It was a horrible feeling of déjà vu. Of being so close, and yet so far away. He'd watched Sam die in Cold Oak, watched the look of agony and defeat in his eyes when he sunk to the ground before his eyes shut that one last time.
And no matter how much Dean tried not to think about it, he could still feel his brother's limp body in his arms. Heavy and boneless.
Just like he looked now.
There was no way Dean could move fast enough, hindered by his own limitations.
But he had to get there. He couldn't be too late. He hadn't just gone on some wild goose chase through time to come back and find his little brother dead. He just hadn't.
He went to his knees, skidding to a stop on the floor of the barn. He ignored his father, standing somewhat to the side, his focus only on one thing: Sam.
His brother was pale, lying like a ragdoll against a hay bale, his long limbs fanned out and his neck extended back.
"He's okay, Dean," John said from above him.
But Dean wouldn't trust his father--not when he'd tried to abduct them both, and especially not with something as important to him as Sam.
Gently, Dean propped his brother's head up, supporting his neck. Desperately, he examined Sam's face, his fingers fluttering for the pulse on Sam's neck.
The action proved superfluous; Sam's eyes twitched before his eyelids flickered up and down rapidly as consciousness returned to him.
Sam's head rolled a bit, his arms moving and legs shifting. His face tensed up into a grimace, a small groan escaping from his parted lips. "Dean," he breathed.
Dean huffed a sigh of relief. "Thank God," he said.
John laughed bitterly. "Not quite."
Finally assured that his brother was alive, Dean shot his father a glare. "Nothing from you right now," he said shortly. This was still John's fault as far as Dean was concerned. He was the one who had planned this trip to the past--regardless of what they'd learned back there, it had clearly taken a toll on Sam. Sam didn't deserve that, and worse, Dean wasn't sure how much more his little brother had to give. Too many people were asking sacrifices from Sam without giving him anything in return. That just wasn't acceptable in Dean's big brother book of friggin' etiquette.
"I'm not the one who's been holding out on you," his father reminded him, his voice sharp.
At that, Dean stood, his patience all but used up. Staying close to Sam, he leveled his eyes at his father, face set. "So, what, you abducted Sam because you're father of the year all of a sudden?" he accused. He shook his head. "What if it had killed him, huh? What then?"
John didn't back down. He raised his chin in defiance. "I never would have let it get that far."
"That's crap and you know it," Dean snapped. "You dragged him all through time to fulfill whatever little mind trip you had planned. You saw what it was doing to him and you didn't care."
"The message was more important than a little discomfort," John seethed.
Dean disbelief was evident. "A little discomfort? Look at him."
His father's face was screwed up with anger, a retort on his lips, when another voice cut them off.
"Dean--just stop," Sam interrupted, his voice weak but insistent.
The pleading tone was one Dean recognized from his own years of being in the middle. Watching his family fight had been the hardest things he'd lived through as a teenager. He could take all the moving, always being the new kid, hunting down monsters on the weekends. But when Sam and Dad went at it--it just tore Dean up inside.
So this was what it felt like to be on the other side. To be so impassioned about something that he had to fight.
He didn't regret defending Sam, but the tone of Sam's voice made it impossible to ignore.
Feeling duly chagrined, Dean kneeled next to Sam. "You okay there, Sammy?"
Sam met his eyes tiredly, but his nod was resolute. "Just drained...or something," he said. "It's kind of weird."
Then, as if their little family reunion wasn't screwed up enough as it was, Bob's voice interjected. "That's probably because the demonic version of time travel relies far more on the black arts," he said pointedly. "The dark forces aren't quite as careful as the natural ones. Or were you going to just nicely omit those little details, John?"
Dean glanced up at him, watching as Bob neared. He stopped a few feet short, his keen gaze penetrated John's stiff stance.
His father was many things, but a coward wasn't among them. He didn't even flinch at the harsh tone of Bob's voice. "I'm not the one leaving out the important details, Bob."
