Title: "Conversations over a Gun Box and a Road Map"
Spoilers: "Dead Man's Blood"
Summary: "Maybe if John had confronted it right then, things would have gone differently. But he couldn't ask without tipping his hand."
Author's notes: For the record, I sketched out the plot and some of the dialogue for this fic before "Salvation" and "Devil's Trap" aired. So it's prescient, rather than derivative.
John guessed Dean knew something the moment he saw his face as he stood when John entered the room. Worry lines around his eyes that a man his age shouldn't have—nothing new. The tightness at the corners of his lips, though...that meant something. Maybe if John had confronted it right then, things would have gone differently. But he couldn't ask without tipping his hand.
So instead, he walked casually over to the table, nodding for Dean to sit back down, and inquired, "Where's Sammy?"
"Asleep. He wants to get a fresh start on that first thing in the morning." Dean gestured toward a pile of papers on the seat of a chair. "Which is five-thirty for him, by the way. And he's not quiet."
"Roll call's always been at six," John pointed out, letting his lips twitch good-humoredly at Dean's slight wince. He flipped through Sam's notes, jotted down in English and Latin, while subtly glancing at his own pile of papers and newspaper clippings, which he shouldn't have left out. The smells of coffee and gun oil were strong in the air.
"Just like old times, huh?" he remarked, now checking the article Dean had been reading. It was a probable banshee in Chicago—maybe he was in the clear after all.
Dean grimaced in resignation. "Right down to you and Sam."
"Sure hasn't gotten any more reasonable," John agreed. "And you've kept him on a leash for a year? Never thought I'd say this, son, but you might be a better man than I am."
He shook his head. "Not sure he's been such a good influence on you, though."
"He can make me listen to NPR, but he can't make me pay attention," Dean reassured him. His heart wasn't in the joke.
John went to hang up his jacket. "Did you finish your work?" he asked.
Dean pointed at the weapons and clips laid out on a tarp on the floor. "Ammo on the right side, rock salt in the middle, silver on the left. We're ready for anything."
"You know better than that, Dean. But we're as ready as we can get." He looked at his son shrewdly. "Did you clean the Colt?"
"You already did. Also, the case is locked." Dean grinned, but when he met John's eyes, John knew that yeah, Dean had figured it out.
But instead of confronting it, he returned to the table and said, "Don't tell me you couldn't have picked that lock."
"Even I have limits, sir. Wouldn't hurt for me to have a look at it, though." Dean put on his most innocent face, and actually managed to pull it off. "You always said that if there's a weapon in the house"—house being a term loosely used for the sake of convenience in the Winchester family—"everyone should know how to use it."
John's lips twitched again. "Don't play innocent with me, Dean. I taught you everything you know about it."
Dean added another engaging grin that almost masked the grim lines around his eyes. "Pretty good, wasn't it?"
After a moment's consideration, John pulled the chain with the key to the gun box from around his neck. Dean's expression lightened—the prospect of seeing the gun was probably the only thing that could have done that—and went for the case. He carried it back with more reverence than John had ever seen him show anything, his hands deft and careful as he opened it.
"One down," he commented as he skimmed his fingers over the bullets.
"Yeah." John didn't need to look, but he counted them anyway. "It wasn't wasted, though. Now we know it works."
"Yeah." Dean's lips tightened again, though, and John nodded toward the revolver.
"Go ahead," he said. The gun felt different from other weapons, John was sure. If Dean could feel it too, he'd understand that this would work.
Dean lifted the Colt. John watched as his son automatically checked the chamber, ran his hand over the barrel without quite touching it at first, then traced the inscription with his fingertips. His face gave no indication that he sensed anything different about it, but he could see the beauty in it—unlike his brother, Dean could appreciate a weapon's form as well as its function.
"You know, we wouldn't have seen you getting headlocked by the undead," John commented. Dean glanced up, just a touch of surprise and pleasure on his face, as he went on, "Be straight with me. How has Sammy been doing?"
"He's holding his own, has been since the beginning." A note of pride colored Dean's voice. "Kid might have fought you every step of the way, but he learned what you taught him."
