Title: Birthdays
By: Emily Brunson
Pairing: gen
Rating: PG
Series: 1) Under a Haystack
Summary: AU. A curse leaves Sam with a very different version of Dean.

On Dean’s eighth birthday, Sam bakes a cake. It’s lopsided, but otherwise okay, and Dean blows out his candles and eats two big slices, doesn’t complain about the less-than-professional look of his cake or the fact that it’s just the two of them. Sam hasn’t met any of Dean’s friends at school, although he’s seen him talking to a couple of boys when he picks him up at three. He isn’t sure if those are friends or not. If Dean actually has any friends. He doesn’t talk about them, if so.

Sam scrapes frosting off the plate with his fork. “Did you want a party?” he asks, while Dean guzzles the last of his glass of milk.

Dean shakes his head. “That’s okay.”

They didn’t have birthday parties when they were kids. Sam’s never been comfortable with the concept. A cake, sure, and he’s gotten Dean a great number of presents they normally couldn’t afford, bankrolled by their father’s occasional checks. Sam’s working, but it’s hard to make it on his paycheck alone. The house is a little on the pricey side, but Dean has Medicaid, and they scrape by.

“We’ll have a party next year,” Sam announces, feeling sort of sad, and Dean shrugs and asks, “Can I have another piece of cake?”

“May I.”

“May I have another piece of cake.”

“If you eat any more cake you’ll barf, Dean. No more cake.”

Dean’s expression darkens. “But it’s my birthday!”

“Dean –“

“Didn’t even have a party.”

Sam sighs. “Did you want one?”

“No. They’re all dickwads anyway.”

Sam thinks about the next conference with Dean’s teacher, about his tendency to curse when things don't go his way, or another fight during recess, another stiffly uncomfortable half-hour spent listening to Mrs. Richardson say that Dean was a bright boy and obviously very capable, but he just doesn’t APPLY himself, and that MOUTH, my goodness, and so on and on until Sam can nod gamely and say, “I’ll have a talk with him, ma’am. Sorry about this.”

Next time he wants to say, Dean is Dean. He’s not a regular kid. He cusses like a sailor when he’s pissed, he thinks with his fists a lot of the time, and yeah, he’s smart. But he goes to class every day, and he makes decent grades, and frankly, I’m proud of him. He’s a damn good kid, and he’ll grow up to be a damn fine adult, of that much I can be absolutely sure, and so just lay the hell off him, would you?

Sam leans his chin on his elbow and waits for Dean to look at him. “Okay,” Sam says softly. “Birthdays only come once a year, right?”

“Right!” Dean grins and holds out his plate.

After Dean’s bedtime is the quiet part of the night, when Sam can catch up on email, keep poking at the question of what the hell he’ll do with himself after this. He’s thinking about school, but for whatever reason law no longer really interests him. In fact he isn’t sure it was ever law that did interest him; it was the solidity of the profession, the innate respectability, that was key, he thinks now, and that isn’t the greatest reason to commit to years of more classes and many tens of thousands more dollars of debt, right?

So he has dozens of booklets, pamphlets, letters, every university in California and a few from Oregon and Washington state, another handful from Nevada, and nearly every evening after Dean’s asleep Sam picks through them, tries to think what exactly he wants to DO with himself. Only nothing’s really occurring to him. He should move them to Palo Alto, finish at Stanford, at least. But the idea of Stanford is oddly colorless. There is no room for him amongst his old friends, with a child in tow. He has responsibilities now, another person to watch out for, take care of. It isn’t the same, and it will never be the same. The world, and Sam, have moved on since Stanford.

He’s poking at a catalog from the University of Redlands when Dean calls his name. Dean’s sitting up in bed, just a dark shape muffled by covers, and he sighs when Sam sits on the edge of his narrow bed.

“What’s the matter?” Sam asks. “You okay?”

“Don’t feel so good.”

“Might have eaten too much cake, buddy. You think?”

Dean nods. “Yeah.”

Sam turns on the lamp. “You gonna hurl?”


He doesn’t make it in time for the toilet, but Sam catches it in a wastebasket, thinks wryly that he had this coming, he IS the adult here, after all, and he knew better than to let Dean sweet talk him into three gigantic slices of chocolate cake. He pets Dean’s back and wipes his mouth when it seems like he’s done, and tucks him back into bed.

“Feel better?”

Dean gives a halfhearted nod. “Sammy?”

“Yeah, Dean.”

“Did Dad call?”

Sam keeps on smoothing the covers that don’t need smoothing, and presses his lips together. “Not tonight, buddy. I’m sorry. You want to call him now?”

