Piece by Piece

Set in the Retribution 'verse, at least a year post Sam's kidnapping.

Dean's exhaustion from looking after Sammy wins out over his temper, frightening his little brother into taking off. A frantic search leads to the conclusion that he's been kidnapped again, but is big brother merely panicking?

Mild hurt/mentally injured Sam.

Guilty/exhausted, anxious Dean and John.

Mild hurt Bobby.

Plus a couple of short appearances from Good Samaritan OCs – one being of the canine persuasion, 'cos you all know my love of dogs!

Warnings: bad language, direct references to child rape and violence.

Mild season one spoilers.

"How's he doing?"

Dean glanced up at his father.

John Winchester looked as worn out as he felt. He'd been on a pharmacy run, gone all day and most of the night, only returning in the early hours. Another prescription had been set up to help Sam with his broken sleep and night terrors, but it was a relatively new non-sedative treatment, not long on the market. It was kind of inevitable that the small town pharmacist wouldn't have the new meds in stock. Dean could only guess at how many other towns his father had driven through just to find someone who could help.

Judging by the look on his Dad's face, the search had been utterly fruitless but a couple of grocery bags on the counter proved John had stopped off along the way.

Dean nodded. "Better. He got a full night's sleep last night."

When John raised a sceptical eyebrow, Dean shrugged in defeat and looked back at his little brother with sadness.

"Ok," he admitted. "So he needed a little help."

"Uhuh," his father nodded in understanding. "Well, if sedation keeps the nightmares at bay for now, there's no shame in it. We may have to rely on that a little while longer..."

Dean huffed in frustration.

"So this is his life from now on?" he hissed, angrily. "Drugged up to the eyeballs?"

He stood abruptly, chair scraping loudly across the floor, and paced over to the window.

"It's not fair, dammit!"

John sighed and silently moved to stand behind his oldest son. Reaching out, he placed a hand on Dean's shoulder and squeezed gently.

"I know it's hard," he whispered. "But it's not forever, Dean, I swear to you. It's not forever."

"Yeah," Dean's snort rang with cynicism. He turned around, shrugging off his dad's hand. "And how's that go exactly? Oh that's right, you can't tell me. Fucking super!"

"Dean..." John began, but Dean shook his head and stared over at Sammy again.

His little brother. Dean's broken, fragile, sweet hearted little brother.

Sam had always been his everything, but even more so now. Poor kid had so much to deal with; speech therapy, physiotherapy, cognitive therapy, and all kinds of other things ending in damn therapy.

All Dean wanted for Sam was to be Sam again, for the kid to be a healthy teenage geek, spending time in the library, rebelling against their dad, and whining whenever they had to move on.

Sam was now so far removed from all that, it was scary.

And yet, call it sick, a part of Dean had started to get use to this Sam. This Sam would never leave him, would always be dependent on him, and Dean wanted to be needed.

He knew it was selfish. Knew it, understood it, was kept awake long into the night by it.

But it was what it was.

Dean sighed inwardly, still watching his brother.

Sam was slumped, tiredly, over Bobby Singer's kitchen table and staring at his glass of orange juice as though he had no idea what it was or what to do with it. The sedatives that calmed his freak out the night before were still in his system. Usually, he was far more cognisant than this the following morning, but last night had been rough.

It slammed into Dean yet again; last night's quite literally rude awakening. He tried to block it out, tried not to recall his brother's desperate pleas for help, but couldn't stop the small whimper breaking loose before he smothered his mouth with a hand and turned back to the window, taking deep breaths through his nose. It killed him every time, every night, without fail, listening to Sam beg for mercy in his sleep. Mercy that would that would never come, from people who were never capable of granting it.

And that was the real kick in the teeth.

People had done this to Sam.

It wasn't a demented, bat-shit crazy ghost, or angry poltergeist wanting revenge for some ancient slight that was no longer even remembered by the living.

It wasn't down to a demon on shore-leave from hell, wreaking havoc and getting its jollies before someone sent it back down south.

Demons I get. People are crazy.

He barely felt his father's hand return, this time to the back of his neck, rubbing idly at the small, soft hairs.

"I can't ever tell you, that was the deal. So, please don't ever ask me again," John murmured against Dean's ear. "But it will happen, son. Sam will be fine. He'll be normal again, someday."

Dean nearly snorted again.

His little brother had been kidnapped, tied up, brutally beaten, tortured and gang raped.

Even without the brain damage, how the hell could anyone expect the kid to get back to normal after that?

"Look, why don't you go get some sleep, huh?" said John, patting Dean's shoulder. "I'll keep an eye on the kid."

Dean shook his head. "No, we'll be fine, Dad…"

"No you won't!" his father growled, worriedly. "You've been up four nights in a row with Sam and you need to rest now, or it'll only get harder for you later. For the both of you."

Dean turned his head and gazed up at John through red-rimmed, puffy eyes accompanied by dark shadows hanging underneath like thunder clouds.

"You sure?" he asked, tentatively.

John's returning grin was wry.

"Of course." He replied, vaguely amused and, at the same time, a little saddened by Dean's apparent lack of faith in his own father. "Sammy's my son. I know how to take care of him, Dean."

But a break for Dean just wasn't to be. A loud bang from the yard followed by a deafening explosion had the older Winchesters racing outside.

"What the hell?!" roared John as he skidded to a halt.

His eyes widened when they took in the smoking remains of a beaten up old Cadillac, and the unmoving form of Bobby Singer, laying face down on the ground nearby.

"Bobby!" Dean yelled out.

In two shakes of a duck's tail, John was on his knees beside the guy and rolling him onto his back.

"Bobby, you ok?" John called out, anxiously tapping his friend's face none too gently. "C'mon and talk to me you old goat!"

"Is he…?" Dean began but a mournful cry from the house made him look up. "Sammy get back inside, now!"

John caught sight of his youngest son, clinging onto the railing and hobbling down the veranda steps, eyes brimming with tears.

Sam held one trembling hand out stretched towards his family in a pleading gesture.

"Bbb-ob-by?" he begged, softly.

