Author's Note: A little different tone than the other one; I just figured that I needed to explain myself a bit. Also, things have quiet obviously changed from season one, when I wrote that, so my perception of John and his relationship with the boys has changed as well.

I ended on a lighter note, because I'm just a little, tiny bit sick of angst.

Like Son

For Kate

My almost-roommate.

I.

At first, Dean wouldn't speak to anyone, not even John. The doctors said he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome; but John knew it went deeper, down to the very core of a little boy who'd been so sure that monsters weren't real and Mommy only bled when she got a paper cut.

The whole world turned around and Dean didn't know how to right himself. Nothing was quite as bright without Mary, and how exactly are you supposed live in a world where you are never safe, ever, not even when you're in your own home? John looked at Dean, looked at his big boy that was still so little, and wanted to stop the shaking and the night terrors.

So he did what worked for him; he touched his son's shoulders and looked him in the eyes and said, "I need you, son. I need you to look after Sammy, okay? To always make sure that he's safe and happy. Can you do that for me?" Because sometimes it's easier to worry about someone else than face the terror that lingers just beneath the skin.

There was a moment of quiet and then Dean nodded once, sharply, and mumbled—the first noise he'd made in seven months that wasn't a scream—"Sure thing, Dad. Count on me."

II.

When he was four, little Sammy thought that there was something in his closet. John had listened intently, shifting through his memory for any sort of monster that fit his son's description: tall, purple with green spots, teeth made out of marshmallows, and a toaster that burned your hands if you got too close.

He shared a look with Dean; the older boy was choking on his Lucky Charms, trying to muffle the sound of his laughter. John's lips twitched, but Sammy was a sensitive boy so instead of laughing at him, he reached under the table and unclipped one of the older .45s. "You tell that toaster not to bother you again," he said seriously.

Gentle Sammy seemed horrified by the weapon and ignored the offering, instead returning to his cereal with a cloudy expression. John remembered Dean's fifth birthday, when he'd looked up from Looney Toons to find his first gun wrapped in an ironic little bow. He'd rolled his eyes, casually tucking it into the back of his jeans. "Finally," he commented lightly. Then, "Gee, Dad. It's almost as old as you."

A smartass at five.

A perfect shot by six-and-three-months.

III.

Sammy made friends the way that Dean made dirty jokes; John can't ever remember a town where, two days in, he hadn't heard his youngest earnestly imploring to go on a sleepover or a play date.

But Dean was different. Dean didn't want friends; he seemed to hold everyone that wasn't family in contempt. "They don't know shit about shit, Dad," he commented boredly when pushed on the subject. "It's boring."

But when he was sixteen, something shifted. John watched with a sort of fascination as suddenly Dean became the life of the party, the king of the hill, a big man on campus. At first his son didn't know what to do with his newfound popularity; he treated the girls that suddenly found him fascinating with the same mistrust as he would a haunted house. John, finally taking pity, sat the boy down one day and told him frankly, "Look, you're a good looking kid, Dean. It's a crazy world but you're allowed to have a little fun."

The grateful relief in Dean's eyes surprised his father; so did the sudden, fierce hug that his son bestowed on him—the first, John realized, in years. "Thanks, Dad," Dean whispered and then disappeared before thing got to emotional.

With burning pride, John wondered how long Dean had been waiting to hear that it was okay to be happy again, miserable just so that he could keep his old man company.

IV.

Sammy left.

John never thought he'd hurt as badly as he had the night Mary died, but he'd been wrong. Because watching that door close, hearing Sammy's final, furious yell, his heart broke cleanly into little pieces and lay scattered across the floor.

He wanted to chase after his son, "No, Sammy, wait, stop, I'm sorry, don't go," but he didn't—he couldn't. He'd taken everything from his sons, he knew that, he hated that, but he'd made the decision to do so a long time ago and there was no going back, not in this world. And now here was a chance for Sammy to get it all back, to be healthy and happy and . . . . whole.

But noticing Dean's pale skin and drawn features, he wondered, at what cost?

For here was another boy, another boy who had nothing but faith in his father and love for his brother, who would rather die than let harm come to any living thing but himself.

But Dean stood strong; he set his jaw and got into the car and drove Sammy to the bus station and John knew that he would say nothing of this to his brother—he would joke and laugh and say, "Everything will be all right," just as he always did, just as he had since he was four and Daddy gave the order to keep Sammy safe and happy.

