Disclaimer: The boys belong not to me. More's the pity. Story name comes from Alter Bridge song, Wayward Ones.
Spoilers: Set pre-Series and in Season 1. No spoilers beyond Season 1.
Author's Note: This story was written in February of 2009 for the fanzine The Brotherhood: 8, printed in May of 2009. Many thanks to Yuma and K Hanna Korrossy for their time and attention.
I wrote this story, in round-about way, for charis_kalos. She didn't specifically ask for it, but she is an admirer of the character of Pastor Jim, and I was intrigued by the dual role of a hunter and a pastor. Depending on how you look at it, both roles work to rid the world of evil. We never really got to know Pastor Jim in canon and his death was so sudden, yet devastated John so visibly, I wanted to explore how his life and death may have impacted the three Winchester men.
The story is told through the eyes of John, Dean, and Sam, shifting points of view. In it, I've repurposed some scenes from a few of my other stories and elaborated on some scenes from the show to try to weave a complete picture. If you read, I hope you enjoy.
As they fight to exist
We neglect and resist
Let this circle be broken…
- "Wayward Ones," by Alter Bridge
Sometimes it's those we think we know best who elude us.
I've spent my whole life watching him. Watching, waiting, listening, absorbing. And I still missed it. I didn't know where the line was, or how deep the crevasse was buried inside him until one faded and the other broke him.
When I look back, I think, I should have seen, I should have known.
But there aren't any rear view mirrors in life, and the moment we look over our shoulder to try to see what's being left behind, we turn into a pillar of salt.
Doesn't stop me from trying, though.
Salvation, Iowa, 2005
Sam was quiet beside me. I knew he was thinking of the signs Dad had just revealed to us. The signs that had been in Lawrence the week before Mom died. The signs that had been in Palo Alto. I knew he was trying to remember a storm. A news report of unusual animal activity or deaths.
"Stop it, man," I said, hearing the tightness in my voice. I cleared my throat, working the stiffness from my neck with a tilt of my jaw.
I'd wanted Dad back for so many months. To bring us back together, be a family again. But from the moment Dad had leaned against my window after we'd been inside Elkins' cabin, I hadn't been able to rid my neck of this freakin' knot.
"C'mon, Sammy…." I kept my voice low, even, soothing.
Sam didn't reply. From the corner of my eyes I could see his sullen stare through the front window. His jaw muscle was working overtime, wearing his teeth to nubs, twisting the headache I could recognize from the line between his brows into a full-on migraine.
Fine, I wanted to say. Fine, you want to take the weight of the world on your shoulders? You want all this to be your fault? You want to bear that cross? FINE!
But the moment the thought heated my heart, it was quenched by the constant need to ease his pain. I stole another glance at him and saw that he was rubbing at a worn spot on the leather interior of the passenger door with his frayed thumbnail. It's a spot just below the metal divider between the corner window and the wide main window. It's a spot that we'd both worried with dirty fingers time and again during cross-country journeys from one safe haven to the next.
"You couldn't have known."
"He coulda told me," Sam said, his voice barely audible, his anger loud and clear.
"How? You weren't exactly pen pals at the time."
"Something like that…he could have found a way."
I looked at him again, feeling my own anger work its way to my fingers, making them itch. I squeezed the steering wheel, tight. "Would you have listened?"
Sam looked back at me, the betrayal in his eyes turning them liquid, then back to the rear gate of Dad's pickup through the front window. We were barreling down a back country road toward Salvation, our speed thwarting the wet leaves' attempt to plaster the pavement with orange and red. The weather pressed close, but inside the Impala, we were safe.
We were together.
The only thing missing was Dad.
"Dean!" Sam's warning pulled my focus front. Dad was braking, pulling quickly to the side of the road.
Shit. My breath thudded painfully at the base of my throat, the ice in my stomach flashing to a nervous, sweaty heat as it melted against my heart. Something's wrong.
Working to blank my mind from the myriad of possible scenarios that were suddenly clamoring for attention, I pulled the Impala over behind Dad's truck, turned off the engine, and stepped out into the wet air. The slam of Dad's truck door punctuated the unspoken fear in my heart.
"Damn it." His voice was tight. His face was tight.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Son of a bitch!"
My entire body coiled. I was aware of Sam reaching out for the side of the Impala, as if looking to balance himself. I stepped forward, needing to be closer to Dad.
"What is it?"
Dad looked at me, and I could see the gutted hollow of his eyes slowly building with impotent rage.
"I just got a call from Caleb."
I could tell by the set of his jaw that he was working up to something, working to get out bad news. I tried to remember to breathe.
"Is he okay?" A picture of the scrappy hunter, his wiry body built more for playing soccer than fighting werewolves, shot through my memory.
"He's fine." Dad paused all of a heartbeat before saying, "Jim Murphy's dead."
I felt my mouth open in protest. Not Jim…he's…he's…
"Pastor Jim?" Sam asked behind me, his voice young with shock and disbelief. Dad didn't take his eyes from me as he nodded. "How?"
"Throat was slashed—he bled out." Dad's voice was cold. It made me shiver inside.
I wanted to say something—anything—but I couldn't seem to make my throat work. The air I'd pulled in at Dad's words lay trapped and rotting inside of chest. Pastor Jim is dead. I rolled the words around in my head, trying to make sense of them.
"Caleb said there were traces of sulfur at Jim's place."
Dad's words brought my head up. "A demon," I proposed. At Dad's slight nod, realization hit me. "The demon?"
Dad shook his head slightly, almost helplessly. I felt something slide sideways inside of me. The look in Dad's eyes was unsettling. I wanted to reach out for something. Lean on something. But I was surrounded by nothing but leaves. Everything was wet, heavy, unreal.
"I don't know. Could be he just got careless…he slipped up." Dad paused, shoving his hands into the pockets of his coat. "Maybe the demon knows we're gettin' close."
I could sense his hunger. His need to attack. It almost rolled from his shoulders. He wanted to get this thing, now.
"What do you want to do?" I asked, knowing the answer but needing to hear it. Needing something solid, real, something tangible that I could hold onto in the wake of this news.
"Now we act like every second counts." He was talking too fast. I felt myself curl in, leaning forward, eyes pinned to his lips to catch every word. "There's two hospitals and a health center in this county. We split up, we cover more ground. I want records. I want a list of every infant that's gonna be six months old in the next week."
I blinked. This is how Dad worked, I knew. Move, move, always move. Check your six. Know your exits. Find a solution; find a reason. Do the job.
"Dad," Sam protested, his voice slightly breathy with doubt. "That could be dozens of kids. How the hell do we know which one's the right one?"
I watched Dad. It was typical of Sam, pointing out how something wasn't going to work. But…he had a point. Dad shifted his eyes to Sam and I watched them go flat. Emotion evaporated with the flick of his lashes, and I clenched my jaw.
Jesus, give him something, Dad.
"We check 'em all, that's how. You got any better ideas?" he challenged.
I looked at the ground, pulling my lower lip in against my teeth. Waiting. Beating back the whisper of truth that I didn't want to face. Pastor Jim is dead.
"No, sir," Sam replied, subdued, apologetic.
