THEN

There were two boys lying under a bush in the middle of the woods on a moonless summer night. Dressed in dark clothing, their faces smeared with ash, it would appear as if they were playing some sort of military. A less charitable opinion would be that they were up to something. A more careful observer would conclude that if they were up to no good they'd chosen a crappy time for their mischief. The air was hot, thick and muggy and mosquitoes hovered over the bush in which they'd concealed themselves. Here and there one could hear the sound of slapping as they defended themselves from the blood-sucking hoard.

The elder of the two was seventeen and attempting to look the part of a soldier. His hair was cut short in a military-type style and his expression was grim - well, it was supposed to be grim. He'd been practicing the look in the mirror when nobody was around, secretly calling it the Rambo glare. Unfortunately Dean Winchester was blessed (or cursed) with a pretty face; full lips, high cheekbones and large expressive eyes. The Rambo glare was not much more than a glorified pout. Fashion photographers would have loved it, and had he had any inclination to model whatsoever he'd probably make a bunch of money doing it. In this context, however, the Rambo glare was a failure. It did not make him look intimidating in the slightest. It made him look like a kid about to throw a temper tantrum.

In contrast, the expression on the face of Dean's younger brother, who lay in the dirt next to him, was intimidating. It was intimidating because Sam really was in a bad mood. He'd been shaken out of bed in the middle of the night to go hunting with his brother. The assignment came from the boys' father who could not be denied when he was in one of those moods. That John Winchester had been drinking didn't help matters. The boys were going hunting and that was that. He'd told them what to wear, what weapons to take, instructed them on the proper means to subdue the game they were after, and then dumped them in the woods. They weren't to come home - home being a cabin miles away from their current location - until dawn.

"You realize," Sam had said as they trudged through the woods, sweating and slapping at bugs. "That booze, plus getting rid of us for the night means he's picked up a hooker, right?"

Dean had smacked Sam hard in the back of the head for that, even though he knew it was probably true. In his world their father was completely and totally celibate and had been since their mother died. So profound was John's grief there could never, ever be anyone else. It was a romantic and utterly unrealistic notion, although the fact that every time John did get laid he was drunk lent credence to at least part of it. Regardless, Dean tended to get twitchy about anything remotely associated with their mother. He did not like it when reality intruded on his fantasy. Sam should have kept his mouth shut.

The late hour, getting smacked, and being eaten alive by mosquitoes had all contributed to Sam's bad mood. He was also allergic to something out there in the woods. His eyes were watery and his nose was running, forcing him to repeatedly wipe his face on his shirt, and who wanted to lay around under a bush in a goobery shirt all night? He was grouchy in the extreme. Whereas Dean's glare made you want to pat him on the head and hand him a cookie, Sam's glare made you want to turn around and get the hell out of Dodge...

RIGHT. NOW.

"You know," Dean whispered. "This is really a good hunt for you, Sammy. Right up your alley."

Sam didn't answer. He just rolled his eyes and waited for the punch line.

"Takes one to know one!" Giggling, Dean nudged Sam with his elbow. "Get it?"

"You're stupid. Like I didn't see that coming." Sam grumbled. "Ha, ha, hardy har, har."

"Sheesh, who put a bee up your butt?"

"Uh, Dad maybe?"

"Oh, come on! Like this isn't fun!"

"Fun like jamming a splinter under my fingernail."

Sam slapped a mosquito that was having a nice little picnic on his arm. Dean squished one on the back of his neck. Unlike Dean, Sam's hair was long and shaggy, which gave him a modicum of protection from the bugs but made him look like a girl. It needed cutting, and hadn't been because Sam didn't like doing it himself and his father and brother couldn't be bothered - not that he trusted Dean anywhere near his hair in the first place. (Prudent, considering the prank Dean would eventually pull on him with a bottle of Nair.)

In later years Sam would realize his preoccupation with tidiness probably stemmed from the perpetual state of semi-neglect he'd been forced to affect as a child. Although John and Dean obviously loved him, and took care to make sure he was safe at all times, they sometimes forgot to tend to some of his more basic needs. Case in point - his hair and his clothes. His clothes were mostly hand-me-downs from Dean and Sam being four years younger, a head shorter, and much thinner, they did not fit well at all. He was constantly pulling up his pants and the t-shirts hung on him like dresses.

A week earlier he and Dean had gone into a convenience store to buy soda. Sam had on shorts, flip flops, and a t-shirt that hung nearly to his knees. This attire and his long hair gave him a rather androgynous appearance, and having a name like "Sam" didn't help. The clerk had mistaken him for a girl. She'd been rather startled when he corrected her mistake because the first thing the onset of puberty had done to him was change his voice. It was a low purr completely incongruous coming from such a scrawny kid. His body wouldn't catch up to it until the following summer. When voice and body finally did come into alignment Sam stopped being mistaken for a girl and started attracting them instead.

So the clerk was embarrassed. Dean, on the other hand, was delighted. This gave him new fuel with which to torment his little brother into complete insanity, and Sam planned to use insanity as his defense when he hacked Dean up with an ax sometime in the very near future. Dean had always teased Sam about being a girl - just because - but having had Sam actually be mistaken for a girl upped the ante. For the past week he'd been calling Sam, "Sis" and making comments about finding him a boyfriend.

