"I've made a lot of mistakes, but I did the best I could." – John Winchester, "In My Time of Dying"

"Look . . . I don't expect to make it out of this fight in one piece. Your mother's death, it almost killed me. I can't watch my children die, too. I won't." - John Winchester, "Dead Man's Blood"

The sound of Sam's desperate cries seemed to bounce off every corner of their small hotel room. John had been pacing from wall to wall with the baby in his arms for what seemed like hours, rocking him, bouncing him, but it was as if the child knew the words were meaningless. Sam wouldn't stop crying, and John couldn't help but think it was because he wanted his mother.

Sighing at a particularly loud wail, John forced himself to relax tired, tense muscles and shuffled to the opposite side of the room and back again, glancing at his oldest son who was sitting on the bed watching them with a lost expression John was afraid was permanent. Dean had yet to really cry, and John wasn't sure if it was because Sammy was doing enough of that for both of them, or because the four year old was still in shock. He had no idea what to do.

Mary, come back. Please come back. Don't leave me here alone.

"Ssssh, Sammy." John soothed for what seemed like the thousandth time, shifting the baby to his shoulder and rubbing his back. Sam only cried louder, kicking his legs and flailing his arms, his tiny hands smacking against John's chest.

"Mommy used to talk a lot." Dean offered in a voice so quiet John almost missed it. Dean had barely spoken two words since entering the hotel room several hours earlier and John wanted to sit down on the bed with him and hold him close as well, but Sammy was taking all of his attention. He managed to free a hand and rub through Dean's soft blonde hair, forcing a painful smile.

"Thanks, kiddo." John said, swallowing hard, unsure how many words he could get out without crying. He was tempted to remain silent, but Sam was whimpering and Dean was looking at him wide with green eyes, so he sat down on the bed with the baby and raised his free arm so that Dean could press against his side.

"Let's try that, huh Sammy?" John whispered, blinking back tears. "I know I'm not your momma, but I won't let anything happen to you, I promise. You're safe now."

Sam let out a howl, his little face scrunched in protest, and Dean cringed. "Mommy told stories."

"Uh, okay. Once—once upon a time there was a . . ."

"A prince," Dean supplied, eyes still clear, and John realized that he had no idea Mary wasn't coming back.

Oh, God, don't cry, don't cry.

"Once upon a time there was a prince named Dean, and he had a brother named Sammy. Sammy and Dean lived in a big castle and had their own . . . their own dragon . . ."

Don't cry.

Sam looked up at him, tear-filled eyes narrowed, and for a minute the cries stopped and John thought that finally Sammy was going to listen to him and calm down. Then there was a loud banging noise as a hotel door slammed shut somewhere down the hall and the baby jerked, stiffened, and then let out another ear-piercing wail.

John winced and held his son closer, resuming his stilted, meaningless fairytale, resigned to the fact that he was just going to have to wait for Sam to wear himself out.

Mary, come back. Please come back.

Oo00oo00oo00

"DAD!"

The scream was loud enough to wake the deadest zombie, and John bolted upright in his chair just as Dean dashed around the corner and slid on sock-clad feet until he was on the other side of the table. A second later a dripping, furious Sam came charging in, wearing a towel and clutching a handful of . . . hair?

"Sammy, what –"John started to speak, but was cut off by the irate ten year old.

"He put Nair in my shampoo! He put Nair in my shampoo!" Sam shrieked, jumping towards the table and throwing the handful of hair at his brother. It missed by several inches and landed on the edge of the ragged surface, dangerously close to the plate of macaroni John had been eating.

For a second John was frozen, staring at the clump of hair, and then turned an incredulous gaze to his oldest son. "You put Nair in his shampoo?" he asked, disbelieving.

Dean shrugged, as if to say "big deal," and Sam let out an enraged scream, launching himself towards his brother, ready to do damage. John caught him at the last second and pulled the struggling kid against him until he was almost sitting on his lap.

"I'm gonna kill you!" Sam screeched, small hands extending like claws towards his brother. John grabbed his arms and pulled them in as well.

"Ha, I'd like to see you try, baldie!" Dean chortled, dancing a few steps away and grinning as Sam growled angrily.

"Hey, hey, knock it off!" John exclaimed, finally getting control the situation. "Dean, you wipe that smirk off your face. Are you kidding me with this shit?"

John could feel Sam trembling against him, and pulled him closer as he issued a fitting punishment for his eldest son's crime - grounded for a month, two miles of running in the morning before school. Never a morning person, Dean still left the kitchen in high spirits and John took the opportunity to get a good look at his youngest son's head.

