It was Dean's birthday.
Living like they did, birthdays and special occasions didn't amount to much. Sam couldn't remember the last time they had celebrated Christmas—not that they really had much reason to—or the last time they'd had a real thanksgiving dinner. They would always be on the road, moving around too much to notice what date it was or worry about the next holiday.
But birthdays, they were another story entirely. Dean and Sam would always remember each other's birthdays, and they would celebrate together, just the two of them. Sam would give his brother a small present that he'd saved up money for months to buy, or Dean would teach Sam something new—how to use a weapon, how to fix something, once he'd even taught him how to ride a bike—and that would be Dean's gift to his brother. Because that was all they had, and they were lucky if their father would remember.
Sometimes John would be there, researching to find where they needed to go next, drinking, dressing his injuries, rearranging and cleaning his weapons. But more often, he would be out on a hunt, Dean left to care for Sam as usual.
Except today Dean was turning thirteen. He was finally a teenager, and Sam didn't want this birthday to go on unnoticed like all the others. John was still at the motel, packing for another hunt, but soon he would be gone once again, for who knows how long.
And then Dean would be left alone again to look after Sam, like he always did, like he always had to, because there was no one else. Because Dean was the big brother, which was more true now than it ever had been before.
Sam approached his father as he was preparing to leave. "Dad?"
"Not now, Sammy." John didn't even turn to face his son as he placed a couple more guns into his duffel.
Sam swallowed and spoke in a rush. "Dad, before you go, I was wondering if maybe we could go to that nice café, you know, the one we saw when we were driving in—"
"Sam …" John turned around with a sigh. "Listen, bud, I need to get going, okay? I have to work, you know that. I'll be back in a few days, I promise."
"But dad, today is—"
"Sorry, kiddo." John smiled and ruffled Sam's hair. "Hey, you know the drill while I'm gone, right?"
"Yeah." Sam lowered his eyes. "Stick close to Dean and listen to what he says."
"Bingo." John clapped his son on the shoulder and crossed the room to talk to Dean, who rose from the bed to face his father. John began to give orders to his son, the usual stream of commands: make sure the door stays locked, shoot first and think later, don't let anything inside, never leave the room, and above all, keep Sammy safe.
Keep Sammy safe.
Sam was no more than a burden to his brother, that's all he ever was. Something to protect, something to keep under a constant watch, the little brother. But what kind of brother was he, really, if today, of all days, he was still nothing more than a weight on Dean's shoulders?
Dean did everything for Sam. Sam wanted to do something for him, just this once.
So while Dean was taking orders from his father, his expression stoic and his shoulders straight, returning with a "yes sir" every so often, Sam snuck over to his father's duffel and rooted around until he found his dad's wallet. He pulled out a few tens and then slipped it back into the bag as John came back to grab it.
He slung the duffel over his shoulder and left the motel room with only a "Be good, boys," over his shoulder. And then the room was silent.
Dean flopped unceremoniously back on the bed, grabbing the remote and turning on the TV. His face was hard and expressionless, which was normal for Dean, but Sam wanted more than anything to make his brother smile today. Dean seemed so sad all the time. Sam wanted to make him happy for once.
Sam waited until his brother was sufficiently distracted, the TV's volume on full blast, to unlock the door and slip outside silently, clicking the door shut behind him. And then he was running, through electricity-lit darkness, the dark pavement gleaming with leftover rain.
He only had a few minutes before Dean realized he was gone, but fortunately Sam remembered exactly where he needed to go. He followed the road north until he came upon the café he was looking for—the one with a sign on the front that said Home of North Dakota's Best Homemade Pie.
It was empty but mercifully still open. Hugging his arms around his chest and shivering but grinning all the same, Sam pushed open the door, which jingled softly, and approached the counter. The woman behind it was blond and round-faced, and she smiled kindly at Sam as he approached tentatively.
"Hello," she said. "Looking for something sweet, kid?"
Sam nodded. The woman's smile grew. "It's a little late to be out all alone, isn't it?"
Thoughts of demons and ghouls and vampires and changelings flew through Sam's head, but he dismissed them all quickly. Dean needed one night where he didn't have to worry about protecting his little brother.
