Laochanan
By San Antonio Rose

Chapter 1

November 2, 1983

Dean tried to go to sleep. He really did. He was tired, and he knew he wasn't supposed to get up once Mommy and Daddy had put him to bed. But he couldn't shake the sense that something was Wrong, that Sammy needed him.

So carefully, quietly, he slipped out of bed and walked down the hall to Sammy's room. And when he got there, he found the window open and two little men, not much taller than he was, letting down the side of Sammy's crib.

"Hey!" said Dean. "Who are you?"

"Shh-hh-hh!" said one of the little men, flapping his hand at Dean while the other little man gently pulled Sammy out of the crib. "Off to bed with ye now, lad, and forget you saw us."

"What are you doing with my brother?"

"We're keeping him safe, that's what," said the one who was holding Sammy. "There's demons coming for this one, and none of us want that, do we?"

Dean frowned. "No, but that doesn't mean you get to steal him."

"Oh, do go back to bed, lad," said the first little man, climbing into the crib. "That demon'll be along any minute, and you don't want to be here when he comes."

Dean stomped his foot. "No. Put Sammy back!"

The little men looked like they were about to argue with him some more, but then they both froze and looked at the window. "He's coming," whispered the one who'd crawled into the crib.

"Nothing for it, then," said the other and tossed one of Sammy's wooden toys to the first.

The little man in the crib said something that wasn't in English, and the toy suddenly looked exactly like a sleeping Sammy. Then he said something else, and all of a sudden he looked exactly like Dean.

"Ye know what to do?" asked the one who was holding Sammy, shifting him so one hand was free.

"Aye, Da," nodded not-Dean. "Go on, go on!"

And then the little man grabbed Dean by the wrist, said something Dean didn't understand, and pulled him out the window!

Dean screamed and fought, but he couldn't get away from the little man. And it might have been just as well, because they were flying, sort of. Dean couldn't tell where they were or where they were going, but he didn't really care. He wanted to get away from the little man and take Sammy home, where they belonged!

Finally they came to a stop in a cave that was furnished like a house, and the little man took the boys over to a bed at the back of the cave and made Dean sit down on it. Then he laid Sammy down next to Dean and told them both not to move. Dean pulled Sammy into his arms, but there wasn't really a good way to escape that he could see, so he just scooted back against the wall as far as he could go.

"That's right," said the little man with a smile that seemed kind. "You just sit tight there, lads, and I'll get ye some warm milk." Then he went over to a cabinet and pulled out a mug for Dean and a bottle for Sammy, which he set on the table before reaching into a hole in the wall next to the fireplace and pulling out one of those old-fashioned milk cans like Dean had seen on Little House on the Prairie.

Just then the other little man, the one who'd pretended to be Dean, appeared with a pop. His face was dirty, and his clothes were burned.

The first little man said a bad word. "What happened, son?"

"Azazel happened, that's what," said the burned one. "I sat up soon as he came in and tried to scream, but afore I knew it, I was on the ceiling and there's Azazel drippin' his own blood in the changeling's mouth! Well, thinks I, best let him finish and find the cheat for himself, only he didn't find it 'cause the changeling looked away and started to fuss, so whatever sign he was lookin' for wouldn't ha' shown. So I adds my screams to the changeling's, and Azazel, he gets mad and tries to burn me to death!"

"And the parents?"

"Oh, they're right as rain, last I saw—bit hurt by the smoke, maybe, but they'll live. The changeling's burnt, though, and it was quite the job I had to get out. Still, they should think the boys are dead now."

Dean willed himself not to cry, but it was hard. He didn't want Mommy and Daddy to think they were dead!

"I'd not be too certain o' that," said the first little man, pouring milk into the bottle. "'Tis a shrewd one she is, that Mary Campbell, and a hunter at that. 'Tis not she who'll be easy to fool if she goes looking for answers about Azazel."

"Ah, well, no matter," replied the burnt one. "She'll not find it so easy to get them back, once we've brought them to the king."

The first one laughed and poured milk into the mug. Sammy woke up then and started fussing like he was hungry, and the first little man brought over the mug and the bottle and tried to feed Sammy. But Dean pulled his knees up and pulled Sammy tighter against his chest until Sammy squeaked a little to tell him to stop.

"'Tis only milk, lad," said the little man, "and from a mortal farm at that. You've naught to fear from it. Here, taste it yourself." And he held out the mug.