Then, to top it all off, their father sent them out to hunt fairies.

After Dean stopped giggling.

Sam had the horrible feeling his new nickname was going to be Tinkerbell.

Real fairies were not at all like the Disney version. They were nasty little things that despite their small size could inflict a lot of damage. A swarm could tear a house down or kill a man if they got pissed off enough. Usually they were just a nuisance but if they came across a baby or young child they could be dangerous. They'd make off with the kid, teasing and tormenting it to make it cry until they grew bored and either dropped their victim out of a tree, drowned it, or simply abandoned it out in the wilderness. Sometimes the kid got lucky and was rescued. More often, they died.

The Winchesters had come across a fairy ring in a clearing during what Dean jokingly referred to as one of "Dad's nature hikes." It was a joke because the boys did more running, dodging, ducking and climbing than bird watching. On this particular occasion John gave them a count of ten and then took off after them. This might have been considered fun had their father not been shooting at them with a pair of guns. The bullets were rubber but they hurt like hell and left nasty bruises so there was a great deal of incentive not to get hit. Since their father was a crack shot, they got hit a lot and the only way to escape was to either hide and wait for him to run out of ammo, or try to ambush him and take his weapons.

They had been trying to accomplish the latter by putting Sam (who had not yet figured out that Dean always chose scissors) in a clearing as "bait" while Dean waited in ambush. John came bursting out of the underbrush and nailed Sam several times before Dean made his move. Dean, however, was startled out of his attack when his father abruptly stopped firing, turned, and handed the guns over to Dean saying, "wait here" and, "if you shoot me Dean you will regret it."

Dean, who had considered letting his father have it with both barrels, obediently stuck the guns in his belt and waited right there.

It turned out they had unwittingly parked Sam inside a fairy ring.

"You okay, Sammy?"

It had been on the tip of Sam's tongue to go off on a tirade about child abuse, bruises, and the fact that he had missed a very important history test when John yanked him out of school to go running around in the woods like some nutjob survivalist, but his curiosity got the better of him.

"Yeah," he said cautiously. "Why?"

This, like many questions poised to John Winchester, especially by Sam, went unanswered. Instead John approached his youngest and walked all around him. A one point he knelt, pushing aside the long grass with his hands, and examined the ground. Sam quietly snuck over to look and found his father staring intently at a mushroom. He stepped back when John got to his feet. Two steps to the right and John knelt again, and again pushed back the grass, this time revealing not one but three mushrooms. All around Sam, growing in various sizes and shapes, was a perfectly round ring of mushrooms.

John kept his distance. He held out a hand and motioned to his son with a quick curl of his fingers. "Come here, quickly, quietly, and don't step on the mushrooms."

That's it, Sam thought. The old man has finally cracked.

Cracked or not, Sam knew better than to disobey when John had that particular look on his face. It usually meant trouble.

"What is it?" he asked, and this time John answered.

"It's a fairy ring."

"A what?" Dean shrieked, laughing. "A fairy...hmmmph."

"Shut it," John growled"You'll wake them up. We're leaving, and we're leaving right now, without a sound, do you understand me?"

Dean nodded and Sam thought he heard a muffled, "yessir," from beneath their father's hand which had been clamped firmly over his brother's mouth.

On the way back to the cabin Dean, who had obviously had his feelings bruised if not actually hurt, muttered, "There's no such thing as fairies."

"Yeah, and there's no such thing as the closet monster either but you shot one last week didn't you?" Sam hissed back.

"That? That was just a spook."

"What? You told me it was the closet monster."

Dean grinned. "Oh, yeah. I was just messin' with ya – ow!"

Sam was not sorry he punched a rubber bullet bruise either. "You're such a jerk!"

John did not enlighten them any further, at least not right away. That afternoon he went into town presumably to get supplies. When he came back the supplies he brought with him consisted of two plastic spray bottles, two fly swatters, two rusty nails and two bottles of Jim Beam, one of which he proceeded to drink. By the time he woke the boys up he was sauced, grouchy and ready to send them on their way.

So there they were, in the dark, hot, nasty, mosquito-filled woods with fly swatters and spray bottles full of rusty water, hunting fairies. John's instructions: "Drench 'em and squash 'em."

Dean shook his head. There was a mosquito persistently buzzing around his right ear. "Any sign of 'em yet?"

"No. I don't think so. I just see fireflies and a lot of dark." Sam yawned. "What are we supposed to be looking for anyway?"

"I don't...oh, there's one!" Dean flipped his flyswatter, which made a loud "crack" when it hit its intended target – his brother's butt.

"Ow!"

"Payback's a bitch."

"Asshole."

"Dipshit." Chuckling, Dean peered through the bush at the clearing. "I don't see anything."

"Me either," Sam replied with a sigh.

Had they been anyone else's sons they might have concluded that their father was playing a practical joke on them, sending them out in the woods on the proverbial "snipe" hunt. John, however, did not play practical jokes and the things he sent his boys out into the woods to hunt were very real. If he said there were fairies, there were fairies.