"Dean, go take your brother inside and call 911," John ordered while pulling up Bobby's eyelids and checking him for injury. Following a brief check of Bobby's scull, John's fingers came away covered in blood. No time to comfort Sammy right now, he thought. Best leave it to the expert. He felt a subtle twinge in the back of his mind, an acknowledgement of the irony, especially given what he'd just discussed with his oldest boy.

Dean swallowed hard and nodded. He knew what had to be done, but seeing Bobby lying there helpless, unconscious and bleeding from what seemed like a huge head wound, made his heart thump with anxiety. Bobby was their closest friend, practically family. What the hell would they do without him? What if he…?

He shrugged the thought away and headed for his brother.

"Sam… Sammy, its ok, dude," Dean told him and wrapped an arm round the kid's shoulders. "Bobby'll be fine. Don't you worry."

Sam gazed first at Dean with those big, sad eyes and then at Bobby and his dad. He clearly wasn't sure he believed it, but allowed his brother to gently escort him back into the house.

Dean tried hard to cover up his own shock and dismay by talking calmly and quietly to Sam, as if there hadn't just been the drama of an explosion. But there was little hope he could take Sam's mind off what had happened, given how the kid's eyes kept straying to the kitchen window once Dean sat him back down.

"C'mon," said Dean, with false levity. "Drink your juice, huh? And I'll put your favourite music on for a little while."

Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed the phone and dialled emergency services. At the same time, he ejected his prized and treasured Motorhead tape from the old audio cassette player sitting at the end of the table, and inserted a tape that contained special chill-out music, provided by one of Sam's many therapists.

Pretty soon, Pachelbel's The Canon Stirs crooned from the speakers, complete with seagulls and waves crashing on the beach in the background, something which always seemed to sooth the younger brother.

A voice suddenly blared out in Dean's ear as the call was picked up, and he turned his back to Sam while he spoke into the receiver.

As soft music flowed throughout the kitchen, Sam obediently reached for his juice, all the while worriedly eyeing his brother's posture. Unfortunately, his hand was still shaking, the glass was too full, and Sam wasn't watching what he was doing.

Just as Dean hung up the phone, the glass slipped from Sam's hand and dropped onto the table with a loud clunk, making both boys jump, and spraying juice everywhere. Dean swung round, startled, and Sam stared down in shock as the acidic liquid pooled around Dean's discarded cassette tape.

In seconds, the much loved voice of Lemmy et al. was completely ruined.

It was the last straw.

Already exhausted, his temper fraying, heartbroken and confused by his feelings about Sam's condition, and now the shock of Bobby's apparent accident, Dean just lost it.

"Godammit Sam!" he raged, grabbed a cloth by the sink and roughly slammed it down on the table. "What the hell is wrong with you, kid? Why can't you just wake the hell up?"

Sam flinched and sat back rigid in his seat, watching, terrified, while his brother began clearing up the mess of orange juice. He wanted to apologise but the words became frozen behind the guilt of destroying Dean's beloved tape, and his mouth trembled with fear.

"Do I have to watch you every fucking second of the day, Sam?" his brother broke down on an angry sob. "Can't I just have one little break? Five minutes? Is that too much to fucking ask?"

Dean stalked back to the sink, rang out the cloth and stormed back again, face like thunder, eyes blazing. He picked up the ruined cassette and dumped it in the trash.

Finally, Sam was able to unfreeze his mouth.

"M'sso…ssorrrry De…" he began in a sorrowful whisper.

"Don't!" Dean snapped back, refusing to even look Sam. "Just… don't. I don't wanna hear it right now."

He swiped a hand down over his face and sniffed. Sam's eyes widened with misery when he saw the moisture on Dean's sad and weary face, and he nodded, silently promising to never speak again if that would make Dean happy.

Dean mumbled something at this point and Sam couldn't fully make it out, but it sounded something like "…really wish you'd just get out of my face".

Sam swallowed back his own tears. He'd do anything to make Dean happy.

And that included leaving altogether.

"O-ok, D-eeean," he stammered, softly.

While Dean tried to calm down and pull himself together, Sam managed to quietly and carefully get up from his chair, and shuffled slowly out of the kitchen.

Oh God.

If Dean thought he'd felt the weight of the world on his shoulders before today, then he'd been sadly mistaken. He lifted shaky hands to his face, scrubbed one roughly through his hair, and the other down to his chin.

Sammy didn't fucking deserve that, you asshole, he ranted, silently. God, he didn't deserve any of it! What the hell is wrong with you?

When Dean turned around, heart laden with guilt and remorse for the way he'd treated his little brother, Sam was gone, but he heard the study door gently clicking shut.

"Aw, Sammy…" Dean made to go after him and pull the kid into the biggest hug possible, but a call from outside stopped him in his tracks.

"Dean! Get out here!" His father yelled out in panic.

The next few hours were fraught with worry and fear.

When Dean had raced back outside it was to find Bobby seizing in John's arms, his eyes rolled white and seeming like he was practically choking to death.

The ambulance rolled up a few minutes later and while they watched, hearts in their mouths, as the EMTs gradually managed to stabilise their friend, Dean had forgotten all about his little brother.

"I'll go with him in the ambulance, you stay here with Sam," John murmured to him. "I'll call you later when there's news."

Dean nodded, wordlessly.

It wasn't until the ambulance was long out of sight, carrying John and Bobby with it, that Dean ventured back inside the house, hell bent on apologising to a certain kid brother who was probably at that very minute sitting in Bobby's study and angsting himself into a frenzy.

But when he got there, the study was empty. Dean's breathing sped up and his heart pounded with fear. He backed out of the study, swung round and raced upstairs to their bedroom.

But there was no sign of the kid.

A quick, frantic search of the house revealed no Sam.

"Sammy?" Dean called out shakily. "You here somewhere? C'mon Dude, I'm sorry I got angry."

Tears of guilt, exhaustion and worry threatened once again as he ran outside and stared around the yard.

"Sam? Please kid, I'm sorry I hurt you," he yelled out in despair. "I promise it won't happen again."

