A/N: And so here I am, upon my knees, forehead to the ground in deep worship of my betas! I worship you, Tifaching, for your amazing ability to know when my pronouns were all yaw-ways and catawompus, and for your talent in unwinding my illogical syntax! You are a master of words and brought clarity to my prose! I worship you, Emmessann, for your analytical abilities and for your penetrating questions. You never let anything slide, and I appreciate being called to task when needed (and I needed it a lot! Hurhur). I worship you, NongPradu, you who did not miss one single beat even though you gave birth during the writing of this story. For real. I'm not joking, y'all! She really, really did! I also bow to you for your creative suggestions, for your experience and knowledge and for all of your advice and encouragement. My mantra this entire story has been "When in doubt, ask Nong!" I cannot ever thank you three enough.
A/N: I also bend knee in deep reverence to my pre-readers…ladies who gave me their time and consideration as I wrote this story. Thank you Penny, Amanda, Deb, Ginger, and especially Sue Pokorny. Sue, you honestly gave me as much feedback as any of my betas, and for that I am so, SO damn grateful.
A/N: Finally, I want to thank everyone who read this story. A huge part of the writing experience is sharing the art, and so I honor all of you who chose this story to spend your free time on. I'm humbled and very, VERY grateful. I want to chant my praises in particular to those incredible individuals who tossed a quarter into my guitar case and wrote a review. I especially worship those generous individuals who reviewed darned near every chapter. Thank you ackerberlynn, apester, becca65d, Cactus101, Carrie, die Otter, kelco, lilykep, Maz101, Moonclaimed, Numpty, Reginajoyce, smalld1171, sosori, and Sue Pokorny. Often times we fanfic authors misinterpret silence as apathy, or even worse, dislike. Your encouraging voices were sometimes all that stood between my head and my kitchen oven—metaphorically speaking, of course! Hee! Seriously, my gratitude is a paltry payment for what you've given me, but you have it nonetheless. Thanks in advance to Carrie and all other "guests", present and future, who leave reviews for this last chapter. I will not be able to thank you in a PM, but I am truly grateful for your words. Also, as a complete side note, thank you to the "guest" who is reading this story and who also left a lovely guest review for "Dust Devils" the other day. You warmed my heart. You truly did.
A/N: This chapter is dedicated to NongPradu and Sue Pokorny for kicking me in the ass and motivating me to actually FINISH the freakin' story.
TLDR! Someone shut me up, already! Last chappie…
Jai Guru Deva Om
Chapter Fourteen: The Long and Winding Road
Molten fire bubbled and stewed on the iron ceiling of The Kiln, casting a dappled, bloody glow on Dean's naked flesh. Fascinated and horrified, he watched the flames drip down the walls and surge across the floor, slopping wetly up and over him—drowning him in searing agony. He screamed as the liquid fire curled and coiled around him. Skin melted, entrails sizzled and dripped onto the hot-griddle floor until nothing remained except his bones snapping and popping like wood in a fireplace. Chanting erupted around him, strident, fevered voices barking desperate incantations—shrieks of misery mixed with insane laughter. Dean joined them, adding his own stilted cries to the cacophony.
Burning! Burning red in Hell. Dead in Hell.
I'm burning. My throat is burning. I'm in Hell.
"Settle down, Dean. You've got a fever and you're dreaming. Don't move. You're in the hospital, Sport; you've lost a lot of blood and they've got you doped to high hell, but you're gonna be fine. You hear me? You're gonna be just fine. Mei has all the nurses working overtime. Stubborn as a mule."
I'm burning. I fell into Hell. Dean's hand fumbled up to his mouth, gripping the burning pipe stuck in his throat and tried to pull it out.
"Whoa, don't do that. Leave that where it is." Something or someone grabbed his hands, holding them down as he continued to struggle. "You're on a ventilator to help you out for a bit. You need to lie still. Stand down. Everything's fine; open your eyes and see for yourself."
Don't have eyes. Burnt away.
"Come on, Dean. I bet you could open them if you tried." The hand squeezed harder. "Open them for me, Champ."
Father? The name burbled up from a dark corner of his mind. Father always saved him from Hell when he was in The Kiln. He squeezed the hand holding his.
"That's right, son. It's me. It's Dad. Come on, open up."
The rough hands gripping his squeezed a stern command and Dean obeyed. He opened his eyes and a shocking light flooded The Kiln, obliterating the darkness, quelling the fire and heat that consumed him. He winced against the painful sunbursts and flares and snapped his watering eyes shut before attempting to open them again with tentative caution. He blinked and squinted until the dark blob before him cemented into the haloed form of his father. His father. His focus wavered and refocused on John Winchester whose wet, exhausted eyes crinkled as he smiled.
"That's it, Dean. Good job. Real good job."
Dean watched him with dull eyes, his brain taking time to process what, where and who he was. After a short while, he glanced from side to side, searching. Where's Sam?
"Shhh," John rubbed the soft pad under Dean's thumb in soothing circles. "You're safe. You got him, Dean. He's dead. You did it. You did good. You did real, real good and…" He stumbled over his words. "I'm so goddamned sorry."
Sorry? For what? No, Dad—Sam. I want Sam.
"I don't—I don't know what you're trying to say, Dean, but you need to stop moving. Easy." John put his hand on Dean's shoulder as the boy arched his back, struggling to rise. "Stop, Dean. You've got a tube in your chest. You don't want to pull on it."
Dean reclaimed his hand from John's grip and clumsily fingered his chest where the amulet always lay. It wasn't there. John's face grew thoughtful as he watched his son curiously.
"It's right here in my pocket Dean. I've got it." Dean tapped his chest again and John finally understood. "He's at school, bud. Remember? He's safe at school." John took his hand.
