Whatever had happened to John had knocked him out more than he wanted to admit. Though he'd spent much of the afternoon dozing against the door of the Impala, his body still felt rubbery with exhaustion, the infernal headache pounded, and his thoughts swirled with little of the mental discipline he usually prided himself in.
It chilled him to think he'd spoken words he didn't understand, referenced some being he didn't know. That sort of thing bespoke possession, or worse. But keeping things from his boys—dangerous things, things that could hurt them worse than not knowing—was a long ingrained habit he hadn't found it in himself to break. They didn't need to know the extent of his fears. They didn't need to know that he'd spent nearly every waking moment mulling over what those words might mean, who he was, what it had to do with him being in Purgatory and whatever had kept the leviathans off his ass and the demon that had visited him and the fighting demons the kid had talk about, or that John Winchester was terrified.
When he hadn't been worrying about demons, John's mind had inexorably returned to the one other topic he'd always found it hard to discuss with his boys, except to impress on them the importance of honoring their mother's memory by killing every last even son of a bitch they could find. Mary. The notion that Mary had been a hunter spun around and around in his mind, seeming to carve a repetitious path through his thoughts. Mary had been a hunter. (Unbelievable.) Mary hadn't told him. (What else hadn't she told him?) Mary hadn't wanted to raise her kids in the life. (She'd never forgive him for what he'd done.)
And so - despite how much he wanted to talk to his boys, to get to know Sam again - he'd kept his mouth shut most of the way. He didn't trust himself to talk about either subject, but he couldn't think about anything else.
He'd asked Cas about Mary on a whim. With both sons gone, it had seemed a good idea for a moment...not that he'd learned anything. Far from making him want to know more, though, Cas's evasiveness had scared him. What could there possibly be that could be worse than Mary hating the way he'd raised their children? What did they all know that they wanted so desperately to keep from him? He'd let the subject drop like he'd touched something hot. It was pure cowardice, of course, but there was only so much of a beating his memory of her could take, and in any case John was exhausted. The softness of the blankets, still jarring after years of sleeping on rough ground, surrounded him and made him think that he might even sleep through the nightmares. He'd keep pressing tomorrow. When, maybe, he could take it.
Then Dean screamed.
In a second John had forgotten his exhaustion, thrown off the soft covers and grabbed a flask of holy water from his bag. He crossed the room to the door, not bothering to put on his boots. Cas produced a long, silvery blade from his sleeve and handed it to John, with the clipped words, "You may need this."
John took it with a nod, threw open the door, and together they squinted into the darkness.
When Dean shouted again it was ragged with pain.
John and Cas took off together at a run toward the noise, crossing the parking lot in long, breathless seconds. Dean screamed a third time, though it cut off into a guttural groan. Doors were opening all along the length of the motel, slivers of yellow light appearing along its length.
Dean came into view as they crossed the parking lot, away from the glow of the motel lights.
There were multiple figures, seven or eight, and their even in the pale moonlight John could make out their black eyes. It was more demons than John had ever seen in the one place outside of Hell, and his heart hammered as he tried to make out Dean. His son was pinned up against a large, pale rock-like thing (the base of the Utah Arch sign, John noted distantly) by an invisible force. His back was arched against the pale stone, and John could see dark lines of blood criss-crossing his chest and darkening his too-large checkered shirt.
The horror and familiarity of the image froze John for a moment, but only for a moment, then he splashed the holy water across the demons with a yell of his own. Sizzling and shouting, and apparently surprised, the demons spun around toward them. Cas was already striding forward with a hand raised and he pressed a palm to a demon's forehead, gripping her hairline. The demon fell with a buzz of electricity and flash of light and Cas staggered back slightly. He righted himself quickly enough and did the same to another, then another in quick succession. A demon lunged at John but he dodged it, his first swing with the angel blade going wide, his second thrusting into the man's chest. He pulled it out with a schuck and spun around. Dean had fallen, landing on his hands and knees coughing and gasping in the dusty soil at the base of the rock. John lurched toward him. Cas smote another demon but staggered too close to another, who hit him with something, sending him to his hands and knees. John leapt to help him but he was too slow and an invisible force - more demon mojo - hit him like Mack truck and sent him flying. The world spun crazily around him as he flew over the rocky ground, arcing several yards to only to smack down, bounce and roll to a stop feet away.
He was pushing himself up, ignoring his protesting body, when he heard one demon say the other, "Idiot! That's him!"
He had little chance to process the words, for the remaining demons had surrounded Cas, two holding him while the third drove a long, silver blade into his chest—or what would have been his chest, had a tall, powerful figure not leapt from the darkness, knocking the demons aside and plunging a knife into the back of one and the throat of the other. The blade went wide and Cas sunk to the ground, clutching his side even as the demon who'd been wielding it collapsed sparking. The third demon disappeared in a long rope of smoke through its host's gaping mouth before the others had even fallen to the ground. The host fell with a thump.
"Damn it!" Sam grunted. Then he headed toward Dean.
