Author's Note: This story takes place mostly in 1994, but is bookended by events in 2010, some from "The Song Remains the Same." A few lines of dialogue from that episode do appear at the very end of the story. Obviously, I own nothing, but am grateful to walk in this astounding world others have created.

Angst, hurt/comfort; warning for adult language and character death (kind of). This story is intended to take place within canon, but due to time travel and the complexities related thereto ("wibbly wobbly timey wimey," as the Doctor would say), unintended AU issues may have arisen without my knowledge. Gracious thanks to those who introduced me to the fandom and the fanfic when I arrived to the party eight years late, including K Hanna Korossy, Scullspeare, and my beta for this fic, AJ Wesley. You are all amazing!

Prologue - February, 2010

Naomi was dead set on preventing the Apocalypse. After fighting so hard to secure her place, the last thing she wanted was one or the other self-absorbed archangel revamping the power structure.

Her superiors didn't know it, of course. She excelled at projecting the very essence of a compliant lieutenant, ruthless in service of Heaven's mandate. She had gained their trust, and with it – influence. Rising through the ranks of the Intelligence Division, she had taken charge of the Department of Re-education. What a laugh. Every doubting cherub, every disobedient soldier was left to her devices. And she could recruit from among them, choosing the smartest, the strongest, and the most passionate rebels from among her prisoners, bending them to her righteous purpose.

Adriel was a case in point. She had lost faith in her commanders, and in the inevitability of the End of Times. In brief, letting Lucifer and Michael destroy the Earth and much of its human population in a fit of brotherly pique she had come to view as madness. Her heresy had landed her in Naomi's most clandestine interrogation facility. When Naomi came to her with a plan that would derail the ultimate angelic showdown, Adriel eagerly signed on. After all, her assigned task presented only moderate risk: a wracking bit of time travel and elimination of the eleven year old boy destined to become Lucifer's vessel.

Naomi projected his image into Adriel's mind: lanky frame, loose brown hair hanging in his face, gentle hazel eyes. Marked by a taint undetectable to humans. She would know it. She would know him. And when he was dead, his essence scattered across the multiverse, the meeting of Michael and Lucifer on the field of Armageddon would become an impossibility.

Naomi was confident Adriel would accomplish her mission, but she hadn't gotten where she was by being shortsighted. She perused her list of prisoners, wondering whom she might call upon if it became necessary to implement Contingency B.

Anna: high ranking, a risk taker, who had torn out her own Grace to defy Heaven's master plan.

Perfect.

xxxXXXxxx

Nixa, Missouri: late October 1994

"Hey, bring me back some jerky…and some Mountain Dew." Dean dug into the back pocket of his worn jeans and pulled out his wallet, withdrawing a ratty ten dollar bill and handing it to his little brother.

They had both grown bored with their cramped room at the Creekside Motor Lodge, claustrophobia heightened by the heavy rust-colored curtains that kept everything dim. Sadly, the motel was on the main drag heading out of town, far removed from the library, the park, or anything else resembling "something to do." Although Dean might've been willing to drive Sam somewhere more entertaining, even a year shy of actually having a license, the Impala was with their father on a job a few hundred miles south in Arkansas.

As often happened in the darkening days of autumn John had become despondent and irritable, finally pulling his sons out of yet another school and hitting the road. He never seemed to notice the look on Sam's face as they put another town in the Impala's rearview mirror. Dean did, but he also got it. Dad was hurting, haunted by the anniversary of… Well, the anniversary. He'd find something to hunt, drag them along, but keep them out of harm's way. Park them.

In a motel where Sam would bounce off the walls, which is probably why he had volunteered to make a snack run to the mini-mart and gas station a half mile distant.

Sam tucked the bill into his pocket and the novel he was reading –A Tale of Two Cities– under his arm before opening the door, letting weak autumn sunlight into the murky interior.

"Be back before dark, squirt," Dean said, slipping into his pseudo-parent role with practiced ease, his eyes never leaving the broken cassette deck he was disassembling at the rickety table in the kitchenette. In a beat, "big brother" replaced "parent." "…and don't spend too much time sneaking looks at the porn mags in the mini-mart."

Sam sighed. "I just want to find somewhere not in this freaking room to sit and read my book, Dean."

"That figures, loser."

xxxXXXxxx

Sam shut the door behind him, taking a deep breath of the chill October air with relief. Freeing his hands by shoving his book into his armpit, he zipped up last year's forest green hoodie, rueful that he was already outgrowing it, the sleeves a half an inch too short. He pushed his hair out of his eyes as he turned to step off the curb into the parking lot, headed for the strip of highway beyond.

His sneakered foot had barely brushed the tarmac when an unseen force picked him up and hurtled him back into the door with a sickening crunch. Dazed, he hung suspended there, too shocked to move and still seconds shy of feeling his broken tibia and dislocated shoulder.

A woman approached with staccato steps. Her blouse was a crisp white, her pantsuit dark grey, her jet black hair braided and coiled into a severe bun at the nape of her neck. Stunned, Sam gaped at her, unable to make sense of what was happening. A tapered silver blade slipped from the sleeve of her jacket and into her hand. Deftly, she raised it. He began to struggle, whimpering through the invisible chokehold on his throat. For a second, the woman peered right into his terrified eyes. Her nose wrinkled as if he smelled bad.

"Please," he begged. "No."

She drove the needle-sharp point right through the center of his heart.

xxxXXXxxx

THWACK!

In one instinctive move, Dean dropped the screwdriver he'd been using and shoved his chair back and out of his way. He hesitated for half a second, debating whether to rush out the door, knowing Sam was somewhere on the other side, or cross the room for the loaded shotgun propped inside the closet. His father's training overrode his impulse to make a beeline for his brother; he dove for the weapon.

He was still a step short of his goal when a thunderclap of pressure nearly knocked him from his feet. Recovering, he lunged for the gun, flew back to the door, and rushed outside.

Once there, his revving thoughts stuttered to a halt.

To the left of the door lay Sam.

Black liquid gushing from under the Impala when he'd unscrewed the plug to the oil pan – that was the image that crossed Dean's befuddled mind. But this pool was crimson, and spreading from beneath his brother.

A man in a tan trench coat with a dark blue tie about his neck knelt beside Sam's prone form. One hand he had spread over the boy's chest. Two fingers of the other were placed feather light on his brow. Filled with cold fury, Dean raised the shotgun and took aim.

Intense indigo eyes rose from Sam's still face to Dean's murderous one. "I cannot fully heal him." The resonant, weary voice was rich with regret. His gaze was so personal, so focused, it pinned the teenager where he stood. "I have repaired his heart, but the rest…"

With a concussion of air and sound, the man vanished. Dean didn't stop to wonder where he'd gone. He dropped to Sam's side, his jeans instantly saturated with warm blood from knee to hem.

"Sammy…!" A bulge in his brother's left calf showed where shattered bone threatened to poke through. His shoulder humped unnaturally; a bloody bloom framed the puncture near the center of his narrow chest. His eyes were closed, his lips slightly parted. Twin rivulets of scarlet ran from the corners of his mouth, down his cheeks, into his hair.

No time to wonder, no time to understand. Dean dropped the gun and grasped Sam's limp fingers in his left hand, checking for a carotid pulse with his right. Finding one, he bent to place his ear over Sam's mouth, feeling the faint puff of his exhalations. Alive, but… Jesus! He looked wildly around for help from any quarter.

A bespectacled matron peeked out of the room two doors down, putting her hand over her mouth and exclaiming, "Oh, my God!" over and over again. From the office at the far end of the building strode the balding motel manager. Poised to scold unruly guests, his steps faltered when he took in the scene before him, eyes caught by Dean's frantic gaze.

"I'll call 911!" he cried, spinning on his heel and running back towards the office at a faster clip than he'd likely managed in years.

