Summary: A hunt gone terribly wrong prompts John's first trip to Stanford. Dean's hurt and hurting, father and son angst ensues.

Rating: T, language. "F-bombs" in abundance, if not excess.

Spoilers: None but for the quote from "Bugs" shown below.

Disclaimers: See my profile page.

Author's Notes/Comments/Warnings: 1) Still testing the waters, I'm using John's POV to tell my story this time. With that in mind and working with the "Sam's been gone 2 years" premise, it's March, 2004, roughly six months since Sam left for Stanford and John's still bitter, so his thoughts are unkind at times. Adhering to canon here so I'm afraid Sammy only makes a cameo appearance in this fic. Despite his absence, I hope you'll feel his presence all through the story.

2) Though I'm not posting the story in its entirety today, it is written to completion and has been reviewed by my beta-readers. My plan is to address the betas and site formatting each chapter at a time, allowing no more than a week between posts, until all 9 chapters are posted.

3) Thanks to my wonderful best buddy and beta, Penny for pinch-hitting and improving my work as always. Thanks also to Beki for the food for thought and very useful advice.

"Even when you two weren't talking, he used to swing by Stanford whenever he could, keep an eye on you, make sure you were safe." Bugs, episode 1.07

Chapter 1 - Battle Lines

John Winchester was pissed. And he had Jim Murphy to blame. For all of it. Jim, with his oh-so sincere delivery, trying to convince John that going on this hunt couldn't hurt. Wouldn't make matters worse. "If anything, it might heal some wounds still festering after all these months," he'd said. Yeah, right. John may have said yes to the job but any other side-trips Jim had envisioned - let's say to, oh, I don't know, California, maybe? - were definitely out of the question.

Unfortunately the seed had firmly been planted in Dean's head though and all John wanted to do now was kick Jim Murphy's ass. Christ, six months ago John had already alienated - no, check that, exiled - one son and if this night kept deteriorating any further, he'd be rapidly working his way into running a one-man operation.

Fucking Jim.

John felt no shame in cursing the man. John already knew where his one-way ticket was headed. Cussing out Jim would only help ensure he'd stay in the express lane.

Things had been awkward enough with Dean ever since Sam had stomped out their door but now, now that they were thisclose to the State line, Dean seemed to think behaving like his brother was on the program for the evening. Like that would help. What the hell is it about California that brings out insubordination in my kids?

All right, so he knew the attraction for his youngest had been that full ride. And escape, apparently but John had no intention of going there. . . his mood was foul enough as it was, thank-you very little. Kid got himself a scholarship, to Stanford, no less. Always knew the little shit was too smart for his own good. For our own good.

And Dean, well, aside from the plentiful bubble-headed bleach blondes (thank-you, Don Henley) that were turning his head back at the coffee shop and bar near the motel, Dean was here simply because it was another job. But he was acting out this way because of Sam. "And you know you only have yourself to thank for that, John," echoed in his head. Thank-you, Pastor Jim. Or as Dean might say, Pastor Obvious.

Fucking pile of rock should've slid off the continent decades ago.

"You know it's only four hours from here, Dad." The kid was not letting up.

John groaned. Trying desperately to keep from growling. Suddenly his shovel felt pretty damn good in his hands as he gouged it deeper into the grave. Envisioning the annihilation of Jim's self-satisfied smirk with every bite of earth the spade carved.

"Even less, if I do the driving."

"Dean, I said no," he barked, trying to keep the venom from his voice but knowing his tone was still too harsh. Why couldn't Dean let this go? It was after 1:00 a.m., they were in the middle of a hunt, and John was trying to be understanding. Even volunteered to do the dirty work and dig up Peter Wellington's grave instead of flipping a coin like they'd normally do. Well, normal, as defined now since Sam had left.

Bad idea in hindsight; gave Dean too much time to stand there with a flashlight and salt-gun and think. Calculate. Hard labor would've done the kid some good. Take out his frustrations. John would happily switch places with Dean now but he'd already felt the familiar solidity of wood beneath that last scoop he'd dug, so there'd be no point in trading off. At least something had gone right tonight. The spirit would be history in no time.