"Good." John didn't expect Sam to have to fight this battle, but it was good know that he could. "We're going to get it this time, Dean, I know it."
Too restless to stay sitting, he got up and found a mug in a cabinet of the kitchenette behind him. Dean turned the weapon over in his hands, looking at it from every angle, and curled his fingers around the grip.
"Can you imagine it, after all these years?" John asked, pouring his coffee. "I don't know what we'll do next."
A shadow passed across Dean's eyes. "Sam and I had the same conversation in Chicago," he said, lifting the weapon and training it on the clock hanging on the wall. "He says he's going back to school. Don't know if he plans to just graduate, or still wants to go to law school."
John set down the coffee pot. "Do what?"
"Go to law school. Become a lawyer." Dean raised an eyebrow at the surprise in John's voice. "You didn't know?"
"It hasn't come up," John shrugged. Sam wanted normal, fine, but even so...
Dean was still looking down the Colt, holding it steady and then lowering it slightly with his forehead wrinkled in concentration. John took his own pride in his son's ease and thoroughness as he handled the weapon.
"Sights on a revolver weren't worth shit until…when was it, Dad? The Civil War?" Dean asked, squinting as he lifted the gun back to firing position.
"Later than that. God. If Colt himself hadn't made it, I couldn't have taken the risk." John's fingers tightened around his mug, and he quickly moved away from that line of thought. "What made him pick law school?"
"Your guess is as good as mine." Dean cast one more assessing look at his target. "Probably not genetics."
"True." John took a sip of the stale coffee. "No lawyers on your mother's side of the family either."
He watched as Dean laid the revolver down on the table and dug into his cleaning kit for a cloth. "Still, Stanford, Dean. She'd be so proud of him. She wanted you boys to go to college, we both did. Every parent wants their children to get further than they did."
John could picture Mary's face, young as it would always be and lit up joy, and for once it buoyed his mood instead of lowering it. He leaned back against the counter, letting himself indulge in the fantasy while Dean wiped the faint marks of his touch away from the gunmetal.
"Things were different, it would have been right for Sammy. You, on the other hand..."
Dean had been able to hit a 25-yard target in the kill zone since he was nine years old, could build a gaussmeter in a cell phone casing and count the number of foes in pitch black by the sound of their breathing, if they breathed. Dean understood what it meant to be a warrior in a way that Sam refused to, and if Sam had always been an unwilling recruit, Dean had been a comrade-in-arms since he was sixteen.
"Son, you would have made one hell of a Marine." He took another sip from his mug, picturing it. "Too damn much sense to be an officer, though."
Dean quirked his eyebrow again. "Hard to imagine college," he agreed, still polishing the weapon. "I haven't thought about that in…well, you know. Ten years."
"Yeah," John sympathized. He set his mug down, shaking away thoughts of the might-have-been world where Sam could have gone to college without abandoning his family, and Dean could have finished high school instead of growing up too fast. "Mary would be proud of you too, by the way. You raised Sammy more than a brother should ever have to. Don't think I don't know that."
"He's family," Dean answered, and in the end there was no more to be said. Not between him and Dean, at least.
"Still, after everything he's seen, you think he can just walk away?" John asked as he rejoined his son at the table.
"Maybe, maybe not." Dean turned the weapon in the light, checking for any last mark from his fingers or speck of dust. "Sam will do what he wants. He always does."
"You could get him to stay," John said quietly.
It had stung a bit to see Sam follow Dean's orders after defying John, but maybe that was natural with the time the boys had spent together. It'd change when they were all back together. But then again, Dean was right—John's younger son might have gotten his priorities straight for the time being, but he hadn't gotten any easier to deal with. Maybe the best thing was to make the world safe for Sam, and let him go back into it.
"We can deal with that once we've killed it," Dean answered. He put the Colt back in the box, giving it a final caress through the cloth, and still didn't speak what was on his mind.
Tired of waiting, John said, "Spit it out, son."
Dean closed the box's lid reluctantly. "You think it's after Sammy," he said, his voice soft and young. "Not our family. Just Sam."
