V. Medal Rounds

chapter twenty-one

Aurora Cemetery
Aurora, Nevada
November 2005

Dean tapped the last bit of dirt in place and wiped his sweating forehead. He was in a cemetery in a bona fide ghost town, so yeah, his back was killing him from all the salt-and-burns. Tourism. In a town where the dead were thirty-three percent murderers, thirty-three percent murder victims, and the other third just being plain mean.

Money wasn't the root of all evil; it was just the root of all stupid.

He peered up at the sun. Mid-morning, but despite his sweating, the air was still cool. He'd been at this for nearly twelve hours. A couple of guys had come out here on motorbikes and tried to steal a headstone that had been featured on a newscast about the ghost town. They'd ended up shooting each other—with bullets that were handmade back at the turn of the century. Now, the authorities came up with the idea that the two had found the bullets in one of the crumbling buildings which made a lot of sense. However, two dead men and no gun hadn't. So he had done his research and found who he needed to torch. The ghost was good at manipulating the gun he'd been buried with, but was no match for a seasoned hunter.

However, during Dean's research, he'd found at least a dozen others who set off his internal EMF. Instead of risking the death of other tourists and relic hunters, he worked through the night, taking care of all the sets of bones that gave him the willies. Hopefully, his instincts were right and he would never have to return to Aurora, Nevada.

But there was one good thing about Aurora; it was just three miles from the California border. Just three hundred and fifty miles from Sam. It wasn't like he hadn't seen the kid in a while. There had been graduation back in May. And Sam and Jess had watched him compete at the nationals. Dean had cheered Sam on during one of his meets. So no, it wasn't like he was missing his brother...but he was. Back to the motel for a quick shower and nap and he could be in Palo Alto by the time Sam's law classes ended for the day.

Dean set the now empty gasoline can in the back of the four-wheel drive SUV he'd rented, because there was no way in hell he was ruining his baby on the rut-infested, is-that-a-pothole-or-the-freakin'-stargate wagon trails that wound through the area. He grabbed his jacket and pulled down the back gate. Just as he slipped into the jacket, his phone vibrated. He grinned at the name that appeared on the screen. "Sam! Just thinkin' about you, bro. What's up, man?"

"Hey, Dean. Um...About that promise you, uh, had me make? About weird things happening?"

Dean's heart pounded in his chest. No. Not now. Not ever. He took a deep breath to make sure his voice didn't waver. "What about it, Sammy?"

"I—I—God, this is stupid, Dean."

No, what was stupid was the way his hand was trembling. "It's okay, dude. You can talk to me."

"I had—I had a dream. Have had it for the past few nights."

Repetitive dreams. Not good. "What's the dream about?"

"Jess." The way he said it made Dean shiver.

"Something bad happens to Jess?" Dean guessed when Sam remained silent.

"She's pinned to the ceiling," Sam whispered. "She's pinned to the ceiling and bleeding and then she bursts into flame."

Dean found himself lowering the phone and slumping against the corner of the hood, his legs all rubbery and incapable of holding his weight. Twenty-two years ago, he'd seen the same thing. In reality, not dreams. He'd never told anyone that he'd seen past his dad, that he'd seen his mom on the ceiling, her white nightgown bloody, her eyes wide and frightened. He'd never told Dad or Bobby or Jim. Maybe Dad had told Bobby or Jim and they had—no, they wouldn't have told Sam a thing. Sam was seeing this. Sam was dreaming this. And it had to be for a reason. It had to mean something.

Pull yourself together, asshole.

He raised the phone back into place. "Sam, listen to me." He jerked open the door and slid behind the wheel. "I'm just three miles from the California border. I can be at your place just after dark. I need for you and Jess to stay in, okay?" The apartment was protected. It had to be protected. As soon as he hung up, he was going to call Bobby, see if there was something else he could do or have Sam do.

"Dean, what's going on? What's happening, man? It was just a stupid dream, right?"

"Probably. But I'm gonna check some things out just to be sure. Just hang tight, Sammy. And call me back if something else happens." He cranked the vehicle and started down the so-called road.

"What kinda something else?"

"Like you start seeing things that happen in the dream but you ain't dreaming." Shit. He was starting to sound like a fruitcake. "I'm gonna check in every half hour, okay?"

"I'm in class, man."

"You're both on campus?" Plenty of people. Maybe safe until the place started emptying out. "Okay, but no sneaking off to dark places to make out."

"We live together, Dean. We do stuff like that at home."

Good. At least Sam was sounding like he wasn't on the edge of panicking. "Fine. Go home and do stuff like that as soon as possible. Call me when you get out of class." He hit a gigantic pothole and cursed as his head hit the ceiling. Juggling the cell phone, he jerked his seatbelt into place.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, just not on the interstate."

"Where are you?"

"Aurora, Nevada."

"Never heard of it."

"Neither has anyone else for a very long time." He slowed down, knowing it was useless to try for any speed until he got to the main road. "Don't forget to call."

"I won't. See ya, Dean."

"See ya, Sam."

Dean made the final "leap" from the trail to the real road and floored the gas pedal. Now, as Feud would say, Sam's cigar might just be a cigar. But the problem with that was Freud wasn't a Winchester. And Winchester cigars ended up being submarines powered by witchcraft or a crew of pedaling werewolves.

He hit a speed dial number on his phone. "Bobby? I think we might have a problem."

-:- -:- -:-

Dean moved along at a good speed until he hit Modesto. An accident on the interstate had traffic backed up on the smaller roads. He'd talked to Sam three times, Bobby twice. Sam said everything seemed normal and after the last call, told Dean to call him when he reached town because he and Jess were gonna be "busy" for a while. Dean had laughed, made a few off-color jokes and got the phone slammed in his ear. That was the most fun he'd had all day.

Bobby tried to sound convincing when he said the dream didn't mean anything, but he'd gone over the list of things Dean had done to protect his brother and made sure Dean had the proper ordnance in his rental. There had been some muttering about storm patterns but when Dean had asked for clarification, he received a sharp "Nevermind," and he'd let it go. If it was important, Bobby would eventually tell him.

Finally traffic cleared and Dean pulled out his cell phone. "Zip it up, Sammy," he said to his brother's voice mail. "I'm less than an hour out and I don't want you to offend my delicate sensibilities by showing me something I don't wanna see." He snickered and hung up.

Turning up the music, he began to sing along. The SUV was equipped with satellite radio (as if paying for radio was gonna catch on) and he could get a decent rock station. Which was about the only thing he liked about the vehicle. It was far too quiet. His "baby" talked to him as they rolled along, her engine purring or growling, a ping or squeak here and there. It made him feel less alone, a part of a team. This behemoth just kept him more isolated. He'd be glad when he got it back to the parking garage at the Reno airport and picked up his car...his partner.

As he neared the street Sam's apartment was on, he frowned and sat up straight behind the wheel. There was an odd glow to the sky and he shivered, despite having cut off the air conditioning and cruising with rolled down windows. Getting closer, he saw that the odd glow came from fire engines and cop cars.

Fuck.

Leaving the engine running, he jumped out of the SUV and barreled his way to the cordon that surrounded Sam's building. "What's going on?" he asked, grabbing the elbow of a uniformed officer.

"Sir, you need to step back," the man replied wearily.

"And you need to tell me what's going on," Dean insisted, trying his best to keep his voice tempered. He knew how to work with law enforcement. He knew the right words, the right tone, to get cooperation. But this was Sam's building and because his apartment was on the other side he couldn't tell if he was okay. "My brother lives here. I need to know, man. I just need to know."

"Sir, —"

"Dean!"

Dean turned at the sound of his name and saw Evan Somebody loping toward him. Evan was one of Sam's neighbors. Dean instantly dismissed the cop. "Evan! Where's Sam and Jess?"

"Sam's at the hospital." Dean paled and Evan quickly added. "Just slight burns and smoke inhalation. Some guy just showed up and yanked him outta the apartment just in time."

"Jess with him?"

This time it was Evan who paled. "I'm sorry, man. Jess...Jess didn't make it."

His heart sorta skipped, then began pounding. "What d'ya mean?"

"She—she didn't make it. The fire—it was their apartment. Some older dude dragged Sam out but Jess...from the way Sam was yelling, Jess was already gone."

Gone? Dean sagged against a nearby tree. He saw his mom burning on the ceiling and then she was replaced by Jess. God, this couldn't be happening! "What hospital, Evan? How long has he been there?" There, unprotected from whatever the hell this was.

Evan shrugged. "The paramedics left maybe twenty minutes ago? He looked okay, though—they were giving him oxygen but he was breathing pretty good."

"What hospital?" Dean asked again, struggling not to "kill the messenger." Evan was a good guy; he was a car nut, always asking questions about the Impala when Dean visited. And he was here, telling Dean what he needed to know.

"The University's. If you can drop me off at my girlfriend's, I can get you just about there." Dean nodded and the guy followed him, letting out a, "Aw, man, you sold out?" when he saw the SUV.

"Please," Dean scoffed. "This is just a rental because I had a job in rough terrain and I wasn't risking my baby's undercarriage." Everyone knew he was a mechanic who worked on rich guys' fast cars. And rich guys were often eccentric and lived in out of the way places.

"Good. With everything that's gone wrong tonight, I don't think I could take it if you went all yuppie on me."

