They parked the car at the lookout, at the national park – because it was a start, follow the river, that was all John could think, follow the river, so he would.
And then he recognized the other car parked at the lookout, and it was the first lucky break he'd caught tonight, because they were in the right place, and hopefully he wouldn't be too late.
While Dad was grabbing his gun, jamming it into the back of his jeans, Dean walked around the Myers' car – stopping short when he realized Nate was sitting in there, peering out at him with wide eyes.
"Dad," he hissed.
Dad looked up, serious and fierce, and if Sam was here and could see the look in Dad's eyes right now, he'd never ask Dean if Dad loved them, wouldn't need to.
"It's Nate," he whispered. "He's still in the car," and the car door was locked but Dad jimmied it open with a bit of wire. Nate watched him the whole time, but when Dad finally got the door unlocked Nate opened his mouth and was about to start screaming but Dad was faster – clapping his palm over Nate's mouth, and hauling him out of the car.
Dean didn't think Nate's eyes could get any wider, but then Dad pulled out the gun and held it up so Nate got a good long look at it – and Dean had known Dad ever since he was born, wasn't scared of him in the slightest, but in that moment he almost was, so he knew Nate must be terrified.
"Now," Dad said, in a voice that Dean had never heard before, "I'm going to take my hand away and then you're going to tell me where Sam is."
Nate nodded quickly.
"Where's Sam?" Dad said.
Nate had been crying, Dean realized. There was a crust of snot around his nose, and his eyes were red and blotchy.
When he spoke, his voice was unsteady. "I don't know," he said. "Mom told me to wait in the car, and keep the door locked."
"Where did she take Sam?" Dean cut in, and Nate's eyes darted towards him, and then away.
"I don't know where she was taking him," he said. "But they went that way." He pointed off into the distance, and through the dim light Dean could make out a path that cut between the trees.
"What else?" Dad said, and there was steel in his voice, as clear a threat as any.
"She was acting weird," said Nate. "Sam, too. I thought he was going to throw up or something. And next thing I know we're here, and she told me to wait in the car. What's going on?"
Dad didn't answer, just got a firm grip on Nate's shoulders and kept him in front of him, and they walked in silence. Dean followed, keeping an eye out for any sign of Sam.
They walked for ten minutes, and then finally Dean heard a sound – except he wished he hadn't, because it was the sound of Sam screaming.
Dad motioned him to stay put, and Dean obeyed, even though every muscle in his body wanted to race over to Sam; but he knew that Dad didn't need anything else distracting him right now.
John rounded the corner with Nate held tight to his chest, gun cozy next to Nate's temple.
Elizabeth Myers was standing at the riverbank - she was facing him, holding Sam. Sam was not putting up a fight at all. He looked dazed, eyes unnaturally wide. John belatedly remembered Sam mentioning that Nate's mom worked in a pharmacy, probably had access to all kinds of drugs. Sam looked as if he'd been given a strong dose of something, otherwise there was no way he'd be just standing there, so limp and unresisting, as she held that knife to his throat. They were standing on a small precipice above the river.
"Stay away. Don't come any closer," she warned.
"Alright, alright," John said, holding up his hands in the universal gesture of surrender, and hoping to hell that Dean had stayed on look-out where he had told him, because the last thing he needed was Dean bursting out and doing something rash. John was normally all for rash, ill-thought out and hasty moves – but this was a fucking knife at his ten year old kid's throat – this called for some basic understanding of the situation, at least.
"You can't hurt Sam," John said. "Because if you do, I'll kill Nate." John pressed the muzzle of his gun closer to Nate's temple, could feel Nate bucking beneath his grip. John held on even tighter.
"You won't do it," she said, her voice filled with certainty. "He told me you won't," and she pressed the point of her knife to Sam's throat, drawing a drop of blood that looked obscene against Sam's pale skin. The cut wasn't deep enough to cause any damage – just a nick, but John found it hard to rationalize away a knife that close to his kid's carotid artery.
"Who said I won't? Who told you that, because lady, whoever told you that is a liar, do you understand me?"
"The man with the yellow eyes," she said, and John didn't know who the hell she was talking about, but her words sent shivers running straight down his spine, because nothing good had yellow eyes, nothing that should live.
"You can't hurt Sam." John repeated. "The only reason you're doing this is for Nate. You lay a finger on my son, and I will destroy yours."
