Dean doesn’t celebrate his birthday anymore. He hasn’t for years.
There are pictures of the first and happiest birthdays. They’re tucked away in a box in a storage unit filled with hunter’s gear and booby traps. Dean hasn’t actually seen them since he was a child. There’s a picture of a very tired Mary Winchester beaming as he holds her baby. John is sitting on the edge of her hospital bed, pride written all over him as he wraps an arm around his wife and grins at the camera. There’s another one where Dean is sitting in front of a cake with a big candle number one. Both of his hands are embedded in the cake, frosting oozing out from between his fingers. There’s one from when he turned four and he’s offering his slice of cake to his infant brother as Mary and John laugh.
Dean remembers his first birthday without his mom. He was turning five. He remembers his father crying. There were empty bottles all around the room and Dean remembers picking one up and blowing air into it to make it whistle. His dad had snatched it out of his hands and told Dean not to touch them.
“What day is today?” Dean had asked.
“January 24,” his dad had answered, showing him on the calendar.
“That’s my birthday,” Dean had announced proudly.
“Fuck,” was the only answer he had gotten. Then his dad started crying harder. So when Sam started to cry, Dean went to his crib and lulled him back to sleep by singing Happy Birthday.
Dean remembers the birthday he got back to the motel and found a sheet cake with a note taped to it. His dad had left some money for a pizza and an excuse of a job with “PS. Happy Birthday, Son” scrawled at the bottom. Sam had sung the song and Dean announced they were having cake for dinner. Sam had cheered, but Dean knew by then that their dad never left enough money for his days of absence.
Dean remembers when his first day at a new school was on his birthday. He was in the sixth grade and hid in the bathroom during lunch so he could cry. After school, his dad took him out to test out the sawed-off he’d made the week before.
He remembers screaming after the Impala, standing at the edge of Bobby’s driveway, tears running down his face as his father left him behind. Bobby hadn’t said anything about the tears. He’d waited until Dean was through before bringing him inside and washing him up. When Dean sat down at the dinner table, he asked why Sam was grinning from ear to ear.
“Dad just left us, you dope. Why’re you happy?”
“It’s your birthday,” Sam had answered, swinging his legs under the table. Bobby walked in holding a lasagna with candles in it and the two of them sang. “Make a wish!” Sam had ordered as soon as the song was over. Dean doesn’t remember his wish, but he remembers closing his eyes and thinking about it before blowing out the candles.
“The first pie burned, so we can have the second for dessert,” Bobby had promised as they dug into their dinner.
There was the birthday that his dad came back early for. He’d wanted it to be a surprise for Dean. Sam was on a sleepover at one of his friends’ houses and Dean… Dean was having a sleepover in his motel room with a boy from school. John didn’t wait for the other sixteen-year-old to leave before he hit Dean so hard he was seeing stars. It was the first time he was called a fag. It was the first time the beating he was receiving wasn’t for something to do with hunting or his father’s drinking. It was the first time he heard someone try to stand up for him, the boy he was with screaming for John to stop.
His seventeenth birthday, he was already out of high school. He’d dropped out to become his father’s soldier. It was drilled into him that he was nothing more than a soldier, and a poor one at that. He stole the keys from his father and woke Sam up at the crack of dawn. They took Baby out for a spin. Dean was tempted to keep driving forever. He almost did. They stopped at a diner and ordered everything on the menu, slapping their dad’s fraudulent credit card down to pay for it all. They worked their way through pancakes and bacon, hot cocoa with whipped cream and a mocha for Dean. There were waffles and sausages, fruit cups and garbage plates. They laughed and flicked food at each other from across their table. And then it was time to go. So Dean drove Sammy to school and went back to his motel room for his birthday beating.
Dean was turning twenty-two the night Sam brought him a pie and a problem. He applied to Stanford. Pride had swelled in Dean’s chest, but his heart was breaking. He didn’t just apply. He got in. He was starting in the Fall and he was asking for Dean’s support and his silence.
“Just until I find a way to tell Dad.”
Dean had promised and taken a bite of his pie.
The last birthday he celebrated was his twenty-fourth. It wasn’t celebrated so much as vaguely acknowledged. Dean and his dad had been quiet, sitting across from each other in a restaurant. Their last hunt was over and Dean scarfed down his burger without question.
