Author's note: Hi guys! I'm really sorry that it has taken me so long to update yet again – real life just didn't give me a break at all and then to top it off, I got writer's block. Sigh! Thanks once again for all the alerts and reviews. A special thank you to Sammysir for their continued encouragement! I promise once again that this story WILL be completed and will not get abandoned. I also apologise, because I noticed that I have made a continuity error: in chapter 6, I said that the ninth tier demons were the most powerful, but in chapter 12 I said that Azazel was a first tier demon, when I meant that he was a ninth tier demon i.e. the most powerful sort.

"The warlock?" questioned Bobby, running an anxious hand over his beard.

For a moment, the two hunters stood immobile, unsure what course of action to take. They didn't want to antagonise their only possible source of help for Sam, but a warlock undoubtedly posed a threat and according to all of the lore that Bobby had studied on warlocks, that threat usually proved fatal!

Through the window, Dean watched as the two figures exited the vehicle and made their way towards the porch. An eye for detail was a mandatory trait in a hunter and Dean noticed immediately that the warlock matched his pace to the slow shuffle of his elderly companion.

"Well?" questioned Bobby, deciding that antagonising a warlock would not be a good idea and reluctantly leaving his shotgun where it was. It wasn't like any type of firearm would be of any use anyway. But Bobby felt naked without some sort of protection. The veteran hunter secretly hoped that the extensive array of wards, symbols and charms that shielded his property would keep the warlock from entering.

"Yeah," responded Dean, "It's definitely him." Now that the moment of truth had arrived, Dean felt totally freaked. Had he passed the test? Would they be willing to help Sam?

Bobby took a deep breath to steady his nerves. Never had he imagined he would actually meet a warlock!

Dean opened the front door before they could knock, not wanting to risk the sound waking his slumbering little brother.

"Good evening, Philip, it's great to see you again," he greeted, extending his hand. Dean's confident, cocky tone belied his inner turmoil.

Philip Anderson took the proffered hand in his own and shook it, a warm smile lighting up his face. "Good evening to you too Dean and it's nice to meet you Mr Singer."

"Please call me, Bobby," mumbled the older hunter, disconcerted that the warlock knew who he was, although he supposed it wasn't difficult to deduce given the large sign saying 'Singer Salvage' that they would have driven passed on entering the property.

"Please do come in." Dean stepped to the side and waved them inside.

Bobby felt an acute sense of disappointment when the warlock was able to enter over the threshold unhindered. Philip's next words caused him to jolt in shock. Could warlocks read minds?

"Your property is well-protected, Bobby. You must sleep better at night knowing that most supernatural threats are kept successfully at bay?"

"Errr….yes, well…." The flabbergasted hunter was at a loss for words.

Dean stepped in. "Can we offer you and your companion something to drink?" In reality, he was desperate to jump straight to curing Sam, but was unable to think of a suitable way to broach the subject.

Philip nodded. "That would be lovely, a coffee would be gratefully appreciated, thank you." The warlock nodded to his elderly companion. "I forgot that you hadn't been formally introduced. This is Reginald, he has served our family faithfully for many years."

With a faked, confident grin, Dean held out his hand. "Any friend of a warlock is a friend of mine," he smirked, hiding his insecurities behind a wise-ass attitude.

Reginald took the offered hand and shook it. "And any friend of my Master's is a friend of mine." An amused smile lit up the old man's wrinkled features.

Bobby rolled his eyes at the oldest Winchester's comment. He knew the boy well – Dean was desperate to fix his little brother and he was hiding behind a façade of bravado. The older hunter, though wary of these visitors, knew that they were Sam's only hope.

Bobby showed his 'guests' into the sitting room while Dean retreated to the kitchen to make the required refreshments. Ten minutes later, they were ready and he carried them through on a tray. Dean had used the time in the kitchen to try and calm himself down by performing some breathing exercises that his father had taught him. Sammy's whole future was riding on how this evening went!

Dean watched through narrowed eyes as Philip took the proffered cup of coffee and took a sip. Just what was the warlock's agenda? Could he cure Sam? And if he could, would he? And at what price?

"Now let's get down to business shall we? What exactly is it that you want me to do for your brother?"

Dean couldn't stop his sharp intake of breath. How did the warlock know? At the bar he had introduced Sam as a friend!

Philip picked up immediately on the young hunter's surprise and smiled reassuringly.

"You didn't think I'd just turn up without doing my homework did you? Surely, with your line of work, you understand never going into unknown situations unprepared? That would indeed show great folly. You must forgive me for being suspicious, but unfortunately we warlocks are most often the target of hostile intentions. So when I found out that a Dean Winchester wanted to make my acquaintance, I did some thorough research. Shall I tell you what I discovered?"

Dean nodded, curious.

"Well," Philip continued, "You were born to Mary and John Winchester - your mother before her marriage being Mary Campbell – on the 24th of January 1979. Your younger brother Samuel was born four years later on the 2nd of May 1983. On the night of November the 2nd of that year, your mother was murdered by a supernatural entity, which led to your father pursuing a career in hunting. You and your brother have been brought up as hunters and I have no doubt that you are good people as you never demand payment for your services. Your father passed away recently as a result of a collision with a truck, but the hospital records are unclear as it seemed that he had only been superficially injured in the crash. Do you need to hear more?"

Dean shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. The painful reminder of what happened to his father overwhelmed him for a moment – the guilt threatened to crush him. He should be dead, not Dad!

Bobby, seeing Dean struggle to regain control of his emotions, drew the warlock's attention with a question. "So how do you know we want you to do something for Sam?"

"Ah, well, we can sense other warlocks' magic. As soon as I walked into that bar, I could sense it. He has had a warlock's spell cast upon him. Of that, I have no doubt. It was therefore a logical conclusion that the reason you sought me out was to either remove or counteract the spell. Although I am curious as to how you knew of my existence in the first place?"

Bobby began to relate the tale of how Philip had helped Daniel Carter's grandfather, "We knew of you because…."

Dean took the opportunity to put his own emotions on lockdown once more. He couldn't afford to think of his dad right now, this was Sammy's only hope!

