John did not hear from Dean for three years. John had to accept that Dean wanted to make a clean break. It made sense. When Dean didn't try to contact him, John reciprocated and did not try to contact his sons.
He was surprised to receive a text message from Dean early one morning. All it gave was a time and place.
John wrapped up the hunt he was on and headed for Arizona.
He arrived at the Grand Canyon visitor center at dawn. He found the Impala, just as he remembered her, parked in the lot, and he pulled into an available space two cars away.
When he got out, John went to the railing overlooking the Grand Canyon and stood still while he watched the sun come up. The sky was shades of red and gold, matching the colors of the canyon below.
He was anxious as hell to see his boys again, but he could wait. He wanted this moment of peace, knowing his sons were close and the world was quiet and calm. Those times were rare enough in John's life.
As the day rose and the sky grew light, tourists started to show up. He was joined at the rail by vacationing families, couples on honeymoons, people just stopping by on their way to somewhere else. John was no longer alone, but he may as well have been for as little he moved or spoke. He was a solemn figure amid laughter and animated movement.
It was the place in life he felt belonged to him.
John still didn't move when someone came and stood close to him.
"All that time on the road, this was one place I never got to see before."
John turned to face Dean. His son was staring out at the canyon, smiling a little to himself.
Canyon forgotten, John took a moment to take a good look at his son. Dean looked younger than the last time John had seen him. That didn't honestly surprise John; the hunt was a hard lifestyle and it took its toll. Dean looked healthier, too. Like his diet no longer consisted entirely of greasy fast food and microwaved convenience store burritos. He had a tan that had brought out the freckles on his nose and cheeks that John hadn't seen since Dean was a kid. His hair was lighter, sun-bleached a medium brown as opposed to the shadow-dwelling dark color it used to be. Other than that, so much was the same. The same ratty jeans with one blown-out knee, the same t-shirt and long-sleeve shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He still wore the gold pendant on a black cord around his neck.
"Hi, son," John croaked.
Dean turned to him. Even his eyes looked lighter. Like he'd shucked the weight of the world and was delighted to see that the world didn't dissolve into fire and chaos when he did. "Hey, Dad."
Then the two men embraced. Despite adopting a civilian lifestyle, Dean still felt solid and strong. Dean obviously still kept up his physical conditioning regime. John was proud to know Dean hadn't abandoned all the things John had taught him, like maintaining his body like the weapon it was.
For a moment, John never wanted to let Dean go.
When Dean pulled away first, John reluctantly let him go. He couldn't help but smile. "You look great, Dean."
Dean grinned. The skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled, some of the lines new that John had never seen before, but somehow it made Dean look boyish. "It's good to see you."
John swallowed. "You too… it's been a long time."
John looked around Dean eagerly. "Where's Sam?"
Dean smiled again, this time mischievously. "He'll be out in a minute… that kid takes as long to get dressed and ready as a girl."
John laughed. "Well, he always did need more time than you. You pretty much rolled out of bed into your shoes and were ready to go."
John hesitated before saying, "I was surprised to get your message. When you never called…"
Dean nodded, his facing losing some of the carefree levity it had held. "I know. It wasn't anything against you, Dad. I just thought it would be for the best. Safest… for Sam."
"You were probably right. So… why now?"
Dean fought a smile. "Well, there was someone I wanted you to meet." His son wiped at his lips with his left hand, trying to mask the grin that was fighting to be unleashed. John saw the band of gold on Dean's third finger.
John's eyes widened.
For a moment, he couldn't find the words to say what he was thinking. There wasn't much that could render John Winchester speechless, but this certainly made the cut.
Dean didn't seem to mind. He looked content.
"I'm sorry," John muttered the first words he could force through his lips.
Dean blinked at him. "For what?"
John shook his head and grimaced. "I always knew my life, our life, wasn't right for Sam. I just… it never occurred to me it wasn't right for you, either."
Dean edged closer and put a hand on John's arm. "Dad?"
John took Dean's hand off him (it was hard to let Dean touch him) and pointedly rubbed his thumb over the wedding ring on his son's hand. "You did it so well, Dean. Being a hunter. You were a natural at it. I honestly believed it was the only way for you to live. I… I was wrong."
