Dean liked to think that seeing was believing. While there certainly was some truth to that--and the Winchesters had seen ghosts and ghouls and vampires to prove the point--Sam knew that there was far more to it than that.
Sometimes believing was instinctual. It was about trusting what was inside of you even in the face of insurmountable evidence.
Which was why, even now--especially now--that their father was standing in front of them--living, breathing, alive--Sam couldn't believe it.
He'd seen the surveillance footage. He'd seen him in Wyoming. He'd argued with Dean the entire way here and now, faced with the reality of it, Sam's instincts were going haywire. Because this was wrong. This was very, very wrong.
After years of not being good enough, of being too little, too late, Sam was about to stand face to face with something that looked like his father--but there was more to it than that.
Just what that was, Sam wasn't sure yet. But he had a feeling he didn't want to find out.
In front of him, Dean hadn't moved, frozen so still that, for a fleeting seconds, Sam wondered if he was breathing.
In the glow of the candles, their father's face hardened slightly. Sam shivered as his eyes went black. John's voice dropped to a growl: "That's an order, boys."
It was a tone he recognized: the one that had told him to stop studying and train harder, the one that told him to stop being so selfish and stick with the hunt, the one that always reminded him just how much he had to learn to be like Dean.
The surge of resentment stoked the latent fury in Sam. Whatever this was, it was time to face it face to face, and Sam would be ready this time. He would finally take a page out of his father's book--being prepared meant more than an understanding word and a polite question.
Sometimes, safety was a .45 under his pillow or in his pocket.
Quietly, Sam went for the gun in his pocket, but Dean's hand on his arm made him pause.
His brother met his eyes briefly, and gave Sam a hard and pleading look.
Sam cocked his head in response, silently asking why not, but Dean didn't respond.
Before Sam could push for more, Dean was moving.
Worse, Dean was stepping out into the open, right into the light, hands out: unarmed.
Sam swallowed thickly, a curse under his breath. It was a stupid move--reckless and foolhardy and just like Dean. Dean never saw this as a hunt, but as a rescue operation, and his older brother had just given up any advantage they may have had. Not that Sam didn't understand. Because this was their father--or a close approximation of him. The chance to ask him questions, to make amends: there was real appeal of that.
But the entire thing--the black eyes, the video footage, the phone call, the fact that they'd burned his body--meant this was more than just a family reunion.
Sam had lost too much from a lack of preparation. Jessica, Dad, his own life: he wouldn't make the mistake again. Not now, not ever.
But, tactically speaking, they would no longer have any room to hide. Without weapons out and trained, they were clearly at a disadvantage if things went south.
When things went south, Sam thought grimly.
There was no undoing it now--their leverage had been lost and their vulnerability was cemented.
It was stupid, but Sam had no choice but to follow.
He tightened his fingers on his shotgun, and kept his mind keenly on his pistol. He would follow Dean into this mess, but he wouldn't do so blindly.
Chest feeling tight, Sam stepped forward, leaving the shadows for the flickering haze of the candlelight. His eyes flitted between his father and his brother, settling on Dean's back, waiting to see what his brother's next move would be.
Dean's posture seemed relaxed, his shoulders poised almost in a swagger, but Sam could see the tension beneath it all.
"Hey, Dad," Dean said. "What? No hugs?"
John's eyes narrowed but his face stayed impassive. He inclined his head slightly. "I seem to remember ordering you not to follow me," he said. John's eyes flashed to Sam before settling on Dean again. "I thought you were better at following orders than that. My good little soldier."
The tone alone was enough to make Sam want to shoot--just to see what this thing really was. But the words--the taunting and the baiting--made Sam want to shoot for what it was doing to Dean. Playing with his brother's vulnerabilities, exploiting Dean's real weaknesses: it wasn't fair play.
Then again, Sam had to admit, it was within their dad's MO. John Winchester, hunter extraordinaire, would use anything to get what he wanted, even his sons' insecurities and weaknesses. When Sam was scared, their father would remind him that that was why the hunt was important. When Dean was sad, their dad would use it to point out how the hunt could make him strong. It usually wasn't this vindictive, but the idea was the same.
