By: Ridley C. James
A/N: This story is the result of a debt owed. Tara and I made a deal and the only payment she would accept was a story. I'm not sure this is 'exactly' what she wanted, but I hope she likes it. I hope her mom likes it, too, because I know she is rabidly protective of Papa
Winchester. It's different, but Tidia promised she liked it. Be warned, it is slightly intense and kind of dark. And before anyone can jump on me, I LOVE John Winchester. I love him for all his flaws and I do not, DO NOT think he was a monster…only human. As Tidia and I love to say, he was a bastard, but a bastard who loved his kids. That said, read on. And thank you, Tara.
Regret is…an unavoidable result of any loss, for in loss we lose the tomorrow that we needed to make right our yesterday or today.
-Gerald Lawson Sittser
There are many moments when he blames himself.
He is sorry. Every single day he is sorry he couldn't save her. His entire life revolves around making it right, making sure it does not happen again. Sometimes the daunting task consumes him, burning away the man he was when he was with her, erasing the man he might have been.
In the worst moments he shows no mercy to those around him, takes no prisoners. He leaves the bodies of his loved ones in his wake as easily as he destroys the enemy, misfortunate collateral damage. Somehow he convinces himself it is for the greater good, a safety net. The current mess is a product of such a John Winchester moment.
Mary's face springs unbidden to his mind. It is like her to appear when death is close at hand, the scent of her bolstering his courage or maybe just giving him reckless abandon to do what needs to be done. Dying doesn't seem too terrible when something so sweet is waiting on the other side of all the pain.
But her sorrowful face is also a haunting reminder of what she left behind…what he would leave behind. The boys. Stay. Just a little longer.
Dean and Sam are the only remaining legacy of what they shared; the only tangible trace of her, not smoke and shadows filtering through his tired and weary mind. He has to protect them, even if it means living without her.
"Stay awake, Johnny."
John blinks, focusing on the present moment, letting the pain anchor him, and releasing the image of Mary from his mind. There are others to consider.
He forces his eyes to remain open, narrowing them to focus in the darkness. He can barely make out Caleb Reaves, battered and bruised, pinned not two feet from him. It is John's fault they are in such dire straits. Mackland will kick his ass, or at least launch a verbal assault on a caliber John can barely follow.
John clears his throat, winces at the pain the small jarring invokes. "I'm awake."
"No sleeping on watch. John Winchester rule number five."
John would have laughed if Caleb's voice hadn't sounded so weak. John already learned that any movement on his part was a bad idea. It sent agony through his shoulder and chest, while it also might bring the rest of the fucking house down on top of them. He swallows back the bitter taste of bile and blood. "Same goes for you, Private." He has no idea how badly Caleb is hurt, but he knows neither of them can risk taking a nap.
"Shouldn't I have moved up in rank, Jar Head?"
"You're a slow learner." It's not true. Caleb is as sharp as they come, a drill sergeant's dream. "You might earn a stripe before your thirty."
"Good to know…I'll mark it in my calendar."
"You do that. Then we'll celebrate."
"Johnny and party…those words do not go together."
"You think you and Ace have the corner on having fun?"
"When you let us."
John thinks about his soon to be seventeen-year-old son and the trouble Dean finds, especially when in the company of John's protégé. "What you two call fun…I call danger."
"Says the guy who let a house fall on us."
John snorts when he can easily divert the blame. "Says the psychic who should have seen it coming."
Caleb laughs in response, a gasp of pain his penance. "Two words…death vision."
"True." John swallows, taking comfort in the fact Caleb hasn't seen their demise played out in his mind's eye. "Speaking of…how you doing over there, Kiddo?"
"Just not ready for the Mac speech…or to tell Dean he's lost his partner in crime." Those are conversations John refuses to have.
"I'm…not so good."
The confession has the hairs on John's arm standing to attention. "What the hell does that mean?"
Another hoarse laugh. "It means I'm bleeding like a stuck pig."
"Can you reach the wound?"
"Sure thing. I'm just enjoying watching the red stuff leak onto what's left of this crappy green carpet."
John clenches his jaw, takes as deep of breath as the timbers restraining him allow. "Goddamnit, Junior. I'm being serious."
"That's no shocker. Serious is your middle name."
The kid's pissed at him. Not unusual. Not undeserved. "Report, now."
"I seem to be hemorrhaging, Sir."