Dean looks uncertain. “Think it would be okay?”

“It’s your birthday, Dean, of course it’s okay. It’s always okay.”

Dad doesn’t answer, of course, but Dean doesn’t seem too disappointed. More philosophical than anything else, and he settles down after they’ve hung up, makes a face when Sam kisses his forehead.

“Can we go bike-riding tomorrow?” he asks fuzzily.

Sam grins. “Well, you gotta learn how to ride it first, kiddo.”

“Piece of cake,” Dean says, and they both make faces this time, and laughing, Sam turns out the lamp.


He spends Dean’s ninth birthday in the hospital. Doesn’t remember the first couple of days as anything more than a pain-filled over-medicated blur, and Dean’s been nine for three days before Sam asks his nurse who’s keeping an eye on Dean.

“Dean?” she asks, her forehead wrinkling when she frowns. “I’m sorry, who’s Dean?”

Sam says, “My little,” and stops.

No one is taking care of Dean, no one HAS been taking care of Dean since the night Sam can barely remember, the Arkansas woods and the hangover from his visions lurking behind his eyeballs like a ball of hot mercury. A woodwose with an acquired taste for human flesh, a fight with something hairy and stinking and so very LARGE, and it all wavers like a mirage, untrustworthy.

“I have to go,” Sam says. When he sits up it takes his breath: he’s here for a reason, he can feel the reasons in his torn belly, the ache in his jaw, his splinted wrist. He still can’t remember where Dean was, where he is now.

The nurse tries to stop him, and then calls a code orange, and Sam disconnects himself from monitors and extracts his IV line with two overweight security guards standing nearby, looking uneasy and staying silent. Three nurses and a tired-looking doctor try to convince him to stay.

“Mr. Winchester, this is a really lousy idea,” the doctor says bluntly. “You have serious injuries. I can’t in all good conscience –“

“I can take care of myself,” Sam says. He keeps his hand flat on his belly while he stands erect. “You got some scrubs I can wear? I don’t see my clothes.”

“Sir, if you leave it will be strongly against medical advice.”

“I’m aware of that. Clothes?”

The first nurse brings him blue scrubs, and doesn’t help him dress. Her face is offended, as if it’s some kind of personal affront that he’s bailing. He doesn’t give a shit. All he can think is, Where is Dean? It’s been days, is he okay? Why does no one know who I’m talking about? He was WITH me. He must have been the one to call the ambulance.

He accepts a wheelchair, because the act of getting dressed has worn him out a hell of a lot more than he likes. His heart pounds, a ceaseless thrum while they roll him into the elevator, down to the lobby. The transporter even calls him a cab, and Sam digs through the sack of personal items they’ve stored for him, finds his wallet and fishes out cab fare.

Did he kill the woodwose? Jesus God almighty, where is Dean?

It takes him a long moment of sifting through memories before he can tell the cab driver where to take him. Cabins, and his is number seven, lucky seven, Dean had said, chomping on a cookie while Sam laid out his gear on the kitchenette table.

Does this mean I’m your son now instead of your brother? Dean had asked, and Sam said, What, the papers? Not really. You’re still my brother, but now I have legal guardianship.

Dean hadn’t asked about Dad. Sam hadn’t volunteered anything. It had taken a year to make it official, and all he knows of Dad is that he signed the papers Sam sent to the PO box in Dallas, and sent them back. No letter, no voice mail, and a money order for $600. The money’d paid for the fees and helped them make the trip to Arkansas a couple of months later, when Sam’s visions of blood and a hairy-faced creature got too strident to keep ignoring.

He’d kept a hundred aside to buy Dean some birthday presents. It’s in his wallet now, minus the twenty for the cab ride.

There is no car in front of cabin number seven. He has no car keys, but the single key for the cabin is in his hospital bag. “Dean?” he calls, and slides it into the lock. God, it’s freezing outside.

The cabin’s empty. But it’s warm, and there’s food, a bag of potato chips and a half-eaten loaf of bread, and mustard and cold cuts in the fridge. Milk and Cokes that Sam doesn’t remember buying. Three comic books on the table, one open and half-read.

“Dean?” Sam calls, louder, and feels a little dizzy. Dean’s not here. But he’s been here, maybe today, that means he’s okay, right? “Right,” he whispers, and hears footsteps on the wooden planks in front of the door.


