Oh happy day! I don't think I've ever had a fic that fought me as much as this one did... hence the endless waits between updates! Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed, and alerted and favourited – I think without the wonderful encouragement I would have been very tempted to throw in the towel with it. I hope you all enjoy this final instalment, and that it's worth the wait.
BTW, a couple of people sent lovely reviews but I couldn't reply to them – the site has changed things around, so if you didn't get a reply from me and you were logged in, you have your private message function disabled. Please know that I really appreciated the reviews!
Disclaimer: Do I really have to spell it out?
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"Have some more potato, Sam." Without waiting for Sam's headshake, Dean scooped a generous portion of the fluffy mash onto his brother's plate.
"Dean..." Sam's protest held little strength, but he didn't make a move towards the new food. His fork speared a slice of tomato and he shifted it on the plate without enthusiasm.
"More chicken, Sam?" I didn't think he'd want it any more than he'd wanted the potato, although the Lord knew he could do with eating more, but saying anything was better than the long awkward silences into which our mealtimes inevitably descended these days.
Sam shook his head again, fork still pushing the tomato around, and I caught Dean's eye across the table.
I'd hoped that time would lessen the effects of the trauma Sam had experienced, that physical recovery from his injuries and illness would promote emotional healing from the damage that the shifter's words and actions had caused. Four days on, his fever had gone and the bruises were a spectacular wash of purples and blues. He was still moving cautiously – all of us were – but the infection in his arm was well under control. Physically he was recuperating fine.
But he was no closer to emotional recovery than he'd been immediately after the attack. He was withdrawn, far quieter than usual, eating too little for his age and size. Night after night I was woken by sounds of distress from the room the boys were sharing, and I knew from Dean's occasional comments that Sam was reliving his experiences in vicious nightmares.
And his relationship with John was about as strained as I'd ever seen it.
I'd grown used to the conflict between the two of them, the arguments, the yelling, the sullen silences and slammed doors. They were too similar, and both too focused on diametrically opposed goals, to live together harmoniously. But this was new. Sam wasn't arguing. He wasn't sulking or slamming around, and John was not yelling. If anything, they were both overly polite and careful with each other.
More than once I'd found John outside the boys' room, listening to Sam's tears and Dean's attempts at reassurance, but he never went in. I'd even suggested, on one occasion, that it might help them both if he did go and try to comfort his younger son. John's face had twisted into a grim caricature of a smile, and he'd stared at me for a moment. Then he'd muttered something and stalked back to his own room.
Before, I'd have said that his reluctance was because he knew Dean was better than he at soothing Sam, because emotional support was not his forte. Now... now I couldn't help wondering if, after all, he didn't really care as much as I'd always imagined.
And apart from anything else, it was more than likely that Sam would reject his father's attempts.
The frantic terror of their first meeting had subsided, but there was no denying that Sam was visibly uncomfortable in John's presence. He was polite – too polite – but monosyllabic in their conversations. Several times he'd hurriedly left a room when the alternative was being alone with his father in it, and his shifts in Dean's direction when John approached were as unsubtle as they were uneasy.
I'd hoped I was wrong about John, that I'd misjudged him and that the vitriol that had come from the shifter's mouth had nothing to do with what was in the real John's head. Perhaps even more I'd hoped that Sam wouldn't come to the same conclusions to which I'd jumped, and that once his initial skittishness had subsided, once his recovery from the physical trauma was well underway, he'd re-establish his normal relationship with his father. I'd hoped that it would occur to neither Sam nor Dean to wonder whether John really felt those things.
But in Sam's behaviour I could see that my hopes had been groundless.
"Are you going to eat that or play with it, Sam?" John smiled as he said it, but there was strain underlying his attempt to lighten the atmosphere. Whatever he thought, he was aware of the tension in his younger son, and I could see that it disturbed him.
