The Decisive Moment
A/N: The summer of the fluff comes to an end, just in time for Labor Day and back to school here in the US. Tidia can testify I am terrible at endings. Thanks to her for putting up with my picking, and more picking, and the 'what am I missing'? I really want to thank those of you out there in reader land that took a chance on this series, enduring the endless fluff and especially to those who wrote to let me know what you thought. I tried to fit in some of the requests in this one, and I hope I got to everyone. Again, thank you to Tara who did a read through and couldn't find that elusive thing I swore was missing.
"Josh, Max is okay. Really. He and James are grabbing some breakfast with Sam. They're both shaken up, worried about JT, but physically they're fine." Dean pressed the phone closer to his ear, leaning against the wall of the quiet alcove he'd ducked into. He was tired, the relentless drum solo taking place behind his eyes making it hard to focus on the conversation at hand. Sam had called Joshua as soon as they found the boys, explaining the situation they had with the promise of keeping The Advisor informed as he made his way back from Los Angeles.
"JT's hanging in there." The trip off the mountain sucked. Their journey to a spot where the medivac could reach them was painstakingly slow. JT hadn't regained consciousness. Dean tried not to remember the sensation of stepping into the clearing, finding his sons and Max. The glow of the silver protection circle illuminating the blood covering them, reflecting the desperation in their eyes. JT lay lifeless in the center of it all.
"Yeah." Dean shoved the thoughts away, concentrating on Joshua's questions. He slid a shaky hand through his hair. "Moderate concussion, some fractured ribs, and internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen."
Doctor Patel had listed JT's injuries to Dean and Juliet. Ben had pretty much given the same diagnosis on the mountain, but hearing them confirmed by a stranger in the brightly lit, overly decorated consultation room had seemed grimmer. Juliet's attempt at a brave, calm, collected front had not helped. If Joshua noticed the slight tremor in Dean's voice he didn't let on. "They took him down to surgery about an hour ago. It could be a while."
Ben was staked out in the waiting room with Juliet. Dean left Caleb with them, using the obligatory phone calls as a legitimate excuse for escape. He needed to know JT was going to be alright before he could face his oldest son or JT's mother. Dean banged his head against the wall, listening as Joshua reminded him that they had all, at one time or another, been in similar case scenarios. But that was them, not one of Dean's children.
He cleared his throat, trying to focus on the positive. "Ben thinks they should be able correct the bleeding, hopefully spare his spleen."
Despite being a resident at Johns Hopkins, his oldest son had not been allowed in the surgical suite as he had hoped. Ben had tried to persuade them otherwise in a tone reminiscent of Doctor Mackland Ames, asserting that technically JT was his patient. The chief of staff gently put him in his place by pointing out being JT's brother negated customary courtesy.
"I know I should listen to him, man." Dean nodded even though Joshua couldn't see him. "The kid knows his stuff."
Dean sensed another's presence, lifting his head to find Caleb entering the darkened hallway. He straightened from his slump against the wall, his heart picking up a notch.
"Sorry, Deuce." Caleb must have sensed his fear because he gave a quick shake of his head. "No news, yet."
Dean nodded, noting the two cups of coffee his friend was carrying. "I'm talking to Josh."
Caleb bridged the gap between them. "Tell him I said screw the layover. The Ames jet will be fueled and waiting for him in Dallas. It will bring him to Asheville and I'll pick him up."
"Did you get that?" Dean said. He took the coffee from Caleb as he listened to Josh repeat his itinerary. "Then we'll see you tonight. Tell Carolyn Sam will be home to get Mary as soon as JT's in the clear. He'll bring Max with him." Dean glanced at Caleb. "You too, Dude. Bye."
Caleb took a sip of his coffee. "I take it you didn't tell him about The Triad stuff?"
"There's nothing he can do about it." Dean put his phone in his pocket, shifting his gaze to Caleb. They would have to deal with the repercussions soon enough. Dean wasn't even sure what the repercussions were. "I thought you were holding down the fort?"
"Juliet sent me to keep an eye on you." Caleb gave him a half smile. "Sam is still distracting the boys. I think she was trying to get rid of me."
Dean and Caleb handled hospital rooms in similar fashion with lots of pacing and clock watching. Caleb had the added charm of his psychic abilities, which he used to keep tabs. "So what's the unofficial news?"
Caleb didn't even try to pretend he hadn't been connecting with his godson. "JT's okay. His link is strong."
Dean let out a breath, resting back against the wall. "Ben still in with Juliet?"
"Ace is glued to the seat by the nurse's station. He's not going anywhere."
Dean let his knees buckle, sliding down to sit on the floor. "Neither is JT."
"Right." Caleb joined him on the cold linoleum, their shoulders brushing. "Winchesters come from tough stock."
"Good thing." Dean wrapped his fingers around the Styrofoam cup, soaking in the warmth. "Because we fucked up, Damien."
"I know." Caleb's voice was quiet.
"I can remember the exact moment we made our mistake." Dean leaned his head back, staring at the tiled ceiling.
"The harpy hunt with Ben when you were hurt." Caleb finished Dean's thought. "I'll never forget the look on the kid's face."
"Ben's or JT's?"
"Choose your poison." Caleb snorted. "They were equally horrible."
"They thought I was going to die." Dean recalled his family's fear with perfect clarity. Ben had already lost one parent. JT was just as unwilling to give up any of his family. Then there was Dean's own fear to contend with. Watching that harpy go after Ben had shifted Dean's perspective in a way he never expected. "They followed me around for weeks after that, had nightmares. Even Jimmy picked up on it."
"It was the quietness that rattled me." Caleb rubbed his eyes. "I couldn't watch them go through what you and Sammy suffered. I backed off."
