Summary: John Winchester wants to train his boys so that they are prepared for every hunt, but will his newest training exercise tear apart the Winchester family dynamic? Pre series. One shot written for Faye Dartmouth's birthday.

All Choked Up

Sam sat down heavily on the floral upholstered torture device that was masquerading as a couch. He could feel a spring digging uncomfortably into the back of his right thigh and shifted around in an attempt to find a more comfortable position. It was useless. Of course the whole point of being called to the principal's office was to induce discomfort.

He tipped his hat to the diabolical machinations of Dr. Tennant. He'd succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

He'd been called out of his favorite class, English Lit., by the principal's secretary. She'd knocked hesitantly on the classroom door, whispered something in Mrs. Clarkson's ear, and the next thing Sam knew he was being marched ruthlessly out of the room as though he'd been plucked out of a police station line-up.

And he hadn't even done anything. At least not this time.

They'd been in this town, the name escaped him, for less than a week. What could he possibly have done to earn the ire of someone at Washington High so quickly?

He tilted his head so it rested against the back of the couch and tried to ignore the insidious strains of the music being pumped into the room. And he used the term music lightly. A woman's high pitched operatic voice wailed on about a cake…someone left the cake out in the rain…I don't think that I can take it…cause it took so long to bake it…and I'll never have that recipe again…oh, no!

Oh no was right. Sam groaned and closed his eyes. He'd rather be outside running laps in the rain under his dad's strict, no nonsense eyes than enduring a wait in the principal's office.

A heavy hand fell on his shoulder and he jumped. His musings scattered as he blinked open his eyes to find his brother staring down at him with a full toothed smile. "Time to wake up, Sammy, it's Showtime!"

Sam's neck swiveled as Dr. Tennant's office door opened; a tall, thin man with a pencil thin mustache strolled out into the waiting area. "Ah, yes, Dean Winchester? I'm told you're here about your brother"

The low rumble, filled with condescension made Sam wince. He didn't know what Dean had in mind but nothing egged him on more than a pompous idiot.

Dean looked at Sam one last time with a maniacal glint in his eyes before his face smoothed out and he turned to face the principal. "I'm sorry to intrude on Sam's school day, after all our family values education above everything else, but our aunt is very ill and my dad asked me to fetch Sam home. He sent this note with me."

Sam tried hard not to gag on the "our family values education above else." Education in weapons, and training and things that go bump in the night – sure, that was the truth – but certainly not traditional education; Sam had to fight tooth and nail to get his dad to enroll him in school every time they moved. He was pretty sure the only reason John Winchester acquiesced is because he didn't want social services on his ass.

Once again, his brother startled him out of his thoughts; this time when he grabbed Sam's arm and helped him off the couch before putting a hand at the small of his back and guiding him out of the room. "Sam's really close to his aunt. This is really hitting him hard as you can see. My dad will contact you if Sam has to miss more school."

And with that they disappeared out of the office and down the hall into the light drizzle.

As they approached the Impala, Dean slugged Sam hard on the arm. "Nice acting there, champ."

Sam didn't have the heart tell Dean he wasn't acting. Acting required reacting and he hadn't even been listening. He'd zoned out again. That had been happening more and more lately. He needed to get a handle on it or his dad was going to pop a vein – he kept telling Sam he needed to pay attention. He tried, he really did, but sometimes Sam just kind of checked out of the whole Winchester family business thing. His heart wasn't in it.

Sam wasn't as fast as his older brother; he was just as likely to trip over his own feet as he was to cross the finish line. He couldn't handle weapons as well as Dean either. Ever since his last growth spurt he'd lost the ability to hit moving targets and his timing with hand-to-hand combat was off as well. The only thing he really excelled at was research and his dad never trusted his work in that area. Not that he could blame his dad. He wouldn't trust a 14-year-old with something as important as saving lives either.

In general he wasn't trusted to do anything, by either his dad or Dean. He was just taking up space.

Fingers were snapped inches from his face. "Earth to Sammy. You in there?"

Dean's voice was jovial but there was an underlying note of concern. His brother had enough on his plate without worrying about him. He needed to get his head in the game. "So what's the plan?"

As they stopped for a light, Dean rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Dad said we were behind on some training exercises. First running. Then, there's something I need to learn before the next hunt and you're the guinea pig."

Be careful what you wish for…apparently he was going to be running laps in the rain. Suddenly the principal's office, dry and warm, didn't seem so awful.


The Impala coasted to a stop in front of the two story duplex they were renting. The paint was yellow but fast chipping away to reveal the original gray paint. It wasn't much to look at from the outside but the inside afforded them more space than they were accustomed to. They each had their own bedroom on the second floor, the living room and kitchen on the first floor were absolutely huge and the basement held his secret delight; a training room that resembled the dojo he'd been allowed to attend a couple of years ago complete with a mirrored wall.

What fun was kicking your brother's ass if you couldn't watch yourself doing it?

Dean looked affectionately at his sibling. Sam had grown about five inches in the last couple of months and the results had not been kind to him. He could barely walk across a room without stumbling as he fought to coordinate his long limbs. Working out with him certainly had its own hazards with elbows and knees flying out at unexpected moments.

At least his pudgy face had slimmed down. There had been a period of time when their dad had restricted Sam's diet with an iron fist. Dean had an amazing metabolism and could eat anything, and usually did, without putting on an ounce. Sam, however, had struggled with his weight. At least until this last growth spurt; the one that had resulted in Sam being mere inches from Dean's own height.

It just wasn't fair. The older brother should be taller and at Sam's current pace he was going to pass Dean's own modest 6'1" height within the year. Then again the older brother should carry the brunt of the worrying and Sam was hell-bent on being neck and neck with him in that category. In fact he sometimes thought his little brother was trying to be the first Winchester with an ulcer, what with his worrying over grades and not living up to the Winchester name.

Their dad had said that Dean couldn't accompany him on any more hunts until he passed another test. He had no idea what it entailed; after all he'd proven himself to be a capable assistant to his father.

As he poked Sammy in the side, Dean hoped whatever his dad had cooked up wasn't going to result in a bad showing for his little brother. But if it did, oh well. He didn't know what he'd do if he couldn't hunt.