"Um," Sam said. "What's the biggest pie you have?"
The lady behind the counter grinned. "What kind did you have in mind?"
Sam tried to remember what Dean's favorite was. "Apple," he finally decided.
The woman moved over to the glass case and quickly produced a big, golden brown apple pie. The glass case must have been heated, because when she handed it to Sam it still felt warm.
"Perfect," Sam said with a smile, his eyes shining as he thought about how happy Dean would be.
The woman put in a box, which she taped shut and then put in a plastic bag. As she was ringing up his total, Sam thought of something and asked tentatively, "Um, do you…have any…candles?"
The woman looked up at him in surprise, her hands stilling over the register. "Candles?" One side of her mouth turned up. "Someone's birthday?"
"I'll go look." She left into the back room, then returned a couple minutes later holding a box of multicolored candles and wearing a triumphant smile. "Here we go!" She placed them in the bag with the pie and winked. "Free of charge."
Sam returned to the motel room twenty minutes later, shivering and clutching the plastic bag in one hand but excited to show Dean his present. Unfortunately, Dean had noticed his brother's absence.
"Sam!" Dean exclaimed the moment Sam entered the room, closing the door behind him. He raced toward his brother, looking furious. "Where the hell have you been?"
Sam gripped the bag with both hands, swallowing. "Sorry, Dean, I just…"
"I was ready to call Dad, do you have any idea how worried I was?" He knelt down in front of his brother so their faces were level, and gripped Sam's shoulders. "You're freezing, Sammy. Where have you been?"
"I thought you'd been kidnapped or something! Do you realize how fast Dad would have killed me if you'd disappeared under my watch?"
"Sorry, Dean," Sam said quickly. "Really. I just wanted to—"
"God, Sam, don't do that to me again," Dean said, not listening, and stood up, turning his back on his brother and raking his fingers through his hair. After a moment passed, in which both of them were completely silent and Dean calmed himself down a bit, he turned back and noticed the tears that were welling up in his brother's eyes. He frowned. "Are you okay, Sam? Where were you, anyway?"
Sam held up the bag. "I was…I got something for you."
Surprise wiped away the anger on Dean's face. "What? What are you talking about?"
"For your birthday."
Dean blinked, hesitated, then took the bag, setting it on the counter. He pulled out the box first and frowned, setting it on the table and lifting the top. His eyes widened as he laid eyes on the pastry inside, which was probably now cold but still looked beautiful.
Stunned, Dean stared at the pie for a few long moments, then reached back into the bag and pulled out the box of candles, looking between the two in astonishment. Finally he looked back up at his brother, asking silently what all this was about.
"It's…for your birthday," Sam said softly, not wanting his brother to get angry again. "Dad didn't even remember."
He waited, but Dean didn't get angry. Instead he placed the candles next to the pie, slowly, almost reverentially, then scrubbed a hand across his face and over his mouth. Sam was surprised to see his brother's eyes fill as Dean leaned forward, resting his hand on the edge of the table.
Worried that he'd upset his brother somehow, Sam spoke again apprehensively, looking down at the ground. "I just wanted to do something for you, for once," he said quietly. "'Cause, you know, you're having to protect me all the time, and I'm always just kind of a burden, so…" He paused and then asked, "Are you mad at me?"
Sam raised his eyes cautiously and saw that the older Winchester was looking at him in surprise. Suddenly Dean laughed and straightened, approaching his brother. "No, of course not, Sammy." He slipped an arm around his brother's shoulders, pulling him against his side. "Thank you." He ruffled his brother's hair. "Sam, come on, you should know by now that you will never be a burden to me, no matter how much of a pain you are. I don't protect you 'cause Dad tells me to—it's because you're my little brother, you moron."
Blinking back tears, Sam wrapped both his arms around his brother, engulfing him in an affectionate hug that Dean returned automatically. Sam smiled into his brother's chest, feeling safe as he always did with him, and despite being in a cold, dirty, middle-of-nowhere motel room, he felt at home.
"Happy birthday, Dean."