Disclaimer: Still don't own them. I just like the things they do to my imagination.

Spoilers: None, really.

a/n: This takes place around 1992 and is the back story of John Winchester and Jack Collins from my story Into the Fire. This tells how Jack knew Dean, and how Dean saved John. As a young Winchester story, I hope it can stand on its own (you be the judge), but its purpose lies within Into the Fire.

This one is for Sanderspleen. Because she wanted to know.

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Love and fear. Everything the father of a family says must inspire one or the other. Joseph Joubert

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He'd taken too long.

He'd fired until the shotgun was empty, but the wraith returned. It would follow its charge with deadly intent unless it was banished. John had reloaded as Tommy Collins had taken the cross from his older brother's hands, gripped the banishing spell John had thrust at him, and ran through the abandoned warehouse. He'd followed as fast as the pain from the slice in his side left behind by a six-inch shard of glass would allow. But he'd taken too long.

But all the time in the world would not have given him the power, the will, the strength he needed to save Tommy. John swallowed the bile that rose in his throat as he witnessed the wraith attack the boy. His hands had been emptied of their weapon when the wraith had flung both he and Jack back and away and had advanced on Tommy… intent on retrieving the Clonmacnois Cross.

John had hunted worse than this evil son of a bitch. Hunted, killed. But this time… this time no amount of skill, no amount of knowledge had been enough. And no amount of time would erase from his memory the sound ripped from Tommy as the wraith pulled his soul from his body.

One hand pressed tightly to his bleeding side, the other fisted in the loose material of Jack Collin's green jacket, John held the man back, held him firm, kept him away from the gruesome sight before them. Jack screamed his brother's name once. The boy's body arched up one last time, bucking as his soul vacated its rightful place, and then he was still. The wraith hovered one moment more, then turned toward the darkened room that had once held the artifact.

"Tommy?"

"Stay still."

"He ain't movin'…"

"Jack, dammit, stay still!"

"Let go, Winchester."

John hit the wall as Jack shoved him roughly back. He bit back a gasp of pain as the impact shot heat through his wounded side. John's eyes flew up to the still-hovering form of the wraith. It hadn't yet noticed Jack's movement, but the minute it did…

Shit, the banishing spell is in Tommy's pocket…John looked from the wraith, to the boy, to Jack.

"Jack! Stop."

John's voice was a command. It held an authoritative tone that his boys had learned to respond to at a very young age. A tone that had saved men's lives in combat. Jack ignored the commanding tone. He violently shrugged off John's once again restraining arm and clamored over to Tommy's still body. He quickly turned the boys hand over and pried his brother's frozen fingers open, pulling the small Clonmacnois Cross from Tommy's hand and shoving it into his pocket.

Stupid bastard, John thought. Even now… even after he'd watched his own brother die in unimaginable pain, Jack was intent on getting the artifact… for his cause, for his people.

The wraith turned, its shapeless face a horrific sight as it began to move toward Jack. John started to call out a warning, then thought better of it, realizing that Jack would not listen to him now any better than he had when they entered the building. He pressed down hard on his side, grunting as a searing stab of pain echoed through him, and crawled to the opposite corner of the room where his shotgun had landed when the wraith attacked.

Refusing to look in the direction of the Collins brothers until he reached his destination, John wrapped bloody fingers around the barrel of the shotgun. Rolling to his side, he chambered a round and pulled the gun up to aim in the direction of the wraith. He saw then that Jack had turned away from his brother and was curled on the ground, face down, his arms wrapped around the back of his head.

John's eyes shot over to Tommy's body, laying exposed, empty, eyes staring up at nothing, a look of terror frozen on his face. God, he looks like Sammy…Galvanized by the cold fear that shot through him at that thought, John fired. The blast of rock salt hit the wraith in the back and the creature dissipated in an eerie silent burst.

"Jack!" John called. Jack didn't move. "JACK!"

The man jumped, slowly pulling his arms from his head.

"Get the spell," John barked, pulling himself to a sitting position and trying to control the tremble of his breathing.

"Go to hell," Jack spat, not moving. "I ain't gonna let that thing take me like it took Tommy."

John growled. "You fuckin' coward. It took Tommy because of you. Now get the goddamn spell."

He leveled the shotgun on Jack.

"That thing won't kill me," Jack sneered.

"No, but I can guarantee you it'll hurt like hell," John cocked the shotgun. "Now get the spell before that bastard comes back."

Jack stared at John. John felt the Irishman's calculating eyes on him, waiting, weighing, watching. John felt himself weakening. He knew he was losing blood, and with it strength. And he knew that he had to finish this and get out… finish this and get back to his boys… this whole hunt had been a mistake.

Jack looked over at Tommy, then pushed himself to a sitting position. John watched him lay a hand on the boy's forehead.

"Tiocfaidh ár lá," he whispered to his brother. John's eyes widened as Jack stood and started toward the entrance to the building.

"What the hell—" John started.

Jack half-turned, regarding John with cold eyes. "I started this for the cross, and the cross I have."

"That thing just killed your brother." John felt his jaw muscle jump with anger and disbelief.

Jack turned to face him. "No, John," he shook his head. "You let it kill my brother."

