Bless me father for I have sinned.

When was the last time you were at confession, my child?

Um… well… I'm not really Catholic, so I've never really been to confession. But I did something really terrible and I… I needed somebody to talk to. Need to confess, I guess. Pastor Jim says that God forgives everything, if we ask for it. So… that's why I'm here.

Of course. Through confession we can be forgiven, in Christ our Father. What do you have to confess?

Um… I've lied. To my dad. I told him I was running laps two weeks ago when really I went to the library. I shouldn't have to lie, but Dad's such a hardass about training, and I had a book report due, so… I also just said hardass, which I guess is a sin too.

What else, my child?

I don't always honour my father like the Bible says I should. My Dad and I – we don't really get along. I'm not like him. I don't… I can't be like him. He says I talk back all the time, and that I should just tow the line and follow orders like a good son. But Father, his orders are crazy. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only sane person in my whole family.

It can be difficult to submit and obey, especially when we don't see eye to eye. A father's job is never an easy one. But sometimes, neither is a son's.

I've been mean to my brother. Not to his face – he'd kick my a-…my butt. But in my heart sometimes I look at him and think, 'He's so stupid. How can I even be related to him?' And I know it's not nice to think those things, but sometimes I do.

Do you love your brother?

Yes. God y-I mean… Yes. More than anyone. More than Dad even. Dean's… He can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but he's an awesome brother. And a good person, too. Real good. Not good like following the rules – he's practically a juvenile delinquent. But good like… in his soul? He's good in his soul. Always putting everyone else first. Selfless.

And what about you, my child? Are you not good in your soul, too?

I don't think so. I don't think I can be…

I think I gave my brother cancer.

888

Sam prays. Every night. He shuts himself in the bathroom and kneels on the floor and prays so fervently he gets lightheaded. He prays with his hands clasped tightly together, pressed to his forehead, lips mumbling a silent litany of apology.

Please, my guardian angel – please, please, please, don't let Dean be sick. I didn't want this. I would never want this.

His little body trembles with the weight of guilt and shame piled high on his shoulders, praying to undo it, to unsay the words, to take back the dream-plea for normal.

Morning Star – or messenger… if you're listening. Please! I just wanted normal – I didn't want Dean to get sick. Please don't make him sick 'cos of me. Please, please! I'll never ask for anything again! I just… I didn't… I didn't mean that. Please!

Then Dean will knock on the door and tell him to finish jerking off already, and the desperate moment of religious fervor is abruptly ended, the solemn and pious mood sufficiently killed. Then Sam drags himself shakily to his feet, washes his face to hide the evidence of his tears, and emerges from the bathroom only long enough to make a beeline for his bedroom, where he promptly buries himself under the covers in his bed and avoids making any contact with his father and brother.

It's a nightly ritual that he has kept up daily since they got the news that Dean has leukemia. And the Yellow Eyed messenger hasn't shown up. Sam's dreams have been blank and meaningless. So he doesn't know if they heard his prayers or not, doesn't know if they got the message. Doesn't know if they're going to undo it (or if they even did it in the first place).

Life goes back to normal for the most part. Dad goes to work every day, and the boys go to school because Dean doesn't have any more treatments or tests until Friday. They don't talk about the Big C unless they absolutely have to, mostly because nobody really wants to think about it. They do their homework after school, and Dean makes supper like always, and then the boys watch some TV before going to bed. The only difference is that, in the evenings, instead of poring over newspaper obituaries and reading up on mythology and local legends, Dad spends just about every waking hour filling out forms.

The hospital assigned a social worker to Dean's case the moment they got the diagnosis of leukemia, which, in spite of Dad's possessively private streak when it came to his kids, turned out to be a really good thing. It was touch and go for a moment there when the slender young woman in the pant-suit (sexy librarian, Dean had said) approached them to talk about Dean's treatment options. Dad's always a grumpy bear when people try to butt their noses into Winchester family business. But this lady, Ms. Grace, gets down to the practicalities of insurance, handing over a whole host of forms for Dad to fill out so that they can qualify for all sorts of state-funded treatment programs.