John Winchester sighed as his two sons tumbled into the living room, joking and laughing. The taller, blonder, older brother had his arm around his shorter, darker brother. Whether the arm was supporting the younger boy to keep him from tripping over his own feet or to shield him from John was the question.

Dean was a joy to work with during these exercises, focused and mindful, but when his little brother was around he seemed to be a touch distracted. And that could get a person killed in their line of work.

And Sam…what could he say about his youngest? There was no denying that Sam's mind was sharp and he grasped things intuitively, but he was beginning to think his baby boy had two left feet. He couldn't complete a single training session without bloodying himself or someone else; a fact which would have been acceptable if that had been his goal. He'd never seen a more ungainly teenager in his life.

Sam's happy babble stuttered to a stop when he noticed John frowning at him. Dean patted him on the back, as if bracing him against whatever he was going to say, and that irritated the shit out of him. He didn't need his oldest son running interference for him. "Sammy, go upstairs and change. I want at least five miles out of you before we begin the hand to hand. And no dogging it, I know how long it should take you."

Sam edged toward the stairs and bolted up before the words were even out of John's mouth. John headed for the kitchen and beckoned Dean to follow, ignoring the confused expression on his son's face.

He straddled a wood kitchen chair and grinned when Dean did likewise. They were definitely two peas in the same pod. But now was not the time for light hearted camaraderie; it was time for serious business. "Dean, do you remember when we were at that haunted movie theater last week and the manager got in our way?"

Dean's expressive face lit up at the mention of a hunt. "Sure, Dad. He was so panicked he got by me and you had to clock him one."

John rubbed the side of his face. He was committed to teaching Dean the right way of doing things even when it was uncomfortable. "Well, we both screwed up that night. You had an opportunity to choke him out and I should have taught you how to do that little maneuver way before now."

His son's face fell for a moment; he always wanted to display perfect technique when they hunted and was obviously disappointed that he hadn't done so in this case. Life didn't usually cooperate and Dean was about to learn that lesson the hard way. "Of course. I didn't even think of that. Is that what you're going to teach me now?"

John stood up and thumped Dean on the back. That natural enthusiasm just couldn't be taught. "I want you to pay special attention. When I think you've got it down, you're going to test out on your brother downstairs. I can't have you trying it on some innocent bystander for the first time."

He didn't miss the stricken look on his son's face. Dean hated hurting Sammy. But when the maneuver was performed correctly no one got hurt. That was the beauty of the move. "We'll start with a little background. The first thing you need to know is that in judo it's called shime-waza."

Sam walked in on the end of the conversation as strolled into the kitchen. He was shrugging into a hooded sweatshirt, pulling it over at least three other layers of shirts, and when his head broke through the fabric he asked, "Shime-waza…isn't that a choke-hold?"

John should have been proud of his son's intelligence but Sam's knowing about the move only seemed to make Dean more recalcitrant about learning it if the leery expression on his face was anything to go by. "That's right, me and your brother are discussing shime-waza. And you should be outside running."

John watched as Sam's head dipped in agreement and pursed his lips. He could practically see the wheels turning in Sam's heads and he knew that his youngest had put it all together.

Sam's attention swung away from John and toward Dean. "Wait a minute, this is why you pulled me out of school? You want Dean to choke me out?"

Sam was seeking reassurance from his older brother. John appreciated Dean's support; he didn't automatically give in to his brother's puppyish pleading eyes. "Relax, Sam. No one is going to do anything until Dad explains it to me more."

His youngest wavered, undecided about whether or not he could trust the elder Winchesters. He dragged to the door and paused before heading out into the thickening rain. "Promise?"

Before Dean could answer John growled, "This is between your brother and me. He knows when to listen to his father's directive. Unlike you. Now, Sam. Run!"

He didn't exactly take pleasure in the way Sam shot out into the elements but he was relieved the boy was finally gone.

This is what he'd been thinking about earlier – the way Sam distracted Dean. Took him off task. It was time he broke both his sons of that bad habit. Before one of them got hurt.


Dean wasn't sure what had just happened but he was being torn in two by anticipation at learning something new and the stark fear he'd seen in his brother's eyes.

His dad put his big paw of a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "Dean, I need your full attention or I'm not going to waste my time. This is something you need to learn. Are you with me on this?"

He sighed deeply and moved back a pace, away from his dad. He had somehow ended up in the middle of a silent tug-of-war between John and Sam and he didn't like it. "I know, Dad. But I don't think I can practice on Sam. You saw his face."

Dean realized the level of his dad's frustration when he paced away from Dean and then swiveled with precision before stopping in front of him again. "Listen. If the carotid artery hold is properly applied, unconsciousness occurs in approximately 10 seconds. After release, the subject regains consciousness spontaneously in 10-20 seconds. A neck pressure of 5 kg of rope tension is required to occlude carotid arteries. The amount of pressure to collapse the airway is six times greater. You're not going to come close to applying that kind of pressure. That's why I'll be watching, I'll make sure."

Dean didn't know whether he should be horrified or proud of his dad's level of detachment. "Subject? You just called Sammy a subject?"

His dad made an impatient sweeping gesture with his hand. "You don't get it. The choke-hold is more humane and less dangerous than a knockout in boxing. There are no lasting side effects of the choke-hold when it's done properly. You're not going to hurt your brother. I won't let you."

Dean believed his dad. John Winchester was his mentor and had never led him astray. But this…this was something else. He stared blindly at the dirty light fixture overhead and tried to make sense of what his dad was asking of him. "I just…it's Sammy, you know? I can't hurt him. Not on purpose. And we promised not to do anything without his agreement."

John Winchester grounded the heel of his hand into his eye as if warding off a headache. "Don't you think it would be kinder if your brother didn't know it was coming? You know how he gets, all agitated and upset. But if that's what you want, I'll talk to Sammy. I won't let you try this until I'm satisfied you can do it. You just concentrate on learning this maneuver, okay?"

Dean didn't know what to think anymore but finally gave up trying to make heads or tails of his dad's argument. He knew better than to argue with a Marine.


Sam entered the kitchen and shrugged out of his wet sweatshirt. The heavens had opened up after his first mile and he was now a soggy mess. He slipped out of his second-hand Nike running shoes and left them to dry on the tile floor.