The familiarity was more than a bit of a surprise. Helping Sam to his feet, Dean regarded the two warily. "You guys know each other?"
John was unfazed by the question. "We've crossed paths a time or two," he said with a cold shrug.
Sam wobbled in Dean's grip, but remained upright, leaning heavily on him for support. Dean kept his grip firm as he tried to ascertain just what the hell was going on.
Bob's mouth closed, lips pressed together thoughtfully for a moment. Then he returned the shrug, unrattled but clearly perturbed. "Yes, while breaking the seals, your dad has been getting quite a lot of mileage," he agreed. "Some contact has been...unavoidable. And oh-so-very pleasant."
John's laugh was bitter. "Oh, come on, Bob," he said. "Don't forget about all those good times. You know, like when you stood by and did nothing while my wife made the deal that would take her life and destroy Sam's innocence. The way you just stood there when she died, when my innocent baby was tainted."
Bob's smile was harsh. "You mean the demon that you now work with?"
John's face hardened again. "Compromises sometimes have to be made to right certain wrongs."
Bob's face was as serious as Dean had ever seen it. "And you of all people should know that we all have our orders, John."
It was all still a bitter pill to swallow. He was still grappling with his father's alliance with Azazel, but now to learn that Bob had known all along what had happened to his family? Worse yet, that Bob had been there, that he could have stopped it, but didn't. Even now, the angel could reduce his mother's life and death to simple orders.
Shaking, Sam pushed himself a bit more upright. "Orders? What orders?" His voice was somewhere between anger and pain, mostly mired in confusion.
Dean knew how he felt. As if going back in time wasn't enough, the things they'd seen...the truths they'd learned. There was a Hell of a lot more to the Winchester family tragedy than any of them had ever known.
Bob's face fell, and he looked sheepishly at his feet for a second. When he raised his head again, his well groomed features were regretful. "I would love to tell you, I really would...." He gave a pained shrug. "But I can't. Not yet. It's still too dangerous, you have to trust me."
"Of course he can't tell you," John snapped. "Because no matter how many times he bops in and out to save you, he's still some pathetic angel lackey. You can't trust him--you have to see that now."
The compassion in Bob's face turned into vitriol. "Oh, and how that one smarts!" he exclaimed. "And really quite ironic coming from the little old demon who played turncoat and ran right into Azazel's waiting arms."
John did not waver. "I'm doing what I have to do to make things right."
Bob shook his head. "Oh, John. That's a pretty bad lie. Even for a demon. And trust me, I've heard my share of whoppers."
"That whole demons lie line? Not as true as everyone likes to believe," John said. "We tell the truth more often than not because we know that the truth hurts more than anything."
Dean reflexively tightened his grip on Sam. He remembered what Azazel had said to him that night in the cabin. The things John had told them in Wyoming and Ohio. That Dean needed his family more than they needed him; that Dean had to fall in line for his own sake, for Sam's. As much as he wanted to believe they weren't true, he'd always known they were. Every last word.
"So that's it, then?" Bob asked. "You're doing this to hurt them?"
"No," John returned with vigor. "I'm doing it to save them."
Bob shook his head. "Oh, I don't know about that. Why would you chase them? Why almost kill them? Why throw your lot in with Azazel when you know better than the rest of us just where this all is heading?"
"Where all of what is heading?" Sam broke in, asking the question Dean was too stunned to formulate. "Dad?" He looked at his father. When no answer came, he turned to the angel. "Bob?"
The question silenced them both for a moment.
Neither of them wanted to answer.
Which was just great. The endgame that involved him and Sam, and no one wanted to come clean about the details.
"It's a fair question, John," Bob said. "If you're so big on truth, why don't you tell them that?"
John looked down, something suspiciously like tears in his eyes. "You know why I can't," he said in a strangled voice. He looked up again, eyes burning with desperation. "This thing is bigger than me. It's bigger than both the boys. I'm picking the side I need to make sure that we win."
