There was something following his son.

John Winchester had his flaws—hell, he had a lot of them. He drank too much and cursed in front of his boys and hadn't said a prayer in years and he wasn't

there for Sam and Dean like they deserved. But though he was guilty of many faults, being unobservant was not and had never been among them.

And people could say what they wanted about his parenting style, but he was not a neglectful father. He knew exactly what he'd been charged with when he became a dad, and better than most parents he knew what it was that he had to protect his sons from. Not just predators and bullies, but the things that went bump in the night, too. He had to protect his kids from strigas and wendigos and witches.

John was damn good at what he did, and what he did, he did to protect his boys.

So when Dean's behavior started to change, John noticed. He noticed the way the kid's eyes would track something that wasn't there, then stop abruptly like he'd forgotten what he was doing. He noticed the way Dean would cry out in his nightmares—something he'd done almost every night since the fire—and then heave a relieved sigh and quiet down—something he'd never done before. He noticed the way that Dean would turn around suddenly in public places like he'd heard something, only to furrow his brow when there was nothing there.

He knew the signs. Something was after Dean, and he was going to find out what it was.

The first break came one afternoon as he was picking Dean up from school. His boy had started the first grade, which was throwing a whole new wrench into hunting, but it wasn't like he could school Dean at home, and the boy needed to learn to read. He wasn't happy about letting Dean out of his sight in an unguarded area for such long stretches, not so young, but it was a necessary evil.

But he'd be damned if he let his kid ride the bus home. Who knew what could happen?

So he swung the Impala around and waited in line at the car rider pick-up, Sammy sitting quietly in his booster seat, playing with his plastic dinosaurs and making soft roars as they fought. John tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, eyes scanning the area keenly. Dean was sitting on the concrete under the awning, glancing around, not interacting with any of the other kids. John knew it should bother him more than it did, but he felt an unintentional flood of relief at the fact that Dean wasn't getting attached. The job keeping them here wouldn't last much longer, if all went well. He'd feel worse about tearing Dean away from friends than he would about just relocating.

It was when Dean's head snapped up and he looked to his right that John became alarmed. He followed his son's eye-line to the fence that enclosed the school, and to just beyond that fence.

John bolted upright in his seat. There was a man standing just outside the fence, dark-haired, pale-skinned, wearing a tan trench coat and staring intently at his son. The man's hands were stuffed into his pockets and he was totally still, lending an otherworldliness to his presence.

Which was, of course, exactly what John was afraid of.

On the bright side, the man wasn't making any moves to approach Dean. Less positively, when John looked back at Dean, his son didn't look alarmed or wary or anything, just curious and open. Damn it, Dean. After all the time they'd spent going over stranger danger, he was just going to stare back at the man? Without even a hint of mess with me and you'll be sorry on his face? He'd have to talk to the boy when they got home.

In the meantime, he just watched the man anxiously, but he didn't move. Not even once. Just watched Dean like his son was the only thing there was in the world to look at. From the little John could make out from this distance, the expression on the stranger's face was not predatory, not menacing—just quiet. Almost peaceful.

As the line moved forward and John got closer to Dean—and closer to the stranger—he thought he made out the faintest smile on the stranger's face.

He glanced at Dean, who looked puzzled. When he turned his head back to look towards the fence, the stranger was gone.

Dean clambered into the car once John pulled up under the awning, looking nonplussed. He turned around in his seat and grinned at his little brother, reaching back and grabbing one of Sammy's hands. "Hey, Sammy!" he said over the happy shrieks of his younger brother. "Didja miss me today?"

"Dean, who was the man you were looking at outside the fence?" John asked without preamble, and Dean turned, frowning, and sank into his seat after releasing Sammy's hand.

"What?" Dean asked.

"The man you were looking at," John repeated. "In the coat, outside the fence. I saw you, Dean, don't lie to me."

Dean frowned more deeply, and, stopped at a red light, John didn't see any falsehood in his son's expression. The kid seemed genuinely confused. "I don't know him," Dean announced finally. "I dreamed 'bout him one time."

That chilled John to the bone. "Yeah?" he said, forcing himself to sound casual. "What did you dream about, buddy?"

Dean shrugged, obviously uncomfortable. "Dunno."

John gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and forced himself to breathe. "Come on, Dean. Try to remember."

Dean squirmed, pulling his feet up onto the seat and playing with the straps on his backpack. John forced himself to be patient and quiet.

