When they are in pain, most children regress to an infantile state and instinctively, blindly, call out to their mother. Sometimes to their father.
He calls for Sam.
He's delirious with fever, thrashing on the bed, blind to Bobby's white face, deaf to his father's pleas, insensate to the arms pinning him down. He bucks and fights, barely conscious, and calls, over and over, Sam Sam Sam.
Sam slips under their father's arms and climbs onto the bed. There's a little-brother-sized space between Dean's arm and his chest, and Sam fits just right, into it, snuggling close, wary of the infected wound on Dean's shoulder. Sam's head nestles into his chest, and slowly, Dean's heart calms down, soothed by the warm weight, until it seems to him nothing exists save the soothing, steady rhythm of his heartbeat and Sam's slow breathing, in perfect unison.
Sam knows that their father loves them – knows it absolutely, because despite the bad days, there are games in the car, jokes with Dean, birthday presents more often than not, a few books now and then, ruffled hair and one-armed hugs.
But despite everything, their father is often away, and Dean is both mother and father to him.
It is Dean who teaches him to tie his shoelaces.
It is Dean who takes him to school the first day, and waits by the gate in the afternoons. Dean is the one to check over his homework because Sam hates handing in something that isn't perfect.
Dean is the one who cooks their meals when Dad is away, reminds him to brush his teeth, tucks him into bed.
Dean is the one to give him bad advice the first time he has a crush.
It is Dean who soothes his hurts, bandages his scraped knees, and skips school to sit by his bedside when he falls sick, combing his fingers through Sam's hair.
Their father teaches them about ghosts, wendigos, ghouls, zombies and reapers, but Dean is the one to make it into an adventure, weaving tales of courage and great prowess and heroes called Dean and Sam. Dean's bed is the one Sam crawls into when their father's lessons give rise to nightmares.
Dean teaches him to shoot a gun, his larger hands steady over Sam's, aiming the barrel.
Dean gives him his first taste of alcohol at sixteen, even as Sam's conversations with their father turn more and more often into blazing rows; Dean grins at him when he nearly spits his first mouthful back out. They spend the evening on the back porch, sipping at the bottle of whiskey, and Dean topples him into bed later, clumsily tucking his covers around him.
Dean teaches him to drive, to fix an engine, to clean his guns, to read a map, to orient himself in the woods.
Dean teaches him to cook, to sew, to run a credit card scam, to lie with a bland face, to fix a mean French steak, to light a fire with two matches and a wet tinderbox, to shimmy up a tree, to sweet-talk a girl, to pick locks, to make Molotov cocktails, to hotwire a car, to swear in Spanish and Portuguese.
When he is six, Sam sees a teddy bear he desperately wants in a shop.
Their father tells him he's too old for teddy bears.
Dean steals the bear and gives it to him in the dark of the night, when they're both tucked under the covers of a queen-sized bed.
Sam keeps the bear, and it moves into Stanford with him, its silent presence on the windowsill a constant reminder of his brother. It's lost in the fire, but that's okay, because Dean's arms are around Sam, hauling him off the bed and out of the flaming house, and he'll pick his brother over a teddy bear anytime.
Sam learns about "just because" in the first grade.
Their father is befuddled when Sam presents him with a bunch of wildflowers and a million-watt smile, and asks what it is for. Dean takes it and tucks flowers in both his hair and Sam's, until Sam's trembling lower lip has disappeared, swallowed by laughter.
Sam thinks it's disgusting the way Dean eats, as if every meal was the last one and a feast to be savored.
But Sam never complains (much), because he remembers Dean, thinking Sam didn't notice when he served himself smaller portions after their father had been gone for several days. Sam never called him out on it, and took every chance to bring back snacks from school and give them to his brother.
Dean doesn't have much, but he gives it to Sam.
He gives him old clothes, books, school projects he knows Sam will like. He gives him bracelets made of grass and twine, shiny pebbles he finds in the river, glossy eagle fathers he picks up on their treks through the woods.
At eighteen, Sam walks out. Dean drives him to Stamford, a six-hour drive during which neither says anything. Dean hugs him, and walks out without looking back.
