Disclaimer: Supernatural and its pretty, towel-clad boys belong to people who are not me.

Warnings: Some language. Flashbacks and italics like whoa.

Notes: An attempt to get into the head of one John Winchester, spawned in reaction to multiple viewings of "Faith" and somewhat tinkered with after "Something Wicked." Feedback/concrit/opinions always happily welcomed.



Keeping Things Whole

"When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole."

Mark Strand, "Keeping Things Whole"


i.

First time's in a gas station restroom in North Carolina. The phone rings inside his coat and he slips it out, hands still wet.

"I know what happened to your wife," the voice says. "I know what happened to Mary."

The line clicks off before he can strangle out a Who the fuck is this, and he grips the edges of the yellow-stained sink to keep himself from reeling.

No. It can't be.

But the other option is I know what happened, and nothing else does.

How does it have my number? is his first, giddy thought. How the hell does it even know how to use a phone?

He presses 69. The number you have dialed is invalid. Please hang up and try again. 69. The number you have dialed is inva—. 69. The numb—.

The stalls get a beating and he tries to breathe and after a few minutes, the air thins enough so that he can. He scrapes an expression back together, walks out to catch the grin and the can of soda that Dean tosses at him. "Ready to go?"

"Yes, sir," is always, always the response.

- -

Why now? he can't stop wondering. Why now, after all this time?

He calls every fucking name in his book and every number he can remember, and no one knows anything. The library doesn't tell him anything. The news and the obits don't tell him anything. After a while, Dean stops giving him those sideways glances, and they go back to chasing ghosts they can see.

- -

The next time, it's 2:00 a.m. in a motel in Tennessee. "I know what killed Mary. It's coming for you."

And the next, "I'm coming for you. For your boys. You're leading me right to them, John."

And he stops answering his phone.


ii.

It takes him weeks to track down Jericho, news clippings and obituaries and hours spent in the library. Dennis Parks. Scott Nifong. Dean helps some, then takes off for a job twenty miles south. John keeps looking.

William Durrell. Mark Brown. Nigel Long.

It takes him four days to reach Jericho and the same number in hours to decorate the motel room. News clippings. Missing persons flyers. Book excerpts translated from Latin. Pictures of dead men dancing, of live men burning. He locks the door and draws the curtains to keep anyone curious enough from barging in to find a serial killer's tracks.

The call comes after hardly a day. His clothes are still spilling out of their bag, the lamp only just extinguished before he flicks it back on and reaches blurrily for the phone. Done already. That's my boy.

Over the static comes: "Ohh, John, isn't he beautiful? Look, he has your eyes."

"Mary?" It's a lie, he knows it's a lie, but it chokes out anyway, a half-dead prayer into the burning light.

Her voice twists into something hollow and ugly. "Isn't he beautiful, John?"

He's prepared himself, but not for this. Not for the sudden irrational pretense of Mary being here, not for the monster, demon, whatever the fuck it is, to use her against him. Hearing her voice again—not a faded echo slipping from the edges of consciousness, not some twisted accusation whispered to him at night, but her, clear and joyful and, oh, god, alive—he's not ready for this, and he flings the phone away before he can ask the questions he knows it won't answer.

The rest of the night is spent hanging cat's eye shells and drawing salt circles three times thicker than they need to be.

And when the caller ID flashes Dean, he doesn't stop long enough to answer.

- -

There's nowhere new to look, no possibility he hasn't rejected a hundred times, and he knows better than to tread water until his legs become dead weight. He turns back to the walls. Goes out to a pretty little diner and flirts with the waitress, asks for a burger and fries and her number, and oh by the way what do you know about that bridge out there, something I hear about a ghost?

When in doubt, go with restless spirits.

She smiles and smudges a string of numbers onto a napkin and tells him, don't listen to the kids they're just trying to scare each other, nothing out there except bad vibes after what happened to poor Constance Welch something to drink?

Constance Welch.

Well, that was easier than weeks of research.

It takes him twenty minutes to convince Joseph Welch that he's a reporter, another ten to figure out where Constance was buried. Easy. Salt and burn tomorrow night.