"Sammy's first real hunt," Dean whispered, feigning tears. "I'm so proud of you."

"Man, shut up, Dean. I don't even want to be here. I don't want to hunt stuff, that's your crap, you and Dad."

"We don't hunt measly little fairies, so someone has to."

Sam rolled over and gave him a narrow-eyed look. "You're hunting fairies right now, genius."

"Only so I can keep an eye on you, make sure you don't get hurt."

"By a measly little fairy?"

"You're a wuss, what can I say?"

"How about nothing." Sam growled and went back to staring at the clearing.

There wasn't much to look at it. The clearing was nothing more than a large patch of long grass, tangled weeds, and a few wild flowers. Mosquitoes buzzed, a few fireflies flickered. Once a bat flew by, swooping around after a bug before it moved on into the woods. As Sam lay there watching he gradually found himself getting sleepy.

"Sam!"

The hiss woke him up only seconds after he dozed off and like John had done to him earlier, Dean had a hand pressed firmly over Sam's mouth. Before he could protest Dean was at his ear again, whispering.

"Look."

Sam shoved his brother's hand away and looked at the clearing. It was not longer a big blob of darkness. There were lights there, lights not much bigger than but brighter than the fireflies. All of them congregated within the ring of mushrooms. Some of the lights flickered, and Sam saw why. The lights were a fluorescent glow originating from the bug-like wings attached to small, spidery creatures. When the wings folded, the light went out, when they opened, they lit up again.

The creatures themselves were crawling up from beneath the soil like worms emerging after a rainstorm, or butterflies hatching from a cocoon. They resembled the mosquitoes that were still badgering the boys' necks, with long limbs, long jointed fingers, and thin, bony bodies. Pale skin, dark wispy hair, wide toothy mouths, and huge black eyes completed the picture. None of them looked like Tinkerbell or, for that matter, Julia Roberts.

"Let's go!"

Sam blinked. Dean burst out of the bushes and ran for the clearing. Had he done so more stealthily he might have gotten more of the fairies than he did, but typical of Dean's style, he attacked with a bellowing battle cry similar to the Confederate "Rebel Yell." As a result the fairies took wing immediately and he was left with the few who had not been quick enough or were still attempting to emerge from the ground. Those were dispatched easily.

The others saw what he was up to and gathered together. There must have been at least three dozen, maybe more in the swarm that fluttered above Dean's head just out of his reach. Sam heard a high pitched, angry buzzing sound like nails on a chalkboard coming from the ball of flickering light. He got up and joined his brother.

"Dammit," Dean growled. "What are they doing?"

"Something not good I think," Sam said, watching the angry fairies swarming around above them. The creatures were jabbering and pointing, their tiny faces twisted with fury. "Nice job, Dean. You just managed to piss them off."

"Funky little things. You smell that?"

Sam nodded. They were pretty funky. There was a definite stink of rot associated with them, rot and fresh cow shit. He wrinkled his nose. A moment later he froze.

"Uh-oh."

The fairies had abruptly stopped their buzzing. For a second they just hovered there fluttering their wings and staring with those eerie black eyes. A second later they attacked, taking the boys by surprise with their quickness and their ferocity. They had long needle-like claws and sharp teeth. They bit and scratched, aiming for the face and neck but mostly for the eyes. Like the mosquitoes they crawled all over Dean's exposed neck seeking blood veins like tiny vampires. They tangled themselves in Sam's hair, pulling it with all their strength while they scratched at his scalp. When he managed to get them away from his face long enough to get a good look all he could see were their snarling faces.

Up close they resembled mummified corpses with dry, paper-like skin hanging from their thin bones and the stench of them was nearly overwhelming. Despite their fragile appearance they were tough, like dried out leather, and just hitting them did no good. It was the iron laced water that made them vulnerable, hence John's "drench 'em and squash 'em" instructions. The water softened them, almost as if they were re-hydrating. Not enough water and they just howled in ear-piercing shrieks as their skin bubbled and blistered. They had to be soaked good before they could be swatted. When they were swatted they exploded like overripe fruit.

One thing John had failed to mention, perhaps not aware of the fact, but fairy pulp was caustic. It burned like acid when it touched bare skin and between the bites, scratches and burns the boys were howling as much as the fairies were. It made Dean mad. He sprayed and swatted rather indiscriminately, which was bad for Sam if he got too close. Dean swatted him at least twice, once squashing a fairy right in the middle of his back. The blood soaked through his shirt and burned, bringing tears to his eyes as he staggered out of his brother's reach.

"Will you watch what you're doing!" San yelled, soaking a fairy and ducking as Dean swatted it.

"I'm trying! Damn things are all over me!"

They weren't making much headway. For every fairy they killed it seemed as if two more took its place. Sam batted them away and looked back to the fairy ring. To his horror he saw that it was true – more fairies were squirming their way out of the earth to join the battle, dozens and dozens of them. He quickly concluded that they had to be stopped at the source.