When he'd finished the story, Bobby looked at the warlock expectantly. "To be honest, we weren't even sure you would still be alive, because it happened such a long time ago. Don't take this the wrong way, Mr Anderson, but you're awfully young looking. I mean, we expected you to be ancient. I suppose warlock powers have their uses, eh?"

Philip smiled reassuringly. "Oh, I'm not using any sort of witchcraft to maintain my youth. You see, I am Philip Anderson junior. The hunter you referred to, met my father who passed away a couple of years ago."

"Sorry to hear that," muttered Bobby gruffly, knowing it was the right thing to say under normal circumstances, but this was anything but normal!

"Thank you," smiled Philip, "my father was a good man. He taught me that with great power comes great responsibility. Now what exactly happened to your brother?"

Dean carefully explained what had happened in the warehouse with the exploding crystal and the result. When he'd finished, he looked at the warlock expectantly.

"You were incredibly lucky," stated Philip.

"Lucky?" questioned Dean, "My brilliant, Stanford-educated brother has been reduced to a little kid. Forgive me, but how the hell can that be considered 'lucky'?"

"Let's just say that particular Warlock was playing a prank. Warlock traps are usually fatal, so it is incredibly lucky that your brother is not dead. Using a de-aging spell instead, was a warlock having a little fun, playing a joke."

"Well, I for one, don't think it's funny!" growled Dean.

"No, I don't suppose you would," mused Philip, "but maybe we should count our blessings that he is still alive?"

"I'll count my blessings when Sam's back to normal. So can you reverse the spell? Can you fix him?"

"I don't suppose you know what kind of spell was used do you?" asked Philip, "That would make this quicker, though I can still analyse the spell without any prior knowledge, it'll just take longer."

"Actually we do," replied Bobby gruffly, "It's empowered by a combination of warlock and demonic power and a spoken incantation was used."

Philip nodded, looking thoughtful. "Okay," he said.

"So you're willing to help Sam then?" questioned Dean, "What do you want in return?"

"Yes, I'll try to help Sam, but as for what I want in return….nothing, Dean."

At Dean's sceptical raised eyebrow, Philip chuckled sadly. "I see that the stereotypical view of warlocks has preceded me."

"Begging your pardon, we honestly have no intention to offend, but I'm sure you know that all of the information available on warlocks aint exactly complimentary," explained Bobby gruffly.

"Oh, don't worry, I'm not offended, I'm just saddened that it is so. Unfortunately, it is only those that use their power for evil that tend to get noticed and alas, the majority of our number do indeed use their power for selfish, less than honourable purposes. Nothing in this world corrupts like power does."

"So how many good warlocks are there out there?" asked Bobby.

"Not enough, I'm afraid."

Just as Dean had, Bobby found himself instinctively liking this man. The fact that the warlock had absolutely nothing to gain by being here, prompted Bobby to trust his gut instinct - they had nothing at all that was of value to a warlock, they could do nothing for Philip that he could not do for himself and they had explained how they had heard of him, so if it was just a case of satisfying his curiosity, surely he would have left then instead of sticking around if he wasn't genuine?

"I don't suppose you're willing to explain how you harness demonic power are you?" muttered Bobby.

Philip smiled. "Sorry, but no. Not because I do not want to answer your question, but because I do not know how I do it, I just simply can. Now, shall we see what I can do for Sam?"

"What will you need to do?" Dean slipped immediately into protective, big brother mode.

"Do not worry, Dean. I need merely to touch him."

"For how long?" Dean remembered Sam being hypnotised while Barbara Shackleton had analysed the spell.

"Just a second or two. Why?"

"He's asleep and I'd prefer not to wake him if at all possible." Sammy's questions would be unending if he awoke to find a strange man in his bedroom.

Dean led Philip upstairs to the room he shared with his brother. He pushed open the bedroom door quietly. Sam looked so young and vulnerable – his tousled chocolate bangs falling over his forehead and one palm resting under his sleep-flushed cheek. Philip moved quickly, but quietly over to the side of the bed and Dean automatically tensed – reluctant to let any possible threat near his brother, even though all his hunting instincts told him that this warlock could be trusted and this was Sam's only hope of a cure.

Philip, sensing Dean's tension, turned and smiled. "I promise I won't hurt him. I know you have no reason to trust me, but I always keep my promises."

Dean nodded and unconsciously held his breath as the Warlock reached out. Philip gently pressed the palm of his hand to Sam's cheek. The boy murmured and shifted slightly in the bed, but didn't awaken.

After a moment, Philip removed his hand and turned back to Dean. "Let us talk downstairs," he said quietly.

Once back in the living room, Dean anxiously searched Philip's face. One look at his resigned expression, told Dean everything he needed to know.

He shook his head in denial. "No." the word was almost inaudible.

"I'm sorry, Dean. I wish I had good news."

Dean just shook his head again, unwilling and unable to accept what he was hearing.

Bobby, recognising that Dean was close to losing it, stepped in. "You mean you can't heal him? Why?"

"No, I can heal him."

"You can?" Dean raised his head, the childlike hopeful tone in Dean's voice tugged at Bobby's heartstrings.

"I sense a 'but' coming," grunted the older hunter, resting a supporting hand on his surrogate son's shoulder.

Philip nodded. "I can cure him, but unfortunately there is a risk….it could kill him."

"How much of a risk?" Bobby asked, running an agitated hand over his beard.

Dean looked at him in utter disbelief – why would Bobby even ask that? Any risk at all, no matter how slight, was too much if his baby brother's life was at stake!

"It's a very high risk, I'm afraid. It's fifty fifty."

"You mean there's a fifty per cent chance if you heal him that he won't make it?" the older hunter clarified, tightening his grip on Dean's shoulder as he realised that the younger hunter had begun to physically tremble.

Philip nodded. "I'm afraid so. I can perform the counter spell if you wish, but from everything I learned about the Winchester brothers through my research, I suspect that they would never risk each other for anything."

"What about demons?" Bobby was clutching at straws now and had remembered what Barbara Shackleton had said about curing Sam. "Can a higher level demon fix him?"

"Yes," agreed Philip, "but only with exactly the same risk factor as if a warlock did it. I'm sorry, but Sam cannot be cured without risking killing him." He turned to Dean. "I am taking it that you do not want me to attempt it?"

