On any other day, Dean wouldn’t be waiting. He wouldn’t be sitting by the window, sharpening his knife with a whetstone the way Bobby taught him. He wouldn’t be using his sharpened knife to carve wooden figures for little Jo Harvelle to play with. He’d be out riding with his big brother Adam, checking fences and breaking the ice on water troughs and streams, making sure the livestock are fed.
On any other day, Dean wouldn’t be in the house at all, putting up with Jo’s constant whining as she begs him to play with her. He’d never tolerate Jo’s annoying behavior, as she toddles between Dean at the window and her mother at the stove, dragging her cornhusk doll by the hair. Dean would never let himself be cosseted by Jo’s mother, accepting bites of her freshly baked bread with a cup of steaming spiced cider. On any other day, Dean would never let Ellen put her hand on his shoulder and squeeze it gently in sympathy, letting him know that she understands.
On any other day, Dean’s heart wouldn’t be filled with hope and anticipation. He wouldn’t be fidgeting on his stool, wishing he could run out the door and down the lane to the main road with his heart pounding and his palms sweating, breath freezing in the January air. Dean isn’t usually so excitable. He’s been told on more than one occasion that he’s solid, steady, strong and silent, everything a good boy should be. Dean prides himself on his ability to follow orders, to be an obedient and loyal son. Adam’s the wild one, according to their father.
On any other day, Dean wouldn’t be watching the clock on the wall as the minutes drag by, forcing himself to look away and count ten whittles with his knife before glancing back to see that the clock has only ticked another half-minute. On any other day, Dean wouldn’t be passing time this way.
But today is Dean’s ninth birthday, and his father’s coming home.
He’s tried to be patient. When he left, John Winchester promised to be home by Dean’s birthday, and today is the day, the last day, that Dean’s father can make good on that promise.
Ellen’s tried to tell him not to get his hopes up.
“He might not make it, Dean,” she’s reminded him gently, more than once. “The roads are cold and icy this time of year. It might take him longer than he expects.”
But Dean knows his dad will make it this time. He feels it in his bones, as Bobby says when he’s one-hundred-percent sure about a thing. Maybe Dad’s broken a promise or two in the past, but this time, he’ll be here.
It’s early evening, and the light is fading from the overcast sky by the time Dean sees him. At first there’s just a dark shape against the horizon. Then it slowly morphs into the figure of a man on a horse, hat pulled down against the elements. John Winchester is huddled low in the saddle, hunched under a blanket against the cold, and he’s got something bundled against his chest, something he’s holding with one arm while he holds the reins with the other hand.
“He’s here!” Dean scrambles up from his seat, leaving his knife and figure on the table as he dashes to the door.
“Dean! Put your coat on!” Ellen barks, but Dean barely hears her. He’s out the door and running down the lane, hardly feeling the cold in his excitement.
“Hey, Dean,” John says as Dean pulls up short, breathing hard. “I brought you a present.”
He opens the blanket to reveal something small and wiggling, and for a brief moment Dean thinks it’s a puppy. His dad has brought him a puppy for his birthday.
Then the shaggy dark head lifts up to reveal a face. It’s a small boy, Dean realizes, not much bigger than Jo. He’s been sleeping, tucked under the blanket against John’s mountain-man warmth, and he blinks owlishly at Dean, eyes large and dark in his pale face.
“His name’s Sam,” John explains. “He doesn’t talk much. He’s been through some tough times, and I promised to take care of him. Here, Dean. You take him.”
Dean slides up against the horse’s shoulder as John lifts the little boy off his saddle and hands him down. He’s small and thin and sleep-warm, and Dean can feel him stiffen and resist as Dean tries to heft him into his arms.
“It’s okay, Sam,” Dean murmurs. “I got you.”
The boy responds to Dean’s voice by wrapping his arms and legs around him, holding on tightly as he hooks his chin over Dean’s shoulder. Dean looks up at his father, surprised by the easy weight in his arms. He had expected Sam to be heavier.
“He’s yours to look after from now on, Dean,” John intones solemnly. He’s more serious than Dean’s ever seen him, and there’s a haunted look in his eyes.
“Yes, sir.” Dean swallows thickly.
Dean’s so focused on the little boy that he doesn’t notice his brother until Adam is right there, boots crunching on the icy road, wool scarf pulled tight around his neck and chin.
“Dad,” Adam greets their father.
John swings out of the saddle and hands the reins to Adam. “Feed and water her and give her a good rub-down,” he instructs his oldest son as he pats the horse’s flank. “We’ll talk after supper.”
“Whatcha got there, Ugly?” Adam snaps, and Dean hesitates. He doesn’t think Adam will smack him in front of their father, but he wouldn’t put it past him. At nineteen, Adam is big and strong and full of vindictive jealousy towards his younger half-sibling. “Looks like a little gypsy. Dad bring you a gypsy kid for your birthday, Stupid?”
