Sabbatical, March 1996

Wordcount: 11,200

Beta: Cheerleader extraordinaire, sandymg

Disclaimer: If they were mine, I would have given them a happier childhood


"Dad!"

John knows his son, and Dean doesn't panic.

"DAD!"

That is terror in his son's voice.

John struggles up from the hardwood floor, knows that shaking his head to clear it will be a bad idea, and yet involuntarily does it anyway as he tries to orient himself to Dean's cry. John has no idea how long he's been unconscious. There is a ferocious roaring in his ears making it near-impossible to focus.

"Dean! Where are you?"

Like a viewfinder adjusting, everything suddenly clarifies at the sound of Dean calling for him again.

Fire.

The entire far end of the room is crackling with the hypnotic dance of flames. Yellow and orange tongues lapping up the drapes, swallowing the elaborate upholstered chairs, consuming the oversize dining room table. The speed with which the inferno is moving confirms the unnatural origin of the blaze. A pyrrhic victory over this ghost …

There's a motion on the floor, almost camouflaged by the violently flickering light. John stumbles toward it, his gut clenching as he sees the reason for Dean's panic.

Dean is pinned underneath a toppled, wall-sized china cabinet, and flames are nibbling on the far side of it.

"Dad…"

The fear-filled cry hastens John's weaving steps toward his son. His lungs are burning from the choking smoke as he reaches Dean's side. John sinks to his knees. Glass and china shards slice through the denim of his jeans, but the lacerations mean nothing to him.

"Okay, Dean, I'm gonna get this off of you." John forces his voice calm even as his brain is shrieking 'how?' He fastens his fingers under the top edge and gives an experimental heave. The massive cabinet barely shifts. Still, if he could lift it just enough for Dean to wiggle out. He says as much.

"Dad, that's not gonna work. I can't … I can't feel my legs. I think … it did something to my back."

John's inadvertent inhalation causes him to waste precious moments doubled over coughing. The flames are now actively devouring the wood, only feet separating Dean from their hunger.

"Dad … Dad, don't let me burn. Please, Dad, don't let me burn. You gotta … you gotta shoot me first, Dad!"

John feels his heart stop. What has he done to his boy?

"No!" Fighting the burn of each breath John struggles to his feet and looks through the smoke for anything he can use. A table lamp with a solid-looking pedestal is only a dozen steps away and he has it in his hands almost instantly.

"Cover your face!" he orders and begins battering the metal base like an ax against the wood imprisoning Dean.

The need to save his son gives him more-than-human focus to ignore his own injuries, but each flinch from Dean as John strives to fracture the cabinet stabs him. Through his double vision John concentrates on striking each blow to the same spot, ignoring the waves of heat, the need to cough, the moan from Dean each time John's improvised club hits the solid wood.

A wicked crack and the end of the lamp breaks through, then catches in the cabinet back. John chokes but keeps going, pulling the base free, smashing again until the wood begins splintering. The entire end of the once magnificent piece is under attack by the fire now.

"Dad…" Dean's voice is weak, his hands scrabbling on the floor, seeking something. " 'M gun, gimme … if you can't, I gotta, don' wanna burn …"

There is not enough oxygen to answer that horrific plea so John continues to pound Dean's prison to pieces. The intensifying of the wavering light tells John the flames are too close, it is now or not at all, and he seizes the shattered hulk and strains to heave it off his boy's body. Wood shards pierce his palms but John is oblivious, locked into battle with the immovable object – the scream in his head of 'Not my son!' combines with the contraction of every muscle he has and the wreckage tips up and John heaves it to the side.

Dean's pistol is next to John's foot and without thinking John shoves it in his coat pocket and grabs Dean under the arms to drag him away from the inferno that has erupted around the cabinet's remains. This is the worst thing for Dean's injured back but there is no choice.

Out of the room John doubles over hacking from the smoke but doesn't let go of Dean. Dean's stillness fuels John with the energy to continue moving out of the doomed building.

On the lawn, John eases Dean onto his back and with bloody hands feels for a pulse, but Dean's eyes open before John finds it. Knowing Dean is okay – alive – John turns away and surrenders to the wrenching coughs tearing his chest. Distant sirens wail.

"Dad, Dad …" John continues to gasp for air as Dean gropes to touch him.

" 'S okay, Dean."

" 'S not, can't feel anything b'low … can't, I can't move m' legs, Dad."

In thirteen years of hunting – hell, since walking into Sam's nursery that night – John Winchester has experienced moments so terrifying that he'd swear his heart had stopped, only to trigger the clarity and bullet-point focus he needed to finish the job, save the innocent. Save himself. And he's had frightening moments about his boys, when adrenaline has rocketed through him to get one or the other of them to safety.

But Dean's words freeze him.

The paramedics swiftly and efficiently secure Dean's neck with a brace and slide a backboard under him. Dean never loses consciousness, and the look he gives John as he is carried to the ambulance — vulnerable, afraid, and trying as hard as he can to hide it — will haunt John forever.

"Dad …"

"I'll be right behind you, Dean," he promises as Dean is secured inside the van.

By the time he's reached the hospital John has made the hard decision to tell the truth about not having insurance. While using a fake card would get Dean treated tonight, John doesn't want to chance the fraud being detected if Dean is, god help them, going to be laid up for a long time. Or forever. John would rather deal with the hassle of being uninsured than have to pull Dean from treatment in a rush this time.

John leaves blood on the Impala steering wheel and doesn't care.

Dean will be okay. He has to be.

Fortunately, the ER staff cares more about what has happened to Dean than why the two of them had been in the historical Vandermere house. The police won't be so single-minded, however, and John needs to concoct a plausible explanation that will buy them time.

"Mr. Winchester?"

John starts to jump up and then grabs for the chair next to him as the room spins.

"Mr. Winchester, I think you need to be checked out, too."

"Prob'ly a concussion, I hit my head…"

"Come with me, sir."

"My son …"

"They've taken him to imaging. Let's get you fixed up before he gets back."

Just as John gets into the ER cubicle his cell rings. He winces when splinters stab his palm as he opens the phone.

Jesus, it's Sammy.

"Dad? How come you aren't back yet?" Anxious disguised with angry.

How much to tell him?

"We've, uh, run into a problem, Sam, and I'll call you back shortly."

"Dad? Dad, what's happened? Is Dean hurt? Are you hurt?"

Dammit, kid is psychic when it comes to Dean.

"I can't talk now, I'll call you back." John disconnects the call.

