The first real fight John remembered having with Dean was a few weeks after the fire. They had stayed with family, then with friends, but John hated being a burden and finally took a large motel room complete-with-kitchenette in downtown Lawrence. The aging hippie who ran the place provided a crib and gave John good weekly rates, and said they could stay until the insurance finished rebuilding the house. But the minifridge was empty, again, and after John picked up the boys from kindergarten and the nursery he swung by the supermarket.
Sam in the little shopping cart seat and Dean walking alongside him, John quickly walked through the aisles, collecting pasta, microwaveable dinners and other basic items. Dean had remained silent throughout, his eyes travelling from shelf to cart as John loaded items. But when he got to the baby aisle and started loading baby-wipes, the four year old spoke up.
"Mommy would get the blue ones," he whispered.
John's heart stopped, his breath stopped, time stopped. His son had only just begun to speak, and whenever he mentioned Mary it was with such resign, such an understanding of how gone she was, it broke his heart. He smiled down at his son.
"I know, Deano, but these are just the same, only the color's different."
Dean lowered his head, raised his eyes, and crossed his arms. "Mommy would get the blue ones. She said the red ones and the green ones and the yellow ones aren't good for Sammy's butt. She said only the blue ones are good."
John looked again at the wipes on the shelf. He hated to disappoint Dean, so soon after his mother died, and deny him even this small connection to her, but there was over a dollar difference between the brands and John just couldn't afford to pay more for a whim of Mary's he hadn't even noticed.
"Sorry kiddo, we're getting the red ones. It's red like a fire truck, that's neat, huh? Sammy'll love them, you'll see," he said, and tossed the red baby-wipes into the cart.
There was a moment of silence, and then Dean went berserk.
He started shoving at the cart, yanking it back and forth, screaming, "Mommy gets the blue ones! Only the blue ones, only the blue ones!" Sam's eyes locked with John's a moment before his face crumpled into frightened crying from being jostled, shocked stupor before his wailing joined his brother's.
John's mind went completely blank. He knew you were supposed to coolly ignore a child in a tantrum, but for a long minute all he could do was hover between the boys.
"Sam, shhh, shh, it's okay, you're okay— Dean, stop it!" he hissed as Dean shoved the cart again, this time causing it to bump into the shelves and knocking down several boxes of disposable bottles. John crouched to pick them up with one hand while the other remained on Sam, though his angry gaze stayed fixed on Dean. People around him began staring, some with sympathetic smiles, some with noses wrinkled at the disturbance.
John pulled himself together. He shoved the bottles back onto the shelf, grabbed Dean's arm from shaking and shoving the cart, and held both his arms down as he crouched in front of the child, whose face was red-nearing-purple. To enunciate each hissed word, John shook Dean as he spoke.
"Dean! We are getting these wipes because I said so! Stop it and calm yourself down, right now- I'm serious! If you keep this carrying on, so help me! Do you understand me?"
Dean glared at John. "Yes."
"Yes what?" John prompted. He was no Mary with the kids, but army discipline he knew. Army he could enforce.
"Yes, sir," he prompted Dean, then asked again, "yes what?"
This time Dean answered. "Yes, sir."
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The ride back to the motel was silent, except for the baby making noises in the back seat and Dean muttering each time he picked up a toy Sam threw from the car seat as soon as Dean handed it back to him.
When they arrived back at the motel, John handed the key to Dean, and with a quick, "go open the door," got up out of the driver's seat and headed to the trunk, to grab the groceries. He shifted all the bags to his right hand, and with his left undid Sam's belt and grabbed him out of the car seat.
John was still livid, with Dean for throwing that temper tantrum- he never did that to Mary, he was certain- and with himself for being angry with a four year old who was coping with the loss of a mother. But they boys had to eat, and anger management could wait till later.
Dean fed Sam from a jar of baby food while John put up the Sloppy Joe sauce. When Dean was done he bodily limped to the bathroom, holding Sam under his armpits like a sack of potatoes to wash off his face and hands. He lurched back to the kitchen and deposited his brother in John's lap, and went to pursue his own games.
John absently set Sam on the floor with a spoon to play with, and sat down at the small kitchen table. He leafed open the investigator's report to where he had left off, and continued reading, hoping desperately maybe the last few pages contained an explanation of air rushing out of a room, or of the heated wallpaper exuding some chemical or something, anything, to explain how his Mary had burned, alive, on the ceiling of Sam's nursery. He had been anxious to read the official Fire Marshall's report, but that turned out to be two pages of airflow charts and one page of a written incident report, concluded with a simple "Source: Unknown." Two days after receiving the report he hired two independent fire investigators, both reputed to be the best in the state. The first had been even more frustratingly vague than the Fire Marshalls'. The second did not seem to be more promising.
With a sign, John flipped the report shut and rose to turn off the fire. No answers in this one, either. But he knew what he had seen, and he was determined to find out how his wife had really died. He placed a couple hamburger buns on paper plates, ladled sauce onto them and set them at the table.
