The usual disclaimers apply. I own neither show but have deep love for both. Please review; I love hearing your thoughts.

Joyce Summers didn't sleep much.

Buffy didn't think she knew, but she did. She knew. Not all of it, but enough. She knew that Buffy wasn't out late at night studying. If Buffy studied as much as she said she did, she'd make straight A's, because the girl wasn't stupid.

Joyce had known for a long time. Since before her daughter was part of it, actually. That had actually taken some digging, because Buffy and Merrick hid it well—in fact, Buffy and Giles hid it well. But again, Buffy's sudden interest in studying was suspicious. She didn't say anything to her daughter. She told herself it was because Buffy didn't want her to know. The truth was that she didn't want confirmation that she was right.

It made her feel like a coward, especially since she knew another parent who didn't have the luxury of that denial.

John showed up when he needed to, and Joyce understood. He didn't want to bother her, or the girls. He wanted to keep them out of the Life, as he put it. But the boys didn't have a mother, and he didn't have anyone to turn to, sometimes.

She remembered the first time he showed up on her doorstep. She hadn't seen John since high school. She'd gotten the invitation when he'd married that pretty Mary Campbell girl, but she hadn't been able to attend. It had been so long. The invitation was obviously just a courtesy.

It was 1984 when she saw him again. She heard a knock on her door, checked to make sure Buffy wasn't about to stick her fingers in an electrical socket, wiped her hands on her apron and opened the door.

"Joyce." John stood in the doorway, one small boy in his arms and another clinging to his fingers with white-knuckled hands. "I don't know if you remember me—"

"John Winchester," Joyce said, stunned. She shook her head to clear it, and stepped aside, ushering them in. "Come in, please! The weather's awful, it'll rain any minute."

"Thank you, Joyce." The relief was palpable in John's voice, and the older boy followed him in. Such a solemn child, Joyce thought. His green eyes held no hint of lightness, but looked around the room as though expecting attack. Joyce knelt down next to him, and he flinched.

"Hi, sweetie!" she said. The boy didn't react other than to stare at her. Joyce glanced up at John. "What's his name?"

"Dean," John replied. "Dean, be nice to Mrs. Summers."

"Hi," the boy said quietly.

Joyce smiled, but got no response, so she stood up again. "And who's this?" she asked, waving at the boy in John's arms. The little one waved back, his grin revealing a mouth mostly full of teeth, still waiting on a couple. He lacked his brother's severe demeanor, but then, he was only a baby.

"This is Sammy," John said, and it was only then that Joyce realized how pale her old friend was. She guided him into the living room and led him down onto the sofa, sitting next to him and taking Sammy onto her lap.

"John, what's wro—Buffy! Hands away from the sockets!—what's wrong?" Joyce asked, Buffy jumping guiltily at her voice. The little girl put her hands behind her back innocently, and was immediately distracted by the new children. She ran up to Dean and tugged on his shirt. He stared at her like she was an alien.

"Let's play," she ordered. Dean looked at his father apprehensively, but John gestured for him to go. Good thing, too, because Buffy was not a child who brooked much disobedience, and she was already instructing the older boy in the rules of whatever game she'd made up.

John watched them, a smile almost creeping onto his face. "That's your girl?" he asked.

"That's my Buffy," Joyce said, shaking her head. "She's going to be Hell on wheels when she hits puberty." She put a hand on John's shoulder, and he turned to her. "John, what's going on? You look terrible. No offense."

John gathered himself, spinning his wedding ring. She would have sworn she saw tears threaten, but that wasn't the John she knew. John had been such a cheerful boy in high school. "Joyce, I'm in trouble," he said, his voice unsteady. "I have to go somewhere, just for a few days, and I don't have anyone to leave the boys with. But I can't bring them with me. It's...dangerous."

"Where's Mary?" Joyce asked, and instantly regretted it.

John was losing his battle against tears as he said, "Mary's...gone, Joyce. These past six months."

"Oh, god," she whispered. "John, I'm so, so sorry. Anything I can do to help. You need me to watch the boys?"

"Joyce, if you could, I would be so grateful," John said quietly. "I have another friend I usually leave them with, but he's...busy. He can't take them this time. I hate to impose—"

Joyce shook her head firmly. "It's not an imposition. They'll be fine here for the next couple of days. Buffy will be thrilled to have the company." She glanced at her daughter and John's oldest askance. "I'm afraid that Dean will sleep for a week when you come back for him, though."

