Characters: John, Dean, Sam
Genre: gen, pre-series (Dean is 18), hurt/comfortish
Warnings: smoking, parenting
Word Count: ~2300
Summary: What it comes down to is, John is too late for everything but what's ahead of them. If he runs fast enough, maybe he'll be far enough ahead to turn around and face what's left.
Notes: This is for my friend, alexadean, who asked if I would write a story about teen!Dean smoking to see if it would get John's attention.
John likes to think that if this were done over, if nothing had burned, if Mary were by his side, and if no blood had been spilt, they could have made a real go of it. But that's not true, and no lawnmowers, apple pies, birthday parties could make it true. Maybe if he coached Dean's Little League team the way he meant to, John thinks. Maybe if Dean had had a Little League team, period. But John knows better; he knows the stats on broken homes, the homeless and traumatized, and people like Pastor Jim won't ever let him forget them, but John knows better. He's seen it happen to a dozen better men and their luckier children. There are happy endings somewhere out there, but they're designated specifically for 18-49 year olds, and they happen an hour earlier in the Central timezone. The Winchesters just ain't that lucky; and if they ever were, John's pretty sure he'd have flipped some switch, somewhere, somehow, to turn probability back on them.
It's stupid, he thinks, to put cards on "a real go" that's so far away from the truth. From what's real.
This is real:
"Some Japanese thing," Sam interjects, before John has time to finish his sentence. Sam doesn't even look up from his--Dean's, John realizes, it's actually Dean's--chemistry textbook. He is doodling sharks in the margins, because contrary to popular--and again, by popular, John mean's Dean's--opinion, Sam does not always study.
John is not entirely a stranger to his children. (But why sharks?)
"It's always a Japanese thing," Sam mutters. "It's just a little boy dancing in the rain. Big deal."
Dean bursts into their motel room the same way, John thinks, he would have burst into their house--if nothing had burned, if there were a kitchen and Mary had been in it, if there were pie.
"You missed the briefing," John says, practicing a measured indifference that could do with a little more grease.
"It's just a little boy dancing in the rain," Sam repeats. "Big deal."
Dean shoots his brother a withering glare and explains that the storm flooded the usual route, he had to find a walkaround, he's late so fucking deal with it. This last he does not say, but he would, John thinks, if things were different. Dean shrugs a coat dry with lies onto the floor, and leaves it there. He smells like smoke.
But maybe not. Maybe he'd lock it inside of himself anyway. Dean has always been, and will always be, destined for implosion. It's his nature--their nature, John admits, for the sake of genetic consistency. John's kept touch with enough of his own adolescence to recognize the pattern. Even so Dean is strange--if not entirely a stranger--to him, and too much has changed, too much is different, for him to understand Dean much beyond that. There's still room for any number of maybes, but mostly maybe nots.
Dean respects his father--respects him, John. That much is obvious. But somewhere along the line Dean lost his trust in him, and John's not sure what to do with a mismatch like that. It's like a thing in half, a knife without a handle. It should not be such a revelation, given their circumstances, their bizarre, eclectic foil to anyone--anyone--else's expectations.
It should not be such a revelation to anyone who's watched his child play guardian to him, John, the parent--when that parent sick, or tired, or grieving. Maybe there's some solidarity in that. Some naked, intimate truth, and that's what makes them different from anyone else. But John's not any of those things, not really. He's been all of them, at some point. But what he is now isn't a single adjective, a single word. Mostly what he is, John thinks, is too late to turn back.
Part of that is eggheadedness; part of it's just time. He is too late for them. It's been over a decade now, they've settled down some; they're still moving but with a more steady, long-haul sensibility. They're not moving with the flames licking at their feet anymore. The fire's in John's hands and if there is no Little League, at the very least there's that. There's fire in all their hands. At the very least.
John could see them staying here a year, maybe a year and a half. It'd be their longest. But it's different from their old days and weeks, isn't it? It'd be a like a gift.
It wouldn't be too late for Sam's high schooling, if they settled.
John could try to settle, maybe.
But what also settles when they settle is a whole lot of dust, a lot of burial dust, and it's then that the damage reaches out to take them by their necks, coughing and choking. It's then that damage comes a-knocking. If they kept moving, no monsters, no memories could ever touch them; and it wouldn't be running away. It would be running past. Surmounting. At least, John thinks, it could be. Running in front of the fire, making it theirs.
What it comes down to is, John is too late for everything but what's ahead of them. If he runs fast enough, maybe he'll be far enough ahead to turn around and face what's left.
"Hey Sam, can I borrow your lighter?" Dean asks. Dean's eighteen and Sam's young enough to still look twelve, and Dean asks to borrow his lighter.
"You know where it is," says Sam, and Dean does.
"Nice sharks," says Dean.
If the rain sounds torrential outside, it's just the roof--corrugated aluminum sheeting. It had been a popular style at some point far in the past, a trend this motel had been too late in adopting and too stubborn to ever update.
"Stopped by the mini mart," Dean says casually, and lights up then and there, like the asshole he wishes he were.
Sam stares, scrunches his nose, then looks to his father, looks to John.
It is one of the last times, John already knows, that this will ever happen.
Sam retreats into a sullen calm that John had early on diagnosed as sociopathy. He's since revised his diagnosis to Sam being Sam, and Sam hating all of this. Both his sons might play the long game, but Sam's the one time comes, he's gonna rip through everything like shrapnel. Dean wouldn't do that.
Dean takes a long slow drag on his cigarette, and keeps it between his teeth as he packs the next one against his palm.
