Coming Home

Special thanks to Tea Junky who edited this little ditty into something presentable. This story was originally published in Blood Brothers 6, which is still available for purchase. Just email TeaJunkieatcomcastdotnet and ask for details.

Author's note: This fic stands alone. However, it was intended as a companion piece to Phx's story "Going Home" taking place when the boys are the age we all know and love. Be sure to check it out!

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It always felt a little like coming home. Sammy had never known the loving presence of a mother, but the smell of freshly baked pie, the roaring fire in the living room fireplace, and the gentle nature of the pastor himself all made Sammy feel safe. He looked over at his brother and grinned, and was rewarded by an answering smile from Dean. As long as his brother was with him, Sammy was always home.

The screen door squeaked under protest of being opened in subfreezing temperatures. Their father stepped through first, Sammy and Dean following closely behind.

"Smells like apple crisp," Dean said.

"Nose like a bloodhound, son." Dad chuckled. He kicked off his boots, waving a hand at the boys to do the same. "Jim's expecting us, shake a leg boys."

As if on cue, Jim appeared in the doorway dressed in a brown cardigan and jeans. Sammy couldn't help but think the pastor looked funny in regular people's clothes.

"I held supper for you. Nothing special, just tater tot hotdish, but it's warm which is a whole lot more than I can say for the lot of you."

"Heater's broken in the Impala," Dad explained. "That's one of the reasons I hit you up for watching the boys for a couple of weeks."

Jim stepped to the side and ushered them into the bright kitchen. "It'll be fine, John. I'm rather busy with Christmas services coming up, and I have an assistant pastor shadowing me fresh from the seminary, but I spoke with Ms. Gunderson down at the Lutheran school in town and I think we've got it worked out."

"I appreciate it, Jim, more than you know. Bobby agreed to look at the car and give me a loaner to take care of…" He trailed off, cautious. "Business. But you know Singer. Two to three weeks of the boys underfoot and I'm afraid he'd lose his mind. I'll be honest, I didn't even ask."

Sammy looked up at his dad, trying to decide what the expression on his face meant.

Dean interjected into the conversation. "But school? Dad, I…" Dean fell silent at the stern look his father shot in his direction.

"School sounds good, Jim. Sammy's really taken to the Kindergarten classes he's attended, and Dean," Dad stopped and half-chuckled, "well, Dean enjoys socializing."

Dean scowled, wrapped an arm around Sammy, and herded him to the table. "Come on, little bro, let's see how many phone books you need to reach the table this time."

It was Sammy's turn to scowl.

His brother just laughed. "You look like you just bit into a crabapple, kiddo."

"Those were nasty!" Sammy protested.

Last summer Dean had climbed the tree next to the barn and tossed down a few small, hard apples. The sour flavor hadn't deterred his older brother, but Sammy clearly remembered the bellyache Dean had denied having that night.

"Whatever."

Dean put two books under Sammy's bottom, and Sammy had to admit it was easier to reach his plate.

Their father was reaching for the serving spoon when Jim cleared his throat.

"John, would you like to say grace?"

"Saving that honor for you, Pastor." Their dad pulled back his arm and folded his hands, nodding to the boys to do the same.

Jim glanced around the table then bowed his head and began.

Sammy recognized the traditional prayer and joined in halfway through. When it was finished he looked up to find his brother giving him a quizzical look. "What?" Sammy asked.

"Nothing."

Heaps of steaming food were piled onto his plate and Sammy dug in, focusing on the side of green beans. He hadn't made up his mind yet about the hotdish, whatever that was.

Dean seemed to sense his indecision, or he was just hungry, and really, when wasn't he? He scooped more than half the mound of food from Sammy's plate unto his own.

"Hey," Sammy offered the obligatory protest. "That was mine."

Dean opened his mouth, revealing the half-chewed food. "Want it back?" he taunted.

"Dean!" Sammy tried to sound upset, but he couldn't help giggling when his brother crossed his eyes and puffed out his cheeks.

"Boys," their father scolded. The rest of his admonishment was cut short by the opening of the front door.

"Ah, Pastor Schneeberger," Jim said, standing to greet the newcomer. "I'd like you to meet the Winchesters. John, Dean, and Sammy."

John stood to shake the young man's hand.

"Jim told me you and your boys would be here," the blond-haired minister said. "He said your sons would be staying here while you were, uh, wrapping up some business in South Dakota. I'm on my way to the hospital to visit Mrs. Erikson, but I wanted to meet all of you."

"He couldn't have told you too much about us then," John said with a tight smile.

"Some."

Dean got up from the table. He held out his hand for Sammy to hold onto to steady himself when he jumped down. The five-year-old hung back behind his older brother, unsure if being a pastor automatically meant the stranger in their midst could be trusted.

"You must be what, at least fourteen?" Pastor Schneeberger asked, shaking Dean's hand.

Dean blushed as he returned the handshake. "No sir, nine."

"Really? You seem much older." The pastor crouched and held out his hand. "And you must be little Sammy?"

Sammy bit his lip and nodded. At Dean's slight urging, he reached out to tentatively shake hands with the pastor. "I'm bigger now. I'm five, Pastor Schneezeburger," he said.

The blue-eyed pastor winked at Dean and sneezed.

"Bless you," Sammy said as he continued, undaunted. "I'm in school now, just like Dean."

The younger pastor's blue eyes sparkled as he ruffled Sammy's hair. "That is bigger," he agreed. "You boys can call me Pastor Matt. All the kids do."

"Matthew, are you sure you can't stay and dine with us?" Jim asked. "There's plenty."

"No, I promised Iris' son I'd be there soon, but I couldn't resist meeting everyone." Pastor Schneeberger straightened, ruffling Sammy's hair on the way up. "I'll be back in time to get the choir started tonight. I'm determined to teach them 'Oh, Tannebaum' in German."

"I'll see you there," Pastor Jim said with a chuckle. "And good luck to you."

"I'll probably need it," Schneeberger replied with a smile. He nodded to the Winchesters. "Pleasure to meet you."

"Same to you."

Sammy stood frozen in his spot, watching the blond-haired pastor leave. Dad hadn't sounded upset, but the look he leveled at Pastor Jim was definitely his "someone is in trouble" face. Before Sammy could figure it out their father ordered them upstairs to get cleaned up.

"Come on, kiddo," Dean said, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "You heard, Dad. Let's go."

"Dean, is Pastor Jim in trouble?" Sammy whispered, his tone clearly conveying disbelief.

"I don't know," Dean replied. He pulled Sammy in tighter, the shepherding touch becoming a hug. "But I think we should make ourselves invisible for a while."

Sammy nodded and bit his lip, as he tried, and failed, to understand his father's mood change.

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"Jim, I don't have a problem with Matt being around my boys," John snapped, his annoyance nearly palpable. "What I want to know is what exactly you told him about us."

"John, try to understand," Jim said, putting as much patience into every syllable that he could manage. "My supernatural proclivities aren't exactly condoned by the church. No matter that many of our tools as hunters mirror those I use as a minister to my congregation. I couldn't explain everything away, I had to tell him something."

"So, what happened?" John asked, his tone biting. "Did he catch you spiking the holy water?"

Jim couldn't help the look of disapproval that crossed his face. Sometimes the Winchester patriarch could be so…exasperating. He made a show of clearing the table, giving John a few minutes to cool down. He steadfastly ignored the fidgeting and nearly inaudible huffs of annoyance and poured them both a coffee before sitting back down. "I understand your trepidation, but the salt lines, the wards, the, well, the devil's trap under the throw rug by the entryway door, they all raise questions."

"Ever hear of lying?" John asked, his words falling flat. He sighed deeply, then took a sip of coffee. "I'm sorry, it's just, I don't want him accidentally mentioning anything to Sammy or confusing Dean." John sighed again. "Pretty much, I don't want him interfering."

"He won't," Jim assured his friend. "Matthew has only a natural curiosity, but no real interest or even, admittedly, belief in what I do in my 'free time.' I've already coached him on Sammy's innocence regarding hunting and the fact that Dean'll con him out of any pocket change he has, if lets him." That won him a hard-earned chuckle from John. "Truth is, Pastor Schneeberger is in training and he'll be extremely busy with church business. He'll barely interact with your boys at all. You can trust me, John."

Jim saw the indecision warring on John's face, and it wasn't as if the minister didn't understand what he was asking. John didn't trust anyone, not really, not when it came to his boys.

"I do," John said finally.

And Jim had to admit, he appreciated the lie.

