Title: Sooner or Later

Summary: Prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays.

A/N: This is written for my fanfic23 table from snflashback. This fulfills my prompt for Sam age 9 and Dean age 13. There are references to HotH and generalize spec on the boys' childhood. Sam said he'd prayed for a long time, and here's just one take on how long and why. Beta'ed by geminigrl11, who deserves the credit for making this piece more than a collection of ramblings.

Characters: Sam, Dean, John, Pastor Jim

Rating: PG, gen

Disclaimer: I don't own much, especially not the boys.


Prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays.

-Soren Kierkegaard

-o-

Jim always said that the house of the Lord was open to anyone at any time. Most people didn't take him up on that offer, limiting their visits to Sunday mornings, but it didn't make it any less true. He always made himself available to those in need—spiritual, financial, social, even the supernatural.

All of the above, in John Winchester's case.

In the years Jim had known John, he knew him to be a proud and solitary man, fiercely protective of his children, yet doggedly persistent in his hunt. He was a man with a mission, and that made him coarse and hard to get along with, but John was still a child of God, whether John realized that or not, and Jim had a responsibility for him.

Besides, he loved the man despite himself, and he adored the boys. Though their visits weren't frequent, they were usually heated and important, sometimes lengthy, and at this point, Jim Murphy knew the Winchester family pretty well. He'd fed them, sheltered them, clothed them, and taught them—his knowledge was both religious and supernatural, and he always felt relieved to offer a spiritual take on the hunt, figuring that most hunters needed some kind of greater grounding in order to survive--not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well.

Seeing John's boys just made that need all the more obvious. They knew more than they should have had to of evil and danger, yet were painfully awkward in real world situations. Whenever John took up residence in his small parish, Jim always relished the time to help on both fronts.

This time, it was a werewolf that had brought John to his door, one that happened to be taking residence up not more than ten miles away. Jim had been suspicious of the activity, but Jim was not an active hunter in the truest sense. He would protect, he would enlighten, and he would research, but his calling was not that of a hunter.

The small Winchester family had been in Blue Earth for nearly three days, doing reconnaissance and prep work. Jim was increasingly surprised at how quickly Dean had grown up, how he had matured. The 13-year-old played the part of a seasoned hunter without fail, helping his father every chance he could.

Sam, on the other hand, was still the same inquisitive child Jim had first met, more content to explore the nooks of the church and peruse Jim's ancient volumes of text than focus truly on the hunt at hand. John was more than satisfied to leave Sam to the confines of the church, mostly leaving his youngest under Jim's care, because it kept the boy safe and allowed him to focus all at once. The youngest Winchester had been a trial for his father in many regards—far less obedient that his older sibling and far more curious than was good for his father's patience. But Jim was amused by the boy, and allowed Sam to tag along with him.

He'd gone about his morning rituals quietly. John and Dean had left early to map out a plan of attack. The hunt was to happen tonight—the lunar cycle was just right. Sam spent the morning reading, sprawled out on the wooden pews, and he was still there while Jim prepared himself for his morning prayers at the front of the sanctuary.

"What are you doing?" Sam's voice interrupted his thoughts.

Jim looked up to find the boy watching him carefully. "I'm preparing myself for prayer."

The answer seemed to confuse Sam. "Why?"

It was not an uncommon question from the nine-year-old. From all the time the boys had spent here, Jim had been asked that for everything from why he kept his cereal in the pantry to why he didn't put dressing on his salad. This why, however, seem to catch him off guard. "Why what?"

Sam seemed unfazed. "Why do you pray?"

The question was simple, yet brazenly immature. Sometimes for all the boy knew, what he didn't know surprised Jim even more. "It is how I talk to God."

This seemed to fascinate Sam. "Does He listen?"

The question seemed ridiculous, but Jim could see the seriousness of Sam's face. He stifled a laugh. "Of course He listens."

"How do you know?"

It was another classic Sam question, one that Jim knew drove the boy's father to distraction. Jim, however, found more patience for the child. "I see Him at work in my life, sometimes in direct response to what I have prayed about. I see Him in the world."

