Characters: John, Bobby, Dean, Sam
Word Count: 5100
Rating: R (language)
Warnings: Spoilers through 6X16; AU from that point on
Author's Notes: All my gratitude to saberivojo for the input and to geminigrl11 for the awesome beta.
* There are now sequels to this story: Killing Time and Back Seat Driver
Summary: After his own unlikely resurrection, John Winchester is bound and determined to find his boys. But he soon finds that death isn’t the clean slate it pretends to be…
John hesitates before knocking. He glances over his shoulder and surveys the vast automotive carnage of Singer’s Salvage Yard. It’s a perfect April day, not a cloud, no sign of inclement weather. Of course, the only reason he knows the date is because the first thing he’d accomplished upon rising from the dead was stealing a newspaper.
April 1, 2012. Surprise…April Fools. But there’s no greater fool than John Winchester, and that’s the whole damn truth.
In a singular moment of weakness, he’d considered checking himself into the nearest mental hospital he could find as he’d calculated how many years had passed since the last time he’d seen an impossibly perfect Kansas spring day. But the odds have always been stacked against insanity. Too bad. John would have taken a psychotic break over the real world any day.
Instead here he is, standing on Bobby Singer’s dilapidated front porch, wishing he’d stolen a gun along with the damn newspaper. The last time he’d laid eyes on Singer, the sonofabitch had run him off with a shotgun full of buckshot. John isn’t sure how long it’s been, but he’s pretty damn sure it hasn’t been long enough.
He sucks in a quick breath and raps his fist against the front door, swearing when he gets a knuckle full of splinters for his trouble. He’d always found it irritating that Singer didn’t do a better job of keeping the place up. John never had more to his name than his truck, the car, a trunk full of well-maintained artillery, his common sense, and his boys, but he kept his belongings in good shape. A man takes care of what’s his.
Singer never did get that. He never approved of the way John took care of the boys, either.
John knocks again, harder this time. Bracing himself against the threshold, John turns and scans the yard, spots Singer’s favorite truck parked in front, but that doesn’t mean anyone is home. He can hear dogs barking somewhere on the property. John hopes like hell they’re tied up. Singer used to have an enormous cross-eyed lab mix that hated him, even though the damn dog adored his boys. It was an old sack of bones back then, but John wouldn’t put it past the mutt to haunt the place just so it could take a bite out of his ass for old time’s sake. It’s probably a good thing he’s not packing a gun. He and Singer might have bad blood between them, but killing a man’s dog is unforgivable.
John sighs and rubs at his eyes, not sure why he’s here. He might have come a long way for nothing, but he’s betting on the fact that Bobby stayed in contact with his boys. It’s all he’s got to go on—Dean’s phone isn’t working. The first thing he’d done was to try calling collect from the only pay phone he could find in the god-forsaken scrap of nowhere he’d managed to resurrect in. John had wanted to smash the phone booth to pieces when he heard the recorded message.
This number is no longer in service…
Dean always kept the same number. It was a matter of security—when separated, they needed to have a way to keep in touch. John can’t think of a good reason why Dean would have broken protocol like that. Every scenario he comes up with is a grim one.
But the boys have to be all right. John refuses to consider the alternative. It wasn’t for nothing that he traded his immortal soul for his boy’s life, gave up everything and more to make sure Dean’s fucking number would remain in fucking service.
To make things worse, he can’t remember Sammy’s phone number. He’d always known those four years of silence while Sam was at Stanford would come back to bite him, but he can’t believe he’s forgotten the number. The truth is that he rarely called Sam, even when they weren’t pissed at each other. Dean, the eternal peacemaker, was always the one most likely to answer the phone.
He can still hear dogs barking ferociously, more ominous creaking in the wind, but Singer’s not answering his door. John wouldn’t be surprised if the whole damn salvage yard is haunted, what with all the poor bastards who have been laid to rest underneath the rusted-out heaps in Singer’s yard.
Screw it. If Singer isn’t here, John is going to track down his boys on his own. It won’t be the first time.
He is about to turn around and head back to the road where he ditched the stolen car. But then he hears the cock of a hammer…feels the distinctive impression of cold gunmetal pressed against the back of his neck.
