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The first time he put Sam’s socks on, Dean was four years old.

 

It was three weeks after the fire and they were at Pastor Jim’s, the room filled with the smell of baby shampoo. Dad had just given Sam a bath and was getting him dressed, when he suddenly started crying – sobbing like Dean did when he fell and hurt himself, or like Sam did when a loud noise scared him. Dean ran over to tell Dad it was okay, to hug him just like Dad always did to make him feel better, but Pastor Jim got there first, put a hand on Dad’s shoulder and took him out of the room, before coming back and kneeling down in front of a worried Dean, who was desperately trying to understand and make things better.

 

“Why’s Daddy crying? He didn’t fall or get scared by loud stuff.”

 

“He’s sad,” Pastor Jim explained gently. “He misses your Mom.”

 

“Me too,” Dean said somberly. “I wish we could go up there too, with her and the angels,” he pointed to the ceiling, recalling Pastor Jim’s description of Heaven, not yet old enough to recognize the hint of uncertainty that had been in the preacher’s eyes that day.

 

“You will, one day,” Pastor Jim assured. “For now, they’re all watching over you.”

 

“Mom and the angels?” Dean asked, remembering Mom’s bedtime promise.

 

“Your Mom and the angels,” Pastor Jim repeated. His head shifted slightly, looking back toward where he had brought Dad. “Dean, can you finish getting Sammy dressed?” he asked, handing Dean a small Goodwill bag of baby clothes.

 

“’Course,” Dean took the bag proudly. “Are you gonna help Daddy?” he asked quietly.

 

Pastor Jim’s eyes changed, like the way the sky did when the clouds covered the sun. “Yes, Dean,” he replied.

 

“Okay,” Dean nodded. Pastor Jim helped boost him onto the bed, and left him alone with Sammy.

 

Sam’s eyes tracked Dean, legs kicking excitedly at the familiar face and voice. Dean reached for one of Sam’s bare feet and tried to remember the game Mom played before she put his socks on, the one that made Sam giggle just like Dean did when she did it to him too. Dean looked at Sam’s big toe – something about ‘little piggies’….. but there were too many words and he couldn’t remember enough to start, which made him sad. It seemed to make Sammy sad too because he stopped smiling and kicking. Dean swiped at his runny nose and reached into the bag. The fire had eaten all their clothes, so Daddy and his friends had gotten him and Sam new ones, ones that didn’t smell like Mom. Dean picked up a pair of socks with smiley faces on them, but they made him even sadder because nobody really smiled anymore. He dug through the bag, dismissing the orange and black ones because they reminded him of running away from heat and of smoke that made him cough.

 

Finally, he found ones with music notes on them – he knew what they were because Mom had shown him as she sang from the church book, had written them out when Dean asked as she hummed while doing the dishes. They were circles and lines that made music and music made everyone happy – Mom had made her own music for him and Sammy at bedtime; Daddy used to press a button and play ‘classics’ real loud in his truck, putting Dean on his lap and teaching him about guitars and drums and new words like ‘Led Zeppelin.’ Maybe if he put these socks on Sammy, someone would read them and make music and they’d all be happy again.

 

So Dean put the music note socks on Sammy….

 

….. and waited for the song to come and make his Daddy stop crying.

 

***

 

The second time he put Sam’s socks on, Dean was eighteen years old.

 

He and Sam had been doing a salt and burn in Omaha while Dad distracted one very pissed off spirit on the opposite side of the cemetery. As soon as the bones went up, said spirit attempted to throw Dean into the flaming grave, but Sam, who later shrugged off his mumbled reasoning about having seen it happen before it happened as the product of a rattled brain, pushed Dean out of the way, and ended up being thrown into a tree headfirst. Two minutes later, the spirit was gone and Dad met up with them, pride in his eyes through the worry, as he found Dean standing guard over a very concussed little brother, nudging Sam into continued consciousness with one foot while keeping an unwavering rock salt loaded shotgun on the surrounding area.

 

They took rotating watches that night in the motel, but Dean never really slept on his hours off neuro check duty, listening instead to the rhythm of Sam’s breathing, to notes and subtleties no one else could read like he did.

 

The next afternoon, three hours after Dad had to leave to check on a lead, Dean was helping Sam back from a shaky trip to the bathroom, when Sam asked if they could get some air. Dean agreed, lowering Sam onto the bed and reaching for his shoes and socks.

