It took Sam six weeks to notice something was going on. It's not that anything was wrong, on the contrary. If anything, his brother was doing a lot better these days. Dean had been having fewer nightmares over the past couple of weeks, not that they ever actually discussed them. They had an unwritten arrangement, you see, one that Sam kept to himself. He didn't tell Dean he was woken up every night by his brother's screams, and Dean didn’t bring up what he’d said at Kentucky.
Sam wished he would, but he held his tongue. He knew better than trying to coax his brother to talk. Sam compromised by lying in his bed pretending to be asleep while listening out in case his brother needed him, called to him. He never did. But now Sam had slept through the night for two weeks straight, so that must be a good sign. Dean seemed more energized, more eager for the hunt. There was this one time in Nebraska when he was a little too eager and almost dangerously reckless, but this was Dean we're talking about.
Now they were in the middle of an investigation, speaking with Dr. Cara Roberts again. They needed those blood samples to find who the Siren was, but just as Dean was getting to the point, a man interrupted their conversation.
"Excuse me, Dr. Roberts?" the man asked.
"Yeah?" she asked, scanning the man while Dean took a step closer, showing his FBI badge.
"Excuse me, uh, we're a little busy here, buddy," his brother said impatiently.
"Yeah, so am I, pal," the man replied and showed his own badge. Shit.
"Doc, can you give us a second?" Sam asked quickly.
"Sure," Cara replied with a small smile and Sam couldn't resist a smile either. "Thanks." There was definitely something going on between the two of them. But first thing's first. The Winchesters walked out the door with the very-real FBI agent following. Sam wasn't too worried, Bobby would be able to back their story but this was still an unnecessary disturbance.
"What's your name?" Dean asked as soon as they were out of Cara's hearing range.
"Nick Munroe. What's yours?" the man asked suspiciously.
"I'm special agent Sam Stiles; this is my partner Dean Murdoch. What office are you from?" Sam said, trying to make it sound believable and get as much information he can. But instead of answering, Munroe snorted.
"Partner?" he asked with a smirk and pointed his attention to Dean. "How long have you been on the force, kid?"
"Excuse me?" Dean asked with a slight tone of bewilderment.
"You seem awfully young to be out in the field. Have you finished your training?" Dean stared at him for a moment before answering but Sam wasn't paying attention to the exchange. Because Munroe had a point – Dean did seem too young to be an FBI agent.
Some new wrinkles, grey hairs, gaining some weight – these are things that acquaintances usually notice after not seeing someone for a long time. In a strange way, the more time you spend with a person the less aware you are of those little changes. And Sam spent practically every waking moment with his older brother.
He examined his brother's features during the two men’s conversation, catching something about their badge numbers but not really listening in. Dean's hair was a little longer than he strictly kept it; his expression a little uptight, but lacking the constant tension it usually had nowadays. The barely visible wrinkles around the corner of his eyes were gone, full lips seemed even fuller and his freckles more noticeable. The cheap suit he was wearing was the one he always used when posing as an FBI agent, but it lay loose on his shoulders. Hell, no wonder that arrogant idiot asked Dean about his training. Dean looked like he was fresh out of college.
Dean's words woke Sam from his train of thought, his voice enraged.
"You're kidding, right?" his brother asked the man.
"I'm just following protocol," Munroe said, while Dean reached to his jacket's inner pocket pulling a business card and handing it to the agent.
Sam got a hold on the conversation and decided it was probably time to intervene before Dean's big mouth got them into trouble. "Look man, whatever. Just call our AD, he'll sort things out." Hopefully, Bobby was still home.
Munroe didn't seem too happy about it, but reached for his cell and dialled the number on the card. By just hearing one side of the conversation and seeing the way the man was apologizing, he knew they were off the hook. Munroe said something about checking a lead together and Sam wasn't even sure what it was, but Dean was quick to reject the offer. Good. They didn't have time for that. He needed to talk to Dean alone.
When the Winchesters finally parted from the man in the parking lot, Sam stopped Dean by the door of the Imapla.
"Wanna drive?" Dean asked and tossed him the keys, not waiting for an answer.
"We need to talk," Sam said, pausing for a moment. He wasn't sure how exactly he was going to tell his brother he seemed to have lost around a decade. Or won it back. Whatever.
"What do you want to talk about, Samantha?" Dean asked with a smirk.
"It's serious, Dean," Sam said and didn't return the smile.
