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No one ever wants to say

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Curled up on their bed together, Mary’s blonde hair was mussed and her blue eyes were shining as she gazed at John’s face, John’s hands resting on her round and growing belly.

“What are we going to name him?” John whispered, moving forward to press a chaste kiss on his wife’s nose, then her chin, then her lips.

Him?” Mary laughed. “Who says our baby’s a boy?”

“Little Johnny Jr.,” John cooed, stroking up and down Mary’s stomach. He felt her skin jump as the infant inside kicked.

“That’s so terrible, even the baby tried to kick some sense into you,” Mary said with a snort. “Johnny Jr., over my dead body.”

“What, then?” he asked, nosing his way into the side of her neck, just under her ear. She leaned her head away to give him further access, and he laughed into the delicate skin there. “Jack? Jim? José?”

“I’m not naming our child after your ‘drinking buddies,’” chastised Mary. “And besides, we still don’t know if it’s a boy. She could be a girl.”

“Yeah, yeah. Do you have any ideas you’d like to share, then?”

Mary’s hand joined his on her stomach, resting gently over his knuckles, cool and soft and smooth where his mechanic’s hands were warm and calloused and rough. “I thought…” she bit her lip and a furrow appeared between her eyebrows. “I thought we could name him, or her, for my parents.”

There was a silence between them shared for a while, a depth of loss and loneliness as they both remembered their parents. John hadn’t known his mother, had barely known his father, while Mary… She’d lost hers just as she’d decided to leave, chosen to escape to a new life with the man she loved. He knew that she regretted it, felt remorse that the last time she’d ever seen her mother or father she’d left without a goodbye and without the intention of ever returning. She’d wanted to abandon them, but still, they were her parents.

“Samuel,” he whispered to the solid mound of flesh underneath both of their hands. The silence was broken as she smirked slightly and shook her head, rolling her eyes with fondness and sadness and pinched the top of his hand.

“And Deanna, if it’s a girl,” she reminded.

It was a girl.

The first time John held Deanna in his arms, he cried.

He hadn’t been expecting to love his child so much, so suddenly. It was unnerving, how someone he hadn’t known longer than a moment could suddenly consume so much of his heart. But she did. His daughter. Deanna.

Deanna grew up as John’s sweetheart, his princess, Daddy’s little girl. She was always special to him, his little angel with her big, green eyes and blonde hair and that cute little cleft in her chin that she’d inherited from him, although everything else about her face was distinctly Mary’s. When work was hard, John always had Deanna’s smile and hug and shriek of “Daddy!” to look forward to the moment he entered the front door.

John and Mary’s marriage was strained, of course, after the baby was born, but when Deanna was three, more complications arose. Mary was pregnant, again, and so John had to log extra hours at the garage to raise money for their second baby. And Deanna had started going to playgroups, and she was becoming difficult to handle once they had brought her back home.

After Deanna started playgroup, she began to be apt to disagree and whine when Mary tried to clothe her in a dress or skirt, but it didn’t get to be a very big problem until after Mary brought her home from an event at the public library that she’d taken Deanna to with the children from her playgroup and their mothers. John wasn’t the one who dressed his daughter in the mornings – he wasn’t the best at color-coding, and besides, he was a man, and girly clothes weren’t his forte – but after that day at the library, it began that over breakfast Mary would worriedly pull him aside and tell him about how Deanna had tried to escape wearing a dress because “Dresses are for girls.” John usually shrugged over his coffee and commented that Deanna was probably just a bit of a tomboy, and Mary would look doubtfully back at their daughter. One day, when Mary tried to fit Deanna into her purple velveteen dress with the pink flower on the front, Deanna had thrown her first tantrum. It wasn’t her last.

“I don’t wanna wear a dress!” Deanna screamed. “I hate it! The boys don’t wear dresses!”

“You’re not a boy, sweetheart,” Mary tried to soothe her, pulling her little arms aside as Deanna continued to battle against the offending clothing item.

“I am too!” Deanna wailed, her face scrunched up and red, tears dripping down her cheeks. John watched aghast from the entrance to his daughter’s bedroom, seeing the twisted frustration on his baby’s face and the tired upset on his wife’s. 

“I think this began when she started playing with Daniel,” Mary said, disheveled, pushing back her messy bangs after Kate had come by to pick Deanna up for Playgroup. “I don’t know what’s going on with her. Daniel’s a good boy, he’s not a bad influence. I’ve talked about it with Kate, she says he never puts up a fight about his clothes.”

“She hasn’t really been around other kids before, either,” John offered, putting a comforting arm around his wife’s waist. “She’s used to staying home with you every day, and you can be a bit overprotective. She’s just adjusting to being away from you for a few hours, interacting with other adults and children. More freedom.”

Mary pulled away. “What, like staying home with me was some kind of prison? Is that how you feel, John?” she asked angrily. “Is that why you log so much overtime at the garage? For more ‘freedom?’”

John raised his eyebrows in confusion. “No, that’s not what I meant, I…”

Mary shook off his hand and took a step away, raising a finger. “Freedom from what, exactly? I do all the cooking, the cleaning, taking care of our daughter…” Her voice broke slightly. “So what is it, John? Freedom from me?”

He raised his hands in objection, but Mary didn’t let him speak.

“Just leave it,” she sighed, frustrated, turning away. “You know what? You can dress Deanna from now on.”

John was upset, and irritated at Mary’s irrational anger, and he retreated to the kitchen to pull a beer from the fridge. Leaning back against the counter, he took a deep pull. He worked hard for his family, worked overtime and during holidays to put money in the bank and food on the table. Mary’s job as a mother could be demanding, but when their second child came along it was the money from his overtime they’d need, not a clean house or the knowledge of how to use a fucking turkey baster.

But he did start waking Deanna in the morning to pick out her clothes.

“You don’t like any of these?” he asked her, holding up Deanna’s dresses. Deanna shook her head stubbornly. “But this one is your favorite color. Blue, like Cookie Monster, remember?”

Deanna’s bottom lip trembled. “Don’t make me wear them, Daddy, please! Don’t make me look like a girl!”

John heard something in Deanna’s voice, something that he couldn’t ignore. She didn’t sound like a bratty child throwing a tantrum. She sounded like if John made her do it, made her wear those dresses, it would hurt her.

Bending down, he held out an arm for her, and she buried her face in the side of his shirt. “It’s alright, sweetie, you don’t have to wear any dresses if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t wanna,” Deanna whispered into John’s shirt. “I don’t wanna, Daddy. Don’t make me.”

“Sure thing, Princess, sure,” John said softly, running his fingers through her hair.

He took Deanna shopping that weekend to pick out clothes. He didn’t miss the way her eyes followed the boy’s clothes section as they walked past it, and she ended up picking out some green shorts and plain white T-shirts, and even a few button-up overshirts, “like Daddy’s.” In the next few months, as he gave Deanna more and more freedom in picking out her clothes in an effort to reduce his own stress and prevent tantrums at home, her clothes leaned more and more towards the boyish side of the clothing spectrum. Her favorite set of pajamas were blue plaid, a hand-me-down from Daniel, and she wore them almost every night.

Mary was five months pregnant when they told Deanna that she was going to be a big sister.

“That means you’re gonna have a little brother or sister soon, Deanna,” John told her, crouching down to look her right in the eyes. “You’re going to have to be a big girl and protect them, just like Mommy and I protect you.”

Deanna’s eyes were wide in awe, and she nodded.

When Mary was seven months along, John got around to making it out to buy some new toys for the coming baby. They would be reusing Deanna’s old newborn onesies at first, and then they’d buy some more once the baby was there and they knew if it was a boy or a girl. Not wanting to arrive back home with a bag full of new toys and none for Deanna, John walked through the boys’ section to pick out a new Hot Wheel.

Since Mary had gotten big, John had started picking up more chores around the house in his free time, and had found that Deanna never played with the dolls and dress-up clothes that Mary’s friends and relatives gifted to her. Deanna preferred cars, so that was what John had started getting her. He always felt a flush of pride that Deanna admired her daddy’s job so much. Maybe one day, when she was old enough, he’d buy her a cute little Volkswagen Beetle-bug and teach her a little bit of the upkeep, enough so she wouldn’t ever have to ask for help changing a tire or have to call for a tow.

John taught Deanna how to play catch one day during Mary’s ninth month, while his wife was inside relaxing with a glass of cold lemonade in bed.

“Raise your glove a bit, Deanna,” John instructed, showing her what he meant with his own. “Now, bend your knees a little, spread your feet apart. That’s right, Princess, you got it. Now, I’m going to throw you this ball real slow, and try to catch it in the glove, alright?”

Deanna nodded, brow furrowed in determination. John slowly tossed the children’s baseball in a high, soft arc, and Deanna tracked it with her eyes, took a step back, and reached.

The ball hit the glove and bounced back out, falling to land in the grass with a soft sound.

“Crap!” she cursed, and John laughed.

“Language, Deanna,” he chided. “And don’t worry, that was your first time. Here, pick it up, see if you can throw it back to me.”

Deanna managed that pretty fine, although John had to step forward a bit and lower his arm to catch the ball.

“Good one, Sweetheart! Okay, the ball’s coming back for you now, ready?”

Deanna nodded and readied her form.

“Here it goes!” John said, sending the baseball sailing through the air in an arc towards her. Deanna stumbled a bit, raising her glove, and caught the ball above her head.

“Right on, Champ!” John called, and Deanna lowered her glove, a smile stretched bright across her face.

“I did it!” she yelled, jumping up and down, her blonde curls bouncing, and threw the ball back at John with enough energy to send it sailing over his head.

When they went back inside two hours later, Deanna punched the baseball back into her glove repeatedly before turning back to her dad. “Can you call me Champ all the time?”

John felt something sink in his stomach as he looked down at his baby girl. “Sure thing, baby,” he said, feeling shaky, although he wasn’t sure why.

She was silent for a moment, punching the ball back into her glove. Then she looked up at him through her long eyelashes. “Daniel’s dad calls him Tiger. Like the big cat. And Sport, too, sometimes. He taught him how to play football.”

“Is that right?” John asked, before shuffling his daughter into the bathroom for her bath.

Deanna found the scissors two days before Mary was due and cut off her pigtails in front of the bathroom mirror. Mary, round and heavy with her pregnancy, had to take her to the barber to get the messy cut fixed. When the two returned home, Deanna’s hair was in a short and boyish bowl-cut, her cheeks rounding into a smile when she caught sight of her daddy. John ruffled her soft hair and kissed Mary’s cheek.

Mary went into labor on May first, and on May second, John was holding his baby boy, his first son, in his arms. This time, he cried without surprise.

Three days later, when Mary was able to return home, they introduced Deanna to her little brother. She was strangely quiet.

When John had told his daughter that her baby sibling was coming, she had been bouncing around the house. Now, Deanna seemed to drag her feet along the carpet as she walked, constantly shooting strangely furtive glances at Mary as she cooed, “Who’s my good baby boy?” to Samuel, rocking him in her arms. Deanna glared at the truck-patterned blanket that John and Mary used to coddle Sammy with when he cried, and she scowled at the toys they’d given him, the soft blue and green toys and the camouflage-patterned infant jumpers.

“Why is Sammy my brother?” Deanna asked John on the second day. Sammy didn’t cry very much – Deanna hadn’t, either, not for the first two weeks, and John was appreciating the current peace in anticipation. In the relative quiet and the warm afterglow of childbirth, he and Mary weren’t yet drained with fatigue and John was feeling good. He frowned at Deanna then, though, putting down the knife that he was using to spread peanut butter on her sandwich.

“Why, Princess? Don’t you love your little brother?”

Deanna seemed to wince at John’s words, and John didn’t understand why.

“But why is he my brother? Why isn’t he my sister?”

Oh, John thought, Deanna wanted a sister. He was reminded of before Deanna was born, when he’d hoped for a boy to toss around the pigskin with, to show how cars worked and to sit with as John gave him his first beer. But he loved his daughter. He’d had his visions for her shift sideways within moments of being handed the screeching pink bundle of wrinkled skin, shift from games of catch and cheering at school baseball tournaments to kissing rosy pink cheeks and watching child ballet performances and seeing her off to her first school dance with a group of giggling friends or, perhaps, a shy young boy who would blush at the sight of his golden-haired daughter in her dress. But that was what keeping an infant’s gender a surprise until birth could be, sometimes: unfulfilled expectations, disappointment.

“Because he’s a boy, Deanna,” John finally answered. Deanna’s eyes were wide as she looked up at him, and she looked so lost, so confused.

“But why?” she asked, and John didn’t know how to answer her question, because the pit in his stomach told him that it was so much more complicated than her two words were able to convey. The look in his daughter’s eyes disturbed him. She looked so… tormented. His beautiful four-year-old looked like she was suffering.

The next day, Deanna watched Mary change Sam’s diaper for the first time. She crouched next to her mother, wearing blue overalls and a green T-shirt with a dinosaur on it that John had bought her while Mary was in the hospital. Deanna stared as Mary removed the soiled diaper and cleaned Sammy up with a moist towel.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing between Sam’s legs.

“That’s Sam’s penis,” Mary told her patiently.

“What’s a penis?”

“It’s his private part,” said Mary. “Just like how you have a vagina.”

“Why does Sammy have a penis?”

John had put down his newspaper. The sinking feeling in his stomach had returned.

“Because Sammy’s a boy, and boys have penises.”

Deanna watched silently as Mary finished cleaning Sam and dressed him in a new diaper.

“Why does Sammy already have his penis?” Deanna finally asked as Mary started buttoning up Sam’s onesie. Mary looked down at her daughter, the furrow between her brows showing her confusion.

“He was born with it,” she said, the tone at the end of her statement sounding more like a question.

Deanna’s face was pale, her freckles standing out starkly on her cheeks. “When am I gonna get my penis?” she asked. John’s stomach churned. Mary had gone pale, as pale as Deanna.

“Girls don’t get penises,” she told Deanna. Deanna’s eyes were glistening.

“Why do I have to be a girl?”

Mary and John made eye-contact, a current running between them like a lightning strike.

“Because you have a vagina. Girls have vaginas and boys have penises,” Mary explained.

“Why did Sam get to be born with a penis?” Deanna asked, her eyes flooding with tears, and neither Mary nor John had anything to say. But for the first time in months, finally, they both understood what was wrong with their daughter.

They talked about it together, alone, in their bedroom, with their children asleep in each of their rooms. They talked about it for hours. Then they kept talking about it, every night, for the rest of two weeks, except for when Sam’s crying interrupted them.

They decided to wait. Deanna was only four. Maybe it was just a phase. Maybe if they let her buy clothes and toys from the boys’ section, she’d be content, she’d grow out of it. But if, when she turned five, she hadn’t grown out of it, they’d get her a psychiatrist.

That never happened, though, because Mary died and John put six-month-old Sam in Deanna’s arms and told her to run.

The first week, before John took the kids away from Lawrence, they stayed in a motel room and Mary’s friends brought gifts, tidings, dinners in plastic-wrapped dishes, trying to help them get along when they had lost everything. The food went bad quickly, left out on the counter. John could not muster the effort to put the meals into the fridge, even though the small motel refrigerator wouldn’t have been big enough to hold all of them if he tried. Sam wouldn’t stop crying for the first day, despite Deanna trying her best to soothe his wails, until nearly twenty-eight hours after the fire when John remembered that Sam needed to eat and rushed to the grocery store to buy a new bottle and powder formula.

He hated himself a little bit as he cradled his starving baby, Sammy’s mouth silenced as it clamped around the rubber nipple, too hungry to care that it didn’t belong to his mother. After Sam settled, John handed him over to Deanna, his tiny body, half the size of Deanna’s, somehow making her look smaller.

“Look after your brother, Deanna, I’ll be back soon,” he told her, and her big eyes followed him out the door. He waited outside of the closed room for a minute, waiting to hear his daughter call for him to come back inside, but she didn’t make a sound.

There was a psychic woman named Missouri in town who beckoned him into her home with open arms. She was slim but curvy and wore her hair in a round afro, and she was someone that he might have found attractive if he hadn’t had that wedding ring on his left hand and the smell of smoke still filling his nose. Moments after laying eyes on her he found himself with her arms wrapped around his shoulders and a soothing voice in his ear saying she was sorry for his loss.

“You want to know what killed your Mary,” Missouri Mosely said in a voice that sounded like it was used to being loud but knew its way around softness. “Take me to where it happened.”

At the scorched remains of his house, Missouri told him about the evil that had taken his wife. “I don’t know any more than the darkness I feel, John Winchester. Your wife is gone and an evil took her away, that’s all I can say. I’m not all-powerful. If you want to learn more, the only thing I can do is point you in the right direction.” John nodded, grief-stricken and overcome with emotion. He wasn’t insane, hadn’t dreamed up his wife pinned and bleeding on the ceiling; something evil had destroyed their family. He felt as validated as he was horrified.

“I have to know,” he said, choking on tears. Missouri held up both hands and clasped them on either side of his face.

“But first, John, listen here. You have children to think about. You have two beautiful little boys waiting for you to come back to them. If you turn away from this, you could learn to move past it, raise them up normal, raise them up good. Folks that go down the road you’re headed, John, they don’t get that. You understand?”

“Just tell me where to go,” was all he could manage, and Missouri sighed before reaching into her pocket and pulling out a tiny notebook and a pencil. She wrote an address down and tore it out, handing it to him. He stared at it, clutched it in his hands. Blue Earth, Minnesota. That was far.

“You think good and hard about the route you want to take, John Winchester. You think about your boys. You think about Samuel and Deanna before you go doing anything rash.” Her eyes were hard for a moment, unforgiving in their awareness. “There’s evil in this world, and chasing it ain’t gonna bring you any joy.”

He thought about it for the next six days, thought about the trill of fear he felt deep in his chest when he thought about real evil, thought about the danger that must come with hunting down something that could pin his wife to the ceiling without using rope and burn down a house without lighting a match. The Marine in him was unsettled, and his hands constantly shook for most of the day. The only times it stopped was when he could escape the dull confines of the motel room and lose himself in a drink.

Sam was just a baby, and Deanna, she hadn’t spoken a word to him yet since the fire. Could John really uproot his children and cart them off to Minnesota to chase monsters? It sounded ridiculous. It sounded like the worst choice a father could make. But the thought of staying in Lawrence had his feet itching to run.

In the end, he didn’t decide one way or another; the decision was made for him when Mike showed up at his motel room door, wringing his wrists and face spattered with apology. “You haven’t been to the garage and I get that, of course I do, but you haven’t made any money and George at the bar says he sees you there more often than not, but Kate has come by with clothes for Sam and Deanna a few times and she says she’s never seen a ‘sitter. I didn’t know what else to do, John.”

He’d called CPS.

John had lost his wife and he wasn’t about to lose his children. So once Mike had driven off, John threw all of their meager belongings into a battered second-hand duffel and packed Deanna and Sammy into the backseat of the car. That was it, then. They were going to Blue Earth.

A straight drive to there out of Lawrence was seven hours. Sam’s car-seat was still strapped in the back, but the baby was so upset to be in the car that after an hour, Deanna lifted him out of the seat and cradled him in her lap. She bounced him and rubbed his tummy and pressed her closed mouth to his forehead as he wailed, but made no noises herself.

John pulled up to a rest station halfway through the drive to take the kids into the bathroom. He took them into the handicapped stall so he wouldn’t have to worry about any truckers hassling his daughter while he was indisposed, and spread a blanket on the dirty floor to lay Sammy out on and change his diaper while Deanna used the toilet. When Sammy and Deanna were both done, he handed the baby to Deanna to hold while he took his own turn.

“Sorry about the long drive, Champ,” he said, managing to keep his voice light even as he felt his own chest seizing with the stress of being homeless and broke. “But you’re being a real trooper, and we’re already halfway there now.” She didn’t say anything in response, but nodded.

Another hour in, after listening to Sammy wail his hunger into the stuffy car, John made a stop at a grocery store. He left the children in the car for just a few minutes as he bought some soft baby food in little glass jars. It was about the time he and Mary had discussed to start feeding Sam real food, and anyway, there was no way to warm up a bottle on the road. He perched Sam up on the car’s hood and spent another hour trying to scoop pureed banana into his unwilling mouth before handing him back to his big sister. John instructed Deanna to pat the baby on the back until he told her to stop. Deanna complied silently, and uttered not a word of complaint or disgust when the baby finally coughed spit-up down the front of her shirt.

When John finally pulled up to the address Missouri had sent him to, he found he was parked in front of a church. He checked the little piece of paper in his hand twice, making sure it matched the address over the small brick building, and yeah, he was in the right place. It was a Thursday in the late evening, and there were no other cars in the gravel lot outside of the church, and John was tired and Deanna was blinking sleepily from the backseat as Sammy nodded off in her arms. But he ushered Deanna out of the car and took Sammy into his own arms before walking determinedly towards the wooden church doors, his daughter crunching through the gravel at his side, her hand clutching the hem of his shirt and her face as solemn as ever.

John’s fist made a loud noise on the door, and he could hear the knock echo throughout the inside of the church. He knocked for a solid thirty seconds before pausing to wait, and after a minute he had raised his hand to start knocking again when the door opened and he was faced with a pastor, whose face wasn’t terribly aged but was marred with wrinkles nonetheless, and whose eyebrows were furrowed in concern. The man took in the travelers standing at his door: the messy and unshaven man holding a sleeping infant and the young girl with wide eyes and a mouth that remained firmly closed.

“Are you folks alright?” he asked, voice just as concerned as his eyebrows, and soft and worn as his skin.

“My name is John Winchester. A woman named Missouri Moseley sent me to this address. I’m trying to find the evil spirit that killed my wife.”

John met the man’s gaze head-on, and the two maintained eye-contact until the pastor nodded.

“Alright,” he said, stepping aside to allow John and Deanna to step into the warm church. “My name is Jim Murphy. I can help.”

John and Jim talked deep into the night, and Deanna nodded off holding Sammy on a pew. “I have a lot to teach you, and it will take time,” Jim told John several hours later. “I know a place where you can work in town while you’re staying here. Why don’t you take your children to find a place to sleep, and come by again tomorrow.”

He found a motel and set Deanna and Sammy up for the night on one of the double beds before heading back out to a bar for a beer. John drank until he was comfortably numb and then ordered a burger to take home. He ate half of it in the car on the way, dripping grease into his lap and leaving slippery fingerprints on the wheel, and then finished all but some vegetable scraps and the leftover bun at the little rickety table in the motel kitchen. Before falling into bed, he stood over his sleeping children, Deanna curled up next to her brother, just as silent as when she was awake. He felt a knot in his throat and bent over to kiss both of their foreheads, then slumped fully clothed into the bed next to theirs.

Ten minutes later, he was roused from his drunken stupor by the sound of tiny feet thumping to the floor and padding lightly across the room. There was a tiny clatter as he heard one of the wooden chairs pulled out from the table, and he raised his head in confusion to see. Deanna was lifting herself into the chair, kneeling on it, and pulling the paper bag of John’s dinner scraps towards her. She used her fingers to bring the soggy bread and limp lettuce to her mouth, eating them with a hunger that sent John’s stomach spiraling into his feet.

In an instant, John realized that in all of the time since Mary died, he’d never once prepared a meal for Deanna.

There had been those meals that women had brought to their motel room, food that John had left out to rot as he fed his own hunger with alcohol and barfood. He’d gotten the powdered formula for Sammy, but he’d never once gone out to bring his daughter back a take-out meal. How had she eaten? Had she been feeding herself with cold, congealed lasagna and moldy meatloaf all this time? How had he not once thought to feed his child?

John sat up swiftly, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and lowering his feet to the floor with a noise that had Deanna jumping half a foot into the air and turning to him with wide, frightened eyes, a floppy tomato clutched in her tiny hand. Tears burned as John lurched up from the bed and towards his daughter, who dropped the dinner scraps and clambered down from the chair to stand at attention in front of him.

Deanna’s mouth opened and closed several times, never managing to get a word out until she simply mouthed a fearful “I’m sorry,” breathing it into the room so that John inhaled it into his own chest, filling his body with guilt and pain to nearly match the loss of his wife. He dropped to his knees and they ached at the hardness of the linoleum floor, but he ignored it and wrapped his arms around Deanna, pulling her close and burying his face in her blonde hair.

But he couldn’t find words, and before he even felt her raise her own arms to wrap around his neck, he was up and back out the door and unlocking the Impala with shaky hands. He drove the three blocks to the nearest McDonald’s and ordered a Happy Meal at the drive-thru window.

“What kind of toy would you like?” the voice from the speaker inquired, and John thought for only a moment before he was asking for a Hot Wheel.

When he returned to the motel, he found Deanna sitting dejectedly at the table. She looked up in surprise, and John realized with another pang of guilt that she hadn’t thought he was coming back tonight. As gently as he could, John walked over to the table and pulled out the second chair, sitting across from her and handing over the warm McDonald’s bag. Her eyes widened as she opened it, and she pulled out a hot burger. John’s stomach hurt as he watched her swallow the saliva that had quickly flooded her mouth, and she looked up at him for permission, taking a big bite after he nodded.

Deanna’s eyes fluttered closed as she tasted the burger, and after a second of chewing let out an involuntary moan of pleasure. It was the first sound he’d heard from his daughter’s mouth in over a week, and John couldn’t prevent the single tear from falling down his cheek, but he did wipe it away before she could see.

After she finished the burger, Deanna reached back into the bag to rummage for the fries, and pulled her hands back holding both the paper sheath of fries and the Hot Wheels toy. It was a shiny red Stutz Blackhawk. The paint glimmered in the dim light of the bedside lamp, and she smiled widely and looked back up at her dad, eyes brimming with gratitude and joy. John weakly smiled back. When Deanna held out the paper sheath to offer him some of her fries, he declined, not wanting to take food from his child and feeling too sick to his stomach to have eaten anything anyway.   

He promised himself, as he watched her finish the first hot meal she’d had in days, that he’d never neglect his kid like that again.

John stayed in Blue Earth, learning from Jim, for almost a year. While Jim took care of Deanna and Sam, John worked at a small local diner, bussing tables and washing dishes and serving during rush hours. He brought home free meals for Deanna and always made sure that she had enough baby food to feed Sammy with. In his free time after shifts, he was at Pastor Jim’s church, taking in everything the man had to teach.

The pastor had a whole secret room full of weapons. Most of them John knew how to use from military training, but there were some things that he’d never seen except in stuff like Kung-Fu movies. Jim taught him about monsters and the signs to know to track them, he taught John about silver and consecrated iron, and about how to make holy water. John learned a lot about monsters from Jim.

While John was training and doing research, during the times when he didn’t need Jim explaining anymore, the pastor was left to play with the kids. He doted on Deanna, thought she was absolutely precious, and bought her white and yellow dresses to wear to Sunday mass. Deanna had started speaking softly once more, but didn’t object to being once again clothed in skirts, and John was too distracted to remember why she would.

About six months into John’s stay in Blue Earth, Jim introduced him to Abram Johnson. Jim called him a hunter, and without needing the term clarified, John knew what it meant, and he knew that a hunter was what he was going to be.

Abe traveled the country in a beat-up truck with his son Caleb, killing monsters and banishing spirits. He was an Army vet and a weapons dealer, had a home-base out in Nebraska, and traded primarily with other hunters. John and he became buddies fast, and Deanna quickly became infatuated with sixteen year old Caleb.

Deanna had recovered most of her voice by then, though she was quiet around strangers and rarely spoke to anyone except John, Sammy, and Pastor Jim. She followed along after Caleb like an awed little duckling, though, watching him attentively with bright eyes and adoration. The young man indulged in Deanna’s crush, and maybe gloated in it a little. He was constantly preening under Deanna’s observation, and taught the now-five-year-old how to throw darts, much to her delight. When she showed John how she could hit the bull’s-eye, John had never seen her prouder.

One afternoon, Abe, Jim and John were reclining on Jim’s porch, watching Caleb and Deanna playing out in the grass. Sammy was in his high-chair, eating Cheerios. Caleb was practicing his aim with a shotgun, aiming the bullets at empty beer bottles propped up on blocks of wood. Deanna followed him around, mimicking his swagger. Just the day before, she’d asked John if she could get cowboy-boots like Caleb’s. They weren’t practical, he’d told her, and she had sulked for the better part of two hours.

Deanna stayed out in the field to throw rocks at the remaining bottles when Caleb came striding up to the men at the porch, and the guys all grinned at him. Caleb picked up a beer of his own and popped the cap off on the edge of the table, downing a gulp with a smug smile.

“She sure likes you, huh, boy?” Abe asked, and Caleb shrugged casually.

“Well, sure, what’s not to like about all this?” he smirked, gesturing up and down his slim frame.

Abe nodded. “You prepared for waiting thirteen years ‘til she’s legal?” he asked, and Caleb sputtered, choking on a mouthful of beer as the men all laughed.

“Jesus, Pop,” muttered Caleb, running the back of his hand across his mouth and blushing, glancing towards John. “I swear, sir, it’s not like that, she ain’t even ten…”

John chuckled and nodded, lightly slapping the wooden arm of his chair. “Don’t worry about it, kid, I get it. It’s real hard to say no to those eyes lookin’ up to you like that. You soak it right up until she gets old enough to realize she could do a lot better.”

The men all laughed again at Caleb’s expense as the boy pouted, and John tried to ignore the discomfort filling his belly. Deanna’s hair had grown out from the short haircut she’d been so happy about, and most of the clothes she owned now were dresses given to her by Jim. She never fought wearing them anymore, but John still saw the resignation in her eyes every time she put one on, and he’d been remembering the late-night conversations with Mary they’d had before she died. He hadn’t really forgotten, no matter how much he hoped that he could. No matter how much he tried.

And then one day, as John was reading at Jim’s dinner table, Deanna walked up and stood next to his chair until he turned to look at her.

“Am I cursed?” she asked in that shy, quiet way she’d taken to. John stared.

“What do you mean?” he asked, although he really knew what she meant, he’d just been trying very hard not to think about it.

“Is that why no one thinks I’m a boy?” she continued, making John’s gut ache familiarly. “Did a monster put a spell on me, like the ones Pastor Jim and Caleb hunt? Did it make me have a girl’s body?”

John could barely manage a “No” before sending her on her way.

But later that night, when Deanna was dressed in a set of tattered plaid pajamas, the same set she’d been wearing the night of the fire, she caught John’s attention as John passed her on his way to the motel’s bathroom. “Dad,” she said, “Can you give me a haircut like the Marines?”

There was a slight hesitation before he said “Sure thing, Champ,” memories of Deanna’s long blonde braids flashing through his mind. “Come one, let’s do it now.”

As Deanna’s blonde hair fell into the sink, she looked at herself in the mirror, smiling. Her smile reminded John of Mary, and the lump in his throat made it hurt to swallow. Without the hair framing her face, without her bangs, the roundness of her cheeks was more obvious, and her eyes looked even larger. But strangely, the shortness made her look more boyish than anything had before, and John could see in the mirror that Deanna had noticed as well. She gazed at her own reflection and made faces, and then grinned with her teeth showing and turned her head from side to side to see the way the hair was almost completely shorn at the nape and by her ears.

“Daddy,” Deanna spoke up after she had admired herself in the mirror fully. “Have... have you ever heard of the name Dean? It’s spelled like my name, but it’s a boy name.”

John heard himself say, “Yes.”

Deanna looked down into the sink, where locks of her hair lay, limp and lifeless. Her eyes darted up to meet John’s in the mirror before turning back down. “I… I like the name Dean. Do you think maybe I look like a Dean?”

John connected gazes with his child through the mirror. He was reminded of the day he brought Sam home from the hospital, of the pain and confusion in his daughter’s expression when her parents called Sammy her little brother, their baby boy.

He put his hands on Deanna’s shoulders. “I think Dean’s a great name,” he said.

“Can you start calling me Dean?” Deanna asked. There was a hint of fear in her eyes, and John felt ashamed that he had helped put it there, that he had taken so long to start listening.

“Of course I will,” John said, and swallowed, struggling to force the next word out through his lips, knowing that this was finally it, and everything would change, “Son.”

Deanna grinned up at him, delight rounding her cheeks and raising her thin brows, wonder brightening her– no, his eyes. John turned h-him around so he could wrap his arms around his child and hold him close. Deanna’s– no, Dean’s little arms came up around John’s neck and squeezed him tightly, and John didn’t let go.

John held his son in his arms for the first time, his baby boy, his firstborn, and he cried, though he didn’t let Deanna – Dean – feel the hitching of his breaths and had wiped his cheeks clean of tears before he pulled away.

John neglected to visit Jim for a week after that night, taking the time to learn how to think of his daughter – his son, in a different way, learning how to disconnect the word “girl” from his child, and taking Dean and Sammy to a Walmart an hour away to buy Dean a whole new wardrobe. John hadn’t seen Dean so happy in a very, very long time, since long before Mary died, and it only made him further realize that this was the right thing to do. This was what was going to make his kid happy. And seeing the same smile on Dean’s face and hearing the same laugh from Dean’s mouth that had belonged to three-year-old-Deanna, back before the first time she ever cried that “boys don’t wear dresses,” let him know that calling Dean a boy and buying him clothes from the boys’ section didn’t make him a different kid than he’d ever been.

John wasn’t losing a daughter or gaining a son. John still had the same kid he’d always had since Dean’d first come wailing out of Mary’s womb. But now, his kid smiled with real joy and didn’t feel forced to put on his clothes in the morning, and when John took the kids to a diner and their waitress called Dean “Young man,” Dean beamed and puffed out his chest and ordered his own meal in a loud voice, speaking to his first stranger since he’d gotten to know Pastor Jim and Abe and Caleb.

