The Goat in the Darkness
All Audiences. John, Dean, Sam, Bobby
Pre-eighth-horizon's-Salvation 'verse. Notes follow the story.
Some dialogue has been directly lifted (though altered slightly) from the episode In My time of Dying. I owe many, many thanks to gekizetsu for holding my hand as I was writing this. ~MdR
The characters and situations portrayed here are not mine, they belong to the WB & the CW. This is a fan authored work and no profit is being made. Please do not link to this story without appropriate warnings. Please do not archive this story without my permission.
This was not how it was supposed to end.
John had a hard time reconciling what was in front of him with what he'd expected. He'd expected to die, been willing and ready and maybe even seeking it a little, to kill the demon that had killed his Mary. To destroy the monster that had torn his family apart, made his eldest son into something John needed to fight this war rather than growing up to be the man he was meant to be -- could have been. He'd expected to finally put to rest the evil that had been stalking his youngest son since infancy, to find a way to shut it out of Sam's mind and his life.
He wasn't an idiot. There had always been a chance, always been the possibility that one or both of his boys might die in the pursuit of this thing. He'd done what he could to minimize that risk; taught them everything he could, kept them away and apart, known they could survive his death as long as they had each other.
He'd never really thought about what it would be like to be the only one standing.
That that was a more literal statement than a metaphorical one made him weak in the knees. A weakness that even the crutches that now bore him up couldn't counter.
The constant rattle, hum, and hiss of the machines that were wired to and surrounding Dean's bed irritated him to no end. They made him jittery and nervous as did the tube in Dean's throat and the bandages he could see even under the sheets and hospital gown. The litany of injuries his eldest son had survived made him want to throw up.
"This is going to be touch and go, Mr. McGillicutty," the doctor had said quietly. "He's lost a lot of blood. His left lung has collapsed entirely -- we had to remove two sections of rib to prevent any further perforation. He's got a skull fracture. We don't know if there will be permanent damage, or to what extent it might be."
The doctor had paused then, trying to make sure John understood what he had said. John swallowed and nodded. "He's holding on."
"Yes. Yes, he is. About your other son--"
The machines in Dean's room made him antsy and nervous.
The silence in Sam's was almost worse.
They weren't even on the same floor. Sam's injuries were relatively minor compared to Dean's, to John's own bullet wounds and concussion. Sam had a lot of bruising, a lot of lacerations, face swollen almost to the point of being unrecognizable if you looked at him straight on. He had a fractured wrist (the same one he'd broken a dozen times before) but he was breathing on his own, had suffered no significant blood loss or head trauma. There was no internal bleeding or extra strain on his heart or vital organs.
Nothing whatsoever that the doctors could find that would explain his condition, his…lack of responsiveness.
Nurses came in every couple of hours to put drops in eyes that wouldn't close, to take pulse and blood pressure and temperature. They'd run a series of test, EEG and a Cat Scan looking for some physical reason for Sam's--
He could hardly think it much less say it.
The lights are on but nobody's home.
It had happened so suddenly, John missed it. Thought at first that maybe Sam had been hurt worse than he'd said because Dean was so very, very badly hurt. It had taken both of them to get Dean to the car and Sam had actually done more of the work than John. He'd had Dean's blood and John's blood all over him, his own lost under the rest. Into the car and racing down a darkened highway, talking to John, talking to Dean, keeping them both awake, alert, calling for help when they got to the hospital.
It had all blurred then, the three of them separated -- taken into different treatment rooms. They'd rushed Dean to surgery almost immediately and John hadn't been far behind.
He hadn't seen Sam from the time they hit the emergency room until nearly 48 hours later.
The doctors had been hesitant, maybe confused, maybe fearing lawsuits. They'd done an initial check on Sam, looking for injuries. He'd told them most of the blood wasn't his. It hadn't been that long; twenty or thirty minutes before a doctor finally went in and found Sam stretched out on the gurney, eyes open. He'd been breathing fine, heart rate fine, blood pressure good.
He didn't speak or blink or respond to anything; not to pinpricks on fingers and feet, not to the touch of a wet washcloth on his face.
That had been three days ago. Nothing much had changed. They had Sam on fluids for now. Had catheterized him, checked on him regularly. In another couple of days they would have to insert a feeding tube.
The doctors wanted to know what had happened and John could only give them the barest hints of the truth. A break-in, a fight, a gun going off as they struggled for the weapon.
He couldn’t tell them what he feared, what he thought now had never foreseen, never imagined.
They'd set out to destroy the demon. To defeat it utterly and completely.
It was no surprise that it had its claws in Sam. What John had not expected was that when it went, it might take some vital part of his youngest son with it.
He couldn’t think of anything else it could be. He wanted to talk to Dean so badly it was like a thickness in his throat he needed to clear. He'd already called everyone he knew who could offer any insight but none of them could offer him anything.
He could sit in a chair next to Dean's bed and tell his son was still fighting, watch him struggle for consciousness again and again only to have the nurses give him something to send him back under, because he fought the tube in his throat. They'd replaced the blood volume lost, repaired the damage to his lung, were waiting for the rest of the repairs to kick in. But it was a strain -- a lot of physical strain on Dean's body, but they'd be easing him off the pain meds today, expected him to wake up slowly.
John wanted to talk to him, wanted to hear his son's voice, see recognition in his eyes even through pain. It was selfish, he knew, but if he lost them, either or both, he didn't know what he would do.
But he didn't want to hear the first questions out of Dean's mouth, wasn't sure he could stand to answer it. You okay? Where's Sam?
This wasn’t winning. This wasn't the end of a life-long quest.
This was not how it was supposed to end.
John thought it would end with him.
It wasn't the best of all outcomes to have the demon possess him, use him to get past his boys. Clever of it, because they'd have been on guard against anything else and even with him, they'd been cautious -- Sam more than Dean which surprised him. He'd never been prouder of Sammy in his life than when he woke to a face full of holy water. Not Sam's fault this Demon was a step above most, had retained at least some measure of divine favor that made him able to withstand what would have caused lesser demons to scream in agony.
But he thought he had it. He thought Sam would do it, could do it. That single bullet would have ended it all.
And Dean had stopped him, stopped Sam by inviting that hellspawn to come to him.
And John didn't need to think very hard to realize that while maybe, maybe Sam could have used that final bullet to kill both the demon and his father, he'd never be able to do the same to Dean.
It had been horrible to watch, to see that blackness take over Dean, watch it fill him, take over his body and mind while there was still blood dripping from Dean's mouth, soaking his shirt, while his breath still rattled in his lungs. Watching Sam go to his knees as the demon wearing his brother's body had come close to him, laid hands on him.
He'd tried to get the gun from Sam, to do it himself -- it would kill him to do it but it had to end. The bitchslap Dean had given him sent him flying across the cabin. It had looked at the gun and then kicked it to the far end of the floor. It smiled at John before reaching for Sam. For a second, John was sure the smile he saw was all Dean.
Sam hadn't fought at all. Hadn't resisted. His shoulders had shaken when Dean leaned down to place a bloody kiss on his forehead. Had dropped his head enough for tears to hit the already stained floorboards between his knees.
"Come on, Sammy. Time to unlock all that potential," Dean said, in a gravelly voice full of glee and promise.
Sam's head had snapped up and he'd surged to his feet, slamming Dean back against the wall, clutching Dean's blood-soaked shirt in his hands.
He'd said something to Dean, something soft and low that John couldn't make out. Couldn't make it out because there was the sound of rushing in his ears, a cyclone's roar of wind and wreckage and screams he wasn't sure human ears (or minds) were supposed to hear.
It was the Judas kiss Dean offered to Sam that made John close his eyes. He couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't quell the horror and distastes he felt at seeing the Demon twist the love his boys shared into something so base and perverted as a kiss one brother shouldn't give to another. That Dean would never give to Sam nor Sam take.
