He's four years old, and it's two days after Halloween. His tummy is full of candy – Mommy let him eat a little too much after supper, then she gave him a bath with his baby brother sitting up in his little baby bath tub. Sammy can sit up on his own most of the time, and he's getting big and strong but he's still a baby and Dean can't wait till he's big enough to play with.
After bath-time, Mommy dresses him in his cozy flannel pajamas, then lets him help her diaper and dress Sammy and put him to bed before reading him a story. Story-time is Dean's favorite time of day, getting to curl up next to his mom on his parents' big bed as she reads to him, this time from the big book of Grimms' fairy tales. Tonight it's Hansel and Gretel, the classic story of siblings lost in the woods with only each other to rely on, and a menacing old witch to outwit.
Afterwards, Mommy lets Dean say goodnight to his baby brother, just like always. As he leans over the side of the crib to kiss his little brother he feels warm and happy inside, is somehow aware that this is the best thing ever, right here, right now.
"Goodnight, Sam," he says, and Baby Sammy gurgles happily back at him, trusting and content and already watching every move his big brother makes, already easily satisfied as long as Dean is in the room.
It's later, much later, when Dean is awakened by the sound of a voice, speaking urgently next to his ear.
"Wake up, Dean. Dean, wake up."
He's so soundly asleep that for a minute he thinks it's Daddy. But that's not quite right. The voice is familiar, comforting, and his sleep-blurred brain supplies a name that makes no sense because the voice is that of a grown man.
Nevertheless, the name in his head is what finally gets him to open his eyes, finding warm, hazel eyes gazing down into his, and for a split second he's absolutely convinced that the man sitting on the edge of his bed is his brother. Sam.
Then he smells smoke and his eyes widen with fear.
"You need to get up, Dean," the man – Old Sam, as Dean will later call him – is shaking him gently, his face a mask of concern and fatigue, sad and world-weary and wise and much, much older than Dean's baby brother, but somehow Dean knows. He just knows.
Old Sam nods, still frowning.
"Come on, Dean," he says urgently. "You need to get up. Now."
Dean climbs out of bed and opens the door of his room to a confusing scene. There's smoke pouring out of Baby Sammy's room, flickering light like firelight but it's dark and menacing, and Dean can feel his heart speed up. He's wide awake now, and when Daddy comes running out of Baby Sam's room with the baby wrapped in his blanket, Dean knows something terrible has happened.
"Take your brother outside as fast as you can and don't look back! Now, Dean, go!" Daddy orders, shoving the bundle into Dean's arms. Dean does exactly what his father asks, runs outside in his bare feet, stands looking up at the nursery window where the fire is erupting from the ceiling.
"It's okay, Sammy," Dean assures his brother, concentrates on holding tight, not dropping the little wiggling bundle despite the fact that he's shaking violently, as much with cold as with fear.
Then Daddy's running out the front door, sweeping him and Sam into his arms, running across the lawn as the nursery explodes, shattering the window, shattering Dean's life.
Later, after the firemen have dampened the flames, when the EMT has provides them with blankets and they're huddled on the hood of the Impala, Dean barely notices the tall, long-haired stranger standing among the crowd outside on the street, his hazel eyes fixed on the little boy who will one day grow into the man he loves more than life itself.
The next week Dean is climbing a chest of drawers to reach the huge, heavy TV set in the apartment where the Red Cross put them after the fire. He can feel the moment the thing starts teetering, realizes the huge heavy TV and the entire chest of drawers is about to fall over on top of him when he's suddenly snatched away by strong arms, crushed against a huge, powerful chest, saved from being smashed to death by a mountain man whose shoulders and back absorb the weight of the furniture like it's nothing.
Daddy comes running when he hears the crash, takes one look at the destruction and grabs Dean, hugging him silently as tears stream down his face.
Dean can smell the alcohol on his father's breath, looks over his shoulder, but Old Sam is gone.
Dean's sleeping in the back seat of the car two weeks later when he feels the car swerve, hears tires screeching, hears a deep male voice yell "Dad!" He opens his eyes just as Daddy is jerking awake at the wheel, just in time to see the huge, long-haired man in the passenger seat taking his hand off the wheel and disappear.
Daddy fights to control the car for a minute, then slows down, pulls over to the side of the road and stops the car, turning around in the seat to check on his sleeping sons.
"It's okay, Dad," Dean assures him. "We're okay."
It's a long time later when Dean thinks back to that night, realizes his dad was probably drinking, probably almost fell asleep at the wheel. It's years later when Dean realizes Old Sam probably saved their lives that night.
Dean is five years old the next time Old Sam visits.
It's dark, and Dean is curled up in his baby brother's crib, one hand on the baby's warm little chest, feeling his heart beat under his palm, watching the baby's little mouth work as if he's sucking something in his sleep.
There's a sound like the air shifting in the room – it's a sound Dean forever after associates with Old Sam's presence – and there he is.
Later Dean wonders why he wasn't frightened, but when he thinks back, all he feels about that moment is familiarity, like he's known Old Sam all his life, even though it's only the second or third time Dean's really ever seen him.
Old Sam is sitting in the big chair by the window, his face in shadow, just watching.
Even his voice is familiar, filling Dean with a sense of home and comfort.
Dean lifts his head, stares at the shadowy figure for a moment, wondering.
"Are you my guardian angel?"
Dean's mother had told him that angels were watching out for him, and Dean had believed her with all his heart and soul, even after she died. Maybe especially after, since Dean knew his mother would watch out for him from Heaven. He still believes it, even though Dad didn't agree when he said so.
"Did Mommy send you?" he asks.
Old Sam snorts, turns his head to look out the window, and now the light falls across his features and Dean can see he's old, receding hairline that's gone grey at the temples, lines on his face, his angular jaw grizzled with a day's growth of greying beard.
But his eyes are sharp and clear when he turns back and looks at the small boy sitting up in the crib next to his sleeping baby brother.
"Nope, not Mom," the old man says softly, nodding at the baby. "I'm him. Fifty-eight years in the future. I'm your brother."
And just like that, Dean knows it's true. He knows Old Sam is telling the truth. He knows that somehow this grizzled old man is, in fact, his little brother, the baby with the soft, damp curls and smooth skin who would someday grow into this sad-eyed, tired old guy in a flannel shirt and jeans.
