Part Two Summary: The Winchesters scatter in the aftermath of the choke-hold training fiasco but things don't go smoothly when they're reunited. The one-shot turns into two but it's still in honor of my very good friend and mentor, Faye Dartmouth, who is celebrating another birthday.

A/N: This really isn't enough to say thank you to Faye for all of the support, patience and kindness she's shown me since I met her (I'm still doing flips over the new banner Faye made for me at my LJ). Nevertheless, this is my annual offering of limp!Sam for my favorite angst whore to commemorate her b-day.

I owe so much to the very talented trio of Gidgetgal9, Floralia and BlueEyedDemonLiz who beta'ed this part of the story. They each contributed something different to the process and let's just say the story is much better for their input. And a special wave to Pinkphx1985…this part would never have gotten written without her nudging.

All Choked Up - Part Two: Finding It Hard To Breathe

The Chevy pulled up next to the rectory and Dean let it idle a moment before turning it off. Sam had fallen asleep just after they'd merged onto US-218 North and hadn't roused at all during the remaining three hours or so of travel. The kid still was sleeping, his forehead pressed up against the cool glass of the passenger side window, his weight slumped awkwardly on the leather bench seat.

Dean had missed Sam's company on the ride, especially knowing that it would be a couple of weeks before he got to see his brother again. It's not like they'd never spent time apart before, it's just that Dean found it hard to relax when Sam wasn't around. Of course he'd never tell his little geeky klutz of a brother that. It was his own little secret.

Of course his secret was nothing like the whopper Sam had been keeping; he'd been plagued with recurring nightmares for at least a year, nightmares that involved Sam getting the life choked out of him, but the only person Sam had seen fit to tell was Pastor Jim. That had really hit Dean hard since he'd thought he was Sammy's best friend and only confidante.

He knew now but of course that knowledge had come too late to prevent him from forcing Sam to live his nightmare as Dean had choked Sam out in a training exercise. Dean felt like absolute hell over that, a first class heel, but in his defense he'd never wanted to practice that maneuver on his little brother; it was their dad who had insisted.

Just like it was their dad who had insisted Dean drop Sam off at Pastor Jim's. Dean didn't like this either but at least with Jim Murphy, he knew Sam would be out of danger and well cared for. Jim loved Sam – they bonded over knowledge, books and learning like nobody's business – and maintained it was never a burden to have the youngster around.

Dean snickered at that; Jim wasn't quite as happy when he'd watched over both boys since Dean had a penchant for getting himself and his younger brother into trouble. He wasn't content to sit for hours on end and read – he required a little more action. And if there wasn't any action, Dean created his own. He remembered talking Sammy into climbing on to the roof of the rectory when he was twelve and his brother was eight so they could have better seats for star gazing. It wasn't his fault the roofers had left a ladder there now was it? Or that Sammy had discovered constellations and wanted to get up close and personal? Yeah, Jim hadn't been pleased in the slightest at that escapade.

At least the hunt would afford him a chance to see some action, test his mettle. But first things first – he needed to wake up his younger sibling and get him situated.

Reaching out, Dean nudged Sam's shoulder. Usually that was enough to do the trick. Actually, usually the car stopping was enough but it had been a busy twenty-four hours and Sam was coming down with a cold. "Hey, Sammy, we're here."

Sam's eyes blinked open and he sat up, wincing as he rubbed his neck. "Sorry, didn't mean to fall asleep on you."

His brother's voice was soft and husky and Dean noticed the way Sam's hand drifted to his throat when he spoke. Maybe he should stick around a while, make sure Sammy was okay. He'd call his dad and run it by him.

Nudging Sam with his elbow, he threw open the door. "Come on, let's see what Jim's got cooking for you."

It was a running joke that whenever the Winchesters stayed with Jim, he tried out a new recipe. Jim Murphy might have been a man of the cloth but he was quite gifted in the kitchen. Except for that one meal that no one could pronounce; even Sam couldn't find a nice word to say about it.

Jim was standing in the doorway, jeans and flannel shirt announcing that he was off the God clock. "Sam, Dean, good to see you both. Come on in."

The dark haired man flashed a welcoming smile and grabbed Dean's hand, pumping it enthusiastically. "Dean, you look like a million bucks. You been behaving yourself or giving that dad of yours a run for his money?"

Dean rolled his eyes. "Oh, you know me, I polish my halo every single day."

The preacher guffawed and then threw his arms around Sam, pounding him soundly on the back. "You've gotten tall on me, Sam. One day soon I'll have to crane my neck back to see your face."

"Tell me about it. It's just not right that the little squirt is going to be taller than me." Dean's voice filled the silence as Sam stood there quietly, Jim's arm around his shoulders. Sam was pale and when he clammed up like this, it usually meant he didn't feel good.

"Dean, I know you need to hit the road for South Dakota soon but how about some late lunch? I made chicken cacciatore, also known as hunter's stew. I think you're going to like this one."

Dean's stomach grumbled and he decided he could wait the hour or so before he made the three hour drive to Bobby's. That's assuming he was leaving today; he planned on calling his dad as soon as the meal was over to see if maybe he could stay the night. Just to make sure Sammy was okay.

Shucking out of his leather jacket, he flopped it across the back of a chair. Jim helped Sam out of his jacket and then kept his arm around Sam's shoulders, shepherding him into the kitchen. Dean followed closely behind, appreciating the smell wafting from the pot on the stove.

The brothers sank down into high backed wood chairs as Jim served up steaming bowls of the stew. Dean could make out chunks of chicken, tomato, peppers and mushrooms in the broth as a bowl was plunked down in front of him. It looked fantastic and smelled even better.

They bowed their heads as Jim said the Lord's Prayer. Dean had never been comfortable with this aspect of staying at Jim's but he'd never said anything and he had no idea how Sam felt. His brother had an open mind and always seemed willing to embrace new ideas. This was probably right up his alley.

Jim entertained the brothers with stories about the people in Blue Earth. Dean kept tabs on his brother and noticed he ate little and said even less. About twenty minutes into the meal, Sam propped his elbow on the table and rested his chin on it, his eyes sliding shut and then opening with less and less frequency.

Their host had noticed the same thing. "What's wrong with Sam?"

There were so many ways Dean could answer that but he stuck to the visible aspect of his usually spry brother zonked out at the kitchen table. "He started coming down with a cold yesterday but I don't know, he slept all of the way here and it's not like him to fall asleep during a meal."

Jim nodded his head sagely. "You're right. Maybe I should ask your dad about taking Sam to a doctor."

"Guys, I'm sitting right here." Sam's husky voice piped up, drawing the attention of both men.

Their family friend turned a serious face on his little brother. "And how do you feel, Sam? Do you need to see a doctor?"

Dean expected an outright response in the negative and his concern doubled when Sam frowned, rubbing the middle of his forehead and then his throat. "I don't know. Maybe? I feel pretty shitty…oops, I mean cruddy, but maybe if I get some more sleep I'll feel better."

The phone rang, interrupting the conversation, and Jim excused himself before taking the call in the room off the kitchen. Dean jostled Sam's arm with his elbow. "I'm going to ask Dad if I can stay, at least for tonight. I don't want to leave you here when you're sick."

A slight smile broke over Sam's face. "Thanks, Dean."

Feeling like he'd betrayed his brother with the whole choke-hold episode, Dean was eager to make it up to him. Sam wasn't upset with him over it – his brother was a lot more kind hearted than Dean – but it didn't seem right leaving Sammy while he was sick.

"Dean! It's your father and he wants to speak with you..." Jim's voice drifted from the other room.

Dean noted the heavy frown on Jim's face as they passed each other in the hall. It looked like his dad had managed to piss off the padre.

