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When Jason Todd opened his eyes, he woke up screaming.

There were only a few things he was immediately aware of. One, that this was wrong. Something was so inherently wrong about all of it. Secondly, pain erupted across his body the moment he gathered enough awareness to connect his thoughts with the everything else.

Fluid filled his lungs and burned his skin, and he thrashed, kicking and trying to force his body up to the surface. Hands pushed him down, holding his shoulders, chest, ankles… anywhere he could get leverage was held firmly in vice-like grips. It felt like an eternity that he was trapped before his heel connected with soft tissue and he was released.

The exertion took more out of him than he was able to give. Instead of rising up and taking in some much needed air, he was left to drift to the bottom. He closed his eyes, cutting off the sickly green tint to his vision that had overtaken him, and let himself be lifted out of the water by the same hands that forced him down.

He coughed and sputtered, finally keeling over to throw up what little he'd swallowed, before robed figures flanked him on either side. Both gripped under his arms and he was hoisted up and dragged forward. The tops of his feet scraped on hard stone, drawing blood from sensitive, raw skin. He stopped moving, and the cavern-like room fell totally silent.

To his left, old floorboards creaked loudly, masking the soft footfalls approaching cautiously.

No, that wasn't right.

Jason looked up, and the shadowed, vaulted ceiling looked much closer now. And decidedly less shapeless and cavern-like. There were water stains all over it, and cobwebs in the corner, but no hands. No water. The floor underneath him was old, dusty hardwood, and it was under his back not his feet.

He scanned the room, vaguely aware of the pain his his chest and the pungent stench of blood, and spotted his sword still lodged in the corner of a nearby wall, drenched in blood but holding firmly.

A shadow fell over the room, but Jason found he was too weak to move.

"Hell. Left a mess," a gruff, deep old voice grumbled. "Goddamn amateurs."

His sight line was obscured by a shoddy table set, but he could see the newcomer's boots, and the frayed hem of his jeans. The footsteps stopped, and the long, drawn out squeak from the old floorboards signaled that the person, probably heavy set, had paused.

Jason looked away from the sword and the unfamiliar legs, over to one of the decapitated bodies on the other side of the room. One of five.

Had he gotten them all?

The newcomer shifted a little, counting softly under his breath. Then, he turned, and started walking closer.

" - Six? Only s'posed to be five of 'em."

Oh. Shit.

Well, maybe not.

If Jason couldn't move, he was probably closer to being dead than he usually preferred to be. At least if he was found, still alive, preferably, he could recover and get on with his life.

When he focused again, this newcomer was standing almost directly over him, face contorted into concern and pity. The man knealt down to get a closer look at him, and that was the moment Jason realized that he'd forgotten to breath. This stranger thought he was dead. Cute.

He took in a sharp breath, grasping the man's wrist with all the strength he had left as soon as the hand descended toward his throat. Eyes wild.

The man cursed and caught Jason's other hand in his own. "Shit! Shit! Come on, kid, calm down!"

The more Jason moved,the more he felt the wound being disturbed, drawing more blood and sapping more energy.

His movements slowed, and finally, he relented.

"Fuck. You really did a number on this place, you know that?" the man shook his head, trying to assess the stab wound that had knocked Jason Todd on his ass. Possibly into his second grave. That was yet to be determined.

"I'm going to get you out of here," the man promised, lifting Jason carefully. The pain shifted again, but not much.

"Can you walk?"

His knees buckled under his weight, and the stranger caught him before he tumbled the floor again.

"Guess that's a no."

Jason was dragged out of the house and out to a car where he was laid out on the back seat. A bunched up cloth was pressed into his hand then laid over his chest. "Hold that there, boy. Won't be long."

The door shut, hard, rocking the car, and Jason shut his eyes. His breaths rattled in his chest, and he flinched when he heard the driver's door open and close again.

"You ain't dead yet. Keep pressure on that."

The old man's voice sounded far away, like the cave and the water had been. He couldn't determine whether or not it meant he was on the verge of death or unconsciousness, and at this point, he didn't care for the difference. He was vaguely aware of the car moving under him, and when he finally dragged his eyes open again, it was to the shadowy treeline giving way to highway lights. The car sped up, just over what was probably legal, and swerved around traffic.

Jason blinked, slowly, tuning out the old man's rambling and tried to focus on holding the now soaked cloth against his chest. He blinked again, and when he focused, it was on a dark ceiling once more.

