Somewhere in the middle of God knows where, Nebraska 1991.
It was Christmas. John kept reminding himself of that as he dragged himself through the frosty forest undergrowth. His right boot was leaving a deep furrow behind him as his left foot continued to help push him forward inch by inch. His fingers biting into the bitter, frozen ground that was trying to sap any body heat he had left.
It was Christmas…and his boys were alone.
Dean would hold the fort. John had no doubts about that. The kid had only ever made the mistake of disobeying him once, almost costing Sam his life. It was the sort of wake up call that John had never wanted his son to have to deal with…but it had happened and the kid had learnt from it.
But Sam would be full of questions right now. Especially as the night ticked on and it became more and more apparent that his father wasn't coming home. John was amazed at just how many questions Sam seemed to have. About everything. Not just what he did and where he went when he left the boys…but everything. What was his mom like? Why did Dean always get so mad - and so sad - when Sam asked about her? Why couldn't they have a normal house? Why were they always moving around? Why did they always have to lie to people about who they were?
John tried his best to answer his son when he could or he'd simply close the conversation down before it really started and send the boys off to do something. Go somewhere. Anywhere but there with a list of questions John never wanted to answer.
More often than not, Dean would step in and distract Sam anyway, saving John from the awkwardness, protecting his little brother as best he could for just a little longer.
How would Dean explain this now? Would they even find him out here? Wouldn't that give all those guys at Harvelle's a laugh?
"Did you hear about Winchester? Some poor son of bitch walking his dog found his frozen corpse when he stopped to take a piss. Told you he'd get himself killed sooner or later working alone…"
Okay, so maybe he should have called Bobby for this one. Or Caleb. But it was Christmas and John had been so damn sure it was a skin walker he was after. An old one at that by all accounts. Nothing he couldn't handle.
But as always, the Winchester luck never held and what John had thought was an old man still trying to live out his youth as a skin walker…turned out to be a damn were bear. Silver was still the cure for that particular trouble, but not before the damn thing had busted John's leg by throwing him into a tree. Looking down, he could still see the sickly white glint of bone protruding through his shin. His boot was full of blood and as he reached inside his jacket with his left hand, he felt warm stickiness and extracted his hand again to see it painted scarlet.
Yeah…that wasn't good.
Just a simple freaking hunt. Kill the evil, be home in time to hopefully throw some presents on the end of the boys' beds while they slept. John had never let them down before. Looked like this year was going to be different. This year he wasn't coming home at all and John was grateful for the simple fact that he had drummed into both Dean and Sam to call either Bobby or Pastor Jim if he didn't come home. Either man would take good care of his boys, but John still wanted to get home to them.
He wasn't dying out here in the middle of nowhere, damn it.
Pulling himself forward more, inch after agonising inch, John shifted carefully into more of sitting position, leaning up against the tree beside him. The trunk dug into his back as he tried to catch his breath, grimacing against the way his ribs seemed to ignite with each gasp. Great, busted ribs too…that tree impact had been so much fun.
Looking up at the night sky, watching as it began to snow again, tiny flakes drifting down to settle on him, he wondered if he'd freeze to death or bleed out first?
It wasn't his business. He had no right to be here and if anyone knew? Castiel was bound to draw his Father's disapproval and anger for his disobedience at getting so directly involved in human affairs. But he couldn't sit back, couldn't allow what mankind would call "fate" to play it's hand.
If he did that, then John Winchester may die alone out here and his sons would be orphans. Castiel couldn't imagine not having his Father's guidance. How much harder would it be for two young boys to lose theirs?
And at Christmas. The marking of the birth of Jesus…at least, by human calendars. Castiel would never understand why the humans had to have it on that date, but he did understand it was time for family. He had watched over Sam and Dean earlier in the evening, witnessing their pain, their fear.
