It’s deep winter by the time John gets back, long after the first snowfall, not to mention the second and the third. Adam’s not even limping anymore. He’s been taking out his boredom and frustration on Dean, beating up on him whenever Dean gets in his way, threatening to shoot the foals, which are yearlings now. Sam stands in a corner of the stable and stares at Adam when he says that, and Adam backs down.
“Fuckin’ freak,” Adam mutters as he holsters his gun. He stumbles drunkenly out of the stable, and Dean runs his tongue over his split lip.
John arrives within the week, the day before Dean’s tenth birthday. This time he stays a couple of days, gives the children candy sticks, tells them watered down hunting stories in front of the fire.
“It’s getting worse out there,” he tells the adults after supper. Dean huddles in his bed, blankets pulled up to his chin, Sam snuggled warm against his back. “The monster population has grown. They’re going after whole towns now, not just isolated families. We need all the help we can get.”
Sam snuggles closer, and Dean knows he can hear just as well as Dean can.
“Don’t worry, Sammy,’ Dean whispers as he turns over, pulling the little boy into the warm space where his body lay. “I won’t let anything happen to you. This ranch is warded, so no monsters can come here. I promise. They can’t get you.”
Sam’s eyes widen and glisten in the near-darkness.
Spring comes early that year, and the boys spend every free moment outside. They explore the valleys and hills, follow the creek. They collect tadpoles and crawdads, keep skippers in a jar. Dean punches holes in the lids so the things they catch can breathe. They always let them go, after they’ve spent the afternoon observing them in the shade of the big cedar tree.
Their exploration takes them to the edges of the farm, where last year’s fields lie fallow so the soil can grow rich again for next year’s crop. At 10, Dean can help with the harvest, just like he helps with the farmstead. But he hates it because it takes him away from the person he’s supposed to be watching. He takes his role as Sam’s protector very seriously, since the order came directly from his father, passed on from his mother.
In the fall, Bobby says it’s time to train the foals. They’re almost two years old now, and Bobby thinks they’re ready to carry the boys on their backs.
Dean doesn’t have to be told twice. He’s already put a rope halter on Remus, letting the young horse get comfortable with the feel of it around her muzzle. He lets the rope out several feet and watches her trot around the corral, calling out commands as he’s seen Bobby do. She loves him, he can see it in the way she bats her eyelashes at him and snuffles against his shoulder when he brushes her.
Sam watches from his perch on the fence. He’s too little to help with the horse training, but he takes it all in, silent as always, hooded multi-colored eyes boring into Dean’s back when he turns away. Sam loves him, Dean can tell. He’s probably the only thing Sam loves, besides Romulus, but he doesn’t think too much about that.
John and Adam return for Dean’s eleventh birthday. They stay for over a month. This time, it’s John who’s been injured. Dean gets a glimpse of the wounds on his father’s back and chest one afternoon when he helps Ellen change his dressings, and John decides it’s as good a time as any for Dean to learn a thing or two about field medicine.
“The main thing is keeping the wounds clean,” John instructs as Ellen pulls off the old bandages, soaked in blood. Five long gashes slice the skin on John’s right side, under his arm. Ellen dabs the gaping wounds with a mixture of rubbing alcohol, witch hazel, and aloe, and Dean flinches in sympathy when John hisses at the pain. “We used to use bacon grease for a salve. Not good. War’s not good for much, but it taught us a few things about how to care for wounded soldiers.”
“Yes, sir.” Dean nods, moves closer to watch as Ellen starts to wrap the wounds in clean linen.
“You see this?” John points to the bruises over his ribcage. “Thing broke a rib when it grabbed me. That’s on the inside, and any internal bleeding can’t be stopped. Never let a surgeon tell you otherwise. Those bastards are butchers.”
Dean watches wide-eyed, as Ellen lays her hands over John’s ribcage and chants something quietly in Latin.
“Hunters have special skills,” John says. “Spells to knit broken bones, heal internal injuries. You learn a few basic healing spells, make those part of your arsenal, same as your weapons. It takes patience to learn, but it’ll save your life or somebody else’s in the field.”
“Yes, sir.” Dean nods. John smiles grimly as Ellen finishes wrapping his ribs, winding the linen around his body, over the freshly-dressed claw marks.