John spoke to Jim in private before taking Dean and Sammy back to the church or the man’s house. He couldn’t explain as well as he would like, stumbling over words and anxious as he was. John knew about transsexuals, but all he knew about them were bulky men stuffing themselves into sequined dresses and making their voices a higher pitch. Dean wasn’t like that, he wasn’t a crossdresser or a fucking tranny, he was only five years old for fuck’s sake. He was just… he was just Dean.

“This isn’t… it isn’t all of a sudden, Jim,” John said as Jim stared down at his own dinner table in silent contemplation. "I ain't doing this on a whim or nothin’. Dean’s been… my kid’s been like this for a couple years. Mary and I, we were talking about taking him to a therapist, before she died. Dean was, he was real upset for a long while, used to throw tantrums if we tried to make him wear dresses, and kept asking why everyone thought he was a girl. Last week, he asked me…” John swallowed back his emotion and took a deep breath. “He asked me if his body was cursed, Jim. If some monster had cursed him with the wrong body. After the fire, you know, he stopped talking, so I kind of… let myself forget about it all until last week. But yeah. This isn’t a sudden thing. I just wanted you to know that.”

Jim was silent for several minutes as John sweated in anticipation of his friend’s response. Finally, the pastor folded his hands on the tabletop and looked up.

“I can’t say I understand what you’re doing,” he said, “Or agree, exactly. I am a man of the Bible, John, despite my hobbies outside of the church. But… I know that you are a man who loves his children, and I trust that you would never try to hurt Deanna. I can’t tell you how to raise your children, and I think you know better than I what makes them happy. I’ll do as you ask and call Deanna by her new name. Who knows; perhaps in the future, I will start to understand.”

When John brought his children to the house the following day, Dean hung back a bit in the doorway until Jim smiled and welcomed him with a “Good morning, Dean.” Dean grinned and rushed forward in his tennis shoes and green T-shirt, and John could tell that Jim was somewhat shocked at how different the new clothes and close-cropped haircut made Dean look. John thought to himself, people forget a lot that kids don’t much look like boys or girls one way or the other, except for their hair and outfits.

The next time Abe and Caleb dropped by to visit, John intervened before they entered Jim’s home to tell them in low tones about how Deanna was Dean now. John could quickly tell that Abe wasn’t nearly as immediately accommodating as Jim had been, though the man didn’t vocalize his discomfort. Caleb frowned and looked mildly confused.

“You’re not saying Deanna’s a…” he stopped mid-sentence, looking like he thought better of the word he was about to say, whatever it was. “So, she wants to be a boy now? You telling me we can’t get married when she grows up?”

John glared at the young man through narrowed eyes. “You’re eleven years older, boy. That was never gonna happen in the first place.”

“Right, right,” Caleb laughed before entering the house, and that was that. The sight of Caleb was met by a cheer from Dean, who immediately started the typical routine and danced around the young man, begging Caleb to teach him how to throw knives with the new target out back.

“Sure thing, li’l dude, but only if you can beat me there.” And then the two of them were racing through the house and out the back door, Caleb visibly letting Dean get ahead of him as they ran across the grass. John relaxed a little bit, although Abe still stood next to him in silence.  

Only three months after that, John finally felt ready to hunt monsters, for real. He bid Jim goodbye and, with a duffel full of weapons safely concealed in a newly-constructed hidden compartment in the trunk, drove to Indiana for his first job.

After taking care of the ghost, after digging up his first grave and burning his first body, after smelling the smoke and burning flesh in the air and nearly collapsing from a panic attack at the memory of Mary’s death, he returned to their new motel room, covered in dirt and hands burning with oozing blisters. He stood in the doorway for just a moment, looking through the darkness at his kids in their bed, and promised himself that the horror of burning a body was never something his kids would have to experience.

Then in the months that followed, in the days upon days of tracking monsters and digging up corpses and firing off rounds of iron into their incorporeal forms, he sat next to smoldering graves and acknowledged that he’d never promised himself to never teach his kids how to shoot.

So when Dean turned six, John put a gun in his hands, and when Dean’s bottom lip trembled and his hands shook, he told him to “Man up. You’re going to have to protect your brother, Dean.” Though he sniffled and was reluctant to ready his stance, Dean nodded. And when he fired at the target John had set up, he hit it dead-on despite the fact that the kickback knocked him off his feet and would undoubtedly leave a nasty bruise on his shoulder for the next few days.

John cheered and clapped Dean on the shoulder once his kid had stumbled to his feet. “Atta boy, Ace,” he complimented, and through the pain Dean smiled. “Try again.”

Dean was a natural, so John didn’t feel guilty for teaching his six-year-old how to fire a shotgun. It wasn’t like he was burning bodies.

John entered Dean into kindergarten that year, and it was the first time he realized that The Dean Thing was going to be an issue. Prior to that, John hadn’t associated with anyone besides Jim and Abe who knew about Dean. He hadn’t considered the fact that putting Dean back into the normal population could be difficult or dangerous. But to register Dean for classes he had to hand over a copy of Dean’s birth certificate, which meant handing over Dean’s given name and the little letter ‘F’ indicating his sex. He didn’t know what he could do about it. Should he tell the school about Dean? But they’d call CPS just as fast as Mike had back in Lawrence if they thought John was raising his kid up as… as one of those. And John wasn’t doing anything to Dean, he was just letting Dean be himself, and yes, maybe “transgendered” was the word for it but his six-year-old didn’t need a label like that, and he didn’t need some amateur elementary-school shrink analyzing his little boy’s brain.

So he told Dean that he was sorry, but Dean needed to pretend to be a girl while he was at school.

“Why?” Dean asked him, and John set two heavy hands on his son’s shoulders and stared him straight in the eyes.

“Because not everybody is going to understand about you being a boy. And if people find out, they’re gonna get scared. And they’ll call CPS, and they’ll have you taken away from me and put some place where people will make you wear dresses and grow your hair out again. Do you want that, Dean?”

With wide eyes, Dean shook his head, face going pale.

“Okay then,” John nodded. “You gotta pretend to be a girl. Just at school, bud. When you’re home, you don’t have to pretend.”

And it worked. It worked for a month. Dean went to kindergarten during the day and John found a babysitter for Sammy if he had to work. Dean allowed his teacher and classmates to call him Deanna, and when John picked him up in the Impala he smiled as his dad asked him “How was school today, Champ?”

But John slowly noticed Dean growing quieter, noticed that he seemed to be more withdrawn and began smiling less and less as the month drew on. And one day, after three and a half weeks of kindergarten, when John realized at the dinner table that night that it had been four hours since school let out and he hadn’t heard Dean speak a single word, he felt his chest tighten and his throat ache and decided that enough was enough. So he pulled Dean out and drove his kids down to Nebraska to meet up with Abe, and didn’t enroll Dean again until he had a newly forged birth certificate proclaiming Dean’s full name to be just that, and his sex as male.

When Dean came home from his first day at the new school, he smiled and told John that he’d made a new friend. “His name is Jacob and he thought my Hot Wheel was awesome,” he recounted, setting the Stutz Blackhawk carefully down on the motel’s rickety bedside table.

As the years passed and Dean grew older, John found himself more and more likely to leave the caring of Sam to the boy’s big brother. Dean was responsible and capable and he could fire a gun to defend himself, and as John hunted more monsters and grew closer to finding the evil that killed his wife, he found it more necessary to leave his boys by themselves for a little while.

At first, it would just be for a day. It would be on a Saturday, so Dean didn’t have to miss any school, and John would set out peanut butter and jelly and bread for Dean to make sandwiches for himself, and some Cheerios and soft fruit to cut up for Sammy. John would leave that morning and come back that night.

But then one Saturday, John drove to the next city for the library, to do research, only to discover through his studies that he’d have to chase down the beast that night if he didn’t want it to skip town before he got to it. So, he rushed home at four in the morning on Sunday after a tiring fight, worried about his boys, only to find them sleeping peacefully in their bed.

So Dean could handle a full day and a night, John sighed in relief. He could leave Dean alone with Sam for twenty four hours every week without being worried.

Then after several months, a day would stretch into a day and a half, and then to two, and before Sammy turned five John was picking Dean up from kindergarten on Fridays only to drop him off with Sam at their motel and leave them alone until Monday morning. When Sam was finally five and could start kindergarten, John could stay gone longer (just a little bit longer) because Dean could walk Sammy to school and pick him up afterwards, and John no longer had to be home on the weekdays.

Sometimes John felt guilty. Sometimes he lay awake at night and thought about his kids, all alone several hours away, and wondered what Mary would have thought of him. But then he would find a new hunt and save a new person. John was saving lives, and that was more important than making sure his kids had someone to tuck them in every night.

Sam had been young enough when Deanna became Dean that he never remembered having a big sister. John still had a few pictures, though, that had been in the glove compartment of the Impala and had survived the fire. He’d given one of them to Dean to keep, the one taken after Sammy was already born and Dean had his short hair. The other few he kept in his wallet and suitcase, and by the time Sam was five they were well-worn from the little guy’s fingerprints. In one of them, Dean was in a dress, his hair tied up in pigtails. So Sam knew that the big brother he knew who wore jeans and T-shirts and could shoot a pistol almost as good as his daddy, who wore his hair cropped short and made fun of Sam when he picked out a pink shirt, hadn’t always looked like that.

John wasn’t the best father, he knew that. He left his boys in ratty motel rooms for days at a time, alone. He taught his eldest how to shoot a gun before he ever taught him how to ride a bike. But he liked to think he raised his sons to be comfortable in themselves. He liked to think he raised Sammy better than he and Mary had raised Dean.

The first time Sammy had asked about why his and Dean’s private parts looked different while they were having their bath, John had answered “Boys usually have penises, Sammy, but sometimes, they have vaginas, like your brother.”

“Does that make Dean special?” Sam had asked, and Dean had grinned and splashed him.

“Of course it does, squirt,” Dean confirmed. “Awesome, actually.”

Sammy pouted. “I wanna be special,” he complained. John saw Dean’s grin waver a bit.

“Nah, you don’t, Sammy,” Dean told him. “Being special’s not that great.”

John let Sammy pour the cup of water over his own head to rinse out the shampoo that night, and when the boys got out of the bath to dry, he didn’t miss the way Dean eyed himself in the mirror.

John researched “transgendered”, once. He left the boys in the hotel room and spent the day in front of the blue light of a library computer screen. He probably should have done more than he did, done research on therapy and dysphoria and things he could do to help his child, but it was too hard. “Mental illness” and “electroshock” and “conversion therapy” glared at him like little black demons from the screen, and when John came across statistics… it was too much. Police harassment, physical and sexual abuse committed by law enforcement and health care professionals? Attaching all of that to his boy, his child, was draining. He felt physically ill. Fifty percent of transgender men and women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes, often more than once. The life expectancy of a transgender person is estimated at thirty years. Due to exterior circumstances, like hate crimes and suicide and STDs and fucking doctors not giving enough of a shit to provide them with proper care when they showed up in an ER.

So even as Dean was growing older, even as John knew he would one day be old enough to fit the image of what a transgendered person was in John’s head, he didn’t like to think about Dean like that. It made it clinical. It made it psychological. To John, it made his kid into a slur that felt uncomfortably familiar on his own tongue. It made him into a term that was often surrounded by others such as rape and abuse and murder, one that John didn’t like hearing.

The life of a hunter was fraught with danger and death. Hunters don’t live very long; hunters die young. John knew this. John also knew that he would protect his son. No one was ever going to lay a hand on his boy, and Dean would live past thirty. 

When Sam was old enough, John started training him with Dean. They sparred together, usually in empty fields where John could drive them in the Impala. They’d make an afternoon of it, usually, pack a lunch in paper bags and practice their aim on the beer bottles John had collected that week afterwards. Then, when night had fallen, they’d sprawl out in the grass, shirtless and sweaty, and John would point out constellations.

One of their homes was a motel in the town of Chesterfield, Indiana. It was a small town, and the last documented crime was a vandalized park bench two years prior. John felt safe leaving his boys alone for four days as he drove to pick up some new texts.

When John got home on the fifth afternoon, the motel room was empty. John wasn’t worried; the half-finished sandwiches on the table indicated that his kids hadn’t been out for very long. He went on a walk, figuring they had gone out to let of some steam at the park, and he could surprise them.

He found Sam and Dean caught up in a game of soccer with some local boys, Sammy running haphazardly around after the ball, although the older boys never let him take it. As he watched, Dean stole the ball from under the feet of a boy five inches taller than him and darted to the side, kicking the ball around other players all the way to the other end of the field before slamming it into the goal with a strong kick. John put his hands at his hips, smiling proudly as Dean turned around and cheered, putting his arms in the air, and Sam screamed in excitement.

He heard some laughter, and turned to see a group of a few teenage boys watching the game. At first, John figured they must be looking after their own little brothers, but then he saw that each of their gazes were fixed on Dean, following him as he grinned and raced after the ball again, the goalie having thrown it back onto the field. John frowned.

It struck him suddenly what the boys were looking at, and a dark pit of something furious and frightened formed in his stomach. Dean was eleven, and he was playing shirtless, just like he always did at home, and John hadn’t noticed it before, hadn’t really looked, but his nipples were puffy, the flesh around them looking slightly swollen. John recalled the term “breast buds” from the puberty books he’d read after Dean was born Deanna, and the frustration and anger and guilt he felt when he realized that he hadn’t even thought about puberty for Dean since his kid was about four made him feel sick.

“Dean! Sam!” he called, and his boys turned to look at him.

“Dad!” they called, running towards him excitedly. He wrapped them both in a hug, mindful of the teenage boys, who were still watching them.

“Good to see you, boys,” he said, putting a slight emphasis on boys. “How about we head home? Put your shirt on, Dean.”

John went to the public library that night and looked up articles on female puberty. Using the basic computer skills he’d had to learn in the process of looking up new hunts, he copied and pasted the ones he found most useful into a word document and then spent the next two hours studiously searching for feminine terms and pronouns and switching them to masculine. After several rereads, when he was sure there were no terms unaccounted for, he printed out the pages he’d found and stacked them neatly before stapling them at the top.

This was good. This was for the best. It’s not like Dean would have preferred John told him this stuff to his face. That would just embarrass both of them. No girl wants to hear that kind of thing from their dad, and Dean wasn’t a girl, but it was similar. Yes, it was all for the best.

When he handed the packet to Dean later that night, Dean stared at it inquisitively before paling a little, his eyes darting back up to stare at his father. John reached out and clapped him on the shoulder somewhat awkwardly before moving on towards the motel’s table, where the books of lore he’d been shifting through last night were still open to marked pages.

Behind him, Sam was jumping up and down to see what John had given his brother, gabbing and asking questions until Dean shoved him aside onto the bed.

“Boys, play nicely,” John said from his seat at the table.

“What did you give Dean, Dad?” Sam asked. “He won’t let me see!”

“It’s just a book on puberty. You’ll learn about it when it’s your turn.”

He could hear Dean blow a raspberry at his brother and rolled his eyes at the empty kitchen in front of him. There were a few minutes of blessed silence as Sam left his brother alone.

 “Dean, do you have armpit hair yet?” Sam finally whispered to him, trying to be unobtrusive. He heard Dean laugh.

“Yeah, you wanna see?” There was a protest and struggle as Dean pushed Sam’s face under his arm, and Sam gagged and dramatically wailed about the smell and the sweat.

John laughed to himself.

Two months later, John brought home a sports bra for Dean, and Dean held it in his hands and stared at it silently, blankly, eyes wide and lips tight.

“Son…” was the only thing he could manage before Dean left him with the sports bra in his hands and shut himself in the bathroom. John found himself standing outside, his forehead leaning against the door, listening to Dean’s shaky breaths and knowing that his son was looking at himself in the mirror and criticizing every feature. “You don’t ever have to wear it, Dean, if you don’t want to. Especially not at home. I’m not gonna make you start covering up in front of me and Sam. I just thought you should have it, just in case. You’re getting older, Dean. You’re growing up.”

He’d spent an hour in the Walmart store, in the girls’ section, staring at the lines of bras, worrying about buying one and what it would mean and how Dean would take it. But it was practical. Dean ran a lot, did a lot of physical activity, and it was fine maybe when the boys were just roughhousing, or just now when his breasts were still only developing, but one day they’d be bigger and Dean would need support on hunts. So he’d picked the most neutral color he could find.

Dean did start wearing it, some months after John first gave it to him, to training, and with baggy T-shirts and flannels and sometimes sweatshirts when he left the house. He always took it off the second he got home, though, went straight to the bathroom and pretended like he was just taking off his over-shirts. At home, in their motel room, where it was just him and John and Sammy, Dean didn’t worry about people noticing something was different about him. He wasn’t afraid of that at home. So John figured he’d done something right.

That didn’t mean Dean didn’t have body-image issues, though. It didn’t matter how comfortable Dean was around Sam and John, how carelessly he did his training shirtless right alongside his brother, even when his breasts had started to develop in full. None of that mattered, when every day John caught Dean staring at his reflection in the mirror, in the window, in the fucking toaster, with something close to hatred in his eyes. Dean hated his waist, his hips, his thighs. He hated how he had to work twice as hard as the other boys in his schools to get muscles in his arms, how if he let himself eat too much, he’d start getting curves.

“It’s not healthy, John,” Bobby Singer told him during one of their visits as they watched Dean do his morning work-out. Singer was a bastard and a nosy asshole, but he was one of the only people outside of John and Sam who knew about Dean. Missouri was one, though Sam and Dean had never met her. She often commented on what fine young men they were growing up to be, undoubtedly getting her information from straight inside John’s head. Pastor Jim, Abe, and Caleb were the other three, and while Abe kept his mouth shut and Caleb continued to humor Dean’s kid-like admiration of him, Jim always seemed to have a bit of difficulty separating the quiet, innocent, pretty Deanna he’d showered with presents from the Dean who cursed like a sailor and wanted to be a gun-slingin’ hunter when he grew up. Bobby, on the other hand, was downright supportive. John could tell that the man had always had a soft spot for Dean, could tell by the softness that would ease the wrinkles around Singer’s eyes whenever he looked at the boy, and it was why he kept bringing them back.

“Not healthy? The boy’s just exercising,” John said, defensively. Dean was on the ground, doing push-ups with a frown, counting under his breath.

“Oh come off it, John, that’s not just exercise. If he just wanted to keep in shape, he’d have stopped an hour ago. Winchester, your boy’s working himself into the ground. He’ll hurt himself, he keeps at it like this.”

“I don’t think my son’s work-out routine is any of your business,” John muttered, raising his beer to his mouth and taking a pull.

“I make it my business when I watch him work off twice as many calories as he eats in a day. He’s not just working himself to the bone, he’s starving himself.”

John felt cold, watching Dean rise from the ground and start right up into a jog around the yard.

“John,” Bobby said softly, turning to face him. “I’ve done a bit of research since you first brought your kids to my doorstep, and boys like Dean, they’re more likely to develop eating disorders.”

John clenched his hand around his bottle. “You saying my son is anorexic, Singer? You’ve seen him, he cleans out the damn refrigerator when he’s in the mood.”

“I’m saying, you idjit, that your boy has problems with the way he looks, and he’s trying to fix it by losing fat and packing on muscle. His body ain’t built that way, John, and you know it. He’s not doing nothing but hurting himself. You should talk to him.”

John did try. He could never quite get out the words. He already watched his boy hate his reflection, watched him look wary when he bumped into strangers, watched him bundle himself in baggy clothes when he went to school, never comfortable wearing less than two layers outside of whatever they were calling home at the time. He knew it was selfish, but he couldn’t sit down and force his son to admit to all of his insecurities, all of his fears, when he knew it would be so painful to hear it.

Instead, John tried to make sure Dean ate more whenever he was home, and dropped comments here and there. Told him to go find a burger or some fries whenever he saw him with a piece of fruit or putting together a salad. He hoped it was enough.

John returned from a reconnaissance mission one day to find Sam waiting for him in the motel parking lot. He looked determined and thoughtful, and smiled back at John in a way that seemed far too mature for a nine-year-old.

“Hey, Sammy,” he greeted his son, and Sam responded eagerly that he’d been doing research. John had to laugh at the thought of his youngest, not even ten, combing through county records and news clippings and poring over heavy texts. He’d been learning some lore, but only basic things, the kinds of things that contributed to training and built the inner encyclopedia of supernatural knowledge that John knew his boys needed if they were going to be able to defend themselves and one day help him save lives.

“Is that right?” he joked. “I thought that was my job?”

 “Not on a case,” Sam replied earnestly. “I found out what’s wrong with Dean. I mean, not what’s wrong, nothing’s wrong, but that’s the point! There’s a word for it! It’s called transgender!”

John felt a trill in his chest, but refrained from looking around the parking lot that he knew was empty. He remembered the nights spent sleepless on his own, researching the term, neck cracking as he strained to squint at dim and fuzzy computer screens, pulse racing at the thought of all the terrible things that could happen to Dean, that happened to people like that. But he hadn’t heard the word aloud since it had been whispered to him from between Mary’s lips, while they lay together in the dark and warmth of their bedroom and talked about their daughter’s future.

He gazed down at his boy’s wide-eyed face and answered “Yeah, Sam, it is.”

John considered the weight of the word, of the stigma it carried, of how it seemed to instantly separate whoever it was applied to as different. Dean was his boy, his son, his child. He didn’t need to be called anything else.

“What?” Sam asked.

John got down slowly onto his knee to better look into his son’s eye, to keep his attention, to make sure that he listened and understood. “That’s what they call people like your brother.”

Watching his son carefully, he saw a fire in Sam’s eyes, a strength in his expression. He felt suddenly almost small in the face of his son’s conviction as he jutted his chin out and stared into his father’s eyes.

“We have to protect Dean,” said Sam. “There are people who would want to hurt him.”

He reached forward to clasp his son’s shoulders gently, but maintained eye-contact, making sure that Sam knew he was serious. This was important. This was one of the most important things he could ever teach his youngest son.

“That’s right, Sam,” he said softly. “People like your brother, they can get into a lot of trouble out there. Just like I’ve always told you, Sam. We keep your brother’s secret. We keep your brother safe.”

John let Dean lead on his first hunt when he was thirteen. It was simple, a haunted house and a restless spirit that had killed a cat and injured its owner. Just to get Dean started out.

Dean was a natural, eager, energized, and prepared from all the nights of reading John’s journal and looking through his books on his own. Dean put down the salt and wrapped his fingers around an iron fire-poker, and when the ghost appeared to them, he stood firm as John interrogated it as to where its body was buried, and when John was done, he swept his iron weapon through the spirit’s flickering figure and sent it elsewhere.

They dug up the corpse together in the house’s backyard, and John let Dean light the match and drop it into the hole in the ground. Any echoes of the promise he’d made to himself when Dean was still a little kid were quiet in John’s head and easily ignored, even when Dean retched as he picked up his first scent of a burning corpse.

When they were finished, he took Dean out for burgers, and watched him as Dean animatedly recounted the experience and expressed his excitement for the next hunt.

“Can we kill something cooler next, Dad? Like a revenant?”

John laughed. “Not something like that quite yet, Dean. But I’ve been tracking something that looks like a poltergeist upstate. You can help me out with that one next.”

Dean smiled at him through a mouthful of beef and bacon, and John grinned back.

His son was good at hunting, brave and focused, strong and smart. There were a few times that John couldn’t have finished the hunt without Dean’s ideas or quick draw, and Dean had gathered a few injuries by the time he was fourteen: some scars, a crooked finger, bruised ribs. But nothing serious.

Then, while they were hunting a black dog through a Connecticut wood, John failed his boy.

He’d hurried into the hunt, he knew that. Any hunter could see from the victim’s wounds that the monster was a black dog. It had killed two people in nine days, and John had easily tracked it to some woods near a small town in northern Connecticut. It had seemed so easy, just some silver shells in a few sawed-offs, aim and shoot.

John brought Sam along, his first hunt. He was younger than Dean had been, but Dean understood; he had both John and Dean to watch out for him, so it was safer now than it had been for Dean his first time.

John instructed Sam to stay at his sides at all times. He told Dean to break off, just a hundred feet or so, cover more ground. “Keep your eyes peeled and your ears out, son.” Dean nodded.

The hunt was quick. The black dog came to them forty minutes in, snarling in the shadows, just outside of the circle of light cast by Sam’s flashlight.

“Holy crap,” Sam breathed, watching the glowing eyes as the monster paced from side to side.

“That’s right, Sam,” John said. “These things are big. But unlike other monsters, all we need is to give them a few good shots to the chest. Watch closely, Sam, and stay behind me.”

John turned the safety off of his gun and raised his arms to point his sawed-off at the monster lurking in the dark.

There was a low growl, and Sam jumped slightly, and then the black dog was charging towards them like a smear of ink through the dim light. Sam squealed, but John’s gun rang out, two shots echoing through the night; a fair bit fewer than it usually took to take down a full-grown black dog, but John’s aim must have been stellar. When Sam peeked out from behind John’s back, the black dog was lying dead on the grassy floor.

“Dad?” he heard Dean call from the woods off to their right.

“We got it, Dean!” John called back, grinning, flipping the safety back on and tucking his gun into his belt. “Wanna go check out the body before it dissipates, Sammy?”

John should have noticed how small the black dog looked. Should have noticed that the dead thing in front of him couldn’t possibly be full-grown, couldn’t have done the damage he’d seen in the crime photos of half-eaten bodies. But he didn’t realize it, not until it was too late and he heard barking and the lone shot and his son’s screams.

“DEAN!” John shouted, immediately leaping away from the dead pup, damn fucking baby black dog, and towards the sound of its mother tearing apart his eldest son.

He could hear Sam’s feet thudding along the ground behind him, but he didn’t stop to check. His baby was crying, screaming in pain, and John hadn’t heard Dean let his voice get that high in years, not even when he’d been pinned by a fallen bookcase by that poltergeist…

He found Dean sprawled in the grass, his gun on the ground out of his reach, fighting to push a gigantic black dog off of him, bloody hands scrabbling weakly at snapping jaws as he sobbed in pain and fear. John pulled his gun out of his belt, getting it caught for a moment on the loop, and fumbled with the safety for far too long before firing his remaining silver rounds into the dog’s back. Six, seven, eight shots. It fell dead on top of Dean, who cried out again as John raced forwards to push the dead monster off of his child.

Sammy was crying behind him, hanging back from his sobbing brother and the blood splattered in the grass.

“Dean,” John sobbed dryly, falling to his knees at his son’s side, immediately taking off his shirt to press against Dean’s wounds. His hands were steady with the need to keep his son breathing. “Sam, call an ambulance! Right now!”

The dog had fucked up Dean’s chest. John hadn’t seen too much in the dark and the terror, but the fear and adrenaline sharpening his eyesight had had him now noticing ribs showing through red blood, tattered strips of flesh hanging from Dean’s chest like ribbons, and chunks of dark meat and yellow fat scattered about them like discarded table scraps.

Dean’s face was pale and spattered with blood. It had soaked through his torn-up shirt and was spreading down to his pants.

“Dad,” Dean gasped, his voice high. John almost started crying at the sound of Dean’s voice, pitched high, un-controlled, naked. “Daddy, ‘m sorry… s’rry, I…” Tears were streaming down his face, cutting streaks through the blood on his cheeks.

“Ssh, Dean, it’s okay, you’re alright,” John whispered to Dean, over and over again, a mantra, a spell. Dean will live past thirty. He will live past thirty. He kept pressure on Dean’s wounds, feeling blood seeping through the cloth onto his hands. He repeated the words, even after Dean’s eyes had rolled back into his head and he had fallen unconscious, body occasionally spasming, as though something invisible was plucking at the strings of his nervous system every few moments.

John had to remind himself how much blood a person had to lose to bleed out. It was a lot, he knew. Far more than Dean had lost so far, he thought, but it was dark and it really was so much. He told himself that Dean had passed out from the pain, he told himself again and again it couldn’t be from blood loss, because if that was the case, there was no way Dean would survive this. It was the pain. He’d passed out from the pain. He wasn’t going to die.

By the time the ambulance came, the bodies of the black dogs had melted into shadow. The paramedics rushed into the trees, guided by Sam who was still crying, and lifted Dean quickly onto a stretcher to be carried away and tucked into the back of the bright, noisy vehicle. John followed until the door closed behind Dean. They couldn’t take John with them in the ambulance. Dean’s condition was too critical.

“You can meet us at the hospital, sir,” the police officer that had accompanied the medical team told him. “Your child is in good hands.”

John watched the ambulance disappear down the country road, his vision suddenly cloudy. He looked down at his shaking hands, slippery and red with his son’s blood. He doubled over and vomited into the grass.

“Dad!” shouted Sam. “We have to go! We have to get to the hospital! We have to get to Dean!”

John didn’t remember getting into the Impala. He didn’t remember starting the car and pulling out to follow the flashing lights and siren that indicated the location of his son. What he did remember of the drive was the feel of blood drying between the wheel and his palms, Sam’s sobs, and the tears blurring his eyes as he chased the ambulance.

He entered the emergency room with a bang, throwing the doors open against the walls and pushing past a line of waiting patients to yell at the man behind the front desk. He couldn’t recall what he had said, but by the end of it, he knew that there were tears on his cheeks.

“Sir, you need to calm down. I don’t know where your son is, but he’s in good hands. Someone will be in to get you soon, I’m sure…”

At that moment, a paramedic walked into the emergency room. He looked pale, but his expression was controlled.

“Sir? You can follow me.”

John immediately left the line of patients, all of whom stared after him and Sam with curiosity, sympathy, and some irritation.

The paramedic led him through white hallways, past patients in wheelchairs and with IVs trailing on metal poles behind them as they walked.

“Can I have your name, sir?”

“John O’Mally,” John told him the name on his insurance card, mouth dry.

“What is your daughter’s name?” the paramedic asked, and for a moment John was confused, they must have the wrong guy, until he realized that they had to have cut away Dean’s clothes in the ambulance, and to the world outside of their family, when naked, Dean looked like a girl.

“Dean,” he said, his voice cracking.

“Mr. O’Mally, we were able to put pressure on Dean’s wounds and slow the bleeding during the ride to the hospital. We had to give her eight units of blood en route. She was in shock when we moved her into surgery. Our team of surgeons are excellent, Dean is in good hands.” How many times had John been told that in the past thirty minutes? None of their goddamn hands mattered if they couldn’t save his son. “Dean is on life support, and we’ve given her blood, but we would like to see if either you or your son is a match. Dean will need more, and it will be much easier and faster if she can get it from you.”

“Okay,” Sam said. “You can give him as much as you need.”

The paramedic’s expression flickered a bit at Sam’s use of pronouns, but he said nothing.

“I want you to do anything to keep Dean alive. If I have to give you all of my blood for that, I will,” John growled.

“Alright, Mr. O’Mally. If you and your son could follow me.”

Sam ended up having Dean’s blood type. John did not.

He held Sam’s hand as the bags attached to his arm slowly filled with blood, feeling helpless and small. Somewhere, his son was lying, unconscious, mortally wounded, possibly dying, and he could do nothing but hold his other son’s hand as he provided Dean’s lifeline. There was nothing he could do but wait.

Dean’s surgery took seven hours. By the end of it, both Sam and John were pale and withdrawn, sitting in uncomfortable waiting-room chairs, heads in hands, eyes staring at the ground. John had washed the blood off of his hands and arms, but there was red dried under his fingernails and brown stains in his clothes, and the sight of Dean, crying and mangled and in pain, flashed behind his eyelids every time he blinked.

Eventually, a doctor came out to speak with them.

“Mr. O’Mally?” the man asked, and John stood immediately, hands shaking.

“Is Dean okay?” he asked. The doctor hesitated, and John’s stomach sank into his feet. Sam stared at the doctor with wide eyes, the whites showing all around his irises.

“If I may speak with you in private, Mr. O’Mally.”

John scoffed, raising his hand to run down his face. “I’ve been waiting here for seven fucking hours. Now you want me to, what, follow you into your office where you can sit behind a big desk to look impressive and distinguished when you tell me you ‘did all you could?’” He dropped his hand to his side. “Just tell me if my kid is alive,” he finished, his voice breaking.

The doctor nodded. “Dean is alive, Mr. O’Mally, but I’d like to discuss the surgery with you.”

John let out a long breath and turned towards Sam, who seemed to share his feeling of elation.

“Dean’s okay,” Sam said, and the both of them laughed aloud even as tears began falling down their cheeks. “He’s okay.”

John and Sam ended up in Dr. Larson’s office, sitting in front of the man’s desk as his eyes continued flicking uncomfortably towards Sam, who he’d insisted wait in the hallway despite John’s steadfast decision that Sam be present for the discussion.

“We started surgery within four minutes of Dean’s admittance to Baystate Medical Center. Our first action was getting her on life support, and giving her the blood she had lost in the accident. Then, we had to stop the bleeding and repair the damage done to her upper torso. Her heart stopped at three separate intervals during surgery, but we were able to recover her within two minutes each time, so there is minimal risk of brain damage due to oxygen deprivation.”

Sam’s face paled drastically. “Dean died?”

“Technically, yes,” Larson gently answered. Then he turned back towards John. “Was it a large animal that caused the injury?”

John nodded. “We… I couldn’t tell what it was, if it was a bear or a wolf or what.”

The doctor nodded. “Alright. Well, the wounds seem to be more concurrent with a wolf attack. At any rate, the animal severely damaged Dean’s chest.” Dr. Larson slid an X-ray onto the desk, and John saw a white and black image of a ribcage. Two of Dean’s ribs were visibly broken. “From Dean’s wounds, we can estimate the course of the attack. First, the jaws of the animal closed around Dean’s right shoulder as it knocked her to the ground. Then, on top of her, it bit first her left breast, partially severing its attachment to her ventral thorax, her chest.” Larson’s eyes flickered to Sam, then back to John. “Its jaws then enclosed around Dean’s right breast, before pulling, completely removing it and tearing the tendons of her mid and lower ventral thorax away from her ribcage, causing a degloving avulsion. Usually, these are lethal when located on the head or torso, but Dean is a fighter.” The doctor paused and attempted what appeared to be an encouraging smile. “The animal then again bit her left breast, severing it almost completely, before closing its jaw around her third and fourth right ribs and fracturing both.”

