as I descend the stair

Life, as it flashes before the eyes. Through SPN S2. Sam is MTF.
Fabulous betas: kimberlyfdr and kyuuketsukirui/kanata
Warning: Canon character deaths through Season 2.


My watch is wound, a key is in my pocket,
And the sky is darkened as I descend the stair.
There are shadows across the windows, clouds in heaven,
And a god among the stars; and I will go

"Morning Song" (Senlin, by Conrad Aikin)

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

"So, what's Jess?" Dean asks as he pushes the car into high gear. He can't get Sam away from Stanford fast enough; that's the long and short of it. He's greedy with the things he likes, food and sex and the car and Sam. He's probably jealous — okay, definitely jealous — but Sam's been his to watch out for nearly his whole life. It's hard to find himself suddenly confronted with a replacement.

"She's my girlfriend," Sam says, and does a combination slouch and stare out the window that is masterful in how it suggests that Dean's out of line and Sam's weary of everything Winchester.

"Don't you start with me," Dean snaps, and then has to take a hand off the steering wheel to work his frustration out on his hair. "Jess is your girlfriend and you're her boyfriend, and if you're fine with that then what the hell was that hissy fit when you left?" He really wants to listen to Black Sabbath, but the tape got half chewed a few months ago, and it has to be babied, hand-wound over the worst parts. Dean doesn't have the concentration for that now. It bugs him, though. Having the perfect soundtrack for his life: that's important to him. "Come on, Sammy, give me something here. I'm not Dad," he adds, and sighs. "Give me some credit."

"You're going to have to take my word it's complicated, Dean." Sam is smiling, Dean can see the curve of cheek upwards and the way Sam's eye narrows as if trying to see something far away. "You hunting on your own and Dad missing, you think I don't know there's more to it? Bet it's easier to just find some evil thing and kill it. Man," Sam says, shifting around; Dean reckons the seat's not all that comfortable for someone with all Sam's inches. "You thought I missed this? I wanted it?"

Dean drums the steering wheel in time with the music and wishes that the little words weren't the ones that cost the most. "I missed you," he says. He looks over quick, but Sam's eyes are shut. Dean hopes Sam's asleep and not just ignoring him.

A week later he knows what Jess is, anyway. She's dead and buried, and Dean can't shake the feeling that it's his fault, somehow. He should have left Sam to the normal life. Should have let Sam stay free.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Sammy sees Dean coming down the road, out from the dark, and is flooded with such relief that it's hard to breathe. The fear had been constant, that Dean was killed back at that diner: left bleeding in the parking lot with his throat slit open by one of the demons. Sammy's moving slow, drunk-stumbling with pain, and Dean's calling her name.

Sammy forces her feet forward, wanting Dean to yell at her for being an idiot and be proud of her for what she's done. She wants the warmth of the car. She thinks she deserves a beer; she needs to get Dean his pie, she's thinking, when the world ends.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

"Come on, Sammy," Dean says, dropping his voice deep and putting rhythm in the words so that they match his stride and the swing of the duffel off his shoulder and the way he lets his next step bump him arm to arm with Sam. Dean hates leaving the car in the lot out front, but he has to, because of the pool in the motel's center courtyard. He loves pools. Maybe he can get Sam to play Marco Polo, that'd be awesome.

"It's Sam," Sam corrects, mouth pursing bitchily.

"Whatever," Dean says, unlocking the door — cheap and hollow, rotting at the bottom — and using momentum to sling his gear onto the bed nearest the door. The room's a whole new level of craptastic, with brown curtains and nicotine-stained wallpaper. The furniture's made of that wood that splits easily, and Dean will have to watch out or he'll get splinters under his nails. He hates that. The bedspreads are brown with orange dots and little melted cigarette holes. He swears there was a no smoking sign in the office, but maybe it was for decoration.

Sam goes straight to the TV, leaving it on the first channel with decent reception and letting some talk show fill the silence.

Dean can deal with this for about three seconds.

Two.

One.