He had watched Dean return home with stolen presents, trying to preserve some sense of innocence for a little brother who was rapidly becoming aware of the world he lived in. Of the life they had been thrown into while Sam was a baby.
Castiel couldn't do anything to ease the pain he witnessed there. But he was determined not to add to it.
Snow crunched under his feet as he walked through the woods, following the ragged trail that had been left until he could see John Winchester in the distance.
John looked up as Castiel approached, wearing the same body as he had in the past. The same poor man who had apparently become even balder, wrapped in nothing but royal blue pyjamas and an old navy blue flannel dressing gown.
"Oh, please don't tell me you're here to guide me into the light and all that crap? Not dressed like that?" John groaned with a tired smirk. It was like some cosmic joke or something.
Castiel crouched before John, cocking his head to one side in puzzlement in a move that reminded the hunter of a puppy. What the hell was up with that?
"I'm not here to…guide you, John Winchester. It is not your time."
"Yeah? I'd like to believe that, pal - I really would, but I'm feeling pretty damn shitty here, so you'll have to pardon me if I don't exactly believe you." John said, his voice strained and tight. "So…what are you, exactly? Reaper?"
"My name is Castiel…I am an angel of the Lord." The words were said with the required dignity and power…which was why Castiel was even more puzzled when John laughed. "You find something about your situation funny?"
"Yeah. You." John chuckled softly. "So what, your supposed to be my guardian angel? Cause I hate to break it to you, pal, but you're doing a crap job from where I'm sitting."
"I am not your…guardian. But I am concerned for your sons. They need you, John. You cannot die out there."
"Thanks, I'll try to keep than in mind while I bleed out." John snapped testily at the mention of his boys. "Look, I'm not trying to sound ungrateful? But unless you're going to give me some first aid, I think I'm going to be letting everyone down." He rested his head back tiredly against the tree behind him, letting his eyes slide closed for a moment.
"No. You will be found. You just have to hold on a little longer. Think of your sons."
"I am, dammit. Every damn day I'm thinking of those boys. Of what happens if I leave them. You think I want this? You think I want to break their hearts tonight? Do you?" John's voice was rising, filling with fire at the thought if it as his eyes flew open to cut into Castiel with a steely gaze.
"You will not see them tonight. But there will be others. It does not end here for you, John Winchester."
John was about to tell Castiel what he could do with his damn fortune cookie talk…when the sound of barking filled the air, growing closer by the minute until a large shaggy mongrel mix hound padded out of the shadows, barking again.
"You are safe…" Castiel assured him softly, before he was gone with the sound of wings lifting off.
A torch could be seen flashing back and forth wildly as the farmer holding it emerged from the shadows with a shotgun tucked under his arm. "Damn it, Tex, what the hell are you barking at?" The man skidded to a halt as he saw John propped against the tree. "Jesus, mister…hang in there. I'll run back to the house and get help."
As John leaned back against the tree again, hearing the dog pad over slowly before it's wet tongue began to wash his half frozen face, he found himself laughing. He'd seen an angel…or so he thought. For all he knew? The guy was just a figment of his imagination…at least he hadn't been wearing robes and carrying a harp or John might have busted a rib laughing.
The amulet was where it needed to be. Nothing had been changed there. That outcome had not been affected. Castiel knew he had walked a fine line by stepping in to help John Winchester be found that night. He had been the one to make the farm dog bark until it was released from it's chain…ensuring that it would be followed and John would be found.
One thing that Castiel was sure of when he had set out that night…was that Dean and Sam had needed their father. The man that John Winchester was now, no matter his flaws. Had he not stepped in that night…it was possible John could have died. Death was inevitable and one day, Castiel knew he wouldn't be able to step to prevent it. But did that mean two young boys had to face it so soon? That they had to be orphaned?
As he was led towards his Father to explain his actions, flanked by Uriel and Zachariah, Castiel felt little fear. He would explain his reasons and accept the consequences…whatever they may be. He knew his Father would understand.