Author's Notes: Many thanks to Eloise, who was kind enough to Beta again; you're the best. And special thanks to my writing buddies, because I'd never finish a darn thing without you. :)

Stalled


It's the end of the world; Sam's sure of it. The apocalypse; all the signs are here. It's summer, there's a heat wave in Georgia, and Dean is actually disagreeing with their father.

"I think it would be good; save us time, Dad," Dean reasons, trying not to sound like some eager kid. "You don't need me for this job - Sammy here's got you covered."

"It's Sam," Sam reminds them from the back seat, not that anyone's paying attention.

"That may be," John says, a spark of amusement in his tired eyes as he glances at his youngest in the rearview mirror. "But we're sticking together anyway." He straightens the knot in his tie, reminding himself why demon hunting still beats the hell out of a desk job.

"We could cover more ground. I know this routine inside and out; I could help," Dean continues, his earnest eyes attempting to gage his father's reaction. But John's gaze remains focused on the small county hospital they're parked beside. Dean guesses the older hunter is much more interested in their latest job than Dean's recent bid for independence.

"You're plenty help right where you are."

Dean nods, his fingers curling in silent frustration as he leans back in his seat. Then, "Caleb was doing solos at my age."

"I'm not the boss of Caleb," John tells him, sliding on his rumpled sports coat.

"Yeah, but - "

"Dean." His son stiffens at his tone. "You're backing me on this one. Now can I count on you?"

"Yes, sir," Dean replies, unable to keep himself from responding to the command in the ex-Marine's voice. So he'll forget about the job in Hollister, even if he *can* do a simple salt and burn with his eyes closed. His father made sure of that. Isn't a solo gig what he's been training for all these years? *What's it gonna take to convince him?*

John glances over at his eldest, unable to miss the disappointment tingeing the eighteen year-old's features. The kid's been itching to show his stuff since he graduated last month, but now's not the time for impetuosity. "Good. I want you sharp here."

"What exactly are we looking for, anyway?" Sam asks from the back seat, hating the way his damp tee shirt sticks to the hot vinyl upholstery. Screw Dean and his shotgun, anyway – next time he's riding in front. "I thought you said no one was dead?"

"Yet," John tells him grimly, reaching around Dean and popping open the glove compartment. He pulls out a leather bound notebook and a pen before slapping the compartment shut again. "They think there's an epidemic going on. Eight people with paralysis in the last two months."

"What makes you think it isn't an epidemic?"

"It's not."

"But how do you know?" Sam persists.

"I know," John says curtly, opening his door and climbing from the car. "You two stay put. I don't want to have to look for you when I get back."

"Yes, sir," Dean says, back to being steadfast.

Sam wipes some sweat from his brow and changes his mind. Forget the apocalypse. Georgia is hell.

***************************************************************

"I don't know how much information I can give you, Mr. – what did you say your name was?"

"Weston," John tells the older man, offering his hand. Watery blue eyes squint at him from behind the thick spectacles as the doctor accepts the handshake. "James Weston, for the Journal of Epidemiology."

"Ah, yes. Well, I'm afraid I'm about to start my rounds, but I do have a few minutes," the doctor says, turning without waiting to see if John follows.

"What can you tell me about the recent cases of paralysis?" John asks as they walk along.

"Not nearly as much as I'd like. If it's a disease, the pattern of transmission isn't like anything we've ever seen. Incident rate of eight in as many weeks," the doctor informs him, straightening his glasses as they make their way down the corridor. He picks up a chart by one of the doors and flips it open, using a pen from his pocket to make notations. "Etiology's unknown. It doesn't seem to be infectious. No insect or animal bites to suggest a biological vector, no common source of water or food. Time between the initial symptoms and the onset of paralysis is varied, but the sudden onset for some of the hosts suggests only a single exposure."

"How about the symptoms?" John asks, as the man returns the chart and continues down the hall. John steps into pace beside him.

"Inconsistent. It manifests as a sleep disturbance; hypnagogia accompanied by sleep paralysis, which isn't uncommon. Thirty to forty percent of us experience the phenomenon at least once or twice in our lifetime, but not to this extent. Normally, the paralysis lasts only a few seconds to a few minutes, before the sleeper either returns to REM sleep or wakes. But in these cases, the paralysis is ongoing."

"Are the patients conscious?"

The doctor scratches at his balding head. "They appear to be awake, but EEGs indicate they're still asleep. The exhibited behaviors are more indicative of a persistent vegetative state." He shakes his head. "We're a small institution, Mr. Weston. We're hoping to have more answers when the CDC gets here on Monday."

"Do you anticipate an outbreak?"

"I only know of one other patient with possible symptoms, but he's refusing hospitalization. Damn fool kids," he mutters, approaching the nurse's station where a pot of coffee is brewing. He suddenly shakes his head, giving John a rueful smile. "Sorry. I'm afraid I haven't had my coffee yet. Would you like a cup?"

"No, thank you. I don't want to keep you from your rounds." Then, "I appreciate your time." John extends his hand again, smiles sheepishly. "Is there a restroom in here?"

****************************************************************

"I don't understand why we couldn't go in," Sam grouses.

Dean resists the urge to roll his eyes. "Dad'll be able to get more information by himself," Dean tells him. He and Sam are waiting by the car, the humid summer heat oppressive as it beats up from the pavement. A slight breeze from the nearby ocean stirs the short hairs at the nape of Dean's neck, and he shivers, even in the sun.

Sam glances over his shoulder at the hospital. "It's like a sauna out here."

"Yeah, well, get used to it."