Dean gives him his freedom.
Sam gives Dean his drawings, and Dean hangs them up on the fridge, or folds them carefully into his battered wallet. Sam brings back noodle necklaces and cardboard toy boats from school, and Dean strings them up in the apartment and places them on the shelves. Sam gives Dean million-dollar smiles and clingy barnacle hugs, and Dean collects them and tucks them away into his heart.
Sam gives Dean his unconditional love, and Dean never gives back any less.
Dean's not breathing when Sam drags him out of the river.
Sam slams his hands down on his brother's ribcage and wills him to breathe.
Forty seconds later, Dean spasms, coughs, and proceeds to vomit a gallon of water.
Sam sits back on his heels, and laughs until he cries.
Dean is faced with an impossible choice.
He doesn't speak anymore. At all. Ever since the fire, and telling Sammy that they were okay, he hasn't said a word. He knows it worries Dad, but he can't help it. It's like all his words have dried up and formed a big ball that's stuck in his throat. Sammy babbles enough for two, and Dean is perfectly fine with that, but he knows Dad isn't. He has begged, pleaded, threatened – anything for Dean to speak again. But Dean can't bring himself to open his mouth.
Sammy needs bedtime stories. Dean always had bedtime stories, Mommy curled up beside him, flipping the pages as Dean held the book upright, and everything Dean has, Sammy has to have, and more.
But Dad never reads stories, not to Dean, not to Sammy.
So Dean makes a choice, and it's as easy as coming up for air.
Dean squares his shoulders, and marches up to his teacher with his back ramrod-straight and as much determination as his five-year-old body can muster, and speaks his first words in over a year.
"Hi, I'm Dean. Can you teach me how to read?"
He can feel Dad's burning, betrayed eyes on his back, and pretends he can't. This is for Sammy.
Dean's name is a four-letter word.
Like fuck, like shit, like hell.
Like help. Like here. Like hold.
Sam's name has three letters.
Like bro. Like hey. Like now.
Like run. Like fly. Like die.
The old lady smacks Sam's hand away from the book, and he instinctively draws back.
"None of that, young man! Were you raised by wolves?"
Sam catches Dean's eye and grins.
"Something like that."
Mrs Henricks looks down at Sam, and he blinks back at her, absolutely not nervous.
"Sam," she says gently, "this is not the homework I gave you."
He doesn't bat an eyelash.
"Yes it is."
"I asked you to describe your home, Sam. Not your family."
She's about to explain – gently – when the door opens.
Dean Winchester from Ms Lucy's class grins at his little brother.
Sam lights up like a dozen Christmas trees.
Mrs Henricks looks back down at the paper in her hand, and Dean is my big brother jumps off the page at her. Dean takes me to school Dean taught me how to ride a bike Dean sits next to me in the car Dean helps me with my homework Dean is always there Dean carries me when I'm tired Dean takes care of me Dean Dean Dean Dean –
Oh, she thinks. Oh.
It isn't until Dean learns how to read that he makes the connection.
"Sammy" spells "My Sam".
Right there and then, Dean decides he'll call his brother Sammy for the rest of his life.
Dean can't help it. Really. He knows it annoys the hell out of his brother, but for the life of him, he cannot control it.
The instant he's worried, or scared, or pissed, Sam becomes Sammy. It's a knee-jerk reflex, one ingrained so deeply he can never get rid of it. The instant Sam's in danger, he's that chubby twelve year-old again, and Dean has promised to protect him against the world.
"He's the only one who gets to call me that," Sammy says, and Dean tries to pretend his heart isn't fit to burst with love.
Sam will never, ever own up to how much he likes to be called Sammy.
To his eternal shame (except, not really), the instant he's in trouble, Sam turns to call Dean.
Rationally, he knows that he is a grown man, an excellent hunter, but when he is out of his depth, the first thing he thinks is always Dean will fix this.
Somewhere, in the back of his mind, there's a six-year-old who's convinced his brother's a superhero and there's nothing he can't do.
"Winchester? Like the rifle?"