Dean lost his, too. "Not again with the hell talks. We had our moment, I cried, you shed a tear. You got what you wanted," he said, raising his voice a little.
"It's not that. Something's wrong," Sam said, still hesitating.
That earned him a worried gaze from his brother. "What is it, Sammy?" he asked.
"Look at yourself," Sam replied, pointing at the Impala's side mirror. If Dean would just see it in his own eyes... Dean gave him a confused look in reply. "Seriously, just look -"
"What? Did I grow a horn or something? What's with the cryptic talk, dude?" Dean said, getting impatient.
Sam paused again to consider his next sentence, doubting himself for a moment. A quick glance at Dean, now looking closer, and he continued. "When Munroe said you look too young to be an FBI agent he had a point,"
"Huh?" Dean just asked stupidly. In his defence, Sam wasn't being that clear.
"You look younger, like way younger -" Sam started but Dean interrupted him mid-sentence. "Jealous much, Sammy? It's all about the genes. Obviously I got the good ones," he grinned.
"It's not funny, Dean. You look like a twenty year old, and it’s not thanks to your moisturizer," Sam said, getting to his point with no interruptions.
"Dude! I told you a hundred times, it's not a moisturizer, it's for shaving nicks!" Dean said as though he hadn’t heard the first part of Sam's sentence.
"Sure, whatever. Listen, just trust me. There's something going on, look carefully. Your suit is at least a size too large and you look like you did when I was still in high school. Just have a look, okay?" Sam asked, gesturing at the mirror again.
Dean sighed, but still leaned to face the mirror. It was too small for Sam to see his brother's reaction with his back to him but he stayed like that for a moment before he faced Sam again, clearly not amused anymore.
"I know." Sam said, not sure what else to add.
"So what? A spell?" Dean asked.
"Could be, but we didn't gank a witch for ages," Sam replied.
"But why make me look younger? What's the point?"
"I don't know, Dean, but it can't be good."
"Witches. Always with the friggin' witches," Dean murmured angrily.
"Let's head back to the motel, we'll start on some research," Sam suggested, as they got in the car. Dean turned on the radio and they sat rest of the drive in silence. His brother clearly didn't feel like talking about it.
* * *
That evening Sam offered to get take out while Dean continued with the research. They didn't have a lot to go on and he probably should have called Bobby as soon as they arrived back at the motel, but he wanted to speak with him privately, without Dean making the whole thing into a joke. There was nothing too bad about Dean looking around a decade younger but curses – if this was a curse – were never all hugs and puppies.
Bobby didn't have a lot to offer. There was some lore about the fountain of youth that was worth checking out, but not much else. Apparently spells and other supernatural crap that were able to affect age or youth weren't that common. They finished the conversation agreeing to update each other if they found anything, not before Bobby demanded Sam update him if anything changed.
After dinner, Sam joined Dean, researching. It was around 1am when Sam pointed that bustyasianbeauties.com isn't that informative on youth spells, that Dean decided they could find what was wrong with him in the morning. Sam stayed up a little longer but gave up when he figured reading every sentence three times and still not knowing what it was about, wasn't very helpful.
The next morning Dean insisted on continuing with the Siren case. "Just because I lost some wrinkles doesn't mean the siren will stop killing people, Sam." Sam wanted to object but decided against it, thinking they could use some distraction for a few hours and maybe get a new perspective when they hit the books back.
Research was fruitless for both the Winchesters and Bobby, and once they finished with the Siren – Sam never liked that Munroe guy – they followed a lead to Wyoming. By the time they finished with the case, nearly three weeks since they noticed Dean's sudden youth, they still had nothing and Sam was getting more concerned. Since Sam noticed it that first time at the Doctor's office he couldn't stop perceiving how young Dean was, and it still took him by surprise sometimes, expecting to see his older brother's familiar face and instead facing his twenty year old features. When he glanced at him sleeping the other night he could’ve sworn that he looked even younger.
Dean was on edge these days. Not that the hunter was a Buddhist monk before, but he was impatient, cranky and offering unhelpful, smartass comments even more than usual. Sam convinced himself it was probably just frustration from the ongoing research, but it still worried him. And still no nightmares.
The night when Dean yelled at him for not bringing pie for dessert, the penny has finally dropped. "It's not 'just' a damn pie, Sam!" Dean barked, expecting his brother reaction on their ongoing argument, but Sam stayed silent.