Patches of his hair were completely gone, pink-tinged shampoo still on his scalp. John fought the urge to laugh (because if these weren't his kids this would be funny as hell), and instead lifted his son off his lap, turning the boy to face him and holding both his shoulders. There were unshed tears glistening in Sam's eyes, and John smiled in what he hoped was a sympathetic, encouraging manner.

"Oh, come on Sammy. It's not so bad. We'll just give you a buzz cut, like I used to have in the military. It'll grow back in no time." John promised.

Sam looked dubious and rubbed at his eyes, sniffling.

"Trust me, kiddo. It'll be cool. And after we're done we'll put rock salt in his toothpaste, okay?"

Oo00oo00oo00

They'd been in Montana for two months hunting the surrounding areas, and Sam was getting harder and harder to deal with. The kid fought every order, scowled through training, and just generally acted like being a member of the family was torture. Dean had never been this difficult, and John was at his wits end. So when Sam slunk quietly into the house after school John's first instinct was to be grateful for the silence; then came concern, because after twenty years of being a father he could always tell when one of his kids was sick.

Sam was pale and quiet, and John decided not to mention target practice, instead letting him wander listlessly around the rented house until he finally settled himself on the couch. John heard the television turn on, but when he went into the living room twenty minutes later Sam was face-down on the cushions, not paying any attention.

"You okay, Sammy?" he asked, earning a listless shrug that John interpreted as a no. "What's wrong?"

"My stomach hurts." the fifteen year old admitted, rolling onto his side to glance up at his father. Sam was flushed and shivering slightly, prompting John to lean down to feel his forehead, ignoring the way his son tensed beneath his hand. He frowned; Sam didn't feel excessively warm, but he was definitely running a fever. Shit, he thought to himself.

John threw the blanket from the back of the couch over his son and ruffled his shaggy dark hair. "You've got a fever, kiddo. Why don't you sleep for a little while, hmm? Maybe you'll feel better later."

Two hours later, John was readying himself to stake out a werewolf sighting two towns over when Sam started throwing up. John forced Dean into the hallway and crammed himself into the tiny bathroom, rubbing Sam's back as he vomited what seemed like everything he had ever eaten. John couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his youngest this sick.

All of Sam's teenage angst seemed to have disappeared along with his stomach contents, and he finally collapsed in a trembling, miserable ball against John's legs. John flushed the toilet and let Sam rest against him, shaking his head at Dean, who was hovering in the doorway, to stay back. He didn't need them both to get sick.

"You think you're done, kiddo?" John questioned after a few moments of silence. Sam didn't' seem to hear him, and John decided to get him off the bathroom floor. He'd put him to bed and get a bucket and . . . he tried to pull Sam upright only to have the kid tense, whimper, and try to drop back down to the floor.

"Don't . . ." Sam moaned, curling back in a ball at his feet. "It hurts."

John frowned, alarm bells going off in his head. ""Your stomach hurts?" he asked, and received a nod, followed by a groan as John shifted his grip to examine his son. Sam squirmed and coughed, but John ignored him, pressing down gently next to Sam's belly button.

The action elicited a muffled cry of pain and their hands tangled as Sam tried to push him away, eyes shimmering with unshed tears. John let go of him and leaned back on his heels. Dean hovered anxiously in the doorway again, one foot pressed against the tiles, ready to dart in.

Shit.

Three hours later the werewolves were still loose, and Sam was getting his appendix out.

Oo00oo00oo00

John wondered if Dean blamed him for Sam leaving, but he couldn't be sure because his son hadn't mentioned it. Unless it was about hunting, weapons or the car, Dean didn't speak. The silence thrust John eighteen years into the past, and when he looked at Dean he had to blink to remove the image of a four year old sitting on a ratty hotel bed telling him to talk to Sammy.

He regretted his anger, and the part of him that was terrified that Sam would be alone and in danger wanted to track the boy down and say he was sorry. Maybe if they led a different life he would pick up the phone and call his boy and tell him these things, but stubborn pride and the vain hope that Sam could have a normal life kept him silent. As hard it was to accept, he couldn't help but think that Sam was probably better off far away from this life, away from the hunting and fighting, even if it meant leaving his father and brother behind.

John had been selfish and single-minded and controlling, but never blind; there was no doubt in his mind that Dean felt like he'd been left behind. Taking care of Sammy had been Dean's job for most of his life, and without that responsibility Dean was left drifting, unsure of his place in the world.