Dean gave a near imperceptible nod and closed his eyes, defeated. He tried to reopen his lids, but they were too heavy. They stayed closed.
There was movement in the room and a woman's voice interrupted them.
"John, you promised."
"I know, I was going but he opened his eyes," John said as though he were making an excuse for something.
"I see that, but he's out again. He'll be sleeping for hours yet."
"All right," John sighed. His father's voice came close to him, close enough that Dean felt warm puffs against his ear. "I have to go, Dean. Mei's going to take good care of you, though. You get some rest."
Don't go, Dad! Please don't leave me again. Please…
His father tugged his hand a few times and then released it.
Oh God, please don't go!
The darkness gave way to a dull, muzzy haze in slow increments, but Dean couldn't be bothered with attempting to explore the light. He remembered opening his eyes for a few moments at some point only to hear his dad telling him goodbye and to be strong or get better—some horseshit like that—before grabbing his jacket and bolting. Later, Dean woke drenched in sweat and cracked his lids to see the empty chair sitting in the corner. That had been enough to send him retreating into the darkness. He'd spent his time since then riding the opiate express the nurses had been kind enough to book him passage on. There was nothing to work for, nothing waiting for him, no one to make him care, so he did his level best to elude consciousness for as long as he could. Finally, pain forced his hand and he wheezed out a groan of discomfort. Hearing his own voice, he opened his eyes in surprise. The annoying tube in his throat had been removed at some point, and he rolled his tongue along his dry lips in relief.
"Well look at you…all conscious and…uh…okay, we'll settle for semi-conscious. You with me, Slugger?" a voice asked from somewhere outside his narrow field of vision.
Dean turned his head, but the movement pulled on muscles in his chest, and his vision grayed out from the pain. After a few seconds he realized the voice was jabbering a mile a minute while fingers pried his eyelids open, one at a time. Sharp light flooded his brain.
"Gghhrgh," he huffed, his voice sounding like he'd eaten cleanser.
"—ay awake Dean. Don't you flutter your lashes at me like that. I'm a married woman."
The light clicked off and a cool hand rested against his brow, rubbing with gentle, coaxing strokes. He growled and swatted it away.
"Fffckn' quiddt," he garbled.
"D'awww, there you are." He could hear the smirk in Mei's words. "Back to your old self already, I see. My work here is complete."
Dean lifted his lids and took his time focusing. Mei warbled and wavered and then solidified.
"That's an interesting combination. How about you add a few vowels next time to shake things up a bit?" Mei said as she palpated his chest area, her searching fingers avoiding the tube that protruded from just below his armpit. She grew quiet, pressing her scope here and there, intent on listening to his breathing, spending more time on his right side than on his left. "Music to my ears," she said with a waltzing nod.
Dean watched her, blinking his eyes torpidly, thinking about vowels. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Whuh time s'it?"
"It's late," she said. "Two days since you arrived and over six hours since you last graced us with your usual conviviality."
Dean's face pinched. "Cnvivawht? W'kinna bullshit's 'at?"
"I rest my case," Mei said with a wink. She continued her examination. "You've been in and out of consciousness. You trying to make up for all that lost sleep?" There was a smile, there was a smirk, but there was more there, too—a lot more. More than he could handle. He glanced over at the empty chair and closed his eyes.
"Aw, see? You're gonna hurt my feelings, Dean."
"Tired," he said.
"Well, it's not all about you," she pouted. "You don't pay me enough attention. I have needs."
"Ches' hur's," he said, opening his eyes.
"I can imagine. Sucking chest wounds have a tendency to do that."
"Sucky ches' woun'?"
Mei laughed. "They suck all right." She snapped her fingers, drawing his attention and making him track her forefinger as she moved it from side to side. "How's your pain?"
"Six-ish, seven with all th'damn poking you're doin'."
"Complaining. This is getting better and better all the time. I'll get you something for pain, here, in a few."
Dean's eyes went to the empty chair again. "When d'he leave?"
Mei checked her watch. "About six hours ago. He asked me to watch out for you."
Dean signed and nodded, turning his head away. "Yeah, 'kay…"
Mei reached behind her and pulled the chair over and sat in it. She watched him, her face sobering. "You're going to be okay, Slugger. The kirpan caught your right side, between your 4th and 5th ribs, collapsing your lung. You lost quite a bit of blood, but it was buy-two-pints-get-one-free day, so—" Her smile shook, dimmed down to nothing. She cleared her throat and pointed to the tube protruding from under his armpit. "You've got a spiffy drain tube that will stay put for another couple of days. You spiked a fever earlier, so you're hopped up on antibiotics. The dagger was filthy, coated in blood and dirt when your dad—" She wavered. "When you got stabbed, so a fever is kind of par for that course. We'll be watching you with eagle eyes to make sure there's no repeat of that nonsense. Still, your lung is responding remarkably well, better than we hoped, well enough that we took you off the vent a few hours ago. You're probably looking at a week in the hospital and about six weeks for full recovery if you don't have any complications."
"Please tell me I don' gotta poop in front of you this time," Dean begged.
"Um, ew." She scrunched up her nose. "I try not to judge peoples' freaky kinks, but I'm not gonna encourage them either," she teased.
"You said las' time that—" Dean stopped, seeing the twinkle in her eye. "Than' god," he said, relieved.
"You and me both," she laughed. "On the other hand," she clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and reached up, grabbing something from behind his head. "You will need to get reacquainted with your best friend." She wiggled the spirometer in her hand.
"You godda be freakin' kiddin' me," Dean said, incredulous.
"Oh, I assure you, I'm completely serious. Every hour on the hour," she gloated. She set the evil lump of plastic back where she'd gotten it. "We'll get you started in the morning once you're settled in a private room. It's after midnight now." They both quieted. She looked tired. Beaten.
