It started with a goldfish.
Sam wasn't any more than three or four. Back then, John spent a lot of his time tracking down psychics and grilling them for anything they knew. He carried a photo of Mary around in his pocket, along with a scrap of fabric from one of her shirts that'd survived the fire. At the start it'd been a whole shirt, but four years in, he knew enough not to carry that much around; even a single extra shirt took up room that could be filled with a weapon, ammunition, or first aid supplies.
The latest psychic worked the carnival circuit. John had scoffed, but his contacts swore up and down that she was the real deal, so he gave Dean and Sam ten bucks each, told Dean to watch his brother, and sent them off to enjoy the rides and games for a couple hours while he talked to Madam Milă.
Sam was too small for any of the decent rides, the ones that spun or flipped, the ones that warned off pregnant women and people with heart disease, and he was too young to appreciate any of the games that didn't involve rubber duckies and handfuls of candy. So they filled up on funnel cake and soda, and then Dean just dragged his brother around while he threw darts at balloons and shot bbs at paper targets with rigged guns.
Then Sam met his first clown.
Dean never figured out just what the clown had done -- if he'd even done anything other than wear that gunky make up and those bright pajamas. All he knew was that one minute, Sam was complaining that he was tired and bored and wanted to go hoooooooooooome and the next he was wailing like the clown was trying to tell him he wasn't allowed to watch Thundercats while gnawing on his arm. Stupid thing didn't even have the grace to look ashamed of itself -- it just stood there, miming crying back at Sam, until Dean tried to swing his gun around to aim at its bright freaking red nose.
Sam's tantrum cost Dean a giant teddy bear -- not that Dad would let him keep it, anyway -- and the right to get to play any more games on the midway that involved anything resembling a weapon. Dean grabbed Sam by the arm and hauled him off to find some tissues, glaring back at the man running the shooting booth until it was out of sight.
"Come on, man," he said, turning back to his sobbing brother. "It was just some asshole in a costume!"
Sam wailed. Dean tried not to panic.
"Sammy, shut up! People are staring!" And staring people were curious people, people who might notice that they didn't have an adult around to watch them. Sam was going to get them into so much trouble if he didn't shut up.
Stupid goddamn clown. Dean shoulda killed it.
"Hey," Dean tried one last tactic, swinging Sam around by the arm and pointing him at one of the nearby booths. "Lookit, Sammy, this game has fish!"
Sam started to hiccup, but he at least had his eyes open, now. "Fi-fishes?"
"Big orange ones," Dean said, and he tugged Sam over to where people were trying to toss ping pong balls into fish bowls. "See? Look."
"Goldfishes," Sam said, sniffling wetly.
"Yeah, man," Dean agreed. "You ever seen so many goldfish before?"
Sam popped up on his toes, fingers locked onto the edge of the table as he stared down the nearest fish. "Hi, goldfishes," he whispered.
The lady running the game knew an easy mark when she saw one. "You boys want to give it a try?"
Sam turned wide, red-rimmed eyes on Dean. "Can we? Can we play with the goldfishes?"
Dean sighed. He'd been hoping Sam would be satisfied just looking at them. "How much?"
"A dollar for three balls."
"Can't we just buy one? My little brother's crying."
The lady smirked down at him. "One dollar," she said. "Three balls."
"He really wants one."
"Guess you'd better have really good aim, then."
Dean groaned, slapping down their last two bucks. "Three for him," he said, "and three for me."
He wasn't sure how they did it, but Dean didn't manage to sink a single ball. They all went rattling off the table. It was as if the fish bowls were protected by some kind of force field. He looked down at Sam, who was still peering over the edge at the fish. "You want me to play yours for you, Sammy?"
Sam glared at him.
"Dude, you can barely see over the table."
Sam glared harder and stuck his arms up in the air, a wordless demand to be picked up. His lower lip wobbled.
"Shoulda killed the clown," Dean grumbled, and, legs trembling, he lifted Sam up just high enough for his chin to clear the table top.
Sam tossed his first ball. It tinked off the rim of one of the bowls on the outside edge. He harrumphed and kicked his legs. "Higher."
"Sammy," Dean said. "I can't --"
"Fishes!" Sam insisted. Dean groaned, set his feet, and got Sam shoulder level with the table.
"Deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeean," Sam whined, and Dean set him down just long enough to bend his legs and grab Sam around the waist, lifting him as high in the air as he could. They'd have been fine if Sam had had any idea how to throw. As it was, he wound up so hard that he threw Dean off balance, and just as the last ball left Sam's tiny, chubby fist, Dean lost his footing and sent them both tumbling to the ground.