"I let you." It was easy caving because it kept everyone happy, giving the illusion of a guaranteed safety. Their ideas of training the boys changed from that day forward. Sam had agreed wholeheartedly. The three of them understood the dangers of hunting, the devastation of loss. They were vigilant in removing the random factor of chance with the problem being in hunting, random chance was always factor. Their best of intentions was coming back to bite them in the ass.
"We let everybody down." Caleb bit his lip. "Did you see them out there? Max blames himself for not protecting JT and Jimmy. I put that idea in his head. Johnny hounded me to keep you and Sam safe, made sure I knew it was my priority mission to do so, but at least the bastard had the decency to make sure I knew how to be The Knight."
"We didn't have the stomach for it." Dean sighed. "Dad drafted us, instead of letting us enlist in some weekend warrior hunting regimen."
"Is that what we've been doing?" Caleb asked. "Letting the boys play dress up hunter?"
"Obviously we haven't done the best job of introducing them to the real thing. I could have handled a poltergeist blindfolded by Jimmy's age, had bagged my first werewolf when I was younger than Max."
"Fuck." Caleb slammed his fist into the floor. "What the hell were we thinking?"
"We weren't thinking, Damien. We were reacting. Scrambling to keep them safe. Just like Dad back in the day."
Caleb looked at him. "But in a way completely unlike your Dad."
"Exactly." Dean nodded. It made a sad kind of sense. Overcompensation rarely worked well. They should have found a happy medium. Like Mac was always saying. It was about balance.
"We were lucky they kept their wits about them and weren't killed," Caleb said. "Maybe we got something right."
"With Malachi showing up, they'll be in even more danger now." Dean knew things would have to change. The boys would have to be prepared on a new level. For that to happen he was going to have to let go of his fear, or at least make a truce with it.
"I am so fucking sorry, Deuce." Caleb's voice caught.
"Let's save our apologies for JT." Dean bumped his shoulder. Together with Sam and Caleb, Dean would figure it out. "We'll just have to do things differently."
Sam watched his nephew pick at his food. He wasn't sure James had eaten any of the eggs, only shifting them on the plate so he appeared to be following orders. "You need to eat something, Jimmy."
The protest didn't hold any heat, but Sam was chagrined. He had a sudden image of himself at thirteen proclaiming to Dean and his father that 'Sammy' was no longer acceptable. He felt bad for Dean. "Sorry. You need to eat something, James."
The thirteen-year-old shifted his gaze from his barely touched breakfast to Max. The older teen had grudgingly finished off his BLT and home fries. He shoved his clean plate to the middle of the table. "Don't look at me, Jimmy. I did what I was told."
"Since when is eating ever a chore for you, Dick Head," James said.
"Cut it out." Sam put down his coffee, studying the two teens before him. He'd already headed off two promising arguments before they could gain any steam. Max had Caleb's attitude, but Joshua's innate skill to needle someone without actually trying. James was prickly, and quick with a smart ass comeback. Put the two boys together and they could be explosive. Sam felt bad for JT. "Now is not the time to be fighting with each other."
James rolled his eyes. "It's not really a great time to be enjoying a big breakfast either."
Sam raised a brow, giving James his perfected Scholar look. The beginning of the adolescent years had definitely set in. Ben and JT had not left much of an impression, their easygoing personalities unaffected by the surge of hormones. James was another story, one Dean liked to point out was eerily similar to what he had endured with Sam. "Watch the attitude."
James sat straighter, giving a contrite nod. "Sorry, Sir."
"It's okay." Sam sighed. The boys were well trained, respectful even when they didn't really want to be. It was one thing they had gotten right. He wished the same could be said for Mary and Josie. "I know how hard this is."
Max cleared his throat. "How much longer do you think it's going to take?"
"It depends on how extensive the damage is." Sam intended to be reassuring. Max's crestfallen face told him he was not. He felt the tug of both boys' emotions, their fear mirroring his own. Neither Max nor James understood loss, minus the pain of losing a beloved pet. Sam was too intimate with the concept. He endured a lot of hospital vigils through the years, each horrible for their own reasons. The one moment forever etched in Sam's memory and on an eternal replay when entering any hospital was finding his father collapsed, too far gone to be helped. The last minutes with his dad haunted Sam, crawling to the forefront of his mind with every visit to the ER. Sam wondered if JT knew how much he loved him.
"Shouldn't we be getting back?" James said. "Mom might need me."
"Your mom wanted you to take a break and eat. You guys have been up all night." Sam knew Juliet also wanted time to compose herself. James and Max were as bad as Dean when it came to being patient. "She'll be upset if you make yourself sick."
"She wanted rid of us," Max said. "Nobody wants kids around at a time like this."
"We're not kids." James was indignant.
"Says you, Brat."
"No one's trying to get you guys out of the way." Max could be dramatic, his stormy moods so reminiscent of Caleb. At times Sam felt ill-equipped to handle the older teen, deferring to The Knight or The Guardian. Maybe it was because Sam wasn't around so much when Max was a baby, in school and living in New York. "We're trying to watch out for you."
Max leaned back in his seat, his long legs bumping against the table. "I wish you'd been around earlier."
The teen's statement was wistful, full of regret. Sam's chest tightened in sympathy when he looked in Max's blue eyes, easily recognizing guilt. "You did the best you could, Max. Your spell made all the difference."
Max picked at the bandage across his hand. "I shouldn't have used The Triad symbol." He looked up at Sam. "It sent out some kind of signal. Right?"
Sam could feel James's gaze on him. They were asking for answers he didn't feel were his place to give. The Guardian would have to make that decision. He had been grateful when Dean pulled back on the training, keeping the boys' lives as normal as possible. Sam of all people should have known in their world normal didn't work. "That's something Dean should discuss."
"What does Malachi Harris have to do with us?"
"Malachi Harris is a demon." Sam leaned closer to Max, lowering his voice. Harris had disappeared before they arrived, unwilling to show himself in The Triad's presence. "Anything he said you should disregard. Demons can't be trusted. Ever."