"Caleb, I swear to God when we get out of here you are going to be running maneuvers for a fucking month."
"That…your way of telling me I'll be fine? Live to fight another day?" He hears Caleb sigh. "You have the worst bedside manner, Johnny."
John looks down at the beams crisscrossing his torso and wishes he had some kind of supernatural strength. "Try for a pressure point above the wound. It'll buy us some time until help gets here."
John's unsure if the question is another jab at him or a serious inquiry. The slight break in Caleb's voice has him leaning towards the latter. "Bobby knows where we are. When we don't report back, he'll come looking for us." John hopes it is sooner rather than later.
"Why didn't you let him come on this fun-filled adventure? He offered."
"I thought some field work would do you good. Can't have you getting soft." That's not exactly true, but John doesn't have to explain himself.
"In other words you didn't want me having any fun."
"Since when has babysitting the boys been fun for you? You used to whine to high heaven if I had you sit out a hunt to stay with them."
"When Sam was in diapers and Dean was a sulky six-year-old, Hell, yeah, I bitched. I was a teenager. It's different now."
"Not really. Ten years later and you're still bitching."
"It was one fucking night, John."
"You think evil takes a night off, Kid?"
"You wouldn't let Dean come on the hunt."
"Two man job. No need muddying the waters." Again, he doesn't speak the truth. John was trying to make a point. Or maybe he was just feeling pissy. It seems irrelevant now.
"God, you're an ass."
If it hadn't been said in a choked whisper, John might have been pissed. But now he feels guiltier. Caleb is right. He was being an ass. "You know, I haven't always been this way."
"I only know what I've experienced."
There was a time when John was the life of the party. When stopping at the bar with his buddy Mike after work was a happy ritual. Playing softball with the guys on Sunday was the closest thing to a battle since his time in the Corp. Coming home to Mary and his family was a given, a gift taken for granted. But one moment changed all that. He is different now.
"I try to be fair, Junior." Not tonight, but on average, John tries to do the right thing.
"What's fair about taking your crap out on your sons?"
John feels the familiar stab of anger, the topic a regular argument with Caleb. "I'm keeping them safe."
"No, damn it. That's not what I mean and you know it."
"It was a party, Johnny. I never ask you for shit. Just one lousy night…one party."
"At a bar, Caleb."
"It's okay for Dean to hustle pool in a seedy bar in Bumfuck, West Virginia with bikers and felons… but he can't come to a fucking party at a sport's pub in New York City with a bunch of geeky engineers and architects?"
"He's not part of that world."
"That's my world," Caleb replies, softer. "He's part of it whether you like it or not."
John wants to point out that the world Caleb is referring to is more illusory than reality. After all these years, he still doesn't understand Mackland encouraging it. But John doesn't miss that Caleb's voice is fading, his words slurring. "Save your energy, Kid. We'll talk about this later."
"You know how many times you've said that to me…the whole 'we'll talk later, Kid' speech." Caleb coughs. "What happens when there are no more laters, Johnny?"
John lets his head fall back, rests against the rubble beneath him. "I ask myself that all the time." Mary's face reappears, the ache in his chest is more pronounced. The hardest thing about losing the people you loved most-there will never be another time for more. It is why he holds so tightly to his boys. "You'll understand when you get older."
Caleb doesn't come back with a smart-ass reply about being twenty-five not fifteen. John jerks his head up, groans when pain shoots through his skull. The younger hunter's eyes are closed. "Caleb? What happened to no sleeping on watch?"
The kid doesn't respond. John shoves against the debris pinning him, unable to gain any leverage over the heavy girders with only one hand cooperating. "Caleb! Answer me, goddamnit!"
The voice comes from above, belongs to Bobby Singer. John is both thankful and dissatisfied. He glances to Caleb. "They're here, Junior. Just hold on."
John closes his eyes briefly. Sam and Dean are with Bobby. What the hell has he done? He swallows down his regret, cranes his neck to see through the maze of struts, joists and furniture, hanging above them like a child's macabre mobile. "Bobby! Dean!"
A beam of light penetrates the darkness, shining from what is left of the first level of the old house. "Looks like the whole damn floor caved in."
Leave it to Bobby to state the obvious. "Bobby, get your ass down here."
"I'm coming, Dad."
John growls. He doesn't have time to argue, knowing full well Dean won't listen worth a damn to anything he says to the contrary. "Be careful, Ace. The entire structure's unstable."