"You certainly do have me at a disadvantage, John. But you see, you've made one mistake." She looked straight at him, and as her eyes flickered to black John realized with sudden horror that Nate was no longer a bargaining chip that held any sway, no longer a bargaining chip at all, because he wasn't dealing with Elizabeth Myers anymore– this was something older and darker and primal.
He tried to drop Nate and rush towards Sam but he couldn't move, not an inch. Something otherworldly was pinning him in place.
"This child," she intoned, as she stared at Sam – and her voice had changed, as well, become deeper, more of a lilt to it. Sam wasn't struggling anymore. There was a thin line of blood trickling down his right cheek, and when he stared across the river bank at John there was a feral sort of terror in his eyes. "It wasn't just Mary that you lost that night, John. You lost little Sammy too – or at least, the most important parts of him. Baptized in blood, purified by fire – such a special boy, but you already know that, don't you John?"
She paused, then, to look at him closely – and laughed. "But you didn't know!" she exclaimed delightedly. "I've heard what they say about you, John, but I'd never have believed you were actually as stupid as you looked."
"He wants his son back too, you know," she said, and pushed Sam into the river.
Dean had crept up close, mindful not to be seen. He could hear Dad and Mrs Myers arguing, but he couldn't really focus on anything except the knife that bitch was pointing at Sammy's throat.
His world had narrowed to the roar of the river, its rhythm pounding in his veins, and so when he saw Sam tumble in it was instinct to follow, diving in after him smooth and clean. The current was strong, but Dean had always been a good swimmer. Sam could hold his own, but even with all Dad's training he was still just a ten year old kid – a kid with a broken arm, Dean reminded himself, and he had thought he was already swimming as fast as he could but he found himself swimming even faster, towards the last place he'd seen Sammy.
The river was a raging thing, and the water was black and the sky was black and the only way Dean could tell which was up was that the water was beneath, the water was freezing. And somewhere in the midst of it was Sam.
The shock of the icy water woke Sam up a bit, made him more alert, although his head still felt muzzy from whatever Mrs Myers had given him.
He tried to strike out in the direction he thought the riverbank was, but he couldn't break away from the current. And then he felt a sharp crack as his head struck something solid, and his world become pain and then – nothing.
John raced to the river's edge, straining to make out any glimpse of his sons under the pale moonlight.
The river was churning up water so strongly that he couldn't see clearly – every few seconds, he caught a flash of what he thought was Dean, but could have just been wishful thinking.
Every instinct screamed at him to leap in there after them, but he knew that he would be no good to his sons if he was in there too, adding to the chaos. Here, he could help them as soon as they broke the surface. Besides, Dean could handle this. He'd stake his life on it – was staking his life on it, because his life was wrapped up in his sons, and now he had to rely on one to save the other.
Dean would save Sam – they'd done water rescue drills before – certainly never in such adverse conditions, but Dean would never let anything bad happen to Sam, not if he was close enough to save him.
That's what John kept telling himself – "Dean will save him," – but it wasn't until Dean's head emerged above the water, struggling to hold onto Sam's limp form, that he knew it for sure.
John waded into the river to retrieve Sam from Dean's arms, but Dean resisted, refusing to let go; so John ended up carrying both of his sons into shore.
He could taste the river, still felt buffeted by the waves, but stronger than the pull of the current was the sound of a familiar voice, and the feel of an arm around his shoulders – the steady litany of "easy Sammy, easy, just open your eyes, can you do that for me, kiddo?" and Sam half-opened his eyes, and he saw Dad kneeling over him, forehead creased with concern.
"How you feeling, kiddo?" asked Dad, and Sam wanted to say he felt a lot better now than he had all night – despite his splitting headache – but then he opened his eyes the whole way, and saw Nate lying on the snow, pale as death, and Mrs Myers weeping over him.
So instead, all he said was "Dean?" and it was more of a question, a plea delivered in a thin voice that sounded nothing like his own, his heart jack-rabbiting in his chest and suddenly he couldn't breathe, not until he saw Dean in front of him.
John hugged Sammy tight to his chest, tight enough to count every one of Sam's ribs, his fingers, his toes. They were all there, but instead of letting go he clung on even tighter.
And he kept replaying that split-second right after Sam went into the water, because there had been a moment where he could move again, right before Dean had dived in – and he wanted to say that he had hesitated because he knew Dean could handle it, but really it was because those few cryptic words were the closest thing to a lead on Mary's killer he'd had in months.