And there was something in that, something so quintessentially Dad, that it made Dean ache. His father had always operated on a need to know basis, but Dean had never doubted him, never had to. Even though he knew he should now, it was hard to question that tone.
"You're picking the side that leads to the end of the world," Bob said, his voice quiet, regretful, but firm. As serious as Dean had ever seen him.
John's face trembled. "The end of the world as ruled by you," he sneered.
Bob flinched, his normally easygoing demeanor slipping. "I could smite you where you stand," he said, rolling his shoulders a little. "I don't get to play with those powers very often these days, and I have to admit, I think it'd be kind of fun this time around."
Sam tensed next to him, almost moving forward, but Dean kept a grip on him.
John's laugh was bitter. "I'd like to see you try."
Bob made a step forward, certain and John didn't back down, straightening himself toward the angel.
Which was just great. As if it wasn't enough having angels in his head and having a father who was a demon, now they wanted to embark on some freaky-assed epic smackdown. But as far as Dean was concerned, it would have to wait. They'd wasted too much time here, too much time bopping through time, too much time having him and Sam thrown around like they didn't matter. For the two most important humans in the Apocalypse, they were being treated like glorified chess pieces.
He didn't need this. Sam didn't need this.
Stepping in front of Sam, he edged between the two. "Just stop it!" he growled. "Both of you."
Bob hesitated, and his father stayed still, but Dean could tell neither of them wanted to stop. They wanted to see where this fight would take them, and at this point, Dean wasn't even sure who he'd root for.
But he didn't want Sam to have to sit around and worry about the outcome either. Not after tonight.
Which meant that everyone else needed to get the hell away from them. No matter what their motives were, no matter what lies they were telling, if Dean was ever going to figure this mess out, he just needed to take Sam and run. Just the two of them.
Feeling stronger, Dean took another step forward, glancing between the two. "No one is smiting anyone and no one is working their freaky demon mojo," he said slowly, purposefully. "Right now, you're both going to leave us alone."
Bob let out a frustrated sigh. "Dean, we still have to talk about the seal," he protested. "You know, the Apocalypse? Or have you forgotten?"
Dean's gaze went to the wall. The scrawled sigils were still there. Black magic was right, but not demonic rituals. "Well, since John here isn't off to break the seal any time soon, I think we've got some time. Or were you lying about that?" he asked with a pointed look at his dad.
"This was never about the seal," John confirmed.
"Not this time," Bob agreed. "But the seal will break. We must find its new location. This whole mess has already wasted enough of our time."
"Yeah, well, I don't think we ever asked for your advice," Sam cut in, stepping up next to Dean. There was a hard edge in his voice, sharper than Dean expected.
Bob picked up on it, too. His features froze for a moment.
Dean swallowed. Bob was right about one thing: the breaking of the seal still needed to be stopped. But not now. He wasn't sure he was ready to throw his hat in the ring with Bob, but he wasn't ready to cut ties altogether either. Not that he could anyway with the angel able to enter his head whenever he wanted.
Sighing, Dean closed his eyes for a moment, wishing there was an easy answer. But Dean just wasn't that lucky. Opening his eyes again, he gave Bob a weary look. "Check back with us in a week," he said, trying to remember the things the angel had done for them, trying not to think about what he'd just seen. "I mean, it's not like we're not still on board with this whole saving the world schtick. We've just...got to figure this out first. You know." He looked from Bob to his dad and back. "Who to trust."
Bob's face scrunched up. He clearly was not a fan of that idea, but he forced himself to take a deep breath. "This has always been your choice," he said. He chewed his lip for a moment. "One week. I'll give you a holler in your ear, or maybe just pop up."
"Yeah, great," Dean muttered flatly. "Have a nice flight."
Whether the angel heard him or not, Dean would never know, because with a brush of air, he was gone.
