A/N: Sorry for the lateness, folks! I was out of town for a couple of weeks for a wedding and then lost a week to exhaustion and jetlag. As always, all mistakes are mine. And also, as always, I do not own (no copyright infringement intended).

Chapter 4

So this summer pretty much blows.

As far as let-downs go, this one's pretty high up there on his list. School ends for the year, which should mean freedom and celebration and all kinds of other awesome youthful exploratory bad things that Dad'll kick his ass for later. Not that he'd been expecting keg parties and chicks in bikinis or anything, but there'd been the odd NC-17 rated fantasy or two floating around in his mind. Sex, drugs, and Rock 'n Roll, or something like that. And hunting. Dad was gonna let him try out this wicked crossbow down at Caleb's shooting range, and there'd been talk back in February about a pattern of disappearances Dad had picked up on a yearly cycle every year in late July down in New Mexico that had Satanic Cult Ritual stamped all over it. And Dad was maybe gonna take him.

That's how things were supposed to be.

How things are, though? They suck. Out loud.

Dad's not hunting. That's usually item number one on the Winchester 'Oh shit! It's gonna hit the fan!' meter. When Dad's not hunting he gets pissed. And when he gets pissed he drinks. And when he drinks he's freakin' impossible. Kodiaks have got more patience than Dad when he's stuck in some shithole town with nothing to hunt and too much time on his hands to think about Mom and the thing that killed her. And that's exactly where the old man is now, only he's too damned busy to bury himself in a bottle like he usually does. Instead he's working extra hours at some shit construction job, getting up at the ass crack of dawn to be on site building houses for rich bitches with fancy cars and time shares in the Keyes. And when he's not working, he's busy chauffeuring Dean around to doctor's appointments and chemo treatments and specialists for blood tests, standing in waiting rooms for hours while the attendants prep Dean for a scan or a biopsy or a lumbar puncture. There's no end to the waiting, the endless forms, the insurance bills that have Dad waking in a cold sweat in the middle of the night and crying sometimes when he thinks no one can hear.

And then there's Sam. Sam is like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. One minute he's a normal, oblivious kid all stoked to go to a birthday party at the water park, self-absorbed and happy/whiny/cranky/sulky/sappy the way normal 11 year-olds are from one moment to the next. He's doing his own thing and contenting himself with his friends and his books and his geeked-out whatever. And the next moment it's like someone flipped a switch and he's suddenly a girl. Then Sam's a freakin' blubbery mess who's suddenly found God – and let me tell you, the Born Again thing isn't nearly so funny when you're the one stuck living with it. Sam prays and prays and prays and prays and tugs on that damned rosary, head all bowed and hands pressed together in the perfect image of supplication and piety. Praying in desperate mumbles to an indifferent God to not let his big brother die.

And Dean would feel guilty about that – he really would, 'cos it sure as hell isn't Sam's fault that Dean's got shit for blood in his bone marrow – except the chemo's pretty much sapping him of the will to live and he doesn't have the energy to put on the brave face all the time like he wants to. Strong language? Yes. An exaggeration? Not so much.

They blink and time fast-forwards, finding themselves already on Round 3 of the chemo treatment regime, and things are starting to go downhill fast. Dean's been pretty brave, he figures, all things considered. He's spent days at a time huddled on the bathroom floor, shivering and puking and sweating away his own body mass as cramps twist up his insides so bad he ends up tied up in knots like a pretzel. He can't really eat anything but dry crackers and water, so the weight's just melting off him like butter on a hot grill. And his hair's falling out; in fact it's mostly gone now. At first he thought he'd just shave it off, save himself the hassle and upset of watching it fall out one chunk at a time, but then he got scared that it'd never grow back, or that he'd die without ever getting cured, and would forget what it looked and felt like to have hair at all. So he'd desperately clung to what was left of the sandy blonde strands, watched it wither like sun-gorged, dried vines and fall out in halos every morning around his head on the pillow.

Pathetic? Yeah. One of his teachers last year, some uptight, ramrod bitch of a nun named Sister Pattie, had told him that he was vain and that God punished those who thought too highly of their own appearance. In light of recent events, Dean's pretty sure his answer to her threat would probably be different now, if he had it to do over again. Instead of telling her to go fuck herself, he'd probably tell God Himself to do the honour, the sadistic bastard.

But he's got this beanie hat that covers his head pretty good, and it doesn't even look half bad. He's too fuckin' pale, nothin' he can do about that, and the dark circles under his eyes are like tattoos on his face advertising 'Sick Person.' But he's still a handsome sonovabitch, and he does what he can to preserve that for whenever he leaves the house. It isn't often these days.