Max met his gaze. "He said you all were keeping things from us, that we were inadequately prepared."
"Whatever we have or have not chosen to share with you has been for your own good." Sam would agree on the inadequately prepared, but that was completely the current Triad's fault.
"That means you've lied," James said. "What else is The Triad hiding from us?"
"What?" Sam noticed the lone occupant of the table nearest them stood up to throw away his trash. "We haven't been lying to you."
"Is it something like with my abilities?" James's petulant tone returned. "Because I would like to have known about those."
"To what end?" Sam found himself suddenly thrust on common ground. He questioned his own father's judgment, resented Caleb for a long time for not telling him. Sam had long since come to understand John Winchester's reasoning. Still, he felt the hypocrite. "Knowing about them would not have changed anything. It would have only caused you to worry."
"Not like I'm not worried now." James lifted the mojo bag from beneath his shirt, shaking it at Sam. "Spirits and demons have it out for me. Harris said it-necromancers are too enticing."
"You're not a necromancer," Max huffed.
"Spin it any way you want to, man. I'm a direct link between this word and dead man's land."
"Most spirits are not like the one you encountered tonight." Sam again tried for soothing. James's eyes filled, his face flushing red. Anger might have been his nephew's initial first reaction, but a deeper feeling lay at the heart of things. It was a feeling Sam could completely understand. He was twenty-two when his abilities came on line. James was still a kid. "They want connection, guidance."
"That doesn't change that my brother is in surgery." James let go of the bag. "I don't want to do this anymore. I want them gone. I don't want anyone else to get hurt because of me."
Max sat forward. "Dude, calm down."
"You feel the same way," James rounded on Max. "Don't deny it. I've heard you and JT talking. You don't want to be a witch. It's too freaking weird for you."
Sam was thankful for the cafeteria lull as the boys seemed not to care they were in a public arena. "Take it easy."
"No," James said. His voice was quieter; his brown eyes alight with intensity. "I want you to work with Adam and Joshua. I want them to find something to make my abilities go away forever."
"It doesn't work that way, Jim…James."
Sam sighed. He liked James's questions better when he was four. Where does time fly to, Uncle Sam? What happens if you run over a ninja? And Sam's absolute favorite-where does Daddy keep all the dragons? Four-year-old James was under the assumption that Athewm and Belac were penned up in a barn somewhere. Sam missed that childlike faith and innocence, wasn't ready for the boys to lose it.
"Because you might be able to pretend who you are for a while, but you can't run from what you are forever."
James sniffed. "That sucks."
"It will get easier."
"If it doesn't get me or someone else killed."
"Learning to use what you've been given, treating it with respect instead of fear is the best way to prevent that."
"Uncle Caleb says fear is the path to the dark side." James toyed with the silver amulet around his neck.
Sam snorted. "Actually Yoda said that, but Caleb quotes Star Wars like your grandfather used to recite The Art of War."
"You don't use your abilities," Max said. When Sam turned his gaze on the blond teen, he shrugged. "I'm just saying."
Sam sighed. One of his favorite things about being The Scholar was recording and telling the story of The Brotherhood. The Triad had chosen to shield the boys from some of the grimmer tales. Sam knew part of that reason was because of the role he played. "I made a mistake with my abilities a long time ago. I let anger and revenge lead me down a path that led to a lot of people being hurt, including people I love."
"Like Darth Vader?" James asked.
"Yeah. Something like that." Sam was a different person now. He was a peace with his past, stronger and better for the errors he had made. "I can't go back and change any of that. Time only moves forward. Now when I do use my abilities I do so with control, like your Grandpa Mac."
"What if I can't do that?"
"I did it." Sam reached out and squeezed James's shoulder. "I have great confidence that you will be a much better man than me, Young Jedi."
"I want to be just like you, Uncle Sam." James gave a dimpled smile. "Just not a lawyer, more like a business tycoon."
"Thanks." Sam grinned, catching Max's smirk out of the corner of his eye. "You're still going to finish your breakfast, Dude."
James's smile fell. "Do you promise to get me in to see JT, none of that kid crap?"
Sam propped his elbows on the table. "This really isn't a bargaining session."
"You always say anything can be negotiated," Max said.
Sam recognized when he was outnumbered. He nodded at James. "I promise you both will get into see JT."
James picked up the ketchup, dousing his eggs. "It's a deal."
Sam leaned back in his seat, shooting a quick look to Max. The teen shook his head. "JT says sometimes it's easier to let him think he won."
"That work for you?"
"Nope." Max watched James pick up his fork and begin to eat. "I usually just pound him."
"You wish," James said around a mouthful of eggs.
"I can demonstrate," Max said.
"That won't be necessary." Sam caught the teen's arm. "There's been enough bloodshed for one night."
He regretted his choice of words as both boys grew solemn. Max's eyes went to the clock again. "Did Ben say he would come get us?"
Sam looked at James, who had put down his fork. "How about we just go see if anyone needs us?"
"Sounds good to me." James wrapped his bacon in a napkin and grabbed his plastic container of milk. "Ben is probably hungry."
Sam thought of his oldest nephew, the way he'd looked as he monitored JT on their trip off the mountain. Ben and Dean hadn't spoken; the silence and thick tension between father and son uncharacteristic of them and all too familiar to Sam. He remembered how he and his dad let hunting destroy their relationship. Sam had to trust that his brother and nephew would be smarter.
Ben stepped outside to a cloudless sky. The early September air was cool despite the bright sun. He shielded his eyes, scanning the quaint meditation garden. The Haywood Regional Medical Center wasn't John Hopkins, but it had a rare beauty nestled in the North Carolina Mountains. Ben had yet to find fault with the doctors, although he wasn't real happy with the Chief of Staff. The nurses were great, quick to bring updates and offer support. Ben learned early to respect the nursing staff. Nurse Rodriguez had been the one to tell him where to find Juliet.