"How's Jason. 'S'everyone okay?"
She searched his face and hesitated, her words hovering in her open, searching mouth. "He's…he's struggling a bit. They all are. Like you did. This isn't something you just get over. Some of them are doing better than others. Some of them are still—" She blew out a quivering breath. "Some of them aren't quite right yet."
Dean nodded and swallowed. "You should be with him. With Jason. Shouldn't be here."
"He wants me to be here. He's worried about you. Everyone's worried." She picked at a thread on her sleeve. "He's still chanting. Jason is." She glanced around and then back to her sleeve. "He's not as bad as some of the others. He knows what Father was—understands what happened to him. But it's hard letting it all go. And he's ashamed. God, he's so ashamed. He thinks he should have known, thinks he should have been wise to it all."
"Jus' needs time," Dean offered her. She nodded and swiped her sleeve under her nose and snuffed.
"Yeah," she said, pressing on the sides of her eyes to drain the pooling tears. "Yeah, he's gonna be fine. We're gonna be fine. Getting him back was the hard part. We've both got some healing to do, but we'll get there." She sniffed again and leaned in toward Dean, putting her hand over his. "Thank you, Dean. I nearly lost him. I came so close." She gripped his hand tighter. "I'm sorry for getting you into this mess."
He shook his head. "Demon's fault. Been fightin' those bastards mos' of m'life. Should'a been more careful. Should'a called other hunn'ers. Didn't," he said. "I'd be dead if it hadn' been f'you. Thank you."
"We're both awesome, then" she said with a quick shrug, attempting to keep the mood light. "I see a buddy movie in our future."
"I'm the lead. Yer the sidekick," Dean said.
"Um, no, I'm the lead, you're the sidekick."
"Yer short. Yer th'sidekick."
"I see how you are," Mei scoffed. They both quieted.
"I mean it," Dean said after a while. "Thanks for callin' m'dad."
"You're welcome," she said, her face genuine, but then she rolled her eyes. "You're just lucky I didn't know what a stubborn ass he was before I called."
Dean snorted and winced from the pain. He eyed the door and sighed. "D'he say which way he was headed?"
Mei's cocked her head in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"My dad. When he lef'. Did he say where he was headin' to next?"
"Whoa," Mei said. "Wait, you think he left—left?"
"Didn't he?" Dean tried to rise, his voice thick with sudden emotion.
Mei pressed him back into his pillow. "No! God, no. I kicked him out, Dean. Told him to go get some sleep, take a damn shower—he was getting ripe sitting here for two days straight."
Just then the door to the ICU snicked open and a sloppy, sleepy John Winchester entered, his hair still damp and tousled.
"Ugh," Mei said. "Seriously, do you have bionic hearing or what? I thought I told you to get some sleep," she scolded him.
"I did. I'm back," he said with an impatient growl. "How's my boy?"
"He's—" Mei started to speak, but Dean cut her off.
"Dad," Dean said, catching John's surprised eye. John went to push past Mei but they clashed in a this-way-that-way dance before Mei finally gripped him by his shoulders.
"Stay!" Her voice was prickly with annoyance, forcing John to stand still while she moved around him. John reciprocated with his own puff of irritation.
Approaching Dean, the anger in John's face gave way to care and worry and guilt. "You're awake. Hey," he said, grabbing Dean's hand.
His father's touch set Dean off, and whether it was the drugs or the pain or months of exhaustion, he could not contain the rush of emotion. He sucked in shallow breaths as tears began to leak from his eyes one after another.
"Hey, hey, hey, son—" John soothed. Dean tilted his head, trying to gulp down the raw display, but there was no hiding it.
"M'okay," he said. "Dad. M'okay, okay?"
"All right, Dean," John said, giving his son a moment to collect himself. Mei cleared her throat, jumping in to help relieve the tension.
"I'll leave you to visit for a while." She came to the end of the bed as John adjusted the chair with his foot and sat. John made brief eye contact with her as he settled in for the long night. "I'll—I'll be back in the morning. Both of you get some more rest. You're still dead on your feet, John."
John's eyes narrowed. "You're one to talk. I got this shift. Go see Jason and get yourself some rest."
"Thanks Dr. Mei," Dean said.
"I'll order you something for pain."
Both John and Dean continued to watch as she headed to the nurse's station and said a few words before leaving. As the sliding door shut behind her, John turned toward his son.
"Damn pushy, stubborn, pushy, pain in the ass woman," he mumbled as he scooted the chair closer to Dean's bed.
"Better not stay on her bad side," Dean teased.
"I ain't scared of her," John said, blowing out a cheek-full of hot air.
"And an elephant isn't scared of a mouse." Dean used the banter to give him time to breathe and calm himself.
"Quiet, you," John said in jest. Silence filled the air and they sat, each surveying the other for a long moment. Dean had a thousand questions, but he didn't see any answers in his dad's face. It was decidedly pinched and closed off.
The nurse that Mei had spoken to came over and checked his vitals and emptied a vial into his IV port. "Dr. Hickey said your pain level was a seven. This should help, sweetheart."
"Thanks," John told the woman as she walked back to her station. Dean couldn't help but notice the relief on his father's face, like he'd dodged a bullet. They went back to their quiet non-discussion. John just smiled and rubbed Dean's arm.
"Close your eyes, Sport," John said at the exact same time.
John laughed nervously. "Pinch, poke, owe me a Coke."
"Seriously, Dad, what happened when the—"
John shook his head, interrupting. "Not now, Dean. There'll be time for all of that. But it's not now. It's late and you're beat to hell. I can see the morphine kicking in already. Tonight we're gonna breathe and rest up."