John's grief faded from his eyes for just a moment as he watched the two children. Dean seemed like he was getting the hang of whatever it was Buffy was making him do, and Joyce saw the boy crack a smile. Buffy's happiness was infectious. Buffy's everything was infectious. The girl was a natural-born leader. "It'll be good for Dean to play with a kid his age," he said softly.

"John," Joyce said, and he turned to her. "I'll take the kids happily. But I want you to tell me what this is about, when you get back."


"I mean it." She fixed him with what Hank called the Mommy Look. "Your boys are welcome. But I want to know what's going on with you. Are we agreed?"

John nodded, defeated. He took Sam back, and beckoned for Dean, who came running instantly. Buffy looked put out at her playmate's disappearance and went to sulk by her mother.

"Dean," John said, "I have to go for a couple of days. You're going to stay with Mrs. Summers and Buffy. I want you to watch out for your brother, make sure he doesn't get into trouble, and behave yourself while you're a guest."

"Yes, sir," the boy said.

"I'll be back to get you as soon as I can," John continued. He ruffled his son's hair, and pulled Dean in for a hug.

"Love you, Daddy," Dean said, his child's voice thick with unshed tears.

"Love you too, Dean," John whispered. He kissed Sam on the top of the head, then handed him back to Joyce. The two adults stood up while Buffy dragged Dean back to their game. "Thank you, Joyce. I can't tell you—"

"Whatever you're doing, go do it, and come back fast for these boys," she said. "And then you owe me a story."

Hank was out of town, so dinner that night was just Joyce and the three kids. She didn't have the energy to force three small children into eating anything healthy, so macaroni and cheese was the order of the day, with orange slices so she didn't worry about them getting scurvy on her watch.

She went to sit down next to Sammy to feed him, only to find Dean already there. He looked up at her with those too-solemn green eyes. "I can feed him, Mrs. Summers," he said.

It stopped her for a moment, but only a moment. Perhaps without Mary there, John was at a loss. Perhaps at home, Dean had to take care of Sammy. But, there was only one mommy, and she was it. She took the fork gently out of Dean's still-pudgy fingers, and scooted the chair out. He stared at her, baffled. "You go sit in your seat and eat your own dinner, Dean," she said gently, but firmly. Buffy looked up, her mouth stuffed with macaroni, to watch what would have surely been a fight if she had been the child involved. "I can feed Sammy. You worry about yourself."

Dean hesitated, then nodded. "Yes, ma'am," he said, and crawled up onto his chair, spearing his macaroni in obedient silence.

She watched the boy as he ate. Poor little guy. It was probably his mother's death—so recent. But whatever it was that made a child a child was absent in him.

John was gone for three days, that time. For the whole time Buffy poked and prodded Dean into acting like a kid with the dogged tenacity she was born with. By the third day, Dean was coming up with games for them to play, and although they seemed a little violent to Joyce Buffy seemed to love them. And Joyce wasn't about to tell Dean not to have fun, whatever form that fun came in. Besides, her daughter was tough. Despite being two years younger than Dean, she wasn't having any trouble keeping up.

In fact, Joyce was putting a band-aid on Dean's forehead where Buffy had shoved him into a table ("It was an accident!") when a knock came at the door.

Joyce ran to open it, Dean hot on her heels, while Sammy babbled happily from the living room where Buffy was hiding from her mother and playmate. Joyce threw open the door.

John smiled wearily at her, and dropped to one knee, scooping a weeping Dean up in his arms. "Thank you," he whispered to Joyce as he hugged Dean tight.

Joyce got the explanation she was owed that night.

The next time she saw them, Dawnie was born—nearly the age Buffy was when they'd shown up the first time. When the knock came at the door, she was getting Buffy's after-school snack ready. Buffy was in second grade this year, and due off the bus any minute now, but she never knocked.

She opened the door to see the Winchester boys.

"Dean!" she gasped. Neither boy looked like he'd slept in days, but Dean looked especially bad.

"Mrs. Summers," Dean said unsteadily, "Dad's two days late."

"Get in," she ordered, and the boys obeyed. She closed the door behind them, and Dawn wandered out of the kitchen to stare at the newcomers. "Are you boys okay?"

