Title: Rites of Passage
Author: ghost4
Rating: M
Warnings: Rating for Language (the boys like to curse.) Violence (no fun without that ;) )
Disclaimer: I do not own Supernatural. It does, however, own me. This work is a non-profit, amateur effort not intended to infringe on the rights of any copyright holder.
Recipient: Halley
Word Count: 24,000
Author's Note: Thanks to sendintheclowns, the fastest beta in the west. Her work was awesome, and any lingering mistakes are mine. This is set pre-series: H/C, hurt/fighting!Sam, controlling/worried!Dean, Confused!John. The two song lines unattributed are from Nazareth's "Hair of the Dog". Two of Halley's prompts seemed to work well together, so I used them both. ;) I hope you like it, Halley. : )
Prompt: 1. Pre-series Chubby Sam to growth spurt Sam…. 2. Pre-series A hunt goes wrong …

Summary: Fifteen year-old Sammy Winchester has never been the most valued member of his family - John is strong, Dean is cool, and Sammy... is just sort of there, a tag-along. But suddenly, on the eve of a dangerous winter hunt, other hunters are noticing little Sammy - they need him to play bait. Between fighting off his father's doubts, his brother's over-protectiveness, and the other hunters' judgments, will he have any time and energy left to fight for his life?

As always, any feedback, good, bad, or indifferent, is welcome.

This was written for the Summer of Sam Love fic exchange. ( summer_sam_love) If you're hungry for a little Sam and brotherhood focused fic, this is the place!


Rites of Passage


"Character is for man his daimon."

~Heraclites

"… I've swallowed all your answers/ I've swallowed all my pride/ you've used up all your chances/ can't keep this all inside. So tell me please/ who the fuck did you want me to be? … I'm still wearing this miserable skin/and it's starting to tear from within/but it's obvious that doesn't bother you/ So please. Don't keep telling me that it's okay…Please."

~Staind "Please"


Sam tried to control his breathing, but he could feel his heart pounding. He stumbled back a step, raising his hands defensively. He knew, knew, there was no winning this fight – just like he knew there was no escape. His hands curled, his shoulders stiffened, he shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, preparing as much as he was able, focusing on this moment, on this…

The phone rang.

Sam's attention shifted the slightest bit, unconsciously looking toward the noise, and Dean pounced. His big brother started his attack with a quick jab at Sam's nose, only to feint right and come back with a solid shove at his shoulders. Sam dodged the jab, but overcompensated for the feint, and cursed as Dean's shove made him reel.

He reeled, but he didn't go down. "They weeble and they wobble but they won't fall down!" Dean crowed, grinning as Sam caught his balance… and struck back, a wide swing that he mistimed. It went wild, and Dean didn't even have to duck.

Sam instantly backpedaled as Dean sneered. "I'm right here, Samantha. Try aiming for me instead of the wall behind me, or do you need glasses too, Mr. Chubbikins?"

He had been aiming for Dean and not pulling the punch either. He wanted to wipe that gloating confidence from his older brother's face just once, but he never seemed to know just where his hands and feet were anymore. He'd always been too little to have a chance against Dean before… but now that he was older, almost as tall as Dean (he hoped anyway, it wasn't like Dean would ever stand still long enough for him know for sure), his body had betrayed him. Over the last few months he had become clumsy, gawky; awkward and raw. He ached all the time, his very bones felt stretched. He was hungry constantly, and he was always uncomfortable. He could take his favorite jeans off one night, and pull them on in the morning only to find that they just didn't seem to fit anymore. Dean told him it was just growing pains and that it'd quit soon enough… but until then he was constantly knocking things over, or running into them, and he had lost what little skill hunting that he'd ever had, and his dad was always pissed at him. He was just never going to win…

Dean lashed out and clipped him on the ear. "Pay attention!"

They circled each other like tomcats; Dean puffed up with his newly found adult authority, and Sam bristling with adolescent pride. Their dad waded through the war zone on his way to answer the phone. It was noticed by both but acknowledged by neither. They were focusing on each other and on the fight, now.

Dean was still grinning.

Sam really did want to hit him. It wasn't fair that not only was Dean bigger, stronger, a better fighter, a better hunter, and a better soldier… but that for two months out of the year he was actually five years older than Sam. Dean was twenty as of two days ago…and Sam was still fifteen. Logically, Sam knew the two months meant nothing… but it felt like they meant everything sometimes. It was like adding insult to injury. And it wasn't like Dean ever let him forget them.

Dean swung at him, low and fast. Automatically, without thinking, Sam stepped into the arc of Dean's swing, taking a hit from Dean's forearm on his ribs, and jabbed back, catching Dean a glancing blow on the shoulder.

Sam was so startled at his success that he dropped his guard.

Dean wasn't startled… he was pissed, Sam watched the anger fill his eyes. Before Sam could recover from the mistake Dean body-checked him, taking them both to the floor in a heavy thud that set the rented trailer rocking.

"Keep it down, boys." Their dad glared at them from where he was talking on the phone. Not 'stop it', just keep it down. Rough-housing was not only tolerated in the Winchester household, it was mandatory.

Sam felt slightly bitter about that as the air whooshed out of his lungs and Dean took his way-to-familiar position on top of him. Somehow, wrestling with Dean always ended with Sam flat on his back as Dean held him down and made fun of him.

It was getting old.

"Give up?" Dean asked, and Sam was slightly mollified that Dean seemed to be a little out of breath too.

Sam tried to take stock. Dean had him pinned, crouched over him and holding his wrist in a twisted grip that Sam knew from long experience could become painful with just a little more pressure. Sam's free hand was twisted in Dean's shirt collar. But there was a core in him that hated the idea of submitting again. It snarled at the thought of saying 'uncle', of giving in. He wanted to win, damn it. Just once. And he was heavy enough now that maybe there was another way to end this…

His legs were free. Kicking wouldn't do any good when he was in this position, lord knew he'd tried that often enough and it never worked. But he was taller now; his center of balance was lower. And Dean was sitting on him high…

Sam tensed, getting ready to try to use his weight to turn Dean – it would hurt, Dean's grip on his wrist was solid, but Sam thought that maybe he could flip them both and roll Dean over. Above him, Dean frowned as he felt Sam shift...

"When do you need us there?"

Their dad's voice was loud and clear in the quiet moment caused by the pause in the fight. Sam froze, meeting Dean's eyes as the familiar tone registered. They were leaving.

"Thank god," Dean muttered. "I thought we were going to be stuck here forever." He smacked Sam on the forehead in celebration.

"Ow!" Sam complained as his head bounced off the grungy carpet.

"Sammy, shut up! I'm on the phone!"

Sam rolled his eyes as Dean grinned. It was typical of their dad to ignore the tackle and get mad at Sam's yelp.

"Yeah, Sammy, shut up." Dean said, mimicking the way their dad stressed the last syllable of the name, knowing Sam hated it. Dean bounced his head off the floor again.

"Knock it off!"

"Make me, Sammy!" Whack. Dean thumped him once more, just for good measure, and levered himself off Sam and up in a quick, graceful move that sent a pang of jealous admiration through his younger brother.

Someday he'd move like that, confident and easy, and then maybe he'd win just once….

Right. Like that was ever gonna happen.

Sam sighed, not bothering to get up. He listened from the floor as his dad finished the phone call and watched as Dean bounced up to him like an eager puppy. "Well?" Dean demanded. "Are we out of here?"

Sam stared at the old water stains on the ceiling as his dad answered. "Jim needs us in Minnesota ASAP. They got something big going on."

"Jeeze, Dad, Minnesota in January? Can't we take a case in Florida?"

"You want to stay here?"

"No! No way! I'll just break out the parkas." Sam didn't have to look to know Dean would be holding his hands up and backing away. His big brother had really hated it here. Sam could feel a little sorry for Dean, stuck in this little town for the last three months when their dad decided not to move on until he had another solid hunt. Poor guy.

The trailer rocked a little as his dad moved – a watery motion that felt exaggerated to Sam, flat on his back on the floor. His dad loomed over him, looking like he was at least trying to be tolerant. "Are we going to have a problem?"

"No, Sir," Sam said, mildly enough. John looked surprised for half a second… then suspicious. John always looked suspicious. He didn't need to be, though. Truth was Sam hadn't liked this place any better than Dean. The tiny high-school had about thirty students, none of whom had been happy to share space with the outsider – and the teachers weren't much better. Sam was okay with kissing rural Arkansas good-by.

John hesitated, watching him for a long moment… then he nodded, turning around to look at Dean. "I'm going into town to settle out and get supplies. Dean, I want the cars packed up by the time I get back. We're on the road in thirty, boys. If you got anybody to call, do it now."

"Yes, Sir," Dean answered for them both, walking with their dad to the door. "I'll get it done."

"I'll be back soon." And John left, dragging the low-grade tension that always filled the air around him with him. Sam watched upside-down as Dean sucked in a full, relaxed breath and let it out again in a brief, familiar sigh. Sam doubted that Dean knew he did that whenever Dad left a room.

Dean glanced around, probably taking stock of what needed done, and his eyes tripped over Sam, still on the floor. He frowned. "Why are you still down there?"

"Don't know," Sam answered honestly enough.

Dean cocked his head. "You gonna get up anytime soon?"

Sam shrugged. "In a minute." Maybe.

Dean looked tolerant, and on him it came off more amused than edgy. "Whatever, freak. I'm going to start settling out the kitchen, so you want anything to eat you better get it now."

For once, Sam wasn't hungry. Besides, he knew Dean would pack snacks in the car for the drive. He always did.

Sam shook his head in response to the implicit question, but Dean didn't leave. He stood there, staring down at Sam. "Are you really okay with leaving?" he finally asked.

Like it would actually matter. Which was why Sam adored his brother…even when he wanted to deck him. "Believe it or not, I actually want out of here, Dean," Sam said flatly. Dean grinned.

"One place you couldn't worm your way into, huh, Sammy?" Dean snorted, bending down as he walked past to ruffle Sam's hair, purposefully pushing it into his face. "Well, there had to be someplace your puppy-dog charms failed." Sam listened as Dean started cleaning out the tiny kitchen.

Even as much as he was ready to leave this place, Sam couldn't work up Dean's level of enthusiasm for going. It wasn't that he wanted to stay… but he sometimes felt like every move – every shift, in houses, in places, in himself – was driving him closer and closer to something … bad. Something he never wanted to happen. He had never told anyone about this fear…not ever. And he would never tell anyone that he felt…pushed, sometimes. Prodded by something inside that he wasn't completely sure was totally him. It liked him being on the road. It liked the hunting and the fighting and the training… it liked the blood and the pain and the rage. It really liked the rage. And it scared him; and scared him worse because he was pretty sure it both was and wasn't a part of him.

These were not things a Winchester should feel. Not things this Winchester was even supposed to know about. So he kept his mouth firmly shut, and he got more and more frightened each time they moved. He never felt more trapped than when they were on the road. Sometimes he thought if they could just stop, just put down roots and sink them so deep that nothing could tear him out, that then he wouldn't have to face whatever waited for him down the road because of the life they led; not losing his dad to some monster, not losing his brother on a hunt – and maybe he wouldn't ever have to face the thing that stirred inside him. He knew it was irrational, but he felt it anyway; not that he could ever talk about it.

So he held these fears deep… and let his brother and father think he just hated hunting.

But he didn't want to stay here, that was for damned sure.

Sam sighed and got up, bumping the couch and knocking over an old plastic cup of pop on the side table. It hit the carpet and splashed and he glanced nervously at his brother.

Dean glanced at the spill, and then shrugged, turning away. Sam breathed a sigh of relief. Dean had opted for the 'who cares' stance. That was why Dean was sometimes awesome.

Sam picked up the disposable cup and put it in the trash, anyway. Dean gave him a look, then went back to tossing out any food that wouldn't travel well. "You riding with me or with Dad?" Dean asked.

Sam shot back his own look, "With you." The 'duh' was obvious from the tone. Sam had ridden almost exclusively with Dean ever since their dad had given him the Impala two years ago. The only exceptions were the times when Dean banished him for whatever reason and he was stuck riding with Dad. Alone. In a truck cab for days.

Sam had a hard time forgiving Dean for those lapses, even if part of him understood Dean's want for some alone time. And he knew that Dean's invite now, after three months of living on top of each other in the trailer, was a reward for not starting a fight with their dad over the sudden move.

"Okay, then," Dean said, closing the now empty refrigerator. "Get your shit together."

Sam had his stuff packed ten minutes later.

He didn't look back as the town faded from view, either.

Sam knew the second they walked into Pastor Jim's that he was screwed. The little house behind the church was filled with men he knew, and that was never a good thing. They were all hunters, and Sam was always nervous around grown hunters, and therefore clumsier. That would make them judge him poorly, and then he'd get even more nervous and clumsy … it was a vicious cycle that never ended. But as bad as it was to be surrounded by older hunters, it was the sight of one in particular that made Sam's heart really sink.

"Caleb! Dude! I didn't know you'd be here," Dean had come through the door a second after Sam, and now shoved past him roughly, pushing him into their dad who had come in first. John glared at his youngest, and Sam stepped back, stumbling back into Dean. Sam grunted as Dean pushed him back absently, and sighed, watching Dean walk away and knowing that would probably be the last time Dean would even notice his existence until this was over.

"What? You think I'd miss out on a hunt like this?" Caleb ginned. "'Sides, gives me a chance to make sure Jim, here, doesn't get you all religious-ized and put you on the straight and narrow."

