Author's Note: This is a (slightly late) birthday present for SandyDee84, who wanted twelve-year-old Sam, oblivious Dean, and John being a good father. I hope this fits. *g*

All gratitude to Cheryl for the super-fast beta.

Disclaimer: The boys aren't mine.

Summary: An offhand remark can hurt, especially if the speaker doesn't know he's been overheard. Pre-series, so no real spoilers other than to the premise of the show.


Sam had always been a light sleeper, so it wasn't surprising that he woke up as soon as the front door opened, even though the click of the lock was muffled. It wasn't surprising, either, that he didn't react beyond a tiny smile as he sat up in bed.

Dean was home.

Sam knew the rhythm of Dean's footsteps, knew exactly what course his brother would take. Four steps from the door to the hall closet. Ten steps from the closet to the kitchen to get himself a soda – or a beer if he thought he could take one without Dad noticing. Fifteen steps to Sam's bedroom, where he'd open the door and check on Sam before he went to bed.

It was the first time Sam and Dean had separate bedrooms. Dean was delighted about it – which sixteen-year-old wouldn't be?

Sam, not so much. He was used to having his big brother around, used to the even breathing from the other bed at night, used to knowing that Dean was there to keep him safe from anything.

And then there was the fact that ever since they'd moved into the little three-bedroom apartment, he'd been seeing far less of Dean.

For one thing, Dean was in high school, and Sam wouldn't be for another two years, and this time their schools were in opposite directions instead of right next to each other like they'd always been before. And – maybe because of that – Dean had a lot more friends this time.

Sam hoped it wasn't because of that. He didn't like the thought that he was holding Dean back from having fun with his friends.

But he had an odd, nagging feeling it might be true.

That wasn't important now, though. It was Friday, and for once there wasn't a hunt they had to run to over the weekend, no research to do, no training, no Latin, nothing. Sam was hoping to persuade Dean to go to the Natural History Museum with him. That was why he needed to talk to Dean now; it would take his big brother all of Saturday just to finish describing how only chicks and dorks visited museums.

The door shut, and Sam counted – one – two – three – four – and then the far softer sound of the hall closet opening, and two thumps as Dean's boots were flung carelessly in.

Then came the ten steps to the kitchen. Sam heard water running. Maybe it was too late for Dean to want soda. Or beer.

Dean walked away from the sink, but just a couple of steps, and a chair scraped. He must be sitting at the kitchen table.

Sam's blood ran cold. Why was Dean sitting at the kitchen table? Was he hurt? Had something happened while he was out with his friends? Something he didn't want Dad to know about, so he'd just try to patch it up himself and pretend nothing was wrong and Sam wouldn't find out until he saw bloody bandages in the trash?

Sam got out of bed and padded down the hallway. He walked silently out of habit, socked feet making absolutely no noise on the worn carpet.

He heard Dean's voice when he neared the kitchen door. It took a moment for him to realize his brother was on the phone.

Sam frowned. The phone? At – he checked his watch – one in the morning?

He hesitated, not wanting to interrupt Dean if it was Lydia Greene – or was her name Linda? Sam had seen Lydia-maybe-Linda once, hanging out with Dean outside the bowling alley. She had big blue eyes, blonde curls that were definitely not natural, and, from what Sam had seen, absolutely no inhibitions.

Sam started to back away, but then he heard his own name, and he couldn't help stopping to listen.

"I'd love to," Dean was saying regretfully, "but I might have to watch Sam this weekend. Won't be the first time the brat's ruined my plans."

Sam knew he should leave – he shouldn't be listening in on Dean's conversations – but his feet felt like they were encased in cement, and he was standing right there when Dean said, "Yeah, I know. Little brothers are such a pain in the ass. I'll ditch him if I can, but if he starts whining too much my dad's going to be mad, so…"

Sam finally managed to move. He crept away silently, far more silently than he'd come, slipped into bed, and rolled onto his side, back to the door.

He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep the tears back. He was not going to bawl like a baby. That was probably why Dean thought he was a pain in the ass and wanted to get rid of him, anyway.