"Your place suffer any damage? Anybody else hurt?" Damn, these should've been questions he'd already asked. He needed to get his head in the game because this was a hunt. Fuck. What had he done? Was this his fault because he had kept the truth from Sam, the truth about what he hunted, the truth about their family? Because he hadn't wanted to share Sam with John, hadn't wanted to see his father shatter Sam's innocence the way he had his? Was Sam being punished because of his brother's sins?

"It was just Jess and Sam's place, but the firemen aren't gonna let us back in for a while, I'm sure. I'll just crash at Tina's tonight and check back tomorrow."

Dean startled out of his introspection. "Yeah, good plan. And thanks for the 411. Thought I was gonna have to beat it outta that cop."

"My girlfriend says my mouth's so big that I should be called the town crier. By the way, you or Sam gimme a call when...when plans are made and I'll get the word out, okay?" Evan nervously pushed back a lock of dark hair that had fallen into his eyes.

Plans. Funeral plans. Not a wedding. Or birth announcement. Or any of those happy things like graduations and anniversaries and promotions. Jess wouldn't have any of those celebrations. Jess would have nothing.

Because he had fucked up.

"Yeah, we'll call. Gotta get with Jess's folks and...we'll let you know."

He dropped Evan off in front of an apartment building that looked eerily just like the one he'd left behind, the one with Jess's ashes on the floor. Because if Jess was like Mom... He didn't realize he was crying until a tear splashed across his knuckles which were tightly wrapped around the steering wheel. Man, he had to get this under control, be strong for Sam because Sam was going to need him. Or Sam was going to kick him out on his ass for not warning him, for not preparing him, for leaving Jess unprotected, although Dean had done everything he'd known to do.

Just as he was turning into ER parking, his phone rang and he looked down to see Bobby's name. "It's too late, man. It's already fucked to shit," he said, not wanting to hear what he could have done. "Sam's in the hospital and Jess...Jess is dead."

"Aw, damn," Bobby drawled through the phone. "Where are you?"

"Hospital parking lot."

"So, you're not drivin'?"

Shit. That didn't sound good. "No, I'm not driving."

"Gotta a call from that deacon guy? Adler? Jim's been attacked."

"What? How bad is it, Bobby?"

"He was conscious when they found him. Told 'em to tell me Dean's cross saved him."

"My—the cross from Greece?"

"Yeah. I don't know the details, but I'm about to head out. Got lucky and managed to get a seat on the last flight out tonight. I'll call ya when I land in Minneapolis and pick up my rental."

Dean banged his fist against the solid glass of the SUV's window. "This is an assault, isn't it? The bastards planned this."

"Sounds like. That's why I'm getting to Jim as fast as I can. You do the same with Sam and watch your brother's back."

Dean pinched the bridge of his nose. "Who's watching yours?"

"Since that cross of yours is so special, I figured maybe my rock is, too. At any rate, I can always bash 'em in the head with it. Make sure Sam still has his medallion, and I know damn well you have yours on. I don't know where you got this shit from, but I'm thinkin' it's damn powerful."

Thank you, Ismeme, Dean thought, making it a prayer. "Be careful, Bobby, and get yourself and Jim back to your safe room as soon as possible."

"I'm on it. Damn shame about Jess. She was a real sweet girl."

Bobby and Jim had come out for Sam's graduation. Jess had charmed both of them. "Yeah, she was. I'm startin' to think we Winchesters might be cursed."

"Just startin' to think?"

Dean gave a sad laugh. "Yeah, well, I mean maybe there's another component to the curse, other than just generally fuckin' up our lives; maybe we aren't meant to have women in our lives—not long term anyway."

"Well, considerin' your track record, you ain't got to worry about that, d'ya? Besides, unless Jim's hiding more than a double chin under that collar of his, his attack sorta negates that theory of yours."

"Next time I talk to Jim I'll tell him how concerned you are about what's under his collar." And yeah, Bobby had a point.

"You do that, kid. I'm here at the airport so I'll talk to you later, alright? Watch'ya back, you hear me?"

"You do the same, old man." Dean sighed and slid his phone back into his pocket. So. This was a hunt. Only they were the ones being hunted. That meant he had to hope Sam was as okay as Evan thought; they needed to get somewhere safe and defendable. He squared his shoulders and left the car. Sam was waiting.

He squinted when he reached the bright lights highlighting the automatic hospital doors. A headache threatened but he couldn't worry about that now.

"Dean!" He turned and saw Rain running up to him from the parking lot. She pulled him into a quick hug. "You got here fast," she said, panting a little.

"I was already on the way."

"I know. Sam said you were coming."

"He tells you when I'm coming for a visit?" It wasn't that big of an event; he popped in whenever he was on the west coast.

"Well, Wednesday is our hump-day get together. We usually meet at Pop's Pub and bitch about the first of the week and make plans for the weekend."

"Evan part of the 'we'?" Which would explain why he was hanging around the building waiting on him.

"Yeah. Sam asked if we could just move it ‘til tomorrow sod he could drag you along."

Was that another way he'd screwed up? If Sam and Jess had been at the pub instead of home...No, if this was a coordinated demon attack, then there would've been a whole pub full of dead people instead of just Jess.

"Dean?"

Rain was giving him a concerned look and he gave her a half-smile. "C'mon, let's ask about Sam." He led her to the main desk in the ER. "Hey, um, the paramedics just brought in Sam Polanski? He was in an apartment fire."

"And you are?"

"His brother, Dean Winchester."

The attendant keyed in his name. "Yes, you're on his HIPAA form. And you are?" The woman stared at Rain.

"My fiancee," Dean said smoothly. "If you could just tell us where my brother is?"

She gave them directions to a trauma room and buzzed open the door that led to the ER proper.

"Fiancee, huh?" Rain asked as they checked which way the room numbers were running. "Well, at least if I have to put up with dick, I got one with a pretty face."

"Rain, dahlin', you say the sweetest things." They quieted as they neared Sam's small space. His brother lay on an angled table with an oxygen mask on, his eyes were closed, his face red as if sunburned. His hands were wrapped and curled against his chest.

He looked so damn young.

"Oh, Sam." Rain's soft moan was apparently loud enough for Sam to hear and his eyes slowly opened.

Dean stepped forward. "Hey, kiddo." He didn't touch him because he wasn't sure where he was burned.

Sam reached awkwardly for the mask and Dean plucked it out of the way for him. "Jess?" he whispered roughly.

Dean felt his eyes filling, but he did nothing to hide them as he shook his head.

Sam's silent crying broke his heart.


chapter twenty-two

Suite Stay Inn
Palo Alto, California

Dean sat on the sofa, reading the free copy of USA TODAY that came with the suite. Supposedly he was reading the sports section, but his concentration was shot. Probably not enough sleep in the last forty-eight hours—nearly none in fact—but his restlessness was also due to the knowledge that demons were after his family. Before, demons were just abstract, evil beings. Yeah, they had killed his mom, but what did you expect from evil beings?

Bobby had called after talking to a concussed and bruised, but otherwise okay, Jim. Jim said that a young lady with short blonde hair had walked into his church and when he went to address her, her eyes had turned black. He'd been so shocked that a demon could walk into a church, he'd just stood there while she talked to him.

"Sorry about this, padre," she'd said in a conversational tone. "But I have a message to deliver and you're going to be the messenger-—well, your dead body that is."

Her words broke him out of his paralysis and he began edging toward the baptismal font. "What's the message and why am I involved?"

The demon had inspected her nails as she talked. "You have lousy taste in friends, padre. The Winchesters. They're toxic, poisonous. The message is simple: befriend them and die." She frowned as she found a chip in her polish.

Using the distraction, Jim had tossed the bowl of sanctified water on her. She'd screeched and he'd taken off for his office and weapons cache. Suddenly, he found himself flying through the air and crashing into the office wall that held the thrice-blessed cross. He'd blacked out and when he came to—and he wasn't quite sure about this due to the concussion—the cross was in his arms and it was projecting an image of itself onto the demon. The demon had spit out black smoke which the projection absorbed and the apparently de-possessed young woman collapsed. Choir members coming for practice had found both of them.

So. Not just abstract, evil beings, but evil beings who hated Winchesters. What did that mean? Had Dad done something in the years he'd been on his own? Or did it go further back, back to his mom? Why the hell were they on Hell's hit list?

"Hey."

Dean put down the paper he wasn't reading and looked at Sam, who leaned against the door that separated the living room and bedroom of the suite. "Hey, bro. Whatcha doin' outta bed, man? I promised the doc you'd rest if he sprung ya." The doctor had wanted to keep Sam under observation for the rest of the night. But Sam hadn't wanted to stay, and Dean was worried about protection at the hospital. So he'd done a hurried blessing on the suite while Rain stayed with Sam, then collected his brother in the wee hours of the morning.

The hospital staff wasn't happy.

"Where's Rain?" Sam asked, sitting carefully beside Dean. Dean knew from experience that having no useful hands could be a bitch.

"At the airport picking up your mom."

"Then we have time to talk."

"Or take a shower," Dean said, waving his hands in front of his nose. "I got you some of those living gloves things that come up to your elbow. Did'ya know they come in pink, and in size extra- big ass? Top 'em with a rubber band and you'll be good to go."

Sam leaned back against the cushions, his legs spreading wide. "You really want to talk about what happened with other people around?"