Grabbing up the phone, Dean steeled himself for the upcoming conversation. "Hi Dad…"

His dad cut him off before he could finish his sentence. "I thought you were going to call me when you got to Jim's. You should have been on the road by now. I want you here by nightfall."

The voice on the other end of the line was measured and calm but that was deceiving. This wasn't going well. "About that, Dad. Sammy is really sick. I think I should stick around a little while and make sure he's okay."

Silence greeted his words. Just when Dean was going to break it, pleading to stay a while longer, his dad put him in his place. "I'll tell you what I told Jim. Sam probably has a cold and it's my fault that I made him run in the rain but what he really needs is some rest. What he doesn't need is you hovering over him, especially when I could use your help here."

He'd already told Sam he didn't want to leave him and he wasn't going to cave in just because his dad said so. That's how they'd gotten into the whole mess with Sam in the first place. "Dad, I don't think you understand. Sam said…"

"No, Dean, I don't think you understand. There are innocent lives at stake and they're counting on you. They can't wait while you hold Sam's hand. Now either you're committed to doing this, and you get your ass in the car and over here now, or you stay there with Sam and Jim. Indefinitely."

Dean screwed his eyes shut. It wasn't fair. His old man knew how much he wanted to hunt. Saving lives, hanging out with other hunters, using weapons…it was the life Dean coveted.

Hanging his head, Dean blew out a breath. Sam would understand. "Yes, sir. I'll see you in three hours."

Now Dean was left breaking the news to his younger brother. He hung up the phone and turned, moving for the kitchen. Sam was leaning against the wall, arms crossed. Resignation shone from large, hazel eyes. "You heard."

Sammy nodded his head. "Be careful. Call when you can."

Dean moved as though to tug Sam into his arms for a hug but his brother slid along the wall, out of reach. Letting his arm drop to his side, Dean nodded. "I'll call you when I get to Bobby's."

Sam shrugged his shoulders, the dark bangs obscuring his face. "Just call when you can. Good hunting."

There was so much more Dean wanted to say but his brother was slipping past him and moving to stand next to Jim.

The older man pulled Dean into a hug. "Take care of yourself and that stubborn father of yours. I'll say a prayer for all of you."

He tried hard to smile but his lips wouldn't bend that way. "Thanks. Take care of Sammy for me."

That blank look from yesterday was back on Sam's face and Dean hated it. Hated that he was leaving. But his dad was right; Jim would take good care of Sammy.

Dean grabbed his leather jacket and stepped out into the brisk air. He had a three hour drive ahead of him and he was burning daylight.

-0-

Sam's throat hurt like a bitch and the lymph nodes in his neck were sore. Jim had offered to take Sam to the doctor but they didn't have a note from his dad stating Jim could make medical decisions for him. That and it wasn't an emergency.

He had a high tolerance for pain and he'd discovered if he didn't talk or move around much, the virus or whatever he had was tolerable. But life pretty much sucked at the moment. To top it off, he hadn't heard from Dean or his dad in three days and he was a little worried.

He knew he was always a little rough on his dad yet he couldn't help but think the head of the Winchester family was trying to teach him, or Dean, some sort of lesson. The only thing he'd done was not pitch a fit at being made to act as Dean's training partner while Dean practiced his little maneuver. Dean had gone along with the program without argument. So what was his dad's problem?

"Here Sam, I got a box of popsicles while I was out. This should help your throat."

Jim handed Sam a grape popsicle and he smiled his thanks. The older man had been very good to Sam, giving him pain relievers and pretty much whatever he thought would go down easy for Sam's strained throat.

Sam was lounging on the couch in the living room. He hadn't wanted to, it was rude to do that in someone else's house, but Jim had insisted he stretch out and get comfortable. Sam had to admit he was sick of looking at the four walls in the guest bedroom he was using.

A smooth hand touched Sam's forehead. "No fever. That's good."

He'd had some Tylenol a few hours ago so he'd better not have a fever, although he wasn't going to mention it. He didn't like the thought that he was putting Jim out. The busy man had agreed to let Sam stay with him, he shouldn't have to play nursemaid, too.

Jim's face was serious, his eyes piercing. Sometimes Sam thought the cleric could see right into his very soul and it was disconcerting. "Listen, Sam, while you're here I think we should do something to further your education. I know you're feeling lousy, but do you feel up to something easy? Maybe read over a Latin passage I found?"

For a moment Sam had thought his host was going to ask him about his dreams and Sam had braced himself. It wasn't that Sam didn't want to talk to Jim about the whole nightmare thing. Hell, it had been his idea to call the pastor in the first place. But right now it seemed like that had happened years ago instead of days.

He was pleasantly surprised that Jim wanted to talk to him about Latin. "That sounds good. What do you have for me?"

The dark haired man handed Sam a notebook and pointed to the area of the page he wanted Sam to read. Popsicle clutched in one hand, the notebook in the other, Sam read the paragraph, stumbling over a few words. It had been a while since he'd practiced his Latin and it showed. When he was done he looked at Jim, his eyebrows raised in question.

Jim's lips quirked up, amusement twinkling in his dark eyes. "Very good, Sam. Except for the part where you sent the demon to the kitchen instead of hell. You haven't kept up with your Latin have you? Or have you started learning a new language?"

Sam was impressed. He didn't realize he'd mangled a word that badly or that Jim would know he'd taken some Spanish and Italian. "How did you know? I mean about the other languages?"

The pastor shrugged his thin shoulders. "It's a mistake most of us make. Your pronunciation of Latin has to be so precise when doing an exorcism, there's no room for error. When you start learning other languages it's easy to blur them all together. The good news is you just need to concentrate a little more on the dead language. Let's do some more and then you can take a break."

Shaking the shaggy hair out of his eyes, Sam licked the melting popsicle as he took a moment to appreciate what Jim was telling him. And the way he'd told him. Sam was used to taking criticism, felt like his whole life had been one big critical essay on how he screwed up, but Jim had a way of injecting humor into the lesson that made Sam feel like he wasn't just another fuck-up. And he was capable of learning, it was just easier to do when he wasn't feeling defensive.

Sam loved his dad and brother but it was times like this that he realized there was more than one way to get things done.

-0-

They were in the basement of the duplex, working on their hand-to-hand combat technique. Dean's was of course flawless while Sam's left a lot to be desired. Their dad certainly wasted no time in pointing out his inferior skill.

"Sloppy, Sam. If you react that way out in the field, you're going to get someone killed."

Sam tried to shake off his dad's words but they were harsh. It wasn't like he wasn't trying. It just felt like his feet were set in cement.

Dean was impatient and Sam didn't blame him. His brother was stuck sparring with someone who wasn't even close to his skill level. "I've had enough of this shit. Let's finish it."

His dad chimed in with his encouragement. "Sam's no good to us this way. Go ahead, you know what you have to do."

Unable to dodge away from his bigger, faster brother, Sam felt Dean wrap his arm around his neck. He expected his brother to flip him on the mat and count it out but instead steady pressure was exuded. Right over his carotid artery.

Sam struggled but couldn't gain the leverage to break free. "Dean, please…"

His brother increased the torque on his throat and Sam's vision grayed out dangerously. "Sorry, Sammy. You're only holding us back."

"More pressure…take him down…lock him down…"

"Like that, sir? That's too easy."

"Your brother's not much of a fighter."

His neck was rigid as he tried to break loose of the hold. His fingertips tingled and then dropped away from Dean's arm. There wasn't anything he could do. His lungs grappled for air but it was useless.

Gentle hands grabbed his shoulders. "Sam, wake up. It's okay. Sam?"

Sam's eyelids were leaden but he forced them up, gasping for air. "Jim?"