He's hungry enough to pick up a burger on his way back to the motel. Makes it halfway through the lukewarm cardboard before his phone rings.

Caller: Unknown.

He barely touches the "talk" button before: He jerks awake to the nightmare of his wife screaming too far away, can't get to her in time, too late too late too late.

"Your turn, John," the voice on the other end tells him. "And when Dean comes, I'll be waiting for him."

The noise in the background is a mess of whispered threats, pleas and taunts and laughter magnified a thousand times. And through them, binding them together, a furious draft—one that, John suddenly remembers, never quite dies. Not when the sun's beating down within a twenty-mile radius, not when the air and dust are so thick that the mixture could be sucked through straws. Not when a man half-blind with loss wanders past in search of answers he's never found.

He recognizes the wind.

So this time, he doesn't ask. He tells.

"I'm going to kill you, sonuvabitch."

He grabs the keys and leaves the door to slam behind him.

- -

He checks his messages on the way out of town, like some goddamn cowboy riding off into the sunset while the girl he leaves behind voices over her undying devotion to him. Exactly like that, actually, except—

You have three new messages.

"Dad, just finished up this gig down in New Orleans. Turned out to be some crazy Voodoo thing, ended up pissing off a bunch of loa. But, uh, everything's fine, I'm gonna stop by Caleb's and then start heading west. You need anything?"

"Dad, it's me. I just left Caleb's and he says...he was saying something about seein' a bunch of signs lately, weird things going on...I don't know if it's our kind of deal, but, uh, he says to be careful. Give me a call when you're done. I should be out there in a few days. All right."

"Dad...where are you? If you get this, if—if you're not hurt, call. Please."

—it's his son, and he's not riding off into the sunset, he's heading into battle, armed only with tatters of grief-soaked knowledge and even less certainty. Three things he's kept since Mary's death, three he hasn't stripped away out of necessity over the constant shifting of what's normal and familiar, and one of those—his journal—he's left behind. He tries not to think about it, about losing it to the wrong hands. It's not like he doesn't know the damn thing by heart anyhow.

He tries not to think about the miles he'll be driving without Dean to switch off when he starts swerving a little too wildly into the neighboring lanes. Tries not to picture Dean doing the same.

The sign rolling by tells him: Centennial Highway. Fuck. He reaches for the salt-filled shotgun, lays it in the passenger seat. Picks up the phone and dials the number by instinct.

"Dean, something is starting to happen, I think it's serious. I need to try to figure out what's going on. You may need to contact your brother, tell him to watch out for himself. Do not come looking for me, not until this is over. Be very careful, Dean—we're all in danger."

It's not enough. Nothing he can say is enough, but this—this, he hopes, will at least buy him time.

- -

He makes it almost to Utah before his hand reaches for the phone again.One missed call.

"Dad...I'm in California. And I...I picked up Sam. We're going to Jericho. If you're there...don't leave. Wait for us."

Goddamn it, Dean. What part of "do not come looking for me" was unclear?

Two minutes. That's all it would take, is two minutes telling Dean not to follow. The kid would listen, would understand on some level he's always had that some things exceeded explanation.

But Sammy's there, and Sammy asks questions. And he doesn't have the time to come up with an answer that he can pass off as true.

He settles instead. Lets them know without having to hear their voices, without giving himself a chance to be weak.

"This is John Winchester. I can't be reached. if this is an emergency, call my son Dean. 866-907-3235. He can help."


iii.

Somewhere between Kentucky and West Virginia, Jerry Panowski leaves him a message to thank him for the help of his sons.

"Did a real good job, John, those boys of yours. I owe them one."

Sons.

Sam.

- -

"You walk out that door right now, Sam, don't you bother coming back. Stay gone."

He's pressed against the recessed archway as Sammy—Sam, now, full-time—walks by, arms heavy with books. The look on his face—John hasn't seen that kind of smile from him in a long, long time.

It's January, despite the weather's protests; Sam's shot up another inch, his gait still adjusting to the extra length. Which is why, as he rounds a corner, he's the one who ends up on the ground, looking up at the girl, the contents of whose purse are lying scattered around him. Who, really, would have drawn Dean's attention more than Sam's if things were the way they've always been. But instead of hiding him in shadow, her hair reflects the sun and lights him up the way he's always wanted to be, and there's no one else to distract either from discovering the other.