Sam wavers and sees Dean’s wide eyes gazing at him from the doorway, and then has to sit down suddenly, landing on the couch with a thud that squeezes a groan out of him. “Dean,” he tries to say, and Dean grins and scrambles over to hug him. It hurts, hurts bad, and Sam doesn’t give a shit, clings to Dean for all he’s worth and says, “Are you okay?”

Dean nods. “I hid because yesterday the manager came over and said you had to pay him for the next week, and I didn’t have any money,” he says. “Thought it was him again.”

Hell of a way to inaugurate his custody of Dean: getting hurt, leaving a nine-year-old totally on his own for three days. Dean looks fine, sounds fine. Feels sturdy and strong in Sam’s arms, still chattering about hiding like Dad used to tell them, and it worked, see?

“Are you okay now?” he asks, retreating a little so he can stare at Sam’s face.

Sam touches Dean’s cheek with his thumb. “I’m okay. Dean, how did you get help? It was you, wasn’t it?”

“Took your cell phone.” Dean fishes it out of his pocket. He’s perfectly comfortable with cell phones now; their mysteries are all unveiled. “It was pretty neat. There was a helicopter and everything.” He purses his lips. “Wanted to ride on it too, but I was scared they’d see me.”

“You hid,” Sam says slowly.

“Uh-huh. And then I got back to the cabin and I waited for you. And you came back. I knew you’d come back.”

“De –“

“But the car’s still there. I couldn’t reach the pedals.” Dean’s sunny smile fades. “So I locked it.”

Which means Dean walked all the way back to the cabin, which was what? about eight miles? So cold outside. Sam closes his eyes briefly and hugs Dean again. “Next time,” he whispers against Dean’s hair, “we need a plan B.”

“Dad always said to go to ground. Did I do wrong? I knew nobody oughta see me, or else maybe they’d do something bad.”

Yeah, like take away that legal custody before the ink’s dry on my signature, Sam thinks, and nods. “You did great, Dean. I’m just sorry you –“ His throat clamps down on the words, and he shakes his head.

“Sorry what?”

“That you had to improvise like that. Come up with your own Plan B,” he adds, when Dean looks puzzled at the new word.

“It’s okay.” Dean grins and touches the scrape on Sam’s cheek. “Does it hurt?”

“Nope. But you know what?”


“Something happened while I was in the hospital.”

Dean’s eyes widen. “What?”

Sam fights down a grin. “I think,” he says slowly, “that somebody just got a year older. Heard a rumor like that. Did you hear that rumor?”

Dean watches him carefully, and then tips his head back and laughs out loud. “You’re funny.”

“Happy birthday, Dean,” Sam says, nodding.

Dean keeps on grinning. “Can we eat at McDonald’s?”

“I bet we can. We gotta get the car first, though.”

He’s tired now that it’s all over, the hospital and the fear, and the absolute last thing he feels like doing is calling a cab to drive them all the way to the trailhead and the Impala. But it’s Dean’s belated birthday, and he’s just spent three days alone and not knowing whether or not Sam would ever come back, and he deserves a treat.

Now if Sam can just work on Dean’s definition of “treat,” they’ll be gold.

He changes clothes, checks his bandages, takes four Tylenol, and hears somebody honk out front. Probably the same cab he took out here not very long ago. Sam calls, “Ready?”

Dean’s already at the door. “Ready!”


(Tenth Birthday)

The snow falls thick and heavy, huge flakes and so many that Sam can barely see five feet in front of him. It’s quiet, magical, only the gentle hiss of wind and the squeak of his boots as he slogs up the hill.

He’s almost second-guessed himself by the time he sees Dean’s vague outline at the crest of the hill. Bright red jacket like a badge: I am here.

“Dean,” Sam calls, voice muffled by the snow. “Hey.”

Dean doesn’t look around. He’s dragging Melanie’s old sled, heading across the hilltop, and he says nothing while Sam pushes himself forward, panting.

“Jesus, Dean,” Sam manages, when he’s caught up to him. “What’s your hurry?”

“Wanna be the first one,” Dean says.

“You forgot your hat.”

Dean makes a face while Sam tugs the woolen watch cap over his ears, and shrugs. “It’s not that cold.”

“Are you kidding, it’s freezing out here. Come on, Mel made hot chocolate.”

“That’s okay,” Dean says quietly. He still hasn’t looked directly at Sam. “I’ll be in later.”

Sam jams his hands into his pockets, biting his lip and then saying, “You mad at me?”


“Don’t lie, Dean.”

“I’m not mad!” Dean shouts, and starts trudging forward again.

“Come on. Let’s talk about this.”

“All you ever wanna do,” Dean mutters, barely audible. “Talk.”

