Sammy's girl might have been a knockout, but she was no lightweight. John caught her as she staggered forward, pitching herself headlong into him. When he held her back at arms' length, thinking she might just have been overtired from driving almost two thousand miles, he saw that her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were cloudy. And her mouth was still that luscious red that drew his eyes down to it, a perfect little cherry.
He hastily handed her off to Sammy, who got his arm around her and steered her easily to the couch. In that moment, John could see that his boy was fast on his way to becoming a man, the kind of man that could keep a girl like this one happy. But then Dean cupped Sam's shoulder comfortingly, and Sammy was a little boy again, looking to his big brother to make sense out of this confusing world.
But Sammy wasn't the problem at hand. Jessica's eyelids fluttered as she came back to herself. She shook her head, then frowned and pressed one palm to her temple. Sam hunkered down to catch her gaze, smiling encouragingly at her, and taking her hands when she smiled back. "I need to call my parents, let them know we made it here," she said, still a little shaky, and John pointed to the kitchen, where the beat-up yellow phone hung, a pad of paper hanging from a hook beside it.
He didn't mean to eavesdrop, and he was pretty good at tuning things out, so he clomped into the kitchen after her to get some paper plates for the pizzas he'd picked up as he swung "home" from a meeting with Bill and Ellen. He still hadn't really had a chance to see the house Dean had rented for the summer, or appreciate how the kid had gotten it in shape for an extended visit from Sammy and his girl. They could only hope she wasn't the fussy type; what he'd seen so far was not exactly up to luxury standards. Still, apart from that little swooning fit, she seemed okay, and he could hear from the tone of her voice as she talked to her mother that she was relaxing, settling in, and it had definitely been good to see her and Sammy reaching out instinctively for each other - that meant a lot.
When she brushed by him to get back out to the living room, a little waft of sweet-smelling air tickled his nose. It had been too long since he'd gotten close enough to smell the shampoo or soap perfuming a woman's pretty hair or skin. He wondered if Sammy knew how damn lucky he was.
He peered out into the living room. Yeah, that ear-to-ear grin on his kid's face said he was in no doubt of the cosmic scale of his good luck. John could only hope that it would last.
Jessica ate like the third son he had never had while Sam wrapped one arm around her shoulders and reached for his fourth thick slice. She looked up just in time to catch the impressed look Dean was giving her and flushed a little. "I've got four older brothers," she explained sheepishly. "We weren't exactly the most civilized when we were growing up."
"Brian, Stephen, Richard, and Michael," Sam said, "right?"
Jessica wrinkled her nose at Sam, looking mighty pleased that Sam knew so much, as if John hadn't trained him to retain much more obscure information in any number of languages. He cleared his throat. "That's a good-sized family," he said, and she glanced sidelong at him, not wanting to turn away from Sam, and smiled. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to say next; Dean had, happily, spared him the trial of having to deal with a girl who evidently had made up her mind that she wasn't going anywhere, and now here one sat, fresh from California, parked in his kitchen.
A girl who apparently thought that the way to winning over their family was to tell them all about hers. She launched into a seemingly endless monologue about the ups and downs of growing up as the overprotected princess, apple of her father's eye, and John could feel his ass going numb. He twisted his ring, trying not to wonder if he'd let the fixed smile drop off his face, when she cut herself off and blinked dazedly at his hands. "Love always," she said.
"What?" Sam asked. John figured his lovestruck son was the only one still paying attention to the girl's anecdote, something about a fight two of her brothers had had over a sweatshirt or something like that; Dean's gaze was still fixed on her, but he knew enough to be able to tell when the kid was just playing a part, damn fine actor though he usually was. "Jess?" Sam poked her, gently, a teasing smile on his face. "That's how your mom settled the argument? By saying 'love always'?"
"California kids," Dean tossed out to cover Jessica's continued silence. "Of course all that 'peace, love, togetherness' stuff works on them."
"Aw, shut up, Dean," Sam said, and Dean grinned unrepentantly. John sat back, belly full and a strange feeling of contentment coming over him. It was good to have both the boys back under one roof. Maybe college hadn't been the wrong call for Sam.
He couldn't keep his eyes open long enough to put in some real work on finding the demon; the drive back from Nebraska must have worn him out more than even Ellen and Bill's hospitality could fortify him. He stuck the faded picture of Mary, sunshine turning her hair to spun gold and her blouse to something damn near sheer, back into his notes to keep his place.
