John's nightmares have been reliable for a long time. Blurred by smoke, they're less visual than they are olfactory – he's used to waking with the thick tang of burning wood lying heavy in the back of his throat. Time was he'd bolt upright in sheer panic, cold sweat decoupaging his shirt to his skin, but it's been years, been many years, and nowadays he barely wakes up at all before he's back asleep again.

The dreams have been the same for so long, John almost doesn't notice when they change. Wouldn't have noticed at all, maybe, except that the terror returns as if it's fresh: his eyes slamming open into a dark motel room, the desperate fumble for the lightswitch, the harsh sound of his breath so loud and foreign it doesn't seem to come from his own lungs.

It's the same fear, John realizes, but it's a different dream.

Recently the wood isn't burning, it's rotting – and instead of smoke there's sawdust, instead of the crackle of fire he hears the crack of breaking beams, and when he wakes with his heart pounding through his ribs, he isn't thinking about Mary.

:::

"Sam can't cook worth shit," Dean declares, his voice strong and 3-dimensional over the phoneline. "Bobby caught him trying to make macaroni in the freakin' tea kettle yesterday."

"That's one way to do it," John says, thumb tapping absently on the wheel, eyes alert for his exit.

"The noodles came out the spout."

John snorts, shakes his head. "And here I thought your brother was supposed to be educated, or something."

"Well," Dean says generously, "he tied his own shoes this morning."

Sam's indignant voice echoes faintly in the background, and John can't help but grin a little as Dean shoots back a muffled retort that has Sam's tone rising in pitch.

"Hey, hey," John says. "You two can lovespat later. Just talk to me for a second, tell me how the research is coming."

"We ran the data you sent," Dean says. "I dunno, though, Dad – I'm not seein' any patterns. I sent out a few emails to some agriculturalists, but no one seems to have anything on the corn deaths you were talking about – got some guy going off about his lettuce for three pages, but that's about it."

"Shit," John says, disappointed but not surprised. It was just a hunch.

"Sam and Bobby went to see a guy about a book on, what was it, demonic family trees yesterday, but so far it's just a load of medieval fantasy crap."

John's quiet for a moment, all of a sudden caught on the fact that Dean didn't go with them. Stayed in the house. It could mean anything, could mean nothing, but Dean doesn't give him a lot of details and he finds himself grasping at straws, reading between the lines even when there's nothing to be read.

"How's the leg?" he asks, and he knows it's coming out of nowhere, but sometimes the only way to get a straight answer out of Dean is to startle him enough.

But, "Fine," Dean answers immediately, as he always does, too fast, tone bright. "Sam's ribs are healing up, think they still hurt a little but he should be good soon."

"Yeah?" John says. "Lemme talk to him."

Dean hesitates. "Sure," he says finally, and John winces the phone away from his ear as Dean lets out a bellowed, "Sam! Phone!"

There's a scuffle and then a silence, and John waits, watching out the window as he speeds past a field of cows, half of them lying in the muddy grass with their legs tucked underneath their bricklike bodies.

He's only seen Dean once since the accident, and then only for a couple days, but he remembers with a fierce, despairing clarity, how much it hurt. He figures Dean and Sam, and even Bobby, are probably used to it by now, but to John it's still new. It's all still new – the terror, especially, sometimes seems like it was yesterday. The heart-stopping fear as he'd watched his son plunge through the ceiling, then through the floorboards, hitting the cement floor with a wet smack John can still hear – and then the chaos as the rest of the house had folded in on itself, slid down to bury Dean in plaster and beams and that ancient piano with no keys that had let out a fearful, almost beautiful clang as it came down on Dean's body – on his leg, already shattered from the impact.

Dean forgives him, John knows, but for some reason it's getting harder and not easier, the longer he spends away. He'd thought it would be the opposite.

"Hey," Sam says, startling John so he almost drops the phone, and he's struck, not for the first time, by how tired his youngest sounds these days, exhausted and half-distracted by something John can't see.

"Hey, Sammy. How you boys doing? Bobby kickin' you out yet?"

"And lose my cooking skills?" Sam says wearily. "Never."

The joke is weak, but John laughs anyway, and they talk shop for a minute or two before he says, "Dean still around?"

"Huh? Oh – no. He's outside."

John nods even though he knows Sam can't see him. "How is he?"

"He's good," Sam says, but John could swear he hears a hesitation, an uncertainty in Sam's answer. Or maybe he's looking for shit that doesn't exist, he doesn't know anymore, doesn't even know what he wants to hear – he doesn't believe the good shit, doesn't want to believe the bad shit, which amounts to the same goddamn thing in the end. He doesn't want to be asking these questions, period, doesn't want to hear any of the answers, but he has to ask, has to push, like prodding a bruise 'til the only thing it can do is hurt.

"He's doing… better?" John tries. Doesn't specify what he might be doing better from, because he really doesn't know.

"Yes," Sam says carefully. "He's doing better."

It sounds like a lie, but John is in no position to challenge him. He used to feel – used to feel righteous, when Sam defied him, lied to him, used to feel unequivocally that it was Sam who was out-of-line, out-of-place – but now, he's not so sure.

He relinquished something, he thinks, when he left Dean in that hospital bed. It seemed, at the time, like the only correct thing to do, the only way to – to keep control over the situation, to stay ahead and in charge and on top. But really it had spun things so far out of his command that John wonders sometimes if he ever had command of anything in the first place. If he ever will again.

"Okay," John says now to his youngest son. "Okay."