During the recovery periods, when he's off the chemo, things go back to normal. He gets his appetite back and eats real food, and starts feeling a bit like a living person again. It's not great: he still feels weak as a newborn foal and tired pretty much all the time. But it's like… It's like it's all the time he's got, you know? So he makes of it what he can, stepping back into his big brother role when he can, fixin' supper for his Dad and brother like he used to when he can. Because when the next chemo round starts everything pretty much shuts down, and then all Dean can focus on is just keeping it together from one moment to the next, on just making it through the next day, and the next day, and the next, until the chemo's done its thing and the worst has passed and he's still alive so he can do it all over again.

It's harder than he thought it'd be. Draining. Like, he never thought he'd be so damned tired, or depressed. They don't tell you that chemo sometimes makes you feel like offing yourself, that the puking and cramping and shaking and dizziness make you feel so fucking helpless and out of control that you just want to swallow your Dad's gun and fucking end it already. They don't tell you that.

Instead the doctors and nurses dance around the subject and offer counseling, handing out pamphlets about group support sessions and private therapists – which, no way. Winchesters don't get head shrunk. That's a recipe for disaster even Sam knows better than to indulge in (or he does if he knows what's good for him).

And it's not like Dean would ever actually do it anyway (kill himself, that is, though he'd never do the counseling thing either). For one, he's not that selfish. If he was going to kill himself, he might as well shoot Dad and Sammy first, 'cos no way could they get by without him. There's a small niggling voice in the back of his mind that taunts they'd be better off with him gone, but he ignores it in favour of the reality of facts: which are that Dean takes care of his Dad and his little brother, and they need him to do that. Even if they didn't fall down and die at his loss, they'd surely flounder. Who'd get Sam's lunches ready in the morning? Who'd stitch Dad up after a hunt and make sure he got to bed without passing out on the couch? Who'd help Sam with his Math homework and make sure the rent got paid on time when Dad took too long to get back from a hunt? And maybe that'll all change when Sam's grown up and doesn't need Dean anymore, or when Dad finally gets his revenge and doesn't need Dean as his right hand man anymore. But for now? For now Dean's a freakin' one-man army for his family.

So Dean's job – looking after his family – comes first, even if he sometimes finds himself wishing he could just go to sleep and not wake up. Anyway, suicide's for sissies who suck at living. And no matter how shitty things get, Dean's not ever gonna let living be one of the things he sucks at.

Of course, there's also the fact that there's supposedly a light at the end of this shitty-assed cancer-shaped tunnel.

Dean's going to get better. The endless poking and prodding and blood testing all show the same thing: the treatment seems to be doing its job. The mutant white blood cells aren't growing as fast as they were, or have stopped growing, or something. The counts are looking 'promising,' as Dr. Hawkins is so fond of saying. They haven't killed the cancer yet, but they're slowing it down, and the chemo treatment they've chosen is doing its thing better than the doctors thought it would. So putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger would be a lot like throwing out the baby with the bath water. If he just keeps fighting and hangs in there, they'll beat it and then it'll be over.

Third reason he doesn't stick his head in the oven or take a long walk off a short pier… (and this is just between you and me) … Dean's afraid. There's not much in this world that scares Dean Winchester. Losing Dad or Sam, or failing them? That's number one on his nightmare chart. Goes without saying. Rats, he could do without. With their beady eyes and long, worm-like tails, he'll admit that they freak him right the hell out. Flying, which defies gravity and sends his heart positively racing to even contemplate, is an issue he hasn't had to face yet, though he figures some day he'll be forced to admit to it. But he's fifteen years old, and aside from hunting things that most people think are only part of their worst nightmares, Dean hasn't done anything yet.

He's never got his license (a real one, anyway), or graduated high school. He's never been to the Grand Canyon or – hell, seen a donkey show. He's never been married or even had sex yet. Never had kids or fallen in love or… or owned a car (the Impala – please, Dad! – the Impala!).

In truth, Dean Winchester is afraid to die.

He figures it's natural for everyone to fear their own impending death, especially for people like him who are sick, when the inevitable 'some day' starts to look a lot more like 'maybe tomorrow' or even ' maybe today.' Because when you're sick, the whole concept of death stops looking quite so abstract and becomes a whole lot more concrete. It's one thing to be fifteen and imagine yourself getting gutted by a bezoar or having your heart ripped out by a werewolf. Those things are a flash in the pan – fleeting thoughts on adrenaline high that leap into the brain and leap right back out again. Sure Dean's considered his own death, especially since he started hunting with his Dad. It's kind of hard not to, really.