"He's not yours, John. Not anymore." That was what she had said, and then a cloud of black smoke had poured from her mouth, and she collapsed in a heap onto the snow. In the same instant, Nate had slumped to the ground – his body convulsing – and then stilled.
John wondered what it would be like to lose a son, wondered if what that thing inside Elizabeth Myers had said was true, whether he had already lost his son years ago – but as he felt Sam's heartbeat through his thin t-shirt it was hard to really believe anything was lost that could not be found again, and the panic and confusion her words had caused were swept away by his sheer relief that Sam was alive.
Dean was there, was there as soon as Sammy called his name, he was kneeling down in front of him, touching his icy cheek, grabbing tight to his wrists, running shaky hands through wet hair. Dean felt like he should be cold, too, as cold as Sam – after all, they'd been in the river about the same amount of time, but Dean was burning up from the inside, adrenaline and exhaustion at an impasse, but exhaustion was winning. Dean loosed his hold on Sam, and lay back on the icy riverbank, breathing in enormous gulps of air, each one a testament and a confession and a benediction beginning and ending with thank you.
He wasn't praying – he hadn't prayed since he was four years old – so he's not quite sure who he's thanking, but in that moment he was just so damn grateful to anyone and everything because Sam was alive, he's alive, and Dean saved him, Dean didn't screw up, and Sam was alive. And if that's not something to be thankful for, Dean didn't know what was
Elizabeth Myers didn't look bright or bubbly anymore. Her mascara was running, inky black rivulets beneath her eyes. She was sitting on the ground next to Nate's body. "He's gone," she said.
"Yes," John said. "He is."
She suddenly lunged at him, hysterical. "You killed him," she screamed. "You killed my baby!"
No, John thought, I didn't – even though you nearly killed mine. Except he can't judge, because he can't say that he wouldn't have done the same in her place. He fights evil every day, sure, but that doesn't automatically make him one of the good guys. John Winchester is not nor will he ever be a saint, not by any stretch of the imagination, and there are not many lines that he hasn't crossed; or wouldn't cross for his sons, and the line between right and wrong recedes more and more with every passing day.
He laid his hand over Nate's face and gently pulled the kid's eyes closed so his mom won't have to look at them. It was the only scrap of kindness he could spare, because he was wrung out and not sure how to separate Elizabeth Myers from what that thing inside her nearly did to Sam; so he wasn't surprised when he realized that he couldn't – because the hand covering her face as she wept was the same hand that a few minutes ago was holding a fucking knife to his ten year old kid's throat.
He didn't say a word, just scooped up Sam and started walking to the car. He didn't need to look back to know that Dean was following right behind him.
Dad pulled up outside their house, and Dean jumped out of the back seat, coaxing Sam out. Sam was swathed in an old blanket Dad had pulled from the trunk, and he still looked dazed, as if he wasn't quite sure where he was or what was going on. Dean steadied him, wrapping his arm around Sam's thin shoulder.
Then he realized that Dad was still sitting in the driver's seat, hands clenched around the steering wheel. The Impala's engine was still running, sending puffs of smoke out into the frigid night air.
"Dad?" he said.
"Take Sam inside, Dean. I'll be back in a few hours, and while I'm gone I need you to pack up the house, son, because as soon as I get back we need to leave, right away, do you understand me?"
Dad's voice sounded strange, but everything about tonight had been strange, so Dean wasn't about to question it. Dean nodded, mutely. He was tired, so tired, but leaving sounded about the best idea he'd ever heard. He couldn't wait to get out of here, to get Sam out of this place, to put as many miles as they could between them and Huntington, Indiana.
She was waiting for him, when he comes back to the crossroads.
"What was the point of it?" John said. "Why did that thing try to kill Sammy?"
She smiled. "I would tell you, John, but it doesn't matter. That's not what you really came to ask me, is it? You want to know if it's true, what that thing said about Sammy, don't you?"
And John found himself nodding.
"It is," she said. "Everything it told you is true. The man with the yellow eyes? His name is Azazel, he's the one that killed Mary, the one that changed little Sammy. He's the one."
This was it - the first solid lead he's had in weeks, months, years – and he could barely breathe through his all-consuming desire for vengeance, but he somehow managed to rasp out "Tell me how to find him,"; but she was already shaking her head.
"If you care anything at all about your sons – either one of them – you need to stay as far away from him as you can. Do whatever it takes. He can't find you, not yet. You're not ready to face him, and if you try to seek him out, you may as well hand Sam over to him right now."