 

Sam scowled in a classic fourteen year old huff. “Dean, I can put my own socks on,” he bitchfaced.

 

Dean turned the same expression right back on his brother, even as he understood and sympathized with the post-concussion crankiness. “I’ve noticed,” he said drily. “But can you do it right now? Without puking or passing out?” he raised an eyebrow expectantly.

 

Sam took the challenge with pure Winchester bullheadedness, snatching the socks from Dean and leaning toward his feet. Dean caught Sam’s shoulders just as the color drained from his face and he tilted dangerously, swallowing thickly against the nausea while painfully blinking lost vision back into place.

 

Dean’s smirk was tempered with concern. “You were saying?” he asked smoothly.

 

“Shut up,” Sam groaned, breathing carefully around the anger, but still allowing Dean to rub his back in slow circles.

 

“You good?” Dean asked a few moments later as Sam’s breath settled back into its regular, comforting rhythm.

 

“Yeah,” Sam swallowed around the impending apology. “Sorry,” he grimaced.

 

Dean waved it off. “Hey, I’m just trying to save my back here – ‘s not easy hauling your gangly ass off the floor.”

 

“’M not gangly,” Sam groused.

 

“Dude, if you weren’t a hunter, you’d be more awkward than freaking Bamb-” Dean swallowed roughly, choking on that particular Disney comparison as he stuffed it back down with the rest of the dark memories. Even if Sam did have the doe eyes for it, Bambi was just a little too close to home. He took a breath, refocusing. “Than one of those baby giraffes. You know, from that show we watched last week? All legs and neck and….” He attempted to pick up where he left off.

 

“Really, Dean?” Sam interrupted with a smirk, calling Dean out as his brother struggled to maintain the insult.

 

“Yeah, okay,” Dean admitted to the reach, shutting up. He nodded at Sam’s feet. “Will you let me do this now, so we can both get some air?”

 

Sam nodded carefully, handing Dean the socks. “If you even think of tickling me, I will kick you in the face,” he warned.

 

Dean remained silent, only his guilty face betraying Sam’s insight.

 

He put Sam’s socks and shoes on and guided his brother outside, where they put on the handheld radio, quietly in deference to Sam’s head…..

 

……and listened to each other breathing as they waited for the return of the Impala’s familiar song.

 

***

 

The third time he put Sam’s socks on, Dean was twenty-seven years old and Sam was dead.

 

There were no chubby, kicking legs exploring their use, no concussed bitchface and resigned permission….and no music – no stitched notes in tiny fabric, no lightly playing radio, and worst of all, no underlying melody, no steady tether of breathing more familiar than Dean’s own. The stripped bed was quiet, stiff with Sam’s blood, unmoving under the ashen form. And all Dean could focus on as he brushed Sam’s icy skin, as he pressed dusky nail beds, and took in dirtied knees….was that he had to change Sam’s socks. It had been raining and Sam’s socks were soaked and muddy and Dad, Mr. Military, had always drilled into them the importance of dry socks. Even as part of him knew that it didn’t matter, that dry fabric wouldn’t reverse the pale, mottled extremities, wouldn’t stop the breakdown of tissue no longer being perfused, that the cold couldn’t hurt Sam anymore….Dean still had to do it, because it was important. Sam needed to be able to walk at Dean’s side, to have his back, and even though he might be dead now, Dean couldn’t live with that fact – he was going to get Sam back and when he did, Sam would need warm, dry feet so they could get back on the road. Dean wasn’t sure how he was going to do it, but, in the meantime, he did know how to get Sam ready.

 

So Dean changed Sam’s socks, replaced his boots…..

 

……and listened as his tears failed to fill the absence of Sam’s song.

 

***

 

The fourth time he put Sam’s socks on, Dean was thirty-two years old and his brother was unconscious, drowning in a flood of horrific memories from a shattered hell wall, thanks to a celestial friend’s betrayal and subsequent blasphemous usurpation of the name of a Father that should have saved them all.

 

If it wasn’t for Bobby, Dean probably would have shattered too, amidst the crushed Impala, the destruction of his trust, the wreckage of his imperfect, messed up, but soulful little brother, who was now worse than dead – heart supplying oxygen to a fragmented mind, jagged shards more numerous than those Dean had pulled from Sam’s hand back in the room where adrenaline had failed and cruel reality returned, driving Sam to his knees and Dean into well-worn hopelessness.

