Summary: John comes to a decision while wearing a blue terrycloth bathrobe. IMToD reverse-POV scene.

Rating: PG – watch yer freakin' language. Gen, one-shot, COMPLETE

a/n: This one references events in an earlier fic Red, for those that are following along at home, but can be read on its own. Spoilers up to Hunted.

Thanks, as always, go to the amazing betas, jmm0001 and Lemmypie, who read the same crap over and over, who kick my ass relentlessly and who refuse to take my money. Okay, I totally don't offer them money. Hear that Kripke? No money changing hands here. At all.

The doctor wanted to talk and John was trapped.

No Sam to distract and deflect with his earnest concern, his battered hopefulness, only the industrial lines of wheelchair and bed, machines put away behind John's line of vision as though they wouldn't alarm anyone back there. Red fucking alert straight ahead: the doctor with that sad-dog face and serious eyes.

Sam had left for the lot off I-83, citing goddamn Bobby Singer's name like a goddamn good luck charm. Jesus, is that actually jealousy? Little late for that, John knew, and Bobby was a decent guy after all. But he's not me, and he better not forget it.

Bigger fish to fry, anyway: usually inquisitive Sam had breezed right over John's blatantly suspect request for acacia and oil of Abramelin to ask about the children like me.

Though there was always reason for it, John genuinely hated lying to Sam. Circumstance didn't really care if John hated it or not, because over the years, he'd had lots of practice: miscellaneous omissions, outright fabrications, white lies designed to soothe, half-truths so Sam wouldn't get on his high horse. John had honed the craft of it, and Sam, for all his pig-headedness, took well to small directions, was even now still young enough for such diversions.

Only when he was upset and disoriented; the rest of the time, he'd fight John tooth and nail.

So Sam was willing to do his wounded father's bidding, fetch magic. Momentarily willing, John reminded himself, not cooperative for any decent length of time. Wouldn't take Sam long to figure it out: when it came to demons, his dad believed a good defense boiled down to a good offense.

It was all that mattered, in the end, killing this thing.

No, sir, not before everything.

Sam had held the Colt in his large hands like it belonged there, John an easy target on the floorboards, begging Sam to shoot, giving him permission, shit, ordering him – and Sam would have. Usually, when given a direct order, Sam did it. Until he didn't. But you always knew which way he'd go, he always declared his position in a big bold statement, a manifesto delivered from the campaign hustings.

Not like Dean, who was full of subtle resistance, restrained rebellions. Don't you do it, Sam, louder than shouting, louder than the poison in John's blood, the hiss of the demon as it shot through his veins like a pinball, trying to get control again. Sam hesitating. Listening to his brother over everything else. John had heard it too: the naked need to keep them whole. Dean was loud, for all the shredded lungs, the blood.

Shied away from the thought of that whispered plea, what Dean had been trying to prevent. What he had prevented. What had come of it.

I need to keep Sam occupied, John thought, trying to attend to what the doctor was now saying. Maybe he'd been hit in the head too many times; some days he felt he had the mental acuity of an old boxer.

Amazing, how Sam only saw what he wanted. Sam had possessed a fierce self-centeredness since he was a baby, and John loved that almost more than anything else in the world. John had cause to love it: he suspected his son's sense of self-worth – the very thing that had always made John raw with crazy anger – would be the only thing to save Sam in the end. Self-centeredness and Dean, of course.

But that outcome was on the other side of a long, long bridge, spanned like the Golden Gate, an arching road across air and water, suspended on faith as much as anything else. Faith in engineering. Faith in ritual. Faith in the skills he'd given them, faith in impossible knowledge. Faith in Dean, when it came right down to it.

That wasn't what the doctor was saying right at this moment, though, and John forced himself to concentrate, to make the doctor's lips synch with the words. This doctor, who looked as though his mind was already on the eleventh fairway, was giving John the Bad News.

The doctor didn't know John. Didn't know Dean. Didn't know the Winchesters, otherwise he'd be putting things differently, would be talking about Dean's recovery, not reciting this litany of bodily harm.

Besides, Sam had just been here, delivered the same clinical news of edemas and contusions, hung around long enough to get himself lied to, to be sent on an errand. Not a fool's errand, not by any means. A preemptive strike, securing the bargaining chip. The only leverage John had against something this old and this pissed off. The Colt for Dean's life. I can do that. It's a fair trade. But there was no point in sending Sam out to fetch the Colt and the needed ingredients to summon hell if he worked it out too far in advance.