He was getting tired more easily these days, worn down by work he would have sneezed at twenty years ago. His knee cracked ominously as he stood up from the kitchen table, and he flexed his back wearily before heading down the hall to the bedrooms. Both the boys' doors were ajar, and he could hear voices coming from the room Dean must have set aside for Sam, so he tucked the journal under his arm and peered in. Dean was holding a sheet, blanket, and pillow out to Sam, who was pulling a face. "There's no way a second person could fit in that bed with you, Sasquatch," Dean was saying as Jessica nodded her fervent agreement. "Sofa city for you, since I bet you're going to do the chivalrous thing and let your girlfriend have the real bed." As an aside to Jessica, he whispered loudly, "I taught him that."
"He's a real gentleman," she teased back. The door creaked, giving him away, and she turned her happy eyes to him. "Were we being too loud?" she asked apologetically.
Good God, she apparently thought he'd struggled mightily to blow out a hundred and fifty candles on his last birthday cake. "No," he managed to say somewhat pleasantly. "I'm turning in, but you should stay up and talk as late as you like. Sammy, I expect to see you on the sofa in the morning. Good night."
Jessica and Dean smirked at each other like bad kids watching the good kid get scolded while Sam went pink in the ears at the implication, finally accepted the bedding, and got to his feet. John was surprised that Sam hugged him around the shoulders as they left the room together, but Sam turned away too quickly for him to reciprocate. He'd always been a good kid.
John made his bleary-eyed way to the bathroom at the end of the hall and woke himself up by taking a long, satisfying piss. It was only when he got to the sink that he registered that the bathroom was different than it had been the night before. There was a bottle of expensive-smelling lotion tucked into the medicine cabinet, and there were new toothbrushes taking up the last two spots on the four-brush holder. Well, fine. Sammy and his girl were staying for at least a couple of weeks - he wasn't quite sure of all the details, but that much he remembered - and it would be unreasonable to expect her to live out of her bags for the entire visit. He supposed he should count himself lucky that there were no brassieres draped over the shower curtain rod.
He brushed, showered, and started a pot of coffee. From the utter silence, he figured he had at least an hour before any of the kids would be up and demanding breakfast, or at least caffeine. He spread his notes out on the kitchen table. All of the photocopies Bobby had mailed over to Bill and Ellen's bar said the same things that the man himself had said over the phone - that the thing that had killed Mary, that had burned her with a fire targeted so precisely that the firefighters and the arson experts at the FBI couldn't wrap their heads around it, was a demon.
Demons were still pretty new to him, but Bobby had been at great pains to explain that demons were different from the nasty shit he usually hunted; demons were an evolutionary step above, apparently. That meant that this one had had a plan, and that meant that he had to tell Dean so that they could put their heads together, figure out a decent line of defense, a plan of their own.
He took his mug of coffee out to the living room, where Sammy was sleeping on the couch, quieter than John remembered him being. The kid had grown some more, filled out a little, and basically looked like a lumberjack. But there was a long lock of hair falling across his face, just like there had always been back when he used to check on him after those earlier hunts, looking down at his baby while Dean hovered in the background, ready to attend to him. The years made no difference. His Paul Bunyan still had a baby face.
But Sam was old enough, now, to stand on his own two feet, maybe to marry that girl sleeping down the hall, and John knew he couldn't afford to let sentiment stop him from going after the thing that had slaughtered his wife. Even if it was the last thing he ever did, he could at least try to give his boys the peace their life had denied them by killing their mother’s murderer. Sam would have Jessica to console him, and Dean . . . well, maybe Dean could find a girl like Jessica too.
They snagged the last booth in the burger joint, and John couldn't help himself from cataloging the expenses this visit was creating. Dean caught his eye, and nodded; they'd need to drum up some cash pretty quick if they were going to be eating out and lazing around all day. And their staying put meant that the phony credit cards were not an option.
He would have expected Sam to remember that, given all the griping he'd had to put up with as the kid begged for all the branded toys and clothes his classmates routinely flaunted, but the boy had obviously gone dumb from prolonged exposure to a whole different lifestyle. And the fact that a beautiful girl was sitting so close she was practically on his lap, and feeding him a french fry for every one she popped into her own mouth. John didn't have to glance sideways at Dean to know they were both thinking the same thing - lucky bastard.
"What's good around here for dessert?" Jessica asked as she licked her fingers clean of ketchup. "I think I saw a bakery next door - is that any good?" She looked up at him and Dean through her eyelashes, her cheeks like little pink apples, and it struck John that the girl was a natural flirt, even when she meant nothing by it, maybe didn't even know she was doing it.
Dean smiled back at her, but he was tense - John could tell from the pressure as Dean's shoulder brushed his. "Come on," she wheedled. "My treat."
"You and Sam go on ahead," John said. "Dean and I need to talk business for a few."
