived.

John stopped, staring at the fabric cover over the bed of the truck. It had been slit cleanly open, a small arsenal laying on the ground. He quickly walked over, the prosthetic biting into his thigh-he'd been doing way more than they wanted him to on that thing-and looked at the pile, mentally comparing it to what Dean had taken from the locker.

Missing, one shotgun, double barrel, pump action. Two nine millimeters semis. One thirty eight revolver-the one John had given him on his eighth birthday.

There were other guns-better ones. More firepower. Only one person would take the thirty eight.

That decided, John turned his attention to the bodies, to the scorch marks that ringed the truck. There was one clear spot, he noted. The driver's seat. From there, it spread out in an almost circular pattern, almost as though... Fuck. He'd seen that pattern before. Not beneath his feet, John thought. But he'd seen it.

He closed his eyes and let out a sigh as Sam came up behind him slowly. "He's all right. We'd better keep moving." He glanced at the pile of weapons. "Grab the guns."

Sam, being Sam, balked. "Wait. How the hell do you know he's all right?"

"38's missing." When Sam looked like he wanted to ask, John barked, "Goddamn it, Sam, for once just do as I say."

Sam quickly began gathering them, and John slowly walked back to the van. For a long second, he closed his eyes, leaning against it. The fire. Spreading out from where Dean had been. Dammit. They were too late. The demon had gotten hold of him, sunk its claws in while John was three states back trusting fate like a damned fool.
Glancing at Sam to make sure he was still picking up guns, he reached into the back of the van, retrieving a familiar wooden box. The single bullet slid into the Colt with a tiny click. How could it sound so final?

As Sam hurried up, dumping an armful of weaponry into the back, John slid it under his coat, hiding it. "Got it all?"

"Yeah," Sam said shortly. He didn't protest when John took the wheel, his head still aching in a way that didn't bode well for the rest of the night. The visions had started bleeding together, not so much clear and separate. Just showing him the rip in the world that was Dean's absence, the long wound where he'd gone by with the demon in tow. It was starting to make Sam miss the old days where he could actually wake up from his nightmares.

"I should call Bobby, tell him we're almost at Lawrence. He might be able to come down-" John looked at his cell. "Fuck. Not getting a signal. Remind me when we get to a land line."

"Got it," Sam bit off. His head began throbbing, and a vague image crowded into his head on top of the general white noise. "There's some warehouses out this way, isn't there?"

"About five miles down, why?"

Something pulled at Sam hard. He sat up in his seat, squinting out the window like it had anything to do with his eyes. "Head that way."

John didn't ask anymore. Just nodded and drove.

The warehouses were cut off from the road by patchy, dying trees. The parking lots were empty. Then again, last time John turned on the radio, most places had called a state of emergency on account of apocalypse-type shit going down. Earthquake here, low-lying fog there; one by one, the big cities were getting crippled. Folks were scared.

As they rolled past a sign reading 'Avery Medical Supply', Sam suddenly laid on the brake. He threw on the emergency brake and opened the door without a word. John reached out and stopped him before he could slide out of the cab. Silently, he gestured to himself and the front door. To Sam, and a door around the back of the warehouse.

Sam didn't need to know that there was no back door, something John had found out when he'd tried to break in to it for some supplies last year. It was damned hard to pick the lock when the gash in your arm was bleeding all over your fingers, he remembered. Didn't look like a problem this time. The front door was ajar.

With a tight, pained nod, Sam got out of the truck. John followed him. Hard to be stealthy on gravel with one good leg, but he managed. He watched until he saw Sam go around the corner, until Sam was out of sight. Then he went to the front door, its lock cleanly shot off, and listened.

He could hear the moaning of the zombies. The call and response of mated pairs of gargoyles. The clatter and howling of a poltergeist. All smaller demons, all basically carrion attracted to the aftermath of a greater power.

They'd been called to the houses that the demon touched and burned. Now they were here. The warehouse was intact. Which might mean...

No. It only went after women.

Yeah, and it couldn't be bound, either.

John tightened his grip on the Colt, inhaled, and kicked open the door. It rebounded off the wall, ricocheting back, giving John just enough time to look at the ceiling. His son wasn't pinned there, burning. The demon wasn't in this building. And now there were about a dozen interested meat-eaters staring at John as the door closed.

Yep. That was about how John's day was going.

The sharp retort of a gun came from the side of the building, shortly before Sam came bolting around the corner. "There's no back door," Sam bit off. "But there are zombies."

John nodded. "In there, too."

"We need to get in there, Dad." The chalky look of Sam's face, his too wide eyes, quieted John where he would've insisted on driving on. Seeing John hesitate, Sam said savagely, "Please. It's a strong damn signal, it's- I think he's in there."

John narrowed his eyes at the door, considered their options. Tactics. Those, he could basically do. "Okay, take out the gargoyles first. They're the biggest problems. The poltergeists aren't a big deal, just keep an eye out for anything they might throw at you. The zombies are slow, and most of them look like they're a few days old, so we're going to have to go for the decapitation, unless Dean has some explosive rounds."

"Not that I saw, but it's not exactly a Viewfinder."

First order of business after this was over: make Sam memorize the damned weapons inventory. "Then we do it the old fashioned way," John said. "Got the axes?"

Sam hefted a bag. "Yeah."

"Ready?" John pushed the door open, shotgun held at the ready.

Sam nodded, pulling his own gun out. "Yeah."

John pushed the door open, glancing quickly around. Stone colored heads swiveled towards them, and he quickly let loose with both barrels, watching as the nearest one fell to the ground. "Hit the one next to it, quick."

Sam turned his body, fired, but the shot ricocheted off a building support as the gargoyle's mate dove to check on the fallen one. Sam swore, aiming at one of the other pair as John cursed and pulled his revolver.

The mate of the first gargoyle was taking wing, its unearthly shriek cutting through the lowing of the zombies. "Shit. Now she's pissed at me," John muttered, trying to aim at the moving target.

His first shot failed, and John grabbed Sam's collar, jerking him down as the gargoyle sailed over their heads. It turned, coming back for a second try, and John aimed, squeezing off a rapid volley of shots.

The gargoyle fell to the ground a foot from them, skidding until it touched John's boot.

Sam didn't even flinch, just kept pumping bullets into the other pair. He simply trusted that if he needed to duck, John would let him know. "Zombies getting close!" Sam warned.

"Relax," John said. "Even I can out maneuver these things. The only way someone goes down to a zombie attack is if they get surrounded and overpowered." He holstered the gun, dug in the bag and pulled out a pair of leather gloves.

"Dad, what the hell are you doing?"

"There's a pair for you, too. You'll need it for the grip once you start swinging, and the guts start flying." John hefted the ax.

Sam rolled his eyes, but quickly pulled on the gloves. "They're tight," Sam complained.

"They're Dean's. Don't stretch them out, or he'll kill you." John rolled his eyes. "Actually, I think his old fingerless ones are in there, too, if you'd rather."

Sam quickly dug them out and strapped them on before looking up at the zombies again. They'd progressed about three feet closer. "You weren't kidding about the slow part, were you?"

"Nope." John limped into the warehouse, swinging at the nearest zombie, watching its head fly into the wall with a satisfying thump. "See, nothing to it."

Sam followed, stepping in and preparing to take a swing. Then, the pain stabbed through his head, sending him to his knees on the floor with a harsh noise.

The vision swam up, and he winced. Dean was exhausted, ragged. He'd-oh, God. The demon. He'd used the power on the zombies, and again on- on the woman pinned to the ceiling, twisting and screaming, heat mirages rippling the air around her face.

Sam choked on Dean's desperation, horror, the fear of what he'd become.

End it, end it all. Sam shook his head wildly as the gun slid in Dean's mouth, the thirty eight, his first gun. He reached out without thinking, like he could stop him, like he could grab Dean's wrist before- "No- God, Dean, no-"

"Sam!" John yelled.

Sam raised his head, dimly realizing that John had moved in front of him, was keeping the zombies off him. Was close to being overwhelmed, but wasn't giving an inch.

With a hoarse noise, Sam forced himself to his feet, swinging the axe with arms that felt like lead.

Zombies really were stupid, he quickly realized. It didn't matter that he'd just cleaved one's head off, the next just kept on coming. The bodies began to pile up in front of them, providing a certain amount of cover. Apparently, Sam realized, watching one stumble over the bodies of its comrades, they weren't particularly good at climbing, either.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they stopped coming. Sam looked around blearily as John walked the perimeter, using the holy water and salt to get rid of the poltergeists. Should go help. Should do something other than stand here, staring at the bloodstains on the floor.

What a clusterfuck.

John came back, stopping in front of Sam. "You wanna tell me what you saw?"

"No," Sam said wearily. Dean wouldn't have wanted- fuck. Wouldn't want, because he wasn't dead yet, goddamn it.

"Let's try that again. Please tell me what you saw," John said evenly. John's voice said plainly that despite the please, it wasn't a request.

"Dean, he-"

John waited, stone faced, to hear Sam force out the ugly words. Dean was possessed. That was what he expected to hear. That was why he'd wanted Bobby in on it. Because, to his shame, he didn't think he could pull the trigger, even to wound his boy.

No. He didn't want to think that he could. That didn't mean it would stop him.

Maybe he should give Sam the Colt. He was apparently a crack shot with the damn thing. Had he not lost his leg, the bullet wouldn't have damaged much at all. But he didn't want to ask it of Sam. Didn't want to put him in that situation again.

"He got in a tight spot, with the zombies back there." Sam sat heavily on the steps leading up to the loft. Word by painful word, he managed to make enough sense of the vision to tell John, even though his mind was screaming that it wasn't- couldn't be- true. "The demon offered power. Dean used it."

"And here?"

"Dean... used it again." Sam glanced past the pile of zombies, to the broken body on the floor.

John limped over, poking at the body with his toe. "Harpy."

"Dad, I'm sure it was possessed."

"No, it was a Harpy, son. Possession doesn't normally create fangs like that." John took the edge of the axe and pressed down on the thing's lower jaw. It unhinged, and an impressive set of fangs slid into place, dripping a viscous liquid. "Venom sacs. If she got them into Dean-

"She did," Sam said, wincing.

"Then he's not going to get far." If John spoke clinically, he could almost convince himself that this wasn't killing him to think about. "Disorientation, lethargy, muscle spasms, paralyzation."

"But it won't kill him?"

"Probably not. They like their prey still warm when they start ripping strips off," John said bluntly.

"Oh." Sam tried not to react, but... Jesus. "There's got to be something else or you'd be out the door by now."

"Good news is, they don't travel in packs. So if he can go to ground in time, he'll be able to wait it out. Which'll make him a bitch to find, but that'll cost him the day's headstart on us. Easier to catch." John looked at the harpy instead of Sam and quietly asked, "How did he use the power?"

"Um." Feeling like a traitor, Sam glanced at the wall behind them.

John's gaze followed Sam's, to the blood, smeared up the wall, to the ceiling. "Oh, fuck."

"He didn't burn her. He pulled back," Sam said quickly. "Then he... left."

"Sam," John said severely.

"Fuck." Sam reached up, scrubbing at his grimy face with the palm of one hand. With a hard sigh, he straightened again and almost managed a steady, "Dean put a gun in his mouth."

John felt his head reel, glanced around the warehouse, and steadied himself. "Obviously he didn't pull the trigger," he said.

"No. He couldn't. Jesus, Dad. Are we too late?" Dad was taking this far too well, Sam thought. But hey, one of them had to hold it together, and it wasn't looking like it would be him, judging by the way he was shaking.

John's hand curled around Sam's chin, forcing him to meet John's eyes. "He hasn't let the demon in. He pulled back when it counted. We'll make it in time, Sammy," he said firmly. "Let's get a move on."

Sam was quiet as they got in the van, heading towards Lawrence.

John drove, eyes darting from one side of the street to the other, as though he expected Dean to be standing there. So close. They had to be so close.

John's cell phone beeped. "I've got a message," he muttered. "Probably Bobby. I should ask him to head down, just in case we need backup."

Sam nodded, shivering violently. "Y-yeah."

Paused at a red light, John shrugged out of his jacket, laying it over Sam. They both knew the problem wasn't the cold.

Sam took it anyway, burrowed in it, closed his eyes, let the scent of his father wash over him, comfort him, remind him of a time when John could fix anything. When Dean was infuriating, stubborn, but reassuringly invincible.

Giving Sam a wan smile, John flipped open his cell phone and hit the number to retrieve messages.

Sam shivered again, but forced a smile for his father as he put the phone to his ear.

It wasn't Bobby. Sam knew it right away. The way his father's hands tightened on the wheel, the way his jaw set was the first clue. The second was the tears, welling in his father's eyes. Shit.

"Dad?"

John swallowed hard. "If I were to say that you really don't want to hear this?"

Sam silently held out his hand.

"I figured." John handed the cell phone over. "Hit one to repeat it."

To Sam's horror, he could see that his father's hand was unsteady. Not by much. It wouldn't compromise his aim. But it was unsteady. He took the phone and held it to his ear, nearly fumbling the damned thing.

For the first second, Sam only heard Dean's voice and felt relief like a gut-punch. Dean's voice, even ragged with fatigue and too damned fast. He gripped the phone tight, trying to breathe. When the message ran its course, Sam hit repeat and actually tried listening to the words.

Jess had a friend (sort of) who did a little too much recreational drug use. She'd wandered over to their house once, high on coke. Dean sounded like she had, that rattling loose jittery speech. "Dad. Hey. It's me. Dean." Yeah, dumbass, because they were crossing the country looking for someone else. "I'm, um, I'm okay. I'm okay. You can stop looking, all right? I understand now. I'm going to fix things. Fix everything. I know what I have to do. It's okay. Just... don't come after me, all right? You've done everything you-" A hitch in Dean's breathing. "Yeah. I love you, okay? And I'm scared shitless, and I want you to- believe me, if you could be- but you need to let me do this. For you. For Mom and Sam and- I need to do this."

The message ended on what might've been a broken sob, or might've just been breathing. Sam let out the breath he'd been holding and sank back into the seat.

"The gate to hell opened in Lawrence," Sam said finally.

"Yeah." John held out a hand for his phone. "Well, technically, it can only fully open on the night of the full moon. So far, it's only been able to spew lower tier demons. Tomorrow night, thought... all bets are off."

Sam didn't move. "Then we know where we'll find Dean."

****

24


Church floors? Surprisingly uncomfortable. Especially when Dean nearly went face-down on it.

He braced himself on his hands, his forehead pressed against the cool tiles, and felt blindly to be sure that the hourglass was intact. It was. Okay. Time to get back up.

Yep. Anytime now.

Fuck.

Dean raised his head, staring blearily at the holy water font that was so fucking close. He'd just stopped in for a minute, to fill up on holy water and maybe get a quick blessing by osmosis for his guns. And then he'd stopped moving for a second and fallen over. The damned adrenaline he'd stolen from the medical supply warehouse was running out on him, muscles clenching in ways that didn't bode well for continuing on.

When pushing himself upright didn't work, Dean swore and dragged himself painfully across the threshold to the chapel. Amazingly, he didn't combust. He kept at it, hooking his fingernails in the notches between the tiles and hauling himself those few inches, until he could almost see the wall. Then all he had to do was sit up, and he'd be out of-

A pair of black boots stopped in front of Dean's face. Dean blinked at them, then craned his head back to look up at the priest standing above him. "Hey there, padre," he rasped. "Be out of your way in a minute." He squinted, trying to focus on the face above him.

The priest tilted his head. "Need any help?"

Dean gave up on focusing and let his head fall. "Nope. Got it. Thanks." When the boots didn't move, Dean added, "Go away."

"Charming, Dean. Even for you," the priest said dryly.

Oh, great. Dean gave in to the temptation of laying his head back down, then groaned and lifted it again. "Do I have a fucking nametag?"

"No. Just infamy." The priest knelt, thankfully. Up close, his face was almost familiar. "It's Andrew," he said helpfully. "Your father sent me."

"Didn't. Fucking liar."

"Well, yes. But I'm here to help you." Andrew's hand slid under Dean's good shoulder and hauled, rolling Dean over like a sack of laundry. Dean stared up at him, fumbling shakily for a gun, and Andrew sighed. "Save your damn ammo, Winchester. Jesus. And your shot would be crap anyway. You're about to seize."

Dean exhaled through his teeth. There was no way he was getting up from here by himself, not until he got another shot of adrenaline in his system. "There's a syringe and a vial in my bag."

"That's nice," Andrew said, going to the fount. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and drenched it. "Nasty habit, but hey, at least you're prepared. Hold still."

Dean did, squinting at Andrew as the priest knelt again. "Left shoulder."

"No shit. You're bleeding all over the floor."

"You don't sound like a pr-" Dean choked on the rest of that statement as Andrew wrung the holy water out on the bite wounds. There was a moment of searing agony, making the world go white on its edges. Then his vision swam back, and he swore raggedly.

Laying there, his vision blurry and Andrew above him, memory sparked. Dean managed, "Know you. I choked you. The hospital."

Andrew made an absent affirming noise, tugging the remains of Dean's shirt out of the way as he examined the bite wound. "That's had a few hours to get infected, I'm afraid. And I don't keep antibiotics on hand. You ought to get to a doctor. You won't, of course, but you ought to."

"Latin. You were speaking Latin over me," Dean said slowly. "Not an exorcism. What were you-"

"Not now, Dean." Andrew disappeared for a moment, came back with a battered silver chalice in hand. He dipped it in the holy water and knelt by Dean again. "Drink. It won't help much, but it's better than nothing. Burns like a motherfucker."

Dean nodded tiredly, taking the chalice. His hand was shaky; the chalice rattled against his teeth for a second before he managed to swallow. As promised, it hurt like hell. Burned his throat, his stomach, but it gave him back a little clarity. Lowering it, he pushed the chalice back at Andrew. "Thanks. Syringe. Have to keep going."

Someone cleared their throat from out of Dean's range of sight, making him twitch. Andrew held up a hand silently, glancing at the person (the woman?) and nodding. Then he looked down at Dean. "We should get you into a pew."

Shaking his head, Dean pressed his palms flat against the floor and tried to push himself back up. He managed about halfway, which was when Andrew's arms slid through his own and hauled him unceremoniously to his feet. Dean jerked, suddenly on alert at the feeling of someone too damned close behind him, but Andrew had him in the pew before Dean could hit him. Dean barely had time to grab his bag by the strap and haul it with him.

Wobbling in place, Dean glared at Andrew.

Andrew ignored him, looking down at the bag. His expression grew tight. "I could take that for you."

"No. Fuck off." Dean shook his head hard, trying to clear the fog. "Sorry. I'll deal with it, man. My binding, my problem."

"Mm." Andrew continued to stare, his eyes narrowing. "Whatever you want, Dean. It's knocking the crap out of you."

"Managing." Dean raised his head, watching as Andrew glanced again at the person behind him. "Who're you- wait, where the hell are you going?"

Andrew smirked. "There's somebody here with prior claim, man. Call if you need anything."

"I need you to give me the fucking adrenaline-"

With a dismissive wave, Andrew disappeared into an open doorway. His footsteps faded into silence.

Well, crap. Dean dragged a hand through his hair and let it drop, trying to figure out how to steady it enough to get the syringe cap off. Maybe with his teeth. Yeah, and maybe he could stab himself in the face.

Someone moved in the corner of his vision. Dean jerked upright, pulling his gun and aiming it at the woman standing at the end of his pew. "Stay away from me," he bit off.

The blonde woman in the white dress just looked at him, not moving. Her expression was pained. "Oh, Dean," she murmured, soft voice touched with regret. "Honey."

Dean pushed himself back on the pew and shook his head. When she took a tentative step forward, he barked, "Back up. I'll shoot you."

"No, you won't," she said simply. Taking another step forward, she sat on the edge of the pew. "Jesus. I knew you might look rough, but this..."

Narrowing his eyes, Dean tracked the progress of her hand as she reached for him. He could move. Kind of wanted to. But he let her, because he was an idiot like that. Her hand was cool as she smoothed the hair out of his face.

"It's okay," she said after a moment. "You remember me now?"

No. Except that maybe, yeah, he sort of did. He knew her face from half-remembered dreams, from a more recent nightmare. But she was-

"Is it over?" Dean straightened sharply. "Did it work? Did I do it? Make it right?"

His mother looked at him, her expression furrowing. When realization hit, she winced a little. "No, baby. I'm not coming back. Nothing's ever fixing that."

"But-" Dean stared down at the blood on his hands. Self-consciously, he wiped them on his equally bloody jeans. "No. You don't get it. I can change things. I have to, because it's wrong and it's not how it should work, goddamn it. It's not supposed to- I can fix it. I have to keep going until it's done."

"The dead stay dead, Dean. No fix for that."

"Yeah, and people don't set fires with their minds, either, but-" Dean stopped short. "Sorry."

His mother shook her head and shifted forward a little, her hand settling on his head. She combed her fingers through his hair, matted as it was with blood and sweat and thicker things. "It was a long time ago. I'm worried about you now."

"'M fine."

"You're hurting."

"Breathing. 'M fine." Dean raised his eyes, letting himself study the lines of her face and burn them into memory. Then he braced himself, moving to get up. "Mom, I'm sorry. Can't stay here. Needs to be finished."

She shoved his ass back down, hard enough that Dean blinked at her. Mary shook her head, firmly. "Park it. We're not done."

There was only one good answer to that. "Yes ma'am."

"Good. Now." With the crisp tones of a woman used to issuing orders, she said, "You're going to stay here, because the damned gate won't open until tomorrow at moonrise anyway. You're going to sleep. And if we're all very lucky, your father and Sam will get here before you do anything-"

Dean's head snapped up. He stared at his mother. "Sam?" he said finally, hating the desperation in his voice.

She tilted her head a little, considering Dean. "Of course."

Oh, God. "Mom, Sam's... I couldn't..." Dean clenched his fist helplessly and looked away. "He's dead."

Her fingers locked on his chin, pulling Dean's head back around so he had to meet her eyes. "Sam's alive," she said simply, firmly. "Honey, if he was dead, I'd be the first to know."

"Oh." Dean blinked, fast, trying to keep his vision clear. For the first time, he could almost breathe easy. His brother was alive. His brother was okay.

Sam could still be hurt or killed. Sam was alone. And now that Dean knew that pain, he wasn't going back there. Not if he could stop it. Sam needed him. He remembered that, remembered covering his brother's back, promising protection, watching over him as he slept, dragging him from burning buildings and away from shattered mirrors.

He didn't remember Sam's face. But god, he remembered the important thing: Sam needed to live. As long as Dean was alive, Sam would goddamned well live.

"Oh. Jesus." Dean pushed himself up. "I need to go-"

"Your father has him, Dean." His mother's voice had a whipcrack of authority behind it. "You can trust him with Sam until you've slept. But yes, he is alive. And he's fine, honey. Worried like hell over you, but fine."

"He's coming here," Dean said darkly. "With Dad." Damn it, what was his father thinking, dragging Sammy into the line of fire? They weren't supposed to do this. They were supposed to see that he had to finish it. He'd bound it with his blood, and his blood would end this clusterfuck war.

"Yes," his mother said simply. "And there's nothing you can do about that. Trust your father and Sam to protect themselves."

Slowly, Dean sank back against the pew. His vision was starting to blur, damn it. But he could breathe easier now. Sam was alive, okay. He was with Dad. They'd managed not to kill each other without Dean.

Good. If they didn't need him between them, there like a buffer, it'd make things easier. They'd have each other to lean on, after.

Now all he had to do was make it to the gate. Fight his way in and down. Take the son of a bitch back where it belonged.

When he looked up, there was an expression on Mary's face that said she saw through him. That she saw the gun in his mouth, the woman on the ceiling, everything. Then she gave him that sad smile and shifted over, letting him have her shoulder to lean on. Dean leaned, harder than he should, and felt her fingers comb through his hair again. He had to be spiking a fever, because her cool hands felt good on his face.

"The hourglass-"

"Got it, Dean. Good Lord, you're in a church and it's a bound demon. There are rules."

"Okay." Dean rested his cheek against her shoulder and closed his eyes. Just a minute. Then she'd be gone again, and he could go. For now, it was nice. And he was probably leaving bloodstains on her dress, but when he went to lift his head, her hand stopped him. He relaxed grudgingly. "Okay."

"It will be. If you let it." His mother stroked his forehead, his hair, his neck. "When you were little and couldn't sleep, I'd sit on the porch with you and sing. Would that help?"

Dean gave a bittersweet smile. He didn't remember that. "No porch."

"Smartass." She leaned her cheek on the top of his head. "Stairway?"

The memory flared, making him wince automatically. It was a gentle one: a wooden porch, the slow hum of the occasional traffic, the creak of the tree beside their house and the quiet clatter of his father inside doing dishes as she sang low. Peace and comfort.

"God." Dean managed a tired smile. "Yeah. That'd be good."

So she sang, her voice soft and oddly hypnotic. Dean tried to focus enough to stay awake, if even just to hear her manage the bridge like that. He was asleep before she got through two lines.

The sun was setting by the time he woke up, alone. Some of the pain had eased. He still felt wobbly, drained like the aftermath of a fever, but his mind was slightly clearer. He could get more than twenty steps without collapsing.

Had he dreamed it? Was Sam really alive? Too many fucking questions. And not one of them changed a damned thing. It was time to finish this. Once and for all.

He dug in the bag, fumbling for the adrenaline. He was going to need all the help he could get. It was gone, along with his guns. The only thing left in with the hourglass was the pipe bomb he'd found in the storage unit and a box of ammo.

A shadow fell across him, and he looked up, seeing the priest from the night before. "You're going to do it, huh?" Andrew asked.

"Yeah. I have to."

Andrew nodded slightly. "I figured." He held out the syringe. "I'd wait until you get closer to town to take it."

Dean nodded. "Got it."

Andrew held up a duffel bag. "I got you together some extra stuff. Ammo, a couple guns. Cleaned and reloaded the ones you still had, sharpened your machete."

"Why are you helping me?" Dean asked suspiciously.

"To see what you'll do, of course. That's all I ever wanted," Andrew said, flashing him an impish smile as he stood, walking away from Dean. "Good hunting. Go with God, my son."

****

25




Considering that the tomb was a gate to hell, the cemetery was surprisingly quiet, John thought. He leaned back on the tombstone he was sitting on, shifting his weight. Sam paced past him again, still muttering to himself. They'd tried driving around Lawrence most of the night, but Sam wasn't picking up any more information on where Dean was. It was like a void had opened and sucked his boy in.

"Where is he?" Sam asked for at least the twentieth time. "Goddamn it, if we missed him..."

"Sam, settle down. The gate won't open for a little while, he might still show up." John rotated his neck, hearing it pop alarmingly as he stretched.

"Do we have enough ammo if-"

"I don't know, Sammy," John said, voice sharper than he'd intended. "How much ammo do you bring to this kind of party?" he asked, trying to lighten his tone.

Sam shot him a look, and resumed pacing. "I know, I know," he muttered. "I'm a pain in the ass."

John looked to the darkening sky for help. "I didn't say that."

"I'm not Dean, I don't do this-"

John made a soft noise of annoyance. "Sam, Dean's worse than you at sitting still most times. Hell, I'm not that fond of it myself. This," he added, tapping the prosthetic, "just makes it necessary, not less infuriating."

"Oh." Sam tilted his head, considering for a moment. "If he doesn't show, what do we do?"

"If he doesn't show, I have no fucking idea, Sam," John said.

"That's a great attitude, Dad," Sam said sarcastically. "Didn't you train him? Shouldn't you know where he'd go?"

John closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the tomb. "I trained him to hide from me."

"Why the hell would you do a thing like that?" Sam snapped.

John just met his eyes, not saying a word.

Sam's eyes fell, staring at the ground. "Sorry. I'm just worried."

"I know," John said. "S'okay. I was always worried about shape shifters when you were little. I had one try to impersonate me to Bobby and Elkins once upon a time." John scratched his head, smiling a little. "I always thought that asshole Elkins was kind of sorry he'd actually shot the shifter instead of me. Dean's orders were always to grab you and hide if he thought anything was wrong."

"My family is so fucked up," Sam sighed. "Necessarily fucked up, but still."

"I took him up to Bobby's junk yard, would give him a couple of minutes to hide, and then I'd go looking. If he could hide from me for twenty minutes, he won." John's smile was sweet, wistful in a way that wrenched Sam's heart. "The first time, I found him in a couple minutes, but that was the only time he made it easy on the old man."

Sam sat on a tombstone, attention half-trained on the cemetery as he looked at the gentle smile on his father's face. He'd always assumed that Dean's training was harsh, judging from the way Dean snapped to whenever their father ordered him, but it sounded like a typical game of hide and seek.

"Then, the day came that at the end of twenty minutes, I hadn't found him. I called him in, but he didn't come, and I started to worry, so I went in, to ask Bobby to give me a hand. Dean was sitting at the kitchen table, having milk and cookies, and Bobby was laughing his ass off at me."

Sam laughed, imagining his father's face.

"I'd always told him that the best hiding place was somewhere that I wouldn't think to look. I'd forgotten about the dog door in the back." John shook his head, a soft chuckle slipping out of his mouth. "I was so proud of him that day."

Sam's smile faded as he remembered Dean trying to do the same exercise with him, years later. He'd been a petty kid, even then. Wouldn't go along with it, wouldn't hide. Just sat there on the steps pouting, half because he was bored and half because he was afraid nobody would come to find him. Dean had tried to talk him into it, promised Sam that Dean would always find him. Sam hadn't budged. Eventually, Dean had given up, lied to their father, told him that Sam had done well.

The first of many times Dean had covered for him to their father, Sam thought sadly. So fucking many regrets to put right. It was Sam's turn to find his brother, and so far he wasn't doing a fantastic job.

John sighed. "If he doesn't show up, I'll call Bobby in to help us search."

Sam nodded and seemed about to speak when a low, rustling noise came from across the graveyard. "Shit."

John levered himself up, gun already in hand. "Could be him."

Sam nodded, pulling his own gun. "Got it."

A harsh grating noise sounded from the tomb in front of them, clawed hands curling around the stone door.

"That is definitely not him," Sam observed, pulling out a second gun.

John looked at the first noise, seeing an enormous creature lumbering towards them. "Not him either. Ghul."

"Ghoul?"

John shakes his head. "No. G-H-U-L. Different breed. Stupider, stronger, and thankfully slower. Also, not contagious like a ghoul. Takes more to put them down though."