Sam squirted a fairy that had come to attack his face, and batted a second away before soaking them both. He stomped them beneath his sneaker as he bolted toward the ring of mushrooms. More fairies followed, pulling at his hair and clothing, tearing at his skin. Dean, his face a hideous mask of ash, blood, and dark fairy pulp, turned to yell at him.

"SAM!"

He might have said more if a fairy hadn't gone for his mouth. Sam didn't look back but he heard a muffled scream of pain and fury. He didn't turn from his errand. Dean could take care of himself. If someone didn't take care of the fairy ring they were both going to be screwed.

It probably wasn't the wisest thing to do but it was the only thing he could think of at the time. He unscrewed the top of his spray bottle and poured some water onto the ground inside the fairy ring. Smoke rose up from the grass. The fairies coming from the ground screamed and writhed in pain, dying as their portal closed up around them. Those fluttering around Sam's head became more ferocious in their attack. Fending them off with the fly swatter Sam went for the mushrooms, going around the circle pouring water on them. They sizzled and turned black. The fairies shrieked.

Sam ran back to Dean. He now had no water, but he could swat the fairies after Dean soaked them. His brother was crawling with the things. Dean had gone down to his knees, unable to breathe for the writhing bodies covering his face. Sam arrived just in time to keep him from falling over, snatched the water bottle out of his hand and sprayed him down. Dean shook free of the creatures and clawed them from his face, gulping air as he let fly with the swatter. Fairies exploded all around them as Sam squirted and Dean swatted.

Now they seemed to be getting somewhere, but there were still hoards of fairies conglomerating around them. Unlike the insects they resembled the fairies were smart, used strategy. They attacked with a purpose and it took Sam a while before he figured out what they were doing. Like sheep dogs the nasty little things were herding the boys, forcing them apart no matter how much they tried to stick together. Sam was forced back to the edge of the clearing. Dean was pressured to move in the opposite direction.

"Stay together!" Sam attempted to rejoin his brother but was immediately attacked. Raising Dean's water bottle he pulled the trigger.

Nothing came out. He tossed the empty bottle aside. They were both out of water now.

"Shit!"

Panicked, he turned this way and that, unsure of what to do next. He wasn't sure they could outrun the things and killing them had just become twice as difficult if not impossible.

A hand locked around his elbow, dragging him into the brush.

"Sammy, RUN!"

The decision made for him, Sam ran, following Dean through the woods. The fairies still pursued, still attacked them, making their progress slow as they were forced to defend themselves. Sam grabbed a fairy that was clinging to his neck and threw it to the ground. It flew back up after him. Ahead of him Dean did the same to another fairy and it latched onto his hand with sharp teeth. Dean stopped and smacked it against a tree to make it let go, running away again before it recovered. They continued their flight. The fairies continued their pursuit.

It was dark. The only light they had were the glowing lights of fairy wings. Branches clawed at their faces. Brambles tugged at their clothes. Sam lost sight of Dean. He ran on blindly, following the crashing sounds his brother made made as he ran through the underbrush. Soon even that faded and the only thing Sam could hear was his own panting breath and the angry buzzing of the fairies that still chased him. Gradually he realized there weren't so many of them as before. Eventually there were none.

He stopped running. All around him was darkness and silence.

"Dean!"

Sam turned all around, searching for any sign that Dean had gone through this spot. He found nothing, not even a trace of the path he had made to get there.

"DEAN!"

There was no answer. Twice more he called for Dean and was met only by silence, a dead and eerie silence that sent chills up Sam's spine. He chewed his lip, fighting the urge to burst into tears. Only babies cried when they were lost in the woods, not teen-aged boys, especially teen-aged boys who had been raised by John Winchester. Sam had been taught how to survive in the woods almost since he was old enough to walk. There was no reason to panic.

Except the woods weren't following the rules. He couldn't find which way Dean had gone. He couldn't trace his own steps either as the signs had mysteriously disappeared. There was no moon to light his way, and what little of the sky he could see above the thick canopy of leaves had gone cloudy and dark. A dark sky meant there were no stars with which he could orient himself. Of course even if he could, he wasn't exactly sure which way they had gone relative to the clearing. If he found the clearing he knew the way back to the cabin and town, but he couldn't find the clearing. If Sam had something to go on, he could probably find his way to safety. Right now he had nothing.

One other thing was bothering him, one major thing that he never thought would bother him.

He was alone.

Throughout their training, even when they split up to flank their father during the "nature hike" games, Sam had always, always been with Dean. In fact he was rarely ever alone. If John and Dean went hunting without him Sam was either locked up securely in a hotel room or in the car. Even those times were few and far between. Usually Dean was left behind to keep an eye on him. For as long as he could remember, Sam had spent very little time by himself.

"DEAN!"

Still nothing, only the echo of his own voice.

He didn't dare move. If Dean did come back looking for him it would be best if he stayed in one place, not to mention the fact there were still a bunch of pissed off pixies out there. Sitting down on a tree stump, he realized he had no defense either. Sometime during his chaotic run through the brush he'd lost his fly swatter.

