That single word, spoken by Dean, was all it took for Xander's heart to drop somewhere around his lower intestines. It wasn't as though the thought of finally meeting John Winchester hadn't occurred to him. The idea of such a meeting had been ricocheting through his mind ever since the moment he'd first learned that Tony Harris was not his biological father. He'd been plagued by a thousand questions he'd never even thought to ask before. What was he like? Was he a good man? Had he known about Xander or even considered the possibility? If he had known, would things have been different? What did he look like? Did Xander look like him as Missouri had said?
But somehow, between meeting his brothers and all the demon business in Waiverton, Xander's thoughts of his real father had been put on the back burner. Now, though, they sprang to the forefront of his mind with a vengeance. All those endless questions his mind had conjured and all the curiosity and anxiety that went with them overwhelmed his thoughts to an intense degree.
He thought back to how nerve-wracking it had been to meet Sam and Dean and how his anxiety had been justified by the rough start they'd had. Would John's reaction be anything like Dean's had been? Xander wasn't sure he could handle that. Once in a lifetime was enough for him, thanks very much. Strangely, though, Xander didn't feel as worried about the meeting as he had expected to be. Spending the past few days with Sam and Dean, Xander felt he'd had the chance to really get to know them (once they'd all come clean about being in the demon-hunting business), and while Xander didn't have any reason to think Sam and Dean would choose his side over their father's if it came right down to it, he felt comforted by their mere presence.
"Boys." The man on the porch called out in a gruff voice.
That simple greeting seemed enough to spur Sam and Dean out of their standstill, both rushing up the sidewalk, racing toward the porch, while Xander trailed cautiously behind.
"Dad, what-Where-We've been-" Sam had found his voice again, but couldn't seem to decide what question he should ask first. Xander remembered he hadn't been the only one of the trio that had been eager to find this man. As volatile as Sam had been a few days ago just before they'd left Missouri's, Xander couldn't even imagine how this confrontation would play out - and he wasn't sure he wanted to witness it.
It was then that Missouri opened the screen door and stepped out, her presence just as commanding as always. "Sam, Dean, you boys get in here and help me with dinner. This ain't no restaurant. You want to eat, you can just get your lazy bones in the kitchen and start workin' for your supper." Sam opened his mouth to protest, but Missouri continued right on, "Ain't no use talkin' on an empty stomach. And bring that pup in, too. No telling what you boys have been feeding it. And don't you give me any lip, Dean Winchester."
"Hey! I didn't say any-"
"You were thinkin' it," Missouri scolded, then turned on her heel and headed back in the house, confident that Sam and Dean would do as told.
Dean looked toward the man as if for confirmation.
The man gave a light nod toward the house and said, "Better do as she says. I don't think you want her coming back out here after you."
At that, Sam and Dean looked back at Xander, and he came to the sinking realization that they were about to abandon him alone with this guy he'd never met. What happened to safety in numbers? Damn Missouri...Xander took back every nice thing he'd ever thought about her.
Sam gave Xander what amounted to a reassuring smile and moved to take Chester. In all the hubbub, Xander had almost forgotten about the sleeping pup in his arms, who stirred as he was exchanged to different hands and began squirming and wagging his tail. Now Xander would have no one to hide behind.
Sam made his way into the house with Chester, but Dean lingered behind. He eyed the man before favoring Xander with a long look. The expression on his face was unreadable, but Xander felt somehow reassured by it. Finally, Dean turned and went into the house, leaving Xander and their father alone.
With the last of Xander's support gone, he steeled himself and took a chance to study the man, now more clearly visible in the light from the porch. So this was John Winchester. His father.
Missouri was right. Xander could tell he strongly resembled the man in physical appearance. Same dark hair, same brown eyes...though Xander doubted that he had inherited that accessing stare. If Xander could stare down vampires and demons with a look like that, he might be able to avoid any major scuffles before they even started.
The silence drew on as they stared at one another, and the man - should Xander call him John? Mister Winchester? Dad? - seemed even less inclined to talk than Xander did. Missouri had explained things, right? What if she hadn't? What if John was wondering who in the hell this kid was that his sons had brought with them? Xander should probably say something, right? At the very least, introduce himself.
