A/N: It's finished! I forgot what an amazing feeling it is to complete something. Thanks to all the readers, and for all the lovely reviews. You really kept me motivated to finish this, and I couldn't have done it without you.
John quietly restrained himself from reaching over the bed and taking Dean's hand in his. He was sleeping so peacefully it seemed and he didn't want to disturb him. And John forgot what his oldest son looked like when, if only for a moment, all of the world's burdens didn't fall upon him. He could just rest. The only thing John didn't like about it was the fact he was in a hospital, coming back from being inches near death…all because of him.
He really wanted to tell Dean, and Sam, that he was sorry, and that he had good reasons behind all the mistakes he's made as a father. He really wanted to but he knew he couldn't. Because John didn't have good reasons, he didn't have apologies that could cure the ailment of a broken family…he only had a chance to try and say something meaningful, to try and fix things, to just try. He knew he didn't deserve the chance. He knew it was probably too late. But he knew he had to try.
Try, try, and try some more…
As though Dean had sensed his presence in the room, the urgency in the silence that John needed to say something, he fluttered open tired eyes. He scanned the room around him, and John didn't say anything, didn't breathe, only waited for Dean. When Dean found his father's eyes, staring at him with desperation and concern, he immediately looked away.
"Dean," John attempted to say something, but his voice left him.
"Where's Sam?" Dean sharply snapped with an easily detected sense of worry.
Truth was, John really didn't know, but he did know that Sam wouldn't go anywhere away from Dean for too long.
"He might be looking for me…but uh, more likely he's just getting some coffee," John offered, hoping his eldest son would accept it. A brief glance at the door, then to another chair that held one of Sam's duffle bags told Dean his father's idea was more than probable. At least, the getting coffee scenario was. John acknowledged Dean's observation and took the lack of verbal response as an answer that he'd be fine for the next few moments. However, if Sam didn't show up soon, he could easily assume Dean would take on the investigative, protective big brother role.
"I…I just want to…talk to you," John said. Dean hardly moved and didn't say anything. He kept his eyes to the door, hoping Sam would walk in at any moment and save him from their father, and crossed his arms over his chest in a typical, defiant motion. John recognized the tactic. "So, you're not going to talk to me?"
Dean didn't respond. His face was expressionless but his eyes shone grief and anger, the slow churning anger that warned of an explosion if not handled carefully.
"Ah, the infamous silent treatment," John mused, folding his hands together. "I understand that you don't want to talk to me. But I have some things I need to say to you."
Still, Dean stared at the door anxiously now. He let out a heavy sigh, looking as though words were boiling on the tip of his tongue but he kept swallowing them down. He would say something he may regret if he allowed himself. He was just so tired of yelling to get a point across.
"You know, when you were younger," John continued, speaking gently with a tinge of reminiscence. "You used to give me the silent treatment whenever you were mad at me. I remember one time…the last time, was when your mother…died. Once I told you she wasn't coming back…you shut yourself in. Well, you and Sammy in. You were hurt, and so angry because of it. And you hardly spoke to me for nearly a week—only when you had to which was usually when Sam needed something. And I remember…after that, I swore I never wanted to hear you not speak to me again. Then, somewhere down the road…I guess I…stopped listening altogether."
Dean indulged his father with a quick glance to show he had his attention, but nothing to signify much interest.
"You have to know, son, that if I could have changed things I would have. If I could have given you and Sam the childhood you deserved, if I could have stopped Mary from dying…you know I would have," John faulted in the end of his words, his eyes wandering to the silver band on his left ring finger. "But Evil prevented that from happening. Evil destroyed your mother, destroyed our lives…and what choice did we have but to fight back?"
"Oh, and it's so easy to blame someone or something else for your mistakes, isn't it?" Dean finally cracked, sitting up in the bed as best he could with the thick bandages on his chest.
John didn't get a chance to reply before Dean continued.
"I've heard your excuses. Hell, I've made excuses for you…and yeah, we're the guys who kill the bad guys—I get that. How does that make it okay to leave your kids for days, sometimes weeks at a time? How does that make it okay for you forget birthdays, to forget to call and let us know you're safe? Or, hmm, to call back your son when he calls begging for your help—or worse yet, dying?"
"No! You know what? I think it's a good thing you're such a saint, trashing the Evil in the world. Because it's better to be a damn good hunter, a perfected liar…than to just be a lousy dad."
John didn't say anything at first. He was never someone who took a beating, verbal or physical, and just accepted it. He was a fighter, a Winchester…he didn't back down or allow himself to get rolled over and stepped on. He didn't let others put him in his place because he knew where his place was—out there in the shadows of the world, killing monsters and demons. At least, he once thought that's where his place was. Somehow, looking into his older son's eyes and seeing the gleam of sorrow beyond his years in them, he allowed himself to be stepped on. He accepted the pain that went with the sight because if his son had to feel the pain, so did he.
He didn't know whether to say 'sorry'. The word just seemed so pitiful, so lifeless and useless.
"Do you know why I left, Dean?" John asked and his voice was unintentionally firm to the point of sounding angry. He wasn't used to being reprimanded, especially by his well-trained soldier.