Using the butt of the rifle as a brace, John pushed himself to his feet. He felt himself sway, but didn't take his eyes from Jack.

"You're the great John Winchester," Jack continued, stepping up to him. "Your reputation preceded you." Jack's cold eyes raked over him, leaving John feeling oddly exposed. "You got in over your head pretty quickly, there, boy-o."

"You lied to me," John accused, hefting the shotgun in his right hand and holding his left hand over the wound in his side. The instinct to push Jack out of the way when the wraith's glass shrapnel had exploded toward them had been immediate. He regretted it now. He regretted a lot of things now.

Jack shrugged. "I just didn't tell you the whole truth." He turned and started out of the building.

"Wait!" John called, incredulous. The wraith was tied to the Clonmacnois Cross. If Jack left with it… "You're just gonna leave him here?" John nodded toward Tommy's body.

Jack spared a glance at his brother. John watched to see something cross the Irishman's face. Something like regret, sorrow… anything. He thought of his boys… of Dean. Of what it would do to Dean to watch Sam die as Tommy had died. His chest hitched painfully and he pulled in a breath through his teeth.

Jack's face remained empty, impassive. "I'll be back for him. There is someone waiting for this."

"Son of a bitch," John muttered, moving painfully over to Tommy's body. He dropped heavily to one knee and started patting down the boys pockets, looking for the spell.

"Winchester," Jack's voice called from the entrance of the building. John didn't pause in his search. "This ain't over," Jack continued.

"You bet your ass it isn't," John growled low, thinking of banishing the wraith.

"I won't forget what you did," Jack said. John lifted his head at that, his face wary. "You got… two boys, right?"

John's eyes went hot. Jack tossed him a salute, then stepped out into the cold New York night.

"Bastard," John shouted to the empty building. "You think about touching them and I'll –"

He felt the wraith before he saw it. It was silent, almost eerily still. One minute he was alone with Tommy Collins' body, the next the wraith stood between them and the entrance to the building. It would follow the cross, he knew, and leave chaos and ruin in its wake.

"C'mon c'mon c'mon," John muttered, searching Tommy's pockets faster. He found the paper he'd given Tommy only a short time before, pulled it out and began to read. "Abyssus abyssum invocat…"

The wraith began to scream. It was a sound that John would forever attribute with death. It was fury, it was betrayal, it was madness. "A posse ad esse…"

The wraith moved toward him, its maw opening, desperate for strength, for an anchor to this world, for John's soul. John ducked his head, curling in on himself, keeping his face averted. "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti…"

And then there was silence. Breathing hard, John lifted his head and looked around. He was alone with Tommy, the empty room once more dark and cold. He sat still, catching his breath, staring at nothing. He never should have taken this job. He'd seen Dean's face when he left that night. Dean had known that there was something off about this hunt, had known that John should have let Jack Collins deal with his own devils.

But John just couldn't leave it alone. Jack had summoned the wraith to get the power of the artifact the wraith protected, had unleashed hell upon an unsuspecting world, and John had to stop it. You know what to do… He'd said to Dean as he left. The boy's large green eyes, once so like Mary's, now clouded with knowledge and innocence lost, had regarded him solemnly as he replied with an automatic Yessir…shoot first, ask questions later

John twisted slightly to look down at his side. He had to get this taken care of. He looked over at Tommy. Jack said he'd be back for his brother, but John had trouble believing him. He pushed himself to his feet once more, leaning over to gather up the boys arms beneath his shoulders. He left bloody handprints on Tommy's jacket as he pulled him over to the far wall, out of the middle of the room. He shrugged out of his coat and laid it over Tommy's still face.

He needed to get back, get patched up, get his boys. He would return to bury Tommy, but first… first he needed his boys close. Needed to know they were okay. That Jack Collins couldn't get to them.

The rumble of the Impala was a welcome intrusion to the silence that had been beating at his ears. John didn't like the silence. It was a trait he seemed to have passed on to his oldest son. He turned up the heat, trying to pull the chill from his bones, let Dean's Metallica tape play, and blinked bleary eyes, focusing on the road back to the small house they'd rented for the month.

He was shaking by the time he pulled the car to a stop. The house was near a public school that was small enough Dean and Sam could attend together, and John had hoped they could stay for the winter. Maybe give Dean almost one whole school year in the same place.

Swallowing hard, he turned off the car and stepped out into the frigid night. Snow crunched under his boots as he approached the house, eyes scanning the starlit snow for signs of another car, or other footprints. As he did, he saw black drops following him. His head spun for a moment and he stumbled up to the door, leaning against it heavily.

"Dean…" he called softly, knowing that despite the time Dean would be awake, watching. "Dean, open up, son."

He heard the shotgun. He swallowed, his fist pounding heavily on the door. "Dean, it's me."

"What's the password?"

Shit… password, password… Who had picked this time around? Sam? Dean? Closing his eyes he tried to stop the spinning of the world long enough to think. "Umm… Unforgiven."

The lock clicked and the door was opened with such abruptness that John wasn't prepared. He fell into the void and reached out blindly to stop his fall. He felt Dean's strong arms wrap around him.

"I got ya… I got ya, Dad," Dean muttered reassuringly, somehow managing to pull him in through the opened door and kick it closed in one motion.