"And as a single father with two dependents, you're sure to qualify for this one," she'd said assuredly, indicating one of the forms in her hand.

Because apparently, when your kid gets sick with a disease that could kill him, worrying about how you're going to pay for it (or how you're going to get someone else to pay for it) takes up a lot of your time. So Dad busies himself with forms, calling various agencies and sweet-talking them for information on how best to work the system. He approaches it with the same kind of single-minded, direct focus that he uses to approach hunting. And he's just as scary and cranky with the pen in his hand as he ever was with a gun. Dean jokes that he looks like he's campaigning for the local Democratic branch, with how much time he spends on the phone politicking.

When Friday finally arrives, Dad makes Sam go to school. Sam really doesn't want to go, for once, because Dean has his spinal tap today and he really wants to go with him. But Dad says no – Sam's got school and he's got to finish up. He drives Sam to school that morning looking all dark-eyed and solemn, distracted, and doesn't bother making conversation.

There are so many questions Sam wants to ask. What's going to happen now? What's the spinal tap for? Will Dean feel better after it's done? Are they going to operate to remove the cancer? What's chemotherapy actually do? How long 'til the cancer goes away?

But he doesn't ask, because he's afraid of the answers. And also, he's hoping that the doctors will find out that Dean's cancer went away since their last visit (he has been praying really hard). So he sits in silence, big, cat-slanted eyes staring unseeingly out the window as the world flies past in a bright summer blur in the early morning light. The Impala rumbles like an angry, black beast through the suburban landscape, and Sam feels a bit like a passenger in a really loud ghost ship, floating outside of the reality of school and homework. Like the real world doesn't exist anymore because Dean has cancer and that's their life now.

Then the blurring clears as the car slows, and Sam can see the elementary school looming ahead as they approach at school-zone appropriate speed. Dad clears his throat and wrings his hands around the worn leather of the steering wheel. Not taking his eyes off the road, he speaks in a voice as rough as gravel under their tires.

"Dean's not gonna be up for much this weekend." He pauses, eyes darting in Sam's direction, lightning fast, before they're back on the road again.

"I know your play starts on Monday," clearing his throat again. "Your brother really wants to be there." He's so agitated his skin's fairly twitching with restless energy.

"I don't think… I don't think he'll be able to make it, Sam."

And there's so much his father's not saying that it makes Sam feel like bawling again. It would be better if Dad just told him that he has to quit the play, that the Winchesters have more important things to focus their attention on. But he's not saying that. He's being all apologetic and regretful and making Sam feel like the worst kind of pond scum.

"He really wants to be there," Dad repeats, as if Sam hadn't heard, or didn't believe it. As if Dean's just going to skip out on Sam's play just to be an asshole.

"And I really want to be there," Dad says thickly, sounding like he's about to start bawling too. "But they might be startin' Dean's chemotherapy as early as today, and I don't wanna leave your brother alone if the effects are as bad as they say they are… I just. Don't want you thinkin' I'm choosin' your brother over you."

Sam's so shocked by this display of emotion and sudden interest that he doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. First: Dad wants to see his play all of a sudden? That sounds like horseshit (Dean would say). Dad's never wanted to see Sam's play – has shown nothing but disdain for it since the very first rehearsal. It's like some kind of weeping Pod Person took over his father's body.

And second: Sam doesn't want to be in the stupid play anymore. Not if Dean's going to be miserable at home, sick with cancer, while Sam gets up on a stage in front of hundreds of people and pretends like he's just a regular kid whose brother isn't dying. He doesn't feel like he deserves to be in the play anymore.

He doesn't voice any of that, though. Instead he nods, eyes watching his feet as his head bobs, and takes a deep breath before opening the door with a creak that he feels down to his young, cancer-free bones. He tries for a smile when he gets out of the car, looks into his Dad's eyes and sees an unfathomable, deep look staring back at him, and finds that all he can do is stare back with an indescribable look of his own. Dad nods, just once, and Sam pushes the door shut and watches him drive away. He shuffles off towards the school doors with a heart so heavy it makes his shoulders sag under the weight of it.

