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A Little Company

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It had been twelve days since they’d brought Ellie home from the hospital. Twelve days since Cas sat in the back next to their adopted daughter in her (triple-checked) rear-facing infant seat as Dean drove the Prius slowly and carefully down residential streets that suddenly seemed rife with treacherous conditions and reckless drivers. Twelve days of disrupted sleep and trial and error as their tiny, dark-haired addition provided them with incontrovertible proof as to who was now running the household. But after twelve days, little by little, the blind panic of the first week abated, replaced by a sense of competence and confidence that grew and spread, much in the same way that baby items were taking over their small house in Sioux Falls.

Slowly, the seemingly endless stretches of eating and crying had begun to display a hint of predictability, forming the vaguest outlines of a routine. Cas had enthusiastically run with this welcome development to the point where Dean wouldn’t have been surprised to see him stride into the nursery with a clipboard in one hand and a whistle around his neck. 

Using a baby care app on his phone, Cas kept track of feeding times and amounts, sleep patterns, and wet/soiled diapers. Just now, standing in their bedroom, Cas checked his notes and announced that they had an approximately ninety-minute window until she needed to eat again. 

“Approximately?” Dean said, with the baby against his shoulder. “That the best you can do?”

Completely missing the teasing edge to Dean’s tone, Cas furrowed his brow as he scrolled back through the earlier data. “She’s exhibited some variation recently.”

Dean knew this was a monster of his own creation. When Cas had fallen, there’d been little Dean could do to help him. He couldn’t fill the sense of emptiness Cas felt at being disconnected from his brothers and sisters, nor could he relate to the appalling dismay of a multidimensional being now abruptly chained to three dimensions. Because of that, he’d given Cas time and space to adjust. But when those early days turned into a week of Cas lying around and refusing to join them at mealtimes, only to scavenge for snacks in the middle of the night, he’d changed tactics. 

One morning he’d knocked on Cas’s door at 8 AM sharp, ignoring the muffled go away and throwing the door open. 

“Here’s the deal,” he’d said, standing by the bed with his arms crossed over his chest, even while Cas turned away and pulled the blankets higher. “Humans need certain things on a regular basis: Food, sleep, exercise, showers.” 

“It’s too much.” Cas sounded utterly defeated.

“I’m going to help you,” Dean promised, even as he yanked the blanket off.

It started with a schedule: get up, shower, eat breakfast, take a walk.

With five years as a human under his belt, Cas had relaxed his need for structure and routine quite a bit, but it had flared full force when they brought Ellie home. And while Dean gently mocked his husband, there was no denying that the baby’s capriciousness seemed easier to interpret when they had a record of her eating and sleeping habits. Thanks to Cas’s meticulous documentation, Dean was willing to admit that maybe Ellie hadn’t been put on this earth solely to make them feel incompetent. 

Now, twelve days into their tenure as parents, it was all coming together nicely. Dean had even (mostly) gotten over the horror of realizing that eating “every three hours” didn’t exactly account for the forty-five minutes it took for them to feed, burp, and change her in the middle of the night. But they tallied the signs of their success: they had bottle making down to a science, and had created well-stocked diaper changing stations both upstairs and down. Dean was particularly proud of his ability to coax burps out of the baby and Cas had developed a strange affinity for folding baskets of her tiny clothes, sorting the onesies from the sleepers and matching the wee socks. 

They were both firmly on the same page, flourishing and working together as a gold-medal parenting team. 

Until Cas got a little overzealous. 

“Ninety minutes should be more than enough time,” Cas said, satisfied that his calculations were correct. He disappeared into the bathroom and Dean heard the sound of running water. 

Dean stood in their bedroom a few minutes longer, hugging the baby safely to him, before joining Cas. “I still don’t see why this is even necessary.” 

“She’s two weeks old,” Cas said reasonably, as he tested the temperature of the bath water. The small plastic tub sat on the counter between the two sinks in their bathroom. 

“It’s not like she’s working up a sweat,” Dean argued, switching his grasp and holding the baby at arm’s length to appraise her. She looked back at him with big brown eyes, her headful of dark hair smooth against her skull. “And we clean her, uh, diaper area all the time. What’s wrong with just wiping her down with a washcloth like we’ve been doing?”

Cas moved to the doorway where Dean stood with Ellie. “Humans need regular bathing, you taught me that.” He gently tipped back the baby’s head to expose the grimy bits visible in the creases of her neck. “It’s time, Dean.”

Dean brought her close again as he eyed the blue plastic tub suspiciously. “You’re going to put her in there? And add soap?” His voice took on a tone of agitation. “Might as well just grease her up and we’ll play catch with her.”

“It will be perfectly safe as long as we’re right here to monitor her,” Cas said in that rational tone that made Dean feel like he was overreacting. He wasn’t overreacting. He just didn’t think there was any need to put their baby in a water-filled death trap. 

Cas stepped back to the tub and checked the water again. “Will you please undress her before the water gets cold?” He opened the cabinet under the sink to retrieve the bottle of baby wash to go along with the washcloth, hooded towel, and plastic cup he’d already set out.

Dean looked down at Ellie, who was regarding him solemnly. “Just know that this was Papa’s idea. Not mine.” 

He didn’t have to look to know that Cas was rolling his eyes. 

Dean sighed and began to unwrap the receiving blanket, shifting the baby carefully into one arm. “Um,” he said helplessly as she wriggled in his grasp.

Cas saw his struggle and came to help. Dean held the baby face out, upright against his chest as Cas freed the blanket and began to unsnap her polka-dotted sleeper. Working together, they got her undressed.

“We’ll have to move quickly once her diaper is off,” Cas said, his face a mask of serious focus that Dean hadn’t seen since the days they used to strategize on hunts. “Ready?”

“I still think this is a stupid idea,” Dean muttered, but he stepped closer to the plastic tub as Cas tugged on the Velcro tabs of the diaper. 

Once she was naked, Dean lowered Ellie into the tub. She gasped as her little body breached the surface of the water and only a glare from Cas kept Dean from snatching her right back out again. As he set her gently onto the built-in nonslip support, she kicked her feet a few times, churning the water. Dean secured her in place, one hand cupping the top of her head, the other splayed across her torso to hold her steady.

Cas squirted a little of the soap onto the washcloth, lathering it up before gently washing her legs and feet. The baby weighed in at just over six pounds now, and while they would never admit it to anyone else, she bore a definite resemblance to a plucked chicken. A really cute plucked chicken, but still.

As Cas used his cupped hands to scoop rinse water onto her, Dean studied the baby’s face. “Well,” he allowed, “she doesn’t hate it.”

Cas was kind enough to keep his I told you so thoughts to himself as he washed the arm nearest him from shoulder to fingertips. When he finished, he waited expectantly, but Dean kept his focus on their daughter.

“Dean,” he prompted.

“What?”

“Your hand is covering parts that I need to wash.”

Dean glared at him. “I can’t let go of her.”

“Can’t you…reposition?” The water was cooling as time ticked away. 

“That requires letting go of her.” Dean gave Cas a smug look. “It’s a safety issue.”

Cas sighed the sigh of the long-suffering. “Can you lift up part of your hand, at least?”

Dean studied the situation and then rotated his hand enough that Cas could run the soapy cloth over her belly.

 “Okay, good,” Cas said, “Now the top.” 

“This is taking forever,” Dean complained. Cas ignored him and washed her chest and shoulder. When he was done, Dean immediately resumed his full-handed grip. 

Awkwardly (and unsuccessfully), Cas tried to reach over Dean’s arms to wash the baby’s other side. “This is ridiculous, Dean. Just let me hold her and you wash that side.”

“No way. I know what I’m doing and we’re not switching in the middle. You come over to this side.” 

“Just move your hand for one second.”

“Nope. Safety first, Cas.“

The baby grasped at the water with a clutching hand, then brought her fist to her mouth.

Dean’s eyes grew wide. “Is that okay? She’s basically drinking dirty bath water. What if she peed in there?”

Cas took advantage of the distraction to maneuver under Dean’s arm and swipe the washcloth over her other shoulder and into her tiny armpit. “Let’s do her hair and then we’ll be done.”

“How do we do that? We can’t dunk her head in the water.”

“Did you even read the baby care books Sam bought us?” Cas said, reaching for the small plastic cup. “Move your hand from her head and keep her chin tipped up.” 

“Of course I read them, but I didn’t memorize them.” Friggin’ nerd ex-angel. Nevertheless, he did as Cas instructed. 

Cas spent a few moments thoroughly cleaning Ellie’s neck before carefully pouring a cupful of water over her head. It ran down the side of her face in rivulets and she startled, both feet kicking water onto Cas’s shirt. 

“She doesn’t like that,“ Dean warned.

Cas squirted some soap into his hand, then massaged it into the baby’s wet hair. His hand was so big that he only needed to use his fingertips to get the soap distributed. “Can you sit her forward a little so I can get the back of her head?”

Dean slid one hand behind her neck, sandwiching her little body between his hands. He tipped her forward muttering something about cleanliness being next to slipperiness.

Cas gave the back of her head a quick once over, before filling to cup to rinse her. This time the water ran directly into her face and she sputtered and started to cry.

“Oh my God, Cas. You’ll drown her.” Dean scrambled to brush the water out of her eyes. 

“I think we’re done,” Cas conceded over the wails of the unhappy baby. He picked up the towel and spread it over his chest with the hood on his shoulder. “Give her to me.”

Dean lifted her out of the tub and set her back against Cas’s chest, slipping the hood over her head and wrapping her up. As soon as she was swaddled, she stopped crying, her eyes shining beneath the terrycloth. Cas hugged her to him and looked at Dean. “We did it.”

“We did.” Dean smiled back as he took in the sight of his husband and his daughter. “Now give her to me,” he said, reaching out his arms.

“I just got her,” Cas complained.

“Yes, but you’re the one who said we needed to move fast when her diaper was off. I’ll get her dressed while you empty the tub.”

Cas kissed Ellie on the forehead before passing her back to Dean. “Don’t pee on Daddy.”

Dean took the baby into the bedroom where the clean diaper and sleeper were laid out on their bed, while Cas emptied the tub and put away the soap and the rinsing cup. Cas wrung out the washcloth and tossed it in the hamper. He was just about to dry the tub when Dean called to him from the bedroom.

“Cas! C’mere! Quick!” 

“What’s wrong?” Cas hurried out of the bathroom, the towel still clutched in his hands. He looked for the source of Dean’s urgency, but found him smiling. Ellie lay on the bed, still wrapped in the towel but now securely diapered.

“Look at this.” Dean leaned forward and lifted the hood from Ellie’s head. 

 Cas stared in amazement. Ellie’s wispy hair had quickly dried and it lifted up all over from her head like a dandelion gone to seed. Cas reached down to run his fingers over the very ends of her hair. “It’s so soft.”

“Maybe the bath wasn’t the worst idea you’ve ever had,” Dean admitted.

“Maybe not.” 

Dean pulled his phone from his jeans pocket. “Pick her up so I can get the full effect.” 

Cas held her against his chest, smiling broadly as her fluffy hair tickled his chin. Dean studied the picture he’d taken. “Wait until Uncle Sam gets a load of this.”  

***

By the time Ellie was five weeks old, the need for copious notes had faded and they were adjusting well to their status as a family of three. When Charlie decided to swing through town, Dean and Cas hosted a small end-of-summer gathering so she could meet the baby. (Playing host wasn’t quite as generous as it sounded; Jody had offered to have it at her place, but keeping the party at their house seemed simpler than packing up everything the baby might conceivably need.) 

Everybody decided on a potluck and refused to let Dean cook anything, which he had protested, but in the end it was just as well. Ellie had given them a rough night and they were lucky to have the house presentable by the time Sam, Charlie, Bobby, and Jody were to arrive in the late afternoon.

Dean took one last look around the large open space that formed their living room and dining room. The carpet was vacuumed at least, and the heavy walnut table had been cleared of baby items and opened to its full length. They’d gotten the table at an estate sale for a fraction of what it was worth and, with Bobby’s help, Dean had painstakingly sanded and restored it. Solidly built and able to expand for when they hosted friends and family, it now served as the heart of the downstairs, handling meals and doubling as Cas’s desk. 

Cas came downstairs with Ellie just as the doorbell rang. He'd dressed her in a green striped romper with a frog chasing a fly embroidered on the front. He’d added little lace-edged socks and Dean made sure to have her pale pink knit cardigan sweater (no buttons, those were choking hazards) on hand in case she got cold. 

The late August day was warm and sunny, the humidity heavy as the window unit worked overtime to cool the living room. Dean sat in the middle of the commotion with Ellie on his lap as the guests streamed in, arms laden with bags and plastic containers. Sam came in the front door holding Sadie’s leash, but a quick nod from Dean had him bending down to unclip it so that she could trot into the living room. She bonked lightly into Dean’s leg as she came to a stop, lifting her graying snout to sniff at the baby before turning in a circle and lying down with her chin resting heavily on Dean’s foot.

Sitting there, Dean felt a little guilty about letting everyone else do the work (well, everyone but Charlie who immediately plopped down on the couch and oohed and ahhhed over the baby), but it was time for Ellie to eat. Jody had offered to feed her, but Dean had declined explaining that she could be tricky to burp. 

Charlie opened the gift she’d brought, too impatient to wait for Dean’s hands to be free. She pulled out two onesies. One was purple and screen-printed in white with a stylized, leafless tree. The other was orange and covered in rows of black script. 

“The White Tree of Gondor,” Charlie explained excitedly, “And the Ring inscription written in authentic Black Speech.”

Dean grinned at the assortment. “That’s awesome. And a nice change from pink. Where’d you get them?”

“God bless Etsy,” Charlie said, folding everything neatly to put back in the bag. She sighed and made herself comfortable next to him. “Look at you. Baby in your lap, dog at your feet. Who’da thought?” 

“It’s worse than that,” Dean said, shaking his head sadly. “We have an actual picket fence out back.”

Charlie gasped in mock horror. “If I didn’t know better, I’d be spraying you with holy water right now.” She regarded him for a long moment. “Do you miss it? Hunting?”

“We’re still consulting on cases,” he reminded her, lifting Ellie to his shoulder to burp. 

Charlie raised an eyebrow skeptically. “Yeah, but it’s not the same as being in the thick of things.”

He glanced toward the living room where Cas was deep in conversation with Sam. Cas caught his eye and smiled at him. Dean returned the smile before looking back at Charlie. “I’m good with it.” 

“You two are so gross,” Charlie said breezily. “This whole thing is like one big bizarro world.”

Dean felt a little shiver between his shoulder blades, just as Sadie lifted her head and let out a small woof. “Sam tell you how he ended up with her?” 

“Nope, but I assume it happened about a millisecond after he went civilian.”

“Practically.” He switched the baby to his other shoulder and patted her back. “I went with him to the pound and we walked all around the pens. There was this yellow lab puppy, barely a year old. It was jumping and barking, like a kid hopped up on sugar. The kind of dog you could totally take running or teach to catch a frisbee. So, that’s the dog for Sam, right?” 

Charlie nodded. 

“We’re walking out of the room so he can get the adoption paperwork started and suddenly…” He waved a hand in the empty air next to him. “Sam’s just gone. Like, I had to double back to find him. There he was standing in front of the last pen in the row looking at this one.” He nodded toward Sadie, who was now lazily scratching at one long ear. “Sam’s looking at her and she’s looking at him. Totally still except for her tail going back and forth. Turned out she was eight years old, mostly blind in one eye from a cataract, and she’d been in the shelter for over six months.”

Charlie gave the old dog a sad smile. “Nobody wanted her when there were puppies to be had.” 

“Exactly,” Dean said. “No way Sam was leaving without her.”

Charlie brightened and reached down to pat Sadie on the head. “What kind of dog is she, anyhow? She’s like a barrel with legs.”

“Part basset hound, part who-the-hell knows. But she’s a sweetheart.”

They sat and chatted for a few more minutes before Charlie got up to help Sam pull dishes, silverware, and napkins from the kitchen and pile them onto the dining room table. Cas and Jody talked easily as he filled a cooler with ice and she added beer and sodas to it. With the house filled with happy voices, Dean finished feeding Ellie and then tucked her under his chin so he could wander out the back door to where Bobby was manning the grill on the small deck. 

“Looks like she’s calling the shots these days.” Bobby grinned at him as he used the long-handled tongs to flip each piece of sizzling chicken.

“There is no denying Her Royal Highness,” Dean said, tipping her back a little to check if she was asleep. Big wide-awake eyes blinked up at him so he turned her to face out.

“Jesus, I thought it was bad the way you looked at the angel,” Bobby complained, but there was no real heat behind it. “It’s about ten times worse with her.”

Absurdly, Dean felt tears sting his eyes. He cleared his throat and turned away saying, “I’ll get you a clean plate for when those are done.”

When the chicken was off the grill and all of the food was laid out on the table, Dean relinquished Ellie to Jody who insisted on giving him a chance to eat. (Lately, the baby had a knack for waking up as soon as they sat down to eat, particularly if it was something that required actual utensils.) As he cut the chicken and forked up a bite of pasta salad, he had to admit it was nice to eat something using both hands. Plus, it was a novelty to sit next to Cas during a meal. Usually one of them was walking circles with the baby while the other one shoveled in food before swapping out. 

“I heard from Claire the other day,” Cas said to Jody.

“I guess between the two of us she’s keeping in touch fairly regularly.” Jody dabbed at Ellie’s face with the burp cloth. 

“She’s hoping to be out this way before too long,” Cas said. “I know she wants to meet the baby.”

“I’m sorry we can’t send her pictures,” Dean added. “It’s just not worth the risk.”

“Nobody can blame you for that,” Jody said, smiling down at Ellie. “Anyhow, it makes a good reason for her to come visit."

As talk turned to the cases Claire and Annie had been handling down south (they’d recently contacted Charlie for help getting into a secured building), Dean found himself choking down the rest of his food and standing to relieve Jody of the baby, even though Sam had offered to take her next. 

“You’re guests,” Dean protested. “Eat.” He walked the baby into the kitchen to grab a serving spoon for the watermelon. 

After dinner, with the food packaged up and put away, they relocated to the living room to wait until they had room for the ice cream and sundae toppings Charlie had made Sam stop for on the way over. Bobby patted the cushion of the seat next to him and Sadie sat on her haunches, front paws on the couch. Bobby coaxed her a few more times but it was too high for her old joints, so he hauled her the rest of the way up. Happily ensconced on the cushion, Sadie flopped onto her back to let him rub her belly. 

Sam, hands freshly washed, walked up to Dean with his arms out. “Hand over my niece.”

“She’s kind of sweaty,” Dean said, blowing on the damp hair where it stuck to the crown of her head. 

“I’ll walk her over by the air conditioner.“ Sam lifted her from Dean’s arms.

Dean tucked a burp cloth over Sam’s shoulder. “Okay, but don’t let her get cold.”

Sam rolled his eyes and walked off. Dean stood for a moment watching, and then went to retrieve the little sweater from where he’d left it in the dining room. As he bent to pick it up, he heard Ellie fuss. He was half-way across the room when a hand on his arm stopped him. 

“Give him a minute,” Cas said. “He’ll figure it out.”

Dean stayed in place working his jaw as he clenched the sweater in his hands. Sam had Ellie lying with her head cradled in the crook of his elbow. Lots of babies liked to be held that way, but not Ellie. She liked to be more upright. Sam wouldn’t know that, though. Not the way Dean did. Just as he opened his mouth to argue his case, Sam gingerly re-positioned her, resting the baby’s head against his shoulder, his broad palm covering her back. Instantly she quieted. 

Cas smiled at him. Dean worked to smile back and held up the sweater by way of explanation before crossing the room to see if she was getting chilled by the cold air. 

“I can’t believe summer is almost over,” Charlie was saying as he passed the couch. “It went so fast. When do your classes start, professor?”

“The day after Labor Day,” Cas confirmed. “So, another week.”

“And you’ll be back at Bobby’s?” she asked, turning to Dean. “Back to the real world.”

“Yep,” Dean said. “Gotta keep the princess in diapers.” He tugged up the sock that was slipping off of Ellie’s foot.

“Well, there’s plenty for you to do,” Bobby chimed in. “The new kid’s a fast learner, but we’ve gotten way behind without you there.”

It had been a stroke of pure luck that Ellie had been born during the summer when Cas’s class load was minimal. He’d been able to get the whole summer semester off and Dean was reaping the benefits of a boss who doubled as doting grandfather. Things would be back to “normal” soon and both Dean and Cas fully appreciated how lucky they were to have had these first six weeks of Ellie’s life to adjust. 

“How many hours will the sitter be here?” Jody asked. 

There’d been no question of having the baby anywhere but in their home, where every entry point was warded and the house was as protected as it could be. The sitter, Maggie, had come recommended by a number of other parents in the neighborhood and Dean and Cas had both been impressed with her cheery disposition and obvious ease with the baby when they’d interviewed her. She had a long resume of experience and they’d carefully called each of the references she’d provided. They’d also surreptitiously added holy water to her iced tea and had Jody use her position at the sheriff’s office to run an extra-thorough background check. 

“We’ve arranged things so that she’ll only need to be here for six and a half hours a day.” Cas explained. “My classes start early, but I can be home by four. Dean will go into the shop from 9:30 – 5:30.”

“It’ll be nice for you guys to have a little break,” Sam said as Dean abruptly scooped the baby out of his arms.

“She needs a diaper change.” There was a fully-stocked diaper changing station in the downstairs bathroom, but Dean carried her up to the nursery. He closed the door to her room and set her on the changing table to unsnap her romper and quickly swap out the wet diaper for a dry one. After using sanitizer on his hands, he pulled a few extra wipes from the container to rub down her face and arms, too. She kicked her feet and wriggled at the touch of the cool wipes. 

With the door shut, the room was warm and the sound of the party was hushed and distant. Probably they should go back downstairs, but Dean took a moment to sit with his daughter in the rocking chair, cherishing the quiet. 

A few minutes later, he heard the creak of the stairs and Cas opened the door. “Is she okay?”

“Yeah, she’s fine,” Dean answered, looking down at her and continuing to rock.

“Are you?” Cas asked.

Dean lifted his eyes, ready to say yeah, of course but Cas was looking at him in a way that dissolved his facade. He chewed his lip a moment then said, “I didn’t think it would be like this.”

“Like what?” Cas moved to crouch down next to the rocking chair, placing one hand comfortingly on Dean’s thigh.

“So…intense.” That wasn’t the right word, but Dean couldn’t come up with anything better. 

“The biological imperative to protect one’s offspring is coded into humans at the molecular level,” Cas offered. 

Dean nodded, pretending to agree. That’s probably all this was, no need for him to make a big deal out of it. 

But then Cas continued, eyes fixed on Ellie. “I thought that was enough to explain it, but it doesn’t begin to touch on the fervor I feel when I look at her, the fierceness to keep her safe. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced.”

“I thought it would be more like taking care of Sam when he was little,” Dean confessed, giving voice to something he’d been ashamed to admit.

“I thought it would be more like taking care of you when you were my charge.” Cas trailed his fingertips over their daughter’s forehead.

A burst of loud laughter from downstairs broke into their quiet moment and Cas straightened up, holding out a hand to Dean. “Let’s go have ice cream.”

 

Chapter Text

Cas cradled Ellie against his chest and Dean could tell he was sniffing her head one last time. Smiling into his mug, Dean took advantage of having two free hands to hurriedly finish the remains of his breakfast as he watched Cas murmur something to her that he couldn’t hear. 

“She’s going to drool on your tie,” he chided. “You can’t start the semester with baby stains.” 

Cas looked at him, serious as Dean had ever seen him. “You’ll call and let me know how it goes?”

“You’ll be in the middle of a lecture.”

“Leave me a message,” Cas said, pressing one more kiss to the baby’s forehead before Dean took her. “And text me with a quick overview.”

Dean shifted Ellie so he could wave her hand at Cas. “Say goodbye to Papa. He’s off to shape young minds.”

Cas picked up his briefcase.

“Wait,” Dean said, and Cas stopped. “Turn around for a sec.”

Cas pivoted, looking over his shoulder as he did. “Did I get something on me?”

“Nah, your ass just looks great in that suit.”

Cas glared at him. Dean hid behind the baby.

“One more kiss,” Cas said, kissing each of them in turn. “And call me.”

Dean stood by the door listening to the barely-there hum of the Prius as it started and pulled away. 

“Let’s double check everything,” he told Ellie, even though he and Cas had already double-checked everything last night. And again this morning. 

She should only need three bottles while they were gone, but there were six pre-made in the refrigerator, just in case. Plus, the formula and scoop were laid out on the counter next to a supply of clean bottles. A half dozen bibs and burp cloths were neatly stacked next to them. After test-driving a batch of pacifiers (Dean now knew more than he ever thought imaginable about round vs. orthodontic and the difference between latex and silicon), they’d found one that she reliably liked and bought ten of them. Cas had thought that was an excessive amount until Dean started listing off places to keep them: the nursery, their room, the swing, the stroller, the car seat, the diaper bag, not to mention a few more in the nursery because Dean had learned from experience the pain of searching for one in the middle of the night. 

He walked Ellie upstairs to make sure there was one in her crib. He checked the changing table and saw that the pack of diapers on the shelf was only half full, so he went to the closet and took out a new pack to put next to it. He clicked open the box of wipes to see that it was sufficiently filled and moved the tube of diaper cream to a more visible spot. He studied the distance between the changing table and the crib.

“Not worth it,” he told Ellie and they walked down the hall to get the pacifier from their bathroom to place on the changing table. 

He opened one dresser drawer and then another, taking out two clean outfits, plus a sweater, hat, and three pairs of socks, all of which he set on the changing table as well. 

Back downstairs, he checked the basket under the bathroom sink. He was debating whether the ten diapers there were enough or if he should go back upstairs for more, when Ellie started to fuss. 

“Right you are,” he said, checking his watch. “Time to eat.”

Cradling her in one arm, he mixed up a fresh bottle so he wouldn’t have to use one of the pre-made ones and settled into the armchair to feed her. 

“We won’t be gone long,” he assured her. “You’ll play and eat and sleep and play and eat some more…” 

Jody had given her a pair of red and black booties with rattles in them and Ellie had just started to figure out that kicking her feet made the rattling sound. Each time she did it, she froze in surprise and stared at her feet. It was ridiculously cute and no doubt Dean was going to miss her doing it today. Probably multiple times.

But God, it would be good to be around grown ups again. To focus on something for more than twenty minutes at a time and to feel like he was actually accomplishing something. Not to mention making some money. Child care was crazy expensive; there’d only be a little left from his paycheck after paying Maggie’s hours each month. Thankfully, Cas’s position teaching English at the community college came with decent benefits. 

Slowly, but surely, they’d gotten back on the grid as they left the hunting life. Obviously everything had to be in place before he and Cas even thought about starting the adoption process, but sometimes it still amazed him that he had things like a mortgage and a savings account and health insurance. Their house was small and standard, but the neighborhood was filled with solid, hard-working people and the school district was good. They hadn’t been sure what to expect when they moved in two summers ago, but with years of getting people to trust him, Dean had won over most of the neighbors—all except for old Mrs. Doyle across the street, who was forever peering out her front window at them. Dean figured she was waiting to see them Do Gay Things and offered to oblige, but when Cas had taken it upon himself to shovel her sidewalk religiously the first winter, she’d come around, even bringing by a tuna noodle casserole when Ellie was born.

This baby was going to have everything he and Sam never had, from a room of her own to a backyard to play in, to consistent, preventative medical care. He felt his jaw tighten as he thought about the forged immunization records John had presented so that the boys could be enrolled in school after school. 

Ellie batted at his hand while he held the bottle, bringing him back to the present. Her noisy sucking was accentuated by the occasional snort. 

“Good stuff, huh?” He slipped the bottle out to check her progress. “Time for a burp.” 

Spreading the cloth over his shoulder, he lifted her up, patting her back, his forehead creasing. “I forgot to mark down that you get burped half-way through. I’ll write that down on the instruction list.” 

Stupid. That one was a no-brainer. How had they forgotten that? What else did they miss?

Ellie fussed for a moment, then let out a stellar burp. 

“Eight out of ten,” Dean declared, tipping her back to look her in the eye. “Not as good as the one Papa got the other night, but definitely a high score.” 