Jessica. Her name is Jessica, he knows by May. She has her arm around his waist as they leave the party, weaving their way through littered red cups. "C'mon, baby. Let's go home."

And he laughs softly and agrees, "Home."

- -

The whole way home John thinks he's going to crash into something; that, or go deaf. Sammy's altering between wide-eyed gurgling and short, startled wails, thanks to the four-year-old bouncing excitedly in the seat next to him.

"Dean, stop poking your brother."

"But Daddy, he's so—"

"I mean it, Dean."

"But—"

"Dean Winchester—"

"'kay, fine."

The pouting lasts about three seconds—a new record, John thinks—before Dean pipes up with "he's all squishy" and from there, goes on to wonder how soon babies can start playing football and to explain how Sammy's lucky because he'll be the best big brother ever and I'm gonna have to teach him everything and if people are mean to him I'll protect him 'cause only I get to pick on him and—

And that covers the "deaf" part. The crashing part—well, Mary's glowing.

She's pale and her eyes have shadows beneath them and she's resting her chin on the seat back, but her head's turned around the entire time, looking at her two boys, and the smile playing over her face is far deeper than anything exhaustion can break. "He's perfect, John," she'd said to him each time, and each time it had been true.

And "keep your eyes on the road," right now, might as well be "make those cattle over there fly."

She's laughing now, agreeing that no, the dog probably wouldn't find Sammy very tasty, and yes, Dean should probably watch them for a few days, just to make sure. And John turns his head (never thought he'd be so happy about a red light) and she meets his eyes and there, he has everything he's ever wanted.

When they pull up in the driveway, Dean sweeps into his arms, still full of chatter.

And Mary's the one to lift Sammy from his car seat and whisper, "Welcome home, love."


iv.

He's got cattle rot stinking into his bones and there goes another pair of boots, but the job is done, at least, when he strips away his muck-covered shirt and checks the phone.

Cattle found drained of blood, the headline had said. Fourth time in as many months.

The chase had been a toss-up, either a distraction or a destination. Spofford, Texas had never been the latter for anyone, and it hadn't made the exception for him.

What the folks called chupacabra was really a whole subspecies of Anasazi shapeshifter, caught somewhere between snake and coyote. And this one had put a hole in his leg and a serious dent in his supply of silver. Amylou had wrapped him in a yard of gauze, teased him for hissing and thanked him with pie, before waving him from her doorstep.

The sky's starting to clear into a cold winter morning, and he wants to save the message for later. After sleep, which his body desperately wants. But never put off what you can do now sticks with him from way before he even joined up, all the way from warm pancake mornings before Sunday school, and he's never been one to cave to his body anyway.

"Dad...I know I've left you messages before. I don't even know if you get 'em. But...I'm with Sam. And we're in Lawrence. And there's somethin' in our old house. I don't know if it's the thing that killed Mom or not...but...I don't know what to do. So...whatever you're doin', if you could get here...please. I need your help, Dad."

And the last time he let himself cave to his boys, Sammy ended up in the hospital with a broken collarbone and Dean ended up putting a hole in the wall after two days of laden silence.

But still.

It was Lawrence.

- -

"John, you have to see this place."

"Whoa, whoa, slow down there." and of course she doesn't, and he loves that about her. He catches her in his arms, pulls her close and breathes the magnolia of her perfume and wonders that she ended up here, with him. Doesn't tell her I'd follow you anywhere because he doesn't have to, and he loves exactly that about her.

"So where's this place I have to see?" She half-turns and looks at him, laughs and steps away, reaches out to him.

"Kansas," she tells him.

He takes her hand in his because he can't not, never could from the first time he saw her. Can't look away, he could never look away from her, not when she was fever-hot and pale against rosier bedsheets, not when the glare in her eyes would cause lesser men to falter. Not, he thinks, unless God turns around one day and the devil takes the chance to rip us apart.

"Lawrence."

I'd follow you anywhere.