Dad turned from us, stepping back toward his truck, and I recognized that as a loud dismissed! I started back to the Impala when something tugged at my attention. I hadn't heard his door open. I turned back, watching his shoulders bow, feeling my heart slam harder.
For one full minute, he didn't move. I glanced at Sam, who was looking at me for reassurance. Lacking that, I looked back at Dad. I opened my mouth to call his name once more, when he turned around and I felt my heart stop. I hadn't seen that look on his face since….
"Yeah…it's Jim. You know? I can't…."
I swallowed. Hard. I know. I knew exactly what he couldn't do. What I couldn't do. Jim was gone. The rock my father had broken himself against time and again, the support we'd all depended upon in our youth, the one hunter who had protected more than our lives—the man who had been home for Sam and me when the only home we knew left us behind—was gone.
I grabbed those thoughts in a mental fist, shoving them down deep inside my gut as I watched my father's eyes harden, the lines around his mouth deepen.
"This ends now. I'm ending it. I don't care what it takes."
I nodded, not knowing what else to do but agree to get the son of a bitch that killed Jim. That killed Jess. That killed Mom. It had taken too much from us. And Dad wasn't going to let it take anyone else.
I planned on standing next to him when he took the bastard down.
Moving in tandem with Dad's newfound ferocity, I climbed back into my car, slamming the door in unison with Sam. I pulled back onto the road behind Dad's black truck, gripping the wheel with sweaty palms.
Working to swallow the sudden sour taste at the back of my throat, I focused on breathing, trying to quiet the race of whispers in my head. Pastor Jim is dead.
Sam paused, and I let the silence shimmy between us. My mind was too full of Jim's craggy face melding with Dad's tragic eyes. Pastor Jim is dead. It just didn't fit with reality as I knew it. There are some people whom the bad guys just didn't get. Some people who were too tough. Like Dad. Like Jim….
I looked over at Sam, his little-boy voice catching me. He was watching me, his eyes too large for his face, his bangs falling across his brows, seeming to shrink him.
"Sure, I'm okay," I replied, shifting a bit in my seat. I was cold. "Why?"
"You look…," Sam faltered, looking up at Dad's taillights once more. "Forget it."
Pastor Jim is dead.
I swallowed again, feeling my stomach hitch. Sweat broke out on my upper lip, and my coat was suddenly too heavy.
"Yeah." I couldn't say much. I was afraid of what would come out if I opened my mouth.
"I can't remember the last time I saw him."
I sat quietly for a moment, gripping the wheel tighter as I took the turn into Salvation behind Dad, blindly following him to the motel that we would use as our base of operations while we searched for the demon's next victim.
"I remember," I said softly. I'll never forget it.
It was a time when I thought I'd lost everything that mattered. But Jim…Jim gave it back to me.
Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, 2004
My breath collected in a tiny cloud bank in front of my frozen face as I pressed my back against the tree.
This is a stupid, stupid idea.
But it was too late to stop now. The werewolf had my scent, and all I could do was kill it before it got me. And there was no fucking way I was going to walk into another gore-covered room to find another dead girl, terror lingering in her dead eyes while her chest lay ripped open and bloody, her heart missing.
Licking my lips to ease the nerve-induced dryness, I clutched the .45 filled with silver bullets against my chest. I automatically darted my eyes to the right—to where Sam should have been—cursing myself for forgetting. Sam had left a long time ago. He wasn't coming back…not willingly. He didn't need me, so why did I still need him?
The snuff of the werewolf's shuffle across the frostbitten ground grabbed my attention with the force of a punch. No Sam, no Dad—I couldn't afford to let my attention wander. Not if I wanted to live through this hunt.
I rounded the tree as silently as I could, the leather of my jacket stiffening up in the cold, scraping across the bark. Sound around me ceased. No bird cry, no animal call, even the wind had stopped teasing the tops of the winter-dead trees.
It was close.
Bring it on, you son of a bitch.
Counting to three under my breath, I turned, the muzzle of the gun butting up against the matted hair of the werewolf's chest.
"Oh, fuck," I breathed.
Dad had talked me through the different species of werewolf when he was updating his journal one night, not too long after Sam had left. I knew my chances for this one to be of the more-human, less-beast variety were slim to none, based on the aftermath of its attacks. But knowing that and facing that were two totally different realities.
The werewolf's breath was rancid, the rotting flesh trapped in its teeth wafting out in a sickeningly sweet rush as it huffed in surprise. It recovered quickly, though, slashing at me as I fired. I twisted to the side, glancing off the tree and slipping on the frozen ground, still firing.
"Arrrggghhh!" I realized I was echoing the creature's cry, hearing its howl of pain as my bullets found their mark…but missed its heart.
I dug the heels of my boots into the earth, pushing back and away, firing until the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. I'd managed to put a fair distance between us, but not enough of one that I was able to pull out my spare clip before it hit me. The force of its weight drove the air from my lungs and the curse from my lips as I grappled with it for dominance.
This was a fight I couldn't lose; defeat in this arena meant true madness, not just the absence of life. Rolling with a guttural grunt of frustration, I managed to straddle the creature, reaching behind me for my Bowie.
You want freedom, Sammy? You got it. Live your damn life. I got me a mission.
I growled, using my foot to keep one claw-leaden paw from filleting my shoulder, and flipped the blade of the knife forward, putting all my anger and pain into the thrust as I aimed the silver blade for the wolf's heart.
It deflected my swing with a powerful swipe of its paw, its mouth close enough to my neck that its jagged teeth brushed my skin, its saliva seeping into the edge of my T-shirt, sizzling like acid. The motion tossed me to the side; I felt myself skid across the frozen earth, my knife still gripped in my cold hand.
The wolf stood, stretching to his impressive full height on rear legs. I rolled to a crouch, eyes up, hand tented on the ground, ready to launch.
Stay focused, Dean, Dad had said. I need you sharp and ready to run.
So, Sam leaves me, lives a life, and gets to be a real boy. Dad leaves me, fights demons, and gets to be the hero. And I'm left to…what? Be ready to help them when they decide to come back?
"Hell with that," I spat, rushing forward with the speed and power of a fullback, ducking my shoulder low and taking the werewolf in the mid-section. I felt the fiery dig of the beast's claws against my side and cried out.
In that moment, I slipped my skin, my conscious self moving outside my body to lean against the nearest tree and watch the action. My back arched, my neck snapping back, as the pain from the werewolf's claws burrowed into me, twisting inside of me with a volcanic heat, then swiftly cooling to a bone-aching ice. I stabbed the sliver blade into the creature's neck and shoulder, over and over, its scream of pain matching my own.
I turned, slicing the knife down across the claws still embedded in my skin. One broke away and I staggered back, falling to my ass, gasping, shaking, sobbing. No tears, though.
That was a weakness I refused to show. To anyone. Not since Sam left me.
The werewolf slid backward, away from me. One hair-covered arm lay useless on the ground, blood crystallizing on the frozen grass. It was whimpering, I realized. It had too much silver in it to attack or run, but not enough to die.
"Luckily," I panted, digging into my coat pocket, "I brought plenty."