The whole day passes in a fog of restless energy and distraction. Sam barely hears his teachers as they go through the day's lessons, barely registers the other kids talking to him now and again. His mind is notably elsewhere, his eyes constantly peeking up at the clock to gauge the time, wondering how Dean's doing, how the procedure's going. Wondering if it's his fault and wondering if Dean's going to die.

And it's strange, because during the week, while Dean had been back at school, things had almost been normal. Sam had almost let himself forget that his big brother was even sick. School was a distraction from the ever-present gloom of this new disease hanging over all their heads, and Sam, maybe selfishly, had eased into that distraction like soaking into the soothing bubbles of a hot tub, if only for the few short hours that he was there.

Not now, though. Not today. Today there's no distracting Sam from what's happening. Today he is a bundle of raw nerves, his imagination running overtime. He pictures Dean being wheeled in a wheelchair down an endless corridor, flanked by doctors and nurses and Dad, while tubes trail out of his arms and machines beep around him. He sees Dean lying in a hospital bed, white as death, pulling out tufts of his own hair (because Dad said chemotherapy makes you go bald) and asking Sam, 'Are you happy now? This what you wanted?' He sees himself standing on a grassy mound, standing before a grave marked with a single, lonely cross and hears his father's anguished voice demanding, 'Why did it have to be Dean? He's such a good son!'

It isn't until Mrs. Oakley interrupts the class to pull him into the hallway that he realizes he's crying. In the middle of a riveting lesson about the solar system. She kneels down so she's closer to his level and pulls him into a hug, patting his hair comfortingly and asks, "How's your brother doing?"

Dad told both Dean and Sam's teachers about Dean's leukemia. It's easier on everyone if the schools know what's going on in case they have to leave suddenly for an emergency. Or in case something happens while they're in school, even if there's only a few days left. You never know, right?

Right now Sam can't answer her, so he fists his hands in the back of her blouse and just holds on tight until the feeling passes, until his eyes dry up and he gets control of himself enough to pull away without looking like a total girl. Then he takes a few steadying breaths and shakes his head no when Mrs. Oakley asks if he wants to have a lie-down in the sick room.

"I'm okay," he reassures her, even though he isn't. He thinks he may never be okay again.

888

'It's a good thing Mary isn't here to see this,' John thinks, then immediately wants to retract it, yank the thought back from the atmosphere and swallow it.

It would be better if Mary were here. Aside from the obvious reason, being that her absence in their lives is like a gaping, black hole of pain and emptiness, it would be such a comfort to have her by his side right now. John feels her absence like the loss of a limb, more so now than he has in years. And much as it would kill her, as it's killing him, to see her baby sick and hurting like this, it would be better for Dean if she were here right now. God, Dean needs his mother right now. More than John needs his wife.

They've got Dean in a Johnny shirt, lying on his side on a hospital bed, his legs tucked up towards his chest, like he's sitting in a chair lying down, curled into a fetal position, with his chin tilted down. There's a nurse at his bedside, holding his hand, while a doctor stands behind him with a terrifying-looking syringe that makes John feel nauseous just to look at. They're just about to start the procedure, and God help him but John wants to tell them to forget about it and just take his boy home before they put that damned syringe to use. It doesn't matter that they've already injected him with shit to freeze the area – that giant needle is about to be inserted into his kid's spine.

"Now we've numbed the area," the doctor says slowly, carefully, as he positions himself behind Dean, his hands now moved where John can't see them. "But you might… feel a bit of a—"

Dean gasps and scrunches his eyes shut tight, his bottom lip gnashed violently between his teeth as he bites down hard. John tenses and resists the urge to fly out of his seat. They're hurting my boy.

"You're doing great, Dean," the nurse says in a whisper-soft voice.

"Are you feeling any pain?" the doctor asks sharply, and Dean mutters a muffled "no" from his tucked position.