Dean drew his hand back and stared at his wedding ring. His brow furrowed. "Well, if it means anything, Dad… I thought it was the only life for me, too. I was surprised."
"Guess we were both wrong."
Dean nodded. "Yeah. Things change."
John stared openly at his son. He knew he was staring but he couldn't help it. He couldn't imagine his Dean settled down and married. But he was. It made him wonder how well he'd ever really known Dean. If the Dean he'd known so many years was the real Dean Winchester or the Dean Winchester his son had made himself because it was what John wanted. Maybe his boys weren't so different after all… maybe the difference all along was that Dean was a better actor than Sam.
"It was really hard at first," Dean said softly, as though reading John's mind. Dean kept his eyes on the canyon, but his attention was on what he was saying to his father. "In the beginning, coming home to a house, paying a mortgage… it was so freaking weird. Sometimes, in the beginning, I felt trapped." Dean scowled and dropped his gaze. "I went through a rough patch when I was just gritting my teeth through it for Sam's sake."
John swallowed but did not interrupt.
"I'd read the morning paper, every day, and I'd be looking for a hunt. I didn't realize I was doing it until I noticed I'd circled some strange death in the headliners."
"You were a hunter," John pointed out quietly.
Dean nodded. "I stayed that way… a long time. I was a hunter on a leash." Dean said the last with a savage bite to his tone. A flash of the frustration and irritation that that feeling had caused made Dean tense at the mere memory. Dean lifted his gaze again. "Then… I don't know. The being in one place and having neighbors and going to the shop every morning for work… I never thought I'd like that, Dad. I thought it would drive me crazy. And it did for a while, but then… I don't know how to explain it. It was…"
"It's comfortable," John said. He knew. He'd lived normal before he turned to a life of hunting. John had been through everything Dean had. Dean had only reversed his order of lifestyles.
Dean nodded. "Yeah… I have a home, Dad."
Dean's voice was filled with so much wonder at that concept. It was something rare and unexpected to him, not the certainty that most people took for granted.
John reached out and briefly clapped a strong hand on Dean's shoulder. A squeeze was all the answer he could give. If he spoke, he'd betray feelings best left unspoken between two Winchester men.
For what seemed a small eternity, John and Dean stood at the rail amid the tourists, staring out at the Grand Canyon. John would have been happy to stand there, his son at his side, all day. He couldn't think of anything more important at that moment than being next to his son in front of the natural wonder of the canyon.
A breathless call rose above the chatter of the tourists. "Dad! Dad!"
John knew the voice, had heard that name called to him many times, but it was Dean who turned.
Seven-year-old Sam Winchester came running toward them, a black and white husky pulling at the leash in front of him, barking and lunging to get to Dean.
Sam lost his grip on the leash and the husky raced ahead, jumping up on Dean in a flurry of wagging tail and lolling tongue.
"Hey!" Dean laughed as he ruffled the dog's fur. "Down, Jovi. Down." He pushed the dog off him and wiped off his shirt. Sam came to a breathless halt in front of Dean. "Didn't I tell you to teach her not to do that?"
It was the kind of reproach John could hear himself saying to Sam so many years ago, but the tone was completely different. It was gentle and loving. Instead of fuming and resisting in response (the way he always had with John), Sam just smiled. "Sorry, Dad! She's better about that with everyone but you."
John was watching intently. He couldn't take his eyes off Sam.
He couldn't believe the difference. He remembered Sam at seven, he could see that same boy in the Sam before him now, but years living a 'normal' life had made a difference. Sam was blond, no doubt from spending so much time in the sun. He was wearing a soccer jersey, and when the boy fumbled on the pavement for the snaking leash as Jovi darted around, John saw 'WINCHESTER' written across the back. He was still lanky and skinny, still had that mop of hair that John had forced him to cut so many times. Mostly, it was an untenable difference that loomed like the sun over the kid. It was the sense of looking at Sam and knowing he was happy. He didn't have the sadness and confusion of a life he didn't understand being forced to live in his face.
"Where's your mom?" Dean asked.
Sam huffed to finally finish catching his breath. "She was right behind me; Jovi didn't want to wait up."