“Adam, do as you’re told,” John orders sharply.
Adam scowls at Dean as John heads towards the house, but he manages a surly, “Yes, sir” as he leads the horse towards the stable. Dean follows his father, carrying Sam. When they reach the porch John stomps the snow and dirt off his boots before stepping inside, and Dean does the same.
“Welcome home, John.” Ellen smiles in that world-weary way of hers as she sets four places at the kitchen table. “Who’s this?”
She reaches out to brush the hair back from Sam’s little face, and Sam flinches away from her, burying his face in the crook of Dean’s neck as he hugs Dean tighter.
“He’s one of Mary’s kids,” John says as he takes his coat off and hangs it on the hook by the door. “His name’s Sam.”
“Another one?” Ellen looks confused, glancing from John to Sam. “But I thought...”
“Yeah, so did I,” John says gruffly, cutting her off. He sits down heavily at the chair by the fire to take off his boots, then pulls out his journal and a pencil from a pocket in his jacket.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance she’ll come home.” Ellen sets her jaw. “She’s got a kid right here, after all.”
Dean knows they’re talking about him, so he sits down on the stool by the fire, Sam still in his arms.
“She does what she has to.” John’s voice is tight, his meaning clear. He won’t talk about Mary in front of Dean. Dean’s learned not to ask.
“He sure is a scrawny little thing,” Ellen comments. “Doesn’t look like he’s been eating. Or washing. His clothes are filthy.”
“He can have some of my clothes,” Dean offers. Sam hugs him tighter. “There’s a box in my room with clothes that are too small for me. He can have some.”
“I was saving those for Jo,” Ellen says.
Jo hears her name and toddles over, dragging her doll by the hair. She frowns at Sam’s back, puts out her free hand and pokes him.
“My Dean,” she says, grabbing the back of Sam’s coat as if she means to pull him out of Dean’s arms.
Sam clutches Dean’s shirt, little pointed chin digging into Dean’s shoulder hard enough to bruise. His thighs tighten around Dean’s waist.
“I don’t think Sam’s going anywhere for now,” John says with a tired smile. “You better find somebody else to play with, Jo-Jo.”
Jo plops down on the floor beside Dean’s stool and sticks her fingers in her mouth. Ellen brings over a bowl of steaming chili and a piece of cornbread.
“Let’s see if you can get him to eat something,” she says to Dean.
Lured by the smell of food, Sam lets Dean put him down on the floor next to Jo. He takes the bowl and spoon from Ellen and eats with his body hunched over the food and his arm wrapped around the bowl covetously, like he’s afraid somebody will take it away from him.
“Well, at least he knows how to use a spoon,” Ellen comments as she hands another bowl to Dean.
The door opens and cold night air blows in. The children huddle together with their backs to the fire as Adam stomps into the room. He scowls at the room’s youngest occupants as he takes his place at the table.
“Bobby’s on his way,” he tells his father. John nods as he makes notes in his journal. “Did you kill some monsters today, Dad?”
“Hush,” Ellen scolds. “Not in front of the kids. You can wait to talk about monsters after supper.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Adam pouts, and when he catches Dean’s eye he glares. “What’re you lookin’ at, Ugly?”
“And I’ll thank you to keep your tone civil in this house, Adam Winchester,” Ellen reminds him. “Nobody here is ugly. Or stupid.”
“No, ma’am,” Adam mumbles.
Dean keeps his head down over his bowl to hide his grin. Adam may be able to trip and taunt and whale on Dean when they’re outside, but in the house, Ellen’s rules are clear and ironclad. Even Adam respects her.
The door blows open again, and Bobby Singer comes in, stomping his feet and brushing snow off his hat and coat.
“Started snowing again,” he notes as he takes his place at the table. “Got Paula bedded down in the stable next to General Washington. She’s ready to foal. Could be an all-nighter.”
John nods as he puts his journal away.
“Did you bring home a stray?” Bobby peers at Sam.
Ellen rolls her eyes. “Don’t ask,” she says.
John frowns. “That’s Sam. Mary asked me to bring him here to keep him safe.”
“So we’re running an orphanage now,” Bobby huffs, but Dean can tell he doesn’t mean anything by it. Bobby pretends to be gruff but he’s a real softie at heart, especially where kids and animals are concerned.
The adults bow their heads in prayer over the food. John’s deep voice fills the room.
“Lord, help us always to be grateful for the food we eat, for this warm house and this good company. Let us never take any of it for granted, nor squander the bounty provided here. Help us to be true and strong, to do the work we are meant to do without complaint, and to care for those in need. Amen.”