"Then you need to relax," the doctor says. "This'll be over in just a few minutes. I promise."

Dean keeps his eyes squeezed shut but releases his lip, which is pink and swollen from being bitten.

"Just… felt it…" he pants. "Felt wrong."

"It's okay," the nurse soothes. "It might hurt for a second, but the anesthetic is working, yeah?"

"Yeah," Dean admits, squeezing her hand a bit.

God, John wishes Mary was here.

When the doctor finally withdraws the needle, the nurse offers up a few proud platitudes about how great Dean's been through the whole thing, wiping a stray lock of blonde from his forehead before instructing Dean to hold his position. Then they're left alone, father and son, while the doctor and nurse leave with their precious spinal fluid.

"So…" John drawls. "Six hours, huh?"

"Six hours," Dean replies. "You might wanna run to the cafeteria or go run some errands or somethin'. I'm cool here."

And it's tempting. It's a sign of what a terrible father he is, because it's tempting to take the out his son's just given him and just get the heck out of dodge. Part of John wants to just run – run and never look back. Run away from this big fucking mess of hospitals and doctors and prescriptions and insurance forms. He could go find the nearest bar and drink himself stupid, drown his sorrows at the bottom of a bottle like he did right after Mary died.

But he's got a fifteen year-old kid in front of him who's curled up on his side like a baby, looking too pale under the bright fluorescent hospital lights, and that kid's got a six-hour wait of just lyin' here like this because he just had a fuckin' lumbar puncture, and there's risk of 'neurological disruption,' post-spinal headache and nausea if he doesn't remain in a supine position. So much as John might want to bury his head in the sand and pretend that this isn't happening, that's never been John Winchester's way of handling things.

Still… Six fucking hours with the kid who can't sit still for ten minutes, let alone lie still for six hours, with nothing to do but talk to pass the time…? It's like every Winchester's worst nightmare. And in a place like this, with the smells and sounds of hospital permeating every bit of space, every thought, that talking's bound to lead in a very morose and fatalistic direction. John really, really doesn't want to have that kind of conversation with his son. Not ever.

But the alternative is leaving Dean alone to face the morose and fatalistic thoughts, alone with the sounds and smells, alone with his fear. Six hours of lying on his side alone in an empty exam room, waiting for the time to pass and filling it with worrying about the cancer poisoning his body.

That's really not an option.

So John takes up the chair that's only recently been vacated by the nurse and plunks himself down into it with a heavy sigh. If there was something he could shoot, or stab, or torture into making his son well and healthy again, John would shoot, and stab, and torture it. He'd find the evil thing and he'd make it pay before he killed it. But since this evil thing is just some freak act of biology, there's nothing to shoot or stab or torture. There's just Dean, with his wide green eyes looking up at him like he has all the answers. There's just Dean, who needs him now more than ever.

God, I wish Mary was here!

But Dean's a brave kid, probably a better soldier than his old man ever was, and he's playing it cool like he always does when he's scared shitless. Sparks up a conversation about some heavy-chested girl at school named Rachel and waggles his eyebrows at the appropriate moments as he jokes about which school rumours about her are true and which aren't. It figures that the boy would distract himself from his own distress by thinking about sex. He's pretty much always thinking about sex. And hunting.

"Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I took out the golem?" John asks.

Dean's eyes light up eagerly, his smile bright in spite of everything, and John thinks, not for the first time, how fucking lucky he is to have someone as special as Dean for a son. If there is a God up there, He really is a sonovabitch.

888

John takes the boys to the beach on Saturday. It's probably a case of too-little too-late, but at this point he really doesn't care. He's not making up for anything: he knows that. It's more that he's trying to jam as much time in with his boys as he can while they still can, before chemo starts and things get really shitty for everyone.

It's a beautiful day, even though the water's still a bit chilly, and the sand is hot under their feet. There's not a cloud in the sky, and the beach has managed to attract a small crowd of families intent on soaking up as much sun and sand as the day will allow. John thinks it's a solid plan.