"I didn't tell you to look at those papers," John rebuked him.
"No, sir." Dean spread his hands. "They were out, and I've gotten so used to using your journal that I didn't think anything of it."
John sighed. "Show me what you've got."
Dean picked up a sheaf of newsclippings and photocopies among John's other notes and read a section of one out loud. "July 10, 2005, New Rome, Wisconsin. 'Fire kills a young couple; authorities believe it was started by an electrical short in the bedroom. It was a horror revisited for the woman's father, who lost his wife in the same way six months after his daughter's birth.'"
He laid it onto the table and turned to the next one. "August 13, 2005. Shelbyville, Illinois: 'A sixteen-year-old boy commits suicide on the anniversary of his mother's death. The teen had become obsessed with his mother's death after learning the housefire that killed her when he was an infant had begun in his room.'"
Another. "September 6, 2005. 'Three teens vanish from a New York juvenile correctional facility. A family member of one of the boys said the three had met in the center and became inseparable after discovering the astonishing coincidence that each had lost his mother to a fire in his infancy.'"
His voice hitched as he read the next one. "Hope, Arkansas, October 20, 2005. 'A five-year-old girl burned to death in her bed. Police declined to confirm reports that they were reopening an investigation into the death of the girl's mother, who died in a similar fire when the child was six months old.'"
Reaching his limit, he just waved with the hand holding the rest of the clippings. "One or two more a month, all over the country, last one was a couple weeks ago in Barstow. It has to be the demon that killed Mom, and it's only going after the ones who were babies in the first fire.
"So, it's after Sammy?" Even after he'd spelled out the evidence himself his voice held out hope the answer would be 'no,' but he set his jaw as he steeled himself for John's confirmation. Still a boy enough to believe his father could make it right, but a man enough to take the truth.
John gave it to him. "Yeah, it is."
Dean gave a truncated nod that ended with him staring down at the table. "Do you know why?"
John mulled the question over, but it was a foregone conclusion that he'd answer it—there's secrecy, and then there's heartlessness. And, he had to admit, it wasn't an entirely bad thing that Dean knew.
"Has your brother had any nightmares lately?" he asked carefully.
Dean raised his head. "Sam always has nightmares," he replied, his caution matching John's. "Did he say something to you about them?"
John picked up a pen from the table, only to set it back down when he felt tooth marks around the plastic. "Missouri Moseley did."
"Missouri?" Dean's back straightened. "You've know about this since the beginning?"
"Not exactly." John sifted each word as he spoke. Dean wasn't stupid, and after so many years of hunting together, he could read John as well as John could read him. "She thought she could sense something about Sam when I first took you boys to see her, but didn't know until you came to Lawrence."
"You were in Lawrence too," Dean said, more of statement than a question. His expression shifted, closed off. "I called you. Didn't know if you got my message. We didn't know if you got any of them, until Chicago."
"I got them." John remembered the barely-masked desperation in his son's voice during that call from Kansas, remembered the force of will it had taken not to call back. "I had my reasons for not contacting you, son. You just have to trust me on this."
Dean went silent, turning his head to the side, and John held his words back too, until Dean finally said, "Yes, sir."
"All right," John said, relieved. Sam wouldn't have let it go. "Besides, you boys did didn't need me. You've been doing fine on your own."
Dean turned back to him. "Mostly fine."
They both knew he hadn't answered John's question—either of them. John tapped his knuckles on the table, and laid down another card.
"I talked to a couple of these kids' families," he said, pointing to the same clippings Dean had been through. "One of the boys who broke out of the juvenile center—someone on staff there said he was violent, throwing things around, but no one ever caught him doing it. Telekinetic."
Dean's gaze sharpened and he leaned forward as John went on.
"The little girl's grandfather said she always knew when to give him a hug or a smile, like she knew when he was feeling down. I figure she may have been empathic, literally. And the father of the woman in Wisconsin said two days before she was killed, she'd called him in the middle of the night, panicked, and told him not drive his usual way to work that morning. He thought she was nuts, but he did it. Fatal accident on the freeway that day: five-car pileup. I don't think she saved him from getting stuck in traffic."