"How? What does He look like?"

"It's not exactly like that."

"Then what is it like?" Sam prompted immediately.

"Well, it doesn't usually look quite so apparent. Not physically visible sometimes," Jim tried to explain.

"Daddy says we believe in what we see and hear. Everything else is just nonsense."

The comment made Jim's heart break a little. "Sometimes it's all in what you look for. Do you always see a ghost?"

"Not at first sometimes," Sam said.

"Yes, but what do you see?"

"Well usually the temperature drops. And sometimes there's a wind—sometimes it's a big wind."

"Exactly. Sometimes we see signs that it exists, but not the ghost itself. God is like that sometimes."

Sam seemed to accept that, but he still looked perplexed. "But how do you know if he's listening? Right then, I mean? I mean, what do you say to him?"

"I talk to Him about many things," Jim said, trying to figure out how to condense his entire prayer life into a version a nine-year-old could comprehend. "I pray to honor Him, to ask for help, to ask for forgiveness."

"But how do you know what to say?"

Clearly, Jim's explanation was lacking. The boy wanted concrete answers, not spiritual catch phrases. Sometimes he forgot how little Sam understood of church and of spirituality.

"Well, let me ask you this," Jim tried. "How do you talk to your brother?"

Sam crinkled his nose. "That's a weird question."

"Just think about it. How do you know what to say to him?"

Sam looked serious as his mind worked. "I just talk. I tell him things I want him to know. Like about my day, what I'm thinking, that kind of stuff."

"Does Dean need to know these things?"

Sam shrugged. "Sometimes."

"Does he already know some of these things?"

"Sometimes," Sam said slowly. "He usually seems to know how I'm feeling before I tell him."

"Does he always listen anyway?"

"Yes."

"Even when he's busy?"

Sam nodded, his confidence growing. "Yes."

"So tell me then," Jim continued. "Why does he listen when he's busy and when he already knows some of it?"

At this Sam looked even more perplexed. "I don't know," he admitted. Then he added, "I think he likes me, even though sometimes he says he doesn't."

"And why do you tell him this stuff?"

"Because it makes me feel better."

With that, Jim had the answer he was looking for. He sat back, satisfied. "It's the same way with God, Sam. He loves you. And He doesn't need you to pray. He wants you to, but He doesn't need it. But the fact is, we need to pray. Prayer doesn't change God, but it sure changes the man who prays."

Realization and understanding dawned on Sam's face. Then he looked sad, his shoulders slumping.

"What's wrong?" Jim asked, leaning in to see the boy's suddenly downcast face.

"Will God listen even though we don't go to church? A girl at school said I wouldn't go to heaven because we didn't go to church, and my daddy won't even talk about God. Neither will Dean."

Jim's heart sagged. He certainly understood John Winchester's resistance to faith; he knew all about the grief and anger that had taken a family man into a hunter, but he had a hard time excusing the way John's abandonment of faith affected his sons, especially when Sam was so open and so trusting—so desiring to believe.

Still, he needed to tread carefully. Alienating John through Sam would not help any of them.

He scooted closer to the boy, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry, Sam. God doesn't just exist in churches and He doesn't just love people when they come to church. You can pray anywhere at any time. And no one has to know it except you and God."

Hope visibly buoyed in the boy's face as he looked up into the preacher's eyes. "Really?"

"Of course," Jim replied easily. "So whenever you're scared or whenever you feel alone, all you have to do is pray, and He'll be there with you. He won't let you down."

A touch of excitement lit on Sam's face. "Will he give me a puppy if I pray?"

Jim chuckled. "It's not like that," he clarified. "He will give you strength, a certain peace, even when things are scary and tough. It's not always things, but it's a feeling."

Sam considered this. "Just like the way Dean makes me feel better when he's around?"

Jim couldn't help but smile. The boy idolized his brother. "Maybe even better than Dean."

Sam's eyes went wide and shook his head. "No one is better than Dean," he insisted.