"Why are you here?" Dean asks, and Old Sam smiles sadly.
"I don't know, Dean," he says softly. "I think it's because you need me."
Dean nods solemnly. It's true; he needs friends. Hasn't had one since Mom died and they left Lawrence, went on the road to find out more about what had happened to her. To get away from whatever killed her.
"Are you gonna stay with us?" Dean asks, and Old Sam shakes his head.
"I don't think so," he says, smiling a little. "I don't think Dad would go for that."
"Why?" Dean asks. "You're family. Daddy says family is the most important thing."
"That's true," Old Sam agrees, nodding. "But I'm already here. That baby is me. Grown-up me can't be here too."
"It's okay," Old Sam assures him. "You'll be seeing me again, I promise. I'll always be around as you grow up, whenever you need me. Is that okay with you?"
"Okay," Dean agrees.
"Go to sleep now, Dean," Old Sam nods encouragingly, looking tired and in need of sleep himself. "You're safe now."
So Dean lays down and curls around his brother again, listening to Sammy's baby sucking noises and feeling his chest rise and fall beneath his hand, and soon he's drifting off to sleep, not even aware when Old Sam slips away.
It's another week before Dean sees Old Sam again.
This time Old Sam is younger. His hair is long and dark, pushed back from his handsome face, clean-shaven and without wrinkles. He's tall and strong-looking, but he stands hunched over a little, as if hoping he can be invisible, hands in the front pockets of his jeans.
He's the most beautiful thing Dean has ever seen. Dean is struck by that thought without even understanding it, caught staring at the stranger with his brother's eyes, his brother's distinctive beauty marks on his angular jaw.
They're in the playground at Pastor Jim’s school, full of running children and attending adults, but Dean sees Old Sam right away, standing alone at the edge of the yard, staring around with a puzzled frown.
Then his eyes meet Dean's and widen in surprise.
"Hi!" Dean puts his hand up in greeting, feeling shy.
He's already decided the other times were dreams, but now, seeing Old Sam here in broad daylight but different – now he knows for sure.
"Dean?" Old Sam's voice is different. Higher. Younger. Less sure of himself.
Dean nods, and Old Sam looks around, frowning.
"Where is this place?" he asks.
"It's my school," Dean explains.
"Yeah, but – I don't remember this," Old Sam says. "And you're so little."
Dean puffs out his chest, stands as tall as he can.
"I'm five years old," he says indignantly, and Old Sam's face softens a little.
"How do you know me?" Old Sam asks, puzzled. "Have I been here before?"
Dean nods solemnly, not even aware that the question should seem strange.
"Yeah, but you were old," Dean says. "You're my brother, all grown up."
"That's right," Old Sam nods, smiling a little. "So this must be Pastor Jim's school in Blue Earth, at the convent where Dad left us."
Dean nods gravely.
"Dad's on a hunting trip. He'll be back next week."
"I don't remember this place," Old Sam shakes his head a little sadly. "I was only three or four when we left. But you were happy here. The nuns took good care of us."
Dean nods enthusiastically.
"Sister Jo reads me stories," Dean says. "She tucks us in and says our prayers with us."
"Wait – you say prayers? You actually know some prayers?" Old Sam's eyes widen in surprise, and Dean nods again.
"Sister Jo teaches me," he says. "She taught me to say the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, and the Lord's Blessing. She's teaching me that one in Latin too."
Old Sam shakes his head slowly, like he can't quite believe what he's hearing.
"You always told me you never had any religious education," he says with a small smile. "Obviously, you lied."
Dean feels he should protest, but before he has a chance to say anything the air does its little shimmering thing and Old Sam disappears.
Old Sam's visits are short at first. He usually appears once a week or so, but he doesn't stay long. Dean looks forward to those moments more than he fully understands. He doesn't really get along with the other kids in his kindergarten class, partly because he's shy, but mostly because he just wants to be at home with his little brother. The convent school is full of misfit kids from broken homes, and nobody really pays that much attention to the quiet green-eyed boy who plays by himself most of the time.
After a few months go by, Dean takes Old Sam's visits for granted. He's almost always there when Dean wakes up shaking and crying from a nightmare – usually involving heat and flames and the smell of burning. Old Sam's mere presence is soothing, and Dean can usually fall back asleep with his baby brother gathered into his arms and Old Sam's soft voice murmuring, "It's all right, Dean. I'm here. You're safe."
Sister Jo and Pastor Jim are good to him, too. Sister Jo never suggests Dean sleep in his own bed. She and Pastor Jim have seen enough tragedy and trauma. They're used to taking in the kids who have lost one or both parents in violent and unexplainable ways; it's sort of what they do. Separating the Winchester brothers, even making them sleep separately, is a cruelty of which neither Sister Jo nor Pastor Jim are capable.
John Winchester stops visiting weekly after the first six months or so; he drops in once every few months, calls a little more often. Once he stays for a week the summer that Dean is six, taking him out back in the field behind the school to teach Dean how to shoot, then leaves again. He misses both his sons' birthdays, so that by the time Dean is eight he's stopped expecting his father to come through the door any minute.
He never stops hoping, though. Dean can't help hoping.
Three years pass in relative comfort and safety before Dean's life is destroyed again.
The day John Winchester returns for his sons begins like any other. There are morning prayers in the little chapel with the stained glass pictures of Mary and Jesus and the disciples, and Dean's personal favorite, St. Francis carrying a lamb. Dean likes to imagine St. Francis carrying him that way, just holding him with gentle, loving hands, keeping him safe the way Dean keeps Sammy safe.
After breakfast the children do their letters, then listen to Bible stories with Pastor Jim. Dean particularly loves the story of the lions in the Roman Coliseum; he imagines jumping into the ring with the huddling Christians and slaying every lion with his massive silver sword.
Dean is at morning recess, helping Sammy dig and build in the sandbox. The entire school takes recess together, and now that Sammy's old enough for preschool Dean plays with him every day, just teaching him stuff. Then he hears the commotion at the other side of the yard, where the door opens into the schoolyard.
"They're my sons," the familiar voice is insistent, loud, raised in something bordering on anger. "They're mine. It's time to go."
"John, they're happy here."