- -

It takes them little more than a week to clear away the debris from the fire, another two to start rebuilding. Mike is the one to call the insurance company, to collect the money in a blank envelope handed wordlessly to his friend, to sell the land back to the developers. Kate dresses the boys in the morning, sits them down to breakfast, cajoles them into bed at night.

John paces by the windows and starts at the groaning pipes. Sometime during nights he creeps into the boys' room, and in the morning, they'd find him hunched into a child-sized chair, one hand clenched around the other, eyes fixed unmoving on his sons.

Mike and Kate, they're nothing if not patient. They ask him what they can do, how they can help, and avert their eyes when he tells them about the whispers he hears during the night. They understand. He's been through a terrible loss. He should think about seeing a doctor, maybe. Someone who can help him through this.

Mary's parents keep calling. They want to come to the funeral. They want to see the boys, maybe take them to Wisconsin, just for a little bit, John, until you're ready to take care of them again. They don't believe, or won't believe, that the same monster (What monster? It was a fire, John, an accident.) that killed their beautiful daughter will be coming back, for him, for his sons, and they don't have a dog or an alarm system, they don't know how to shoot a fucking gun, even. No. No, he tells them, over and over. Dean watches wide-eyed as he screams it, no no nononono at the phone because Mary, Mary is gone and he still wakes up every night when he reaches over to stroke a strand of thin golden air and he can't—he can't wake up to an empty crib, too.

He lets their calls go to the answering machine. Asks Kate and Mike to do the same.

By the third week, something of his instincts has kicked back in. He shakes himself awake enough to rejoin the boys. Takes Dean outside to toss around a baseball, remembers to change Sammy every couple of hours. They walk to the park together, a father with a son in each hand, taking the long way every time to avoid the charred lot where their lives burned to the ground.

Aren't your kids just adorable, a stranger would beam.

They take after my dead wife, he'd want to respond. He smiles instead, a reflex soon to be inherited.

Sometime during the fourth week, John slips awake to hushed panic. Dean's missing. Shh. Don't wake John. No. No no not again no.

A minute-long search finally yields his son, rumpled and soft-breathed, arms wrapped tight around his baby brother.

And since then, the boys have never needed anything else—no security blankets, no teddy bears. just the solid, steady knowledge of the other being there.

- -

Dean's voice is teetering; halfway to hysteria is as close as he ever gets. Last time John's heard the same was four years ago.

- -

Sam doesn't spare him a second glance as he storms out the door, duffel bag rubbing yet another hole in his too-loose jeans. Dean does—draws his chin toward his shoulder and flits his gaze over. A second is all it takes; in a second shines the raw doubt that John has never seen cross those eyes. Sammy's, yes, countless times. But Dean's—

Sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 he lets himself sleep, because who the hell was he to drag Dean back from killing the day with as many shots as he can. Because it wouldn't have worked anyway, he knows too damn well now.

But when his remaining son isn't in his bed in the morning, the terror is every bit as new as it's familiar. He calls and walks, walks and calls for miles, Glock gripped tighter and tighter until he finds a Dean-shaped pile slumped onto a park bench. John strides up to shake him awake, biting back the lecture screaming inches down his throat, but in the moment that Dean struggles between sleep and groggy wakefulness and lets slip a faint, gravel "Sammy?" he thinks he hears his son—his real son, not the bright-natured kid who polishes smiles into armor—for the first time in years.

So he swallows the worry and tension and gut-twisting fear, and he lets the gun drop. Props Dean up unsteadily on his shoulder and half-carries him all the way back to the motel; tucks his boy into the threadworn bed, murmuring a stream of reassuring lies that gradually becomes I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry.

- -

"John Winchester, I could just slap you. Why don't you go talk to your children?"

I want to.

I want to see them.

I want to see her.

You have no idea.

He's been accused of selfish before, and he's long stopped trying to justify anything. Words from strangers never sting quite as much after your kid slings the same at you on his way permanently out the door.


v.

His notes read: Superstition Mountain, just outside of Phoenix. The Lost Dutchman Mine.

Or it might be what they read. Right now, they're mostly covered in red and sticking together, a mass of hasty scribbles fluttering weakly as he creaks onto the faded motel bed.

