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A House is Not a Home

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The morning after Sam’s life was tilted on its axis (for the third time in two weeks) was oddly anticlimactic. Dean took one look at Joan’s black eye and bruised cheek and declared that she would be staying inside for the duration and learning how to properly shoot a sawed-off as soon as possible. He went for a food run, Joan fed Billy and got ready to give him a bath, and Sam half-heartedly began researching for the next job, his attention more on the girl in the bathroom.

“Are we going to talk about this?”

“Talk about what?” Joan glanced up from the baby lying on the bathroom vanity. “He needs a bath. This is the best way to do it.”

“Yeah, that’s not what I meant.” Sam watched as Joan flushed and turned back to the baby. “You talk to God. Seems like a big deal.” That Dean knew about this and believed was another big deal, but he wasn’t planning on having her around for that discussion. He got up and stood in the bathroom doorway so he could see her better.

“It’s not really that I talk to God. It’s that God talks to me.” Joan looked up and met his eyes in the mirror, a smile quirking the corner of her mouth.

“And he asks you to do things?”

She nodded. “It started when I was sixteen. Simple things at first, like getting a job or asking the school bully to a dance, but then the assignments started to become really complicated. I started to be able to know more about people, and I could . . . see more.”

“Like what?”

“Just . . .more. More about people and what was going on with them. More of what was going on around me. And, you know, ghosts. Things that kind of bridge the gap between living and dead.”

Sam was quiet as she bustled about, filling the ice bucket with lukewarm water and laying out the diaper and onesie she would need afterwards. “What’s it like?”

“Scary,” she answered almost immediately. “Could you hold him?” Sam held out his hands, and Joan handed over the baby and started the process of undressing him. The infant bleated in protest, but Joan was quick and efficient and had him in the sink of warm water before he could break into full-out screams. “Support his neck and back for me?” He complied, sliding his functional hand in where Joan’s had been. “I thought I was going crazy. Suddenly this teenage boy was showing up and telling me to get a job, and a little girl was telling me to have some pride in what I do, and this weird goth guy was telling me to ask the school bully to the dance.”

“And they were all God?”

“Every single one. My family hadn’t gone to church in almost two years, and God was showing up on the bus and telling me to learn how to play chess and jump rope.” Joan finished her careful ministrations and lifted Billy out of the water and onto a towel. A smile curved her lips as she dried him off with a soft towel that came out of her bag, and Sam couldn’t help but smile in response. “And when I did what he wanted, things just worked out. I helped people, somehow, even when it didn’t look like what I was doing was important.”

“And that’s what you do?”

Joan nodded, her attention and focus on the baby. “Whatever He asks, even when it doesn’t make sense or isn’t what I want. That’s how I knew I could trust you and Dean. He told me to go with you.”

Sam’s forehead furrowed, then smoothed. “The guy outside the bar?”

“Yeah.” She fastened the diaper and slid the onesie onto the squirming baby, fastening the snaps quickly and slipping on a pair of pants over chubby flailing legs, catching one foot as it kicked up at her and kissing it. “Can you take him for a little bit? I need to take a shower.”

“Sure.” The exchange was a little awkward, but Joan didn’t seem to mind so Sam decided not to mind either.

Joaspn

Title: A House is Not a Home
Rating: Teen
Genre: Crossover, Joan of Arcadia/Supernatural
Summary: The continuing adventures of Sam, Dean, Joan and Billy on the road.
Author’s Note: Sequel to Home is Where Your Story Begins. We will be posting one chapter a week until this story is complete.

 

They were back on the road the next day, keeping up with the same schedule as before. Dean found two more salt-and-burns as the newly formed family traveled around, seemingly aimlessly. Joan and Billy stayed in the Impala for the proceedings for both of them. It actually freaked Dean out a little, how easily she adapted to the Winchester world. Despite the fact that she apparently carried on conversations with God, a girl like Joan shouldn’t slot into this life so easily. Hunting was a hard life, made even more difficult when the hunters in question were as nomadic as the Winchesters had always been, and Joan had pretty clearly led a somewhat gentle life to this point.

“What are we doing for Christmas?” Joan leaned over the bench seat to inquire, interrupting his train of thought. She had mentioned earlier that she didn’t know what state they were in at the moment. They had only stopped overnight three times since Billy was born and she probably figured that Christmas was a good time to stay in one place for a few nights.

Joan waited patiently for either Dean or Sam to answer her. It had been a week since she’d gotten to sleep in an actual bed and was looking forward to stopping somewhere for the holiday. Knitting the boys’ gifts was a hassle since they were always right there. Though she got away with more than she would have thought, since they apparently knew absolutely nothing about knitting.

Sam and Dean looked at each other. They didn’t have many fond memories of any of the holidays and hadn’t thought about it.

“What do you have in mind?” Sam asked tentatively. It never hurt to ask before dashing any unrealistic, rose-colored-glasses hopes that Joan might be harboring.

“I just want some place where I can cook.”

“We normally get a meal from Boston Market,” Dean inserted.

“That’s sounds good,” said Joan. “There’re just a couple things I’d like to make.” To be more accurate, there were a couple of things she wanted to try making. Her father had always made tiramisu at Christmas, and Joan wanted to do the same. That little connection with her family would help ease the pain of missing them. She looked between the two men. “Please?”

Sam and Dean stared at each other for a while.

Joan covered her eyes. “Yes, I know you two are having a private conversation but could you please keep one eye on the road?”

Dean flashed her a smile.

“We didn’t mean to exclude…” Sam started.

“Yes you did,” Joan countered. “It’s okay. I get it. I just get worried when the driver of the vehicle I’m in isn’t paying attention to the road.”

“I’m a good driver,” Dean complained.

“I don’t care. My brother was paralyzed in a car accident and…well, you don’t have to worry about me bugging you to drive. I prefer not to.” She looked between the two males. “So, Christmas?”

“Missouri?” Sam asked.

Dean considered it. “Only if you call her. She’ll say yes to you.”

Sam grinned slightly and grabbed his cell phone. He dialed the number and waited.

“Hello?” Missouri sounded slightly confused.

“Missouri?”

“Sam. Boy, are you in trouble?”

“No. Not really. It’s just…”

“Well, spit it out, Sam. I don’t have all day.”

“Do you have plans for Christmas?”

“Not really. Everyone cancelled on me. So I have a bunch of food and no house guests.”

“Really?”

Missouri sighed. “Yes, boy. What is going on?”

“Going on?” Sam echoed.

Dean grinned. “You mean she doesn’t know? I’m disappointed. I thought Missouri knew all.”

“Tell Dean I heard that,” Missouri teased.

“Can we come over?” Sam asked the question to prevent being in the middle of another Missouri-Dean confrontation.

“Of course.”

“Can we bring guests?”

Missouri paused. “Are your guests with you now?”

“Yes.”

“Who are they?”

“Joan and Billy?” Sam wasn’t sure he understood the question.

“What are they?” she corrected himself.

“They’re our family.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Why was Missouri so clueless?

“So can we come?” Dean asked impatiently.

“We don’t have to,” Joan offered. “It’s just I was hoping to do a little cooking. We don’t want to intrude.”

Missouri heard that too. “Sam, you bring that girl and your reprobate brother straight here, do ya hear? No dawdling.”

“Yes, Missouri. We’ll see you soon.”

“Goodbye.”

Sam hung up. “Missouri said that we could come. She had plenty of food.”

Dean instantly perked up. Even Joan smiled a bit. “She doesn’t mind?”

“She said that all her planned visitors canceled on her.”

Joan looked relieved and a bit non-surprised. “Oh, that’s good. I just need to stop at a higher class grocery store. Actually, if you can give me her town, I’ll call ahead.”

“What do you need?” Sam asked.

“Lady fingers.”

“It sounds dirty.”

“It’s for a dessert that you will love.”

Dean smirked. “I love it already.”

Joan rolled her eyes. “Just find me a store with fresh lady fingers, please.”

Sam opened his computer. “I can do that.”

“Thank you.”

joaspn

Joan was a sweet young thing, but determined. She was someone Missouri would have normally liked on sight, but the shield Joan had was so sophisticated that Missouri never knew when she was around and she couldn’t get a hint of Joan’s thoughts or feelings. Missouri had to read her face and posture (which was very nearly an open book), something she hadn’t done in decades. It was disconcerting, like one of her ears was blocked.

But still, Missouri had to smile when Joan cornered Missouri in the kitchen the second the boys disappeared outside. “Do you know how to knit?” She asked.

“Of course, girl.”

“I need help on the heel for their stockings.”

Missouri grinned. “That sounds like a fine idea.”

Joan grinned slightly. “I started two and I was thinking about buying a pair of old lady, heavy duty, knee high stockings for Dean’s. And I still might if I don’t get Sam and Billy’s all done in time.”

Missouri laughed. “I’ll tell you what. You show me what you’ve got and I’ll work on one and you work on one and then we’ll raid my stocking drawer for something for Dean.”

Joan looked slightly horrified. “I didn’t mean to insinuate…”

“Girl, I am an old lady and I have plenty of those stockings. I’d be delighted to see Dean’s face when he realizes that his gifts are in one.”

Joan giggled a bit. “That’s what I thought too.”

“Well, what are you waiting for? Those boys won’t be gone for long. Go get those stockings you started.”

The young woman darted off to the spare room where she and Billy were set up, returning momentarily with a bulging plastic bag. “I already finished these,” she said, setting aside a bundle of knitted wool. “A friend gave me a bag full of yarn and some extra needles when I was in Chicago, and I needed to practice so I made scarves.” Joan pulled out her unfinished projects next. “I got down to the heel on all of these and just stopped. I would use the book, but I left it behind in Utah. I was almost ready to just sew one end shut for each of them and give them Christmas legwarmers instead of stockings.”

Missouri made a mental note to get a stocking for the girl. There was probably something she could use in the attic, and even though she knew Sam and Dean were out shopping she knew they probably wouldn’t think of something like that. They spent the morning working on the stockings while Billy slept on a blanket on the floor.

Joan took Billy for a walk when Missouri had a client around noon. After assuring the client that her son was fine, and that the girl he was bringing home was good enough for him, the psychic watched the woman leave with a sigh and retreated back to her kitchen to work on Christmas dinner.

Joan came in with glowing pink cheeks from the brisk wind before too long. The baby was strapped into the Snuggly and was starting to make little hungry sounds. The girl hurried upstairs to feed him. She came back down with Billy before too long and started on her special contribution.

They had spent a companionable hour cooking together when the telephone rang. “What kind of gift do you get for a girl like Joan?” Dean didn’t even give her a greeting when she answered the phone; he just rushed right into what was worrying him. He was fingering his credit card with the highest limit and glancing around the store. What kind of gift did you get for a girl like Joan?

Missouri walked out of the kitchen where Joan was working on her tiramisu. “First thing you do is put that card back into your wallet.” Since Joan was with her and not the boys, the things that she ‘just knew’ she knew again. The blank area around Joan was slightly disturbing.

Dean glared at his phone.

“Boy, don’t give me that look.”

“Shopping with Joan would be better than this.”

“Not when you’re shopping for her,” Missouri argued.

“I know that she’s been knitting for us… and she needs to get something too.”

Missouri softened. She knew how inadequate he felt completing the nurturing part of taking care of ‘his family.’ “Dean…”

“She doesn’t wear any jewelry and that should be more of Sam’s thing. And there’s no way in hell I’m buying her clothes.”

Meanwhile, Joan had followed her into the parlor with a piece of paper and a marker. ‘Dean?’ she wrote.

Missouri nodded.

Joan scribbled some more and then lifted it so where Missouri could see: ‘Disposable camera.’

It made perfect sense to Missouri. What mother wouldn’t want pictures of her son’s first Christmas? “I’ve got an idea,” Missouri hedged.

“Well, tell me already.”

“A disposable camera. Joan could use it tomorrow and use it to take pictures of the growing baby.”

A pause. She could tell that Dean liked the idea. She knew he was debating saying ‘thank you.’

“It’s a good idea,” he finally admitted.

Missouri tried to sound insulted. “You doubt me?”

“I know you can’t read her,” Dean countered.

How had he figured… Dean was a lot smarter than most people, including Missouri gave him credit for. “I can read you like an open book,” she countered.

“What am I thinking now?” Dean teased. She knew that a very pretty girl had just crossed his path.

Missouri hung up on him. That boy!

joaspn

They had the stockings up and Joan’s gifts tucked away inside before the boys got home. Missouri had even managed to sneak away and dig through one of her boxes of extra Christmas decorations and find a stocking for Joan, which had prompted the girl to go upstairs and find the one marked ‘Missouri’ that she hadn’t bothered to put up this year. It had seemed a little self-centered and lonely to put up a stocking for yourself when it would have been the only one.

Sam and Dean caught on quickly, and while Joan was upstairs getting dressed for Christmas dinner they slipped their gifts in with the others. Missouri managed to impress upon them the fact that this was apparently a dress-up occasion, and one at a time they trudged into the tiny downstairs bathroom, the one she kept for clients, emerging clean and wearing button-up shirts with their jeans.

The baby was content in his carrier when everyone was finally ready. Missouri said grace, bowing her head and joining hands with Joan and a reluctant Dean. Sam was on his brother’s other side, by Dean’s machinations, and holding hands with the girl. She kept the blessing short, since even without her gifts she could pick up on Dean’s growing impatience.

Dinner was so filled with conversation that it took an hour to eat. Dean managed to put a hold on the shop talk and kept to safer topics, and Sam followed his brother’s lead. Joan practically glowed when the boys complimented the food, and Missouri didn’t really miss the slight blush on the girl’s pale cheeks when Sam praised the tiramisu and asked for seconds. Despite the way the girl had brushed away the topic, there was definitely still something between them. The psychic tucked that information away for a later date.

After dessert the four of them sat around the table sipping coffee, too full and languid to move into the living room. The conversation had slowed, drifting into a comfortable quiet.

“Presents?” Joan eventually suggested, setting aside her empty mug and sitting up straighter. When she received no objections, she stood up and hurried into the living room, returning with all five stockings. She set Billy’s to the side, since the baby was still asleep, and proceeded to pass the others out to their respective owners. Missouri accepted hers with a bit of surprise, wondering when and how any of them had managed to pick up gifts for her.

Dean, bless his hard heart, had managed to one-up Missouri’s Christmas suggestion. He had bought a relatively cheap point-n-shoot digital camera for Joan. He promised that Joan would be allowed to upload and save the pictures onto one of the computers anytime she wished. What was left unspoken was that someday Joan would talk to her parents again and they would want pictures of their grandson.

Sam had bought jewelry for Joan. The simple, elegant, single blue topaz on a silver ‘Mother’ charm was beautiful. He had also bought a silver necklace. Missouri hoped that he hadn’t used a credit card to pay for them. Joan blushed beautifully at the gift and had immediately put it on. Sam barely fumbled as he closed the tiny clasp. Dean watched the two of them interact with great interest.

The gifts from Joan included a black knit scarf for Dean and a green and tan one for Sam. She stuffed store-bought socks for both of them in the stocking. Dean unwrapped a second hand Metallica tape from a garage sale. It was one that he had worn out. Sam’s gift included a journal and a USB drive. Joan then helped a sleepy Baby Billy unwrap a rattle and two baby books. The infant was much more interested in the crinkling wrapping paper than the gifts.

Then they were all watching Missouri expectantly, waiting as she carefully unpacked the contents of her stocking. It wasn’t much; chocolates, a sampler of different coffees and teas, as well as a bag of her favorite blend of loose-leaf tea from the local organic food store. Joan, it seemed, had sent one or both of them to the store with a list. She beamed when Missouri thanked them all.

joaspn

It was three in the morning and Missouri couldn’t figure out what woke her. She heard the kettle boiling and a shushed whimper in the kitchen and knew that Joan and Billy were trying to be quiet. Neither of the boys was awake or they would be making more noise.

Missouri put on her housecoat and went to join her guest. Joan smiled a tired greeting. She had balanced a grumpy Billy in one arm and was pouring with the other hand. “Tea?” she offered.

“Please.” Missouri bustled around until she found the mug and tea type that she preferred on sleepless nights. “Billy hungry?”

“A bit,” Joan admitted. “Dean doesn’t understand the value of having a strict schedule. When we put him to sleep around ten, he sleeps through the night. But he has to be woken from his last nap by seven.”

Missouri nodded. She understood. She caught both of the tea mugs in her hand after Joan was finished adding sugar to hers. Missouri had no problem carrying them to the kitchen table.

Joan settled down with Billy across the table and started feeding him. They kept the companionable silence until Billy fell back to sleep.

“Thank you for having us,” Joan finally whispered. “I hope you aren’t too disappointed that your plans were changed.”

“Honey, that’s not your fault.”

Joan looked even guiltier. “It might have been done for my benefit.”

“It was a coincidence,” Missouri said even if she didn’t believe it.

Joan smiled wryly. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that there are no real coincidences. Everyone meets at the exact time and place they were supposed to.”

“Joan?” Missouri was afraid of what she was about to ask. “Are you a Servant?”

Joan shrugged a tiny bit, careful not to disturb the sleeping baby. “He calls me a catalyst or an instrument.”

Oh my.

Oh my. Missouri wasn’t sure if she really wanted to contemplate these thoughts at o-thirty in the morning.

“Missouri?” Joan asked concerned.

“It’s alright, girl. I guess He decided that I was getting complacent in my… talents.”

“The mind reading thing that drives Dean crazy?”

Missouri nodded. “I can’t read you,” she confessed.

“Oh.” Joan didn’t know how to respond to that.

“It’s something to takes some getting used to.”

“But in the end it was okay?”

Missouri skipped to answer what Joan was really asking. “Girl. Joan. You are welcome back to my home at anytime, with or without any of your boys.”

Joan’s smile was gentle but just as brilliant as Sam’s. “Thank you, Missouri.”

“It is most definitely my pleasure, Joan.” It was truly a joy to get to see this part of the Winchester life, to see how love and stability was beginning to develop. The boys didn’t know just how much they depended on and doted on their new family. She just hoped that the yellow-eyed demon didn’t get a hold of Joan; it would shatter the burgeoning goodness to slivers and take all three boys with her.

But God had a plan and it reassured her that the Winchesters were being so obviously cared for.

joaspn

Missouri and Dean watched from the shadow of the window curtains. Joan and Sam were outside talking. It didn’t look like they were arguing, but it didn’t look like it was a fun discussion either. Missouri didn’t know what it was about since Joan was involved, but Dean was nervous. She would have known that even if she couldn’t read his thoughts.

“Don’t screw this up, Little Brother,” he murmured.

“He’s not going to declare his undying love,” Missouri read that hope in Dean. “He doesn’t know if he does love her.”

“I know,” Dean grumbled. “But he could. He could so easily and she’s perfect for him. It’s as close as normal as he could get without losing all his memories.”

Dean was more right than wrong, though he was being really, really optimistic.

