A/N: Sorry for the mini hiatus, real life has a way of keeping the muse away. ;p All kidding aside, this one is for mb64, who had requested a while back a one shot about Sam's first experience witnessing Dean get severely hurt on a hunt. I tweaked it a little bit, making Sam about twelve or so for his first hunt. Hope you don't mind dear! Enjoy! As always, thank you so much judyann, mandancie, LilyBolt, mb64, Lewlou15, reannablue, and deanstheman for your recent awesome reviews! Thank you also to those who have favorited, followed, or even just read these, and all of my other fics. It means a lot! And now, without further ado…

Chapter 17 – Coming of Age

When Sam had first noticed that their father seemed to be away more times than he was home, he was a preschooler. At first, it had never really bothered him; in the afternoon Dean came home from school and was always there, even if he did have to at least attempt his homework first; in the morning,he usually spent time with the neighbour, or any adult John Winchester could at least reasonably trust enough to care for his child while he was away on one of his "business trips", and instead of missing his dad, Sam longed for the hour Dean would walk through the door. He did notice his father's absence on holidays, such as his birthday, Dean's birthday, Father's Day and Christmas. Mother's Day was the worst, not because he remembered his mother (which he did not, and Dean never wanted to talk about Mommy), and absences had been greatly noticed by the child then. Otherwise, the child tended to be upset mostly when his older brother wasn't around.

Sam was about seven when he started noticing that sometimes, when Dad came back from his trips, he looked hurt. Most of the time, it was nothing but a few scratches and bruises, with the occasional black eye or split lip. John had remained tight lipped about it all, but Dean had somehow come up with a believable excuse. Dad was a jack of all trades, doing odd jobs to help support the boys. One week, he participated in boxing; others, he was a painter and had fallen off the ladder; the excuses kept on piling up, and Sam had bought most of them. A few times he thought the stories sounded a tad too unrealistic (he was very bright for a second grader, at least that was what Ms. Kinney had said), but had always said nothing. After all, Dean would never lie to him. He was his big brother; he could do no wrong in Sam's eyes.

It was Christmas Eve 1991, five months shy of his ninth birthday, when Sam learned the truth about their father. He had found Dad's journal, confronted Dean about it; and learned that practically every monster from his worst nightmares was real, and worse still, incredibly dangerous. Immediately Sam remembered the times their father would return from the hunt, broken physically as well as mentally. On many cases, Sam had watched (discreetly, of course) as John Winchester pried bullets from his bleeding body, patched up severe stab wounds, and sometimes pop dislocated shoulders back into place. It all made sense now. Those monsters had killed Mom. They could very easily kill Dad one day. And once Dean was allowed to hunt, they could kill him too.

The thought was too much to bear.

Sam was twelve and Dean sixteen when he went on his first hunt. It was a simple one, at least according to Sam and John. A salt and burn of a relatively non-violent spirit, perfect for the young boy to get his feet wet. A little boy who had died of cholera in the eighteenth century was known to be roaming the halls of an old Victorian on the outskirts of the border town of Derby Line, Vermont, lonely and in search of anyone who would be willing to play. The spectre was known to be seen bouncing his little red ball along the halls, with no intention of causing any willful harm. Very little threat to John or his sons, especially his youngest. Sam wasn't enthused; harmless or not, this was still a ghost he was dealing with, and though he was far from scared, he was still wary. In his messed up family, anything could happen.

"You ready to pop your hunting cherry, Sammy?" Dean teased, handing his little brother his loaded weapon. "Remember to keep the safety on until you're ready," John interjected. Sam rolled his eyes at his brother, but Dean knew that part of the action was on behalf of their father. "Yessir," he answered to his dad; to Dean: "Shut up, jerk."

Dean laughed, grabbing his own weapon and inspecting it before nodding in satisfaction and pulling out the extra materials needed from the trunk: gas, salt, a couple of shovels and flashlights. Check. "All righty then," he announced, shutting the Impala's trunk. "Let's go, Dan Aykroyd."

"Why do I hafta be Dan Aykroyd."

"'Cause I'm Bill Murray. And I'm the oldest."

"Boys." John's stern voice brought both boys back to attention. "This is serious. This is Sam's first hunt, and he needs to be sharp. No goofing off."

"Yessir," the brothers chorused.

"Good. Help me grab the gear and let's go."

Obediently the brothers grabbed each a shovel, flashlight, and the container of gas as John drew his weapon. The brothers followed their father the short distance to the small family plot behind the ancient house, eyes peeled for any sign of movement. The walk to the grave was uneventful, much to Sam's relief. Though he severely doubted it, the last thing he wanted to do was confront a spirit, harmless or otherwise. The grave was small, a decaying slab with a picture of a lamb etched in the stone, above the child's name and dates of birth and death. The plot was flanked by those of the boy's parents on the right, and grandparents on the left. It seemed like a close knit family.

"Poor kid," Dean murmured, reaching for his shovel and starting to dig, his father following suit. Sam's job for this hunt was to keep an eye out for any sign of trouble or danger, a job he would likely be holding until he was at least fourteen or fifteen. Not that Sam minded now. The last thing he wanted to do was partake in a wrestling match with a freaking ghost. Sighing to himself at the thought of his highly dysfunctional family, Sam continued his watch, gun drawn.

It happened so quickly. One minute, there was no one there, the next, Sam found himself thrown to the ground, weapon and flashlight falling to the grass, out of reach. In the distance, he could hear the frightened cries of his father and brother, amidst curses. "Fuck! We missed something. Goddamit!" And then, a loud thud as John Winchester was tossed one way, like a spent matchstick, his brother the other. Sam could hear his father groan in pain, could hear the gleeful laugh of the not so harmless spirit. But what frightened Sam the most was the fact that, from Dean's direction, he heard not a sound.