Dean slumped into the bed, frustrated and dizzy. He sighed and closed his eyes. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, okay, Dad." He needed answers, but everything was getting soft and slow.
The morphine freed his tongue. "It got you, Dad. Father got to you, too. Dunno how he could'a done that. How come?"
"Shhh," John's voice was soft and melodic.
"S'better when you're here, y'know? S'jus'…s'jus' so much better this way," Dean said.
"I wouldn't have it any other way, Dean. If I could, I wouldn't have it any other way. I hope you know that."
"Wish Sammy was here." He wasn't sure he'd spoken aloud or not, but he figured he must have since his dad's hypnotic voice followed him into the warm, silky dark.
"Sleep, Dean. Don't think. Just let go."
"Dammit, don't lift that stuff. What the hell are you thinkin'?" John groused as he grabbed the duffel from Dean and tossed it in the back of the Impala. They'd returned to the commune to collect the weapons Dean had left behind when he'd prepared to sell the car. The mere thought of it still twisted his guts. Moving out of the way of his father's overprotective wrath, he leaned against the Impala, letting his hands glide along her sleek chrome.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart. You know I wasn't in my right mind, don't you, Baby?" he whispered, begging her forgiveness.
"What?" John asked, reaching down and tossing another bag into the trunk.
"I said I don't mind helping. I'm not a baby."
"You've been out of the hospital for a grand total of three whole hours, Dean, for Christ's sake. And Mei didn't even want you released for at least two more days."
"Drain is gone. Nothing to do but lie around. I can do that anywhere."
Dean had spent just six days in the hospital. He'd used the spirometer like he was trying out for the Olympic Spirometer Team and had done everything Mei asked. He was tender and sore, and the ability to draw a deep breath was often times more of a miss than a hit, but the wound was closed and would heal completely in a few weeks. Dean had sweet-talked Mei, drawling promises and assurances, anything to get out of that hospital and out of this state. She hadn't been thrilled about him checking out, and certainly hadn't bought a word of his nonsense, but she'd told him she wouldn't stop him if he promised to avoid strenuous activity.
He'd seen nothing of any of The Kindred since that horrible night. Their absence left a hole in him that lingered despite his father's presence. Dean and The Kindred had shared more than time and space, they'd shared mind and soul. No matter what Father was, the connection Dean forged with them had been real, and he ached for it sometimes—and for them. He no longer felt the compulsion to chant as often—though it was still an urge that came on strong when it came on—but more than that, he missed his daily interactions with the people he had come to regard as family.
Dean had asked John and Mei about The Kindred, but they were somewhat cagey in their answers. Mei told him that Jason was slowly getting better, said that he was waiting for Dean to feel stronger before bothering him. Brad had apparently left the city, had gone back to Seattle to be with his parents—no one knew anything beyond that. Gypsy was still at the compound with some of the others, but that was the extent of the news. They said nothing more. Dean stood at the open garage door, surveying the commune as if with a new set of eyes, everything was the same—everything was different. There was no sign of life anywhere when they'd driven in; the guard shack had been abandoned and the gate open. And of course, there was no sense of them within him, not a twitch or a flutter of them to be felt. That was all gone for better or for worse. The emptiness made the pain of John's and Sam's absence all the more noticeable.
Yes, his father was right there in front of him now, grumbling as he sorted, assessed and repacked the trunk of the Impala that had been saved from her own Ordeal of nearly being sold by the person who loved her best. Yes, Dean was happy to have John there with him, but the strange events had taken their toll on him, and his father barely spoke or made eye contact. When he did speak, he kept all topics light and trivial. Dean looked around the garage and sighed, rubbing the nape of his neck.
"Place is deserted. Are you sure anybody's still here?" Dean asked as he spied a duffel filled with some of his dirty clothes and went to grab it.
John closed the trunk of the Impala and dropped his shoulders, eyeing Dean and hesitating. "They're around. Look Dean, before we go find them, I need to talk to—"
"Don't you dare pick that up," Mei's voice interrupted them. Dean froze in mid-grab, cowed by her doctorly outrage.
"I've got it," John said, taking the duffel as Dean turned toward the woman. Both Mei and Jason were standing in the sun outside the open garage door.
"Didn't mean to sneak up on you," Jason said as Dean approached, taking the younger man's hand, his earnest grip conveying much more than his words. "We parked out by the gate and walked in. It's good to see you, man."
Dean gripped back, and they met in a one-armed embrace and then parted awkwardly. It was odd to see Jason now, to feel so disconnected despite the fact that he was right in front of him. Both men cleared their throats in unhandy silence.
"You look good, Dean," Jason ventured. "I'm glad you're feeling better."
"Yeah," he said. "We're just…you know…getting my things. Getting ready to head out."
Jason glanced past Dean, eyeing the Impala. He nodded. "Yeah. Yeah…" he said, monosyllabically. "Yeah, man. The car," he whistled. "Bet you're glad to have that back, huh?"
Dean turned around and bobbed his head in the car's direction. "You have no idea."
Dean turned back and the two men faced off, nodding and nudging—anything to fill the awkward silence.
"Polo shirt," Dean said.
"Sorry, you're wearing a polo shirt and khakis. I've never seen you wearing anything but Jedi robes."
Jason looked down at himself. "Oh yeah, right? I went from cult-chic back to thirty-something suburban," he said dryly.
"You look like a golfer, dude," Dean teased.
"Don't knock the game until you've tried it," Jason retorted with a laugh as the conversation fizzled again.
Dean leaned against the aluminum wall of the garage. This was ten times worse than the morning after a one-night-stand. Facing The Kindred was going to be much harder than he thought. It felt like he'd been spliced into their lives and they into his with no one ever having a say in the matter. It felt uncomfortable and he didn't know where to look or what to say. He was standing in front of a stranger that knew almost everything about him. Excruciating. "So are you going back to work?"