"What happened? Sam, it was an accident, a freak—"

"My girlfriend ending up on the ceiling in a ring of fire was no accident, Dean!" Sam awkwardly rubbed at his face. "I know, Dean. I know what you do."

"What?"

"I woke up when you got back from the hunt at Christmas. I overheard you and Bobby—claws, holy water, and so on."

Well, damn. "What is it that you think you know?" he asked carefully.

"By the time I got back to school, I'd convinced myself that I'd been sleepwalking or something and hadn't heard what I heard. Then you'd call and tell me where you were and I'd hit the computer, checking the town's newspapers. Everywhere you went, Dean, there were reports of strange animal attacks, exsanguinations, and other weird crap. That's what you do, isn't it? That's what you hunt—these things that belong in the horror section of the video store?"

Dean looked at the still too red cheeks, the wide eyes that had seen too much...and he couldn't lie. "Yeah, Sammy, that's what I hunt."

Sam let out a long breath and Dean couldn't tell whether it was from relief or sorrow. "And Jess?"

"Was killed by a demon."

"Demon as in denizen of hell demon?"

"Denizen?" Dean rolled his eyes. "Easy to tell I'm in a college town."

"Don't try to deflect me, man."

"Fine. Demon as in the fire-and-brimstone type, yes."

"Holy—"

"Nothing holy about it, dude."

Sam just gaped at him for a long moment. "Why? Why Jess? Does it have a thing for women? Are you gonna hunt it? Can I come?"

The eagerness in his brother's questions concerned him. He didn't need another obsessed Winchester on his hands; he hadn't fared so well with the first one. "Slow up, Sammy. There's stuff we need to talk about that's gonna take a while, so this is not the time."

"Bobby can—"

Dean shook his head. "Bobby's got his own worries. Jess wasn't the only one attacked last night. Jim's in the hospital."

"What are you doing here then?" Sam asked quickly. "Shouldn't you be—"

Dean held up a hand to silence him. "Bobby's got Jim's back and I have yours."

Sam nodded. "You and Bobby, you make a good team. Was Jim—burned?"

Dean could tell Sam was seeing Jess on the ceiling and hurried to explain. "Don't know what they were planning for him." He raised and eyebrow and looked at his brother. "You saved him."

"Me?"

"Yeah. You were the one that said I had to take home gifts and it was Jim's gift that saved him—a cross that somehow exorcised the demon."

Sam smiled, then went back to looking sad. "Maybe I should've picked one of those up for myself."

And now it was time to come clean of his sins. "Not your fault, Sammy, but mine. If I hadn't insisted on keeping you in the dark...You trusted me and I let you down."

Sam's hazel eyes blinked at him. "And if I had known, what could I have done that you didn't do? A while back I was studying for an exam and I got frustrated and sorta hung upside down from the sofa. Imagine my surprise when the light seemed to highlight pictures painted on the wall. Looked up those 'pictures', Dean. Sigils and runes, protection spells... That's why I didn't question you when you told me to stay in last night. I knew you'd made the apartment into some sort of sanctuary."

"Wow. You're not at Stanford just for your looks, are you?" Dean was impressed at how much Sam had figured out on his own.

"I've had a lot of time to think since last night."

Dean shook his head. "I told Rain you were just faking sleep. Don't do that again, okay? If you can't sleep, just tell me. I can fling some bullshit that's guaranteed to knock you out or, at the least, I can nod in the correct places if you wanna talk. Not like I listen to you anyway." Because of his hands, the sofa pillow Sam threw at him missed by a mile.

There was a knock at the door and even though he was expecting Rain and Grace, Dean nevertheless looked through the peephole—and saw a couple he'd never seen before. He put his hand on the pistol stuck down the back of his jeans. It had silver bullets, not exactly effective against demons, but maybe it would give him time to reach the paintball rifle he had stashed under the sofa; the paintballs were filled with blessed oil instead of the usual colorful mix. They stung like a bitch when they hit and unlike holy water, had to be washed off. A face shot was the most effective.

After checking the salt line, he opened the door, leaving the security guard in place. "Yes?" he asked neutrally.

"We're looking for Sam Polanski," the man said.

"Dean, let 'em in," Sam called, coming up behind him. "They're Jess's parents."

Dean shut the door and disengaged the brass guard before opening the door and ushering the Moores through. At first he was on edge because he was worried they might blame Sam for their daughter's death. But when the three of them came together for a group hug, he relaxed and faded into the background.

Rain and Grace showed up soon afterward, followed by friends and school officials. Dean, completely out of his element, made himself useful by playing barista, major domo, and answering service. When he heard there was going to be a private ceremony at the cemetery in the morning, followed by a memorial service at Stanford Memorial Church, he hastily dragged Rain into the quiet hotel hallway.

"Got any friends with a secret hankering to be a fashion designer?" he asked.

"Somehow I don't think this is the beginning of a gay joke," she said, leaning aback against the wall. "What do you need with a fashion designer?"

"Not a fashion designer per se, but someone who can take measurements. Sam and I are gonna need suits by morning. Instead of parading him to a store, I thought it'd be easier if someone took our measurements and did the shopping for us."

"You know, you're pretty bright for a guy who shoots guns as a hobby." She smiled and pulled out her cell phone. "And, being gay, of course I know a wannabe fashion designer or two—and, hey, I get to say that because I'm part of the crowd. Got it?"

"Got it. You're a bossy fiancee, aren't you?"

"Oh, puddin', you know you like it that way." They were both laughing as her friend answered the phone.

-:- -:- -:-

Dean didn't have a lot of experience with funerals. Sure, hunters died, but a little salt, a little accelerant, and a nearby bar was about the extent of his knowledge of funeral practices. So he found himself uncomfortable as the remains of Jess were laid to rest. It was a warm, sunny day but the funeral was "invitation only" which meant only a handful of people. The only time Dean didn't wish he was somewhere else was when Sam sagged against him as the coffin was lowered with a squeaky winch. After the funeral, Dean slipped the burial crew a ten and told them to invest in several cans of WD40.

The crowded, student-attended memorial service was nearer to what he was used to. The service was more upbeat than the burial, a celebration and appreciation of Jess, but the "meet and greet" following it was too chaotic for him, especially when he had to be on the lookout for demons. Thankfully, Sam was surrounded by friends and Dean got a chance to patrol the crowd. He had to admit it was a nice church and Jess's friends really were friends. And best of all, Jessica's parents had sprung for a catered lunch.

Dean was careful in eating, not wanting to mess up his new suit. Rain's friend—a raging flamer, Rain explained with an evil grin—knew his stuff. Aside from the feel he'd copped when taking the measurements—no touching was necessary to tell whether he dressed left or right—both suits fit perfectly and looked way more expensive than they actually were.

"I wanna get outta here," Sam whispered in his ear.

"What about your mom?"

"Rain's gonna see that she gets back to the hotel. Apparently she and Mom have bonded. Making me rethink why Mom never married."

Dean raised an eyebrow. "You think she's pervin' on Rain?"

"Nah, man. But maybe she can be more herself or something, I dunno."

A shrug. "Maybe Rain should take her up to San Francisco for the weekend, let her get her freak on with the other team."

Sam squeezed his eyes shut. "Oh, God. That's just a picture...ugh! She's my mom, dude."

Dean laughed at his success. Sam was no longer thinking about his loss. "She might be old, but she still has needs."

Sam stuck his fingers in his ears. "I'm not listening to you. Ever again."

Dean patted him on the shoulder. "C'mon, you repressed prude. Say your goodbyes and let's get the hell outta here."

Thirty minutes later, they pulled into the hotel's parking lot. Dean noted that Sam didn't move to get out, so he just sat quietly with him in the dark, waiting for his brother to finish whatever it was he was doing.

"I don't want to think," Sam finally said, rubbing his hands across his knees.

Dean understood that. "Is there a bar around here that you don't associate with Jess?"

"The Pine Zone," Sam said softly. "A roughneck kinda place. Went with the guys a time or two. They have pool tables."

"Ah, my kinda place. Let's go upstairs, put on some jeans and go. We'll even take a cab so we don't have to worry about which one of us has to be the designated driver."

"See? That's why I'm glad we found each other. Can't picture my mom offering to go get drunk with me."

"I don't know about that," Dean said with a wicked grin. "Take her to a titty bar and—" He winced at the sock in the arm. Before he could retaliate, Sam was out of the car.

Dean was rounding the back of the SUV when he heard someone call out. "Sam Polanski? I don't know if you remember me—"

Dean froze, then sagged against the tailgate.

"You're the guy who pulled me out of the apartment!"

"Yeah. Sorry to hear about your girl. I just wanted to check and see how you were doing," the voice said.

Dean loved poker, and although the song in that crappy Kenny Rogers movie (stupid one-horse, one-channel town in Bumfuck, Iowa) sucked as bad as the movie, the guy had the right of it—you had to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. It was time that Dean folded. So he stood and completed his journey around the SUV.

"My name is—" the voice continued.

"John Winchester," Dean completed, coming to stand beside his brother. He gave the new player a nod. "Hey, Dad."


Chapter twenty-three

Suite Stay Inn Parking Lot
Palo Alto, California

Sam didn't know who to look at, so he just dragged his jaw across the ground as he gaped from father to brother and back again. Father. John Fuckin' Winchester in the flesh. He'd been saved by his dad. Wasn't that a bitch?