"He didn't do nothing," Dean muttered, sounding almost defensive in a way that John did not like at all. "I was dreaming we were at the park. He was just sittin' on a bench."

"Did he say anything to you?" John asked carefully.

Dean shrugged. "I didn't know him so I said, who are you? And he said, I'm here t'watch you 'n keep you safe. Like you, Dad. I said, like Dad? And he said yeah."

The car was silent for a long moment as John formulated an answer that wouldn't terrify his child, but would at the same time impress upon him the importance of his obedience in this. He settled for, "Dean...that man, he's not me, you know that, right?"

"Yeah, Dad," Dean said, rolling his eyes.

"He's not your dad, and he might...he might be somebody you don't want to talk to again, even in your dreams, okay?"

That startled Dean, and the boy looked up at John. "How come?" he asked. "He was nice to me in my dream. He said I was special."

Oh. That is what 'chilled to the bone' felt like, truly. Everything before had been a pale imitation.

"Sometimes mean people can act nice at first," John explained, forcing the raw panic out of his voice. "Doesn't mean you should trust strangers, Dean."

"I know," Dean sighed.

The rest of the car ride was quiet but for Sammy's babbling in the back seat and the thudding of John's heart.

"There's not a hell of a lot of creatures that can dream-walk or manipulate dreams, John."

John ran a finger around the rim of the whiskey glass he had refilled several times, and sighed. "I know, Bobby. But Dean says he saw the thing in his dream, and we both saw it at his school."

"There's djinn," Bobby said doubtfully, "but that ain't their MO. Could be a demon, I guess, but I've never heard of them messin' with a kid's dreams. You sure the boy's not makin' up stories?"

John took a sip of the whiskey. "He seemed like he was telling the truth. He didn't have a reason to lie to me."

The sound of fragile old paper being flipped preceded Bobby's next words. "Could be somebody took some dream root, used it to rifle around in Dean's head," the Hunter said, "but I can't figure what anybody into magic that obscure would want out of a six-year-old's melon."

"Dean said the thing told him he was special," John said, shivering slightly at the memory. "What the hell does that mean?"

"I wish I knew," Bobby replied, and John knew he meant it. There wasn't much in the world that could get Bobby Singer sentimental, but John's boys had a knack for it. "Does give a little credibility to the dream root theory, I guess. It's for damn sure on purpose. Nobody's just goin' around poppin' into random dreams—he meant to find Dean. Whatever he wants, Dean's got, or at least he thinks so. Now, you said he just looks like a normal guy?"

"Yeah," John sighed, running a hand over his face. "Few inches shorter than me. White, dark hair, wearing a trench coat. There was just something off about him, but he looked human. Wasn't holding anything, didn't get close enough to Dean to get anything from him. Doesn't dream root require something from the victim?"

"Hair or something, yeah," Bobby admitted.

"There's no way they'd let this guy into Dean's school," John said with certainty. "And Dean said he'd seen him in the dream before he showed up at the school yard."

"Then I'm comin' up blank, John, I hate to—"

A cry from the other room was enough for John to fling the phone away and take off running while Bobby talked into an empty receiver.

He threw the door to Dean and Sammy's room open and stood in the doorway, searching for the source of the cry, only to find Dean sitting up in bed. His eyes were open but unseeing, and John relaxed just a touch. Another bout of night terrors. Who could blame the kid?

But Dean's breathing was growing steadier, and while his eyes still didn't focus, John tensed as he heard his son say, his voice slurred and unsteady with sleep, "Dad said I'm not supposed to talk to you."

He held his breath until his son's shoulders slumped and he said, "I know, but Dad said you might be mean."

What would happen if John were to wake him up, now? With the thing present in his head? Would it stay there, stuck in his boy's mind? John inched closer to Dean, afraid of the consequences of waking him—and almost equally afraid of the consequences of letting him stay asleep.

Dean shrugged in response to something the invader was telling him. "I dunno. Dad didn't say."

The boy shifted in his bed, squirming like he had in the car. "Daddy protects me. He said you're not my daddy, and you're not supposed to."

Then, defensive: "My dad knows everything. My daddy can protect me from anything."

John quietly approached the bed, sitting down gingerly next to his son. Dean didn't react at all, but kept staring into space. His eyes moved like he was tracking the face of someone much taller than himself, and his hands kneaded the bedspread. He looked down suddenly. "Yeah, I guess. Thanks for makin' my nightmare go away."