John clutched Dean's shoulders, trying to stay upright, but the teen wasn't strong enough to keep him up. Allowing his son to lower him to the floor, John felt a whimper build in the back of his throat. He blinked in the darkness of the room, concentrating for the moment on simply breathing. He could hear Dean moving around, locking the door, clicking the safety back on the shotgun, propping it in the corner.

"Get back in bed, Sammy," he heard Dean command. John rolled his eyes, trying to see his youngest. He needed to see Sam's face, his questioning eyes, his mop of too-long hair. He needed to see Sam alive to banish the image of Tommy Collins from behind his eyes.

"What's wrong with Dad?" Sam asked, his sleepy voice hovering in the space between childhood and youth.

"I got him, he's okay. Get back in bed."

"Dean," John whispered. Dean's green eyes were immediately in his line of sight. "It's okay." John struggled up onto his elbows.

"Dad?" Sam stepped up and knelt down beside John.

"Hey, Tiger."

"You okay?"

John swallowed. Dean was thirteen going on thirty, but Sam was simply nine. And his big brother was doing everything he could to keep him nine.

"Yeah," John winced as the cut in his side throbbed. "Just need your brother's help for a sec, okay?"

He saw Sam's eyes shift up to meet Dean's. Checking, wanting his brother's reassurance.

"Yeah, okay," Sam said. "Can I help?"

John opened his mouth, but Dean filled in the silence.

"Yeah, Sammy," he said. "Help me get Dad up on the couch."

"'Kay."

Sam was wearing one of Dean's old black T-shirts, the ends of it hitting just below his knees. John saw that Dean had made him put on thermal underwear, too. It was cold in the house. John rolled to his side, pushing up as best he could and helping the boys pull him from the floor and drop him on the couch. It was then that he notice Dean was fully clothed, ready to move, ready to fight… ready for anything.

"Okay, go back to bed, Sam," Dean commanded once John was on the couch.

"I wanna stay," Sam argued.

John watched Dean set his jaw, then turn away from his brother, picking his battles. He could still see his son think, see him connect the dots, plot, plan. He wondered when that, like Dean's childhood, would be lost to him. Dean peeled back the bloody layers of shirt to get a look at John's side. He hissed slightly at the sight, then shifted his large eyes up to John's face.

"It's okay, Dad," he said. "I got this."

John nodded, looking over at Sam. "What did you do today?" His head was swimming, but he was starting to warm up, starting to feel stronger. Just being back with his boys was balancing him.

Sam grinned, dimples showing in his cheeks. His eyes sparkled. He hadn't seen the wound in John's side. He climbed up on the couch next to John tucked in to John's other side. He's so small, John thought. Dean could toss Sam over his shoulder right now. John worried about how Sam would be able to protect himself out there against the spirits and the wraiths… against people like Jack Collins.

"We built a fort," Sam said.

"A fort?"

"A snow fort. In front of the school."

"Did you now," John shifted his eyes to Dean, watching as his son gathered the supplies he'd need to patch up John. Sam continued to talk, but John kept his eyes on Dean, noting how every movement was methodical, how his face stayed tense, impassive, but how his eyes would shoot from the task at hand to John's side, to Sam's face at regular intervals.

"…so that overnight it would freeze the door closed, and then Dean kissed Ellie."

This caught John's attention. He looked over at Sam.

"He did what now?"

Sam giggled. John blinked at that. Sam actually giggled. John had almost forgotten what that sounded like.

"He kissed Ellie Walker."

"All right, Squirt," Dean said, stepping up to John and setting the supplies down on the couch. "Enough already."

"Listen to your brother, Sam," John said, his voice tired.

Sam turned concerned eyes onto him. "You're gonna be okay, Dad," he said confidently. "Dean'll take care of you."

John swallowed as he looked back at his youngest. Sam believed those words. John shifted his eyes up to Dean. Watching his son's eyes settle on his brother, John believed those words, too.

"I know, Sam," John said.

"C'mon, Sammy," Dean reached down and grabbed Sam's wrist, easily swinging his brother over his shoulders and onto his back.

Sam clung to Dean's neck and twisted his head around to look at John. "Night, Dad."

"Night, Kiddo," John whispered, pressing his hand against his side.

Dean was back in minutes, his eyes intent, his body focused.

"It's not that bad, Dean," John said as Dean cut away his bloody shirt.

"It's bad enough," Dean countered. It was then John realized Dean was angry. He'd channeled it well, covered it when Sam was in the room. Protecting his brother, even from himself. "Who did this to you?"

"Wraith," John said through gritted teeth as Dean cleaned the wound.

"A wraith?" Dean's head came up and John was once again struck by his son's eyes. They were almost too large for his face, and the look in them pinned him to the couch, pulling the breath from him.

"Well, glass, actually, but the wraith threw it."

"You were hunting a wraith," Dean said looking back down at the wound in John's side.

"The Irishman –"

"The one from town?"

"He summoned it."

"That guy was bad news, Dad," Dean shook his head.

"Did you hear what I said, Dean?"

"Yeah, I heard you," Dean said, his face tightening as he started to suture the two inch gash in John's side. "Doesn't mean he wasn't bad news."