"Dean -" he started, after taking a big breath, "Calm down man, this isn't like you. Listen, I think -- I think I figured something out," he said with the calmest voice he could muster.
Dean looked like he was ready to snap again so Sam continued quickly. "Man, you look younger –"
"No shit, Sherlock," Dean said, furious.
"Younger than before, I mean; Younger than the last week, and the week before that. I think it's progressing. That it's affecting your mind as well,"
"What?" Dean asked, looking like he thought Sam had lost his mind.
"Your jeans are two sizes too big," Sam pointed.
"Told you those salads you keep bringing are rabbit food," came Dean's response, smirking. Always with the joke, even – no, especially – when the shit hit the fan.
"Dean, stop, just stop. You've been on edge all week and you're driving me mad. You're angry, you sleep too much, you eat too much - you act like a damn teenager!" It came out much harsher than Sam wished.
Dean stared at him for a moment, but when he spoke again he wasn't angry. In fact, he sounded a little scared. Sam preferred angry.
"So what are you saying? I'm getting Benjamin Buttoned?" Dean asked anxiously.
"Something like that, yeah. But it's not only the size that worries me," Sam stated.
"You've been edgy ever since we found out about this thing. I get that research is a bitch, I do, but you're not acting like yourself."
Dean stopped to think for a moment, and when he opened his mouth again he sounded so damn young and insecure it was disturbing. "I – Yeah. Yeah, I see what you mean. God, I just yelled at you over pie, didn't I?" he said with regret.
"Don't mention it, but listen, it's been what, three weeks?" Sam asked.
"Twenty three days," Dean replied without stopping to think about it. Obviously his condition bothered him way more than he let on.
"And we still got nothing." Sam finished.
"Zilch." the older Winchester agreed.
"We're over our heads and I don't like the way this thing's messing with you. We should head to Bobby's." Sam said, hoping Dean would accept. This was out of their league – out of Bobby's league, too, probably – and they needed all the help they can manage.
"Yeah, we probably should." Dean said and Sam sighed with relief.
* * *
By the time they got to Bobby's on a Friday night, things were starting to get weird. The drive took them three days, and the day before they got there, the twenty sixth day since they found out about the curse, it was clear Sam's assumption was right. Dean looked like a seventeen, maybe eighteen year old and although he quickly sneaked to the bathroom that morning at the motel, Sam noticed his brother's morning glory.
The change was never sudden, Dean didn't wake up one morning a year younger, but it was progressing slowly throughout the week and they gathered that whatever it was, on the seventh day to their count each week Dean woke up and seemed even younger. A year a week, it seemed.
They didn't talk about what was going to happen next. Never discussed what was due when their time was up, when they hit the twentieth week or even the next one. Anyway, it wasn't like they weren't going to find a solution by then. But Sam couldn't help but feel like they were racing against the clock.
Dean refused to let Sam tell Bobby his curse was progressing before they got there. He thought it would be funny to see Bobby's reaction. Sam didn't agree with him, but didn't want to risk his brother snapping at him either. Since that night with the pie Dean did his best to restrain himself, more aware to the way he acted, but hormones and general teen grumpiness got the best of him sometimes.
Bobby's reaction wasn't funny. Well, maybe just a little at first. But the look of utter shock on his face when he faced Dean didn't last long, anger taking its place. Sam never heard him use the term "idjits" so many times in one conversation before.
"Should've told me yer getting younger, you idjit. It's not a game, all my research on sudden youth is meaningless!" He told Dean, raging. "And you, boy!" He turned to Sam. "He's a friggin' teenager, what's your excuse?"
The next morning they got on full research mode. It was frustrating and going nowhere and on the fifth day at Bobby's Dean noticed an article in the paper that sounded like their kind of thing. Sam refused to take the case, and Bobby assured Dean he'd call Rufus and get him on it. Neither man wanted the older Winchester out on a hunt in his current state.
That night Dean wanted to blow off some steam and convinced Sam to hit a bar. Sam agreed, thinking they could both use a break. A grown man with a teenager entering the bar got them a few curious looks, but for anyone who didn't know Dean he probably seemed a little older than his current sixteen year old appearance and it wasn't really the kind of place that cared as long as Dean provided a clearly fake ID with his thirty year old photo looking like he nicked it from his older brother.