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John left shortly after finishing his coffee. He'd insisted the few hours remaining on the drive to Bobby Singer's salvage yard would be easier tonight when he could exchange a few ideas with the other hunter, rest up, and head out in the morning.

Jim hadn't argued with him, honestly feeling a little bit relieved to be rid of him. He felt an instant twinge of guilt for the unchristian thought, but there was just something about John Winchester that tended to rub him the wrong way sometimes.

Squeals of laughter filtered down through the heating vents from the bathroom above. Jim smiled, the good mood was contagious. He grabbed the boys' duffel and padded up the wooden stairs mindful of the one third from the top that squeaked eerily when the weather changed. One day, he'd have to fix it. Until then, it was a great alarm system for little boys sneaking down after they were supposed to be asleep. He suspected Dean knew about the step, but Sammy hadn't caught on yet, so Jim had a few more years before he had to dig out his toolkit.

Jim heard the quick pattering of feet that could only be the youngest Winchester. He rounded the corner and stopped when he heard the quiet conversation from the room the boys shared. Eavesdropping might be wrong, but he hated to intrude without warning.

"Dean, what happened to our beds?" Sammy asked, the wonder in his voice discernible from the hallway.

"Top bunk!" Dean called dibs by way of reply.

"What if your bed falls off?"

Sammy sounded concerned and it occurred to Jim that the boys had never seen the twins assembled into bunk beds before. Sammy had probably never seen bunks anywhere else either.

"You can see they're screwed together, Sammy. Check it out."

The sound of scrapping against his hardwood floors had Jim hurrying to intercept. "Did you boys find everything you needed?"

"Yes, sir," Dean replied with a nod. "I was just explaining to Mr. Wrinkly-Worry face that the beds aren't going to fall apart."

Sammy's frown deepened as he scowled at his brother. Jim couldn't help the small grin that tugged on his lips. The five-year-old's face really did curl with concern, but it was probably a fair trade for the adorable twin dimples when the boy smiled.

"Dean's right, Sammy," Jim explained. "The beds aren't going to come apart. They're usually separate, but they are made to be either stacked as bunks or apart as single beds. There're screws holding them together. It's perfectly safe."

"Yeah, kiddo," Dean said, climbing up to the top bunk like a pro. "I could jump on it and nothing's gonna happen." He demonstrated by bouncing on his knees several times provoking a predictable response from his younger brother.

"Dean, stop!" Sammy begged. He stood on his tiptoes on the edge of the bottom bunk trying to peer over the top of the mattress on the upper bed.

"Dean, don't tease your brother," Jim said, resisting the urge to sigh. He might as well have asked the older boy to quit breathing. "And, Sammy, stop fretting. It's sturdy. I promise." Not that this request had any better chance of success than the previous one. "Lights out, boys. You'll be going to school in the morning."

Dean's eyebrows drew together and his lower lip puckered for the briefest of moments. Jim knew he wasn't happy about spending a week in school instead of playing around the farm, but like many things in life, it was a decision born of necessity. His brother's eyes, on the other hand, lit up with sparkling enthusiasm.

"Do we get to ride the bus?" Sammy asked. He stepped down off the edge of his bed and climbed into it. "Do we?"

Jim didn't even want to think about John's reaction if his sons left Jim's sight on a school bus every morning. Especially since Kindergarten classes only ran in the morning, and Sammy would be riding home alone. "I'm afraid not. I'll be driving you to school and picking you up. Dean will ride the bus home in the afternoon."

"Okay," Sam said, his enthusiasm so contagious that even Dean was grinning now.

"Cool it, Egghead." Dean reached down from the top bunk and smacked his brother with a pillow. "You've got thirteen years of school yet to survive. Don't get too excited."

Jim chuckled at the mixed expression of horror and excitement on the younger boy's face. "Lie down, boys. Morning won't get here until you go to sleep."

Predictably, Dean rolled his eyes, but Sammy's brow wrinkled in concentration.

"But Pastor Jim, Daddy said the earth turned in circles and that's why the sun looks like it is going to bed and waking up. It wouldn't matter if I was asleep or awake, it would still happen." The weight of the world seemed to settle on his shoulders as his eyes widened and his lips pressed into a thin line. "Wouldn't it, Dean? Right? The earth does what it's supposed to no matter what, right?"

Jim chose not to be offended by Sammy's choice as the ultimate authority on life. One would have to be blind not to see Dean's word was the end-all, be-all as far as the youngest Winchester was concerned.

Dean leaned over the edge and dangled precariously over the bottom bunk to make eye contact with his younger brother. "Pastor Jim meant it would seem like forever to happen instead of just sleeping through it."

"Why didn't he just say that?" Sammy asked.

Dean sighed, a well-tuned expression of barely contained annoyance. "Because he's a grown up," he said simply, as if that explained it all.

"Oh." Sammy settled back into his bed, climbed under the covers, and lay down. "Good night, Dean."

Apparently, it did explain everything, at least in the language that existed between the Winchester brothers.

"Good night, Sammy." Dean nodded to Jim.

Jim had the distinct impression he was being dismissed. "Yes, well, good night, boys," he said as he walked over and flipped off the light switch. "Sleep well and don't forget to say your prayers." Jim knew Sammy had faith, but he half-suspected Dean was dependent on his brother's prayers. He closed the door quietly and pretended not to hear subdued boyish giggles from the bedroom as he walked down the hall.

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It was dark, just a sliver of moonlight dusting the hardwood floor through the gap in the curtains. Dean rolled onto his side, eavesdropping on his younger brother's hushed prayer. Sammy fell silent and Dean yawned before closing his eyes. It had been a long day in the car with his ten questions every mile brother and their not entirely patient father. Although, he had to admit, they'd earned a chuckle out of their normally stoic dad during one conversation.

"Who do you think first decided that all barns had to be shaped like a barn?" Sammy asked as they drove by yet another lookalike Midwest farm.

There was a time when Dean used to pretend he knew the answer, giving Sammy whatever story he could make up on the fly. But his younger brother was increasingly perceptive and he didn't fall for Dean's line of bologna as often anymore except, it seemed, thank God, on the important stuff. "Well, when I got my degree in barnology…"

"Dean," Sammy interrupted, dragging out his name with exasperation. "Just say you don't know. It's okay."

"It's called sarcasm, Sammy. Look it up."

Dad had laughed and explained it had to do with stacking the most hay in the available space. He'd also said something about invisible gas that neither of the brothers had quite understood even if Sammy had nodded and no doubt tucked it away into his steel trap memory for odd facts.

Dean's eyes snapped open, and he strained to see in the shadowed room. Something had woken him from the memory-dream and he was instantly alert. Then he heard it, the small sound that had seeped into his brain while he slept; a tiny, half-choked sniff from directly below.

"Sammy?"

He heard the quick, indrawn breath, but the silence that followed was thick, blanketing Dean with apprehension. He was the only one allowed to antagonize his little brother. If someone or something else was bothering Sammy, they were going down.

"Sammy, I know you're awake."

When his brother still didn't reply, Dean huffed with feigned annoyance, turned on his belly and slid off the top bunk onto the floor. He leaned into the dark cave of the lower bunk trying to see his brother. Sammy, for his part, had his eyes closed pretending to be asleep.

"Talk to me," Dean said, all pretense gone. It was time for his brother to come clean. "Why were you crying?"

That provoked a reaction, just as Dean expected it would. Sammy's eyes popped open and he sat bolt upright in bed, indignation visible even in the almost nonexistent light. "I wasn't crying, Dean. I'm not a baby."

"Okay," Dean replied, sitting down on Sammy's bed. "Then tell me why you're still awake." Sammy's stricken expression was almost enough to make Dean back down, but when it came right to it, his brother's pride wasn't as important as his heart. "Come on, kiddo. Talk to me."

"You'll make fun of me," Sammy confessed, his voice cracking with shame. "Please, Dean. Just go back to bed."

"Nope, not happening." Dean didn't move, knowing full well he only had to wait his brother out.

Sammy pulled the covers up over his head. "It's lonely," came the muffled answer.

Dean frowned, tugging the blankets off his brother's head. "What is?"

"This bed." Sammy tugged on the covers trying to get them away from Dean. He huffed when it didn't work, planted his fists on the bed, and then turned toward the wall instead.

Dean rolled his eyes. Sharing a bed with his younger brother wasn't fun. The kid always shoved his cold feet under Dean's legs, often invading his space to the point of practically forcing him off the bed. Still, it beat trying to sleep on the top bunk pretending he didn't know that Sammy was upset. No, more than upset. Sammy was afraid of something, whether he'd ever admit it to Dean or not.

