Dean stopped talking after the fire. He’d taken to hiding behind his father when people would ask him how he was doing; leaving John to explain that he’d be fine kids are resilient. The boy had watched his mother die. Who knew how long it took to recover from that kind of trauma? Dean started to point at things when he wanted them: juice, a toy that was too high up to reach, Sam on occasion. John understood to some degree, Dean was only four; he didn’t have to words to talk about what he’d seen. So he just stopped talking. But John missed his adventurous little boy, who made up stories and wore a Batman cape around the yard. He missed the laughter, the energy that Dean use to bring. All that silence was just one more thing that kept the little pre-furnished apartment on the outskirts of Lawrence from becoming a real home.
It was nearing the end of January, Dean’s fifth birthday, almost three months since they’d lost Mary. Santa had tried to be nice to the Winchester boys that year, doing his best to replace what they’d lost in the fire, but for his birthday John wanted to make sure Dean got something very special.
“Listen, Buddy,” John smiled, crouched down next to the cart in the toy aisle of Kmart. “You can pick out anything you want, and I’ll get it for you for your birthday. Sound good?”
Dean never looked up from the floor as his father talked to him white knuckling the side of the cart holding his brother, but he nodded. He was usually good at home, silent, but animated. John could see little pieces of the boy before the fire when it was just the little family. However, the second they walked out the door, it was like Dean shut off. He didn't want to be around anyone else. John had adapted, but he couldn't help but shake his head and wish he could fix it.
“I’ll be right here,” John said, urging the four year old toward the toys. “You can go pick out a toy, Dean. I can see you. It’s alright.”
Dean looked up at his dad, who motioned down the aisle. Dean, very slowly, walked down the aisle. Every couple steps he turned to make sure that his dad and Sam were still behind him, as he if was afraid the moment he wasn't looking Sammy and John would disappear. He stopped in front of a small display of fire trucks and pointed. His eyes, then, shifted back to the floor.
“You want a fire truck?” John asked. Dean pointed again and looked up sideways at his dad for a fraction a second before refocusing on the floor.
“Okay, we’ll get you a fire truck. You want anything else?”
Dean scanned the wall of before locking his eyes on a little firemen costume above the display of trucks: a black rain coat with safety yellow stripes and a red plastic helmet. He reached up to grab it, and then turned to his father when he couldn’t reach.
“You wanna be a fireman, Dean?” John asked as he picked up the costume and placed it in the cart with Sam, who was sleeping in his car seat in the large of the cart. John could have sworn he saw Dean smile as he jumped onto the back of the cart and he pushed them toward the checkout line.
As soon as they got home, John took the truck out of the package and handed it to Dean. It took seconds after getting his truck and little outfit for him to disappear into the room he shared with his brother and slam the door shut. John smiled as he heard the sounds of the engine coming from inside the room. Maybe this was the start of something good for his little boy. Maybe this would fix him.
Before they lost Mary, Dean was just starting to get used to the idea that Sam was a permanent part of the family. Dean spent a good chunk of Sam’s first four months of existence complaining that he didn’t do anything and smelled weird and occasionally poking his leg.
“Jamie ‘cross the street’s brother plays cars with us,” he’d complained on many occasions since his parents brought home what appeared to be a bundle of blue blankets. “Why couldn’t I get a cool brother like Jamie’s?” Sam would lie on his belly and laugh at his own reflection in a little mirror on him play set. “Sam’s boring.”
Now at nearly nine months, Sam was becoming a bit of a handful. He was crawling, getting into almost everything, and started to mumble pieces of his words, mostly baby nonsense, but in a house as quiet as theirs was now a days, anything was welcome. Dean liked watching his dad take care of Sam; give him baths feed him. It was almost as if Dean was supervising making sure John did it the same way that Mary did.
Sam whined in John’s arms until he placed him down on the linoleum. He watched Sam scramble crawl to the living room and a plush cow toy John had found a yard sale and Sam had fallen in love with.
“De?” Sam mumbled. It was the only real "word" Sam had managed to put together yet. It made sense to John, before the fire, both he and his wife were, nearly constantly yelling the boys name to keep him from falling off something or doing something else equally as dangerous. Now that Dean wasn't talking, John still found himself saying Dean's name more than anything else.
“Not right now, Sammy,” John said scooping him up and carrying him to the couch. “We gotta leave Dean alone for a little bit.”
