~Epilogue~

September, 1986

"John," Jim yelled out.

John didn't react or turn around; he knew Jim would find him eventually – it wasn't like he was trying to hide. He waited, knowing that Jim would come over to join him, so he could remain focused on the boys as they played. John couldn't take his eyes off of them. He consumed every detail, especially Sammy's carefree joy as Dean continued to bounce him on the teeter-totter. Sam's laughter rang out, filling the otherwise empty park. Dean focused only on Sammy, save for chancing brief glances John's way to make sure he was still there, watching.

Jim finally made it over and sat down beside him.

Although he served as the local pastor in Blue Earth, Minnesota, Jim was also a man that John found he could trust - even with the most outrageously supernatural problems. Unknown to his flock, Jim had another job as a hunter fighting the supernatural. Two years ago when John arrived on this doorstep, John was nervous respectful of Jim's position as Pastor. He was even more formal about calling Jim by his title, Pastor Jim. However, from the moment Jim opened the door, he'd taken John under his wing. By the end of the first day of helping John settle the boys into Jim's own home, John had realized he'd found a friend. By the end of the week, Jim had extended his welcome indefinitely and offered John the small one-bedroom cottage that stood behind the rectory as a semi-permanent residence while John settled in to research the demon that was after his family.

Jim was able to help, and, though he didn't know what it was that had taken Mary's life, he gave John direction and showed him the way to research this kind of thing. He also introduced John to other hunters who'd sought out Jim's advice. Most of the hunters were ordinary people with their own stories like John's, and, like John, they couldn't blindly go back and pretend it didn't exist. Some had military backgrounds and were seasoned hunters and others reminded him more of green soldiers who had just landed in-country. There were those who appeared too zealous and enjoyed the hunt just for the hunt - John gave those a wide berth and kept the boys within arms-reach whenever they appeared at Jim's door.

Otherwise, John avoided everyone except Jim and the boys. Over two and half years, John's world narrowed to nothing but researching and caring for the boys. Not wanting to be a free-loader, and with his bank accounts dwindling, John took to working part-time as a mechanic, but he would return home and spend hours upon hours on research. Taking Jim's advice, John also started studying Latin. More times then he'd like to recall, he'd lull Sammy to sleep by conjugating verbs in Latin instead of spinning a nonsensical fairy tale.

His focus and objective never wavered.

The further John investigated and started to engage in conversations with other hunters, the more completely he began to acknowledge the depth of what was really out there. Jim, Caleb and other hunters John trusted continually warned him that he had barely scratched the surface of how extensive the problem was becoming. The more aware John became of various things supernatural; the more John started to find cross references between what he read and what he heard from different hunters. Before he knew it, he had started to expand his research and help other hunters.

Recently he had tried to help Caleb with a hunt, but it had been five different kinds of disaster and a humbling experience to boot. Caleb and his partner, Jack, had been on the hunt for months for a thing that attacked kids, especially those with siblings: a Shtriga that fed off of children's life sources. At first it didn't seem that much was documented outside of the old-time lore, but, after hours of poring through pages of microfiche, John discovered a pattern in other cities. In North Haverbrook, Brockway, Cascade and other towns, every fifteen years, going back nearly over a hundred years, dozens of children would fall ill and succumb to an unknown disease. With their immune system compromised, the children would slip into a coma and die within days.

During his research, John noticed that the numbers of kids infected increased, nearly doubling, every thirty to forty years. John suspected the Shtriga either had a mate or was possibly nesting. John had left messages for Caleb explaining his suspicions. But when Caleb called back, he told John that it had been too late, the Shtriga had gotten away. Jack had interrupted it feeding killed it, but it hadn't been alone. The other Shtriga had been feeling on the kid's sibling. Both kids were infected, and it had left Jack for dead. Jack had died just as Caleb got him to the hospital. Caleb tried to pick up its trail, but, whether because he was too distraught or because the surviving Shtriga knew to cover its tracks when it left town, the trail was stone cold. In its wake, the Shtriga left dozens of children infected. The child with the earliest diagnosis had already died, and the others had lapsed into comas where they lingered with no hope.

The cold despair in Caleb's voice as he talked about making arrangements to bring Jack's body back home had opened a floodgate of John's own memories. John doesn't even remember what he said to Caleb - probably a bunch of meaningless platitudes. When he hung up, he just sat there, barely aware of his surroundings until the boys ran downstairs smiling and full of life. John heard music filtering in from the rectory. It was appropriate - irony at its best - a twangy, bittersweet recording of Amazing Grace.

Looking at his boys - their innocent joy always able to temper the dark rage and guilt within him – John had thought of the pain of those parents whose children he'd failed. He sat on his ass while those parents - hell, people in general - didn't know or understand the real dangers of what was out there. They didn't know how to defend, to protect themselves or their kids against those dangers. He had had to get away from the song - from the memories of funerals that weighed on his soul. That's when John had decided on this impromptu visit to the park.

Sitting there now, John couldn't escape his own responsibility. Two years and he hasn't done anything but research. How many people died, how many children might he have been able to help – to save…

"John…"

John shook his head, already dismissing whatever Jim was going to say. "I can't do it anymore. I can't just sit around reading, waiting around, doing nothing. Not when I can do something."

"Not nothing, John. You have the boys to raise."