John felt the need to vomit yet again. Sam’s face had drained completely of blood, but had taken on a greenish tint. Larson’s face softened sympathetically, although John didn’t care.

“Luckily, none of Dean’s internal organs were severely damaged, other than some internal bleeding around her lungs, which we have taken care of. We had to remove some flesh from Dean’s inner thigh for split-thickness grafts, and a portion from her abdomen for a full-thickness graft, to recover the flesh loss. Otherwise, we were able to use the remaining flesh during reconstruction.” The doctor took a deep, quiet breath. “Your daughter’s breast tissue was unsalvageable. The fat of her breasts as well as the mammary glands were either completely removed in the attack, or too severely damaged to be repaired. I’m sorry.”

The man then sighed and glanced down at his desk to straighten a paper. “There is an option not covered by your insurance plan. With your permission, my team could restore the shape of Dean’s breasts with augmentation surgery before she wakes up from anesthesia. If that is something you’d like to consider, I can go over the financial aspect…”

No,” John gasped out through the bile rising in his throat. Was the doctor really asking John if he would consider allowing the surgeons to reopen Dean after the surgery he’d already gone through, to insert silicone bags under his child’s skin? The thought of signing off on the doctors giving his son breast implants was emotionally repugnant. He couldn’t imagine any parent allowing it to happen to their daughter, let alone their son… it seemed so invasive, so repellent, so perversely manipulative… “No. No, no…” John shook himself free from his stuttering stupor. “That’s not happening.” He heard Sam let out a shuddery breath.

The doctor nodded. “I understand.”

“How long will it take for hi… for Dean to recover?” he asked, voice gravelly.

“Dean needs to remain on life support for twenty-four hours,” Larson said. “Animal attack wounds can be much more dangerous than others, because the danger of infection lengthens operation time and makes disinfection vital. Dean looks lucky; there aren’t any signs of developing infection from outside bacteria. While there still is, of course, a risk of her catching infection in the hospital, you should be very pleased that she escaped any passed on by the wolf.”

Black dogs were almost incorporeal; mutts comprised of animated shadow that could come into contact with prey at their will, but could only be touched by silver. John had hoped that it meant that they couldn’t possibly carry the diseases that one could probably find on most wild animals, or on other creatures like werewolves or wendigos, but it was an immense relief to hear his hypothesis confirmed.

“Once we are sure that she is stable and the risk of infection has lowered, we can move her out of the ICU. We are looking at anywhere from four weeks to two months of hospital care.”

“And for Dean to wake up?”

Dr. Larson lowered his gaze to his hands, folded in front of him on the desk.

“For that, we can’t be sure. Your daughter’s trauma was severe. We will stop her medically-induced sedation in the next day or so. When she wakes up is up to her, although for a few days at least, her consciousness will be spotty at best. She might not be aware of her surroundings, or only be able to remain awake for minutes at a time.”

“When can we see h-her?” John stuttered roughly. Sam shot him a look with wide eyes that struck him to the heart.

“Dean needs to be alone for twelve hours. You’ll be able to visit her room during visiting hours tomorrow.”

John nodded and stood, gritting his teeth. “Thank you, Dr. Larson.” Sam stood up and followed John out of the office.

When John and Sam were alone, Sam turned on his father.

“Why are you letting them call Dean a girl?” he asked, eyes burning but glazed with stress and fear. John sighed, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“Sam, you don’t understand…”

“No, I do. I understand that Dean’s gonna be sitting in this hospital for weeks listening to everyone call him a girl.”

“Sam,” John snapped, his face growing hot. “I don’t need you questioning my actions.”

“Well, nobody else is going to! The doctors don’t know better, and Dean does everything you say! Dean’s gonna sit there and take it while you let everyone think he’s a girl, just because you’re too embarrassed to tell people that your son is transg–”

“Be quiet, Sam!” John shouted, and an orderly walking past the end of the empty hall faltered for a moment before continuing. John leaned down and gripped Sam by his shoulders, holding him tightly and staring him straight in the eyes. “Listen, Sam,” he hissed as Sam glared back at him hatefully. “Nobody can know, you got that? I’m not embarrassed of Dean. Dean’s my son and a damn fine hunter.”

“Soldier, you mean,” Sam muttered. John shook him a bit.

“I’m not playing games, son! You and I both know what your brother is, and we don’t look at him any different. Well, other people out there do. Remember when you told me we had to keep Dean safe?”

Something hardened in Sam’s expression. He nodded.

“Well, the truth is that there are people who would want to do your brother harm, just for being different. You know that already. But there’s other people out there who would do harm to him indirectly. They can do that by not treating him right.”

“You mean, if the doctors knew about Dean, they might not give him good medical attention?” Sam asked, the anger in his face now directed elsewhere.

“That’s right, Sam. People like your brother, they die all the time, because doctors don’t think they’re worth their care. So we gotta pretend. To keep Dean safe.”

And there was still the other fear, the hidden one, that if the doctors found out that John had raised Dean as a boy they’d consider it child abuse and investigate, that they’d take Dean away to a foster family or group home where they’d call him Deanna and send him to conversion therapy and break him down until there was nothing left.

Sam was silent, and eventually John straightened and patted down his pockets. The memory of Dean’s blood coating his hands had escaped him for a few minutes, but it came back then, itching at the backs of his eyes.

“We have to go back to the motel now, Sam. Dean’s alright for now. We’ll come back tomorrow morning.”

“But what if he wakes up?” Sam asked quietly.

“You heard the doctor. Dean’s gonna be sleeping for a long time yet, and we have to make sure our stuff is secure. Tomorrow, we’ll check out and pack up and find a new motel closer to the hospital. It’s a good thing it’s summer vacation and we don’t have to get the schools involved.”

They drove home in silence. Without Dean to crank up Led Zeppelin, no one bothered to turn on the radio. When they got home, the two of them fell into separate beds, fully clothed.

John didn’t sleep that night. Neither did Sam, not until the early morning at least. But neither of them said a word.

Dean didn’t wake up for thirty-seven hours, long past when they took him off sedation. The doctors told them it was normal, that Dean’s brain was resting after living through such a traumatic injury. He wasn’t in a coma, just taking his time. He’ll wake up, they said. Only they called him “she.”

The first time Dean regained consciousness, it was only for three minutes. He was foggy and confused from the pain meds. John grabbed his hand, and Dean frowned at him and mumbled an incoherent sentence before drifting off to sleep again.

Sammy had been getting a snack from the vending machine two floors down, and when he returned to find the doctor checking Dean’s vitals and realized he’d missed Dean’s brief moment of consciousness, he got so upset he refused to leave his brother’s hospital room again. He didn’t want Dean to wake up again and not have Sam there to comfort him.

Unfortunately, Sam’s presence in the room during Dean’s next bout of consciousness didn’t seem to help anything. Dean was so heavy with the pain meds that it was obvious he wasn’t aware of his surroundings. He blinked a lot and very slowly, turning his head back and forth and murmuring about cleaning their koi pond and feeding the fish.

“We don’t have a koi pond, Dean!” Sam tried to tell him, eyes wide and face pale, looking between Dean’s glazed-over eyes and the doctor standing beside the bed.

“Dean is under heavy medication right now,” the doctor comforted. “It’s normal for her to have mild delusions, even hallucinations. Don’t worry, once she has healed enough to be put on more mild pain medication, she will be back to normal.”

More than once, John had to drag Sam aside into the hallway to quietly order him to cool it. Sam tended to get red-in-the-face angry whenever he heard the doctors or nurses calling Dean a girl. It got especially bad when Dean finally was able to be awake and unhindered by meds, lucid and weary and looking more and more withdrawn with every “your daughter” and “your sister.” Not that John didn’t hate it too, but John knew what he was doing and why it was important, and Dean understood, didn’t Sam get that? Dean knew that it was necessary, took it all on with a tight-lipped smile and bad jokes. Sam, he was different, hot-headed, couldn’t let it go. Sometimes he’d be glaring daggers so sharp at the nurses, that the room would fill with such palpable tension that they’d excuse themselves.

“Sam, you can’t do that!” John growled, and Sam turned his gaze, daggers now directed at his father.

“Just because I can’t say anything doesn’t mean I have to just sit here and watch,” Sam snapped back. John gritted his teeth.

“Those nurses don’t have any idea why you’re angry.”

“Well maybe if someone wasn’t so scared to tell them that…”

“You know we can’t, Sam! I’ve told you that! Dean knows it! Don’t you, Dean?”

“Don’t defend him, Dean, you don’t have to do everything he says!”

“Dean does what I say because he knows I’m right.”

“No, he does what you say because you brainwashed him into your perfect soldier!”

“Sam, you are one smart-assed comment away from being sent to the waiting room!”

“You can’t do that! Dean, tell him you don’t want me to leave.”

“Don’t bring Dean into this. This has nothing to do with him, this is about you not following orders.”

“Dean!”

John turned to his eldest, whose head was turned away, eyes half closed and lips pressed thin.

“I’m tired,” he said, softly. Sam glanced quickly between Dean and John before crossing his arms and falling into the chair on his side of Dean’s bed.

“Alright, Dean,” John said softly, dragging a hand down his face. “Go to sleep, son.” He clapped his palm down on Dean’s knee and squeezed it comfortingly. Dean tightened his jaw in a slight grimace and closed his eyes.

It was eleven days into Dean’s hospitalization before John was in the room during Dean’s change of bandaging. Usually, the doctors had him and Sam leave due to the risk of infection and for privacy, but Dean had apparently passed that point and John stood a bit away from Dean’s side and watched as the team of three nurses carefully propped him up in the bed, one holding him gently upright while another used hands clad in surgical gloves to unwind the rolled bandages and carefully remove surgical tape and gauze pads.

Dean’s chest was flat, completely so, which came as more of a shock to John than it should have been. He’d known. The doctor had told them. Dean’s breasts had been “unsalvageable,” the tissue completely removed. Any leftover scraps had been used to stitch closed the degloving avulsion. Still. John had only before that point seen his boy wrapped in layers of bandages and clad in a hospital gown and then, usually, covered with several blankets. Now, he was staring at Dean’s naked chest.

It looked so wrong.

John was used to seeing his sons shirtless. Both of them. They trained that way in the summer, when it was too hot for anything else. He wasn’t about to confine his eldest to T-shirts or sports bras in the July heat down south just because he happened to be built different than John or Sam, and Dean had never been shy about stripping down to his running shorts when the summer sun was beating down too hard and sweat shone on his forehead. John knew what Dean looked like shirtless, and this wasn’t it.

There was something so wholly wrong about the flatness of Dean’s chest, about the lack of contours and softness that had been a part of his boy since he’d turned twelve. It wasn’t just the mess of crisscrossing lines marring his skin, etched with black stitches tinged red and crusty in the center. It was just wrong, and it looked strangely blurry, like John’s eyes were crossed and fuzzy, and…

The scars twisted and puckered the flesh of his chest, and his nipples looked uneven, off-kilter, strange. Small and unbalanced and maybe even bruised, dark and red and purple like small pools of blood were sitting just underneath the skin there. John sucked in a gasp of breath, feeling as though he had been kicked in the gut. Dean looked up at him before turning his face away, eyes downcast and grimacing as the nurses cleaned and redressed his stitches before wrapping his chest once more in bandages and laying him carefully back onto the bed.

One of the nurses looked up towards John and gave him a small smile, trying to communicate something with her warm, brown eyes.

“There you are, sweetheart,” she told Dean, pulling Dean’s blanket back up to his chin and briefly running her hand over his forehead, brushing aside bangs that had grown out a little too long. Dean’s eyes drifted closed. “All done.”   

As the nurses packed up and left the room, the one who had spoken to Dean paused next to John.

“She’s going to be alright,” she whispered. “These days, plenty of girls and women live with mastectomies. She’s going to be fine.”

The nurse left, and John didn’t bother to say anything in reply. Because John wasn’t worried about his daughter growing up without breasts. He was worried about his son losing body parts, body parts that had been torn away from him in the most painful, gruesome way imaginable. He was worried about the empty look in Dean’s eyes, the apparent shame in his expression when he turned away from his father, the way he hunched his shoulders to hide his altered, scarred, mutilated chest in a way that seemed so much more insecure and hesitant than ever before.

John had always hated seeing shame on his son’s face. He thought – he’d hoped – that the way he’d raised Dean, his son would never look that way because it was John looking at him.

But he couldn’t do anything about that, just like he couldn’t do anything about the doctors calling Dean his daughter right in front of his boy, or the nurses calling Dean “young lady” as they helped him to the bathroom or gave him his food.

It was necessary. Dean knew it was necessary. He had to know it was necessary.

He tried to counteract the damage the words were doing to Dean by clapping him on the shoulder, by telling him to “man up” and “suck it up, son,” but there was still that aching in his stomach and the dead in Dean’s eyes hadn’t gone away.

Thirteen days into Dean’s hospitalization, they left. It was past the point of worry over infection, the doctor had told him. The stitches were soluble, they would be gone in their own time, and besides, John knew how to do patch-up work in case of Dean pulling one or two. Dean had been eating solid food for days, and he was off his IV. Besides, John’s insurance card wasn’t going to hold up for another week. They had to get out of there. So, despite Sam’s protests and anger-filled words and glares, John signed Dean out AMA and left a false home-address, for when CPS tried to come knocking.

He took the boys to Bobby Singer’s. Wordlessly, the old hunter set Dean up in the room that he’d stayed in ever since John first dropped his boys off at his door. Sam stayed with him. And when Bobby sat across from John at his kitchen table, expressionless as John nursed a beer, John just laughed slightly and shook his head. “Dean’s fucked up,” he said, and tears slid down his rugged cheeks. Bobby just nodded. “It’s my fault.” Bobby nodded again.

John left the boys in Sioux Falls with Singer for the summer, went on solo hunts for a while. Dean had to heal up, and he and Sam could stand to learn some lore from Bobby. Singer might be a bastard, but he was the best damn master of supernatural lore in the country, and he’d look after the boys to boot.

It took Dean pretty much all of two months before John felt comfortable giving him the okay to spar again. His chest was still tender, but the stitches were gone and the bruises under the scars had faded from black and blue to purple and red. He’d lost a lot of muscle mass, and so wasn’t eating as much as he should have been.

“Boy doesn’t want to gain weight,” Bobby told him during one of his breaks in-between hunts. “He’s gonna starve himself until you let him exercise, John. The physical therapy ain’t enough.”

And so John took him and Sam sparring, and hated himself a little bit more every time Dean winced or faltered, but when he caught his boy admiring his silhouette in a thin white T-shirt, smiling at his reflection in the mirror for the first time in about three years, John had trouble swallowing his emotions and thought that maybe some type of good had come out of the whole thing.

Even if after that, Dean stopped taking his shirt off during workouts. Even if, no matter how hot it was, even if it was the middle of August down in Arizona or a sweltering day in the New Mexico sun, Dean kept himself covered with at least a threadbare tank-top.

Sam noticed the change almost before John did.

“Aren’t you hot, Dean?” he asked, and Dean just shook his head, doubled over with his hands on his knees and breathing hard after a ten-mile run.

“Nah, Sammy, I’m fine,” he heaved, shirt soaked through with sweat. He dragged the hem of his shirt up to wipe sweat off his forehead, and Sam and John caught a flash of purple scars before it was dropped again.

Dean’s breasts hadn’t been very big. They’d never gotten him measured because Dean had never shown any desire to, but John thought that he had probably taken after Mary in yet another respect, and his wife had been on the small-to-medium side, at least before she got pregnant. So they hadn’t been big, but they had been breasts, and boys typically didn’t have those, so Dean had been a freak. Now, Dean didn’t have breasts anymore, but he had twisted scars and lopsided nipples, so he was a whole different kind of freak. Seeing his son unafraid to go to school or out to the park with nothing but a V-neck T-shirt on was refreshing, gave John a soaring feeling in his gut, but seeing his boy too insecure to take off his workout tank-top in front of just Sammy and him, that was hard. John never knew which he would have preferred.

But Dean healed. And they left Bobby’s for another nondescript motel in another podunk town where he could leave his boys while he worked on another case.

When Dean turned sixteen, John took him to the local DMV to get his driver’s license. Dean and John both gritted their teeth through the process as they waited in line for five hours so that a few bored government workers could look between Dean and his paperwork and take the picture for the ID. Dean, who had his hands stuffed into the pocket of his jacket for most of the process, looked suitably unimpressed. No one really spoke at all, so no one commented on the disparity between Dean’s physical presentation and the name and sex listed on his birth certificate (his real birth certificate), but Dean definitely wasn’t very excited to be handed the fresh, legal ID after the whole ordeal was over.

But there was no complaining, and Dean sat agreeably in the passenger side of the Impala after tucking the license into his wallet, and John smiled slightly during the drive back to the trailer they’d been living in for the past four months in anticipation of giving Dean his real birthday present.

When they’d gotten back to the trailer, Dean made his way to the battered armchair that sat in the crammed living space and sat down heavily, letting out a breath and stretching.

“Man, those places give me the creeps…” he started, and stopped suddenly as John dropped the gift into his lap. Dean picked up the little plastic rectangle in confusion at first, then turned it over to see what was printed across the front and his eyes widened.

“Dad,” Dean gasped, examining the thumbnail picture of his smirking visage in the top corner. Dean Winchester, it read, preceding a false address. Male, 5’10”, 140 lbs, GRN eyes. “Awesome!”

“If you ever get pulled over by the cops, you’ll want to use the real one,” John told him seriously. “But for everything else, this’ll do just fine.” Plus, this way, John could slightly modify Dean’s birth date – he’d bumped him up to a baby-faced nineteen, so Dean could get into bars and start learning how to hustle.

“It’s great, Dad, thanks!” His boy’s voice was thick with gratitude that made John’s chest swell with warmth.

“Wanna take the Impala for a spin, now that you’re ‘legal’?” John asked, a smile quirking up the corners of his mouth.

“Yeah!” Dean said, and when he looked up at his father, his eyes were bright and sparkling.

Half a year later, John was alone in the dingy apartment he’d rented for a few months, searching through the boys’ bags for a book he couldn’t find in his own. As he was looking through Dean’s, he came across a brightly-colored cardboard box, crushed a bit under a pile of dirty clothes right in the furthest possible cranny of Dean’s duffle. It was obviously an attempt to hide it.

John pulled it out and stared at it for several long moments. He found himself sinking down onto the bed behind him, elbows on his knees as he stared at the box. His vision blurred somewhere between the words regular and heavy, and he wondered why he’d never seen his son buying tampons, and when he’d started. Dean was almost seventeen. It could have been going on for years, and he’d never noticed.

He let his head fall and felt the cool, worn surface of the cardboard on his forehead. If he didn’t leave his boys alone so often for days, weeks at a time. If he didn’t have monsters to hunt, people to save. If he didn’t have Mary’s death hanging over his shoulders, her terror and pain and loss to avenge. If he didn’t have a yellow-eyed demon lurking out there for him to kill.

But he did.

He put the box back where he had found it, carefully covered it back up with Dean’s clothes, and never mentioned it.

Dean was still seventeen the day that John got the call and rushed to the school, angry and irritated, to find Dean sitting, slumped, in a chair in the principal’s office. Dean’s lip was split, his eyes rimmed with purple bruises and he kept wiping blood away as it started to drip out of his nose with an already stained knuckle. He was staring blankly at the floor in front of him with eyes glazed over. The neck of his shirt looked stretched and crumpled, like someone had had their fist tangled in it and pulled. There was bruising around his wrists and upper arm.

The principal, who was sitting behind the desk, gestured for John to take a seat. John sat next to Dean, whose eyes flicked up to him before reverting back to the floor.

“Mr. Winchester,” the principal, a Mr. Curtis, started. “Were you aware that your… child, had been using the boys’ restroom during Dean’s entire duration at our school?”

John didn’t look at Dean, his stomach growing cold. “Of course.”

“Then you must be aware of Dean’s… condition,” Curtis continued. John frowned.

“His condition,” he stated. He turned to look at Dean. He’d been called in because of a fight. He’d been angry. Dean knew better than to start stuff like that, knew better than to get into the kind of trouble that would have the school asking after him, drawing attention to him. But this, this didn’t sound like Dean getting into some stupid argument, brawl. Had some kids found out? Had someone attacked his son?

“What happened to my son?” he asked, an edge of anger and worry tinting his voice.

“Well, Dean’s been using the boys’ restroom against the rules for the better part of two months,” said Curtis. John bristled, his face heating.

“What does that have anything to do with my boy bleeding?” John snapped, and Dean and the principal both flinched. Mr. Curtis turned to Dean, who withdrew a bit more into the back of his chair.

“Why don’t you tell your father what happened, Dean.”

Dean swallowed. He didn’t look up when he spoke, but he scowled ferociously. “A bunch of dickweeds in the bathroom thought it’d be funny to pin me to the wall and prove my ‘manhood.’”

The principal pursed his lips at the obscenity. “That’s not quite how I would put it, but yes, Mr. Winchester. Some young men were understandably curious as to why Dean has, apparently, never used a urinal. When they considered the possibilities, they became uncomfortable and sought to ensure that their concerns had no merit. It is unfortunate that they acted themselves without first bringing their concerns to an adult, but your child’s perversion has now been brought to light as a result.”

Dean’s jaw tensed, and John swallowed the knot that formed at the principal’s words. Perversion. He had called Dean a pervert.

“What did they do, Dean?” was all John said, his voice not belying the terror and anger he felt in his chest. Dean ardently avoided looking into his eyes, jiggling his knee up and down, his forefinger scratching absently at the denim clothing his thigh. He shrugged.

“Just… you know. Played Keep Away with my socks.” Dean finally looked up at John, his left eye fierce and angry, though his right had started to swell shut. “I didn’t just let them do anything, Dad, I fought back, I swear.”

John reached out, lay his hand over Dean’s, over the bruises on his wrist, and smiled through the knot in his throat and the tears pricking at his eyes. “It’s okay, Dean, you did good.”

“No, Mr. Winchester, Dean didn’t. Your… child… attacked six of our students, one of whom had to go to the hospital with a broken nose. Dean lied to the school and used the boys’ restroom against the rules, endangering the safety and privacy of our students. We’re here to discuss suspension.”

John froze, turning his head to stare at the man, face blank. Dean felt him tense as John’s hand tightened on his wrist.

“Are you telling me that my son was harassed, beaten, and… and assaulted by six of your students and you’re punishing him?”

“Your child initiated the fight. Dean’s facial bruising is a result of self-defense, and the defender in question will be given a week of detention.”

“And what about the sick bastards who put hands on my son?” John asked, furious, withdrawing his hand from Dean’s arm and straightening, swelling his chest. “Are you not punishing them?”

“Dean broke the rules by using the boys’ bathroom, and boys will be boys, you can’t expect…”

John stood in one move, his chair slamming over onto the floor behind him. The principal jumped in his seat, his hands flying down to the desk.

“Are you telling me that those boys won’t be punished for assault because, what, my son is a pervert?” John shouted. “Are you honestly telling me that you think Dean deserved it?”

Dean flinched. John’s face was red, his hands shaking, fingers clenched into fists. Curtis looked unnerved, opening his mouth, probably to ask him to calm down or to say some other bullshit about how his boy deserved to be attacked for going to the fucking bathroom.

“Don’t you say a fucking thing, I will not permit you to say another fucking word in front of my son. You listen to me, you bastard!” John jabbed his finger towards the principal, spit flying out of his mouth with the force of his rage. “My boy doesn’t deserve to be attacked just for being who he is. He didn’t do anything to deserve it. You hear that, Dean?” Dean was looking up at him, and John saw a tear slip down Dean’s cheek against his will. Dean quickly wiped it away. “Not a fucking thing. Come on, Dean! Let’s go pick up Sam.”

He was shaking with anger as they left. Dean was quiet and limping slightly, which only served to further kindle John’s rage. They drove in silence for several minutes, heading over to the middle school. John felt anger swelling in his throat, anger at the principal, at the fucking kids who’d thought it was okay to lay hands on his boy, at the whole fucking world for forcing Dean to hide who he was for fear of retribution, anger at…

“You have to be more careful, Dean!” John finally snapped, making Dean flinch in the passenger seat. “You can’t let that happen again!”

“I was just going to the bathroom, sir,” Dean said, and John’s vision tinted red at the image of Dean shoved against a grimy bathroom wall, of him struggling as a group of six boys held him and forced his pants around his knees, of them laughing, throwing around Dean’s socks as Dean tried to escape grabbing hands. His eyes went to Dean’s lap for a second, long enough to see that Dean wasn’t packing anymore.

“Then you wait until the bathroom’s empty, and if it isn’t, you hold it, you hear me? You fucking hold it all day if you have to.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now we’re gonna have to move schools again. You understand that, don’t you, Dean? The hunt’s still here. The library’s still here. Now we’ve gotta move towns and schools and I’m gonna have to fucking commute every day just to smoke a fucking spirit. This place here was supposed to set us up for the rest of the year. I was gonna be able to stick around for longer. The library’s stocked full of lore, I wouldn’t have had to travel far for research. You get that, Dean?”

“Yes, sir,” Dean whispered.

“And Sam’s gonna be pissed off. He liked this school.”

“I’ll tell him it was my fault, sir.”

“You do that, Dean,” John growled, absentminded, visions of six pairs of hand grabbing at his boy flickering behind his eyelids every time he blinked. It was almost worse than the memories he still had of Dean lying on the forest floor in the dark, crying, with bloody bone glinting through the red on his chest.

“Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll get Sam to go along. He’ll listen to me.”

John didn’t answer.

Sam threw a snit the second he was in the car with John and Dean. Dean tried to calm him down, but Sam barely noticed Dean’s bruises and bloody nose. He was too furious with his dad to see much of anything but John’s apparent lack of care for Sam’s education.

The day ended in ruins. Sam locked himself in his bedroom. Dean locked himself in the bathroom, and a minute later, the shower was running. John took one look at the empty living room and turned around, leaving the apartment to find the nearest bar.

He returned home late that night, dizzy and heavy with alcohol. The lights were off, but Dean was sitting at the kitchen table, and stood as John entered through the front door.

“What’re you doin’ up?” John asked as Dean walked quickly over to help him take off his jacket, tugging the car keys gently out of his clenched fist and tucking them into his own pocket, and leading John over to the couch.

“Waitin’ for you,” Dean said, laying John back on the lumpy couch cushions and starting to untie his boots, pulling them off his clumsy feet one by one. “Sort of figured you wouldn’t be in any shape to get yourself to bed when you got home.”

John peered at the digital clock next to the TV. It was two in the morning.

“S’mmy?” John asked.

“He’s been asleep for a while,” Dean told him. “Did all his homework for the next three days in a final act of rebellion, I think.”

Sighing, John allowed himself to relax back into the couch.

“You want any water, Dad?” Dean asked, kneeling on the floor next to John’s stomach.

John peered through the darkness into his son’s eyes, a glint of off-white in the gloam. He reached forward and grabbed Dean’s wrist, pulling his son closer to his face until he could make out Dean’s irises.

“Dean,” he said gruffly, urgently. “Those boys, today. They tried…”

“I didn’t let them, sir,” Dean responded immediately. “I promise. I didn’t let them touch me.”

John shook his head, then winced as it ached. “Dean,” he moaned. “Has anyone else ever… has anyone else ever tried to… to touch you, like that, have they ever…”

Fifty percent, echoed the statistic in his head. Fifty percent. Often more than once. And with the places they’d been… the people his boys had been around, growing up…

Dean moved, turned his face a little. His expression was suddenly cloaked in shadow.

“No, sir,” he said. “Never.”

John let go of Dean’s wrist, noticing how his fingers had fit over the bruises left there earlier. He sank into the lumpy, uncomfortable cushions and closed his eyes.

God help him, he knew his boy was lying.

“Go to bed,” he muttered, feeling such self-loathing at that moment he could barely speak. He heard Dean stay for a moment before straightening, setting John’s boots down at the foot of the couch, and retreating to his and Sam’s bedroom.

Thirty, John thought brokenly. Dean will live past thirty. And he let that mantra repeat over and over again in his head until he finally drifted to restless sleep. 

He came home a day late from the next hunt to find Dean and Sam playing catch in the small park behind their new motel. The park was a little thing, basically just browning grass and a couple sparse trees, but the boys were laughing. Sam threw the football energetically, sending it in a wobbly corkscrew that Dean had to run to catch. Dean leaped into the air to grab the ball and tug it into his chest, then turned with a cheer, raising his right arm and fisting the air. “Good one, geek-boy!” he yelled, before sending the football soaring seamlessly back to Sam, who scrambled to grab it with two clumsy hands. Dean put his hands on his hips and watched Sam with an expression of unbridled pride and joy, mouth open in a crooked grin, eyes wide and sparkling, just a smudge of his faded bruises on either side of his nose. Sam was laughing and grinning back, face lit up.

John watched them wordlessly and entered the motel room without greeting them, not wanting to wreck the moment with his presence. He wanted those smiles to stay on his boys’ faces as long as possible.

Sam was fourteen the day John took him on a hunt without Dean. Sam didn’t want to, and Dean didn’t want him to either, and it might have been the first time in years that Dean talked back to John not just once, but two times.

“He’s too young. I can take care of both of you,” Dean begged, standing straight, fists clenched at his sides.

“You were younger than me when you went with Dad alone the first time,” Sam pointed out. Dean shot him a glare.

“I thought you didn’t even want to go?” he snapped, and Sam turned red.

“I don’t! I’m just saying! I’m not a baby, Dean. I can take care of myself.”

“But…”

“Sam’s coming, Dean, and you’re staying here, and that’s final!” John said.

“Dad,” Dean started, looking betrayed.

“Sam needs practice, and you need to study. You won’t be graduating at this rate unless you buckle down, boy. That’s an order.”

Dean fumed and stalked over to the kitchen table, where he sat angrily in front of his schoolbooks and scrubbed his fingers through his short hair. “Yes, sir.”

Sam gritted his teeth and scowled at John, but John just shoved past Sam to grab his jacket.

“Come on, Sam.”

They were on the road for thirty minutes before Sam asked what the hunt even was.

“A haunted clinic,” John told him.

“A clinic? Like a health center?” Sam asked skeptically.

Taking a deep breath, John controlled his expression. “Southwest Texas. A doctor worked there, Adams. Not the open-minded type. When his boss started giving out hormone treatments, he went nuts. Took a gun to a couple of his patients, then blew his own brains out. But his spirit’s sticking around. In the years after, Dr. Trewett, the guy who runs the joint, has got a lot more patients looking for hormone replacement therapy. But since eighteen days ago, the third anniversary of Adams’ death, they’re being picked off. Once a week.”

Sam was silent for a few more minutes.

“Hormone replacement therapy. Like, for transgender people?”

John clenched his fingers around the wheel. “Seems like this Dr. Adams had it out for people like that. He’s already killed two more besides the three he killed while he was alive. A fifteen year old girl and a twenty year old boy.”

“Is this why you wouldn’t let Dean come?” Sam asked. “Because you thought maybe the spirit might go after him, too?”

John didn’t answer and made a hard turn onto a stretch of gravel road.

“Hormone replacement therapy,” Sam whispered, like he was testing the words out.

There were twenty more minutes of silence before Sam spoke up again.

“I think Dean’s always kind of wanted to grow a beard. He… he looks at his chin in the mirror sometimes, like he’s hoping. You know. That he’ll just start growing facial hair.” Sam was staring straight ahead through the windshield.

John hummed in the back of his throat and said nothing.

They drove through the day and night and reached the clinic the following afternoon. Sam had taken a turn driving sometime during the night to let John get a few hours of sleep.

Adams had been cremated, so there had to be something in the clinic keeping him there. John did his typical FBI routine. The doctors seemed surprised that the FBI was showing in an interest in the deaths of their patients, and it rekindled the flame in John’s stomach. The police hadn’t cared enough to spare more than a vague glance at the autopsies and a brief investigation before concluding that it had been overdoses. Suicide amongst those kinds of people were common, they said. They didn’t care that Julie May had been overjoyed to start on estrogen, that her parents said they hadn’t seen her smile so much in years. They didn’t care that Andrew Kidderson had a girlfriend who tearfully told John that she’d found a ring hidden in their closet, that she knew he was going to propose to her.

The police didn’t know, of course, what cold spots in a heated room indicated, or what it meant when lights flickered with no apparent electrical cause. Then again, they hadn’t cared to wonder why a kid would overdose by mixing high amounts of dangerous drugs in with their testosterone injection or estrogen pills. Hadn’t cared to think that maybe, someone was poisoning their medication intentionally.

The police hadn’t cared because to them, the lives of people like Julie and Andrew – like Dean – were worth nothing.

It fueled John’s anger and determination quicker than any intoxicated asshole in a bar-fight ever could.

They researched. Sam talked to some of the patients. John talked to Dr. Trewett, who was the man providing the hormone treatments. He was the one who had called John, had been directed through from Caleb to Bobby and finally to him.

“Please,” Trewett begged, “Help my patients. I can’t have any more die. Please.”

They thought that maybe, at first, there was some kind of medical equipment left from Adams. There were none, all the tools were Trewett’s. Then they supposed maybe there were files or a pair of glasses or something, some kind of unfinished business, something tying his spirit to the clinic that had to be hidden around somewhere. Still, their hands came up empty.