"He brought evil into the world," John said, then hissed as the pain from the stitches started to outweigh the pain from the wound itself.

"And it's your job to take it out?"

"It's our job…" John barked, then tried unsuccessfully to bite back a groan as Dean continued to work on closing the wound.

Dean's hand was steady, his breathing slow and even, his eyes focused, but the muscle in his jaw bounced a steady cadence of anxiety. John closed his eyes, focusing to match his breathing with his son's, amazed that Dean was able to hold it together so well for a boy of his age, proud that he never once flinched, never once wavered.

Dean finished the stitches, placed a gauze patch over the wound, then stood up. John looked up from his side in time to see the color drain out of Dean's face.

"Dean?"

Dean turned away from him and headed directly for the bathroom. John pushed himself forward, up off of the couch just as Dean stumbled and collapsed in front of the toilet. John steadied himself and waited as Dean emptied his stomach of everything he'd eaten that day. John watched as he sat back weakly and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Tipping his head back against the wall, Dean closed his eyes and John heard him forcing himself to breathe through his nose.

Thirteen. Dean was thirteen goddamn years old. John stood still in the living room, his legs braced apart, his body trembling, watching his son collect himself. He tried to remember being thirteen. 1967. Before 'Nam. Before his Dad had left. John had been a kid at thirteen. Dean hadn't been a kid in almost a decade.

"Dean?"

"Just gimme a minute, Dad."

John knew it was hard on Dean to see him hurt. Dean had been bruised up once or twice on a hunt, but nothing major, nothing like he'd had to see on his own father. Nothing like he'd had to repair on his own father. And for that, John was grateful to whatever benevolence that decided to glance at their side of the playing field once in awhile. As long as he could, he would throw himself in front of the bullet, blade, claw, or fang for Dean. He couldn't keep his son from knowing the truth about the darkness, but he could try to keep him from feeling what that darkness was capable of.

"You did good, here, son."

Dean opened his eyes, flashing a look of irritation at John.

"I shoulda been with you," he said, pushing himself to his feet and stepping over to the bathroom sink. He ducked his head under the faucet and gulped down some water.

John went cold at the thought of Dean anywhere near Jack Collins.

"No, you were right were I wanted you to be," John said.

Dean turned around and stared at him, hard. John waited. Taking a breath, Dean stepped passed him, went into John's room and returned with a clean shirt. He handed it to John, then leaned against the counter, waiting until John asked for help. Shaking his head, John pulled off what was left of his bloody shirts and dropped them into a pile. He grimaced as he pulled the clean shirt over his head.

Sitting carefully back down on the couch, he rested his forearms on his knees and began to absentmindedly twist his wedding ring. Dean's silence was heavy. John could feel the anger rolling off of his son, but he waited him out. Dean wasn't as stubborn as Sam. He would break if the silence got to be too much to hold.

"You don't have to take every job, Dad."

"I had to take this one."

"Tell me he wasn't bad news."

"I can't tell you that."

"Then how come you helped him?"

The righteous indignation in Dean's young voice brought John's eyes up.

"He's one of the bad guys, Dad," Dean stared hard at John. "He wasn't… innocent."

John swallowed when Dean almost had to force that word out. He thought of Tommy Collins, of the cold indifference in Jack's eyes. You got… two boys, right?

"No, he wasn't innocent, Dean," John said, working to keep his voice hard, working to capture and keep Dean's attention. "But we can't afford to judge. The wraith was out. I knew how to banish it. End of story."

Dean tightened his jaw and looked away. John could see him working on something. He thought of Sam's giggle. Only his brother made it possible for Sam to find laughter. John knew it wasn't because of him. He forgot meals and homework. He forgot basic household supplies and birthdays. Sometimes, he knew only to keep them safe, keep them with him.

But Dean remembered everything.

"You need something for the pain?" Dean asked him, looking back at him with eyes that denied the reality of his years.

"I'm fine," John sighed, pressing a hand against his side. It hurt like a bitch, but he still had a job to do. He couldn't afford the peace of oblivion. He needed the edge that pain gave him. "I gotta do something first."

"What?" Dean asked, wary.

"The job's not done, Dean," John said. "I gotta go back."

"No way," Dean shook his head. "You can't leave—"

"You two are coming with me."

Dean closed his mouth with an audible click.

"There's… I can't…" John swallowed, looking down. "I need you to come with me, don't argue. I need you to promise me that you'll do exactly what I say. Exactly."

Dean nodded.

"Dean? I need to hear you say it," John said, his dark eyes hard. "You will do exactly as I say."

"Yessir."

John took a breath. He was going to need some supplies. "Go get your brother and get him in the car. Try not to –"

"I got it, Dad." Dean turned from him and went into the room he shared with Sam.

John stood when Dean turned away from him. For a brief moment he wanted to call him back, put an arm around him, tell him it was going to be okay, thank him… but he stopped himself. He couldn't show that side to Dean. Not now. He needed Dean to be tough, to be strong. He needed Dean to be their anchor. He went to the car, working to blank his mind on the amount of weight he had consciously put on his son's young shoulders.