"You're eighteen now, you know," Sam tells him, kicking at a rock with the toe of his boot.

"Thanks for the newsflash."

"If you want to go solo, Dad can't stop you."

Dean snorts. "Have you met our father?" He absently twists the length of leather circling his wrist. "Besides, going solo isn't the point. We're a team. I just want to be part of this, you know?"

"Sure," Sam says. "Who wouldn't? We're just like Up With People, only with really big guns."

"Hey, smartass, those really big guns have saved your – will you get a load of that?" Dean forgets the lecture he's about to deliver and pushes himself up from where he's leaning against the car. There's a gas station across the street, and a shapely blonde in painted-on shorts is cleaning a customer's windshield. In the bright light and heat-smeared air, the girl glimmers like an oasis.

Sam's eyes narrow as he follows his brother's gaze. "What? A gas station? Ow," he complains, rubbing the spot where Dean's hand has slapped against the back of his head.

"The girl, geek-boy – check out the *girl.*"

Sam takes another look. "What about her?"

"Man, would I love to get my hands on her ass – sets," Dean amends quickly, as he hears his father clear his throat behind them. "Assets. Girl like that must have one hell of a portfolio."

"Just get in the car," John says, shaking his head as he climbs into the vehicle. He waits for the boys to get in, then pulls a file out from under his sports coat and tosses it into Dean's lap. "I got a lead. Richard Oakes."

Sam leans over the seat, watching as Dean flips through the paperwork. "How'd you get his chart?"

"I waited and stole it from his doctor's office. What?" John asks, his fingers pausing in the act of jerking off his tie. "We'll send it back."

Dean's still scanning the documents. "So what's this guy's story?"

"He's got the same symptoms as the other victims," John tells him, shrugging off the sports coat. "Whatever's doing this, this kid's gonna be next. We just gotta talk to him."

"And tell him what?" Sam asks. "What makes you think he's gonna talk to us?"

John quirks a half-smile, turns the key in the ignition. "I've got it covered."

******************************************************************

The house is old and dilapidated, the paint peeling away in the salty air. John knocks firmly to the side of the screen door, Dean and Sam lingering to one side of the rambling porch. There's the hushed static of a television, and then footsteps. Moments later a woman appears behind the screen, her hands drying themselves on her apron.

"Yes?" The caution in her tone suggests that life has been harder for her than it should have been. John flashes his most charming smile.

"Mrs. Oakes? My name is Alan Federman; I perform studies for the CDC's Environmental Health. I was wondering if I might speak with your son, Richard?"

The woman frowns, a hint of fear in her hurried words. "You've got no right coming here. He already told the doctor; he won't be hospitalized, so unless you've got some kind of court order - " She reaches to shut the front door, and John quickly puts his hand up to the screen.

"Wait," he urges, and the woman pauses, uncertainty in her tired eyes. "Ma'am, please. Just wait. I'm not here on official CDC business," he tells her. "I was vacationing nearby with my family when I heard about what's been happening here, and I think I might be able to help your son." He glances over at Dean and Sam, who hang back from the conversation. "I have boys of my own; I couldn't just drive through here and not stop."

She stares at him, then opens the screen door, leaning out for a better look at the two boys. She's rewarded with tentative smiles. There's a moment of consideration before she turns back to John, holding open the screen. "Come on in. Those boys, too, if you're not worried about them catching anything."

"Dean. Sam." *We're in.*

*****************************************************************

"So when did your symptoms start?" John sits on the small dingy couch, Dean and Sam wedged tightly beside him. His dark eyes study the young man huddled in the recliner opposite them. Judging by the numerous sports trophies lining the shabby mantel, Richard Oaks must have been a healthy, active kid, but John would never guess it to look at him now. His face is pale and hollowed, the eyes haunted. With the almost military-short hair, he reminds John disturbingly of a POW.

"About a week ago," the kid says weakly, glancing over his shoulder as his mother moves to stand behind him. He smiles at her briefly before turning back to John. "I started having trouble waking up. My eyes would open, but I couldn't move, or speak... I didn't think I could breathe..."

John nods. "How long did that sensation last?"

The kid shrugs. "A few minutes, the first few times. But then it got worse."

"What do you mean, worse?"

Richard shifts uncomfortably, and Mrs. Oakes squeezes his shoulder before answering for him. "He has nightmares; he can't wake up from them anymore. It's gotten so bad he's afraid to sleep."

"Momma." A welcome flush of color creeps into her son's face.

"Anything else?" John asks.

"This." Richard pulls back the collar of his shirt. "Showed up this morning."

Dean squints as John stands up and moves to get a closer look. "A hickey?"

John casts his eldest a quelling look, but the young man gives a short huff of laughter.

"I wish. There's not exactly a ton of cute girls in Harpers Landing - ow."

"Sorry," John says, his fingers probing gently at the angry mark on the kid's skin.

Dean smirks. "Have you had your windshield washed lately?"

"Oh, you mean Maya. She moved into the old Svenson place a couple months ago."

"You date her?"

John wants to groan, but at least the conversation seems to be distracting the older boy.

"Are you kidding? She wouldn't give me the time a day when I *didn't* look like a vampire."

"You don't look like a vampire," Sam tells him sincerely.

Mrs. Oakes fiddles nervously with the cross hanging from her neck. "So what do you think is wrong with my son, Mr. Federman?"

John sighs, straightening. "I won't lie to you, Mrs. Oakes. The way the symptoms are escalating, I'm concerned that Richard will lapse into a persistent vegetative state like the others."

"Oh, dear Jesus..." The woman presses a fluttering hand to her chest.