Sam wasn't sure how much later it was that the door opened.

He kept his breathing slow and even – he didn't want to talk to Dean, he couldn't talk to Dean now.

Dean came into the room, up to the bed, his shadow blocking the moonlight that was falling on Sam's face. Sam heard him draw the curtains, and then there was a feather-light touch to his back. It wouldn't have woken him if he'd really been asleep.

"Pleasant dreams, Sammy," Dean murmured. His voice was brimming with something – if Sam hadn't just overheard him talking to Lydia he'd have thought it was affection.

Dean tiptoed out, shutting the door behind him, and Sam was alone.

Sam tossed and turned through most of the night. He got out of bed as soon as he could without arousing suspicion, brushed his teeth, brushed his hair, and stumbled into the kitchen.

Dean wasn't up yet, but Dad was. He looked startled to see Sam.

"This is a Saturday, right?"

"Couldn't sleep," Sam mumbled, dropping into a chair and accepting the bowl that was pushed in his direction.

"Yeah? You don't usually have trouble sleeping, do you?"

Sam did, sometimes, but Dad didn't know that. Dean was the one who knew. Dean was the one who sat with him and rubbed his back until he sank into dreams.

But Dean probably didn't want to. Which teenager wanted to waste time comforting a twelve-year-old who'd had nightmares? Dean probably did it because he had to, even though he'd much rather spend that time talking to Lydia – or maybe to Savannah, the cheerleader Sam knew he'd had his eye on. She was dating the captain of the basketball team but she wasn't averse to… fun… with other people. (One of Sam's classmates had an older sister in high school, so Sam heard things like that.)

None of that mattered now, though, and if he said anything to Dad he'd just get a lecture about how Winchesters sucked it up.

"Just restless, I guess," Sam said, reaching out for the cereal.

Dad frowned at him, like he didn't entirely believe that. He didn't ask any more questions, though, and Sam didn't offer any explanations.

Sam tipped some cereal into his bowl. He poured in just enough milk to moisten it – he hated it when his Wheaties got soggy.

He was about halfway through the bowl when Dean came in. Sam had warning – Dean hadn't bothered to be quiet, and the thumping of his feet in the hallway gave Sam all the advance notice he needed to school his face into a smile.

"Morning, Dad," Dean said, beaming, practically bouncing across the kitchen and into his chair. "Morning, Sammy."

Sam frowned. Dean was normally never this cheerful in the morning.

"Dean." Dad put down his paper. "What are you doing up so early on a Saturday? You have plans?"

Dean's smile faded a little.

"Oh… yeah." There it went. "I… I don't know, really. Lydia –" So her name was Lydia, not Linda. Assuming Dean had it right, which was a big assumption to make now that Sam thought about it. "– and a bunch of my classmates are driving down to the beach for the weekend. But if you need me to keep an eye on Sam if you're going to leave for Atlanta today –"

"I am," Dad said. Sam was surprised. He hadn't known Dad was leaving so soon. But he wasn't surprised he hadn't known, because when did anybody tell him anything. "If you really want to go out with your friends, though – you've been working hard, Dean, you could use a break."

"I don't need anyone to watch me," Sam said abruptly. "I can take care of myself."

Dean and Dad both turned to stare at him like they'd forgotten he was there.

"Sam," Dean began, but Dad interrupted.

"I suppose there's no reason why not," he said. "I left you boys alone when Dean was younger than you are now. And this town is fairly safe."

"Are you sure, Sam?" Dean asked. "I know you wanted to go to –"

"Yeah, I'm sure." Yeah, Sam would've liked to go to the museum with Dean, but he didn't want Dean to do it out of pity when he wanted to be at the beach with his friends instead. "It's one night. I'll be fine."

Dean was frowning at him, like he didn't really believe that, but then Dad said, "That sounds good."

"If you're sure, Sammy," Dean said, but he didn't sound nearly as thrilled as Sam had expected.

"Do you want to tell me what that was about?"

Sam looked up at his father. Dean had just left, after casting Sam bewildered, worried looks all morning. He hadn't asked Sam again if he was sure, but he'd looked like he wasn't entirely happy.