Truthfully, he'd felt awfully bad for tearing a strip off Dean last night. And the night before. Today.


Kid missed his brother. John understood that. Really. Didn't change a goddamn thing.

Sammy'd made his choice and, whether Palo Alto was four days or four hours away, nothing was going to change that boy's mind. Not even his big brother.

John knew Dean had tried calling his brother; knew Sam wasn't answering or returning Dean's calls. Information was something Jim Murphy was good for at least. Hell, Jim was the first to open John's eyes to the resurgence of Dean's silences. And once John was reminded to look past his own misery and self-flagellation, it didn't take him long to recognize the signs from Dean either: that lack of spark and a too-familiar resigned submission. That dark pall of abandonment cloaking his oldest son almost as wholly as it had more than two decades before.

Dean might think he knew what he wanted but John knew better. And there was no way in hell John was going to risk Sammy kicking his brother in the teeth while Dean was already down. Oh, Sam would never consciously target Dean, but Dean would throw himself into the line of fire. Every fucking time. John knew this firsthand because he was an expert marksman himself and, after the last time the three Winchesters shared the same breathing space, John wasn't certain Dean could survive another ricochet let alone a direct hit. Sure as hell didn't deserve it, despite John's own evidence to the contrary these last couple days.

Even though John might not be able to control his own ill temper as well as he'd hoped, he sure as hell could control whether or not a trip to Palo Alto was in the cards.

"Then, I'm going without you."

Alrighty then, apparently John's control was up for debate now too. Time to squash this like a cockroach. He was still running this show.

"Jesus, Dean, enough already," he yelled, stopping the excavation long enough to level a hard gaze at his son. Despite the cover of night, he couldn't miss the look of defiance on Dean's face, reminding him too much of Sam and raising his hackles higher. "Get your head in the game, goddamn it, and keep that light steady. I'm almost there."

The requisite "yes, sir" was absent but at least Dean had the good sense to refrain from saying anything else he might've considered while John cleaned off the remaining layers of dirt coating Wellington's coffin. Using the blade of the shovel's scoop, John easily hacked through the splintering wood, exposing the remains of one irate ghost presently turning a newlywed couple's dream home into a nightmare.

Satisfied everything was in order to execute a standard salt and burn, he tossed the spade up to ground level then reached up to his eldest for the container of salt. No words were necessary. Whether Dean was pissed with his old man or not, they both could perform this routine blindfolded.

Which was why Dean not relinquishing his grip on the salt felt so out of place. Father and son worked together like veterans of an assembly line. Hell, Henry Ford would've been impressed. Didn't matter which of them stood up top or below, John and Dean Winchester always worked in sync.

John looked up into Dean's face, not all that easy to read when the only light available was pointing away from the kid. Still, when their eyes met John could have cringed at the way Dean was working his jaw, clenching in Sammy-like determination, clearly unwilling to release his hold on the salt until he had his say.

"Dad, I'm serious here," and John knew he was. Boy rarely used this assertive tone with him. Only ever did when the subject was Sam. No surprise really then when he said, "You can stay at the motel or come with; I don't care. But I'm heading for Stanford come daylight."

"Like hell you--"

If John hadn't been working so hard alternately trying to smash Jim's smugness along with Dean's rebelliousness into the night, he might've noticed the sudden drop in temperature and subsequent increase in wind. As it was, the only warning that Peter Wellington's spirit wasn't actually bound to the house he'd died in was the fact that it had presently appeared directly behind Dean, elevated slightly thanks to a decided disregard for gravity, and was hovering with that evil-incarnate sneer that only things other-worldly seemed to possess.

There was no hesitation on John's part, aside from his eyes widening at the moment of realization; he couldn't have acted more quickly if he'd been Superman himself.

And still it wasn't enough. Again, words weren't necessary and Dean's eyes flared in alarm as years of training took over and, in an instant, John's eldest released the flashlight and dropped to the ground. Grabbing up the cocked salt-gun he'd relinquished in lieu of the salt, he rolled to his back, firing instantaneously. But at this too-close range, with the ghost already upon him, enveloping him, his shot had no choice but to go wide.