"As if. Dude, that path is a little too constricting for me." Dean laughed outright, and the two thumped each other on the back. Caleb was maybe eight or nine years older than Dean, and Dean had always enjoyed hanging out with him when a hunt brought them together. They both liked the same things: bad jokes, guns, hunting, drinking, and women. Ever since Dean had gotten his first fake ID, the two spent their nights hanging out at local dives until all hours of the morning.

Sam liked Caleb in theory. But in practice, seeing Caleb meant one thing.

Dean would forget about him. Again.

John had moved over to where Pastor Jim and Travis were sitting at a table. Dean had made a beeline for Caleb. Sam stood in the entryway and watched as the two groups said their hellos and caught up on gossip – who was in trouble, who had quit hunting, who was dead. Sam had heard it all before. Only the names changed. He didn't mind being left out. Really.

He shifted from foot to foot, hitching his bag up a little higher on his shoulder.

"Hey, Dad!" Dean called suddenly. He was wasting no time. Sam's heart tightened.

"What?"

"You gonna need Caleb and me for anything?"

John hesitated just long enough for Sam to get hopeful… but then his dad shook his head. "Probably not tonight. Why?" Sam knew his dad would spend the night going over the case, and Dean would be on duty by morning.

"Caleb and me thought we'd go out while we had the chance."

"Fine," John said, turning away. "Be in by two."

"Dad, I'm twenty," Dean scoffed, obviously offended at the curfew. He glanced at Caleb, who was smirking.

John gave him a level look that had Sam edging away. "Do what you want, but you will be up by five tomorrow morning."

Dean sighed. "Okay…two a.m. it is. C'mon, Caleb, let's get while the getting's good." The two young men pushed past Sam a second time, leaving. The late afternoon sun shone through the door as it opened. Caleb barely noticed he was there. Dean absently muttered, "See ya, Sammy," as he passed, before shutting the door in Sam's face.

Sam sighed, listening at the door as the Impala's engine fired up. A second later the noise grew fainter as Dean drove away. And Sam was left behind.

Sam shrugged to himself. It wasn't like Dean had to be with him twenty-four seven. He was fifteen, for Christ's sake. He couldn't exactly go with Dean to whatever dive he ended up in – even if there was a part of him that wouldn't have minded waiting in the car…. And boy, that wasn't at all pathetic. It would be better than an evening with their dad, though….

Well, whatever. He wasn't just going to stand here like a puppy on the stoop until his big brother came home. Maybe this could be a good thing. He could actually help with the hunt; he was old enough now. He'd use the hunt to distract himself from his brother's absence. He'd show Dad how good he could be, how much he could do to help!

Armed with this new resolve, Sam turned away from the closed door… only to accidentally bump a lamp with his elbow. The delicate glass form tottered… and slid. Sam muttered a curse, grabbing it before it could fall, and setting it carefully back on its little table. Sam sighed, taking a step back –

A step that was larger than it should have been and sent him bouncing off of Pastor Jim's bookshelf. The books fell with a dry rustle.

Sam yelped quietly and began gathering books and putting them back. It only took a few seconds, but he looked up to see three pairs of adult eyes weighing him.

He swallowed nervously. He could feel his dad's disapproval from across the room. Something inside him shriveled.

John sighed, running a hand across his face. "Go outside for awhile, Sammy. Go run laps or something. Or better yet – Jim, do you have any chores that need doing?"

Pastor Jim looked uncomfortable. "Now, John, it hardly seems fair that his brother gets to go have fun, and Samuel is stuck doing my chores…"

"Fair or not, Sammy can be useful while he's here," John interrupted. "And after being in the car all day, he could use the exercise. Right, Sammy?"

"Yes, Sir," Sam answered automatically. "I don't mind helping, Pastor Jim. It's okay, really. I like doing things." Sam shrugged, feeling stupid, but willing to do almost anything to escape those heavy, adult gazes.

Pastor Jim seemed to consider arguing… then relented. "Okay then, Sammy. The church drive could stand to be shoveled out." It was Minnesota in January. There was a lot of snow. It would take him hours. Sam bit back his exasperation. "The church grounds are well warded…" Jim continued "but don't stray off the grounds, you understand? There is a hunt going on, remember."

"I understand." Did they think he was five?

"And get finished and back inside before dark," John said.

"Yes, Sir." No. They thought he was three. And retarded.

Jim nodded. "You remember where the shovels are?"

"Yeah, I remember."

"Good. The shed door's not locked. And thank you, Sammy."

Sam gritted his teeth at the diminutive. Everybody hit the last syllable with the same patronizing tone. He was sure they'd picked up the habit from his dad. "No problem, Pastor Jim," Sam made himself smile and made his escape outside, glad that he'd never taken his coat off.

John turned back to the table to find Travis watching him.

"What?" John demanded.

"Nothin'" Travis said, looking back at the books on the table. "Boy's just gettin' big, John."

John frowned. Sam had always run a little heavy. "So?"

Travis shrugged, not looking up. "I might treat that boy with a little more respect, is all. He's going to be a heavy-weight."

John had to blink at that. He'd thought Travis was talking about Sammy's weight… but instead, the other hunter had been calculating his weight-class. John actually laughed. "Sammy? That kid? He's got a lot of growing to do before I start worrying about that."

Travis did look up this time, incredulous. Jim looked surprised too. "Have you looked at that boy recently, John? Really looked at him? He's already Dean's size… and he's still growing. He'd make me leery if I came across him in a dark alley."

John frowned again. "Sammy? Travis, he's a mathlete, for Christ's sake. A geek. He's smart enough, but the kid works at getting in his own way."

Travis shrugged again. "Kids grow up, John. That boy's becoming a man."

"He's only fifteen, Travis. He's a long way from being a man. My boys are fine – and not your business."

There was a warning note in John's voice – one that the other hunters knew well. John didn't like others talking about either of his sons… and he got downright mean if anyone touched on Sam at all. Everyone knew it was because he was disappointed in his youngest; in his clumsiness, his chubbiness, the fact that he just didn't fit with other hunters the way Dean always had. John seemed almost embarrassed about the kid. It was a touchy area that Travis should have known not to step into.

Jim held up a hand, verbally stepping in. "Maybe it's just been so long since we've seen you guys that he seems more changed to us than he is. I'm sure that's all it is."

Jim pointedly asked Travis something about the case, allowing the subject to drop before tempers could flare in earnest.

John glanced out the frosted window, trying to see the changes the other men saw in the silhouette of his youngest on the shimmering glass– but the boy was too far away, and the glass too hazy for him to really make Sammy out.

John tried to remember the last time he had looked at Sammy, the last time he'd spent time with him, just him… and was bemused to realize he couldn't. Dean, he'd taken target shooting for his birthday just a few days ago. They'd made it a long weekend, leaving Sammy behind because he needed to be in school. It was easy to spend time with Dean. He was out of school and free to match his father's schedule. They liked the same things and frankly, Dean didn't frustrate him the way his youngest did. Dean was effortless; Sammy took work. It was easier to just leave the boy be.

But maybe he'd left it too long. Maybe it was time to make the effort. John made a mental note to check on his youngest when the boy finished up his chore and came inside.

He sighed, turning to Jim Murphy. "So, you said on the phone that this was big, and you needed us here fast. What's going on, Jim?"

Jim Murphy looked upset... and John felt his gut twist. Jim never got upset. Hell, he'd seen the man stand against the monsters with nothing but his cross and his faith and never break out in a sweat. But now the guy was practically squirming. John knew this couldn't be good.

"Spit it out, Jim."

Jim got up, fetching more coffee. "It's kind of funny that you two should be discussing young Sammy. He's why I called you John."

John's heart tripped. They couldn't know. Hell, he didn't even know anything – he suspected some things, but he didn't know – so what could they know? "What about Sammy, Jim," he asked careful of his tone. Part of his mind was on his gun, holstered under his coat. He loved Jim like a brother, but Jim and Travis were hunters, and if the choice was them or his son….

Jim swallowed, turning to face him.

"I know you're not going to like this, John," Jim took a breath and squared his shoulders. John's stomach churned. "But we need Sammy… to play bait."

John blinked. "What?"

The familiar, bitter tang of a minor betrayal was coating the back of Sam's throat.

The shovel moved in and out of the icy snow as he dug, skaaaruch, skaaaruch, skaaaruch. His thoughts had picked up the same beat. He had been trying not to think, but the repetitive motions of the digging had his body on automatic and his mind racing.

He didn't want to be angry. Hell, it wasn't the first time Dean went off to play while Sam stayed to do chores. Dad said it was because Dean did the lion's share of the hunting – and because Dean took care of Sammy… so Dean needed a break sometimes. He needed to blow off steam. And, of course, inevitably, because Dean was older.

Sam's breath was steaming in the icy air as his body warmed to the work. His temper was warming for whole other reasons.

He tried to stop it, he really did, but the anger got stronger the longer he was stuck out in the snow, digging. It was the same resentment Sam felt every time Dean got distracted by a new girl, or a new friend, or a new place to hang out –and just dumped Sam on his own wherever they happened to be. It wasn't jealousy that caused Sam's anger (at least not jealousy over Dean, but more like over Dean's ease and confidence and the fact that he could go out, so maybe there was some jealousy after all). What hurt the worst wasn't that Dean left, but that he left knowing that Sam was stuck. He just didn't care.

When he was little, Dean would leave him for hours to go to the local arcade, knowing Sam wasn't allowed out of the room. Dean would play video games…while Sam was stuck in whatever hole their dad rented that week….alone. As he got older, Dean ditched him to go to after school parties, or clubs… and Sam was alone again. He wasn't allowed to go out without Dean by Dad's orders, and he was usually banned from coming along by Dean. Sam spent a good portion of his life effectively trapped by contradictory commands. He couldn't count the number of times he'd heard Dean say: 'You'll just embarrass me, Sammy. And you won't have any fun, 'cos you'd be the only little kid. Why don't you stay here and read. And don't tell Dad!' right before the door slammed.

It wasn't like he didn't want Dean to have a life, but why did his have to stop every time Dean walked off?

And Dean always ditched him. If he saw a school buddy, or a hot girl… well, Sam had been left behind in a variety of places. He been abandoned in school parking lots, at the movies, at restaurants – even on the side of the street once, forced to get out of the car so that Dean could chase a skirt without his kid-brother along.

Dean was a social animal. He needed to be around people. Sam was… less so. It was okay usually, no big deal. But sometimes Sam would have liked to come along….

But he couldn't. Because he wasn't old enough.

He jabbed the shovel into a packed drift as hard as he could.

He knew his brother loved him. He knew Dean had always taken care of him. He just wished sometimes that Dean saw him as a person, rather than as a distraction; as more than just a toy for when he was bored, and a chore when he was in charge. Sam was tired of being thought of as nothing but the burden of his family. He didn't want to just belong to them, he wanted to be like them. He wanted to be smart and tough and … a hero.

But all he was, was the useless tag-a-long.

All the anger drained out of him, leaving him tired and cold and … abandoned.

He sighed and scooped up the last of the snow from the church drive. It had been a long job. He was glad it was almost over. He didn't think he could take being out in the cold much longer.

"Dude," Caleb shouted over the music. "What happened to your brother?"

"What?" Dean almost sputtered on his beer. "What the hell are you talking about?"

The night wasn't going according to Dean's plan. In Dean's head, he and Caleb were supposed to find a good blues bar, drink heavily, laugh like loons, and get taken on by a couple of lusty hot chicks – all before two. Instead, they'd had to drive two towns over just to find this country honky-tonk where the music was killing him, the drinks were watery, and the girls were very heifer-like. He'd decided to give it a couple more hours because it was so early, but if things didn't pick up, he was so out of here.

And now Caleb wanted to talk about Sammy? Dean glared at the table and downed his second beer. Even out for a night with friends and he couldn't shake his little shadow.

"That kid's a monster," Caleb continued, tossing back another shot. "He's what? Sixteen? Is he taller than you yet?"

"Hell, no!" Dean snapped. "And even if he was, I would never let him know!" He refilled his own mug from the pitcher and started gulping. Maybe if he drank it fast enough he could get a descent buzz and blow off this funk that was clouding him tonight.

Caleb nodded sagely. "Probably a good idea…." The 'probably' was slightly slurred, and Dean started to wonder if Caleb was more drunk than he thought. He was drinking whiskey, while Dean was sticking to beer. It would explain the weird choice in topic, anyway. "Not good to let him know he can take down his big brother." Caleb snickered.

Dean glowered. "He can't take me down. Even if he was bigger – which I'm not saying he is! – he could never take me down. He's a puppy. A good natured goofball that I have to spend my time watching out for so he doesn't trip over his own feet and end up in a well. He's almost useless." Dean chugged his beer, wiped his mouth off with a sleeve, and kept going. "He is good for doing the research and paying the bills. And covering for me with Dad. Gotta hand that to him."

Caleb regarded him with whiskey-clouded philosopher's eyes. "Maybe he just doesn't want to take you down. Ever thought of that?"

Dean stared at Caleb… then laughed. "Oh, he wants to…it's in his eyes. But even after years of training he's never figured it out. That's why he's about hopeless. He can't let it in. I love him, but he's just a dweeb stuck in a quarterback's body." It was said affectionately, almost nostalgically. "And that's okay. I can use him to do the research, and I'll kick the ghosties asses, and we'll be bad-ass hunters, and that will work." Dean nodded to himself.

Caleb frowned though. "Have you let the kid in on these plans of yours?"

Dean frowned back. "Sammy knows the score, Caleb."

His friend leaned back in his chair, shrugging. "Just seems like you're making an awful lot of plans for that kid without ever asking him what he wants…or if he has plans of his own, maybe."