 

They didn’t put Sam in the panic room this time. When Cas originally took down the wall, Dean did panic, so that’s where the vigil was set. But now? Watching Sam being dragged back to the Cage while his body never left the room, the sheer terror on Sam’s face at his cut hand, the complete loss of reality as his eyes rolled shut….there was no panic. Only the dark blanket of despair, too heavy and too familiar to even warrant a demanded ‘why?’ Dean didn’t even ask anymore, because he already had the answer: they never caught a break. Never had, never would. Simple as that. So, according to that maxim, Cas’s betrayal, his destruction not only of Dean’s rarely gifted trust, but of the chance for Sam and Dean to truly be brothers again….it all made perfect, depressing, rationalized sense.

 

So, they skipped the panic room and put Sam on the spare mattress Bobby kept in the library, setting the vigil in a room filled with answers to everything except what they now sought. Bobby adjusted the blinds so Sam wouldn’t be burned by sunlight or trapped in darkness, attempted to rouse an obviously unarousable Sam twice a day for fluids, and made sure he and Dean had a few conversations nearby, so Sam could hear their voices and still feel like part of the family. Dean changed the bandage on Sam’s hand regularly, washed him up when what little Sam’s kidneys had to work with was processed, and changed his clothes every day….because something as simple as putting fresh socks on Sam’s feet made Dean feel less like his brother wasn’t ever coming back.

 

Dean was good at fixing things. He had always been a fixer – hugging Mom when she argued with Dad, talking Dad through a rough hunt as a kid, keeping Sam safe and with the family, rebuilding his home and life over and over….even when Sam was dead, Dean had found a way to fix it. But three days into Sam’s comatose state, Dean was putting Sam’s socks on when Sam’s foot jerked and his eyes rolled open. Dean was prepared to see terror, internal flames, maybe even a shared memory of flayed soles and severed toes….but was met with an unnerving nothing – those ridiculously expressive eyes were empty, rolling uselessly like one of those creepy children’s dolls, unfocused, unseeing, un-Sam, maybe even un-hell. Maybe it was all gone because Dean couldn’t understand, even if the Cage had left Sam completely brain-dead, how that level of evil wouldn’t have haunted such a huge, newly vacant space and still have come through those Sam-less eyes. And, with that, Dean suddenly realized he might not be able to fix this. He had gotten Sam back from death, but Sam had been whole then. Now, Sam was empty, shattered into fragments as innumerable as the tortures of the Cage were unnamable.

 

Dean was good at picking up pieces – he had been gluing, welding, screwing, and pounding the Impala back into shape since they got back to Bobby’s. But maybe this time, being the big brother wasn’t enough. Maybe he didn’t have all the answers, didn’t have the tools, and maybe, even if they found all the pieces, they’d never be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

 

But Dean was a fixer, a doer. It was as much a part of who he was as watching out for Sam had always been. He worked on the Impala because, in the breath before the world’s implosion, it was something he could do. Right now, Sam’s feet were cold, even if Sam couldn’t feel it, and that was something Dean could fix.

 

So he put Sam’s socks on, the nice, thick, wool ones….

 

……and started humming Metallica to strengthen his, and Sam’s, muted, stuttering song.

 

***

 

The fifth time, Sam was twenty-eight years old, freshly conscious from several days of Cage-infused emptiness, and telling Dean he had put his own socks on.

 

“Oh, you’re, uh, walkin’ and talkin’.”

 

“Yeah. I, uh, put on my own socks – whole nine.”

 

Dean looked into clear, Sam-filled eyes, gaze drifting down to the booted feet as he tried to figure out how ‘okay’ Sam really was….and found himself filled with a mixture of pride, relief, and continued despair. Because they never caught a break – Cas was still a power-hungry, brother-destroying God, the world was on the edge of oblivion, the Impala was in pieces, Bobby didn’t have all the answers, and no matter how coherent Sam was at the moment, the Cage was still there….and Dean had a feeling he’d be putting his brother’s socks on again many more times in the near future, however long or short that may turn out to be.

 

But, for now, Sam was walking, talking, and regardless of the many pieces Dean was sure were still missing, had dressed himself. And Dean had learned long ago to appreciate the little things, to live in the moment.

 

So he brought Sam out into the yard, handed him some tools, and gave him something fixable. He turned Bobby’s radio on as they rebuilt their home for the road ahead, the familiar beat of “Ramble On” threading through the cacophony of repair…..

 

…..as they refocused on the other’s breathing, relearned long-missed rhythms, and fell back into the harmony of their shared song.