He paused and looked at Dean, waiting.
"God." Dean rubbed his chin in a gesture he'd picked up years before he needed to shave, because it's what his father did. "Sam always has nightmares," he repeated, "but they haven't been premonitory lately."
Answering John's unspoken question, he went on, "He was going to tell you about that stuff tomorrow. He doesn't like talking about it, so let him bring it up."
John nodded, though he'd have to ask if Sam didn't mention it soon.
Dean went silent for several long moments before he reached out to touch the article on the young couple.
"He kept fighting me," he said, so low that John had to lean forward to hear him.
"Sam did?" he probed quietly. This was something else he needed to know, and he couldn't ask his younger son about it.
"Yeah. Kept trying to get back to save her, but it was too late. I was too late. I barely got him out."
"But you did," John said.
Dean shrugged in acknowledgment more than response. "And there was blood on his forehead. Like a baptism. Does that mean something, Dad?"
John grimly pushed back the mental image and filed the information away. "I don't know, Dean," he said. "Did you see anything else?"
Dean shook his head. "No. It was just like how you described Mom. Exactly like it." He ran his fingers over the picture of the smiling couple. "If it wants Sammy, why her?"
The pronoun could have meant either woman who died in a holocaust over Sam's bed, probably meant both.
"I don't know," John told him again. He didn't know why her, but the obvious answer, that Sam was supposed to die too, didn't bear speaking out loud.
Dean nodded, cleared his throat, and turned the cutout face-down. He seemed to shake himself together, cleared his throat again, and asked, "Are we going straight to Cheyenne, or doing one of the decoy jobs first?"
John froze. He quickly pulled together his poker face, but it was still too damn late and he knew it.
"Nothing in Cheyenne but a basic haunting," he prevaricated anyway. "Barely worth going to."
"Yeah." Another shadow crossed over Dean's face, a faint trace of sadness or even bitterness, as he took out a page torn from a cheap newsletter for paranormal enthusiasts.
"St. Mark's Episcopal Church," he read. "'Known for its "ghost room" built to pacify a spirit haunting the bell tower during its construction. In recent weeks, a series of accidents in the church has led some people to believe something has upset the resident ghost.'"
He leaned forward for a roadmap at John's elbow, reciting the next story from memory. "Angel Fire, New Mexico. Woman died after being pushed or falling from an upper-story balcony in a ski lodge. Boyfriend being questioned." He glanced up at John. "But weird things had been going on in the building for months; might be a poltergeist."
"Go on," John said neutrally.
Dean had the roadmap unfolded. He touched the spot in New Mexico, then tracked his finger west. "A woman drowns on a recreational boating trip near Ogden, Utah. Husband under investigation; says she jumped off the boat and was swimming toward the sound of an infant crying on the shore. Textbook water baby death."
He pointed to a city further north on the map. "Hardin, Montana. Woman who lost three infants to SIDS in six years arrested for murder. Could be serial infanticide; could be a lamia following the family."
He tapped the last spot. "Hiker who was way off-trail in a state park near Lincoln, Nebraska, died mysteriously. His partner says a 'freaky giant snake' attacked them. Sounds to the cops like a bad acid trip, sounds to us like an Utkena with a shit sense of direction."
He added as an afterthought, "Looks like there's a bad brownie infestation in Rapid City, South Dakota, but I think it might be real."
John rubbed his hand over the stubble on his own jaw, mind racing. "Why not the other ones?"
Dean looked up at him. "Every one of them is big—somebody died. Odds are that if we're anywhere west of the Mississippi, we'd hear about at least one and check it out. And when it turns out the job is a garden-variety murder—as far as we can tell—we'd swing by and look into that haunting." He ran his finger around the rough circle formed by the four points, then tapped the spot in the middle. "Because every single job is within a six-hour radius of Cheyenne, and no matter which one we start with or which one we do next, we'd go through the city to get there anyway."
Still watching John, he finished, "It's trying to get us where it wants us, but not like in Chicago. It wants us off-guard, thinking that we just happened on a simple job."