Sam goes very still. For a moment he can’t see the boy in front of him, only the man he was and is no longer: tired green eyes, hoarse voice saying, “No chick-flick moments.” It’s been years, and remembering that Dean still feels like a knife thrust in his chest, quick and vicious and painful.

He clears his throat and says, “Come on, buddy. I know you’re pissed. Just – don’t take it out on Mel, okay? Two days ago you really liked her. Remember?”

Dean stops his forward trudge. “I said I’m not mad.”

“Is it because of your birthday? Because we’re going out to –“


It’s the loneliest word Sam has heard in a long time, quiet and matter-of-fact, and it stops Sam cold. “Then what?” he breathes. “Dean –“

“You gonna send me away after?”

Sam stares at him, jaw sagging. “Send you away? Where did THAT come from?”

Dean shrugs. It’s not a gesture that fits an almost-ten-year-old boy; it’s another whiff of the old Dean, gruff and distant. The old Dean, growing closer with every passing day. “After you get married. I heard you talking. Mel said she wanted kids. Once you got your own –“

“You think I’d just – dispose of you? Jesus, Dean, I would –“ Sam exhales noisily, shaking his head. “No. Come here.”

Dean gives a token resistance, stiff in Sam’s arms, no help while Sam pulls him across the hill to the gazebo. It’s no warmer there, but solid wood under their feet instead of crunching snow, and Sam puts his hands on Dean’s shoulders and gazes at him. “No one – ever – is going to send you away, Dean,” he says fervently. “Is this what’s been eating you since Friday? It is, isn’t it?”

Dean’s cheeks look chapped with cold, and his eyes are furtive and difficult to read. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Oh, it matters. It sure as hell matters to me. What put this idea in your head?”

“You love her.”

Sam nods slowly. “Yeah, I do. I love you, too, Dean. People don’t just abandon people they love.”

“Dad did.”

It’s hard to get a breath. His chest is tight. “Dean –“

“He didn’t want me.” Dean’s voice is still that too-adult monotone, as indifferent as if he were reporting news from another planet. He looks past Sam, eyes blank. “Now you got Melanie.”

“Dad –“ Sam swallows. “Dad knew,” he says carefully, “that he wasn’t abandoning you.” Oh Jesus, like walking through a minefield. “He knew that I was here, Dean. He knew there was someone who loved you just as much as he did, to take care of you. He would never have just – walked away.” He hopes, oh he hopes that’s right. It has to be right. For Dean’s sake it has to be.

“Okay.” It’s meaningless, as empty as anything Sam has ever heard, and it feels like claws ripping the skin off his back.

He sits down hard, butt on the freezing-cold planks, and pulls Dean with him, clutching him until Dean has no choice but to sprawl in his lap. “Never think,” Sam says thickly, “that I would let anything happen to you. NEVER. You got that? You are the most important person in the world to me.”

He can’t see Dean’s face, but he feels the stiffness in Dean’s body, the tension. “But you’re gonna marry HER.”

“Yeah, I am. But just because I love her doesn’t mean I stopped loving you, man. Never.”

Dean doesn’t say anything. Under Sam’s anxious arms the tension slowly eases, enough that Sam nods against Dean’s wooly cap and whispers, “People can love more than one person, honey. You love some other people, right? Not just me?”

“Not like you,” Dean says against Sam’s chest.

Sam nods. “But you got a big heart, Dean. There’s room in there for more than just one person. And just because Mel and I are getting married doesn’t mean there’s no room for you in mine. I swear. There’s a room in there just for you, and you know something?”

A long pause, and Dean mumbles, “What?”

“It’s a really, really big room. Your room. Huge.”

Dean doesn’t say anything, but after a moment he sighs quietly. “He’s an asshole,” he whispers.



“Dean, Dad loves you. He’s -- He had some tough choices to make, but he knew that I’d be here. He trusted me.”

In a small voice Dean says, “I hate him.”

Sam closes his eyes. He doesn’t know how to deal with the changes that have started the past few months, the awkward shifts from boyhood to – not manhood, not anytime soon, but something in between, something he’s starting to very much fear is puberty. Handling Dean is like trying to juggle a handful of cactuses. “Hate’s a really strong word. Sometimes when I was growing up I thought I hated him, too.”

“I wish I were big again.”

“Dean. Come on.”

It’s so quiet, he can hear the crunching before he sees Melanie’s bright lime-green coat, her hair hidden beneath that stupid striped hat. “Sam?”

Dean goes tense against him, and Sam lifts his head. “Over here.”