"Momma," Richard says softly, putting his hand out to his mother.

"Listen," John tells them, his voice steeped in quiet authority. "I don't believe there's a contagion at work here. Based on the symptoms you and others have described, I believe what we're facing is an environmental health issue, something I can help with." He reaches into his shirt pocket and hands over his forged CDC card. "Take your son and check into a motel for the night. Let me bring in a team to go through this place; we'll find what's causing this."

Mrs. Oakes takes the card in trembling fingers. "But... We don't have money to pay for any tests."

"That won't be necessary," John assures her. "You just give me a call when you've found a place to stay, so I know how to reach you. We'll take care of the rest."

******************************************************************

"I know what this is," John says, as he and the boys approach the Impala. He pauses by the driver's door. "I've seen it before. The paralysis, the nightmares..."

"What about the nightmares?" Sam asks, he and Dean moving to stand closer to the older hunter.

"It's a mahr; a female demon," John says, his gaze moving over the property and memorizing the lay of the land. "It attacks its prey while they're sleeping, paralyzing them and causing hallucinations. It'll feed on fear until the victim's just a hollow shell."

"So what does this thing look like?" Dean wants to know.

"It'll be disguising itself as a pretty girl or a really old woman."

"Got it," Dean says. "I'll look for the pretty girl; you guys take the old woman."

John catches him by the back of the jacket. "Not so fast there, champ." He fights back a smile as Dean's shoulders slump. "We're not gonna go looking for it."

Sam frowns, wonders if maybe his father has finally lost his mind. "Why not?"

"Because it's gonna come to us."

******************************************************************

Dean thinks he might need new knees. He and Sam have been crouched behind the same shrubs for an hour now, and the younger boy's relentless fidgeting is starting to wear on him. "Would you sit still?" he whispers, glaring at Sam in the darkness.

"I can't help it," Sam hisses, shifting his hold on the shotgun. "I gotta piss. We've been out here forever."

Dean huffs in exasperation, glancing over to where John hides in the tall grass by the corner of the Oakes' home; waits for his signal. He fingers the hilt of his machete, his father's words still hanging in the hot, heavy air. *"The kid has the mark. A mahr won't often bite, but when she does taste a man's blood, he's irresistible to her. She'll be back tonight, and every night until he's dead. Stay together. If things go south, you boys know the drill." *

There's a flicker of movement in Dean's peripheral vision, and he turns to the left, catching his breath as a lithe figure moves through the brush. Moonlight glints from a cascade of pale hair, and Dean recognizes the girl from the gas station. *Mia? Myra?*

Dean frowns. "Why are the hot ones always demons?" he mutters, giving Sam a small nudge with his elbow. The fourteen year-old shoots him a scowl before he catches sight of their quarry, his hazel eyes widening as the mahr glides through the grass and hovers at the house's back door. There's a small click, and the door swings slowly open, the creature slipping silently inside. Dean catches his father's two-fingered wave in the dim light and nudges Sam again. "Come on - we got the front."

******************************************************************

John eases the back door open a little wider, his fingers curled possessively around his revolver. He peers into the darkness of the house, just able to make out the counters and kitchen table. His eyes sweep from side to side as he steps inside, his senses now alert and seeking. The mahr will head for where she believes her prey lies, and John raises his gun as he makes his way down the narrow hallway towards the kid's room. A floorboard creaks beneath his careful step, and he grimaces, waits. When the mahr doesn't make an appearance, he continues, inching his way down the hall until he reaches the bedroom. He slowly pushes the door open with his left hand, prepared to use both the revolver and the machete sheathed at his waist. But the room is empty.

John takes a step toward the bed, and then another, his gaze roaming over the walls. He's intending to open the closet when there's a shift in the air above him, and he looks up to see the wizened, snarling face of the mahr drop toward him. There's a crack of his shot and an unearthly shriek from the mahr as the weight of the creature knocks the hunter to the floor. John hears the vague clatter of his weapon as it falls from his grasp, and then the world goes still.

**************************************************************

Dean and Sam are already in the living room when the sound of the shot reverberates off the structure's walls. With Sam at his back, Dean moves quickly in the direction of the blast, drawing his machete as he enters the bedroom. His father lies sprawled on the floor, and a sudden hiss draws Dean's attention. He gets a glimpse of the creature's haggard, malefic features before it leaps through the window. Glass shatters and flies, and both boys fling their arms up to fend off the shards.

"Son of a bitch," Dean growls, dropping the machete to snatch his father's revolver from the floor and stride toward the window. The mahr's eerie cry pierces the night, and Dean fires once, twice, the second shot causing the mahr to howl again. She hurtles into the air, her tattered rags flying as a phantom horse – *a freakin' horse, for crying out loud* – surges beneath her and gallops them into the darkness. Dean watches them disappear, disgruntled. "Man, does she look different up close."

"Dad." Sam's voice is soft and urgent, and Dean turns to find his little brother kneeling beside their father, his hands moving over the man anxiously. "He's not responding."

Dean crouches beside the younger boy, noting with dismay that his father's eyes are open and unfocused. He lifts a wrist and checks the pulse, heaving a sigh of relief at the steady thrum. "He's alive. The contact with the mahr must have caused some paralysis; it should wear off. Just keep an eye on him for the next couple of hours."

"Keep an eye on him?" Sam asks, glancing up at his brother as Dean climbs to his feet. "What do you – what are you doing?"

"I'm going after the bitch."

"What? No," Sam tells him, shooting to his feet as well. "You know what Dad said. Anything happens to him, we wait this thing out, try again after we regroup."