Dean nodded. Joyce did some quick math in her head and realized that he must be nine now. Four years since she'd seen them last. Sammy had gotten so big—nothing left of the baby he'd been. He'd be five. She thought briefly of what a nice, well-spaced little family her girls and John's boys made together: Dean, then two years later Buffy, then two years later Sammy, and three years after that, Dawnie.

It took about twenty minutes for Joyce to realize that Dean was not, in fact, okay.

Buffy came into the house like a hurricane shortly after the boys arrived, throwing her school things all over the hall as she skipped into the kitchen where the boys were wolfing down peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Her green eyes widened, and her face split into a wide grin, revealing her missing front tooth. "Dean!" she shouted, and ran to him.

Dean had taken, over the past four years, an almost mythical status to Buffy. She couldn't have much of a memory of him, as she'd only been three, but she talked about him so much she'd never forgotten him. All other friends were compared to "her Dean", and were found wanting. This Second Coming was well-nigh overwhelming, and Buffy's energetic little body was bouncing with happiness.

The little boy stared at her for a moment, but smiled eventually. He slipped out of his chair and let her tackle him in a tight hug, which he caught easily. She pulled away, though, and looked at his arm. She jerked his shirt sleeve up and gasped. "Mom! Dean's hurt!" she shrieked, although Joyce was right behind her.

"I'm okay," Dean protested, but Buffy was having none of it.

"Mom, he needs a cast," she said with a seven-year-old's supreme confidence. She herself had broken her arm last summer, and worn a cast for a couple of weeks. Therefore, any injury of the arm required a cast.

Joyce studied it for a moment, and shook her head. As well as Dean had hidden the injury from her, he'd underestimated her partner in crime. "We just need to clean this out and put a bandage on it," she said, speaking to Dean. He looked down as though caught doing something naughty, and did not put up a fight as Joyce led him to the bathroom. She glanced behind herself and said "Buffy, watch Sammy and Dawnie."

Before the girl could protest, Joyce took Dean by the hand and brought him into the bathroom. She sat him down on the edge of the bathtub, and brought out the hydrogen peroxide and a bandage. She uncapped the bottle of hydrogen peroxide and hesitated, but the boy was perfectly still. He watched her expectantly, and she dribbled the hydrogen peroxide over his wound.

He blinked a little hard, but other than that made no indication that he felt anything. Joyce rinsed out the wound, washed it with a little soap, dried it, and bandaged his arm.

He looked surprised when she was done. "That didn't hurt much at all," he noted. His face fell. "I need to get back to Sammy."

He tried to go, but Joyce caught his arm, if gently, and he stopped. "Buffy's out there with Sammy and Dawn, and they're just a couple of rooms away," she said. "Sammy's fine. What happened to you, Dean?"

Dean looked down. "It's not a big deal," he muttered.

Joyce put her hand under his chin and tilted his head up. His eyes were shining with tears, and, stricken by how much those eyes looked like Buffy's, Joyce pulled him into a tight hug. He stiffened initially, but then relaxed into her arms and began to sob.

"Something got in our room," Dean wept, and Joyce's breath caught. "I don't know what it was. But it got past the salt lines. I had to get out with Sammy, and it just caught me for a minute. I pulled away. It didn't follow us into the parking lot, and we ran the whole way here."

"You're sure it didn't follow you?" Joyce asked.

Dean nodded, his hot tears soaking into her shoulder. "It didn't come into the light," he murmured.

"Where are you staying?"

Dean hesitated, and Joyce knew she wouldn't like the answer. "Crescenta Highlands," he said. "Dad had a job."

Joyce pulled Dean closer to her, closing her eyes and shaking her head. Crescenta Highlands was a good half-hour away by car. But the thought of the boys walking from there, pursued by some made her angry. John was out of control.

"You boys are staying here until your dad gets back," Joyce said firmly. "And I'll talk to your dad. Any time you're in the area, I don't want you in some motel. You're staying here."

Dean pulled away a little, watching her through disbelieving eyes. "Mrs. Summers—"

"Don't you Mrs. Summers me, Dean Winchester," she said. He looked startled. "As far as I'm concerned, this house is home while you're in California. Buffy's been missing you."

" want us to stay here?" Dean asked. "But bad things happen, where we go."

Joyce smoothed down the boy's cowlick tenderly, and shook her head. "Bad things happen," she corrected. "End of story. But here, all that's going to happen is you're going to finish that peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And have another one, if you want to. If I know you boys—all three of you—it's the closest you've had to a fruit in weeks."