"He's eleven!" Dean shouted after him, everything he was supposed to know, to have ready just in case, spilling off his tongue. "One hundred seventeen pounds, blood type A negative, no known allergies to any drugs…"

The man flew into the office and beyond hearing.

Dean's regard returned instantly to Sam, to the injuries and the blood. Panic and nausea surged together, were mercilessly repressed. He was his father's son. A crisis drove him into a stony, focused place…fury, terror pushed aside, fueling necessity.

In the distance, sirens wailed.

Dean bent over his brother as if to shield him, enfolding Sam's smaller hand with both his own. "They're almost here. Hang on, Sammy. I'm with you. It's gonna be okay."

xxxXXXxxx

Tristan, the demon currently possessing the motel handyman and groundskeeper, gaped slack jawed from across the parking lot. Until now, this babysitting detail had been an exercise in tedium, but whatever his sense of injured pride, he hadn't been about to bitch to Azazel.

Only now the brat he was supposed to monitor had been impaled on a silver blade by a creature too bright to look at. He was petrified, and with good reason. Powerful being outside his experience? Two of them, one slaying the other? Dead or dying child Azazel wanted intact? Take your pick. He was screwed.

An ambulance screeched to a halt at the scene and he ambled over to join the onlookers, making sure he knew where it –and the boy— were bound.

xxxXXXxxx

Dean told them he was eighteen.

That was the plan. Anything happens while Dad's away, and you have to convince them you're eighteen – so you can sign forms, get Sammy medical care, deal with cops, school officials, or whoever else might take an interest.

He had a Minnesota State ID card under the name Dean Hammond that established that bogus age. His five foot nine frame and unshaven jaw helped him pull it off, as did an intensity not typical of most fifteen year olds. He got onboard the ambulance thanks to the card, and the fact that he said their father was out of town, he was Sam's only relative in the area, and he had all the insurance information.

The ride to the small local hospital was grueling. He needed to touch Sam so badly, to grasp his forearm or his hand, to let him know that he was there. He couldn't get anywhere near him as the two paramedics performed their dance of purposeful chaos, calling out stats to each other and the hospital team on the other end of the radio. Not all their jargon was familiar, but he understood enough.

Blood pressure dropping. Pulse thready. Hypovolemic shock.

Sammy could die. Just knowing how much blood had poured out of him on the walk outside their room, he knew Sammy could die. The grim faces of the paramedics and the fact they offered no reassurance or even eye contact confirmed it.

Dean's knuckles turned white as he gripped the fabric of his jeans, desperate to act, unable to move, eyes riveted on what little he could see of his brother as they bent over him and cut away the hoodie and t-shirt, careful of the dislocated shoulder, inspecting the shallow wound that had threatened his heart. Then they were pulling into the ambulance bay, speeding Sam's gurney through wide double doors, and beyond Dean's reach.

xxxXXXxxx

"He's supposed to call us at the room tonight." Dean clenched the receiver of the payphone hanging in an alcove off the ER, the still rattled motel manager on the other end of the line. "I need you to tell him what's happened, tell him…" Dean's voice broke, laden with a desperate longing for his father, fear of his father's wrath, and gut-twisting guilt.

The sympathetic man agreed to pass on the information and the number of the hospital as soon as he heard from John.

Dean hurried back to the waiting room, wanting to be in the nurses' line of sight in case he was needed. He lowered himself into a hard plastic chair, hands clasped tight between his knees, looking up constantly at the swinging doors through which his brother and the doctors had disappeared what seemed like hours ago. They'd promised to share news as soon as there was some, coaxing him away from his brother's side with their urgent authority.

Sick with dread, he tried not to imagine some somber-faced white coat pushing back through that door, with the practiced phrase "I'm sorry" on his lips.

xxxXXXxxx

Castiel had transported his own vessel to the same place he had pushed Adriel's: about half a mile inside the scraggly forest backing onto the motel.

Adriel was dead, pierced through with his angel blade – a weapon nearly identical to the one she had wielded against Sam Winchester. Her pale blue eyes stared sightless at Heaven through the forest canopy. A breeze sent autumn leaves scudding across the black smudges that were all that remained of her wings.

Castiel lay on his back a few yards from her, too depleted to move. He gazed at the riot of amber, orange, and brilliant red above, the green of the pine boughs, watching as they faded to grey in the deepening twilight. His job… his jobs… were not done. Not here, and not in the future. Delaying his return to Sam and Dean of 2010 was unavoidable; if he didn't finish his task here and now, they wouldn't even be there. In any case, he could spend a day or a decade here and it would make no difference to them as long as he rejoined them at the proper time.

Not far distant, he could sense the presence of the demon that had been lurking at the motel – a demon who was keeping Sam under surveillance, no doubt. Further away, he could perceive Sam's life force guttering but… still there. He worried. Sam's injuries were bad enough, but there'd been something foul on that angel blade…

He could feel Dean, too, and hurt with every burst of self-recrimination, every wave of anticipated loss. He had to find the power to help, to finish this task.

He could do nothing about any of it in his present state. Sighing, he closed his eyes, slowed his breathing, and drew upon the power of his Grace and the life of the wood surrounding him to begin to heal.

xxxXXXxxx

As a nurse working in the pediatric intensive care unit, Lauren Gray dealt with a lot of stressed out people. She'd had to learn to be kind without getting too involved. She couldn't help, she told herself, if she let in all the heartbreak that unfolded on this ward. You had to detach. Just a little. Just enough.

But the striking teenager with the furrowed brow and bowlegged stride got beneath her skin the first time she saw him. He emerged from the elevator, and turned to the right with purpose. She headed him off.

"Hi. I'm Lauren, a nurse here on the PICU. Family members need to sign in. Can I help you find someone?"

"Sam Hammond," he replied, his eagerness to push past her palpable.

Her heart sank. She'd seen plenty of sick and injured kids, but what had happened to this child… Even she'd been appalled.

"They're just settling him in," she explained, giving away nothing. "You must be his brother."

The team downstairs had passed on the scoop. Mother dead, father unreachable. Eighteen-year-old brother to be given the same twenty-four hour access a parent would be granted pending arrival of the father.

"Look, I need to see him."

She was sure he did. They'd been working on his brother since late afternoon and it was after eleven now.

"Of course. They just need a few more minutes. While you're waiting, sign in and let me locate you some scrubs or something so you can change out of those." With a nod she indicated his jeans, now stiff with dried blood, and his shirt smeared with the same.

He bent to scrawl his name on the sheet attached to a clipboard on the counter. When he glanced up at her she felt like she'd been struck, there was such desperation in his haunted emerald gaze.

Silently, she vowed to do whatever she could to ease his way.

xxxXXXxxx

Ten minutes later, Dean was clad in the dark blue sweatpants and white tee the nurse had retrieved from the Lost and Found. She led him through the door to a nondescript beige hospital room and his brother's bedside.

"Sammy."

Sam's face was drained of color except for the dark smudges under his eyes. The plastic loops of a nasal canula were fitted over his ears, coming together beneath his chin. Ugly purple bruises spread across his left collar bone and shoulder, visible above the neck of his hospital gown, as was the upper edge of a square of gauze – the dressing on the chest wound. A splint and bandages encased his lower left leg. Saline and medication dripped out of IV bags through plastic lines and into the back of Sam's hand. A clear container to the side of the bed held dark yellow liquid. The overall picture was devastating.

Brutally suppressing tears, Dean reached over the raised safety rail to lay his hand over his brother's. "I'm here," he reassured. "I'm here."

A helluva lot of good it did Sam to have him here, he reflected bitterly. What use was he? He'd let this happen, didn't even know what the hell had happened, and now Sammy had come to this…

Who or what had done this? Why? What was the involvement of the man in the raincoat and how had he vanished? What had he meant, "repair his heart"…? Had it been worse? Than this?

A brusque physician with a greying goatee and a coffee stain on his shirt blustered into the room interrupting Dean's hectic thoughts. He stopped short when he saw Dean –and no one else—standing by the bed.