It wasn't Dean though. It couldn't be.
Sam's mouth came away bloody, slick red on his lips and chin.
John wasn't sure what happened next. He couldn't put words to what he'd seen -- what he wasn't sure he'd seen -- like both his boys had been stripped bare and raw, hands on bare skin, the shredded tatters of clothes and flesh peeled from them both, something shimmering both too bright to look at and too dark to stare at for long, worming and squirming on Sam's back, across Dean's back even with his spine pressed to the wall.
He could swear he heard whispers and laughter, little boy voices sharing secrets under the covers, drunken singing of power ballads that he'd last heard with the two of them singing along to in the car halfway between Boise and nowhere, drunk on success from Sam's first successful hunt. They'd all been bandaged and battered but the wounds had been like badges of honor and Sam had been half-hyped up on painkillers.
He remembered singing along, the three of them screaming out lyrics ahead of the music, racing down a highway and John feeling invincible for the first time since 'Nam.
Not his life flashing before his eyes, but theirs, in snatches of words and song and fear and longing and giddy joy. Whispered promises and defiant threats. He swore he could feel the hum of tires on the road, the slamming of doors, and Sam's laughter echoing across a parking lot that wasn't there.
Only to have the laughter cut short by the screams and cursing of ten-thousand voices, hammering down hard enough that the cabin shook and John was sure the roof would collapse on all of them, bury them here in the middle of nowhere. It was a father's desperate desire that made him fight off the grip pinning him, to lurch forward. If they were all going to die they were doing it together. He'd crawl to them, did…
The silence, when it came was so complete it made his ears ring. He blinked again and they were both on their knees, Dean's forehead resting on Sam's shoulder, Sam's grip holding him up but not steadily, not sure. Not naked, not stripped to the bone of flesh and muscle, but whole if bloodied and beaten.
The wet plop of blood hitting the floor from where Dean was bleeding out everywhere got John moving, bullet in his leg or not. He'd almost reached them when Sam shifted, pulling his brother's body toward him as if Dean were a very small child. "We have to go. We have to find a hospital," Sam said and for moment John was sure that same lambent bright glow of gold and black flickered in Sam's eyes -- not demonic yellow or hellhound red, serpentine and cold -- but warm like sun and depthless like a black hole. Sam was paler than his brother and that struck John as odd in the middle of what was threatening to be mind-numbing panic, because Dean was bleeding not Sam, but when he finally reached them both Sam's skin was cold as ice and Dean was feverishly hot.
"Gone. Gone forever," Sam said and then he'd been moving, picking Dean up in a fireman's carry like he knew there was little more damage he could do to his brother's battered body.
John was only vaguely aware of them making it to the car, of getting in the back with Dean to staunch what blood flow he could and Sam driving like madman down an unfamiliar, dark highway.
Bright lights and many hands tore them apart and away from each other. "It's gonna be fine, Sam," John said as they wheeled him away, seeing the bleak, lost expression on Sam's face. He wasn't even sure Sam heard him.
He said it again at Sam's bedside days later, unable to look into the unblinking eyes for long. Sam still had Dean's blood in his hair, a smudge of it under his chin, the corner of his mouth. He had the hollow-faced look of a prisoner of war and John shoved the thought and image away viciously.
"It's gonna be fine, Sam. Dean's gonna be fine. You can come back now." You can come home now. Come on home, Sammy, he whispered against his son's hair. Something he should have said seven years earlier.
Only he wasn't sure Sam knew the way home any longer. John wasn't sure he knew the way home.
It was an odd thing when a woman dressed like a volunteer came in.
"John, your other son is coming around," she said and smiled.
"I'll be back, Sammy. I'm gonna check on Dean."
He was halfway to Dean's room before he realized she'd call him John when all his paperwork, his wristband, said Elroy McGillicutty.
Torn between the two, he'd run back to Sam's room as quickly as he could, found the doctor and nurse there and no sign of the woman he'd seen. "What is it?"
"Change," the doctor said with a smile. "For the better."
Sam's eyes were closed; his breathing even and soft like he was sleeping. "I came to let you know that your other son is coming around. He's in a good deal of pain still, fought the vent a bit but he understood when I told him where he was. It would probably reassure him to see you. We'll take the vent out this afternoon."
Dean's eyes were fogged with fatigue and pain, the raise of a hand weaker than John ever wanted to see, but John made up for it by clasping his own hand around Dean's. He could see John on his feet but there was still worry in his eyes. "Sam's upstairs, sleeping. He's gonna be fine," John said and that was all Dean needed. His eyes closed again and didn't open until they came to take him off the ventilator.
Sam slept for nearly two days and when he finally woke he was oriented and alert, but he didn't speak. He understood perfectly and he didn't seem to be struggling for words at all, he just didn't talk. The only sounds he made at all came when he was finally allowed downstairs to see Dean, and John almost wished he'd stayed silent because Dean's softly spoken, "Heya, Sammy," sent Sam into not quite wordless sobs the likes of which John had not heard since Sam was five years old. He left the room to get them something to drink and when he returned Dean was sleeping and Sam was silent again.
It lasted weeks. Long past the point where John and Sam were discharged, but Dean was still healing up. John found them an efficiency apartment, paid by the week, further from the hospital than he wanted to be but there wasn't anything closer.
Sam's silence frustrated him to the point of anger more than once. There was nothing physical the doctors could find -- yes, some rawness and shredded tissue in Sam's throat that would have made his speech rough and his throat sore, but no real damage to his vocal chords.
John couldn't remember hearing Sam scream which is what the doctors said could cause such a painful but ultimately minor injury. Time and fluids would heal it.
Dean was less concerned about it than John expected.
"What happened? What did you do?" John asked Dean a week later. They spent nearly every day at the hospital, even though Dean mostly slept. A couple of days more and he'd be released. Sam had been sneaking him junk food and coffee for the last three days and Dean swore that was why he was doing better.
John wanted Dean to tell him, or Sam, but since Sam wasn't talking… He didn't want to have to say what he'd seen, even though keeping the images and sounds out of his mind was difficult, especially when he slept.
"It possessed you -- the demon," John said and Dean had looked a little confused but nodded slowly.
"Yeah. I kind of remember that."
"You asked it to -- which was a goddamned stupid thing to do, by the way," John said.
"So was asking Sam to shoot you," Dean said, hard and unforgiving. He was angry, angry at John in a way John had never seen. Not that John would back down from it. "Mom, Jessica, you. What the fuck were you thinking?"
"I couldn't think of anything else, but you did," John said. He wasn't willing to own how much of a direct hit that was. He hadn't thought of that. Hadn't been thinking anything but, please, God, let this end. "What did you do?"
"I don't know." Dean said. "But it's gone. It's not coming back."
Dean lied to him so infrequently he didn't recognize it when it happened. It was months before John realized that there was both a truth and a lie in Dean's words.
They rested up for a week in the small apartment after Dean was released. He was weak as a kitten, bored out of his mind, and John wasn't much better. Sam was less of a ghost with Dean around, but he still wouldn't speak. He was the healthiest one of the three of them, bruises and scrapes and cuts healing up. John was still on crutches although he was walking every day. Dean walked too though, not as far, Sam hovering close by but not touching, just there, up and down the sidewalk outside the residence hotel.
At the end of the week, Sam loaded up both the truck and the car. John had called Bobby, asked if the could stay awhile.
"Wasn't sure I'd ever see any of you again," Bobby said when they'd pulled up caravan-style, but he'd been grinning, clapping John on the shoulder, shaking Sam's hand and then Dean's. "You done it? It over?" he'd asked, while Sam was pulling out duffels and backpacks.
John chewed on his lip, eyed Sam's back.
"Yeah, it's over," Dean said when John didn't answer. John didn't contradict him.
