Title: Photograph

Author: Philote

Rating: G (K)

Summary: The casual words of a preschooler to his parents often become broken promises. Dean, however, was not most preschoolers.

Disclaimer: The characters and situations of Supernatural do not belong to me. I make no money from this story. Please don't sue.

Author's Note: Written for my spn25 table, prompt #14: promise.

oOo

One of his first memories is of sitting on their old couch in the living room. His legs were just long enough that his feet dangled in the air, barely past the edge of the cushions.

Mom's long blond hair brushed his face as she carefully laid the baby in his lap.

He was not terribly thrilled with this, and gazed at the Baby distastefully. Since Mom had come back from the hospital, he had taken to referring to the little lump as simply "Baby." Baby had a very loud cry, and as a general rule he smelled rather bad. Mom spent all her time with the Baby. When Dad came home from work, he went straight to the Baby. Dean had to be quiet whenever Baby was sleeping, though Baby never returned the favor.

By this point Dean had decided that he didn't much care for the Baby, and he'd like to send him back wherever he came from. And right then, as big eyes opened and watched him curiously, he was wondering if Baby would fit in the mailbox.

"Support his head," Mom coached, taking Dean's small hand in her own cool, soft one and adjusting it behind Sam's neck and head. Then she stepped back, and Dean sat stiffly, not moving as he glared at his brother.

The little body was warm, but it didn't seem to be wriggling as much as it did in Daddy's arms. Dean watched dubiously as tiny lips curved and a tongue poked out, looking as if he was trying to spit at him.

"Look, sweetie. He likes you."

Dean grunted grumpily, but he couldn't help studying Baby a bit more closely. He was little—tiny, really. He had kind of a big head; no wonder he couldn't hold it up well. It just kind of wobbled against Dean's hand.

"He can't take care of himself yet; not like you. That's why we have to do so much for him right now."

Dean looked up at his Mom and shifted without thinking, and Baby dislodged from his berth and started rolling away from Dean and towards the floor.

"Whoa there!" Mom stepped closer and steadied the little body easily. "You've got to hang onto him, buddy. He needs you." She stooped in front of them keeping one hand on the baby, but most of his weight remained on Dean's lap. Sammy went back to watching Dean, apparently undisturbed by the whole incident.

Dean was not so unbothered. He slid his right hand more securely around the little body and cupped the back of the big head with his left. For it was then that he understood—Baby was fragile. Baby might break.

Without once taking his eyes off fragile Baby, he mentioned this to Mom—in four-year-old terms, of course. He expressed how it seemed Sam might be broken as easily as the Lego castle he'd spent a week building and two minutes stomping into the ground.

A smile broke Mom's lips for a moment before she caught it and went poker-faced, nodding seriously. "You know, big brothers have a very important job. Sammy needs you to protect him."

Protect was an unfamiliar word. "Huh?"

"It means you look out for him; always keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn't get hurt."

"Don't Mommies and Daddies do that?"

"Sure. We will. But you and Sammy, you're brothers. You're going to have a special bond. You'll play with him and go to school with him and be with him sometimes when we can't. So your Daddy and I will need to trust you to take care of him." She paused, looking between them. "Can you promise me that, Dean? Will you always protect him?"

He looked at her solemnly. "I promise."

A special smile graced her face then, the one that softened her eyes and lit up everything around her, making her look so much like the angels she talked about. Then she stepped away, trusting his hold.

Dean looked down at Sammy. Carefully, ever so carefully, he moved his hand, shifting the baby's weight to rest entirely on his legs. Once he had his hand free he gently touched Sammy, feather-light fingers tracing from soft hair to a tiny fist. Surprisingly strong little fingers closed around Dean's, and he smiled.

He was so sidetracked that he didn't even hear Mom come back. "Dean…say cheese."

He'd looked up after the flash, of course, as preschoolers were apt to do. As a result, that first picture had captured him and Sammy with their eyes locked on each other, Dean smiling at his brother for the first time. Mom had taken others, some with him actually looking at the camera, but that one was the most special.

He hadn't realized it at the time, of course. But at some point during that scene the dreaded Baby had become Sammy, and Dean had made a promise he would keep his life long.

He remembers clutching the picture before Mom's funeral. Then he'd stuck it in his pocket, and he'd held Sammy for Dad. Sammy had stopped crying when Dean held him, and lay placidly in his small arms sucking his thumb. He'd locked his eyes on Sammy's, and the little orbs that were so similar to his own had stared back. The preacher's words had droned in the background, but he wouldn't remember them.

He remembers insisting on pajamas with a little pocket, so he could stick the picture in there before he climbed into the crib with Sammy. He spent every night for a while with his arms wrapped around his still-tiny brother. He had to protect him; he'd promised.

He remembers the first time he went out hunting with Dad, and had to leave Sam behind. Strictly speaking, Dean was the one in danger. But it didn't feel right leaving Sam unprotected. He'd spent a good part of the trip with his hand in his pocket, fingering the picture.

Dad thinks that photo was a victim of the fire. Dean's never corrected that. As for Sam, he's never even seen it.

But Dean still keeps it in his pocket, and he's never once forgotten to take it out before tossing his jeans in the wash.

It's a little wrinkled, and faded. But it's still just as powerful as it ever was.

"Can you promise me that, Dean? Will you always protect him?"

"I promise."

oOo