A hand rubbed his shoulder reassuringly. "You had the dream again, didn't you?"

His throat ached and his head pounded. He barely had the strength to nod his head.

The kindly older man cleared his throat. Sam could see in the weak light that straggled in from the hallway that Jim had haphazardly thrown a robe over his pajamas and looked sleep rumpled and weary. Sam felt guilty for having disturbed Jim's sleep. "I'm sorry I woke you up."

Jim gathered the robe more tightly against him and sank down on the edge of Sam's bed. "Don't apologize, Sam. I've been waiting for the right time to talk to you about your recurring dreams and this seems as good a time as any. I've done some reading and the literature out there agrees that when a dream keeps coming to you, it's trying to get a message across."

The padre paused to see if Sam was paying attention and he levered himself up on his elbows before sitting up. He was sick of these dreams, this one particularly vicious because of his family's part in it, and he wanted to find a way to stop them. "What kind of message?"

Withdrawing his hand from Sam's arm, Jim stroked the stubble on his chin thoughtfully. "You have to weed through the emotional and reactive elements of the dream in order to get down to the symbolic images. The nature of the dreams can be disturbing and that prevents you from delving deeper and figuring out what your subconscious is trying to tell you. It's like a defense mechanism that your mind is putting up. Once you learn to accept yourself fully, the dreams are supposed to disappear."

Symbolic images. What kind of symbolic image did getting the life strangled out of you represent?

"I know," the steady voice of Jim continued, "it's a bit of psychobabble but I think there could be a bit of truth to it. Do you know what I think of when you describe choking and struggling to draw breath?"

Having just woken up from an intense nightmare, Sam knew he wasn't firing on all cylinders but he wanted to hear this, make sense of it. "What?"

Jim's hand was back on his arm. "That you're fighting against something that's trying to hold you back. I'm going to get you some water and pain reliever, your throat sounds like it's pretty rocky. Then maybe we can see about some more sleep. Sound good?"

Sam didn't know if sleep sounded good. Not if it meant more nightmares like that.

As Jim left the room, Sam pondered his words. Fighting against something that's trying to hold you back…Sam wasn't sure he even wanted to go there. But now that Jim had spoken the words, he was pretty sure he'd be pushing and tugging at them until he figured out what his subconscious was trying to tell him.

Flopping back, Sam relaxed against the pillows. He was wide awake now.

-0-

John had a hell of a time keeping Dean from obsessing about Sam. But once they went on a few hunts, simple salt and burns and the like, Dean started to relax.

It was probably not a popular parental view to espouse but John had to admit to himself that working with Dean while Sam was sidelined at Jim's was the best idea he'd had in a long time. Under his tutelage, along with Caleb's and Bobby's, his oldest son was coming into his own.

He was still perplexed about what to do with his youngest son and muddying the waters to some degree was the guilt he felt. He hadn't listened to Sam when he'd said he wanted to talk to Jim first, before Dean did the choke-hold on him. Although John couldn't really understand what difference it would've made. Sam made too much of feelings and emotions; he'd do better in life if he just toughened up.

Sighing, John looked at his twined hands. His gold wedding band flashed from his ring finger. Mary would be upset with him for banishing Sam.

It had been almost three weeks since Dean dropped Sam off, more than a week since he'd talked to his youngest son. Maybe it was time he brought Sammy home.

Dean was with Caleb in Montana, having completed another easy job. He was due back at Bobby's the day after tomorrow. If John left now, he and Sam would be back way before Dean; it would be a nice reward for all of his eldest's hard work.

Bobby was in town getting some supplies so he scribbled a note. His friend was used to the way he operated and wouldn't be surprised at this sudden change of plans.

The trip passed in a blur as John reviewed everything Dean had learned these past three weeks. It had been time well spent.

When he pulled into Jim's driveway, he wasn't surprised to see his old friend opening the door to greet him despite not calling ahead. Jim looked concerned but then again when didn't he? He was always worrying about something or other. He looked past Jim for a glimpse of Sam but didn't see his youngest.

Taking the porch steps two at a time, John was soon towering over his shorter friend. "Where's Sammy?"

Jim grabbed him by the arm and dragged him inside. "I've been trying to contact you for two days now. Sam is sick."

John shook his arm out of Jim's grip, not liking the accusatory tone his friend was using. "We just pulled into Bobby's late yesterday. What's wrong with Sam?"

The object of his thoughts dragged down the staircase, clutching the railing. His young son was pale and moved as though in pain. "Hey, kiddo, Jim said you're sick. What's wrong?"

Sam stopped just short of John and he felt a pang; he wanted to draw Sam into a hug but lately the kid had shied away from contact. Not that John had ever been big on hugging. But it had been three weeks since they'd see each other.

His son lifted a shaky hand to his head and pushed the lank bangs off his forehead. Then he shrugged. For someone who liked to talk, Sam wasn't very communicative when it came to telling his father what was going on.

Jim moved around John to stand shoulder to shoulder with his son. "He's lethargic, listless. His joints ache. He said he's got a rash on his chest. He's out of breath. It's time to take him to a doctor."

John's latent parenting skills kicked in and he moved in front of Sam, putting a hand to his forehead. It was warm. And the kid was short of breath from his short trek down the stairs.

The phone rang, interrupting the discussion. Jim impatiently moved off to answer it. "John, it's Bobby."

Frustration colored his friend's tone. Jim could be like a pit-bull when he sunk his teeth into something and obviously this thing with Sam was his current chew toy.

John took the phone, his attention still directed at Sam who was moving to the couch. His son winced as he sunk down into the cushions. Sam probably had some virus. Not much a doctor could do for that but maybe it wouldn't hurt to have the kid checked out. He'd had that cold three weeks ago and now this.

Bobby's voice boomed across the line. "John, listen, do you have your notebook? I'm going to feed you some coordinates. These are all supernatural occurrences in the Midwest and I think there's a pattern here. I'm talking big. Demon big."

John's attention moved away from Sam as he dug out his notebook and a pen. Demons. Like the thing that took his Mary away from him. "Go ahead."

His friend in South Dakota reeled off data. He suggested John head toward Chicago. Bobby would work with the data at his house but if John was down there, close to the epicenter of things, then someone would be on hand in case they cracked the code.

By the time he got off the phone, Jim had left the room and Sam was sitting on the couch, elbows on his knees, head resting in his hands. "Sammy? There's something big going on, near Chicago. Do you think you feel up to going down there with me? You could give me a hand with the research. If you still feel bad, we'll get you to a doctor. They have some of the best doctors down there."

Maybe he should just leave his son in Jim's care but if he took Sam with him, it would ease some of his guilt. He'd been a crappy parent and needed to make it up to Sam. He needed both his sons by his side.

Bloodshot eyes squinted at him and John felt another pang of remorse. Maybe the kid was too sick to travel. But Sammy wasn't a whiner, despite the way his brother teased him.

John's attention veered away from Sam as he thought of the implications of what Bobby had told him. Maybe this was it. Maybe he'd finally get a chance to confront the thing that had stolen Mary's life.

Sam's soft voice invaded John's thoughts. "Will Dean be there?"

Startled at the question, it took him a moment to figure out what Sam was asking. "Dean? Yeah, sure, we'll meet up with him."

Relief broke across Sam's drawn features. "I'll go get my stuff."

John patted Sam's shoulder as his son shuffled by and he tried to ignore how frail the boy felt under his hand. Sam struggled up the stairs slowly and John thought again about leaving his son here. The road was no place for a sick boy.

"Are you out of your mind? Sam is sick. He needs a doctor, not a road trip."

Crossing his arms defensively, John glowered at his old friend. "Sam wants to come with me."

