Riding a Bike
Characters: Dean and Sam (Dean-centric, Sam POV)
Word count: 2019
Spoilers: Dead in the Water
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters nor am I making any money from them.
Author's notes: Many thanks, as always, to Angela for such a brilliant beta job.
Summary: During some unaccustomed downtime, Sam sees something that helps him understand an aspect of Dean's childhood.
The scene was, Sam thought, a little surreal. How often did he and Dean sit contentedly on the porch of a quaint, two-story whitewashed cottage, sipping lemonade and discussing hunting with a lady old enough to be their grandmother? Not often, was the truth. In fact, never. Yet there they were.
Of course, it wasn't often that they just happened to be driving past a house in Running Waters, Colorado, at the exact moment a poltergeist chose to start tearing it up. After that, the sight of a woman running screaming from the house, carrying a terrified child in her arms, had naturally sent them leaping into action.
In the end, it was a simple job. A day's research in the local library had turned up the obvious candidate. A bit of salting and burning of bones later and hey, presto: peace reigned in the house once more. If only all their jobs were as easy as that one, Sam thought, a little wistfully. The woman, Ellen Patterson, had been suitably grateful and insisted that they stay on for a while. Ellen must have been in her late sixties, a lively, intelligent person with a heart of gold coupled with a surprisingly wicked sense of humor. Sam had felt drawn to her immediately and knew that Dean did, too, from the respectful and attentive way Dean treated the old woman - although his brother would rather die than admit it. Even so, Sam had been a little surprised that Dean had agreed to some down time, rather than heading straight for Wyoming to investigate some rather vague reports of strange phenomena they had come across on the Internet.
Sam found himself enjoying the moment of rare tranquility as the three of them watched Ellen's seven year-old grandson Jamie attempting to ride his new bicycle. Ellen's daughter and son-in-law had died in a car crash a year ago and Ellen was now raising Jamie alone.
Sam winced as Jamie toppled over sideways for the tenth time, stood up quickly and kicked the bike in a moment of petulance. The kid just wasn't getting the balance thing at all.
Ellen sadly shook her head. "Poor Jamie. I wish I could help him, but with my arthritis..."
"Give him time. He'll work it out for himself," Dean said softly.
Noticing a strange tone in Dean's voice, Sam glanced at his brother. Dean was watching Jamie intently, an expression on his face that Sam couldn't quite place.
"I suppose he will," Ellen agreed, "but all of his friends can already ride and until he does, too, he won't be able to go out with them."
Dean looked over. "I…" He cleared his throat, and started again quickly, "I could give him a hand. You know, just give him a few pointers."
Sam looked sharply at his brother. Since when was Dean interested in helping little kids? Well, unless they were in danger from a spirit or a demon, of course.
"Oh, my dear, would you? That would be so kind."
Dean flushed and Sam smirked at his brother's embarrassment. Dean never could handle it when someone praised or thanked him. But something in his brother's expression made him bite back the smart comment on the tip of his tongue. He had a feeling that there was something going on here beyond a simple offer to help a kid learn to ride his bicycle.
Dean stood up, studiously avoiding Sam's questioning gaze, and walked down the yard towards the young boy sitting disconsolately beside his fallen bike.
"I hope Dean will be alright with Jamie," Ellen said. "My grandson is a little shy with strangers."
Sam watched as Dean crouched down beside Jamie and began to talk to him. "Don't worry," he reassured Ellen with an encouraging smile. "Dean's good with kids and he's had some experience teaching a brat to ride a bike."
He vividly remembered the day his brother had decided it was time Sam learned to ride his bike. He had been seven, and Dean eleven. The experience had been fraught with tears and frustration, but he still remembered the feeling of triumph as he'd taken his first, slightly wobbly, solo ride and the proud expression on Dean's face as Dean watched his little brother riding towards him.
For the next couple of hours Sam sat chatting with Ellen while Dean patiently showed Jamie the rudiments of balance and control. After a while, Ellen commented, "You're right. Your brother really is good with kids."
Sam nodded. Until recently he'd never really thought about it, but since he and Dean had started traveling together again, he'd noticed on several occasions his brother's somewhat surprising patience and empathy with children. Take young Lucas Barr at Lake Manitoc. Lucas hadn't spoken since his father drowned and it had been Dean's gentle and sympathetic handling of the kid that had drawn him out enough to help them solve the mystery.
Ellen sighed. "Times like this make me realize how much Jamie's going to miss, not having his father around as he grows up. Riding a bike – that's the kind of thing a father should teach his son."
Sam acknowledged her words with a sympathetic nod, but as he watched Dean with Jamie, he realized that she was right. This was the kind of thing that a father ought to do with his son, along with a multitude of other activities, like teaching him the rudiments of baseball or one-on-one. Sam's childhood had been so atypical that he had never noticed it before, but it had been Dean, not his father, who had taught him all those things. It was Dean who had taken him to the park to play baseball. It was Dean who had persuaded their father to put up a hoop in the garden so that Sam could practice his basketball shots. It was Dean who had spent hours playing one-on-one with him.
