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by astolat

John put the Colt down on the table. The demon smiled with all its teeth and closed its hand over the pistol. "Be seeing you, John," it said softly. "And that special boy of yours." It winked golden and sauntered around him and out the door. John closed his eyes and listened to the steps going down the hall, carrying away the one real chance of vengeance he'd had in more than twenty years.

He sat alone in the room a while, and then he went and looked in on Dean again. Sam was there with him, perched on the bed like an awkward oversized gangly bird; there wasn't enough room, but they were managing it, somehow. "Dude, a Ouija board?" Dean was saying, and Sam's head was ducked low, grinning helplessly, even while he said, "Shut up, it worked, didn't it?"

John's eyes stung hot. His boys.

It was the hardest thing he'd ever done to turn and slip away from the door, walk down the hallway in the footsteps of the demon, leaving them behind. But he'd brought them into the middle of the battleground, and he hadn't kept them safe. They'd risked themselves to save him, in the end, and Dean had almost died for it, for nothing; the demon was still out there, still had its eye on Sam.

John had traded the gun; he'd have traded away more, and he was still feeling the cold dread of the moment when the demon had cocked its head like a pistol and said, "You know, I'm feeling generous today," because if it hadn't taken more, that was only because it figured what was in store was going to be worse.

Whatever came, he'd take it on his shoulders; he'd bear it, and lead whatever darkness he could away from them. It was the only thing he could do for them now.

They both left message after message on his voicemail for the next couple of weeks, going from anxious to angry, and the last one was just Dean breathing into the phone for thirty seconds, a kind of soundless gulping that hurt to listen to, then he said, hard, "Fine," and hung up. They didn't call again.

John talked to Bobby a month or so after that. Bobby called him a stubborn bastard, but before he hung up, he told John the boys had fixed the car and gone back on the road. They stumbled over the Roadhouse a few months later, and after that he started hearing whispers. People knew about them, talked about them even when John hadn't given them a matching last name, listing their headcount in low voices, almost uneasy: vengeful spirits, demons, zombies, rakshasa, hell hounds—

"You ever worked that many cases, that fast?" one old-timer said, in a dive bar outside the back end of nowhere, Tennessee. He shook his head. "The two of them, from one end of the country to the next in three days, and these ain't common hauntings they're taking. That older boy's not thirty, they've got more kills than any ten hunters I know put together." John paid for his whiskey and left him drinking alone, muttering low into his glass about old hunts, friends long gone.

John didn't call Bobby again until he crossed paths with Katherine Welks on a haunting in Oklahoma City and she said, "You hear about Steve Wandell? Got him at home, few months back. Word is something going after hunters."

He shrugged. "One's not a pattern," but he waited until her taillights disappeared, and then he went back to his motel. Bobby told him about the possession first, John mentioned Wandell second, and Bobby's silence told him more than he wanted to know. They hadn't tried to call.

It took him a couple more months to track them down; they were moving fast, backtracking in places, disguising their trail; leaving nothing behind but closed cases. Dean's face was still in the Top 100 on the FBI's website, and it made John want to smash his fist through the monitor screen every time he saw it: his son, his goddamn hero of a son being hunted by those smug bastards who kept their eyes shut against real evil.

He finally caught up to them only because they took a right turn at Denver and climbed up into the Rockies, and he knew where they were headed because he'd taken them there himself, one time when he'd been clumsy and gotten himself tagged by the cops and a spirit both.

At four in the morning, he parked his truck down around a bend of the road, three driveways past the cabin, and walked to it slow, cross-country, his boots soft-crunching in the snow and dry leaves beneath, no louder than a stray deer.

He only meant to look in on them for a moment, make sure they were all right. He wasn't going to say anything to them, not even let them know he was there. That's what he told himself, anyway; deep down, he already knew he wasn't going to be strong enough for it this time. Trailing them, he'd picked up a lot of what they'd been through, where they'd been and what they'd done; all the ways they'd been hurt, and he needed—he needed to be there with them, and hold them, and tell them he was sorry; let them rage at him a while, bleed out some of the pain if they could. He hoped they'd forgive him enough to do that.

