Warning: Permanent brain damage
Word Count: 4,900
A/N: So, I wrote a halloween fic in April. Go figure. And I kind of want to make this into a verse, just 'cause... oh, the possibilities. Also, I want to state that any views in this fic belong to Dean Winchester, the fictional character from No Small Town, USA, and are not my own. Supernatural belongs to Eric Kripke and the CW.
Summary: Five year olds love Halloween. And now, so does Sam. It’s like one big cosmic joke. Dean's learning how to make his mentally regressed kid brother happy again, and smile while he does it. Goes AU from early season 7. Not a de-aged fic. YMMV on whether this is actually a happy story.
Dean can always see it in their faces, the moment they realize. Proud parents, good neighbors, armed with a big smile and a bucket of candy, expecting five year olds in tutus and Spiderman masks at their door. Five year olds love Halloween.
And now, so does Sam. It’s like one big cosmic joke.
Most people are confused when they see two grown men alone at their door. Some instantly dredge up fear, others anger. They’ve had more doors slammed in their faces than they ever did with cheap suits and fake badges, and Sam takes every one of them to heart. Dean usually tries to run a hand in circles across his broad back, maybe promise the next one will be different, but he’s stopped making that promise because they agreed on no more lies. That was promise number one.
That means Sam tells him when his singing’s off (ow, Dean) or his hair looks stupid (like a wet dog). In return, Dean tells him why they’re sometimes asked to leave diners (you’re too cool for them, Sammy) and why they don’t have any friends (we used to, remember? But we gotta start over now.)
Truth is, there’s not a single one of their (few, far between) friends who wouldn’t have stepped in to help Dean with Sam, to talk to him sweet and slow, to smile big while Dean hid away with the stacks of bills up to his earlobes. But apparently this is what life looks like when you’ve outlived everyone you know – got the scars to show for it.
Everyone else around them – they’re not friends. Not yet, anyway. Dean knows Sam’s dying to make some, Sesame Street has convinced him how wonderful they are, but all Dean sees are judging eyes, quick to label and ignore. It’s a bug up his sleeve like nothing else. The best Sammy can hope to be considered is a Gentle Giant – a threat perceived, but dismissed – and Dean doesn’t know whether it’s the underestimation or overestimation that makes his fingers curl. Sam should be a threat to them. Sam can reload a shotgun in six seconds. Sam was on the FBI’s most wanted list - twice.
But Sam also laid down his life for these people. He gave up his body and his soul and his mind so this ignorant town could shake their heads at a year of crazy natural disasters, and they use that freedom to judge him? Dean hates them all, just on principle.
That doesn’t go a long way for Sammy’s friend-making crusade, though, so most days he does his best to suck it up. Tonight is a real test of will, because if there’s one thing he hates more than strangers, it’s strangers hiding their faces. It’s a small mercy, then, that the people who opt to stay in and hand out candy usually have nothing to hide their expression when they realize exactly what’s going on. What Sam… is.
A lot of them go quiet. Tight-lipped. They hold their candy bowl with outstretched arms and quietly count how many pieces Sam takes. Dean told him just one, he knows the rules, but sometimes he forgets and there’s not much Dean can do in the moment.
Some offer him more candy, awkward and urgent, trying to soothe some misunderstood (if deserved) guilt over being whole while Sam is not. Dean sneers at them and hopes Sam won’t notice.
And others still, they stare Dean down like he should shoulder the blame. Like he’s made some fundamental error for letting his kid brother dress up and ask for candy. Like he hasn’t done everything for Sam; sold everything they had to pawn shops and other hunters to buy Sam a house. Joined the actual 9-to-5 so that Sam could have dinner at the same table every night. New clothes, new games, and a reliable schedule. One night of freaking candy won’t undermine six months of careful schedule-keeping—
Sam yawns, mouth wide and dark in the middle of his too-white face paint, and instead of covering it with his hand he wipes his hair off his face. It’s one of his dead giveaways. Sam’s hair has always gotten in his eyes, an annoyance he apparently liked enough to keep his whole life, God knows why. But instead of scooping it behind his ear with his fingertips he now uses his whole palm to push it across his forehead and back. It rarely works, lacking the finesse of a 20-year-old habit, and Dean usually has to redo it for him when he’s done.