He didn't remember moving.

The pain in his chest had been reduced to a dull ache under tight bandages, and cool air brushed over his skin. It certainly hurt to breath, but it was so much easier now than it had been. The first deep breath hurt, but his lungs adjusted to the increase in capacity, so it faded after a few more.

He didn't remember getting patched up.

Or losing his shirt, for that matter..

The place was mostly silent, barring some muffled movement below the floor. The only indication of time was the light. Slivers of daylight peered through gaps in the covered windows on the other side of the room, illuminating just enough for him to make out a few details.

The place was dusty, but lived in. He turned his head to scan the other side of the room, spotting another narrow bed, and the old chest that stood between them. There were a few old books stacked next to a lamp, but nothing concerning. No culty stuff, at least.

Tired of laying still, and unsure how long he'd actually been there, Jason managed to pull himself up to sit while his eyes adjusted to the low lighting. It was weirdly familiar here. Uncomfortably so. Dusty, sure, but not like it was completely unused. Just old.

A chill wracked his spine, and he stilled, trying to make out whatever deep seated memory took place here. It was the kind of passing feeling like deja vu, only a lot heavier and a little bit nauseating. Suddenly, he felt like a trapped animal, and his heart rate picked up. Pounding in his chest. It would be better if the place was completely alien to him, but it wasn't, so it was definitely a problem.

This just wouldn't do. Not at all.

He got up, finding the clean, button up flannel - of all fucking things - waiting for him across the back of an old desk chair and shrugged it on. First he checked the dresser drawers for anything useful, and after finding nothing, moved on to the closet. Everything was useless, unless he decided strangling the old man with one of those ugly ass shirts was the best option, so he slipped out into the hallway to listen.

At one end was another covered window, and the other was the staircase. Before taking the first step down, Jason spotted a rusty old fire iron tucked discreetly into an out of place umbrella stand, so he took that and held it close to his side before descending the stairs. The boards creaked softly under his weight, and when he reached the bottom, he stopped and peered around through the doorway.

"Hard to sneak around in this old house, boy."

Jason's grip on the iron tightened and he scowled, coming into the room fully. It was indeed the same old man that pulled him out of the monster den.

And boy was Jason starting to realize why this place was so goddamned familiar.

 

"Nice autopsy scar. Couldn't take you to a hospital with that thing, had to stitch you back together here. You're welcome, by the way. Dean."

Jason adjusted the collar of his shirt, as if the scar itself was still exposed. Even thinking about it made his skin crawl. Now was no different. Hearing his old name didn't exactly help.

"Bobby Singer," Jason drawled, leaning against the door frame. "Almost forgot your ugly mug."

"Wouldn't be surprised," the man turned to face him, setting two glass bottles on the table and pulling out a chair for himself. "It's been a minute."

"Yeah, thought I put this life behind me," Jason took it slowly, crossing the room and dragging a second chair across the tile to sit down.

"Yeah? That why I found you half dead in the middle of a horror shack? If you left it behind, what brought you back?"

Jason's gaze leveled with his, dull and empty. "Practice."

Bobby took a long swig of his drink, leaning back in his chair while he processed the answer. Such a simple word, yet it carried so much. "With baggage like that," he gestured vaguely to Jason's torso, "Practice makes a lot of sense."

Jason didn't touch his bottle, but allowed himself to look away, watching condensation beading down the glass. He should have known that somehow, he'd always get dealt shit cards.

"Someone hadta make a deal to get you back from that. John swears he didn't do - "

Jason's eyes snapped back up to glare at Bobby, face twisting into fury before he jumped to his feet, pulling painfully at his stitches and knocking the chair backwards across the floor. All the betrayal he'd felt, every shit card, all of it came crashing back over him. "That fucker knows I'm here?"

Bobby was on his feet in a flash, shoulders squared like he was ready to defend himself. Even injured, Jason was an imposing figure. He'd trained for years since the incident, grown some too. He wasn't some skinny little kid in a multicolored tactical suit and cape anymore.

"You think I like it any more than you do? I was pissed - hell, I still am - but we all knew you were dead. Someone had to sell their soul to get you back, and I need to find out who did!"

A shrill squeak and a soft click resounded from the front of the house, and Jason tore his focus from the hunter to see another lone figure standing in the hall. Another familiar face that looked like it had seen a ghost.