“She’s yours,” John has said as he slid the keys to Dean. “If you can take care of her.”
“I will, sir,” Dean said, his hands tightening around the metal. “Thank you.” John nodded and they continued their meal in their own thoughts.
Dean slept in his car that night, stretched out across the front seat as he looked up through the window at the starry sky. His favorite tape played gently and he hummed to it quietly before turning off the car and closing his eyes.
He had wanted to celebrate his birthday with Sam when their Dad was gone and it was just them on the road hunting together. He had planned to get a cake and rent a movie on pay-per-view and announce that this was their dinner. Right before his twenty-seventh birthday, he had electrocuted himself and had a heart attack. Sure, he was going to live, but only because his life was traded with another’s at the hand of a reaper. It was over, but Dean couldn’t shake it. He stood in the bakery of the grocery store staring at the sheet cake for too long before he left and bought a pizza on the way home instead.
“Happy Birthday,” Sam had said when Dean walked in with the pizza. He had a sheet cake on one of the beds, ready with two forks. “Didn’t think I forgot, did you?”
The next year, Dean glared at the calendar. He was supposed to be dead. His dad made a deal and now he was living on borrowed time. If he hadn’t done it, Dean would have died before making it to twenty-eight. He would have died in a car crash, blood running down his face as he melted into the backseat of his beloved car.
“I don’t want to celebrate this year,” Dean told Sam.
“It doesn’t feel right. I shouldn’t be here. We saved a girl, but we didn’t save anyone else. I just don’t feel like it, okay?” Dean had grabbed the remote and turned on the tv before Sam could answer. Sam didn’t argue, though. He left Dean alone to watch tv and returned an hour later with a six-pack of Dean’s favorite beer in one hand and a cherry pie in the other.
Dean remembers his twenty-ninth birthday. It was his last hurrah before being dragged downstairs. He’d sold his soul and he would celebrate if he wanted to. They set off fireworks together in the middle of nowhere. They ate bacon cheeseburgers and pie. Dean dragged his party-pooper brother from bar to bar, staying until they were kicked out of each one. Sam waited in the car as Dean went to a strip club, his pockets loaded with singles.
When it was all over and Sam was in his bed asleep, Dean stared up at the ceiling in the dark and whispered, “All hunters die young. Twenty-nine is old enough. Happy Birthday to me.”
The first year out of Hell was the beginning of Dean refusing to celebrate his birthday. To make sure Sam didn’t try to show up with a pie or a cake, Dean let himself disappear. Sam didn’t text him to ask him where he was. He didn’t call him. Dean was alone with Baby on his first birthday out of Hell. He spent it staring up at the sky, wondering why Heaven would save such a broken person.
His birthday became a box on a calendar with bad memories. Sam didn’t try to bring it up and Dean didn’t have to hide. Then Sam was gone. Cas was gone. All Dean had was Lisa and she didn’t know when his birthday was, though they fought about it.
“It’s not a big deal. Just tell me,” she said, though her voice was no longer calm and curious. She was getting angrier the longer he kept his mouth shut.
“Drop it, Lisa,” he had warned her, closing his book and getting out of his chair.
“You want the ‘picket-fence life’ as you call it. You want the girlfriend and the son. You want to live in the suburbs and have friends and celebrate holidays, but you won’t tell me what happened to your brother. You won’t tell me where your father is. You won’t tell me why you’re here. You won’t even tell me when your god damn birthday is!”
“They’re dead!” Dean had yelled. “Dad’s dead and has been for years! Sam’s… Sam’s gone! Are you wondering about my mom too?”
“Dean, no. I.. I’m sorry,” she tried, realizing her mistake.
“Because she’s dead too!” Dean continued, every muscle in his body tensed. “What the fuck else did you want to know? My fucking birthday? Like it fucking matters?” She didn’t know it was his birthday that day. “I need some air,” he said, dropping his voice and dragging his fingers through his hair.
“Don’t follow me,” he said as he walked out to the garage. He locked the door and slipped into his Impala, gripping the wheel until his nails bit into his palms and his knuckles turned white. He clenched his jaw to keep from screaming and when he shut his eyes tight, he ignored the tears that had rolled down his cheeks.
The next time Dean thought about his birthday after that night was when he was sitting with his back against a tree in Purgatory. Benny was sleeping as Dean kept a lookout in the dark, his grip tight on his makeshift blade.