Dean didn't say anything as she walked with him out of the bathroom, until he saw Buffy sitting with Sammy and Dawn at the end of the hallway, playing with the two younger children. Then he whispered, "I missed Buffy, too." He looked up at Joyce. "She's my only friend," he confided.

Joyce felt something catch in her throat, and she gently pushed Dean towards the other kids. "Go finish your lunch," she said, and when Dean approached Buffy jumped up and followed him to the kitchen, Sammy and Dawn trailing behind her.

The boys showed up more frequently after that. Usually John dropped them off; once or twice Joyce picked them up somewhere, or they showed up alone. John seemed to have a lot of business near Los Angeles. Joyce bought trundle beds for the girls when they outgrew their baby beds, and when the boys arrived the girls would take one set of beds, the boys the other. The boys each had a box of toys in the playroom, and had gifts under the tree at Christmas. They never seemed to make it for Christmas, but they got to open their presents the next time they came by.

They all got older, bigger, and, in Sam and Dean's case, sadder. Joyce watched, in their scattered visits, as the light faded from Sam's eyes, as he grew quieter and more solemn, like his brother. And she watched as Dean transformed into a man, much more quickly than anyone had any right to ask of him. She saw how the two of them depended on each other, how Sam looked up to Dean as a father more than a brother, and how desperate John had become. She saw two boys turning into two men who had never learned how to trust anyone whose last name wasn't Winchester.

But the year that Buffy turned fifteen, she started to see that same withdrawal in her daughter.

Her first instinct, when Buffy began to pull away, was to call John. But that was ridiculous. The girl was fifteen; kids started acting out at that age. There was nothing unusual, much less supernatural, about it. Buffy was rebelling. The fact that she was rebelling by doing more schoolwork didn't make sense, but who was Joyce to complain about that?

Perhaps that was why the boys had been on her mind recently, but when the phone rang, she somehow knew exactly who it was.

"Hello?" she answered, her voice wavering just the smallest amount.

"Mrs. Summers? It's Sam Winchester." She released her breath in a long exhalation, and Sam continued, "Is this a bad time?"

"It's not for me, Sam," she said. "Is it for you? What's wrong?"

Hesitation at Sam's end. "It's—it's Dean. He's in the hospital."

Joyce stood up and grabbed her purse, slipping on the shoes she'd kicked under the table when she came home from work. "What hospital, Sam?"

"Los Angeles County General. Dad's not here. Dean came home alone. He's—it's bad, Mrs. Summers." Sam's voice caught, and she heard him steadying his breathing. "I kind of need a grown-up."

Not for the first time, Joyce blessed John's foresight, for once, in falsifying some documents to give Joyce visitation rights to the boys. "I'll be right there, Sammy, hang tight," she said.

"Thanks, Mrs. Summers," Sam said quietly, and Joyce put the handset back on the cradle.

"Mom?" Joyce turned at Buffy's voice. The girl wore her now-usual somber expression, tinged with worry. "Was that Sam?"

Joyce thought about lying. She considered it for longer than she was proud to admit. But she realized that Buffy had probably heard the conversation and wasn't going to buy it. "Yes," she said. "Dean's in the hospital."

"I'm coming," Buffy said. Joyce tried to protest, but Buffy turned to her with an alarming fire in her eyes. "Mom. Dean's hurt. I'm coming. Dawn can stay with Dad. I'll walk if you don't drive me."

Joyce knew that there was no arguing with her daughter, not when she was in a state like this, and that Buffy wasn't lying: she would walk to the hospital. So she simply walked past Buffy, and her daughter followed her into the car.

They arrived quickly at the hospital, and Buffy blew past Joyce, demanded to know where Dean was, and raced up to his room. Joyce followed breathlessly behind.

By the time Joyce got up to the room, Buffy was sitting on Dean's bed. Joyce almost gasped.

The boy was hooked up to an IV, a respirator, and a heart monitor. His face was bloodied and swollen, his head wrapped. His right arm was in a cast, and his torso was heavily bandaged. The steady beep, beep, beep of the heart monitor was all that convinced her that he was alive.

"You son of a bitch," Buffy was hissing. Joyce could see the sheen of tears on her face. "Don't you die. Don't you do that to me. Why didn't you wait?" She raised a trembling hand and brushed a lock of his dark hair out of his eyes. "You stupid idiot. You should have called me. You promised."

