Characters: John, Dean, Sam
Word Count: 2,800
Summary: It's been eight months, but John's back.
Notes: Third in the Innocence 'verse (de-aged Dean). Title from William Blake. Even though this has nothing to do with the poem. At all.
John doesn't recognize him immediately. As he waits at the red light, fingers tapping on the steering wheel, he glances out the passenger window and sees someone digging through a dumpster in an alley. The windshield wipers are clearing falling snow from the glass and their rhythmical squeaking has John in a trance, so that he simply watches the dumpster-diver for a while, not particularly registering anything. The boy has on a thin-looking coat, a hat and is rummaging through the trash behind a small Chinese restaurant. He shakes off anything he finds and drops it carefully into a plastic bag. When he's done, he brushes the back of a bare hand across his forehead. He seems ready to leave when he lurches over suddenly and vomits violently. It doesn't look like anything comes up – no food, at least – but he goes at it for two or three minutes. John aches with pity, wondering where this poor thing's family is, how he got to be where he is. Wonders if the kid would let him take him somewhere warm for a while, get a few meals in him.
With a shaking hand, the kid wipes at his mouth. He picks up some snow and presses it to his lips. Drinking, maybe, or simply using the water to clean up, John doesn't know. Doesn't think too hard about it, because that's when the boy straightens up, grabbing his bag, and John finally gets a good look at his face.
As a boy, Sam had been a chubby little thing. His baby fat had taken much longer to melt away than Dean's. When it finally did, it left behind skin and bones and hardly any muscle. But if John thought Sam had been dangerously thin then, he wasn't sure what to think now. That, perhaps, had only been thin from an exaggerated, fatherly perspective – or hunter-ly, John isn't sure. He has spent far too long as both a hunter and a father and he's beginning to realize that he doesn't know how to separate the two halves of his identity. But as a father or a hunter or an objective observer, there is no denying that this is not thin.
This is skeletal.
Sam doesn't spot him or his car, but even if he had it wouldn't have stopped John from following him. Sam walks all the way back home, three miles, to an apartment complex. It's not as decrepit as John was expecting. The sight of the towering buildings seems to rejuvenate Sam and his pace quickens. John swerves to the right, parks right next to a sign that reads NO PARKING and jumps out of the truck.
The air is bitingly cold and John loses his breath for a moment as a particularly savage gust of wind smacks him right in the face. He blinks tears out of his eyes as he hurries after Sam. He stays a safe distance back and manages to follow unnoticed all the way up six sets of stairs to the hallway Sam is living in. But the second he sees the rows of doors, sees Sam stop, dig out his keys and unlock #621, he freezes. He doesn't know what he's going to do. Well, that's not true – there is only one thing he can do. But he doesn't know if he wants to and he doesn't know what to say.
He doesn't have a cure. He swore to himself that he would only return if he had a cure. He's not sure what that says about him. He's not sure about most of his life, now. Hunting is the only thing that remains static, and therefore always makes sense. It's not why he stayed away so long, not at all. The search had taken time, and John couldn't stop until he'd exhausted all possible avenues. Giving up was not an option. As he searched he hunted, of course. If lives could be saved it was John's duty to save them. A day to take down a poltergeist, followed by an evening of research – no time lost, no lives lost. Everything in balance.
Except, not everything.
John swallows hard and backs away from the door Sam disappeared into, through the hall and then down six flights of stairs. His truck is where he left it, ticket-less.
He gets in and drives away.
"I found Sam," he tells Ellen, apropos of nothing in the middle of a conversation about how Jo's started getting back responses from colleges she applied to. John can't help thinking that Sam is sixteen and should be applying to colleges soon – or should have been – or something. Would Sam be going to college even if none of this had happened? He doubts it.
"What?" says Ellen.
"I found Sam. He's in Boston. I was – around, had a case and I just – found him."
John listens to the sounds of Ash and Jo fighting in the background. He can hear Ellen breathing over the line. This is a touchy subject between the two. Ellen had yelled herself hoarse when he'd shown up at the Roadhouse without his boys in tow. She had started trying to track Sam down immediately, but as far as John knows, she never had any luck. The boys would probably be with her if she had.
"What are you going to do?" she finally asks.
Leave them be, John thinks. Take them with me, John thinks. Neither seems like the right answer.
"I don't know," he says truthfully. "He looks – fucked up."
"What do you mean?"
"He looks – I don't know, Ellen. He looks sick."