Ellie gazed at him and something in her eyes softened. She’d been doing this lately; her eyes were clearly smiling even though her mouth wasn’t. She smiled in her sleep all the time, part of the random movements her face made—everything from grimaces to grins— but she hadn’t yet given them a genuine smile. It was so close though. He and Cas had wagered a week-long break from bottle washing (they didn’t trust the dishwasher to do a thorough enough job) to whoever got the first real one. 

With a cold feeling in his stomach, Dean set her back in his arms to finish the bottle. That first smile could happen any time now. 

He held her until the doorbell rang a few minutes before nine o’clock. For a split second he pretended not to hear, like maybe he could ignore it, but Maggie could see into the living room from where she stood on the front porch. She waved, smiling, and he got up from the chair to let her in, unable to resist smiling back at her. Everything about her was soft and round, even down to her dark curls streaked with grey. 

“Hello!” she chirped, leaning in for a closer look at the baby. “How’s our little sweetie today?” 

(Maggie, Cas had rightly pointed out, could make Donna Hanscum look like a curmudgeon.) 

“She’s pretty good,” Dean said, stepping back to let her in. He watched as she walked out from under the devil’s trap on the porch ceiling and crossed the salt line under the doormat in the entryway.

“Let me just put down my things and wash my hands.” Maggie set her large handbag next to the couch before stepping into the bathroom. “Would you like me to take Ellie so you can finish getting ready?” she asked when she came out.

“Oh no, it’s fine,” Dean assured her. “Let’s start upstairs.”

Fifteen minutes later, he was still holding Ellie and still giving Maggie instructions. “She likes to be burped up on your shoulder. And it works best if you pat her, instead of rubbing circles. That seemed to work when she was a newborn, but now she likes to be burped a little more firmly,” he explained. “I can write that down, since I forgot to earlier.” He struggled to make a note on the stapled pages of Ellie’s care sheets. 

“I can—“ Maggie offered.

“No, it’s fine.” Dean interrupted. “And like I said, she has everything downstairs that she needs, so you don’t even need to carry her upstairs, if you don’t want to.” Dean thought the carpet might be getting a little loose on the fourth stair. That could easily be a tripping hazard for somebody unfamiliar with it. He stopped, lost in thought. “Except extra outfits. I mean, there are some in the diaper bag, but maybe it’s better if I just go grab some to have down here.” 

Somehow, Maggie beat him to the bottom of the stairs and stood facing him. “Dean,” she began gently, “I know it’s hard to leave her, but I promise you that I will take excellent care of her. You can call me as many times as you want.”

Dean looked down at the sleeping baby in his arms and knew he was being ridiculous. “Cas will be home by four,” he said as much to himself as to Maggie. “But call me if you have questions since he teaches and I can always get to my phone.” Unless I’m elbow-deep in an engine he thought, with a wave of discomfort. 

Maggie nodded encouragingly and reached out her arms for the baby. Dean passed Ellie over, tugging her sock on a little more securely once Maggie had her. She looked cozy, nestled against Maggie’s chest. 

“Breathe, Daddy,” she said. “You’ll be fine.”

Dean walked first to the front door to make sure it was securely locked. Then he walked to the kitchen to take his lunch out of the refrigerator. He had his hand on the garage door before he turned back to the kitchen to pick up the instructions and bring them into the living room. “I’ll just leave this in here since our numbers are on it.” He cupped his hand over the baby’s head one last time.

“I have them programmed into my phone. Also the main number for Bobby’s. And the English Department. As well as Sam and Jody.” Maggie settled down onto the couch, Ellie secure in her arms. 

“Okay, okay, I get it.” He waved awkwardly and headed back to the garage.

At least getting into the Impala felt right. They didn’t drive her as much these days since there was no way to safely tether a rear-facing baby seat, which meant Dean only drove her when he went out by himself. Now she’d be getting some regular use even if the drive to Bobby’s was only fifteen minutes each way. Dean checked the time and sighed. He was going to be late on his first day back. 

Carefully, he reversed out of the driveway and drove up the street. It was the first day of school and the sidewalk was dotted with moms and dads and their elementary-aged kids on their way to the neighborhood school. Little ones skipped with new backpacks proudly on their shoulders, their un-scuffed tennis shoes lighting up with each hop. Dean smiled. That would be Ellie in five years. 

He signaled his turn at the end of the street. 

Five years wasn’t really that long. Then she’d be gone for hours and hours each day. And when she wasn’t at school, she’d want to be with her friends. He thought about Sam as a teenager, the way he’d gotten involved in every school club and activity he could so that he’d never have to be home. When he was home, it had been a non-stop battle with their father. That wouldn’t happen with Ellie, though. He wasn’t going to raise her the way he and Sam had been raised. 

Although, come to think of it, how the hell was he supposed to do a better job? He didn’t have the slightest idea what he was doing. Dean shook himself out of that line of thinking. She was only six weeks old. Now was not the time to stress over potential fights they may or may not have when Ellie was a teenager. 

Dean wondered what she was doing right now. Probably still sleeping. He’d told Maggie she could set her down in the swing while she slept, but he’d neglected to make sure she knew how to use the buckle properly. That shit needed to be practiced. And sometimes Cas left her sock monkey in the swing but that had to be taken out when she was in it, otherwise it was a suffocation hazard and he couldn’t remember where it was when he’d left and—

He swung the car around.

***

Inside the house, Maggie was sitting on the couch with Ellie sound asleep in her arms. She didn’t even have the decency to look surprised when he walked back in. If anything, she looked slightly amused.

“I’m really sorry,” Dean said, pulling the checkbook out of the kitchen drawer. “We aren’t going to be needing your services after all. I’m sorry to have taken up your time like this. Here’s two weeks’ pay to make up for the lack of notice.”

Maggie waved the check away. “Nonsense. I’m not going to take two weeks’ pay for fifteen minutes of work.” She passed the baby back to Dean, who felt all his apprehension drain away the moment he felt his daughter, warm and solid against his chest again. “This little girl is lucky to have you.”

After Maggie left, Dean dug out his phone to call Bobby. He was going to get an earful for leaving him in the lurch like this and he deserved every minute of it. 

“Singer’s,” Bobby answered.

“Hey Bobby,” Dean began.

“Is it not after nine-thirty where you are?”

Dean closed his eyes. “Look, I’m sorry to do this to you—“

“Is this a call to say you aren’t coming in today after all?”

“It’s just that—“

“By God, are you about to tell me that you’re calling this morning to leave me with an extra workload because you can’t tear yourself away from that baby?”

“I really thought I could, but—“

“Billy!” Bobby yelled, without even bothering to cover the receiver. “You owe me twenty bucks!”

“Wait, what?” Dean sputtered.

“Oh please, son. I knew you were never going to make it in here. My God, have you seen the way you look at that little girl? You are so whipped.” 

“But Billy thought I’d be there?” Maybe he wasn’t completely pathetic.

“Hell no. He just thought you’d bail over the weekend. My money was on this morning.”

Dean looked at the baby asleep in his lap. “Well, congrats on your victory,” he said flatly.

“Dean?” Bobby’s voice was gentle now. 

“Yeah?”

“Kiss that baby for me.”

He dialed Cas next and left a message. “Long story short, I’m at home, Maggie’s been relieved of duty, and Bobby’s up twenty bucks. Call me when you can.” He hung up, and then texted couldn’t do it

Half an hour passed before Cas called him back. “What happened?”

With Ellie safely in the swing, Dean paced the length of the living room. “I don’t know, exactly. I just couldn’t leave her.”

“Was it something Maggie did?”

“Maggie was absolutely fine. She was perfect. I literally left Ellie in her arms, but I felt like I’d abandoned her in a cardboard box down by the river.” He’d had time to think about the impetuous, emotional choice he’d made. He should’ve at least stuck it out for a couple of days to see how things went. Then he should’ve talked to Cas. This was a huge decision and he had no business making it alone.

“Dean,” Cas began, and Dean took a deep breath. He was about to apologize when Cas continued. “I’m glad.”

Dean stopped pacing. “You are?” 

“I am,” Cas repeated firmly.

“But we were counting on my salary.”

“You just eliminated one of our biggest expenses,” Cas reasoned.

Dean looked at Ellie as she stirred in her sleep. “I guess I did.” 

“But there is one major repercussion,” Cas warned.

“What?” Dean’s mind raced as he tried to identify what he’d neglected to consider.

“With you home full time, you’re going to need a car that—“

“Oh God,” Dean whispered. “I’m stuck with the Prius.”

Chapter Text

Dean’s decision to stay home came as a surprise to exactly nobody, a revelation that galled him nearly to the point of re-hiring Maggie just for spite. Truthfully though, despite the initial wound to his ego, he didn’t doubt he’d made the right decision. He had, however, neglected to factor in one crucial detail, one glaring major change that he didn’t fully register until the next morning when Cas left for work. At some naive, wishful-thinking level he’d been picturing life with the baby continuing as it had for the first six weeks, but that fantasy disappeared, along with Cas in the Impala, into the early morning mist.

 At 7:45 in the morning the house was deafeningly silent and Ellie seemed to be eyeing him expectantly. It wasn’t like he’d never been alone with Ellie before, but up until yesterday it had only been for short periods of time. Otherwise, there was always someone (Cas) to hold the baby while he put laundry in the dryer or ran to the store or went to the bathroom. Cas would hold the baby while Dean took a long, hot shower or snapped open the stroller (a skill he performed with a little extra flourish just to impress his husband who had spent ten minutes fighting with it the first time they tried to go for a walk), or took a shit in peace for the love of God. Suddenly, there were a lot of baby-filled hours to be managed on his own and nobody but himself to blame. 

But all of that —he wouldn’t call it fear, he wasn’t afraid of someone who weighed in at just over seven pounds and was currently wearing a peach-colored sleeper covered in tiny popsicles— let’s say, concern over how to manage didn’t come close to overshadowing the fact that he never had to worry about her safety when he was the first line of defense. Being a stay-at-home parent would require a steep learning curve on his part, but this new role came with its own priceless reward: peace of mind. 

The first thing Dean learned was that Ellie was a happy baby and never so happy as when somebody was holding her. That, coupled with the fact that Dean hated to hear her cry, meant a lot of things weren’t getting done around the house. Dean’s intentions were good: do the laundry, keep the house picked up, at least have an idea of something to make for dinner, but he soon found out that the daily agenda was set by one mercurial, fluffy-haired boss who refused to keep both socks on. A resolution to do laundry might end with the dirty clothes being sorted into lights and darks, but the baskets never making the short journey downstairs to the laundry room that was right off the kitchen. A plan to make dinner might result in calling Cas to ask him to bring home take-out. Again. 

Ellie had an uncanny ability to know when he was trying to get something done. She’d nap forever on his chest, but endeavoring to put her in the crib or the swing was a crapshoot. Sometimes he could tiptoe away and get the dishwasher emptied but often there were multiple failed attempts at putting her down before he gave up and stretched out on the couch with her. There was one day that she actually took three long naps, but that was after having been up every two hours during the night screaming to eat (growth spurt, oh god, the dreaded growth spurt) and Dean staggered around in a bleary haze unable to take advantage of her time sleeping to be productive.

Luckily, when Cas came home from work, he was more than happy to take over baby duty, content to sit and hold Ellie after being away from her all day. It wasn’t that Dean counted the minutes until Cas pulled into the driveway at four o’clock (Really? 4:12?), but he was Dean Winchester. He was a Man of Action. He was used to Getting Shit Done. So sometimes the most satisfying part of his day was that first half hour or so after Cas got home and Dean could run around unencumbered, switching laundry and sweeping up the coffee grounds he’d spilled that morning and washing the bottles that were scattered all over the house.

Of course, it was during one of these fulfilling, post-work periods that Dean lost the bet. 

From the laundry room, he could hear Cas’s delighted laugh. By the time he straightened up and switched on the dryer, Cas was standing in the doorway, beaming.

“Watch,” he commanded.

Dean moved to stand shoulder to shoulder with him, looking down at Ellie. Cas cleared his throat and composed his features. He locked eyes with the baby, then said with exaggerated deliberateness: “Buh.”

Ellie’s face split with a smile that made Dean’s heart swell. Cas waited until she’d stopped, and then did it again. Again she smiled, wide enough to show her shiny pink gums. 

 first smile

“You try it,” Cas said.

Dean leaned over to catch her eye. She blinked at him and waited. 

“Buh,” Dean said and watched as his daughter smiled at him. He and Cas grinned at each other and buh-ed at her for a while longer. 

“I’ll mark this in her baby book,” Cas promised, ever the record-keeper. The baby book had accompanied the tuna noodle casserole that arrived from across the street soon after they’d brought Ellie home. Dean could’ve done without the abundance of pink lace, ribbon, and silk flowers that adorned the album, but he was secretly pleased that her every development was being carefully documented. 

“I can’t believe she’s such a little traitor, though.” Dean put his hands on his hips and fake-glared at the baby. “After what I do for you all day long, he gets the first smile?”

Cas shrugged. “That’s because I’m the fun dad.”

Dean actually snorted. “You keep telling yourself that. Nothing says fun like nerdy professor.”

“Don’t listen to Daddy, Ellie. He’s just bitter because he has to wash the bottles for a week.”

“When we made this bet, I assumed we’d both be at work during the day. I’m washing them most of the time as it is!”

“Then you should’ve worked harder to get her to smile. Come along, tiny human.” Cas walked off to go be fun dad in the living room.

***

Standing at the kitchen sink washing bottles (still two days left in his week-long stint), Dean looked through the window into their backyard. When they’d finally gotten serious about adopting, a house of their own had been the first logical step. A house implied a whole new level of permanence, it spoke of a commitment to staying in one place that Dean never thought he would embrace. Gradually, the desire to put down roots had seeped into Dean, replacing the need for everything he owned to fit in the Impala. The comfort and safety of life in the bunker had paved the way for this change, especially as it became the first place he and Cas ever called home together. 

Even so, Dean had wrestled mightily with the decision to retire from hunting. It was all he knew, the only thing he felt sure he was good at. How could he turn his back on people who were dying? People who needed his help?

It had helped that Sam was on board with the change. Dean knew this had never been the life Sam wanted, but Sam had seemed to find purpose and they’d made a hell of a team for a lot of years. But Sam was ready to take his turn on the other end of the phone, supporting the new generation of hunters the way Bobby had done for them. 

These hunters were younger, faster, and not tripped up by ever-changing technology. Under Jody’s watchful eye, Annie and Claire had grown into smart, brave young women. Between the hunting knowledge they had gained and the steadfast maternal guidance they’d received, they’d become clever hunters too full of healthy self-preservation to throw themselves into hopeless situations. Time and time again Dean saw the way their connections to Jody, to each other, to the hunting community (they joined forces with Krissy and her gang on a regular basis), and even to Sam, Dean, and Cas, caused them to fight harder and smarter, going the extra mile to find solutions that created the least amount of residual damage. John Winchester had taught his boys to go in guns blazing, but this new generation was less confrontational. They worked in teams, playing off each other’s strengths and their record was stellar. 

Knowing they’d left things in such capable hands freed Dean and Cas to move forward with their hopes for a child. They’d chosen this neighborhood specifically with raising a family in mind, taking into account the nearby park and the school within walking distance.  They’d accumulated furniture piece by piece, chosen mainly for comfort and cost. Until they'd needed to furnish the nursery, the only full-price purchase they’d made had been their bed. Dean had lobbied to bring their bed from the bunker, mainly for sentimental reasons, but Cas had dissuaded him with the promise of a bigger, sturdier bed and a brand-new mattress that had actually been made in this century. 

 As Dean turned off the water, a cardinal flew from the big oak tree in the yard and landed in the tangled remains of the garden. Cas had starting outlining and digging up the garden bed nearly as soon as they’d unpacked the last box. It had been mid-summer at that point, so the timing was off for planting, but Cas had managed a small crop of beans, tomatoes, and chard. This summer’s plan had been much more elaborate, but the garden had been almost completely neglected once Ellie had shown up to monopolize their time.  Dean watched as the cardinal took whatever treasure it had found and flew over the picket fence. The yard wasn’t big, but the stretch of ground opposite the oak tree looked like it might be flat enough for a swing set when the time came. 

After setting the bottles to dry on the rack, he wiped down the counter and walked out of the kitchen and through dining room, crossing to the couch to give himself a few minutes to enjoy the quiet while Ellie napped in her crib. The couch was a monstrosity of navy blue corduroy but it was big enough for two grown men to stretch out on and was ridiculously comfortable for naps provided you didn’t mind waking up with lines on your face.  A worn leather arm chair sat next to the couch and in front of it was a coffee table that matched neither the book shelves nor the television stand.  

Ellie’s room was the only one they’d gotten around to painting. While the rest of the house remained an uninspired off-white, they’d spent one weekend transforming the nursery with buttery yellow paint. Ellie’s crib, dresser, and changing table were bought as a set, and Dean had refinished the rocking chair from Bobby’s attic with a light cherry stain to coordinate as well. Cas had found the bumblebee bedding and, since apparently blanket in cribs were now hazardous to babies, they’d hung the quilt on the wall as a decoration.

The nursery was warm and cozy, the house was snug and solid, and here in his little protected domain Dean felt more content than he ever had. As scary as it had been to give up his old life, this baby solidified the fact that he was exactly where he was meant to be.  

Dean sank back into the cushions and let his eyes droop closed. Right on cue, the baby started to cry.

***

During the week, since Cas had to go to work in the mornings, Dean insisted on getting up for the nighttime feedings, but on weekends they went back to sharing the load. Best were the nights when Dean slept right through Ellie waking because if he heard her he often had a hard time falling back asleep. Even though he knew Cas was taking care of her, there were little things that nagged at him. Like the way Cas left her to cry for a few extra minutes while he went downstairs to put the bottle in the warmer, whereas Dean always scooped her up first and carried her down with him, even if it meant doing things one-handed. Plus, Cas left the hall light on while he fed her which Dean worried would confuse her into thinking it was daytime. So far it hadn’t, but was it really worth taking the chance? 

He didn’t want to micromanage the way Cas did things. He knew it was important for them each to find their way with her, but he couldn’t help thinking his ways were based on more experience. They were already tried and true. They were…better. Which meant sometimes he got out of bed on Cas’s shift to offer mild suggestions. Strangely, these were not taken in the spirit in which they were given.

“Out,” Cas hissed at him, both of Ellie’s little ankles caught easily in one hand as he slipped a dry diaper underneath her. 

Dean folded his arms and stood just inside the doorway because he refused to be told what to do by a man who left the container of wipes open. He stood there until he felt a yawn coming on, then he turned his back on his husband and walked down the hall.

When the weekends came, Dean tried to run as many errands as he could. Leaving Cas in charge at home, he stocked up on groceries, filled the Impala with gas, and picked up Cas’s suits from the cleaners. It was easier without the baby, he explained when Cas encouraged him to do some of it during the week. 

“I’m sure it is, but it isn’t good for the two of you to stay cooped up inside all day long,” Cas pointed out as gently as he could, making Dean regret ever emphasizing this issue back when Cas first fell.

This was in no way a new discussion. Cas felt strongly that Dean needed to be getting out more, while Dean felt strongly that the warded house was the safest place to be. It’s not like he never went out anywhere. Most days they managed a walk around the neighborhood, keeping the house in sight at all times. Yes, there was that park a few blocks away, but what did a two-month-old need with a park? They were fine strolling up and down the street. Although it did mean he spent a lot of time under Mrs. Doyle’s watchful eye, gritting his teeth into a fake smile at her helpful suggestions that Ellie was always cold (“That little girl needs socks.” “Put a hat on that baby.” “She wouldn’t be crying if she had a sweater on.”) no matter the temperature. 

“Maybe I just don’t want to be seen driving your abomination of a car.” Dean picked up the toys scattered around Ellie’s play mat and dropped them into the fabric bin.

Cas refused to take the bait, barely glancing up from his laptop. “Dean, exercise, fresh air, being around other people…those things are important for both of you.”

“Other people? Other people?” Dean rounded on him, green eyes hard. “How the hell am I supposed to keep her safe when I don’t even know what’s out there? The world’s a scary fucking place, Cas, that’s why we got out of the life.” 

Cas was a grown man who could fight if he had to, but Ellie was so helpless, so fragile and susceptible to harm. More than once, in a deep dark place he would never admit to, he’d second-guessed their decision to adopt her in the first place. It was selfish of them to want this when the consequences to her could be so dire. 

Cas closed the lid of his computer and gave Dean his full attention. “I understand that. But the answer isn’t to isolate and control every part of her life.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Dean scrubbed a hand over his face, blinking back tears. “How do I keep her safe from what’s out there when I need one fucking hand just to support her head?”

Cas’s eyes widened. “I—I hadn’t thought about it like that,” he said slowly, and Dean could see him running through the logistical implications. He rose from his chair and crossed to where Dean stood. “But this isn’t solely on you. We came to Sioux Falls for a reason. Between Bobby’s network and Sam and Jody, there are safeguards in place. People who know what to look for, people we trust, people who love Ellie and have her best interest at heart.”

Dean stared somewhere over Cas’s shoulder and nodded, but his mouth was grim and tight. 

“I’m scared too,” Cas said and Dean finally met his eyes. “We’ll work on this together.”

***

They started by taking Ellie out together on weekends and, while Dean never let his guard down, with each successful venture he felt his world (and his lungs) expand. Eventually, he worked up the nerve to take her out on his own, building his confidence with short trips like swinging by the drive-through at the bank or darting into the drug store to pick up more diapers (always more diapers). 

He had a healthy suspicion of everyone and everything, not to mention a blade in the diaper bag, but it soon became obvious that the biggest hurdle he was up against was Ellie herself. Even the simplest tasks felt like defusing a bomb. Could he get in and out of the store without her having a screaming fit because it was bottle o’clock? And what was it about being semi-upright in the car seat that caused her to defy the laws of physics and poop up her back? (He still shudders thinking of the first time he unknowingly lifted her out of the car seat and found it on her neck. Her neck.) Not to mention the helpless feeling of trying to rush her home while she wailed in the backseat, with nothing but his voice to comfort her. 

Over time, their routine settled into something bordering predictable, and on occasion everything fell into place for maximum results. One day, she fell asleep on the way home from the store, and when he brought her inside, still strapped in her car seat, she stayed asleep for two more hours while he put away the groceries and ate lunch. Sitting down. With two hands. And then he even had time to prep dinner. 

They went to the grocery store a lot. Like, multiple times per week. Partially because short, frequent trips meant less chance of reaching DEFCON 1, but also because Dean knew the layout well, recognized the workers, and was never more than about 75 feet from an exit. Plus, it meant they got up and out of the house most days, which, he grudgingly admitted to Cas, was a good thing. 

One morning toward the end of October, Dean set the car seat in the basket of the grocery cart (limited cart real estate also contributed to frequent trips) and wandered around the produce section. He picked up a tiny pumpkin and held it up for Ellie to see. “This looks like the perfect size for you.” 

Ellie grinned up at him and kicked her feet. 

He smiled back at her. He’d been fiercely protective of her from the day they’d brought her home, but now that she was so responsive to him, it had opened up a whole new level of connection. She was three months old now and smiled easily all day long. Sometimes all it took was the sound of his voice and she was wiggling all over, excited to have him near her. When she was sad, she pushed out her wee lower lip before the tears started to fall and it was such a textbook-perfect pout that he and Cas always laughed at it even as they hurried to comfort her. 

 He moved the pumpkin closer and helped her pat the smooth side with her hand. “You approve?” 

She screwed up her face, tensed her entire body, and then farted loudly. 

Dean nodded in mock earnestness. “I’ll take that as a yes.” 

He was setting the pumpkin in the cart when an older woman approached and stood a little too close as she smiled at the baby.

“Oh, how nice,” she said with cloying sweetness. “Is daddy babysitting you today?” 

Dean smiled tightly at her, firmly gripping the cart handle. “It’s not really babysitting when it’s your own kid.”

The woman continued unabashed, gesturing toward her with a gnarled hand. “I just meant it must be nice for her mommy to have a break.” 

Ellie regarded the stranger, a slight pre-pout quiver in her bottom lip.

“Yeah, well, her mommy is another dad,” Dean said, relishing the way the woman’s mouth fell open. “And he is one hot piece of ass.” 

As the woman walked away with her lips pursed in disapproval, Dean heard a snort and looked to see a young woman laughing. She had a baby a few months older than Ellie strapped to her chest in one of those soft carriers. (They’d gotten one as a gift but even though it freed up his hands, Dean couldn’t get past the idea that he was basically using his daughter as a human shield. As awkward as it was, he preferred Ellie in the safe shell of the car seat.)

The woman had long wavy brown hair and she’d clearly found the exchange amusing. “Nicely done.” 

Shrugging, Dean smiled back as the woman pushed her cart alongside his. “You would not believe the comments I get. People act like I’m some sort of saint for taking care of my own child. They always call it babysitting.”

“Couldn’t resist dropping the My Two Dads bomb?” Instinctively, she caught the set of plastic keys just as her baby dropped them. 

“It does tend to shut them up quickly,” Dean said, sorting through the pile of Granny Smith apples. 

“I’ll have to remember that seeing as my kid has two moms.” She smiled before tilting her head in consideration. “Unfortunately, nobody ever says a word to me about being out with the baby, so I doubt I’ll get a chance to use it.”

Dean threw back his head and laughed, startling both babies.

“My name’s Susannah. And this is Riley.” Riley rattled the keys in greeting. 

“I’m Dean. This is Ellie.” He set his bag of apples in the cart so he could reach out a hand to her. 

Susannah shook his hand with a smile. “Nice to meet you guys. Hey, you should come to baby story hour at the library. A group of us meet there every Thursday at ten, then we go for coffee after.”

“Thanks. I’ll look into it,” Dean said, just as Ellie let out a whine at being kept in one place for too long. “I’d better keep her moving. Nice meeting you, too.” He waved goodbye at Riley before wheeling his cart over to the meat counter to grab some ground beef for burgers. 

That night over dinner, he related the story to Cas. 

“Dean, you can’t go around scandalizing every senior citizen in town,” Cas said, unable to contain his smile.

Dean gestured at him with his half-eaten burger. “You’re so right. Next time I’ll fill the diaper bag with pamphlets on Alternative Family Structures.”

Cas dipped a sweet potato fry in ketchup. “Really? Hot piece of ass?”

“I only speak the truth,” he said, as Ellie let out a screech from the bouncy seat that they'd put on the table while they ate. “Oh, and I met a woman there with a baby and a wife and she invited me to baby story time at the library.”

“That could be fun.” Cas put out a hand to stop the toy cell phone that was skidding toward his plate. He handed it back to Ellie who excitedly smacked herself in the head with it, but not hard enough to make herself cry. 

Dean looked at his husband, but found no signs that he was joking. 

“Really?” Dean demanded. “Baby story time? What the hell do babies need with story times? Are they going to discuss the finer points of Good Night, Moon?”

“I’ll never understand why they think that huge open fireplace is appropriate for a child’s room,” Cas said and they both frowned and shook their heads picturing it. “I suppose it’s more about socializing with other parents. But Ellie does like to be read to.”

“Half the time she tries to eat the book,” Dean pointed out.

Cas wasn’t about to let it drop. “You should think about going.”

Dean folded his arms across his chest. “You won’t be happy until I’m president of the PTA.” 

“Look, Dean,” Cas said seriously. “it’s a nice way to spend some time while you’re babysitting.”

Dean pushed back his chair and picked up their plates. “I’m saving the next up-the-back poop for you.”

***

A few days later, Dean opened the fridge to find Cas’s lunch bag still inside. After checking the clock, and considering where Ellie was in her eat/play/nap schedule, he texted Cas saying he’d bring it by for him.

Just before noon, Dean drove to campus and pulled into the lot outside the building that housed the English Department, parking the Prius alongside the Impala (yes, okay, he gave it a little pat). He unloaded the baby, the diaper bag, and Cas’s lunch, and headed into the building, following the familiar path to Cas’s first floor office. Cas’s door was open, but his office was empty. Dean stood there for a moment and took it in, seeing the picture of Ellie on his desk. She’d changed a lot since the semester started and Dean made a mental note to update it with a more recent picture, maybe the one of her smiling in the swing.

The office directly across the hall was occupied, so Dean stuck his head in the doorway. “Hey, do you know where Cas is?”

The man, who looked to be in his mid-twenties, swiveled around in his chair, his open expression quickly closing as he took in Dean’s well-worn jeans, t-shirt, and flannel. He adjusted his bow tie with a light touch as he spoke. “Professor Winchester stepped out for a moment.”

