The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
~J. R. R. Tolkien
"So when all else fails, try a beheading, right?" John Winchester jerked his head sharply, sighing with relief as his neck cracked. He hadn't studied this hard since boot camp. Who knew there were so many kinds of supernatural "things" out there? Hell, who knew supernatural things existed at all, that stuff actually did go bump in the night?
For most of his life he'd been blind to the truth, and would've happily remained blind, if...if it hadn't taken Mary. Mary, his beautiful queen, who'd been sliced open and burnt on the ceiling of their all-American home, in the nursery where their second beautiful prince lay in his crib, across the hall from the room where their first beautiful prince lay sleeping peacefully.
A fairytale. He'd been the king in a goddamned fairytale. Then the demons and ogres and ghosts and other evil shit had come out of the woodwork, and his fairytale had turned from Disney to Grimm.
Now, he was being trained to be a hunter--which was nothing as simple as tracking and killing, nothing as simple as destroying the enemy as he had in the Marines. It was a matter of discipline, of knowing what killed what, of recognizing which evil was at play. It was a matter of investigating, researching, having the right tools at hand, and if not, devising the right tool. Preparation was paramount but tedious, the hunt itself dangerous and often done in the dark. But he could do it. He would do it. Mary had been his. She'd said so over and over again, even when he'd had doubts himself. Then she'd been taken away. And something had to pay for that.
"Beheading works--if it can be cut," Daniel Elkins explained as he jotted something down in his journal. The white-haired hunter was hunched over what should've been a kitchen table, but was now a repository of various books, relics, and weapons. "That's why you need to make sure your blades--machetes or axes are your best bets--are coated with silver, and being blessed doesn't hurt either. Caleb can set you up with blades and other weapons. He's young, but he knows his stuff and has some really interesting contacts." He scratched his head, then wrote something else in the journal.
A journal. It seemed all hunters kept a damn diary. Yeah, it made sense to keep a list of what worked and what didn't but Elkins made it seem a sin not to write down every single detail. Elkins. The man was basically a vampire hunter now, but apparently back in the day, he'd gone up against just about everything that was out there. John found him gruff but knowledgeable, and was grateful Elkins was willing to take on a greenhorn. God, he'd learned so much since going to that psychic, Missouri Mosely, with questions about Mary's death.
No matter what others said, he'd seen her sliced opened and burning on the ceiling, and he'd known that wasn't--normal. So yes, he'd gone to see a psychic. She'd led him to Jim Murphy, a pastor in Blue Earth, Minnesota, who'd taught him that if there was a heaven with all its angels, then why not a hell with all its demons. Eye-opening, scary shit that made him question everything around him. Speaking of--
"Think Pastor Jim will bless my blades?"
"Sure. Sometime next week. It'll take him that long to recover from the shit May Day throws at you. Never know how many pagans there are until one of their days come around. Messing with old gods is just downright stupid."
John sat up, well, as much as he could on the battered sofa that acted as his bed and as his primary seat at Elkins' place, since most flat surfaces in the cabin were covered in books, papers, and various hunting paraphernalia. "May Day?" His nose crinkled in confusion. "That's coming up soon?"
"Um, it is if you call today 'soon', John."
"Today is--" John paled and scrambled to the edge of the cushion. "No, it can't be. May Day is May the first, right?"
"Give the man a fuckin' gold star." Elkins looked up from his journal. "What's wrong?"
John rubbed a hand across his face, frowning at the stubble that scratched his palm. Yeah, he'd lost track of time for sure. "My son's birthday is--" he looked down at his watch, "--in a few hours."
"Hell, is that all? He'll have another one next year." Elkins buried himself in his writing again.
"Not another first birthday," John murmured softly. He stood and looked around for his things. He hadn't spread out too far, understanding he was in another man's territory. "If I hit the road now, I should make it by morning." Eight hours or so of hard driving should get him there early enough so his kids wouldn't think he hadn't forgotten about them.
"Thought we were heading out to that salt-and-burn you researched?"
"Later. Hannah Burton's not killing anything, just scaring a few adulterous men--and quite frankly, if she makes their dicks shrivel up and fall off, I couldn't care less. I'm going to see my boys. It's been what? A month, six weeks, since I've been back?" Shit. He'd missed Easter. Mary and Dean had loved Easter, and he'd loved them loving it, even if he was the one who'd had to clean the dye off the table with bleach every year.
Elkins leaned back in his chair, narrow eyes focusing on John. "You know, you got the makings of a good hunter, John, but you're gonna have to get your priorities straight. Yeah, other hunters are daddies, but they got some woman back home doing most of the raising. You wanna do this, you gonna have to find them boys a mama."