"Which time?" Dean countered bitterly, not feeling like complying with the drill sergeant in his father. John ignored the appropriate, but undesired response from his son.
"I was scared. I was losing you and Sam…I was losing you two after I lost Mary, and when I should have been fighting harder to keep you…I didn't. Because, along this crusade…I've seen horrors no one should have to see, things my children shouldn't have to see…but you did. And once I realized I couldn't always protect you and that, in fact, I needed to recruit you…I thought it would just be easier if I stayed at a distance…easier…because maybe you'd hate me."
John paused for a moment, drawing in a wavering breath. He forgot how cold he could feel when opening up after locking himself away for years and years.
"Dean…you had Sam and Sam had you. I knew you'd always stay together and protect each other…and I took advantage of that. You didn't need me, and I thought it wouldn't hurt me as much if I knew that. I didn't think it'd be so bad if you hated me…it might have made leaving you easier. And that would have made a lot of things easier."
Dean gave a calculating inspection of John for a few moments as if the man was a figment, not sitting there and being honest and telling, not staring at him like he was his father and not his commander in charge. Once he realized he wasn't having some odd dream, some wild hallucination, he took it all in. He conceded anger for disappointment, taking a curious approach with a childlike questioning in his eyes- so hopeful to understand.
"You do things and I just don't know why. Like when you ordered Sam to shoot you, to end it all? How could you have done that? Don't you know how that would have affected him…and affected me? How could you be so careless, so willing to die just for revenge?"
"It wasn't just for revenge."
"What else is worth dying for to you?" Dean asked, as if anything John said now would be oblivious to logic.
"You!" The elder Winchester proclaimed with eyes wide in fear as blind images floated to his memory. Don't you let it kill me…Dad…please… "You and Sam are worth dying for. I was killing you. I almost did, too…and how do you think that would have affected Sam?"
John wished he could be angry with his son for being so insensitive to the fact he would do anything for his family to save them.
"I couldn't," John went on, his voice ruptured with pointed honesty. "I couldn't let you die. I could never watch my children die."
And Dean saw the sincerity in the words. They struck him with such force like a light in a heavy fog, splitting it open to reveal the unshaven stranger before him as someone he could actually recognize. And in that moment, Dean was reunited with his father.
John wasn't just the drill sergeant. He wasn't just the hunter. He was someone who you could toss a football around with. He was who Dean was missing for so long and fighting for even longer.
"I never hated you, Dad. And I never want to." Dean said quietly, but earnestly.
"Same goes for me." A third voice spoke up, causing the older two Winchesters to face the door where the youngest stood.
Sam stepped in hesitantly, walking up to the very edge of Dean's bed. He'd listened to the entire conversation. At so many points he wanted to burst in the room, throw his opinion out there…but it wasn't his place. He knew what he had to do- he had to let Dean open to John. Dean had a lot of repressed anger and hurt feelings because of their father, though he'd be last to admit it…this was something he needed to do alone…not that Sam would leave him completely alone. But at this point, Sam also needed to make himself known. He needed to show Dean he was there by his side, and by his father's side for that matter.
Like John's wordless apology, Sam and Dean make a wordless agreement to forgive and forget. They were Winchesters, after all, and speaking with actions was how they communicated best. John came back, and no one asked him to. To the brothers, that meant something more than a thousand apologies.
"Sam…" John whispered the name. He hadn't felt so overwhelmed in a long time, and it was making him sick. Why his sons didn't hate him right now, he'd never comprehend. But he supposed it didn't matter why, only that they didn't.
"Dad…we know how important hunting is to you…getting revenge for Mom. It's important to us too, I just wish…" Sam recessed his voice; feeling a bit like his tongue was caught. Feeling lost still in finding the words to say what he wanted.
"Things have to change," John finished for him, knowing well it wasn't fair for Sam to have to ask. "It should be like it should have been…"
"Like it can still be," Dean added. There was a flicker of a smile in his expression, and his eyes softened with a peaceful gleam. John nearly laughed.
"Is that really what you boys want? After all I've done and all the mistakes I've made? You'd let me back into your lives?" John asked disbelievingly. Sam and Dean glanced at each other knowingly. A full smile came to Dean's lips.
"Who else would take you but us?"
And John did laugh, but it came out as more of a sob.
"We missed you, Dad," Sam said, and he was scared at how true, how raw the words were, but he was also strengthened by them.
And John didn't realize how much he missed himself, either. He didn't realize how much he missed his children until they were the ones who did the leaving.
John then opened his arms out and he reached up and pulled Dean in one and motioned for Sam to step closer. And when Sam stepped closer, he wrapped his arm around him and hugged his children, squeezing harder than he would have pulled the trigger of the colt when aimed at the demon. Because this embrace was not about death and revenge, it was about life and love.
And Sam and Dean hugged back, holding on tightly to each other, to John, to their family.
"Well this is just great," Bobby's voice broke in, not hiding a mocking sarcasm. "And I was looking forward to getting to shoot you, John. Had my rifle shined up and everything."