“I can see that. That’s why I’m asking,” Dean tried to keep his voice pleasant, but seriously? He glanced around the office. Bingo. There was the fedora hanging on a hook next to a long-handled umbrella. Those plus the bow tie pretty much made up the douche starter kit.

“And you would be?”

“I would be his husband.” God, that never got old. Both the giddy flutter in his stomach each time he said it and the look of shock that crossed this dumbass’s face.

“Oh!” The dumbass was out of his chair in a flash, suddenly eager to be of service. “And this must be Ellie.” 

“We’ll just wait in his office.” Dean stepped away but the man followed them across the hall. 

“I’m Phil. I work with Cas.”

“I figured,” Dean said, turning to stare at him full on.

“So that’s your car, huh? That makes more sense.” Phil pointed back across the hall to where the Impala was parked right outside his office window.

Before Dean could ask what the hell that was supposed to mean, Phil continued. “Seeing him get out of that car every morning, in his suit and trench coat…it’s such a delicious juxtaposition.” 

Phil’s eyes unfocused for a moment as he pictured it. “I teach poetry,” he explained, as if letting Dean in on a secret. “I see the world a little differently.”

“Do you, now?” Dean said with mock interest just as Cas appeared in the doorway. 

Phil pivoted on the spot to face Cas with a bright smile. “There you are! I told them you’d be right back.”

“Yes, thank you, Phil,” Cas said as he walked past and scooped Ellie out of Dean’s arms, holding her out to smile at her. “Hello, honeybee.” 

Ellie grinned, pumped her legs happily, and reached for his chin. 

“I’ll just…“ Phil trailed off, hooking a thumb toward his office.

“Yes, thank you, Phil,” Dean echoed, allowing himself a smug smile at Phil before closing the door behind him.

“Hello to you, too.” Cas kissed him when he turned around. “I’m glad you could come by.” 

“Couldn’t let you go hungry. You’d snap at the undergrads and there would go your stellar ranking on Rate My Professor. Speaking of which, what’s the deal with Phil?”

“Poetry department,” Cas said simply, as if that explained everything.

“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure you have the starring role in his rainbow notebook full of sonnets.”

Cas stopped kissing Ellie’s fat cheek long enough to look at him. “Phil?”

“Phil,” Dean affirmed, crossing his arms and leaning against Cas’s desk.

“Huh,” Cas said, blinking. 

“He called you a ‘delicious juxtaposition’,” Dean continued, air quotes and all.

Cas looked pained as he headed toward the door with Ellie in his arms. “Can we stop talking about this now? I’m losing my appetite.”

With an amused huff and a quick smack to Professor Winchester’s ass, Dean followed Cas down the hall as he showed off the baby to his other colleagues. While Ellie was a little overwhelmed by the outpouring of attention, she smiled shyly from her secure place snuggled against Cas’s chest. Once all the introductions were finished, they went back to Cas’s office where Dean traded Cas his lunch for the baby so that he could give Ellie a bottle. She was due to fall asleep on the ride back, freeing him to eat at home, but Cas couldn’t resist feeding him blueberries and bites of his own roast beef sandwich. 

Afterwards, Cas walked them to the car, bending to fasten the half-asleep baby into her car seat. Once he was satisfied that everything was secure, he straightened up and closed the car door. He smiled at Dean. “I may forget my lunch more often.”

Dean responded by crowding him against the side of the car before reaching for his tie and pulling him in for long, deep kiss.

“What was that for?” Cas asked, when they finally pulled apart.

“I’m just happy to see you,” Dean said innocently.

Cas glanced over Dean’s shoulder to the office window where Phil was pretending not to watch them. “Ah,” he said, and pulled Dean in again. 

Chapter Text

When Ellie was thirteen weeks old (yes, Dean always swore he wouldn’t do that age-in-weeks bullshit but there you have it), she woke up one morning like her default setting had been switched from Happy to Hellspawn. The two extra wakings the night before had Dean on alert for another growth spurt, but he should’ve known something else was wrong when she mostly refused the second bottle, leaving Dean to rock her back to sleep as the sun began to lighten the sky. An hour or so later, while Cas was in the shower, she woke for the day so Dean had no choice but to drag himself out of bed during the groggiest part of his sleep cycle to get her. 

She cried when she woke up, took a break in the middle of her breakfast bottle to cry some more, and then topped things off with Extra Bonus Crying. 

“Apparently we’ve been blessed with Ellie’s evil twin today,” Dean told Cas when he came downstairs dressed for work.

Cas stopped short at the bottom of the stairs. “You’re concerned about a changeling?” 

Dean swallowed a laugh. He should know better than to joke with his husband before he’d had coffee. Cas currently had the full on head tilt/squint thing going and damn that was adorable. “No, I just mean she’s just extra fussy today.”

(Hellie, Dean thought as he walked and patted her back, that’s her evil twin’s name, but he didn’t need that raised eyebrow from Cas so he kept it to himself.)

 She was still cranky after Cas left so Dean set about to find the source of her misery. He checked her diaper (dry) and held the digital thermometer under her arm (normal), but it all came together when he was re-dressing her and realized the front of her sleeper was soaked through. 

“Lemme take a look in there,” he said, with a finger on her chin. She grabbed his finger with both hands and brought it into her mouth, chomping down on it with surprising force. Banishing thoughts of baby vampires from his head, he gently pulled her mouth open until he spotted the red, swollen spot front and center on her bottom gum. “Poor baby,” he murmured, now frowning himself. 

He changed her into a dry sleeper and tied on a bib as she chewed her own fist, whining and fussing. A call to the pediatrician got him a reassuring response from the advice nurse who said Ellie was a little on the young side for teeth (Dean will admit to a surge of pride at his daughter being advanced), but that this was well within the realm of normal. Seeing as the current guidelines didn’t recommend pain reliever for babies under four months old, the nurse gave him some other suggestions for soothing her, and Dean's memory flashed to his father rubbing whiskey on Sam’s tender gums. 

That left Dean to walk her back and forth around the living room, patting her back as she cried and drooled and chewed. Feeding her was an exercise in frustration because instead of sucking, she tried to chew on the nipple, then got mad when nothing came out. If Dean hadn’t been so tired from the long night and stressed about not being able to comfort her, it would’ve almost been funny. 

Nothing got done that day, unless wearing a groove in the carpet counted. Even the old standby of letting her nap on his chest didn’t work so Dean glumly climbed back to his feet and abandoned any thought of easing his own sleep deficit.

 

On his way home from work, Cas picked up dinner and stopped at the store for some of the naturopathic teething drops and the freezable teething toy the nurse had suggested. Dean was grateful Cas could run these errands even as he found himself bristling when it meant Cas got home nearly an hour later than usual. When he finally walked in the door, Dean had managed to put Ellie down in the swing long enough to pick up the kitchen and start washing bottles. 

Cas set down his computer bag and purchases before coming up behind Dean and wrapping his arms around him. Dean stiffened, and not in the good way. He didn’t want to hurt Cas’s feelings, but after having the baby on him all day long, he found himself gritting his teeth at the additional contact. 

“How’d it go?” Cas hooked his chin over Dean’s shoulder and Dean fought down the urge to push him away. 

“Not our best day.” He ducked out of the embrace. “I’m gross,” he said by way of excuse. “I never got a shower.”

“Let me go get changed and then you can shower and lie down for a bit,” Cas offered. 

Dean nodded gratefully. “That sounds good,” he said, letting the counter hold him up. “I’ll finish this up.”

“I can do it when I come back down,” Cas called over his shoulder as he headed out of the kitchen. 

But Dean already had the sink filled with hot, soapy water, so he continued scrubbing the bottles, pulling the nipples out of the rings and washing each part separately and thoroughly. By the time Cas came back down (seriously, how long does it take to change into jeans and a sweater?), they were washed, rinsed, and set on the drying rack.

Freed from the long stretch of baby-duty, Dean escaped upstairs, dropping his clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor as he waited for the shower to heat. Once it was hot, he stood in a bleary daze under the spray, letting it pound out some of the tension in his neck and shoulders. Thanks to Ellie’s (usually) (somewhat) predictable schedule, he was accustomed to being woken twice each night, but the additional disruptions last night had taken their toll.

Dean had honestly thought that baby-related sleep deprivation would be the easiest part of parenting for him. All he needed was his four hours, right? That might’ve been true when they were on a case. In those days he could run on fumes because once the hunt ended there was always a bottle of whiskey to take the edge off his adrenaline rush, and the chance to make up for a week’s worth of little sleep in one lost weekend. Now the days slogged together one after another with no respite (and very little whiskey) and sleep could be neither banked nor recouped. 

The good news was that Ellie regularly slept for a four hour stretch each night. The bad news was that it didn’t happen at a consistent time. If she ate at 8:30, she might be up again at 11:30 or not until nearly one o’clock. Dean always swore he would go to bed when she did to try and get a few extra hours in, but more often than not, he found himself staying awake to enjoy some baby-free time. 

As the shower stall filled with steam, Dean rinsed the shampoo from his hair and reached for the conditioner, nearly knocking down the little bottle of silicone lube lined up next to it on the tiled ledge. This roomy shower had been a definite attraction when they were house hunting and they’d wasted no time putting it to good use, but now he couldn’t even remember the last time they’d cracked the bottle open. 

The uncertainty in Ellie’s sleep schedule had put a serious damper on their sex life. Cas wanted to spend time with Ellie after work which meant he saved his grading and lesson prep for after she went to bed. By the time Cas was done, Dean felt like the timer was already ticking down to the baby alarm, which didn’t help him turn off his brain to get in the mood. With time always of the essence, they’d mostly relied on hurried make out sessions accompanied by quick, efficient hand jobs. (Although Dean did earn himself a glorious, bonus blow job that Cas had offered as a desperate trade for a 5 AM feeding.) It was a far cry from the weekends they used to spend in bed, only getting up long enough to eat and replenish their strength for another round. 

Dean finished washing and reached a soap-slick hand between his legs, but after a few half-hearted strokes he quickly decided that the lure of a nap far surpassed the chance for some ‘me-time’ in the shower. He did a final rinse then turned off the water and sighed. Jesus Christ, their life was becoming one tired sitcom trope after the other. Tomorrow would probably find him standing in the kitchen fretting over ring-around-the-collar while Cas complained about their dry spell to his coworkers in the break room, as Phil listened with predatory attention.

Despite not having been made that morning, the bed looked inviting but when he heard crying downstairs, he rushed through getting dressed and went to investigate. 

He found Ellie red-faced and squalling on a blanket on the living room floor. Cas was nowhere to be seen. 

“What the—“ he started, kneeling down to pick her up. 

Cas strolled out of the bathroom. “She’s fine,” he explained. “I just changed her so I had to wash my hands.”

“She’s not fine. She’s miserable and you left her to cry.” Dean bounced and swayed as she continued to wail.

“It was necessary, but brief. Here, let me take her.” He reached out for Ellie. 

“I’ve got her.” Dean turned his back to walk her toward the front window. 

“I thought you were going to try and nap before dinner.”

“I can’t sleep while she’s crying,” Dean snapped. He pointedly avoided Cas’s eyes, keeping his focus on the baby as he resumed his laps around the living room.

Cas stood helplessly and watched as Ellie began to calm. Finally, he went to the kitchen to see if the chinese food needed to be re-heated before they ate. 

***

After dinner they bathed her, hoping the warm water would be a soothing distraction but instead it set off another bout of crying. The sound echoed in the bathroom, more shrill in the uncarpeted space and wore at Dean’s already-frayed nerves. 

They got her as clean as they could before plucking her out of the tub and wrapping her in a towel. After she was dry and diapered, Cas held the digital thermometer under her arm to confirm what Dean already knew just from handling her: still no fever. Cas settled into the rocking chair to feed her while Dean cleaned up the bathroom and then changed into pajama pants himself. Maybe the teething tablets were helping or maybe she’d finally worn herself out, but either way she seemed to be taking her bottle with no complaint.

He climbed into bed to enjoy the quiet. This was the night he’d get those hours in before the first feeding, he told himself, as he pulled the comforter up. 

Despite his exhaustion, Dean found himself on alert, waiting for her to begin fussing again. He’d have to go in there if she did because she liked to be walked with a certain bounce and sway that Cas hadn’t yet mastered and there was no point in letting her work herself up. Dean tried to relax as the sound of Cas talking softly to Ellie carried over the monitor. 

“Your tooth is pushing up through your gum,” he told her. “It’s hard and sharp and that’s why your mouth hurts. You liked chewing on the frozen toy because the ice numbed the pain.” 

Dean listened to the deep rumble of Cas’s voice, overcome with a wave of melancholy that settled with a pang in his chest. From explaining the discomfort of gas bubbles to the correlation between her small stomach size and frequent need to eat, Cas was always careful to clarify the cause and effect of what her body did and how she felt it. It went back to the days when Dean and Sam had taught Cas everything he needed to know to interpret his human body, a task that had been surprisingly difficult as they realized just how much they took for granted. Pangs of hunger, nervous anticipation, the almost physical weight of sadness; they all had to be broken down into discernible pieces. 

Dean knew Ellie was done eating when Cas began to sing to her, knew he had her up on his shoulder to pat her back as he soothed her to sleep. Cas always sang “Red River Valley”. Dean had no idea where he’d picked it up, but it was his go-to bedtime song.

He was just drifting off, lulled as much as Ellie by the singing, when he heard Cas make a sound of distress before calling Dean’s name. Dean was up in a flash and down the hall to see what was wrong. Cas was standing, holding the baby out at arm’s length. 

“She spit up all over me,” he said, and Dean could see the wet patch darkening the front of his shirt. “Then she sneezed on me for good measure.” He passed Ellie to Dean and scrubbed at the side of his face with the burp cloth. “I need to change. And possibly decontaminate.”

Dean was already at the dresser, digging through with one hand to pull out a clean sleeper to get her ready for bedtime, take two.

Take two was followed by takes three, four and five. Cas came back in but Dean waved him out of the room; he had work tomorrow. Dean went back to alternating between rocking and walking her, trying to find something that worked. Not since she was a newborn had she been so hard to keep asleep. He stood next to the crib, leaning awkwardly over the rail with one hand cupped around her head and one at her feet, hoping to fool her into thinking she was still being held. But each time he was sure she was deeply enough asleep and he straightened up slower than slow, she fussed and squirmed until he finally took her out of the crib and staggered back to drop heavily into the rocking chair with her. 

***

Dean whistled as he pulled the last load of laundry from the dryer, ever-amazed at the preponderance of pink. He was still impressed by the number of things that could be embellished with ruffles: everything from bibs to socks to towels (why the hell did a towel need a ruffle?). Once this basket was folded and put away, he’d be completely caught up on his to-do list for the day, and the feeling of productivity buoyed him. There was even time to take Ellie for a walk to the park in the warm sunshine before Cas got home.

“Whaddaya say we—“ he stopped and blinked at the empty swing. She’d been playing there happily while he’d emptied the dryer. The musical aquarium he’d turned on for her was still playing London Bridge; he’d heard it from the laundry room. He set down the basket with a sense of dread and moved closer to the swing. No way could she have fallen out, he'd strapped her in securely. Sure enough, the floor around the swing was clear. Automatically he checked the front door: still locked. 

He switched off the toy and stood in the quiet house, listening.

“Cas?” he called as he started up the stairs, but he got no reply. There was no reason for Cas to be home now, no reason he would slip in without greeting Dean, but maybe—? He checked each room upstairs, even the guest room which they mostly used for storage. Empty. 

On high alert, Dean moved back downstairs, searching each room thoroughly, looking in impossible places like the garage and under the kitchen sink. With every dead end, his methodical investigation turned to frenetic scrambling as the silence in the house pressed against him, squeezing the air from his lungs. He reached for his phone, but it slipped out of his sweaty palms and he kicked it under the table in his attempt to pick it up. Retrieving it, he straightened up, unable to remember his passcode, the phone buzzing his failure as he entered the wrong numbers again and again. With the useless phone in his hand, he whirled in a panicked circle checking everywhere: the floor the couch the car seat the swing where where where 

He was about to run back upstairs when a creaking sound chilled him to his bones. Turning toward the source, he saw the locked front door now standing open. 

A flicker of movement caught his eye and he raced out the door, jumping down the steps to the sidewalk. Light rain fell, the cloudy haze flattening the perspective as he chased after the shadow disappearing into the mist. He ran, lungs burning, but the figure stayed just out of reach, never slowing despite clutching something to its chest. He heard Ellie whimper and it spurred him on with a fresh burst of speed until he was close enough to grab it by the shoulder and swing it around. 

Alistair’s grinning face leered at him, arms now empty as Dean caught him by the throat. 

“Where is she?” he demanded, his voice a knife’s edge. 

“Dean.”

He tightened his grip. “Give her back.”

In the back of his mind, he’d always known it would end this way. He’d asked for too much, tried to possess a happiness he would never deserve, and there had never been any doubt that Ellie would ultimately pay the price. 

This was his fault. His fault for being so selfish. His fault for getting complacent. A rage—at himself, at Alistair, it didn’t matter—swept through him and he shoved Alistair against the wall, noting with satisfaction the sound his head made when it met brick.

Ellie wailed and Dean loosened his grip, searching for her. She had to be close if he could hear her. 

“Dean.”

Heart pounding, he found himself standing in the darkened nursery. Cas stood opposite him, pinned against the side of the crib, Dean’s hand still at his throat. Dean looked between Cas and Ellie, who was working up to a full cry in Cas’s arms, and he let his hand fall to his side. 

“I thought—” he said, his knees going weak. “Oh God, I’m so sorry.”

“Go lie down,” Cas said and Dean winced at the rasp in his tone. 

“Cas, I’m so—“ He reached towards Ellie, but Cas twisted in what little space he had, keeping her out of his reach.

“Go,” Cas repeated.

Dean stood outside the nursery but instead of continuing along the hallway to his bedroom, he abruptly turned left, moving quickly down the stairs. Pausing only long enough to shove his feet into his shoes and grab his wallet and keys, he stalked through the laundry room and yanked open the garage door, slamming it shut with enough force to carry through the entire house. He slid into the front seat of the Impala, closing yet another door between himself and his family, and stopped with the keys clasped in his right hand. Sitting in the cold, dark garage, he pressed his forehead against the steering wheel, clenching the metal of the keys until his hand ached. 

There were—and had been— times when he would just go. Leave everyone behind, putting secure distance between himself and the people he loved but seemed destined to disappoint and hurt. In those days, Sam knew better than to try and stop him, knew confrontation would exacerbate things and angry words exchanged as he left would only add to the tally of time Dean stayed away. Cas, too, had learned to give him his space, waiting steadfastly, whether for hours or weeks, with a quiet confidence in Dean’s eventual return that Dean found almost laughingly misguided (even as he kept coming back). 

Ellie was little enough that she’d have no memory of their few short months together. Maybe Cas could destroy the pictures, erase the record of him ever being there, and then pick up the pieces of the life Dean shattered to reassemble them as a family of two. She was even younger than Sam was when Mary died. His “memories” of her were nothing more than stories filtered through Dean, told often enough that he internalized them as his own. Sam knew Mary loved him, but practically speaking, she could’ve been anyone. It was the lack of her that did the damage, leaving a hole Dean endeavored to fill by being mother and father and brother. But was an aching absence better than a damaging presence? Why stay if he would continue to do more harm than good? 

Despite everything Dean worried about—demons, angels, monsters, anything and everything that could prey upon her—he was the biggest danger she faced. That much was made clear tonight. With his eyes closed, he saw Cas shielding her from him, instinctively protecting her from the looming threat standing before them.

In the reassuring confines of the Impala, Dean breathed deeply, trying to outlast the adrenaline that coursed through him, urging him to disappear into the night. Leaving was the smartest move, the one least likely to end with her becoming yet another casualty in his wake. He should go and never look back, lock these months down somewhere deep inside him where he could dismiss them, like he had so many times before. 

The keys fell from his hand with a clatter and thud.

Tiny as Ellie was, she’d forged a place that filled him to bursting and her absence would haunt him more than any demon ever could. The physical ache he felt when he was away from her for even an hour was new and different and exponentially worse than he’d anticipated. 

He picked up the keys and got out of the car, heading back into the house. After dropping his keys and wallet on the kitchen counter, he dug around to find a beer in the back of the fridge. With shaking hands he fumbled the cap off and took the first drink, a long swallow that burned going down. He paced back and forth in the dark living room, the same path he'd walked with the fussy baby, with nothing now in his hands but the chill of unyielding glass. 

He stopped to stare out the front window, expecting a glimpse of something wrong in the mid-October night, but found everything serenely in place. In the glow of the streetlight, a slight breeze stirred the trees, not even hard enough to cast roiling shadows. Dean tried to let the sight of the hushed, peaceful neighborhood calm him, rooting him here in his home, with his family. He was still standing there when Cas came downstairs.

For a long moment neither of them said anything.

“Are you—“ Cas began.

Dean turned from the window. “How can you ask me that? It doesn’t matter how I am. Are you okay? Did I hurt you?” He took an anguished step toward Cas, but stopped himself, not wanting to alarm him.

“I’m fine,” Cas said, deliberately closing the distance between them.

“I’m so sorry, Cas, I’m so sorry.” He fell into Cas’s embrace, letting the empty beer bottle drop to the carpet. They stood in the darkness, clinging to each other, Dean shaking with the horror of what he’d done. Cas held him securely, running a hand up and down Dean’s back to soothe him.

“What did you see?” Cas asked, when Dean finally stopped trembling.

Dean kept his face buried in Cas’s shoulder. “Alistair.”

 Cas made a small soft sound of sympathy. “You haven’t had one of those dreams in quite some time.”

It was one of those dreams that had brought them together in the first place; screams in the night that led Cas to Dean’s room in the bunker. Cas had only meant to wake and reassure him, but Dean kept him there all night, desperate not to be alone, needing something solid to hold. The dreams lessened in frequency as they spent nights together, the warmth and strength of Cas beside him giving him a feeling of security that ran bone deep, even into his subconscious. 

They’d been out of the life so long that most days Dean nearly believed the cover stories they told people here. He could almost convince himself they were just another family struggling through the mundane tasks of living, concerned with nothing but the visible world. But all it took was one dream like this to remember how far from normal he’d always be. 

Cas led him to the couch and they sat, Cas turning to face him so their knees bumped. “This doesn’t mean anything.”

Dean scrubbed a hand over his face. “It means I can’t be trusted.” Cas laughed, just a small huff, but enough that Dean looked at him in disbelief. “It’s not funny.” 

Cas gave him the smallest of smiles. “Only you could work yourself to exhaustion taking care of the baby and then decide it meant you were unworthy.” He took both of Dean’s hands in his. “You need sleep. I’m going to cancel my class in the morning so I can get up with her tonight.” 

Dean opened his mouth to argue but Cas stopped him saying firmly, “That’s what people do when their families need them.“ 

Cas stood, pulling Dean up with him. “Do you want to sleep in the guest room tonight so it’s quieter?”

“Do you want me to?” Dean asked carefully.

“I want you to do what you want, not what you think you should.” 

“I want to be with you,” Dean said, “but if you’d rather—“ 

“I don’t want you any place else.” Cas gave Dean a look that brooked no argument. “But I’m putting the monitor on my side of the bed.” He gave Dean a gentle nudge toward the stairs. “Just let me send the email to cancel class and I’ll be right up.”

Dean lingered for a moment at the top of the steps outside Ellie’s room before turning down the hall and obediently unplugging the monitor to relocate it to the other bedside table. With the adrenaline rush gone, Dean’s exhaustion crept back in, but he lay awake in the bed until Cas joined him. Then, with Cas holding him tightly to his chest, Dean fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. He stirred a little at the sound of the baby waking, but drifted right back off while Cas got up to handle things. 

In the morning, Cas pulled the bedroom door closed and took Ellie downstairs, and when Dean woke again it was after ten o’clock. He stretched in bed, luxuriating in the feeling of waking up on his own. His head was a little fuzzy from sleeping so deeply and he was definitely overdue for coffee, but his limbs felt pleasantly heavy and relaxed for the first time in ages. He dragged himself out from under the covers and went through the usual bathroom routine before heading downstairs. The nursery door was shut; Ellie must be down for her morning nap. 

“Good morning,” Cas said, from where he sat at the dining room table with his laptop.

“How’s she doing today?” Dean asked.

“Better. The tiniest bit of tooth is showing now.” Cas reached out an arm as Dean approached, tucking into Dean’s chest as Dean dropped a kiss on the top of his head. “How are you?”

“I feel like a new man,” he said.

“There’s coffee,” Cas said, looking up at him. 

Dean froze, his stomach turning as he saw the purple thumbprint on Cas’s throat. “Aw, shit, Cas.” He crouched down to look more closely, afraid to touch it, afraid Cas would flinch if he raised his hand. 

Cas knew, Cas always knew, and he took Dean’s hand to place gently over the bruise. “I’m okay,” he said, letting Dean run his fingers lightly over it even as he found the other bruises near the back of his neck as well. “But we do need to talk about this.”

Dean was already so far in the wrong that the we need to talk barely added to his supply of misery. He pulled out a chair and sat, trying not to let on that his heart was racing. Whatever Cas thought was best, he’d do. He was committed to keeping them safe. 

“I need to own my part in this,” Cas began.

Dean stared at him, uncomprehending. 

“You’ve spent so much more time with Ellie that I find myself letting you do things because it’s easier and you’re always willing to do them. But even though you’re her primary caregiver, I need to do my share.” He waited for Dean to acknowledge this with a nod. “Which means I need a chance to figure out my own way of doing things, even if they’re different than yours. It might take me a little longer, but you can’t do everything. You’re exhausting yourself as only Dean Winchester can: through sheer stubbornness.”

Dean slumped back in his chair, letting out a long breath. Even though he didn’t see any of this as Cas’s fault, it made sense. 

Cas got out of his chair to kneel beside him, reaching for Dean, who looped his arms loosely around Cas’s shoulders, careful not to press too hard. 

 Dean rested his cheek in the ticklish mess of Cas’s hair. “I don’t want to hurt anybody,” he whispered.

“You won’t,” Cas said in a voice somehow still imbued with enough angelic authority that Dean believed him. “And let’s see about getting you a night away. I’m sure Sam would be happy to have you.”

Chapter Text

Sam went a step further and offered to keep Ellie instead of Dean. 

No way, Dean thought, but he made his mouth say, “Let me talk to Cas.”

“It’ll be good for all of you,” Sam said on the other end of the line. “Couples need to stay connected.”

Dean couldn’t resist. “You wanna hear how Cas and I connect? Tab A into Slot B?”

“Hanging up now,” Sam said. “But really, give it some thought.”

***

“It’s too much for one person,” Dean told Sam the next day when he stopped by their house. 

“We appreciate the offer, but we wouldn’t ask that of you,” Cas added, reaching down to pat Sadie, who was nudging at his kneecaps.

“I thought you might say that,” Sam said with a sly smile. “So I’ve recruited backup. Charlie’s coming next weekend to help me.” He turned puppy eyes on Dean. “She’s making a special trip."

Dean looked at Cas, and then around the living room which had slowly been taken over by baby equipment, toys, blankets, diapers, and burp cloths. “We’d have to rent a U-Haul to even get her there.”

Cas straightened and stood with a finger to his lips as he considered. Sadie lifted one paw to scratch at his shin. “We could probably forgo the bathtub if we bathed her Friday afternoon.”

“I had to change her outfit three times yesterday. We’d need a whole suitcase just for clothes.”

“I own a washer,” Sam reminded them from where he was sprawled in the armchair with the baby. “And a dryer.”

“We’d have to send a container of the special detergent,” Cas said, taking a step backwards as Sadie leaned her considerable weight into his leg.

Dean nodded, then suggested, “We could basically pack up the diaper station from the downstairs bathroom.”

“True. But where would they actually change her?” Cas stared at Dean, who chewed his lip in consideration.

“I’m right here,” Sam said. Ellie was lying in his lap, studying him with big dark eyes. He took one of her feet in each of his hands and gently bicycled her legs. “They could ask me, Ellie. I'm literally sitting right here.” She pushed both feet against his hands, arching her back as she did so. Still holding her securely, Sam pretended to pitch backwards. "You're so strong!" he exclaimed, eyes wide.

Ellie grinned and did it again. 