"You got any coffee made, Bobby? We've been on the road awhile."
Bobby didn't have a lot of room, but there was the room the boys had used on and off over the years, twin beds separated by a narrow dresser. He had a better than comfortable couch that was familiar enough that John had no trouble sleeping on it.
Long after the lights were out, he could hear Dean, voice low, talking to Sam. Sam didn't answer and it didn't seem to bother Dean.
He was surprised to wake the next morning and realize he'd slept through the other three getting up and coffee being made. Dean and Bobby were sitting out on Bobby's front porch, sipping coffee. "Where's Sammy?" John asked after getting his own cup and realizing Sam wasn't in the house.
"Went for a run."
"Took my dog," Bobby offered. "Dean says he hasn't had much to say."
"He hasn't had anything to say."
"He's okay," Dean said firmly. "Just give him time."
"It's been three weeks," John reminded him.
Dean said nothing and Bobby took the hint. "I'll go get some breakfast started."
The one thing John always liked about Bobby was that he didn't ask questions about things he didn't need to know about. "Do you know what's going on with your brother?"
"He'll talk when he's ready," Dean said.
John eased down on the steps. "After your mother died…you didn't talk for months."
Dean shrugged. "You've told me that before. Just…give him time, Dad. It's been rough -- on all of us. Sam's okay. He's just…processing."
Dean rubbed at his face. "I don’t know. The fact that he was nearly beaten to death before we got to the cabin. The fact that you were possessed -- that you asked him to shoot you. That I was possessed. That I nearly died. The fact that he came face to face with the demon that murdered his girlfriend? Pick one."
"You said it was gone."
"Then what's wrong with your brother?"
"He's….Jesus," Dean shook his head. "He's not talking to me either, Dad."
"That thing, that Demon has been after your brother for nearly a quarter of a century. I just want to be sure--"
"Sure it's gone? Or sure it didn't get Sam after all?"
"Both," John said feeling irritated and angry and helpless, but he kept his tone even. "I don’t know what happened -- what the two of you did." He could see Sam then, running up the drive, Bobby's newest Rottweiler loping along in tongue-lolling joy beside him.
"Would it have been easier if one of us had died getting rid of it?"
"It's gone, Dad. Destroyed. Dead. Never coming back," Dean said through gritted teeth. "And I can try and explain it to you but you wouldn't believe that either, and you'd still be stuck with having to trust me when I tell you it's gone."
"Do you even know what -- who -- we've been dealing with?" John asked. "It wasn't some demon with illusions of grandeur. This one had a name and a purpose."
Sam was walking to cool down in ever widening circles that brought him closer.
"If I said yes, would you believe me then? Since you obviously know and didn't bother to tell us," Dean said and got up, tossing the rest of his coffee into the grass.
"Names have power. You know that."
"Yeah. They do. Sam?"
Sam came up, wiping his face on his shirt, waiting for the rest of the question.
"Did you catch that yellow-eyed son of a bitch's name?" Dean asked him.
Sam looked at Dean for a long moment then at John, brows drawn together for a moment before he looked around and found a stick. The dog started dancing back and forth but Sam only shoved it out of the way and crouched, using the stick to draw out symbols in the dirt; criss-crossing lines and a horizontal one bisecting them all, six circles at terminating points, four to the side and one at each end.
Dean eyed it; stepped off the porch to stand next to Sam then walking around the symbol before glancing up at John.
"Azaz'el," Sam said. It was no more than a whisper, his voice sounding as raw and hoarse and unused as John might expect.
John couldn't stop himself from snapping his arm out, grabbing Sam's wrist. Sam's skin was warm and sweaty, a little gritty from his run. "Christo," he murmured. Sam didn't flinch, didn't try to pull away, just waited until John let go of his wrist and walked away. Dean went after him only to have Sam shrug him off and keep walking, the dog following at his heels. Sam tossed the stick and the dog chased it.
Dean watched him go, ducked his head and then turned back to John. It wasn't anger John saw there, but there was definitely no warmth. Dean could put miles between them with only a look. Sam had never learned. Everything about Sam was up close and personal, always had been.
"He talked. Satisfied?" Dean said and then pushed past him into the house.
John took his time finishing his coffee before he headed inside as well only to meet up with Bobby in the middle of the living room. Bobby had a spatula in one hand and was wearing the most god damned ridiculous flowered apron John had ever seen over his flannel shirt and jeans. "Got eggs and pancakes and bacon ready. Sam back yet?"
"No. Walking," John said.
Bobby nodded then waved his spatula in John's face. "You're a damned idiot," he said and waved the spatula over his head, following it with his gaze. John looked up.
Devil's Trap on the ceiling. And when he dropped his gaze he could see the edges of another carved into the floor under the rug. Sam had been through this room a dozen times since they'd arrived.
Sam didn't come in for breakfast. John caught Dean on the porch afterward, looking out over the yard to where Sam was sitting on the trunk of some junker Bobby was using for parts.
John went back in and folded bread around an egg and some bacon, grabbed a bottle of water out of Bobby's fridge and carried them out. Sam saw him coming, watching him approach. He didn't flinch or look angry, didn't show much of anything. He accepted the food and the water with a nod of his head, almost finishing the latter before he even started on the former and even so he shared the bread crusts with the dog.
"I'm just trying to understand, Sammy," John said quietly and Sam looked at him and nodded again before dropping his gaze. "You've always had such an opinion on everything, it's weird not hear it now. What we did, what we should do. You'd think I'd be grateful as many times as I've told you to button it."
He caught a glimpse of teeth, part of a smile, Sam turning away before John could see all of it. When Sam finally looked at him he wasn't smiling but the hard, guarded look on his face had eased. When John leaned against the trunk next to him to take the weight off his bad leg, Sam didn't move away. "I'm just worried about you. You and your brother. You're both so sure it's gone -- and you'd think if I trusted anyone's judgment it would be yours and Dean's--" Sam gave him a raised eyebrow look. "Okay. Dean's. But I do trust yours too -- but I get why you might not think so. It's just been so long, it's harder to believe it's really over than I thought."
Sam met his gaze, chewing on the corner of his lip for a moment before nodding. He finished the water and slid off the back of the car. His hand hovered near John's arm for a moment before reaching out to squeeze it briefly. Then he headed back toward the house.
The dog looked up at John expectantly. "Barking up the wrong tree, buddy," he said watching Sam disappear into the house. "I got nothing."
He found Dean later, sitting outside, soaking up sunshine like a cat. The sun made the bruises and cuts on his face seem less harsh, added warmth and a flush to too pale skin. There were still bandages underneath his t-shirt but they looked fresh and clean. Sam must have changed them. He could see Sam working with Bobby on a car -- mostly handing him tools. Sam had never taken to car repair like Dean had. He could change the oil, flush a radiator, replace a flat tire, anything beyond that and John had a hard time believing Sam was his son.
He bit that thought back hard. He'd fought with it on and off since he'd discovered the nature and name of what was after Sam. "You said you could try to explain and I wouldn't believe you. Explain what?"
Dean gathered up a handful of pebbles and started tossing them one by one at a propped up hubcap. There was a strain on his face when he stretched his arm, and he was careful between throws. "You won't like it."
"I don't like anything about this, son," John said and eased down to sit on a stack of tires.
"It was a couple of years ago. Kind of took us both by surprise. We'd just stopped to take a piss on the side of the road."