Dean stood, snagged his pillow and tossed it down next to Sammy. He started to pull the blankets onto the bed with them, mainly out of self-defense in case his brother hogged them all, when he had an idea. He tucked the blankets under the top mattress creating a makeshift tent fortress on the bottom bed. Dean slipped inside, hushing his brother when he giggled.

"What're we doing?" Sammy asked in a stage whisper.

"With any luck—sleeping," Dean deadpanned. Sammy poked him in the ribs and Dean squirmed away. "Stop it."

"Tell me," Sammy insisted, shoving his cold feet under Dean's leg. "Please."

"We're camping." Dean moved his leg only to have Sammy's heat-seeking toes find it again. "Now go to sleep."

"Okay," Sammy said snuggling down, apparently mollified. "Good night, Dean."

"Good night, little brother."

One of Sammy's hands picked at the hem of Dean's t-shirt until they both fell asleep.

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In true Minnesota fashion, the next day was bright but extremely cold. Dean missed the snow that usually blanketed the ground this time of year, but it did make going to school that much easier to bear. The day passed rather uneventfully save the almost fight he'd gotten into at lunch with the class bully, resulting in an hour of detention. He wasn't terribly surprised to find Pastor Jim had sent Pastor Matt to pick him up instead. Dean figured he'd thrown a kink into Jim's well-planned schedule.

"Jim's making supper," Matt offered by way of explanation when Dean climbed into the car. "I guess Sammy was outside playing most of the afternoon and Pastor Jim didn't want to drag him out again."

Dean frowned, his forehead bunching in turn. "Something wrong?"

Matt smiled for a moment, patted Dean on the shoulder, and then gestured for him to put on his seat belt. "No, everything's fine. Sammy's fine. I think Jim's playing it safe."

Dean wasn't sure Pastor Matt's answer satisfied him, but he let it go for now. He could see for himself when they got back to the parsonage. Dust from the car's heater tickled his nose and he sneezed—loudly.

"Gesundheit," Matt said, turning up the heater. "You're not getting sick, are you?"

"No, just dust." Dean pulled off his gloves and held his hands over the vents. "What was that you said?"

Matt chuckled, turning to grin at Dean for a moment before focusing on the road again. "Gesundheit," he repeated, slower this time. "It's German for 'good health.' You hear it quite a bit around here." He narrowed his eyes in thought. "But you aren't really from around here, are you?"

"No."

When it became obvious Dean wasn't going to clarify any further, Matt nodded. They turned up the road to the church and the car pulled to a stop.

"You don't mind walking up to the house, do you?" Pastor Matt asked. "I left Mildred here with the Bible group and I'm afraid she'll have taken over by now."

"I don't mind. Thanks for the ride."

"You're welcome."

The truth was, Dean actually preferred the short walk up the hill to the house. It gave him time to think about what he was going to tell Pastor Jim. It didn't matter that Tommy Hudson had pushed Ally onto the frozen ground. Her only sin had been standing up for Erik, the class brain who the bully inexplicably seemed to hate. Whatever the reason, Pastor Jim wouldn't approve of Dean shoving Tommy down to teach him a lesson, and Dad would definitely be angry at him for drawing unnecessary attention to himself.

Whatever. Sometimes a man had to do what a man had to do. Dad had taught him that, too.

The setting sun started to give way to twinkling stars, and the temperature was dropping. Dean looked forward to the fire he knew was going by the smoke curling out of the brick chimney. When he opened the front door, he was rewarded by the scent of savory stew and cornbread. Things were looking up.

"The school called," Pastor Jim said when Dean stepped into the warm kitchen. "Mrs. Johanson gave me a fifteen minute diatribe regarding your behavior."

Dean hung his head and scuffed his toe along the braided throw rug. "Sorry."

"I might not approve of your methods, but I won't fault your convictions or your strength of character," Jim said placing a hand on Dean's shoulder.

Dean looked up, biting his lip, and nodded, his mind whirling at the sudden change of events. He knew it didn't mean he was off the hook, but if he'd understood Jim correctly, it meant he wasn't getting a lecture. "Where's Sammy?"

"By the fire," Jim said, nodding toward the living room. "I'm afraid he caught a chill this afternoon playing outside."

So that's what Pastor Matt had meant by Jim playing it safe. "He's not sick, is he?"

"No," Jim reassured him, turning back to the stove. "He was out too long in the cold weather, that's all. Go see for yourself."

Four of the most unnecessary words ever. Of course Dean was going to go see for himself. He walked into the living to find his brother by the fireplace, cocooned in at least three blankets. Sammy's mop of brown hair stuck out, framing his face. Hazel-greens, luminescent in the flickering light, met Dean's gaze.

Sammy smiled, dimples digging into his cheeks. "Dean!"

"Hey, Sammy." By the time Dean sat down, his back against the sofa, his younger brother was there, standing in front of him still wrapped in layers of blankets. Dean had barely nodded his head at Sammy's unspoken question when the kid settled in beside him, and snuggled up close. "Cold?"

Sammy nodded. When Dean wrapped an arm around his brother's small shoulders, he could feel the fine tremors running through him.

"How long did you play outside today?" Dean asked, careful to keep emotion out of his voice. "You're supposed to come inside before you turn into a human popsicle."

"I don't know," Sammy admitted, his teeth chattering slightly. "I was having fun with Mr. Swenson."

"Mr. Swenson?" Dean asked, his arm tightening protectively.

Sammy nodded against his arm again. "Yeah, he's nice. He tells funny stories."

Pastor Jim emerged from the kitchen holding a tray. "I thought we'd eat supper in here tonight."

"Thank you," Sammy said, sitting up enough for the blankets to pool around his waist.

"Do you know Mr. Swenson?" Dean asked when Jim handed him the tray.

"No," Jim replied, but the quick glance to Sammy let Dean know there was more the pastor wanted to say. "But we're a small, close-knit community. I'll find out who he is."

Dean frowned at Jim. Obviously, the pastor wasn't concerned, but that didn't mean Dean was just going to let it go. For all he knew, Mr. Swenson was some sort of pervert. What was he doing hanging around outside talking to kids, anyway?

A tiny elbow in his ribs drew Dean's attention to his brother. "What, runt?"

Sammy wrinkled his nose and furrowed his brow. "Why aren't you eating?"

"Why is your face like that?" Dean tossed off, reflexively.

"Dean," Sammy replied, sounding more like an exasperated version of their father than a five-year-old.

"Sammy," Dean mocked with a grin. "You're the one who needs to eat, shrimp."

Sammy wrinkled his nose and made eye contact with Dean before taking a large bite of cornbread. "Mfou wanna play che'ers?"

"Dude." Dean wiped his face. "Say it, don't spray it."

"Ew."

"You're telling me." Dean poked his brother in the stomach earning him a giggle. "But sure. I'm willing to beat you at checkers."

"Boys," Pastor Jim interrupted. He placed his book in his lap and looked at them over the top of his reading glasses. "Just one game. After that, it's time to start getting ready for bed."

"Okay," the brothers replied in unison.

As Dean predicted, he easily won the first game of checkers. Dean barely squeaked out a victory on the second game they snuck past the distracted pastor. While Sammy was setting up the third game, Jim looked up from his book. "Bath time."

Sammy's face fell in disappointment, but he started picking up the game without complaint. "Pastor Jim, how many years ago was 1923?"

Dean rolled his eyes, not surprised by the sudden change of topic. His younger brother always had something tumbling around in that brain of his. "Sixty-five," Dean answered, doing the math in his head and secretly delighted he'd beat the pastor to the answer. "Why?"

"That's forever," Sammy whispered in awe.

"Why did you want to know, Sammy?" Dean placed a hand on his brother's shoulder.

"I saw it outside today." Sammy pulled away and smiled. "Race you." He dropped the blanket he'd been wrapped up in all evening, twirled around on socked feet, and took off running for the stairs.

"Dude, that's cheating," Dean protested. Didn't matter though, he caught up to Sammy on the stairs, gave him just hard enough of a push to throw him off balance, and beat him to the top. Dean leaned against the wall, crossed his arms and went for a casual look, pretending not to notice the look of disapproval his younger brother leveled at him. "What took you so long, Sammy?"

Sammy stomped past him, his ire muffled by thick socks. In retaliation, he pinched Dean on the ribs on his way by.

"That's it, bro. You're going down," Dean said, trying to keep the laugh out of his voice as his most ticklish spot was attacked.