Jason's breaths were deep, like he was collecting himself and trying to stay calm. Like. Body language wasn't always telling, not clearly anyway. But John was frozen in the doorway and Bobby's eyes darted between the pair.

"Move, John," he said, finally.

The younger hunter looked at him, torn between bewilderment and… something else. "What?"

Before Bobby could yell at him for being a jackass and not listening, Jason lunged. He saw red. And only red. Blinded by every negative emotion he'd felt since he was a little kid, sitting forgotten in that empty motel room. Getting escorted across town in a cop car. Seeing the car back in Gotham only months later.

Being beaten and blown up when he was only fifteen.

Opening his eyes in the Lazarus Pit.

Bobby tried to pull him off, but only got an elbow to the face as a reward for his efforts. John was only trying to block the blows instead of fighting back. That only made it worse.

In the next moment, Jason was tackled to the ground by a wiry frame of a kid, which sent the air from his lungs and with it, the resolve from his fists.

"Get the fuck off me, kid. I don't wanna hurt you," he hissed, trying to throw the boy off. Instead, he stayed pinned.

"You won't."

"Sam," John wiped blood from his lip with his sleeve and got up, tugging on the back of the kid's shirt, prompting him to let Jason up, which took him a solid minute to manage.

John offered a hand to help him, but he batted it away, opting instead to struggle to his feet on his own. "I didn't know."

"Bullshit!" Jason shouted, and John instinctively took a step back. "I saw you in Gotham. What, were you making sure I was good and lost? Making sure you got the job done?"

"I came back to find you," John snapped, "I swear to you, Dean. In my right mind I would never have done that. Any of it."

A likely story. He didn't care how John spun it, how much he'd manage to convince himself over the years. The damage was done. Jason was a grown man now, and there was no going back. No excuses. No atonement.

"Dean," Sam said softly, and Jason's head snapped around to look at him. Through the rage he realized that this was his little brother. This was Sam. It was a goddamn miracle the poor kid wasn't lost on the other side of the country somewhere too. Or dead. "We were cursed. A witch got the drop on dad and cursed us. He went back to look for you, but - "

"It had already been nearly a year." John interjected, putting a hand on Sam's shoulder to urge him to back up. Even Bobby was keeping his distance. "You were happy. You were in a good school. Had good grades. You had the kind of life I couldn't ever hope to give to the two of you."

He regretted everything that lead up to finding him back in Gotham, but he couldn't uproot Jason. Not after seeing how much he was thriving. He did the best to keep Sam away from hunting for a long time, too. Trying to stay in one place long enough for school, letting the boy study instead of research. Sometimes it didn't always work out for the best, but it was better than dragging another son into a life he'd never escape, and Sam had thrived too. That is, until a few years ago. Finding out his big brother was dead did a number on him, and he'd taken to hunting faster than John himself had.

He still went to school, still did well, but he wasn't very social anymore. But maybe that could change.

"You think it's going to be that easy?" Jason questioned, staring the man down. "You think it fixes anything?"

John shook his head, eyes suddenly looking glassy. "Nothing will. I know that. But we can't lose you again."

Bull. Shit.

Jason swiped the fire iron from where he'd left it and stormed past his father and brother, marching across the house. He threw the door open and disappeared into the salvage yard to blow off some steam. Sam sighed, hanging his head, and quietly left as well, heading upstairs to be by himself.

"I'll be downstairs," Bobby said, shortly, and left John standing there with his thoughts.

Chapter Text

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"I called you here as a courtesy, John," the words pierced the quiet in a harsh whisper.

"Somethin' ain't right about that boy."

Sam had long grown weary of the relentless sound of his older brother beating some rusted out junker senseless, and had settled on eavesdropping as a more entertaining alternative. And really, while he might have been able to overpower Dean in the spur of the moment, risking his ire again was far from the top of his bucket list. Because, as it seemed, that sort of action became part of a bucket list the moment it was enacted. You didn't live long enough to try anything else.

"You say that about everybody," John sounded tired, but the jab was pointed and cold.

"He was as good as dead when I found him, boy," Bobby fired back, a little louder than his previous statement. There was no such thing as being dismissive of his concerns. A seasoned hunter was to be heard.

"Said that already. On the phone. You going senile?"

A loud thud and a rattle. A fist hitting a table. Everything on said table wobbling against the force. The house fell silent, and Sam held his breath.

