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Johnston, Iowa
January 24, 1998

Sam knew that his father had a job to do, and he knew that there wasn't anyone else who could do it. He'd known that monsters were real since he was eight and a half years old, and he knew that someone had to protect the innocent from them. At least, someone had to kill the evil ones. He knew that person, more often than not, was going to be his father. But every now and then, he couldn't help but think that maybe the world should take care of itself. Just for one day.

This was one of those times.

"This isn't fair, Dad. It's bullshit, and you know it."

"Watch your mouth, Sam." It wasn't a threat, because John Winchester didn't do threats. It was an order, and it was one that John's tone made it clear that Sam had best obey.

Sam was almost tall enough to look his father in the eye. At fourteen and a half, he already stood just an inch shy of six foot. Even Dean had noticed how tall he was getting and was constantly making cracks about what a freak he was, but Sam thought he was more worried about his little brother getting taller than him than anything. Bobby said he looked like a wild mustang colt, all arms and legs with a long face and even longer hair.

John hadn't mentioned anything about Sam's sudden growth spurt, though. He hadn't given any indication that he'd even noticed. To Sam, it was just another sign that his father wasn't paying attention to his children the way a father should. Just like he wasn't right then.

John was bent down over the small table that served as his desk in that motel, sorting through a bunch of crumpled papers, and he was focused on his task. Sam stepped forward and leaned his hands against the edge of the table in the hopes of catching his father's eye. John glanced up quickly but looked back down just as fast.

"I don't wanna hear it," John said tiredly.

"I don't care," Sam shot back. "You don't have to do this tonight. It's just some stupid recon."

"It's 'stupid recon' that could save someone's life."

"But it's his birthday!"

When John looked up this time, his eyes were hard and his lips had narrowed. "What do you want me to do? Buy some balloons, hire a clown, bake him a cake?" John looked away again, pushing his papers around like there was some sort of order to the chaos. It was clear that he considered the subject closed. "He's not a little kid anymore."

"He's only nineteen," Sam argued.

"He's a man."

"He's still your son."

John slammed both hands down on the table and spun on Sam, holding up one finger as a warning. "Don't."

Six months earlier, Sam would have backed down. Six months earlier, he would have apologized and lowered his head and walked away. But a lot had changed in those six months, starting with the fact that Sam no longer backed down from anything or anyone. He'd seen and learned too much about what was hiding in the dark, about the truth that the people living their normal lives in their average homes and "safe" neighborhoods couldn't even being to imagine. He'd seen too many people get sucked into too many things beyond their control, and he'd sworn that it would never happen to him. He knew his own mind, he knew what he wanted from his life, and he didn't care if anyone disagreed with him – not even his father.

"You know how much he was looking forward to this, Dad. He never asks for anything, but he asked for this, and you said yes. You promised him. You can't take that away!"

"That is enough, Samuel!" John stepped closer, white-knuckled fists clenched at his sides, and Sam could feel the anger rolling off of his father in waves. John had rarely lost his temper with either of his sons through the years, but arguments with his youngest were starting to become common. Sam knew that the day was coming fast when he and his father would come to blows over something. It was inevitable.

Sam felt his own hand clenching in response.

"Hey!" a voice called out. "Knock it off!"

Neither of them had heard the door open, and neither of them had heard him walk in, but suddenly Dean was there, stepping between them, putting a hand on John's chest and pushing him away from Sam.

Sam couldn't believe it.

Not that Dean had stepped between them, because he'd been doing that a lot lately, but that he'd had to break up what had almost become an actual fight. That John had let his temper reach the point where he'd almost started throwing punches. That from the way John's hands were still clenched, at least one good swing was still a very real possibility. That Dean stood his ground between them, with both hands on his father's chest, holding him back. That Dean stayed there even though he had to know that if John did throw that punch at Sam, it would hit him instead.

Happy fucking birthday, Dean.

"Enough, Dad."

Dean's voice was calm and even; Sam had heard that tone more and more often lately, too. It was the one Dean used when he had only a few seconds to defuse their father before he exploded.

Most of the time, it worked.

"That's enough."

Sam glared at John across Dean's shoulder. John, for his part, nodded at Dean and relaxed his hands. After a few seconds had passed, Dean dropped his arms to his sides, and John turned back to the table. Bobby had appeared at some point – Sam guessed that he had walked in with Dean and had stayed out of the way until it looked like the disaster had been averted – and the two older men were immediately hunched together over the table, talking quickly and quietly about something only they knew.

It was still too much for Sam.

"Stop treating this like it's a normal day!" he demanded.

This time John only glanced in Sam's general direction across his shoulder, and that was just to make sure that Dean was taking care of that last outburst.

And Dean was.

He grabbed Sam by the shoulder of his shirt and pulled him forward, stepping around behind him and pushing him toward the door that opened into the adjoining motel room that the brothers were sharing. "Go, Sam," he said softly.