But being sick, feeling his body fighting against him, feeling it let him down with headaches and nosebleeds and lightheadedness, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea… It makes the whole death thing feel a lot more immediate, like the Grim Reaper himself is on stand-by with his big old scythe just waiting to snuff him out.

It's made worse by the complete loss of control the situation forces on him. At the hospital, especially, Dean feels like his body is just one giant piece of meat to be poked and prodded at. With each new visit he's more convinced that the entire medical field is peopled with sociopaths, and that these treatments and tests and procedures are the tortured play of the collective psychotic mind of the medical community. Sometimes he doesn't feel like a person when he gets laid on that exam table and the testing begins. He's not even there to the various doctors and nurses. He's just an arm or a leg or a hip or a spine. He's an organic system of collaborative functions that need to be monitored.

There are an endless number of clipboards that get carted from exam room to test room to procedure room where his bowel movements are monitored, his heart rate recorded, his urine samples examined. Never mind that most of these procedures are invasive and humiliating and dehumanizing, there's no time for shame for fifteen year-old boys with cancer when teams of doctors get a sneak peek of his junk during an ultrasound, or when the night nurse during a two-day inpatient stay comes to collect stool samples.

There's no time for modesty, no room to be embarrassed, when you've got a disease and there's a medical team 'on it.' All the same, Dean feels so distanced from himself, or from the 'self' he used to be before everything in his life was about cancer, as well as distanced from everyone else. Sometimes it's like he's standing outside of everything and watching the whole world lose its mind. He watches the doctors conferring over the latest blood work, watches the nurses offering comforting smiles as the needlepoint of an IV catheter slides under the skin and into a vein, watches as people talk around him, talk about him, but rarely to him, about the latest surprise his body's cooked up for their charts. He watches Dad and Sam stumble through their paces in the new routine of normal they've got going at home. Watches them struggle not to fall into old habits because 'Dean's sick' and 'Dean needs his sleep' and 'Dean needs a positive environment so he can keep his strength up.' (And that last one made Dean laugh until he puked, because seriously, Dad talking about 'positive environments' had to be one of the signs of the apocalypse.)

It's kinda lonely having cancer. And it's weird, because now that he's sick he's getting more attention on a daily basis than he ever had in the last ten years growing up. He's got Dad's unwavering support and strength behind him every step of the way, and Sam's big, somber eyes and furious prayers, along with hosts of doctors, nurses, and medical personnel holding his hand, talking him through the worst of the sickness and pain when they remember to, taking care of him. But he feels more alone than ever because he's… he's different now, and they all look at him different now. Like they could breathe and blow him over; like he could go away at any moment. Like he's not of this world anymore.

It's worse when he has to stay in the Peds ward overnight. There nothing is like home. The lights are too bright and the nurses too disruptive with their all-hours check-ups. It's noisy and busy and almost impossible to get a moment to himself. He usually ends up sharing a room with other sick kids, who he can hear crying or sniffling through the night. Sometimes he just sits awake in the dark and catches the occasional eerie glimmer of light glinting off the white in the eyes of some other kid staring through the darkness like he is. On those nights he lets himself curl up and cry as dread forms in a choking lump in his throat, and loneliness pulls his bones to the mattress and pins them there.

The only thing he can console himself with is knowing that it's him going through all this and not Sam. If a Winchester has to have leukemia, then it's good that it's Dean. 'Cos Dad's got a job to do, and he takes care of them the best way he can while he's out there saving lives, and if he was laid up with cancer Dean's pretty sure the whole fuckin' world would just stop. And Sammy… Sammy can't get sick like this. It's just unfathomable. Sometimes when Dean's squinting his eyes shut against the pain of the needle sliding into his spine, he'll picture Sammy in his place, dimpled cheeks twisted into a tight grimace as tears squeeze past those wide, cat-slanted eyes, imagines his little brother's sharp intake of breath and whimper of pain, and it's all Dean can do to not lose it right there on the gurney and start bawling like a baby. If Sammy had to go through this it would just be so, so horrible. Dean doesn't think either he or Dad could take it happening to Sammy. Sammy's too important, too vulnerable and soft and innocent for something like this to touch him, no matter that he's got enough spunk and attitude to make Dad want to murder him half the time. Sam's just too precious for something like this to touch him.

So Dean figures he can take it. He doesn't like it – hell no – but he can survive it because he has to. Dying really isn't an option. There's the fact that he's needed, and the fact that he's still got shit to do (like have sex), and the whole being not ready to die thing. It sucks major ass, but life sucking isn't really anything new, so Dean soldiers on. It's what he does best.

