Every night before he goes to sleep, Dean makes sure Sammy is breathing. Then he closes his eyes and begs the angels Mommy said were watching: please bring my mommy back.
By the time he’s six, he no longer believes that there are angels are watching, and they most certainly never listened. That’s when it happens.
Sam cries. Dean’s gotten used to waking up for Sam these days, with Dad on longer hunts, but he’s just so tired. When he opens his eyes, there’s a woman there. She doesn’t look like Mommy; her hair is curly and her face is too hard and she has a gun on her hip just like Dad. She’s holding Sam in her arms, shushing him quietly and rubbing his back. “Put him down,” Dean says, sitting upright and rubbing his eyes. “You can’t -- ”
“Oh hush,” she says; she doesn’t sound soft or kind like their mommy. “This is the worst -- I’m only here because he’s busy.” His Dad called her? Dean stares at her, frowning. Daddy never sends anyone. He’s always very sure about that: watch Sammy, Dean. My job is to keep you safe, your job is to watch Sammy, got it? The woman who isn’t Mommy sighs; she reaches over and half-heartedly pats his head. “Don’t look so distressed, just go to sleep. You’ve got the night off, Dean.”
She’s not bad, Dean supposes. It’s okay if Dad sent her. He snuggles into the pillow and tries to watch her carefully, but his eyes are so heavy.
His eyes snap open, but now it’s daylight and Dad is staring down at him. He looks around quickly and finds Sammy snoring in bed next to him; Sam's hair is messy and matted to his head. “Dad,” he says, rolling back into the pillow. “Your friend was here last night.”
Suddenly Dad is shaking him, waking him back and shouting, “Dean! What do you mean? What friend?”
“The woman.” Dean yawns again, rubbing his face. It’s been a while since Sam slept all night, and he’s feeling more well-rested than ever. “She said you were -- Dad?”
Dad is storming around the room, throwing clothes and guns into bags fast and angry. He usually packs with a lot of care, making sure the clothes are folded and the guns are organized. “Come on, dress Sammy. We’re going to Pastor Jim’s.”
It’s not that Dean dislikes Pastor Jim. Pastor Jim is kind and always makes sure they have enough to eat and never asks Dean to wake up with Sam (though Dean does anyway). But it’s just the way that Pastor Jim is; the way he talks about Mommy as though she’s still around, as though the angels are real and care about Dean.
“But Dad -- ”
“I didn’t!” Dad is checking Sam for marks, checking Dean, and goes back to his frantic stomping and packing, yanking the zipper of a duffel bag so hard that it snaps off. “Think, Dean -- were her eyes black? Did she do or say anything to you? How did she get in?”
“I -- I don’t know!” Sam is starting to rouse and yawn himself awake, stretching his arms and legs and displacing the sheets. Dean rubs his belly to try to wake him up without scaring him. “She came in when I was asleep, she -- ” Except Dad’s going to be mad if he finds out that the woman who wasn’t Mommy held Sam, so he finishes weakly, “She just told me to go back to sleep.”
Dad spends an hour checking all the traps, the tricks -- makes Dean prick his finger with a silver knife to make sure he’s real. It hurts, but once it’s clear that everything is in order, Dad’s calmer and they finally pack up the car.
It happens again on Dean’s eighth birthday. Dad is sleeping and Dean has been tossing and turning over the chance to try out a new shotgun tomorrow. He’s wondering how long it will be before Dad lets him go out on a hunt when she’s there again, without warning, touching the back of her hand to Sam’s forehead. She clicks her tongue and raises an eyebrow at Dean. “Awake this time? Where do you boys keep the medication for a fever? I can never remember what that is in this time.” When Dean looks over his shoulder, she laughs a little and shakes her head. “Daddy’s quite a drinker, isn’t he? Of course, it’s a hard to not to be, when you’ve told your little boy he gets to shoot a gun.”
Dean jerks his chin up and squares his shoulders. “I want to shoot the shotgun; all the hunters use a shotgun.”
“You’re a bit young to be a hunter. Trust me, I know all about being a child soldier. Now, how about that medicine?”
Now that he looks, Sam does look hot and sweaty. Dean heads to his own bag and digs around until he finds the bottle of Children’s Tylenol. It’s nearly empty. He opens it up and measures out the dosage in the little cup. Instead of handing it over to the woman, he brushes past her and rouses Sam. “Hey, take this; you’ll feel better.”
Sam groans and obeys; he’s already asleep before Dean has him tucked back in.
The woman fixes the blankets while Dean sits back down. “You, kid, don’t like me very much.”
“I got in trouble when you were here last. Dad said he didn’t send you.”
“I never told you he did -- that’s your own misunderstanding. My friend sent me. Again. He likes to keep tabs on lost causes.” Dean crosses his arms over his chest and glares at her. He’s too old to hope for angels or mothers anymore, and the woman who isn’t Mommy isn’t welcome. He doesn’t need her. He never did. “Can I give you advice?”
Dean purses his lips and looks away.
“Don’t be discouraged when you don’t get a hang of the shotgun right away. I wasn’t much older than you when they started training me in old Earth weaponry, and it can be tricky when you’re small. But one day it’s just going to click.” She pats his hair again, and lingers over Sam. He’s tossing fitfully, and she seems to hesitate before she leans over and picks him up. Dean is about to protest, do something to wake Dad -- but then Sam nestles his head into her shoulder and curls his body against her. She sways in place and sings him a soft lullaby with words Dean doesn’t know, and he has to look away.