He heard the phone ring but someone picked it up from upstairs. Sam didn't care – he didn't have any friends in this town so he knew the phone wasn't for him. Probably some girl chasing Dean or one of his dad's hunter friends.

He dragged himself upstairs and changed into dry sweats, t-shirt, socks and shoes. He added another sweatshirt as he shivered. He could feel a tickle in the back of his throat and hoped he wasn't coming down with a cold. Colds sucked. He hated not being able to draw in enough air through a congested nose. It was that choking sensation that drove him nuts.

Choking. As in choke-hold. He didn't know what to make of the conversation he'd walked into the kitchen earlier and he still hadn't come to any conclusions despite having dissected every word he'd heard while on his run.

It wasn't that he didn't want to help his brother. And it made sense that he'd try his new move on him before trying it on someone innocent. He just didn't think he could withstand it without freaking out.

He closed his eyes and tried to center himself. If Dean wanted him to do this, he'd do it. He'd do anything for his older brother. And he didn't want to disappoint his dad. Disappointment was all he felt anymore from his dad and just once he'd like to see approval shining in his dad's eyes and directed at him instead of just at Dean.

Maybe if Sam talked to Pastor Jim Murphy he could get past his fear. It was that damn nightmare.

He'd been staying with the padre last summer when he'd suffered an especially vicious bout of the recurring dream – when he'd had the life choked out of him. Sam had spilled his guts about to Pastor Jim who'd asked Sam to explain the whole dream to him. It always started the same, with Sam going about his business, until something cut off his air and he strangled to death. They had tried to figure out if it came to Sam after a particular event (eating too much chocolate, during a growth spurt, when he had a fever) and if it was a replay of a past event or maybe even portends of a future occurrence. They hadn't figured it out but Sam had felt much better after discussing it with Pastor Jim.

Sam heard his dad bellow his name from downstairs. He hustled down, not wanting to keep his dad waiting, finding his dad in the kitchen.

His dad gestured to the table. "Sam, have a seat. I want to talk to you about something."

Sam slowly sunk into a hard backed chair and kept his eyes down. His dad never wanted to talk to him alone and he didn't have a good vibe about this discussion.

He heard his dad sigh impatiently but refused to look up. "Son, I don't think you understand how important it is for Dean to learn this move. I can't let him go into the field until he's proven he can use it. Do you understand what I'm asking of you?"

Sure, he knew what his dad was asking of him and he was even prepared to cooperate. He just wanted to talk to Pastor Jim first to get the soothing assurances that it would all be okay. Experience told him the holy man wouldn't be available until later tonight – he took turns eating dinner with his congregation at their houses and wouldn't be home until 7:00 p.m. at the earliest.

Sam finally lifted his eyes and saw his dad's stern, dark face. "I know how important this is so I'll agree to be the guinea pig on one condition…" Sam stumbled over his words as his dad's face broke into a huge smile. A smile aimed directly at him.

He swallowed convulsively in an attempt to ease a wad of phlegm down his throat before he rushed on. "Could we wait until I have a chance to talk to Pastor Jim? I know it sounds silly but I need his advice about something. He should be back later tonight – Dean would be able to practice the move on me later tonight or tomorrow morning. Dad?"

John Winchester abruptly stood up and began pacing around the kitchen. His dad and brother accused him of zoning out all of the time but right now his dad looked like he was a million miles away. "Dad?"

His dad focused on him again. "Sure, Sam. You can call Pastor Jim later. Now why don't you go on down and get the lights turned on. Your brother will be down in a moment."


John Winchester was surprised at how easy it was to talk Sam into cooperating. Of course if he couldn't gain his cooperation he would have just made it a directive but it was much easier when Sam went along with the plan.

Dean entered the kitchen with trepidation. "So, what did the squirt say?"

John put a calming hand on Dean's shoulder. His son's big heart was one of his greatest attributes, as well as biggest short comings. He really needed to focus on the job at hand and not worry so much about Sammy's feelings. He and Dean had both cosseted Sam for too long and it had backfired. They'd given him as normal of a childhood as possible but it was time for Sam to set that aside and get with the Winchester program. "He said he'd be your guinea pig."

He watched the stunned look on Dean's face. Apparently he wasn't the only one who'd thought Sam would throw a fit at the prospect of being Dean's training partner on this exercise.

Of course, he didn't mention that Sam had said something about calling Pastor Jim but he'd been so taken aback when Sam had agreed that he'd kind of tuned out and hadn't really heard everything Sam had to say. It didn't really matter; Sam had just earned some serious brownie points with his old man and he could call Jim Murphy as much as he wanted if that made him happy.

He looked at his oldest son. He was so proud of the man he was becoming. He knew Dean wouldn't have any trouble with this maneuver. In fact he was counting on it. Caleb had called a short while ago and he needed their help on a hunt so they'd be leaving early in the morning. He wouldn't tell Dean that until he passed the test.

And for once, he'd leave Sam at home, alone. They'd be back later the same day or the next day at the latest. There was no need to drag Sammy along. He could kick back here and read or go to school – whatever his preference. He was feeling pretty magnanimous at the moment.

He thumped Dean on the back. It was a little love tap. "Any questions before you test out?"

Dean's face finally relaxed into a smile, his eyes gleaming. "Let's do it."


Sam tripped lightly down the stairs, his hand skimming the wall for support. He'd found out the hard way that the wooden banister was good for nothing except netting splinters. He flicked the light on and squinted as harsh fluorescence shimmered to life, throwing the barren room into stark relief.

The basement had previously been used as a dance studio with hardwood floors throughout and a warm-up bar skirting the perimeter of the room along with a full length mirror. Of course the floor was dull and scuffed, the bar sagged in areas and the mirror was smudged but it was a more than adequate training area. Especially with the heavy mats their dad had strewn across the floor.

The family couldn't slay dragons and save the world if they were bashing each other's heads in after all.

Sam hefted a gray sweat pant covered leg up so that the right heel of his ragged Chuck Taylor Hi Top's rested on the warm-up bar. He made himself go through the motions of stretching; he hated getting cramps almost as much as he hated getting his ass handed to him by his brother. Maybe this would be the day he acquitted himself favorably.