When no answer came, he began tearing up and down the aisles of car wrecks and rusted old trucks, desperately searching every cab and rear seat, and even went so far as to check the trunks.

"Sammy, please…" Dean whispered a little while later, sinking down on the veranda steps, elbows on knees and hands tangled in his hair. "I'm so sorry… I'm so sorry… Please come back to me."

A backwards glance, misplaced footing and a loose rock all conspired to give Sam torn jeans and a bloody kneecap.

He limped along the dusty track, tired and aching, blood staining his blue jeans to almost black. His left hand was bunched up tight, money saved up from his weekly allowance safe and sound in his grip. He'd only been travelling for half an hour but it was the longest he'd ever managed on his own two feet. He glanced fearfully all around him, shivering under his light summer jacket, half expecting someone to jump out of the undergrowth.

Sam didn't fully understand his fears about that. Memories of pain and suffering were always just off the perimeter of his mind, frustratingly out of reach, but he owned an instinctual mistrust of strangers and rarely went anywhere without his big brother's protection.

But now, without Dean's presence… well, it was scary being out here all on his own, and under normal circumstances he wouldn't even attempt it. He only knew this dusty, lonely back road into town because he'd traversed this route before with his brother, usually just for some off-road fun in one of Bobby's beaten up old trucks, since the Impala wasn't made for such rough terrain.

Sam trudged slowly along, his limp becoming more pronounced the more tired he became. Blinking hard and trying to keep his eyes open, he clutched the destroyed cassette in his right hand tighter to his chest.

When he rounded a bend in the track and came face to face with the biggest dog he'd ever seen, Sam gasped and froze in his tracks, whimpering in fear.

The big dog took a step forward but stopped when Sam shrank back. It was a long haired German Shepherd, with large, pointy ears and big, sharp fangs. Sam had seen a picture of one in a class reading book about pets. He'd finished it a few weeks back, and Dean had told him how proud he was of Sam, especially when Sam had pointed at the picture and whispered "D-doggie? We… w-walk?"

Dean had laughed and shaken his head. "No Sammy. We don't have a dog, but maybe Bobby will let you walk his when you're feeling stronger.

He'd also warned Sam about strange and stray dogs, that not all were friendly, and had yielded a promise from Sam to always ask the owner for permission before petting the animal.

Bobby's young Rottweiler, Rumsfeld, was great friends with Sam and had been since the moment the two of them laid eyes on each other. Sometimes the dog would lounge on Sam's feet during his afternoon naps, or share the pillow, making sure to give Sam a quick lick across the nose whenever a nightmare threatened.

Sam missed Rumsfeld right then, wishing the dog was with him on this journey, instead of back at the vet for an overnight stay. Apparently, Rumsfeld had stolen and swallowed one too many spark plugs from Bobby's garage, and was now sleeping off the anaesthetic.

The big dog barked, short and sharp, reminding Sam of the potential threat blocking his path. And then it stared hard at Sam through bright, intelligent eyes. The moment lasted way too long for Sam's comfort before the dog padded slowly forward, still regarding the newcomer intently. Suddenly, it sat back on its haunches, tongue hanging out, panting and whining softly.

A small smile grew on Sam's face. Something told him this particular dog could be his friend after all, so he shoved the money into his jacket pocket, limped forward a step and held out his hand, the way Bobby had shown him when he first met Rumsfeld.

"D-doggie… f-friend…" Sam mumbled, desperate to get his message across. "Nnnn-not h-hurt…"

The words came out soft and garbled as usual, much to Sam's despair, but the big shepherd seemed to understand. It shuffled towards Sam on its furry behind, tail thumping the ground, and extended its greying muzzle for a gentle lick at Sam's fingers.

Obviously tasting something worthwhile, possibly the orange juice from Sam's earlier spill, the dog began to lick with more enthusiasm, and even lifted a massive to paw to keep Sam's hand in place.

Sam giggled with delight and crouched down to the dog's eye level, to be rewarded with a big, friendly lick up the side of his face. Sighing with sadness that Dean wasn't here to meet his new found friend; Sam wrapped his arms around the dog, buried his face in the thick fur and, after a small pause, began sobbing his heart out.

Dean would never be here again, not after what happened earlier.

Dean was angry with Sam.

Dean no longer wanted Sam around.

The dog just sat there, mostly unmoving, sensing the sadness and grief rolling off his young companion in waves, and occasionally snuffling, comfortingly into the kid's neck.

The sound of feet on the track ahead made Sam stumble backwards on to his butt, and glanced up to stare into the startled and weather beaten face of the local sheriff.

"Denzil, what are you…?" he stopped and blinked. "Sam? Is that you?"

Sam nodded miserably, while the sheriff's dog, Denzil, licked gently at his tears.

"Is Dean somewhere out here with you?" the sheriff asked, more softly. Kid was obviously upset about something. No point in scaring him on top of that. "Your Dad or Bobby maybe?"

The boy gave a morose shake of the head.

Sheriff David Carmichael was a tough but kindly man in his late fifties, and although he wasn't the best of buddies with Bobby Singer – the sometimes drunk and recalcitrant salvage yard owner - he did love kids, being a grandfather three times over. It worried him that someone like Sam was wandering around on his own and with no one to look after him, especially given how distressed he was right then.

He knew, well, the story behind Sam's condition, had known for some time, and his blood boiled with rage. If it were left up to him, the guys responsible would've been dead a long time ago. He wondered where John Winchester had found the strength to restrain himself from beating them black and blue, cutting off their balls and shoving them up their own asses.

But young Sam was staring up at him with those big, soft, innocent eyes, and maybe the sheriff kind of understood. The kid didn't deserve to lose his family to life sentences for first degree murder.

David ran his gaze over the child, then bit his lip when he spotted the blood on Sam's jeans.

Gentle handling required here, me thinks.

Sam was well known as a kind hearted, sweet natured boy, and his overly protective brother should have been here with him. That there was no sign of him was cause for concern. Maybe something had happened to Sam's family.

"What are you doing out here all alone, kiddo?" David asked, dropping into a crouch by Denzil and allowing the big dog to bury his snout in his ear for a brief moment, before turning his attention back on the kid.