After supper, Dean helps Ellen clear and wash the dishes. The house was built over a well, so that water could be pumped directly into the kitchen sink, providing a type of makeshift indoor plumbing largely unheard of in Kansas in 1888. The sink is Ellen’s pride and joy, and one of the reasons she had agreed to move into the Winchester home after her husband died.
Sam watches Dean’s every move. Dean can feel his eyes on his back as he works. Jo plays with her doll and a tin cup her mother gave her, all but ignoring Sam. His slanted eyes follow the men as they leave the room to talk hunting in the parlor over whiskey and pipes. He watches as Ellen puts the last of the dishes away, then takes Jo to bed in the little room behind the chimney where she and Jo sleep in the winter.
When they’re alone in the kitchen, Dean smiles at Sam. The boy hasn’t smiled once, hasn’t spoken a word. His eyes are dark in the firelight. Dean can see the flames reflected in them.
“Hey, wanna see what I made today?” Dean grabs the little wooden figures he whittled, smooths a thumb down the front of one. “This one’s the hunter.” He hands it to Sam, who takes it between his grubby little fingers like it’s precious, like it’s made of glass. “And this one’s the monster.” Sam takes the other figure, bulky and crude next to the smoothly whittled hunter. “Hunters kill monsters,” Dean explains.
Sam hands the hunter back to Dean.
“No, you keep it,” Dean says, but Sam shakes his head, clutching the monster to his chest. “You want to keep the monster, huh? You don’t want the hunter? You can have both, you know. I can make more.”
Sam shakes his head, bottom lip sticking out in a little pout.
“Okay,” Dean shrugs, reaching into the woodpile for a small stick. “The monster’s a shapeshifter, so it can turn itself into anything, even a human or a friendly dog. You have to be careful because shapeshifters are clever and crafty. You have to kill it with silver.”
Dean holds the hunter figurine with its stick pressed to its side, pointing at Sam.
“My hunter has a silver sword,” Dean says. “He’s coming to kill the shapeshifter.”
Sam nods, puts the monster figurine on the floor, and pretends to make it stalk the hunter, hiding whenever the hunter turns its way.
“The shapeshifter is clever, but the hunter is smarter,” Dean says. “He knows what he’s doing. He lures the shapeshifter into a trap, then he kills it with a single stab of his sword, right through the heart.”
Sam plays his part, pretending to fall into a trap made of sticks, where Dean’s figure “kills” it with his “sword.”
Sam and Dean exchange looks and Dean grins, triumphant and pleased by Sam’s cooperation. “Now the hunter can rescue the family,” Dean says, and Sam’s eyebrows go up. “Yeah. There’s always victims to rescue. I just haven’t made them yet.”
“Sam can sleep in your bed tonight, Dean,” Ellen says as she returns to the kitchen for coffee and whiskey. She’s clearly anxious to join the men in the other room. “There’s a warming pan in the fire for you, but I didn’t know Sam was coming. He’ll be better off sharing with you anyway, I reckon.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dean nods.
“You can warm some water for him to wash with,” Ellen goes on. “He looks like he could use a bath, but for tonight just make sure he washes his face and feet before he gets into your nice clean bed. Doesn’t look like he has lice, at least.”
Dean glances at Sam, who has his eyes fixed on the toys, tiny frown furrowing his brow. Dean’s chest fills with warmth and fondness for the boy, nothing like the feeling of annoyed toleration he has for Jo. Sam is his responsibility, and somehow that doesn’t feel like a burden at all. It feels good.
“Don’t stay up much later, now,” Ellen says. “You’ve got chores in the morning.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Dean nods. This winter he’s been assigned kitchen duty almost daily, which mostly means getting up at the crack of dawn to stoke the fire and light the stove. Ellen bakes the day’s bread first thing before breakfast, while Dean milks the cow and collects the eggs from the henhouse.
For the first time, Dean looks forward to his chores. Knowing he’ll have Sam along as company makes them almost seem like fun.
“We’re going to be best friends,” he tells Sam as they snuggle into Dean’s bed later. The warming pan has done its job, and although the room itself is dark and freezing, under the covers the boys huddle in a cocoon of shared heat. “You and me, we’ll do everything together. I’ll teach you everything I know, and you’ll look up to me because I’m like your big brother.”
He thinks about Adam and shakes his head. “Except I’ll be better than a big brother,” he promises. “Big brothers are mean. I’m not gonna be mean to you, Sam. I’m gonna look after you.”
In the wan light from the window, Sam stares silently, big dark eyes fluttering as he gets drowsy.
Dean watches him until he falls asleep, then he snuggles closer, resting his chin on the top of Sam’s head, listening to the boy’s even breathing as he drifts off to sleep.