Shoving the clip into the grip of my .45, I relished the echo of the round slipping smoothly into the chamber. Bracing the butt of the gun with my left hand, I sighted on the retreating werewolf, firing twice. The creature bucked, its yelp cut off as my bullets found the heart. I exhaled a shaking breath as it slumped forward, its body a dark shape against the moonlit prisms of the frozen, blood-stained ground.
I sat for a moment, just breathing. The cold was seeping up through my jeans, making itself at home in my bones. My conscious self seemed satisfied with my body's performance because I could suddenly feel everything again. There was a hot spill of blood on my side soaking through my shirts and down my jeans. I reached down, pulling my jacket away, and saw the claw still stuck in my flesh.
"Damn," I panted, my mouth suddenly, viciously dry. "That's gonna leave a mark."
A hawk screeched high above me and seemed to signal it was safe to come out. The night noises surrounded me, and I blinked up at the silver of the silent moon. I wanted to go home, back to the Impala, back to the little house Dad had rented for us. I wanted Dad to give me hell about hunting alone when I hadn't known the full extent of what I was up against. I wanted to tease Sammy for worrying about me when I showed up bloody.
But there was a body to burn.
Struggling to my feet, I felt the odd sensation of a spider web slipping from my neck. I reached up with my free hand, brushing absentmindedly at my neck, eyes on the now very human form of the werewolf lying naked and dead in the moonlight, when I realized what had caused that sensation.
My amulet had fallen.
The panic that hit me was sudden and complete. I cast about quickly on the ground, slipping once in a small pool of blood that I didn't even register as having come from me, until I found the gold face of the charm reflecting the deadly light of the moon. I bent to pick it up, and a wave of weakness broke over me, driving me to my knees. The tie was still fastened, but the leather strap had been severed.
Pulling my hand from my bleeding side, I tried to tie it in a knot, tried to fasten it together, but the leather continued to fray, as if it were being slowly eaten away by something. My bloody fingers shook, flitting across the collar of my T-shirt, feeling the holes there caused by the werewolf's saliva.
"God damn it," I muttered, pushing myself up and crying out as the cuts on my side protested. "GOD DAMN IT!" I yelled to the night, scaring up several bats from their perch above me.
I couldn't seem to catch my breath.
This was all I had left of Sam. I couldn't lose this. I pressed the heel of my hand against the worst of the cuts on my side, grunting from the pain of that contact, then looked over my shoulder at the man who had caused so much trouble. Aside from leaving behind evidence of my kill, he was harmless now. I knew Dad would kick my ass if he found out that I'd left a body without burning it.
"He's gonna hafta find out first," I muttered, gripping the amulet in my bloody hand, stuffing the gun in my pocket, and sliding the knife back into its sheath, promising myself I'd clean it later.
I had to get help. I was in trouble, and I couldn't fix it on my own.
I stumbled through the dark woods, slightly amazed that I'd come so far in my hunt of the werewolf. The Impala was parked outside the house of the latest victims. Reaching her, I fell against the hood, catching my breath and peering at my side.
"God…." I had lost even the will to curse. I pressed my hip against the car, using her as support, and slid around to the driver's side. I forced myself to pointedly ignore the fact that I was bleeding all over the seat.
I had a vague idea of where I was. It was too far from the little house, and who knew if Dad would be there, anyway. And I knew I needed to get this patched up quickly; doing it myself was not an option, apparently. There was only one place I could go.
I gripped the steering wheel tightly, finding the grooves worn by my father's fingers; I wanted to wipe the sweat from my eyes, but I was unable to move my other hand from my bleeding side.
The hot burn of the wound had faded to a trembling cold, and my teeth were chattering.
"Okay, th-that's n-not good," I muttered, blinking my eyes wide to focus them. I knew I should pull over, but I couldn't stop until I got there. It's the only home I'd ever known besides the one I was in.
I hastily rolled down the window, letting the cold night air wash over and through me, jolting me awake as my vision blurred. I straightened the swerving Impala, its wheels following my fading sight, and searched for the elusive road sign, the only marker that would alert me that I had to turn or I'd miss his house.
As is usually the case in my car, I'd left the radio on, but the music wasn't the distraction I needed. I couldn't focus on the lyrics, and the beat of my heart was drowning out the rhythm that I had so often used to calm my frayed nerves.
I wanted him to go, I reminded myself. Not because I didn't want him around, but because he'd needed it so badly. And his need was never something I could deny. And I'd fought with Dad for him to go. And I'd snuck around California checking on him. And I'd survived this long without him. What was one more hunt?
I groaned when I reached the house, seeing the darkened widows, the vacant signs of life. I didn't even need to get out of the car to know that he wasn't home. I thought furiously where I could go at this hour, in this condition, to find him. Like a light bulb illuminating a dark room, the realization of where he'd be left me dizzy, and I backed out of the drive, turning at the next road, searching for the haven. The lights of the chapel drew me in, and I ended up curbing the Impala as I slid to a stop.
Shutting off the engine, I sat for a moment to collect my breath. This was all I had left, the only refuge I knew. I laughed slightly at the thought, then sobered up quickly as I remembered my blood was spilling over my hand, down my jeans and onto the Impala's seat.
"Shit," I muttered, pushing the door open and staggering around the front, bouncing off the grill in my haste to get inside. Please be here, I found myself chanting silently. Just please…be here.
The door to the chapel was heavy, and I almost lost my grip but managed to push it open. It swung wide, slamming against the wall and echoing loudly through the empty sanctuary. He was standing at the pulpit, an arm in the air, mouth open, mid-lecture.
He looks older, I thought.
"I need your help," I said, my voice sounding strange in my ears.
He stumbled down from the altar, approaching me in a cautious, shocked gait.
"Dean? What…? Where's John?"
"On a hunt," I replied, my conscious self deciding once more to step away, leaving me feeling dizzy and light. I stumbled against one of the pews. The noise of wood scraping on wood was loud and startling. "I need your help."
Jim reached me, his eyes watering from surprise or wonder, I wasn't sure. His hands were warm and strong on my shaking shoulders. He scanned me quickly, taking in the dirt, the blood, the scratches and the bruises. His eyes widened when he saw my side, the gouge visible through my torn shirt.
"What the hell?" Jim exclaimed. I was always surprised to hear him swear, though I've heard it often enough.
"Werewolf," I explained. "It's dead. I need your help." I tried for more emphasis on the word help, needing him to realize this.
"Dean, sit down," he ordered, trying to turn me toward one of the pews.
"In a minute," I snapped, reaching a hand into my blood-soaked pocket.
"Where's Sam?" Jim asked.
I knew with absolute certainty in that moment that if he hadn't been holding me, I would have fallen.
"Oh, dear God, is he—" Jim choked.
"He left," I interrupted. It was the first time I'd said it out loud in a while. "He's at school. In California. He left us."
"He…left?" Jim repeated, shock plain in his eyes.
"I need your help," I said, my voice firm, my body betraying me. My legs seemed to vanish, and I slid down the side of the pew to the wooden floor, Jim following me, still gripping my arms.
I pulled the amulet from my pocket, holding it out to him.
"Werewolf spit burned through it," I said. "Just before I killed it. I can't put it back together."
"What?" Jim asked, taking the amulet from me, confused.