No mine. A damn possessive, very delusional spirit, though.

He's trying to stitch himself up, biting the string off hard, when the phone rings again. Dean, he thinks, momentarily grateful.

It's Jim. There's been a series of murders out in Illinois. Rockford again. People going into an asylum and coming out insane.

He could go. He could get there if he goes now. But the boys are closer and his arm hurts like hell and he's not sure he can keep his eyes on the road for the day or two it would take to drive there.

So he picks up his phone, dials the number with his eyes half closed. Hangs up.

Picks up the phone again. Calls. Hangs up halfway through the first ring.

You're leading me right to them, John.

Picks up the phone, studies it. Reaches for the coordinates Jim left him.

Text messages, huh?


vi.

It hasn't stopped raining in the three days he's been there, and he's starting to think that California might want to reconsider its reputation.

Of course, he wouldn't have picked Sacramento as a center of demon activity, either. Especially not on a holiday, when the only suits and ties he sees are in the barred store windows.

He's been neglecting the voicemail for weeks. Last job led him up mammoth—a detour from the obits he's been cross-checking for the last month—to some kid with a sprained foot and a punk-ass attitude and a reluctantly convincing story about being attacked by Sasquatch. He didn't have to look long at the pictures before he knew it wasn't good ol' Bigfoot. Hobbled the kid back down to the lodge, preparing to dump him there, except.

Except, well, the kid wasn't lying. Not entirely. There was a werewolf he wasn't expecting, and it only took one night-sharpened swipe to knock him off his feet, shotgun spinning into the hardened snow. Kid was sharp enough to pick it up, scrambling, hair falling dark into his eyes (Sam?), but didn't know how to cock or aim. Stood there, fumbling, until John finally, finally after a second got his feet back under and shoved the kid out of the way and blasted the werewolf with two rounds from the Colt he had tucked into his jeans.

The kid was half-sprawled on the snow, moving only to cram air down his lungs. It took John another minute to make sure the thing was dead, then to walk over with a hand out and a gentle, "Hey, kid, you all right?"

"...'course," was the hesitant response as the kid dragged himself up, tried a grin. "Always."

To which John tossed a gruff "Let's go, then," and tried to ignore the sudden sharp stab of Dean.

- -

But he's in Sacramento now, getting close, he knows, because the demon's stopped coming after him. It's not staying away, not quite yet; John can feel the constant denseness of its hovering whenever he tracks down another lead, puts together another translation. But it's stopped coming. And that means he's getting close.

There's no good time, exactly, to listen to his boys worry at him, but the voicemail is full and he punches through one message after another from Dean, Dean, an uncomfortable Sam, an exasperated Dean, hesitant Dean, Dean and Sam in all expressions across the spectrum.

We need you. Where are you?

They're looking for him. And they're close to finding him.

They can't. Not until this thing's been caught. Not until he knows more, at least. Enough to not get them killed. So he walks the block to the pay phone, drops the quarter in the slot, and tries to pretend that he's calling to keep them away.

But then Sam answers, and he has to give his son something—an apology, a regret, an offer of understanding—for the tears Missouri told him she saw. Sam doesn't— he's angry. He has every right to be. He's hurting and confused and aches for everything he's lost, remembered or not, and there is no truce after all.

- -

At first John leaves just to go, just to get away from the whispers and stares and the neighbors ducking behind their papers whenever he walked by, eyes full of sympathy or worse. He leaves because Mike and Kate, they won't even consider the idea that something killed Mary, that something could just as easily slip in and take his boys away from him too. He goes because of what he finds, the books on fires that come not quite out of nowhere, the things that Missouri sees in him and knows. He runs because if they're on the move, they're harder to pin down, and maybe, maybe the thing won't know where to find them.

He leaves, and he tells himself that it isn't permanent. That he just needs to kill the thing that took Mary, to make sure it won't touch his family again.

He wraps Sammy in too many blankets and straps him into the back seat, settles Dean down with a toy car and a soft foam football and tells him that they're going on a trip together. Tells him "it's a surprise" instead of "don't know where."