Pastor Jim's voice, deliberately calm, following the other man into the yard.
"Dean's thriving. His nightmares have stopped, he's sleeping well. He's safe here, John. We're taking care of him and Sammy. There's no reason for you to take them – "
"I have every reason to take them, Jim, and you know it."
It's Dad's voice. John Winchester has come to collect his sons.
Dean looks up, sees his dad, and is immediately flooded with emotions and memories, so that all he can do is watch, fighting back the tears smarting his eyes, as John crosses the play yard toward him. John stops in front of them for a minute, just taking stock of how much they've grown, and Dean can see the tears filming his eyes.
Dean's standing now, looking up at his father, and Sammy stops his digging because he senses Dean's focus is suddenly elsewhere, and he looks up too. But Sammy doesn't know the tall man with the brooding features and strong jaw, so he looks at Dean instead, waits for his big brother to tell him what's going on.
"Hey, Dean," John says softly, and Dean can't help it. He flings himself against his father, wrapping his arms around his waist and holding on for all he's worth, breathing in the familiar smell of leather and gunpowder and engine oil, all the smells of home.
John smoothes Dean's hair gently with one hand, his other hand flat on Dean's back, holding him close for the first time in almost two years.
"It's okay, son, I've got you," John rumbles in that deep voice that makes Dean's chest swell.
Then he remembers Sammy and pulls back a little, turning to his little brother.
"Sammy, it's Dad," Dean tells him. "This is Dad."
Sammy looks up skeptically at the tall strange man, glances back and forth between him and Dean without recognition.
"Hey, Sammy." John kneels down, so he's almost eye to eye with his youngest, and smiles. "You got big."
Dean moves instinctively so that he's standing behind Sammy, has his hand on his shoulder and his chest pressed against Sammy's back, looking up at their dad, and Sammy seems to sense that Dean has literally got his back on this one, that it's all okay.
"I'm four years old," Sammy says to his father, putting up the fingers to show.
John's smile broadens.
"Yeah, I know, Sam," John murmurs. "I know."
Dean's vaguely aware of Pastor Jim standing a few feet away, a worried frown creasing his brow, but he doesn't interrupt, allows the family reunion to unfold without comment, lets John swoop Sammy up into his arms and take Dean's hand, turn to leave with a set to his jaw that Dean remembers well.
"Thanks for everything, Jim," he says. "I mean it. I don't know how we would've made it this far if it wasn't for you."
"I just wish you could let them stay a little longer," Pastor Jim says. "Let the boys grow a little more. Give them a few more years of stability and safety."
"They'll be safer with me," John nods firmly. "They need family, and I'm all they've got."
As John takes his children out to the parking lot, out to the sleek black muscle car which will be their only home for the next ten years, Dean catches a glimpse of Old Sam, standing next to a lamp post on the other side of the parking lot, hands shoved deep into the front pockets of his jeans, shoulders hunched, expression sad and full of longing at the same time, watching silently as John Winchester loads his sons into the car and drives away.
That night they stop at a motel. John puts the boys in one bed while he takes the other, pours a line of salt in front of the door and along the windows, pulls out his journal and sits making notes at the table as he sips from a bottle of beer. Dean reads a bedtime story to Sam and tucks him in, then crawls in beside him because he's too tired to do anything else but sleep.
It's the first of hundreds of nights like it, and Dean only remembers it because he's awakened in the night to a shaking and screaming outside the door that's like nothing he's ever heard. Something is pounding on the door, howling horribly, and the entire room is rocking with the force of the blows, the relentless hammering of something that wants in.
Dad scoops both boys into his arms, stuffs them into the one small closet, and closes the door on them, admonishing them to, "Stay here, no matter what happens!"
Dean sits huddled on the floor with Sammy shivering with terror in his arms, crying softly into his shirt, watching through the slats in the closet door as his father's feet move across the room, out of his line of vision. The howling and shaking continues, louder and more violent, then John Winchester's voice bellows.
"Come and get it, you son-of-a-bitch!"
Dean thinks he hears the front door open, thinks he hears his father's battle cry as someone – or something – charges into the room.
Then it's suddenly silent. The shaking and the howling stop, like they're the soundtrack to a horror movie that's had its plug pulled. All Dean hears is his dad, breathing hard, feet shuffling and crunching on the salty floor, and Sammy's soft sniffling against his shirt.
Dean runs his hand up and down Sammy's back soothingly.
"It's okay, Sammy," he whispers. "Dad got it. It's gone now. It's okay."
He gasps when the door opens anyway, his mind telling him, "It's just Dad!" while his heart is still pumping adrenaline through his veins and telling him to flee. John just stands there for a minute, watching his sons huddle in the corner of the closet – Dean's got his back to the door, shielding Sam's body with his own so he has to look back over his shoulder at his father – and Dean thinks maybe his dad wasn't sure they'd still be there. Like maybe his children would be swept away through a magic tunnel in the closet while he was dealing with the monster at the front door.
Then John is on his knees, pulling both children into his arms, holding them like his life depends on it, shaking pretty badly.
They don't even try to stay out the night. John gathers their meager belongings, tucks both boys into the backseat of the car with blankets and pillows from the motel, leaving behind a mess covered with salt and monster remains.
"Banshee," John mutters as he tucks the blankets around Sam and Dean. "Death omen. The sooner we put some miles between it and us the better."
Dean spoons Sam securely on the bench, tucks his little head under his chin and snuggles into the makeshift bed. But he's too keyed up to sleep. He lies still for awhile, letting the rumble of the Impala's engine soothe him, but he can't relax, can't let go of the feeling of terror that hearing that thing instilled in him. Dean can't help wondering if it'll come after them. finally untangles himself from his brother's sleeping body, sits up so he can look out the back window, then turns around and searches out his dad's eyes in the rearview mirror till John looks back and sighs.
"Sammy asleep?" John asks, and Dean glances at his brother, cuddled warm and safe under the pile of blankets.
He nods, meeting John's eyes in the mirror again.
Without another word, John pulls onto the shoulder of the road, stops the car without turning off the engine.
"Up here now, son," John demands, patting the front seat bench. "We need to talk."
Dean scrambles to obey, pride at his father's attention making his chest warm.