"Who the hell named them? Couldn't we call them... fucking Bob, or something?" A sharp noise from one of the tombs made Sam twitch. As a twisted hand groped up from the dirt, Sam asked, "Um, what the hell is that?"

"Sam, a little busy here," John muttered. "Just fucking shoot it. If it's not your brother, put it down."

"Got it," Sam said tightly.

If it is your brother, I'll put him down. Won't fail you, Dean, John thought, shouldering the rifle and aiming at the ghul. Not again.

They just kept coming, Sam thought wildly. Monsters, demons, twisted things that hadn't been seen on this earth in millennia. And he didn't have enough bullets for all of them.

They'd had to fall back, take up a defensive position near the old mausoleums, and the things were still coming. Slow, shambling things, fast, vicious things. Probably twenty of them still coming, maybe forty of them already down.

John had his back to the wall, reloading as quickly as Sam had ever seen, but he knew that look. It was the look of a man staring at losing the war. And still, no Dean.

It had never occurred to Sam that it might be him who didn't survive to see Dean. He'd never considered it. It was all about saving Dean.

Now, they'd have to save themselves.

He swung the hatchet at the thing he was fighting, feeling the blade slide through the exoskeleton to stick in bone, or whatever the thing had.

"Sam! Drop!" John yelled.

Obeying instantly, Sam let go of the hatchet, falling to his knees.

A bullet whistled over his head, missing by inches, and the thing teetered over him. Fuck. A quick push of the telekinesis forced it back, so it wouldn't crush him.

A low, eerie howl sliced through the chaos of the cemetery. Some of the demons froze where they were, then parted before something huge and close to the ground could barrel through them. As it ran, Sam caught a quick flash of teeth, the shine of white wet eyes and slick fur, but it moved too fast for him to get a good look at it.

"Hellhound," John barked, leveling a shotgun at the oncoming creature.

Great, Sam thought. Hellhound. How the fuck did you kill a hellhound? "Rock salt?"

"Don't know," John said. The two scariest words in the English language, coming from John Winchester.

The damned thing- literally- kept coming, tearing up earth in its path towards Sam. Sam swore, raising the shotgun to take his one admittedly crappy shot before it could plow into him. To his shock, the hellhound turned at the last minute, snarling flames, its fangs grabbing at the nearest monster and shaking.

"Dad?" Sam asked, twisting away for a heartbeat to take down a zombie with one quick shot.

"Don't know, not worrying about it," John yelled back. "Deal with the other ones."

Sam nodded, moving away from the hellhound to attack another creature, something like the one Dean had nearly incinerated. "Poisonous bite, right?"

"Yup." John cursed abruptly as a hand gripped his arm, yanking him away from the building, flinging him through the air to slam into a tombstone. He scrambled back to his feet, cursing as his body protested painfully. Oh, that was going to suck tomorrow, assuming they saw tomorrow. He turned, pulling another gun to replace the one he'd dropped inflight.

Oh, shit. "Sam, we've got daevas."

"Can't be," Sam said desperately, shifting his grip on the gun to club back a particularly lively zombie. "Not enough light."

"Tell him that," John said, firing again. "Shit. I think it's the muzzle flashes," he said. "We're making the light."

"That's just fucking great!" Sam snarled. "Flares?"

"Two for about-" John did a fast count- "five. So far. We kill those, they'll keep coming."

They needed to fall back. Now, before they were caged in. But Dean-

"He's not coming," Sam spat. "I was so fucking sure. Goddamn it. Let's get the fuck out of here."

John nodded, scooping up his gun and limping back towards the bag. He was almost there when Sam made a short, hurt sound, and he spun, just in time to see his boy go down, falling on his back under a Harpy, his hands scrabbling to keep its fangs away from him. "Sam!" he yelled, bending to grab the rifle-

Too late. He'd be too late.

Sam looked at the snarling thing above him, hands locked on its shoulders, cursing, screaming as he fought it back. It was too strong, had the leverage.

"You don't fucking touch him," a low, guttural voice snarled. A familiar voice.

The creature's head exploded in a hail of blood and bone, and Sam looked past it.

Straight into Dean's enraged eyes.

*****

26



Sam was alive.

Dean stared down the barrel of the shotgun, feeling the world still around him. Them. He could feel the pain distantly, that drilling sharp agony behind his eyes as he looked at Sam and remembered a few thousand things at once.

Baby steps. Sam in the passenger seat. Sam's laughter. Hauling Sam from the burning apartment in Palo Alto. Arguments and gunshots, sharing a bottle of tequila on the anniversary of their mother's death, quick and dirty stitches in cheap motel rooms. So much of Dean was tied up, bound in memories of Sam.

And Sam looked back at him, blood-smeared and dirty, tired and whole. His smile could've lit the world.

He was okay. Though about to be crushed by a dead harpy.

Dean forced himself back to the reality, the graveyard strewn with bodies, and shoved his toe under the body. He kicked the harpy to the side and bent, knotting his hand in the front of Sam's jacket and hauling him to his feet. Thank fuck for adrenaline, both synthetic and real, because Sam wasn't light.

Sam was taller than him now. Dean had forgotten that. He'd forgotten so damned much. He'd-

There were tears welling up in Sam's eyes. Dean winced as too many memories of that crowded in on his mind. He reached out, thumping Sam's shoulder. Inadequate, but If Sam touched him, Dean wasn't sure his knees would hold out. "No chick flick moments," he rasped, not entirely sure why that made sense.

Sam made a ragged, incredulous noise that was halfway between laughter and a sob. Then he reached out, grabbing Dean by the jacket and pulling him into a tight hug. "You're alive," Sam whispered, his voice hoarse with emotion.

Dean was briefly grateful that he was too tired to flinch. He let himself lean his head on Sam's shoulder, struggling to still his shivering until he could make himself pull back. Funny; even over the rushing of blood in his ears, the wet shuffle-groan of the ghuls, he could hear Sam breathe.

This was what he'd been fighting for. This was what was worth dying for.

"C'mon," Sam murmured, starting to let him go. "We have to go, we have to get you to a doctor- fuck, you're burning up-"

Okay. He remembered now. Not everything. Enough.

Dean pulled back hard, shaking Sam's hand off. The look on Sam's face-

He knows, the voice whispered, light as spiderwebs. He knows what you've done. What I've done to you. What I'll do to him once you break. You disgust him.

Chaos was still raging around them, the hellhound's snarls. It'd still be there in a second, and from the crack of gunfire, they had some cover. Dean looked at Sam, the lines of his face, feeling memory pounding at the inside of his head. It hurt so bad it was nearly blinding, but Dean didn't blink. Not in the face of the one person who could make Dean keep fighting when all he wanted to do was lay down.

So close. Couldn't stop now.

"Way to give them a target, Sammy. Jesus fucking Christ." Dean shoved the shotgun at Sam hard enough that Sam grunted. "Cover me."

"Dean," Sam said, startled. When Dean took a step back, Sam said again, fiercely, "Dean, you can't-"

"I can," Dean said savagely. "You have to let me do this."

Sam looked at him. Whatever he saw on Dean's face made him blink, tears cutting a clean track down his grimy face. The brother faded; the warrior kicked in. Setting his jaw, Sam hefted the shotgun. "If you die, I'm bringing your sorry ass back. Go."

And strangely enough, because Sam believed he could keep going, Dean could convince himself that it was true.

Dean turned his back on him, picking his way through the bodies. Things lunged for him on all sides, toppling before they could reach him. A shadow demon stretched long fingers towards Dean's face- and a huge goddamn wolf-hound thing caught it like a frisbee, shaking its head fiercely as the shadow whipped around its muzzle.

"Good fido," Dean snarked without pausing.

It growled at Dean softly, but didn't drop its prize. That gave Dean clearance to get to the man leaning in the shadows against the huge-ass mausoleum with the tacky angel statue on its roof. Smart of him to put his back against something. Dean hauled the bag off his shoulder and dropped it at the man's feet. "Watch this." He drew his gun and shoved it at him. "Reload this. Stay here. Got it?"

John stared at his son, at the complete lack of recognition on his bloody face. At the anti-possession amulet, blessedly intact. Part of him wanted to grab Dean and hold on. This was a battle, not the time. If they survived, they'd have time. They wouldn't survive if John broke Dean's focus, if he treated him like a son rather than a third man on the battlefield.

John's heart hurt in his chest. He nodded without a word, studying his son's face.

Time lost or not, memories there or not, Dean understood John's silence better than he should've. Dean paused, considering John for a moment they couldn't afford. Then he flashed a crooked grin and reached out, grabbing John's Bowie knife from the ground where he'd dropped it. "Nice knife. Mind?"

"All yours, soldier. Help your brother clear us an exit." John looked him over, the bloodstained shirt and pale lips and fever-bright eyes, and added with not a little desperation, "If you start to go down, fall back and I'll cover you. You're not dying here. That's an order."

Dean smirked and turned away, drawing his machete and diving back into the clusterfuck.

John started to reload, nudging the bag open with his foot. His breath hissed out as he saw the thing, shoved in the bag, violating the space around it. Damned good thing he hadn't touched it. Damned bad thing that apparently Dean had kept the fucking hourglass in his bag, close enough to poison. John's hand seized automatically on the stock of his shotgun, the trigger tempting his finger. So easy to shatter the glass. So easy to draw the Colt and finish the demon.

John stopped himself. Not yet. Not until they could deal with what it might do to Dean.

It had taken Mary. In a way, it had taken John. But it would not take his boys.

Gritting his teeth, John looked away from the bag and back at his boys. Dean was shoving his way back to Sam, unceremoniously stabbing and shooting until his path was basically clear. He moved like he shouldn't, like he wasn't the same man who left the disconnected, broken message on John's phone.

He moved like Dean.

Finally, Dean reached Sam. Sam gave him a tight sidelong smile and moved, bracing his back against Dean's. It about killed him to do it, but Sam turned away and managed to convince himself that if he looked back, Dean would still be there. He could feel Dean's breathing, hard and fast, the jolt as Dean's machete connected with flesh and bone.

And then Sam couldn't concentrate on much more than surviving, struggling to keep his head above water in the chaos. When he saw his father finish reloading the shotgun, Sam paused for the second it took to look at him, to grab the shotgun with his mind. Shouldn't have worked, but damn, it did. Sam didn't even clock himself with the thing that time. With a lopsided grin he knew looked manic, Sam tossed his father the nine millimeter.

It wasn't supposed to go down like this. John wasn't supposed to be here, against the wall, stuck just watching his boys go and not breathing with every close call, loading and reloading. But damn if it wasn't a beautiful sight. Violent, brutal, but beautiful.

John hadn't taught Dean to move like that. Dean fought like hell, motions so deceptively smooth they almost looked lazy until you saw the damage they left. Sam got clawed up one arm. Dean might've gotten bitten, but he threw the ghul off before John could be sure.

Finally, in the hard rhythm of gunfire and knives striking bone, John felt a lull come on. He ratcheted the shotgun closed again, fired into the face of a zombie that had dragged itself too close, and paused, listening over his own harsh breathing.

Quiet. Too quiet. The gate was still open, a yawning vacuum.

Sam looked at John, panting, his expression a silent question: we're not done, are we?

Then there was the noise that John would hear for years in nightmares. It started low, deceptively familiar, like the sound of a fire consuming dry wood. Then it rose until it ate up the silence, shaking the dry leaves in the trees.

Dean stared into the darkness, saw the glint of scales moving. The hand surged out, clamping down on the dry grass. It guttered into flame, illuminating the mouth of the gate enough to show its eyes. Six eyes. Dean felt his heartbeat stutter as they fixed on him, recognized him. Then the earth broke around the gate as something pushed through, three fucking huge heads over one set of shoulders shoving into the world.

"Aww, fuck me," Dean muttered, reaching back to grab Sam by the shirt. "Move. Movemovemove, goddamn it-"

Sam felt the world tilt as Dean shoved him to the ground, his breath jerking out as Dean fell on top of him and curled over him. He had a second to see the thing (chimera, oh hell) claw its way into the world, to see it snap around and open its mouth. Then Dean shoved his face unceremoniously in the dirt. "Hold your breath," Dean snarled.

For one moment, a single moment, Sam heard the roar of an inferno rushing towards them. Towards Dean, who was covering- oh, God. Sam struggled, and Dean pinned him mercilessly down, and then the heat was on them both.

Like a nightmare, John watched the bullets hit the chimera and ricochet, sparking uselessly off the gravestones. He watched it open its mouth. He watched his boys fall, and the fire towards them like the tide. The flames poured over them, over without touching, and kept right on rolling.

And then John watched Dean get back up, shaking the ash off his clothes and out of his hair. The relief was so stark John couldn't breathe for a moment. Dean bent, grabbing Sam by the collar of his jacket and dragging him over to John, where he dropped him. Dean patted Sam down for injuries, then brushed him off and hauled him upright. Sam wobbled a little, looking pale, and gave John a sidelong "oh holy fuck" look.

Dean looked at John. With the ash and some of the blood smeared off his face, onto Sam's shirt, John could see that Dean looked about three days dead. "Watch him," Dean said, jerking his head at Sam. "I'll take care of the big bitch."

"Dean," John said severely.

"Hey," Sam protested quietly.

Not even looking at either of them, Dean bent and started rummaging through his bag. John grimaced as Dean touched the hourglass with bare skin, making the damned thing flare hungrily. "I landed on you, Sammy. Take a minute, catch your breath. Don't get yourself killed being an idiot. And you can't stop me anyway, so don't waste your time."

"There'll be some coming over on your left side," John informed him, steadying Sam by pushing him back against the mausoleum.

Dean raised his eyes, giving John a look that said he hadn't noticed the small army of zombies wandering out now that the chimera had gone through. His attention had been on Sam. Dangerous, that kind of tunnel vision. It'd get him killed. His pupils were dilated, his eyes feverish. John knew that look, knew that nothing short of John cuffing Dean to something would stop him. "Your problem. Trusting you to cover me, sir."

John reached out, roughly rumpling Dean's hair, and shoved the shoulder that looked relatively unharmed. "Good. Go."

"Dad," Sam gritted, "he can't just-"

Dean shot him a look. "Trust me here, Sammy."

Sam stared at him for a long, ugly moment. Then he swore and nodded, looking away.

With a last glance at Sam, Dean turned, going to step over the crumpled body of a ghul. He paused midstep, asked John, "Ghul?"

"Yeah."

"Fucking A." Dean bent, driving both his machete and the Bowie into the still form. Then he rose and strode towards the chimera, oily blood dripping from the blades. "Yo, bitch!"

His son, John thought with a sort of psychotic fondness, pretty much owned that word. And if he survived, John was going to goddamn well ream him for being an idiot.

Dean reached the chimera, stopping in its path closer than any sane man would go. Dean glanced at the knives, shivering once, and the blades ignited the ghul's oily blood. It burned like napalm, steady. In that light, Dean gave a bloody smile and jerked his chin at the chimera.

The chimera's scream bit through the night, making Sam flinch beside him. Then it lunged, three heads snarling and snapping around Dean as he twisted to avoid them. He moved on defense, just avoiding. Trying to exhaust it? Not the world's best plan, considering.

John saw Dean smile as he came up from a roll, crouching. The dragon head reared back, sparks crackling as it went to ignite its methane breath. Dean never gave it a chance. Diving into a forward roll, he came up with flaming blades crossing the narrow throat connecting the dragon's head. One sharp jerk, and that head tumbled to the side, coming to rest at the foot of a gravestone. Its blood made the stone smoke and hiss.

"Dad! Help here?" Sam barked, jerking John's attention back. He laid down some suppressive fire, thumped Sam, and turned back to shoot a minor demon coming up on Dean's other side.

Dean didn't even flinch as the bullet whipped past him, leaning back to avoid the splatter. That demon's acid blood sprayed across the goat's head, making it jerk and bray wildly. Dean jammed the machete into its jugular before it could recover, and let it jerk sideways to tear out its own throat. Pulling the machete free, he started to turn, only to feel fangs sink into the back of his coat. The tips broke skin, hooking under. The lion's head used that grip to fling Dean sideways and into the base of a statue. Dean felt a sharp 'pop' as his shoulder dislocated.

"Motherfucker," he groaned, and shoved back against the stone, pushing his arm back into joint. He looked around for the machete, found it a few feet away, and didn't have a chance to reach before it surged back into his hand. Sammy. Dean grinned shakily and pushed himself back up, bracing against the statue until his legs were halfway steady. Then, panting, he drew the thirty-eight.

The chimera lunged, remaining head snarling, and Dean stood still in its path. Better aim that way. He waited until its mouth was opening to swallow his hand before pulling the trigger rapidly, emptying the clip. It fell heavily, sliding to a stop just short of his boot. Dean made a face and wiped the blood off his toe onto the grass before it could corrode anything.

There was another shot fired behind Dean's head, a split second warning before John bellowed, "Dean!"

Then something was on him, rot-slick fingers scrabbling on Dean's arms as it tried to climb on his back. Its weight drove him to the ground, something popping in his chest. Dean threw the thing off, barely waiting for it to hit the ground before he kipped up. Hurt like a bitch, but he could manage.

John drew in a sharp breath to curse. Horde. They only ever sent one, dammit. Not three. Fuck. He'd heard about these demons, heard Elkins stories about how many good men had fallen to one after Hiroshima. The warrior caste, sick sadistic things that didn't stop until they or their prey were dead. "Dean," he said, "fall back."

Dean bent, picking up the Bowie knife, and met the eyes of the other two demons, hovering and waiting for him to run. The third rolled to its knees and smoothly up to its feet. Dean shifted on his feet, watching them watch him, waiting.

"Fall. Fucking. Back, Dean!"

Dean shot John a silent look. It wasn't that Dean didn't hear him. It was that he wasn't listening.

Then Dean glanced over John's shoulder at Sam, who had his back to them both, fighting off a zombie with the shotgun as a club. Sam'd been pulled away from the wall by the fight, maintaining a clear tight circle around himself with the rifle and the occasional shot fired. Dean exhaled slowly, seeming to pull strength from the fact that Sam was breathing, and looked away. Crouching, Dean held still for another heartbeat.

He unleashed.

John'd seen his boy in fights. He'd seen him in battle. But he'd never seen him at war. Dean fought like a man who didn't expect to come home. No Sam to protect, no John to cover. Chain lightning, sheer violence, fast and smooth and terrible. No move was wasted. Wherever Dean struck, devastation followed. John saw the demons hit him, saw the flash of a blade coming out wet with Dean's blood, but Dean didn't even slow down.

Then, the third, the one who'd tackled Dean moved behind him, arm drawn back for the killing blow. John's breath hissed in, knowing he'd be too late to warn Dean, knowing that it wouldn't help.

With a sound like a whipcrack, a marble angel snapped off a nearby tomb and hurtled through the air, slamming into the demon, throwing him down.

John glanced towards Sam, seeing the flash of a defiant smile crease his younger son's face. A surge of pride hit him. His boys. Both of them. Warriors to the core. Then, the second wave reached Sam, and he didn't have time to think.

In the time it took for John to lift the rifle to his shoulder, going to help Sam, the first demon was down. He bent, rummaging for more ammo, and felt a smooth cool cylinder under his fingertips. Despite himself, he smiled. Pipe bomb. That was his boy, all right.

When he looked up, the second demon was down. Dean was still moving, blades singing through the air around him, the fires still burning even though the blades were drenched with blood. His blood, red against the black oily gore, ran in sheets down one side of his face, half-blinding him.

Out of the corner of John's eye, he saw Sam put the last zombie down with a sharp kick to its face. Breathing hard, looking like hell, Sam staggered a few steps towards Dean.

With a last explosive movement, Dean buried the machete in the third demon's chest and jerked up. It went down, spasming and spitting blood. Dean stood there for a minute, shoulders slumped, wavering on his feet. Then he sucked in a hard breath and looked at the gate.

The graveyard was empty. There were no other demons coming. They were standing in the gateway, watching, waiting. Afraid. John felt a low laugh rumble up his throat.

Then he saw Dean's face. Saw Dean glance their way, looking at Sammy. Saw the exhaustion. The resolve. And suddenly, John knew.

"No," Sam said tightly. Then, tired as he looked, Sam shoved forward and started to run.

Dean started walking towards the gate, gripping the hilts with blood-slick fingers. He was limping a little, but picking up speed. Then, the back of his jacket pulled from his body, as though Sam thought he could drag him backwards, keep him in place until Sam caught him.

Dean shrugged the jacket off and picked up more speed.

John bent and wrapped his fingers around the pipe bomb. As he brushed the hourglass, he felt that voice... that thing, like a slick hand.

John... you could let him finish it. It could all be over.

John set his jaw and straightened up, pipe bomb in hand. Saw Sam catch up with his brother, plowing into him at the waist, taking them both down.

Swearing, Sam grabbed at Dean's wrists, trying to pin him down. "Stop," he said savagely, "don't you fucking do that to me, don't you-"

Dean didn't even look at Sam, his eyes locked on the gate. His lip twisted. Before Sam could grab onto him, Dean's arm lashed out and struck Sam under the chin, knocking his head back and staggering him. Then Dean shoved him hard, pushing him off and into the unforgiving marble of a tombstone.

Dean was halfway up on his feet, wobbling. Sam couldn't force himself back up, his vision swimming. He reached with power, trying to take Dean's knees out from under him, anything. Anything but-

That was when the lit pipe-bomb sailed past them both, landing squarely in the gates of hell. Dean spun, staring at John. The betrayal in that look...

The percussion of the blast was deafening, stone cracking, bodies tumbling. There was a howl that had nothing to do with ballistics, something bestial and enraged. And then there was silence.

John met Dean's eyes, not flinching. After all this, Dean deserved that much.

Ignoring Sam, Dean began to limp towards John. He gained speed with each step, anger dawning on his face. By the time he reached John, it was just about rage. Dean's hands locked on John's coat, fisting in it as Dean slammed John back against the mausoleum wall.

"What do you want?" Dean snarled. "I was done! I was going to fix it! What else do you want me to do? I was-"

"Dean." John winced as Dean shoved him again, the breath jerked out of him on impact. His hand moved towards the Colt. He stopped it. Not yet. Instead, he grabbed for Dean's arm, trying to forestall him. "It's-" Another impact. John cursed, searching Dean's face for any sign of reason. "Dean, please, goddamn it-"

"What do you want from me?" Dean raged. His eyes were wild with the hunt, with fever. That, John could handle. Not the tears cutting clean streaks on Dean's blood-smeared face. "I was supposed to- this is how it's supposed to- you had to let me! I'm fucking tired, I can't- it's the only- what do you want?!"

As Dean pulled him away from the wall for another shove, John drew in a breath and barked, "Dean Michael Winchester, you will stand down!"

Dean froze. Not soon enough to stop from bouncing John against the wall, but he froze. His eyes searched John's face, and then, haltingly, Dean drew back and stood at ease. He was wavering on his feet.

John reached up an unsteady hand and set it on the back of Dean's neck, forcing Dean to look at him as he said, "I want my son back. That's it."

Dean's breath hitched. He stared at John, his face softening. The madness had been bad. The grief, the pain... that was worse.

"All right." John shook him a little. "It's over, Dean. Time to come home."

He felt Dean tremble, the tension sliding out of him. Dean swallowed hard. "Dad."

"Yeah." Over Dean's shoulder, John saw Sam stumbling painfully over to join them, a bittersweet smile dawning as he saw John's face.

Dean caught John's glance and went rigid, breath catching in his slow horror. He remembered the sound of impact, Sam hitting the gravestone hard. "Sam," he whispered raggedly. He started to turn towards the stone, and John saw his knees buckle. About damn time.

And then Sam was there, catching Dean on the way down.

John grabbed Dean's belt, leading his own strength as Dean collapsed on Sam. Sam sat down hard in the bloody grass, his arms around Dean, gripping like it'd take a miracle to pry his hands loose. Dean was shivering as he sank into Sam, the whites of his eyes showing. His back was sweat-slick and painfully hot against John's hand.

"Hey," Sam murmured against the top of Dean's head, "hey, it's okay, I've got you." His fingers fumbled down Dean's arms, pressing until he found a pulse. Sam closed his eyes, letting himself believe as he felt Dean's heartbeat solid under his fingertips. "We found you. It's okay."

John blinked hard, giving himself a minute to watch his boys. Both alive, both intact. It was enough for the moment. Painfully, he made himself let go of Dean's belt. Rested his hand on Dean's back, feeling the muscles there slide from full spasm into exhausted stillness. Felt Dean breathe, hitching as the adrenaline slowly let him go.

"I'm sorry," John murmured. "It's going to be all right."

Sam gave him a tired, wobbly smile.

Then he reached into his pocket, feeling for the van keys, and started to turn. Didn't want to leave them, not out of his sight for more than a second, but no way was Dean making it to the van. Neither he nor Sam were in any shape to carry him.

Except when he turned, the van was there. It had teeth-marks in the bumper, but it was definitely their conspicuous van. John stared for a moment, then shrugged and went to open the driver's side door. He'd obsess about it later. For now, they needed a goddamn doctor and safe ground to bind the demon.

They'd found Dean. Everything else could be survived.

****

27



Sam never was quite sure how they made it back to the house without killing themselves. They'd heaved Dean into the front seat- damned if they'd put him in the back again- and belted him in. Dad had slid behind the wheel, grabbed his cell phone and taken off.

Sam crouched in the space between the front seats, bracing himself on their arms. It was just asking the universe for another car accident, but frankly Sam couldn't sit the back while Dean was hurting like this. It was bad enough to be sitting in the car, watching Dean's blood pool on the seat and trickle down to seep into Sam's jeans. Dean's eyes were moving behind their lids, jerky and restless, the whites flashing every once in a while.

"We've got him."

His father's voice, sudden and stern, made Sam twitch. He glanced over his shoulder, watched Dad clutch the cell phone like a lifeline. There was a muffled answer from Andrew.

"Yeah." Dad exhaled slowly. "A doctor would be- thank you. We'll need a couple minutes to get him inside. We're looking at-"

Dean made a sudden hitching sound, his nails digging into the arm of the chair. He pressed back, the tendons of his throat stretching long as he shook his head. He made a sound, soft, desperate. Terrified.

"Hey," Sam murmured, touching Dean's arm, "we're here. It's okay."

Eyes darting over to Dean, their father swallowed hard, set his jaw and stared fixedly through the windshield. His voice was stronger when he spoke again. "Antibiotics, stitches, probably setting a few bones. Holy water. If you can get an IV-"

Dean's eyelashes fluttered, his lips parting on a strangled moan. He shook his head harder, frantic. "No," he whispered, voice coarse and exhausted, "no, no, no god please-"

Sam drew in a breath to talk to him, to say something hollow but vaguely reassuring. Then Dean twisted in his seat, nearly seizing. Sam moved, grabbing him by the waist, shoving him back against the seat, and felt the searing heat blister the inside of his arm. Not fever hot; brand hot.

He didn't have longer than a second to be horrified, because Dean's eyes snapped open. Wide, scared, wild eyes. "Don't touch me," Dean snarled, twisting in his seat, trying to get away, "don't-"

"Dean, hey- would you calm the hell-" As Dean tried to lunge over him, scrabbling for the door, Sam slammed both his hands down on the lock. Dean made a godawful sound and shoved his shoulder hard against the door, trying to break the window, trying to get out.

Without ceremony, John rattled off an address and turned to look at them. "Dean-"

Dean turned on him, wild eyed, and slammed his leg out to brace against the dashboard. He stayed that way for a long moment, staring at their father and nearly hyperventilating, his leg a barrier between John and Sam. "Don't," he repeated, panting. "Don't... not him."

"Shh." Heart pounding in his throat, Sam swallowed hard. "Shh, Dean, it's all right."

From the look on his father's face, it wasn't. Not by a long damn shot. John turned to look back at the road. His voice was steady, calm. "The code word's Ash. None of us are compromised. We're okay."

After a long moment, Dean let his leg drop heavily. He rasped, "It's not safe here. Amanda's coming. Call Bobby."

John sighed. "Amanda's dead, son."

Dean shuddered, head dropping forward. He rocked in place, shivering a little. "I need to go," he whispered. "I need to leave. Been here too long."

"We're going," Sam murmured, keeping his voice low. "We're going to go somewhere else. Somewhere with a doctor."

Dean's lashes fluttered. "Somebody sick?"

"Yeah, man. Nothing too bad, though." Carefully, Sam touched Dean's stomach, prying the blood-sticky shirt up. There were long bruises in the shape of fingers, carved on Dean's hips. Half-moon gouges cut in his stomach where they dug in.

"Don't stay." Dean's head fell back as he mumbled, "Don't let it touch Sammy."

Sam grimaced, lowering Dean's shirt. "It won't, Dean. It's okay. It's okay."

Quiet from Dean, his eyes focused on nothing.

As Sam started to settle back in, he felt his father's hand on his shoulder. He turned his head.

John looked back at him gravely, painfully. "Sam, I need you to do something, and I need you to not ask why."

"What?"

"I need you to keep your brother awake."

Sam winced. "I know. But he's exhausted, he needs to-"

John glared at him. "Sam, please. If he sleeps, he can't control the demon. It can get at him. And right now, I'd bet it's pissed."

"It can-" Sam turned a hard glare on his father. "It-"

"Keep him awake, Sam. Talk to him, slap him, hurt him if you have to. Just do it," John said tiredly.

It was going to be the longest fifteen minutes of his life, Sam thought. He wiggled until he was crouched in front of Dean, silently thanking the makers of the minivan for providing decent leg room. It wasn't comfortable by a long shot, but at least he could see Dean's half-open eyes.

Sam rested a hand on Dean's good shoulder, shaking him gently. "Hey. Wake up, man. I need you to talk to me."

Dean stared at him blearily, trying to focus with an effort that made Sam's chest hurt. "Hey. Sam."

"Yeah." Sam managed a smile, bracing his hands on Dean's knees. His jeans were slimy with demon blood. Dean was down a pair of jeans, then, because demon blood was impossible to get out. And yeah, that was much easier than thinking about how much of that blood was actually Dean's. In the few clean places on Dean's face, he was pale enough to make Sam wince. "Hi."

"M'okay."

"Yeah, man. You're ready to run marathons. You're fucking fantastic." As Dean's eyes started to close, Sam winced and reached up to smack his face. When gentle didn't work, he did it again harder. "Dean."