"Maybe," Jim conceded. "Just remember, Sam, that God will be there for you, just like Dean will. That's a promise."

The light in the boy's eyes shone. "Do you think we could pray now?" Sam asked. "You and me? I don't think I'll be very good at it."

Contentedly, Jim ruffled Sam's hair. "I think you're going to do just fine."

-o-

It always surprised John how hunts never seemed routine. There were similarities between them, cases that seemed familiar, but he was never arrogant enough to find one typical.

Especially now that the boys were riding along.

Sometimes he still doubted that, wondered if they'd be better off somewhere else, but he couldn't deny that he felt safest when he could see them and hear them and know they were well armed and equipped to face anything.

It seemed like a nearly perfect night for the hunt. Clear and cool. It had rained all week, but had stopped for tonight, though the ground was still damp. The road was lonely and abandoned, which was perfect for keeping a low profile. The plan was good, solid; they were prepared. The boys were well briefed and ready.

The boys were also in the backseat, bickering over who knew what.

His mature, responsible little hunters.

"You're on my side." Sam's voice held more than a hint of whining.

"Your side of what?" Dean sounded bored.

"The seat."

Dean glanced down. "Am not," Dean replied, keeping his hand purposefully still, just far enough over the middle to irk Sam more.

"Are too."

"Am not."

"Dean, you are," Sam insisted. "Look at your hand."

Dean just rolled his eyes. "I'm nowhere near you."

Sam glowered. He was about to open his mouth to protest when John decided he'd had enough. Besides the fact that it was annoying as hell, they were almost to their starting point, and he needed them focused on the hunt, not each other.

"Boys," he said simply and sharply.

Both boys silenced, looking sheepishly ahead. He sighed.

Such conversation might be normal under most circumstances, for most people. But not for them. Not when he was about to arm his sons and ask them to fight evil in the Minnesota woods.

He had a twinge of regret, but he couldn't stop now. He could still remember Mary on the ceiling, his house in flames, and all the countless things he'd kill since then. Theirs was a greater mission. His sons weren't safe at home; he could teach them to be safe here.

Parking the car, he sighed. He climbed out. The boys followed suit without being prompted. At the trunk, he paused, eyeing them critically.

"You boys ready?"

"Yes, sir," was Dean's automatic response, his face straight and serious.

Sam's eyes twinkled in the moonlight and he nodded enthusiastically.

"Go over the plan for me," John said.

"I'm going to be with you. I'll be armed, but I'm not supposed to use it unless I have to. I have to just keep my eyes open and follow your lead. When we get to the nest, I hold back while you get rid of it then I help keep watch while you burn the body. Then we destroy all the evidence and head back."

John nodded in approval. Then he looked down at Sam.

"I stay on the perimeter," Sam began, reciting the facts John had been drilling into him. "I stay out of sight making sure that no one goes beyond that point. If someone finds me, I tell them some bad man took me out here and have them take me back to Pastor Jim's. If I see something else, I need to get in the car and lock myself there. I should get off a flare if I can."

John couldn't help but smile. His boys were ready.

"You boys feel okay?"

There wasn't a flicker of doubt on Dean's face and Sam's eyes were wide and trusting, as though his father could never lead them wrong.

"We count on each other, we count on the plan, and this will go just fine, you understand?"

Dean just nodded and Sam flashed his dimples. John couldn't help but wish they understood just how much he meant that. He had so little he trusted, so little he depended on. The structure of his world was everything that kept him standing. Plans and orders, missions and a chain of command. It saved lives in the army; he could only hope it would save what was left of his family.

He doled out the weapons and watched as the boys readied themselves. Sam took up his station in the brush and Dean stood erect at his side.

He took his own gun, checked the bullets, packed extra ammo and his lighter. "Okay, boys," he said, slamming the trunk shut, trusting with all he could. "Let's do this."

-o-

Sam wasn't scared.