As much as John wanted to, he didn't interrupt, knowing he was getting the sketchiest of details of back roads in West Virginia, of revenants and possessions that weren't so much possession as overly aggressive time sharing. "It's like together we cancelled it out, caught it between us. It wanted Sam so bad it could taste it and we didn't know how to exorcise it. I don't even know how I broke it's grip long enough to get control of my own body -- but I did. Only it wasn't gone and I couldn't shake it. Couldn't let it touch Sam but he's….he had his own ideas," Dean said cautiously, and John could only imagine to what lengths Sam would go. His younger son was nothing if not tenacious. "There was enough of me left for Sam to grab onto but it was like grounding a live current. Whatever Sam's got, it's easy to see why it wanted him, why Azaz'el might," Dean said, eyes on Sam. John flinched at the mention of the demon's name but he didn’t stop Dean. "I wanted to kick his ass, but you know him. He's a stubborn shit. So, this…what we did. It was all I could think of, to hold it still long enough for Sam to do whatever he does. Zap it with pure light, because he shines, Dad. He does. And corrupting that was what it wanted."
There was more, John knew. Dean was picking and choosing his words carefully and it was just him trying to explain something he didn't understand. And maybe because of that, John wasn't sure he believed him -- not entirely. Dean was right, that Sammy shone a little in the dark. John didn't really need to deny it. That Dean wouldn't back down even from a demon that had just torn him apart from the inside, he didn't deny either. But the rest of it…even knowing about Sam's visions, about his brief burst of telekinesis…this still seemed more like wishful thinking.
"I couldn't let him kill you, Dad," Dean was saying quietly and John paid attention. "Not just for him but for me too. But…you dying, Sam pulling the trigger. You couldn't put that on him. The demon was in me, in you. But Sam's the one you don't trust."
"I trust him," John said and Dean snorted, got to his feet. "Dean, I'm worried about him. About you. This son of bitch has been around a long time. The Colt is the only thing I've ever come across that even seemed like it could destroy a demon this powerful. They lie, they trick, they deceive. What I saw…" John had to stop, to swallow, to push down what he had seen that he didn't want to remember and get past it before he took off running like Sam had. "What I saw didn't look like anything was destroyed, only that it swallowed you both whole and spit you back out."
"Choked on a couple of Winchesters," Dean said and he didn't smile but John coughed out a laugh.
"Maybe. Be nice to think it would…but you invited it in, son."
A shadow of doubt crossed Dean's face for the first time, eyes narrowed and cutting to John before shifting again to seek out Sam.
Then he was limping his way across the yard, moving like an arthritic on a cold day. Sam saw him and met him halfway.
They didn't touch, Dean talked, with his hands mostly and Sam stood there with his hands on his hips and his shoulders bowed in. He never looked at John, but when Dean's hands went still Sam nodded.
Dean wasn't trying to hide anything, didn't glance at John again when Sam walked around him toward the house, but he rubbed his face and kicked at the dirt, and then walked slowly over to join Bobby.
John watched Sam walk up onto the porch and into the house. He didn't pause of hesitate at any of the symbols or protections Bobby had laced through the frame, had to cross the living room to get anywhere else.
John could accept that Sam wasn't possessed.
But he wasn't Sam entirely or yet, either.
They stayed out of each other's space for a few hours. The sun felt good, and John, for all his doubts, didn't really want to continue interrogating his sons. He'd nearly lost both of them and he wanted to be grateful for that much.
But he wasn't really built that way, not anymore.
It was late-afternoon when Sam emerged again, hefting a broom and a cardboard box full of things that he carried outside and then looked for a place in the yard that was relatively clear of dead grass and stone and bits of cast off metal or chrome.
He kicked away the larger bits of rock and wood that were in his way and used the broom to clear the space of debris.
John got to his feet when Sam flipped the broom over and used the handle to draw out a good sized circle in the dirt, scraping and redoing it until it was damn near perfect. Then he knelt down and began drawing other things: lines and circles. The box held candles and regular rock salt, color tinted chalk from Bobby's cabinet.
"What are you doing, Sam?" John asked but Sam didn't answer, only got up and carefully laid a line of salt along the ring he'd gouged into the dirt.
"Sammy?" John hadn't heard Dean approach, and at Dean's voice Sam hesitated, but then finished filling in his sketch with the colored chalk, and set the candles. Dean's eyes scanned the circle and he shook his head. "You don't have to prove anything."
John knew what it was -- a summoning circle and the symbols Sam had drawn were a cleaner version of what he'd drawn that morning. What Sam was doing was dangerous -- unless what his boys had been saying were true. This was specific to a particular demon, the calling of a particular name.
Sam pulled a crucible out of the box and filled the bottom with sand and then piled herbs and ash and what had to be bone meal on top.
"Sam…" Dean said when Sam lit the candles.
It was John that stepped forward though -- not because Sam shouldn't have to prove anything but because John didn't believe them and if he was right and the boys were wrong, what Sam was calling up -- they weren't strong enough to face it again, not so soon and "it's not worth it."
He didn't mean to say that last out loud, and the only reason he knew he did was because the flat of Sam's hand caught him across the chest before he could cross the circle, Sam's arm keeping him back, the muscles bunched in his forearm and shoulder.
John stepped back and Sam almost smiled at him, his eyes flickering to Dean for just a second before he knelt down again.
John always taught his boys to keep their blades sharp.
Sam cut into the palm of his hand. Making a shallow incision in the one where his wrist was wrapped in an Ace bandage, because whether this worked or not he wasn't going to be holding anything in that hand for awhile. The sight of his son's blood welling into his palm made John's stomach churn. He couldn't hear what Sam was murmuring but he could see his lips move and he knew this ritual as well as Sam did -- he'd taught it to him.
Before Sam could flip his hand over and let the blood drip into the crucible, Dean made a low sound in his throat and stepped past the salt line, into the circle.
It was too late for Sam to stop it and the blood fell.
The flare from the crucible was arc-light bright and John had to shield his eyes. He heard Bobby swear and the dog whine. It burned out quickly though, leaving a plume of smoke. The acid-sweet stench of burning blood and bone in its wake that escaped the circle dissipated quickly. Dean looked like he wanted to beat the shit out of Sam but he didn't do anything but clench his fists.
The light from the candles remained steady and the air didn't feel charged. Sam pressed a handkerchief against his palm then wrapped it tightly around the back of his hand, knotting it with his teeth.
They all waited, tense and anxious, anticipating, but the tension eased as moments ticked by and nothing happened.
John first mistook the ruffling of Sam's hair for a regular evening breeze, only he couldn't feel it on his own skin. When the dust started to lift inside the circle only to stop and fall when it hit the barrier, all the tension returned and all he could think is where did I leave the damn Colt? There was a bullet left.
He didn't have time to remember or to get it if he had, because the light stirring of dust increased in volume and intensity enough to force Dean to cover his eyes with his arm or be blinded by dirt and Sam to nearly fall over when the six candles went off like fireworks in towering pillars of flame that instantly slagged the wax into liquid puddles in the dirt.
It was all contained inside the circle where his boys were.
The columns abruptly diminished and the wind died down, but the illumination remained, red and yellow tinged light bending and coalescing, not like flames, more like lava growing solid, only to fall away.
John recognized her, couldn't believe he'd forgotten her, for all that he only caught a glimpse in the hospital; dark hair and eyes, not beautiful but he couldn’t tear his eyes away. She straddled the symbol Sam had sketched, watching Sam as he got to his feet.
One sneaker clad foot stretched out and obscured a few points of the symbol, rearranged others. "The entity you are trying to reach is unavailable," she said. "Please hold while I redirect your call." She crouched down to do a better job of redrawing a couple of lines -- leaving the pattern with fewer straight ones and added one with a swirl and arrow pointed ends. She stood up and stepped forward to the edge of the circle, ignoring Sam and Dean and looked John straight in the eye. "Intentions of the summoner mean everything," she said. "And you're the one who wants to know."
"We can sit here and guess your name, you know," Dean said behind her and she glanced at him. "Randomly or alphabetically."
"Don't ask what you don't want to know, Dean Winchester," she said. "This isn't a test and we aren't trying to separate you from your brother so, you know…nothing's been violated. Not by us anyway."
"Us?" John said.