Yeah, like the rifle, Dean thinks. Long and innocent-looking and deadly. Lethal and equally as terrifying to Dean. A danger to everyone, including himself.
"Yeah," he says. "Like the rifle."
"They don't appreciate you, the others," she says, and Dean really, really wishes he could tear her a new one, literally or figuratively, at this point, he's not picky, but he's kind of tied up. And gagged. Literally speaking.
"All they see is Sam Winchester – the Boy King." Her laugh is like the tinkling of bells. She drags a hand down Dean's chest, returns it to his cheek. "And he is extraordinary, I'll give them that, but you are fascinating."
She bends closer, her breath mingling with his.
"All that power at his fingertips. He could break the world, you know? And yet, for some reason, he chooses to harness it, and pledge it to you."
She wrenches his head back, forcing him to meet her eyes.
"Total, utter, blind loyalty. What is there in you, that could possibly warrant such absolute faith?"
Dean stifles a laugh.
"What are you-" she manages to snarl, before her head explodes.
Sam strides in, gun still held high, and marches straight to Dean.
"How's that for loyalty?" Dean wheezes as soon as the gag is loosened, between peals of laughter.
Sammy's been very patient, he thinks.
He's suffered through Dean's distracted mutterings and wandering attention. He's been very understanding of the way Dean talks to the other little boy in the sandbox, of the way Dean shares his attention between Sammy and the other boy. He's even turned a blind eye to Dean's larger hands over the stupid boy's, shaping the mound of sand into a wobbly fort. He's even gone as far as ignoring the little boy chatting away at Dean and Dean's soft laughter.
But when the stupid little boy gives Dean a lopsided, gap-tooth smile that Sammy knows by heart because it's his smile for Dean, and Dean smiles back and ruffles his hair, Sammy decides enough is enough.
With a high-pitched war cry, he launches himself at the boy and grabs for everything and anything within his reach - hair, fingers, shirt, anything is fair game. He can hear Dean's surprised exclamation and scuffling and shouting behind him, but he doesn't care because he's kicking and clawing at the boy because he can't, he can't, he's not allowed -
Dean's arms come around him from behind, dragging him off the boy, and Sammy struggles, but Dean is much bigger and stronger than he is, so Sammy sighs and loosens his arms, tucking himself into his big brother's chest.
"What is the matter here?"
The lady's big, way bigger than Sammy or Dean, and she sounds angry, but Sammy glares at her all the same, because she's holding the other boy, who's sobbing in her arms, the big crybaby. Dean steps in front of him, and Sammy lets him, even though he's not afraid of the stupid old lady, because he likes it when Dean protects him.
"I'm sorry Ma'am, I don't know what came over him - Sammy, tell the kid you're sorry -"
"No!" Sammy shouts, because he's not sorry, he's not, and he doesn't care if the lady looks angry, because it the other boy's fault -
"Mine!" He shrieks, clutching at Dean's leg, and glowers at the sobbing little boy. "Mine, mine, mine!"
He doesn't understand why Dean gives a rueful laugh, or why the lady suddenly looks a lot less annoyed and more amused, but Dean's hand is carding through his hair and that feels nice, and Dean doesn't make him apologize, and Dean is the best big brother ever. Later, as they leave the park, his hand wrapped safely between Dean's fingers, Dean says:
"You know I'm yours, Sammy. You don't have to beat up the other kids to prove it, okay?"
And Sammy nods and basks in the feeling that Dean is his, his, and he doesn't have to share.
When Sammy starts school, he doesn't understand why his family is different.
He always thought everybody had a Dean. For Sammy, it's simple - it's "my Dean" and my Dad". But instead it turns out the other kids have Moms, and instead of Deans they have older brothers.
Sammy always kinda thought Dean was an absolute, the way Dad is. When he realizes that other families have different names for their brothers, he asks the teacher why everyone calls their Dad by the same name.
He's surprised to learn Dad isn't a name like Dean, but a title. That means that names are more important than titles, because he never calls Dean anything other than Dean. He'd never mix Dean with those ordinary brothers.