He was something, all right, but it wasn't scared. There was a tight pit in his stomach, ebbing and flowing with his rapidly beating pulse, making him almost ache with the intensity of it. His brain was fuzzy and the world was hazy, like he was looking through the Impala's window after it drove all night in the rain on dirt roads. His chest felt constricted, like he couldn't take a full breath, and he was having trouble keeping himself steady and calm. He wanted to cry—he wanted to curl up in a ball and sob and just sleep until all of this was over.

So Sam was something, but he couldn't be scared. Because Winchesters didn't do scared. No, Winchesters were prepared, they were knowledgeable, they were brave. They were heroes. Now that Sam was hunting with them, he'd left fear behind with his stuffed animals and coloring books.

After all, he should be able to handle this. He knew his father had prepped him well for this hunt. He'd made him read all about the area, study the terrain, memorize facts on werewolves. Besides, his dad would already be upset that he'd gotten himself hurt—he at least had to handle the aftermath like a man. Like Dean would.

And really, it wasn't so bad that it hurt—of course it hurt, but lots of things hurt, and Dean said that pain was just a test, something to make him show how strong he was. Sammy was good at tests. He just wished he could put pressure on his ankle , but he was pretty sure it was broken, and when he probed it with his fingers, the bone felt funny.

Not to mention the fact that it hurt.

But it wasn't just the pain. It was the fact that the pain was so strong, so overwhelming, that he could barely make himself move. He'd tried to drag himself, but the pain in his leg had nearly made him pass out. And just sitting there made him nervous. He felt so vulnerable, so exposed. If the werewolf came back, Sam would have no way to hide.

And there was the fact that he was virtually unarmed. Sure, he had his hunting knife, but he'd seen the werewolf in action, and it was fast and it was precise. It had been on top of him before he'd been able to react and it had sent him down the hill before he'd been able to pull the knife from its sheath.

Which was how he'd ended up here at all.

He must have passed out, because he could never remember what happened next. But when he came to, the werewolf was gone and his ankle was throbbing.

He supposed it was luck that he'd wound up covered in the brush. That and his green t-shirt probably saved his life. Because if it'd come for him then, he would already be dead.

Unless it wasn't him that it wanted.

At that, Sam's breathing hitched further and his stomach clenched into nausea.

His dad and Dean.

They were taking out the nest, its home base. Sam was just supposed to sit and watch, play lookout for anyone or anything that might come by.

Some job he'd done. Sure, he'd stayed just where his dad had told him too, but if he didn't warn them, didn't let them know it was coming, it was out there…

He wasn't doing his job. Not well anyway. And his family could pay the consequences.

He couldn't let that happen. Dean wouldn't let that happen, and he could do no less than his brother. He had to move. Now. He had to get to them, warn them, back them up, something.

With new resolve, he pushed himself up to his knees, trembling. With a deep breath he again tried to move himself forward, attempting to drag his injured limb behind him.

This time, the pain made his vision fade and his stomach turn and he was throwing up before he could take another breath.

It was a long, painful process of emptying his stomach, and he collapsed face first to the ground when he was done, the smell of his own vomit filling his nostrils. He thought he would be sick again, but he didn't have the energy. Tears of pain leaked from the corners of his eyes and he felt a heaviness fall around him.

He couldn't do it. He couldn't move. He couldn't do anything except lay there. Dean and John could already be dead and all Sam could do was lay there.

Desolation came to him with a sudden ferocity and he was sobbing before he could think about it.

He cried long and hard, burying his face into the cold, damp leaves beneath him, and he couldn't deny the feeling anymore. He accepted it like defeat: he was scared.

He was hurt, alone, and terrified. And there was no one there to help him.

His tears were spent, and coldness was leaching away at his body. He felt numb as he lay there, almost too cold to tremble at it all.

The words that came out were his last hope. "God, please."

His voice broke on them, and he swallowed painfully as a sob escaped.

"Please."

He was begging, desperate. He couldn't do this on his own. He'd tried, and he'd failed. He needed help.

"God, help me, please."

His mouth was dry and tasted like mud. He tried to bring his limbs in closer to himself, trying to find some escape from the cold, but he couldn't move.