“I can’t get Adam to pay attention to spell-learning,” he says. “He’s too hotheaded and impatient. But your mother is a hell of a healer, Dean. You’ve got healing in your blood.”
Dean nods, the lump in his throat making it impossible to speak.
“He’s a little young to be learning how to heal war wounds, don’t you think?” Ellen chides gently.
“Never too young to learn vital survival skills,” John says. “It’s a dangerous world out there. Someday, I’ll be gone. I want my boys to be prepared for anything.”
“Well, I guess we can add a little Latin learning to our morning lessons,” Ellen says, glancing at Dean. “You’d be up for that, wouldn’t you, Dean?”
The best thing about the next month is that John’s home.
As he recovers, John spends time in the kitchen with the children, regaling them with stories, drilling Dean on his spell learning as the snow falls outside. In addition to healing spells, Dean memorizes warding spells, binding spells, protection spells. He learns the difference between white and black magic, ways to connect with the natural energy in every living thing, and to conjure the dormant energy in nonliving things. He memorizes the chant to exorcize a demon.
“Not that you’ll ever need that,” Bobby grumbles when Dean shows him what he’s learning one evening. “In all my years as a hunter, I’ve never heard tell of a demon in these parts.”
“It never hurts to be prepared,” Ellen says as she puts a bowl of steaming chili in front of him. “Like John said.”
Sam watches. His lips move silently as Dean recites each new spell and incantation, as Dean studies Latin. He’s pretty sure the little boy’s learning, too.
The worst thing about the next month is being cooped up in the house with Adam. As always, Adam resents him. Hates him. Picks on him and hurts him every chance he gets, whether it’s a pinch or a kick under the table during supper, or a cuff on the ear when he moves too close. Dean gets up extra early each morning to do his chores, hoping Adam won’t follow him out to the barn where he can beat on Dean without anyone there to stop him.
As it is, Dean’s so cautious around Adam it’s exhausting. He schedules his days to avoid John Winchester’s oldest son. The older boy drinks every night, so he’s usually passed out long into the morning. Dean stays out of Adam’s way as much as possible during the day, helping out in the kitchen with Ellen and the kids in the afternoon while Adam, John, and Bobby ride the perimeter, checking on the cattle, resetting the warding spells around the ranch.
It’s not that Dean’s afraid. He’s no coward. He’s been taking regular beatings from his older brother for years and never complained. But Dean’s seen the look in Sam’s eyes when it happens, something fierce and dangerous far beyond his years. It sends shivers up Dean’s spine, makes him think of the gunslingers who’ve stopped in once or twice over the years. Assassins who took on the hunting life to give them a legal reason to do the one thing they were good at, the thing they most liked to do. Those men were stone cold killers, and making someone or something suffer before death wasn’t ever not part of the job.
Sam looks like he wants to kill Adam, and do it slowly.
Luckily, Adam never seems to notice the small boy with his mop of dark hair. At best, he sometimes swats Sam irritably out of the way in the kitchen once in a while, barely glancing at him, never speaking to him.
Dean’s just fine with that. After that first encounter in the barn two years before, Dean isn’t looking to let Sam into Adam’s sights ever again.
Because he avoids the barn while Adam’s awake, Dean and Sam spend many long, wintery daylight hours in the attic. It’s cold, but not freezing since it’s over the kitchen, and no one knows they’re there. Dean carves enough soldiers for two armies, and Sam practices killing monsters with the monster and hunter figurines Dean made for him. They watch the sun set and the sky darken from the attic window, and Dean feels almost happy, despite the claustrophobia of being confined to the house so much of the day. In their own little world, mostly silent except for Dean’s murmured orders to his imaginary soldiers, the boys nurture a dream of becoming great hunters one day. Dean will follow in his dad’s footsteps, Sam will follow Dean, and together they’ll stop all the evil, fix everything, avenge all the motherless children.
By the first of March, John’s well enough to ride out again. There’s still a foot of snow on the ground, but John’s restless.
“The longer I hide out here, the colder the trail gets,” he tells Bobby. “I gotta find her.”