Jim paced up in front of John and poked his bony finger in John's chest. "Of course he wants to come with you. He's been packed and waiting for someone to get him for over a week. He's only fourteen years old and wants to be with his family. You're treading on very dangerous ground here, John. You're going to lose that boy if you're not careful."

"Are you threatening me?" John had withstood a lot of meddling from Jim over the years when it came to raising his boys but it sounded to him like the clergyman was warning him that Sam could be taken away from him.

Visions of social services ripping Sam away from their family flashed in his mind and he decided it was time to move on. With Sam. He didn't need some interfering old windbag like Jim, who didn't even have children, telling him how to take care of his son.

Sam appeared at the top of the stairs, his arms filled with the army surplus duffle bag containing his things. John loped up the stairs and took the bag from Sam, hooking his free arm around his son's waist. "Come on, Sammy, let's hit the road."

Jim blocked the bottom of the stairs. "Please, John. Don't do this."

His son threw his arms around Jim and hugged him. The son who didn't like to be hugged, at least not by him. "It's okay. Dean will be there. Thanks for everything."

Not even listening anymore, John maneuvered Sam toward the door. "Thanks, Jim. I owe you."

The pastor followed them out into the cool air. "Call me and let me know how you are, okay Sam?"

Bundling his son into his Chevy truck, John took a moment to make sure he was secure before punching the clutch, spraying gravel as they departed.

In the rear-view mirror John could see his old friend standing at the top of the stairs. He didn't like parting on bad terms but no one was going to keep him away from his children.

-0-

"De-an…"

Sam's voice was whisper thin and needy and John realized with a pang that the kid was probably due for some more ibuprofen. He glanced at the clock and noted the time. He'd wait another ten minutes.

They'd gotten into Chicago yesterday and Sam had been too exhausted to leave the room for food. Hell, who was John kidding? He'd had to practically carry the kid inside, his legs too wobbly to hold him up.

The kid was sweating through the virus and John had some uneasy moments when he wasn't sure what to do – maybe Sam did need a doctor. He'd managed to get some water and the ibuprofen down him. He'd keep monitoring him for now. In the mean time he'd work on his current project.

John had worked hard yesterday to plot the supernatural events occurring in the Midwest with greater frequency. There was a pattern here, he could sense it, but he just hadn't found it yet. He needed to focus here. He knew down to his very marrow what was going on had to do with the bastard demon that had killed his sweet Mary.

There. Maybe if he switched to the Polar Coordinate System instead of using the Cartesian he'd have better luck. This was the kind of thing Sam excelled at, although it sometimes pained John to admit it; he was pleased Sam had a head for research and the like but he needed the boy to put his heart and soul into being able to defend himself properly. Become a fighter, like Dean. But right now Sam was all long limbs and little coordination and training exercises had turned into exercises in futility.

Thinking of Sam reminded John it was time for his next dose. His head swiveled toward the clock. Shit. Sam had been due for more medicine two hours ago. Somehow he'd lost track of time. It was inexcusable.

John pushed to his feet and approached his son who was sitting up, still fully clothed, his back resting against the headboard, cushioned by stacked pillows. The hood of the thick sweatshirt bunched behind him causing his neck to bend awkwardly, his head cocked at an uncomfortable angle. The sight melted his insides; Sam had always had a penchant for falling asleep in unlikely positions as a toddler and this reminded him of that past. A time when things were simpler.

Thick bangs obscured Sam's face and John gently pushed them aside, calling his son's name softly. With that near contact, John could feel the heat pulsing off his Sam's face. This time his voice was sharp with worry as he shook Sam's arm. The heavy head bobbed on the thin neck and Sam's face scrunched up before his eyes opened to a slit, revealing a glassy and vacant stare.

John plastered his hand to Sam's forehead and he didn't need a thermometer to tell him the kid was burning up. The expressionless eyes that peered groggily at him only confirmed the fact that his son was dangerously sick. That sentiment was further cemented as he heard the ragged breaths his son was drawing into his lungs. If he wasn't careful, Sam would end up with bronchitis or worse. Tomorrow he was taking Sam to the doctor.

Moving to the first aid kit, he pulled out some Tylenol since Sam had used the last of the ibuprofen earlier. He spilled a couple of tablets into his hand before stalking into the tiny bathroom and filling the complimentary glass, chipped and stained from years of use, with cool tap water.

Perching again on the side of the bed, John slid the tablets into Sam's parted mouth. Next he held the glass to the chapped lips as he cradled the back of Sam's head, tipping water into his son's mouth. Sam swallowed convulsively, ragged coughs following hard on its heels. Some water dribbled from the slack lips. When the coughing didn't ease, John set the glass down on the worn nightstand and pulled the pliant torso into his arms, pounding lightly between sharp shoulder blades.

The rattling coughs finally tapered off and John allowed himself to hold the drooping body against his chest, his hand tangling in the damp curls at the nape of Sam's neck. He couldn't remember the last time he'd held Sam in his arms other than to show him some training move and regret sliced deeply through him. He loved both of his sons more than he ever believed possible but it was times like this that he knew he'd failed them as a father.

Easing Sam away from him, John began stripping the cumbersome hoodie from the slack body. Sam would rest easier without all that material strangling him. His son sat there submissively, allowing John to pull his arms free and then tug the top over his head. The lack of protesting and movement were beginning to worry John. He'd see if the Tylenol knocked down the fever to a manageable level. He'd rather wait until the morning to take Sam in but if the medicine didn't work, he wouldn't delay in getting Sammy to the nearest ER. In the mean time he just needed to make his son comfortable.

Standing up, John hauled Sam into his arms, an arm behind his back and another looped under his knees. It was difficult but he managed to sweep the bedding back and deposit Sam on the sheet. He removed all but one of the pillows, working it deftly under Sam's head, before drawing the covers up. His son clawed at his arm and John grabbed the wayward limb, rubbing the hot hand between his own. "Just rest, Sammy. You'll feel better when you wake up."

-0-

Sam was having trouble catching his breath. Not the I just ran five miles and I'm winded variety but the holy crap, I can't suck in enough oxygen and I need help kind. "De-an…"

His voice was soft and plaintive but Sam couldn't generate enough energy to make his voice louder. But Dean would hear him. His big brother was always keeping tabs on him.

He paused in the act of pulling air into his lungs as a vice clamped around his chest. It was inexorably and ruthlessly battening down, abusing him.

This was ten times worse than the dreams he'd been having about choking. And as much as he'd freaked out when Dean had done his little shime-waza judo move, exerting pressure on his carotid artery until he'd blacked out, that didn't compare in the least to this sensation.

Anxiety flooded through him as he worked to suck in air. His nose wasn't getting the job done so his mouth was open, his chest heaving as it fought against the pressure locked around it.

Black spots flecked his vision and Sam tried to call out again; a strangled sob, so quiet he could barely hear it, was the only noise he emitted. It was too hard to hold his head up and it rolled on his neck, tipping to the side. The pillows at his back helped to prop him up but with each strangled inhalation and subsequent exhalation, he thought his body would slide from its perch and pitch to the floor.

Maybe if that happened someone would actually check on him. Sam gave in to exhaustion and relaxed farther back against the pillows as sleep claimed him.

He didn't know how much time had passed when he felt someone grasp his arm and shake it. His eyes cracked open and the distorted image of someone fluttered into his view, the body before him seeming to grow and shrink with each breath.