"Fuck this shit," Dean says, all his bottled-up irritation exploding out at last. "Used to be Sammy not Sam, back when you were messed up and gay and still talked to me like I was your brother and not this — " Dean slices his hand through the air, trying to find the words that fit his frustration. "When'd I get to be so dumb I wasn't worth talking to? Sammy," he adds, needling.

Sam shrugs, and Dean's reminded of those infomercial frying pans that don't need oil because food just slides right off them. "Used to be you called me Samantha in front of my friends and just stood there when Dad said I was a little — " Sam doesn't say it, just swallows the word down like a pill.

"Not so little now, though." Dean grins and rocks back, flipping his eyebrows up. "Huh, Sammy?"

Sam looks at him, straight level, and Dean knows there's a challenge coming, something Sam thinks will make Dean lose his game face and reveal that he's not as hip a brother as he thinks he is. "I still like guys," Sam says. Dean doesn't even blink. He knew about Sam before Dad did. He'd caught Sam swapping handjobs with a study buddy, and honestly hadn't been that surprised. "I want guys to like me. But I want them to like me as a girl. Which is. . . not so easy. Not for me."

"That's pretty fucked up," Dean says, mouth moving on automatic, and then waves to try and erase the words from the air. "That's — huh." Sam doesn't look like a girl. Sam looks like the same little brother Dean's always had. "That mean you're going to start shopping Victoria's Secret or you want a sex-change operation?" Dean rules as a big brother. He can take anything in stride.

Sam shrugs, shoulders tight. "I don't know? I was. . . . At school, I was trying to get by, as a girl, just wanting to fit in and being. Well. Six foot four and genetically screwed." There's a smile on Sam's face, but it's hard like Sam's eyes. "I don't know how to be what anybody expects — " and Sam's hand draws a sharp head-to-toe line — "but I was halfway to figuring out how to be me."

"Nothing wrong with tall," Dean says, even though he's thinking that he's only ever fucked two girls who were taller. He'd liked having their breasts closer to his mouth, not that he said so, but being short wasn't his thing. He'd been the same as Sam, shortest kid in his class until fifteen and a half. Some people, he nearly says, have a kink for big girls; but he doesn't say it because he doesn't want Sam to be anyone's kink.

He wants Sam to be normal, and isn't that a laugh and a half coming from him?

"Let's go swimming," he says. "Before the kids get home from school and the wage slaves start doing laps. When it's just you and me." He pulls out the old Food Lion bag from his last time at the beach, shakes out his orange hibiscus-flower shorts and Dad's scary old-man navy Speedos, and gives Sam a choice. Dean's generous that way. He's considerate and thoughtful and willing to humiliate himself to make Sammy happy, as well as being totally cool with Sam talking about wanting to be a girl.

Sam looks at Dean like he's insane. Sam's got a pair of jeans that got chewed up by a bugbear two states back, and three minutes with Dad's USMC utility knife turns them into cut-offs that Daisy Duke would be proud of.

Sam wears two t-shirts into the pool, talking about melanoma, and has perfectly hairless legs and arms. Dean doesn't remember seeing Nair around. He makes a mental note to check the shampoo carefully. Dean wears the orange shorts, because a Speedo just doesn't look right without a gut hanging over it, and threatens to throw Sam's phone in the pool when Sam starts snapping pictures.

The day's pretty as a postcard. Dean's happy, Sam's happy. Dean makes a point of remembering days like this: the way the water smells warm and chemical-rich, the slickness of blue tiles, the pointless fun of fighting so hard to get away from Sam when the worst thing that can happen is tag, you're it. When Dean does go to his violent bloody death, he wants these days to be the ones that flash before his eyes.

But he's not thinking about death when Sam breaks through the surface of the water, laughing and shoving handfuls of hair back with both hands, and fuck. Sam's actually kind of good-looking like that, and Dean's afraid he's on the verge of an epiphany. It's one thing to keep his face on, and a whole world of different to actually be okay with what Sam said.

But Sam throws water in Dean's face and yanks him under, nearly drowning him. Simple things like that, Dean gets. He plants a foot hard in Sam's stomach and launches himself to the surface, gulping in air and startling a lady taking her Chihuahua for a walk around the courtyard.