“It’s too complicated,” Dean decided as Cas dropped heavily onto the couch, ending up precisely where Sadie had been maneuvering him. She hopped up on her back legs and laid her head in his lap. Cas stroked one of her long ears thoughtfully. 

“What if we stayed here with her and you guys went to a hotel or something? Or to our house?” Sam offered. Ellie now had one of her feet in her own mouth.

“That would be easier,” Cas began.

It would be. Room service, housekeeping, everything done for them like a mini-vacation. Letting Sam stay with Ellie at their house made perfect sense, but it was everything Dean didn’t want and, after exchanging a look with Cas, he knew they were on the same page. 

“But we have our own house and our own bed and after so many years of not having that, we want to be here.” It hadn’t sounded quite so whiny in Dean’s head. 

“Exactly what I was going to say,” Cas agreed, looking around again and switching to Sadie’s other ear. She closed her eyes contentedly. “I feel like we can make this work at Sam’s. What do you think, Dean?”

****

The following Friday afternoon Sam and Charlie came to pick up Ellie. It might’ve made more sense for them to drop her off, but Dean wanted to be sure the car seat was properly anchored. They pulled into the driveway and Dean came outside laden with the first load. Sam took the bags from him so that Dean could hug Charlie properly. 

“Thanks for this,” he murmured into her hair, as Cas came out with Ellie. He’d tied her crocheted bear hat securely under her chin against the brisk autumn wind and the pink-lined ears stood at attention.

Dean looked expectantly as Sam opened the back car door, but there was no Sadie perched on the floorboard, crouched as she gauged the jump down. 

“Where’s Sadie?” Dean demanded. 

Sam lifted the Pack ’n Play portable crib into the trunk. “I left her home. I figured with all this stuff…” He gestured to the growing pile in the driveway.

“Dude,” Dean said. “She hates that. Was she upset?” 

After all that time in the shelter, Sadie had a pretty good case of separation anxiety. When Sam left her home alone, she whined, barked, and chewed up the wooden door frame.  Sam tried to limit the times he left her, and often Uncles Dean and Cas happily kept her when Sam couldn’t take her along.

It helped that Sam worked from home. When he met new people, Sam claimed to be a computer specialist, involved in what he described vaguely as “security”. In reality, he and Garth, who had made Lebanon his headquarters, were working together to catalogue the vast array of resources in the bunker to make them easily accessible and shareable.

Sam pushed the Pack ’N Play further back to make room. “She wasn’t thrilled, but she’ll be fine.”

Charlie held Ellie while Cas loaded the stroller and Dean double-checked the diaper bag and her bag of clothes and bottles. Dean pulled his notes (luckily he’d saved the file they’d made for Maggie on the computer and only had to update it with a few more pages) from the diaper bag and tried to give them to Sam.

Sam took the papers and, without glancing at them, passed them to Charlie, trading the papers for his niece. “We’re going to have fun, aren’t we, Ellie? Uncle Sam won’t make you follow your dads’ boring rules.”

Dean pinched the bridge of his nose. “They aren’t rules, Sam. She’s three and a half months old and she has a routine. Okay, there are some rules but they’re for safety.”

Sam shrugged an enormous shoulder and went back to talking to the baby. She wrapped her hand around one of his fingers and brought it to her mouth. 

“Oh nooooooooo!” Sam said in a high-pitched voice when she bit him with the tiny, hard edge of her two bottom teeth. 

Ellie grinned up at him and made the low breathy sound that was her not-quite-a-laugh.

Charlie took Dean by the arm and turned him to face her. “You emailed us a copy of this yesterday. We both read it already and I printed it out. He’s just messing with you.”

“He’s not funny,” Dean said, loud enough for Sam to hear.

“I’m a little funny!” Sam called, as the top half of him disappeared into the back of the car to put Ellie in her seat.

Cas closed the trunk and came around the side of the car to give Ellie a kiss. “Thank you,” he said to Sam before turning to hug Charlie tight.

“We feel duly honored to be entrusted with her care,” Charlie said, with an imperious bow. “And I promise I won’t let Uncle Sam break her.”

Dean leaned in to kiss Ellie, fussing a little extra with the burp cloth tucked in beside her. “Call us for anything. Any time. Night or day.”

Dean and Cas stood in the driveway and watched as their daughter went off for the first time ever without them. As the car traveled from view, Dean worked to tamp down the swell of thoughts regarding all the things that could go wrong with her out of their sight. 

“What first?” Cas asked, forcing Dean to re-focus.

Dean took a deep breath and turned to open the garage door. “Let’s go for a drive.”

As the Impala roared down the flat, open stretch of highway, making golden-brown blurs of the parched grass at the side of the road, Dean finally felt himself relax. He felt right in this car with Cas beside him, his sunglasses reflecting the sinking rays of the late October sun. Out of habit, he caught himself checking the backseat a few times, which was ridiculous since Ellie never rode in the Impala. Heading south, he drove until the sun was nearly down. 

Cas pulled out his phone.

“There a call?” Dean asked, looking over.

“No, I was going to search for a place to eat.” 

Awkwardly, Dean worked his phone out of his front pocket. “Make sure I didn’t miss a call.”

Cas smiled and dutifully checked. “You didn’t.” He went back to scrolling through his own phone. “There’s a barbecue place five miles down the road, how does that sound?”

Dean drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. They were already seventeen miles south of town. With traffic getting out of Sioux Falls, it had taken them nearly a half-hour to get this far. “Um, it sounds kind of far, actually.” 

Cas pulled off his sunglasses and methodically returned them to their case. “Meaning?”

Dean took a deep breath. Cas wanted him to be honest. “I think I’d feel better closer to home. I mean, nothing’s going to happen, but if it did, it would suck to be thirty minutes out.”

An invisible thread connected the two of them and the further Dean was from Ellie, the more it tugged at him. He needed this break. He knew it, Cas knew it, hell, the whole damn state probably knew it, but being too far from her would only leave him unsettled and unable to enjoy it. 

“That makes sense,” Cas said simply.

Dean checked the rearview mirror before pulling into the right-hand lane to take the next exit.

They ate at a restaurant ten minutes from their house, leisurely working their way through an appetizer, entrees, and a couple of beers each. They talked a little about Cas’s work, a lot about the baby, and even more about how they never thought they’d be in this mystifying place of ecstatic normalcy. Cas took Dean’s hand, smiling at him across the table. Dean looked into those blue eyes and something stirred in his chest as he remembered the way Cas had believed in him and in their chance for happiness long before he had. Cas had carried the both of them with the strength of his conviction until Dean had finally accepted the spark of possibility. 

“I can’t believe this is our life now,” Dean said again. Sometimes he was so sure it was all a djinn dream that he found himself studying the world around him, terrified of discovering a hint of dissonance or shimmering echoes, but it always came back true and real and his

When the food was finished and the last of the drinks done, Cas flagged down the server for the bill. 

Back at home, Dean pulled two more beers from the fridge, opening them before following Cas into the living room. When Cas settled on the couch, Dean handed him one bottle and sank down onto his lap, knees on either side of his thighs, pressing him against the back of the couch to kiss him.

“You’re a cheap date these days,” Cas teased, when they pulled apart to breathe. 

“Mmmm,” Dean agreed, but his mouth was on Cas’s again. 

They stayed on the couch, making out like teenagers who had no place else to go. Beers were finished, layers dropped to the carpet, and it wasn’t until Dean dug a knee into Cas’s thigh to keep himself from rolling off the couch, that they reconsidered their location.

“You know what we have upstairs?” Cas asked, as Dean ran both hands over his bare chest. “A big, comfortable bed.”

“You always have such good ideas,” Dean murmured as he kissed the spot just under Cas’s ear. “It’s why I married you.”

“Marrying you was my best idea,” Cas confirmed, working to sit them both up with Dean bonelessly draped all over him. He hooked an arm under Dean’s and pulled him to his feet so they could wade through their discarded clothes to the steps. Once they were upstairs, Dean, clad in only his boxers, flung himself face down on the bed. 

Cas came up behind him and skimmed his hands over his thighs, running them up under the fabric. “That’s a nice view.”

Dean laughed and stretched his arms over his head as Cas knelt on the bed and began to kiss a line up his spine. 

“Cas,” Dean said into the mattress.

“Yes?”

“Did you bring our phones up?”

Cas sat back on his heels. “No, they’re still downstairs by the couch.” He leaned over to press one more kiss to Dean’s shoulder before he climbed off the bed. “I’ll go get them.”

“Chargers, too.” 

By the time Cas came back upstairs, Dean was asleep, his head pillowed on his arms. 

Cas plugged in both phones, checking one more time for missed calls or texts, before getting himself ready for bed. He stood with a hand on his hip and surveyed his husband, looking from the long lashes curling against his cheek to the broad curve of his shoulders to the dip of his lower back. Once, Castiel had pulled him from Hell, struggling ever-upward as ash and smoke choked him, clutching him as the brightness of Dean’s soul illumined the way, a faint, beckoning glow through the fathomless gloom. Cas gazed upon the body he had rebuilt, knowing every inch of it and knowing, most importantly at this moment, that there was no way to wrangle him under the covers without waking him up. Pulling an extra quilt from the top of the closet, he covered Dean with it, and then slipped in beside him. 

In his sleep, Dean turned toward Cas and burrowed into his neck. 

****

Dean woke with a start, going still to listen for the sound that inevitably woke him. The sky was beginning to grow light, and he studied the clock, puzzled, before he remembered Ellie was with Sam. He let himself relax against the pillow and tugged the covers up, confused when he felt only the thin quilt. 

After putting the pieces of the evening together, he had to suppress a slap to his own head. He rolled to look at Cas, sleeping on his back, one arm thrown over his eyes, his mouth parted around the gentle snores Cas would never admit to. Dean pushed himself up on an elbow to quickly check his phone. No messages. He should video Cas snoring, for proof.

Or…

Leaving the phone on the nightstand, Dean eased back the quilt. He slid himself down the bed and affixed his mouth to one prominent hip bone as he hooked a finger in the elastic of Cas’s waistband.

***

With a final groan, Dean let his arms give out, falling onto his forearms and dropping his head as he worked to catch his breath. Cas ran his tongue over Dean’s shoulder, soothing the scrape of teeth there, as he eased himself out and collapsed onto his side. Dean pitched forward onto his stomach next to him. 

“That’s a hell of way to wake up,” Cas said, his voice still rough with sleep.

“Making up for missed opportunities last night,” Dean reminded him.

“Sleep is important, too,” Cas said reasonably. 

“Best of both worlds.” Dean rolled to face Cas, wrapping an arm around him. 

They lay there, breathing each other in. Too relaxed to get up for a towel, Cas rolled onto his back to reach blindly to the floor. Grabbing the first piece of clothing he encountered, Cas wiped his own crotch before swiping at Dean’s ass, but Dean laughed and grabbed it away from him to finish.

“Oh my God, Cas,” Dean said in horror a moment later.

 Cas’s eyes snapped open. “What is it?”

“That was a burp cloth.” Dean held it up for Cas to see.

 Cas’s face fell. “We’ve defiled Winnie-the-Pooh.”

“Is throwing it away good enough?” Dean mused. “Or do we need to set fire to it?”

***

 Though it wasn’t even seven o’clock, Dean pulled on a t-shirt and pajama pants and went to start breakfast, doing his best not to look at the empty nursery as he passed it. By the time Cas came down, the coffee was brewing and the bacon was starting to cook. 

“I can’t believe I got up at 5:30 and I still feel so rested,” Dean said, pulling the eggs out of the fridge. “I guess it’s because I woke up on my own.”

Cas smiled at him. “Are you aware that it was all of 10:15 when you fell asleep last night?”

Holding the carton, Dean’s shoulders slumped. “If Sam asks, we were totally up past midnight.”

“Of course.” Cas poured himself a cup of coffee as Dean cracked eggs into a bowl. They stood and stared at each other for a moment, the bacon sizzling. “Should we—“

“They haven’t—“

“It’s still pretty early,” Cas said.

“But she’d be up by now,” Dean pointed out.

“I’m sure everything’s fine,” Cas decided.

“Otherwise we would’ve heard,” Dean agreed. He took a deep breath and turned to tend the bacon. “So, what do you want to do today?” 

They had all of today, plus tonight, and then tomorrow morning still left to do whatever they pleased. Per Cas’s request, after breakfast they worked to pull out the remains of the garden that had been abandoned mid-summer when they’d brought Ellie home. Cas shoveled compost onto the now bare plot and Dean worked it into the soil. 

“Ellie can start solid food at six months, correct?” Cas asked.

“Yep.” 

“That takes us to January.” Cas looked thoughtful. “I wish I’d gotten the garden in this fall. I’ve been reading about making our own baby food.”

Dean smiled. Of course he had. “What did you have in mind?”

“Carrots, peas, squash, blueberries…It’s surprisingly easy to do.” Cas leaned against the shovel and gazed over the available space. “Steam the fresh vegetables, then puree them. Freeze them in small portions. No additives or preservatives and it will all be organic.” 

“You don’t approve of those little jars?” Dean wasn’t going to lie. He’d looked longingly at them, shining like jewels in the baby aisle when he was buying diapers (always diapers), but homemade baby food sounded good too.

“I’m sure they’re fine in a pinch,” Cas said in a voice that sounded a lot more like over my dead body

Simultaneously, their phones chimed. They locked startled eyes and grabbed for them. Dean let out a big breath when he swiped open the lock screen. Charlie had texted them a picture of Sam holding Ellie up for the camera. Smirking, he held her so they could see she was dressed in a new onesie that read I get my good looks from my uncle.

 

“We’ll burn that too,” Dean assured Cas who was still smiling at his phone and using his fingers to make the picture bigger. Dean walked over to join him and leaned against his shoulder.

“Look at her,” Cas breathed in awe. “She’s perfect.”

“She is,” Dean agreed, taking in her fluffy hair and her perfect tiny ears like little seashells. At fourteen weeks, their scrawny chicken was long gone, replaced with full cheeks, fat thighs, and dimpled wrists and knees. 

Cas replied, thanking Charlie for the photo and checking that all was well. 

Everything’s fine. Good job going 16 whole hours without contacting us. Sam was sure you’d cave, Charlie texted back

Cas lingered over the picture while Dean went inside to get them water. 

***

By late afternoon, Cas had prepared the exam he was giving on Monday and was finishing grading essays while Dean napped on the couch, his feet in Cas’s lap. When Dean woke, Cas had put the stack of papers on the coffee table and was gazing at Dean, one hand loosely around Dean’s ankle.

“Back to that, are we?” Dean wiped the drool from the corner of his mouth and rubbed at the ridges from the corduroy on his cheek. 

Cas gave him a barely-there smile, then turned serious. “Can I ask you something? You can say no. In fact, you probably should.” 

Dean pushed himself to a sitting position, blinking the sleep from his eyes. “What’s up?”

Cas sighed and looked at the floor. “It isn’t fair of me to ask this of you.”

Cas,” Dean said, eyes narrowing. “Spit it out.”

“It’s just,” he began, and Dean put a hand on his knee so that Cas knew to look at him. “I was working all week and I go back to work Monday morning and if we don’t get her until tomorrow afternoon…”  

“You want to get her earlier,” Dean clarified.

“I know this weekend was about you resting up, so I’ll get up with her tonight so you can sleep—“ he said in a rush.

“Cas.”

“I’m being foolish,” Cas said softly, as he rubbed his temple. 

Dean got to his feet. “I’ll get my shoes on. You call Sam and tell him we’re on the way.”

****

Sam had Ellie tucked against his chest when he opened the door. Luckily he had a tight grip on her, because she dove forward, flapping both arms and frog kicking when she saw them. Cas got to her first and swooped her up over his head before bringing her in close. 

“You’re pathetic,” Sam said to his brother, by way of hello.

“Wasn’t me,” Dean said, holding up his hands. “It was sappy old Papa.” Sappy old Papa, indeed, who was even now pressing kisses to Ellie’s fat cheeks as he carried her to the couch. 

A minute later Sadie, who hadn’t even bothered to make an appearance when the doorbell rang, trotted over to sniff at the baby, now perched on Cas’s knee. Ellie flung herself forward again, and this time her happy flailing was accompanied by an ear-piercing squeal. 

“I’m almost as exciting as the dog,” Cas said. “I’ll make a note of it.”

Charlie came downstairs with the diaper bag over her shoulder. “Fuck if I know how to break down the Pack ’n Play,” she said cheerfully.

“I’m on it,” Dean said, heading for the stairs. 

“We can’t thank you enough,” Cas said to Sam and Charlie, once the car was finally packed. 

“If you want to come over and hang out, we’re just going to get some pizza and watch TV,” Dean offered.

“Thanks,” Charlie said, not even trying to stifle a yawn. “But I’m gonna lie down. It was like Mad Eye Moody up in here with all the constant vigilance.”

Dean drove them the short distance home, and the sound of Ellie filling her diaper was music to his ears. 

 “I’ll drop you two off and go get the pizza,” he told Cas, as he rolled down a window to let in some fresh air. “You have fun with that.”

Chapter Text

Ellie made it almost four months before she came down with her first cold. Dean was, of course, concerned when she started with a runny nose, but other than a little extra fussiness, she seemed okay. He double checked with the advice nurse on what to look for and she gave him some ways to make her more comfortable, like using a bulb syringe to suction her nose and putting a humidifier in her room.

Before he even had a chance to text Cas at work to fill him in, his phone rang.

“Dean,” Cas said.

Dean could tell from the dejected tone of his voice that something was off. “What’s wrong? Is Claire—“

“Claire’s fine. At least I assume so. I haven’t heard from her. But I’m not. I’m coming home early.”

Dean’s heart sank as he identified what had Cas sounding so subdued. “You’re—“

“I’m very ill, Dean. I’m leaving work now.” He hung up before Dean could say another word.

Dean looked to Ellie, sleeping upright in the swing. “We’re gonna need backup.”

He had Sam on the phone less than a minute later, filling him in.

“Oh my God,” Sam said, suitably aghast. “I’m on it. Text me the list.”

By the time Cas got home, Dean had folded an extra blanket at the foot of their bed and set a new box of tissues, the bottle of Tylenol, and the thermometer on the night table. From long experience of finding dirty tissues all over the floor, he moved the trash can from the bathroom and set it in easy reach. He was back downstairs to meet Cas at the door, taking his coat and bag from him.

“How ya feeling?” Dean asked, trying to keep it casual.

Cas stared forlornly into middle distance. “My nose is stuffed, my head is pounding, and my throat hurts.”

“Okay, well let’s get you changed and into bed.”

Cas nodded, his eyes filling at this overwhelming kindness. “Where’s Ellie?”

“She’s napping in the swing,” Dean led him into the living room, hoping Cas would continue to the stairs, but he stopped to look at her from a safe distance.

“I won’t be much help for awhile,” he said, despondently. “I wouldn’t want her to get sick, too.”

Dean wet his lips and chose his words carefully. “I think she might already—“

Cas grabbed Dean by the wrist. “Oh no,” he whispered.

Dean took advantage of Cas’s grip to lead him up the stairs. “Just a little cold, nothing to worry about, you’ll both be fine.”

In their room, Cas sat heavily on the edge of the bed while Dean pulled out a soft t-shirt and the comfiest pajama pants from the dresser. He handed them to Cas. “You get changed and I’ll get you some water.”

When he came back upstairs with the glass of water (one ice cube), Cas hadn’t budged, sitting and holding the clothes in his lap. Dean stifled a sigh and handed him water so he could open the bottle of Tylenol and shake out two pills.

“Here ya go,” he said, “You’ll feel better once they start working.”

Cas dutifully took them, wincing as he swallowed, before holding the glass out helplessly for Dean to take. Dean replaced it on the table, and then pulled Cas’s tie off and slipped the suit jacket from his shoulders. When the baby started to fuss, Dean tipped Cas’s head up with two fingers under his chin.

“Get yourself changed and get into bed. I’ll come check on you in a bit, ok?” Dean pressed a kiss to his husband’s forehead before heading downstairs to tend to Ellie.

When Sam arrived, with his hands full of grocery bags and Sadie at his side, Ellie was only part-way through her bottle, slowed by her inability to breathe through her tiny, congested nose.

“The humidifier’s still in the car,” Sam said, leaving the bags just inside the door and turning back to get the rest. Dean gathered up the bags in his one free hand while Sadie made the rounds in the living room, sniffing the couch and the swing before trailing along after Dean to the kitchen, slowing to navigate the doorway. Ellie forgot her own misery long enough to peer over his shoulder at Sadie, grabbing handfuls of his shirt to get a better view. Dean quickly adjusted his grip on her as she tried to propel herself up and over, switching her to his hip instead.

He unloaded cans of tomato soup, a couple of bottles of ginger ale, saltines, more kleenex, cough drops, another pack of diapers, chamomile tea, honey, and a bottle of saline nose drops. When Sam came in with the boxed humidifier and a gallon of distilled water, Ellie pressed herself against Dean’s chest, smiling shyly up at her uncle.

“Hey, Jelly-Belly.” Sam bent down to see her. “Not feeling so good?”

Ellie responded by rubbing her snotty face on Dean’s clean shirt.

Sam held out his hands. “Wanna come see Uncle Sam?”

Ellie looked up at Dean, who smiled at her, and then pitched herself forward so Sam could gather her up.

“Maybe see if you can get her to take a little more of her bottle?” Dean suggested, and Sam wandered back into the living room to find it. Sadie stayed in the kitchen looking hopeful. Dean raised an eyebrow at her as she sat at his feet, making intense eye contact. He opened the box of Saltines and tossed one to her. She carried it to the laundry room to eat in peace.

Dean opened the humidifier and glanced at the instructions before thoroughly rinsing the pieces, drying them, and reassembling it. He snagged the jug of water as he headed toward the stairs and Sam got up from the arm chair to trail after him.

“She took a few more ounces, then she just pushed it away,” he told Dean.

“I’ll get this set up, then I’ll try to clean out her nose. They sent us home from the hospital with a bulb syringe, but I’ve never used it.”

“How’s he doing?” Sam nodded down the hall toward their bedroom.

“He has a cold. You know how that goes.” Dean studied the nursery, looking for the best place to put the humidifier.

“At least it’s better than the first time.” Sam laughed as he rubbed Ellie’s back.

Dean leaned against the changing table and grinned at Sam. “It would have to be.”

Sam lowered his voice into Cas’s deep growl. “Dean, you say this medicine will help my throat but for it to work, I have to swallow it. Why would my Father create such a paradoxically cruel system?”

“I can hear you,” Cas called hoarsely. “And it still defies comprehension.”

“Feel better!” Sam yelled back as Dean hurried to switch off the baby monitor.

Dean and Cas hadn’t yet crossed the line from friends when Cas had gotten sick the first time. On the one hand, Dean understood logically that it must’ve been confusing for Cas. He’d finally gotten a partial handle on the way things worked when suddenly the rules changed. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t swallow, couldn’t sleep comfortably. Something always ached and his nose was creating a seemingly endless supply of an entirely new, unpleasant substance. Despite millennia of stoic obedience, human Cas was not one to suffer in silence. He had a litany of dissatisfaction: he was too hot, he was too cold, he thought maybe his hair hurt, his ginger ale was was too bubbly, it was too flat, he wanted a straw…it went on and on. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the constant complaining that tried Dean’s patience, but the fact that he wanted nothing more than to be able to take that sad, helpless look off Cas’s face. When he came in with a cup of fresh tea, hopefully with the right amount of honey in it, Cas had looked at the mug and then at Dean.

“Will you sit with me?”

Dean had pulled the chair next to the bed and sat with his socked feet up, pretending not to notice when Cas moved until his leg was touching Dean’s ankle. Dean sat there until Cas dozed off, the tea left untouched on the table. Dean dozed in the chair for awhile himself and when they both woke up, Cas was much better.

These days Cas only needed a day or two of wallowing before he was back on his feet and this time knowing the baby was sick seemed to rouse him even sooner. Ellie was certainly on the mend by Halloween, but Dean was more than happy to bail on the holiday. While he would in no way miss the parade of masked people coming to their door all evening, he was sorry they couldn’t show Ellie off in the little candy corn costume they’d bought. (Nice try with the tiny witch outfit, Sam. Hope you kept the receipt.)

With the downstairs and porch lights switched off, the three of them cuddled up on their big bed. Dean explained to Cas that they weren’t necessarily hiding from the neighborhood children, they were simply letting the house look unoccupied. He stopped himself before he could voice his concern about them being egged. Cas listened as if he were speaking gospel and asked if it was still permissible to eat the Halloween candy Dean had purchased. Dean volunteered to sneak downstairs and get it while Cas changed Ellie’s diaper. Standing in the darkened kitchen, he could hear the neighborhood children laughing and squealing outside, adult voices calling after them to stay on the sidewalk. Next year, Dean thought, picking up the bag of Kit Kats.

Back upstairs, he lounged on the bed, unwrapping a piece of candy. Cas entered the room holding Ellie in front of him, face out. He’d dressed her in the candy corn costume and she looked exactly like a white, yellow, and orange traffic cone, with her face peeking out from the gently rounded white tip. Dean threw his head back and laughed and she laughed her funny breathy laugh back at him. Cas settled on the bed next to Dean, his knees up so Ellie could sit in his lap and lean against them. Dean unwrapped a Kit Kat for Cas and gave a still-wrapped one to Ellie to hold. She gripped it in both hands, shaking her arms up and down. Dean slipped it out of her grasp when she went to put it in her mouth, ignoring her fussy protests.

When Cas turned his head away to sneeze loudly into the crook of his elbow, Ellie stopped her whining to stare at him in surprise. Then she let out an honest-to-god chuckle. Cas and Dean stared at each other, before looking back at her.

Dean got her attention first, then faked a sneeze of his own. “Ah-ah-ahhhh-CHOO!”

Ellie laughed so hard that if Cas hadn’t caught her, she would’ve fallen off his lap.

The fake sneezing continued to amuse until they were all three laughing.

“It’s like little bells chiming,” Cas said in amazement, unable to take his eyes off their daughter.

“Best Halloween ever,” Dean said.


***

Dean fished his buzzing phone out of his pocket, steering the stroller one-handed around the little boy who’d stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to crouch down and examine a bright yellow leaf. “Hey, Jody.”

“Hi, Dean! I was wondering if I could stop by in a little bit? I have something for Ellie.”

Dean tucked the phone against his shoulder so he could check his watch. “We’re out walking in the park now, but I’ll be home in about twenty minutes if that works for you.”

“Perfect. See you then.”

Dean put the phone away and glanced at the baby, who was drifting off for her afternoon nap. When she opened her eyes to focus on him, he quickly looked away, casually taking in the small early-November park crowd. There were parents and babysitters out with little ones, a couple of joggers, and an elderly couple taking their equally elderly poodle for a slow walk. A couple of moms stood by the swing set, pushing their preschoolers and chatting. Another harried looking woman helped her toddler up the steps to the top of the slide, then rushed around to the front to catch him, cautioning him to wait as he banged his heels loudly on the metal. Dean chanced another look at the stroller; Ellie’s eyes fluttered back open as the little boy added a loud shout to his percussion. Dean tucked the crocheted purple blanket that Donna had made more closely around her and pulled on his own collar.

The sun was shining brightly, but a cold wind kept the sky clear. He purposefully ignored Ellie again, hoping that she’d conk out, and kept walking the familiar paved path that edged the playground and ringed the man-made lake. As the path curved around the water on his left, a woman in spandex came running toward him pushing a jogging stroller. They exchanged nods and brief smiles, the way he did with every other person with a small child. It was like he’d been granted membership into some sort of club, and he knew it was only the presence of the stroller (and the baby now finally asleep inside it) that kept him from being a threat. Without it, he was a man alone eyeing a park full of children and their mothers.

Not that he would ever jog, he mused as the woman ran past him with the stroller gliding soundlessly along the asphalt, but that stroller was pretty sweet. The suspension was masterful and it was loaded with all sorts of bells and whistles: reclining seat, adjustable handlebar, hand brake, and pneumatic tires with gleaming spokes.

He finished the loop around the lake, his head clearing with every step in the fresh, cold air. The days were growing short, and the end of Daylight Savings Time, though it was only an hour, had him cursing everyone from Ben Franklin to the governor of South Dakota as it fucked with Ellie’s careful schedule and left him spending the better part of a week getting up with her in the pitch black of 5:00 A.M.