Sam couldn't help but be relieved when Bob was gone. He'd had his issues with the angel--that was really an understatement. After all, this so-called angel of the Lord had nearly driven his brother crazy. And the fact that Bob still seemed to hesitate around Sam, that gave the younger Winchester reasons to doubt.
Doubt didn't even begin to cover it.
Bob had been there. Bob had been there for everything. From his father's death, to his mother's deal, to that fateful night in November 1983: Bob had been there and done nothing. He'd simply watched while their entire family fell apart.
What kind of being did that? How could someone be one of the good guys and just let so many horrible things happen?
He wanted to trust Bob, he really, really did. He was an angel, after all. The ones Sam had believed in. But had Bob ever really trusted him? They existed on this weird and delicate balance; Sam felt like he was needed and wanted, but never quite accepted the way Dean was.
Even weirder now that Sam knew that Bob had had the chance to keep Sam pure and had merely chosen not to.
We all have our orders.
Sam had never been big into following orders. Now he was beginning to remember why.
Dean brushed his arm with his hand, a small reassuring gesture, before turning to their father. "I meant you, too, Dad," he said. "Adios time. Hit the road or whatever it is you demons do."
His father's face was pleading. "Boys, please," he said. "We still need to talk about all this."
Sam's heart lurched. They did need to talk--about a lot of things. About how happy John had been with Mary. About how beautiful and innocent they'd been together. About how they'd all been backed into a trap by demons and angels alike.
Sam had always felt like the odd man out in his family, but having this experience with his father, seeing what his father's life had once been, the man John had started off as--it changed everything. Changed all his preconceptions and made sense of so many hurts in his life. He couldn't let that go, not yet. "Dean, maybe--"
But Dean was not in the mood for negotiation. His brother was past his point of no return. For as hard as this had been on Sam, it had been just as hard for Dean. "No maybes," Dean said sharply. "I just--" He broke off, shaking his head with a bitter and pained look at Sam. "I can't make sense of it all. One minute, he's acting like good old dad and the next he's back to the black eyed freak."
Sam cringed. It was a hard contradiction to understand.
Dean turned his eyes to his father. "I mean, come on. Do you want us dead or do you want us alive? Make up your mind already so I can have my daddy issues on the right track."
The look on their father's face was real hurt. And then, Sam could see it. He could still see traces of the man his father had been. The man who he might still be, somewhere in that mess.
"Everything I've done," John began, his voice thick and scratchy. "I've done for you. Both of you."
"Yeah?" Dean asked, his own voice hollow. "Then what was up with almost killing Sam? Chasing us down? Because I'm getting some pretty mixed messages here."
Then Sam got it. That one weird stop in the journey, back to Vietnam. He stepped forward, looking keenly at his father. "Sometimes you have to know the big picture," he said suddenly, pulling the lesson as if from a dream. He moved another step away from Dean, closer to his father. "Sometimes the orders don't make sense until you see the big picture."
Behind him, Dean stiffened, stepping forward, closing the gap between himself and Sam. "Normally I'd be all about playing the good little soldier, but all of that goes out the window. My dad would never do that--ever. There are some things we've sacrificed but we've always protected each other."
"I wasn't trying to kill him," John said. "Can't you see that? I'm trying to save you both."
Dean flinched a little. "Is that why you saved us from Alastair?"
John turned his eyes to the ground. "Alastair was out of line," he said, voice rough like gravel. His steely gaze turned to them once again. "If I had known sooner, I never would have let that happen. But demons aren't omniscient. We have limitations. And the forces at play here--you can't even begin to imagine. I didn't have any idea until it was all too late. This has all been set up way before either of you were even in the picture. The angels, demons--they're going to move you around until you're like pawns on a chessboard to get what they want."
It kept coming back to that analogy. A cosmic game of chess. White pieces and black pieces, and pawns that were moved around on a whim, easily taken by either side. Sam never liked to think of himself as helpless, but the last few months had taught him otherwise.