He knew his family thought he lacked the competitive spark required for hunting, but it wasn't lack of competitiveness that caused him to hold back. He was younger and smaller and apparently slower in the brain and he didn't always give one hundred percent because he knew it wouldn't get him anywhere. He might be slow, but he wasn't stupid. He knew how to turn it on when it mattered the most.

As he bent over and worked on loosening his hamstrings, he worried about his brother. He knew Dean didn't want to do a choke-hold on him. Hell, he certainly didn't want one to be performed on him. He just couldn't understand why his dad would ask this of Dean; John Winchester had to know that his brother would never knowingly hurt him. It went against everything his dad had ingrained in Dean – to watch out for Sam. But if he made it a directive, there was no way Dean could say no. And once Sam talked to Pastor Jim, he was pretty certain he could participate as well.

It was just the whole choking aspect of it. He'd never told his family that he suffered from a recurring dream; where he was held down, big hands wrapped around his neck, the life being slowly choked out of him. Or that sometimes the hands were replaced by a rope or electrical cord. It was hard to be complicit in something that was going to, for all intents and purposes, reenact one of his biggest fears. But he'd do it for Dean.


Dammit, he'd done it again. He'd floated so deep into his own thoughts that he hadn't heard his brother approach. That did not bode well for their training session.

His eyes skittered up to seek out his brother's whereabouts in the mirror. Dean was standing right behind him. He could feel his brother's breath tickling the back of his neck. "Dude, personal space much?"

Dean grimaced. "Sorry, Sam."

Sam wanted to say something witty but he noticed the funny expression on Dean's face – his eyes were wide and pleading and the smile was anything but carefree. More like nauseous.

And then he got it. Dean was gearing up to do the choke-hold on him. But wait, his dad had said he could talk to Pastor Jim first. This couldn't be happening.

Panic flooded his body and he yanked his foot off the bar, pushing back into Dean and driving his elbow toward his brother's solar plexus.

But Dean was ready for him. His brother's right arm wrapped around his neck and his forearm began to apply pressure.

His eyes met Dean's in the mirror and he pleaded soundlessly with him to stop. He couldn't breathe and his neck hurt. He struggled briefly but black spots were invading his vision.

Dean's face stared back at him, agonized, before he felt his body being pulled down.

He couldn't believe this was happening. His worst nightmare. And by his own brother.


Dean could see that once again his brother had retreated to his own little world. He hoped that world was a kinder, gentler place, because reality was about to get a whole lot rougher.

It was hard to believe that Sam had agreed to this. He'd underestimated his little brother again.

Sam had a leg up on the warm-up bar and for once he looked graceful. His limbs weren't jerking around and he kept his balance, no easy feat for Sammy these days, as he bent over.

Now that Dean had made his mind up, he didn't want to wait. He just wanted to get his over with and prove to his dad that he was worthy of going on future hunts. And his dad had told him he'd talked to Sam. He'd have to make it up to Sammy later. He knew his brother wouldn't hold it against him. "Sammy."

Sam's head jerked up and guiltily met his in the mirror. His brother's look said "busted again." He knew Sammy was a good kid, but his propensity for day dreaming was really going to get him into trouble some day.

And that day was now.

Sam smiled in the mirror before he groused good-naturedly. "Dude, personal space much?"

Dean tried to smile, to convey how sorry he was, but his smile was something grotesque and unnatural. "Sorry, Sam."

At that moment he knew the jig was up. His brother knew what was happening and he silently applauded as Sam jerked his foot down off the bar and barreled back into Dean. He easily fended off Sam's panicked jab to his bread basket and subdued him.

Dean quickly wrapped his right arm around Sam's neck so that his forearm rested between his throat and the carotid artery. He needed to focus all of his attention on the maneuver and looked down, averting his face from Sam's searching eyes.

He began to apply, pulling Sam backward until his brother's back leaned awkwardly against Dean's chest. He could feel Sam's struggles weakening and chanced a glance in the mirror. Sam's face was suffused with red and slack, his eyes wide and staring as his pupils dilated. His eyelids started to droop and his attention was recalled to the exercise when his dad barked an order at him. "More pressure. Take him down."

Dean jerked and complied, lowering Sam to a sitting position. Sam wasn't actively resisting but he also hadn't passed out. His dad bit out another command. "Lock him down."

It took a moment of precious time, time in which he could feel Sam shifting restlessly, in vain. Dean drove his right thumb into Sam's left armpit and gripped his upper left arm with his right hand. His right arm flexed as his left hand extended beyond Sam's shoulder and the pressure increased.

He knew the exact moment Sam lost unconscious; his brother's full weight leaned into his chest and his eyes were finally closed. Sam's head tilted forward instead of away from his forearm.

Dean shifted his right arm, preparing to withdraw it.

His dad, voice right next to his ear, said, "Not yet. Hold it five more seconds to make sure your subject isn't playing 'possum. Okay, now."

Dean whipped his arm away from Sam's neck and hitched his limp brother into the crook of his left arm. His face was not longer beet red but was instead pale, his dark eyelashes a deep contrast to his skin. "How come he's not awake? You said it took 10 – 20 seconds. He should be awake by now!"

Dean dashed impatiently at the liquid peppering his cheeks; he didn't have time for tears.

John leaned forward and touched two fingers to Sam's neck. He sat back on his heels. "Dean, he's fine. Set him on the floor now. He just needs air."

Dean scrambled to comply. Sam's unnatural stillness was freaking him out. He'd done this to his brother.

Sam's head had barely touched the hardwood floor when he groaned and his eyes snapped open. Bewilderment apparent in his dazed eyes. His hand went up to his throat and he swallowed noisily. "What happened?"

And then the bewilderment shifted to distrust and before anyone could answer Sam said, "Oh. I get it. We done here?"

Dean wanted to collapse in a puddle on the floor his relief was so intense—Sammy was okay.

Sam scrambled away from the four pairs of hands that were reaching out to help him up. He wobbled for a moment as he lurched to his feet before streaking for the stairs.

His dad's hand steadied him before pulling him to his feet. "That was great, Dean. Textbook perfect. You should be proud of yourself."