Hell, Dad had made a lifetime of screwing with their heads, from the life on the road to the very last words he spoke to either of them. Sending Sam away and laying the worst order possible on Dean had guaranteed to trap them both in the hunt; sometimes, Sam wondered if that had been the point all along.
To Dean's credit, he stayed still and cool. He wasn't ready to shoot like Sam was, but he wasn't taking it at face value either. "Well, seeing as you were dead, maybe I got used to calling my own shots."
John eyed them carefully. "I always knew Sammy was one to ignore orders that didn't suit him," he said coolly. "But I expected better from you, Dean."
Dean laughed a little, tight and mirthless. "Yeah, well, we expected better from you, too."
A smirk crossed John's face, cold and cruel in a way that Sam did not recognize. His father had been harsh and ruthless at times, but never so purposefully vicious. Even the harshest orders had been a twisted form of love that Sam could see after the fact.
This? Was nothing close.
"You think I was trying not to get caught?" their father asked.
Sam's emotions flared up again. This was a game. Whoever this was, whatever this was, it was a game, and innocent people had already died in the crossfire. He stepped forward, until he was even with Dean, his eyes burning. "We're talking about murder," he said, unable to control the seething tone of his voice.
John seemed to consider this for a moment, but then shrugged, a small smile on his face. "Desperate times, Sammy," he said. "Desperate measures. That's a lesson you ought to have learned by now, don't you think? Or would you like to turn your back on me now and see what happens?"
Sam just shook his head. "We can't let you do this," he said.
John just raised an eyebrow. "And just how do you think you're going to stop it?"
Maybe it was the tone, maybe it was the derogatory question--Sam wasn't sure, but it was a response he knew. Suddenly, it was like he was eighteen again, just asking for some respect, for an equal say, for anything--and Sam was starting to think that this really was his father after all.
Righteous indignation ran deep within him, swelling up almost uncontrollably. "You son of a bitch," he said.
"Come on, Sammy," John taunted. "You've wanted to take a shot since you were thirteen years old. This is as good a time as any. You like to think you're the rebel, so prove it."
At that, Sam lunged, his anger overpowering. This was more than his teenage rebellion--this was even more than the last order that sent Sam away and burdened Dean with a dark destiny neither of them could fight. This was about the end of the world.
His forward movement was halted, though, and he was roughly pulled back. Sam felt Dean's arms firmly around him, holding him securely from advancing.
It didn't matter though. Dean could stop him, but there was nothing his brother could do to stop this. Their worst case scenario was no longer hypothetical. It was living and breathing across the room from them.
Their father was alive. One way or another, John Winchester had defied the grave. There was no one who could get under Sam's skin, who knew just what buttons to push to make Dean come running after.
This was their father.
And he was turned.
Sam had been his younger brother so long that sometimes Dean forgot just how big he was.
But, standing there in that warehouse in White Sulfur Springs, Montana, Dean was getting a reminder in the hardest way possible. Sam was pulling against him with his full strength, surging ahead, and Dean was the only thing keeping his brother from approaching their father in what was sure to be the smack down of the century.
As Sam wrestled and strained against him, Dean rethought that. The smack down of the millennium. Sam had a long fuse, that much was true, but when Sam went off, he really went off.
And more than any of that, Dean knew that Sam wasn't just going to throw punches.
No, his ask questions first, then again, then clarify before shooting little brother was going for his gun.
Nothing like a little patricide to make the world go 'round.
Not that the SOB didn't have it coming--Dad was many things, but an innocent victim of Sammy's wrath was not one of them.
Of course, Dean had been here before. The setting was different and they'd all been through more than they wanted to admit to, but the idea was the same. John issued the order, Sam fought against it, and Dean was stuck in the middle, trying to keep things from completely falling apart.
He had gotten frustrated by it as a teenager.
Now, it was just too much. From losing both of them, to getting them both back again, to this--Dean wasn't sure how much more he could take. How many last orders was he expected to follow? How many painful confessions would he have to endure? When would it ever just be simple and good like he wanted it to be?
A little tension he would understand. After all, there were still a lot of questions to be answered and a lot of issues to be resolved. Bumping chests was one thing; throwing fists was another. But going for a gun?
Just was not going to happen.
This whole thing was screwed to hell but Dean would fix it. He had to.