Dean felt his slowly kindling anger go out in a whiff of amusement, and he laughed. The idea that Sammy could go anywhere without him was ridiculous. "Sammy's been tied to my hip since birth – the kid's too timid to venture out on his own, for God's sake. So where I go, Sammy goes… and we both know what my life is going to be. Sammy knows how it's gonna be."

Caleb arched an eyebrow. "And what happens if Sam wants out one day? Or you do? What happens then, Dean?"

Dean felt a shiver at those words. Like something small and cold had just wrapped itself around the base of his spine. He shook it off quickly, though. "You think too much, dude. And you get morose when you drink anymore. Having trouble holding your liquor in your old age, Ace?"

"Bite me," Caleb shot back, and they were off on an enjoyable round of increasingly horrific insults.

They were on the fifth round, and both laughing like jackals, when the hot chicks walked in. Caleb nudged Dean, nodding to the bar. "Fresh meat, on your six."

Dean turned, and grinned. "Finally! I thought this whole town was going to be a bust."

There were two of them, huddled at the bar, talking with their heads close. They weren't exactly throwing out welcoming vibes, but Dean had learned long ago that fortune favored the brave in these situations.

He and Caleb wandered over to the bar, Dean leaning next to the girls and asking for another pitcher. He shot the taller one a disarming smile. "Hi, sorry to be in your way. Just getting a beer."

The girl glared at him, one hand comfortingly on her friends back. "Look, we just came in for a drink. We really aren't in the mood for lines tonight, okay?"

Dean looked at the other girl, who was sitting with her head drooped and her eyes puffy from crying. Instantly his mood changed. "Are you guys alright?"

"No, we're not alright!" girl number one said again. "Her little brother just disappeared, so why don't you just leave us alone!"

Caleb stiffened. "Your brother. Was he a high school student?"

The girl with the sad eyes glanced up. "Yeah. Why?"

Caleb glanced at Dean, then sat down next to the girl. "I'm here looking for my missing cousin, Kevin Turpin? He disappeared from his high school parking lot over in Sampson two months ago."

She nodded. "I remember hearing about that. He hasn't turned up yet?"

Caleb shook his head, but Dean could tell from the hesitation that the older hunter was lying. "Not yet. What's your brother's name?"

"Kurt. Kurt Aimes. He just…vanished three nights ago. The cops think he might be a runaway, but Kurt would never do that! He loves my mom too much. I used to give him a hard time about being a momma's boy…but he wasn't. He plays on the local football team. Takes boxing at the Y. Everybody knows him. He's never hurt anybody. Never been in any trouble. Why would he just take off?" She sniffed, clearing her throat. "So I told them he didn't. That somebody must have taken him. But they didn't believe me. Nobody's even looking for him! I barely even noticed him when he was here, but now that he's gone, I can't seem to think of anything else!" she started crying again, slow tears running down her face.

Caleb swallowed, jaw clenching. It was weird to see the guy embarrassed by a woman's tears. "Yeah. It was the same with Kevin. Look, good luck with finding your brother. If anything turns up while I'm looking for my cousin, I'll pass it on."

She nodded absently, while her friend shot them a dismissing kind of look.

They both retreated.

"What was that all about?" Dean demanded as they moved back to their table.

"That girl's brother is dead; and it looks like our case has heated up." Caleb dropped some cash on the table. "C'mon. We gotta get back."

Sam was sitting in a chair in the corner, nursing a coke and reading his Latin. At least he was trying to read his Latin, but the muttered conversation about the hunt that he had been straining to hear a few minutes ago had now become heated and loud. Now he was hard pressed to ignore it.

"What do you want me to do, John?" Jim Murphy's voice floated in from the kitchen, sounding distressed. "The attacks are coming faster and faster. If we don't move now, someone's going to be dead by next week. I called you guys in to help me kill it. Now, are you willing to do that or not?"

"Don't be stupid," John growled back. "Of course we're going to kill this thing. But we need information, Jim. You've done a good job identifying it, but there's no details. We just don't know enough about how this thing moves, how it attacks…what it attacks with. Does it have claws? Teeth? Does it just rip its victims apart bare-handed, like a Maenad? We don't know, and we can't plan a counter attack until we have some information."

"I know!" Jim shouted, and Sam's eyes widened in downright shock. Jim never lost his cool. "I know what I don't have! Don't you think I know, John? But this thing is killing my kids!"

Sam quietly put his book down and crept toward the open archway that led into the kitchen. He could see his dad, hunched over the table. John spoke in that cool, precise tone that meant he was losing his temper. Sam knew it well.

"It's killing your parishioners, Jim. Don't over-identify. And I won't put my boy at risk for your flock until we have more information."

Sam wondered what they could be talking about that would make Dad so worried about Dean.

Travis cleared his throat. "The courthouse opens Monday. It's only two days. We'll run a scam, get the autopsy reports on the dead boys and maybe that will give us a better idea of how it kills its victims. And we need the police reports on the exact locations of the bodies to even begin to know where to look for this thing's lair. So both of you calm the hell down; and Jim, just deal with the fact that it's going to take a little more time.

Jim turned bright red. "We don't have until Monday! This thing has sped up its feedings. It's taken three this month! If it follows this pattern, it will kill again this weekend. We have to do something!"

John slammed his hand down on the table. "Not blind! Damn it, Murphy, we can't go off half cocked!"

Sam raised his hand. "Excuse me?"

He cringed as three sets of incredulous eyes focused on him. His heart leapt into his throat and threatened to strangle him.

"Not now, Sammy!" John snarled.

But instead of the normal flicker of fear that he got when his dad yelled, instead of backing down as he might have just a few months ago – Sam felt the low heat of anger. He grabbed it, held on to it. Used it. He felt his shoulders straighten; how dare his father just dismiss him like that? He wasn't a dog to be brought to heel. He was a person, and he had a right to speak, damn it. "I just wanted to know if Pastor Jim has a computer."

Jim glanced at him, confused. "Yes. There's one in the office."

"You have an internet connection?"

Jim looked exasperated. "Yes, Sammy. But –"

"Then I think I can solve your problem."

"What?" It was kind of fun to see his dad totally wrong-footed for once.

"I can hack into the coroner's office and download the reports for you right now, if you want."

They all blinked at him. He had to fight not to grin at the matching looks of disbelief they wore.

"You can get the reports right now?" His dad sounded incredulous.

Sam shrugged. "Maybe. Probably. Encryption probably isn't too stringent with the County Mounties, so it shouldn't be too hard to get into their system. Then you can have coroner's reports, autopsy info, even the police case files if you want." Sam met his dad's eyes. "At least I can give it a shot."

John hesitated – and Sam felt his heart work overtime as his dad decided whether to be angry or not. He waited in the judgmental silence, under that heavy stare almost swaying with anxiety. He really wanted to try; he needed to show his dad that he could be useful, that he could be like Dean, that he could be a hunter.

"C'mon, John," Travis said. "It's not like it'll hurt anything for the kid to try. And if it works, we'll be a couple of days ahead. What's to lose?"

And Sam had to fight off the wave of nervous relief when his dad finally nodded gruffly.

"Okay, Sammy. Let's give it a shot." It wasn't said with much confidence, but it was said, and Sam soon found himself seated at Jim's old computer with three hunters watching as he cracked into the Morgan County Records system.

John watched with not a little awe as his youngest's fingers skipped over the keyboard. Within a comparative short time, Sammy had pulled up the autopsy reports.

"Pastor Jim, you got a printer?"

As Jim unburied the printer from the litter on the desk and plugged it in, Sammy moved on to the police reports.

"That's a real talent to have, kid," Travis said. "Like to be able to do that myself. John's lucky to have you along." Sam slumped further and gave a tight, fake smile before refocusing on the computer, obviously uncomfortable with the praise. Travis lit up another cigarette, unaware of the effect his words were having on the boy sitting at the desk.

Or on the boy's father. John floundered for a moment. Who was this competent person, and what had he done with his son? Who would have thought that Sammy would have a talent that could be turned to hunting? "How'd you learn to do this, Sammy?"

"I hang out with geeks, Dad. They show me stuff." He never glanced away from the keyboard.

John was nonplused. Sammy had just hacked into a government computer system. Not an important one, but a government site even so. Sammy, of all people – who had to be watched and cared for and protected and could never be completely trusted (for reasons that were not the boy's fault, but it was true nonetheless). Dean was his useful son, his little soldier. Sammy…wasn't. Sammy he kept an eye on, Sammy he watched. So how did Sammy start developing skills John didn't know about? And what other talents was the boy hiding?

John tried to shut off the dark thoughts. It was never a good idea to think about Sammy while other hunters were around. They could smell the supernatural the way a shark could smell blood in the water; and they could turn on someone just as quickly. Thinking even along the edges about what he suspected about Samuel was like throwing chum in the water. Hell, John didn't even like to bring Sammy around other hunters unless there was no other choice. Just in case they should start to wonder what was wrong with his younger son….

"Done," Sammy said suddenly, making John jump. Travis gave him an odd look. John gruffly snagged the printed sheets from the machine and stalked from the room. His son watched him go, looking rebuffed by his father's sudden, baseless anger.

Jim sighed, ruffling the confused boy's hair. "It was a good job, Sammy."

Sam shrugged, brushing it off. "Just glad to do something to help, Pastor Jim." But his eyes stayed locked on his father's stiff shoulders, reflecting a tired kind of hurt…and anger.

A few minutes later the hunters were back at the kitchen table with fresh printouts of the reports and photos spread out on the table. Sammy had been allowed back into the kitchen – and even given a cup of coffee by Travis – and had taken up a spot in a far corner, trying to remain inconspicuous.

He didn't know how long this new acceptance would last – and they'd be less likely to toss him out if they forgot he was there.

Sam listened intently, but honestly most of the conversation went over his head. Jim had filled the others in on the monster already, and they were discussing tactics for taking it down. They were unlikely to talk details of what the thing was to Sam… and he was afraid to ask for specifics and have his dad remember he was there and set him to some other useless chore to get him out of the way.

Sam fully expected to have to wait until morning to find out the details. Dean would get told tomorrow morning, and then Dean would tell him.

Boy was he wrong.

Sam was just as shocked as everybody else when the front door opened and Dean and Caleb came in. The two were hours early. Dean didn't even glance his way as they strode into the kitchen where the other hunters were still sitting at the table.

"Boys," Jim greeted them curiously. "You two are certainly back before I expected."

"There's been another disappearance," Caleb said. "Fits the profile: High school jock. Popular. And missing for three days."

"Not possible," Travis said. "We would have noticed another one."

"It was two towns over."

Jim made a low noise. "It's expanded its hunting range."

"Or it's moving on," John agreed. "Either way, we have to get to it now."

Jim gave him an irritated look.

"Okay, hold up," Dean raised his hand. "Somebody want to explain to me what we're hunting and why a missing kid is news? Caleb told me some of it, but said I had to wait to talk to you guys for details."

"I told you, Dean. I only got here a couple of hours before you drove in. I don't have details…"

"Settle down, boys," Jim sighed. "Dean, a couple of months ago a local boy by the name of Kevin Turpin disappeared. He was on the high school basketball team and he worked at his dad's grocery. He was by all reports a good kid who wasn't the type to just take off. His body was found two days later. The damage was…extensive –"

Travis snorted. "You saw the pictures, Jim. Kid was pulverized. Every bone in his body had to have been reduced to splinters." He refilled his coffee cup from the carafe on the table and pulled out his cigarettes.

Jim winced, but didn't argue. "The police thought it was a rage killing. They thought that Kevin had been dragged off into the woods and killed by someone who had reason to hate him – maybe over a girl, or a drug deal gone bad. They knew the mutilation of the body was excessive, but they chalked it up to the killer trying to hide the identity of the body. I thought so too, until a few weeks later."

"A second boy disappeared," Dean guessed.

Jim nodded. "A fourteen year old from Marley, the town to the east. More of an annex of Blue Earth than a separate town, really. The boy was cross-country runner. He went out for practice one day… and never came back. What was left of him was found under a bush a week later. It… wasn't much. The next disappearance was only two weeks ago. A boy again, fifteen, a big kid who liked taking care of his saltwater aquarium and wrestling. He was one of my parishioners."

Sam felt nauseous. He knew how much Pastor Jim cared for his congregation. He called them his family – and meant it.

"Jesus, Pastor Jim. That sucks," Dean said.

Jim almost smiled at the rough sympathy. "Thank you, Dean. It really does." He shook his head and pulled a deep breath. "Joseph was a little slow. His family was his whole world; he wouldn't have run away. The local cops had to finally face facts; something was taking and killing teenage boys in the woods around Blue Earth. They think it's a serial killer, of course."

All the hunters snorted.

"Joseph's body was found yesterday. Parish rumor is that it was just as badly mutilated as the others. I started doing some research after the second boy disappeared, and I think I hit on what it is."

"Well?" Dean demanded. "What is it?"

Jim pulled open an old book. Sam strained to see the pages from his corner, but he was just too far away. Jim turned the book toward the others. "I think it's a dysdaimon."

Dean scowled, looking at the book. "What the hell is a dis-demon?"

"Dysdaimon," Jim corrected him. "It's Greek. Ancient Greek. Older than ancient Greek, really. And I think it's hunting in my back yard.