Sometime in the night, Dean wakes up to the sounds of arguing voices. John’s voice is low and steady, Adam’s high and whiny.
“If that thing is onto us, we should hunt it!” Adam is saying. “If it killed Mary, it could come after us! We should attack first!”
Uncle Bobby and Aunt Ellen insert short, sharp comments, voices too low for Dean to hear, but Dean’s sure they’re telling Adam to lower his voice.
“I don’t care!” Adam insists. “She was hunting that thing, and it killed her. She knew it was after her family. I’m just saying, we should kill it before it kills us!”
“Enough!” John’s voice booms out. “We don’t know she’s dead.”
“Oh, we know, Dad,” Adam says. “That little boy watched it happen. Hell, maybe he was in on it...”
“Stop!” A loud bang makes Dean jump, and he can almost feel the floor shake. John must’ve slammed his fist down on the table.
“You know I’m right, Dad! You just don’t want to hear it.”
There’s a scuffle, a softer bang as someone is shoved into a wall, probably Adam.
“Settle down, boy!” Uncle Bobby says sharply.
Dean hears another scuffle, then a door slams. Dean lies still, barely daring to breathe, and after a couple of minutes the quiet voices of the three adults resume, and Dean realizes that Adam has probably left the room.
Dean lies awake a few more minutes, but the conversation in the parlor isn’t audible anymore so he snuggles down under the blankets with Sam and dozes off into an uneasy sleep.
Dean was Sam’s age when his mother left, disappeared one night and never came back. John went after her, scared Dean speechless because he was gone so long, but when he came home again he was alone.
“She’s gotta do this thing on her own,” John told Bobby. “That thing killed her parents.”
“So that gives her the right to abandon her son?” Uncle Bobby had hissed, but John cut him off.
“Not talking about this again, Bobby,” John warned. “And you’d best not either. Now I gotta be going. I’ve got sons to raise.”
Dean had pretended to be asleep as John bundled him up for the ride home from Bobby’s house that night. The older man became ranch foreman later that year, and Bill Harvelle and his wife moved into the caretakers’ house down the lane. Bill and Ellen were both experienced hunters, like John, although at the time Dean didn’t understand what it was his father did when he left home for weeks at a time.
“Business,” was the official word, but by the time Dean was six he knew better.
“Monsters,” Adam told him when Dean was still too little to understand. “Dad hunts ‘em and kills ‘em. He’s good at it. The best there is. I’m going with him this year. He promised.”
Adam loved to rub it in that Dean’s mother had left. Adam’s own mother, Kate, had been killed in the line of duty, and John had spent three years tracking down the thing that killed her.
“Dad says you gotta kill the whole family, or else the survivors will come after you and yours for revenge,” Adam explained.
“How do you know he got ‘em all?” Dean asked.
Adam smirked. “You don’t.”
Dean shivered. He knew Adam was trying to scare him, and it worked.
“What if the monsters get you?” Dean asked his father later that week, after he’d had too much time to think about it.
“They won’t,” John assured him. “Don’t you worry, Dean. Monsters are stupid, bloodthirsty killing machines. They don’t think like we do. They’re driven by pure instinct, like animals.”
“What if they come here? While you and Adam and Mr. Harvelle are gone?”
“Then Aunt Ellen and Uncle Bobby will kill them,” John said firmly.
That summer, John taught Dean how to shoot.
By Dean’s ninth birthday, he was able to handle most of the daily chores on the ranch as well as shoot an apple off a fencepost at twenty-five yards.
When Dean gets up the next morning, the sun has already peeked its cold, orange light over the horizon, making gray shadows in the white snow of the farmyard. Dean scrambles out of bed and into his clothes, leaving Sam sleeping as he dashes into the kitchen.
The fire is burning bright, and the stove floods the room with warmth and the smell of baking bread. Ellen stands at the stove, stirring the lentil stew for lunch. It’ll simmer on the stove for hours, filling the house with more good smells.
Later in life, long after the comforts of hearth and home are forgotten, Dean will remember this smell and the feel of the warm air of the kitchen on a cold January morning. Sense memories are always the strongest.
“Where’s Dad?” Dean hears the panic in his voice, feels his heart pounding frantically in his chest.
Ellen lifts an eyebrow. She turns away from the stove to lay a crust of bread on Jo’s high chair tray. “Well look who decided to get up,” she teases.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Ellen, I really am,” Dean gushes as he pulls his boots on and struggles to tie them with fingers stiff with cold. “You should’ve woke me up.”
“Yeah, well, your Dad figured you needed your rest,” Ellen says. “Both of you. Little Sammy’s been through a lot.” Ellen’s eyes flick away from Dean, and Dean gets the feeling there’s something she’s not telling him. He remembers what he heard last night.