"Dean?" John asked, clearly thrown off-balanced. "What are you doing here, son?"

"The same as you, I suspect," Dean drawled. "But not for the same reason."

John frowned and there was a jump in his jaw. Sam could see the moment he decided to ignore Dean. "Sorry, Sam. This is my son, Dean. He and I haven't seen each other in—"

"Eight years. He knows the drill, Dad. I've been catching him up."

Sam turned quickly to Dean and Dean nodded. So, they were going to come clean. Sam returned the nod. Now that he knew the truth about hunting, there was no reason to keep their secret any longer.

"Catching him...Dean, what's going on?" John was visibly confused and definitely not liking it.

"Dad, I want you to meet Sam Polanski, who was born Samuel Winchester."

Sam didn't understand Dean moving to stand in front of him until he noticed the gun John now had pointed in his direction.

"Put it away, Dad. It's Sam, for real."

"What else could I be?" Sam asked curiously.

"Shapeshifter," Dean answered.

"Doppleganger," John tossed out.

"Skin-walker," Dean countered.

"Metamorph," John challenged.

Sam was definitely going to bring up this exchange the next time Dean accused him of being a geek. "Okay, guys, I get it. I'm not any of those things."

"I know, Sammy," Dean said. "And he knows I would've checked for all that. This is your son, Dad, my brother. If you can't take my word for it, take Bobby's and Jim's."

John took a step back, sliding the gun back into his pants. "What the hell?"

"Sam wasn't in the room when it exploded. He left when he smelled smoke. A woman came by and scooped him up. He's been living in Arizona, thinking he was adopted."

"What?"

"It's true, Dad," Sam said, refusing to be hurt when the man flinched. "I was told that you and Dean were dead. I kinda repressed it all until I met Dean on our flight to Athens."

"Athens?"

"Yeah, the Olympics."

John cut his eyes over to Dean. "What piece of tail had you following her all the way to Greece?" he asked scornfully.

Okay. Now he was starting to get some of the looks he'd received when he'd asked Bobby and Jim about his dad. They'd both tried to be diplomatic, but their eyes gave them away. John was a jerk. Only Dean had been honest enough to tell him the truth.

Dean refused to be baited. "We had a blood test done. He's my brother. If you want to have one done, I don't think Sam would mind."

"Nah, I don't mind," Sam said quickly. "We can set up something at the hospital or—"

John held up his hand to silence him. "The Olympics were last year. Why the hell am I just finding out about this?" His question was directed squarely at Dean. "You could've found me if you wanted to."

"Yeah, well, I didn't want to."

For a tall man, with a sturdy build, John moved fast. His fist was contacting Dean's jaw before Sam even knew he'd moved. It was a solid punch. Dean seemed to go with it, then turned and shoved John against the SUV, his forearm flying up to press against his father's throat. "I'm not a seventeen-year-old you can push around anymore," Dean grunted out. "If you wanted to keep control of me, you shouldn't have tossed me away."

"I didn't—" John started.

"You did."

"Well, I guess you got me back, huh? You don't tell me about Sam—my son, goddamn you—and apparently you got rid of the Impala. What happened? One girl too many accuse you of driving something old enough to be owned by your mother? And you couldn't have that mess with your rep, right? Forget that it's true; it was your mother's car as much as it was mine. But forget your mother! You just had to get back at me. That right, boy?"

Dean glared at John for a second, then stepped back with a curse. "Sorry, Sam. Seems I still have daddy issues."

"Understandable," Sam said agreeably. Before he could ask Dean if he was all right, Dean's phone rang.

Dean looked at the screen. "It's Bobby."

Sam nodded. "I'm cool here, man." Dean stalked off to the corner of the parking lot, leaving Sam alone with their dad. "All the stories about you are true, then," he said conversationally.

"What stories are those?" John pulled himself away from the SUV, twisting his neck as if removing a crick.

"That you are an asshole."

John gave a little laugh. "Got a mouth on you, don't ya?"

Sam yanked his tie loose. "I call 'em as I see 'em. I thought Dean might've been exaggerating; I was wrong."

"So that's why neither of you came looking for me, to tell me my dead son was alive and well?" John took a charging step toward him. "I'm your father, boy! I deserved to know!"

"So you could give me the kiss-off like you did Dean?" Sam refused to take a step back. This son of a bitch threw his brother away to go run off on some vendetta. If he and Jess had had a child, he would never—

"I was trying to protect him!"

"And he was protecting me!"

John deflated. "From me?" He rubbed his jaw nervously.

Sam ran a hand through his hair. "From you. From your obsession."

"My obsession?" John laughed. "My obsession is what killed your girl."

"I know."

"Well, if I had known," John said mockingly, "maybe I could've protected you."

If he didn't think John would fell him with one blow, causing Dean to commit patricide, Sam would've swung for John's jaw. "So what are you saying? You knew something was after me and Jess, but because you didn't know I was your son, you didn't do your best to stop it?"

"Fuck! That's not what I'm saying."

"Then what are you saying? I was protected to the best of the combined knowledge of Dean, Bobby, and Jim. You think you're better than they are, that you know more than they do?"

"I think none of them are your father!" John rubbed his hand over his short beard. "None of you had the right to keep this from me. None of you."

Sam shrugged. Dean had been so adamant about keeping John in the dark and it turned out his brother was right. This guy was pissing him off. He was over eighteen. It was his right. Before he could tell his dad just that, Dean came loping back toward them.

"We gotta roll, Sam. Bobby wants us home, now."

"I have school—"

Dean shook his head. "Talked to your faculty advisor at the memorial. She says you get an automatic pass for the semester. She expects you to sit the rest of the year out and hopefully return in January."

He wasn't sure how he felt about that, but the idea of going to anytime soon wasn't appealing either. "Okay. Gotta call Mom, though. And Rain. And Evan." He pulled out his cell and started pressing buttons as he walked toward the hotel.

"You wanna come, be back here in an hour," he heard Dean telling their dad. "If not, have a good life."

His brother beat him to the door.

-:- -:- -:-

Dean's cell phone rang as soon as they started up the off-ramp for the Reno-Tahoe Airport. Sam looked into the side mirror at the black truck that had followed them since they'd left Palo Alto. Although it was late, he could see the phone cradled against the driver's jaw. "It's him," he said unnecessarily.

"I know. Answer it and tell him we're picking up an old friend."

Sam grimaced as he put the phone back on the seat. "That went well," he said dryly.

Dean apparently wasn't going to cut their dad any slack. "Be prepared for many more ‘well' moments like that. He can be irritating when he wants to be and he always seems to want to be."

"This is gonna be uncomfortable, isn't it?" This visit to Bobby's place was definitely not going to be as fun as the last.

Dean gave him a quick glance. "I'm sorry about this, bro. I know you don't need any more stress, but he is one of the best hunters out there, and we're probably gonna need him."

"If he can get us Jess's killer, I don't care what kind of jerk he is."

"Don't."

Sam whipped his head around toward Dean. "What?"

"I know you're grieving..." Dean sighed and tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. "This is how he started, okay? I don't want you heading down that same road. I know this is too soon, I know you're still caught up in what happened, but...I want you to think about what I'm saying. Maybe not now, but later on—"

"When I've forgotten about Jess?" Sam asked bitterly. How dare Dean compare him to the asshole behind them. He was nothing like him. Nothing.

"You'll never forget about Jess, the same way Dad and I will never forget Mom," Dean said softly. "Call and tell him to wait in front of the parking deck and we'll be out in a minute."

Dean flashed the attendant a receipt and said he was just there to pick up his car. The attendant waved him through and a couple of levels later, they pulled up behind the Impala. "Here," Dean dangled keys in front of him. "Follow me to the rental place, okay? It's really close by so your hands should be okay for that short distance."

Sam got out and stretched while Dean returned the SUV. The black truck rolled up smoothly beside him. "He was in rough territory for a hunt and was afraid it'd damage her undercarriage," he explained, wanting his father to feel bad about accusing Dean of getting rid of the car. "And for the record," he added as he saw Dean walking toward them, "I won a bronze medal at the Olympics. He, however, won two golds. Everything go all right?" he asked Dean.

"Fine. Had to pay for the extra mileage, but it wasn't bad. Gimme the keys." Sam reluctantly handed them over and moved to the passenger's side. "We're gonna be stopping near Salt Lake City," Dean told John. "Catch a few hours of sleep."

"I'm good and you boys can switch off," John replied, obviously not wanting to stop.

Dean shook his head. "The kid buried the woman he wanted to marry this morning. He's gonna sleep in a bed tonight." Dean got in the car before John could reply.

"You don't have to," Sam said as Dean started the car. It had just sounded like a engine when Sam cranked it; it seemed to purr for Dean. "I probably won't sleep anyway."

"The only person who's had less sleep than you in the past seventy-two hours is me. We're stopping."

They did and oddly enough, Sam slept.

-:- -:- -:-

It was late evening when they pulled into the salvage yard. The front porch light was on and Bobby and Jim ambled outside as the Impala rolled into its customary parking spot. The black truck parked behind them.

Jim was at his door by the time Sam opened it. "I'm so sorry about Jessica." He pulled him into a strong hug.

Then there was a grip on his shoulder. "She was a fine gal," Bobby said. "We're sorry we couldn't be there."