"Huh?" Jason said, coming out of his thoughts. "Oh, yeah. I mean, no. No, not right away. My boss called, but—"
"We're both taking time off for a while. We have a lot of catching up to do," Mei said. Jason turned to her and settled his arm around her shoulders.
"Sounds good," Dean said. "Sounds—sounds real good."
"What about you, Dean?" Mei asked.
He fidgeted. He had no fucking clue. John hadn't said a word to him about any plans, so he assumed there were none. The way the man had been avoiding him, Dean figured he'd bolt as soon as possible. "Uh, I dunno. Figured I'd head out. Rest up for a while and then get back to work."
"Take your time resting up, Dean," Mei said with her stern lecture-voice. "Six weeks, remember. You've still got a lot of healing to do."
"Don't you yeah-yeah me," Mei said, her eyes sparkling.
"Listen, Dean," Jason said just as the conversation lulled. "I just wanted to…" he paused. "I just wanted to—" The tension grew. "Shit, Dean," Jason said, taking a step forward and putting his hand on Dean's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry about all of this. I wanted to come see you in the hospital, but—"
"It's okay, man," Dean said with half a smile. "I'm good."
"It's just...I was pretty out of it at first. I'm still not quite—" He sighed, not able to find the words. "Shit," he said, settling.
"Me too," Dean said. "It's cool."
Jason nodded but then caught Dean's eye. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you, Dean. You saved my life. I'm so damned sorry that you got caught up in all of this because of me. I'm sorry for all of it. I think back at some of the things I said and did—things I said to you. I…I dragged you down into The Kiln. That was me, Dean. I put you over my shoulder and I carried you down there myself." Jason's lips thinned and he swallowed as though he were fighting nausea. His breath came in gusts and his pale, blue eyes watered.
"It wasn't your fault, Jason. You were whammied, too." Dean said. "Don't think it, man. I did the same thing—said things that make me cringe. I helped take Fairy down there, remember?"
Jason sighed. "Yeah. Jesus. This whole thing is screwed to hell."
"How is she, by the way?"
"Yeah Fairy, Gypsy…" Dean said. "Brad. How's everyone doing?"
"Fairy left, day after Father died. Never said a word to any of us. Just left. Kind'a understandable, though."
"Yeah," Dean said.
"Tim went back to his wife. She'd been worried sick—had joined Mei in picketing The Kindred. Haven't heard from Marc; he left right off, too. Brad gave me his number. I called and told him you were leaving today. He said he'd be here." Jason checked his watch. "Most of us have scattered. There's a small group still here, though."
Mei shifted uncomfortably. "Some have chosen to stay here. Not everyone has a place to go."
"We're all still trying to come to terms with this shit, you know?" Jason said. "The whole thing is just so unbelievable. I can't…I can't wrap my head around it. And I miss—" His hands curled into fists as they hung at his sides. "I'm glad to be free, but I still miss parts of—" Jason stilled for a moment. "I still chant sometimes. I don't know why. I just can't seem to help myself."
Dean met his friend's eye. "You'll be fine. We'll be fine. Bastard's dead now. We don't have to do any of that shit—" He turned, cut off as a car pulled up.
It stopped with a crunch on the gravel and the driver watched them for a tentative moment before getting out of the car. It was Brad.
The man was so different that Dean did not recognize him at first. Shaggy hair had been cropped short, and he now wore glasses that made him look far more serious and academic than he ever appeared as a member of The Kindred. He wore a blazer and a taciturn expression. It was Brad…and it wasn't. Dean had only ever known him as an Adept, after Father had burned away everything that had been important to him. As Dean watched him raise a cautious hand in greeting, he realized he didn't know this man at all.
"Hey," Brad said, walking up and nodding to Jason and Mei. He extended a hand to Dean. "Hey Dean. I'm glad you're, uh…I'm glad you're better. You look good."
Dean took his hand, shaking it as each man cased the other. He could feel Brad's reticence and discomfort. Another butt-puckeringly fake meet-and-greet. Dean suppressed a sigh as Brad glanced around furtively. Nobody wanted to meet his eye—not Jason, not Brad, and sure as hell not his dad who was now standing off to the side, leaning on the Impala and doing his level best to stay out of the way. Dean's heart sank. He popped on a cocky grin for show and pumped Brad's hand with a laugh.
"You cut your hair. You look pretty slick."
"Oh yeah," Brad said, acknowledging his hair and giving it a swipe with his hand. "I always wear my hair this way. School starts back up in another week. My dad pulled some strings and got me reinstated."
"Nice," Dean said.
"Yeah it is. So you taking off today?" Brad asked.
"Looks like it. Wanted to say goodbye to you guys. Haven't seen Gypsy yet."
Brad peered curiously at Jason and it felt suspiciously like Dean was a Disciple again, watching communication pass between Adepts that he didn't understand. Brad turned back to Dean. "You haven't seen her yet?"
"No. Where is she? Isn't she here?"
"Uh, yeah, she's probably in The Heart."
Jason interrupted. "Why don't we head down that way? We can talk as we go."
"That's a good idea," John said, stirring and walking over. He put a guiding hand on Dean.
"I'll let you all go on up there," Brad said, backing away. "I better take off."
"You're kidding. You just got here. Come say goodbye to Gypsy," Dean said.
"No. I already said my goodbyes to her." He turned to Dean and the discomfort in his face momentarily gave way to genuine-though-pained gratitude. "I'm gonna head. I just wanted to stop and say goodbye and thank you. I don't understand what happened, and I'm not even going to try. But I wanted to thank you and your dad and Mei for everything you did."