He never understands why his Dad looks so devastated when he comes back from school and calls him John.
Sam is jealous.
Insanely, irrationally, gut-wrenchingly jealous.
Not of Dean, who's somehow managed to charm the beautiful, unreachable, every-teenage-boy's-dream, high school queen Marilyn. Marilyn, all long legs and tanned skin with her glorious blond hair and dimples, and the way her eyes crinkle and her laugh sounds like clear bells. Never of Dean, who's grinning like an idiot, fussing over his shirt in front of the mirror and not paying any attention to Sam, because he's fourteen years old and he has a date with a gorgeous older girl.
Sam's jealous of Marilyn.
Marilyn, who's always so nice to Sam and doesn't treat him like a baby or an annoying extension of Dean. Marilyn, who talks to Sam like a grown-up and is one of the rare people who are nice to Dean at his new school.
And Sam's so jealous he could die.
It makes him feel like a spoiled brat - like a kid who doesn't want to share his mom. But as he watches Dean sweep out the door, leaving him alone with a couple of DVDs and a bowl of pop-corn, his eyes sting so bad he has to hide his face in his arms, and he desperately pretends he doesn't feel like he's just been abandoned.
Dean nudges him awake when he comes back, sitting beside him on the couch. Sam only wakes enough to wriggle his head onto his brother's thigh - and just like that, everything is right with the world again.
Dean never asks for his amulet back.
But he doesn't start wearing anything else to replace it, either.
Sam figures he'll take his blessings where he can.
Sam doesn't cry when his dad kicks him out. Or during the six-hour drive to Palo Alto.
He doesn't shed a tear when Dean hugs him goodbye and drives off, leaving him standing alone on his new doorstep.
He sobs with all his heart when he discovers the eight hundred dollars and the battered copy of The Outsiders crammed between his knife and a pair of socks.
"For real?" Dean says, and his eyes gleam with wild, unrestrained joy. Dad smiles and nods, and Dean whoops with glee, snatching the keys from his father's outstretched hand. Sam watches as his brother laughs and chants thank you thank you this is awesome dude this is so cool thank you dancing 'round the table, barely pausing to hug his father before he's out the door, his shirt flapping wildly, leaving the room strangely empty behind him.
Two seconds later, he pokes his head back in.
"Sam!" He hollers. "Get your ass down here, I'm teaching you how to drive!"
Sam scrambles out of his seat, his heart thudding with excitement, and races his brother to the car.
It's Dean's sixteenth birthday, and just like the twelve previous ones, he shares it with Sam.
The thing about Dean is that he needs to be needed.
The thing about Sam is that there's never been a day in his life when he hasn't needed Dean.
It works out pretty well.
He used to know all of Dean's scars.
He knew exactly which one came from where, and when he had got it. He could place and trace every single one of them, and each one is singular and marks Dean for himself, as surely as his freckles or his smile.
Now there are new scars on his brother's body. He tries not to feel like each one is an accusation.
Dean's terrified of one thing – forgetting.
By now, he's spent more of his life in Hell than on Earth. He's terrified that he'll forget Sam's face, his smile his voice. His Mom is already gone, was the first to disappear, slide away into oblivion, lesser acquaintances following – it takes a real effort to remember Jessica's face, Ellen's brisk manner, Pastor Jim's gentle hands. His father has been swallowed up almost entirely, and all that's left of him is a gravelly voice and gunpowder and leather scents.
He can barely recall Jo's heart-shaped face, the feel of Booby's hand on his shoulder. But the one person he clings to with everything he's got is Sam. He recites facts in his memory, an endless litany, but still they slip away.
When he gets out of Hell, he lives in constant terror that he won't remember how to be a person anymore – it's been forty years since anyone has touched him other to harm him, forty years since he's heard anything but taunts or insults. Forty years since he's had a functioning conversation.
Yet somehow – just like riding a bicycle – his hands know exactly what to do. Sam comes at him, and his hands lift of their own volition, settling over his brother's shoulder blades, drawing him closer.
Dean has a thousand things he wants to say.
You should go back to Amelia, he wants to say.
Leave me here.
