Title:

Title: Shoot To Kill

Dean raises his eyebrows as John tosses another case of silver-loaded rifle shells into the trunk of the Impala.

"We hunting a whole pack of werewolves?"

John grimaces. "Not a werewolf, a loup-garou."

But Dean's right in a way. The thing has been doing a pack's worth of damage—six mauled bodies and two disappearances in less than a month. The locals are looking for a bear but that's typical civilian denial, looking for some rational explanation for what they can't understand. Hasn't been a bear in this part of Illinois since colonial days. Not a werewolf, though; the creature shows a complete disregard of the lunar cycle and as far as John knows the hearts haven't been taken, though it's hard to tell from what small bits of remains they've found.

The legend says 101 nights of carnage follow the initial transformation. They have to stop this now.

John throws his pack into the trunk, squinting into the last rays of the evening sun.

"You ready, kid?"

Dean nods. He's making a hell of an effort to look like a hardcase, but there's an almost feverish intensity in his eyes that makes the corner of John's mouth twitch.

"All right. Let's do it." He slams the trunk shut.

They get into the car, where Sammy's already installed in the back seat with his books and God knows what else he uses to entertain himself through the long hours. Sometimes John wonders just what goes on in the kid's head. He's way too quiet for a twelve-year-old boy, always seems like he's brooding over something beyond his years. John decides he probably doesn't want to know what it's about.

He remembers Dean at twelve. The kid never sat still for five seconds. Still doesn't, for that matter, unless he has to. Tonight he'll have to.

It's a simple case, one John wouldn't normally think twice about. But normally he'd be doing this on his own, with the boys tucked somewhere out of the way, out of danger. Dean sits shotgun, trying hard to look like it's just another night, just another road trip. John notices he's tapping his right index finger against his thigh and smiles to himself. Too proud and too stubborn to show nerves any more openly than that.

"Let's go over it again."

Dean sighs, but quietly enough to keep it just this side of insolent. "I wait for it to come down the trail, look for a good shot. If I don't get one, I keep an eye on it and follow it back down to your twenty," he recites.

"What else?"

"Stay out of your line of fire."

Christ, John thinks, the kid actually sounds bored. It sets him back a little. Shouldn't the cocky little shit be just a Ilittle/I scared? Then he realizes. That's not boredom in Dean's voice—it's trust. Faith even. Nothing short of unshakeable conviction that nothing bad will happen, because John will be there.

It's a faith that's naïve and misplaced, but knowing that doesn't change anything. Calling his attention to his father's human imperfection won't help Dean at all. God knows his life is nothing a sixteen-year-old should have to deal with. Hell, if it makes things easier for Dean to think his dad's invincible, then let him, John figures. It won't be long before he realizes what a crock of shit it is, all on his own.

The lights of town fade away behind them and the woods loom thick and unnaturally large in the headlights. It looks wild and lonely, but it's more like an island of woodland in the middle of a fairly populated area. Main reason the body count is already so high. Bunch of idiot nature lovers, getting more than they bargained for. Seems like reports of a killer bear in the area would act as camper repellant, but John's quit trying to figure out the stupidity of the people he's trying to save.

They're here. Dean's out of the car like he's spring-loaded the second they roll to a stop.

John doesn't like leaving Sam in the car by himself; that's just the way things are. Still, the old doubts rise up, just like every single time before, clawing at him like nails on a chalkboard. This is no way to raise these boys.

He comes up with the same old answer. I have to make them strong, teach them to survive. It's a worn, scratchy soundtrack looping in his head, this fucked-up arguing with himself. He's gotten good at tuning it out.

He slings his right arm over the back of his seat.

"You're gonna be okay, right Sammy?"

"Yes sir." He mumbles it, but he looks John in the eye like he's been taught.

"I know you will," John says. "We shouldn't be too long, but don't get out of the car for any reason. Understood?"

"I know, Dad." He goes back to reading his book by flashlight.

Dean's still acting calm enough when he opens the trunk, but John can see the signs of strain. His eyes are a little wide, flashing gold-green in the last of the day's sunlight, and he keeps flicking them back and forth, looking over his shoulder at the woods like he might see what hides there. He steadies a bit when he starts to check his equipment, has something to keep his hands busy. He shoulders his pack. John hands him a rifle and picks up one like it.

"You remember where I showed you to set up?"

"Yes, sir."

"I'll be about a klick south of you, down the trail. If the thing gets past you, leave it to me."

"Yes, sir."

The words are respectful, but John can hear the barely repressed I know; I'm not stupid. And he knows that Dean is far from stupid, but he also knows how it works when you're in the thick of battle. Higher brain function pretty much goes out the window; instinct and training kick in. Then he decides that if Dean doesn't have enough of both by now, all three of them are royally fucked anyway.

