Grace Alden had never put much stock in gossip or the talk of otherworldly powers of any kind. She didn't believe in God and she didn't subscribe to any religion of any type. She believed in the ten commandments for the sake of coexistence with other people, but that was as far as she went.

On this bleak, cold evening, something nudged her to look out into the backyard, though. It was like an itch she couldn't quite reach, a subconscious need driving her to the landscape window and she stopped short when she saw the dark shape stumbling into her backyard. It took much to rattle Grace, but this got pretty close. Without hesitation, she rushed to the kitchen door that lead out into the backyard, stepped into her Wellingtons and flung the door open before stepping outside.

"Jesus!" she exclaimed. Not only had the young man just lost his balance and dropped down on one knee, it was evident even from this distance that he was hurt.

She rushed over toward him, not even for a second considering that she might be in danger, and grabbed his arms. He asked for help, sluggishly, his voice barely audible. "You need a doctor, sweetie," she informed him and somehow got him back to his feet. He mentioned a name, repeated it, requested help for whoever Dean was. "Where is Dean?" she asked.

He misunderstood, said it was his brother, said he would die if he didn't get help.

Grace got him inside onto the couch and didn't even think twice about the upholstery. The kid was bleeding and dirty, but that didn't matter. All that mattered was getting him some help. He kept insisting that his brother needed help and eventually passed out.

Cursing under her breath, Grace got on the phone and called Maddie. "Maddie, I need your help," she said. She knew Maddie would love to be involved in this. "I need you to call an ambulance and send it to my house. It seems history has a tendency of repeating itself. A kid just stumbled into my backyard. He's in a bad way. Call the police too. His brother is out there somewhere, probably in the same condition."

"What?" Maddie sounded stunned.

"Make it happen! Now!" Grace said sternly, then hung up. Maddie had a key to her house and Grace needed to get out there and find the brother before the kid froze to death.

It took exactly two minutes before Maddie turned up, her eyes wide with excitement and worry. "How bad is it?" she asked.

"See for yourself," Grace said and nodded toward the couch. She was in the process of replacing her Wellingtons with decent boots, then shrugged into her heavy parka and zipped it up. She grabbed an extra pair of mittens and stuffed them in her pocket, then eyed the contents of her hall closet for a moment while Maddie rushed into the living room to inspect her surprise visitor.

"Oh goodness," Maddie gasped. "I called 911. They'll be here as fast as they can."

"Call Clark down at the police station too. Tell him to join me. I'll see if I can follow his tracks back to his brother," Grace countered. "He must be somewhere around 45th."

Maddie picked up Grace's phone and dialed the number of the local police station in Rolla. Grace grabbed a blanket from the guest room, then rushed out the kitchen door armed with a flashlight and the blanket. She felt fine about leaving her impromptu guest with Maddie. Her neighbor might be ditzy, but she could be counted on in an emergency. Mainly because she then had something to gossip about later.

As it turned out, following the kid's footprints was a hell of a lot easier than Grace had dared hope for. Because he had obviously not raised his feet much from the ground, he had plowed his way through the snow and the grooves he had left behind were easy to follow even in the dark. Grace couldn't help but admire his stamina.

She came out at the driveway of the McCoy's and followed the signs across the road in between the houses of Lorn Baker and his neighbor who was new. She caught sight of a black car over on the right side of the field that led up to the forest, but continued onward, following the prints instead. Even if the car did belong to these two boys, the prints didn't come from there.

Once again, Grace was grateful for her own stamina. This trek through the snow should probably have worn her out, but she was running on adrenaline now, the undeniable thrill of the search reminding her why she had liked her job. Not even once did she think she was on the wrong trail here, either, and she almost had the feeling that someone was guiding her. She smiled at the thought; a tight little smile that had no joy in it. Although she did not believe in God, she did believe in an afterlife, but it was more out of necessity than any true belief.