Sammy really did sound hungry, so Dean swallowed hard and took the mug. The milk smelled okay when he sniffed it, and it tasted okay when he took a sip. So he set the mug down and held out his hand for the bottle, which the little man gave to him. Dean hadn't tried to feed Sammy all by himself very many times, but he did know what to do, and Sammy drank the whole bottle and burped real big as soon as Dean started patting his back. Then Dean drained his mug quickly and gave the mug and the bottle back to the little man, and he wrapped his arms around Sammy again and clutched the back of his sleeper with both hands. Sammy was already falling asleep, but he got the idea and grabbed a fistful of Dean's pajama shirt and held on tight.

The little men went off to another part of the cave and talked quietly in their own language. Dean tried to stay awake and keep watch, and he did stay awake for what seemed like hours, but he just couldn't keep his eyes open for the whole night.

When he woke up the next morning to the smell of bacon and eggs, his hands were still holding tight to Sammy's sleeper; in fact, they were sore from being in fists for so long. But the hand that was holding onto Dean's shirt felt bigger, and so did the body that was resting in his arms. Dean opened his eyes and looked down... and he frowned when he saw that he was holding a bigger boy, one who looked more like he was six years old. But there was that mole next to his nose, and another at the corner of his mouth, and two more on his chin, and he was still smaller than Dean—

Dean gasped.

The boy in his arms opened familiar hazel eyes and whispered, "Dean?"

"Sammy?"

The boy—Sammy—nodded. "'M scared, Dean."

"What... I mean... you were a baby."

"I know." Sammy sniffled. "I... w-w-woke up like this, a little bit ago, and it felt like... like you were getting bigger, too. 'N the man from last night, he said there's breakfast on the table, 'n he 'n his son were gonna go to work but they'd be back later and they're gonna take us to the king tonight."

Dean bit his lip and looked around the cave. Sure enough, there was food on the table, and the two little men were nowhere to be seen. And Dean's stomach growled at the same time Sammy's did.

"Okay," Dean said. "We gotta go home, but we gotta eat first. And while we're eating, we can figure out what we're gonna do."

"You think it's safe to eat their food?"

"I don't think we've got a choice. Something magic is going on, but we can't run very far if we don't eat. And we'll get sick."

Sammy sniffled again. "'Kay."

Dean helped Sammy sit up, and together they went to the table and found two plates full of bacon, eggs, sausages, beans, tomatoes, and some little black and white things that didn't look familiar, along with two mugs full of milk. They were both so hungry that they ate every bite without talking, though Dean had to show Sammy how to use his silverware. Then they explored the cave and found some daytime clothes that would fit okay, plus a satchel and some food that would be okay to take without ice—bread and cheese and crackers and a few other foods like that. So they changed clothes and packed up the satchel, putting their pajamas at the very bottom. They didn't find any shoes, though, or any gold, which kind of surprised Dean. He'd been thinking the little men might be leprechauns. He didn't know why they would need gold, though, and he figured they ought to be okay without shoes if they were in Fairyland, so that was okay.

That left the problem of Sammy's diaper. There wasn't a trashcan or a place to dig a hole and bury it, and Dean really didn't want to take it with them.

"I think we should burn it," said Sammy.

Dean shrugged and threw the diaper on the fire. It smelled awful, but it did start burning. So Dean nodded and put the satchel over his shoulder. "Okay, Sammy. Let's go."

Sammy closed the drawer he'd been rummaging through and walked over to Dean, his hands full of knives like Daddy's, the kind that had covers on them. "Here," he said, handing one handful to Dean.

Dean frowned. "Why'd you take these?"

"I dunno. We might need to cut something, maybe, or defend ourselves."

Dean thought about it for a moment, then nodded and took the knives Sammy handed to him. One he stuck in his waistband, one in his pocket, and one he put in the satchel. Sammy did the same. Then he took Dean's hand, and together they walked to the opening of the cave and looked around. There was nobody outside, and although they could hear hammering, it sounded a long way off. There was also a little path that ran down to what looked like a road.

"Which way do we go, Dean?" Sammy whispered.

Dean listened for a moment. "The hammering comes from over there," he finally whispered back, pointing off to the left. "So we'd better go the other way."

Sammy held his hand tighter. "Okay."