Tonight is no different except for the way it rubs the paint from his forehead and reveals a chalky patch of skin underneath. Sam tacks on another yawn while Dean makes him presentable.
“We going up?”
Sam nods to the long brick pathway, well lit with an army of jack-o-lanterns, and Dean sighs. “One more, alright? Then it’s bed time.”
“But Dean.” Man, he’d forgotten how Sammy could turn his name into a three-syllable sound. “It’s Halloween. And a weekend.”
“Yeah, but it’s late.” Probably nearing nine o’clock. Instead of letting this get into an argument, though, Dean leans over to smack Sam’s pillowcase full of chocolate. “And you’ve already got enough there to feed a horse.”
Sam snorts, a small and uncensored sound, and turns happily up the walkway. “Horses can’t eat candy.”
He’s noticeably tired. His feet drag a little on each step, and Dean puts one hand around his bicep to stave off any tumbles. At least his shoelaces are still tied. Dean should have taken him home a block ago.
“Good thing, too. You probably wouldn’t share with them anyway.”
The woman who opens the door is wearing a bright orange sweater that says BOO! and candy corn earrings. Dean wishes he still drank, and could erase this whole night from memory.
She’s surprised and confused, like all the others, and even stands up out of a crouch like she was expecting toddlers. Then she closes the door a little more tightly around her.
“Can I help you gentlemen?”
Sam takes that as his cue and comes right out with his booming baritone. “Trick or treat!”
The lady startles, and Dean puts one hand on Sam’s arm where he’s holding out his pillowcase. “Hey, hey, inside voice, remember?”
“Dean,” he stage-whispers, “we’re outside.”
“But she’s not. And she can hear you just fine. You want to try that again?”
“Trick or treat!” Sam says again, still too loudly, and still bouncing on the balls of his feet, but it’s much better for a second try.
And that’s when Dean notices that this woman is the remaining 1%, the other kind of person, who looks right at Sam and means it when she smiles.
“You boys having fun tonight?”
Sam nods enthusiastically, pushing his hair back again, and then looks to Dean for confirmation.
Dean smiles to put Sam at ease. “Sure are.”
“You look like a very friendly ghost,” the woman, their temporary source of chocolate, says, and Dean coughs to cover humorous snort that he makes. He knows what’s coming.
“Ghosts are not friendly. That’s why I have salt bracelets, see?”
And sure enough, he holds them right into this woman’s face. She really is of a special breed, though, because she just blinks and smiles and moves right ahead.
“Alrighty, then. Let’s see what we got here.” She pulls a big wooden bowl from a tall stool just inside the door, and swirls the candy around like it’s a drink that needs mixing.
It’s a chilly night, made for costumes that cover more than expose, though they’ve still passed enough pre-teens that insisted on showing as much of their bellies as possible. The woman uses one hand to pull the belt of her cotton sweater tighter around herself so she can step outside and hold the bowl right in front of Sam. It’s like she knows how long he wants to take – much longer than most people are willing to wait – even though Dean can spot the Butterfinger that he’ll end up choosing, sitting right on top. They’re Sam’s favorite, and if the whole street had them, his pillowcase would be full of nothing but.
“I want…” He rummages, like there could possibly be anything better than a Butterfinger, or maybe just a bigger one hidden underneath all the fun size candy, and Dean can feel his own eyelids drooping. He doesn’t usually crash at 9 PM, but running interference for Sam all night has taken it out of him. Plus, the guy’s got no concept of pacing himself anymore. It’s full steam ahead until he’s begging Dean to carry him to car and, like it or no, the limits of what Dean will and can do for him are bound by the laws of physics. Sam’s engrossed himself in the candy bowl though, and Dean takes the moment to enjoy not having to rush him and lets himself space out a little.
Eventually Sam holds up his pick – Dean doesn’t look. “This one.”
From the corner of his eye, he sees the woman nod studiously. She’s really got the hang of this. “Good choice,” she says. “You know, I think big boys are allowed to have two.”
“No. Only one, that’s the rule. ‘Cause I’m already big, and that makes it harder.”