"Dean," John whispered, putting a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Daddy works really hard," Dean said, sounding like he was grudgingly admitting it. "I try to help him."

"Dean," John said, a little louder.

"Maybe it'd be okay if you helped him, too..."

"Dean!" John gripped both of Dean's shoulders and shook him once, hard. His son gave a little gasp, his eyes snapping into focus.

For a horrible, eternal moment, John thought his boy's eyes had turned another color: a vibrant, unearthly blue.

But no, when John took a good look, Dean's eyes were still green. But he nonetheless had this impression of blue, of too-blue, blue blue blue.

And in the span of a heartbeat John realized that Dean's eyes were green like they were supposed to be, and he realized that the blue came from another pair of eyes, one that he couldn't see in the literal sense, but rather in his mind. A pair of too-blue eyes, and the inescapable impression of anger.

Anger at having been interrupted?

"Daddy?" Dean's voice was small and scared, and John snapped back to reality at the sound of it. He looked down and saw his son, trembling a little under his hands, those green eyes (green, thank God) brimming with confused tears. "Daddy, what's wrong?"

"It's all right, Dean," John whispered, pulling his son against his chest into a tight embrace. He felt Dean's arms hesitantly slip around him, and realized with a pang that he didn't do this often enough...that his son wasn't sure what to make of it. He rested his chin on top of Dean's mussed hair and just breathed in the smell of him. "It's okay, bud. You were having a bad dream."

Dean nodded sleepily, and murmured, "I was dreaming 'bout the fire, but the man with the coat put it out and he talked to me, and then it wasn't so bad anymore."

John's heart stuttered for a bit as his son buried his head in the crook of his neck, reveling in the rare moment of physical affection. Dean was already drifting back into sleep when John whispered into his ear, "You don't tell him yes, buddy. Don't you say yes. I can take care of you without him."

He guided Dean's warm, heavy body back down to the bed. He walked into the living room to call Bobby back and finish that whiskey that he really, desperately needed now. As he picked up the glass, the windows in the motel room rattled, a gust of wind rushed past his face and he heard, in a voice that was more a roll of thunder than a sequence of words, rising past a high-pitched buzzing that made him clap his hands against his ears:

Are you sure, John Winchester?

It wasn't until he woke up in the morning sprawled out on the ground, shattered whiskey glass beside him, with a blinding headache and dried blood crusted in a trail leading from his ears that he realized he'd passed out at all.

Job be damned, John wasn't having his son taken by whatever creature it was that was after him, so they hopped in the car three days later—as soon as John could legitimately get Dean out of school, begging family emergency—and took off for Sioux Falls. Bobby knew they were coming, and he'd already gotten started with the additional protection spells and devil's traps and any and all sigils he could find for protecting against dream invasion. The two Hunters still hadn't been able to find any good leads about what was coming for Dean, so they were taking all precautions. Anything remotely plausible was warded against.

Bobby didn't know what to make of the incident in the motel, of the blue eyes or the voice or of John's bleeding ears, or of the fact that John's head was still throbbing and his ears were still ringing. Nothing would shake the ringing, and it was making it hard to hear anything else. So much so, in fact, that it took Dean three tries to get his father's attention.


"What, Dean?" John snapped, regretting it immediately when his oldest shrank back, his eyes wide and startled at the aggression in his father's voice. It hurt worse than the headache, and John softened instantly. "Sorry, buddy. I've got a headache. What's up?"

"Sammy's crying," Dean said quietly, pointing to the back seat. John looked in the mirror, and sure enough, Sammy's face was red and his lower lip was stuck out in a piteous pout. While John watched, that lower lip began to tremble and Sammy whimpered, quiet sounds that were still difficult for John to hear, even though he was paying attention now. John recognized a hungry kid when he saw one.

"Are you boys hungry?" John asked, already scanning the interstate for upcoming exits that looked promising.

"You hungry, Sammy?" Dean asked, twisting around in his seat, and Sammy nodded, visibly brightening under his brother's attention while still playing up the poor-me pout. "Sammy's hungry, Daddy."

John studied his older son for a moment, and said, "What about you, Dean?"

Dean shrugged. "'M hungry, too," he said casually, but John saw his hands move down to his stomach, as though willing it not to growl.

Three exits later John found a diner, parked the Impala and took Sammy out of his car seat. Dean clambered down after them, gripping John's offered hand like a vice. Sammy protested being carried, but John wanted his boys as close as possible, and that meant carrying the younger one, so Sammy was going to have to put up with it.