Dean shakes his head, retrieving his machete and sheathing it at his side. "No way. She's already got the taste of Oake's blood; we don't know she won't be able to track him. You stay here with Dad, and watch your back. Anything busts in, you shoot it."

"Yeah? And what if you don't come back?" Sam demands, hands moving to his hips.

Dean scoffs nervously, patting at his pockets and hoping there's enough ammo. "Come on, Sammy. When have I ever let you down, huh?"

"Fifth grade. You left me waiting for two hours while you felt up Sherri Stratford."

"Rhetorical question, Sammy-boy," Dean tells him, sliding the revolver into the back of his jeans. He bats some glass from the window frame and swings a leg out.

"Damn it, Dean; you don't even know where she's going!"

Dean pauses in straddling the sill, brought up short by the worry in his brother's voice. "The shots hurt it; she'll be wanting to lick her wounds before setting out again… She'll head somewhere she feels safe."

****************************************************************

It isn't hard to find the old Svenson place. Harper's Landing has only a few homes, and the small shack backing to wetlands and marsh seems an obvious choice. Dean crouches in the grass, studying the place. No hint of light brightens the windows, no sound carries in the sultry summer air. Resisting the urge to whistle Dueling Banjos, Dean slowly rises and creeps toward the dwelling, his boots treading with silent intent. The front door is ajar, and Dean sidles up next to it, listening for movement from within as he reaches behind him with his left hand and pulls the revolver from his waistband, then uses his right to slide the machete from its sheath. He's suddenly glad of his father's insistence on ambidextrous coordination. *Because silver alone isn't gonna finish this bitch.*

Dean edges the door open with his shoulder, keeping the revolver raised as a shaft of moonlight penetrates the gloom, falling over the rotting floor with a sickly glow. The smell of something dank and fetid seeps from the murk, and his stomach roils in protest. He moves forward, careful to breathe through his mouth. The corners and walls of the small room slowly emerge from the black, the water-stained wallpaper peeling from damp drywall. *Come out, come out, wherever you are…*

A rustle stirs to his right and Dean spins toward the corner. He's puzzled to find it empty, staring blankly until his gaze is drawn to a rat scurrying along the baseboard. Releasing his breath from between his teeth, he turns. There's a flash, a tear in the darkness, and the hag is upon him. He shoots once, the impact causing the mahr to jerk, but momentum carries it forward, its sharp teeth bared in rage. There's a moment Dean doesn't think it's going to be enough - the arm swinging the machete feels like its moving through water – and he's almost astonished when the blade slices neatly through the putrid flesh of the creature's neck, the head sailing through the air and bouncing from the floor. He doesn't expect the body to continue on its own, the mahr's still seizing fingers latching onto his shirt. There's a jarring pain in his right shoulder as he hits the floor, and that's when time grinds to a halt.

*****************************************************************

" – thinks he's so smart," Sam mutters to his father. "I told him not to go, but would he listen to me? No. Of course not. Rhetorical question, my ass," Sam grumbles, swiping at his wet eyes with the back of his hand. He's sitting cross-legged on the floor next to John's prone form, watching the man for any signs of movement and trying to ignore the fear gnawing away at his insides. *What if he doesn't wake up?* Dean's been gone for three hours now, and the younger boy is becoming desperate.

"Come on, Dad," he says. "You gotta wake up; we got work to do. No use wasting a good shave," he adds, in a weak attempt at humor. The hunter looks younger without his ever-present stubble; vulnerable, even. "You clean up good. You sure don't look like John Winchester, badass hunter," Sam murmurs. "The bad guys will never see you coming. But you've gotta snap out of it," he urges, reaching out to clasp his father's calloused hand. "Please, Dad. We gotta go find Dean…" Sam lets his head drop, blinking back stinging tears. His brother should have been back by now, would want to get back to them as soon as possible. And the fact that he isn't here… *Something's happened; something bad.*

There's a twitch against Sam's fingers, and the boy jerks his head up. "Dad?" The hunter begins to stir; his eyes blink, and then a shudder rocks his body. "Dad! Are you okay? Just take it easy," Sam says, putting his hand to John's shoulder when he suddenly moves to rise.

John sucks in a breath between his teeth, gets his bearings. The nightmarish hallucinations brought on by the mahr's touch took him from his tour of duty to that fateful night in the nursery, when his hopes and dreams for a happy life erupted in flames. It takes his entire force of will to slow the terror racing through his brain, bring his heart rate back to normal. He glances at Sam, relieved to feel the power of motion creeping into his limbs again.

"You - " John pauses, licks his lips. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Sam says, hazel eyes dark with worry. "Yeah, Dad; I'm fine."

John slowly sits up, and this time Sam doesn't try to stop him. The hunter rubs at the back of his head, looks around the room. "Where's your brother?" His gaze returns to Sam, and it's only then John notices the drying tear tracks on his youngest's face.

"Gone," Sam says bleakly. "He's gone."

***************************************************************

*"Dean. Dean!" Dean blinks, sits up to find the silhouette of his father in the doorway of the Svenson shack. "Are you okay?"

Dean frowns. "Yeah, I think so," he says, rubbing at his aching shoulder. He looks around for the body of the mahr, but it seems to have vanished.

"Good work," John says, walking over and extending a hand. Dean takes it and allows himself to be pulled up, puzzled when the large hand doesn't release his.

"Dad?"

The shades on his father's eyes snap up, revealing the mocking yellow stare of a demon. "Did you really think it was gonna be that easy, son? You're all gonna burn."