Dean had a brief moment of panic as he looked down at his little brother. Yesterday they'd both been really little—Dean was four and Sammy had only had a half birthday. Now they were big... well, bigger, but it wasn't like they'd done Boy Scouts or anything like the bigger boys in their neighborhood. Dean wasn't at all sure he knew how to live in a forest for even a day. But they couldn't stay here. Mommy and Daddy might think they were dead, and if the little men took them to the king, they might never get to go home.

So Dean took a deep breath and let it out again, and then he led Sammy down the path as quietly as he could until they got to the road. They walked down the road as quietly as they could until they couldn't hear the hammering anymore... and then they ran. And just about the time Sammy started holding his side, there was a yell behind them, and they ran faster until they just couldn't run anymore. Dean had just enough strength left to pull Sammy with him behind some bushes, and they lay there and tried not to pant too loud until the little men, who had been chasing them after all, ran past.

Dean sat up then and noticed that the bushes they were hiding behind had blackberries on them. He picked one and tasted it, and it was juicy and sweet. "You hungry, Sammy?" he asked quietly.

Sammy nodded, so Dean picked a few berries and handed them to him. Then he picked some more for himself, and Sammy started picking his own after eating the ones Dean had given him. They ate and ate, stopping only when it sounded like the little men were coming back. But the little men were yelling at each other in their own language, so even though they might have seen the boys if they'd looked, they walked past without finding them.

"Should we pick some more to take with us?" Sammy asked when it was safe.

"Maybe," Dean replied and started to look in his pockets for a handkerchief.

But suddenly a growly voice said, "Here! Who's been eating my blackberries?"

The boys gasped and looked up to see a big black bear frowning down at them from the other side of the bushes!

"We're sorry," said Sammy, scooting closer to Dean. "They were right here by the road, and there wasn't a fence. We didn't know they belonged to anybody."

"Didn't know?" the bear repeated. "Why, everyone knows this part of the forest is mine."

"We didn't, Mr. Bear," Dean replied. "We're not from here."

"Not from here? Runaways, are you?"

"No, sir, not... not really. Two little men who live up the road stole us last night, and we're trying to go home."

The bear looked hard at the boys then, and suddenly his eyes went wide. "Upon my word, it's the Winchesters! Oh, boys, you'd be safer staying in this country; the whole forest knows that very bad creatures are looking for you there."

"But we gotta go home!" cried Dean. "Our mom and dad are worried about us!"

The bear sighed and nodded. "All right, then. You're already going the right way. Stay on this road, the way you were going, and follow it until you get to the rope bridge. Then cross the bridge and go down around the hill to Grandmother's house. She'll be able to tell you how to get home from there. But whatever you do, do not lose sight of the road. The plants that grow beside it are fit for mortal food, and the streams that run near it are safe for drinking; but if you stray too far, you may fall into enchantments—or worse."

The boys nodded and thanked the bear, who gave them permission to pick a few more berries to eat along the way. And then they were off again, sometimes walking quickly, sometimes running.

The second time they stopped to rest, this time beside a stream, Dean started to say something, but his voice squeaked. He cleared his throat and tried again—but his voice came out low, almost like Daddy's!

"Dean?" Sammy asked, frowning. "Are you okay?"

"I—" Dean's reply was cut off by a cry of pain as he suddenly felt himself grow fast. His arms, his legs, his back and chest, everything shifted and got bigger, and when it was over, Dean fell to his knees, panting hard and sweating.

Sammy ran up to him and put a hand on Dean's shoulder, but he gasped when Dean looked up at him. "Dean, you've got hair on your face!"

Startled, Dean staggered to his feet and went over to the stream to wash the sweat off his face. And when he saw his reflection, sure enough, some of the hairs on his upper lip and along his jaw were turning dark, just like Daddy's beard. Sammy'd never seen Daddy with a beard.

"I'm a teenager," he breathed in that new low voice, and it felt like there were rocks in his tummy. A tear rolled down his cheek and fell into the stream, but his reflection didn't change. It wasn't a trick.

"Dean?" Sammy asked again, coming up beside him and putting a hand on his back. "Are you okay?"

"No," Dean replied, hating the fact that he sounded like he was crying (which he was). "I wanna go home, Sammy. Yesterday I was four! Mama's not gonna recognize us like this!"

"Sure she will," Sammy said quietly. "She's our mom."

Dean turned to look at his little brother, who wasn't as little as he had been even when they'd left the cave that morning, and smiled a little. "You're pretty smart for a little kid."

Sammy huffed. "Dean."

Dean smiled bigger and hugged him. "Thanks."

Sammy hugged him back. "Love you."