Dean blinked dirt out of his eyes just in time to see the lady running the booth smirking down at him.
"Congratulations," she said, and Dean grunted his answer as Sam managed to kick him in the gut in his rush to get up. "You boys just won yourselves a goldfish." And she gingerly placed a bright orange fish in a tightly knotted sandwich baggie into Sam's outstretched hands.
"Fishie," Sam whispered reverently. And Dean knew they were screwed.
Dean spent the next hour bracing himself. Maybe it'd all be okay. Maybe they were planning to stick around, anyway. Maybe Madam Milă was just what Dad was looking for and they were finally all done.
Yeah, he didn't believe it, either.
"Daddy!" Sam shrieked, Fishie in its baggy clutched in his hands. "I won a Fishie!"
Yeah, keeping it a secret would not have worked.
Dean turned slowly, head held low. He stared down at his dad's dusty boots, waiting for the sigh, the lecture. Dean should have known better. He should have kept Sam far away from the goldfish game.
Sam had just been crying so hard. . . .
"That's . . . that's a very nice fishie, Sam," Dad said, and Dean chanced a look up.
Dad was staring down at the bag in Sam's hands like he'd never seen a fish before. He looked . . . tired. More tired than Dean had ever seen him before, and sad in a way he couldn't understand.
"Dad?" he asked.
Dad nodded to Dean. Dean wondered if he was saving the yelling for later.
"C'mon, kiddo," he said. "Let's get your brother and his fish home."
Huh. Maybe they were going to stay awhile. Maybe he could even get Fishie one of those awesome skull things for its bowl.
Sure enough, Fishie was belly up by morning. Sam cried his way through two states and Dean swore to himself: no more pets. He just couldn't handle the tears.
For a long time, she said nothing at all.
John was about ready to get up and leave, the sun starting to set over the ferris wheel outside, when she opened her eyes and pinned him in place with a look.
"Be careful, John," she said, and John couldn't remember if he'd ever told her his name. "If you don't let them be boys, they can never grow into men."
"Dean?" Sam squeaked. He actually squeaked. Dean managed to pick his head up just in time to see Sam hurriedly shoving his backpack behind his back. "You're -- what're you doing home?"
Dean blinked at him, then looked back at the TV, where a lady bear in a cardigan was yelling at an orangutan in a hawaiian shirt. "Watchin' . . . whatever the hell this is."
"TaleSpin," Sam said. "Darkwing Duck is on next."
Dean peered back at him. "You have the TV schedule memorized," he said, then flopped himself back down on the couch, dragging the covers back over his head. "You so need a life."
Sam was in front of him, then, fighting Dean for the covers until he could get a hand in to press to Dean's forehead. "You're kinda warm."
"Damn right I am," Dean grumbled.
"I said warm, Dean. Not hot." Sam scowled, his lips twitching like he was coming to some great, important decision. "You're sick."
"Y're a fuckin' genius," Dean said, or would have, if he hadn't launched into a coughing fit halfway through.
"Ew," Sam said, though he didn't recoil. "How long have you been lying here?"
"Uh," Dean said, thinking back. "Since math."
"You should go to bed," Sam decided, tugging the covers further away, until Dean was left sprawled on the couch in his boxers and undershirt, face still pressed stubbornly into the cushions.
"You go to bed."
"You're right," said Sam. "I'm definitely the genius in the room."
Dean had to admit, Sam knew how to step up and take charge when he needed to. He wasn't totally sure what Sam was doing with his backpack in the bathroom for, like, half of every hour, but in the other half, he managed to wrangle Dean into bed, pour cough syrup and aspirin down his throat and put the Spaghettios on the stove for dinner.
"Where'd you learn to do all this?" Dean asked, during one of his more or less awake moments. Sam looked up from where he was stirring the pot on the hot plate and snorted.
Dean maneuvered into a mostly sitting position and blinked at him over his blanket covered knees. "Dude. Seriously. You're the little brother. You don't have to take care of anyone, that's the point."
Sam turned back to the pot of Spaghettios, which were getting way more attention than they ever would if Dean were cooking. "Don't be stupid, Dean."
He'd just go to bed early tonight, that was all. After a good sleep, he'd be just fine.
God, he wanted his dad. He knew he was too old for it, but he really wanted Dad here. Dad didn't even have to do anything, he could be sitting at the table yelling at Sam for doing his homework instead of practicing his archery, Dean just wanted him here, to take some of the pressure off his chest, let him breathe again.