John declines the full workup the doctor wants to do on him, using the excuse of no insurance to divert the earnest young woman, who then proceeds to give him a handful of sample painkillers while explaining she is doing so against her better judgment. More times than not, John has to acknowledge to himself, medical personnel, at least the ones on the front lines, are more concerned with helping their patients than with going 'by the book.' He hopes that will continue to hold true.

Lacerations cleaned, splinters removed, and hands bandaged, he sits back in the waiting room, and the enormity of Dean's injury suddenly crashes down on him like the proverbial ton of bricks. John finds himself shaking. What if … what if …

"No!" He says it out loud to stop himself from thinking in that direction. No speculation, no guessing. He will wait until the doctor comes out and tells him what they are up against. No imagining scenarios.

His cell rings again.

"Dad. I called Dean's phone and he doesn't answer. What happened, where are you?"

It is not fair that this call makes his head throb more.

"Sam, you have nothing to do with this." Can't worry about Sam now. At least one son is safe.

The blaze of anger from his thirteen-year-old would have fried the telephone wires if they'd been on a regular phone.

"How can you say that, Dad? If Dean is hurt, he needs me!"

"Sam, I won't know anything until the doctor comes out …"

"Dean is hurt! You tell me what hospital you're at or … or I will call every hospital in this city until I find the ER you're in!"

"Sam, the doctor's coming. Let me talk to him, I'll call you back."

It is a total fabrication, but John cannot let himself be distracted from Dean. John bites his lip, then turns the phone in his hand off.

There will be hell to pay for doing that. He'll pay it when Dean is okay.

If moving didn't make him dizzy, John would be pacing a track in the grungy carpet. How much longer will it take for the doctor to come out? It's been nearly two hours. Voices make him lift his head from his hands.

Police. Shit. They're standing with the ER receptionist, not yet looking for him. John pushes himself to stand, fumbles in his jacket for his lighter. Make it look like he's going out for a cigarette.

Leaning against the building, watching through the sliding glass doors, he needs to come up with a story. Because he needs to be there when the doctor comes out. John blinks blurry eyes, trying to tell from the officers' body language how much trouble he is in. The receptionist looks over the empty chairs, clearly surprised that John isn't there. One of the cops motions to the cubicles.

A figure brushes past John's arm, is halfway through the doorway when John's brain catches up to his eyes. He grabs the shoulder before the doors shut.

"Hey! Oh."

"What the hell …"

Sam twists his shirt out of John's fist with a shrug and blinks oddly glittering eyes.

"I told you I'd call around. And I'm going in, you can't stop me. Dean needs me!"

"I'm not gonna stop you. But stop and look. See those policemen? If you go in there now and ask for Dean, you're gonna lead them right to your brother. And Dean's in no condition for that. We gotta wait till they leave."

Sam had stopped moving at the mention of the police. He steps back and lets the doors slide shut, standing silent at John's side.

The cops start to walk toward the exit.

"I'm gonna disappear till they're out of sight. You can go in, the cops don't know you, and once they're gone ask for your brother. He's under his real name …"

Sam jerks with a gasp and stares at John with straight-out panic. There is nothing John can say – Sam knows the drill, knows the fake-names-and-insurance-cards routine. So Sam understands what it means for Dean to be in the ER under his real name.

He waits, wants an angry bite-back from Sam, not the deer-in-the-headlights petrified reaction he's getting. John starts to touch Sam's shoulder, pulls his hand back, sees the policemen are almost at the door.

"Okay, go on in, ask for your brother. You've got your phone, right?"

A nod.

"So if they tell you anything, or a doctor comes out, tell 'em I went to have a smoke and call me. I'll be right here, okay?

Another nod.

John slides into the shadows as Sam goes in and the cops come out. There's a respectably-sized concrete planter to the side of the entrance and John simply sits down behind it. He folds his shaking body in half, rests his arms on his knees. More than just his head aches like a bitch.

He wonders if it's too late to pray – but god hasn't listened to John Winchester in a long time. What will he do if Dean's injury is … permanent? If his son is paralyzed?

John is very afraid that Dean will think he'd be better off dead.

And John hates himself for that split second of wondering if Dean might be right.

He closes his eyes to not think.

"Dad!" hisses through the quiet. "Dad! The doctor's here!"

" 'M coming, Sam." Getting himself upright is so much harder than it ought to be. He grimaces as he pushes his gauze-wrapped hands against the pavement. Once on his feet, John wavers back into the ER.

"Mr. Winchester? I'm Doctor Novey."

Short and scrawny, but a bit older than John. Hopefully he knows his stuff.

"My son?"

John acquiesces to the gesture to sit down, only because he is about to fall over if he doesn't. Sam, although scrunching in his own chair, is practically in John's lap from anxiety.

"Your son's injury is at the T12 vertebrae, meaning his movement is basically affected below the waist. Based on the imaging results, it appears that that the vertebrate is dislocated but not fractured. The spinal cord is inflamed from the pressure of the dislocation."

"What's the bottom line here?" Not fractured has to be good, but the rest?

"We don't have a bottom line, yet, Mr. Winchester …"

"John, just John." He puts his hand to his forehead, it smells like smoke, disinfectant, and antibiotic cream. The combination makes his stomach churn.

"Okay, John. Here's the problem. The piece of furniture, a china cabinet, I understand, injured your son's spine when it fell on him. You moved him to get him clear of the fire – again, I understand you had no choice – but the moving exacerbated the injury." John feels Sam's shudder at what he is hearing. "We've called in our most experienced surgeon, Doctor Thomas Yugasumi. We need your authorization to perform emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord. Time is of the essence, here, because if the swelling isn't alleviated quickly the damage could be permanent."

"Is Dean … Is Dean gonna be paralyzed?" Sammy voices the question knotting John's guts.

The doctor's intense gaze is frustrated, like he wants to be able to give the answer they want, but he can't.

"It's impossible to say yet. With immediate surgery there's a chance the damage can be reversed. But it's only a chance, not a certainty." The doctor knows his words are not what John and Sam want to hear. "I am sorry I can't say more. I assume you want to proceed?"

"No other options, right?"

A head shake.

"Then you do what you gotta do to fix my boy. But I want to see him first."

"Dad, I have to see him, too!" Desperation drives Sam's fingers into John's forearm.

"It'll be a little while, but I will make sure you see him before the surgery." The doctor's nod includes both of them. "In the meantime, the nurse is going to bring you authorizations to sign."

John does not want to beg. But it's Dean.

"I, uh, we don't have any insurance."

"I saw that. And the billing department will be all over you in about forty-eight hours. And they'll discuss payment plans and applying for charity status. But none of that has anything to do with surgery on a young man who's had a serious accident."

