When Sam was seven, they stopped in Eddyville, Illinois for ice cream. Dad had to look up something in the town records so he gave Dean five bucks and he and Sam walked to the ice cream shop together. The door was heavy and Dean had to open it for Sam. A bell jingled when they walked in.
"Whaddya want?" Dean asked, digging the crumpled bill out of his pocket.
Sam stood on his tiptoes to see into the big freezer. "Strawberry," he decided.
"Lame," Dean scoffed.
"It's not lame!" Sam sniffed. "It's a classic."
Tolerate older-brother eyes rolled. "Don't have a hissy fit, Sam. You can get strawberry if you want." He turned to give their order to the guy behind the counter.
The ice cream was soft when Sam got it, already sinking deeper into the cone. He took a big lick and his face smooshed against the ice cream.
"Gross, dude," Dean groaned. "Where do you guys keep napkins?"
"Back counter," the guy replied.
"Stay here, Sammy," Dean ordered before stepping away to get the napkins.
"You sure are lucky," the ice cream guy said to Sam. "Having your big brother take you for ice cream like this."
Sam shrugged, chasing a drip of ice cream across the cone with his tongue. That's just what Dean did. No big deal or anything.
When Sam was twenty-one he finally broke down and bought a suit. It was within their first month on the road together and he was having a hard time pulling off the official agent look without it now that he didn't have his dad there to carry the weight of the scam.
"It'd be better if you cut your hair," Dean commented as Sam retied his tie for the third time. "No way is anyone taking you seriously when you look like one of the Beatles gone homeless."
"Shut up," Sam replied absently, the old routine familiar. "I'm not cutting my hair." Jess had always liked it this length.
"Dude, we're out of chips," Dean complained, lobbing the empty bag at Sam's head.
"We'll get more after talking with the witnesses," Sam offered. Keeping Dean from his snacks was a pointless exercise.
Dean perked up. "We?"
"Yeah, didn't I mention? That couple from the park has a kid."
Dean was shut out of most witness interviews, but he was incredibly useful whenever there were kids involved. Parents often didn't think twice about letting their kid hang out with the nice agent's little brother, and Dean was a master at getting those kids to open up to him in a way that Sam just couldn't do.
"Awesome." Dean rolled off the bed and stumbled to his feet. He frowned at Sam's tie. "Here." He grabbed it and yanked the knot lose. "You keep making the fat end too long," he explained to Sam. "What, do you want to give monsters something easy to yank on? Shorten it by a bit before you start tying it," he instructed.
"You don't have to strangle me," Sam complained, submitting to Dean's help regardless.
"Stop whining. There. Now you look at least halfway respectable." Dean reached up to give Sam a firm pat on the shoulder. "It's about as much as you can hope for."
When Sam was twenty he asked Jessica Moore out to dinner for the first time. The date was set and the restaurant was reserved. He had picked up a small bouquet of flowers a few hours before and he had a cue card of possible conversation starters tucked in his front left pants pocket. Just in case.
All Sam had left to do was go on the actual date, which wasn't supposed to start for another half hour.
"Would you relax?" Dean complained, flicking through channels on their TV. "Quit pacing. We can't afford to buy new shoes if you wear those ones out."
"I should leave soon, right?" Sam wondered. "Because if traffic's bad then I might be late."
"Yeah, sure," Dean shrugged.
"But what if there isn't traffic? I don't want to be early."
"Just drive around the block or something."
"What if she sees me?" Sam worried. "Wouldn't that look even weirder?"
"Sam, would you quit overthinking this? You guys have hung out plenty of times before. This is no different."
"Of course it's different, Dean!" Sam snapped. "You have no idea what any of this is about, okay?"
Dean blinked and set the TV remote down.
"Look, Dean, I didn't mean that," Sam apologized. "It was stupid."
"No, I get it, Sam. You're right," he nodded, all too calm. "I haven't… done that."
"That doesn't mean…"
But Dean had already stood and was starting towards his bedroom. "Look, you two have a great night. Let me know how it goes."
Dean couldn't get wrinkles, but the expression he was wearing was still all too familiar.
"Should… Should I wear a suit jacket? Or is that trying too hard?"
Dean scoffed. "Of course you should, Sammy. That way you can give her the jacket if she gets cold. Come on, man, don't you watch movies?"
When Sam was twenty-two they had been on the road together for months and they still hadn't found their father. They had stopped at a diner for a much needed break.