Sam was the one who cracked it, finally. “Dad, the police reports say that the gun was a Smith and Wesson, model 686. That’s a seven-round pistol, shot until the barrel was empty. But they only recovered six bullets.”

“And the one Adams used to blow himself away, passed right on through the back of his skull, didn’t it?” They looked at each other knowingly. “Must have hit the ceiling behind him, huh?” John said.

They entered the clinic that night after closing hours to look for the seventh bullet. They found it buried in the ceiling, a small, discrete hole in the far corner of the room, hidden in shadows. Sam stood on a chair to dig it out, already getting tall for his age. John kept watch with a box of salt in one hand and an iron rod in the other.

In a shower of plaster, Sam pulled the small bullet out of the ceiling, and at the same moment, Adams appeared in the room. Before he could shower the spirit with salt or run it through with the iron, John was flung aside, salt scattering over the floor and the rod knocked out of his hand. Sam stumbled, almost falling off his perch, bullet clenched tightly in one hand and the bowl of salt and lighter fluid they were going to use to burn it with in the other.

Adams went towards Sam, dark eyes glinting, lab coat bloodstained.

“Sam!” John cried, lunging towards the iron rod, grabbing it and hurling it towards the spirit in time to dissipate it before it reached his son.

“Dad!” Sam gasped, rushing towards him, holding out the bowl and with a clatter, emptying the stained bullet into it. John pulled out his lighter and fumbled with it a few times, watching the end spark over and over again…

The spirit of Adams was back, walking towards them, but finally there was the familiar noise of flame catching, and John dropped the lighter into the bowl, sending the contents up in flames.

“That was for my son and all the kids you murdered, you sick son of a bitch!” John yelled as the spirit of Dr. Adams went up in flames.

Sam and John sat in silence, breaths heaving.

The next day, they told Dr. Trewett that Adams was taken care of.

“Your patients are safe,” John said, and Trewett let out a long breath of relief.

“Thank god,” he murmured. “How can I possibly repay you?”

John looked him in the eyes. “My son,” he said, “My other son, he’s like your patients. But we don’t have the money for hormones. And we don’t stay in any place for longer than a couple months.”

He heard Sam suck in a breath, but didn’t turn to look. He kept his eyes trained on Trewett, who looked at him in understanding.

“So that’s why…” the doctor breathed, then apparently thought better of finishing his sentence. “Alright. That’s no problem. Robert Singer, the man who gave me your number. He told me a little about what you and your family does. You travel the country, hunting these monsters, saving people like my patients. Your son, how old is he?”

“Eighteen,” Sam supplied. “He wants… he wants to look like a man.”

Dr. Trewett nodded. “With the things your family sacrifices? Your son deserves what I can give him, out of all people. You two, you saved my patients’ lives. And I bet you and your other son has saved a lot more. I’ll give you what you need. And I’ll write him prescriptions, put you in contact with people who can get him what he needs, wherever in the country you go.”

John nodded curtly, but Sam could barely contain his excitement.

“What is your son’s name?” Trewett asked.

“Dean,” Sam and John both answered.

“Well, Dean will need to come in to my office. I have to give him a physical, and discuss the effects of treatment with him. Usually, hormone treatment requires a psychological evaluation, regular meetings with a gender therapist… but I believe, given the circumstances, we can make an exception.”

Sam sat in the back of the Impala on the way home, lying sideways on the bench seat with his knees up in front of him. He’d asked for John’s cell phone the second they pulled out of the clinic parking lot, wanted to call Dean to give him the news.

“It’s the coolest place, Dean,” John could hear him saying. “There’re other transgender kids there, too, and they’re getting these treatments, and the doctor said he’d give you them for free.” There was a moment of silence as Sam waited for an answer. “Dean?” More silence. “Hormone replacement therapy. You know. I told you about it once.” Sam’s smiling expression was steadily falling. “You get it like an injection, I think.” He scowled slightly. “No, Dean, it’s free. No strings attached. We saved his patients, he’s just doing us a favor.” Sam’s hazel eyes flickered to John and back, and John looked away from the rearview mirror, where he’d been watching Sam. “God, Dean, it was Dad’s idea. He’s the one who asked.” Sam’s lips pursed. “But Dean…”

“Give me the phone, Sam,” John ordered, stretching his hand out into the backseat and gesturing. Sam glared at the offending limb before nodding.

“Dad wants to talk to you,” he said, before handing John the phone.

“Dean?” John said, pulling the cellphone to his ear. “You there?”

Yessir,” he heard Dean respond softly.

“You know what Sam’s talkin’ about?”

A moment of silence. “Some doctor you helped said he’d give me some kind of treatment. Some kind of, uh, hormone treatment.

“This stuff, it’ll make you change, son. I’ve looked into it. I think it’d do you good.”

Dean was quiet for another long moment. “I don’t wanna owe anybody nothin’,” he finally said.

“And you won’t, because this is the doctor owing me something, owing us something.” Dean didn’t say anything in response. “Dean, you don’t gotta go through with this treatment if you don’t want to. But you will come with us back to the clinic, and you will sit down and listen to this doctor tell you all about what it can do, and you will make a decision only after you have thought about it damn hard. You hear me, boy?”

Yes, sir,” Dean muttered. John hung up and tossed the cellphone into the backseat.

Sam was quiet for a minute before speaking up. “I thought he’d be excited,” he said glumly.

“You know your brother, Sam. Damn headstrong. He’ll come around.”

Dean was sitting on the couch with his head hung and elbows on his knees when John and Sam entered the apartment. He stood immediately, expression tight.

“Dad,” he nodded. “I thought about it and I ain’t doin’ it.”

“Sam, go wait in your room,” John said before Sam could object. “Dean, outside, now.”

Sam stalked into his room with a scowl, shooting a concerned look back at Dean before slamming the door. Dean was staring intently at the floor as he followed John silently out the front door and into the dingy parking lot. John took a few long strides before turning around, near the rear of the Impala. Dean stood next to the hood, one hand absently trailing over the dusty black paint, the other stuffed in his jeans pocket.

“Why?” was the only thing John said, voice full of grit and gravel. There was a tightness in his throat, looking at Dean and the way he was so avidly avoiding John’s gaze. Soft jaw, big eyes, strong nose, short hair. Tall, skinny. Muscles tight on his upper arms and thighs. Shoulders a little narrow, hips a little wide. Standing straight with feet apart, shoulders squared. Expression veiled, posture defensive. “Why?

Dean’s jaw worked for a moment, he swallowed, glanced around. “Sam showed me some stuff about it before. It ain’t a one-off thing. I start that, I gotta keep taking it for the rest of my life. Can’t stop, not ever. Where are we supposed to get it, huh? When we’re on the hunt?”

“The doctor, Trewett, he’ll set us up so we have contacts wherever we go. And we can get it in bulk if we got to.”

“Then people will know our names, Dad!” Dean exclaimed, pulling his hand out of his pocket and gesturing in a wide sweep. “We can’t do that! You always said, we can’t afford a whole bunch of people knowing our names. A bunch of doctors, all over the country, knowing who we are?”

“They’re good people,” John said. “They want to help people like you.”

“We can’t trust that. We can’t trust anyone,” said Dean, shaking his head. His gaze focused on the asphalt. “We can trust family, no one else.”

“You can trust me, and I’ll trust them,” John said shortly. “Dean, this stuff, it’ll make you… It’ll make you a man.” Dean’s eyes shot up from the ground and hit him with an intensity that made his heart falter.

“I can exercise more,” Dean said lowly. “I don’t gotta take hormones to get stronger. I can increase my regimen, practice more, longer. I’ll get better, Dad, I promise, if that’s what you want.”

John’s heart squeezed tight in his chest. He shook his head and took a step towards his son. “This isn’t about what I want, Dean, this is about what you want.” Dean looked confused, eyes nervously flickering anywhere but John’s face. “Look at me, boy, that’s an order!” John barked, and finally Dean’s green eyes connected with his own. John shook his head in agitation, bewilderment. “For god’s sake, Dean, you’ve been my son for thirteen years now! That’s not gonna change, whether or not you decide to take this treatment. But dammit, Dean, I see the way you look at yourself in the mirror. You’re not happy like this! And this, this treatment, these hormones? They could change that. Change you.” I just want to see you feel comfortable in your own skin.

Dean closed his hands into his fists, and John could see the turmoil in his head, the war of emotions flashing in his eyes.

Then he nodded.

Dean was nervous when they walked into Trewett’s clinic, his eyes darting all over the place and hunched slightly, as if he was trying to distract attention away from himself.

“Allie!” Sam called, waving at a pretty blonde who was sitting in one of the waiting room seats. She smiled at Sam.

“She’s transgender too,” Sam whispered to Dean, who shot a small smile that looked more like a grimace in her direction and refused to look further. John ignored it and walked up to the receptionist.

“Tell Dr. Trewett that John Winchester is here with his sons,” he told her, and turned back to his boys as she rolled her eyes at his abrupt tone and discourtesy and picked up her phone.

Trewett called them into his office forty minutes later, after Allie and another patient had entered and departed. Sam waved goodbye to the girl with a smile, and she smiled back and waved with dainty hands, nails painted pink.

John noticed Dean watching her leave out of the corner of his eyes, brows furrowed in curiosity. His gaze drifted down to her butt then back up to her hair, blush coloring his cheeks slightly.

“She don’t look like a dude,” he whispered to Sam, who frowned in confusion.

“Well, she’s not a dude,” he whispered back, frowning at Dean.

“I just mean, she doesn’t look like… you know.”

“That’s what the hormones do.” Dean was still staring at Allie’s back as she left, and Sam was looking at him with some kind of new realization. “Dean,” he said, sounding distressed, “You…”

“Come on in,” the nurse said, smiling, and John walked through the open door and his boys followed him down the skinny clinic halls to Trewett’s office.

Dean was sat at the padded medical table, legs dangling awkwardly and obviously not knowing what to do with his hands. John sat in the armed chair, and Sam sat himself down on a short, spinning stool. They waited a few minutes before Dr. Trewett entered, smiling and holding a stack of papers. He greeted Sam and John warmly, then made eye-contact with Dean and put the papers down on the counter, smiling widely and holding out his hand.

“Hi, you must be Dean. I’m Dr. Trewett.”

Dean nodded and returned the handshake nervously.

“I need to give you a brief medical examination and ask you some personal questions. Is that alright?”

Dean shifted. “I’m not sure… I mean, I don’t know if…”

“I don’t think he understands what they’re going to do for him,” Sam spoke up, looking at Dean intently. “Can you tell him?”

Dean shot Sam a look, and Sam lifted his shoulders in a shrug. Trewett nodded and leaned back onto the counter.

“Of course. Well, you can sort of consider it as a second puberty.”

A faltering grin spread on Dean’s face. “Not lookin’ forward to going through that again.”

Trewett smiled and nodded. “Yes, it can be daunting, especially at your age when your body has already nearly finished its job of becoming an adult female. And testosterone will not reverse the effects of female puberty. But this ‘second puberty’ that the testosterone causes will take your body through all the changes of a young adult male. In the course of a few months on testosterone, your voice will naturally lower. Your shoulders may broaden and your facial features will become more angular. You will grow coarser hair on your legs, arms, abdomen, and face. You will find it easier to build muscle mass, and your metabolism will speed up. In short, your features will become more masculine.”

Dean swallowed. He shifted in the seat and smiled crookedly. “Is that all?” he asked sardonically.

“No, that is not all,” Trewett amended. “After a few injections your menstrual cycle will halt, and additionally your clitoris may…”

“Whoa!” Dean blurted, eyes slightly widened and cheeks flushing. He reached up awkwardly to rub at the nape of his neck. “I don’t need you talking about my junk in front of my dad and my kid brother!”

Nodded amiably, Trewett smiled. “Alright then. Mr. Winchester, Sam, if you’d excuse the two of us?”

Sam stood instantly, looking gawky and blushing a bit himself, but John hesitated for a second before exiting behind his youngest son. He wanted to hear more about this treatment was going to do to Dean’s body, but he did admit that listening to a doctor talk about his son’s clitoris would have felt a bit... uncomfortable.

They were mostly quiet while they were sitting together in the waiting room, but after several minutes, Sam spoke up.

“He’s gonna say yes,” he said simply.

“He is,” John agreed.

He did.

“I hate needles,” Dean complained the first time he administered his injection. Testosterone Cypionate, the small bottle in his hands read. The syringe looked almost too medical to be in the hands of a man whose normal remedy for an injury was a fifth of whiskey, a sewing needle heated over a lighter, and a roll of dental floss.

“Come on, Dean, don’t be a baby,” Sam cajoled. Dean screwed up his face and stabbed the needle into his thigh with vigor. “Dude!” Sam gasped as Dean pressed down on the plunger with his thumb, grimacing and finally withdrawing the hypodermic needle with a hiss escaping from between clenched teeth. “You didn’t have to do it that hard!”

John was shocked how quickly it seemed that Dean grew into a man.

His voice was the first thing that changed. It started to crack after a few weeks of the hormones. The first time it happened, Dean stopped talking in the middle of his sentence, swallowing, and Sam laughed because Dean had ribbed Sam so hard when Sam’s voice had first started changing. It just kept getting lower after that, until John wasn’t sure how much of it Dean was controlling anymore.

Dean started packing on muscle easier, his arms getting thicker, his abs more defined. He started eating more, too, gained some weight, and John noticed it and encouraged the welcome change.

After about two months, John caught Dean standing in front of the mirror with the hem of his shirt pulled up, admiring the trail of dark hair growing under his navel.

His jaw got more angular, his silhouette more masculine. At five months was when John noticed Dean’s Adam’s apple bobbing as he chewed his hamburger, and he felt like crying. Dean noticed him staring and grinned through his mouthful, and John smiled back slightly as Sam complained, “Gross, Dean!”

Somehow, it all made John more confident in leaving his boys alone when he went on solo hunts. He wasn’t sure quite what that meant about how he’d felt about Dean before his body had started changing. When John let himself think about it, he realized that he no longer was scared that at any moment someone might discover that his son wasn’t quite fully male. With the testosterone, Dean had shed off his baby fat and his face was distinctly masculine in its prettiness, and the worry that had lingered at the forefront of his thoughts for the majority of Dean’s teenage years, faded to the back of John’s mind.

During the second quarter of Dean’s senior year, John left Sam in Dean’s capable hands. Abe had called John for the first time in two years, said he had a hunt in the mountains. That it would probably take about a month, and that John was the only person he trusted to have his back.

It would be the longest John had left the boys alone during the school year in several years, and the few times John had been absent for longer than two weeks he’d either left Sam and Dean with Jim or Singer, or, when Dean had gotten old enough that John felt he could take care of Sam during all that time, at least within a couple hour’s driving distance of one of the two men. But Dean was eighteen now, he was an adult, and John felt he could do it.

So he sat the kids down and told them what was going to happen, made sure they knew that John would be away from a phone and there would be no contact for at least a month.

“I will either be back in thirty days, or I will call you in thirty days to tell you how much longer the hunt will take,” John said. He didn’t talk about what the boys should do if he didn’t call or get back in time. They knew the drill. When they’d been younger, it was hightail it to Jim’s. Now, Dean was old enough to become Sam’s legal guardian, if the need ever came.

John knew he should probably tell Dean that by no means was he to come looking for John if John disappeared. But he knew his boy wouldn’t listen if it came down to that. So John would just have to make sure to make it out of the mountains whole and well.

The hunt was one of the worst John had ever been on. They were frigid cold and uncomfortable and hungry at all times as him and Abe scoured the mountains for signs of the monster that had been taking out explorers up and down the Rockies for the past several years.

At first, they thought it was black dogs. The pattern certainly seemed to point to animal attacks. But then they started finding bits of fur and, a few times, broken teeth at the sites of the attacks, and since black dogs can’t leave pieces of themselves behind, they started leaning towards cursed animals.

But they were wrong. There was a hoodoo man possessing animal spirits, and John and Abe were almost too late to stop him.

They did stop him. But not before a fox had clamped its jaw around Abe’s neck, and not before a wolf with glazed-over eyes had leapt at John to bury its teeth in his shoulder. So the hoodoo man lay on the floor of the campground, blood bubbling up between his lips from the two bullets in his stomach, Abe lay on his back gurgling after the possessed fox had darted off into the trees – possibly the hoodoo magic had already departed the smaller animal – and John, too, was collapsed sprawled on the hard ground, the wolf still gnawing at his shoulder. John stared straight up at the white sky as his vision slowly blackened, not able to think about anything except for Dean at fourteen, laying in a similar position as a black dog tore at his chest.

It was dark and cold for a long time. John came back to awareness very slowly, shaken awake by his own shivers. He finally opened his eyes to the chill and consciously sucked in a lungful of the thin air, punctuated by a gasp of pain as a dull ache pierced through the numbness of his shoulder.

His whole body was stiff and numb and he didn’t want to move. He wanted to lie there and stare at the sky.

But then he remembered why he was there. He remembered the wolf attack and then, quite suddenly, remembered his children. Sam, who was still just a boy, and Dean, who would come out here looking if John didn’t return home. Pulling together every ounce of motivation John had, he rolled swiftly onto his side and lifted himself to his knees. He expected to see blood drip into the grass beneath him, but it seemed that the wolf hadn’t punctured his brachial artery and, in fact, the wound had already clotted. But he raised his right hand to the wounded left shoulder and realized that in this temperature, and depending on how long John had been there lying unconscious in the elements, the clotting could have been caused by his sluggish, chilled blood, and that frostbite was a real danger. He had to make it to help. There was a ranger station just a few miles down the mountain, he had to make it to…

As he swung around, his eyes fell on the prone, dead form of Abe, blood dried brown all around him, eyes staring wide and blankly straight ahead.

John tried to swallow but his throat was dry.

Caleb was a grown man now and hunted on his own but undoubtedly would be grief-stricken to hear that his father was dead. His thoughts turned to Bill Harvelle, a goddamned good hunter like Abe who had died too soon. That was two friends, good hunters, heroes, dead nearly by John’s hands.

His mind flickered then to his sons and John forced his eyes away from Abe’s body and set them through the trees down the mountain. He had to make it to the ranger station. He had to make it to medical aid. He couldn’t die up here and leave his children fatherless like Caleb and Jo were. Sam and Dean needed him to focus and make it out of this hunt alive.

So he stumbled through the trees, over branches and rocks, through miles of woods, dazed from the pain and halfway to delusional from the cold. He forced his feet to continue to pick up, one after the other, through hours of trekking. When he finally felt warm air and heard the sound of creaking hardwood under his feet, he collapsed to his knees, vision fading once again, and hoped he had reached his goal and this wasn’t just a sick sort of hallucination. If the latter were true, he’d soon be dead. And then who would be there to make sure Dean lived past thirty?

John dreamed of blonde hair and sweet blue eyes. John dreamed of smooth hands tracing over his cheeks, of a warm smile pressing a gentle kiss to his forehead. He dreamed of soft breasts pressed against him, of sweet breath ghosting across his forehead.

He woke up in a white hospital room on the thin mattress of a hospital bed. It wasn’t altogether unexpected for him, but it did take him a few moments to realize why he was where he was, and how he’d come to be there. By the time he had recalled the hoodoo in the mountains and the fact that Abe was dead, he was pressing the button for the nurse on-call and demanding a phone so he could call his boys.

Dial, let it ring twice, hang up, dial again. That’s how they’d know it was him.

“Dad!” Dean exclaimed when he picked up the phone. “Where are you? What happened? Are you okay?”

“The hunt just… It’s just taking a little longer than I thought, and it took me a while to get back to a phone. Lost track of time. Just wanted to let you know it will take a while longer, hold up the fort, okay? I’ll call you again in a month if I can’t get back by then.”

Dean sounded apprehensive. “But Dad, you’re already four days later than you said you’d be, and…”

“And nothing, a job’s a job and I have to finish it. Take care of Sam.” John hung up.

The nurse had left the room for the first half of the conversation, but wandered back in to check on his IV towards the end.

“You seem to be doing well so far, Mr. Smithson,” she said as she took stock of the fluid in his drip. “Was that your son on the phone?”

John wasn’t a fool, and he could see the slight purse of her lips. He shook his head.

“My nephew. He’s twenty-five and he watches my house and the dog when I’m off on hunting trips.”

“And the reason you didn’t tell him where you were..?”

“He’d just worry about me for no good reason,” John said, forcing some light-heartedness into his tone and rolling his eyes. The nurse’s expression seemed to soften.

“I wouldn’t say for no reason, you had a pretty serious run-in with a wolf up in those mountains. But it is true that you’ll recover soon and I suppose there’s no need for undue worry if you don’t think it’s needed.”

John nodded and reclined as she excused herself to fetch a doctor to check over him better. He’d have to figure out how to pay for this medical care, have to figure out if they’d found the bodies of Abe and the hoodoo man, and if they hadn’t, he’d have to figure out how to get back to them and burn the corpses before getting back to Sam and Dean.

But at least Dean wouldn’t be wearing himself out with worry. John could figure everything else out within the month.

Five days in the hospital turned to eleven, his stay lengthened by an infection that started showing symptoms on day three. When John was finally released, immediately he set about planning out how he would return to the mountains. He had to find Abe and the hoodoo man’s bodies and take care of them, before the mountainside could become haunted once again.

It took another three days to hike up the mountainside and relocate the corpses. He salted and torched the hoodoo man’s bones, but took his time setting up a funeral pyre for Abe. He stood back and watched as it lit up the night, stayed as it burned down to embers, inhaled the scent of smoldering corpse and rehearsed what he would tell Caleb. Afterwards, he spent an additional two and a half days searching for the hoodoo man’s home so that he could destroy any dark items that he might have stored there.

In total, it took sixty-one days for John to get back to where Dean and Sam were staying. He arrived at the apartment a bit after noon, and spent the next four hours reclining on the tattered couch of what they were supposed to call a living room, nursing his shoulder which was mostly healed, but still ached a little. A little after four, the front door opened and Sam walked in. He stood at the doorstep and kicked dirt off his sneakers against the frame, and didn’t look up to see his father until he had set his backpack down on the dinner table. Which was also in the living room.

“Hello, Sam,” greeted John, straightening his back though it twinged a bit.

“So now you decide to come home,” Sam acknowledged coolly. He crossed his arms against his chest.

“Did you have an after school meeting?”

His son nodded. “Debate Club.”

“Where’s Dean?”

Something indeterminate flashed in Sam’s expression.

“He works until five.” His voice was flat. John frowned.

“Works? What about school?”

“I’m gonna do my homework. He’ll be back in a little while, you can ask him then.”

Sam snatched up his backpack and disappeared into the apartment’s single bedroom. From the few notebooks that were stacked neatly on the dinner table, John could tell Sam normally did his work there, and was sacrificing a large workspace so as to not have to be around him. He sighed and slumped back into the couch, and turned on the television. Most of the channels were grainy or static, but he found one that played college sports.

True to Sam’s words, Dean entered the apartment at fifteen after five. He saw John immediately and straightened up from removing his boots.

“Dad! When did you get back?”

“Sam tells me you’ve been working.” Dean’s expression tightened a bit.

“How did the hunt go? You haven’t called for a month!”

“Dean, why are you working?”

His eldest walked over to the table where he deposited a dented metal thermos and a canvas apron that John hadn’t noticed he’d been holding. Turning back towards John, he rubbed the palms of his hands on his jeans and raised an eyebrow.

“Why do you think?”

He turned away again and headed towards the bathroom, where he shut the door hard enough that John could sense some kind of aggravation behind the intent.

“Dean,” he called wearily. There was no answer. He walked towards the bathroom and set a heavy palm against the closed door. “Dean.” Still no sound from his son. He frowned and turned the knob. The lock on this bathroom was broken.

“Hey!” Dean objected. He was standing with his foot up on the closed toilet seat, his jeans around his ankles, but thankfully his shorts up.

“Dean, you’ve got to talk to me.” He was thankful for a moment that he hadn’t walked in on his son trying to go to the bathroom. Instead, Dean was cleaning a spot on his inner thigh for his injection. The bottle of T was in one hand, the needle in his other.

“Couldn’t wait until I had my frickin’ pants up?” he muttered, turning back to the items in his hand.

“Why are you working, Dean? What about school?”

Dean shot John a glare. “You’ve been gone for two months, Dad, and you gave us enough money for barely three weeks. What did you think was gonna happen?”

John’s gut felt heavy.

“What happened?”

“We started having to ration the money by week two. I started looking for a part-time job for after school after three weeks. But nobody wanted some stupid teenager to work four hours a night. I thought we could last until you got here, but then you called. So…” he shrugged. “I dropped out so I could get a job.”

John blinked. He couldn’t speak. He watched wordlessly as Dean carefully inserted the hypodermic needle into his thigh, pressed his thumb on the plunger to inject the hormones. When Dean disposed of the materials and pulled up his pants, he walked past John out of the bathroom. John moved slightly to let him pass.

Dean knocked on the bedroom door before opening it and sticking his head in. “Yo, Sammy. You hook up with Amber yet?” He ducked his head slightly to avoid a thrown wad of used socks. “Good talk, man.”

“Shut up, Dean!” Sam yelled as Dean shut the door, but John could hear the reluctant humor in his youngest son’s voice, just like he could see the smirk on Dean’s face that slipped away when he turned back towards his father.

“Relax, Dad,” Dean finally said as he passed John on his way to the living room. “This was bound to happen sooner or later. I’m not like Sammy. You’ve said it yourself; I just ain’t got school smarts.” John winced. “Anyway, you got no right to do anything about it now. It was your fault, but it was my choice. And now, we can both work and hunt and research together.”

Dean started getting ingredients out of the cupboard to prepare pasta. “Besides, it’s not like I was gonna go to college anyway. I’m a hunter. What was I gonna do with a few extra months of high school?” He glanced towards John, who still stood in the hallway, feeling swamped with guilt. “Relax, Dad, Sam made me sign up for the GED test next week. I’m not gonna be a total loser.”

He wanted to do something, say something. John had been foolish to think that if he didn’t tell Dean that he’d been injured, Dean wouldn’t have anything to worry about. Obviously, John had been wrong.

But Dean was right. It was John’s fault and he had no right to object. So he shut his mouth and ignored Sam’s glares throughout dinner, and nodded goodbye as Dean left for the hardware store he was employed at the following morning.

So Dean was a high school dropout. It didn’t mean John wasn’t proud of him.  

Dean was deep into nineteen when John taught him how to shave. Dr. Trewett had told them not to expect very much facial hair, but that it did depend partly on genetics. And it looked like Dean had taken after John on that front.

During the whole occasion, Dean couldn’t stop grinning, all through applying the shaving cream and using his first flimsy, two-dollar disposable gas-station razor. He came out the other end with quite a few nicks, but he almost seemed pleased as he tore bits of toilet paper off the role to cover them with like he’d always seen his dad do.

John watched his boy wash the stubble out of the razor, then lean forward to inspect his freshly-shaven, pinkish jaw with a wide, toothy smile. He raised his hands to rub his cheeks, making the bloody bits of toilet paper move around a bit, and turned his shining eyes to his dad, his smile getting even wider if possible.

“Guess I’m a real man now!” he said, holding up the razor in his hand and waggling it slightly with a laugh. “But you know, I think I kinda like the rugged look. Maybe I’ll let it grow out.”

John drank in the sight of Dean’s broadened shoulders, his muscular upper arms, his squared jaw, his Adam’s apple, the light in his eyes, and felt content.

When Sam turned sixteen, Dean was the one to teach him how to shave, while John hung back watching from the room, a smile on his face. Sam was taller than Dean by about an inch at that point, with Dean standing comfortably at a solid six feet with what John knew was to be about another inch or so to come, but Sam was still gawky and lanky and listened to Dean’s instructions with a rapt attention. He finished the ordeal with no nicks to speak of, a little less overzealous than Dean had been his first time. Dean shoved a damp washcloth in his face to wipe off the remnants of the shaving cream and clapped Sam on the back with a word of praise, and Sam smiled at him and Dean grinned back. John wouldn’t have traded that moment for anything.

After Sam left, after John told him not to come back, Dean stopped smiling like that. Without Sam around, John found it hard to care.

Sometimes he’d get a hunt that gave him the excuse to swing by and check on his youngest. He’d sit in the shadows on a bench underneath some tree and just watch Sam cross the quad between classes, jaw clenched, thinking about Mary and Deanna and their broken family, and Sam tearing it just that little bit more asunder.

Dean was waiting for him back at the motel a state away, and he would wait there, quietly, until John came home. Dean was always waiting for him, and Sam was always running away.

It was just edging on halfway through Sam’s first year at Stanford when Dean got sick. One day when he woke up, he just seemed a little off, pale and haggard-looking.

“You alright, son?” John asked, concerned by the bags and shadows under Dean’s eyes, and the way his stomach seemed to be hurting him.

“Fine, Dad,” Dean groaned. “I’ll be fine.”

“We can’t have you being sick in the Impala,” John told him, raising an eyebrow. Dean shook his head.

“Not that kind of stomach ache,” he winced, and John shrugged, because he knew Dean well enough to know that there was no way he’d lie about that if it was going to risk his baby’s interior.

Four hours into the drive on the way to the next hunt, Dean was white as a sheet and casually whispered that he thought maybe he should go to a doctor. Dean had held gaping wounds closed with bare hands before, guts practically spilling out of a gash in his stomach or blood pouring from a slash in the shoulder, and claimed that he’d be fine with a few stitches. So John figured that meant his son was dying.

He ignored Dean’s weak objections as he burned rubber on the way to the nearest emergency room, focusing on the road but sparing occasional glances at Dean’s pain-filled expression. He parked haphazardly in a handicapped spot and slammed the driver’s side door as he leaped across the hood to get Dean out of the passenger’s side. When Dean was standing on shaky legs, John saw a small pool of red on the bench’s leather where he had been sitting, and spun Dean around frantically to find the seat of his pants wet through with blood.

“Dammit, Dean!” he exclaimed as Dean’s head lolled. Dean’s periods had stopped after he started on the hormone replacement therapy, and even before that, the few times he’d caught Dean cursing and scrubbing at the crotch of his jeans in the bathroom, John knew it had never been this much. This was too much. This was far too much blood.

“Fffuhhck,” Dean slurred, trying to bend over back into the car, reaching out a hand to wipe at the red stain. “Ssuh… s’rry, Baby,” he managed before John had pulled him back up, wrapping his arm under Dean’s shoulders.

“C’mon, Dean, leave it,” he hissed through gritted teeth as Dean feebly tried to pull away.

Without bothering to shut the door, he dragged Dean into the emergency room with the fragmented growls and barks of imaginary black dogs ringing in his ears and pushed past the line of people complaining of bloody fingers or broken arms. “My son is dying!” he yelled at the receptionist, and in a flurry of movement Dean was being rushed onto a rolling gurney, where they cut away his pants and underwear right there in the middle of the hallway as his weak hands attempted to bat theirs away. They looked up at John with unreadable expressions, Dean’s own face dazedly confused and humiliated, eyes feverish and glassy as they flitted around, unfocused.

For an instant, the same fear that sat heavy like lead in his gut throughout Dean’s childhood reared its ugly head. He was back in that hospital and Dean was fourteen years old and John had to choose between his kid’s emotions and his safety. But Dean was an adult now, he was twenty-three, and no doctor could have him taken away by CPS because John had raised him up wrong.

“He was born female,” John said through gritted teeth.

“Has there been forced penetration?” asked a nurse.

It took a moment for John’s brain to catch up to the question, and then he felt sick, his stomach turning at the thought of what the man was asking him. Asking if his son had had some… some object forced inside him long enough, thick enough, sharp or blunt or brutal enough, to make him bleed like this. The imagery was sickening.

“No,” he said, voice breaking with emotion and fear. “No, he just… his stomach was hurting, and then he got pale a bit ago, and when I got him out of the car he was bleeding like this…”

“How long has he been taking the hormones?” one of the doctors asked.

“Almost five years.”

There was a lot of medical talk and then John was left in the hallway as Dean was rolled into an operating room.

One emergency hysterectomy later, and John was sitting at the side of Dean’s hospital bed, chin cradled in his thumbs as he watched Dean’s pale face and closed, bruised eyes. There were no complications in surgery. Dean would be fine. Short one uterus and two ovaries, just like he was short two breasts. But fine.

Dean was awake a day later, and aware enough to understand what the surgery had been and why. Medical complications caused by the hormone treatment. It wasn’t common, but it happened. He didn’t have to stop taking testosterone. With the removal of several of his internal organs, the danger had passed. Plus, without ovaries, his medication would be the only way he’d be able to receive hormones, since his body could no longer produce them.

Dean grinned sloppily at John once the doctors had left the two of them alone. “Now I can tell Sam that chick-flick moments will make him grow ovaries without sounding like a hypocrite.”

But Dean tried to call Sam a few times during his week-long stay at the hospital. John kept track, expression carefully masked, wary, every time Dean left a message that always started “Hey, Sammy,” with a smile that grew steadily more forced every time.

John gave Dean the Impala officially when he was twenty-four, although it had been his in every other sense of the word for years. Dean had always adored the car, cared for it, washed and waxed it when he had the change to spare. John bought a used truck from Singer’s salvage yard, and told Dean that it would be better to split off, cover more hunts that way, keep in touch. They’d meet up every few weeks for recaps, he told him. Do research together. Plan out the next hunts. Then repeat.

He watched Dean’s figure getting smaller in the rearview mirror, but he was already too far away to make out the expression in his eyes. John figured it was probably betrayal. He swallowed his guilt and told himself it was for the best. Dean was a grown man.