Sam wordlessly held out the object he'd been keeping close to his chest.

The sheriff frowned, puzzled, and turned it over in his hand. "This is Dean's, right? Heard him blaring this out his car window enough times over the last few weeks since you guys got here."

Sam bit his bottom lip. "B-b-irth-d-day pres-sent."

Ah. Now he was getting it. The sheriff raised a sympathetic eyebrow when he detected the faint scent of citrus fruit.

"Looks like someone had a little accident with Motorhead and a carton of OJ, huh, kid?"

Sam nodded forlornly.

"And it seems you've had a little accident too..." David trailed off and gestured towards Sam's injured leg. "You think we should go tend to that?

Sam briefly glanced down, blinked, then looked back up at the sheriff and shook his head. "Mo-Motorhead," he whispered. "P-please?

Well, damn

Kid was more worried about his brother's music than himself

The sheriff sighed quietly. He was supposed to be on vacation and had the next few days all planned out. His deputies were more than competent enough to handle things on their own, even with their new recruit, the first ever female deputy in these parts. It had almost cost David his job when he hired the young Deputy Mills, the locals not being of modern mindedness, but times had changed and female police officers were a step in the right direction for the town. Hell, she was smarter than most, with excellent instincts, and David had a strong suspicion she would one day take up the mantle of Sheriff. In fact, he'd probably return from his vacation to find that she'd taken over already.

He chuckled to himself. Retirement awaits. But in the meantime...

A hike up into the hills, just him and his dog, a fishing rod and a few beers… Damn, but he'd been looking forward to it all year.

But this kid, the youngest Winchester boy? He had quite a reputation. It was true what they said about his puppy eyes. Even Denzil, the town's feared and respected former police dog, had fallen for it.

The stupid mutt.

Denzil had been retired earlier that year after the vet diagnosed arthritis in the poor dog's hips, so after eight years of loyal service he spent his time in the station, lying stretched out under the desk and lazily guarding the keys to the cells. But the laziness was just a front.

Damn dog was an Oscar winner in the making.

Anyone who got too near, and had no right to, soon found themselves on the receiving end of a fierce growl and more teeth than a pissed off T-Rex. But right now, the big, furry oaf was showing his softer side. He'd clearly taken a shine to the kid. David watched Denzil rubbing his head lovingly against Sam's chest, and came to a quick decision.

"C'mon, son," the sheriff got to his feet and held out his hand, smiling kindly at Sam. "Let's go get your brother a new tape, huh? Then we'll fix that leg..."

Dean pulled himself together after his little break down, and began another, more thorough search of the grounds. After a few minutes, he picked up Sam's trail, leading through to the back of the yard and out towards an obscure, rusty gate in Bobby's fence. It wasn't often used and tended to seize up in cold weather, but it had recently been oiled.

Little wonder I didn't hear the kid leave, he thought, as he pulled it open and stared out across the scrubby landscape.

Sometimes the brothers came out here and just sat, looking up at the stars in peace, Sam snuggled up in Dean's arms, protected from the cold. But other times they took one of Bobby's trucks for a spin along the back road to town. It was bumpy as all hell, but it made Sammy giggle with delight.

Swallowing down a fresh surge of sadness and guilt, Dean's sharp gaze picked up the trail again. His heart plummeted to his toes when he spotted a blood stained rock, smack bang in the middle of the track. Drops of blood mingled with Sam's footprints continued onwards, further away in the dust.

"Sammy..." he mumbled, chilled to the bone with fear.

The news only got worse when, not half a mile later, Sam's bloody trail was joined by a set of human foot and dog paw prints in the dirt. Then, after a couple of steps, Sam's trail disappeared altogether, and the other set of footprints became deeper, as though suddenly carrying something – someone - heavy.

Foot and paw prints ended around another half a mile down the back road by a set of tyre tracks, and then Dean's rational thought made a valiant escape attempt, almost having it away on its toes into oblivion.

"No…" Dean whispered fearfully.

It was an SUV of some description, that much he could tell, and its tracks headed off towards the main road.

"Oh God no!" Dean yelled at the empty wilderness. "Not again. Please not again!"

Turning around and breaking into a run, the desperate big brother raced back to the yard as fast as he could. He arrived just in time to see John helping Bobby Singer out of a dark brown saloon with "Volunteer Patient Transport Services" emblazoned on the side.

Bobby looked pale, sick and dazed, but he blinked a few times when he saw Dean, and swayed dangerously. A plain white bandage, wrapped tightly around his head, showed a few small spots of blood, and Dean vaguely imagined there'd been a few arguments about Bobby's home coming. The guy had definitely been released too early from hospital, or whatever medical facility he'd been taken to, and judging by the dark, almost angry expression on John's face, it had been Bobby's idea and Bobby's idea alone.

Indeed, while approaching the veranda steps the grizzled salvage yard owner would have stumbled if John hadn't kept a firm grip on him.

"Dad?" Dean called out, eyeing the two men with trepidation.

This was a really bad time to mention that his little brother might have been kidnapped yet again, but Dean didn't have a lot of choice.

"Dean, get the door," John barked out, helping a grumbling Bobby up the steps. "Where's your brother?"

"Uh..." Dean stammered as he leapt to obey. "He's… uh..."

He held the door open and flushed guiltily when John stopped and glared at him.

"Well?" his father demanded.

Dean took a deep, shaky breath.

"I think he ran away, Dad," he said, softly, fighting back more tears. He felt like he'd cried more in one day than he had in his entire lifetime.

"You think?" John regarded him quizzically. "What do you mean?"

Dean swallowed hard.

"He spilt orange juice on my tape," he mumbled, sadly. "And I yelled at him, Dad."

The words became stuck in his throat, and he growled with frustration.

Tell him before it's too late, you asshole!

A sniff turned to a sob, and he let it out in one long sentence.

"I yelled at him, told him I needed a break, just five minutes, and I went outside when you called and when I got back he was fucking gone, Dad!"

Dean heaved air in and out of his lungs and rubbed a shaky wrist under his nose, smearing away snot and tears.