John looked at the map again, bemused, and a touch of an appeal crept into Dean's voice as he said, "It's all right here, Dad. It wasn't that hard to figure out."
"I guess not," John said slowly, studying his son. He hadn't missed a single detail.
"Besides," Dean added, folding the map with military precision, "I've been watching you do this for what, twenty years? You should be worried if I couldn't put these things together."
"Even so," John conceded, "it was good work." He gathered up the remaining papers and put them away in his notebook, swearing at himself all the while for leaving them out. "Did your brother see it?"
Dean handed him the map. "No, sir."
"Good. I don't want him to know about this. I didn't want you to know either—"
He paused long enough to make his point, but Dean just looked back steadily, not disrespectful but not backing down. Maybe last night wasn't a fluke; maybe things had changed.
"But it could be better this way," John finished. "At least you can keep him under control."
Dean made a face. "Don't build a plan around that, Dad. I listen to Sam, he listens to me. Sometimes."
"It's more than he'll do for me."
John watched as Dean went for his own cup of coffee. His every move was contained, purposeful, efficient, and his erect posture wasn't a soldier's training—it was confidence. Maybe what had changed was that John had needed to look at his boys with fresh eyes to realize they'd become men.
"You figure we're going to just walk into the church and find it waiting for us?" Dean asked as he sat back down.
"Yeah, I do. It's not that different from Chicago—lure us exactly where it wants us. Think about it—the three of us alone, carrying rock salt and EMFs? Easy pickings. Once we're in the city, though we should assume that it's watching us. Watching Sam," John corrected himself.
Dean took a sip of his coffee and grimaced. "Sir, I don't mean to question your judgment…"
John raised an eyebrow, but let it pass.
"But after all these years you've been hunting it, it's going to be as easy as, what, just sending Sam through a door first? Dad, we don't know if it will come for him itself, we don't even know what it did to all those people." Dean waved toward the notes now hidden away in John's journal. "It won't be that simple. It can't be."
"What it wants is pretty simple," John pointed out. "It'll be there."
Dean might have been sharp with those notes—a little sharper than John expected, he admitted—but there was no way they could add up to instinct, and John's every instinct told him it would be there. Almost unconsciously, he touched the lid of the gun box again.
Dean picked up the pen John had set down. He fiddled with it in a familiar gesture, silent for the moment but clearly not done.
John closed his eyes for a moment, working his fingers around the muscles that had been tense since he'd found the Colt. Patiently, he said, "Go ahead."
"It's just…" Dean put the pen down. "If it was my call, I'd say it's too dangerous for Sam. Meaning no disrespect, sir."
It was more than John would usually put up with—no, it was further than Dean would ever have pushed it before, but God knew, it was better than last night. And possibly, Dean had earned the right to speak his mind.
"I'm not going to get mad at you for looking out for your brother," he said, massaging away the tension again, "but this is our best chance, Dean. The best one I've seen in a long time."
"Best one?" Dean's voice was low and young again, and hopeful. "So there might be another?"
John sighed, wishing once more for a life where the hardest of Dean's fraternal duties would have been teaching Sam how to drive a stick shift.
"I've found hints of other ways to destroy it," he answered, "maybe some rituals that might do it, but just hints. Nothing I can track down for sure; nothing I know will work. And we know this will."
He leaned forward, trying to infuse some his excitement into his son, to get him to see past the risk. "Twenty-three years of hunting this thing, Dean, and we can finish it."
Dean ran his hand over his chin again, his instinct to obey his father clearly warring with the need to protect his brother. John was half-expecting another sudden rebellion, but eventually Dean nodded acquiescence and said, "I just wish it could be one of us."
"Me too," John commiserated. "But it can't be. I can distract it, piss it off enough to make it chase me for a while, but in the end, it wants your brother. You saw that yourself."
"Yeah." Dean stared into his coffee cup as he rotated it around. "Yeah, you're right."
John found an unchewed pen and began jotting down notes on the decoy jobs, just in case. Dean didn't pick up his newspaper again, just kept pensively turning his mug in those circles.