Dean shook his head. "No, no way. I'm not risking harming Sammy!" he managed to grit out between his clenched teeth. To Dean, it felt that his world was slowly crumbling around him. Until that moment, Dean hadn't realised that he had been secretly harbouring the hope that somehow Sam would be fixed and now that fragile hope had been completely crushed.

"I am sorry that I could not help." Philip stood up to leave and extended his hand. Dean shook it on autopilot.

The warlock then shook hands with Bobby. "It was nice meeting you both. Maybe we will have dealings with each other in the future."

"That would be nice," replied Bobby, following as Philip and his elderly companion, Reginald, made their way to the doorway.

Philip glanced back with a troubled expression to where Dean was standing frozen in the living room, before turning back to Bobby. "I am genuinely sorry that I could not help. Look after both of them, they are a real asset to this world."

"Don't worry, I will do. I love those boys as if they were my own!"

"I can tell," Philip smiled.

With a final wave, the pair slowly descended the porch steps and made their way to their car. Bobby watched them until they had driven down the driveway and were out of sight.

He quickly re-entered the house. Bobby was incredibly worried about how Dean was taking the news that Sam could never be cured. He had seen the despair settling over the young hunter's face. He himself would privately mourn the permanent loss of the bright, young twenty-three-year-old when he was assured that Dean was holding it all together and coping. The elder brother, the twenty-seven-year-old, was his priority right now.

"Dean, you okay, son?" Bobby approached Dean warily, almost as if he was a frightened colt apt at bolt at any time.

Dean glanced up at Bobby's voice and mutely shook his head, not in response to Bobby's question, but at the raging torrent of emotions within. The inner dams that successfully kept Dean's emotions at bay, were beginning to disintegrate as the understanding that Sam's condition was irreversible sank in.

"Dean, it's gonna be okay," reassured Bobby, taking a step closer, intending to envelope the younger hunter in a hug. He halted as Dean backed away from him, still shaking his head, although the younger hunter now had his fists clenched as he battled against the raging torrent within.

Unbidden, memories of promises that he had made his little brother over the years suddenly overwhelmed him:

Five-year-old Sam sat a few feet away from the edge of the swimming pool forlornly watching his daddy and brother having fun in the water. The kiddie pool was closed for repairs and so only the extremely deep adult pool was open. Children however, were allowed in as long as they were accompanied by an adult.

Sam couldn't swim and was scared of deep water. His daddy had assured him that he would be safe and couldn't sink, because the inflated bands around his upper arms would keep him afloat, but Sam had been unconvinced and had refused to put that to the test. When John had attempted to pick the tiny child up and put him in the water, Sam had started crying and squirming frantically, trying to escape his dad's hold. Not wanting to upset his youngest, John released him – there was no way he would force his baby if he was frightened and the fear was written all over Sammy's little face. The five-year-old had immediately scrambled a safe distance away from the edge. John had tried for over ten minutes to coax him into the pool, gently reassuring him, but the little one would not be swayed.

Dean had watched the exchange between his dad and his baby brother, hoping that Sammy would be persuaded to try it. Dean had then hoped that if the child saw how much fun he was having with his dad and what he was missing out on, Sam would reconsider and want to join them. That ploy hadn't worked either. The five-year-old had now sat at the side of the pool for a whole twenty minutes.

Dean himself had learned to swim unaided by floats the previous year when he was eight, but he had never shown any fear of water. Sam was fine in shallow water where the child knew he could stand up. Dean knew his little brother must be miserable, being left out of the fun and swam over to the side.

"You okay, Sammy?"

Sam didn't respond verbally, the quivering lower lip said it all.

Dean lithely pulled himself out of the water and sat down next to the little boy. The child unconsciously shifted closer and leaned against his big brother.

"I think you should come in the pool with me," stated Dean confidently. He was determined to coax his little brother in, but if he couldn't and failed, the nine-year-old had already decided that he would forgo the pleasures of swimming and keep Sammy company instead.

Sam shook his head. "Nuh-uh, I don't like swimmin', Dee."

Dean ignored Sam's false assertion – the kid had had a ball the previous week in the kiddie pool which only came up to his chest.

"Are you sure, Sammy? It's great fun in there! You can play with me and Dad."

Sam again shook his head, making his chocolate bangs dance on his forehead. "Nuh-uh, I don't wanna swim. I want you to stay here and play with me."

"I'll play with you in the water, Sammy."

Sam pouted. "No, here. Please, Dee?"

Dean reached over and tugged the five-year-old into his lap. The child automatically relaxed, leaning back against Dean's chest.

"Can I ask you something, Sammy?"

"Yeah, what?" Sam looked up at him expectantly.

"Do I look after you?"

Sam nodded without hesitation. "Yeah."

"And would I let something harm you?"

This time, Sam shook his head. "Nuh-uh, never."

"So if I take you in the pool with me, you understand that I'll look after you and not let you get hurt?"

Sam froze. The little boy had fallen right into Dean's trap.

"Nuh-uh, I'm not swimmin'!"

"So you don't trust me then?" questioned Dean, feigning hurt.

"No, Dee, I do trust you, I do!" The five-year-old didn't like it when his brother looked sad.

"If you really trusted me, then you'd come in the pool with me," pointed out Dean reasonably.

"But…." The small child cast frightened eyes at the pool before glancing back to his big brother.

"No buts, Sammy. You're my little brother and it's my job to look after you. Just trust me, okay?"

Sam solemnly contemplated Dean's face for a moment. "'Kay," he murmured, allowing his big brother to lead him by the hand towards the steps into the pool.

Dean squeezed Sam's hand reassuringly. "I won't let anything bad happen to you, I promise."

Another memory assaulted him:

Six-year-old Sam was swinging happily from the monkey bars.

"Look at me, Dee! I can do it!" he squealed with excitement.

"I see you, Sammy," replied Dean with a grin from the swings, "That's great, Tiger! You'll be as strong as Dad soon."

The little boy beamed at his big brother's praise, before descending the ladder and scampering over to the large climbing frame.