He finished making sure he had what he needed as Dean and Sam emerged. Dean had put Sam's boots on, and had wrapped him in the quilt from the bed and was steering him toward the back of the Impala. Sam's eyes were puffy from sleep and he rubbed at one with a fisted hand. He paused as Dean opened the back door and yawned wide when his brother lifted him up on the back bench seat. John watched as Sam curled up and let Dean tuck the quilt around him.

Dean closed the door, glanced once at John, then moved around to climb into the front passenger seat. John climbed in, gripping the wheel, aware that his hands were sweating. He pulled in a long, slow breath, working to calm his suddenly racing heart, unsure why this fear had gripped him.

"You okay, Dad?"

John swallowed. "Yeah, I'm fine."

"You sure, 'cause—"

"I said I'm fine," John snapped with more anger than he'd intended.

Dean closed his mouth and turned to look out of the side window.

"Dean…"

Dean didn't turn to look at him. John pressed his lips into a thin line, turned on the car, and pulled away from the house. It didn't take long to return to the abandoned building. He glanced around quickly for other cars and saw none. He slid the gear into park, and then turned sideways in the seat. Dean looked at him.

"Listen to me," John said, his voice low and serious. "You stay here with your brother. You do not get out of this car, no matter what, you understand? No matter what."

Dean nodded. "Yessir."

"If I am not back in an hour, I want you to call Pastor Jim. He'll tell you where to meet him."

John watched Dean's jaw muscle flinch. He blinked, his eyes betraying his fear for one brief moment. John felt his heart constrict at that, seeing fear in his boy's eyes. But Dean covered it with another blink, removing any vestige of uncertainty from his expression, and repeated, "Yessir."

John took a breath, then stepped out of the car. He pressed a hand to his side briefly as the pain cut through him at the movement, then closed the door, looking back in at Dean. Dean leveled his eyes at him and John stepped away. He moved around to the trunk, removing a silver .45, a throwing knife that he usually kept in an ankle holster, and a shovel. Thus armed, he stepped into the building.

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He was taking too long.

Dean didn't know what his dad had left to do, but whatever it was, it was taking too long. The hour had almost passed. Dean chewed on his bottom lip, his burning eyes trained on the door his father had disappeared into. He strained his ears against the silence, but could hear nothing but Sam's steady breathing.

He rubbed his cold hands together and breathed out a plume of frosty air. Craning his neck over the back of the seat, he checked on Sam. He was burrowed into the quilt, only his nose sticking out. His breath was slow and even, his eyes flicking with the motion of a dream.

Dean had had a bad feeling about this hunt since they'd run into the Irishman in town. John had triggered the concern by sending them away. Dean had obeyed, of course, taking Sam over to the shelf of comic books while John talked to the tall, dark-haired man with the small, shifty eyes. Dean hadn't liked his eyes. He'd introduced himself as Jack Collins, and had motioned with his head to his brother Tommy. Dean couldn't see Tommy.

Keeping an eye on Sam, Dean had strained to hear what the man was saying to his father, but only caught snatches, a word here or there… something about tonight, something about a cause… some letters… IRA? And then Dean heard the words that had turned him cold: they tell me you know about these things…

Dean knew then that his father was going hunting… their kind of hunting. And when he went out, he rarely came back in one piece. Sometimes it was easy to patch with thread and gauze, and sometimes Dad would grab a bottle of whiskey and retreat to his bedroom, more absent when he returned then he'd been when he was away.

Dean had been on a couple of hunts with John – he'd salted and burned his first corpse when he was Sammy's age. He'd seen his share of creatures of the night, but John worked to protect him as much as possible. Dean knew that it was because of Sam. John needed Dean in one piece to protect Sam. But he still wished he could be out there keeping an eye on his Dad.

When John had returned to them, Dean had seen Jack pause, turn, and regard them with cagey eyes. It had given him a chill. John had told him then that he would need to watch out for Sammy, he had a job to do.

"Don't go, Dad," Dean had dared to say as John turned away from them.

John had turned back toward him, his head tilted in question.

"I don't like this," Dean confessed.

"You know what to do," his Dad had said, ignoring Dean's misgivings.

Of course he knew what to do. He'd been doing it in one way or another since he was seven. When John had left, Dean had done his best to keep the day normal for Sam. A snow day had been called, which was of course the signal for all school-aged children to get out of the house and play in the sub-zero temperatures.

Dean had been able to forget John's job, his uneasiness about the dark-haired man in town, and had been the ringleader in a prank in which Sam and four other boys had been willing participants. Their efforts had drawn a crowd, among them a pretty dark-haired girl named Ellie Walker.

They built a snow fort right up against the front doors of the school. Sam hadn't seen the purpose at first.

"Can't they just like… plow through it when they want to get in?"

"Ah, but what you're not thinking about, Sammy, is that the sun is out."

"Yeah, so?"

"So, the snow's kinda melting a little in the sun."

"Sooo..." Sam had rolled his eyes.

"Sooo… tonight it's gonna get really cold, right? And the fort will freeze—"

"Right against the door," Sam had concluded with a chuckle.

Dean had heard Ellie laugh then, and a shifty-eyed Irishman and snow forts had been forgotten in a moment of youthful flirtation and the touch of hot lips in a winter-cold face. Dean had listened good-naturedly to Sam's commentary about how the image of seeing his brother kiss a girl would be forever burned into his brain as they walked home that evening.