He winks at her, and she stares at his chest, and he figures all's right for now.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

"There," Jess says, sitting back and looking smug. "Go on in the bathroom and take a look."

Jess wears too much makeup, even when she's being a typically wholesome California girl. She wears lipstick to her aerobics classes. She's always worried about her hair: whether her roots are showing or her perm's going limp. She spends at least half an hour every morning, while Sammy's out running, making her hair look like she didn't do anything to it, like she just fell out of bed beautiful. Jess says that it's hard work, looking natural.

Sammy's never dared to do this: Dad would have kicked her ass, for one, and Dean would have laughed, and she never had the money, anyway. She's kind of scared to look. Jess has to push her into the bathroom. Jess is laughing, but Sammy doesn't mind, because it's a different kind of laughter.

She's different. She stares in the mirror, and the person who stares back almost looks like her. Her hair's not flipping out the way it does when she lets it air-dry, and it frames her face and moves when she turns her head. She's always wondered how people did that. She's got stuff on her eyes that Jess says makes her look exotic, and she's wearing one of Jess' shirts. It's not fashionably oversized on her, but the color looks good. Sammy's wearing her own bra underneath. She made do with too many bras stolen from Dean's girlfriends over the years to wear anyone else's underwear ever again.

"I said you were pretty," Jess says, smug, and stands on tiptoe to give Sammy a kiss. Sammy kisses back, but carefully, feeling dumb for not wanting to mess up her lipstick. She's never thought she was that kind of girl, but apparently sometimes she is.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

After dad dies, Sam starts talking about Jess, and it's all Dean can do not to put a fist right in Sam's face. He doesn't even really know why. He's pretty sure Sam's not consciously trying to one-up his grief. It just happens to be on Sam's mind that one year has taken away both girlfriend and pain-in-the-ass father, as well as graduation from college and all hope for a dumb job that requires a suit and earns Sam enough money to maybe pay for whatever people like Sam need, the kind of things Sam wants. Dean's all Sam has left, but the talk about Jess makes him feel like he's not enough. Or maybe like Sam thinks if Dean hadn't come breaking in, that real life would still be there, white picket fence and all.

Dean wishes Sam would just out and accuse him of something, and then maybe they could fight it out reasonably, but no. Sam just comes up with these random things.

"At home," Sam says one day in the car, and then stops and looks away, giving Dean time to want to burn that demon bastard alive, real slow. He turns the music up, just a little, instead. "With Jess, when we were at home? We were just two girls. Not so much gay," Sam adds, and picks at a fingernail which is already stub-short. "I mean, all people are basically bisexual, anyway. Jess was and — " short jerky shrug here, and Dean's glad to be driving; he has things to do with his hands and the road to keep an eye on and all — "when someone's your best friend it's different." Sam makes a face. "How can you even listen to this crap?"

"Bite your tongue," Dean says, and they get into the old Metallica versus Queensryche versus Black Sabbath argument that had been going on for at least ten years now.

About a week later Dean's kicking back in another shithole sports bar, trying to unwind with a beer and watching baseball on a giant screen TV that for some reason shows Caucasian skin in shades of green. Sam's playing with the laptop, slouched down in a chair that's dollhouse size, and out of the blue Sam says, "When you said Jess was out of my league, you were right. Her world was so different, I guess because of her family? And also, she was rich. She got to go to high school as a girl. She was even on the student council."

Dean doesn't want to talk, not when there's men on first and second and it's that Japanese guy at bat. But Dean feels bad for acting so knee-jerk pissed when he hears Jess' name, plus he's curious. He thinks he's pretty damn tolerant: he's not an asshole, like some people. But Sam won't out and explain anything to Dean. Sam keeps secrets so tight that sometimes Dean thinks Sam's a black hole. Not being trusted stings. Dean has to figure out how to save Sammy, because there's no way in hell he's going to do the other thing, but Sam's a closed book, the kind with a lock on the side. Except that now Sam's talking, and Dean needs to suck up his anger and make this work.