Minutes later Dean is lowered down, a flashlight in one hand, a first aid kit strapped to his side. He drops to the ground amidst the rubble. "Dad?"
John weakly raises his arm to shield his eyes from the harsh glare. "Watch it with the light, Son."
"Dad." Dean crawls over the couch tipped on its side to reach his father. He grips John's shoulder. "Are you okay? Where are you hurt?"
John winces at the boy's touch, the fear in his eyes, eyes so much like Mary's. "I'm okay, Kiddo. More stuck than hurt. Check on Caleb."
"Where…" Dean jerks his head around, swinging the light in an arc to search the destruction around them. "Shit. Damien…"
"He's losing blood," John says. He watches his son struggle across the mound of rubble to get to Caleb. "We need to get him out of here."
"Bobby and Sammy are working on it." Dean kneels on the ground in front of the other hunter. "Caleb?"
"Deuce?" John hears Caleb reply to his son. "What…"
"See if you can locate the wound, Dean," John adds. "Then get to work on moving him out from under that crossbeam."
Dean swivels in his direction, but John doesn't quite catch the look on his face before he turns back to Caleb. "You with me, Damien?"
"Yeah…when did you join the party?"
"Bobby, Sammy and I crashed after all the fun."
"You bring the steaks and beer…cause Johnny skimped on the good stuff. Not even one damn balloon."
John listens to the typical banter, relieved Caleb responds to his son but frustrated they are goofing off.
"Dean, did you find it?"
"What's he barking about now?" Caleb replies.
"His typical stuff," Dean says. "Blood loss, broken bones, having to save your sorry ass."
"All business and no play," Caleb mutters.
Dean shoots his father another look and this time John recognizes it. Caleb isn't the only one pissed at him. "Dad, I'm working on it."
"Easy with the merchandise, Dude."
"Leave it to you to fall on your fucking shovel, Damien."
John hears the change in his son's tone. "Dean?"
"Not mine," Caleb says. "Your Dad was down here digging in the cellar. I…was distracting the lovely spirit of Mrs. Wakefield, who is a major bitch by the way."
"How bad, Dean?" John asks.
John sees Dean struggling with the first aid box, digging through the contents. "About what you'd expect, Dad."
John shoves his feelings of helplessness and frustration aside, refocuses his anger on someone else. "Bobby! What the hell is taking so long?"
"Yelling, yelling…" Caleb says. "Always with the yelling. You'd think he'd get tired of hearing his own voice."
"Shut up, Junior," John snaps, receives another disproving look from his son for the trouble. "Save your strength."
"But stay awake," Dean says gently. "No bleeding to death on your birthday, man. You know the rules."
John winces at his son's words. Caleb should be spending his birthday at a pub in New York with his friends-with Dean. But John had to make a teachable moment out of it-couldn't let it go. Mary would be so disappointed in him.
John hears the muffled voice, recognizes Bobby. When he finally convinces his eyes to stay open, the mechanic is closing his cell phone. The buzz of the harsh overhead lights and stark white walls brings back memories of arriving at the ER, being rushed into the trauma room.
"Who you talking to?"
Bobby glances his way. "I called Mackland."
John doesn't miss the satisfied smirk. "He pissed?"
"What do you think?" Bobby drops into the chair by John's bed. "He's coming."
John doesn't really want to think about The Scholar and the fact the two hour drive from Manhattan gives him ample time to formulate a speech of unbearable proportion. "How long have I been out?"
Bobby removes his hat, working the bill. "Not long enough. They gave you some happy juice in the ER before putting your shoulder back in place. They wrapped your ribs while they were at it."
"I told you we could have done that back at the hotel."
"I offered. But Dean didn't take me up on it."
John thinks Singer would have enjoyed himself too much during the painful procedure, better it was done at the hospital. "Where are Dean and Sammy?"
"Surgery waiting room."
John struggles to sit up straighter, his ribs making the movement difficult. "Surgery?"
"Shovel made a mess of things."
"Shit." John runs his hand along his beard. "Did you call Jim?"
"I'll leave that little report to you, Knightly duty and all." Bobby sets his cap on his head. "Kid's not critical. The doc mentioned bleeders and bruised kidney, but didn't look too worried."
"Doctors never look worried. You sure that's all there is?"
"You'll have to ask Sam. He was taking notes for Mac."