His worry didn't return until he'd told Sam to go to bed and their father wasn't home. And he'd been right. John had returned to him, broken once more. But this time… this time was different. Dean had seen it, felt it as he'd been stitching up his dad's side. Evil was still around… somewhere it was waiting for them. It was waiting for his dad. And the thought had made him sick.

Sam muttered something in his sleep, and Dean looked at him again, pulling the quilt back around him, keeping him from shivering in the dark, empty car.

"I'll be back, Sammy," Dean whispered. He was about to disobey a direct order, break a promise… but something inside of him, deep inside in that place he'd learned to listen to, learned to trust… something was telling him that Dad was in trouble. Dad was in trouble and Dean had to do something and do it now.

He opened the door, immediately struck by how frigid the outside air was. He closed the Impala door quickly to keep as much warmth inside with Sam as possible. Following his dad's footsteps, he crept up to the door, surprised to find it locked when he tried the handle. John hadn't had any trouble getting in. Worry started to dig a pit in his stomach as he pulled out his penknife and picked the lock.

He eased the door open, stepping in and closing it behind him. At first, he thought the building was silent. The pounding of his own heartbeat in his ears drowned out any external sounds for a moment. He held very still for a moment, closed his eyes, and slowed his breathing. John had taught him that if he took away one sense, the others would sharpen. He couldn't see much in the dark anyway, so what he needed now were his ears.

As he concentrated, he felt his heart jerk painfully in his chest. Dad

"Y-you knew what you were g-getting into when you found me, Collins," John was saying. Dean could hear that he was struggling, that he was thirsty for air.

"I knew only that you were a demon hunter – your friend Caleb talks in his sleep and Moira is a great listener." The voice held the odd cadence that Dean recognized from the man in town, and was oil smooth.

"Leave Caleb out of this," John growled.

Dean opened his eyes when he heard what sounded like a body crashing into an immovable object, a curse, and the sound of wood breaking. He stepped further into the building and realized he was in an anteroom; his father was in the room around the corner. He crept closer to what he could perceive as the doorway, listening, waiting, watching for the right time.

"Face it," Jack panted, "you screwed up, Winchester."

Dean heard flesh hitting flesh.

"You didn't think I'd come back for my own brother," the man continued and Dean heard his father growl and what could only be the impact of a fist on a face.

"Not like you gave me any reason to," John grunted. "You left him." Dean's heart jumped again with the weakness he heard in his father's voice. "You took that fuckin' cross for your fuckin' cause and you left your brother behind."

Dean heard the sound of more struggling, more breaking wood. He heard Jack curse and his father cry out.

"I may h-have… may have left my brother," Jack said through teeth clenched in effort and anger. "But you let him DIE!"

Dean rounded corner in time to see the big Irishman slam John hard against the wall, a hand at his throat, a knife poised over his chest.

John's feet barely touched the ground and he was using both hands to keep the knife away. Dean tensed, his eyes darting around the room, looking for a way to stop this, a way to bring the big man down. His eyes caught on a crumpled figure of a boy near the door where he stood. He wasn't moving, wasn't breathing, and was ghostly pale. Dean started when he saw the boy's face. He looks just like Sammy

John gasped and Dean's eyes darted back to the struggle. He had to do something… he started to step through the door and his eyes caught on his father's throwing knife embedded in the wood of the doorframe. He realized instantly what he had to do. Blanking his mind, he pulled the knife from the wood, turned and rushed toward the man who was slowly killing his father. With a cry of rage he thrust the knife into the meaty upper part of the arm that was clasped tightly around John's throat.

Dean stumbled back as the big man cried out and released John. With a desperate wheeze, John grabbed his throat and collapsed to the floor, drawing in great gulps of air. Dean stepped back again as the big man turned to him with a curse. Jack pulled the throwing knife from his arm with a growl and dropped it to the floor.

Dean threw his arms up in protection one second too late. The big man's backhand caught him across the edge of his jaw and sent Dean flying back into the wall. He hit it with enough force to rattle his teeth, and ended up in a heap on the floor a few feet from his father.

His ears were ringing. His head was spinning. And he could taste blood in his mouth. Jack said something in a language Dean didn't understand, then began to caste his eyes about the floor in the dimly lit room. Dean started to struggle to his feet – his only thought being to get to his dad… to get out… to get back to Sammy… He could barely see John's face in the darkness, but he heard his father's weak plea over Jack's rant as if John had bellowed it directly into his ear.

"Dean… go…"

"I can't, Dad," Dean replied softly, shaking his head in denial and crawling toward his father. "Not without you."

As Dean moved, his hand landed on the bloody throwing knife and he fisted his fingers around the hilt. He raised his head and caught the warning on John's face. He reacted on pure instinct. He ducked his head, tucked in close, and rolled away. He heard the din of the large knife that Jack had used to try and impale his father with moments before as it glanced off of the floor where Dean had been crouched.

"C'm here, you little bastard," the Irishman roared. "You bloody well will pay, Winchester. If it's through your son, then so be it!"

Dean saw Jack step forward, then shoved his legs out and rolled to the side, taking out the one leg the big man had all of his weight on. With a cry of surprise, Jack stumbled down to a knee and Dean shoved himself up with cat-like grace from his position on the floor to a low crouch, swiping his arm out as he did.