Then a hand landed on Dean's shoulder, and Sam leaned over him, tucking something small and fuzzy between Dean's hands at the top of his chest. Dean frowned and looked down, but couldn't make anything out in the darkness of the room. Whatever it was, it was soft and warm, its heartbeat thumping a manic pace against his palm, its breath and whiskers tickling the bottom of his chin.
"Sam?" Dean managed, trying not to move too much for fear of crushing the small animal. "What the hell?"
Sam sighed. "He's my class bunny. Pet him. Just try it."
If it weren't so early, and if Dean weren't feeling so much like crap, he'd probably have protested. He definitely wouldn't have started carefully running his fingers over the bunny's ears, letting its body heat seep into the aching muscles of his chest. It didn't move, didn't squirm or try to get away, it just held still where Sam had put it until Dean's fingers stopped stroking its head and came to rest gently between its shoulder blades. Dean let his eyes drift shut, not even realizing he had a goofy-ass smile on his face.
"See, Dean?" Sam whispered from behind him. "Pets are awesome."
"I told you, Dean. He's my class pet. It was my turn to bring him home for the night and take care of him."
Dean narrowed his eyes at him, then had to twist to the side when a coughing fit hit him. The bunny in his lap shuffled along with his shifting weight, but otherwise didn't complain.
"He likes you," Sam said.
"Bullshit," Dean finally managed. "They can't make you bring a pet home."
Sam shrugged, smirk gone. "Dad signed the permission slip."
That was a new one on Dean. "What? When?"
"Last week. Right before he left."
Dean's eyes went wide. "Sam, what's the bunny's name?"
Sam stared up at the ceiling. "Peanuts."
"What is it?"
"A permission slip." Another glance revealed Sam fidgeting in place, eyes glued to something high above John's head. "It just says I'm allowed to have Peanuts." John raised an eyebrow, and Sam's eyes flicked to his face, but never quite made eye contact. "You know. 'Cause of allergies and stuff."
"Uh huh." John glanced at the slip again, picking out the key phrases 'class pet', 'mini-lop rabbit', and 'teaching responsibility, compassion, and teamwork'. He looked back at his research.
If you don't let them be boys, Madam Milă's voice echoed in his head. If you don't let them be boys. . . .
John scribbled his name on the paper and pretended not to see the grin lighting up Sam's face when he snatched it away to shove into his backpack.
Apparently, Sam knew better than to ask by then, too. He was all of thirteen and about as full of stupid as a teenager got, and he just scooped the dog up, careful of its badly broken leg, and gave Dad a cold, hard stare. Dean braced himself for the usual explosion, thinking it was early, this time around, usually they managed to hold off until they'd at least gotten back to the car -- but Dad only stared back, then turned and led the way back out of the mine.
"There'll be a vet in town," he said. The mine was remote enough that they'd been able to take on the knockers in daylight, and between the glare of the sun after the darkness of the mine and the thick mist of Dad's breath in the January air, Dean couldn't read his father's expression. "They'll make it peaceful."
"We're not putting her down," Sam said, and Dad sighed.
"It's clearly a stray, Sam, and no one's got the money to --"
Sam held the dog, a smallish, floppy-eared hound with short black fur, tighter to his chest. "I do."
"Bullshit," Dean said, before he could even think about what was coming out of his mouth. "You don't have any money."
"I've been saving up," Sam said. He didn't look away from Dad. "We're not putting her to sleep."
Dean braced himself again, but still nearly fell over when Dad just turned back towards the car, not saying another word.
Dad handed the receptionist his freshest credit card. Dean started to wonder if maybe he'd been possessed. He grabbed his father's arm as soon as the receptionist's back was turned and dragged him out onto the front porch of the clinic. Dad shook him off the moment they were outside.
"We have a problem here, Dean?"
"What the hell, Dad? Since when are we in the dog rescue business?"
"You know how your brother is, Dean." Dad looked tired again, that worn out, exasperated expression that, though he didn't see it often, Dean had learned to recognize over the years as his father out of options, at his wits end and resigned to his fate. He'd given up. And Dean couldn't for the life of him work out why.
"So, what, we're just going to drag some scrawny ass mutt with us around in the Impala, now? We're not Scooby Doo, Dad, we can't --"
"Caleb keeps a cabin in Kentucky. It's maybe five hours from here. We'll hole up there, give the animal time to recover."