The silence that followed was somehow more shocking than the fight. John pressed his palms to the rocky ground and shoved himself up, making it to his hands and knees, then staggering to his feet. Pain shot through his right ankle, and his bare heel was torn seemingly near in half, but he limped resolutely back toward his sons and Cas, and knelt beside Dean. Pain, injury, exhaustion...none of it meant anything when one of his sons was hurt.
Sam was already there. "What the hell?" his youngest greeted him in a breathy voice, giving him a once over. "I thought I heard a scream but...what the hell?"
"Dunno," John grunted, totally focused on Dean. His eldest was stirring, thank God. But his chest was dark with blood and he groaned weakly when John tried to pull his shirt aside to see the damage.
"Demon smoked out. We're gonna have to move again," Sam said, shaking his brother, who groaned again. He cupped Dean's head in one large hand, sounding horribly worried. "Dean, can you hear me? Are you okay?"
They were joined a second later by Cas, who was pressing one hand against his side. He seemed wobbly, though whether that was from the energy he'd apparently expended fighting the demons, or from the long gash in his gut that seemed to be leaking blue light, John had no idea. "Move over, Sam," Cas gritted, then rested a hand on Dean's chest and closed his eyes. Energy flowed across Dean's torso for a second, two, before it sparked like there had been a short and Cas fell back, landing on his ass with a grunt.
"Cas?" Sam asked desperately.
Cas didn't answer but Dean coughed slightly and started trying to sit up, blinking and confused. Sam helped him gently, trying to pull his shredded shirt aside at the same time. Dean grimaced and tried to push his hand away.
"…Demons," Dean said. "There were demons."
In the near-darkness John could practically feel Sam roll his eyes with fond relief. "Yeah, Dean," Sam said. "There were demons. They hurt you but Cas healed you...kind of." He spared at glance at Cas, who was hunched over with a hand still pressed to his side, before asking Dean, "Are you all right?"
"Guts were fallin' out," Dean said woozily, pressing a hand to his chest and gasping slightly and wincing. His hand came away dark with blood but he shrugged. "…They're not anymore. Cas?"
"I'm right here," Cas said, but didn't move from where he'd fallen backward away from Dean. Dean craned his neck to look at him. "I'm afraid I'm not at full power, Dean, I'm sorry I can't heal you more. I fixed the worst of the damage."
"'Sokay, man," Dean slurred, slumping back against Sam slightly.
Twinkling red and blue lights had appeared in the distance, far enough down long stretch of road they might have been the faraway blinking lights of a jet plane. John had nearly forgotten what it was like to be in such a wide open space, with neither trees nor dank stone walls to block his view. He's also forgotten that out here, in the human world, a loud fight not a hundred feet from a full motel would not go unnoticed.
"So we're all okay?" Sam asked. "You know, more or less?"
"Fine," John answered, ignoring the sharp pain that blossomed in his ankle as he stood. He'd had worse.
"I'm okay," Dean said.
"All right," Sam said, heaving Dean up like he weighed nothing and supporting him with an arm around his chest. John watched Dean sink against him, feeling something he didn't quite understand. The lanky boy Sam had been been the last time John had seen him would never have been able to do the same so easily.
Dean grunted his pain but managed to find his feet, pulling away from Sam slightly. "Sammy, take the keys. Gotta get outta here before the cops come. Demons are coming when we stop somewhere...can't get stuck in jail. Or at the hospital."
John crouched to help Cas up and ended up hooking an arm around his chest and tugging him to his feet. Cas protested in a mumble that he was fine, but John ignored him. Dean was right. They had to move, and fast.
Together, they limped back to the motel rooms. Sam gave Kevin a hasty explanation as they packed up and tossed the bags in the trunk, while John and Dean took care of their own. Luckily, they'd hardly had the time to unpack, and they were ready to go in minutes.
In the fluorescent light above the motel room mirror Dean looked near gray and could barely stand on his own without wobbling. John watched him carefully, worried, and insisted on checking the injuries himself when Dean swapped his blood-soaked shirt for a slightly less conspicuous one. What had once been deep scores into Dean's body had puckered and begun to close, as if they'd been stitched together a few days. Though they crossed his torso in several places and were still beading blood sluggishly. Though Dean was clearly unsteady on his feet, John was satisfied that his son wasn't going to bleed out. In any case Dean managed to lug his duffel out to the car, toss it in the trunk and lean almost casually against the door as he handed over the keys to Sam.
Sam rolled the Impala out of the parking lot just as the cops rolled in from the other side, lights flashing bright blue and red. Dean was in the front passenger seat, sitting stiffly with one hand cupped over his stomach where some of the worst cuts had been. This time, Cas and John had the window seats. The angel sat hunched, one hand pressed to his side, but alert.
John once again felt beyond exhaustion, like every thought and movement required a precise and possibly insurmountable effort, and the nagging pain that had spiked before his episode earlier had yet to go away completely. On top of that his ankle was stabbing pain, and the deep cut in his foot was throbbing and making his sock and the inside of his boot squishy with blood. They'd need to stop, soon, and tend to all of their injuries. At the moment, though, John had no qualms with putting some distance between themselves and the motel.
