Disclaimer: I do not own the Winchester family, their property, their friends or their enemies. If you recognise something, it's probably not mine.
John's still up when he hears Dean finally stumble through the back door of the cabin they've commandeered for the duration of his latest hunt. He sent Sam to bed just after midnight amongst much protest from the fifteen year old.
He wishes he could shake the sense of foreboding that has just swept over him. He knows something's not quite right with his eldest son but he can't quite put his finger on what it might be.
He listens as Dean lets the door swing violently on its hinges, slamming into the wall. He's on his feet and in the kitchen without realising he's moved. Dean's hovering on the threshold, swaying ever so slightly. Anyone else would have missed the movement but John, despite outward appearances, has been watching over his boys – both his boys – for so long now that he can read every miniscule detail of their body language as easily as picking up the morning paper.
Dean doesn't move, doesn't give any indication that he knows where he is, let alone his father's presence. John steps forward slowly, smoothly, not wanting to spook the boy. He calls his son's name, grateful when Dean lifts his head slightly and tilts it to one side.
"Dad?" He sounds hesitant, confused and John wants nothing more than to take him in his arms like he did when the boys were smaller, before he shattered their innocence forever.
But something holds him back. He studies Dean closely, arm reaching slowly out for the light. He flicks the switch and the kitchen is instantly illuminated by a harsh fluorescent light. John swallows, hoping Dean didn't hear, as he gets his first proper look at his boy.
"What happened, son?" he asks, gently and finally steps forward, hand out in front of him as though he were placating a frightened colt. He watches as his eldest frowns and shakes his head as though trying to clear cobwebs from his addled mind. It doesn't appear to have been a good idea as Dean winces, hand wiping over his forehead. He pulls it away and looks at it as though he's never seen it before. Then he looks up at his father, eyes bewildered as he raises his now blood covered hand.
"Did I get in a fight?" he asks in a small voice.
"I don't know, Dean. Why don't you let me take a look, patch you up a little?" and John takes Dean's proffered arm by the wrist and tries to guide him to the rickety kitchen table.
But Dean, it would seem, has different ideas and he pulls back on his arm. "Why would you do that?" he demands and his voice has taken on a whole new timbre. He doesn't sound confused any more, but angry and defensive. John tries to catch a whiff of alcohol on Dean's breath, hoping to find a simple explanation for his son's sudden aggression. But Dean is sober as a judge and the discovery is like a blow to the face for John. He lets go of Dean's arm and raises his own hands in mock surrender. He doesn't know what's wrong with his boy but he's been in this game long enough to know he's not going to get any answers by forcing them out of the youngster. He takes a couple of steps back eyeing the still open door, hoping his son doesn't decide to take off back into the night.
"I just want to help you, Dean," he says, "but it can wait if you want."
He watches as Dean seems to think about it. He wonders if the blood in his son's hair is bothering him, he wonders where it's coming from, he wonders where else his son is hurt – and he knows his boy is hurting from the way he's slowly leaning into the door frame, the way he's holding his side and the way he grimaces every time he takes too deep a breath.
"I don't need your help," Dean finally manages, pushing himself away from the wall and stumbling over to the table where he sinks gracelessly onto a wooden chair.
"I didn't say you need it, just if you want it," John clarifies, relieved that Dean has chosen to come into the cabin and sit, not bolt back into the woods. "I'm going to close the door, son," he says. "Keep the chill out," and he moves cautiously to the door, keeping his distance from Dean.
Once the night air is shut out and John has locked the door to prevent any last minute change of heart from Dean, he sits opposite Dean, collecting a bottle of Jack along the way and slides a shot glass over to his son. He takes a slug of liquor before offering the bottle silently to his companion. Dean looks from the bottle to his glass to father and back to the bottle. Slowly he holds out his hand and John passes the bottle over. He doesn't fail to notice the way Dean carefully avoids any physical contact with him but he doesn't push it.
They sit in silence for what seems an age to John. He watches as Dean has one, two, three shots before passing the bottle back across the table. He waits for the relaxation in his son's posture that he's hoping will come as the warmth of the alcohol crawls through his veins and wonders if his son will notice that he's effectively drinking alone as John toys with Jack but doesn't drink.