Something wet splashes down Dean's cheek, and he looks up. Sam is pinned to the ceiling, a bloody slash opening his abdomen, his eyes wide and reproachful as the air surrounding him combusts.

"Sam!" Dean shouts, just before the searing flames melt the flesh from his bones.
*


*He wakes, his gasping loud in the small room Pastor Jim lets them use.

"Dean?" His father's voice is concerned, and Dean suddenly wants to cry. John stands up from the desk where he's been reading, his dark eyes moving over his son. "Bad dream, champ?"

"I'm so sorry, Dad," he babbles, as the man takes a seat on the side of the bed. "I shouldn't have left Sam alone. If you hadn't come back - "

"But I did. And Sammy's fine. He's sleeping like the dead," John tells him, nodding his head toward the room's second bed, where the younger boy is sprawled in easy slumber. "Now go back to sleep, okay?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good boy." John reaches out to tousle his hair. There's a sudden shift in the light falling over his face, a hardening of his features.

"Are you gonna sleep?" Dean asks, wondering if his father is tired.

"Do you think I can sleep when your brother is dead?" John grinds out, standing and pinning Dean with an accusing gaze.

"W-what?" Dean stammers, an overwhelming sense of dread filling him. "He's not dead. You just said - "

"Sammy's gone, Dean," his father says again, gesturing to the other bed. Dean's little brother is draped limply over the sheets, his face ghostly pale, the eyes vacant and staring. "You let the shtriga get him. He was your responsibility, Dean; yours, and you left him alone. I told you not to leave him alone!"

Before Dean can respond to the disgust and condemnation in the harsh words, his father takes a seat on the opposite bed. The hunter draws his gun, shoves the pistol deep into his mouth.

"Dad, no!" Dean cries, just before the blast sprays blood and gray matter over the white sheets and wall.
*


*"Dean, honey, it's time to get up."

Dean blinks sleepily, confused as the blonde-haired woman pulls back the drapes on his window. "Mom?"

"You were expecting someone else?" she asks dryly, moving to pick up his shirt and jeans that lie abandoned on the floor. "If you don't get up, you're going to be late for graduation, and you know how much your father is looking forward to this."

"Forward to what?" his father asks, walking in and wrapping his arms around the blonde woman. "This?" he murmurs teasingly, his lips lingering at the side of her neck.

His mother swats the ex-Marine away. "Your son's graduation. Now see if you can get him out of bed; I've got breakfast to make," she tells them, giving them both a smile and a warning look as she heads out of the room.

John grins after her, then turns to his son. "She's right, you know. You're gonna sleep right through ceremonies."

Dean swings his legs from the bed, his brow furrowed with confusion. "This isn't right; something's wrong."

John rolls his eyes. "Nothing's wrong, Dean. Now let's get a move on," he says, his hand moving to squeeze Dean's shoulder. "Don't you think I'd rather it'd been you?"

Dean's eyes dart to his father's, a familiar fear coiling in his belly. "Dad?"

"You think I don't get sick of you following me around, needing things, needing me? You don't think I'd get more done on my own?" John's handsome face twists into a sneer. "At least your brother was smart, even if he was a pain in the ass. Thought I might get lucky when that werewolf almost ate you in Florida, but you're just too damn hard to kill, aren't you?" he growls, his arm hooking around Dean's throat and squeezing. "But you know what they say," John tells him. "If you want a job done right…"

"D-dad," Dean gasps, twin tears slipping down his cheeks. His hands pull at his father's grip, but the arm around his neck only tightens. Dean's strength wanes; his muscles go slack as his vision tunnels and dissolves to static.
*

**************************************************************

John doesn't know what to expect when he enters the darkness of the old Svenson place. He's both relieved and alarmed to find his son pinned beneath the headless corpse of the mahr. "Sam!" he shouts, tucking his revolver into his waistband and using the toe of his boot to nudge the gruesome remains from the teen and off to the side. He kneels by Dean's shoulder, his hand brushing gently over his forehead.

Sam's footsteps echo in the small space, and suddenly he's standing beside his father, the shotgun lowered at his side. "How is he? Is he okay?"

John frowns, shakes his head. "This thing's been lying on him for hours – looks like he caught the brunt of its released power," he says, his hands now moving methodically over his eldest's stilled limbs, seeking indications of injury. There's no sign of blood or broken bones, and John's grateful for at least that much.

"But he's gonna wake up, right, Dad?" Sam asks, suddenly sounding much younger than his fourteen years. "Like you did? He's gonna be fine, right?"

John swallows, shifts his jaw. "Yeah, Sam. He's gonna be fine," he replies, praying it isn't a lie. "Let's just get him out of here." For the first time in several years, John gathers Dean up in his arms and carries him to the car, waits for Sam to get the door before laying the older boy carefully in the backseat.

The ride back to the motel is quiet. Sam keeps turning in the passenger seat to check on his brother, half-afraid he might vanish again. Dean lies like the dead; no smirks or taunting jibes for Sam, no annoying ruffling of his shaggy hair. Sam bites his lip. He decides he hates riding shotgun.

***************************************************************

"Dad – I think he's coming round." Sam stands back from his stirring brother and makes room for John beside the bed. He can't remember the last time their father looked so haggard and worn. The older hunter's face is etched with lines of worry, and the whiskers have returned. John leans over as Dean stirs, reaching a hand out to his son.

"Dean? How do you feel?" Dean's gaze shifts to his father, the hand reaching for him, and John is stunned when the kid jerks from his touch, shaky and wild-eyed.