"It burned…the…." My vision wavered, like water sluicing across glass, and I forced my eyes wider. "The strap tore and it won't hold a knot. I think…I think because—"
"Of the werewolf saliva," Jim said.
Yes, I thought, my shoulders sagging a bit. Yes, thank you. Finally, someone to help.
"Let's get you taken care of first—" Jim tried, shooting his worried eyes to me.
"No!" I snapped. "I need. Your. HELP."
"Okay," Jim soothed. "Okay, Dean. I'll help. I promise."
"Fix it," I implored. I could barely get the words out. I was so cold, yet my side was burning. I pressed my hand carefully to the wound, the claw seeming to meld with my torn skin. "Please…."
It's everything, I wanted to say. It's all I have.
Jim looked at me, then cupped the back of my neck, easing me to the floor. I was finally able to take a breath, and I felt my body sink as if the floor were actually made of feathers and not wood. Jim removed his jacket and covered my shivering body.
"I'll be right back, Dean," he promised. "You stay here, okay?"
"Okay." I couldn't have moved if the church had been on fire.
Jim returned within minutes with another man, someone I didn't recognize.
"Where is it?" I demanded, ignoring the man.
"I have to replace the strap," Jim said. "Let's get you to—"
"No," I protested, pushing away the other man's hands. "Fix it first."
"God damn it," I growled, my lips curling in a feral expression. I felt the odd sensation of seeing myself from the outside and was impressed with the dangerous look on my face, even while the world was floating away.
"You're a stubborn son of bitch, boy," Jim replied. "I blame John for that."
"Blame whoever you want," I whispered, relaxing, knowing he would finally do as I asked. "Just fix the damn thing."
I faded a bit after that, the heat of my skin losing the war against the chill of my heart. I roused once, long enough to feel the weight of the amulet on my chest as comforting as the back of Sam's hand. I came aware long enough to ride the lightning of pain as Jim and his friend—who I later learned was another hunter seeking sanctuary in Jim's rectory—poured Holy Water on my side, cleansing the wound of all its poison.
I slept for a long time, waking only briefly to eat and use the bathroom. Jim hid me in the back room of the church, surrounded by religious charms and spells, and about four dozen different knives. The man was definitely a collector.
I woke one evening feeling stronger than I had in days. The disorienting fever had cooled enough that I was no longer seeing midgets in clown makeup surrounding my bed, and I was only moderately thirsty rather than begging Jim for water. I turned my head slowly, hearing the creak of the cot beneath me with the shift of my weight, and saw Jim sitting next to me, his gentle eyes waiting.
"Hey," I croaked.
"How long've I been here?"
"'Bout three days."
Shit, I thought. Dad's gonna be pissed.
"He hasn't called," Jim spoke up, freaking me out once more with his uncanny ability to follow my train of thought. "I don't think he knows."
I tried to shrug off the pang of disappointment in my heart, but my body resisted. I settled on a flicker of an eyebrow.
"Don't act like you don't care," Jim scoffed, leaning forward, his elbows braced on his knees. "I know you better than you think, Dean Winchester."
I hated it when he used my full name. Even when it was said with kindness, I felt as though I were being scolded. I flicked my eyes around his safe room. "Who's that dude that was with you?"
Jim sat back. "One of the…wayward."
I lifted an eyebrow at him. "You collecting hunters now, too?"
Jim shrugged. "I keep what needs keeping."
"You and your riddles."
"John shouldn't have let you fight that werewolf alone," Jim said, his voice hard.
"Hey," I bit off. "I can decide for myself what hunts I take. Dad wasn't back yet, and that wolf was working its way through that entire town."
"It was a two-man job, Dean."
"I did fine." I looked away, feeling my body start to shut down once more.
"He's never treated you boys as sons," Jim started.
I looked back at him, cutting through his bullshit with my eyes. "Stop it."
"Why?" Jim stood suddenly, worry and exhaustion turning him edgy. He stalked over to his display of knives and began to stroke the blades. "John taught you to be an amazing hunter, Dean. But…I'm afraid the only thing you learned about…love…was how to…survive the moment."
Love? I blinked, trying to focus on the surplus of words suddenly flowing around Jim. I never really thought about Dad…loving me. Love was a word women used. Love was a fantasy, a way to pin someone down. Love wasn't as important as duty, honor, loyalty, trust.
But then I thought of Sam.
And my chin shook.
"He needs to remember that you are, first and foremost, his son."
"He knows that," I protested.
Jim turned around. "Does he?"
"Just lay offa Dad," I mumbled, growing weary. "He does the best he can."
"Tell me, Dean." Jim approached the cot once more but didn't sit. "Did he let Sam go to school?"
"He's there, isn't he?"
"Yeah, but…how hard did you have to fight for that?"
I sighed. "Why does it matter?"
"I love your father, Dean," Jim said softly, surprising me. It was not a phrase I expected to hear. Ever. "And there are times when he amazes me with his knowledge and skill. But it's the one-on-one—with you, especially—where he could use some work."
I didn't respond, trying to come to grips with the idea that this man just said he loved my father. I haven't even said that. I felt more emotion for Dad and Sammy than anyone in the world. Is that what Jim meant? I was willing to lay down in traffic for them. I had fought for them, killed for them, bled for them—would do it all again in a heartbeat. Was that…love?
My mind was a mucky wash of memory and fact, trying to piece together a coherent path through the blurriness.
"Does Sam check in?"
"No," I said automatically, my weariness thinning my walls and causing me to forget to hide how much that mattered to me.
"But…John checks on him, right?"
"He does the best he can," I repeated, letting my eyes fall closed.
Jim said something else, but I didn't catch it all. I slipped into darkness, ready to forget the conversation, unable to let it go.
A week later, when I was finally strong enough to leave, though sooner than he wanted me to, Jim told me, "You always have a home here, Dean. All of you. Don't forget that."
"Remind your Dad."
"I will," I promised. "Thanks."
I shook his hand, feeling the slim bones beneath my strong grip. He'd aged, as I had. But time had worn him down like water on rock. Beating him and thinning him. He'd been a shelter from the storm of my life, but as I looked at him, I knew I wouldn't come back here again.
Jim saw too much and not enough when he looked at my family. He saw us as one of his wayward few, one of the lost that he could offer a beacon of hope. He didn't always see the raw truth in the connection that laced Sam, Dad, and me together: no matter how far we wandered from each other, no matter how much we tried to untangle it, that bond was always going to be there.
I released Jim's hand and tucked the amulet under the edge of my borrowed T-shirt. I was ready to head back to the little house, hoping to find Dad there waiting, looking to kick my ass for being late. And then…then I thought I'd maybe hunt up Sam.
"Sam's gonna be okay, Dean," Jim said, laying a hand on my arm. "Sometimes…you gotta let someone find their own way home."
"Yeah," I replied quietly.
But it never hurts to send them a map once in a while.
Council Bluffs, Iowa, 1987
"You lost? Or just unlucky?"
"Depends," I answered the disembodied voice, punctuating my word by chambering a round. I hadn't shut the trunk and was prepared to reach into my newly furnished arsenal if he came closer.
"Hold up there, soldier."