“Any chance she’ll come home if you do?” Bobby asks in that skeptical way that sounds like he already knows the answer.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” John says.
He reminds Dean to keep practicing the wrestling moves he taught him. “Self-defense is essential when you’re half the size of the things that come after you. Even Sam can learn a few moves, as little as he is.”
‘Yes, sir.” But Dean doesn’t want Sam to learn to protect himself by kicking some monster in the balls or shoving his little fingers into the monster’s eyes. Dean can do that. Dean will always do whatever it takes to protect Sam.
As Dean watches John and Adam ride away that wintery morning, he doesn’t know it’s the last time he’ll see his dad. He doesn’t even have a foreshadowing. He’ll always wonder if he could’ve done something differently, Maybe he could’ve convinced his dad to stay just a little longer.
He doesn’t know it that day, but his childhood days are numbered.
In the spring, Dean works with Romulus, just as he did in the fall with Remus. Bobby shows him how to acclimate both horses to the feel of a saddle and bridle. The twins are almost two-and-a-half, ready to be broken.
“We can’t let it go much longer,” Bobby explains. “They’re big enough to bear a man now. If they grow much older, they’ll start to go wild. As it is, they’re used to us. Used to you. Think you’re ready to ride your filly, Dean?”
“Oh yeah,” Dean nods. He and Sam watch from the fence as Bobby saddles and bridles Romulus, then climbs on. The horse is still for a moment. Then she seems to understand that the weight on her back is heavier than usual and isn’t going anywhere, so she lets loose with a series of bucks and twists that go on and on. She sidles into the fence, pivots as if she’s chasing her own tail, whinnies and snorts and tosses her head as Bobby holds on, grim-faced and determined.
When she finally stops, Romulus is breathing hard, her coat slick with sweat. Bobby holds her steady as he climbs off, then removes her saddle and bridle and lets Sam brush her down.
Then he does the same thing with Remus.
In the afternoon, the boys take both fillies out to the pasture above the creek, which is mostly fenced. They ride bareback with only a halter, wild and free and sloppy, tumbling off into the soft grass when they’ve had enough. The horses graze nearby as the boys lie on the grass and stare at the sky, watching the puffy spring clouds drift by on the winds high up where they can’t feel them. Down here on Earth the soil smells rich and pungent, warmed by the sun.
“Today’s my birthday.”
Dean turns his head at the unfamiliar voice, stares at Sam, who lies still another moment before turning his head to stare back. His lips are parted, and when he sees the look on Dean’s face he grins, dimples showing.
“It’s my birthday.” Sam’s voice is small and high and childish, hoarse from misuse. “I’m seven.”
“Sam can talk!” Dean tells Ellen when they get back to the house. Sam hasn’t said anything since that moment in the pasture, but Dean’s so proud he has to share.
Yet even as he tells Ellen, half of him wishes he’d kept the news to himself. Dean’s used to being Sam’s interpreter, translating his gestures and expressions to the adults, and he doesn’t want to give that up. He wants to go on having Sam all to himself.
Ellen looks up from her work. “Really now?” She turns a skeptical eye on Sam, who shakes his head and blushes.
“He says today’s his birthday,” Dean nods. “He’s seven.”
“Well, happy birthday, Sam,” Ellen says. “Now, you two go wash up for supper. I need your help.”
They’re in the back pasture the following week, practicing wrestling moves in the shade of the big cedar tree while the horses graze nearby. Sam’s getting bigger, but he’s still scrawny, easy to pin, not really much of a wrestler yet. Dean gives up after a few minutes and just starts rolling around with the smaller boy in the grass, grabbing handfuls of Sam’s skinny ribs through his shirt, making him giggle and laugh till he’s almost gasping.
“Stop! Dean! Stop!” He chokes out between giggles, and Dean lets him go immediately.
“Did you just tell me to stop?” he demands. Sam lies on his back, breathing hard, eyes sparkling and dimples showing as he stares up at Dean. When he nods, Dean shakes his head. “Oh no. You gotta say the words! Say the words, Sam! Come on! Talk again!”
“No! No! Uncle! Okay, Dean, okay!” Sam chokes the words out on another gale of laughter as Dean resumes his tickling. He lets up as Sam gets the words out, collapsing on the grass next to the younger boy with a whoop of triumph.