Sam point toward the closed door over the back of the sofa, “De?”
“After dinner, Sammy,” John said. “You want some Cheerios? How about a make you some Cheerios and apple sauce?” Sam clapped and made his little stuffed cow run up John’s arm.
In his room, Dean put on his new jacket and climbed under his bed looking for a pair of yellow rain boots he gotten from Santa after his cool frog ones burned up in the fire. He pushed a chair that went with his desk across the room to the mirror over the dresser and climbed up. He placed the helmet on his head and smiled. A real fireman. He touched the frame of the picture Dad had put there of his mom with Dean in her lap, holding little Sam a few days after he was born.
“I’m ready,” Dean whispered voice hoarse from disuse. “I can save you now, like a good boy. I'll be a very good boy, Momma. You can come home now.”
“Dean!” John called from the kitchen. “It’s dinner time.”
Dean climbed down, scooped up his fire truck and headed for the kitchen. “De!” Sam squealed excitedly.
John turned around carrying a pot of macaroni and cheese. “You like your fireman stuff, Buddy?” John smiled, filling the bowl macaroni with hot dogs in front of Dean. He looked over to his little brother who had applesauce and cheerios all over his face and high chair before sticking his fork into his own dish.
John watched his boys in silence, saddened by the lack of laughter. Words couldn’t describe how much of a hole in his heart to watch Dean’s refusal to speak, how much it ached to see his boys growing up without their mom to watch with him.
“Hey, Dean,” John said taking his seat next to Dean. “I was thinkin’. How would you like to go to your friend Jamie’s house tomorrow while I go to work?”
Dean shook his head violently back and forth. He never wanted to go back to Jamie’s house. It was too close to where he lost him mom.
“I think it would be good for you and Sammy to go over there for a little while,” John said. “I told Jamie’s mom I would take you.”
Dean’s eyes widened as he shook his head no as fast as he could. Dad didn’t understand, but there was no way that Dean was going back to Jamie’s house, and he couldn’t make him. Dad was just going to have to get Miss Amy from upstairs to watch them like usual. Dean wasn’t a big fan of change, and too much had changed for him already. He didn’t need a disruption in his routine again.
After dinner John gave the boys a bath. Dean tried to take his fire truck with him, but John was afraid it would get ruined in the water and placed it on the side of the sink behind them.
“Why don’t you want to go to Jamie’s, Dean? He’s your best friend, remember?”
Dean stilled in the water and turned to face the wall.
“Talk to me Buddy,” John pleaded. “Please, I know you can. I’ve heard you talk before. Come on Dean-o, just let me in. Tell me what’s going in that head of yours, please.”
Dean twisted away as John tried to grab his arm and took the extra-large McDonald’s cup John used to get soap off of Sam off the side of the tub and got the shampoo out of his hair before climbing out of the tub. He grabbed a towel from the rack wrapping himself up as he walked hurriedly through the living room. About halfway to his room, he turned on his heels and came back into the bathroom, pushing past his dad to the sink to get his truck.
“Dean,” John said, trying to keep his voice even. Dean shook his head as John grabbed his arm. “Enough is enough Dean. You gotta start talking. Time to be a big boy.”
Dean pulled his arm away and padded quickly to his room, slamming the door to his bedroom.
“Dee!” Sam squealed as he made his toy boat attack soap bubble mountain.
“I don’t know Sammy,” John sighed. “I don’t know how to fix him.” Sam splashed happily, like nothing was wrong at all, too little to know.
John read Sam a story on the sofa until he fell asleep; then brought him into the room the baby shared with Dean. After placing him down in his crib, John looked over the older boy. He lay on his back sleeping, wearing his Batman pajamas and fireman coat; new truck tucked under his arm, the hat perched on the headboard, boots neatly at the end of the bed, as if Dean was preparing for a fire call in the middle of the night.
Before leaving the room, his kissed his boys on the head, and whispered into Dean’s hair: “It’ll be okay buddy. I miss her too, but you can’t just shut down. You gotta tell me what’s wrong so I can make it better.”
Dean pressed against the fridge, refusing to move. He wasn’t going to Jamie’s and there was nothing anyone was going to tell him that would change his mind.
“Damn it, Dean!” John yelled, using a voice he never dreamed he’d ever use with his boys. “I'm going to be late for work, let’s go.”