It isn't, but John's lost the power to make it otherwise.

:::

The air is somewhat chilly but the sun is very warm, and the inside of the truck has simmered to a slow, comfortable heat by the time John pulls up in front of Bobby's house.

The dogs come out to meet him, barking and prancing, and he takes a moment to pat them on the heads, unspeakably grateful, for some reason, that they seem to remember him. He feels rather than sees Bobby come out to stand on the porch, and he takes his time straightening up, settles his smile on his face.

"Christ," Bobby says, leaning against the doorjamb, arms crossed, hat shading his face. "What in the hell'd I do to deserve this, huh? Whole goddamn clan, you'd think I'd advertised a powwow or something."

"Hey, Bobby," John says, coming up the creaking porch steps, and he realizes that at some point in the last couple seconds, his fake smile became real. Who knew it'd be so damn good to see his old friend's face? And this despite the fact that the last time John saw it, it was behind the barrel of a shotgun pointed straight at John's head.

"You tell your boys you were coming?" Bobby demands.

John hesitates, then shakes his head. "Kind of a last minute decision," he admits, doesn't mention how he'd pulled off on the shoulder of the highway for half an hour and stared at the exit, trucks screeching past, sweat trickling down his back, trying to get up his goddamn nerve. "Figure I should probably be here. Apparently we've landed ourselves in a big steaming pile of demon shit. Maybe they told you."

"Mighta heard something about that," Bobby says, and finally steps back, waves him inside. "Watch the salt lines."

John steps over them carefully, breathing the musty, familiar smell of Bobby's house: gun oil, books, dogs, and soft wool. He doesn't see his sons anywhere.

"Sam's in town for groceries," Bobby says, John following him into the kitchen. "Dean's asleep on the back porch. You want a coke?"

"A coke?" John says, raising an eyebrow, and he takes the offered can, cold and damp with condensation. "Rather have a beer."

Something strange crosses Bobby's face at that, but he shrugs, gestures for John to drink the coke. "Outta beer at the moment. This'll have to do."

John takes a sip, and it's not as good as beer but the cold soda tastes good sliding down his throat, sweet and crisp. He glances up at Bobby. "Do I pass?"

"You pass," Bobby says, and for a moment they stand across from one another in the small kitchen, saying nothing. John ducks his head, takes another sip of coke, is torn between intense, senseless fury, and a kind of wild gratitude. Bobby took care of Dean when John had left him, and John doesn't know if he can ever forgive him for that. Though of course, it's not Bobby he's angry at – John's not stupid, and he doesn't need some ramped-up overcharging psychologist to tell him that. He knows it's not Bobby. But it still enrages him.

"Listen, how about you go wake Dean up," Bobby says. "He's been sleeping long enough."

For one crazy moment John wants to refuse, wants to shake his head and say, You do it, wants to surrender everything because he's too tired and guilty and angry to take care of it – but he nods, sets the coke down on the cracked tile counter and heads out to the back porch.

Dean is splayed out on the faded green couch Bobby's plopped back there, one arm resting on his forehead like he'd been trying to shade his eyes from the sun. There's a pencil still loose in the other hand, a book spread open on his chest, and he looks, John thinks, whole. Perfect. Skin newly-freckled like maybe he's been spending time outside, shoulders broader than John remembers, arms well-muscled, his hair thick and healthy and sticking up in sandy spikes… and for a moment John can avoid seeing that he's still too thin, can avoid the dark, deep circles carved under his eyes, the tight set to his mouth, the nicotine stains on his fingers.

He gives himself that moment, to look. He lets himself picture it, lets himself imagine calling Dean's name and seeing his son snort himself awake, sees that wide-eyed, shocked look Dean always gets when he's been jolted out of a nap. He imagines how Dean would grin up at him, how he'd get easily to his feet and saunter across the porch, clap him on the back and make some joke about John getting old. How they'd go into the house together, Dean at his side, swaggering bow-legged and unconcerned. Healthy. In no pain.

John lets himself picture it, and then he moves forward and says his son's name. Puts a hand to the soft cap of Dean's head.

Dean comes awake quickly enough, but the wide-eyed look is gone, and he blinks slowly several times, fighting through what John knows is a layer of medication before he can focus on his father's face.

"Dad?" he says, voice muddled with sleep.

"Hey, Dean," John says, and has to watch as Dean blinks again, pushing himself into a careful sit and leaning forward to lift his rigid right leg down from the couch, wincing as he settles it on the floorboards and looks up at his father.

But then he grins, exactly as John had imagined it: wide, pleased, unchanged since Dean was three months old and John had dangled the Impala's key above his head to catch the light. And John finds himself grinning back.

"When the hell did you get here?" Dean demands.

"A few minutes ago. Sorry I didn't call first."

"Jesus," Dean says, still grinning, though he's clearly trying to tuck it away. "You too old for this newfangled cellphone crap? Is that it?"

John throws back his head and laughs. "I'm not too old to kick your ass, so watch it."

"Jesus," Dean says again, marveling. "Well. You hungry?"

"Depends. Who's cooking?"

"Me," Dean says. "Are you kidding? Me. C'mon, we got a bunch of leftover chili."

John doesn't look away as Dean grapples for his cane and pushes himself painstakingly to his feet, and he doesn't step forward to help when Dean stumbles a little as he turns, catches himself on the back of the couch. He doesn't hold the door.

He just follows his son into the house, matches his footsteps to Dean's.

It's about time he learned how to do that, he thinks.