John hopes the man can read the gratitude in his eyes.

John starts signing more forms, not bothering to read them. Not like he could focus on the ocean of small print with this headache.

Sam wants to know what happened. Sam deserves to know what happened. John won't – can't talk about it. Explaining would mean having to figure out which of them screwed up. John doesn't want it to be his fault, doesn't want Sam to point out what John did wrong to cripple Dean.

But he doesn't want Sam to tell him that Dean fucked up. Because even if Dean did make a mistake, it was John that put him in that situation in the first place.

And Sam knows that, too.

"You can see him now."

Sam jumps so fast he knocks the clipboard from John's ragged grasp and the papers shoot over the floor. Of course Sam's frazzled efforts to fix the mistake just delay getting to Dean more. The nurse stoops to help and then they are following her through the cold, sterilized hallways. She hands them off to another scrubs-clad employee with instructions to take them to fifth floor surgery.

"Dr. Yugasumi will meet you there, explain the procedure."

"When can I see my son?"

"You'll be able to see him before the surgery."

The subtle change in air pressure as the elevator starts up is enough to send a stabbing thrust through John's temples. He is unaware that he made a noise until Sam asks quietly, "Dad? Are you all right?"

The honest answer to that question, which John will not give voice to, is no.

"Banged my head." He'd give Sam that much. "But I'm okay."

"Dad? Dean …" Sam trails off, knowing he can't ask the question.

They sit in the waiting area for a few minutes, then a young Asian man in navy scrubs, looks in at them.

"Mr. Winchester?"

John moves too fast at his name and aborts his attempt to stand. He feels Sam's fingers around his upper arm to steadying him.

"I'm Dr. Yumasugi." The man moves into John's space, sits across from him. "We are going to attempt to relieve the pressure on your son's spinal cord by shifting the vertebrate back to its correct place. There's a fifty percent chance that will completely resolve his paralysis. However, we can't tell what damage has been done to the cord from the swelling. We are operating immediately because the longer there is pressure on the nerve, the greater the risk of permanent damage.'

He pauses. John knows there is no answer to the question he really wants to ask, so he stays silent.

"With delicate surgery on the spine there is always the possibility of a negative outcome. The biggest risk is permanent paralysis. Other potential dangers are blood clots, adverse reaction to anesthetic, and heart attack or stroke during the operation. Given your son's age and apparent health, the last two aren't as likely. And every surgery runs the risk of patient death."

He waits for John to absorb the explanation. "Do you have any questions you wish to ask?"

Sam's fingers, still around John's arm, tighten, and John is sure Sam doesn't realize he's hissed as the doctor finishes his matter-of-fact assessment. John chooses to believe that the factual presentation is an indication that the surgeon's competence regards Dean as a routine case.

"I … We … want to see him before …"

"Follow me. Don't be alarmed, he's already getting Fentanyl in his I.V. so he's going to be pretty out of it."

"Dean!" Sam darts over to the hospital bed where Dean lays, rigid. The neck brace prevents him from turning his head, but his half-closed eyes shift and attempt to open at Sam's voice.

"Dean," John echoes.

"Sam? Dad?" The names are whispered. "Was' happen' Dad? 'M on somethin' …"

John can't tell if Dean means the drugs or the bed, and he struggles with an explanation. What should he say?

Of course, Sam answers while John is still deciding how much information Dean needs.

"The doctor's going to fix you, Dean."

"I'm … broken."

Both John and Sam have moved into Dean's line of sight and John watches as glazed eyes try to focus on them. Dean's fingers twitch and Sam reaches to settle them, not even conscious of the gesture, John is sure.

"Dean …" John still doesn't know what to say.

"Dad," Dean says simultaneously, "Don' feel … no legs, Dad, can't …"

"It's just temporary, Dean." He decides to lie. "The doctor said you'll be fine once the swelling goes down." Sam nods his head in agreement. Pleased with this unusual show of solidarity, John continues, "Spirit's gone, we finished the job." He thinks it's important Dean believes that.

" 'K, Dad." Eyelids lower as the sheer willpower keeping them open trickles away. Dark lashes rest on too-pale cheeks. Why? Why did this happen to Dean? John struggles to keep the rush of nausea in check.

Medical personnel invade the room and ask John and Sam to leave and John enters the excruciating limbo of just waiting. With Sam's accusatory and terrified eyes on him for the duration

Six god-damned hours. John sends Sam to the cafeteria with a handful of cash to get something to eat, and Sam brings back a cup of the sludge-masquerading-as-coffee for him. One mouthful is all John can take.

"Mr. Winchester?"

Sam shoots to his feet as if he can make the doctor say what Sam wants to hear by physical assertion alone.

John feels a responsive twinge as the doctor rolls his shoulders. He waits for the man to speak — demanding the information won't change what it is.

"The surgery went well. I was able to shift the T12 vertebrate to its correct position. In my best judgment the bone did not cause any damage to the spinal cord. What we don't know yet is whether there will be any residual impairment from the extensive swelling. He was moved after the injury, wasn't he?"

"There was a fire. There weren't any options," John says coldly, feeling like he's being accused of breaking Dean.

A head shake of acknowledgement. "He's in recovery. Someone will get you as soon as he's conscious."

"Can we see him now? Please?" Sam sounds all of six-years-old as he asks, and John's hand is on Sam's shoulder without thought.

The doctor appraises them with tired eyes. "Please?" John adds his own voice to the request.

Whether the surgeon caves to the weight of Sam's plea or John's doesn't matter. He nods. "Follow me."

John has seen Dean after surgery before. But that doesn't stop the wave of anxiety at seeing his firstborn tethered to six different tubes and wires, the freckles that are just background on Dean's face now unavoidably noticeable on the transparent skin. Dean's chest moves in shallow hitches as he breathes, but other than that he is too still. No restless shift of his head, no twitching adjustments of his legs …

Sam again goes right to his brother's side and takes his hand. John ignores the tears he sees pooling in Sam's eyes. If he does not sit down he is going to fall and he looks around for a seat, manages to collapse in the room's only chair and then sits, staring, the image of Dean caught under the burning cabinet on repeat in his head.

His butt is numb. All of John is numb when he hears a muffled groan and Sam whispers, "Dean?"

He's too far gone to jump up and be at Dean's side like he needs to be, instead, John staggers cautiously like a drunk until he can steady himself on Dean's bedrail.

All John Winchester can do now is wait.