He watches his boys chasing each other along the shore, neither daring to brave the still chilled ocean waves. They don't have swim trunks – Dean doesn't even have shorts, instead wearing a cut-off pair of jeans that are just slightly too small for him – but they're barefoot and bare-chested (or Sam is at least; Dean's covering up his pale, bruise-spotted skin with an old t-shirt) and are enjoying the early-summer heat the way kids are supposed to. It's not like Dean can go swimming anyway, what with the cast and all, but he did manage to procure a bucket (from where, John can't even guess), which he promptly filled with water and is now chasing his kid brother with while shouting, "Come on, maggot! Take it like a man!" The high-pitched squeal Sam emits when he's doused with the bucket's icy contents makes John laugh so hard his cheeks hurt.

'They're good kids,' he thinks as he watches Sam sputter in shock before rounding on his brother to exact terrible revenge. 'They're good kids.'

They alter course, pivoting on their heels as Dean turns when the hunter becomes the hunted. Sam hasn't really got anything to threaten Dean with: no bucket, no water, and certainly no advantage of size, speed, or agility; but Dean's playing along and running away like the Devil's chasing him, which John supposes is fair enough. Sam may come across as all soft-hearted and sweet, but the kid's a scrapper and he knows how to make his hits count. He gives as good as he gets.

And true to form, Sam lunges and lands on his brother's back like a scrabbly howler monkey. It's as hilarious as it is absurd, this perverse piggy-back thing they've got going, with Sam clinging to his big brother's back in a strangle-hold while Dean zigs and zags in the sand in an attempt to throw him off. It's play – very obviously play – in a way John hasn't seen in such a long time that it makes his heart ache as if phantom hands are squeezing it. Because if this were a drill, Dean would have flipped his brother and planted him hard on his back in about a nanosecond, and Sam would be blinking up in surprise (and pain) from his prone position on the sand.

But they're not training, or running any kind of drills. They're just two kids today, horsin' around in the sun. They're just two kids enjoying each others' company while their Dad watches proudly from the sidelines. They're brothers and friends, and if that doesn't make the old hunter feel like bawling helplessly, he doesn't know what would.

John wipes a rogue tear off his cheek and passes the time in silent contemplation. The boys tire themselves out with the rough-housing and settle into a prime spot of smooth, toasty sand to start building a sand castle. It's lazy and peaceful and so damned picture perfect. So damned fucking perfect.

Until it's not.

They've managed to erect a pretty sizeable-looking fortress of bucket-shaped mounds when it happens. John watches as his eldest wipes the back of his right hand absently under his nose, and just like that the game's over.

"Dad?" Sam calls, voice pitched both deeper and higher in fear and warning.

John's moving before his brain has a chance to catch up. The sand is scorchingly hot under his bare feet but he barely registers it, too intent on the wide-eyed look Sam's casting his way in between staring nervously at Dean. Then he gets closer and sees the line of red smeared across the back of Dean's hand.

"Dean!" John barks sharply before reaching out to snatch his son's chin, tilting the boy's face up to see a dark stream of blood dribbling down his lips and chin. It's one gusher of a nosebleed, fat, red drops already dotting the sand between Dean's knees.

"I don't know what happened…" Dean's eyes are wide, his face suddenly ghostly pale, and his voice sounds almost dreamily surprised. "We were just…"

"You're not in trouble, dude," John assures him. And when did it happen that his kids became so afraid of him that they apologize for getting a nosebleed? Is he that much of a dictatorial asshole?

"I don't know what happened," Dean repeats.

Blood's pooling in John's palm, dripping from his fingers and forming a deep, dark ring in the sand. Christ, there's a lot of it. It's coming fast and hot and thick and so fucking red against the white of Dean's freckled face.

"Shit! We gotta go, buddy." John tilts Dean's head back and Dean obediently pinches the bridge of his nose to try to stem the blood flow. Then, carefully as he can, John hoists his kid up under the armpits until he's standing.