Dean grunted, eyes jerking open. "Dude. Blinking. Slapped me."

"Yeah."

"Samantha." Dean grimaced as the van hit a pothole, then exhaled slowly. "'S next, hair-pulling?"

Sam laughed. It was more than slightly hysterical. "Maybe. What's with the blue, Dean?"

"Chicks dig it."

"If you're trolling Hot Topic after school- hey." Sam grabbed Dean's chin, dragging him back before his eyes could close again. "Look at me, all right? Talk to me."

For a long second, Dean looked like he wanted to pass out anyway. Whatever he saw on Sam's face, it made him draw in a shallow breath and brace himself. His throat worked as he swallowed. "You're a good kid, Sam. M'sorry."

Sam's heart lurched. He shook his head fiercely. "C'mon, don't give me that bullshit. We've lived through worse, all right?"

"Mmph." Dean raised his head off the seat, swore and let it drop again. "Friggin' wrecked my car."

"Yeah, they did. Sorry."

"Good car. Great car." Dean managed a slow smile. "Biiig back seat. Sound system..."

Sam shook his knee, realizing that Dean was fading again. "What gun did you teach me to shoot with, Dean?"

"Thirty-eight." Dean blinked at Sam. "Did you hit a demon with a statue?"

"Yeah."

"Shining."

"Pretty much." Sam grinned tiredly at the face Dean made. "Thought you were a special snowflake?"

"Ha. Man, you c'n have it." Dean's eyes wandered towards the door-handle, but he'd apparently decided he was too exhausted to get far. Laying his head back against the seat, he rasped, "Saw Mom."

Sam swallowed hard against a spike of panic, glancing at his father. From the flex of John's jaw, he'd heard that. "Almost there," John said, amazingly even. "Stay with your brother."

Dean's head turned enough that he could see John out of the corner of his eyes. "Hey, Dad," he murmured. "Sorry about bouncing you off the wall."

John spared a warm glance for Dean. "It's okay, son. Nothing to apologize about. It was a pretty wussy shove," he lied.

Dean lifted a hand to flip him off and sucked in a breath. "Fuck. Think that's broken," he wheezed. "Ow."

John quickly whipped into the driveway.

"Where we goin?" Dean asked.

"Missouri's. We set it up with her last night," Sam said softly.

A moment's puzzled silence. Then Dean grimaced, his eyes closing. "Her. She hates me."

"Don't worry, she's visiting one of her kids," Sam said. "Her oldest girl is pregnant on bedrest."

John pulled the van to a stop and grabbed the bag with the hourglass. "Can you get him to the bedroom?"

Sam nodded slowly. "I think so."

"Good. I need to bind this fucking thing. Keep him awake til I get back."

John hurried down the stairs, clinging to the rail to keep himself upright. Should have thought of this before. Should have had it ready. He'd been stupid.

He grabbed the paint pen and flipped his journal open to the diagram of the Seal of Solomon and dropped to the ground, sketching the fastest, yet most carefully perfect Seal he'd ever done.

It took minutes- an eternity- until he had finished, and could wrap his shirt around his hand, placing the hourglass in the center gently. Not even sparing a glare for the creature that had caused so much pain for his family, he dragged himself up the stairs.

It was over. The dead could rest. Now, it was finally time to see to the living.

Dean had a ways to go before he could be counted among them. Moreso than before, John was afraid for his boy. The demon was bound, but Dean had taken some of it into himself. Was it too much? Only time and a good exorcism would tell for sure.

But first, they needed to deal with the physical.

Dean eyed him muzzily as he stumbled in the room, giving Sam a quick nod. "Y'kay, sir?" Dean asked.

"I'm fine. How're you doing?"

Dean's eyebrow raised slightly. "Dad," he said dryly.

Even though he couldn't have imagined it, John felt a smile crease his face. "Stupid question. The doctor's on his way, but you know we need to get you a little cleaned up before then. And that it's going to hurt like a motherfucker."

"Yes, sir," Dean said, but the mulish expression said otherwise.

"I know you're tough, but it's going to kill me to hurt you like that. Sam, too." The dark look Dean gave John for that particular guilt trip made John's breathing easier. He continued, unrepentant, "So if you want, I can give you something."

Dean shook his head. "M'fine. Need my gun. Dropped it."

He hadn't so much dropped it as Sam had stolen it in the brief few seconds that Dean slept.

John pushed the shirt he was wearing over the t-shirt back, letting Dean see the nine millimeter holstered beneath his arm. "I've got it for tonight," he assured his son.

"Oh. Good." Dean considered it for a moment, then closed his eyes. His smirk was wobbly. "I'm not a pussy like Samantha here, but yeah. Whatever you've got."

Sam smiled at the jab, rumpling Dean's hair lightly as their father eased a needle into Dean's arm. There weren't many places on Dean that weren't bruised, patches of red and purple so dark they looked black, but Dad found one. "Where the hell did you get that?" Sam asked, mostly to distract himself from Dean's brief wince.

"While we were in the hospital. No one pays attention to the old man with a walker, Sammy," John muttered.

"I thought sedatives didn't work on him."

Dean smiled. "Don't. But a Thorazine and Valium cocktail kicks my ass."

John nodded, capping the needle and setting it on the nightstand. He rested a hand on Dean's good shoulder, and tried not to take it personally when Dean tensed. He held Dean's eyes, watched him fight the meds. Damned if Dean didn't always fight it. "Sleep, son."

Dean shot a sidelong glance at Sam, quiet desperation. John nodded, not looking away, and felt Dean sink grudgingly. Dean's eyes fluttered shut.

After a moment, Sam exhaled slowly and looked up at John. "Did the demon-" he broke off as John held up a hand. "What?"

"Not yet." John watched, waited. After another minute, Dean's face slackened, his breathing going steady. John carefully rubbed some of the blood off Dean's cheek and took his hand back. "Okay. Let's get him in the shower."

It took their combined muscle and wills to get Dean in the shower, and all of Missouri's hot water to get all the goop off him.

By the time they were finished, both John and Sam were soaked to the skin, and had a pretty good catalogue of Dean's various injuries. Even with the nearly empty adrenaline bottle John had found in the bag with the demon, it was amazing that Dean had managed to stay upright.

They'd just wrestled him into a pair of Sam's sweatpants when the doctor arrived, introducing himself as Rafe Santos, a friend of Andrew's from seminary.

He took one look at Dean and paled, which didn't do wonders for John's nerves. "I suppose I can't convince you to take him to the hospital?"

"No hospital," John said.

Rafe nodded. "I figured." He bent over Dean, lightly running his hands over the myriad of cuts, and bruises. "Two cracked ribs, not displaced. Broken wrist. Dislocated shoulder, put back in on his own, though. The harpy bite, of course. A couple puncture wounds. Amazing it's not worse, really." He quickly pulled some items out of his bag. "Sam, lift him up so I can bandage those ribs first." He eyed one particularly nasty slash wound on Dean's shoulder. "John, do you feel up to stitching that while I do the ribs?"

John nodded, scooping up one of the stitch kits and moving to kneel on the edge of the bed with his good leg. It wouldn't be pretty, but it would do.

"Also, are either of you the same blood type?" Rafe asked.

"Both, actually," John replied. "Mary was the same type as me."

"Good. He'll need it." Rafe picked up a contraption that looked like nothing so much as a corset. Sam made a mental note to taunt Dean later about it.

Even in his drug-induced sleep, Dean made a soft noise of pain as the binding went on.

As Sam gently lowered him back to the bed, Rafe glanced at John. "Andrew seems surprisingly fond of you and your boys," he said. "When you called, he basically called in every favor he'd ever done me, and a few he hadn't. It's unusual for him." While he spoke, his hands were moving at top speed, placing more stitches.

John shrugged. "Not a clue why."

"It's the Playboys," Sam said, still stroking Dean's forehead.

Rafe smiled and went back to casting Dean's wrist. "He's going to need broad spectrum antibiotics in an IV, and I'll start a saline drip, get him hydrated." Rafe reached up and tugged down his shirt collar, showing the priest's collar white against his throat. "Holy water, too, for the harpy bite. Sterile. I'd like permission to put in a feeding tube. He's dangerously low on reserves, and he's going to need them."

"Do it," John said shortly. "Whatever you need to."

"Any allergies?"

"No. Doesn't react well to sedatives."

"Andrew mentioned that. You have enough Thorazine and Valium?"

"I'll let you know," John said grimly.

Rafe nodded. "I'm going to suggest keeping totally under for the next two days. Hold off the exorcism till the third day, give him a fighting chance."

John said, "Got it."

"Who's lost the least blood?" Rafe asked, glancing between them.

"That would be me," John muttered. "Sam, go grab a dining room chair, would you?"

"Why?" Sam asked. He looked at the bed, hand still on Dean's.

"Because, I said so," John said, with obviously strained patience.

"Oh." Reluctantly letting go of Dean's hand, Sam hurried down the stairs, returning with a chair. "Here." He shoved it at John and went back to Dean's side.

John lowered himself with a wince that he somehow doubted Rafe had missed. "Okay."

Rafe set up Dean's end of the transfusion and turned to John, noting his sudden pallor. "You all right?"

"Just get on with it," John grumbled.

Sam looked up, alarmed at the tentative note in his father's voice. "Dad? You look like hell. Is everything okay?"

John dropped his head forward, mumbling something so softly that Sam was certain he hadn't heard him.

"What?" Sam asked.

"I. Don't. Like. Needles." John said clearly. "Rather be shot. But it's Dean, so I'm going to goddamn well suck it up."

"You don't like needles?" Sam asked, voice cracking on a slightly hysterical laugh. "Needles? Not... Daevas? Not hydras, or dragons or zombies? Needles? No shit?"

"Sam?" His father rubbed his eyes tiredly.

"Yes, great hunter?"

"Shut the hell up." John winced as the needle slid into his arm, opened his eyes and glanced down.

Sam's eyes widened as his father swayed slightly on the chair. "Dad," he said sharply.

John met his eyes and held them, looking anywhere but the needle sticking out of his arm. A moment later, Rafe patted his shoulder. "It's covered. Just take it easy. Won't take long."

"I'm almost sorry we sedated Dean," Sam mused. "I'll just have to tell him all about it."

"I'm your father, boy. Not exactly short on blackmail material." A smile tugged at John's lips. "Besides, Dean knows. He's patched me up more than once."

"How's that work out for you?" Sam asked, trying to keep his father's attention off the proceedings.

"Usually, I drink. Heavily. And pass the hell out." John looked at Dean, the blood sliding slowly along the tubing. Vaguely comforted, though not enough to look at the needle, he asked Rafe, "You want to teach Sam how to do this before you go? Dean'll need a few rounds."

"I'll show him when I come back with blood. Technically neither of you should be donating anyway. Andrew caught me without supplies." Rafe pressed the last bandage over the harpy bite, touched Dean's forehead and closed his eyes. He did a quick sign of the cross, then murmured something in Latin. Dean winced in his sleep, turning his head away. Rafe sighed and looked at John. "Now, are you going to let me look at your leg or not?"

John's jaw clenched. "Check Sam over, would you?"

Sam shot a look at him, but submitted to being poked and prodded. The doctor pronounced him in surprisingly good shape, except for deep gouges down one arm. Rafe wrapped those in bandages soaked with holy water, then switched the transfusion from John to Sam.

Then Rafe looked steadily at John, who finally cursed and slid his jeans down.

Sam sucked in a breath the moment the prosthetic came off. The sock that went over John's thigh to protect it was wet, red with blood. John didn't seem to notice, tugging it off with a grimace, only looking up at Sam's quiet, "Oh, Jesus, Dad."

Rafe studied the raw, abraded stump closely. "Nice job, John. You weren't supposed to wear it more than a few hours a day at first. This looks like you've run a marathon."

John shrugged. "It'll be fine."

"In about six months, if you behave yourself, it'll be close to fine. But since we both know better than to think you'll behave, you're looking at a year, maybe more."

John nodded stoically. "I'd guessed that."

Rafe sighed, pulling out a tube of ointment. "Use this three times a day, change the dressings when you apply it, and try to leave it off whenever you can."

John nodded, and allowed him to rebandage it. After he'd had shown the doctor out, with strict orders to call if they needed anything, Sam looked at his father. "Dad-"

"Don't start with me, Sammy."

Sam shook his head. "Wasn't going to. We did what it took to get him back." He suddenly looked very young. "The exorcism... it's going to be all right, right?"

John looked down. The quiet rasp of his voice was anything but reassuring. "It has to be."


****

28

Three days. Three of the roughest days Sam had ever lived, and there was a lot of competition.

The drug cocktail kicked Dean's ass. The demon was kicking it harder.

Sam had hauled a cot up from Missouri's cellar, though it had damned near required bouncing Dad off the wall before he'd let Sam carry it. It was there in the room in case either of them took a break long enough to sleep. That stayed theoretical, because Sam couldn't make himself move away from Dean's bed.

The spare bed was a twin, barely big enough for Dean. Sam had to wedge himself against the wall, but he managed to crowd in on Dean's right side without touching. He'd learned that lesson the first night.

Awake, Dean could fake it. Drugged, he didn't know them. He recoiled from Sam and flinched from their father. Dad said something about the pain, maybe spasms from healing, the fever. But Sam knew nightmares when he saw them.

That thing in the basement was bound not to hurt Dean anymore. But God, it'd done its damage, and now Dean was where they couldn't touch him.

Sam hated this. It was like Dean dying all over again, this time in slow motion isolation. He laid up nights and watched the iv drip, counted the bruises and the wounds, listened as Dean's breath hitched in his sleep. After the first night, he knew the pattern; the closer Dean got to waking, the worse those noises got.

Dad only let him get that close to conscious once, around the second day. Bad timing; it'd been about the same time as a fever spike. The ragged, wounded sounds had been bad enough. Dean fighting like hell, fighting to survive, when Dad went to re-up the meds had been worse. It'd taken both Dad and Sam holding him down to get the needle in. More bruises on all of them, but they'd stopped Dean before he could get a hold of the knife on the nightstand.

Dean had stared at their father, feverish hate in his eyes, as the drug took him down again. They got more careful with the drugs.

Which explained why they were here now, Dad on the end of the bed, Sam sprawled beside Dean, watching as Dean started to come out of it again. Their father had another syringe ready, waiting quietly.

It'd been a slow morning. Sam had a lot of time to study Dean's breathing, dozing off occasionally only to twitch awake as the pattern changed. Every time he looked at their father, he hadn't so much as blinked. After a while, Sam curled his fingers around Dean's good wrist. The pulse there was steady, comforting.

Sam didn't get a lot of thinking done. Too tired. He spent most of his time in a gray twilight zone, not entirely awake or asleep. His mind felt raw and strained, like a muscle that was shaky from overuse. He'd done too much in the cemetery, fought too hard for the visions.

A slight shift in Dean's breathing made Sam glance at him again, just checking. He found Dean's eyes open, watching him tiredly.

Sam smiled, pushing himself up on one elbow. "Hey."

"We married now?" Dean rasped.

Wrinkling his nose, Sam felt Dean's face. Still hot, but better than it had been. When Dean grimaced and moved his head away, Sam let him go. "You want some water? There's soup downstairs."

"Dude," Dean said, an entire essay of disturbed in the one word. "Settle down there, Florence. Give me a minute."

"Sorry." Sam searched Dean's face, the weary smile, the dark circles still under his eyes. "You scared the hell out of me."

"Kittens scare the hell out of you."

Sam smiled. "I'm not allowed to tell you anything, am I?"

"Not if it belongs on a Hallmark card."

"I don't think there's a card for 'thank you for saving my life.' Or 'sorry demons almost killed you.'" Sam's eyes narrowed slightly. "Or how about 'sorry you almost walked into hell, you jackass'? That might be handy."

Dean sighed, reaching up to grind his palm into his eye. "Sammy, you really need to work on your timing. Later, okay? When I'm not fucking doped up."

Later seemed to mean 'never, now shut up about it' in Dean's native language. Still, looking at Dean, Sam couldn't make himself argue. "Okay. It's been a minute. You need anything?"

"Yeah. For you to go shower or something. You reek." Dean managed a lopsided smirk. "Bring me back a beer, honey."

"Freak," Sam sighed. Careful not to jar Dean, he climbed down the bed and got to his feet. "Don't go anywhere."

Dean rolled his eyes, like that didn't even dignify a response. Sam didn't buy it for a second, but the rough sound of Dean poking at him was reassuring enough that Sam could make himself leave the room.

As the sound of footsteps faded, John looked at his son. Watched Dean fade when Sam wasn't there to reassure. Dean looked like hell, suddenly young as he closed his eyes.

John considered asking how Dean was, really. The chances that he'd get an honest answer were too low for him to go through with it. Besides which, just looking at Dean told him pretty clearly.

"How many days?" Dean asked finally.

"Three."

Dean grunted, opening his eyes to look at the syringe by John's leg. He smiled, not like it was funny. "That for me?"

"I'll let you know." When Dean started to say something, John held up a hand. "That's not open for negotiation. I know you, son. You'd try to butch out being skinned alive if it meant you could keep an eye on Sammy."

"Sam," Dean murmured. "He can handle himself all right."

"Yeah, I kind of got that."

"Okay." Dean laid his head back on the pillow, said with false calm, "So. That exorcism."

John sighed and shifted to his feet, limping badly on the first step. He went to the head of the bed, standing quietly between Dean and the door. When Dean didn't edge away, John laid his hand on Dean's forehead. "You're not okay for this," John said. "Give it another few days."

"Few more bad days. Doped up with that thing whispering in my head." Dean shook his head, meeting John's eyes. There was a raw desperation under his smile. "No, Dad. I can't."

"Dean, this isn't-" John stopped, considering the stubborn set of his son's jaw, and tried again from another angle. "This could kill you if I'm not careful."

"I know." Dean's smile was bitter. "I know how bad it is. I don't want you to do it. Call Andrew or... somebody. Jim, or- "

Damn. John'd underestimated the fever. He reached into his jacket pocket, retrieving the bottle of holy water, the rosary he kept in the change-pocket of his wallet. "Jim died, Dean. I'm doing this. Don't trust anybody else with your life."

"And when I die on you?" Dean bit off. "Dad-"

"Nobody's dying." John wound the rosary around his fingers, not looking at Dean's face. "Not today."

"I let it in." Dean's voice was raw. "It's too deep. Just-... there's one more bullet in the Colt."

John watched the cross dangle on the end of its chain, swinging gently, casting its shadow across Dean's pale face. He remembered asking- hell, begging Sam for the same. He remembered that exhaustion, the disgust of what he had done and almost done to his boys. And he remembered Dean, ordering Sam to hold fire.

He raised his eyes from the cross, fixing his attention on Dean. He held Dean's eyes, steady, not blinking, until he saw that Dean knew he couldn't be convinced otherwise. Until they understood each other, at least that much.

Dean's mouth curved, not a smile. He closed his eyes, but not before John saw they were too bright. "Dad, I'm sorry."

John reached out, pushing the hair out of Dean's face with the back of his fingers. He noted the thin scar at Dean's hairline, spoke quietly. "It'll hurt like a bitch. Do you want anything?"

Dean's mouth was a thin, pale line. He shook his head fiercely, drawing in a shaky breath as he opened his eyes again. "I'm not dying in my sleep," he said roughly. "Love you. Tell Sam..."

"I will if I have to," John murmured.

"You don't have to," said Sam's voice from the doorway. "Thin walls."

Dean closed his eyes. "Sam, you don't need to see this-"

"I'm not leaving," Sam muttered. "Asshole." He slipped past John and squirmed onto the bed, gently nudging Dean's head up, onto Sam's lap.

"Dude," Dean gritted. "What the hell?"

"Shut up, Dean," Sam said sharply. "Just deal." Sam didn't bother saying that if this was it, Dean wasn't dying alone, without comfort.

John took a deep breath. "Ready?"

Dean glanced around the room, eyes landing on the leather wallet laying on the nightstand. "Borrow your wallet?"

Sam handed it to him without comment, and Dean clutched it. "Ready."

John nodded, murmuring a silent prayer to whoever was listening, and sat on the edge of the bed. "Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei. Patris omnipotentis," John murmured, gently making the sign of the cross on Dean's forehead, watching as his jaw tightened. "Et in noimine Jesu Christi Filii ejus, Domini et Judicis nostri, et in virtute Spiritus Sancti."

Dean's body arched, his breath sucking in with an agonized noise, and John paused, hating this, hating himself for what he was doing to his boy.

Dean's eyes met his, a command in them, and John nodded, his fingers gentle on Dean's forehead as he made another cross. "Ut descedas ab hoc plasmate Dei, quod Dominus noster ad templum sanctum suum vocare dignatus est."

Little noises were escaping Dean now, tiny sounds that he couldn't quite choke back. He glared at John. "Finish it," he rasped, shoving the wallet between his teeth and biting down.

I'm sorry, Dean, so sorry. I should have gotten there sooner, should have been a better father, John thought.

"Ut fiat templum Dei vivi, et Spiritus Sanctus habitet in eo. Per eumdem Christum Dominum nostrum."

Dean screamed, his body seizing painfully, and John bit his lip until he tasted blood. He glanced at Sam, and his eyes widened. Sam's hands were clamped on either side of Dean's head, his eyes fixed on something John couldn't see. A thin trickle of blood was sliding out of his nose. Most disturbing though, was the thin red cord that Vahalla's grandmother had given him. It was slowly turning black, eaten up by whatever Sam was doing.

John considered punching Sam again, demanding that he not risk himself, but really it was a little late for that. If this was Sam's battlefield, so be it. He wet his finger with holy water and brushed it steadily over Dean's forehead, his eyes, his lips, and his heart. "Qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos, et saeculum per ignem." As the final word slid out of his mouth, Dean seized again, and John grabbed his arm, holding on. If this was it, Dean would know he was there.

Dean's breath hitched, and John's grip tightened. Then, it slowed, steadied, and Sam's head flopped back against the headboard.

John reached up with a washcloth and wiped the blood off Sam's upper lip, and Sam lifted his head, regarding John with tired eyes. "Nice job, Dad."

"You too."

"What about me?" Dean groaned, spitting Sam's wallet onto the pillow. "Wow, that sucked." Sam tried not to look at the deep set of grooves Dean had bitten into the leather in his pain.

"Sorry about that," John murmured. "Need some pain meds?"

"Not yet," Dean said softly. "I just." He took a shallow breath, wincing as the ribs caught him. "No. I'm okay."

"Yeah," John said. "You are. Now get some rest. I'm going to grab a shower. If you need the meds, take them." He rumpled Dean's hair and limped from the room.

After a long minute, Dean looked up at Sam. "Dude. The black choker? A little 1980s."

Sam rolled his eyes at him. "Jerk."

"Bitch," Dean replied automatically. "Do me a favor?"

"Sure. What?"

"Go check on Dad," Dean said. "I'll be fine for a couple minutes, I promise." When Sam simply eyed him suspiciously, Dean hissed out a breath. "Just do it, Sammy. I'm not going anywhere except back to sleep."

Sam finally nodded, slowly uncurling his legs and coming to his feet. "I'll be right back."

"Got it. You're such a fucking girl."

It took a few minutes to find their father. Sam finally found him, sitting on the back porch, staring at nothing, and shaking like a leaf. "You okay?"

John nodded. "How close to the line were we?" he asked quietly, touching the blackened cord around Sam's neck.

"About twenty feet on the wrong side," Sam admitted, shaking his head. "Jesus, that thing is nasty. We've gotta get rid of it somehow, as far away from him as we can."

John nodded. "I'm working on it. Once Dean's on his feet, I'll call Andrew, see if he has any options."

"I did my best, but I'm pretty sure the son of a bitch took some of him with it. Some of Dean." Sam undid the blackened cord with shaky fingers. "Shit. If that was helping with the pain, I don't want to know."

John rumpled his hair gently. "Do you need some of the painkillers? We've got plain old codeine, you know."

"Yeah, I might grab something." Sam smiled tiredly. "I think I'm going to go check Dean, maybe get some sleep."

"Sounds like a plan. Won't be far behind." When Sam offered his hand, John accepted, letting his boy pull him to his feet. "Sam."

"Yeah?"

John pulled him into a quick, hard hug. "Good work, son."

"We got him back," Sam said. "No other option, right sir?"

John smiled. "None."

Dean barely stirred as Sam slid back onto the bed. It wasn't until Sam's breathing slowed that he gave up feigning sleep and stared at the ceiling. He almost missed the demon. At least then he didn't have to listen to his own thoughts. Recriminations swirled in his head, dancing among the handful of memories he'd regained.

So little for twenty seven years. Snippets. And almost none of the emotion had come with them. Which was weird. He'd have sworn he remembered more, felt more before the demon had gone. Fear, pain, sadness, loneliness-god, the loneliness-the empty hole where the pieces should fit. And under it all, a simmering rage. Not the demon's, no. This was all his own. Something he could lay claim to, say "this is me."

He'd scared both of them with his disappearing act, with the fight in the graveyard. Dean could see that much, but damned if it made any sense to him. They were hunters. They'd lost track of each other before. They were in the field, of course they'd take damage, of course-

And none of that had mattered to Dean when he'd thought he'd lost Sam.

Damn it, this didn't make any sense. Guns made sense. Killing made sense. Not trying to figure out why they hadn't let him finish it for Mom, for all of them. Instead there was this, the exorcism, the IVs, the demon bound in the basement.

He'd been done.

Dean wasn't sorry that he lived. He liked living, liked pretty girls and Sam's grin and sunlight and the rumble of passing cars. He liked breathing and a comfortable bed. But what he liked didn't matter here.

That thing was still alive. Waiting. Watching. In the basement, close enough to touch.

Close enough that he still heard it whispering every time he closed his eyes, soft words that tempted him to listen. It had a lot of knowledge it could give him. Power. The strength to finish this for Sam, for their dad, if Dean just would let it back in...

Missouri's house was old, settling into its foundations. Its floorboards creaked as his father came back into the room. His gait wasn't steady, a subtle careful wrongness. Dean turned his head to frown at him, and murmured, "You okay?"

John raised an eyebrow, lowering himself painfully to the edge of the cot. "Thought you were going to try to sleep."

"I didn't say that." Dean shifted a little, wincing as his ribs protested, and frowned at his father. "Didn't see you take a hit to the leg."

The crooked smile ran away from John's face. He looked at Dean for a long, regretful moment. Then he sighed and leaned down, knocking his knuckles against his leg with a hollow, metallic sound. "The wreck. Pinned between the door and the dash. They couldn't save it. Tried, but it was too screwed up. I was lucky, though. I had the tourniquet on from the gunshot, so I didn't bleed much."

"Oh." Dean distantly heard how choked he sounded. Memory hit him, and he tensed. "Oh, God. You turned around in the seat."

Pained, John closed his eyes. Of all the fucking things he had to remember...

"You turned around to- to put on pressure, to tell me it was-" Dean swallowed convulsively. "Your leg was pinned, and you ripped it out of- they could've saved it if you hadn't-"

"I did what I had to," John said evenly. "Wouldn't change a damned thing."

Half a dozen responses swam through Dean's mind, beginning with 'you should've helped Sam' and ending with cursing for a long while. He stuck with a simple, "Oh, fuck. Dad."

John sat on the edge of the bed with a soft sigh. "It's okay." Dean's incredulous face almost made him smile. "I mean, it's not my first choice, but I'm dealing with it. Hell, it's a couple more places to hide an extra clip."

Dean shook his head. "I'm sorry." The memory of the crash was still fresh, the pain from the demon's torture, the noise, the impact. And then, his father's bloody face, the strong hand pressing over his stomach, keeping him from bleeding out. That hoarse voice, ordering Dean to stay with him, that it was barely a scratch, dammit.

John brushed his fingers over Dean's cheek, ignoring the flinch. "Dean. I mean it. If I could go back, I wouldn't change a damned thing. You and your brother are the most important things in my life."

Dean didn't respond, just stared at the ceiling with haunted eyes.

"We thought you were dead, you know," John said softly. "They messed up your paperwork with a drug dealer who'd been in a collision with a bus. He didn't make it."

Dean's eyes were on him now. "That's why you were a day behind me."

"Yeah. That and I taught you how to find cover a little too well." John shook his head. "Your brother though...he wouldn't believe it. And then, we found that picture of Moose Days."

Dean's lips curled up in a faint, distant smile.

John took a deep breath. "I- God. I thought that as long as I got that demon, anything was justified, any sacrifice worth it. Then, I woke up in a hospital with one leg to be told that you were dead, and Sammy was in a coma, and they didn't know if he'd wake up- or if he'd still be Sam when he did."

Dean's eyes sharpened, glancing over at Sam. "He's okay, right?"

John nodded. "Yeah. He's a Winchester," he said simply.

Dean breathed a little easier. "Yeah."

"It wasn't worth it," John said abruptly. "It wasn't worth your life. Your brother was right. Some things are more important."

"Are you possessed again?" Dean asked flatly.

John forced a faint smile. "Nope."

"Okay." When it looked like John was about to continue, Dean sighed, wincing theatrically. "I think I'm ready for the drugs again."

John's eyes narrowed, but he still eased the needle into Dean's arm, watched him as he slid into sleep. Things would get better. They would make Dean see what he meant to them. Fix the holes the demon had left inside his son.

Patch up the wounds John had made himself.

****

29

Sunset on the eleventh day found John sitting at Missouri's kitchen table, surrounded by paper. For all that Missouri's house looked like it belonged in some 1974 issue of Good Housekeeping, she'd had a fax machine set up in her office. That let John go over the mountain of demonology crap Andrew had faxed over in the last few days: reversing bindings, killing demons without killing the person who bound them, any and all information on Belial that Andrew could find.

Which was good, because if John spent five more minutes around Dean, he was either going to strangle the boy or offer to let Dean shoot him. Anything to make the pale imitation of Dean stop.

And yeah, it was an imitation. Whenever he thought they weren't looking, the smile slipped. The haunted, tired look came back. Even with the act, Dean was quie, head cocked and expression tight like he was listening to something ugly. He kept one eye on Sam, one on the door. He didn't look at John. He slept, or faked sleeping, a lot.

Dean'd earned those silences and a whole new set of scars. He was a grown man now, and John didn't have the right to treat him otherwise. If Dean said he was fine, John would damned well give him space to pretend it was the truth.

For now.

With a low growl of annoyance, John stood, walking along the hallway to the door. "Sam, I'm gonna check on the demon. Open?"