It’s the silence that draws him back in. He was using the back burner of his brain to notice that Sam remembered the rule this time; was thinking about commending him for it on the way back to the car. But when he checks back into the situation, this lady has got the full-on suburban dagger glare going, back stiff, lips all tightly pursed and judging and – for the love of all that’s….
Sam hasn’t even done anything. Neither has he.
Her eyes flicker back to Sam, instantly soft and maternal. She leans in close, pointedly excluding Dean from the conversation with her shoulder, and if this lady hadn’t been on his freaking list of awesome people who are allowed to talk to Sammy just thirty seconds ago he’d be getting in there like the guard dog he is. Probably moving Sam off the porch, too, quick as he could say Exorcizamus te, omnis spiritus immunde.
“What’s your name, sweetie?”
“Sam,” he says, too fast for Dean to tell him to keep his trap shut.
“Well, Sam. There’s nothing wrong with being big.”
It takes Dean a moment to adjust, like polarized sunglasses in the bright, bright sun, and then he doesn’t know whether he wants to laugh or let his heels kick up dust on principle. What is it with people and trying to label them; if not Sam, then Dean, as the world’s shittiest brother.
Instead he butts in there – his place is beside Sam no matter what she thinks – and gives his most charming, fakest grin.
“Whoa, Sammy, where’s the love?”
Sam just blinks, confused, and reaches for the hair in his eyes again.
“You wanna tell this nice lady what we were talking about?”
Not that Dean particularly feels like defending himself to her, except that she’s the one person so far who’s treated Sam truly decently in this town and he’s not as into burning bridges as he used to be. Sam’s got absolutely no clue though, as lost as the first lighter he ever torched a grave with, but it’s not Sam’s job to look out for him anymore so Dean chalks that up as a-okay.
“It’s harder,” Dean says, stressing the word as subtly as he can manage, “to find the costume you want, remember?”
“Oh. Yeah.” Sam perks up, obviously pleased to have found the thread of conversation again. “We went to all the stores. One, and then one, and then the other one. And after pie, we went to another one in… in.”
It’s like a rubber band snapping, watching Sam get nervous. Not just how fast it happens, but how very far it is from any Sam Dean’s ever known. One minute he’s tall, confident, at least proud of the one remaining cylinder he is firing on, and the next he’s completely helpless, someone who can barely hold a conversation, let alone a shotgun. It stresses Sam out to no end, too, when Dean doesn’t have the answer he’s looking for. Like if even Dean doesn’t know then the very foundation of their world is unstable.
Luckily, this time Dean’s got it all covered. “Centerville,” he prompts, moving one hand to Sam’s where his fingers are starting to twitch, and Sam is running with it before he or this patient (if presumptive) woman can get in another breath.
“—in Centerville, but they had nothing for me either. Just for kids.”
This neighborly suburbanite looks decidedly off kilter, like Dean being a kick-ass brother wasn’t a possibility she’d prepared for, and he’s overwhelmingly smug.
“You wanna tell her what costume you wanted, Sammy?” Sam loves that shit.
“Thomas the Train,” he says proudly.
Loves that shit. Dean just wishes the voice actors would turn down all their voices an octave.
“I—I’m not sure I know Thomas the Train.”
“He’s blue, and has lots of friends,” Sam informs her. “He’s a very capable engine.”
She still smiles the right way, unwavering but not overbearing, and Dean decides to let her off the hook. Just this once. He’s awesome, she’s awesome. Hell, they don’t even know each other, and look how awesome they’re doing at this. Sam’s flat-out beaming.
“He sounds like a lot of fun,” she tells Sam, clutching her sweater around her again. Then she cradles the candy bowl into one arm and holds out the other. She even retracts it, obviously unsure of what she’s doing – Dean doesn’t have a clue – but eventually she extends one hand straight to him and says, “I’m Jamie. Jamie Phillips.”
“Dean,” he says, and shakes her hand.
“I’m Sam,” Sam announces, and they all smile.
“I go online,” Jamie says.
Dean keeps his mouth shut, because his eyebrows say it all for him.
“For my daughter’s Halloween costumes. They have everything online. It’s not like Tinkerbell is so hard in any size, but still. Hassle free.”
“Huh. I’ll have to remember that.”