"Fuck!" Both father and son swore in unison as the situation, bad as it was, went straight to hell as Dean was ruthlessly catapulted across four rows of headstones. Landing, now weaponless, with an appalling sounding grunt, well away from and out of John's sight.

"Dean! No!" John screamed, scrambling up out of the grave and gathering up the fallen salt-gun while already in pursuit, chasing after the evil specter that was now stalking his son. The gun had one shot left and John had to resist every paternal instinct shouting at him to just fire the damn thing, fire it now, instead of waiting until he was within range. Until that fucker Wellington was practically on top of Dean once again, before taking aim.

Dean hadn't moved nor made a sound and John had to tamp down the worry threatening to wrench him out of his control and, for the moment, ignore his boy's crumpled form and concentrate on the menace advancing on his son. He couldn't shake off the role of dad completely though and when he pulled the trigger, he practically growled at the apparition reaching again for Dean, "Don't you fucking touch him, you sonofabitch."

The ghost evaporated in a haze of scattering dust and salt and John continued his forward momentum, dropping to his knees next to his fallen son. Dean was breathing, thank God, but slumped awkwardly against an ornate, granite monument, the biggest one in the row. Of course.

Eyes hurriedly scanning his son, John's breath hitched in dismay at the unsettling sight. Oh, shit. This does not look good. But for one arm resting above his head, presumably thrown outward to provide protection from the impact with the cluster of headstones he'd been hurled into, Dean's limbs were curled inward as he lay on his side. A wholly unnatural and disturbing position for John to find the adult Dean at rest in. It reminded too much of Mary's little Dean, and John definitely could not afford to get caught up in those memories.

There was still too much at stake.

Lightly grasping Dean's nearest shoulder, John jostled it slightly, swallowing the bitterness working its way up his throat, before coaxing, no demanding, "Dean, c'mon, son. Wake-up for me, damn it," and getting nothing in response. Nothing. Please, God, let him wake up. He always wakes up.

Practiced hands, though alien in their hesitancy, searched for injury and none could be found anywhere but for a nasty, ominous gash high on Dean's forehead, open and leaking blood. John cursed at the sight, allowed his simmering anger to build and steady his traitorous hands, channeling his mounting fear and guilt into the emotion that had always served him best in battle. He could always handle rage better than grief in a fight.

"Sorry, sport," he murmured, drawing a penlight from his pocket and shining the narrow beam first into one deftly prodded open eye and then the other. "Shit," he sighed heavily at Dean's unequal pupils. Concussion. Not surprising, given what had happened and the fact Dean was still out cold but John couldn't fault himself the false hope that Dean was okay and would come to any second. He was the kid's dad after all. Irrational hope sprung eternal as John applied steady pressure to the gash, wishing the discomfort would awaken Dean, if not now, then as he wrapped the wound in his dad's now discarded over-shirt.

Still nothing. Nothing at all. "Damn it, Dean. C'mon, wake the fuck up."

Every ounce of medical training John had acquired over the years commanded him to call 9-1-1, wait for an ambulance and not dare risk any further injury to his oldest. But hunter's instinct and experience told him he didn't have that choice. Wellington would be back - it was a wonder he hadn't resurfaced already - so there was simply no way in hell John could just sit there and wait for help while fending off the powerful entity that had taken a decided dislike toward his kid. Nor could he finish off the bastard and risk having to explain a fire and a desecrated grave to the local cops who would undoubtedly answer the 9-1-1 call as well.

So, with a silent prayer asking for both forgiveness and help from Mary, he reached for the salt-gun, intending to ready it again before moving Dean.

No sooner had he relinquished his hold on Dean and begun to load two new shells, Wellington literally swooped in on a gust of chilled air and grabbed Dean by his out-flung arm, dragging him away from John as if Dean were a toy trailing behind the psychotic child who'd claimed him.