“I don’t know how long I’ve been in this place,” Dean had prayed quietly to Cas as he prayed every night. “I’m not giving up. I won’t leave without you.” He drew a candle in the dirt between his feet. “It could be August. It could be January. It could be my birthday and I wouldn’t even know it, Cas. If it’s my birthday, then I get one wish, right?”
He took a deep breath and blew out the etching of a candle. It was too dark to see, but he was sure the marks were gone, his drawing erased. He remembers his wish. He wished for Cas. It’s the only birthday wish that Dean remembers coming true.
It was Dean’s thirty-fourth birthday when he got to give the Braveheart speech to a LARPing group for his Queen of Moondor, Charlie. He hadn’t realized it was his birthday until after the speech when he was back in his normal clothes driving away with a smile on his face.
“Have a good birthday?” Sam had asked. Dean had felt the floor drop out from under him. He wasn’t allowed to have a good birthday. It had been a cursed day for most of his life.
“I didn’t know it was,” Dean said honestly. He wanted the subject to drop before it entered dangerous territory.
“Nice speech,” Sam said instead of continuing the birthday talk like Dean had expected him to.
“Thanks,” he grinned again and his birthday was forgotten.
The first birthday present Dean received after the Impala was the Mark of Cain. His brother walked out of his life and Cas was far from home. Dean drank more alcohol with the Mark on his arm than he ever had before. His tolerance was higher and his thirst was greater and his home was emptier than ever.
“Happy Birthday to you,” Dean sang quietly to himself before taking another swig of beer. “Happy Birthday to you. Everyone leaves you ‘cause you’re worthless. Happy Birthday to me.”
His next birthday went unannounced and unnoticed. Looking back, Dean realized that on his birthday, he’d been slamming his fists into Metatron’s face, the pain from the Mark easing with every swing, urging him to keep going. He had dragged the angel blade down the angel’s chest, eliciting the screams that fed the Mark as Sam and Cas beat the door down. He was pulled away, the world far away under the daze of the Mark. Being forcibly removed from his attack felt like waking up from a fainting spell. His birthday was spent trying to find out how to get rid of the previous year’s gift.
Dean’s thirty-eighth birthday was spent in a jail cell in the middle of nowhere. Dean kept track of the days that he was confined to solitary by etching tally marks in his wall. His birthday was just another tally mark. He sat on the floor with his back against the wall and refrained from praying to Cas.
Dean had already decided that he would say goodbye to all of his family and friends on his fortieth birthday. He was prepared to lock himself inside of a coffin at the bottom of the ocean. He was prepared for it if it meant saving everyone else. Dean remembers wrapping his arms around his brother and wanting to say more. He remembers not being able to find the words. He also remembers staring at Cas’ name in his phone. He was the only person Dean couldn’t say goodbye to. He knew that if he looked into those eyes while he was that weak and heard his deep voice begging him not to do it, he would have given in. He wouldn’t have been able to go through with leaving everything behind when everything was begging him not to.
It’s Dean’s forty-first birthday. He made it all the way to forty-one. He pushes the thought away as he has for every other birthday and makes his way to the kitchen.
“I’m going for a drive,” he announces. Sam looks concerned for a moment before his eyes flicker to the calendar. He nods and continues eating whatever the fuck is in his bowl. It looks and smells like oatmeal, but Dean doesn’t want to dwell on it.
“Have fun,” Sam says. Dean bites his lip and hits the wall gently as he nods before walking away. Sure. Fun.
It takes three hours to drive to his destination. He checks his pockets and makes sure they’re empty before he gets out of his car and walks into the seemingly abandoned building. He walks slowly and looks around at the cracked windows that provide the only light this building has.
“I’m not armed,” Dean says. “No tricks. Just a wish.” A birthday wish. A hand grips his wrist and he feels himself get spun around. He’s face to face with a djinn, his eyes glowing blue.
“A Winchester,” the djinn says. “Where’s the other and the angel?”
“At home unaware. Just me.” He keeps his voice even despite the slight fear he feels pounding in his chest. The djinn’s other hand sparks as he brings it to Dean’s temple. The world slides away and Dean feels himself being caught before he falls.
