When you were a kid, I'd come home from a hunt, and I'd be wrecked. And you, you'd come up to me and you'd put your hand on my shoulder and you'd look me in the eye and you'd... You'd say "It's okay, Dad" Dean, I'm sorry. You shouldn't have had to say that to me, I should have been saying that to you. John Winchester
John glanced over at the lanky fourteen year old boy, standing near the stove. Dean wasn't going to be very tall, but he was broad and he could eat. Just the day before John had gone to the refrigerator and found only a case of beer, the cabinet empty. When he'd asked Dean about it, the boy had admitted that they had eaten the last box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese the day before John got back. Or that Sam had --- Dean had given up his portion of the food for days now.
The father blamed himself, of course, for not leaving enough money, enough food. Though Dean rarely confronted his father and never complained, he had found a voicemail on his phone after he'd finally managed to stumble back into his car.
Dad..? It's Thursday. Has the hunt gone over time? Me and Sammy….dad are you coming home soon? There's no food left in the house and the bar keeps throwing me out. Are you okay?
At another time, John might have been disgusted with himself, forcing his oldest to try to hustle pool, being late back, leaving them with no food in a tiny, air-condition-less room in the hundred degree weather. At another time, John might have…
Dean stirred the pot; more Mac and Cheese, the only thing the budget really allowed. Most of whatever John could get from credit card fraud or, even rarer, hustling, went to guns and ammunition and salt. "Dad, is something wrong?"
He didn't want to be talking about this now. He didn't want to talk about it, ever. He didn't want to picture Will's face, impossibly surprised, looking at John, looking down at the blood blooming red and terrible on his chest.
"I'm tired, Dean." And Dean was quiet for a minute, always a good soldier, then, "Are you hurt?"
John let out a huff of breath and took a swig of beer. He knew he shouldn't be this impatient, but he was operating on two hours of sleep stolen before nightmares chased him into the clutches of alcohol.
No, he wasn't hurt. Not the way Dean was thinking. If he had had any actual wounds, he would have told Dean. The kid was turning into quite the medic. He'd patched up some bigger wounds that John had sustained, keeping them from going to a hospital and skipping out of town again before they were found out because of insurance fraud.
In the back room, Sam laughed at something in his book. Clearing his throat, John tried to civil, tried to say something fatherly-ish. "Where'd Sam get the book?"
Dean ducked his head in shame, and from his point of view John could see the boy's shoulders tense. "We went to the library to get it."
"What?" John got to his feet, spilling knocking the beer bottle onto the notes he'd been painstakingly writing out, in luau of writing a note to Ellen about Will. "Fuck!" he swore, thinking of his ruined work and his insubordinate son. In the other room, Sam stopped laughing.
"You're never supposed to leave while I'm on a hunt. Do you know what could happen to you?" Because John did. He thought of djinns and demons and wraiths and reapers. He knew of so much more evil than other fathers did.
Before he knew it he was towering over Dean, one arm raised, eyes popping and hair wild. Dean cringed under him, trying not to look at the open hand. "It got really hot, dad. Sammy kept falling asleep and it took me forever to wake him up." Dean turned his mind away from the memory of his brother, passed out on the couch, a sheen of cold sweat covering his body.
"The library's only two blocks away, and it was air conditioned, and one of the ladies gave Sam juice and a biscuit." Dean had gotten the snacks, too, but had only drunk the lemonade, letting Sam eat his food. Sam was only ten. He needed food more than Dean.
The teen knew he shouldn't be taking Sam out of the building. The only time Dean had left the room was after Sam had been put to bed, to try to hustle at the bar the motel housed in its basement. It was a seedy joint, seedier event than where their father usually left them. He'd seen a drug deal while he tried to strike up a game.
"I'm sorry." Again, Dean glanced at John's raised hand.
John shook his head, barely noticing the flash of fear in his oldest son's eyes. He needed to get more sleep. "You never go into a town without me, Dean, you know that." He turned away, tossing back the words that always bit into his son, "I'm disappointed in you."
He sat back at the table, mopping up what he could with his sleeve. "Sam, get me a towel." He growled at the boy, now hovering in the doorway that separated the boys' bedroom from the kitchen. Sam scampered, fetching the towel within ten seconds.
"I wasn't Dean's fault we went to the library, Daddy." Sam said, his voice trembling. All he saw in the room was his dad, upset, and Dean shaking over a pot on the sink. "I fell asleep 'cause it was so hot, and Dean thought that if I kept falling asleep I wouldn't wake up."
John ignored him, just methodically removed the liquid from his papers. Five minutes later, when Dean, forcing joviality into his voice, told Sam it was time for breakfast, John moved into his room, shutting the door behind him.
He hadn't cried yet for Will. It wasn't as if they'd been especially close friends, but they hunted together once a year or so. You don't get closer to someone faster than by trusting them with your life. And John had betrayed that trust.
Friendly Fire. God, it was a term every hunter, every soldier hated to hear. He remembered his day in the Marines, remembered feeling his stomach clench at those words. At least when a friend was gunned down by the enemy you had someone to hate, someone to blame.
