Once the hunt took them to the same place at the same time. Cattle mutilations in Texas - and it wasn't a surprise that they should be there. They weren't to know that this was one of the signs in the pattern that he was hoping and dreading to find.
And they probably wouldn't hear about the fire. Maybe they'd be gone by then, maybe they wouldn't. But house fires didn't make it onto the kinds of places they searched - not bizarre enough to score those kinds of headlines. Just a young mother tragically killed in an electrical fire.
He watched with a dull pain in the center of his chest, longing to talk to them, knowing he couldn't. Devouring the sight of them, how tall they were, how strong, how confident. His sons - and his pride was mixed with anguish and worry. For so long he had prepared them for the time he wouldn't be there, and yet it still hurt to see them go on without him. To laugh, to lean on one another.
He watched and his longing became tinged with curiosity as they leaned a little too long, a casual touch to the small of the back lingered, became a caress.
Curiosity became surprise and surprise turned to shock. Disbelief held him rigid as they parted, lips lingering, husky laughs audible on the breeze. He shivered as the damp chill of the morning found its way through his worn, old jacket. But he didn't move. Not until the tail lights of the car disappeared into the morning mist.
And then not for a long time after.
Outside the Temple
"Nothing," Sam sighed, clicking the laptop closed. "Again."
"I hate these cattle mutilation jobs." Dean pointed the remote at the TV and flicked idly through channels. "Tramping around freezing cold fields, antsy farmers waving shotguns. And for what? To save a cow I'm just as likely to be chomping down on next time I order a burger."
Sam rolled his eyes. "You know as well as I do, Dean," he said patiently. "That cattle mutilations are often the first sign of something worse to come."
"And you know that they're just as often the work of teenagers with too much alcohol and really sick senses of humor."
"And if they're not?"
"Then we come back when the something worse happens." Dean turned the TV off and yawned pointedly. "I feel like a nap." Sam's lips curved into a knowing smile and Dean assumed his best innocent look. "What?"
"How is it that you discovered the fine art of afternoon naps so recently?"
Dean shrugged. "I must be getting old."
Sam shook his head and Dean scooted back on the wide bed, patting the fleecy coverlet temptingly. "Come nap with me?"
"We napped before we went out this morning. And twice last night."
"Yeah, and twice tonight too, if you're lucky," Dean retorted. "What's your point?"
Sam stood up and Dean tensed himself in anticipation, but Sam was picking up his jacket and drawing it on. "My point it that I'm going to the book store before it closes."
Dean wilted in disappointment. "Books?" he said in disbelief.
"I told you I wanted to go to that second hand place before we left town, and it won't be open tomorrow."
Dean collapsed back on the bed theatrically. "I can't believe you'd pick dusty old books over napping with me," he said, his sulky tone only half feigned.
Sam leaned over the bed and pecked a quick kiss on pouting lips. Dean craned upwards but Sam was already drawing back.
"Save that for later," he teased with a wink. "I have it on good authority that I might get lucky tonight."
"The romance is gone!" Dean called after him as he disappeared outside the door, then collapsed back on the bed again. Somehow napping alone didn't have the same appeal, so he decided he might as well clean his guns while he had a spare hour. Then he'd be all oily and that would definitely call for a shower and some seriously wet horizontal napping might ensue.
In fact it damn well would, if Dean had anything to say about it.
Life was pretty good, Dean thought, as he laid out his weapons and sorted through rags and gun oil. For the first time in a long time he wasn't worried that Sam was going to leave him, that they were both going to be alone again. And for the first time ever he didn't feel as if everything was on his shoulders. Sam was by his side. They were equals in this.
A knock on the door sounded and Dean lifted his head curiously, then leapt to his feet as the knock came again and the pattern emerged. Two spaced knocks, then two rapid ones, then two slower ones.
Dad's knock. The one he'd devised years ago to tell Dean it was safe to open the door. That it really was him.
Disbelief driving him Dean tossed the shotgun on the bed and wrenched the door open. His father stood outside in the slanting afternoon sunlight, unshaven, rumpled. Unsmiling.
"Dad?" Dean breathed.
"Christos," his father said evenly, then splashed water onto his chest.
"Uh." Dean looked down at his damp shirt front, then back up at his father. "Nice to see you too, Dad. What the hell makes you think I'm possessed?"
"Actually it was more hoping you were possessed," his father said curtly, and then he was swinging his fist and Dean felt the pain explode in his jaw as he fell back into the motel room, hitting the edge of a chair and bruising his arm.
"Jesus, Dad," Dean swore, staying down and staring up at his father in amazement, still too shocked to feel hurt. "What the hell is going on?"
"That's the second time I've hit you, boy," his father said, stepping into the room and closing the door behind him with a definite click. "First time you were fifteen years old, rolling in at four in the morning, covered in blood and love bites and stinking of booze and god knows what else."