"Any questions?"

Dean shakes his head once and then turns to go.

"What else?"

Dean hesitates slightly. "Shoot to kill?"

"That's right. And be careful with that night scope. That sonuvabitch cost a goddamned fortune."

John watches him walk up the trail straight toward the spot he showed him this afternoon, no uncertainty in him. His step is light and sure and he moves without a sound as he disappears into the woods. His confidence is frightening. Some of that is ignorance, sure, but it's in Dean's nature to take risks and love it. John admires that about him. Hell, he's thankful for it. He knows too much about the things the boy will have to face. But it scares the shit out of him anyway. Dean's sixteen and even with all he's seen, he still thinks he's going to live forever.

John takes his position and settles in to wait. The creature's developed a fairly regular pattern over the last couple of weeks of killing every third night and this is the night. John has a full store of patience, but he's been doing this for a while and tonight he's got the feeling they won't have long to wait.

If nothing else, the eerie quiet of the woods would have told him. It's warm enough for crickets, but he doesn't hear any. Not even a mosquito buzzes past his ear. There's no breeze. Even his breathing sounds loud to him and that's not right because he knows how to do even that in silence.

Something's coming.

He feels the adrenaline start to seep into his blood. Nerves vibrate and crawl to the surface of his skin. A light sweat breaks out over his forehead. He knows this is how it happens, that these are good things, but he can't help wondering how Dean is taking the pressure. He's starting to wish he'd taken the position at the head of the trail instead. But there's no use second-guessing now. It's too late anyway and it's wrecking his concentration when he needs every bit of it.

The crack of a high-powered rifle rips the stillness. There's an ungodly roar. It sizzles through John's blood like lightning. A powerful urge to roar back at the thing surges out of some primal place in his brain. He resists it and eases his way to his feet. He barely breathes, concentration narrowed to a tight focus, to the spot where it will emerge into the clearing above him—he knows the place by raw instinct. Forces himself to wait. Wait. Don't spook it. Wait.

Then he sees it.

He's expecting something at least vaguely canine, but it is a bear. A big fucking bear, just like the locals said. He raises his rifle to his shoulder and lines up the crosshairs. Before he gets an open shot, the creature starts to slow and stagger. Sonuvabitch. Dean hit the goddamned thing.

It falls heavily to the ground with a noisy snapping of branches and crunching of brush and doesn't move again, but John hangs back, giving it some time to stay dead. He's still alive after all these years for a reason. He only heard one shot and one shot might not be enough for a bear that size, even from a 30-06. He waits and the thing's still not moving, but he's starting to get nervous because there's no sign of Dean.

He waits until he can't wait anymore. He usually wouldn't risk the noise of another expensive and possibly unneeded shot, but he needs to see Dean right now—need to see him alive, goddamnit. He shoots the thing once where it fell and takes off up the trail. And he's really scared now, because he told the kid to follow the thing down and he didn't and now the second shot hasn't brought him down the trail either.

He runs. He's breathing hard from terror more than the running when he finally sees the spot he showed Dean earlier, but it's too dark to see anything. He swings his pack around without stopping and digs for the flashlight he keeps in the side pocket. Dean's nest is a natural hollow at the roots of a tree and he still can't see the kid.

John finally makes it to the edge of the bowl and his son's body is lying in the bottom, exactly where he told him to go. His gut gives a vicious twist because Dean's just too still and he skids down the slight slope and falls to his knees beside him. Dean's eyes are wide open, and his skin is clammy and way too cool—oh God no, Dean—and he can't even make himself put his hand up to check for a pulse because he doesn't want to know what he already suspects.

The flashlight wavers a little and he steadies it, then he stops. He takes the light away from Dean's face and then shines it back, sees the pupils constrict. Jesusgodyes, thank you. He shakes Dean by the shoulders, but the boy doesn't react. Checks his airway; he's not breathing. Shit, John knows CPR; what's the next fucking thing he's supposed to do?

Breathe. Both of them need to breathe. He gives Dean two quick breaths. Checks for a pulse. There is a faint one, thank everything that's holy. He puts his cheek next to Dean's to check again and there it is. He's breathing. Dean finally takes a whooping chestful of air and then looks up and sees John. John sits back on his heels and offers up a prayer of thanks to a God he didn't believe in five minutes ago.

Dean's still gasping when he says hoarsely, "Did you get it?"

And John's throat feels too small but he's always been a man of few words, so he settles for just three.

"No. You did."

Dean's still shaky as they walk back down the trail—not that the kid will ever admit it this side of hell—won't even let John carry any of the gear he packed into the woods with him. He settles for steadying him by pretending to adjust his pack every now and then and Dean lets him.