In his fisted hand was John's throwing knife and the tip of the blade caught Jack across the face. The big man screamed and his blood splashed over Dean's hand and wrist as he followed through with his attack. He lifted his head from its protected lowered position and stared in horror at what he'd done. The knife had laid open the left side of the man's face from forehead to jaw line, slicing directly across his eye.

Dean froze. He'd never been the cause of such pain in another person before. He'd fought with his fists, returning hit for hit. He'd shot his father's guns, and thrown his father's knives. But he'd never had a person's blood literally on his hands. His stomach twisted, his hands turned to ice, his lungs froze. He started shaking and dropped the knife, backing up away from the big man in a crab-like crawl.

"Dean!" John cried out as a warning.

Dean shot his eyes over to John. Get me out of here, Dad

Dean never saw the knife, never really even saw the big man move. He kept his eyes on his father's weakened, huddled form, watching to see him stand, to see him turn into the fierce warrior he knew his father to be, to see him strike down evil. He felt a slight whooshing of air and then he cried out as a white-hot pain, sharper and brighter then anything he'd felt before, seared his chest.

The Irishman's pain and rage roared from him as Dean weakly fell back against the cold wooden floor. He suddenly couldn't breathe right – there was a stitch in his side like he'd run several miles and he was panting. He lifted a shaking hand to the fire-like pain in his chest and was surprised when he touched wetness there.

"DEAN!"

He heard his father yelling, but he sounded so far away… how far away had he crawled, he wondered. He swallowed, blinking up into the darkness of the room. The cold from the wooden floor began to creep up through his thin jacket and he felt it taking over his body cell by cell. He could hear a thundering sound, rhythmic, repetitive, and fast… really fast. Faster than thunder really should be.

"You're a dead man," he heard his father's voice again, this time closer. He was almost louder than the thunder.

"You can't pull the trigger, can ya, John?"

Dean realized that he hadn't taken a breath in almost a full minute. The wetness he felt on his chest was starting to spread down his side. He could feel it gathering under his back. He thought that maybe he should roll over, maybe it would be easier to breathe… he pulled in a deep breath and set his chest on fire.

"Ahh! Dad…"

"You gonna stand there all day, John? Just watch your boy bleed to death?"

"Shut the hell up."

"You gonna let another boy die today because you couldn't move fast enough?"

Dean blinked, trying to roll to his side, unable to move. Breathing had become his sole focus, and he strained to hear his father over the sound of the thunder. He could feel his body begin to shake. It was an odd, detached feeling – as if the trembling muscles belonged to a different Dean. Not the Dean that was supposed to be in the car with Sammy. Not the Dean that had just patched up his father. Not the Dean that had kissed Ellie Walker.

A sharp retort echoed in his ears over the thunder. The thunder picked up speed, growing louder, and was surrounded by a rushing sound. He wanted to hear his father's voice… even if it was to tell him he screwed up… he just wanted to hear Dad's voice…

"… get your brother and get out…"

"…just gonna let me go… were me… stain on the floor…"

"…tempt me… Tommy's body…"

"… know I'll find… won't forget this…"

"… easy enough to see a one-eyed Irishman coming…"

Dean swallowed and tried to call out to his Dad again, but ended up only able to groan. The voices were making him dizzy… they blended and separated… they were familiar and foreign… they made sense and confused him. The thunder was starting to slow down, and he panted with relief. If it would just go away, maybe he could hear his dad.

He felt firm hands gripping his shoulders and blinked again, prying his heavy eyes open.

"Dean? Dean, hey." It was Dad.

"Dad… something… something wet…"

"Yeah, kiddo, I know, I'm gonna get you out of here, okay? Just let me look… aw, Jesus fucking Christ, Dean…"

"I-I'm sorry… sorry Dad…"

He felt something press against his chest and his body went cold and then hot in a matter of seconds. The thunder came back with a vengeance, loud, fast, unrelenting. He cried out and reached up for his Dad's arms, gripping tight to the shirt, begging him to stop, please, just stop.

"I can't, kiddo," Dad was saying. "Just hang on."

He felt his Dad lift his shoulders from the ground and shift him into a sitting position.

"Ah! Dad, please…"

"Stupid kid… stupid kid… why don't you ever listen…"

Sorry, Dad… couldn't let him take you from us… couldn't let him kill you…

"S-sorry, Dad," Dean tried to force the rest out but the thunder was too loud, too fast, and he decided the he'd concentrate instead on breathing.

He closed his eyes, feeling the relief from the effort of keeping them open. He felt his father lift him, felt the air move past his face, felt the change from the relative warmth of the building to the gasping cold of the night. It wasn't raining. Why wasn't it raining? How could he hear thunder if it wasn't raining?

"SAM!"

John's bellow made Dean jump.

"SAM! Open the door, son. Wake up, Sam! Open the door!"

Dean heard the distinctive creak of the Impala's door.

"Dad? Dean? Dad, what's wrong with Dean?"

Sam's voice sounded shaky and scared. Dean kept his eyes closed, tried to listen over the roar of the thunder in his ears. He felt his Dad lower him onto the seat, felt Sam's small arms wrap around him, one hand pressing against his face. He turned his face toward his brother's body.