"Surely, your father's arrived?"

He sounded put off. Dean bristled, annoyed that he didn't even merit a "how do you do" and worried that this doctor with the attitude was not going to talk to him. He couldn't imagine what would be worse than sitting here, watching over his broken brother with no understanding of his condition whatsoever.

"Please." Dean clamped down on the snark that threatened to erupt. He drew himself up to his full height and strove to look as mature and capable as possible. "I need to know what his status is. Our father hasn't even been contacted yet. I'm his brother, and I'm responsible for him."

The doctor met his gaze, assessing. "I'm Dr. Bigby, your brother's physician. His condition is…quite serious," he said, as if Dean didn't know that already. "He's not out of the woods at this point."

"You mean…" Dean made an effort to keep his voice from shaking, angry that he had to interpret what this guy was saying, that he wouldn't just give it to him straight when everything…everything…was on the line.

Bigby wavered then took pity. "Your brother's condition is critical. We've treated his shoulder, his broken leg and cracked ribs. We've transfused him –that is, replaced the significant amount of blood he lost—treated him for shock and for the puncture wounds on his chest and back."

"His back?" Dean's frowned; he hadn't realized there was another injury to add to the list.

"These punctures are very odd. It's as if he were pierced through the chest and back at the same time…yet the wounds don't meet in the middle. Fortunately. If they did, they would have gone through his heart. Do you know what he was stabbed with?"

Dean couldn't blame the doctor for the whiff of suspicion in his tone. He shook his head, truly at a loss.

"What…" The words stuck in his throat; he coughed to clear it and tried again. "What are the odds he makes it out of here?"

The older man put a hand on his shoulder, and the compassionate gesture was nearly Dean's undoing. "The next twenty-four hours are crucial. I'll keep you informed."

Once the doctor left Dean pressed the back of his fist to his mouth as if trying to dam up the emotions threatening to overwhelm him. He straightened when Nurse Gray returned, a white princess-style phone in hand. She plugged it into the jack behind the bedside table. "I know you're trying to get in touch with your father," she explained. "You can make calls from here, and give out the number –see, here on the dial?— to anybody who needs to contact you. Meanwhile, I'll let you know if we hear anything through the hospital switchboard."

He thanked her, then immediately rang the motel, hoping against hope that the manager would say John had called and was on his way. No such luck. That meant Dad was probably deep into a hunt, Dean thought bleakly, in which case there was no telling when he'd call. Shoulders slumping, he rattled off the direct number to the room in case the manager did hear from his father, then hung up and dialed once more, his troubled eyes on Sam. Always on Sam.

xxxXXXxxx

Jim Murphy had just finished putting the final touches on next Sunday's sermon, a homily on forgiveness. He clicked the mouse one last time, rose from his desk chair, and pressed his knuckles into the small of his aching back as the dot matrix printer clacked away. The words hadn't flowed this evening, for some reason, but you had to be ready for your expectant congregation once a week, inspired or no.

He was switching off the den light when the phone rang. He sighed. It was awfully late for a call – nearly midnight– but bad news in the wee hours was an occupational hazard. A parishioner suicidal, relapsing, in jail… He'd handled all of it and more in his time.

"Hello?"

He recognized Dean's voice the second he heard it. His neck tensed as he braced himself for bad news. John might call to arrange a stay or to discuss some mythology related to a hunt, but the boys? They wouldn't call just to chat; they'd been given his number "in case of emergency."

He'd been the ragged little family's backup plan and failsafe for years, ever since John had first come to him, hungry for information on how to destroy every unnatural creature that stalked humankind. He wasn't the first hunter to do so, but he was the first to do so with two little boys in the backseat of his car.

Jim had tried to tell him…a lot of things. He was gifted at guiding people to new perspectives and fresh conclusions – a natural born therapist with the benefit of some training in pastoral counseling and plentiful practice making use of it with the members of his small church and the hunters who passed through on a regular basis.

However, John was rigid, stubborn, and fairly impervious to outside input, even Jim's. Jim had watched him push Sam way beyond his nine-year-old limits during one grueling riflery lesson. He'd tried to intervene, telling John about one of his parishioners, a local recruiter for the Marines. "If I brought him over right now, d'you think he'd sign Sam up?" he'd ventured, brown eyes earnest. He'd hoped to nudge John into seeing how over the top he was even by the standards of the organization he modeled so much upon.

He'd been told to mind his own damn business.

It was all driven by unbearable pain; Jim knew that. John had been completely blindsided by the loss of his lovely, young wife. That he'd lost her to otherworldly forces he'd had no idea existed and had been unprepared to face fueled his desperate need to get up to speed and feel he was on the offensive. Protecting his family he defined as, first, killing every evil thing he could find and, second, preparing his sons to do the same. The Holy Grail, of course, was to kill the thing that had taken Mary from them in the first place.

Talk about a recipe for disaster. The children, uprooted on a regular basis, had become valiant little vagabonds, reliant on their father and each other because permanent ties of any kind were not in the cards. Dean, from the age of four, had been expected to be Sammy's protector. With his giving soul, he'd also stepped up to become Sammy's nurturer, comforter, and basically his mom.

It was altogether too much to pile on any little boy's shoulders.

Jim had been tempted to call Child Protective Services on a few occasions himself. He'd prayed about it for a whole month once, and when he felt he received an answer, a knowing deep in his bones, it coincided with what his own heart had told him. He mustn't do it. John and the boys were all each other had and risking the boys' separation was unthinkable. So he had tried to help in any way he could, any way John could accept. He'd provided intel, training, temporary digs, childcare, and friendship.

Had he been wrong after all?

"Dean, tell me what's happened."

xxxXXXxxx

Hours passed in the depressing beige room. Ruminations about every move he'd made and whether it had been the right one ran in a jarring loop in Dean's head, robbing him of rest.

If only I hadn't let him go… If only I'd gone with him… If only I'd gone out the door instead of for the gun…

Medical personnel checked on Sam at regular intervals, but they didn't speak to Dean. It was after midnight and the atmosphere on the ward was hushed. Wrung out and scared, finally Dean dozed. He'd lowered the safety rail so he could bend over with his head resting on the mattress beside Sam's arm, fingers curled around his unconscious brother's wrist. The need to stay connected was powerful and life-long.

He drifted, dreamed. Remembered.

He was six, drowsing in a sagging motel bed, a scratchy floral spread pulled up to his chin against the chill. His arms were wrapped around Sammy, fending off fear as the light faded and still Dad did not return.

Sometimes their father would leave them alone overnight when they were that age, behavior that probably constituted criminal child neglect, but Dean knew his Dad only did what he had to. Likewise, Dean did his best to watch over Sammy, and to keep him reasonably clean, fed, and entertained. In other words, he wiped his brother's grimy face and hands with a wet washcloth, filled sippy cups with juice, poured Cheerios into the blue plastic bowl with the polar bear on it, and tuned the TV to Sesame Street because even motels with the lousiest choice of TV channels usually had PBS. Sammy potty trained early, but if there were accidents, he dealt with that, too.

Sammy snuggled close, asleep in his brother's embrace with his head tucked beneath Dean's chin. Dean felt protective but also comforted. Two-year-old Sammy was like a live teddy bear; Dean buried his nose in his brother's soft hair, warmed by the heat of the sturdy little body.

The toddler murmured fitfully in his sleep.

"It's okay, Sammy," Dean whispered. "I've gotcha."

xxxXXXxxx

By 3:22 a.m., sleep was done with Dean, anxiety trumping exhaustion. Alone, he stared dully at the scuffed but sterile squares of linoleum beneath his boots, again trying to imagine what could have done this to Sam.

With no idea what had attacked his brother, or why, he felt at sea. They always figured out what they were dealing with and prepped accordingly. That was Numero Uno in the John Winchester how-to-deal-with-monsters handbook. Zero knowledge equaled maximum discomfort. Dean felt helpless, in more ways than one.