"No pulse. Not breathing. Pale as a corpse and cold as one too. Grabbed my arm while I was checkin' him and damn near snapped the bone," each word hit Sam and made his gut sink further and further. He didn't know how bad it was. Just that his brother had been found in a bad way. A bad way was the biggest understatement of the century. A walking corpse?

What was this, Night of the Living Dead?

"You think he's -"

"Course not," Bobby cut him off, "He passed the tests. All of 'em."

"Then what the hell am I supposed to do? He's alive ain't he? He's here." John started to stand, and his chair scraped across the floor behind him.

So maybe not zombie horror flick bad. Not yet at least.

"Keep an eye on him. Keep your ears open. Someone brought him back, John, or something. And as much as it pains me to admit it, he came back wrong."

Sam couldn't - wouldn't - listen to this conversation anymore. He moved from his spot in the hallway and trekked back outside again. He knew Bobby cared about them, and if he had concerns about something, it was worth listening to. But this was raising too many questions, too many doubts. Why couldn't they all just be happy that Dean was here? Alive.

He weaved through the stacks of junker cars, kicking a few pebbles along his way. He listened to them ping off metal and ricochet into different directions. A more pleasing thing to occupy his thoughts than the other thing.

Came back wrong. Bullshit!

Sam came around a corner and stopped, spotting Dean sitting on the ground against a detached car door. One arm was wrapped around his torso, putting pressure on his chest, but from the looks of it, he hadn't done any damage. No blood. He was only out of breath, with the fire iron gripped loosely in his other hand. He'd been out here for a while, after all. From mid afternoon to now, with the sun dipping below the treeline outside of the salvage yard. A few hours at least.

Sam craned his neck and examined the unfortunate piece of shit that had been targeted and grimaced. The frame was bent beyond recognition and the glass was in shattered bits on the ground.

He turned again and locked eyes with his brother, and finally, he got that eerie sense that he knew exactly what Bobby was talking about. He wouldn't say it was wrong, but it wasn't something right either.

He saw bright green. Luminescent, not like the deep green that he remembered. This was attention grabbing. Unnatural, even though he couldn't quite pinpoint why.

"What the hell do you want?"

Unsettling.

Sam blinked and glanced back down at the dirt.

"Sorry," he mumbled, trying not to eye the bruises starting to form on his brother's face from hitting the floor earlier. He started to walk away again, to leave Dean to his venting, but his feet wouldn't move.

There was a rather significant gap in his memory. Years upon years of not even knowing that Dean existed, followed by the abrupt realization that he did. Even though his last memory of his brother was almost as old as he was, it was still fresh. The few years that had passed since they'd gotten news of his death had muddled them a little, but the change was significant.

No longer was Dean the gangly, dark eyed kid that he had been. His hair had darkened, and he looked nothing like he once had. Young, still, but the empty look in his eyes told how unkind those years had been.

"You just going to stand there?"

Sam glanced back up at Dean's face, and realized that some of that anger had bled out of him. Now he just looked tired and resigned. So, Sam inched over out of the path and flopped down onto the ground, sitting crisscross a few feet away from Dean.

"I really am sorry," he said, finally.

Dean sighed, face scrunching up. "You didn't do anything."

A beat passed. "I forgot."

Dean scoffed, and a mirthless grin settled on his face. "You aren't the only one."

Sam new this couldn't be fixed. Not anytime soon. And even if Dean stuck around, if by some miracle he thought maybe he could even be near them again, it was far from resolved. He couldn't imagine the scarring from a life like this, and wondered, absently, if being a hunter would have been any better. How much pain could his brother have been spared either way? He'd not only lost one family, he'd lost two. And returning to one hadn't yielded the answers that would have justified over a decade of bottled up resentment.

He wouldn't fault Dean for hating them. Even now, even knowing the full story, because no matter their excuses, he had still been the one to suffer the consequences. It was an unfortunate truth he had come to learn in the last few years, helping his dad on cases. One that had never affected him so personally. People sometimes got hurt on hunts, no matter how hard they tried to prevent it, no matter how much they did right. Sometimes, they got hurt indirectly, without them even knowing. Like now.

Because no matter the intention behind the action, or lack thereof, someone was still in pain at the end of the day.

Sam hated that either of them were born into a life like this. And he hated that out there, somewhere, someone stole the one chance his brother had to escape it.