Dean pushes that memory aside in the face of his more immediate concern. “Dad didn’t leave, did he?”
“No, honey, he’s just out in the barn with Uncle Bobby. Paula’s foal was born last night, and you’ll never guess what?” Ellen winks, obviously relieved to change the subject.
Dean’s heart races with excitement. A new foal! Dad had promised this one would be his. “What?” He finishes tying his boots and leaps up, ready to grab his coat and head out to the stable. “Is it a colt?”
“It’s twins,” Ellen says triumphantly. “Two little fillies. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Twins?” Dean frowns.
“Sure, honey. One for each of you. You boys are sure gonna have your hands full next summer. Hey, where do you think you’re going?” Ellen’s voice sharpens, making Dean stop short. Sam stands in the doorway, hair mussed around his little face, eyes wide. He’s wearing the oversized shirt and trousers Dean gave him to sleep in last night, rolled up at the ankles and wrists. “You’re not gonna leave him with me, are you?”
“No, of course not!” Dean huffs. “Come on, Sam. Let’s get you dressed so you can come out to the barn with me. The old mare had twins!”
By the time Sam gets dressed in an old shirt and pants that Dean outgrew years ago, fits him with a pair of his own suspenders so the pants don’t fall off, then finds socks that don’t slide off Sam’s small feet and mittens that don’t fall off his little hands, nearly half an hour has passed. Dean bundles the boy into his coat and boots, wraps a scarf around his neck, and slams an old felt hat on his head, standing back to admire his handiwork for a moment before nodding his satisfaction. Sam’s covered and protected against the cold as well as he’ll ever be.
The newborn horses are both unusually small and weak. Bobby’s feeding one with a bottle when Dean gets to the barn, Sam in tow. One of the fillies has a dark coat; the other one is pale yellow with spots on her flank like a newborn fawn. Dean knows without thinking very deeply about it that she’s his. He slides onto his knees in the hay next to the little horse, and she lifts her head, gives him a clear-eyed look before sniffing the hand he puts under her muzzle. Her nose is soft. It tickles his palm and makes him grin.
“Is she gonna be okay?” he asks.
Bobby nods as he pulls the bottle away from the other foal and hands it to Dean with a nod. “They’re both fine. You want to feed her?”
“Yeah!” Dean takes the bottle, holds the foal’s chin with one hand and rubs the nipple of the bottle across her lips. She’s clearly used to it already, opens up right away and starts sucking, making Dean laugh at how strong and eager she is.
“Goddamn miracle is what it is,” Bobby mumbles as he helps the other foal stand on wobbly legs. “Hey, kid. You wanna come say hello?”
Dean looks up at Sam, who stands in the entrance to the stall, arms hanging helplessly by his sides. His eyes widen at Bobby’s offer, and he nods eagerly.
“How’s Paula?” Dean asks with a frown, glancing around the barn. There’s John’s horse, the big plow horses, Bobby’s and Ellen’s mares, and Adam’s gelding, all in their stalls, freshly fed and watered. Dean’s chores have been done. Adam will never let him live this down.
“She didn’t make it,” Bobby says as he helps Sam take off his mittens. “Your dad and Adam are taking care of her carcass.”
Dean’s eyes fill with tears. Paula had been his horse, his first mount. She’d always been a steady, good-tempered animal who tolerated kids well. Both he and Adam had learned to ride on her.
“She was old, son,” Bobby says as he shows Sam how to pet the newborn horse. “She never should’ve been bred.”
A wild stallion captured Paula last year. It had taken Bobby and Adam nearly three months to find her, and when they brought her home she was already carrying the foals.
“Twins is rare,” Bobby goes on. “It took a lot out of her. She might not have made it even if there’d only been one, but two foals at once was just too much for her.”
Dean nods, fighting the lump in his throat. Milk runs down the filly’s chin, down Dean’s arm.
“They’ll need all the goat’s milk they can drink over the next few weeks,” Bobby says. “Think you two can help with that?”
“Yes, sir,” Dean says, swallowing hard.
“No cow’s milk,” Bobby instructs. “Cow’s milk’s not good for ‘em, not like it is for you and me.”
“If they survive, in six weeks we’ll give them names,” Bobby says. “You two best be thinking about what you want to name them.”
Dean’s filly finishes the bottle and butts her head against Dean’s chest for more. Dean smiles through his tears, and when he glances at Sam the little boy’s eyes widen in sympathy.
“Death and birth, boys,” Bobby says. “That’s the natural order of things. Never forget that.”
Dean nods. “Yes, sir.”
“Now grab that bucket and start milking.”
Later that morning, when they’re back in the house with Ellen while the men have gone out to check the livestock, Dean makes an effort to focus on his lessons, but it’s not easy. His head is swimming with the events of the last twenty-four hours, and he can’t stop trying to make sense of them.