808080808

It's been four days. Four fuckin' days without much change. Dean is pretty out of it for the first couple. On the third day John makes Sam go to school and then sits in the hospital room by himself. Dean seems to be coming around to awareness of where he is, but it isn't until the afternoon of the fourth day that he talks to John after the doctor's visit.

Dr. Yugasumi has been all business, touching Dean's feet and legs and asking "Can you feel this, or this?" to which Dean's answer is always no.

"It's still too soon to determine if the paralysis is permanent," the doctor says finally. "Although I'm a little concerned that you aren't getting any sensations, it has taken as long as two weeks for some patients to recover feeling, so I'm going to have physical therapy start up this afternoon. We don't want the muscles to atrophy while the body is putting itself back in order."

Once he leaves, Dean looks John in the eyes for the first time. "How're we doing this, Dad?"

John looks at him with puzzlement.

"I'm pretty fucked up, Dad, and if … if I don't get better I'm gonna be here a while. We can't keep an insurance scam going that long."

Christ, what a thing for Dean to worry about.

"You're not here under a fake name, Dean. I made the decision to explain we're uninsured, and I'll be working it out with the hospital."

So many emotions flash across his son's face, and John can't begin to interpret half of them. He waits for Dean to say something else, but he doesn't, only closes his eyes and seems to fall back into the state of semi-consciousness he's been in most of the time. John watches for an hour, slides around in the plastic chair trying to get comfortable, and finally gives up.

He stands, walks over the Dean's bed, and studies the silent face.

There is nothing for him to do here, John thinks. He needs to start figuring out his next steps. Because it looks like they may be in this city for a while. Since Dean is asleep, he doesn't bother saying anything when he leaves.

808080808

Sam is angry when he finds out that John is not staying in the hospital with Dean anymore. John's explanation, that there isn't a damn thing he can do for Dean, and he needs to find some kind of work to pay for staying here doesn't mollify Sam.

"He needs you, Dad, you're supposed to be with him right now!"

"I'm not gonna discuss this with you any further, Sam. When you're my age, you'll see that the world doesn't stop at your convenience. There's nurses and orderlies and therapists all taking care of Dean because it's their job and they know what to do for him. The best thing I can do for him is to find the money to pay for it. And the best thing you can do for your brother is to stop fighting with me so I can concentrate on what I have to do!"

John actually has an interview that afternoon with the owner of a car repair shop within walking distance of the apartment they're staying at. John wonders if he can get the guy to pay him under the table. It's a delicate thing to negotiate, but he's had to do it before.

He decides to check on Dean before he goes to the repair shop. Dean might want to hear that John is going for a job working on cars, it's something Dean did last summer.

As John is walking from the elevator he hears Dean talking to someone.

"So if I don't start feeling things soon, it's pretty much over, then?"

"I wouldn't put it like that, Dean."

"Look, I don't want the bullshit story like there's always hope, and if I work hard I can still have a normal life. Normal for my family … well, if I can't walk I'm no use to them. So someone like me, no money, no insurance, what happens to 'em?"

John's breath catches.

"There's no reason you can't go home, Dean. A house can be made wheelchair accessible, you'll be able to go to school, have a normal life."

Dean's voice is low and intense. "Just tell me what happens if there is no family to go home to? If, if I was an orphan or something?"

Whomever Dean is talking to is clearly disturbed as she answers. "I'm … I don't understand, why do you think you would be on your own?"

"Look, when the hospital is done letting my ass sit here without getting any money for it, what will they do, roll me out to the curb and leave me there?"

John is taken aback by the vehemence of Dean's question. The woman speaks in a halting voice.

"If someone is indigent, or has no family, the state puts them in the Medicaid program. You're a minor, so you … a minor becomes a ward of the state. Either way, you … the individual goes to a nursing facility for care, and stays there … as long as necessary."

A long moment of silence. "Fuck." Then, "I'm sorry, I don't mean it at you, I'm … Are we done?"

"Yes, we're done with the physical therapy for now. I'll be back tomorrow, okay?" The painful gentleness in the words nearly eviscerates John. He steps aside as a small blonde woman leaves the room.

"Dean."

"Dad." Dean looks away from John's face. John decides blunt is the best way to handle this.

"I overheard you with the therapist. Why are you asking her what would happen if you were alone? Sam and I are here."

John can see Dean swallow hard before he speaks. He seems fascinated by the blank bulletin board on the far wall.

"Look, Dad, I know it can't work."

"Just what are you thinking won't work, Dean?" It comes out a little angry, which John didn't intend, but it makes Dean look at him finally.

"I can't hunt in a wheelchair. Oh, yeah, I could help with the research. And you can take Sam with you when you go after shit like the ghost that did this to me. Don't think so, Dad. You've got no place for a cripple with what you do, and I know that." John starts to shake his head in protest, but Dean keeps going. "Bullshit. If I don't get my legs back you have to leave me. You said you heard her … Turn me over to the state. They'll put me in a home." John watches appalled as Dean fights to keep tears from spilling.

It's almost a whisper. "You and Sam … could visit … once in a while?"

He doesn't know what to say. That Dean thinks John would just give up on him … it hurts. And yet, even as John is thinking he would never leave Dean in some nursing home, the truth that Dean can't hunt in a wheelchair is snaking through his mind.

"So what are you going to do? Give up then? I thought you were tougher than that." Even as they leave his lips, John knows these are the wrong words, but he doesn't have any others.

Dean doesn't respond, and it goads John into continuing. "You're calling yourself a cripple already, but the doctor hasn't declared you one yet, so fight, goddammit!" Your son is not a Marine screams through his head, but John is out of options. He struggles to control his fear of a permanently paralyzed Dean.

"I'm getting a job at the repair place near the apartment," he says to calm himself down. "Since it looks like we'll be here a while." No acknowledgement from Dean. "Least it'll keep Sam from complaining about switching schools again."

"Yeah."

He has to do something … John puts a hand on Dean's shoulder, gives a firm squeeze. "I'll be back later."

"I'll be here."

John wants to gag on the bitterness he hears.

808080808

He drops Sam at the hospital Thursday after school and then goes back to the garage. John decides to bring a pizza with him when he heads back to see Dean that evening. First payday. And the boy has to be sick of hospital food by now.

Half sausage-and-pepperoni, half onions, peppers, and mushrooms. And god forbid the toppings overlap. Well, those are the slices he gets.

John knows something's wrong as soon as he enters Dean's room. Sam's pressed against the side of the hospital bed, his shoulders hunched and shaking.

"No, Dean!" Sam is saying.

"You gotta do it, Sammy. Dad needs someone …" Dean goes silent as he sees John in the doorway. "Dad," he says, a little louder than necessary. John sees Dean quickly squeeze Sam's wrist – a warning, securing an agreement – John can't tell which.