He stepped into the light cast by the faded yellow bulb attracting moths and illuminating the Impala on the side of the road. His hands were raised, but in one I saw a late-model Colt revolver. I tilted my head. He wasn't dressed like a military man, but I recognized something about the way he held his body.
"I'm just offering help."
"Where the hell did you come from?" I asked, looking over his shoulder for some sort of transportation.
"I was, uh," he looked beyond me, through the back window of the Impala, and I knew he was seeing one of the boys. His eyes changed. With one glimmer of emotion, they turned hard and his fingers closed over the butt of his revolver, though his hands stayed raised. "I was tracking something in the woods."
"At night?" I asked, skeptical.
"What I was tracking travels at night."
I kept my gun level, holding my breath, hoping the boy he'd seen was Dean and not Sammy. A four-year-old on a hunt was most definitely frowned upon.
"They yours?" the stranger asked.
"Not sure that's any of your business," I replied. Shit, they're both awake….
He moved quickly, I'd give him that. His gun was lowered and focused on my heart before I was able to take my next breath.
"It is if I say it is."
I heard the unmistakable creak of the Impala's door. Before I could turn, Dean stepped in front of me. His scrawny eight-year-old frame barely cleared my belt buckle, but the set of his shoulders spoke volumes.
"Dean, get back in the car," I ordered, my finger ticking on the trigger of my own gun.
"No, sir," Dean responded.
"Son," I said, wanting to turn him to face me. "I said, get back in the car."
"Not until you do," Dean said, not taking his eyes off the stranger.
"Dad?" Sam's sleepy voice from the back seat wrapped around us.
"Damn it," I muttered.
With a calculated study of Dean's face and a glance into the back seat, the stranger lowered his weapon. "They're yours."
"Yes," I replied. "They are."
"Why do you have them out in these woods at this time of night?"
"Gimme a second, Sammy," Dean and I replied at the same time.
The stranger rolled his lips in, glancing over his shoulder toward the woods. As if deciding something, he stepped forward, thrusting out his hand. "Jim Murphy."
I looked at his hand a moment, then lowered my shotgun. "John Winchester. This is my son, Dean."
"Dean the protector," Jim nodded.
"You could say that," I answered softly, resting a hand on Dean's narrow shoulder.
A sudden haunting cry punctuated by several odd-sounding yips echoed in the night, and Dean startled, stepping back against me.
"We should get somewhere safe," Jim said, looking over his shoulder again.
"You got a car?" I asked.
"What?" Dean piped up. "What kind of a grown-up doesn't drive?"
Jim lifted a shoulder. "Didn't need to in the Marines. Turns out…don't need to as a pastor."
"I thought I saw the Corps in you," I replied, though in truth, I hadn't been able to place the stance.
"You serve?" Jim asked.
Jim nodded. "Semper Fi."
The yips sounded again, and Dean turned to me. "Dad? Can we go?"
"Give you a ride?" I jerked my head to the car.
Jim looked skeptical. "You got something that'll work against spirits?"
I couldn't stop my grin. I had finally gathered enough information to hunt down the creatures that sought shelter in the dark. I had finally gathered enough weaponry to make a stand. And now, I had a hunter to show it to.
"This oughta do," I said casually, tipping up the Impala's trunk with a finger.
Jim looked in. His eyebrows went up, and he looked back at me. "I call shotgun."
Closing the trunk, I steered Dean to the back seat and his brother while Jim climbed into the front. Starting up the engine, I glanced in the rear view mirror, as was my habit, to check on my boys. Sam had settled back to sleep, his head on Dean's lap. Dean was watching the newcomer with a mixture of fascination and suspicion.
"You really a pastor?" he asked suddenly.
Jim looked over his shoulder at Dean as I pulled away from the street light. "Yes, I am."
"Whatcha doin' hunting ghosts and stuff, then?" Dean asked. "Can'tcha just…ask God to do it?"
I smirked, waiting to see what Jim would say.
"Well, sure, I could." Jim nodded. "But God likes us to take care of ourselves. He just makes sure to…watch over us. He has…angels to help him out with that."
"That's not true," Dean said, and my heart panged against my ribs at the acid in his tone. Too bitter for a child.
"What do you mean?" Jim asked, turning almost all the way in the seat to look at Dean.
"God wasn't watching when my mom died. Guess those angels of his were off duty."
Jim looked at me, but I said nothing. He was the pastor, the man of God. Let him explain to my boy why God let his mother burn.
"Dean…is it okay if I call you Dean?"
"Whatever," Dean replied, his voice devoid of emotion.
I glanced in the mirror once more, but I couldn't see his eyes. Mary's eyes….
"Dean, there's stuff out there that we don't understand. No matter how hard we try. God's one of them."
"So…He watches out for us, sure. He doesn't want anything bad to happen to us. But…sometimes…it does."
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Dean muttered.
I glanced at Jim, who was looking down. I couldn't be sure what he was seeing.
"Someday you'll learn that there's more to the truth than just the facts, Dean," Jim said quietly. "When you do…maybe then it won't sound so stupid."
"If you say so," Dean replied.
"Dean," I admonished.
He sighed, settling his head back against the seat. "Yes, sir?"
"That's not how you talk to our…our friends."
Dean looked out the side window, and I returned my eyes to the road. "Yes, sir," he replied sullenly.
Jim turned back around. "Friend, huh?"
"You help me keep these boys safe? You better believe it," I replied, unwittingly sealing a fate that would last Jim's lifetime.
Salvation, Iowa, 2005
I felt Dean tense as we watched his brother rub at the pain in his head. His protection of Sam was both satisfying and irritating. After all, I was here now. He didn't have to be on guard all the freakin' time.
"Yes," Sam sighed, as if he was tired of having to explain himself. Or…just tired. "I saw a demon burning a woman on the ceiling."
I felt myself grow cold as his words made me recall that moment. That night. The instant my life slipped away from me. I tightened my jaw against the rush of memory and heard my voice growl at my son. "And you think this is going to happen to this woman you met because…?"
Sam sighed, wincing as if the remnants of the pain his vision induced were sliding away with the ease of a serrated knife. "Because these things happen exactly the way I see them."
No…. My heart sank. It couldn't be. Not Sam. Not…not yet. The anger at what I knew to be true crowded with what the boys were telling me. I started to twist my wedding ring faster, grinding the heat of my denial against the post of resistance.
"It started out as nightmares," Dean spoke up, standing from the bed he'd been sitting on next to me and crossing the room to perch behind his brother, almost as if he felt the pending explosion as keenly as I did. "Then he started having them when he was awake."
Before anything could escape through my stunned lips, Sam nodded, relaxing back against his chair as soon as his brother was close to him. "Yeah…it's like…the closer I get to anything involving the demon, the stronger the visions get," he said.
My anger simmered higher, bordering on frustrated rage. "When were you going to tell me about this?" I looked from one to the other, demanding an answer.
I saw the subtlety of Dean's movement, barely registering what it meant at first. He stepped toward me, between Sam and I, his movements a forced casualness. "We didn't know what it meant," he said.
Son of a…I knew what it meant, boys. I know. "All right, something like this starts happening to your brother, you pick up the phone and you call me!"