The further she went, the more amazed she became over how far the kid had come. His condition had been really bad and she assumed a lot of it was hypothermia. He had also had a head wound, which could have accounted for the incoherence of his words. But she had no doubt that he had struggled through all this to get his brother some help. And Grace couldn't stop wondering what on Earth had happened to these two.

The snow leveled out and eventually disappeared, taking the footprints with them and Grace came to a stop on the frozen ground, swinging her flashlight over the bedding of wilted pine needles. "Shit," she hissed. For a second she considered heading back to find Clark and get a search party going, but the longer the brother stayed out in this weather, the more likely it was that they would find a corpse, and Grace was not one to give up easily. As a matter of fact, she hated giving up. It just wasn't in her nature to stop trying.

Something prompted her to expand the arch she was swinging the flashlight in and the cone of light struck a foot a bit further on. "Holy ..." She stopped herself and rushed forward.

He was sitting up, probably unconscious, and he basically looked like someone had bashed his head in. Grace hunkered down, took a gentle hold of his chin and raised his head. Older, she thought. This one was older than the one who had come to her house. "Hey," she said and gently patted his face. The pulse under her fingers was thready, but present. But he wouldn't be alive for much longer if she couldn't get him out of here. "Hey," she tried again and put a little more force into patting his face.

It roused him, which was good news. Groggily, he forced his lids open and squinted at her. "... you," he rasped, his voice barely audible.

Grace couldn't help a smile. Even this busted, he still wanted to know who she was. "Grace," she replied. "I'm gonna get you out of here, okay?"

The corners of his lips twitched briefly. She unfolded the blanket and pulled him forward a little to wrap it around his shoulders, which drew a restrained gasp from him, indicating some type of chest injury. Even though he was wearing a leather jacket, he wasn't wearing anything underneath it. She briefly considered checking him out, but figured the sooner she got him out of here, the better for him. To give him as much cover as possible, she hauled the mittens out of her pocket and slipped them on his hands too. She hadn't considered socks or shoes, which irked her a little.

Instead of wallowing on things she could not change, she dug out her cell phone and dialed Clark's cell number. "Clark, it's Grace. Where are you?" she asked the second the connection was established.

"On Grace Street, heading toward 45th. Where the hell are you?" he countered.

"If you drive up to Lorn's place and take the left fork, you'll see a black car. I'll meet you there," Grace said.

"I take it you found the guy?" Clark demanded.

"Yup," she agreed and hung up. "Okay, kiddo, let's get you up," she said, wrapped her arms around him and hoisted him to his feet.

The way he kept his weight off his right foot instantly indicated trouble and the groan he let out told her to go easy on him. She wrapped her arm around his back, pulled his arm over her shoulders and started moving. Grace's supervisor had always said that one of the reasons for that she had made such a damned good paramedic was because of her superior strength. He had more than once compared her to the guys she had worked with. This kid was taller than her, powerfully built, and yet his added weight caused her no problems. Even though she had retired two years ago, she was still able to drag the guys around like they weighed nothing.

"That's it. Just keep moving. And keep your weight off that foot," she said and kept up the small talk while guiding him back toward the field and Clark Spencer waiting beyond. She had no doubt that he would rush out to help her the second he caught sight of her and she wasn't wrong either. It took him less time to cross the field than it had taken her, but that was only because of his long legs.

"Take it easy on him. He's badly hurt," she instructed Clark when he reached them and took a hold of the kid's other arm.

"You're nuts, you know that, Grace?" Clark said, his tone strained. "You should have waited for me. You should have ..." He trailed off when she gave him a warning glare. "I called ahead, told them I'd be bringing him in."

"Good. I'm coming with you," Grace said, making sure her tone was decisive.

Clark, as usual, clammed up and said nothing further. They got the kid into the back of the police cruiser and Grace slipped in with him to keep him steady. She knew how Clark drove and the risk of her patient ending up on the floor between the seats was fairly high.

"Drive like your mom was with you," she admonished him. "But don't give me any of that aunty-crawl you're so good at."

"Zip it, Grace," Clarke barked, already going red in the face. "I know how to drive."