Billy started fussing and Dean instantly went over to the makeshift crib and picked him up. “It’s okay,” he cooed.

The waves of reassurance emanating off of Dean bounced upon the baby’s aura and Missouri was surprised to see the aura change in that moment. The non-supernatural part of her saw the baby settle. “Oh, my.”

Dean stiffened and glared at Missouri. The baby fussed as a result.

“Boy, you have to calm down.”

Which instantly got him riled. She heard the thought ‘Knew the holiday was too good to last.’ “Dean, that baby is an empath.” She spit out the truth before the boy could work up a good head of steam.

Dean cuddled Billy closer and turned his body so that she couldn’t see the child. As if by taking the baby out of her sight (or Sight), he could make the pronouncement go away. “No,” he argued.

“He echoes whatever you feel and I don’t believe that he latches on to only your feelings but everyone’s.” The pieces clicked together as she said it, things she’d noticed about Joan and the baby falling into place.

“No.” He met her eyes evenly. “It’s not true. He’s slept through some fights and some really, really uncomfortable silences.”

“I think Joan shields him in that way too.”

She had peaked his interest enough that he was settling and the baby as a result. “Too?”

“I not only can’t read Joan, I don’t know where she is, nor anyone around her,” Missouri confessed. And if she couldn’t, it would make it harder for anyone else with supernatural powers.

Dean computed that at lightening speed. “Ol’ Yellow Eyes is still going to be following us around. Ash said that he was heading this way.”

“My guess is that it’s because he’s latched on to Sam somehow. And Sam went to the city yesterday to get the necklace.”

“I’m not leaving my brother behind like some lunch to throw off the bear following me.”

“And no one is asking you to.”

“Joan’s guardian asked me to protect her and the baby, but they are not more important than Sam.” But close and getting closer everyday.

Missouri caught her breath in surprise. “You’ve talked to Him?”

“So?” Dean challenged.

“And He asked you to do something?” Missouri clarified.

“It doesn’t matter.”

Missouri look was full of pity.

“It doesn’t matter,” he stressed. Billy fussed more and Dean made himself calm down.

Sam and Joan came in just then, both still looking a little stormy. Joan collected Billy and headed upstairs, presumably to the room she’d been staying in. Dean looked at his frazzled brother. “So are we loading up the car?”

Sam nodded. “Joan just needs a few minutes to pack up Billy’s things.” He smiled at Missouri, though the smile seemed a little frayed. “Thanks for letting us stay for Christmas, Missouri.”

The woman huffed an exasperated sigh. “You go easy on that girl, Sam Winchester. It’s hard enough being around you two without giving her more trouble on top of that.”

“I’ll try.”

 

Chapter 2

“You need to teach me how to defend myself,” Joan said, breaking the surprisingly comfortable silence between the two of them. Well, three if you counted Billy.

Dean looked up from the gun he was cleaning. “I do?”

“It’s ridiculous that one of you has to stay with me every time I leave the motel room. We can’t do it forever, and I’m this close to strangling you both. So start teaching.”

“Why not get Sammy to do it?”

Joan looked stormy. “He won’t push hard enough. You’ve seen how he acts around me. I need to know how to do this, and I can’t learn from someone who treats me like I’m made of glass.”

Dean considered this for a moment, studying the girl in front of him. She shifted under his scrutiny, but didn’t back down. It was true that Sam tended to go out of his way to make sure Joan didn’t need to lift anything heavier than Billy. He always gave up his bed in favor of the floor, even when injured, and he was never physical with her beyond the inevitable touching that came with living in such close quarters all the time. That was apparently more than a little frustrating to Joan, who was still carrying something of a torch for Dean’s brother, even if she refused to admit it. And yeah, he had to admit that his brother would never push her hard enough to make any training worthwhile.

“Are you ready? I mean after . . .,” he gestured vaguely at her then at Billy, who was sleeping in the pulled-out dresser drawer that served as his bassinet.

Joan nodded, smoothing the loose shirt she was wearing a little self-consciously. This switched Dean’s focus from the girl in front of him to the clothing she was wearing. Like the Winchester brothers, Joan lived out of one bag of clothing and had done so since they had caught up to her. But Dean was starting to get a bad feeling at the way that clothing hung off of her. “Joanie, do you have any clothes that aren’t for pregnant chicks?”

Joan shook her head and Dean groaned. There was no way she could seriously train like that. She needed to go shopping. Which meant that he needed to go shopping with her, since he wasn’t ready to abandon this particular policy just yet. “Get Billy ready to go. I’ll leave Sam a note.” His younger brother was getting the cast off his arm now. Joan had waited until he was gone for a long stretch of time before confronting Dean about this. He had to admire the planning.

Dean fidgeted at his post outside the dressing room. He was the only adult male in the tiny thrift store, and the clerk kept giving him odd looks while he’d followed Joanie around with Billy as she flipped her way down the racks. This entire production had taken longer than he’d planned. Hopefully Sam wasn’t out looking for them; if his little brother saw him standing around, holding his nephew and the diaper bag while Joan tried on clothing, he’d never heard the end of it. And why did girls need to try on clothes, anyway? You see something your size, you buy it, you wear it.

Joan finally emerged with a stack of clothing and they headed for the checkout. The total wasn’t as bad as he expected, but he considered complaining about it anyway so she would put back the least practical items. “What do you need a skirt for?” He gestured to the item as the cashier picked it up. “It’s just gonna take up space in your bag.”

“I like skirts,” Joan said, glaring. “I can do almost everything in a skirt that I can do in pants. And I just dropped off my old clothes, remember? I’ve got the room.”

Dean let that pass and focused on the next thing. “You don’t really need more shoes, either. You’ve already got boots and sneakers. Bet you can’t run in those worth a damn.”

Joan rolled her eyes and dug out a five dollar bill. “There. I paid for them, they’re my problem. Can we please just finish up and get back?” Billy began to fuss and she took him back and tried soothing him. “It’s all right,” Dean heard her murmur. “Mommy’s just arguing with Uncle Dean.” The baby began to cry in earnest, and Dean quickly paid, grabbed the bag, and hustled them out the door.

“He’s hungry and he needs a fresh diaper.” Joan hurried across the parking lot of the shopping center and waited impatiently for Dean to unlock the Impala. She slid into the backseat, laying the screaming baby down on her lap and rummaging through the diaper bag.

“You’re not going to change him in the car, Joanie.” Dean looked a little worried.

She glared at him as she spread a blanket across the backseat. “Do you want to listen to him howling all the way back to the motel?” Joan took care of it with practical efficiency, and Billy’s cries subsided into hiccupping sobs. She handed Dean the dirty diaper, which he accepted gingerly, and adjusted the blanket so it was covering her torso.

“Oh, you have got to be shitting me,” Dean groaned, looking a little desperate as he turned around.

“It’s the fastest way to calm him down.” After a minute or so, everything was situated and blessed silence ensued. “You complain about this every single time,” she said quietly, careful to keep her voice even to avoid upsetting the baby. “This is just one of those things that you’re going to have to get used to.”

Dean privately thought it was a little creepy that boobs had a non-recreational use, but he would never say so. He jogged to a nearby dumpster and tossed the dirty diaper. Keeping in full view of the car, he meandered a little. Then he saw some hoodlums eying the Impala and returned to the car. They had probably been admiring the classic itself, but still, he sat on the hood of the car while Joan took care of matters and thought about the specifics of her training to distract himself. No knives; he didn’t want her getting close enough to use them. Definitely guns. Probably some fighting, enough for her to disable and get away. He’d like to teach her some of the other tools of the trade; being able to pick locks and hotwire cars was incredibly useful. She’d refused to be involved with the credit card scams, which would have been a problem if they didn’t somehow come up with the money or things they needed when they needed them. He suspected that Joan’s ‘boss’ had something to do with that particular turn of events, and wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about that.

Joan knocked on the window while he was mulling over the ramifications of God meddling in his life. “All done,” she said. She buckled Billy into his car seat and climbed into the passenger seat while Dean got the engine going. They drove in almost companionable silence to the motel. Joan tended to get over being angry or even irritated pretty quickly, although she was easy and sometimes fun to rile up to begin with.

If Joan was serious about training, Dean would like to do it in one place. He and Joan would have to make the full use of the hours in the day and driving from place to place took time. He knew of only one place safe enough. So he told everyone to pack up. They were hitting the road in an hour.

joaspn

Bobby Singer had been tinkering on yet another mini van when he heard it: the purr of the Winchester’s Impala driving up the long driveway to his house.

Good. He could use Dean’s help with some of the classic cars in the barn. The boy was good with the pretty girls from that era. His hands were starting to get stiff in the cold anyway. He used a rag to remove most of the grease on his hands, pulled his jacket a little closer around him and went out the greet the boys.

Dean parked in his normal spot and Bobby immediately noticed that the back seat was occupied. They had never before brought anyone to his place. Why would they? They were completely reliant on each other, they didn’t need anyone else.

So why had they?

The brothers jumped out of the front seat and hurried to open the doors to the back. Dean was fiddling back there and the dark haired woman that Bobby could almost see was handing Sam several grocery bags. She climbed out with one in her arms and a bag slung over her shoulder.

Then Dean pulled a baby out of the Impala. He was grinning and bouncing the baby. He shut the door with his hip and bounded over to Bobby. “Hey, Bobby.”

“Dean.”

“Joan wanted to cook. Figured that you wouldn’t mind her using your kitchen.”

Bobby nodded to Joan. He looked from one brother to the other. “What the hell are you two boys up to this time?”

Dean swung the baby around so that Bobby could see his tiny face. It looked vaguely familiar but the only baby he had spent any length of time with was…

Sam.

Bobby’s eyes widened. “Tell me you didn’t, Dean.”

Dean grinned even more. “Don’t look at me. This is my nephew William John Winchester.”

“Damn fool,” Bobby directed Sam’s way.

“Hey,” Dean stepped in front of Sam. Always protecting, always deflecting, even if he’d been the one to aim the trouble that way in the first place.

“He should be yours, you dumb ass.”

“Yeah, I know.” Dean shrugged. “But I don’t have nearly as good taste in women as Sam. Joan is definitely a keeper.”

Bobby was suddenly reminded on how the ‘yellow-eyed demon’ had been moving all over the place according to Ash and knew that they were protecting Joan. Still, he had to comment. “I always thought your dad was the dumbest Hunter in the world for several reasons, dragging you boys everywhere was top of that list. You boys seem determined to outdo his stupidity at every turn.”

“Maybe we should,” Joan started.

“Get into the house and out of the cold,” Bobby finished. “Ain’t your fault that you fell for his looks before knowing just how little brains the skin hides.”

Joan smirked slightly, but still looked up Sam.

He nodded. “For Bobby, that was practically a hug at the door welcome.”

“If you are sure, Mr. Singer,” Joan said.

“Do I get some of that food?”

“Of course.”

“Then sure.”

“Thank you.”

Bobby turned and led the way into the house. He figured that she knew about the Hunting that was the Winchester family business. He had so much Hunting paraphernalia lying about that he would never be able to hide it all. The boys knew that and had made use of it every time they had visited. He did glance around entryway before holding the door open for Joan. Books everywhere and a thin layer of dust on top. It had been years since a woman had stepped through the door and that had been Ellen. Joan didn’t even wince at the mess. Dean and the baby followed and Sam pulled up the rear. They all kicked the snow off their shoes.

Joan went straight for the kitchen like a homing bird. Bobby hoped that the dishes didn’t smell too bad. He followed behind.

She was smiling at him. “You have wonderful cabinet and counter space, sir.”

“Bobby,” he corrected. “I might let the boys get away with sir, but you just call me Bobby.”

She nodded, a bright smile stretching across her face. She had already turned on the oven, started running hot water in the sink and was searching through the cupboards. She found some of what she was looking for. The first was a baking sheet. She washed it off and placed some frozen pre-made dough on it from her grocery bag. She popped that into the oven and went looking for the next thing on her list. Joan located his largest pot with an easy smile and a soft ‘Aha.’ That too she scrubbed. And then scrubbed again with a frown. She sniffed the pot and looked at him.

“Did you brew anything in here that was harmful to humans?”

Dean hooted with laughter and even Sam smirked.

Bobby could admit that it was an intelligent question. “Nah. Once I use something from the kitchen for… that sort of stuff, it no longer stays in the kitchen.”

Joan accepted the answer and apparently decided that the pot was safe. She put that on the stove and started dumping in pre-made broth and assorted meats and vegetables for a stew. Bobby knew that he and the boys were watching Joan bustle around the kitchen, but he couldn’t seem to stop. Neither of the boys seemed inclined to either. Dean was just watching her out of the corner of his eye, while concentrating on the baby. Sam was trying not to get caught staring. He disappeared and reappeared with all the Winchester gear, plus a bag with big, dark flowers on it that was certainly Joan’s.

As soon as Sam took off his coat, Joan ordered him, “Go wash your hands.”

He looked mildly affronted.

“I’m giving you a knife,” she placated. “I need help cutting things.”

Sam relented. Bobby and Dean smirked, but it was short-lived. “You too,” Joan said.

Bobby didn’t know who she was talking to. “Me?”

“Yes. There’s plenty of cutting to do while I find everything.” She was being very diplomatic, considering that she was currently scrubbing down his kitchen table. She probably wanted to scrub the whole room from ceiling to floor.

Speaking of which, Bobby remembered all the mouse traps he had scattered around the kitchen. He should probably check them before Joan ran across them. The first two were empty but the last one had a dead tenant. Bobby glanced around and saw the lightest of the grocery bags. It looked like it had a bunch of little stuff in it. He grabbed it. “I need the bag, mouse trap,” he said at Joan’s wide-eyed look. He dumped the bag out on one of the counters that Joan hadn’t scrubbed yet and watched three little boxes of cheap birthday candles skitter the furthest.

Joan’s eyes tracked their movement as well.

“Joanie?” Dean had noticed her posture.

“I’m not a big fan of mice, Okay? Dead or alive.”

Bobby grabbed the candles and the grocery bag all in one smooth movement and winked at Joan. She relaxed slightly. Bobby hadn’t realized that it was close to Dean’s birthday. “You won’t have to see it,” Bobby promised. He dropped the dead rodent and trap into the bag and carried it out. He passed Sam on his way in, all scrubbed up.

Bobby decided that he liked Joan and the way she took care of the boys. He went out to the garbage bin to dispose of the mouse and then returned to the house to clean up (and to hide the candles). The Winchesters had visited several times over the last twenty-odd years, but this time might be the most fun and interesting.

joaspn

It wasn’t all fun and games, Bobby reminded himself. Both of the boys had a gun within easy reach at all times. They couldn’t totally relax even in the protection of his house, which Bobby would have felt insulted by if he hadn’t remembered exactly what it was like. Joan very nearly did though. She had no problem being nit-picky about the job that Sam and he did peeling and cutting up the peaches and apples. Dean harassed them too. Bobby did find it funny how much the boy’s language had cleaned up in Joan’s presence. He also couldn’t get too upset once he saw Joan rolling out pie crust. He hadn’t had fresh, homemade pie in ages and it looked like Joan was planning on baking three or four. It was a damn good thing that she had thought to bring her own (cheap) pie tins.

Some time in between, Joan managed to wash all of his previously dirty dishes, plus any others that she thought that she might need in the near future and add noodles and spices to the soup.

“It’ll be ready in ten or so minutes,” she announced as she reclaimed the now-fussy baby.

“We’ll wait for you,” Sam said.

“You don’t have to.”

“We’re waiting,” Dean concurred. “Just go…” he made a shooing motion.

“Feed Billy?” Joan supplied.

“Get outta here.” Was Dean blushing?

Joan took the baby and left the room.

Sam waited all of two minutes before turning to Bobby. “Where in your library is the good stuff?”

Bobby was taken back. “Excuse me? You know I won’t let you boys play in the darker…”

“He means the books about the good side of the tracks,” Dean interrupted.

Bobby looked from one very serious boy to the other. “Are you asking about angels and such?”

“Sure, whatever you’ve got,” Sam agreed.

“There isn’t a lot. Rumor is, the Vatican has a whole library on the stuff that they keep locked down. They don’t like for it to get out.”

Dean shrugged. He was not one to concern himself with things he couldn’t change. “But you have some.”

“Sure. It’s right next to the Bible on the south side of the door.”

Both boys disappeared without a ‘thank- you.’ Joan must have seen them dart past. “Hey! Someone take the bread out of the oven!”

“Bobby’s got it,” Dean delegated.

Bobby only did it because he didn’t want to eat burnt bread. “Do you want me to put the pies in?” he yelled.

“Yes, please,” Joan replied. “One of the apples and the peach.”

Bobby juggled the pie tins all wrapped up in aluminum foil. Finally he could get them into the oven as they were supposed to be. He darted past the occupied living room the same way that boys had. He nearly tripped over Sam and Dean, seated on the library floor. There was a whole lot more of them now than when they were younger and getting underfoot, but some things never changed.

Each one was engrossed in a book.

“I think I found it,” Sam announced first. He passed the book to Dean. Bobby read over the young man’s shoulder. The paragraph was short.

‘CHOSEN: Humans who have conversations and receive instructions from a physical manifestation of a benevolent God closest to the Biblical representation. Their instructions are seemingly innocuous but have major positive repercussions. Some are gifted with powers, often they have prophetic dreams. Their greatest defense is that they give every appearance of being ‘normal’ to humans and the demonic alike. Joan of Arc might have been the most recognizable of the CHOSEN. There is some discussion as to how well Joan of Arc obeyed her actual instructions. Several sources believe that broadcasting their position puts the CHOSEN into danger, as it is the only way for the demonic to identify them.’

Dean flipped the page over and then back again. “Dude, that’s it?”

“That’s all I could find. Bobby, do you have anything else on it?”

Bobby looked from one Winchester to the other. “You guys don’t think that you’ve met one of these?”

The boys had some of their infamous, silent communication before deciding to trust him. “No,” Sam said slowly. Dean fanned the pages in the book as he thought hard. Bobby snatched the tome away from him. Sam finally jerked his head toward the door.

It took Bobby a couple of moments to understand what they were thinking. “Joan?” He hissed. “Granted, she’s a nice kid but don’t you think that someone who talks to God would have the brains not to climb in bed with the likes of you?”

Sam didn’t meet his eyes. “She can’t tell anyone normally. It’s got to be incredibly lonely. Isolating.” Bobby could tell from Dean’s reaction that Sam was revealing as much of himself as of Joan. The old hunter knew how much Sam’s connection to the yellow-eyed demon weighed on him. “She’s still human,” Sam insisted. “And has all the same thoughts, temptations and overwhelming circumstances as everyone else.”

“I still think you two are blowing this all out of your asses.”

Billy burping was the first clue that Joan was approaching. She walked up to the trio with a smile. “What are you all doing? Dinner is ready.” She happened to glance down at Bobby’s book. He had it opened to a random page, only Joan found the picture smirk-worthy. She gently removed the book from Bobby’s possession. “Oh, this must be what that poser Sanya met had read.”