"So, what'll it be, boys?"
Sam dragged his finger over the greasy plastic of his menu to reach the one section that featured something that wasn't previously frozen or bathed in oil.
"Can I get the salad with ranch dressing instead?"
"Sure, no problem." Their waitress scribbled down the order, red nails flashing quickly, before turning towards Dean. "And for you, honey?"
"Bacon cheeseburger," Dean grunted. "And black coffee."
The waitress stuttered and turned towards Sam. "Is that…"
"It's fine," Sam interjected quickly.
"Okay," she agreed hesitantly.
"I'll have some, too," Sam added. He didn't really want any, but maybe if he drank coffee as well it would ease up the attention on Dean.
"Be right back," she promised.
"I hate that," Dean grumbled, slouching in his seat. "Why can't they just take my word for it?"
"I don't know," Sam shrugged. He did know, of course. Twelve-year olds generally didn't order coffee and it was rare that a waitress would fill Dean's cup without some sort of commentary. "Forget about it, man. You said you had a new case for us?"
"Yeah." Dean reached into his jacket and pulled out a crumpled newspaper article. "Guy in Alabama. Neighbour found him dead in his garage one morning. Cause of death—" He cut off abruptly as their waitress returned with the coffee pot.
"Thanks," Sam acknowledged, pulling his mug closer to him so it would look like he was going to drink it. Realistically, Dean would probably end up claiming it.
"Y'all need anything else?" she asked.
"Nope, still good," Dean smiled.
The waitress returned the smile blandly and turned to Sam.
"We're fine, thanks," Sam nodded.
"I don't think I've seen you here before," she commented.
"Just passing through," Sam explained.
She nodded and pivoted around to wait on nearby tables.
"What's her deal?" Dean grumbled. He hunched over his mug and inhaled.
"Just making conversation, I guess," Sam shrugged. They tended to attract a bit more attention now than they had in the past. Things were different now that it was just the two of them on the road together. When Dad was with them, there was never any question about Dean. They were simply a father and his two sons. A family.
Now, people didn't know how to classify them. Sam was too young (yet) to be mistaken for Dean's dad, and since when did a twenty year-old guy take his preteen brother for a road trip? Strangers always responded to that story with mild surprise and a little frown of suspicion. Which was complete crap, Sam thought.
"Anyway, what was it?"
"Huh?" Dean looked up from his cup.
"The cause of death?"
"Oh, yeah. He was frozen solid."
"I know, right? I think it's our sort of thing."
"Could be," Sam nodded. "Definitely worth checking out."
"Not like we've got much else to go on right now," Dean pointed out.
Sam had to admit he was right. The trail for their dad was all but cold, which meant the same thing for the trail for Jess' killer. They had been hitting random hunting jobs as they came up which was important, sure, but Sam still wished…
"I'll be back," Sam announced, needing to get some air.
When he got back from the bathroom he could see right away that something was wrong.
"We're leaving," Dean announced, pulling a few bills out of his wallet and dropping them on the table
"Why do we have to go?" Sam asked as Dean threw on his coat.
"The waitress was asking weird questions," Dean replied. "Why wasn't I in school, where were our parents, that sort of thing."
"Just tell her you're homeschooled," Sam suggested, following Dean out of the restaurant regardless.
"People aren't gonna buy that when I'm telling them it's my twenty-two year-old brother doing all the schooling," Dean argued. "You're supposed to be working stupid hours and scraping together a living for us."
"Well, I am," Sam reminded his brother. Dean handled all their credit card applications, but Sam had learned how to get a decent amount of money out of a game of pool.
"Yeah, and when's the last time you took two seconds to check over my math questions?" Dean grinned.
Okay, maybe there were no math questions, but no matter how much things might have changed since they went on the road, they always took time to look after each other. So screw Nosy Waitress from Greasy Diner, Mississippi. She had no idea what things were really like for them.
When Sam was twelve he got chickenpox. He was old for it, but a lifetime of growing up on the road had meant it took him this long to be exposed to it. It also meant that it hit him pretty hard.
Dean had earned his immunity before Sam had been born, so that meant he was stuck in the motel room feeling perfectly well because their dad was gone for the next few days and someone had to watch out for Sam.
"Do you want me to put more of that oatmeal shit in the bath for you?"
Sam groaned. "No."