There might be one teeny, tiny perk to being sick, in the form of one non-psychotic, non-robotic, non-sociopathic nurse named Lois, whose deep brown eyes and honeyed voice have been with Dean through most of his tests and treatments. He can't really get a handle on how old she is (she won't tell him), but he figures she's got to be under 30. She's gorgeous in that wholesome, non-made up way that makes her look clean and fresh. Dark hair that's always pulled back in a ponytail or bun falls out in wild frizzy swirls around her temples and ears, and Dean's ashamed to admit that it's possibly the sexiest thing he's ever seen (like the way the fine baby hairs at the nape of her neck curl loose from the bindings of her ponytail or hair clip). One time he watched her twist it up with a fist and hold the hair in place in a sloppy bun by stabbing it with a pencil.

Resourceful and sexy.

But she's cool. And funny. And she talks to Dean like he's a person and not just a faceless patient or, worse, just a kid. She laughs at his jokes and calls him honey without being at all condescending, and when she holds his hand through biopsies and ultrasounds he lets her because she's warm and smells really, really good.

They've got this running joke where he flirts with her and she shakes her head at his antics and calls him a heartbreaker, and says 'If you were older I'd be in a lot of trouble' and he thinks, lamely, 'If I were older I'd never break your heart' but doesn't say that because it is supremely cheesy. And even though he's got cancer and can pretty much use it as a free pass for all kinds of dumbass shit coming out of his mouth (like crying during the second chemo treatment 'cos it hurt more than it was supposed to), Dean is way too proud and too macho to ever admit aloud to a sentiment like that.

Doesn't mean he doesn't think it, though.

Like right now, he's got at least a three-night inpatient stay at the Peds ward because Dad's taken all the family leave time he can at his job and needs the overtime to pay for the last round of Dean's anti-nausea medication and various other prescriptions, and Dean's blood counts are low enough that the doctors are worried about infection without proper home care. And – wonder of wonders – the summer's suddenly freaking over and Sam's back in school again (while Dean, notably, isn't). Dean's arm has healed and the cast is gone, but that's about the only good thing to happen to him since this whole mess started. Now the damned social worker insists on inpatient care every time Dean needs treatment for anything, claiming that an empty house just isn't stable enough for him to stay at alone while he 'fights.'

So Dean's stuck here in a room full of other sick kids, away from Dad and away from Sam, ready to pull his hair out with boredom (if he still had any) and trying so very hard not to get lonely and weepy. But then Lois is there, fiddling with the IV bag connected to the PICC line in Dean's arm (gotta keep him hydrated through all the puking), and she's got her lips pursed together as she concentrates on her task, looking so pretty and capable and perfect as she leans in close to make the necessary adjustments. The PICC line is a recent addition, and though Dean had objected to it at first, he's pretty damned glad for it now, since it means a lot less attack on the rest of his veins for drawing blood or administering drugs. It's kind of uncomfortable and makes him feel anxious if he looks at it too long, because it doesn't come out – even when the hospital visits are done, but it's better than being skewered day after day while nurses struggle with increasingly weak veins. Not even Lois could make that fun or sexy.

It probably says something about Dean's Mommy issues that he's totally latching onto this woman who's twice his age and all maternal for him with the care-giving, seeing as she's his nurse and all, but he's practiced enough at denial that he can push it away and just focus on the very wonderful distraction of her presence.

She's got light purple scrubs with balloons on 'em today, and her hair's up in the ponytail again (Dean's favourite). She grabs the clipboard and writes something else on Dean's chart and then absently runs the back of her hand along Dean's forehead. She frowns and raises her big, doe eyes to him.

"You're warm," she comments.

"Correction," Dean grins smugly. "Smokin' hot."

Lois peers down at him and pauses in her ministrations to give him a squint-eyed, hopeless grin in return, shaking her head at his boldness as usual.

"You never quit, do you?"

"Nope." He folds his arms across his chest, careful of the IV line in the crook of his elbow, and leans back casually, or aiming for it, anyway. "I know you keep bringin' up the age thing, but if you come to my way of thinkin' I think you'll see that there are some definite advantages to dating a younger man."

"Oh yeah?" her voice quivers with an amused laugh. "Like what?"

Dean allows his smile to linger, pausing for effect as she watches him with a raised eyebrow, waiting.

"Recovery time," he says at length.

Lois snorts an incredulous laugh and bends at the waist, shoulders hitching as she whoops in disbelief before straightening, red-faced with laughter and embarrassment, to face him again.

"The mouth on you, kid," she says in wonder, though it's a dismissal if Dean's ever heard one. "Seriously, where do you learn this stuff?"

"I get around," he shrugs. "But seriously – think about it. Sure you'd have a thing or two to teach me, but I'd more than make up for it in stamina. We're talking all night here, sweetheart."