Because that’s what having a mommy was like, and maybe Sam needed that while he was sick.
Career day is stupid. All the other fourth graders seem stupidly excited to have their parents stand in front of the class and say things like I’m an executive assistant and I’m a minor league baseball player. What would his dad have said anyway? Maybe he would have said he was a marine. At least he won’t be here long enough to be embarrassed by these people.
“Dean?” the teacher calls when it’s his turn, toward the very end, and Dean is about to say that his dad couldn’t make it when the door opens and she blusters in. She’s still got gun holster on her hip, but the gun is gone. Dean almost smiles when he wonders if she tried to get into the school with the gun.
“Sorry I’m late!” she says, walking past Dean and ruffling his hair again. She winks at him before she walks to the front of the class. She stands at the front of the class, and exhales. She looks different. “I’m an archaeologist.”
The kids all ooh and ahh and look at Dean with open envy -- and they don’t have to know that she isn’t his mother, he won’t be here for more than another month. A month isn’t too long to pretend. He smiles and ducks his head as she tells huge stories about reading the history of the world and words on ancient cliffs. He tries to look like he’s heard it all before, like it’s not as interesting to him as it is to the other kids.
When parent lunch comes, she sits next to him on the bench and grins at the children crowding nearby. “Bit surprised I made it?”
“Only a little,” Dean says dryly, and they laugh. Maybe they look like a parent and child. “How did you know?”
“My friend told me,” she says. She takes a bite of the school lunch and her face scrunches up in a way that makes Dean laugh harder. “I’ve had better food in prison.”
The children gasp, and Dean doesn’t have time for questions, what with all the other students asking questions on top of each other about dinosaurs and prisoners and had she ever seen a saber toothed tiger?
Before the day is out -- and for once, Dean is sad that the school day is coming to an end -- he asks, “Are you going to Sam’s career day too?”
She clears her throat. “He doesn’t even know me. And it won’t be necessary.”
Oh. Well, that’s okay, then. Sam was still little enough to have fun on career day.
Dad’s still angry with Dean about the hunt, the monster that nearly got Sam -- but nowhere near as angry as Dean is at himself. He got tired of job; he’s never supposed to get tired of the job, the job is supposed to be his focus. Sam and the job. He’s known that as long as they’ve been on the road, and he got weak.
So he’s practicing assembling the firearms. Dad left them at Bobby’s and ran off the hunt the same thing. He made sure to tell Dean that they probably lost the trail for good now, but he left anyway. Just in case.
“You’re very good at that.”
Dean turns the handgun he’s holding, even though it isn’t loaded, and keeps it steady at her. She’s leaning against the door frame of their room. She looks sad. “Don’t you have your own kids to bother? We have enough problems.”
He lowers the gun and sets it on the floor with the pieces of the others. Sam is sleeping on the bed. Dean sort of wants to wake him up, because maybe Sam should know about this woman who isn’t their mother, who twice rocked him to sleep when he wasn’t feel well. (Selfishly, Dean doesn’t want to share. It makes him angrier at himself than he already is.) She sits across from Dean, and picks up the pieces of larger gun that Dean has only shot twice.
When she talks again, she’s look at the gun. “I don’t have children -- I know I never will. It’s not as though I want them; my life is too big and complex for children. And I wonder if he wants me to keep an eye on you because he feels guilty. He had children, once, and he can be terribly sentimental.”
“Who is he?”
“I can barely explain him to myself, let alone a child who barely knows the world.”
“I’m not a child.”
She smiles at him, and starts in on the shotgun. She makes a noise and reaches for the dirty cloth in the weapons bag, muttering, “This one is dirty.” As she’s carefully wiping it clean, she continues, “I wasn’t a child either. I never was. I was always a weapon, something to be twisted for the goals of my caregivers. They never saw me as a child, and it wasn’t right.”
“I like learning how to do the job.”
“I’m sure you do. So did I.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
She laughs. “I know much more than you think, Dean. And I’m sorry that I can’t be your mother. I would be a terrible mother, but if I could, I would take you and your little brother so far away from all this.”
Dean knows a goodbye when he hears one. Every time he leaves for a hunt, Dad says goodbye like he might never come back; Dean has always known that there was a chance that he might not come back. He stares at the guns and tries not to act like a little kid. He’s not a little kid anymore. He doesn’t cry, and he doesn’t get lonely, and he doesn’t care if this woman who isn’t his mother never comes back again. “What’s your name?” he asks.
“River,” she replies.
“That’s a silly name,” he says back. She barks out a laugh.
“I’ll have you know there’s another time stream where you’re Deanna, buddy, so I wouldn’t go calling other people’s names silly.”
It's no time at all before the guns are all clean and assembled, and somehow Dean knows that it was always going to be over when the guns were put together. When their eyes meet, she looks sad. “I’ll miss keeping an eye on you. I want you to know that I was here more than you thought. And that you won’t be alone when I’m gone. So many people and things in this world are keeping an eye out for you, and they aren’t all bad.” She reaches over and touches his cheek, then ruffles his hair. He smiles and ducks his head and reminds himself that he's too old to cry. It was always a game of pretend anyway, and he's too old for that as well. “Goodbye, darling.”
Maybe it was better that his mother was gone all at once and without warning. Maybe goodbye would have been so much worse. Dean nods and doesn’t look up. “Goodbye, River.”
He doesn’t see her leave.