Probably Bobby fucking Singer will tell him, or he'll use the drive back to figure it out, John thought. He's a smart boy. He'll put the pieces together, know by the time he's back that I'm fixing to call out that yellow-eyed thing. John imagined the anger, and knew that he couldn't avoid it. I don't want him anywhere near the demon, and he'll come if he knows his brother's life is on the table. Sometimes, the lies were such a burden, such a disguise.

But at least one person in this world got it, got him, and that's all John really needed. He wouldn't be proud of me; he'd tear me a new one. Not one of the finer endorsements of his parenting skills, surely, but he smiled slightly thinking of Dean's shaking words, thinking that and feeling it finally. Pride, oh my god, what pride

"Do you understand what I'm telling you, Mr. McGillicuddy?" And there, well done old man, dozing at the wheel again. "Your son's injuries are extensive. I didn't want to alarm your other son, but-"

John nodded. "He's in trouble, is what you're saying." Tell me something I don't know.

The doctor's head tilted to the side, lips pressing together. Not happy with John's tone, maybe. Fuck him. The doctor sighed. "He's not responding to treatment." He paused. "Sam's spent most of the day with Dean." Naming them as though maybe John had forgotten. What kind of father does he think I am? But from experience, John knew. Knew what others thought of his parenting, had been told numerous times over the years by vast numbers of people – teachers, social workers, even Bobby fucking Singer. The teachers and social workers hadn't used buckshot to make their point, though.

Uneasy with John's stare and his silence, the doctor filled the vacuum. "Nurses had to shoo him out." The implication being that John hadn't been anywhere near Dean, of course. True, to a point.

His arm was what hurt most. Funny, how being shot in the leg didn't hurt near so much as a dislocated shoulder. Both John and Dean had a proclivity for popping the head of a humerus straight out of a shoulder joint. Ball curving away from socket, a thing of terrible beauty, it's what John saw with every slo-mo of a big league pitcher on the mound: the potential for agony. John wondered if it was a genetic marker, something Winchester men were prone to, like hip dysplasia or something.

There, not concentrating again, earning another puzzled scowl.

"I could have a nurse wheel you over to his room. He's stable, but-" A shrug. Worried. A doctor was worried about his son and that ought to terrify him. This was the expectation, every parent's nightmare. No, not really worried, John decided. The doctor already thought he knew the outcome, was simply trying to prepare a father for the inevitable. "He's comfortable."

Nice finish, doc.

"That's good," John murmured, looking at the god-awful painting on the wall, wondered if it had been done by some member of an out-patient clinic.

The doctor came closer, sat on the edge of the bed, and John couldn't help but catalog the different ways he could disable the medic if he didn't shut the fuck up. Blithely unconcerned for his safety, the doctor put a clipboard on the tray table, folded his hands together on his lap.

"It's not good, Mr. McGillicuddy." And their eyes met. "He's not really capable of feeling his injuries at the moment and that's not good."

Not a bad guy, probably. Liked duck hunting in the fall, maybe played racquetball as well as golf. Went home to his kids. Had kids to go home to. Had a home to go home to. Suddenly, John had to look away, didn't want him to come closer; everything about him was toxic. This brush with normal, a trap.

"I know," John whispered. Finally glanced back. "I could use some sleep. Sam's gone out to settle some business for me. And I-"

The doctor had no way of knowing how much John Winchester hated to be interrupted. "I'm not going to sugar-coat it, Mr. McGillicuddy. The cerebral edema is a grave concern, and he's not showing any signs of pulling out of the coma." He shifted slightly. "We checked the state records; there's nothing filed with regard to his wishes in these kinds of circumstances. Any decision will be yours." Another pause, playing with the ends of his stethoscope hung round his neck like a priest's stole. "You should probably consider what Dean would want."

"Hell, no," John said without thinking. What Dean wanted? When had that ever come into play? When had anything that any of them wanted ever mattered? Even Sam, daring to take what he wanted, even that had been fucked up by that monster. Pretty little Jess. He'd only ever seen her from a distance; he hadn't known that they'd been shopping for rings. Surprise to him too, one of those double-edged demon gifts.