He tightened his grip on his brother, yanking hard to pull Sam behind him again. "Sam," he hissed. "Stop it!"
Sam struggled against him again, thrashing for a moment.
Dean adjusted his grip, pressing Sam's arms down firmly against his sides. "Don't make me hit you," he said under his breath. "You're not helping this."
At that, Sam stilled. Dean met the kid's eyes for a long moment, hoping to communicate to his brother to stand down. Sam wouldn't take orders for their old man, but sometimes--just sometimes, he would do it for Dean.
Sam seemed to hesitate, the fire in his eyes going strong. "He's turned, Dean," Sam said, his voice taut with anger and pain. "He's not our dad anymore."
Except it was Dad. From the orders to the way he could piss Sam off just by blinking, this was John Winchester through and through. Screwed up, mixed up, and lost, which was why John needed them to keep it together, now more than ever. "Remember the plan," he said, his voice low and rough. He pinned Sam with his eyes. "Remember our priorities."
Sam wanted to protest, that much was clear, but Sam relented. His younger brother cast a wary glance at their father before retreating once again.
It was the most trust Dean could ask for, and he knew he couldn't take that lightly. Dean had one shot here, and he knew it. But one would be all he needed.
With Sam momentarily squared away, he edged forward, keeping Sam a safe distance behind him.
Clearing his throat, he opened his arms again. "Nobody has to prove anything," he said easily. "Like you said, we're just here for a little family reunion."
John gave them a mockingly quizzical air. "You typically come packing to greet the relatives?"he asked.
"Better than tools of mass destruction," Sam snapped from behind Dean.
Dean held his hand up to silence his brother. "We just want to talk to you," he said.
"Sam was supposed to be the talker between the two of you," John said. He shook his head a little. "So much has changed. I had counted on you to hold down the fort while I was gone, not let it get overrun."
Dean felt his own chest tighten. "I'm not the only one who's changed," Dean said.
John gave a sympathetic smile. "Time in Hell will do that to a guy."
"So are you--a demon?" Sam hedged.
John raised his eyebrows. "How would a demon possess the body of a man you burned?"
"You tell us," Sam said.
With a small chuckle, John licked his lips. "Let's just say I made some friends in especially low places. What you see here is not quite demon and not quite human."
"So you have changed," Dean said, swallowing back his anxiety by sheer willpower alone.
"Oh, Dean," their father replied far too casually. "I haven't changed near as much as you think."
"Really?" Dean asked. "Then what's with the candles? The altar? We're talking about some dark stuff, Dad. The stuff we're not supposed to mess with."
"The old rules made us weak."
Dean swallowed hard. "And what do you think a demon army is going to do when you raise it?" he asked. "It'll destroy everything you spent your life trying to protect."
"I only wanted to protect one thing," John explained slowly. "Family."
Dean's heart ached at that. It was true. For all Dean's talk of the family business, for Dad, everything had come back to family. It was Mary's death that had set them on this course, and the idea of keeping the family safe had kept it going, hunt after hunt, year after year. It was why hunting had mattered, why it had been so hard to watch Sam walk away: because this started with family. It ended with family.
"So why this?" Dean asked, motioning to the altar and candles. "Why steal the pipe?"
John shrugged, sauntering toward the altar. He picked up the pipe from its place of prominence, looking it over in his hands. He met Dean's eyes again. "This old thing?" he asked. Then, he tossed it to Dean.
Surprised, Dean barely had time to catch it. He felt Sam tense behind him, ready to spring at the slightest indication.
But there was nothing to respond to. The pipe was in Dean's hand--real and rough. Dean looked back at his father in disbelief.
His father's smile was cold. "You can have it," he said. "It doesn't mean anything to me."
Dean's mind churned, desperately trying to put the pieces together. "Then why did you steal it?"
John gave a small shrug. "I have a thing for artifacts," he said. "You never know when you'll need a little leverage."
It still didn't parse. "So, what?" Dean asked. "The pipe was just a decoy?"
"Decoy, red herring, you name it, that's all there is to it," John continued.
"A decoy for what?" Dean asked.
"What about the army?" Sam pressed.
Then, Dean got it. The cold knowledge washed over him with a certainty he couldn't deny. Their father never intended on raising an army. The pipe was a decoy for them. Just a means to get them here.