“You better keep talking,” Dean warns, grinning wildly, triumphant. “You stop, I just might have to start tickling you again. You hear me?”
Sam nods, then says “Yeah” when Dean frowns at him.
“Yeah, I promise.” Sam nods.
“I mean, it’s not like you need to talk all the time or anything,” Dean says. “The last thing I need is a little brother who chatters at me all the time.”
“Am I? Your little brother?” Sam seems so pleased, so hopeful, that Dean can’t keep from grinning wide again.
“‘Course you are, Sammy,” he says. “In every way that matters, you’re a Winchester.”
Sam frowns, thoughtful. “Don’t wanna be a Winchester,” he says. “Just wanna be your brother.”
Dean’s chest swells and his eyes sting. Sam belongs to him, not anybody else. Dad gave him to Dean. The thought of sharing him, even with his family, makes Dean’s skin feel hot and tight with jealousy.
“You’re more than my brother,” Dean says, thinking of Adam. “My brother’s a dick. You’re my best friend.”
“Yeah,” Sam nods.
“We got made by the same piece of cosmic dust,” Dean goes on. He’s been studying astronomy in his science book, so the words come naturally. “Everything comes from the stars, but you and me were made from the same star.”
“Yeah,” Sam agrees. They gaze at each for another minute, and Dean’s so happy it scares him. He’s afraid he’ll never be this happy again.
Dean pulls Sam to his feet and races him across the pasture, dodging cow patties and gopher holes. They catch the horses and ride them along the creek bank to their favorite swimming hole, leave their clothes and shoes on the big rock where they lie to dry off after their swim. By the time they get dressed and ride home, the sun is sinking toward the western horizon and Sam’s still talking, responding mostly in monosyllables as Dean tells him about his latest science lesson.
Sam doesn’t talk to anyone else. He smiles shyly at Ellen when Dean tells her Sam was talking again, but that’s as far as it goes.
“He’ll talk to us when he’s ready,” Ellen says, and Sam looks grateful.
After supper, Dean reads out loud from The Arabian Nights as Jo and Sam sit rapt on the rug in front of the fire. Dean’s not the best reader, but with two sets of adoring eyes focused on him, he feels like a genius.
At age five, Jo is a complete pain in Dean’s ass. She tags along everywhere Sam and Dean go. She hangs onto Dean’s coattails when he heads outside, struggling to keep up, sitting down in the lane and crying when she can’t. Sam has no patience for her, but Dean won’t tolerate her tears.
“Aw, Jo-Jo, come on,” he coaxes. “If you can’t keep up, you should just go home. Me and Sam have stuff to do.”
Jo dries her tears with dusty palms, pulls herself up, and doggedly trails along behind them. Dean shrugs when Sam gives him an annoyed look, ignores Sam’s disgusted huff. Ellen’s all the mother Dean’s had for the past seven years, and he knows he owes it to her to look after Jo. Sam can just deal with it.
Jo wears Dean’s hand-me-down overalls, rolled up at the ankles to expose her bare shins. She hates to wear shoes in the summer, and her little brown feet are scuffed and calloused. Her blond hair bleaches almost white in the summer sun, and she resembles a little brown and white spirit as she traipses after the boys, determined and defiant. Dean’s almost as fond of her as he is exasperated.
Nevertheless, she’s an easy target. When they find a cave near the swimming hole, Dean dares Jo to go in to see if there’s a bear inside, knowing full well there isn’t. She does it, of course, determined jaw locked and fists clenched against her terror, and when a colony of bats flies out, she’s the only one who stands her ground as Dean and Sam run screaming down the hill. When they reach the bottom, Dean turns around to see Jo standing at the cave mouth, her small body framed in sunlight, looking for all the world like one of the fierce goddesses from Dean’s Greek mythology book.
“You did good today, Jo-Jo,” he tells her when they start for home, walking slowly so Jo can keep up.
Sam scowls and runs on ahead, kicking rocks out of the way of their path, making them fly and bounce like bullets.
Jo basks in the praise, sidles up to Dean, and doesn’t leave his side till they’re back inside the house, where her mother chastises her for being a dirty ragamuffin.