The silence drags on and just as John is debating how long to let it go on for, Dean takes a deep sigh and drops his head to the table, resting them on his arms. John's startled by the action and wonders if his son has passed out. He reaches out a hand and lays it gently on Dean's forearm, prepared for Dean to bolt or to remain motionless.
Dean does neither. He simply lifts his head and gives John a weary smile. "Tough night, huh, Dad?" he mumbles.
"I've had better," John agrees. "Care to share?"
Dean raises his eyes and meets John's. He looks sad and John wonders what's going through his head right now. "I got into a fight," he admits. "It was stupid and it was my fault and I should have known…" he tails off with a shrug.
"Should have known what?" John thinks he should be getting angry about now because whatever Dean's done, it's beginning to sound a lot like he could have – should have – avoided it.
Dean bites his lower lip and seems to study John for a moment. John wonders if this is what the girls in the bars feel like when his son turns his attention to them. Then Dean speaks and what he says turns John's blood to ice.
"I saw Mom. She was in the bar, just standing there, looking at me. And I couldn't help it Dad. I knew it wasn't her, couldn't be her, right?" Dean's almost pleading with John now, looking for him to say 'yeah, it was Mom,' but he doesn't.
John swallows and wants to turn away. But he can't. He can't turn his back on Dean, not now when the boy so obviously needs him. "Go on," is all he can manage.
Dean drops his head, as though he knows he's upset his dad. He takes a deep breath, then another, clearly steeling himself for the next part of his story.
"I knew it couldn't be her. You know, in my head, I knew but she was so real. And she was just looking at me. And then she waved to me, wanted me to come over to her. But when I got there, she was gone." Dean stops and looks up. John is shocked to see tears in his eyes. He can't remember the last time Dean let his feelings get to him this much. Or maybe, he reflects, he just doesn't show them to the outside world any more. He wonders if he should feel guilty about that but decides to puts that guilt to one side for now because Dean is still talking. "There were some men standing there, drinking. I asked them where she had gone but they just looked at me like I was mad, like I'd made her up. And then she was on the other side of the bar, smiling at me, Dad, smiling the way she always used to. You remember that, don't you Dad?"
John didn't think his heart could break any more these days. He's hardened himself to the world, to the fact that he'll never have Mary back in his life. He knows his boys will always be his weakness and right now his eldest is disproving all his theories about broken hearts. Dean's words are like shards of ice, driving into the very centre of his soul. He's torn between wanting to tell Dean he couldn't have seen his mother and demanding every detail of how she looked, how she moved, how she smiled from his increasingly distraught son.
"Yes, son," he manages, "I remember."
Dean nods and takes another swig from his nearly empty glass. "I had to go over. I couldn't not. Even though, in my head I knew it wasn't her. But she was still there when I got there. She smelled of freshly baked bread." He looks up at his father and John wants to get up and run. Right now Dean looks more like his mother than ever and yes, John remembers coming home to fresh bread and laughing children. He remembers days that went on forever when all he wanted was to get home to his family and he remembers the night it was all snatched away from him so cruelly.
"She was so real," Dean continues, seemingly oblivious to John's emotional turmoil. "She reached out to me and I could almost touch her. I knew it couldn't be her. All the time I knew but I wanted it to be her so badly I didn't care."
Suddenly Dean pushes away from the table and chair topples over backwards. John is on his feet and at his son's side without a second thought. Dean turns to him with a small shrug. "Turns out it was a shapeshifter."
John nods and puts a hand on Dean's shoulder, not quite sure whose comfort he's doing it for. Dean feels solid and steady beneath his touch and John doesn't think he needs to hear any more. He knows how it ended without being told. Dean will have taken it outside and finished the shapeshifter. He doesn't know how Dean got it, doesn't need to know but what he does know is that the act of killing a monster in the form of his mother will have destroyed another part of his son's heart just as hearing it is bringing back his own grief.
He pulls Dean to him and together they silently mourn Mary, gone for 15 years but forever alive in their hearts.