He shook his head. "You son of a bitch," he said. "You set us up. You never intended on raising an army at all, did you? You just wanted to see if we'd come after you."
John's face brightened with something akin to pride. "I always knew people were wrong when they said Sammy was the smart one," he said. "Brains are more than books, and you always could read people better than Sam could. All your straight A's, Sammy, and you never could see the things that were right in front of your face."
The taunts fell on deaf ears. "So you aren't trying to start the apocalypse?" Sam asked. Dean couldn't quite place the emotion in Sam's voice--confusion and concern and hope all laced with a deep fear.
The bemused expression on John's face was more than a little unsettling. "I don't have to try to start anything," he said. "The seals you're chasing? They aren't tasks to be performed and checked off. They're signs. Markers. A countdown."
"A countdown?" Dean asked. "Like some freaky-ass end of the world Advent?"
"That God himself put in place," John confirmed with a morbid satisfaction. His eyes were alive with it. "The seals can't be stopped, no matter what."
Sam was dumbstruck next to him, and Dean couldn't muster up much either. "So what?" he asked. "What's with all this? What angle are you after?"
John's expression loosened. "I have my reasons," he said with an air of indifference.
Sam snorted. "Your reasons?" he asked.
John's eyes shifted to Sam. "Always have, always will," he said. "You just have to be willing to listen."
"Yeah, well, we're here, aren't we?" Dean interjected forcefully. "So, please. Enlighten us."
With a sigh, John rolled his eyes. "This is about survival, Dean," he said shortly. "Just like it has been since the night your mother burned alive on the ceiling. The apocalypse is coming, no matter what you do. What better way to guarantee a spot on the other side than keeping up with it?"
There was a certain logic to that. Winchesters survived--it was part of what defined them. No one could survive a life as a hunter without a tried and true sense of fight or flight, and Dean was smart enough to acknowledge it.
But this--was a whole new level of wrong. The twisted logic of it--so John Winchester but with a dark bent.
There were implications of that Dean didn't even want to consider.
Instead, he swallowed hard, forcing himself to stay in control. Sam was wavering beside him, and Dean knew his time was short. He had one last shot at this--one last hope--and he couldn't blow it.
His father was still in there. It was in his mannerisms, his words, his tone. He was there--just different. But Dean just had to coax it out.
So it was time to pull out the big guns. Dean would hit below the belt if he had to--always had and always would, no apologies.
Steeling himself, he raised his chin. "So that's why you've partnered with the demon?" he asked.
"The yellow-eyed bastard who started this?" Dean asked.
The dig was well calculated, and John stiffened in response.
Dean persisted. "The one who killed your wife?"
Their father's nostrils flared. "It's not like that."
"Oh, really?" Dean asked. "So he didn't kill her?"
John shook his head. "There are things you don't understand."
"Yeah, like how you turned into a murderer," Sam shot at him.
It was the wrong thing to say, but Dean couldn't take it back. He put his hand out in front of Sam, signaling his brother to stand down. The younger brother stood his ground but didn't advance.
The outburst was enough, though, to send John from the defensive to the offensive, just like that. Head lowered ominously, John pinned them with his eyes, which dissolved into inky blackness while they watched. "Remember who you're talking to, Sammy," he said. "Or do you need a long overdue lesson in respect?"
Whether or not that was true, Dean knew that John--or this John, anyway--was not the one to instill such a lesson in his kid brother. Because if Sam wouldn't listen to their father when he was a teenager, there was no way in hell the kid was going to listen to some demonic version.
John may have changed, but Sam was the same little brother he always was. Sam could take so much, but when he was backed into a corner, he didn't cower. No, Sam always came out swinging--usually blindly and, too often, stupidly.
Dean had only a split second to reach for his brother to stop his forward movement, but he was too late. Sam was too fast and too set on his destination, and it was like a train wreck that Dean was helpless to stop.
Dean's cry of protest was cut short, though, when Sam jerked to a sudden halt.
A split second passed and Dean's heart thudded as Sam was pulled backwards and off his feet, dangling in mid-air, just far enough off the ground so his feet couldn't find purchase. Sam's eyes went wide, shocked and pained, as his fingers grappled frantically at his throat. Sam struggled harder, with a strangled wheeze that got cut off altogether.