The squeal that came out of Sammy's mouth as he took off running was so totally not cool sounding, but it put a smile on Dean's face. He took off in hot pursuit, only drawing up fast when the bathroom door slammed in his face. "Open the door!" he shouted, banging on it for good measure.

"No!" Sammy's voice was muffled by old wood. "You're going to hit me."

"I'm not going to hit you," Dean promised. "Just open the door."

The door opened and crack and Dean pushed it all the way open ignoring Sammy's squeak of protest. "I didn't promise not to tickle you though." Dean advanced on his giggling brother when Jim squeezed into the small bathroom.

"Sammy first," Jim announced. He twisted to look at the brothers and waved an arm at Dean. "Dean, why don't you go start your homework. I'll be down in a minute."

Dean didn't miss the pointed look, nor the obvious signal that Jim wanted to talk to him out of Sammy's bat-like hearing. "Sure." He closed the door on his way out and headed downstairs to wait for the pastor.

He was knee deep in fractions when Jim finally came downstairs. "He's drying off now and then he'll brush his teeth. We probably have five minutes or so to talk. Dean, I'm sorry that I've been so busy this visit, but it's the holidays, and…"

"Pastor Jim, it's okay," Dean said, closing his math book. "Really."

Jim sighed, his eyes conveyed a sadness that Dean didn't understand. "Not really, but thank you for your absolution, Dean. My point is, Sammy played outside all afternoon, most of it in the old cemetery behind the church. I can see him just fine through my office window and he was alone."

Dean narrowed his eyes. "But, who…?"

"Lars Swenson is buried in that cemetery. He died in 1923. I know this because I'm the caretaker of our little pioneer cemetery and I have nearly every marker memorized," Jim explained, taking a seat in his chair to be at eye level with Dean.

"A ghost?" Dean asked, blood pumping wildly through his veins. Ghosts were unpredictable. He'd helped patch up the cut on his dad's forehead one night and had heard all about it.

"No, I've been in it almost every day for nearly fifteen years. I would know if someone was not at rest." Jim leaned forward and lowered his voice. "I think Sammy's just using the markers to make up stories to have someone to talk to."

Dean scrunched his face in confusion. "Why would he do that?"

"Because he's never had to play by himself before," Jim replied, reaching out and putting a hand on Dean's shoulder. "At least not for long. He's always had a brother there with him." Jim sat back in the chair.

Dean shook his head. "Sammy does stuff by himself all the time. You should see him when he gets a new book."

"But you're there when he reads it?" Jim phrased it as a question, but it seemed he already knew the answer. "I wouldn't worry about this, Dean. Sammy just has a wonderful imagination."

Dean snorted. "You have no idea." He was relieved though, happy his brother had simply created a Barney-like friend rather than having met some old man who liked to hang out around the church and strike up conversations with five-year-olds.

"And imaginary friends are pretty common for children Sammy's age," Pastor Jim continued patiently. "He'll give it all up next week when you're both out of school for Christmas break."

"You're sure?" Dean asked as he stuffed his math book into his battered backpack.

"I'm sure," Pastor Jim said. "Trust me."

Dean nodded, running his hands over the smooth, cool wood of the coffee table. "Okay," he said finally.

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Sammy walked through the tiny cemetery, his eyes trained on the weathered headstones. A few were so old the words were barely visible. He stopped briefly at Lars Swenson's stone, but then continued on. He'd already made up stories for Mr. Swenson. He wanted someone new to play with today. Who he really wanted was his brother, but Dean was still in school.

The ground was frozen but devoid of snow, which ruled out sledding, snow forts, snowmen, or anything else that was normally fun this time of year in Minnesota. That was why Sammy had ventured out into the cemetery after school yesterday, wanting to find something to do that didn't involve being inside trying to be quiet.

He caught sight of an older stone.

Olaf Peterson

1876-1885

Luba Brat

Sammy stopped, his eyes trained on the inscription as he sounded out the words. He counted the years on his fingers and he was pretty sure Olaf had been the same age as Dean. Luba Brat. The words looked funny, maybe even another language, but Sammy couldn't be sure. "Did your brother call you a brat, too?" he asked, a smile spreading across his face. His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "Don't worry, I bet he only meant it half the time. Sometimes—I think it means just the opposite."

An icy cold breeze blew through the nearby woods, rattling the knobby trees and traveling over the postage stamp-sized cemetery and straight down Sammy's collar. He wrapped his scarf tightly around his neck and shivered. Running a mittened hand across the top of Olaf's stone, he continued to talk as if the older boy could hear him. "If you don't speak English, we can still play, right?"

The sun chose that moment to emerge from behind the clouds, creating shadows on the barren ground. Sammy smiled, "That's what I thought, too." He bit his bottom lip as he contemplated the best game to play. "How about hide n' seek?"

Whooping, he ran off toward his first hiding place. The gray afternoon without a brother to hang out with was not looking so boring after all.

0-0-

Sun-bleached clouds started to turn a rosy pink when the school bus rattled to a stop in front of the church. Sammy could sense Olaf's disappointment at what clearly signaled the end of their day. It didn't stop him from running full bore toward the church to meet his brother. "Dean!" he shouted as he rounded the corner.

Dean turned in Sammy's direction as he hitched his backpack farther up onto his shoulder. "Hey, Sammy." Dean wrapped an arm around him, pulling him closer. "You cold?"

Sammy stopped walking, his face wrinkled in concentration. "Maybe."

Dean laughed, tightened his grip around Sammy's shoulders, and steered them up the small hill toward the house. "What did you do today?"

"We learned to write the letter W today." Sammy stopped and pulled at Dean's sleeve to garner his full attention. "Most of the kids in my class don't know how to read at all," he whispered.

"Most of them probably don't have an awesome brother to teach them," Dean said. "But I meant after school."

"Oh," Sammy said, a flush of embarrassment warmed his cheeks. "I dunno." He shrugged his shoulders. "Just played outside, I guess."

"In the cemetery?" Dean asked, his penetrating gaze scrutinizing Sammy.

Sammy's eyes widened. Dean knew what he'd been up to. Sometimes it seemed he always did. "Yeah, playin' hide n' seek."

"With Mr. Swenson?" Dean asked, his forehead bunched as his eyebrows climbed into his hairline.

"No," Sammy giggled. He stopped at the porch door and placed a hand on the metal handle. "I played with Olaf today." When he opened the door, his damp mitten stuck to the metal and he tugged it free. The warm air that met him smelled of chocolate and he licked his lips in anticipation.

"Olaf, huh?" Dean kicked off his boots and hung his coat on one of the wooden pegs in the entryway. "Hand me your mittens, squirt."

Sammy peeled off his mittens as he toed off his boots. He shivered hard, the chill from outside following him into the comfort of the house. "Yeah, he's nine." Dean's smile faded and there was a sadness in his eyes that Sammy didn't understand. "He doesn't speak English, but it was fun anyway."

Dean placed his gloves and Sammy's red mittens on the cranky radiator on his way to Pastor Jim's kitchen. The smell of hot chocolate filled the bright room, and Sammy stood on tiptoe to peek into the pot on the stove. He frowned when Dean put a hand on his chest to stop him.

"Careful," Dean snapped, his tone harsh. "The stove's hot."

"I know," Sammy replied, his tone conveying his annoyance at being treated like a baby. "I'm not stupid."

Dean's expression changed, his lips tightening as his eyes softened. "Your face is stupid," he quipped.

Sammy wanted to pinch him on the side, but Dean was busy taking the pan off the stove. "Looks like Jim left us some cocoa. Grab the cups, okay?"

Sammy pushed a chair from the table to the cupboard and climbed up on it to grab the heavy ceramic mugs. "Olaf would've liked hot chocolate." He didn't miss the quizzical expression on Dean's face. "What?"

"Nothing."

He knew there was more to it than Dean was saying, but he had no idea what it might be, so he let it go. Sammy sat down at the table while his brother filled their mugs with hot chocolate and added a handful of mini marshmallows to each cup. Sammy stirred his cup, patiently waiting for the marshmallows to melt before taking a sip. Warmth spread inside him as the cocoa chased out the lingering chill, and he shivered, sloshing hot chocolate out of his cup onto the table.

"Sorry," he apologized when his brother rolled his eyes and mopped up the spill.

"Just," Dean sighed, "try not to spill any more."

"I'm sorry." He took another sip and fought back the next shiver until his mug was safely resting on the table. "I'm cold."