"Love you, too. And I mean it. You're smart."

Dean could feel Sammy blush against his shoulder. "I just know stuff. I don't know how. I don't think I'm as smart as you, though."

This time it was Dean's turn to blush. People told him he was smart, but he didn't know if they'd still say that when he got home and was all grown up but hadn't ever been to school. But he didn't say that to Sammy. Instead, he let Sammy go and went back to where he'd dropped the satchel and got out some bread and cheese for making sandwiches. They ate and drank their fill from the stream, rested a few minutes more, and then kept going.

The third time they stopped, both brothers needed to use the bathroom, so they each went a little way off the road—being careful not to go too far, but also being careful to give each other some privacy—and did their business. Dean had just buttoned his pants again when he heard a woman say, "Well, well, what have we here?"

He turned and saw a pretty lady with long, curly dark hair and a shiny green dress coming out from behind a tree. And he got a funny, fluttery feeling in his stomach. "'Scuse me, ma'am," he said, backing away a little, toward the road. "We'll be leaving in just a moment."

"Oh, do stay!" she replied, walking toward him. "I've been so lonely, and I would very much like someone to talk to for just a little while. And you are so polite and so very handsome... won't you come to my house and play with me?"

She had been getting closer even though Dean had been backing away from her, and now he backed into a tree, which made the satchel fall off his shoulder. He looked around wildly for some escape, and when he looked back, she was close enough to touch and getting closer.

"Play?" he squeaked.

"Mm-hm," she said with a smile that was both really scary and really inviting. "I know a wonderful game we could play, my darling, just the two of us."

And then she kissed him on the mouth.

Now, there were girls at home who'd tried to kiss Dean on the lips before when they were playing house. But they were stupid little girls, and even when they'd succeeded, Dean hadn't liked it much. Girls were gross. This time, though, even though he was scared and didn't really want to be kissed, the way the lady kissed him made him feel funny... confused and foggy and kind of good. All of a sudden he could understand why Mommy and Daddy liked to kiss. So he didn't resist when she kissed him again, and then he kissed her back. And when she stepped back and offered him her hand, he took it and started to follow her.

He really, really wanted to go play with her if her game was this kind of fun.

"DEAN!" Sammy yelled, running toward them. "Hey, you, leave my brother alone!"

Sammy's voice reminded Dean that they needed to go somewhere, that they weren't supposed to leave the road, but he couldn't make himself care. He wanted to go play. But then Sammy threw a rock at the lady, making her let go of Dean... and when she snarled at Sammy, suddenly she didn't look so pretty anymore. She chanted something in another language, and a ball of light formed between her hands. And Dean gasped as he realized that Sammy was really in danger.

He jumped in front of Sammy just in time to catch the ball of light right in the middle of his chest. It burned and hurt his eyes, and he screamed and fell to his knees... and when the pain stopped, he opened his eyes and everything was dark.

This time he couldn't help it. He started to cry for real.

"Dean!" cried Sammy, dropping down in front of Dean and grabbing his shoulders. "Dean, what's wrong?"

"I... I c-c-can't see!" Dean sobbed, grabbing Sammy's arms in return. "How'm I supposed to take care of you if I can't see?"

"You don't ha—ahhhhh!" Sammy broke off in a scream, and Dean almost stopped breathing as he felt the change hit Sammy. Muscles rippled and bones lengthened, and the hands on Dean's shoulders grew and grew until they felt almost as big as Daddy's hands. And his voice changed, too. When he finally stopped screaming and started panting, he didn't sound like a boy anymore. He sounded like a man.

"Sammy?"

"I... I'm as big as you are now, Dean," Sammy replied, definitely sounding like a man. "So maybe... maybe it's my turn to look after you."

Dean pulled Sammy closer and started crying again. "It's not fair," he kept sobbing. "It's not. None of it. We didn't ask for this. We're kids. It's not fair."

"I know, Dean," Sammy whispered, hugging him with grown-up arms and running grown-up hands over his back just like Mom would. "I know. But it's the way it is. You gotta trust me."

Finally Dean hiccupped a little and nodded. "Okay, Sam. I... I trust you."

"Okay. Let's go, then."