After a few minutes of staring at his slate and getting nowhere with the arithmetic problem he’s been assigned, Dean sighs. He glances over to be sure Sam and Jo are busy playing in front of the hearth, then lowers his voice to a whisper.
“Aunt Ellen, what happened to Sam’s mom?”
Ellen’s lips tighten and she frowns at the pan of potatoes she’s peeling. At first Dean thinks she won’t answer. Then she says, “We don’t know for sure. We think she died in a fire in Topeka.”
“Was – was Mom there?” Dean feels his voice shake. He’s heard enough about his mother since she left to know that Mary’s a superhero, a special kind of hunter whose specialty is rescuing children.
“It’s how she atones for leaving her son,” Bobby said one night years ago, in this very room, when he thought Dean was asleep. Dean never forgot, although he didn’t understand Bobby’s words at the time. He absorbs every word ever spoken about his mother, won’t ever forget her soft voice or the way her hair curtained her face when she leaned down to kiss him goodnight.
Dean knows he did something wrong to make her leave. He just wishes he could remember what it was. Then maybe he can find a way to convince her to come home.
“Your mother saved Sam,” Ellen says. “She got him out of that burning building and gave him to your dad to take care of.”
“Where did she go?”
Ellen shakes her head, and Dean can see tears in her eyes. “She ran back into the fire to try to rescue more kids,” she says. “That’s the way she was. Is. That’s the way she is.”
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Dean fights the lump in his throat. “She never made it out.”
“We don’t know that, Dean,” Ellen says. “Your dad believes she survived. He thinks she’s still out there, doing what she does best, and his instincts tend to be pretty good where your mother’s concerned.” She shakes her head, clenches her jaw. She peels the potatoes more aggressively. “I don’t know how he stands it, frankly.”
Dean imagines his mother, backlit by a building in flames, holding little Sam or some other small child in her arms, doing the job that keeps her away from her son.
He feels a single tear sliding down his cheek, wipes it away quickly with the back of his hand as he gets back to work.
By the end of the week, John’s gone again. He takes Adam with him this time, and Adam is insufferably proud of himself for being chosen to accompany his dad on a hunting trip, this one to take down a wandering gang of werewolves.
“He’ll never take you hunting,” he sneers at Dean. “You’re too stupid.”
“Am not!” Dean shouts, finally losing his temper.
“Are too!” Adam cuffs him, sending him flying into the barn wall. Adam’s been saddling his horse while Sam and Dean feed their foals. “You’re nothing but a stupid, ugly brat! That’s why your mom left. She couldn’t stand you. Nobody loves you!”
Before Dean can pick himself up, Sam launches himself at Adam, small fists flying. Adam swats the boy like he’s nothing but an annoying fly, splitting his lip in the process.
“Get away from me, you little creep,” Adam sneers. “You’re worse than him. Your mother was a whore! You should’ve died in that fire.”
“You leave him alone!” Dean yells, scrambling toward Sam. Something cracks inside him when he sees the blood on Sam’s lip, sees him lying dazed on the floor. His vision blurs, and his hands shake.
“What are you going to do about it?” Adam grabs Dean by the back of his jacket and lifts him off the floor, away from Sam. “You gonna fight me? Huh? Think you can take me? Stupid, ugly little freak.”
Adam pulls his fist back and Dean braces himself for the hit, knows it’s coming because Adam’s done it before, barely seems to be able to stop himself. Dean doesn’t really get it, why Adam hates him so much. He just knows that he does.
But apparently it’s not his day to die after all. Through the throbbing in his head, Dean hears the barn door bang open, and Bobby’s voice booms out.
“What the hell’s going on in here? Adam, put your brother down! For God’s sake, kid, what’s the matter with you? Go pick on somebody your own size!”
Adam growls, but obeys, letting Dean down none too easy, so that he stumbles backwards and falls flat on his ass on the dusty floor. He glances over to be sure Sam’s okay, then up at Bobby, frowning at him from several feet away.
“Your dad’s been looking for you, Adam,” Bobby says. “He’s ready to go.”
Adam nods, clenching his fists as he throws a final glare at Dean. “This ain’t over,” he hisses as he grabs his horse’s bridle and leads it past Bobby and out the barn door.
“He’s too hotheaded,” Bobby tells Dean later, after John and Adam have left and Dean’s mucking out stalls. “John doesn’t usually take him because he doesn’t trust him. Don’t tell him I said so, but Adam has a temper that could get a man killed. Not exactly the levelheaded partner your dad needs on a hunt.”
“So why did Dad take him?” Dean asks.
“He’s trying to train him,” Bobby says. “Adam needs the practice, and werewolves are easy prey. Loud, messy, stupid. Adam can let out some of that pent-up anger on ‘em and maybe learn a thing or two at the same time.”