Sam moaned, and all else was forgotten.

"Sammy?"

Sam's eyes moved rapidly behind closed lids, his head thrashing to the side, pressing hard into the pillow. When those eyes flew open, they were frantic, brimming with tears that overflowed, dripping into the mussy hair spread across the starched white pillowcase, fingers clutching convulsively at the blankets.

"I'll bring help," Dean vowed, reading the distress level. He bolted, hating to leave his brother's side, but intent on getting the one thing Sam needed now: drugs. Lauren Gray and another RN, this one in aqua scrubs, were going over paperwork in front of the nurses' station. Their conversation came to an abrupt end as Dean skidded to a stop in front of them, clearly panicked. "My brother… He's hurting…"

Nurse Gray's white shoes squeaked as she spun and came at a run. She was already uncapping a syringe as she approached Sam's bedside, her expression sober. "It'll be better soon, sweetie," she soothed as she inserted the needle into the IV's port and depressed the plunger.

Dean watched biting his lip as Sam whimpered for a few more moments. Something released in his chest as his brother's fingers let go their grasp, his face relaxed, and he sank back into oblivion.

Dean turned on the nurse. "What the hell was that?"

She ignored his aggressive tone, seeing it for what it was: a reflection of powerlessness and fear. "He's burning through his medication faster than we'd expect for a child of his size and weight… Now that we know, we'll adjust and hopefully this won't happen again." She looked at Dean, appraising. "Why don't you take a break? He'll be out for at least two or three hours now. You could get some sleep yourself, or a bite to eat."

"I'm not gonna leave him."

Lauren took in the disheveled teenager's clenched jaw and surrendered. She left him there, returning later with a blanket, some crackers, and a soda.

He's just a baby, she thought. Where on earth is his father, anyway?

xxxXXXxxx

Far from any trail, John stumbled up a muddy incline, into the trees and away from the river, away from his kill. Clouds sketched in silver drifted across the full moon, thickening the darkness.

The situation was one hundred percent FUBAR, and no joke.

This friggin' hunt had gone sideways from the start. If he'd had the slightest suspicion –which he should have, he berated himself– he would not have been out here without backup. He'd barely survived it, and it scared him to think how close he'd come to just…disappearing, his boys listening for the Impala's growl and their father's hail until they slowly realized he wasn't coming back.

The cloud cover made it nearly impossible to see, his flashlight being one of the casualties of this misbegotten endeavor. He'd been after a water panther, he'd thought, stealthily seeking along the reed-choked shoreline. It was no water panther but a werewolf that had tried for his throat, catching his upper left arm with a swipe of its claws as he spun away. The flashlight had been propelled into the water where it sank like a stone. It was dumb luck that he'd had silver bullets in his gun, that he'd hit the thing's heart in the dark with his third…no fourth…shot.

Now he had to get back to the car in the dead of night, without a light, wounded.

His boot caught on the exposed root of an ancient oak; he went down hard with a strangled grunt. He bit his lip as he tried to staunch the blood that flowed from his shredded triceps, but it was a bitch to reach. He'd wrapped the bandana he carried in his back pocket around his upper arm in an attempt to apply pressure, but it wasn't really big enough for the job. Soaked through, it kept slipping off. In defeat, he let the saturated rag fall to the ground.

There was nothing for it. He'd have to wait for morning and hope he didn't pass out in the middle of fuck-all and die of blood loss and exposure and stupidity. He shouldn't have taken this one on alone.

It was more and more tempting to bring Dean along on these hunts, he thought muzzily. He'd been training his son since elementary school days, and his heart swelled with pride to think about the hunter his son was becoming. Strong. Skilled. Guided by remarkable instincts.

Brave.

Jesus, the kid had balls. The corner of John's mouth quirked up as he remembered Dean, barely fifteen, on their last hunt together: Digging up a grave without complaint, efficiently preparing for the salt and burn, and blasting rock salt into the malicious spirit that showed up in protest, his hands steady, his aim true.

He sure would've been an asset on this hunt. But leaving Sammy alone for more than a day…. He was reluctant to do it, even with Sam having reached the grown-up age of eleven. It didn't make sense, he supposed, as he'd left the boys alone together for days at a time when Dean was younger than Sammy was now. Together being the key word. The thought of Sammy confronting some bloodthirsty entity alone in a crap motel… Well. The image of the shtriga sucking down his son's life force had been permanently seared into his brain.

No. If someone had to be alone, better him than Sam.

xxxXXXxxx

Nurse Gray was washing her hands after a quick trip to the toilet when black smoke crammed itself down her gullet.

She was the perfect choice, Tristan congratulated himself. Through her, he would be able to gauge the child's status, learn what had happened to him, what he was up against. Keep tabs.

Lauren skittered inside his consciousness, howling in horror. He angrily swiped her into a corner, shutting her down except for the part of her that was trained, competent, and professional. He'd need her skills for this gig.

A glance at Lauren's watch told him it was 6:37 a.m. – nearly time for the morning shift to arrive. He headed to the parking lot, looking for the nurse coming to take over Lauren's duties.

There was no way he was letting the boy out of his sight for twelve whole hours. Somebody wasn't showing up for work this morning and he –that is, Lauren– would save the day by volunteering to work a double.

xxxXXXxxx

By mid-morning, Dean was called from the room to answer inquiries. The beefy-faced policeman sent to investigate was surly and suspicious, having heard a story about a possible hit-and-run from the motel manager and a psychopath on the loose from the guest-lady who'd been on the scene. From Dean he got a claim of total ignorance; he hadn't seen anything, just found his brother lying outside their room beaten nearly to death. Yes, he'd had a gun, but he hadn't used it – just brought it outside when he'd heard the disturbance. None of it added up, and the officer was far from satisfied.

The hospital social worker, an African-American woman by the name of Mrs. Taylor, wasn't too pleased either, constantly asking where their father was and why his children couldn't get in touch during an emergency of this magnitude.

"My Dad's a consultant on forestry issues," Dean said sincerely. He was an effective liar, having been taught to sell untruths since Kindergarten days. "He's often in remote locations – has to hike in, even. Communication is mostly by radio, and even that's not always reliable. We just can't get to him until he comes out. I've left messages, and he'll call the second he gets them."

Mrs. Taylor lifted a brow, skeptical. Dean gazed back without batting an eye. She felt a smile tug at the corner of her mouth, liking him whether he was being truthful or not.

"I've got some vouchers for the hospital cafeteria for you," she said. "I'm sure you're hungry, and you can actually have the food brought in so that you don't have to leave your brother. I've also got some books, if you'd like to read to him. It's hard to just keep talking when someone can't respond much, but a story…it's a nice way for him to keep hearing your voice."

She had several new books in her bag; new because germy handled-by-hundreds paperbacks were not permitted in the PICU. She held them up, fanning them: a science-fiction novel, a mystery…and Return of the King.

Expressionless, Dean reached for the classic fantasy but Mrs. Taylor could tell he was moved by the fact that someone…anyone…gave a damn. The whole situation had her alarm bells going off. ID card or not, she would bet her Christmas bonus this handsome, stressed out kid was nowhere near eighteen. She worried for him. She could see how tightly bound he was with his little brother – usually a sign of a not-so-ideal family situation, maybe of a teen trying to take over as parent after a parent took off.

"I hear you lost your mother," she said, the empathy in her voice genuine though she was definitely fishing for information, too. "How old were you then?"

"Sam was a baby." Voice leaden, body angling away, Dean managed to convey that he needed to get back to his brother…and that he had no intention of sharing one detail more about the past.

xxxXXXxxx

The topic could not be avoided completely no matter how stringent the unspoken family rule: "We don't talk about Mom." Other people constantly brought up the expected-yet-missing female presence in their family.

From motel clerks: "Will the missus be joining you?"