Dean pushes away, scrambling to his feet, and Sam tries not to feel it like rejection. Mel shades her eyes as she squints in the snow glare. Her boots squeak on the gazebo steps. “Thought you guys might be out here.” She smiles at Dean first; it makes Sam’s chest feel tight all over again, with love and relief and some kind of inarticulate fear he’s afraid to examine too closely. “You go sledding?”

Dean busies himself with the sled. “Not yet.”

“I see.” Her eyes are careful, looking at Sam. “Want some company?”

“Dean –“ Sam starts.

But he’s already clomping down the steps, slowing when he sinks in the snow and then pushing forward, headed back up the hill. Sam lets his breath out in a sigh, watches the plume of vapor while Mel walks over and leans against him.

“Did I interrupt something?”

Still watching Dean’s retreating figure, Sam wraps an arm over her shoulders, pulling her closer. “It’s kind of an adjustment for him,” he says quietly. “He’ll be okay. Just gotta give him some time.”

“Sam, we can put off the wedding. Dean -- I know how much he means to you.”

Do you? he wants to ask. Do you really understand? I don’t think you do. I don’t think I want you to.

“No. It’s months away. He’ll be all right.” He manufactures a smile. “Man, it’s freezing out here. Come on, let’s go back.”

Her hand catches his wrist, and he meets her steady gaze reluctantly. “I love him too, you know,” she says levelly. “He’s a great kid.”

Sam swallows and nods. “I know you do.”

“Should I talk to him?”

“Nah. Just – give him some time.”

She watches him carefully, and after a moment she nods. “There’s hot chocolate.”

“Sounds great.”

She laughs when he stumbles in the snow, and the sound is so sweet he has to laugh, too. And on the hill Dean gives a startled cry of delight, zooming belly-down on the sled, and for a moment Sam feels nothing but joy.


(Eleventh birthday)

The plows are out when he hits town, but the snow is still falling, and he has to drive a lot slower than he feels like going. One guy in a bright blue cap stares at him from the cab of his plow, such a classic what-the-fuck look that Sam almost laughs, because yeah. Biggest snowstorm in umpteen years and nobody out on the roads but snowplows and one dude in an Impala with no chains. Nobody stupid enough to drive but himself.

He glances at his watch and lets a little relieved sigh escape. It’s still early, not even ten yet. Plenty of time.

The little yellow house looks washed out by the brilliance of the white snow, and lights shine in the windows. Sam swallows a rush of gladness and pulls into the driveway.

When he climbs out, a snowball pelts him in the back of the head.

“What the fu –“

Dean gives a warning whoop before tackling him, and Sam reels into the side of the Impala, gasping and slipping in the snow. “You made it!” Dean crows, arms looping around Sam’s neck and nearly strangling him.

“Course I did,” Sam wheezes. “Dude, you’re killing me.”

Dean lets up, and Sam gazes at his grinning face. No hat – of course – and cheeks flushed with cold and excitement. “Did you grow another inch the past week or something? I could swear you were shorter when I left.”

Dean draws a breath to reply, and a snowball whistles out of nowhere, smacking him in the back. “Oh MAN,” he breathes, spinning around. “You are DEAD.”

Chris Burns peeks over Mel’s Volvo and snickers. Dean takes off, and then Sam can’t see them anymore, just the crunch of boots in snow, and then Dean yells about Chris being dead meat.

Sam listens. He isn’t sure about Chris. Dean’s eleven today, and Chris is already thirteen, older and amiable enough around Dean, but there’s a funny little sullen look he gets around grownups. Sam isn’t sure he likes that look. It’s sort of the look Dean himself got sometimes when they were kids, right before Dean came up with a plan to cherrybomb a mailbox, or the time he filled the Ashland High School principal’s car with water on a night when the temps got down to around minus 15. He’d gotten expelled for that one, to no one’s surprise, and Dad had nearly stroked out he’d been so pissed, but Dean had told Sam privately later that they were leaving in a few days anyway, and besides, dude, the LOOK on that asshole’s FACE. Worth it, totally fucking worth it.

Sam thinks maybe Chris isn’t such a good influence. But there have been no ice-sculpture cars yet, no exploded mailboxes, and Dean likes him. So.

He takes his bags from the trunk, and the box for Dean, and goes inside.

“Thought I heard you come in,” Mel says, wiping her hands on her jeans while she walks out of the kitchen. She looks warm and pretty, no makeup, hair pinned up untidily and escaping in sweaty little tendrils on the back of her neck, and Sam grins and cups her face in his hands, ignores her hiss at how cold his fingers are and kisses her mouth without saying anything at all.