A week on the road and it's an escape, an excuse, a much-needed reprieve from the endless cycles of who what how why that follow him from Lawrence. A month brings nagging and questions, but is ultimately excusable. A year, and it becomes a way of life, a mission, a sacrifice.

He takes the charms and amulets that Missouri gave him, hangs them around the boys' necks and twists them around their arms, even if he only halfway believes in them himself. Tries to explain to Dean that he doesn't have to memorize an address or a phone number now, only his name, and sometimes not even that. He makes sure that Sammy always wakes up to him or Dean close by, because nothing else is even remotely familiar anymore and the baby's first instinct these days is to cry for the steadiness they've lost.

He never meant for it to turn into what it becomes, a relentless hunt; he wanted to track the goddamn monster down and put an end to it once and for all. He never meant for it to go on as long as it does, to consume him as much as it does, to make life for his boys as unsettled as it does. But the thing is harder to find than he realizes and he ends up learning more than he ever wants to about things that shouldn't exist, things that do to other families what that monster did to his. He runs into a poltergeist in one of the Dakotas and ends up killing it—and from there on, he doesn't stop. And before he knows it, Dean needs to be registered for school and Sammy's starting to talk and really, it shouldn't surprise him that, aside from "dee" and "da," one of his baby's first words sounds suspiciously like "why?"

- -

In the time since then, he's never stopped wondering whether he's made the wrong choice. Ninety percent of the time, he's sure that he has. But he's started this, and he needs to finish it, needs it as much as he needs to be a good soldier, a good father, a good man. Needs it to be those things. So he focuses on the after, and after, and after, and it's always just out of his reach. And the boys—they're almost getting used to it. Dean's stopped needing that minute in the morning to orient himself after waking up in the sixth unfamiliar bed in as many days. And Sammy—well, Sammy doesn't know much of anything else, does he?

They're good kids, he tells himself sometimes to keep away the doubts, to keep his head down as he passes the neon liquor signs on every street corner. And sometimes he justifies this life by teaching them the best he can to protect themselves, by making sure that they're always well-fed and armed and know how to say "please, ma'am" and "thank you, sir" and to recite their prayers, even if he doesn't join them. Sometimes he hates himself for giving Dean keys and a gun and nothing else while he chases shadows for days longer than he means to, for the way that the terrible guilt weighing inside him allows Dean only a gruff "s'not your fault, kiddo" by means of apology—one that he's not sure if the boy even hears.

And the only thing he can do, the only thing he can promise Mary, is that he won't let them out of his sight again.

- -

"Dad, is that you?"

But Dean, well. Dean does what he's told. Sometimes John thinks maybe he shouldn't, that his son is a man now and deserves more than cryptic coordinates hunted down like treasure maps every few weeks. But with Dean, it's easy. Dean's got Mary's smile and her eyes and her optimism, and he knows that "write these names down" really means "I'm miss you and I'm proud of you, son."

He hopes so, anyway.

And for days afterward, John survives on the echoed memory of their voices.


vii.

He's in Nebraska this time, tracking down a reaper. Not the demon, not even a demon, but years of hardened instinct have made it impossible to ignore death when it's tripping over his door. He's heard about the preacher. He's heard about the wife. He's stopped believing in miracles a long time ago.

Locals said to avoid the northeast border of the O'Hanlon place, that strange things go on there. People die there.

Of boredom, maybe.

The truck is the smoothest ride he's had since the Impala, but with dust eddying dry around him and nothing but acres of corn on either side, he wants something different. Faster, he thinks. A little color. Cruise control might be nice.

A convertible flashes by, bright red. The driver puts his arm around his passenger, her blond hair dancing in the air.

Black is better.

Somewhere in the truck bed, his phone rings. He can't hear it. He tossed it there so that he wouldn't hear it. So that even if he did, he wouldn't answer it.

They can't be a part of this.

Fifteen minutes later, he pulls off onto a side road, nothing more than a fissure in the fields. Picks the phone up from the back.

You have one new message, the machine tells him.

Your son is dying, the message tells him.

It also says I won't let him, but it's stretched and fraying and John can see the raw edges coming apart. Sammy won't let his big brother die. He doesn't know what to do. He doesn't ask for help.