She was standing near the rose bushes at the corner of the building where there were no windows. It was why Ben missed her when looking outside from the walkway connecting the hospital's two wings. She'd gone down to the coffee stand. Ben had promised Caleb he'd stay with her and after another check on JT's status, he'd come searching when she hadn't returned. She was alone, staring off at the mountain range in the distance.
"Jesus, Ben!" Juliet whirled around, one hand coming to her heart. In the other she held a cigarette, which she quickly dropped to the ground and stepped on.
"Sorry." He hadn't meant to startle her. "Are you smoking?"
"Am I smoking?" Juliet waved her hand in the air. "What? No."
"Yes, you were." Ben recognized her tactic. It was one JT used. Repeat whatever the person asked you as a distraction, or maybe it was more nervous reaction. JT and his mother were horrible liars.
"Don't be ridiculous." She left her foot covering the butt. "Has there been any word on JT?"
"No." Ben shook his head. "I'm surprised at you."
"Surprised by what?" She still feigned innocence, crossing her arms over her chest, hugging herself.
"You're a doctor." Ben had never seen Juliet smoke. She wasn't a health freak like Ben's mom had been, but she gave devout lectures to the boys on eating their vegetables and the evils of tobacco products. "You know how bad those are for you."
"I know." Juliet's bit her lower lip. "I only indulge during the highest of stress situations-a pack a year if that."
"That's counterintuitive," Ben said. "They raise your heart rate and…"
Juliet held up a hand to stop his lament. "I know, Doctor Winchester."
Ben noticed the crumpled tissue she was holding. His eyes went to her face. Her lashes glistened wet, and a faint trace of mascara smudged beneath her eyes. He had a sudden flash of her on his first day at the farm, very pregnant and serving him chicken nuggets in the shape of dinosaurs. Along with the memory came a sharper image of a much younger JT. Ben cleared his throat. "You start during vet school?"
Juliet nodded. "Don't tell your Dad. Okay?"
"I won't," Ben promised. He wasn't talking to his dad so that would be easy. "Can I have one?"
Juliet snorted. "No way."
Ben slumped against the wall, the warmth of the bricks feeling good after such a long stint in the air-conditioned waiting room. He rubbed at his stiff neck, feeling the lack of sleep weighing on his system. "I was worried when you didn't come back."
Juliet leaned into the wall beside him. "I needed a little breather."
"It's going to be okay."
"My head knows that." Juliet sighed. "I just need to convince my heart. It's taking the brunt of all this."
"The heart isn't the easiest of organs to deal with, Doctor."
"I concur, Doctor."
Ben turned his head to give her a grin. "I'm only a lowly resident, but I would be glad to assist."
"I wish you could."
Ben leaned forward. "Is it a mom thing?"
Ben swallowed, thinking of his own mother. He had been with her when she died. One minute he was holding her warm hand, the next the room felt suddenly empty and her skin grew cold. Ben was left alone, his life spiraling out of control. It was one of the reasons he pushed so hard to go into surgery with JT. Being there at least gave an illusion of power. "I think you're braver than she was."
"Your mom?" Juliet guessed.
"Yeah." He missed her, sometimes felt guilty when he realized how happy he was with his new family.
She gave a little frown. "Ben, why would you think that?"
"I think Mom was afraid of what Dad would bring into my life. I think she thought he was dangerous." Ben loved his father, but there was no denying the element of risk that came along with getting close to him. He couldn't help but wonder if his mom would have wanted such a life for her only son.
"Honey, I don't think your Mom really knew Dean. She was only doing what she thought was best for you."
"Do you think you're doing what's best for James and JT?" Ben was afraid she would be angry, but instead she only looked sad, which was worse.
"Did I ever tell you about the day I found out I was pregnant with JT?"
Ben shook his head. "Uncle Caleb told me the Jimmy story."
Juliet rolled her eyes. "Caleb only listens to your father's side of things."
Ben smiled. "He heard you threatened to make Dad have a vasectomy."
"Do you want to hear about JT or not?"
"I want to hear about JT." Ben was around for all James's first, including his birth. JT was already this unique little person when Ben joined the family, completely welcoming and unconditionally loving in the way only little kids and dogs are. Ben was crazy about both his brothers, but his relationship with JT was different. He'd never been responsible for another person before, and no one had ever followed him around, attempting to mimic his every move. Ben had never been anyone's hero. "I bet you were excited."
"More like terrified." Juliet turned so her right shoulder was leaning against the wall, facing him. "I loved your father. We were together, happy with how things were going. I was centered on our day to day routine. Me, setting up the emergency animal clinic. Him, working to build up the garage. Normal couple stuff."
"Dad kept you out of the hunting part?"
"He never kept anything from me. You know how the farm can be. It's The Brotherhood Central Station. Your father is The Guardian. I couldn't ignore it completely, but I didn't ask questions." Juliet toyed with her silver necklace. "I knew when he was hunting. I tried not to focus on that aspect of his work. It was kind of like dating a fireman or police officer. In the back of my mind I knew what he did put him in constant jeopardy. The lesser details I knew the better."
"JT changed that," Ben said. He remembered his mother reminiscing about all the new facets to her life his birth brought. She said Ben made her want to be a better person, someone a son could be proud of.
"I knew from talking to Carolyn what bringing a child into The Brotherhood meant. It meant that you were bringing up a son to fight for a cause. She grew up in a hunting family and accepted that. I was still dealing with the whole idea of elves and fairies."
"What if he didn't want to be part of it? Was there ever really a choice?" That was the point of contention between him and his father at the moment. Once you were born into the family, could one really not become a hunter? Ben knew Max wanted to be a hunter, would be thrilled he was chosen to follow in the footsteps of not only Uncle Caleb, but Max's grandfather as well. James and JT felt the same kind of exhilaration. Ben had been in their shoes. He hadn't thought about it so much when it was just him to consider, his concentration narrowed when he realized the parts his brothers were to play.