Jovi was sniffing at John's pant leg. He absently held down a hand to let the dog smell it.
Sam looked past Dean to John and frowned. "Who are you?"
John stepped up alongside Dean and gazed down at Sam. He didn't have the automatic distrust John had taught his boys to have. He was cautious, but he didn't look like he wanted to reach for a knife or holy water.
He thought maybe that was a mistake, but he didn't say it. This was Dean's way of raising Sam. John had agreed to abide by it when he let Dean take Sam that day at Bobby's.
John looked at Dean. Dean only waited to see what John would do.
John knelt down and offered his most non-threatening smile. "I'm your grandfather."
Sam looked up at Dean for verification, and John couldn't help but look, too.
Dean was watching John with scrutiny. Maybe he'd expected John to maintain his right to call himself Sam's father.
John knew better. He saw Sam now, happy and healthy, and knew he'd lost the right to be called that.
Dean finally smiled, more in thanks to John than anything. "Sam, this is John Winchester."
Sam eyed John carefully, then offered a small hand to him as he'd seen grown-ups do. "Hi."
John smiled and shook hands with the boy. "It's very nice to see you again."
Sam took his hand back and blinked. "Have we met before?"
John stood, wincing at the complaint of his knees. He wasn't as young as he used to be, and hunting was a hard life. "When you were little. Guess you don't remember. Last time I saw you was when you were four."
While Sam was sizing up John and John was offering himself up for approval by the seven-year-old, a woman's voice called, "Dean!"
Dean's grin was automatic, like a reflex. He moved off to meet the woman halfway while John was captivated by Sam in front of him. He felt like he couldn't move, couldn't breathe, until Sam gave the okay.
Sam broke the spell that held John immobile by looking away from him. Sam turned to look toward Dean and John's gaze broke and followed.
What he saw took his breath away.
Dean was standing at the side of a woman. A very attractive brunette. John had to assume she was Dean's wife. That wasn't the shocking part. Dean was gently taking from the woman's arms a wrapped bundle, a look of immeasurable pride on his face as he gazed down.
John was gaping, speechless, as Dean brought the bundle over to John. "Dad, this is Jessica."
John stared down at the swaddled infant. She couldn't be more than a month old. She was half-asleep, moving her lips and opening and closing her tiny fists. She had fine wisps of dark hair, more her mother's coloring than Dean's. Stunned, John looked up into Dean's face.
Dean was beaming. Looking at him, John couldn't even remember what the hardened and resilient hunter Dean Winchester looked like.
"Jessica?" John croaked.
A shadow crossed Dean's face for half a second. "Yeah… Sam helped us come up with the name."
The woman came up next to Dean and rested a loving hand on his arm.
Dean came back to himself at the touch. "Dad… this is Carmen. My wife."
She held out her hand to John. "It's great to finally meet you, Mr. Winchester. I know Dean thinks the world of you. It's nice to finally put a face to the legend."
"Carmen… I'm very pleased to meet you." John gaped down at the newborn baby again. "You have a beautiful daughter." John couldn't help but think of Mary and how much she deserved to be here and see this baby. Dean's daughter. His and Mary's perfect little granddaughter.
"Want to hold her?" Dean asked warmly. John nodded mutely and before he could really comprehend what was happening the baby was passed into his arms.
Jessica yawned and opened her eyes to stare up at him. They were Dean's. She might have a lot of her mother in her, but John knew that baby gaze anywhere. He stared down in wonder at his granddaughter, but he was more amazed by all that she meant.
Dean had found a life and a family for Sam that John had never been able to give him. Dean was able to let go of the quest to avenge Mary's death, he was able to move on. Against everything John could fathom, Dean found a way to be happy.
Sam came up alongside John and stood on his toes to look down proudly at his 'sister'.
John, a lump lodged in his throat, looked over at Sam. He smiled weakly, "You must be pretty excited about all this, huh, Sam?"
Sam smiled brightly. "You bet. I'm going to be the best big brother ever."
John laughed softly. "I bet you will be," but he looked up at Dean, standing with one arm around his wife, and the two men communicated without words.
John knew Sam would do a great job looking after his little sister, but the honor of best big brother already belonged to someone else.