And John felt his world shattering around him, crystallizing into determination. Revenge is what has been fuelling him for the past decade, but as much as he still wants vengeance, he needs his sons, safe and whole.
"I can help you, though," she said eagerly. The dawn was a faint smear on the horizon, framing her blonde hair like a flaming halo, and suddenly she didn't seem so much of a threat.
"You couldn't stop him tonight," John said, somewhat bitterly, because throughout this whole conversation, not a moment has gone by that he hasn't watched as Sam falls in slow motion into that raging river, again and again and again – and this time there is no Dean to save him.
She flushes. "I wasn't ready," she said. "You don't understand how powerful he is. He took me by surprise, took all of us by surprise. But I'm prepared now. I can stop him – there's a whole army of us, one for every crossroads, and we can stop him, hold him off long enough for you to get away, get ready."
John didn't want to, but he had to ask. "Ready for what?"
"War," she said, showing her teeth as she smiled, and her lipstick was the color of blood. "War, of course. You're training for it already, training them for it – but you're not ready, none of you. You need more time. I can give you more time."
"I don't want what you're selling, lady," John gritted out.
"Really?" she said. "That surprises me. I thought you'd want to keep your boys alive."
"I know better than to make a deal with a demon. Didn't work out that well for Elizabeth Myers, did it?" John taunted.
She looked angry at the mention of Elizabeth. "He did that," she said. "Not me. If it were up to me, Nate would still be alive – just like I promised. Elizabeth didn't offer up anything she wasn't willing to lose, but then he came, offering her a loophole if she could bring Sam to him. I only took Nate back because Elizabeth broke her end of the bargain – I couldn't get her soul – he stopped me, so I took Nate's soul back. But you can breathe easy, John, I'm not after your soul – messy twisted little thing that it is," she said, stepping closer.
"What about the whole dragging me to hell in ten years thing?" John said, and he hated the fact that he could hear the fear in his own voice, could feel the tremors as his hands shook from nervous tension.
She laughed. "Ten years from now you will be in hell, John – but you'll still be above ground. You've been in your own private hell for the past ten years, anyway. No need to move now."
John felt his shoulders relax, somewhat.
"I'm not even asking for your soul," she continued. "Or at least, not all of it – you'll barely even notice what I take. I just want a little taste, just enough to make you dangerous. Trust me John, I'm doing you a favor. Ten years is a long time – almost a lifetime - ten years of peace – you can teach Sam all he needs to know to survive. But after that, he's on his own. I can only hide him for so long. Even now, his power is growing stronger."
"Why are you doing this?" asked John, because there was always a catch, always - a demon was still a demon, and there was no way in hell she was doing this out of the kindness of her heart.
"Isn't it obvious?" she retorted. "I hate him. He stole a soul from me. Elizabeth Myers soul was rightfully mine, and he took it."
And you took Nate's in return, John thought, but didn't say.
"Do you really hate him that much?" asked John.
Her eyes flashed in indignation as she replied, "Yes, don't you?" and John does, he does. And a demon is still a demon, but desperate times call for desperate measures and the enemy of my enemy is my friend and John would sell his soul to save his son, except turns out he doesn't need to, because the kiss is chaste, and there's no taste of hellfire or sulphur, no spark, no feeling of a mystical contract being written. He does feel clearer, more determined, but it's nothing that wasn't there before, it's just been enhanced, somehow.
"Sealed with a kiss – just habit," she said, as she licked her lips. "You get all the benefits without any of those messy consequences. You don't know how lucky you are, John. This is the first time in a millennium I've been this generous."
John didn't thank her, because you don't thank a demon – but he also didn't exorcise her, so he supposed that's a kind of thank you, in a fucked-up sort of way.
Bobby Singer would kick his ass if he knew John was walking away from a crossroads demon without even trying to send it back to the hell it crawled out of – and perhaps Bobby would have a point, because normally John would be fighting with everything he's got, because he's a stupid reckless bastard (to quote Bobby, again) and he's never backed down from a fight in his life.
But there's a first time for everything, after all.
Sam was lying on the couch, fast asleep. Dean was sitting next to him, tired but watchful. There was a thick blanket covering Sam – enveloping him so that only the top of his head was visible. Dean's doing, no doubt.
John looked at them, his boys.
When Dean saw him, he moved as if to get up, and John said "Stay there, you'll wake Sam," and that was enough to make Dean stay put, sitting silently next to Sam as John made the trip back and forth between the rooms, checking to make sure they haven't forgotten anything.