When he opens his eyes, he’s exactly where he started. In the middle of an abandoned building. He stands up and looks up at the windows. They’re not cracked anymore. He turns to the door and walks to the exit, brushing the dirt from the floor off of him.
“Dean!” Cas runs to him from where he had been standing beside the Impala.
“Heya, Cas,” Dean pulls him in for a hug and closes his eyes as he feels Cas’ arms around him. He’s probably only feeling his own heart hammering away, but he’s sure he can feel Cas’ slamming against his. “Come on,” he says when they break apart.
“Where are we going, Dean?”
“Trust me. You’ll love it,” Dean says with a cheeky grin and a wink. Cas gets into the passenger seat and takes a tape out of his pocket. “What’s that?” Dean asks as he starts to drive.
“It was a gift,” Cas says as she pushes it into the tape deck. Dean would recognize this tape anywhere. He’d made it a long time ago and given it to Cas. He grins as Zepplin plays loudly through the car.
The drive doesn’t take as long as Dean expected, but he’s glad to park and stare out over the Grand Canyon with Cas by his side.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Dean asks, turning the music off.
“Yes,” Cas breathes, looking out.
Dean feels Cas’ fingers brush against his on the seat between them. He laces his fingers with Cas’ without looking down.
“I’m glad you prayed to me,” Cas says quietly. “It gave me a reason to fight.”
“I’m glad you fought,” Dean answers. “So I could see you again.”
A helicopter rises from the canyon and Dean’s eyes go wide. He takes his hand from Cas and throws the car into reverse, turning 180 and trying to drive through the kicked-up dirt. He can hear the sirens. They’re being surrounded. Dean spins the car around again, panic rising in his chest.
“It looks like an army,” Cas says.
“All of this for us?” Dean looks from his rearview mirror to Cas.
“Place your hands in plain view!” The order comes over a loudspeaker from one of the cars. “Any failure to obey that command will be considered an act of aggression against us!”
Dean tunes them out as they continue their demands. He grabs his gun and starts to reload.
“What are you doing, Dean?” Cas asks.
“I’m not givin’ up.” He presses the bullets in hastily. “I just got you back.”
“Okay. Let’s not get caught.” Dean looks up at Cas’ words.
“What’re you talkin’ about?”
“Let’s keep going.” Cas’ blue eyes are piercing and pleading. He looks from Dean to the cliff they’re facing. “Go.”
“You sure?” Dean asks.
“Yes.” Cas nods and looks back at Dean. “As long as we’re together.” Dean grins and nods.
“Cas,” he breathes before he pulls Cas to him and their lips crash together. His fingers rake through Cas’ thick hair as his lips part for him. He can feel Cas’ hand on his jaw and his teeth against his lip. They laugh into each other as they part.
Dean nods and floors it, speeding toward the cliff. He holds out his hand and Cas takes it without hesitation, their fingers winding together. The tires leave the ground and Dean suddenly feels weightless. He squeezes Cas’ hand and turns to look at him, wanting his face to be the last thing he sees.
His dark hair is wild from Dean’s fingers dragging through it. His eyes hold all the shades of blue that the sky holds. His lips are perfect and slightly parted, taking in a breath.
“Dean!” Dean blinks blearily, the dream tearing itself up and disintegrating. He can’t focus. He’s so cold and tired and Cas is there. Cas. “Let me heal you,” he pleads. His face swims into focus. Why is he here? He didn’t tell anyone he was going to be here. “What were you doing here?”
“It’s my birthday,” Dean says on an exhale. He feels Cas’ hand on the side of his face and wonders if he has enough blood left to blush. Cas is healing him. He can feel the heat of the grace in Cas’ palm. He doesn’t fight.
“You could have died,” Cas says. Is it anger? Worry?
“Not with my guardian angel,” Dean says as he sits up. His head had been in Cas’ lap, cradled gently. He clenches his jaw and looks away from his best friend. “Thanks, Cas.” He looks toward the door and realizes how dark it is outside. “How long was I gone?”
“Only a few hours, but multiple djinn were feeding on you. How did this happen?”
“Come on, Cas. It’s a long drive back.” He gets up at the same time as Cas and walks toward his exit.
“I didn’t know today was your birthday,” Cas says as he gets in the car.
“It’s not important,” Dean brushes it off. “Hasn’t been for a long time.”
“Happy Birthday, Dean,” Cas says quietly.