Tough. Sam had made sure Dean didn't have his plans with his friends ruined by his pain in the ass little brother. He didn't see what else Dean expected him to do.

"What?" Sam asked, though he knew exactly what Dad was talking about.

"Come on, Sam. I know you think I'm not the best father, but I know you've been wanting to go to that Living History exhibit that's closing this weekend. And if I know, I'm pretty sure Dean does, too. He would've gone with you."

Sure he would have. Under duress.

Sam didn't say that, though. What he said was, "It'll probably be more fun at the beach. I can go to the museum on my own, anyway."

Dad continued to watch him for several long moments before he said, "Yes, I suppose you could. But you don't have to." Sam looked up, and he went on, "I don't really need to leave today. Caleb's not getting there till Tuesday. I wanted to get in early and start talking to the witnesses, but I can leave tomorrow morning." He smiled. "What do you say, kiddo? Want to go to the museum with your old man?"

"Just to see the museum?" Sam asked. "Not to research some vengeful spirit inside a sarcophagus?"

"Just to see the museum, I promise. You can decide what we see."

Sam couldn't hold back the grin that split his face. "Sure."

"So…" Sam looked at the tiny shoot in its little pot, comparing the leaves to the fossil cast next to it. "That's a hundred and seventy million years old."

"Well," the guide said, laughing, "we bought the cast last year. But the original fossil is around that old. The Middle Jurassic period."

"So dinosaurs might've eaten ginkgo?" Sam asked.

He found it fascinating that millions of years ago, a stegosaurus might have looked at a plant exactly like this and thought, "Hey! Dinner!"

"Well, not the T-rex or Velociraptors. But I suppose some of the herbivores might have. But it wasn't just the dinosaurs. People eat it, in some parts of the world."

"And use it as a memory booster," Sam said, vaguely recalling something he'd read.

"Yes, that's right." The guide smiled over Sam's head to where Dad was standing a few feet behind him. "You have a very bright son."

"I know," Dad said, clapping Sam on the shoulder. "He gets straight As."

"I'm not surprised."

Dad smiled, drawing Sam away to where there was a chart of the Oligocene Epoch. "Having fun, Sam?"

"Yeah!" Sam said enthusiastically. "This is great."

"Good. I'm glad. I wanted to… Sam, I… I know I'm not around for you as much as I should be. I mean, you didn't even think that I would want to go to the museum with you – no, I'm not blaming you, Sammy. It's the way things are, and I can't change what's already happened."

"Um… Yeah, OK, Dad," Sam mumbled, staring at the chart. He had no idea what his father wanted, and this was a little disconcerting.

"But you should know that I… that is… I love you. You and Dean, you're all I have left. I couldn't survive if I lost either of you. So maybe I push you a little too hard, but I only do it because I need to know you'll be safe." Dad patted Sam's shoulder again. "But I guess sometimes it's OK to take a break, right?"

"Right," replied Sam faintly.

"Come on." Dad started walking towards the Oligocene exhibits. "You know what one of my best memories is from when I was a kid, Sam?"

"What?" Sam asked, stopping to look up at him. Dad almost never spoke about his childhood.

"We went to a museum. I was young, then, couldn't have been older than four. There was an Egyptology exhibit, and my father took me to it. I don't remember much of what I saw – hell, I don't remember any of what I saw – but I remember he was talking to me, all through, telling me about all the relics and why they were important. Then we had lunch in the museum cafe. I ate way too much ice-cream."

"You remember that?" Sam asked.

"I don't remember a lot, but I remember the ice-cream. I wasn't normally allowed very much, but that day it was a special treat." Dad sighed. "It's a good memory. And I realized… Well, Dean did have a few years of living a normal life. I can't give you that, can't give you those first few years, and there's no way I can replace your mother, but if you're thinking back in twenty years I don't want all your memories of me to be target practice and Latin verbs."

Sam said the only thing he could. "Thanks, Dad."