Sam just nodded, too overcome to say anything for a moment. Dean had given him familial male bonds he hadn't even known he needed. "I'm just glad you guys are okay," he finally managed to get out. "We were worried about you."

Bobby snorted. "No little blonde thing's gonna take us out. We're too seasoned."

"Old," Dean countered from the other side of the car.

"Keep it up and I'll see if the dogs like the chicken Jim fried up for you," Bobby fired back. Then he regarded Dean with a hard stare. "How you holdin' up, boy?"

Dean gave a shrug. "Fine, now that I'm home."

"And I'm fine, too," John said dryly, standing next to his truck. "Thanks for the warm welcome."

"Ya ain't shot, are ya? Then I wouldn't be complainin'." Bobby adjusted his cap and headed for the house. "You know where your room is Sam. John can have the sofa."

Jim was slightly more gracious. "It's good to see you, John."

"Wish I could say the same, like I would've if someone would have called me to tell me that my son was alive," John spat out. "What does your Good Book say about keeping a father away from his son?"

"We all have our sins, John. I am fully prepared to pay for mine. Are you?" Jim patted Sam on the shoulder. "Come along, son. My chicken's getting cold."

Sam decided right then and there that if he ever became a lawyer, he wanted to be just like Jim—quietly forceful.

After dinner they gathered to talk shop. Sam sat quietly in a corner chair, content to observe because he was clearly out of his element.

"It's obvious we're not dealing with run of the mill, worker demons. These sons of bitches are top tier," Bobby said, after Dean reiterated all the preparations he'd made at Sam's apartment. "They can walk across a salt line and into a sanctuary. If it wasn't for these knickknacks Dean brought back from Greece we'd be up shit creek without a roll of tissue."

Jim crinkled his nose at Bobby's vivid description. 'Where did you pick these up again, Dean?"

"At a shop Syl suggested."

"Was there anything of note about the shop owner or the person who sold you these items?"

Sam watched in amazement as Dean fidgeted. "She, um, she was an oracle."

Bobby frowned. "What did you pay her?"

"What she asked for. It wasn't nearly enough, but it's what she asked for."

"I'm not talking about money, ya idjit. Oracles usually want something for their prophesies, a tribute of some kind."

"I didn't get a prophesy," Dean insisted. "I didn't even know she was an oracle. I just went in to get gifts. I told her a little about you guys—how you, Jim, are religious and you, Bobby, are smart. She came back with the cross and the rock on her own. The only reason I knew something was up was because she knew my name and shit. Figured she was just another psychic—thanks for the heads up on Syl, by the way. She's the one who told me she was an oracle, but I'm still not sure about that."

"Why?"

"Because gods are supposed to speak through oracles, right? But she didn't act freaky until we touched."

"Define 'freaky,'" John demanded.

"Her eyes became crystal clear, like water in a glass, and she sorta checked out for a moment or two."

"What did she see?"

"I didn't ask, Dad."

"You didn't ask?"

Dean took a deep breath. "No, I didn't ask. So she gave me a piece of advice—love your brother. Told her she didn't have to worry about that."

Sam saw some of the intensity in his father that Dean had warned him about earlier. "What happened after that?"

"She told me to come back the following morning."

"And?"

"She gave me the two St. Joseph medallions. She didn't charge me for them."

"And?"

Dean glared at John. "And I slept with her."

John stood up and paced the room before slamming a fist against the door jamb. "Goddamn it, Dean! What the hell were you thinking?"

"You'd do well to watch your tone in my house," Bobby said from his chair.

John ignored him. "She told you she was an oracle, a conduit of a god and you still slept with her? Do you do everything your dick tells you to?"

Dean leapt to his feet. "The lady asked me, Dad. Neither of us was forced into it."

"You sure of that, son?" John's words were razor sharp. "Sure she didn't mojo you into her bed?"

"For what purpose?" Dean sounded utterly frustrated.

"She's a supernatural freak, Dean? Who the fuck knows why?"

Sam didn't like the defeated look on Dean's face and decided to help his brother out. "Actually, I think the whole point of this conversation was to point out that the 'supernatural freak' saved our asses. So, thank you, Dean. If hitting that saved Jim, I know there are at least three people in this room who are grateful that you did." Dean gave him a glance that said thanks and Sam nodded, angry once again that his mom had left Dean with no one to watch his back all those years. It definitely took two people to handle John Winchester.

"You boys have had a long past few days," Jim said, rising to his feet. "We all have. So I suggest we get a good night's sleep and start fresh in the morning."

Everyone agreed except John, who was still giving them impatient looks as Sam trailed Dean up the stairs. "You okay?" Sam asked as Dean turned to enter his room directly across from Sam's.

Dean dropped his head against his door. "He yanks my strings and I dance for him, Sammy. Eight years or eighty, nothing's gonna change."

"You're wrong; there have been changes. It's just not you and him in some dinky motel room now. You're in your own home with me, Jim, and Bobby to watch your back."

"Same goes for you, man. Get to know him if you want; apparently the universe outvoted me on that one. But don't let him talk you into anything. Don't let his obsession spark one in you." Dean's eyes bore into his. "Revenge is a neat idea but as a lifestyle, it sucks."

Sam knew Dean was worried by the similarities in the tragedies he and John had suffered. Briefly, he wondered what would've happened if John had had a brother that was as adamant as Dean about the wrongful lure of vengeance. Would their dad had stayed in Lawrence and raised them in a normal way? Would he have grown up with a dad and a brother instead of a mom? Would they have not known about the supernatural?

"I promise I'm not about to become an apostle to the Gospel of John Winchester. Now get some sleep. You're getting bags under your eyes." His brother's one finger salute chased him out the door.

Sam stripped down to a tee and boxers, but found he couldn't sleep. For one thing, he was having time zone issues and for another, his mind just wouldn't settle down. It flittered from Jess to the actuality of fairy tales and monster movies, and then to meeting his father. Too many distractions for one tired brain.

He got dressed again and headed outside. Although it was November, it was still a little mild for South Dakota. Maybe looking at the wide expanse of sky without the light pollution he was used to would quiet his mind. But when he got to the porch, he found it occupied.

"Sorry, sir, I didn't mean to disturb you," he said as he started to turn around.

"No, it's fine, son," John said. He was dressed similarly to Sam—jeans, tee and a button-down overshirt. "Son," John continued with a shake of his head. "I never thought—God, it's good to know you exist, Sammy. Can I..." He held out his arms.

Sam walked into his father's embrace and was shocked by how hard it hit him. His memories of his dad weren't as clear as those he had about Dean. But there was a weird "rightness" about being enfolded in John's arms.

"They had no right," John muttered. "I should've been told. Damn them all."

Sam pulled away. "Keep your damning to yourself, dude. It wasn't about you, you know. They were trying to protect me."

"From me?" John hissed. "There are a lot of things they should've kept you protected from, but I'm not one of them."

"Dean—"

"You're a law student, right?" John said quickly, interrupting him. "Then you should know Dean is what they call a hostile witness."

"He has every right to be hostile," Sam pointed out. He took another step back. "You cut him off cold when he was eighteen. He lost Mom when he was four, me when he was eight, and you ten years later. At least me and Mom he could chalk up to fate, but you? You left him by choice. I'd be bitter, too."

John growled and raked his fingers through his hair. "I did it to protect him. I was on the trail of the demon that took Mary. I'd already lost you. I couldn't bear to lose Dean."

Sam snorted. "And yet you lost him anyway." How could John Winchester be such a great hunter when he had the communication skills of a dead fly? "Did it ever occur to you that he couldn't read your mind? That he didn't know you were protecting him? That he figured you kicked him out because you still blamed him for my death?"

"I never blamed him," John said sharply. "That was all on me, son. All of it."

"Yeah, it was. But you never told him that either, did you? God, no wonder he didn't want me to have anything to do with you. A tree stump communicates better than you do!" Sam stomped toward the door.

"No, don't go," John called. "Please," he added softly when Sam placed his hand on the door.

Sam sighed, torn between wanting to punish John for his poor parenting skills and having the opportunity to learn more about his father. "I'm gonna be honest with you; I can't do this if you don't try to work it out with, Dean. You have to promise me that you'll talk to Dean, that you'll explain—in actual words—why you did what you did. You've tortured him long enough."

John laughed, a small smile thinning his lips. "I'd forgotten how protective you were of each other. I didn't know little people could fight the way you two did—bitching each other out, giving each other the cold shoulder, or mastering the silent treatment like you were decades older than you were—but, damn, if I ever got on one of your asses about something, you guys became a united front. You even bit me once because I was yelling at Dean. Milk teeth, my ass. Those things hurt."

Sam laughed too. Considering his father's occupation, he was probably the smallest thing that had ever bitten John and the man was complaining. "Just tell me you'll talk to Dean."

"I will, Sammy, if you promise me to call me dad. I remember when you told me you were too old to call me daddy, that you were a big boy and big boys said dad, just like Dean said." John sat down on the metal rocker. "You always believed Dean was right. Guess that's why you went along with his plan to keep me in the dark about you being alive. Do you know how much that hurts?"

Yeah, thanks to his mom, he did. Betrayal was a bitch. But when it came down to John and Dean there was a question of who betrayed whom first. That's why he wanted them to talk, to work it out, because he was going to stick with Dean no matter what and if that meant keeping John at arm's length, he would. "You hurt Dean first."