"You're old enough to know about these things now, Dean," John says once they're on the road again, Dean riding shotgun for the first time. "But Sammy's still little. I want you to promise you won't tell him the things I'm about to tell you, okay? Do I have your word?"
"Yes, sir," he answers, speaking clearly and confidently, just like John taught him, knowing it's what John expects. "You have my word."
"Good," John says. "Because a man's word is everything, Dean. Never forget that. Being a man of your word makes you someone people can trust. Someone to be respected. Trust and respect are vital in our line of work, you understand me?"
"Yes, sir," Dean says.
John takes another minute to gather his thoughts, and for a moment Dean thinks he won't say anything more, just leave the lesson at that. But finally John sighs, shakes his head a little and glances at Dean.
"You remember that night, don't you?" John asks, and Dean nods, because he knows instantly what his father means, never stops thinking about it.
"Yes, sir," he says, but his voice cracks a little because he's suddenly fighting back tears.
"Something evil was in our house that night, Dean," John says. "It killed your mother, and it would have killed all of us if we hadn't gotten out in time. I've been hunting it ever since. And in the process, I've learned a lot about evil things. Ghosts, mostly, but wraiths and banshees and even the occasional demon. They're all real, Dean. That's what I need you to understand."
Dean nods again, because really he knew all this before; he just hadn't had it explained to him.
"Why did the thing want to kill Mom?" he asks, feeling braver than usual in the face of his father's sudden openness.
John's face contorts into a grimace of pain, and a single tear escapes and slides down his cheek. Dean doubts he'll get an answer, thinks maybe he's crossed a line. But then John wipes furiously at his eyes, shakes his head a little.
"I don't know for sure, son," he says. "I've been asking myself that question every day since it happened. I have some idea – "
He glances into the backseat, at Sammy's sleeping form, and Dean has the sudden strange thought that everything that's happened is because of Sammy, which doesn't make any sense at all.
"Is something after us, too, Dad?" he asks, trying to keep his voice from rising. "Is something trying to get us?"
John flicks a glance at him, frowning, like Dean's hit the nail on the head and he's not sure what that means. Dean has the distinct impression that his dad knows more than he's letting on, and if Dean could just find the right way to ask, he'd learn something important. Then John's eyes drop and he shakes his head a little, hunches his shoulders, and Dean knows that whatever he says next isn't gonna be whatever he might have said before.
"Nah, nothing like that," John says firmly, apparently deciding Dean's questions come from sheer childish fear, rather than nascent hunter's instinct. "We're good right now. I'm just letting you know because you need to be prepared. You always need to be prepared, Dean. That's what I'm trying to teach you."
"Yes, sir," Dean nods, trying not to show his disappointment.
"And another thing. I know I already said this, but it's important, so I gotta say it again."
John glances in the rearview mirror, and Dean looks back at his sleeping brother, nods at his dad to confirm that Sam is still asleep.
"Sammy doesn't need to know about any of this," John says firmly. "He's too little. Eventually, maybe, but for now he needs as normal a childhood as we can give him. He's – "
John hesitates, and again Dean thinks he's about to say something important, then changes his mind, glances at Dean and frowns a little.
"As far as Sam knows, his mother died in a car accident and his father is a traveling salesman. Are we clear? When he starts asking?"
"Yes, sir," Dean agrees.
"All right, that's enough for now," John announces then, like he's afraid he's already said too much. "You're almost nine years old now, son, and you're already in training to become one of us. You'll make a good soldier someday."
Dean feels his chest swell, lets his dad's praise fill him with confidence and self-assurance, lets the words replace the fear and apprehension in his heart. He wishes he could shake the feeling that there's something his dad isn't telling him, something that could change his life forever.
Later, John stops for gas and Dean climbs into the backseat with his brother to sleep. Dean has a sense memory of doing this before, so he knows it's not the first time, but sleeping in the backseat of the car becomes so routine from that moment on that it quickly becomes their new normal. They spend the next few months traveling, driving mostly at night, then stopping in dingy motels in backwater towns so John can catch some shut-eye during the day. The boys are given strict instructions to stay inside and watch TV while John sleeps, but Dean can't resist the urge to explore and stretch his legs a little, and Sam won't be left behind. So they play cowboys and indians in the tall grass behind the motel, build forts with cardboard boxes from the dumpster. In more than one town they find the public library, where Dean quietly "borrows" some bedtime stories.
Old Sam hovers on the edges of Dean's vision, watchful and protective, so Dean knows they're never in any real danger. And he and Sam are always careful to get back to the motel before evening, to be there watching TV and munching vending machine snacks when their dad wakes up, gets them some hamburgers for dinner, then spends an hour poring over road-maps and making phone calls.
As far as Dean can tell, John Winchester has spent the past three-and-a-half years doing this. He seems to know every motel, every small town, as if he's been to each one before. He talks to men named Bobby and Caleb and Bill on the phone, asking about death omens and demon activity. He checks in with Pastor Jim, listens carefully as the priest tells him things that make his face tighten and his eyes close, like he's wishing he could hide from the reality he's facing.
But he can't. He puts the phone down and scrubs a hand over his face, looks up at Dean with a grim set to his jaw.
"Banshees at the convent, right after we left," he says. "Got you kids out of there just in time."
Dean's eyes widen.
"Is Pastor Jim okay?" he asks, hating how small his voice sounds.
"Everyone's fine," he says. "Jim and Jo know what to do. And the things weren't after them."
They were after us, Dean thinks, shivers curling up his spine like ice water.
"What's a banshee?" he asks Old Sam the next day when they're out in the field behind the motel, making mud pies with spoons they nicked from the diner and a bottle of water.
Old Sam is squatting down in the dirt with them, and Dean isn't sure how long he's been there. Old Sam looks really old today, his hair almost white, shoulders stooped; even his eyebrows are grey. But his eyes are still sharp and clear, his hands strong and sure as he helps them dig, and when he smiles a little at Dean's question the lines around his eyes crinkle and Dean wants to touch them, see if they're soft like Sammy's skin.
"It's a death omen," Old Sam says. "They appear to herald someone's death."
"But Dad killed it," Dean protests. "So that means nobody dies, right?"
Old Sam nods.