And then he hears a familiar growl in his ear, “Don’t even breathe, you sonofabitch or I’ll send you right back to whatever hellhole you crawled out of.”
Heart pounding in utter relief, John lets out the breath he’s been holding.
Damn, but holy water laced beer still tastes like ass. John rinses and spits in the sink again but it doesn’t help much. Singer glowers at him suspiciously, but John doesn’t care. He’s run his damn tests, and there’s no demonic steam hissing out of his mouth, and besides, his arm hurts like a bitch where Singer slashed it with his silver knife and then salted it for good measure. The bastard always ran his interrogations by the book, but John suspects he enjoys the payback.
“Sit down,” Singer grumbles, making no apology for any of it.
“Put the goddamn gun down,” John says, irritated. “I’m clean.”
“If you’re really John Winchester, you’d know that I know better than that. Not all demons react to holy water, and they sure as hell don’t flinch at the name of God. Now sit.” Bobby points at the kitchen table with the barrel of his gun.
John makes a face—it’s true that holy water isn’t the litmus test for demonic possession they always thought it was. He can still remember the agonizing burn of consecration when Sam splashed holy water against his skin at that retirement home when he was possessed. Azazel had real power to his name. John never saw anything like it in Hell, but most demons still avoided holy water like the plague.
“Point made,” he concedes, the chair rocking from his weight as he sits down. Singer lowers himself into the opposite chair, letting the shotgun rest against the table.
“So we gonna have a heart to heart?” Bobby asks sardonically. “I figure this is where we catch up, talk about how life…or death…has been treating you.”
John snorts and takes a good hard look at the man. On the surface, it’s not like Singer has changed much. But John knows that the outside of a man rarely matches the inside. At least a decade has passed since they fell out over Sammy leaving for college. John can still remember Singer cussing him out over it, predicting that John would lose the kid forever if he shut that door, and how family wasn’t so easy to come by, you could just throw it away like it was nothing.
Turned out Bobby was right, but John can still feel the resentment over the man having the balls to tell him how to raise his own goddamn son. John never did know how to hold his temper.
“What do you want to know?” he asks, hoping it sounds more conciliatory than he feels.
“Why don’t you start with—who the hell are you and what do you want?”
John rolls his eyes. “You know who the hell I am and that means you know what I want.”
John clenches his fists on the table. “I want my boys. You gonna tell me where I can find them?”
“Goddamn, Singer, you haven’t changed a bit.”
“So you and me are on a last name basis now?”
“What the hell am I supposed to call you? You don’t even think I’m who I say I am, so why should it matter?” He rubs his hands over his eyes. “Besides, who else would I be? It’s not like a shapeshifter can take over a dead, cremated body.”
“You used to call me Bobby.”
John looks up, seriously confused. “What?”
“You used to call me Bobby. Calling me Singer just makes things awkward.” Singer lifts an eyebrow.
“I don’t believe this,” he mutters into his hands, wishing that Singer had grown a pair over the past decade. “Fine. Bobby. Tell me where my boys are, Bobby, or so help me you’ll be sorry you ever laid eyes on me again.”
“I’m already sorry,” Bobby drawls implacably. “Remind me why I didn’t shoot you when I had the chance.”
John groans out his impatience. He has no time for this crap. He can’t stand not knowing, cannot tolerate his boys being outside of his protection a minute longer.
But Bobby Singer rolls his eyes. “Simmer down, jackass. I reckon you’re who you say you are—it ain’t like the universe has room for two of you. Sam and Dean are fine. They’re alive, they’re together, and that’s a whole lot more than what I oughta be telling you.”
“Put me on the phone with them.”
Bobby shakes his head. “Not till I know for sure what you’re after.”
John is about to tell him what he can do with that when his stomach suddenly growls, traitorously loud, and Bobby smirks.
“Coming back from the dead makes you work up an appetite. I got soup or sandwiches or both. Pick your poison.”
John could refuse for principle of it, but Hell had racked the principles out of him. “Either—I don’t care,” he says.
“You sure you don’t want some coffee?”
Mulling the abysmal state of Bobby’s coffee, John shakes his head. “Got any Jack? No cutting it with holy water this time.”