From well-meaning waitresses: "You must be having a boys' night out. Mom's taking the night off, huh?"

From PTA ladies: "And would Dean's mother be able to make something for the bake sale?"

John shut them down with a gruff "I'm a widower" and a scowl that invited no expressions of sympathy. Dean simply said "My Mom's dead" in a detached voice that likewise discouraged discussion.

From a very young age, Sam figured out that requests for information about his mother turned his father's mood black, which in turn upset Dean. He learned not to mention her. But sometimes the hole in their family was just too jaggedly obvious.

Sam's fifth birthday was one of those times.

It was the year he was in Kindergarten, which he technically shouldn't have been. "May birthdays" were too young to enter school the year they turned five, but John had fibbed about Sam's age to get him in. He needed him occupied somewhere during the day while Dean was in school, plus the clever kid was already reading Little Bear books. Nobody ever questioned the lie.

When nine-year-old Dean walked Sam home from school that day, the younger Winchester was uncharacteristically quiet, at least until they closed the door of the small bungalow Dad had rented behind them. Then he dropped his miniature backpack and spun about to gaze up at Dean, his lower lip stuck out and trembling.

"Why don't we have a mom?" he demanded.

Dean was utterly unprepared for the forbidden question and the angry tears that shone in his little brother's eyes.

"Why… why are you thinking about that, kiddo?" he asked, playing for time and praying their father would not walk into this scene.

Sam's sorrows poured forth in a flood. First, he had proudly declared to his fellow Kindergartners that today was his birthday, and one little girl had informed him that his mother was supposed to bring cupcakes or popsicles for the class. That's what all the mothers did on their kids' birthdays. The little girl's words had sucked the happiness out of Sammy's special day and left him feeling bereft, Dean could see.

To add insult to injury, the teacher had announced the May art project: the class would make ladybug pencil holders for Mother's Day. Sam had refused to mold the requisite oval out of clay, sullenly stating that he had no one to give "a stupid bug" to. Not a mother. Not a grandma. Not an aunt.

"Where's my mommy, Dean?" Sam asked again, two fat tears rolling down his cheeks.

Usually when Sam was forlorn, Dean could roust him right out of it. Jokes or tickling or roughhousing worked, and so did distraction in the form of a book, a puzzle, or a battle fought with green army men. But this… this wasn't a pout or a mood. This was loss, even if what Sam had lost was something he'd never really known.

Dean grabbed a wad of toilet paper from the dingy bathroom and blotted at Sam's wet face and runny nose. Sitting on the edge of the queen-sized bed they shared, he put an arm about his brother's shoulders, pulling him close.

"She died, Sammy. You know that. We don't… we don't talk about it, you know?"

"Why not?" Sam hiccupped, pulling back to look up into his brother's face.

For a moment Dean was stymied and simply gazed back at his little brother. Then the truth just slipped out.

"It makes Dad sad."

That justification quashed all possible protest. Sam pressed his face to Dean's shoulder, woebegone and drained. Dean patted his back and hushed him, providing comfort but nevertheless laying down the law.

We don't talk about Mom.

It seemed so wrong now, hoarding memories of her and not sharing them with the little boy she'd left so young he had no memory of her at all. Why had they done that? It was Dad they'd shielded with silence, not Sam, Dean thought. They'd stonewalled Sam until he stopped asking, forced to mourn his loss in confused solitude.

Gazing at Sam's ashen face, Dean laced his fingers with his brother's and began to speak. A few words at first, then more as the logjam of forbidden remembrance shook loose.

"Mom was beautiful, Sammy," he began. "Even more than in the pictures. She had the prettiest smile, and she smelled nice when she hugged you. She was always making good things to eat. Tomato rice soup when you were sick, and grilled cheese sandwiches with the crust off when you weren't. And really awesome pie… She loved you so much, and when she was changing your diaper, she'd tickle your tummy and smile at you and you would smile and laugh in this funny baby gurgle back at her. And me. Because I was right there helping, sometimes. When you're better, I'll tell you everything. Everything I can remember, okay?"

xxxXXXxxx

Even after there was some sun to illuminate his way, it took John forever to get back to the Impala. He kept propelling himself forward, but his steps were weighted and his thought process hazy. Twice, he realized he'd veered off the trail and headed the wrong direction before awareness returned and, with a curse, he retraced his steps and willed himself to focus. By the time the car came into view, he cared about precisely three things: a drink of water, painkillers, and sleep.

His hands were shaking so hard it took him four tries to unlock the trunk. At last, he popped it open, snagging a bottle of water and some ibuprofen from his duffle. The pressure he had to exert to get the child-proof cap off the friggin' meds hurt like a mother. He cursed, promising himself he would never purchase drugs with child-proof anything in the future, then opened the back door, shut it firmly behind him, and collapsed on the back bench seat, asleep in seconds.

xxxXXXxxx

Dean picked at the roast beef sandwich the social worker had insisted he eat. He had no stomach for it; the whole ensemble seemed tasteless and dry. He wrapped it in a paper towel and shoved it in the trash so they'd just leave him alone about it.

He had a job to do.

Dean squeezed Sam's good shoulder gingerly before taking up the book Mrs. Taylor had given him. "How about I read the parts with lots of action?" he proposed.

Seeing no need to start at the beginning, he dove into the Battle of the Pelennor. With relish, he read of the Witch King's demise: "…and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world." He paused. "Huh. These guys were kind of like hunters, weren't they, Sammy?"

Gandalf was rushing to rescue Faramir from his pyre when all the sleepless, tension-filled hours of the day and night before overtook him. Head resting against the back of the chair, he dozed nearly half an hour before an incoherent mutter escaped Sam's lips, snapping him awake.

"I'm here." He rose to bring his face into Sam's view.

"Dea-?" Sam, eyes slitted against the light, forced the name through a throat dry as dust.

"Hang on… I've got ice right here…"

Not bothering with a spoon, Dean pinched an ice chip between his thumb and forefinger and steered it towards Sam's mouth. Instinctively, Sam tried to lift his head and shoulders from the pillow to meet him then cried out, falling back.

"Easy." Dean's heart twisted at the bewilderment on his brother's wan face. "You've got a broken leg and a hurt shoulder and… just stay still, okay?" He brushed the clump of ice that had ended up on the pillow to the floor.

Pain had cleared some of the fog from Sam's eyes. They flicked from one side of the bed to the other, taking in the monitors, the IV, the twist of ID bracelet on his wrist. Comprehension dawned. Hospital.

Hand behind Sam's head, Dean gently touched a second ice chip to Sam's mouth. Sam gratefully sucked on the melting clump, swallowing cool liquid.

"Dean," he rasped, hazel eyes nearly brown in the dim light. "I don't feel good."

"I know, Sammy." Dean tenderly pushed his brother's bangs from his brow, desolation tamped down tight so Sam wouldn't see. "It'll be better soon. The docs here'll fix you up."

Sam dropped his chin to glance down his sternum towards the large bandage on his chest, a shadow crossing his face.

Dean could guess what memory was surfacing. "Do you know what hurt you?"

"It… it was a lady." Fear darkened Sam's expression, the corners of his mouth turned down.

"What kind of lady?"

"Like a…a principal."

Dean frowned. What the hell?

"She… hated me." Sam's gaze rose to meet Dean's, his voice thin with pain.

Dean could hear the unspoken word, Sam's favorite word, lurking beneath that statement.

Why?

He pressed Sam's hand to his heart. "Dad and I are gonna finish her, so you don't have to worry about her ever again, Sammy. I promise."

Sam gave the slightest nod before his eyes fluttered closed and he sank back into sleep.

Dean gently placed his brother's hand at his side, then ground his fist into his own breastbone, stomach roiling. His words had been utter crap. He hadn't kept Sam safe, and he still didn't have a clue what unnatural piece of filth had done this to his brother.