They settled into a booth, Dean and Sammy on one side and John on the other, facing the door. Dean's stalker hadn't shown its face since the schoolyard, and John had slept in the room with his boys since the night that Dean almost acquiesced to the thing's request, but there had been no further incident. Still, John hadn't survived two years thrown into the life of a Hunter by being stupid or unprepared, and he hadn't kept his boys alive by underestimating his foes.

Although underestimation wasn't something he was likely to do with this thing, he thought, as the cheerful older woman who was their waitress handed him a glass of ice water that he accepted with a tight smile. Not with this lingering headache, not with the memory of that voice so fresh in his mind.

Are you sure, John Winchester?

What planted the terror currently growing in his heart wasn't the thunder that the words carried with them, wasn't the blood they left behind, wasn't even the loss of consciousness, although those things all instilled a healthy fear of their own. It was the tight, possessive anger that came with what semblance of human speech there was in that voice. The way it sounded like this was personal, the way it said his name like he'd wronged it. The way it sounded like it knew him.

Dean ordered a hamburger for himself off of the children's menu and macaroni for Sammy, and both boys attacked their food with gusto. Dean helped Sammy eat, but didn't ignore his own food, either, digging into his burger while Sammy meticulously tore apart a noodle. John couldn't manage much of an interest in food at all and only picked at the meatloaf he'd ordered, his eyes rarely straying from the door.

Which was perhaps why he missed the activity in the back until it was almost upon them.

A woman's scream pierced the diner, and everything else hushed, like they were waiting to see whether or not they should scream, too. The clatter of plates breaking followed the scream, and then another shriek, and then silence.

John wasn't a fan of the waiting game. "Dean," he said quickly and sharply, and his oldest snapped to attention. "Take your brother to the car. Lock the doors. I'll be right behind you."

Dean nodded solemnly and scooped his little brother into his arms—a feat that was becoming more difficult as Sammy transitioned from baby to child—and slid out of the booth. Sammy looked confused but compliant in his brother's grip, and as Dean stepped away from the booth John braced himself to stand, as well.

He didn't see the demon coming, and couldn't move out of the way or maneuver for his gun in time before it shoved him against the wall with a hand to his throat. The girl it was wearing fit easily in the small booth, sliding in and pinning him in one fluid motion. It tilted her head, a vicious smile flitting over her face as it said, "Well hi there, Johnny."

"Dean!" John tried to cry, looking over the girl's shoulder, where Dean was being held down by two demons while a third was prying Sammy out of his brother's arms. Both of his boys were screaming, and John struggled wildly against the demon that held him. "Dean! Sam! You let them go, you sons of bitches!"

"You can scream all you want," the demon said through the girl's mouth, "but when somebody comes to answer your prayers, you tell him that this was his doing, you understand me? You tell him that we killed the boy because he's here. You tell him we don't appreciate cheating."

"What?" John gasped past the hand that was closing around his throat. "Let my boys go, please, let my boys—"

His words, the laughter of the demons, and the screaming of his sons were all cut off by a soft rustling and a sharp crack and the scent of ozone. He craned his neck around the demon restraining him, only to feel his stomach descend farther in horror.

The man in the trench coat walked forward, dress shoes clipping quietly on the tile of the diner, looking disheveled but utterly unconcerned about it. His expression as he looked out over the diner (when his gaze met those of the assembled humans they looked down quickly, as though caught staring at the sun) was perfectly neutral but somehow radiating anger.

No, not anger. Rage. Or something more than that. John felt his entire body shudder under the power of it, and couldn't find the word to describe it.

John's panicked mind immediately assumed that the demons were on this thing's payroll, that he'd sent them to capture Dean, but the demon who held him had also stilled, its host's eyes wide with terror. "You," it whispered.

"Release the children," the man said, his voice low and filled with thunder and gravel and so damned familiar that John shuddered again.

"You don't get to come back here and change things," the demon holding Sammy said, its words full of hatred and forced cockiness. "There's a balance."

"I don't answer to you or your kind," the man growled. "I said, release the children."

"And if we don't?" one of the demons restraining Dean asked. Dean, for his part, was staring up at his dream made flesh in unadulterated wonder, green eyes wide and shining. The man...the thing...looked down at him and his lips tweaked up in something that was almost a smile, his eyes softening into something tender and achingly sad.