John's not really annoyed with Dean's little show. God knows Dean came by that stiff neck honest and John's glad for it, knows he'll need it. Too many times his own bull-headed contrariness is the only thing that's stood between him and just laying down and quitting.

About two-thirds of the way down the trail, Dean clears his throat and swallows hard.

"I'm sorry, Dad."

It comes out pretty matter of fact and John feels a swell of pride at how steady Dean sounds, when a few minutes ago he was all but dead. He's not feeling that steady himself right now.

But he's honestly floored by the apology.

"Sorry for what?"

"I don't know what happened. I saw the thing, the bear I mean, and I took the shot and then the next thing I knew I was looking up at you. I guess I passed out or something." The last is mumbled, completely humiliated.

And John doesn't have time to think much about that right then because they're back where the body fell. It's just a vague shape in the dark, but he can tell it looks a lot different than it did when he went running up the trail after Dean. He twists the beam of the flashlight over it, already knowing what he's going to see. The shape isn't ursine anymore—it's human.

John rubs his hand over his face. Sonuvabitch. He fucked this up big time. Thought he was so fucking smart. Dean almost died for his stupidity. But Dean's looking to him for answers right now and he decides he can beat himself up later.

"Well." He stops to think. "That explains it. That's not a loup-garou; it's a bearwalker. Way too far south for it, but…"

"Wait…explains what?"

"Bearwalkers induce paralysis if they get close enough. You were lucky to get off even one shot."

He watches Dean soak that in, but he's mostly thinking about where he went wrong. He thought he'd done everything he could to get ready for this hunt, eliminate most of the variables and risks. Stupid to think that was even possible and what the fuck was he doing, putting his son in danger like this? But what else could he have done?

And there's only one answer to that—has been only one answer for over ten years now. Nothing. Evil came after them first.

And if he's honest with himself, he'll admit that he's actually been looking forward to this, to Dean's first real hunt. Some sort of male bonding, rite of passage bullshit. Yeah, he'd wanted that. He guesses that means there's something wrong with him—hell, he knows there is. Also knows that on the List of 101 Ways John Winchester Is Fucked Up, this one probably doesn't even make the top 20.

So you'd think with all the anticipation and preparation, he'd be ready for the look Dean's got on his face right now, the message his hunched shoulders are flashing like a strobe. The kid's processed the fact that he killed somebody and he's fucked up over it; John knows by the way he can't look at the body, but can't quite look away either.

It's not like John shouldn't have seen this coming. Hell, he's been there himself, when he wasn't much older than Dean is now. Hasn't forgotten what it was like to stand over a body in the jungle somewhere thinking, "Sixty seconds ago this was a person, a human being." And maybe this one tonight wasn't human, not completely anyway, but it looks human now and it's the first one Dean's shot, the first one he's killed.

And he's glad Dean's affected by it, would have thought there was something severely wrong with the kid if he wasn't. He's seen too many hunters that aren't just hardened to the bloodshed, but indifferent to it, and that's evil to John, just as evil as the things they kill.

But he wants to figure out a way to help Dean get some perspective on this. It's the first time he's standing in this spot; it won't be the last. He puts a hand on his shoulder and the kid jumps like he's forgotten John was there.

"Let's go check on Sammy."

Back at the car, he lets Dean load most of the equipment. Maybe it's just the prospect of rest, but his legs feel unsteady and his hands are shaking like they seldom do anymore after a hunt and he just wants to sit for a minute before they hit the road.

Sam barely stirs in his sleep when the door opens and the dome light comes on. The sound is too familiar to disturb him much. That backseat is as close to home as it gets for him and John thinks maybe he should be bothered by that, but as long as they're all alive and together he can't really get too worked up over it. Especially when they came so damned close to losing one of their own tonight.

Dean gets in without a word. John puts his hand to the key and then drops it back to rest on his thigh. He sighs and stretches his neck from side to side. He sits back against the seat and doesn't look at Dean, but he still sees the sidelong glance the boy gives him and he knows what it means. Dean thinks he's about to get his ass chewed.

John can't let that stand, not tonight, but the thought of fixing this settles like a weight on his chest, makes it hard to breathe. He rubs his forehead with his fingertips and heaves a sigh, sliding his hand down his face to wipe across his mouth.

"Dean, I was wrong." That gets the kid's attention. John doesn't say what he was wrong about, just lets him make of it what he will.

"Son, you don't shoot to kill; you shoot to stay alive." John finally turns to look him in the eye, holds the contact for a bit. "You did good."

Then he does start the Impala, the familiar growl of the engine and the vibration from the wheel soothing away the last of the shakes in his hands. He pulls out onto the highway and Dean's asleep with his head against the window before they've gone ten miles.

John's tired too, but he drives on for hours through the clear and cooling night because he can. Because he knows that right now every single thing that matters is within reach of his hand. And it's enough.