"I need to help them," he whispered into the forest. "I need you to help them."

Because they should be here by now. Even if Sam had failed, they should be here. If they were okay, they should be here. They should have found him. He needed them to be here.

But they weren't.

"I'm scared," he admitted into the night. "I'm scared for them."

He couldn't see anymore, nothing beyond the darkness. His teeth were chattering and everything throbbed.

"I need you."

And then the darkness dimmed and he felt suddenly light as air. Warmth surrounded him and his senses washed out. He was tired and empty and ready to sleep.

So he did.

-o-

The hunt had gone wrong.

They'd prepped and practiced and trained, but it went wrong anyway. Because there were two of them, not one. And two werewolves was entirely different than one.

Dean had noticed it first—the two sets of prints so closely meshed that they nearly looked the same. But once they'd gotten inside the lair, it'd been clear enough.

One was still in there. Three gunshots and it was down, a silver bullet to the heart.

Dean had stood watch while John hurriedly disposed of the body. He barely had time to yell before the second one jumped out of the thicket. It pushed him aside first, sending him sprawling to the ground before taking a swipe at his father.

But John was ferocious in the hunt, and he was accurate with the gun. He'd been expecting it all along and he took it out before it even got to him.

They exchanged nervous glances. The second one had come in on a war rampage. Like it knew someone was here. Like it'd already been tipped off.

It could have been their scent, or it could have been something else—Sam.

They sprinted through the woods without heed. They needed to get back, get to the checkpoint, get to Sam. When they approached the spot, Dean was screaming Sam's name.

But no one answered. No one was there.

The search took on a frantic pitch as they began thrashing around the woods, looking for a sign, for anything.

It was Dean who found Sam's tennis shoe, caught in a bush at the top of the hill.

He was sliding down the hill before his dad could stop him, crashing to a stop at the bottom, nearly falling on a still form when he did.

"Oh, God," Dean breathed. His heart thrummed in his ears now, deafening him. He wanted to reach out, to touch the form, but he couldn't. He couldn't. "It's Sammy." Then he yelled it, "It's Sammy!"

Dean was sobbing, falling to his knees, hysterical beside his too-still brother and it wasn't until John had managed to get beside him that he could see Sam was still alive.

John rolled the younger boy gently, immediately noticing the gash along his forehead. Sam was pale, nearly colorless in the moonlight.

"Dean," he said, trying to calm the older boy. "Dean, I need you to calm down."

Dean could barely hear, could barely think.

"Dean, now!" John ordered, his voice as brisk as the night. "You need to be calm for Sam."

It was the only reasoning that would work, and Dean quieted, his face tear streaked as he looked up into his father's eyes, waiting for more orders.

"We need to get him moved, okay?"

Obedience had taken hold. Dean nodded.

"First let's check him for breaks. He took quiet a tumble."

As his father probed, he lingered at Sam's ankle, eliciting a moan from the boy. Dean and John both watched, hopefully, but Sam didn't rouse.

The nine-year-old hadn't had a chance. They'd tracked the first werewolf to the cave, told Sam it was in there, told him there was nothing else to worry about. All the kid was supposed to do was wait at the checkpoint, the perimeter. He was there more to watch for other humans, not for werewolves.

Neither of them said anything as they lifted Sam from the forest floor. They only spoke in brief directional phrases as they worked to get him back to the car. John deposited both boys in the car, leaving them to go collect their things, ordering Dean to stay still and calm and to try to wake his brother up.

Still and calm turned out to be difficult. Dean felt so useless, so utterly incompetent just sitting there. Within a few seconds cradled in Dean's warm arms, though, Sam stirred.

With Sam awake, still and calm fell into place. He patted Sam's cheek gently until Sam's eyes opened.

"Hey, kiddo, how are you feeling?" Dean asked, plastering a grin on his face for his brother's benefit.

"Cold," Sam murmured, his voice barely audible.

"That's because you decided to camp out on the forest floor. It's a little cold and wet for that, don't you think, buddy?"