"And that makes it all right, that makes it acceptable to keep you away from me? It's selfish, that's what it is," John said, banging his fist against a porch support.

"More selfish than you putting the hunt ahead of your family?"

"I hunt for my family!"

"You ever wonder why you're the only one who believes that?" Sam shot back. He snatched at his hair in frustration. He yanks my strings and I dance for him, Sammy. Eight years or eighty, nothing's gonna change. Dean had sounded so tired, beaten. John was an asshole, but Dean needed—something—from him. Closure, acceptance, something. "Talk to Dean, Dad," he said again.

John sighed, his shoulders slumping. "I will, son. Now, why don't you tell me about yourself. I saw Bobby's little shrine in there so I know Dean won his awards in Shooting. Big surprise there, huh? But what's your sport?"

Sam leaned against the porch rail, looking up at the sky. Big sky country? Nah. That was Montana. "Swimming."

"That a big deal where you come from?"

"Arizona and yeah, it was a major sport there."

"That's where she took you to live?"

"My mom?" Sam figured he better stop contemplating the stars and focus. John Winchester wasn't likely to be as enamored of Grace Polanski as Dean was. "Look, you need to leave her out of this. She knows what she did was wrong, and she and I have made our peace."

"She kidnapped you, Sam." Even in the darkness, Sam could tell John was gritting his teeth.

"Yeah, she did. But she had her reasons."

"To take away someone's child?"

Sam sat astride an ancient wooden chair and faced his father. "She was a social worker and a judge had just given back some children to their parents. The father killed them shortly afterwards. So it's understandable that she freaked when she saw a little kid wandering around on his own."

"Understandable." John spat out the word like he'd swallowed a bug. "Dean understand?"

"Dean's grateful to her for getting me out of the life I had."

"Huh." John leaned his head back against the seat. "So, according to him, his childhood was so fucked up that being kidnapped was a better alternative? Wow. I certainly made an impression on the kid, didn't I?"

Sam wisely kept his mouth shut.

"Why did you go with her?"

Sam gaped at John. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Then he saw the sad, wary look in his father's eyes. Oh. He thought maybe Sam wanted to go, wanted to leave his family for something better. "I was four, Dad, and I had a choice between a kindly woman and a raging fire. I knew I shouldn't leave without you or Dean, but the one thing I knew about my mom, my real mom, was that she died in a fire. I didn't want to die. It was just that simple."

John nodded, scratching distractedly at his beard. "Did you have a dog?"

Sam had to bite his lip to keep from laughing loud enough to wake the whole house. Both John and Dean considered dog ownership the capstone of a wonderful childhood. See? They did have something in common.

The sky was lightening by the time he filled John in on his life and as he slipped into bed, almost too drowsy to see, he realized that while Dean had filled the gaping hole in his life, there had a been a few cracks that were now caulked closed thanks to his dad. He fell asleep missing Jess as usual, but feeling a little less broken.


Chapter 24

Singer Salvage & Auto
Lawrence County, South Dakota

Dean was getting dressed when the knock came on his door. He'd had his morning run already and the nice hot shower afterwards had just hit the spot. "Enter," he called out.

Sam walked in and Dean mentally calculated how much sleep he'd gotten. It was nearing dawn by the time he'd come back inside and gone to bed. "Mornin', bro," he said, slipping a tee over his head.

"Morning, Dean."

"Sleep all right?" he asked when Sam quietly sat on the bed. When Sam looked up at him, he knew that look. At two, Sam had learned that look could get him anything he wanted. At three, he was abusing the hell out of it.

"I slept fine. Um, I need you to do me a favor."

There it was. "What d'ya need, Sammy?"

"You to talk with Dad."

Dean jerked his watchband so tight that he had to undo it and start again. "Been drinkin' the Kool-Aid, man?"

Sam shook his head. "I'm not buying into his bullshit, Dean, trust me. But until you get some kind of closure, you're gonna stay in his thrall, keep dancing to his tune. It's time for you to climb out from under the yoke, dude."

Dean wanted to argue that talking wasn't gonna help. But, God, it couldn't hurt. He wasn't seventeen anymore, but damn if he wasn't acting like he was. Maybe it was time to get the monkey off his back—the bitch had been riding it long enough. "Yeah, okay. But you gotta do something for me."

"What?"

"You gotta train with me, starting in the morning."

Sam's eyes narrowed. "Train? I already have a training regimen. Swimmer, remember?"

"Not that kinda training." He made a note to himself that Sam was a little on the slow side in the mornings. Or maybe it was just his lack of sleep.

"Oh." A frown. "I thought you didn't want me hunting."

"I don't want you to hunt. But that's not gonna stop something from hunting you." Dean watched as the thought circulated through Sam's brain. Definitely more sleep was called for.

"Okay. You have a deal." Sam held out his hand for a shake. Dean smiled softly, remembering when they used to pinky swear.

Breakfast was the usual fix your plate, eat wherever, and clean up behind yourself affair. When he saw John washing his coffee mug, Dean tapped his father on the arm. "C'mon, Dad. Let's go for a drive."

"Subtle, Dean," he heard Sam hiss. Which Dean ignored because the deal said nothing about being subtle. He didn't ignore Bobby and Jim's curious looks and gave them a shrug as an answer.

Halfway to the car, Dean tossed John the keys to the Impala.

"She sounds different," John said as he smoothly turned the ignition.

"Rebuilt the engine a few years back. A class project."

"Saw your diploma on Bobby's wall."

Dean shrugged. Who knew Bobby would be so sentimental? "Geeks like paper around them. Doesn't matter," he added, answering John's silent question of which way they should head as they reached the main road.

He refused to reach for the radio as they cruised along the road even though the silence was so deafening he could've sworn he heard crickets in the backseat. If his dad had something to say, he wasn't going to help him out.

"I'm sorry," John said as Dean was contemplating Silas Kline's windmill farm. The array was the talk of the county—and not in a good way.

"For what?" Theoretically the "farm" was a good idea. Cheap, green energy was the way of the future. But it was just so surreal out there in the middle of nowhere.

"Everything."

Dean flicked his eyes over to John. "That covers a lot of ground, Dad."

John nodded and Dean noticed the whitening of the knuckles around the steering wheel. "Guess I should start at the beginning. I'm sorry you thought I blamed you for Sammy's death."

Dean blinked and wondered about the pain in his hand. Oh. His fist was clenched so tight that even his short fingernails were digging into his palm. "Thought? What part of years of being unable to look at me without contempt, every order bracketed with 'because you took Sammy away so he isn't here to do it,' every action on a hunt scrutinized because, hey, you got your brother killed so yeah, you're a screw-up—what part of that did I misunderstand?" The words exploded from him, tired of being bottled up and stuck in the corner.

John's fingers unfurled to tap nervously on the steering wheel. "The contempt was for myself," he admitted and Dean tried not to hear reluctance in his voice. "The orders, the scrutiny was because I'd screwed up already and lost one son and I wasn't going the risk the other." He risked taking his eyes off the road for one minute to look at Dean. "You have to know how much I love you, how much I value your life."

"I have to know?" Dean gave a bitter laugh and shook his head, wishing he hadn't been so generous with his car. Having his hands around the steering wheel would've settled him, kept him from feeling like he wanted to jump out of his own skin. "What I have to know is that you gave me the car and didn't let the screen door hit ya on the way out. Oh, and I think there was an envelope with severance pay, wasn't there? For services rendered and shit like that." How dare his dad just gloss over walking out on him? He was sorry? That meant less than nothing.

John's eyes were firmly back on the road. "My last hunt, the one right before your birthday...I got a lead on the demon that killed your mother. Kids had a tendency to disappear when he came around. I couldn't—Dean, I was so afraid for you. I knew you'd follow me into the fight and—Don't you see? I didn't have a choice."

"Stop the car." He wasn't going to be sick in his car. She'd had worse, but no. Not in his car and not in front of John. "Stop the fucking car!" he repeated when John kept driving.

There was a scenic parking spot ahead where tourist could stop and see Mt. Rushmore in the distance. John pulled over and Dean jumped out of the car. For a moment he thought he was going to lose it, but he fought the nausea. So much of who he was, what he'd become, what he would be, was defined by that moment, the moment when his dad had given up on him, when he became a burden his own father discarded without a backward glance.

"I was gonna kill myself, you bastard," he said hoarsely, staring at the overlook but knowing John was standing on the other side of the car. "I had it all planned. Was gonna wait 'til after graduation. Didn't want to put the other students through all that grief counseling bullshit." And he didn't want Ms. T feeling all guilty and remorseful. Despite the whole underage sex thing, she'd been good to him.

"Why?" John's voice was broken and Dean could barely understand him.

Dean turned and saw his reflection in the car window, silently mocking. "What did I have to live for, Dad? I'd killed my brother. I was useless to you, something you barely tolerated or worse, a reminder of what I'd taken away from you, a neon sign that your baby boy was gone and all you had was this fuck-up you didn't trust to wipe his own ass." Dean turned so he couldn't see himself, couldn't see the tears rolling freely down his face. He'd never spoken any of this aloud, never really admitted to himself that he'd actually considered suicide.