"And what have I done? Not a damn thing! They're not safe! I don't know anything more now than I did when Mary was killed. The boys are in as much danger as they were then. That thing can come after them - and it's not just that evil sonofabitch. Jack's dead. How many children were infected – are in comas, are going to die? It could have just as easily been…" John finally looked away from the boys, guilt swelling that he was leaving his boys vulnerable because they didn't know the true dangers of what was out there. But, that wasn't true. Dean knew.

They had stayed on with Jim for a couple of years and, in some ways, had created a home - not in the sense that they had settled, but, rather, they had created a routine. Sammy was the only who fit and was content and carefree. At three, Sammy was precocious, animate and loud everything Dean wasn't. John had thought that Dean's silence after the fire was just part of his grieving, and maybe it was. The problem was that, like John, he was still grieving. Outside of that day at Missouri's, Dean had barely talked. It wasn't like Dean was incapable of talking; it was just a rare event, and it was only for John or Sammy.

These days, though, most of Dean's conversations were with Sammy, and to John's ears they sounded more like gibberish, like they had created their own language. Their closeness was evident to anyone who saw them together as you never found one without the other. Even now, Dean still slept with Sammy, his own personal talisman. When Dean had gotten too big for the crib, they had switched to the bed. John had tried to discourage it once, after they had first arrived. He tried again when they couldn't both fit in the crib. It hadn't gone over very well with both boys crying through the night - Sammy more stridently vocal over Dean's tears and unvocalized whimpers as his oldest struggled to comply with John's wishes. On the occasions John had tried to enforce it, no one slept. Eventually John gave up and allowed them to share the same bed where both boys would sleep through the night.

However, even sleeping with Sammy, Dean continued to have nightmares about the fire. Overly attuned to the boys, John would wake and get up. Both boys would be sound asleep but Dean's body thrashed while he appeared trapped within his dream. John would caress Dean's back, shushing the nightmare away. Dean usually settled at his touch though a few tears would spill over his small face and he'd squeeze Sammy tight to him. Outside of the drawing Dean had done at Missouri's, it was only during these nightmares that John was reminded of what Dean saw, of what was locked in his subconscious. Worst were the times, which happened more often than John would like to recall, when Dean would cry out for Mommy and John's heart would break again.

Jim's voice pulled John back to the present. "I know you don't want to hear this, but you need to have faith…"

"You're right. I don't want to hear it. Faith didn't protect Jack, Mary, my boys or those children… I'm sorry, but I lost my faith in God the day He allowed that thing to come after my family. Now that I know what's out there, how can I turn my back? I can't. I have to do whatever it takes to protect them."

"By buying an arsenal? That's your solution, letting your boys grow up around that?"

John knew Jim would find out, so he didn't bother to deny the truth. "They'll learn."

"Do you hear yourself, John? They're boys, innocent little boys – you can't…"

John didn't let him finish. Voice low and gravelly with the preemptive regret he felt at the sacrifices he was volunteering his sons for. "They're not innocent, not anymore - especially Dean. He may not remember everything he saw, but he saw that thing. You saw the drawing; you know he remembers the fire - you know he still has nightmares. He hardly talks 'cept for that gibberish shit he and Sam created. No. That thing stole away his innocence just like it stole his mother."

"And Sam?"

John glanced over to his boys, his eyes watering because Sammy was still innocent. He couldn't save Dean from this, but, maybe Sammy - just for a few more years at least. "What do you want me to do? Leave him behind and let that thing take him? If I don't find it, destroy it first, it's going to come back and finish the job. It wasn't after Mary; she only got in its way. Fuck, I don't even know what the hell it wanted with Sammy - but everything that runs through my mind, after everything I've read-" A bitter laugh escaped John's throat, "You know better than me. Hiding, hoping it won't come looking for him a second time is just handing Sammy over to it, and I can't do that – I won't."

John waited for Jim to lash out. Silence followed for a moment or two before he heard the defeat as Jim sighed, "You're leaving?"

John confirmed it by nodding. "Soon."

Then he added, "For as long as I can, I'll keep it from him."

"And Dean?"

"Use what I know and teach him to protect himself, to protect Sammy."

"John…"

John ignored Jim's gasp just as he ignored his own lingering doubt that somehow he was wrong, that there had to be another way. In his heart, John knew there wasn't, but he also knew he was going to lose his boys to this quest, one way or another. Saw it just as clearly as the image he couldn't escape from – that sickening memory of Mary burning. The words he spoke felt hollow as John thought about the dreams he had had for both of his boys – from the moment they were conceived, when the possibilities had seemed limitless, "It's only until I get that thing and destroy it, so I know that the boys will be safe. It's not what I had wanted, not what I dreamed about for either of them. Those dreams, their childhood," embut not their lives, please, not their lives,/em" were stolen the night I lost Mary."

Jim fell silent beside him. John suspected his friend was praying for him and the boys. Though John no longer believed in God, John didn't stop him - not when there might be a slim chance that it'd help. Sammy's excited squeal of 'Daddy' reached his ears. John looked up to see Sammy beaming and giggling. In that moment at least, Dean's face was for once free of sorrow. John wanted to see that look all the time, and hunting down and killing that thing would be a step in the right direction. Feeling more resolute, John answered his own niggling doubts, "Only thing I can do for them now is to give them a future - to make them stronger and prepare them to fight against what's out there."

FIN~