"Well, come on, man. Stay for a few. Let's go see Gypsy."
Brad shook his head. "No, I need to stay ahead of rush hour in Seattle."
Dean's heart dropped. This had been his closest friend in The Kindred—his roommate and confidant. "Oh…okay," he stammered. "Well, let me give you my number, man. We can keep in touch, yeah?"
Brad looked at each one of them and then back to Dean. He shook his head. "No."
"Come again?" Dean asked before he could hide his surprise and hurt.
"I want to put this all behind me," Brad said. "I'm sorry. I am. But I want to go back to school and forget about this place. Forget that it ever happened. This is not what I want for my life, and I—I don't want to come off like a dick, but I want a clean cut. I want a life away from all of this. I hope you understand."
Dean swallowed the rejection with a fake grin. "I hear ya," he said. "Sure. Sure Brad. Well, you take care, dude." He extended his hand and Brad took it.
"Take care of yourself, Dean."
"Sure," Dean said with a mechanical smile. "You too."
Brad turned and left without another word, leaving the four of them standing in dead air.
Dean shoved his hands into his jacket pockets. "Well, that was fun," he snorted and shook his head. He stood there another few seconds before shrugging. "I'm gonna go find Gyspy," he tossed over his shoulder as he walked away toward The Heart with quick, deliberate strides.
"Wait up, Dean," John said, coming up behind him. Mei and Jason also followed. Before they could catch up to him, there was a clang over the loud-speaker by The Heart, the same chime that always signaled the end of each meditation session. A dozen or more people poured out of the building—each wearing full Jedi garb. Dean stopped where he was, staring at them.
"Dean!" he picked Gypsy's voice out of the crowd. He caught sight of her shockingly thin, but graceful figure as she broke away from the others, running toward him. She reached him and threw her arms around him. "Dean! You're back. I can't believe it. She showered his cheeks with light kisses. Bless Father! He brought you back to us."
"Hey Gypsy," Dean said, watching her closely, confused. "What's going on?"
"Morning meditation, silly!" she laughed. "We missed you. I chanted and prayed for Father to bring you all back and here you are. Praise Father! Father is life!"
"You what?" Dean felt sick as he watched her chant praises to a monster, her face dopy with ecstasy. He felt Jason touch his arm but Dean backed away. "What the hell is this?" he said to him.
"Mei and I thought you needed to heal, so we didn't tell you while you were in the hospital. I started to tell you back at the garage, but…" John said. "Some of them haven't—"
Gypsy interrupted him. "We're waiting for Father's return, Dean! When he comes back it'll be just the way it was. He's coming back to us. He is. I know it!" She took his arm and pulled on it, smiling enticingly, coaxing him. "Come on, let's go back into The Heart and chant together. You'll feel so much better."
"Gypsy…" he said, pulling his arm away from her. "It's not real. He wasn't—"
"Don't say it!" she said, her face turning fearful and panicked—angry. She pressed her hand to his lips. "Not you, too. Don't you dare say it! He's real. He's perfect and Andrew and Maureen and all the Enlightened Ones are with him. He's coming back for the rest of us. He's coming back for me. And everything will be the way it was. We'll be able to feel each other again, be with each other. Don't you want that? I know you want that. I can see it in your eyes. Please, Dean…don't go. It'll be good again." she begged him. "Father is life. Father is love. Father is my Keeper." She closed her eyes and gave herself over to the chant.
The remaining members of The Kindred, gathered around her and joined in, their faces lit with desperate longing as they began jumping up and down buoyantly but no longer in sync—their voices and movements were slightly skewed and chaotic. Dean turned to Jason and Mei, his face shattered.
"I should have told you sooner, Dean," John said. The chanting Jedis took no further notice of them, lost in their worship.
"What the fuck is happening?" Dean demanded. "He's dead. You said they'd be free once the pishacha was dead! They're supposed to be free."
"They are," John said, his face careworn. "Some of them have just chosen to—I don't know—chosen to ignore it all."
Jason sighed. "A lot of them are people who lost loved ones to Father or people who had been under Father's influence the longest, people who have nothing else to go back to, no other family. Gypsy can't let go. She can't face losing Andrew. Some of them are just…they're just not all there anymore."
"Jesus Christ," Dean said. "Listen to them!"
Mei put her hand on his arm, trying to soothe him as the droning chant went on and on and on, unabated. "We're going to keep working with them, Dean. Me and Jason, a few of the former members, Tim and Luna—and more. I've talked to a psychologist at work, and he's going to come out and try and help, too. I'm sorry."
Dean shook his head. He turned back to Gypsy and shook her. "Gyspy. Hey…Gyspy." She stopped jumping and opened her eyes.
"Shhhh," she said. "Shhh, don't talk, just chant, Dean. Don't think. Let go. Give yourself to Father. It feels so good. It feels so, so right. Father is life…" She raised her hands to the sky and closed her eyes, resuming her chant with the others.
"I gotta get out'a here." Dean turned on his heel and walked away. Finding the nearest bush, he bent over and put his hands on his knees, struggling to hold on and failing. John caught up with him but stood back, waiting for Dean to finish, giving him space.
"Dean," he said as his son spat the last slimy strings of his breakfast into the scrub.
"This is too fucked up for words," Dean said, shuddering. "Jesus Christ. They're still his mindless slaves. I didn't fix anything."
"That's not true, son. And even if it were, you can't fix everything. Some hunts work out. Some hunts go sideways."
"It wasn't just a hunt, Dad," Dean snapped.
John turned to Mei and Jason who were headed their way, fending them off with a wave. "Come on, Dean. Let's walk."