He didn't go to the door, though, not at first, still lying to himself about what he meant to do. He went quiet around the cabin's edge. The Impala was parked out front, under a heavy tarp; he flipped up a corner and glanced underneath: he hadn't quite believed Bobby, but she looked good as ever, maybe better. Dean was spending some crazy money on paint, though, Jesus.

He took the WD-40 from the trunk and gave the cabin door a good squirt around the hinges before he eased the unlocked door open. The whole place was just one big room, nothing but a wall and a curtain to screen off the toilet, and the old iron wood-stove at the back. The two of them were lying in the big bed together, like they'd all piled in fifteen years ago, little Sammy snug between him and Dean so John'd had one hand free for the shotgun that Dean had now, resting tipped against the bedside table, in easy arm's reach.

John just looked at them, looked his fill, and saw what he'd hoped for: scattering of bruises, cuts; dark circles under their eyes, but nothing worse. Their arms on the covers still hard and strong, their faces not too thin, just tired. He pressed his mouth tight to keep from letting his breath come out in a sob and looked some more, and the first unease came crawling up his spine and stole the grief from his throat.

They were bare where the covers had slid down to their waists, and curled around each other close: Sam's arm tucked under Dean's head, Dean's hand careless on Sam's chest. The cuts were a week old or so, there were only some bruises, fresh, faint red marks already fading from the skin—

John tried to look away, but he was a hunter, and he'd long since opened his eyes to a world full of things he'd never wanted to believe. There were bruises. There were clothes scattered wild on the floor, jeans and underwear in crumpled impatient heaps. There were things on the table next to Dean's side of the bed. Things that made this deliberate—planned. Something they'd done before; something they'd do again.

And Sam was just—smiling. Sam was smiling in his sleep; they were both dead to the world, with the door standing open at John's back and cold air breathing in past him. He could have taken out his gun and shot them both where they lay before Dean ever put his hand on that shotgun.

Dean sighed a little, shifting, and turned in towards Sam. Sam tipped his head, nuzzled across Dean's temple, soft brush of nose and lips, and then the two of them were moving, so fast and deadly John's hand went for his gun on automatic reflex; but before he even got it clear, he was staring down two handguns they'd pulled from under the pillows: the shotgun just a decoy.

Dean stared back at him along the barrel, open and confused for a moment with the muzzle sinking down. "Dad?" Sam said incredulous, his gun dropping. "Dad—"

He could see they didn't even think about it. It wasn't even new enough for them to be guilty. Sam was sitting up, reaching out a hand instead of covering himself—like there was something broken in him, in them, some switch that had got flipped wrong—

Dean said, "Don't you look at him like that."

Sam glanced over at Dean, startled, and then he dropped his half-outstretched hand, color coming up red in his face. Dean never looked away from John, never flinched. "Don't you fucking dare," Dean said. "You walked away last time. Now you can keep going." He leaned back against the headboard, cool and deliberate, resting the gun against his thigh, said "Go back to sleep," to Sam.

Sam looked back at John once, something helpless in his face, and then he eased down, tucked back up against Dean, making himself small somehow, pressing his face against Dean's hip. Dean's hand settled in his hair, stroking through gently. Dean's face stayed hard and closed-off.

John stepped slow backwards through the door, and pushed it silently shut on them.

He got into the woods, braced himself against a tree and bent over to vomit, steam and stink coming up from the snow. His mouth was sour and wet, and he wiped the back of his hand over it. A crow screamed overhead; it sounded like laughter.

He walked back to the truck slowly, bent over like an old man. His breath was white in the air. He climbed back in and started the engine. He'd be over the mountains by morning.

= End =

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