Mel’s already fed herself and Dean – birthday burgers – but she heats up some stew for Sam, and there’s a cake from the bakery on Oak. Chris evidently went home, finally, and Dean’s attention is split between the cake and the box Sam has left sitting on the couch in the living room.

“Sorry I’m late,” Sam says through a mouthful of bread. “The snow. God, it was really coming down up in the mountains.”

“Snow day tomorrow.” Mel gives Dean a fond look and he nods enthusiastically. “Already came on the news. No school.”

“How’s English?” Sam asks.

“It’s language arts.” Dean’s plate is empty, and he reaches out and gets a fingerful of frosting off the cake. “Okay, I guess. Same old.”

“Anything you want to ask me about?”

Dean gives him an injured look. “It’s my birthday, man, gimme a break. Besides, no class tomorrow.”

Sam exchanges a grin with Mel, and Dean’s eyes wander back to the couch.

“Come on,” Sam says gently. “Open your present.”

Dean springs to his feet, and Sam thinks wanly about how he’s growing out of those jeans already while he takes Mel’s hand, walks out to where Dean is already examining the bulky box, frowning a little.

“Careful,” Sam says, settling into the loveseat and making room for Mel. She fits snugly under his arm, and he touches her hair and adds, “It’s fragile.”

Dean darts him a look, then rips into the paper a little more carefully.

It’s packed in foam, and for a second Sam can see Dean trying to figure out what it is. And then his expression clears, the foam gives under his prying fingers, and he takes it out.

“Wow,” Dean says breathily. “Holy shit.”

Inordinately pleased, Sam doesn’t even bother to say anything about the cussing. “Had it made for you. Guy up in Yakima. You said you needed something better than the rental, right?”

Dean’s jaw is hanging, his look unflatteringly dumbfounded. He looks young and sweet, handling the guitar as if Doug had built it out of spun glass instead of wood. “Oh man,” Dean breathes. “Jesus. Awesome.”

“You impressed even me,” whispers Mel, and kisses Sam’s ear. “When did you set this up?”

“I was up there a few months ago. The thing in White Swan.” Sam smiles and keeps on watching Dean while he carefully tests the strings, adjusts a peg. “Wanted to buy the one he had, but he said he’d build me a new one.”

“It’s gorgeous. I think I’m jealous.”

“Hey, you don’t even play the guitar.”

“With an instrument like that? I’d learn, believe me.”

Sam laughs softly and listens while Dean’s fingers strum out a chord, and then another.

Dean’s bedside lamp is on, and Sam pauses in the doorway to his room, aware of the cool presence tucked into his back pocket. “Still awake?”

Dean gives him a sleepy smile. “Yeah. How was your trip?”

They talk like this sometimes, when Mel’s already in bed. Quiet, more honest than they are in mixed company, although Sam has never been able to outright lie to his wife. Embroider the truth a bit, maybe. She thinks this was a hunting trip, and it was a hunting trip. But Sam hadn’t shot any deer, hadn’t ever been a threat to any natural living creature, and Dean is still the only person who truly knows what that means.

“Good,” Sam says, walking over and sitting on the edge of Dean’s bed. Dean’s room is a mess of gadgets and comics and posters, CDs and DVDs and computer crap that all speak to a certain level of overindulgence on the part of his family. Mel comes from money, and Sam’s earning an embarrassingly good paycheck at the company. He may have sold out to the man, but the man is making it pretty damn worth his time, really. And Dean has everything an almost-teenage boy could want: cell phone, brand-new Nintendo Wii3, an MP3 player the size of a toenail that plays the equivalent of three thousand LPs. Crazy.

But times like these, all the stuff is just stuff. There’s really just himself and Dean, Dean who is growing so fast these days Sam sometimes has trouble seeing the little boy in the army-drab tee shirt whose bare foot nearly broke his nose four years ago. The feral little animal is gone; this Dean is a lot more savvy, but without the tinfoil edge of harshness he had once learned from their father. This Dean isn’t as hard as that one, but not as soft as the boys he hangs out with in school.

“Got what I came for,” he tells Dean now, and sees Dean’s teeth flash in a satisfied grin. “Maybe you can come with me next time.”

Dean sits up, nodding so fast he looks like one of those toys with the bobbing heads. “You know it,” he exclaims. “I’m so there.”

Sam nods and takes a deep breath. “I got you something else,” he says slowly.

Dean watches him, no longer sleepy, eyes bright with surprise. “No shit?”