"Then what the hell are you waiting for?" she countered, not missing a beat.

Like expected, Clark drove like a maniac, but it did get them to the hospital in Rolla in record time. Two orderlies were waiting with a gurney and they took over from there, rolling Dean into the hospital.

Clark watched them go, then glanced at Grace. "Want a ride home?" he asked.

"Nope, I'm gonna stick around and see what happens with these two. Don't think either of them had a wallet on them. They may need some backup or something," she said.

Clark sighed. "Damn, I knew you were gonna say that. Don't get in over your head, Gracie. It's not like you even know them or anything. They could be escaped convicts for all we know."

Grace gave him a look that shut him up. "I'll get someone to drive me back. Don't worry about me," she stated, patted him on the shoulder and walked into the hospital.

***

Sam woke up because someone shined a light in his right eye. He flinched away from it, instinctively raising his right hand to get whoever it was to leave him alone. "Get off," he rasped.

"Easy there, sport." The voice responding to his demand sounded – for all intents and purposes – jolly. Like the words came out of the mouth of a rotund, cheerful guy with a full beard in a Santa suit.

Blinking rapidly a few times, Sam tried to focus on the man, but couldn't get much more than a blurry outline. "Where am I?" He had the impression that his voice didn't work properly. It was hard to speak and he was freezing his ass off.

"The ER. How're you feeling?" the man replied.

At this point Sam assumed the guy was a doctor. "Like I've been hit by a house," he muttered and wished he could go back to sleep.

"That's an apt description," the doctor countered.

Sam finally managed to focus his eyes and as a reward was slapped in the face with a headache from Hell. "Son of a bitch," he gasped and squeezed his eyes shut.

"You got yourself a bit of a concussion there. Light too bright?" the doc asked and Sam nodded weakly.

Then he suddenly remembered why he was in the hospital. "Dean!" he rasped and forced his lids open. If he'd had any strength at all, he would have tried to sit up. But he could barely move his arms and the thought of moving anything else almost made him nauseous. Instead he squinted at the doctor. The guy didn't have a full beard, nor was he wearing a Santa suit, but he looked like he should. "Where's my brother?" Sam pressed out and then tried to sit up anyway. It sent a wave of sickening pain through his chest, but he still tried to move, to get up.

"Now, now, son, stay down," the doctor said and pushed him back against the mattress, lessening his pain by sheer force. "You're in no condition to get up right now. Who's your brother then?"

"Dean," a second voice said. This one he recognized, although he couldn't put a face on the woman.

Sam squinted at the second participant, a woman with a kind face and seriously brown eyes. "Dean's being checked over by another doctor right now. He's alive," she said with a vague smile that was obviously supposed to be comforting. "I won't say he's fine. You know he's not. But he's in good hands."

Something about this woman's demeanor made him relax for a moment, only to jerk violently when the doctor manipulated his left arm. "Ow," he snapped.

"Well, we'll have to x-ray that," the doc said. "You looking to get your old job back, Gracie?" he asked and glanced at the woman.

"Not a chance," she countered and folded her arms over her chest. "I think he has broken ribs as well," she added.

The doctor nodded. "Care to tell me what happened to you, junior?" he asked, directing his attention back to Sam.

"I'm guessing the same as that other kid a month ago," Grace said for him. "He stumbled into my backyard, wearing nothing but his jeans."

"Well, he's got hypothermia, although he's a lot more aware than I would have thought he would be," the doctor said.

"They gave him a warm saline drip in the ambulance," Grace supplied.

"Ah, that would account for it. Once your feet and hands start thawing out, you'll probably feel a bit of discomfort," the doctor said, shifting his attention back to Sam.

Sam automatically flexed his fingers and flinched when that started a prickling sensation. He knew it was going to get worse before it got better, but he could handle it. Instead of focusing on the prodding the doctor was doing, he turned his attention to the woman. "Could you check on Dean?" he asked, appalled by how faint his voice sounded.