I need to keep them safe.

So he doesn't drive the sixty miles between him and the hospital, and he doesn't dial the number blindly when he picks up the phone. He calls Joshua and tries to pretend it's nothing but a job. He can't. Can't keep the lighting out of his voice.

He can make damn sure that the boys get the message about Roy LeGrange.

Fair hasn't been a part of his vocabulary for a long damn time, and it certainly isn't about to bother him now.

There's a particularly vicious succubus he can send Josh's way if the man doesn't do as politely requested.

- -

A week passes, and John doesn't sleep. He wears the carpet even thinner in the roadside motel. He empties five more bullets than absolutely necessary into a skriker, even though silver doesn't come cheap these days. He staggers into bed at night and walks to retrieve his truck in the morning.

Then, finally, something in the paper. Wife of local preacher dead, it says. Pastor LeGrange has suspended his services until further notice.

Your son is alive, he knows, and he can't stop the inkling of pride from growing. The reaper's not a worry anymore.

It's another two days before his phone rings again. "Dad. Sam's a lying little bastard. Don't listen to him. I'm fine."

He doesn't hear: Where the hell were you, Why didn't you come, or Call us. He doesn't have to. Dean's voice is down half an octave, thicker with bravado than he usually pitches it. It's barely held together.

But it's there.

The day after, he throws his weapons back into truck, slams the door, and leaves the dust behind.


viii.

Somewhere between Nebraska and Nevada he loses track of the boys, and this terrifies him on a level deeper than anything. The demon's close—it's running the hell away from him now and that means he's close. The air starts to taste like rusted metal, the streetlights stop flickering always just as he comes across them, and he loses track of time and day and anything outside of directions and miles.

He follows it: over car-jammed freeways and back roads and paths partly cleaved into wilderness; into alleys and corners where night has always been the only constant; onto playgrounds and soccer fields where parents dart their nervous eyes between him and their children; through towns with one gas pump and no crossroads, baked into silence by the ancient desert sun. He follows it with the thought of Mary, Mary, Mary pounding into the accelerator, with blood and fire and death splattering onto the windshield.

He stops checking in with Jeff. Then Caleb. Then Jim. He stops spinning his web of contacts, and the boys slip through.

And when he realizes it, there's nothing he can do. Dean can more than take care of himself and Sammy's too smart to fall for anything and They'll look out for each other have their limits, but he's close, and he consoles himself with the thought of after.

After this, I'll go back to them. After this, we can finally settle down. After this.

There is no after. You haven't given them an after.

He finds the demon, or thinks he does; it's waiting for him. He doesn't see the trap until he's stepped into it.

He gets out, just barely, cut and bleeding but alive, and he's not really sure which sends him reeling toward the nearest bar.

- -

She meets his eyes and he doesn't ask, doesn't want to know anything about her, why she's negotiating drinks over a vomit-stained counter in a place that doesn't exist for all intents and purposes. She's straight and rigid and nothing like the softness around Mary's eyes shines in hers, and he doesn't ask, doesn't want to know. She meets his eyes, and no one else's, and that's all he needs tonight.

She follows too easily when he asks; they don't take the time for pleasantries. They're efficient, all skin and sweat and nameless snarls and heavy breaths not quite in rhythm, and fuck he's missed this, scratches and bites left in favor instead of threatening to rip him into pieces. He pushes against her harder and deeper and when it comes, the name that tears out of his throat is Mary, Mary, always Mary.

And later, the phone hums muffled against the denim on the floor, eleven, twelve, thirteen times before finally giving up. He doesn't try to answer. He doesn't have one to give.

He's not entirely sure what he's hunting anymore, the thing that killed Mary or the memory of her dying.


ix.

The message is this:

"...we think we got a serious lead on the thing that killed Mom. So, uh, these warehouses. 1435 West Erie. Dad, if you get this, get to Chicago as soon as you can."

And between the relief of knowing they're okay and the promise, finally, of prey for their years-long hunt, there's no room left for hesitation. He packs and he goes, and he tries to belivehopewish that this, one way or another, will finally be the end.