"Dad, I've got to ask you something about Sam," he burst out.
John looked up. "What?"
"What's happening with him—it's not normal. It's not natural." Dean's voice dropped on the last word, and he took a deep breath. "Meaning no disrespect to you, sir," he repeated, "or to Mom, but there are changelings, you know, or things that appear to women…"
The days when Dean could be silenced by a dark look were apparently over, but he could still be intimidated by one, because he cut himself off at John's expression, and his words came faster. "I swear, Dad, I'll always take care of Sammy, nothing will change, but I have to know. Is he my brother?" He swallowed, seeming to brace himself for any response as he finished, "Is he your son?"
"God." John laid his pen down and sighed again. He couldn't be angry at Dean for asking the question, not when he'd wondered the same thing. "He is. I don't know why he has those dreams or what they mean, but he's your brother. He's mine and your mother's just as much as you are."
Dean nodded as he lowered his eyes, masking the relief instead of showing it, and that was an unmistakable sign that things were different between them. John had been a bad father in many ways, he recognized that, but he'd never taught his boys to be ashamed to show emotion.
"Anything else?" he asked with uncharacteristic gentleness, before he realized that somehow, he'd already told Dean pretty much everything he knew.
"Yeah." Dean stared down at his own hands for a minute, long enough for John to think he was done after all. Then he raised his head and looked John straight in the eye.
"How long have you been planning this, you son of a bitch?"
Every muscle in John's body went rigid. "What did you just say to me?"
"After a year of saying it was too dangerous to stay together, you turned on a dime once you found out that worked." Dean waved his hand at the gun box. "I figured there had to be a reason why."
John stared at him, actually casting about in his mind for some supernatural force or contagion that could explain Dean's bizarre behavior of the past twenty-four hours, as Dean went on.
"It wasn't because you saw that Sam and me can handle ourselves—it's because you can use him now. So how long have you been planning it? Since Chicago? Since the beginning? Is that why you left like you did, so I'd go get him and keep him under control until you needed him?"
The last angry sentence—and when had Dean's voice gotten so deep?—clicked. Dean had had sole responsibility for watching out for his brother all year: it had made him overprotective, made him lose sight of the big picture.
Father, not drill sergeant. John told himself. Dean was reasonable, so he tried reason first. He could deal with the attitude later.
"Yesterday, with Sam, I realized—"
For the first time in his life, Dean interrupted him. "That finding out if an antique worked was worth shooting Sam in the head?" he scoffed, and no way in hell could John keep himself in check if Dean said one more word in that tone. "That your life is expendable, so Sam's is too?"
That did it—John's temper frayed. "Dean, you know it would have killed him anyway," he snapped. This time Dean was shocked silent, and John would concede that was phrased badly, but damned if he was going to defend himself.
"When I talked to Sam," he started again, "I realized he cares about this like I do. He understands what's at stake. After he lost…." He fumbled to pull up an echo of Sam's voice. "Jess. After he lost Jess like I lost Mary…."
"Mom," Dean said softly, the ache in his voice enough to blunt John's anger.
"Yeah." John shut his eyes, opened them again as the image of Mary, bleeding and burning, floated to the surface. "I know you loved your mother too," he said, striving for gentleness again, "but it's—"
Once more, Dean cut him off. "Different. I've heard. I can tell, because I wouldn't leave you alone by getting myself killed just for revenge."
He turned his gaze back to his hands, studying his ring, and when he spoke again his voice was level and calm. "Maybe that kind of love is different, or maybe I didn't love her enough, or maybe you're both just selfish bastards. I don't know." He looked John in the eye again. "But what's at stake is my brother's life. Your son's life."
Only then did John realize how masterfully he'd been played, and he didn't know if he should be angrier at Dean for doing it or himself for not catching on sooner. Either way, he lost the fight to keep the fury off his face.
Dean didn't so much as blink. "You know, Dad, Sam's got a lot of flaws, but no matter what else you can say about him, he'd never do this. He'd trust me enough to tell me the plan before we walk into a fight, and he'd never keep you in the dark so you'd make more convincing bait."