"I already guessed your father and uncles would make The Brotherhood too enticing. What boy would not want to be a part of that? Just like generations of firemen and police officers. "Juliet smiled, letting her necklace drop. "I won't lie to you. I prayed for a girl. Twice."
"Do you regret it?"
"Being with your father? Becoming a mother?" Juliet shook her head. "Never."
"What about the hunting?"
"There are days when I hate it. Today, for instance." She ran a hand over her hair, releasing a heavy sigh. "But in general it's brought many more good things into my life than bad. You, for instance."
Ben frowned. "I'm not sure I'm following you."
Juliet arched a brow. "If your dad wasn't such an awesome hunter, we wouldn't be having this conversation now would we?"
Ben easily remembered his father saving him and the other children from the changeling. He had been in awe of Dean Winchester, grateful, and that was before he understood their true connection. "That's not fair," he said. "I'm trying to stay mad at him."
"Good luck with that, Sweetie." Juliet looked at her watch. "It's about time for an update. We should get back."
"Juliet?" He stopped her before she could start for the door. "Wait."
"I'm glad you were brave and stayed with Dad, even more that you had JT and James." Juliet was a part of giving him a family. JT and James made Ben want to be a better person, the kind of person a brother would be proud of.
"Me, too." Juliet threaded her arm through his as they began to walk. "Are you sure you haven't on occasion wished they were girls?"
"Are you kidding?" Ben snorted. "Josie and Mary do not need to be part of the future Triad to bring us to our knees."
"Wait." Juliet nearly stumbled. "Did you say Triad?"
Ben instantly recognized his mistake. Juliet didn't ask questions; therefore his father didn't have to lie. "Did I say Triad?" He quickly opened the door for her. "What? No."
She hesitated before going in. "I don't want to know, do I?"
Ben shook his head. "With your delicate heart condition, I'd recommend no."
"Okay. I'll rely on your judgment, Doctor." She reached out and squeezed his arm. "Maybe you should trust in your father's."
Ben ran a finger over the silver ring on his finger, recalling how proud he was the day his dad gave it to him. He looked at Juliet. "I concur, Doctor."
Dean leaned against the hospital bed, staring down at his sleeping son. JT had been out of recovery in his own room for a few hours now. He'd woken up once, for a brief moment, but had not been coherent. The surgery had been a success, despite JT losing his spleen. Dr. Patel was confident he would make a complete recovery in time for cross country. Dean would not be at ease until JT was awake and talking.
JT's brief foray into consciousness and Dr. Patel's assurances were promising enough that Dean convinced Juliet it was safe for her to make a trip downstairs with Sam for coffee, and for Caleb to take the boys into downtown Asheville for some real food, something not charcoaled by the cafeteria . Seven o'clock was approaching, the room darkening with the fading September sun. They all needed a break, but it was suddenly too quiet with everyone gone. Dean needed to combat the silence with something besides JT's soft breathing and the typical background noise of hospital machinery.
"Looks like it's just you and me, Kiddo. What should we talk about?" Dean's adrenaline fed façade was starting to crumble. He searched the room for some distraction from JT's bruised and bandaged face. Max and James had left a deck of cards. Juliet's magazine and Sam's discarded newspaper were on the chair, but it was the paperback Caleb had been reading from that caught his eye.
He picked up the book, claiming the chair closest to JT. "The Zombie Survival Guide." Dean snorted, casting JT a quick glance. "Remind me to talk to your Uncle Sam about The Scholar's Required Reading Program."
Dean folded back the cover, smoothing his fingers over the well-worn first page. He read aloud. "This book is the key to survival against the hordes of undead who may be stalking you right now without you even knowing it. It is a book that can save your life."
Dean laughed. He wished a book contained those kinds of answers. Even the mythological Hunter's Handbook fell short of such wisdom. "If only that were true."
"I found some things helpful."
Dean turned at the sound of Ben's voice, surprised his oldest son had caught him off guard. Ben was standing in the doorway, looking as haggard as Dean was feeling. He'd refused to go with Caleb and the other boys, insisting instead to follow Dr. Patel on his rounds so he could no doubt pester the man with more questions about JT's condition. "I guess Sammy gave you a copy, too?"
"First Christmas I was at the farm." Ben crossed the room to check JT's IV. He glanced up at the various monitors before leaning against the rail of the bed. Ben pressed the back of his hand to JT's cheek then rested his fingers against his brother's wrist checking his watch. He glanced over his shoulder to Dean. "It came in a box set: The Demon Hunter's Handbook, Shapeshifter Stories and Witches and Woodland Creatures: What are they really like?"
Dean ran a hand down his mouth as he watched Ben go through the same routine he'd already performed countless times before. He wondered if all his son's patients would get such attention to detail and care. "Sounds about right. Sammy has always had a thing for books."
Ben seeming satisfied with his findings. He pointed to the paperback. "One of my particular favorite jewels from that little treasure is 'use your head, cut off theirs'. I had a poster made for my dorm room."
Dean smirked. He appreciated his son's inherited sense of humor, especially after having been given the silent treatment. "If only it were that simple."
"Yeah, yeah, Brooks missed the part about staking them to their graves. He was obviously an amateur." Ben folded his arms over his chest. "What about 'blades don't need reloading'? That sounds just like something you'd say."
"It's a valid point." Dean smiled slightly at his own little joke. "Especially if you're dealing with vampires. Crossbows are a bitch to ready."
Ben met his gaze. "I think I've come to realize the greatest wisdom in there."
"Oh yeah?" Dean looked down at the book, then back up at his son. "What's that, Ace?"
Ben licked his lips. "No place is safe, only safer."