Dean had done a good job of getting their stuff together, so John just had to assemble the last few things. He'd gotten to be somewhat of an expert at packing up quickly, leaving behind no trace of himself or his family – and that's probably not something he should be proud of, but it was a fact. When the car was finally loaded, he ushered Dean out, picking up Sam as if he was still a baby – and even though Sam was ten, he was not a burden to carry, looking even smaller and more fragile in sleep.
Dean opened the door to the backseat and slid in, reaching out his arms for John to pass Sam. Dean usually sat in the front seat, but John understood why he was choosing to sit with Sam tonight, because nothing about tonight was usual, nothing at all, he thought, as he turned the key in the ignition.
As he felt the Impala spring to life beneath his fingers, felt her heater sputtering warm air into the cold pre-dawn, he corrected himself. Almost nothing about tonight was usual, but some things never change, and the reassuring purr of the Impala was one of them – a small comfort, but a comfort nonetheless.
He'd been losing for so long that he'd forgotten what winning felt like; but as he looked at Dean in the backseat, huddled around his brother, John felt a feeling not unlike victory blooming in his chest. It wasn't winning, he knew that; but it wasn't losing either – and for now, that was all that mattered.
They hadn't lost Sam, not this time.
They drove for twelve hours straight, dawn blending into day blending into dusk. They stopped at a McDonalds for dinner. Sam wanted to stay in the car but Dean wouldn't let him, shepherding him inside, nudging shoulders with him at every step.
Sam walked straight to the bathroom, threw up, and then walked back out. Dean would have followed him, but Dad said "Let him go, son," and so Sam sat on the hood of the Impala by himself until Dad and Dean came back out. Dad looked angry. Dean was shivering, and Sam wondered why he wasn't wearing the jacket Sam had bought him for his birthday – and then Sam realized it was wrapped around his own shoulders, and he wondered when that had happened, why he hadn't noticed.
He thought maybe he should give it back to Dean, because Sam didn't ever think he would be warm again, no matter how many jackets or blankets he wore. He was cold someplace deep inside, someplace nobody could fix.
Sam hadn't said a word since last night, and Dean knew it was making Dad nervous. For once, he didn't care about Dad's reaction. He was too busy worrying about Sam. Because Sam hadn't said a single word in the past eighteen hours, nothing since that broken "Dean?" on the riverbank.
He sneaked a glance across at Sam. Normally, Dean rode shotgun up front with Dad, leaving Sam the whole backseat to sprawl out on, but Dean wasn't letting Sam any further away than he could help it, not after last night.
He'd tried to sleep, he had – and it's not that he wasn't tired, because he was – he was bone-weary, exhausted through and through. It's just that every time he closed his eyes he was back in that river, searching for Sam – except he was never fast enough, never strong enough, never good enough – and he jerked awake and the first thing he did was look over at Sam, to reassure himself that he wasn't a complete screw-up, that maybe Dad could forgive him for letting him down – again.
Dad hadn't said that this was all Dean's fault. He didn't need to. Dean knew that he had made a mess of this – Sam had got hurt, Sam had nearly died – Sam's best friend had died – and if Dean hadn't defied Dad's orders, none of this would have happened.
Sam was alive –there was that, at least. But Sam still wasn't talking, and he looked so small and defeated, scrunched up in his corner of the backseat, broken arm clutched tight to his chest. His eyes were closed, but Dean knew he wasn't asleep. Sam had never been able to fool Dean.
They drove on, and on, and on and Dean was so busy worrying about Sam that he wasn't really paying attention to where they were going, so he was surprised when the car came to a stop, and he looked up and they were in a motel parking lot.
It looked the same as every other motel parking lot – dingy concrete slab, nondescript wooden doors, lurid neon sign.
Different tune, same old song.
Dad opened the door and then paused, swinging around to face them in the back seat.
"Who are we today, Sam?" asked Dad, and Dean wasn't surprised when Sam didn't answer - just slouched in his seat and stared out the window into the night sky. They were close to the city, so there were no stars – just blackness – and Dean wondered what Sam was looking at so intently. Or maybe he was just not looking at Dad.
"Sammy?" asked Dad, and his voice was quieter this time. He sounded almost as tired as Sam looked; as tired as Dean felt.
Sam turned his head away. "Dean can have my turn," he said. "I don't want to play anymore."
* * *