Sam cringed, his fork jarring against his plate, and his gaze darted to his father, then back down again. He said nothing, but the rapidity with which he lifted the food to his mouth and began to chew was more telling than any words.
John saw it too; his smile stiffened, and then dropped away as he cleared his throat. Across from me Dean shifted uneasily in his chair.
"Dad, I was wondering –"
"Would anyone –"
Dean and I spoke simultaneously, hurriedly. In the instant of confusion that followed I saw the flicker of wry awareness in John's eyes, but he said nothing, reaching instead for the plate of chicken.
"Sorry, Dean. Would anyone like coffee?"
Sam dropped his fork.
"I'll make it." He pushed back his chair, springing to his feet without giving me a chance to reply and heading for the grinder. Even from where we sat the rigidity of curved shoulders, the tension in that thin back, was painfully obvious.
I saw John glance at his younger son's plate, at the almost untouched dinner, but when he spoke there was nothing in his voice to betray what he felt.
"You wanted to ask me something, Dean?"
It was Dean's turn to startle.
"Oh, I... uh... I just... have you heard from Bobby lately?"
Dark eyebrows lifted quizzically. It was a poor excuse; John knew it as much as did Dean. He couldn't have helped but see Dean's flinch, either. The muscles around his jaw bunched.
"No. No, I haven't, actually, not since that poltergeist situation. Why do you ask?" John's voice was even. Two pairs of green eyes met, and Dean straightened, chin dropping a little. He flicked his tongue over his lower lip.
"Just... wondering how he's doing."
John nodded, one short jerk of the head, and broke eye contact. He helped himself to more potato, and his movements were deliberate as he lifted a forkful to his mouth.
Dean blinked, slow, and let out a long breath. Across the kitchen Sam's gaze flicked between his father and brother. I saw him swallow, and the hands that carried the coffee plunger to the table were not completely steady.
The scrape of John's fork against his plate seemed unnaturally loud. I'd always been good at diffusing a situation, at the diplomatic comment in a fraught conversation, but right then I had no idea what to say. Dean had given up any pretence of eating now, and his head was down, eyes examining the tilt of his hand as his fingers drummed silently against the table.
"Pastor Jim..." Sam's smile was stiff with misery as he handed me a mug. He ducked his head at my murmured thanks; I think I was the only one who heard the quiver of his indrawn breath.
Sam leaned across to put another mug in front of John. His hand was still wrapped around it when John reached out, and their fingers collided.
Sam flinched, a whole-body recoil as if John's hand had been a live wire, and his hand jerked back involuntarily. The mug slipped from his grasp, hit the table and smashed, sending shards of pottery and hot coffee in all directions.
Chairs screeched on the tiles as we all pushed back from the table. John, whose outstretched hand had been liberally doused with the scalding liquid, shot to his feet, hissing with pain.
"Son of a...!" He flicked his wrist sharply, fingers snapping against each other, pulled his hand in closer to examine it. "Damn it, Sam!" His gaze lifted from the already-blistering flesh to focus on his younger son.
Wide blue-green eyes blinked rapidly, scrutinising the chaos of spilled coffee and then skittering upwards. Distress crumpled Sam's face as he found his father's glare.
"I... uh... I'm sorry..." His voice trembled between accelerating breaths. "I-I... I didn't mean to..." He reached out uncertainly, one quivering hand dipping towards the wreckage as if to clear it away, and then jerked back with an audible gulp as John pushed his hand away.
"You want to burn yourself too?" The words were concerned. The tone was pure impatience. "What the hell, Sam?" He looked away, shook his head slightly, returned his gaze to his son. "What's wrong with you? You act like I'm about to attack you, you freak out just because I touched you... I know what the shifter did, but it wasn't me, you know it wasn't me. You know I'd never do that to you. I don't understand why you can't get past this. You need to pull yourself together –"
"Dad." Dean's voice cracked across his father's. He was on his feet now, frowning heavily. "It's not... Don't do this now."