"So maybe this book does have some redeeming value." Dean tossed the novel on the table, standing to move to Ben's side. He was grateful for conversation; happier Ben seemed willing to hear him out. He remembered having to come to terms with the idea his own father was fallible, merely human. Dean gripped the rails of the bed, staring down at JT. "I don't think your Grandpa John could have said it better."
"Uncle Caleb said he was really hard on you."
Dean lifted his gaze to Ben's. John had been hard on them all, hoping to prepare them for the fight. Dean had gone easier, hoping the fight was over. His son was paying the price. "For good reason it seems."
"I know." It was the one thing Dean wanted to be different for his children. He reached out, running his fingers through JT's dark blond hair. Some of the strands were stiff and stained with blood. "Safety is a necessary lie humans sell themselves. Sometimes it comes at a high cost. Dad understood that."
"He didn't want his family to pay the price."
Dean turned to face Ben, finding no solace in his eldest's watery gaze. "Neither do I, Son. This can't happen again. Things are going to change."
"I'm sorry about what I said earlier," Ben's voice broke. "I was way out of line, Dad."
"They're your little brothers." Dean reached out and squeezed Ben's shoulder. "Believe me when I say I know where you're coming from. I'm proud of you for watching out for them."
"But…" Ben started.
Dean exhaled heavily, letting his hand drop. "But you can't protect them from their own decisions, from the lives they choose, or where Fate may lead." Dean had learned the hard way with Sam. He'd die for his brother, but he wouldn't live his life for him.
Ben rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Like Fate leading them straight to The Triad?"
"Odds are stacking in that favor."
"I may not like it, but I can understand why." Ben rested his hand on JT's leg. "He's got the heart of a Guardian. Just like his Dad."
"I appreciate that." Dean offered his son weary smile. "But I'm not planning on retiring for a while."
Ben snorted. "Uncle Caleb is set on you all beating the record as the longest running Triad. To hear him tell it, you'll traipse through enemy territory with walkers and portable oxygen tanks."
"Damien always has had a competitive streak." Dean knew his best friend had the purest of motivations. "He's already lived longer than most Knights. Just take a look at Riley's flow chart."
Ben looked at JT. "Are you going to tell them?"
"I'm going to tell them some things." Dean didn't look forward to discussing the war, their part in starting it. He wasn't sure where to begin. "Some history we've kept a little vague."
Ben nodded. "I want to be there, too."
"I wouldn't do it without you."
"I still want to be a hunter, you know," Ben said. "I want to back them up."
Dean lifted a brow. "They'll need a good Advisor." So far, The Lady of the Lake had offered little insight into that position. Maybe it was completely to the Guardian's discretion. In Dean's mind, Ben would be the perfect candidate. He'd thought of Adam's son, Ryden as a back-up. The kid was a couple of years younger than Ben, a powerful witch, and much to his father's dismay very interested in The Brotherhood.
"I'd do anything for James and JT. Max, too. But I don't think I want any part of that." Ben twisted the silver ring around his finger. He glanced up at Dean, giving him a half smile. "Besides, talk about nepotism, Dad."
"What?" Dean recognized the mirth for what it was-a peace offering. "I can't help that all my sons are awesome. It's in the Winchester genes."
Ben held out his hand. "Are we good then?"
Dean clasped Ben's forearm pulling him in for a hard hug. "Always, Ace."
Dean let Ben go, reaching out to place his hand on JT's head. "Hey, Tiger. It's about time you woke up. "
"Dad…what's going on?" JT shifted in the bed.
"Easy," Dean said. "I'm here."
Ben moved around to the other side, pulling out his pen light. "Try not to move around just yet."
Dean gripped JT's hand, careful of the I.V. "It's okay, dude. You're safe now."
JT's face was fraught with confusion. He looked down at the IV in his arm and then up at his brother. "Ben?"
"Try to show a little respect when I'm at work." Ben carefully studied JT's eyes. "That's Dr. Winchester to you."
JT flinched, giving a little groan. "What are you doing?"
"I'm asking the questions," Ben said gently. "Can you tell me your name?"
"You know my name." JT tried to turn toward Dean. "Dad…"
"Humor your big brother." Dean ran his hand over JT's hair. "He's on a roll."
JT blinked, licking his lips. His voice was low and hoarse but had never sounded better to Dean's ears. "Jonathan Thomas Winchester."
"Good, JT." Ben flashed Dean a wide smile. "Do you know where you are?"
JT looked at Dean again, then past his shoulder to the sterile white walls and heavy curtains. "Hospital?"
"Yachtzee." Dean squeezed JT's hand. He glanced at Ben, glad to see the relief mirrored in his green eyes. "Looks like the infamous Winchester hard head wins again."
"More data for my journal article." Ben grinned, taking his stethoscope from around his neck, slipping it on, and placing the end against JT's chest. "Could you take a couple of breaths for me?"
Ben cast a glance to his Dad then to JT. "What do you remember?"
Dean watched JT's brow wrinkle in concentration, the frown quickly morphing to an expression of terror. "Jimmy!" He tried to sit up, gasping as his injured body protested the jarring movement. "Dad, the spirit!"
"Hey, hey." Dean soothed, carefully gripping his son's shoulder to keep him on the bed. "Take it easy. Your brother's okay."
"There was a demon." JT gulped in a greedy breath of air. "Max? Where's Max?"
"Max is okay, too," Dean said, looking to Ben for some help. "Everybody's safe."
"Calm down, JT." Ben used the remote control clipped to the rail to slightly elevate the head of the bed. He readjusted the canula on JT's face, keeping his voice steady. "You've got some broken ribs and an incision. Slow, steady breaths. Okay?"
"Where…" JT stopped struggling, clenching his eyes shut as he tried to do as Ben said.
Dean eased his hold, keeping one hand on his son's shoulder. "They're with Caleb. They weren't hurt, Son. I wouldn't lie to you."