He doesn’t mention that before he goes paying shipping and handling for costumes off the internet he’d like to afford the internet in the first place, but that’s a moot point ‘til the next need for a full-grown costume arises.
“Actually,” she says, suddenly with a bit of Sammy’s shine in her eyes, “can I get her? I’d love for her to meet you guys.”
And before Dean can say no, thanks anyway, it really is past Sam’s bedtime, she’s left her front door wide open and empty. Stupid suburbanite, just begging to become monster chow . Dean still considers leaving anyway, because he has no idea what to expect; whether she’s excited to have her daughter meet Sam, or him, and why. Is she another awesomely sensible person? Do they just have a thing for sad stories on their doorstep? Is she someone like Sam or, even, an actual kid?
Jamie appears first, but she’s motioning for someone to come tuck up under her arm, and Dean feels a hot flush of guilt the moment he sees her. Guilt because, as soon as she steps into view, Dean is instantly relieved that Sam’s not like her. Jamie would have every right to hate him if she knew.
“This is Mandy,” she says, cradling her daughter’s shoulders even as Mandy tries to hide behind her loose sweater.
Mandy has Downs. And Dean is so powerfully, overwhelmingly grateful to have Sam, just the way he is. At least he got 28 good(ish) years. He’s the worst kind of bastard for thinking that, too; six months with Sam has taught him at least that much. There’s nothing ingenuine or incomplete about the mentally handicapped. They’re not perpetually short of the finish line, they’re just winning their own races. They’re still real, whole people, and Dean knows that. He also knows that he better quit thinking about it on this porch before Mrs. Jamie Phillips turns out to be a mind-reading witch who curses his bones on the spot.
Mandy watches him, round eyes blinking furiously, and Dean smiles. For real.
“Hi Mandy. I’m Dean.”
Jamie pets one hand down the back of her hair, an easy familiar motion, though it does nothing to interrupt Mandy’s gaze. “Some of Mandy’s friends said she was too old to go trick or treating this year. But this is Sam.”
“And he’s got his costume, see?”
Dean can see Mandy mulling that over. She leans further out from behind her mother’s back, hands still clutching into the fabric at her waist like a shield. Her words are slow, but direct.
“How old are you?”
It’s a simple question, and if Dean hadn’t downgraded to Alert Level: Green as soon as Jamie decided not to castrate him then he would have seen it coming. As it is, he’s stepping in front of Sam before he can even realize, like the sheer bulk of his body can deflate her dangerous, dangerous question. And as much as Sam’s fingers tightening their grip on his kick starts him into damage-control mode, he’s also curious to see what Sam says.
The doctors over at County General had no explanation when Sam woke up from what they’d dubbed meningitis perfectly healthy, but severely regressed. And Dean had nothing to offer that didn’t include the words wall, like a house of cards, or fucking angels, so he kept his fat mouth shut.
At first, it had seemed like all systems were go. They’d initially waved off Sam’s answers to questions about the current president, or what state he was in, to the confusion of being under so long. He knew who he was, and Dean too, and that he wanted out ASAP, so everything was bright lab coats and brighter smiles. Until the next try, when they began by asking his name, date of birth, and age. Sammy was 2 for 3 on that and, really, who ever thought perfection was an realistic standard? When Sam stumbled over the numbers, deliberating between the right age and a much, much smaller one, he blinked and swallowed and steadily panicked until his only answer was a resounding scream for Dean. And then the real tests started.
So even if Sam doesn’t know the answer, he knows that he should, and he knows that it’s important.
They’ve talked about it since. Dean has explained, in PG-rated, digitally remastered Technicolor, exactly how old Sam his and why he doesn’t remember, but when it comes to his personal history Sam’s got a mental block the size of Lawrence. It’s like Lucifer himself is still camped out on that part of Sam’s brain, flicking away facts like flies on a tuna salad.
So, as lovely as their little bonding session with Jamie and her daughter has been, Dean’s taking a huge gamble by not cutting it short right now. Or stepping in for Sam and letting Jamie think he’s an overbearing prick again. But Sam’s aced everything so far, surrounded by good people and candy and potential discussions about Thomas the Train, so he’s willing to chance it just a little bit longer.