At some stage during John's tirade I'd also risen. Silenced, John glanced from Dean to me, and then across to where Sam had slumped into his chair, head down. Dark tassels of hair hid his eyes, but the hunched shoulders, the shaking fingers picking at the sleeve of his hoodie, were clue enough to his emotional state.
"I'm sorry... 'm sorry, Dad..." he muttered. His chest heaved, rapid breaths sucked in and released. "I... I didn't... I don't..."
John closed his eyes for a long moment, releasing a heavy exhalation of his own. There was chagrin, almost remorse, in his expression when he looked back at Sam, and I could see it bothered him that he'd upset his son. Sam argued when he was thwarted, justified his behaviour, vigorously defended himself... This cringing distress was disturbingly unlike him, and that seemed to worry John almost as much as it baffled him.
"I'm... I'm going to... do something about this," he said at last, injured hand lifting in a vague gesture. Weary puzzlement dragged his mouth down, grooved tight lines between his eyes, and he pressed his lips together before nodding once and moving heavily from the kitchen.
Dean's gaze followed his father's retreat, and then met mine. He scrubbed one hand roughly over his face.
Sam shifted uneasily on the chair.
"I'm sorry, Dean... I didn't..."
"Don't be an idiot." There was no anger in the older Winchester's voice. "I'm not upset with you."
"I... I know," Sam whispered. "I know, it's just..." He swallowed thickly.
"Sam... Dude, I know it's hard for you, I know this whole thing is screwed up, but you need to get past it. You can't keep... hiding... like this, freaking out every time Dad comes into the room... You can't live like that. We can't live like that."
"I know, Dean!" Sam lifted his head. Thin fingers interlaced, pressed together tightly between his knees. "I'm... I try... I try n-not to... to... but every time he... I k-keep remembering..." His lip quivered.
"Sammy, believe me, I know. I was there for some of it. Hell, I had my own ass handed to me. It's not that I don't understand – the son of a bitch wore Dad's face, you're going to be jumpy around Dad. I get it, I really do, but –"
"No." The monosyllable cracked in what was close to a sob. "You don't get it, Dean. You... it's not –"
Dean's gaze slid away, and his jaw clenched momentarily.
"Okay, fine, I don't. I wasn't there when... I didn't see it all, and it wasn't about me. It's easy for me to tell you to get over it. But Sam... Sam, it wasn't Dad. You've got to –"
"It was!" The shouted words were no less shocking for the huskiness of the still-recovering vocal cords through which they were forced. Dean flinched visibly, and his freckles were stark against his sudden pallor.
"It... it was." Sam's voice dropped as he hung his head, but the anguish was distressingly audible. "It is."
Green eyes, wide with consternation, flicked in my direction. I saw Dean swallow.
"You know how... how shifters work, Dean. They d-don't just make stuff up. They... it's like they download thoughts from people's brains. From the people they're... copying. They t-take what they... they say w-what they..."
I could see understanding filtering across Dean's face. I could hear it in his choked expression of his brother's name.
"What he... w-what the shifter said... he said it cause... c-cause that's what Dad thinks."
"Dad wouldn't... he wouldn't do all th-that... stuff... that the shifter d-did... but... b-but it doesn't mean he doesn't think it." Wetness overflowed, left glistening tracks over the bruised cheeks. "He thinks I'm a b-burden... he thinks I'm useless, and... and pathetic..."
"No." Dean was leaning forward, hands on the edge of the table and head down. "No."
"He... Dad wishes I'd died instead of Mom..." Sam's voice broke, the last word extinguished by the sob that shuddered through him, and he crumpled forward on the chair, pressing both hands flat to his face in a gesture of naked desolation.
Dean's grip tightened to white-knuckle intensity on the table edge, and his head dropped, hiding his face.
"Sammy." The wretchedness in that single word held me in thrall, kept me silent when I might have attempted consolation. There was nothing Dean could say, nothing either of us could say, to counter what Sam had said. There was no comfort Dean could offer when he so obviously believed it himself.