"It's a war, John. Every war has two sides. We've taken up the corner office. Change in management."
"Tell him." Sam's voice sounded no better, thick and rough, like he'd swallowed a mouthful of dirt.
She turned around halfway to look at Sam. Dean had moved closer, stepping over and around the new symbol, left shoulder set halfway in front of Sam.
"He won't believe me, Sa-mu-el. One goat in the darkness is like any other."
"Tell him," Sam said again, voice grating like nails on a chalkboard. "Ask her, Dad."
John stared at Sam. She was right -- he was no more likely to believe her than Sam, but there was power in the circle, in the summons. Simple questions might be asked and answers not so twisted the truth couldn't be found in them.
"Is it gone, the demon--" he stopped before saying the name. That wasn't what he really wanted to know. "The demon that killed my wife, that killed Sam's girlfriend?"
She sighed and looked at John. "The demon you call Azaz'el, Iblis, once high then fallen, is no more. He that slaughtered your Mary, that killed the girl Jessica Moore; he's been cast to the four corners, dissipated, expiated, pasteurized, homogenized, and sanitized for your protection. He ain't gonna study war no more, no more. Ain't gonna study war no more. I'm not here to lie to you, John."
"Forever?" John said.
"Well, forever but not forever and ever. Your line will likely be dust and forgotten too by the time he can call himself back into being. Millennia, John. The race of man may be long gone before it happens."
"But you answered when Sam summoned him."
"Just because the chief bottle washer's been shit canned doesn't mean we disconnected the phone, but--" she said, wagging her finger in front of John. "I answered what you wanted to know." She smiled at him and stepped back, then turned to face the boys. "I've done as you asked," she said, spreading her hands wide. "And I'll give you some advice…this?" she gestured to the whole circle before walking along the inside edge of it. "Is not wise. You may summon by symbol, but you never know what else may come when you put out the call. Too many are listening and your net spreads wide, Sa-mu-el. Be careful when you draw it back in."
"It seems to be holding you fine," Dean said. "Afraid we'll call you back?"
She glared at him. "He doesn't need a circle to call -- and you know why. Don't reach too far, Dean Winchester. One day the chord will snap and there will be no gathering back. Are we done?"
"What does that mean?" Dean demanded.
"Are you sure you want to know? That's two questions. I only have to answer three. Choose carefully."
There were a hundred things John wanted to know, and from the look on Dean's face there were a few he wanted to know as well.
"Wait," Sam said, voice hoarse like even the little speaking he'd done had torn his throat again. "What do you mean I don’t need one? If Azazel's gone, then…my visions, the things I see--"
She cocked her head at him. "They were never his, Sa-mu-el. Always yours." She clucked her tongue. "Sa-mu-el. Is-ma'il. Always the prophet, never the prophesy."
"You didn’t answer my question. Why don't I need the circle?" Sam asked.
She stopped circling them by the perimeter. "Remember what I said about asking things you don't want to know the answer to? This would be one. You have this answer or will, when you need it. Asking it now will not help you."
Dean frowned and studied her, then the symbol at his feet. Sam was looking at neither of them; chewing on his lip, right hand reaching across to scratch at an itch on his shoulder blade.
John found himself staring at Sam, eyes squinting against the gloom of dusk, against the dust that was stirring again. Their visitor looked tense.
"You called me," she said to Sam. "Banish the symbol, Sa-mu-el, and let me go." Sam looked confused and rubbed at his eyes but he nodded and crouched down, palm spread wide to brush away the symbol.
The white t-shirt he wore was smudged with dirt and dust but it didn't obscure the faint glow under the cloth, the shimmering gleam that was neither a trick of the eye nor some optical distortion from the last fading rays of sunlight.
John might not know the exact translation for the symbol, nor be able to clearly see it from this angle but he could see enough to know what it was, what it represented.
"Stop, Sam," he snapped out and could only thank years and years of training that had not quite been overcome by Sam's independent obstinacy. Sam's hand went still an inch from the dirt.
"Since you haven't answered the third question--" he said and she turned to face him. He almost broke the circle himself at the sight of silver-blue sheened eyes with no pupils. "Is that your mark on Sam?"
She came right to the edge of the circle. "You didn't call me."
John held her gaze, but in the corner of his eye he could see Dean move, lay a hand on Sam's shoulder so as not to startle him before tugging at the hem of his shirt, pulling it up to expose Sam's back.
Sam pressed a knee and hand to the dirt, careful not to disturb the symbol.
The mark was clearer now, graceful in all its horrible implications. It wasn't like a brand, more like it had been painted on Sam's skin with light.
"Holy Mother," Bobby wheezed out softly next to him. "That's not--"
"Is that your mark?" John asked her.
She didn't answer. She'd fallen back on the rules of the summoning. John hadn't called her, she didn't have to answer. She looked back at Sam and Dean. "It protects you," she said quietly even though Sam hadn't restated his own question.
"From what?" Sam asked getting to his feet.
"What you do not need to know."
"That's not an answer," Dean snapped. "We had a deal."
"We have not broken it," she said flatly.
"From what?" Sam hissed out.
She visibly flinched, but she stared hard at Dean.
At Dean, not Sam.
"Better to destroy an altar than leave it desecrated," she said.
John didn't know what that meant, but Dean's eyes got wide, so obviously struggling with what she was saying even though it sounded like she was saying nothing at all. Then his gaze snapped up.
John had not seen Dean look truly scared more than a handful of times: scared, appalled horrified.
"Protect me from what?"
She didn't say anything but the dust whipped up, even as Dean tried to obscure the symbols on the ground, fist still locked in Sam's shirt.
Third time's the charm…
…or the curse.
There's always times, especially raising boys, where you really just don't want to know.
But not knowing would haunt John for a good part of the rest of his life.
He could only barely see them through the whipping winds and rising dirt that swirled on the inside of the circle. The circle itself remained intact but his vision was obscured; he could only barely make out the three of them and of the three, Sam was the clearest, white shirt a stark contrast to the shadows spreading that had nothing to do with night or lack of light.
He hadn't heard Sam scream when he and Dean had done whatever they'd done to banish the demon.
This time the sound of it would linger for days, haunt his nights for much longer.
It took him a few seconds to realize that the screaming was underlaced by the screech of tearing metal.
"John!" Bobby's voice snapped his attention -- that and the sudden vicious grip Bobby had on his arm.
Bobby kept a dozen or more old wrecks in the yard, scavenged for parts, lined up on either side of the drive where they all stood.
Every one of them was now hovering a foot above the ground.
And the dust storm had expanded to include the yard, although not like a wind born fury, more like loose dirt and sticks and small bits of metal and plastic and stone were being drawn in, sucked toward the center.
John grunted when a hub cap whipped by him and clipped his shoulder, knocking him off balance. It hit the outer edge of the circle and dropped, rolled, tangled up against a cinder block that rolled across the dirt like a child's ball.
There was a barrier being built, around the edges of the circle, bits of debris piling on top of each other, locking hard.
Walling them in.
The hulking skeleton of what had been a Mercury station wagon lurched forward, nose dipping and catching on the ground, flipping the chassis up in slow motion.
John lunged forward, feeling the barrier around the circle like clear steel. Something like an electrical shock ran up his arms but he pressed, kicking at the debris at the base, eyes darting toward the swirling mass inside. He wasn't even sure what would happen if he managed to break through, if whatever was happening within would add to the maelstrom outside -- but his sons were in there, with that -- whatever it was -- and he could only barely see Sam, on his knees again and Dean as well, and the shimmery shadow of whatever they'd summoned.
Something hit his back, knocked into his leg, almost sending him down when his bad leg protested the assault. There was more trash -- wood from the steps, roof tiles, the bucket on the porch, what looked like the bumper of a car -- piling up against him. He kicked it away and saw another bit of wreckage slide forward, bump into the Mercury and nudge it sideways. It hit the ground and made it shake, slide sideways and then bent, metal rumbling and screeching as it was twisted and torn.