Dean edges toward the other side of the bed, trying to steady his breathing under the concerned stares of his father and brother. He flushes a bit at the regard, can only imagine what they must think. He swallows, tries to find his voice. "Fine, I guess. A little slow still."

John nods. "I'm not surprised. That mahr gave you enough of a jolt to put you out for almost fourteen hours." His eyes narrow as he takes in the film of perspiration shining from the kid's skin. "Hallucinations bad?"

Dean shakes his head, even as he pales beneath his summer tan. "I'll live." He pauses, glancing over at Sam, who's suddenly looking decidedly pissy. "Hey, Sammy," he says huskily. His mouth and throat feel like sandpaper. "What did I tell you? I always get the girl."

Sam gives him an incredulous look, then glares at him before heading for the door. "I need some air."

"You stay close; in sight and sound, you hear me?" John demands, as his youngest opens the motel room door.

"Yes, sir," the boy replies, and shuts the door behind him, with just a little more force than necessary.

Dean frowns. "What's wrong with him?"

John shrugs and hands the kid a bottle of water. "Slow sips," he warns, watching as the teen does as instructed, despite his obvious thirst. John knows exactly what's wrong with his youngest son, has seen it coming the last fourteen hours. But this is one thing the boys will have to work out on their own.

****************************************************************

"So Richard's completely recovered?" John paces the motel room just outside Tulsa, glancing over to where Dean sits sharpening his knife. He holds the phone to his ear, trying to concentrate on what Mrs. Oakes is saying. "Yes, ma'am, I do believe in miracles," he tells her, clearing his throat in embarrassment as Dean glances in his direction. "The other patients, too?" he asks. "That's very good news, ma'am… You're welcome; I was happy to do it."

John watches as Dean goes back to honing his blade, his mind only half on the phone conversation. The teen sitting on the bed is a mere shadow of the kid he had a week ago. The older hunter's kept his distance, trying to allow Dean space to work through things in his own time. Only it doesn't seem to be helping. Dean's remained skittish, shying away from his touch, and John knows the kid's still having nightmares. Dean wakes several times a night in a sweat, the knife he's sharpening always clutched in his hand. John studies the dark circles beneath his son's lowered eyes. *Something's gotta change, and fast.*

Saying goodbye to Mrs. Oakes, John snaps the cell phone shut, sets it gently on the desk. He sighs and scratches the back of his neck. "Dean." His son doesn't seem to hear him, and he moves closer. "Dean," he says a little louder, surprised when the kid startles and turns, the knife raised defensively.

John holds his hands up in mute surrender, waiting as Dean's eyes widen. The color drains from the kid's face, and he lowers the weapon.

"Sorry. Sir. I – uh - "

"Never mind," John tells him. "I want to talk to you before we have to go pick up your brother."

Dean eyes him warily. "About what?"

"Just sit there and put the knife away," John orders, gratified when Dean actually complies. He paces the ugly shag carpet, the uncertainty on Dean's face strengthening his resolve. He hasn't been able to breach his son's defenses with time and patience, and it's time to try something else. "I didn't want to bring it up before now; I wanted to make sure your head was clear before I ripped you a new one."

"Sorry?"

"You heard me. Did you think I forgot what happened in Georgia? I don't know how many times we've had this conversation, Dean. Did I or did I not give you an order?"

"You give me lots of orders," Dean mumbles, his gaze now on the floor.

John raises a brow in warning. "You know what I'm talking about. Or are you confused about what 'we stay together' means?" John rubs his chin, and he doesn't have to feign the frustration. "Damn it, Dean. You're supposed to set a good example for your brother; do you think Sam needs any extra encouragement to not follow orders?"

Dean looks up, his chin lifting slightly. "With all due respect, sir, you didn't train me to let people die. You might not think I've got what it takes, but - "

"When have I ever said that?"

"You didn't want me to do the job in Hollister."

John snorts. "You're too damn impulsive at times, but you're a good hunter. Which is why I needed you in Georgia, watching my back, instead of doing some basic salt and burn that someone else could handle."

"Oh." The reasoning seems to knock the wind out of the kid's sails

"'*Oh*'?" John asks. "You blatantly disregard a direct order, and all you have to say is '*oh*'?"

"I knew I could do it, sir."

"You knew you could do it." John huffs, incredulous; shakes his head. "You knew shit. That mahr was on you for hours, Dean," John tells him. "You're damn lucky you woke up at all." John sighs, hands on hips. He gives Dean a sideways glance. "You might think you're grown, but as long as you're under my command, you'll follow my orders, or accept the consequences. You got that?"

"Yes, sir," Dean says tightly.

"Good," John says, taking a seat on the bed opposite. "Now, come over here."

"No." Dean stands, hesitates.

"Excuse me?"

Dean swallows, takes a few steps backward. "No, sir." The retreat continues until Dean's backed against the motel room door, his muscles tensed for flight.

"One." There's a flicker of panic in the green eyes, and John is even more determined to see this done.

Dean feels his heart begin to race. *He's freakin' counting?* His father hasn't counted since he was six years old, for crying out loud. But he can't seem to unflatten himself from the door, can't face what might happen when his father's hands finally touch him.

"Two." His son is breathing fast and shallow now. John can tell the kid is spooked, and he sighs again, keeping his voice calm and reasonable. "Son, do you remember what happens when I get to three?"

Dean remembers.


*"One."

"Dad, please." He didn't mean to come home late; really. But he and some other kids were playing ball in the park, and the time got away from him, so that Dean was surprised to realize it was dark. His dad was happy to see him at first, hugging the six year-old until Dean was breathless. But now Dad's sitting on a chair in the kitchen, and Dean knows all too well what's coming.