“No shit.” Sam reaches back and draws it out of his pocket. The sheath gleams in the lamplight, smooth leather tooled with symbols, the product of several hours’ work out in the workshop attached to the garage.

“It isn’t new,” he continues, while Dean takes the knife and unsnaps the sheath, draws out the shining blade. “You had it. Years ago.”

The curving knife reflects a jarring procession of images, Dean’s chin and a disembodied green-hazel eye, the plaid of Sam’s shirt. Dean nods slowly, reverently. “It was mine,” he whispers.

“Yeah. I thought you should have it back.”

Dean’s grin is gone; he looks sober and a little worried. “Thanks.”

“Keep it under your pillow. Just in case,” Sam says. “You know.”

Dean nods.

“Happy birthday, Dean,” Sam says thickly. “I love you, kiddo.”

Dean accepts his hug without complaining, uttering a soft, “Love you too,” against Sam’s shoulder.


(Twelfth birthday)

It’s pretty much been an unqualified success. He worried about it a little beforehand, but now, driving home, he’s damn proud of himself.

“You all right?” He glances at Dean, sprawled in the passenger seat.

“Uh-huh,” Dean says softly. “It was great.”

Sam smiles and turns his attention back to the road. It’s a good drive from the city back out to where Mel’s family’s property lies, and if he’d known they were going to be out here back when he thought this up, he probably wouldn’t have done it.

But Dean adores hockey, adores going to the games, and it’s been well worth it. No friends – Dean can hang out with his buddies later, maybe even Chris if Sam’s feeling generous – not even Mel along. Boys’ night out, she’d called it, before kissing both of them and warning Sam to be careful on the roads, remember the plows won’t be out here for days if not weeks. He’d felt funny about not taking her along, but she didn’t give a rip about hockey, and he got the feeling without ever actually hearing her say it that she’d like the alone time. Time to go through a few more boxes, maybe just deal with her loss without having to think about the two males in her life for a few hours.

Dean had been a surprising asset after Mel’s mom died. Or maybe not so surprising, Sam thinks now, and gives him another fond look. Dean’s expression is hard to read, his face almost hidden in the folds of the new leather jacket.

“Hey, you like the coat, don’t you?” Sam asks.

“It’s great.” Dean nods fast. “Smells good.”

“Is it warm enough?”

“Yeah. I’m good.”

It’s been an ongoing struggle between Mel and Dean, trying to get him to wear anything remotely warm, and Sam still feels kinda good about his advice a couple of weeks ago. “Leather,” he’d told her with a shrug over breakfast. “Something leather. That he’ll wear.”

She frowned. “He’s just twelve, Sam. Do twelve-year-olds wear leather jackets?”

Sam grinned and snorted. “This one will. I promise.”

He likes the one she picked, too – soft brown leather, a lot like Dean’s old jacket, packed away now in the storage space in Seattle. He thinks sometimes about digging that one out, giving it back to Dean, but it’ll still be too big. And there’s some maybe selfish part of him that likes the idea that they’re creating new memories.

The new jacket fits perfectly, and Dean likes it. And that’s what counts.

And Dean liked what they did for his birthday, too. The game was great, and Dean had shouted himself a little hoarse, mostly when Scott Jackson took the ice. Dean’s got a crazy fanboy crush on Jackson, met him a couple of months ago at a junior hockey league thing and he’s been nuts for the guy ever since.

Tonight Jackson scored two goals, and Dean was all over the map, grinning so hard Sam thought his face would split in half. Ate too much crappy food, and Sam really can’t think of a better birthday. It just feels – right. Dean’s doing great, and Sam is, too. This is working. This family, himself and Dean and Melanie, it feels RIGHT. His. Theirs.

They’re just a couple of miles from Mel’s folks’ place when he realizes Dean’s gone silent. Sam glances at him. “Something on your mind?”


“Yeah, Dean?”

Dean doesn’t look tired, but the goofy grin of earlier is gone. He looks – pensive, Sam thinks. Thoughtful. “Let’s go to the North,” Dean says.

“Dean –“

“Come on. Please?”

Sam considers, and then pulls the truck into the right lane. “Man, it’s all covered with snow right now. Nothing there.”

“I know.”

The north pasture – the North, Mel calls it, and so Sam and Dean do, too – is nothing more than a wide-open space in wintertime, a few trees but mostly cleared for the livestock Mel’s family ceased keeping decades ago. The view, however, is beautiful, even in winter, and on a clear night like tonight the heavy moon casts a cool, distant light on the snow, a glow that makes Sam’s chest ache deep inside.