Sam stood slowly, joints protesting, even after a week and a half of basic inactivity. "I think I'm going to go sack out. Poke me and I'll re-lock it." He flicked a finger at the door, listening as the bolts shot back. "Be careful."

"Got it, Sam," John sighed. "I will be."

He opened the door quietly, limping down the stairs until he stood just outside of the Seal. The darkness within, the lazy pulse of the hourglass like a sick heart, made John's skin crawl. "What are you doing to Dean, you son of a bitch?"

And then it was there, in his head. The memory made John's fists clench.

"John, what a pleasant surprise," the demon purred. "I'm not doing anything. After all, you bound me. Doesn't that fix everything? Oh, wait. It really doesn't fix a damned thing, does it? Not a damned thing like your boy up there."

"I know you can talk to me, too. Why aren't you taking your shots, you sick fuck?" John asked, fists clenching.

"Oh, John. Taunting you won't hurt you. I couldn't break you when I was at full strength, so why bother now? All the torments, the torture... but Dean," it purred. "Now that tortures you. That kills you inside. So, really, I am going after you. Through our boy."

"He's not yours," John growled. "Neither of them are."

"Oh, I would go after Sammy, but really. He's of no use to me now," it sighed theatrically.

"What do you mean?" John asked.

"You Winchesters. Always willing to throw the stupid, senseless sacrifice into the mix. When really, it's like spitting on a bonfire. All in the name of love. He burned himself out John, all that power, just... gone." John had the impression of something moving in the circle, stirring the air, there and then gone again. "But then, you knew that. You let him waste it."

"It was Sam's call."

"Of course it was," it murmured. "C'mon, John. We're both fathers. We know the drill. If you threw your weight, you could've made him stop. Would've lost Dean, but then you already have, haven't you? You lost him in that cabin, the moment you felt your cock get hard-"

"Stop," John bit off. "That was you, you sick fuck-"

"-Staring at your son. You would've enjoyed it, us fucking him while he cried." There was a smile in its voice as it purred, "I know I did. Right there in the van-"

John hauled himself to a stop just short of the circle. Dug his nails into his palms until he felt them slick with sweat or blood. "You son of a bitch, what did you-"

"With you in the driver's seat, telling him he was safe. God, John, no wonder he flinches from you." Shadows stirred in the dimly lit circle, rubbing against the seal before receding again. Trick of the light. "But you've given him plenty of reasons for that before I ever darkened your doorstep. He was broken before I got there. A million little cracks for me to wedge my way into. 'Does Daddy really love me?' Fucking pathetic, really."

"Funny," John growled, "you're the one in the damned hourglass. Death by Shop Vac? Now that's pathetic."

"I'll give you, he's impressive. Psychotic, of course. Just like pretty Amanda. But impressive. You'd never know that in there's still a scared four year old, who didn't want to talk because he'd start screaming and never stop. I should've taken him then. My mistake. He'd have been right at home with all my other children, because he's belonged to me all along. I just let you borrow him for a while."

His cell phone trilled. John grabbed one-handed, ignoring the demon's low chuckle. "Winchester."

"John." Andrew's voice was ragged and weary. He sounded like he'd been talking non-stop, or possibly screaming. "I've got an option for you for that hourglass."

John looked up. "Permanent?"

"As it gets. Bring it to the church. Friday night."

John thought of the silences, Dean's uneasy sleep, the thicker darkness of the shadows cast in the basement. "Can you take it tonight?" he asked, trying to sound even.

"Friday's as soon as we can do it. Has to be a new moon. Banishing. Sorry."

"All right." John rubbed his eyes. "And this option won't hurt Dean, right?"

"John," Andrew sounded affronted. "Of course not."

"Just checking."

"There is one catch. Dean has to agree to dispose of it." Andrew sighed. "Demon ownership is a tricky business. You have to willingly turn it over to someone else's keeping, or the binding is null and void. He's a stubborn son of a bitch, and he's had time to start to wonder if he could control it. The demon's very One Ring."

"What?" John began, then shook his head. Too much time around Sam. "Never mind. Look, he handed it to me to watch in the cemetery. Does that count?"

"Yes. Thank God, it does. But you still only have half-control over it. Neither of your decisions carries more weight than the other."

Pained, John closed his eyes. His voice was low when he said, "And if I give it to Sam?"

"Then you two can outvote him without damaging the binding." Andrew sounded surprised. "How bad is it over there, exactly?"

"As bad as it's going to get. Will it hurt Sam?"

"I'll be honest, it's not sunshine and picnics. It can't physically hurt any of you, but it can do its damage to your minds. It's got plenty of ammo."

John glanced inside the seal, noticing the demon's silence. Not like the damned thing to shut up when John was on the phone, but it had. "You did good, Andrew. Thank you. Get some sleep."

"Yessir," Andrew muttered, and hung up on him.

John closed his eyes in the early morning quiet, letting his head fall back. An option. God, that was good to hear. Snapping the phone shut, he turned to bare his teeth in a grin at the hourglass. "Gotcha."

"You can't think this will work. You know I'll come back on you."

The sound of footsteps above John's head made him glance at the ceiling. Exasperation warred with a strange fondness for a moment before the second won out. Climbing to his feet, John staggered on the first step and managed okay on the rest of the ones that took him out to the living room.

"You know I'll kill you all. John- John! Don't you fucking turn your back on me! I killed your wife! I'll kill your boys-"

John closed the door behind him, muffling its voice.

A quick look at the couch confirmed that yes, Sam was out cold. All those nights of sitting up with John to watch Dean sleep had finally caught up with him. He'd crashed like he had when he was 4, going abruptly from all energy to complete stillness, long limbs flung in different directions, one foot dangling over the edge of the couch arm and one on Missouri's coffee table. John paused long enough to tug the crocheted throw over Sam's shoulder and tap him gently.

"Mmrgh?"

"Door."

"Mmm." There was the click of the three locks sliding home. Sam rolled over, burying his face in the couch.

John touched his back. "Sam? We need to talk."

Sam flipped over quickly, eyes wide. "Dean-"

"Not about him. The demon. I was talking to Andrew. He's got a way to get rid of the bastard."

"When can we get there?"

"Not til Friday. That's not the problem. As it stands, if Dean won't agree to get rid of it-"

"He won't. He was babbling something the other day, about using it as a weapon--trying to figure out how to do a mobile binding or something. When I called him on it, he shut up. Then he tried to tell me he was kidding." Sam looked up at him. "As it stands?"

"Yeah. He gave it to me in the cemetery, which means I'm half owner. Still, if I take it, my fifty cancels his fifty, and the binding could snap. Then, we're fucked," John muttered.

"So, what are you going to do?" Sam asked suspiciously.

"I could give it to-"

"Yes," Sam said firmly. "I accept."

"Sam," John said tiredly. "Think about this for a second. It'll be able to talk to you, taunt you. Possibly visit you in nightmares, throw up the worst moments of your life on the mental viewmaster."

Sam's eyes hardened. "Is that what it's been doing to you?"

John studied the floor. "No. It knows that the best way to get to me is through Dean." He met Sam's eyes. "Or you. I hate to give it another target, hate to ask it of you, but-"

"Dad," Sam said, cutting him off. "Yes."

John let out a soft breath. "Do you willingly accept possession of the demon Belial, bound in his hourglass by your brother's blood?"

"Yes." Sam winced at the little flare of power along his skin. "Ow."

John touched his head lightly. "I'm sorry."

Sam shook his head. "Don't worry about it. You should get some rest."

"I think I will. Thanks, Sam," John murmured fondly, watching Sam turn back over, his breathing deepening. Must be nice.

John looked up, hearing a slow footstep in the hallway above him. Dean. So much for that whole 'yell if you need help' thing.

By the time John got upstairs, Dean was already halfway to the bathroom. Halfway because he'd apparently run out of steam in the hallway, his body reminding him that he'd just been through hell. Dean slumped against the wall, giving John a lopsided smile that almost looked genuine. If John ignored the clammy sweat, the dark circles under his eyes, and the way he drew his shoulder back when John went to steady him. "Hey, Dad. What's doing?"

John shrugged, letting his hand drop. "Been worse. Your brother's finally sleeping."

"About time." Gingerly, Dean took a step forward. When he didn't fall on his face, he took another. "I need a shower. 'Cause dude, between the Thorazine and the smell, I'm starting to feel like Keith Moon. After he bit it."

"Zombies," John noted. "Hard to get the smell off."

"Not that I don't think you tried and all, but the whore baths just aren't cutting it anymore." Dean held up the new cast Dr. Santos had put on him the day before. "And now that I can get this bitch wet, I'm going to shower."

Moving slowly, because he'd learned quickly that moving fast spooked Dean, John reached up, rumpling his hair. "Afterwards, if you want, I could cut the blue out."

Dean flashed him a smirk. "That's the fifth time since I came to you've offered that. And here I thought you liked the color blue."

"Not on your hair," John muttered. Giving Dean's hair a last tug, John turned. "I think I'm going to take a nap, follow your brother's example. Call me if you need anything. Don't want you trying the stairs yet."

Dean nodded. "Yessir."

John headed for the bedroom, flopping on the bed with a grimace. Now that they were home, and the adrenaline had worn down, he was feeling the damage he'd done to his leg. The low-level constant ache he'd been able to ignore had scaled up to a vicious biting pain whenever he walked. It was harder to compartmentalize now, to put out of his mind.

He laid there, hand absently rubbing the thigh muscle and staring at the ceiling. Friday. They could finally get rid of the bastard that had haunted their lives in just three days. Maybe then they could finally get their lives back on track. Maybe then, Dean would come back to them. All the way, instead of the shell they were living with now.

If the demon hadn't been lying, the way Dean was acting wasn't surprising. If anything, it should be worse. Dean seemed... distant. Not broken, not even deeply wounded. Just checked out until further notice, until the world was enough to pull him back. It'd been worse when he was a kid, the eerily silent 4 year old who wouldn't meet anyone's eyes but John's and who wouldn't let Sam out of his sight. Compared to that, this was mild.

Then again, Dean had always been a good liar and a better actor. It was how he got his way onto crime scenes and out of the social worker's office back in the day. He'd never been able to con John before. John'd let Dean think he was getting away with shit before, but he'd known.

If the demon had been telling the truth, Dean would be worse. He wouldn't have found out through the demon. John would know. He'd have to know.

After a few minutes, John lifted his head, suddenly aware of the quiet. The silence. No shower running. Shit.

He stumbled along the hallway, pausing outside the door. What if he was just shaving, or cutting the godawful dye out of his hair? Didn't want Dean to think he couldn't be trusted. Jesus, no wonder he'd been a shitty father. He had no clue what the hell he was supposed to do.

Then, John heard the soft, shaky breath behind the door. Fuck.

Dean didn't look up when he opened the door a crack. John wasn't even sure he'd heard the door open.

Dean was sitting on the edge of the tub, his arms wrapped around his naked chest, shuddering silently while tears slid down his face.

John stepped into the tiny room, leaving the door open, and Dean looked up, eyes wide, and for a heartbeat, terrified. After a moment he seemed to recognize John, and he looked back down, the shaking getting worse.

Oh, God. No. Not this.

The demon... maybe it hadn't lied. Maybe the truth was worse.

"S'okay," Dean choked, "I'm okay, Dad, just- just get out."

Watching closely for any sign that Dean might bolt, John stepped closer, flipping the lid down and lowering himself onto the toilet. It was close enough that their knees almost touched.

Dean made a soft noise. Not quite a sob, less than a whimper. "'m sor-"

"Shh." John reached out, waiting for the inevitable flinch, and laid his hand on the side of Dean's head.

The flinch never came. Instead, Dean tilted his head into the touch, his breath sliding out on a shuddering sigh. John grabbed Dean's waistband and pulled him closer along the rim of the tub, then slid his arm around his boy's shoulders, offering comfort.

For a moment, he was sure Dean was about to run. Then, with a choked, broken noise, he leaned into John, laying his head against his father's shoulder.

John stared at nothing for a moment, feeling hate and rage choke him. It'd be easy to leave this to Sam, to storm back downstairs and scream at the demon until he was hoarse. But it'd be useless.

John tightened his grip, pulling Dean closer, feeling his son's tears sear against his shoulder. Somehow, they hurt worse than the leg ever could. "Shh. It's all right," he murmured, pressing a light kiss to the top of Dean's head. "We're here, Dean. Trust Sammy and me, all right? We've got your back."

John thought Dean might have nodded, but it was hard to tell.

Whatever Andrew had planned, Friday couldn't come fast enough for John's taste.

Unfortunately, that would wait for another day. Right now, it was enough to have Dean pressed against him, solid and whole. The rest would have to fall into place as it came.

***

30

It was two days before John saw his son again. Sure, Dean was there. But only in body. After the little breakdown in the bathroom, Dean's mood shifted, and not in the way John had been hoping.

He'd been a surly, unpleasant little bitch, snapping at John. Even at Sam, which startled John into silence the first time he saw it, sure it was a trick of the demon's or John's own sleep deprivation. The boys used to scuffle, but now Dean turned and verbally bit at Sam like an animal with one foot in a trap.

When the knock came at the back door, they were finishing Dean's first lunch downstairs. Sam had helped him down the stairs, with Dean bitching the whole way.

At least his appetite was good, John grudgingly thought. He got up to answer the door, hand undoing the strap that kept his sidearm in place. Never hurt to be prepared.

He stepped to the side of the door and flicked the curtain out of his way.

Bobby's serious face met his in the split second before the curtain fell back.

Well, shit. The day got better and better. "Just Bobby," John murmured to the boys, feeling their sudden attention on him.

Dean winced, relaxing only slightly. "Hope he doesn't want a rematch."

John opened the door a little, not bothering to restrap his gun. "Bobby."

Bobby nodded, stepping forward, nudging the door open the rest of the way. "Just here to check things out," he said in passing, too low for the boys to hear. "Relax."

"Somehow, I'm not reassured," John murmured. "Come on in. Want a beer?"

"Nah. Can't stay. Just wanted to drop something off. Can I borrow Dean for a moment?"

John was on the verge of protesting as Dean levered himself slowly up. "Bobby," Dean said, a wary edge to his voice.

"Hey, son. Looking a little rough."

Dean flashed his cocky smile. "You should see the Horde."

Bobby laughed softly. "So I heard. Can you make it onto the porch?"

Dean nodded, strolling out like every movement wasn't sending spikes of pain along his ribs. If it wasn't so fucked up, John would be proud of him. As it was, John was just relieved that Dean could still read his father's tension and know to be careful. "Sure thing," Dean drawled.

Bobby stepped out onto the porch and pointed towards the driveway. "Brought you a get well present."

Dean paused in the doorway for a heartbeat, frowning. Then his eyes widened, and he tore off at a dead sprint like he hadn't been gimping down the stairs.

John swore and shoved past Bobby, going to either provide cover or tell Dean to slow the hell down. Gleaming black metal and chrome caught him mid-step, shut him up. John just stood there, watching as Dean skidded to a stop beside the Impala where Bobby had unhitched it from his truck.

Behind him, Sam made a soft choked noise. He slid past them both, moving towards the Impala. After he hit the bottom step, he started running to catch up with Dean.

"Holy Jesus fuck, Bobby, what the hell?" John looked at Bobby. "I thought she was in pieces. I thought you were selling her for scrap."

"Her? Nah." Pulling off his hat, Bobby sheepishly scratched the back of his neck. "I had some time to kill. Turns out she's a tough lady. She'll take a hell of a lot of mechanical work yet, but the body's sound. I don't have much patience for piddly shit. Figure that's your department."

"Huh." John turned his head, watching Dean smile- really smile- as he bent and touched the hood, crooning at the Impala. The sight tugged an answering smile from John. "Thank you."

"Hold off on that, John." Bobby shifted on his feet, moving closer so they could speak quietly. Up close, John could see the gun holstered under Bobby's jacket. "How's your boy? Remembering much?"

"Enough." John lowered his eyes to the gun. "That'd better not be for my son, Bobby, or you and me are going to have problems."

"You've got problems already. I cased the house. Heard him give you nothing but grief."

"That's nothing new-"

"You and Sam. It's a good act, but that's not your boy over there."

"He nearly died," John bit off. "He went through hell. You going to tell me you'd be sunshine and light?"

"Nope. But I wasn't trained to be a weapon from when I was a kid. And I'm not the one who bound a greater demon and carried him around on my damn back." Bobby looked out over at Dean, who was kneeling by the Impala and running a reverent hand over the hood. Bobby's mouth tightened, and he shook his head. "We can't afford to let it go if you can't control him. We had enough trouble with Sinclair, and she was half what your boy is now."

"You don't know trouble. None of you do." John let his hand drop to his own gun. "Don't threaten my boys."

"You think it's my first choice? Hell, I practically raised that boy like he was mine. Helped you train him myself. If anybody goes down for this, it's back on me as much as you." Bobby shook his head. "I'll give you the time. But broke is broke, and you know that. Some things you can't fix."

Sam was watching them, eyes narrowed, body tense. He glanced at John, his hand easing towards the gun he had holstered under one of the few thousand shirts he seemed to be wearing.

John gave him a curt, silent shake of his head. Glanced at Dean. Not yet. Watch your brother.

Sam gave Bobby a look that could've soldered iron, then stepped protectively between Dean and the porch. Dean wasn't so distracted he was oblivious, from the way he was eyeing Bobby with sudden intensity. If Dean set Bobby on fire, John wasn't sure he'd move too fast towards an extinguisher.

"That's damned giving of you." John jerked his head towards Bobby's truck. "Get the fuck off this property before I shoot you."

Bobby flicked him a look, gauging. "Two weeks. If it's not me, you know it'll be somebody else. Somebody who might start thinking like he'd be a nice weapon. Something to stick in a cage and use when it's handy."

Yeah, damn it, John did know. It was the sort of damn fool thought he'd have had a year ago for someone else's child. Wouldn't have done it- probably- but he'd have thought about it hard. But there were others, Elkins, maybe Katya's Jericho, who wouldn't flinch. John managed a grudging, "Call before you come."

Bobby gave him a sardonic salute on his way off the porch. John watched uneasily as Bobby said goodbye to his boys, and didn't really breathe easy until Bobby's truck had pulled out of Missouri's driveway.

The twisted thing was, Bobby wasn't wrong. If John couldn't pull Dean back...

John'd give him a warning and a few day's head start. Tell him to go out past Mexico, keep running until the others couldn't find him, and not look back.

Dean gave John a long, silent look. Then he went back to babying the Impala. He stayed out there most of the day, out into the night, working until John figured he had to be exhausted. Dean looked that way when Sam finally harassed him into coming inside for the night.

Apparently John had been wrong. That was the only reason that he found Dean kneeling outside the basement door at 4 am, picking the damn lock.

"Dean, what in the hell do you think you're doing?" John thundered.

Dean jumped, but didn't bother to look at his father. "Tripped," he muttered, going back to working on the basement lock.

Lying bold-faced to John was a new trick. John silently counted to ten, trying to rein in his temper.

Sam had passed the last few days of bad temper off as Dean's normal restlessness. As his body healed, he could handle sitting still less and less. John had known better, though. He'd seen the protracted silences where Dean's expression would flicker through a myriad of emotions, seen the way his son had looked at him when he didn't think John could see.

He knew too well what the demon could offer Dean, knew that Dean was still vulnerable. His memories were coming back, trickling in sluggish and slow. But they were far from complete. Snippets of their lives that might or might not make sense.

It was exhausting, trying to keep up with Dean's moods. One moment, smiling, the next glaring daggers as another memory slid into place. Worst of all, viewed without context, the memories seemed to be destroying the bonds that had pulled Dean back.

"You tripped," John said, eyes narrowing.

"Yup."

"And you disconnected the alarms on the way down?" John asked sarcastically.

"Yup." The lock gave, and Dean smiled triumphantly, reaching for the door. It remained firmly stuck, and Dean tugged it harder, the smile sliding away. "What. The. Fuck." He turned, eyes darkening to stare at his father, who was now leaning against the other wall. He'd barely spared time to yank the prosthetic on, and was standing there in his boxers and t-shirt.

Somehow, the sight of the gleaming metal joint and fleshtone plastic- his fault, Dean reminded himself- set Dean's temper on edge. "What the hell did you do to the door? Open it," he ordered.

"Why?"

Dean fumbled for a moment. "I need to see that it's safe," he lied.

John shook his head. "It's fine."

And you're going to trust the man who couldn't even keep me from possessing him? the sickly sweet voice echoed in Dean's mind.

"Dad-"

"Don't fucking lie to me, Dean," John spat. "It's calling you. We both know it."

Dean shook his head. "No. I-"

You're what, boy? Losing your mind? the demon chuckled darkly. That'll go over well. You know Bobby's probably waiting at the city limits. Where are you going to run?

"Tonight can't come fast enough."

Dean's eyes narrowed. "Tonight?"

"Andrew has a way to get rid of the damned thing, permanently." John watched Dean's face closely.

Get rid of me, of the power I can give you. You know I can. Give you power, save millions of lives. You owe them that much.

"You can't do that," Dean said flatly.

"Oh yes. I can." John pushed off the wall, taking a step towards Dean. "We can't-"

He thinks you're a child to be led, Belial whispered. He thinks he can still tell you what to do. He doesn't know what you've seen. What you've done.

"It's a weapon," Dean bit off, "no different from a gun or an axe. You wouldn't throw away the Colt, why should we get rid of this-"

"The Colt doesn't regularly try to possess my son," John said.

"It's not your fucking decision to make!" Dean stepped forward, until he was in his father's face. "I bound it! I'm the one who went through hell! You don't get a say in the matter, Dad."

John shook his head. "You gave it to me willingly in the graveyard. According to Andrew, that makes it equally mine."

Dean's eyes darkened. "Sonofabitch. That still doesn't give you the right-"

"And I gave it to Sam," John said, hearing Sam shuffling down the stairs behind him. "We outvote you."

To Sam, the demon echoed. To the good son. His favorite.

Dean looked past John at his brother's stricken face. "Sammy?"

"Dean," Sam said, shaking his head. "It's gotta go. It's killing you."

"Just fucking great!" Dean snarled. "You two finally agree on something, and it's to fuck me over." He spun, stalking towards the back door.

Sam moved to intercept him, reaching for Dean's wrist. "Dean-"

"Leave me alone, Sam," Dean growled, jerking away.

John closed his eyes, cursing as the door slammed behind Dean. After a moment, he opened his eyes, giving Sam a weary smile. "That went well."

Sam sighed, rubbing his eyes. "Should I go after him?"

John shook his head. "He'll meet us at the church."

"How can you be so sure of that?"

"I would want to be there, if I was him," John murmured. With a slight, pained noise, he limped to the couch. "We're doing the right thing."

"Was that a question?" Sam asked, sitting on the arm. "He can't go on like this. Every day, a little more of him erodes."

"I know. Fuck. I should have told him before. Given him time-"

"To do what? Take it and run?" Sam asked. "No. Better not to let him think too much."

John glanced at him. "Not like he could get the door open, Sammy. Hell, no one but you can."

Sam smiled, thinking of the heavy bolt he'd installed on the inside of the door. "Good idea, by the way."

"Saved our asses this morning." John laid his head in his hands. "We're lucky he didn't think about burning through the door."

Sam blinked. "You think he could?"

John nodded. "We exorcised the demon, Sam. Not the power Dean willingly accepted. That's all his now."

"Shit."

"Yeah."

"You could've told me."

"Just did," John grumbled.

"Whatever, Dad." Sam stared into space for a long moment. "Did Andrew say anything about this option?"

"Nope. Just that it wouldn't harm Dean, and that it was permanent."

"You trust him?" Sam asked.

"Andrew?" John considered. "As much as I trust anyone outside of you two."

Sam nodded.

"But I don't think he'd fuck over Dean." John sighed, closing his eyes and stretching his neck. "I always wondered if there was something there."

"What?"

"Andrew and your brother. When they were both younger."

"Excuse me?" Sam asked.

John's eyes opened, glancing at Sam. "Oh, for God's sake, Sam. You're the college boy. Figure it out."

Sam stared blankly for a moment, then his cheeks flushed. "Seriously?"

"Yup."

"You're okay with that?" Sam asked quietly.

"Not my speed, but whatever gets you through the night," John shrugged. "I may have been a crappy father, but I was paying attention, Sam." His eyes slid to Sam's face, a long silent look. Waited a second.

Sam's face got redder. He stared at the floor.

John smirked, enjoying Sam's discomfort just a little. Okay, he admitted to himself. A lot. "You're my boys. Nothing changes that."

Sam closed his eyes. "Great. Thanks. Now let's never have this talk again. God, this is worse than when Dean tried to explain sex. With diagrams."

John just smiled at him, reaching up to push the hair out of Sam's eyes. "Fine. Make sure there's no goddamn rainbow anythings stuck on the car the next time I look."

"C'mon, Dad," Sam muttered. "Might make it a little hard if we ever needed to go through Oklahoma. Or Alabama. Or anyplace where you hear the Deliverance banjos when you pass the 'welcome to' sign."

John paused, his hand still on Sam's head as he looked at him hard. When Sam didn't glance away, his expression serious, John let his hand drop. "I thought you were going back to school, Sam."

Jaw flexing a little, Sam shrugged. "I thought I was, too."

"They'd let you back in." Laying his head back against the couch, John frowned at the ceiling and tried to make the painful triple-time of his heart slow down. "If it's a problem, we can always forge documents. Doctor's note or something."

"That's not the problem. I mean, trying to get my scholarship back would suck, and explaining the leave of absence..." Sam rubbed at the back of his neck. "But that's not why."

John's mind wouldn't be organized into any sort of order. There were about twelve different things going on at once. Irritation, fear, pride, regret. He wanted to issue the order, wanted to tell Sam to get his ass back to a normal life while he still could. Fall back and use the picket fence for cover.

Dean wasn't giving up the hunt. Even before this clusterfuck, that much had always been clear. But John had hinged a lot on the thought that at least Sam might be okay.

Sam was okay. He'd grown up into a good man, basically decent and surprisingly whole for everything he'd lived through. At the end of the day, he wasn't the baby John had grabbed from out of the fire. It was his call, and John pushing anything else on him would just make Sam bolt again.

Damned if John didn't want to bark an order at him anyway.

"Do me a favor," John said finally. "Wait until after this is over to make that call."

"Dad." Sam turned around on the arm, his smile sad and too damned old for his face. "I already made it."

"Bullshit. When we were in that asshole's office, I was watching you." John looked at Sam. "You were having a hell of a time-"

"Running a con job," Sam said simply. "Like all the others. I'm good at it. But that doesn't mean I want to spend the rest of my life running a con job that gets me two kids and an office door with my name on it. Especially not when I'm waiting to get the call that says Dean died on a hunt because nobody was there to cover his back."

John watched his son, the quiet resolve written on his face, and tried to come up with a decent argument. There weren't any, which stung. Dean wouldn't be okay on his own, not like this, and short of locking him in the basement John couldn't keep him off the hunt. John wasn't in any shape to hunt, and probably wouldn't be for at least as long as the PT took. Maybe never. He'd been getting slower on the hunt, his instincts dulled by wear and by the rage even before the wreck took his damned leg.

He was supposed to die. Not left crippled and sitting on the sidelines while Dean took his suicide dive back into the hunt. Not left staring at Sam, unable to come up with a good reason why this life shouldn't eat up Sam's good years like it had John's.

Dean needed Sam. John needed them both alive. And it wasn't like John could call them safe anymore, even if they laid down arms now. Dean had made himself a target. Sam had always been one. Belial wasn't the last, or even the worst, of the things that would be tailing them.

The gate to hell had opened. The Horde had showed up. The demons were starting to show their hand, which only meant things would get worse from here.

"I can't keep you safe from here," John said finally. "I can guard that gate, but there are others."

Sam shrugged, studying his fingers with a small smile. Then he curled them up and murmured, "I think we'll be okay to keep each other safe for a while."

John glanced down, blinked, and said, "Sam, put the couch down- gently- and I won't let Missouri kill you when she comes back."

Sam continued to stare at nothing. Not even winded. Jesus. "I hoisted the van yesterday. Got it to hover. I threw that statue in the cemetery like it was made out of paper. I can keep track of Dean."

Despite everything, John managed a smile. "Don't throw your brother."

"Aww," Sam muttered. Relaxing his fingers, he let the couch down towards the floor. The landing was more than slightly rough. With a sheepish grin, he said, "Sorry. I'm a little sloppy."

"I noticed that." John got carefully up, not quite trusting gravity. "We'll get there."

Sam looked out the window at the slow drizzle. "Wonder where Dean went?"
***
Small slabs of marble flew in the cemetery, shifting away from the cracked and broken tomb. Amazing the damage a tiny pipebomb could do. The pile of rubble next to it grew quickly.

"Goddamn it," Dean muttered, finally sitting on a tombstone, breathing heavily, ribs aching. He scrubbed at his face with his hand.

"Feel any better now?" a soft voice asked.

Dean turned, squinting against the rain to see the slight blond man standing there. "Andrew, right?"

"Ah, you remember." Andrew walked over, hands in the pockets of his overcoat and sat on the tombstone.

Dean winced at the sudden flash of memory. Stealing communal wine from Pastor Jim, drinking with Andrew while Sam played look-out. Touch football and Led Zeppelin and poker games. "Yeah. Sort of."

"It's a start." Andrew gestured towards the tomb. "Having fun?"

"I-" Dean started, then stopped. "Why do you care?"

"The gate won't open for you. Probably won't open again for a long while. Certainly not while you're in town. Not after the damage you've done." Andrew stood, walking over to the mouth of the tomb, running a hand over the cracked and blackened marble.

"And I repeat, you care because why?"

Andrew didn't bother to answer, just glanced over his shoulder with an odd smile. After a long moment, he shrugged. "I just thought you might need a friend."

"Jesus, you too?" Dean closed his eyes, leaning his head into his hands, fingers pressing into his eyes. When he lifted it, Andrew was still there, but there was something else, a striated afterimage from his fingers, a disturbance in the air around Andrew's form, like heat coming off the road. It looked-- Dean shook his head, and it was gone.

"What are you?" Dean snarled.

Andrew smiled slightly. "Listening. And not your father, which should buy me some bonus points right about now."

"You're the one who's helping them get rid of the hourglass," Dean accused.

"Of course," Andrew said evenly. "It has to go, Dean. The binding's already straining."

"What do you mean?"