He felt his father's arms around him even before he realized the man had moved. "Don't you know," John muttered against his ear. "Don't you know if you'd done that, I would've been right behind you? You and your brother were the only thing that kept me tethered to this world. When we lost him, I wrapped myself around you and held on for dear life. It was my fault, Dean, my fault that Sammy was dead. I left a baby to babysit. I was so caught up in being an avenging husband that I ignored being a father. I couldn't look at you because I was ashamed, son, ashamed and disappointed in myself."

Dean allowed himself to relax in John's embrace for a moment, remembering times long past when this was a daily event. When he would rush from his mother's arms into his father's. When tickles brought a smile to his face. When night meant the same bed and mornings meant the same ceiling. Then he pushed away and wiped ineffectively at his tears. "If you didn't hate me, if I didn't disgust you, why did you stay away? I know Jim told you I was staying at Bobby's. If it was Bobby's threat you were worried about, we could've arranged a meet at the Roadhouse or along a highway somewhere."

John slid to the ground, his back against the Impala, his legs splayed as if he had no control over them. "Iowa wasn't the first time I left you, Dean. When you got hurt and had to live with Jim? I planned on leaving you there. Had papers drawn up and everything. I made that decision while I sat beside you in that house, waiting on the ambulance, waiting to see if you were going to live. You were so...broken and all I could see were the ashes of the motel in El Paso, the burnt wood of our house in Lawrence. I wanted you safe, and I knew Jim would take care of you."

Dean slid down beside John. There was practically no traffic on the road and the car blocked them from view anyway. No way for anyone to wonder why two grown men were sitting on the ground crying like little girls who'd lost their Barbie dolls. He tried to put his thoughts into some kind of order but they bounced around, bubbles in the winds of his brain. Yeah, he was confused, but not really. He sorta got it. He'd heard people suggesting from the moment his mom died that John should leave his children somewhere far away from hunting, somewhere stable, somewhere suitable. But it took John fourteen years to agree to finally do something about it? No, he'd thought about it five years earlier. That made sense, too. Who the hell knew if he was going to ever walk again or be able to hunt after his accident? Still— "But you came and got me. What made you change your mind?"

John chuckled and placed his hand on Dean's knee. "I saw you. You came running out to the car—running when I wasn't sure you were even gonna walk again—and that was it. I couldn't leave without you." His dad sighed and wiped a hand across his face. "That's why I didn't check in on you this time, Dean. That's why I didn't know about college or your spot on the Olympic team. You were with Bobby and Jim, far away from the yellow-eyed bastard that killed your mom. You were safe. I wanted you to stay that way. I couldn't see you. I couldn't hear about you. I'm weak, son. One breach, and I wouldn't have been able to stay away."

With a nod, Dean signaled he understood. Why he hadn't figured it out before, why he hadn't known that John had panicked, that John was running scared when he left him back in Iowa. It was so clear now, but he'd been in shock back then and later on (hell, up till now), he'd been too angry to question, to wonder. God, what his dad had done was fucked up, but oh, so human. It was typical human nature to consider yourself the center of the universe, and both John and he were guilty of that. He'd convinced himself that John hated him while John had apparently convinced himself that Dean could read his mind and see the self-loathing. Dysfunctional didn't even begin to cover the two of them.

And the only thing that made them realize the problem was the return of their real center of the universe—Sam. And, boy, was he gonna be a smug bastard when they got back. Thinking of Sam... He had to make this clear to John. "This is as involved in this shit that Sam gets, Dad. I'm gonna teach him how to take care of himself—protective rituals, a few defensive moves—and that's it. Hunting is not gonna become his life."

John stiffened beside him. "Isn't that his choice?"

"No." John quirked an eyebrow at him. "Not now anyway. Seriously, Dad. You were in his position. You were faced with the knowledge that demons not only existed but one had killed the woman you loved. Don'tcha think you might've benefited by having someone who loved you, a brother or someone, tell you to stop and think for a moment, to consider your options, to not run blindly into a situation that you don't know anything about? I'm sorry, and I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but I'm not gonna let my brother live your life."

John eyed him speculatively. "So Sam was right; I fucked up your childhood so badly that you think his getting kidnapped was a better alternative."

"So this right now is all honesty, right? No sugarcoating, no 'I don't wanna hurt your feelings' crap, right?" He didn't want this coming back to bite him on the ass.

"Yeah. No gloves. Lay it on me, Dean."

"When I was actually living it, childhood wasn't that bad, Dad. You kept us fed and clothed and most of the time there was a roof over our heads—even if it was the Impala's roof." He gave John a shoulder nudge, showing that he didn't really mind that. "But looking back on it, seeing and hearing what childhood was supposed to be like..."

"I get a big 'F', right?"

"Nah. You didn't beat us or starve us or keep us locked up in cages, so that gets you at least a 'C'."

John shook his head. "'C' is average and life with me wasn't average, Dean."

"Yeah, but you got extra credit points for naming peanut M&Ms a power food."

"High protein, high carbs—what's not to love?" John said with a smirk. "So, you say us and we, but what about after Sammy was gone? Do I still get a 'C'?"

Dean shrugged. "What went on after that, it wasn't all your fault. I was pretty screwed up, you know. I wasn't very vocal about what I needed."

"And I never bothered to ask," John said, his voice low and sad. "I told Mary I'd be a shitty dad, but she said she'd be around to help. Without her, I guess I reverted, huh?"

"I survived."

"Barely."

Dean shivered as he thought about how close he'd come to committing suicide. If Bobby hadn't come to check on him...If he'd gone through with his plan, he never would've gotten to see Sammy again. And that would've been the real tragedy. "Barely only matters in horseshoes and darts, Dad. Survival is just what it is."

John picked at a hole in his jeans. "So you got shit and Sammy got normal, huh?"

"House, best friend, school activities, Disneyland..."

"You okay with that? You don't, like, resent him for being kidnapped, do you?"

Dean bumped his head back against the Impala. "You really are a fuckin' idiot, you know that, right?"

"Yeah, I know. You always wanted the best for him."

"I still do, Dad. That's why you won't be taking him out to hunt with you. I think you and me have come to some kind of peace, yeah?" John nodded. "Don't blow it by fighting me on this."

"Or else you're gonna keep me from him, like you've done since you found out he was still alive?" John asked bitterly. "How long are you gonna punish me, Dean?"

Dean shook his head and laughed without any humor. "Hate to tell you this, but punishing you never entered my mind. I kept Sam from you for his sake. To me, you were—are—a major threat to him, hell, a major threat to me. Your world's a nasty place with no redeeming qualities, save being with family."

John scrubbed his face with his hand. "Putting it all out there, aren't you, son?"

"It's the way it's got to be between us, man. We don't do well assing around, expecting each other to do a mind meld or something. From now on, we shoot straight from the hip and learn to roll with the hits. Sound like a plan?"

John shrugged. "Jim's been an influence on you."

"I could do worse." Dean picked up a handful of gravel and worried it through his fingers.

"Like me? There's a question for your plan, Dean. Do you even like me?"

Dean cupped a bigger piece of gravel in his hand, then tossed it as far as he could. "I like you better now than a half hour ago."

John snorted. "Well, that's honest."

"Well, you should be happy that Sam likes you."

"He doesn't even know me," John complained, then snorted again as Dean gave him a look. "Walked dead into that one, didn't I?"

Dean just raised an eyebrow. Any correlation between liking John and knowing John was something he wasn't gonna touch with a fifty-foot pole. There was honesty and then there was just useless cruelty. "But you should know that liking has nothing to do with loving, Dad. Even in those dark days in Waterloo, I loved you. I still do."

"Ditto."

Dean dusted the dirt from his hands. "If we're gonna start quoting Ghost, it's time for us to haul ass home, dude."

"What ghost?"

Checking to be sure his dad wasn't yanking his chain, Dean just shook his head, not about to admit to what drivel he'd watched just to get some. Women had fetishes he wouldn't even begin to understand; he just did as asked and waited for his reward. "We're straight on Sammy, right?"

John threw up his hands. "He's all yours, Dean. He always was."

Dean gave a sharp nod. Of course Sam was his. Which was why his kidnapping would always be Dean's fault. But he wasn't ready to share that with John just yet. " I don't know about yours, but my ass is about froze. Ready to go back?"

"Sure, if you give me a hand up."

Dean got to his feet and reached down for his dad. "So sad when our heroes get old," he tsked.

"Older is wiser."

"Yeah, if that's what your Geritol® is tellin' ya..."

"Maybe it's telling me to kick your ass—once I get the kinks out," John added with a grin as he cracked his back. They were both laughing as they got back in the car.

"Shooting is a high-paying gig?" John asked conversationally as he U-turned back on the highway.

Dean scoffed. "Not hardly. Except for some speaker fees and a few low-end endorsements, it's not much."

"But that place we stopped at in Salt Lake, it wasn't cheap and you got two rooms without even asking me."

"It's one of my usual stops, so I didn't want you busting out with one of your 'special' cards, man." He gave a shrug. "I don't do so bad at my day job."

"Day job? What? You hunt, shoot, and have steady employment?"

It wasn't that much of a stretch. "I work for Walechi Racing."

"A driver?"

"Under the hood, man."

John gave an exaggerated sniff. "Following in my footsteps, after all. I'm touched."

"Only in the head, dude."