“I might,” Bobby says, and gets up to open up the fridge, taking his shotgun with him, somehow managing to never completely turn his back on the table. “But you don’t wanna get wasted on an empty stomach when you’ve just come back from the dead. Believe me, I know.”
There’s something about the way Bobby says it that makes John even more uneasy. “Listen, Bobby. We have a lot to talk about. But first, I need you to call Dean.”
Bobby shakes his head. “That boy’s been through enough this year, and I’m not putting him through more, not until you prove to me you’re really his daddy and definitely not until I know what you’re gonna say to him.”
“What do you think I’m going to tell him? I just want to talk to him…what harm could that do?”
Bobby sets a can of soup down on the counter and turns around to stare. “Oh, I don’t know…how about, ‘gee son—be sure to save your brother. Oh, and if you don’t, you’re gonna have to kill him.’ How’s that for a goddamn inheritance?”
With a scathing glare, Bobby turns back and reaches for a can opener.
John swallows. Bobby always did know how to hit his target. “Bobby… is Sammy all right?”
Without looking back, Bobby says, “You’re a real piece of work. Finally getting around to asking about Sam…always were a coward.”
“Sam’s doing as well as could be expected.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I ain’t saying more than that. But I’m telling you this. Those boys have been through hell you can’t imagine, and yeah, I know you’ve been to hell too.” Bobby dumps the can of soup into a pot and turns the burner on high. “That is, if you are who you say you are. But I ain’t making Dean and Sam have to gank some demon or shapeshifter or brand new monster in town who’s taken to impersonating their father… not if I’m around to say anything about it.”
“You don’t have the right to make that call,” John warns in a low voice. “You’re not their father.”
“No, but I’m the closest thing to it. And don’t get yourself worked up…the position was left open.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to prove it to you. It’s not like there’s a protocol for resurrection.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Bobby retorts, slapping a piece of white bread on top of some beige lunch meat. “Trust me, you Winchesters wrote the book on coming back from the dead.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Bobby slides the plate across the table. “A lot has happened since you’ve been gone. A whole helluva lot.”
John’s appetite is gone. “Tell me.”
Bobby regards him with a weariness that goes beyond grief. John doesn’t know what’s happened to the man over the past several years, but it’s apparent that he’s spent too many days protecting a world that contains more evil than it can hold. A hunter’s cup runneth over in ways that only another hunter could understand.
“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“Bobby, I don’t know how much time I have. You’ve gotta give me something.”
Bobby looks up sharply, and John knows he hit home. An ordinary hunter’s life is short, nothing but a breath. This damn reprieve…whatever this resurrection is…is bound to be even less.
Bobby tugs his hat down over his eyes like it could keep John out of his head. “Tell me what you remember.”
“I’ve already told you,” John insists, but Singer shakes his head reproachfully.
“Tell it to me again. Straight this time. Leave anything out, and I swear, I’ll sic the dogs on you when I run you off my property.”
It’s as close to a concession as John is going to get, and he knows it. But he spent the last decade of his life—his first life—holding the truth back from everyone he loved, and old habits die hard. He doesn’t know how much truth he has to give.
But he’s got jack to go on. He has no idea why he’s here or what’s happened. Bits and pieces of the distant past are still clear…he remembers making a deal in the hospital with the demon who murdered Mary, remembers taking one last look at Sam before asking him to go and get a cup of coffee. He can remember his whispered warning to Dean…his goddamn final wishes. It was a shitty thing to bequeath his oldest son, but it had to be done. Dean had to know. John’s chief regret was that he didn’t tell him sooner.
He can remember his heart pounding in his chest and after that, pain and demon laughter. He remembers Hell, but there are no words, no way that any human being can understand what he experienced there. Pain was the condition of his contract.
Hell should have been all there was. But death isn’t the clean slate it pretends to be.
John can remember fighting his way out of Hell and remembers Dean sending that yellow-eyed bastard back to oblivion. The rest is a fever-pitch of terrifying darkness and agonizing light, and honest to God, John cannot remember what happened next. It’s just a void…oblivion cloaked in mystery. He has no idea what happened after Hell.