Dean found them a private booth facing the wall and Sam brought them beers from the bar. On his third Dean started to get a little drunk. Sam didn't want to buy him another one at first, but they were stuck at Bobby's all week and Dean was having a shitty day - week – month, actually, so he figured one more couldn't hurt and surrendered quickly. Yeah, so that was a mistake. "'M fine", his brother kept saying when Sam dragged him out of the bar. Dean spent the better part of the night with his head in the toilet, and not before he puked inside the Impala and got some on Sam's shoes on the way back. They didn't talk about it the next morning.
They didn't talk about it when they went to buy some clothes, either, because Dean was now fifteen and swimming in his older ones, either.
They didn't talk about the day they drove to the library following another worthless lead, when a cop pulled them over while Dean was driving.
They also didn't talk about the incident where Dean noticed he was shorter than Bobby and stormed out.
Or the next Wednesday night when he wasn't allowed to enter the bar.
And they certainly didn't talk about the way Dean's voice broke, sounding much higher than his usual deep, rasp, or that he barely needed to shave.
They were entering the sixth week of research, and nothing, absolutely nothing came up.
* * *
Close your eyes so your don't feel them
They don't need to see you cry
I can't promise I will heal you
But if you want to I will try
They didn't talk about the waitress at the diner who called Dean 'sweetheart' and handed him the children’s menu.
They didn't talk about how he refused to ask for help and ending with the content of the kitchen cupboard crashing down on him when he tried to grab a cup and couldn't reach it.
They also didn't talk about their day at the shop when an over-eager shop assistant pointed them to the children's section, smiling at Sam and telling him that the adult's 'small' would be too big for the kid.
It was over three months since the whole thing started, ninety-two days to be precise – Sam counted too - and Dean looked like a kid. A very smart, very mature, eight year old kid.
His hair was brighter, much brighter than the dirty blonde hair he’d had as an adult. He was less than four feet tall and hated looking up at Sam and Bobby. Sam could tell, although Dean never talked about it.
He was constantly tired and easily emotional, although he did his best to hide it, and couldn't sit still for research for more than an hour, always finding an excuse to do something else, work on a car at the salvage yard or take a walk.
It was the ninety-seventh night since they started this journey when the nightmares came back. Sam woke up, startled by a scream and immediately reaching for his gun, driven by instinct, still half asleep. When he got to his feet and inspected the room, he saw that there was no one but him and Dean there, and his brother was sitting on his bed, eyes wide, shivering violently. Sam went by his side and set silently next to him. Dean wouldn't look at him and he didn't say anything.
The nightmares continued, and every night Sam woke up, went to sit by Dean's side and they stayed like that at the dark in silence until Dean would lie down again, and Sam went back to his bed. On the fifth night - Dean was seven now – Sam went to sit by him and Dean slowly rested his head on Sam's shoulder. Sam was astounded by the more than surprising act, but stayed still, providing as much comfort as he could without actually doing anything. On the second week of the nightmares, he gently wrapped his arms around the shaking six year old. Dean didn't protest.
The nightmares got worse. Dean refused to talk about them.
* * *
I'll sing this somber serenade
The past is done
We've been betrayed
Someone said the truth will out
I believe without a doubt, in you
They didn't talk about that week's supply run when they both went straight to the toddler section, this time without anyone directing them to it. Sam never stocked more than a weeks worth of clothes, at first assuming they'd find a solution before they'd need it. As the weeks went by, he kept to the same routine.
They didn't talk about how Dean was having trouble using a fork and a knife.
Nor did they talk about the morning when Sam brought him a stool to help him reach the sink.
They didn't talk about the time when Dean got so angry, he burst into tears.
And they definitely didn't talk about the way Dean sounded.
It was the one hundred and thirteenth day when Sam woke up at the middle of the night from Dean's shrieks. Nothing new about that – ever since the nightmares started again a month ago Dean woke up almost every night screaming and groaning, with Sam following. But this time it lasted longer, and when Sam approached his brother's bed he was shocked to see he was already awake, screaming and howling. He screamed and screamed and screamed, and Sam held him, hugging, soothing, providing any comfort he could, tears filling his own eyes when his brother kept crying uncontrollably.
When Bobby came to check on them, clearly woken by the commotion, he stayed frozen by the door at the scene in front of him before he fled. Sam was holding Dean to his chest, his shirt muffling Dean's sobs. Bobby turned away quickly, and Sam hoped Dean didn't notice him. He probably did.