All three males looked over her shoulder at what picture she was looking at. Knights of the Cross.

“You’ve met one?” Dean asked. He sounded as unbelieving as Bobby felt.

Joan looked from one man to another. She seemed to shrink within herself.

“Joan,” Sam said quietly. “If you say yes, there will be no hesitation in the field when you tell us someone is on our side.”

Joan gradually returned to her normal sunny self merely because Sam believed her. Bobby now believed how isolating being a Chosen could be.

“Tell us about him,” Bobby demanded.

“Sanya? Or the poser thinking he was a legitimate Knight? The poser made fun of Sanya’s Kevlar but didn’t have a decent sword. He’s now in a special Vatican hospital. I only met Sanya once. He’s really nice.”

Nice? That was the last descriptor Bobby would have attached to the picture of a muscle-bound, sword-swinging man in a short cape hacking up a demon.

“Which sword does he carry?” Sam was all about the specifics.

“Hope,” she smiled at the memory. “So how about dinner? I’m hungry.” Joan turned on her heel and walk away.

“Now do you believe us?” Dean asked.

Bobby was awed with the trust they had in him. He nodded. Sam and then Dean followed Joan into the kitchen. Bobby stayed where he was and tried to grab a rein on his thoughts. It was one thing to be something of an expert for nightmare stuff, it was something entirely different to have a Chosen in his house, cleaning and fixing meals. He tried to wrap his mind around the fact that the Winchesters (one of whom was already what Hunters Hunted, according to some) had been given protectorship of a Chosen.

That was worse than the idea of Sam being a Daddy and John Winchester missing a chance to see his grandchild.

“What the hell are you thinking?” he muttered to the ceiling. Then he too walked to the kitchen to see how good Joan could cook.

Joan was a good cook and the smell of the apple pie in the stove reminded all to save room for dessert. Bobby steered the conversation away from shop talk and into a series of embarrassing stories about both boys from when they were kids, making the girl laugh and the boys turn red and mock-scowl.

When the girl got up to take the pies out of the oven, Sam proceeded to distract his brother with the traditional ammunition of little brothers everywhere: teasing. Bobby caught on quickly enough and kept it going until Joan peeked around the corner with a candle-studded apple pie.

The smile on Dean’s face when Joan and Sam broke into a round of ‘Happy Birthday’ was well worth the price of admission. After the pie, Joan headed off to bed with Billy. The boys crashed soon after, leaving Bobby to savor having a full house before turning in.

joaspn

Joan was the first one downstairs the next morning. She quietly helped Bobby make up some coffee and then some bacon and eggs. Bobby had a feeling that she had something to say so he made her job (or was it His Job?) easier.

“Spit it out, girl.”

Joan’s smile wobbled a bit but she took a deep breath and the words rushed out of her. “Did a woman you love die here? In a horrible manner?”

Bobby blanched as if she had struck him. He really didn’t want to answer. He really didn’t want to answer, but she was looking at him with so much compassion. “My wife,” he whispered.

She nodded as if it made sense. She put a hand on Bobby and he knew comfort. Enough that he could tell her part of the story, a story that he had never completely spoken of out loud. “She got possessed. By a demon. It was before I knew anything. She… I… it got to the point where…”

“Rabid dog?” Joan offered his very words of that day back to him.

Bobby nodded.

“Bobby,” she waited until the man was looking at her. “She understands now. She forgives you. She loves you and wants you to forgive yourself.”

Bobby couldn’t breathe. It was too much. The hurt, the memories, the guilt. Sam was climbing down the stairs and Bobby had only a few moments to compose himself. He knew that there was a good reason for leaving the squeaks in the stairs. The boy was carrying the baby.

“He’s hungry,” he said as he offered over the baby to his mother. “Wants to know why everyone else gets fed before him.”

Joan accepted the baby with the same comforting smile that she had bestowed upon Bobby. Sam rested one hand on her back for a second while the other cupped the infant’s head. The tenderness combined with Joan’s questions poked into painful areas he had thought long-healed.

Dean wasn’t far behind his brother, although his entrance was more of a shuffle punctuated by a demand for coffee. Once Billy was fed and Joan joined them at the table, Dean broke the companionable silence.

“You ready to train?” he asked Joan.

Both Bobby and Sam looked up, startled, and then stared at Joan. Sam immediately started protesting. “Joan, you don’t have to.”

“I’m not allowed to use the shotguns until I practice,” she reminded him. “If training is what it takes so that I’m allowed to go to the grocery store alone, or with Billy, then I am going to train.”

Sam’s face hardened, lips compressing. “You’re not hunting.”

Bobby watched as a similarly stubborn expression formed on Joan. “If I’m supposed to hunt, I will. I have my own job to take care of.”

“It’s not safe.”

“A lot of things aren’t safe. That doesn’t mean that I can duck out on my responsibility!”

“Whoa, hang on a minute,” Dean said, standing up and walking around the table. “Joanie, do you want to hunt?”

The girl deflated. “No. I just want to know how to protect myself when you guys aren’t around.”

“All right. Sam,” he turned to his brother and made sure he had Sam’s complete attention, “is she a human being?”

“Dean--,”

“No, answer the question. Is she human?”

“Yes.”

“Does she have free will?”

Sam ground out the next word. “Yes.”

“Just making sure we’re all on the same page. Joan, go get your coat. We’ll meet outside for target practice in five.”

joaspn

Bobby was waiting the next morning when Joan came downstairs to start breakfast.

“How do you know?” Bobby asked before she had even reached the first floor. “How do you know she forgave me?”

“She told me, Bobby.”

Bobby didn’t know whether or not to be suspicious. “Why?”

“She doesn’t like how you’ve used your life since then. She wants you to have happiness even if she isn’t here.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

Joan smiled. “I think you can.”

The squeak on the stair and the murmuring to the baby were the warnings Bobby needed. Sam was bringing Billy down again.

Breakfast that morning was similar to yesterday, without the arguing pseudo-couple. The girl took the baby upstairs to feed him and get dressed while Bobby and Sam got breakfast moving, Sam firmly on coffee duty after that debacle last summer with undercooked eggs and overcooked bacon.

After breakfast, Dean and Joan once again disappeared into the maze that was his junkyard, leaving Bobby with an edgy Sam and a baby that started fussing as soon as his momma was out of sight. Bobby gave Sam some research and watched over the baby with a little trepidation while he took care of the business that kept him clothed and sheltered.

He found that Billy settled if he hummed a little, though the kid thankfully wasn’t terribly picky about the tune, and the next couple of hours passed in relative calm before the kid started crying in earnest.

Sam was in the room before he’d had time to get out of his chair, scooping the infant out of his carrier and into his father’s arms. Bizarrely, it reminded Bobby of Dean as a child and how he’d come running when little Sammy cried out.

Sam had the baby’s tiny body cradled against his chest, one big hand supporting Billy’s head and neck while the other undid the snaps of the onesie and checked his diaper. “Yeah, that might be why he’s unhappy. Probably hungry too, aren’t you kiddo?” He nodded to Bobby, gesturing towards the stairs. “I’m going to change this diaper.” The wails lessened in volume to the older man’s ears when Sam left, though they didn’t stop. They got louder again after about fifteen minutes, the boy coming back down to the first floor with the still-crying baby.

“At least we know he’s still breathing,” Bobby pointed out, and Sam huffed out a stressed laugh.

“I think he just wants Joan right now. I can’t tell if he’s hungry or just picking up on our frustration.” He started pacing with the child, humming a little, though Bobby didn’t recognize the tune. “C’mon, kiddo, settle down. She’ll be back soon.” The wails slowly subsided into hiccupping sobs as Sam kept up the humming and pacing, one hand rubbing circles on the baby’s back. It was the same unfamiliar song, over and over, and Bobby finally asked what it was.

Sam shrugged, continuing his movements. “Joan sings it to him when he won’t settle down. It usually works for her, so I figured it couldn’t hurt.”

The woman in question came in right then, sweaty and disheveled and plucking at the buttons on her shirt. “Sorry, sorry, got distracted.” Her arms were trembling a little as she reached for the baby, a familiar mixture of adrenaline and exertion that comes from a crash course in firearms mixed with PT that he dimly remembered from boot camp. There was a flash of pale skin as she turned away with the baby, followed by blessed silence once she’d hurried up the stairs.

A snowstorm blew in while they were eating lunch, so the rest of the day was spent in research and weapons maintenance. Sam had stumbled upon some battered book about guardian spirits that was probably more fiction than fact, but it was interesting enough to keep the boy’s attention. Joan fell asleep at the kitchen table after dinner and Sam half-carried the girl upstairs to the room she’d taken over. Dean found a stack of old paperbacks that he’d picked up at a library booksale and was amusing himself by reading Ray Bradbury’s ‘Illustrated Man’ to Billy.

When Bobby headed to bed, Dean was stretched out on the couch with Billy sprawled out on his chest and Sam was crammed onto the cot shoved against the wall.

joaspn

“Why has she forgiven me?”

That was the question Bobby asked the next morning.

Joan shook her head. “For the same reason that she wants your forgiveness. She loves you.”

“Why does she want my forgiveness?”

“That’s between you and her. It hurt her too much for her to tell me. She feels that it was somehow her fault that you never visit the grave in the north corner.”

Bobby blanched. “That wasn’t her fault.”

Joan simply waited.

“It wasn’t,” he reiterated.

“Your head knows that. But what about your heart?”

Bobby growled impatiently as Sam’s sure footfalls indicated that this conversation was once again put on hold. The younger man was moving stiffly into the kitchen, for once without his son in hand. “That cot needs to be put out of its misery,” Sam grumbled, stretching out as best as he could in the tiny kitchen.

“Next time don’t sleep on it,” Bobby said. “There’s a perfectly good bed upstairs.”

“Didn’t mean to fall asleep down here,” Sam said, dropping down into a seat and rubbing his neck.

Bobby saw Joan look over from her place over by the counter before she walked over and stood behind Sam. “Lean forward,” she told him.

Sam looked hesitant. “Um, why?”

“Just trust me.” Sam slowly leaned until it became obvious that to go any further would be painful. “Put your hands on the table,” Joan instructed, and Sam shot a confused look at Bobby before doing exactly that. The girl put her hands on his back, a frown of concentration on her face as she gently prodded a couple of places before pressing her knuckles in.

The unexpected sensation made Sam choke back a cry, and he arched back a little, which only gave Joan a little more leverage. She let up after about ten seconds, running the heels of her hands up and down Sam’s spine and then repeating the process two more times. “Better?” she asked, and Bobby doubted he was the only one who heard the hopeful note in her voice.

“Yeah,” Sam said after a moment. He twisted his shoulders experimentally. “Yeah, it is, actually. How’d you learn to do that?”

“My brother Kevin gets knots in his back like that all the time when he stays in one position for too long,” she said, beaming and turning back to the counter. “I learned how to fix it so he would stop complaining about it.”

That day fell into the now-familiar pattern, with the exception of Joan popping back to the house every couple of hours to check on the baby. Dean had apparently given in to that particular demand after hearing the tale of the day before. He didn’t want his nephew to wail like that any more than the rest of them.

joaspn

“Why did your Boss let it happen?”

Joan sighed as she stirred the sugar in her tea. She should have known when Bobby gave her extra time to wake up that he was about to ask the hard question. She wasn’t equipped to handle the hard questions. Most people didn’t even know how hard the hard question was.

“Why?” Bobby repeated, his hurt eyes burning into hers.

“That’s a Big Picture question and knowing that Big Picture?” Joan shook her head. “It’s too much. Much, much too much. You have to trust me on that.”

“It’s because of all the people I’ve helped since then.”

Joan nodded. “That’s some of it. Have you ever read the story of the Israeli King Hezekiah in the Bible?”

It took Bobby several moments to work through the Old Testament stories. “The king that asked for more time and then he fathered one of the worst kings in their history.”

“That one.”

“I don’t think I like what you’re insinuating,” the old man growled.

Joan looked startled. “No, no. I’m not saying that you or your wife would have done anything horrific or anything, I’m just saying that the results of it not happening could have happened generations down the line.”

Bobby looked up at the ceiling and heard the sounds of movement above. “Or just one.”

Joan was just watching him. She didn’t confirm or deny. It wasn’t as if she really knew.

joaspn

Bobby hadn’t asked Joan any more questions yet this morning but Joan was wary. The last time, he had bowled her over with the ‘Big Picture’ question. He didn’t say a word. Which was good since Dean, Sam and Billy woke early and would have cut really short any conversation. When Bobby finally did start talking, he was addressing Dean.

“What do you have planned for training her today?”

Dean shrugged. “The usual: target practice, running and some self defense. Why?”

“I need to dig up a grave. She should know how to do that too.”

Dean looked from Bobby to Joan and then to Sam and back around. “What am I missing?”

“Boy,” Bobby grumbled. “Digging, salting and burning the bones is often the safest job.”

“Sometimes it’s not,” Dean countered.

Sam kept his mouth shut since he wasn’t all that pleased with the training thus far. Joan being exhausted at the end of each day while her son needed her… that was wrong. But there was no way for Sam to win against Dean and Joan (and even Bobby) when they stood united. He still argued every chance he had to no avail.

“She still needs to know how to do it,” said Bobby.

“It’s a lot of work.”

“And running’s not?”

Dean got a mulish look.

“Dean.” The table of men all looked at Joan and realized that she had made her decision and there wasn’t a single one of them that could change her mind. “I’m doing it.”

“Ah, hell.”

Joan addressed only Bobby. “When do you want to leave?”

“After target practice.” She was still flinching too much to be of much use to anyone.

After three hours of combined target practice and gun maintenance lessons, Bobby led Joan to the grave he had mentioned earlier.

“I thought I was digging up the grave.” Joan had her arms wrapped around herself as she watched Bobby dig in the north corner of his property.

“You will.”

“You’re not babying me, are you?”

Bobby chuckled. “No, I’m babying me.”

It didn’t make sense to Joan until Bobby hit the wooden casket, opened it and lifted out a tiny body wrapped in a quilt. “Oh, Bobby.”

“It’s time they were buried together.”

“Yes, it is.”

joaspn

Joan cried when they left Bobby’s. Dean was horrified and didn’t know what to do with her silent tears. Sam kept promising that they would return soon and that they often called Bobby. There wasn’t any reason that Joan couldn’t call Bobby any time she wanted.

Dean agreed and went so far as to make Joan put Bobby’s phone numbers into her cell for emergencies. She waved from the backseat as the Impala pulled away and Bobby went back into his too-quiet house.

 

Chapter 3

“Joanie, we need your help.” Dean had barely opened the door and crossed the salt line of the motel before speaking. Sam was right on his heels and not looking happy.

Joan looked between the brothers. They were both dead serious, so… “For your job?”

“If you don’t have one of your own,” Sam was offering an excuse. Whatever they had in mind, Sam didn’t really want her to do it.

Joan was too honest to turn them down flat. “No, I don’t. What about Billy?”

Dean wasn’t worried. “It’s just a little B&E. I’ll hold him while you climb through the window.”

Joan’s eyes narrowed. “B&E? Since when have you two needed my help with B&E? This isn’t a test for what you’ve been teaching me, is it?”

“Nah,” Dean dismissed that idea quickly. “You aren’t good enough to use those skills yet, though you really need to practice.”

Joan ignored the little dig. She wasn’t sure she should learn how to pick a lock, despite Dean’s prodding. “Why do you need me?”

“The window is too small for either of us to climb through.” Dean gave her an evil grin. “You can still wear your skirt if you want. Sasquatch, here, is going to be the one lifting you up over his head.”

Joan glared. Dean was a pain on more occasions than warranted and she had grown up with two brothers. “And what will I be doing after I open the window? And why on earth can’t either one of you open the door, Mr.-I-can-pick-any-lock-in-under-ten-minutes?”

Sam finally joined the conversation. “The door is barred shut from the inside. We’d need a battering ram to get in.”

“Why do you need in?”

“We’re pretty sure that our ghost is buried in there.”

Oh. That was reason enough. She glanced at Billy. He was napping on the bed behind her. If the boys were gentle, he’d stay asleep for an hour more. “Okay. I’ll change into jeans.” The skirt was more comfortable for the hot spring days of Alabama where the boys were currently ghost hunting, but if she was going to be crawling through windows and watching a salt-n-burn, she’d change. Joan tried to make it quick, but Dean was still pacing impatiently as she exited the bathroom.

“Stupid skirt,” he muttered.

“Get over it,” Joan shot back.

Sam wisely kept his mouth shut.

Billy awoke and murmured and grumbled a bit before Sam strapped him into his car seat. The familiar rumble of the Impala’s engine worked better than a lullaby to put him back to sleep. Dean drove them to an abandoned but a very well-constructed barn. He was the one to get Billy out of the car seat and lead the way to the faded red structure. Unlike most of the farm buildings in the area, including the ones still in use, this one was not falling apart at the seams.

“Supernaturally held together?” Joan asked Sam.

Sam shrugged. “It’s possible. Or whoever buried Dora Eisenberg didn’t want her unearthed accidently.”

“Are you sure that the salt and burn will work? Is she sticking around waiting for her killer’s justice?”

Sam shrugged again. “We’re not sure, but this is our best bet. We haven’t found any evidence that the man who was lynched for her death really didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“Lynched?”

“I know.” Sam smirked at their like-mindedness. “I checked and rechecked. I can’t find anything that was falsified or made-up evidence for a frame up. I can’t find anyone else who would have wanted her dead. No motive. Her ghost isn’t giving us any clues either.”

“Joanie! Let’s get a move on!” Dean yelled from the other side of barn. “I don’t want you and Billy to be here after dark.”

“The big brother calls,” she grinned at Sam.

Sam could return the smile honestly. He followed her around the building to the back. Dean was waiting and jiggling a giggling baby in his arms. “There it is. Sam and I already unlocked it. There’s a set of stairs that you can roll right on to. They looked really sturdy, so don’t worry about it, okay?”

It was funny how fast Dean could go from irritating ‘commander’ to ‘mother hen.’ “I’ll be fine,” Joan was quick to reassure him.

Sam was waiting for her, his hands linked together to form a stirrup. “Allyoop?”

Joan looked at him and deliberately didn’t think about the time she’d failed to join the cheerleading squad and they’d tried to make her climb onto the pyramid. She trusted the tall man this much. She set her foot in the stirrup and shifted her weight. (And tried to ignore the moment when her stomach was next to his face.) The next moment, Sam lifted her higher, Joan kept her balance by leaning against the barn. Sam kept lifting and lifting. Darn, was this high, but Sam was steady as a rock. With Sam fully extended, the window was at Joan’s chest. She pushed it in and stuck her head through. The stairs were there just as Dean had reported. Joan tried to grab purchase somewhere to get leverage to pull the rest of her body into the building. It took a couple struggling tries before she could finally push off Sam’s hands on the other side. Even then, the window was a close fit. (Her hips had definitely gotten wider as a result of Billy’s birth.)