"That's right," he agrees. "Dad's keeping you safe. He's moving you around so things can't find you. Pretty soon you'll settle down for awhile, so you can go to school. But then you'll have to leave again. It's pretty much like that from now on, Dean."
"Why? Why are there things trying to get us? What did we do?"
Old Sam shakes his head, looks a little sad.
"You didn't do anything, Dean," he says. "But you will. Dad and I have to make sure you survive your childhood, that's all."
"Sammy too?" Dean asks. "Will Sammy do something when he grows up too?"
Old Sam nods.
"He'll always have your back, Dean," he promises.
"And I'll always have his," Dean reaches over and ruffles his little brother's hair, then grabs the mud pie he's nibbling on and wipes his mouth. "Yuck, Sam. Not real food, stupid. Don't eat it."
"Not stupid," Sammy lisps, pouting.
But he puts down the mud pie anyway, lets Dean wipe his mouth without protest.
At the end of the summer they find a little two-bedroom house in a small town somewhere in Nebraska. John enrolls the boys in the local elementary school – Sammy's small and young for kindergarten, but he knows all his letters and how to spell his name and the teachers are so charmed by the small dark-haired boy that they all agree he should be in their class even if he is nine months shy of his fifth birthday.
Dean tests so well on the school's placement exam that they could easily put him in the third grade class, but he's sullen and sassy so the teachers decide he needs to be kept back to repeat the second grade instead.
Nevertheless, John treats Dean like he's already old enough to be left alone for days at a time, in charge of his little brother, so that John can hunt the things that have destroyed his family and forced the Winchesters into hiding. Dean respects his father's obsession, takes for granted John's constant frenetic movement, believes him when he explains about evil and the things that lurk in the corners of the dark. John tells Dean about monsters and the ways to kill them like they're the secrets of the universe.
Dean comes home to an empty house day after day, fixes Sammy's SpaghettiOs and mac-n-cheese and peanut butter and banana sandwiches alone, after waiting hours for John to come back. Sometimes he does, but rarely until long after the boys are in bed, curled around each other in the dark with the door left ajar and the lights blazing in the other room, Dean on alert for another banshee or worse till he finally hears the key in the lock that signals his dad has returned.
Old Sam rarely visits these days, and Dean somehow understands that he should be grateful for that. It means they're not in any real danger. He knows Old Sam would be there like a shot if they were, so he should be able to relax and focus on doing his school-work, taking care of Sammy, doing what his dad expects.
But the thing is, Dean misses Old Sam. He misses Pastor Jim and Sister Jo and his mother and – even though he's mostly got him back – Dean misses his father, because John is rarely there and he leaves Dean to take care of things he doesn't know how to do. It makes Dean feel inadequate, incapable, a loser. He thinks he should be able to cook Sammy's food, but when he tries to turn on the stove to heat soup he nearly catches the house on fire, and it's only Old Sam's swift intervention that stops another Winchester tragedy from unfolding in flames around them.
Old Sam doesn't scold, though, as Dean's pretty sure his father would do; Old Sam just purses his lips, furrows his brow as he wraps Dean's burnt arm in a wet towel, muttering to himself.
"Damn it, Dean, what the hell were you thinking?"
"I was just trying to fix something hot for supper for Sammy," Dean explains, tears smarting his eyes because his arm hurts. "It's cold so I was trying to make a hot supper for him."
"Just use the goddamn microwave," Old Sam admonishes, then seems to notice there's no such appliance in the room and shakes his head. "Never mind. God, Dean, I don't see how we ever survived."
The tears flow freely down Dean's cheeks then; tears of relief that he didn't actually burn the house down, killing himself and Sammy in the process; tears of shame that he caused so much trouble in the first place.
Old Sam stops wrapping Dean's arm and slips his hand under Dean's chin, tipping his face up so he's looking up into Old Sam's strange, multicolored eyes.
His brother's eyes.
"It's okay, Dean," Old Sam says firmly, his voice soft. "It's not your fault, okay? You're too young to be left alone like this."
He thumbs the tears off Dean's cheeks, helps him take his shirt off – Dean yanks away from him because he's not a baby and he can do that himself, even with a wounded arm – then he lets Old Sam put baking soda paste on the burn to soothe it.
Sammy's whining about being hungry by that time, so Old Sam makes the soup, muttering about "what a pain-in-the-ass I was, just like you always said." He tries to get Dean to eat some soup, but Dean's still hurting, on the inside more than the outside, and he shakes his head stubbornly so Old Sam finally gives up with a sigh.
"Already stubborn as a mule at eight-and-a-half," he notes, but his tone is fond.
They finish out the year in Nebraska, but John moves them again just before Dean's ninth birthday, claiming there's a coven of witches at the school and they are not staying anywhere with witches.
Decatur, Illinois is in the exact center of the state, an hour's drive from any other town and three hours south of Chicago. John finds a job in an auto shop and declares they're safe here for awhile because the smell of soy in the air is a natural deterrent to evil, like living under a cloud of salt.
"Deters people, too," Old Sam mutters when he first gets a whiff of their new home.
Dean gets used to the sour smell after awhile and doesn't even notice. He's too proud of the fact that the new school lets him start in the middle of third grade, back where he belongs. They find a rental house on the edge of the university campus, and nosy neighbors take an immediate interest in the handsome single father and his adorable sons, bringing them mysterious casseroles and homemade pies.
Despite John's instinct not to mingle, not to get too close to anyone and not to fit in anywhere, the Winchesters find themselves settling almost comfortably into small-town life, so that by the end of the school-year Dean has actually made a friend or two, hears his name called as he heads out the door for the school bus in the mornings, holding Sammy's hand as they cross the street.
The entire town erupts in garage sales as soon as the warm weather sends them outside, and less than a month after Sammy's fifth birthday John surprises both boys with used bicycles. Dean already learned to ride back at Pastor Jim's, but it's Sammy's first bike and Dean spends a couple of hours in the church parking lot with him, helping him learn to balance on two wheels before he's able to get the hang of it.
The summer is a blur of boyish activity, riding their bikes all over the campus of Millikin University, where they both take swimming lessons, then all over town and out into the wheat-fields where they pretend to hunt each other with sticks for weapons. They bike down to the lake for a swim when the heat of the day drives them there.