He knew that nothing he could say would make this better. Wherever this went, it was in Dean's hands, and Sam wouldn't force it. He trusted that John wouldn't try, not after everything. Bobby seemed on the fence.

"What are you going to do now?" He finally asked, dragging his gaze from the ground to gauge his brother's reaction.

"Can't do shit with a hole in my chest." He was still holding his arm protectively over the injury, and he looked at Sam sadly. He knew he missed a lot of time, but he didn't have the energy to be angry about it right now. Guilty, maybe. For not trying to come back to them. For missing those years in the first place. Definitely for not making that effort when he had the resources to. But stupidly, he felt, he decided that being abandoned by one person meant that abandoning everyone else himself was the chance he needed to cling to. Now his baby brother wasn't a baby anymore. There was a whole lot to discern from a single look, and he saw a lot.

They were complete strangers to each other.

Well, maybe.

Sam shifted, searching for something to say that wouldn't end in another blow out, but there wasn't much conversation to be had here.

"... You still like The Lord of the Rings?"

Dean's face twisted into surprise and disgust. It almost looked comical, if the coming exclamation didn't have him flinching in pain. "Wha-? Of course I don't! I never did."

Sam winced and shot him an apologetic look, but he was having none of it. "You did too. Your books are still upstairs, and I remember every time that cartoon came on tv, we had to watch it."

He stopped himself from arguing his point further when he realized that Dean was frozen in place, and that unsettling green was clouded by tears that he was just barely holding back. A pang of regret overpowered anything else he'd been feeling in that short moment. Of course it was too soon! Those wounds were still fresh. Don't kick a man when he's already down.

Or maybe it was good?

Dean crumbled, but he wasn't lashing out. The iron finally slipped from his grasp and he brought his arm up to his face to shield it from view. Sam couldn't react, except to think that maybe this was good. It meant that he didn't really hate them, right? Sam might still technically be a kid, but he was perceptive. People didn't react like this to things that they resented.

Maybe they were going to be okay.

Not perfect.

But okay. And that was okay too.


Sam returned to the house just as the sun finally disappeared and gave way to Sioux Falls' clear night sky. Just in time for John to jump on his case about vanishing in the middle of the day without telling anyone. Frankly, he was under the impression that Bobby's was the safest place they could be.

"You can't just -"

The words died on John's lips the second the screen door slammed behind Dean, and the two stared each other down for a solid minute. Sam could sense his father's unease and shifted, floorboards creaking softly under his feet.

"You okay?"

Dean didn't acknowledge him, aside from his glare hardening even more than it already had. Instead of trying to entertain conversation, he ambled up the stairs, leaving the rest of the house to its signature awkward silence.

"Where'd Uncle Bobby go?" Sam asked, quietly.

"Went to find Dean's stuff," John trekked into the kitchen to take a seat at the table. There was soup on the stove, set in low, but neither of them were hungry. "You were with him the whole time?"

A nod.

John couldn't be sure if he was relieved. On the one hand, Dean seemed entirely capable, on the other, Bobby's words still nagged his thoughts. Could he really be trusted? Time changed people, he knew that, but there was so much about his oldest that was completely alien to him now. He couldn't pick out how much of it was time, and how much of it was trauma. How much of it was wrong, as it were.

His train of thought derailed when Sam placed an ice pack on the table, right in front of him. "You look like shit."

John picked it up and turned it around in his hand before pressing it to his face. "Language," he chided, gritting his teeth when the cold compress touched sore skin.

"Okay. You look like the crap got beat out of you."

He rolled his eyes. He was well aware of what he looked like right now. "He say anything?"

Sam shook his head, dropping into the other chair and crossing his arms over the table top. "Not really. Beat the shit out of one of the cars though."

"Language," John hissed, dipping his head to rest it in his free hand.

"Come on! It's not like we're saints! We kill people for a living -"

"Monsters, Sam. We kill monsters. Not people."

And how many of those monsters had no idea what they were? What was happening to them? Not every monster shared that nature with its predecessors. Sam shook his head and got up, ready to be done with everything. That was an argument for another day, and it wasn't his hill to die on. Not now. Why should this be their life? Why this? And that brought another thought across his mind, and he instantly felt guilty for it.