The last hunt they took as a team, Dean recommended, and Dean cracked. They salted and burned the bones, then went out drinking. Dean hooked up with some petite blonde in the bar’s bathroom, and John drank until he felt comfortably numb. Then they retreated to their hotel room.

John woke up early the next morning. He packed his journal and clothes, a few of his books into his duffel. Packed the rest of his weapons into another and left it on his single bed. He looked over at Dean, who was sleeping on the bed closest to the door, one hand shoved under his pillow, holding onto his silver knife. His face was slack and peaceful. There was heavy stubble on his cheeks; he hadn’t shaved in half a week. His hair was disheveled and a little longer than usual. John figured he’d probably be trimming it soon.

He took off his heavy leather jacket and folded it, leaving it on top of the duffel of weapons, and left. The growl of his truck’s engine underneath him wasn’t anything close to the Impala’s rumble, and he looked back once at the sleek black muscle car parked in front of Dean’s room before disappearing into the dusk of the freeway.

He hunted by himself. He hunted the demon. He cried sometimes, at night, alone. Sam had demon blood in him and he didn’t know what to do. So he just did what he always did; he drank and he wallowed in regret and he saved peoples’ lives.

He opened his eyes and he was in Lawrence, Kansas. For the first time in years.

John was sitting on a bench in the middle of the town’s park. It wasn’t an impressive one, a few scattered trees, dry grass yellowed in some patches, a few basketball hoops and a tennis court. There was a playground for the kids. He stared at it, remembering Dean clambering over the rusted bars when he was young as three. Swinging from the monkey-bars without caring about his skirt, and jumping off some of the lower platforms in a shower of mulch with a big smile on his face, looking to John and Mary for praise. He used to play The Ground is Lava on that playground with his playgroup.

John wondered when he’d stopped separating Dean from Deanna in his head, when all of his memories of his daughter had just become Dean, just his son, whom John used to call Princess when he was little.

“John!” he heard faintly from his left, but wasn’t roused from his memories until the voice called again, “John Winchester!”

He lifted his head and turned to see a man and a woman, holding hands, walking towards him. The man’s hand was raised in greeting. He was well-built, with the kind of chubbiness that came from being well-fed and not from lack of exercise. There was a slight paunch to his stomach, but John could see muscles in his upper arms that meant the man worked out. The woman he was walking next to had more weight to her, not an unattractive kind of plumpness, but a noticeable one all the same. She had short brown hair and eyes with wrinkles at the corners.

“Mike,” John greeted in recognition. “Kate. Wow, it’s been a while, huh?”

“Years! About fifteen now, I think it has to be!” Mike agreed as they drew within six feet of him, the couple finally coming to a stop. Mike removed his hand from his wife’s grasp and held it out to John, who stood heavily to shake it. Kate then drew him into a quick hug. He felt her ample bosom press against his chest and felt an unwanted heat in his belly. It had simply been too long since he’d last been touched by a woman.

“What brings you back in town? You’re not moving back here, are you?” Kate asked, and John shook his head.

“I’m just passing through. Was on my way to a job further up north and thought I’d check out the old stomping grounds.”

“Well, you came at a great time. We had a storm front blow through here, rain for days. There were lightning storms up further northeast, I think. But now, the sun’s shining!”

John returned Mike’s friendly smile. A silence fell between the three of them, filled with the awkwardness of old memories with a bit of tension seeping in to fill the cracks. It was the tension that came from coming face-to-face with people you used to be friends with, but enough time had passed between last talking that even rummaging for small talk can be difficult and you’ve kind of forgotten what exactly made you friends with them in the first place.

The last time John had seen Mike or Kate, it had been when Mike confessed to calling CPS.

“So,” Mike finally said, huffing out a slightly forced laugh of congeniality, “What about your kids? Deanna has to be, what, twenty-five now?”

“Twenty-six,” John corrected. There was a discomfort in his stomach; he hadn’t talked to Dean in several months. But at the same time, a strange feeling of smugness swelled in his chest at the thought that these people had no idea what they were talking about. They had no idea who Dean had become, had no idea how to picture him in their head. Whatever they were imagining, they were wrong, and for the first time, John found that idea funny.

“And that would make Sam twenty-two? What are those two up to?” Kate asked.

John felt his smile flicker with humor. “Well, Sam’s off at college. Stanford.”

Mike whistled. “Who would’ve known that little bugger would end up having brains.”

“What about Deanna?” inquired Kate. “She’s at the right age to be settling down, right?” She smiled and laughed to herself. “You know, I always thought her and Daniel would have made a good couple, if you three had stuck around. She was always following him around during playgroups. Mary and I used to think she had kind of a crush on him.”

He couldn’t help himself. John tilted his head back in a full-bellied laugh.

“Deanna actually goes by Dean, now,” he informed Kate, who looked mildly put-out by John’s reaction, “And sorry to disappoint, but Daniel really isn’t Dean’s type.”

“Ah, well, he’s grown up a lot since you left,” Kate pointed out obviously. She stuck her hand into her purse and rummaged for a second before pulling out a camera-phone and thumbing at the buttons for a moment. John leaned towards her slightly when she held out the phone to him, a small, grainy picture gracing the tiny screen. He peered at it closely.

A brown-haired boy with brown eyes and a wide smile, wearing a yellow polo shirt and clean-pressed shorts, one hand tucked into his pocket and the other arm draped across the shoulders of a woman whose entire left side, including her face, was cut out of the photo. The kid looked like just the kind of douchebag yuppie that Dean enjoyed mocking when he could spare the energy.

John shook his head and chuckled. “No offense, Kate, but Daniel really isn’t Dean’s type.”

Kate pouted slightly as she took back her phone, and Mike tried to remedy the situation by wrapping his arm around her waist and fumbling for a new topic of conversation.

“So, Dean. That’s an interesting nickname for a young lady, huh?”

Nodding amicably, John agreed. “Yeah, that sure would be an interesting nickname for a young lady. Suits Dean pretty well, though. Here…” His fist shoved into his pocket as he rummaged for his wallet. Tugging out the battered leather, he opened it and tugged out a slightly worn photograph from the pocket. “Dean’s changed a lot since we left, too.”

Kate held out her hand for the photograph, her expression expectant. Mike craned his neck a bit to look at it over her shoulder.

John watched Kate’s eyebrows furrow as she finally took in the contents of the photo. Her eyes darted back up to John and her left pointer finger tapped the picture uncertainly.

“This is Samuel, right? And…”

“That’s Dean,” John nodded. He winked. “Maybe not quite Daniel’s type, either, huh?”

Mike and Kate stared at the picture in silence for long enough that the high John had been feeling was shriveling slightly. The shock and confusion in their expressions wasn’t as satisfying as his long-kindled resentment had thought it would be.

“I don’t understand,” Kate finally said quietly. “This is Deanna? She has facial hair.”

John nodded and leaned his weight on one foot, feeling suddenly uncomfortable with having used Dean’s picture like that, for shock value. For using Dean like that. “Dean’s a boy. A man.”

His eyes honed in on Kate’s, which were filling with tears as she raised a trembling hand to her lips. “What have you done to her?” she whispered. “What have you done to Mary’s baby girl?”

A cold stone settled low in John’s gut. So that was how it was. If Mary had lived, if they had taken Dean to a psychiatrist here in Lawrence and let Dean grow up here, these were friends they would have lost. Mary’s closest friends.

Good fucking riddance.

He reached out and took the picture back from between Kate’s lax fingers. Mike and Kate were both staring at him with something akin to horror blooming on their faces. John steeled his own expression and straightened his shoulders.

“You know what? I don’t give a fuck what you think, because if people like you had their way, my boy would be dead right now. So take your judgement somewhere else.”

He turned on his heels and walked away, back towards his truck where it sat in the far corner of the parking lot. Kate and Mike didn’t follow him.

John glanced down at his hand, where his fingers were tight on the photograph of Dean and Sam. Both of them were leaning back against the hood of the Impala; Dean with a beer in his hand and Sammy with an awkward smile on his face, still gangly at just turning eighteen.  

He thought about Dean’s smile and Sam’s anger and studiously didn’t think about Mike or Kate that night as he hustled pool in a bar two cities over, not even when he drank himself into a stupor and fell into bed that night fully clothed.

He kept track of his boys, called hunting contacts and asked around to see how they were doing. He knew they’d be fine without him, he knew it, but he worried anyway.

When Sam called to tell him that Dean was sick, that the doctors said there was nothing they could do, John’s heart skipped fast, tripping over itself with fear. But then Sam said that he didn’t care, that he’d find a way to save his brother. And John heard the conviction in his voice, and even as his pledge, Dean will live pasty thirty, echoed in his head, he put his faith in his youngest and concentrated on finding the evil son of a bitch that had murdered his wife. He was going to kill the demon and he was going to save Sam.

Dean lived. John breathed out the breath that it’d felt like he’d held since Sam’s phone-call.

The last few months of the hunt, of catching up on the demon and reuniting with his boys, felt like nothing. Felt like moments. He might have tried to hold on to them longer, valued them more, if he knew they were going to be his last.

When the demon entered him, he felt nothing at first. Then he felt cold. And he felt hot. All at once, he was burning with hellfire and freezing with darkness, like half of his body was burning to charcoal and the other half was bathed in the coldest of shadow. There were black clouds in his head and he couldn’t control his own limbs.

He was conscious for his rescue. He wanted to warn his children, but he couldn’t speak.

When Dean raised the Colt on him, he felt content. He was proud. He thought Dean would pull the trigger. Dean didn’t.

John could feel what the demon was doing to Dean, could feel Dean’s tendons pop and tear under invisible fingers, and in his mind’s eye could see that night twelve years ago, Dean’s ribcage bared to the cold air by snapping jaws. The demon’s shadows thrust tiny fingers between Dean’s ribs, prodding at his lungs, at his heart.

When Sam shot John, he was happy.

When Sam failed to take the final shot, the killing shot, he felt hope flood out of him like the demon’s smoke through his mouth.

He woke up in the hospital and Dean was in a coma and Dean was lying weak on a hospital bed and Dean was dying. Every memory he had of his son, every little thing Dean had ever done, every smile and pat of reassurance and determined grit of his teeth, it all flickered in John’s brain and there was nothing else he would have, nothing else he could have done since the day he swore that Dean would live past thirty. Not since the day that he’d first held his son in his arms. Not since the day he’d looked into baby Deanna’s eyes and swore that he’d keep his child safe, happy.

So he made the deal. The demon smiled at him with its vile, evil, yellow eyes, and John felt something deep beneath his feet calling to him as the demon disappeared.

He was proud of his sons. He was proud of Sam’s hotheaded refusal to listen to him, and he was proud of Dean, standing tall as he waded through the shit that was a hunter’s life.

He said goodbye to Sam the only way he knew how.

Then he said goodbye to Dean. He looked into his son’s eyes, saw years and years of struggle and pain reflected in them. He had many to go, John knew that. And after this, John wouldn’t be able to look after him, wouldn’t be able to be the one making sure that Dean stayed alive. He hoped Sam would.

He didn’t have to worry about Sam, because he knew Dean would handle that.

“Don’t be scared, Dean,” he told him. Don’t be scared.

Then he leaned forward and whispered in his son’s ear. Sam’s in trouble, son. And if you can’t save him, you’re gonna have to kill him.

He set the Colt on the table and wished that Mary was alive to see the fine young men that her Samuel and Deanna had grown to be.

When the world disappeared beneath him and he was swallowed by red, he really was content.

Sometimes, over the years of hunting and sparring, of hustling pool and running credit card scams, of making fake IDs and impersonating officials, of watching his boys get hurt and bleed, of watching Dean hate his reflection and hide his body, of driving hours to find somewhere that would fill Dean’s prescription… sometimes, he had wondered to himself what it would have been like to have a daughter.

But he had never wished for it.

Chapter Text

Sam never had a sister. He always just had Dean.

Dean was Sam’s big brother. That’s what Dad said. “You listen to your brother, Sam. If he tells you to do something, you do it.” Sam listened to his dad, because Dean told him that Dad knew everything and he was always right, and Dean was really smart and Sam trusted him. It was like a circle. Trust Dad. Listen to your brother.

Sam didn’t know what his mom looked like until he was three, and he saw Dean looking at that picture that he liked to take out of Dad’s bag whenever Dad was on a business trip.

“Wha’s that?” he asked, scrambling up onto the bed beside his big brother. Dean moved over a bit for him, and turned to show him the photograph in his hand. His expression was kind of closed off. Sam didn’t always know why Dean was upset, but he could always tell when he was.

“It’s a picture of Mom,” Dean told him.

Sam examined the picture.

“Who’s that?” he asked, pointing to the little girl with the pigtails and the blue dress that the smiling woman was holding. Dean swallowed and shrugged a bit.

“That’s me,” he said.

Sam laughed, not understanding. “You’re not a girl!”

“Well,” Dean said, licking his lips, “When I was little, people used to think I was.”

“Why?”

Dean took the picture back and ran over to tuck it back into Dad’s bag.

“I dunno, Sammy. Want to watch some TV?”

As a three-year-old, Sam was easily distractible, and with the photograph out of sight and the prospect of a cartoon, the topic was put aside. But not forgotten.

So Sam knew that when Dean was little, people used to mistake him for a girl and make him wear dresses, even Mom and Dad. Sam guessed he could see how that could happen, because sometimes Sam accidentally thought a boy was a girl if the boy had long hair, so he could understand how someone could make that mistake with Dean, since Dean’s hair had been so long back then.

It didn’t occur to him to ask about why his and Dean’s private parts looked different until he was five. When Dad told him the reason, it made him kind of jealous, that Dean was special like that. Dean was big and strong, and he could shoot a gun really really well, and Dad sometimes talked about work with him, and also he had blond hair like Mom. Sam wanted to be just like him, but Dad wouldn’t let him practice with the guns and Dean said he wasn’t old enough to talk about work. Sam sometimes looked out the window at night and wished on the first star he could see that he’d get a vagina, too, so he could be special like Dean, because he figured that’s what made Dad like him more than he liked Sam. Every morning he checked in his underwear, but he still just had a penis.

The way Dad talked about it, Sam grew up thinking for a while that whatever private parts you had didn’t have anything to do with whether or not you were a boy or a girl. It was kind of like how Dean had green eyes and Sam’s were hazel, but that had nothing to do with the fact that they were boys. It took several years for him to learn that most people didn’t think that way, because the only people he was ever really around for a long time were Dean and Dad, and then there was Pastor Jim and Uncle Bobby and sometimes Abe and Caleb, and they didn’t ever talk about private parts with him, really.

Then, on his first day of school he had asked all his new friends whether they had a vagina or a penis, and Franklin had told the teacher and she put him in time out, although he didn’t understand what for and she wouldn’t even explain it to him. How was he supposed to be good if she wouldn’t tell him what he’d done that was bad? Sam had to sit alone at a table with nothing to do during playtime, pouting, and then after class Miss Chapman pulled his dad aside when he came to pick Sam up.  

Dad got angry at Sam, and again, Sam didn’t have any idea why. Dad was quiet during the whole drive home, and Sam looked at Dad’s angry red face from the backseat while Dean sat in the passenger side and stared out the window.

“You can’t talk about that kind of stuff in public, Sam,” Dad told him when they got back to the apartment. He was standing on the front step; Dean had already passed him, but Sam was lagging, dragging his feet in the gravel. Dad wasn’t yelling, but his voice almost sounded like it was, because he was that angry. “That’s not the kind of thing you just ask people.”

“I just wanted to see if any of them were special like Dean!” Sam whined. Dad whirled around and Sam stumbled a step back, frightened of the anger and intensity in his eyes.

“You don’t ever tell anyone about Dean, you hear me?” Dad ordered. Dean was watching the exchange with wide eyes from the open apartment door.

“W-why?” Sam choked, hiccoughing slightly.

“Because it’s dangerous, Sam, and no one outside this family can ever know. You understand, Sammy? Do you want to get your brother killed?” He shook Sam’s shoulders slightly, scaring Sam into silence. Killed? Dean would be killed if Sam told anyone that he was special? “Answer me, boy!” Sam nodded, even though he was frightened and confused and no one was explaining anything to him, and he kind of felt like one of those bobble-heads that Caleb kept on the dashboard of his truck. Dad squeezed his shoulders tightly and then let go, straightening and storming past Dean into the apartment and over to the fridge to grab a bottle of his grown-up apple juice. He disappeared into the bedroom, leaving Sam alone with Dean in the living room.

Sam started crying, and raised his hands to his eyes to scrub away the tears, feeling like a baby. He sniffed, and then felt a smaller pair of hands than Dad’s come to rest on his shoulders, steering him gently into the apartment and to the dusty couch.

“Come on, Sammy,” Dean said, and sat down next to him on the flattened cushions.

“I don’t understand,” Sam sobbed. “Why is it a secret? He never told me that before. He can’t get mad at me when he never told me!”

Dean was silent for a little while, breathing calmly and stroking a hand up and down Sam’s back in a gesture of comfort.

“He’s trying his best, Sammy,” he finally said, sounding very grown-up and wearing one of Dad or Pastor Jim’s serious faces.

“I still don’t get it. Why can’t we…”

“Because!” said Dean shortly, before sighing. “The truth is, Sammy, I’m not… I’m not special. I’m just… different.”

“Pastor Jim says different is special,” Sam pointed out, and his brother smiled a little bit.

“Yeah, but that’s for other people. See, the thing is, Sammy, most boys, they don’t look like me.”

“Dad said most boys have penises,” Sam acknowledged, and Dean nodded a little.

All boys have penises,” Dean corrected. Sam looked confused and opened his mouth to protest, because Dean was a boy and he didn’t, but Dean cut him off. “See, I have… Well, it’s sort of like a birth defect. And I was born with girl parts, even though I’m not a girl. That’s why people used to think I was a girl when I was little. Because I have a girl body.”

“So it’s not normal?” Sam asked, and Dean shook his head.

“And Dad tries really hard to make me feel normal, because he feels bad about not being able to tell that I was a boy before. So he doesn’t like talking about it very much.”

Sam thought that that sounded wrong, because Pastor Jim always said that talking about hard things made them better. But Sam didn’t say anything about it, because Dean’s eyes looked very wide then, like an owl’s, and Sam thought they looked wise like an owl too, but also kind of sad.

“Why does it have to be a secret?” Sam whispered.

“Because there are people who think that even though I’m a boy,” Dean breathed, “That since I have girl parts, I should live like a girl. And if they found out, they could call CPS and have me taken away.”

Dad and Dean talked about CPS a lot. Sam didn’t know what it was, but he knew that it was bad and dangerous and that it would catch them if they made a mistake. Kind of like Santa Claus, except for evil and real.

“And make you wear dresses and play with dolls?”

Dean laughed, but he didn’t sound like he’d thought it was funny. “Yeah.”

“Oh.” Sam shut his mouth and thought about it for a while. “I don’t want you to go.”

“I don’t want to go either,” Dean said, wrapping his arms around Sam and squeezing him tight. “So you gotta keep the secret, ‘kay?”

Sam nodded, and that was that.

Dean taught Sam how to play catch when Sam was seven. Sam found a baseball in the parking lot of their motel, and was throwing it to himself on the bed when Dean suggested they go out back and he could teach Sam how to catch like a man.

It was harder than Sam thought it would be. He thought that was probably because they didn’t have gloves like they had on TV. The first time Dean hurled the ball, Sam didn’t even try to catch it, just put his arms in front of his face and let the ball soar past him and collide with the brick wall.

“Come on, Sammy! You can do better than that!” Dean called, and Sam scrambled to pick up the ball and throw it back. Dean caught it over his head with one hand, wincing at the sting but grinning. Sam figured if Dean could do it one-handed, he could do it with two.

It became a competition, trying to see who could outdo the other’s previous catch. By the end of it, they both had scraped up knees and elbows and their palms were stinging. Dean had a bruise on his cheek from a ball he’d missed, and Sam’s chin was skinned because he hadn’t caught himself when he fell down for fear of letting go of the ball. They were both smiling widely when they walked back into the motel and fell backwards onto their bed with a chorus of laughter, and Dean tossed the ball back to Sam. Sam missed the catch and it landed on his nose. He cried because he couldn’t help it, and Dean helped get him toilet paper to clean up the blood.

Sam was still seven when Dad gave Dean the puberty book. It wasn’t a book, really, just a packet of papers that had been printed out from some old printer that smudged the words and left them faded in some sections. He kept asking Dean to let him read it, but Dean wouldn’t let him, even though Sam thought he kind of deserved to know what puberty was like since he’d be doing it too, someday. But Dad didn’t make Dean tell him and Dean kept the papers out of Sam’s reach, so he had to wait until night-time when they were both asleep to sneak away and read them with a flashlight in the bathroom.

But apparently the puberty book only talked about vagina-puberty. Ever since Dean told Sam about how he had a birth defect, he’d imagined it like Dean had girl outsides, but boy insides. But from what Sam could interpret from the contents of the packet, Dean actually had girl insides too. His nipples were puffy because he was gonna grow boobs like Sam’s teachers, and one day, he was gonna get a menstrual cycle, which meant he was going to bleed right out of his vagina. Sam wondered foolishly if you had to use Band-aids for that until he reached a part where it talked about tampons and sanitary napkins. He’d seen those at Walmart before.

Sam went to bed that night kind of glad that he didn’t have girl parts, because bleeding all the time didn’t sound like fun. He didn’t even like it when he got a bloody nose.

Sam was eight when he found Dad’s journal and read it and suddenly the salt they laid on the windowsills and at the doors and the runes that Dean sketched in the margins of his notes during school and the gun training and sparring all made sense.

He confronted Dean, and Dean told him everything, and instead of feeling relief or terror or anything like that, he just felt like he finally understood. Sam knew he should be scared. There were real monsters out there, and they lived in the dark and came out at night to feast on the flesh of little boys. His mother didn’t die in a car crash, she was killed by a demon, and Dad wasn’t a traveling salesman, he was a monster hunter. The salt that Dean taught him how to lay before he could even remember wasn’t a game, and his brother had been protecting him from more than just burglars and creeps and CPS all his life.

Dean was the one who told Dad about Sam finding out. Dad yelled at Dean for a long time, and Sam was glad that Dad wasn’t mad at him but felt guilty because he knew that it wasn’t really Dean’s fault. By the time Dad went and got Sam from the bathroom where he’d sent him, his face was ruddy with anger and his jaw was clenched.

“Out,” Dad said, gesturing, and Sam scurried over to sit next to Dean, who was on the bed, looking tense and shaky. Dad followed him and stood in front of them both, hands crossed in front of his chest, face stony. Sam and Dean said nothing, waiting.

Dad finally sighed. “I didn’t want you to find out about this so young, Sam,” he said, sounding jaded and fatigued. Dean lowered his head, his chin almost touching his chest. “But now that you know, I guess the only thing I can do is teach you to protect yourself.”

Dean’s head shot up. “He’s too young,” he said, but Dad shut him up with a cold look.

“There’s no helping that now, is there, Dean?”

They stared at each other for a long time, and Sam looked on in silence, biting his lip, and thinking silently how unfair it was that Dad was so mad at Dean when Sam was the one who had snuck Dad’s journal out of his bag before he left and read it in secret.

“It’s not Dean’s fault,” Sam whispered, but Dad didn’t break eye contact.

“Dean’s the big brother here, and he’s the man of the house when I’m gone. If he’s going to take care of you, I expect him to act like a man, and that means that whatever you do under his supervision is his responsibility.” His voice grew suddenly steely. “And I don’t think I need to remind him of what can happen if he shirks his responsibility.”

Dean looked so sick with shame that he might throw up and cry all at once, and Sam tried to put a hand on his, but he shrugged it off.

Sam nodded like he understood what Dad had said, but he didn’t, and he still didn’t see how it was Dean’s fault, and besides, Dean wasn’t even a teenager yet, he was still twelve, so he couldn’t possibly be a man. Dad was being stupid, but it wasn’t like Sam could tell him that to his face. He’d wait until it was just Dean and him alone in their room, and Sam would apologize and complain that Dad was a stupid-head and dumb, and Dean would probably tell Sam not to talk about Dad like that but might smile a little bit anyway.

“I already spar with you guys anyway,” Sam spoke up. “And I’m good at memorizing things. I could probably memorize all those runes and everything really fast. So it’s not a big deal.”

“It is a big deal, Sammy!” Dean said, sounding distressed. “It’s not a game! There are monsters out there, and I was supposed to protect you..!”

He broke off guiltily and clenched his hands into fists on the blankets.

“Yeah, but since I didn’t know about it, I couldn’t protect you,” Sam pointed out. “Now I know and you and Dad can teach me how to kill monsters and ghosts and stuff and I can protect you, too. I’m not gonna ever let anything hurt you, okay, Dean?”

He jutted out his chin defiantly, and both Dean and Dad shared the same expression, the one that said Sammy, you’re the baby of the family. You don’t protect us, we protect you. Sam didn’t care if he was the little brother, Dean wasn’t a man yet and since he wasn’t grown up, it meant that even though Dean took care of Sam, Dean still needed someone to take care of him, too, sometimes. So now that Sam knew the truth, he could do that. He could take care of Dean. He could be grown up sometimes and take care of his big brother. He could learn about monsters and knives and guns and runes and salt and everything and he would protect Dean and make sure that no monster could ever touch him.

One day, Sam was waiting in front of the school for Dean to come and walk him home. There were three sixth graders who were talking really loud, and two of them were calling the third one a sissy because he was too chicken to ask the girl in his class out on a date.

“Dude, you can’t pussy out now, you’ll grow a freaking vagina,” one of them laughed, and the guy they were making fun of scowled and kicked at the ground. Sam just frowned in irritation. Sometimes people could be really dumb.

“Why?” Sam asked the boys defiantly, trying to be rebellious and intellectual. He jutted his chin out and settled a cool glare on them. The three boys turned to look at the third grader who seemed to be staring daggers through them and raised their eyebrows.

“What?” the one with red hair asked. Sam steeled his gaze.

“Why would he grow a vagina?” It felt weird to say the word out loud in public, but Sam powered through it and didn’t let it show on his face.

The boys looked between each other, smirking like they knew something that Sam didn’t, even though Sam was the one who knew more than they did.

“’Cause he’s a friggin’ wimp, that’s why, and wimps grow vaginas,” said one of the brown-haired ones, the one with a gap between his front teeth. 

“That’s not true,” said Sam, trying to put all of his disdain for the sixth graders’ ignorance into his tone. “You can’t just ‘grow’ a vagina.”

“Yeah you can, if you’re a wimp,” laughed the redhead.

“No, you can’t,” Sam said, with a tone of voice that said ‘are you stupid?’ The boys stopped laughing and looked at Sam like he was a silly little boy, which he wasn’t, he knew about monsters and magic and they didn’t even know that your private parts didn’t determine whether or not you were a wuss.

“Kid, it’s just a stupid joke,” the gap-toothed one told him, trying to settle him down.

“It doesn’t make any sense!” retaliated Sam.

“Vaginas make you wimpy,” explained the third boy with a stupid laugh, and Sam hated him, he hated him with all his might. He scowled and felt his face burn with anger and irritation.

Clenching his hands into fists, he objected. “They do not!” Why couldn’t they understand that?

The boys all laughed at his outburst, which made Sam even madder. “Do too!” the ginger crowed.

“They don’t!” Sam snapped.

“Methinks he does protest too much,” said one of them with a stupid accent. “Maybe you have a vagina!”

Sam could practically feel himself shaking with rage. “I don’t!”

“You do so!”

“I don’t!” His face was hot and he felt a curl of embarrassment in his stomach. He didn’t.

“Haha, he does,” jeered the gap-toothed boy.

Caught up in the heat of his anger and his mortification at the situation, Sam didn’t even pause to think before he was retaliating, “I do not, I swear! But my brother’s not a wimp, he’s really brave and strong and he does!”

He froze, feeling his eyes widen and the blood rush away from his cheeks at the realization of what he had just said. He wasn’t supposed to tell people. It was a secret. They could take his big brother away.

The boys were all laughing like they thought it was a joke, but then they saw his expression and they faltered, one by one.

“I, I was joking,” Sam whispered, horrified, hoping that maybe the boys hadn’t really heard what he said. The sixth graders exchanged glances and looked back at Sam.

“Your brother?” the redhead asked curiously, a smile dancing at the edge of his lips and a tone of incredulity in his voice.

“No,” Sam said, shaking his head and turning away from them. “Never mind, you’re all stupid-head jerk-faces anyway!”

He walked away hurriedly, clutching the straps of his backpack with trembling hands. Maybe the boys would forget what he said and nothing would happen and Dad wouldn’t get angry at him and they wouldn’t have to move again.

“Sammy!” he heard, and looked up to see Dean smiling and waving at him, hopping down the school’s steps and holding his tattered old messenger bag in one fist. It was really just a backpack, but it only had one strap ‘cause the other one fell off when Dean was doing tricks off a tree.

Dean skidded to a stop next to him and grinned. “Ready to go?” Then he looked closer at Sam’s face and frowned. “Are you okay? You look kinda sick. You got a headache?”

“I’m fine,” Sam said weakly. “I’m just tired.”

Dean peered at him in concern for a second longer before nodded. “Okay, if you’re sure. Come on, we can go by the 7-11 on the way back and get some candy. I have money left over from lunch.”

He started walking, smiling, unaware that just a minute ago, Sam had betrayed him. Sam felt sick to his stomach. He didn’t want candy.

Glancing behind him as he followed Dean, he saw the three sixth graders staring after them in curiosity. One of them opened his mouth and seemed like he was about to shout something after them, but the other two grabbed him and turned him away. They started whispering to each other, and Sam quickly turned his head back and ran a few paces to catch up with his brother.

The next day, when Sam walked down the school steps, Dad was waiting for him outside of the Impala, looking angry.

“Get in, Sam,” he ordered, and Sam scrambled quickly into the backseat. Dean was already sitting in front, leaning against the window and staring out it at the front of the school, frowning slightly. Dad got in the driver seat and slammed the door before peeling out of the parking spot and heading back to the motel.

The drive was silent, and Sam could feel Dad’s anger. Dean was quiet too, he didn’t even ask if he could turn music on, so Sam figured the thing Dad was mad at was Dean. When they got home, Sam hurried into the motel so he could go into the bedroom and shut the door before there was a fight. He hated it when Dad yelled. It was always scary.

He could hear Dean walk quietly through the front door, and then Dad with his heavy boots, and the door made a bang as Dad closed it, hard.

“Dammit, Dean!” Dad said. “You can’t just go beating up sixth graders for no reason!”

“Dad,” Dean said quietly, and Sam started getting a guilty stomach ache, thinking that maybe it was the same sixth graders who Sam had talked to yesterday.

“No, Dean, you listen here. That boy was younger than you are, and smaller, too. He didn’t have half your training.”

“I just punched him once,” Dean objected sullenly.

“I don’t care! You shouldn’t have punched him at all! You can’t do that, Dean. You go beating up any more kids, people are gonna start asking questions. They might bring CPS in on this. Is that what you want?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. So what do you do next time some snot-nosed kid wants to pick a fight?”

“That’s not what it was like!”

“Oh yeah? Then what was it like?”

Dean didn’t say anything, just took a breath.

“That’s what I thought.”

“You don’t understand, Dad, he was…”

“I don’t give a damn what he was doing! It doesn’t matter! What matters is that he was younger than you and a few inches smaller, and you know better than that. How much shorter than you was he?”

Sam heard Dean’s sneaker-clad shoes scuff at the floor. “I dunno. An inch or two.”

“And was he stronger than you?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s right. Do you think he could have done any damage?”

There was a pause. “… I…” Dean sounded hesitant.

“Damage, Dean, you think he could have bruised you? Given you a shiner? A bloody nose? With those skinny arms and three-fourths your weight?”

“No, sir.” There was shame in Dean’s tone.

“Damn right, boy. So what do you do next time that happens?” Dean was obstinately silent. “What do you do, Dean?”

Dean answered moodily. “Don’t fight back.”

“That’s right.”

There was a minute of silence, and Sam sighed, glad that the fight was over and Dad really hadn’t yelled all that much. Then, he heard the noise of Dad walking over a few paces.

“You know this is for your own good, right, Dean?” he heard him ask.

“Yeah,” Dean answered, but it sounded kind of weak and shaky. He heard Dad ruffle Dean’s hair and stand up.

“Alright. How about a burger tonight, Champ?”

Later that night, after it got dark out, Sam heard Dean puking in the bathroom. He must have eaten too much hamburger.

The next day, Sam waited for almost a whole hour for Dean to come out of the school. By the time Dean emerged from the front double-doors, Sam was sitting at the bottom of the stairs, doing his homework from his math class. Everyone else was gone, and there were only a couple cars in the parking lot.

“About time!” Sam said, forcing himself to act annoyed even though he had somewhat enjoyed doing his homework outside. He closed his math book with a satisfying clap. “I’ve been waiting forever!”

Dean didn’t say anything in response, just walked quickly away down the sidewalk with his messenger bag almost dragging on the ground beside him.

“Hey!” Sam protested, quickly stuffing his book and paper and pencil into his backpack and trying to zip it up as he ran after Dean. “Dean, wait up!” He slipped the straps onto his shoulders as he ran, and finally caught up to his brother, even though he couldn’t really even slow down then because Dean was walking so fast. “What’s your problem?” he asked, looking up at Dean’s face.

He faltered when he caught sight of his brother’s eyes. They were wide, frightened things, wild and unfocused, lined with shadow and set in a ghostly pale face. His freckles stood out starkly against skin as white as paper.

“Dean?” Sam whispered, almost tripping over his feet as he skittered to a stop, staring up at Dean’s face in trepidation.

Dean stopped after a moment and turned to look at him, his eyes finding focus on Sam’s face. He saw something flicker in his big brother’s expression, a ghost of a shadow flitting across his eyes, and then Dean smiled.