"Sammy, go get our gear and pack it up. I'm gonna get your brother to the c—"

"Dad!" Sam's scream is a frantic warning, and that's all the warning he gets before Dean sags against him, completely dead weight. Passed out cold.

"Shit!" John swears, adjusting his hold on Dean as his son's dead weight leans against his chest.

It's all unraveling too fast.

"Pack up our gear and get in the car, Sam. Move!"

John doesn't wait for confirmation from his youngest – trusts that it'll get done because it needs to get done – and instead focuses all his attention on the boneless form slumped against him. Blood's still flowing steadily from the kid's nose, spattering in warm droplets against John's hands where they're clutching Dean under the armpits. It's a long walk to the car and, though Dean's lost a fair bit of weight in the last couple months, he isn't exactly light. It'll take some maneuvering to get a good enough hold on him to make the trek back to the Impala.

Then Dean stirs – thank Christ – and John feels his heart rate slow to something approaching normal in relief. Dean hangs there like a stringless marionette for almost a full sixty-second count before shuffling his feet in the sand in an attempt to get upright. John can tell from the way he moves that he's disoriented, confused.

"Dad?" Dean murmurs thickly, voice somewhat garbled by the blood that's dripped into his mouth.

"I gotcha, Dean," John soothes. "Take it easy, kiddo. I gotcha."

Dean's arms flail weakly, his feet scrambling for purchase as his father continues to hold him up.

"'m'okay," he says. Then one foot plants into the shifting sand and finds solid ground there. The other follows suit and soon Dean's levering himself upright as John eases his hold.

It lasts for about three seconds before the boy lists forward, the inevitable face-plant prevented only by John's strong hands gripping him around the shoulders.

"Okay," John intones. "Up you go – come on."

He tucks one arm under Dean's armpit and bends just enough to get a grip under his son's knees to lift him up bridal style, but Dean jerks stubbornly away.

"I c'n walk," Dean mumbles, but it's an out-and-out lie and they both know it. John ignores him in favour of making a second attempt at lifting him up into his arms.

"Dad don't!" Dean begs, and John allows himself to look down to see the pleading look in those wide green eyes. "Please… Don' carry me. I c'n walk. Please."

The face is so pale, so fucking pale it's practically see-through, and the kid looks about a breath away from passing out again; but God help him, John can't listen to that kind of pleading without wanting to comply. 'Don't let me be weak,' the look says. 'Don't let Sammy see me like this.' 'Don't let this be real.'

"Fine," John huffs.

Readjusting his grip so that he's taking most of Dean's weight on one shoulder, he gently nudges forward as they make awkward shuffle-steps along the sand. Dean's trembling, shaking like a leaf, and John's pretty sure that sheer force of will alone, and too much pride, are keeping him from passing out again. The t-shirt Dean's wearing is a gory mess of blood in a V-shaped spatter down the front, and both their hands are slick with it. People stop and stare as they pass, offering to call 911 for them and generally making a nuisance of themselves in ways that make John want to scream.

But it's the look on Sam's face as he rushes to meet them, towel in hand to stem the flow of blood from Dean's nose, that feels most like a sucker-punch to the gut. His eyes are big and wet, and his lip jiggles in a perfect imitation of his dad's when the old man's about to get weepy. Sam looks fucking terrified.

"Thank you," John says with forced calm as he takes the proffered towel and presses it under Dean's nose. "Wouldn't want to ruin the upholstery."

"Damn straight!" Dean's muffled voice agrees through the towel.

They head back to the car in silence, and neither of the boys objects when John informs them that they're heading straight for the hospital. It's an ominous sign of how shitty Dean must be feeling, but no one comments on that, either.

888

Leukemia sucks hairy balls. If it wasn't bad enough that these hyperactive cancer cells are shooting Dean's immune system all to shit, leaving him prone to infection, they're also fucking with his blood-clotting abilities. Now the kid's got fucking anemia, which, while being 'perfectly treatable and nothing to worry about,' is yet another thing to add to a steadily growing list of ailments. Dean doesn't need this shit.