"Bette Davis died of cancer," says Sam.
"But not lung cancer, dumbass," says Dean. And John wonders, if they'd had a real go of it, if nothing glowed with embers, burned and toppled--Dean nearly gets an eyeful of ash but pointedly holds position--if his children would be the aliens they surely are today. But he knows that yes, they would be. This way, at least, he knows the reason why.
John cannot untread the distance between them. Sometime in the middle of growing up, they'd grown apart. Sam makes a regular show of it, isn't shy about the truth at all, like he's written him off early on so that he can devote his attention to later and more likely aspirations. But Dean stands by him, will work in tandem with him, will work as though there's nothing at all wrong with them, like there's something there between them. And there is, John's sure there is, but he's lost sight of it, and he's afraid to turn back. He trusts, hopes that he can trust, that Dean will keep it safe until then. He hopes that Dean can keep it safe until then.
The room smells like smoke.
"Weren't you going to do something about the kid in the rain, Dad," says Sam, and rolls his eyes too obviously at Dean.
The spirit's Japanese, as Sam said. It's just a kid, it's only supposed to dance. But something happened, something cracked, and now it's causing car crashes. It's a kid spirit begging to be taken home. It's a child begging.
Dean looks about ready to pass out, and John's not even sure if he's asphyxiating in his own haze, or if it's the caustic euphoria of it all.
Maybe if they'd had a house, John thinks, they'd have had house rules. But maybe not; maybe they'd have passed. Mary--if they would have been together still, Mary--had never liked rules. Maybe the rules, or lack of them, are not the problem.
YOU SHAME ME, John wants to shout. He wants to fight it out of Dean. HOW DARE YOU I LOVE YOU, he wants to shout, but in the end that's only guilt and shame, too. I LOVE YOU is an option, but Dean would not know what to do with that. John would hardly know what to do with that. He loves his sons, but if a thing needs to be said, John can't help but feel that it's just not true enough. And it's been long enough now that there are more who'd take John Winchester's word as a surefire lie than them who'd believe him. And maybe it's stupid, and childish itself, but it's frightening, and it's forever, and John can't, he can't make himself, take that chance. He knows full well that all that's sustained them this far are a couple tilted pillars made of salt.
He can't look back.
But if things were different and all were well, John still wouldn't know how to speak to his children. He wouldn't know how to speak to the man Dean is, whether as a son or as a man, a stranger entirely. And John knows he cannot make that up; a thousand fresh new chances, and he will never make that up. Because with every report card, he has always thought, this is where I change. This is when the praise comes, the concern, the interest. But he doesn't; he is busy, or distracted, or ashamed, or terrified. John has his thoughts, and he puts them away, and there has never been, will never be, words beyond what's already been written. Every girlfriend, every school dance, John wonders, should he ask? and doesn't.
He would hug Dean now, kill the smoke before their whole damn everything went up in flames, but Dean learned that gesture from someone else. It's just not part of their rapport. He's missed out, John knows. He knows.
So what John does, is walk out that door. He takes his guns, and his salt and his gasoline, but not his son. "You look after your brother," he tells Sam, and when Dean scrambles to join him, he slams the door in Dean's face.
John can't make up what's done and gone. He can't unmake distance. Dean is within arm's reach and John cannot, cannot pull Dean close. What John can do is use what's left of their proximity and turn it against him. So John slams the door and walks into the rain alone.
He clenches his fists when his hands start to shake, until it's his whole body shaking and there's nothing John can do about that. He is too late to do anything about that. So he shakes. He shakes like a building tumbling from its foundation, drywall hitting the sky in black plumes, like the ceiling just before it crumbles onto the shoulders of the family that trusted, once trusted so deeply in it. If he doesn't cry, it's only because it is already raining.
He watches the little boy dance in the rain, and cannot kill him.
Sam's fourteen and looks twelve, and John already knows Sam's gonna leave him like a shrapnel bomb. He won't bother bracing himself for the impact; he owes Sam that much. He will deserve that damage. But Dean, Dean will never leave. Either he'll step into line like there's a shell there waiting for him, or he'll step into line until he's only that shell, waiting for John, but he will never leave. He'll collapse in on himself first, and it won't be cigarette smoke he disappears into. He's playing the long game, same as Sam, but the way this goes, the long game leaves Sam gone and free, and Dean just gone.
They're rushing forward so quickly, and growing up so quickly, that it is all John can do to keep up; he'll never be able to turn back, grab their hands, and pull them into him. He doesn't have the stride. He stumbled into being a parent the same way he will eventually stumble out of it, probably bleeding, and definitely burning.
He watches the little boy dance in the rain, and cannot kill him.
When he comes home, when he comes home to their tin can of a home, the window is open. They're "airing out," Sam explains, with a frankness that John really hopes he loses later in life. The cigarettes are on the doorstep, bloated and wormlike from the rain. Dean regards him squarely when he enters, then picks up his chemistry book. For one night, John has stumbled into parenting. This one night, and one night only, he has a chance to fix things. It is a chance he knows he will miss, because he knows that it is only a matter of time. He'll stumble. He is a thing in half, a knife without a handle.
He wants to kiss his children good night, and doesn't. He hears a crash, then sirens. Somewhere out there, there's a child dancing, and John lets him.
In the future, if John can only pick one more night to be the father he knows he isn't, he hopes he chooses well. He hopes, for the love of God, that he'll choose well.
+ I love John the same way I love the other Winchesters--in spite of/because of what can be wretched about them. Parenting is hard. Always try to be better.