They find an old shed which they fill with sticks and rocks and bottle caps, declaring it Fort Winchester, and they spend hours there. Dean takes apart Sammy's bicycle and puts it together again just for the fun of it. Sammy digs in the dirt around the shed for ants and other insects, putting them in a jar with holes punched in the lid "for observation." He always lets them go after, so they don't die. Sammy seems to have a natural affinity for living creatures, and it makes Dean think about St. Francis with the lamb.
They find an old hat and some feathers and Dean declares he's the sheriff and Sammy can be an Indian chief. Then Dean declares he's General MacArthur and Sammy's a Nazi collaborator, so Dean captures Sammy, ties him up and locks him in the shed, at which point Sammy bursts into tears and insists he's not playing anymore so Dean lets him out.
The end of what they will both later remember as one of the best summers of their lives comes when Dean decides they need to bring sheets from home and pretend to be Superman and Batman, tying the sheets around their necks like capes. Everything's fine until Dean climbs up onto the roof of the shed and jumps off, and before Dean can stop him Sammy follows right after, hitting the ground at such an awkward angle Dean knows immediately that he's really hurt, not just pretending. Sammy's face is as white as his sheet, and when Dean runs over to try to help him up he screams bloody murder, sobbing in great hiccuping gasps when Dean touches his arm.
Dean is terrified, more worried than he lets himself think about as he tries to get Sammy to stand up, to walk. But Sammy's in such pain all he can do is cry, gasping "It hurts! It hurts!"
Dean panics, first thinking he can ride into town for help, but Sammy screams so loud at the idea of being left alone that Dean gives up, finally figures out a way to bundle Sammy onto the handle-bars of his bike, holding him there with one arm while he pushes off and steers with the other hand. Dean assures Sammy they'll come back later when Sammy sobs his protest at leaving his beloved bike behind, and in that way they make it to the hospital emergency room, where some nurses immediately take Sammy off for x-rays while another takes Dean aside to call his dad.
John is furious. Dean's never seen his dad so angry. He paces the hospital waiting room like a bull, snorting and huffing, nostrils literally flaring, brow deeply furrowed.
"How could you let this happen, Dean?" he demands. "How could you be so careless? You know we can't be here. Hospitals are deadly. We stay out of them at all cost. You know that."
Dean feels his eyes fill with tears because no, he didn't know. His dad had never said that to him and he'd always thought hospitals were full of people who could help, not hurt.
"Hospitals have databases," John goes on. "They have records. They leave a trail. We're sitting ducks now. It's only a matter of time before we're found. We have to pack up and get out tonight."
And just like that the boys' life is uprooted again.
They take only what they can fit into the car, leaving both bikes behind. Sammy's so doped up on pain-killers he doesn't even realize what's happening as John lays him gently into the backseat of the Impala, tucks blankets and pillows around him, drives through the night to Big Star Lake in Michigan.
Dean wakes up when the car stops in front of an old hunting cabin. It's still dark, and John carries Sammy into the cabin and lays him on the single bed in a corner of the room, Dean following with their duffels as best he can. John lays salt lines, puts groceries on the table, lights a kerosene lamp. He hands Dean his .45, gives him a quick refresher course on loading and unloading it.
"No target practice until I've thoroughly checked out the area," he instructs. "We need to be sure we don't attract attention."
Then he puts his hand on Sammy's head, just a gentle swipe through the soft curls before handing Dean the pain pills with more instructions, and heads out, back to town to locate a phone first, to find out if anything came after them in Decatur.
"I should be back by nightfall," he tells Dean. "But you stay in the house, y'hear? I don't want you leaving this cabin until I've made sure it's safe. Until then, if anything tries to get in here, you know what to do."
Dean nods solemnly.
"Shoot first, ask questions later," Dean repeats the instructions he's been taught, and John nods his approval.
"That's it," he agrees, laying his hand on Dean's shoulder, and Dean looks up at him expectantly, trustingly.
"It's gonna be alright, son," John assures him. "We're just being extra cautious. Extra careful. It's gonna be fine."
Dean nods, fighting back tears again, determined not to cry as he watches his father leave, listens with straining ears until the roar of the Impala fades away in the distance.
"Extra paranoid is more like it," Old Sam mutters from the chair by the table.
Dean's so glad to see his old friend – his grown-up brother – he doesn't pause for a second. Just throws himself into the man's arms and holds on for dear life, tears finally flowing freely down his cheeks, body shaking.
"Hey, hey," Old Sam murmurs reassuringly, big hands rubbing up and down Dean's back, soothing and gentle and achingly familiar. Old Sam even smells right, like Sammy but stronger, with the sharp tang of sweat and old blood and something else that Dean can't put a name to but knows because it smells like home.
Old Sam lets Dean hug him as long as he needs to, as long as it takes for Dean to get himself under control again. When Dean finally pulls back, leaving his hands on Old Sam's shoulders, looking down into his familiar face, he stares daggers at the man, accusing even as he wipes his eyes with the back of his hand.
"Where have you been?" Dean demands. "It's been so long since you came, I thought maybe you weren't coming back."
Old Sam smiles a little sad smile, shakes his shaggy head.
"You didn't need me, Dean," Old Sam says. "You were doing just fine on your own."
"Yeah," Dean agrees, backing away a little so he's not standing right there between Old Sam's knees like a little kid. "We were fine until Sammy – until you broke your arm. Why did you do that? Why did you have to go and spoil everything?"
Old Sam lowers his chin, stares at the floor, and Dean watches the vein pulse in his temple as he clenches his jaw.
Dean knows it's a low blow, blaming Old Sam for something that happened years ago for him, but Dean's still feeling raw after his dad's brow-beating, and the shock of uprooting and leaving their life behind again is still new, still smarts, and he needs to let it out, figures Old Sam can take it, whereas five-year-old Sammy is too little to understand anything anyway. It would be useless and completely unsatisfying to take this out on him. He probably won't even remember any of this.
"I wanted to be just like you, Dean," Old Sam says now, his voice low and quiet, like he's holding back his own emotions. "I wanted to do everything you could do."
"But you were Batman," Dean protests, shifting his feet a little. "Everybody knows Batman can't fly."
"You promised we'd go back for my bike," Old Sam accuses, and Dean stares at him in disbelief.