Dean suddenly shimmered, incredulity resonating in his words as he approached, both pissing me off and shaming me as he spoke. "Call you? Are you kiddin' me? Dad, I called you from Lawrence, all right? Sam called you when I was dying. Gettin' you on the phone…I've got a better chance of winnin' the lottery."
They've grown so much, my boys.
Sam…Sammy is a man now. A man with a little boy's eyes. A little boy's hope. A little boy's belief. Dean…Dean had never been a little boy. He'd always been a man. My little man. My rock. And there was something cracking inside of him, and I didn't know how to seal it.
And he'd been dying. He'd been fucking dying, and I hadn't stopped this mission long enough to….
"You're right," I said softly, watching wonder cross my boy's face. "Although I'm not real crazy about this new tone of yours, you're right. I'm sorry."
Dean was silent.
Sam, however, looked from his brother to me and back with anxiety I regretted. "Look, guys, visions or no visions, the fact is, we know the demon is coming tonight. And this family's gonna go through the same hell that we went through."
I looked at him. My youngest. I remembered vividly grabbing him from the crib as his mother burned above him, thrusting him into Dean's arms, commanding Dean to take him outside. I remembered how his hair smelled—baby powder and that unique scent of infancy—as we sat huddled on the hood of the Impala, waiting for the fire to be put out. I remembered how warm he'd been that night when we all slept together in a pile in a motel bed.
"No, they're not," I vowed to him. To Sam. My promise to Sam. "No one is, ever again."
The ring of Sam's cell phone startled us from the moment, and I took a breath. I put my face in my hands as Sam answered, leaving him to his contact for a moment, gathering my wits, until I heard, "Meg. Last time I saw you, you fell out of a window."
I stood, approaching Dean, standing next to him as we watched Sam wrestle with the voice on the phone.
"Just your feelings? That was a seven-story drop." Sam's voice was filled with malice and disbelief.
Dean tensed beside me, and I wanted to put a hand out, touch him somehow. But I didn't move.
"My Dad…I don't know where my Dad is," Sam hedged, looking up at me. After another moment, he handed his phone to me.
Swallowing, I took it, turning from the boys. After Caleb's call about Jim, I thought I was prepared for anything this little bitch had to say.
"This is John."
"Howdy, John. I'm Meg. I'm a friend of your boys. I'm also the one who watched Jim Murphy choke on his own blood."
The words sliced through me as smoothly as if she'd used a blade. I felt my stomach bottom out and my eyes burn. I was glad I was facing away from the boys because I couldn't compose my face quickly enough.
Jim…I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry.
"Still there, John Boy?"
"I'm here," I replied, my teeth clenched.
"Well, that was yesterday. Today, I'm in Lincoln…visiting another old friend of yours."
Oh, God…. For a moment, I couldn't breathe. I felt the boys move closer and pulled in on myself, watching Dean from the corner of my eyes, still a half-inch in front of his brother.
"He wants to say hi."
"John! Whatever they do, don't give—"
Son of a bitch! "Caleb?" I saw Dean flinch and my heart beat hard against my ribs. "Caleb! You listen to me. He's got nothing to do with anything. You let him go!"
"We know you have the Colt, John."
Oh, shit. I hardened my voice, emptying it from the panic that filled my heart. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh. Okay. So, listen to this."
For a moment, it didn't register. I refused to comprehend the gurgles and gagging noises on the other end of the line as my friend choked and bled and died. Died because of me. "Caleb? Caleb!"
"Can you hear that? That's the sound of your friend dying. Now. Let's try this again."
I felt myself collapse inside, the corners of my heart folding in. I closed my eyes against the image of Dean staggering slightly to the side, out of my periphery, toward his brother.
"We know you have the gun, John," the demon continued. "Word travels fast. So, as far as we're concerned, you just declared war. And this is what war looks like. It has casualties."
Fuck you and your fuckin' casualties…. "I'm gonna kill you, you know that?"
"Oh, John, please. Mind your blood pressure. So, this is the thing. We're gonna keep doing what we're doing, and your friends, anyone who has ever helped you, gave you shelter, anyone you ever loved. They'll all die unless you give us that gun."
I can't. I can't. I turned slightly, looking quickly at my boys. They were standing completely still, silent, waiting, but their eyes were begging me for answers.
"I'm waiting, Johnny. Better answer before the buzzer."
"Okay," I replied.
"Sorry, I didn't quite get that."
"I said okay. I'll bring you the Colt."
I listened to her demands, tried to buy us more time, but in the end, she won. I closed the phone and turned reluctantly to face my sons, knowing they knew another of their friends had died. Sam's eyes swam, but Dean's were hard. There was something going on there. Something….
"So, you think Meg is a demon?" Sam asked me.
"Either that, or she's possessed by one. It doesn't really matter." I sighed, glancing down, the echo of Caleb's death rattle still clinging to the insides of my ears.
"What do we do?" Dean asked, his voice tight.
I looked up at him, prepared for his reaction. "I'm going to Lincoln," I announced.
"What!" Dean cried.
"It doesn't seem like I have a choice. If I don't go, a lot of people die. Our friends die."
I watched Dean's face grow pale, and I felt the shame of before licking at the edges of my conscious. He didn't have many friends. Sam, he had those few he'd made at Stanford. And he was likable enough that I knew if he needed to step back into that life, he'd be able to find some arms open and waiting for him. But Dean—
"Dad, the demon is coming tonight for Monica and her family. That gun is all we've got. You can't just hand it over."
I looked at Sam, his indignation at my audacity like a roadmap to self-righteousness on his young face. "Who said anything about handing it over?" Sam blinked as I continued. "Look, besides us and a couple vampires, no one's really seen the gun. No one knows what it looks like."
Dean drew his head back. "So, what, you're just gonna pick up a ringer at a pawn shop?"
"Antique store." I lifted a shoulder.
Dean worked his jaw. I recognized his expression. His no way in hell I'm gonna let you do this expression. "You're gonna hand Meg a fake gun and hope she doesn't notice?" He said the words carefully, his tone clipped, trying to get through to me, hoping I'd see how crazy this plan was.
Boy, I'm already there….
"Look, as long as it's close, she shouldn't be able to tell the difference."
Dean's anxiety drew him forward. I saw him shimmer once again, as if his heart shook him from the inside out. "Yeah, but for how long? What happens when she figures it out?"
God, Dean…. He had worked so hard to protect us, all of us, all his life. And I saw him losing ground. I saw him mentally clutching at air, wanting so badly to keep Sam and me behind him that his voice shook. The look in his eyes as he stared at me, I realized, was the slow siphoning of hope. And it had started when I slammed him with the news of Jim's death.
The death of our friend, our last safe place. The death of our last hold on innocence.
"I just…I just need to buy a few hours, that's all."
"You mean for Dean and me," Sam realized quietly.
I looked back at him, taking them both in. My boys. Growing up in chaos and standing amidst mayhem as men.
"You want us to stay here…and kill this demon…by ourselves?" Sam asked, the fear and skepticism in his voice breaking something inside me.
"No, Sam," I confessed, letting my eyes drop. "I want to stop losing people we love." I looked back at him. "I want you to go to school." I rested my eyes briefly on Dean. Watching him work to hold himself still, work to keep me proud, work to shove it all down. "I want Dean to have a home."