Sam had wanted to get someone's attention earlier but now he couldn't remember why. Now he just wanted to sleep. He let his eyelids sink down again but they sprang open when something was thrust into his open mouth. The bitter tang of Tylenol flooded his senses as the tablets made contact with his fuzzy tongue. His head was tilted back and water poured into his mouth. With his mouth full he lacked the ability to pull in enough oxygen and it made him swallow in panic. The pills burned a fiery path down his throat and made him cough. The additional pressure on his chest was enough to make him cry but his body was too busy trying to breathe and couldn't be bothered with tears.

Arms drew him forward and he leaned against a solid chest. Maybe Dean was here after all.

Strong arms held him and a hand pounded him on the back. It was probably supposed to clear his lungs but it only made it that much harder to breathe. A hand soothed the back of his neck and for a moment Sam pretended it was his mother. He had no memories of her but whenever he was sick or hurt, he imagined the pretty blond lady in the picture his dad carried would sooth him with a kind touch.

The comforting moment was over too soon before the hoodie was being ruthlessly stripped from him. He wanted to protest but the moment the heavy fabric scraped over his face, panic blindsided him and he found himself struggling to move his chest up and down. Move the air in and out.

Dizziness swept through Sam as he was lifted into the air. Before he could adjust to the change in altitude he was being settled back down on the bed. But this time he was flat on his back and the constricting feeling in his chest multiplied until he wondered if this was what drowning felt like. A pillow was eased under his head but it wasn't enough. He needed to sit up. He strained to find leverage but his reserves had been depleted; everything he had was going toward breathing.

Sam flopped his arm toward the person standing over him. His hand was caught and rubbed briskly. "Just rest, Sammy. You'll feel better when you wake up."

Sam was dying and he couldn't force any sound past his lips save the panting breaths that filled his ears. He was pathetic. No wonder his dad and brother had left him.

-0-

John sat at the table with the map spread before him but his attention kept returning to the bed behind him. The bed where Sam lay, breathing deeply.

He consulted his watch and realized it had been four hours since the last dose of medicine. The Tylenol should have at least brought his son's fever down.

Pushing away from the table, John returned to the bed and looked down at his resting son. The dull light from the table spread over Sam's face which was distorted by a grimace; even sleep couldn't dispel the discomfort of whatever bug he'd caught.

John snapped on the light next to the bed and dread filled him as he saw the blue tinge of Sam's lips and eyelids.

Sam needed help now, not tomorrow. "Sammy, can you hear me? We're going to take a little road trip so we can get some medicine. Sammy?"

No response was forthcoming and John didn't waste any time in sliding an arm under his son's back and another under his legs, lifting him effortlessly. The tall, thin body dangled limply in his arms. He needed to get Sam out to the truck and to a hospital.

His Chevy truck was right outside their door, backed into the parking stall allotted to their room. He clawed at the passenger handle, jerking the door open before setting the burden in his arms on the leather seat.

He pulled off his lined flannel shirt, cursing himself for not grabbing a blanket off the bed but he didn't want to spare the time to run in and grab one now. Instead he draped his shirt over the shivering form of his son and cranked the heat on. He knew Sam had one helluva fever but it wouldn't do to let him get chilled.

Too bad he hadn't thought of that three weeks ago before he'd sent Sam into the rain for a five-mile jog while he'd shown Dean the choke-hold maneuver. The same maneuver he'd then insisted Dean test out on his brother. Since then, everything had gone downhill with Sam.

John forced himself to concentrate as he pulled the seatbelt across the lax body of his son and fastened it. His color seemed marginally better when he was sitting up and the restraint would help keep him that way. John's right hand steadied Sam's shoulder as he steered the truck one-handed toward town. He knew exactly where the hospital was located. In his line of work, you never knew when one would be needed in a hurry so he always scoped out the nearest one.

Jim had said something about Sam being lethargic and listless. That was a far cry from the condition his son was in now. Respiratory distress was more like it. He hoped like hell this hospital had some good meds they could pump into his son. It was pure torture seeing Sam like this.

The sign for the hospital was up ahead and John followed the arrows to the ER. He pulled right up to the curb and left the keys dangling from the ignition in case someone needed to move it. His weapons were stowed safely in the motel room and he didn't know when he'd be able to come back out and take care of the truck.

When he opened the passenger door the dome light came on and spilled over his son's still form. His baby looked like hell. Both his sons had endured their share of sickness but John couldn't remember either one of them looking so haggard before.

John scooped Sam's lax body out of the passenger seat before he kicked the door shut, running for the entrance to the ER. He tamped down the urge to kick at the electronic glass door as he waited for it to slide open. As soon as there was enough room to squeeze through, John bolted into the registration area.

"My son needs help!" Truer words were never spoken; Sam's lips and the area under his eyes as well as his eyelids were a deep blue purple in strong contrast to the rest of his colorless face. His son's body draped his arms heavily, lacking the strength to even hold his head up.

Sam was in dire straits and it was all John's fault. He should have listened when Jim told him Sam was sick. Hell, he'd played it off as some mild virus. Certainly nothing life threatening.

The waiting room erupted into chaos as a gurney skidded to a halt in front of John, and the arms of strangers plucked his son away from him and stretched him out on the flat surface. His own heart was thumping painfully in his chest as he trailed after the medical staff and his baby, who he refused to let out of his sight.

John knew enough about triage protocol to know that he needed to stay out of the way if he wanted to remain in the exam room. He slid back against the wall where he could still see Sam but was well out of the way. The staff stripped the layers of clothing off the pliant body and then started throwing medical jargon around while attaching equipment to various body parts.

"Text book cynanosis…look at that color of blue. Someone get the pulse ox on him, I need an O2 sat!"

A black clip was placed on Sam's finger even as an oxygen mask was secured over his nose and mouth. A tympanic thermometer was deftly slid into his ear.

"Not good, the Sat is right at 70. And his temp is 104.1. How are the lung sounds?"

The bodies parted for a moment and John got a glimpse of Sam's bare chest as someone placed a stethoscope on it. Sam always complained when the cold metal was placed against his warm skin but not this time; his eyes remained closed and his head lolled on the exam table. But John could see the rash Jim had mentioned when he'd picked Sam up in Minnesota even from his vantage place across the room. Slightly raised pink rings decorated his son's chest.

"Erythema marginatum. And I've got diminished lung sounds, rales throughout. I'm picking up a laterally displaced apex beat and some gallop rhythm. Rheumatic fever with carditis?"

"Yeah, that's what I'm thinking. He probably feels like he's drowning, poor kid. Let's get him upright so he doesn't have to work so hard to breathe."

Competent hands adjusted the exam table and soon Sam's torso was more vertical than horizontal.

"I want a FBC…I think we'll find an increased C reactive protein and Erythrocyte sedimentation rate along with strep. Let's get an x-ray before we take him up to ICU. Page both the on-call cardiologist and pulmonologist. And someone needs to get his history. Jesus, how does a kid get this sick without someone realizing it? This didn't just happen overnight."

Those last words cut John to the core. How did Sam get to be so sick while on his watch? John had been so seduced by the possibility of catching Mary's killer that he'd somehow lost track of how sick Sam was, how much he was depending on him.

As important as it was to wipe out the demon that had killed his wife, John knew Mary would be beyond disappointed in him right now – his son should have been his main focus and he'd lost sight of that.

A nurse touched his elbow, clipboard in hand, and guided him out to a glassed in office area. "Sir, we need some information about your son. Once he's settled upstairs we'll take you to him."

John sank down into the well padded chair, running a shaking hand through his graying hair. He'd really screwed up this time. He only hoped Sam made it through this crisis so he could make it up to him.

-0-

The doctor's words rained down upon John's ears and he tried, and failed, to remain stoic. His voice cracked as he began to speak and he had to swallow heavily before continuing. "Will…he be okay? I mean will all this medication make him better?"