Dean himself remained on the swings – he could still see Sammy at all times from his present vantage point. Dean was standing on the swing, bending his knees and arching his back, trying to get as high as humanly possible. The ten-year-old wondered if it was actually possible to get the swing to go higher than the bar it hung from. He was going to try!

The only reason that they were allowed to the park without adult-supervision was that their current dilapidated apartment building was right next door and John was confident that he would hear his sons calling him if any trouble arose. Despite this, the hunter had already checked on his children twice in the last half hour. Dean had rolled his eyes in exasperation at spotting his Dad surreptitiously peeking through the railings – he was 10-years-old for goodness sake, perfectly capable of looking after himself and Sammy!

Dean glanced at the apartment building, wondering how long it would be before Dad returned to check on them once more. A moment later, Dean heard Sammy's scream and turned his head just in time to see the 6-year-old hit the ground, having fallen from the very top of the climbing frame.

Dean didn't think, he just reacted, having no regard for his own safety and leaped off the swing, despite the fact that it was at its peak. Even though he remembered his father's training and bent his knees to absorb the shock of impact, he still stumbled upon landing and felt the painful jarring in his knees.

Dean ignored the flaring pain and sprinted to his little brother's side. Sam was curled up, clutching his badly grazed knees and sobbing.

"Sammy, where does it hurt?" Dean skidded to a halt and crouched down, anxiously searching for any serious-looking injuries.

Sam sat up and immediately flung himself into Dean's arms. The ten-year-old reacted instinctively catching the small boy and wrapping his arms tightly around the child.

"It's okay, Sammy, I've gotcha," he soothed, "You hurt anywhere except your knees?"

Sam shook his head, his tears flowing freely down his chubby, baby cheeks. "Nuh –uh, but my knees huuuuurt, Dee," he sniffled, "an' they're bleedin!"

Dean stood up, hoisting his little brother with him. Sam immediately wrapped his legs around Dean's waist, clinging like a limpet and buried his tear-streaked face into his big brother's shoulder.

Luckily, Sam was incredibly small for his age and Dean had no trouble at all carrying him. As he moved quickly towards the gate, he saw their father hurrying towards them. John had no doubt been alerted by Sammy's scream.

"It's okay, Sammy," murmured Dean, "Big Brother's gonna make you all better, I promise."

Another memory forced itself unbidden into his mind:

Dean pressed the accelerator to the floor, ignoring the possible damage he could be doing to the Impala, his baby, as they careened down the rough, dirt track away from the forest. The car was Dean's pride and joy, but it meant nothing at all to him compared to his family, his world.

Behind them, in the forest, there was a burning carcass of an elbracken. Yeah, sure, they had got the fugly in the end, but not before it had gotten John when he had jumped in front of Dean. Dean had already been thrown by the creature and had lost his weapon during his unplanned flight. When John had seen it advancing on his now unarmed son, he hadn't hesitated, more than willing to sacrifice himself to save his eldest. However, instead of throwing the experienced hunter as it had Dean, the elbracken had instead swung its lethal barbed tail, effectively skewering John's side. Dean had quickly retrieved his machete and beheaded the monster (which unfortunately was the only way to kill it and had meant that they had been forced to get close to the creature), while Sam (who had been given strict instructions to stay back) immediately ran to his fallen father's side.

Dean glanced back over his shoulder to the backseat.

"How's he doing, Sammy?"

"Not so good, Dean. I can't stop the bleeding." The quiver was clearly audible in the sixteen-year-old's voice."

"It's okay, Sammy," soothed Dean, forcing his own voice to sound calm, keeping his own fear on complete lockdown – Dad and Sammy needed him to be strong – "Just keep the pressure on."

Sam nodded and glanced down at his father as he lay across Sam's knees. John was unconscious, pale and clammy. The teenager knew that the hunter was going into clinical shock. There was so much blood that he was convinced that his dad was going to die. An almost inaudible sob escaped him.

Dean had turned his attention back to the road, but he nevertheless caught the slight sound, attuned as he always was to his little brother. He glanced back over his shoulder once more. Sam had his head bowed.

"Sammy look at me," Dean instructed. He was rewarded when his brother raised his head and tear-filled hazel eyes met his own.

"Is he gonna die, Dean?"

"NO!" his denial came out sharper than he intended. Dean refused to even contemplate the possibility for even a split second – John Winchester dying was not an option, Dean may be twenty years old, but he needed his dad!

Dean continued, his tone softer, "Dad's not gonna die, Sammy. You'll see. Everything's gonna be all right, I promise."

Dean's failures hit him like a sledgehammer. Sam had been entrusted to him when he was 6 months old and he had failed in all the promises he had made to the kid – he had let something bad happen to him, he couldn't make Sam better and things were most definitely not going to be all right! Dean couldn't stand the overwhelming emotions anymore. He had to get out of there! He pushed passed Bobby, fishing the keys to the Impala out of his pocket as he did so.

"Dean! Wait, son!" Bobby made to grab the fleeing man, but missed.

Dean ignored him and flung open the front door, before racing down the porch steps and flinging himself into his beloved car. Bobby reached the door just in time to see the Impala speeding down the drive and careening around the corner and out of sight with a screech of protesting tyres.

"Dammit," muttered Bobby, running an agitated hand over his beard.

He moved to the living room and sat down with a sigh. He'd give Dean some space and hopefully once the initial panic was over, Dean would come to his senses and return.

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

Two hours later, Dean had still not returned and a worried Bobby picked up the phone. He'd expected the eldest Winchester just to drive around for a while in order to get himself under control and his game face back on, but now he was growing more concerned. Remembering the speed at which the young hunter had been driving, he couldn't prevent unwelcome images of the Impala wrapped around a tree from entering his mind.

After dialling Dean's cell number, he heard it ring once, twice, three times and then it cut off. Surely Dean hadn't hung up on him? Bobby rang the number once more. This time it rang only once before cutting off.

"Pick up. Dammit Dean!" he muttered, agitated, and dialled the number for a third time. This time, it went straight to voicemail. The blasted kid hadn't just ignored his calls he'd gone so far as to turn his cell off!

Bobby had no idea where on earth Dean would have gone and anyway, he couldn't leave an eight-year-old alone at home while he went looking for him. With a heavy heart, the veteran hunter made his way upstairs to bed. There was no point in him staying up – if Dean hadn't returned by morning, he'd have to be awake and alert enough to look after Sam.