He parks the truck by the gate. There are tracks in the snow, not many, but man-made. “Somebody’s been up here recently.”

Dean’s already climbing out. “Come on,” he says, reaching behind the seat to grab his backpack. Sam frowns, and follows.

Their boots crunch in the snow, a rhythmic squeaking, and Sam watches his breath plume in the frosty air. “Dean? Where the hell are we going?”

Dean casts a look over his leather-clad shoulder, corner of his mouth lifted in a familiar Elvis-y smirk. “Just over here.”

He lets Dean steer him to the fence, and watches while Dean slings the backpack off his shoulder, starts digging around. “You stay here,” Dean orders. He isn’t smiling when he looks at Sam.

“Okay,” Sam says cautiously.

Dean digs earmuffs out of his bag and puts them on, and that’s when Sam starts to feel really uneasy, because Dean won’t wear them under threat of death – says they’re girly – and now he’s digging something else out, another set of earmuffs that he hands to Sam, and something wrapped in a soft old chamois. Something Sam recognizes.

“You stay here,” Dean repeats, teeth flashing in a sudden grin, and uncovers the Glock 17.

“No,” Sam says thickly. “Dean. No way.”

“It’s okay.” Dean nods once, crisply. He handles the semi-auto pistol with authority, authority Sam has never taught him. “I can do this. Watch.”

The moon on the snow makes the field almost as bright as early morning. Dean’s eyes are sharp, sharper than Sam’s. His tongue feels frozen to the roof of his mouth, words jammed up in his throat like an arterial clot, and his knees tremble while Dean plants his feet carefully a few dozen yards away, still and confident in his stance. His face is sober, thoughtful, cold.

Along the far fence are paint cans, upended and placed on the posts. A row, eight in all, and Sam thinks with distant wonder, He planned this. Came out here sometime, a day or two ago, and put the cans up, waiting for target shooting. For me to see.

“Dean,” he tries to say, but nothing emerges but a puff of vapor dissipating in the air, and Dean begins to fire.

He’s forgotten to put on the ear warmers, and the gunfire strikes his eardrums like pokes with a sharp pencil. He ignores the wincing pain. Watches as each of the paint buckets jumps nimbly from its post, flies to the left or right, tumbles noiselessly onto the snow. One of the pines nearby explodes with birds, rousted from their nighttime roosts, and Sam flinches.

Dean takes his time, expression never changing between shots. Only a thin chilly smile of satisfaction when the final two cans fly off their perches. Then he lowers the weapon slowly, and turns his face to look at Sam.

There is nothing to be said. It’s all there, in Dean’s young, calm face. Sam has not taught him to do this, and their father never had the chance. Dean has taught himself. Sam doesn’t know how, or when. When could Dean have had the chance? Where? They only come up here occasionally, and almost never in winter. So Dean has been practicing for a while. Summer, at least, and maybe longer. Practicing shooting, with a gun that Sam hasn’t used in years, put aside because it was always one of Dean’s favorites, the old Dean, the grownup, older-brother Dean.

This Dean holds the weapon like he remembers. And the cold barb in Sam’s chest is not in any way due to the outdoor temperature. He watches while Dean methodically walks over, the Glock already wrapped once more in chamois. It’s so cold outside, it won’t be hot. It’s safe.

“I’ll clean it again when we get home,” Dean tells him, looking up into Sam’s stunned eyes.

Sam can think of nothing to say. He swallows, and Dean’s strange, too-adult expression wavers, becomes almost sullen. “I can do it,” he says in a low taut voice. “You gotta let me help you, Sam. You said I could, but you never do. I can HELP you. I can do it. Okay?”

There is nothing, nothing but ice in his heart, in his soul – I wanted to keep you from this, give you the boyhood you never had, Dean, don’t you GET that, seeing you with a gun is like an ABORTION, it’s so damned wrong, and you just made it look right, RIGHT, and that’s so wrong – until he sees the tears shimmering in Dean’s wide, hurt eyes. “Whatever,” Dean whispers, shoulders sagging, and Sam gives a wounded grunt and sweeps Dean into his arms, ignoring Dean’s quick angry struggle and pulling him close until Dean gasps and wraps shaking arms around him.

“I wanted you to be p-proud,” Dean whispers, and Sam closes his eyes.

“I am,” he says. “That was – amazing.”

“I can do it. I know I can. Let me.”

Sam inhales the cold-clean smell of Dean’s hair and gives a quick, hard nod. “Okay. Okay then.”