His voice broke. "Mom died for Sammy, didn't she? You think she'd be proud that I got him for you to dangle on a hook in front of the thing that killed her?"
John made a superhuman effort to regain control of himself and the conversation. "I don't know what the hell has gotten into you, Dean, but if you want to protect Sam, you should be focused on getting the son of a bitch that killed your mother."
"That's why we're still here."
John stared at him, genuinely confused, as Dean went on.
"This is the deal, Dad. You want to die doing this, that's fine. You want me to die, that's fine." Dean raised a hand to forestall John's rejoinder, and to his astonishment, John kept quiet. "And Sam's stupid enough when it comes to this thing to go along with your plan. Such as it is," Dean added, with a note of contempt worthy of Sam himself. "But he's not going in blind. You tell him what you're getting him into, or we leave tonight."
John mustered every remaining fragment of his patience. "Do you honestly believe you can get him to leave?"
Dean looked at him with Mary's eyes and the set of her jaw and didn't answer.
"He'll never forgive you."
"He'll be alive."
John slammed the book shut, barely remembering to keep his voice down. "Dean, you are getting as melodramatic as your brother! He'll be fine. We'll both be looking out for him."
"Will we?" Dean's voice was dead calm again. "If somehow it comes down to a choice, Dad, which would you do: get it, or protect Sam?" Quietly, he added, "Or me?"
"This conversation is over."
"Yeah. And the deal's on the table. What's it going to be?"
John leaned back, glaring. Dean didn't quail, didn't flinch, simply watched him with his face flat and neutral.
A creaking floorboard gave John just enough warning to blank his own expression before Sammy appeared in the doorway, wearing sweats and a T-shirt, his hair mussed from sleep.
"What's going on?" he mumbled, rubbing his eyes. He looked for all the world like a very, very tall six-year-old.
"It's okay, Sammy. Go back to bed," Dean said gently. "I'll be there in a minute."
Sam's hands and jaw both dropped. "Don't you start fucking regressing on me, man," he said.
"What is it, kiddo?" John asked. He found himself using the same soft tone, because foul mouth or not, Sam really did look like a six-year-old.
Sam narrowed his eyes like he was considering giving him the same response, less the obscenity, but then he shrugged and busted out a grin, a full-on grin as if he was happy.
"I want a drink of water," he said.
Dean snorted. "Wanna get that 'All By Yourself,' tiger?"
Sam flipped him off with the cackle that had replaced his little-boy giggle. It'd been a long time since John had heard the sound. He couldn't remember if it had ever been directed at him.
"Dad, there might be a couple mistakes in the way that ritual was transcribed," Sam said through a yawn as he padded barefoot behind John to the sink. "I want to double-check it before we use it. Middle of an exorcism is the wrong time to find out that the verb tense really matters."
"The sooner it's done, the better," John told him, looking pointedly at his elder son. "There's another dictionary in the truck if you need it."
"Okay." Sam filled his glass. "So, what's up?" he asked again.
John made his living reading faces—telling when a witness was lying, when a poker player was bluffing, when a victim was holding back part of her story for fear of being thought crazy. He'd taught the boys to be subtle, but it still bothered him that he couldn't discern the message in Dean's barely perceptible tilt of his head. Sam, though, took his water and left without a word.
John waited until he heard the bedroom door shut before he opened the journal again and bent his head over it, dismissing his son. "You should go to bed too."
Dean didn't move.
John ground his teeth. "I'll tell him."
"All right." Dean's chair scraped back as he stood. "When this is over, Sam's going to finish college. Don't know how the kid found out that there was a life besides this one, but he's going to have a chance to find out if he still wants it."
John gripped his pen harder.
Dean's footsteps retreated, then stopped. "When this is over, Dad…" he repeated.
Unwillingly, John looked up at the man opposite him, the man who wasn't just Mary's son or Sammy's caretaker or his own right hand. Absurdly, he thought he didn't recognize him.
"I'm starting my own business," Dean finished. He left the room, following in his brother's wake.
John stared at the empty doorway, wondering what the hell had just happened.