"Yeah, well," Dean says, and motherfucker another ball, he hates when batters get walked. It's cheap and cowardly. Still, it'd get the bases loaded. He makes himself look at Sam. "With Jess," he starts, and then realizes that he has to say this the long way around. "I told Cassie about hunting because I couldn't love someone and look her in the eyes and lie."

"Yeah," Sam says, nodding like that makes sense. "You call her?"

"Sometimes." The guys at the bar erupt into shouting, and Dean tells himself that he doesn't care if anyone gets a grand slam or what. "Clean break'd be easiest, maybe. Just thought she was the one." He hates admitting that. People only talk like that on TV dramas, and it usually means they're about to get a fatal disease. "Glad I didn't get the tattoo, though. The heart and scroll with her name."

"On your ass?" Sam asks, eyes narrow with laughter.

Dean lies and says no, and Sam kicks him for being a liar.

"I don't get your deal," Dean says, moving his beer so he can play with the ring of condensed water on the table. "But I respect you. I do. If I'm stupid, just hit me or something until I smarten up."

"Whatever," Sam says, and, "go get me more buffalo wings," which Dean refuses to do on principle because he paid for the first order.

He's not even thinking when he says, "Go fuck yourself, Samantha," and then he freezes. And maybe Sam keeps secrets, but Dean's usually able to dance around whole roomfuls of elephants — comes from being raised a Winchester.

"Sammy," Sam says, eyebrows slanting together as if there's something complex going on underneath, like walking on ice or trying not to ignite gas fumes. "At school, I was called Sammy. With an i, it looks better. Jess would rag on me if she saw me now. Pretending."

"To be a girl?" Dean asks. As per his order, Dean gets a slap upside the head for that, Sam's hand moving faster than he can block. "Ow," he says, and rubs where it stings. "Bitch."

Sam pulls at the collar of the flannel plaid from Goodwill, from when they were buying out super-large clothes to replace what Sam lost in the fire. "To be Sam." Sam fishes the money clip out of the shirt's pocket and shoves the tiny chair backwards. "Jerk."

When Sam's over plowing through the fans at the bar, Dean drops his head, presses his thumbs in hard at the inside corners of his eyes, and then drags the pressure out along his eyebrows. It doesn't really clear his head, just kind of highlights that he hasn't really seen the full scope of this thing. If Sam's going to be a girl — hell, apparently, Sam's already a girl, Dean just got the press release late.

And Dean can't wrap his head around it. He's flying blind, navigating on Sammy's truth, and he feels in his bones he's going to screw this thing up. Sammy's going to end up dead or evil, and that'll be another item on Dean's list of failures.

"Cheer up," Sam says, reappearing with food. "They're still only three games out, and they're playing Boston next."

"Newsflash, Sam." Dean reaches for the chicken, sliding the paper-lined red plastic basket over to his side of the table and burning his fingers when he grabs the biggest piece. "The Red Sox don't suck that much anymore," he says through a mouthful that's trying to eat its way through his tongue. It's the kind of food that's great hot and disgusting cold.

Sam snorts and leans back, taking a long thirsty swallow of beer. "Put money where your mouth is?"

"Hell no," Dean says. Gambling with Sam's asking for trouble. "What was Jess' name before?" he asks.

Sam looks at him long and hard, almost enough to make Dean squirm. "Lee. After her dad. Her family. . . some of them still called her Trey, because she was the third with that name."

Dean chews on his bottom lip. "Huh. Kind of sucks, I guess." He tries to imagine Dad ever calling Sam a girl's name for real, not just shorthand for lazy, cowardly, weak, or queer. His imagination's not that good, he figures, because he can't.

"Better than Samuel," Sam mutters. "Gimme back my food."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

"Ms Kawalsky," Sammy says, lying flat on her back in the middle of the floor, with her knees tented up. It's too hot to move at all. Pastor Jim has a ceiling fan in his kitchen and she's right under it, wearing some school's gym uniform shorts and a tank top. Her hands are palm up and too heavy to lift, and her long hair's damp with sweat.