She was a bit embarrassed that Dean and Sam were probably watching her on the other end. “Dean?”

“What?” He sounded worried.

“Are you watching my butt?”

He laughed. “Nope.” He was too cheerful to be lying, she was pretty sure.

“Is Sam?”

“Yep!” Very cheerful. And since Sam hadn’t denied it, Dean was telling the truth again. In true matchmaking form, he was telling the truth when it was convenient for him.

Finally, she pulled the rest of her body into the dark, dank, smelly barn. The one window didn’t allow for much light. She could see the bar on the door. That was not going to be fun. “I’m going to go open the door now.”

“Be careful,” the boys chorused.

“Oh, I am,” Joan promised. “Even against those evil rusted out nails.”

“Lockjaw is not funny, Joanie,” Dean grumbled.

She made her way down to the ground floor cautiously. The barn squeaked and groaned ominously. Joan had too much experience with the Winchesters to ignore the warning signs. “Guys,” she said just above a whisper.

“We’re right here,” Sam said back. He was directly on the other side of the wooden slats. “We should have given her a shotgun and some salt,” he muttered.

“She does have some salt, right Joanie?”

“Right.” She wrapped her hands around the thick salt packet she had stuffed into her jeans’ pocket. How odd was it that she had automatically stuffed salt into a pocket when she had changed into jeans? She had been on the road with the Winchesters for a while. Carrying salt was second nature. She tore open the packet and edged toward the door.

Joan made it without incident, although the worrying creaks of the old building had her heart racing by the time she reached the door. The young woman lifted the bolt with effort and the two men outside pushed inside. Dean handed Billy off to his mother. He didn’t even need to hurry her to the car and to safety. Joan had had quite enough of the creepy barn and its noises.

joaspn

Dean was worried. He hid it much better than Sam usually did, but she’d been on the road with the Winchesters for a few months now and she had nothing better to occupy her time with than learning how to read the two of them. Besides, Sam wasn’t answering his phone and he’d been missing for twelve hours now. It wasn’t exactly a leap of logic to conclude that he was worried. She was worried too. He’d gone out for dinner and pretty much stepped off the face of the earth, as far as Dean could tell.

He was currently burning through the minutes on Joan’s prepaid cell, calling contact after contact to see if they’d heard anything from him. Dean’s phone was kept open in case Sam called. Billy had been put down for the night a few hours ago, which left Dean to growl quietly or go outside. Since going outside meant leaving them unprotected, at least in Dean’s mind, he settled for the quieter option.

The door slammed open just after she’d taken up the phone to call her own handful of contacts. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and had time to think, ‘huh, always thought that was just a saying’ before turning to face the door.

Sam was standing there, casually leaning against the doorframe. More specifically, Sam’s body was in the doorway, staying just outside of the carefully laid salt line, something dark and smug and malevolent churning just behind his handsome face.

“Well, isn’t this cozy,” the thing wearing Sam said, and Joan took a step back, physically recoiling from the spite and malice rolling off of him. Sam’s eyes raked over her body, a cold smirk that was completely out of place forming, and Joan could feel those stubborn five pounds of baby weight standing out like someone had painted them in fluorescent orange. She wrapped her arms around her body in an instinctively protective gesture and glanced at Dean, who was standing at sudden attention.

“Christo,” Dean said, his body coiled with tension, and Joan wasn’t surprised to see hazel eyes turn black. “You get out of my brother,” Dean snarled.

The demon laughed. “I’ve got a better idea,” it said, reaching back and producing Sam’s gun. “I think I’m going to shoot you first. A nice gutshot so you can bleed out nice and slow while you watch. Then I’m gonna kill Sam’s little bastard spawn and his plain little whore before I shoot baby brother in the head.”

“Like hell,” Dean swore, his hands clenching into fists.

“And how are you planning on stopping me, Dean?” It twirled Sam around in a strangely delicate and feminine pirouette. “Can’t do anything without damaging this fine packaging. No devil’s trap this time, and I doubt a moron like you memorized an exorcism that you can spit out in the 30 seconds you’ll have before I can manage all four shots.”

Joan was suddenly furious, far more angry than frightened now. How dare this thing threaten Billy? “You get out of him and leave us alone!”

There was a split-second mingling of rage and confusion before Sam’s head was thrown back and a cloud of black smoke poured out of his mouth. She had just enough time to catch the horrified expression on Sam’s face before everything turned grey and faded out.

When she opened her eyes again, she was lying on the motel room bed. Billy was fussing, clearly unhappy about something, and her breasts felt swollen and heavy. Right. She needed to feed him. Joan cautiously pushed herself up into a sitting position and found herself immediately surrounded by Winchesters.

“Hey,” Sam said, looking concerned and guilty and sad as he stood next to the bed. “We were starting to think we need to take you to the hospital.”

She shook her head. “Just tired.” The young woman reached for the baby in Dean’s arms, and Dean handed him over. “You guys want to turn around while I get this going?” Sam flushed red and Dean rolled his eyes, but they both turned around. Joan got her shirt and bra off in record time and started feeding Billy, sighing with relief as the pressure started easing. She covered herself with a blanket before she resumed talking. “Everything’s taken care of?”

“No trace of the demon that I could find,” Dean said, turning back to face her. He grabbed one of the chairs from the table and sat down. “So what happened?”

“I don’t know.” Joan looked over at Sam, who was fidgeting a little and refusing to meet her eyes. “It wasn’t Sam. It was standing there and it was wrong.”

“So what did you do to get rid of it?”

“I don’t know,” she repeated. “I really have no idea.”

And that scared her almost as much as the demon had.

xxx

Joan ripped her eyes away from the book she was reading when an amulet was dangled in front of her face. “What’s this?” she asked, snagging it from Dean.

“Bobby’s suggestion. He says they should keep us from getting possessed until we can get something a little more permanent.”

“Cool.” There was sudden, stark relief on her face. Sam’s possession had hit them all hard. She slipped the leather cord around her neck, flipping her hair out from under it. “What kind of permanent are we talking about here?”

“Bobby mentioned that tattoos are the best bet.”

Only the fact that she wasn’t currently drinking anything kept her from executing a spit take. “Are you insane? I can’t get a tattoo!”

“Sure you can,” Dean told her. “Sam’s out scouting for a really reliable place right now. As soon as Bobby finds a good symbol to use we’ll all go. Jewelry can be ripped off in a fight. It would take some real effort to remove a tattoo.”

“My mother would kill me!” The young woman turned red as soon as she said it, clapping her hand over her mouth and breathing deeply.

Dean wanted to comment, he really, really wanted to, something along the lines of, ‘But she’s all right with the illegitimate grandchild and the two scruffy drifters that are helping raise him?’ But Joan’s family was still a sore point with Sam’s little girlfriend and that kind of comment was not the way to get her to go along with their plan. Instead he waited for her to calm down and process. She and Sam had almost the exact same temper, but Joan had a slightly better control over it and if you waited out her initial knee-jerk reaction you could usually convince her to see reason. Usually.

“Will this help keep Billy safe?”

Dean didn’t hesitate. “It can’t hurt.”

Joan sighed. “You can never tell my mother. “

joaspn

Ellen took one look at the scared, scrawny girl with the baby-shaped bundle and thought one thing: demon possessed. It was a gutsy demon at that. Did it truly expect an entire bar of hunters to fall for such an obvious ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’? But then the two closest hunters in the Roadhouse muttered ‘Christo.’ Nothing happened, the girl never even paused in her step. Surely this wasn’t a regular, human, Little Girl Lost? Ceria, one of the very few female hunters, reshuffled her Tarot cards and dealt again, this time concentrating on the girl. The answer was apparently easy to decipher and Ceria was awestruck. Her jaw dropped and her eyes went wide. Ellen had seen Ceria take a six-year old girl turned into a werewolf in stride. She had never seen anything faze that hunter.

Ceria tried to shake off her awe. She stood and motioned to the skittish girl. “Why don’t you come, sit by me? Let me buy you a drink.”

The girl whispered her thanks and sat where Ceria indicated. “Water, please.”

Ceria nodded to Ellen, who was now the one standing with her jaw dropped. Ceria was a hunter that was accepted by the men because she never showed any weakness; babying this stranger would be considered by some as weakness. Ellen retrieved the water and sat it next to the girl. She hoped the hunter wouldn’t mind that the girl had received a bottle of holy water. A cautious hunter was a live one, after all.

Again, the girl said, “Thank you.”

Ellen peeked over her shoulder and glanced at the baby. She was surprised that he was awake and so quiet. “Cute kid,” she was trying to break the ice. “Got a name?”

“Billy, well, really William, but we call him Billy.”

That kind of babble didn’t belong in this bar; it was so innocent and young. Had Jo ever babbled like that? This girl had to get out of here before some of the men eyeing her acted on their second thoughts. “You got someone coming to pick you up?”

The girl got this deer-in-the-headlights look. “I hope so, I mean, I think so. Yes. They’ll come.”

“If they don’t come, I’ll take you on the next leg of the journey,” Ceria offered.

Civilly. Would wonders never cease? Ceria rarely spoke civilly to Ellen and she was ‘in the business.’ Ceria could be down right cruel to the uninformed.

“That won’t be necessary,” the girl said kindly. “But thank you.”

“You don’t belong in here,” Ellen blurted out.

“I’m just passing through.” The girl looked at Ellen with soulful brown eyes. Honest eyes. “We all are. Even you.”

“I own this bar,” Ellen corrected her. “I stay.”

“Times change. Nothing stays the same. You have to be flexible or you shatter. Don’t hold too tightly to a shelter made of wood.” Ellen had never been in the presence of a true prophet, but now she wondered. Ceria was listening closely, intently. Was this what she had seen in the cards? The girl turned to Ceria. “You need to be flexible too.”

“I’m very flexible.”

The girl observed Ceria’s short hair, lack of jewelry and make-up, and unflattering clothes. “You’re afraid of being a woman. You can do your job and be a woman too. It will make you more balanced.”

Ceria looked to be considering it. “Would you like some food?”

The girl was surprised, then chagrined. “I… uhm.”

No money.

“My treat,” Ceria said. “How about a hamburger?”

The girl finally accepted. “Okay, uhm, sure.” Then she looked around. “Uhm, where is the ladies’ room?”

Ellen said the directions and the girl smiled her thanks. As soon as she disappeared around the corner, Ellen and two other hunters looked over Ceria’s shoulder at the Tarot cards. Ellen didn’t see the pattern even after a couple minutes of studying. It didn’t look like anything she had ever seen before.

Buck huffed predictably. “There’s nothing there to reason babying the whelp.”

Stephen, the oldest hunter currently in the bar, shook his head in awe. “One of the Chosen. Do you think she knows?”

Ceria tapped the second to the last. “She’s used the power in our realm. Probably exorcized a demon with her own words.”

“How do you know that?” The girl was back; her (very pale) face and hands washed. She was clutching her baby close. Ellen noticed that there was no wedding ring.

“You mean that you did?” Buck wasn’t the only one who was incredulous; he was just the first to speak the words.

“It was an accident, I swear. It was hurting a friend and I… I got mad and yelled at it.” She shrugged an ‘I don’t know’ gesture.

“And then it was gone. It was fu… freaky,” a new, cheerful voice said from the doorway. Ellen and all the others turned to look. It was the Winchester brothers. Dean, of course, was speaking and grinning. “So how do you like the new members of our family, Ellen?”

“I hope God makes it hail on your car,” the girl sniped at Dean.

Dean promptly went white and put his hands up in surrender. “Now Joanie, there’s no reason to play dirty.”

Sam was carrying a diaper bag and smirking at his brother getting had by this slip of a girl. He weaved his way through the tables and held his hands out for the baby. He smiled at her and murmured something. ‘Joanie’ handed over Billy without a doubt or hesitation. The girl made her way back through to Ceria’s table.

She plopped down in her previous seat and used her thumb to indicate Dean. “You can make him pay for my hamburger.”

Ceria was shaking her head, but Dean cut her off as he approached in full care-taker mode. “Joan, are you hungry? Go ahead and get something.” He already had his wallet out to hand Ellen money for her sandwich.

“It’s on me,” Ceria forestalled him.

Dean turned dark. “We don’t need charity.” That was the stubborn Winchester pride.

“I need the karma points.”

Dean couldn’t argue with that. He still handed Ellen money. “I’ll eat two and I’m sure Sammy will have two or three.” He frowned at the Tarot cards. “Please put that away.”

Ellen wondered if he could read them. Ceria tucked the cards into her coat pocket and Dean relaxed slightly. What did it mean; to be one of the Chosen? No one had ever told her. Clearly they could exorcize like nobody’s business. Ellen did know that the Chosen tended to be ignorable and rarely did one know that they had crossed the path of one. Why had that changed? Why declare this Chosen one now, in this place?

Sam returned from the back, the baby snuggled against his shoulder and the (black, leather) diaper bag in hand. Ellen wondered if the boys had insisted on the type of bag because they knew that they would be carrying it around. To her extreme surprise, Sam didn’t give the child back to his mother, but sat next to her. Joan smiled at him when he sat down and scooted her chair closer to speak quietly with him.

Sam.

And a Chosen.

If –and Ellen admitted that it was a big if- Sam went evil, Joan could pull him back immediately. Sam and Dean Winchester had been chosen to protect a Chosen.

And that just blew her mind.

Ellen decided life would be easier if she just went and threw the boys’ hamburgers onto the grill. The Chosen ones of good and evil both needed dinner.

The Winchesters stayed on until early evening, talking to other hunters and sharing intel on some of the hunts that they had handled since they’d last come around. It was equal parts information gathering and bragging rights, a familiar form of hunters’ banter that this place was known for. Joan didn’t volunteer much, but Ellen heard her tease the boys a little during a few of their stories and watched as she absorbed the tales from the other hunters. Whenever someone asked a question about Joan, Dean would jump in with some other tidbit that changed the course of the conversation.

When the Impala pulled out of the parking lot, Ellen hadn’t learned anything more about the girl than had been uncovered in her first few minutes. She tried to question Ceria, and the female hunter had brushed her off with typically salty language before admitting that she had promised Dean she wouldn’t discuss it.

Unknowns unsettled Ellen. They meant trouble. And the words that Joan had spoken before her protectors had arrived bothered her even more. She found herself gazing around her bar and wondering. It didn’t take too much work to gather anything of value –sentimental or otherwise- and put it in a storage unit. She also upped the insurance on her place.

For the first time in her life, she was glad that Jo was out on the road. She was a moving target as opposed to Ellen’s stationary one.

 

Chapter 4

Dean knocked tentatively on the door. Joan had been in a bitchy mood all day and he wasn’t exactly anxious to be chewed out again, but she’d been in there for a while for someone not taking shower. “You OK in there, Joanie?”

“Crap,” he heard her say through the flimsy door. It cracked open to show Joan’s slightly red face. “I need you to go get something for me.”

“What do you need?” he asked automatically, and her face flushed further.

“Tampons,” she muttered.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Dean glanced over at his brother, who was carefully keeping his sprained ankle elevated.

“I wish,” she said, her tone miserable. “Tampons, chocolate, Midol, and a heating pad. As soon as possible.” The door shut before he could make further objections.

Sam shrugged when his brother glared at him. “Hey, it’s not like I got messed up on purpose just to avoid this. I didn’t even know it was coming.” He looked a little too innocently amused for Dean’s taste, so Dean took the time to whack his brother on his uninjured shoulder as he gathered keys and wallet. There was no point in dragging this out.

The drugstore down the street had a long aisle that included those kinds of things along with over-the-counter birth control, which made no sense to him but at least let him maintain some sense of manliness while he covertly studied the selection. He finally dug his phone out in disgust. If he got the wrong thing he’d have to do this all over again.

Joan wasn’t answering her cell, so he called Sam. “What kind does she need?” he asked without preamble when his brother answered.

“I don’t know!”

“Well, ask her. She’s not answering her cell.” Dean gritted his teeth and turned so that he looked like he was debating condom brands and styles. He knew that once he put that box in his basket he’d lose any chance of getting laid in this town, but he was going to try for at least a shred of dignity until then.

“Tampax Pearl,” Sam eventually said after about a minute. He sounded just as embarrassed as Dean felt, which made things a little better. “And Dean? Hurry.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Dean grumbled as he hung up the phone and grabbed the hated blue box, and then a second after a moment’s hesitation. There was a display of Midol at the end of the aisle and he grabbed three bottles, adding them to the bags of chocolate he’d picked up first. The checkout felt fairly humiliating to him, mostly because nothing said ‘whipped’ like tampons in your shopping basket when you were a guy. That and ‘unavailable.’

He turned the music up when he got back into the car, the two plastic bags sitting on the backseat on the passenger side, as far away as he could make them without tossing them into the trunk. Sam was still on the bed when Dean got back to the motel room, though he looked nervous and edgy. Billy had woken up from his nap and was making little unhappy noises that weren’t quite crying from his travel bed. Dean knocked on the bathroom door and handed over the plastic bags without comment before scooping up his nephew, the car seat, and the diaper bag and heading for the door.

‘Wait, you’re not leaving me alone with her,” Sam protested, trying to get up.

“Yes I am, Sammy,” Dean told him with great satisfaction. He snagged the crutches on the way out the door, ignoring Sam’s slightly frantic pleas. “Come on, kiddo. Let’s go somewhere until your mom isn’t quite so crazy.”

xxx

“If you’re going to be at this for a while, can I have the keys to the Impala?” Joan had thought that it was a perfectly reasonable request. Dean had been training her for a little while with guns and such and he had decided that she was a good enough driver to be trusted with his ‘baby.’ They pretty much left her alone whenever God gave her a task to do. They figured that it was God’s job to keep her safe during those times. Joan didn’t disabuse the notion, though her experiences had made it rather apparent that she could easily get hurt ‘on the job.’

So she wasn’t prepared for the Winchester brothers’ violent spit take at her simple question. Dean spewed out his beer and Sam choked on his fries. It was a good thing that they had ordered take-out for lunch instead of finding a restaurant.

“Hell, no,” Dean breathed out first.

“Why not? I have friends in Chicago. They’d love to see Billy.”

“No.”

Joan rolled her eyes. “Why not?”

In answer, Dean went over, picked his nephew off his blanket and walked to the furthest corner of the motel room. It was as if he was afraid that she’d take Billy and make a break for the door. He knew that she’d go nowhere without her son. The blatant manipulation made Joan wary and mad.

Obviously, the emotions were apparent on her face because Dean spoke his normal response: pass off the responsibility to his brother. “Sammy, tell her no.”

Joan promptly focused her glare on Sam. “Why not?”

“Joan,” Sam was searching for the right words. “We’re really worried about this job. We’d like you to stay behind a line of salt whenever we’re not with you.”