Dean's look of annoyance disappeared. "Why didn't you say so?" He stomped off into the living room and returned a moment later with the pastor's knitted afghan. Dean tossed it onto Sammy's head and chuckled when his brother glared from under the brown and yellow throw. "Better?"

"A little." His toes felt frozen, and he could feel shivers running down his spine, but Sammy didn't want his brother to think he wasn't old enough to play outside. With his big brother in school all afternoon, Sammy's only chance at fun was with the friend he'd made up. It wasn't like playing with Dean, but it was better than being alone.

Dean narrowed his eyes, but didn't argue. Both boys looked up when the screen door rattled.

"Did you boys find the cocoa?" Jim called from the entryway.

"Yes, sir," the brothers replied in unison.

Chuckling came through the doorway first, followed closely by the pastor.

Jim frowned as he walked over to the table. He pressed a hand to Sammy's cheek. "You're absolutely freezing, Sammy."

Sammy caught Dean's scrunched face. It was easy enough to recognize the look and Sammy knew that if he didn't say something quickly, his big brother would flat out tell him he couldn't play outside in the afternoons anymore. Sometimes Dean was an awesome brother, and sometimes he was just plain bossy. "I'm not that cold," he protested with a frown.

"It would be more convincing without the chattering teeth," Jim said as he ruffled Sammy's hair. "I think you're done playing outside for the day." The pastor sat down at table. "You could help me get supper ready while your brother does his homework," he suggested.

"I'll help," Sammy agreed, nodding his head. He saw Dean frown and wondered what was bothering his brother. He waited to ask until Pastor Jim went to the cupboards and began pulling out the cooking pans. "What's wrong, Dean?"

"Nothing," Dean replied, sullenly not looking up from his cocoa.

"You could help Pastor Jim if you want to," Sammy suggested. He started tugging on his brother's backpack to open it. "I'll do your homework."

Dean scoffed, but when he looked up he smiled. "You're a smart kid, Sammy, but you don't know everything I know yet."

"I know." He sat down with a huff. Crossing his arms, Sammy did his best not to pout and be accused of being a baby. "And it's not fair."

"It's plenty fair," Dean argued, pulling out his homework. "I'm older than you."

He thought about it for a minute. His brow puckered until his bangs brushed his eyes. "Well, I don't like it," he said finally.

Pastor Jim chuckled from over by the stove. "Bring your chair," he said with a nod in Sammy's direction. "If we have time, I might even make cookies."

"You heard him, short stuff." Dean pointed over his shoulder with his pencil at the pastor. "Move it."

And even though Sammy knew his brother was only teasing, it didn't stop him from sticking out his tongue at Dean on his way by when the pastor wasn't looking. He got a punch in the arm for it, but it was worth it.

The rest of the evening passed quickly. After supper, and their usual games of checkers by the fire, it was time for bed. It wasn't until Dean snuggled in beside him in their blanket cave on the bottom bunk that Sammy started to feel warm again. Everything, that is, except his toes which he shoved under Dean's legs in spite of his big brother's protests.

"Good night, Dean."

"Go to sleep, Sammy."

And Sammy did. He shivered in his sleep and curled closer to his brother as he dreamed of hide n' seek with his snowy blond haired friend, Olaf.

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

Dean tapped his pencil against the desktop with increased agitation. Really, sitting in class while Dad was off hunting and Sammy was playing in a graveyard for crying out loud was just, well, stupid. When would he ever have to know that Champlain explored the Great Lakes? Never, that's when. Dean steadfastly ignored the annoyed glances tossed in his direction and tapped his pencil louder. He should be with his brother, who was probably playing with imaginary friends.

Dean snorted, harsh with bitterness not amusement. All Sammy had done the last three days was talk about Olaf, and Dean was sick of it. Not that he was jealous, because being jealous of your little brother's imaginary friend was just—lame. Dean stopped tapping his pencil and settled for breaking it into pieces instead. The sharp snap was definitely more satisfying than the tapping had been.

"Dean, that's enough," Mrs. Johanson admonished, looking at him over the top of her reading glasses.

It was all Dean could do not to roll his eyes at her. As if she could intimidate him. His father was John Winchester.

"I'm sorry," Dean apologized with faked sincerity. He added his best smile and managed, again, not to roll his eyes when she returned it with one of her own.

"I know we're all antsy," Mrs. Johanson said, addressing the entire class this time. "But we still have an hour to go before Christmas vacation, so I need you to stay focused."

As her gaze settled on Dean once more, he nodded in agreement. He could listen with one ear and stew at the same time. He was a big brother-he'd had loads of practice.

As the teacher continued to drone on, the first genuine snowflakes of winter started to fall. Not the hard, dry flakes that would blow on prairie winds later in the season, but large, wet flakes that spoke of snowball fights, snowmen, and snow forts if it kept up. Dean smiled at the thought. It was just in time, something he could do with Sammy tomorrow when school would be officially behind them for at least two weeks.

Final bell sounded and Dean didn't even bother taking any books with him. It's not like he'd be coming back. Laughter sounded around him, and he heard talk of presents and plans with grandparents. He felt a small pang of envy for not only himself, but also his brother. Dean immediately brushed it aside. Their dad was a hero. Saving people was a whole lot more important than a few presents. Knowing that your dad was a real-life Batman was better than any old toy.

Head lifted high, Dean walked out to the bus that would take him where he truly belonged: back to his family.

The bus ride seemed interminably long. The sun was low in the winter sky, obscured by clouds and partially hidden behind knobby treetops when Dean stepped out of the bus at the church and frowned. Sammy wasn't there to meet him as he had been every other day. Shielding his eyes from falling flakes, Dean spotted the small huddled form and mop of brown hair that could only be his brother crouched down by a headstone in the cemetery.

Jaw clenched, hands forming tight fists inside borrowed yarn mittens, Dean strode across the slippery ground toward his brother who was moving off closer to the surrounding woods. Dean was just opening his mouth to call out to Sammy when the soles of his tennis shoes hit the snow-covered face of a flat granite marker. Before he had a chance to yelp in surprise, he was falling. And then he hit the ground—hard. Pain blossomed along the base of his skull as he tried to gulp air into protesting lungs.

The air wavered, and the white around him swam in and out of focus, nearly fading to black. Dean shivered, the motion causing a flash of hot behind his eyes. Tears formed and a groan forced its way out of his tight throat. A boy who looked about his age, but smaller, stood next to Dean. Wide icy blue eyes gazed at him with clearly visible concern, even if the other boy didn't say a word. Dean tried to raise his head, but groaned at the obvious mistake. Fire burned up his neck, into his head, and the world went dark.

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

Brother.

Sammy looked up when he sensed Olaf nearby. The wind around him picked up in urgency, spurring the five-year-old into motion. He followed the tug to a prone shape suspiciously resembling…

"Dean!" Sammy knelt in the snow next to his brother, oblivious to the cold wetness seeping through his jeans. He pulled off a mitten with his teeth, placed mostly warm fingers on Dean's face, and gently shook his brother's head. "Dean!"

Deans' eyes remained closed, his skin so pale his freckles stood out in stark relief on his nose and cheeks. Sammy bit his lip to stop the trembling. With a shaky hand that was already getting stiff from cold, he unzipped Dean's jacket partway and pinched his ribs. If his brother was faking to scare him, this would definitely get a reaction. It never failed.

Except…Dean didn't move.

"Dean?" The name came out as more of a sobbed question than the frantic command it had before. Sammy looked up, glanced around the snow-covered landscape, and spotted the lights were on at the church. "Please be there," Sammy whispered. The church was closer than the house and if Pastor Jim was there, it would mean the minister could be here sooner to help Dean.

"Stay with Dean," Sammy said to Olaf. Someone had to stay here with Dean, even if that someone was only pretend. Sammy couldn't bear the thought of his brother lying out in the snow all by himself. Without further hesitation, he stood and sprinted to the church, feet slipping out from underneath him several times along the way.

Soaked, chilled, and thoroughly panicked, Sammy burst through the door of the church. "Pastor Jim!" Disapproving glances were thrown in his direction, but he didn't care. Not when his brother looked like, well, he didn't know what. But it scared him. "Pastor Jim!"

The salt-and-pepper-haired pastor emerged from a cluster of church members, his forehead furrowed. "Sammy, what is it?" Jim placed two grounding hands on his shoulders. "Are you okay?"

Hiccups, a precursor to sobs, bubbled out of his throat as Sammy nodded. "D-Dean."

"It's okay," Jim soothed. He crouched down, concerned brown eyes falling on Sammy. "Take a deep breath and try again."