Sam blinked, his eyes focusing a bit more. Then they opened wide and Sam tried to jolt upright. "Dean!" he tried to exclaim, but his strength failed him and he slid back into Dean's arms.

"Whoa, Sammy," Dean said, gently restraining him. "You've got to just take it easy. Looks like you took a fall."

Sam wasn't listening though. "There were two of them," he said, his voice frantic. "I tried to warn you, but I couldn't move. I tried, but I couldn't. I didn't mean to screw up. I wanted to warn you."

Dean shushed him. "We're fine," he assured him. "We should have been the ones who warned you."

But Sam wouldn't hear it. "I was scared, Dean," he continued, his voice lilting with speed. "Scared that I'd lose you, that you'd get hurt because I screwed up."

Dean licked his lips, unable to meet his brother's eyes. "I'm not the one hurt, little brother."

With that, Sam suddenly remembered how much he ached. His ankle spiked with pain and his head was heavy. "I'm okay," he said. "I wasn't alone."

Dean just raised his eyebrows. "Who was with you?"

Sam was fading. The world was losing color and he could barely move his mouth. "God," he breathed. "Just like Pastor Jim said. I prayed, and He was there."

"What?" Dean asked, his concern increasing. "What do you mean?"

But Sam's eyelids had slipped shut and his body went lax again.

"Sam?" Dean tried, shaking Sam gently.

Sam didn't respond, just slept on in his brother's arms.

Dean sighed, using his free hand to brush away the hair from Sam's forehead.

The door opened with a gust of cold wind and John lumbered into the front, tossing the bag of weapons next to him. He turned around, looking over the seat. "How is he?"

Worriedly, Dean glanced up. "I think he's a little delirious. He woke up for a minute, but he wasn't making much sense."

John reached a concerned hand and let it touch Sam's too-cool forehead. He grimaced. "Just keep him warm and as steady as possible. We'll get him to the hospital."

Dean didn't even have the fortitude to nod as John turned around to start the car.

"He's going to be okay, son," John said, meeting Dean's eyes through the rearview mirror. "He's going to be fine. I promise."

Dean wanted to believe, wanted to trust, but it was a difficult task with his little brother lying damaged and unconscious in his arms.

-o-

The hospital trip was quick and easy. They wanted to keep Sam overnight, but after they put a cast on his ankle, John had sneaked them all out and made their way back to Jim's.

Dean had helped put Sam to bed, and Sam had barely awoken. The hospital had given him painkillers for his ankle, and the boy wasn't feeling much. The mild hypothermia had made him drowsy, but the warm saline in the ER had moved him from danger, and now John just wanted to keep both boys where he could see them.

He'd put Dean to bed right after Sam was settled, barely convincing the teenager to sprawl out in the next bed. When he was sure both boys were out, he took up residence in the chair, slumping forward in exhaustion.

He would have fallen asleep, but Jim's voice broke the silence. "How are they?"

John barely gave his friend a glance as he sat down next to him. "Tired. But they'll be okay."

"Physically, anyway," Jim conceded.

John sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "I don't need this now."

"I'm not trying to start anything, John," Jim said. "I just worry for all of you. I pray for you every night, but sometimes I wonder if it's enough."

John was too tired to be civil. He snorted.

"What?" Jim asked.

Shaking his head, John laughed a little. "Well, God sure has done a bang up job tonight," John said. "Nearly got Sammy killed."

Jim's lips straightened tightly. "Be careful pointing fingers," Jim warned. "God has blessed you more than you know."

"What has God done for me?" John snapped, his voice angry, vindictive.

Jim just shook his head. "Open your eyes, John, and you'd seen exactly what he's done for you."

John closed his eyes, looking away from the sight of his boys sleeping. "I could have lost Sam tonight."

"You could have lost Sam when he was six months old. But you didn't."

"He should have a mother," John countered. "They both should."

"Yes, but they still have a father. And you still have them. Don't discount your blessings because they haven't been given without pain."

"The things I've seen," John said, looking at his sons again. "It makes it pretty hard for me to believe there's someone out there watching over us. Because if there was, how could he let us be here, like this?"

