Author's Note - This fic was inspired by a visual image - John Winchester's hand on Dean's shoulder and neck. The rest came from there...and from my endless obsession with what John would do if he had to make a choice between his sons.

Dean didn't know where he was. The taste in his mouth and the heaviness of his limbs indicated drugs were involved with his memory loss, but for a reason he couldn't pinpoint he wasn't afraid. His eyes wouldn't respond to the command to open, so Dean set about determining where he was by other means. He could hear someone moving close by; the presence of the other was very reassuring. The voice attached to the other was chanting too low to be understood, but the feeling of protection associated with it was clear.

Dean breathed deeply, again urging his unresponsive limbs to move. He managed a slight roll; it was enough to get the attention of the other. A familiar hand clamped down on his right shoulder, a thumb rested at the base of his neck. "Be still, Dean." the voice ordered. Dad. Dean obeyed.

John was moving with some urgency nearby. Once or twice he had bumped into Dean who by this time had figured out he was lying on a stone floor. Dean got the feeling John was working within some time frame he didn't understand. It didn't matter; he didn't need to understand. Dad was in charge. Dean extended his senses, listening hard for a second body moving around; one that should be there but wasn't. The drugs in his system made it difficult for him to connect to why that bothered him.

With no warning, John was kneeling behind him again, urging Dean to get to his knees. It took some effort, but with his father's help Dean managed to get upright. He was on his knees for just a moment before John dragged him to his feet. Only the sturdy presence of his father behind him and the steadying hold of the arm around his chest prevented Dean from falling flat on his face. Dean blinked and tried to take in the room around them. He couldn't see much; it was dark and his eyes still weren't working properly.

From what Dean could make out it was possible they weren't even in a room. The stone walls around them gave the place the look of a cave. A small fire was burning in a shallow pit between them and the far wall. The light from the fire made it difficult to see anything beyond it. But there was something beyond the fire, something important; something Dean didn't have to see to know was there. Sam.

Dean tensed in anticipation of movement. Adrenaline warred with the drugs in his system for control of his body. Adrenaline might have won if not for Dad. John increased the hold he had on Dean and whispered urgently in his ear. "Be still, Dean! Stay right where you are!" Instinct and training came to blows within Dean, but the overriding belief that Dad would always protect them sided with training and kept Dean in his place just as sure as if his feet had been nailed to the floor.

A sharp intake of breath from John indicated that something had changed. An instant later, Dean realized that something was coming. He could feel it before it arrived. Adrenaline and instinct had begun to turn the tide against the drugs inhibiting Dean's reflexes; but training and trust kept him where he was. Though he could now make out intricate details of the cave around them, he never saw the knife his father held in his right hand.

With a rush of wind the entity entered the room. Dean felt the chill it brought with it down to his bones. The light from the small fire flickered and was absorbed by the darkness emanating from the creature. It moved to stand before them. It was taller than them; taller than Sam. It seemed to have the shape of a human, but that might have been a convenience for their sake. It carried darkness around it like a cloak, and its face was hidden in the depths of many shadows. Dean felt stripped bare under the weight of the creature's gaze, and was relieved beyond measure when it turned its attention to John.

The choice has been made. The address to his father nonetheless echoed in Dean's head.

John made no verbal response. He clutched Dean closer to his chest as he nodded his head in acquiescence. That was when Dean saw the knife.

A million thoughts raced through Dean's head, but the one that outweighed them all was acceptance. Dean had always known he would willingly sacrifice his life for Sam's. It surprised him that his death would come at his father's hands, but he wouldn't fight him on it. Dad had made a choice; a choice Dean would have made himself. Dean relaxed slightly in his father's grip; trying to convey his understanding and acceptance without words. The creature stood before them for a long moment, and Dean braced himself for a blow that never came.

Dean blinked with incomprehension as the creature turned and moved away from them. Dean could feel John's ragged breathing on his cheek and his racing heartbeat against his back. But it was the tears on his neck as John mumbled over and over again, "Don't move, Dean. Stay right where you are" that afforded Dean a moment of clarity. He realized a number of things at once: John had been holding the knife blade out, in defense; he and his father were standing inside one of the most intricately designed protective circles he had ever seen; and, Sam was not with them.

