Winchesters flashback. John POV. Set directly after the flashbacks of 1x18, "Something Wicked," the shtriga episode.

The Edge

by lostlikealice

John is getting good at pretending like he's breathing and okay. After this many years he's almost even fooled himself into thinking he can actually stay cold and collected in a world where his wife is dead and his kids are waiting to be preyed on by any damn creature that wanders out of the dark long enough to grab them for a midnight snack. Where his own son can't make a life and death decision in a life where death is right around the corner. He grips the wheel of the Impala and forces out a breath -- the dull pulse of drums in the Black Sabbath cassette turned down low gives him something to focus on, sets his heart to a steady, seething beat.

His eyes flicker to the rearview mirror; the usual fear clamps down on him, sets his jaw. Sammy is curled up in the backseat, shifting every few minutes -- he never looks peaceful, just still, like he's waiting for something.

John knows that feeling. The waiting. Standing on the edge between life and death, fighting to hold your line. It's insane that Sammy has the potential, the instinct for that kind of vigilance, and Dean doesn't. With all the time he's put into Dean, all the lessons, he should be ready by now.

Later. He'll handle that later, after he's killed this fucker good and dead.

Dean's still awake back there, in the seat behind him, he can tell because every once in a while he gives the seat a kick and goes still again in case John'll yell at him. Well, he isn't done being furious at the kid, not by a long shot, but he has to say something.

"Hey Dean," he says, loud enough to be heard but not enough to wake Sammy.

Dean takes just a second too long to answer, and John stiffens in his seat, his irritation rising again -- that's when he finally speaks up. "Yeah Dad?"

"Get some sleep."

He makes it an order, he doesn't know how else to say it, and it works, or nearly. Dean yanks off his jacket, balls it up and puts it between him and the car door, trying to find some comfort, some way to sleep.

This is the point where he's supposed to say something supportive. Something comforting. Something to make sure his ten year old son doesn't spend the rest of his life as paranoid, sleepless and guilty as his father.

He doesn't. There's nothing to say.

This is the life they've got, and Dean's not ready, he's not good enough, and John's not ready to forgive that.

Pastor Jim Murphy's a good man with an even better arsenal and the boys like him, and that's why he hauled ass across the Mississippi overnight -- to restock his trunk and find a babysitter.

He's too tired to think about how weird his life's become, but goddamn, it really has.

"Dad, Dad. Dad," Sammy calls, insistent, leaning out of the car window to see his dad better where he's standing at the trunk.

"Leave him alone, he's busy," Dean says.

"But we're at Pastor Jim's, I wanna get out!"

He's trying to take inventory, they're distracting him. He needs knives, shells, a hell of a lot. Son of a bitch. "In a minute, Sammy," he calls.

"John Winchester." Jim's heading down the steps towards the Impala with the cautious start of a smile, and John's hand immediately drops to his gun. Jim raises his eyebrows. "John, it's me."

John's expression doesn't change from the dark, sleepless bastard look he doesn't have the energy to fight anymore. "Prove it."

"PASTOR JIM," Sammy shouts from the passenger seat, and he waves.

There's just a second of a standoff and then Jim heads for the Impala, John watching his every move. "Hey there, Sam," he greets the boy. "And Dean. Looks like you're staying with me for a few days."

Sammy glances back at Dean for confirmation, and Dean grudgingly nods. "Really?" he asks Jim, grinning.

Jim nods, and glances back at John -- he flashes a silver knife out of the boys' line of sight before it disappears back into his pocket. "Really."

Dean pulls open the car door and crosses behind his dad to take a look into the trunk -- but John slams it shut before he can see a thing, and Dean flinches, pulls open Sammy's door without ever looking at Pastor Jim. "Awesome," he mutters.

Sammy is out of the car and hugging John around the knees before he's got the gun at his back covered. John hauls him up into his arms and gives Dean a terse nod as he lurks back and eyes the church doors.

"We should talk," John tells Jim -- rough, unfriendly maybe, but at least to the point.

Jim's looking at Dean, who's disappeared inside the church, and to Sam, who's got his arms wrapped around his father's neck. "We should," he agrees.

They don't mean the same kind of talk. John doesn't care, he's heard it all before.

"It's not going to be too long Dad, is it?" Sammy's asking him.

"Not long at all, kiddo, don't get too comfortable." John sends the good pastor a warning look at that, and Jim just sends him that half-smile again.

It's too bad the preachers can't keep their damn preaching to themselves. Some people don't want to be saved.