“What’s up, squirt?”

“Are you okay?” Sam asked, and Dean took a little while before nodding quickly.

“Yeah, Sammy, I’m fine,” he said, scrubbing his hand over his face and grinning at Sam a little too widely. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Why did you take so long?” Sam asked, following, though this time his question wasn’t accusatory.

Dean didn’t answer for so long, Sam thought maybe he hadn’t heard the question. Then, “I had to get something from the locker room,” he finally said, and his stride hitched slightly as he hiked his messenger bag up on his shoulder. “Come on, Sam, hurry up! I’m hungry!” He sped his steps up a bit until Sam was jogging again, slightly, to keep up.

Dean talked all the rest of the way home, grinning and laughing at stupid jokes, jumping up on the short cinderblock walls that lined parts of the sidewalk and balancing, arms spread out at his sides. Sam fell behind after a little bit, not feeling up to trying to keep up with a Dean who seemed to be moving as though he were trying to put as much distance as he possibly could between himself and something Sam couldn’t fathom. Through the grins and the snorted laughter, the jibes at Sam’s cowardice for not following Dean up onto the ledges he was jumping off of, there was still some tightness in Sam’s chest, a sense of unease in the face of Dean’s mania.  

The door hit the wall with a bang when Dean threw it open and almost skipped inside, throwing his bag onto the messy bed strewn with candy wrappers from the other afternoon. He seemed to be practically vibrating, and shook out his hands, exchanging his weight from foot to foot and turning back around to face Sam, who was watching him from the doorway. Dean grinned, and Sam could see white all around his irises.

“Dude, I’m going stir-crazy! Come on, let’s go out back and I can show you some moves!”

“I have homework,” Sam said, even though he had finished almost all of it while he was waiting for Dean to come out. Rolling his eyes, Dean made a flippant gesture with both of his hands.

“Come on, nerd, that can wait. Besides, you’re in fourth grade. What could you possibly have to work on besides, like, coloring pages and connect-the-dots?”

“Fractions and multiplication,” Sam informed him sullenly, “And an essay. I have to write three pages.” But Dean was already moving towards him and pulling his worn backpack out of his hands, tossing it onto the bed next to his half-open messenger bag.

“I can’t hear you, dude! That sound is too loud!” He spoke with his voice raised a bit, as if he were talking over something, though the motel room was silent except for the buzzing of the rusty fridge.

“What sound?” asked Sam, irritated, the unease he had felt during the walk home slipping away at Dean’s actions, and the memory of Dean’s frightened eyes all but disappeared.

“Can’t you hear it?” Dean furrowed his eyebrows and cocking his head slightly, looking off to the right as if listening intently. “That sound… Yeah, there it is again. It’s the sound of the world telling you to stop being such a geek and have a bit of fun!”

“Hey!” Sam objected, but Dean just laughed and ran out the open motel door, shouting behind him for Sam to follow. He hurried after Dean, slipping slightly on the gravel in the parking lot as he rounded the bend around to the back of the motel, where there was a wide empty lot full of scrub and dirt, with a few trees and discarded branches.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was good enough for sparring. Dean stopped in the middle of the lot and turned around to face Sam, his face alight with a smile, spreading his feet and bracing himself slightly, raising his hands in a loosely-held defensive pose and bouncing on his heels. He raised his eyebrows and gestured with an open hand for Sam to attack.

Sam hesitated for a moment before setting his own feet shoulder-width apart and advancing, hands clenched into tight fists and jaw set.

He took a swing, throwing his fist up towards Dean’s chin, which Dean brushed gently away, turning to the side and sending his arm in an arc that ended in a soft thump on Sam’s back that sent him stumbling forward.

“Remember, Sam, don’t make a fist until you’re a couple inches away from contact,” Dean said as Sam turned around and tried for another punch, which Dean caught and returned with a solid tap on Sam’s right shoulder that knocked him off-balance. “It takes less energy on your part, and it’ll hurt the guy more. Especially if you let it bounce back. It’s all about momentum.”

Sam shook out his arms and unclenched his hands, starting to feel adrenaline rushing through his limbs, a smile rising on his face at Dean’s encouraging nod and wink as his brother once again settled to wait for the next attack, arms up in front of him and fingers relaxed.

Skipping forward, he threw a hit open-handed at Dean’s upper arm, folding his hand into a fist last-minute like Dean had said, but it didn’t land: Dean grabbed his wrist and used Sam’s own momentum to pull him forward, right off his feet, until he had fallen in a heap on the dusty ground with a grunt.

He pushed himself up, pebbles digging into his palms, and smiled up at Dean, who was grinning, hands on his knees a few feet away. “Like I said, Sammy,” he laughed, “It’s all about momentum.”

Sam pushed himself to his feet and started bouncing on his heels like Dean, feeling elated with energy, the sun just starting to set and the sky cast pinkish.

“Remember not to fold your thumb inside you fist,” Dean noted, as they both started circling the other. “That’s a good way to break it.”

“I know that, Dean!” Sam complained, his grin not falling. “Come on, stop going easy on me! I can kick your ass!”

Dean threw his head back in a full-bellied laugh and shook out his shoulders, the sun casting an orange tint on the side of his face in the fading light. “Mouthy for a nine-year-old, aren’t ya? Alright then, come on!”

They went at each other in a series of hits and dodges. Dean’s were fluid, easy, though slightly gawky with his growing teenage limbs as he brushed off Sam’s punches and returned them softly, a little slowly, making sure that Sam could see them coming and narrating how to dodge or deflect them. Sam’s moves were clumsier, awkward, though steadily growing more confident. He could feel the blood pumping in his arms, hear it rushing in his ears, and could almost swear that he was getting stronger and faster and better as time wore onward. He was connecting on some of his hits, and dodging more of Dean’s, and the encouraging smile on Dean’s face and the flicker of excitement in Dean’s eyes cheered him on.

Finally, as Dean came in for a punch at Sam’s shoulder, Sam ducked under his arm and popped back up, hand already flying through the air at Dean’s torso. It was almost in slow motion, and Sam folded his fingers into a fist only a second away from impact, making sure his thumb was on the outside, and he let his fist thwack solidly on the soft flesh of Dean’s chest and bounce back slightly. Dean let out a whoosh of breath and a choked laugh, withdrawing from the fight, raising his arms up to his breastbone and sucking in a breath, looking down at Sam with an open-mouthed smile.

“Ow, man!” he said, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Right in the chest!”

“Sorry!” Sam said cheekily, smirking in delight at his success and breathing heavily, letting his arms relax at his sides. He could feel sweat dripping off his forehead and reached up to brush his bangs away from his eyebrows.

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Dean wheezed, putting one hand down to brace himself on his knee, while the other remained pressed against his breast as he gulped in breaths. They both stood still for several long moment, just breathing deeply and acknowledging their tiredness.

Dean straightened before Sam did, and Sam watched him from his slightly doubled-over position. He turned his face to the side, so Sam could see his strong bridge of his nose in profile, his hair almost appearing to glow in the light of the sun setting behind the building behind him. The look in Dean’s eyes was faraway, and for a moment, with the halo of sunlight surrounding him and blinding Sam from a clear view of his face, Sam thought he saw a flicker of something dark in the clench of Dean’s jaw and the arc of his eyebrows. Then, it was gone. Dean turned back to him and smiled.

“You good, Sammy?”

Sam nodded and straightened fully, and Dean gestured back towards the hotel room with his chin.

“You were awesome. Go back in and do your homework, geek. I’m gonna train some more.”

Searchingly, Sam examined Dean’s face, but his expression betrayed none of the darkness that Sam had thought he’d seen only a second ago. And he did still have most of an essay to write.

“Okay,” he conceded, and turned around to walk around the corner and go back in through the motel room door.

It was darker in the room than it had been when they left, since the sun had almost set. It smelled mustier now than it had before, and the buzzing of the fridge seemed louder. It was probably just the echo in his ears, the absence of familiar noises, of Dean’s voice and the crunch of gravel and grass under his feet, the soft sounds of fists connecting, the grunts of exertion and the heavy breathing of exercise. Sam turned on the light and went over to his backpack to get out his folder where his half-written essay was sheathed.

As he sat on the bed, feeling the flat mattress bowing underneath him, Sam found the images of Dean’s frightened eyes and his wide-grinning mania from the walk home resurfacing. He had never seen Dean like that before. He had been smiling too widely, laughing too hard. It hadn’t seemed happy. It had seemed… Sam didn’t know. He had no idea what it meant.

As Sam got older, he was to realize that that was how Dean acted when he was terrified. Manic, reckless, spontaneous. But that insight had yet to come.

He put his folder aside and went to the window that looked out behind the motel and into the empty lot. Using his fingers to pry apart two of the blinds, Sam peered into the quickly diminishing sunlight. The lot was tinged gold with the last dregs of sunlight, and Dean was doing the routine Dad had taught him, his moves practiced and deliberate, defensive and offensive, punching at empty air and raising forearms to block invisible blows.

Dean went on like that for several minutes, his steps carrying him in a wide arc, until finally he raised his leg in a roundhouse and slipped in the gravel with his other foot. Sam winced as Dean’s foot shot out from under him and he fell on his right arm with a shout that Sam couldn’t hear, but could imagine from the way Dean’s mouth opened and his eyebrows tensed in a grimace as he hit the dirt.

His brother lay there for a moment before slowly pushing himself into a sitting position, one hand coming up to rub what had to be a bruise forming on his injured shoulder, and then down to dab at the blood that was welling up on his scraped elbow. After another moment of nursing his injuries, Dean stood and kicked out at the gravel, sending it flying in a shower of pebbles and dust. Then, Sam saw his eyes connect with something lying on the ground a few feet away, and Dean took a few steps before bending to pick a large, dry branch up from a thicket of tall grass. It was as thick as his upper arm and as long as Sam’s leg, and he held it in both hands like an axe handle or a baseball bat, just staring at it.

Suddenly, Dean turned around and ran towards one of the sparse trees and swung the branch at its trunk with a yell. Sam jumped, almost swearing he could feel the vibration of the force of his hit. The branch rebounded, and it was obviously painful if Dean’s gritted teeth and quaking arms were anything to go by. Then he swung the branch again. And again. And again. His shoulders were as tense as rocks, the knots of the muscles in his back visible through the back of his T-shirt, which was slowly soaking through with sweat, clinging to his skin and darkening with both the damp and the twilight. His arms were like coiled springs, his biceps tight and flexing with each strike. With a final heavy blow, the branch splintered, spraying dust and bits of wood in all directions, and Dean fell, his momentum continuing to carry his body through the swing with nothing to stop it. He landed hard on his forearm and one hand, and lay there for a second before struggling to push himself back to his feet. His shoulders were shaking, but it wasn’t until he gave up in his attempt to lift himself with weak arms and simply twisted his torso, falling back against the tree, that Sam realized that it was because Dean was crying.

The sheer agony in Dean’s expression, the twist of his eyebrows and the anguish in the clench of his jaw as he sobbed brokenly into the empty air around him, made Sam step back in shock and horror. Dean disappeared from Sam’s sight as the gap he had opened in the blinds snapped closed, but Sam could still see the look in his eyes and the streaks of tears down his face. He had never seen his brother look like that before. He had never seen his brother show that kind of weakness. Dean was always so strong. Sam was the one who cried, he was the baby, the one who acted like a little girl whenever they had to move or Dad wanted to take Dean on another hunt and Sam was scared that his big brother was going to get hurt. Dean never did that. He wasn’t like that.

Should he go out and comfort his brother? Should he call Dad? Sam didn’t know. He didn’t know how to make whatever had happened okay again.

So he didn’t do anything. He pulled out his essay and finished writing it. He poured himself cereal for dinner and ate it at the table while watching TV. He brushed his teeth and went to the bathroom and crawled into bed and lay awake for a long time before falling asleep.

He couldn’t remember Dean coming back inside, but he did wake up in the middle of the night because Dean was being sick in the bathroom again.

When he woke up the next morning, Dean was making him breakfast and he grinned at him from the motel’s kitchen counter, and Sam smiled back and figured that everything would be okay, because Dean always made sure that Sam was okay and part of that was making sure that Dean stayed okay, too. Dean would take care of himself, and he would tell Sam something was wrong, if he needed to.

Sam liked it when they stayed with Uncle Bobby. Bobby didn’t give them chores – at least, not bad ones, like cleaning out the guns or polishing the silver blades or running laps or anything like that. Technically, Sam still had his normal workout routine that Dad gave him, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as when it was just Sam and Dean and Dad in some run-down motel and Dad gave him laps for pretty much any mistake he ever made. Dean liked to exercise, he did it as much as he could, but Sam hated it. At the very least, he hated it when Dad made him do it, so he refrained, when possible.

Uncle Bobby took them to do fun things, sometimes, too. Once he found some old baseball gloves in his attic and gave them to Dean and Sam, and they could play catch without leaving their palms stinging and red afterwards. He also taught them a bit of tracking. He took them out to hunt a couple times, for venison, but even Dean couldn’t bring himself to fire at the wide-eyed doe standing stalk-still in the trees in front of them, and they ended up eating leftovers that night. Uncle Bobby was the one who taught Sam how to bait a hook, and Sam caught his first fish with Uncle Bobby at his side to catch it in the net.

Uncle Bobby started teaching the brothers lore as soon as it was known that Sam had found out about the things that go bump in the night. Of course, it had been at Sam’s insistence, but Uncle Bobby was a good teacher, knew his stuff.

And they always ate well at Uncle Bobby’s. He always made sure there was food in his fridge when the boys were over, like heads of lettuce and apples and spaghetti and tomato sauce that came out of a jar instead of a can, even though Sam was almost positive that when they weren’t there, the only things Uncle Bobby housed in his kitchen were canned goods and beer.

Usually, especially when Dad was off on really long hunts, the only food Sam ate for ages and ages was cereal and peanut butter and Chef Boyardee. Sometimes, he couldn’t even have milk in his cereal because Dean always forgot to buy more because he didn’t care, he didn’t ever drink milk and he ate his cereal dry anyway. Very rarely, he’d take a few dollar bills out of their safety fund and take Sam to a fast food dive, but that was usually to break up the monotony of ravioli at every meal. At the fast food places, Dean would spring to get Sam a salad with his chicken, and Dean would eat a burger. He liked burgers, which was lucky because the burger was the cheapest option on basically every menu.

At Uncle Bobby’s, Sam could eat salad, too, or chicken, or fruit, and they never ever ate peanut butter at lunch.

Sam’s favorite thing was when, after a long afternoon run, they’d return to Uncle Bobby’s porch, breathing heavily, sweaty and shirtless, and Uncle Bobby would drop a heavy, ripe watermelon on the wooden floorboards with a thunk and cut it into thick pieces. They’d grab slices in both hands and basically bury their faces in the juicy purple flesh until watermelon juice was dripping down their chins onto their chests. Usually, after they’d finished almost the whole thing, Dean would grab Sam under one arm to start a wrestling match. With uproarious laughter, Dean would ruffle Sam’s shaggy brown hair with the knuckles of one hand, the other arm still holding Sam in a headlock so his cheek was pressed up against Dean’s side, despite all of Sam’s struggle.

“Gross, Dean!” Sam would laugh, sweat and sticky juice smearing on his face and hair from Dean’s armpit tickling his ear, and the soft fat of Dean’s breasts pressed up against his cheek. “Come on, man, get your chest out of my face!”

And they’d roll around in the grass behind Uncle Bobby’s salvage yard with whoops and jeers until Uncle Bobby called them in for dinner.

Which was why Sam always hated it when Dad decided to stay with them at Uncle Bobby’s for a couple of days. Everything about Uncle Bobby’s place that Sam loved so much would have to be put on hold. He’d go back to having to clean the weapons and running laps around the yard if he made a mistake. No playing catch or trying to fish from the old dock set out on the lake a few miles from Singer Salvage. Just sparring and maneuver-training. Sometimes Dad would even make him do some target practice, although more often than not, it was Dean practicing with the guns. Dean was an excellent shot, but apparently hitting every bottle in one go still necessitated an hour of practice a day.

They’d been at Uncle Bobby’s for the first three weeks of August, and Dad had been around for the past four days. It hadn’t been going as bad as Sam thought it usually did. He and Dean had had to clean the weapons, sure, but so far they hadn’t been made to run any laps or do extra training. In fact, Dad seemed abnormally silent and pensive, always looking pinched and almost always with a beer clenched in one hand. He was constantly avoiding Uncle Bobby – but that wasn’t new, he never tried to hide the slight antagonism between the two men, even if most of the time they were cordial and sometimes even friendly, hunting buddies – and staring into space towards Dean during his workouts.

Sam was sitting at Uncle Bobby’s kitchen table, looking through a book on lore – he’d finished his homework – and Dad was standing up against the counter, nursing a beer and looking out the dusty window to the backyard where Dean was finishing up his exercise routine.

When Dean finally came in, he was breathing heavy and wiping his forehead on the hem of his shirt. He nodded a greeting at both Dad and Sam and went immediately over to grab a glass from the cupboard, filling it with lukewarm water from the tap before tossing it back. He let out a sigh of satisfaction and turned around to take his cup and sit at the table across from Sam.

“You hungry, Dean?” Dad asked from his position at the counter. Dean shrugged, turning to look at him.

“Not really,” he dismissed.

“You just ran eight miles. Get something to eat,” was Dad’s response, his tone no-nonsense, and Sam scowled as Dean immediately hopped to follow Dad’s order. It was dumb. Sure, Dad had a point, but Dean didn’t have to jump to it and stand at attention like a goddamn Marine.

Dean opened the fridge and bent down, sticking his head in and looking around, sorting through the items contained within, before finally emerging with a pear in one hand and a jar of peanut butter in the other. Dean and Sam really rarely ever got fruit unless they were at Bobby’s, and especially not pears. You couldn’t buy those in bulk, not like with oranges or bananas, so they were too expensive at the grocery store.

Dean hadn’t made it two steps to the counter to grab the loaf of bread before Dad stopped him in his tracks again. “None of that girly food, Dean. There’s leftover barbeque in there, have some of that.”

There was no movement for a moment as Dean stood there, fingers clenching uncertainly around the piece of fruit in his hands and the glass jar. Then, he turned and opened the refrigerator in one fluid movement, tossing the pear back into its plastic drawer and peanut butter onto a shelf, and exchanging them for the Styrofoam container of ribs. He slid it onto the dinner table and sat heavily in the chair across from Sam’s seat, immediately sprawling, legs spread wide and shoulders slouching as he popped the tab on the container of take-out and pulled out a chunk of ribs to eat cold.

Sam went back to reading, rolling his eyes at Dean and still irritated at his father. Dean ate the ribs as messily as possible, smacking his lips and sucking sauce off his fingers with a pop every time he was finished tearing meat from bone. He burped periodically, much to Sam’s chagrin, and was basically just as obnoxious as one could possibly be while eating. When he was done, he closed the container with a final loud belch and wiped his hands off on his T-shirt before patting his full stomach a couple times and grinning toothily at Sam, who was wrinkling his nose at his brother’s behavior. Dean reached down and scratched his groin like someone would scratch their balls, even though he didn’t even put socks in his underwear while he was exercising because that was just plain uncomfortable.

“Aww, come on, Sammy,” Dean drawled. “Don’t be such a girl.”

That was when the weight of Dad’s earlier statement hit him, and Sam’s eyes instantly flew to his dad, who was looking approvingly at Dean. Sam then looked back to Dean, who he had just realized had been acting pretty much as sloppy and indifferent and masculine as possible; he looked at the way Dean’s shoulders were hunched to disguise the curve of his breasts under his loose shirt, and at the way his legs were splayed to imitate Dad’s or Uncle Bobby’s whenever they relaxed on the couch with a beer after a long hunt.

Girly food, Dad had said, and however he’d intended it, whatever his enunciation had been, Sam knew that those had been the only words that had held any importance to Dean. He had taken them to heart. He’d switched out fruit for meat, and he had eaten it in the least girly way possible. In the most manly way possible.

Sam was so mad at his dad, he could feel his hands shaking. But Sam wasn’t about to bring attention to it, not in front of Dean. That didn’t stop him from finding offense in every one of Dad’s statements that night, though, and by the time Sam went to bed, he’d talked back at Dad three separate occasions until Dad has finally snapped, yelled, and punished him with the promise that Sam would be coming with him on the next hunt.

They packed up and left Uncle Bobby’s the next day, and the resigned disappointment on Dean’s face as the Impala carried them away and Singer Salvage gradually disappeared from view made Sam almost wish that he’d just sucked it up and bit his tongue.

But he was only nine and his guilt transitioned smoothly into further ammunition for anger at his father. He was moody and silent for most of the car ride, as was Dad, despite several attempts on Dean’s part to start a conversation or bridge some gap between his dad and younger brother.

They stopped off at a diner for dinner that night, and Sam got chicken fingers with apples on the side instead of French fries. Dean got a bacon double burger with American cheese, extra onions, hold the tomato.

Sam offered Dean an apple slice during dinner, which Dean refused, choosing to focus on his side of fries instead. They drove through the night but parked near morning so Dad could take a break, and when Sam woke up with his neck sore and drool spilling onto the leather seat, he looked out the window to find Dean doing sit-ups in the tall grass on the side of the road, already starting out on his morning workout. Sam wasn’t sure why it made his stomach hurt to watch, but it did.

Sam didn’t ever comment when Dean started coming out of the bathroom in the morning with a bulge in the front of his pants, and Dad didn’t really either, except for the very first time it happened when he looked up from his morning coffee, raised an eyebrow at his eldest, and said “That’s a bit much, Dean,” before returning to poring through the paper. Dean retreated back into the bathroom and returned a few minutes later with a bulge of a more reasonable size.

It was an exceptionally hot day in late August when the air conditioning in the Impala broke, and Dad decided that they were gonna be wasting no time stopping to fix it. Air conditioning wasn’t necessary, he told them. Stopping whatever’s been picking off forty-five-year-old women in Tucson, Arizona was.

Thirty minutes into the tragedy, Sam and Dean were slouched in the back of the car in sweaty T-shirts, having peeled off all other layers. Dean’s normally spiked-up hair was stuck flat to his scalp, and Sam’s bangs were clinging wetly to his forehead. Sam let out a long moan of suffering and lay his forehead against the window, hoping that maybe the glass would help cool him down. He withdrew his head quickly when it was hot to the touch.

“Dad,” Sam whined, lengthening the word until it was almost four syllables. “Can we please stop and at least get something to drink?”

Dean was using his hand to lift the front of his shirt away from his chest and then back down, back and forth, the breeze of it making him sigh at the slight relief.

“Just roll down your window, Sammy,” Dean mumbled, but Sam shook his head and pouted, picking at something sticky on the seat next to him.

“No, then the wind does that billowy thing that hurts my ears.”

“Then how about you just shut up?”

“Hey! Jerk!”

“Bitch.”

“Dad!”

“You boys be quiet,” John snapped, not taking his eyes off the road. There was sweat dripping from the beard he’d been cultivating recently. “We’re going for at least another couple hours. When we stop for dinner I’ll take a look.”

“Why can’t you just pull over and do that now?”

Dad didn’t justify Sam with an answer, so Sam crossed his arms over his chest and slouched further down in his seat. He hated the way the backs of his thighs were slick on the leather, and he hated the feel of sweat dripping down the little crease between his legs and his balls, and he hated the way his bangs kept falling in his eyes, and most of all he hated Dad for not stopping because Sam just knew that everything could be fixed if they just pulled over for like, twenty minutes.

Sam sulked for another forty minutes, dwelling on moodiness and frustration and discomfort. He could feel pressure starting to build in his bladder, and they were still miles and miles away from a rest stop.

Then, he perked up. Maybe if Sam told Dad he had to pee, Dad would pull over and then figure that since they were stopped anyway, he might as well fix the air conditioning! It was as good an idea as anything, and honestly, at that point Sam would have gladly accepted extra chores if it just meant they could spend the rest of the drive at a pleasant temperature.

“Dad, I have to go to the bathroom,” Sam said.

“Hold it,” was Dad’s response. Sam scowled.

“I can’t,” he said, even though he really could, if he had to. “I’ve had to pee for a while and I’ve held it as long as I can.”

“Just hold it, Sam,” snapped Dad, himself feeling grouchy as an effect of the heated confinement of the Impala.

“I tried,” Sam said, feeling angry tears prick at the corner of his eyes, because even though he didn’t really have to pee, Dad didn’t know that and he was still being a jerk.

“We have to make good time. Whatever’s killing those women is gonna get another one tomorrow night.”

“Stopping to pee doesn’t take more than five minutes!”

“That’s five minutes we can’t afford to lose.”

Sam gaped at the back of Dad’s head. What was Dad’s problem? Five minutes weren’t going to make a difference, and besides, they had hours and hours before they had to do anything, and Dad had already done some research and was pretty sure it was a bogeyman, and Sam and Dean had stayed up four hours the previous night molding iron rounds.

“You’re just being mean! I’m gonna wet my pants!”

Hold it, Sam, that’s an order!”

“You can’t just order me not to pee! Once you get to a certain point it’s an autonomic bodily function!”

Sam knew Dad hated it when he used big words, and he felt a distinct pleasure at the clench in Dad’s jaw he could see through the rearview mirror.

“Sam,” Dad started in, probably ready to tear Sam a new one, but Dean interrupted him.

“Come on, Dad,” Dean spoke up from his slumped-down position. “I could take a piss, too. We’ve been driving for four hours.”

For a second, Sam thought Dad was going to ignore Dean and just keep on driving, but then Dad let out a loud, frustrated sigh and turned the steering wheel, smoothly pulling over into the gravel on the side of the country road. Sam felt a flicker of anger and irritation that Dad had listened to Dean but not him, but it was quickly quelled by his feeling of success as he opened his door and slid out of the parked car.

Dad and Dean stepped out, too, and Dad followed Sam down a bit to stand and unzip in front of the short, barbed-wire fence that separated them from a sprawling field of grain. Dean went further, stepped carefully over the fence and walked a bit into the tall, swaying blades of grass so he could pull down his pants and squat.

The argument between him and Dad had distracted Sam so much from the goal of the whole thing that Sam didn’t even remember about the air conditioning until the three of them were all back in the car and Dad was already pulling away. Sam groaned loudly and slid down his seat again.

“Oh, be quiet, Sammy,” Dean groaned back. His shirt was so slicked through with sweat that Sam could see his nipples through it. Sam looked down at his own chest and found that he could see his nipples as well, his T-shirt clinging to every tiny contour of his torso. He half-heartedly pulled the fabric away from his chest, but the second he let go it just thwacked back down and stuck to him wetly, like a wet fruit roll-up.

“It’s too hot,” Sam said quietly, and Dean turned his head so he was looking at Sam through heavy-lidded eyes.

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Sam made a long, drawn-out, squeaky, complainy noise in the back of his throat as he slid as far down as the driver’s seat in front of him would allow. Dean sighed and rolled his eyes, pushing himself further up until he was sitting relatively straight, though hunched over.

“Hey, Sammy, I ever tell you about the time Dad took out a werewolf with nothing but a three-foot piece of rope and a silver butter knife?”

Sam perked up a bit. He always liked listening to stories about Dad and Dean’s hunts, because Sam wasn’t allowed to do any of it yet, except for help clean weapons and mold bullets. Plus, Dean was a pretty good storyteller.

Dad’s eyes flicked back to look at them as Dean started an animated rendition of Dad’s heroic tale, and he smiled a bit, his eyes softening. Sam watched Dean’s grin and theatric hand movements, and jumped in surprise and was suitably awed at all the right parts. When the story had finished, Dean transitioned right on into another tale, easily stringing Sam along with suspense and intrigue and weaving in tidbits of information and advice – slash with a knife, don’t stab, because it could get stuck in the creature; always count the rounds as you fire them so you’re never caught without ammo by surprise; if you’re trying to hide from a monster that relies heavily on scent, never curl up in one place, always keep on the move and try to confuse it by retracing and crossing your old steps – so that by the time Dad had pulled up to a gas station a couple hours later, Sam had all but forgotten the heat and his sweat.

“Alright, boys,” Dad said after he parked, twisting around to face them. “I’m gonna sit here for a while, take a look and try to see if I can’t fix the A/C. You can go on in and pick out your dinner.” He held out three crumpled five-dollar bills, which Dean took with a nod.

Sam was already out of the car and halfway to the gas mart’s doors by the time Dean had one foot on the pavement, and was inside, breathing in the sweet breeze of indoor cooling before Dean had reached the sidewalk. By the time Dean had made it into the shop, Sam was studiously looking over every food item in the aisles, trying to decide what he wanted to eat.

“Don’t you wanna get a drink?” Dean asked, coming up next to him. Sam shook his head.

“Not until I pick out my snack,” he told his brother, “Or it won’t stay cool for long enough.”

Dean nodded in agreement and looked over the rows of snack food with Sam. He grinned and pulled a bag of Funyuns off its hook and held it up next to his face, shaking it a bit so it rattled.

“Can’t forget your vegetables, Sammy!” he laughed. Sam rolled his eyes and moved on.

“Those aren’t vegetables, Dean,” he said in the most patronizing voice a nine-year-old could possibly muster. Dean just snorted and tucked the bag under his arm.

A few minutes into their search, Sam became aware that Dean was growing tense beside him, his shoulders rising towards his ears and hunching forward, his face growing a little stony as he looked over the stacks of candy boxes and Hostess snacks. His eyebrows were furrowing and his jaw was working furiously, his eyes fixed on the colorfully branded labels in front of him.

Sam looked around for the source of his brother’s unease and found that at the end of the aisle was a trio of older boys, and Sam couldn’t really tell how old they were but they were older than Dean, older by a bit. At first, he just thought that maybe Dean didn’t like the way they were looking at them, the tone of their laughter as they muttered amongst themselves. Then, he realized that they had been talking, words directed towards Dean, although Sam hadn’t noticed before, so focused had he been on the prospect of returning to the car with snacks and drinks and having air conditioning waiting for him.

“Hey sweetheart,” the tallest one of the boys called lowly, dark bangs hanging over one eyebrow and a congenial smile lifting both corners of his mouth. “C’mon, don’t be shy. Let’s see those cute little tits you’re hiding.”

Dean ardently avoided looking towards the boys, focusing instead on apparently reading the nutrition information on a packet of salted peanuts.

“Oh come on, baby, don’t be like that,” murmured the second one, another brunet, with a wispy moustache sitting on his upper lip.

Sam looked at Dean, who was only wearing his sweat-damp white T-shirt. They’d hurried into the gas station so fast, and it had been so hot outside, that Dean hadn’t thought to put his flannel or jacket back on. He was just standing there, frozen, shoulders hunched defensively and facing the wall of the aisle, as though he was afraid to turn away, as though the wall was protecting him in some way, as though if he just stayed there and remained still and silent then no one could see him and the boys would just disappear.

“You come in with your shirt all wet through like that, and nothing on underneath, you’re just showing off,” intoned the final boy, a sandy blond with hard blue eyes and a smile that Sam thought looked like a fissure cut in granite. “You can’t just tease us like that, honey, even if you’re a dyke.”

Sam did not like the tone of his voice and he did not like the leer in his grin and he did not like the way he was looking at Dean like Dean wasn’t even a person, like he was just another snack on the wall and he wanted to take him down and tear him open and chew him up until there was nothing left.

“Don’t talk to my brother like that,” Sam heard himself stay, his voice as low and steely as he could manage. “He’s not teasing anyone. Just leave us alone.”

“Sammy,” Dean said, and suddenly his eyes were alert, his expression cutting and intense. “Shut up.” Sam was affronted, he hated it when Dean told him to shut up.

He?” asked the blond.

Dean put his hand on Sam’s shoulder and forcibly pushed him back behind him, and Sam’s gaze narrowed on how Dean’s pupils were dilated and how his freckles were standing out on his cheeks. But Dean steeled his expression and clenched his jaw and Sam saw the Dean that came out when he had a gun in his hands and was doing target practice, or when Dad was teaching him how to throw knives.

Dean,” Sam said, but Dean’s eyes looked so concentrated, so determined, that Sam took another couple steps back.

Dean turned around to face the boys, his fists clenched around the snacks that Sam and he had picked out.

“Fuck off,” Dean said, just as the one with the stubble looked between Dean’s chest and groin and mouthed What the fuck? at his friends. Sam realized that they were confused that Dean had breasts but that he also had a bulge in the front of his track shorts, and he felt a strike of fear, remembering every time Dad had ever told him that No one can know, they could take Dean away.

“What the fuck is that?” asked one of the brunets, and the blond chuckled darkly and snorted in disdain.

“It’s a fucking tranny, that’s what,” he said. Sam didn’t know what it was, exactly, about the boys’ words that struck him so deeply, but his face felt hot and his stomach turned. The way they talked, it was like they were talking about Dean like he wasn’t a person, like whatever a “tranny” was, it wasn’t human. They said that and it like his brother was something repulsive, like crud on your shoe, or an insect after you’ve smashed it with your hand and wished you hadn’t because now you had bug guts smeared on you. Sam thought if anyone ever talked about him like that, he might cry. Hearing someone talk about his big brother like that, he thought he still might cry.

But Dean sucked in a breath and straightened his back, squaring his shoulders, not hiding. He reminded Sam of the time he was at a park that had a lake, and there were geese. Sam had tried to pet the baby ones, but a big one had straightened its neck and spread its wings wide and hissed at him, and he’d run away and it had chased after him, big and puffed up and terrifying. Dean was gearing up like that now, making himself big and intimidating and readying to fight. Sam felt safe at the sight. Dean was going to protect him. Dean wouldn’t let anything happen to him, no matter what things the boys said.