And as the tears pushed hot and hard against my eyes, I turned away, whispering. "I want Mary alive."
It took me a moment before I could look at my sons again. In that moment, I rolled through the ache, the longing, the lust I still had for my wife, twenty-three years after her death. I rolled through the love that burned on and couldn't be extinguished by time. The fire that fueled my fight, pushing me forward, pushing me away from my boys, pushing me to seek, to find.
I looked back at them, watching Dean's throat bob as he tried to breathe, Sam's tears glisten in his eyes. They were my boys. But they didn't belong to me. Not anymore. Not after everything I'd allowed to be taken from them.
"I just want this to be over."
My boys look back at me, and I felt their loss keenly. Their safe haven had been stripped away, its throat slashed by a demon, bleeding their hope all over the only other hands they'd allowed to help them. And now I was about to leave them. Again.
Please, I plead silently. Let this be right. Let them be strong enough.
Chatham, Michigan, 1993
Nobody is going to be as good as my brother.
Dean says that Dad is better, but he's wrong. I think when he taught Dean everything he knew, he let go of the good parts. He just let them slip out and sink into Dean and then he walked away.
I could see Dean through the crack in the door. I could see him holding the shotgun up, steady, as if he wasn't afraid of the thing pounding on the other side of the cabin door. As if he couldn't see the salt line getting brushed away as air puffed rhythmically under the door.
"You ready, Sammy?"
Hell, no. "Yeah."
"If it gets past me, you burn it, you hear?"
"I know, Dean," I called through the door. But I was glad to hear him repeat the words. I was glad to hear his confidence. Where the hell are you, Dad?
A screech swept over the house again, focusing on the front door once more, pounding with renewed frenzy. Through the small crack, I could see Dean stumble back, but the barrel of the shotgun didn't waver. Tiny spots start to gather at the corners of my eyes, and I realized I'd been holding my breath.
The pounding suddenly stopped. The screeching stopped. I blinked, staring hard through the door of the room Dean had hidden me in, the door my brother stood in front of.
"Oh, shit," Dean whispered.
And then my nightmare came true.
Dad had left us two nights before to hunt a rawhead with Pastor Jim. They'd been fighting when they left—fighting about leaving us alone. Dad said we were fine. Jim said we were just kids. I liked hearing him call Dean a kid. He was a kid. But most people we were around tended to forget that.
Dad won, of course, and Dean and I hung out down by the fishing pond near the little cabin. Then I had the nightmare. The nightmare about a bogeyman without a face. The nightmare about its fingernails ripping into Dean's chest and turning him bloody. The nightmare about it kissing me and turning me hollow.
Dean told me it was like a hangover…I was remembering the shtriga, and it was nothing. He couldn't find anything about a bogeyman in the books Dad left behind, but he let me sleep with him the next night. He woke me when the dream got bad and told me dirty jokes until I laughed so hard, I got the hiccups.
The third day, though, when Dad hadn't come home and Pastor Jim didn't call, Dean got worried. He wasn't worried about the bogeyman. But he was worried. I knew because he'd stopped talking, which was always a sign that something is Really Wrong. It wasn't until later that night that he told me he'd seen a…creature. Outside the cabin.
He said he'd been hoping Dad would get back before dark, but when the sun started to set, he'd made me put out the salt lines and started loading the shotgun. When the first screech echoed around the cabin, he shoved me into the supply closet with an aerosol can and Dad's Zippo.
The noise in the small cabin when the bogeyman burst through the door made me scream. I dropped the lighter as I covered my ears, falling to the ground and curling up tight. I heard the blast of Dean's gun as if from a distance, and then I heard Dean scream.
That sound shook me with a deeper fear than any nightmare. I knew, I was certain, that Dean's chest had been sliced to ribbons. I knew the bogeyman was going to kiss me hollow. I knew it. I knew it in my bones.
"No freakin' way some nasty thing is kissin' me," I growled, sliding my hand along the floor, searching for the Zippo. I found it and the aerosol can, and took a breath.
Closing my eyes against the sight I was sure waited for me, I flung the door open. The bogeyman from my nightmare was bent over my brother, who lay limp on the floor, the shotgun resting in his out flung hand. His chest wasn't bloody, but his face was bruised and his lip cut. The bogeyman was softly stroking Dean's chest.
"Hey, you freak!" I called, holding up the can and the lighter. "Leave my brother alone!"
The bogeyman looked up, and I saw what had made Dean scream. It was the face of nightmares, dark and featureless, with a gaping maw for a mouth and twisting shadows where his eyes should be. I felt it…suck…the air around me and I gasped.
Without thinking about how close Dean would be to the flame, I ignited my makeshift torch. The bogeyman screeched, flinging its burning body toward me as I dove out of the way, crying.
"Dean!" I called, seeing him lie in the shadow of the fire, the sleeve of his shirt ablaze. I ducked the bogeyman's swing and fell across my brother's arm, extinguishing the fire with my body.
I couldn't stop crying.
We weren't going to be kissed hollow.
We were going to burn up, just like Mom.
The sound of my Dad's shotgun was the best thing I'd ever heard. Another echoed it and I could hear a strange pop followed by a fizz and sizzle that reminded me of lightning. I heard orders being called out just before arms grabbed me up as I sobbed and clung to Dean.
"No! No, don't get Dean!"
My dad's bark stilled me. They were his arms around me, holding me tight. I pressed my sweaty face against his beard.
"It's gone, Son. It's not gonna get Dean."
"We need to get him out of here, John."
Pastor Jim, I realized as I held Dad tighter. Dad shifted me in his arms, and I felt him moving, felt the cool air of the night hit my face. I realized Dad was talking to me, but I couldn't understand his words. They were just meaningless, soothing sound. He was here, finally. That was all that mattered.
When we got to Jim's cabin, I looked around. Dad set me on a chair and started to peel away my clothes. It wasn't until that moment that I realized they'd been burned. I didn't hurt, but the skin on my chest was red, like I'd been standing in the sun. I started to shiver.
"You're going to be okay, Sammy. You hear me?"
I nodded, looking over at the couch where Pastor Jim was laying Dean down. "Dad? Is Dean okay?"
Dad looked over his shoulder. "He's gonna be okay."
"You promise?" I needed to hear him say it.
"I promise." He looked back at me, and his big hand smoothed down my hair. "You want to go sit with him?"
I nodded once more, and Dad helped me up. I walked to the couch and sat down at Dean's feet. Dad said something to Pastor Jim, who nodded. Dad looked at me, then crouched down. I realized he hadn't yet set down his shotgun.
"I need to go get some stuff to help you and your brother. Jim's gonna stay with you, okay?"
"Is the bogeyman really gone?"
I saw him exchange a look with Jim.
"Yeah." Dad nodded. "It's really gone. You boys…," He shook his head, looking down. "You boys did a good job. Hell, you did our job."
I nodded, looking back at Dean. His face was pale, the bruises on his forehead and eye standing out like they'd been painted on his skin. Jim was cleaning the blood away from his mouth.
"I burned him," I said softly after Dad left. "I set him on fire."