But Bobby is waiting, so John tells him what he knows.
“I woke up laying next to Mary’s grave,” he says soberly. “I was alone. I have no idea how I got there. My dog tags were lying on the ground next to me.” He pulls them out of his pocket now as if for proof.
“You weren’t buried? Didn’t have to dig yourself out?”
John shudders at the idea. “Why would I be buried? The boys know better than that.”
Singer takes his hat off and shoves his scant hair back before placing the cap on his head again. “They do and they did.”
“I’d kick their asses if they didn’t.” His boys deserve to be haunted if they stuck his earthly remains in some godforsaken grave rather than salting and burning them like they’d been taught.
“What happened next? What’d you have on you?”
“I was dressed, had shoes, thank God, but nothing else. No ID, no money, phone…nothing. I started walking and didn’t stop until I found a gas station, filched a newspaper, figured out what day it was.”
“That must have been a surprise,” Singer says dryly. “How’d you get here from Lawrence?”
It had actually been pretty easy. Credit card fraud has its merits, but outright theft is brutally efficient, and John wonders why he’d always forbidden Dean to get good at it. Thanks to some spoiled suburban kid in a Kansas Game Stop, he now has a temporary ID, driver’s license, and cash in his pocket. He’d ditched the car several miles away from Bobby’s. No sense in attracting unwanted attention from local law enforcement.
“It wasn’t a problem,” he says, taking a bite of the sandwich. He spots the soup, boiling to a scorch on the stove but doesn’t feel like warning Bobby about it. The soft white bread sticks in his throat…he’s out of practice. Can’t remember when he ate last.
“You said you tried to call Dean,” Bobby prods. “What number did you use?”
John recites the familiar number, and Bobby snorts dismissively. “Dean ain’t used that number for years.”
There’s a rub to his words, like rock salt in a wound that’s taken way too long to heal. “Well, that would make sense, seeing as I’ve been dead for years,” John snaps, realizing his head is starting to throb beyond a mere headache. “Crap, Bobby, give me coffee or give me whiskey, but give me something.”
Bobby grumbles his way over to the counter, grabbing the half-full pot. One thing you can say about Bobby Singer. He may be a cold-nosed hunter but he would never deny a fellow man his caffeine. John takes a mouthful. It’s godawful, but it’s hot, and it goes down easier than it should.
Bobby leans against the wall, still waiting. “Tell me how you died.”
John raises an eyebrow. “Shit, Bobby, you never were one with the small talk. I’m sure you know how I died.”
“Let’s just say I’d like to hear it from your perspective,” Bobby says dryly and crosses his arms against his chest.
“I remember Dean in the hospital. He was…bad off. I remember making a deal.”
“A deal with Azazel,” Bobby prompts.
“So you’re on a first name basis with the demon who killed Mary?” John stares incredulously. Some things are too obscene to be said out loud.
“A lot’s happened since you’ve been gone,” Bobby said. “There’s a whole lot worse out there than Azazel.”
“Should I brace for Armageddon?” John manages a half smile, even though this is no joke.
“Nope, already taken care of,” Bobby says. “Apocalypse is old news. Been there, done that.”
“Stop tossing me crumbs, damnit. If you’re not going to tell me what’s happened, then tell me how I can get a hold of my boys. If you don’t help me, I’ll find a way.”
Bobby sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “I don’t figure there’s any stopping you.”
“I’m their father.”
“I reckon you’ll need to convince them of that,” Bobby says, walking over and placing his shotgun back on the table. “But goddamn it …if you do anything to mess those boys up more than you have already, I promise I’ll salt and burn you myself.”
John shrugs. “That’s fair.”
Bobby studies him for a long moment, and John wonders if he’s about to get a face full of buckshot for his trouble. But then Bobby mutters his way over to the rotary phone by the wall. John hears something about there being no fool like an old fool, but Bobby starts dialing anyway. John holds his breath until Bobby starts talking.
“Dean, it’s Bobby. Is Sam there? Well, get him on speaker, and no, I’m not busting your balls this time.”