Andrew shook his head, sitting next to Dean. "The binding is only as strong as your will. You've got an amazing strength of will, but even you can't hold it forever."

"Could," Dean muttered.

"Do you know what that demon is?" Andrew asked. "You didn't bind a demon. You bound the highest ranking demon in hell."

"Nuh-uh. The five Princes-"

"The Princes of Hell aren't demons."

"How the fuck would you know-"

"Demonologist. I trained with Jim, who was probably the closest thing the field has to an expert." A shadow of grief crossed Andrew's face. He toed at the grass under his feet, then cleared his throat. "Anyway. Belial was it. There are demons with more personal power, but Belial had the children. Like Sam. And he had their power- an army of those poor kids, twisted up until they thought they were being loyal. He- it was the demon of men's worst nightmares. Child molesters and rapists, and every twisted, perverse desire."

"That's funny, coming from a priest."

"Fuck. Off. You know better." Andrew squinted at Dean. "What, I get too close and you take a cheap swipe? Fucking nice. I saved your life."

"Want a medal?" Dean shot back. "I still don't know why."

Andrew made a rude gesture with his apparently flexible wrist, then continued, "You bound Belial. And even you can't hold that forever."

"What will happen if it isn't taken care of?" Dean asked.

"The binding will break, and it'll kill you. Then, because they have claims on it, the power will turn on your father, then your brother. Probably kill John, too. Then, it'll rebound into Sam. Might not have enough left to kill him. Might just shatter his mind, drive him insane. Then the demon will be free to use his power, or to use him as a vessel as it pleases," Andrew said flatly. "Do whatever it pleases to attractive young men like your brother."

"Oh." Dean swallowed. "Oh."

"Yeah." Andrew looked up at the sky, the steady drizzle. "God's pissing on us. Want to go grab some coffee before you catch your death?"

Dean nodded slowly. "Okay." He let Andrew lead him out of the cemetery to his waiting car.

****

31

They reached the church just after nightfall. Maybe it was Sam's nerves, but the shadows seemed longer as they climbed out of the van. Being the only person who hadn't been possessed, at least not by this demon, Sam was the one who had to keep the hourglass secure on the drive over.

'Keep it secure' being relative, since Dad wasn't taking chances with the thing. It was wrapped in three layers of bedsheets, duct-taped and shoved inside a cooler that Sam had shoved between his feet. By the time they reached the church, the duct tape was bubbling and the sheets were crumbling into rusty ash.

He gripped the handle tight, gritting his teeth against the whispering in the edges of his mind. The cool night seemed bitingly cold, easing only when he set the cooler down for a second to open the trunk. They probably didn't need weaponry for a walk across the parking lot, but you never knew.

A light touch on his shoulder made Sam jerk. His father looked at him, frowning. "You sure you're all right to carry that?"

"Yeah." Sam waited for his father to grab a shotgun and pulled the trunk closed. It'd be easier to carry the cooler without touching it, but he didn't want to risk fumbling the thing. Not after all this.

After pretty Jess.

This fucker needed to die. Now. Setting his jaw, Sam grabbed the cooler and stalked towards the big church doors.

Come on, boy. After everything I've done to you, don't you want a chance to take me down yourself? Let me out. You can use the Colt.

Sam walked faster.

Oh, that's right. You're too much of a pussy. Couldn't pull the trigger on your father. Couldn't let big brother end it. Wasn't Jess worth that much to you?

"Fuck," Sam muttered. His heart was pounding hard in his ears as he turned, hating himself even as he said, "Take it for a minute."

John took the cooler without a word and kept walking, long strides eating up the parking lot until they were on the stairs. Sam got to the door first, shoved it open-

The smell of smoke and burning skin hit him hard, choking him. Sam whipped around, shoving himself out of John's way. He blinked fast, struggling to see past the memory of the flames consuming Jess, consuming his life. Couldn't see-

John got through the threshold, set the cooler down, and pulled his hand back. His palm was already blistering, a burn welling up on his hand where he'd gripped the handle. He hissed softly, considering his hand, then shoved it in the holy water. After a moment, he barked, "Andrew!"

"Put it on the altar!" came Andrew's impatient response, then a clatter as he fumbled with something. "Oh, damn it."

There was a flash of motion in the corner of Sam's vision. He turned his head, and smiled as he saw Dean with his feet up on the pew in front of him. "Hey."

Dean gave him a tight smile and straightened, his feet dropping loudly. It gave John a warning before Dean got up, not looking at him, eyeing the cooler with narrowed eyed hate. Then he reached into his jacket and pulled out a glove, holding it out to John at arms length. An oven mitt.

John's lip twitched. He took the mitt, sliding it painfully over his burned hand, and flexed his fingers. "Thanks."

Dean grunted and stepped out into the aisle, moving to flank John's left side, mirroring Sam. "You've got the bitch?"

"I've got the bitch." John picked up the cooler, grimacing as its voice picked up again in the back of his mind. It was bargaining now, flinging out pain and hate, cursing him. Its power crept up on him in desperate patches, trying to make him pull his gun, trying to make him drop the cooler.

The fucking thing couldn't break him when it was at full strength in the cabin. It certainly couldn't now, not with his boys behind him. He kept walking, setting his jaw. The pain got worse with each step, the cooler heavier. When he started to falter, he felt Sam's hand on his shoulder, bracing him, and he could keep going.

And then the altar was in front of him, the crucifix above him. Andrew was there, one hand outstretched, smiling. Not a pleasant smile. His eyes fixed on the cooler, alight in a way that reminded John eerily of Jim. "Give it here, John."

23 years on the hunt for this thing. 23 years of a waking nightmare, friends and his wife buried, his children's lives ruined. 23 years of patching up his own wounds, fake I.D.s and credit card fraud. John couldn't keep himself from hesitating.

Someone cleared their throat sharply from the other side of the altar, the side of the chapel of Mary. John glanced there and saw a woman in a violently red dress, a black cloak over it, hood pulled up. "Thank you, Andrew," she said, in a voice that was iron, "that'll be all."

Andrew turned his head and gave the woman a smile that was almost fond. "Or you could put it on the altar," he told John, stepping smoothly aside. His eyes lingered on the cooler for another poisonous moment, then on Dean's face, before he moved off the dais.

The woman stepped up to the other side of the altar, facing John. Her lips curved in an impossible smile. "So. Do you give it freely to my keeping?"

John set the cooler down on the altar with a gentle thump, prying his fingers off the handle. He looked at her, and couldn't get his voice steady. "I do."

"Now that sounds familiar," the woman murmured, raising her hands to pull the hood back. Mary looked at him, tired and smiling, and said, "Hello, John."

John swallowed convulsively and stepped closer to the altar, close enough to touch her. She walked around, sliding into his arms like she belonged there. She always had belonged there. His hands shook as he stroked her back, her shoulders, feeling her solid and whole. Not a dream. God, not a dream.

"I can't stay," she whispered, her voice ragged. "I need to talk to you. To the boys."

"Yeah. Anything. Just..." John closed his eyes, leaning his chin against the top of her head. "Just give me a second."

After a long minute, he could make himself let her go. John held her back at arms length, studying her face.

Mary gave him a wobbly smile back. "You made me cry, you jerk. I wasn't going to cry." When John just grinned at her, she sniffed and wiped at her face, clearing her throat. The look she gave him then promised trouble. "I'll be back with you in a minute, John Winchester."

At least it hadn't been the middle name. Rubbing her arm, John let her go. Mary turned away, looking at Dean. Whatever she saw there made her smile sadly, reaching out to stroke his face. "And you. We have a lot to talk about."

Dean just looked at her obstinately, tearing up and carefully not blinking.

Mary rubbed some new dirt off his cheek with her thumb, then nodded and turned away to look at Sam. Sam, who wasn't even bothering not to cry. Sam, the baby they should've raised together, the one Mary had planned for and kept John up all hours trying out baby names. The one Mary had spoken to softly, petting her stomach with a wise, crooked smile.

Reaching Sam, Mary tugged him into a hard hug. He had to bend to let her do it. "God, you got tall," she muttered into his shoulder. "And your hair. You've got a handsome face, Sam, honestly."

Sam made a muffled noise into her shoulder, half-laugh and half-sob. "Mom."

"All right, all right." Mary squeezed hard, turning her head to speak low in his ear. "As much as I want you to tell me about everything I've missed, we don't have time."

Sam swallowed hard and nodded.

"You're a good man, Sammy. You're going to be just fine. But they're going to need you." Mary gave him half a smile. "Dean's going to need you. So. I'll just say that I love you so, so much. I couldn't be prouder. And it won't make sense now, but I want you to know it's okay."

Sam blinked, turning his head to look at her. "What's okay?"

"Don't worry for now. I love you. Your father loves you. And that's not changing."

"Okay, Mom? That's a little unnerving."

"Sorry, baby." With a last kiss to the side of his head, Mary let him go. She smiled at him. "Anyway. I shouldn't steal you. She came for this one, and she wants to talk to you."

"She-?" Sam glanced over his shoulder, following his mother's nod, and froze. Jessica was there, arms folded in front of her, one eyebrow quirked as she grinned at him. "Oh, God."

Sam moved as though in a dream, slowly walking towards Jess as though she'd disappear if he startled her.

Jessica arched an eyebrow. "So, your father's an alcoholic trucker, hmmm?"

"Oh, God, I'm so sorry, I didn't know-" Sam babbled. "I shouldn't have ever- I should've told you- I saw-"

She covered his mouth with her hand. "It's okay, Sam." Jess met his eyes very seriously, her smile fading. "It's okay."

Sam made a soft noise and took the final step into Jess' arms.

Dean smiled a little, watching his baby brother's shoulders shake. This was good, he thought. Sam had needed her forgiveness, the closure. It would make it easier for Sam to get back to his life. He refused to acknowledge the aching emptiness that thought gave him. It wouldn't be like the last time. Sam'd call. They'd talk. It would be for the best.

His mother slid into the pew next to him.

"Hi, mom," Dean said. "I'm okay. Dad needs you."

Her lips thinned, and she swatted his head. "You just hush. What were you thinking?"

"Um." Dean reached up to rub his head. "Mom, that leaves a lot of ground."

"Exactly." Mary lifted her chin, arching an eyebrow at him. "I understand that you didn't have your memory. I understand that you were confused. But there were at least three or four times when you could've stopped, called your father and waited. Instead-"

"I was trying to-"

"Don't you raise your voice at me." Mary's voice was even, almost calm, and it was making Dean want to shrink down in the pew. Damn it. "Even if you didn't want to put your father in danger, you could've called Bobby."

"I did," Dean said, a little desperately. "I called him for help-"

"And he told you what you needed to do, which was come back in. Not fling yourself on the grenade. Not make a suicide run. Not try to walk into hell." After a moment where Dean only looked at her, Mary's expression gentled a little. She reached out, cupping his cheek in her cool hand. "Honey, I love you. And I miss you. But you're not supposed to join me. Not for a long time."

Dean glanced at the floor, leaning his head away from her hand. "I didn't want to die. I was just... I was tired, Mom, and I couldn't-"

"Ask for help?"

"I thought they'd killed Sam." Dean's attention wandered over her shoulder to Sam, watching as he held onto the blonde- no, to- Smurf, breasts, hey- to Jess like a drowning man. Sam would lose her all over again. It'd break his heart all over again. Who the fuck thought that was fair? "I couldn't lose Dad, too."

"Your father's a stronger man than you give him credit for-" Mary began.

"Sometimes," Dean said quietly.

"-But it'd kill him to lose you," Mary finished.

"Mom." Dean raised his eyes to hers, holding them. His lips tugged in a painful smile. "You don't have to lie to me, all right? I know how it goes."

Mary's eyes narrowed. She glanced at John, a long warning look, then back at Dean. "No, baby. Tell me how it goes."

Okay, that look didn't bode well. Dean shrugged, leaning his shoulder against the pew and wincing at the tug of healing muscle. "Dad needs back-up. I know I'm important to him."

"And your brother?" Mary asked.

"Yeah, I'm important to Sam. In that weird Sam way, sure." Dean shook his head. "It's fine. You ought to go talk to Dad, he's losing his mind over there."

Mary leaned forward, bracing her hands on her knees to stare at him. Dean resisted the urge to slide down the pew. Damn, if this was what it was like to have a mother on his ass- well, he wasn't happier without it, but it was a damn sight less uncomfortable. "You think your father went cross-country for backup?"

"No. For the demon." Dean shrugged again. "It makes sense. With the memories and sh-... stuff. Where I went, the demon was. He'd been hunting it for years. Hell, I probably made it easier for him."

Mary continued to stare at him. "That's all you think it was. That's really it."

"Yeah." Dean shifted on the seat. "I haven't gotten all the memories back, but enough for that to make sense."

The expression on his mother's face went through several small shifts, ending up somewhere near horror. And that? Was really uncomfortable, considering that it felt like she was looking straight through him. There were things there, things he'd done, that would be enough to horrify her. Things that Dean didn't want her to see.

"Okay," Mary said finally, straightening. "I've got an offer for you. I want you to really think about it before you say yes, because it's not an easy choice."

Dean felt his mouth quirk. "Hard choices. C'mon, Mom."

She gave him a lopsided grin back. Dean's heart wrenched when he realized that he recognized it as Sam's. Smile softening, she reached out and laid her hand on his head. "You're confused," she murmured. "It's okay. There's so much you don't remember. Pieces missing that don't make sense. You remember that you love them, but not why, or how much they love you. You remember that you all hurt each other without meaning to, but not everything else that went with the hurt and the duty. I can give you that back."

Dean didn't blink. "Yes."

"I asked you to think about it." Mary rubbed his temple with her thumb, soothing, making Dean want to lean into her. He hadn't slept great since they stopped with the drugs. He ached and twitched at sharp noises and wanted to check on Sam every ten minutes. "It'll be a lot to take in at once, and your mind's going to take a few days to piece it all together. It'll hurt. It's not going to give you the memories, though it might speed them up, but there'll be emotions with no context yet."

"Yes," Dean repeated firmly.

She smiled at him. "That's what I figured." She raised her hand to his forehead, then hesitated. "You know, that when I was here last time, when I sang to you- I wasn't here for the demon. I came for you."

Dean blinked. "I wasn't sure you were real."

"Very real. That was me, sweetie."

"Oh."

"You know how much I love you, right?"

"Yeah, Mom," Dean murmured. "I know. I love you, too."

"Okay." She laid her hand on his head. "Just relax."

Dean nodded, taking a deep breath, and waited. Nothing happened. "I don't think it-" He met his mother's eyes, and pain built in his head until it was all he could focus on. Then, it abated, and he was left with a thousand emotions running rampant. "Oh, shit-sorry," he apologized quickly, wobbling in the pew.

"It's okay. Close your eyes. Don't look at your father or your brother for a minute. Just... sit." She pressed a kiss to Dean's forehead, and turned to glance at Andrew. After a grudging moment, she asked, "Would you keep an eye on him?"

"I'll do my best." Andrew sat in the pew next to Dean and laid a hand on the back of his neck, urging his head down. "Put your head between your legs."

A faint twinge of memory: slow kisses, Andrew's smooth hands on his skin. Oh. So that was why- Dean barked a faintly hysterical laugh. "That sounds familiar."

"Your legs." Andrew rubbed his neck roughly. "Jesus, dude, you're lucky she didn't hear that."

John watched Mary climb the stairs back to him, and knew the look on her face meant trouble. Even as her hand settled on his shoulder, John knew her quiet, "We need to talk in private," was an order.

Andrew lifted his head from murmuring at Dean to point at one side of the church. "There's a sound-proofed room that way for crying babies and such," he said helpfully.

John wondered if he could hit Andrew with something from here. "Thanks," he drawled, and let Mary drag him.

As soon as the door closed, she turned on him. Her eyes were blazing. "John Winchester, what the fuck have you been doing?"

"Keeping the boys alive," John said dryly. "Hurting like hell. Thanks."

Mary's mouth twisted. "I know. I'm sorry. And I'd fix that if I could. But damn it, you're their father. When your son is falling apart, I'd expect you to notice-"

"I notice!" John shot back. "Every goddamn day, I watch him slip and I can't haul him back. I try and he shuts me down, and it's fucking killing me to have him flinch from me. So yeah, Mary, I kind of caught-" John stopped short, letting his head drop. After a moment of silence, he rubbed at the back of his neck. "God. I'm sorry."

"S'okay." Mary stepped closer, putting her hand on his chest. "Hey. Look at me." When John did, she smiled. "All right, so we're both jerks. Sorry. I could've handled that better."

"I know the feeling."

"All right." Absently, she rubbed tight circles on his chest, soothing. "Now. Dean's shutting you down. You're his father. Sit him down and make him talk. Talk at him, if you have to. He listens, even if he's bitching the whole way. Give him hell for scaring you and Sam like that."

"Mary." John lifted his eyes to her face. "Boy's been through enough."

"He doesn't think you love him," Mary said bluntly.

John blinked down at her. When he could make sense of it, he asked, "The fuck do you mean?"

"He'll say he does to you. He trusts you with his back. But otherwise? The demon got inside what was a crack and shoved it wide open. It twisted every memory until it made more sense for Dean to believe that you love Sam. That you need Dean for backup, maybe company you're a little fond of, and not much else."

"How in the hell-" John stopped, staring at the door. A quick snapshot of memories: Dean breaking up a few thousand fights, Dean being trained from way too goddamn young an age, Dean bleeding in that cabin, Dean taking John's crap from when he was tired or hungover or pissed off with Sam. Dean dying quietly in the backseat while John bitched at Sam for wasting a bullet to save his brother's life, because he was too goddamn spooked to let himself think how badly hurt Dean was. He exhaled, looking down, and said, "Should I yell now or when we get to the van?"

Mary laughed. "You'll take care of him. Give him until tomorrow. Tonight'll be rough."

"Okay." John looked at her. "You want to smack me?"

"No." Mary gave him a wry smile. "I won't say I agreed with every decision. I won't say I ever wanted my babies to pick up a gun. But you did what you could with what you had, and they're alive. They're damned good men because of you."

"In spite," John said.

"Because. Jackass." Mary sighed, looking up at him, then gave a watery smile and leaned into his arms. She squeezed him, hard. "I miss you every goddamn day."

John smiled into her hair. "Still going to want a one-legged man?"

"If there wasn't a glass wall right there, I'd show you."

"Mm." John grinned. "There's a curtain."

She made a mock-scandalized noise. "In a church?"

"Dressing room. Wedding. C'mon, Mary, I was there."

"Your fault," Mary muttered, then sighed. "I wish we had more time."

"Yeah." John closed his eyes. "Me too."

Sitting in the pew, Dean glanced over towards Sam, instinctively checking on him. Sam was sitting with his back to Dean, jabbering at Jess. Which really just proved what Dean had always said. Sam was just too much a pussy to close the deal. C'mon, a divinely sanctioned conjugal visit with such a pretty girl, who Sam obviously adored, and he was talking to her. Figured.

As Sam laughed, his head turned a little. Enough. The emotions welled up hard, and Dean felt his vision gray around the edges. Jesus Christ, that hurt. Pain and love, anger and laughter, and a thousand other things he couldn't name, crashing into place at once.

Andrew quickly pressed his head back down. "Breathe. It'll get better in a few minutes."

Dean tried to breathe, then jerked upright as a warm wet tongue swiped his cheek. He looked down into wide brown eyes. They were damned near the largest thing on the fluffball of a dog staring up at him. "What the fucking fuck is that?"

Andrew grinned. "That's Darcy. He's my baby."

"Andrew. That dog just screams 'I suck cock.'"

"Well, at least it's not false advertising, then," Andrew said dryly. "Darcy, go lay down."

The white and black fuzzball whined, but trotted off obediently. Dean shook his head. "Damn. That's just..."

"He'll get bigger," Andrew sulked. "Jesus. I'm sorry my dog isn't manly enough for you."

The door to the quiet room opened, and John walked out, a little swagger that had been missing back in his stride, Mary at his side, hands twined.

She stopped, glancing at the boys. "Oh, crap. I almost forgot. There's one other thing you need to know."

John looked down at her. "What's that?"

"The hourglass. The way you overruled Dean- you've bound yourselves together," she said.

"We're a family. We were already bound," John said, looking confused.

"Not that way. You bound your lives together." Mary looked down. "And your deaths. If one dies, you all will."

John's face paled. "Oh, god. Mary, that's not fair to them. I'm twenty years older than them. What if I have a stroke, or-"

She shook her head sadly. "They're hunters. The chances of you needing to worry about old age are pretty slim. Though, it certainly won't hurt you to lay off the junk food for their sake," she added, lips curling. "The universe isn't without its comforts. None of you will ever have to bury any of the others."

John nodded slowly, understanding. "Okay. I'm not telling the boys, though. They'd be too careful, end up getting themselves killed trying to protect me." He glanced at the altar, at the hourglass, and for the first time focused on the hammered silver chalice next to it.

"Good plan," Mary said, then noticed the sudden tightness of John's jaw. "What's wrong?"

"That chalice. I've seen drawings of it in- no. Not a chalice. A cauldron," he hissed. "Cauldron of Anwynn." His eyes shifted to Andrew, sitting next to Dean, touching him. "Oh, hell."

Mary's hand on his cheek stopped him. She forced his head around, made him meet her eyes. "The chalice was only ever a cup," she said. "It only got its power from whoever used it."

"He-"

"I can't tell you more than that, so don't push it, baby. But he will never harm you or the boys unless you attack him. Understand?"

"No. I-"

"John. He saved Dean's life. He's fond of both you and the boys. Leave it there." Mary smiled. "Actually, you should ask him to recite the Winchester version of the Our Father."

"Mary-"

"Let it be," she said sharply.

John knew an order when he heard one. "Yes, ma'am."

Mary turned towards him, pulling him into another hard hug. "I love you, John."

His lips curled in a sad smile. "Gotta go?"

"Yeah." Mary pulled his head down, kissing him hard. When she let him go, neither of them were breathing steadily. "I wish I could stay. But it's time."

"I love you," he whispered helplessly, fingers tracing the lines of her face, memorizing them. "So much."

She smiled, lips trembling, and touched his cheek. "I'll be seeing you. Just not too soon, okay?"

"I'll try."

Mary went over to Sam, sitting in the pew alone, head in his hands. Jess had one hand possessively on his shoulder. He looked up as Mary approached, and she leaned down, kissing his forehead. "I have to go now," Mary whispered. "Take care of your brother and your father."

Sam met her eyes and nodded. "I will."

Mary's smile widened at the confidence, the strength in those words. A lot like his daddy, she thought. "I know. I love you, Sam."

"Love you too."

Then she stood before Dean, her broken son. No- wounded. Never really broken.

His head came up, and he forced a smile, coming to his feet slowly. "Hey."

"Take care of yourself, sweetheart. If you need to, lean on your father or Sam." When Dean didn't reply, she grabbed his chin. "Dean. Promise me."

"I'll try," he said softly.

"I know." She pressed a kiss to his cheek. "I'm proud of you, honey. And I love you."

His answering smile was wobbly. "Love you, too."

Mary stepped back and walked to the altar, picking up the hourglass with her bare hands. When she raised her eyes to John, the slow rage in them was jarring. He didn't pull back; he had plenty of anger of his own. But not like that, not the blistering fury of a mother protecting her boys.

"He's going to love where he's headed," Mary said dryly. With a last smile for John, she turned, walking back towards the side doors. She paused at the heavy wooden door, holding out her hand, and smiled as Jess joined her and twined her fingers with Mary's.

The doors to the chapel opened without a touch, yawning wide into light. John blinked against it, knowing that he probably ought to turn his head, not willing to give up his last few seconds of seeing his wife again.

As the light silhouetted Mary and Jess, John could see in the space between them more black cloaks. Row after row of black against red. The women, their faces hungry and merciless. The children, a thousand tiny hands-

Mary stepped through, taking Jess with her. The doors slammed closed as if on a strong wind, but not before John heard the bastard demon scream.

Silence.

John closed his eyes for a moment, grief stabbing him like it was new. But now, at least it felt like a clean wound, the festering hatred gone. It was... odd. Sam came to his feet, falling in next to John, hand brushing his shoulder.

John slid an arm around his son, pulling him into a tight hug. Felt him shaking a little. Or maybe that was John. "You okay?"

"I think so," Sam said.

"Good. Tomorrow, I'm going to need you out of the house. It's past time your brother and I had a talk."

"Dad-" Sam started, then stopped himself. "Okay."

John smiled. "Thank you." He glanced at the front of the church, where Dean was standing, staring at nothing. "Dean. You want a ride back?"

After a long minute, Dean nodded, still looking at the ground.

John glanced back at Andrew. "Mary said I should ask you about the Winchester 'our father," he said brusquely.

Andrew blushed, rocking back on his heels a little. "That was just something Jim and I came up with one night a long time ago." He smiled. "After the clutch of fire Imps."

John winced. "Remember that one."

Dean staggered as the emotions tore loose, twenty seven years of John Winchester crashing into his brain. Jesus. Did he have any lukewarm emotions? No, they all seemed to be strong enough to bring him to his knees.

John winced, wanting to go to his boy as he clutched a pew for support. Instead, he looked at Andrew. Andrew who was more than he seemed. Andrew who would need to be watched. "Go on."

Dean shook his head, mouth twisting as he tried to sort out the myriad of emotions swirling in him. Great. Was he bipolar, too?

Andrew smiled, looking at the ground. "Oh, I don't know if I even remember-"

"I do," Dean said. He lifted his head slowly, a smirk on his lips. "Our father, who art John Winchester, badass be thy name. Thy gun be drawn, thy will be done, on earth as it is in hell. " John's crooked grin warmed him more than it ought to, an ache spreading its way through Dean, coloring his voice as he went on. "Give us this day our daily ammo, and forgive us our trespasses, as we fuck up those who trespass against us. Lead us not into destruction, but deliver us from evil."

"Amen," Sam muttered, grinning.

John shook his head, managing a grudging laugh as Andrew blushed scarlet. He reached out, gently whapping Sam in one arm. "Stop laughing, you little bastard."

"Little hell," Sam protested, "I'm taller than you."

"Yeah, yeah. It's just your boots."

"Oh, you suck," Sam sighed.

Another bright flare of pain narrowed Dean's vision, making him lean harder against the pew. He felt Andrew grab him, steady him, but any comfort was lost in the flow of memories assaulting him.

"You're the one who said I should stay gone!"

A few thousand arguments crashed into Dean's mind. Stepping between Sam and his father again, and again, and again. Catching Sam's fist more than once. Having to order his own father to stand down before the argument went physical. Trying to soothe them both without taking sides, and managing only to catch two different kinds of crap.

It faded, leaving Dean cold. Drained.

"Hey." There was another hand on his arm, cautious and gentle. Sam's voice made Dean raise his head, focusing slowly on his brother's worried face. A flicker of memory: Sam, doubled over from crippling headaches, pale and sick in the passenger seat, Dean half-carrying him to a bed. Then that was gone, too. Sam's smile had gone lopsided, knowing. "You look like you need to go home and crash, dude."

Giving Andrew a last pat on the shoulder, Dean shrugged Sam's hand off and straightened. He ignored the quiet flash of hurt on Sam's face, and didn't bother looking at their father. He didn't need that particular headache yet. "Y'know, I think I'm good to walk," he said flatly.

"It's not exactly safe-" John murmured as Dean walked past them, towards the double-doors.

"What the fuck is going to hit me?" Dean called back, not looking over his shoulder. "Just ask Andrew."

John's smile faded as Dean left, fighting the urge to go take care of this right now. Tomorrow would come soon enough.

****

32

By the time John got up the next day, the sun had risen high overhead. He blinked muzzily, confused for a moment. Jesus. Was it really almost eleven? The hell was wrong with him?

Memory returned a moment later, and he relaxed, suddenly understanding why he'd gotten the best night of sleep he could remember. No more demon. Nothing to hunt.

He got himself out of bed and slid the prosthetic on, wincing as it bit into the sore flesh. He should probably call the VA, schedule up a check up, get going on the PT soon. Once, it would have sounded like the most boring life imaginable. Still did, actually. But he'd deal-maybe get back into fixing cars. Classics, like the Impala.

Sam was sitting at the table when he made it downstairs. He looked like he'd just woken up. "Dean went jogging, according to his note."

"Dean went... jogging," John said. "As in running. When nothing was chasing him?"

"Yeah. Imagine that." Sam shook his head. "I'm pretty sure it's not the best thing for his ribs."

"Probably not," John said, picking up a cup and pouring some coffee. "You go ahead and tell him that."

Sam didn't bother to answer, or look up from his toast as he made a face. "If you have a list of shit we need from the grocery store, I'll go get it while you're having a chat with Dean."

"Thanks. I'll make one up." John shook his head and grabbed a pen and piece of paper. "Never thought I'd say those words. Grocery list. Just doesn't have the ring of ammo inventory."

Sam smiled wryly. "Yeah. It's been... weird, staying here for two weeks. I'm used to spending a few days, a long weekend and then moving on."

"Yeah. There you go," John muttered, shoving the slip of paper at him. "Can you read that?"

Sam squinted. "I don't think so. Unless that really says salad."

"Hey, I know about the food groups. All..." John stopped, thought. "Five of them."

"Jack Daniels? Not a food group." Sam's lopsided smile took the sting out of those words.

"Chloe said it'd help with the PT if I lost a few pounds." John scratched at his jaw, not meeting Sam's eyes. "And I'm not getting any younger."

"In this family, you never know. You could be." Sam finished his toast, folded the paper up and stood. "I'll head up the road. Hey, Dean."

Damn, John's instincts were getting dull. He didn't even hear Dean come in from the side door. Dean gave them both an absent wave, sliding past Sam to get to the fridge. Dean grabbed the carton of orange juice. His shirt was dark with sweat, his hair sticking up in places, and he was still breathing unsteadily.

"Glass," John said, when Dean started to drink straight from the carton.

Dean gave him a look, but complied, moving carefully to keep from turning his back on either of them.

Glancing at Sam, John said, "Add orange juice to that list."

Dean raised an eyebrow, finishing his glass. "Where you headed?"

"Groceries," Sam replied. "You need anything? Other than deodorant?"

"A replacement little brother. Less annoying model." Dean refilled. "Beer. Thanks. I can go with you."

Sam smiled. "Nah, I got it. Might stop on the way and get my hair trimmed."

"About time." Dean gave Sam a fond smirk. "Dude, you look like a frigging yak."

