What can I say? Short but sweet?
Dean sighed in his sleep and John was reminded of a time when Dean had been small and could find peace resting on his shoulder.
Dean had loved Mary fiercely and with all the loyalty of a small child but he had been his father's creature, a tiny shadow by his side or waiting patiently at the window for John to return.
When Mary had been pregnant with him, John would lie behind her, his chest flush with her back and one large hand splayed over her belly, Dean moving beneath his fingers.
"He knows it's you," Mary would murmur sleepily when he and the baby woke her and John's heart would swell.
Every kick, push, roll or hiccup John had claimed as his own and Mary would laugh at him, telling him his child was as much a night owl as he was.
Later, when Dean had been born wrinkled and angry and so impossibly perfect, he had calmed in his father's hands, dozing and blowing bubbles through pursed lips and John's heart had once more claimed him.
Since that day, Dean went everywhere with him, as much as he could. On even the simplest of errands, John would dress him in his outside clothes and strap him into the Impala. When Dean teethed, it was John's collarbone he had gnawed on; given gladly in the hope it might ease his infant son's gums. Cuts and scrapes and as many meals as could be managed were given to John, although bath time was wholly Mary's domain.
Once Dean had learned to walk, John would often glance down and see his son beside him, never clinging but invariably there. Gazing up under the weight of his father's stare, Dean's eyes would shine with a love innocently given, there for the taking and asking nothing in return.
Watching his son sleep now, John wondered just when he had started to take that unwavering trust and devotion for granted.
The bond they shared had never broken, but it had been tested - hard - especially recently and all the while John had never doubted Dean would be with him or waiting patiently for his return. He had never asked himself why Dean stayed; he had never cared to know. Dean was a man now, with all the rights and privileges that the title awarded, yet still he subjected himself to his father's law.
Had John screwed him up so badly Dean was frightened by the world outside the monsters? Didn't he think he could function away from salt and iron and the smell of blood? When Sam had shown him how easy it was to walk away, there had never been any fear in John's mind that Dean would follow. He found the realisation tasted bitter.
Caleb entered the room and John, welcoming the distraction, looked up, his hand unconsciously resting in Dean's hair, a familiar gesture, a comfort to both father and son.
"Do you know who did this?" he asked, his voice pitched low, his words steady, giving away none of previous thoughts.
"Kinda hard to tell," Caleb answered, lifting one hand to his head and making a gun with his first two fingers.
John nodded. He had known men who had been driven to it, men who had lost their lives to the dark and men who had lost their souls in a war they didn't believe in.
The father glanced back down at his son. Those men hadn't had Dean to come home to, waiting to reassure them with a gentle hand on the shoulder, waiting to offer softly spoken words, covering hurts like a balm.
"It's alright, dad," Dean would tell him, never once asking what the shadows in John's eyes represented and the elder Winchester would find the strength to go back out the next time in his boy's unflinching belief.
"He's alright, John," Caleb murmured and Winchester glanced up sharply, wondering if the younger man had read his thoughts. However, Caleb's eyes were on Dean and John realised the comment came from a need to confirm for himself his friend would survive.
Bobby appeared in the doorway. "Guest bed's made up," he informed John. When he frowned, Bobby gestured to Dean. "Kid can't stay on the couch."
Caleb made to lift Dean, but one look at John's face gave him reason to pause. Now he had begun to bridge the gap between them, John was reluctant to let go of his son again. He slid out, standing beside the half-broken furniture, contemplating his sleeping child.
Bobby lent against the doorjamb.
"Lift with your knees," he advised sardonically and caught in the act of letting his mind wander again, John swiftly bent to the task.
Dean was heavier than he expected. John tried to remember the last time he had carried Dean anywhere, the memory hazy with age. Either Dean insisted on walking under his own power, or his brother propped him up.
Dean wouldn't show his father his weakness and that was something that tore at John, another self destructive trait he had managed to pass on, despite the promise made over his own father's grave not to fuck his children up the way the old man had.
John had soon learnt not to make promises, often walking away from Sammy when the young boy asked for an oath, a solemn vow he could pin his hope on. Dean had learnt not to ask, expecting only disappointment in doing so.
Upstairs now, John laid Dean on the bed, sitting beside him to run a hand through his hair again.
"Shit," he whispered.
Dean remained unresponsive, sleeping deeply and John wondered if he was dreaming. Considering the night's events, he hoped not. Sammy tended to be the one who suffered from nightmares, buried so deep within them it was often hard to wake him, but Dean had had the odd terror also.
John removed his boy's boots and jeans, lifting him to pull back the thick duvet. He settled Dean back down, grimacing slightly when Bobby's oldest dog nosed his way into the room to jump with arthritic joints up beside Dean. When Dean woke, he was going to complain about the smell - junkyard dogs weren't the most hygienic of bed guests and this old boy hadn't bothered with shampoo for almost a decade, from what John could tell. Still, for all his faults, Dean liked him.
The first time John had driven up to the junkyard, he'd been afraid of letting Dean out of the car, the dogs barking loudly, saliva dripping from yellow fangs and chains tested to the max. Dean had peered through the glass at them, still in the first stages of Mac's treatment, silent but responding to outside stimuli at least. John hadn't known if he was terrified or curious as his large green eyes took them in.
He'd gotten his answer when he exited the car, turning back to see Dean had wound down the window, his arm tiny in comparison to the dogs mouths, reaching for one of them. Before John or Bobby had been able to get to him, the dog had opened its mouth for something other than barking. John hadn't carried a gun quite so regularly in those days, still thinking of himself as a civilian and he had cursed foully when his searching fingers closed over nothing. To his ever lasting relief, the beast had simply licked Dean's little hand, his fingers wiggling as the tongue lapped over them.
He'd followed Dean around the place since that first meeting, and the boy had always drawn quiet comfort from his own personal angel. While Jim's dogs had flocked to Sammy, this mutt had seemed to find a kindred spirit in the older boy, defending Dean resolutely, barking angrily at raised voices and placing himself before his charge when strangers came too close.
John had heard Joshua had once joked they both took their guard dog duties seriously. John had seen the resulting broken nose for himself. Smiling softly, John resumed running his fingers through Dean's hair, reminiscing.
Bobby and Caleb, left alone after John had removed Dean, returned to the kitchen. Sitting at opposite ends of the table, they shared the bottle of whiskey in companionable silence.
"Damn strong kid," Bobby grunted eventually.
Caleb nodded, knowing all too well how much had been taken from Dean. Silence followed until Bobby spoke again.
"What's it like?"
Bobby lifted his hand, tapping the side of the glass he held against his temple.
"That," he explained. "Going into someone's head."
Caleb struggled with an analogy Bobby would be able to grasp. "Like going into an engine blind," he said finally.
Bobby raised an eyebrow and Caleb continued.
"Like being lost in a crowd, only there's no one there." He lent forward, leaning heavily on the table. "You think its just one room, but if you look closer, there's halls and doors and levels and all of it sitting on top of itself. There's space enough to hold a galaxy, folded and hidden away in a tiny box."
"Huh," Bobby grunted, and Caleb sat back, slightly disappointed the old mechanic hadn't been impressed with his description. "I'm going to bed," he added, taking the bottle with him.
Caleb sat alone for a moment, until he was sure Bobby was behind his closed door. He stood, going to the nearest cupboard and taking a second, half-drunk bottle from the shelf. He toasted the older man with the bottle and a twisted smile, taking a swig.
The peace had lasted two days.