"Bobby!" He snapped over his shoulder. "Need to break the circle!"
"Are you nuts?" Bobby shouted back at him, but he came forward anyway, doing what John was doing; kicking away the debris building up, trying to put a gap in the salt line. The barrier itself was made up of nothing but determined will and belief -- what could erect it, could tear it down.
The two by four that clipped Bobby hit John first; caught him right in the thigh, slapping hard just inches below the still healing bullet wound and then cart-wheeling past him to catch Bobby along the jaw. Both of them went down but John, at least, stayed conscious.
Aware enough to catch glimpse of the expansion of shadow and light that seemed to fill the whole interior of the circle, enough to watch the side of Bobby's shed cum garage peel off in a single sheet like an apple peel and wrap itself around the barrier, like a silo was trying to construct itself.
He rolled to his knees, ignoring the twinge and burn and used his hands to draw himself forward, pulling words from the back of his brain that he thought were a banishing or a binding -- he didn't even know which but there had to be something because he was not losing his sons to something, no matter how old or powerful, because of a misunderstanding. He knew he was screaming the words but he couldn't even hear himself over the rush and whine of wind and the train engine rush of audible destruction being wreaked in the yard. Damn it to hell, No!
He was kind of surprised it worked
His ears were still ringing. There was the clump and crunch and screech and as things just stopped, dropped, rolled, and rattled; carried forward by whatever momentum they'd gained.
The first thing he actually heard was the damn dog barking.
Bobby was on his back, lump and gash on his jaw, split lip, and left eye already bruising, but his chest was rising and falling rhythmically. John was close enough the edge of the circle to grab for that edge of bumper, and pulling on it, even as weakly as he did, was enough to send a whole pile of debris tumbling because the force drawing it in was no longer holding it together
He used the edge of his hand to sweep the salt away. Maybe it was a useless gesture at this point but if nothing else in his travels and journeys, he'd learned to respect the tools.
The inside of the circle was scoured clean. There were no symbols in the dirt, the waxy puddles were gone, the crucible, Sam's cardboard box, all gone.
The inside of the circle was also a good three inches lower than the surrounding yard, a cookie cutter perfect circle.
Dean he saw first, hunched over, head down, his back curved and still, dirt and dust and streaks of sweat or something turning his blue t-shirt nearly black. It took him a moment to realize Dean was curled and hunched over Sam, when all he could see were the soles of Sam's sneakers, the frayed hem of his jeans.
Getting to his feet was a waste of energy and effort he didn't have. He crawled. Got close. Was afraid to touch.
"They're Not Dead, John Winchester." He hadn't looked to see if she'd stuck around. He rolled and twisted and put himself between her and his sons, back to Dean's, and in that fractional contact found a reprieve when he felt Dean's back expand against his own -- still breathing then.
She looked the same and yet not, auburn hair untouched by the dust that seemed to coat everything, eyes dark and untinted by the glow he knew lurked behind them. But even as his eyes and mind adjusted to the seeming woman in front of him, he could catch the flickering edges of something much larger struggling to contain itself. "What the hell was that?" he said and reached back, blind, but found Sam's ankle, warm skin greeting his fingertips.
She looked away and out, shrugged. "Fear, mostly." She turned her gaze back to him. "You've raised them to be strong, John Winchester. Trust that strength."
"What the hell are you?"
She smirked, it was so very like Dean's smirk he almost wanted to kick her. "I'll give you three questions, no more. Don't waste them on things you already know."
"What do you want from --- " The us died on his lips. It didn't want them. "What do you want from my sons?"
"Only that they be what they already are. This--" she made a wide gesture to the still creaking, settling mess of the yard."--was not my doing. Nor did I stop it. Don't ask me how or why, John Winchester. You already know that, and willful ignorance is still ignorance."
John took that for what it was. He also discarded the next dozen questions that came to mind and instead twisted around, slid his arms around Dean's shoulders and pulled him back.
There were no new bruises or scrapes or cuts, nothing broken that John could feel with a quick press of hands. He ignored the cleaner lines along Dean's face that painted pale patterns on his skin across his cheeks, had cleared his lashes of dust and dirt. The pulse at his throat was strong and steady. Letting him go so he could check on Sam was harder than John could have imagined.
So was touching Sam.
She was right -- he did know. Or at least suspected, and for all he'd seen and done, John still considered himself a simple man with a complicated life.
It was not fear of Sam that had his hands hovering over him for a fraction of a second before touching.
Sam was folded up in and around himself; knees tucked and arms crossed tightly over his chest, curled up like he was trying to protect something precious and priceless in the center. And maybe he was.
But he was still when John wormed a hand under his tightly tucked chin, found the pulse he desperately needed to feel. Sam all compact like a package made it easier to pull him in, to sink his fingers into the thick, sweat-heavy hair and hold him there, his other hand resting lightly on Dean's chest.
She was still watching him, them. Of course. That's what these things did.
"You have one question left, John Winchester."
His fingers knotted in Dean's shirt, in Sam's hair. His leg throbbed and stung and sent spikes of fire all the way into his hip and his spine. He was going to be using those crutches for awhile yet. His mouth felt dry and yet he kept having to swallow back bile.
"Can I fix this? Is there a way to fix this?"
"Fix? To undo what's been done, take back the years you've watched and trained and prepared them for this? Remove what they've done and seen from their blood and their bones? Walk them backwards until they are small enough for you to hold them both in your arms again and not feel the strain?" There was no sarcasm in her tone, no mocking. "It would be easier to remove our mark from them than yours, John Winchester."
He tasted salt and it could have been blood or tears. He couldn’t tell the difference any longer.
"There has always been darkness, John. There will always be darkness, just as there has and will always be light. You. Your sons. Your race -- hold both. No other creature, made or unmade, can make that claim. But--" she said and John stared at her, was sure he could see through her, or maybe that was dawn breaking expect it hadn't been all night, had it?
"There's no need for them to know what they don't need to know. Yet."
What about me?
You've always known what you needed to know, John.
He remembered getting up, helping Bobby to his feet and them getting Sam and Dean back into the house, into bed, stripped and cleaned up as much as they could with washcloths and towels. He remembered sitting up all night between his sons, leg propped up on a crate full of old magazines, of sipping at Bobby's strong coffee, and scratching the ears of the dog long after Bobby had gone to bed.
He remembered it when the actual dawn broke but he knew he had done none of it. That Bobby'd been no more conscious than his sons -- and no way John could have gotten the three of them into the house. He'd been lucky to get himself on his feet. He also wasn't what shoved the piles of debris back into a rough scattering instead of a semi-circled pile of trash and twisted metal.
He was pretty damn sure he hadn't tacked the side of Bobby's garage back in place.
And he was also pretty sure he made the coffee, not Bobby -- at least it was drinkable.
The memories were overlayed and she'd been pretty damn obvious about doing it -- enough, she said, that they'd all have similar memories. He remembered when Sam stopped asking questions and kicked the etched symbol into oblivion with his sneaker, even though Sam had done no such thing.
He remembered her picking up his sons one at a time and carrying them into the house like they were children, remembered settling in a chair set between the beds and listening to the clash and rattle and screech of metal being shoved back into place.
He remembered the foundations of Bobby's house shaking as she (it) passed close by, pushing and rearranging. He'd put his back to the shadow that covered the whole house and cleaned and bandaged Bobby's wound, made sure there was water and aspirin close by. Bobby would remember backing up and tripping when the barrier went up, just before she disappeared. Sometime in the next few days, Bobby would go out into the yard and look at the irregular depression in the drive and wonder if he had a sinkhole coming up. Or maybe aliens.