Joyce stayed at the edge of the door, listening.

Buffy's lower lip trembled. "You stupid...ugh. I was right here. If you die and I was right here, I'm going to bring you back and kill you all over again." She lost it at that point, and bowed her head, her shoulders shaking with tears. "Dean, please don't die. Please. You're the only one who understands."

"Mrs. Summers!" Joyce looked up and saw Sammy. He'd been crying. He ran up to her and she embraced him, holding him tight while Buffy wiped her eyes and composed herself in the hospital room. "The doctor should be back soon. I told him you were on your way. He wouldn't tell me if Dean would be okay."

Joyce felt cold at that. That was not a good sign. She walked into the room with Sam, who went to Buffy and hugged her. Joyce walked around to look at Dean.

As battered as he was, at least the boy looked, for once, at peace. His brow was unfurrowed, and he was still—something that she rarely saw in him. She touched his hand gently, and tried to smile at him. "It's Mrs. Summers, Dean," she said. "Buffy and I are here. When you get better, Dawnie will come visit, too. But you have to get better first. I need you to do that for me, Dean."

Buffy and Sam's hug grew tighter at her words, and she realized that Sam was crying again. She was about to say something to him when the doctor knocked on the door and entered.

"Joyce Summers?" he said, and Joyce nodded, walking around to him. "I'm Dr. Farraday. Can I speak to you for a moment in the hall?"

Joyce followed him out, and braced herself. Dr. Farraday looked inside the room and watched Buffy and Sam for a moment. "Dean isn't your biological son," the doctor said. Not asked.

"No," Joyce said, trying to keep the defensiveness out of her voice, "but he might as well be."

The doctor sighed. "Mrs. Summers, I wasn't trying to imply anything. I'm just trying to wrap my head around this. But you need to understand the gravity of this situation. I have no idea what happened to the boy. His brother's story doesn't make any sense—hit by a car? No. A car wouldn't have done that. I'd say he was pummeled by a gang of Iron Man competitors with a grudge. Could be some of that PCP-related violence we've been hearing about..."

Joyce held up a hand. "Dr. Farraday, at this point I don't care what happened to him. We can figure that out later. Is Dean going to recover?"

Dr. Farraday hesitated, and Joyce's heart sank. "It's touch-and-go right now. He's suffered severe internal bleeding, multiple broken ribs, closed head trauma, and that's to say nothing of the blood loss and broken extremities. If he wakes up, we'll be watching for brain damage. But I'm not going to lie to you, Mrs. Summers. It's going to be an uphill battle for him."

Joyce nodded tightly, clenching her hands until her nails cut into her palms. She looked inside the room, where Sam stood next to the bed while Buffy held Dean's hand. "He's a tough kid," she said softly. "If anybody can make it, he can."

Dr. Farraday nodded, but she could see in his face that he wasn't optimistic. "I hope so, Mrs. Summers. We'll do everything we can for him."

He left, and Joyce went back into the room. She gestured for Sam, and he walked over to her. "What happened, Sam?" she whispered.

Sam swallowed hard. "Vampires," he whispered back. "Dean and Dad found out that there was a nest with a pretty old one around town, and they tried to take them out. I don't know where Dad is, but Dean made it back to the hotel before he passed out. I didn't get anything else out of him."

Joyce put a hand on Sam's shoulder, and he leaned into it. "The doctors are doing everything they can," she said. "Dean will beat this, Sammy."

A creaking of bed springs signaled Buffy's movement, and by the time Joyce turned her head her daughter was almost out the door. "I've gotta go," she muttered. Joyce saw her hand closed around something.

"Buffy—" Joyce called, but Buffy was already out the door.

Joyce called Hank and told him she wouldn't be coming back home that night, but to call her when Buffy came home. An hour and a half later he called, saying Buffy had stormed in and gone to her room without a word.

Joyce sat in the hospital with Sam the whole night, awake, watching the rhythmic beeping of the heart monitor. The rhythmic beeping that told her that Dean hadn't given up yet, and as long as he hadn't, neither would she.

Sam leaned against her as she held him, weeping, until he gave in to sleep at last. It was so easy to forget that he was only thirteen, Dean only seventeen. They had to be older than they were. Their lives depended on it.

When she woke up in the morning and saw Dean watching her and Sam with a damaged version of that cocky smile of his, she wept.