Dean's got jeans on and nothing else. Not even underwear, Sammy thinks, because without a belt the waist is low enough underwear should show. Dean doesn't know how to stay still. He keeps moving around, like maybe he expects to find it cooler by the window or the fireplace or sitting at the table in front of the open door.

Dean's on the chair now, and he rocks it back on two legs, holding himself up with one knee pressed to the edge of the table. "Yeah," he says, after due consideration, "I'd do her."

"Why?" Sammy asks.

Dean shrugs. "Gym teacher, she's skinny but probably bendy." He takes the chair back a little further with each rock, always catching himself before he falls.

Sammy frowns, confused. "You said you liked Mrs. Martin because of her big ass and big tits."

"Watch your mouth," Dean says, automatic. "I'll be the one Dad yells at he hears you talk like that."

"But which is better?"

Dean takes a deep breath and blows it out just to show what a pain it is to have Sammy around. "It's all good," he says, like he's speaking from experience, which reinforces Sammy's belief that Dean's not as experienced as he says. "Confidence," Dean adds. "That's important, and wanting to have fun. Don't ever get mixed up with girls who think sex is, like, a sacred ritual or a gift of love." Dean gives Sammy a wicked sideways grin. "Full-figured, flexible, and fun, that's what works."

"Don't forget fictional," Sammy can't resist adding, and Dean grabs a hard plum from the bowl on the table and whips it at Sammy, who just barely manages to evade because she's too busy laughing at the look on Dean's face. The plum skitters across the floor, coming to a rest in front of the stove.

"Miss Pike," Sammy says, and Dean frowns and spreads his hands like he's saying I got nothing. "Office lady. The one with the, you know, the hair."

Dean snorts. Sam figures Dean calls her Miss Piss. Most of the kids do, at least out of her hearing.

"Huh." Dean sucks on his lip. "Yeah, okay, you got me. Maybe no. Bet she'd demand a permission form. Bet she'd call me young man and wear that flower kind of perfume. Can you picture the hair in bed?" Dean makes a sour Miss Piss face and says ooh baby and uses both hands to draw a bride of Frankenstein tower of hair over his head.

Sammy shakes her head, equally amused and horrified. "You're terrible," she says. Dean whips another plum at her, overbalancing and toppling backwards to the floor. Dean rolls out of the fall, swearing, but he's rubbing his arm like it really does hurt while he picks his ass up off the floor.

Sammy sticks her thumbs in the loose armholes of her tank top and holds it up off her chest so that when she looks down it's like having boobs. She can do full-figured. She'll keep her hair long but she won't pin it up. She's good at somersaults and handstands and she's the best double-dutch jumper in the grade, so she thinks she could be flexible if she tried.

She thinks about Mr. Martinez, who bounces when he walks and smiles at her like it makes his morning when she walks into class. He's wiry and brown and has a moustache. Sammy fell off the monkey bars once and scraped her knees up on the asphalt, and he put an arm around her shoulders while she bawled. He lets Sammy use colored pencils from the supply closet because she only has a pencil and an eraser in her school box. She likes Mr. Martinez, a lot.

"Wanna go shoot some cans?" Dean asks, putting the chair to rights but standing there like he's itching to be gone. "I know where Pastor Jim keeps the ammo."

Sammy thinks that's a dumb idea. Dad'll be furious. But they're out in the middle of nowhere and Dad and Pastor Jim won't be back for days. Plus, she really loves shooting.

"I know where he keeps the Kalashnikov," Sammy says, and smiles a challenge at Dean.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Dean's all messed up after being caught by the djinn. Sam treats him like he's sick or something, which makes Dean feel worse. He doesn't want to think about the dream world he made up. Dean doesn't want to feel stupid for all the hugging he did in his dream. A man's allowed to hug his family, for God's sake. He hugged Mom and Sam and Jess and even poor fictional Carmen. He was happy; he still loves those memories. He wishes they were real.

Here in the real world he doesn't touch Sam unless someone's bleeding or they're smacking each other around like they've been doing since Sam learned to hit back. Dad was the one who doled out physical affection, hugs and pats on the back and ruffled hair. Dean still misses that. He doesn't think Sam does.