"The ancient Greeks wrote about a tribe in the hills, a native tribe that had been living in the mountains even before the people we think of as the Greeks had gotten there. They were called the Oenotria." Jim paused to make sure Dean was taking it in; behind him Sam listened intently. "Apparently the mountains around the tribal village were home to a type of spirit-race that the Greeks called the Dys, which means -"

"It means 'bad', 'wrong', 'diseased'. It means to fall into chaos and disorder," Sam piped up without thinking.

John gave him a cold look, and Sam ducked. Their dad did not like Sam's habit of interrupting.

"You're right, Sammy," Jim said approvingly, though. "Every once in a while a Dys would get restless and come into the village; killing, starting fires, inspiring madness – this may be where the Bacchic rites began, actually. But the Oenotria had a ritual that could kill any Dys that came into the village."

"Cool," Caleb said. "Break out the herbs and let's fry this son of bitch."

"Don't you think we'd already done that if it was that easy, boy?" Travis said scathingly. "Let the man finish telling you the problem before you start spouting useless solutions."

"What was this ritual?" Dean asked as Caleb shrank… a little.

Jim sighed. "The tribe would gather all the young warriors together and fix a 'tea' – and they would add a small lump of a concoction of herbs that worked like a hallucinogen. All the warriors would drink, but only one got the drug. It was random chance whose cup it ended up in. When that one was in an altered state of consciousness – when he was chaotic in his thoughts and soul – the Dys would come. It would possess the drugged warrior. It would take him over utterly. And then the others would kill it."

Dean's face was frozen. "Kill it how?"

Jim swallowed and looked away. It was John who answered. "They beat it to death. The Dys seemed to want to be flesh, but once in a body the Dys can't get back out. The body can't be cut in anyway – not stabbed, not shot, not pierced. It becomes ageless, immortal and impenetrable. Think Wendigo; it's hungry, it likes human meat, and knives and guns won't work. Unlike a Wendigo, however, fire won't work either. The only thing that works, according to legend, is blunt force. It can be beaten down. Blunt force trauma until it splits from the inside is the suggested attack. The warriors would crush the skulls of the possessed boy, letting the pieces of bone tear through the grey matter and skin from inside. Once the brain was pulped, the body was dead and the Dys went with it."

There was a lag as this information sunk in.

"Jesus," Caleb finally said, and Sam couldn't tell if it was a curse or a prayer.

Dean cleared his throat. "Wait, so if they killed the ones who got possessed, how did this dis-demon end up in Minnesota?"

It was Travis who answered this time. "The ritual didn't always work out, did it? Sometimes the Dys would kill all the warriors before they could kill it. It'd hide out up in the mountains… learning, feeling…eating."

"Eating what?" Sam couldn't help but ask.

"People, mostly, according to the book Jim showed us. Things had a downright fondness for the long-pig. Oh, the villagers would hunt for the Dys that got away. Sometimes they'd catch them, too. And most of the ones left after the ancients died out were killed off over the next thousand years. But apparently not all of them. Our little visitor has survived a long time. A long, long time, now." Travis stubbed out his cigarette. "This one must have learned to travel over the generations he's hunted. Hop-scotch across Europe, hop a boat, and all the sudden we've got a Dys in Minnesota."

"Was there any other way to stop it?" Sam asked, careful to keep his tone quiet and respectful. "Other than beating it to death?" Beating a person to death was not easy, or quick most of the time. And it was intimate…it required you to be right up against your target, close enough for it to do as much damage to you as you did to it. It was a bad way to kill a monster.

"Not that I could find," Jim said. "That's why I called in other hunters. We need to take this thing down by blunt force… and that's going to mean getting close to it. We need numbers for this one."

"So," Caleb piped up, never unhappy to get a little bloody for the cause. "What do we know about the way this thing hunts? How do we catch the bastard so we can beat it down?"

Travis lit up again and blew out a long stream of smoke. "The autopsy photos are on the table if you want to look, but it seems to be that the thing is ripping its prey apart pretty much bare handed."

"Pretty much?" Dean asked, stepping up to go through the pictures. He winced as he shuffled. Sam bit back the urge to look. He'd seen enough as he printed them out.

"There are some deeper wounds…straighter," John answered. "Thing may have some sort of rudimentary claws, but nothing very large."

"More worrisome is the other evidence," Jim stepped in. "This thing took down a prize winning runner, so it must be pretty fast, even over rough terrain. The damage done to the bodies suggests massive strength; ripping someone's arm off and beating them to death with it, though a common threat, would take super-human muscle."

"It managed to get close to these boys on their home turf," John continued. "So it's either very good at hiding or invisible."

"Legend never talks about not being able to see them," Travis pointed out.

John shrugged. "So probably good at hiding; but I won't rule out invisibility until I set eyes on the motherfucker."

"Why is it only taking teens?" Caleb asked. "We're these guys doing drugs or something?"

The three older hunters shared a look. John answered. "We think it's attracted to the chaotic nature of adolescence. These kids didn't need to be on drugs to attract it, they just needed to be in the middle of an adolescent hormone fit. Instant mental chaos."

Dean's eyes had followed the conversation around the table, and now he spoke. "So the thing is fast, strong and vicious. It's hard to see, and harder to catch. It prefers to munch on young males. That about sum it up?" Dean shrugged, his heavy jacket lifting on his shoulders. "So we pick a spot we can reinforce. We have only one way in or out. I play bait, lure the thing in, you guys come in after and we kill the son of bitch. Easy."

"Damn, why didn't we thank of that," Travis said sarcastically. "Oh wait, we did."

Jim sighed. "It won't work, Dean; you're way too old for it."

"So what? The Greeks got stoned to attract it right? Same premise should work for us–"

John growled. "You're not hunting it high. You'd be a liability. And it never took any boy as old as sixteen as far as we know, so we'd need somebody under that to be sure."

"I'm under sixteen."

All the men in the room spun to look at him, and Sam suddenly knew what a butterfly pinned to velvet felt like. He wanted to shrink; he wanted to duck his head; he wanted to shout at them all to stop looking at him; he wanted to tell them to back off. He settled for crossing his arms and staring back.

And in that moment he saw a shadow flicker over John's face, and one a little darker on Jim's and he knew that they'd been planning to ask him all along. On one hand he was proud, proud that they thought he could handle it. On the other, it kind of hurt, that his own dad would stake him out like so much hamburger. He wavered on the brink of telling them to shove it….

"No. Absolutely not." It wasn't his dad's voice, it was Dean's. He didn't sound even a little tolerant. "That's a stupid idea, Sammy. A ridiculously weak idea. Go sit out in the living room."

Sam jerked his eyes to his brother, no longer wavering. He loved Dean, but he was so damned bossy! "I'm under sixteen, Dean! At least for the next couple of months. Who else are you going to get to do it? Some random kid off the street!?"

"If we have to!"

Sam threw his arms up. "Oh that's just great, Dean! Let's let some kid that has no freaking clue what's going on stand as bait when I'm right here!"

"That's just the point, Sam! You are a kid! You don't have a freaking clue what can happen! You don't know anything! And you're not playing bait!"

Sam's shoulders stiffened. "You can't tell me what to do, Dean. I'm doing this."

"I take care of you! I've always taken care of you! So when I say no, you're going to damn well listen!"

"I'm not a kid, Dean!" Sam shouted.

"Yes you are!" Dean shouted back, just as angry. "You are a child! I gave you a childhood! And it's not like I ever got a thank you from your selfish ass!

"Stop," John said to his eldest, his voice low and dangerous. He put a hand on Dean's shoulder. "Now."

Dean jerked his arm free, turning to his dad. "You tell him! He's your son. You tell him he can't run off and do this because he's going to get his lame ass killed!"

John looked at Sam. And suddenly Sam could see the sense in the older hunters using him. It wasn't about love, or even about fondness, it was about getting the job done.

Sam was standing against the wall. His eyes were cold. "I'm doing it."

John nodded.

Dean made a noise of pure disgust and marched out of the room. Caleb looked around almost guiltily… then followed.

There was silence in the kitchen, the adults all looking at Sam while he tried not to meet anyone's eyes. Adrenaline was pumping through him, making him shake, making him want to hit something. He hadn't meant to say that. Not any of it. But it got old, Dean so willing to risk his own hide, and so quick to forbid him everything… like he had the authority to forbid anything.

But that was just the surface anger, just the easy part. The deeper base for his anger was hurt. Dean was so willing to put himself at risk, so willing to leave his little brother behind…and so unwilling to be the one left. Dean was hard and selfish and Sam got sick of the 'I've sacrificed for you' line when all Dean had ever done was lock Sam up so he would know where he was when he wanted to spend time with him and leave him behind when he didn't. Sam was sick of cages. Sick of not having choices. And he was really sick of being left behind.

Might serve them all right if he just took off someday. Dean didn't need him – and didn't really want him, either. Not deep down. At least not enough to stay when something better came along. As for their dad, well, Sam had never been anything other than an impediment to him. Or a catalyst; the reason the family started hunting in the first place. Sam wouldn't spend his life being nothing more than his big brother's security blanket …or his father's excuse.

The sound of the Impala's engine catching was loud in the small, still kitchen. It caught on something in Sam's chest and burned there. A second later Dean and Caleb were gone.

Sam sighed, carefully controlling his face. He might be left behind, but damned if he'd quit. He turned to the other hunters. "What do we do first?" he asked.

"First, we locate a spot that will suit," John said.

Jim glanced up, his expression vaguely guilty. "You sure you're up to this, Sammy? You don't have to."

"I want to," Sam said. Jim frowned.

John sighed, meeting Sam's eyes. "He's right, you don't have to do this."

Sam rolled his eyes. He knew that his dad didn't think he was capable of tying his own shoes most of the time. Dean might treat him like a pet… but to his dad he was just an embarrassment. Sam had long ago given up that battle. "It's not a big deal, Dad. I'll have five real hunters backing me up. All I have to do is stand here and look weak. Right up my alley, right?"

Sam stepped around his father, moving up to the table to look at the map Travis had glued his eyes to.

He never saw John wince.

"Well, that went easier than expected," Jim said dryly. "We didn't even have to ask him."

"No," John said. "Sammy has a way of finding the one thing his brother and I don't want him to do, and tearing out after it." John gave Jim a flat look. "Congratulations, Jim. You've got your bait. Let's go set the hook."

Jim had the grace to flush as John turned away.

"Dude, you want to slow down maybe?"

Caleb swallowed hard as the Impala took yet another snake curve at speeds that were far too fast for icy roads. Dean may have been one of the best drivers he'd ever known, but that hadn't ever stopped black ice from killing anyone.

"Nobody asked you to come along, pansy-ass."

Caleb sighed, trying to hold on to his temper. "Look, don't take out your anger on me. I'm not your brother and I won't just stand around and be your punching bag."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Dean shot him a venomous look throwing the car into a deeper gear. "You think that little bitch had any right to say that shit to me? I took care of him his whole life!"

Caleb shrugged. "So?"

Dean's jaw dropped. "So? What do you mean, 'so'?"

"So you took care of him his whole life. So what? You want a medal for it?"

Dean's throat worked as if he was literally choking on words. "You are fucked up, Caleb. That little prick would have been dead four times over if it wasn't for me!"

"And so he owes you? Please." Caleb tried to make out Dean's expression in the dark car. He couldn't. "Look, we've worked together, I've saved your ass. Do you owe me? You've saved my hide. Do I owe you?"

Dean's jaw worked. "It's not the same thing."

"No?"

"No."

"Why not? Because it wasn't ghoolies you were fighting, but fetching supper? You've fetched supper for me and your dad enough times. Same thing."

"No!" he stopped and controlled himself. "No it's not. Because, you're a hunter. You and Dad, you're my partners. It's different."

"Because we're hunters," Caleb asked and Dean nodded. "Because we're equals. And Sammy's not."

Dean growled. "Quit putting words in my mouth! I never said that!"

Caleb shrugged again. "Didn't you?"

"No!" the car growled as Dean's foot got heavier. "I never – I didn't mean it like that! You're taking it all out of context! On purpose!" Dean growled again.

Caleb huffed, almost amused. "No, I'm just saying it out loud. Ain't my fault that you don't like the words."

"So, what?" Dean snarled matching the noise of the car. "You think I was wrong?"

Caleb sighed. "Dude, do you remember when I first met you? When your dad needed those wrought-iron rounds?"

Dean actually shot him a startled glance before fixing his eyes on the road. "Yeah. You were the only weapons dealer that them."

Caleb grinned. "You were all of about thirteen. You were all piss and vinegar, and Sammy was just this little puffball that tottled around behind you. He was, what? Eight?"

Dean shifted uneasily. "Nine."

He nodded. "Nine. Right. I was twenty-two, Dean. Nine, to twenty-two, looks like an infant. Thirteen to twenty-two looks like a kid. A dumbass kid."

Dean snorted. "You had no idea what you were looking at." It was said with more than a little pride.

"I found out soon enough. When you knocked me down and Sam pulled that gun."

Dean chuckled. "You shouldn't have just barged in like that."

"I figured that out. But in my defense, your dad set me up. He told me to go on in before him."

Dean shook his head affectionately. His body had relaxed into the seat and the car was slowing. "He laughed so hard…."

"I never would have thought that a kid, a dumbass kid, could take me down so fast."

Dean frowned. "I was never a kid, Caleb."

Caleb nodded. "No. But I was so stuck on seeing the kid that I couldn't see the hunter you were."

Dean's jaw worked but he kept quiet.

"The first time we hunted together, you were all of fifteen."

"I know this, Caleb. I was there, remember?"

"That's the same age as Sam, now," Caleb went on, ignoring the comment and the tone. "It was so hard to watch you – just this kid – throw himself into a hunt that would have had most adults creaming in their shorts."

