No money being earned from this little brain spasm …

John Winchester screams in hell.

He knows he does, for the echoes sound in his own ears, the torment burns his flesh and his blood is so hot pulsing through his veins it feels like ice.

However, that's only a part of John's death.

While his soul burns in agony, his spirit sits guarding his sleeping children.

To be able to watch them so closely, to be able to touch them, however lightly, is worth everything he endures, for this soul splitting is sheer agony, feels like dying all over again, yet never being able to reach his destination, and there's a constant bright light that he can't go to because some part of him is withering in hell and he needs to be whole, complete, before he can make that journey.

For now, though, he is content to be with his sons. He howls his anguish as loudly as he can in the depths of the netherworld, hiding the fact his spirit had somehow bound itself to the boys and not all of it made it across into the demon's lair. He's both terrified and thrilled to be defying the terms of his deal, he feels the ghost of his heartbeat triple in time when he thinks about the consequences if he's found.

On occasions he thinks the boys know he's with them.

Sammy, of course, with his abilities, often pauses mid sentence to glance about him if John makes a sudden movement, if he breathes too closely to that finely tuned ear, if he reaches out to brush futile fingers through that mop of hair in an effort to see his eyes. He half turns his head, listens hard, narrows his eyes and almost, almost forms the question. 'Dad?'

Dean, though, is another story. He has no psychic talent, but he's been seeing ghosts since he was a small child and he knows the signs and senses their presences, but if he feels his father nearby, he won't admit to it. John wouldn't expect him to. But when John perches on the side of his bed late in the night, or very early in the morning, when he lays his hand next to Deans, flat beside the pillow under which the knife rests within reach, Dean's hand moves to brush his fingers against Johns.

And when the nightmares start in the other bed, and John travels to his youngest to soothe their passage, he sees Dean frown, notices the hand twitch ever so slightly, as if wanting to reach out and grasp his father, but not wanting anyone to know this desire. It pulls at John's heart, for it is so like Dean, this want for comfort and the fear that if he asks for it, it will be taken away out of his reach.

But Sam needs John too, needs the nightmares to be chased away for another night, although there are some his father cannot touch and these cause John pain too, for to see his son suffering is almost too much, and so he whispers what he can to ease Sam's terror until the time has passed and his breathing evens out or he wakes. Then it's back to Dean, who in sleep is still the same little boy John fell in love with long before his birth, for this quiet hour is when his face relaxes into innocence and he loses the guarded, wary appearance of a man much older.

John hopes the boys don't separate, for he doesn't know if he can split three ways. He's happy to stick to the routine he's found himself in; happy to burn in hell and bleed in ripped, shredded limbo simultaneously.

Sometimes, when the pain roars like a fire flaring in the wind, when it feels too much and he's weak and desperate, sometimes he can hear Mary encouraging, extolling, pleading. Her voice is like manna, her words like balm and John lifts his head once more to watch his sons.