She's still laughing when she leaves his ward to move on to the next sick kid's room.

"Happy to amuse you," he mutters to himself, pouting and sulking because he can, because there's no one around to witness it.

Fact is, he's pretty sure his stamina right now (sexual or otherwise) has gone down the crapper along with his sex drive, and that's really saying something, considering he's fifteen years old and obsessed with sex. He still thinks about it, a lot – there's not much else to do during the hours of mind-numbing boredom while sitting in a hospital bed – but his body isn't so quick to respond anymore, and the fantasies don't hold his attention for as long, nor are they as satisfying as they used to be.

Instead, he finds himself thinking about those big, round eyes and how they go warm when Lois smiles. He remembers the warmth of her hand against his skin as she wipes a cool cloth across his forehead, or rubs his back and hums to him when he's bent over puking into a basin in his lap. He remembers the smell of her shampoo when she leans close, that fresh powder scent of her deodorant, the clean girl smell that makes him want to snuffle into her neck and just breathe deep.

It's probably the cancer making him all clingy and moony, Dean figures. Christ knows he's not one to get emotionally attached to the not-so-strangers that sometimes have an impact on their nomadic lives. He's just lonely and scared, and Lois – Lois is a friend who just happens to smell Really. Fucking. Good. The deep, penetrating eyes, full mouth, slim waist, wide hips, and awesome rack don't hurt, either.

Dad and Sam show up just before supper time. It's a relief having them near, like suddenly Dean can breathe easier or something. Sam crawls up onto the bed with him, not close enough to snuggle but wedged in at his side so that they're squashed onto the single bed like two sardines; and Dad takes the green lounger chair near the bed and reclines with a newspaper while the boys chat. He grins at Sam's mile-a-minute chatter, catching Dean's eye with a wink, and Dean eases back into the pillows behind him and feels his stress melting away.

"And then yesterday was the competition and I won!" Sam says proudly. "So Mr. Jenkins said I could join the Mathletes this year, even though I'm only in grade 6, because I have the highest score in the whole grade."

"Dude, that's awesome!" Dean says proudly. His little genius geek brother never ceases to amaze him, never fails to raise that burning feeling of pride welling up in his chest. "Pretty soon we're gonna need to get you a neck brace just so we can hold your head up with that ginormous brain."

Sam looks up at him then, eyes narrowed, like he can't tell if he should be angry at the insult or pleased with the compliment. Then he gazes at his knees and his cheeks dimple and he grins in spite of himself.

"Make sure you hold my hand then," he says with a tentative bordering on wicked grin, "so I can anchor you and your airhead to the earth. Otherwise you'd probably float away."

Sly hazel eyes cut up to Dean, waiting for a retort or rejoinder.

"Especially without the hair to weigh him down," Dad agrees gruffly.

Dean's not sure who's more stunned by Dad's sudden involvement in the teasing, Sam or Dean. Both boys share a moment's stunned silence, staring at their Dad as he continues to read his newspaper, eyes never leaving the pages in spite of the deep ridges forming in his cheeks as he fights to hold back a smile. Everything's so light it's almost tense (if that makes any sense), and Dean can't help the feeling that curls down his spine, like the whole of Mexico just threw a fiesta on his grave or something.

Then Dad and Sam burst into snorted snickers and the whole family breaks down into giddy, hysterical laughter borne of too much stress and not enough sleep and a whole lotta love that most days none of them knows quite what to do with. And see, this is what Dean knows: his family is meant to be together. All the monsters and all the diseases and all the heartache in the world are nothing in the face of his family. They're strong together, no matter how much they may fight, or how much their lives sometimes suck beyond the telling.

He shouldn't be (it's probably a sign that he's finally lost his mind), but right now, Dean's happy.

888

It's funny how life can yo-yo in spectacular arcs, up and down, back and forth, side-to-side, zig and zag. One minute you're facing one direction, and the next you've done a 180, been turned around or upside down. Sometimes there's no warning. Sometimes the bottom just drops out.

The third round of chemo hits Dean hard. His weight drops so drastically from the constant vomiting that the doctors insist on putting in a feeding tube, which brings Dean just one step closer to looking like a member of the Borg. He feels used up and dried out, limbs too heavy to lift, listless and tired all the time. He can barely get out of bed, which would be a problem if he were at home, but since he's stuck in the Peds ward (where he's been for the past six days) he's got nurses like Lois and her posse to wait on him hand and foot.

You'd think that'd be a consolation, but it's not.