Dean let John take his arm and guide him away from the chanting Jedis. When they got far enough away that it was no more than buzzing murmur, Dean shrugged his arm out of this father's grip and rolled his shoulders, bristling with grief and anger. "This is so fucked up."
"You're right. It is. No two ways 'round it."
Dean shook his head and surveyed the pines. "It's bullshit. Look at all of us. Mei's broken, Jason's broken…Brad…?" His jaw trembled. "Yeah, Brad, that's great, man. See you 'round maybe never." Dean turned to his father, bitter. "Sound familiar?" John said nothing, letting his son vent. "Gypsy's insane. And my own father won't look me in the eye." He grit his teeth until his jaw hurt. "This is just—how-I-spent-my-summer-fuckin'-vacation—perfect." Dean fell silent, brooding as he stood there, glancing toward the orchard. Neither father nor son spoke for quite some time.
"I lied to Mei," John said, finally breaking the heavy silence.
Dean turned to him, his face dark and wounded. "What?"
"I lied to Mei." John's voice was uncharacteristically quiet. "When we got you back, she asked me why I took the chance of breaking the pishacha's spell over you—why I allowed you to be put through such a painful ritual. She wanted to know why I didn't leave you and free you with the others. I told her that I needed your help on the hunt. But that wasn't the main reason." Dean's expression remained stormy. John walked up and stood alongside him, watching the trees. "I put you through that painful ritual because I wanted you back, no matter what the cost. I wasn't going to take the chance of that thing bolting and leaving you enslaved. I did it because I wanted my son back before anything else. I wanted you back more than I wanted the pishacha dead or the others freed. I'm a selfish bastard and I'm not going to lose you. Ever. So I made sure that I got my boy back before anything else. Before anyone else."
Dean stared at his father, saying nothing. "If it was so important to get me back, then why did you leave in the first place?" he asked, his voice laced with months of pain.
John sighed. "I got a lead on the thing that killed your mother. That night before I left," John said, contritely. "I got a call and I went to check it out. It wasn't anything you did, Dean."
"Jesus, Dad. I—Jesus," Dean fumbled. "I would have gone with you. Why—"
"Because this is my line, Dean," he interrupted his son, his voice stern. "This is where I draw it. Because that thing, whatever it is, it isn't touching my boys. That's just the way it is."
There was another long silence. Dean continued to watch John, but his father offered nothing else. The chanting in the distance had ceased. Dean sighed and turned to head back to find Jason and Mei, but John's voice stopped him.
"I stayed as long as I could," John said.
Dean turned back, mystified. "Huh?"
"The night of the fire. That night…the night your mom died. I stayed in that room as long as I could, trying to get to her, trying to pull her down from that ceiling. I stayed until heat and death forced me out. I can still smell—"
John quieted, looking Dean in the eye, his face smoky with grief. There were tears in his words. "That's not going to happen to my boys, no way—no how. Not in this lifetime. So you're not coming on those hunts. Hunting is dangerous and there are a thousand ways to die; take your pick. But you will not die on a ceiling Dean. I don't care what I have to do or not do. I don't care if it makes you hate me for leaving you in the middle of the night. I don't care if it hurts you. I don't care if it kills me. You won't die to that thing. It's not happening. That's final."
"Yes sir," Dean said smartly, the clipped response pulled from him by his father's commanding voice. They watched each other a moment and Dean's shoulders dropped. "Have you—were you hunting the thing this whole time?"
John glanced away, sheepish. "No. It turned out to be a wild goose chase."
Dean swallowed. "Then why didn't you—"
"You needed time, Dean." John said. "I thought you needed—" He struggled for words. "I thought you could use some time to stretch. You were so…when Sam left you were…I thought being on your own and relying on yourself would be good for you. I figured fending for yourself would give you some confidence, some independence, get you out of your funk." He sighed.
"And when I was in the hospital?" Dean couldn't hide his hurt and his words turned cool. "Was that more tough-love, too?"
"That was a mistake," John said, the words rushing out, his eyes welling. "That was goddamned wrong. When I heard you were going to be okay, I got mad, Dean. I got mad because I thought you'd screwed up a simple hunt. I wanted you to use that time to sort it out, teach you the consequences of letting your guard down. And I was wrong. I should've been there. I should've been there, and I'm sorry."
Dean didn't know what to say to that. His anger withered, and he nodded. "You should have been there," he agreed. The words fell between them and hung there, suspended as the two men searched each other's face.
John was the first to break away. His head dropped and he stooped, picking up a pinecone, absently rubbing his thumb along its stiff scales. "Yeah," he said. "We all screw up hunts now and again, don't we?" he said to the pinecone before throwing it away. "I was too damn hard on you about getting caught by the pishacha." There was self-judgment in is voice.
Dean shifted, watching the pinecone drop into the trees. He turned to his father, and saw the man struggling with something. He didn't know what to say or if he should say anything at all. He desperately wanted to know what was on his father's mind. It was like watching a man tottering on the edge of a cliff. One quick move…one wrong word and this opportunity would topple and be lost forever.
The tension snapped in John and he turned, walking again. Dean sighed and followed.
"Did I ever tell you about my old man?" John asked as they walked.
Dean's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Your dad?" he asked. John nodded. Dean shrugged. "Just that he left when you were young."
"Yeah, I was just a kid. I idolized him, wanted to be just like him when I grew up. Then—" He cleared his throat, buying a few seconds. "Then one night, he put me to bed. Hell, I can still see the rain hitting the windows as though it was just last night. It will always be last night for me." His face was wreathed with old grief, but he gave Dean a rueful smile. "He put me to bed, said he was going to work—and that was it. He was gone. No word, no goodbye, no nothing."
"God Dad," Dean said.