Bobby paused at the boys' bedroom door. Sam had lost half of his bedcovers which were dangling on the floor. The boy was cured up on his side, Digger snuggled safely under one arm, fast asleep. The older hunter moved quietly into the room and replaced the covers.

"Oh, Sam…." he murmured, almost inaudibly, feeling the sadness wash over him at the loss of the brilliant young man that Sam had become and who was now lost forever.

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

Dean dropped his cell phone back into his jacket pocket after switching it off. He didn't want to talk to Bobby. He just wanted to forget the friggin mess that was his life! And the whiskey was helping. He downed the shot in the glass in front of him with a grimace and asked the bartender for another. Dean had lost count of how many shots he had had.

He turned on his stool and surveyed the bar. Dean knew he was drunk. The room felt like it was spinning slightly, but his feelings were pleasantly numbed. He hadn't forgotten what had transpired earlier, but the excess of alcohol had effectively blocked the feelings of failure and despair.

A curvy brunette approached with a coy smile. "You look all lonely over here, handsome. Want some company?"

"I always appreciate the company of beautiful ladies. What're you drinkin'?" Dean glanced over the woman appreciatively. She was well-endowed and her top was cut so low that it showed off so much of her cleavage that it could almost be considered indecent.

"Wine, baby."

Dean caught the bartender's attention and asked for a glass of wine and a beer. He figured that a beer was more sociable than a shot of whiskey and he had some flirting to do.

He handed over the glass of wine, intentionally ensuring that their fingers touched as he did so. "I'm Dean by the way. What lovely name are you graced with?"

"Melanie, but you can call me Mel. So what's a stud like you doing here on their own then?"

Half an hour later, Dean and Mel had relocated to a table and Melanie was practically sitting in his lap. It had been a long time since Dean had gotten laid, with what had happened with Sam. Too long. Dean intended to rectify that. And he knew from her body language that Mel was more than willing.

Melanie slid her hand up Dean's thigh under the table, while tilting her head up and capturing his lips in a kiss. She wasn't interested in a relationship, just a bit of fun and she knew she was safe from any misconceptions about commitment here, because Dean had explained that he was a travelling salesman and never stayed in one place for more than a couple of days.

"What do you say we blow this joint and go somewhere more private?" Dean murmured against her lips.

"Sure, there's a motel two blocks down."

As Dean stood to follow Mel from the bar, he swayed on his feet, before finding enough balance to walk, although he was certainly incapable of traversing a straight line. Oh, yeah, he was definitely drunk!

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

Sleep lifted slowly from Sam. The boy yawned and fisted his eyes, before slowly blinking them open, taking in immediately Dean's immaculately made bed. Sam frowned. Dean being awake and up before him was the norm, but his big brother never made his bed when he first got up, he always left it a rumpled mess. After his usual morning trip to the bathroom to relieve himself, Sam made his way slowly downstairs.

"Hiyuh, Uncle Bobby," greeted Sam, looking around for his brother and coming up empty. He ran his hand through his sleep-mussed hair and yawned.

"Mornin' Sam," greeted the older hunter, looking up from where he was seated at the table reading a newspaper, "would you like some scrambled eggs for breakfast?"

"Yes please," replied Sam politely, before voicing the question that was bothering him, "Where's Dean?"

Bobby had already come up with a cover story for the eldest Winchester's absence. He was just praying that Dean quickly came to his senses before Sam became suspicious. He had tried ringing again this morning, but had been put straight through to voicemail, indicating that the cell was still turned off.

"I sent him on an errand run. He's delivering some things for me. Not sure when he'll be back, it could take all day."

Sam's face fell. "Oh. He should have woken me. I could've gone with him."

"It would have involved a lot of waiting around and you'd have been bored, Sam."

"No I wouldn't," refuted Sam with a shake of his head.

Bobby didn't reply to that, recognising that at age eight, Sam had rarely been separated from Dean and definitely never for extended periods of time (only during school or when John was home and Dean spent some time with his friends) – it hadn't been until he was around twelve that John had considered Sam old enough to leave on his own while he took Dean on simple hunts with him.

"When you've finished your breakfast, you can go and play, Sam. Dean'll be back before you know it." I hope.

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

Dean awoke to the feeling of a finger tracing down his bare chest. At the exact moment that he blinked his eyes open sleepily, a relentless jackhammer started up in his head.

"Morning handsome," crooned the buxom brunette, propping herself up on one elbow and looking down at him.

"Morning…" Dean trailed off. What was her name again? Mandy? Martha? Melissa? Margaret? He was pretty sure it began with an 'M' anyway.

Melanie didn't seem to notice his hesitation and instead leaned over him, before covering his mouth with hers for a deep, lingering kiss.

"I've gotta go, Dean. Thanks for a great night. I'll leave you my number in case you're free again before you leave town."

"Sure thing, babe." Dean squinted up at her, convinced his head was going to explode. Just how much had he had to drink last night anyway? He definitely had the hangover from hell.

As soon as Melanie had dressed and let herself quietly out of the motel room, Dean buried his face back into his pillow with a groan. The excruciating pain in his head and the ache in his limbs from his overindulgence of whiskey was a welcome distraction from having to think. It wasn't long before Dean succumbed to sleep once more.

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

It was nearing lunchtime and Bobby still hadn't heard from Dean. He was worried. Quickly checking out of the window to ensure that Sam was still riding his bike up and down the driveway and wouldn't hear what he was about to say, Bobby dialled Dean's cell phone once more. He had done so on and off throughout the morning without success – it was still turned off. Previously, he had left no messages. This time he intended to. Bobby knew that what he was about to say was harsh, and he hated himself for it, but he needed Dean to snap out of it and to do so, he was going to replace the burden on Dean's shoulders that John had initially placed there when Dean was only four years old.

As soon as the cell went to voicemail, Bobby spoke, before he could lose his nerve:

"Dean, dammit. You need to come home. I know you're upset, but we'll figure things out together. I've got your back. Sam needs you! He's your responsibility. It's your job to look after him. So get your backside in gear and get back here!"