The doctor continued to stare at him, as though willing him to sanity. To get with the program. Not an effective strategy under the best of circumstances. "I have some forms here for you to consider. In many ways…in many ways, Mr. McGillicuddy, we're just prolonging it. You should think about-"

John knew that the decisions he'd made, the things he'd seen and killed over the years, all these things gave him a specific conviction when he stared a man down, whether a possessed archbishop, a satantic cult leader, or a pessimistic doctor. "Dean's not going anywhere."

Surprising himself with the weight of words on his tongue, heavy as rocks piled in preparation for a medieval judgment. Over my dead body, and immediately afterwards, almost hearing the hated voice in his ear, a residual effect, Oh, I'm sure that can be arranged.

The doctor picked up the clipboard. "A young man like this can do a world of good, even in his death. He'd want that, wouldn't he? He'd want to help others."

Dean would help a lot of people, but far more if he stayed alive.

John looked at the clipboard and felt as though he was being passed a loaded gun. In a way, he was. A gun pointed at Dean's head, the pen a bullet, his fingers pulling a trigger, signing his name. A death warrant.

Different than what he'd asked of Sam, back in the cabin, somehow, because this was death without advantage or gain, was meaningless loss. He'd had enough of meaningless loss to last him a lifetime.

"Let me get the nurse. You can think about these later. After you see him. You and Sam could be at his side when-"

"Get out," John said quietly. His sons knew that voice. A thousand dead things knew that voice.

The doctor, for all his home to go to, apparently recognized that voice too. He bowed his head, looked away.

But he left the clipboard and pen on the table.

Sam took his time getting back and for that, John was grateful. Under every stone, isn't that what he'd promised Sam? Man, sometimes he surprised himself, what came out of his mouth. If Sam only knew. Better if he didn't. Better that he hates me, that he has something to push against.

And why search for such specious magic as faith healing or magic potions when Sam was delivering the solution right into John's hands?

The Colt for Dean's life. Easy trade, more than one way to kill a demon. This one was just damn convenient and he hated to let it go. Maybe Elkins had known something after all, known better than to give the Colt to him.

John looked dispassionately at the clipboard on the table, unable, unwilling, to read the words there. He'd always prided himself on considering the angles; he'd taught both boys to play pool, and through it, basic concepts of physics and math. Statistics and probability. What if Old Yellow Eyes ups the ante? What else do I have?

Thought about that, considering angles, difficult as they might be. Do a world of good, even in death. Keep it in mind, old man.

His life, not so much a sacrifice as a stealth weapon. He thought about what damage he could inflict if he committed himself to a mortal undertaking with a demon, if he took the required leap. It was too unknown, what he might do to fuck up a demon from the inside. There wasn't exactly precedence.

Bank shot, old man. Where's the eight ball? Damage occurs in both directions, equal and opposite reactions: how would Dean take it, if he found out?

God, Dean must never know what he was considering. Never. The Colt was one thing, but it was not the only card John found he was prepared to play. The things I'm willing to do, to kill; it scares me sometimes. And those words hadn't surprised John in the slightest, remembered thinking the same thing, years and years ago, staring down into a crib.

Dean would never believe him if he said it out loud; in fact, he hadn't believed him, had he? Dean already knew how John felt about him. Shit, didn't John show him all the fucking time? A week ago, John would have put money on it, but goddamn it if the demon hadn't messed it all up, this established and warped dance that passed for lines of communication between Winchester males.

Outside, a sunny prairie day, slatted blinds barring the table, the forms. John pushed away the table with an awkward left hand, and a nurse brushed in, tsking. Placed a tiny paper cup on the table, filled with pills like a Barbie Easter basket. Eyed him formally before pouring a plastic cup full of water from the jug.

John smiled slowly and she smiled back. She'd been expecting trouble, but didn't recognize it when it slid back battered lips and flashed enamel at her. His slow smile was something, he knew. An ace up his sleeve, a silk stocking for binding, a weapon of sorts. Mary had said as much once, a very long time ago, with her own smile in return.

"What're these for?" he bothered to ask, going through the motions; he knew the answer. He threw the pills into his mouth and reached for the water cup in one smooth action, twisting his shoulders as he did so, creating a crease in his lap into which he spat the pills like watermelon seeds.

Swallowed the water, slow smile again, eyes on her. She'd been watching his hand, maybe noticing his wedding band and how it caught the sunlight and John thought Mary might be proud of him some days.