John didn't look out the window, go to the door, or venture into the yard. He cleaned Sam's hand, swathed and bandaged it, even though the long shallow cut had ceased to bleed. He'd washed Dean's face, tipping his chin up like he had when Dean was four or five, and gently swiped a washcloth on his skin to get the fine dust out of the creases of his throat, from behind his ears. Even long after there was silence beyond the sound of his sons breathing in their sleep, he stayed where he was.
In those days were the giants on the earth, and also afterwards, when the sons of God had come in to the daughters of men.*
He could have used Jim's counsel about then, somewhere between darkness and dawn. He wanted reassurance as he hadn't in years. He would rather forget but she didn't give him that option and he didn't ask for it.
Maybe she was right, that he knew what he needed to, more than he wanted to, that he'd turned away from one truth in pursuit of another. But the latter was gone and what was left seemed too big and too painful to look at for long. Hard to believe. Not impossible, but hard.
He startled when Sam moved, twisting and rolling over in his sleep. Neither of them had moved in hours and John had told himself it was sleep but he knew it was more than that.
When Sam opened his eyes, John was all but holding his breath.
Sam blinked at him and stretched a little. "Is that coffee?" he asked, voice still like rough sandpaper, hoarse and sleep-slurred. John passed the cup over and Sam sat up to take a sip, made a face at its un-milked, un-sugared bitterness. He flexed his bandaged hand, something like a shadow or just confusion washing across his face, but it cleared and he gave John a rueful grin. "Probably not one of my better ideas."
"No," John agreed, feeling relief flood through him so thoroughly and suddenly he might just piss on himself. "But you shouldn't have had to prove anything," John said and Sam's gaze snapped to his face, wary and guarded and surprised. That look hurt John more than his leg but it was damn well self-inflicted. "Sammy…Sam -- I've been doing this so long, looking for that bastard for so long…hard to let go, hard to believe. You and your brother…" Sam's gaze dropped quickly and he twisted the coffee cup in his hand, shook his head slowly, side to side.
"No, Dad…I -- I wasn't that sure myself," he said and his voice had thinned out, whispery and soft and he swallowed like it hurt. It probably did. John wouldn't have been surprised to see Sam coughing up blood from what he'd heard, what he could still hear echoing across the back of his brain. "I couldn't remember what happened, still can't mostly," Sam added but it wasn't a whole truth and John couldn't find the courage to ask him what he did remember. What he didn't need to know, yet.
That yet was like the sharp edge of a blade against his heart; not pressing in, but poised.
"You didn't miss anything," Dean said, voice rough too, but from sleep and nothing else. "Demons sound like stuck pigs when they die, Sam. Must be embarrassing for them. Little girl sounds when you drop a frog down their dress. God. Tell me there's more coffee?"
Sam chuffed out a laugh and passed the cup to John who passed the cup to Dean, taking a sip on the way over. Communion of Saints, John thought in passing, watching Dean take a deeper swallow. No saint himself, and no Father, Son and Holy Ghost…at least he thought not. "I'd better start another pot," he said and pushed against the arms of his chair.
Sam's hand rested on his forearm light as air. "I'll do it," he said, already rising, stiff but unimpeded. John could hear the bones in Sam's spine pop and he reached up to grip the top of the doorframe on his way out, stretching further, before veering left toward the kitchen.
Dean left him a couple of swallows in the bottom of the cup and John wondered if it were possible to read coffee grounds as well as tea leaves. Dean stretched too; a hitch in the pull of arms over his head told John his ribs were still bothering him. "Nice to hear your brother talking again," John said, watching Dean carefully.
Dean only nodded. "Told you," he said, sounding confidant and a little smug, but there was less insolence in his gaze. Less anger. "It's gonna be okay, Dad. We're all gonna be okay."
John had heard those words from Dean's lips he didn't know how many times over the years. Most of the time he'd believed them or wanted to. If there was anyone who could make something true just by believing it, it was Dean. John had never known if it was faith or confidence or just a really good con job that made Dean sound so sure.
He'd come to rely on it as much as he'd come to rely on Sam's contrariness to check his own absolutism. Sam didn't doubt; he was just always looking for options, alternatives -- if you can't go through, go around.
"Dean," John said, setting the cup down and twisting to face him, leaning forward. "I'm sorry."
Dean's eyes got a little wide. "For what? Sam's okay, Dad. He just needed time."
"No…not for that -- well, yeah," John chuckled. "I should have listened. You know your brother better than I do," he said and took the hard truth of that for what it was. "You know, when you were a kid, I'd come home from a hunt, and after what I'd seen, I'd be...I'd be wrecked. And you, you'd come up to me and you, you'd put your hand on my shoulder and you'd look me in the eye and you'd... You'd say 'It's okay, Dad'."
Dean's discomfort was clear; confusion and wariness chasing themselves across his face. John had no one but himself to blame for putting it there, and he wasn't sure if he could take it back… take back the years you've watched and trained and prepared them for this? Walk them backwards until they are small enough for you to hold them both in your arms again and not feel the strain?
He wished he could. "You shouldn't have had to say that to me, I should have been saying that to you. I put too much on your shoulders, I made you grow up too fast. You took care of Sammy, you took care of me. You did that, and you didn't complain, not once." Well maybe once or twice and John smiled at that, at the rolled eyes and lifted chin that had followed Dean into adulthood. Silent protests, burdensome childhood tasks that had become mature annoyance and minor grievances. "I just want you to know that I'm proud of you."
"Why are you saying this stuff?" Dean asked him, body tensed, locked against a blow, waiting for another shoe drop.
John dropped his chin, shook his head; one ear out for Sam coming back. "I nearly lost both of you. Too damn close -- every man wants to be proud of his children, of his sons. And I am. You should know that."
"You're scaring me, Dad," Dean said but some of the tension left him and he couldn't quite look John in the eye. The flush creeping across his cheeks could have been from the sun sheering in through the window.
"Nothing to be scared of, Dean. I want you to watch out for Sammy, okay?"
"Yeah, Dad, you know I will." Dean leaned forward, dropped his voice. "What's going on, Dad?"
John sat back. "Nothing to worry about. I'm going to -- in a couple of days -- I'm going to head out…take care of some things."
Not so much other shoe as baseball bat. "You're leaving?"
"Just for a few days," John said. "And I mean that. We lost some friends in all this; Jim; Caleb…there's some things I need to settle there, take care of."
"Then we'll go with you," Sam said from the doorway. His gaze flickered between Dean and John for a moment, settling on John's face and John held out his hand to let Sam offer him one of mugs of coffee he was carrying. Sam passed Dean another mug then sat down beside him.
"No. Stay here. Let Dean finish healing up. I'm coming back," John said firmly. "A week at most, and then we'll figure out…as a family," he said looking at Dean, "what we're gonna do next."
"But we could--"
"Dean," John said, and then eased back off the command in his tone. "There's some things I need to take care of. Arrangements to make. There's some things at Jim's…I'll need you two to help me out there, okay? Then maybe we'll take a vacation."
Sam almost choked on his coffee and John smiled into his own. Dean still wasn't certain and John looked him in the eye. "It's gonna be okay, son," he said quietly and watched the reassurance settle.
"We're gonna be bored out of our minds," Dean said after a moment.
"I'm sure Bobby can find things for you to do," John said wryly.
John had every intention of keeping his word. He called the boys every day, just to check in. He talked to Sam to make sure Dean wasn't overdoing it -- he was healing fine but Dean had a tendency to push through injuries out of habit or because he had to. He didn't have to this time. Sam would keep him from overdoing. Sam could get Dean to do pretty much anything and John had to wonder at the obtuseness of his otherwise very smart younger son, that he never really either got that, or if he did, never took it for granted. It was something John probably needed to learn from him.
On the third day, Sam sounded more like himself, voice still a little husky but more like he was coming off the back end of a cold than liked he'd been -- John shunted the thought away. It still made him wake up in a cold sweat.