Hoping that when he woke up in the morning, everything would be as it was before Bobby called them. It would just be him and Dad. Dean would still be gone... alive somewhere else, at least. Sam didn't want him dead. He just... He wanted what shaky sense of normalcy he once had back firmly in his grasp.

He was horrible, and he knew it. But the amount of trouble he sensed coming wasn't something he looked forward to, and everything going back to normal was the easy way out.

This was just too damn much to deal with.

"What even is this family," he muttered, as he ascended the stairs. Was it even a family would be better.


The next morning seemed to flow a lot easier.

First of all, Dean actually had the presence of mind to take a shower. They understood that it wasn't on top of his priority list right after waking up from what was essentially a days long coma, but at least now he didn't smell like blood and sweat. He had pointedly refused both Sam's and John's offers to help redress the rapidly healing stab wound in his chest, opting to keep it out of sight. Not quite out of mind.

The words came back wrong still lingered in the back of John's head, because anyone hurt to that degree would still be bedbound. Yet, Dean was upright and well enough to walk around.

Then there was the fact that Dean didn't vanish at the first signs of life after the sun came up. They were expecting him to ditch them at the first opportunity, or at least, go hide until it was reasonable to come back without giving them a passing glance.

Instead, he stood beside them while Bobby backed the trailer into the driveway, loaded down with Dean's belongings. Namely, his bike.

"Holy shit," was Sam's initial reaction. John gave up trying to correct his use of profanity, and merely sighed.

"Yep." Dean walked towards the trailer, unfazed by the overall reaction to the motorcycle. He didn't see the damage. He only saw his way out.

It was a nice bike, Sam thought. A blood red Blackbird. Fast and sleek. Or it would be nice, if it wasn't totally wrecked. Must've happened right before the hunt.

Bobby killed the engine and the man joined the trio at the bottom of the porch, passing a backpack and torn up helmet along to Dean. He let it drop to the ground and crouched down to sift through the contents, ensuring everything was there before closing it up and slinging it over his shoulder.

He crossed the yard and started working the ties holding the bike down loose, ignoring John's protests as he rolled it off the trailer and out onto the asphalt.

"It doesn't run," Bobby said, coolly. "Your buddies trashed it." Buddies? Bullshit. A bunch of hungry monsters looking to silence anyone that got in their way. Dean didn't remember them trashing his bike, but it wasn't going to stop him now. It shouldn't.

Dean cursed and let the backpack slide down and hit the ground, hands curling into tight fists. Fingernails pinched skin, and he barely refrained from smacking what was left of the windshield into even smaller pieces. "Then I'll fix it."

John took a step closer, and Dean's head snapped to the side, settling a glare on the man that made him freeze in his tracks. If he was so close to leaving, then nothing was stopping him from bolting anyway. Wrecked bike be damned. John tried to choose his next words carefully. Keyword: Tried.

"Jason -"

In a flash, the bike was on its side in the dirt and Dean was nose to nose with John, face twisted into barely suppressed rage. "You don't get to call me that!"

A finger jabbed into John't chest and the man stumbled back a little under the force, but his gaze didn't falter. Even having to look up at Dean because at some point in the last few years, the kid had shot up like a weed. He inhaled sharply, but didn't flinch. "Dean. You don't have to go yet."

Dean backed off, face still scrunched up when he tossed the helmet down next to the bag. It was trashed too. Useless for protection. He would need to buy a new one before taking any trips, and getting as far away from them as possible qualified. He threw his hands in the air, exasperated. He was running out of options here, and the salvage yard was feeling more and more like the confines of a coffin. He couldn't stay here. He needed to get away. He caught himself pacing, back and forth like a caged animal, head dipped low while he tried to make sense of the situation.

He wondered how far he'd make it on foot.

Finally, "I don't have much of a choice." He whirled around to face them.

"You could stay with us."

"Because that worked out so well the first time?" Sam had been silent during the entire exchange, and that retort dashed that tiny hopeful look from his face. Dean felt a pang of guilt, but too many other emotions were tangling with each other for him to really care.

"You don't have to, "John clarified, smartly remaining exactly where he stood this time. "But you can. You can stay with us as long as you need."

Dean considered it. The kid in him that longed for this moment was beating his present self over the head with a bo staff, yelling at him to take it. It's what he'd always wanted! He looked away, realizing that the bike was gone. Bobby had picked it up amid the brief altercation, and Dean spotted him walking it to the shop.