For once the words of praise slid off Dean's back. He was too worried about Sam's sudden disappearance and needed to go check on him. Something wasn't right. "I thought you said Sam agreed to this?"

John shrugged his shoulders. "He did. Let him go, I'm sure he's fine. We need to talk about tomorrow. Caleb called and we're heading out early."

Dean couldn't believe how at peace his dad was with the whole Sam being unconscious thing. He had seriously freaked out when Sam had passed out in his arms. This was his Sammy, the person he was supposed to protect with his life.


John refused to let Dean see how traumatic that exercise had been for him as well. Sam hadn't acted like someone who agreed to the exercise beforehand, and that had given him pause.

And Sam hadn't come around as quickly as he should have and he was far paler than he'd expected. He was certain Dean had applied the choke-hold with success so he was at a loss to explain what had happened. Maybe Sam was coming down the something.

He needed to get Dean back on track. "You did great, son. Let's celebrate and get something to eat. You choose."

Dean still looked a little green around the gills but he quickly agreed. "Can we do cheeseburgers? That's one of Sammy's favorites."

John winced. He couldn't switch Dean's attention away from his brother anymore than he could get his own off of Sam. "I'll go to the store. Why don't you check on your brother."

He looked around the training area and pictured Dean's choke-hold in his head. It had been textbook perfect. So why did he feel so ambivalent about it?


Dean took the stairs two at a time. He couldn't wait to see Sam. He cursed his luck when he heard the shower going – it could be a good thirty minutes before he saw his brother. Sam loved to wallow in the water and he certainly had earned it today. First, he'd been soaked during his run and then he'd been choked-out by his own brother.

Dean wandered back downstairs and turned the TV on, flipping restlessly. He didn't want to watch a mindless, boring show. He wanted to assure himself his brother was okay and until he did that, relaxation wasn't in the cards.

He stared sightlessly at the TV, oblivious as Jerry Springfield refereed two brothers who wanted to tear each other to bits. He kept seeing his brother's pale features as he was stretched out in his arms. Sure, he'd seen Sam unconscious before. Hell, he'd knocked him out by accident a couple of times. But this was the first time he'd done it on purpose and it sucked.

Sam's eyes had snapped open when he came around and the confusion had quickly turned to accusation. He hadn't seen that look in Sam's eyes since the then four-year-old had glared as Dean held his prized copy of Goodnight Moon out of his reach. There were only so many times a boy could read that without going crazy, and Sammy had pushed him to the limit. But the steely look in young Sammy's eyes had certainly put him in his place.

The water finally shut off and Dean made himself wait five minutes before he drifted back upstairs. He was in time to see the bathroom door open as Sam was ejected in a belch of steam and heat. His brother was already dressed, sporting several layers of tops over a severely broken in pair of jeans. All the layers in the world couldn't hide the fact that although Sam had almost caught him in height he was still painfully thin.

Sam either hadn't noticed him or was ignoring him so Dean stepped forward and grabbed his arm as he made for his room. His brother jumped so high his feet left the ground and he jerked his arm out of Dean's grasp to cover his heart. "Sorry, didn't mean to sneak up on you. I just wanted to make sure you were okay and thank you for agreeing to be my pig."

Normally, he would have gotten a laugh out of Sam, or at the very least a dimpled smile, for his shortening of guinea pig to pig but this time his brother's face remained blank. "Yeah. Sure. Anytime. That's what I'm here for."

Dean tried to decipher the "Sammy speak," but it wasn't working. Sam sounded subdued and lifeless, not bitter or sour. But underneath the bright pink spots riding high on his cheeks from the hot shower he still looked pale. And young.

The front door closed and he heard his dad return, which provided a welcome escape. "We're having cheeseburgers, your favorite. Why don't you relax for a while and we'll call you when it's ready."

Sam's face looked pinched, his mouth tight and his nostrils flared. "Cheeseburgers. Great." He turned and walked into his room, leaving Dean standing outside, wondering what was up with his brother.

Why was Sam so uncomfortable around Dean? Maybe, during supper, they could get to the bottom of things. Something was wrong. And not just Sam the teen in a snit but seriously, depression-inducing wrong.

Dean clomped back downstairs and wordlessly helped his dad unload the brown paper bags. John finally broke the silence. "So how's your brother?" he said, trying to imbue his question with nonchalance but Dean could tell something was eating at his dad, too.

Dean shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. He seemed okay but something's off. Maybe we can figure it out during supper."

In a very un-John Winchester-ish moment, he ruffled Dean's short hair. "You're a good son and a good brother. Try not to worry so much, would you?"

Dean combed his hands through his hair and tried to restore order to it. He didn't like anyone messing with his hair but he felt pride at his dad's kind words. His dad didn't give compliments lightly, and when he did, they were things to be treasured.

And just like that his happiness at his dad's words faded to sadness. His dad never gave Sammy compliments. In fact, the only words out of his mouth directed at his brother these days seemed to be critical. No wonder Sam avoided their dad like the plague. He'd never really noticed until now how harsh life in the Winchester household had become for his younger brother.


John could hear his oldest son pulling out plates and setting the table while he fashioned the meat into patties. He expertly pressed the bottom of a shot glass into the middle of the patties to form an indentation – something his dad taught him to do when he'd returned from serving overseas. Supposedly the indentation in the middle of the patties meant they cooked evenly and made them juicier. Mary had certainly appreciated his one culinary skill.

He thought of his sweet wife, gone these many years. Dean may have taken after the fair Mary in looks, but his youngest took after her compassionate and scholarly side. He wondered what Mary would do about Sam if she were alive today.

He got the cheese singles out and lined up before setting the patties in the skillet. As they began to sizzle and spit, he decided he'd go upstairs and get Sam. Maybe his son would confide in him if they were alone. He doubted it; if Sam were going to confide in anyone, it would be Dean, but he was Sam's dad and he needed to give it a shot.

He flipped the burgers over and added a thick slice of cheese. "Dean, could you please keep an eye on these? I think I'll go get Sammy."

He ignored the shocked look on Dean's face and headed out of the kitchen. Usually, he summoned the boys to dinner by yelling at the top of his lungs. But that wouldn't accomplish his objective; he needed to give Sam a chance to tell him what was going on.

He soon found himself standing outside of Sam's open doorway. He could see his son curled on top of the covers on his side, facing the doorway, his eyes closed. "Sammy?"

His son didn't even twitch. That sounded mild alarm bells as he approached the bed. Both of his sons were light sleepers, a necessity in their line of work. Not to mention that it wasn't even 5:00 p.m. so he couldn't figure out why Sam was resting.

He put his hand out and touched his boy's forehead. Warm but not hot. The fact that Sam didn't awaken at his touch was also concerning.

John grabbed Sam's arm and shook him lightly. He watched as sleepy eyes blinked open. Sam frowned in puzzlement before speaking. "Dad?"

John's suspicions were confirmed. Sammy's voice was husky and congested. He was coming down with something. And he'd blithely sent his son out into the rain to run this afternoon. Never even thought to ask him how he was feeling. Just ordered him outside so he'd be out of the way while he trained Dean.

Sometimes, single parenting sucked. He had to pull himself together and take care of his sons; staring with the apparently sick Sam before him. "The cheeseburgers are almost ready. Do you feel up to coming downstairs and eating?"

Sam frowned up at him before sitting up and throwing his legs over the edge of the bed. He brushed John's hands away as he hauled himself to his feet. "Cheeseburgers. Sure."

John could see what Dean meant when he said something was off. Sure, Sam might have a cold but that didn't account for his lackadaisical response, or the way he shied away from John. "Sam, are we okay?"

That question only garnered him a blank look from Sam, so he tried again. "I meant about the choke-hold. I thought you agreed to it, but you seemed a little surprised when Dean came up behind you."

Sam actually skittered around John and shot out of the room. "Agreed to it. Yes, sir."

His son was halfway down the stairs before John started moving. He analyzed Sam's tone for attitude, something that had been creeping in more and more, but found it lacking.

But something was wrong.


Sam was chilled. He'd curled up on the bed and tried to stay warm. And tried to keep his mind blank. It hurt to think on what had happened downstairs.

But the more he tried to avoid it, the more he thought about it. His dad hadn't listened to a word he'd said. He'd heard the part about Sam helping Dean and then ignored everything else.

He knew he shouldn't be so hard on his dad because that's how his dad always treated him. At least in recent memory. Sam couldn't contribute to the hunt, therefore he was in the way. He'd had that realization about a year ago and would have thought it had lost the power to hurt him by now.

But oh no, it still hurt that his dad thought so very little of him that he couldn't even be troubled to listen to him when he tried to tell him something was bothering him.

It was his own fault really; he should have led with his condition before agreeing to go along with his dad's plan. Then again, who was he kidding? His condition was really only a request, and his dad would have steam rolled right over it anyway if it impeded his plan.

There's a reason he'd never confided in his dad about his nightmares. He knew his dad loved him but he wasn't a very nurturing kind of guy. It was just the way his dad, the former Marine, was made.

What really hurt was that Dean had gone right along with his dad. He agreed in principle that Dean needed to practice on someone other than an innocent bystander but he'd expected his brother to at least talk to him about it beforehand. He knew his dad didn't care about his feelings but he'd thought at least Dean did. Even just a little.

And thinking about how much this all hurt made him think even less about himself. This is what his family meant when they said he was selfish and childish. He always put himself first. He resolved to do better. And then he fell asleep.

The next thing he knew a large hand was wrapped around his arm, shaking him awake. He supposed he should be grateful the hand wasn't wrapped around his neck. He opened his eyes to find his dad staring down at him. "The cheeseburgers are almost ready. Do you feel up to coming downstairs and eating?"

Sam couldn't believe he'd been lying on the bed, dwelling on choke-holds and his place in the family, and his dad was thinking about cheeseburgers. Cheeseburgers It should have put things in perspective for him but it only sucked the energy out of him.

Someone's priorities were off and if his dad and Dean were okay with the way things had played out, it had to be him.

He made himself sit up and shift his legs off the bed. He could have wallowed all night in his bed, but his dad still had a hand on his arm and it was freaking him out. His dad never touched him. At least, not in affection. He pushed his dad's hands away and sprang to his feet. He wished he could find something witty to say but all he could think of was how nauseous he felt at the thought of food "Cheeseburgers. Sure."

Sam started for the door but was interrupted when his dad said something completely out of character. "Sam, are we okay?"

Sam didn't know how to respond to that. He and his dad hadn't been okay, probably going back to when his mom died in his nursery. But there were degrees of being okay and he didn't know how to respond. His dad was obviously okay but he wasn't.

He'd expected his dad to chastise his lack of response and was shocked when John Winchester tried to clarify himself to his stupid teenage son. "I meant about the choke-hold. I thought you agreed to it, but you seemed a little surprised when Dean came up behind you."

Sam's mind was still blank. Here was confirmation that his dad hadn't listened to him. It was what he'd expected but now that he had the proof, he didn't know what to do with it. He wanted to get away from this man, his father, before he broke into tears. He bolted for the door. "Agreed to it. Yes, sir."


Dean tried to ignore the tension in the kitchen as he chewed on his cheeseburger. Whatever his dad had said to Sam had only made things worse as he watched his younger brother push his food around his plate. Sam had maybe forced two bites into his mouth before tearing the poor cheeseburger to bits and scattering it haphazardly around his plate.

He was grateful when his dad began discussing their early departure because it momentarily steered his attention away from his overly quiet brother. "So, Dean, you'll want to be packed up for an over-night trip before you turn in tonight. I think we'll be back home by dark but just in case, we'll be prepared."

And then his dad tried to draw Sam into the conversation. "I know we usually cart you along on these hunts but I was thinking you might like to stay home. How does that sound?"

Sam broke into a fit of coughing and scrambled to cover his mouth. Dean shot his dad a look, trying to convey that he didn't that was such a good idea, but his dad ignored him. Couldn't he see that Sam was at the very least sick and at the worst having some sort of a breakdown?

Sam dragged himself to his feet and dumped his barely touched food in the trash before answering. "Stay home. Sure. Whatever you say."

Dean winced at the monotone delivery Sam used. What the hell was going on? It was as though his usually vibrant brother had been replaced by a pod person.

He was further astounded when Sam announced he was turning in for the night. "Dude, it's not even 6:00. And I thought we'd watch that Buffy chick kick some ass later."

And then John Winchester chimed in. "I thought you wanted to talk to Pastor Jim tonight."

A sad smile ghosted over Sam's face; the kind that could break hearts. At least it broke Dean's. "No, there's no need to talk to Pastor Jim. I thought I'd try to fight off this cold with a little extra sleep. 'Night."

Dean couldn't stand it and jumped up to bar his brother's way. "Are you sure it's just a cold? You're not acting like yourself."

His brother awkwardly patted him on the arm. "Just a cold. Good luck with the hunt tomorrow. I'm glad you passed the test; you deserve to go and I know you love hunting more than anything else."

Flummoxed, he watched as his little brother dragged up the stairs and disappeared down the hallway.


John insisted Dean go pack up for the hunt; he didn't want to delay their departure unless absolutely necessary. Although with the way Sam was acting, he was having second thoughts about leaving him alone.

He rattled around the kitchen, cleaning the skillet, plates and cutlery before stacking them away in their precise places. He liked to run a tidy outfit.

And wasn't that the crux of the problem. No matter how much pressure John exerted, his baby refused to fall into line. What should have been a smooth sailing operation was falling apart at the seams. He wished for the umpteenth time that Sam would get with the program. It would make life so much easier on everyone.

John settled down at the kitchen table and wrote some notes out for future hunts in the journal he kept. His eyes kept straying to the clock on the stove and when the digital time flipped to 7:00, he crossed the kitchen and picked up the phone hanging on the wall.

He was counting on Pastor Jim to have some answers for him.


Dean had turned in around 10:00 p.m. He knew his dad would shake him out of bed by 6:00 a.m. and he needed to be well rested. Unfortunately, his body refused to obey his request for sleep and he spent a couple of hours flipping on the soft mattress.

Wakefulness blurred into dream and instead of tossing and turning on his bed, he was downstairs holding a limp and pale Sam in his arms.

Sam smiled at his in the mirror and then his mouth slid into a silent scream as he clawed at his throat. His brother's breath puffed out of his parted mouth in great, gulping gasps as his lips turned a shade of blue popular on corpses, not Sam.

Dean sprang forward and grabbed Sam by the arms only to have him collapse against his chest; Sam's eyes were wide and staring, resigned instead of panicked, his hands still clutching at his throat

Dean pried his brother's hands away and tilted his head back to open up an airway

There, wrapped around Sam's throat was a pair of hands.

Hands that were attached to Dean's own arms.

Dean bolted up in bed, Sam's name dying on his lips, as he recognized his bedroom in the dim light filtering through the curtains.

His feelings of despair and worry overtook his rational mind and he scrambled out of bed and dashed across the hallway to Sam's room. He had to see with his own eyes that his brother was okay.

Dean stopped just shy of Sam's doorway. He slowed his breathing and listened intently. There. His brother was mumbling and tossing on the bed. Dean wasn't the only Winchester besieged by dreams this night.

He pushed the door open and watched as Sam's body heaved and his hands clutched at his throat. He rushed forward to wake his brother and heard the muted strains of "Dean, no" and "stop, I can't breathe."

His brother was obviously relieving the training exercise from earlier that day and it had a profound effect on Dean. He reached out, soothing his brother, stroking a hand down his shoulder and arm, trying to get through to him. "Shhh, it's okay. Nothing's going to hurt you now. I promise."

Sam's face was scrunched in misery, eyes clenched tightly shut, as he turned his head from side to side in denial. "No. Please. I can't breathe. Everytime it comes I can't breathe. How do I make it stop?"

Dean wasn't sure if his brother was awake or still dreaming. He rubbed his brother's arm; he wanted Sam to know he wasn't alone. "Sammy. It's okay. It's just a dream."

He watched with equal parts fascination and dread as the eyes behind those closed lids twitched and rolled wildly. He didn't know if he was helping or hurting his brother by waking him but he couldn't watch his brother's distress any longer without intervening. He gently hauled his brother up and tugged him into a loose hug. "Open your eyes, Sam. You need to wake up."

Amazingly, Sam quickly quieted. Apparently Dean hadn't lost his touch in all things Sammy. He'd always been able to comfort his brother when he was sick. Even as a baby, young Sam would calm down for his big brother, Dean. If a soft reassurance didn't work then contact usually did the trick.

Dean could tell when Sam moved from his nightmare landscape to wakefulness when he tensed slightly and then pushed away. He could see the fear in his brother's face and it hurt; he'd done this to Sam. He didn't know how to undo it but he had to try. "It's just a dream, Sam. Right? You're okay."

The last was said with a note of question. He needed Sam to be okay. He was rewarded with a sheepish smile as Sam settled back against his pillow. "I'm sorry I woke you up. It's the same dream. Pastor Jim said talking about it might help but I'm too tired. I'm okay."

Sam's breathing evened out as soon as his eyes closed. The fury of the nightmare had passed leaving one Winchester sleeping and another perplexed.

He'd been so intent on making sure Sam was physically intact that it took a moment before it dawned on him; his baby brother had revealed the cause of his anxiety during his dream-infused rambling.

Sammy had recurring nightmares, nightmares that Pastor Jim was aware of, and they involved not being able to breathe. So what had they asked him to do? Just submit to an exercise that would render his brother unconscious as the air was slowly choked out of him.

Dean was disgusted.

Wanting to remain nearby in case his brother needed him, Dean curled up at the foot of Sam's bed. It wasn't comfortable but he didn't mind. This was the price of making sure his brother was okay. He'd already let Sammy down once, he wasn't about to make the same mistake twice.


John stopped by Dean's room, expecting him to be awake and anxious to hit the road. His son was unrelenting in his enthusiasm toward the hunt as well as the pursuit of the perfection required to excel at it. He didn't believe his eyes when he found the room empty. Unless Dean was already downstairs, firing up the coffee maker.

He thrust his head into Sam's room to check on him and found both sons squashed together on the single bed. His baby was curled up tight and clinging to one edge. Dean was at the foot of the bed in a tangled heap, an arm thrown awkwardly over Sam's lower leg.

There was no way he could take Dean on a hunt today. It would be totally irresponsible of him; Dean was obviously unrested, and his mind was on his brother, not the upcoming job.

Navigating quietly down the stairs, he crept into the kitchen and started the coffee machine. Decisions had to be made and he needed some caffeine.

John waited impatiently for the brew to fill the glass carafe and greedily sucked down a mug of high octane sludge.

One again, he reached for the phone and hit redial. The ringing ceased after five rings and the sleepy voice of Jim Murphy came over the line. "Listen, Jim. I've been thinking and I'd like to take you up on your offer. I can have him to you later today. Dean will drop him off. Is that okay?"

He could almost hear the wheels whirring, but instead Jim held his silence although he had to be aching for answers. "Of course. You know you and the boys are welcome here anytime."John nodded his head in relief. "Thanks, Jim. I owe you."

He disconnected the call, filled another mug with coffee, and went in search of Dean. He owed Jim for agreeing to take in Sam for a while as well as not flinging a barrage of questions at him. Jim was a good friend.

John paused at the doorway to watch his sons sleep for a moment. Not looking forward to the upcoming scene, he steeled himself before he entered the room, thrusting the mug under Dean's nose, and watched as his son's eyes snapped open. "There's been a change of plans. Meet me downstairs."

Dean hastily rolled out of the bed and scrambled down the stairs after him. His eyes were too large in his pale face and he looked uncertain. "I need you to take Sam to Pastor Jim's and then you should head west and meet up with me and Caleb."

Disbelief warred with anger before Dean responded. "You're sending him away?"

His oldest son's response confirmed his need to separate the boys for a while; Dean's concern over his younger brother was going to get him, or someone else, hurt. It might not be fair but he was father to both boys and he had to protect their safety as best he could.

John needed to reassert his authority. "Just so we understand each other, this isn't a request, it's an order. Let your brother sleep as late as he can and then have him pack enough clothes for a couple of weeks. Understood?"

Defiant eyes snapped up at him for a moment before Dean's features smoothed into placid lines. "Yes, sir."


Sam tried to get comfortable in the passenger seat of the Impala but his bones and muscles ached with a low-grade fever. He knew it was just a cold, but it was still uncomfortable. And being stuck in the car with his cranky older brother wasn't helping matters. He'd awoken around 9:00 a.m. to light on his face as the sun streamed into his room and thunderclouds surrounding Dean.

It wasn't like he'd asked to be shipped off. In fact, it seemed as though he was being punished. But he knew better than to question his dad's plans. After all, that had gone so swimmingly yesterday.

He let his mind drift until he noticed an absence of music in the car. When Dean drove the Impala, there was always loud rock and roll blaring from the speakers. He looked over at his brother to find him staring at him. Staring him down. "What?"

Dean returned his attention to the road and Sam thought he was off the hook. But then his brother said, "How come you could talk to Pastor Jim about your nightmares but not me?"

His brother's tone of voice was casual but if Sam knew anyone, it was his oldest brother. He could pick out an underlying growl of hurt. He couldn't fathom why his brother would be hurt. He knew better than to show any weakness. At least he tried to adhere to that rule. "They're just dreams. No big deal."

His brother socked him the arm, his traditional method of gaining Sam's attention, and he massaged it while glaring at Dean. "Did it ever occur to you that if we'd known about your…situation, we wouldn't have asked you to participate?"

Sam snorted in disbelief which degenerated into a coughing fit. Once he had the tickle under control he defended his position. "First of all, you know as well as I do that Dad would have told me to face my fears and suck it up. And second, I was supposed to talk to Pastor Jim before the exercise but there was a little misunderstanding between me and Dad. But it's all good now."

When Dean didn't volley back with a scathing comment he chanced a glance at his sibling from behind a curtain of bangs. His brother's hands were tightly grasping the steering wheel, eyes straight ahead, his face carved of granite. "It's not good, Sammy. When I did the choke-hold you were…well it wasn't good. It never should have happened. I knew something wasn't right but I went ahead anyway."

He was stunned at the sadness of Dean's voice. His body was locked down tight but the emotion bled through in the rough, cracked words.

Sam didn't know what to make of the almost apology. Apologies were a rare commodity in their household. He could ignore it. If he remained silent he knew the moment would pass. But this was Dean, the person who had always looked out for him, and he couldn't leave things hanging like this.

He searched for a way to pacify Dean's somber mood. "You know Dean, I get it. The hunt is Dad's life. It's your life. Learning how save lives is the most important thing."

Sam wished with all his heart that his family would occasionally take him into consideration when there were "family" business decisions to be made. But he knew the hunt would always take precedent and he left that thought unspoken.

Dean continued to stare straight ahead, his eyes firmly removed from where Sam sat. His brother dragged a hand across his forehead before sighing. "I don't think you get it. Your life is just as important."

Sam said the words he knew he'd never hear back from his studly, macho brother. "I love you, too, Dean."

This time it was Dean who snorted in disbelief. "How do you do it? You just turned this into a Hallmark moment. The next thing I know, you'll be giving me one of those drippy statues, what are they called? Oh, yeah. Precious Moments. I think I'm gonna hurl."

And just like that the close moment between brothers passed. Sam let his thoughts drift.

His family wasn't traditional but there was a certain familiarity to things and it comforted him in a strange way. His dad barked orders, Dean listened and obeyed, and Sam fucked up. If any of the sides of that warped triangle changed, the world would probably stop spinning on its axis.

Dean's obvious distress over yesterday's events was an uneven balm to his own disquietude. He couldn't deny that his faith in his family had been shaken a little.

Sam settled back into his seat and watched the countryside blur by. He had his brother and his dad and that was all that really mattered.


A/N: Faye has been such a good friend and mentor to me. She was quite taken with the "Fresh Blood" episode so I tried to put my own spin on a brotherly moment or two instead of my usual catastrophic Sammy health scare. Happy Birthday Faye!

A/N 2: I owe Gidgetgal9 so much for her help on this story; she helped plot its course, wrote the summary, and provided much needed beta assistance. And another huge thank you to Carocali who performed yet another lightning-fast, marvelous beta (commas, and semicolons and italics…oh my!) and suggested the title. I feel very lucky to have you both on my side!