Rushing to Sam's side, Dean's hand looked for something to do--some pressure to relieve. But there was nothing around Sam's neck--no cord, no obstruction, no sign of anything that was causing the reaction.
Sam bucked, gurgling a little, as his eyes settled with a growing panic on Dean's.
Just like that, Dean was in Cold Oak again, watching Sam fall to his knees in the cold South Dakota mud. The feeling of futility was the same--the need to act with no recourse to do so has haunted him ever since, and it pulsed through him with a renewed intensity.
Desperate, he turned to his father, who was standing erect, hand outstretched before him, fingers squeezing tightly into a fist.
Dean knew what it meant. He understood what he was seeing. He knew it better than he knew anything else--but he didn't want to admit it. Almost couldn't.
His father was killing his brother.
"No," he whispered, his eyes going back to Sam again. His kid brother was writhing now, like a fish on a hook. Dean shook his head, saying it louder this time: "No."
John didn't respond, though, his focus singular and determined.
"Dad, no," Dean pleads, louder still. "You have to stop. You're killing him. You're killing him."
But John's eyes narrowed, his wrist rising slightly and his fingers clenched so hard the knuckles were white.
Frantic, Dean turned back to Sam. Sam's struggles were weakening, fingers clawing uselessly at bonds that weren't there and his feet swinging limply off the ground.
This wasn't Cold Oak, Dean remember suddenly. He wasn't helpless. There was still an out. It was an option he'd taken off the table, but it had to be there now. It had to be--for Sam's sake.
It was the question he'd asked himself back in Missouri when he'd first pulled the trigger to save Sam's life. How far would he go. How much would he sacrifice.
He understood, now, Sam's hesitation in the cabin. Why he'd almost shot their father.
The things that they'd do for each other.
How far they would go. What lines they would cross.
For Sam. Only for Sam.
He lunged toward his brother, grappling for the gun in Sam's pocket. The barrel was skin-warm and easy in his hand and the safety slid off as though it was never meant to be on.
This was a line Dean never thought he'd have to cross. One he didn't want to.
But he would.
He raised the gun, aiming at his father, training it on the heart. "Dad, stop," he said, and his voice cracked.
John's expression remained hard and focused.
"Dad, please," Dean said, and he was begging now. Begging for another way out. Begging for anything except this.
Sam was barely moving and Dean remembered his one shot. One shot. One shot.
"Dad!" he screamed. "Stop!"
His finger tingled, the trigger flinched--
And Sam fell limply to the ground.
Dean exhaled a sob, his aim dropping as he fell to his knees beside his brother.Sam's body was pliant, and Dean rolled him easily onto his back, scooping the kid protectively into his arms before casting a wary eye to his father.
John was still standing, his hands by his sides, but his face hard. "It's time to fall in line, Dean," his father warned. "One way or another. If Sam can't understand that, then he'll just have to learn the hard way."
Sam had always had to learn the hard way. The strict punishments of Sam's teenage years were things Dean liked to forget, but they were nothing compared to this.
Dean had made a plan. He'd had one goal coming in here.
Now, holding his brother in his arms, listening to his father's not-so-idle threats, Dean realized that no plan he had would work. No subterfuge he could muster would suffice. This was their father, who knew them inside and out, who knew their strengths and their weaknesses--and how to overcome one by exploiting the other.
And Dean didn't know what to do.
He had no more plans for this. He had no more solutions. He had nothing.
"Just know, I could have you now," John said, stepping backward. A ring of fire erupted around him, surging from the candles into a full-blown blaze. "But I want a good soldier. Not a servant."
The threat was not lost on Dean. Its implications were as ominous as they were vague. But that didn't matter.
What mattered was that this wasn't their father. It couldn't be. This wasn't the man Dean had spent his entire life following. The man he had looked up to, idolized, respected. The man Dean had defended, supported, and believed in.
It wasn't John because whatever this thing was, it'd just tried to kill his brother.
The one unforgivable sin. The one thing, above all else, that made Dean know that this thing, whatever it was, wasn't their father.
Worse, Dean hadn't been able to do a damned thing about it.