He's going to ignore all of it. John is too fucking tired to figure out what is going on between his boys. He holds out the pizza box. "Interested?"

"Hell, yeah!" Dean's grin is real for that moment. "I'm so sick of carrots and Jello!"

Dean moans in delight as he inhales his portion of the pizza in record time. He rubs his fingers on the blanket, leaving smears of tomato sauce.

"Your chin," John motions and Dean raises his hand to wipe it, but Sam passes him a napkin before the gesture is completed.

John only eats a couple pieces, figuring his boys like the grease more than he does, and Sam, who takes the time to chew before swallowing, is still working on his share, when Dean 'ums' to get John's attention.

"What, Dean?"

"So, Dad … I think … So it looks like I'm gonna be laid up here for … a while … and I know that being stuck in one place, well, that messes up your … your work … and I want you to know I'll be okay so you can take Sam and move on."

The bleakness in Dean's eyes totally contradicts the words.

"Dean! That's not –"

"Shut up, Sammy. We talked about this all right? I may be fucking stuck here but the shit we hunt is still out there and Dad's gotta go after it!"

Unreasonable anger flushes up in John, and he isn't quite sure at what. He tries to push it aside. Dean needs him, and his son has to come before hunting.

Sam cannot be curbed from expressing his opinion. "Dad! You can't …"

John cuts him off with one word. "Sam."

He meets Dean's gaze unflinchingly. "I'm not leaving."

And Dean has the audacity to argue with him. "Dad, I know you were looking into that case in Mississippi. And …"

"I already turned it over to Caleb."

"But …"

John stands up and moves close to the head of the bed.

"I'm the parent, here, Dean, and I will decide my own comings and goings. I'm staying here until you walk out of this hospital. So get your ass in gear and move it. Because we're here till you do. Do you understand me?"

And even as he says it, John knows what he is saying is wrong, he didn't mean it to come out like he's accusing Dean of shirking. He just …

Sammy's distressed "Dad!" cuts, but not nearly as painfully as the stricken look Dean gives him. John can't unsay it and he can't think how to fix it so he cuts his losses. "Come on, Sam, it's time to leave."

"Dad!"

"You've got homework to do, and I have to get up for work early."

Dean has wiped all expression from his face and his eyes are shuttered. John rests his hand on Dean's arm briefly and says, "I'll see you tomorrow," but Dean's face doesn't change. He doesn't acknowledge the contact so John takes his hand back, and with a furious Sam, leaves.

He deserves every murderous look Sam gives him the rest of the night.

808080808

When Dean doesn't make any progress after three weeks, the doctor orders another MRI and then has a meeting with John.

"The swelling around the spinal cord has not completely subsided, and it appears the initial surgery to reposition the vertebrae that were moved out of alignment was not totally successful. I believe that a second surgery is in order."

"What's the prognosis if you do that?"

"I can't promise anything, Mr. Winchester, every spinal cord injury is each unique. However, given that Dean has not recovered any feeling or movement after this long, without the surgery he has probably recovered as much as he is going to."

"So it's a choice between staying like he is or a chance at getting better?"

Dr. Yugasumi nods. "That's a pretty succinct summary, except that all surgery carries risk."

"Any chance the surgery could leave Dean in worse shape?"

The doctor purses his lips. "I want to say no. But I have to be honest and say again, there is always that chance of something going wrong, like encountering a variation on physiology that the MRI can't show."

"Would you do it if it was your kid?"

Dr. Yugasumi doesn't hesitate. "Yes."

John makes the decision to go with the surgery. What he hasn't considered is Dean's reaction.

Dean leans against his pillow, sinking into it in that way makes him seem to shrink. There's a tension in his bearing, in the tightness of his shoulders, wariness in his eyes whenever Dean looks at his father now. And John knows he put it there with his unthinking words. Doesn't know how to make it right. But tonight is a different battle.

"You say the doc wants to operate again?"

"Yeah. Your MRI showed there's still swelling. An' it looks like they didn't align everything right the first time. That's why … you don't feel anything. Yet. But this will—"

"No."

"Come again?"

"I don't think so, Dad. We can't afford another surgery and it's not gonna make a difference."

"But, the doctor said—"

"What did the doctor say?"

Sam.

Sending Sam to the hospital cafeteria was supposed to give John time to talk to Dean privately. Any other day Sam would have spent twenty minutes figuring out what to get. Of course, not today. John turns to meet Sam's mistrustful look. Christ, he's not up to more adolescent judging.

" 'S nothin', Sammy," Dean utters before John can say anything.

"The surgeon said Dean needs another operation. He wants to realign the vertebrae again and maybe reduce swelling. Said it'll give Dean a chance."

"That's great, Dean."

"Not doing it, Sammy."

"What? Dad, no, you can't. Are you saying Dean can't have the surgery? Because that's just … Is it the money? Dad, you can't not let them … "

Sam's voice is steadily going reedier and more desperate and John's trying to get in a word between breaths until Dean finally turns his pale face toward them both.

"I don't want the surgery."

Sam swallows air like a guppy. His jaw twitches and he flies closer to the bed. "What are you saying, Dean? Why not?"

"Won't make a difference and we can't afford it and … I … I'm tired. I just don't want any of it any more. Sometimes, I just wish … "

John doesn't need to hear the end of that sentence. His nightmares begin where that sentence ends. Dean and his brother are staring at each other now. John wonders if they remember he's in the room.

Sam turns to him unexpectedly. "Did the doctor say Dean could walk if this works?"

"No guarantees, of course. But … he said there's a chance."

"And if he doesn't have the surgery?"

John meets his youngest's steady stare. "No chance."

Sam gives a nod and John suddenly gets a glimpse at the man he'll someday be.

"Let me talk to Dean," Sam says and turns his attention back to his brother.

John looks from one to the other. He doesn't need to wait for the result of that conversation. He leaves to tell the doctor to schedule the surgery.

The second surgery takes another four excruciating hours. Sam refuses to go to school and the two of them sit in the watery green waiting area in tense silence. John wonders what Sam said to convince Dean to do this. Maybe he just asked.

The doctor comes out and lets out a tired, small smile. John exhales and wonders absurdly if he's really been holding his breath all this time. Sam rises and starts asking a thousand questions, like bullets flying out of a machine gun. John meets the doctor's glazed eyes over his son's head.

Professional to the core, every answer is given with hedging and stipulations and never once does the doctor say Dean will walk again. Sam looks up at him with a hopeful grin. Perhaps he heard something between the doctor's words. Or maybe it's just the optimism of youth.