Not a freakin' clue. He'd never felt so utterly lost.

xxxXXXxxx

Jim made sure to arrive with the collar on. For some people it was a turn off, but he needed the legitimacy it conferred. Like Bobby, he was tied down to a specific place and a real identity he needed to protect, but he had a few fake ones for occasions such as this. He was Jim Steiner this go-round, with a fictitious church called East Havistock Lutheran, if anybody asked, though he hoped they wouldn't. If they did, and called the number on his business card, they'd get one Robert Singer playing the role of church deacon on the other end of the line.

He first ran interference with Mrs. Taylor, painting John "Hammond" as a dedicated parent whose job made it difficult to get in touch, which is why the family's pastor was on tap in times of need. He easily gained entry to the PICU. Mrs. Taylor authorized it without hesitation, in complete agreement that Dean was in need of support.

Jim was no coward, but he wasn't altogether sure he wanted to see what awaited him in that hospital room. Steeling himself, he walked through the door.

Dean, back bowed, sat beside the bed with a book in his hands.

"…in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale," he read, voice clotted with weariness and worry. "There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him…" He faltered, overcome.

"Dean." Jim approached, and Dean's gaze flew to him, full of ill-disguised need. Help me. Fix this. Make this better. The man of faith put an arm around the teenager's shoulders, offering comfort even as his stomach dropped at his first sight of Sam: bruised, battered, and all too still. He laid a hand on the top of Sam's head, closed his eyes, and sent up a silent prayer.

Please. Please…not Sammy. Not now. If the universe can unfold as it must, if it doesn't interfere with Your plan, please… Mercy for this boy, his brother, his father. Please.

Then he turned to Dean full of urgent questions. Dean did his best to answer them, describing the condition in which he'd found his brother, the injuries…the man.

"He was a white guy in a raincoat… that tan kind of coat."

"It's important you tell me absolutely everything you remember," Jim stressed, voice low. "The smallest detail could contain the clue that tells us what did this."

"I told you," Dean said. "He was kneeling next to Sammy's…body. He had a hand on him, over his heart where that bandage is now, and he was touching Sammy's forehead with two fingers of his other hand, like this…" Dean demonstrated, bringing the index and middle finger of his right hand to rest lightly on Jim's brow.

"Did he speak to you?"

"Yeah…" Dean closed his eyes, concentrating. Jim watched, driven to glean any notion of what had happened. "He said…he couldn't completely heal him, and he was sorry, but that he'd fixed his heart."

Jim's eyes widened. "He fixed his heart?"

Dean shrugged, helpless. "That's what he said. And now… the docs make it sound like there… like there should've been a hole…" His words faded.

"In Sam's heart," Jim supplied. "Like he was run through and then…"

"Yeah."

Jim rubbed the back of his neck, baffled. "I don't have the slightest idea what did this. Nothing fits. No lore I've ever encountered."

Dean waited, knowing there would be more.

Jim collected himself, taking charge of what he could. "Look, take this voucher from the social worker and get a taxi back to the hotel…"

Dean firmed his stance. "No."

"Dean, you won't do him any good if you're too tired to function. You need some rest and a shower at the very least. Get cleaned up, clear your head, and then come back. I'll watch over him while you're gone."

Dean shook his head stubbornly. "I can't."

Jim studied the person before him –the one he'd seen transform from a tow-headed child into this tall, indomitable youth. Taking his measure, he sighed in defeat. "All right. Look, I'm not going far, but I want to speak to the doctor, if he'll talk to me, and then make some calls, try to figure out what we're dealing with. I'll be downstairs for a little bit. If anything changes or you need anything at all, have them fetch me and I'll be here in an instant, understand?"

He squeezed Dean's shoulder, wishing he could promise everything would be okay, but afraid to do so after seeing how bad it was. He'd call Bobby, and update him on Sam's condition. He'd call every hunter he thought might lend any insight into this attack. He was loath to leave Dean alone, but they needed answers.

He glanced back once as he exited the room to see Dean perched once again in the bedside chair gazing down at Sam, the very picture of devotion.

xxxXXXxxx

Two hours passed after Jim left. Dean paced, made a quick trip to the restroom, but always returned to his station, drawn to Sam as if by gravity.

He had begun to hope that his brother would mend. He had woken up a few times, hadn't he? Said a few words? Those had to be good signs.

His hand wrapped around Sam's wrist as before, he had fallen into an exhausted semi-sleep when a fitful moan roused him. He registered the tremors running through Sam's arm and body at the same moment he glanced up to see a sheen of moisture on his brother's face, bangs damp with sweat. He laid the back of his hand on his brother's forehead in a gesture he'd performed countless times over the course of their lives.

Sam was burning up.

xxxXXXxxx

John gripped the back of the front seat with his right hand, pulling himself up. He had a horrendous crick in his neck and a dull, throbbing ache in his arm.

Fuck.

He needed to get the hell out of these backwoods. He half fell from the Chevy's rear seat, slammed the rear door closed, and opened the front one, throwing himself behind the steering wheel. One-handed, he started her up and put her into gear. The lacerations across the back of his arm were still oozing and he was faint from blood loss but he gunned the car down the torturous mountain road with the tenacity that was his by nature. Still, it was nearly an hour before he reached a gas station and a payphone.

He let his useless left arm hang at his side, holding the receiver between ear and shoulder as he awkwardly fed coins into the ancient contraption. "I'm in the Ozarks and I need a doc, Bobby. Got tore up and can't reach the wound." Fearing he was about to keel, John wasted no time on preamble.

Bobby's response was just as curt. "Where in the nine circles of hell have you been?!"

"Been a bit busy," the elder Winchester snapped. "Thought I was after a water panther, but ended up chasing a werewolf all over these damn-"

"Sam's injured. Bad."

John's mind whited out, stubbled jaw literally dropping. He was stunned into silence for one beat, two.

"Wh… what did you say?"

On the other end of the line, Bobby took a deep breath.

"Sam's injured," he repeated. "I've got the address and number of the hospital. You fit to drive?"

"What got my son? What-" John's voice broke.

"We don't know. Jim's with the boys to keep CPS at bay, but it's been a whole day and night already and they need you."

John leaned heavily against the grimy side of the phone booth, bowels turned to water. No, no, no. Numbly, he managed to scribble the digits Bobby read off on the back of a book of matches.

"John…" Bobby's speech slowed as if he were choosing each word with care. "Dean's been through the wringer. Go eas-"

John hung up before Bobby could finish, manically dialing the distant hospital room.

Dean answered on the first ring.

"How's Sammy?"

"Dad." There was relief but also trepidation in his son's voice, whether over the news he'd have to impart or fear of John's judgment, John didn't know.

"Please…" The word, so rarely spoken to his boys, fell from John's lips. "Report."

"Sammy's alive, Dad. He's hurt… Something… put a hole in his chest and back, broke his leg…"

Nausea swamped John, bile literally squirting up his throat. Pain throbbed in his wounded triceps in time with the beat of his panicked heart. Bobby had begged him to be mindful of the strains Dean had been under, but John was far from up to par and not in the habit of worrying about such things. He lashed out, his voice edged with steel.

"What the hell happened, Dean? I depend on you to watch out for your brother."

xxxXXXxxx

Dean sat stiffly in the chair that had become his post for as long as this nightmare continued to play out, his expression going flat under the combined assault of inadequacy and shame.

It was nothing more or less than he'd expected.

"Watch out for Sammy" was the one admonition that had been repeated daily since he was four, and his utter failure to shield his brother –as witnessed by the unmoving form in the hospital bed– gutted him. One subdued inner voice protested, asking how anyone can protect anyone without encasing them in bubble wrap and locking them in a closet. Another –more ruthless, louder, and somehow vibrating with the timbre of John Winchester's deep voice–silenced the first. This was your job. Yours. And you fucked it up.