There’s something about the gruff affection in the words that makes John’s eyes water. He will owe Bobby forever for looking after his boys, but it still hurts. After a pause, Bobby continues in a kinder voice than John is used to hearing from the man.
“Boys, I’ve got something to tell you…”
John hears the Impala coming before he sees it. He’s headed for the door when Bobby grabs hold of his arm.
“Go wait inside. Let me talk to them first.”
“No fucking way.” John pulls free and lets Bobby glare. This isn’t a damn negotiation.
“Now you listen to me,” Singer growls. “There’s a whole bucket full of crap that’s gone down that you don’t know anything about. Let’s just say your boys got themselves some Daddy issues, and it’ll be a helluva lot better and safer for you if you wait inside.”
“I’m their father,” John spits out, wanting to kick the man’s ass. He’s had enough of this. “This is family business.”
“Yeah well, Sam, Dean and me…we’re going with a different definition of family, these days. Trust me, John, you don’t want to walk into this cold.”
The familiar rumble of the engine is growing louder, and it’s all John can do not to meet the car when it pulls into the yard. But there’s something in Bobby’s voice that makes John take him seriously. Bobby may be a control freak but he’s never lied to him. His instincts have always been sound.
“Fine,” he snaps, still scowling, but he lets Bobby close the door behind him, and he stays inside.
From the window, he watches Bobby pace across the yard. The truth of the matter is he’s relieved for the chance to get himself together—he has no idea what he’s going to say to his sons. It’s not like this is something he ever saw coming.
All his life, he’s kept his eyes on the prize. Catching the demon that killed Mary before it could unleash its plan for Sammy and all the kids like him…that was all that mattered. From what Bobby says, his yellow-eyed prize is definitely dead and gone. It’s the best confirmation imaginable, but he feels strangely empty.
It reminds him of Mary teaching Dean how to cut a straight line when he was just a little kid. She would draw a black dot at the top of the paper and tell him to keep his eye on the dot while he was cutting. Like magic, the line would be perfectly straight as long as Dean didn’t look down at the scissors. Eyes on the prize, son. That’s what John always said.
For most of his life, John kept his eyes on the goal, and that single-minded focus kept him on the straight and narrow, even when that road led him directly to Hell. Bobby wouldn’t tell him much about what happened after he died, but he did say their troubles were only getting started when the Hell Gate closed and Dean shot Azazel with the Colt.
John can hardly imagine a world where the death of the yellow-eyed demon was only the beginning.
But they’re here—his boys are here, and John can’t think about more than that. With a cloud of dust in its wake, the Impala fishtails up the dirt drive. He keeps his fists clenched at his side, as he watches Bobby amble over to the car.
Dean gets out first, and there are no words. John can only stare, his eyes filling up. It’s Dean.
The last time John saw his oldest son…really saw him in the flesh and not through the incorporeal veil at the Hell Gate…Dean was lying in a hospital bed, on the mend but still pale and weak. But right outside the window, John sees his son back again.
This is the boy he raised, healthy and strong, looking so damn good that John wipes at his eyes, sentimental idiot that he’s always been. This is his life’s work…not that yellow-eyed evil sonofabitch.
Dean and Bobby hug, but right away, they start arguing with each other, Bobby’s finger jabbing at him. Dean looks like he’s yelling back, before he turns and leans down into the car. John recognizes the body language—he’s giving the all clear to Sam. The passenger door swings open, and Sam is getting out.
John just stares. Sam…he would hardly have recognized him. It’s like he just unfolds from the car. It’s John’s boy, of course it is, but fuck, the difference. Whatever happened while he was dead, his Sammy is gone. Something is different…he can’t tell what it is. Physically, he looks like another man, but it’s not just that. It’s something else altogether. The terror that washes over him makes him wonder if he’s having another heart attack, makes him wonder if he is going to die all over again, like the demons just wanted to rub it in.
But John Winchester is no coward. After all, he withstood every torment Hell created for him. Surely, he can face his boys, here, at such a time as this. He takes a deep breath and steps toward the door, girding himself for whatever he is about to face.
But the door opens, and it’s just Sam standing there.
Right away, John knows he got it wrong—this is Sam, his Sam. From a distance, he could only see the difference between the boy he knew and this stranger of a man, but now he only sees his boy.