"Ya know the worst part?" he sniffed again. "He tried to apologise and I brushed him off and he hadn't meant to do it and it was just a stupid accident, and I hurt him, Dad."

John stared at him in part bewilderment and part fear.

Sam was missing, was probably alone and terrified and thinking his family no longer wanted him. That thought was enough to break John's heart all on its own. But add to that, his oldest boy appeared even more exhausted than he did before the explosion, and that also had him worried. It didn't even occur to John to be mad at the kid; Dean had taken an awful lot on his young shoulders of late and he desperately needed a rest. And now the guilt of pushing Sammy away could prove too much for him.

His boys were both so fragile right now. Mary would be ashamed of him for letting it get this bad.

Bobby turned concussion glazed eyes on John.

"Get me inside to the study couch," he said, words a little slurred. "Then go take care of your sons."

As they began to shuffle inside, Dean stopped them with a quiet "Wait. That's not all."

When the two men turned back, Dean had hung his head.

"I... I think he's been kidnapped again," he whispered. "I followed his trail out of the yard, down the back road. He got hurt somehow, 'cos there was blood... Someone turned up, along with some kind of big dog… maybe it attacked him… and I think whoever he was started carrying Sam. The trail ended by some tyre tracks. Looked like an SUV."

"You sure, son?" John asked, sharply. "Maybe he hitchhiked."

It was a lame suggestion and they all knew it, but he just couldn't believe anyone round these parts would take Sammy against his will. Unless…

No. Oh nonononono…. Please God not a demon. Anything but that.

Tearful forest green eyes gazed at John. "He wouldn't hitchhike, Dad, I just know he wouldn't. Sam would never get in a car with a complete stranger, not without good reason. He must have been forced or coerced or... or something."

After a brief, panic-filled silence, in which Dean wondered briefly if this situation might have qualified as that good reason, Bobby shrugged off John's hand and gave him a gentle push.

"Go on and git. I'll call the sheriff, file a missing persons report and get an APB put out on him," he told both Winchesters. "But you go find him, and quickly 'cos you only got one shot at this. That back road leads straight to town, so there's nowhere else the car could've gone without being seen by someone. He gets any further away than that, then Sam's gone. Maybe this time for good."

Dean didn't need telling twice and was already sprinting across the yard to the Impala.

"Right... right," John huffed out a breath and prepared to move after his son, but hesitated at the last second. "You sure you'll be ok here on your own, Singer?"

"John, quit arguing and GO."

"You've got a concussion and burns..."

"Dammit John, I'll be fine!" the salvage yard owner grumbled back at him. "Don't need no babysitter, least of all you. Now GO, ya idjit!"

Dean had started the engine by the time John made it to the passenger seat, and the car was moving before the door was slammed shut.

Neither said a word, both riddled with anxiety and, in each their own way, deep, unforgiving guilt.

They made it as far as ten feet from the main gates when a black SUV screeched to a halt just outside, blocking their exit.

The Impala also came to an abrupt stop, fishtailing and kicking dust high up in the breathable atmosphere, clouding the way ahead.

No one moved.

From what Dean could see, as the dust began to settle, there were two people sitting in the cab of the SUV, the driver wearing some kind of Stetson.

"What the hell?" said John, staring out the windshield and instinctively reaching for his waistband, as the driver stepped out from behind the wheel. The Stetson was pulled down low so it was impossible to see his face, but John was pretty sure from the bulk and height that this was a guy.

And a guy carrying the weight of authority. He had Cop written all over him.

John didn't trust cops, and he sure as hell didn't trust cops who showed up out of nowhere before Bobby would even have had time to call in Sam's disappearance.

John's fingers closed around the reassuring sturdy revolver at his back, but drew away when a familiar, shaggy haired figure stumbled out the passenger side of the stranger's car.

The guy spoke out as he sauntered over. "My dog found your kid wandering around on his own in the middle of nowhere," he slung an arm round Sam's shoulders, keeping him upright when he stumbled. "Thought I'd best bring him home to you."

His smile was slight but genuine.

As though to back up his master's story, a big German Shepherd jumped gracefully out of the car. His furry face was stretched into a long, friendly, canine grin, his huge tongue lolling out his mouth as he loped happily alongside his new young buddy.

John realised who the guy was the minute he spoke up, and he raised an eyebrow.

"My apologies, Sheriff. Didn't recognise you there without your uniform," he said, relaxing a little but remaining on his guard. "Much obliged to you for bringing my boy home."

Dean, who'd frozen on the spot when the stranger approached, blinked in surprise. "Sammy?"

He was out the car door, leaving it wide open, and sprinting towards his little brother before John could utter another word. Sweeping Sam up in a tight hug, Dean clutched the kid to him, one hand cupping the back of Sammy's head and the other round his waist, trapping his arms to his sides.

Denzil grumbled a little at seeing his new friend manhandled in such a manner, but made no further issue.

Clearly, Dean had passed muster in the canine 'friend or foe' stakes, John thought with a small grin, as if the boy even cared for a dog's opinion of him when it came to his little brother's safety. Dean would fight his way through an entire pack of dogs to get to Sammy.

"Oh God!" Dean, who had proved him right, breathed in deeply, eyes scrunched shut. "Oh thank god you're back. I'm so sorry, kiddo. I didn't mean what I said. I didn't mean it..." he finally leaned back to stare into Sam's face, then looked him over, eyes roaming up and down, checking for injury. "You ok?"

His eyes zeroed in on Sam's blood stained jeans, a square patch of gauze showing through a tear in the denim, and his face hardened.

"What happened?" he demanded, sharply.

Sam shook his head, looking a little dazed and anxious. "M'o... ok, D'n," he murmured, tiredly.

"He's fine, just a little tired from his trek," said the sheriff, kindly. "And he cut his knee open somewhere along the way. I took him into the station house and cleaned him up, gave him five stitches to his leg, but it's not too serious."

"You sure?" Dean asked again. He was still checking Sam over regardless of the sheriff's nod, and running his hands over Sam's head, feeling for any new bumps and cuts.