"Dad," Dean said, pulling himself upright and taking a wary step back. "Just calm down, okay? I don't know what the hell is wrong with you, but -"
"I hit you and immediately felt guilty about it," John interrupted remorselessly, taking another step forward and forcing Dean to take a step back. "After all, what were you supposed to do? Meet a nice girl, take her on picnics, walk to church with her, meet her parents?"
"Please, Dad," Dean said, eyes darting around the room, taking in the two bags jumbled together on the floor, the one rumpled bed, the other pristine. He was starting to feel like he was fifteen again, getting caught out in a stupid risk, pressing back against the wall with his face bruised from his father's blow. The sheer mind numbing shock of his father, his father raising his hand to him.
"But whatever places I took you, whatever I denied you growing up, Dean, I raised you better than that. I told you that, didn't I? That morning?"
"You told me you were ashamed of me," Dean said thickly, jaw swelling, remembered pain mingling with the realization that his father was looking at him the same way again. "That Mom would have been ashamed of me."
"What would she think now, Dean?" his father said harshly and then Dean understood. His father knew.
His father knew.
Blood seemed to leave him in a rush, he could feel it drain away under his skin, could feel his skin grow tighter over the bones of his face, his legs weaken and tremble. He took another halting step backwards, feeling the comforting solidity of the wall behind him.
"Dad," he began then faltered to a stop. Because what in god's name could he say?
"I don't want to hear it," his father said, voice broken. "I don't want to know how it started or how far it's gone. It ends now, Dean, do you hear me? You're gonna end it."
Dean realized he was shaking his head as John's face grew thunderous.
"Dad, please," Dean managed. "You don't understand."
"I'm not asking you, Dean" John said flatly. "I'm telling you. Sammy goes back to school. And you stay with me."
Shock and shame seemed to be blinding him, gagging him, Dean could only stare at his father's face, frowning, trying to understand his words. "Sammy," Dean said, tears flooding his eyes. "Sammy and I-"
"I told you!" John thundered. "I don't want to hear it. It makes me sick, just thinking about it."
Pain splintered through him, jagged and sharp, stirring him out of his shocked stupor. "D... don't say that," he stuttered, blinking his tears away and pushing away from the wall. His legs held him up and he let go of the wall and stood on his own two feet. "Don't talk about us that way."
John shook his head in disbelief. "God, Dean," he whispered harshly. "Listen to yourself. Defending the indefensible. Sam's your brother. Your baby brother-"
"He's not a baby," Dean said roughly. "He's a grown man and so am I."
John stared at him as if he'd never seen him before and Dean struggled to meet his gaze. Inside he was shaking like the child he'd just denied being. He wanted Sam here by his side but at the same time was fiercely grateful that his brother wasn't here to see this.
"This came from you, didn't it?" John said slowly. "You started it. You didn't want to let him go when he left - you'd have done anything to make him stay."
I didn't tell him never to come back!
Dean clenched his jaw, keeping in the words screaming in his head.
"You knew he was grieving for his girlfriend. You took advantage of that."
His father's words were cutting a little too close for comfort now, but still Dean shook his head in denial. It hadn't been like that - he knew it and Sam knew it.
"I'm not gonna say this again," John said quietly. "You end this thing. That's an order."
An order. Somehow it was those words that gave Dean the strength he needed. Because when his father gave him an order he followed it. Even when he sometimes questioned in his head, he followed it. Even when he damn well knew it was wrong, he followed it.
Even when he was watching his brother walk away with his bag slung over his shoulder he followed it.
"Not this time," he forced out. "Not this time," he repeated more loudly. "I'm not letting him go this time. I'm not letting you drive him out of my life again."
John took a step closer, fists clenching menacingly but Dean stood his ground, set his jaw, lifted his chin.
"You only get one free shot, Dad," he said quietly. "Do you really think hitting me is gonna make me change my mind." He swallowed hard. "Or my heart?"
"Your heart?" John spat bitterly. "I know what organ leads you around, boy, and it's not your heart. You've spent half your life jumping on anything that breathes, but not this time. Not my son, d'you hear me? Not my son!"
"I'm your son too," Dean forced out.
"I trusted you with him -"
"You abandoned us!" Dean interrupted harshly. "You threw Sammy out and then you ran out on me and left me all alone. He left because of you, Dad, but he stays now because of me! Because he loves me!"
John's chest rose and fell with his ragged breaths as he stared into Dean's eyes, but the younger man couldn't begin to regret what he'd said. His heart was aching inside him but there was such relief in having finally said what he'd spent the year screaming in his head.
"We'll see about that," John whispered. And then he was gone.
Dean collapsed back on the bed behind him, hand clutching at his chest. For a moment he actually thought he was having a heart attack. Surely he remembered this pain as his heart seemed to contract and turn to lead in his chest.
"Dad," he said, unable to believe the last few minutes had happened.
It had all happened so quickly. Dad had just been there so unexpectedly and then the choice had been laid in front of Dean. The choice he'd never ever wanted to make, had prayed that he would never have to face.
And he'd chosen Sam.