Dean stood even with Sam now, a bitter smile on his face. "Great. So how do we get to freakin' checkmate?"
John's eyes were earnest. "It's in you. Both of you," he said readily. "It always has been. Sam, you know how to stay strong, how to keep at it until the end. Dean, you know how to save your brother, no matter what. Those are the things you're going to need for this fight."
Just when it was starting to make sense, the questions kept coming back. Sam shook his head. "What fight? With the angels? With Azazel?"
John's expression hardened, a flicker of fear in his eyes as they flashed black just for a moment. "I can't say any more," he said. "This is as much of a risk as I can take."
It wasn't an answer Sam had been prepared for, and it was one that Dean did not take well. "Well, maybe you should have thought of that before trying to abduct us," Dean said crossly.
"There are some orders I can't disobey, Dean," John replied.
"But, Dad, the big picture," Sam said, almost begging.
John kept his face firm. "You know what you need to know now."
Sam shook his head. "I don't understand."
John backed up a step, until his back was against the wall. "Just remember, you don't always have all the information," he said, rushed. "If you don't have all the information, you can't make the right decision. Know your stuff first. Always. I've taught you that. You need to understand that the things I do may not make sense, but they're for all of us. I promise. I may lie about a lot of things, but not about that."
"So you're just going to bail again?" Sam asked, and he felt desperate. To go through what he just went through, to see his parents' lives and deaths rise and fall, to live his own history and understand how it came to be--it had to be dealt with. It bonded him to his father in a new way, bonded them together more definitively. The Winchester Family Business meant something more now, something that Sam was inherently a part of, for better and for worse.
And for the first time, Sam was desperate to get in on the secret. He'd spent his life trying to run away, and now that he was ready with open, begging arms, he was going to be denied.
With steady eyes, John kept himself even and calm. Not cruel, just sure of himself. Just like his father always had; steadfast under pressure, even until the very end. "Remember to trust each other, boys. Above all else, trust each other."
There were a million questions to ask, but before Sam could ask any, before he could do anything, their father raised his hand, smearing blood along the wall. The barn shook, a boom resounding and a whirlwind of air whipping up the hay strew floor.
When it settled, Dean had a hand on his arm once again, steadying him as they both stared at the place where their father had just been.
Now it was just him and Dean, the way it always seemed to be. Brothers, together, but always somehow alone again.
It was nice to have some constants in life. With the changing elements in Dean's life, it made him cling to what stayed the same all the more.
Sam, for starters. No matter how pissed off that kid could make him, no matter how much Sam could freak him out, Sam was everything he had left. The only thing really worth fighting for.
But even he and Sam together needed more than that. Some way to come back to earth, to make sense of the crap thrown their way.
Too bad they only had one real Winchester cure-all.
Always driving. Pushing the pedal to the floor and going, going, going, but never getting anywhere.
It seemed to be the story of their lives. For as much as they fought and rallied, for as much as they worked and defied, in the end they really never had much say in things, not things that mattered.
Dean glanced at Sam. His brother was sitting rigidly in the seat. They hadn't really said much to each other after their dad and Bob had taken off. What was there to say? Hey, remember that time we time traveled to see Mom make a deal? Or remember when Dad tried to kill us and then save us and then kidnap us? Or how about, Dean's favorite you think we should call back the angel who did nothing while our lives were ruined?
But still. He had to say something. If all he had left was being a big brother, then it was about time he started acting like a big brother.
Clearing his throat, Dean shifted in his seat, switching hands on the wheel. He gave Sam another look before licking his lips. "So," he said. "How are you feeling? Not still woozy or anything?"
Sam kept his eyes trained ahead. "Better," he said absently, with a far off lilt in his voice.
So much for that stellar conversation starter. But the big brother in Dean would not be deterred. Even if Sam didn't want to, the kid needed to talk. Hell, they both did, and Dean wasn't stupid enough to think they could get away from this without it.
After a pause to rally his courage, Dean tried again. "You sure?"