"No." The rush of understanding should've given more power to Dean's utterance, but the depth of the betrayal stole all of his power and all he could manage was a horrified whisper.

The creature glided across the room to where Sam lay, stretched out; silent and waiting on a simple stone alter. It seemed absurd to Dean to realize that Sam didn't fit; his feet dangled over the edge. The creature uttered again in their minds. The choice has been made. It reached out with something close to tenderness to touch Sam's sleeping face.

Enraged Dean struggled against their father. But John Winchester knew his son well; well enough to pump him full of more drugs than he'd administered to Sam. Dean's anger wasn't strong enough yet to overcome the misfired messages his brain was sending to his body; by the time it was, it would be done.

"NO!" Dean screamed as the creature laid its hand on Sam's chest. Frantically he fought against the arm that had become a band of steel around his chest. John's determination to keep Dean was just as strong as Dean's desire to protect Sam.

"Stay where you are, Dean!" John ordered between sobbing breaths. "I can't lose you too!"

"Sam!" Dean cried in desperation, hoping against hope he could wake his brother. Kicking, punching, twisting, Dean did all he could to escape his father's hold. The arm across his chest moved to clamp across his throat. Black spots exploded in Dean's vision as his father cut off his supply of oxygen. Their combined struggles brought them both to their knees.

"Dean! It can't be changed!" John pleaded for understanding.

"You can't have him!" Dean screamed at the creature with all of the power left in him. "He's not yours!"

The creature turned to look at the struggling Winchesters who froze beneath its gaze. He is bound to this other.

Dean could feel his father's grip loosen slightly even as he pulled him in closer. His father's head rested against his shoulder. His father's whispered apology frightened him more than anything else. The knife came up in a flash under the black cord of the scarab charm Sam had given him. The contact with Dean's flesh was slight, just enough to raise a thin line of blood. Scraping the edge of the knife against the wound to collect the blood, John sliced the cord around Dean's neck. Catching the severed cord between his thumb and the knife, he flicked the necklace and blood toward the creature.

A release of the protection Sam had set on Dean when the gift was given. A severing of the bond between them. An offering of Dean's blood in place of his life.

The creature was satisfied. Done and done.

Dean tried one last time to dive out of the protective circle his father had drawn so diligently around them, screaming Sam's name though he knew it was far too late.

"Sam! Sammy!"

Sam woke with a start when Dean screamed his name. The broken desperation in his brother's voice drove him out of bed before he even opened his eyes. He didn't spend enough time untangling himself from the blankets however and hit the floor with a thud about the same time Dean did.

"Sammy!" Dean's pain and hysteria got Sam moving in spite of the tangle he was in. The room was dark in the light of false dawn, but Sam had no trouble seeing the grief on Dean's face. Dean's right hand was groping blindly for something as his left hand held the ever present charm around his neck in a death grip. Sam captured Dean's right hand and pulled him in close as he reassured him, "I'm right here, Dean. I'm okay. I'm right here."

In a move that surprised Sam beyond all measure, Dean wrapped both of his arms around Sam's chest, buried his face in Sam's neck and broke down sobbing. He muttered and mumbled many things, but the only phrase Sam could make out with any clarity was "I choose you, Sam. I choose you."

Sam could do nothing to ease Dean's panic. He just rocked him and held him and reassured him over and over that he was right there and he was okay. Eventually the exertion of the nightmare coupled with the drop in adrenaline levels and Sam's continued presence soothed Dean enough for him to fall back to sleep. Sam remained seated where he was, propped up against his own bed with Dean held tightly to his chest. He pulled his knees up to brace himself; it wasn't easy maintaining a hold on Dean's greater weight, but there was no way Sam was letting him go.

Sam allowed his chin to drop down to rest on Dean's head. He closed his eyes and listened to his brother breathe. I choose you, Dean. And one of these days, one of us is going to lose this unholy choosing sides tug-of-war. I wonder if the other will be able to walk away.

Unwilling to ponder the implications of that train of thought, Sam turned his mind to lollipops and candy canes and wondered what exactly he was going to tell Dean when he finally woke up.