"Dean's gonna be okay," Sam announces.

John nods yes, feels himself the worst kind of coward for not saying the words back. Sammy needs to hear John say it. He forces his voice smooth. "Yeah, he will."

John returns to work and the routine of their lives resumes with Sam visiting Dean after school and John coming by after work. They test Dean the next day and the results are the same. Nothing has changed.

John remains calm upon hearing this. He tells his oldest son that it's early and to give it time. Inside he is quaking and wants to curl up in a corner and hold on to himself and rock until the terror subsides. Because this was their last chance. And he can't think about what happens next.

When Sam is asleep that night, John goes over the two-drink limit he's set himself. John thinks of just how long he'll need to work in the garage to pay off these two surgeries if Dean doesn't get better and they can't leave. Lives he won't help. Hunts he won't do. Evil that will walk free.

Dean's asked again for John to return to work. Not to the garage but to hunting. Made the same damn argument about people dying because John is stuck here. Dean says that he'd only have to be a ward of the state for ten months anyway, until he turns eighteen. But John knows, beyond a doubt, that he'd not only lose one son. Sam would never forgive him. And truth be told, what would be left of John if this came to pass?

The next day passes in the daily routine of tire rotations and fluid checks and oil changes. He replaces a carburetor and a fan belt and a toasted starter. At seven o'clock he washes his hands and heads to the hospital.

The laughter hits him first. Because it's a sound he hasn't heard in forever. Dean's deep, throaty chuckle followed by Sammy's higher cackle.

"Dad …" they both say at once the second his presence is felt.

"Boys."

They look at each other. "Wanna tell him?" Sammy asks, eyes bright.

John knows. Can see it in Sam's dancing body and Dean's face, his eyes. God, he hasn't seen them alive like this since the accident.

"I felt my legs. I moved my toes."

Tears flood John's eyes and he tries to blink them away, stay strong, but screw it, he rushes to the bed and it doesn't matter if they see him crying. Dean looks uncertain for a moment, shifts back, but then he sinks into John's arms and grips him tight and John hears a barely whispered "Daddy" against his cheek. He pulls away to spot Sam watching them, his own eyes glimmering.

"Told you he'd be okay."

John laughs. An honest sound that surprises them all. "Yeah, Sammy. You did."

808080808

Dean and John are told to expect a lengthy rehab time, and are warned that there's no guarantee of complete recovery. But Dean is taking that toe movement to heart and has settled on nothing less than dancing his way out of the hospital.

It's been nearly a month now since that catastrophic hunt. John doesn't think he's spent a month without hunting something since he busted his leg two years ago. Or held down a 'normal' job that long, either. Now that he's not on constant crisis mode, it's unsettling. There's still stuff out there, people getting hurt other families being destroyed and he's not taking care of it.

Some nights he finds himself doing research anyway to keep track of what he's not doing. When it's feasible, he hands off possible cases to a couple of hunters he knows are up for taking leads.

It gnaws at him to be stopped cold.

But Dean needs him.

Not that John is doing anything for him. It's the therapists working with Dean that matter, persuading nerves and muscles to function again. And there's been progress, finally. Dean is able to move his legs a little bit more almost daily. Everyone's a lot more positive that they just have to get Dean's body to a cascade point where everything clicks back together.

Though nobody says Dean will make a full recovery. That question is always answered with "It's possible." Never, "He will."

Dean is working his butt off, John knows it. He's stopped in for visits a couple of times and caught the therapists telling Dean to take it easy, he can't push the pace his body is setting, he'll only delay the healing.

Dean's face is always subdued when John sees him, unless Sam is there, too. With Sam he jokes and snarks and threatens to jump out of bed and kick Sam's ass.

Tuesday night when he comes home from the garage John is exhausted. He does better on the days when he has a challenging repair to do. Today, he had too much thinking time while he was doing oil changes all day. Last night's research turned up what John is sure is a werewolf two states over, and he can't find anyone able to go after it. Tomorrow night is the full moon. If he left now …

He heads to the apartment for a fast shower, ends up drinking two beers and trying one more time to find a hunter to take out the werewolf. It's eight o'clock before he realizes it, and visiting hours are over already. Sam answers the phone in Dean's room, and John tells him to just come down to the main entrance where he's parked.

"Dad!" As Sam gets in the car John thinks if that cliché about 'if looks could kill' was true, well, he would be such a roasted corpse there'd be nothing left to salt and burn.

"How can you just not bother seeing Dean tonight?"

"Your brother doesn't need me to babysit him."

Sam tightens his lips but he doesn't say anything more. When he gets out by the apartment, though, he slams the Impala door hard enough to actually shake the car. Which is a disrespect John is going to have to address.

Sam runs up the stairs, unlocks the door with his own key, and starts for the bedroom, but even exhausted, John manages to catch Sam's shoulder before he can disappear.

John turns Sam around with more force than necessary and pushes him down to the couch, then positions himself as a barricade.

"We. Are going to talk."

Sam snorts and mutters under his breath.

"Repeat that for me."

Sam does look at him now, anger, hurt, and defiance seething around him. Of course Sam chooses to go with the one John won't tolerate.

"I said, you talk and I have to listen."

"That's enough!" A month's worth of frustration and anxiety land squarely on Sam. "You. Don't have any right in criticizing what I'm doing for your brother! You should have been with us on that hunt! If there'd been a third person there it never would have gone down that way! Dean was a helluva a hunter at your age, but it's too much of an inconvenience for you to bother watching your brother's back. So he got hurt. And we're stayin' here. Under our real names so he can get the care he needs to get better. And if other people get hurt because I'm stuck here, well, that's too bad, isn't it? Because Sam Winchester can't be bothered. It's not like we run a family auto shop and if you don't want to be a mechanic like your old man, it's no big deal because there are other mechanics to do the job you don't want. We don't get a choice because we are some of the few who know what the job is.

"So don't you sit there and accuse me of neglecting Dean. I'm staying with him. And turning my back on the rest of the people I should be protecting. Because you pitched a fit about going that night and your brother went along with you."

Sam's face is zombie white, eyes watering, and John knows he went too far. But he is sick and tired of being judged by Sam's impossible standards.

At that moment, John cannot stand himself. "Go to your room," he orders.

And then John drinks Jack Daniels until he temporarily disappears.

He feels like shit in the morning. Not just physically, although the hangover is a bitch. John knows the guilt trip he laid on Sam was an attempt to redirect his own guilt over Dean getting hurt on John's watch.