"What's your point, Caleb?" Dean was back to grinding teeth and pressing the pedal down. Caleb knew that he knew damned well what the point was.

"Maybe you don't know what you're looking at when you look at Sam, Dean. Maybe you're so suck on seeing the kid, that you can't see the hunter."

Dean frowned. "Sammy is a kid, though, Caleb. He's a kid. I never was. Big difference."

"Arrogant," Caleb said, and Dean bristled.

"Arrogant?"

"You heard me," Caleb glared. "There were two kids that took me down in that motel, Dean. You knocked me down, but Sam having that gun kept me on the floor. On that hunt, you were with me, but Sam was with your dad, hunting the same shit we were after. And I've seen him fetch you plenty of suppers while we planned hunts, so I'd say you were even on that score. He's been there right behind you every step, he's worked and sweated and bled for this job, same as you; and you can't even see him because you're so busy trying to turn him into a kid. But he's never been a kid, either, Dean. No more than you have. You've done a good job taking care of him, no argument, but let's face it, he can't be any more of a kid than you. You gave him everything you could, but that was only as much as you had. Hell, in some ways he's less of a kid than you are."

"Less," the car swerved as Dean turned to stare at him. "How the hell could he be less?" the word came out hissed. "He played soccer, and joined the chess team, and…"

"And what?" Caleb pushed as Dean stumbled to a stop, but not unkindly. "There weren't as many special things in his life as you and your dad like to pretend. Hell, do you know the kid told me once he didn't even like soccer? He joined the team because he thought it would make you happy for him to do something 'normal'. He took all John's moods and comments because you seemed so happy he was on the team."

Dean blinked. "He didn't like soccer?"

"Not even a little bit. Chubby, clumsy kids usually don't go in for the team sports, Dean."

Dean shook his head, looking dazed. "I thought he liked it."

Caleb shrugged. "He knew you needed him to like it, so he faked it."

Dean shot him a look, not incredulous so much as devastated. "And the chess team?"

Caleb chuckled. "As far as I know he liked the chess team."

They drove in silence for awhile, the icy wind hissed outside the windows making the car feel small and warm.

"I fucked up, didn't I?" Dean eventually said. He kept his eyes on the road.

"Maybe. But so what?"

"So what?"

"He's not a kid, Dean. He'll get over it."

"It just seems so… sudden," Dean said, sounding miserable.

"It's not, really. He's growing up. Hell, I saw it coming the second you two walked through Jim's front door. And it's no big thing, really. He's just told you he's done playing the kid just to make you happy. He's gotten too big to fit into that costume anymore. But that won't change the fact that the kid fucking dotes on you. He's probably already forgiven you. You know how he is."

"Yeah, I know how he is…" Dean muttered, sounding doubtful for the first time.

The light in the kitchen was still burning through the window when they got back. It was the only one. Dean and Caleb entered through the back door, off the kitchen, and Sammy – sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of milk – didn't even bother to glance up from the book he was reading.

Caleb gave Dean an amused look and ran a finger over his throat. Dean glared. Caleb chuckled, and Sam looked up for the first time. Caleb nodded to Sam, clapped Dean on the shoulder and bid them both goodnight. He wandered off through the dark house looking for his patch of floor.

Dean met Sam's eyes for all of two seconds, before turning to the fridge. "Jim got any coke?"

"There's some behind the milk."

Sam sounded fine. Not particularly pissed. Dean relaxed a bit.

Dean grabbed the bottle and joined Sam at the table. Sam didn't bother to look up from his books.

So he was a little pissed, then. That was okay. Dean could deal.

"Couldn't sleep?" Dean asked.

Sam tilted his head up just enough to give him a sarcastic look before going back to reading.

Okay. It had been sort of a dumb question. "Is it because of the hunt?"

This time Sam looked up and glared. "No." his voice was cool, but his eyes were hot, and Dean held up a hand in surrender.

"Okay, okay. Don't get your panties in a twist. Just your normal insomnia then. Got it." Sam had always had trouble sleeping. He spent most of his nights reading while Dean crashed, or watching TV on the nights when Dean went out. It was part of the reason Dean rarely woke him if he dozed off in the car. Dean would go through a drive-thru before he'd wake Sam just to get dinner.

"So…" Dean tried again, "what'cha reading?" Dean leaned in close and flicked at the book, shifting the pages.

Sam huffed a sigh as he lost his place. He looked up, anything but amused –

And Dean puffed out a breath in his face.

"Aw, man!" Sam complained quietly, reeling back. "Your breath stinks, dude! You smell like stale beer."

"That's because I've been drinking stale beer," Dean admitted easily. "You should have seen this dive we found tonight, Sammy. The décor was as bad as the booze. It was like something out of 'Deliverance'. Seriously. I expected dueling banjos to come out at any second."

Sam smiled… Dean could see him fighting it, but Sammy was helpless against him, and Dean knew it. "Only you and Caleb would spend half a night in a place like that," Sam said.

"Half a night, hell. There were no girls there, Sam. None." Dean looked considering for a moment. "Okay, I guess, technically, there were female people there who you would have to call girls… but I don't think the term 'girl' should be applied if they could bark for their supper, you know what I mean?"

Sam grinned, shaking his head. "I would argue with that, but knowing how totally not picky you are about the girls you'll do, I can only guess that the crowd was really bad."

"You have no idea. Bowser city, dude. We need to get done and get out. Go somewhere warm, where the chicks are hot, and still wearing shorts."

"Whatever," Sam replied, but he was ginning softly, so Dean let it go.

Dean sipped his coke, leaning back. Sam had gone back to reading, but the air between them stayed warm and Dean relaxed even more. "What are you reading anyway?"

Sam spun the book so he could see it.

"Greek Religion?"

"Yep," Sam said, pulling the book back.

"Why? No, scratch that. You're doing research." It wasn't that Sammy didn't trust them, but Sam never liked to go in blind…and research made him feel better, safer. And what the hell, his bouts of extra research had led to him having a life saving good idea once or twice before. "Find anything interesting?"

Sam shrugged. "Same as what Jim told us, mostly. The possessed warriors had a name, though."

"A name?"

Sam nodded. "Once possessed, the warrior was called Korybantis – the mad one. And the most feared of the Korybantes were the polymetis."

"Polymetis?"

Sam smiled. "The clever ones. It literally translates to 'the much turning mind'."

"Well, that's just swell," Dean said sourly. "Clever, insane, killer demons. This just gets better and better." Dean sighed. "When is all this set to go down?"

Sam swallowed. "Dad found a likely place on the map. He wants to scope it out tomorrow afternoon." Sam glanced up, his eyes dark. "If it looks good he wants to set up for tomorrow night."

Dean bit back the first hundred impulses that jumped into his head – starting with making a comment about how stupid this whole idea was, and ending with him locking Sammy in the trunk of the Impala until this blew over. He knew that his dad would want to move fast before the Dys wandered out of range, but this was almost recklessly hurried. He felt his stomach churn.

"You know that this is dangerous, right?" he asked Sammy. He saw Sam's expression close down, and held up a hand. "No, dude, I'm not going to try and talk you out of this; I know I can't – and I guess you've been hunting enough now that you can make up your own mind. But you do know this won't be like hunting, right? Playing bait means intentionally making yourself vulnerable. Not only letting this thing get the drop on you, but encouraging it. It's the most dangerous part of what we do."

"I know," Sam said, shrugging. "But somebody has to do this, and it's better me than some civilian who wouldn't stand a chance. Or you, trying to fight high. That's a total recipe for disaster."

Like this isn't, Dean thought, but didn't say. Dean swallowed, fighting the rising tide of panic – he had a dull certainty in his gut that this was going to go badly wrong. "Just…. Look, just don't do anything stupid. So help me, if you get yourself hurt I'll…."

Sam's mouth twisted into a half grin that was way too old for his face. "What? You'll kill me?"

"Not funny," Dean snarled.

"It so is," Sam grinned.

"Whatever, douche. I'm going to bed." Dean pushed away from the table, dropping his glass in the sink, as Sam picked his book back up.

Dean hesitated in the door. "Hey, Sam?"

His little brother glanced up.

"We're okay, right?"

"We're good," Sam reassured seriously.

"Good. Get some sleep, geek."

"Sure," he said, but his head was back in his book, and Dean knew he'd be up for what little was left of the night.

Dean was pretty sure he would be too.

John wondered what was up with his boys.

The four of them – John, Dean, Sam and Caleb – were trekking out to the site where they had set up for the hunt tonight.

The woods were in the deep stillness of a cavernous winter. The trees were twisted black shapes against the frozen snow. The thick crust of frost on top of that snow broke and crunched under foot, making the group of hunters far too loud in the silent forest. An occasional track showed that they were not the only living creatures out here, but some inner sense said that John and his boys were isolated and alone….

He was edgy from it.

And Sam and Dean weren't helping. They had been normal enough this afternoon when they were setting up and scouting the area. They should have been tormenting each other. Dean poking and tugging at his brother, and Sam retaliating – and both of them driving him nuts, stretching his tolerance until he finally snapped.

Which wouldn't do anything but make Sammy mad, and make Dean laugh.

But now they were both quiet, watchful, both of them in perfect hunter mode. It should have pleased him… but instead it just reinforced his feeling that something in this woods was wrong – something in his plans was wrong – and they were in trouble….

But the woods stayed quiet, and the boys stayed anxious, and John led them deeper into the shadows.

They approached the hunting site at four pm, right on schedule. That gave them about thirty minutes before heavy dusk, which would be about the same time of day the boys got taken as far as Jim had been able to figure. The site John had picked was a deadfall in the center of a wide glade. Something, a pest or disease, had killed off the trees in this area years ago. The fallen trunks and branches had then been picked up by water during some spring runoff and tossed into a high, loose cluster in the rough center of the glade. This afternoon John, Jim, Travis and Caleb had removed the center of the deadfall, leaving a large hollow surrounded by a tall, dangerously loose collection of dead wood. They had fashioned a narrow gap in the ring of dead wood, an easily controlled entrance to what would be the open killing zone on the inside.

While the older hunters were hauling wood, Dean and Sam had wandered around the woods, leaving Sam's sent trail in a path right back to the glade.

Now, after a quick trip back to the house for a meal before the fight, John led the way back into the glade as the sun began to sink. John spared a quick look around the walls of the deadfall, and saw both Jim and Travis signal an 'all clear'. The creature hadn't shown yet, then.

John didn't know whether to be more anxious or relieved that the hunt was still a go.

John wasn't used to being anxious before a hunt. He didn't like it. And he knew where the source was.

"So no sign yet?" Dean asked, not bothering to hide his hopeful tone. "Maybe the thing has moved on."

John met his youngest's eyes briefly, a slight, silent agreement over Dean's overprotective nature – and how completely unlikely it was that the creature had given up a profitable hunting ground. Dean had made his feeling about this plan quite clear over dinner. Phrases like 'half-assed' and 'cluster-fuck' had been used.

John bit back the snarl that wanted to come. "Look, Dean, you and Caleb go get into position."

"But-"

"Now."

"Fine," Dean huffed, obviously not pleased. He looked at Sam. "Look, you remember the plan, right? You just draw the thing in and then get the hell out of the way. No Bruce Willis moves, Sammy; you got me?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "I got you."

"This is serious, Sam."

"I said I got you, Dean," Sam folded his arms, meeting Dean's glare with one of his own.

"Dean, take your position now," John growled. The last thing he needed was Dean cranking Sammy up so high that the kid spooked before this even got started.

Dean glared at him, just to let him know how unhappy he was with this plan – and that boy was getting out of hand, it was time to rein him in – and turned to clamber into one of the hidden hollows they had installed in the wall of dead wood. John walked with Sammy into the center.

"Now you know the plan, right?"

Sam nodded, so keyed up that John could almost see the tension in him, even under the heavy coat. "I hang out here trying to look tasty. When the thing comes, I back up to the far wall. You and Travis will kick down the doorway to trap it inside. The others will be jumping down from the walls. I beat feet back behind Dean's position and climb, and you guys cave it's skull in with the iron bars you brought. Simple enough."

Yeah, simple. Except for the part where Sammy would be on the killing floor alone with that thing; only for a few seconds, true, but any time without back up was dangerous. And Sammy would be the only one of them who would be weaponless. Oh, and, they had left only one place in the brush where Sam could get out, so if Sam wasn't in position when it started, he would have no way to escape.

John began to see why Dean was less than happy about this plan….

He sighed. It wasn't like they had a lot of other options. Sammy was their best bet. And there was no sense in loading his own worries onto the kid when the plan was already set.

He patted the boy on the shoulder. "Stick to the plan. Stay calm, and stick to the plan. This will all be over soon."

Sam nodded, and John made his way to his own hidden perch near the narrow gap of a gate.

Leaving his youngest son alone and defenseless on the killing floor below him.

Sam was… bored.

The first ten minutes he'd been near freaked, edgy and hyper and pacing around the confines of the deadfall to burn nervous energy. After twenty minutes he'd settled – wary, but not nervous; aware, but not panicked. Now, with the sun all but gone, he was just bored.

He would have sat down, but the snow on the ground didn't look all that inviting.

He started drawing doodles in the snow with the toe of his boot, but the snow was too frozen to really hold the shapes. Sighing, he gave up on the snow art, and started pacing again. Standing still just made him cold.

And frustrated. After all the arguing, after fighting with Dean just to get his chance to play bait, now the monster was going to be a no-show.

Sam's cold boredom converted to the slow boil of frustration. He wanted to do this, he wanted to be a hunter, and now even the frigging monsters were against him!