"Hello, Dean," he said softly.

"Hi," the boy whispered. They watched each other for a moment, and John wondered what it was he was missing—what that strange thread of connection was between his son and this creature. What he hadn't seen before, when this thing had managed to get his hands on Dean without John's knowledge, because some kind of whammy had been laid on the kid, there was no doubt about it. There was no other reason why his son, his carefully-trained boy, would be looking up at this thing with something so close to awe.

But he turned back to the demons before John's thoughts could run any more wild. "As to your question, I was not giving you an option," he said, and grabbed Sammy from the demon, covering the toddler's eyes with a hand. "Close your eyes," he commanded, and John knew that no one in the diner disobeyed him. His own eyelids snapped shut instantly, and he wasn't sure he could have done otherwise if he'd tried.

Bright light lit up the backs of his lids with vivid reds and yellows, and he felt the pressure from the demon's hand on his throat give way instantly, heard thuds and screams and something that sounded like massive wings accompanied by a sudden and drastic displacement of air that pressed John back against the wall, more gently, but still forcefully. When finally the pressure relented, and the colors faded from his eyes, he opened them slowly.

All of the demons were dead, having, he supposed, evacuated their hosts. The bodies were smoking slightly from hollowed eye sockets, which was unusual, but John didn't pay it much mind. What he focused on was Dean, still sprawled out on the floor, and Sammy, in the trench-coated man's arms, being handed gently back to his big brother.

He pushed his way past the empty body blocking his path out of the booth, and approached his sons slowly, not wanting to startle them or the creature crouched in front of them. Not after what he'd just witnessed this thing do to the demons.

"Thanks," Dean breathed, sitting up and taking Sammy back into his arms, his eyes never leaving those of his savior. "Thanks for protecting Sammy. And me."

The man looked like he wanted to say something, his lips moving for just a split second and then stopping as though he'd reconsidered. Instead, he reached out and drew a thumb along Dean's temple, where a small trickle of blood was running from a cut just above his eye.

"Don't touch him," John demanded, out of instinct more than anything, and as soon as the order left his lips his stomach clenched.

The man met his eyes, and they were that same blue that he'd seen that night in Dean's room. John took an unintentional step back. The man didn't move his hand, but pressed two fingers against the wound. Dean let out a soft little gasp, and when the man pulled his fingers away, eyes still focused on John, there was no blood and no cut.

"Woah," Dean breathed, and John's eyes shot to him for just a moment—just a moment, and when he looked back, the man was gone, vanished, as though he'd never been there.

John knelt unsteadily by his sons, gathering them to his chest and holding them with shaking arms while the diner erupted into chaos behind him.

Two nights later John sat in Bobby's living room, parked on the couch while Dean and Sammy slept fitfully on a cot that had been erected in the middle of the room. By himself, anticipating the Winchesters' arrival, Bobby hadn't been able to deck out the kids' room as well as he could the living room, so the boys were sleeping in the middle of an elaborate devil's trap.

Bobby walked in with two glasses of whiskey, handing one to John as he sat down next to him. "Guess they finally passed out," Bobby said softly.

"Yeah," John said, sipping the whiskey and appreciating the burn as it went down. "Wore themselves out."

John could feel the weight of Bobby's gaze on him, and was therefore unsurprised when the older Hunter put his hand on John's wrist. "They'll be okay here," he promised. "We've got this place painted up and salted down so good that God Himself would have to knock."

"Bobby, I don't have a damn clue what this thing is," John said, his voice barely more than a breath. "It took out four demons like it was stretching. It didn't even pay attention to them some of the time. And Dean...whatever this thing is, it's got Dean whammied but good, Bobby. You should've seen the look on his face. Like that thing was Batman and Superman wrapped up in one dirty flasher coat."

There was a silence, and then Bobby sighed. "I don't know either, John. I re-checked all my sources, called anybody I thought would have a clue and a couple of people I knew wouldn't. But none of it adds up. Dream-walking, voice of command, poltergeist-like presence, killin' demons and hollowin' out their eyes...there's nothing. Whatever this thing is, it's nothing we've faced before."

John looked up at the sigils painted crudely on the ceiling, glanced around the room at all of the fortifications. "So we don't even know if any of this will keep him out," he said dully.

"We're right here, John," Bobby said. "He's not gonna get the kid while we're here."