"Until my bike is fixed" It wasn't a question. More like a take it or leave it kind of option. If it wasn't good enough for John, well, he was entirely prepared to heft that bag over his shoulder again and start making his way out of town on foot. Out of sight, at least. Nothing stopping him from procuring a ride, but he didn't need a Winchester or a Singer on his case about doing stupid shit so close to their home base. Only steal when you can't get caught, right? These guys weren't saints, that much he could agree on.

It wasn't what they wanted, but it was a start.

John breathed a sigh of relief, tension rolling off his shoulders. "If that's what you want."

Dean swiped his stuff off the ground, expertly tossing the busted helmet into the garbage can that sat against the side of the house. "None of this is what I want."

That's a lie that little kid argued. Red and green all over. It's everything you wanted.

But the pained look that John tried to hide was satisfying, to say the least.

Dean brushed past him, heading back towards the house. "Let me know when it's time to hit the road."

Chapter Text

Sam was silent for the first half of the car ride.

The tension could have been cut with a knife, and Dean certainly had enough of them that it was a very real possibility. Though his brother seemed reluctant to do much of anything other than pointedly stare out the window like his gaze could bore a hole in the glass.

Also a very real possibility.

John gripped the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles were starting to pale, and so far the only sound that wasn't the engine was Sam's own uncomfortable shifting every few minutes.

They'd managed only three more days at Bobby's before John gave the word. By that point, Dean had failed to disappear while they were sleeping, which left only two other options. Either stay at the Salvage Yard and help fix the bike, or go with John and Sam to their next destination. Which, incidentally, was what lead to the road trip from hell.

If someone didn't speak, or at least turn the radio on, Sam thought he might die.

"Do you have a hunt lined up?" Oh, finally. Salvation. Dean didn't seem like he'd speak to either of them unless they addressed him first, but then again, it seemed like he couldn't stand the suffocating silence either.

John didn't relax at all. "We're not -"

"You can't expect me to sit on my ass until my bike is ready. If hunting makes it go by faster -"

"Let me rephrase. You're not hunting. Not with that hole in your chest, not now, not ever."

This couldn't be John Winchester.

Sam had to wrestle with being angry about it. He'd never known his father to be anything but obsessed with the demon and mowing down any monster that happened to be in his path. After Dean had died, it had gotten so much worse. That was when Sam started training. Before, John had at least been content to let Sam stick to books. He was safer, that way. But once Dean was gone, he changed. Whatever margin of safety that Sam had been comfortably residing in was nonexistent now. He needed to be able to protect himself. From monsters and people.

And now John was practically throwing it all away just to keep Dean from blowing up. Or worse, blowing them off completely.

Sam squashed the thought as soon as it manifested. He had to keep the circumstances in mind. This wasn't normal, and it wasn't going to be. He knew that Dean could, and probably would, ditch them at the drop of a hat.

"You can't really stop me."

This couldn't end well. The word stop started repeating itself like a well practiced mantra in Sam's head. But John didn't leave it alone. But they both know it couldn't go unsaid. Conversation had to happen sooner or later. Maybe sooner was better.

Best to just get it over with, John thought. He took a deep breath and started again.

"I don't know what you've been getting into for the last couple of years, but it's going to stop. Right now," the car fell silent again. He had to remind himself about the swords sitting in his trunk. Goddamned swords. The amount of things that Bobby found in the kid's cache was large enough to stock a small armory.

Or at least to take up most of the space in the trunk of the impala.

"We're going to lay low for a while. No hunting."

Dean scoffed. "And what, be the Brady Bunch, holed up in some rent-a-shack until my bike is ready? What are you gonna do when I'm gone again? Keep playing happy family while I'm right back to what I've been doing?"

Gone again .

"Dean, stop."

"Or you just going to drag Sam back into your revenge quest, because it's a little late to try and be a normal family. If you hadn't fucking noticed."

"Stop. Lower your voice and watch your language around your brother, " this time, Sam scoffed, slumping down in the back seat. It's not like they were saints. He'd heard worse out of John's mouth plenty.

"You're in no condition to try and hunt right now. And I'll be damned -" he hesitated, "I'll be damned if what little bit of time I get with you is wasted on chasing down some spook that can wait for the next hunter to come along."

Maybe Sam wasn't angry that their long term goals were being derailed. Maybe he was jealous that they finally were, and it wasn't even for him.

