In Lieu Of
"Daddy…" Dean said sleepily, snuggling deeper under the covers in the faint hope that he wouldn't have to move from the warmth of his bed.
There was no sound of movement from the other side of the room, and the noise that had woken Dean from his sleep continued unabated.
"Daddy?" he asked again. No response. Reluctantly, Dean rubbed the sleep from his eyes and wiggled out of the tangle of blankets to set his feet on the floor. It was cold, making him want to draw his legs back onto the mattress, but he stood up instead and padded over to where his father lay sleeping. He tugged lightly on his father's sleeve. "Wake up, Daddy. Sammy's crying."
The man let out a quiet groan and turned over to bury his face in his pillow. "…tired," he mumbled. "…if I promise…make it up to you 'morrow night…will you take care of him this time, Mary?"
Dean's breath hitched a little. Mary was Mommy's name. He remembered when his father used to call her that; he had thought it was strange but he supposed if he could be called 'little man' and 'kiddo' and 'son' as well as 'Dean', she could have more than one name too. But it had been months since Dad had said her name out loud. He didn't like to talk about her anymore, and he would get tears in his eyes if anyone else did. Except now he was talking like she was right here with him.
She wasn't, though. She was gone.
"She can't," he told his father solemnly. "Sammy needs you."
"…needs his mother," his father protested. When he started softly snoring again, Dean realised he might never have actually woken up. He was very tired. He worked too hard, always leaving early in the morning and coming back late. Dean knew he needed his rest if he was going to be able to find and fight the evil fire monster.
But Sammy was crying.
Needs his mother.
Sammy didn't have a mother. The evil fire monster had killed her. Maybe that was why he was crying. It was the reason why Dean cried in the middle of the night sometimes, though he was always careful to make sure his dad wouldn't hear him. Big boys weren't supposed to cry. He thought maybe babies were allowed to, since they were so little. He didn't like to hear Sammy sounding so sad, though.
Mommy wasn't here to take care of him. So that meant Dean had to.
Dean moved quietly over to the cot in the corner and stretched up onto his toes so he could see over the side. Sammy's face was all red and screwed up as he bawled, little fists waving in the air. Dean reached in to close his hand gently over Sammy's fingers.
"Shh, shh, Sammy," he soothed. "It's okay."
Sammy kept crying, sounding more distressed than ever. He didn't like Dean lying to him.
Dean sighed. "You're right. I know it's not okay. You miss Mommy, don't you, Sam?" He snuck a look back over his shoulder, checking that his father was still asleep. "I miss her, too," he confessed quietly. His voice trembled, and he had to blink quickly to hold in the tears. He needed to be strong for Sammy. "But you don't need to worry. I'll take care of you. I know I'm not Mommy, but I'll do my best. I promise. You'll be okay."
Sammy's cries were softer now, but he still looked so sad. He needed a cuddle, Dean decided.
It took some doing, but Dean worked out how to lower the sides of the cot. Sammy was too heavy for him to lift out, so Dean clambered in instead and carefully pulled the baby into his lap.
"I've got you, little brother," he murmured, wrapping his arms protectively around Sam's middle and cradling him close. "Mommy might not be here, but I always will be. You can count on me."
Dean rocked a little, just like Mommy used to, and gradually the crying eased. "That's it, Sammy… shh, shh…"
He laid his cheek against Sammy's head of soft hair, matching his breathing to Sam's every inhale and exhale, letting their chests rise and fall simultaneously. Only once Sammy had fallen asleep did Dean allow himself to do the same.
In his last moment of semi-consciousness, a sleepy murmur escaped Dean's lips. "Love you, Sammy…"
It had not taken long for Dean to become attuned to the different cries that his baby brother made. He could tell when Sammy was tired, or had gas trapped in his tummy, or needed a nappy change, or wanted to be held. The sound Sammy was producing at the moment meant that he was hungry.
Dean glanced over to the corner where his father sat at a desk pouring over smelly books with yellow pages and strange pictures in them. He had been at it for hours, but he didn't look like he was going to stop any time soon and he hated to be interrupted. That was okay; Dean was getting good at taking care of his brother. He knew what to do, and he thought he could probably do it without Daddy's help.
Dean dragged a chair over to the kitchen surface, clambered up onto it and hoisted the kettle into the sink to fill it with water. He very carefully lit the stove top, keeping his sleeves and fingers well away from the hotplate; he had learned his lesson the hard way by burning his hands last week and he wasn't eager to repeat the experience. Once the water was boiled he left it on one side to cool, and went searching for the tin of milk formula.
Popping the lid off was a challenge for little fingers, but Dean concentrated all his effort on wedging and levering the spoon just right until he succeeded… only to stare down into the tin in dismay. There was only a small scattering of powder left at the bottom; not enough to make up even one bottle.
And Sammy's demands for food were becoming more insistent.
Disappointed in himself for not being able to prepare the bottle on his own after all, Dean sighed and gave in. "Daddy."
The man didn't turn around. "Quiet, Dean."
"Not now, Dean. I'm busy." He had used his stern voice, the one which meant business. He would be angry if Dean distracted him again.