John forced a smile for Bobby's sake, but his friend's words only served to further his dismay. Because if that's what it came down to—if the sigils and wardings and devil's traps couldn't keep this thing away—if it came down to a fight, John knew his son was good as lost. Bobby hadn't seen this thing. He didn't understand.

The wind was roaring outside, rain lashing the sides of the house angrily, thunder occasionally punctuating the silence of the night, and John could see Sammy shiver. His youngest hated bad weather, and it frequently woke him at night. But Dean threw an arm over his little brother, pulling the smaller boy close to him. Sam quieted, snuggling into his brother's hold, and John felt his chest ache. At the same time, though, it lit a new fire under him, because he knew that he had to fight for two boys' lives. If something happened to Dean, Sammy would never recover. This trench-coated bastard was after both of his kids, and he wasn't going to let him have them.

He stood, putting his whiskey on the ground, and walked up to the boys' cot, careful not to scuff the devil's trap. He gazed down at their sleeping forms, and pulled the blanket a little bit tighter over Dean's shoulder—Sammy had always been a blanket hog, and it was only getting worse now that he was getting bigger. Dean leaned into his touch in his sleep, just a little, and John felt himself flooded with warmth at the unconscious gesture of trust.

He wasn't going to let his boy down, no matter what it cost him.

He turned to ask Bobby if they could grab another blanket out of the closet, and stopped short. Bobby was slumped against the arm of the couch, his eyes closed, head lolling to the side.

"Bobby?" John whispered, uselessly, his heart in his throat, feeling like a child as he ran towards the older man, crouching by him and pressing two fingers against his jugular. "Bobby!"

"Your friend is unharmed."

John whirled around again, and there he was, standing at the edge of the devil's trap, looking down at Dean with an unreadable expression. "I could not have him see me. It's...bad enough that your sons have had to."

John hefted his shotgun, knowing it would do him no good, and pointed it at the man's heart. "Get away from my boys," he growled.

The, definitely not man. The creature turned his head towards him, looking faintly puzzled and a little bit amused. "Your sons are much like you," he said, almost to himself. "I would have thought that what I did at the diner would prove that I don't intend to harm your children."

"Just 'cause you didn't want the demons to get him first doesn't mean I'll like what you want him for," John spat. "Step away."

"No weapon you have will harm me, John," the creature said, sounding almost apologetic. "You'll only wake your sons."

"Why Dean?" John asked, and couldn't even find it in him to be ashamed of the way his voice broke because he believed it, he believed that he didn't have a weapon that could do anything to stop him, and obviously the sigils and wards weren't doing anything to stop him, either. "Why do you want Dean? He's just a kid."

"Dean..." The creature paused, glancing down at the sleeping boy. "Dean is special," he finished, and again John heard tenderness in his voice. "But I do not want Dean, John, not in the way you mean. I am here to help him."

"Who are you?" John asked.

The creature's gaze stayed on Dean as he said, "My name is Castiel, and I am a friend to your son. That is all you need to know."

"Right," John scoffed, and drew the rifle back up to aim it. "One more step towards my boy and I'll shoot you."

The creature blinked once, then shook his head and, if John wasn't mistaken, rolled his eyes a little bit—the net result of which was a gesture that seemed to say your funeral. And then he took a step into the devil's trap.

John fired.

Sam woke up instantly and began to cry, but Dean barely stirred, and a small gesture from Castiel—who hadn't even flinched when the rock salt buried itself in his body—sent the younger boy back to sleep. John pumped the rifle and took aim again, but this time, Castiel wasn't having it. He raised a hand, and the gun flew out of John's hands and hit the wall with a crack. John followed it with his eyes, then turned back to see Castiel stalking towards him, hand outstretched. John tried to back up but wasn't fast enough, ending up with Castiel's hand wrapped around his throat, pressed against the wall. Fierce blue eyes burned into his own as an arm slammed against his chest, pinning him, and he could feel the creature's hot breath on his face. He flinched away, but there was nowhere to go.

"You will not stop me from protecting Dean," he growled. "I will not hurt him. I would never hurt him. I will not have you interfering. I have risked too much by being here to allow you to get in my way."

The hand around his throat was stronger than the demon's was, back at the diner. Much stronger. Not that Castiel was gripping tighter, or choking him harder, but there was a certainty in John that there was no way he was getting out of that grip, no way he could move that arm. So he did what any cornered Winchester would do, and he started bluffing. "You won't allow me to get in your way?" he laughed. "Looks like I already am. Or what are you wasting your time over here with me for? If it's all want-take-have, why not just get it over with?" He lowered his voice, and asked, "What are you scared of?"