“It’s a poltergeist,” Joan enunciated. “It’s tied to its house. This one can’t come after me.”

“We’re not too sure about that,” Dean said.

Dean was the better liar of the two and he had no compunction against lying to his ‘family’ if he thought it was in their best interests or if it would smooth the waters. It had taken Joan a couple of months to figure out Dean would only enter into a conversation/argument that he had previously excused himself from to speak a lie for Joan to believe.

“Okay,” Joan crossed her arms and faced Sam. “What is going on that you don’t want to tell me?”

“It might not be a poltergeist,” Dean blurted out.

“I wasn’t talking to you, was I?” Joan challenged. “Sam, what is going on?” Joan didn’t need to look behind her to know that Dean was silently telling Sam to repeat the lie. “Sam?”

“We didn’t want you to worry,” Sam blurted out. “But this job is looking a little more dangerous than the others.”

“What are you hunting?”

There was a pause, where Sam was waiting for Dean to interject a lie, but Dean had wised up to Joan noticing their pattern. It was up to Sam –totally- to make her stay put.

“We don’t know,” Sam finally said. “But it’s killed several. And it’s not tied to any one place.”

Joan digested the information. “And you’re beating your head against the wall right now.”

Neither of the boys could argue. They had no new information and no way to get more information to kill the family enemy. They could just feel him, or her, closing in. Billy would be six months old in two days.

“So you need a break,” Joan declared. “One of you can take me to the Carpenter’s.”

“Joan…” Sam started.

“You’re not doing anything worthwhile anyway.”

“We’ll stop by later, after the job. I promise that we’ll come back through Chicago soon.”

“The Carpenters housed me for the majority of my pregnancy. They’ll want to see Billy while he’s small…. ish.” The baby was growing like a weed. “It’s Michael and Charity. You talked to Michael, remember?” Joan was trying not to plead or beg, but she really wanted to.

Sam relented. “You best go to the bathroom now, ‘cause we’re not letting you two out of our sight while we’re there. And we’ll be back here by sundown.” It was stupid and dangerous, but there was always a chance that Joan wouldn’t be alive for their ‘next time through.’

“Deal,” Joan made a dash for the toilet.

“Way to put your foot down,” Dean grumbled.

“If you didn’t lie so often,” Sam argued, “she wouldn’t suspect your words in every fight we have.”

“I don’t lie that much,” Dean denied.

“Yes you do,” Joan yelled through the closed door.

By the time she was done in the bathroom, Dean was packing up the diaper bag (there were at least two guns in there) and Sam was putting Billy into his car seat. Their logic was obvious, the sooner they got to the Carpenter’s house, the sooner they could leave. Joan wasn’t so sure that it’d go that smoothly. There were enough Carpenters to throw a kink into that plan.

Dean drove, of course, but instead of being relegated to the backseat as normal, Joan was given shotgun. Sam came along for the ride. He kept touching Billy as if to reassure himself. Joan wondered what lie the boys would offer the family to explain why they came as well. She didn’t bother wasting her breath to tell them that no one would believe the story.

As it was, the Winchester’s didn’t even get a chance to lie.

Joan and Billy were mobbed at the door, promptly separated and passed around for hugs. Molly was the first to get Billy and the last to Joan. She took one look at Sam and Dean and asked her father, “Hunters?”

Michael nodded once with a long-suffering smile.

“Demon hunters?” one of the younger kids repeated loudly. “Mama, are they really demon hunters?”

Charity sighed. “Joan, I thought you had better taste than this.”

“Are you kidding, Mom?” Molly was enjoying the picture of the pair. “The eye-candy doesn’t get much better than this… Which one is Sam?”

Sam waved meekly.

Molly sidled up to Dean. “And you must be the very available older brother.”

“Dean,” he supplied. His smile indicated that he appreciated her looks as well.

Molly grinned.

Michael forestalled any comment she might have made. “You have to remain celibate for your apprenticeship.”

“Celibate?” Dean echoed with a wince.

“Apprenticeship?” Sam echoed curiously.

“Thanks, Dad,” Molly pouted.

Michael was not apologetic in the least. He moved carefully back, using the cane for balance. “Let them in, children, and close the door. I do believe your mother has some snacks in the kitchen for our guests.” Most of the kids filtered to the kitchen.

“Apprenticeship?” Sam asked Dean again.

The youngest girl answered. She stepped in front of Sam with her hands on her hips. “Molly’s learning how to hunt demons like Daddy used to.”

Dean added the proud declaration to the cane, the newish looking ramp out front and understood that Michael had been hurt on the job within the last couple years. He knelt to be at the girl’s level. “Do you know how long your daddy was a hunter?” If it was as long as he was thinking, he’d have to sit down and question the older hunter. He wondered if this could be Sam and Joan’s house in twenty years. He’d be cool with that. They’d have to have a garage with room for the Impala, but that was the only improvement that he could imagine. He grinned: seven kids. Sam and Joan had to start working on that to match the Carpenters.

“It was a loooooong time. Even before Mommy and Daddy met.” The girl glanced behind her to make sure none of her family was listening. “Daddy saved Mommy from a dragon, that’s how they met.”

Dean threw his head back and laughed. “So your dad stole the dragon’s best booty?”

Sam choked at the irreverent (and complimentary, in ‘Dean-speak’) comment.

The little girl nodded somewhat seriously. “Everyone’s in the kitchen and Mom made pies yesterday, even Joan’s favorite.”

Dean bowed playfully at the girl. “Well, lead the way, my pretty hostess. I’m going to have to ask your very experienced dad about some of his hunts.”

The girl giggled and latched onto both Sam’s and Dean’s hand and pulled them into the friendly, cheery, bustling kitchen. It was… strange and unsettling. Sam had never been a part of such family dynamics. Even the strangers whose households they stepped into (under false pretenses) were ones that had been destroyed or damaged by the supernatural. Never had they been included in such scenes. Dean had vague memories of family meals around a kitchen table and the mess Baby Sam had made with the strained spinach. He had thrown it on Dad’s chair and Dad hadn’t noticed before he had sat on it.

The little girl was comfortable with the disorganized noise. In a very loud voice, she announced to all, “Sam and Dean want to hear the story of how Daddy stole the dragon’s best booty.”

Silence. Then a snort. Molly started laughing so hard, she was already crying. Joan was giggling as well. Charity and Dean were turning matching shades of red, which Sam found funny.

Michael was chuckling, but his eyes were serious as they weighed and judged the Winchester brothers.

Dean didn’t want to be found lacking. He straightened and faced Michael Carpenter face to face. “Sorry sir,” he apologized. “I forgot how kids repeat everything at that age, whether they understand it or not.” He jerked his thumb at his brother. “Sammy, here, had me in trouble with Dad for almost a year.”

“Slow learner,” Sam teased.

“Yeah, it took me that long to teach him what non-essential information didn’t need to be reported to Dad.” Dean shot back.

Michael’s eyes twinkled at bit at the brotherly ribbing. He did glance at Charity, a hint that Dean owed another apology.

Dean faced her awkwardly. “Uhm, it really was a compliment. Really.”

Charity rolled her eyes a bit. “Would you like pie? We have apple, peach, raspberry and blueberry.”

“Fresh baked?” Dean nearly drooled. “Can I have a slice of each?”

“No. You have to save room for dinner. You’re staying, of course.”

Dean glanced at Sam. He was the one better at smoothing it over with the motherly types. “I’m sorry ma’am, but we can’t. We have to get back before dark.”

“Nonsense,” Molly argued, sounding a bit like her mother. “They can stay here, right?” Both Michael and Charity nodded. “Our threshold is tons stronger than any at a motel or hotel.”

It was a strong argument, but Dean and Sam knew better. With the way that Joan was eyeing them, Dean knew that it’d be better if Sam answered this one. Joan needed to know part of the truth.

“Thank you, it’s very generous, but…” He glanced once at Dean. He didn’t want to hurt his brother with his explanation. “We have a… personal enemy, a demon and… he had- has no problem stepping through thresholds.”

“Really?” Molly was surprised. “What type of demon is it? What clan does it belong to?” There was a seriousness to her questioning, something that reminded Dean of Bobby Singer; a young, female, hot version… and he so didn’t want to think in that direction.

“We don’t know,” Dean floundered.

Molly tilted her head and thought through it. “Has it gone after other members of your family beside you two?”

It was an innocent question, oddly enough, but it made the brothers’ hearts clench. “Yeah,” Dean said softly.

Molly turned to her dad. “It definitely sounds like a clan demon to me. I’m going to have to call Harry.”

Michael assented.

Molly looked at Dean again. “Have you seen its actual form?”

“No.” Dean’s voice was clipped. “The yellow-eyed son of a…” he glanced at all the children watching and listening, and then at Charity, and decided not to say that word. “It possesses people and they end up with yellow eyes.” He very firmly made his body calm down and tried to smile at Michael. “We were hoping to pick your brain, sir.”

“Of course,” Michael nodded. “After dinner.”

“Sir…” Sam didn’t want to hurt his brother or this family. “Sir, this particular ss…sucker burns down homes after it’s done.” He didn’t want to mention the murder and mayhem, but was sure that the adults heard the implied facts.

Michael locked eyes with his wife. They had some sort of silent communication. Finally, she nodded. “Dinner will be in an hour. Why don’t you four all talk in the bedroom?”

Molly smirked as she stood and led the way to the first floor bedroom, another fairly obvious new addition. Both Sam and Dean were loath to leave Billy and Joan without anyone to protect them. Sam approached Daniel, the Carpenter’s oldest son, and asked for Billy. Daniel handed him over with an understanding smile. Dean dug into the diaper bag and pulled out two guns. The first one he tucked into the waistband of his jeans. He took the second one and the spare shells and placed them beside Joan.

“Do not let them out of your arm’s reach.” He glanced around at the tableful of kids. “And none of you will touch it, understood?”

Every child solemnly nodded at the order. They were used to such boundaries that had to be obeyed. Satisfied, Dean stowed the diaper bag and whatever other dangerous stuff he had packed on top of the refrigerator.

There were stress lines around Charity’s mouth, but she didn’t renege her offer. Joan was rolling her eyes at the hyper-vigilance, but was accustomed to it. The last time the boys had briefly discussed the family demon with her, they had hovered for a week.

Sam walked into the bedroom with Billy cuddled in his arms. Molly had pulled in two chairs for them to sit in. Dean wasn’t thrilled with their backs being toward the closed door, but tried to tell himself that it would be alright. It was daylight. The demon wasn’t here yet.

Michael sat across from them, a legal pad and a pen in his hand. He had already written ‘yellow-eyes of the possessed’ and ‘house fires.’ Molly reached over and scribbled ‘clannish’ on the pad.

“Tell me about this demon,” Michael invited….

Charity bustled around the stove, cooking some ground beef and adding homemade tomato sauce. “Kids, start setting the table.”

“Yes, mom,” chorused about.

She looked at Joan and tried to smile. “It gets a bit stuffy in that bedroom with that many people in there. You should take them some water.”

Joan agreed and grabbed a pitcher of water and a stack of four cups. It wasn’t fun balancing that with the gun, but Joan knew better than to enter the room without it. Dean would scold her until the cows came home. One of the boys, probably Sam, had closed the door to dissuade curious little ears. Joan huffed, put down the cups while keeping the pitcher upright. She could hear Michael’s familiar rumble.

“…No,” Sam answered. “It kills the mothers, not the children. That’s why Joan is in danger.”

Surely she heard wrong… Billy was the one that was being threatened here, not her. The young woman stayed by the door, listening intently as Dean picked up the thread of conversation. “The demon killed our mom when Sam was six months old. Pinned her on the ceiling and burned her.” His voice was tight. “We’re not sure why, but he does have a ritual and a time table. And Joan’s the next on his list.”

She distantly heard Michael ask a question about Sam’s mother as she opened the door, but all conversation stopped dead when she stepped into the room. Sam started to stand, his expression earnest, and Joan looked at him, then Dean, and upended the pitcher of water onto them both. Then she stormed from the room, setting the pitcher down on the first flat surface available as she walked out the front door. The gun was tucked into her waistband, which was uncomfortable but necessary when you considered the curious hands of the Carpenter children.

Her bravado wavered once she got out onto the front lawn, since she didn’t really want to leave the Carpenters. Especially while Billy was still inside. She was still a little divided when it came to the Winchesters right now, but as soon as she had calmed down she was walking back in there and collecting her baby.

“Joan?” She looked up at the sound of her name in that oddly hesitant voice. Sam was standing about ten yards away. “I’m sorry.”

God grant her patience. “Sorry for what, Sam?” She had no intention of helping him out of this hole. He’d dug it himself, he could climb up on his own.

“Um, whatever I did to make you mad?” The way he said it made it seem like a question.

“Did you know it’s pretty much impossible to be sorry for doing something if you don’t know what it is you did?”

Sam sighed. “Yeah.”

Her resolve softened, just a little. “Do you want to know why I’m mad at you?”

“Please?” A smile accompanied the statement. Joan wondered if he had any idea what the fleeting glimpse of those dimples did to her.

“I’m in danger, Sam.” He looked like he was about to speak up, offer some kind of reassurance, and she held up her hand. “Something wants to kill me, specifically, and you didn’t tell me. I didn’t know about your mom, and I didn’t know about Jess. And Sam, this is something I really, really needed to know.” Joan took a deep breath and forced her fists to unclench. “I have a job to do, Sam, and I need to know everything I can to do it.”

“I figured He would tell you if it was important. I just . . .didn’t want to worry you.”

“That’s not the Job I’m talking about, Sam. You and I have a responsibility to Billy, and keeping secrets from each other will just make that harder. That’s why I told you about God.”

He nodded, hopefully in acceptance.

“And Sam?” Joan made sure she had his complete attention, reaching out and grabbing his hand. “If you keep something like this from me again, I will take Billy and we will disappear. I met a few people over the past year, and trust me when I say I can do it. I really, really don’t want to, but I will if I have to.”

“All right.”

joaspn

Harry parked the Beetle in front of the Carpenter’s home, edging up to the bumper of an enormous black monster of a car that he was absolutely not jealous of, no matter how cool it looked. Molly had been frustratingly vague when she called him to the house, and Harry was curious and a little wary about what his apprentice was dragging him into.

The controlled chaos of the Carpenter house was a comfortable, familiar balm to him after all this time, though there was an unusual undercurrent of tension buzzing amongst the older kids. Alicia was riding herd on Hope and little Harry, but she pointed him in the direction of the relatively new ground-floor bedroom.

Charity was coming out as he approached the room. Harry studied her as they crossed paths; she looked tired, worn thin in a way that he’d rarely seen. “They’re waiting for you,” she said quietly.

“Who’s waiting for me?”

The woman shook her head. “You don’t know them. Joan stayed with us last year, and now she and her friends have your kind of trouble.” It was obvious she was trying to tone down her glare. He and Charity had settled a truce around the same time he took her daughter on as apprentice, and that had included a cessation of hostilities since they were both invested in keeping Molly whole and well. “She was the pregnant girl who stayed in Molly’s room while the two of you recovered last summer.”

He remembered her vaguely, though he really only caught fleeting glimpses of the girl in question. Harry could read between the lines and knew when Charity really didn’t want him around. “And now she’s back?”

“With the baby, the baby’s father and uncle, and a demon on their trail,” Charity sighed. “They’re staying with us right now. Molly thought a good threshold would help.”

“And how do you guys know her? She go to school with Molly or something?”

Charity stiffened a little. “Father Forthill sent her to us. She needed a place to stay and we needed a hand around the house.”

There was something she wasn’t saying, and Harry was suddenly very interested in whatever that might be. He’d never seen Charity hold back from saying what needed to be said. Though to be fair, the Carpenter household had just as many beliefs about hospitality as some parts of the supernatural world. Harry nodded and headed into the bedroom.

It was crowded inside. Harry brought the total of adults up to six when he stepped through the door, and the stress levels inside jumped at the same time. The two younger men in the room stood up when he entered the room, the taller one moving protectively in front of the brunette girl holding a baby while the other guy covered Molly and Michael.

He could respect someone who would do that, even though either one of them could probably take the kid.

“Hey, Harry,” Molly said, a smile forming as she peered around the obstruction. “Perfect timing.”

“Why? Am I about to get invited for pot roast?”

The taller of the two strangers narrowed his eyes. “Christo.”

Harry frowned at the Latin, but before he could make a comment the unknown girl spoke up. “It’s okay,” she said, relaxing her hold on the infant in her arms a fraction. “He’s good. Nothing there.”

“You’re sure?”

She nodded, and the two strangers moved out of guard dog position, though they didn’t relax.

Harry waited until the guns were put away before he took a seat. No sense taking unnecessary chances. “I hear you have a demon problem,” he said. “Tell me everything.”

joaspn

Michael felt the cool air from the house wash over him, and he shut off the sander. He’d come out to his workshop for a little time away from the growing tension surrounding Joan and the Winchester brothers. He always prayed better when his hands were occupied. Taking off his safety glasses and hearing protection, he turned on his stool and faced the door. Joan was standing there without either of her shadows, looking determined. “Can we talk?”

“Of course.” He watched as she moved around the room restlessly. Joan was a person of action. She had told him once, during one of their conversations when she’d first stayed with them, that God had told her that she was a catalyst, meant to put reactions into motion. He could bear witness to that with what he’d seen. “What’s troubling you?”

“There’s no handbook on this,” she said finally. “Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing. Michael, what exactly can I do as an instrument of God?”

Michael thought about this for a minute while Joan continued pacing. It was a straightforward, blunt question, the kind he would have expected from her, but the answer wasn’t as simple. “As you’ve said, there is no handbook other than the Bible, which is admittedly non-specific. But I believe that what you can do as an instrument of God is limited by only three things: your faith, your physical body, and what God wants you to do. Why do you ask?”

“I exorcised a demon by accident a few months ago,” she said.

Michael gently grabbed her wrist as she moved past him so he could look her in the eyes. “By accident?”

She nodded. “There was a . . . man, and I could tell he was demon-possessed. I just knew it when I saw him. He was . . . hurting Sam and I yelled for it to get out and leave us alone, and it did.” Her words rushed out in an anxious torrent. “This black cloud, like smoke only more dense, poured out of him, and he . . . the man collapsed. He couldn’t remember anything.”

Michael considered this for a minute, releasing Joan to resume her pacing. It was obvious that she was holding something back, but he wasn’t sure what it was. “The next time it happens,” and he had no doubt it would, with the company Joan was keeping, “be specific. You need to tell the demon to go back to Hell, otherwise it will be free to possess someone else. The one you cast out couldn’t take any of you because of your instructions, but it is still out there causing harm.” The look of horror on her face made it obvious that she realized the ramifications all too clearly, and he spoke gently to her. “Demons will exploit every loophole you leave them, so you should come up with a phrase that leaves them no options.” Michael smiled. “I understand Samuel was studying to be a lawyer. Perhaps he can help you.”