"I don't believe God was the one who forced children to hunt, John," Jim pointed out, his voice sharp.

"Yeah, He just let their mother die a horrible death when they weren't even old enough to know what to do."

Jim sighed, letting John's comment linger. It was a painful truth, a question asked by people everywhere, every day. How could a loving God let tragedy happen? The argument was futile, and he knew it.

"I can't make you believe," he said finally. "Just know that we all have choices and all choices have consequences. What happened to Mary was a tragedy beyond my comprehension, beyond your control. But don't discount the here and now with your boys. They're the best thing in your life, and whether you think that's from God or not, you have to believe in that."

It was John's turn to be silent. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft. "I do believe in that," he said. "It's the only thing I think I really believe in some days."

Jim stood, placing a steady hand on his shoulders. "Don't forget that," he said softly. "And think about where that comes from."

John didn't look up as Jim left the room, barely acknowledged that he'd heard his friend. He just kept his elbows on his knees, leaning forward, straining to hear the sounds of his sons breathing in the still room.

-o-

Morning came with sunlight through the slats of Jim's spare bedroom window. With a start, Dean came to, his heart racing until he saw his brother still asleep on the next bed.

He'd been hoping it was a dream, a terrible nightmare. He'd spent the night dreaming about how cold Sammy had felt in his arms and it had been so real and vivid, that his arms felt cold even now.

Sighing, he slid out of bed, lingering by his brother. Sam was heaped with blankets, so much so that only his head full of messy hair was visible. He could see the lump where his new cast was and he sighed again.

Last night had been hell.

But here they were, back at Jim's home, his church, and all was well that ended well.

Dean wanted to believe it, but he couldn't shake the coldness on his arms.

With one last look, he headed to the kitchen.

He found his father at Jim's kitchen table, downing a cup of coffee and poring over his journal. He glanced up when he saw Dean come in. "You sleep okay?"

Dean nodded, blinking away the remnants of his sleepiness. "Sam's okay?"

"Yep. His body temp is normal. We've got some pain pills for when he wakes up."

Nodding again, Dean slid into a seat, slumping low into it.

"You should eat something," John observed. "You must be pretty worn out."

Dean didn't reply. Werewolf hunts and injured little brothers did that to a guy.

Looking up again, John seemed to notice Dean's withdrawn behavior. "Sam's going to be fine, Dean."

"I know," Dean said. "I just...he was so cold. In so much pain."

Wearily, John pushed the journal away and sat back. "I know. That's hard to see."

"When he talked to me in the car...," Dean began, but found himself unable to finish.

"What'd he say? Anything about the werewolf?"

Dean just shook his head. "No, it wasn't like that."

"Then what?"

"He said...he said that he'd prayed," Dean finally admitted. "That he'd prayed and God was with him." He looked up, watching his father's face for a response.

John's face went rigid. "You said it yourself, son," he replied, his mouth thin. "He was probably delirious from the cold and the pain."

It was an easy out, an easy lie to make the question go away. Dean considered taking it, considered letting it slide with all the other why questions he didn't let himself ask. But he couldn't. He'd see the look on Sam's face, the certainty in his little brother's eyes. "Do you think he believes it, though?"

At that, his father shorted softly. "Sam believes in all kinds of crazy things," he said. "The kid refuses to think like you or me ever do."

Again, it was an easy diversion. Dean didn't take it. "But what if he's right?"

His father's face fell a little, looking suddenly old and sad as his gaze went to the floor. "Dean..."

"Mom always used to talk about it. She said angels were watching over us, she said--"

"I know, Dean," his father snapped, looking up sharply, a glint of hurt and anger in his eyes. "I know what your mother used to say."

Swallowing, Dean grew timid. "I don't know how she could be right, though. How Sam could be right. I mean, Mom died. Sammy got hurt. What kind of God allows that?"

Something like resolution grew in John's features. "I don't know, son," he said. "But not one that we need."

Dean looked questioningly at his father.