"Two."

"I won't do it again," Dean pleads, but Dad has that look in his face, the one that means Dean's in big trouble.

"Three." His father walks over and scoops him up, ignoring his squirming struggles. He gets his spanking anyway, along with a few extra swats at bedtime to remind him that Winchesters don't stall. But he sobs his discomfort out against his father's chest, falling asleep in the man's strong arms…
*


"Three." John stands and takes the fives steps to Dean's side, hating the way Dean flinches as he takes his arm and begins towing him back to the bed.

"Dad, please. Let me go," Dean says breathlessly, hating the rising panic in his voice but unable to help himself. He struggles, dreading the moment his father's eyes and voice will turn on him. But like in his dreams, his fate is inevitable as John takes a seat on the bed and draws him inexorably over his knee.

Wanting to distract the teen from his fear as soon as possible, John anchors Dean to his lap with an arm around his waist and begins delivering a series of stinging swats to the seat of his jeans. It isn't like Dean to fight him on a punishment, and John wonders just what horrors the kid experienced under the influence of the mahr. Dean jerks and squirms beneath his hand, and the older hunter tightens his grip, holding his son securely in place and praying Dean will remember that this is the most he ever has to fear from him. It takes longer than John would like, but after a few minutes of continued swatting, Dean's exertions seem to dwindle.

"D-Dad?"

John stills his hand at the softly uttered question, feels his throat grow tight. "Yeah, champ; right here." The words elicit a choked sob of relief. Taking advantage of the kid's momentary compliance, John reaches beneath him and deftly unfastens his jeans.

Dean looks over his shoulder, now horrified for an entirely different reason. "Dad, please. I'm sorry, okay? It won't happen again!"

"I've heard that before," John tells him sternly, tugging the denim to his knees. "This time I'm gonna be sure."

Dean groans at the remark, turning back to bury his head in the crook of his arm. He blushes furiously as his briefs are lowered as well, wincing as his father's hard hand begins smacking bare skin. Of all the nasty hallucinations and dreams he's had, he wonders why none of them have included this. *Because this is a freakin' nightmare and a half.* And how many times has he promised himself he won't end up in this position again?

"Are you learning anything from this?" John asks him, making sure the smacks cover every inch of Dean's exposed behind and thighs, bringing a rosy glow to the kid's fair skin. Dean is doing his best to remain stoic, and John's pleased to see the more typical reaction from his son.

"Yes, sir," Dean gasps, his fingers gripping the bedspread as he tries to stifle the yelps and cries that fill his throat. His eyes are starting to burn, and he's not sure how much longer he can endure this without bawling like some little kid.

"Are we gonna have to have this discussion again?" his father asks, now concentrating his efforts on the sensitive undercurves of Dean's backside. This question should be all too familiar to his son, reminding him exactly where this is going.

"N-no!" Dean assures him, now frantic to escape the scalding heat of the punishment. "I promise!" He blinks fiercely, feeling hot tears gather in his eyes. His chest swells and aches with familiar grief. Desperate to fight the oncoming wave of emotion, Dean flings a hand behind him, hoping for even a moment's respite to pull himself together. But his father easily catches the hand and pins it to the small of his back. The spanking continues, somewhat harder than when it began, and Dean bursts into defeated tears.

John feels the first sob shake his son and knows they're almost finished. "Are you gonna talk to me about these nightmares you've been having?" With the exception of soft crying, his son remains stubbornly silent, and John lands two particularly hard swats to the teen's now blazing behind and waits. "I asked you a question, Dean."

Dean sobs again, sniffles into the smoky bedspread. He can't remember the last time he felt so utterly miserable. "Dad." It's hardly more than a hoarse whisper. "I – I just can't."

There's a pang in John's chest at the agonized words, and he suddenly longs for the days of scraped knees and broken toys, when he could fix all with just a kind hand and a few clever words. He wants to be that father now. But no matter how much Dean might remind him of a child at the moment, his son has grown beyond him. He can't force Dean's confidence, no matter how much he'd like to.

"Maybe not yet," John finds himself conceding. "But when the time comes that you can…"

There's something in his father's voice that Dean can't quite place; not an order… *An offer*. "Okay."

"Okay, then," John says gruffly, releasing his hold on Dean's waist and gently patting his back. He gives the kid a moment to settle before reaching down and replacing his clothing, then sets him on his feet. Dean quickly takes a few steps back, avoiding John's eyes as he rebuttons and zips. Not wanting to rush him, John stands and waits, watching as his son brushes angrily at the tears that keep slipping down his face. "Dean," he says quietly.

Dean glances up, and John holds out an arm in silent invitation, surprised and relieved when the weight of Dean's body hits him like a tank. He wraps his arms around the teen, lowering his own head to the kid's shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Dad," Dean mumbles into his father's shirt. The man's quiet strength surrounds him, making him feel safe in the same way it did when he was small. "I just wanted to help."

"I know you did," John murmurs, his hand rubbing over the short hair at the back of Dean's head. "And your time's gonna come. But there are only so many hours in a day; don't be in such a hurry."

Dean sniffs. "I should've followed orders."

"Yeah, you should've. Doesn't mean you weren't right."

"It doesn't?"

Hearing the doubt in his son's voice, John sets him back in his embrace so that Dean can see his face. "That mahr would have found the kid; she had his scent and his taste, and he would have lapsed into a vegetative state like the others. There was no way of knowing at the time if he would recover from it."

Dean's brow furrows. "Then - ahh, well - why the ass-beating?"