Sammy helped Dean stand up and left him long enough to pick up the satchel, then came back and guided Dean's hand up to rest on his shoulder. He hadn't been kidding; he really was as tall as Dean. Then he put an arm around Dean's waist and started leading him back to the road. They stumbled a little as they got used to walking like this, but by the time they got to the road, they'd matched their strides and were able to pick up the pace again. And this time they kept going for a longer time, Sam picking fruit for both of them to eat as they walked from trees that were hanging over the road. Some of them were fruits Dean knew, but even the ones that didn't sound familiar when Sam described them tasted good.

It was a pain not being able to see, though. And his face itched from the beard he was growing, and his hair was getting uncomfortably long.

They had just agreed to stop for more sandwiches when they heard voices away off in the forest, men laughing and talking. Sam couldn't see anyone, though, so they sat very still on the side of the road, reasoning that nobody would recognize them as the boys who'd run away that morning.

"A stray mortal, she said?" they finally heard one of the men say.

"Aye, a fine-looking youth," said another, "dark blond hair and green eyes and the first flush of a beard. Almost had him, too, save his little brother came along and near broke her wrist with a stone."

"Ah," said the first voice, "that'll be the Winchesters, then. Not so simple, they, only innocent, and more fool she for trying to catch one."

"Said she cast a spell of blindness at the little one, but the older one stepped in its way."

"He would, too."

"She was so mad that he loved his brother better than her that she left him thus."

"Again, more fool she for thinking he understood aught of her desire. But if anyone can find the cure, sure and it's the Winchesters."

"Oh, aye," said the second voice in the tone Mom called sarcastic when Dad used it. "An apple of gold from a tree of silver. Why, do you know how long it's been since anyone has laid eyes on that tree?"

"Hush!" said a third voice sternly. "Don't speak so, young one. You may not think the tree exists, but those as needs it always finds it."

"'Tis a rare breed those boys are," added the first voice, and it sounded like the men were moving away again. "If anyone can find it, they will."

The brothers stayed quite still until the voices had gone far enough away that they couldn't hear words anymore. Then Dean sighed and said, "Sam."

"What?" Sam replied.

"Don't."

"Dean..."

"We need to go to Grandmother's house," Dean insisted. "We can ask her where the tree is. But we're not leaving the road again, you hear me?"

"Dean."

"No, Sam. If we find it, we find it. If we don't... it's my own fault that I'm blind. I should have known better than to even think about going with that lady. I deserve to be the one she hurt. You've already saved me from whatever she was gonna do to me; don't do something that could make things worse."

Sam sighed. "Okay. We'll stay on the road. I promise."

Dean squeezed his arm. "Thanks."

They ate their sandwiches in a hurry and went on again, jogging most of the way because Sam said it seemed to be getting late in the afternoon. They didn't talk about much of anything now, so focused were they on getting to Grandmother's house, not even really noting when they each shot up a few more inches and Dean finally stopped growing. But after what seemed like a couple of hours, they came down a hill and around a bend, and Sam gasped and stopped short.

"What?" Dean asked, feeling some powerful kind of magic nearby. "What is it?"

"It's the tree," Sam replied. "The tree—a silver tree with apples of gold. It's right here."

"Sam..."

"Dean, I swear, it's right here, like, ten steps off the road. We're in a big clearing; there's no place for anything to hide. And there's a fountain here, too; can you hear it?"

Dean could hear the fountain, and he could feel the dirt of the road under his feet. He could only assume Sam was telling the truth about where the tree was. "Is there a fence?"

"No. No signs, either. It's just... here."

Dean bit his lip. "Okay. Take me to it."

Sam guided him carefully along the road until they were apparently even with the tree, then turned him and led him exactly ten steps over cool, springy grass and stopped. Then he took Dean's hand and put it on the trunk of a tree that was right in front of him.

It did feel kind of like metal, even though it was rough like tree bark. And it felt warm and alive, almost like it was singing under Dean's hand.

Dean swallowed hard and closed his eyes. "Okay, look... whoever's listening... I'm told I need an apple from this tree to be able to see again. My brother swears there's not a sign or anything that says I shouldn't eat it, and I don't have a feeling like this might be bad, like I kind of did with the bad lady a while back. So... I guess what I'm saying is, I'm gonna eat this in good faith, so please don't do anything to me or my brother." That said, he took his hand away from the trunk and reached up to start looking for a branch.

And an apple fell into his hand.

Both brothers gasped, and Dean turned the apple around in his hand for a moment. "Th-thank you," he finally stammered. "D-do you mind if I share?"

And Sammy gasped again as Dean heard the thock of an apple hitting his hand. "Wow! Thank you!"