For a moment, Sam just stood there, frozen in fear. Dean was leaning against a nearby oak tree, unconscious, bleeding profusely from a blow to the head. Beside him, the image of a little boy, no more than eight or nine, leaned in, holding a baseball bat in his hands. "No one wants to play with me," the ghost replied in a matter of fact tone, as if it was perfectly normal for pissed off ghosts to attack people in the middle of the night. "I want to play with the boy." He pointed to where Sam was staring, petrified. The message was clear: eliminate Dean and John, and the spirit would be free to "play" with Sam forever. The child was paralyzed with fear, heart pounding in his chest wildly. This was what he had feared the most: his father, his brother, in danger. And yet, as much as his brain, his heart, told him to do something, anything, his feet remained frozen in place.

And then, two words, a hiss from his brother just as the spirit raised his bat in anger: "run Sammy!"

Run. It was all it took for Sam to spring into action. Immediately Sam fired a carefully aimed shot at boy, who had been attacking his brother with a sharp sliver of broken glass. Immediately the ghost disappeared, and Sam and John, who had recovered somewhat from his injury, grabbed at the shovels and set to work. It was tough, heavy lifting for a preteen, but Sam worked diligently, occasionally firing off a round at the spirit as he dug. At one point, Sam once again found himself being shoved by the angry spectre, and every time the boy retaliated, helping his dad fire off rounds into the ghost as it attacked his brother. Finally, after what seemed like ages, John was pouring the gas and salt on the boy's corpse, lighting a match and dropping it into the grave. Almost immediately the apparition let out a wounded cry, its body engulfed in flames, before vanishing for good.

Once again, there was complete silence. Father and son quickly rushed to Dean's side, who remained unconscious beneath the ancient oak. Sam felt tears well into his hazel eyes as he leaned against the still form, checking for a pulse, like his dad and brother had taught him. It was there, but weak, thready. God, he was losing too much blood. Grateful for the first aid skills his father had drilled into him, Sam pulled off his brother's shirt and made a make shift tourniquet. Thank God he only got him in the arm, he thought. Beside him, John watched in awe as his boy worked on his kid brother. This was a twelve-year old! After a moment, however, he gently pushed the boy aside. "Go grab our stuff, Sammy, take it back to the Impala."

"But what about Dean?"

"Go, Sammy." In a no nonsense tone. Obediently Sam gathered what he could and made his way back to the waiting car, as John carried his bandaged, but still unconscious son behind. He knew that Dean would be ok, Sam had made sure of that. Now all that was left to do was get back to the motel, get his boy comfortable. Sam, however, despite his father's reassurances, refused to believe his brother was fine until he woke up. He sat in the back seat, with his brother, holding the boy's hand. The sight would have been ridiculous under normal circumstances, but John could only gaze from the rear-view mirror with pride. The kid may have hesitated a little at first, but his quick thinking had saved his older brother's life. He was also very proud of his firstborn as well; knowing how dire his situation was, he had still put Sammy first, ordering him to leave. As much as it saddened him to think that his boy would think so little of himself, the fact that he would do anything for his little brother was enough to make John Winchester nearly burst with pride. His boys would take care of each other. It was all he ever wanted of them.

XXX

When Dean came too, early morning rays of sun were peering from the cheap motel curtains. Green eyes slowly pried open, heavy, checking out his surroundings. His father was at the small table by the kitchenette, asleep, an untouched cup of coffee beside him. Outside, a few lone cars were whispering along the nearly deserted highway, early risers out for an early breakfast or off to work. And beside him, holding his hand, was his little brother, eyes wide with worry.

"Dean!" Sam called out, as loud as he dared, and a wide grin spread across his face.

"Yeah," he acknowledged, wincing from the pain of his pounding head. Of course he could probably add a freaking concussion to his stab wound. He opened his eyes a little wider, smiled at the sight of his little brother. Alive and well, with only a few bruises to his name. But he couldn't help but add: "you ok, Sammy?"

"I'm fine, Dean. Just a few bumps and scrapes. Nothing too serious. What about you, though? You ok?"

"You didn't run." Simple, in a voice filled not with anger or frustration, but sorrow, and a hint of fear.

"Couldn't," was Sam's matter of fact answer. "Not without my big brother."

Dean felt the familiar wetness beneath closed lids and groaned inwardly, still too weak to be able to hide how he was about to initiate the mother of all chick flick moments. How could he do that? How could Sam risk his life for his own? It was his job to protect his brother. He should have anticipated that the kid may be violent: major rule of hunting – never assume anything. Sam could have been seriously hurt, or even killed, and it was his fault. Fuck, the kid was too young to be hunting anyway. But Dad had insisted, and he had to follow his father's orders…

"I'm sorry, Sammy."

"What for? I'm the one who should be apologizing. I froze out there. I was just so scared, Dean. And then I saw that ghost attack you, and…"

"No, you did good, dude." Dean smiled weakly. "Guess you really popped your hunting cherry, now, huh?"

"Shut up, Dean." But Sam was smiling. Dean was safe, awake and joking, when he could have easily been dead now. And though his brother insisted that it wasn't his fault, that even if he hadn't hesitated the reaction would have been the same, Sam couldn't help but feel guilty, that if he had moved just a fraction of a second faster, his brother wouldn't have been hurt; and worse still, that if he had hesitated further, Dean would be dead now.

Sam sighed, letting go of his brother's hand. "Here, I'll get you some Aspirin."