He held Sam in his carrier in one hand the keys to the Impala in the other. “I’m not playing games anymore, open you’re fucking mouth and tell me what’s wrong or get your ass down stairs and into the car. NOW!”
Dean’s mouth fell open, like maybe just maybe he’d says something before he started crying silently and ran out the door. John sighed, adjusting Sam’s carrier so he could grab the fire truck off the floor when Dean had thrown it before gluing himself to the fridge. He walked out the door, seeing Dean at the top of the stairs, since we wasn’t allowed to go down by himself.
“You want this?” John asked, holding the truck out to the boy. Dean rubbed his face against the banister as he reached out for it. “Can I get a please?”
Dean shook his head and reached until John sighed and handed it to him; then took Dean’s hand and went down the three flights to the parking lot. John let Dean into the backseat, strapping him in before strapping Sam into the other side and getting in himself.
“I don’t understand, Dean,” John said watching his boys in the rear-view as they drove across town. “Jamie and Brandon are your best friends. Why don’t you want to see them?”
If Dean heard him, the boy didn’t acknowledge it, just stared out the window watching trees though the window.
“Thank you so much, Joyce, for taking them,” John said hurriedly, handing her Sam in his carrier. “I’ll be back around five.”
Dean stood behind John, gripping his back pocket with one hand, fire truck in the other, as if he was too afraid to let go.
“Come on,” John sighed. “We talked about this, you know Joyce and the boys you’ll be fine.”
“It’s alright Dean,” Joyce said, bending down to his level. “You remember me right? We have fun at my house. You remember that?”
Dean nodded slowly. Joyce extended her hand to Dean who reluctantly took it, staring up at his Dad while she led him toward the door.
“It’ll be okay, Buddy,” John waved. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
After Joyce brought the boys inside, she brought Sam into the living room to let him out. Dean pressed his face to the window next to the door, trying to see his dad as he drove away. If he looked hard enough, he could see his old house. The yellow tape that was around it last time he was this close was gone now, but it was still exactly the same as how they left it, a burnt out shell.
Joyce found him a few minutes later. She picked him up and carried him into the kitchen where she was making cinnamon rolls for breakfast.
There was a time, not too long before, when Dean and the two little boys across the street, Jamie and Brandon, were thick as thieves. One can only imagine what chaos those boys would have caused when they started school, or what kind of heart breakers they would be in their teens if life had dealt the Winchester’s a different hand, but the world didn’t seem to work that way. In the two years Dean had been playing with the boys across the street, they’d spent a good amount of time terrorizing the little girl that lived next to Jamie, stealing her dolls and burying them in the sandbox in Dean’s backyard.
But now, Dean planted himself under their mother’s dining room table, dressed as a fireman, rolling a little truck back and forth, hoping no one would see him. It didn’t, however, take very long for the King boys to find him.
“Hey, Dean!” Jamie said, sliding under the table. “My dad set up a pretty awesome hot wheels track in my room, wanna see?”
Dean shook his head and kept playing with his truck, willing them to go away.
“Come on!” Brandon encouraged. “It’s really cool, cooler than on TV.”
Dean ignored them and played with his truck.
“Dean,” Jamie whined trying to grab Dean’s arm. “Don’t be a stick in the mud, come play.”
Dean shifted away, pushing himself against the wall.
“Can I see your truck?” Brandon asked, making grabby hands. Dean clenched it close to his chest. He shook his head and started to hyperventilate, warm tears forming in the corner of his eyes.
“Why are you being such a baby?” Jamie asked arms crossed against his chest.
“Yeah, stop being a big baby!” Brandon echoed.
“What’s going on boys?” Joyce asked, as she knelt down to see all the boys under the table.
“Why is Dean a baby now?” Jamie asked angrily.
“Yeah,” Brandon added. Jamie shoved him sideways.
“He won’t play with us and now he’s crying cuz we want to see his truck.”
Dean pulled his knees to his chest, silent tears rolling down his face. This was too much. He wanted to be back in his room, alone, while Miss Amy played with Sam and didn’t bother him until lunch time when she brought him a jelly sandwich with the crust cut off. He didn’t like it here anymore.
“How about you and your brother go get some breakfast, it’s sitting on the counter in. I’ll talk to Dean,” Joyce suggested then waited for her boys to disappear. “Can I join you under there?”