The pads of his fingers brushed gently over older scars, physical evidence of Sam's plight more than a year ago, breaking his heart all over again, and the anger, so easily quashed by his earlier fears, re-emerged, unfairly directed at his brother.

Eyes hardening and framing Sam's face with his hands, Dean gave him a gentle shake.

"What were you thinking, running off like that, huh?" Dean growled, and completely ignored the retired police dog's own warning growl. "You had me worried sick!"

Sam's mouth flopped open and slammed closed again like a suffocating fish and his eyes filled with tears. Mouth trembling, he gently pushed something against Dean's chest, forcing his older brother to let him go in order to keep it from falling to the ground.

"Sammy, what the hell is this?" Dean murmured, now frowning.

The package was small and wrapped in a brown paper bag. Dean's suspicions grew as he lifted his gaze to Sam's and stared into pleading, wet, hazel eyes.

But Sam stayed silent, too exhausted and upset to speak, knowing he would stutter and get his words too muddled up to make any kind of sense.

Slowly opening the bag, Dean's eyes widened as he took a peek inside. Pulling out the brand, spanking new Motorhead cassette, he sighed through his nose.

"Aw, Sammy..."

Without another word, he gently and carefully folded Sam back into his arms, and placed an affectionate kiss to his little brother's scalp. Frozen by shock at first, Sam let out a soft whimper and clutched at Dean, his shoulders shaking with silent sobs which gradually faded as his big brother rocked him slowly to and fro.

"I'm so sorry, kiddo," Dean repeated it over and over in Sammy's ear. "I'm so sorry."

Sam sniffed and pulled back a little. "M'f-fault," he stared at Dean, eyes still wide and wet. "Donnn h-hate m… mmme…"

"No! Oh God, I never…" Dean shook his head, frantically. "I didn't mean to frighten you, or make you think that. Could never hate you, ok?" He stared at his kid brother, making sure he could properly hear and understand. "I love you, Sammy. Always."

The sheriff glanced at John with amusement on his face, and more than a little touched. "Brotherly love, huh?"

John nodded and grinned tiredly, proudly. "Can't beat it."

He had both his boys back, safe and sound, but maybe it was time to make a few changes. The brothers obviously needed each other, but Dean also needed time to himself, and both kids needed a proper night's sleep. John vowed to start alternating nights in Sam's room, keeping an eye out for nightmares and allowing Dean a decent shot at sleep. He'd suggested it some months ago but his oldest boy wouldn't hear of it.

Now? John was going to insist. There would be no repeat of this afternoon's fiasco.

So long as I can get Bobby to stop blowing himself up, thought John. That's the last time I let him experiment with rock salt loaded dynamite. Never mind evil, possessed cars and trucks.

"Thank you kindly, for returning my son to me," John murmured, quietly to the sheriff. "Kid's been through so much..." he shook his head. "They've both been through so much, and we almost lost him once already."

He turned to face Carmichael when he didn't answer. The lawman was staring at him with a strange look on his face.

"I understand," he finally answered. "I read through the reports on your youngest son. It must've been a pretty tough time."

John somehow wasn't surprised at hearing that. It was the Sheriff's job to know who was who in his town, and despite all efforts to keep Sam's identity quiet, details had leaked out. It was impossible to keep something like that a secret without condemning the kid to a life in hiding.

"If it's any help," the guy continued, still keeping his voice low and discreet. "I happen to know that two of Sam's attackers practically beat each other to death in a cell fight yesterday morning, and later on that same day they were killed in a prison fire." He paused and drew in a breath. "By hellish coincidence, the third guy fell to his death while trying to escape. Severe head trauma, they said. Would've been permanently brain damaged if he'd survived. Talk about ironic, huh?"

"Really." John's emotionless face didn't alter one bit.

"Yeah," the sheriff continued, casually. "Strange thing was, apart from a cracked scull, there wasn't a single other broken bone, not even a toe. Not even a broken fingernail. Guy falls from a fifty foot prison block... should've broken every bone in his body."

He glanced over at the two boys, who were both now on their knees in the dust while Sam introduced his brother to Denzil. It was an introduction that involved lots of tongue action, something Dean wouldn't ordinarily object to, but coming from a big, hairy canine he should have drawn the line. However, even Dean wasn't stupid enough to argue with a police dog and accepted the doggie licks with a good natured grimace.

That strange look was still there on the Sheriff's face. John knew what he was getting at, but experience had taught him that a wise man chose silence in the face of a fishing law officer.

"Forensics claim the fire was started by a cigarette," a small glimmer of a smile appeared. "A man can only be pushed so far before he snaps and when someone hurts his kid, well, some might say that's way too far." He glanced back at John. "But that prison is a least three states away, and I'm guessing you and Singer were here all along." He raised an eyebrow and tilted his head. "Man can't be in two places at once. Right?"

John stared at him a moment too long. "Right."

John wasn't going to admit or deny anything, not in front of his already suspicious oldest son. It may have appeared to someone who didn't know better that Sam and Denzil had Dean's full attention, but John did know better and Dean had excellent hearing. Could probably put Carmichael's dog to shame.

Time for a distraction, and a gesture of good will was always the ticket for that.

"You on duty right now, Sheriff?" John asked, casually. "Or you got time for a cold one?"

Carmichael grinned and nodded. "Officially, I'm on vacation. And besides," he winked, knowingly. "I'm sure Mr Singer will be real happy to see me in his yard, drinking his beer."

John laughed at that. "You brought his nephew home safely. He'll probably give you the whole beer cooler if it means you'll leave sometime soon."

As men and dog sauntered towards the house, Dean refused to let go of his brother, preferring to keep him close and tucked against him. Sam didn't seem to mind; his head rested on Dean's shoulder and he blinked sleepily, making small noises of contentment.

"You hungry, Sammy?" Dean asked, softly. "'Cos if you are, I can make you a Dean Bean Special."

He smiled when he felt an eager nod against his neck.

"Okey dokey, little brother," he whispered, angled his head awkwardly and placed another kiss against the boy's head. Sammy responded well to affection, and Dean wasn't ever about to deny him comfort for ego's sake. "Cheese, mushroom and chilli bean burger coming right up..."