Dean glanced toward his brother. When his own tummy was rumbling, he could tell himself to be patient and wait until Daddy had time to go out and get food. He knew what Daddy was doing was important. But he couldn't explain that to Sammy because he was too little to understand. He was hungry now, and nothing Dean said was going to change his mind.
So Dean would have to do something about it.
He frowned, thinking, then made up his mind. He put the empty formula tin into a plastic bag, found Daddy's wallet in his coat which hung on the bedpost and took out a handful of green sheets of paper which he stuffed in a pocket. He remembered to take a door key with him so he would be able to get back into the motel room.
"I won't be long, Sammy," he promised, giving his brother a dummy to suck on. Hopefully that would keep him quiet enough to let Daddy keep working.
Dean slipped out the door quietly, threading his arms through the handles of the plastic bag and wearing it like a backpack. He set off down the sidewalk, sure that he had seen a supermarket on their drive into this town. Thankfully it wasn't far, although to little feet it felt as though he had been walking for miles.
When he walked through the whooshing doors and looked up, the place seemed to stretch on forever in every direction. There were brightly coloured packets of everything everywhere, stacked high on shelves at least double his height, and he suddenly felt that he could be searching for a very long time.
He stared, wide-eyed, wondering where to start.
"Are you lost, dear?"
A woman with a kind face was bending over him, wearing a friendly smile.
Dean took a hasty step back, one hand darting into his pocket to grasp his pocket knife. "I'm fine," he squeaked. Daddy had warned him to never trust anyone, no matter how nice they looked.
"Are you sure, sweetie? Where's your mommy?"
He looked around quickly, thinking on the spot. "Getting yucky green stuff over there," he lied, pointing to a random lady with a pram he could see over by the piles of vegetables.
The woman chuckled. "You should eat your veggies, young man. They'll help you to grow big and strong."
Dean paused to consider her words. He wanted to be big and strong so he could protect Sammy. Maybe he'd have to try some of those gross greens again sometime. But right now he had a job to do.
"I need to find this." He pulled out the empty tin. "For my brother."
"Well aren't you a good little helper for your mommy," the woman crooned in a sickly sweet voice. "This is a big supermarket for a little boy though. Would you like me to show you where they keep the baby formula?"
Dean did a quick check of his surroundings and decided that even if this woman was evil, she probably wouldn't do anything to him with so many people around. "Yes, please."
She led him down one of the aisles and retrieved a large tin from one of the higher shelves for him. He looked it over carefully, making sure it was the same as the one he had before. Sammy was fussy; he wouldn't drink his milk if Dean got the wrong one.
"Thankyou," he said stiffly to the woman. "I'm going back to the – to mommy now."
"Run along, then, dear." She smiled again and didn't try to follow him, much to his relief.
He couldn't quite see over the counter, but he managed to lift the tin up over his head and push it onto the bench, causing the checkout lady to lean over and look down at him in surprise.
"Hello there! Shouldn't you wait for mommy, sweetie?"
Why did everyone assume he had a mom? He couldn't decide whether it made him angry or upset, so he ignored it and went on playing make-believe. "I'm a big boy. Mommy said I could pay for it." To prove his point, he held out the fistful of green money papers he had stashed in his pocket.
The checkout lady raised her eyebrows, but took the money, pressed some buttons on her machine and returned some papers and coins to his hand. "Shall I pop the tin in your bag?"
He let her, then put the bag back on like a backpack and sidled up behind to the woman with the pram who had just finished paying for her own shopping to make it look like he was going out with her. No one questioned it, and once he was outside he split off on his own to return to the motel.
When he got back his father was still hard at work and hadn't even noticed that he had left.
Dean slipped up to the cot. "I'm sorry I took so long, Sammy." His baby brother had spat out the dummy but looked to have cried himself out. "I'll have your bottle ready soon."
He made up the formula, heated the bottle in the microwave and tested the temperature on his wrist just like he had seen Mommy do it.
When Dean was finally able to offer it to him, Sammy suckled on the bottle greedily. Dean held it steady until all the liquid was gone, then patted Sammy on the back until he burped.
Belly full and hunger satisfied, Sammy began to blink slowly and drifted off to sleep.
Dean bent down to give his little brother a quick kiss on his forehead, just like Mommy used to for him. He didn't say 'Angels are watching over you', though, because he didn't think that was true. If angels were real bad things wouldn't happen. Mommy wouldn't have died in a fire; she would be here to feed Sammy and put him to sleep herself. But she was gone, and Dean was here in her place.
So instead he whispered to the sleeping infant, "I'm watching over you."
It was too quiet.
Dean had spent the past ten minutes sitting in front of the blank screen, alternating between pressing the 'on' button and hitting random buttons on the remote, but the television just wasn't working. The little radio in the corner was broken too; no matter how much he turned the knob it would only spew out a mess of static that was painful to listen to.
Dean was under strict instructions not to leave the motel room, so he couldn't go to the front desk to complain – not that they would take a little kid like him seriously anyway.
Daddy would be back tomorrow and then they could get out of here, but until then Dean was stuck with the silence and nothing to do. He was bored… and kind of lonely.