"Don't blame you, man. That stuff looked disgusting. Want some of the leftover pizza?"
"Geez, Sam I'm just trying to help you out, okay? Quit being such a whiny bitch about the whole thing."
"Sorry." It was good, really, that Dean was there. He didn't have to be. "Um… do we have any Coke?"
"None that you're drinking," Dean replied.
"Why not?" The whiney tone was back in full force, but Sam couldn't bring himself to care.
"All that sugar isn't good for you when you're sick."
Sam frowned skeptically. "Since when?"
"It says it right here," Dean waved a book up to Sam.
"Where'd you get a book from?" Mustering his limited energy, Sam yanked it from Dean's grasp. "Doctor Mom?Really, Dean? Since when do you read any of this crap?"
"I got it from the library, moron." Dean grabbed the book back. "And I started caring ever since your face started looking like hamburger. Seriously, dude, I've got to do my best to get you through this unscarred or you're never gonna get a date. Your chances weren't big to begin with."
Sam raised a hand to run his fingers over the itchy bumps covering his face.
"Stop scratching," Dean snapped.
Sam whipped his hand away. "I wasn't!"
"Yeah, sure. Look, how about we watch some TV. Take your mind off of things?" Dean grabbed the remote and flicked the set on. "Oh, hey, look! Star Trek marathon."
"Ugh," Sam groaned. "That show's so old."
"Star Trek can never get old, Sam; it's too awesome. Now shut up and get educated."
When Sam was twenty-two he got knocked into a tombstone by the ghost of a bitchy fourteen year-old girl. Dean would probably never let him live it down.
"Sam? Sammy! Shit, man, that's a lot of blood."
"Yeah, man, it's me. Can you open your eyes? Can you look at me?"
Sam pried his eyes open and tried unsuccessfully to focus on his brother.
"Okay, better. Can you follow my finger?"
Dean's finger tracked back and forth in front of Sam, but it was too quick for him to follow.
"You need a hospital. Can you stand?"
"Where's the ghost?"
"Gone, man, don't worry. Here: lift up your arm."
Dean yanked Sam to his feet, and Sam tried not to give in to the wave of nausea that passed through him. He leaned heavily on Dean, who stumbled.
"Shit, you're heavy."
They made it to the car somehow, and Dean dumped Sam in the backseat before climbing into the driver's seat. Music blasted from speakers when the car started, bludgeoning his skull briefly before it snapped off quickly.
"Sam? You still with me?"
Sam knew it was important to stay awake. He was probably con… Something. Head.
It was soft and dark where Sam was. He wasn't ready to leave yet.
"You see, Dean? He's not ready to wake up yet. He needs rest still. Just come with us for tonight and you'll be back in the morning, I promise."
"No, he's fine! Look, he's waking up."
"I don't see…"
Sam felt a sharp jab in his left forearm and he flinched away from it instinctively.
"Look! I told you. Sammy? You got to wake up now. Seriously, dude, it's important."
Sam groaned reluctantly. But Dean said it was important, so he grudgingly complied.
The sharp fluorescent lights make his eyes ache right away, but he blinked the pain out, forcing himself to adapt.
Dean was hovering by his left side; face just inches away from Sam's. A nurse stood on his right wearing soft pink scrubs. A strange woman wearing a grey suit and holding a slick briefcase stood at the foot of his bed.
"How are you feeling, Mr. Young?" she asked with true concern.
"Do you remember what happened? How you slipped when we were hiking?" Dean asked pointedly.
Hiking in a graveyard. Right.
"Um… Yeah." Sam lifted a cautious hand to explore the bandage wrapped around his head. At least his hair was still intact, as far as he could tell.
"Mr. Young, my name is Rose Cuthbert. I'm a social worker."
She was talking too quickly for Sam to follow, but something about what she was saying was unsettling.
"You look like you could still use some rest," she continued. "It's late. I was just talking with Dean about him coming with us for the night. Just so he has a safe place to stay. He says you don't have any family nearby?"
"I want him to stay," Sam blurted out, hand stretching towards his brother in a forgotten reflex from his childhood.
Cuthbert fixed Sam with a narrow glare. "That may be, Mr. Young, but you have to consider what's best for Dean."
Even the nurse adjusting Sam's IV looked a little suspicious.
Belatedly, Sam realized where he had taken a wrong step.