Huddled on the chair, Sam wept in strangled silence. Dean didn't move, didn't speak, but his breath caught, once, and from his downturned face something fell with a soundless splash to the table.
I'd always enjoyed preparing my sermons, digging into the relevant Scripture passages, exploring the expositions of other commentators. And Sunday's text was one of my favourites: I'd been looking forward to working through it.
Tonight there was no pleasure for me.
The page in front of me, which by now should have been filled with my notes, was depressingly blank. I'd pulled a commentary from the stack beside me, and even carefully underlined whole paragraphs, but I was unable to recall a single idea that I'd read.
"Dad wishes I'd died instead of Mom..."
My pencil scored an ugly groove in the paper.
There was something horribly inappropriate about this, about my continuation of normal life, when the lives of the two boys in my house had been so devastated. It was impossible to focus on Barclay's Daily Study Bible when heartbreaking images kept intruding, of a child sobbing brokenly, of a young man's tears.
I'd not seen John after leaving the kitchen an hour earlier. Sam had gone first, dragging himself to his feet and trudging in silence from the room without looking at either Dean or me. I hadn't liked to see him go while still so emotionally distraught, hadn't liked to imagine him curled up somewhere alone with his trauma. Dean, though, hadn't tried to stop him, and he'd watched his brother leave without immediately following.
"He'll be okay." Dean had understood my unspoken entreaty. "He needs... some time." He'd looked up then, and must have seen the misgiving in my eyes; something flickered across his face, and his mouth twisted. "Just because Sammy's a chatty little bi – uh – just because he runs his mouth off most of the time doesn't mean he wants us to go all Oprah on him right now." Any flippancy in the words was belied by the rigidity of his jaw.
I could only trust that he knew what he was talking about. And after all, with his fifteen years of Sam-experience it was a fair assumption.
"I'm gonna go shower." He'd shut down then, face flattening into stony expressionlessness, and any words of reassurance I might have offered had remained unsaid.
"He thinks I'm a burden... He thinks I'm useless and pathetic..."
I thrust Barclay away a little more roughly than necessary. A faint but persistent ache throbbed behind my eyes, and I propped my elbows on the desk, pressed index and middle fingers against my temples.
By the time I delivered this sermon, John Winchester and his boys would likely have left. John would have found another hunt, would have packed up his sons and their meagre possessions and departed, truck and Impala in convoy, on his relentless quest for vengeance. Yet again his pursuit of his wife's killer would take precedence over everything else. And this emotional catastrophe would, like many of lesser enormity in the past, be ignored.
And even if it had been my business, there was nothing I could do to change the way John ran his family. They would leave, and I would be left with the memories until the next time John's work and his boys collided. Or until, eventually, it all fell apart irreparably.
I pushed up from my chair, leaning heavily on the desk as my still-recovering back protested the movement, and made a perfunctory effort to tidy the work surface. Perhaps tomorrow my thoughts would be more compliant – maybe with the buffer of a good night's sleep, I'd be able to pretend I wasn't thoroughly disturbed by the situation.
That pesky beam over the gallery was banging again, and as I closed my office door and turned towards the sanctuary I knew an unpleasant sense of déjà vu. That rattling beam... the storm growling overhead... it had only been a few days since I'd stood there under the same conditions.
And there was someone in the sanctuary.
Even as I sucked in a startled breath, I recognised him.
John was, despite his profession, not by any means a religious man. Probably the only times I'd ever seen him in a church was when he stocked up on holy water; his assurance that supernatural evil was a reality was matched only by his conviction as to the non-existence of God.
But there he was in the second row, elbows on the back of the pew in front of him and brow propped in broad palms. He'd dug his fingers into his scalp and his face was hidden, in what in anyone else I would have assumed was an attitude of prayer.
For a shameful moment I stood very still, wondering if I could escape without alerting him to my presence.