The three Winchesters reluctantly parted from the hug. John let out a small, friendly laugh and Sam and Dean smiled.
"Good to see you, too, Bobby." John said.
"Sam, Dean," Bobby nodded towards each of them. "If this man is bothering you, I can have him removed from the premises," he teased.
"I think we can handle him," Dean played along. He then involuntarily yawned.
"You should probably get some more rest, though," John stated. Sam gave Dean a look as though he agreed and Dean rolled his eyes.
"That's all I've done since I've been here!" He protested, even though he suddenly found it difficult to keep his eyes open. "But I guess a little more wouldn't hurt," he said after yawning again. On top of all the emotional stress and near-death trauma, he had a lot of drugs coursing through him. Over the years, he'd adjusted to working through the side-effects of powerful pain relievers, something he'd learned early on was important in their line of work. But he knew one day it would catch up to him.
"I'll stay with you," Sam quickly said. John half expected that immediate response from his youngest.
"What about you, John?" Bobby questioned casually as he shot a knowing look to Sam, which told him he asked it purposefully. John didn't expect it. But his boys were looking at him now, expectantly, hopefully, curiously. And even though he didn't expect the question, he knew the answer right away.
"I'll be staying."
"What about the demon? You said it's still out there, and—"
"The demon can wait," John said, fast to cut Dean off. "Right now, we need to focus on you getting better. Then we'll discuss where we go from there."
Bobby was quietly pleased--only asking the question to see if John was ready to stay, and so Sam and Dean could hear the answer.
The brothers were fast, albeit slightly suspicious, to approve what their father was saying. It had almost been as if they couldn't really believe it was John saying that. For so long, hunting evil was what came first in his life…and for too long. Saying one right thing for a million wrong didn't make up for their past, but it was an important step towards a better future. And wherever the Winchesters were going, they were going together.
Early afternoon the next day, Dean's doctor was able to release him from the hospital. Sam made sure he listened well to the doctor's recommendations to keep Dean as comfortable as possible and to further the healing process. He knew he'd be the once to enforce them later, as John and Dean were terrible at following doctor's orders.
The fresh air was inviting when they all stepped out into the hospital parking lot, Sam pushing Dean in a wheelchair. Dean would later make fun of him for doing it, but Sam wouldn't care because he's the one who volunteered. John probably would have, but when it came to Dean sometimes Sam only trusted himself. It would be something Sam would have to readjust to, allowing John to help take care of his brother. But he was willing to, and would rather adjust to a helping hand than have no help at all.
As Sam helped Dean into the Impala, John waited nearby with Bobby.
"You're real lucky, John, to have the kids you do."
"I know. I don't deserve them…but I'm not going to lose them again. Ever."
"You make sure of that. Or I have a bullet with your name on it." Bobby added jokingly, but kept his tone serious.
"Thanks for checking in on them. I owe you."
"Consider it a favor." Bobby said and lifted up his hand and dangled a pair of keys with a folded piece of paper, offering them to John.
John eyed them inquiringly as he accepted them.
"What's this for?"
"Keys to a place I have not too far from here. The address is on the paper with directions. It's cozy, but hooked up with every protection charm and device I have. Should keep you all feeling safe while Dean recovers for a little while. And you'll have some time to get to know your sons again."
John was at a loss for words of appreciation, his mouth agape as he searched for what to say.
"Hey," Bobby went on. "You've never been any good at saying thank you, so don't think you have to start now."
"Really, Bobby…you don't know what this means…"
"It means you better not screw up this second chance your boys are giving you."
"I don't plan to," John told him confidently, and he looked over to where Sam and Dean were and was overcome with pride.
He watched Sam finish situating Dean in the backseat, the two of them talking amongst themselves and laughing quietly for reasons John didn't know but couldn't wait to begin learning. And as he realized how many secrets and inside jokes and favorites and dislikes he'd really have to learn, he was suddenly overwhelmed and felt a burning under his eyelids. Through misty eyes, he turned his gaze up to the sky where it looked as glass.
Everything around him was in a blur of time, steadily continuing and moving forward, but there where he stood before his sons he was exactly where he was supposed to be. They were his foundation in the whirl around him. And he knew what it felt like to have that foundation swept away by vengeance and greed and anger. This time, he was going to be their foundation, too. And as a family, they could not be broken.
Once Dean was situated, he and Sam stared at John with patient curiosity.
"Are you ready to leave, Dad?" Dean asked, and John's glass skies quickly dissipated into a clear, blue horizon as he steadied his attention on his two sons.
He wondered for the briefest of moments if he was finally ready; if he was he ready to start over, if he was ready to be a family again and if he could he handle the challenges and the promises that came with it.
A smile came to his face. A real smile, one long forgotten, last seen on a fading photograph as it burned in a fire twenty years ago.
"Yeah," John said. "I'm ready."
Thanks again SO much for reading. I hope the characters didn't seem too emotionally unstable considering I, myself, am usually emotionally unstable… All final thoughts, comments, complaints, questions, suggestions…reports of abuse? All welcome, of course. Now, is it September yet?