“Yeah, maybe. And you know what else I am?” Dean said, his voice solid and unwavering. He lifted his right hand up to his waist and pulled his shirt out of the way a bit, enough to show what was tucked in the waistband of his jeans. Sam’s eyes widened at the sight of the gun handle; he’d never seen Dean carry a weapon outside of training, and he wondered if Dean had been doing that for a while, and when Dad had lent him a pistol. “A really good shot.” He smirked. “So how about you mind your own business and fuck off?”

The boy with the dark bangs looked warily at the gun that Dean’s hand was hovering over. The blond curled a lip and scoffed.

“Whatever. You’re just lucky your kid brother’s here you little bitch, or I’d straighten you out right here in the aisle,” he spat, and Dean’s eyebrows twitched and his chin trembled in a way that only Sam could see, but his stance remained solid and his legs unfaltering. The other two boys apparently agreed with whatever it was the blond had meant by what he’d said, and they turned away from them, leaving the aisle.

Dean didn’t move, and neither did Sam, until they heard the tinkle that signified the mart’s door opening and closing. Sam let out a long breath, relieved at the ease of tension, happy that he didn’t have to see the look in the boys’ eyes or the malice in their smiles anymore.

Sam followed his brother as Dean quickly turned around to pick out some snacks, then walk over to the fridges in the back and grab six water bottles. Sam’s eyes stuck on the lines of soda for only a moment, before trailing after Dean as he headed towards the counter.

The man behind the counter stared at the two of them with an undefinable expression as he rang up the prices of what Dean had picked out. Dean’s hands were shaking as he handed out the bills that Dad had given him, and the man wordlessly returned the due change. Dean left, and Sam muttered a “thank you” in his stead.

They scurried back to the car, neither of them mentioning how fast they walked, or how it felt like they were running away from something. Sam kept looking around for the boys from before, but if they were still around, he couldn’t see them.

Sam opened the back door on Dean’s side and climbed in, crawling along the bench to his spot and slouching down. Dean tossed the plastic bag of snacks and water into the middle of the bench and got in too, slamming the door with probably a bit more force than necessary, which wasn’t like him because he always took care of the Impala. He reached down and picked up his flannel from the Impala’s floor, pulling it immediately over his shoulders. They both let out a breath at the same time, and then jumped when Dad stuck his head in the driver’s side window to check on them.

“You boys alright?” he asked, and the two of them nodded. Dad looked them over, and Sam knew he was taking in how pale and shaky the two of them looked. His eyes lingered on Dean, on the long sleeves he was wearing in the sweltering heat, even as sweat began to bead on his forehead again after leaving the cool interior of the gas mart. But he nodded curtly, not commenting. “I’ve almost fixed the A/C. We’ll drive straight on to Tucson in ten.”

The boys nodded at him, and Dad retreated back to the car’s interior.

Sam turned to Dean, who was looking cautiously out the window and buttoning the front of his flannel.

“Dean,” Sam whispered. “What’s a tranny?”

Dean’s fingers faltered on the buttons, but he continued after a moment and turned, not to look at Sam, but to open the plastic bag and pull out a package of Zebra Cakes.

“I dunno,” he finally said, after he’d opened it and peeled the top layer of icing off the cake. “They just call me that, sometimes.”

Sam didn’t know who “they” was, but it meant that Dean had been called names like that more than once. He watched Dean bite the remaining layers of icing away from the cake before prying the layers of cake apart and licking up the cream filling. Sticking his hand in the bag, Sam found himself his own package, unwrapped it, and very pointedly bit into the whole cake at once. Dean snorted and shook his head.

“You never did know how to eat these things right,” he said, and Sam scowled.

You’re the one who’s eating it wrong.”

“I think you’ll find that any sane person will disagree with you.”

“Eating things piece by piece is dumb. They wouldn’t have made it together if it wasn’t supposed to be eaten together.”

“Dude, you’re buying into the system. The system is wrong.”

“Dean, you take the Oreos apart and eat the icing before the cookies!”

“So does everyone else on the planet, geek.”

“How does that make any sense? There’s no point in eating the cookie without the icing! That’s like… like… chocolate-flavored cardboard or something! How is that supposed to taste good?”

“It just does, okay? I wouldn’t expect a little kid like you to understand.”

“I’m not a little kid! Anyway, that doesn’t have anything to do with this!”

“When you’re grown-up, you’ll get it.”

“Jerk.”

“Bitch.” Dean grinned at him and started taking apart his second Zebra Cake. Sam rolled his eyes and scoffed, still working on his first. He kicked his feet up and propped them on the seat in front of him. They finished their Little Debbie snacks in silence.

What the boys from the gas mart had said, the names they’d called Dean, echoed in Sam’s head, bouncing around in his skull, no meanings attached to them except his understanding that they were mean and malicious and crude and that their intent had been to hurt. He also knew that if Dean had been called those names multiple times, then they had to mean something specific. Something specific to Dean himself.

They’d called him a dyke and they’d called him a tranny. At his next school, during lunch on his first day, Sam got a pass to go to the library and use the computer.

A “dike” was a geological formation of rock, and Sam really didn’t understand how that had anything to do with his brother, but a “dyke” was a slur for a lesbian. Dean wasn’t a lesbian, Dean was a boy, and Sam clicked angrily back to the Google homepage to search “tranny.”

“Tranny” was a slur for a transgender man or woman. So Sam looked up what transgender was. As he read, it felt like the library around him was fading away.

He sat in front of that computer for what seemed to be both moments and hours, reading through pages and pages about transgender and what it was and what it meant and everything in-between. He read through the information on the website of the American Psychiatric Association, and he read through blog posts and newspaper articles and looked through pictures of women with masculine faces and young men wearing tank-tops that gave them artificially flat chests. He read personal stories about little girls who were born with penises and started wearing dresses and being called “she” before they were six years old, but also about women who pretended to be men almost their whole lives before finally growing out their hair and throwing away their masculine clothes and changing their names.

This was what Dean was. Dean was transgender.

Sam’s eyes flitted across the computer screen, his chest expanding in wonder and excitement. Dean didn’t have a birth defect, he wasn’t weird or different, he wasn’t cursed, and he wasn’t alone.

Then, Sam found an obituary.

He read through a page of statistics that made his stomach drop. He read through an online forum of black text that was just line after line of hatred and abuse that made his whole body heat up and his eyes burn. Sam closed the tab before he could read anymore, before he could see one more person’s typed paragraph explaining that Dean, that Sam’s big brother, deserved unspeakable pain. His heart was beating in his chest, tattooing a rhythm of horror and fear. This was worse than anything Dad had ever hinted could happen to Dean if Sam betrayed his secret. This was worse than anything Sam could have possibly imagined.

The library was small and the bookshelves were barely four feet high. They were designed so that children could reach every book. Sam stared at the colorful spines for a long moment, breathing deeply, thinking of nothing.

Then, calmly, he found the information he had read from the American Psychiatric Association, and the pages of articles on transgender, and he printed them out from the library’s single inkjet printer. Sam waited in front of it, counting the pages, and when they were all done he gathered them and put them in an empty, battered folder, and placed them inside his backpack.

That night, he showed Dean the pages he’d printed.

“You’re not weird, Dean,” he said earnestly as he watched his older brother doubtfully look at the pages of slightly smeared and faded black print. “You’re transgender. It means your gender doesn’t match the sex you were assigned at birth.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dean asked. “Gender is sex. They’re the same thing.”

Sam shook his head earnestly. “No! Not all the time. Well, lots of people use them interchangeably. Gender is like, if you’re a boy or a girl. Your biological sex is if you’re male or female. Gender is your brain, and sex is your, your genitalia.”

Dean pulled a face a snorted. “That’s such a gross word, dude.”

“It’s scientific! Your sexual organs, okay? So, you’re, um, you’re female, like you have female anatomy, but you’re a boy. You’re a transgender boy.”

“What about you?” asked Dean. “You’re a frickin’ girl when it comes to cleaning and homework and stuff. Does that mean you’re trans-whatsit?” He sneered, but Sam just frowned in upset.

“Dean, that’s not the same thing and you know it!”

There was silence between them. Dean’s grin had fallen, and instead he looked withdrawn and uncertain.

“So, what?” he finally asked. “You’re saying something got mixed up in the womb and I ended up with the wrong brain?”

“The wrong body, Dean. If you had a different brain, you’d be a different person.” Then he backtracked. “And not wrong, anyway, you’re not wrong, you’re just… It’s not like that. Here,” he said, holding out the stack of papers again for Dean to take, pages of information and definitions and terms. “I got you a bunch of information. There’s lots of transgender people, Dean, like you, you’re not alone. And there’s words for things you do, too, I mean, when you put… When you put socks in your underwear, that’s called ‘packing,’ and…”

“Packing?” Dean asked. “Like with guns?” He smirked slightly. “Like, I’m double-packing?” He folded each hand into a finger-gun and then made gunshot noises with his mouth, then crudely set one of them in his lap and made like he was shooting a bullet out of his crotch.

“Gross, Dean!” Sam protested, and Dean grinned. “Anyway, yeah.” He held out the stack of papers in both hands, and Dean took them. “You should read all of that. I even got you the stuff from the DSM.”

“The DS-what?” Dean asked, even though Sam knew he’d heard the last letter, but Sam understood what he meant.

“The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

Like watching a melting sheet of ice slip off of a gutter, Sam saw the slightly cautious animation that had been burgeoning in Dean’s expression fall. “Oh.”

Quickly understanding what had caused the change in his brother’s mood, Sam tried to backtrack. “I mean, it’s not like you… You’re not, I mean…”

“Whatever,” said Dean detachedly, turning away with the printed pages clutched tightly in both hands. “I’m gonna go take a dump.” He disappeared into the bathroom, the lock clicking behind him.

Sam stared at the bathroom door despairingly, feeling deflated and spent. The adrenaline from telling Dean originally was quickly falling away to be replaced by dark worry and the echoes of the things he’d read, the bad things, the things about people wanting to hurt his brother for no other reason than that he didn’t have the private parts they thought he ought to. The things about girls and boys being beaten, and raped, and killed, just because they were different, just because they were like Dean.

He lifted the heels of his hands up to rub at his eyes, swallowing back tears and hoping that Dean would understand, that when he finished reading those papers he’d know what Sam meant. At least he’d know he wasn’t cursed. At least he’d know he wasn’t a freak. At least he’d know he wasn’t alone.

Taking a deep breath, he dropped his shoulders and straightened. The important thing now was to tell Dad. Dad had known that it was dangerous for people to know about Dean, but he hadn’t known just how dangerous. He hadn’t known that there was a word for what Dean was, and that it was a word that some people hated and mocked. He had to tell Dad that they had to protect Dean.

When he heard the rumble of the Impala from outside later, Sam rushed to intercept his dad outside the door.

“Hey, Sammy,” Dad greeted with a smile, dimples furrowing the scruff of his beard. Sam smiled back, showing off his own, trying to find the enthusiasm he’d had earlier amidst the melancholy of upsetting his brother and the dark shadow of faceless strangers who would like very much to see Dean hurt.

“Dad! I did some research today!” he said, running up to him and staring up at his face. Dad put his hands on his hips and looked down with a tired chuckle.

“Is that right? I thought that was my job?”

Sam shook his head. “Not on a case. I found out what’s wrong with Dean. I mean, not what’s wrong, nothing’s wrong, but that’s the point! There’s a word for it! It’s called transgender!”

He gazed wide-eyed up at his dad, expecting something like the excitement and interest that had been blooming in Dean before Sam had gone and wrecked it. But instead, what he saw was a slightly furrowed brow, a strange flicker in deep brown eyes, and one corner of his mouth pulled up in what could be considered a smile.

“Yeah, Sam, it is.”

Sam stood there, feeling everything – even the guilt and fear for his brother – dissipate until he was left feeling empty and light. The sounds around him dimmed like there was cotton in his ears. His vision narrowed in on his dad’s face, on his dark stubble and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, on the perplexed and bemused expression.

“What?” Sam asked, hearing his voice like it had come from someone else. Detached.

His dad got down on one knee so he could look into Sam’s face at eye-level. He raised one eyebrow. “That’s what they call people like your brother.”

People like his brother?

Dad had… He had known? All this time?

How long? For a little while? For a long while? For Dean’s whole life?

It didn’t matter how long. What mattered was that Dean hadn’t know what was wrong, why he was different, hadn’t known if he’d been cursed or anything, hadn’t known why people called him names like tranny, hadn’t even known what the word meant, and Dad had never told him.

He felt something warm spreading through his chest, something like understanding, maybe even like relief. He felt like his eyes were open, like the top layer of his eyes had peeled away and he was looking at his father in a brand new light. He’d always hated the workouts, the senseless drills used for punishing stupid mistakes. He’d hated his dad leaving them in motel rooms for days on end, or dropping them off at someone’s house to be babysat like luggage, but he’d understood it. His dad was a traveling salesman. Then a hunter.

But he’d still held to his heart what Dean always told him; Dad’s doing his best, Dad’s amazing, Dad’s a hero. He’d listened to Dean’s tales of Dad’s adventures, his heroics. He hadn’t held the same hero-worship for the man as his older brother, but he’d respected and admired him nonetheless. But now?

He looked up at his father and saw a tired widow, the empty figure of a man who valued revenge more than a stable home and stable income and held the memory of a dead woman higher than anything else, not his own wellbeing, not the wellbeing of his children. He saw a man who had known exactly what his son was, and instead of telling him, of shining a light in the dark, had uncaringly left him to flounder and wonder and suffer in confusion and silence and solitude.

At that moment the way he saw his father shifted to the left. His dad was strong. He was intelligent. He fought monsters and he saved people. But he wasn’t a hero.

“We have to protect Dean,” said Sam. “There are people who would want to hurt him.”

John reached forward to clasp his hands on Sam’s shoulders and nod seriously, a slight smile ruefully crinkling the corner of one eye.

“That’s right, Sam,” he said softly. “People like your brother, they can get into a lot of trouble out there. Just like I’ve always told you, Sam. We keep your brother’s secret. We keep your brother safe.”

God. Did he even hear what he was saying? People like your brother? The man couldn’t even say the word aloud.

Sam followed his father into the motel room with his jaw clenched, staring up at the back of John’s head with penetrating thoughtfulness. He sat down on his and Dean’s bed silently. The room was empty.

“Where’s your brother?” John asked, and Sam nodded towards the bathroom door. Dean was still in there, with all of the information Sam had given him. “He been in there for a while?”

“Yeah,” Sam nodded. His father shook his head and chuckled, settling down at the motel room’s table with a beer.

It was a long time yet until Dean came back out, the papers held rolled-up in one hand. He walked straight over to tuck them into his duffel. His eyes were shining and his cheeks tinged red.

“You didn’t even flush the toilet,” Sam pointed out, and Dean shrugged. Chuckling again, John just shook his head.

“You leave your brother alone, Sam. Sometimes you just gotta take some time by yourself, huh, Deano?” He winked conspiratorially at Dean, for what reason, Sam didn’t know. Dean just smirked and lifted his shoulders in a shrug.

But he crawled under the covers beside Sam, who was lying back with his history book spread out on the blankets in front of him.

“Dean?” Sam whispered, but Dean didn’t even look at him.

John might be able to protect them from some things, but he couldn’t protect them from his own shortcomings. Well, Sam would just protect Dean from them instead.

What he couldn’t protect Dean from was monsters.

He couldn’t protect him from monsters with black eyes like gaping holes in their skulls and yellow, slathering teeth that tore at flesh like tearing off chunks of soft, rotting fruit.

He couldn’t even try.

Instead of racing forward with a silver blade clutched in two fists, ready to stab into the black dog between its heaving ribs, Sam’s legs remained still, rubbery and leaden. Instead of lifting his pistol and aiming down the sight to fire silver bullets into the beast’s roiling back, Sam’s hands remained slack and numb, hanging limply by his sides.

And then, instead of helping his dad push the corpse of the massive black dog off of Dean’s body and putting pressure on Dean’s wounds to hold his brother together, like someone attempting to keep a leaking stuffed-animal from bursting further at the seams, all Sam could do was stare with wide eyes at the blood pooling in the grass, spreading across Dean’s pants, spattered on Dean’s face, painting his father’s arms red, and bubbling further from under Dean’s bared ribs.

He couldn’t protect Dean from that. All he could do was watch.

But he could call the police. He could call an ambulance. He could make his fingers dial 911.

He could pretend that hearing his big brother sound like a girl and scream like a girl and cry like a girl didn’t scare him so much that he misdialed two times before managing to get the right numbers in the right order.

He could even pretend that he was aware and alert, yell at his dad, climb into the passenger seat of the Impala and track the lights of the ambulance ahead of them all the way to the hospital, even though he blinked after having spent four hours sitting in a plastic waiting-room chair and realized that he didn’t remember anything that had happened after dialing 911, not even leading the paramedics through the woods to his brother.  

He’d had his blood drawn in a kind of haze, watched the bags fill up with red and found some kind of comfort that a bit of him would be inside Dean, making him better. But the color also reminded him of Dean’s blood sprayed across the dark forest floor and it frightened him.

When the doctor told them about Dean’s injuries, Sam had to four times swallow down vomit that was crawling its way up his throat. Once from remembering the blood, the gristle, the scattered pieces of Dean strewn about in the grass. Once from imagining the pain, feeling it like a phantom in his own chest, hard and heavy and undoubtedly nowhere close to what Dean had suffered.

Once when the doctor offered to give Dean breast implants.

And once when his father called Dean “her.”

He hadn’t noticed the doctor saying it before then, had been too focused on the medical terms and sympathetic pain to recognize the pronouns, hadn’t even fully grasped the meaning behind the offered breast surgery, but when John’s voice cracked on it, on the wrong one, Sam realized what had been going on. He knew in that same instant that if his father was saying it too, it meant that he’d made a decision to follow along. It meant that he wasn’t going to tell the doctor that he’d been mistaken. It meant that while they were at the hospital, Dad wanted Dean to pretend to be a girl.

It made him sick to his stomach and angry but hours later when he was lying awake in the hotel room that Dad had got them, much nicer than usual because he’d found the closest one to the hospital, he could barely remember what he’d said to fight John’s bullshit, except that he’d conceded and he’d lost. What he could remember was the fear in his father’s face when he’d admitted that he was afraid that if the doctors learned that Dean was transgender, they’d commit malpractice or turn him out onto the streets or something. Privately, Sam thought it was a stupid fear. Doctors couldn’t do that.

Secretly, though, he was scared of it as well.

Sam didn’t remember falling asleep that night, but the next morning he woke up from a dream about going to visiting hours only to find that the information on Dean’s patient chart just read “TRANSGENDER,” and that Dean started bleeding terribly out of his nose and mouth and eyes and chest and Sam was shouting and pressing the red call button but all the nurses were ignoring him.

His dad was sitting up in the hotel’s chair when Sam started awake, with his elbows on his knees, staring at his hands. Sam wondered if he was remembering what Dean’s blood felt like, and suddenly, he was filled with a surge of anger. It was Dad's fault that Dean was hurt, it was his father’s fault that Dean could have died, might still die. His dad and his stupid obsession with hunting monsters. If they hadn’t been on that hunt, Dean wouldn’t be lying in the hospital right now. If they didn’t hunt, Dean would have never been hurt like that, wouldn’t have all the scars he did have. If they didn’t hunt, they wouldn’t constantly have to move around all the time, and Sam wouldn’t have to suffer through military training, and Dean wouldn’t have to sleep with a knife under his bed or walk around with a gun tucked into his waistband.

It was at that moment that he decided that he wasn’t going to live like this, not forever. He didn’t want to follow in Dad’s footsteps, he didn’t want to constantly live in fear and danger. Sam wanted normal. He wanted a normal father and a normal brother and to live in a normal house and go to school and make normal friends.

But he couldn’t have that, he could never have that, and the next best thing was to separate himself from all the not-normal in his life one day.

It didn’t occur to him, then, what his silent decision meant. He didn’t even mull it over much, not while he had better things to do. Like, entertain a heavily medicated (and therefore much more easily susceptible) Dean with detailed accounts of all of the astounding fictional things that their hotel had – a swimming pool with a real water slide, an eleven-story spiral staircase, gold-plated toilet seats, and an entire room filled with nothing but free candy – and glaring at the nurses whenever they came in to talk to Dean in sweet, crooning, condescending tones. He glared at his father, too, for allowing them to.

Except for when he was arguing with Dad, Sam pretended not to notice when the nurses called Dean “young lady,” for the sake of lessening Dean’s embarrassment, but he did refuse to answer them whenever they asked anything about his “big sister.”

When John checked Dean out of the hospital early and took them to Uncle Bobby’s, Sam occupied himself with making sure Dean didn’t tear his stitches, and helping him do the chest exercises that the physical therapist that Bobby brought up from Naomi, which was a couple cities west, told him to do. The physical therapist’s name was Ralph and he did it for free because Uncle Bobby had saved his life, or his son’s life, or something, some time ago.

It took Dean a long time to get better, because the black dog, it really fucked him up. That’s what Dad had said. Dean was fucked up.

But, Sam helped, and brought him water and a leather belt to bite down on when the pain was too much and there were no painkillers because Dad had left without a prescription, and cut him up apples and bananas and oranges into a bowl for him to eat, even though Dean complained every single time and said that fruit salad was too girly. Sam knew he secretly liked it, though, so he kept making more.

And eventually, Dean did get better, and Ralph the physical therapist from Naomi stopped coming, and Dean could sit up by himself and get out of bed and eventually even play outside with Sam. It was the middle of summer after all, and Sam knew how much Dean had hated being stuck inside when Sam got to run around in Bobby’s back yard.

Sam had caught him a cicada one day, a really big, really cool live one, and held it careful in both hands to bring it up to Dean’s room and show him. The insect had buzzed out of Sam’s palms when he parted his fingers and flew right into Dean’s face. Dean had yelled and batted it away with frantic, open palms, before grabbing Sam’s wrist in both hands and twisting hard enough to give him an Indian burn that bruised for two days. Sam had only cried a little.

The summer wore on, and the memories of the black dog and Dean’s injuries and the time at the hospital became faded enough that, eventually, the summer was even enjoyable.

Dean was laying sprawled out in the grass, his chest rising and falling with every breath, staring up at the sky. His hair had gotten longer by a few inches over the couple months at Uncle Bobby’s, shining more gold at the ends than the dark-blond of his roots. He huffed out a breath directed up at his forehead, blowing aside a few stray strands of bangs.

Sam raced across the grass barefoot, watching out for stray bits of glass or twisted scraps of old car, as was common to find in the grass around Singer Salvage – he’d already had to get a tetanus shot two years prior.

“Uncle Bobby bought popsicles!” he said when he’d skidded to a stop beside his brother. He had a strawberry one in his left hand and a grape one in his right. The grape one was already dripping onto his wrist. “I got you a purple one.”

Dean grinned up at him, squinting because the sun was high in the sky, and reached up a hand, making grabby-motions with his fingers. Sam deposited the popsicle-stick into Dean’s grasp and then plopped down on the grown next to him, sticking his own, red popsicle into his mouth and slurping up the melted outer layer.

Right hand resting flat against his chest, Dean licked a long line from a dripped trail of purple juice on his thumb all the way up to the top of the popsicle. Sam looked at Dean’s chest, at the flatness of it. The last time Sam remembered Dean without his boobs, Sam was only like seven years old or something. Whenever they shared a bed – which was when Dad stayed in the room with them, or when they had to get a single room instead of their usual double – Sam often woke up in the early hours of the morning with Dean’s arm wrapped protectively around him and his cheek pressed up against Dean’s chest, even though before falling asleep Dean always made sure Sam knew that he wasn’t allowed to get onto his side of the bed or take more than his fair share of blankets. It felt comforting and warm and soft. Making sure Dean wasn’t about to wake up, he’d snuggle in closer to the warmth of his brother’s embrace and close his eyes again and some part of him would wonder if that was how it felt to be held by a mother, if that was how it would have felt to be held by his mother. It wasn’t something he’d ever tell Dean, because he could imagine the insecurity and dispassion on Dean’s face if he ever did, but it was a curiosity that he held close in the small, insignificant part of his brain that yearned for a woman he had never known.

“Do you… Do you miss them?” he asked as the summer wind ruffled his hair. “Or are you happy they’re gone?”

Dean’s expression was carefully blank, his smile gone. He slurped at his popsicle, his lips tinting purple.

“Dudes ain’t supposed to have tits, Sammy,” said Dean, staring at his popsicle and licking up more juice as it dripped down his arm. Sam hated that word, tits. It always made him think of dirty gas marts and boys with cold eyes and leers.

“You were,” Sam said. “You’re a dude and it was in your DNA.”

“You know what I mean.”

Sam realized that his own popsicle had been steadily dripping onto his leg. He quickly licked it.

“You don’t have to be happy about it just because you feel like you’re supposed to,” he told Dean. “You can feel whatever you want.”

Dean snorted. “Fuck, Sammy, you don’t get it, and you’re never going to. Acting all deep doesn’t mean you understand anything.” There was a bite to his tone, and it kind of hurt. Sam winced.

“I just mean…”

“I don’t look like a girl anymore,” interrupted Dean. “So that’s a win in my book.” A pause and a lick. “I’m happy. I mean, I... it was... I wish it hadn’t happened that way.”

Sam lowered his popsicle. Dean took a bite out of his.

“I don’t think you looked like a girl,” Sam said softly. “You looked like a boy. You looked like, you know, yourself. Just Dean.” To Sam, Dean hadn’t looked like a boy in spite of his breasts; he’d just looked like a boy, breasts and all. Dean hadn’t thought that, though.

Dean huffed out a laugh and pushed himself up with an elbow until he was sitting, raising his wrist to rub under his eye and getting purple juice on his cheek. “No chick-flick moments, dude. Let’s finish these and then throw the ball around.”

“Dad says you’re not supposed to strain yourself. It’s only been, like, a month and a half or something since you got out of the hospital. You’re not supposed to raise your arms that high.”

“Come on, midget, I can toss a baseball without spewing blood and meaty bits all over the place. You’re such a girl.”

Sam bit his lower lip and looked down at the grass. A fly crawled up his leg and he watched it rub its front legs together.

“Okay,” he finally said, and went back to his popsicle.

“You look like you’ve been drinking blood,” Dean laughed, referring to Sam’s red-stained teeth after they were done with their snack and were heading back to Bobby’s back porch for their baseball gloves.

“Yeah, well you look like you’re wearing purple lipstick,” retorted Sam.

Dean ran his tongue over his lips and grinned. “Let’s just see who wins the game, huh?”

“You can’t win at catch, Dean, it’s not a competition.”

“That’s what you say, but I’m the one who’s gonna be beating your ass into next week.”

“You don’t make any sense.”

“Tell that to the ball.”

When they started school that year, after the summer break was over and John had taken them away from Bobby’s and down to Nebraska, Sam got to go to school on the legitimate First Day of School for the first time, like, ever. He had a new shirt, too, that he’d picked out at Walmart, so it didn’t have holes or weird stains on it, and he had one and a half dollars in his pocket for lunch, all in quarters except for two dimes and a nickel. They jingled against each other when he walked and made him feel excited.

Plus, Sam was going into sixth grade. That meant he was going into middle school, which was almost high school, which was what Dean was in. So Sam was pretty much a teenager, and he was going to be in school with the big kids, and Dean’s high school was all the way on the other side of town and started earlier than Sam’s, so Sam got to walk to and from school by himself. Basically, he was an adult now. Soon, he’d be in high school, and he’d get a girlfriend with a shy smile and kiss her on the lips. This was where everything was going to change!

They stayed at that school for a year and a half. It was nice while it lasted.

Sam was twelve when, in the middle of his history class, he was called down to the main office. The whole class Ooh-ed, and Jeremy Anderson asked him what he’d done, but Sam just put his notebook back into his backpack, zipped it up, and collected the worksheet that Ms. Simpson was holding out to him before exiting.

When he entered the office, it was to find Dean waiting for him, his hands shoved into his jacket pockets, looking a little pale and shaky. Instantly, Sam’s stomach roiled and his throat tightened at the thought that something might be wrong. Had Dad gotten hurt on a hunt?

“What’s wrong?” His voice sounded thin, his hands tight on the straps of his backpack. Dean, however, smiled crookedly and raised his eyebrows.

“Did you forget your dentist appointment again, Sammy?”

Sam didn’t have a dentist appointment, they never went to one, not unless one of them got a bad cavity or chipped a tooth. He wanted to object, but he couldn’t exactly do that in front of the receptionist, and Dean’s eyes were pleading Don’t push, not right now. So he just nodded and shrugged and tried to look suitably sheepish under the receptionist’s suspicious gaze.

Dean left the office, using his shoulder to push open the doors rather than withdrawing his hands from his pockets. Sam followed him to where the Impala sat in the parking lot, watching Dean’s boots kick away clods of dirt, watching his hair ruffle slightly in the cool breeze. Dean walked around to the driver’s seat and Sam opened the passenger door and slid inside, staring at Dean’s face after both of their doors had been closed and Dean was pulling out of the parking lot.

Dean drove in silence, the only sound between them being Metallica blasting from the Impala’s crackly speakers. Dean’s eyes were trained on the road in front of him, never flickering over to Sam. In the silence, Sam observed his brother. The way his hair looked ruffled and unkempt, as if he’d had his fingers in it, grabbing and twisting. He’d left the house that day in a V-neck black shirt and a worn flannel, his jacket stuffed into his backpack just in case, because the weather was supposed to be mild. Now, the flannel was tied around his waist, the two knotted arms of it hanging between his legs and off the front bench. Sam’s eyes moved up to his hands, which were gripped so tight around the steering wheel that they were almost white. His eyes widened slightly as he saw that Dean’s knuckles were battered and bleeding, and that that was the reason why Dean was wearing his jacket; so he could hide his hands in the pockets. His brother had punched a wall. Maybe even more than once.

His own hands twitched and he sucked his bottom lip between his teeth for a moment, looking back to Dean’s face. He hadn’t noticed before, but Dean’s eyes were slightly red-rimmed, and his cheeks were a bit blotchy.

“What’s wrong, Dean?” Sam asked in the space between songs, and Dean sort of tensed before relaxing again, his tongue coming out to wet his lips. He spun the wheel suddenly, and Sam put out a hand to brace himself against the bench beside him as they turned into the parking lot of the local Walmart. The car pulled into a space, the furthest possible one from the exit, although the lot was nearly empty. Sam was starting to feel nervous again. “Dean?”

Dean turned the key in the ignition and the sound of the Impala’s rumbling engine was silenced. After a moment, he turned slightly towards Sam and attempted a half-hearted grin. His right hand raised to scratch his temple, his knuckles glistening slightly from the blood wetting them.

“Uh, I…” He stopped and started again several times before sucking in a quick, steadying breath and shrugging slightly. “I got my, uh, my period today.” His voice was controlled and he gave Sam one of those stupid flickering half-smiles that meant that he wasn’t alright.

Sam’s eyes focused on Dean’s, but he felt cold. There was a sinking feeling in his gut.

“It’s nothin’, really,” Dean went on, his tongue running again over his lips, and he bit the lower one for a moment. “I mean, it’s not like I don’t know how to wash blood out of clothes. Been doing that for years.” He let out a humorless laugh.

Sam’s eyes went back down to the flannel tied around Dean’s waist and swallowed, although his mouth was suddenly dry.

“But I, uh, you know…” Dean made a vague gesture with his hands. “I need, um…” He jerked his chin towards the Walmart.

Dean was sixteen. It had been almost two whole years since the black dog attack, since Dean’s chest had become flat, and he’d been packing for years before that. He always controlled his voice, too, made it lower to the point where Sam didn’t really even know what Dean’s ‘real’ voice sounded like. Dean wasn’t really girly or anything, and… and Sam sometimes forgot that his brother had a uterus and ovaries and all the parts that related to them. It was all so abstract, all of these organs housed in Dean’s abdomen that Sam didn’t have, organs that Sam had never fully grasped the concept of.

Sam looked down at his hands. He hadn’t even thought about Dean one day getting a period for years, had ignored the possibility, maybe even tried to imagine that since Dean was already so old, he would just never get one. Guilt spread in his belly, familiar and aching.

“I’m sorry, Sammy,” Dean rasped, “But I just… I can’t go in there, okay? They’ll… I feel like they’ll just know, like they’ll look at me and just… and this town ain’t friendly, Sammy, I can’t…” His voice cracked a few times, going higher, and each time it happened an expression of pain flickered in the curves of his eyebrows.

“It’s okay,” Sam soothed, reaching out his hand to lay on Dean’s arm. Dean bit the inside of his cheeks and nodded, looking away. “Don’t worry, Dean. I’ll buy them for you. You wait here.”

Dean shifted sideways onto his hip and stuffed his hand into the back pocket of his jeans to pull out his tattered wallet, flipping it open to take out a worn-soft twenty-dollar bill and handing it to Sam. Sam took it and opened the car door before pausing, hesitating, and turning back towards his brother.

“Dean,” he said carefully, “Do you… do you want napkins or t-tampons?”

Dean didn’t reply, his hand going up to clench in his hair for a second. Sam waited in silence for him to answer.

“Th-the second one,” Dean finally muttered. Sam nodded and climbed out of the car.

He looked through the windshield at Dean as he walked around the front of the car. His brother’s hands were back on the steering wheel, his forehead on it too, shoulders drawn up almost to his ears.

Sam’s legs felt stiff and robotic as he walked across the parking lot to the Walmart’s automatic doors. The gust of cool air that hit him smelled of cleaning chemicals and candy. Sam didn’t look at the man behind the counter as he walked into the store, although he heard his greeting.