Untreated streptococcal infection…rheumatic fever three weeks later…concurrent myocarditis and pericarditis…congestive heart failure.

The progression of Sam's illness was staggering to John, and although the doctor assured him that the symptoms for the strep infection could have gone undetected, he knew Sam had complained of a sore throat while at Jim's. John had downplayed it. It was just a cold. After all, father knows best.

But what was truly unforgivable was the way he'd ignored his son when he'd been told his joints hurt and he was having trouble breathing. John had blithely blamed the symptoms on a virus, too busy with his project to pay attention to his ailing son.

Dr. Belew had a grave countenance. "We're going to monitor Sam closely and make sure the corticosteroids, antibiotic, diuretics and digoxin do their jobs. We've got a full arsenal to try if one of the drugs stumbles."

The words should have been reassuring but John couldn't help but dwell on what could go wrong. "But if they work, will my son be okay?"

The older man frowned but didn't pause in answering John. "There's always a concern that the infection could damage the heart valves but it's just something we're going to have to stay on top of. For now, we'll be trying to control Sam's fever and his pain along with the symptoms from the carditis and CHF. Can I ask you a question Mr. Winchester?"

John was taken aback. The cardiologist had barely spent two minutes in his presence until now and had been brusque in those previous dealings. John didn't really care what the doctor's disposition was like as long as he could help Sammy. "Of course, what do you want to know?"

He figured the doctor wanted to ask him a question about Sam's history or something. The doctor didn't pull any punches and it almost left him breathless. "Why did it take you so long to seek help for Sam? You had to have known he was a very sick young man, despite his reassurances to the contrary."

John's eyebrows lifted toward his hairline and the doctor continued speaking. "You seem surprised. Yes, Sam told me he didn't want to worry you, that you're a very busy man. That when asked, he said he was feeling better. But someone should have been looking out for Sam, noticed the distress he was in. I assure you that the joint pain associated with rheumatic fever is quite pronounced and hard to ignore."

"I…I…" There wasn't a defense for his actions and he could only stare at the doctor as his words stumbled to a halt.

"I thought long and hard about contacting Social Services but Sam assured me that you and his older brother take very good care of him. Please don't make me regret that decision." Dr. Belew straightened to his full height and with long strides, left John behind.

The doctor had only confirmed John's own feelings about his crappy parenting. But Sam was only fourteen; he still had time to turn it around.

John rose to his feet and moved with trepidation to the bank of payphones down the corridor. It was time to call in the cavalry. Sam deserved to have his big brother here.

-0-

Dean couldn't believe how sick his little brother was. Sure, his dad had told him on the phone that Sammy had rheumatic fever and some complications from it, but he'd never dreamed there would be so many lines and leads hooked up to his brother. Or how awful Sam would look.

The separation had been hard on Dean. He'd wondered and worried about how his little brother had been doing and here was proof that no one could take care of him as well as Dean. Sam had never gotten this sick while Dean was around. He didn't care what his dad said; he wasn't ever going to leave Sam again.

Plunking down on the chair next to the bed, Dean willed his brother's eyes to open. When that didn't happen, he studied Sam's face. The grayish skin. The dark circles under his eyes. The gaunt cheekbones. The chapped lips.

Dean was going to hit the gift shop and see if they had anything for Sam's raw, shredded lips. Why didn't someone do something about that? And how could Sam sleep sitting up like that?

His dad walked into the room, looking rough around the edges. The closer he got, the worse he looked. Dean had seen his dad nicked up from the job, broken bones or down a pint from blood loss, but he'd never seen the haunted look he wore now.

Something was up. Not just the fact that his little brother was sick and in the hospital. "Dad, what's wrong?"

His dad opened his mouth as if to speak, closed it and then closed his eyes. Upon opening them again he began to speak. "Son, this is all my fault…"

One of the monitors chose that moment to sound an alarm. The color drained from his dad's face, his black whiskers a stark contrast to the pale, doughy skin. Dean's attention swung back to his little brother, who arched his back away from the bed before seeming to cave in on himself. If Dean had been concerned before, he now officially was scared.

Before he could do anything, a short woman in light blue scrubs entered the room with a flurry. She went to the IV stand and pulled a syringe out of her pocket, injecting it into one of the lines. Within moments Sam's tight body relaxed and the monitor quieted to a dull, steady blip.

"What was that?" His dad's voice cracked with emotion and it shook Dean to his core. His dad never showed emotion. At least not that type of emotion. Anger, frustration, happiness…Dean knew how those emotions looked on his dad well enough.

But this look – eyes wet and threatening to spill moisture, face tight – this was fear. It didn't make sense. His dad was fearless. Dean needed him to be fearless. "Dad?"

The nurse smoothed her blond-reddish hair back into its high ponytail and smiled reassuringly. "It's okay. He's doing fine. He was having some arrhythmia but I gave him some more digitalis and his heart calmed right down."

Dean's neck rotated between the nurse and his dad. Something flashed in his dad's eyes. Disbelief? "But when I got here this morning you said he was doing better. Nothing like this happened while I was here yesterday."

His dad was winding up into that more familiar anger. It shouldn't have eased Dean's mind but watching his dad in action like this was a much easier pill to swallow than the other more emotional version he'd seen moments ago.

"Mr. Winchester, I know this is hard on you, but I assure you that Sam is doing much better today. He had half a dozen episodes like this while you were gone last night but it's the normal progression of the rheumatic fever and it will pass. The good news is his fever is down and we're controlling his joint pain. I'll be monitoring Sam from the nurse's station but please use the call button if you think Sam needs anything."

The nurse went over to Sam and smoothed his hair back from his face before snugging the bedding up higher on his chest. Then she left the cubicle, her scrubs making a swishing noise as she walked by.

The energy deflated from his dad's body, leaving him looking much smaller than his 6'2" frame. "Dad, please, you're freaking me out here. Sam's going to be okay, right?"

His dad rubbed his face with both hands before straightening. "He's going to be okay. We'll make sure of it. I'm going to head down to the vending machine and get us some coffee. Be right back."

Before Dean could say anything, his dad had bolted from the cubicle.

Dean sighed before turning back to the motionless body on the bed. The body that was blinking his eyes sleepily while tired eyes tried to focus. "Sammy? How are you feeling? Can I get you anything?"

Bloodshot eyes shot through with hazel turned toward Dean. "Dean?"

Dean's worry meter had been edging into red but now eased back down a notch into yellow. Sam was awake. Dean reached forward and jostled Sam's elbow since he couldn't bump shoulders, their age old form of greeting. His brother winced and shifted against the pillows. "Did I hurt you? What's wrong?"

A slight smile graced Sam's face and then it quickly smoothed away to a blank look. "My joints are sore. It's okay, it's nice to see you."

Nice to see you. Not a very enthusiastic greeting but then again Sam was cooped up in a hospital so what did he expect. "Dad went to get some coffee and he'll be back in a minute. He'll be excited to see that you're awake. He's really been worried."

The blank look remained and Dean wondered if the meds they were pumping his brother full of were rendering his features expressionless; Sam usually wore his heart out on his sleeve, which made reading his moods easy. But now Dean was forced to guess. His voice didn't give anything away either. "I'm really tired. I think I'm going to sleep now."

"Why don't you wait until Dad gets back? I could rub your arm, maybe that would help with the pain? You used to like that when you were little and were sick."

Dean's eyes were pleading. He wanted to be able to do something to help his brother who wasn't acting like himself. But Sam's eyelids had drifted shut and he was either already asleep or tuning him out, Dean couldn't tell which.

He saw his dad outside the cubicle, hovering. He wondered how long his dad had been standing there, and with sudden clarity realized he'd been there while Sam had been awake but hadn't bothered to come inside.