A sound came from the cot and Dean leaped up with an excited cry of "Yes!" that came complete with fist pump. He wouldn't have deliberately woken his baby brother, but now that Sammy was up he was going to make the most of it.
"Out you come, Sammy," he said cheerfully. Dad had rigged the portable cot so Dean could take off one side and turn it into a ramp for Sammy to crawl down, which made things a lot easier.
"Did you sleep well?" he asked, giving Sammy a quick cuddle when he climbed into his lap. He received a happy gurgle in reply.
Dean caught an unpleasant whiff of nappy and wrinkled his nose. "Yuck. Guess we should change you first, huh?"
Dean kept up the running commentary as he took care of Sam's various needs, relieved to have someone to talk to even if Sammy couldn't really talk back. He was trying though, babbling and cooing and squealing at different intervals.
"Once you start talking for real you're never gonna stop, are you, Sammy?" Dean joked. He thought about how quiet these hotel rooms could be while Daddy was away and decided that, even if Sam did turn into a chatterbox without an off switch, the noise would be more than welcome.
"You're pretty clever, Sammy; I bet you could say a few words if you tried." He decided to come up with a nice easy word to start Sam off with. What did babies usually say first?
Probably 'Mama', Dean thought sadly. But that word wouldn't mean anything to his little brother.
"Can you say 'Dada', Sammy? 'Dada'?"
Sammy just blinked at him.
"Okay, well how about my name? Can you say 'Dean'?" he gestured to himself. "I'm Dean. Say 'Dean'!"
"Dee!" Sammy squealed.
Dean couldn't believe his ears. "Did you really just – did you say 'Dean'?"
"That's right! Or close enough anyway – you said 'Dean'! Well done, Sammy!"
Sam had just turned a boring, quiet evening into one of the most exciting nights of Dean's life. Sammy's first word, his first ever word, had been Dean's name. It made him feel so special and happy that he thought his heart might burst.
"Yeah, that's me. Anytime you need me, Sammy, just say 'Dean' and I'll be right there. I promise."
Dean hovered nervously as his baby brother stretched up, grasped the edge of the coffee table and pulled himself to his feet.
The 15-month-old was getting better at it; the first time he had pulled on the edge of a tablecloth and would have brought a whole stack of dirty dishes down on his head if Dean hadn't snatched him out of the way. These days he could stand on his own for minutes at a time, although he tended to hold onto something just in case.
Once he was up and stable, Sammy gazed around the room from his new vantage point. In the centre of the coffee table was a balled-up, raggedy old t-shirt. Dean used to wear it all the time, but somewhere along the way it had turned into Sammy's favourite toy – probably about the time Dean had plucked it from a pile of laundry and used it to play peek-a-boo with his baby brother. Sammy liked to drag it around with him everywhere he went; he chewed on it, sucked on it, even slept with it clutched in his little fist.
Sammy saw it now and his face lit up. Letting go of the table edge with one hand, Sammy wobbled a bit but regained his balance and reached out for the t-shirt. His fingertips brushed the material but he couldn't quite grasp it, so he released his other hand to reach out with both. When he still couldn't grab hold he made a sound of frustration, turning his head to look pleadingly at Dean.
"Keep trying, Sammy," Dean encouraged.
Sammy made the sound again, louder this time. When Dean made no move to help, though, Sam tried a new approach, holding onto the table for support and taking hesitant steps around the edge to see if he could get to the t-shirt from the other side.
"Good idea, Sammy," Dean said proudly. "You're nearly there!"
But his arms just weren't long enough.
Sammy ended up with his arms and chest splayed across the table, his nappy-clad bottom wiggling comically in the air as he attempted to climb up without knowing how.
Dean chuckled. "One thing at a time, bro. You're not even walking yet!" This gave Dean an idea.
He plucked the t-shirt from the table and moved a couple of short paces away, then held it out invitingly. "Here, Sammy. Come get it."
Steadying himself with one hand, Sam twisted around to look at him. His gaze fixed on the t-shirt. "Ah!" he demanded.
"Yeah, it's right here. Come on."
Once again Sammy tried to stretch out to grab it, but Dean made sure it was just a bit too far away.
"Just a few steps, Sammy. You can do it."
He tried to move forward but his grip on the coffee table was holding him back, so after a moment's hesitation he let go. He wobbled a bit but didn't fall.
"Well done!" Dean praised. "Now come get the t-shirt. Come on." He bounced the wad of fabric in his palms, reminding his little brother of the goal.
Sam shifted his weight cautiously, picked up a foot and was suddenly tottering forward and falling into Dean's arms.
"You did it, Sammy!" Dean crowed, giving his little brother a fierce hug.
Sam squirmed until he was released and finally was able to grab hold of the t-shirt. He immediately stuffed the hem into his mouth and began sucking on it, looking very pleased with himself. Absently, he leaned into Dean, apparently done with independence for now.
Dean grinned down at his little brother, and tousled his hair fondly.
When their father returned later that day, Dean was practically bursting with the news. "Daddy, Daddy, Sammy took his first steps today!"
He wasn't sure what he was expecting; his father wasn't exactly one to jump with joy, but Dean thought he would be proud or happy. The tears that welled up in his father's eyes confused him.
"Daddy? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," the man said, roughly swiping at his eyes. "I just… I wished your mother could have been here to see it." He turned away, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "Mary should have been here."
Dean looked down at his shoes. He felt guilty, like he had stolen something precious from his mom. He hadn't meant to.
"Dean…" His father placed a finger under his chin and raised it gently. "At least someone was here. That's pretty special, huh? Seeing your little brother walk for the first time?"
Dean nodded uncertainly.
"Why don't you tell me all about it?"
Dean hesitated, but although Daddy's eyes were still wet he was smiling, so he thought it would be alright. He told the story, his enthusiasm gradually building.
"…and then he walked to me, Daddy! Without any help!"
"That's wonderful, Dean!" He was swept into his father's arms. "You're such a good teacher!"
He was elated by his father's rare praise, but he still felt bad about witnessing the milestone when Mommy hadn't been able to. "You don't think… mommy would be mad at me?"
"No, Dean," his father assured him. "She'd be so, so proud. Of Sammy, and of you."
"I don't like it," Dean whispered to his dad, edging behind him for protection. "It's scary."
"Don't be silly, Dean," the man said sternly, shaking off the grip Dean had on his trouser leg. "There are far more frightening things out there in the real world than school."
Dean peered out at the enormous white-walled building that loomed up ahead, and swallowed. "I think I prefer the monsters," he said a small voice. "Can't I come with you?"
"You have to go to school, Dean. You're six years old. It's the law."
"This is not a discussion, Dean. You're going to school and that's final."
Dean bit back his protests. "Yes, sir." He knew better than to argue with his father.
Relenting a little, his dad placed a hand on his shoulder and gave a reassuring squeeze. "Don't worry, Dean. I'm sure it will be fun. I met with your teacher yesterday; she seems like a good woman. There will be other children the same age as you to play with and you'll learn lots of important things."
Dean perked up at that. "Like how to kill werewolves and stop vengeful spirits?"
His dad coughed. "Ah, no. Like maths and reading."
Dean pulled a face. "But I just wanna hunt."
"Hunters need to be able to read if they're going to do good research. They need to know their numbers if they're going to be able to notice killing patterns."
Dean sighed. "I guess so. Come on, then, Sammy."
He held out his arms so his dad could pass Sammy to him, but his dad shook his head.
"No, Dean, Sam isn't going with you."
Dean froze. "What?"
"Sam isn't old enough to go to school yet. He'll be going to the childcare across the road." He pointed to a smaller building with a brightly coloured sign out front. It looked friendly enough, but it might as well have been on the other side of the world. Dean had never been so far away from Sammy for so long before.
"He can't go there by himself."
"I'm sure he will be okay."
Dean shook his head. "It's not safe."
"It's fine, Dean; there's no supernatural activity anywhere in the area. I checked twice and then checked again just to be sure."
"I can't let Sammy out of my sight. You told me I can't let him out of my sight!"
"Well now I'm telling you to go to school. Hurry up; you're going to be late."
"I'm not going without Sammy!"
"Yes, you are."
"Don't you say no to me, Dean Winchester. Now off you go."
"NO!" Dean yelled, throwing his backpack to the ground. "No, no, no, no!"
"Oh my goodness me," a sweet voice interrupted. "That's quite the tantrum, young man."
Surprised out of his uncharacteristic screaming fit, Dean turned around to see who the intruder was.
A pretty lady with long brown hair and a warm smile was looking down at him. "You must be Dean. I'm Miss Jenkins, your teacher this year."
"Hi," he replied sullenly.
She crouched down to his level. "Starting at a new school can be a little scary, huh?"
"I'm not scared," Dean said quickly, shooting a glance up at his father.
"It's okay, Dean. Everyone feels that way on their first day. It's perfectly normal to be worried about leaving your dad for the first time."
Dean's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Daddy's big. He doesn't need me to look after him."
She laughed, and it was a nice, tinkly sound, like bells. "You're probably right. So what's the problem, then?"
Dean thought it should have been obvious. "I need to look after Sammy. He's only little."
She looked up at the toddler in Dad's arms. "Oh, is this your brother?"
Dean nodded. "I take care of him. It's my job."
"Really? What a good big brother you are! But it must be tiring, running after him all the time."
He nodded again, and said solemnly, "I shouldn't have taught him how to walk."
Dean liked her laugh. It reminded him of Mummy's laugh, and the way her whole face used to light up with it.
"Well, it sounds to me like you deserve a bit of a break from all that hard work. How about you let someone else take care of Sammy for a little while? I have a friend who works over in the childcare and she's very nice, I promise you."
"As nice as you?" Dean asked.
Her smile could have outshone the sun. "Even nicer, I think."
"Will she make sure there are no monsters under Sammy's bed?"
"I'm sure she will."
"And that his milk isn't too hot? And will she give him his tee if he gets upset? And feed him enough mushy vegetables? And play with him? And help him practice his words? And call Daddy if anything happens?"
Dean chewed on his bottom lip, thinking it over. "Well… maybe that will be okay, then."
"You'll get to see him just as soon as school is finished for the day. And you'll have so many stories to tell him. You might even be able to paint a picture for Sammy in Art class."
Dean knew that Sammy liked bright colours, and the hotel room walls were very plain. "I'd like that," he admitted.
"Give dad and Sammy a quick cuddle then. They'll be back to get you before you know it."
This time, Dad did pass Sammy to him. Dean hugged his little brother close and whispered, "Be good, Sammy. Stay safe." He handed him back reluctantly, and picked up his backpack.
His dad patted his shoulder. "Have a good time, Dean."
"Bye, dad," he replied quietly. "See you soon, Sammy."
"Bye-bye!" Sammy said, giving a cheerful little wave.
Dean waved back. He watched his dad and brother leave, feeling a few tears well up in his eyes.
His teacher took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "It's okay, Dean." When they were out of sight, Dean allowed Miss Jenkins to lead him into the school.
Everything was strange and new and exciting. The day rushed by, and it wasn't long before the bell was ringing. When Dean ran out of the gates, his dad and Sammy were there to greet him. Everything was okay after all.
Dean scowled down at the book laid open in his lap. He could tell from the bright, colourful pictures what it was about; a girl in a tower and a man in shiny armour who saved her from a pretend monster that didn't even look scary.
It was a stupid story. The man was supposed to be a hero, but there were no scratches on his armour, no exhaustion in his eyes, no blood on his sword. And real monsters couldn't be defeated so easily. The battle took place in broad daylight, there were no deaths or injuries, and the whole town threw a huge celebration in the man's honour after he won.
The writer obviously had no idea what the real world was like. Monsters killed people, they didn't hide them in pretty towers, and heroes got hurt far more often than they got a 'thank you'. Dean didn't know why he was even bothering to try to read it, except for the fact that apparently the only thing more stupid than the story was Dean.
He could see that there were words on the page, but he couldn't read them. They weren't useful words like 'State Route 40' or 'Shopping Mall' or 'Toilets' or 'Vacancy' or 'Diner' or 'Burger', they were just a mindless jumble of letters that didn't mean anything to him.
"This is pointless!" Dean blurted, shoving the book off his lap and watching it skid across the floor.
Sammy looked up from the toy car he was playing with (it was his favourite from childcare; he had cried every afternoon for two weeks when he had been forced to leave it behind, so Dean had finally nabbed it for him, figuring that the kid deserved at least one toy for his own that wasn't an old t-shirt).
"Book!" Sammy exclaimed, pointing.
"Stupid book," Dean grumbled.
Sammy dropped the car and pushed himself onto his feet to toddle over to the discarded book. He bent over carefully to pick it up, and then held it out to Dean.
"Read?" he asked hopefully.
Dean was too ashamed to admit to his little brother that he couldn't.
"Don't worry, Dean," his teacher had said. "It just takes practice. Here – why don't you take this book home and practice reading it with your dad?"
Dean hadn't told her that his dad was away working a job in the next state over and wouldn't be home for a few days.
"My dad doesn't like reading."
She had looked at him in surprise. "Hasn't he ever read to you?" She sounded distressed by the idea.
"He has," Dean said quickly. And it was true; he thought he could remember Dad reading a bedtime story to him once as Mummy listened on with a smile on her face. It had been two years since then, though. "He just doesn't like it."
"I might have a word with him," she had mused, not really talking to him but just thinking out loud the way adults sometimes do. "Children who are read to at home tend to pick up reading and writing a lot faster."
"I'll get him to read to me tonight," Dean had promised, not wanting his teacher to try to set up a meeting with his Dad and realise he wasn't around.
"Good," she had smiled. "Let me know how it goes."
"Read?" Sammy asked again.
Dean decided then and there that he was going to try his very hardest to learn how to read so he could read stories to Sammy. He was going to make sure that his little brother became a book extraordinaire before he even started school, so he would never have to feel stupid or behind everyone else the way Dean did at the moment.
"Okay, let's give it a shot." Dean accepted the book from Sammy and let his little brother sit in his lap. They opened it to the first page together. Dean didn't know all the words, but he knew some of the sounds that the letters made and he thought he could probably wing it for now. "Once upon a time…"
"Are you sure you have everything, Sammy?"
"Your lunch is packed and in your bag? Your shoelaces are tied up? You have all your school books? You have a jumper with you in case it gets cold?"
"Yes, Dean. Can we just go already?"
"Do you have your butterfly knife?" Dean persisted.
"And do you remember where my classroom is if you need me?"
"The north building, third door down the hall," Sam parroted, rolling his eyes. "We've been over this."
Dean knew that he was repeating himself, but he couldn't help it. "I just want to make sure that you're going to be okay, Sammy. The first day of school can be scary."
"Why? I think it's going to be fun." Sam bounced a little on the balls of his feet, unable to contain his excitement. "They even have a huge library that kids are allowed to borrow books from!"
Dean shook his head ruefully. Trust Sammy to be more excited about the books than the adventure playground or the massive soccer field. "You're going to be the smartest kid in your class, aren't you?"
Sam shrugged, though a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "I don't know."
"You will be. I'm sure of it." There was no doubt that Sammy was the brains of the family. The rate he was going, Sammy would probably be getting straight As all the way through school, unlike Dean with his chronically poor results. It might make Sam a nerd, but Dean was glad for him; you needed to be smart to avoid falling behind when you had to switch schools every few months. Besides, if anyone tried to pick on his little brother, Dean would make sure they only lived to regret it.
"So you ready, Sam?"
Sammy shouldered his backpack and offered a grin. "I'm ready."
Dean wished that he could still be that excited about school. But after attending 17 different primary schools over the past four years, it was all he could do to pull on an enthusiastic mask for Sammy and a tough guy mask for all the losers who would single him out as a new target for bullying if he didn't put the fear of God in them from the very beginning.
He couldn't help feeling reluctant about starting the whole power struggle all over again. He knew a few minutes wouldn't make much of a difference, but he wanted to delay the inevitable as long as possible. "Remember to meet me outside the school gates as soon as the bell rings."
"I know, Dean."
He held up his hands in surrender. "Alright, alright." He withheld a sigh. "Come on, then."
"Hurry up, Sammy!" Dean urged. "We gotta be someplace."
"Is Dad back?"
Dean waved a hand dismissively. "Nah, not for a few days yet." He snagged the heavily laden school bag from his little brother – how many library books did the kid need to borrow at once? – and slung it over his shoulder with his own.
"Then where are we going?"
Dean flashed a grin. "Got a treat for you, Sammy. A friend of mine has a couple of mountain bikes that he said we could take out for a spin this afternoon, and he reckons his mom kept the bike he outgrew a few years ago. We can finally teach you how to ride!"
Sam's face brightened. "Really?"
"Then what are we waiting for?"
Dean gave his little brother a friendly punch in the arm. "You, slow poke."
They made their way to Adam Saunders' house and were greeted at the door by a plump, middle-aged woman wearing a flour-dusted apron.
"Hello!" she said warmly. "You must be Dean and Sam."
Dean pulled on his most winning smile. "Yes, ma'am. Thanks for having us over."
"Oh, it's my pleasure dears." She looked past them as though expecting to see their dad's car idling in the street, and frowned at its absence. "My goodness, did you walk all the way here by yourselves?"
"It wasn't far," Dean said, and quickly changed the topic. "Something smells amazing, Mrs Saunders."
"Oh yes, I've been baking chocolate chip muffins for afternoon tea. But look at me, keeping you out on the doorstep. Come in, come in."
They followed her into the house. It wasn't the first time they had been to a friend's place, and they stayed in the houses of hunters like Caleb and Bobby every so often, but Sammy still gazed around in wonder with a naked longing in his eyes. Whoever said that you couldn't miss what you'd never had obviously had never met Sam.
"Hey Dean," Adam said around a mouthful of muffin, giving a wave with chocolate-smeared fingers. "Sorry I started without you, but they taste best just out of the oven."
Dean grinned. "I'm sure I'll catch up." He popped a whole muffin into his mouth and gave an audible moan of pleasure. "Oh man, these are the best muffins I've ever tasted!"
Mrs Saunders blushed. "Thank you, dear. Feel free to help yourself, Sam."
Although Dean had no idea where he had learned his manners, Sam was far more polite. He took one muffin and nibble away at it sedately, savouring every bite. It was obvious from the expression of rapture on his face that he was enjoying the rare treat as much as Dean was.
"Honestly, one would think you boys had never eaten home-made goodies before," Mrs Saunders said as Dean engulfed his fourth muffin.
"Dad doesn't cook," Sam told her, carefully licking the crumbs from his fingers.
She laughed. "That doesn't surprise me. What about your mother?"
"Mom!" Adam hissed, his face colouring.
"'s okay," Dean assured him, long since accustomed to uncomfortable questions like that. "I think she used to cook, Mrs Saunders… I don't really remember." As time passed Dean's memories of her were fading. He could remember the night she died with painful clarity, and he had photos to remind him what her face looked like, but it was getting harder to recall the sound of her voice or the smell of her perfume or the feeling of being held in her arms. It was still more than Sammy had, and Dean didn't know whether that was better or worse.
"She died in a car crash six years ago," he explained. It was a simple lie, one that was far easier for people to accept than the truth. Sammy didn't even know the truth yet.
"Oh, my darling, I'm so sorry."
Dean shrugged. "You didn't know."
There was an awkward pause in which Sam stared at his shoes and Dean discovered that he wasn't hungry anymore.
"So, ah… the bikes are out the back if you still want to go for a ride," Adam ventured.
The shadow lifted and Dean was suddenly full of energy and excitement again. Maybe he couldn't give Sammy back his mother, but he could at least give him the same chance any other normal kid would have to learn how to ride a bike.
"Yeah! Come on, Sammy, it's time for me to teach you another important life skill."
They headed out into the backyard and dragged all the bikes and gear out of the shed. Dean encouraged Adam to go ahead and "show Sammy how it's done", so Adam mounted his bike and started doing circuits around the lawn.
"Safety first, Sam." Dean sat his brother down and set about buckling on his helmet, making sure it was snug but not too tight. He put knee, shin and elbow pads on him as well and gave him a pair of gloves to wear. "When you start out you're going to fall over a lot," he warned. "Don't let that discourage you. You just have to get up and keep trying, okay?"
Sam's face set with determination. "Okay."
To begin with, Dean showed Sam how to mount the bike by throwing one leg over the back wheel. He had Sam get used to the feel of sitting on it while he held it upright and then, when Sam seemed comfortable enough with the concept, he instructed him to peddle slowly as Dean pushed him along. It took more strength to help Sam keep his balance than Dean had anticipated and he found himself tiring quickly, but he didn't know when they would next have access to bikes and he wanted to make the most of this opportunity.
Sam nodded and began pumping the peddles harder, forcing Dean to break into a steady jog. Over time he noticed that he was only providing little corrections here and there; the bike was staying upright with very little support. Slowly, carefully, he let go of the bike but kept running alongside his brother, giving plenty of encouragement.
The trouble came when Sam had to turn at the fence. He twisted the handlebars a little too hard and before Dean knew what was happening the bike had crashed to the ground.
Sam let out a yelp of pain and surprise, but rolled out from under the bike with reflexes honed during rough-and-tumble play with his brother.
Dean rushed to Sam's side. "Sammy! You alright?" He didn't wait for the reply, already checking for injuries. To his relief, Sam was a bit bruised but otherwise unharmed. "You're alright," he exhaled.
Sammy didn't seem to agree with him; his eyes were wet and his lower lip was trembling. "You let go," he accused.
Dean felt a pang of guilt. "Sorry, Sam – you were just doing such a great job on your own! You picked it up loads faster than I did. You must be a natural!"
Almost despite himself, Sam gave a tremulous smile. "Really?"
"Really." Of course, Dean had taught himself using an old bike that had been discarded in an alleyway because the handlebars were bent and a pedal was missing. But Sam always had been a fast learner. "Next time I promise to tell you when I'm about to let go, okay?"
Sam nodded, and Dean helped him stand up, brushing the dirt and grass stains off his clothes. "You ready to go again?"
By the time daylight began to fade, Sam had grown far more confident. He was letting Dean release his hold on the bike more often and even managed the turns on his own a few times. The spills were numerous, but Sam refused to give up. By the end of it, he was able to stop concentrating so hard and actually enjoy himself.
"I'm proud of you, Sammy," Dean said, clapping his brother on the back after he managed to do two entire laps of the garden without falling off or asking for help.
His face was flushed, sweaty and streaked with dirt, but he was grinning. "Thanks."
Dean didn't want to have to bring the fun to an end, but he wasn't going to risk walking home in the dark when he knew full well that evil creatures stalked the night. So, reluctantly, they helped put the bikes away and bid farewell to the Saunders. Adam's mother sent them off with a box full of left-over muffins and the assurance that they were welcome back any time.
It wasn't until they were back at the motel that Sam suddenly realised, "Hey Dean – you never had a go on the bikes yourself!"
Dean shrugged. "It was your turn today."
Without warning, Sam suddenly barrelled into him, wrapping Dean in a tight hug.
"Whoa, hey – this isn't a chick flick!" Dean protested, but he appreciated the sentiment so he only made a show of pushing his brother off once Sam was already pulling away. "Boy, you really need a shower, Sammy. You stink!"
Sam wrinkled his nose. "You do too."
"Well you're showering first," Dean said, shooing Sam into the bathroom. It would be easier to cook dinner without his little brother getting underfoot, though Dean knew his Macaroni and Cheese wouldn't taste nearly as good as Mrs Saunders' home cooking. At least they had her muffins to eat for dessert.
As he heard the shower turn on, a thought occurred to him. There were disadvantages to always putting his little brother first… "Don't use all the hot water!"
"Samuel, can I speak to you for a moment?"
Obediently, Sam hung back as the rest of the class spilled into the room. He looked nervously up at his teacher. "Did I do something wrong?" He had never been pulled aside like this before.
"No, sweetie," she assured him. But something had to be wrong, because she looked sad and her voice was extra gentle. "Do you know what day it is on Sunday?" she asked.
Sam frowned a little, and shook his head.
Miss Roberts crouched down to his level. "It's Mother's Day."
"Oh." Sam had celebrated Father's Day with Dean and Daddy last year; he guessed it made sense that there was a Mother's Day too. As far as he had been able to work out, most normal kids had a mom. He was different, but then, he was different in a lot of ways. He was getting used to it. "Why are you telling me?"
"Well, we're going to be making cards this afternoon. If you want I can let you go to the library or into another classroom to do some other work… If you'd rather stay with us though, you can always make a card for someone else. Your dad, maybe?"
Being sent out of the classroom was usually a punishment. He understood that he wasn't in trouble, but he would still look like a rule-breaker unless his teacher told everyone that his mom was dead, and he didn't think she would do that. "Can I stay?"
"If you're sure it won't upset you, Samuel, of course you can stay."
Sam followed her into the room and sat down on the floor with the other children.
Miss Roberts' announcement that they would be making cards for their moms was met with a great deal of excitement, mostly because they would be allowed to use coloured paper, glue, glitter and textas. Before she let them get out the craft supplies, though, Miss Roberts told them they were going to brainstorm a list of all the special things that a mother does.
Sam sat up straighter, suddenly interested. He knew almost nothing about mothers. He had tried asking Dad and Dean, but they wouldn't tell him. At first he thought it was because he was too little – like maybe only big kids and adults were supposed to know – but when he saw how angry his brother got with all his questions about Mom, he realised that Dean was yelling so he wouldn't cry. Sam didn't want to make his brother sad, so he backed off. But he was so curious.
Now, maybe, the mystery would be solved.
"My mommy cooks me dinner," Amy-Lou said.
Dean cooks me dinner, Sam thought. Mostly noodles or Spaghetti-Os or canned soup or Mac and Cheese, but even if they weren't fancy meals like the lasagne Amy-Lou was currently describing in detail, Dean made sure that Sam never went to bed hungry.
"My mommy gives me lots of cuddles," Cassie said.
Dean gives me cuddles sometimes, Sam thought. Not in public, and not too often because they were boys and that would be embarrassing, but if Sam ever really neededa hug then Dean would give him one. And they were good hugs – they made Sam feel safe.
"My mom taught me how to write my name and tie my shoelaces," Marcus said.
Dean taught me loads of things, Sam thought. How to read, write his name, tie his shoelaces, ride a bike, play footy, navigate using a map, pay for groceries at the supermarket, fit all his belongings into one rucksack, and how to defend himself with a butterfly knife.
"My mom reads to me."
Dean used to read to me all the time, Sam thought, but he likes me to practice reading to him now.
"Mom picks me up from school."
Dean walks me home from school.
"Mom bakes cookies for me as a treat."
Dean buys me pop tarts from the store.
"Mommy plays with me."
Dean plays with me.
"My mommy looks after me."
Dean looks after me.
When the class had run out of ideas, Miss Roberts read over the list on the whiteboard again. Sam couldn't help but notice that all the things a mother was supposed to do for her child, his big brother did for him.
He had always thought he was missing out, but it turned out that Dean worked hard to make sure that he wasn't. And Dean did everything an older brother was supposed to do too, so really it was the kids who didn't have a brother like his who were missing out.
"Who are you going to make a card for, Sam?" his teacher asked. "Your dad?"
Sam shook his head. No, this wasn't Father's Day. This Sunday was going to be about someone else.
"Wake up, Dean!"
Dean jerked awake, half-panicked and immediately searching for a threat. His hand had already gripped the hilt of his knife and he was halfway to taking a swing at the figure leaning over him before he realised that it was Sammy.
For some unknown reason, his little brother was bouncing with excitement at – Dean blinked blearily at his alarm clock and then groaned out loud – at 7 o'clock in the morning on a Sunday!
Biting back a few choice curses that shouldn't be heard by young ears, Dean tried to keep his voice civil. "Sammy... We don't have to go to school today. Go back to sleep."
"But it's breakfast time!"
"You got me out of bed to make you breakfast?"
"No, you have to stay in bed."
Sammy had to be more tired than Dean was; he wasn't making any sense. He struggled to sit up. "What-?"
But Sam vanished into the kitchen, only to reappear a few seconds later bearing a tray that he plonked in Dean's lap.
He looked down in bemusement at the bowl of soggy cereal and the glass of half-spilled orange juice. "Sam?"
"Oh! I forgot the spoon." Sam hurried away again, returning with a spoon that he thrust into Dean's hand.
He stared at the spoon, and then at his brother. "Sam? What's all this?"
"It's breakfast in bed!"Sam said proudly. "Do you like it?"
"Um, sure… But my birthday was a few months ago, Sammy."
Sam rolled his eyes. "I know that."
"Then what's the occasion?"
"It's Mother's Day."
Those simple words knocked the breath from his lungs, bringing back a barrage of painful memories and emotions.
"S-sammy," he choked. "She isn't – we don't – why would you-?"
"I know our Mom is gone," Sam said solemnly. "But you… you took her place."
Dean shook his head. "No, I couldn't-"
"You do everything for me that Mom would have if she was here. So today I wanted to say thank you."
Sam reached under his mattress and pulled out a folded piece of coloured paper. He shifted from foot to foot, coughed nervously, and then shyly passed it to Dean.
He looked down at the card. Beneath a carefully drawn picture of a black car, in his little brother's neat handwriting were the words "Happy Big Brother's Day".
Dean wanted to say something, but the words were stuck in his throat. Sam had made up a holiday just for him. Sam had drawn him a picture of the Impala. Sam had made him a card.
He opened it to find that, inside, Sam had written a simple message: "To Dean. You are the best mom and big brother and friend ever. Thank you for everything. I love you. From Sam."
He was speechless.
"I love you, Dean," Sam said. His eyes shone with sincerity, but there was a hesitancy in his expression, as though he expected Dean to complain that he was being too mushy.
Carefully, Dean set the breakfast tray aside so he wouldn't spill it.
Then he tugged Sammy into his arms and hugged him so tight he could have burst. He only managed to choke out a few words, but he meant them with all of his heart. "Sammy, I love you, too."