"Um," Xander started, internally wincing at his eloquence. He cleared his throat and tried again, "Did Missouri tell you..." that I'm you're son? If Missouri hadn't, Xander really didn't want to be the one to blurt it out. "Er, I mean...did she explain...things?" he finished awkwardly.
After a long beat, the man nodded.
Well, at least that little bombshell was out of the way, Xander thought, and then they both fell silent again. This guy made Angel seem social.
"So...I guess you're Mister Winchester?" Xander broke the silence once more, and then immediately wanted to groan at the obviousness of the statement. Who else would he be?
The corner of the man's lips twitched, like he wanted to smile, but instead he simply said, "How about you call me John?"
The offer gave Xander a small sense of relief, and in return Xander held his hand out and said, "I'm Xander."
John took the offered hand and gave a firm - but not bruising - handshake.
And with the introductions out of the way, Xander once again found himself at the 'now what?' stage. If he ever made it out of this conversation, Xander decided to write a how-to guide for meeting your biological family because Xander would have definitely found that useful right this second. Maybe he should comment on the weather now...
The silence continued to build until Xander couldn't take it anymore and finally blurted out, "This is really-" He stopped again, hesitating to say 'weird' because after growing up in Sunnydale, that word took on a whole new meaning.
Just when Xander thought they were going to get sucked right back into the silent void, John expelled a long, deep sigh. "You're tellin' me, kid."
The man shuffled his feet and ran a hand through his hair, and Xander was reassured to see that John looked as uncomfortable with this whole situation as Xander felt.
"I, uh..." John struggled to find his words as much as Xander had. "To be honest, I don't know what to say."
Xander doubted John was the kind of man who often found himself at a loss for words. He seemed more the type who knew what he wanted to say and wasn't afraid to say it. It was comforting to know he was just as thrown by this whole thing as Xander.
John took a seat on Missouri's front porch steps and looked up at Xander, which the younger man took as an invitation to join him. Xander gingerly took a seat next to him, resting his elbows on his legs and clasping his hands together, letting them hang loosely between his knees, unconsciously mimicking the same pose John had taken. "So..."
"This is a bit of a...shock," John admitted quietly.
"So I guess it's fair to say you didn't know about me?" Not that Xander had expected otherwise. "My mom told me only a few weeks ago. Just before I graduated."
"No, I didn't know." John affirmed. He turned his face toward Xander, looking him in the eye. He seemed to weigh his next words carefully before saying, "Even if I had known, it wouldn't have made a difference." He said the words firmly, but not harshly. "I wish I could tell you otherwise, but the truth is after Mary-" he stopped. "For a long time, our lives have been about just surviving. There would have been no place for you."
Xander bit his lip and looked down at his clasped hands. At least the guy was honest, which was more than could be said for most people, and Xander respected that.
"I want you to know I didn't come out here expecting... Well, I don't really know what I expected," Xander said. "But I'm not asking you for...anything. I guess I just wanted to..." Xander looked at him, hoping his expression could express what he couldn't seem to put into words.
John nodded like he understood, and Xander really hoped he did because he truly had no idea what he was trying to say.
"You seem to have turned out pretty well," John commented. "Missouri said you helped the boys out with that gig in Waiverton."
"Yeah, it turned out to be something I was familiar with. Not to mention I have a knack for stumbling right into the weird, for better or worse. I guess it's just a side-effect of growing up in Sunnydale."
"The Hellmouth," John said, and Xander nodded.
"I've known about the supernatural for a few years now," Xander explained. John merely nodded, and silence threatened to swallow the conversation once more.
"So, uh, how's your mom?"
"She's...good. I guess." Xander really didn't want to launch into a long-winded, sob story about his not-so-great family life, and he definitely didn't want to talk about Tony. Instead, he diverted, "My friends are great."
"And do they know about..." John made a 'you know' gesture.
"Demons and stuff?" Xander clarified. John nodded. "Yeah, they know. Willow and I found out at the same time, just after our other friend, Buffy, moved to Sunnydale. My mom and, um, Tony don't know, though."
John frowned. "Seems like it'd be kind of hard to miss given the location."
"It's amazing how many people can turn a blind eye," Xander remarked. "Vampires are most commonly mistaken for thugs on PCP."
The corner of John's mouth turned up a little, and he nodded his agreement.