The pressure around his chest loosened a little, and Castiel leaned back to assess his face, tilting his head to the side like a curious bird. It was an utterly alien gesture, and John shivered. "I see where he gets it from," he murmured. "So much bravado. So much false courage, trying to put your opponent off-balance to regain the upper hand. It is not a bad tactic, John. Teach it to your sons. For many creatures, it will work." Castiel's arm moved away and the hand around his throat fell, and he left only his other hand keeping John against the wall with an ease that turned his blood to ice. "I told you your son was important. There are forces trying to attack him now, while he is young and vulnerable, in ways that would not seem to be of inhuman origin. Time has been manipulated and Dean is slated to die tonight."

John stiffened as though electrocuted and attempted to jerk away, but that single hand, that single, pale, uncalloused hand, held him against the wall remorselessly and unflinchingly. "And you're here to do the job?" he hissed.

Blue eyes gripped his, and again he saw that anger. "No," Castiel replied. "I am here to save him."

"From what?" John demanded.

As if on cue, he heard a choked gasp from Dean and Sammy's cot. Castiel turned, still holding John, and they both watched as Dean sat up, fingers clenching the fabric of his shirt. His unseeing eyes stared at the wall, and his mouth opened and closed as he pressed his palm against his heart.

"That," Castiel said, releasing John with a shove that knocked the wind out of him and walking quickly to Dean. The boy looked up at his arrival, wide eyes filled with tears.

"Hurts," he gasped, now shoving the heel of his hand against his chest as though to push away the pain. Castiel brushed his hair out of his eyes in a gesture so tender that John's breath caught, and then lifted the boy out of bed.

"You son of a bitch, I'll—" John cried, only to find himself again at the receiving end of Castiel's outstretched hand, immobile.

"Be quiet," Castiel intoned, "and be still."

And John couldn't do anything but what he was told.

Castiel lowered himself and Dean slowly to the ground, keeping his eyes on Dean's the whole time, murmuring quiet things in a language that was not English, that John had never heard before. Dean watched him with rapt attention, one hand fisted in Castiel's wrinkled shirt, the other still pressed against his own heart. Once he was sitting, Castiel arranged Dean on his lap, and said, "Do you trust me, Dean?"

John wanted to scream when, after a moment's consideration, his son said, "Yes."

Castiel gently moved Dean's hand away from his heart while allowing the boy to keep hold of him, and replaced it with his own hand. His other hand cradled the boy's back. "Then trust me when I say that while this will hurt, I would never do anything to harm you," the creature said solemnly, soothingly. "Your heart is damaged. I must repair it."

"Hurts," Dean said again. "Please." And then the boy started to cry.

John saw in Castiel's eyes the same pained horror that he'd often seen in Bobby's when one of the boys started in with the waterworks, the expression of how do I make it stop paired with genuine affection for the little beast responsible. But Castiel shook it off quickly, placing his palm directly above Dean's heart and keeping him still with the other.

He murmured a few more words in that language, and despite his monotone recitation it sounded like music. Dean stopped crying and stared.

And then the two of them lit up in bright white light, so bright that John had to close his eyes.

It seemed to take an eternity. Castiel's voice was constant, low and urgent, and Dean's breathing was growing rapid and frightened. He longed to open his eyes, to see what was happening to his son, but he couldn't force his lids to part. He heard Dean cry out once, the chanting increase in volume, and then all was silent. He opened his eyes cautiously.

The creature was laid out on the floor, Dean's limp body on top of him, but after only a second of panic John could see the steady rise and fall of his son's breath. Castiel's hand was on Dean's back, and John could see that his hand was tracing large, soothing circles. A moment later Castiel's other hand came up and cradled the back of Dean's head, and John saw a weary smile make its way onto Castiel's face. "You are healed," he said softly, like a prayer.

Dean responded by nuzzling closer to Castiel, trying to bury his nose in the creature's chest. Castiel froze for a moment, then tightened his grip on the boy, just the smallest amount. John could see that he was handling Dean with the utmost gentleness, like his son was made of spun glass. Remembering the strength that shoved him against the wall and held him there like he was a child, he appreciated the care Castiel was taking. The alternative, he couldn't help but think, would be collapsed lungs for his son.