At least it wasn't too late. At least he was still a kid, and still had a chance to be a kid.

"So, Brady Bunch it is then."

It was Sam's turn to speak. He stayed quiet and cool, and as soon as he opened his mouth, Dean was looking at him in the rear view mirror. "Why did you come if you hate us so much?"

At first, he might have argued. Instead, he looked pained. John noticed, even if he had to keep his eyes on the road. "...I don't hate you."

"That's not what it sounds like. All you've done is complain. Dad's really trying and you don't care!"

"You think this is easy? You think I can just pretend like none of this is as wrong as it is?"

John was quick to interject before Sam could stick his foot in his mouth, which a quick glance at him through the mirror showed his was just about ready to do.

"No, we don't expect that from you. If you did hate me, you'd have every right. But nothing is keeping you here but you. The last thing I want is for you to hurt any more because coming with us was the wrong move."

"Pull over."

"Dean - "

He shook his head, already gripping the handle. "Just pull over!"

John complied, if only to prevent his son from showing just how far he was willing to go to get away. Dean threw the door open before the car came to a complete stop, disappearing down the incline into the treeline at the edge of the grass. A handful of cars zipped past the shoulder, unaware of the conflict.

"Shit!"

Sam craned his neck and strained his eyes, trying to find the origin of the curse. It was getting too dark to see well. "What's he doing?"

Putting his fist through a small tree.

Sam didn't bother announcing it. Instead, he said what he'd been thinking for a good few hours now. "I think we should have stayed at Bobby's for a few more days."

"This still would have happened. And he would have kicked all of us out."

Or maybe just John. Sam might have to go wherever his dad did, but Bobby wouldn't have kicked him to the curb intentionally. And for the duration of their short visit, he'd seemed a lot more concerned with Dean's wellbeing than anything else. The old man was hard to read, but he'd made a point to keep anything from stressing the kid out. If he knew something they didn't, they'd never find out. But his overall edge had been toned way down.

Whether they would have had to leave sooner rather than later, it still begged the question. "Where are we going?"

"Safe house in Montana. Already stocked up on supplies."

Sam thought about it. He might vaguely remember staying there once as a tot. But any inkling he got of a memory was fuzzed out, and he had to wonder if it was something that they did while that hex bag was clouding their heads. Nothing from those years seemed very clear anymore.

"We're really not doing any hunts while we're there?"

"No, we aren't. I'm going to go get him, lock the doors." The emphasis on we did not go unnoticed, although it went unacknowledged. John was already on the other side of the car, walking across the grass by the time Sam finished rolling his eyes. He reached over the backrest of the front seat and pushed the locks down, before settling back in his spot. He craned his neck trying to see through the darkness.

When John found Dean, the kid was out of breath and clutching his hand. John spotted the upper half of a young tree, laying across the ground a few feet away. The older trees blocked out the moonlight, and the smell of wild animals was trapped in the sticky summer air. God only knew what else was running around those sticks.

"I know it's been a few years, but you know better than to wander around the woods at night."

Dean's labored breathing slowed to a less concerning pace, and leaned back against the trunk of a tree. There was blood on his hand where his skin had split on the bark, but his hand itself didn't look too bad off. And despite the lack of a clear sky, it looked like moonlight was hitting Dean's skin directly. He was perfectly clear in the blurry darkness.

"Real fuckin funny."

John sighed. "I'm being serious, Dean."

"Didn't bother you when I had to wander around the streets at night. Or every night after, for that matter."

"You had a good life when I went back. You were safe." That was the only thing that mattered. That he was safe, that both of them were safe. He'd do anything to change the circumstances, to keep them both with him and give them that apple pie life they'd been missing out on. And he'd been a damned fool to think that safety would last for Dean. For any one of them.

"That's supposed to make it all better? That's supposed to fix anything? Because it doesn't!" Dean was yelling at him now. Maybe he'd feel better when he was done.

"You're right." With that, Dean stopped, snapping his mouth shut to switch from angry to astonished. John continued. "I agonized over it for years, and finding out you died nearly destroyed me, but it doesn't change what happened."

"Then why didn't you come back sooner?" He didn't give John the chance to answer. Instead, he shoved his hands in the front pocket of his hoodie and started walking back to the car, where Sam awkwardly pretended that he hadn't been straining to listen.

Left alone on the edge of the forest, John looked up at the star less sky and sighed. "I don't know."