After ending the call, Bobby ran his hand agitatedly over his face, feeling guilty. He wished there had been some other way, but Bobby knew Dean well and the eldest Winchester wouldn't respond to mollycoddling or heart-to-hearts, but Dean would always respond to his baby brother's needs.

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

When Dean next awoke, his headache had subsided to a more manageable level. With the thick motel curtains filtering the light, he had no idea what time of the day it was and glanced at his wristwatch. It was nearing 2pm in the afternoon. Dean pushed himself up into a sitting position with a groan and glanced around for his clothes which were scattered all over the room.

Once Dean was dressed, he sat for a moment on the edge of the bed, at a loss of what to do. He couldn't deal with his emotions and failings regarding Sam at the moment – Dean forcibly pushed them away. Maybe he'd get something to eat and then hit another bar? Yeah, that seemed like a good idea.

He pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket. He should at least text Bobby to tell him that he was still alive. His surrogate father would worry. Once Dean had turned the phone on, he was immediately alerted to the fact that he had one new voicemail. On autopilot, Dean pressed the button and held the phone to his ear. The message was from Bobby:

"Dean, dammit. You need to come home. I know you're upset, but we'll figure things out together. I've got your back. Sam needs you! He's your responsibility. It's your job to look after him. So get your backside in gear and get back here!"

Bobby's words cut Dean to the very core. What the hell had he done? He'd abandoned Sam! Of course Sammy needed him, even if he was a failing, poor excuse for an older brother.

Dean didn't even realise he was crying at first, but when he did, he made no attempt to stop, merely buried his face in his hands and let the sobs overwhelm him. Stanford-educated Sam was gone forever. His adult hunting partner was gone forever. His witty, compassionate, caring adult little brother was gone forever. Dean mourned the loss, allowing the tears to traverse unhindered down his cheeks.

How long Dean cried for, he wasn't sure, but at last, the tears halted and he drew the back of his hand across his eyes. A new determination filled him. He had to get home to Sam!

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

Sam jerked his head up as soon as he heard the familiar rumble of the Impala coming up the drive. The boy had been sprawled on the porch for the last half hour drawing and chatting to Bobby who was sitting in an old rocking chair nearby. Sam scrambled to his feet as the sleek, black car pulled up outside.

Dean slowly opened the car door and climbed out, unsure of what to say to explain his absence. His heart swelled as he watched Sam leaping down the stairs and sprinting towards him. Adult Sam may be gone, but child Sammy was still here.

Dean braced himself, realising at the last second what his kid brother was about to do – Sam had always run to him and hugged him whenever he'd been away for a while up until the age of about fourteen when he had decided that it was babyish to be openly affectionate.

Even with bracing himself, Dean still staggered backwards a few feet as his brother's tall frame barrelled into him.

Sam flung his arms around Dean. "You're back! Next time, I wanna come with you."

"Come with me?" murmured Dean, tightening his own arms around his brother. It felt so good to have Sammy safe in his arms!

Dean heard Bobby clear his throat – the older hunter had approached at a slower pace than the youngest Winchester – and looked over at him.

"Yeah, Sam was put out that you completed all my errands today without him."

"Oh, yeah, your errands. I got 'em all done." Dean was eternally grateful to Bobby for getting him off the hook by providing an excuse. Not that he deserved it.

Sam let go of Dean a moment later and stepped back. "So you'll take me next time, yeah?" He paused a moment, studying his older brother's expression. "You okay, Dean? You look kinda pale."

Dean cursed the fact that the kid was so observant and perceptive. "I'm fine, Sammy. Just got a bit of a headache is all. I'm gonna take a couple of Tylenol and it'll be fine." It was the truth, he did have a headache, he just neglected to say it was self-inflicted from imbibing too much alcohol.

Dean reached out and ruffled Sam's hair.

Pedictably, Sam ducked away from his hand. "Deeeeeeean," he whined, before scampering back to the porch to continue drawing.

After waiting until the boy was out of earshot, Dean turned to Bobby.

"I'm so so sorry, Bobby, I just…."

Bobby raised his hand, cutting him off. "I don't want no apologies, yah idjit. You had a shock. It's to be expected. I just wanna know if you're okay?"

Dean nodded. "Yeah, I'm okay. Just…..thanks, hey, for giving me the kick up the backside I needed."

Bobby studied Dean closely for a minute, trying to evaluate how truthful the twenty-seven –year-old was being and if he was truly coping with the situation. Relieved by what he saw, Bobby placed a reassuring hand on Dean's shoulder.

"No need to thank me, that's what family's for."

Dean felt a lump rise in his throat and didn't trust himself to speak. He knew how lucky he was to have Bobby in his life. He took a couple of deep breaths to get a handle on his emotions once more.

"Hey, Dean, come and see my picture," called Sam, waving his paper in the air.

"Sure thing, kiddo." Dean was glad of the distraction and moved quickly towards his brother.

Sam held out his picture for his brother to see. "What do you think? Is it good?"

"Ummm….." Dean looked down at the drawing. What the heck was it? In the sky were some passable clouds and a bright yellow sun complete with a smiley face on it, but in the foreground was a large black rectangle. Was it a house? Then where were the windows and door? "It's great, Sammy!"

Witnessing Dean's pause, Sam's face fell. "Do you even know what it is?" he asked suspiciously.

Seeing his little brother's disappointed look, Dean wracked his brains for inspiration. What could a black rectangle represent? An idea struck him and he took a chance, hoping against hope that he was right.

"Of course I know what it is, squirt. It's the Impala, my baby."

Sam's face lit up. "You really do know. Do you like it?"

Dean smiled at his younger brother's delighted expression. "I love it. It's honestly fantastic, Sammy."

Sam took the picture back and picked up a purple pencil crayon. He scrawled a message along the bottom: TO DEAN LOVE FROM SAMMY XXX. He then held it up to Dean with a shy smile.

"Here, you can have it."

"Why, thank you, Sammy." Dean took the picture and folded it carefully before placing it inside his wallet.