"Sure thing," she said. "I'll be back in a bit," she added and left the cubicle.

***

Grace was confused. That was another of these things that didn't happen to her very often and it took her by surprise that something like this could set it off. Well, of course, it wasn't every day that scantily clad young men stumbled into her backyard in the middle of a blizzard, but normally it wouldn't have caused such a stir in her. Why she had chosen to stick around and keep an eye on them was beyond her. While she had been a paramedic, she had been pretty damned good at letting go. Once the patients were in the hands of the doctors, she was off the case and that was that. But, of course, she was no longer a paramedic and hence didn't need to stick to those rules.

With slight apprehension, she stuck her head into the next examination cubicle and watched the doctor there examine Dean. He wasn't making a fuss. As it were, he wasn't doing much to stay awake either, which bothered the doctor. She kept waking him up and he kept fallen asleep again.

Grace stepped in. "How is he?" she asked.

"Hard to say just yet," the doctor replied. "The fact that he's alive is a surprise," she added with a small sigh and put the finishing touches on a suture. "What happened to him?"

"The same as to that kid a month ago, I suppose," Grace said and stepped up on the other side of the narrow bed.

The way the doctor looked up at her told Grace that she had been involved in that. "You think they ran into whoever did this to that kid?" she asked.

"It seems similar to me and his brother stumbled into my backyard much the same way I heard the other kid did," Grace said and folded her arms over her chest while eying Dean closely. "I wonder what he really looks like," she added thoughtfully. "I mean, without all those bruises."

The doc returned her attention to her patient and sighed lightly. "Handsome as all get-out would be my guess," she said and offered Grace a brief smile before she returned to patching him up.

A slight frown furrowed Grace's brow while she kept eying him. "I think I've seen him before. He seems vaguely familiar," she said, then shook her head. "Anyway ..." She stopped when the doc cleaned out another gash and the corner of his lips twitched. She almost smiled, now aware that he was obviously awake and listening to them. "I take it he's not at death's door?"

The doc gave her a brief glance. "No, I wouldn't say he was," she agreed. "But we have to keep an eye on him. Do you know where they're staying?"

"Nope," Grace admitted. "Not a clue."

"Northern Lights," he muttered and cracked an eyelid.

Grace didn't even try to hold back the smirk. "I see you're paying attention," she said.

"Just resting my eyes," he muttered. "My head hurts like a bitch and I can't feel my damned feet."

"Be happy about that," the doctor said. "You're not on any painkillers here and I think one of your toes is broken. Your shin is definitely broken and you probably have a few busted ribs as well."

"Three," he agreed hoarsely. His voice was slightly slurred, indicating that the hypothermia was still present and accounted for.

"Well, it's good news that you're this aware, all things considered. You must have a skull made of titanium though. Judging by the gashes you have in your scalp, I'm surprised there are no fractures underneath," the doctor replied.

"Just thickheaded," he muttered, his voice fading.

"Stay awake, Dean," the doctor admonished. "With a concussion like that, you can't go to sleep just yet."

"Fine." He cleared his throat, but still made no effort to open his eyes. "Where's Sam?"

"Next cubicle. He's got a concussion too, but I don't think it's that bad. He overdid it when he tried to carry you all the way out of the forest, though," Grace said. In spite of herself, she reached down and grabbed his arm in a reassuring way.

This again prompted him to crack his eyelids open and squint at her. "Can we get the same room?"

Grace arched her brows and glanced at the doctor, who shrugged. "Not up to me," she said. "Ask the attending nurse."

Grace nodded. "I will. You just take it easy. I'll just go fill Sam in," she said with a smile and left the cubicle again.

Hank Brazen was having a bit more trouble with Sam, who wasn't very happy about having his arm set. Apparently he had done something to shift the break. Grace's reaction to this was to step up on his right side and take his hand in hers. "Just give Hank a chance to do this properly," she suggested.