The signs indicating the contents of the aisle passed by until Sam reached Feminine Care. He gritted his teeth at the word, at that stupid label, and allowed his feet to turn him, to carry him a few steps in.

There were bright and colorful products lining the shelves of the aisle, different brands, different styles and different sizes or something. Sam didn’t have any idea what he was doing. And how many did Dean need? How long did a period even last? A day? A week? And how many tampons would Dean need per day? Would he need just one, or would he need two, or three, or five…

He could feel his breaths speeding up as he started to panic, but he thought of Dean back in the car, probably panicking also, definitely feeling horrible. Sam doubted Dean knew anything about that stuff either. And Sam wasn’t the one who had to actually live it. He could be strong for Dean.

He gritted his jaw and pulled down a box, reading the back of it. What was an applicator? Did Dean want one? There were plastic ones and cardboard ones. Sam winced at the thought of trying to put plastic or cardboard up inside his body. He decided to get Dean ones without.

It seemed practical to get Dean all of the different sizes, just in case, because he didn’t know which size would fit so Dean should probably try out all of them. Sam finally decided on a box that advertised Light, Regular, and Heavy with ten of each one. He took it and walked up to the front of the store to hand it over to the cashier.

The man wearing the vest behind the counter raised his eyebrows at Sam’s purchase and smiled. “Your sister sent you on a grocery run, huh?” he asked good-naturedly. Sam tensed his jaw and said nothing, silently taking the change and the receipt and the plastic bag with the box inside and left.

He hurried across the parking lot and opened the passenger door with a yank, sliding into the seat quickly. Dean didn’t move much, just raised his head and turned it to look down at the Walmart bag that Sam had set on the bench next to him.

“Thanks,” he muttered, and Sam nodded. Dean reached forward and pulled open the bag slightly to see the box inside it. His lips tightened. “Sam, okay if we keep this, uh, between us?”

Sam knew what he meant. Don’t tell Dad. “Alright.”

Dean nodded, more to himself than to Sam, and pushed the bag away as he turned the keys and the Impala rumbled to life.

“So,” Dean said, his voice immediately back to normal, although the casual tone was forced. “I didn’t yank you away from your precious class-time early for no reason. What d’ya say we go catch that new horror flick? We can sneak in.”  

Sam looked at Dean’s stiff smile and then ahead of him at the empty parking lot and shrugged.

“Yeah,” he said. “That would be cool.”

Dean bought them popcorn and soda with the change from the twenty, and the horror movie ended up being pretty fun, even if it was dumb. By the end of it, Dean had Sam muffling laughter as a result of the commentary he whispered in Sam’s ear throughout the movie’s duration, and they were both smiling and full when they left the theater. When they clambered back into the car and both of their eyes stuck on the plastic bag in the middle of the bench, neither mentioned it, and although Sam’s stomach was hurting and Dean’s smile looked a little fixed, they joked all the way home, where Dean disappeared into the bathroom with his duffel and the Walgreens bag for an hour and Sam sat on his bed to start on homework.

A year later, Sam was thirteen and Dean was being a jerk. He was contrary and irate, petulant and whiny. Sam was fed up with his brother lying on the bed and snapping at every little thing, ordering Sam to stop clicking his pen or to quit having his pencil make that squeaky noise as he struggled to answer his worksheet in complete sentences.

“And maybe next time lay off the after-school Taco Bell, because that fucking reeks.”

Blushing furiously, Sam gripped his pencil tighter and muttered under his breath as he finished his paragraph with an irritated flourish, “Must be that time of the month.”

There was a squeal of bedsprings as Dean sat up, suddenly tense and flushed and a lot more fucking pissed than he had been before.

“The fuck did you just say, bitch?” he growled, his eyes flashing. “I’m not a fucking girl!”

Sam rolled his eyes dramatically and turned towards his big brother, raising one eyebrow scathingly, and retorted with as much sarcasm as he could muster, “No, you just bleed out of your vagina on a monthly basis.”

Even if he was freaking angry as hell about it and still thought mutinously that Dean could stand to accept that sometimes his irritability was irrational and potentially affected by cyclical hormone shifts, he thought later that he probably deserved the bloody nose that Dean gave him.

Sam only called Dean “Deanna” in teasing once, because the wild anger in Dean’s eyes when he yelled at Sam for it was so terrifying it set Sam’s heart racing and formed a heavy lump in his throat. So Sam never did that again, even if he never did understand why Dean got so butthurt about it when he called Sam “Samantha” all the time.

For Sam’s fourteenth birthday, Dean took him out to an amusement park with the handful of cash he’d gotten from hustling pool over the past month. They rode roller coasters all day, and for dinner they got candy corn and towering ice cream cones, and then Sam threw up in the grass next to the merry-go-round.

Dean loved polishing his gun. It was his first one, his own. Yeah, he’d made his first sawed-off in sixth grade and had been using John’s pistols for years, but he’d never actually owned one before.

John had given it to him on his eighteenth birthday, handed it over across the dinner table of their motel, unwrapped – Of course it was, Sam had thought bitterly – and light glinting dully off the engraved slide.

“Forty-five caliber?” Dean had asked, taking the offered weapon with a reverence that Sam didn’t think he’d ever understand, his eyes wide in awe and a smile playing at the corners of his lips. “Single-action, semi-automatic…” he’d murmured, turning the pistol over in his hands and examining every detail, running his fingers along the engravings and stroking the ivory grips. His eyes widened slightly. “M1911. Dad, is this..?”

Dean had looked up at John in what seemed to be shock and wonderment, and John had smiled and nodded.

“That pistol saved my life more than a couple times on the field,” he had told Dean. “You use it right, take care of it, I guarantee it’ll be doing so again. Just, in someone else’s hands.” He’d winked at Dean and Dean had beamed.

Sam had thought a bit darkly that John could have stood to buy Dean a brand new gun for his fucking eighteenth birthday instead of just giving him another hand-me-down like always. He couldn’t pick out a single one of Dean’s possessions that hadn’t previously belonged to their dad.

But Dean had loved it, had spent the whole rest of the evening polishing it until the tarnish and grime was gone and it shone like a goddamn glassy sea at sunset, and spent almost every night since then doing the same. Dean was meticulous, practically obsessive. It annoyed Sam to no end, too, the amount of care that Dean put into taking care of that pistol. It was second only to the care he put into taking care of the Impala, and that was Dean’s baby, so it was a big deal. He’d take the gun apart, make sure every single mechanism was clean and fluid and hadn’t gotten sticky since twenty-four hours ago, sometimes twelve, then put it all back together and run the polishing cloth from his kit up and down the length of it in a way that Sam was pretty sure could be considered pornographic.

“Alright, Dean,” Sam said one night, finally fed up with watching Dean put more time and effort into polishing an already spotless gun than into the history essay or math homework that Sam knew he had. “We get it. You want cock. You can put down your fucking phallic symbol now.”

Dean froze with the gun in his hands, and John’s eyes raised to Sam from the newspaper he was looking through, his gaze steely. In an instant, Sam realized exactly what he’d just said and bit the inside of his cheek, hard and anxious, looking back at Dean to see what he’d say, if he’d say anything. The whole room felt frozen in silence.

Then, Dean grinned. “At least mine is bigger ‘n yours,” he smirked, raising the eight-and-a-quarter inch long pistol, and nodded towards Sam’s lap with a raised eyebrow. Sam blushed.

“I’m still growing,” he protested, and Dean just laughed and shook his head.

“Not another five inches anytime soon, bud.”

“I might!” It took him another second. “Hey! How do you even know…”

“Dude, you keep a ruler by your bed and every morning when you wake up…”

“Okay, okay!” Sam stopped him hurriedly and then furrowed his eyebrows. “But even so…”

“Come on, Sammy, you make little markings, it’s pathetic.”

He crossed his arms over his middle and pouted, the heat in his cheeks burning his face. “Whatever.”

Dean chuckled. “I’m just saying, you try to get into some macho pissing contest with me, you’re always gonna lose, ‘cause bitch, I can always switch up for somethin’ bigger and you’re stuck right there.”

“That’s not fair,” lamented Sam, and Dean shrugged and went back to polishing his gun.

“You’re the one who called it, I’m just playing along.” He looked up at Sam from his work and cocked an eyebrow. “What, you wanna take it back now?”

Sam closed his mouth and blew out his cheeks. There was no way he could do that, not when Dean was fucking right and he knew it.

“Jerk,” Sam muttered. Dean just popped out the magazine to check it before sliding it back in.

“Bitch,” Dean retorted cheerfully. Sam didn’t mind the attitude, much, but when he saw his dad snort to himself in mirth, he had a sudden, disturbing urge to punch John Winchester in the mouth.

Sam looked quickly down at his hands. One of them was twitching, he stilled it with the other. It was just hormones and shit. Probably happened to everyone.

Well, not everyone. He didn’t think it had happened to Dean, Dean didn’t really punch too many people. He stabbed monsters, but it wasn’t quite the same thing as wanting to see your dad’s mouth smashed in, feel his teeth crumble and bite into your knuckles.

Maybe it was a testosterone thing.

Sam could pretend it was just a testosterone thing, until Dean got his testosterone. Then he couldn’t anymore, not when Dean still rolled over belly-up at Dad’s every command.

So it wasn’t the hormones. It was the life. The hunter’s life. If Sam got out, it would stop, he was sure of it.

Sam had a favorite teacher his junior year of high school. He was only in that town for five months, but hers was the address he used for his college applications, and when they sent the acceptance letters, she called him to let him know. She helped him fill out his paperwork, and she helped him apply for housing. She helped him a lot, and he was always grateful for her.

Dean wasn’t grateful. Neither was John. But who the fuck cared. Sam was out.

Sam could see the irony in going into pre-law, what with him having spent basically his whole life being carted around by a father who repeatedly committed breaking and entering, burglary, credit and insurance fraud, and grave desecration. Especially since he’d participated in some of those crimes himself.

He’d like to say that despite his less-than-moral upbringing, Sam just had a strong sense of right and wrong and the brain to put that to good use. He’d even like to say that he had a passion to make the world a better place for the unfortunate and outcast, the down-trodden and overlooked, those that were systematically made into second-class citizens due to race, sexual orientation, or gender. It would make sense. He’d spent the majority of his life watching his brother forced to hide his body just so he’d be treated as an equal.

But really, the truth of it was probably about control. Control, which he’d never had, growing up. Being constantly pulled from state to state, sometimes unable to leave a motel room for days at a time or hang out with friends when he wanted, left him with a big gaping need for autonomy. Being a lawyer would give him that. Not only that, but power over others. He would have the power to hold someone’s fate in his hands, and abstractly, not in an “if I don’t have the right weapon for this creature you’ll probably die” kind of way. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying.

Just as being in college, away from his brother and John for the first time, was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. Every person who glanced his way on the street – every boy who sized him up or girl who smiled at him – could be a monster, only now, instead of following them into an alley to pull a silver blade on them or skipping town and rushing off to hide in some god-forsaken motel in the middle of nowhere, he could just ignore it and go on his way. He didn’t have to constantly be on his toes. He didn’t have to hide knives in his boots or stuff a pistol into the waistband of his pants whenever he went out. He wasn’t responsible for saving people anymore.  

He did keep a silver knife on him at all times, a short, stocky pocket-knife that he could fold up and stick in a pocket or stuff into his backpack, but it wasn’t because Dean had been on his ass about being prepared or because he was worried John was going to order him to turn out his pockets and punish him with extra training if he didn’t have a weapon on him. And that was the point. It was Sam’s choice.

In his sophomore debate class, they were given an assignment. They had to argue one side of a controversial issue with the other student who was given the opposing side of the debate.

If they had been allowed to pick which side they were on, that probably would have been easier. Well, yeah, it would have been easier. Sam might have picked universal health care, which he could have built a solid defense for, and it would have mattered to him because god would it have helped his family some on hunts if they could have gone to an ER instead of using dental floss and old sewing needles in a motel bathroom to fix up their injuries.

But that wasn’t how it worked, because that wasn’t always how being a lawyer worked. Sometimes you had to take cases you didn’t want. Sometimes you had to defend people you knew were guilty.

Still, Sam felt that it had to be some cosmic joke that the little slip of paper he picked out of the professor’s box had to be something so close to home. “Abortion should not be legal excepting extreme medical situations.” Which sent his mind spinning back to Dean.

Sam left the class wondering how he would ever be able to argue a side that made him literally sick to his stomach. He was so distracted that he almost didn’t notice Brady, and was only aware of the guy when he grabbed Sam by the shoulder.

Sam spun slightly, raising his hands into a loose defensive position, and Brady laughed out a “Whoa” and held up his hands.

“Dude, just wanted to let you know that me and Rob and them are planning a research session at the library tomorrow for the project. I’ve got to study for Stats tonight, but we’re meeting there at four, yeah? Put our heads together and help each other pick out resources. If you’re like Rob and me you got a shit topic that you have neither motivation nor personal belief to actually back up.”

Sam grinned ruefully and rubbed at the back of his head where his hair felt hot and a little damp. “Yeah, thanks man, that sounds great. I have a class until four-thirty, but I’ll be there. I could use the help.”

Brady snapped and made two pointed finger-guns in Sam’s direction as he backed away, grinning crookedly and showing lots of teeth. “Awesome, Winchester! Later, dude!”

Brady turned around to walk towards a different building. Sam continued on towards the student Union to shove a quick study session in between classes.

He arrived to Brady’s research session the next day forty-five minutes late. Brady, Rob, Luis, Zach, April, and a girl with blonde hair that Sam didn’t know were sitting together at one of the study tables. There were books spread across the surface, papers scattered, and bulky notebooks opened to pages with lines and lines of scribbled notes.

“Sammy-boy!” Brady called, gesturing Sam over to sit in an open seat at the head of the table, between Brady and the blonde.

“Yeah, don’t call me that,” Sam said, grinning and sliding into the wooden chair and dropping his notebooks onto the empty space on the tabletop in front of him.

Laughing, Brady clapped his back open-palmed. “Yeah, Yeah, Sam, I know.” He turned to the rest of the table and put a hand up to the side of his mouth, pretending to shut Sam out of the conversation. “Don’t call him Sammy, he gets touchy.”

The blonde girl laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Sam leaned forward a bit and flashed his dimples, the ones he had taught himself to use to distract women either from his phony ID or, currently, from the shyness that was tightening his stomach. She was very pretty, and he was instantly struck by her warm smile, her heavy-lidded eyes, and the cute mole between her eyebrows that decorated her forehead like a bindi.

“So, you know what to call me. What do I call you?”

“Oh yeah!” Brady exclaimed. “Sam, this is Jessica. She’s taking the same course, but she’s in a different lecture session. I ran into her at office hours last week.”

Jessica held out her hand and Sam took it, holding it gently in his large and calloused palm, feeling the softness of her fingertips and knuckles before shaking warmly.

“Call me Jess,” she smiled.

“Jess it is,” Sam said, smiling back.

“Alright,” Zach said, cracking his knuckles. “Now that we’ve got introductions sorted out, let’s get back to the books. What’s your topic, Sam?”

“I’m supposed to argue to make abortion illegal except in extreme medical situations,” Sam said through a slightly tight jaw. He rolled his eyes. “I’m having a little trouble with that.”

“Not to worry, man,” Luis said, dragging a heavy text over to him from a few feet away and rifling through its contents. “My parents were way into the whole protesting Planned Parenthood and everything, I’ve heard every argument.”

Rob, who was sitting with his back straight, shrugged stiffly. “And if you need any extra help, I’m actually in favor of that action myself.”

April let out a shocked gasp and clutched her chest sarcastically with her hand. “What? You mean I’m not sitting at a table entirely made up of radical college liberals? The university life has failed me.”

Jess laughed and exclaimed, “If you were looking for the liberal experience, you probably shouldn’t have chosen a school made up mostly of the wealthy elite.” Rob smiled somewhat ruefully and April laughed in agreement. Sam allowed his posture to relax. Sure, he was the lone full-rider here from a home history of being generally broke and homeless, but his friends were alright.

“What about you guys?” Sam asked curiously about their projects, leaning forward to peer at the essays and journals that his friends were looking at.

“I got the death penalty,” said Zach. “Abolishing it, that is.”

April picked her slip of paper from underneath a heavy book. “I’m supposed to argue that prostitution should remain illegal. Easy peasy.”

Jess turned towards Sam and playfully cocked her head, raising her eyebrows as if to share a mutual This is a dumb assignment, “And I am required to argue the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes.”

“Which is a topic that is just wasted on her,” Brady said, throwing his arms out in protest. “I mean, she doesn’t even smoke! She’s never even taken one hit!”

“I never felt the need to, Brady,” Jess said seriously. “I prefer to get high on life.” Her mouth twitched as she tried to hide a smile.

“Are you seeing this?” Brady turned to hiss at Sam, looking as though Jess’s assigned topic was a personal affront to his character. “She doesn’t deserve to handle the delicate topic of medicinal marijuana.”

Sam laughed, “Sure, Brady.” Jess rolled her eyes.

“Moving on,” interrupted Luis, “I’m supposed to tackle the revolutionary topic of lowering the drinking age.”

“Now that’s a topic I could get behind,” Brady sighed, leaning back in his chair and holding his own slip of paper out in front of him, staring at it with a pout. “Even Rob got a good one. Legalizing gay marriage. Which is, well, he doesn’t really find it personally appealing, but at least it’ll be easy. Me? I’m supposed to somehow convince people that it’s A-okay for a transgendered person to use whichever gender-specific restroom they damn well please. Which? Gross.”

Brady faux-shivered, and Sam felt himself heating up, could hear his blood pumping thickly in his ears. He swallowed, mouth suddenly dry.

There was a murmur of assent from Rob, while April, Zach, and Luis shrugged uncomfortably. Jess pursed her lips and frowned tersely down at her notes.

“It’s not ‘transgendered,’” Sam heard himself say fuzzily, like there was wax blocking up his ears. “The term is transgender.” Adjective, not adverb. Adding the -ed implied that something had happened to alter them, to make them transgender, rather than just being born that way. It was like calling a non-white person “colored.” It implied that Dean had something wrong with his brain, or that he was cursed or otherwise not right. That there was something that could be changed back or fixed, somehow. He paused and swallowed, something in his throat clicking. “Man, woman, transgender man, transgender woman…”

He saw Jess turn to look at him in his periphery, but he was looking at Brady, who was grinning at him and waving his paper. “Then I guess Professor Philpott isn’t very politically correct, huh? Says here, and I quote…” He pulled the paper flat open and read in the droning, vaguely British-accented voice of their debate professor, “’Transgendered men and women should have the right to use their preferred gendered bathrooms.’ How’d you know that anyway, Sam?”

Sam shrugged uncomfortably. Because my brother is transgender, he heard himself saying in his mind.

Instead, he said, “I read a lot.”

“And I mean, I dunno, personally…” April spoke up, then took a deep breath. “Personally, I don’t think it’s any of my business if a man wants to dress up and act like a woman, but I’d feel uncomfortable if he was in the same bathroom with me, you know?”

“Well, yeah,” Brady agreed, putting his hands down on the table, palms up. “And dude, seriously though. I mean, like, if you’re a lesbo, you’re a fucking lesbo, you can’t just turn into a man and call yourself straight.”

Sam was silent. He felt very hot underneath his Stanford sweatshirt, and he could tell that his armpits were sweating more than usual, a feat in and of itself because Sam was a sweaty guy. His hands clenched slightly around his notebooks, and he found himself clenching his jaw hard, his teeth grinding together in an uncomfortable way, the powdery squeaking sound echoing inside his head.

He should say something. He should open his mouth and tell April and Brady that they were wrong, that they didn’t know what they were talking about. He should tell his friends about his childhood and his brother and make them understand, make that quietly assenting expression on Rob’s face disappear, make Zach and Luis stop shrugging in silent permissiveness.

He should. He really should. He should stand up for his brother.

But.

It could have been fear, remnants of his dad constantly telling him not to ever let anyone know about Dean’s secret, about Dean’s body. It was hard, so hard to go against his father, even now that he had committed the ultimate betrayal and left John and Dean alone while he moved on to greener pastures and the potential for a normal life.

It could have been that he was worried, that he was thinking about Dean, that if Dean ever did come to visit him here at college he wouldn’t want all of Sam’s friends to know that there was a sock rolled up in his underwear and pockmarks from testosterone injections on his thigh.

But it was probably, secretly, ashamedly, though he would never admit it to himself, the fact that he was normal now, he had normal friends and was attending a university to get a normal degree, and he didn’t want… he didn’t want to draw attention to how fucking abnormal his family was. He didn’t want to be that, here.

So he kept silent, nervous and sweaty and fingers twitching and an objection held firmly inside his closed mouth.

Then, Jess spoke.

“Brady, can you tell me what it feels like to be a boy?”

Every face at the table turned towards her, Sam’s included. Brady shrugged.

“Um, I dunno?” he said at first, his voice a little hesitant. Then he seemed to gain confidence as he continued. “Well, masculine for one. Manly for another.” He jokingly flexed his arms and winked in Jess’s direction. Jess looked both unfazed and unamused.

“Okay,” Jess nodded. “So, imagine feeling masculine the way you do and manly the way you feel, and then looking down every day and seeing that you have a vagina instead of a penis. That’s how a transgender guy feels. He’s not a lesbian with internalized homophobia, he’s a man born with the wrong genitalia.” She turned towards April and said kindly, “And a transgender woman isn’t a man who ‘dresses up and acts like’ a woman, she’s a woman who was born with a male body. Imagine if you were born with a penis. How awful would it be to be a woman forced to use the men’s restroom, just because other women were uncomfortable that you didn’t share the same private parts?”

Rob seemed to be avidly avoiding looking at Jess, but Luis and Zach were both leaning forward a bit and April looked suitably chastised. Brady leaned back in his seat and looked doubtfully down at his slip of paper.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said, sounding dubious.

Sam couldn’t take his eyes away from Jess. Everything he had found appealing about her seemed to be exacerbated, from the kindness in her eyes to the radiance of her rosy cheeks. She turned to him, her face still set and her mouth serious and unsmiling, though not unkind. He quickly turned away, focusing instead on the book that Luis was handing him across the table, opened to a useful essay. He leaned forward to look at a section that Luis pointed out for him, feeling Jess’s eyes prickling the back of his neck.

Despite his yearning for a normal life, for college and friends and a job, he had never actively imagined finding a girlfriend to be with long-term. Maybe a few of the typical college hook-ups. Sam had never really been one for one-night stands, not like Dean, but he didn’t think he would have minded casual dating or friends-with-benefits. Now, however, his thoughts were turning to images of how Jess would look while they were making love, flushed and smiling and eyes shining and hair plastered to her forehead and tangled slightly from being pressed into the blankets behind her. The direction in which his brain was taking him was both surprising and humiliating, and Sam found himself crossing his legs under the table and pulling his chair forward as close as he could, ensuring that no one could see the sizeable bulge in his pants.

Appalled at his thoughts, Sam blushed and ducked whenever Jess attempted to involve him in a conversation. However, despite his greatest efforts to remain both discrete and slightly apathetic (“It’s called ‘playing hard to get,’ Sammy, and it works every time” Dean’s voice echoed in his head), he left the study session that night with Jess’s number, written on a scrap of paper and punctuated with her name and a tiny heart, clutched tight in a fist deep in the pocket of his sweatshirt.

He programmed it into his own phone that night with blush heavily covering his cheeks, glad that he didn’t have a roommate like Brady, who would have surely ribbed him endlessly for how fucking girly he was acting (Dean certainly would have). After Jess’s number was in his cell, he went to his contact list and scrolled down, preparing himself mentally to text her a quick Hey, its Sam, just so she had his number, too, only to find himself hovering over her name for a long and silent while.

Dean’s number was programmed into Sam’s phone under the name “Jerk.” Alphabetically, it stood to reason that it would be right there, right above Jess’s. Sam’s thumb seemed to be stuck to his enter key, unable to either continue on to text Jess’s number or escape from the contact menu altogether. He hadn’t talked to Dean in a while. In months.

And whose fault is that?

Last time he’d seen Dean, it was the first semester of his sophomore year. Back then, Dean had made a habit of texting him a few words every few weeks, to make sure he was doing alright, to make sure he wasn’t lying in a ditch somewhere drained of blood. Sam usually sent a terse reply, ‘cause otherwise he knew Dean would freak out and he didn’t want him coming up and bursting into his dorm room, guns a’blazing.

It hadn’t worked though, because he was out with some classmates at the bars one night and there Dean was.

“This seat taken?” Sam hadn’t recognized the voice at first; it was a lot lower, lower than Sam’s even, though it had never been that way before.

Everyone at the table looked up to see the attractive, cocksure older man in confusion and, for some, a bit of annoyance. The annoyance came mostly from the boys, while many of the girls seemed amused or intrigued.

“And you are..?” asked Brandon, leaning back slightly in his sticky wooden chair and spreading his legs. Sam watched Dean smirk as he recognized the common sign of a threatened male attempting to assert some dominance. At the same time, Sam felt an unnerving combination of anger, panic, and poignant longing for the brotherly banter he and Dean used to share so easily, every day.

“Dean,” Sam said, the unsettlement obvious in his voice. His friends all turned to look at him.

“So,” Dean continued, “This seat taken?” He pulled out the chair in question without waiting for an answer and sat down, reaching a hand out to Brandon to shake. Brandon took the offer with uncertainty.

“Dean?” Brandon asked, looking between Sam and the handsome stranger.

“Winchester,” Dean nodded. “Dean Winchester.”

The rest of that evening had been spent with equal amounts of hilarity and tension. Dean had always been skilled with charisma, as long as Sam could remember. He’d charmed the girls with flattery and humor, and then had warmed up to the chagrined boys by teaching them how to play pool. Not well enough to take home the profit at the end of the night, but enough to carry that skill on and maybe win the following weekend against someone who wasn’t Dean.

All the while, Sam had been waiting for the pin to drop, waiting for Dean’s smile and camaraderie to shift to an accusatory cold shoulder.  When it hadn’t happened, instead of relaxing, Sam had only gotten more wound up, more frustrated.

Dean didn’t have the right to pretend like nothing was wrong when he’d let John chase Sam out that door.

“What are you doing, Dean, if you’re not here to tear me a new one?” Sam confronted him later, after his classmates had dispersed and it was just him and Dean, standing in the grass outside his dorm room in the dark. “Here to check up on me? Make sure I’m following all of Dad’s old rules? Salting the windows in my room, carrying a flask of holy water wherever I go? I’m out of that life, Dean, I’m not doing that shit anymore.”

Dean shrugged, his hands tucked into the pockets of his canvas jacket, and gave Sam his best ‘Who, me?’ look that he’d been perfecting since the sixth grade.

“What, Sam, a guy can’t visit his little brother at college without having some ulterior motive?” Sam bristled at the roll of Dean’s eyes at the word college, at the way his voice stretched around the syllables, mocking it like it was some big joke.

“So if you didn’t come to check up on me, what’s the real reason, huh?”

Dean chuckled and pushed lightly at Sam’s chest, getting him to back off slightly. “Come on, Sam. You know why. I’m here to see if you’re done playing normal.”

Sam felt heat crawling up the back of his neck, rising to his ears and making his cheeks go ruddy.

“I’m not done, Dean. This is my life now. Can’t you just let it go?”

And out comes the truth.

“Come on, Sam! You know this is never gonna last! I figured, just let you play for a bit, get it out of your system.”

Sam turned away, took a few steps towards the entrance of the building, shaking his head in disbelief. Dean couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t just be a normal guy. Couldn’t just be a normal brother and visit the campus and shoot the shit with Sam’s college buddies like a regular guy. Sam felt vindicated that he hadn’t let himself hope it could be true.

“Dad didn’t mean it, you know,” Dean called at his back. “If you came back, he’d let you. You don’t have to stay here.”

Sam stopped. He looked up at the cloudy sky. He turned and looked back at Dean, who looked so pathetically earnest that Sam could laugh.

“Well I mean it when I say that this is my life, Dean, and if you can’t make yourself be normal for just one goddamned night to be a part of it, then I don’t need you in it.”

Dean looked like he’d been slapped, his self-righteousness melting into offense.

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do. If you’re not willing to accept that, then after you leave, don’t come back.”

Sam finally turned his back on his older brother and walked silently into his dorm building. Dean didn’t call after him, didn’t beg him to come back, didn’t do anything to keep Sam from walking away. Just like last time.

Dean was just like John.

Sam clicked and entered Dean’s contact menu, but passed over the “call” option and edited the contact name from Jerk to a simple “Dean,” moving the info to the top of the list, right between Carl and Dennis, two friends from freshman year who he hadn’t contacted in months. It was safe.

He scrolled back down and texted Jess. She responded a few minutes later with a winking face using a semicolon and a parenthesis, which had Sam grinning like an idiot and throwing his arm across his eyes. She’d texted him right back, hadn’t left him hanging. That meant she liked him too, right?

Or maybe it meant that she just wanted to be friends. Just friends.

No, no, he assured himself. There had been mutual attraction. She’d laughed at his joke about the penguin at the bar, even though he knew it was just about the dumbest thing ever. She’d even brushed his hand a couple times when looking over notes with him, and did that thing that girls do, with their hair, when they’re flirting. He was sure of it.

And when Sam bought a new phone a year later, he didn’t tell his dad or brother his new number.

Jess quickly became part of their usual group. She was funny and clever and kind, and she always chose to sit next to Sam. On a Wednesday, he asked her to sit with him in the dining hall during lunch. Jess declined and asked instead if he would sit with her at a restaurant for dinner. With a smile on his face, he accepted, and one date later, they shared their first kiss.

None of Sam’s friends had been there the one night that Dean had come to campus, and so none of them knew anything about Sam’s family. Jess knew more than his friends, but only by a small amount. By four facts, if he were to get specific about it: she knew that he had grown up without a mother (but she didn’t know why); she knew that he had an older brother; she knew that his brother’s name was Dean; and she knew that he had grown up poor.

Jess knew all of this from what she’d gathered over nearly two years of dating the man she was in love with, from snippets of thoughts said in passing, from whispered conversations held in a bed on top of damp sheets, from things he’d gasped through tears after waking up from nightmares to find himself being rocked in her embrace.

“How can you stand it?” he asked her one night, as she brushed his sweaty bangs away from his face. “You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me. How can you stand being with someone like that?”

She smiled at him with a tenderness that made his heart ache and bent his head forward so that she could press her lips against his forehead.

“I don’t need to know your past to know who you are, Sam Winchester.” He let out a shuddering breath and pressed one large palm to her breast, directly over her heart. She let him feel her heartbeat in silence for a few moments before continuing. “I know what it’s like to want to forget things, Sam. You don’t know everything about my past, either. Knowing that, can you still stand being with me?”

Sam closed his eyes and tucked his head under Jess’s chin. “Of course. Of course, I...” He trailed off as she ran her fingers through his hair, comforting him gently, a wordless assurance that he didn’t have to say anything more. He pressed his cheek against her soft chest, sucking in a shaky breath, sense memory sending him flashing back to when he was a child, his brother’s warm breasts pressed against him as they curled against each other in a dusty motel bed.

“I will be here as long as we love each other,” Jess finished simply. Sam believed her.

When her blood dripped onto his face, when he opened his eyes to find her pinned to the ceiling, when the scent of her burning flesh filled his lungs and was somehow different than that of all of the other bodies he’d ever burned in his life, he wasn’t surprised. He was heartbroken, devastated, tormented. But he wasn’t surprised.

Dean was right. Sam was never normal. He’d just been playing normal until the next demon came to bite him in the ass.

For a while, Sam hated Dean for that. And he took a sick pleasure in it, too.

Because Dean wasn’t educated. He was a high-school dropout. He was crude and unsophisticated, and people sneered at him in town when they saw him pass by with his holey jeans and his scuffed-up boots and his dusty leather jacket – a cast-off from John, probably discarded to Dean rather than simply thrown out in the trash to save their father the effort. He joked and laughed with the blue-collar workmen in the bars like he belonged there with them.

Dean could probably fit right in on the main floor of a factory if he ever decided to do a bit of honest labor, but he likely wouldn’t even be able to hold that down for long before he skipped one shift too many in exchange for a few cheap beers.

Sam was... he was cultured and... and enlightened. When they had found and killed the demon, he would return to law school and graduate with honors. He’d find a position at a firm somewhere, where he’d wear fine tailored suits and receive nothing but respect from the businessmen who worked around him. He’d be... away from all of this, this monstrousness in a way that Dean never could be.

At the very least, that was what he told himself, as a comfort in the night in the dark when his mind turned to what poison was flowing through his veins. He made himself remember this when he felt red creeping in the corners of his vision, or darkness clawing at the edges of his mind.

When Sam himself was feeling particularly freakish, he reminded himself of the ways in which Dean could never be normal, of how there were parts of Dean's body missing that he would never be able to find, whereas Sam was whole; though these thoughts were gruesome in and of themselves and only made Sam feel more monstrous once he had recovered his decent state of mind.

There were things that he said, words that tasted bitter coming out of his mouth, that were sharp and that made Dean wince; and yet Sam continued to say them because it felt so nice to remind himself that he was better.

And Dean was a rock. Sam could throw pebbles at him, but they wouldn’t chip him, he wouldn’t crack.

Dean couldn’t crack.

But he could get worn, he could be made smaller. He could sell his soul. And he could die.

Sam had had family and friends come and go. He’d learned not to trust people, not to wish for permanence, after moving so much and switching so many schools, after making and losing friends, after Stanford and Jess and Dad and everything. He’d learned not to care for things, because everything goes, eventually. He could never just feel content, could never sit back and relax somewhere and feel at home. There was only one thing he could always rely on, only one single steady, trustworthy constant in his life.

He had always just had Dean.