“Someday, I’ll be Dad’s partner,” Dean declares, and Bobby smiles.
“You’ll make a good hunter someday, Dean,” he says. “You’re steady. Plus, you’ve got an instinct for people, how to get along with ‘em, how to read ‘em. You’ll make a good partner for somebody someday, whether it’s your dad or not.”
Dean’s chest fills with warmth at the praise. He isn’t worthy of his father’s approval, but he’s grateful for Bobby’s. Every time John leaves on a hunt Dean feels a little less worthy, a little more like the useless son, the one John always leaves behind. He believes Adam’s taunts just a little more each time John goes.
Bobby helps with that, eases some of the worthlessness in Dean’s gut.
“Why does Adam hate me so much, Uncle Bobby?”
He thinks he knows. He thinks it’s because Adam knows him better than he knows himself, that Adam knows how worthless he feels inside. Maybe John said something about Dean to Adam behind his back, something bad.
“Aw, Dean, he doesn’t hate you,” Bobby says. “He’s just a jackass kid who can’t get enough of his dad’s attention, so he takes it out on his little brother. He’d be the same way no matter who his little brother is. It’s got nothin’ to do with you personally.”
Dean thinks about that for a minute as he shovels the shit out of General Washington’s stall. He remembers when Paula gave birth to G.W. five years before, remembers John telling Adam the horse would be his if he could break him. Now G.W. was a full-grown gelding, Adam’s horse, and his ticket to riding out with their dad when John needed backup.
Just as Dean’s filly would one day be his.
With constant care and attention, the twins survive their first six weeks. The snow is melting and the ground softening for spring planting when Bobby declares both foals fully viable.
“Achilles and Petrochlus,” Dean says when Ellen asks what he’s chosen to name his horse. They’ve been reading Homer, and Dean’s mind is filled with stories of valor and epic battles. “They were best friends, just like me and Sam.”
Ellen nods. “Okay,” she says. “But those are boy names. Don’t you want to give them girl names?”
Dean thinks about that for a minute, then he shakes his head. “Artemis and Aphrodite were jerks,” he says firmly. “They made the Trojan War happen in the first place. They made Troy fall and killed all those humans out of petty jealousy.”
“I suppose you could look at it that way,” Ellen agrees.
“How about Remus and Romulus?” Dean suggests. “They were twins and they founded Rome. Also, they were raised by wolves.”
Ellen opens her mouth, and Dean thinks she’s about to protest, but then she shakes her head and smiles instead. “All right, Dean. Remus and Romulus it is. But which is which?”
“My horse can be Remus,” Dean says. “He’s the oldest.”
Ellen shrugs. “If you say so,” she says dubiously. “But you know the story, right? Things don’t end well for those two.”
“They were heroes,” Dean says, as if that’s all that matters.
And, of course, it is.
By the end of April, John and Adam still haven’t returned, although a traveling hunter named Caleb arrives on horseback, bearing a letter from John saying he and Adam were tracking something and would be back by the spring planting.
“Yeah, well, we’ll see about that,” Bobby mutters as he tosses another hay bale to Dean. The colts are eating normally now, and Dean takes them out one by one for exercise in the corral while Sam watches, still too little to be very helpful. He waits until Dean brings the colts back into the stable, ready with a brush and a lump of sugar. Romulus seems to know she belongs to Sam. She follows him around the barn, nudging him for another lump of sugar, making Sam giggle.
It’s still the only sound Sam makes, but Dean’ll take it. Sam’s so silent and solemn most of the time, especially around anyone but Dean, that Dean’s favorite moments are the times he and Sam are alone together. At night in bed, Dean tells stories to help Sam fall asleep. He loves the way the little boy’s eyes watch him, rapt and trusting. During the day, Sam follows him out to the barn, helps him milk the cow and gather the eggs. After study time the boys are free to spend the afternoon in the stable with the foals. It quickly becomes Dean’s favorite time of day.
Sam continues to be so shy around Ellen and Bobby that Dean gets a little irritated with him.
“He’s smart,” he tells Ellen one morning when he’s doing his studies at the kitchen table. “He can read already.”
“Oh, I doubt that.” Ellen looks up from her potato-peeling to glance at Sam, playing quietly on the floor with Jo. “He can’t be more than five years old.”
Dean nods quickly, pride swelling in his chest. “He can! I caught him reading my Tales of the Round Table yesterday, and when I asked him about it, he answered everything I asked, just perfect.”
“Oh honey, he just listens to you read out loud,” Ellen says. “He soaks up everything you do like a little sponge.”
“No, Aunt Ellen, it’s more than that,” Dean insists. “When I pointed to words and asked him, he got it right every time.”