"You knew what would happen the moment you decided to go after the mahr," John tells him sternly, even as he gives Dean's shoulders an affectionate squeeze. "Even doing the right thing has consequences, son; you just need to be sure your choice is one you can live with."

"Terrific," Dean grumbles, and John smiles, using the edge of his thumb to brush the last of the wetness from underneath the kid's eyes.

"I kinda figured you'd say that. Now go and wash your face; it's almost time to pick up your brother."

*****************************************************************

Dean's never liked the library. A bunch of blue-haired ladies telling him to shush, and nothing to kill. Unless you counted that one poltergeist in Atherton, and the librarian hadn't even bothered to thank him before banning him from the premises. *Ingrates.*

It doesn't take long for him to spot Sam. His little brother is sitting at a table in the corner, his dark hair falling over his eyes as he studies a text on demonology. Dean reaches over him and flicks his ear.

"Ow!" Sam jumps, then turns to glower at him. "What was that for?"

Dean smirks and flips the book shut. "Time to go, geek-boy. Dad's waiting out front."

"So let him wait," Sam replies, turning back to the book and flipping it open again.

Dean stares at him for a moment, then snorts. "Yeah; that'll happen. Now move your ass."

"I'm not going anywhere with you."

*Oh, yeah?* Dean takes Sam's arm and pulls him to his feet, ignoring the boy's struggles as he looks around for some privacy. Spying a copy room across the aisle, Dean drags his balking little brother inside and closes the door. As soon as he loosens his hold, Sam wrenches from his hand, glaring at him accusingly. "Okay, Sam; what is your problem?"

"Like you care," Sam mutters, looking away.

"I wouldn't ask if I didn't."

"Well, maybe I don't feel like talking."

Dean feels the edges of his temper start to fray. "Damn it, Sam; you've had your panties in a twist since we left Georgia. Now quit sulking like a girl and tell me what the fuck is the matter!"

Dean's taken off guard when Sam lunges at him, fists flying. The first few blows are merely stunning, until a punch glancing off his jaw sets him in motion again. He catches Sam's wrists in his hands, gives him a little shake. "What the hell? Have you lost your mind?"

Sam pants in his grasp, furious and bright-eyed. "You didn't come back, you jerk. I waited, and you didn't come back." He gulps, looks away from his brother's surprise. "You didn't come," he mumbles, the fight gone out of him as he tries to pull free. But his brother holds fast, tugs him up against his chest. Sam struggles briefly, but then Dean's arms wrap around him and tighten, and he swallows hard, dropping his head against his brother's shoulder.

"Hey," Dean says. "Come on, Sammy. I'm not going anywhere."

Sam sniffs. "You could."

"No, I couldn't." Dean pauses, feeling the tension go out of his brother's shoulders. "Okay?"

Sam nods. "Okay," he agrees softly.

"Great," Dean says, and rolls his eyes. "Now, do you think we can get out of here before Dad kicks both our asses?"

************************************************************

Dean makes one last tour of the motel suite, his duffel bag slung casually over his shoulder. He volunteered for the job, happy to leave his dad and younger brother loading the car. He wanders into his father's separate room, more due to force of habit than the possibility that the older hunter might have left something behind. Sure enough, the space is empty, not a speck of dust or slip of paper that would suggest its previous occupant. Shaking his head, Dean moves back into the main room and opens the closet. No clothes left hanging. *All clear*. He steps outside, intending to throw his bag in the car when his father's voice stops him.

"Dean."

"Yes, sir," he says, waiting beside the open door as John walks over to stand beside him. His father's eyes move over his face, studying him with a gravity that has Dean feeling a little apprehensive.

"So. You're gonna be hunting full-time now… Still think you're up for it?"

"Yes, sir." Dean offers a small smile. "Kinda been waiting for it, actually."

There's a flash of pride in John's eyes, and then he nods, a hint of a smile curving his own mouth. "Yeah, I thought as much." He takes a moment to reach into his pocket, his fingers reaching around the smooth new keys he had made a month before; the very same day Dean would have received his diploma. John lifts them from his pocket and holds them out to his eldest. "Here."

Dean frowns, uncertain as he takes the keys from his father's hand. "What are these for?"

"The Impala. Figured you could use a set."

"Thanks," Dean says, sliding them into the front pocket of his jeans.

John shrugs. "Makes sense. With as hard as I'm gonna work you, you're gonna need a car. She'll be yours as soon as I can find a good hunting truck."

Dean blinks. "You're giving me the Impala?"

"You put a scratch on her, I'll take it out of your hide," John informs him, but he's already looking out to where Sam's petting a cat by the back fence. "Sam!" he shouts, "Let's get a move on!"

"Okay - I'm coming!" Sam calls back. He gives the cat one last pat and starts walking toward the car.

"We've got just one stop, and then it's on to Abilene," John says, walking over and opening the Impala's driver's door.

"What stop?" Dean asks, still stunned by his father's unexpected bequest.

"I wanna pick up some more razors, since Sammy here thinks I clean up so well."

Sam flushes. "You heard that?"

"I was paralyzed, Sammy; not deaf," John tells him. "Now come on; this badass hunter's going to the store." For once Sam doesn't seem to have a response, just watches his father swing himself into the car before climbing into the backseat himself. "Dean. Let's go."

With a small huff of disbelief, Dean shrugs the strap to his duffel further up on his shoulder, then shuts the motel door behind him. *He gave me the car*. Dean doesn't know exactly how to thank his father; not yet. But it doesn't matter. When he finds the words, John will be there.

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