Dean looked up at her through his lashes. She reminded him of his mom. She didn’t look like her, she was older with grey streaking her dark hair, and soft eyes, but she spoke like his mom did. She was nice and sweet, and right now that’s was exactly what Dean needed. He nodded, and watched as Joyce tried to bend herself to fit under the kitchen table.
“That’s a really cool truck,” Joyce said when she’d managed to get herself under the table with him. “Your dad said you got it for your birthday?”
Dean nodded and pushed the truck across to her. Joyce smile and pushed the truck back, then wiped the tears away with her thumb.
“Jamie and Brandon just miss you,” Joyce continued. “They miss their friend being around. They’re excited to see you. But you don’t wanna play do you?”
Dean shook his head, rolling his truck back and forth.
“Because you wanna be by yourself?”
“Okay,” Joyce smiled. “But how about you come out from under the table and come hang out with Sammy and me in the living room? That way you can watch out for your brother and I can see you.”
Dean smirked and nodded. He climbed out from under the table. Joyce followed closely after. Dean planted himself in the arm chair in the living room while Sam rolled across the floor back and forth, laughing like it was most fun he’d ever had in his life.
“De!” he pointed when he noticed Dean was in the room, and then continued to roll back and forth.
Dad had told Dean that it was him job to watch out for Sam when he couldn’t all the time, like when he was in the shower, or taking a nap on the couch after work. Dean took this job very, very seriously. John had come into the living room on more than one occasion to see Dean sitting across from Sam just staring at him. Now, Dean was watching Sam as Jamie and Brandon played Legos on the coffee table while Joyce watched Daytime Soaps. One of the Legos had fallen onto the floor in Sam’s path, so Sam grabbed it with his pudgy little baby hands and tried to eat it. Dad was very clear to Dean about keeping his toys off the floor. “Sam’s little and thinks everything is food,” John had explained. Dean was very careful about making sure that Sam never ate any of his toys.
Dean’s eyes widened as he watched his brother start to choke on the little piece. He pointed, whined, and kicked at the seat, looking from Joyce to Sam, but was unable to get her attention. Sam’s lips started to turn blue, so Dean drove his truck off the arm of the chair across the room so it crashed loudly on the floor. When Joyce looked up, he pointed frantically at Sam.
“Oh My God!” Joyce gasped grabbing Sam and sticking a finger in his throat and pulling out the little block, Sam started to cough as the color returned to his face. “You boys have to be more careful.” She turned to her boys and placed the saliva covered piece on the coffee table. “Sam’s just a baby; he puts everything in his mouth.”
Dean slid off the chair and retrieved his truck from across the room then sat down next to Sam.
“Did you do that on purpose?” Joyce asked. “Did you throw your truck so I would see Sammy?”
Dean showed no sign that he’d even heard the question. Just drove his truck around in circles.
“You coulda just said something, Buddy,” Joyce said, running a hand down the side of his face, but Dean pulled away like she electrocuted him. “Would have gotten my attention sooner.”
Dean chewed on the inside of his lip. Dad must have told Joyce to try to get him to talk, but Dean was too smart for that. He wasn’t ready to talk yet. He wasn’t afraid to speak or forgotten how. He just wasn’t ready, didn’t know what to say.
When John came to get them, Dean ran up to him at full speed nearly knocking him backward as his full weight pressed into John’s legs.
“Easy tiger,” John laughed. “Fun day?”
Dean shook his head no and pressed his face into his father’s leg.
“Seeming uneventful,” Joyce sighed, strapping a now sleeping Sam into his carrier. “Sam had an incident with a Lego, but nothing I couldn’t handle.”
John took Sam from her and opened the front door. Dean ran out to the car, standing next to it and driving his fire truck along the passenger’s side. He stared across the street, back toward where he used to live, the last place he saw his mom. His old life stood there charred beyond repair.
“He’ll be okay, John,” Joyce said. “He’s engaged in his surroundings he just doesn’t talk. He just needs time.”
“I hope so,” John smiled weakly. “Thank you, so much for this.”
“Anything you need, you call me,” Joyce said waving from the doorway as John walked down the walk way to the car.
“In the car kiddo,” John said after strapping Sam in.
John had to pick Dean up and place him inside the car. Dean sat with is truck on his lap poking Sam in the leg repeatedly after John strapped him in and climbed into his own seat.