Light conversation dominated the drive back. As they pulled into the salvage yard, Dean noticed how John's thumb was caressing the steering wheel. He knew what the Impala meant to the man, what it meant to their family. "You wanna take her out for a spin on your own?" John nodded carefully. "Be back in an hour."

"I will."

Dean let himself into the house and frowned when he found Sam alone in the living room. "I thought everybody would be hanging around to see if Dad and I came back bloody."

"You didn't, did you?" Sam asked anxiously. "Where is Dad?"

Dean shrugged. "Some ravine out on Highway 85."

"Dean!" Sam started to shove past him.

"Relax, dude!" Dean said, shoving him back. "I gave him some alone time with the car."

"Oh." Sam stepped back and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Sorry. So it went—okay?"

"Yeah, we aired our differences in a manly manner and came to an understanding." Only the car knew about the tears and she wasn't talking. "So where are Frick and Frack? Up on the roof with sniper rifles in case Dad came back without me?"

Sam pushed back his bangs and gave a small huff. "Actually, I'm not really sure where they are." He flopped on the sofa and sighed. "Okay, we were discussing that rock you gave Bobby. I asked had he tried putting it in water like Harry Potter did during the Tri-Wizard tournament—it's nice to know Harry Potter is standard reading material for hunters, by the way—and Bobby said he'd tried that, even holy water. So then Jim said maybe he should try water with Dead Sea salt because of the region where the rock came from. And then, he sorta froze and looked at Bobby and Bobby looked at him, and the next thing I know they're going out the door saying something about seeing a man about a lamb."

"Seeing a man about a lamb? What the he—" Dean stopped as a bulb popped on in his head. "That's one thing we never thought about. C'mon, Sam, we need to be ready when they get back."

"Get back from where?"

"From seeing a man about a lamb, of course." He grinned as Sam scowled. "Can you read Latin, man?" Sam shook his head. "Guess that means you wash while I chant."

What a lovely bitchface his brother had, Dean thought, as Sam dipped the silver bowl in the holy water, gently tipped the water out along the sides as Dean instructed. Dean read another line from the book he was holding and sprinkled a pinch of salt into the water. Then he added a long, thin silver knife to the mix. In the end, he took the bowl from Sam and dried it with a linen cloth. The knife followed.

"So you know what's going on then?" Sam asked finished.

"Think so. But you can never have too many purified bowls anyway."

"Is that what we did?"

"That's what we did." Rocks crunched outside and Dean rushed to the back door to see Bobby's truck pulling around the house. The truck bed contained Jim and a bleating, shaking lamb. "Um, you're not one of those PETA nuts, are you?" he asked Sam who was looming behind him.

Sam stared at the animal. "Why do I think that's an honest-to-God sacrificial lamb?"

"Because it is." Dean stepped out onto the porch. "We're doing the old school religion thing, which makes sense since this is an old school religious artifact." He looked back at his brother. "You're not gonna hurl, are you?"

Dean watched his face scrunch up as he figured out the 'old school' comment. When his eyes lit up, Dean knew he'd got it. "Washed in the blood of the lamb? That's what we're going for, right?"

"Your Stanford is showing again," Dean teased. "And before you ask, we have to mimic what conditions would've been like when the stone was created, forged, whatever. So, no, we couldn't just buy blood from a slaughterhouse. It needs to be fresh, warm from the sacrifice."

"Do the three of you share one brain or what?" Sam asked as he followed Dean out to the truck. "You got all that out of 'seeing a man about a lamb'?"

"Ah, young one," Dean said in a fake Oriental accent, "you will soon discover that anticipating one's master's wishes results in less slaps upon one's sacred head." He gave a quick grin and pulled down the back gate of the truck. "All hail the mighty shepherd!"

Jim's return gesture was not very pastorly.

"Didn't see ya car out front," Bobby said as he climbed down from the cab.

"She and Dad needed some alone time. I have the knife and the bowl ready."

"What did you do the reading from?" Jim asked as he urged the lamb out of the truck.

"The Vulgate."

"Good choice. And since the items are now attuned to your voice, you'll need to do the reading during the ritual."

"Aw, Jim, I wanted to be the one who, you know, got to snick," Dean whined.

"That's slightly bloodthirsty, isn't it, Dean?" Sam frowned, looking at the lamb as it took in its surroundings.

Dean rolled his eyes. "I don't remember you turning your nose up at the lamb gyros and souvlaki when we were in Greece. For some reason, I don't think the lamb on your plate committed suicide."

"Don't let him fool you, Sam." Jim closed the back gate on the truck. "Dean uses bravado to cover his more tender feelings."

"Tell that to Brother Thompson," Dean challenged.

Jim laughed. "Dean was the only fourteen-year-old who didn't cringe when Brother Thompson demonstrated the castration of his cattle. That still bothers the good rancher to this day."

"4-H Club, good times." Dean liked the animal part really well, the farming part not so much. Growing vegetables was about as fun as eating them.

"Well, if you ladies are through reminiscing over cookies and tea, can we get this show on the road?" Bobby rumbled, sniffing at the lamb who was nibbling at the little grass left in the yard.

"Bitchy, isn't he?" Dean commented as he started into the house.

"That time of the month," Jim agreed drolly.

Dean pushed Sam ahead of him into the house so he could laugh as loudly as he wanted to.

-:- -:- -:-

Bobby bent over the bowl containing the warm blood and the Templar stone. "We're gettin' something."

"What's it say?" Dean had started to worry that it wasn't going to work.

"It's in Aramaic. Jim, you're better at it than I am."

Jim reached in his shirt pocket for his reading glasses. John, who had returned just as they were beginning the sacrifice, laughed at the action and got a glare for his efforts. "The Lord God is the one true Lord. We shall—"

"Just get to the good part," John said.

Jim frowned and Bobby shrugged. With a grumpy-sounding sigh, Jim's eyes searched through the words. "'Anoint your weapons with this sacrifice and they will defeat the enemies of our Lord God.' That 'good' enough for you, John?"

"Best sermon I ever heard from you, preacher."

Dean laughed at the size of Sam's eyes when he saw the secret compartment in the Impala's trunk. They got bigger when he witnessed John's weapons cache. Then when Bobby started hauling out his armory—granted, he had to anoint twice as many weapons because he was going to have to share with Jim—Dean hit Sam square between the shoulders just to make sure his brother was still breathing. Surprisingly enough, even after blood touched all their weapons, there was still some left.

"Sorta like the two fish and five loaves of bread, huh?" Dean pointed out. Although he wasn't a great believer in miracles, he recognized the fact that sometimes things couldn't be explained. Like how the script on the rock became a legible language simply because it was dipped in blood. It was certainly something he wasn't gonna spend a lot of time thinking about.

"The Lord always finds a way," Jim agreed. He peered into the bowl, then flipped open the Vulgate that Dean had read from earlier. "I wonder... We're not weapons, per se, but everyone take off their shirts. I don't know if it'll work, but it can't hurt."

"Thinkin' it'll keep us from getting' possessed?" Bobby asked, shrugging out of his flannel shirt. "Never much liked the idea of a demon ridin' me."

"I think we should do the boys first," John said, not moving to undress. "Just in case your magical elixir decides to run out."

"That's not—" Dean started.

"Good idea. Knew you had to have at least one, John."

Dean poked Bobby with his elbow to get him to ease up a little on his dad. Of course, Bobby had a right to feel whatever he wanted to feel. The man had literally held him together after Iowa. From his shameless "I wanna go on a factory tour" to his bogus paperwork that gave him in-state tuition and scholarships, Bobby had earned his sense of indignation and Dean would never forget that. Still, he'd found his own peace with John and hoped that Bobby would, too. Truth be known, it was kinda liberating.

Dean stood still as Jim drew designs on his chest and back. It tickled at first, but as Jim chanted, the blood grew warm and suddenly it felt as if he'd been hit by a taser. He staggered but didn't fall. Hands reached out everywhere to steady him. "Packin' quite a punch there, Pastor."

"You okay?"

"I'm fine, Sammy. Just be prepared for a jolt, all right?"

"All right."

It happened with each one of them, Jim getting the same as Bobby performed the blessing on him.

Bobby's old grandfather clock twanged midnight as they stared at each other, wondering what they'd done and would it aid them in their fight. Then Sam's stomach gurgled and everyone broke out in laughter.

"What? I'm a growing boy," Sam said in defense of himself.

"I'm not and I'm hungry, too," John said. "How 'bout lamb chops? Think there's some fresh ones out back." He didn't even try to duck the pillows and cushions thrown in his direction.

"There's some lasagna in the freezer," Bobby admitted reluctantly.

"Mrs. Urber's Oldsmobile?" It was a '75 and generally a piece of shit. But she loved it and brought food whenever it needed their tender care.

"Yeah. I'll put it in the microwave." Bobby turned to head into the kitchen.

"Grab the book and c'mon, Sammy." Dean picked up the silver bowl that still had a trace of blood in it.

"What's up, man?"

Dean just shook his head and headed outside. There, he stopped on the porch and looked out onto the driveway. The Impala sat there, gleaming in the bright reflection of the cusp of winter moon. "We have one more Winchester to bless," he said softly and headed down the steps.

As he and Sam went through the ritual they'd heard so many times that night, Dean was aware his father was on the porch watching them.

And it felt good.


Part I ◄ ► Part II ◄ ► Part III ◄ ► Part IV ◄ ► Part V ◄ ► Part VI

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