She was consistently down to one feeding a night now, generally sleeping two nice long stretches on either side of it, and Dean felt like parts of his brain that hadn’t been firing since July were finally back in play. It left him a little antsy now that he’d made the transition from merely surviving each day to actively searching for ways to fill the time.

A little girl passed him, earnestly pedaling a plastic bike. Bikes, swings, slides…he looked forward to the time when Ellie would be old enough to do those sorts of things. Sometimes he felt guilty for wishing time would pass more quickly, but there were only so many things you could do with a baby who couldn’t even sit up on her own yet.

By the time he got back to their street, Dean could see Jody’s car parked at the curb outside their house. He gave a quick, dismissive wave at Mrs. Doyle who was peering through the crack in the curtains at her front window, then opened the garage with the code. Jody came up the driveway and gently picked up the sleeping baby so he could fold up the stroller.

“You can keep holding her, if you want,” Dean said when they got into the house. “Or she should stay asleep if I put her in the crib.”

“I’m happy to hold her,” Jody said, pressing her cheek to the top of Ellie’s head. Ellie’s hair currently grew in about seven different lengths ranging from short fluff at the base of her skull to long uneven tufts that grew from the crown forward. Some days it laid flat, but others saw it lift in a crazy disarray that Dean told Cas she got from him.

(“You do realize that’s genetically impossible,” Cas said early one Sunday morning as he hovered by the still-brewing coffee maker, his brow creased like maybe Dean had forgotten the circumstances of their daughter’s birth.

Dean smiled at his rumpled husband and their equally rumpled baby. He reached for his phone.

Cas frowned. “Why are you taking a picture?”)

“Have at it,” Dean said, gesturing to the couch. “You want something to drink?”

“I’m good.” Jody lifted her purse from her shoulder and set it on the couch along with a gift bag before settling herself down, with Ellie asleep against her chest.

Dean moved around the living room picking things up and putting them away. “Thanks for calling first.“

Jody waved him off. “No need to thank me, I know the drill.”

It’s not that Dean was paranoid. He just didn’t like people showing up unexpectedly, no matter how familiar they were. Shifters, demons, sirens…he’d seen enough to know that people weren’t always what they appeared and even though things had remained quiet, this one small courtesy went a long way in keeping him simultaneously informed and prepared. Even Sam knew better than to appear at the door without a heads up.

“That’s for you,” she said, nodding at the shiny green gift bag. “Well, for her.”

Dean sat down on the couch and picked up the bag, pulling out the tissue-wrapped item inside. He laid it on his lap and carefully opened it, revealing a Christmas stocking.

“Jody, we couldn’t,” he said, touching it with reverent fingertips.

She smiled at him, but there was fathomless sadness in her eyes. “I want her to have it. It’s been sitting in a box all these years. My mother made it when I was pregnant with Owen.”

Dean looked again at Baby’s First Christmas stitched in fine, even needlepoint. “If you’re sure, then we’d be honored.”

“I’m sure.”

Dean leaned forward to hug her as best he could without squishing the baby. “Thank you.”

“So, how’s it going with the little munchkin?” she asked, as he re-wrapped the stocking to put back in the bag.

Dean knew a subject change when he heard one. “Pretty good. We’re all getting decent sleep now, so that helps.”

“World of difference,” Jody agreed. “Are you out of your mind with boredom yet?”

Dean lifted his head sharply. “I mean, I chose to stay home with her,” he began uncertainly.

“And it was an excellent choice, if you ask me. But there’s no denying it can be mind-numbingly dull.”

Dean stared at her intently. “That’s normal?”

Jody laughed, quieting quickly when the baby stirred. “Yes, Dean. It’s not just for parents who gave up the hunting life. Even if you’d started as an accountant, you would still find the switch to full-time baby care monotonous. It’s good that you’re getting out of the house, though. That helps. And meeting other people in the same boat can be a real lifesaver.” She appraised him with a sharp look. “Are you getting some breaks? Time with Cas?”

“Yeah, some…” he trailed off, before realizing that Jody was the only other person he knew that had actual parenting experience. “Like, sometimes I can’t wait to get away for a little bit, even if it’s just to run errands by myself but then—“

“Then when you’re gone, all you want to do is be back with her?”

Slumping back against the cushions, Dean nodded. “What the hell is up with that?”

“That’s called being a parent,” Jody said lightly. “You can’t ever turn it off.”

“It’s a terrible system,” Dean muttered.

Jody leaned forward to pass the baby back to Dean. “I’ve got to run, but I heard from Annie last night. She and Claire don’t think they’re going to make it for Thanksgiving after all, but they promised me Christmas.”

Dean stood and walked her to the door. “Cas won’t be happy to hear that. He’s anxious for Claire to meet Ellie.”

Jody smiled as she stepped outside. “You can pretend I never told you. Let Claire break the news herself.”

“I like the way you think,” Dean said. “And I guess that means more pie for the rest of us.”

“You’d better come hungry,” Jody warned. “I already bought the turkey and it’s huge.”

“We wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Chapter Text

By 9:15 Ellie, who’d woken extra early that morning, had already finished her first nap of the day. Dean fed her and laid her on the play mat, switching on the aquarium for her to listen to. Humming along with the chiming music, he took the bottle to the kitchen. The pot roast in the crock pot was just beginning to give off a savory smell, rich with onions and garlic. The second load of laundry was already in the dryer. A glance out the kitchen window showed the cold rain still falling which took a walk to the park off the agenda.

Still so many hours left to kill before Cas got home, he thought with a sigh.

Although….it was Thursday.

He checked on Ellie who was grunting in frustration, unable to get her foot into her mouth because it was currently occupied by her pacifier. As he watched, she sucked angrily on the pacifier, redoubling her effort to have two distinct entities occupy the same space. He checked his watch and did the math: change her diaper, put on her sweater, make a bottle (better make it two), restock the diaper bag with a fresh outfit (better make it two), load her into the car….

The library was barely a ten minute drive away. They could make it by story time.


***

Sitting in the parking lot, he second-guessed his decision. He should’ve done some research or recon first. Where exactly was story time? He had a vague idea of the children’s section location, but was that even where they met? Maybe he was supposed to register for it ahead of time? Was he supposed to bring the stroller? Or just the baby? The woman from the grocery store probably wouldn’t even be there and, if she was, she probably wouldn’t remember him. He only budged from his seat when a minivan pulled in next to him and the woman driving gave him a strange look.  

While the woman unloaded her preschoolers, Dean got out of the Prius.

Those sliding doors did look awfully convenient, he noted, particularly in the narrow spots of this parking lot where the Impala would never fit.

Ashamed of his own thoughts, Dean hurried to the back of the car to take the stroller from the trunk and unfold it. Ellie peered at him from her rear-facing seat, calmly awaiting his next move. Dean opened the back door and leaned in to unbuckle her straps, keeping Ellie close to his chest as he wriggled himself out of the small backseat. In a practiced move, he snagged the diaper bag with one hand and hip checked the door shut. He laid her in the stroller, re-strapping her there, then pulled the stroller hood open to try and shield her from the rain.

“Someday I’ll just open the door and you’ll hop on out,” he told her. She smiled at him, big enough that her pacifier fell out of her mouth, and then blinked in alarm when a fat raindrop hit her face.

Dean steered the stroller across the parking lot to the front entrance of the building, grateful for the ramp and the button that activated the automatic door. In the atrium he hesitated, pushing back the damp stroller hood and tucking the diaper bag in the space underneath the seat as he gave himself a pep talk.

You’re Dean Winchester. You’ve gone blazing into vampire nests single-handedly. You can handle baby story time.

“Ready to do this?” he asked Ellie, who ignored him in favor of gazing up at the fluorescent lights overhead.

He pushed the stroller past the checkout desk in the center and continued to the back left corner where a paper turkey adorned with a huge spray of colorful paper feathers was taped to the plate glass window. Small children wandered the low shelves while their mothers chatted, stopping occasionally to redirect an errant child. As Dean watched, an older baby crawled toward a shelf and began to relieve it of its books, one by one.

Dean kept walking until he reached a large carpeted area. A couple of women sat there already with babies on their laps.

Ok, he could do this. He could take Ellie out of the stroller and sit and join them. Unless…what if the library didn’t do story time anymore and he ended up plopping himself down in the middle of two friends having a private conversation? He was just about to backtrack and pull out his phone to check the website when he spied a yellow sign that read Baby Story Time 10 AM Thursdays

“I knew it,” he told Ellie. “Daddy’s got this.”

Ellie tugged off one sock as he parked the stroller at the edge of the carpet near the turkey display. The turkey was holding a sign that said What are you thankful for? As he got closer, he could see that each feather had something written on it. Some were in neat adult script, others scrawled in letters that smashed into each other in order to fit on the narrow paper. Dean took Ellie from the stroller and walked closer to read them. My mom and dad. Family. My dog. Candy. Spiderman. Mollusks. iPads. Coffee. NOT my sister.

“I don’t think an angel who gripped me tight and raised me from perdition is gonna fit on one of those,” he murmured into her hair.

More people continued to join the group waiting for story time as he checked out the children’s section. Dean knew he should sit down near them, but out of a habit that would never die, he sat nearly opposite them in the spot that afforded him the clearest and most complete view of the entire room. (Without even realizing it, he’d already catalogued the two emergency exit doors as well as the door to the staff room that looked solid and windowless.)

Awkwardly, he got down onto the floor, not for the first time wishing he’d thought to have kids when his legs were a bit younger. He held Ellie upright in his lap so she could practice bearing weight on her legs. After lifting her left leg a couple of times in a stepping motion, she bent both knees and bounced up and down. Dean kept her steady with his hands under her armpits and smiled at the serious look of concentration on her face.

“Oh my God. You came.” Susannah stood in front of him, Riley on her hip. She turned to the woman with a short blond bob behind her and said, “Leslie, this is him!”

“Grocery store guy?” Leslie looked at Dean with wide brown eyes.

“Yes!” Susannah turned back to Dean. “How’s your hot piece of ass husband?”

“Hot as ever,” Dean confirmed, as Susannah sat on the floor next to him. Riley grabbed a handful of her mother’s long hair, pulling it toward her mouth which was currently filled by a pacifier.

“Glad to hear it.” She gently freed her hair. “How do I not have a ponytail holder?”

“I have one.” A woman with shiny dark hair came up behind Leslie. She pulled one off her wrist and passed it to Susannah.

Dean noted that all three were dressed in some variation of jeans, sweaters, and boots, which seemed to be the unofficial uniform of young moms.

“Thanks, Molly. Otherwise I was going to be bald by the goodbye song.”

Molly turned to smile at Dean. “Hello, what’s your baby’s name?” Her eyes were nearly as blue as Cas’s.

“This is Ellie. She’s almost four months old.”

“She’s adorable.” Molly’s baby had a mop of curly dark hair. “This is Talia. She’ll be six months next week.”

Talia sucked her thumb and stared at Dean suspiciously. He waved his fingers at her as non-threateningly as he could.

By then, Leslie had joined them as well. Her baby was wearing jeans and a long sleeved red onesie with a robot on it. “I’m Leslie. This is Will. He’s nine months old and a terror,” she said easily.

“Nonsense,” Susannah said, her hair now neatly pulled back. “He’s perfect.”

“What’s Ellie short for?” Molly asked.

“She’s actually Mary Ellen. Named for my mom. But we’re not exactly the Waltons so…” He shrugged.

“Night Pa,” Susannah drawled. “Night Other Pa.”

As they laughed, a dark-skinned woman with close cropped hair and a staff name tag set down the wicker basket she was carrying and gently hiked up her long skirt to take a seat in the circle. She smiled as her kind brown eyes took in the entire group.

“Good morning, babies and grownups! I see we have our usual suspects and a couple of new faces as well. I’m Leigh and I welcome you all to story time. Let’s get started with our good morning song.”

Starting with the baby to her left, Leigh began working her way around the circle, singing a song that welcomed each baby by name. The rest of the adults sang along, and some of the older babies hid their faces when the group sang to them. When she got to Ellie, Dean supplied her name and Leigh nodded as she included it in the song. Dean held Ellie face out in his lap and she happily gummed at his thumb during the music. When all of the babies were properly welcomed, the parents reached into their bags to pull out blankets.

Dean had left his bag by the stroller, but as he started to get up, Leslie put a friendly hand on his arm. “I have a spare.”

He gratefully accepted and followed the lead of the others, spreading it out on the floor in front of him. The babies were all laid on their backs and Leigh started to sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”. Each grown-up touched or tickled their baby as they sang each body part, and the song got a little faster with each repetition. Dean did his best to keep up while Ellie looked at him with her tiny brow creased like he’d taken leave of his senses. Some of the older babies rolled onto their tummies and tried to crawl away, giggling, and one of the oldest even managed to get to his feet and stagger for a few steps before falling down.

When the song ended, Dean put Ellie back on his lap, as he saw the rest of the group do. (Well, all but Leslie since Will went boneless in her lap, squirming and trying to get back on the floor.) Leigh reached into her basket and pulled out a small stack of books. The first was about a bunny playing peekaboo with her animal friends and Leigh read it with a rich, melodious voice that had even the most wiggly babies listening with rapt attention. After that came a book about barnyard animals called Moo, Baa, La La La that was so much fun that Dean made a mental note to pick up a copy.

There were a few more songs and another story. Leigh maintained an easygoing attitude, never batting an eye when babies wailed. Everyone participated at whatever level worked for them. Sometimes people got up and walked their fussy babies away, one mom comfortably began nursing her baby in the circle. The group was surprisingly loud for a library, Dean thought, but nobody seemed bothered by it.

At the end, after the Goodbye Song, there was a bustle of activity as everyone packed up their things and got to their feet.

“Okay, I’ve done my half hour of brain development for the week,” Susannah announced. “Coffee?”

Leslie and Molly both readily agreed and she turned to Dean. “Like to join us? It’s just down the block.”

Cas will be so pleased, Dean thought as he said yes.

They loaded the babies into their strollers and Dean followed the women out the door to find that the rain had tapered to a light drizzle. He fell into step beside Molly as they made their way down the sidewalk, the other pedestrians flowing around the brigade of strollers like a stream meeting a boulder. At the coffee shop, Leslie held the door open for them all.

Inside, Dean could see that this establishment was clearly popular with the preschool-and-under set. There were a couple of low tables with bowls of crayons, plus a comfy reading area with big pillows and a basket of books. He saw little ones drinking from colorful, lidded cups with plastic straws. Susannah steered them to one of the few empty tables and they all worked to rearrange chairs to make room for the strollers.

“You go get your coffee,” Molly offered. “I’ll stay with them.”

Susannah and Leslie made for the register but Dean hesitated. “You’d be way outnumbered.”

“We’ll go when they come back then,” she said, so Dean settled into a chair beside her.

They chatted while they waited and Dean learned that Molly and her husband had hoped to have a house full of children by now, but they’d dealt with infertility for years and Talia was their only child. Molly laid a hand on the sleeping baby as she spoke, and Dean felt the weight of her sorrow, if only for a moment.

When Susannah and Leslie came back, he and Molly went to the counter, Dean doing his best to keep an eye on things at the table as he ordered.

“I don’t know how you do it without caffeine,” he said to Molly as she waited for her herbal tea.

“Caffeine can affect fertility, so…” She smiled even as Dean mentally kicked himself, thankful for the distraction of the barista calling his name.

Back at the table, the women turned their attention on him as one.

“This place seems nice,” he said, giving him an excuse to look around. “Lots for the kids to do.”

“Yeah, if you like pink eye and lice, then be sure to let them hang out in the book corner.” Leslie said.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Molly shudder.

“Leslie has a five-year-old as well, so she’s our source of all parenting knowledge,” Susannah explained.

“Oh, absolutely. Just don’t come to me for marital advice.” Leslie muttered, before quickly changing the subject. “So, Dean, tell us your story.”

“Uh,” he said, glancing at Ellie for a reprieve, but she’d fallen asleep effectively leaving him on his own. “Not much to tell, really. Cas and I have known each other for a long time, but we only got together about five years ago. Once that happened, we decided we wanted a quieter life, so we moved out here to be closer to family. “

“Huh,” Leslie huffed. “That’s disgustingly boring. I was really hoping for something with some splash.”

“Where were you before this?” Susannah asked.

It wasn’t an unreasonable question. “Lots of places,” Dean hedged. “We moved around a lot. We never really thought about settling down before but I think we’re here for the long haul.”

“You have fun with that,” Leslie said, with more than a little bitterness. “We moved to Sioux Falls for my ex’s work and now I’m stuck here.”

“I’m going to try not to take that personally,” Susannah said, laughing.

Leslie leaned over and nudged her with her shoulder. “You know what I mean. You guys are the only thing that makes it bearable.”

“You’re going to scare Dean off,” Molly warned, taking a sip of her tea.

Leslie checked the time on her phone. “Speaking of which, I have to pick up Lauren.” She hugged Susannah, then Molly. “Hope to see you next week, Dean,” she said, and wheeled Will’s stroller out the door.

“Don’t mind her,” Susannah said. “She’s going through a rough time.”

***
“So, apparently she and her husband were having problems, but they decided to stay together and have another baby but even before he was born, they called it quits. So now she’s raising them both on her own, basically. I mean, he takes them every other weekend, but that’s about it.” Dean stabbed a carrot and swiped it through the pot roast gravy. “Can you imagine doing this on your own? With two kids?”

Cas looked over at Ellie in the swing that they'd pulled up to the table while they ate. She was currently chewing on the head of her toy giraffe. “I cannot.”

He’d filled Cas in on the whole morning, talking animatedly over dinner. When Cas stood to pick up their empty plates, Dean caught his wrist. “Go ahead.”

“What?” Cas said, his eyebrows furrowing.

“Say it. Say I told you so.”

“Dean.” Cas’s voice was gentle. “I don’t need to be smug about being consistently and thoroughly right.”

“Fair enough.” Dean shrugged, smiling back at him.

“Does this mean you’ll go back next week?”

“Yeah, probably.”

Story time and coffee had broken up the day nicely. By the time they’d gotten home it was nearly lunchtime and Ellie had taken a nice long afternoon nap. It turned out Jody was right: despite only knowing these women briefly, there was something about talking to other people in his same situation that made him feel connected. Plus, he was bound and determined to get Ellie a little pair of denim overalls like the ones Talia had been wearing.

Cas stopped in the doorway to the kitchen, both hands filled with plates. “And when does the mini-van shopping begin?”

Dean crumpled up his napkin and threw it at him.

***
The following Thursday Cas got another earful over dinner.

“So, Leslie’s ex informed her that he’s moving back east. Accepted a job there and everything before even mentioning it to her.”

Cas stopped with his fork halfway to his mouth. “He did?”

“Yep. Now on top of caring for both kids herself, she has to explain to Lauren why her father is basically disappearing from her life.” Dean set his water glass down with a little extra force.

“Why would he do that?” Cas looked genuinely baffled.

“I don’t know.” He pushed the pasta around his plate with his fork. “They don’t have any sort of official custody arrangement, but he swears he’ll keep sending child support.”

“What’s Leslie going to do?”

Dean shrugged. “She’s talking about moving, too. Maybe back to Michigan where her family is.”

Cas considered that as he chewed a bite of garlic bread.“I can see where that would make sense for her.”

They ate for a moment in silence, Ellie’s happy screeching from the swing notwithstanding.

“Oh!” Dean remembered, jabbing his fork toward Cas. “A new restaurant opened a couple of blocks from the library so we’re going to try it for lunch after story time next week. Supposed to be pretty kid-friendly.”

“That sounds nice.” Cas reached over to catch a soft fabric block before Ellie knocked it to the floor. “I’m glad you’re making friends.”

Dean shrugged a shoulder. “Well, for now anyhow. Riley was none too happy with Ellie today.”

Cas squinted at him. “What did Ellie do?”

Dean tried but failed to suppress a smile. “So the babies were all sitting on their blankets during story time and Susannah had given Riley a couple of toys to keep her happy. Ellie was doing pretty well sitting up by herself, but she kind of toppled over toward Riley. Before I could pick her up, she grabbed the toy right out of Riley’s hand.”

Cas turned to Ellie, and raised an eyebrow at her. She grinned him and banged her toy hippo on the swing’s small tray.

“Riley was so shocked she just started to cry. Didn’t even try to get it back.” Dean totally didn’t feel a rush of pride at his daughter taking exactly what she wanted. “Ellie was all…” He darted his hand out like a cobra striking. “It was pretty bad-ass.”

“Dean,” Cas said, clearly not sharing Dean’s awe.“We can’t let her bully the other babies.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Dean assured him. Now probably wasn’t the time to mention he’d practically had to pry the toy out of her hand and mouth. “Just babies being babies.”

Cas stood to unbuckle and lift Ellie from the swing. “Nonetheless, we are going to have a little chat at bedtime, young lady.”

Ellie stuck her whole hand in Papa’s mouth and giggled when he continued to mumble around it.

***
That evening, Cas worked on his laptop at the dining room table as Dean got things ready for the next day. Cas looked up from his work as a muttered fuck came from the kitchen, accompanied by the sound of a clean bottle bouncing on the floor. A few minutes later he heard a loud god DAMN it as something metal (a knife maybe) clattered into the sink. He stood and walked to the kitchen door to find Dean standing at the counter with Cas’s lunch box open in front of him.

“Need help?”

“Nah, just dropping everything I touch,” Dean said, rolling his eyes at his own clumsiness. “Good thing you put the baby to bed and not me.”

Cas checked his watch. “I’m just about done if you want to watch something.”

“Sure.” Dean turned back to the task at hand. “Lemme finish putting your lunch together.”

They settled on the couch and Dean scrolled aimlessly through the contents of the DVR. “I don’t care, you pick,” he told Cas, before immediately rejecting the first two choices Cas made.

Cas sighed. “Apparently you do care, so you choose something.”

Dean scrolled through again, then switched to live TV to peruse the channels. Cas leaned his head back against the couch cushions and closed his eyes. Eventually Dean settled on a rerun of Chopped and they watched in a comfortable silence broken only by the intermittent tapping of the remote against the sofa arm. Wordlessly, Cas reached out his hand and Dean relinquished the remote for Cas to tuck away out of reach.

When Dean started jiggling his knee, Cas lowered the volume during the next commercial. “What’s up?” he asked, turning to face Dean.

“Sorry,” Dean said. “I’m just a little antsy. The weather’s been so crappy we aren’t getting our walks in.”

Cas trailed two fingers along Dean’s jaw. “Let’s go up. I have a cure for that excess energy.”

***
Dean lay on the mattress, loose-limbed and panting, a sheen of sweat cooling on his skin. “Yeah, okay,” he agreed breathlessly. “Good call.”

Cas laughed, a rumble deep in his chest. “I am happy to oblige at any time.”

They curled up together under the covers as Ellie made a soft sound that flickered the light on the monitor. Dean checked the clock; there were still nearly four hours until she was due to eat. Cas’s arm wrapped around him and he pressed one last kiss onto the back of Dean’s neck. Dean closed his eyes and waited for sleep to wash over him.

An hour later, he was still awake. He’d tried to match his breathing to Cas’s slow, regular intervals. He’d tried actively relaxing each muscle group, but his mind wouldn’t shut off no matter how he tried to clear it. His jaw ached from being clenched and he huffed an irritated breath as Cas moved closer.

Finally he slid Cas’s arm off of him and crept out of bed, pulling on clothes from the floor. He closed their bedroom door as quietly as he could and walked down the hall. In the nursery, Ellie was sound asleep on her back with her fists up by her ears, the same way she’d slept since she was born. The pacifier was on the crib mattress near her shoulder, but her mouth worked as she sucked in her sleep. Dean took a moment to reflect on how far they’d come from those first nights filled with trepidation and tentative decisions. 

They’d spent the last four months learning everything about her, learning everything with her, and it was like seeing the world anew. The wonders of a ceiling fan, the absolute marvel of splashing in the bath, the full-body excitement of seeing old Sadie trot into the room. These tiny moments of magic happened all day long, moments that Dean knew they were privileged to witness.

He heard a creak and turned to see Cas leaning against the door frame. Even in the faint light of the nightlight, he could see the wreck that was his hair. With one final check of Ellie, Dean crossed to the door, pulling it closed behind him.

“Can’t sleep?” Cas asked.

“I’m gonna get some water,” Dean said instead of answering.

Cas nodded and went back to their room.

Downstairs, Dean filled a glass from the sink, sipping at it as he stood in the dark looking out the kitchen window into the backyard. The trees were bare now, shuddering in the wind that blew a steady stream of wispy clouds across the waxing moon. Outside, the world looked eerie, all dim light and sinister shadows. Everywhere he looked was rife with hiding places for every kind of evil. He turned and threw his glass across the room.

The sound of shattering glass was still echoing in his ears when Cas was there, switching on the kitchen light. Dean shielded his eyes from the sudden onslaught as Cas looked between him and the mess of broken glass.

“Are you hurt?”

Dean shook his head.

“What’s going on?” Cas asked gently, one hand still at the switch.

“How could he do it?” Dean demanded, not looking at Cas.

“Who?”

“Will and Lauren’s dad. How could he up and leave them like that?”

“I don’t know—“ Cas said, his eyes wide with concern.

“I couldn’t leave Ellie even if I tried.” Dean shook his head helplessly, thinking of the night he’d sat in the Impala clutching his keys. “Not ever.”

“Dean.”

“You don’t do that to kids, Cas. It fucks them up, even if they’re little.”

Cas nodded his silent agreement.

“How could he do it?” Dean asked again. “Why didn’t he care enough to stay? How could he leave us?”

He’d tried to be brave and good and take care of Sammy, keeping him fed and quiet and safe. He’d done everything his father had asked of him and still it wasn’t enough to keep him there. Dean had been scared all the time, terrified into the very marrow of his bones each time his dad got that familiar, distant look in his eye that meant he had a new lead to follow. He’d been fearful every single night they spent in rundown motels with men shouting and tires squealing and a symphony of creaking and skittering, all of which were only slightly preferable to the infinite, empty silences and suffocating darkness of nights alone. He’d been frightened every moment, cold fear like a rock in his chest, but he couldn’t show it, not in front of Sam and sure as hell not in front of his father.

Cas was beside him now, a hand solidly on his shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“It was one thing to be a kid and wonder what I did wrong,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “But now that I’m a father and I know that he made that choice deliberately, chose to walk away from us again and again and again….”

“We learn from our fathers’ mistakes,” Cas said, and Dean let out a long breath. “The only good that can come of it is if we learn to do better with our own child. And I believe that we are.”

“Yeah,” Dean breathed, taking a minute to compose himself as he scrubbed a hand over his face. “I mean other than re-decorating the house with broken glass.”

“I’ll help you clean it up,” Cas offered, making a move to the laundry room for the broom and some shoes.

Dean caught him by the arm. “I forget sometimes that you’re dealing with all of this shit, too.”

Dean at least had Sam and Bobby. Cas had them as well, but it wasn’t the same. Along with his own absent-father issues, Cas had been cut off completely by the Host. Maybe there were angels out there still sympathetic to his situation, but none had made themselves known in the five long years since he’d fallen. And while he may have longed for contact in the past, with Ellie on the scene, they were determined to keep even a breath of information regarding her from making its way to angel radio.

Cas let his shoulders slump before he turned back to Dean. “It’s different,” he allowed, “but just as bewildering.”

Dean pulled him close, pressing their foreheads together. “We learn from their mistakes,” he repeated.

Chapter Text

“As long as you’re here, I might as well put you to work,” Dean said, leaving Bobby to watch Ellie as he ducked out to the garage.

“I didn’t come here to work,” Bobby argued when Dean came back into the living room hauling the box containing the high chair. “I came to see the Princess’s new trick.”

Ellie had started rolling two days ago. She’d been slowly working toward it during tummy time, getting almost all the way onto her side before her momentum was stalled by the chubby arm underneath her and she tipped back onto her belly.

They’d actually missed her doing it the first time. Cas had laid her on the play mat so he could run upstairs for a clean outfit while Dean mixed up a bottle. When Cas came back down, she was lying on her back alongside the mat chewing on the cuffs of her sleeper.

“Dean?” Cas had called in the general direction of the kitchen. “Did you flip the baby?”

“Why?” Dean had called back. “Is she done cooking on that side?”

When Dean joined him, Cas had put her back on her stomach. They’d watched as she bent her knees and dug her little toes into the ground, grunting and wobbling onto her side until the weight of her head took over and she pushed past the point of no return, ending on her back with her arms splayed and a huge, drooly grin on her face.