Dean brought the apple toward his face and sniffed; it smelled a little like Mom's perfume but mostly like all kinds of pretty flowers. And then he took a bite, and oh, the sweet juice that filled his mouth! It was rich and refreshing, kind of like grape juice and kind of like apple juice, and it made him feel warm and good and free and not at all like he had felt when the bad lady had kissed him. He ate his apple slowly, enjoying each bite, and the more he ate, the better he felt—not fogged at all, but clear-headed. He suddenly understood things, like exactly what the bad lady had wanted to do with him and why it would have been bad and when sex was a very good thing and when it wasn't. And like Sammy, he just knew things, like how to tell a good spirit from a bad one and how to keep a demon from getting into your house and how to kill monsters if he had to.

For the first time all day, he didn't feel like a little kid in a too-big body. He felt like a grown-up.

The apple appeared not to have any seeds, and it hadn't had a stem when it fell into his hand, so there wasn't anything left when Dean finished eating it. He licked the very last of the juice off his fingers and closed his eyes, savoring the taste and feeling very full and content. And when he opened his eyes again... he could see.

Sammy—tall, skinny Sammy with long brown hair and a thick brown beard and clear, shining eyes that were young and grown up all at once—didn't say anything when he realized that Dean was looking at him. He just grinned and pulled Dean into the biggest hug Dean had ever gotten, and Dean laughed and hugged him back. After that, they each took a long drink from the fountain and braided each other's hair and beard so they would be out of the way if they had to go through thick brush or something, then took another drink and wondered whether they would ever need to drink anything again, so sweet and refreshing was the water. Then, without quite knowing why, they both bowed a little to the tree to say thanks again, and then they left.

When they were a little way down the road, about to enter the forest again, Dean asked, "Did you think about it?"

Sam blinked. "Think about what?"

"Taking another apple."

Sam sighed and ducked his head. "Yeah. I thought about it. But the first one was a gift; even if the second one didn't turn to ash or poison... I dunno, it just felt bad and selfish and mean." He paused and looked Dean in the eye. "I didn't like feeling like that."

Dean nodded. "Yeah. I know what you mean." He had kind of felt the same way for a moment and had the same thoughts.

Sam looked over his shoulder then and stopped short. "Dean."

Dean turned and gasped. The tree was still there, but there was a huge wall around it with no gate that he could see, and the wall was surrounded by burning thorn bushes. They couldn't go back for another apple now if they wanted to.

"C'mon," Dean said, touching Sam's shoulder. "It's getting late."

They turned back and took off at a run, and it seemed to Dean that they were running faster and farther than ever before but weren't getting tired. He didn't notice when they stopped talking out loud and started thinking to each other or when Sam grew taller than he was and then finally stopped growing. And finally, just as the sun was going down, they reached the point where the road met the lip of a deep gorge, spanned only by two ropes, one of which was high enough above the other to serve as a hand-hold.

The rope bridge, both brothers realized at once.

There's only room for one at a time, Dean thought, trying hard not to look at anything but the other side. He had always hated heights.

Let me go first, Sam thought back.

What? No way!

Dean, if it's sturdy enough for me, it'll hold you.

And what if it's not, Sam? What if you fall?

Sam just looked at him for a moment, then hugged him and started across.

Sam... Dean thought after him.

The rope's nice and taut, Sam thought back. I don't feel any give to it, really. And the good thing about doing this without shoes is that we can use our toes to kind of grip the rope.

Dean carefully didn't think anything else as he watched Sam make his way across the bridge. But nothing bad happened, and Dean sighed in relief as Sam got to the other side.

There, see? Nothing to it. C'mon.

Dean swallowed hard and stepped out onto the rope, gripping the hand rope tight. He went slowly and kept his eye on Sammy, just like Coach and Dad told him to keep his eye on the ball when he was playing tee-ball, and Sammy thought encouraging things back to him.

But he was halfway across when his foot slipped and he started to fall—only to feel himself stopped by some invisible force.

There, he heard Sammy think as the force eased him back upright, I got you.

Sammy, was that you?

Uh-huh.

How... how did you...

I dunno. I just caught you.

Dean suddenly didn't feel quite so scared. Cool! Thanks, bro!

Sammy grinned back at him.

Dean made it the rest of the way across without slipping, and the brothers followed the road and the smell of frying fish down around the hill until it... dead-ended in front of the steepest face of the hill.

Wait, they both thought at the same time. Where's the house?