It didn't last long, Sam's new, silent battle. His mosquito bites and the scratches from the fairies claws were beginning to burn and itch. The fairy bites still oozed blood that attracted more mosquitoes. Those were as merciless as the fairies had been, buzzing around his bare skin, forcing him to slap at them constantly. He was alone in the dark, he hurt all over, and he finally had to admit to himself that he was scared out of his wits.

He began with a sniffle or two, watery eyes, a runny nose, but the longer he sat there the harder it got to hold back the tears. Ultimately he lost the battle and began to cry in earnest. A small voice at the back of his head told him if he went ahead and cried Murphy's Law would probably bring Dean right to him.

Dean hated it when Sam cried, and Sam had been pretty good up until now. The last time anyone caught him crying had been two years ago when he'd gotten into a fight at school. The person who had caught him was Dean and he'd read Sam the riot act for it.

Sam was smart, and despite all the moving around they did, he kept good grades at school. He was, in fact, ahead of the game. He'd only been eleven but when tested he'd scored so high the principal of that particular school put him in a class with older kids. Sam held his own until a couple of those older boys thought they could bully him into helping them cheat on their homework assignments.

Sam refused. The boys cornered him after school and drug him off into a nearby park. They were both three times his size and had him out numbered or he might have done them more damage than he did. John Winchester's sons were not wimps by any means. Sam fought like a wild thing until one of his opponents knocked his feet out from under him. He went down hard, bloodying his nose, scraping up his chin, and winding himself. Not being able to breathe both scared him and made him mad. The combination of conflicting emotions made him cry.

With shouts of "crybaby, crybaby" the boys had shoved him into a creek. They dunked him repeatedly in the bitterly cold water. As he was still fighting for breath, something not helped by the fact he was openly sobbing by that point, being dunked nearly killed him. He remembered lying in the mud being kicked and taunted thinking for certain he was going to die.

Back then a voice had come out of nowhere, a low, mean, voice Sam recognized. Dean yanked both of Sam's tormentors up the creek embankment and proceeded to beat the living crap out of them. They would later run home and tell their parents who would attempt to press charges against Dean for assault. John intervened and after everyone got a good look at what had been done to Sam the charges were dropped and those kids were expelled from school instead of Dean.

Dean had dragged Sam up out of the water took him home, fussing over him like a mother hen. He got a warm bath, a hot meal, and was put to bed with a bag of frozen peas for his swollen face. Dean made sure he was going to be okay before laying into him.

"What were you thinking back there? You don't ever let 'em see you cry! Jesus, Sammy, you practically asked for it. You gotta stop being such a freakin' crybaby! They wouldn'ta beat you up so bad if you hadn't started blubbering!"

"But I was..."

"I don't care what you was or what you wasn't," Dean said fiercely. "Dry it up ya wussy! Next time I might not be around to help you!"

Now Sam would have loved to have Dean come out of nowhere and rescue him like he had before, or even show up and give him shit about crying, but obviously neither scenario was likely. He had to rescue himself.

He wiped his face on his shirt-tail and sniffled. If he could just wait it out until morning he might be able to climb a tree and see which way he needed to go, and Dean might just find him in the meantime. What he'd do is try to get a fire going to keep the darkness and mosquitoes at bay. He and Dean always carried lighters when they went out into the wood. Fire was a good defense against just about everything.

Sam stood up, preparing to look around for some tinder, when a sound froze him in his tracks. It was a soft sound, and not something he could readily place. It was like a sigh, but yet - not. Turning, he looked in the direction he thought it had come from but saw nothing. He didn't hear it again either, but what did happen was that he caught a scent, a scent like perfume.

He sniffed. It was like perfume - not a straight up floral scent, but flowers mixed with something else. It smelled good, and it smelled slightly familiar. He frowned as he tried to recall where he'd smelled it before. The answer failed to come to him until he looked up at the sound of that sigh again and saw her standing there beside a tree. That's when he realized why that scent was familiar.

The Winchesters had few belongings, given the fact that they traveled from place to place so often. They had even fewer keepsakes. John had his journal, a book in which he jotted down notes on just about everything. In the cover there were pockets wherein he had tucked some pictures – the boys, their mother...

Sam had nothing. He had his clothes and a few books, but that was all. He'd been a baby when their old life had been shattered. When they'd left Lawrence he hadn't the opportunity to take anything with him. The only life he'd known was the one they had now.

Dean, however, remembered a time when things had been different. He didn't know Sam knew about it, but he'd kept a shoebox full of memories. One night when his brother had been sound asleep, Sam had gotten hold of the shoebox and looked through it. Nothing inside had meant much to him at the time.

There had been a few toy soldiers, a Matchbox car, and a glass bottle full of sand and seashells – a souvenir from a trip to the Gulf Coast the year before Sam was born. Dean had a picture too, one of their mother in a hospital bed holding a baby. On the back had been written "Sam and Mommy" in crayon, by a child's hand.