"No, Dean," he protested, digging his heels into the carpet and spinning around. "Don't let him do this to you!"

"Sam. Go." Dean's teeth were pressed tightly together, as though he were using them to hold back words he didn't want to let himself say.

Sam squared his shoulders and shook his head as he straightened his back and pulled himself up to his full height.

Dean rolled his eyes as he reached across Sam's shoulder, grabbed the back of his shirt, and spun him toward the door again. One hard shove had Sam stumbling, trying not to trip over his own feet as the sudden momentum propelled him forward.

"Now!"

Sam's shoulders slumped as he walked. He could still hear Bobby and his father talking in the room behind him, but he wasn't paying attention to them anymore. He needed to talk to Dean, to convince him to tell John how much the promise of this night had meant to him. It was a conversation that was definitely more suited for the privacy of their room than in their father's, so he motioned for Dean to follow him through the door.

Dean had been planning this for weeks. The three of them were going to go out together, like any normal family celebrating a child's birthday. Dean had picked the movie the first day he'd looked – a horror movie about some demon named Azazel. He'd been looking forward to listening to John rip Denzel's demon hunting skills to shreds, and John had even joked that he was looking forward to doing it. When John had told him that Bobby was coming to Johnston, too, Dean hadn't even really tried to hide his smile. He'd have his whole family with him on his birthday, and that was really all Dean could hope for.

Sam knew for a fact that it was the only thing he'd asked for.

But that was all gone. Bobby was there, but he and John were going out to investigate something or other to do with whatever spirit or creature or monster it was that had brought them to Johnston in the first place. He and Dean were being left behind, but they'd actually both been okay with that at first. They had their plans, after all. Maybe John and Bobby wouldn't be with them, but they were going to eat chili dogs and cheese fries and go watch the movie. Then John had dropped the bombshell.

They weren't allowed to leave the motel until he and Bobby returned.

There'd been no explanation from their father, no reasoning, no excuse. Just more orders.

"You will stay in these rooms while we're gone, do you hear me? If you leave them for any reason, I will whip your ass, and don't think for a second that you're big enough to stop me."

Sam turned to face Dean as soon as he heard the door close behind them.

"You have to tell him," he said quickly. "Tell him how much this means to you. Tell him how long you've been planning it."

Dean shook his head and sighed. "Sam ..."

"No, Dean. He doesn't get to do this. He doesn't get to ruin your birthday just because he wants to!"

Dean plopped down on the end of his bed, then lay back across it. "It's not just because he wants to, and you know that. He's got a job to do."

"I don't give a damn about the job!" Sam declared. "I give a damn about him shitting on the one thing you asked him for. The one thing he promised you. Just one day, Dean, just one normal fucking day. Is that so much to ask?"

"Watch your damn mouth," Dean growled.

Sam threw his arms in the air in frustration as he flopped down on the side of his own bed. He sighed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "It's not fair," he said. "And it's not right. You're his son; he should care about your birthday."

Dean rolled over so that he was facing Sam and propped his head up with his hand. "That's the way the job goes. We can't just work when we want to, Sam. We have to work when we need to."

"Why can't it wait until morning?" he asked. "Why does it have to be now?"

"Because most spirits only come out at night," Dean explained with a tired-looking smile. Sam already knew that, of course, but it didn't change anything.

He let his hands dangle between his knees and looked across at his brother. "Sucks out loud, dude," he said, though he knew his voice didn't sound angry anymore. And he wasn't angry anymore. Irritated, yes. Betrayed. Ignored. Abandoned. Mostly on Dean's behalf, because for some reason that Sam could and would never understand, his brother wouldn't feel those things for himself, no matter what their dad did to him.

"Yeah, I know." Dean reached across the space between the beds and tapped Sam lightly on the knee with his fist. "But that's the gig." Dean rolled back to his back, his knees bent and feet touching the floor, and spread his arms wide across the bedspread as he stared up at the ceiling. "Not the first birthday I've missed, won't be the last."

Sam just lifted his head and stared at him. "It's not right, Dean."

Dean turned his head toward him and shrugged.

Sam drew a deep breath and prepared himself to launch into another conversation with Dean about the rights and wrongs of fathers ignoring their sons, but he never had the chance to start.

"Dean! Come here for a minute!"

"Don't go," Sam said softly. "You don't have to come running every time he calls."

Dean shook his head sadly, pushed himself up off the bed, and walked to the door. Just as his hand touched the knob, Sam spoke again.

"You shouldn't have to give up your birthday because he tells you to."

"It's not important, Sam," Dean said without looking at him. "Really. It's just another day."

"I'll fix it for you," Sam said. "I will. I don't know how, but this is gonna be one birthday you're never gonna forget."

Dean smiled at him one last time before walking out the door. "Of course it will, Sammy."