Sam makes some kind of funny half-sob deep in his throat before blurting out, “Dad?”
John doesn’t have time to get a word out before Sam practically knocks him off his feet—he’s strong…when did Sammy get so strong? But Sam’s arms are wrapping themselves around his shoulders so tight, he can hardly even breathe.
“Sammy,” he mumbles into Sam’s shoulder, burying his face against worn flannel, and his heart aches for what he left behind. How could he have ever doubted?
Finally, he pulls off and grips his son by his massive shoulders. He’s turned into a mountain, but Sam’s eyes are bloodshot and teary, his nose running. Sam always fell apart when he cried. Dean used to call him a big snotty freakin’ baby, and he was right. All John wants to do is hold on and not let go.
But he needs to see Dean. Keeping a hand on Sam’s forearm, John pulls his son along with him toward the door because he needs to touch Dean, feel that he’s real, just the same way he needed to hold onto Sam. They’ve always been physical with each other…he withheld a helluva lot from his boys, but never physical affection.
John pulls Sam with him and stops short at the door. He shouldn’t be surprised—he trained Dean for God’s sake— but Dean is standing some five feet away, with his gun drawn and leveled steady. Bobby is at his side, looking both stricken and exasperated.
“Hi, Dean,” John says, smiling because he just can’t help it.
“Let go of him,” Dean growls back.
“Dean, put the gun down,” John says and takes a step, but Dean clicks the safety off.
“Don’t move,” Dean orders. “I said—let go of Sam.”
“Wait, Dean…let’s talk about this,” Sam says, taking a step closer to John, but Dean doesn’t flinch.
“Get out of the way, Sammy.”
Eyes narrowed in a ferocious glare, Dean begins to chant. John knows it’s some form of an exorcism but doesn’t recognize which one.
“I’m not a demon, son,” John says carefully.
Dean stops mid-chant and orders, “Shut up. Get the fuck out of the way, Sam. I mean it, you dumbass, I’m gonna rip you a new one if you don’t.”
Frowning, Sam pulls away and walks over to Dean. “I think it’s really Dad.”
Bobby adds, “I ran every test I’ve got, and nothing comes back demonic.”
But Dean sets his jaw. “That doesn’t mean anything—you know that.” He starts again with the invocation, but Sam is the one who looks uncomfortable. He flinches like he’s in pain and grabs hold of Dean’s arm.
“Dean, cut it out…” John can see that Sam is sweating even though the air is cool, and his skin is almost gray.
Dean glances over warily. “You okay, Sammy?”
Sam shrugs, but if anything, he’s paler than he was before. “I’d be better if you’d stop.”
John feels apprehension twisting in his gut. Something in Dean’s incantation is hurting Sam, and that shouldn’t happen. Incantations only affect those who are tainted by demon blood. Of course, John knows all about what Azazel did to Sam as a baby, but exorcisms had never bothered him before…
But Sam is plenty bothered now, and finally, Dean is noticing too and immediately stops the exorcism. John feels Dean’s stare on him now, and he’s suddenly convinced that his oldest son would shoot him where he stands if he could read his mind about Sam. But telepathy isn’t necessary. Dean knows that he knows, and that puts John in a position he never wanted to be.
Dean steps in front of Sam like he’s protecting him bodily from John, which is nothing new. Dean would always protect his brother, would take a bullet for him, would keep him out of harm’s way, no matter what monster they faced. He doesn’t look pissed any more; he looks afraid.
As reassuringly as he can manage, John says, “I’m your father. Dean, it’s me.”
In a low voice, Dean answers, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“C’mon, Dean, we need to talk about this.” Still frowning, Sam manhandles Dean back to the car, yanking the gun out of his hand. From where he’s standing, John can hear them arguing with each other in hushed tones, even though he can’t make out the words.
John takes a step back, clenching his jaw against that familiar gut feeling, that premonition that something is very wrong. He just doesn’t know what it is yet…
It’s a different world he’s been come back to, and he was a fool for thinking Sam was the only one who had changed.
He won’t make that mistake again.
* The verse continues with Killing Time and Back Seat Driver