Joan flopped down on the floor across from Michael and groaned. “Not you too, Michael.”

“I want you to be safe and happy, Joan. It is no accident that God put you with those two.” He abandoned the subject for the time being and returned to their previous discussion. “The other important thing you should remember is that this is not your ability. When a demon is exorcised, it is by God’s power alone. Approach the task with that in mind.”

Joan nodded. “And as far as everything else goes, I won’t know if I can do it unless I try?”

“Pray first, then move forward,” Michael advised. “Now, why don’t we get back to preparing?”

joaspn

Joan wished she could stop pacing the panic room they’d sequestered her in, but every time she sat down on one of the bunks she was back up within a minute. The room was crowded with children and bunk beds and a battered card table, and it took a depressingly short time to walk all four walls.

The tiny wind-up alarm clock that was nestled into the rungs of one of the triple-tiered bunks ticked along fairly loudly, keeping time to her movements. She kind of wanted to smash it, but that would probably upset the younger kids. Besides, it wasn’t her clock.

God, this plan sucked.

She’d hoped that once they heard about what she and Michael had hammered out they’d see reason and let her take a little more active role, but Dean had gone into full protective mode and talked Sam into his point of view. She and Billy were safely ensconced behind a strong threshold, salt lines and an apparently angelically blessed doorway.

“Joan.”

She looked up at the sound of her name, half-expecting it to be one of the Carpenter kids. Instead she saw God, dressed up like the Goth teenager and watching her with dark eyes. “You need to go outside, Joan.”

“I’m supposed to protect Billy,” she protested.

“No,” he said, coming up beside her. “Your place is outside, next to Sam. Don’t be afraid, Joan. I’ll be right there.”

A year ago, she would have argued. Now she knew better. She nodded, stood up, handed Billy to Alicia and went to the door.

Time to put on the armor and head into battle.

joaspn

This wasn’t going the way they had planned.

The demon hadn’t made it through the wizard’s defenses, which was a plus. Learning its name had apparently made a big difference in what could be done to keep a safe distance. But while Dresden had successfully repelled him, he hadn’t managed to do any real damage. It stood on the sidewalk, yellow eyes glinting in the flickering streetlight and a smug expression plastered across its borrowed features.

At least Molly was keeping the veil up. It was bad enough having this confrontation on the Carpenter’s front lawn. He really didn’t want to deal with the cops right now.

“All you have to do is give me a few minutes alone with the newest Winchester, Sammy. No one has to get hurt if you give me what I want.”

“And why would I do that?”

Azazel looked at Sam with a pleasant smile on his face. “Because, Sammy, if your little slut doesn’t bring down that kid, I’m going to decorate this street with the guts of every person that I can find. And I’m gonna start with the cute little kids two doors down.” The smile spread into a grin that was sickeningly lecherous. “The ones who don’t have a freak like this to protect them.”

“I’m right here,” came a familiar voice behind him, and Sam’s blood went cold. Joan was standing at the bottom of the ramp that led up into the Carpenter’s house. There was an expression on her face that he’d only seen once before, just before the demon that had been possessing him had been sent packing.

The demon watched her with unveiled interest as she walked across the yard to stand next to Sam. “How are you doing that?” it asked, and at that moment Sam realized that Azazel had been attempting to do something to her. Attempting and failing completely.

“I’m not doing anything,” she answered. He felt her small, cold, surprisingly strong fingers close around his wrist and watched as Joan closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and stared at the yellow-eyed demon. “Tell the truth. What do you want with Billy?”

“I want to corrupt him,” the demon said immediately. The words were quickly followed by an obvious flash of confusion, then rage. “So that’s what you are. One of His little playthings.”

The fingers around his wrist tightened a little. “Don’t say anything that isn’t an answer to my questions,” she commanded. Sam felt his chest ache at the simple fact that Joan, sweet, sunny-natured Joan, had just given a command to a being that could and had killed with a thought, and that the order was being obeyed, even if the demon was clearly not happy with the results. “How were you going to corrupt Billy?”

“I was going to feed him some of my blood,” the demon gritted out.

Sam made a noise of protest in the back of his throat, and Joan glanced at him and back at the demon. “Is that what you did to Sam?”

“Yes.”

Sam shoved all the pain and confusion and anger from this revelation into a small box in the back of his mind. He had to focus. This was an unparalleled opportunity to discover why things had happened the way they had. He bent over and murmured a question in Joan’s ear, and she repeated it. “What are your plans for Sam and the children like him? Tell us every detail.”

The tale that spilled out was hideous in its complexity and goals. Sam, Dean, and Harry all took turns prompting her with questions to ask the demon, including the location of the Colt. Joan grew steadily paler as the interrogation went on, leaning on Sam a little more heavily as time passed.

By the time they were done with the questioning, Sam had his arm wrapped around Joan’s waist, trying to support her without being obvious about it. She looked up at him, her expression strained by exhaustion. “Can I send it away now?”

Sam glanced at Dean. They could probably stand around and question the demon for days and recover useful information, but it wouldn’t be worth the stress it placed on Joan. “Unless you can think of anything else.”

She shook her head and drew herself up, stepping away from Sam and staring at the sneering figure across from them. “Go back to hell, right now,” she said. “Stay there forever, and don’t do anything that will cause a single person harm.”

The man’s head tilted back instantly and a column of black smoke poured out and drove down into the ground. Sam had just enough time to get into place before Joan’s eyes slid shut and she dropped bonelessly into his arms.

joaspn

They stayed with the Carpenters for another week. Charity tried to make it two, but Dean started to get antsy and as much as Joan loved seeing the Carpenter kids she missed being able to focus on her son a little more. Father Forthill came by two days after what Dean was calling the Big Fucking Exorcism (title edited when in range of little ears, under threat of Charity’s wrath) with a thick stack of papers tucked under one arm. He spent most of the day with the three of them, getting details about every crime that the FBI had connected to the Winchesters. The priest left at the end of the day with a grim expression. He was back three days later, looking a little more upbeat, and explained that the Church would be able to clear the bulk of the charges outright due to lack of evidence and that with time Church lawyers should be able to get the rest of it dismissed as well.

Dean didn’t like it, didn’t want it, and wanted to reject it outright. Even Joan could see the strings dangling from the Church offer, though she wasn’t sure that those strings were necessarily a bad thing. Sam focused on the details of the Ordo Malleus and what they were offering, comparing them to the limitations and expectations that would be placed on them.

The deal the Church was offering wasn’t necessarily a bad one, though Sam chafed at the idea of it just as much as his brother. Maybe it was because he’d been raised to be so independent, but he held just as much caution in dealing with the Vatican and this mysterious Order as he would any other organization, maybe even a little more, considering their widespread influence.

Of course, that same influence was exactly why it made cold, practical sense to work with them. While being under the banner of Rome wouldn’t give them a free pass, it would go a long way towards smoothing things out with a lot of people. It would give them a more legitimate reason to be poking around into things, hopefully reducing their dependency on impersonating law enforcement. That little quirk was competing with credit card fraud as the thing that would end up putting them away for good.

By the time they got back on the road, Sam had hammered out a deal via Father Forthill that would hopefully combine the best of both worlds: they would operate for the church on a freelance basis, taking each case as it came. The Order would pay them a small stipend and allow the Winchesters to use them as a reference, if not a direct employer.

It would have to be enough.

 

Chapter 5

Henricksen eyed the car in the motel parking lot, comparing it with the grainy surveillance photos he had seen in the past. It certainly looked like Dean Winchester’s car, a black 1967 Chevy Impala, though the Illinois plates were not precisely what he was expecting. There weren’t too many of these things being driven around, which made them a little easier to track. This tip looked to be the best lead he’d had in months. Dean and Sam Winchester had effectively vanished after Baltimore, and their case had been officially lowered in priority. If he hadn’t been nearby on another case, he wouldn’t have been allowed to follow up on the sighting of the car. Things were falling into place now. With one last glance at the vehicle, the best indication of his prey’s proximity, he headed into the manager’s office.

He had to show his badge and ID to secure cooperation from the old man who ran the place, which pissed him off a little, but eventually the agent got the man talking.

“Yeah, I remember the Impala. Used to want one when I was younger.” He waggled his eyebrows a little. “It was a guaranteed way to pick up girls.”

“Who drove it in?”

The man sucked on his teeth for a second. “Young couple with a baby. The girl was a sweet young thing; asked about my grandkids.” He pointed to the picture taped to the register, a proud look on his face.

Henricksen glanced at the photo, but his mind was moving relentlessly forward. Was the girl a hostage or an accomplice? Or was this all a coincidence? “Just one man with her?” It was rare that you spotted just one of the Winchesters. They stuck together, watched each other’s backs. It was what made them so hard to catch. Had they separated?

The manager looked at him in disbelief. “Like I said before, a young couple. One man, one woman, and a baby. Paid for the room in cash.”

“What did the man look like?” He pulled two pictures out of the file and set them down in front of the old man. “Either one of these ring a bell?”

“Didn’t really get a good look at him,” the man said. “He stayed out in the parking lot, taking care of the luggage.”

“Try.”

The manager studied the pictures for several long moments before tapping the one of the younger brother. “This one, maybe, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Like I said, the girl took care of the room.”

“Can I see how she registered?” The FBI agent waited while the man opened up the book to the correct page and pointed to a name close to the bottom of the list. He wrote it down, thanked the man, and got a room across from the couple with the Impala. After starting off an extensive search for the name ‘Joan Girardi,’ he sat down next to the window to watch.

After about half an hour of tedious inactivity on his part, punctuated by frustrated expletives directed at the Bureau’s filing system, his laptop quietly beeped to signal the end of the search. He spent about another hour or so weeding through the results before he found what he was looking for: seven months ago, Joan Girardi had given birth to a son in a small town in Wyoming. The father was listed as Samuel Winchester. The motel manager’s “sweet young thing” was involved up to her neck.

Victor suppressed the anger he was feeling and focused. Dean was the real quarry here, not Sam and his little girlfriend. The only real use those two had was to flush out Dean. Use the girl to get Sam, use Sam to reel in his older brother.

As if by magic, the door he was watching opened and a young brunette stepped out, closing the door behind her. She was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts and had a towel tucked under her arm, with her long, dark hair pulled back into a tight braid. Henricksen watched as she crossed the parking lot and headed through the gate to the motel pool, and he smiled. That was sloppy of them.

He walked over there casually, careful to keep his walk slow and unhurried. The gate squeaked a little as he walked through. It was late in the day and the pool was empty except for the girl, who was doing laps across the deep end. Henricksen watched from the shadow of the building for a few minutes as she swam, marking out the rhythm of her even motions. It would take proper timing, but he should be able to handle it

He continued watching as she moved back and forth through the water, slowly making his way around to where she’d left her things. Eventually she climbed out of the pool, wrung out her hair, and headed toward her clothes. Henricksen stepped into her way before she reached them. “Where is he?” he asked without preamble. She looked at him with wary confusion, and he felt a moment of blinding rage. How dare she look so innocent when she was helping a murderer cheat justice? He grabbed her by the upper arm and squeezed, enjoying the gasp of pain. “Where is Dean Winchester? I know you’re helping him.” She tried to pull away and he twisted her arm a little, eliciting a yelp. “Tell me now!”

The girl looked at him sharply, without a trace of fear, and when she spoke her voice was strong and controlled. “Get out of him and go back to Hell where you belong,” she said.

The agent had less than a second to register the words before he felt something twist inside of him. There was a sharp pain in his chest. He tried to gasp for breath and found that he couldn’t, and his hold on the girl loosened as he dropped to his knees. She stepped away and around him, diving for her belongings and coming up with a gun and a cell phone. She ignored her clothing and continued moving away as she hit a speed dial number. “I need help at the pool,” she said to whoever was on the other end, presumably one of the Winchesters. He dragged in a breath as he heard the sounds of feet running on asphalt. What had she done to him?

Dean Winchester arrived first, skidding to a stop beside the girl. She handed him the gun immediately and moved a little behind him. Sam came up shortly after with a baby held in one arm. He handed the baby over to the girl even as he eyed Henricksen. The agent tried to summon up the anger he usually felt when it came to the Winchester brothers, but it refused to come.

“Who’s this?”

The girl shrugged, and he noticed that she was trembling slightly. “I was hoping you might know. He grabbed me when I got out of the pool. Wanted to know where Dean was.” Sam picked up the towel from the pile of clothing and draped it over her shoulders and she flashed a tired smile at him. Apparently he’d noticed the shivering as well.

“What else happened? The EMF meter went off just before you called.” Dean kept his eyes on the target as he asked the question. Victor was breathing a little better now, but he didn’t want to risk anything after that little episode. And if he was honest, he wasn’t entirely sure he could take down the older Winchester.

She winced as the baby jostled the arm he had grabbed earlier and switched the child to her other hip. Henricksen could see the red mark of his hand on the girl’s upper arm, and suddenly felt ashamed. He remembered taking pleasure in the pain he had caused as he sank his fingers into her pale skin and twisted, and his stomach began to churn with guilt. The feeling was so overwhelming that he nearly missed her soft words.

“It was a minor demon. I could feel it when he touched my arm. I don’t think it was strong enough to take over completely, so it settled for the next best thing.”

“Which is?”

“Bringing out the worst in people,” Sam said, frowning at the handprint bruise forming on the girl’s arm. “Feeding all the dark impulses that lurk in every human being.” He guided the girl over to a chair, and she sat down gratefully.

“I sometimes think that’s worse than full possession,” the girl said quietly. “How is he?”

“Let’s find out. Sam, make sure the guy’s not having a heart attack or something. Then we’ll find out who the hell he is.”

Victor felt efficient hands on his neck and face, checking for a pulse point and breathing. The struggle for breath had eased while they talked and he managed to croak out, “What happened?”

Sam rifled through his pockets, none too gently, coming away with his gun, badge and wallet. “She just saved your life,” the young man answered curtly. He glanced at the badge and raised an eyebrow. “Agent Henricksen.”

Dean spat out a curse, receiving a glare from the girl. “I thought the priest said that was taken care of.”

“It was,” Sam answered. “I double-checked. We were completely cleared weeks ago.” He stood over the FBI Agent, stepping out of reach. “Which makes me wonder why he’s out here hassling Joan.”

“Guys?” Joan called out. “Demon, maybe?”

Sam was not about to give Victor an easy way out. “Why were you harassing Joan?”

“I was trying to track down your brother,” he said, reaching up and gingerly massaging his chest.

“Why?”

Victor turned his head to look at the tall, rangy man. “Because he’s wanted for murder.” The unsaid addition of ‘you idiot’ still filled the resulting silence.

“Not anymore,” Dean said gleefully. It was an odd juxtaposition with the weapon held steadily on Victor’s center mass. “Better check again, Agent Mulder. All charges were dropped.” He gestured to Sam, and the man’s brother dropped Victor’s cell down into his lap. “Call your boss, man. Check the status.”

“He should call farther up the chain of command,” the girl said, standing up and reaching for the pile of clothing. The baby was set down on the discarded towel, well away from both the pool and the tableau of upset people with weapons, while his mother pulled a shirt on over her bathing suit. “I mean, your boss said you could come, right?” She stepped into the long denim skirt, somehow utterly unself-conscious. “It’s possible that your boss has the same reasons that your passenger had.”

“Huh.” The idea gave all three men pause, though Joan continued to serenely gather her things. “That’s . . . kind of scary, actually.” Sam was looking at the young woman with some emotion Victor couldn’t read. Then he turned to the FBI agent, and his expression became much more clear. “Let’s get started.”

xxx

The demon currently inhabiting Steven Groves sat at the man’s impressive desk, doing some necessary, if loathsome, paperwork. Groves’ position at the FBI was far too useful to risk losing it right now; no one was in a better spot to nab the Winchesters brothers the next time they popped up. The opportunity to set a few future demons free for a little quality carnage was a very pleasant bonus, of course, but orders from below had made it clear that control of the Winchesters was a priority. Azazel had made it pretty clear the last time they’d had contact that it would be his ass on the rack if he couldn’t deliver, which meant he’d need to light a fire under that little pissant riding around in Victor Henricksen. This had gone on long enough. Something was making noise about dismissing the charges and he didn’t want to have to leave this host and his cushy life until the Winchesters were wrapped up in a neat little bow.

He was thinking of going into politics after this.

The call came while he was sipping an Irish coffee with just the right amount of whiskey and browsing future possession candidates. “I’ve got Sam Winchester,” Henricksen’s voice said without preamble. “He was with some girl in Virginia.”

“Sam, but not Dean?”

“I’m sure once we let it be known that we have Sam Winchester, big brother will come running to the rescue.”

One Winchester was better than nothing, and Sam was the one they really wanted. “Do you have the girl as well?” She might make a good bargaining tool. The Winchesters were notoriously soft-hearted and foolish when it came to things like this. Even if she was just an innocent bystander in all this, Sam would bend over backwards to protect her.

“They’re in a holding cell downstairs.”

“I’ll be right there.” He hurried down as quickly as was seemly for Steven Groves. He had to lay eyes on Sam in person before he put the word out that Sam Winchester was in his hands. Azazel was known to flay people that didn’t come through, and recent rumor had it that Azazel was working hand-in-hand with Lilith right now. That bitch had one of the nastiest reputations in Hell. He had absolutely no desire to upset her.

Special Agent Victor Henricksen was waiting outside of a holding cell, looking through the one-way glass at the young couple inside. Sam was speaking softly to the girl, who looked worried and more than a little afraid.

Henricksen didn’t appear to be moved by the girl’s plight. The demon they’d wormed into him was gone, but that wasn’t particularly worrisome. It had done its job well and had probably moved on to greener pastures. “We have Sam, the car, and the girl. I’m sure Dean will come running soon enough.”

“Excellent. I’m going to go in there and question them. Maybe a professional can get him to turn on his scumbag brother.” The demon smiled, enjoying the flash of anger that crossed the human’s face. The man was a liability that he would have to take care of on the way out, and that was definitely something to look forward to. “You watch. Maybe you’ll learn something.”

He strolled into the room and took the seat that kept his back to the mirror. He wouldn’t put it past a Winchester to start flinging the name of you-know-who around and the last thing anyone needed was to have a possible security breach here. Taking care of the problem would be unnecessarily messy and they had orders to keep a low profile right now. “So, Sam Winchester. You are a hard man to track down.”

The unknown girl next to him had stiffened when he walked into the room, sitting up straight and clutching Sam’s hand in a pathetic search for protection. Idiot. There wasn’t a thing Sam could do to help her. They were both trapped, and this particular smackdown had been a long time coming.

The girls fingers tightened around Winchester’s hand and the thing inside Steven Groves smiled in anticipation. Fear always made it just a little bit better. She stared at him with wide brown eyes, and then her jaw set. “You get out of him right now,” she said, her voice quiet to Steven Groves’ human ears but something like thunder and the pealing of church bells to the demon. “Go back to Hell and stay there.”