"I'm sorry, Dad…" Dean's neck and shoulders tensed to the point of pain. "I just… I'm sorry, but you've got to hurry." He could barely push the words past the lump in his throat.

He placed the receiver back in its cradle, then glanced up to find Sam gazing back at him, fever-bright eyes catching him naked, defenses crumbled to dust.

For the first time since Dean had begun his vigil, Sam strained to lift his hand, reaching for him. Dean captured it, held it. Weakly, Sam squeezed Dean's fingers. "Not your fault," he murmured, eyes alight with all he couldn't convey in words. Dean mustered a faint smile for his brother's sake, his heart shattering in a million pieces.

xxxXXXxxx

The Christmas Dean told Sam the truth things began to change between them. He didn't realize it at first, but as weeks and months slipped by, it became clear that Sam was seeing everything with new eyes, making judgments he hadn't made before, and relating to Dean –and Dad—in new ways.

That summer they were holed up in a remote cabin in the Eastern Sierras. Something had spooked Dad. Whether it was something supernatural, social services, or the law, Dean wasn't sure, but he recognized his father in go-to-ground mode. All through June and July, they rarely returned to anything resembling civilization except in case of need. As defined by their father, "need" meant they were out of ammo, liquor, or food – in that precise order of importance.

Dad was putting them through their paces, training-wise. Now that he knew the score Sammy wasn't spared any of it. Push-ups, pull-ups, grueling double-time hikes up and down steep canyons, pistol practice, rifle practice, crossbow practice, hand-to-hand combat, orienteering, and wilderness survival drills… Their days were full, and they fell into their cots at night, completely done in.

The activity level plunged, however, whenever Dad took off. Then Dean became restless and edgy. He cleaned every weapon their father had left behind. He broke down and reassembled the walkie-talkies Dad had said he could mess with a dozen times over. He read the same stack of Hot Rod magazines –and the other magazines his father pretended not to know about– until he had them memorized. His thirteen year old body, used to hours of exercise, itched for action and needed to move.

By the time their father's latest absence had dragged into its fourth day, Dean decided to do something Dad would value and fulfill some other desires at the same time. He invited Sam to join him in an adventure. They would tackle a major hike, heading over a high ridge and down some barely marked fire trails. Their goal would be a tiny town eight miles distant, backed right up against the mountains, and sporting a single burger joint. They would put all their skills to use, Dean persuaded, and get a decent meal to boot. He had fifteen bucks on him –money earned helping Pastor Jim build book shelves for the Sunday school— enough for fries and burgers, anyway. Dad would rather they went on a sixteen mile trek than sit around reading old magazines, right?

Sam endorsed the idea with enthusiasm.

They left a note and strode into the wilderness on what turned out to be a spectacular ramble. Thanks to some recent storms, the creeks were overflowing, pounding down the mountain, the spray as they hiked alongside a relief in the summer heat. Wildlife was everywhere; birdsong filled the forest. They joked and laughed, the malaise of the days stuck in the cabin melting away. They got out their compasses and figured out how to reach the burger joint, their expectation of the feast to come adding to their sense of joy. They were in great physical shape; inside of four hours, even given the stops for orienteering or to splash water from the creek on overheated necks and faces, they were sitting at a roughhewn table with burgers and some truly amazing chili fries spread out before them.

They were in the midst of Rock-Paper-Scissors over who would get the last fry when John arrived. They looked up to see their father standing there, body taut, face a thundercloud black with threat. Sam sat rooted to the spot, eyes wide. Dean rose immediately, a lieutenant standing for his captain in anticipation of a reaming out.

He got one.

"Who told you that you could leave what I had determined to be a secure location?"

Dean swallowed, eyes to the ground. "No one. I thought—"

"Whatever the hell you thought, you thought wrong." John scanned the small restaurant, uncomfortable to find one middle-aged biker and a clustered family of four aware of their presence. "Get in the car."

John yanked open the driver's side front door. Sam didn't open the rear one. He put his back to the Impala and leaned against it, telegraphing his intention not to get in, not to obey. Stupefied, John spun around to glower down at his youngest.

"It was a good idea," Sam declared, meeting his father's gaze without flinching. "Dean's idea was great. He was training us, like you always want." His lips were pursed, and the volumes more he could say if he dared filled the air between father and son like a thick, combustible fog.

Dean gaped at his little brother, partly impressed and partly horrified. Sam had just come to his defense by defying, however mildly, their father.

Holy crap.

Said father was not pleased. "Get in the car, Sammy," he spat.

Although no one spoke on the ride back to the cabin, Sam snuck his hand through from the rear seat to squeeze Dean's arm. Dean glanced back, eyes questioning. Sam's lips quirked up in a brittle smile as he mouthed, "It was awesome."

It was the first time Dean understood that he wasn't the only one who had his brother's back.

xxxXXXxxx

Scattered showers had soaked the bed of moldering leaves beneath Castiel; the entire wood was redolent with the scent of damp plant life and rain. The expanse of lowering clouds above had turned to black as night fell all at once.

Castiel lay quiet, though he despaired. Always aware of Sam, he registered the fever consuming what was left of his strength, the toxic smear Adriel's blade had borne insuring the fulfillment of her mission. He would have to move soon, he knew, or all would be for naught. He still wasn't recovered enough to heal the boy; to wipe the memories of all involved; to return to the future.

And Sam was dying.

His body preternaturally still, he wracked his millennia old mind for options.

The increasingly agitated demon, never far from Sam, moved to the center of Castiel's awareness. The creature did have power of his own, polluted as it might be; perhaps it could be used?

More essential was the fact that the demon wanted Sam to live as much as Castiel did. Sam's death would mean the demon's failure and likely his end once his masters got wind of it. That made the two of them natural allies.

The angel shuddered at the thought. Unclean? Yes. But it was time for desperate measures.

xxxXXXxxx

Pastor Jim at his back, Dean watched, helpless, as the medical team tried one intervention after another.

They couldn't get Sam's fever down. Dr. Bigby thought whatever infection had taken hold despite the antibiotics was probably associated with the wounds in Sam's chest and back. The pericardium –the sac containing the heart— was inflamed, but worse than that, Sammy was going septic, his white count through the roof, his breath hitching out of rhythm so that they had to sedate and intubate him.

More than anything, the sight of that plastic tube shoved down his senseless brother's throat told Dean they were losing ground. He clutched Sam's hand tight, gazing at his face, memorizing it, sickly familiar with how quickly someone could be gone forever.

A kaleidoscope of memories spun through Dean's mind, vivid and more real than the helpless figure in the hospital bed. He clung to them: Sam on his back in his crib fizzing with laughter as Dean tugged the string of a silver helium balloon to make it bounce and sway above him. Sam pouting as a toddler when Dean pried his tiny fingers open and took away the Play Doh he was trying to eat. Sam grinning as a little kid when Dean shoved blue and yellow Peeps chicks in the microwave, transmuting them into a heaving marshmallow mass. Sam solemnly declaring "I want you to have it" as he gifted Dean with the amulet he'd worn around his neck ever since. The one who looked up to him, the one he was here to care for. His charge since Mom told him he was going to be a big brother. His responsibility since he'd carried him from the inferno that had once been their home. His Sam.

An alarm bleated and Dean recoiled. Sam was flat lining.

Hands pushed Dean firmly away as a resuscitation team, led by Nurse Gray, surrounded the bed, two of them starting CPR while a third manned the charging defibrillator.

Dean could not, would not look away. He watched in impotent anguish as they pounded on his brother's chest then removed their hands as paddles were placed to either side of his heart. With the shock, Sam's body convulsed obscenely, arching off the bed only to fall limply back again. Dean's fingernails cut into his palms, his mouth pulled down in a rictus of grief. He didn't really feel Jim's arm around him as the medical staff alternated between CPR and zapping their patient's heart. Again. And again.

The line on the monitor remained unremittingly horizontal. The edges of Dean's vision began to go dark. He raised his arm, reaching, as though to stop Bigby from saying it...