He misses his family. It's funny, because Sam's always been so independent, always wanting to branch off on his own, always craving time by himself to discover himself or whatever, begging to go to summer camp and whining about his privacy all the damned time. But for all that he's dependable and self-sufficient, Dean's always been more like an old hound dog on the porch step, content to stay at home and reassured in the presence of his pack. So being sick and being away from Dad and Sam… It's hard for Dean. It makes me feel removed from his family, displaced, like they'll go on with their lives without him and won't need him anymore. And being away from them leaves him vulnerable in ways simply he isn't when they're around. It's like he can't keep up the brave front because they're not there for him to be brave for, so he's scared now like he's never been before. Scared and painfully lonely when they're not with him to keep his spirits up. And right now, he needs his spirits up.

Dean feels like he's dying. Feels like the chemo, or the cancer, or the tag team wonder of the chemo and the cancer, is killing him. For real. Like a trembling lightness has settled into his bones and he's floating away, like his soul is ready to fly right out of his body. And it feels funny when he breathes, like maybe he's not really breathing, but just pretending to breathe, or like his lungs are actually balloons, only they're made of lead and have a big hole in them that all the oxygen's leaking out of. He tries saying as much to Lois when she makes her rounds and writes the latest read-outs on her clipboard, but the words don't make any sense when they come out of his mouth. 'Balloons,' he hears himself say, 'there's a hole!' and she just smiles sadly and pets his head and tells him it's okay.

'It's not,' he thinks desperately. 'It's not okay… I think I'm dyin'.'

Except he must have said that part aloud, because Lois comes closer and starts fussing, her pretty mouth flattened into a tight line with worry. She checks his temperature and swears, and then things start happening real fast. There's a flurry of activity, doctors and nurses huddled around him, drawing blood and then injecting drugs into his PICC line and setting an oxygen mask to his face. The nurses take off his Johnny-shirt and sponge him down with cold cloths, and it's so shockingly cold that Dean moans in protest, his teeth fucking chattering because he's freezing. And naked and humiliated, with all eyes (including Lois's) on him with keen yet clinical doctorly disinterest.

Dean wants his Dad to come in here, right now, and make all this shit stop, so badly he has to fight the urge to burst into tears. Something's wrong. Dr. Hawkins is snapping orders in rapid fire at the assembled medical staff, and Dean's shivering cold even though he keeps hearing the word 'fever' being thrown around over his head. He's barely conscious by the time they take him for chest X-rays, and the oxygen mask doesn't feel like it's helping much at all.

Panic hits him hard as he thinks 'this is it.' He's going right now – dying right now – and he's not… Dad and Sam aren't here, and he's not fucking ready. He's scared, so scared he can't feel his hands, and he wants his Dad. He wants his Dad!

"Shhhh, honey, you're okay," Lois whispers, face suddenly close as she grips his hand tightly and gives it a reassuring squeeze. "We need you to calm down, Dean. You're okay, but you need to calm down…"

"Has somebody called his father?" a voice demands over the chaos of activity, while another voice replies, "He's on his way."

'I'm going,' he thinks hysterically. 'It's happening now. I'm going!' But going where? What will happen when he dies? Will he become a ghost? Will Dad have to salt and burn his bones to keep him from haunting them? Or will he go somewhere else, like maybe Heaven? Is there a Heaven? Will he see Mom again? Or will he go to Hell? He's done a lot of bad things, thought and said a lot of bad things. Or what if there's just nothing? What if he dies and just stops being anything, is just a rotting body in the ground, never to think another thought or dream another dream?

"It's okay, Dean," Lois soothes, wiping the tears from his cheeks and brushing a thumb reassuringly across his forehead, where his hair used to be. "Your Dad'll be here soon."

Except Dean can't breathe, and he thinks maybe Dad won't be here soon enough.

888

This cancer's killing them all. Little by little, day by day, it's sucking the life out of them, leeching the light from their eyes and leaving nothing but exhausted, empty shells in their place. John feels like he hasn't slept in years, and the constant worry and terror are working wonders on his stomach, turning his intestines into minefields and burning ulcers along the lining of his stomach. There's a general ache that took up residence behind his eyes some time in late June and it hasn't left in the past three months. Sam's a nervous wreck, to the point that they've got the school guidance counselor breathing down his neck, badgering him about needing support during 'this trying time.' Every night the kid prays like one possessed by the Holy Spirit, losing himself in these desperate little trances that make John feel so helpless he wants to fucking scream.

They're shadows of what they were four months ago.

