John aches all over.
Sometimes when he spent a particularly long day at the garage he'd get this kink in his neck, and when he'd come home Mary would rub it out with her strong, capable hands.
This ache is nothing like that. This ache is everywhere, in every inch of his skin and muscle and bone. It pushes in one side of his body and comes out the other. Nothing can fix this ache, because it's not the result of a good day's hard labour, it's the result of a world that's too dark and too heavy, a world that's left John cracked and bent.
He's driving now with the ache strongest right in his chest where the werewolf planted one clawed foot, but he's not driving home. Home is just a memory, a fantasy that burned down almost nine years ago along with his wife and the building where he'd planned to raise his children. The place he's driving to now is just a place, an anonymous structure of walls and doors and a roof that leaks when it rains. He might not even head back there, might just lay down in the car and let the familiar leather take some of his weight and some of the world's— this car is tough, he knows she can take it— if it weren't for the two boys waiting up for him.
He shouldn't have told them a definite day he'd be back, because they always wait up when he does, despite his strict orders about bedtimes. The only time Dean openly defies his orders are times like these when John's out hunting, and John knows it's because during these times, Sammy's in charge. Dean's the older brother and the one John gives the instructions and the weapons to, but if Sammy decides he's not going to bed then John will bet every penny he'll find the boys sitting at the kitchen table or on the couch, wide-eyed and pale, listening for footsteps on the porch.
The ache intensifies as John thinks about them, his boys who have grown up too hard and too fast and could still be killed by a thousand different things in the night. He's met plenty of hunters over the past nine years, and he always finds a way to ask if they have kids. Very few of them say yes. Those that do say it with the kind of expression that tells John they don't see those kids much, if at all.
Most don't want to talk about it, but Bill Harvelle tells him all about his little girl. Sweetest little thing you could imagine, he says, 'bout Sam's age, with a mess of blond curls and a smile that'll melt your heart.
"Ever bring her with you?" John asks one night in a bar, two weeks before he and Bill decide to team up and five weeks before Bill dies. "Your little girl?"
"God, no." Bill downs his beer, not even trying to hide the sadness in his smile. "The missus would never allow it. Besides, this ain't no life for a child."
John doesn't say anything, and Bill gives him a piercing look. It's that look that makes John hesitate about teaming up with him, but it's that same look that makes John decide it will be worth it.
"This ain't no life for anyone," Bill continues, and John recognizes the desperation in his voice, the hopelessness of something lost that will never be regained. He clinks their beers together, because he can't admit his agreement with the pain that's suddenly invaded his throat, pain like he's been inhaling smoke from a fire.
There's a light on in the shabby little house when John pulls up in the driveway, and he doesn't know whether to be angry or proud that his boys acted exactly like he predicted and refused to go to bed. Sam's stubborn streak has pushed John to yelling more times than he can count even though the kid's not quite ten, but the ache is particularly bad tonight and John's exhausted himself, so he decides he'll let it slide.
He finds the boys on the couch, Dean slumped against the arm, the TV remote held loosely in one hand, Sam with his legs tucked up and his head pillowed in Dean's lap. They both look so young, so innocent like that it hurts. Every time John is reminded that his children are still children, he feels like turning his own gun on himself, and usually ends up drowning that feeling in a bottle.
John takes a step forward and Dean leaps up, the remote in his hand replaced instantly by a knife. Sam moans and sits up groggily, disoriented by his sudden loss of pillow. John's just started him training and his instincts are no where near as developed as Dean's are.
"It's okay, son," John says quietly to his eldest. "It's just me."
"Dad?" Sam climbs to his knees, blinking owlishly at John over the back of the couch as Dean slides the knife away.
"Hey, Sammy." John can't resist a smile at Sam's sleep-squinted eyes and rumpled hair, but he also can't resist a slight reprimand, because he did give them an order and if that can't obey simple orders like bedtime then how does he know they're going to obey his orders when it really counts? "Shouldn't you be in bed, young man?"
"We were just going there," Dean interjects hastily. Now that John's back he loses any bit of defiance Sam coaxed into him while John was away. "I fell asleep, I'm sorry, sir." He turns around and drags Sam up and off the couch. Sam struggles for a moment, then, limbs still heavy with sleep, settles peacefully into his brother's arms. It looks vaguely ridiculous, because while Sam is on the small side for a nine year old he's not a little kid anymore, but Dean holds him like he does everything else, strong and sure.
"Make sure it doesn't happen again," John replies gruffly, even though they both know it will.
"Yes, sir." Dean meets his gaze, and asks the same question he does after every hunt. "Did you get it?"
"Yeah, Dean." The ache is in John's chest and his head now, and he feels so tired he might just skip his customary after-hunt drink and go straight to bed. He reaches out a hand, ruffles Sam's hair and claps Dean on the shoulder. "Now get to bed, son."
"Night, Dad," Sam mumbles sleepily into his brother's neck as Dean nods and turns away. John watches them go, remembering when he used to be the one carrying his sons to bed, and wondering exactly how many years has it been since Sam called him 'Daddy.'
He decides to have his drink after all, and a small part of his brain tells him that it's a bad idea when he's this tired, but it's the same part that sometimes tells him teaching nine and thirteen-year-olds to wield firearms and slit jugulars are bad ideas as well, so like always he ignores it. The tequila burns going down and John is glad of it, because he burned a body tonight that was once a young man and became something that eats other people's hearts out.
And there, right there is one of John's deepest fears. It's not as terrifying as the thought of losing either of his boys, or of Mary knowing what he's doing now and hating him for it, but it's still powerful enough to grip him with icy fingers late during nights like these, the fear that if he spends enough time in this life there's gonna come the day when he can't wash the blood off his hands, when he looks in the mirror and sees a monster staring back at him.