"Dad made us leave everything behind," Dean reminds him. "My bike too. We can't ever go back there. All your toys and games, our house – I had my own bed! I was in Little League and swimming and nice people brought us food. My teacher. Our class field-trip to Springfield to visit Lincoln's house and his tomb. All of it!"
Dean feels the tears smarting his eyes again, then slip down his cheeks, and he wipes angrily at them, feeling so helpless and alone and somehow like it's all his fault, even while he's trying to blame Sam.
"Dean, you're only nine years old," Old Sam reminds him softly, clearly tamping back his own memories, his own grief. "You're still a little boy."
"I'm almost ten," Dean sniffs indignantly, wiping his nose with his sleeve again. "Almost double-digits."
Old Sam shakes his head. He seems to understand that Dean needs to vent, needs to just grieve for that temporary life in small-town Illinois, just like he grieves for their years in Blue Earth, and the barely-remembered earliest years in Lawrence.
"You're too young to take so much on," Old Sam insists. "This just isn't fair."
"Life ain't fair," Dean says sharply, echoing his dad's words. "You just gotta take what you get and do the best you can with what you got. You gotta be tough."
Old Sam runs his hands through his hair, then swipes them over his face as he huffs out a breath.
"Yeah, that's what you always say," he nods. "I just wish it were different. I wish I could change it."
"Wishing don't make it better," Dean insists, quoting his dad again. "We still need to get the job done, do what needs doing."
Old Sam stares at Dean for another minute, then shakes his head.
"You're hopeless," he says with a small smile. "Not even ten and already sounding like yourself. Like grown-up you. It's downright scary."
Old Sam insists on making breakfast so Dean can lie down with Sammy for awhile and try to get some rest. Dean snuggles in next to his sleeping brother and pulls the blanket up over both of them, carefully avoiding jostling Sammy's arm. The warm cocoon created by their shared body heat soothes him and makes him drowsy, and the sounds and smells of sizzling bacon, of someone else in the room taking care of things, someone Dean trusts, is so comforting he's drifting off before he knows it, is only barely aware of Old Sam leaning over the bed, pressing his lips to Dean's forehead as he smoothes his hair.
When he wakes up the sun is already high in the sky and Old Sam is gone, leaving bacon-and-egg-and-cheese sandwiches on the table. Sammy stirs next to him, moaning in his sleep, and Dean gets up to find the pain pills, feeds them to his brother along with a breakfast sandwich and some juice.
"My bike," Sammy whines, and Dean runs a hand through his hair, kisses his forehead.
"Never mind, Sammy," he says softly. "I'll get you a new one. I promise."
The next day, John doesn't come back. They have no way to contact him, explicit instructions to stay put, and a limited food supply, so Dean rations his own supper that night, eating just half of the can of SpaghettiOs since they already ate one for lunch. Sammy's arm aches, so Dean gives him more pain pills with supper, puts away the cards they were playing, and Dean thinks he will be happy never to play another game of Go Fish as long as he lives.
"Read me a story," Sammy begs as Dean tucks him in, placing his cast-covered arm on the outside of the blanket, over his chest.
"No books," Dean shrugs. "When Dad comes back we'll make him drop us off at the library in town so we can get some to read tomorrow night, 'kay?"
"Tell me a story," Sammy demands. "You tell good stories, Dean. Tell me the one about the dragon."
"Yeah, okay, Sammy," Dean nods, grateful to take his mind off his own hunger.
He pushes Sammy over, then slides into the bed next to him, being careful with his broken arm and squeezing in on Sam's left side so he's not pressing on it. Sammy snuggles into his brother, turning his body to he's as close as he can be, laying his head on Dean's shoulder as Dean starts his story.
"Once upon a time, deep in a forest in the ancient mountains of Rekkinbaal, there lived a boy. But he wasn't just an ordinary boy. He was a boy who knew how to slay dragons. He knew he could do this because he dreamed about it, and even though he'd never had to do it for real before, he was absolutely sure he could do it if he had to.
"Only trouble was, he needed a sword. In his dream, he always had this huge, long, silver sword that gleamed in the moonlight and it was at least twice as big as he was but he could always lift it and swing it like it weighed nothing, like it was made just for him.
"One day, his father came home. His father was a humble wood-cutter who had to take long trips sometimes to do wood-cutting jobs far away. He always left his son with plenty of food and water, and he always came back, so the boy never worried about him, but it was also pretty cool when he came home.
"So the wood-cutter came home and told his son about the town he had just visited, which was a two-day walk away. And this town had a dragon problem. Big ol' mean dragon was eating virgins and burning down the houses."
"What's a virgin?" Sammy interrupts, bright-eyed and breathless with enjoyment of the beloved story.
"It's a girl," Dean explains shortly, irritated by the interruptions but determined to be patient.
"So why don't you just say girl?" Sammy demands.
"I don't know, Sammy," Dean huffs out a breath. "Cuz it's a special kind of girl, okay? One that dragons like."
"Oh," Sammy thinks about this, biting his bottom lip, and Dean starts to go on, but Sammy's not done. "What's special about her?"
Dean takes a deep breath, shifts a little so that he's turning toward Sam, lifts his eyebrows at him.
"It doesn't matter," he says. "The girl's not an important part of the story, okay? Now can I go on or are we done?"
"No! Not done!" Sammy shakes his head vigorously. "Go on!"
Dean looks skeptical for another minute, and Sammy gazes up at him, all wide hazel eyes and pink cheeks and tousled hair, and Dean remembers what Old Sam said, how he looked up to Dean and wanted to be just like him.
"Alright then," Dean nods, sits back again to continue the story, letting Sammy snuggle up beside him again. "No more interruptions, okay?"
Sammy nods, slipping his hand into Dean's because the next part's a little scary and he needs the reassurance.
"So the next day, the boy set off toward the town. He didn't really have a plan, but he knew in his gut that it's what he was supposed to do, go fight that dragon, so he set off to do it, thinking he'll figure something out when he gets there.
"That night he camps out in the woods, eats his bread and cheese that he brought from home, and huddles in the blanket he brought cuz he didn't want to build a fire and attract attention."
"He's smart," Sammy nods, and Dean squeezes his fingers.