And Dean. It's like there's half a kid where a whole kid used to be. He's… he's not well. The chemo's sucked all the fat from his body, so now he looks all long and spindly, emaciated, bald, and deathly pale, his handsome face a stark white mask against his dark, hollow eyes and sunken cheeks. The bruises around the PICC line and feeding tube are grossly green-yellow, sick and irritated-looking flesh that almost hangs loose off of his bones. And if the drastic change in his appearance weren't shocking enough for you, the ventilator is one helluva cherry on top.

Pneumonia, Dr. Hawkins explained. Again. Dean's lungs weren't expanding due to the fluid build-up from the infection, and he couldn't breathe on his own, so they'd had to intubate him and put him on a vent. John had arrived at the hospital just in time to see Dean's wide green eyes rolling in wild orbits in their sockets, his lips almost purple-blue from lack of oxygen as they soundlessly rounded around the word 'Dad' over and over again, before the Emergency team blocked him from view to shove a tube down his throat. There was barely even time for John to give consent to use the ventilator – he doesn't even remember signing the damned form – before Dean's voice, the one thing the poor kid had left to exert any kind of control of himself or his situation, was officially taken away from him and replaced by the steady whoosh-hiss of the machine.

It was a bad day. The worst they've had since Mary died, in fact. John can't remember a time when he's felt more helpless, more desperate, more terrified, and that includes the night he found his wife pinned to the ceiling in Sam's nursery, gutted and bleeding before she burst into fucking flames. Until now, that had been the very worst moment in John Winchester's entire life. But nothing – nothing – compares to watching your child, your baby, slip away in lingering illness.

His boy'd been crying, wet tracks staining his pale, freckled cheeks as his eyes jack-rabbitted around the room, his hands weakly reaching in spite of the nurses' best efforts to hold him down, while sedatives were administered to calm him down for the procedure. John knew Dean wanted him near, knew Dean was terrified and missing his Dad, knew Dean fucking needed him then and there, but the doctors had to do their thing first, get him breathing, and John could only watch helplessly while they forced a tube down Dean's throat.

That was two days ago and Dean's still on the vent. He's been in the hospital for 9 consecutive days, and John's certain that, by the time this is all over, he's going to have to declare bankruptcy, because there's no good goddamned way he can afford this anymore. But that's nothing, nothing, in the grand scheme of things. It's just money, just debt, and he'll gladly go in the hole and ruin his credit if it means keeping his boy alive (not like he was planning on taking out a mortgage or anything, anyway). Hell, if it comes down to it, he'll sell his fucking soul for Dean. A little debt is nothing.

Pastor Jim's down from Minnesota looking after Sam. John thought about calling Bobby, but Bobby's not speaking to him at the moment, and he figures Jim's the better one to keep an eye on Sam, considering Sam's sudden preference for tantric prayer sessions. Maybe Jim can help calm the kid down or something, make the religious fervor less manic, less desperate. Maybe he can give the boy some comfort, 'cos John knows there's little comfort left to give from his own quarter, especially where God is concerned.

Sam's prayers have become more frantic since they put his big brother on the vent and moved him into the ICU. They won't let him in to see Dean because he's too much of a risk for germs and infection, so it's all on John to keep Dean company during the long, lonely hours. It's a test of fatherhood, forcing him to carry on one-sided conversations for hours at a time while Dean just blinks up at him with those huge eyes that show every little thing he's feeling. John sees fear and pain and comfort and love reflected at him in those deep greens, 'cos without his voice, Dean's eyes are now an open window to his soul. He ain't holding nothin' back from his old man, and the rawness of that boy's love and loyalty, the open blindness of his fear when it hits, are enough to cut John's legs off at the knees. He loves that kid so fiercely he wants to fucking punch something. He wants to punish someone for letting this happen to his boy.

The doctors have promised that Dean's reacting well to the antibiotics, that the infection's clearing up in good time, and that they'll have Dean off the vent in a day or so. They insist that, while the red blood cells are now dangerously low, it's still no reason to panic – yet. Plasma transfusions are on the menu, and they're going to hold off on round four of chemo until Dean's blood cell counts are back up to a healthier level.

'He's strong,' they placate and patronize. 'He's responding well to the treatment. His chance of recovery is still very good.'

John hopes they're not just blowing smoke up his ass, 'cos he'll come in here and kill every last one of them if his son dies.

888

It's hard to be crafty or sneaky when the person you're trying to be crafty or sneaky with is a hunter. It's a lesson Sam learned long ago, having John Winchester, Best Bullshitter on the Planet and Sneak Extraordinaire, for a father. But now that Pastor Jim's here, Sam can't allow himself to miss out on this golden opportunity. He's just got to be sly about it.