Again, silence enveloped them, more comfortable than the previous times. Xander couldn't think of anything else to say or ask, and John, likewise, seemed content to enjoy the quiet for a moment.
Before long, however, the quiet was broken by a low grumble, and Xander rubbed his stomach, looking back over his shoulder. "You don't really think Missouri was going to let Dean help cook, do you?"
John considered, then said, "Not if she wants it to be edible."
Still, Xander added, "Maybe we should go check on them. Just to be sure."
John smirked. "Don't worry, kid. Missouri's probably the only woman I know who could put Dean in his place." He stood up, dusting his knees.
"I know. All the more reason to get in there. Wouldn't want to miss the entertainment portion of the evening." Xander grinned.
"I'm not taking it off," Dean said, trying to put some authority behind his words, his last hurrah in a lost cause.
Missouri turned on him, one hand on her hip, the other brandishing a long wooden spoon like a machete. "You'll take that hat off right now, Dean Winchester, or I will beat you to death with this spoon. I know you weren't raised in a barn."
"Near enough," Sam muttered darkly from somewhere behind him, likely still standing in the kitchen doorway and glaring daggers toward the front porch, but Dean was too preoccupied at the moment to tell his brother to knock it off.
Whether as an act of stupidity or extreme bravery, Dean stood defiant, both hands atop his head to ensure that the hat stayed in place. If Missouri saw his hair, he'd never hear the end of it. The hat itself was bad enough.
"Don't think I won't put you over my knee."
She can try, Dean thought. Then something distracted him. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied a cake sitting on the kitchen counter, chocolate icing gleaming invitingly at him. Without much thought, he reached a hand out, fully intending to snag some of that icing on his finger when-
"Gah!" Dean gave a startled yelp, jerking his hand back and rubbing his abused knuckles. He glared at Missouri, eyeing that wooden spoon of hers in case of any further attack. "That hurt!"
"You don't take that hat off, there will be more where that came from."
"You're a menace, you know that? Why don't you yell at Sam? He's the reason I'm wearing this stupid hat in the first place. Why do you always have to pick on me?"
"Who do you think you are? Charlie Brown? Sam has manners, which is more than I can say for you. And you won't be getting anywhere near that chocolate cake until you get rid of that hat." She turned back to the stove with a 'hmph', muttering, "I never..." to herself as she stirred one of the boiling pots.
Dean knew when he'd been beat. Well, truthfully, he'd lost this argument before it had even started. Arguing with Missouri was a lot like trying to move a boulder by blowing on it. You wasted a bunch of hot air and then ended up with nothing to show for it. Dean sighed sullenly. "Fine." He reached up and pulled the hat off his head, bracing himself for the ridicule that was inevitably forthcoming.
Missouri didn't even spare him a glance as she said, "Good. Now get that poor animal some food and water before the pup starves to death."
Dean wanted to ask why Sam couldn't do it if he was so well-mannered but was too relieved that Missouri hadn't made any comment about his hair to bother. He had just started rifling through Missouri's cabinets for some bowls when she added, "Oh, and Dean? I just love that new do. Blue is definitely the new brown."
An aggravated noise caught in Dean's throat, and he slammed the cabinet shut with more force than necessary. He continued what he was doing with a petulant air, and the second he opened the can of dog food, Chester scampered over and began pawing at his leg, tail whipping back and forth in excitement. "Yeah, yeah, I'm getting it." He carefully set down two bowls, one with water and one with the dog food, in an out-of-the-way corner of the kitchen.
Chester dove in with a relish, eating like he'd never been fed before. Dean shook his head in fond amusement, reminded a little of himself. Or Xander. Either way, they all held food in high regard.
Dean turned his attention back to Sam, who hadn't moved in the slightest. Dean wasn't sure he'd even blinked. He looked like a lion ready to pounce on their father the second he walked in the door. He used to do the same thing when he was a teenager as they waited for their dad to come home from a hunt. Sam would be upset about one thing or another and launch a barrage of angry questions at their father before he'd even had a chance to put his bag down, and their dad, who was never easy to talk to even at the best of times, was always least talkative right after finishing a hunt and usually responded in a way that only further upset Sam and ended in a screaming match with Dean playing the reluctant referee. It was a recipe for disaster back then, and Dean couldn't picture it going any better now.