"No fucking way!" John cried out in fury, giving chase again and firing the gun - both barrels this time - at the spirit that had set its sights on Dean. John seldom missed what he was aiming at and, with so much to lose, his skills were especially lethal. Wellington, incensed and fairly howling with shock and rage, vanished into the night once again but not before cruelly dumping Dean, defenseless and out of John's reach yet again, to the ground in another motionless heap.

Wellington hadn't gotten very far at all before being sidelined by the rock-salt so the hunter quickly made his way over to his son. Increasingly dismayed that Dean still had not uttered a sound nor moved a muscle since his ordeal began, John could feel his own fury overtaking him as he hunkered down next to him, once again taking in the image of this crumpled version of his perpetually resilient son. Christ, Dean was as durable as a Timex and his father was having one hell of a time reconciling that picture of Dean with the one lying unconscious at his feet.

"All right, kiddo. You just hang in there," he breathed. Clamping down on his most intense emotions, he spoke softly to Dean as he carefully checked and rearranged the makeshift bandage he'd placed earlier around Dean's head. Lightly patting the kid's chest, he steeled himself. "This ends now," he vowed. "I'm ending it."

Convinced that, before he could do anything more for Dean, he had no choice but to eliminate the most immediate threat they faced, John gathered his son in his arms, cradling him against his chest and carrying him over to the excavated grave. Placing him a safe distance from the impending flames but still nearby, John rested Dean's head atop the jacket he'd removed before starting to dig up the grave. Back when he'd believed the worst thing he'd have to deal with this night was Dean aggravating the hell out of him. Back when he'd been a fucking stubborn fool.

Generously sprinkling a protection circle around Dean, he then emptied the remainder of the salt into the grave and quickly doused the coffin and its remains with what was clearly an excessive amount of lighter fluid. John didn't care. Peter Wellington was going to fry.

Striking a match, John flipped it into the grave and, as the contents went up in bursts of flame, he dove toward Dean, draping himself over his son. Cradling Dean's head in the crook of his arms and using his body as a shield against the blaze's sparks and debris, John kept his senses alert, aware that he was also sheltering Dean from the very real possibility of Wellington trying to make a last ditch effort to go after him.

Just as John suspected, what could only be described as an enraged wail suddenly echoed through the trees and bounced off the gravestones as newly erupted winds whipped and whirled around John and his son. The flurry lasted only a second or two before disappearing as quickly as it had arrived and, as the cemetery abruptly became ethereally quiet, John knew the danger to Dean that had been Peter Wellington was over.

He didn't get up though, couldn't pull away. Knowing that damage had already been done.

Dean had remained unaware, oblivious to this latest attack and its aftermath and, now that the threat was gone, John found himself once again facing the stark reality of Dean's predicament. Hell, Dean should be cursing now, fuming over the abuse inflicted by Wellington, or at least cracking jokes about the ghost's preference for him, not John. Using humor in an attempt to assuage John's guilt just like he'd been doing nearly every damn day since he'd joined his father in the hunt.

Finally gathering his wits, John collected their supplies, brought them over to the nearby Impala and unceremoniously deposited them into the trunk. Wasting no time, John returned for his son, gently hefting him into his arms once again and carrying him over to the sedan. "Easy does it," he said, as he carefully slid Dean into the back seat, giving the kid a running commentary of what he was doing. He knew full well that Dean couldn't hear him but the silence had become too damn oppressive. And John would rather hear his own voice than the one sounding off in his head right then, the one telling him, in no uncertain terms, that all this movement was doing Dean more harm than good.

Stubbornly ignoring the over-grown twenty-year-old invading his thoughts, John continued tending to Dean, elevating his legs, pillowing his head, and placing a blanket over the kid's limp form before reluctantly turning away, closing the door and climbing into the driver's seat.

St. Mary's Regional their destination, Todd Rundgren's thunderous guitar from Bat Out of Hell fittingly accompanying the Chevy's roar as John raced out of the cemetery, burning rubber in a way Dean was never, ever permitted to do even now that the car was his. But that was okay. John would willingly let Dean chew him out over it. John would endure anything, if only Dean would just wake the hell up.

To be continued.