"Flu sick or dying sick?" she says bluntly.
This time John's the one who pauses. He watches the snow falling outside. The sun is setting and a car occasionally sweeps past the motel, but it's mostly quiet.
"I don't know how he's standing," he admits. "And I didn't see Dean. I don't know if he's any better or any worse. He's only four."
"Go see them, John," Ellen says. "You owe them that, at the very least."
John agrees and hangs up the phone, but he's not so sure. He has a way of fucking things up just by looking at them. Maybe it would be a mercy to leave them alone.
He's knows the right answer, anyway. He never should have left in the first place.
Facing demons and ghosts is apparently child's play compared to facing your own sons. The next morning, before dawn, John drives over to Sam's apartment complex. He spends hours sitting in his truck, just staring at the window he believes is Sam's. There's no movement behind it that he can see and though it's early, he still wonders if Sam had spotted him yesterday. Maybe he grabbed Dean and hit the road.
By the time the sun has risen John has run out of excuses. Either he leaves now or he gets off his ass and goes to see his boys. He picks the latter, pulling on his gloves, turning up the collar of his jacket and then getting out of the car. He trudges through the snow-caked parking lot to the sounds of a plow some distance away. Six flights of stairs – somehow they seem to take six seconds to climb – and he finds himself standing in front of #621, staring at worn brass numbers.
His hand is up, ready to knock, when he hears a voice through the door – Dean's voice.
"Why do you have to go to work today? It's a weekend," Dean says.
John is stunned, for a second. He knows that Dean has spent the last eight months as a four-year-old but the reality of it – that voice – still bowls him over. He feels his breath stutter in his lungs, a pressure in his chest. The memories are bad enough on normal days, but hearing Dean's voice is like being sent straight back to the past. Mary, a pile of ash, and Dean clinging to John like he needed to hold on to survive, his voice hoarse with sobbing when he asked, "Why did she have to go?" John wonders now, as he has many times before, if there isn't something wrong with him that it should all affect him so much even after fifteen years. Don't people ever get over these things? John thinks he'd give a leg or two just to get over it a little, to stop feeling it so hard.
Sam's voice pulls John out of his thoughts. "I have to go to work every day, you know that," Sam says softly. He sounds weary, and it's wrong. Weary is not a thing Sam should be. Sam is a bright spot – not always cheerful, but hardly disillusioned. John feels sick.
"But why?" Dean asks.
"Because silly," Sam says teasingly, in a voice so gentle and affectionate that it sounds foreign to John. "Who's going to fill your tummy if I don't?"
Dean shrieks with laughter. John imagines Sam ticking his stomach. It's all the same, but so different. Dean after Mary did not laugh. He did not ask questions. He was hurt and angry and then oh, so quiet. But maybe it's because it's Sam. Even then Sam, little baby Sam who couldn't even speak, was the only one whom Dean would confide in. John would stay up, just to hear Dean sneaking into Sam's crib, and would fall asleep to the sounds of Dean – who was silent all other times – talking to his little brother. "Why do babies smell so good, Sammy?" and "Do you think we'll live here forever?" and "Ow, don't hold so hard, silly."
"My tummy is full," Dean is saying from inside. "Look." There's a sound of skin slapping skin followed by Sam's laughter, bright and bubbling, but far too close to the door. John's heart leaps into his throat and in spite of the hunter he has become he almost scampers away down the hall to hide behind the potted plants.
"That's because you just had three waffles," Sam says, voice moving away again. John's heart settles. "And if you ever want three waffles again, I have to go to work."
"Yeah, yeah," replies Dean sullenly.
"Don't 'yeah, yeah,' me," Sam says, amusedly. "Go grab the newspaper from outside."
Before John can even register what Sam's words mean, or realize that the pair of thundering feet are approaching him, the door to #621 has been flung open and John is staring down at his blonde-haired, green-eyed, freckled, four-year-old son.
A son who chooses that moment to scream at the top of his lungs, "SAMMY THERE'S A STRANGER AT THE DOOR!"
It takes a split second for Sam to appear, for Dean to be grabbed around the waist and, and for John to have a shotgun in his face. John can't help but feeling a small burst of pride. He never thought Sam would willfully draw Dean into danger, or fail to protect him from a threat, but Sam was never as vigilant as Dean when it came to monsters. He preferred to think first and shoot later, something that had gotten him hurt more times than was necessary for a person to get hurt before they learned their mistake.