John reached up and scratched the nape of his neck, striving for casual but not nailing it. "Yeah. It was rough, you know? I always thought it was something I did. Something I said. Something I didn't do, maybe. Who the hell knows? It ate at me for years. The guilt. It ate at me, and his absence left a hole in me that nothing can fill. I loved that sonofabitch. Then I lost your mom…and now Sam." His throat hitched though he tried to cover it with a derisive snort. "But I have a job to do. I have a job I'm going to see through, so you gotta just put that stuff away. And sometimes—sometimes I buy my own bullshit, yeah? And that's why I fucked up the hunt, Dean. When I'm not with you and Sam, there's a piece of me missing. I'm not all there and the pishacha saw it. I nearly killed you. Christ, Dean. I'm sorry. I nearly killed my own son."
"It's okay, Dad. It was a hunt. In our line of work, that was a Thursday, right?" Dean said, making light, but it set John off all the more, and the man's face fell.
John stopped in his tracks, and in one wild motion he pulled Dean into a crushing hug. Dean couldn't tell whether John was giving comfort or taking it. But he braced his wound and gripped his dad's jacket, holding on with all his might.
"I never wanted you to feel the same way, Dean," he said. "I told myself that would never happen to my kids. That's one of the reasons I kept you with me as much as I could after your mom died. I wasn't going to just dump you on anyone else." He coughed, broke the hug abruptly and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He squinted up at the sky and sighed.
"And I'm sorry about Sam," John said. Dean stared at his father in shock. "I screwed that all to hell, too."
"I miss him." The words came out of Dean's mouth without thinking.
"I know you do, son. And that's on me."
It was Dean's turn to shrug and stare into the treetops, contemplating. "He won't answer my calls, so I doubt it's all on you."
"It's not you, Dean. Boy's nineteen years old and has been scratching the same itch for the past fifteen years. He's not gone forever, Dean—not from you. He loves you—looks up to you—idolizes you. He does. I see it every time he looks at you. He's never looked at me like that. And he won't ever. But you? He'll come around for you, Dean. Right now you just have to learn to let him go."
Dean raised his eyebrows and snorted at the irony. "You sound like the pishacha."
"This is different, Dean. You don't have to let him go for good. You just have to let him go for now."
Dean sighed. "I guess." He swallowed. "I'll try."
John nodded but didn't say anything for a moment. Without warning, he squinted and pointed to the very treetop they'd both been eyeing. "Look at that!"
The juvenile eagle that had been well camouflaged in the tree flapped its wings as it let go of the branch it had been clinging to and swooped down, catching the wind as he dropped, and making a pass not far above their heads.
"Wow!" John said. "That's a hell of a thing! Oh! There's another! I didn't even see them in that tree." A mature bald eagle followed the juvenile as it caught a thermal and spiraled high into the air.
"I guess the other one must be long gone, now," Dean said, watching the birds.
"What other one?" John asked, searching the sky for a third bird.
"The other young one. Flew off the day I got here." Both Winchesters turned and continued to walk. "Gypsy always talked about the salmon run in the winter. Said there were hundreds of eagles in the trees. She loved eagles." The thought touched off his sadness and his shoulders slumped.
"They'll take care of her," John said, pointing to Mei and Jason who were standing in the distance. "She's a pain in the ass, but she's good people—stubborn as a bulldog. If anyone can help these people, she can. She'll find a way. Come on, let's go say goodbye and hit the road," he said. He snuffed in and kicked a pinecone as he walked. "I got a call from Travis last night," he ventured.
"Oh?" Dean knew what was coming. "How's that crazy sonofabitch?"
"Same old. He heard of a fellow in Upstate New York. The man has a daughter about Sam's age. His wife died near twenty years ago in a fire."
Dean stopped. "What?"
John nodded. "He claims she was pinned to the ceiling. I thought I'd go check it out—talk to him. See what he has to say."
Dean gave a stoic nod. "Oh, right. Sure," he said lamely. "That'll be a long drive for you."
"Hell of a drive," John agreed. "I figured if we left now we could stop in Coeur d'Alene for the night. Wasn't that the town that had the all-night diner with the pie you loved?"
Dean stared at him, stunned. "We?"
"Well, yeah. You know? Thought we could go talk to him. See what he knows. Find out what he saw. There hasn't been any activity around him for twenty years, so it should be safe enough. Thought maybe you'd want to tag along. You can't do any strenuous hunts for a few weeks anyway. We'll lay low for a bit and then get back to work. You up for it?"
"Yeah, Dad," he said. "Hell yeah. I'm with you." A smile spread across his thin face. "I'm with you."
"Keep close. Call me if you get tired or need a break," John said as Dean shut the car door and rolled down the window.
"I got it," Dean said.
"I mean it, Dean. Don't be a goddamned hero."
"I said I got it, y'damn nag." Dean's lips parted in a mischievous grin.
John swirled his finger it in the air and pointing to the road—giving him the universal Let's roll! sign. John gave the hood of the car a fond pat and walked to his truck.
As Dean pulled out, he looked at the compound one more time through his rear-view mirror. Mei and Jason had said their goodbyes, promising to keep in touch, promising him updates on their work with the remaining members of The Kindred. It wasn't perfect, not by a long damned shot, but it was all there was to do for now. He knew that Jason and Mei would do their best for them, knew that Mei wouldn't give up. It sucked, but the Jedis were in good hands.
Dean rolled down the window and settled back, breathing in the scent of damp pine. The rough purr of the Impala trembled and throbbed around him and through him, a vibrant energy that brought him a sense of peace and well-being. Popping in a tape, he smiled as the first bars of Back in Black filled the air. He concentrated on the hypnotic beat of the song, drumming the steering wheel in time. Chanting the lyrics loudly, he breathed deep, stilled his thoughts—and let go.