The dream Sam had been skeeved to suddenly have a touchy-feely brother, and had taken him into the dining room to tell him to lay off.

"You and Dad had your thing," Sam said. Dean thought hunting?, but Sam went on, "The comments and the jokes and the casual cruelty and never calling me or Jess by our names." Sam smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "I stopped caring a long time ago. So what makes us Sammi and Jess now? What's with all the hugging?" Sam's eyes narrowed. "You're not on some religious kick, are you? A twelve-step program?"

"Hello, my name's Dean, and I'm an asshole?" Dean snapped back, but it wasn't the least funny because in that world, apparently, it was true.

Dean had been trying to figure out whether Sam had been born a girl, in the world where Mom was alive, or if Sam had done what Jess did (whatever it was Jess had done). That Sam wore chunky sandals and above-knee skirts and had long hair and nail polish. Dean told himself it didn't matter, that it was a good thing people didn't walk around with 'Before' pictures hanging around their necks, especially considering the nightmare of his dream-world prom picture.

He never did convince dream Sam that he was worth the air he breathed. It probably would have taken all the time until the djinn had sucked him dry. But now he has the real Sam hovering over him, buying him Twizzlers and Ding Dongs, making him lie down in the back seat while Sam puts Joliet as far behind them as possible while still swinging by Sister Sarah's Restaurant to see the world's largest Cheeto, which is all kinds of awesome.

Sam's playing The Black Album, quietly. Lullabies for disturbed children, Dad used to say, and Dean's alarmed at how fast that thought chokes him up.

"You going to throw up?" Sam asks. "Want me to pull over?"

"I only barf when I can't drive," Dean says. Sam flips him a paper McDonald's bag over the seat. "What's the plan, Sammy?"

"Angry spirit in Salem," Sam says. "Salt and burn stuff. I already Google-Mapped the haunted house."

"Aren't you just the eager beaver," Dean says through a jaw-cracking yawn. He shuts his eyes, feeling like he hasn't slept in months.

When he wakes up, he's on the easiest case he's worked for at least ten years. The spirit isn't even angry. It's slightly miffed, or maybe even politely disagreeable. They talk to a few people, hang out on the microfiche machines at the quaint public library, get a room at a motel run by a gum-snapping woman named Marcy, and take naps until it's late enough to go to the cemetery.

Naps. Dean's life sucks.

The cemetery is way out past the edge of town, and the locals don't even chain off the road at night. Instead, there's a very tasteful sign that reads God Is Watching You.

"Hi, God," Dean says, taking out the flashlights and shovels and gasoline and salt and crap. Sam whacks him, and it still gets to Dean: after everything they've seen and done, Sam thinks that God would give a crap about a little friendly sacrilege.

The graves are all laid out in little clusters around a central pond, which has weeping willows and ducks. The noises ducks make at night always creep Dean out. He stays well the fuck away from the bushes near the water. Sam points out the way with hand gestures, like they really need to be stealthy. Dean follows along, looking at all the little American flags on the war veterans' graves.

"You think Dad would have wanted one of these?" Dean asks, training his flashlight on one.

Sam stops to look. "No." Dean shrugs, annoyed by how much that stung. "Dad pretty much only cared about what the people he knew thought. Keeping his good name. His honor, I guess." Sam shifts the shovel and moves on, reorienting with quick glances around. "Over by that tree, I think."

Dean takes the lead. He's older. "That what you think? Dad was an honorable man?"

"Not always right, but honorable," Sam says, squatting and wiping the green stuff off the stone to read the engraved name. "Bingo."

It just figures that on a case this easy, the dirt is soft and the coffin is weak dry wood.

"I been thinking," Dean starts as they take position upwind from the fire. "The djinn just gave me what was in my head, right?"

"Pretty much." Sam's preoccupied, doing some kind of massage on the wrist that was broken.

"You were a girl." Sam doesn't say anything, just keeps on with the squeezing and stretching. "Cleavage and everything." Dean makes the traditional two-handed gesture.