Suddenly, Sam wondered how Dean himself had learned to do all those things. It wasn't something he'd thought about before, but when had Dean learned how to ride a bike? He searched his memories, but he couldn't remember ever seeing Dad teaching Dean to ride. Of course, he himself would have been very young then and he might not remember it, but still… all his life Dad had been too busy hunting or doing research to teach him, so where would he have found the time to teach Dean?
Twenty minutes later Ellen and Sam were on their feet cheering as Jamie finally made a confident solo circuit of the yard, coming to a stop beside his teacher. Sam felt a sudden lump form in his throat at the sight of Dean, sweaty and tired, giving the young boy a high five with the same proud look he'd worn fifteen years ago.
Sam couldn't let it go, returning again and again to memories of his childhood, trying to dig out something that would give him the answers to questions he had never thought to ask before. Eventually, he knew that he had no option but to tackle Dean head on. But it wasn't until the following day, when they were back on the road and had exchanged Ellen's excellent home cooking for a less than appetizing 'dive'-thru burger joint, that he had a chance to bring up the subject.
Since leaving Running Waters, Dean had been moody, driving with the music turned up too high to allow for conversation. To make up time they had driven until 2 a.m. and crashed as soon as they walked into their hotel room. The following morning Dean had been a little more talkative, but only about mundane issues and the next job.
Now, with the Impala stationary in a pull-in just off the highway, Sam turned down the music, swallowed a mouthful of plastic burger and said casually, "That was great, what you did for that kid back there."
Dean grunted and eyed him warily. "It was no big deal."
"Yeah, it was, Dean. You're really good with kids, you know?"
Dean frowned, almost visibly tensing as he apparently sensed a hated chick flick moment approaching. "Yeah, well, I guess I had plenty of practice when my brat brother was growing up."
Sam smiled. "So you were wrong about me – I did turn out to be good for something."
The quip had the desired effect. Dean relaxed a little, obviously relieved that the conversation was heading away from the personal. He grinned. "What, practice makes perfect? Jamie was a much quicker learner than you were, Sammy. Thought I was gonna tear all my hair out, waiting for you to finally get it!"
"And what a loss to mankind that would have been."
"Hey, watch it, geek-boy. At least I wasn't the one with the girly brown curls. How old were you before you got them cut off? About eighteen, wasn't it?"
Sam glanced at him, and took a deep breath. "Dean, how did you learn to ride a bike?"
Dean flicked him a startled glance that said, "Where did that come from?" but didn't answer. Instead, he turned his head away to look out of the window, but not before Sam saw him swallow and his jaw tighten.
"Dad didn't teach you, did he?" Sam persisted.
There was silence for a long, long moment. Then Dean said tightly, "No. I taught myself."
Just as Sam had suspected. He'd finally figured something out. He had always thought his own childhood had been tough, and in many respects, it had been. Theirs had been an unconventional household, ruled by his father's desperate search for the demon that had killed their mom. Yet Sam had always known that his life could have been far worse, had it not been for his brother, who'd done everything he could to make it as normal as possible for him.
But what Sam had never considered was who had done these things for Dean. Even when they were very young, Dad had often been away hunting and when he was home, he was always so preoccupied that he barely noticed what was happening around him. So when Dean was little, who had picked him up when he fell down and hurt himself? Who had rubbed his back and told him it was all right when he woke screaming from a nightmare? And who had been there to tell him that it was all right to take time out now and again and just have fun? He was pretty sure he knew the answer now, and it saddened him.
Sam looked across at his brother, wondering what strength of character it took to have survived that childhood and not only keep his sanity, but to turn into the kind of man he was today. He wanted to say something, to tell his brother how sorry he was that Dean had been dealt such a crap hand, but he could tell from the taut way Dean held himself that this subject wasn't up for discussion.
Abruptly, Dean started the engine and the Impala roared into life – a clear signal that the subject was closed. Sam sighed, indicating his acceptance of Dean's wishes by reaching out and twisting the volume button until the harsh sounds of hard rock reverberated around the car once more.
Dean didn't want to discuss it; he got that. He also knew that he could never make it up to his brother for the responsibility that had been loaded on him as a child and which Sam knew he would always carry. But perhaps there was something he could do to give Dean back a little bit of that missing childhood. Sure, they had a job to do, and he wanted nothing more than to find Jess's killer. But maybe, just maybe, there was room in their lives for a little fun. As they passed a road sign pointing to Buena Vista, a thought struck him.
"Hey, Dean?" he shouted above the noise.
"You ever been white-water rafting?"