"The boy nodded off because he was so tired after his long day's hike, and in his sleep he had a dream. An old man wearing a long robe stood in the clearing, the moon shining down on him and making his long hair look white and glowing.
"'I have what you need,' the old man said, and he pulls out from under his robes the long, silver sword from the boy's other dreams. He lays the sword on the ground and the boy can see it shining in the moonlight, almost like it's glowing from the inside.
"The boy wakes up, and there's the sword, just like in his dream, lying on the grass next to him. Only it's smaller than in his dream. It's exactly the right size for him, in fact, so that when he picks it up it feels light and comfortable in his hand. He practices swinging it around for awhile, gets used to the weight of it, till he's sure he can use it right. Then he tucks it into his belt, eats his breakfast of bread and cheese, and heads out toward the town again.
"He can see the smoke from the burning town long before he gets to the top of the hill and looks down at it. The dragon has already burned up half the town, and there are people running around trying to put out the fires and locking up their virgins. Also their gold, because everybody knows dragons love gold. In fact, the townspeople had already tried giving the dragon all the gold they had, trying to bribe the dragon to leave them alone, but it still kept coming back, swooping down out of the sky, making its terrible dragon cry that sounded like a million fingernails on a chalkboard, flapping its terrible dragon wings, all slimy and covered with scales, opening its terrible dragon mouth that smelled like the worst bad breath ever, sending out a long hot column of fire, burning up anything in its path."
Sammy snuggles closer, pressing himself completely along Dean's side, lacing his fingers through Dean's and holding tight.
"The townspeople were a little surprised when the boy asked them where he could find the dragon. They probably thought he was crazy, but the boy begged them to tell, so the townspeople just shook their heads and pointed to the East, which is where the dragon always came from. So the boy set out to find the dragon, taking with him only some more bread and cheese and water and the magic sword. Or at least the boy figured it must be magic because it just showed up out of thin air in the middle of the night.
"He walked about half a day, then stopped to eat, and he decided it was the best bread and cheese he ever ate, especially cuz it was probably his last meal."
"No!" Sammy whispers, his little face tucked into Dean's neck, his whole body curled right into Dean's now, still clinging to his hand.
"The boy hadn't even finished his last meal when he heard a voice.
'"Who are you and what are you doing so close to my cave?'"
"The boy turned and looked over his shoulder and there it was. The dragon. Just sitting there, looking at him with its fiery red eyes and its long snout full of huge, sharp teeth."
"'I'm here to kill you,' the boy answered, moving very slowly so as not to frighten the dragon.
"But the dragon wasn't afraid. It just looked at the boy and threw back its hideous head and laughed.
"'You?' it hissed when it could speak again. 'You think you can kill me?'
"'Oh, I know I can,' the boy said, on his feet now, facing the dragon, not yet pulling his blade out, just waiting for his chance. 'It's what I was made for. I'm a dragon-slayer.'
"And until that very moment, the boy didn't know that was what he was called. He didn't know it before, but now he has a name for what he is, and it feels exactly right. Like he's just known it all along.
"But the dragon is totally not impressed. It laughs again at the boy, shakes its scaly head, and starts to turn away, muttering to itself.
"'Yeah, right,' it scoffs. 'Try coming back in ten years with some armor and a real sword, then we'll talk. You're not even worth smoking. I've got my pride, y'know.'"
"And that's when the boy sees his chance. There on the back of the dragon's head, right under one of its ugly-butt ears, is a chink in its armor, a little naked patch of skin about six inches square, which nobody had probably ever seen before because the dragon never turned its back on an enemy. But the boy posed no threat, or so the dragon thought, so it was just going to walk away, not even waste its time killing the boy.
"Which was its fatal mistake. Because the boy didn't hesitate for a second, just charged forward and jumped onto the dragon's back, driving his blade into that little patch of skin, all the way to the hilt, then holding on tight as the dragon tossed its head and roared, trying to shake the boy off. It roared again as it twisted and turned, trying to reach the boy with its massive sharp claws, turning its head so it could blow flames at the boy. But the boy held on tight, even as the dragon rolled on the ground, trying to squish the boy with his big heavy body. Then the dragon tried to take off, to fly up in the sky, but the boy held on, kept his blade buried deep in the dragon's body as its green blood flowed out and it got weaker and weaker, flapping its wings but unable to take off now, flailing around less and less as it struggled, gasping for breath but only thin streams of smoke coming out now as it kept losing strength. Still the boy held on, twisting the blade until the dragon finally stopped fighting, let out one last rattling, smoky breath though its hideous nostrils, and collapsed, all the fire gone out of its glassy black eyes now, dead, dead, dead."
Sammy takes a deep breath, breathing in Dean's skin, finally loosening his death grip on Dean's hand as he settles back against the pillows beside his brother and lets out a long sigh of relief.
"Afterwards, the boy cuts the dragon's head off and takes it back to show the people in the town so they can see the dragon is really dead. The townspeople want to celebrate. They want to make the boy their king because he saved them. But the boy shakes his head. All he needs is a bath and a little sleep and some more of that incredible bread and cheese stuff, then it's time to go. He can't stay there."
"Why not, Dean?" Sammy asks. "Why doesn't the boy stay? He's a hero. He can have anything he wants now. He can be a king with a crown and a castle and lots and lots of gold. He never has to be hungry or poor or lonely ever again. Why doesn't he stay, Dean?"
"Cuz he's already got a home, Sammy," Dean smiles down into Sammy's upturned face. "He's got a little brother waiting at home, remember?"
"Yeah," Sammy breathes out his relief, his satisfaction, and even though he's heard the story a million times before, he manages to act like it's the first time he's heard it, like it's the best ending to the best story in the whole wide world.
"Maybe someday the boy's little brother can help him," Sammy muses, already growing sleepy and heavy-lidded, the story always doing that to him, always helping him relax into sleep as Dean knows it will. "Maybe they can slay dragons together."
"Maybe," Dean agrees softly, pressing his face into Sammy's hair as his brother slips off to sleep, his little fingers going completely lax in Dean's hand. "Night, Sammy."
Dean breathes deeply, inhaling Sammy's perfect smell into his lungs, lets it fill him up so he's not hungry anymore, so that he wonders how he could ever be hungry again.
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