"They ditched you for some grub, little brother." Ben checked the IV in JT's arm. "James is probably scarfing his second dessert at some pricey place he conned Uncle Caleb into as we speak."
JT opened his eyes, his breathing easier. "Sounds…'bout right."
"You know it does. I bet you ten we don't even see a leftover box." Ben glanced at one of the overhead monitors. "Are you in pain?"
"Some," JT said, shifting his gaze to Dean. "Where's Mom?"
"She's downstairs getting some coffee. She'll be back soon."
"I'm going to go grab your doctor," Ben said. He nodded to Dean. "I'll let her and Uncle Sam know the patient is back with us."
"How long have I been here?" JT asked after Ben left.
Dean continued to run his fingers through JT's hair, hoping his effort was providing some kind of comfort. The connection made him feel better. "Since early this morning." Dean nodded toward the darkened window. "Day's nearly gone. You had us worried, Kiddo."
Dean eased the rail down, taking a seat on the mattress by his son. "I don't think you were planning on scaring up a hunt."
"I didn't check to see if Jimmy had his crystals."
Dean rubbed his thumb over JT's forehead, wishing to erase the grimace of pain. He had never coddled the boys, but seeing JT hurt like this was a whole different ballgame. "I know I've always told you to look out for your brothers, but James's abilities are not your responsibility. Understand?"
JT gave a small nod. "You sure he and Max weren't hurt?"
Dean's mouth twitched. "I had to order them to leave. I don't know who pouted more, Max or your Uncle Caleb."
"They're both good at it."
"Everybody needs something to brag about." Dean lifted a brow. "Like a prize winning photograph?"
"Sneaking out alone in the middle of the night wasn't the smartest move."
"I'm all for chalking up losing an organ to a natural consequence of your poor choice, but your Mom might be a different story."
JT gulped. "An organ?"
"You now have joined me and your Uncle Caleb in the ranks of the spleen less."
"Wow." JT looked down at his side. "Spirits are really bad news."
Dean squeezed his shoulder. "Next time you come up against one, you'll be ready."
There was a disturbance in the hall, the sound of pounding feet. JT smiled for the first time since waking up. "Jimmy."
"JT?" James burst through the door coming to stand in front of Dean by his brother's side. "You're awake!"
"Crank it down a notch, Dude." Dean shook his head at his youngest son's boisterousness.
"Inside voice, Jimmy!" Caleb yelled as loudly as James. He entered the room, Max on his heels. "And what's with the running? We didn't raise you in the woods."
"What's with the we stuff, Damien?" Dean stood, smirking at his best friend, who was as bad if not worse than the boys. "It's not like we're married."
"Dude," Caleb folded his arms over his chest. "Face it. We're a little married."
"Good to see you finally manned up, Winchester." Max circled around the other side of the bed, taking position on JT's right. "James and I thought you were going to wuss out on us."
"Give me a break, guys," JT said. "I lost a spleen."
"Cool." James climbed onto the bottom of the bed. "That so trumps Max's appendix."
"It is not cool." Dean reached out and ruffled his youngest son's hair. "Heathen."
"Is it in a jar somewhere?" Max took a seat on the other side. "We could start a collection to put in our dorm room. Chicks might dig it."
"I don't know," JT replied around a yawn.
"Ben could probably get it for us," James said. "He's like in Dr. Patel's back pocket."
"The ultimate would be a kidney, or maybe a lung," Max said.
"Enough with the organs," Dean said. He understood the boy's pent up energy and their excitement at seeing JT. Their solemn behavior from before had been unnatural, but at this rate they were going to be thrown out of the hospital. "Let's cut down on the excitement before the doctor and Juliet comes in."
Caleb slapped Max on the back of the head. "Trust me. Normal girls will not find anything pickled in a jar of formaldehyde cool."
"Since when does our family attract anything normal?" Max said.
"How about you guys have a contest to see who can keep the most organs on the inside of their body." Caleb gestured from James to Max. "Extra points if you two hold onto your spleens."
"What's in it for us?" James asked.
"Good health and longevity not reason enough?" Caleb asked.
"Winner takes the latest Ferrari or Lamborghini when The Knight kicks it." Max lifted his hand.
James slapped it. "Sweet."
"Way to use their competitive nature, Damien."
"Got to play to the strengths." Caleb made his way around to JT. He placed his hand on the kid's head. "How you doing, Johnny?"
"Good." Caleb winked at him. "Because you know you're my favorite. It all goes to you when the Knight kicks it."
"Yeah." JT smiled again. "I know."
"You suck." Max looked at James. "I'm not sure we should even give it to him now. He's getting way too much attention as it is. This wounded thing is a racket."
"Give me what?" JT shifted, perking up at the mention of a gift. Dean looked at Caleb who raised his hands to surrender any part he might have played.
"The present Max and I bought."
Caleb cleared his throat.
James rolled his eyes. "The present we bought with Uncle Caleb's credit card."
Dean laughed. Caleb didn't want blame but he was not willing to give up the recognition. "What is it?"
James pulled the bag from behind his back, carefully placing it by his brother. "Open it."
"My camera." JT carefully pulled out the familiar Nikon. "You saved her."
"Of course we did." Max nodded. "No one gets left behind, even if it is a guy's totally replaceable piece of inanimate equipment that he has an unnatural affection for."
"But that's not the present," James said, bouncing slightly. "Check out the new strap."
Dean placed a hand on James's shoulder to keep him still. He wondered what Caleb had let them have for dessert. "Let's keep the action to a minimum."
JT ran his fingers over the soft black woven material. "Wow."
"It's hemp," Max said, bobbing his eyebrows. "Turns out Asheville is known for it."
"It's better than the glass bong Christmas ornament they wanted to get."
"It reminded us of Pastor Logan," James added. "Now we know why he likes to hang out here. We thought you could always remember our first hunt."
"Excuse me?" Dean was all for making JT feel better but didn't want the boys thinking any part of their latest adventure could be repeated.