A long moment passed where Castiel held Dean, and John found that while he could move, while Castiel had released him, he couldn't find it in himself to interrupt. He'd seen Dean. His boy had been in the throes of a heart attack...something John truly couldn't have protected him from. And Castiel saved him.

Finally, Castiel shifted Dean up onto his shoulder, and sat up, still cradling the boy against his chest. His eyes met John's, and he looked back down at the small figure clinging to him. "His heart is repaired," he said softly. "This will not happen again."

"You saved my son," John said. "You—I don't—"

Castiel arched an eyebrow at him. "I understand the Winchester way of expressing thanks," he said dryly, "in that you do not. So you need not try. It was my duty and my pleasure. There is little I would not do for your sons."

As Castiel lowered Dean gently onto the cot, small hands scrabbled for purchase on that ratty trench coat. Castiel stopped, still leaning over the cot but supporting Dean easily halfway down. Dean levered himself back against Castiel's chest, and the creature looked at John, as though asking permission to continue holding his son.

"Guess he likes you," was all John said, and it was gruff. Castiel took it as the permission it was, and wrapped his arms around Dean cautiously, and the only word that came to John's mind to describe the gesture was devout.

"He has a beautiful soul," Castiel whispered in a strangled voice, and John looked sharply at him. Sure enough, he hadn't heard wrong: the creature looked like he had tears in his eyes as he rubbed Dean's back reassuringly. The boy was falling asleep on his shoulder, and Castiel watched him as though he'd never seen anything as wonderful. "It is so pure and good."

John felt like he should be unnerved by the remarks, but there was adoration in his voice rather than any of the things he usually heard in the monsters he had to protect his boys from...hunger, or hatred, or the sick pleasure of the hunt. As odd as what he was saying sounded, John had no doubt that he meant it. And Castiel was still holding Dean gingerly, reverently, as though he were terrified to break him.

Once Dean was asleep, Castiel pried the boy's hands from the fabric of his coat and reluctantly tucked him under the sheets of the cot, making sure he and Sammy were both covered and warm. Again he brushed Dean's hair out of his face and his hand lingered on the boy's head before he pulled away, shoving his hands into his pockets and turning to face John, his back to the boys. "I will see to it that the witch responsible for the curse is dealt with," he said, and John's eyes widened. "Dean had a substitute teacher this past week," Castiel explained. "She was on...someone else's payroll. She will no longer be a threat to him."

"Who would want to hurt Dean?" John breathed.

Castiel looked down. "I am at...there is...a war. There are those, my enemies, who would use the threat or act of harming Dean as a weapon against me."

"You couldn't have stopped this from happening?" John asked, knowing he was pushing it.

But instead of anger Castiel's expression only showed sadness and guilt as he replied, "I tried. I spoke to Dean in his dreams to try to ascertain the source of the danger, followed him to try to keep him safe. I wished to avoid this entirely, but it is...difficult for me to gain entrance into an elementary school." His brow furrowed. "They did not believe that I was a substitute teacher, and threatened to call the police. I could not press it; I feared that the witch might do something drastic if she thought herself in danger of being found out."

"What are you?" John asked.

Castiel shook his head. "I can't tell you," he said. "I'm not supposed to be here, not now. But Dean needed me. I could not stay away, regardless of the risks."

"Will he be safe, now?" John pressed. "Will Sam?"

Castiel studied him for a moment before nodding. "I will ensure it," he said, and it was an oath. "Know that I will always protect your sons."

"Why?" John asked. "I don't even know who you are. What you are. Why would you protect my boys?"

John could see the effort in Castiel's shoulders as he resisted turning back to look at the boys, could see the struggle in the lines of his face as he closed his eyes and said, "Because they are the most important men in the world. Because I owe them this." He hesitated, and added, "And because, impossibly, they would do it for me."

John didn't know what to say to that.

Castiel looked back up at him and said, his voice quiet and tight, "Take care of them, John. Protect them. They need their father." He put a hand on John's shoulder, and that gentle touch, as opposed to the man-handling he'd received earlier, sent a flowing sensation of peace through him. "Your sacrifices will not be forgotten," he said softly.

John blinked, and he was gone.

After he'd recovered from the shock, he walked over to his boys, knelt by the bed, and put his hands on both of their shoulders, feeling the swell of breath from both of them and wondering if there had ever been a sweeter sensation.

The most important men in the world, Castiel had said.

John certainly thought so, as he fell asleep on his knees, lulled by the knowledge that his boys were alive and safe.