There needed to be something for Dean to hold on to, something that was his own. The Impala was the first thing John thought of. He'd needed – wanted – a truck for some time, and now that Sam was gone they would have to split up to cover more ground on hunts. And Dean was twenty two years old, for God sakes; John hated knowing exactly where his son was spending his nights because he had driven him there.

He waited a little bit, and when he was sure that Dean's silence wasn't going to break he handed over the keys. He couldn't remember the last time he saw Dean so happy; the kid was practically bouncing with glee and John couldn't help but grin as he watched his son seat himself behind the wheel and stroke the dashboard thoughtfully. No doubt he was theorizing which girl he could get into the backseat the quickest.

"I expect you to take good care of this car, Dean. It's lasted this long; I don't want to see it go to crap in a month." John said, crossing his arms over his chest and trying to look commanding.

"Yeah, Dad," Dean responded absently, still maneuvering his hands around the interior, rubbing the leather seats.

"I meant it, Dean."

Dean looked up and flashed a grin – the first John had seen in a week. "Don't worry, Dad. I've got it covered."

The engine was revving up and Dean was obviously done with the chit-chat and ready to go for a ride by himself. John nodded and stepped back, allowing his son to pull out of the parking spot. As he watched the car drive off, part of John wished his oldest would leave, too, go off and have a normal life like Sam. He would understand if Dean drove off and never came back. But he knew Dean better than that. He had raised the boy. Dean would never leave, and it was a tragedy and a blessing.

Oo00oo00oo00

John had been prepared to die for the past twenty three years. Ever since he found Mary burning on that ceiling he'd been living on borrowed time; there was almost nothing left of him now anyways except for his love for his children.

It was why he didn't mind paying up, not really. He's a father first, and he'd gladly lay down his life for his children, for the chance that Dean will live to die on another day. His only regret is that he won't be able to see this fight through to end. It will be left to his sons, and that's something he never wanted to happen. He'd spent the last twenty-two years trying to keep his boys safe, alive, believing he could save them from this somehow if only he fought hard enough.

It was a hard realization that, after everything that had happened, he'd still been naïve. He had acted under the notion that they were a solitary unit, that one single battle could end this struggle – that he'd kill the demon and he Sam and Dean would be free. Now, only at the end of his life, he knows better. His sons were born into this war and no one can outrun their own destiny. The fight was in their blood, literally.

There was no going back now, and he had to hope that he raised his boys with enough strength to finish it without him. He hoped they could succeed, but if they didn't . . . he tried desperately to take comfort in the fact that they had loved each other and done their best. There was nothing else left; they were only human, after all.

Dean, forgive me for what I'm about to do. I've laid so many burdens at your feet already, and now I have to do it one more time.

John could see the worry and the fear in his oldest son's face. Dean had always been just as smart as Sammy in his own way, and tears burned his eyes, despite his struggle to keep them at bay, because he is going to say goodbye and Dean won't know it until it's too late. He forced out a smile that was a combination of sad and grateful; there's no joy. There never had been much of it in their lives.

"You know, when you were a kid, I'd come home from a hunt and after what I'd seen I'd be wrecked. And you – you'd come up to me and you'd put your hand on my shoulder and you'd look me in the eye and you'd say, 'it's okay dad.' Dean, I'm sorry." John whispered.

"Why?" Dean asked, immediately suspicious at the openness, the tears John can't keep back.

God, it's even harder than I thought.

John plowed ahead, because tim was running out and he wanted to say this. Everyone deserved acknowledgment for their love, even if was too little, too late.

"You shouldn't have had to say that me. I should've been saying that to you. I put too much on your shoulders; I made you grow up too fast. You took care of Sammy and you took care of me. You did that and you didn't complain, not once. I just want you to know that I am so proud of you."

Dean's suspicion was still there, increasing with each word. "Is it really you talking?"

"Yeah it's really me." John assured him.

"Why are you saying this stuff?"

"I want you to watch out for Sammy."

"Yeah, Dad you know I will. . . " there's a pause and Dean looks almost panicked. "You're scaring me."

What do you say to a son who should be scared, better yet, completely terrified? John decided it was better to lie, because his son will need every ounce of strength that he has and it doesn't matter what words give it to him.

"Don't be scared, Dean."

Damn it all, he didn't want to do this, but he couldn't think of any other way to offer protection to his boys.

John gave his oldest son one last smile and, with a prayer to whatever God there was, he leaned forward to lay the burden down on his son's shoulders one last time.

If you can't save Sammy, you've got to kill him . . .