"Even if said hunt was completely accidental and in no way our fault." James was quick to clarify. He avoided his father's scrutiny. "Right, Max?"
Max gently bumped JT's knee. "And you say I don't know when to shut up, J."
"Thanks guys, it's awesome."
"We kind of owed you," James said.
"You saved us out there," Max added. "Although throwing yourself in harm's way shouldn't become a habit."
"That sounds like sage advice," Dean said. He was proud of JT, the way he put others before himself. It was a double-edged sword. Obviously a trait one would want in a Guardian, but a burden when the person was your son.
"Just the kind of advice your old man ignored every time I gave it," Caleb said. "In fact, he still does."
"Shut up, Damien."
"I didn't really do anything," JT replied. "We were caught off guard."
"You should have seen your old man the first time he faced down a poltergeist," Caleb said. "He ran away from home, showed up at my place looking worse than you, kiddo."
"Thanks for sharing, Damien. How about we just focus on the future?" Dean looked at the boys. "I promise you'll not be in the same kind of situation again."
"Does that mean we're closer to getting our hunter rings?"
"No, Max," Caleb said. "It most certainly does not mean that."
"Then what, Dad?" James asked. He turned around, resting back beside his brother. "More training?"
"How about we start with a story?"
"Does it have dragons in it?" James asked.
"No, it has angels and demons."
James rubbed his hands together. "Even better."
"Let's hear it." Max got comfortable on the end of the bed. "I want to know more about this creep Malachi Harris."
"When we're all home-together." Dean motioned to the door. JT seemed to be having a hard time keeping his eyes open. They didn't need to tire him out, so soon after waking up. "Damien."
Caleb squeezed JT's shoulder. "I think that's our cue to head out. Get some rest, Johnny."
"Can I stay, Dad?" James asked.
Dean helped his youngest son off the bed, pulling him in for a quick hug. JT's doctor would need to examine his patient, and JT wouldn't rest with his brother in the room. "In the morning, Dude."
"Does Ben get to stay?" James started.
"Who cares, Dude. Let Ben sleep in a chair," Max said. "Uncle Caleb's springing for the Hilton."
"Who says?" Caleb propped his hands on his hips.
"Why not?" Max grinned. "It's right next to the airport and we have to pick up Dad."
"Do you think it has a pool?" James asked. "Hey! We can get room service."
"Out. Now." Dean pointed to the door. His sons rarely stayed away from home, unlike he and Sam who had grown up in motels. It was a rare novelty. "Scheme later."
"Let's go, boys." Caleb headed out of the room.
"Hang in there, J." Max squeezed JT's wrist. "We'll sneak you some food in the morning from their killer continental breakfast."
"Don't let Ben catch you," JT said. "He's in full-on doctor mode."
James hesitated at the bed, picking at a piece of nonexistent lint. "I'm really glad you're not dead, big brother."
JT smirked. "I love you, too, Jimmy."
James groaned. "God, you're such a girl."
"Bye, James," Dean said, giving his youngest a small shove to get him moving. "Listen to your uncle."
"Bye, Dad," James called over his shoulder. "See you in the morning."
"The emo stuff gets him moving pretty quick." Dean turned to JT once James had left. "Your mom and I will have to remember that."
"Easier than arguing with him." JT blinked, holding his side to manage a restrained yawn.
"You're pretty smart, Sport." Dean reclaimed his seat on the bed. He picked up the camera. "I"ll put this somewhere safe for you. I wouldn't want you to lose that Pulitzer shot."
"I put us all in danger, all in the name of my decisive moment."
"Not on purpose."
"Maybe I should give it up, start concentrating more on the things that are important."
"Photography is important to you. It's part of who you are." Dean knew things had to change, but he wasn't willing to sacrifice his children's dreams. "I set aside baseball for hunting and there aren't many days that go by that I wish I hadn't."
"Maybe I'll play for the Sox one day, do it for both of us."
Dean smiled at the thought. Baseball was an important connection to JT, sort of like what Dean and his dad had with cars. "Whatever you do, Kiddo, I'll be proud of you. Besides you never know when your talents will come in handy in the field. Max told me you swung that shovel like the bases were loaded in the bottom of the ninth."
JT shrugged off the praise. "It would be cool if I could have used my camera, snapped a picture of the ghost. We might have been able to find out who he was, put him to rest."
Dean lifted the camera to look through the lens. JT had a unique perspective, not only in how he saw the world, but how he viewed people in general. It was going to make him a different type of Guardian than his father, just as Dean was a different leader than Pastor Jim. "That's not a bad idea. Pictures would be better than descriptions in a journal. Who knows? You might be the first world renowned supernatural photographer."
JT opened his eyes wide with excitement of the potential. "Maybe that could be my contribution to hunting. I could do a book like Henri Cartier Bresson."
Dean felt the weight of the camera in his hand; carefully he wrapped the new strap around it. He was beginning to understand the differences between fathers and sons weren't as important as the things they had in common. It wasn't a reaction to an event, a change in thinking that took place in a fraction of a second. It was more of a settling in, a wearing away, realizing the truth that had always been there. "I believe whatever you bring to The Brotherhood will make the world a better place than it would have been without you."
In the end, it was with hope all good fathers let their sons go, sending them into the unknown armed only with their love and the faith that their sacrifice would not be in vain.
Acknowledgments: I must admit I stole one of my favorite lines from Scrubs. If you're a fan of that show, I'm sure you caught it. The dragon question was inspired by my four year old who upon seeing her Dad's new school for the first time this summer came up and demanded to know where all the dragons were. Apparently, it was the moment she had been waiting for. The dragon is their mascot. He wasn't quite sure how to break it to her that Puff wasn't being lodged out back in the field house, considering his last school was The Knights (I know, ironic) and there was a real knight who rode around on horseback during the games, decked out in chain mail and toting a lance.