They're sitting together at the kitchen table, Sam with his Math homework spread out in front of him, and Pastor Jim with his Bible and a leather-bound journal he uses to write sermons in. The kindly old hunter's been using his time away from the parish to look for new material for his preaching, poring over the Good Book and picking out passages, taking careful notes and composing what are, no doubt, inspirational speeches about the path of the Lord.

It provides a helluva great segue into a conversation Sam's been avoiding for months for fear of discovery.

"Pastor Jim," he says, trying for his most inquisitive yet emotionally un-invested tone of voice. "Do you believe in angels?"

The pastor pauses in his reading to peer up from his book at Sam with a curious, serene smile.

"As a matter of fact, I do," Jim replies. "In fact, the more time I spend learning about the monsters that plague the dark, the more I'm convinced in the existence of Light."

That sounds pretty backward, actually. Sam frowns in confusion, which leads Jim to chuckle with good humour.

"In life there is always balance, Sam," the man says kindly. "There cannot be dark without light. And as you've seen, the arsenal of light, things like crosses, rosaries and Holy water, which we've used on hunts, have power in fighting those dark and evil things. There can be no power, the words in this Book," and here he taps proudly on the cover of his Bible, "can have no power if there is no source to that power."

Huh. That does make sense, actually. It makes perfect sense. Sam feels warm relief temporarily lifting the heavy weight from his shoulders, the burden of guilt and responsibility for what's happening to Dean, when he thinks about there being a God out there somewhere to balance the scales, with angels doing His work. So it can't—it can't be that an angel would give Dean cancer. Dean's a hunter (or at least a hunter in training): he's doing God's work.

So that has to mean that Sam really was just dreaming. Crazy, scary lucid dreaming.

"And just as there are demons to carry out the Devil's work in corrupting souls," Jim goes on, "I believe that there are angels among us who are here to steer us on the right path, or to guide us through when God's light seems dimmest."

"Can you summon an angel?" Now that would be convenient. And why not? You can summon demons, after all.

"No, my boy," Jim shakes his head sadly. "Angels haven't actually been seen among men for at least two thousand years. They're far, far more powerful than demons, and they can't be controlled with an incantation and some spellwork the way that demons can."

"Then why don't they help?" Sam asks, puzzled and a little pissed off. "Why do they let evil things loose, like demons, if they're powerful enough to stop them? Why do they sit back and let us get corrupted?"

Sam knows Dean would have some choice words (snorted in disbelieving laughter) to say to this whole line of discussion.

"Because God gave us free will, Sam," Jim says, eyes bright and intent. "He gave us the tools: strong hearts and minds and wills, to fight the evil ourselves. We can be saved or damned all on our own, but if angels intervened we'd have the choice to succeed or fail taken away from us. Then there'd be no free will."

Sam thinks, right at this moment, that he'd give up his free will if it meant the angels would take away Dean's cancer. In fact, the certainty of being saved, of being guaranteed a place in Heaven when he dies, seems like a pretty fair trade for free will. Granted, Sam's not really sure he gets what free will actually means. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't seem all that important to the distraught 11 year-old whose brother's sick, on a ventilator, and dying.

"Do you know a lot about angels?" Sam asks. "Do they like us?"

Jim chuckles again and ruffles Sam's hair as he stands to pour himself a cup of coffee.

"Some of them," he admits with a shrug. "At least, according to the Bible. It's said that there was a war in Heaven, and a whole host of angels rebelled against God because they didn't like that God had created us humans. When they lost the war, they were cast down into Hell, and those that remained in Heaven, on the other hand, were loyal to God and were more sympathetic to the plight of the crafty ape."

Well that's a relief. If it wasn't a dream, if it somehow really was an angel, or a messenger for an angel, that came to speak with him, then it has to be one of the ones that likes humans. And an angel that likes humans wouldn't give Dean cancer for no reason. So that would mean it isn't Sam's fault that Dean has cancer. It would mean he got cancer just… well, just because. And it's not Sam's fault, and Dean and Dad won't hate him.

Still, for the sake of curiosity…

"What about the Morning Star?"

Jim frowns as he pulls the coffee pot from the machine and pours the steaming brew into his mug.

"Definitely not our number one fan, actually," he says ruefully. "Perhaps it serves as a lesson about the evils of vanity," and here he chuckles quietly to himself, "but it's said that the Morning Star, or 'light bearer' was the most beautiful of all the Heavenly Host."

The skin along Sam's arms tingles, the hair on the back of his neck standing up. 'Light bearer.' He's heard that name before.

"No, Lucifer is definitely not a fan of humans, Sam. So if you were thinking about trying to summon an angel – no that it would work, mind you – but if you were, I definitely wouldn't think about summoning him."

Sam doesn't make it to the bathroom before he throws up.

TBC...