Sam’s noticeably uncomfortable within the first few seconds. His fingers aren’t just twitching but full-on digging into Dean’s palm, and his other hand reaches awkwardly across his face to push his bangs back. Once he’s run out of hands for nervous ticks he looks to Dean, wide-eyed and hopeful, waiting for Dean to swoop in with the answer, but Dean’s mind is made up. He nods, encouragingly, and sweeps a thumb over the back of Sam’s hand as he squeezes tighter. It’s just a small movement, almost private. Dean’ll jump in if Sam asks again, but until then he just keeps ahold of Sam, smiling big to let him know everything’s okay.
Sam goes through about four more nervous gestures, one of which Dean’s never even seen, before he seems to gather his courage. Mandy’s beyond bored and even Jamie’s smile is paling, but they both snap to attention when Sam speaks up.
“I’m… not too old. For a costume.”
Jamie laughs at that, but it’s a happy sound, and she shakes her daughter’s shoulders. “Hear that, honey? You can go trick or treating as long as you want.”
Mandy squirms even as she smiles, and then engages her mother in one of their own silent conversations. Eventually, Jamie pulls back her arms and says, “Alright. Brush your teeth first. And tell Dad to come say goodnight.”
Mandy’s off in a flash, footfalls thudding down a wooden hallway at double speed, and Dean takes that as his cue. He has every intention of ending this party on a high-note.
“We should get going too. We’ve still got a long sugar coma ahead of us tonight.”
Jamie grins, mostly with her eyes, and nods. “Well. It was very nice to meet you, Sam.”
Dean elbows his side when Sam doesn’t look up from his bag of loot. “Sam. What do you say?”
“Happy Halloween,” he says, again too loud, but Dean just claps him on the shoulder and laughs, turning him toward the stairs.
Once Sam’s back is turned, Jamie points inside to her bowl of candy with a questioning eyebrow, but Dean waves her off with an exaggerated head shake.
“Thanks for everything.”
“You too,” she says, with a knowing head tilt, and god but he feels like a parent conspiring to get his kid to eat vegetables. Or, in Sam’s case, anything medium-rare.
They smile at each other, and wave like good neighbors do, and Dean’s already thinking of cranking the heat in the car when he hears the door whine behind them.
“Oh hey, Dean?”
He and Sam both turn. “Yeah?”
“You should drop by the Community Center tomorrow. Or, any Sunday.”
Both his eyebrows shoot up. Again.
“There’s a group that gets together, at four. Marge Canton, from the school, she usually organizes a couple activities.”
“Oh. Uh, thanks. But, Sam’s not—” He stops himself, bites his own goddamn tongue, but the insinuation is already there. That Sam can’t handle himself without Dean’s overbearing presence for five freaking minutes. It’s untrue – might be true, Dean doesn’t know, he’ll never ditch Sam long enough to find out – but it’s an obvious enough conclusion for Jamie to jump to that she’ll never call him on it. The only person who would, or could, is Sam, and lately he wouldn’t know a lie if it had black eyes and a golden fiddle.
“Oh, no,” Jamie says, smiling just a little indulgently. “It’s for everyone. There’s usually arts and crafts, which can grab Mandy’s attention for hours, and the rest of us…” She waves a hand through the air, “You know. A little adult conversation can be nice.”
She trails off, more than a little self-consciously, and Dean pulls in a breath through his nose to perk up and be neighborly a little longer. His smile is obviously fatigued, but he figures that’s allowed.
“There’s coffee,” she offers. “Sometimes donuts. Mandy always has a blast and even Todd likes going. My husband.”
Dean cranks it up a notch, just to put her out of her misery. “That sounds great. We’ll, uh, we’ll see if we can make it.”
“Great. Well, have a good night. Bye Sam,” she calls, but Sam too engrossed in what’s hiding in the bottom of his pillowcase to look up.
“Goodnight,” Dean says for him, even gives a small wave, and then Jamie’s receding into the bright lights of her living room.
“Come on, kiddo.” He claps Sam on the back. “Let’s get you home.”
Sam drags his feet all the way down to the sidewalk, and Dean has to tell him to watch where he’s stepping more than twice. By the time they hit the crosswalk Sam’s leaning against him so heavily Dean’s starting to feel the ache in his arm, but he just tightens it further around Sam’s back, hand hooked under his armpit just in case.