It had been that box that smelled of perfume, for all of Dean's treasures had been wrapped up in a shirt, a woman's shirt, their mother's shirt. Sam remembered picking it up and holding it. It had that same floral scent with an underlying hint of baby powder and sour milk. He didn't know it but the shirt had been plucked from the laundry hamper the sole time John returned to the house after the fire. It had been the shirt Mary had worn the day she died and it carried her smell with it...

The smell Sam recognized now. He recognized her too, standing in the woods surrounded by a pale, watery light. It was the woman from the pictures; his mother.

He blinked and she smiled at him, holding out a hand. She was humming softly, a pretty melody Sam had never heard before. Was it a lullaby she'd sung to him once? She clearly wanted him to come to her. He knew spirits existed. Had she come to rescue him?

"Mom?"

Mary beckoned. She turned and started to walk away from him, her long blond hair fluttering out behind her in the breeze. The pretty song beckoned too, and the sweet smell of her perfume had suddenly taken on an undertone Sam placed as sugar and vanilla. His stomach growled. He felt his mouth watering. All at once he started hurrying after her.

"Mom!"

She overwhelmed all his senses, filling him with longing, and yet giving him a sense of comfort. The longing urged him onward through the woods after her until he found himself in a clearing similar to the one he'd left behind. It wasn't the same clearing; there were no signs of where he and Dean battled the fairies, and there was a small creek running past on one side. Mary sat in the grass at the center of the clearing, bathed in bright, silvery moonlight. Her mouth didn't move but he heard her voice in his head as she opened her arms to him.

"Sammy..."

He went to her, but his foot caught on something and instead of embracing her, he fell into her arms. Almost instantly the sense of comfort he'd felt earlier blossomed, practically drowning him. His body went limp, his eyelids grew heavy, he felt profoundly tired and wanted to sleep. Mary's arms were warm and comforting, her smell intoxicating, her voice soothing. She was smiling down at him like she had in the hospital in Dean's picture. Her fingers brushed back his hair, her touch eased the pain of the cuts on his face. The song she continued to hum relaxed him further. He couldn't have gotten up if he'd tried, but he didn't try. He never wanted to get up again.

"Mom..."

He was suddenly struck by a realization. It came from out of nowhere, stabbed through the miasma of comfort to engage his mind.

Moonlight, he thought. How could there be moonlight when there was no moon?

"No," he whispered, realizing now he was in trouble.

The humming stopped. The sound changed. It sounded like the rattle of dried, empty seed pods hitting against each other in a cold, autumn wind. It sounded like laughter.

Mary Winchester's form wavered. The light changed too, brightened, flickered. All at once the image burst into dozens of smaller images, each one thin and pale, with bright fluttering wings of florescent light.

Fairies.

Sam felt no panic, just a detached sense of worry. He felt as if he had been drugged and then suspended in a giant vat of Jello, or marshmallow creme, something thick and mushy that made it difficult to move. When he did move, and only to turn his head, he saw that he was lying within another fairy ring, this one made up of a raised ring of grass and no visible mushrooms. The grass inside it was soft beneath him, like a mattress full of down. The ground was soft too. It shifted a little, giving beneath his weight, reminding him of the time they'd stayed in this weird motel in California that had rooms with waterbeds.

I'm sinking, he thought, and wondered if maybe that was a bad thing.

The fairies swarmed around him. They were much more benign this time, and better looking. In fact they did look a little bit like Tinkerbell. They smelled good too, like frosted sugar cookies. Sam smiled and they smiled back at him, their dark eyes narrowing into pleasant little half moons. Their attitude had completely changed. They seemed to be somewhat in awe of him, touching him carefully with their tiny hands, humming at him reassuringly. He found he could understand what they were saying. They were saying, "Chosen, chosen..." and once he thought he heard the words, "Prince."

Being a prince wouldn't suck too badly. He could tell other people what to do for a change, nobody would dare beat him up, and if Dean tried to mock him out for being in charge of a bunch of fairies he'd just throw him in a dungeon somewhere.

Or feed him to a fire breathing dragon.

Have you gone mental?

Sam giggled and told the one tiny bit of rational thought he had left to shut the hell up.

Off with his head!

"Sam?"

Go away.

"Oh crap, SAM!"

Go away, Dean or I'll feed you to the dragon.

"Get away from him you freaky little bastards!"

Fairies screamed. The sound was hideous, and so was the smell. It was their true sound and their true smell. They were dying all around him, and their deaths jolted Sam out of his daze - but not out of trouble. He still felt drugged and slow. He couldn't speak, couldn't move, and discovered, much to his horror, that his body had sunk down beneath the grass from his knees to his chin. He was covered in at least a foot of dirt. The grass was a tangled mass of criss crossing roots, holding him down...

No. Pulling him down!

He could see Dean squirting the little bug-like creatures and letting them have it with a flyswatter. They exploded. Sam felt a drop of burning blood fall on his face but couldn't cry out. He was sinking faster. His heart was pounding in his chest as he screamed at his body to move, move MOVE! Panic could not break his paralysis. He could only lay there, horrified, as he was swallowed alive by the Earth itself.