It just wasn't fair!

He kicked at a stick that had slipped from the pile.

Wait.

He'd been past this spot like a million times now. That stick had never been there. He looked up, but he was nowhere near any of the bolt holes where the other hunters were hiding.

So why had the stick fallen?

Sam scrutinized the jumbled wood, but it was hard to see anything in the dimming light. He stepped back and he could swear that the wall was sagging. Just a bit.

"Dad?" he called out. "Dad, I think something's wrong."

His only response was silence.

Sam ground his teeth in frustration. "Dad, I'm serious. I think there's something wrong here. The wall looks different."

Silence. A little shift from where Sam knew Dean was.

Sam huffed out an irritated breath. "Look! I am not making this up! There is something wrong here and I need you to listen to me!"

"Sam," it was a low hiss from near the gap. "You are spooking yourself. Now calm down and quit giving away our positions before you get someone killed."

Sam flushed, knowing his father was right. But there was something different about that wall.

Sam started to pace the wall, realizing that the snow was…churned up in spots.

Why the hell was the snow churned up? It looked almost like something had burrowed here.

He had come almost full circle when he saw it. Standing in the shadows to the far right, no where near the gap where it should have come in. Just a shape, a basically human outline in the dusk. Its fingers were wrong; as was the way its hands and arms just dangled from the hunched shoulders. His heart thudded. He could almost feel the adrenaline pumping as his breath came out in a fog that made it even harder to see for a second. He stumbled back a step.

How the hell had it gotten in? Wasn't it supposed to have come through the gap? Then he saw the pile of dirt and snow in the gloom next to the wood and realized that it had dug its way under the wall. It had picked its entry point well. The hunters in the walls wouldn't even know it was there, it was so concealed by the thick shadows caused by the encircling wall. It had cut him off from his retreat position.

The brief flash of panic was controlled as Sam thought about the plan. He may not be able to get to his appointed place, but he still had to lead it to the center of the ring, listen for the crash as the gap closed, then fallback… somehow.

Nothing had changed. He would just have to loop out farther to pull it toward the center. And then he would have to be at ground level during the fight. He could do this. He was hunter enough to do this.

He started back, aware of its gaze, wishing that it would step free of the shadows so that the other hunters could see it.

Until then, they wouldn't even know he was in trouble.

Sam's heart thudded painfully, and the creature's face lifted as it sniffed after him.

"C'mon," he hissed at it, moving further into the open, into what little light there was left. "C'mon."

"Sam?"

It was Dean, quiet and worried, and confused by the sudden change in Sam's behavior.

The creature didn't react; it didn't flinch, or glance at Dean's position. It just stared at Sam – and Sam thought: it knows, it knows they're here

And it moved.

It stepped forward, into the fading light, and Sam almost wished it had stayed hidden. It was unclothed… but somehow didn't appear naked. Its skin was thick, heavy and massive, a dingy gray mass that covered a thin, smallish body. The covering of skin had broken and reformed hundreds of times, leaving a lacework of twisted reddish tissue crisscrossing its flesh. All of its soft tissue had shriveled and died at some point during its long life, leaving behind rotted holes at its nose, its ears, its groin. Its fingers had withered, the flesh contracting to the bone and blackening, leaving it with small, bony claws. The tissue of its face had pulled back, its lips masticated, the hole of its mouth stretched into a perpetual, humorless and grim grin. Its eyes had …exploded, leaving swollen balls of congealed and rotting blood protruding from the sockets. And the worst part of it? Sam could see the human it had once been, underlining the twisted and decimated body that had belonged to the Dys for so long now.

It should have been blind, it – it should have been dead… but those rotted eyes swung toward Sam, and he knew the Dys could see despite them. The Dys was still pushing the body, still riding it, long after it should have failed – yet didn't seem to realize that the flesh it inhabited was no longer capable of providing the sensations it thought it was having.

Sam knew it was insane by any human definition.

"Oh shit!" he heard Caleb say, "It's in the wrong place! It's here! It's down there!"

Sam already knew that, thanks.

"No! Dean! Wait!" Sam heard Travis, and didn't dare to turn as he heard movement. Everything was happening all at once – after boredom he was now overloaded. His head wanted to swing, he wanted to check on everybody, but he somehow knew that if he broke eye contact with the thing, it would be on him in a heartbeat. Sam took another step back as it advanced, adrenaline flooding his body. He was alone, unarmed, and out of position.

He was so screwed.

He saw his dad from the corner of his eye. He saw him leaning out from his bolt hole, ready to kick the support out and bring the brush down to fill the gap, trapping the monster, and his son, inside.

"John, wait! Sam's not in position!" he heard Jim shout… and he could have told Jim that it wouldn't matter – and he heard the crunch as the support went.

The gap closed as the dead trees collapsed inward…

The collapse of the wall didn't stop with the gap, but continued, the brush falling in the tangle of dead wood breaking at the same places where Sam had marked the churned up snow. Sam gasped as the walls didn't so much give way as compress, the loose wood dropping into itself as it shifted, turning the hidey holes of the hunters into wooden cages. Sam could hear Jim cry out from somewhere in the brush. He sounded hurt. He could hear the others cursing and wood cracking as they attempted to escape.

The creature made a noise, a low, grating sound that hit Sam like fingernails on a chalkboard. Sam felt a cold flush that had nothing to do with the outside temperature. It was laughing. The damned thing was laughing.

It had dug out the base of the deadfall. It had known what they were doing… and it had turned their plans back on them, catching the hunters in the thicket and leaving Sam alone and trapped on the killing floor. It hadn't even minded the hunters being there. Sam wondered if this had been its own sort of ambush – take out the hunters that threatened its new territory and get a little dinner in the bargain.

"Polymetis," Sam said, and it snorted that awful, wet laugher again.

"Sam!" he heard Dean shout, and he dared to glace back over its shoulder. Dean had moved early. He had already been climbing before John had brought down the support, so he hadn't been trapped. He felt a mix of gratitude and fear.

Sam jerked his eyes back to the creature as Dean hit the ground. Too early. The others were still trying to make their way free of the wreckage. It wasn't that he wasn't thrilled to not be alone, but the plan called for the hunters to move in together. To come in and take on the Dys in concert… one-on-one this thing would rip everybody apart.

Oh, they were so screwed.

The Dys was staring at Sam; it moved forward, its posture screaming that it was done playing. It was staking its prey, now.

It really wanted Sam.

Sam saw Dean just over the things shoulder. He saw him raise the heavy, metal pipe – it had a dull orange gleam in the sunset – and step up quickly, silently. Dean brought the pipe down, face twisted with the effort, slamming it into the back of the Dys' head. The creature howled, stumbling forward a step. It recovered quickly though, far too quickly, and it lashed out, catching and throwing Sam into the far wall, while in a twist of its body that happened so fast it looked like the same motion, it grabbed Dean, piercing his left shoulder and right arm with its withered claw-like fingers, and tossed him into the other side of the pen hard enough that the deadfall rocked. Dean dropped to the base of the branches and didn't move.

Sam gasped and scrambled to his feet as the thing turned toward where Dean laid huddled, murder in its dead eyes.

"Dean!" he heard his father scream from somewhere. Sam was disorientated, but automatically flinched and dropped to the ground when the gun went off.

The creature rounded on the source, hissing in anger. Sam looked up in time to see his dad join them on the floor, pistol out, firing at the Dys and pulling its attention off of Dean.

The gun was ineffective. The Dys started toward John, hunched low and ready to kill. It jerked as the bullets hit, but all they seemed to do was piss it off. Sam edged away from them and toward his brother as it started for John.

Dean sat up, shaking his head.

John glanced at his son, and the thing jumped, pouncing from a little over 25 feet away.

John went down under it, screaming as its limbs hacked and slashed. Without a word, Dean shoved Sam aside and went for their dad, metal pipe in hand.

Sam knew he couldn't help without a weapon. Bare hands wouldn't even scratch that thing.

"Sam!"

He looked up, seeing Caleb caught right above him.

Sam started breaking branches.

Dean attacked the Dys, hitting it again. It screamed, barely hesitating as it threw Dean into the wall again with all the attention of a person swatting a mosquito. Then it grabbed John and heaved him up, hurling him after Dean. John hit the wall as dead weight, and smashed through it, leaving a broken hole behind. The wind that Sam had forgotten was blowing outside the deadfall whipped in, setting the dry snow swirling.

The last thick branch gave under both Sam's and Caleb's hands, and Caleb scrambled free of the debris. Further down the wall Travis was loose too, now, and helping Jim.

And the Dys was moving toward the hole – toward the fallen hunters. Toward Sam's family. The whole hunt had started and gone so horribly wrong in less than three minutes.

Sam knew he was the reason it was here. He knew if he got its attention, if he made himself attractive to it again, it would abandon its attack on the others and come after him.

Sam knew there was only one way to distract it, to buy the others just a little time.

He turned to Caleb. "Take care of them," he said, and bolted.

Sam raced toward the hole, toward the monster, and at the last minute threw himself into a long slide tackle, perfected during way too many hours of soccer practice, hitting the back of its knees. It worked here as well as it always had on the soccer field, sending the Dys off its feet and slamming it to the ground. The Dys reacted, screaming in its rage. Sam knew he hadn't hurt it, he couldn't hurt it, but he had sure gotten its attention.

Sam's slide had taken him past the monster and through the hole. As Sam rolled to his feet he saw that he was now standing free and clear of the deadfall. He wasn't far from the edge of the woods. The Dys had surged back to its feet, turning that bloody, dead gaze on him. He could read its renewed intent to kill him, to consume him, in those eyes.

And that was fine, just as long as it left Dean and Dad alone.

"I'm the one you want, remember?" Sam muttered. "So come get me."

And Sam turned and ran, the Dys only a handful of steps behind him.

Sam didn't have a plan. His only thought had been to get as far away from the other hunters as possible, as quickly as possible.

Now his only thought was to stay alive.

Night had fallen. The full moon and the reflective snow helped, but Sam was still trying to run full tilt in the dark.

The Dys was pacing him. Darting out of the trees to swipe at him, or knock him down. Sam was bleeding from a dozen little gashes. He had begun to think it was just playing now, trying to see how far he could go.

He was running – but it had been awhile, and he couldn't catch his breath, the arctic snap in the air actually burned the tissues of his throat when he tried to inhale now. So he was slow and he was clumsy and he knew he was making mistakes…

The cold was sapping what skill he had.

The worst part was that he was pretty sure the Dys was just screwing with him.

He could hear it, sometimes on the ground, sometimes in the trees – always too close for it not to know where he was. It was teasing him. Working him up. Sam remembered what Jim and his dad had said, about it liking the hormone rush of adolescents. He wondered if fear could cause that… he wondered if this was its version of tenderizing the meat.

Sam saw movement, just a flicker, and he ducked instinctively… almost quick enough as the thing reached out of the night and smacked him in the side of his head. He missed most of the blow, the glancing weight that did make contact not slowing him much. He turned and sprinted in a new direction.

It kept doing that, sneaking up and swiping at him, keeping him disorientated and bleeding. Keeping his adrenaline so high for so long that he was shaking from more than just the cold.

How long had it been? Had Caleb and Travis gotten the others back to the house yet? Was it safe to back-track yet? Head back toward the house and the wards and the weapons.

Were Dean and Dad okay?

Sam grunted as the creature hit him sideways, taking advantage of his distraction. He rolled with it, going after its eyes as it clawed at his chest. He made contact the same time it did, and they both screamed.

As it let loose of him, Sam scrambled away, spinning to be ready for the next attack.

It was gone. Again.

"Fuck," Sam hissed. His hand automatically went to the gouges in his belly. Thankfully his coat had taken the brunt of the attack. He wasn't bleeding much, he didn't think. But now his coat was shredded. It would tangle against his legs and slow him down. Reluctantly he stripped it off and dumped it.

For a second he was just…

Angry.

Not just angry… he was furious. He was pissed, enraged, incensed. He was so mad he couldn't see straight. He'd told them something was wrong! He'd told them! Before it ever happened! Jim had told John that he wasn't in position, too.

John had kicked it down knowing he was out of position.

He was stuck out in the middle of a freaking frozen forest, coatless, in the dark…all because his dad and brother never listened to a single word he ever said. This monster was picking at him like a carrion bird pecking at a corpse….

And nobody was coming for him.

He hadn't followed the plan. He hadn't been in position when the gap came down, and he knew that his dad would blame him for it. He should have found a way to obey the rules and follow orders. He should have. Dean would have.

Even though he'd tried to tell them that something was wrong. Even though they hadn't listened.

He was going to die because his dad couldn't be bothered to listen to him, just once.

How much was it to ask to just be…worth hearing? Just for one night?

And just as suddenly the rage was gone – and he was only cold and hurt and alone in the dark.

The same way he always was.

The shadows flickered again, and it dodged out of the dark, taking advantage of his stillness. It hit him solidly in the chest, just below his clavicle. Sam screamed and fell, the pain of the snapping bone blinding him momentarily. It rolled him and they both went down, Sam struggling to keep it from ripping him apart, while it hissed and snapped and grabbed with its boney claws.

It picked Sam up and threw him, slamming him into a tree.

Sam slumped, disorientated, fighting the darkness that tried to seep into his vision.

He had to get up. Move. His father's command. His father's voice in his head, in his fear. Move, or it'll take you right here. Get up. Move.

Sam tried to move. For what it was worth, Sam tried to move. But his arm didn't want to work, and his right side felt like it was on fire, despite the cold. His body just didn't want to work anymore.

It was going to kill him.

No.