Because, to Dean, to John, losing what was left of their sunlight seemed trivial when considering that to hold it captive is to dull its radiance—and in the end, they would lose him anyway.

V.

"Dad . . . . Dean's sick. The doctor's say—the doctor's say there's nothing they can do . . . ."

John always knew that Dean would be the first son to go. It had nothing to do with the make of the man; Sam would give his life as easily as Dean if it meant saving someone who deserved to live. No; Dean was simply more reckless, following his old man's "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality.

Had since he was a kid, since the shtriga had Sammy in its hold and Dean was mumbling, "I just went out—just for a second—"

In his nightmares, John saw blood and demons and a battered body. In reality, Dean lay in a hospital bed, bored and pissed off, watching daytime T.V. and hating Days of Our Lives. John remained hidden in the security room, watching on the security cameras as Sam came and went and Dean finally had enough.

John thought that seeing Mary explode had been the worst sight he would ever see; but watching Dean vomit from exertion as he tried to tie his shoes made him remember that not all pain will be buried, and not all tears can be wiped away.

VI.

He thought, and hating himself for thinking, that he loved Sam more. Not that he showed it. But Winchesters have always had an affinity for that which they cannot have, and once Sammy was only enough to formulate an opinion he knew that he'd never have the uncontested devotion of his youngest.

But something remarkable happened the weeks after Sammy left for Stanford. Dean got quiet again, inverted, short-tempered; John hunted recklessly, hungrily, furiously.

And then, then without even realizing it, John and Dean slipped into their own little rhythm of light-hearted bitchiness and laugh-it-off machismo. Where Sam had always been the son, Dean became a friend—a needed friend, if John was honest—and only when it was too late, when there was only one option and Dean would hate him for taking it, did John realize that you can't love one son more—not ever.

You can't love one more because just when you think you do the other will get himself killed to save you and you realize that you'd do anything, anything to have him back.

This is why John gave the Demon the Colt. This is why John gave the Demon his soul. This is why Hell can't hurt him, can't touch him, because demons and spirits and yes, even Satan can't bear the touch of unending love.

VII.

The Impala glistened in the sunlight, basking beneath the cheerful April sky. Dean leaned against the hood, arms crossed over his chest, glaring at the spot where his father's headstone—but not his body, his ashes that had long since vanished into the air—rested. Mary and John Winchester, side-by-side.

This was no comfort to a man who knows that the dead have trouble staying dead and not everyone goes to heaven.

"Dad," he said slowly. "Dad . . . . " he paused, tasting the word in his mouth before he managed finally, "Just . . . . screw you, you know?"

John leaned against the car beside his son, a spirit and not a spirit, simply a projection from a soul. "Yeah, I figured you'd say that," he agreed. Dean didn't hear—of course he didn't, because you can't hear what isn't there. "But what did you expect?"

"I knew you'd do it," he murmured quietly. "I knew, when it came down to it, you'd give up everything for me. I just … I just wish that you hadn't had to." He looked away. "I always thought that you loved Sammy more than me, Dad, and maybe you did. But it never bothered me, you know. Because you always liked me more—I mean, how can you not?" He grinned cheekily, casting off the sober mood for just a moment so he could catch his breath and swallow the tear. "We just got along, Dad. Sam could never follow you blindly like I could because Sam hasn't seen what we have, hasn't done what we have. After Mom . . . . "

Dean choked. It was several seconds before he could resume.

". . . . I didn't have PTSS. But you . . . you knew that, didn't you? You knew I was just scared, I was . . . . confused, I was . . . . angry. I didn't want to think about it, and you knew that—that's why you gave me Sam, isn't it?" He looked away. "I know we didn't really talk much, Dad, but I hope you know it's because I always knew that you knew what I was feeling. We didn't have to talk."

He shut his eyes for a moment, breathing out through his nose as he mumbled, "Christ, Daddy-o, I miss you." The endearment was light, mocking, and felt so heavily of his son that John almost smiled.

But Hell is Hell, no matter what torture you are excluded from. "Dean," John said as he began to fade, as his son climbed back into the rebuilt Impala and rolled down the window, "If you or Sammy ever hurt my car again . . . . I swear to God, I'll kill you both."

And Dean couldn't have heard, but maybe he did, because he laughed—really laughed—as he said, "Don't worry, Dad. I'll take care of our baby," and gave her a nice pat on the window. Then he paused. "Geek boy, too," he added. He sucked in a breath, "I love you."

With these words echoing in his mind, John didn't really mind the flames.