But no sooner had they thought that than a crack appeared in the hill and widened with a creak until it became part of a doorway, through which they could see a cozy living room lit by a cheerful fire. Then the door opened the rest of the way to reveal a lady who was very beautiful indeed, in a way the bad lady had not been, but dressed in shining green. And despite her long silver hair, she did not look old at all.

She smiled, and it was the kindest smile Dean had seen on anyone but Sam all day. "Here you are at last! I was beginning to wonder if you had gotten lost."

"Please," Dean said, and it came out hoarse and quiet, like he hadn't spoken in a long time. "Are you Grandmother?"

She nodded. "I am. And you are Sam and Dean Winchester, are you not?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"And quite grown up now, too. Do come in and eat with me."

Sam cleared his throat. "Thank you, Grandmother, but... we're not all that hungry. We just ate a while ago, golden apples from the silver tree."

Grandmother's blue eyes went wide in surprise, and she looked carefully at both of them. "Children," she finally said quietly, "to eat that fruit was a rare grace indeed. For that was the Tree of Wisdom, and even the sight of it is granted to very few. If you were staying here, it would be enough to sustain you for a long time. But you will need other food when you return to mortal lands, as indeed you must, for your parents will need you as soon as you return. So please, come in and eat with me."

Then they went in and ate the fish that she served them, and Grandmother explained that by the time they got home, twenty years would have passed, and the world would be quite different than they remembered. She told them as much as she could about things that had changed and about the fight that would be waiting for them when they got there. Then she led them to a room where there was a little waterfall under which they could shower and gave them each clean, grown-up clothes of the kind they would want to wear home. "Fairy clothes are nicer," she confessed, "but you will seem strange enough to others without wearing clothes that look out of place."

Sam went in to shower first, and as he was getting undressed, he suddenly thought, Dean. Check your pockets.

Dean checked and drew out a shining twig with three silver leaves on it. And he knew without asking that Sam had found the same thing.

"Keep those with you," said Grandmother. "I don't know what they may bring you in mortal lands, but you may be sure that the tree did not part with them for no reason."

Dean nodded and tucked his twig into the pocket of his grown-up jeans, and he sensed Sam do the same. A few moments later Sam came out again, clean and dressed and with his hair and beard dripping, and sat down beside the fire to finish drying off. Grandmother took a pair of scissors and a comb out of a drawer and began cutting Sam's hair, "for," she said, "you don't want to go back looking like you've spent twenty years in the wild."

Dean hurried and got his own shower then, and when he came out, Grandmother was just finishing trimming Sam's beard. Dean thought he looked better like that, with his hair short enough to curl out a little at the ends and his beard short like Dad's. Then she gave him a little kiss on the cheek, and Sam got up to look at himself in the mirror while Dean sat down and let her cut his hair and beard. She cut his hair quite short, shorter than it had been yesterday, more like Dad's.

Sam studied himself for a long time, trying to get used to all the changes he'd gone through that day, but he didn't think much that Dean could hear. Finally, he said, "I dunno... I don't think I want a beard. It's itchy."

Grandmother had just finished trimming Dean's beard, so he went to look in the mirror himself. It was a shock to look almost as old as Dad and to realize that his baby brother was taller than he was, and all of a sudden he didn't think he wanted a beard, either.

Grandmother got a basin of water then, and a mug with some foamy cream in it, and two somethings Dean recognized as razors. She set the basin of water in front of the mirror and told them to put the foam over their beards, and when they'd done that, she showed them how to use the razors to shave the hair off without cutting themselves. They both had to go slowly, but they managed it, and they agreed privately that they looked much better without the beards, at least for now.

Then Grandmother gave them coats and boots to put on and a lantern and the satchel filled with anything they might still need to eat on their way home, and she blessed their little silver knives but warned them that only a gun that Mom would have could kill Azazel. Then she gave them directions to the edge of the forest, which would bring them to a park very near their house. They thanked her, and she gave them each another kiss on the cheek, and they left.

It was very dark outside, but the lantern gave out just enough light for them to see where they were going. Dean was afraid it was going to take as long to get to the edge of the forest as it did to get to Grandmother's house, but in fact, it seemed like just a few minutes before the dirt path Grandmother had told them to follow turned into a gravel path, and a minute later, the brothers burst out into the moonlit park.

Dean? Sam thought as they paused to get their bearings.

This way! Dean replied, and they took off at a run, glad to be almost home at last.