Sam shrugged. "Tired. A little achy." Then he looked at Dean, pulling the classic little brother avoidance technique. "You?"
Dean grimaced. Asking questions was hard enough; answering them was something he still wasn't totally up to. But for Sam...well, he'd do anything for Sam. He made a sound in the back of his throat. "Apparently the angel express is a bit less bumpy," he said.
Sam nodded at that, gaze back to the road.
Silence lapsed between them, filled with the sound of the tires on the pavement and the steady hum of the engine.
Then Sam asked, "Do you think Dad was telling the truth?"
The question caught Dean off guard. "About what?"
Sam shrugged. "About doing all of this for us."
The million dollar question; he really should have known. After all, wasn't that one he kept coming back to? Could they really trust their dad? Or was it a trick? A really convincing, well done trick put on by a demon to get them right where he wanted them?
Dean sighed. "I don't know, Sam," he said, shaking his head. "He's a demon. He tried to kill you. Both of us."
Sam's answer was immediate. "But he didn't."
"He almost got you killed again tonight."
"But he wanted to show me something," Sam said. "I mean, the things he showed me, the moments--Dad was so human."
Dean remembered, not just from tonight, but from his own childhood. The man his father had once been, the loving father who doted on his sons. "Yeah, because he was human back then," Dean ground out.
Sam shook his head. "No, I mean, now," he said. "Didn't you see it? The look on his face when he saw mom as she was back then--it was just...amazing. He still loved her. Completely and totally."
Dean locked his jaw. The sight of his mother had been something--she looked just like he remembered, only more beautiful. More perfect.
He missed her. So much.
Swallowing, Dean said tightly. "Seeing Mom would do that to anyone."
"Maybe," Sam said absently. He took a deep breath. "But if he wanted us dead, he would have done it by now."
There was some logic to that, but not enough. "You know just as well as I do that there's an endgame in place. Bob's big secret. John's orders--for all his talk of the big picture, he was still leaving out a lot of the details. For all we know, Dad could be setting us up."
"Or trying to save us," Sam countered.
And there was the rub. Dean had to be honest--he didn't know. He had thought he knew, that even if his father had saved them once, even if there was some good in the old man--he couldn't be trusted. He had it in the back of his mind to save his father, not follow his orders again. The distinction was important, and Bob had been his best ticket to that.
Until tonight. "I'll tell you what I did believe," Dean said finally.
Sam looked expectant.
"He told us that we have to trust ourselves. You and me, Sammy. No one else. Not Bob, not Dad. I mean, in all this crap, you're the one person I know I can count on. No matter what."
Sam shied away from that, looking at his hands.
It was a look of despair and self doubt Dean recognized too clearly. "Demon blood and demon resurrection and all," he assured Sam.
Sam looked up, almost surprised.
Dean held his gaze for a long second. "And the thing you can trust is that I will always have your back. No matter what crap they throw at us."
Sam nodded, looking down again. Then he looked up, smiling a little. "You think so, huh?"
Dean scoffed. "I know so."
Sam laughed a little. "Well, then who am I to refute that?"
"Exactly," Dean said. "And don't you forget it. Now, if you don't mind, some music will make the time go faster...."
Sam snickered in the back of his throat, sighing again, this time almost contentedly. "I could really use some sleep anyway," he said. "So not too loud, okay?"
"Picky, picky," Dean sniped.
"You rather hang out with Bob who wouldn't shut up the entire drive?" Sam asked, settling back against the seat.
"Ugh, hell, no," he said. "You know we still have to figure out what we're going to tell him."
"I know," Sam said, his eyes shutting. "But not tonight."
Dean nodded at that, watching as his brother snuffled again, trying to find a comfortable position. "Yeah," he agreed. "Not tonight."
Sam didn't reply, didn't need to, and Dean turned on the radio, letting it play softly as Sam drifted into sleep and the car slipped deeper into the night.