“Bath day isn’t till Saturday, and you’re already caked in a month’s worth of dirt.”
Jo beams, sharing a quick glance with Dean that makes Dean grin.
“Sorry, Aunt Ellen,” he says. “It was my fault. I asked her to check out a cave by the swimming hole, and she was braver than I thought she’d be.”
“Well, just so you’re watching out for her, Dean,” Ellen says. “I’m counting on you, you know.”
That night, Sam turns his back on Dean as he gets undressed for bed, slides into his side of the bed as close to the far edge as possible, and lies still and stiff as a board.
Dean gets into the other side of the bed and breathes deep, feeling the tension radiate from Sam’s small body.
“You’re always gonna be my best friend,” he says softly. “Jo’s just a little kid. I gotta look after her, but that don’t mean I like her more.”
“I hate her,” Sam says miserably.
“Sam. You don’t mean that.”
“I do.” The words sound punched out of him, passionate and sob-edged.
Dean shivers. “Sammy, hate’s a strong word. Pastor Jim says you shouldn’t hate anybody.”
Sam doesn’t answer. His shoulders shake and he huddles into himself, pulling his knees up to his chest. Dean wants to reach over and touch him, but something about Sam’s demeanor makes him hesitate.
“You’re my best friend, Sammy,” he repeats. “Nobody can ever come between us.”
Sam’s quiet for a moment, then he says, “Promise?”
“Promise,” Dean nods, sure of this one thing as he’s never been sure of anything before. “You’ll always be my number one.”
“Okay,” Sam says after another moment. He doesn’t turn over, doesn’t slide next to Dean on the bed like he usually does, but Dean can tell the worst is over. He can feel Sam’s body relaxing.
Once a month, on a Sunday, the little family climbs into the wagon for the five-mile ride to town. It takes almost two hours, and on the way back Dean prefers to walk. They go to church to hear Pastor Jim preach about fire and brimstone, but mostly for a chance to socialize with the other homesteaders. They pick up supplies at the general store, then head into the saloon to get news about the world outside.
Pastor Jim’s a hunter, as are most of the men and women in the little community. They all know they can count on each other in a pinch. They pride themselves on being the type of hunters who can simultaneously hold down the fort, keep their farms and ranches operating, raise their kids, and spring into action if the need arises.
Every one of the families has lost someone, either through natural causes such as childbirth or illness, or on a hunt. When the town was first founded thirty years ago, there were frequent raids by the local monster population. Now the families live in relative peace. The monsters have left the area, gone to find easier prey in the cities and larger towns where they can live in anonymity, undetected, sometimes not even recognized. Dean’s heard the stories of monsters who “pass,” living among the human population, feeding on unsuspecting victims without anyone knowing what they’re up to.
“Lone shapeshifters,” Bobby tells him one night. “They used to come through here, once in a while. Silver burns ‘em, so once word got around that we test every stranger who comes to town, they stopped coming. We never stop testing, though. Can’t never be too sure.”
All the farmhands and cowboys who work the farm have been tested. They’re all hunters too, of course. They spend the off-season traveling all over the countryside, like Dean’s dad, putting down evil wherever they find it, returning to the Winchester farm in the spring and summer to help with the planting and harvesting, herding the cattle to their winter grazing grounds down south in the fall.
Lately, the families had been clamoring for a school. There are enough children to fill a two-room schoolhouse and hire two teachers, one for the little kids, one for a high school. After Pastor Jim’s sermon one Sunday, Eileen Turner gets up and announces plans for a fundraising dinner-dance to garner support for the project.
Ellen just shakes her head. “Pretty sure your daddy wouldn’t let you go to any school,” she tells Dean as they leave the church. “He was very clear about that from the beginning. Thinks you’re safer staying home for school.”
Dean gets the feeling the Winchester family doesn’t quite fit in. He understands that John Winchester is respected not just for his hunting abilities, but also for his past as a soldier in the early settler/monster wars. His dad’s a hero. Dean doesn’t need anyone telling him that to know it’s true, but it’s still a shock each time they go to town. The other kids watch him, never approach him, whisper behind his back. It’s like being a celebrity, or royalty.
Dean hates it.