Dean's got Sammy occupied with a comic book only one room over from the arsenal and John's checking out the goods just as Jim's organizing a little. "I need a new shotgun," he tells Jim, straightforward. There are at least two on the wall that'd work.

Jim looks at him, prompting, like he knows there's more to it. "You have shotguns."

"Not for me. For Dean." John picks up a knife, tosses it, catches it, tests the feel of it. "He's got one of mine, but it's mine. Can't learn with someone else's gun. Have to make it yours first."

Jim puts his hands up like he wants to stop the conversation there, because they both know where this is heading. "You know how I feel about this, John."

John's unmoved. Sure as hell doesn't appreciate it. "When you have a kid you can raise him how you want," he says, but it's more than that. His grip tenses on the knife. "Sammy could've died, all because Dean wasn't ready. I'm not going to lose one of my boys because the other can't take a damn order."

"He's ten years old," Jim retorts.

He knows that tone, he's appalled, trying not to judge, but he is, the goddamn hypocrite. John hasn't slept well in years, but not this week, not last night, goddammit. No one can judge his life until evil hunts them and their boys to the point where they have to hunt it back. "He's old enough to think for himself, old enough to disobey my orders, then he's old enough to protect this family, his blood, his own brother. You of all people should understand that."

Jim pauses, tries again, cautious, because he's losing this argument and fast and has to know that. "John."

A man of God's word isn't good enough for him, never has been, because he's not going to repent for what he's done or what he's doing, not in a thousand years. "Ten or more hunters out there'll be happy to know I'm training the next generation to kill these sons of bitches," John says evenly. He twirls the knife between his fingers, slides it between his hands, and tosses it onto the counter in the silence between them.

"Even Sam?" Jim asks finally.

It's never been a question, because Sammy's still a kid, still smiles and watches cartoons and eats sugar cereal. But John knows -- he knows his boys, he knows what he has to do to keep them safe. "Even Sam."

Jim doesn't seem to know what to say. Something to be said for standing your ground, it's never failed John, not once. He stares down Jim until he finally speaks. "It's your choice."

"I know." He picks up the extra bag of rock salt Jim picked up for him. "I owe you."

"No," Jim says, with a quick shake of his head. His expression's unreadable, gives John pause. "No, you don't."

John just shrugs it off. He wants to kill something, he wants to get out of Minnesota and fill the evil fucker that tried to kill his son with cast-iron rounds. "Your call."

Jim finally speaks up when he turns his back and heads for the door. "You're doing good work, John," he says. "You're doing God's work, whether you believe in Him or not."

And that's where John laughs -- a short, bitter laugh, one he can't help at the mention of the God who took Mary from him -- and turns to face the pastor.

Jim's toying with the knife himself, glances up at John's silence. He just points down the hallway. "I believe in those boys," he snaps out -- acidic, painstaking, almost spat. But honest. "Because they're all I've got. I don't need anything else to believe in."

Nothing's resolved, but it never is. Jim gives him a short, silent nod, and John jerks a nod in return, pulls the door open, and he immediately turns at the sound of footsteps -- Sammy's running to catch him in a hug before he goes. John kneels to catch the kid. "Hey, hey, take it easy, Sammy," he says, lightened, just a little.

Sammy pulls away from the hug, giving him that doubtful, big-eyed look. "You'll be back soon this time?"

Dean's lingering back, and he catches John looking over Sam's shoulder at him -- his gaze drops. "He said he would," he points out to Sam.

John can't look at Dean anymore. Age five he saved his brother from the fire and now -- he puts his hands on Sam's shoulders. "I will," he says to Sam, only to Sam.

Jim shuts and locks the arsenal. "Good luck, John."

John ignores the luck. He doesn't need it. "Don't spoil 'em, Jim."

Dean makes some sort of scoff, but falls silent instantly at the incredulous look John sends him. "I'll keep that in mind," Jim returns lightly, and takes Sammy by the shoulder to gently pull him from his father's side. "The two of you, come with me."

Sammy turns back. "'Bye Dad," he calls before John even has the chance to move.

"'Bye," Dean manages, too quickly, nervous.

John nods to both of them and speaks only to Dean, who's the only one looking at him now. "Behave for Pastor Jim."

A week later, when he knows the shtriga is gone, he picks his best shotgun, buys some shells, and sets it aside for Dean. He steels himself on the way to Minnesota and ignores the look Jim gives him when he barks "Dean!" from the driver's seat of the Impala.

He was right. It'll work. And this'll never happen again.