John puts his hands up carefully. There's no need to say anything. Sam has recognized him. His eyes are wide and wet, but his face is contorted with rage, lips thin and white. He's got his free arm around Dean's stomach, balancing Dean on the jut of his hip. Dean twists around, craning his neck to look over his shoulder at John.
"Who is it?" he asks. "Who is it Sam?"
The shotgun shivers in Sam's grasp.
"It's Dad," he says, voice barely more than a whisper.
Dean's wriggling freezes for a moment before becoming even more frantic. Sam sets him down and Dean turns to John. John lowers his arms, thinks about going to his knees and begging Dean for a hug.
Dean pushes at Sam's legs until Sam steps away from the threshold, takes a moment to look up at John, expression unreadable, before he reaches up and slams the door shut.
A frenzied whispered conversation is taking place behind the door of #621. John gapes at the bronze numbers for a long moment. He is not entirely sure what he should do next. Knock? Call out? Leave? The whispering has not stopped and John takes a moment to wonder what they're arguing about – by all accounts, both Sam and Dean should be on the same side now. John doubts he's Sam's favorite person at this point, and he seems to have converted Dean to a similar school of thought.
The whispering comes to an abrupt halt, as if the whispers had simply snapped out of existence. John shifts his weight from one foot to the other and loosens the ratty scarf around his neck. The door to #621 opens a crack and John looks down to see Dean peeking through the opening.
"Dean," John says, relieved.
The door opens wider. The glower on Dean's face could probably light a match.
"You can come in," he mutters, stepping aside. His tone makes it clear that he's only inviting John in on pain of death.
John steps forward gingerly, suddenly expecting to be met with the Spanish Inquisition. He was never obtuse enough to expect a warm welcome, considering the length of time he's been gone, but Dean's fury makes him realize that he had underestimated his sons. He had thought Dean, at the very least, would reach for him with open arms, with the unreserved, unconditional love of a young child. If this is the level of Dean's anger, John's not sure he wants to know what kind of reception Sam has prepared for him.
John toes off his boots and hangs his coat and scarf in the small closet near the door, at the express orders of his four-year-old, who watches like a hawk and nods briefly when John is finished unwrapping himself. Sam oversees the inspection from the living room, arms folded across his chest. His expression is grim, but it's softened by the loose pajamas and floppy socks he's wearing. Everything seems a couple sizes too big for Sam – including his hair – and he looks smaller for it, as if it's less him wearing the clothes and more the clothes wearing him, a skinny little pin for their lapels.
As if sensing John's scrutiny of his brother Dean trots over to Sam and takes position next to him, arms coming up to fold over his chest. Dean's glare is even less effective than Sam's, and yet John can feel some shame tugging at his heart as he looks at his two boys, united as always, but for the first time, united against him.
The silence drags on. John can feel a drop of sweat sliding down from his sideburn. He clears his throat, and opens his mouth. "Boys…"
The boys say nothing. Sam's eyes grow colder though.
"I—" John's voice dries up. What is he supposed to say? Sorry I'm late boys - traffic jam. I missed you but I'm back now!
Dean mumbles something and John's heart leaps. "What?" he asks.
"I said, that wasn't five days," Dean replies.
"That – wasn't – five – DAYS!" Dean roars. "YOU SAID FIVE DAYS! YOU PROMISED!"
John swallows hard, and dares to look at Sam for help. But Sam seems to be vibrating with anger of his own.
Dean runs up to John and beats a fist against his thigh, apparently incensed by the idea that his anger isn't enough to keep John's attention. "I CALLED YOU. I CALLED YOU EVERY DAY!"
Tears are pooling thickly in Dean's glaring eyes and dripping down onto his cheeks. He takes a gasping breath, but the words he seems intent on screaming come out in a croaky hiccup, "I hate you. I called you every day." He punches John's thigh again and again, hard, and then just collapses against John's legs, clutching them as tightly as he can, sobbing wildly into the fabric of John's jeans.
John feels like his heart has pushed up into his throat. He swallows around it and bends down, pulling Dean into his arms. Dean goes willingly, climbing John like a tree and hanging on like a limpet, arms and legs curled around John as tight as can be.
"I'm so sorry," John whispers into Dean's silky soft hair. "I'm so, so sorry."
And he is. He is so very sorry. But he knows that in this case, though Dean may accept it, apologizing is worthless.
From the look on his gaunt, washed-out face, Sam knows it too.