"I know you're there, Jim." He spoke without turning to face me, but his hands dropped away from his face to hang over the pew. "You need to brush up on your stealth approach."
"I wasn't trying to sneak up on you." I crossed in front of the pews. "I just didn't want to disturb you if you were – if you wanted to be alone."
He huffed a laugh that was more grim than amused.
"If I wanted to be alone? It's not as if I'd have much choice in the matter." He slapped one hand against the pew, lifted his head to give me a wry smile. "I think Sam would rather slit his own throat than be around me right now."
I shifted slightly, uncomfortable at what was almost hurt in his voice. It was, unfortunately, too close to the truth to be denied.
"I mean, I get it, I do. Kid was attacked by a monster wearing my face: obviously he's going to be skittish around me. It's instinctive. And I'm sure it makes it worse that it was my face, rather than someone he didn't know – it must almost have been as if it was me doing it. I guess... I guess I just didn't think he'd still be so freaked out, now." He sighed. "But I can't expect things to be sunshine and roses so soon after that, I suppose."
"It must almost have been..." Wait, what?
"That shifter... they're nasty sons of bitches at the best of times, but this one?" He ran a cautious finger over the butterfly bandages on his temple. "It was a real bastard. Sorry, Jim. Slick, too – managed to jump me right outside that bar, and I didn't even see it coming." Anger - and chagrin – flickered across his face. "I woke up in Brixton's sewerage system with one hell of a headache. Couldn't figure out what had happened, at first, until it appeared and... shifted. Into me."
His fingers closed over the top of the pew.
"And then it entertained me by telling me all the things it had planned for my children." He breathed heavily through his nose. "Been a while since I hunted a shifter – I'd forgotten how they take on memories. It knew the boys' names, where we were staying..." He broke off and dropped his head. When he spoke again his voice was muffled. "I don't want to think about what would... what could have happened if they hadn't got here first."
Shock held me motionless for a moment.
"John." I found my voice; it was sharper than I'd intended, and his head came up quickly. "What do you know of what happened? To Sam and Dean?"
Heavy brows dipped over suddenly wary eyes.
"No details, really – just that the shifter found them here, and... well, had a pretty good go at them both, particularly Sam. And you. Dean was holding it off when I arrived." He narrowed his eyes at me. "Why – what did I miss?"
I looked away, and then back at him.
"Pretty much everything. I should have realised –"
"That you didn't know the whole story – almost any of the story, actually. That you don't know it. I thought Dean had – I should have told you."
I'd seen anger, hurt, worry, on John's face, but for the first time since he'd arrived four days ago I was seeing fear. He rose slowly, leaning towards me on the pew.
"What happened, Jim?"
I sucked in a steadying breath.
"John, the boys didn't get here before the shifter found them."
"It went to your motel. There was no reason for them to think it wasn't you. Although Dean's kicking himself six ways to Sunday for that now – it sent him off on a 'hunt' somewhere else, and he went."
"And... Sam?" John's shoulders had lifted, hunched forward tautly, and his voice was thick with dread.
I cleared my throat.
"I don't know what the shifter threatened to do to him, John, but... I'm pretty sure it... did it." I saw horror leach the colour from his face. "He was in a bad state when he got here – it had had him for two days by then."
John sank heavily back onto the seat.
"Son of a..." He rubbed his fingers over his mouth, closed his eyes for a long moment. "Sammy..." The word was a whisper, and when he spoke again he didn't look at me. "I'm guessing Dean's hunt was a bust, then? He came back and... and found Sammy like... that?" His unspoken plea was clear.
"I'm afraid not. Sam managed to get away himself, I'm not sure how. He walked here. Dean came later that evening – Thursday. The shifter tracked them here early Friday morning, just before you showed up."
John was silent, although his hard, rapid breaths were audible.