Please don't leave me.
I don't think I can make it if you go.
I want you to be happy.
I want you to be happy even if I can't anymore.
You deserve her.
Please don't go.
Go while I still have the strength to let you go.
I need you to be alright.
He doesn't say any of it.
They don't say anything.
Dean looks at him, waits.
They sit down together.
They don't need to speak.
My God, you have delicate features for a hunter, she says.
She didn't expect him – this guy who looks half like he could be a male model, half like life has beaten him down one time too many. But not like a hunter. Not at all.
She says it partly to test him, partly out of surprise. He doesn't react, but he's coiled like a spring, ready to lash out any moment. Huh. Maybe he is all he's cracked up to be.
… On second thought, maybe not. He plays golf.
She insults him again, calls him the reject. He takes it in good humor. Gwen's pushing, trying to find his limits, but he doesn't seem all that bothered. On the other hand, he appears pathologically incapable of following orders.
She classifies him: competent enough, rogue, mistrustful, most definitely not a Campbell. Harmless, she decides, and moves on.
And then she's in a warehouse in Ohio and his gun is trained unwaveringly on Samuel as he says, I said I'd kill him, and she knows she was terribly wrong.
Sam and Dean talk all the time, but they never say the important things, Chuck writes. They say bitch and jerk and girl and asshole and get this and check this out and let's go and we've got this.
But if you listen carefully, you can hear them.
It's like a neverending love letter.
All in all, Samuel doesn't think much of his grandsons.
Sam's a freaking psychopath. He's aware of it, but doesn't care overly much as long as it serves his goals. After all, he's got no attachment to either of the boys.
Dean is a bit of a joke. From the moment he meets him Samuel dislikes him – too pretty, too cocky, too much like his father though Samuel doesn't know it at the time. Dean won't obey, won't follow, won't be controlled, so he has no place in Samuel's plans. He arranges for him to be disposed of, along with his brother.
I'm the one who's gonna kill you, Dean says, and Samuel almost laughs at him. He's in a cage, what's he gonna do?
Later, he looks back on that moment and has chills down his spine.
He stares down the barrel of Dean's gun and knows he lost the moment Dean and Sam were reunited – lost control, lost the game, lost his last chance at family, at Mary.
He knows the exact moment he signed his death warrant, and he wasn't the one standing in a cage.
Dean dies the moment Sam does.
Bobby knows it – watches him go through the motions, walk like he can't see how to close the edge he's stepping. Like he can't see anything other than his brother's dead body.
He's a breathing corpse, is what he is.
He doesn't live again until Sam opens his eyes.
Dean is Sam's brother, his mother, his father, his best friend, his chief tormentor, his protector, his caretaker, his partner, his leader, his mentor, his teacher, his greatest embarrassment, his greatest pride, his hero and his annoying pet.
Sam is Dean's brother, his kid, his best friend, his worst enemy, his greatest source of strength, his partner, his back-up, his emotional support, his moral compass, his greatest failure, his biggest pride, his lodestar, his bitch and his home.
When Christian Campbell meets Dean Winchester, he's less than impressed.
He's been hunting with Sam for nearly a year and all he hears about Dean is how he's such a great hunter, such great instincts, so much knowledge, how skilled he is.
And it turns out he's a soccer mom.
What a joke, Christian thinks.
They leave him behind and Christian puts him out of his mind.
A couple of months later, Samuel calls him to clean up a vampire nest.
He steps inside and freezes.
The place is caked in blood. There are bodies everywhere. He has to actually walk on a couple to get up the stairs because there's no room left. He finds Samuel inside, crouched beside another headless body.
"Holy shit. How many vampires were there in this place?"
"Sixty-three. Unless some escaped… Which I think is unlikely."
"How many people did you round up for this? This place looks like an army tore through it."
Samuel looks up, and if he didn't know better, Christian would say he looks uneasy.
"It was Dean."
"Wait. You mean Sam and Dean Winchester? You went in with those two and the three of you –" he gestures around, at the blood-spattered walls, the torn bodies, the ripped heads "went all Die Hard on this place on your own?"