But he just has to kill the demon before that happens. That's what he tells himself. He has to keep his boys safe, and destroy the evil son of a bitch that took away everything from them. Anything that happens after that is unimportant.
Seven drinks later and he's stumbling towards his bedroom, kicking his boots off as he goes. He stops outside the boys' room, gently pushing open their door, stealthily silent even when his vision is blurring around the edges.
There's just the one bed, a double, and John feels briefly guilty, thinking maybe he should have bought them another one, or made one of the boys sleep on the couch, because they really are getting too old for this, but they've been sharing beds on and off since That Night and neither of them complained. Sammy sleeps sprawled out like he's always done, one foot hanging off the side of the bed, the other hooked around Dean's ankle. Dean is tucked against Sam's side, half on his stomach, one arm thrown across Sam's chest and his face buried in the pillow next to Sam's shoulder.
Sam snorts and starts to shift but Dean mumbles something and headbutts him without even opening his eyes, and Sam quiets immediately. Dean protecting his little brother, even in their sleep. John doesn't know whether to feel immensely proud or go back for another drink.
He moves on to his own bedroom and his own single bed, except his is empty and cold. He hasn't been celibate for nine years, but it's been a long time since he actually shared a bed with a woman, or anyone else for that matter. It's been a long time since he could remember the scent of Mary's hair on the pillow.
His brain flicks through it's usual score of banal worries that he only seems to think about when he's drunk— do the boys have school in the morning? Has Sammy been eating well enough? Was he supposed to talk to the principal about that prank Dean pulled last week in math class?— before delving deeper into his ever-present backlog of regrets. Why hasn't he found the demon by now? What if he had gone into the nursery that night instead of Mary? How can he guarantee his boys are protected forever?
He thinks about his boys, asleep right now in their bed. Some nights, when he's not exhausted and swimming in tequila from a hunt, he'll burst into their room in the bleakest hours of darkness, swinging whatever weapon he happened to grab first from his bag. Dean always wakes first, shoving Sammy aside, sloppily blocking John's feinting blows until his brain can catch up and he rolls himself and his brother off the bed and drags them out of the room. The goal is to escape, for now, but once they get a little older John's going to make the goal to attack, to take him down.
He tells Dean he did good, tells Sam he needs to work on his reaction time. Sam used to look at him with wide eyes and clutch at Dean's arm, as though he was afraid John was going to attack them for real one night. The sight of that fear hurt, but the thought of something getting his boys while they were defenseless in sleep hurt more, so John kept pushing, training them to wake instantly and wake ready.
Sam doesn't look at him like he's afraid anymore, but sometimes he looks at him like he's angry and that's almost worse. When John tells him yet again he needs to work on his reaction time, Sam nearly rolls his eyes and mutters something that sounds like, "I wouldn't have to if you didn't jump us during the night."
And that's so far from acceptable John nearly whites out before seizing Sam's hair in a rough grip and dragging him outside, snatching up his set of small knives with their rubber cases as he goes. He forces Sam, still bare-foot and wearing one of Dean's old t-shirts and Mutant Ninja Turtle pajama pants, through a near-brutal exercise in dodging the blunt but mostly harmless projectiles. He makes Dean collect the knives and bring them back once John's thrown them all, to prove to everyone there what an obedient son can and should act like. That makes Sam start crying, silent and furious, and that makes Dean start pleading, cautious and fervent.
But John doesn't stop until Sam dodges all seven knives in a row for the second time. Then he lets the boys go inside and tries not to listen as Sam throws up from terror and exhaustion and Dean runs water in the sink and talks to his brother in low, soothing murmurs, his shoulder or his chest no doubt muffling the sound of Sammy's sobs.
And John doesn't regret it. He won't regret it, because Sam has to know. They tried lying to him for years about what was really out there, because Dean was the perfect example of how knowledge of this life eats up childhood innocence faster than a Dvorovoi with a cattle's innards, and neither of them wanted that to happen to the dimple-cheeked baby boy who giggled when they picked him up and tried to suck on their thumbs instead of his own. But Sam is not a baby anymore, and he knows that nightmares are real— John was revoltingly, shamefully glad he didn't end of being the one to tell him— and so he needs to know how to protect himself from then.
John doesn't understand it sometimes, the way Sam puts up resistance to the training in a way Dean has never done. It was a creature of the darkness 'jumping them during the night' that took away Sam's mother and their home and every bit of the life John wanted to give him. So he won't take that belligerence from Sam, won't take no for answer, because John hadn't been prepared and he lost Mary, and if he'd been a second slower he would have lost Sam too. And that is never going to happen, to either of his boys, not ever.
Lying in his own bed now, riding the wave of tequila into oblivion, John thinks about the way Dean can punch hard enough to split skin and knows where to aim to make it count. He thinks about how Sammy held his first gun less than a year ago and is now on his way to becoming a better shot than John himself. He thinks about the way Dean can assemble and disassemble a Glock with his eyes closed, and how Sammy can read maps and newspapers and find patterns when John didn't even he was looking for. He thinks about the way his boys fight as team, like two parts of the same person.
He thinks about Bill Harvelle, sitting in a bar and missing his little girl. This ain't no life for a child. Maybe not, but this is John's life now, and these are his children, wrestling for the last Twizzler in the backseat of the Impala, bargaining to get what they each want for dinner, sharing a blanket in front the television. Dean has Mary's eyes and Sam has her smile. Dean has her reassuring manner, Sam her shrewd intelligence. Dean has her memory, Sam her legacy.
John has her boys, he has their sons, and he thinks maybe he's doing alright.