For a moment everything seemed to freeze. Then there was unbelievable pain as it was ripped from the comfortable home it had made in Steven Groves flesh and pulled into the fires of the Pit. Pain and darkness and shrieking surrounded him, clawing him into pieces and leaving the demon to wonder what had happened.

joaspn

Joan had been sleeping in the back of the Impala, one hand on the shotgun and one hand on Billy’s foot, when the classic car shimmied a little. Joan lifted her head enough to know that the trunk had been opened and the boys were returning from a hunt. Their movements were calm and methodical; nothing had gone wrong. She relaxed and let herself doze a little.

Dean woke her up rudely, unlocking and opening the back door, letting in the cool night air and shoving her shoulder. “Joanie, I know you’re awake. It’s time for you to drive.”

Joan moaned, feigning sleep. Dean huffed, not at all convinced. He grabbed the shotgun away from her to unload it and put it in the trunk with all the rest.

“Joan,” Sam spoke quietly, “we’re exhausted. Will you please drive?”

Joan sighed and opened her eyes. “Where are we headed?”

“The next city on the map.” Dean was unconcerned with specifics. “Find us someplace to sleep.”

As soon as Joan vacated her seat, Dean filled it. The first thing he did was insure that Billy was all right. Sam waited until Dean was done with the check-up to sit in the passenger’s seat. Only after Dean had done his customary post-hunt check did he hand over the keys to Joan.

Joan accepted the keys and started the car down the road. A quick glance in the mirror revealed that Dean was already asleep, leaning against the window in the back seat. “Where are we going?”

“Arcadia’s next on the map,” Sam mumbled. He was too asleep to see Joan’s stunned face.

She drove for a while, her mind churning. Everyone else was asleep. Then Joan felt it. She looked into the rearview mirror again with a slow smile. Little Girl God was smiling back at her, seated between Billy and Dean. Dean would have been horrified if he had been awake.

“It’s time to go home. Don’t you think so, Joan?”

“It is.”

The girl was gone the next time Joan checked. Dean and Billy were sleeping restlessly. Joan steered the Impala onto the familiar streets. All too soon, though it was probably over an hour later, she parked on the street in front of the house. Very carefully, because she knew what happened if she awoke either of the Winchesters with a touch, she reached around Dean and Sam and locked both of their doors. Just as carefully, she climbed out of the car and locked and closed her door. Finally, she eased Billy out of his car seat and repeated the same act on the last car door. She took a deep breath and marched up the walk. She reached the front door and was surprised to find it unlocked. A simple turn and she and Billy stepped into her parents’ home.

Kevin met her in the landing. For a moment, they just stared at each other. They saw the differences that had happened in the seventeen months of separation.

Joan was the first to grin. “Kevin, are you just now getting in from a date?”

Kevin flushed and adjusted his collared shirt. “Ah, yeah.”

“Is it serious? Is she cute? Are you still seeing Lily?”

Kevin was still stunned. “Joan?”

“Yes.”

“You’re… home. Is that William?”

“Yep.”

“Is he small or big?” It was an honest question of ignorance.

“Billy? He’s long and scrawny, which will make perfect sense when you lay eyes on his dad. Here.” Joan set Billy onto Kevin’s lap and dropped a diaper bag by the doorway. “Watch him, please. I’m dying for a real shower in a non-motel bathroom.” With that statement, she dashed up the stairs.

Kevin stared at the baby in his lap. Thankfully, Billy had slept through his introduction to his uncle. So the fact that he wasn’t fussing was a plus.

But still, a baby?

Luke had always seemed like a little old man with his intelligence revealing itself about the time Kevin had any solid memories of his younger brother’s biological development.

But Luke was smart and he was home for a couple of days between his internship and MIT. There would be fewer repercussions if he woke up Luke as opposed to anyone else.

It took Luke a good five minutes to process the fact that 1.) Joan was home and 2.) this baby that Kevin was foisting off on him was his nephew, William John. It took him three more minutes to decide that babies were best left to the professionals, so he left the still sleeping baby with Kevin and very quietly woke up his mother.

“What’s wrong?” she whispered.

“Kevin has Joan’s baby and we don’t know what to do with him.”

Helen paused, somewhat uncertain that this was not a dream. “Joan’s William?”

“Yes, she’s in the shower, taking a really long one, even for her.”

Helen flipped back the covers and raced toward the kitchen. William had started to wake up and he was getting perturbed at all the unfamiliar faces. Helen took the baby in hand and found where Joan had left the diaper bag. With tears in her eyes, Helen examined her grandbaby top to bottom.

So when Joan finally came down from the shower, William had a dry diaper and was playing with his grandmother and his two new found uncles. As soon as he set eyes on his mother, he was reaching for her. The baby got squished between his mother and his grandmother. He protested the reunion loudly. Helen cried with him.

As Joan fed William, Helen started making breakfast. As soon as William was full, the two women switched places; Joan cooked the pancakes and Helen admired William more – who recognized his name as Billy.

It was all cozy, homey and peaceful, which was why Joan wasn’t surprised that the Winchester brothers chose that moment to wake up and freak out.

One of them, probably Dean, pounded on the front door.

“Damn it, Joanie! You and Billy had better be safe and in there!”

Joan huffed theatrically. “You better let them in before they kick down the door.”

Luke didn’t want to have to explain a broken door to his father, so he was the one to hurry and open the door for the two young men.

The shorter one brushed Luke aside and the tall one slipped past them.

“Joan,” he asked worriedly.

“We’re fine. Billy’s right there and he’s fine. I thought you two would sleep longer.”

“Joanie,” the shorter of the two said, looking pissed, “Where are we?”

“In Arcadia. The next town on the map. You told me to find someplace to sleep.” She waved her hands. “So I did.”

“How many times have I told you that you have to be specific with Joan,” the tall one hissed. “She finds more loopholes than you.”

Helen looked at Joan with a raised eyebrow.

“Mom, this is Sam and Dean. This is my mom, Helen Girardi and my brothers Luke and Kevin.”

Dean was still pretty pissed, but Sam had the grace to look ashamed. “We’re sorry ma’am for the rude entrance . . .”

“I’m not,” Dean muttered.

“. . .but we were worried when we woke up in a strange place without Joan or Billy in sight.”

“We’ve been doing the cross-country thing for a while,” Joan tried to explain.

“Joanie,” Dean interrupted, “is that your Dad?”

Joan looked, but quietly, quickly looked away. He was standing there, his face like stone. “Yes.”

“Why is he packing? Not that I think it’s wrong or anything. Every guy should have a gun and know how to use it.”

“He’s a cop,” Joan replied sweetly.

Dean shut his mouth for a whole two seconds. Sam looked a little worried.

“This is your fault,” Dean finally complained to his brother. “I’m going back out to the car to sleep.”

“No, no,” Helen argued, “we’ve got plenty of room.”

“And I’ve got hot, off-the griddle pancakes,” Joan tempted.

Dean looked torn.

“I vote for pancakes, then bed,” Kevin said.

“Dude, you are a freaking genius. Joanie, where are the plates?”

In response, Joan handed him a plate piled high with pancakes. Dean accepted the plate with one hand and stole baby Billy with the other. Helen was surprised and didn’t fight it. Billy cheerful burbled to Dean and yanked on his short hair. Dean was obviously a very familiar face to him.

“Dean,” Joan said, frustrated. “He was fine where he was.”

“He’s fine where he is now,” the man countered.

Sam offered Joan a sympathetic smile, but made no move to return the baby to his grandmother.

“Neanderthals,” Joan complained.

Luke chuckled at that as he set the table with butter, syrup, jellies, forks and knives. Dean snagged some silverware and then dumped a bunch of syrup on the pancakes.

“If you’re sharing with Billy,” Joan warned. “No syrup and soak the pancake in water for a little while.”

“Your momma’s no fun,” Dean told the baby.

Joan continued flipping pancakes. “Are you going to do it?”

“Yeah,” Dean grumbled. Helen watched. She was surprised to note that though the young man had used almost a quarter of the syrup bottle, he had managed to completely miss one of the pancakes on the plate. That was the pancake that he now liberally sprinkled with water and let soak. He then started eating the pancakes for himself, one-handed. Here again, he showed that he and Billy were used to this arrangement. When Dean had decided that the pancake was ready, he pulled out a baby spoon that had been in his shirt pocket to mash up and scoop the soggy pancake. Billy obediently opened his mouth for Dean like a baby bird.

Helen shook her head and turned her attention back to her daughter. Joan had filled up three more plates and passed the first stack to Luke. Kevin wheeled to the fridge to get drinks. Sam followed Joan’s directions to find the glasses.

“Dad, would you like some?”

Will paused for a moment. Helen gave him a look demanding that he not ruin this moment. Any arguments could happen later, in private. “Yes, but I’ll take the next plate.” He motioned with the gun enough so that everyone knew that he’d be putting it away.

Sam passed one stack of pancakes to Kevin and offered the second one to Helen. “Mrs. Girardi?”

Helen waved it away. “No, thank-you. I’m not hungry yet. You eat it… and please call me Helen.”

Sam flushed slightly but nodded. He took the plate and sat next to his brother. He brushed a hand over Billy’s head in affection before he reached for the syrup. Billy was immediately distracted from the food. He reached for Sam and Dean let him be passed. Sam held the baby comfortably. Billy nestled into Sam’s chest and started sucking on his fist. Helen knew from experience that the baby would be asleep soon. Sam, too, was experienced at eating one-handed.

Joan continued pouring pancake batter and flipping the ‘cakes as they needed it. She wasn’t concerned with either of the boys hurting her son and Helen could see why.

Will accepted a stack of pancakes from Joan and sat at the head of the table. Kevin looked from Sam to Dean to Billy and back again.

“So Sam,” he asked.

The brother in question met his gaze. “Yes?”

“You’re Billy’s dad, right?”

Dead silence, which was damning in itself. Helen hadn’t made the connection and she was surprised that Kevin had. Sam put down his fork and covered Billy’s head protectively with his large hand. Dean put down his fork and started wiping his hands on a napkin under the table. He also scooted his chair back some. They were waiting in terse silence for the next move.

Helen shook her head; this was so unexpected. Everything Joan had hinted at had led the family to the conclusion that Billy’s dad would never be in the picture. Now, it was obvious that he, and his brother, were fully involved in Billy’s life. Helen glanced at Joan. She stood there, staring at her father, her knuckles white as she held the spatula.

Will was also stunned into immobility. His first reaction was anger and confusion. Helen hoped that he’d keep silent until the shock had passed. Angry words now would burn bridges within the family.

“Joanie,” Dean said with a forced smile. “Your pancakes are burning.”

Joan grumbled as she checked the damage. The tension in the room dropped slightly, as the comment had been intended. Helen would have never pegged Dean as a peacemaker, he seemed more of an agitator to her.

Dean picked up his fork again and pointed it at Kevin. “At least you waited until the gun was put away, Blabbermouth.”

Luke snickered nervously at that. Helen finally took a plate as well so that she’d be with the others. Joan had a huge stack of pancakes made before she turned off the burners and joined them, sitting next to Sam and Billy.

Kevin tried to relieve the tension that he had inadvertently created. So he picked a topic that he knew best. “So Dean, I’m betting you got a full ride sports scholarship to somewhere. Football, am I right?”

Joan winced as did Sam; who knew what lie Dean would pawn off on her family?

But Dean shook his head. “Me? Nah, the college scene really wasn’t me right after high school. Though I’ve given it some thought since.” He offered his patented ‘Dean Winchester grin.’

“What about sports?” Kevin pressed. “You have the shoulders for football, or swimming.”

“Naw, team sports don’t interest me. I never could depend on anyone but Sammy watching my back and most of our schools didn’t have a pool.”

“Track?”

“Nope.”

Kevin shook his head at the blasphemy. “You didn’t play anything at all?”

Dean grinned again (he was playing right now to get the attention off of Sam). “Oh, I played.”

“He played dodge the coach-slash-principal-slash-teacher who saw the untapped potential,” Sam finally added.

“I was good at that,” Dean admitted.

“He was better at insulting the adults that tried to encourage him,” Sam delighted in bragging about his brother. “He threw the wrestling coaches in two consecutive schools.”

“I played baseball,” Dean admitted.

“You did?” Sam and Kevin chorused.

Dean shrugged. “Well, it wasn’t like I joined a team or anything. But I knew a guy, star player, and he had to leave town for a funeral and so they gave me his uniform.” Dean grinned at the memories. “It’s a good thing he was a star catcher since I hit two homeruns, had six RBIs and caught a handful of guys trying to steal bases.”

Sam was as flabbergasted as the rest of them. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was only two games and it wasn’t as if you could have yelled my name from the stands.”

Sam was not mollified. He shifted Billy to his opposite shoulder so that he could punch Dean’s arm. “I could have been yelling your number.”

“Dude, it wasn’t a big deal.”

“Where was I?”

“Science Fair.”

Sam frowned at the memory. “You helped me with that. Every time.”

“The one with the partner, the carrot-top girl, the one who had a crush on you.”

“Her name was Melanie. She had a crush on you,” Sam corrected. “You helped us put it together.”

“Well yeah,” Dean reached for more pancakes. “Last minute. You two planned and plotted in the library for several days, remember?”

“I remember the jock. Jim Wilmot, right? He dropped off a six pack of beer the night before dad got home.”

Dean started shifting in his seat. Kevin wondered what can of worms he had opened. “Uh, maybe. It was a long time ago and it really wasn’t that big of a deal.”

“He was a senior and he got a full ride scholarship.”

“He deserved it,” Dean defended the other student from ages past.

“Dean, you were a sophomore and you were just as good without the daily practice.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“You could have gone to college. Dude, you could still go to college on a sports scholarship. You’re in as good a shape now as then.”

Joan laid a hand on Sam’s arm. He calmed down and tried to smile at her. “Dean is where he’s supposed to be, Sam.”

“But he…”

“He’s happy,” she cut him off.

“And full and tired,” Dean finished. He turned to Helen. “You said we could crash in here?”

Helen opened her mouth and closed it twice before she found words. “Of course. Let me find you some blankets.”

“That’s not necessary, ma’am.”

“Yes, it is.”

“She needs to fuss,” Joan warned. “And a word of warning: I rarely win any arguments with my mom.”

The boys looked at each other. Dean finally grinned at Helen. “I surrender. Do whatever you need to do so that I can sleep.”

The three of them trailed after the older woman as she ransacked closets and handed out blankets. “Joan can sleep in her room. Luke, do you mind giving up your bed?” He shook his head, taking care to stay away from the maelstrom. “One of you can sleep in there, and the other can take our bed.”

Sam and Dean looked at each other and put out their hands. One quick round of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ had Dean shaking his head in disgust and heading with his pile of blankets to Helen and Will’s bedroom. Joan disappeared with the baby into her old room, and Sam headed up into Luke’s room.

“How did you know?” Will placed a shaking hand on Kevin’s wheelchair once the chaos had died down and the two strangers with his daughter had headed off to bed. In separate rooms, thankfully, since he’d already put his weapon away.

Kevin shrugged. “Joan gave me a hint. She told me ‘when you see his dad’ when she plopped Billy in my lap. And then there’s Dean’s voice. He’s the one who left the message on the machine when Billy was born.”

Will nodded. He knew that every other member of the household had listened to that message dozens of times. He had only listened once and couldn’t bear to hear it again. That’s how Kevin recognized the voice that he had not. It also meant that Sam and Dean had been there for the birth. He was relieved that Joan had not had to endure that on her own.

joaspn

Sam woke up a little disoriented, mostly because he was alone and in a strange place. Strange places were paradoxically familiar, but being alone was so incredibly rare that he didn’t know quite how to handle it. He stumbled out into the hall and very nearly knocked over Joan’s younger brother.

“Hey, you OK?”

Sam nodded, trying to appear as non-threatening as possible. “Yeah, just not quite awake. You?”

“No, I’m good.” He smiled, and Sam saw a hint of Joan in it. “So, um, I guess we need to talk.”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “We do? About what?”

“I think you know what this is about,” Luke said. The younger man tilted his head to meet Sam’s eyes. “I’m aware that you and your brother are kind of scary, and you could probably kick my ass pretty easily, but that doesn’t matter. If you ever hurt my sister, I’ll track you down and find some way to hurt you.”

“We’re not like that,” Sam was quick to point out. “Joan and I are just friends.”

“Yeah, for your sake, my dad better keep believing that. Just take care of her.” Luke smiled again, with the same startling similarity to his sister. “And just a heads up: when Grace gets here, she’s going to tear you a new one for pretty much everything.”

Joan’s friend Grace showed up an hour later and delivered the foretold reaming before awkwardly hugging Joan and settling down to doggedly resist Billy’s determined advances. Sam suspected that his son had a pinch of his brother’s way with (and fondness for) women. He’d cooed and smiled for every single one of the female Carpenters.

As he watched Joan tease her brother and friend while juggling Billy, Sam felt some sad, almost wistful knot bloom in his chest. She fit here the way she never would (never should) in Winchester world. Joan was a person who belonged with her family, and it was obvious that her family had missed her.

Helen swooped in and snatched up her grandson and Billy immediately transferred his affections to her, patting at her face and hair with chubby baby hands. She didn’t seem to mind, laughing as the child tugged experimentally at the curls. Billy would be loved here, cared for and protected and cherished. They both would.

joaspn

Dean could tell that something was bothering his brother by the way Sam wandered around the room, restlessly standing up moments after he sat down, picking things up for a closer look and setting them down again. It was something his brother had picked up from him. It took him some time, but eventually he managed to get Sam away from the crowd of Girardis, dragging him out onto the porch. “All right, let’s hear it.”

“Hear what?”

“Whatever bug you’ve got up your ass.”

Sam leaned against the rail and looked at the house. “Maybe we should leave Joan and Billy here.”

“What?!” Dean stared at his brother. “Are you out of your friggin’ mind?”

“She could have a normal life here, Dean. Look around you. She’s got family here, friends, a life that she could step back into. She could go back to school.”

“It’s not safe.”

“The Demon is gone.” Sam smiled. “Mostly thanks to Joan. She knows how to protect herself now. Hell, we taught her how.”

“She’ll never go for it,” Dean said. It went unspoken that he would never ask her. Joan was occasionally a pain in the ass, but she was his pain in the ass.

“Maybe we shouldn’t ask her.” Sam flicked his eyes toward the Impala.

Dean snorted. “You better be joking, Sam.” He watched as his brother looked down at his sneakers. “Could you really just do that to her?”

“I don’t know.” He was quiet for a minute. “It’s just . . . sometimes I think we’re doing them more harm than good, dragging the two of them all over the place. Joan deserves better than this.”

“It’s funny.” The boys jerked to attention and turned to the doorway. Joan was standing there with her arms crossed, her expression dark. “I thought we had this discussion in Chicago. The one about making my decisions for me and not telling me everything.”