The ground closed over his mouth and crept up to his nose, then over his nose, cutting off every source of air. His panic began to fade with his ability to breathe. Dirt closed in over his eyes and he could no longer see. Once again he felt a deep sense of comfort. He was in his mother's arms, the baby lying safe and sound there in that picture. Her scent filled his senses. He could hear her singing to him...

"Sam!"

Hands grabbed his shirt, pulled him up off the ground and gave him a good shake. He felt his eyelids being pried open but he could not see anything. His eyes were burning. They felt full of sand.

"Oh, God."

Water splashed in his face, rinsing the grit from his eyes. They still burned so he kept them closed. It was hard to breathe. He wanted to go back to sleep.

"Sammy! Sam! Wake up! Come on!"

His face stung beneath a gentle slap.

"SAM! No, no, no, don't stop breathing! Dammit, please..."

He felt his head being tipped back, a mouth over his...

"Guh..." Sam opened his eyes and sat up, shoving his brother backward onto his butt. "Get offa me you perv," he croaked. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and immediately regretted it. It was filthy and stunk like shit. He spit repeatedly and coughed up dirt. "Yuck."

"Man, see if I save your life ever again," Dean muttered grouchily. The shakiness in his voice gave his real feelings away; he'd been scared. Now he was relieved and possibly a little bit annoyed. "You weren't breathing when I pulled you out."

"Out of what?" Sam looked around and saw what looked like a shallow grave dug out of the dirt inside a ring of brown grass. "Oh. Ow!" He put a hand to his shoulder, which had gotten a good hard punch when Dean stood up. "What was that for?"

"For being stupid! Fairies suckered you, dummy. I don't know what they baited you with, but you fell for it."

"Well, they wouldn't have if you hadn't left me."

"I didn't leave you! You didn't keep up!"

"So! You should have come back."

"I did you moron, just in time to see you go skipping off all tra-la-la into the woods after a bunch of fairies."

"It wasn't fairies, it was..." Sam stopped. He was a little shaky, but he managed to get back on his feet and brush more dirt off of himself. His eyes felt gross and sticky. He sneezed and more dirt came out of his nose. "Never mind."

Dean grinned a wicked, evil little grin. "Let me guess, it was Teddy Ruxpin."

"Shut up."

The two of them started hiking back through the woods. It had started to get lighter and easier to find their way around. Dean found their trail and led them to the first clearing and from there it was just a short walk to the road. It was an old, dirt logging road that wound its way through the forest over a ridge and down into a valley. They walked along the deserted road as the sun rose behind them. It was going to be another hot and humid day. Luckily they were headed downhill.

"Are they all gone?" Sam asked after a while. "The fairies?"

"I think so. We messed up both rings real good."

"Where'd you get more water?"

"Snuck into the creek while they were messing with you." Dean took his squirt bottle from his belt. He had snatched it up when Sam dropped it. When he shook it Sam heard the slosh of water and the rattle of the rusty nail inside.

"Oh," Sam muttered, and scratched idly at a mosquito bite on the end of his right elbow. "Thanks," he added.

"Sure," Dean looked back over his shoulder and grinned. "Didja cry?"

"No."

"Liar.

"You left me," Sam repeated softly, recalling that panicky feeling with a shudder. "Don't ever leave me behind like that again."

Dean didn't reply. Dean didn't hear him. He'd found the turn-off for the cabin. "Home sweet home!" he laughed, and took off in a jog.

Sam looked at the beat-up old cabin and sighed. "Sure. Whatever."

John was waiting for them. He looked rough, like he himself had been out all night traipsing through the woods. There were two shot glasses on the little table inside and the bed was a wreck. Sam rolled his eyes when he saw it. Dean looked defeated. Denying the evidence of what their father had been up to while they were gone was getting more difficult for him as he got older. There would come a time when it wouldn't bother him, but now was not that time. He hardly said a word to John. Sam was forced to give their report on the fairy hunt. That was okay with him. He left out the part about getting himself trapped by them. Dean would have ratted him out and John would have given them both hell for being careless.

The cabin had no indoor plumbing. There was an outhouse in back, and along the side was a pair of showers fueled by a cistern. The showers were not much more than a u-shaped wooden structure built around a concrete pad with a drain and two shower heads attached to the cabin's outer wall. When you wanted water you pulled a chain and it came down through a pipe from the cistern located on the cabin's roof. The water was freezing cold despite the summer heat but it was clean and much better than washing in a pond or a creek. They'd had to do that before too. Modesty did not translate into the Winchester vernacular but cheap lodging did.

Sam's teeth chattered as he scrubbed himself down with soap. They were both a mess of cuts, bites, scratches, bruises and burns. Dean found a tick behind his ear which then prompted a grumbling search through Sam's thick head of hair looking for more. Dean grumbled because he had to do the searching, Sam grumbled because he was cold, wet, naked and his brother was not being very gentle about the task. When at last he was done he slapped Sam on the top of the head and went back to his shower.

"No bugs."

"Gee thanks." Sam complained, wiping shampoo out of his already abused eyes. "Next time just pull my durn head off."

Dean's only reply was a yelp as he pulled the shower chain and sent ice cold rain water pouring down over his sun warmed skin.