Dean shook his head. "Dad --"
"I know, Dean." Dad's hand came down on Dean's shoulder hard enough to sting, and Dean bit back the rest of his complaint. "Trust me, son, I know. But this is something your brother's going to have to work out on his own, you got me? The dog needs surgery, and that means she'll need to recover. We've got nothing pressing for the next couple of weeks. Sam's a smart kid, but he's stubborn. He'll figure it out himself."
Dean swallowed and nodded, watching his father walk back into the clinic to sign the papers for the dog's surgery. He caught Sam staring out at him through the window and offered him a shaky smile.
Yeah, Sam would figure it out for himself. And when he did, Dean was the one who was going to have to pick up the pieces.
"Stop it," he said.
"Stop looking at her like that. Dogs take their cues from people. If you flinch, then she'll think something's wrong."
"She's fucking missing a leg, Sam."
Sam's jaw clenched. "Dogs get along fine on three legs. She's going to be fine."
"She needs a name," Dad said, and both Sam and Dean twisted to stare at him. "If we're going to watch out for her, she's going to need a name."
Dean shot a glance into the backseat again. Sam stared up at Dad suspiciously, like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Triceratops," Dad said. "You could call her 'Trike' for short."
"Cera," Dean corrected. Dad hadn't been there during much Sam's highly irritating and really, really long Land Before Time phase. Dad raised an eyebrow at Dean and nodded approvingly.
"Mercy," Sam said, and when Dean looked back at him again, Sam had his fingers buried in the soft-looking fur under the dog's chin. "Her name's Mercy."
He could do without her sticking her nose in his crotch every time he walked into a room, though.
The cabin turned out to be pretty much the best place they could have found for a recovering amputee dog. It was out of the way enough that they didn't have to worry about her running out into traffic, but close enough to town that Sam could walk her down to the store when he wanted to without her starting to wilt by the time they got back. Other than the two coming down from the front door, there weren't even any steps to worry about her getting unbalanced on.
Even Dad seemed to enjoy her company. She quickly took to sitting at his feet in the evenings when he sorted through his notes and Dean worked on the weapons upkeep. Once, he'd even caught his father trying to feed her a piece of sausage under the table.
Then a series of suspicious murders cropped up in small town outside of Des Moines, and after the standard screaming arguments, made worse by the addition of Mercy howling along in the background, Dad packed them all up into the Impala, dog and all, and headed for the hunt.
It couldn't have gone worse if Dad had planned it that way.
Already stressed out by all the arguing, Mercy spent a good half of the drive to Iowa barking at passing cars. The other half, she spent lying with her head on Sam's lap and staring pathetically up at anyone who'd look at her. She had to be lifted in and out of the car whenever they stopped -- which happened at least twice as often -- at which point either Sam or Dean would have to keep a hand on the back of her neck to keep her from running off. They hadn't needed a leash for her back in Kentucky, and it hadn't occurred to any of them until they reached the first diner that they might need one on the road. Not a single place they stopped wanted to let her in with them, even when Dean started keeping his sunglasses on all the time and claimed her as a seeing-eye dog. Dean wasn't sure if it was his acting skills or Mercy's, but one of them clearly wasn't playing their part. Once it was time to hit the road again, she was all too happy to get back in the car, climbing over Sam and trying to leap over the back of the seat and get in Dad or Dean's lap -- only to start barking and howling again when she realized they weren't going home.
Dean wondered if she'd ever get used to the fact that the Impala was home. He thought she probably wouldn't. Sam had been living in it for thirteen years, and he hadn't figured it out, yet.
The longer the drive went on, the more anxious and miserable Mercy got, and the more Dean could see that misery reflected in Sam's expression. He thought maybe they should have started smaller. That if they'd had the chance to work Mercy up to it, she'd take to the car the way she'd taken to the cabin, or to having only three legs. Twelve hours was a hell of a trip to start on. The drive from West Virginia didn't count -- she'd been doped up for that whole drive.
By the time they made it to Des Moines, they were all on edge. Dad and Sam were snapping at each other even more than usual, and Dean immediately volunteered to take Mercy out for her evening walk just to get away from the two of them. When they got back, Sam was waiting for them with a blanket. They had to smuggle Mercy into the motel; they didn't have anywhere near the funds to fuss about finding a place that actually allowed dogs.
When they tried to get to sleep that night, Mercy stretched out between Sam and Dean on their bed, while Dad tossed and turned in the other, Sam curled up around the dog like a blanket.
"It'll be okay," he whispered, his fingers running constantly down over her head and down her back. "You'll get used to it, Mercy. I know it's bad, but you'll get used to it."
Dean rolled over, pulling the pillow down over his head, trying to give Sam some sense of privacy. And trying to pretend he didn't hear the hitch in his brother's voice whenever he whispered the dog's name.