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

That evening, Dean stood in the doorway to their bedroom just watching Sam sleep. He felt overwhelmed with love for his younger brother, his reason for being. He'd been so caught up with the fact that he'd lost the man that his brother had become, that he hadn't realised how lucky he was to still have eight-year-old Sam. According to Philip, he was extremely lucky that the kid hadn't been killed. Dean couldn't even bring himself to consider that possibility. He couldn't have lived without his brother, he just couldn't! For the first time, Dean was truly able to see the silver lining – it could have indeed been much worse. Sure, Sam would need to grow up again, but this time, Dean was determined to do it differently. He would do everything in his power to make Sam happy and keep him safe.

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

The following morning passed peacefully. Dean worked in Bobby's autoshop on some cars, salvaging any usable parts, while Bobby researched some ancient symbols sent to him by a hunter friend. Sam had made a den inside one of the rusted, wrecked cars and spent part of the morning in there and the other half in front of the TV watching cartoons.

Just before lunchtime, Dean entered the kitchen to wash his grease-covered hands. Bobby looked up as the younger hunter entered, but continued to stir the contents of the saucepan before him. He had watched Dean carefully yesterday afternoon and evening, to ensure that he wasn't about to freak out and take off again, but the eldest Winchester had his game face firmly back in place.

"Did you find owt we can use or are they just suitable for scrap metal?"

Dean nodded and moved over to the table. "Yeah, some. Did you work out what those symbols meant?"

"Nah, but I'll work on it some more this afternoon before we go out to celebrate tonight."

"Celebrate what, Bobby?" queried Dean, his puzzled green eyes searching his surrogate father's face.

"Why, celebrating the beginning of Sam's second chance at childhood of course! Now we know that it's permanent, we can ensure he gets the chance to be a proper kid this time around." Bobby ambled away from the stove to drop a soothing hand on Dean's shoulder.

"Yeah, we will," even though Dean's response was soft, the steely resolution in his voice did not go unmissed by the older hunter, "I'll give him the best childhood ever!"

"I know you will, Dean," Bobby squeezed his shoulder reassuringly, "And I'll help you."

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

"We're really going to a proper restaurant, not a diner, Dean?" Sam was practically bouncing in the back seat with excitement.

Dean grinned at his little brother's fidgeting, but couldn't help feeling a pang of regret at the fact that eating out at a restaurant had been such a rare event in his eight years of life that it engendered such a level of excitement.

"Yeah, kiddo, now fasten your seatbelt."

Sam obediently sat back and did as requested. "What kind of restaurant is it?"

Dean smirked. "An Italian restaurant."

Sam laughed – it was a young, care-free sound that warmed both the older hunters' hearts. "I bet that's so you can still eat pizza, Dean."

"You got it, Tiger. You can't beat a good pizza!"

"Aren't you gonna be adventurous and try some exotic pasta dishes instead? I think Uncle Bobby should ban you from having pizza and make you try something new."

Bobby chuckled at the eldest Winchester's horrified expression.

Dean gave a mock shudder. "Nuh-uh Sammy, I don't want no pasta unless it's mac and cheese!"

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Once at the restaurant, a pretty, blond waitress led them towards a table at the back.

"Good evening, sirs. My name is Casey and I will be your waitress for the evening."

Sam slid into the chair next to the wall. Dean however, paused, casting an admiring glance at Casey's slim, yet curvy figure. Bobby rolled his eyes, before nudging his surrogate son in the ribs.

"Admiring the scenery are we?" he mumbled just loud enough for Dean to hear.

Dean nodded in response, a roguish grin lighting up his face as he slid into the seat next to Sam. Bobby was overwhelmingly relieved that the young hunter was back to his usual flirty self after his mini-breakdown 48 hours ago. Bobby took the seat opposite Dean.

Casey handed each of them a menu, before taking out her notebook.

"Can I get you something to drink in the meantime?"

Dean opened his mouth to answer, intending to ask for two beers. "Yes please, we'll have…."

Bobby cut him off, pointing to something on the expensive wine menu. "Can we have a bottle of red wine please and a large chocolate milk?"

"Of course, coming right up, gentlemen." Casey moved away to fetch their drinks.

"Wine?" queried Dean, "What's wrong with plain old beer?"

"Well, we're celebrating, Boy," huffed Bobby, "You can have beer every day. This is a special occasion!"

"What're we celebrating?" asked Sam innocently.

"Life," replied Bobby without hesitation, smiling warmly at the youngest Winchester, "I think everyone should sit back and count their blessings from time to time. I mean, we're all happy and healthy, so we have a lot to be thankful for."

"Sounds good to me," murmured Dean, sharing a meaningful look with the older hunter.

Instead of looking at the menu, Sam stared down at the table in awe. It was covered in a rich, plum-coloured tablecloth. In the middle of the table were two lit red candles in ornate, golden candelabra, placed on either side of a vase containing fresh flowers. There were four cream paper pace mats with golden borders, around which, shining silver cutlery was neatly arranged.

"Wow," he breathed, fingering the stem of the empty crystal champagne glass set before him. "Uh, Dean, why are there so many knives, forks and spoons?"

Dean looked down at his own extensive array of cutlery. "Don't worry about it, kiddo. You just start on the outside and work your way in….or is it start on the inside and work your way outwards? Oh, who cares anyway, as long as you've got something to eat with, huh?" Dean grinned. He really couldn't give a damn about correct etiquette as long as the food was good!

"This place is amazing!"

Sam had now turned in his seat and was looking around at the magnificent décor. Beautiful landscape paintings adorned the rich, cream-coloured walls, while soft, muted light from the numerous crystal chandeliers infused the whole restaurant with an atmosphere of calmness. Soothing, romantic music was also playing in the background. It was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the gaudy, harshly lit diners, filled with rowdy customers that he was used to eating at.

Dean himself was never really comfortable when eating at places like this, but he wouldn't have missed the awed and delighted expression on his little brother's face for anything.

"Impressive, huh?" Dean grinned.

Sam nodded.

"So what do you wanna eat, kiddo?" he continued.

"O yeah…." Sam suddenly remembered the menu that he was holding in his hand, "don't worry, Dean, I'll find something cheap."

"What?" scolded Bobby, "You'll do no such thing, Sam Winchester. You choose whatever you want. The cost don't matter. We're celebrating remember!"