"Dean, dinner," he called.
Dean ignored him.
"Dean!" He called again, his voice low and sharp. "I said come eat dinner."
His son finally looked up, green eyes glaring and mouth pinched in what was essentially an adorable imitation of Mary's angry face. John's impatience melted and he struggled to keep a straight face.
"Dean, I know you're angry over the wipes but come and be angry while you eat, how's that?"
Dean whispered something swift and low to the nearest toy soldier, then walked moodily to the table and threw himself in a chair.
"Eat," John instructed. He lifted Sam from where he was playing on the floor and went to change him and put him to bed. All the while he smiled to himself. As long as Dean was around, Mary wouldn't really be far.
By the time Dean was ready for bed a couple of hours later John was exhausted. Although Dean hadn't fussed again, he had remained moody, and even though he obeyed all of John's brusque orders to collect his toys, to brush his teeth and to get into bed, the sheer belligerence radiating off him made John feel like the evening stretched on forever.
The baby kept waking up, too, and John had had to settle him, wind up the mobile (and each time the world seemed to get a little fucking smaller, after all), and caution Dean to keep it down, the baby is sleeping! three times so far. He suspected this would be another long night, and when Dean pouted a half-hearted "goodnight, dad," and climbed into bed without asking for a bedtime story. John didn't offer one.
It was three in the morning when John awoke, again, to the sound of Sam crying. "In the name of Jesus, baby, what is the matter?" John muttered as he got his feet under him and padded across the room to where the crib was nudged between Dean's bed and the wall. As he reached down he changed his tone, but he couldn’t help the frustrated words.
"Hey, kiddo," he whispered. "What's the matter? Is it the pacifier? Will you please just take the stupid thing and go to sleep?"
For a moment it seemed like that had done the trick. But the next moment the baby began howling even louder, as though affronted by the weak attempt at caring for his problems. John sighed, reminded himself that whatever the problem it wasn't Sam's fault, and leaned to picked up the baby so he could rock him back to sleep. He paced the length of the room twice before he realized that Dean wasn't in his bed and that the bathroom light was on.
"Hey, Buddy, everything okay in there?" John asked in a loud whisper, and then remembered that his four year old didn't really care about privacy yet, and that it was three in the morning, and stepped into the bathroom. For the second time that day John lost his words.
Dean was standing on the little stool that was supposed to help him reach the toilet. His toy soldiers were aligned on the edge of the sink and along the tank of the toilet, weapons raised. In one hand he held a mostly empty package of baby wipes, the red package, and the other was frozen over the toilet, a wipe dangling haphazardly between his fingers. John could only stare. Dean, his green eyes wide, stared back. The lone wipe fell from his raised hand and landed squarely in the toilet bowl. John still stared.
It was Dean who recovered first. Without breaking eye-contact with John he shouted, "abort!" and made to flush the toilet. John would later recall the events in slow motion: His left arm reaching out to stop Dean, because he knows that there's more than one wipe down there, and he also knows the septic system can't handle it; Dean jumps off the stool, and begins collecting the soldiers from the rim of the sink; John reaches the toilet as the flush handle jingles back into place, and he looks down as an impossible number of baby wipes try to go down the drain, fail, and are pushed back up as the water level rises.
Time snaps back to normality as the water crests above the rim of the toilet bowl, and John is able to react. He grabbed Dean off the floor as he tried to run past, small hands gushing little green soldiers. Dean squirmed in his hands, shouting "man down!" as soldiers fell from between his fingers. John walked into the bedroom in two long strides, and roughly deposited Dean on the bed. He thrust Sam in Dean's arms, and with a harsh, "you hold your brother!" turned back to the bathroom.
It took forty minutes to clean up the mess, and all their clean towels. By the time John finished he wasn't even angry anymore. He sent Dean back to bed, with a warning not to dare get out before John came to wake him. Sam, though thankfully calm while being held, began bickering again as soon as John even drew near the crib, so John prepared him a bottle and let him drink it while he changed his diaper, hoping the bedtime routine would fool the baby into actually sleeping.
John mechanically removed the sweatpants, unsnapped the onesie, undid the side bands of the diaper. He was about to replace the damp diaper with a new one when he registered the angry red splotches on his son's behind. He sighed, slathered on liberal amounts of butt-paste, and dressed the baby.
"Hey, Dean," he whispered after he settled the baby into his crib.
Dean flipped in bed to face John.
"Tomorrow we'll go back to the store and get the blue wipes, how's that sound?"
"The red ones aren't good for Sammy's butt," Dean reproached.
"I know. From now on we'll get blue ones. You'll help me pick them out? The good ones, like Mommy used?"
"Yes, Sir,'' Dean said, and smiled, his excruciating, beautiful Mary smile, and John had to look away.
"You're a good boy. Goodnight, kiddo. Get to sleep."
Dean was already up, though lying perfectly and patiently still, when John came to wake him the next morning.