The good news was she didn’t fuss when they put her on her stomach any more. The bad news was she’d quickly gotten the hang of back-to-front rolling as well and spent nights traveling around the crib, sometimes waking herself up when she whacked into the wooden rails. They found her sleeping on her tummy sometimes which all the books said was fine once she’d mastered rolling, but Dean wasn’t entirely convinced.

“Yeah, well, it’s not a free show.” Dean used a box cutter to slice open the cardboard then carefully slid back the blade into the handle before putting it on the table.

“We can supervise just fine from here,” Bobby said as Ellie rocked herself to her side, then toppled onto her back again.

“It was your idea to get down on the floor with her,” Dean pointed out. “You’re gonna have to get up sometime so it might as well be now.”

Bobby sighed and twisted around to use the couch for leverage as he got to his knees and then all the way to his feet, waving off Dean’s outstretched hand. Dean scattered a few of Ellie’s toys around the mat to keep her happy while they worked.

Dean started by unpacking the multitude of plastic-wrapped components from the box. This high chair came highly recommended with a whole slew of features: a seat that reclined to three positions, an adjustable footrest, a five point harness, and multiple height options.

“In my day, we had a wooden chair with a tray. That’s all you needed,” Bobby grumbled.

“And then you rode your dinosaur to school?” Dean pretended to study the instructions to avoid Bobby’s glare.

“Oh, your daddy’s a real funny one,” Bobby said to Ellie.

“I’m the cool dad, too,” Dean added.

Bobby muttered something unintelligible into his beard as he began to tear open the plastic on some of the larger parts.

Dean gathered up all the plastic wrappings and put them carefully into the empty cardboard box. He’d relocated Ellie’s play mat a little closer to the front window so she’d be out of their way as they worked. Positioned in the sunny spot, she looked a little like a cat catching a few beams as the days got shorter and shorter.

Dean did his best not to swear (too loudly) in front of the baby when he accidentally unthreaded the harness strap from the seat cover. Twice. But before too long they had the high chair assembled and Dean took a moment to admire it.

“Let’s see how she likes it.” He turned to get her from the floor and all pretenses of keeping things child-friendly disappeared. “Son of a bitch!”

Ellie had rolled in a circuitous, meandering path that left her near the front door. She’d edged onto the small tiled area of the entryway, close enough to grab the mat there. Lying on her back, she had the corner of it gripped it in one hand and was yanking it toward her mouth. The movement was accompanied by a gritty, scritching sound as the salt line beneath it dispersed and scattered.

In a few long strides Dean crossed the room to unwrap her fingers and pick her up, staring in dismay at the mess on the floor. Ellie wailed at having her new toy taken away and Dean automatically patted her even as his mind whirled.

A mobile baby changed everything.

He expected to see his own look of alarm mirrored when he turned to Bobby. Instead, Bobby was doing his best not to laugh, a battle he surrendered when he saw Dean’s face.

“I’m failing to see the humor here,” Dean said, stalking back across the room to deposit the baby in Bobby’s arms while he went to the laundry room for the broom and a box of salt.

Bobby finally stopped laughing long enough to speak. “I guess this means you’re forgetting the time you and Sam decided to play connect the dots with the sigils on the back door? With permanent marker?”

Dean stopped in the doorway. “I...I don’t remember that.”

“Of course you don’t because I didn’t make a big deal about it. Just kids being kids. I did make sure to hide the Sharpies, though.” He shook his head in vague displeasure at the memory. “Had to re-sand that entire doorframe.”

“Yeah well I can’t exactly put the salt lines someplace she can’t reach.”

“So she messes up the salt line. You fix it. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s nothing beating down the door,” Bobby pointed out.

“Not this time.” Dean crossed back to the door and began sweeping up the displaced salt.

Bobby huffed out a long breath.“What are you gonna do? Keep her in a bubble? That’s just as bad as exposing her to everything the way your daddy did with you boys.”

In the charged silence, Dean carefully re-formed the line, pouring a little fresh salt to complete any thin areas, before replacing the mat. With his eyes still downcast, he sighed. “Is it just me or has it been too quiet lately?”

“Not particularly,” Bobby answered after giving it a moment of thought.

Dean gave the mat one final adjustment and then walked back toward Bobby. When Ellie fussed and flapped her arms at him, he leaned the broom against the wall and set the salt on the table so he could take her safely in his arms. “You’re saying this—“ he gestured toward the door, toward the neighborhood, toward the town, where there’d been nothing, not a whisper of concern for the better part of a year “—is normal?”

“Most folks never have a single encounter with the supernatural their whole lifetime,” Bobby reminded him. At Dean's skeptical look, Bobby's expression softened. He dropped a kiss on the top of Ellie’s head and clapped Dean on the shoulder. “It just seemed like a lot more trouble when you were always running towards it.”

Dean closed and locked the door behind him.

***
That Thursday, Ellie woke with another runny nose. Despite that, she looked pretty happy and when Dean checked her temperature it was only 99.2. Not even worth calling the pediatrician’s office. He got her changed and dressed, grabbed a couple of extra burp cloths for nose-wiping, and brought her downstairs.

“Princess Snottynose has returned,” he told Cas, who looked up from the newspaper in dismay.

“She’s sick again?” As Dean watched, Cas mentally checked himself for any symptoms. Bravely, he reached out to take her.

“Are you sure?” Dean asked, holding her just out of reach.

Cas nodded and Dean handed Ellie over. He held her awkwardly at arm’s length for a moment before bringing her in close and nuzzling her head as she grabbed for his tie.

 

Cas reached to free it from her clenched little fist, then set her on his lap facing him. “Poor baby,” he murmured.

In answer, Ellie sneezed, leaving a long, pendulous glob of clear mucous hanging from her nose. Cas, who had gone toe to toe with the Host and ingested all the souls in Purgatory, visibly flinched.

“Here ya go,” Dean tossed him a burp cloth.

“This is—ugh, humans can be so…“ he fretted, dabbing lightly at the baby’s nose which only served to smear the mess.

“Children are a blessing!” Dean called over his shoulder as he went to fix himself a quick breakfast while he still had help.

***
After Cas left for work, Dean texted Susannah to let her know they’d have to pass on story time and lunch. Resigned to being stuck at home the next few days, he sighed as he looked around the confines of the nursery and tried not to think about all the things he wasn’t going to get done.

Sure, Cas had stressed the need for Dean to get out and be with people, but Cas had gone merrily off to work while Dean had to give up his plans and deal with the consequences of Ellie inevitably getting sick.

Sitting in the rocking chair, Dean gave himself a moment to indulge in self-pity before he wiped Ellie’s nose again and tried to get her to take a few more ounces of formula. This was his life now, the path that he had chosen. What he was doing here was important, he reminded himself, even if it lacked the breathtaking magnitude and electrifying life-or-death rush that dominated his old life.

He didn’t want to be out there hunting again, not really. In fact, these days when Sam tried to consult with him on cases, brainstorming ideas for the younger hunters who sought their help, he generally delegated it to Cas. At first it was because it disquieted him even to discuss these things around Ellie, like the topic of conversation itself would somehow be enough to put her at risk. Now, though, he didn’t want to hear it because it kindled a spark of restlessness deep inside, an agitation that spread under his skin like an unreachable itch.

While he was completely and thoroughly devoted to caring for this baby, every measure of himself had changed since they’d brought the pink-wrapped bundle home from the hospital four months ago. He used to count his worth in monsters slain and demons exorcised, in apocalypses stopped and worlds saved. Now his world had narrowed down to this small town, to this cozy house, to this warm being snurfling in his arms.

Usually Dean could give himself the pep talk, the one that said he’d done his part for years and years, risking more than he'd had a right to, and now he’d shared his knowledge so that others could take his place. The same talk that emphasized the fact that safeguarding this little life was still an act of protection, just on a smaller scale than he was accustomed to.

But on a day like today when he actually had plans he’d been looking forward to and even his regular, pathetic stay-at-home dad routine had been taken from him, he felt the loss of purpose even more acutely.

Ellie pulled away from the nipple, drawing in a big breath before starting to cry. Great, now her left eye looked goopy as well. He worked to burp her, but she cried more and rubbed her face into his neck, effectively sliming him and giving him flashbacks to Leviathan goo. He shifted her to his other shoulder to scrub at his neck with a cloth.

“Someday I’ll tell you the story of how Papa and I cut off Dick Roman’s head,” he told her. “It was practically a date night.”

Yeah, okay, maybe he’d skip that particular tale. He got to his feet and walked the upstairs lap that took him from the nursery down the hall to their bedroom and right back down the hall to her room.

“Man, those were the days.” He hadn’t had an adrenaline rush like that in years. Adrenaline, caffeine, and alcohol: the mainstays of his diet for decades.

“So much for free will,” he said, pivoting alongside his bed to walk back down the hall. “You’re the tyrant we obey now.”

She wailed harder and Dean patted her back.

“I’m kidding, I swear.” He bounced and swayed the way she liked and she started to settle. He eyed the crib, but decided she’d sleep better upright in the swing and carried her downstairs.

Two and a half blissful nap-filled hours later, Dean had a small list of accomplishments to placate him. He had a handle on the house, had eaten lunch, and had washed out and set up the humidifier in the nursery. He’d texted Cas a shopping list and pulled a lasagna out of the freezer. He was cutting vegetables for salad (shut up, Sam) when she woke.

“How ya feeling, Princess?” he asked as he crossed the living room.

She blinked slowly at him and he could see from five feet away that she was flushed, her eyes glassy.

“Shit.”

Dean picked her up, the heat exuding from her body evident through the two layers he wore. Upstairs, he laid her on the changing table, undressing her just enough to work one arm free so that he could hold the digital thermometer there. 102.4

He dialed the pediatrician’s office and snagged a same-day appointment. In the meantime, they gave him the go ahead to dose her with Tylenol drops. He set her in the crib as he pulled the plastic wrap off the unopened package, studying the tiny print on the box to verify the dosage. She started to cry soon after he put her down, sobs now punctuated with a deep, phlegmy cough.

It took a while to calm her enough to get the dropper into her mouth and he was pretty sure a significant amount of it ran down under her chin, but the sweetness of the medicine at least seemed to distract her for a few moments. Back downstairs, he double checked the diaper bag and made a fresh bottle.

“Guess we’re getting out of the house today after all,” he told her as he snapped her into the car seat.

He’d been to the pediatrician’s office routinely for her well-baby checks and immunizations, but this was the first time he got to experience the ‘Sick Child’ side. At the registration counter, he set the car seat at his feet while he filled out the paperwork, but had to scoop it up when a crusty looking toddler escaped from his grown-up and tried to his poke nasty fingers in Ellie’s face.

He found a seat in the far corner, taking a wide berth around an exhausted looking mom absently jiggling a stroller with her foot. Holding the car seat safely in his lap, he eyed the other patients suspiciously. One mom held a preschool-aged child, rocking her gently as she moaned into her mother’s shoulder. The crusty boy toddled around the waiting area, apparently on a mission to touch and contaminate as many things as he could.

Right after Dean sent Cas a quick text letting him know where they were, the nurse called Ellie’s name.

In the exam room, Dean listed off when each symptom started while the nurse made notes. She took Ellie’s temperature, which was down to 101.2, making Dean sigh a breath of thankful relief for the inventor of Tylenol. Next, the nurse had Dean undress Ellie, which she didn’t like, but they managed to weigh her quickly so that Dean could wrap her in her purple blanket to wait for the doctor.

He texted Cas again to reassure him that all was well and to put a stop to his plans to leave work early and meet them at the doctor’s office. With the fever dropping, Ellie perked up enough for Dean to give her a little bit of the bottle he’d put in the bag.

“Pushing twelve pounds, baby girl,” he told her approvingly, as she ate.

There was a quick knock at the door before it was opened by their doctor, a young (everyone looked young to Dean these days) Indian woman with her hair in a long thick braid. She set Ellie’s chart by the sink as she washed her hands while Dean went over the story again: woke up with a runny nose, low grade fever, fussy, woke up from her nap mid-afternoon coughing and with a temperature over 102. Dr. Chadha listened intently as she dried her hands, then asked Dean to lay Ellie on the exam table.

The doctor moved quickly, wrapping each part up again as soon as she was done examining it, but still Ellie cried, big gasps accompanied by coughing fits. The doctor looked in her ears and nose, and into her mouth. She listened to her heart and lungs and pressed on her belly. She opened the velcro on Ellie’s diaper and peeked inside. Dean kept his hand on Ellie’s head, doing his best to soothe her without getting in the doctor’s way. When she was through, Dr. Chadha indicated that Dean could pick the baby up again.

“Poor thing’s pretty miserable,” she said, her mild accent giving her words a soft lilt. “What we worry about with babies this age is RSV.”

She crossed the small space and pulled open a drawer, leafing through some file folders before plucking out one printed on pale blue paper. “It stands for Respiratory Syncytial Virus. It’s common—nearly 100% of children have it before they’re two—and most of the time it just presents as a cold, but sometimes it can be more serious.” She glanced again at Ellie’s chart. “She’s not in day care, correct?”

“I stay home with her,” Dean confirmed.

“Does anyone in your household smoke?”

Dean shook his head.

Dr. Chadha nodded. “Like I said, for the most part, it’s generally nothing more than a yucky cold, but there are some things to be on the lookout for.” She went through the paper with Dean, circling a few of the more salient points. “RSV is a respiratory infection, so the main thing to watch for are breathing issues. If you see anything like that, give us a call right away.”

“What about her fever?” Dean asked, as he laid Ellie back down to get her dressed. “If that spikes…?”

“Since babies often run high fevers, the number isn’t as important as how she looks,” she explained. “A happy baby with a temp of 104 is a lot less concerning than a lethargic one with a fever of 99. You know her best, so trust your judgment. You can continue with the Tylenol drops every four hours to keep her comfortable. Do you have a bulb syringe?”

“Yeah, and the saline drops.” He’d gotten pretty good at suctioning her nose last time she’d been sick.

“Okay, great. And a humidifier can help, too.”

Dean flashed her a smile. “Already got it up and running.” He folded the paper carefully and slipped it into the diaper bag with the blanket.

Dr. Chadha reminded him again to call with any questions or concerns before heading off to see her next patient.

***

“I’m so sorry baby,” Dean said when she squirmed and fussed as he squirted saline drops in her nose and suctioned out the goop. He picked her up, red-faced and sweating, and double-checked his list. Still another hour before she could have more Tylenol. He walked her into the kitchen where Cas was cleaning up from dinner.

“Want to trade?” Cas asked, rinsing the salad bowl and putting it into the dish drainer.

“Sure.” Dean waited for him to dry his hands before passing her off. He washed his own hands and went to the refrigerator to get out the fixings for Cas’s lunch. “I think we may be in for a long night.”

“I can pick something up on campus. You don’t need to do that,” Cas protested, as he settled Ellie upright against his shoulder.

“I probably won’t get anything done tomorrow,” Dean admitted. “I’m happy to do this while I can.”

Cas patted Ellie gently as he swayed back and forth with her. “If you want more to do, I have three dozen essays on East of Eden you can read.”

Snorting, Dean turned and nudged the refrigerator door shut with his foot. “I think I’ll stick with changing diapers and wiping noses.”

Ellie fell asleep midway through her bedtime bottle, so Dean knew she’d be up earlier than usual. Sure enough, he woke to her making soft sounds a little after midnight. Blearily, he shuffled down the hall. By the dim glow of the nightlight, he picked her up out of bed—still warm— and carried her to the changing table. Her stuffed up nose made a high-pitched whistling sound and he made a mental note to use the bulb syringe on her after her diaper change.

He unzipped her sleeper and unfastened her wet diaper, folding it over on itself like he always did before wiping her. He started to reach for the wipes, but then stopped and pressed on the outside of the wet diaper, mashing it a little to be sure before opening it up and touching his fingers to the inside. It was completely dry. She’d only had part of her bottle, he remembered, but still. He’d never found a dry diaper in the middle of the night before. He switched on the overhead light to eliminate any doubt and every bit of sleepiness vanished in a rush of adrenaline.

“Cas!” His voice was hoarse, but Cas heard and came running.

With the sleeper unzipped and her onesie pushed up for the diaper change, Dean could see the skin around her ribs sucking in as her belly rose and fell with every inhale. The high-pitched sound wasn’t from her nose, but a wheezing that accompanied each labored breath. She laid rigidly on the table, eyes wide and mouth open, nearly panting.

“Go get dressed,” Cas said. “We need to get her to the hospital.”

Chapter Text

Dean threw on jeans and shoes while Cas diapered her. Then Dean took her downstairs to grab his wallet and keys so Cas could get dressed. Cradling her in his arms, he was halfway to the Impala because if there was one thing he knew it was how to get to a hospital fast. Visions of Sam bleeding and fading from consciousness filled his mind before Cas stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Put her in the car seat and we’ll take my car. Let’s not risk anything happening on the way.” Cas’s calm, rational tone brought Dean back to the situation at hand.

Right, of course.

Blinking to clear his vision, Dean returned to the house to pick up the car seat from its spot next to the couch. As he strapped her in, she struggled against the confinement, calming slightly when Dean spoke to her with a reassurance he didn’t feel. When he was done, Cas was tucking his own cell phone into his pocket and putting Dean’s in the diaper bag. Back in the garage, Dean clicked the car seat into place and got in the backseat next to her, slamming the door shut as Cas put the car in reverse.

“Her diaper was bone dry. I know she didn’t finish her bottle, but there should’ve been something there. I thought it was just her nose whistling, you know? Fuck, how long was she in the crib like that trying to breathe?” He knew he was babbling and that Cas didn’t have any answers, but the goddamned Prius barely made a sound and he needed to hear something besides Ellie’s raspy wheezing.

Cas drove quickly and carefully (a little too carefully, in Dean’s opinion), and they were at the hospital in ten minutes. Turning in to the driveway, Cas followed the big red Emergency signs and pulled up outside the marked door.

“I’ll go park and meet you inside,” he said, but Dean had already lifted out the seat and was moving toward the entrance.

The emergency department was brightly lit and Dean blinked as he took in his surroundings. About a third of the chairs in the waiting room were filled with people sitting in twos and threes. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he looked around for someone who worked there when a nurse, who had been kneeling down to talk to a man in a wheelchair, approached him.

“My baby’s sick and now she’s wheezing,” Dean began, but the nurse wasn’t paying any attention to him at all, already silently assessing Ellie in the car seat.

“Ok,” she said calmly. “I’m going to take you back.” Motioning for him to follow her, she grabbed a clipboard from the counter and slid the I.D. attached to her scrubs through the card reader to open the double doors. “What’s her name?”

“Ellie,” Dean said, trying not to think about why they got bumped to the front of the line. “Ellie Winchester.”

The nurse wrote it down as they walked. Dean followed her into a large rectangular space that contained a nurse’s station surrounded by patient rooms on all four sides. They continued to walk to the very last room on the right.

“My husband drove us,” Dean said as they entered the room. “He dropped us out front and he’s parking the car.”

“I’ll have someone bring him back as soon as he gets here,” she assured him. “And a nurse will be in to see you shortly.”

Before Dean could even argue that shortly was too long for a baby who couldn’t breathe, another woman appeared in the doorway, pumping sanitizer into her hands and then rubbing them together. She was tall with long dark hair pulled back in a barrette. She was probably close to Dean’s age, but she had braces on her teeth like a teenager.

“I’m Diane,” she said, as the first nurse squeezed past her and back out the door. “Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“She started with a cold and a fever yesterday or maybe it was the night before?” Dean's mind was racing and he struggled to remember the timeline. “We didn’t notice until yesterday morning. I took her to the pediatrician this afternoon, but now she’s wheezing.”

Diane merely looked at Ellie for a moment and Dean had to stop himself from thrusting the car seat at her. Where the hell was Cas? 

“How old is she? And could you take her out of the seat so I can get a good look at her?” The nurse turned briefly to log in to the computer attached to the wall.

“She’s four months old, um, seventeen weeks.” Dean put the seat on the bed and unstrapped Ellie. Her mouth was still open and he could see how congested her nose was.

Diane gathered some supplies from the cabinet above the sink. She pulled two gloves from a box on the wall. “Could you undress her too?”

Dean unzipped the sleeper and pulled Ellie’s arms out of the sleeves. Her arms and legs were rigid as he eased off the pajamas and onesie, and now he could see the notch at the base of her throat working as well. The wheezing echoed in his head and he found himself clearing his own throat like that could put a stop to it.

When Diane stepped up to the bed, Dean moved the car seat out of the way before resuming his place, one hand on the baby’s head.

“I’m going to check her vitals,” Diane explained as she pulled a monitor on an articulating arm away from the wall. She velcroed the smallest blood pressure cuff Dean had ever seen around Ellie’s arm and hit a button on the monitor. The cuff inflated automatically and Diane recorded the numbers. Next, she used the stethoscope to listen to her heart and lungs, indicating Dean should sit her up so she could listen in the back as well.

“She wasn’t doing that before,” Dean said. “It started tonight.”

Diane nodded and took a digital thermometer from its spot on the wall. She slipped the probe into a plastic cover and opened a foil packet of lubricant to coat it. She held it in one hand and started to undo the tabs of Ellie’s diaper with the other.

“Her diaper was dry when I went to change her. That’s never happened in the middle of the night before.”

Ellie barely reacted as Diane inserted the thermometer.

“When was her last wet one?” Diane asked.

“Uh,” Dean tried to think. Surely it was before bed, but Cas had gotten her ready so he didn’t know for sure. He would’ve mentioned something if it hadn’t been. They would’ve known at that point that something was wrong and not left her alone for hours getting worse. “I’ll have to ask my husband.”

The thermometer beeped and Dean took a peek: 39.3 When he looked at Diane for clarification, she did a quick conversion. “That’s 102.7 Fahrenheit.”

“She had Tylenol at 8 PM,” Dean offered. He tried to do the math to see if she was due for more, but he couldn’t remember if it was every four hours or six.

“You can put her diaper back on while I go get her a little gown.” Diane ejected the thermometer cover into the trash and pulled off her gloves.

Before she could leave, Cas was there, jaw set tight, pushing ahead of the orderly who had been guiding him.

“Was her diaper wet when you got her ready for bed?” Dean demanded.

Cas squinted as he thought. “Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“I would’ve noticed if it wasn’t.”

Dean turned to Diane. “Last wet diaper around eight o’clock.”

“Okay.” She stood back to let Cas into the room. “I’ll be right back.”

“She’s getting her a gown,” Dean said helplessly.

Cas pulled the diaper bag off his shoulder and dug through until he found a receiving blanket. “Here.”

Dean wrapped Ellie up and held her upright against his shoulder. She rested stiffly against him, not curving into him like she usually did, and the position meant her wheezing was right near his ear. Quickly he turned her and cradled her in his arms, instead.

Now that Cas was here, he felt himself begin to center and the sound of his heart pounding in his ears began to fade. He sagged against the edge of the bed, letting it take his weight. Cas stood near the head of the bed where he had a good view of both Dean and the door. Dean filled Cas in on what the nurse had done so far, and just as he finished there was a tap at the door. A man who introduced himself as being from registration came into the small room pushing a computer on a cart. Cas stepped forward to provide the necessary information, pulling out his wallet for his insurance card and scrolling through his phone for their pediatrician’s contact number.

Diane came back while this was going on, handing Dean a small blue gown for Ellie. “It ties in the back.”

Dean laid Ellie on the bed, relieved to have something to do.

“While you’re doing that, I’m going to connect this to her big toe.” Diane held up a small, padded band attached to a white wire. “It’s a pulse oximeter to measure her oxygen level.”

Dean had been in enough emergency rooms to know what a pulse ox was, but he’d only ever seen it in adult sizes, clamped to fingers with a light glowing on the end like E.T. Once it was connected, Diane hit a few buttons on the monitor and pursed her lips as she watched the readings.

“We like for this number to be at least 94 or 95,” Diane explained. “Right now she’s at 87.”

With registration done, Cas moved to stand by Dean alongside the bed. Dean felt the warmth of his hand at the small of his back.

“The first thing we’re going to do is suction her nose and see if we can clear things out enough to get that number up.” She selected some supplies from a cabinet and laid them on the tray table.

“I used the bulb syringe on her at home,” Dean said, but then he remembered that he didn’t when she woke up. “Maybe I should’ve—“

“Those are fine for most cases, but we have a more high-powered one.” She unwrapped a length of plastic tubing that connected to a canister affixed to the wall. “And she’s not going to like this. Can one of you help hold her?”

“I will,” Cas offered.

Diane opened a little bottle of saline and squirted it in Ellie’s nose. Then she attached a thin catheter to the end of the tube and slipped it into the baby’s right nostril. Once she had it in position, she covered an opening on the tube, creating a vacuum seal. Immediately, the suctioning started. Ellie flinched and tried to turn her head, but Diane held her in place.

Dean could see the mucous come through the tube in globs. Diane waited until the tube cleared, then went to work on the other side. Cas held Ellie’s arms gently but firmly against her body, leaning over her as she kicked at him. Between the crying and the sound of the suction, Dean couldn’t make out anything he was saying, but he could see Cas talking softly to her.

Finally it was over and Dean let out a long breath. His eyes went to the monitor, to the number Diane had shown him before. The 87 was replaced with a 92.

“That’s better,” Dean said. Ellie screamed and cried while Cas picked her up.

“That usually does the trick,” Diane said. “We’ll keep an eye on her readings and the doctor will be in to see you soon.”

Cas stood holding Ellie near the bed, mindful of the pulse ox cord tethering her to the monitor, while Dean sank into one of the two plastic chairs. Idly, he wondered what his heart rate would look like if they hooked him up as well. As he began to relax, the sounds of the emergency department began to filter into his consciousness. A monitor beeped, a woman moaned, a man shouted in Spanish. People streamed past Ellie’s door, paramedics pushing stretchers or hospital staff rolling machines on carts. Dean could hear the television from the next room and the phones ringing at the nurse’s station.

There were so many people here. People he didn’t know. People he couldn’t vet. He hadn’t even thought to worry about that; his only thought had been for someone to help Ellie.

As they waited, the man from registration came back in to clip a plastic ID bracelet around the baby’s ankle and another woman in scrubs came in with a dose of Tylenol. Dean took Ellie back for awhile and Cas resumed his vigil watching the door.

A nurse escorted a patient down the hall, a large intoxicated man who turned his head and locked eyes with Dean as he passed Ellie’s doorway. Abruptly, the man swerved towards their room, stumbling a little at the sudden change of direction. The smell of cheap beer preceded him. “Awwww, a baby!”

Before Dean could even react, Cas was standing in front of them blocking the man’s path. Cas didn’t say a word, merely straightened into his full height and tipped his chin up in silent challenge. The drunk stopped short, blinking his bloodshot eyes. By now, the nurse had him by the arm to physically steer him in the right direction.

“Jesus, just being friendly,” he muttered on his way out.

Dean relaxed his hold on Ellie. “Was he…?”

Cas shook his head. “Just a regular drunk.”

“We need to get her out of here,” Dean said, letting out a long breath. He glanced at the monitor again. The pulse ox reading still hovered around 92.

As he and Ellie had expanded their horizons, Dean had become complacent. The library, the coffee shop, the new restaurant…he’d said yes to all of them without any real forethought or precaution. He’d let his selfish need to pass the long hours of baby care with some adult company lull him into a false sense of security. As weeks and months went by with no threat appearing, he’d nearly forgotten that danger lurked everywhere.

Now, with Ellie literally bound to the monitor, the sense of being trapped flooded in. He and Sam had made surreptitious exits from ERs over the years, yanking out IVs and filling their pockets with gauze and bandages and anything else useful they could get their hands on, before slipping out. But Ellie was registered here under her real name. Her contact information and her insurance coverage were all legitimate and in the system. Would social services start poking around if they simply left with her?

Before he could spend any more time ruminating on that possibility, there was a knock on the door and an auburn-haired woman stood there, her long white coat open over a stretchy navy blue maternity dress. Her pregnant belly entered the room a second before the rest of her.

“I’m Dr. Hansen.” She shook Cas’s hand, and then Dean’s. “And this must be Mary.”

“She goes by Ellie,” Dean said, and the doctor pulled a pen out of her coat pocket and made a note on the chart.

She took up a casual pose by the counter, leaning against it to take some of the weight off her legs. “I know you went through this with the nurse already, but could you tell me what’s been going on with Ellie?”