"Oh, okay," Sam glanced back at his menu, his eyes widening when he saw the excessive prices. Sure, with him having forgotten 15 years of his life, he expected the cost to have gone up some due to inflation, but not that much! "You really sure we can afford it, Uncle Bobby?"

"Yes, Sam, I'm sure," he replied gruffly, "so knock yourself out. Now what do you want?"

"Can I have spinach and ricotta cannelloni, please?" asked Sam after studying the extensive menu for a minute, pointing to the picture in the menu.

"That sounds disgusting," muttered Dean, pulling a face. "What's in it?"

Sam obligingly read the description from the menu, "One of our award-winning pasta dishes, this consists of mouth-watering cannelloni filled with spinach and ricotta served in a blend of rich tomato and creamy cheese sauces, baked in the oven to perfection….and I think you got the wrong describing 'd' word there Dean, I think you meant to say it sounds delicious!"

Dean snorted. "In your dreams, kid. A fully-loaded pizza, now that's real food!"

Bobby carefully spread out his napkin and lay it on his lap, determined to give the impression that he was used to eating in such luxurious places. Dean grinned at the movement and after a moment copied the veteran hunter and laid his own napkin over his knee. Sam however, proceeded to fold his into a paper airplane shape.

Casey approached the table carrying a tray containing a bottle of red wine and a large chocolate milkshake. She couldn't help being curious as to which one the chocolate milk was for. Maybe one of them was driving and had chosen not to drink at all? Casey was glad she had struck lucky and was serving their table – it wasn't often that you got the opportunity to ogle such good-looking young men!

As she got closer to the table, she spotted two of the men engaged in conversation, while the third, the tallest of the group, was holding an 'airplane,' that he had obviously made from his napkin, between his thumb and forefinger and moving it through the air, complete with quiet engine noises. Casey strongly suspected that she had now solved the chocolate milk mystery. Her heart went out to the young man and she wondered if he had been born that way or if he had had an accident.

Not wanting to offend however, Casey still asked politely, "Who requested the chocolate milk?"

Dean nodded towards Sam, who smiled shyly at the waitress and took his drink. "Thank you."

"Would you like me to pour your wine, sirs?"

Bobby nodded and handed over his and Dean's glasses.

After pouring the two drinks, Casey turned to Sam. Even though she suspected she knew the answer, she still felt it was polite to ask. "Would you not like some, sir?"

Sam shook his head. "No thank you." Although Sam was really curious as to what wine would taste like – it couldn't be as bad as the coffee or beer, right? – he knew that Dean would never let him try it.

When their meals arrived, Dean insisted on picking up his pizza to eat it with his fingers, ignoring the scandalised looks of the couple at the next table who were painstakingly cutting their pizzas up into little pieces and eating them with their knives and forks.

A short while later, Sam wiped his mouth with his napkin. "That was yummy. I'm really full up now."

"I'm glad you enjoyed it, Sammy. You still got room for dessert I hope. I'm gonna have pie," grinned Dean.

Sam's face lit up. "I can really have dessert too?"

It tugged at Dean's heartstrings once more that having dessert in a proper restaurant was considered such a treat. With their forced nomadic lifestyle due to their father's hunting, they'd had so little money growing up, that they'd never had any luxuries. Dean was determined to rectify that from here on in.

"Sure, kiddo, we'll just ask for the dessert menus."

Casey arrived a few minutes later to clear away their plates and handed them each a sweet menu.

"Hmmm," Dean mused, "So many pies to choose from, I'm in heaven. I'm gonna have the blackberry and apple pie I think. What do you want?"

"Can I have chocolate fudge cake and ice-cream topped with toffee sauce?"

"You can have whatever you want, kiddo."

"'Kay, Dean. I'll have that then."

Bobby chuckled. "Good luck getting him into bed when he's that full of sugar. He'll be bouncing off the walls. I'll have the almond tart."

Sam grinned mischievously. "If I'm full of sugar, does that mean I get to stay up later until I get rid of the excess energy?"

"Not on your life, Sammy. It'll probably be past your bedtime anyway by the time we get back and you'll be going straight to bed," smirked Dean.

Sam shrugged, still smiling. "Well, it was worth a try."

Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~ Supernatural ~

The following morning, Sam was bored. It was raining heavily, so he couldn't play outside. He'd talked to his fish for a while and then had played on the laptop while Dean had been watching some talkshow on TV. Dean had then gone out to the autoshop to continue working on the cars from yesterday and had put the laptop away, because Sam wasn't allowed to play on it unless an adult was present to supervise. Bobby had nipped into town to pick up some more supplies.

Sam wandered into the sitting room, thinking he'd maybe play with his knights and castle, but the photograph of him and Dean with Dad sitting on the Impala caught his eye. Sam chewed his lower lip as he approached the shelf and lifted the frame down. He seated himself on the sofa and ran his fingers over the photograph. He really missed his Dad!

Sam wasn't stupid. He knew that Dean was missing their dad too, even if he wouldn't admit it. Sam could tell by the way his brother's eyes narrowed and his expression tightened slightly every time Sam asked about the cockatrice hunt he was on and when he might be back. He knew their dad hadn't been in contact, because Dean would have told him. And if Dean didn't know, then Bobby wouldn't know either.

Sam felt the tears welling up in his eyes and immediately brushed them away. Crying wouldn't bring Dad home any sooner.

A sudden thought struck him and Sam immediately jumped off the sofa and moved over to the telephone. Why hadn't he thought of it before? Dad and Caleb might not have to tell anyone when they'd be back, but surely Pastor Jim would? Someone would have to be looking after his parish while he was away. Sam knew how much the pastor cared for his 'flock', he wouldn't leave it unattended. So surely they'd have some idea when he'd be due back? It couldn't do any harm to ask anyway.

Sam lifted up the receiver and held it to his ear. He knew the number of the parish in Blue Earth from memory, just as he knew Bobby's and Caleb's. Dad had made him and Dean learn them in case of emergencies. Sam had always wondered what kind of emergencies could possibly arise until he'd found out that his dad was a hunter of the supernatural and not a travelling salesman.

Sam dialled the number. The phone rang once, twice, three times…..

TBC