"Says the man with blue hair who hasn't shaved in three days. Shower, okay? And get some sleep."

"I slept," Dean said.

"In the car," Sam shot back.

Dean scowled, glanced at John, then muttered something that may have been 'narc'. "Just... beer, Sam. Cheap is fine."

"Got it." Sam looked at their father. "Call me if you need anything else. I have my cell phone on."

If Dean bugged out. Yeah, John knew. He had the sedative cocktail syringe filled, capped and safely in his pocket. John nodded at Sam and tossed him the keys to the van. "Don't use the handicapped tag and get gas while you're out."

Rolling his eyes, Sam left. John didn't bother waiting until he heard the van pull out. Sam probably didn't even make it off the porch before he stopped to eavesdrop, and Dean wouldn't hang around that long anyway.

"We need to talk," John said, setting his coffee cup aside.

Dean glanced away, grabbing the juice carton and pulling the fridge door open. He didn't answer, and for a moment John could convince himself that this would go easy. Then Dean put on that smile. "Ever notice how conversations that start out that way never go well?"

"Dean-"

"Because I have. So if it's all the same to you, I'd rather skip this round." Dean pushed himself up off the counter. "Or at least shower first."

Fine. "It's not all the same to me," John said, keeping his voice even. "Sit down."

Dean gave him a sidelong, wary look that made John's heart seize in his chest. "Really, it'll just take me a few minutes. I managed 30 seconds once, but that was a 'shower first or you're not touching me' thing with Katya after a fire imp-"

"You don't remember everything." When Dean stopped short, John leaned back in his chair to continue, "Maybe not even most things. Might explain why you think you can bullshit me, but I'm here to tell you, you can't."

"Bullshit you about what?" Dean asked, a dangerous undercurrent to his voice.

"You being all right. Acting like you're fine." John shook his head. "You're not. Not even close."

"Yeah, funny how that works after I nearly died three or four times." Dean sighed, dragging a hand through his hair. "Okay, look. I'm glad you and Sam worked out your magical mystical therapy tour, or whatever the hell it is you two did to make you start doing this, but that's not how it works with us. I'm not Sam."

"I noticed that," John said dryly.

"Did you? That's a first." Dean winced, raising his glass to press it against the bridge of his nose. "Sorry," he said after a moment. "But, um. You and me, we don't do this. We understand each other."

"Do we? That's funny," John said, "because I'm pretty damned sure I told you to fall back. And I've got no fucking idea where you got the notion that it was all right to walk into hell."

A muscle in Dean's jaw twitched. He swallowed, set down his glass and strode out of the kitchen.

Oh, fucking nice. With a shake of his head, John got up from the kitchen chair and followed. The prosthetic made enough noise to warn Dean that John was coming up behind him.

That John was behind him. John had fixed the gears once, quieted them, and wandered into the kitchen. Without the warning squeak of metal, Dean had damned near crawled on the counter to get away from him. It'd taken Dean a moment to recognize that it was John, another few seconds to put down the steak knife he'd automatically gone for. John had tightened the screws up again. Better to let him have the warning.

"Dean," John repeated, letting his irritation slip into his voice.

Dean let out a long suffering sigh, but sat on the edge of the sofa. "What?"

"I'm waiting for an answer. Do you really think I wouldn't care if you walked into hell?" John asked.

"I know you care," Dean said slowly.

John sighed. "But you don't give a flying fuck whether you live. That about right?"

"Jesus," Dean spat, standing up and turning towards the stairs. "We're done with this."

John grabbed Dean before he could get past, his hand clamping on Dean's good shoulder. "Like hell we are. Sit your ass on that sofa."

Dean tensed, breath coming faster.

John turned him forcibly, giving him a little shove onto the sofa. "Park it. And stop fucking looking at me like I'm about to break out my belt. Only one time in your life have I raised a hand to you, and I'm not going to do it now."

Dean swallowed hard, staring up at him. "Fine. What the hell do you want from me? Do you want me to say that I don't remember everything? I don't. Happy now?"

"Damn it, stop trying to tell me what you think I want to hear. I want to know where the hell you got the idea that I don't give a damn about you," John demanded.

Dean's eyes narrowed. "I know you care," he repeated. "But we both know the score. You've made my job in the family clear. I follow orders, I guard Sam. If one of us has to go, it's me."

John closed his eyes, counting to ten. He made three before his temper snapped. "You think you're expendable! Jesus, Dean! You think that I could let the son who I've spent most of my life with, who I've nursed through fevers, and patched up, watched grow up- you think I could let you walk into hell and get over it? Like if you hadn't walked through that gate, I wouldn't have been one step behind you all the way down?"

Dean opened his mouth to reply and John cut him off with a sharp motion of his hand.

"You think I wanted you to put in a gun in your mouth?" When Dean flinched, John drew in a breath and made himself soften his voice. Not by much, but enough that Dean stopped trying to move back through the couch. "Do you think it wouldn't kill me? I woke up in the hospital a week after the accident to be told that you were dead, and Sam was in a coma. I wanted to roll over in that bed and die. The only reason I didn't was because Sam needed someone to fight for him. And then, I had to tell Sam that you were dead, that we'd never hear your voice, never see the smile you give him when you think he's not looking."

"Dad-"

"Shut up," John snapped. "That's not something I can get back up from, boy. You are not expendable. I will not lose you because you think I can handle it. I told you to protect Sam because I knew you were stronger, older. Because you could, not because I valued him more than you!" John yelled, tears in his eyes.

Dean felt something in his chest crack, some puzzle piece sliding into place with a wrench of pain.

"You know what? I told your brother that I'd tell you this, so I'm going to. The demon was right back in that cabin. All that shit it told you before you realized that it wasn't me? It was right, and worse, it was pulling the words out of my head, all the things I thought you knew, because we understood each other."

Dean blinked hard. "What?"

"You're what keeps this family together. That's why he went after you first. Knock out the support, and Sam and I would fall. He wanted to use me, my body. He wanted to wipe out the rest of the hunters. Katya, Bobby, all of them. But he knew I might be able to stop him for a second or two at a crucial moment. He offered me a deal. Your life for theirs." John closed his eyes, the memory too fresh to meet his son's eyes.

"He had to know you wouldn't-" Dean started.

John shook his head. "If I hadn't been able to get control when I did, I would have agreed."

Dean's eyes went wide with shock.

"There is nothing I would not do, no one I will not sacrifice for you two," John said. "So don't think I don't understand wanting to end things. But it's my job to protect you. And if I say 'fall back,' I expect you to fall fucking back. If I say 'stand down' I expect you to do it! And if you ever disobey a direct order in a firefight again, I will tan your hide, do you understand?"

Dean's head fell forward on a soft noise, then came back up. He met John's hard gaze with over bright eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I understand."

John sent a silent prayer of thanks to his wife. He sat on the edge of the coffee table, and thumped his closed fist gently, fondly on Dean's knee. "And?"

Dean glanced at him, then back down. "It won't happen again."

"Don't give me that." When Dean gave him a startled look, John shook his head. "I've been in the same deep water you're in now, Dean. It won't be the gun in your mouth or the gate of hell, but it'll be something. Just promise me you'll think about your brother or me before you decide you've got to carry that kind of weight on your own."

"I had to-" Dean started, then shut up as John raised an eyebrow.

"Could've gone to Bobby," John noted simply. "Could've called me. Jesus, I'm your damn father, not the other way around."

"Binding it with blood was my fuck up," Dean said. "I should've been able to handle it."

"You made a tactical call in the field with what information you had. If you had just done an elemental binding, that thing would've come back around and fucking killed you. And you know damned well you wouldn't accept 'I should've handled it' from Sammy or me. You made the call, we cleaned it up, and it's over. Stop twisting the knife on yourself."

Dean made a harsh noise that could've been a laugh. "I let it in. Yeah, sure. Let's throw a goddamn parade."

"You survived," John said. "You lived until we could get to you. The rest of it doesn't matter."

"I killed four people, I wrecked a trauma ward, I beat the shit out of Bobby, I took power from a demon and I cracked Sam's ribs! What the fuck part of that doesn't-" Sitting back, Dean dragged a hand through his hair and looked away. After a moment, he swallowed, blinking fast, and said, "I pinned a woman to the ceiling."

"I know," John said, soft and careful. "The demon-"

"I wanted to hurt her. I wanted to watch her die." Dean's expression was distant, somewhere in a hell John couldn't reach. "Sometimes I still hear her screaming in my head."

Fuck. "Dean," John murmured, "it was a harpy."

After a long second, Dean shook his head, coming back to the living room. His voice was light, but unsteady on its edges. "That's a little old fashioned. If you're going to call her anything, you might as well call her a bitch."

"Harpy in the classic sense," John said dryly. "For fuck's sake, Dean, it sank fang in your shoulder. You had venom in your system and the demon took its cheap shot. That's all."

"I thought about it." Dean glanced down at his hand, absently rubbing the wrist brace with his other hand. "I came damned close."

Sitting back, John looked at his son for a long moment. "Jim had a saying," he said finally. "The road to hell isn't a step. It's choices. Man has to choose every single goddamn day not to walk on that road. Sometimes good men get lost. Sometimes bad men make a lucky call. But that bad step is just one in a thousand, and you've got plenty of chances to go back."

"That's a long saying."

"Yeah, well. That was Jim." When Dean didn't look up at him, John said quietly, "Hey. You're my boy. I know you."

Dean stared at the floor, at the pale scars on his father's hands. Then he nodded, grudgingly.

"All right." Bracing his hands on his knees, John said, "We're done, if you've got any smartass comments waiting."

"You've never yelled at me before," Dean said softly.

John snorted. "The hell I haven't."

"Because I cocked up a hunt or left Sam unprotected. Not because you were worried."

And that was what John got for subscribing to the 'getting mauled, pistolwhipped or shot is punishment enough' theory. "Yeah, well, you scared the shit out of me."

Dean nodded absently. Somewhere deep inside, that fucked up part of his brain said that John only yelled at Sam. Since John loved Sam, yelling meant love. Which meant that his father loved him.

Great. So he needed more therapy than he'd guessed.

"Besides, I never had to. You were my easy son," John said, ruefully.

"Shows what you know."

"Apparently. There's one other thing, Dean."

Dean tensed, waiting for the inevitable yelling. "Sir?"

"I'm sorry," John murmured. "For the way I handled the binding. You had control of exactly one thing in the last two weeks, and I took that away. I should have brought it up before, should have told you. My only excuse is that I was afraid for you. If you hadn't agreed, it would have had to wait another month, until next new moon, and I didn't think you could hold out that long, but I handled it badly."

"Mm." Dean looked down at his hands, absently rubbing the wrist brace. Part of him wanted to say that it was okay, because Jesus, that was the most he'd ever heard his father say in one sitting without strategy coming into it. But it wasn't okay. For reasons he'd be damned if he'd ever say to Dad or to Sam... it hadn't been okay. Exhaling hard, he looked back up at his father. "I'm going camping."

If that was abrupt for them, John didn't seem to notice. He nodded, watching Dean in that way that Dean was kind of starting to hate. The way that said his father was working out that some of this damage might take more than duct tape, motor oil, yelling and beer to patch up.

Not that Dean wanted it patched up for him. Not that he really expected there to be any way to patch it up. He'd just deal with it, like he remembered dealing with everything else. Take a few days off, get magnificently drunk, and get back on your feet, soldier.

"You hate camping," John said after a minute. Not like an accusation. More like he figured he'd remind Dean, in case those memories hadn't come back.

Dean shrugged, looking down again. "I know. Figure it's a few days to get my shit together."

John felt his mouth curve on a bittersweet smile. "It'll take more than days, son. You're not okay. We both know it."

"I don't want to talk about it," Dean said reflexively.

"Figured as much. Maybe when you get back."

"Maybe," Dean said. Meaning: fuck, no.

From the quirk of John's mouth, he'd pretty much figured that out, too. He stood, brushing himself off and grimacing as he put weight on the bad leg. "Missouri has camping stuff in her basement. There's a sleeping bag, might be a tent. If not, it's not the first time you've slept out."

"Yeah." Memory struck Dean, and he added, half in hope and half in concession, "Usually on your jacket."

His father's smile was genuine that time. "I think there's a backpack in the closet. I'll pack you some food. Not that I think you're going to eat much, but if you lose any more weight, I will smack you upside the head."

"Thanks, Dad. Any chance of you making that drink?" Dean asked hopefully.

"Three wise men go hunting?" John asked.

"Um." Dean thought for a moment. "Tastes like ass, but burns all the way?"

"That would be it." John nodded. "Yeah, I can make you a batch. Now go shower. Otherwise, you know Sam'll be able to track you by the smell."

"Yeah. Don't suppose you'd chain him to the chair?" Dean asked, smirking.

"I could try, but I'm pretty sure he'd gnaw the wood," John muttered. "Fucking stubborn little shit."

"Wonder where he got that from," Dean said dryly.

"Your mother, son," John returned. "Definitely her."

Flashing a quick smile, Dean headed up the stairs. John waited until he cleared the landing and turned, walking to the side door.

Sam looked up guiltily as John jerked the door open. "Um. I dropped the keys?"

John rolled his eyes. "Uh-huh. Should I have just put it on speakerphone?"

"It would have helped," Sam muttered. "I didn't get anything after you stopped bellowing."

John shook his head. "Go get me salad, boy," he said, a smile touching his mouth.

"Think I'll have time to get a hair cut?"

"We'll manage without you for an hour or two," John smiled. "Don't forget Dean's beer. But not the cheap stuff. Gives me, er, him a headache."

Sam gave John a quick hug and turned, heading for the van. "Whatever."

John closed the door and limped over to the closet, quickly grabbing the backpack. On impulse, he grabbed his coat, stuffing it into the bottom of the pack.

Heading back to the kitchen, added a handful of protein bars, some jerky, a few apples. Then he quickly grabbed two empty two liter bottles out of the recycling bin. One, he filled with water. The other he grabbed a funnel and opened the liquor cabinet. Jack, check. Jose, check. Jim, check. And to top it off, a nice measure of wild turkey.

He'd just added waterproof matches and zipped up the bag when Dean came jogging down the stairs. "If you head east along the road, then go north after you pass the three mile mark, also known as the Gas and Go, you'll hit a little spring, where you can fill up the water bottle again. There's plenty of cover, and the grounds a rocky mess, so it'll be harder for Sam to track you. Especially since you always had to lie about him letting you teach him."

Dean paused, wincing as memories burned their way through another block. "God, he was such a little whiny bitch," he said huskily, lips curling in a smile. "But I think he got the basics down. As much as he griped, he was listening."

"Just cover your tracks, and it'll be good. I'll try to keep him from following for as long as I can. Don't bet on more than a half-day." John held out the backpack, not quite managing to mask his surprise when Dean turned, letting John ease it onto his shoulders.

"Thanks. Anything else?"

"Two things." John held out a cell phone. "If you're going to be more than two days, call. If you need anything, call. If you want to talk, call."

"Got it. What's the other?"

John held out a small square box of ammo. "This."

"No gun." Dean smiled as John held out the thirty eight. "You found it?"

"Yeah. Sam pocketed it while you were out of it. Didn't think you needed a loaded firearm to be lethal," John said. "He was right. You were... amazing, son. I might have thought you were being a damn fool, but you fought like nothing I've ever seen before. I was proud to have had a hand in training you."

Dean looked down, adjusting the straps. "Have a hand in it? Dad, c'mon. If I know it, there's a good chance you taught it to me, or mentioned it."

John let the weight down slowly, waiting until Dean nodded to let go. "I never remember telling you to hold fire until the Chimera's mouth was practically on the gun."

"You told me they were extinct," Dean said. "So, I improvised." He turned around, giving John a quick thumbs up. "Thanks.

John glanced at the door, then back at Dean. "Do you- Can I-"

"Spit it out."

"Is it okay if I hug you?" John asked awkwardly.

Dean stared for a moment, uncertain, then nodded. "Yeah. Of course."

John leaned forward, looping one arm around Dean's shoulders, pulling him close. After a long moment, when Dean didn't flinch, John brought his other arm up, folding his son into a hug.

When Dean's hand fisted in John's shirt, John had to bite back the sigh of relief. Wasn't perfect. Dean was still whipcord tense, and John knew damned well that he had his eyes fixed on the door. Still, as starts went, they'd had worse. "Go," he said gruffly, releasing Dean and stepping back. "I'll try to hold your brother off as long as I can."

Dean nodded, loosening his grip on John's shirt. He smoothed it down absently, and muttered at it something that could have been translated from Winchester into English as 'love you'. Then, slightly clearer, "I am coming back."

"You better be," John said. "Can't fix the Impala by myself."

Dean grinned.

*****

33

It started raining about an hour after Dean had passed the three mile mark, a gray miserable drizzle that cut to the bone and made his pack weigh about three thousand pounds. If he'd had any illusions that he could change his mind and skip town, the ache in his ribs and his back convinced him otherwise. Every heavy step had made him think of the canteen in his pack with a little more longing.

At least the rain covered his tracks. Not that Dean thought anything short of torching the dry brush behind him would stop Sammy short. Stubborn little bastard thought he was the only one who got to walk away-

Stop.

Dean closed his eyes, exhaling slowly at the wrenching pain of another memory sliding in sideways. Resentment-fear-emptiness battered around in his ribcage before settling down to join the quiet murmur, the low level hum of a thousand other memories stirring. Rubbing absently at the ache, Dean considered his hiding place.

As far as these things went, it wasn't great. An overhang of rock and tree roots jutting out just far enough to provide some cover against the rain and a solid place for Dean to set his back against. There'd been a tent in Missouri's cellar, but it had still smelled faintly of brimstone and it'd been a gaudy neon anyway. Bad enough that Sam would find him. Dean didn't need to set up an advertisement of Camp 'Fuck Off, I'm Brooding'.

Sliding into the little notch, Dean leaned his head back against the stone. The rain pounded steadily down around him, dripping off the ledge and onto his already soaked jeans. It reminded him of rain on the hood of the Impala, driving down slick highways that shone in the headlights like silver, his father at the wheel. Something soft and southern played on the radio, with the occasional whisper of static. Dean had known even then that it was an EVP, that Dad was ignoring the signal in favor of working out the noise. Dean had listened too, and so he'd caught it when the silver voice under the static whispered, Mary screams in hell.

After a minute, his father had clicked the radio off.

Dean had been six.

Grimacing, Dean pulled open the zipper to his bag. His promise to his father was the only thing that made him reach for the water first. He drank, and gritted his teeth through the meal replacement. Both settled uneasily in his stomach.

There were good days and bad. This was one of the bad, flashes of memories downloading fast and hard. He'd tried to focus on the grit of stones under his boots, the pounding of the rain on his back, the pack's straps starting to cut into the healing harpy bite even with padding between them. Tried to let the worst of it roll right past.

He'd walked past the gutted remains of a deer and remembered being up to his elbows in remains, digging through a knee-deep sea of barnyard and hitchhiker massacre as he looked for the key to some psycho's hurricane cellar. He'd heard the rain-swollen rushing of a stream and remembered diving into the black water of a haunted lake, searching for a kid he couldn't remember if he'd even found. He'd seen small scattered bones on the path and remembered the clatter of bone dice off a floor in New Orleans, the fall heat making the incense heavy and sick as someone read Dean's fortune as death, sex and a tower falling down.

Somewhere between then and now, a new scar cut Dean's lifeline in half. Probably not a good sign.

There were things he'd done that John Winchester didn't know, and wouldn't ever found out. Secrets whispered in the dark, triggers pulled, desperate trades. It wasn't that he hadn't thought his father could handle it. It was that the man had enough weight to bear.

So Dean bore the weight for him, and for Sam. As it came back memory by memory, it felt heavy enough that Dean wondered how the hell he'd even breathed before.

Dean shoved the empty bottles back into his bag and picked up the canteen, twisting its cap off. Three Wise Men was chokingly nasty, burning all the damned way down. It seared like the holy water, cutting a clean hot path through the chaos of the last few days.

Dean could still taste gunpowder and metal on the back of his tongue from where the barrel had rested. That desperation hung just out of reach, a silent reminder that he had almost toppled like a stack of cards.

He had to be okay. Solid. That was what they needed from him. They never needed to know how bad it'd been, how fucked up he still was. Dean had always been fucked up. Wouldn't know what to do without some kind of damage. Besides, left to themselves, Sam and Dad would either tear chunks out of each other or just wander apart.

Not that it wouldn't happen anyway. The hunt was over. The demon was gone. Sam had made his path pretty unmistakably clear: back to Stanford, back to real life. Dad would settle down in his own way, not that he'd even really expected to live through this (and there was irony, Dad telling Dean to take the gun out of his mouth).

Sam might call for a while. Dad would expect visits. There'd be the usual arguments, Sam raging about why the hunt had to claim their lives without ever figuring out that it was like being pissed at gravity. Somebody would say something harsh, somebody else would explode. They'd drift. Might remember to see each other at holidays. Might get back together when Sam got some pretty blonde like Jess pregnant, and Dean might even live long enough to hold his niece or nephew and see his kid brother's eyes looking back at him. To know that there had been a point to all this.

It was a better ending than Sam or Dad dying, a quick cheap burial. He could live with driving past Sam's house on his way to another town, another hunt. Not well, but whatever.

Another shot. Dean leaned his head against the stone and listened as the rain picked up, listened to the wet squish of footsteps and the regular sound of Sam's breathing above him.

"Dude," Sam said, "tuck your boots under."

"You'd find me anyway, psychic boy."

"Actually, not so much psychic anymore." Sam walked around the little hill until he could stand in front of Dean, and tapped his temple. "My head hit the window. Kind of fucked me up. Haven't had any visions since waking up from the coma."

And with that happy reminder of family trauma, of how he'd botched being there for Sam when he was damn near dying, Dean couldn't quite muster another snarl. Dean took another swig, tucked his boot under, and managed a half-hearted, "Aww, no more migraines. Cue the violins. Go away."

"Nope."

"Then shut up so I can pretend you went away." Dean squinted at Sam, who was drenched and looking bedraggled as hell, and sighed. "Get under here."

"Dean-"

"Continue shutting up. Stalker."

"Bitch," Sam muttered, sliding under the overhang. He shrugged off his own pack, pressed against Dean's side, all knees and elbows and wet clothes. "Are you okay?"

"Bitch is my line," Dean griped tiredly. "Did you even get a haircut? Because, dude. It's overgrown. You need to turn a weedwhacker on it or something."

"I brought more booze," Sam said.

"You can stay. Don't suppose you brought duct tape for when you get blotto and start singing Celine Dion or whatever."

"Backstreet Boys," Sam said darkly. "And that was only once. And dude, I was plastered."

"Oh god. Kill me." Dean frowned at the lid of the canteen. "Think I can get the demon back?"

"I put up with Dad. In the car. For hours." Sam dug out a handful of protein bars, handed one silently to Dean. "He knows the words to Mandy."

"Yeah, I know. It's one of those songs that gets stuck in your head. Ever since we took down that siren at the concert hall where Manilow was rehearsing... Jesus. That's just evil. Dad wouldn't let me shoot him, either." He washed half the protein bar down with another long swallow of the liquor. It was to the point where it barely burned anymore. Which really just meant that he was well on his way to being thoroughly trashed. "I think Dad wanted me to, though. Especially after three days of both of us humming that damn song."

Sam grunted. "Dad and I almost killed each other."

"The sky's still blue."

"We're doing better," Sam said with a shrug.

"Yeah. You can act like adults. Want a cookie?" Dean laid his head back, not looking at Sam. "The rest of us have been doing it for years."

For a moment, Sam was quiet. Then he started digging in his bag again, bringing out a bottle that he handed unceremoniously to Dean.

Dean frowned at the clear liquid, then at Sam. "What, trying to sober me up?"

The corner of Sam's mouth tugged. He looked tired as hell without his bangs to hide his face. "You're drunk. Already."

"I lost weight, dude, fuck off. Besides, I'm not drunk."

"You're not exactly sober."

"What, because I'm not telling you what you want to hear?" Dean grabbed the canteen protectively. "How about 'yeah, Sam, I'm digging the big boy haircut?' How's that work for you?"

Sam gave him a long, level look. "It's vodka. Not water. You want to keep drinking, fine."

"I don't need your permission," Dean bit off.

"And I don't need yours."

"Fine. Trade you bottles."

"Fine."

Dean was perversely happy to see Sam choke on his first taste of Three Wise Men. Rubbing at his throat, Sam coughed and squinted at the canteen. "What the fuck?"

"Dad's specialty. Y'know, those hunting buddies. Jim, Jack and Jose." Dean grimaced through the first mouthful of vodka. Christ, he hated vodka. Ever since he, Andrew and Caleb had gotten sick on it, and hell, there was another memory jarred back into place. Ow. "With Wild Turkey. Got drunk on that on my 21st birthday. But I'm sure you can get something with an umbrella in it if you go back into town."

"Not leaving, Dean." Leaning his elbows on his knees, Sam peered at him. It was that look. Dean didn't like that look. It meant prying was about to happen, all Sam's happy California 'tell me your feelings' bullshit about to come spilling out. Which would be tolerable, if Sam ever actually wanted to hear it. Sam didn't. Just wanted somebody to pat him on the damned head and tell him it was okay. Or that it could be made okay.

Dean hadn't come out here to pretend that it was all going to be okay. He'd get to that in a few days. And damn Sam anyway for his pushing, for his big sad eyes and his memories and for curling up in bed beside Dean and for giving him something to fight for and-

Damn.

Dean took another drink. Said tightly, "Stop staring. I'm not going to do a trick."

"Hey," Sam murmured. And yeah, there was the voice that went with that look. The deep, gentle voice that he used to milk information out of witnesses. Nice. "You've got to talk to somebody, man. You can't keep this in."

"Watch me."

"It hurt you," Sam said, an edge to his voice. "We all know it. It's okay to-"

"What, cry about it?" Dean gripped the stem of the vodka bottle, tight. "That'll help a lot. You'll sure feel better about yourself."

"Fine. Get angry. Whatever." Sam set the canteen down, spreading his hands. "Hit me. Yell. Say all the shit you've wanted to for years. Just don't sit there and let it eat at you, for fuck's sake. Get it out."

"I-" Dean began hotly, then stopped short, staring at the vodka bottle. The bubbles rising from the bottom, the slow liquid shift of the glass under his hands as it warped in the heat. His heat. His anger.

If he blew up at Sam, he might kill him.

With a throaty noise, Dean set the bottle down and turned away. "I'm walking perimeter," he said shortly. "Do whatever you want, just be quiet about it."

"I can," Sam begin, gathering his legs under him.

Dean got a flash of memory: Sammy at 15, legs coltish, wiping blood from his nose with the back of one hand. Dean had clocked him during sparring, only half on accident.

"I'm fucked up, Sam, but my legs are fine. I'll manage." Dean slid out from under the ledge, getting to his feet, then turned to look at Sam over his shoulder. "Unless you don't trust me to do that much."

Low blow, and he knew it. Sam gave him a dark look, but parked it. "I trust you. You're my brother."

"Yeah, thanks, I worked that out. I think it's the chin."

Sam flipped him off, going back to the canteen. His cheeks were already starting to color. Which was good, because damn, Sam had gotten pale in the last few weeks. Like poetry reading, 'my name is Lestat of the whiny vampire people' pale.

So. Perimeter. Dean could do perimeter. Especially since the woods around them were eerily quiet. This close to a gate of hell and their old house, there should've been something, even if it was just a residual haunt. He'd seen old traces of a skinwalker, long gouges carved in the trees and healed over, but now? Zilch. Dead space.

The demons had hung back in the gate. Afraid of him. The one goddamn time he needed a fight, something to concentrate on, and hell was whining under its bed like a pussy because Dean had given them a bloody nose.

"Heh," Dean said, under his breath. "That's right. Pussies."

"Are you talking to yourself?" called Sam from behind him on the trail. So much for brotherly trust. "'Cause, dude, that's a bad sign."

"No, I was calling you my bitch. Make me a sandwich." Dean turned. "What, Sammy, scared of the dark?"

Sam made a face. "I wanted to make sure you were okay."

"You are stalking me. Jesus."

"I'm not stalking you! I'm just... following you."

"Uh-huh."

"Closely."

"Uh-huh."

"C'mon, Dean." Sam dragged a hand through his hair, frustration raw on his face. "I thought you were dead."

"Oh, Christ," Dean muttered, turning on his heel to walk the rest of the circle.

Sam followed, still talking. Of course. "I almost had to watch you die. Like, more than once. Excuse the fuck out of me for being a little twitchy."

"Yeah? And guess what? I almost died. Like," Dean mimicked, "more than once. So I'd like a little quiet time. The kind where you're not here. You're really good at not being here. Go practice and you can not be here for the fucking Olympics."

Sam paused. "That doesn't even make sense."

Goddamn it, Sam hurt his brain. Dean spun, and Sam was close enough behind him that they almost collided. It made Dean's skin tight to think that anybody, even Sam, got that close without him noticing. So he shoved Sam, slightly harder than he probably ought to. And God, that felt satisfying, the little shocked face Sam made as he rocked back on his heels. "Space, Sam. You're not the only one who needs it."

"All right," Sam snapped, "what the fuck is your problem?"

"I don't have a problem!" Dean shot back. Which was kind of ridiculous, considering.

"That's total bullshit. You're tearing strips out of Dad! You!"

"What, afraid I'll steal your thing? Don't worry, sweetheart, I've got about ten years to make up for before I even get close to the damage you've done."

Sam glared at him. "That's not f-"

"Not fair?" Dean growled, fists clenching. "You know better. Life isn't fair." He turned on his heel, stomping down the trail back to the camp, such as it was. By the time the sun set, he'd drank half the canteen of Wise Men.

Finally, ignoring Sam's continued attempts at conversation, Dean rolled over, pulling his father's jacket up against the chill. It smelled like Dad. Gun powder and smoke. With a sigh, he relaxed, letting the sound of Sam's breathing lull him.

He didn't sleep, not for long, but at least his brain stopped for a little while. The next day dawned misty and cool. Perfect for a good hike. He looked down at Sam's snoring form, debating.

Finally, he kicked Sam's foot. "I'm going for a hike," he said shortly. "I'll be back."

Sam scrambled to his feet, eyes sleepy. Fucker always did wake up faster. "I'll come."

"Of course you will," Dean muttered. "Fine. Let's go." He set a brutal pace, feeling his ribs ache with each deep breath. Sam scrambled behind him. Even with his long legs, he was struggling to keep up.