Dr. Hansen listened attentively as Cas told the story: the runny nose, the low grade fever that turned into a high one, the cough, the pediatrician’s visit, everything that culminated in the midnight rush to the hospital. He turned to Dean. “Am I forgetting anything?”

“I don’t think so.” Dean looked from Ellie to the doctor. “The nurse suctioned her and she seems a lot better.” Ellie was still wheezing and she looked pretty miserable, but her breathing seemed easier overall.

Dr. Hansen put down the chart and squirted some sanitizer on her hands. “If you could lay her on the bed, I’d like to take a look at her.”

Dean complied, unwrapping the blanket.

“Oh my goodness, aren’t you a cute one?” Dr. Hansen gave Ellie a wide smile and Dean felt a rush of warmth toward the woman.

“We think so,” Cas agreed solemnly.

“I’m due in eight weeks with my first,” she said as she listened to the Ellie’s heart and lungs, and then looked in her ears. She moved the gown out of the way to press on the baby’s belly. “I hope I get one as nice as you.”

Once she was finishing examining Ellie, the doctor straightened up and looked at Dean and Cas. “You’re familiar with RSV?”

They nodded. Cas had thoroughly studied the sheet Dean had brought back from the doctor visit.

“Most babies get RSV and it acts like a regular cold. But what happens sometimes is that it moves from being a simple upper respiratory illness to attacking the lower respiratory tract.” She pulled a laminated page from a folder on the counter. Pointing to the diagram of lungs, she continued. “There are small airways in the lungs called bronchioles. Inflammation from the virus causes them to swell and that inhibits the airflow, making it hard for her to breathe. The wheezing comes from the air trying to move through those partially obstructed airways.” She set the diagram down and turned back to the baby. “You can see how hard she’s working. The muscles under her ribs are working overtime and her nostrils are flaring as she’s trying to pull in more air.”

“But the suctioning helped,” Dean said again.

“It did, but I’d really like to see her pulse ox at 94 or 95. I’m going to start her on a little bit of supplemental oxygen to get those numbers up. And she’s looking pretty dry, so I’m going to order IV fluids as well.”

“You mean the dry diaper?” Cas asked.

“That’s one sign,” she said. “You see the way her eyes look sort of sunken and her mouth is tacky?”

Dean knew Ellie looked bad, but now he realized exactly why.

“Along with losing fluid through the nasal discharge, the congestion makes it hard for her to suck, which makes it easier for her to dehydrate. Plus, her rapid breathing rate contributes to that.” She referenced Ellie’s chart again. “She’s exhibiting a little tachycardia, that is, her heart rate is a little fast, which is another sign of dehydration. I’ll write up these orders so the nurse can come in and get them started. In the meantime, I’m going to call up to the peds floor and arrange for a bed.”

“You’re admitting her?” Dean bristled at the news. “Can’t you just keep an eye on her here for a few hours?”

Dr. Hansen spoke with the practiced ease of someone who had answered this question many times. “Babies are small and as a result things can change rapidly with them. It’s safest for her to be where we can monitor her closely.”

Dean almost snorted. People here had no clue about ‘safe’.

Cas thanked the doctor as she turned to leave. Dean wrapped Ellie back up and lifted her from the bed. She felt a little cooler to the touch now that the Tylenol had had time to work.

“Suppose they’ll notice if we salt the door to her hospital room?” Dean was only mostly kidding.

Cas managed a weak smile. “We’ll be with her the whole time.”

Before long, Diane was back. She slipped a nasal cannula into Ellie’s nose, adjusting the tubes behind her head and taping them to her cheeks so she couldn’t yank them out. As she adjusted the dial on the machine, the air began to hiss softly. Dean watched as the pulse ox reading quickly climbed to 97.

“That’s more like it,” Diane said as she hung a bag of saline on a pole next to the bed. She laid out the tubing and other supplies. “This isn’t going to hurt her much, but the alcohol wipe is cold and they don’t like being held down,” she warned. “It’s generally harder on the parents than it is on the baby.”

Cas immediately stepped forward to help hold Ellie which was good because she started to cry the minute Diane swabbed the back of her hand. Dean was fine until Diane took the needle out of the sterile package.

“I’m gonna…“ he said to no one in particular, nodding toward the door. Outside the room, he leaned heavily against the wall until Diane came out.

“All done!” She looked at Dean appraisingly. “Do you need to sit down?”

“No, no, I’m fine. It’s been a long night is all.” He totally needed to sit down.

“Ok, well let me know if you need some water or something. Once they have a room ready on the peds floor, we’ll get you moved up there.”

Dean stood in the hall for a few more moments, watching the ongoing hum of activity of the emergency department. When his legs felt steady again, he rejoined his family to find Cas looking grim as he perched stiffly on the edge of the bed with Ellie in his arms. She’d stopped crying, but was still whimpering pitifully.

“She okay?” Dean asked as he fiddled with the buttons on the rail until the head of the bed whirred to an upright position.

“More angry than hurt, I think.”

“You?”

Cas gave a weary nod.

Dean took the baby just long enough for Cas to swivel around and stretch out his legs. Careful of the IV and the monitor wire, Dean helped Cas settle Ellie back in his arms. When he was sure they were comfortable, Dean brushed the hair back from Cas’s forehead, letting his hand linger for a moment on the side of his face. “Try and get some rest.”

Reconciling himself to staying put, Dean positioned a chair so that he could keep a close eye on the door as he took the first watch.

Chapter Text

“What’s wrong?” Sam demanded, even though it was clear the phone had roused him from a dead sleep.

“Mornin’, Sammy.”

After a chest x-ray and a nasal swab to test for RSV, they’d gotten to the pediatric floor sometime after four in the morning, but Dean had generously waited until almost six o'clock to call his brother. In that time, Ellie had slept peacefully. Her fever was down and the pulse ox reading stayed nice and high. Neither he nor Cas had relaxed enough to actually sleep, but the mood was lighter all around.

Sam grunted and Dean could hear the jingle of Sadie’s collar in the background. Apparently he’d woken both of them up. “Jesus Christ, Dean, just because you get up at the ass crack of dawn doesn’t mean the rest of us have to.”

“Don’t you have some disgustingly healthy exercising to do?”

“Not at freaking o’dark thirty.” Sam yawned noisily.  

The monitor sounded an alert, the slow steady chime that the nurse had explained merely meant one of the readings was drifting out of the normal zone. Dean checked Ellie and sure enough she was stretching in her sleep, holding in a deep breath as she did so. She exhaled and the monitor chimed a few more times before stopping.

“Dean, where are you? What was that?” All traces of sleep were gone now.

“Actually, we’re at the hospital.” Sam, he mouthed at Cas, who’d just walked into the room with two cups of coffee.

“What happened?”

“Everything’s fine, Sam. Ellie started wheezing in the middle of the night so we brought her in. They gave her oxygen and IV fluids but they wanted to admit her to keep an eye on things. She’s doing much better now.”

“How long are you going to be there? What do you need?” Dean could hear rustling and he knew Sam was out of bed, probably scrambling to get dressed.

Dean smiled his thanks up at Cas as he handed him the hot coffee. “The doctor will come see her later this morning and then we’ll know more. Hopefully they’ll spring us after that. Cas is gonna run home and get some stuff for us.”

“Text me a list of what you need and I’ll swing by and get it.”

Dean looked again at Ellie, sleeping with her fists by her ears. The hand with the IV was taped to a small board to keep her wrist straight. Wires snaked out from the neckline of her gown, connecting to the sticky leads they’d put on her chest. “Yeah, that would be great, actually.”

Sam was there in less than an hour, with a duffle bag over his shoulder, a box of donuts in his hands, and a visitor sticker on his shirt. Dean stopped him in the doorway, taking the box. “Sanitize.”

“They had me wash when I came onto the unit.”

“Yeah, well humor me,” Dean said as Sam pushed the lever to dispense the gel. “Because she’s contagious, you have to use it when you leave the room, too.”

Sam rubbed the sanitizer into his hands as Cas came to relieve him of the bag. He unzipped it and dug through to find Ellie’s purple blanket before carefully swapping it out with the hospital blanket covering her. Then he pulled out both of their chargers, reaching a hand out wordlessly for Dean’s phone, and plugged them into the outlet near the side table.

Sam towered over the crib, brow deeply creased. “This is nuts. She was fine yesterday.”

“It happened pretty quickly,” Cas agreed. He dropped into the glider rocker alongside the crib, gratefully accepting the maple bar Dean handed him.

The day shift nurse, a middle-aged Latina woman, stood at the cart just outside the doorway pulling on a yellow gown and tying it behind her neck. She rubbed sanitizer into her hands, then pulled on gloves before picking up a bottle of formula. Inside, she stopped short at the sight of the three rather large men filling the room. “Well, good morning! I’m Rosa.”

Dean did the introductions. “Dad,” he said, pointing to himself. “Dad,” indicating Cas. “Uncle.” He gestured at Sam, who waved.

“Nice to meet you all. I’ll be Mary’s nurse this morning.”

“She goes by Ellie,” Dean explained yet again.

“Got it,” Rosa said, writing it on the whiteboard near the head of the crib. “I assume she’ll want to eat soon, so I’ll put the formula in the warmer and it’ll be ready when she is.”

After Rosa left, Dean turned to his brother. “You want coffee? I’ll get you some.”

“Or you can tell me where it is and I’ll get it,” Sam said.

Dean waved him off. “I’ll be right back.”

He was part way down the hall when he heard the monitor chime from Ellie’s room. He paused, waiting for it to stop, but instead it progressed into the faster two-tone alarm, like an insistent doorbell. By the time he was back to the doorway, it had resumed the moderate tone.

Rosa entered a few steps behind him and she studied the monitor briefly before adjusting the pulse ox band on Ellie’s foot. “Sometimes this gets loose and it can’t get an accurate reading,” she explained.

Satisfied, Dean went to the lounge to get Sam his coffee.

When he returned, they sat in the room quietly talking while Cas pulled out his laptop from the bag and set it up. Ellie woke around eight o’clock and, after suctioning her nose again, Rosa gave them the go-ahead to change her (nice and wet) diaper and feed her. She helped Dean move the rocker closer to the crib and gathered up the various wires and tubes as she lifted Ellie from the crib to settle in his arms. Ellie managed about two-thirds of the bottle, but Dean could see that she was tiring, pulling off the nipple to breathe as her nose began to clog again.

“You gave us a scare, Princess,” Dean murmured into her hair when he burped her. She rubbed her face against his shoulder, dislodging the oxygen and while Dean was pretty sure he could re-position it, he had Sam get Rosa to be sure it was done correctly. While it was out, the low-key alert sounded and Dean could see the pulse ox number blinking as it dropped down to 93. Sure enough, as soon as the cannula was replaced, the monitor displayed higher numbers and the alarm quieted.

Cas held Ellie after she ate, coaxing a few small smiles out of her, but before long she was fast asleep again. With Sam on crib rail duty and Dean in charge of wires and tubes, they were able to get her back into the crib on their own.

By 9:45 they were still waiting for the doctor to come. The television was on, flickering pictures with no sound, but nobody was really watching. Sam had stepped out to the lobby to call Bobby and fill him in, and Rosa had just come into the room with a fresh gown for Ellie when the monitor began the warning chime again. Within a few seconds, it was on high alert and Rosa dropped the gown into the crib. Dean got up out of his chair and saw Rosa put her hand on Ellie’s chest, firmly shaking her like she was trying to wake her up.

“Oh, no you don’t,” she said more to herself than anyone. A few seconds later, the monitor stopped chiming and Dean looked at Rosa.

“What was that?” He’d been watching her and she hadn’t adjusted the foot band or the nasal prongs.

Rosa fished under the yellow gown to dig the cordless phone out of her scrub jacket pocket and dial a few digits. “That was a little bit of apnea,” she said calmly before her call was answered. “I need the pediatric rapid response team in West 304.”

Almost immediately there was an attention-getting tone on the overhead system followed by a woman’s calm voice announcing, “Pediatric rapid response team, West 304. Pediatric rapid response team, West 304. Pediatric rapid response team, West 304.”

Another nurse stuck his head in the door. “We’ll cover your other patients,” he said and Rosa nodded her thanks.

“What’s going on?” Dean asked in confusion. Ellie seemed fine. All the monitors were showing normal readings and Rosa was merely standing by the crib.

“Apnea means she stopped breathing for a few seconds,” Rosa explained, eyes on the baby again. “We have a protocol to activate the rapid response team when that happens. She might not do it again, but we need to put precautions in place.” She glanced at the clock on the wall above the crib. “A team of three people is going to show up here any minute. It’ll be a doctor, a nurse, and a respiratory therapist. They’ll be here in case she needs any sort of intervention before we move her.”

“Move her where?” Cas had closed his laptop and gotten to his feet.

“Once a baby has an incidence of apnea, they need greater support than we can provide in the peds unit. The doctor will be the one to decide, but most likely they’re going to put her on something to help with her breathing.”

The monitor was silent but Dean heard a sound like a clanging inside his own head. He didn’t even know what question to ask since none of this made any sense when he could see with his own eyes that Ellie was sleeping peacefully. He looked at Cas, who had joined him alongside the crib.

Footsteps sounded in the hall and two women and a man appeared in the doorway, stopping to quickly gown and glove before they entered the now rather crowded room. One pulled what looked almost like a wheeled suitcase behind him. Their mood was focused and serious, until they realized there was no active emergency going on and their postures relaxed significantly.

“Hi everyone,” Rosa greeted them. “This is Ellie.”

Rosa went into a quick report from there full of numbers and percentages that Dean couldn’t follow. The response team listened intently and Dean could see them scanning the crib and the equipment in use. When she was done, Rosa introduced Dean and Cas as Ellie’s dads.

“Is there a PICU bed ready for her?” one of the women, a blonde, asked.

“Could you call them and check?” Rosa asked. “I need to get the parents up to speed.” The woman nodded and pulled a phone from her pocket.

Rosa turned to them. “Okay, I know a lot just happened, so let me explain. In some cases, RSV causes apnea. Nobody really knows why, but as you can imagine, it’s not something we mess around with. She may not do it again, but to be on the safe side, they may put her on a CPAP machine. You might’ve heard of it, it’s basically the same thing people use to help with snoring.”

Dean nodded. Bobby’s doctor had tried to get him to use one, but he’d steadfastly refused.

“CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure and it does exactly what it says: it uses pressure to help keep her air passages open and give her better oxygen flow.”

Dean nodded again, standing there in silence as he tried to take this in.

“That kind of intervention requires a move to the PICU where they’re better equipped to monitor her.”

“Pick-you?” Cas asked.

“Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.”

Cas stood next to him, one hand closed around Dean’s wrist. Whether it was a gesture of comfort or of restraint, Dean couldn’t decide, but it helped to ground him even as Cas asked questions that Dean couldn’t hear over the sound of his own pulse racing in his ears.

The response team was unpacking some of the equipment from their bags, chatting softly and easily over Ellie as she slept. From the corner of his eye, Dean caught movement. Sam stood in the doorway, blinking in confusion. When one of the team members pulled Rosa aside to ask a question, Cas tightened his grip on Dean and tugged him to the door.

“What’s going on?” Sam looked past them both to the room full of people.

Dean pulled away, turning so he had full view of the crib, as Cas went into professor mode. “Ellie had an episode of apnea, meaning she stopped breathing for a few seconds. Rosa was able to rouse her to start her up again, but now they want to put her on a machine that will keep the air flowing no matter what. It requires extra monitoring so they’re going to transfer us to the pediatric intensive care unit.”

“But…but I thought she was doing better?”

A phone rang and the blonde answered it. “They’re ready for us,” she informed the rest of the team.

“The PICU is on this same floor but in a different wing.” Rosa explained. “If one of you wants to go with her now, the other can stay and get your things together.”

Dean looked around the room. In six hours, they’d managed to spread things out everywhere: the car seat, contents of the diaper bag, snacks, the laptop, cell phone chargers. He didn’t even know where to start.

“You both go,” Sam said. “I’ll get everything packed up.”

Dean nodded, nearly dizzy with relief at having this problem solved for him. The team was unplugging equipment from the wall and carefully making sure all the wires and tubes were safely stowed. The cannula in Ellie’s nose was now connected to a small oxygen tank, like a fire extinguisher, that fit under the crib.

The blonde woman turned to them. “She’s breathing fine now, but to be sure we don’t have any problems while we’re moving her, I’m going to keep this handy in case I need to give her oxygen manually.” She held up a little clear mask attached to a blue rubber chamber shaped like an egg.

Rosa ushered them into the hall so that the team could maneuver the crib out of the room. Sam tried to put a reassuring arm around his shoulder, but Dean shrugged him off, falling in step behind the team.

As they walked the halls, Dean saw people glance up at them. The nurses seemed unfazed, some even gave them encouraging smiles, but the other parents and visitors stared wide-eyed as they passed, stepping to the side to let Ellie and her medical entourage through. The crib moved smoothly over polished wood floors as they walked down a series of beige corridors and through sets of heavy double doors. Some doors opened automatically at the press of a button while others required a team member to run an ID through a card reader. Finally, the team took a sharp turn to the left, stopping to swipe open the locked double doors labelled PICU.

Inside, a woman stepped from behind the nurse’s station to meet them. “Please wash your hands here and then I’ll show you back,” she said as Ellie’s crib rolled out of sight.

After they washed at the side by side sinks, they were shown down the hallway. For whatever reason, Dean had imagined the ICU would be dark and somber with all of the patients in one open area, but this looked like a regular hospital floor with individual rooms. Colorful pictures of butterflies decorated walls that were painted a soft, spring green.

About three-quarters of the way down the hall the escorting nurse stopped outside an open door and asked them to wait until the team finished getting Ellie settled. She pointed out the parent lounge at the end of the hall and gave them the opportunity to get something to drink, but Dean and Cas stayed where they were, anxiously waiting to be reunited with their daughter.

***
As soon as the rapid response team cleared out, Dean and Cas were allowed in. They’d heard Ellie fussing briefly, but now she was asleep again with a new mask over her face. Instead of the prongs delivering oxygen into her nostrils, she now had a larger mask that fit tightly over her entire nose, held in place by elastic straps that wrapped around the back of her head. A wide tube led from the top of it, stretching across her forehead to connect to a machine on a pole next to the bed. Another tube veered off to another part of the pole to connect to a large bottle of distilled water that burbled softly. Everything else looked the same: the IV in her arm, the leads on her chest, the pulse ox on her toe. The monitor was the same as in the other room and Dean felt slightly relieved that he understood at least a little of what he was looking at.

A short, plump woman with wavy gray hair welcomed them in and introduced herself. “I’m Connie,” she said with a bright smile. “I’d say it’s nice to meet you, but nobody wants to be here, so let’s just say I’m here to take care of Ellie and answer any questions you might have.”

Dean felt the tension in his chest ease a little as Cas introduced them to Ellie’s new nurse.

“I know a lot has happened in a relatively short time and you probably have a ton of questions,” Connie said. “I’ll answer what I can and we can make a list for when the doctor is here.” She checked the clock on the wall. “That should be in the next forty-five minutes or so.”

She picked up a blue folder from the little table next to the crib. “In the meantime, I’ll give you our basic Welcome to the PICU orientation packet which is full of information about our policies and procedures.”

Dean took the folder from her and passed it to Cas.

“There’s a lot to take in, so having it in writing helps. The first question most people have is about visiting hours. You are welcome to stay with her twenty-four hours a day, but we do ask that you limit it to two visitors at a time. And while you can stay, we recommend you give yourself breaks. Go home, sleep in a real bed, eat in the cafeteria, take a walk, whatever. You’re no good to her if you wear yourself out. ”

Dean kept his eyes on Connie, but he felt Cas glance over at him as the nurse continued. “Because RSV is so contagious, she’s under contact precautions. Are you familiar with those?”

“Gown and gloves for any staff person coming in,” Cas recited. “And we need to wash or sanitize our hands when we enter and leave the room.”

“You got it.” Connie looked pleased. “We used to make the parents gown and glove too, but since you don’t go between patients like the rest of us, we don’t any more. Okay, enough about you, let’s talk about your adorable baby.”

She smiled again, eyes crinkling and Dean managed another near-regular sized breath because surely Connie wouldn't be this relaxed if there was something seriously wrong with Ellie. “We see a lot of babies in here with complications from RSV, so while it’s scary and overwhelming to parents, we have plenty of experience dealing with this. Did they explain to you about the CPAP machine?”

“A little bit,” Dean said, eyes trailing over the tubes.

“Let me show you what it does.” Connie showed them the various working parts and explained what each piece did, why it was important, and how it helped.

Dean felt a little calmer with each explanation. “So this is all just a precaution? I mean, it could’ve been a one-time thing that happened?”

Connie’s face turned thoughtful. “It could have, but this is something that happens with RSV. If it happens once, there’s a good chance it'll happen again, and that’s why we need to be prepared.” Her phone rang and she dug it from her pocket for a quick conversation. “Ellie’s uncle is in the waiting area with your things.”

Cas looked questioningly at Dean who shook his head briefly. “I’ll go get them,” Cas said.

Connie nodded. “I’ll point you in the right direction. Now, I have another patient besides Ellie, but I can see what happens on her monitor from my desk or from my other patient’s room so I’m always keeping an eye on things. Here’s your call button if you need me.”

Reaching to the side of the monitor, she unwound a cord with a bright red button at the end and set it on the side table before leading Cas back into the hall to sanitize his hands as she stripped off her gown and gloves.

Looking around the room, Dean saw it was slightly smaller than the one they’d been in, but furnished nearly the same way with a sink, crib, recliner, rocker, and cushioned bench/makeshift bed along the back wall under the window. There was a television mounted high on the wall and a computer built into a cabinet. A door in the back left corner of the room opened to a wheelchair accessible bathroom, complete with shower.

Like the room on the pediatric floor, a cart was parked just outside the room, stacked with yellow gowns and boxes of gloves in various sizes. Instead of a regular wooden door, this room had a glassed in front that closed with a sliding door. Through a window next to the door, Dean could see that Connie’s desk was situated in a small alcove that allowed her to see into two patient rooms as she worked. A curtain was bunched to one side of the door, but a track in the ceiling meant it could be pulled to provide privacy from curious eyes in the hallway.

Dean tugged the curtain open, leaving just enough space to see anyone approaching, before dragging the rocker next to the crib. Ellie lay still, the head of her bed inclined and the CPAP machine making a constant hissing sound as the humidified air flowed through it. Dean arranged her purple blanket around her and felt her forehead. She didn’t feel hot anymore, which he assumed was a good sign.

Just as he settled himself in the rocker, an alarm chimed. He jerked his head to look at her monitor, but the sound was distant and he realized it was coming from another room. As his own heart rate returned to normal, the sound of footsteps and creaking wheels got closer until Sam stood in the doorway, pushing a cart loaded with their belongings.

“Special delivery,” he said lightly, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes.

Dean got up and helped him unload the cart, putting everything on the cushioned bench.

“How’s she doing?”

“Fuck if I know,” Dean said, wearily. “I don’t even understand what happened. She was doing so much better.”

“They’re probably extra careful with babies,” Sam ventured.

“I guess.”

They stood in silence staring at the crib.

“Well, I know better than to ask if you want me to stay while you get some food,” Sam eventually said. “So I’ll go pick you guys up something to eat. Cas said the doctor should be here pretty soon?”

“Yeah.” He checked the clock. “In a half hour or so.”

“Okay. I’ll take care of calling people and letting them know what’s going on, if that’s okay with you.”

“Yeah, thanks, Sammy.”

Sam pulled him into a giant bear hug and Dean felt his defenses start to slip. Tears stung his eyes and his throat filled, but he swallowed thickly and blinked them away, clapping Sam on the back a few times before untangling himself.

“Call me if you need me.” As Sam gave Dean’s shoulder one last squeeze, he said firmly, “She’ll be okay.”

To adhere to the two-visitor rule, Cas waited until Sam left before coming back to the room. Once there, he busied himself by digging the chargers out of the bag and plugging in both of their phones again. While Dean sat again by the crib, Cas moved on to organizing the duffle since Sam had crammed everything in, and then he unpacked and repacked Ellie’s diaper bag. Unable to concentrate on work, Cas didn't even bother to take his computer out.

After that, there was nothing to do but sit by the crib and wait.

 

Dean glanced up each time someone walked down the hall, expecting the doctor, but a half hour passed, then forty-five minutes with no appearance. 

Other people streamed in and out of the room. Connie came back with a nursing student in tow to record Ellie’s vitals, a man from respiratory checked the readings on Ellie’s CPAP, a woman in a blue volunteer smock stacked gowns and washcloths on the cart outside the door. After an hour and a half the doctor still hadn’t shown, Dean had corrected two more people who’d referred to Ellie as “Mary”, and he’d begun pacing the length of the small room.

The monitor hadn’t uttered a peep in all the time they’d been there.

Finally a petite Asian woman in a white coat stopped in the hall and Dean watched through the glass as she gowned and gloved before tapping on the door. A moment later, Connie followed her in.

“I’m Dr. Silverberg,” she said, and Dean introduced himself and Cas.

She nodded pleasantly, her chin-length bob swaying as she did. “Let me take a quick look at her, and then we’ll chat.”

Cas came to stand by Dean and they both tried not to hover by the crib.

When she was done examining Ellie, the doctor turned to talk to them, while Connie opened the computer cabinet and typed in some notes.

“The RSV swab came back positive,” Dr. Silverberg began, and Dean and Cas both nodded; Rosa had told them that. “And the chest x-ray was clear, so we aren’t concerned about pneumonia.”

Dean caught Cas’s eye and smiled. Finally some good news.

But Dr. Silverberg maintained her serious expression as she continued. “The thing about RSV is that it’s a viral infection. Just like the common cold, there’s no actual cure or drug for it. What we can do is treat the symptoms—congestion, fever, dehydration— and keep her comfortable. The main concern at this point is the apnea and she’s here so we can monitor for any additional episodes. If she doesn’t have any, great. We’ll continue to support her with oxygen and fluids until this thing runs its course.”

“So that one might’ve been a fluke,” Dean proposed.

Connie and the doctor exchanged a look. “She had one that was witnessed,” Dr. Silverberg said slowly. “But according to the peds nurse, there was an earlier drop in her sats as well, so she might’ve had two already.”

Dean remembered Rosa adjusting the band on Ellie’s foot and attributing the alarm to it being loose. Jesus Christ. He rubbed at his temples.

The doctor’s tone softened. “I know this is a lot for you, but we see a lot of babies with RSV and we’re equipped to deal with it here. Do you have any questions?”

“Can we hold her?” Dean asked, drifting back to the crib.

“Absolutely. While’s she’s on CPAP, you are welcome to hold her and change her diaper. We’ll switch to feeding her intravenously, though, because we don’t want to risk her aspirating while she eats.”

“That’s the plan if everything stays the same,” Cas said carefully. “What if she does it again?”

“That depends on how many episodes she has. If they start to happen frequently, we’ll use a machine that will do the breathing for her.”

Dean saw dark spots dancing before his eyes. He shook his head to clear it.

“I don’t get it,” he said, more forcefully than he’d meant to. “She was doing better. Her fever was down, the wheezing stopped, her diapers were wet.” He counted each positive sign on his fingers as he spoke, his voice rising. “Why is she worse now?”

The monitor chimed a warning and the room fell silent as everyone looked at it, but neither the doctor nor the nurse moved.

“Two things,” the doctor said firmly. “I know this is stressful, but getting worked up doesn’t help her.” She indicated the monitor over the crib. “That was her heart rate accelerating in response to the tone of your voice. You can be in here, but not if your presence will upset her.”

Dean blinked and let out a deep breath, running a hand through his hair. “Got it. Sorry.”

She looked at Dean for a long moment before continuing. “Secondly, the incidence of apnea in these cases isn’t related to anything else. Fever isn’t an indicator, amount of respiratory distress isn’t either. Some kids have clear risk factors like prematurity or lung problems, but some don’t. We don’t understand the mechanism completely, but there’s something about the virus that tells the brain to stop breathing.”

Cas reached for Dean’s hand, but that made his eyes prickle again and he pulled himself free.

“It’s our job to support her medically. It’s your job to take care of yourselves so you can support her in other ways. Your presence, your voice, your touch, that all goes a long way in this process.” A beeping came from her jacket pocket and she reached under the gown to pull out a pager. “Do you have any other questions?”

Dean shook his head.

“Connie will let me know if anything changes,” she said and turned for the door.