“Whaddya want for dinner?” John asked the rear image in his rear view.
Dean said nothing, just continued to poke.
“Don’t poke your brother. What do you want to eat? Pizza? Burgers? You chose.” Dean said nothing just stared blankly forward, clutching his fire truck to his lap.
"Burgers it is," John sighed turning out onto the main road and driving toward McDonald's.
Around Valentine’s Day, Dean was playing with his green army men while Sammy napped. John watched in the doorway as Dean set-up an epic battle, then proceed to run over one side with his fire truck. John couldn’t help thinking that this battle would be so much better with sound.
By now, he knew the truth about what was out there. He had done enough research to realize he couldn’t just sit by and let evil take moms away from other little boys. He knew he’d be packing up the boys and hitting the road soon. He had to. He couldn’t just sit around and let that kind of bad happen. He was mostly thinking about whether he should take off now, or wait until the lease was up in June.
“I’m gonna make some chicken fingers for lunch. Is that okay?” John said. Dean looked up, fire helmet in his eyes, and nodded.
Mary was always the one that cooked. John didn’t have skills beyond boiling water and pressing buttons on the microwave. Setting up chicken fingers and fries on a cookie sheet was about the extent of his culinary prowess. Luckily, his boys were still small enough to enjoy large amounts of macaroni and cheese and pizza with a healthy amount of cereal to balance it out.
John knew he had about a half hour before everything would be ready, so after putting the food in the oven he went to the living room and turned on the TV.
Dean had only heard that squeal on other time in his life, the night his mom got taken away. At first, he froze truck in midair about to ram more army men. He wasn’t sure if he should wait for his dad or not, but on second thought, he figured it was best to take action.
In the bottom drawer of his dresser he kept a screw driver he stole from his dad’s tool box. He used it to unlatch Sam’s crib and let the front fall so he could scoop up the boy and get out. Sam, it appeared, could sleep through anything. He seemed undisturbed as Dean ran as fast as he could with the extra weight to the door. This place wasn’t safe anymore. Sammy’s little blue blanket tangled in Dean’s feet as he scurried to the door of the apartment.
John was waving a dish towel at the smoke detector, the charred remains of what used to be lunch sitting on the stove. Dean wasn’t quite tall enough to turn the door knob while holding Sam; so John got a glimpse of Dean placing his brother on the floor, standing on his tip toes to turn the door knob, and then drag Sam into the hallway by the blanket.
John finally got the smoke to dissipate enough to stop the alarm. He stepped outside the apartment to see Dean standing at the staircase holding Sam, waiting for their Dad to join him so he could go down the stairs.
“Whatcha doing?” John asked, chuckling to himself. “You running away?”
Dean shook his head and mumbled something against Sammy’s blanket.
“What?” John said. “Whatcha say?”
“Save Sam?” Dean mumbled.
“Save Sam from what?” John said as he realized what happened his heart sank and rose to his throat simultaneously. “From the smoke alarm? The smoke alarm scared you?”
“Save Sam,” Dean nodded his voice soft and hoarse from disuse. “I don’t want it to take Sammy too.”
“Oh, Buddy,” John said taking Sam from Dean’s arms. “Nothing’s going to take Sammy. I just burnt dinner. It was an accident. Okay? Come back inside. I’ll show you.”
John took Dean’s hand and led him back into the apartment. He felt the boy tense up as they cross the threshold to the apartment, clearly terrified that something was there to get him. “See, everything’s find. No fire.”
“No monsters?” Dean whispered. “No monsters that took Momma?”
“No monsters,” John confirmed.
“So I’s saved him?” Dean said looking up at his Dad. “Saved Sammy from the monsters?”
“You did good, Dean,” John smiled.
Dean nodded, helmet sliding down his face a little. “I’m hungry.”
John chuckled. “Let me put Sammy back down and I’ll work on that for you. Okay?”
Dean nodded and let go of John’s hand. He headed back into his room to play with his army men.
John laid Sam on the couch and sat next to him, elbows on his knees, face in his hands. He let out a deep sigh. He’d never even thought about what that smoke alarm would do to Dean. How much it would scare him. He should have known. He should have been more careful. They were all still so fragile. He made his decision right then about what he was going to do about hunting.
That night, after pizza, he packed his boys up and hit the road.