Dad nodded. "And another thing. Don't worry about Dean." When Sam opened his mouth, he held up his hands. "No, don't argue. I don't know what's going on with the two of you. But I do know that your brother cares more about you than about anything else in the world." He cleared his throat and gave Sam a rough clap on the back. "Right. Enough of that. Let's go take a look at those pelicans."

They wound up spending more than just a few hours at the museum. They were there till closing time, looking at everything, getting burgers and sodas in the cafe, walking around until Sam was exhausted. They bought a couple of books, and a t-shirt for Dean, in the gift shop on their way out.

They had dinner at a pizzeria across town. Dad responded with good-natured patience to the waitresses' flirting, and grinned when they told him he had an adorable son.

"I know," he said, laughing when one of them pinched Sam's cheek, making him squirm and turn beet-red. "He reminds me a lot of his mother." When Sam turned startled eyes on him, he nodded and patted his arm gently. "He really does."

Sam was tired enough that he fell asleep in the car on the way back. He woke up when he felt himself being hauled through the passenger door.

"Dean?" he mumbled drowsily.

"Shhh," Dad's voice said. "It's me, Sammy. I've got you."

Sam felt himself being lifted, and he was shocked enough that he didn't protest being carried like a toddler.

Dad took him inside and put him down on his bed.

"You're heavier than you look," he commented as he unlaced Sam's shoes and took them off. "You're going to be big one day, Sammy."

"Bigger than Dean?"

Dad laughed. "Dean still has a bit of growing to do, too, you know. But, yeah… Considering how you are about eating your vegetables, there's a good chance you'll grow bigger than Dean. But don't tell him I told you so." Dad patted his head. "Good night, kiddo."

Dean crept into the silent apartment.

He'd found, after all, that he couldn't spend the night at Josh's father's beach house. It was all very well for Dad to say Sam was old enough to be left on his own. Dean didn't think so, and, as far as Dean was concerned, he had the last word in all matters related to Sammy's wellbeing.

It wasn't like he really cared about spending the weekend with his friends. Sure, it had sounded fun when Josh had suggested it – and even more fun later, when Lydia had spent Algebra whispering to him about all the things they could do at the beach house. But he'd been mentally prepared to have Sam kick up a fuss and insist on Dean spending the weekend with him. He'd been expecting it, given how little time he'd had for the kid lately.

He'd also been hoping for Sam to insist on Dean spending the weekend with him, but he hadn't realized that until Sam had told him to go with his friends.

Dean hadn't been surprised by the rush of disappointment he felt – he might not admit it out loud, but he knew he liked spending time with Sam. What had surprised him, though, had been the way his stomach had plummeted.

Did Sam not need him anymore?

Dean knew Sam wanted to see that stupid museum exhibit. It had been all the kid had been talking about. He'd been mentally prepared for that, too.

So why had Sam suddenly pretended he didn't care if they didn't go to it?

And, most importantly, what the hell had Dad been thinking, saying Sam could stay alone for the weekend? And what had Dean been thinking to agree with him? This was Sammy. His Sammy, whom he'd always sheltered from all the crap in the world. His twelve-year-old brother.

His baby brother home alone.

What if someone got in? One of those horrible perverts who preyed on little kids? Or another one of those things that had almost gotten Sam when he'd been six? Or the thing that killed Mom? Or a rattlesnake?

What if the thing that killed Mom came in with a rattlesnake?

Dean had said goodbye to his friends, not even stopping to explain himself to a pissed-off Lydia, and hurried to catch the last bus back.

He paused when he saw the light shining under Dad's bedroom door.

So Dad hadn't gone to Atlanta. Maybe he'd realized at the last minute what a colossally stupid idea it was to leave Sam by himself.

Dean decided against disturbing his father, and crept into Sam's room instead.

Sam was asleep – really asleep, not faking like he had been last night. His breathing was slow and deep and even, and Dean took a moment just to listen to it.

The curtains were open. Dean went to the window to draw them shut, and, as he passed Sam's small desk, he saw a package on it.

He picked it up. The moonlight was bright enough that he could see what it was – a t-shirt, with the logo of the Natural History Museum and a picture of… a penguin? Or a puffin, or one of those other birds that ate a lot of fish. Dean didn't know or care which one, he wasn't a freaking zookeeper.

And it was in his size.

So Sam had gone to the museum – with Dad, probably.

And he'd remembered to get Dean a souvenir. Sure, it was a ridiculously dorky souvenir that he could never wear in public, but Sam had still thought of him.

After all the time Dean hadn't had for Sam lately.

Dean sat on the edge of the bed. He hadn't wanted to visit the museum – it was a museum, and he was a healthy teenage boy. Sam was the geek.

But he still wished –

Dean shook his head. He didn't know what he wished, except that he wished Sam had insisted on Dean staying with him and going to the museum with him, instead of being all grown-up and independent and forcing Dean to ask himself why he felt so disappointed about missing an exhibit he hadn't wanted to see.


He didn't realize he'd spoken aloud until Sam woke up, blinking and gazing at him in astonishment.

"Dean? What are you doing here? I thought you weren't going to be back till tomorrow."

"Didn't want to leave your ass alone that long," Dean said. "I didn't realize Dad was still here."

"Oh." Sam's eyes darkened. "You should've called first. I'm sorry you came all the way back for nothing. I did tell you I could take care of myself."

"What? No! That's not what I meant." Dean sighed. "Scoot over, Sam. I've been sitting on a bus for two hours."

Sam scooted, letting Dean sit by him with his back to the wall.

"I would've gone to the museum with you," Dean told him, settling down. He expected Sam to burrow into his side, like he always did, and he was more than a little hurt when Sam stayed where he was, watching him in the darkness. "Could've told me. What, am I not good enough to take you to the museum now?"

"I don't need to be taken to the museum," Sam muttered.

"Sam. Come on. You wanted to go. Why didn't you say something?"

"I didn't want to be a pain in the ass little brother and ruin your plans."

"What're you – oh." Sudden realization came to Dean. "You heard me last night." Sam just glared at him. "How did you – never mind. Sammy, come on. I never meant it."

"Well, you said it."

"To a girl I was trying to impress. Because she was bitching about how she couldn't go to some stupid party once because she had to babysit her kid brother. I didn't think you were listening."

"That makes it so much better, Dean, that you bitch about me to your friends when I'm not listening."

"Hey." Dean moved away so he could look Sam in the eye. "Do you really think some blonde I'm never going to see again after two months is more important to me than you are?" Sam didn't answer. "Sam?"

"No," Sam admitted. "It's just… I don't want you to spend time with me because you have to, or Dad makes you, or whatever."

"Awesome. I don't want to spend time with you because Dad makes me, either. So we both want the same thing. Or don't want it, whatever." Sam rolled his eyes. "It wasn't even like I particularly wanted to go to that stupid beach house, Sam. It's just… one of those things."

"Yeah. Sure."

"Hey." Dean nudged Sam's knee. "I like doing stuff with you. I like watching you geek out. I'm sorry. You're my favourite brother."

"I'm your only brother."

"That too," Dean conceded, holding out his hands.

This time he got the response he wanted. Sam, with that shy half-smile that made him look about eight years younger, moved in for a hug. When Dean loosened his arms, Sam curled into him, dropping his head to Dean's shoulder. Dean kept one arm around him, murmuring to him until he fell asleep. Then he lowered Sam to the pillows, pulled the blanket up around him, and slipped out.

Dean nearly ran right into his father as he left Sam's room.

"How long have you been standing there?" Dean demanded, shutting the door.

"I wanted to make sure it was you. Is he OK?"

"He's fine. So… Atlanta?"

"I'm leaving tomorrow morning… But I didn't stay because I didn't think Sam should be left alone. I know it's hard, Dean – believe me, I know – but he's growing up. However difficult it is, we have to let him take care of himself sometimes. You can't protect him from everything."

"Watch me."

John shook his head. As Dean went to his own bedroom, he crept into Sam's to check on his sleeping son one last time.

He hadn't given his boys much, he reflected as he looked down at Sam's peaceful face. He hadn't even been able to give them a settled home. But he'd given them each other, and something told him that would be enough to get them through whatever happened.

What did you think? Good? Bad? Please review!