"So they're definitely following Dad," Sam said once they were safely back on the main highway.
"Seems like," Dean agreed, his voice tight with pain. John felt another surge of worry for him - he'd really gotten chewed up back there - but Dean went on in a casual tone. "They came outta nowhere but they knew me. Wanted me to scream. I think they were hoping you'd come running, Dad."
John nodded, troubled but not surprised. He recalled how he'd been recognized after the demon threw him, and supposed it was lucky. If he'd been nearer to them, they might've just grabbed him and gone.
"Clearly, they want him for something," Cas added, his usually gravelly voice downright hoarse and halting. Dark circles had formed beneath his eyes, and even in the shadows his skin looked deathly pale. John wondered just how much of his life force he'd put into healing Dean. Cas went on, "I think we can assume that it is related to his episode earlier. And the demon at the first motel. And quite possibly the demon uprising. Though I wonder why they waited until we'd stopped to come to us."
"Car's warded," Sam suggested. "Just about every place it can be."
"That is possible," Cas allowed.
John stared out the window. He had no idea what was going on, of course, but what seemed like the most obvious thought in the world had just slammed him in the face. "You're not safe with me. Any of you," he said abruptly. "They're after me and they're willing to use you to get to me."
"We're not leaving you," Dean said resolutely, before John could even say it outright.
"Dean—" John began, but Dean cut him off.
"I don't care, Dad," Dean said, sounding roughly as tired as John felt. "Whatever you're gonna say, I don't care. We're in this together. No more 'leaving me for my own good.' Not from you, not from Cas, not anymore. It never turns out well and I've damn well had enough of it."
John opened his mouth to argue, but Sam chimed in first.
"We can deal with demons, Dad," he said. "We've fought them before - like you wouldn't imagine - and we've won. You're gonna need us."
"I can hold my own," John said.
"More importantly," Sam went on, ignoring him, "whatever's going on might be big. I mean, we know it's at least demon-uprising-in-Hell big. And you're the only lead we got. So you are not going anywhere, at least not til we figure out this 'its him' business and what we need to do to stop it."
Dean looked grateful for the intervention.
John had to admit Sam was right. In this world of demons and angels John really was out of his depth, and he needed them. And beyond that, beyond his being tired and hurt and unsure of himself, John had to admit that leaving his sons was the last thing in the world he wanted to do. In the face of this new danger, Dean seemed to have at least put his anger aside, and Sam was making him proud. It was selfish as hell, he knew, but he didn't want to leave.
"Fine," he said aloud. "'Til we figure this out."
"What we gotta do is get somewhere safe where we can hole up," Dean said. "Safer than another crap motel, I mean."
"Safe. Yeah. Great idea," Sam said. "Where?"
"I don't know, man," Dean sighed, shifting in his seat and wincing. His chest had to be stinging like a son of a bitch by now.
"Cas, how long 'til your powers come back?" Sam asked.
Cas shook his head slightly. "I don't know. I'm sorry, Sam." He glanced down at his injury, and added cryptically, "I have lost some grace."
"Don't worry about it, Cas," Dean said, sounding worried. "Can't expect you to keep them all at bay, anyway. We need to find somewhere safe, and figure out what the hell's going on, and how we fight it."
John pressed his lips together, acutely aware that any place he considered a safe house might have been compromised or abandoned in the years he'd been away, and feeling very useless.
"What about Bobby's?" Sam said suddenly.
"It burned down, Sam," Dean said, in a tone that suggested maybe Sam should get his head checked.
"The house. Yeah," Sam said. "The panic room might still be there. It was underground, and made of iron. It's worth a shot, right? Unless you've got some other demon-proof haven up your sleeve."
"…Guess not," Dean admitted grudgingly, then grimaced. "Demons, man. It's been a while."
The two shared a moment that made John feel, once again, like the whole world had changed. Rather than dwelling on it, he sank back into his own seat, his ankle pinging painfully as he shifted. His heel stung where he'd torn it against a rock, and the rest of his body ached, too, in an undefined sort of way, insisting on reminding him of all his fifty-plus years. Then his sons' words finally percolated his mind fully.
"You said Bobby's?" he asked abruptly. "We're going to Bobby Singer's place?"
"Uh, yeah," Dean said uncertainly.
John thought of the last he'd seen of the irascible hunter, how Bobby had pointed the shotgun on him and told him in no uncertain terms, if he ever stepped foot on his property again he'd shoot him, and fought back an absurd desire to chuckle. He knew Bobby was dead, and had gathered from Dean's tales in Purgatory that the old hunter had come to mean something to his sons, but he couldn't find it in himself to care. "Wonders never cease," he drawled.
Somehow, the frowns that drew out of both of his sons didn't make it any less funny.
"We have a ways to go," Sam said in a humorless tone. "Vicinity of fifteen, eighteen hours, I'd say. I'll stop for gas in a few, and we can patch you guys up as best we can with the first aid kit. I just want to get some distance between us and…well, you know."
"Yeah, we know," Dean said, touching his chest gingerly and wincing. He rested his head back against the seat. "Hell of a day."
They drove on.