Inwardly, he was thinking Ugh! In Dean's view, it wasn't a true burger without at least some meat involved, but if it made Sam happy then he could live with that.

Denzil trotted happily alongside the boys, occasionally nuzzling gently at Sam's injured leg, and his ears pricked up at the mention of food. He turned those large, bright eyes on the older brother in shameless interest, and rumbled deep in his chest. As Sam's other self-appointed protector, he was entitled to share in the bounty and God help anyone who forgot about him.

"Don't worry, fur-face," Dean called over to the dog. "You'll get your share. Just hope you like veggie burgers is all."

Denzil stuck his snout in the air with a soft woof of disgust.

Dean rolled his eyes and Sammy giggled. "Alright! I'll see if Uncle Bobby has some steaks."

"You ain't feeding my steaks to no damn dog!" gruff voice called out from the veranda. "I don't even give my own dog prime fillet..."

"Now you take it easy and go sit, for God's sake!" said John, leaping up the steps. "I'll cook, you just watch me and bitch blue murder like you always do."

"You? Cook?" Bobby blinked, snorted sarcastically, then winced when pain shot through his head. "That'll be the day! Make a God damn mess is what you'll do. And what's that damn cop doin' here...?!"

Bobby's voice faded to a grumble as he shuffled back inside the house, with John quietly trying to placate him. Sheriff Carmichael stifled his laughter behind a cough, and followed on.

Dean shook his head in amusement and tugged his brother up the steps.

"You sit there and don't move, ok?" he pushed Sam down onto the porch swing and ruffled his hair. To the dog he said "Keep an eye on him for me, huh boy? Make sure he doesn't run off again."

Woof, came the reassuring answer. Dean gave him a quick scratch behind that ears that made Denzil whine with pleasure, and swoon into the human's touch with a soft doggie snuffle.

"Good boy," Dean told him and headed inside.

Sam grinned from ear to ear when Denzil jumped up to sit beside him, making the whole swing move shakily back and forth, and swiped a big, doggie kiss up the side of his face.

"Nnnarggggg!" Sam squirmed and weakly protested when the licking continued, but soon gave up and wrapped an arm around the furry beast.

Denzil sniffed gently at Sam's injured leg, just to satisfy himself that it wasn't getting any worse, and shuffled in as close as he could get without actually sitting on top of the boy.

Later, when the food had been gratefully eaten, and bellies were full, Dean smiled and glanced out the kitchen window. Sam and his new found friend were getting on well, and Dean felt perfectly at ease letting the big canine take care of Sammy in his domestic absence.

Sam couldn't throw the ball too well, but Denzil still seemed to be enjoying himself, bounding around the yard, barking and jumping up occasionally to issue a gentle lick to Sam's face.

As Dean watched, his father appeared on the veranda and sat down on the steps, sipping at a cold beer. Presumably he was taking a break from watching over Bobby while the older hunter slept.

Tough, obstinate and stubborn though he was, even Bobby proved he wasn't superhuman or immune to concussions, and had retired to bed soon after dinner. To his surprise, and a certain amount of dismay, in spite of his instinctive dislike of all things law enforcement related, he'd reluctantly caved in to Carmichael's charms and had an actual conversation with the guy that didn't involve insults or swearing.

In fact, he'd even remarked to the sheriff that he was "... an ok guy, I guess. For a cop."

Ignoring the snorts of laughter from John and Dean, the Sheriff had accepted the compliment in the spirit in which it was meant, with dignity and grace, and he went up even further in Singer's estimation.

Denzil had stayed glued to Sam's side all through the evening, his big head either resting on the kid's knee or in his lap. It was as if he knew Sam was missing Rumsfeld, and Bobby had remarked upon it to John with awe and amusement.

"In that case," said Carmichael, overhearing this. "How 'bout I let Denzil stay here until your mutt returns from the vet?"

Bobby had carefully scratched his head around the bandage. "You sure you won't need him out there?"

The sheriff grinned widely. "You kiddin' me? Last vacation, that damn dog waited 'til I was asleep then ate all the fish!" He'd shrugged and turned to watch Sam and Dean tickling Denzil's belly and laughing loudly. "'Sides. He's enjoying himself here. I'll swing by in a couple of days to pick him up."

Before the sheriff finally left the yard to continue his vacation alone, he'd thanked Bobby for his hospitality to which Bobby had responded "Anytime. Just tear up those damn parking tickets!"

"What parking tickets?" Carmichael had replied with a grin out his car window. Then he was gone in a V8 roar and a cloud of dust.

Dean shook his head with a smile. It had been a day fraught with worry, fear, and anger, and yet good things had come out of it. They had all made two new friends, for a start.

But what had turned it around for Dean, made it easier for him to sleep at night, had been the news regarding Sam's kidnappers.

Rapists! He amended silently.

Dean hated the word, loathed it with every cell in his body, but he was also a straight shooter and believed in calling it what it was.

Sam didn't remember them, but every time he closed his eyes, Dean saw them. He felt his blood boil with hatred, could still feel the recoil as he fired on them, the grim satisfaction of blowing out their kneecaps. Those bastards were now dead, and Sammy was finally, truly free of them.

But at what price?

Had his father been involved, as the sheriff seemed to imply? Or was it just a coincidence? And then there was the ultimate question Dean had for his father:

Were those three men given in exchange for Sam's recovery, in some kind of voodoo bargain?

'Cos the circumstances surrounding the deaths were way to close for comfort. Sammy had been burned with cigarettes and beaten round the head 'til his skull cracked like an egg...

Movement from the back of the kitchen startled him for a second, and he picked up the dish cloth again, mildly surprised that he hadn't noticed he'd dropped it in the first place. Casually washing a plate and rinsing it under the tap, Dean stayed quiet and intent on his task, waiting him out.

"Sam's a natural with animals," a quiet voice announced from just over Dean's shoulder.

Dean glanced up at John and nodded. "Always has been, even before... ya know..." he trailed off, but by the look on his dad's face he understood what Dean was getting at.