Sammy nodded, his eyes swelling with tears that he tried desperately to stop from falling. Dean wouldn't cry. "Dean won't wake up," he said around the lump in his throat. His fingers tugged at the pastor's sleeve. "You hafta help." The sob escaped this time. "Please."

"It's okay," Jim said, placing a hand on top of Sammy's head. "Dean will be okay. I need you to show me where he is." The pastor's hands moved to his shoulders as a solemn gaze fixed on Sammy's eyes. "Can you do that for me?"

Sammy bit his lip and nodded, the world blurring slightly through unshed tears. "Hurry," he whispered, his voice trembling.

Pastor Jim slipped into his jacket, buttoning it closed as he walked. As they reached the door, he reached down to grasp one of Sammy's smaller hands in his own. "Lead the way."

Not needing to be told twice, Sammy practically took off running, his speed kept in check by the firm grip the pastor had on his hand. His mind set a staccato rhythm of: Hurry. Hurry. Dean. By the time they reached Dean, he was lightly dusted in fresh, wet snow. Sammy bit back a whimper at the sight of his brother, pale and still on the cold ground.

Jim knelt and ran his hands over Dean's head, down his arms and finally his legs. Sammy could hear the pastor speaking, but he couldn't make out the words over the ringing in his ears. He didn't miss Pastor Jim unzipping his brother's jacket. "I tried that already," Sammy said. "It didn't work."

The pastor swiveled to cast a puzzled look in Sammy's direction. "You tried what?"

"Pinching him." Sammy sniffled, rubbing his running nose with the back of his mittened hand. "It even works when he's sleeping really hard and he didn't move."

With a nod of acknowledgement, Jim turned back and rubbed his knuckles on Dean's chest. Sammy's wrinkled look of confusion morphed to relief when he heard his brother moan.

"Dean, you with us, son?" Jim asked, zipping up the boy's jacket.

Sammy stood paralyzed, fear keeping him rooted to the spot.

"Sa-mmy?" Dean asked, his hands fluttering weakly as he opened his eyes to half-mast.

That was enough to propel the younger boy into motion, and he fell to the ground, his knees knocking lightly against his brother's shoulder. "Dean." Relief spilled out with that one syllable, his world abruptly righting itself.

"You 'kay?"

Sammy tucked one mitten into his pocket and captured his brother's searching hand. "You wouldn't wake up," he said, his tone faintly accusing.

"Sorry," Dean slurred, his eyes falling shut again.

"Dean, stay awake!" Sammy shouted, panic filling every note as he gave his brother a shake. "You stay awake!"

"Sammy, it's okay," Pastor Jim said, easing his arms under Dean's neck and knees. "Let's get him inside and warmed up."

Sammy nodded. He twined his fingers into the tail of Jim's coat when the pastor stood and staggered under Dean's weight. The going was slow and one time the pastor stumbled, but Sammy didn't let go. He wasn't letting Dean out of his sight. Not ever.

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

Jim paused at the door of his bedroom, suddenly feeling all forty-plus years of his life. Dean might only be nine, but Jim's back was launching a solid protest anyway. Once they'd made it home, he'd called a doctor friend and the man had arrived within thirty minutes.

By that time, Sammy had worried himself into a frenzy. He didn't stray more than a few inches from his brother, not even when Doctor Schultz had quietly suggested to Jim that Sammy leave the room while he examined Dean. The wide-eyed terror in Sammy's eyes had been enough to convince Jim it was a bad idea, even without the short-lived but haunting keening sound the youngster had made.

The concussion was mild, just something to keep an eye on for the next twenty-four hours or so. More troublesome was the near hypothermia that had lowered Dean's body temperature to a concerning degree. Jim had forced Sammy out of the bed then, knowing that his small body was even less able to regulate its temperature. All the evenings the youngest boy had spent shivering by the fire were proof of it.

It wasn't the silent tears that convinced Jim to change his mind. It was the sheer dogged determinedness that Sammy had to crawl into bed with his brother. After the third time, Jim had wearily acquiesced. He'd piled extra blankets fresh from the dryer onto the two boys, before he swallowed down two Tylenol and eased into the reclining chair tucked into the corner of the room by the bookcase.

He'd contented himself with reading for an hour before rousing Dean. Then he'd left to call John.

Jim winced at the memory of the call as he placed a kettle of cider on the stove. For once, John's knee-jerk reaction hadn't been anger. He'd seemed calm, asked a few pointed questions, and then told Jim he'd be there by morning. Jim sighed heavily in resignation. John's calmness was…unnerving. It felt as if the other shoe—make that a hammer when it came to John Winchester—had yet to fall.

Carefully balancing the tray holding freshly warmed apple cider, Jim opened the door. He'd only left the small reading lamp by the recliner on, but it was enough to see Dean's eyes were open and watching him tiredly from the bed. He smiled when the youngster looked from Sammy to Jim and raised a finger to his lips cautioning the pastor to be quiet. Knocked half senseless, and Dean was ever the older brother.

"How do you feel?" Jim whispered after he set the tray down.

"Head hurts," Dean admitted. He glanced at his younger brother again. "And I think he's stuck to me. Any time I move and he digs his fingers in…" Dean trailed off as his mental train seemed to derail.

"Sammy's just working on getting over being scared," Jim said, helping Dean sit a little higher in the bed and Sammy resettled against his brother without waking.

"He found me," Dean said, obediently sipping the proffered warm cider. His next words came out a little slurred. "Thought I was imagining someone else for a second." He snorted softly, apparently amused by the thought. "Wha' happened?"

"We'll talk about it later," Jim assured him, taking away the mug before Dean's loose grip would spill it on the bed. "Right now, you need to sleep more."

It turned out Jim's words were wasted on the youth. Dean was already out.

0-0-

The long night stretched Jim perilously close the end of his endurance. When he hadn't been fretting about the boys, he'd worried about John's reaction, and then to Dean's odd statement about thinking someone else had found him. As far as Jim had been able to ascertain, Sammy had found Dean unconscious, and the boy hadn't roused to any significant degree at the cemetery. Although Dean's concussion could explain his confusion, Jim decided not to simply cast the statement aside. Later, once the Winchesters were gone, he'd give it some more thought.

Jim stood, folded the green fleece blanket, and placed it over the back of the recliner. He walked over to the bed, pressed a hand first to Dean's forehead, and then to Sammy's. Both felt warm, normal, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He heard the rumble of the Impala's distinctive engine making its way up the drive, so he turned on his heel and started downstairs. It was better to head John off at the pass than to have the man confront Jim in front of the boys.

He'd barely made it to the kitchen when, predictably, the screen door opened with a bang and John Winchester's shadowy silhouette filled the doorframe. Jim watched as the hunter stomped snow off his boots and stripped off his coat before entering the main house.

"I'll make coffee," Jim announced, turning his back on the other man. It was nine parts consideration and one part stalling technique, but coffee seemed his best option at a peace offering.

"Sounds great." John's tone was soft, his voice gruff. But it sounded like lack of sleep, not anger. "It's really coming down out there. Thought I might have to stop in Fergus to wait it out."

"Just started yesterday afternoon," Jim replied, scooping up the fragrant grounds. "Much to the boys' collective dismay, it's been dry as a bone until then." He flinched minutely when he brought up the boys. So much for distracting John with coffee and small talk.

"How are they?" John asked, taking a seat at the table.

Jim took a deep breath. "Sammy was pretty upset. He's the one who found Dean after he'd been hurt." Jim paused waiting for John to interject. When he didn't the pastor continued. "But he seems fine now as long as you don't try to separate him from Dean."

"It's hard enough on a regular day," John said, his voice rough. "And Dean?"

"Dean has a mild concussion and he was a bit hypothermic when we got him back to the house, but he's warmed up now." He chanced a look in John's direction, not missing the fleeting look of concern—and, was that panic?—on his friend's face. "He's okay, John. They're both okay. It'll be a bit for the coffee if you want to check on your sons first."

"I do," John admitted, glancing over in the general direction of the stairs before focusing on Jim. "But I want to get my head around this before I go up there." He paused, rubbed his hands on the smooth wood of the table, before he looked up. "You might not have noticed this, Jim, but I tend to be a bit of an asshole when I'm worried," he said with a wry smile.

"I would have used the word 'intense,'" Jim offered.

"Semantics," John huffed.

Jim held a mug under the brewing coffee stream. It never made for a great cup of coffee, but it was quicker and John looked positively frozen. He replaced the carafe, then set the mug down in front of the weary father. "I'm sorry, John."