Moving to stand next to his brother, Dean leaned casually on the door frame. He followed Sam's gaze, looking toward the front of the house, futile though it was as they couldn't possibly see Xander or their dad from where they were standing. More than wanting to get answers from their dad, Dean just hoped everything was going all right out there. He knew his father could be a bit...off-putting, to put it mildly, and Xander wasn't accustomed to his manner the way Sam and Dean were. Assuming things went okay out there, a blow-out between Sam and their dad was the last thing they needed.
"Look, Sam," Dean started in a lowered voice though it likely wouldn't afford much privacy from Missouri with her being psychic and all, "I know finding Dad has been a long time coming and you'd like nothing better than to hash this whole thing out right now, but maybe now isn't the best time. We're all tired and hungry, and Dad and Xander only just met each other. How about we all just sit down, have a nice dinner, get some sleep...and then in the morning, we'll sort this whole thing out."
For a long moment Sam didn't say anything, didn't give any indication that he'd even heard Dean. Finally Sam gave a reluctant nod, and Dean felt relieved that the potential disaster seemed to have been averted, for the moment at least. Dean slapped Sam on the shoulder, willing him to loosen up a little. "Come on, let's set the table before Missouri has a chance to crack her whip again."
Sam went to grab some plates out of the cabinet, and Missouri gave him a brilliant smile. "Why Sam, are you settin' the table for me? See, Dean. Manners."
Dean stared agape. "I'm the one that suggested it!"
"You think it's that easy to get back in my good graces?"
A ghost-like smirk briefly appeared on Sam's face, and Dean felt his irritation lessen, merely glad to see that Sam wasn't bent on pouting the whole night. "I was never in your good graces," Dean grumbled good-naturedly as he gathered up some cutlery and followed Sam to the dining room.
It wasn't more than a few minutes later when John and Xander trudged awkwardly into the kitchen, both looking a little out-of-sorts but none the worse for wear. Dean met Xander's eyes and tried to gauge his mood, feeling the protective need to make sure the younger man was all right. Xander shrugged a little and gave him a confused half-smile that seemed sincere. He didn't look on the verge of bolting at any rate, so Dean took that as a good sign.
Then Xander's eyes lit up. "Is that a chocolate cake?"
Dean scoffed. "Yeah, just try it. I dare you." Let Missouri take a whack at Xander.
"No dessert until after dinner," Missouri interrupted sternly.
Apparently Xander knew better than to argue with Missouri because he simply shrugged and went into the dining room, everyone else following behind.
It wasn't long before they were all seated around the dining room table, everyone's plates full of lasagna and glasses filled with their beverage of choice. The only thing missing was conversation. Xander, for his part, was too busy eating to talk and seemed oblivious to how the silence was smothering the room. Sam was mostly just moving his food around on the plate with his fork, pointedly not looking at their father. Missouri, on the other hand, was glaring at John between bites of pasta. And John...
Dean noticed that his father was staring at him with a strange, consternated expression, almost as if he'd never laid eyes on his own son before, and Dean wasn't quite sure what to make of it.
When John noticed that Dean had caught him staring, he met his son's eyes and started tentatively, "Dean..."
There was a serious but questioning quality to the tone of his father's voice, a tone that put Dean on edge. He put his fork down, gave his father his full attention, and steeled himself for the worst. Was his dad upset that they'd taken Xander with them to Waiverton?
John stared at him a beat longer, an unnerving, contemplative look in his eyes. After a few seconds, his gaze drew slightly upwards, and finally he asked, "Son, why is your hair blue?"
Laughter rang out around the table, and even Sam abandoned his sulking to join in the merriment.
Dean felt something ease inside him, tension falling away even if the joke was at his expense. He grinned as he glanced around the table and took in the easy and happy expressions on everyone's faces. His family was together and enjoying themselves. It didn't get much better than that as far as he was concerned.
"Yeah, well, Sam's and Xander's socks are pink. At least my hair is a masculine color," Dean said, getting a little ribbing of his own in.
The conversation flowed easily after that, teasing and reminiscing and sharing stories of past hunts that had seemed terrifying at the time but were funny in hindsight. They managed to stay away from any sensitive subjects without much effort, stepping carefully around all the things unsaid thus far, and before they knew it, they had whiled away several hours without even noticing.