Around lunch, it rained again. Dean didn't bother slowing down, just kept on going at a pace that had Sam stumbling along behind him. Finally, close to sunset, he slowed down, walking the last two miles to their camp.

Sam flopped on the ground, breathing hard. Dean looked at him, oddly angry at him for showing weakness. "You're out of shape."

"Jesus, Dean," Sam gasped. "You're better than me. Does that make you feel fucking better?"

"I'd feel better if you'd get off my ass, and let me have time to think!" Dean growled.

"I'm not leaving you-"

"Why the hell not? You do any other time!"

"Is this about Stanford?"

"Of course it's about fucking Stanford," Dean snarled. "You know, that place you went so you could be a real person, instead of like Dad and I?"

"Dean-"

"I wanted you to have your life. Wanted you to have your dream. I just thought, stupidly that it would involve us now and then! But no, you were too fucking ashamed of us for that," Dean snapped.

Sam came to his feet slowly. "It wasn't like that-"

"It was exactly like that. You act like no one else ever wanted to get out of this life. Like from the moment I watched Mom burn with you in my arms, I wanted to hunt! Guess what? I wanted to have a life. I wanted to go to school, have a job, maybe have kids!"

"Why didn't you?" Sam asked hotly.

"Because Dad needed me! Because without me, you two would have torn each other apart! Because it was the right thing to do. So, instead I helped you with homework and applications, and hoped you'd be able to do what you wanted to. I just didn't expect that when you got it, I'd get kicked to the curb," Dean said bitterly.

"I didn't-" Sam started, heat rising in his face and promising a fight. Just as Dean was tensing, finally feeling something that wasn't fatigue, Sam shut his mouth sharply. He looked at Dean, his hands sliding back to his side, his shoulders relaxing. "Okay."

"Okay what?" Dean snapped.

"Okay. You're right. I fucked you over." Easing his hands into the pocket of his hoodie, Sam shrugged. He looked younger, standing there with his shoulders down and his body at ease, waiting for Dean to yell at him. "I'm sorry."

"Great. Sorry makes everything better." Dean moved back a step, narrowing his eyes at Sam, trying to figure out his strategy. Who the hell put their hands in their pockets when there was a maniac yelling at them? Fuck, he'd taught Sam better than that. "Maybe that works in California, but not here. Not with us. I'm tired of giving you a free pass."

"I'm not asking for a free pass, dude. I screwed up." Sam tilted his head, watching Dean, that damned look on his face. "You're pissed. I get it. I'm listening. Say it. Say anything you want. Just..."

"Just what?" Dean demanded, flinging the words back. "Get it off my chest? Feel better about myself? Spank my inner child? Fuck you, Sam, you don't even know-"

"So tell me."

"-what it was like, how many times I wondered where I screwed up with you- what I've done for this family only to have you, both of you, dump me on the roadside like a fucking sick dog you don't want following you around."

And that, finally, startled the patronizing look off Sam's face. Sam drew his hands out of his pockets, taking a step towards him. "Dean, Jesus-"

Dean backed up, away from Sam's reach. It was way past time to shut the hell up, but here he was, barreling down the slope with no goddamn brakes. "But I kept turning up, and you needed my help, so you decided to slum until you got what you needed out of it-"

"That wasn't it!"

"The demon's gone." Dean stopped backing up, sensing the tree just behind him. His fists clenched as Sam kept coming. "It's over. You've got what you wanted. So walk the hell away, because I don't want your goddamn mercy fuck bullshit. I'm tired of it. I'm tired."

Sam stopped just short of too close, his hand hovering at his side. He blinked the rain out of his eyes and said, too softly, "So stop running."

Dean punched him.

Not too fast; it gave Sam time to twist out of the way, and even if he hadn't, the impact would've only been bruising. Nothing faster than they used to do when they sparred. Still, when Sam's head snapped back up, surprised outrage had taken over for pity.

Sam was braced for the next punch. He knocked it aside, and the next. By the fourth, Sam had found the rhythm of it, so Dean switched it up on him. Got contact, finally, a glancing blow across Sam's jaw that probably did more damage to Dean's knuckles than Sam's face.

Dean fell back as Sam stumbled, grabbing at a tree for balance. Sam started at Dean through his wet bangs, his eyes very wide. Then he bared his teeth in a quick, resigned grimace. "That what you want?" he demanded. "That what it's going to take?"

Sliding into a defensive posture, or at least as close as he could come without his ribs protesting, Dean gave Sam a level stare.

"Goddamn it," Sam breathed. "Fine."

Sam came for him, in probably the worst approach Dean had seen from him since Sammy was twelve and old enough to know better. Clumsy. Sam thought Dean wouldn't fuck him up. He was right, but it was a stupid assumption.

Everyone else looked at Dean and expected the worst. Katya, Bobby, Dad. They had sense. Sam trusted him, trusted his control, and Dean hated him a little for that.

He dodged Sam easily, pausing as Sam's foot slid in the slick mud. The fumble nearly took Sam down, but he compensated fast enough to get a blow in, smacking Dean upside the head while he hesitated.

Dean spun, teeth bared. He darted in, catching Sam on the jaw with an open handed slap. It stung, but mostly his pride. It still was enough to piss Sam off. His next blow wasn't as light, a sharp uppercut that rocked Dean back.

Dean scrambled for a second, his boots looking for purchase in the mud, then launched himself at Sam, dropping his good shoulder to plow into Sam's midsection. They went down in a tangle of limbs, each searching for a grip as the mud slicked their clothes.

Dean managed to headbutt Sam, mostly by accident, and Sam retaliated with an elbow to Dean's ribcage.

Dean sucked in a sharp breath at the wave of pain from his still-healing ribs, and quickly brought his knee up. Much to his annoyance, Sam shifted, and he only managed to glance a blow into his thigh.

Sam cursed, grabbing at Dean's wrists, forcing him down, kneeling at his side and pinning him. "Jesus," Sam wheezed.

Panic welled abruptly, and Dean bucked, bringing both legs up, feet slamming into Sam's head. Sam fell off him, and Dean followed, fists flying.

Sam yelped, hands coming up to protect his head, but Dean moved too fast, each blow calculated. A sharp shot landed on his jaw, and he rolled with the impact, trying to come to his knees, to get his footing.

Dean followed him, his fist slamming into Sam's mouth.

Sam moved faster than Dean would have guessed he could, power and body slamming him backwards, forcing him back down to the ground.

Sam stared, watching the anger in Dean's eyes fade, replaced by... oh, god. Terror. Utter, mindless terror. Dean was afraid of him. He felt his stomach sink, suddenly understanding. Shit. Moving slowly, he slid off Dean. "Dude, it's me. Relax. I'm not going to hurt you."

Dean struggled, soft, animal noises coming from him, eyes wild.

"Dean!" Sam said sharply.

Dean's struggles slowed, but his eyes were still filled with stark, uncomprehending terror.

"Come on, please. It's me. Sammy," he whispered, voice cracking.

Dean froze, eyes on Sam's face. After a long second, he blinked. When Dean looked back up, his eyes had quieted, a disturbing calm acceptance in them. "Dude, I love you, but get the fuck off me," he drawled, voice low and deadly.

Sam jerked his hands back, staring at Dean as he rolled to his feet. "I'm sorry. Dean, I'm so sorry-"

"What have I told you about chick flick moments?" Dean muttered. He looked at Sam's split lip and swelling eye. "That's gonna suck tomorrow. Want a drink?"

"Yes," Sam said numbly, stumbling after Dean, mind whirling. What the hell was wrong with his brother? Was Bobby right?

No. No matter what happened, what Dean did, he wasn't too broken to save.

When they got to camp, Dean handed him the canteen. "Here." He turned, walking down the trail.

"Where are you going?" Sam asked, hating the touch of desperation in his voice.

"Jesus, Sam. I'm just going to the stream down the hill." He held up the empty water bottle.

"Oh. Okay." Sam sat back against the rock, wincing as the Three Wise Men burned the hell out of the split lip.

By the time Dean got back, Sam was feeling no pain. Dean shook the canteen, grinning when he heard the tinny slosh. "Dude."

"Wha?" Sam blinked, noting that Dean had cleaned up a little. "Fucker."

"Is that anyway to talk to the man who brought you ice?" Dean held up a bag.

"Was I supposed to drink it cold?" Sam asked.

Dean laughed. "So wasted. Dude."

Sam stared blearily as Dean shrugged his muddy jacket and t-shirt off, digging in his bag until he came up with a clean one. Another quick rummage and he pulled out a clean sock, filling it part way with ice, and pressing it to Sam's cheek. "You're such a fucking bitch, Sammy," Dean muttered.

"Screw you. Gonna have a black eye."

"Probably. Didn't ask you to follow me," Dean pointed out reasonably.

"Didn't ask you to punch me, either," Sam sulked. "Can't always get what you want, huh?"

"No shit," Dean breathed, leaning back next to him and scooping up the vodka bottle. Settling his shoulder against Sam's, he sighed heavily and repeated, "No shit."

*****

34

It was three very long days. If this was what life would be like off the road, it wasn't very promising. Once John had caught up on sleep, he was strapped for something (anything) to do. He'd pace, but his leg hurt like hell. He spent most of the two days on Missouri's couch, half-watching daytime television, checking and rechecking the messages on his cell phone. The boys didn't call.

They were fine. Dean hadn't been wrong when he said that nothing would hit him. Lawrence was a paranormal dead zone. Even the obituaries were disgustingly... normal.

This was running John's nerves ragged.

By the middle of the third day, he was reduced to cleaning the kitchen. With two boys hanging around, and John's leg fucked up as hell, it was probably good that he get to it before Missouri showed up. Compared to the bathroom or the basement, it was mild, but John didn't want to try the stairs until he had to. At least he could stand on one leg to scrub the dried pasta off the stove.

It'd be nice if he could remember when they had pasta. Or figure out why Sam, who had actually had a steady girlfriend in the last decade, had missed all the social graces that were supposed to go with a woman's touch.

Or maybe John was a chauvinist bastard. He'd heard that.

The door opened as John was putting elbow grease into a particularly stubborn bit of odd orangeish goop. John looked up, and straightened sharply as he saw Sam standing there, covered in mud and bruises, swaying on his feet. He grabbed his prosthetic and shoved it on, crossing the kitchen in record time.

Sam gave him a crooked, rueful grin. Up close, John got a good, strong whiff of enough alcohol to down a draft-horse. At least it masked the sweat.

"Sammy, what the hell-"

"Hi, Dad," Sam said blearily. "Can I have a chair?"

"You probably ought to, yeah." Grabbing Sam by the scruff of his neck, John steered him firmly to a kitchen chair. There was a trail of cracked, dried mud left in Sam's wake. One more thing for John to sweep up. And when did he become Missouri's house-bitch? "Where's your brother?"

"In town. He had... stuff." Sam plunked down on the chair. "He's coming back."

"Is he less drunk than you are?"

"He didn't drink anything. Said I needed it more. He was right." Sam laid his head back, staring up at John. "I fucked up."

John absently tugged at a leaf plastered into Sam's hair by mud. "I take it you two had words."

"And fists. He started it." Sam wrinkled his nose. "Wow, that sounded more mature in my head."

"S'okay. I know the feeling." John considered Sam for a moment, then headed over to the coffee pot. Poured him a mug of strong black coffee, set it in front of him, and walked to the fridge to grab an ice pack. "He look any better than you do?"

"Yeah. He's a jerk."

"It's Dean," John said, like that was self-explanatory. Grabbing a bag of frozen vegetables, he went back to the kitchen table and pressed it to Sam's jaw.

"Ow," Sam muttered.

"How did you fuck up?" John asked, easing up the pressure a little.

"I... god, I don't even know where to start." Sam closed his eyes, looking suddenly more sober. "I put him on his ass. Pinned him there. He panicked, he-"

"Beat the hell out of you."

"He didn't know me." Sam made a face, turning his head away from the ice pack. He stared at the sodden sock dangling from his jacket pocket. "Then he got me ice. Had to be a three mile walk."

A hard knot in John's stomach uncoiled painfully all at once. He stared down at Sam, the dark circles under his eyes, and echoed, "He hit you, and then he got you ice."

"Said that," Sam muttered.

"Okay." John gently pressed his fingers against the lump on Sam's jaw, gauging to see if anything was cracked. "Lose any teeth?"

"No, sir." Sam squinted at John. "He was being careful. Right up until he freaked out. Dad, he was afraid of me-"

"Not of you."

"But-"

"Talked him down, didn't you?" John took his hand back. "You need to go shower."

"You saying I smell?" Sam asked, sniffing at himself.

"No, I'm saying you reek." John watched as Sam levered himself up, staggering towards the stairs, and sighed. He'd better make another pot of coffee. If Dean was in half Sam's shape, they'd need it.

John had finished the stove, and was leaning against the sink, attempting to scrape coagulated grease off a frying pan when the door opened again. He lifted his eyes tentatively, almost afraid of what he would see.

Dean smirked at him. "Housebitch."

John stared. Yes, that was definitely the same man who'd slunk out of this kitchen two days earlier, but you wouldn't know it. The stance, the smile, the oddly intense eyes- that was Dean. "You got the blue out," he said stupidly. "Your hair, I mean."

Dean shrugged, slipping his coat off. "Yeah. Stopped in town for a couple things, and figured I'd get it cut." He slipped past John, nudging him as he passed, and grabbing a mug off the drainboard.

John felt the smile curving his lips, knew he looked like an idiot, and didn't care. "If you're gonna shower, you might want to wait. Between the dishes and your brother, there can't be much hot water left."

Dean poured coffee and wandered over to the refrigerator, offering John his back as he rummaged in it. "Nah, I figured I'd work on the Impala for a while."

John wasn't stupid enough to think that beating the hell out of Sam had cured Dean, but it was a start. "Sounds like a plan. You need any help?"

"Probably after a while. Still can't get her to turn over. Might end up pulling the engine tomorrow if I can't get her going. I'll give you a yell," Dean offered, coming out of the fridge with a package of pepperoni. "How's Sammy?"

John glanced back. "Banged up, but he'll be fine. You wanna tell me what set you off?"

Dean shrugged. "Not particularly. He was being a douchebag."

"Ah. That's what you told me when you were seventeen and he caught you with Mary Jo Angelson," John said.

Dean blinked, the memory sliding into place. "Oh yeah." He grinned. "She was hot. Had a mou- Never mind." He looked at the floor as John snorted with laughter. "I'm going to go work on my baby. I'll yell when I need a hand."

John nodded. "I think I'm about done with the dishes for now," he said with distaste. "I'm going to sit, read the paper, and..."

"Be bored out of your mind?" Dean asked.

"Yeah. Pretty much."

"Have fun." With a faintly mocking salute, Dean walked out the door, coffee and pepperoni in hand.

"Was that-" Sam asked, weaving back into the kitchen, rubbing his hair with a towel.

"Dean. He's working on the car," John added.

"No, I mean, that was Dean." Sam rubbed his eyes blearily. "Possibly two of them."

John gave him a fond smile. "Go get some sleep, Sam."

"Yeah, I think I will," Sam muttered, giving the door a last faintly befuddled look.

John shook his head and went back to drinking his coffee. It was barely an hour later when Dean called his name. John slid the prosthetic on and headed outside.

Dean was laying on the floor of the drivers side of the Impala, head under the dashboard,

"What're you trying to do-" John began, then stopped, eyes landing on the new chrome controls on the dashboard of Dean's car. The hand controls.

His silence apparently lasted long enough that Dean looked out from under the dashboard. There was a smudge of dirt on his nose. "Don't make a thing out of it," Dean warned.

John grunted and leaned against the door, considering the controls. They looked top of the line, which figured. Dean wouldn't accept second-best when it came to the Impala. "You didn't have to do that to your baby."

"You didn't have to do that to your leg," Dean replied bluntly.

"Yeah, I did. You're my boy." John shrugged. "I'd do it again."

"Thanks, but fucked if I'm ever riding in the back again. I'll strap Sam to the hood if I have to." When John snorted, Dean flashed a staggering grin. "Besides, I might need a getaway driver."

"Might?" John drawled. "How many shotgun weddings have you barely missed, little man?"

Dean smirked, unrepentant, and slid back under the dashboard. His response was muffled. "If I was little, wouldn't have that fricking problem... Trying to push a wire through, but it's getting caught on the other side. You mind?"

John answered by going around to the hood of the Impala, patting her rearview mirror with absent affection. He leaned against her side as he felt under the hood, grimacing when he felt the sheer amount of gunk Bobby had left them to clean. Goddamn bodywork idiots didn't know how to treat a classic proper... even if Bobby had thrown in enough side-impact crash bars for the Impala to double as a tank.

He felt the wire brush against his fingers and caught it deftly, easing it through. The wire was new, casing slightly stiff. John slid it into place on his end. Asked, "That it?"

"Ha. No, it'll be a while. I can switch you, y'know. Your leg-"

"I'm all right."

A rustle as Dean shrugged, the faint plastic crackle of Dean digging through a new package of wires. "You schedule a PT appointment yet?"

"Did it yesterday. And a checkup." John smirked. "Turns out they happened to have all my paperwork already on file. Updated to the crash and everything."

"Imagine that."

"What'd you offer Chloe?"

"What didn't I?" The wire began to wiggle through. "She's a nice girl. Told me to harass you for her. And to take a yoga class. I told her I was already flexible and she hung up on me."

"Losing your touch?"

"Ha. Never gonna happen."

They were quiet for a moment, John fixing up the wire Dean had passed him, Dean getting the next one set up. It occurred to John that he should probably tell Dean not to bother with the tape player until they had the engine together, but he liked the companionable silence too much.

The sun hit its apex, started to slide across the sky as the time stretched on. John couldn't say it was bothering him particularly.

Finally, Dean slid the last wire through. John hooked it up and listened as Dean shimmied out, straightening as his back popped loudly.

"Ugh," Dean muttered. "Getting old."

"Watch it," John said mildly, and grinned as Dean gave his good leg a playful nudge with the toe of his boot. He slid the wire home, then laid his fingers over the knot of wiring. "Dean."

Dean made an absent affirming noise, half-lost under the sound of him wandering over to the toolbox and putting the wire-cutters away.

"Asking you a question. You don't have to answer, but I've got to ask." John stayed carefully where he was, staring at the engine block and its grime.

"I'll let you know."

"Mm." Funny. In his mind, this was clear-cut. He had to ask, even half-knowing the answer. He had to know if it'd been a lie the demon threw out to fuck them over, or if it was something they'd have to deal with eventually. But now that he'd started, he was stuck here, frozen up tight. Saying it out loud, having the word between them, made that nightmare real. John cleared his throat and said, gruffly, "The demon. When it was in your head. Did it rape-"

Dean hissed sharply, cutting John off.

There was a moment of awful silence. John waited, tensed to hear the slamming of the screen door as Dean bolted.

Finally, Dean said, his voice low and terrible, "No. But it came close."

And between the lines, in Dean's quiet, John had his answer: the twisted bastard had been wearing John's face.

God damn it, Mary. You could've warned me. You should've-

John took a steadying breath. "Okay."

"Okay?"

"Yeah."

"Now see, that's why I slugged Sam. Too talky," Dean muttered.

"California," John said, as though that explained everything. "Did you know they put fruit in their beer?"

"Sacrilege," Dean snorted.

"You seem a little better," John said. "Aside from the hair. Maybe you should smack Sam more often."

"Yeah." Dean paused for a long moment. "He pinned me down, and I kind of lost it. No kind of. I panicked. I don't think I've ever been that scared."

"I'm sorry. I should have warned him-"

"Nah," Dean cut in. "Anyway, I kicked him in the head."

"That's... why do you sound happy about it?" John paused. "Other than the obvious fun you've always gotten out of smacking him."

Dean laughed for a moment. Then the sound faded. "I was afraid I would use the power, just not think."

John laid his forehead against the hood of the Impala. Jesus. "In all the things I worry about-- and you know me, there's a lot... that? Never occurred to me. You wouldn't hurt Sam."

Dean was silent. John held his breath, waiting for the snide comment, or for Dean to walk away,

The hard impact of something on his stomach jerked the breath out of John's lungs. He sat up, catching the toolbox automatically before it could slide, and looked at Dean. Dean, who was standing so close their knees were touching.

"You going to help me pull the engine or not?" Dean asked, even as anything. Then he flashed a grin. "Because you can always go back in and mop Missouri's kitchen, house boy."

John knew this game. Push, and Dean would snark. Push harder, and he'd run like hell. "Yeah. How're we lifting it out?"

Dean grinned. "Got our own personal winch," he said, glancing at the house. "I'll go grab it." He made a face at the mess under the hood. "Would you start unhooking the engine in the meantime?"

John nodded and ducked his head back under the hood and started working on the bolts. Jesus, Bobby had made a mess of it. Would have been better if he'd just left the repair to them.

The door opened a few minutes later, and Dean came back out, one hand holding three beers. His other looped around Sam's shoulders. Sam was looking a lot more coherent after a few- hell, almost six?- hours of sleep, transparently relieved that Dean was letting Sam close enough to touch him. Even if Dean didn't smell too great just then. And god, John loved his boys just then, with a force to break a man's heart.

Dean pointed at the car, and Sam grinned. "Do I look like your bitch?"

Dean smirked, eyebrow raised. "C'mon, Sammy. Just a little 'Shining'?"

Sam sighed, grabbing the beer. "I've never tried lifting something out of something else. I might lift the whole damn car."

"Just give it a try?" Dean wheedled. "Is it all ready, Dad?"

John pulled one last hose. "Yeah. Go for it."

Sam glanced at it again, focusing on the grimy engine and lifted gently.

"Yes!" Dean exulted, seeing the engine slide up smoothly. "Now, set it on those saw horses. Gently, or so help me, I'll kick your ass again."

John winced, but Sam managed to set the engine down with minimal noise. John looked back down at the car, and bit off a low curse. "I see the problem," John muttered. "You'll be needing to get some parts before we can fix it, though. Carburetor's a bust, and the battery's cracked, and leaked on timing chain."

"Shit," Dean muttered. "That'll be it for today, then." He ran a grimy hand over his forehead and glanced down at his watch. "Let me grab a shower, and we can go grab something to eat, stop at the auto supply. We needed a radio knob anyway."

Out of Dean's sight, Sam's hand twitched guiltily towards the radio knob on a cord around his neck. Then he nodded and let his hand drop, poker-faced.

John nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

Dean grinned. "Can I drive? I always wanted to be a fireman." he asked, glancing at the bright red van.

John flipped him off. "Sure. Why not? Go ahead, shower. I'll throw a tarp over the engine and stash the tools."

"Thanks," Dean murmured, heading in the house.

Sam handed him a tarp, helped him tuck it around the Impala's monstrous engine. "He's not okay yet, is he?" Sam said quietly as they worked.

"No," John murmured. "But I think he's trying to heal, instead of picking at it. It's just going to take time."

Sam nodded. "We'll make it."

John rumpled his hair. "Yeah. I think right now the best thing we can do is try to follow his lead, be normal..." When Sam gave John a wry smile, flashing dimples, John added, "For us, anyway."

"Okay. I can do that," Sam said.

"Good. Since it's supposed to rain tomorrow, you get to clean the basement. Salt it, use holy water to wash the floor. See if we can get the brimstone smell out."

"What about Dean?" Sam asked, making a face.

"He's doing the upstairs bathroom," John said, with a certain sadistic glee.

"Ew."

"That's what he gets for calling me housebitch." John grinned.

*****

35

Two weeks flew by before John knew it. The house was mostly back in shape, though the basement had required Andrew's help to clean, much to Sam's annoyance. After two days of backbreaking cleaning, it still smelled like brimstone and rot. With an annoyed call from Missouri still ringing in his ears-damned psychics-John had called in the expert.

Five minutes later, the basement was back to normal, and smelled faintly like sunshine and wildflowers.

The bathroom, they finally had to concede, was dead. Very, very dead. John called in a home remodeling company and paid for a new tub, and fixtures. Turned out, zombie blood really didn't react well with tile.

Dean...well. Dean was trying. Oh God was he trying, some days. They had good days and bad days, still, but the good were starting to outweigh the bad, up until the last day or so. Then, he had started to get restless, nervous. His daily jogs had become longer, trying to burn off the excess energy.

John couldn't say he'd blamed him. Two weeks. Bobby's allotted deadline. John had taken to wearing the shoulder holster constantly, even while he slept, which wasn't much; a couple of hours here and there in the recliner downstairs. The leg was hurting like a bitch most of the time, but the woman at the VA had said that was good. If it hadn't been hurting, it would have meant that he'd probably done un-healable damage, which would have meant further amputation.

In the hopes of taking Dean's mind off things, Sam had started sparring with Dean, burning off his own nervous energy in the process. Dean was proving to be an excellent tutor, knowing when to push Sam, and when to back off and let him figure things out on his own. Since their fight, Dean seemed to possess infinite patience with Sam, never losing control during their matches.

John was on his way towards the stairs, listening to Sam thunder along the hallway, having changed into comfortable clothes when a knock at the door stopped him. He changed directions, warily approaching the door. A glance through the window showed Bobby's familiar trucker hat.

Damn.

John had kept his ear to the ground in the last few weeks, as had Andrew, and so they'd heard everything Bobby had done (up to and including threatening to start a war in their fucked up little fraternity) to be sure no one tried for Dean. John was pretty certain some had still tried, because he'd heard enough reports of people 'just happening' to be around Lawrence, only to find themselves driving right past, or forgetting where they'd been going in the first place. Missouri's doing.

Stupidly, John had let himself hope that meant Bobby wouldn't make his way to them, either.

The rhythmic thump of Dean in the basement, warming up for sparring by beating the hell out of a punching bag, was only slightly reassuring. Bobby would have to get through both John and Sam to get to Dean, but if Dean heard shots fired...

Setting his jaw, John opened the front door.

Bobby met John's eyes evenly. He looked like shit, dark circles under his eyes and hollows in places where he'd lost some weight. "Hey, John," Bobby rasped tiredly.

"Bobby," John returned, not giving an inch.

With a sigh, Bobby reached up and took off his hat. "Your boy around?"

"Yeah. He and Sam are getting set to spar."

"Mm. That'd be the Sam sitting on the stairwell with a sniper rifle trained on me?"

John felt his lips curl in a fond smile. "Yeah, that'd be him."

Bobby barked a laugh. "You trusting him to fire over your shoulder?"

"Boy's a crack shot. You should've seen the one he made with the Colt. It was a thing of beauty." John scratched his jaw, careful not to move his head to block Sam's shot. "Don't know when they started teaching sniping at Stanford."

"Basket weaving was full." Dean's voice came from the basement door.

Bobby's eyes jerked sideways. He blinked hard. Then a slow, lopsided smile broke across his weathered face. "Well, I'll be damned. Look at you."

"Does that mean you're not shooting me?" Dean eased up into the doorway beside him, standing with a cocky smirk between Bobby and the barrel of Sam's gun. "Because if you are, I want to kick Sam's skinny ass one last time before I go."

"Dean," Sam growled, putting the rifle up, uncocking it. "Thanks for blocking my shot, asshole."

"Sam," Dean said patiently. "Man's doing a job. Rather it be him than Jericho, or worse." He looked at Bobby. "You coming in, or is Dad making you stand on the porch now?"

John shot Dean a look, but moved to the side, letting Bobby past.

Bobby seemed taken aback by Dean's calm. "You look a damn sight better than the last time I saw you."

Dean shrugged. "I'm working on it." He headed back towards the basement, glancing back at Sam. "You still getting your panties in that wad, or are we sparring?"

Sam glared, but laid the rifle down and followed Dean down the stairs.

John started to follow, then realized that Bobby wasn't beside him. He glanced back, finding Bobby leaning against the wall, looking pale and shaky. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Jesus, John. I thought-"

John nodded. "I know."

Bobby fished in his pocket, pulling out a small, thin book. "Here."

John took it, looked down. The brown cover was embossed with gold lettering, and the seal of Mexico. "What's-" He flipped it open, seeing Dean's face looking back at him, with the name Paolo Murphy beneath. "A passport?"

"I couldn't do it, John. Just...damn it, I've watched that boy grow up. I'd sooner put a bullet in my own head. Was going to tell him to run for it. Head for Central America. Most of our kind won't bother outside of the US."

John shook his head, a smile touching his lips. "You're going soft, Bobby." He looped his arm around Bobby's shoulder, steering them towards the stairs.

"Hell, I love those boys, you know that." Bobby hesitated for a moment. "Off the record, how is he?"

John considered lying, but Bobby needed to know. "Not great yet. He's getting there, but I think there's a couple more rough patches to go."

Bobby absorbed this and nodded. "Okay. Call me if you need me. How's the Impala doing?"

"Jesus, what a mess," John groaned. "I think we replaced half the damn car, but it's up and running again."

Bobby winced. "So, Dean'll be heading out soon?"

John nodded, eyes shadowed. "Yeah. Doctor says he's healed, though he's making him wear a brace on the wrist when he spars or hits the bag. Nothing to hold him here."

Bobby stopped, turning to face John. "Feeling sorry for yourself, I see."

"A little," John admitted. "What the hell am I supposed to do, just sit at home and watch the soaps?"

Bobby snorted. "Like that would happen. You'll manage, John. Do research, keep an eye on that gate, and then, who the hell knows?"

John nodded. "I want to keep an eye on Andrew, too." He considered telling Bobby his suspicions, but Bobby would just go shoot the kid. He wasn't going to examine why the thought bothered him, but it did. "I promised Jim I'd take care of him if anything happened."

Bobby nodded. "Sounds like a good project for you. So what's the problem?"

"I just hate sending my boys out-"

"Both of them? What happened to Stanford?" Bobby asked. "Figured Sam would want to get back now that things are settled." When John shook his head, Bobby sighed. "Damn, I'm sorry. I know you wanted more for him."

"For them both," John replied softly. "Hell, Bobby, they both had lives waiting. Sam had Stanford, and Dean..."

Bobby frowned at him. "Dean what?"

John stared down the steps, then sighed and closed the door to the basement most of the way. Dropping his voice, he said softly, "Dean's last year of high school, we stayed put, same as with Sam. Guidance counselor nagged Dean into sending out applications. His science teacher threw weight behind him, and Dean rigged up some crazy-ass instrument from a busted TV monitor, and he got offered a full ride to MIT. I nearly got myself and Sammy killed on a hunt that year. So Dean got spooked about leaving us, turned them down. Stayed." John closed his eyes. "Never been more relieved in my life, but up till recently that was as tempted as I've ever been to turn him over my knee. He's lucky he's too tall for it."