That makes Sam cough and jab at Dean with a fast elbow. "Dude, you're my brother."

Dean rolls his shoulders. Having to watch Sam is making him feel stiff, now. "Mom was pretty hot, too. Academically speaking." Crap, now his neck feels funny. He wishes the motel had Magic Fingers beds. He loves those damn things. "It was a whole world of weird, but I was still me, you know? I had to fake knowing my girlfriend and didn't know how to talk to you, and Mom, hell, half of what I remember about Mom I swear I made up off of TV shows and shit. I was trying so hard to be the guy they thought was Dean. Maybe if I'd stayed there I'd have stopped being me. Their Dean was a real dick, so it might have sucked, but by then I wouldn't be me enough to know?" Dean shuts up. He doesn't even know what he's talking about. "It's stupid."

"Makes sense to me," Sam says.

"I don't want you to pretend to be my brother Sam," Dean says, in a rush because he feels like an idiot. "Not if you're Sammi with an i or whatever. I should." He breathes in, then out. "If I got a sister, be horrible not to get to know her." The fire's burned down enough that he can get busy filling the grave in and gathering together all the stuff. Dean's happy to be moving. He's no good at standing around. "We should go. I'm driving," he adds. "You know how to get to the 24 Diner from here? I'm in the mood for pie."

"Totally not a surprise," Sam says, making an annoyed little face when Dean hands over the shovels and the empty gas can.

"Can you actually hear the difference between Sammi with an i and Sammy the regular way?" he asks on the way back.

Sam flashes him a grin over one shoulder. "Nah. Can you?"

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

When Sammy gets home from school (preschool, Dean always says, like it's stupid) she knows Dad's gone again because all the food is set out on the kitchen counter, a line of boxes and cans like a train. Their room doesn't have a microwave, and Dean hates using the burner. He's scared of fire. Sammy is, too. But she doesn't like cold food all the time, either.

Dean doesn't say anything, just puts the TV on channel 56 for the after-school cartoons. He makes canned bean salad and tuna for dinner. Sammy lines up all her red beans and all her white ones and makes two rings around her plate, and then eats one red and one white until they're all gone. Her dinner lasts until bath time. Dad says Sammy shouldn't play with her food. Dean just tells her to stop making airplane noises for the beans.

Dean and Sammy take a shower together because Sammy can't get all the soap out of her hair by herself. They put on their clean underwear for tomorrow and brush their teeth. Sammy shares her bubblegum toothpaste because Dad took the spicy one with him. Dean brushes out Sammy's hair so it doesn't get knots, which is her next-to-favorite part of every day. She's excited and happy because what comes next is the best part.

Dean gets into bed, and Sammy opens up Dean's backpack and takes out Dean's book from school. She needs to carry it with two hands, which makes it hard to climb up onto the bed. The book is square and has hard red covers with a picture of a boy and a girl on the front, and all kinds of stories inside. Sammy loves this book and the stories about the boy with the bicycle and the girl with the garden and the animals who talk about the sun and the children who find the birds' nest.

Dean lets her pick a story because Dad's gone. Dad always makes corrections, but Sammy never minds if Dean says the words different or just says what's happening in the pictures.

When the story's finished, Dean shuts the book. Sammy looks at the cover, the boy and the girl standing together on a tire swing that's going up. She's not allowed to stand on swings at school.

"That's you," Sammy says, putting one finger on the boy with the wide troublemaker's grin and no front teeth. "That's me," and she points to the girl with the messy curly hair just like hers.

"You got that right," Dean says. Sammy punches him because he said it in a mean way, and takes the book back. She loves Dean's book.

"I gotta teach you to hit for real before you start school," Dean says, and reaches over Sammy to turn the light off. Sammy holds her breath, because if Dean can't wiggle himself comfortable he'll say she has to go sleep in Dad's empty bed. But Dean just jerks the pillow out from under her head and huffs out a Goodnight, Sammy.

Sammy keeps her arms around the pretty book with all the wonderful stories, says Goodnight, Dean, and closes her eyes.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

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