"Yeah." Bobby scratches his whiskers. "You should have let the birthday boy have his fun-saved yourself a whole shit-load of trouble."
"You forget it would be your ass on the operating table."
"Like hell. I've had too many birthdays to fall for being bait in one of your brilliant salt and burns, Winchester."
"It was a job. I was in charge."
"It wasn't top priority. The house was empty-has been for months. Good thing seeing as how it should have been condemned." Bobby leans forward, elbows resting on his knees. "Admit it. You were just being a bastard, as usual. Got your shorts in a twist because Caleb showed up and Dean wasn't so gung-ho about the gig."
John hadn't been happy about the ease in which Dean lost interest in the hunt. Dean is not allowed to slack, it's dangerous. There can not be two generals, that only leads to dissention in the ranks, which gives way to disorder and death. John may be a bastard, but he is a bastard who loves his kids. He loves them enough to put their safety above their happiness. "The job comes first."
Singer rolls his eyes. "Don't think I haven't noticed you tightening the reigns since Dean's edging up to eighteen, John. And I ain't the only one."
"This had nothing to do with Dean."
"The hell you say. Then why didn't you let him go on the hunt when he asked?"
John decides to study the sling on his right arm. "He'd already begged off."
"So you make his partner in crime go instead." Bobby laughs with a shake of his head. "You know if you wanted it to be real effective you should have taken Sammy. Forced Dean and Caleb to go to the party. They both would have felt like shit when the squirt ended up being operated on because they ditched a job."
"Fuck you, Singer." John lies back against the pillows, closes his eyes. "Get out of my room."
"No can do. I promised Dean I'd stay with your sorry ass because it was tearing him up to have to choose between going with Caleb and standing by his old man. Funny how that predicament keeps repeating itself. I don't mind telling you that Sam had no such quandary."
John opens his eyes to see Bobby making himself comfortable by kicking off his shoes. He won't be getting rid of the mechanic anytime soon. "You honestly think I did this on purpose? That I wanted Caleb to be hurt?"
"You're still my friend. I like to think you got some of your heart left." Bobby's gaze narrows, and John feels small even though he is taller than the mechanic. "But I don't think you'll pass up using it to your advantage. After all these years, I know you too well."
John fumbles for the button to raise the bed, hoping to lose the small feeling, sick of being judged. "What would you have me do, Bobby? You think I should paint Dean a make believe world like Mackland has Caleb? Let him play in the 'normal life' sandbox for a while? What the Hell will that accomplish?"
"Prove you are his father-that you care- that the kid has some choices."
"Choices we can't afford."
The door opens, shutting Bobby's retort. Dean walks in, looking older than the seventeen-year-old-to- be. In that moment John can see his son aging in front of him, of what he will become in time, his creation, not Mary's.
"He's outta surgery, and in recovery. Sam's upstairs. The doctor said he's going to be fine-in time-like at least 2 months."
"So no hunting for a while."
The disappointment John feared from Mary now prominently reflects in living color on Dean's face. "Is that all you care about? Caleb could have died."
"No, I was asking for clarification. . ."
Bobby stands. "You said Sam was upstairs—I'm going to check on him. Make sure he's not pestering the nurses."
John watches as Dean waits for Bobby to leave. "Then yes, Dad, no more hunting-and if I were him I would think twice about hunting with you."
John has to react quickly to cover his surprise at the insubordination. Even though the rebuke is warranted, it's a luxury he can't allow Dean. "And now I'm assuming you are talking about the shovel."
"No. You said it was an easy job. He shouldn't have even been there."
"You think it should have been you. Because, just so I am clear, you were supposed to go."
Dean looks stricken, like the night with the Striga. John reminds himself it is for his son's own good as the boy rushes from the room. When John is alone he throws up in the kidney shaped dish by his nightstand
John recognizes the look as soon as Caleb opens his eyes, blearily searching the room. Disappointment is becoming a constant in their relationship. "Hey, Kid."
Caleb licks his lips, blinks. "Where's Dean?"
"I sent him and Sammy downstairs for a bit."
"Are you going to let him come back? Or am I stuck with you for company?"
John doesn't answer the question. He goes on in his own line of thought. "Jim expects you at the farm to recuperate, but your dad might have a problem with that-probably want you at his place."
Caleb holds his gaze. "I'd like to be at a pub in New York City."