“He talks to you?” Ellen frowns.
“Kinda,” Dean shrugs. “I mean, I understand him. Sometimes I get an idea and when I look at Sam, I can tell he’s thinking the same thing.”
Ellen’s frown deepens for a moment. She puts her hands in her lap and gazes at Sam, eyes narrowing. She seems to be speculating, wondering silently about Sam. Then she shakes her head and goes back to peeling potatoes.
“He’ll start talking when he needs to,” she says, as much to herself as to Dean. “Boy’s been through a lot. One of these days, he’ll learn to trust us enough. It’ll be good to have another set of hands around this place.”
It’s almost two years before Sam starts talking.
John’s been home three times during that time, twice in the middle of winter, once in the early fall. He never made it for spring planting that first year, just as Bobby had predicted.
“I almost found her, Bobby.” Dean overhears Ellen and the men talking after supper during John’s first visit home that fall. “She was just one step ahead of me. Some hunters in Rapid City remembered her. She rode through with a ragtag group of kids, all hunters-in-training. It was her, Bobby, I swear. She’s moved on from shelters for little kids to training camps for older ones.”
“You don’t know that, John,” Bobby protests.
“I know her, Bobby. It’s what she does. Gathers abandoned and orphaned kids, protects them. Now she’s teaching them to protect themselves.”
“What’s your evidence? Huh?” Bobby says. “You found any of these training camps?”
“She keeps them moving,” John growls. “It’s part of her strategy. Teaching them how to cover their tracks, stay out of sight.”
“You don’t know that!” Bobby sounds irritated. “You can’t prove any of this. You’re just chasing after a phantom. Mary Winchester died in that fire last year, and you know it. Now stop running from your own guilt and come home. Your family needs you!”
A loud crash makes Dean jump. Sam stirs beside him but then goes on sleeping.
“I’ll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself, Bobby Singer.” John’s voice is low and menacing. “I almost had her. She left Rapid City barely six hours ahead of us. If we hadn’t been attacked by that shapeshifter in the saloon, we would’ve caught up with her.”
“Well, at least you had the good sense to bring your son home where he can get decent medical care,” Ellen says. “There’s still a brain cell or two working in that bullheaded skull of yours.”
“Adam will be fine,” John says. “He’ll just need a week or two to recover. I’ll come back for him in a month.”
“Wait. What? You’re leaving?” Bobby’s incredulous.
“First thing in the morning.”
And, true to his word, John’s up and out again almost before Dean has a chance to say goodbye.
“Take care of that little boy for me, Dean,” John admonishes as Dean stands helplessly by while John swings himself into his saddle the next morning. “You’re all he’s got.”
“Yes, sir.” Dean blinks back tears. He’d been so excited the night before when John rode in, leading Adam’s horse by the reins. Adam sat slumped in the saddle, bleeding and broken in several places, barely coherent through his pain and the whiskey John had given him to ease it.
“I’ll be back before the first snow falls,” John promises, and Dean nods because it’s all he can do.
Adam’s a terrible patient. He’s bedridden for the first week, resentful and pissed off at everyone for being wounded, for being left behind while his father went back out into the field alone.
“He should’ve waited for me!” Adam complains to anyone who will listen. “Those sons a’ bitches are everywhere! Shapeshifters can be anybody. He needs my help!”
“Now, that’s enough, Adam Winchester,” Ellen scolds. “You need to lie quiet now.”
When he notices Dean hovering in the doorway, Adam scowls. “This is all your fault, Ugly,” he snarls, vicious. “Your mother makes him crazy. If he wasn’t so blinded by his obsession to find her, he wouldn’t keep almost getting himself killed. I hope to God she is dead, cuz if she ain’t, I’m gonna kill her!”
“Adam, that’s enough! This ain’t Dean’s fault, and you know it.”
“Uncle Bobby, is my mother...Did she die?” Dean asks later. He can’t help it.
They’re in the barn, checking on the animals after the previous night’s snowfall. “We don’t know, son. Your daddy thinks she’s alive.”
“What do you think?”
“Your mother is one of the toughest hunters I ever met,” Bobby says. “Smart, too. If anyone could’ve survived the fire that night, it’s her.”
“Then why don’t she come home?”
“It’s complicated.” Bobby sighed. “Your mama does what she does because she thinks she has to protect everybody, especially kids. Especially you kids. She’s trying to keep you safe.”
“So why doesn’t she let Dad help her?”
Bobby shook his head. “That’s complicated, too, son, and I don’t rightly know the answer. I reckon she’s trying to protect him, too.”
Dean wonders about that. It doesn’t make him feel any better about her absence, but it paints a picture in his mind of his mother as a kind of she-bear protecting her mate and cubs, and Dean can live with that.