Not his father's voice this time, but his own voice – but somehow stronger than he had ever thought of himself. Surer.

You may be alone, and you may die; but damn it, you don't have to go down without a fight. Quit thinking like your dad. You don't have to be like him. He got you into this mess by thinking like a hunter. So don't think like a hunter. Think like a monster.

Think like a monster.

Which was… not to think at all – in any real, human sense – but just to be. Just to want.

Sam knew he had it in him to be a monster. He knew all hunters had the possibility of going bad… especially him. He didn't want to be a killer.

But he did want to live.

So he let it in.

"Hey. John? C'mon, wake up. You're scaring your son."

The last words caught John's attention and he pushed his brain into functioning. His head hurt, his side burned, and his back ached. All signs of a hunt gone bad.

"Did we get it at least?" he asked blurrily, trying to make his eyes work.

Silence.

Well, that was answer enough.

"Shit," he muttered. "Dean?" he called.

"He's not here, John," Jim answered, and John's eyes shot open.

"Where is he?"

Jim sighed. "He's fine. Getting stitched up by Caleb and Travis in the kitchen. That thing put a couple of gashes in his shoulder. It was you that had us worried."

"I'm fine," John said automatically, setting up and spending a couple of second breathing deeply to try and settle the vertigo that marched hand in hand with the pounding headache. He diagnosed mild concussion and dismissed it. He had some new stitches in his chest and shoulders. He remembered the Dys jumping on him, and figured his coat must have taken the majority of the damage. Which was better than his hide.

"Sure you are," Jim sneered.

John forced himself to focus. He was on the couch in Jim's living room. Jim was in the chair next to him, one leg splinted and propped up on the coffee table.

"Broken?" John asked.

"Fracture, most likely," Jim answered. "I fell wrong when the branches came down." He wouldn't meet John's eyes.

Suddenly something in the kitchen shattered and Dean yelled, "And I told you that I don't care! I'm going back out now!"

John felt the slow sinking sensation of bad news not yet shared. "Jim? What's wrong?"

Jim hesitated, and John bit back the angry panic. "Jim?"

Dean came storming out of the kitchen, pulling his coat on over his torn and bloody shirt. One side of his face was bruised all to hell. His spotted his dad on the couch. "You're up? Good. I could use the help."

"Somebody what to tell me what the hell is going on?"

Dean's face twisted. "These jokers left Sammy out there. I'm going to go get him."

John stood. "What?"

"We didn't leave Sammy out there, Dean!" Jim argued. "Sammy ran –"

"Sammy ran?" John demanded. "The fool kid ran off?"

"No!" Dean snarled. "He did what he could to save us when your damned plan went fubar!"

"The thing was ready for us, John," Travis said. "It took you and Dean out, and it was going to kill you. Sam distracted it, led it off into the woods and bought us enough time to get Jim out and get you guys taken care of. Kid saved our asses."

"And you left him out there!"

Jim looked at Dean. "We did what we had to do. You and John were down, helpless. My ankle is broken. It took both Caleb and Travis to get us back here before you froze to death. If they had taken off alone, even if they found the thing, it would have torn them to shreds. Now that John's awake, we…" he hesitated, "you," he corrected, "can go… find him together."

There was an awkward pause.

"How long?" John growled. "How long were we out? How long has it been?!"

It was Caleb that answered. "You've been out a couple of hours and change, John."

"So my boy has been out in the woods alone with that killer for three hours?"

Silence.

"It doesn't mean that he's dead!" Dean shouted.

Jim cleared his throat. "Any normal kid would be dead by now, Dean."

"For god's sake, you've all been telling me that he's not a kid – that he's a hunter! I admit it, okay! He's a damned good hunter, and if there was any way to keep himself alive, he would! He's out there and he's fighting, and I am going to bring him home. He did what he did to save us, and now he's in trouble! We have to go NOW!"

John reeled. The idea that Sammy could survive three hours in the dark and cold being hunted by that thing… it was highly unlikely. This was his fault. Sammy was out there because of his screwed up plans. He should have been more careful, should have thought things through better, should have listened when Sammy said something was wrong.

"Dad!" Dean shouted. He glanced up to see his oldest shrugging into his coat and picking up a weapon. "Get with it. We move now."

John hesitated a split second longer, then shook off the guilt. There would be time to deal with the fall out later. If there was still a chance to get to Sammy on time, he needed to move.

"Dean, get a flashlight. We'll be trailing, so we'll need to see. Who all's coming?"

"I'm in," Caleb said, and Travis nodded.

"Fine. We're at least one man down, and neither Dean or me are moving as fast as we should be. This job was hard, now it's harder. Still want in?"

Travis snorted. "Why are you still talking?"

John grabbed his coat. "Fine. Let's move."

"Be careful," Jim said. "Watch your backs."

Sam stopped thinking. He stopped fighting with himself, with his instincts, with his body and his training. He just stopped.

The Dys was coming toward him. Not hurrying, but not cautious either. They had played tag for hours now, the creature slowly draining Sam's strength. Now it was done. Now it was moving in for the kill.

Sam didn't think about what he was doing, he just let his body take over. The pain didn't stop… it just shifted into the background. Information for another time. His hand reached out, picking up a largish rock lying at the base of the tree.

The Dys leaned over him, reaching out…

And Sam snapped the rock up with all his strength, slamming it into the creatures head.

The Dys reeled back, hissing, and Sam pushed himself up. He waited for it to recover, waited for it to come at him again, snarling its rage. At the last second he dropped the rock, taking the Dys' twisted hand and using its own momentum against it. He pivoted while holding it, simply turning its charge so that it threw itself into the tree. The same tree it had sent him flying into.

The Dys stumbled back, shaking its head. It glared at him from behind a face that had once been human. Had once belonged to just some kid who had wanted to be a warrior and had gotten screwed over by fate.

Sam could relate. And Sam decided that the kid who had been there before the monster deserved to … die. Finally and at last, just to die. And Sam was going to do his damnedest to make it happen.

The Dys was weighing him now. It was angry, but he'd struck out against it twice now, and it knew he could hit back.

But Sam could also feel its avarice. Its hunger. It wanted him. He wanted to live. The question was, who it wanted more?

Sam saw the resolution in those dead eyes, and he stiffened for the attack he cold see coming.

It screamed at him, and pounced, making one of those weird, long leaps that had taken down his father.

The two tumbled, the Dys easily overpowering Sam. Sam didn't go down easy, though. Half ready for the pounce, Sam twisted as he fell, trying to get it under him. He didn't quite make it, but the angle when they hit the ground forced the creature to flip him.

They rolled until they hit the base of the tree again. His left side flared, but he hardly noticed. The Dys loomed over Sam, pinning him, straddling his hips. One of its clawed hands dug into Sam's wrist, drawing blood. Its other hand raised, fingers bent so that its claws were ready to kill. The creature's face rippled, and Sam's stomach flipped as he realized it was trying to smile.

But Sam knew something that it didn't know.

Thanks to years of being pinned down by Dean, Sam knew how to get someone off of him. He knew it bone deep, in a way he had never learned other moves. Sam was never as dangerous to an opponent as when he was down, and they were leaning over him.

Sam twisted his hips, shoving the creature's arm back and shifting its weight. As it slipped sideways, Sam pushed up (a distant, nova-flash of pain in his chest marked the movement, but he was beyond feeling it) and twisted, and rolled the Dys to the bottom, so that he was straddling it.

There was a pause, as if it was shocked to find itself overturned over by its prey. Sam raised his arms. It hissed, and Sam could feel it shifting, bringing its greater strength into play. Sam ignored it. Its non-eyes flashed up to the heavy rock in his hand – the one that he'd picked back up as soon as they'd hit the tree.

It screeched.

Sam brought the rock down into the creature's face. The fine bones, thinner and more fragile than the skull, gave under his rock. There was a weak crunch as something broke.

The Dys screamed again, this time in pain. Sam could feel it gathering itself to move. It was so much stronger than him that if it got free, it would kill him. Before it had time to use that extra muscle, Sam jerked the rock back up, and brought it down again. And again. And again….

John found Sam's trail easily enough. The kid had been moving fast and not bothering to be careful.

"C'mon," he said, and Dean fell in behind him, Caleb and Travis covering the rear. If Sam was…

If the Dys had finished hunting, it would probably be watching them.

Dean pushed them to go a little faster. John allowed it. Whatever was waiting for them at the end of the Sam's trail wouldn't be any easier to see later.

"Jesus, what's with this trail?" Dean whispered.

It looped and wandered, occasionally turned without warning. Twice John had seen blood. He hadn't pointed it out to Dean.

John felt dread trying to close his throat. He covered it with irritation. "Sam panicked. He was running scared. He's not following any kind of plan."

Travis muttered something.

"What?" John said, jerking to a stop. "You got something to say, Travis, say it."

Travis glared. "That boy doesn't deserve that, John. He tried to tell us something was wrong. We were all there. Any one of us could have listened, could have called the whole thing off before it went south. But none of us trusted him to know his job. We fucked up, John. Not Sam. He saved our asses, and I won't stand here and listen to you run him down because your plan failed and he's doing the best he can with what he got stuck with."

John stepped forward, Dean cursing as he moved to intercept the two hunters before they could tie into one another.

"Guys!"

Dean had never been so glad to hear Caleb in his life.

"Look!" Caleb demanded, shoving something between them.

It was Sam's coat, torn and bloody.

The fight went out of both of the older hunters.

John stepped forward, reaching for it –

A shriek echoed through the woods. Loud and not far from them. Unconsciously, the hunters froze as it rang through the trees; a long, horrible scream of pain and fear ending in a low note that every one of the hunters recognized as a death rattle.

"Sam!" John shouted, and ran, almost aimlessly, rushing toward the source of the scream.

The hunters closed in on a small grove, slowing down and spreading out as a thick, wet crunch sounded out – once…then again. They approached carefully, weapons ready.

They got there in time to see Sam raise the rock one last time, slamming it into what was left of the Dys' skull. It hit with a wet thud. The skin of the monster's head was whole, but shapeless, like a plastic sack filled with water and broken glass. Its body wasn't even twitching.

"Jesus," Caleb muttered.

Sam froze at the sound. John motioned at the others, signaling them to hold back. John stepped forward carefully, gun down, but his eyes trained on the broken body of the Dys.

"Sammy?" he said, keeping his tone calm. "You okay?"

Sam staggered to his feet, backing away from the body. The young man standing there couldn't be his Sammy. John saw his son, really saw him – and he could recognize no trace of his little boy. The chubby twelve-year old he could have sworn Sammy had been not two days ago had vanished, replaced by the young hunter standing in front of him – towering over his kill. He was tall, lean, and handsome… and dangerous.

John felt the first stirrings of something that might have been pride…and might have been unease.

John snapped back into the situation as the bloody rock dropped absently from the young man's limp hand. Sam's gaze stayed locked onto the Dys. He was shaking so hard that it was throwing him off balance. He was listless, hardly aware that the other hunters were even there. John realized that there was something wrong with the way Sam was standing. Something about his posture screamed injury and he wanted to grab the kid, check him over. But he knew he had to go softly with the boy right now.

John stepped forward, approaching the trembling young man. "Easy, Sammy. It's alright." John reached out slowly, and put a hand on his shoulder.

Sammy turned to look at him. His eyes were surprisingly steady. And hard. There was nothing of a child left in them.

"Sammy?" John asked.

Sam blinked, as if just now seeing him. Then he frowned. "It's Sam," he said. Later John would remember it as the first time he ever said it. "Don't call me Sammy."

And John gasped as Sam's eyes suddenly rolled up and he just went limp.

John cursed and caught him as he collapsed.

"Dad!" Dean called. He was moving away from the body, Travis and Caleb were still poking at it.

"He's alive. He's breathing," John told Dean. "We'll know more when we get him to the house. The Dys?"

"Dead," Dean reported, kneeling down. "Like, dead, dead. Sam caved its skull in."

They looked at each other.

"Dad, how could he have survived it… let alone have killed it? By himself?"

"Later," John hissed, glancing at the other hunters, standing over the Dys. He looked back at Dean. "Right now we've got to get him to Jim's… and then to the hospital if we need to."

Dean nodded and helped him lift Sam, leaving the other hunters to salt and burn the corpse.

Sam had been in the back way too long.

Dean paced restlessly around the hospital waiting room again. Sam had been swept away from them as soon as they'd carried him in. The doctors had been shouting things like hypothermal and traumatic shock.

Dean could have told them that.

At the house they had realized that Sam was hurt beyond their normal first aid. As soon as John had lifted his sweater and shirt, Dean had known that they would be headed for the hospital. The right side of Sam's chest was pulped and lumpy looking. Dean knew that more than one or two ribs were badly broken. After a cursory examination to make sure they could account for all of Sam's injuries, they had loaded him and Pastor Jim up and headed for Monroe County General.

Pastor Jim had been to x-ray, back, and was now getting his cast. Caleb had gone with him. Travis was outside smoking.

For the moment it was just him and Dad. And they still hadn't had any word on Sam.

Dean had gone past edgy a couple of hours ago… now he was full on fretful. Why the hell hadn't they heard anything yet?

"Hey, Dean?"

He spun to look at his dad, half irritated at the casual way he was slouched in the chair – and half envious.

"Yeah?"

"What do you think of getting Sam a computer for his birthday?"

Dean blinked. Replayed the words. Blinked again. "What?"

John shrugged. "Your brother's birthday is in a couple of months. And since he'll be fine," John stressed the word, giving Dean a significant look, "and probably walking around again by then, I just thought we should probably get him something for his birthday."