"No." Samuel rises to his feet, and turns to face Christian. "It was all Dean. Just Dean."
Holy shit. Holy shit.
It's Sammy's first outing to the park, and Dean is obviously conflicted between the pull of the swings and the endless fascination inspired by the baby brother that he has been told is his. Mary nudges him towards the play set and he goes, reluctantly, glancing back every couple of steps.
Mary sits down with Sammy, and within minutes she's chatting with Elizabeth, who bends down and tickles Sammy, who gurgles back at her. She smiles and Mary extends her arms to hand him over.
And Elizabeth yelps as Dean kicks her, very solidly, in the shin.
Mary gives a start of surprise, as Elizabeth holds her shin and half-swears, but Dean has attached himself to her leg like a barnacle, not quite in front of her but glaring ferociously from his hiding place.
"Get your own Sammy!" he says shrilly. "He's my baby brother! Mine!"
Mary waits until she has sent Dean to her room to laugh herself sick.
Dad's out, and Dean's alone with Sammy.
Dad hasn't so much as looked at Dean since the shtriga fiasco, giving orders like he's talking to himself, and Dean follows them, his stomach tied in so many knots he can barely eat. He'll never disobey Dad again. Ever.
Yet nothing he does seems to be able to make Dad love him again.
He raises his head from the arms pillowed on his knees. Sammy's running towards him, his face marred with chocolate and a sheet of paper clutched in his pudgy hands, and Dean feels a rush of affection for his little brother. Followed immediately by guilt. He very nearly left his brother to die for arcade games.
Blissfully oblivious to the roiling pit inside his brother's chest, Sammy clambers up beside him and shoves his drawing in Dean's face.
"Look! I drew you!"
The stick figure wears a black cape and a familiar cowl. The words "my big brother" have been scratched painstakingly on the paper, and the stick man is holding a smaller figure by the hand.
Dean enfolds his little brother in a hug. Sammy squeaks a little, then relaxes and burrows closer. Dean buries his face into Sammy's hair and inhales the sweet scent of his baby brother.
Dean has the best little brother in the world, and he doesn't know what he's done to deserve him.
The guy unfolds himself from his bar stool, and Simon looks up... and then up some more.
The tall fucker grins at him. It's a very non-friendly grin.
"My brother and I'll be leaving, now."
"Right." He barely manages not to squeak. The other guy smirks and swaggers out. The mini-moose follows him, eyeing Simon ominously.
He has the feeling he just dodged a hell of a bullet.
"I've got you. I've got you little brother, you're gonna be just fine."
Sam goes a little crazy during the four months Dean is in Hell.
Getting his brother back gives him an edge - he can't lose Dean again. He pulls himself back together, folds himself around his weakness, the huge crack running down the middle of his soul.
When Dean disappears into Purgatory, Sam shatters.
"That your brother?" someone asks, and Dean says, "the smartest kid on the entire team, yep, that's him alright."
His back is turned, so he doen't see the look on Sam's face, but no-one can mistake the note of pride in his voice.
"I don't need a Mom," Sam says scornfully. "I've got a Dean."
"You're such a girl."
"And you're an idiot."
"Just so you know, I totally blame you for this."
"How the hell could I be responsible for any of this?!"
"It's the puppy-dog eyes, man. You gotta stop making women want to take you home and keep you as a pet."
Sammy's tongue is sticking out between his teeth, so whatever he's doing, it's probably pretty important. Dean tried to peek, but Sammy plastered himself to the table, scowling up at him, so Dean retreated to the couch. Even now, Sammy glances up covetously to make sure he's not watching. Dean pretends to be reading. Sammy goes back to his work, his hand painstakingly dragging down his crayon in some kind of line.
Ten minutes later, Dean's assaulted by forty pounds of excited little brother.
"Look what I learned today! I can spell, Dean!"
In large, ungainly letters, the word DEAN sprawls across the page.
The Impala roars, and Kansas plays in the background.
There's an Apocalypse on the move, but Sam and Dean are together again, and end of the world or not, it feels pretty damn good.
Some things are just meant to be.