"I s-screwed up, Sammy… I screwed up…"

"Dean?" Sam's voice trembled with tears.

"Hold that there, Sam. Don't let go. Okay? Don't let go of him!"

Dean felt Sam's hand press on whatever was against his chest, and the weight was considerably less than when John had held him. Dean took a shaky breath. He felt the car rumble beneath him as the engine engaged.

"Sam? Don't you let go of him."

"I won't, Dad. I won't let go."

Dean swallowed. He could feel Sam's heartbeat against his cheek and suddenly realized what the thunder was. And it was slowing down. It was growing softer. He reached up a trembling hand to grip Sam's slim wrist. He opened his mouth, wanting to tell Sam that it was okay, he'd done what he'd set out to do. Dad was back with them, and it was going to be okay now… but he could only breathe.

The last thing he was aware of was the taste of salt on his lips as his brother's tears fell.

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"Is he gonna be okay, Dad?"

"Yeah, Sammy, hand me that cloth, there, will ya?"

"It's a long cut."

"Yeah, it's a long cut."

"What did this to him?"

John brought his head up in surprise. Sam was sitting on the other side of Dean on the double bed, his knees folded under him, ready to help John take care of Dean. Dean lay pale and still against the sheets, his chest bare, a six inch gash running from the bottom of his left ribs up to his sternum. John had gotten the bleed stopped and was sewing him up, knowing that he belonged in a medical hospital, not in what could essentially pass for a field hospital. But how do you explain homicidal IRA activist with a wraith on the loose to SRS? He was not going to lose his boy… not now.

"What do you mean… what did this to him?"

"Like… a ghost or something?" Sam's large eyes blinked innocently up at him.

John swallowed, then looked back down at Dean's chest, finishing off the stitches. Evil to Sam was a what, not a who. If Dean were awake, he'd keep it that way. If Mary were alive, he wouldn't even know evil existed. But right now Sam had only his father, and John didn't know how to explain something he wasn't sure he completely understood himself.

"A bad man did this to Dean, Sammy."

Sam was silent for a moment.

"The man was trying to hurt you, wasn't he?"

John paused in the wrapping of Dean's ribs to look at Sam again.

"Why do you say that?"

"'Cause Dean would never let anything hurt us," Sam shrugged. "And I could tell he felt wrong."

"He felt wrong?"

Sam nodded, his eyes leaving John's face and resting on Dean's. "He tried to make believe that it was all okay, but he was worried today. He was worried all day." Then Sam smiled. "Until he kissed Ellie Walker." A dimple appeared in Sam's right cheek.

John smiled back. He finished wrapping Dean's chest and checked his face and neck for fever. He still felt cool, but John pulled the blankets up to Dean's chin anyway.

"Sammy, watch your brother for a minute, okay?"

"Yessir."

John stood on shaky legs and went into the bathroom. He washed his son's blood from his hands, watching the red swirl down the drain, watched his hands – his capable, strong hands – tremble. He'd killed men with these hands. He'd made love to his wife with these hands. He'd held two brand new, squalling babies with these hands. But they were not enough to keep Dean from the darkness. Not enough to save his son from feeling the pain of the darkness.

He lifted his hands to cover his face, allowing one sob to escape before pulling his fingers away and leaving a trail of water and tears on his cheeks. He looked at himself in the mirror. Bruising was already appearing on his neck. He'd been sure for one brief moment in that building that Jack Collins was going to kill him. He would never find the demon that took his Mary from him. He would never see his sons grow up.

But with a flash of rage and will, his son had appeared as though a product of the darkness itself and saved him. Saved John's life and forever cursed his own. John shook his head. I cursed him years ago… I cursed him when I took his home from him, turned him into a solder, protector… He is our guardian.

He checked the bandage on his side, swallowed some painkillers, then returned to the room where his boys were. Sam hadn't moved. He was staring at Dean with an eagle-eyed awareness. The thin gray light of dawn was seeping through the window at the end of the bed as John dropped heavily into the armchair next to Dean. Sam lifted his eyes and stared at John a moment.

"C'm here, Tiger."

Sam crawled off of the bed, then up into John's lap, somehow instinctively knowing to keep away from his wounded side.

"Is Dean really going to be okay, Dad? He keeps frowning."

"We'll make sure he's okay," John said, watching as a line appeared between Dean's eyebrows, then smoothed out.

"Is he gonna be in trouble?"

"Why would he be in trouble?"

"'Cause he left the car."

John swallowed, then cleared his throat. "No, Sammy. Dean's not gonna be in trouble."

"Did he screw up? He said he screwed up."

John blinked tired eyes, watching Dean's face, his long lashes so like his mothers brushing against his cheeks.

"No, Sammy. He didn't screw up. He did exactly what he was supposed to do."

John rested his chin on top of Sam's head and felt Sam's small body tuck in to him, his cheek resting against John's chest.

"He protected this family."

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Many thanks to sojourner84 for the read, the encouragement, and the friendship.

Translations:

Tiocfaidh ár lá. Our day will come.

Abyssus abyssum invocat - Hell calls hell

A posse ad esse - From possibility to actuality

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti – in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit