Seeing her boys, now adults, often made Mary Winchester's heart hurt. Not that she could admit that to them. For one, they'd misinterpret her feelings. But her biggest regret was that she hadn't been there to raise them and they'd grown into men before she even got a chance to know them as boys. Constantly she felt at a loss for what to do. Act like a mother? Or a fellow hunter? Often she went for later because it was safer than opening the kettle of fish that was her relationship with Dean, the eldest of her two. It was far easier with Sam. He hadn't known her and he didn't remember her, so they treated each other as strangers and then as friends, but always as hunters. Dean on the other hand fluctuated between cold resentment and unyielding love. It wasn't hard to see the conflict in his heart.
“It isn't you,” Sam had sighed to her one day across the breakfast table. He'd made them both coffee after she and Dean had gotten into a shouting match and then her eldest son had stormed out of the bunker like he couldn't even stand to be in the same room as her. That had stung, but her temper had cooled when Sam had laid a hand on her shoulder and sighed sadly, guiding her away from the conference room.
“Or at least he shouldn't take it out on you,” he'd continued, thumbing the rim of his mug as he stared into the swirling black liquid inside.
Shaking her head she'd pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes, momentarily blocking out the light. The world had moved on without her, and so had her boys. It was what made her return all the more difficult for all of them.
“All Dean and I seem to do is fight,” she said in response, sounding about as tired as she felt. “I don't know how… how to make it stop.”
She and John had fought too, back in the day. Her arguments with Dean sounded a lot like the one's she had with John and there was a lot of his father in Dean too.
Looking up she'd found Sam staring at her curiously, his head cocked to the side.
“I don't think you can,” he replied, sounding mildly surprised by her admission. “Dean's always been… volatile, I guess. He's always lashed out at the things that hurt him, you're just the closest and largest target right now. Dad was the only one he never really struck out at, not like me. Dad and I were always at each others throats.”
Sam chuckled humourlessly and Mary felt herself start with surprise. Her boys were usually quite tight lipped about John, but from the little things she'd heard, she wasn't sure she would've liked the John the boys had known after her death. Sam had never volunteered information about the man before so, seeing her opportunity, she seized her chance.
“Why?” she began tentatively, hoping to find out more about her husband and the father he'd become in her absence.
“I think… probably because we were conditioned that way,” he answered, blowing away the steam rising from his coffee as he dropped his glance. “I just wanted to get out from under his thumb. I wasn't going to turn out like Dean, or at least, that wasn't the plan. Every day Dean just morphed more and more into Dad's little soldier, you know?”
His eyes rose again to meet her and Mary felt herself sitting a little taller, her spine straightening even as she absently fiddled with the handle on her mug.
“It was all: 'yes, sir' from him and I hated it,” he spat, a flash of anger splitting across his expression before settling back into a long-borne resignation.
“Since Dad's death he's grown. I'm not quite sure when the part of him that idolised Dad just snapped, but the immediate years after his death weren't easy for either of us. I think he's realised since then what Dad was doing to him psychologically, but… it was hard for him as a kid. Dad expected a lot from him after…”
After her death.
“Not you?” she prompted, realising her toying with her coffee was giving away her nervousness. She gripped her hands tightly around the cylindrical object, warmth seeping through to greet her cold fingers.
“I was just a baby,” he smiled sadly. “I don't even remember what life was like when we lived in a house, but I suspect that the memories Dean cherishes most are the one's of you and our house in Kansas. My earliest memories aren't like his. I remember being on the road with him and Dad, AC/DC on in the cassette deck, Lego spread across the back seat, shitty diner food and even crappier motels. Dean raised me. Taught me how to read, how to tie my shoe-laces, the 'correct' way of cooking mac 'n' cheese, what deodorant was. Dad showed me how to drive and clean a gun, but that was just so I wouldn't get dead.”
Sam sighed, clearly hesitating over his next sentence before speaking his mind. He was trying to protect her feelings, and that was sweet of him, but she needed to hear it. All of the good, as well as the bad.
“I saw what toxicity he swam in and I got out of it,” he spoke carefully, gauging her reaction as he went. “But Dean… by that point I think Dad had basically taught him that if he wasn't around to take care of me or he wasn't around to help out on a hunt, he was useless.”
Mary schooled her features before they gave her away. She kept her face expressionless as she took it all in and then, when she felt as though her limbs would obey her again, she lifted the mug to her lips, keeping her eyes trained on Sam. She watched every little shift of tension in his body as he uncomfortably shifted under her gaze. It was all too easy for her to picture it, every scene her son had described and even a few he hadn't.
“I never thought…” she began, but the words got caught in her throat and Sam stared back, that same sad expression still lingering on his features.
Dean didn't have wants. He had needs and if someone asked him to give everything up, he would do it in a heart-beat. Not because he was selfless, but because he'd been trained to give up everything for somebody else.
John had used Dean like an object and Mary felt sick just thinking about it.
“What was Dean like as a child?” she asked, holding her chin stiffly so that it wouldn't tremble under the weight of her emotions.
The question brought a smile to Sam's lips and for a moment he seemed lost in nostalgia, his eyes a million miles away even as he spoke.
“Brave,” he began. “Fearless. And smart. He liked cartoons – Scoobydoo was his favourite – still likes them even now. Watches reruns when he's not well. A troublemaker too. Saw his fair share of fights and swindled too many kids at school out of their lunches or their money. I saw him smoking once but I guess Dad got wind of it because I never saw him do it again. Um. Flirtatious? I mean, girls always seemed to like him but he usually got bored of them pretty quick. Then again, we were always moving so I guess it was pretty hard to hold onto a high-school romance.”
Sam sighed again, tension dropping from his shoulders as his eyes returned to his black coffee.
“I just wish we'd had a chance to do it our way, you know? Instead of Dad telling us he'd pulled us out of school the night before we left town.” Sam continued, downing the rest of his coffee. “I mean, the moving around affected us both, but I got so sick of it that by the time I got to nineteen I was ready to break ties with the both of them just to get to Stanford.”
Mary pressed her lips together tightly as a frown creased her features.
“Like, I know you're back from, heaven, I guess,” Sam pressed on, oblivious to her deepening concern as he stared into his mug. “But I'm glad it's you.”
The words flowed from Sam like a river breaking its banks. “I don't think Dean would've taken it as well as he has if it was Dad who'd come back from the dead,” he said, running a hand through his hair and probably aware that he shouldn't be admitting his feelings like this but doing so anyway. “I don't even know what– what kind of person Dean would be, or turn into. I mean, he's worked so hard to come to grips with everything that happened in our childhood. I just worry that if Dad ever came back like you did he'd… do more harm than good.”
The fear in his voice was real and Mary couldn't even open her mouth to comfort him, paralysed by her youngest son's words.
“I don't think he'd even fight it,” Sam's words left him as a breathy whisper, emotion choking up his throat.
“I'd be so scared, Mom,” the admission came. “I think he'd just roll over and take it. Take whatever Dad gives him, just like he used to. He'd roll over and accept it because deep down I don't think he can't. Family is everything to him…”
“… and that's why he can't stand the sight of me,” she finished boldly, fastening her grip on the words like they were the biblical truth. “I… he thinks I betrayed you both.”
“Didn't you?” Sam challenged, lifting his chin with a spark of anger in his eye.
She wanted to refute it. Deny the claim and push away the responsibility, but the truth was more than just black and white. It was a hundred shades of grey and every color on the spectrum.
“Not on purpose,” she finally said, pushing away her coffee – still half full. “If nothing else, please believe that.”
Sam's face softened and slowly he smiled back at her, a comfort from him. It's more than she deserves.
“I get it, Mom. I do. We've all made mistakes. Dean just doesn't think of you like that. He puts you up against the lens he knew when he was five and you're different to what he remembers. You're not all-knowing or perfect, he just… he put you on a pedestal for so many years and he's struggling to know you as you are now.”
“Yeah," she sighed back, understanding Sam's logic but still feeling overwhelmed with the guilt she'd buried with her. “But how can I repair our relationship if he won't even look at me?”
It was only after the words were out that she realised she was asking too much of her youngest son, placing the burden of her relationship with Dean on his shoulders. But Sam's response was immediate, as though he'd been waiting for the question all along.
“Be there for him,” he replied. “Don't run from him when he inevitably seeks you out. He will – probably to apologise. Just sit with him if you have too, he'll do the rest.”
It sounded so easy, and she said as much, albeit with a tone of disbelief.
“Trust me,” Sam insisted. “I know him.”
And Mary couldn't help but feel that pang of guilt again, the strike of it like a poisoned dart to her heart. Because she should know Dean too. She was his mother, but they were strangers in each others eyes. Nevertheless, it wasn't what was past that she had to focus on, so she shook that thought right out of her head. It didn't do to dwell on the past when the relationship that needed taking care of was in the present.
“Okay,” she said, accompanied by a shaky smile. “I'll try.”
Sam smiled back again in response, standing and swinging his legs out from the table as he gathered their mugs to take to the sink behind her.
“That's all you need to do, Mom,” he added, tipping her cold coffee down the sink as she spun in her seat to face him again. “And hey,” he nodded back at her with a jovial gleam in his eye. “Picking up a slice of pie from the store wouldn't do you wrong either.”
Mary's smile widened as she chuckled.
“I think I can do one better,” she winked, a flicker of a frown crossing Sam's expression. “I'm a bit rusty, but I think I'll try my hand. I used to be quite good at baking, you know – when you were a baby I was churning out pies nearly every damn day, what with the way Dean and John went through 'em.”
“That sounds like a great idea, Mom,” he replied, a beaming smile wiping clean the frown that had lingered momentarily on his face. “I'll come up with something good for dinner too. I'm not the best cook but I can rustle up some grub.”
With a soft laugh she stood from her own seat as Sam rinsed their mugs and placed them upside down on the draining board to dry.
Then, accompanied by a rush of affection and before she even knew what she was doing, Mary gathered up her son in her arms, a whispered 'thank you, Sam' escaping her mouth as she let him go. Maybe it would take a long time to repair her relationship with Dean, but at least they both had Sam on their side.