His dad didn't want to talk to Sam any more than Sam wanted to see him.

Dean pushed off the chair and moved outside to confront his dad. "What's going on? Sam was awake, you could have talked to him. Why didn't you come in?"

John Winchester sighed uncharacteristically and then motioned Dean to a clutch of chairs around the corner. Neither man sat down but at least they were away from the heavy foot traffic by the nurse's station. "I was tracking the thing that killed your mother, at least I'd hoped that's what it was, and I didn't keep close tabs on Sammy, didn't notice how sick he'd become. It's my fault Sam is in the hospital. If I'd taken him to the doctor when I first picked him up at Jim's then he'd probably be fine right now."

The ground under Dean's feet shifted and he fumbled for a chair. He could understand why everything would fade away when his dad was hunting the demon that had slashed and burned his mom. Everything except Sam. Sam was their priority, his dad had drilled that into his head since the moment he'd placed the wriggling bundle into arms and told him to run while the house burned down. How could his dad forget Sam was sick?

At least now Dean knew why Sam wasn't interested in seeing their dad; he'd let him down, badly.

Dean raked a hand through his short hair before blowing out a sigh. "I can't wrap my mind around this. I'm going back in case Sam needs me."

He turned his back on the man he worshipped, the best hunter around and someone Dean aspired to be like, and disappeared around the corner.

-0-

The symbolism of Dean turning his back on him wasn't lost on John. He'd totally screwed up and he deserved it but seeing the unabashed confidence fade from his oldest son's eyes was unnerving.

Sam and John had never connected the way Dean and he had. Of course that was a part of the problem. He was so in tune with the older son and always seemingly flailed when it came to the youngest and what he needed.

John drifted back to the cubicle and watched as Dean massaged first one of his brother's arms, shoulder to fingertip and then back up, before the other arm received the same treatment. Sam lay there passive, eyes closed, but John had the feeling that his baby was just playing 'possum. Dean must have sensed it, too, because he raked his knuckles lightly along Sam's ribs, waiting for the ticklish squeal it would elicit and he wasn't let down. Sam's eyes snapped open and batted Dean's hand away, laughter tinged with a deep wheeze.

A nurse moved into the cubicle and told the boys to tone it down, which left Dean looking contrite but Sam rolling his eyes. This was the first glimmer John had seen that Sam would actually make it through this, his body and soul intact.

John just needed to find a way to mend fences with both boys and earn back their trust.

-0-

It had taken a week but Sam had finally earned his discharge from the hospital. Dean was driving Sam back to the house in Cedar Rapids and the trip would take around four hours; Dean thought that was too long for Sam to be in the car but Sam had lobbied for it. For once John had sided with Sam.

Their dad had left as soon as the discharge instructions had been explained and all of the paper work had been signed. He was getting a head start on making sure the house was ready for Sam since it had been a month since anyone had lived there. The rent was paid up for another two months so at least eviction wasn't a concern.

Sam didn't look like he was well enough to be out of the hospital. His skin color had only improved incrementally, more white than gray these days, and his little brother easily got out of breath. His eyes still had that glassy, unfocused look at times. Dr. Belew had arranged for a cardiologist in Cedar Rapids to see Sam in a few days and thought Sam was making a marvelous recovery.

Apparently Dean was the only one worried about Sam these days.

His brother was arranged comfortably on the passenger seat, unwanted blanket spread on his lap, as they left Chicago behind in the rearview mirror.

Dean felt the need to break the silence. "Dad said he'd get the house ready, do some grocery shopping and that kind of thing."

There was bitterness whenever he thought about his dad but he didn't realize it was so noticeable. But he should have because Sam had always been able to pick up on his moods. His geeky little brother was good at that sort of thing.

Sam sighed. "When are you going to let this go and forgive Dad?"

Dean shot Sam a look of disbelief but his brother just stared back, a placid look on his face. "When are you? I haven't noticed you two joining hands and singing Kumbaya."

His little brother snorted at that. "There's nothing to forgive. He wanted to catch the thing that killed Mom and I know that's first on his priority list. Hell, I'm low man on the totem pole. Always have been."

Dissecting Sam's tone, Dean realized there was acceptance and resignation but no anger. And just how wrong that was. If Dean could make Sam his priority, his dad sure as hell could.

But Dean realized he hadn't always made Sam his priority. He only had to look back one month ago and remember how badly he'd wanted to go on the next hunt with his dad, so much so that he'd do anything. And he had. He'd choked out Sam despite knowing there was something terribly wrong with doing that to the person he'd sworn to protect, even before he knew about Sam's recurring nightmare about choking. And then he'd gone and left Sam at Jim's, despite knowing Sam was sick.

Dean was no better than his dad. He let the subject drop, not sure what he could possibly say to make things better. Instead he opted to turn the radio on, letting the album rock of 97.9 the Loop wash over him before the signal petered out.

Next to him Sam tipped his head up and let the bright sunshine beat down upon his face. The poor kid had endured a rough month and deserved a break.

As his older brother, Dean was going to make sure he got one.

-0-

The Impala rumbled to a stop and John couldn't keep from scrambling toward the door. The heavy car doors banged shut and then he heard his sons bickering. He cracked open the door and heard the good natured bantering turn into something more serious.

"Sam, you're already out of breath. You're not climbing those stairs."

"Jesus, Dean. Give it a rest. Six lousy stairs. I think I can handle it."

"You heard what the doctor said, you're supposed to avoid all activity."

"Yes, Dean, I was there. He said to avoid activity, not quit living."

John should have seen this coming. Dean was going to pull out all of the stops to take care of his little brother, and Sam was so happy to be out of the hospital he just wanted things to get back to normal.

His natural impulse was to side with Dean; John wanted to do nothing but shelter Sam and take care of him. But six steps weren't going to kill him. At least he hoped not. It wasn't like he was the best judge of what was good for Sam these days.

"Dean, grab your brother's stuff. I'll give him a hand inside." John didn't miss the scowl that darkened Dean's features or the way Sam shot him a shy smile.

Descending the stairs two at a time, John reached the bottom and saw why Dean was so concerned. Sam was experiencing shortness of breath and his color wasn't the greatest. John pushed aside his misgivings and wrapped his large hand around Sam's biceps. "Let's get you inside so you can relax. I've got some soup heating on the stove if you're hungry."

His son flashed him another shy smile but then shook his head. "I think I'd really like to stretch out on the bed for a while." He gestured with his chin toward his brother who was approaching from behind. "But if I do that, he's going to call out the National Guard or something."

He had to remind himself that Sam was fresh out of the hospital, because frankly, the thought of his usually energetic son needing to take a nap after recently scoring his freedom didn't sit well. Although Sam wasn't sick enough to remain in the hospital, he had a ways to go before he was healthy again.

But how did he appease Sam's independence and assuage Dean's overprotective instincts? He had an idea. "Jump on my back, Sam. I'm going to give you a piggy-back ride upstairs. No arguments."

A mulish expression, mouth set and shoulders tight, flared for a moment and then was replaced with acceptance. Sam hopped on his back and John easily bore the weight, grasping the backs of Sam's thighs as his son wrapped his arms around his neck.

This really took John back to when the boys were young. They used to delight in getting carted around like this. Back then it didn't take much to please them. Actually, it didn't take much to please them now. It was John who needed to get out of that mindset. "Here we go."

Within minutes John was easing Sam's feet to the ground in his bedroom. He was pleased he'd been able to put fresh bedding on and quickly run the vacuum before Sam got here. The bedroom wasn't the greatest but at least it was clean and the bed was comfortable.

Sam toed off his shoes, stripped out of his jacket and climbed under the covers. "Thanks, Dad."