Sam carried her back to the car, though she squirmed in his arms the whole way. They drove back to the motel in heavy silence. When Dad pulled into the lot and stopped the car, they all kept still, waiting on Sam.
"She's okay," he said finally. "I was probably more scared than she was."
Dad nodded. Dean held his breath. He wondered how mad Dad would be if he told Sam he couldn't keep the dog. They were supposed to let Sam decide, but Sam was stubborn, and he was an idiot, and Dean had been more terrified than either of them when that spirit got its hands on Mercy, and all he could think about was that goddamn goldfish from that goddamn carnival ten years before, and Sam's agonized wails when Fishie had gone belly up.
He'd just opened his mouth -- because fuck it, their lives were hard enough, okay, Dean didn't need the added pressure of trying to keep a damn dog safe on top of it, even if she was pretty damned hard core for a mutt -- when Sam spoke up again.
"We can't keep her, can we."
He wasn't asking, but Dad tilted his head as though he had. "That's up to you, Sam. She's your dog."
Sam shook his head. In the red glow of the motel sign, Dean could see tears tracking down his face. "It's not fair. She hates this. It scares her. I can't make her keep doing it."
Dean heard an accusation in that tone, though he wondered if he was imagining it. Sam looked sincere; he didn't glare at Dad, he just buried his face in the fur on the top of Mercy's head.
For a few moments, they all just sat there, Dean and Dad pretending they didn't hear Sam's muffled sobs, or Mercy huffing and licking at him, trying to calm him down. Then Dad softly cleared his throat.
"I talked to Singer," he said. "He said Mercy's welcome at the salvage yard. He's got a new rottweiler that could use a friend."
Dean stared at his father's face. For a moment, the curve of his cheek lit up red in the light of the motel sign, too.
Sam sniffed, the sound wet and echoing in the small car. "That'd -- that'd be good, I think."
Dad nodded. "We'll head out first thing in the morning."
John would never admit it, not even to Bobby or Jim, but it broke his heart to think of leaving the old girl behind. He'd had a dog himself, growing up, a scrawny little beagle, back when the scariest things in the world had been nuclear war and polio, instead of monsters and demons. Back when he'd had a house and a bike and a mom and a dad and a crush on the prettiest girl in school. A dog was like a rite of passage for a kid, one that he'd always wished he could have given his boys.
He had Singer give him a lift into town the day before they left, and when he got back, he called Dean out into the yard. Sam and Mercy and the rottie were playing tag a few rows down, but Dean had held back from the game, instead keeping himself to the sidelines. Aloof. Protected.
"I didn't think he'd do it," Dean admitted as they watched Sam and the dogs run. "I know you said he would, but I really didn't."
John nodded. "I wasn't really sure, myself," he said, and when he felt Dean startle next to him, he smiled. "I screw things up sometimes too, Dean."
Dean snorted. "Yeah, whatever."
"We had to let him have this, though," John continued. "We had to give him a chance to just . . . be a boy."
"Should have made him get his hair cut, then," Dean said. "'Cause right now, he looks like a girl."
John cuffed him on the back of the head, and Dean grinned. The expression went from cocky to wide-eyed in an instant when John held up the keys.
John nodded to the Impala, which was now parked next to a full sized black pick up. "I know we tend to let it slide, but you did turn eighteen not too long ago." Ten days, actually, and John knew Dean was counting. He tossed the keys in the air, and Dean caught them smoothly. "She's all yours now, Dean. You better damn well take care of her."
Dean's hand tightened on the keys. John could see the effort it took the kid to keep his eyes on him when all he wanted to do was stare at the car.
"I -- really?"
John tugged Dean in and put his arm over his shoulder. "You're a man now, Dean. That means no more playing around."
"Yes sir." Dean grinned, leaning in to give John a half hug in return. "You're not going to take her back if the truck breaks down, are you?"
"You saying I won't take care of my truck?"
"Damn right." John jerked his head towards the Impala again. "Now get your ass over there and take her out for a drive already."
Dean didn't need to be told twice. John let his smile fade as he watched his oldest climb behind the wheel.
If you don't let them be boys, Madam Milă had said, they can never grow into men.
He'd run out of time to make good on that, either for Sam or for Dean. They were getting closer now, closer to the final showdown, and John was no longer certain he and his sons would live to see the other side of it.
His efforts at giving the boys the childhood they deserved had been weak, he knew, and far too few. For the sake of all of them, he could only hope they'd been enough.