Bobby made a rude noise. "You ever met that boy of yours? Because damn, John, you must be the only one around who didn't know Dean was born for this."

"You're talking fate now. Jim would smack you." The sound of Sam's laughter made John glance down the stairs. He sighed. "If Mary hadn't died, if I hadn't gotten so damned obsessed..."

"Mary or not, you or not, he'd have found his way here anyhow. All that means is that he'd be on his own. No backup. None he trusts like you two, anyway." There was a loud 'thud' from downstairs, Sam's cursing and Dean's bark of laughter. Bobby cracked a grin. "All right, John, I'm going down there. Got to see what Dean can do when he's kicking someone else's ass."

"Sam does okay," John murmured generously, and opened the door.

By the time they reached the bottom of the stairs, John's boys were in full swing. Dean wasn't going full tilt, not yet, but he was going a damn sight faster than he had been a few days ago. Sam was watching Dean, learning, adapting, quick mind ticking away as he held back a few seconds. Dean gave him the space to consider. That'd change soon.

Some days, they could go for ten minutes without either of them taking a real hit. Blocking, sliding out of the way, sidestepping, rolling. A graceful, slightly terrifying dance.

Dean smirked at Sam as John and Bobby settled into the camping chairs at the other end of the basement-close enough to watch, not close enough to hear everything. "Okay, that's enough warm up. Come get some."

Sam waited that extra heartbeat, straining to figure out what Dean was going to do. Then, it came in an easy flash of power, accompanied by a mental image of Dean's fist flying from Dean's perspective, that startled him so much he nearly walked into it. Goddamn it. Of all the crappy times for his brain to come back online...

"What the hell was that?" Dean asked.

"Sorry," Sam muttered. "Wasn't quite ready." He dropped back into the defensive stance, trying to open his mind to Dean's, to read what he was about to do.

The power came again, a flash of movement. He flung his arm up, and promptly got clocked in the cheek. "Ow."

"Am I boring you?" Dean asked sarcastically.

Sam shook his head, trying again. This time, it was a leg sweep that he didn't quite avoid, taking him down, Dean letting his heel tap Sam's chest, a warning.

"Stop trying to psychic it, and watch me, dumbass," Dean hissed. He kipped up, glaring down at Sam. "Don't make me kick your ass to make a point, dude."

"How'd you know?" Sam murmured.

"You looked like you were constipated, dude. Now, are you ready or not?" Dean stepped forward before he could answer, moving smoothly, faster than Sam had expected.

Dean wasn't playing anymore, that much was obvious. Sam had been on the floor no less than eight times within half an hour. Finally, he held up a hand. "Done."

"Wuss," Dean muttered. "You're getting better, but you've gotta watch your left. You drop it right before you take a swing, and I can hit you nine out of ten right then." He lowered his voice. "And stop trying to use your power during a fight. You don't have the control for it."

Sam flipped him off, rubbing his thigh as he walked towards his father and Bobby.

Dean grinned at Bobby. "Want a rematch?"

"Hell no," Bobby drawled. "I like my bones internal."

Eyes lazy and challenging, Dean looked at his father.

John raised an eyebrow at Dean.

Sam glared at Dean. "That's not-"

"You're on," John murmured, pushing himself upright.

Bobby touched his wrist. "Not to tell you how to do things, John, but you have heard the saying about a one-legged man in an asskicking contest?"

John grinned at him for a second, then turned back to Dean, walking slowly over to him. "You up for this?" he asked.

"I was kidding, Dad," Dean murmured. "You shouldn't-"

"I didn't ask that, son. Are you okay with this?" John asked, faintly exasperated.

"Yeah. I can if you can." Dean dropped back into his fighting stance, mirroring his father.

Dean wasn't quite sure how it happened. One moment, he was throwing a roundhouse punch at his father. The next he was on his ass, blinking at the ceiling. Dad had done it kind of gently, as far as these things went, but his pride stung like hell.

Okay. That'd been a fluke, a consequence of Dean not taking the fight seriously. He knew better.

Rolling back up to his knees, then to his feet, Dean shook himself and slid back into a defensive stance. They circled, wary and slow, Dean's eyes locked on the center of his father's body. Dad watched, waited, and damn it, this was his father. Dean would not be afraid.

Concentrate. Breathe. Watch.

His father's eyes sharpened slightly, searching Dean's face. He tilted his head, a silent offer: say the word and we'll call it.

Dean slept in layers of clothes now. He took a knife with him to shower. He didn't sleep until he was too exhausted or too drunk to dream. He made himself say the name of God every morning, staring in the bathroom mirror, searching for a telltale flicker of black in his eyes. He ran past the cemetery every day, pausing to be sure that the rubble hadn't stirred. He still tasted gunmetal and brimstone sometimes, still wanted to scream. He practiced with the power in the basement, before Dad or Sam woke, practiced until his head was swimming and he saw double with pain, until he knew the power was his weapon and not the other way around.

He'd changed bone-deep, lost things he loved, gained things he never wanted. But he would be damned if he lost this. There were too many good memories tied into sparring with his father, and they had to outweigh the bad.

Flashing his father a cocky grin he didn't feel, Dean relaxed into the stance. Sank deeper into it, lived in the quiet moment of waiting to see what his opponent would do.

"Good," John murmured, absent approval. "Don't rush into it."

Dean made a face, like the praise hadn't inexplicably warmed him. "You going to try something, or are you tired already?"

"Some of us don't waste moves just to look pretty." John nodded at Dean's feet. "Footwork's getting sloppy, son. Best watch that."

"My footwork's fine. Next you'll tell me my shoe's untied. C'mon, old man."

John's answer was a slow smile. There was only a slight hitch to his movements, betraying that the prosthetic was new. If Dean hadn't been looking, he wouldn't have seen it. The man was a master, finding his new center of gravity and compensating without even bitching once.

Shifting on his feet, Dean watched for the hitch, the slight break in the pattern. Came for Dad then, fast and smooth, and if it'd been Sam, it might've worked. If it'd been a demon, it definitely would have worked. Since it was John, Dean got hip-tossed to the floor.

Dad didn't follow him down, didn't crowd him. His mistake. Hooking a foot behind his father's knee, Dean swept him down.

Catching himself on his hands, John gave a startled, delighted laugh. Then he swatted Dean's arm. "Help me up, you little bastard."

Dean bent, pulling John's weight up with ease. Amazing the difference chopping off a few pounds of leg would do. "You ready to go again?" John asked.

"Yeah. How'd you do that?"

John hesitated, then shrugged. "Stance left a couple of spots uncovered." He tapped Dean's hip, then his good shoulder, then his stomach, careful to be gentle, careful to leave Dean room to back away before he made contact. "Tuck this shoulder more, protect your stomach, and we'll go again."

Dean stood calmly, nodding at each touch. "Got it. Let's go." He relaxed, watching John closely.

It was damned sad, Dean thought later, to get your ass kicked eight out of ten times by a one legged man double your age. The only thing that took some of the sting out was that it was by John Winchester.

Bobby begged off from dinner and a movie, saying that he needed to get back, call Katya and tell her not to hit Jericho with a tranq dart. Apparently, he'd been getting damned restless over the two week stay of judgement Bobby had imposed.

Sam lost at rock, paper, scissors and was sent out for dinner and a movie. "No girly shit," Dean ordered.

He came back with Chinese food and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Dean grinned like Sam had brought back the Holy Grail.

Dinner was... different. Wonderful. After the fire, food had tasted like ashes in John's mouth. Eating turned into an inconvenient matter of survival interfering with revenge. He ate quickly, when he remembered at all. He'd fed the boys a steady diet of diner food and drive-through crap on the road. When they were stationary, it was whatever was cheap, fast and easy for little hands to prepare if Daddy wasn't home, until Dean got old enough to take over all the grocery shopping. There was little joy in it.

Now?

John sat back, eating out of the take-out carton with chopsticks, drinking cold beer. Watched with a crooked smile as Sam tried to convince Dean that sushi wasn't toxic ("Dad, back me up here, you served in Japan for a few months..."), and as Dean made a crude crack about raw fish that prompted Sam to smack his knuckles with a chopstick. Sam stole pieces of Dean's bourbon chicken, and Dean snuck sips of Sam's beer. John ate a piece of the sushi, not bothering to tell Sam that he hadn't exactly eaten off-base when he was in Okinawa for a whole two weeks on Uncle Sam's bill. Which was fair, because apparently Sam didn't feel like telling his old man that the green wallpaper paste was made out of fucking napalm.

When John swore and grabbed Sam's beer, finishing off the bottle as Sam made indignant noises, Dean laughed, genuine and delighted. Then, still chuckling, he got up to get another round of bottles without being asked.

A rich, quiet happiness welled up in John's chest, in the space that was almost always hollow.

After a companionable dinner, they wandered over to the living room. Sam settled in one corner of the couch, the spot he'd claimed as his, and put his socked feet up on the table. Dean paused for a heartbeat, his eyes ticking to the armchair beside the couch. Then he set his jaw, put his beer down and flopped down beside Sam. Sam grunted, but he was smiling as he reached his arm out along the back of the couch, across Dean's shoulders.

"Okay," Dean said without looking away from the television, "but you're not getting past first base. I'm not that kind of girl. If that's your smooth approach, Sammy, it's no wonder you never get laid."

Sam smacked him on the side of the head. "Jackass." Curling his arm back, he messed up Dean's hair, then laid his hand on the nape of Dean's neck. Sam pressed the heel of his hand in, made a face. "Dude. Did they not do PT on you? Your neck's all screwed up."

"Yeah, you know, hospital stays for felons are so cushy." Dean kicked Sam's foot. "Some of us didn't get hot PT girl rubbing us down every day, you lucky bitch."

"Not so much rubbing down as making up for all the torture," Sam said wryly. "When it came down to it, she was like Torquemada in Snoopy scrubs."

"Some people would pay good money for that," Dean mused, then grimaced. "Okay, ow."

"Found a cord," Sam said, with a perverse sort of little brother glee. Rubbing his thumb across it, he tilted his head. "Wow. Can you hear that? It sproings."

"Sammy, stop playing Freebird on your brother's tendons," John said mildly, opening the DVD case. He put the disk in Missouri's player, considered the remote for a bewildered moment, and then tossed it to Sam. He could've fixed the player with his eyes closed, but that didn't mean he knew how to work the damn thing.

John went to sit in the armchair, but as he passed the couch Dean reached out and grabbed his shirt. Dean just looked up at him. Didn't say a word. Didn't have to.

John told Dean, "Shift over."

The couch wasn't made for three good-sized men to fit on it at once, but they managed. A comfortable quiet fell once they got past the trailers for shitty movies John had never even heard of. As the opening titles started, Sam squinted at the light-switch on the far wall. It clicked off.

"Show-off," Dean muttered.

Sam grinned, shifting so that his arm was stretched loosely around Dean's shoulders. Dean squirmed, but didn't push Sam off.

The movie was as comfortable as an old flannel shirt, well-worn. John had seen pieces of it half a dozen times when they were on the road, so it didn't demand much thought. After a few minutes, he glanced over at his boys. Found Sam focused on the screen, as close to oblivious to his surroundings as any of them ever were, and Dean obliviously struggling to keep his eyes open. That wasn't surprising, considering. John had heard him pacing the house at all hours the last few weeks, restless as a feral cat that suddenly found itself shut in. Checking and re-checking Sam's room at all hours, hovering in the doorway of the living room where John was sleeping in the armchair; Dean spent his nights doing pretty much anything but sleep.

John went back to the movie. When he looked at Dean again, he wasn't shocked to find that Dean was dozing, leaning heavily into Sam. Sam caught John's eyes, gave him a lopsided smile. Without a word, John smiled back and passed Sam one of the throw pillows. Sam shifted quietly, carefully, lowering Dean's head onto the pillow on his lap. Dean twitched, mumbling something, his expression troubled; Sam murmured, "I've got watch, dude."

With a hard sigh, Dean sank back into sleep like something was weighing him down.

John looked at Sam, considering. Sam didn't look back at him. After a moment, John reached down, grabbed Dean's legs, and swung them up onto his lap. Dean didn't stir.

His boys, John thought, wistful. He'd had the feeling, since the moment the Impala had roared to life two days ago, that his time with them was running out. It wasn't that he blamed them, but he'd miss them.

In a lot of ways, he felt like he'd just found them.

When the movie ended, John slid out from under Dean's feet, glanced at Sam. "You sleeping there?" he whispered.

Sam nodded. "Yeah. Dad-"

For once, he and his youngest understood each other perfectly. John murmured, "I know. Take care of him. As much as he'll let you, anyway."

Sam nodded. "Will do."

John bent over, pressing a kiss to the top of Sam's head. "Love you, boy."

"Love you, too, sir."

John looked down at Dean, the gouges sleeplessness had left, the weight lost, and still somehow only saw the little four year old holding his brother for dear life while their world shattered around them.

"Love you, too," he whispered, bending to press a gentle kiss on Dean's cheek.

Dean squirmed in his sleep, swatting vaguely at John.

"I'll put the coffee pot on," John whispered, looking at Sam. "Rules are, you call me every three days. If I do not hear from you, I'm coming for you. And really, you don't want that. Cause I'll show up in the bright red van, and I will put a horn on it that plays Dixie or something annoying. And don't think I won't find you. Bobby put a GPS on the Impala."

"Got it, sir," Sam said. He looked down at Dean, smiled as Dean drowsily growled at something. "We'll try to swing back around every month or two."

"I know," John murmured. "I'm going to go up now. You should probably try to get some sleep. You're gonna have a hell of a fight come morning."

"Yeah," Sam said. Then he grinned. "But I'll win."

*****

36

Dean closed the door behind him carefully, quietly, feeling like a bastard.

He'd left a note on the counter for Dad and Sam. He'd been careful to take the cell phone Dad bought for him last week. He had the feeling Dad had been expecting this.

Still, he was sneaking out before dawn like a fucking criminal. It didn't sit easy. But better that than some bullshit tearful goodbye, having to wish Sam luck at school or look at Dad and tell him that sorry, but Dean just couldn't sit still for anybody. The road called, and Dean couldn't ignore it anymore.

Yeah. Nice way of saying that Dean was running like hell.

Shifting his duffel bag's strap higher on his shoulder, Dean walked towards the Impala. He slid his hand over the arch of her window, patting her absently as he opened the driver's side door. He'd missed that sound.

Dean went to climb in, tossing his bag over into the passenger seat. It hit him in the chest a moment later. Startled, Dean caught it and stared at Sam, slid low in the passenger seat.

With a yawn, Sam rubbed at his face and muttered, "Jerk."

"Sam," Dean said, his voice low, "no. Get your ass back inside."

Sam arched an eyebrow. "Dude, you should've told me that before I put all my stuff in the trunk. Too late now."

"Not funny," Dean snapped. "Get out."

Sam gave him an aggravating, bland look and put his feet up on the dash. "Where are we going?"

"Don't give me the stubborn face. I taught you that look." Dean shook his head. "Sammy, I'm not going to the fucking grocery store here. I'm leaving. I'm going back to hunt."

"Yeah," Sam said, "duh. I need to know what coast, Dean. Otherwise I can't exactly pinpoint 'the land of not here' on the atlas."

Dean's head hurt. A lot. Taking a deep breath, he stared through the windshield. Not looking at Sam, he said, "Okay. I'm sorry I was leaving without saying anything. I left a note." When Sam didn't move, Dean gritted, "Go read the damn note."

"I don't want to," Sam said obstinately. "And I don't need to. You're right here."

Gripping the steering wheel hard, Dean told it, keeping his voice carefully level, "It's over. You don't have to do this anymore. Go live your life. Just... out."

"Dean," Sam murmured. "I'm not leaving."

Dean looked at him. "I'm not saying it again."

"Yeah, like I'm that lucky."

"Sam," Dean said savagely. "Out, or I'm going to kick your skinny ass."

Sam's mouth quirked. Then he twisted in his seat, leaning over into the back to rummage in his bag.

Watching, feeling horribly helpless, Dean told Sam's back, "If this is about what I said back there... y'know. The camping. I didn't mean half of that shit. I want you to have your life-"

With a little 'aha!' noise, Sam slid back down into his seat. There was an envelope in his hands, which he pushed at Dean. "Read it."

Dean stared at him.

"Read it, jackass." Looking perversely pleased with himself, Sam laid his head back against the window. "There aren't even any big words."

Flipping him off mostly out of habit, Dean pulled the letter out of its envelope. He skimmed the first few lines, and then his brain caught 'Sam Winchester' and 'formal withdrawal', and he couldn't think to read. He looked at the words, frozen to his seat for a few long moments.

"I'm not leaving," Sam repeated softly.

Dean raised his head, staring at Sam through narrowed eyes. His throat was tight as he said, "You stupid fucking bastard."

Quirking an eyebrow, Sam said, "They didn't offer Con Job 101, Dean. You want to stop swearing at me?"

"No!" Dean tossed the letter at him, angrily. Then he shoved his duffel bag at Sam, and got a satisfying grunt as it hit Sam in the stomach. "You had a chance, you dumb- you could've-"

"I could've been bored shitless," Sam said dryly. "I could be half alive. I could live a 24 hour con job where there aren't demons out there, and where I'm up nights afraid for you-"

Dean shook his head. "I'm fucking fine, Sam, Jesus Christ-"

"Afraid for Dad. Hell, afraid for me and for whatever person I would've ended up marrying. Belial's not the end of it, Dean, and we both know it." Sam held Dean's eyes, not flinching. "There are other children out there like me. Like Meg. They're going to be very, very pissed that we killed their daddy. Tell me I'm wrong."

"All the more reason not to be around me." Dean tapped his hands on the wheel, restlessly. "I'm the one they'll want to hit. I'm the one who bound him."

"Stop," Sam said fiercely. "Stop the goddamn martyr bullshit, dude. If it's after you, it's after all of us. I'm not losing you twice."

Dean slanted Sam a look. Sam stared back at him, jaw set so tight he was shaking a little, his fists clenched in his lap and his eyes doing that too-bright thing.

"This really fucked you up," Dean said finally, quietly. "You're not okay."

"You're goddamn right it fucked me up. Jesus, Dean, I thought you were-" Sam looked around, grabbing for the leather cord around his neck and fumbling absently with it. "I thought you were gone. There was just this... gap in my life, this empty space, and... yeah. I'm still a little screwed up, okay?"

Dean sighed, looking down at his hands. Then he gripped the wheel, tight enough to see his knuckles through the skin. "Okay."

Sam raised his head, eyes shadowed. "Okay?" he asked, quietly.

"Yeah. Okay. I'm not going anywhere you can't follow, all right?" Dean flexed his fingers. "You don't have to do this."

"I want to," Sam said firmly. Then he cracked a grin. "Besides, I'm losing my mind in there. So. Goddamn. Bored."

"Yeah. Poor Dad. Oh well, soon Missouri'll be home to nag him to death." Dean pried his hands off the wheel, reached out and picked up the cord off Sam's throat. He studied the screw twined with cord, then looked at Sam, who wouldn't meet his eyes. "Dude. If you didn't use this to pick up chicks, I'm going to be so disappointed."

"What?" Sam asked, his nose wrinkling. "Yeah, women love hardware."

With an exaggerated sigh, Dean held up the cord and said, "Hey baby, want a screw?" As he held the cord up, something slid down under Sam's shirt. Dean grabbed it. "Dude! You kept my radio knob?"

Sam gave him a sheepish shrug. "Want your toe tag? It's in my wallet."

"Hey, I bit that wallet! Ugh." Dean wiped his mouth, then his tongue, on Dad's jacket. "Bleh. I got dead drug dealer in my mouth."

"And I have teeth-marks in my wallet," Sam said sourly. "Don't bitch or you're buying me a new one."

"Yeah, yeah." Dean slid the key in the ignition, hesitated for a second. "Sam? Last chance to-"

With an irritated noise, Sam reached out and grabbed Dean's hand, turning the key. The Impala purred to life, and Sam took his hand back. He tossed the duffel bag into the backseat and pulled his seatbelt on. "So. Dad suggested we hit this little town in Colorado," Sam said, rummaging for the atlas. "Leftover zombies.

Dean glanced at the house. Through the kitchen window, he could see a shadow. Dad, waiting to see them pull away safely. With a sigh, Dean snatch the radio knob off Sam's cord and pressed it into place. "Did everyone know I was leaving today but me?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Sam said cheerfully. Having flipped to the right page in the atlas, he reached out and opened the glove compartment. A small mountain of tapes tumbled out at Sam's feet.

"Thought those were dead," Dean said.

"Um. They kind of were. I made new ones. Had a lot of time to kill in the hospital."

While he still thought Dean was dead. Dean rubbed at the ache in his chest. "Uh-huh."

"Don't make a thing out of it," Sam muttered, but he was smiling as he shoved in the tape. "You pulling out or what?"

"Sounds like my prom date," Dean said. He grinned at the disgusted noise Sam made, and at the opening riff to Highway to Hell on the tape player. Putting the car in gear, he let her ease onto the road. Once she was there, he remembered the power under her hood, the smooth ride, and patted her wheel fondly. "We've got one stop to make before we go."

"Whatever," Sam said with a shrug. "We've got time."

Dean flashed him a grin, driving a little faster than was strictly necessary through the deserted streets. Dawn was breaking as they whipped into the parking lot outside the church where their hunt for the demon had ended. Sam turned to give Dean a curious look, but had his question answered as they rolled to a stop in front of the church steps.

Andrew was there in the priest garb and collar, gently ushering in a bevy of blue-haired women through the church doors. One of them had hold of his elbow and was talking his ear off, judging from Andrew's slightly pained look.

With a grin, Dean threw the brake on and eased out of the car. "C'mon, Sammy. Let's get some holy water."

"Yeah," Sam drawled. "Riiiight. Dude, so not blind."

Dean paused halfway up the steps, wincing at the sudden flare of memory that accompanied Sam's knowing little brother smirk. Sudden, graphic memory. It was one thing to know intellectually that he and Andrew had... been together. Known each other biblically. Whatever it was when you screwed a priest, Episcopalian or not. It was another to have it pop in his brain in vibrant technicolor, and wow, Andrew was flexible. And kinky. And loud.

Shaking it off, Dean opened his mouth to say hello. What came out was, "Hi, pumpkin."

Andrew turned sharply, staring at Dean. Then he laughed low in his throat, a promising sound. "Be with you in a minute." Going back to the old woman, he murmured something and patted her gently, helping her up the last step and into the church. He watched for a minute, making sure she got in all right, before spinning around to grin delightedly at Dean. "You would remember that first, you asshole. You look good."

"I'm pretty. You can say it." When Andrew made a rude noise, Dean punched him gently in the arm. "I need holy water. And a blessing, if you've got a second. The car, the weapons in the trunk and Sammy."

"And Dean," Sam said with a sigh, even as Andrew was saying sternly, "And you."

"Whatever," Dean said with a shrug, sliding his hands in his pockets. "Can't hurt."

"Dean, if anybody in this world could use a damn blessing..." Andrew dug in his jacket pocket, coming up with a little bottle of holy water. "Pop the trunk."

Dean tossed Sam the keys, let him pop the trunk. Andrew considered the arsenal inside with a muttered "niiiice", slapping Sam's shoulder absently. Then he cleared his throat, coughed into his fist and intoned, "Oh lord, bless this holy hand grenade..." As Sam snickered, Andrew glanced up at them both and winked. "Just fucking with you."

The car and the trunk got the quick Catholic-lite treatment, a bit of Latin and some holy water, Andrew making vague signs of the cross. Then he thumped the hood and turned to Sam. "C'mere. For you... any preference on pantheon? Because I've got 31 flavors."

"You're in a weird mood," Sam said, smiling.

"I got two hours of sleep. I'm punchy." Andrew shook his head, searching another jacket pocket. "You all are hard on my sleeping patterns. You're lucky I didn't show up naked again."

"Again?" Dean asked. "Well, that explains the senior citizen estrogen brigade."

Andrew ignored him, pulling out a pendant from his shirt pocket. It seemed to be one of about twenty. He rubbed the lint off, then twined the cord around his fingers and looked at Sam. "Come down here or get me a ladder."

Rolling his eyes, Sam leaned down. "What are you hitting me with?"

"Sumerian. Protection ward from one of the old gods." Andrew licked his thumb and pressed it to the pendant, and then the pendant to the center of Sam's forehead. "Hold still. This might sting."

Sam had a second to raise his eyebrows, a silent 'you could've mentioned that'. Then Andrew was speaking, low and quiet and fast, the words blurring into sounds that were lost under the hum of a truck passing on the highway. With a feeling like being snapped by a rubber band, right in the forehead, something rolled over Sam. He blinked away the afterimages as Andrew pulled the pendant away, leaning in to press a light kiss to the center of Sam's forehead.

Andrew murmured, too low for Dean to hear, "Don't let him con you. He needs you."

"I know," Sam said quietly.

"All right." Andrew thumped his shoulder, draped the pendant around Sam's neck and drew back. "You did good. Now go get some holy water. If you see my lousy mutt, take him for a walk around the side of the church."

Read: get out of our hair. Got it. With a smile, Sam rubbed his forehead. "Did that leave a giant kick me sign on my forehead?"

"Not that you can see," Andrew said dryly.

"That's comforting." Catching the bottle as Dean tossed it to him, Sam saluted Andrew with it. Then he looked at Dean. "I'm keeping the keys."

"I figured. Paranoid little bitch, aren't you?" Dean grinned as Sam flipped him off, turning to stride towards the church. "Hey, keep the old ladies occupied while you're in there! More action than you've gotten in months."

As the door closed, Andrew said from dangerously close to Dean, "He's a good kid."

Dean turned to look at him. He could feel the warmth of Andrew's breath on his throat. He swallowed, then smiled his best aggravating, cocky smile. "He does all right. So what do I get, Pig Latin?"

"Mm. No, I was thinking of an old Hebrew blessing," Andrew murmured.

"Hate Hebrew. Never could make sense of it. Can't you use Latin?" Dean asked.

"Nope. I'm set on the Hebrew." Andrew leaned in, touching Dean's cheek lightly. There was an intimacy in the touch that drew Dean's spine tight, and he was grateful when Andrew's eyes fluttered closed.

Andrew chanted, his voice rolling into an odd, harsh cadence. Dean felt the power, pressing down on him, over him like a warm touch. It tightened for a moment, almost choking, then released, laying over his skin with liquid heat.

Andrew leaned up, his lips brushing Dean's gently.

Memories swirled through Dean's head as Andrew's hand curled around his neck, pulling him closer, deepening the kiss. He remembered those hands touching, comforting, stroking slow over his skin. Dean relaxed, purring into the contact.

Surprised, Andrew teased his tongue along Dean's lips, testing.

Power and pleasure shivered through Dean, branding him, sinking into his skin. His hands slid down to Andrew's hips, pulling him closer, letting him deepen the kiss as Dean shuddered at the press of Andrew's lithe body against his.

After a long minute, Andrew pulled back, resting his forehead against Dean's. "Jesus. I really have to do Mass."

Dean blinked at him, lips curling in a vague smile. "Hell of a blessing, Andrew."

"I try." Andrew carefully stepped back, hand lingering on Dean's cheek. He stroked Dean's mouth with his thumb and shivered visibly. "Don't suppose you'd like to stay until after I finish?"

The memory of the last few weeks pushed through his lust fogged brain. Dean remembered the rough heat of other hands on him, scalding fresh burns on his hips, pinning him down. Dean felt his body tense, pulling back a little.

So much for nice, uncomplicated sex. Dammit.

With a sigh, Dean shook his head. "Have zombies in Colorado to deal with," he murmured. "We'll be back soon, though. Month, month and a half. Can I stop by then?"

"You'd better," Andrew smirked. He glanced up as Sam came down the stairs, Andrew's dog in his arms. "Thanks, Sam. Did he do anything?"

"Nah, he was too busy getting fussed over by the ladies," Sam murmured, looking at Dean's slightly befuddled smile and swollen lips. "You about ready?"

"Yeah. You can drive," Dean said, walking carefully to the car.

"Does that mean I get to pick the music?" Sam asked, turning over the engine.

"Don't push it, Sammy." Dean turned up AC/DC as they pulled out onto the highway.

EPILOGUE



Andrew watched as the Impala slid out of sight, then looked down at Darcy, who was sniffing around on the grass. "C'mon, baby. Daddy's got to say mass so we can go the hell back to bed."

A shrill tone made Darcy cock her head, and Andrew slid his phone from his pocket and flipped it open. "Father Murphy."

"They've left the city limits. Should we move on them?" a harsh voice asked, the sound like huge stones grinding together beneath the earth.

Andrew rolled his eyes. "Who's left the city limits?"

A pause. "The Winchester boys," it said slowly. "Sir, maybe you should consider a vacation."

"Their names?" Andrew asked pointedly.

"Sam and Dean?" the voice asked, sounding like nothing more than a child called to task by their teacher.

"Their full names?"

"Uh. I don't-"

"Samuel Gabe, as in Gabriel, and Dean Michael. Or did you miss the flaming sword in the cemetery, you idiot?"

"Yes, sir." At least he had the sense to sound sheepish. "Should we move on them?"

Andrew rubbed the bridge of his nose. "No. Let me make this clear. If they attack, by all means, defend yourself. Do it head on, no bullshit. No tractor trailers, no backstabbing, no dream-walking. But otherwise, leave them alone. Actually, just stay the fuck out of their way. Anyone who touches any of them without just cause will answer to me. And I decide what constitutes just cause. Do you understand?" he asked, voice hard. "They belong to me. I have final word."

"Yes sir." The other man sounded grudging. "May I say something?"

"No. Particularly if it's about objectivity. Now fuck off, and don't call me until it's something important." With a sigh, Andrew snapped his cell phone shut. Then he looked to the sky, shaking his head. "You gave me all the idiots. And you could've warned me that your wrath has freckles."

There was no answer. There usually wasn't.

With a last look down the road, he-- who was called many names: Arawn, Hades, Shiva, Set, Loki and more recently Lucifer, the Adversary, Lord of Lies, the patron saint of the left-hand son, the Prince of Darkness-- went in to say morning Mass.
****
The End.