John scrubbed a hand down his face before wrapping it around the steaming coffee mug. "Nothing to apologize for, Jim. They're boys. Accidents happen." He took a sip, then another, sighing as he set the cup down. "I sure as hell wish they didn't happen, but Sammy literally almost lost an eye once when he and Dean were just running around a park. And that was on my watch. At least you avoided hysterics." John puffed a laugh that was laced more with irony than humor. "I thought Dean was going to have a panic attack."

Jim gave him a rueful look as his lips pinched tight. "Sammy didn't handle it much better, I'm afraid." He poured himself a cup of coffee before joining John at the table. "It's rather earth shattering when you find out your hero is human." His lips twitched and he nodded at John's disheveled appearance. "So, you might want to take a shower before you visit your boys. You've, ah, got something stuck in your hair."

John fingered the crusty strands, pulled something out his hair, and examined it. "Huh, it's just…"

Jim raised his hand. "I don't want to know."

"Probably not," John laughed. "Think I will grab that shower though."

"There're fresh towels in the hall closet." Jim stood to refill his coffee. "I'm going to make us all some breakfast."

"Thanks, Jim."

As John shuffled off down the hall with a slight limp Jim hadn't noticed before, the pastor breathed a sigh of relief.

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

John hated putting soiled clothes back on after a shower. Thankfully Jim had retrieved John's bag from the Impala and dropped it off so he wouldn't have to. He looked in the mirror, noticed the dark circles under his eyes and a fresh cut running from his ear to a point halfway down his jawline. At least the five o'clock shadow he sported would partially obscure it. John rubbed a hand along the whiskers. Maybe he'd grow it out.

John had wanted to yell at Jim, and stomp past the patient pastor to get to his sons, but it wouldn't have been fair. He'd stopped at Jim's bedroom to sneak a peek at the boys before getting into the shower. Sammy had been curled up around Dean and his oldest son's arm had been wrapped around his youngest's shoulders. Neither one appeared to be in any kind of distress, so he'd opted for cleaning up first. No reason to scare either of the boys with his appearance more than they had been already.

He tossed the towel over the shower rod, zipped up his duffel, and headed down the hall, his bare feet not making a sound on the hardwood floors. The door to the bedroom squeaked traitorously when he opened it wide enough to slip inside. Uncharacteristically, it was Sammy whose eyes opened, not Dean's, at the intrusion.

"Daddy!" Sammy stage-whispered, his enthusiasm not dampened by the subdued volume.

"Hey, kiddo," John said as he sat down on the edge of the bed and opened his arms wide for the anticipated hug. Sammy was a live torpedo of energy whenever John came home from hunts, or Dean from school for that matter. This time, however, his youngest son only tightened his grip in his brother's t-shirt.

"Come here, Sammy," John softly encouraged.

The five-year-old nodded with a sniff and crawled down the length of the bed into his arms.

"Daddy, Dean, he-he…" Sammy stammered as his emotions started to get the best of him. "He was on the ground and he wouldn't, he didn't…" He sniffed again and buried his face in John's chest.

John rested a hand on the mop of chestnut curls and spoke softly. "It's okay, Sammy. Dean's fine. He'll be okay, son."

Sammy lifted his tear-streaked face. "P-promise?"

"I promise," John said, forcing all his conviction into that one statement. His arms were full of wriggling five-year-old, thin arms wrapped around his neck. Bruised ribs protested, but his heart didn't, and one arm curled protectively around his son. "Everything's going to be all right."

"Dad?" a weak voice called from the bed.

"Dean!" In spite of his exuberance, Sammy extricated himself from John's arms and slowly levered himself onto the bed, crawling up to Dean with a carefulness not typical of his age. Small fingers cupped his brother's face. "Does your head hurt?"

"Nah," Dean lied, his eyes scrunching in pain. "Hard head."

Just as Dean had probably been intending, Sammy giggled. "That's what Pastor Jim said about Daddy," Sammy whispered conspiratorially.

Huh, so John would definitely be having a conversation about that with the pastor later. He tried not to be offended by Dean's quiet chuckle. "Sammy, why don't you go see how Pastor Jim's doing with our breakfast?"

Sammy looked from John to Dean, teeth sunk into his bottom lip.

"It's okay," Dean said, apparently recognizing the dilemma that John couldn't. "Dad's here."

Sammy nodded slowly. "Okay," he reluctantly agreed. He slid off the bed and pattered down the hall.

John waited until he heard the robber-alert stair squeak before turning back to his eldest. "What happened, Dean?"

"I don't remember a lot," Dean admitted, wincing when he sat up and rested against the headboard. "I, I think I remember falling and hitting my head?" He panted quietly as his eyes raced back in forth trying to pull the memory free.

"According to Jim, you had your bell rung pretty hard, son." He shifted position to get a better viewpoint. "It's scary, I know, but sometimes not being able to remember everything is part of it."

The whole thing was more than scary. John had lost Mary, and there were times he awoke from a nightmare unable to get the acrid smell of smoke out of his nose. The thought of losing one of his sons? It eclipsed even the devastation of Mary's death.

"It's not that scary," Dean denied.

It was all bravado and bluff, John knew that. He'd had a concussion before and losing time like that was disconcerting at best and terrifying at worst. Dean was only nine. As mildly hazy as the day before was for him, it had to be a damn sight more than just a little upsetting. It could've been so much worse. Head trauma on kids Dean's age sometimes required months of recovery.

"Really," Dean assured him. "I'm good."

By the look on his son's face, John knew Dean had his number. He was the father. It was time to act like it. John scooted up on the bed and pulled his son into his arms. One hand softly cradled Dean's injured head, the other wrapped around his back. "I know you are, son."

Dean folded into his embrace and melted into his chest. John was sure he heard sniffles-tears that Dean would deny in a second if John called him on it. In fact, his shirt grew damp before he heard his son's muffled complaint. "M'head hurts."

"I'll find something for it." John made a move to get off the bed, but his child's fingers only tightened their grip in his shirt. "In a minute."

Dean nodded against the cotton fabric. "In a minute," he repeated in a hushed voice.

One minute turned into twenty and Dean fell asleep against his side before John ever got him anything for his head. He reached down, pulled the blankets up over the both of them, and rested a large palm on his son's head. It didn't take long for his breathing to even out as exhaustion took over where fear and adrenaline had been. John could rest easy knowing both his sons were safe.

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

It was three long days in bed and Dean half-suspected he was going to miss Christmas altogether. It was a good thing he'd had Sammy for company or he would've been absolutely miserable. As it was, the kid had barely left his side the entire time. Staying to play cards, or checkers, or just chatter mindlessly to Dean while he rested.

When Sammy finally convinced their dad to let Dean go downstairs for a few hours, he practically whooped for joy. Now, safely ensconced on the sofa, wrapped in blankets, and his little brother at his side, he watched the fire crackling merrily.

At some point while he'd been under Sammy's watchful eye upstairs, their father or more likely Pastor Jim, had put up a Christmas tree. Multi-colored lights twinkled, the silver and gold tinsel sparkled, and several brightly wrapped gifts sat underneath. "Are you okay?" Sammy asked, his tone soft.

Dean rolled his eyes. It was time for his younger brother to stop acting like he was the big brother. "I'm fine, Sammy." Hazel eyes focused intently on luminescent hazel-greens. "I promise. Now quit asking."

Sammy sighed but didn't argue. Dean chalked it up as a win.

"Are you boys ready to open presents?" Jim asked as he entered the room with their father right behind him.

"We have presents?" Sammy asked, bouncing on his knees.

Dad chuckled as he ruffled Sammy's hair. "Two each as a matter of fact."

"Three," Jim corrected, taking a seat in his rocking chair. "Mildred gave me something for them, too."

Dad's lips twitched as if they wanted to smile, but they weren't quite sure they had permission to do so. "Thank her for me, Jim."

"Already done." Pastor Jim motioned to the tree. "Will you do the honors, John?"

"Can I do it?" Sammy piped in. "Please, Daddy?"

"Have at it, son."

Dean smiled as his father took his brother's spot on the sofa, even if he had to curl up a little tighter to give Dad room.

"This one is from Dad," Sammy said, placing a gift down on Dean's lap.

It was simply wrapped in Sunday comic strips, but heavier than Dean would have guessed based on the size. He looked questioningly at his father, but his dad only nodded at the package. Dean ripped off the wrapping, peeled back the box lid, and stared at the object inside. The silver handle of the knife had an almost ethereal glow from the lights of the tree. He ran his hand over it, staring at it in wonder, and felt a grin stretch wide across his face. "Thanks, Dad."