He needs to apologize, and makes an effort when Sam comes out for breakfast.

"Want some eggs, Sammy?"

Sam ignores him, pours himself a bowl of generic cornflakes and milk, and disappears back into the bedroom.

John really fucked this up. He forces himself to eat the eggs while trying to figure out what to say to Sam. He is pretty sure 'I'm sorry' won't be enough, but he might as well start with that. But when he goes to Sam's room, the kid and his backpack are gone.

John stews all morning. Fortunately, there's a complicated transmission repair that takes all his concentration for the afternoon. He stops and gets another pizza to bring to the boys. He still doesn't know what he's going to say to Sam, but he figures he has a little more time. He'll bring it up on the car ride home. Admit he was out of line. Sam being there wouldn't have mattered and probably would only have gotten him hurt, too.

But Dean ambushes John when he walks into the room. Doesn't even notice the peace offering.

"Why the hell did you say that to Sam?"

John is used to flaring nostrils and blazing eyes from Sam. Getting them from Dean is a surreal feeling, and not in a good-dream way.

As John steps forward to put the pizza down on the bedside tray, Sam moves away from Dean's side until he is half-behind the head of the bed. Swollen eyes, red nose, Sam has been crying.

John is ready to say 'I was wrong' but he waits a beat too long.

"That was a fucked-up thing to tell him, Dad! Only thing that woulda happened if Sam'd been there is he woulda gotten hurt too!"

Hadn't John come to that very thought? But Dean furiously attacking him skews John's response.

"If we'd have had a third man there, the ghost wouldn't have been able to overpower us."

"Third man! Sam's still a kid!"

John has the restraint not to say 'You were a hunter at thirteen, Dean,' but just barely. Though what he does say isn't any better.

"Are you questioning my judgment, Dean?" John's not yelling now, his tone is razor sharp.

Their eyes are locked, and John feels another wave of wrongness to be staring down Dean. Who does everything John asks and more. Who is in a fucking hospital bed paralyzed because John turned him into a hunter instead of letting him be a kid.

John knows he can outlast Dean's deadly glare, but he realizes the only thing that will do is break Dean. He takes a breath and forces out, in the same steely voice as before, "I was wrong to say that. Sam wouldn't have helped. Could have gotten hurt, too."

His sons drop their eyes simultaneously. John takes a deep breath and tries to diffuse the emotions in the room.

"I brought you pizza. Gonna eat it?" As John opens the box, Sam edges back to Dean's side and snags a slice to hand to Dean. Sam gives John a look no child should ever have to give a parent before taking a vegetable swathed slice for himself and silently taking a bite.

Half the pizza is left but both boys have stopped eating. John eats only one piece, that's all his stomach can handle at this point.

"How did the hunt get screwed up, Dad?"

Fuck. Dean's taking a page from Sam's playbook now, going for the jugular without warning.

"Do we have to talk about a goddamn hunt we did a fucking month ago right now, Dean?"

Dean meets John's glare with equal intensity.

"Yeah, Dad, I think we do."

John runs a hand over his face. He's so tired he can barely remember yesterday, much less four weeks ago.

"I don't know, Dean. We knew there were two ghosts, we talked about the possibility we'd run into both of 'em … I don't know what the hell happened, Dean, okay? They got the drop on us and kicked the shit out of both of us! The goddamned cabinet could have fallen on me just as easy as you!" He is so exhausted. "Hell, I don't even know if we took care of 'em. I haven't gone back to check."

Dean's eyes are taking up half his face at the end of John's tirade. "What? You said … I thought it was done. You don't know if they're gone?"

"I haven't had time to go back." John doesn't say 'I couldn't bear to go back in where you were reduced to half a man.'

"Dad-!"

"Dean!" Sam cuts off the start of Dean's explosion. "Dad's been taking care of you. That's more important!"

It's the Apocalypse, John thinks. Sam is defending him.

"Dad …"

"Enough, Dean! It's over, okay? I'm done saving everybody's family but my own! I couldn't save Mary, couldn't save you … hell, I just …" John stops. Realizes what he just said, feels a weird sense of emptiness and relief and failure.

Neither boy says anything. Dean is stricken, horrified at what John has said. Sam … Sam looks stunned as well, but there is an oddly hopeful cast to his face.

"Look, Dean, I'm really tired, okay? Working at the garage is taking it out of your old man. Want me to leave the pizza?"

Dean twitches his head 'no.'

"Sam, okay if we go now?"

"Uh, yeah, sure Dad. You gonna be okay, Dean?"

A headshake.

"G'nite, Dean. See you … tomorrow."

Sam doesn't say a word for the entire ride home. Which in John's fucked up existence is the closest to 'apology accepted' as he can hope to get.

808080808

John knows the boys have been talking about him when he gets to the hospital the next night, but he ignores the guarded look from Sam and the wrecked expression on Dean and asks about therapy and the progress Dean's made and stays determinedly neutral with every comment.

There actually is good news tonight, too – the physical therapist has told Dean his rehabilitation is moving along to the point where she is taking him down to the PT room tomorrow to start using the equipment.

Dean doesn't tell him this, however. Sam had gotten there before she'd left, overheard, and eagerly relays the news to John.

"Good work, son." John claps a hand on Dean's shoulder, but Dean is in that non-reactive mode again.

John listens to Sam chatter, offering 'uh-huhs' and nodding at random intervals. Dean appears to be in a similar mental state. John is pretty sure neither of them can repeat anything Sam has said for the last forty-five minutes.

It shouldn't be so damn hard to fall asleep when he's so exhausted.

808080808

John settles into a fog of existing. Garage, hospital, unconsciousness, wake, repeat. The unconscious part becomes harder to achieve without some alcohol – several beers or a few shots, John mixes it up as the only part of his routine that varies. Dean is doing better, they've got him pedaling some kind of cycle.

John knows Dean is working hard to get himself back, but the evening visits are awkward between the two of them. John misses the snark, he misses his son's smile. He looks at John like John is a stranger. Only Sam can get a grin or wisecrack out of Dean.

That's not true, though, John realizes when Dean jokes with the nurse who comes in while John is there. It's John's presence that is weighing Dean down.

The disconnect between grubbing all day in dirty engines and knowing that he should be out there fighting monsters is becoming an iron weight in John's chest. The entire rhythm of John's life is off-kilter, staying stationary, worrying about paying the rent and buying groceries strictly with the meager paycheck he's making.

Sam, of course, thrives in this rooted existence, even though his life appears to consist only of school and seeing Dean in the hospital.