"We don't need faith, we don't need God. We just need to stay together, to stay strong, to keep on our game. That's the only way we'll win this thing. Just us. Nothing else."

Dean had heard it before. His father's resolution that the family that hunts together, stays alive was simply part of what he believed in. It had always made him feel secure, feel safe, but this time...this time it was different.

"But Sam got hurt," Dean said.

John visibly blanched. "It was an oversight," John said. "A mistake. They happen. But we pulled through it because we trusted each other. And now we can learn from it to keep it from happening again."

Dean tried to smile.

John put a hand on his shoulder, looking earnestly into his eyes. "I promise you, Dean. I will do everything in my power to keep you and Sam safe and alive. As long as we do that, things will be okay."

This time Dean did manage a smile, more for his father than for himself. He knew his dad tried hard, knew it wasn't easy. And this was his family. He had nothing else. When push came to shove, he didn't want anything else.

Still the question, did he need something else?

He would never know. He didn't need to. He just needed to be here, with his family, for better or for worse.

-o-

It had been pain that had awakened Sam, and he'd used all his strength not to cry while Dean and his dad attempted to get him to swallow some pills. The pills would help, they promised, and he was going to be just fine.

Sam had no choice but to trust them and he eased back to sleep in a haze.

When he awoke again, he felt much less pain and far more woozy, weak and exhausted, despite all the sleep he knew he'd just gotten. To his surprise, he found only Pastor Jim in the room, stationed at his bedside, perusing his Bible.

He tried to speak, but only a garbled sound came out. The sound was enough however, to alert the pastor.

Putting the Bible aside, he came quickly next to Sam, picking up a bottle of water as he did so. "You think you feel well enough to try to drink? We don't want you to get dehydrated."

Water didn't sound too appealing, but he made the effort anyway, allowing himself to be helped to several swigs.

"Good," Jim said, returning the water to the nightstand. "How do you feel?"

The water had loosened his throat. "Okay."

It was a lie, and Sam knew that Jim knew, but the older man smiled. "How much do you remember?"

Sam's mind flashed--the woods, the werewolf, being cold... "I remember being attacked," Sam said. "There were two of them. Dad and--they're okay?"

"They're fine," Jim assured him. "Just worried about you. I sent them to the store for some lunch. They needed to get out of here before they went stir crazy waiting for you to wake up."

Sam still looked worried. "I thought it would get them."

"No, quite the opposite in fact. You say you ran into one?"

"It ran into me," Sam said. "Knocked me down a hill."

"That explains the broken ankle then," Jim noted.

For the first time, Sam noticed the heaviness on his foot and sighed. "How bad?"

"Four to eight weeks. Then you'll be as good as knew."

Sam closed his eyes. "I guess that's not too bad," he said. "I thought I was going to die."

"You had a mild case of hypothermia and a head wound, but you're fine."

Sam opened his eyes, looking fully at Jim. "I was scared," Sam whispered, his eyes brimming with wetness.

"I know you were," Jim said softly. "But you were very strong and very brave."

Sam shook his head vehemently. "I wasn't," Sam insisted. "I was crying."

"That's okay, Sam," Jim assured him. "No one expects you--"

"No," Sam interrupted. "You don't understand. I tried what you said. I tried praying."

Jim stopped and stared at the boy, anticipating the words to come. "And what happened?" he finally prompted.

A smile spread across Sam's face. "It worked. I was lying there, cold and scared, and then I just felt okay. Not good or anything, but like I wasn't alone. Like no matter what happened, it was okay."

It was Jim's turn to smile. "I told you," he said, "God will always be there."

Sam's eyes shone, then the child launched himself--at least, as much as he could, given the swaddle of blankets he was wrapped in and the inflexible cast-- into Jim's arms, flinging his own around the cleric.

Surprised, Jim didn't know what to do at first. But as the boy nestled, he found himself patting his back gently, reassuringly.

"Thank you," Sam said into his chest.

And Jim just smiled again. He couldn't help but think that he was the one who'd been blessed.