He didn't have to ask Dean about Sam directly. He'd always been better at reading Dean than Sam, and when Dean started bitching about Sam being nurse-maidy and annoying, John was pretty sure that the lingering affects of the summoning had settled. Dean didn't seem any more worried about Sam than he was by default.
Bobby bitched in the weird back-handed compliment way he had that Sam had arranged all his books and tracts on the occult by subject and title. "Got Dean working on that Mustang you said was a write-off. Purring like a kitten but Sam is going to make me nuts. They're both going stir crazy."
"You got anything popping up?"
"Maybe. Haven't really been looking. Thought you wanted them to have some down time."
"I do, but…get Sam looking into something and he'll get out from underfoot. Just...don’t tell 'em I said anything."
"I could do that. You talked to Joshua?"
"Yeah. Expect a call," John said.
Most hunters running in their circles didn't know Caleb Harrison had a brother. Joshua was younger by some seven years, even though he was close to fifty now. John wasn't sure what kind of greeting he'd get, and was guiltily glad he didn't have to deal with Caleb's body weeks after his death. Joshua would have handled that much.
It was a tense few minutes, standing at the door before Joshua pulled it back and let him in. Saying he was sorry was an empty gesture and John knew it. "What do you want to do, Josh?" he asked instead. Wouldn't blame Joshua if he'd pitched the whole deal, sold off or buried the weapons but Joshua had only snagged a pad of paper and written swiftly.
Need a partner.
"Let me make some calls."
Joshua nodded and then beckoned John into the basement. Caleb had stuff meant for John and in silence they'd carried out four good sized boxes to John's truck.
Joshua had been only fifteen when summoned spirit of vengeance had come to his home to settle a score with their father. It had taken Old Mr. Harrison's eyes and Joshua's tongue. The only reason Caleb had missed retribution was because he'd been serving a tour in the Marines. It had taken him three years to find both the summoner and turn the spirit back onto its master.
Caleb Harrison liked hunting anything he could shoot. He wasn't that fond of ghosts or apparitions or djinn or imps. Never had been.
At the end of their loading, John leaned against the rear tire well. "You forward your calls to me until we find someone. I've got three or four folks," he said and listed them off, Joshua nodding at the short list. People Joshua knew, who knew of him, people he could trust. "You need anything, you text me," John said and Joshua nodded , then gripped John's arm. Mouthed words and gestures conveyed the question to John.
You kill the demon?
John nodded. "It's gone, Josh. My boys killed it," he said, and for the first time, he actually believed it.
It took him a couple of days to make his way to Blue Earth. The first few days had been okay, but now he found his leg stiffening up on him after a few hours of driving. He needed to be walking, exercising it. It wasn’t healing as well as it should be. He was going to need that vacation with the boys, maybe get out in the mornings with Sammy and see if his pride being pricked by being out run and out-staminaed by his boy wouldn't kick him into taking better care of his leg.
He'd been at Jim Murphy's place for a day when Dean called.
John was glad he'd called Jim's sister before just showing up on his doorstep. Margaret wasn't any more glad to see him than Joshua had been but then again, she'd never really approved of what Jim got up to. She was all prim and proper and yes, honestly grieving the loss of her brother. She was polite to John but she didn't have it in her to be kind and John didn't blame her. Still, she offered him a place to sleep and three square meals while he went through the boxes and trunks Jim's will had set aside for him. There were two smaller boxes for him to take too -- One for Dean and one for Sam. John didn't open them.
Dean caught him as he was thumbing through a three-ring binder index of phenomena, a bestiary of sorts, compiled from years of people like John calling in with questions or reporting back results.
"So, Dad…you gonna need us at Jim's?" Dean asked him.
"Not for a couple of days, yet…" John started then paused, remember his conversation with Bobby. "You got something going on?"
"Maybe. Might be nothing. Bobby caught wind of what might be poltergeists, or maybe something else, outside of Omaha. Sam's doing some checking, but we thought we might…"
"Take a run up there, see what's what?"
"Yeah. But it's not urgent, we can head out--"
"No. It's taking me longer to sort through this stuff than I thought…so a couple of extra days would be good. You feel up to this, son?"
"I'm fine, Dad. I swear I'm gonna fling myself off the roof just to give Sam a real reason to hover like a damn nanny."
John chuckled at that. "Sounds like he's bored too. He want to do this?"
"Yeah. Why wouldn't he?" Dean asked and John didn't answer, let it work through Dean as he knew it would. "Oh. He hasn’t said anything about going back to school. I mean…maybe…"
"Late in the year to start up again," John said. "He might though, Dean. You know that."
"Yeah. Yeah, I know," Dean said. "Might…might not be a bad idea, you know? Sam's…this has taken up his whole life."
John didn't say, yours too. "Well, Sam's never been shy about speaking his mind so…but if he's up for this, you two should check it out. I can meet up with you…" he chewed on his lip. "There's a roadhouse off 26, Harvelle's, outside of Morrill. Let's say we plan to meet there next Wednesday. Anything comes up or I get finished here. I'll call, okay?"
"Harvelle's near Morrill. We'll be there. This shouldn't take us more than a day or two," Dean said and he sounded…happy about it. John didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but it was nice to hear Dean's voice without stress or worry shadowing it.
"Okay. You run into trouble, you call me," John said.
"We will, Dad," Dean said with only the barest hesitation.
"I mean it, son. I'll call you back this time, I promise."
"Good to know," Dean said quietly. "We'll hit the road this afternoon, call you tomorrow."
John closed his phone and stared at it for a long moment before setting it down and glancing back at Jim's books, at his research. A lot of what was in front of him was, well, redundant now. Not useless, but Jim had been making connections and trying to find reasons and causalities, helping John track patterns and events. His notes were far better organized than John's, cross referenced and indexed and John thumbed through them.
It was dusk before he packed it in, trying not to piss Margaret off when she called him for dinner, but he'd jotted a couple of notes down and he found himself fingering the paper over and over as he climbed the steps.
It had seemed out of place in the rest of Jim's notes but it had jarred him on seeing it, under the notations regarding other mothers and children lost to the demon's machinations.
An altar loses its consecration by a notable fracture, or if broken, or if converted to profane use, or if a support is seriously impaired.
But against those notes he could still hear their visitor's words, all of which he'd written down in the long hours of the night when he sat sentinel between his sons.
"Don't reach too far, Dean Winchester. One day the chord will snap and there will be no gathering back."
It hadn't been aimed at him, but he couldn’t help wondering just how far too far was.
He wasn't sure he really wanted to know.
He wasn't sure he could live with the knowledge.
You've always known what you needed to know, John.
She'd been right about one thing though. All goats look the same in the darkness.
But then again, so did the wolves.
Notes: The Salvation verse veers into AU territory in that John survived the events covered by Devil's Trap and In My Time of Dying. But at some point the Winchester's did face up to and defeat the Demon that had hurt and haunted their family. In the Salvation verse, those events are similar but occur a year or so after they do in the series and are, of course, different than what we saw on screen.
In discussing this, gekizetsu and I worked out and around how the events and circumstances of her Month of Open Doors series affected the outcome, and what repercussions from that would show up later in the Salvation 'verse in terms of how Dean and Sam deal with one another, their families, and ultimately their destinies, as illustrated in the various shorts and codas that have been posted both before and since Disinterment. In a very real sense, a good many of the stories gekizetsu has written that aren't explicitly part of the Salvation 'verse add to the mythology she's been building. It's rich and wonderful and hopefully this tale will add to and not subtract from to the tapestry she's weaving.
This story is not as happy as others in the Salvation 'verse, and while it doesn’t answer all questions (and may in fact, open the door to more) it lays the groundwork for something that happens much further along in that 'verse.
Comments or criticism? drop me a line at maygra @ bellsouth.net or in my livejournal.