Dean knew the drill, signaled the waitress for coffee and the check, and answered the question Jessica had opened her mouth to ask. "We're private investigators. So much cooler than cops."
Her eyes danced, and Sam looked love-struck all over again. "Not without fedoras, you're not," Jessica giggled.
"Then we'll save up for those," Dean said, equally charming, and swung around to sit on their side of the booth after they got up.
John waited until Sam and Jessica, hand in hand, had cleared the door of the burger joint before starting in. "Got word -" was as far as he got before he realized he was addressing the frown wrinkling Dean's forehead instead of his son's usual attentive gaze. "What's wrong?" he asked, but Dean wouldn't answer except to shake his head. "When you figure it out, you let me know."
He took a deep breath, psyching himself back up to bring his boy into the worst mess of their lives. "I got word from Bobby about the thing that killed your mother. Not -" he held up a hand to forestall the words he could see ready to burst from Dean, "not how to find it. What it is." Their coffee was sitting untouched in front of them, and John could see wisps of steam rising up, curling around Dean's hands, which had gone totally still. "It's a demon," he said.
"So, Dean," Jessica said, "you know I'm counting on you to give me all the best dirt on Sam."
"This one?" Dean asked, his shoulder nudging in Sam's direction while his mouth was full of the red velvet cake Jessica had brought home. "Too geeky to have made lots of dirt." He
pointed with his fork at the bakery box. "Dad? You want?"
John shook his head, knowing he needed caffeine and not sugar. "Don't like cake," he said shortly. He could tell, even when he turned his back to them to start the coffee machine up, that the boys were making disbelieving faces at one another. "I like cupcakes. Those, you don't have to share."
"Huh," was all Jessica said, a sound halfway between a gasp and an agreement, but when he looked at her, her eyes were down and she was gripping the arms of her chair tight enough that her knuckles had gone white. "So, Dean?" she repeated brightly. "You've got no fun stories about Sam growing up? He never did anything embarrassing?" John was impressed; if he hadn't seen her hands, just heard her voice, he'd never have guessed anything was wrong. What kind of an actress had Sam brought home? The only way to figure out her game was to play it.
"Sam was always a good kid," he said, watching the way pleased surprise flashed across Sam's face and something that looked like pride shone from both Dean and Jessica. "But he still did plenty of embarrassing things. Remember 'The Great Samini'?" Jessica's eyes went wide and interested, Sam got red in patches all over his face, and Dean, who had been efficiently chomping away at the last slice of the cake, choked on what looked like a herculean mouthful of cream cheese frosting.
"Dude," Dean said, and for a moment, John couldn't tell if Dean was chastising him or reveling in the memories. Dean settled the question quickly enough, turning to Sammy with a smirk on his face and a smear of white on his chin. "That's right! You totally had a geeky magician phase where you had card tricks and knotted handkerchiefs and patter that you wrote out on little three-by-five notecards!" His wicked glance swept across Jessica but he clearly didn't bother to consider if she would be offended by where his mind automatically went. "Hey, I bet Jess'd be your lovely assistant. Bet she'd even hold your wand for you."
John watched as Jessica smiled and cheered Sam for wrestling Dean, who was still laughing, to the floor. Whatever had gotten her so tense before, she'd locked it down tight. Still, John thought, it was worth keeping an eye on her. He almost gave Dean the nod, to confirm that they should follow up on the kid's inchoate suspicions, but couldn't in good conscience burden him with this too, not after Bobby's thunderbolt from the blue. He'd just have to do it himself.
He woke to light fingers on his cheek, running through his hair. He cracked open his bleary eyes and saw a shimmer of gold. "Mary," he whispered, smiling at his own surprise, but then his hand felt the leather cover of his journal, splayed open on his chest, and he knew that he was awake and remembered that she was dead.
Jessica was leaning over him, smiling like the sun. "Yes," she said, "it's me." Her hand was soft, palming his cheek tenderly, and she looked like heaven. He felt frantically along the bedside table, hand passing over pens, his beeper, and the alarm clock before finding the Stanford flask Sammy had given him at Christmas.
She sputtered when the liquid hit her face. "Holy water?" she asked, looking confused. "But I'm not . . . Wait, how do you . . . ? Oh, John, we have so much to talk about."
It was the tone of her voice that made him slip, let belief sneak right into him. "Mary," he whispered again, less certain and more agonized than before, and she nodded, her eyes full of unshed tears, grabbed his rough hair in the old familiar way, and planted one on him.
"I guess I'm back," she said, then laughed against his mouth, and that was when he knew for sure who he was holding in his arms, even if he didn't know how the hell any of this was possible.