"About that—Happy Birthday."
"Gee, thanks, almost seems sincere, but it could be the morphine coursing through me… makes everything all warm and fuzzy."
John tries for a grin, shrugs his uninjured shoulder. "I didn't get you a gift."
"It is going to be hard to beat this memory."
"I have one that beats it."
"Really? Would that be the time you left me in the woods on my sixteenth birthday to face down a werewolf alone?"
John rolls his eyes. The kid can be a drama queen. He hadn't been alone on that job, only led to believe he was. "No, it would be the first time I met this punk ass brat."
"I've never heard about the first time you met Joshua." Caleb shifts, his face paling as his battered body registers the movement.
John finds an interesting spot on the wall above Caleb's head. "You wouldn't leave me alone, kept following me around like one of Jim's hounds."
"I finally took pity and taught you a few sparring moves."
"You blackened my eye."
"I taught you to keep your guard up."
Caleb brings one arm across his abdomen, suddenly looking much younger than his new status of twenty-five. "This another training exercise, Johnny?"
"Did you learn anything?"
"Maybe it wasn't meant to be my lesson."
John rubs his burning eyes. "You sure you didn't hit your head when you fell, Junior? You're talking crazy."
"That's not an answer," Caleb says.
John pins him with a hard stare. "This was a normal job, shitty luck."
"That's good." Caleb seems to disappear further into the bed. "I can handle the war games, as long as no innocent bystanders are hurt by flying shrapnel. Dean and Sammy aren't collateral damage."
John hears the warning, the unflinching loyalty to his sons. He knows it is as much a product of his success as a mentor as it is a tribute to his failure as a parent. "I thought me and the boys would stick around for a while. Dean's birthday is in a few weeks. Maybe you'll be up to celebrating by then."
"Don't make promises you have no intention of keeping."
John's struck by the jolt of grief. Caleb is no longer the captivated kid tugging at his cape. Any reply is interrupted by the opening of the door and a crude rendition of The Beatles's Birthdaysong. Dean and Sam are bearing makeshift wrapped gifts and a cake. Bobby is trailing behind, a blue 'It's a Boy' balloon in hand.
"We tried for Butterscotch Pie," Sam explains, carefully placing the cake on the nightstand. John notices his younger son takes the long way around to avoid crossing his path. "But no such luck." Forgiveness will not be easily won. Sometimes John fears he has completely lost that ability with Sam.
"That's okay, Runt. One sugar high is as good as another," Caleb says.
Dean waggles the paper bags. "You scored on the gifts though."
"That would be true if you were a thirteen-year-old girl." Bobby ties the balloon on the railing. "Beanie Babies and Barbie are popular in the gift shop."
John watches Dean claim a seat on the edge of Caleb's bed, his back to his father. "Don't worry, Damien. Your real gift is the phone number I scored you from the hot life-size Barbie running the gift shop. She teaches Yoga on the side."
Caleb smiles and John is painfully aware of the genuineness. "Ah, an inspiration to recover quickly."
"That was the plan."
"I can always count on you, Deuce."
"Maybe I should use that technique to get you boys to train more," John says. He hopes to speed along his exile, even if it is not deserved.
"I told you what motivated these two years ago," Bobby throws him a line. "Women work magic."
"As long as their living." Caleb looks up at him, and John hopes it's a hint of mirth if not absolution he sees reflected in the gold gaze. "No more blind dates with dead chicks, Johnny. Especially on my birthday."
"I wouldn't trust Dad or Bobby to pick out a girl," Sam says. They all laugh at the twelve-year-old who nods knowingly despite only last year still thinking girls had cooties.
"I don't know, Sammy." Dean turns to meet John's gaze, those damn expressive eyes unblinking. "Dad found Mom." His mouth twitches ever so slightly, the way Mary's would when she was trying damn hard not to smile. "That has to count for something."
The pain in John's chest is back, Mary's face foremost in his mind. He licks his lips, tries to force some moisture to his mouth, hoping none reflects in his eyes. "Sorry boys, she was one in a million."
John is sorry.
Almost every single day he is sorry for not saving his family from the pain of losing her. Sorry because he will never be the father he could have been, or the friend he used to be.
He blames himself for it all, hoping that in the end he'll be able to make it up to them. Praying with the final battle he'll find peace and exoneration if only in Mary's eyes. Maybe even a little understanding.