“No sleeping ‘til we get to the car. Just a little farther.”
“You know the car, Sammy.”
“I forgot. Where did we put it?”
“It’s right up there, on the corner.” Dean uses his free hand to fish his keys out of his pocket and hits the remote until the tail lights flash. “See?”
“Oh yeah. Dean?”
“Where’s the Impala?”
Dean hides his sigh by only letting it out through his nose. “We’ve talked about this.”
“I forgot,” Sam says again, this time with more than a healthy dose of whine laced through it.
“It was either you or the car, man, ‘member? Can’t have both.”
Sam goes silent and stiff at his side, reminding him why he usually sugar coats it, but he doesn’t have the energy right now. Sure, his old girl had a shit ton of miles on her, but a classic car like that, as nice as he kept her, still raked in enough to pay off most of their two bedroom, one bath, single family home.
It was the last thing to go. They’d used as many fake identities as they could to have Sam’s seizures checked out while they were still on the move. And then, even after Cas took his fucking fingers to Sam’s forehead and destroyed Death’s hard work, a few weeks’ worth of stacked games in pool halls had covered the initial medical bills. But then came the hushed conversations, the grim one-on-ones with the headshrinkers while Sam blinked and smiled and slept, and Dean started to call up his contacts, vague and distant though they were.
Books, mostly, some weapons, white-magic spells – they all had a price. Because not only would Sammy no way, no how, not ever get better, but it would be expensive, too. The car had been the one final hold out against the notion that this was it, that this was Sam from here on out, but in the end they’d just needed the money too much.
Sam doesn’t remember the Impala like he does – knows that they had it forever, sure, but most days forever seems a hell of a lot longer for Dean than it does for Sam. Sam’s love for the car wasn’t ever his own, anyway, it was Dean’s. Always Dean’s, borrowed and reflected back at him, and he thinks Sam’s loss is the same. It’s simply, for him, that Dean loved the car, and now it’s gone.
Though, Dean had never put it so bluntly before, and that’s a landmine he doesn’t feel like navigating tonight. He jostles Sam’s shoulder, forcing him to look up.
“Good thing I like you better, huh Sam-I-Am?”
The nickname, like most things, is new, but it makes Sam grin like he’s just watched the lights power on in Times Square.
“Me too,” he says, and Dean grins back, jostling him again just ‘cause he can.
It’s not until Sam’s got himself buckled in – under Dean’s watchful eye – that he jolts up, straining against the shoulder belt.
“Whoa, whoa.” Dean’s hand is splayed across his chest before he even considers it. “Where’s the fire?”
“I mean you, Dean.” His whole face is earnest, painfully so. “I mean, I like you better, too.”
And isn’t that just Sammy? Dean thumps him once on the chest before pulling his hand back to the wheel, and bites down a laugh. If he thought a little brain damage would get between Sam and his serious love of emoting, he was sorely mistaken. Dean doesn’t really want to go there tonight, though. The Sam-and-Dean show isn’t as complicated as it used to be, and these types of declarations aren’t hinges in life or death decisions anymore. They’re just facts, true and reliable as their new address and hardline phone number, or the way Sam will fall asleep on Dean’s shoulder at least once every night before agreeing to sleep in his own room.
Instead, Dean calls up an old shit-eating grin, the one that used to make Sam groan before he’d even spoken, and says, “You’re right. I like me better too.”
And because Dean said it, funny or not, Sam pushes his head back against the headrest and laughs. It’s a genuine, full-belly laugh, the drawing-attention-in-public kind that seems to be his standard these days. And lately, for better or worse, Dean’s finding it easier to laugh along. It comes with a pang, still – like relaxing into a good moment now means they never had any before, or at least that Dean’s forgotten them. But he hasn’t. Fuck, but he hasn’t.
Looking out for Sam was always job numero uno. Hard, occasionally thankless, but the very definition of worth it. He’ll be damned if he’ll give that up now to those University centers in Sioux Falls or Vermillion, telling him to leave Sam there and visit when he can. So if Sam needs a regular schedule, trick-or-treating, more laughter – whatever it is, Dean will give it to him.
Same job, new requirements.