Dean first realized the late hour when he noticed that Xander had his elbow propped up on the table, head resting on his hand as his eyelids drooped. He grabbed the younger man firmly by the shoulder and jostled him slightly. "Hey, man. Go to bed. If you fall asleep at the table, we're leaving you there. We had a hard enough time getting from the car to the motel room the other night."
Xander's eyes fluttered open. "Wuh?"
Sam smirked, standing from his seat. "I'm ready to turn in myself. I'll make sure he doesn't end up going to sleep in the hallway or something."
"And Dean will help with the dishes," Missouri threw in, grabbing a few plates off the table and heading for the kitchen.
"Don't I even get a say in this?" Dean called after her.
She didn't dignify him with an answer, and Dean figured that really said it all. With a sigh, he told Sam, "Why don't you and Xander grab the bed this time? I'll take the couch."
Sam nodded, grabbing one of Xander's arms and pulling him from his chair.
"Don't let the Twinkies and Ding Dongs get away," Xander mumbled drowsily, already half-asleep.
The other three Winchesters fought back laughs, Dean already looking forward to teasing Xander tomorrow about his choice in dreams.
"Don't worry," Sam assured the younger man. "We won't let them get away."
"Gotta be careful," Xander warned. "The little suckers run fast."
Sam chuckled as he led Xander from the room. "I think we can manage..."
Dean shared a grin with his father as he began clearing the rest of the plates from the table.
"Never thought I'd see anyone else that loves food as much as you do," John commented.
"He's a good kid," Dean said firmly, meeting his father's gaze. The statement came out more pointedly than he'd meant for it to, and by John's sharp look, he had also noticed Dean's tone. Dean wasn't even sure what he'd been trying to impress upon his father. Maybe he just knew the man too well, knew that there were several issues that had yet to be addressed, and if the Winchester family history held true to its usual pattern, those issues wouldn't be resolved in any amiable sort of way. He didn't want to see Xander or the new family attachments they were making get lost in the scuffle.
John frowned, an edge of warning creeping into his voice, "Dean."
Dean cleared his throat, side-stepping whatever his father was about to say. "I'd better get these in there," he gestured at the plates, "before Missouri comes after me with her spoon again."
He left the room before his father could voice any disagreement. He preferred to think of it as a strategic retreat rather than chickening out. Why start an argument tonight that could be put off till tomorrow? Besides, Sam was always so much better at it, anyway.
Surprisingly, Missouri refrained from hassling Dean the entire time they were washing dishes, but Dean was too lost in his thoughts to truly appreciate the peace she was affording.
When they had dried and put away the last dish, Missouri turned to him and put a hand on his arm, squeezing gently. "John Winchester may always do what he thinks is best, but it doesn't mean he's always right."
She smiled kindly, squeezed his arm once more, and turned to go, leaving Dean alone in the kitchen to puzzle over what she'd meant.
He sighed wearily, rubbing a hand through his hair. Feeling beyond tired, he decided to save deciphering Missouri's yoda-speak for the morning, hoping the light of day could shed more sense on her words. He hit the kitchen light as he left the room, making his way down the darkened hallway toward the living room, fully intending to stop by the guest room on his way past.
He paused when he found his father already standing motionlessly in the doorway, staring into the room. Quietly, he sidled up next to the man, likewise gazing into the room at his younger siblings.
Both were sprawled on their backs, breathing deeply. Chester had curled up on Xander's stomach, tail twitching every so often.
Dean smiled at the picture they made, content in the knowledge that his family was safe and sound - for the moment. The smile slid from his face as Sam's sleep turned fretful, a frown disturbing his features that had seconds before been serene. Sam's breath hitched, his body tensing in reaction to something only he could see in the wasteland of his nightmares.
It annoyed Dean to no end that, whatever it was that was plaguing Sam, he couldn't help his brother face it. Sam made a low, pained noise, one arm jerking as if trying to move away from some unseen threat. As it was, he only succeeded in elbowing Xander in his side, hard enough that there could very well be a bruise come morning.
Both Dean and John winced in sympathy from where they watched at the doorway. Xander, ever the deep-sleeper, slept on unfazed.