"They have a mama," John spat out as he closed his duffel bag. "And they have a daddy."
"Who can't even remember a birthday."
"Fuck you," John said, his voice low but harsh. The apprenticeship was over. He walked out of the cabin without a backward look.
He drove to the border of Colorado before he stopped at a truck center and dropped his head against the steering wheel of his '67 Impala. Get his priorities straight? He had them fucking straight! Stepping out of the car, he paced the surrounding empty parking spaces, scared that if he stayed next to the Impala he'd end up putting his fist through a window. How dare Elkins insinuate that he had to choose. Choose what? There was no choice to be had! He certainly hadn't chosen to lose Mary. His wife was dead! Her killer had to be put down! Dean and Sammy were just gonna have to--
Oh, God. He was putting Mary's killer ahead of her boys. Fuck. Mary would've handed him his ass for that. She'd been a sweet woman most of the time. Easy-going. Full of laughter. But... He thought back to the time he'd been in a rush to pick her up from some appointment or another, and he hadn't buckled Dean into the car seat properly. By the time she got through with him, he could strap the boy in as quick as the Marines had taught him to assemble an M16. He'd taken to calling her Drill Sergeant Mary when she got on his case afterwards, had even bought her a whistle which she'd given to Dean a few years later. A whistle that was just as burnt as she was now.
A sob escaped and he dropped his head to the top of the car. He couldn't do this. He couldn't let this obsession keep him from taking care of Mary's princes. He couldn't betray her memory like that. Jim was a pastor. That Singer guy owned a salvage yard. Apparently, it was possible to be a part-time hunter. Yeah. He could take his time, learn the ropes, then when the boys were out on their own, he could go back to it.
Mary's killer was going to have to wait; he had two boys to raise.
Dawn found him crossing into the city limits of Lawrence, Kansas, and he was soon pulling into the yard of his best friend and garage partner Mike Guenther. Mike and his wife, Kate, had taken in all three of the remaining Winchesters after the fire. They'd said they understood when John took off on his wild quest, but he was sure they hadn't thought he'd be gone so often and for so long. Nice way to treat your friends, he told himself. Saddle them with a baby who missed his mama and a young child who was still so traumatized that he rarely spoke.
Right. He owed Dean the biggest apology of them all. He'd been there for the boy's birthday in January, but, hell, he hadn't really been there. He hadn't wanted to deal with the silence and the pain in the eyes that were so much like Mary's. He couldn't even remember what he'd given the boy. Something Kate had bought, he thought.
He startled awake, surprised to find he'd fallen asleep. "Mike, how are you?"
"Shouldn't I be asking you that? You're sleeping in the driveway."
He looked at his friend, dressed in pajamas and a robe. Obviously, he'd just stumbled out to get the paper. "It was early when I got here. Didn't want to disturb the house."
Mike smiled. "Should've known you'd make it in time for Sam's birthday. The boys'll be glad to see you."
John gave a self-deprecating laugh. "You sure about that?"
"Well, at least Dean won't give you grief about your absence."
That wasn't good. "He still not talking?"
Mike shrugged. "He sings."
John's eyebrows shot up.
"He sings to Sam; he ignores the rest of us."
"I don't know why you don't just shoot me." John sighed. "Leaving the boys with you like that, it isn't right. You and I both know it."
"Kate and I adore the boys, John. And you...you needed a break to get your head together. How's that working out for you?"
John nodded and bent down to pick up the paper. "I'm good. Save the real estate section for me, okay?"
"Mary'd want her boys to have a home."
Mike gave him a look, then nodded, seemingly satisfied. "Come on in the house. The boys are still asleep but Kate has put on the coffee."
John gave Kate a hug, then walked softly into the room the boys shared. He looked first at the twin bed and found it empty. So Dean was still up to his old tricks. He looked in the crib and found his oldest son just where he expected to: wrapped protectively around his baby brother. John felt something burst in his chest and tears flooded his eyes. How could he have.... He'd abandoned his sweet babies. Why? To chase some damn fire-starter that he might not ever find? To chase a dream, when the reality he needed was right here in front of him? He'd been a fool. But not anymore.
"Well, kiddo?" John opened the door of the Impala and looked as his eldest son. This was the third house they'd looked at. At the first one, Dean had refused to get out of the car. At the second one, Dean and Sammy--Sammy who was walking! --had refused to cross the threshold. The realtor had shaken her head in annoyance when John had told her flat out that that wasn't the house for them. One thing he'd learned from his hunting lessons was that a child was far more open to the supernatural. If Dean and Sam had problems with a house, they probably had good reason, even if they didn't know what it was.