Jim looked over at me, a smile changing his eyes from a hunter's to a preacher's. "You saved your brother's life, Sam."
"He was on fire."
"You put the fire out—you saved him."
I watched Dean breathe. Watched his chest rise and fall. I wanted him to open his eyes and give me hell for my aim. I wanted him to tell me I was a pussy for crying. I wanted him to let me apologize.
"You okay, Sam?"
Pastor Jim always called me Sam. Not Sammy like Dad and Dean. I liked that. "Yeah. Just…cold."
A blanket materialized as if from thin air and was wrapped around me. I burrowed into it, the skin on my chest starting to sting.
"You boys did a brave thing tonight," Jim said softly. I watched in awe as he stroked a soft hand over Dean's short hair. I hadn't seen anyone touch Dean like that. Like he was…special. "You're a good team."
"Yeah, well." I shrugged, scooting closer to Dean's feet. "Dad makes sure we know what to do."
"He wouldn't let anything happen to you," Jim said, petting Dean again. I was confused. I couldn't tell if he was talking about Dad or Dean.
I watched as Jim cut Dean's shirt away, exposing a red, blistered arm. I laid my head on Dean's legs and watched him. He moved like Dean belonged to him. He was careful and watchful, pausing when Dean's breathing changed, relaxing when Dean didn't wake.
When Dad came back, Jim stepped away, letting Dad fix us up in his quiet, efficient way. His hands were gruffer, his face hard. Not soft and sad like Jim's. I watched Jim watch Dad with Dean, and I realized that I was seeing loneliness.
Salvation, Iowa, 2005
"Did you get it?"
I stood next to Dad, watching Dean approach. Everything felt different about today. The air was too bright. The wind had edges. My Dad looked like a shadow while my brother stood out in stark contrast to the world around us.
I felt my mouth go dry as Dean pulled out a paper-wrapped antique Colt and handed it to Dad. "You know this is a trap, don't you? That's why Meg wants you to come alone."
My breath stuttered in my chest as I worked to look as calm and in control as Dean.
"I can handle her," Dad replied confidently. "I got a whole arsenal loaded—Holy Water, Mandiac amulets—"
"Dad…." Dean interrupted him, and the sound of need in his voice caused my heart to trip.
"Promise me something."
I looked at Dean. Watching. Seeing something there…something….
"What's that?" Dad asked, not willing to promise, seeming to know what Dean was about to ask.
"This thing goes south, just get the hell out. Don't get yourself killed, all right? You're no good to us dead."
I swallowed, looking back at Dad, drawing strength from the set of his shoulders.
"Same goes for you," Dad said softly, leveling his eyes on Dean. He glanced quickly at me, then seemed to shake himself. "All right. Listen to me."
He pulled the real Colt from his jacket pocket and looked at us, taking both of us in with a glance. "They made the bullets special for this Colt. There's only four of 'em left. Without 'em, this gun is useless. You make every shot count."
The response was immediate and instinctive. "Yes, sir," I replied.
Dean said nothing. He just watched Dad.
A strange sort of sadness crossed Dad's face, and he looked up at us with a rueful smile. "I've been waiting a long time for this fight. Now…it's here and I'm not gonna be in it. It's up to you boys now. It's your fight. You finish this. You finish what I started." He straightened his shoulders once more. "You understand?"
I couldn't speak. My throat was tight. I had a sudden flash, an odd distorted flash of blood and tears. I tried to dismiss it, but a cold feeling started to grow in the back of my head, climbing down the back of my neck. A feeling that maybe…maybe we wouldn't see Dad again.
To hell with that. "We'll see you soon, Dad," I assured him.
Dad smiled at us. And the cold feeling grew. I was suddenly ten years old again and wanted to feel his arms holding me tight, wanted to press my cheek against his beard. Wanted him to tell me it was all gonna be okay.
"I'll see you later," Dad replied, turning and getting into his truck. He pulled away without a backward glance.
"Later," Dean said softly, and my heart cinched. He sounded like he'd felt the cold, too.
I turned to say something to him, to reassure him, but before I could open my mouth, he turned away, heading back to the car, the weight of the Colt tipping his jacket crooked on his body. I watched and waited for him to toss me a cocky, self-assured grin. To tell me we were gonna beat these sonsabitches.
But he stumbled slightly and thrust out a hand to balance himself against the car. I blinked. He was breaking before my eyes, and I found myself at a loss. I always thought my brother was the strongest person I'd ever meet. The one whom nothing got to.
Sometimes it's those we think we know best who elude us.
I've spent my whole life watching him. Watching, waiting, listening, absorbing. And I still missed it. I didn't know where the line was, or how deep the crevasse was buried inside him until one faded and the other broke him.
When I look back, I think, I should have seen, I should have known.
But life doesn't allow for rear view mirrors, and the moment we look over our shoulder to try to see what's being left behind, we turn into a pillar of salt.
Doesn't stop me from trying, though.
"Yeah, Sammy." His voice was barely audible, but he responded to me. As he always has.
"We're gonna be okay," I said, but it came out sounding like a question.
Dean simply nodded, then turned around and moved to the trunk. I stepped back, watching. When he opened the trunk, lifting the lid to the weapons cache, I thought he was going to put the Colt inside, keep it safe. But he surprised me.
He plucked the dream catcher from its hook.
The dream catcher Pastor Jim had made for him when he was a kid. When his nightmares were worse than mine.
"She killed him, Sam. Just…just slit his throat."
I swallowed. The pain and anger in my brother's voice scooped out my heart. "I know."
"Because of us." His fingers played with the beads at the center. I said nothing. "He was…one of the best, y'know?"
I knew he didn't mean hunters. I nodded quietly.
"He was the only…I mean, other than Dad, I…."
I heard tears in his voice. Tears. Dean doesn't cry. The last time he'd been close had been in Chicago. When he'd confessed to wanting to be a family again. When I'd told him no.
"He told me to come back. Did you know that?" He continued to stare at the dream catcher, so I didn't move. "He told me that we—all of us, even Dad—had a home there." He huffed out a humorless laugh. "A home. Said it would always be there for the wayward. The ones that were…y'know…lost."
He swallowed. I heard it. As if his pain had curled into a ball and he'd forced it down. When he looked up at me, all I saw in his eyes was rage.
"She's not gonna do that to anyone else."
I shook my head. Waiting.
Dean blinked; I had to stop myself from taking a step back. The heat in his eyes was frightening. "I'm not losing anyone else."
I shook my head again, helplessly.
"No. One. Else."
"Okay, Dean," I said, wanting to reach out, unable to do so.
He put his dream catcher in his pocket and I noticed a strange thing. The bit of twine and leather, adorned by several small beads, seemed to balance out the weight in his other pocket, straightening the line across his shoulders.
He closed the trunk and moved to the driver's door. I followed, my body tight.
We had work to do.
a/n: If you're interested, the tale of the dream catcher that Dean retrieves from the Impala's trunk—and of Jim making that for Dean—was told in my story Hear No Evil.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed. Your feedback helps make the hellatus bearable.
I have one other 'zine story that is eligible for posting and I'll put it up later this month as I work through some more story ideas and bring some outlines to life.