"Time of death: six fifty-nine p.m."

No.

Dad didn't get here, Dean thought dully. And Sammy's gone.

The subdued team members deftly detached the IVs and catheter, pulled out the breathing tube. Except for Nurse Gray, they then soundlessly filed out. Bigby approached Jim and Dean, his manner muted. "You can go to him now. I'm very, very sorry for your loss."

Dean was moving the second the doctor gave leave, lifting Sammy from the bed, cradling his head against his shoulder, fingers twined in soft brown hair, rocking the smaller body as he'd done when they were little.

"Please, Sammy. No…" Tears flooded his eyes, shimmering against brilliant green before spilling over. "No."

Jim waited, stricken, but unwilling to enter the intimate space occupied by the boys. He turned only when he heard a gruff shout from the hallway.

John.

There was a babble of voices then John was staggering through the door. Jim blocked it, needing to prepare him.

One look at Jim's face and John knew. He cried out his horror and loss as he pitched forward. Jim caught him, awkwardly held him, John fixated on the scene over his friend's shoulder: Dean, Sam in his arms, brokenly weeping. John felt the world end, a chasm opening beneath him, bottomless, infinite, and making a joke of every defense he'd spent a decade fortifying. He crashed at last to his knees and covered his face with his hands.

xxxXXXxxx

Jim faltered and nearly fell; his vision swam. When things at last came into focus he found his surroundings surreal as a peyote-induced hallucination.

In a frozen tableau were the Winchesters: Dean, clutching his brother's body; John, collapsed at his feet. The man in the raincoat, in contrast, was very much in motion. He approached, placing his face within inches of Jim's, dark blue eyes aglow with a terrible, ecstatic light.

"I am Castiel, an angel of the Lord."

For the space of a breath, Jim glimpsed vast ebony wings fold close around the man's shoulders, the tops of them brushing the ceiling. Jim didn't need to see anything more. He knelt, hands folded.

"Are you here to take Sammy to Heaven?" he whispered, overcome, even as he wondered if he was losing his mind.

A sad smile lit Castiel's features, his glance going to the boys. "No. Peace will be a long time coming for Sam. He isn't meant to die in this place."

Jim understood then that they were not having this conversation because he'd been a devout man who merited knowledge or comfort. He began to be afraid. "What do you want of me?" he trembled. Whatever it was, he knew there would be no refusing.

"We need your soul," the PICU nurse said in a lilting soprano voice, her eyes flashing black.

Jim lurched back on his heels. She'd been so still, he'd thought her immobilized along with the Winchesters.

The angel grimaced. "What's happening here… what must happen… is cosmic. Even the demons know Sam must live, have been keeping watch. Tristan here is one of them."

Stupefied, Jim looked from angel to demon and back again.

"I have been fighting long, and have been hurt," Castiel continued. "My power is not enough to resurrect, do you understand?"

Jim nodded, afire with hope, yet cold. A thousand cautionary tales flitted through his mind. The question "why?" blazed within, though he was too intimidated to voice it.

Tristan, incongruous in berry-colored scrubs, stepped closer. "I can help the angel. But the rules are clear. For one of us to bring someone back…takes a deal."

Jim slowly rose to his feet, the hunter in him eclipsing the supplicant. "You need a soul," he stated, his voice sounding distant to his own ears. "And…" His glance went to John. "…you want to spare the father."

"Yes," Castiel answered simply. He would not burden this human with the knowledge that John would need his soul to save another dying son in a future rife with pain.

Jim felt faint as the true scope of what they were asking hit home. But his choice was clear.

"Take me."

"Your soul will be collected when you die," Castiel explained. "Tristan has agreed that you will live as long as you were meant, many years yet. And so will Sam, thanks to your sacrifice. And…after…I promise I will do all I can to rescue you from the pit. Someday. In the meantime, you won't remember any of this, nor will they. Do you understand and consent?"

Feeling detached from his body, Jim nodded.

Tristan stepped forward, a ghost of a smile on his lips. "The deal's gotta be sealed with a kiss. Good thing I'm wearing 'cute' today, isn't it?"

xxxXXXxxx

Sam curled into his favorite spot in the backseat: pressed against the passenger side door. The Impala's windshield wipers swept back and forth, a hypnotic dual metronome keeping time to the song currently up on Dad's cassette: Boston's "Peace of Mind." Dean, riding shotgun, was humming along off-key.

It wasn't that late –only eight thirty or so– but Sam felt completely done in, bruised almost, from the inside out. He guessed that's what happens when you're hit by a soccer mom cruising the motel parking lot while yelling at the kids fighting in the backseat. He was lucky she'd been going parking-lot-slow when her bumper took him down, but the whole thing had still ended up in a visit to the hospital.

He hated hospitals.

Dad had ended his hunt and come back because of it. Pastor Jim had been there, too…

He blinked, trying to pin the memory down, but the second he thought to question Jim's presence over a minor accident the thought turned to mist and slipped through cracks in his consciousness, wisping away like the remnants of a dream.

On impulse, he passed his hand through the gap to the front seat. Dean noticed. No longer humming, he reached awkwardly back to give Sam's hand a firm squeeze, casting a glance over his shoulder and gifting Sam with a sweet, genuine smile – one that very few people ever experienced. Sam smiled back, cheeks dimpling before they released each other, their father unaware of the entire interaction.

Weariness wrapped around Sam, and he pulled over the old blanket lying on the other side of the bench seat, unfolding it and tugging it up to his chin. He felt tired and… grateful. Dad was here, and Dean, and they were together with the music, and the rainy night, and the sound of the Impala's wheels speeding them down the highway.

xxxXXXxxx

Epilogue - February, 2010

Castiel had overextended himself in his eagerness to return to the future. He materialized in the tawdry motel room with the hideous burnt orange and brown décor only to careen sideways.

"Castiel, heh! Heh! Woah, woah, woah…" A six-foot-four version of Sam spun around, catching him as he fell.

"Cas!" Dean grasped Castiel's arm, the brothers propping him up between them.

"I've gotcha…" Sam soothed.

"You son of a bitch, you made it," Dean marveled.

"I…I did. I'm very surprised…" Castiel glanced at Dean, then Sam, his gaze lingering on the younger Winchester before consciousness fled and the brothers ferried him to the bed.

He never told Sam and Dean he had spent all he had, and more, before returning to them from the past. He didn't tell them he had scanned the time line after the attack on their parents, fearing another assault against them, or against Sam, and that he had been right to do so.

He could still feel eleven-year-old Sam lifeless under his hands.

Castiel's bond was with Dean, and he had always fought to save Sam for Dean's sake, the love that burned in Dean's heart for his brother like the nuclear fire at the heart of a star. After communing with Sam, knowing his essence for the first time, Castiel finally understood Dean's love. Sam had been good, innocent, and gentle, if strong-willed. Whatever taint he bore was alien, infecting him but not of him… That was what Dean believed, what he knew, about his brother. Now Castiel knew it, too.

He regretted that the Winchesters would never learn of Jim's sacrifice. He regretted all that had happened before he'd been able to restore their lives to what passed for normal. Even though he'd wiped their memories, he sensed that the experiences of those abysmal days had not been fully erased from time, or from the Winchesters' psyches. They coursed too strongly along pathways already carved, leaving indelible traces.

John: driven beyond obsession to forge his sons into soldiers – the only way to keep them protected no matter where he was or what happened to him.

Sam: yearning for "normal," and for "safe."

Dean: soul alight with a single mission: Keep Sammy safe. Bring Sammy home. Beneath it all, a faint echo: Don't leave me.

Castiel had one comfort. The knowledge that he had and would fulfill his own imperative, and it wasn't that different from his friend's. He had to keep Dean safe, protect Dean's soul, stand with Dean against Destiny.

No matter the cost.

Passages from "The Return of the King" are of course by J.R.R. Tolkien.