John had the car packed and ready by the time they were done. Sam looked longingly at the bed but their father was adamant about getting on the road again. He had to settle for the back seat. Dean rode shotgun and fell asleep the minute the car hit the highway, his head lolling against the seat, his mouth hanging wide open, dead to the world.

Sam couldn't get comfortable. The Impala's back seat was hard, the leather sticky. There was no air conditioner in the old Chevy, only the warm summer air blowing in through the windows. Hot and sore, Sam tossed and turned. He was exhausted, but it was impossible for him to get to sleep under those conditions.

Eventually he gave up. He sat up and leaned over the back of the front seat. After a few miles of silent contemplation he turned and addressed his father.

"Dad?" he whispered, mindful of his brother snoring just off his right elbow.

"Yeah?"

"Can I ask you something?"

"Sure, Sammy. What?"

Sam hesitated. You could ask, but the real question was whether or not John would actually answer.

"What," he said quietly. "What was Mom like?"

He saw John's eyes flicker up to the rear view mirror, then return to the road. Sam waited for a while before his father spoke, and discovered John was in a generous mood. His voice was gruff, and filled with emotion, but he would answer Sam's question and then some.

"Your mother," he began softly. "Was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen..."


NOW

It took him a long time before he dared, but after the thousandth time he'd found himself digging around through the chaotic mess that was the Impala's trunk, he simply couldn't stand it anymore.

Sam stopped at Bobby's on his way through South Dakota and began removing everything from the trunk so he could reorganize it his way. He stopped at Bobby's to do this because he knew Bobby kept some really good Scotch on hand and Sam figured he was going to need it.

He still felt like a traitor, even after a couple good shots.

Standing out in the dusty wrecking yard, Sam surveyed the items strewn around him trying to figure out the best way to put them back into the trunk in some sort of logical order. He might have to ask Bobby to help him build some more compartments, add some straps and hooks. Turning from the stuff, he re-examined the space, and as he did so he saw something he had missed. It was wedged into the very back of the trunk. Sam leaned in and grabbed it, pulling it out into the sunlight.

It was a cardboard box. More specifically, it was a shoebox.

Sam carefully removed the lid and the scent of perfume wafted out from inside the box. It struck a chord, brought forth a memory, the memory of the first time he had been allowed to go hunting with Dean. He remembered the time they had battled fairies and Sam had almost been taken by them. He remembered the long drive afterward during which John shared his memories of Mary.

Dean's memories were there inside the box. Sam could touch them – toy soldiers, a Matchbox car, a bottle of seashells, pictures and a neatly folded woman's shirt. He remembered those being there before. There were, however, a few more recent additions. Sam picked them up and looked at them one by one.

A copy of Stanford's dean's list, Sam's name underlined in red.

A Polaroid picture of an adult Sam sitting on the steps of their old house.

A worn rosary Sam recognized as having belonged to their father.

A shell casing from one of the Colt's bullets, most likely the one that had avenged their mother.

A cassette tape.

Sam frowned. He turned the tape back and forth. It wasn't labeled. There was nothing written on it. Sam had never seen it before.

Warily he took the tape and the box around to the driver's side of the car and got in, fishing the key out of his pocket. He turned the key but didn't start the car. Making sure the radio was on, he put the cassette in the player.

There was silence at first and then the unmistakable opening to Bon Jovi's Dead or Alive came rolling out of the Chevy's speakers.

A fist clenched around Sam's heart. He almost turned it off, but found himself listening on and on, sometimes singing along in a breathy whisper, until the song came to an end. By that time Sam was blinking back tears. He expected no more, but there was one last thing on the tape. It was Dean's voice, and he was giving Sam a hard time as he'd done on countless other occasions.

"Uh-huh. I knew you'd rearrange the trunk, ya freak."

How and when Dean had recorded his message Sam couldn't fathom. In the end there had been very little time left for such a thing. Was it a postmortem message? Sam didn't think so, but he knew such things were possible.

Hearing the song again, hearing his brother's voice again tipped off the breakdown he had been putting off for months. He dropped the shoebox onto the seat and buried his face in his hands, sobbing so hard he thought his heart would explode in his chest. Memories both good and bad assaulted him, pummeling him like fists. The realization that the battle wasn't over, that he was still in trouble and Dean could no longer help him, twisted his guts into knots.

He remembered the tearing sound of claws through flesh, the scent of blood, the screaming he knew continued somewhere in Hell...

"DEAN!"

Bobby found him still sitting in the car an hour later. Sam was drunk, red-eyed but no longer crying. He'd run out of tears, and he'd run down the Chevy's battery. He had listened to the tape over and over and over again, hoping that maybe it would change and Dean would say something else to him. Nothing changed. It remained just the song and the one brief message. Now he sat in the passenger's seat with Mary's shirt and John's rosary in his hands, staring out through a windshield turned opaque with a spiderweb of cracks. It had shattered, but no one had touched it.

Sam murmured softly to himself as he ran the rosary beads through his fingers. His words were not penance, but a prayer, and like the tape, they replayed themselves over and over again.

"Come back, come back, come back, come back..."