He turned back to the sink and scrubbed idly at a coffee mug. The two men remained silent until Dean couldn't take it anymore.

"What happened at the prison, Dad?" he asked, suddenly, voice hoarse with emotion. "You were out all day yesterday and didn't get back 'til just before dawn, and I know grocery shopping don't take that long, so don't colour me stupid." He slammed a plate into the draining rack, and took a breath to calm himself down. "But was there really enough time to drive across three states?"

John said nothing at first but Dean could hear his soft breathing, and wondered how the guy managed to stay so cool and calm.

"I finally got that medication for your brother," he murmured. "Had to place an order and wait it out, but they got here. Two before bedtime with water."

"Ok," said Dean, a little thrown at the change in subject, but he was determined to get it back on track. "What about the prison, Dad?"

A hand gently squeezed his shoulder and, for a moment there, Dean got the impression John was finally going to answer him. But, to his disappointment, quiet footsteps retreated across the room as his father walked away without another word.

When he turned around, there was a white pharmacy bag sitting on the kitchen table.

Dean chewed on his bottom lip for a second before tearing it open.

It was indeed the new prescription drugs for Sammy, and they'd been obtained from Souix Falls Hospital pharmacy. The label had today's date printed on it, and shed no further light on John's whereabouts the previous day.

Dean huffed out a breath, finally resigning himself to never knowing the truth. There were more important things to be pondering, he guessed. Putting the whole mystery out of his mind for the moment, Dean began preparing for his and Sam's favourite night time ritual and, leaving a saucepan of milk simmering away on the stove, headed outside.

Sam was sitting cross-legged on the veranda with Denzil beside him, long, velvet snout resting on his shoulder. Dean couldn't help grinning, despite his frustration with their father.

"You ready for bed now, Sam?" he called softly. "Hot Chocolate and cookies are nearly ready."

Sam glanced over and nodded, a small smile curving the corners of his mouth upwards.

Dean studied his little brother in the growing twilight.

His young face still held a few fading scars, but his eyes sparkled with a powerful innocence and love that Dean hadn't thought he would ever see again, not after what had happened to him all those months ago. That mop of shaggy chestnut hair curled around Sam's ears, shining like silk from a recent washing, and for the first time in ages, the kid seemed truly content and happy.

Sam was a good looking kid, Dean thought proudly to himself, and he could see the fully grown, strong, puppy-eyed man his little brother would one day become.

Perhaps it was time to accept whatever John might have bargained for, without constantly questioning it. Sam's recovery was becoming more and more obvious each day, and maybe Dean needed to see that for the gift it truly was.

After hot chocolate and cookies, the boys brushed their teeth – though, Sam needed a little help with his coordination – while Denzil jumped up on Sam's bed, panting gently. As Dean pulled off his t-shirt, Sam struggled with his own clothes for a moment, then finally succeeded in tying the drawstring of his pyjamas. With Dean's encouragement, he swallowed the new meds with a glass of water and sat next to the police dog, watching his brother intently as he prepared for bed.

Dean pulled on a faded old band t-shirt, not completely dissimilar to the one he'd just removed, and smiled at him.

"You ok, Sammy?" he asked, sitting down on his own bed, facing his brother.

Sam nodded, appeared worried and thoughtful for a second, then slowly crawled off his own bed and over to Dean. He gazed at his puzzled sibling, then managed to climb up and curl his skinny body in Dean's lap. With a soft sigh, he tucked his head under his older brother's chin.

Dean blinked, a little startled. He wasn't sure he deserved such affection after today, but his little brother clearly had other ideas. Soft hair on the back of Sam's head tickled Dean's nose, and he raised a hand to smooth down the wayward strands.

Sam sighed again in contentment, eyes drifting closed as his body gave into exhaustion.

"Sleep well, little bro," Sam heard his brother say. "I'll be right here when you wake up."

Not another word was said between them. Dean's arms wrapped around his little brother, tight and secure, and he gently scooted back to rest against the head board, taking Sammy with him.

John found his boys snuggled up and fast asleep on Dean's bed some hours later. He'd intended to bed down next to his youngest and send Dean to his own room so the kid could get some proper sleep, but night terrors didn't seem to be attacking Sam this night.

They didn't stir from slumber when their father tugged a blanket round them, didn't awaken when he pressed a gentle kiss to both their heads and whispered "Good night, you two. Sweet dreams for once."

Denzil raised his head and blinked sleepily up at John when the guy gave him a quick scratch behind the ears, but soon drifted back off to sleep again with soft, contented doggie grumble.

With one last fond glance back at his boys, John left to go check on Bobby Singer before hitting the hay himself.

Things were going to be ok, he mused.

The Sheriff had been uncommonly kind; bringing Sam home safely, replacing the kid's savings – the allowance money spent on Dean's new cassette - with his own cash when he thought no one was looking.

But the triumphant gleam in his eyes when he spoke of the prison fire. That had been the most telling.

The law was on their side.

Just for once.

John slept easy that night, and so did the rest of their little household, undisturbed by young screams of fear and pain for the first time in too long.

Things were, slowly, looking up.

The End.

So, who dunnit, eh?

Was it John, Bobby, the Sheriff, or was it the bargain with Sue-Ann Le Grange from season one's Faith?

I'll leave it for you guys to decide...

Sorry I haven't been around much of late. Unfortunately, I went through a rather traumatic and harrowing miscarriage a little while ago, and, on top of having to deal with various other health issues, have not found the heart to sit down and actually do much writing. I had the plot bunnies and the ideas, but the thought of actually putting anything down, or even posting was a tremendous effort. I can't promise I'm completely back into it (as I'm sure you can figure out from this rather pale offering), but I do hope to soon. In the meantime, I hear that season eight isn't doing too well and that some of you are appalled by it. I haven't seen the new season but I would ask you all to have faith. If the brothers are acting out of character or falling apart, there's usually good reason for it, and no doubt all will be explained at some point.

Believe in the brothers, and the brotherly bond. Everything will turn out ok.

Love and hugs,

ST xxx