There was goodbye and then goodbye. Details of what lay ahead were murky. The details only; the broad picture was clear as a loaded table, just after making the break. Work the angles: bargains were few and far between with a devil. Few and far between with John Winchester, too. And this devil didn't really know its quarry as well as it probably thought it did.

We have plans, John thought. Both of us. Wearing the meatsuit cuts both ways, asshole.

"I could use a hand," John said to the nurse, never asking for anything, eyes sliding to the wheelchair folded in the corner.

Hope to god Sam's here when he wakes up, John thought, not letting any of the fear show on his face. Let nothing show, even when you were alone. Not alone. Dean's here. He's here, I know he is, no matter how dead he looks.

John knew what it was like, waking up cold and alone in a hospital. I let it show then, Oregon hospital, mountains out the window, not even knowing my name, blender contents for vital organs, and my first thought, my only thought – Where are the boys? Where are the boys? Didn't hold it together at all, did I? Tearing out IV tubes, staggering to find clothes, keys, not knowing what the fuck I was driving or where it might be parked, no wallet, no money.

Last thing John had recalled, he'd been gone for three out of four planned days; the doctor had told him the date, and John had realized, sick, that he'd been off the radar for twenty-five days.

Head clearing, departure loud and AMA, phoned the school, the motel, and nothing. Pastor Jim's phone number like mantra, collect call, finally – Where are they, Jim? Where are my boys?

But he didn't want to think about Dean having to wake up like that. Made him weak, these boys, could actually feel his resolve falter, looking at Dean so unnaturally still and quiet. But he didn't believe that, not really. He'd have been dead a hundred times over without them. First week without Mary, he'd have been gone. They tied him here, gave him reason to stick around.

And now? The tubes and the machines creating a simulacrum of human motion, the squeaks and sighs, the subtle blips signifying 'life'. Dean, his son, reduced to a series of flashes on a monitor, a mechanical rise and fall of breathing false as an animated Disney creature. Oh god, he looks so young.

And now.

The hospital was an old one, all polished terrazzo and milkglass lighting, signage harking back to when cars were the size of ocean liners and opening a refrigerator involved the same motion as pulling a draft beer in a tavern. Lotta death in a hospital; he'd avoided them over the years, even when he shouldn't have.

This one, so still and white, ghastly rip tearing the forehead Mary had worked nine months to make, this one, had paid for that abhorrence, time and again. Though Marine trained, John sometimes missed things. And Dean was always good at hiding the hurt, of course. Was good at hiding, period. John had made sure of it.

Jim, buddy, you gotta help me. They're not in school, the motel manager's a bitch. Where the fuck are they, Jim? Where the fuck are my boys?

Chest moving up and down, not like he was sleeping, because Dean didn't lie so still when he was asleep. John wasn't going to pretend. This was his work, both good and bad, this was the man his kind of fathering made. Strong enough to kill anything without flinching. Just about everything.

The demon had a hand in their lives, yes, of course, always, but John couldn't hide behind that, wouldn't. If nothing else, he had a sense of what was fair. And to blame the demon for all the hurt wasn't actually possible.

Don't you let it kill me, Dad.

Like being in a flooding river at night, hearing his sons' voices over the rush of water, and feeling their hurt, and not being able to do a damn thing. Except. Except sit here, no stone unturned in someone's blue terrycloth bathrobe like he lived here or something. The floors were cold against his bare feet, and he was pretty sure now that the temperature of the floor wouldn't matter much in a while.

It was too dark in the room, and chilly, the machines making soft chirps like a nest of little birds, the monitors glowing. Maybe that's why they kept it so dark, so they could read the time of death more easily.

I won't let it kill you, son.

Small birds, a nest of them, too little to go anyplace but splat on the ground, and John could actually feel his heart fumble at the thought of that. Then, unbidden: One in the hand is worth two in the bush. Together, they'll be okay, more okay than either solo with me.

He knew what that looked like, just him and Dean: bloody and efficient, an oiled machine. Hard and relentless. He didn't exactly know what just him and Sam might look like, but he wasn't planning on finding out. He suspected that he and Sam alone together would be too much, like flame and dynamite. Too much, and not enough, because the glue that held everything together wouldn't be there. The center wouldn't hold.

Three thousand days trapped in that car, hurtling down a highway in blazing sun, hot enough to startle the lines right off the pavement. In rain so thick the wipers were a joke, the road turned to river. In snowstorms, whiteout conditions with nothing visible but the taillights of the semi in front, gripping the wheel and praying neither boy realized how scared he was. Prayed pretty much all the time, with no conviction whatsoever.