"That shifter – it was good, John. Convincing, I mean. It really knew where to hit where it hurt. And I'm not talking physically here. You and Sam... well, there's... tension... between you. I know you two disagree a lot. Your relationship is... strained." I raised my voice a little when he would have spoken. "The shifter knew all of that. It knew your history. And it used it."
John looked up, staring straight ahead; his gaze didn't meet mine, but I saw the muscles tighten in his jaw.
"What do you mean?"
I hesitated. I didn't enjoy inflicting pain on people, and my story had clearly upset John. But I didn't know how he'd react to what I was about to tell him. Because I had no idea if the shifter's words would be a surprise to him or not. And there was a small, un-Christian part of me that wanted to shock him, hurt him, for even the possibility that he could feel that way about his son.
"It said that you saw Sam as pathetic, as weak and selfish and self-centred. It said – and tried to go through with it – that it... you... should have done it years ago, but that you'd finally realised that you needed to kill Sam –"
A choked sound escaped from John, but I spoke over it.
"You needed to kill Sam, because he was useless to you, he was just a hindrance and didn't care enough about his mother to want revenge on the thing that killed her. It told Sam that he was a burden to both you and Dean. It told Dean that he'd ruined Sam for the hunting life, that he'd coddled Sam and made him weak, and when Dean fought back it said that Sam was his weakness and if he tried to protect Sam it showed he wasn't committed to avenging his mother."
"It told Sam – before it tried to strangle him – that you'd made a mistake: that you should have saved Mary and let Sam die."
"Son of a bitch!" John surged to his feet, and one closed fist slammed against the pew with an audible crack. It had to have hurt. He didn't give any indication that he'd even felt it. "That... that bastard... damn it to hell!" He roared the last word, shoulders heaving in an almost alarming display of barely-caged violence.
I'd certainly evoked a reaction, greater by far than I'd expected. I was silent for a moment, watching the emotion in his face, in rigid muscles and clenching fists, and began to allow myself to hope.
"Then... it's not... true?"
The small, faltering voice was more startling than a shout.
I felt the jolt in my still-aching back as I turned sharply. John whipped round, his rage combining with surprise to make his face truly formidable.
Déjà vu – to less traumatic times – held me motionless. The raised pulpit, enclosed on all sides, had often been a refuge for a littler Sammy. Many times I'd found him in there, when John had left the boys with me or, on one occasion, after a fight with Dean. I could still remember chubby arms wrapped around sturdy little legs, curly head resting on his knees as he hid with his childish sorrow.
Now for a moment I thought I saw that baby in the thin boy who peered from within the pulpit, unruly dark hair falling over reddened, swollen eyes. He blinked hard, shrinking back a little at John's expression.
"Sammy – have you been there the whole time?" John spoke gruffly, but a little of the fury faded from his face, and he took a step towards his son.
"It's... not true? He was lying?" The desperate plea quivered in his voice.
John stopped dead.
"True? What the shifter said? Sam!" I heard the incredulity in his voice, saw it on his face. There was hurt there, too. "You think... you actually imagine –"
"Shifters take people's actual thoughts. You... you said it yourself," Sam whispered. He dropped his gaze, staring at the floor. "We're always fighting... and you were so m-mad when you left..."
John was silent for long enough that Sam raised his eyes timidly. John's hand covered his face, and he dug his thumb and forefinger into his temples. I saw him swallow.
"I'm sorry, Sam. Son. I'm so sorry."
"For... what?" Sam's face crumpled a little.
"For not showing you enough... for not giving you enough confidence in me to know how much of a lie that was. For letting things get bad enough between us that you could actually believe I might feel like that. Sammy, I would never... I could never..." His voice cracked.
Sam's mouth twisted, lips pressing together hard. I recognised that face from the past, too.
"What that son of a bitch said... he was lying, Sam. It wasn't even anywhere near... within a thousand miles of the truth. I... I can't even tell you how wrong he was."
Sam's breath caught, and I saw a tear break free.