Heartbroken, Dean looked at his brother. Sam was still limp in his arms, but Dean could feel the slow pounding of Sam's heart as he was cradled against Dean's chest. Sam's eyes were still closed, though, his lips tinged with a light dusting of blue, even in the growing glow of fire.
"You're soft, son," the thing with John's face continued. "You walked right into this trap, with your baby brother in tow, no less. I need you sharp. Bringing your best game."
Dean just shook his head, his eyes stinging from the smoke. "Why?" he asked.
Its lips twisted into a smile. "Because the next time I catch you," it said. "There's going to be hell to pay."
With that, the thing stepped backward into shadows, disappearing entirely as the flames flared up with new vigor. The smoke was thick and cloying, and Dean coughed against it, burying his head into Sam's hair.
Squinting, he realized it was time to move--and fast. The fire was spreading quickly, consuming the altar easily and spreading along the floors. Dean knew once it reached the walls, the place would go up like a tinder box, and Dean didn't need to be around for that.
He had failed at one thing today, and he wasn't about to fail at another.
With another cough, Dean hauled himself to his feet. Sam slipped awkwardly from his grip, and Dean grappled roughly to regain a hold on his brother. It took some maneuvering, but he hauled Sam over his shoulder. Steadying himself, he repositioned his grip, with on hand tight around Sam's leg and the other on his brother's arm.
Then, with slow and unsure steps, Dean moved forward. For the third time in Dean's life, he pulled his brother from the flames.
The sunlight was blinding and it took all of Dean's effort to keep running to clear the building. He could still feel the heat of flames at his back as he desperately gulped for the fresh mountain air.
He didn't stop, though--not yet. He carried Sam farther, grip still tight on his brother's prone form. He had to get Sam out of here--to get Sam safe.
There was an explosion behind him which shook the area with enough force to make Dean stumble. He hit the ground with his knees and it took more strength than he thought he had to keep from dumping Sam unceremoniously to the ground.
As it was, his adrenaline was spent. With a heaving breath, he eased Sam from his shoulder, resting his brother on the ground before dissolving into hacking coughs.
For his part, Sam curled away, gasping a sharp inhale that was exhaled as a cough.
Together, they sat like that, Dean on his haunches and Sam on the ground, struggling and fighting just to breathe. Dean's throat felt tight and strained and his lungs worked hard for oxygen that just didn't seem to be there despite the open expanse around them.
With a shuddering inhale, Dean forced his body to still, working to keep his lungs from rebelling against the act of breathing. Squinting up, he looked back at the warehouse. The flames had spread fast, licking at the windows as smoke billowed into the sky.
Their father was gone--Dean wasn't sure if John had even survived Hell or where he was now.
The thing wearing their father's face was gone as well--where, Dean wasn't sure, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know.
The fire would be attracting attention soon. As remote as the area was, the smoke would be a telltale sign for miles that something was amiss. He had to get Sam out of here--and fast. Before "help" arrived, or worse--that thing came back.
Turning his attention to his brother, he found Sam still wheezing on the ground. With steady hands, Dean pulled his brother up, propping the kid up so he was sitting.
"Breathe, Sammy," he said, rubbing a gentle hand on his brother's back. "Just breathe."
Sam labored a moment longer, his coughs tapering off and his breathing calming a little. He turned his soot covered face up to Dean and met Dean's eyes with fear and brokenness."What happened?"
The question was legitimate--more than that, it was necessary. What had happened in the warehouse was important. What had happened in the warehouse changed everything.
Dean had gone in to bring his family back together.
He had come back out with the horrible truth that it might never happen.
It wasn't just that their father might be back from the dead--after all, Sam had been there and done that, too. It wasn't even just that their father could be working with the Yellow Eyed Demon. It wasn't even the black eyes. Dean could handle any of that and still have hope.
Their father would never hurt Sam, much less try to kill him. That was the point of no return, the straw that broke the camel's back, and Dean had to believe--he had to believe--that his father was better than that. Even after Hell.
There's going to be hell to pay.
Dean looked back at the warehouse, and watched as the flames engulfed the ceiling.
"Dean," Sam said again, his voice raspy and imploring. "Tell me what happened."
But Dean didn't know what to tell Sam. He didn't know what to do next. He didn't know where that thing was going.
He just knew that he didn't want to be around--he didn't want Sam to be around--to find out.