Cargo of two, yelling, scrapping, whining, wheedling, incessant as gulls at low tide. C'mon, next stop, Dad, next one, toodamnhot, won't drip it in the car, promise. You said damn! Didn't. Did. Didn't. C'mon, next stop. Didididididid.

Dean could decode every subtle expression John made, every nuance to shoulder and eyebrow and mouth John had thought to develop, knew a few John didn't even know he possessed.

I know my dad better than anyone.

Unless Dean was too tired or coming down with something, he'd only push it until John silenced him with a steady stare. Would lean back, go quiet, let Sam go on and on, earning the rebuke some days, the days when Dean would leave him enough rope to hang himself.

Sam always spoke up when he was hurt. Sam always let John know exactly what he was feeling every second of every damn day and it was enough to make you want to throw him from the car, moving or not. Loved him for that, too, truth be told.

Under the white hospital t-shirt, there would be bandages. There would be new scars joining all the others. Outside. And worse, in. Contusion. Change one letter. Dean had been cut to the bone in every way you could imagine and John knew it, couldn't take any of those words back. The demon's words, but his voice, enough truth woven into the lie to give it supple body and enormous strength. Dean would know that, wouldn't he? Would know that the demon lied, that demons lied on principle.

They don't need you, not like you need them.

Cuts both ways. Cuts all ways: sons, demons. Himself, of course.

His sons didn't need him anymore, not really. Not like they needed each other.

But John didn't actually know, wasn't a hundred percent sure that Dean hadn't believed it. And it was important, it was more important that Dean understand the demon's lie than almost anything else. John did nothing but burden Dean, had done it all his young life; his son was like the steps in an old building, worn smooth and hollow by the tread of feet. He didn't complain. He had done everything ever asked of him.

Would continue to do everything John asked of him, even these last two things: believe John now, not then. And look out for Sam, in every and all senses. Save him, Dean. He wondered, briefly, what kind of cowardice this was, asking Dean to take this on instead of facing it himself.

Maybe he was a coward.

A rainy Seattle street corner, parking lot half empty, beer bottles smashed and glittering in the distant flash of neon and sulfuric street light. A phone booth tagged with black and red, Dean, oh fuckfuckfuckfuck, Dean, thirteen years old, shivering in a ball at the bottom of it, covered in blood. For once, not hiding.

But not in the open, either. Wouldn't tell me about those twenty-five days, no matter the threats and promises. Protecting Sam. More than that: protecting me. Because if I knew what had happened, what had really happened during those twenty-five days, I wouldn't be the same. God alone knew Dean was never the same afterwards. Saw shadows for what they were.

Stubborn little cuss, even now, on the bed, not dying, no matter what that fucking doctor said. Because Dean had inherited the stubbornness from someone, and it wasn't Mary.

They'll find the yellow-eyed bastard, eventually. It'll be a fight they'll take on. Sam'll never let go. Stubborn in a different way from Dean, a way that was true and evident. And Dean'll look out for his brother, always has.

Consider the angles: the demon will eventually tell Dean, it's the sort of thing a demon would enjoy doing. Want to know why you're alive, Dean Winchester? Want to know what was traded? Truth as a sword, truth as a fucking gun, pointed at Dean and wasn't it an indication of how fucked up John Winchester's world was that he could look at his son on a hospital bed, see right past this monumental hurt and on to the next one?

But maybe by the time he knows, he'll be older. Maybe he'll have kids of his own and understand. Any parent would. Jump in front of a car, put them in the life raft, snatch them from a burning building.

Cowardice? Maybe, but maybe not.

He heard beeps and shrieks down the hall, some emergency, someone coding, flatlining, knew what that sounded like. A reaping of souls, perfectly natural. He waited for the nurse to stick her head back in, told her he was ready. She wheeled him back to his room, and he could tell she was satisfied, that she thought her work here was done, that she had accomplished what the stupid fucking arrogant doctors couldn't.

He stared for a moment at the forms, tapping the pen against his lips. Stroked out Dean's name, filled in his own and signed.


a/n: This was really just a big fat warm-up for the next long fic, which will be coming soon. A character study if you will, of a certain pivotal moment in John Winchester's life. John's going to figure prominently in the next one, and I felt that I needed to stretch my John muscles a little. Thanks for bearing with me.