The bleeding goes on for hours. Dr. Lange, the ER doc, decides to admit Dean so that they can monitor the situation, administer transfusions if it calls for it, and keep an eye on the low-grade fever that seems to have sprung up from nowhere. For his part, Dean's looking a little worn around the edges – always wearing a brave face for his little brother, cracking jokes and acting utterly invincible, but tired in ways he can't hide, even from Sam.

John wishes he could protect them both from this, but the fact is this cancer is a sneaky sonovabitch, upsetting and unsettling them at every turn.

They keep Dean overnight in the Peds ward. John makes light of it, downplaying the sudden urge to hyperventilate in absolute terror, for the sake of his boys. But it's a bitter pill to swallow, and a horribly quiet and subdued drive back to their shabby apartment without Dean. John won't allow himself to see this as foreshadowing, as a sign of things to come, a taste of what it will feel like when Dean's gone. Because that's just not going to fucking happen. Ever.

When Sam asks, voice quivering with unshed tears, if his big brother is going to die, John grits his teeth and seethes. He can't form a reply, just seethes with rage so hot and pure it could melt through iron, could burn out his eyeballs. He wants to tell his fearful kid that everything's going to be okay. He wants to tell Sam that Dean's stronger than leukemia, and that once they're done with the chemo he'll be healthy again and back to normal. He wants to answer no, irrefutably, unequivocally, irrevocably, no. Dean is not going to die.

But that ugly, black little nugget of truth hiding away in the deepest recesses of his soul tells him that it's bad when your kid's being kept overnight at the ER because the cancer cells spreading through his body are knocking him on his ass this quickly. They haven't even started chemo yet and already it feels like too much. And now there's the added set-back of anemia and fever (sure sign of infection somewhere) holding up treatment: now they've got to treat the anemia and fever first, before they can get started on the chemo. And with the delay, the cancer is only going to spread further and kill off more healthy blood cells…

Already it feels like the leukemia is winning.

Of course, John can't say any of that. He's got to keep his goddamned game face on or his kids will fall apart. And besides that, this is one of those times where (cheesy as it sounds) mind really needs to win out over matter. If they allow themselves to believe that Dean could die, they're pretty much laying out the welcome mat for the grim reaper to come a'knocking. They've got to be strong – Dean's got to be strong – if they're going to beat this thing. And that means they've got to believe that Dean will beat this thing. Because if Dean actually believes that he could die, if he gives up…?

"For Christ's sake, Sammy!" John barks out in his gruffest, most exasperated and condescending voice. "Pull yourself the fuck together."

It has the desired effect. Sam's tears stop, his eyes widening in shock, his breath catching in his throat, and then that look settles in, his brows draw close, all Clint Eastwood-like, and the kid pulls up his ugliest scowl.

"Your brother's not gonna die," John says, instructs. "ALL's serious, I grant, and it sucks balls, but we caught it early and we're all set to start treatment. Few months time your brother'll be in remission and this whole damned cancer mess will be one bad fucking memory.

"Now in the meantime, I need you to stop with the weeping willow routine and man up. Dean's not gonna get better if you're sittin' around crying all the time. You want him thinking he doesn't stand a chance against this leukemia? You want him thinking he can't beat it?"

He knows it's a low blow, but he learned a long time ago that using the boys against each other with this bullshit emotional blackmail was one of the easiest and quickest ways to get them to tow the line. Dean, especially, would fold completely if he thought there was a chance his actions would bring his brother down in some way. And Sam could be manipulated like a marionette, provided he didn't realize he was being manipulated, if he thought his actions would come down on Dean.

Won't win John any Father of the Year awards, that's for damned sure, but if it keeps his boys alive he figures it's a fair trade. So it's with grim satisfaction that he hears his youngest's weak "no sir."

They don't talk about Dean dying again after that.

TBC...

A/N: Chemo in the next chapter! I didn't want to be too long in getting this chapter up, so I figured this was a good place to stop for now (at just over 6000 words). Thanks for reading - and if you have a spare moment, do please drop me a line to let me know what you think of it!