Or they didn't want to leave Mike and Kate's.
Maybe the realtor had a point.
Dean held up his arms and John unbuckled him from the booster seat, before unhooking Sam. The realtor stood impatiently by the open door as they approached the house. Dean tugged him inside and Sam blew a bubble as they stepped across the threshold. So far, so good. It was a ranch style house, single story, three good-sized bedrooms, a master bath, hardwood floors.
John figured he could drill a trench in all the doorways and fill them with salt. And Jim had mentioned someone he knew who made protective symbols that could be hung on the walls like that nouveau art shit. Yeah, the house was definitely defensible.
"Dean? Sammy?" His kids had wandered off while he'd gazed speculatively at the walls. He found them on the back terrace, Dean sitting on a step with Sammy pinned securely between his legs. He sat down beside them. "This place okay? Think we can make this our new home?"
Dean nodded, then reached out to pat his father's arm. "Home, Daddy." He smiled when Sam burbled in agreement.
John looked out across the yard, envisioning a swing set, one of those wooden jungle gyms, a patch of concrete next to the garage which was the right height for a basketball hoop, and of course a grill--a man had to have something for himself. He leaned over and dropped a kiss on Dean's head and then on Sammy's. "Looks like we're home, boys."
"You decide yet, Deano?" John himself was leaning toward the bed that resembled a car over the bed that resembled...well, a bed. But he wasn't going to be sleeping on it. He'd be sleeping on a full-size mattress, which was just big enough for him. No use in having room to feel around for Mary when Mary was never going to be there.
The salesman had convinced him to get Sam a crib that would eventually convert to a junior bed. So only Dean's sleeping quarters were left to be decorated. Dean tugged on his hand and John bent down; Dean was very selective in whom he let hear his voice. The child psychologist, who they had visited all of three times before everyone involved collectively agreed it wasn't working, said that Dean would talk when he was ready. It could happen suddenly, but more than likely, it would be a slow process. His darling boy was apparently taking lessons from snails. "What's it gonna be, buddy?"
"The regular bed," Dean said, surprising John. "I already have a car."
John laughed. The Impala was indeed Dean's. The minute the boy saw it, he'd claimed it as his own. When John had driven it home, instead of the two year old coupe he and Mary had agreed on, he'd told her it was Dean's, and they were just keeping it in working order until he came of age. Mary had rolled her eyes and said that yes, she agreed it'd been bought for a little boy. Dean never realized she hadn't meant him. "That you do, son."
The beds were delivered the next day.
John knew it was ridiculous to be so nervous. He was a grown man. He'd served a tour in Vietnam. He'd tangled with ghosts and poltergeists and, damn, he'd never forget that clusterfuck with the werewolves he, Jim, and Bobby had survived back in July. But he'd never felt like this. Never wanted so much to go and spill his nutritious breakfast into the toilet.
And it wasn't even his first day of school.
"You ready to go, boys?" he called toward the bathroom. Dean had insisted on cleaning up Sammy after Sammy's "enthusiastic" breakfast. John figured Dean didn't trust him to do it properly, and there was no way Dean was going to show up at his first day of kindergarten with a baby brother who was covered in dried milk.
How the hell could he miss Mary, when Dean was exactly like her?
Then again, how could he not?
"We're ready, Dad. I was just splainin' to Sammy that he has to be a good boy for you today while I go learn how to read him his bedtime stories."
"And did Sammy promise to behave?" He wasn't sure whether it was because he went AWOL those few lost months after Mary or some mysterious brotherly connection, but Sam listened to Dean a hell of a lot better than he did to John. It was annoying. And sad. And would probably change now that Sam would be spending more alone time with him while Dean went to school.
Jesus Christ. His boy was going to school.
"Got your backpack?"
"It's on my bed." Dean raced back to the room he shared with Sam. John had given each boy his own room and had forbidden Dean to climb into the crib. That first night when he'd gone to check on them, Sam had been securely wrapped in Dean's arms--in Dean's bed. Giving in to the apparent natural order of things, John had moved Sam's crib into Dean's room. Within sight of each other, they'd stayed in their respective beds that night and every night since. John had made Sam's room into an office, fully aware he'd probably have to give it up once Dean hit puberty.
The drive to school was way too short. Dean, quiet, shy Dean, walked up to his teacher, held out his hand, and said, "Hi, I'm Dean Winchester. I'm in your class this year. You're very pretty. When will we get started on reading and stuff?"
John shed more tears than either of his boys as he and Sammy left Dean to his learning.