He knew he should stop by the Roadhouse. They needed to get out of this dump, out of the South. On their flight North they would have time, but…
Will had a wife, a daughter. John couldn't imagine breaking the news to them. He'd begun a few letters, but they all came out wrong, impersonal. And how could he admit to killing a man who was supposed to be on his side? There were few enough hunters as it was, and they got angry when one of their own was killed.
No, he couldn't write them. Not unless he was willing to admit his part in the death of a fellow hunter.
John? It's Bobby. Listen, you have to check up on those kids of yours. Where's your head? Dean called me on Tuesday, wanting to know if you were dead. How long have you left them alone this time? You know that Dean's only fourteen, he shouldn't have to be taking this crap from you --- BEEP
John, it's Mackland. Are your boys okay? You know that I'm only a few states over. I can check up on them. Do they have enough food? Air conditioning? You know that temperatures in Georgia during the summer can go up over a hundred degrees. Heat stroke affects young ones more easily than any other group. BEEP
Listen, John, if you needed a baby sitter why didn't you just call me? I could have taken the kids for a week. It's cooler in the Poconos anyway. You better not have left them all alone again. Have you forgotten about Minnesota? Heat can kill just as easily as cold, you know. I'm going to kick your ass if they pass out because you told Dean to be a good little soldier and --- BEEP
John deleted Caleb's message, barely listening to it. Where did they get off, trying to be so high and mighty, telling him how to raise his kids?
He looked at his watch. Nearly eight fifteen. Damn. He never slept in that late, though hunting and killing a man, not to mention driving across the state, did take a lot out of a man.
Dean was sitting at the table, eating cereal and reading a library book. John didn't even know Dean liked to read…he had thought that his son hated school and everything it was associated with, yet here he was, reading The Ill-Made Knight.
"Where's Sam?" John asked, sitting at the table, his journal in hand. He flipped through it, barely glancing at the newspaper Dean had left by his spot, open to the classifieds.
Pointing to the closed bedroom door, Dean murmured, "He had a nightmare last night, and was up for a couple of hours. I just got him to go back to bed."
John nodded, not even asking why Dean had come to get him. As distant he was, he did know that Dean was the one that Sam went to for help. He knew that his oldest son was, or perhaps already had, taken over the parenting role for Sam.
"Why aren't you in bed?" That was vaguely parenting-ish, wasn't it?
Dean shrugged, spooning another mouthful of cereal into his mouth. Staring at him, John noticed the collarbones sticking out from a too-big, too-thin shirt, the circles under his eyes. He vowed that he would thoroughly stock the cupboards next time he went on an extended hunt.
Bussing his plate, Dean looked back at his father, now nursing another bottle of beer between his head. "You want something to eat, dad?"
"No." He seemed incapable of the usual niceties of society --- those pleases and thank yous. They were so useless in the hunt, so superfluous at home.
Despite this denial of food, within ten minutes the intoxicating aroma of coffee filled the small apartment. "Where'd you get the beans?" John asked gruffly; he didn't remember buying them.
"When I got the paper. There was a packet downstairs for a quarter." Every morning John left out seventy five cents and the first boy awake would find the morning news.
Nodding, John looked back down at his journal, fitting another line of cramped writing onto the already chaotic page. He didn't notice Dean when he got closer with the mug of coffee, he didn't notice anything until something hot was pressed against his palm.
"Goddamnit!" he jerked his hand away from the unexpected temperature, nearly knocking over this mug, nearly ruining his precious papers. Dean's skinny hand shot out and caught the drink, righting it quickly enough so that only a few drops got on the book.
It was enough, though. All the terrible emotions he'd been feeling for a week now came out in the instant he looked down at the fourteen-year-old. Without thinking, he brought up his hand, fisted, and slammed Dean in the face, knocking the boy across the room.
For his part, the boy didn't cry out, didn't make a sound past the oof and thud when he landed against the wall, hitting his head on the floor. John was still breathing heavily, and his hand raised again before he realized that Dean wasn't moving.
Grief, guilt, flooded him in an instant, flooring him for a second so that he wavered by the table. He stared at his closed fist, his fist, that had just hit his son. How was that possible? "Dean?" He asked, kneeling next to the teen, still unmoving against the wall. "Hey, kiddo." John reached towards him, his heart breaking when Dean flinched from his hands.
"I'm…Dean, I'm so sorry." He tried to ignore Dean's gaze, flicking from his father's hand to Sam's room before hardening. Dean shook his head and raised himself up onto one shaky arm, then to his knees.
"'S okay, sir." Except it wasn't. His father had never hit him on purpose before, never out of anger. Again he glanced at Sam's room, hoping that the door wouldn't open any time soon.
There were, John realized, no words to make this better. He ghosted a hand near Dean's cheek but the boy turned away, hiding the already swelling cheek that was certain to bruise. "'M okay."
John touched Dean's shoulder and the boy stiffened, waiting. With a quick movement he pulled Dean into an embrace, careful not to touch the teen's face. "It's okay, Dean." He said, trying to make his son understand. "It won't happen again."
And that promise was enough for Dean to nod into his father's shirt, enough for him to back up and tentatively smile, enough for John to promise to take the boys to a movie they couldn't afford if Dean woke his brother up.
And the promise to start over, to redeem himself in the eyes of his son, was enough for John to sit down and begin writing to a woman who had just had her life taken out from under her. Dear Ellen, he began. I'm so sorry.
Sometimes sorry does cut it.