Dean gives daily progress reports as though every increment of movement is a failure because Dean still is not mobile. John is too tired to refute Dean's perception. John knows Sam can get Dean to see the headway being made, so John absents himself from the discussion.

The full moon is approaching again, and John is staring at his phone. There still is no other hunter close enough to go after the werewolf that killed two more people last month. How many this month? The full moon is Saturday. If he left tomorrow he would have three days to find it. He hasn't missed a day at the garage, surely Frank would let him have a few days off …

John's fingers close around his beer. Sam is certainly old enough to manage without Dean actually in the same apartment, just till John can take care of this one hunt. And Dean will understand, hell, Dean wanted John to go back to hunting weeks ago.

He thinks for a moment that this is a more irrevocable decision than the one he made years ago, to go after the evil that killed Mary. Or maybe it is just that he has to make the choice again, that he is recommitting himself and his boys to the hunt. Except, he's not involving Dean or Sam in this. This is his choice alone.

John stands and begins packing his duffle for a job for the first time in three months.

He feels alive again.

At the hospital, about to enter Dean's room, he has a moment's second thought. Then he walks in and Sam greets him with excitement.

"Dad! The therapist said she's gonna let Dean try standing on his own tomorrow!"

"That's great news."

"Dad?"

Damned if Sam can't tell he's not gonna like what John says next. There is no way to make Sam take this well, so John doesn't even try.

"I'm going to Kentucky tomorrow."

Sam stares, wordless for a moment.

"What is it, Dad?" Dean asks, meeting John's eyes squarely for the first time in weeks.

"Werewolf. Found its pattern last month, weren't any hunters close enough to go after it. Killed two people. Figure I can get it and get back in four days."

"You can't…"

"He has to, Sammy. Otherwise more people are gonna die."

Dean's acceptance of John's words shifts John back into equilibrium.

"You ought to be able to handle yourself for a few days, Sam. And Dean is getting the help he needs being here."

"But …"

"Nothing to discuss, Sam, I'm leaving as soon as I drop you off at school in the morning. You can manage the bus till I get back."

Dean's approval of John's decision takes the backbone out of Sam's disagreement. He looks between Dean and John, biting his lower lip, but stays silent.

His eyes are anything but accepting, though.

808080808

John is gone for eight days.

He makes it to Owensboro, Kentucky, in fifteen hours, mapping out his strategy the whole way. He is damn pleased with himself when he catches the werewolf on Saturday just as it is heading out to find prey, and when he takes it down without even getting a scratch, John figures that for a sign he is doing the right thing.

As he is leaving Sunday morning, he overhears a couple of cops in the diner discussing a gruesome murder that happened in the next county. He's got time, he thinks, and he discreetly eavesdrops until he's pretty sure it's another one of his cases.

The decision to detour should have been harder, he thinks, even as he eases the Impala to the off ramp and the road that will lead to this new hunt. It's an angry spirit. Suddenly awakened and on a killing spree. The boys are waiting. For a moment he's taken back to his time in the service. Was simple, then. Orders came down the chain of command. His superiors made the decisions and he didn't have to concern himself with their rightness. But now. The choice is his.

He is choosing to save the lives of people he will never meet. And his boys? Well, his boys are safe at the moment.

It goes about as well as could be expected. But more importantly, it's done. He got spoiled, he thinks, by doing salt-and-burns with Dean, where one of them digs and the other keeps lookout. Still, by Winchester standards his blood loss and bruises are minor.

It's four in the afternoon when he pulls up to the apartment. Sam will be with Dean. John grabs a fast shower before heading to the garage to tell Lefty he's sorry his sister's family emergency took longer than he expected, and he'll be back tomorrow. After Lefty gives him some grief he agrees to let John come back to work. John's next stop is the hospital, where he figures he can tell Dean the hunt was successful while Sam glowers.

When John enters Dean's room Sam is perched on the empty bed. Dean is sitting in the chair John usually occupies. The animated smile on Sam's face vanishes as he jumps off the bed and walks right up to accuse John to his face.

"You said four days."

"It took longer. I called, left a message."

"You missed it."

John doesn't follow. "What?"

"Sam, it's okay." Dean cuts Sam off before he has a chance to turn nuclear. "Got something to show you, Dad."

The suppressed emotion in Dean's voice commands John's complete attention, and he turns to see Dean leverage himself to a standing position, and then, using a cane John hadn't noticed, slide his feet one after another until he has walked over to stand in front of John.

John blinks against the tears stinging his eyes and can't even react for a moment. Then his arms spontaneously wrap around Dean without any kind of conscious thought behind the movement, and it's fucking hard to breathe.

"Dad! You're choking me!" Dean half-laughs as he straightens himself out from under the smothering hug.

"When …?" John's voice trails off. He is reeling from how desperately he needed Dean back as Dean.

"Four days ago," Sam answers. "If you'd of come home when you said, you would have seen it." The reproof is heavy, but John lets it go.

Dean works his way back to the chair. Every step comes with such effort that John feels his own muscles tremble. But his boy is walking. The sheer force of that thought makes him stumble slightly and he leans his hip against Dean's empty bed.

"How'd it go?" Dean asks. Of course. Sam looks on, curious despite himself.

John smiles. His face feels odd at the too-seldom-used muscle movement. "Just fine."

"You saw it? Killed the werewolf?" Dean's voice is slightly awed. John knew Dean was itching to hunt another werewolf. He's sort of star-struck over this creature. It reminds John how young Dean is. "Yeah. I saw it. I killed it."

"What was the second job?"

"Angry spirit in Belvediere. Was haunting an apartment above a laundromat."

Both boys chuckle. An achingly welcome sound. "Told you doing laundry is a health hazard," Dean quips.

Sam snorts in return, but he's smiling and Dean is gonna be all right. John feels like himself again.

He looks at his watch. There is enough time before visiting hours are up. "Hey. You guys up for pizza?"

He gets two enthusiastic 'hell yeahs.'

On the drive to the pizzeria the tension leaves him for the first time since this ordeal started. Yet even as he relaxes in relief, he thinks about what Dean almost lost – what John almost lost. Sam as well. John can't let everything Dean went through be for nothing. But what can he change? They all know the truth. It's ugly and violent and evil.

And it never, ever stops.

Their family, this business. It's not about choices. Dean already knows this, John realizes with a swell of pride. And Sam will realize it, too, one day. Perhaps it will take a sabbatical like this to get him there, although John prays it'll be for a different reason.

The blinking red neon sign breaks his thoughts and he goes inside to order the half-and-half pie. His boys are waiting. And tonight, he won't be disappointing them.