John's wince turned to surprise. "He really sleeps-"
"Like the dead?" Dean cut in, already well-aware of his youngest brother's capacity for undisturbed sleep.
Chester, however, did not seem to be as oblivious. He lifted his head and uncurled his tiny body, searching out the source of discontent.
Sam made another low moaning noise in his throat, and Chester's ears perked. The pup stood from its make-shift bed atop Xander and slid down to the mattress, stepping across the comforter until he was at Sam's side. With ginger movements, he climbed atop Sam's chest, then sat back on his haunches, watching Sam's face as though he could sense what Sam was dreaming.
Finally, Chester laid down length-wise on Sam's chest. He inched forward until his small head was nestled under Sam's chin, tail tapping lightly on the man's stomach.
Dean was amazed to see Sam relax, his breathing evening out once more. Unconsciously, Sam brought one of his hands up to rest on Chester's back, protectively cradling the pup. Within seconds, both dog and man were again sleeping peacefully.
"Well, I'll be damned," Dean whispered, a new fondness for Chester kindling in his chest.
They stood in silence for a few more minutes, watching the three sleeping on the bed like sentries keeping guard.
John was the first to break the silence. "Seems like you've picked up quite a few strays."
His father's voice was mild, but Dean bristled at the comment nonetheless. "I wouldn't exactly say strays."
John was silent for another beat, and when he spoke again, his voice had lost some of its mildness. "It wasn't a good idea to take Xander with you."
Dean didn't want to admit how much his father's approval meant to him...or how much his disapproval hurt. Maybe John was right. Maybe it had been a bad move at the time, but it had turned out all right in the end. "Xander was actually the one who figured things out. I'm not saying we couldn't have done it without him, but he made it a hell of a lot easier than it could have been."
"And you could have gotten him killed."
Dean flinched. All things considered, he felt things had actually been coming together rather nicely. "Maybe if you just gave him a chance, you'd see that-"
"He needs to leave before he gets involved in things that don't concern him. We have enough to worry about with looking out for Sam."
"What do you mean? Sam's just as good at hunting as you or me, and I've always managed to look out for him. Looking out for Xander won't be any different." Dean hated the way this argument was going. He felt like he was begging to keep a pet rather than Xander. This was his brother they were talking about, not just some dog. If they were talking about Chester, his father might be making some sense, but he wasn't.
John opened his mouth as if to say something, hesitated, then seemed to change his mind. For once, Dean honestly couldn't make sense of his father's reasoning. Turning away another ally in the fight against evil, one that had proven himself capable in the heat of the moment, seemed to fly in the face of common sense. Especially now that they were all together and his dad had finally-
Realization dawned, dread unfurling in the pit of Dean's stomach. He knew the way his father thought better than anyone, and his next words were spoken with conviction as he asked, already knowing the answer, "You're taking off again, aren't you?"
John's silence was answer enough. He gave Dean a piercing look. "Send him home, Dean. That's an order."
For years, Dean had had his hands full trying to hold this family together with both Sam and his father seeming intent on bailing at every given opportunity, and here his father was wanting him to abandon the one other family member that actually wanted to stick around. The order left a cold, heavy feeling in Dean's chest, and it was one of the few times that Dean wished his vocabulary included more than just "yes, sir" when it came to his father's orders.
Dean's jaw clenched as he looked once more toward the bed, eyes moving protectively over his brothers. Both of them. The last time Dean had been this pissed was the night his father had told Sam not to come back. Sam wouldn't have any problem standing up to their father, and his younger brother was going to be a hellcat when he woke up to find their father missing again.
"Do we have an understanding, Dean?" John's tone made it clear that he expected Dean to fall in line.
Resigned, Dean just barely managed to ground out, "Yes, sir." The words had never tasted so bitter.
Without another word, John turned and moved off down the dark hallway, more than likely already leaving for parts unknown. The need for tearful goodbyes wasn't in the book according to John Winchester.
Dean stayed rooted where he was. The night had started off well enough, only to end so badly. Tomorrow stood to be even worse as it seemed likely that neither Sam nor Xander would take the news well.
Dean had never really minded the responsibility his father put upon him, instead shouldering it with pride that his father put so much trust in him. But tonight that burden bared down on him like the weight of a mountain.
Tonight, he felt much older than his years.