"It's just that… Dean had a bad experience in one of those emergency shelters before," Sam fibbed hurriedly. "He was there a few days after our Dad and before I was able to come get him. There were some older kids…" It was all the detail that Sam's bruised cranium could create, but the sparse story in combination with Dean's expertly worn tragic mask was enough to stir the sympathy of the nurse in the room.
"We can get him a cot for the night," she offered. "I know it's a bit unusual, but I'm sure we can make something work."
Cuthbert wavered. "Well, just for one night, I suppose. If you aren't fit to be released by tomorrow, Mr. Young, then we'll have to make alternate arrangements. I'm sorry about your previous bad experience, but I can assure you that Dean will receive excellent care with us."
"Fine," Sam agreed. They would be out of the hospital tomorrow anyway, whether or not he got an official release.
After a little more fussing, Sam was left alone in the room with Dean.
"That was close," Dean acknowledged. "Thanks, man. Do you have any idea how much it would suck to have to spend the night there?"
"Yeah," Sam agreed. No reason to say it wasn't the only reason he had insisted on keeping Dean there.
"Anyway, I figure you'll be good to go tomorrow, even if we just end up crashing back at the motel." Dean reached down and pulled out a can of Coke. "Here. Got you this."
"You're not going to deprive me?" Sam wondered, reaching for the drink and remembering all the times he had been sick under Dean's care.
"Concussed is different from sick, Sam." Dean dragged a chair over and plopped down next to Sam's bed. He opened his own can before reaching for the TV remote. "Hey, look! Voyager marathon. Awesome."
When Sam was fifteen they ran out of gas on the highway, proving that even John Winchester can make mistakes. After some stomping and swearing and kicking from John, he sent Sam and Dean off with a jerry can and twenty bucks to find the nearest gas station. It turned out to be quite the hike. Sam held out as long as he could before offering to take the container from Dean.
"You want me to carry that?"
"I got it, Sam," Dean replied shortly.
"You sure? Because I don't mind—"
"Fine, I'll let you take a turn in a bit. You need all the strength training you can get."
"Shut up." Sam rubbed his admittedly stringy arms. A small building sat on the horizon ahead of them. "Hey, you think that could be a gas station up there?"
Dean shrugged. "It looks too small to be anything else. We should see if they have beef jerky. The teriyaki stuff."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Dean, you've got a pound of junk food back at the car."
"See, this is why you're still a string bean."
Dean filled up the jerry can while Sam stood to the side watching, his hands in his pockets.
"Make yourself useful and go pay," Dean ordered.
"Yeah. Okay. Be out in a minute." Sam was almost at the door before Dean shouted out to him.
"Hey, Sam! Remember to get my jerky!"
The small convenience store clearly hadn't been cleaned thoroughly since it had been built. Grey dust collected in the corners of the shelves, and the jerky packages felt greasy to the touch. Sam dropped two packs onto the counter and grabbed a pack of gum for himself (and for Dean later).
"This and the gas," Sam explained unnecessarily. They were the only ones anywhere nearby.
The attendant dragged two fingers through his mustache, pulling out the crumbs, before typing into register.
"That your brother out there?" he asked gruffly.
"Yeah," Sam answered cautiously. He didn't like to give out that sort of information, but the relationship was pretty obvious to an outsider.
"It's hard sometimes to be the little brother," the guy commented, reaching out a hand for the required cash. "You always have to live in your big brother's shadow."
Sam shrugged. "It's not bad." Sam had never resented Dean in that way.
The attendant's lips curved upwards, revealing stained, crooked teeth. "Of course it isn't. Not with you in charge, right?"
The pieces of their conversation fell into place as the change fell into Sam's hand. The guy thought Sam was the big brother. Sam supposed they'd be getting more and more of that as the years went on. It made his chest feel a little tight and his skin feel uncomfortably warm whenever he thought about it.
"You do a good job looking after him," the guy continued. "I can tell."
"Actually," Sam replied, pocketing the money and grabbing the snacks off the counter, "we look after each other."
The bell jingled as he pushed the door open and walked back over to Dean.
"Good job, Sammy," Dean grinned, grabbing the beef jerky from him. He tore through the package and jammed a mouthful in before he pointed to the full jerry can sitting on the asphalt. "I decided," he spewed, "that you can take a turn carrying the can now. See, I do let you help out."
He was halfway down the road before Sam had even lifted it up off the ground.