***
A little while later, Connie directed Dean to sit in the rocker so she could take Ellie out of the crib. Dean hesitated, worried about dislodging the equipment or disconnecting a tube, but when Connie swaddled her and placed her in his arms, his instincts overrode his concerns. Connie tucked a pillow under Ellie to help keep her head elevated before leaving the room.

With her warm against his chest, Dean began to relax. Ellie looked up at him with big, bleary eyes.

“Okay baby, it’s okay,” he found himself whispering to her in an unending stream.

Cas crouched down beside the chair and held her swaddled feet in his hand. When she worked an arm out of the blanket and reached for the CPAP mask, Cas gently moved her hand away, and she curled her fingers around his thumb.

She’d gone hours since the episode of apnea and Dean felt like maybe, with her heart beating against his own, he could keep it from happening again.

When Sam texted that he had their lunch, Cas met him in the waiting room to eat and update him on their conversation with the doctor. Dean didn’t want to leave the unit, so Cas brought Dean’s lunch and took a turn holding the baby while Dean went to eat in the parent lounge.

He sat at the table in the otherwise empty room. The television high on the wall was turned to a news station, volume soft as pictures flashed across the screen. He was hungry, his stomach had been rumbling as he held Ellie. Even though the fries were now lukewarm, they were greasy and salty and delicious. As Dean took the first bite of burger, he glanced up at the headlines and the food suddenly seemed to stick in his throat.

A silver-haired newscaster reported on political debates and terrorist attacks, and it seemed inconceivable that Ellie wasn’t the top story. Local Baby in ICU blared in Dean’s head and his brain couldn’t wrap around the significance of anything else happening on the planet. He swallowed thickly, the burger heavy and uncomfortable in his stomach, but he forced himself to take a few more bites and nibble on another couple of fries.

A monitor alerted in the hallway and he quickly gathered up the remains of his lunch and tossed them in the trash. Back in the hall, a blinking light caught his eye and he realized that each room had a light mounted above the door that flashed in time with the alert. This one wasn’t coming from Ellie’s room, but from the opposite end of the hall.

Walking to Ellie’s room he noticed that in an effort to make things personalized and cheery, each door had a sign with the patient’s name on it. Ellie’s sign was a sheet of pink paper decorated with ladybugs. Mary’s Room, it announced. He yanked it down from where it was taped to the glass and Cas looked up at him in surprise.

“Be right back,” he said.

Connie wasn’t at her desk, but the woman who had first escorted them into the unit was sitting behind a counter near the door. There was probably already a note in Ellie’s chart regarding his outburst, so he made sure to turn on the charm.

“Hi,” he said, smiling at her apologetically as he slid the paper across the counter. “I know her legal name is Mary, but she goes by Ellie, so is there any way to change this?”

She smiled back at him. “Oh, sure! I’ll print out a new one.”

“Thanks.” He tapped his fingers on the counter as he waited. He could do this. Ellie needed him here and that came first. He wouldn’t risk doing anything that might separate him from her. He sucked in a slow, deep breath. He could pull it together and stay calm, and they’d all be back home in no time.

“Will this work?” She stood to pick up the new sign from the printer. Ellie’s Room was printed in big letters with (Mary Ellen) in a smaller size underneath.

“Thanks. I appreciate it,” Dean said, as she ripped off a piece of tape to attach to it. Back at Ellie’s room, he taped the new sign in place on the door. Cas smiled at him from the rocking chair.

Twenty minutes later, Ellie stopped breathing again.

Chapter Text

Dean jerked awake, heart pounding. He pulled his face from where it was stuck with drool to the fake leather of the recliner in time to see the nurse—he checked the whiteboard on the wall for her name: Julie— reaching into the crib. Wiping his cheek with his sleeve, Dean put his feet on the footrest and put the recliner back into a neutral position.

“Sorry,” Julie whispered. “Just taking her vitals.”

Dean squinted at the clock. 7:20.

He honestly wasn’t sure if it was morning or night and the bit of dark sky visible through the blinds above where Cas slept stretched out on the narrow cushioned bench didn’t help. He thought about asking, but maybe they’d make him leave if he wasn’t oriented to day and night, so he kept silent on the matter.

“Any changes?” he asked.

Julie gave him a small smile and shook her head. “Holding steady.”

Holding steady was what they said when nothing was getting better, Dean had learned. Holding steady meant Ellie was still dependent on the ventilator, that she was still having frequent apnea spells, that nearly every bodily function was being done for her.

He checked the monitor. The clock there read 19:22. Okay, so evening, not that it really mattered. It had been approximately seventy-five hours since they’d put her on the ventilator and each of those hours passed agonizingly, disproportionately slowly.

Dean understood everything as they’d explained it to him. The ventilator wasn’t doing all the breathing for her; it somehow knew to kick in only when she didn’t take a breath. The sedation was to keep her comfortable as well as to keep the tube in her trachea properly placed. All nutrition, fluids, and drugs were being provided intravenously. He understood all of the updates as they were given to him, but the moment the doctors or nurses stopped talking, he felt that knowledge dissipate and waft away until his head filled with nothing but the white noise of the ventilator and the constant shrill sound of the alarm.

Due to the equipment, they couldn’t hold her or feed her. The nurses said they could change her diaper but standing over the crib neither Dean nor Cas could bring themselves to risk inadvertently dislodging the ventilator, so they left it to the professionals. Now, they sat in the room and watched as people streamed in and out to examine her, check equipment, re-stock supplies, or mop the floor. Some of the people greeted them or tried to engage them while others slipped in to do their jobs as unobtrusively as possible.

Dean and Cas sat or paced, passively observing as the entrance to Ellie's room was repeatedly breached by indistinguishable people in yellow gowns. Only when Cas saw the hospital chaplain begin to glove up outside the room did he react, striding to the door to send the man away with a few short words.

Logically, Dean knew that everyone was working together to help Ellie, but the sheer number of them seemed to emphasize her predicament while highlighting Dean’s uselessness.

Vaguely, Dean remembered his panic in the emergency department of having her surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Now he’d let Lucifer himself walk through the door if he knew how to cure her.

Dean got out of the chair and stretched before pouring himself a cup of water. He was probably due for a shower, but couldn’t bring himself to do anything about it. He hoped Cas would stay asleep. Not only did he need the rest, but it was easier when they didn’t have to interact. They’d had an argument in the parent lounge earlier (This morning? Last night?) when the staff had asked them to step out of the room because the vein in Ellie’s hand had collapsed and they were going to replace it with a PICC line.

Using a gruesome diagram, the doctor had explained that they’d insert a flexible catheter into the larger blood vessel near the bend in her arm and thread it directly to her heart. This would be a more efficient way of delivering medications and fluids, the nurse had reassured them with cheerful optimism. Dean had nodded like he was supposed to, but all he’d heard was that his baby’s veins were shutting down.

Banished to the parent lounge during the procedure, they’d snapped at each other when Cas had suggested Dean go home to shower and sleep.

“You go. She needs me here,” Dean had said, and the emphasis on me hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Hurt had flashed across Cas’s face before he’d set his jaw and hurled back a grenade of his own. “Staying here and punishing yourself? That doesn’t mean you love her more.”

At that, Dean had spun on his heel and left the lounge to wait outside Ellie’s door. A few moments later Cas joined him and they stood in stony silence before Cas left to go home, as he had each day, to shower and bring back fresh clothes for Dean. They’d barely spoken since then, spending their time in solitary silence even as they both occupied the same small space in her room.

Dean sipped at the water before sitting back down in the recliner. Entranced by the outline of the baby’s heartbeat on the monitor, he let his eyes partially glaze as he watched it climb and fall, crossing the screen from left to right, forming the peaks and dips of the rhythm. The hot panic that had accompanied the first day or so at the hospital had congealed into a cold numbness that left his head and limbs heavy. He barely reacted to the monitor any more. The alerts sounded and stopped. The ventilator steadily hissed.

When they were first in the PICU, he hadn’t realized that it would be the last time he could hold her. If he had, maybe he would’ve done something differently, done something more meaningful, more memorable. He wondered idly if they’d let him hold her after, when she was disconnected from everything and wrapped in a blanket not to keep her warm, but to shield them from her cooling body. He dug his nails into his palms and stood, pacing the room to refocus his mind.

Cas stirred, then slowly sat up. He tossed off the blanket and rubbed his face with both hands. “Any change?”

“Holding steady,” Dean said flatly.

One of their phones buzzed. They buzzed frequently with calls and texts coming from people wanting updates or merely sending good thoughts. Dean ignored them all, even the ones from Sam, and let Cas be in charge of communications. Word traveled fast and flowers and balloons arrived at the hospital, but those things were forbidden in the PICU so the nurses donated them to the pediatric unit where they could be enjoyed, and gathered the cards for Cas so that he could write thank you notes. Dean glanced at the pile on the side table. On top were cards from the guys at the garage, Mrs. Doyle, and the English Department.

Cas got heavily to his feet and stood by the crib for a moment before disappearing into the bathroom. Dean resumed his pacing. The ventilator continued to breathe for their baby.

Four months. There was no reason to be so attached. A couple of times growing up he’d attended the same school for four months, yet he could conjure almost no recollection of those days. Four months was a blip of time. Four months was nothing. Four months shouldn’t even register. It was barely enough time to matter. Barely enough time for anything.

Ellie couldn’t walk or talk. She’d never had anything but formula, not even a taste of rice cereal. Dean sucked in a sharp breath and stopped himself from thinking about the baby food Cas planned to make. She hadn’t made it to her first Christmas. The stocking would stay wrapped in tissue for him to return to Jody.

She’d never meet Claire. Claire would’ve adored her, Dean thought with a pang. Claire would’ve gone clothes shopping with Ellie, talked to her about boys, and taught her all the girl things that they couldn’t.

Bobby was going to take her fishing and Sam already talked about when she’d be big enough to take to the natural history museum. Cas was going to insist on piano lessons and Dean was going to teach her to change a tire and of all the fucking things he’d laid awake at night worrying about, it was never this. Never a virus he couldn’t see, an illness he was defenseless against. Give him monsters, curses, demons, anything he could fight or kill and he could—and would— protect her from those.

But this?

He knew now that he should’ve been worrying about this all along. He pictured Ellie sitting on the blanket at the library, toppling over and grabbing Riley’s toy. That was where it had happened, he was convinced. She’d put that toy right in her mouth and he had laughed, pleased by her boldness. He’d let this happen.

Cas came out of the bathroom and took up the position in the recliner while Dean continued to pace.

Seven steps to the door, turn, seven steps back to the window, turn, seven steps to the door.

Cas sat next to the crib, leaning forward with his clasped hands dangling between his knees as he stared at Ellie. Dean paced until the nurse came in, then he took advantage of the distraction to slide Cas’s keys soundlessly off the side table and into his pocket.

When the nurse left, he paced a while longer before stopping and clearing his throat. “You were right, I gotta get out of here for awhile. I need some air.”

Cas nodded vaguely, never taking his eyes off the baby.

Dean squeezed his shoulder, letting his hand remain an extra moment and then walked out the door.

As he waited to be buzzed out of the secure unit, he pulled out the keys, clenching them in his fist until the metal dug into his skin. He focused on the pain, letting it pierce through the fog of helplessness that had been paralyzing him for days. He stepped through the double doors even before they were fully opened and then stopped short. Bobby was snoozing in a chair in the waiting area, legs stretched in front of him, hat pulled down over his face. Dean edged sideways toward the stairs.

“Going somewhere?”

Dean squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before he turned around. “Just taking a walk.”

Bobby straightened in the chair, pulling his hat off to smooth a hand over his hair. “Need keys for that?”

“I was going to get something out of the car.”

“I’ll come with you.” Bobby heaved himself to his feet. “Be good to stretch my legs.”

“You don’t need to do that. I’ll be right back.” Dean took another step toward the stairwell door.

‘Why don’t you tell me what you need and I’ll go get it for you,” Bobby offered.

Dean stared at the floor and clenched his teeth until his jaw ached.

“That’s what I figured.” Bobby took Dean by the arm and walked him to an empty alcove. “Son—“

Roughly, Dean pulled out of his grip. “I can fix this, Bobby,”

Bobby folded his arms across his chest. “Oh, I bet you’d get a hell of a deal, too. How long you think you’d get with the desperation dripping off you?”

“It doesn’t matter what I get,” Dean argued. “All that matters is that she’s okay.”

“Right.” Bobby nodded like something just occurred to him, and Dean let himself take in a deeper breath. There’s no way Bobby wouldn’t understand what he had to do. “Tell me, how okay is she going to be with you gone?”

“She’ll have Cas.”

“And he’ll be fine without you?”

Dean swallowed around the lump in his throat. “He’ll move on.”

Bobby shook his head slowly in disbelief. “There’s no moving on from what the two of you have.”

“They’ll have each other,” Dean said, focusing on the keys in his hand.

“Right, so leave her with a father consumed with grief. What could possibly go wrong there?” The sarcasm that dripped from every word snapped something in Dean.

He rounded on Bobby, trembling with barely-contained anger. “I can’t just sit there and watch her die.”

Bobby’s eyes blazed. “This ain’t about you, Dean. The three of you are a family now. You don’t walk away from that no matter what.” He reached a hand to Dean’s shoulder as his tone gentled. “I don’t care if all they’ll let you do is put one finger into that crib for her to hold on to, you go back in and you sit there. She needs you and Cas needs you, and by God, you need the two of them.”

“I can’t do it,” Dean whispered. His face crumpled and he let Bobby pull him into a hug. Sobs punched out of him until his chest ached and his throat was raw. In the circle of Bobby’s arms, he didn’t have to be brave. He was a little boy again, safe and cared for and allowed to be frightened.

 

“Not alone, you can’t. But you don’t have to do it on your own.” He laid his big hand on Dean’s cheek and waited for Dean to meet his eyes. “Now is it safe to say you won’t try this again?”

Dean wiped his face on his sleeve and nodded.

“Good, because me, Jody, and Sam have been taking turns sitting out here and I’m too damn old to be sleeping in a chair.”

Dean hugged him again before picking up the phone to be let back into the PICU.

At the hand washing station, he splashed water on his face before washing his hands thoroughly. He moved quickly down the hall, anxious to be back at Ellie’s side. Cas didn’t look up when he entered the room and Dean quietly put the keys back before pulling the rocking chair alongside the recliner.

Cas gripped the bars of the crib with his left hand, his right hand covering his face. Dean eased into the chair and checked on Ellie who hadn’t moved at all in the time he was gone.

“I didn’t even try to stop you,” Cas said, without looking at him.

Dean blinked, startled. “I was just—“

“I didn’t want you to but I couldn’t bring myself to stop you.” Cas tightened his hold on the crib until his knuckles went white. “Because at least it was something to do.”

Cas took a shallow, shuddering breath and lifted his head. “There was a time when I could lay my hand upon her and this nightmare would disappear.” His eyes unfocused as he stared at the wall above the crib. “I could do it without thought or effort, merely a touch and she would be restored to perfect health. But now…now I’m left with no way to help her.”

“Cas…” Dean covered the hand on the crib with his own.

“Do you know what I’ve been doing?” Cas looked at him, eyes frantic. “I’ve been praying.”

A chill traveled down Dean’s spine, settling at the base before spreading into thick, cold nausea.

“But no one answers. They’re punishing her, Dean. Punishing her to prove their point to me. I deserve no mercy, but she’s an innocent, a child.” He turned back to look at Ellie. ”She’s paying the price for what I’ve done.” The words tumbled out of him now, breathlessly. “I begged them to take me. To spare her and take me, but no one answers, Dean. No one.”

Dean untangled Cas’s hand from the crib and threaded their fingers together. “Cas, look at me.”

Cas pulled his hand away and shook his head. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

Dean reached for him, a hand at his chin to turn his face. “Cas, this isn’t your fault.” He dug his fingers in when Cas tried to turn away. “It’s not. It’s nobody’s fault. It just happened. It happened and it’s awful, but it’s where we are.”

When Cas finally held his gaze, Dean let his hand fall to Cas’s chest, pressing his palm there to feel his heartbeat. “No deals. No miracles. Just us.” He kissed Cas with a soft brush of lips. “It’ll have to be enough.”

Dean leaned forward and slid his left hand through the bars to cup the top of Ellie’s head. Following suit, Cas took both of her small feet in the palm of his right hand. Cas reached for Dean’s other hand and they clung to each other, completing the circle.

***
Babies don’t get magically better. Not when they’ve been that sick.

Instead there are changes that happen so slowly that they almost can’t be seen without the passage of time. Ellie was still having apneic spells around the clock, but slowly, gradually, they began to space themselves out. Once they realized that, Cas grabbed a pen and a blank piece of paper from Connie’s desk to record them and for one magical stretch somewhere around 8 AM on the fifth day after she was put on the ventilator, Ellie went twenty-two minutes without one.

“This is what we want to see,” Connie confirmed, with a bright smile. “She’ll have more, maybe even clusters of them, but we should start seeing some longer periods without them.”

Cas drew a sharp breath and blinked at the paper in his lap as Connie quickly finished what she was doing to give them some privacy. As soon as the door slid shut behind her, Dean moved from the rocker to sit next to Cas on the padded bench. Dean wrapped an arm around his back and Cas leaned into him, resting his head on Dean’s shoulder.

“She’s getting better,” Dean whispered into his hair. “Our baby’s getting better.”

Dean felt Cas nod, felt the wetness from his eyes drip onto Dean’s neck. Dean blinked back his own tears of relief and joy as they held each other, suddenly able to hear the silences from the monitor, aware of the times Ellie was breathing.

Dr. Silverberg confirmed that she was on an upward trend and holding steady was replaced with new daily goals like tolerate lower oxygen concentration and maintain pulse ox readings. Finally, on the day after Thanksgiving, the goal on her whiteboard read snuggle with dads.

With the ventilator removed and the sedation discontinued, Rosa helped Dean lift her from the crib. She still had her share of wires and tubes, but the mask was gone from her face and at last her eyes fluttered open. Dean held her to him, pressing his lips to her forehead for a long moment, feeling the warmth of her body against his, before he turned and gently laid her in Cas’s lap.

Rosa rearranged the equipment to make sure there was slack in all the wires before leaving them alone. Cas ran his fingers lightly along her cheeks, reddened from the tape that had held the mask securely in place. Her hair was matted down against her head and her lips were dry and chapped. There were dark circles under her eyes and her arms and feet bore yellowish-green bruising from earlier needle sticks.

As they examined every perfect inch of her, she stirred and her eyes opened, drooping closed again as she let out a harsh cry, hoarse from the tube that had been in her throat. Cas snuggled her even closer and Ellie sighed and quieted, molding against him.

Dean pulled out his phone to take a picture, showing it to Cas before texting it to Sam, Bobby, and Jody.

Jody texted back almost immediately. Dean stared at his phone before lifting his head suddenly. “Are you ok if I step out for a minute?”

Cas reluctantly looked up from Ellie to give Dean a questioning look.

Dean held up his phone in explanation. “Jody’s in the waiting room and she has something for us.”

Five minutes later Dean was back, but instead of coming into the room he stood suspiciously in the doorway until Cas looked up. Then he stepped to the side revealing Claire, who smiled bravely, blue eyes a little too wide as she took in the room filled with medical equipment and the fragile baby. Cas smiled at her and Dean could see him blinking back tears.

“This is mostly what we do now,” Dean explained, and his voice wavered a little as he ushered Claire in. “We cry.”

Cas cradled Ellie with one arm and hugged Claire long and hard with the other. When they finally released each other, Cas indicated for her to sit in the chair and he carefully angled Ellie so Claire could see her face.

Dean pulled the privacy curtain. No one had said a word when he brought in a third visitor because apparently when your baby recovers from a near-death experience they’ll bend the rules a little bit.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t get here sooner,” Claire said. She’d been holed up out of cell phone range, and it wasn’t until she’d used a pay phone to make her weekly check-in call to Jody that she’d found out what was going on.

“You’re here now,” Dean said, trying not to think of all the other ways this could’ve gone. Ellie was getting better. Claire was here and it wasn’t for a crib-side vigil or a funeral.

“She’s beautiful," Claire said, reaching tentatively toward Ellie. After a nod from Cas, Claire took Ellie's tiny hand in her own.

"Takes after her big sister,” Dean said.

***
Sam brought Claire back the next day but the nurse on duty made them adhere to the two-visitor policy so they rotated in and out until everyone had a chance to see how well Ellie was doing. Leaving Cas with Claire, Sam and Dean packed up a load of the stuff they’d accumulated in the hospital room because the doctor was talking about releasing Ellie in the next few days.

After being in the climate-controlled hospital for over a week, Dean felt nearly assaulted by the bite of cold air on his face as soon as he stepped outside. Everything was overwhelmingly bright and loud after days of nothing but the muffled confines of the PICU. Accustomed to the constant hum and glare of fluorescent lighting, he stood blinking in the weak November sunshine while Sam pulled the car around to the curb.

Back in their neighborhood, Sam parked in the driveway just as Mrs. Doyle walked slowly from the mailbox. She stopped, looking with uncertain eyes as Dean climbed out of the car and Dean realized how it must look, him coming home without the baby.

He strode along the sidewalk and pulled her into a big hug. “She’s going to be fine. Coming home soon.”

She put a hand to her chest and blew out a long sigh. “That little girl has been in my prayers every night.”

“We thank you for that,” Dean said with full sincerity before turning to help Sam unload the car.

In the garage, Dean stopped. “What’s all this?”

A large pile of groceries was stacked neatly along one wall: a flat of canned soup, boxes of pasta, multi-packs of toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels, two boxes of diapers and wipes, a couple of extra-large cans of powdered formula, crackers, chips, cookies. And those were only the things Dean took in on first glance.

Sam pushed past Dean to open the door to the laundry room. “Bobby,” he explained. “I think he bought out all of Costco.”

Dean dumped the duffle bag on top of the washer and moved through the kitchen taking everything in. The house seemed dim and large, everything strange and familiar all at once. Sam set his armful on the dining room table before going back to the car for more while Dean walked slowly up the stairs.

Other than Cas coming home to shower each day and Sam stopping by for things they needed, the house was just as they’d left it the night they’d rushed her to the hospital. He stood in Ellie’s doorway and saw the nightlight still on and the wipes container standing wide open. Down the hall in their bedroom, the covers were thrown back and Dean’s pajama pants remained where he’d dropped them on the floor next to the bed.

The image of Ellie struggling to breathe swam before his eyes and he sat down hard on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands. Sam found him there a few minutes later and sat down beside him.

They sat for a long time, Sam’s long legs stretched out in front of him and the quiet, steady comfort of his brother’s shoulder against his. Eventually, Dean raised his head and took in a deep breath. Sam turned to him, waiting patiently until he was ready to make eye contact. Sam gave him the slightest smile, his eyes full of the relief Dean felt.

“You’re a hell of a dad,” Sam said. “She’s lucky to have you.”

Dean looked away again and wiped his cuff across his eyes. Jesus, this had to stop some time.

Sam got to his feet and reached a hand to pull Dean up as well. Sam started to turn for the door, but Dean stopped him, pulling him into a hug.

“I couldn’t have done any of this without you,” he said. “Cas, Ellie, none of it.”

“Let’s go see our girl,” Sam said.

Chapter Text

In total, Ellie spent nine days in the hospital before being released on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Connie was there on the day shift and she hugged them both tightly when it was time for them to go.

Dean drove them home, slow and careful, with Cas in the backseat keeping an unnecessary eye on their sleeping daughter. In the house, they kept her in the car seat, placing it in easy view on the dining room table while Dean puttered around in the kitchen putting together lunch.

Jody had offered to bring by dinner for them that evening. As had Bobby. And Sam.

Cas and Dean had said yes to them all, happy to celebrate Ellie’s homecoming with them. They’d readily agreed, promising to come early and not stay too long.

After lunch and long, hot showers, they spent a relaxing hour lying on their own bed, dozing. Dean tucked his head under Cas’s chin and breathed in his clean, soapy smell, hooking a foot around Cas’s ankle as Cas held him close.

No monitors, no carts rattling down the hall, no harsh fluorescent lights, no strangers entering the room. Just comfort and quiet and the joy of knowing the three of them were back home together.

When Ellie woke, cooing to herself instead of crying, Dean rolled out of Cas’s embrace to grin at him.

“You go get her, I’ll get her tub ready,” Cas said, as Dean stretched and sat up.

Ellie was so busy talking to the mobile hanging over her crib that she didn’t notice Dean at first, but when he finally stepped into her field of vision, she smiled at him.

They’d put the whole car seat right in the crib, so he unbuckled the straps and lifted her out, kissing both cheeks and tickling her with the beard that he figured he’d keep at this point (Cas had shaved after his shower and honestly, Dean wasn’t sure how he felt about that).

He rifled through her dresser for a clean onesie and a soft white sleeper sprigged with cherries before grabbing a diaper and the wipes and heading back to their room. On their bed, he quickly stripped her down, passing her to Cas so he could throw away the (blissfully) wet diaper. By the time he washed his hands, Cas was already soaping her up and Dean leaned against the counter, watching her frown in concentration as she splashed. She grabbed at the soapy washcloth and tried to get it into her mouth, but Cas distracted her with the plastic cup and went back to work.

There were still fading bruises and bits of adhesive on her chest from the monitor leads, and she would always have a small scar on her inner arm from where they’d placed the central line, but otherwise she looked healthy and strong.

Cas wrestled the cup away to wash her hair. Before Ellie could fuss over the loss, Dean replaced it with her rubber ducky, which she chewed momentarily, then threw down onto the counter next to the tub. Ignoring Cas, who was lathering her hair, she stared accusingly at Dean, unhappy with her toy-less state.

Dean snaked a hand around Cas’s hips, blatantly feeling him up as he retrieved the duck and handed it back to her. Delighted, she squealed and shoved it back in her mouth before throwing it again, this time to the floor. By now, Cas was done with her hair, and she grabbed at his shirt with wet hands as he sat her forward to give her a final rinse. Lifting her out of the tub, he passed her to Dean, who had the towel ready and waiting.

On the bed, Dean rubbed her dry, playing a few rounds of peekaboo with the towel. Her look of surprise each time he uncovered her face made him laugh which made her laugh until Cas came out to see what in the world was so funny.

“Humans,” Cas complained, with a weary shake of his head, but his eyes were soft with affection.

Dean lifted her up, towel and all, and faced her toward Cas. “Takes one to know one, Papa,” he said in a squeaky voice.

“That…doesn’t even make sense,” Cas said. With a puzzled frown, he turned back to the bathroom.

As he dressed Ellie, Dean heard a car pull up outside. Cas hurried down to let people in but Dean spent an extra moment upstairs, holding the baby close and sniffing her head. He missed the dandelion fluff, but Claire had already promised to teach him to make ponytails and braids when the time came.

Carrying her downstairs, he stopped at the bottom of the steps, staring into the dining room. The table had been opened to its full length, covered with a tablecloth, and an entire Thanksgiving dinner was being laid out on it. Dean saw a turkey that weighed at least twice what Ellie did, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce, and more. The stream of people and food continued as Charlie walked in carrying a pecan pie followed by Claire with a pumpkin pie.

Dean stood there, stunned at the outpouring, even as Ellie reached her hands into his beard.

“It wouldn’t have been Thanksgiving without you,” Sam said, shrugging.

They all found seats around the table. (As the youngest, Claire got stuck with the folding chair they'd brought in from the garage). Sadie bonked into a chair leg as she hurried to claim a spot under the turkey and Bobby stepped carefully around her as he stood to carve.

The table grew quiet when Jody clinked a spoon on her water glass. “In my family, we always spent a moment going around the table to share what we were thankful for. But this year, I think we’re all thankful for the very same thing.”

Dean reached for Cas’s hand and they all looked at Ellie who sat in the high chair pushing her pacifier around the tray, completely oblivious to the scare she’d given them. She wouldn’t remember any of this, Dean knew, not the frantic drive to the hospital, not struggling to breathe, not the needles and machines. She wouldn’t remember, but the rest of them would never forget.

There were scary things in the world, some Dean knew about and some he could never hope to anticipate. There was no way he could protect her from everything; nobody could. But looking around their makeshift family—Bobby piling a plate high with turkey, Jody chiding Claire to take some green beans, Sam holding the bowl of cranberry sauce safely up out of the way as Charlie reached past him to grab a roll—Dean knew she would always be surrounded by enough love to get them through whatever came their way.