John pulled the blinds, plunging the room into darkness, and then stood over Sam's bed. He brushed the hair from Sam's forehead and felt for heat. It was blessedly cool to the touch and Sam didn't flinch away. "We'll get you up in a few hours for some food and medicine, okay?"

He felt the nod of the sleepy head and when Sam's breathing eased into a slow and steady rhythm, he moved into the hallway, closing the door behind him.

Dean was hovering just outside the room. "How is he?"

"Tired. But doing okay I think. I told him we'd wake him up in a couple of hours, he'll be due for his pills then." John reached forward and squeezed Dean's shoulder. For the first time in a week, Dean didn't duck from the touch.

"How 'bout some soup and sandwiches? I bet your hungry after the drive." John watched Dean closely, anticipating attitude.

"Sounds good. I'm starving. Did you pick up any pie?"

Dean's tone was back to normal. Maybe once they got Sam healthy, things would go back to normal for everyone.

He looped his arm around Dean's neck and guided him toward the stairs. "I think there just might be some pie."

-0-

Sam's appointment with the cardiologist was in the morning and John could see Dean was on edge. When Dean was nervous, he tried to pick a fight. Sam knew it and to his credit he hadn't given in, but it was beginning to wear on him.

John poked his head out of the kitchen to see if he could head this one off at the pass. He was a half a step too slow.

Dean's sulky voice was demanding. "Dude, where are you going?"

Sam, standing next to the couch, huffed but plastered a fake smile on his face. "Upstairs. Is that okay with you?"

"You don't look so good. I'll carry you upstairs because you are not climbing them."

Dean's voice was all business and Sam narrowed his eyes, his eyes glittering dangerously. "Get off my case, Dean. I'm doing everything the doctor told me, to the letter. Back off!"

John pushed himself between the two combatants. "Dean, just ease off."

His oldest son wheeled on him, Winchester temper flaring. "Just ease off?! Like you did?! Just step back and watch Sam run himself into the ground again and not do anything? Really sound plan there, Dad!"

Sam darted around John to confront his brother. John made a grab for him but Sam was slippery and evaded capture. "Give him a break, Dean. At least he's not trying to control every little movement I make. You're driving me crazy here!"

Dean pushed past Sam, grabbing his car keys and stomping for the door. "Fine! You two can bond and I'll get out of your hair!"

"Dean, wait!"

The front door slamming was Sam's response. Frustration and anguish did battle on Sam's face, his nostrils flaring while his color drained to a milky white. Chest already heaving he spun around and sprinted up the stairs.

John didn't like how Sam looked or sounded. He might not agree with Dean's method but something was off with Sam. Of course being teased into a rage would make anyone's blood pressure skyrocket and cause shortness of breath. And Dean had been pushing Sam's buttons all day.

He took off after Sam, wincing as the Chevy peeled out of the driveway. He hoped Dean would settle down once he was out on the road; he couldn't cope with anymore drama at the moment.

Sam had halted at the top of the stairs, leaning heavily against the wall. John put his arm around Sam's waist just as his son's legs folded. Shifting his grip, the concerned dad swept his limp son into his arms and moved to the nearest bedroom, John's.

Spreading Sam out on the queen sized bed, John warred with himself over what to do. Normally he'd elevate the legs of someone who had passed out but the best thing for Sam's shortness of breath was sitting up.

Thankfully Sam's eyes fluttered open. "Da-ad, what happened?"

-0-

Sam had finally given in to the blind rage consuming him and raced to his room.

He understood that Dean still felt guilty for not being there when Sam was sick but this mother hen routine had worn Sam's patience to the bone.

He wasn't an idiot. He did know how to take care of himself, at least most of the time.

Although maybe he didn't know how to take care of himself; as he crossed the top stairs his vision flaked out. He steadied himself against the wall and willed his heart rate to slow and his breathing to ease.

It wasn't working and he panicked, the memory of his lungs compressing, struggling for air, battering him. He couldn't live through that again. His legs folded but he didn't hit the ground, strong arms catching and carrying him.

The movement made him dizzy and when the blackness fully encroached, Sam didn't fight it.

The surface was soft beneath him but he didn't remember making it to his bedroom. His eyes blinked open and he found the strained countenance of his dad leaning over him. "Da-ad, what happened?"

His voice caught embarrassingly but at least he could breathe again, albeit with more effort than he was used to lately. His dad seemed to read his mind, snaking an arm around his back and tilting him forward. Pillows were crammed behind him to prop him up and immediately his airway cleared.

For a moment, in the hallway, he'd had that throat crushing feeling like in his nightmares. But he was awake.

His dad sat down on the edge of the large bed. Sam realized he was in his dad's room. His forehead was touched carefully and the tension bled out of his dad. "I think you passed out. Too much exertion. I'm going to call your cardiologist and see what he says, okay?"

Why was his dad being so nice to him? Before he'd gotten sick, his dad probably would have been frustrated with him if this had happened.

"I'm sorry that I seem so impatient with you all of the time. I tend to forget that you're still fourteen years old. I guess I'm in a rush for you to be older, so you can go on hunts with us. I only want what's best for you."

Shit. Maybe he'd spoken out loud. Or maybe his dad had turned into a mind reader. It didn't matter because now his dad was getting up and leaving the room, leaving him alone.

Sam usually felt loneliness to some degree, even when surrounded by his family. He knew they loved him even though they wanted to control him. But no one understood him.

His talk with Pastor Jim about his recurring dream suddenly popped into his head, how he was fighting against something that was trying to hold him back. Not something, somebody. Two somebodies were holding him back – his dad and brother, although in separate ways.

John wanted Sam to be just like Dean, his perfect little soldier, and Dean wanted Sam under his thumb where he could take care of him, control him.

He wasn't sure he'd cracked the symbolic imagery but it somehow felt right even though it made him a little depressed. Lately he'd stopped struggling against his family – he'd accepted being last on his dad's priority list, and he'd gone along with whatever Dean asked of him – but he remembered the other part of what Jim had said; that once he learned to accept himself fully, the dreams were supposed to disappear.

It was going to take some doing. It meant standing up for himself more. Going against both his dad and his brother at times. He didn't know how he would manage it, but if he didn't want to lose himself he was going to have to try.

Closing his eyes, Sam sunk back against the pillows. A measure of peace stole over him and he let himself relax. He must have drifted off because when opened his eyes, his brother was standing at the foot of the bed.

Dean's hands were thrust deep into his jean pockets and he looked uncomfortable. "Dad called the cardiologist. He said we're supposed to keep you quiet, that you probably just got too wound up, and he'll see you tomorrow unless you have more problems."

Silence stretched out as Sam met Dean's stare. He inclined his head to acknowledge Dean's words but he wasn't up to going another around about what keeping quiet meant so he didn't reply.

His brother pursed his lips and frowned. "Listen, I'm, uh, sorry about before."

The apology was a little lame but his brother had always had a hang up about saying he was sorry. Dean was definitely better at showing something through actions instead of words. Sam had no doubt his brother would make it up to him somehow.

Too tired at the moment to get into it with his brother about the way he'd been treating him lately, Sam decided to let it go. This was his brother's freebie. In the future he wouldn't be quite so easy going about Dean getting up in his face.

Dean smirked while trying to hide the concern in his eyes. "You still look pretty tired there, sleeping beauty, so I'm going to leave and you can get some rest. Do you need anything?"

Sam shook his head, hair flying around his face. "No, I'm good."

Despite all the turmoil of the last month, Sam had a glimmer of hope that from this point forward he would be good. Physically and emotionally.

Time would tell but for now he was content to sink back into the pillows and relax. The future would take care of itself.

The End