They stayed like that for over an hour, when Dean suddenly jerked away and detached himself from Sam like something burnt him and went to take a shower. Sam took the opportunity to change the sheets, soaking wet with sweat and – oh god, something else - and when Dean came back he got into the now clean bed without a word or making eye contact.
Minutes later Sam could tell from the soft breaths that his brother had fallen asleep. Sam didn't, because although they never talked about it, he knew what Dean's nightmares consisted of. They were running out of time, needed every moment for their futile research, but he still wished the week would end and that it would take his brother's nightmares about the night their mom died with it.
Dean was very quiet the next day, said that he 'ated de way my voice sounds like'. Sam thought there was more to it, but didn't push. That's why it took him by surprise when Dean woke up on the one hundred and fifteenth day and went to Sam's bed instead of going straight to the bathroom as he usually did in the morning.
His brother was so small, so fragile, that it made Sam's heart ache every time he laid eyes on him. He was less than 3 feet tall and couldn't weigh more than 30 pounds, bright blonde locks surrounding his too young face – he tried to give himself a haircut every morning since it kept growing rapidly but stopped after he accidently gave himself a nasty cut on the neck – and looked so innocent it physically hurt. All except his eyes. They might have looked bigger on his young face, but those were Dean's eyes, hazel-green, smart, haunted eyes.
Sam forced a weak smile to his lips when his brother approached him. "Morning, Dean."
"Morning lit'le brother," Dean smiled back, and his smile seemed honest.
"What's up?" Sam asked, curious.
"T'ree more weeks, Sam," Dean said.
Sam froze. The fake smile was gone, now, against his will. "What are you talking about?" He asked, pretending he didn't know.
"T'ree more weeks 'till it's over, Sammy. Let's do something fun."
* * *
Yesterday when you were walking
We talked about your mum and dad
What they did that made you happy
What they did that made you sad
We sat and watched the sun go down
Picked a star before we lost the moon
Youth is wasted on the young
Before you know it's come and gone to soon
They didn't talk about the woman at the rest stop that told Sam his son was adorable.
Or about Dean sitting at the front seat of the Impala, ducking every time they thought they saw blue lights.
Nor did they talk about the number of stops they did on the way, with Sam making lame excuses every time although they both knew the stops were for Dean's benefit.
It took them nearly 24 hours to get there. They didn't have time to spare and Sam still wasn't at ease with leaving their research, but it was Bobby who persuaded him to go with it, assuring him he'd keep looking while they're gone. So they went, and Sam drove without stopping for the night.
Dean woke up just after they crossed the border to Arizona. "We 'dere yet?" he asked, rubbing his eyes with his small hands.
"About an hour left," Sam replied.
"A'esome. We should hit Vegas af'er. Always wan'ed to take you to Vegas," he said, smirking. Sam smiled back. They both knew they wouldn't go.
It was getting dark when they finally reached The Grand Canyon.
They got out of the car and sat on the hood of the Impala – Sam helping Dean up without him asking – and looked up at the sky.
Then, they talked.
It wasn't a long talk. Both brothers were never big on sharing their emotions, Dean more than Sam, even to each other. They laughed a little, talked about their recent road trip – god, they missed this – and on some cases Bobby was working on or handing to other hunters.
But finally, finally, they talked. Sam wished they didn't.
"You be safe, Sam" Dean broke the silence when they were both facing the sky. "You keep safe and take care of yoursel', you 'ear me?" he said.
Sam wanted to shout, to yell, to hit him. "Dean, what the hell. We don't even know what's going to happen. The curse would be probably lifted and – " He started, but Dean cut him off.
"Not sure I'll be able to say it in a couple a days, so just - just let me do this," He said, smiling softly. "I don't wanna leave you 'Sammy, I really don't. Watching you, it's – it's kinda my job, you know? Even now when the roles are reversed. But you have to promise me some'hing."
"No. You have to promise. You go back to Stanford. You go live t'at apple-pie, normal life you wanted, you had 'till I pulled you back in. You have to promise."
"We still got time – "
"Don't. Just promise me, Sammy."
* * *
You were there for summer dreaming
And you gave me what I need
And I hope you find your freedom
They didn't talk about it, because Dean couldn't.
On the last night of the 20th week Sam sat at the porch, cradling the sleeping infant close to his chest, Dean's tiny hands clenched around Sam's fingers.
Sam felt tears falling down his cheeks, but he didn't care. Dean would probably mock him for it. But Dean couldn't. So he just sat there, holding Dean for dear life, humming softly.