Dean huffed. Almost got angry – then he just sat down next to his dad. "He was pretty beat up, Dad."

"Yeah, he was. But he gave worse than he got, and I didn't see anything that wasn't fixable. He's going to be fine, Dean." John reached out and smoothed Dean's hair, squeezing the back of his neck.

The sensation was so familiar and so comforting that Dean's throat tightened. He swallowed. "Yeah. He will." If his dad said it, it had to be true, right?

They sat for a few minutes, the silence uncomfortable, or it would have been if they hadn't have been so tired.

"A computer?" Dean asked suddenly.

"Yeah."

He turned the idea over. "It would have to be one of those laptop things."

"Yeah."

"That's …actually a good idea. I think Sam will like it."

"…Good."

"Mr. Carpenter?"

If the waiting room hadn't had been empty, both Dean and John would have missed the name. It was just good luck that they were alone. They were tired enough that they were blanking on the details. Not good.

"Yes," John said, standing up only a little late. "We're here."

The doctor waved them over to a panel on the wall. "Okay, so before we start on specifics, you should know that Sam is doing pretty well. He's conscious now, and responsive, both good signs that his concussion is fairly minor. He was hypothermic when he came in, but we've got his body temperature back up with only the heating blankets, so that's good. He's got some crackling in his lungs, so we may be looking at a minor chest infection. Overall, he's been pretty banged up, but he's resting pretty well right now. We got the x-rays back," the Doctor continued, sticking the films up on the board. "And the good news is that there's no spinal damage. The bruising across his lower back had us a little worried, frankly. When an ATV rolls over on someone, injury to the spine is pretty common. Sam was lucky to have missed out on that experience."

"Lucky" Dean muttered. John nudged him with an elbow. They shouldn't draw too much attention to the ATV line. It was a decent cover for Sam's injuries, but it would be better if the doctors didn't have any reason to question it.

The doctor glanced at them, but kept right on going. It was very late, and Dean knew he probably wanted to go home as badly as they did.

"So, now for the not so good news. Sam has broken his collar bone. That'll heal by itself. He has some massive contusions across his back and sides… we'll be checking for internal bleeding for the next few hours, but his kidney function looks good right now. Sam has also broken four ribs on his right side and two on the left. The left isn't much of a problem, the breaks are fairly minor and should heal without problem. But the right… several of the ribs are badly fractured; see here, and here…" Dean winced as the ragged lines on the x-ray resolved into shattered bone.

"Now, we have the option of opening him up and pinning the bones in place, but that's a fairly major surgery and would leave a pretty major scar. So we'd like to try to let them knit on their own. But there's a risk…"

"A risk?" John asked.

"Sam has got to stay still. If those bones should shift inward, they could puncture a lung, or cause internal bleeding. He's looking at a few weeks bed rest. The chest infection will make all this harder. Any coughing will hurt like hell, and he'll have to use a pillow to wedge and support his diaphragm when he coughs, every time he coughs, or he could do himself some damage. If you think that Sam can be…mature enough to handle those kinds of restrictions…"

"Mature is sort of an understatement for Sam, Doc," Dean said.

The doctor nodded. "Okay then, I guess we can try to let them heal naturally. But the slightest sign of shocky behavior, trouble breathing, or blood when he coughs and he needs to back in a hospital just in case."

"Understood," John said.

"Can we see him?" Dean asked.

The doctor glanced at his paperwork. "He's in room 403. He may be sleeping, but you can go in for awhile."

Dean was moving before the doctor finished.

"So, how bad is it?" Sam asked, obviously awake as Dean wandered into his room. It was a large room, four beds, but the others were empty. Pediatrics was slow tonight, thankfully.

Dean wandered over and looked down at his battered little brother. Little. That was hardly applicable anymore. Sam almost dwarfed the pediatric equipment. Sam didn't belong in the Peds ward anymore.

His face was swollen, but then again, so was Dean's so he supposed they matched. But he was clean, and looked less… lifeless than he had, despite the IV. Dean supposed that most of the damage was hidden under the blankets.

"Well, you're torn all to hell, but you already knew that," Dean eventually said.

"I'd guessed."

Dean settled gingerly onto the bed next to him. "You have a minor concussion. Your left clavicle was snapped. Again. You've got like, seventy-two stitches in you. But the only really worrisome thing is your ribs. You snapped a couple of them pretty much into bits. You're on complete bed rest for the next few weeks. Although I guess for us that translates to couch rest and back seat driving for the next few weeks. Either way, you're only allowed up for bathroom breaks, and coughing is going to hurt like hell."

Sam groaned. "Great. Like Dad doesn't think that I slack off enough."

Dean shook his head. "No, Dad can't blame you for this one. If you move around too much before those bones heal, you'll be looking at surgery to pin them. Dad won't push it this time." Dean sounded determined. "So you get endless comic books and Ren and Stimpy for awhile."

"Super."

"Hey now," Dean chided playfully, "Dad told you not to take that ATV out in the snow. Not his fault you wreaked."

Sam gave him a flat look. Dean shrugged. Yeah, it wasn't fair that their cover story not only made Sam's injuries his own fault, but also made him look stupid. But they had to cover somehow.

Sam closed his eyes. "So how long am I in here for?"

"What? Don't like the décor?"

Sam raised one hand and lazily flipped him off. The room was decorated in oversized, freaky looking clowns.

"They do pick the weirdest crap to decorate the peds wards," Dean admitted. "I'm pretty sure John Wayne Gacy would have been right at home in here."

"How long, Dean?"

"Only until tomorrow afternoon. If you seem to not be bleeding internally for that long, they'll let you go. But the ribs are serious business, Sam. You will be taking it easy for the next few weeks."

There was a noise, and Dean glanced up, seeing a nurse walking in, his dad floating in the doorway behind her. They must have bumped into each other in the door.

"Company," Dean murmured, and Sam opened his eyes.

He took one look at the needle in her hand and frowned.

"Whatever that is," he said, looking at the needle, "the answer is no."

"No."

It was quiet but firm, and John watched the nurse hesitate from his place in the doorway.

"I'm sorry, Hun, but this is just some painkillers. It'll make you feel a lot better."

"Thanks, but no. I don't want them."

Dean was sitting next to Sam, perched gently on his bed. He looked between the two of them, seeming trapped between wanting to back his brother and wanting him to get the meds.

The nurse took a firmer stance. "Kiddo, I'm sorry that you don't want them, but they were prescribed and you need them, and it won't even hurt; I'll use the IV."

"I don't care," Sam said distinctly. "I don't want them."

Dean tensed, and John could tell he was getting ready to back his brother. John sighed, stepping all the way into the room. "Dean," John said calmly. "Go get a coke or something."

Dean glanced at his brother, then the nurse, and nodded. "I'll be back in a bit, dude."

"Yeah," Sam said, but it was resigned. Dean patted him, carefully, on the shoulder and stood up.

John waited until Dean had gone. "Miss, do your job."

She hesitated, but Sam only turned his face away, no longer fighting. She injected the drugs into the IV. "It really will help, Hun," she said comfortingly.

Sam ignored her.

John sighed, thanking the nurse as she left the room.

"That was rude," he told his son, pulling up a chair. "And you don't need to pout at me. It's only for tonight. You need the rest."

"Whatever," Sam muttered.

They sat quietly for a few minutes, and John saw first Sam's body relax in some basic way as the pain faded, then his eyes getting heavy as the drugs pulled him under.

"That was good work today," John said.

"Killing things is never good work," Sam said but it was more yawn than response. His eyes closed… then he pulled in a sharp breath, forcing them open again.

"Hey," John said, reaching out. He almost took his hand, then pulled back at the last moment. "It's okay. It's just the drugs. You're safe. You can sleep," he said softly.

"I know." Sam responded, his voice slurred and heavy. "That's why I don't want the drugs…"

"I know. I know you didn't. But you need to sleep, kiddo."

"I don't want to sleep…"

John swallowed. That was certainly true. Sam never wanted to sleep. Never had. "Why don't you want to sleep, Sam?"

Sam shifted a bit, wincing. His eyes were shut, his breathing slow and steady. There was a moment when John thought he wouldn't answer, already too far into sleep to really hear the question – but then he spoke, his voice sounding small and lost. "He's there. In my dreams …sometimes."

"Who, Sammy?" John asked quietly, his heart in his throat. "Who's in your dreams?"

But Sam was already gone, breathing deeply, sleeping hard.

John bowed his head. He reached out to take Sam's hand again, intentionally not thinking about why it was easier to touch Sam when the kid was asleep – and realized his hands were shaking. He fisted his hands to hide the shaking, but he knew it was there – the trembling, and the core-deep fear that caused it.

He knew why he got along better with Dean than with Sam. He knew why it was easier to trust Dean than Sam, easier to comfort, or talk to, or reward. And he knew it wasn't fair to Sam… but he was helpless to stop it. He couldn't get too close to Sam. He couldn't allow Sam into his heart the way he could Dean. It would make him weak; it might make him hesitate if he needed to… act. And one day he might need to act. Because…

Because there was something…wrong …with his son.

And it just about broke his heart.

He needed more information. He needed to find out what his son was… find out what had touched him so long ago…and what it had done to him. But he'd need a little time away from the boys to do it. This was one hunt he didn't want Dean involved with.

When morning came, John decided that he would make a couple of calls. He'd line up an easy hunt in a cold state. A day or two on that case to cover his tracks, and he'd be on his own for the next few weeks while Sammy healed. Dean would accept that John was just restless, and he wouldn't argue about coming along with Sam so badly injured. Especially if John sent them someplace warm, with plenty of distractions for Dean.

So John would have some time to hunt alone.

He sat with Sam the rest of the night, never touching him, but never leaving, either.

He was gone before Sam woke the next morning; and on the road before the others had brought him back from the hospital the next afternoon.

Two days later Jim was amazed at how well Sam was doing. When they'd first gotten him from the hospital, he'd been pale, and shaky. He'd coughed almost constantly and the spasms had been horribly painful to watch, let alone live through. He'd been a little emotional, too – dealing with what happened in the woods, with his sudden change in status, and confused and hurt by his father's disappearance… and trying not to show any of it.

Dean had muscled him through most of it. Teasing him when he got too quiet, making sure he took his meds. Reassuring him when it came to their father.

Dean had told him that there was a Fetch in Long Island that John had set out to get… and Caleb had gone with him to play backup so that Dean could take care of Sam. "It's fine, Sam. We'll meet up with him in New Mexico in a couple of weeks. It's no biggy."

Sam glared at him from his spot on the couch. His color was good, and he wasn't coughing as much now. He was still taking what seemed to be a handful of pills each day, between the antibiotics, cough suppressants, and the painkillers, but he had halved the number by refusing most of the pain killers.

And now that Sam was feeling better, Dean was anxious to get on the road.

"Dude, New Mexico. Sand, bikinis, and beaches. Why are we still talking about this?" Dean grabbed Sam's bag. "I'm going to go stow this and start the car. We're on the road in five." Dean stood and shook Jim's hand. "Jim, thanks for the fun time. See ya when we see ya."

Jim smiled, leaning on his new crutches. "You take care of yourself, Dean. And try to stay out of trouble."

"If I did that, life wouldn't be any fun," Dean grinned. "Travis. Take care."

The older hunter nodded. "Will do. You too."

Dean nodded and walked through the door without looking back.

Sam sighed. And slowly, very tenderly, worked his way to his feet, his arm pressed protectively to his broken side. "Well, I guess we're on the move then."

Travis snorted.

Sam grinned back. "Thanks for everything, guys," Sam said as the trio limped toward the front door.

"No. Thank you, Sam. You saved a lot of people by doing what you did."

"Saved us and yourself, too," Travis said. "So don't go giving gratitude where it ain't deserved."

Sam flushed and dropped his head. "I didn't mean it like that…"

Travis shook his head. "We screwed up, kid. And you took the ball. Did a hell of a job, too. Don't think I won't remember you taking that thing on to give us a chance. I'll remember, and if you need something, you can come calling. Then you can thank me."

Jim opened the door, letting the cold air wash in as Sam ducked and floundered. Travis lit up another cigarette.

"Be careful out there," Jim said to him.

Travis nodded, blowing smoke. His own bag was on his shoulder. "Always. Same to you two," he said. They watched as he walked to his car and then pulled away.

In the drive the Impala idled, Dean having started it up and let it get warm so that Sam wouldn't have to struggle in and out of a heavy coat. Now the driver's door opened and Dean stood up, watching them from over the roof. Rock music blared from inside.

"Sammy! Let's go!"

Sam sighed. Dean was just never going to change. Sam gave Pastor Jim a small smile as the older man looked at him with an amused sort of sympathy.

"Well, that's my ride. You take care, okay?"

"Always, Sam," Jim said. "You as well."

Jim watched as Sam walked carefully down the walk, sliding gingerly into the car. Dean raised a hand, then Dean disappeared into his car, too. The Impala took off, fading into the fog down the drive, the sound of the pounding music lingering in the frozen air.

Now you're messing with a- a son of a bitch
Now you're messing with a sonofabitch

Jim watched as the big black car slid away into the distance. He couldn't help the little shiver of foreboding. Sam had killed a monster; barehanded and all alone, he'd taken on and killed a creature that had taken out five grown hunters. He had been amazing. Almost too much so.

Something had awakened in Sam this weekend. It was easy to see that. He had watched Sam become quiet the young hunter. In time the boy had the potential to become more dangerous to the supernatural than John and Dean.

Jim couldn't help but wonder what else that boy had the potential to become.

~end