Sam eyed her for a second, then nodded, squared his jaw and closed his hand around hers. To her immediate surprise, all he emitted was a suppressed grunt when Hank pulled the broken bone back into place. "With that muscle tone, you should be thankful I could do this without having to cut you open," Hank said, a little out of breath.

Sam didn't look very thankful, though. He looked nauseous. "Dean is going to be okay. He's being sassy with the doctor," Grace said.

This distracted Sam away from how he felt and he squinted up at her for a moment. "Thanks," he whispered, pressing the word out between clenched teeth.

It struck Grace right there and then that these boys were used to pain. Anyone else would have been screaming bloody murder at having their arm set like that. And in truth it both worried and intrigued her.

The thought had barely manifested before she heard an almost angry cry of pain from the next cubicle and this set Sam on edge. Despite his obvious injuries, he shoved the doctor aside and sat up, his face contorting at the pain this caused him. Grace raised a hand. "Stay. I'll check on him," she said.

The look in Sam's eyes was heartrending. It was a mixture of worry and fear that lay so deep, Grace felt there had to be another reason for it than just knowing that his brother was in pain.

She hurried over to the other cubicle. "What the hell is going on in here?" she demanded. It was second nature for her to get bossy when she got nervous.

"We had to set his leg," the doctor said, her expression a little tight. One of the two orderlies was on the floor, his nose bloodied and Dean, despite the obviously severe concussion and broken ribs, was sitting up, one hand pressed into the mattress behind him, the other still balled into a fist, while he was breathing hard, his skin almost waxen at this point.

The second orderly helped his partner to his feet and they withdrew without a word. "Did they manage?" Grace asked and glanced at Dean's leg. The doctor had cut his pant leg open up to the knee and his shin was discolored and swollen.

"No," the doctor said. She sounded a bit miffed when she directed her attention back to Dean. "We're only trying to help you," she added, her tone decidedly chilly.

Dean gritted his teeth and glared at her. Grace could see his stamina fading, knew he should be resting and not be put through this, but she also knew it was essential to set the bone now. She stepped forward and placed a hand on top of his foot. He focused on her, met her eyes and she held his gaze. She slid her hand up on his shin, gently probing to find out exactly how the bone was positioned, and he let her do it. He looked apprehensive, was obviously aware of what she had in mind.

Grace smiled vaguely, then glanced over at the x-rays. He glanced over there as well and when he did, she took a solid hold of his foot, yanked it toward her and pressed down on the break at the same time, which effectively shoved the bone back into place. She heard the way he sucked in air and looked over to meet his eyes again. At this point he gave up on sitting up and just flopped back on the mattress, uttering nothing more than a highly repressed grunt.

"That's how you do it," Grace said and smiled at the doctor. "Some people don't respond well to being held down."

The doctor eyed her for a moment. "You're a doctor?" she asked.

Grace smirked. "Hardly. I used to be a paramedic and I've set a hell of a lot of bones in my time. This one's nothing," she said. "It's all a question of doing it fast and right. That way it hurts a lot less and the pain ebbs away much faster afterward." She was well aware that she had at least twenty years on this woman and she couldn't help gloating a little over the fact that she knew this woman's job better.

"Well ... thank you for your help," the doctor said. "Now maybe we can put a brace on it?" This she directed to Dean, who didn't respond. She frowned and stepped closer to check his vitals. Then she sighed. "He's out cold."

"No surprise there," Grace claimed and withdrew to let the doctor get on with things.

Sam was still sitting up when she returned to his cubicle. "What happened?" he asked.

"They tried to set his leg with force. He didn't respond well to it," Grace said. "It's okay now."

Sam eyed her for a moment, then eased back down on the mattress with a restrained groan. "I don't have my wallet," he said.

"Don't worry. I'll take care of this," Grace said. "You just focus on getting better." With that she withdrew to have a chat with the attending nurse about placement and, more prominently, payment.

She did notice the look Sam gave her when she turned away, but she decided not to call him on it right now. She had the distinct feeling that these two boys hadn't seen a lot of love in their lives.