"I'll teach you how to use it when you're feeling better," Dad said, patting him on the leg.

"I'm fine," Dean protested, looking up from the weapon. "Really."

"Wow," Sammy said, his mouth hanging open in surprise. He tugged lightly on the box to tilt it for a better look. His expression changed from wide-eyed awe to brow wrinkling confusion. "I thought you said we couldn't touch sharp knives."

"That's right," their dad said in a stern tone. "But your brother's old enough now to learn how to use one of his own.

Sammy's face tightened further in concentration. Dean could tell his brother wasn't happy with the answer, but after a few moments the look passed and Sammy's face smoothed out. "Like the baby pocket knife Dean has at the bottom of his bag?"

Dean gave his father an apologetic glance and shoulder shrug. He didn't think Sammy had known about the pocket knife. Sometimes he wondered if the kid went through his stuff while he was sleeping. If Sammy was curious enough, Dean wouldn't it past him.

"Just like that." Dad put a hand on Sammy's shoulder. "Don't worry, kiddo, you'll be big enough one day, too."

"It doesn't feel like it," Sammy said, his lip coming out in a pout before curling into a smile almost as quickly. "There're more presents!"

As Sammy ran to the tree for the next gift, Dean shifted on the sofa and peered into the box again. A weapon meant Dad trusted him. That he counted on him. That Dean really was his father's backup.

"John…" Pastor Jim said, reproachfully.

"Not now, Jim," Dad said, cutting the pastor off.

Dean recognized that tone. Whatever the pastor had been about to say, the discussion was definitely closed.

Dean looked up from his gift when Sammy laid another present on his lap. "Aren't there presents for anyone else?" He was starting to feel a little guilty.

"Pastor Jim and Dad already did theirs," Sammy said, pointing to the pastor. "And I opened mine from Daddy." Sammy leaned closer, excitement sparkling in his eyes. Small fingers clutched at Dean's shirt. "Daddy got me a G.I. Joe and army men. You have to play with me."

"Cool," Dean said, giving his brother a smile. "I will."

Sammy nodded, his face growing even more animated. "I opened one from the church lady, too."

"Mildred," Dean corrected absently.

"Mildred," Sammy said, and then continued unabated. "You still have two and I only have one. You need to open it, Dean." Sammy shoved the package into Dean, insistently. "We have to finish together. Open it."

"Okay," Dean laughed as his mop-haired brother bounced excitedly on the balls as his feet. "Calm down, Sammy."

Sammy watched in rapt attention as Dean wasted no time digging into the package. Inside was a new knitted blue scarf and hat along with padded blue gloves, the kind that snow wouldn't stick to. When he looked up, his brother was holding up an identical red set.

"We have the same," Sammy said gleefully. He ran for the tree again and brought Dean his final gift. "Don't open it yet," he cautioned.

Dean grinned evilly, put his finger in the seam, and tugged just enough for the paper to rip a tiny bit.

"Not yet," Sammy called from over his shoulder.

Dean tugged again and the paper ripped more.

"Wait!"

"Hurry up, I'm going for it," Dean teased.

Sammy spun and sat down on his bottom, gift in hand. "Okay, now."

Paper tore and Dean couldn't help but chuckle at his brother's laughter as they raced to open the last gift. He got tripped up by extra tape on the box itself and the brothers finished at the same time. Nestled in tissue paper, Dean found a leather bound book full of blank pages. A journal, similar to the one he'd seen his father scribbling in late at night when he probably thought both his sons were asleep.

"For your thoughts," Jim said, nodding to the book. "Or—whatever else you might want to write down."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome, Dean."

Sammy approached the pastor with two books in hand. "This is a big people book," Sammy said, his face and voice solemn. He smoothed a hand over the embossed words A Christmas Carol. "Not a kiddie book."

"No, it isn't a children's book," Jim agreed, placing an arm around him. "I thought you could try reading it, and that Dean or your dad could help you."

"They can. Dean can read lots of words," Sammy agreed, enthusiastically bobbing his head. His face looked serious again when he held out the other book. "I don't know any words in this one. What is it?"

"It's Latin," Pastor Jim explained. "You bring it with you every time you visit me and I'll teach you how to read it."

Sammy squealed, causing Dean to wince as the pitch seemed to hit just the spot that aggravated his headache. He shook his head and glanced knowingly at his father. Only Sammy would get that excited over what was essentially extra homework.

The screen door opened and closed, followed by the entryway door. "Anybody home?" a voice called from the other room.

"We'll be right there," Jim called back. He stood up and motioned everyone to follow. "Pastor Matt is joining us for Christmas dinner and he brought his family's traditional dish. Cabbage rolls."

Sammy wrinkled his nose, but it was Dean who launched a protest.

"Cabbage? Gross."

"You'll try it, and be polite about it, boys," Dad lectured, helping Dean up from the sofa.

"Yes, sir," they replied in unison.

"I think you'll be surprised," Jim added. "They're really quite tasty." He picked up some of the wrapping paper and threw it into the fireplace.

Apparently not wanting to miss an opportunity to feed the fire, Sammy scrambled to gather the remaining pieces and tossed them in.

"Let's go eat," Dad said as he shepherded Dean toward the kitchen. "Dinner and then back to bed for you, Tiger."

"But, Dad," Dean protested, and yeah, maybe it did sound a little like a whine, but his father's stern look shut him down. "Yes, sir."

"I just want you to take it easy until the doctor checks you out tomorrow. If he says you can run around like a maniac, I'll let you."

"Deal."

"Now, get your brother and let's eat."

"Sammy," Dean said, turning around to make sure he had his brother's attention. "Hoof it."

"Coming," Sammy replied as he turned away from the fire.

Pastor Jim slid the protective chain across the fireplace and they all migrated to the small dining area in the kitchen. Dinner was without incident, punctuated only by adult conversation or Sammy's incessant chatter. All in all, Dean had to admit it was a great Christmas—and it turned out cabbage rolls were freakin' awesome.

0-0-

Dad was busy packing the car, and somewhere, Sammy was huddled up with the pastor, learning a phrase out of his Latin book. Dean, for his part, was content to simply be by himself for a minute. Sammy had been stuck by his side even after the doctor had given Dean the all clear. The kid had insisted on it. In fact, there had been near hysterics the one time Dean had gone to the barn by himself for a while.

It wasn't all bad. They'd played outside in the snow almost every day, and even though both he and the pastor had fretted that Sammy would get too cold, he never did. When they weren't outside, Dean and his brother had played cards or checkers. One time they'd even been allowed in Jim's den to watch cartoons for a few hours.

But Dean was ready to go. Sammy's tentacles of concern were getting stifling, and now that Dad was back and Dean was better, it was time for his brother to get over it already. Maybe when things returned to normal, so would Sammy.

Until then, it was well within Dean's rights as the big brother to torment Sammy into submission.

The door opened and slammed shut, followed by boots stomping on the porch. "Let's go, boys!"

"Coming, Dad!" Dean shouted. He turned to call for his brother, but Sammy had already silently appeared by his side. "Let's go."

"Where're we going?" Sammy asked as he followed Dean to the entry to put on his coat and boots.

"To the zoo to leave you where we found you," Dean deadpanned, helping Sammy zip up his jacket.

"Dean," Sammy said, hands on his hips. "Where?"

"I already told you, the zoo." Dean shoved the red hat onto his brother's head.

Sammy brushed his bangs out of his eyes and tucked them into his hat. "Dean."

The whine had stretched his name to two syllables. "Well, really, it's the monkey house. They miss you." Dean put on his gloves and opened the door. "Though I can't understand why."

"Dean!" Sammy stomped his foot.

"Boys," Pastor Jim said reproachfully as he joined them in the entryway. "Your father is waiting for you."

"Yes, sir," Dean replied, lifting a hand to wave. "Bye."

"Good-bye, Pastor Jim," Sammy said, waving as he ran out the door to follow his brother.

Dean thought he heard the pastor say something to them, but he didn't stop to find out what. He just opened the car door for his brother and they piled into the backseat. As they drove down the snowy lane, Dean smiled. What Sammy didn't seem to have completely figured out yet was it didn't matter where they were going, as long as they went together as a family.

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A lonely breeze scattered snow along the headstones, following the Winchesters to the edge of the cemetery before the black, rumbling car turned onto the highway and headed out of town.

Fin

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AN: Thank you for reading!