"Try..." His whisper was almost inaudible.
Something indefinable flickered across John's face. He closed the gap between them and his hands reached out, oddly tentative, to close around his son's upper arms and draw him to his feet.
"Sammy..." His grip slid down, curled around Sam's wrists and turned them over where the bandages didn't completely hide the still-angry rope burns. Sam said nothing, but his gaze followed the movement and then lifted to his father's face.
"After Mary... after your mother died... I used to go into your room at night, after you were in bed. Those first months Dean usually ended up in your crib, too." He smiled a little. "I'd just sit and watch the two of you sleep, cuddled together... I think that was the only thing that got me through that time, knowing that I had you boys. That I still had something of your mother left." He sucked in a quivering breath. "You're so like her, Sam, in so many ways... she loved her books too, you know. She liked to talk about what she was reading. When she was pregnant with you, and after you were born, she'd tell me how you were going to be her little scholar... how you were going to go to college, become a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist."
He swallowed, cleared his throat, and I saw him blink hard.
"I know we don't always see eye to eye on things... we often don't agree on what's important... but what the shifter said about you – he was wrong. You're strong, Sammy, you're a good hunter, a good researcher... don't ever think that I think you're a burden, or a hindrance on the hunt. And I may disagree with you on the importance of schoolwork over hunting, but I am proud of you, that you work so hard and you do so well. I know your mother would have... would have been proud of you too."
John released Sam's wrists, and one hand lifted, fingers curving against his son's neck. His thumb brushed lightly over the livid blue-black bruise on Sam's jaw.
"I can't say I haven't thought a thousand times about that night, if there was anything I could have done to save your mother. If I'd just got there a few seconds earlier, maybe, or... I don't know. But Sam... I have never, ever, regretted saving you."
Wide green-blue eyes filled and overflowed; when John tugged gently, Sam came willingly into the arms that closed around him, and buried his face in his father's shoulder. John's hand curled around the nape of his neck, tangling in the soft curls.
"If I could go back, do it over... Sammy, I wouldn't save her if it meant losing you."
"D-Dad..." The quivering whisper was muffled. "Dad." Thin hands clutched the back of John's shirt, twisted hard in the fabric as Sam pressed himself closer, and I saw John's arms tighten around him.
"Sam!" Quick footsteps warned me just before Dean burst in through the opposite door. "Sam, where the hell –" He came to a stunned halt.
"Dean." John lifted his head, and the overhead light glinted off wetness on his cheeks that I hadn't noticed before.
"Dad?" Uncertainty took years from Dean's voice, widened his eyes as he looked from his father to Sam. "Is he... what..."
"Jim just told me what... really happened. I... I'm sorry, Dean, I didn't know – I didn't realise how bad it was."
Dean licked his lips, took a tentative step closer to his family.
"You know... what the shifter said?"
For a second remembered rage flashed across John's face.
"It lied." The venom in the two words was unmistakable. John looked down at the dark head pressed against his shoulder. "I have never felt, or thought, what that son of a bitch said. Not ever." He raised his eyes again, and met Dean's steadily as his elder son came nearer. "And Dean, what it said about you – that you'd weakened Sam, that you weren't committed to the hunt if you protected him – that's not true, either. I don't want you to think for a moment that I think that."
"I should have known, Dad." Dean broke eye contact with his father, and his teeth worried at his lower lip. "I'd should have seen it wasn't you – I shouldn't have left Sammy –"
"It got me, Dean." John reached out with one hand, gripped Dean's upper arm. "I know it must have been convincing as hell to get past you. But you realised something was wrong, and what you did do was protect your brother, even... even when you thought it was me. You did good, Dean. You did good." His face softened into an expression I'd rarely seen, and his voice dropped. "I am so damn proud of you... of both of you." He pulled Dean close and his arm went around him.
I slipped past the tight huddle of Winchesters, towards the door, but I don't think any of them saw me leave.
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