Breathless silence, inside the house as well as out. They had an audience, and Dean was pretty sure he couldn’t defuse this argument before it began. “I’m just going to . . .” he motioned toward the house.

Joan nodded, her eyes on Sam. “Go ahead. Sam and I need to have a little talk.”

Dean slipped past her, reminding her in a whisper about the civilians hanging around, and headed into the house.

She walked past him and down the steps before pausing on the sidewalk. “You coming?” Her voice was tightly controlled; he was in for it. Sam caught up to her with a few strides, and they headed up the street in silence for a while. He was furiously preparing his reasoning and logic as they walked, but he knew better than to speak first. Better to give her some time to cool off.

They had gone about half a mile before she finally spoke. “You don’t get to make those kinds of decisions for me, Sam.” She stopped and looked at him, her expression fierce, and Sam winced. “No one does. If you try it again, you’ll regret it.” She started walking again, the movements fast and sharp. Still angry, then. “Where do you get off deciding what’s best for me?”

“I wanted you to have your chance at a better life,” Sam said, keeping pace with her easily. “You shouldn’t have to live in a series of crappy motels rooms and cheap apartments, and neither should Billy. It’s a lousy way to grow up. I should know. You could have a normal life here, Joan.”

“I don’t want normal!” Joan turned on him, eyes blazing. “This is what I want. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. You have your job to do, and I have mine, remember? Where does that fit in your plan? Did you want to get rid of me that badly?”

“I’m not trying to get rid of you! I just . . .I wanted you to have someplace you belong.”

“I don’t belong here, Sam. I haven’t in a long time. I belong with you and Dean and Billy, helping people wherever they are.” She was looking up at him, her arms crossed over her chest, and Sam had an impulse to step closer, lean over and kiss her.

He took a step back instead. This wasn’t a good time for that kind of complication. “I’m sorry. You’re right, this is your decision to make. But are you sure that this is what you want?”

“Yes, Sam. I’m sure.” She smiled suddenly, the storm over. “Even when Dean’s being annoying and you’re being patronizing, I want to stay with you guys.”

“I am not patronizing!”

“Please,” she scoffed. “You practically invented the condescending look.” Joan started walking again, and Sam kept pace with her easily. “Lucky for you, I grew up with two brothers and have advanced ignoring capabilities.”

“So where are we going?”

“I thought you deserved a little tour of Arcadia, since we were out anyway.” She shrugged and nudged him with her elbow. “You seem interested in ‘normal,’ Sam. It’s not all its cracked up to be.” There was a pause, and she grinned suddenly. “And I can’t exactly be categorized as normal, anyway. You do realize that if you guys left me here, I’d probably be back on the road within a week.”

“Maybe,” Sam conceded. “But it was a chance I might have taken. The life we lead isn’t for most people, Joan. Even if we settled down somewhere, hunting gets into your blood. It’s hard to give it up.”

“And that’s why I couldn’t have stayed,” she said, a bit of a smile on her face. “It’s in my blood now too.”

Sam smiled back, though he wasn’t entirely sure he liked that declaration. He couldn’t help but wish sometimes that Joan hadn’t been dragged into the Winchester life. She had been so innocent when they first met. It would have been nice if she had had the chance to keep that blissful ignorance.

joaspn

Dean and Sam sat in the chairs in the living room in the dark. They had caught naps, chatted with the family. Now everyone else had gone to sleep and the Winchester boys were too wired to sleep. This was normally the time when they went out and killed things.

This place, this house was so… suburbia. It was a home like they’d never known.

“I want Billy to have this someday,” Sam broke the silence.

“You are not going to start that up again.” Dean rolled his eyes.

“No, no. Joan’s made her choice and I… accept it, but there is no reason why we can’t have it all.”

Dean was quiet for a while. “I want you to have it all, Sammy.”

“I know.” Sam sighed a little. “You know that you will always have a place in my home, right? That you make my home?”

“This had better not be a chick-flick moment.”

Sam laughed quietly.

The two settled into companionable silence. Then they heard footsteps on the stairs. They grabbed their weapons and moved to defensible locales.

“Sam? Dean?” One of Joan’s brothers whispered.

“Luke?” Sam asked back.

“Yeah. I thought I heard you guys.”

“We didn’t mean to wake you.”

“I wasn’t sleeping. I was working on n-dimensional theory and thought I heard… anyway, are either of you interested in seeing some of Joan’s most embarrassing moments?”

Dean laughed. “You’ve got the good stuff?”

“Have I ever. Has Joan ever mentioned any high school musicals?”

“Nope.”

Luke flipped on a light switch with a grin. Sam and Dean had been expecting it and had already hidden their weapons. “Let’s get ice cream and I’ll show you the best high school musical ever.” He waved a DVD in the air. “I have been waiting for someone to show this to.”

“Junk food and a show?” Dean grinned. “Now I am starting to believe the genius label.”

“What was the musical called?” Sam asked, as always, interested in the details.

Luke even grinned at the simple question. “Well, it started out ‘For the Love of Zombies,’ then it became ‘Zombies in Love.’ By the performance, the title had been changed to ‘Zombies Arise.’”

Sam and Dean looked at each other. “You’re kidding me.”

“Nope. You’ve got to see this to believe it.”

It only took a couple minutes to get situated in front of the TV. That part was easy. The hard part was keeping the laughter to a low volume. Dean and Sam especially were hard pressed not to awake anyone else. They weren’t very successful. Kevin was the first to join them in the living room. Will and Helen were next. Joan and Billy were the last ones down.

“Oh, no!” Joan wailed when she saw what they were watching. She knew exactly who the culprit was. “Luke! Was this necessary?”

Luke grinned at Sam, Dean at Kevin, together they all responded with a resounding “Yes!”

“Mom?” Joan tried to appeal to a higher power.

Helen shrugged. “It is good entertainment, honey, now that we know that you survived the set falling apart. And they left the ice cream out. Why don’t you get yourself some?”

“Hey!” Will said loudly. Everyone quieted. “My little girl’s solo is about to begin and I want to hear it.”

“She did do a good job,” Luke admitted to Sam.

Her voice came through the recording clear and strong. ’Stop your fighting, and this war. Look upon your friends. Don’t you know the reason why; called us back again? Night is long and getting longer…’

It only took two lines into the song for Dean to recognize it. He stared at Joan. “Dude, you’ve been singing my nephew a zombie song as a lullaby every night?”

Joan snorted. “Try and tell me that you don’t think it’s the coolest thing.”

Dean grinned a little. “It does mean that you were destined for our family.”

Sam smiled at Joan and nodded once. “Why don’t you let me hold Billy while you get your ice cream?” Joan handed over Billy. Luke was the only one to notice that the exchange wasn’t as fast as others had been.

Dean waited until Joan had left the room and hissed at Luke. “Dude, you have got to get me a recording of this.”

“Sure.” Luke looked between the two brothers. “Do you want a DVD, a CD or for me to just download it onto your computer.”

“Download,” Sam said as Dean said, “Cassette tape.”

Luke stared at the older man. “A cassette? Do they still sell those?”

“If you look really hard.” Sam snorted. “The Impala only has a tape deck.”

“You need to update that,” Kevin mentioned.

“Don’t get him started,” Sam butted in. “I once suggested that he do just that when he was rebuilding the car and…” Sam glanced at Dean’s dark face and then indicated it. “That’s exactly the response I got.”

Will was impressed. “You rebuilt your car?”

Dean nodded. The cheerful openness from earlier was completely gone now, hidden by an impressive array of internal walls, and Sam realized how shaky this ground was and hurried to change the subject. He asked Luke, “Do you have any other videos of Joan?”

He grinned. “I have her cheerleading tryout.”

Joan walked back into the living room to hear that. “You’re kidding. I was sure that the squad would have destroyed every copy of that cheer.”

“It’s on YouTube.” Luke laughed. “And it gets more hits than a lot of regular cheerleading stuff.”

“I bet Sam would like to see you wearing your cheerleading outfit,” Dean teased, just to watch both Sam and Joan turn red.

“I never got on the squad,” Joan said. “Nor received a uniform.”

Luke grinned. “She used her tryout cheer to call out the cheerleaders for their vapid, shallow lifestyle.”

“I like vapid and shallow,” Dean argued. “Especially in pretty girls.”

“They dropped a ‘friend’ because the gossip was too good. She had a baby and left it where it was easily found,” Joan said sadly. “She had to change schools.”

Dean winced and admitted. “Ah, disloyalty is something entirely different.”

“I know, Dean.” Her smile indicated that she had forgiven him already.

Sam finally spoke up. “Now, I’m curious.”

Luke messed with the DVD and finally got a homemade menu. “Be curious no more.”

Dean took one look at the expression on Joan’s face frozen on the screen and barked out a laugh. “Someone’s in trouble.”

His brother nodded in agreement, a smile on his face. “I’d recognize that look anywhere.”

Dean and Sam laughed their way through the cheer. At the end, Sam grinned at her. “You earned that standing ovation.”

“She came up with the cheer in less than four hours,” Luke bragged.

“You’re good with music and rhymes. Do you ever write your own songs?” Sam asked genuinely curious.

Joan looked shell-shocked at the idea. Other members of the family, her parents especially, were pleased with the idea. “No. I never really considered it.” She grinned. “And I can’t exactly pack a piano in the back of the Impala.”

“There’re laptop programs for song writing,” Luke offered.

“Really?” asked Dean.

“No, Dean,” Joan cut him off. “I don’t have time.”

“We spend a lot of time in the Impala,” Dean argued. “It’s not as if you have a lot of other things you can do.”

“Dean,” she said, glaring in a sadly familiar way.

He opened his mouth again but caught Sam’s telling glance. Oh. Yeah. They could always get it for her as a Christmas present.

After the cheerleading debacle, Helen unearthed an old tape from Joan’s elementary school years featuring Joan dressed as an unhappy daisy. The young woman sat down next to Sam, who took the opportunity to sneak a bite or two of her ice cream while she was distracted. Eventually the night caught up to the Girardis and they began to drift off to bed. Sometime between the daisy and graduation Joan fell asleep against Sam’s shoulder. Sam handed Billy over to his brother and scooped her up. The move was almost as practiced as picking up his son; Joan had a tendency to drop off wherever and whenever it was convenient and Sam always hated to wake her up. Their schedule made it hard for her to find sleep since she refused to do so when they were out on a hunt and Billy’s schedule didn’t exactly correspond to a Hunter’s. He deposited her on her bed, pulling a blanket up over her before heading off to sleep.

The next morning Dean stopped him on the stairs before he reached the kitchen. Luke was next to him, looking a little panicked, and Billy was tucked under Dean’s arm. “You don’t want to go in there right now,” his brother said.

“Why not?”

Luke grimaced. “Dad finally got around to asking her what kind of relationship you two are in.”

“And now Joanie’s pissed,” Dean added. “I think he ran a background check, too.”

“It’s none of your business!” Sam winced at Joan’s tone. He’d only heard her sound like that twice before, and neither of those events were exactly pleasant.

“You’re my kid, of course it’s my business,” he father returned, just as heated. “I just need to know that you’re taken care of.”

Sam flinched at his word choice. Back when they’d first caught up with Joan, she’d sat next to him on a motel bed and told him, word for word, exactly what her father had said when he’d found out that Joan was pregnant. There was no doubt in his mind that Joan had reacted to those words in the exact opposite way that Will Girardi had intended.

“You lost that right a long time ago, Dad.” Her voice was steady and oddly calm, which paradoxically made Sam angry on her behalf. “’That boy’ and I have been doing just fine without you. I don’t need to be ‘taken care of,’ Dad.” With that she stormed out of the kitchen and up the stairs, passing the three of them on the landing. “We’re leaving,” she snapped out, heading towards her bedroom without stopping.

Dean shrugged and passed the baby to Sam. “I’ll pack our stuff. You see if you can calm her down, or that’ll be one awkward car ride.”

Luke raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, good luck with that. I’m going to find someplace safe until things are a little quieter.”

“Coward,” Sam muttered, though he couldn’t blame the younger man. Joan in a temper was a scary sight, and Sam knew with absolute certainty that he’d never seen her this far over the edge before. This ranked right up there with the fight he and his dad had the night he left for Stanford. The thought of that made him want to find some way to mend the fences here. He still remembered four years of silence that had been broken by a series of arguments before his dad had died, and Sam wouldn’t wish that on Joan for anything in the world.

He stood in front of the bedroom door for several long moments, absentmindedly bouncing Billy a little while he tried to come up with a strategy that wouldn’t end up with Joan turning her anger around on him. Dean came up behind him with an annoyed look, duffles in one hand, and gestured for the baby with his free arm. “Just knock on the door, you pussy.”

Sam glared at his brother’s retreating back, but did as he suggested. It opened a crack, just enough for Joan to see that it was him, and then she gestured him into the room.

Her bag was sitting on the rumpled bedspread with the diaper bag next to it, and the closet door open. “I’m guessing Dean packed up already?”

Sam nodded, watching as she moved from the closet to the bed and back again. “Are you sure about this? You could just stay here for a while, try to patch things up with your father. Maybe if Dean and I aren’t around he’ll thaw out a little more.”

“It’s not your fault, Sam.” Joan smiled at him as she packed her bag, but the expression on her face was wistful and a little sad. “My dad and I were like this before I ever met you. It’s not about you. Not about Billy, even.”

Sam blinked at that revelation. “I thought you said you two were close.”

“We used to be.” She took a neatly folded stack of clothing out of the laundry basket before passing it to Sam, who was packing up all of Billy’s things. “I . . .I can’t talk about this here. Ask me when we’re on the road.”

Sam nodded as he shoved the stack of onesies into the diaper bag. “Do you have what you need from in here?”

“Yeah.” Joan looked around the room, her face still slightly sad. Then she brightened and grinned at him. “I found an old box of tapes that Dean is going to absolutely hate.”

He accepted the change of topic with a smile of his own. “Really?”

“I don’t know if I can even listen to them,” she confessed. “I’m pretty sure they’re mostly boy bands and that song from Titanic.”

Sam winced. “That’s pretty bad.”

“I was in elementary school. Cut me some slack.” She rummaged through the desk drawers, coming away with a small stack of photos. “All done,” she announced, zipping up her bag.

“Yeah, me too.” Billy’s bag had picked up several Girardi additions and barely zipped shut. Dean had the baby downstairs, using him to keep Joan’s family distracted so they didn’t get too helpful and start packing the trunk.

If Joan had paused at any moment in time, Sam would have found some way to talk her into staying here for a little while longer. One of his biggest regrets would always be those four years of silence between him and his dad and how he would never get that time back.

But the woman didn’t hesitate. She hugged every member of her family, including a reluctant Grace, said her goodbyes, and climbed into the backseat of the Impala.

Arcadia was long gone from their rearview mirror before Sam brought up their earlier conversation.

“It was the end of senior year,” Joan began, looking at both of them but focusing more on Sam as she spoke over the rumble of the engine. “There was a man named Ryan Hunter. He worked with the police as a community activist, he was on the school board, and he owned the newspaper. And he was evil.”

“Possessed?”

She shook her head. “Human evil. He had already graffitied the Catholic church and burned down the synagogue and at least one other church. I knew he was doing it, but I couldn’t prove it, and when I asked my father to check him out he refused. Ryan took out one more church, a soup kitchen, and a church-funded pregnancy center before being caught red-handed at a mosque. Three people died in the fires, and it could all have been stopped if my father had just listened to me.

“Arcadia is no longer my home. And now obviously wasn’t the time to make up with my dad. The door is open, but that house is just the place where my whole life changed. It’s good to remember, but it’s not my home and it will never be my home again.”

joaspn

Joan set Billy down on the fold-out changing table that this particular diner provided and pulled the washcloth out of the diaper bag. After wetting it down and wringing it out, she began attacking the smears of applesauce across his cheeks. For some reason, Billy had been more in the mood to play with his food than eat it today.

A waitress came out of one of the stalls and began to wash her hands. “Someone enjoyed his applesauce,” she said, drying her hands on a paper towel. “Didn’t you, Billy?” She ruffled his hair, and the baby smiled, his father’s dimples popping out.

Joan turned to look at the woman. “It’s a little creepy when you do that.”

Waitress God shrugged and tickled Billy a little, bringing out a giggle. “I love babies. They’re so honest about who they are.” She brushed at the soft brown hair one last time before turning to Joan. “They need help across the street. You should go over and ask for a job.” She was out of the door before Joan could lodge a protest.

Joan sighed, finished wiping up her child’s messy face, and headed back out into the diner. “Hope you remembered to tip. Our waitress was God,” she said quietly into Sam’s ear. “Are we staying here for a while?”

“We can take a look, see if there’s a case,” Sam said. “Why?”

“Thought I’d head across the street and see about that help wanted sign,” she replied. She hated going into the details of her God-missions in public. “Watch Billy for me? I’ll meet you guys later.”

The lights were turned down inside the restaurant, but the office in the back was brightly lit and the manager more cheerful than the gloomy outside would have led her to believe. “It’s only temporary,” she told Joan as she took the young woman for a tour. “Maddie is having surgery, but she’ll be back in a month.” Once Joan assured the woman that she was only looking for something temporary, her smile grew somehow wider and brighter. “Perfect! Are you ready right now?”

“Ready for what, specifically?” Joan asked, suddenly a little wary.

“I just need you to do a quick audition. Nothing fancy, just a verse of something done acapella. If that goes OK, we’ll head up to the owner’s office and sing for him.”

“I thought you needed a waitress.”

“Oh, honey, everyone does double duty around here. We’re all expected to hop onto the stage and do a couple of songs when the bandleader calls us up, waitress and hostess and even managers. Don’t worry, they go easy on you your first week or so.”

Joan grumbled internally. God seemed determined to make her perform no matter what she wanted. “Do you have anything specific in mind?” When the woman shook her head, Joan closed her eyes and began to sing the first thing that came into her mind. It wasn’t her usual style of music, but it had been playing in the diner across the street.

Debbie was still smiling when Joan reopened her eyes. “Perfect,” she said. “Jake has a thing for the classic female country singers. You do Patsy Cline for him, exactly like that, and you’ll have a job.”

xxx

It didn’t take any of them long to become accustomed to Joan’s new job. Both Dean and Sam became moderately addicted to the unbelievably awesome coffee they served at the restaurant. There weren’t any major cases in this particular town, but Sam and Dean took care of a half-dozen salt and burns in the immediate area and passed along several jobs that they couldn’t reach, Dean making a special trip to the roadhouse to hand over the info. Sam used the opportunity to work on a side project that he’d been putting off, an electronic reference to pretty much everything the Winchesters had run across in the last few years. Joan slowly became more comfortable singing on the tiny stage in the restaurant. She would probably never truly enjoy it, but she was a decent singer and could pretend with the best of them.

Unfortunately, everyone at Mac’s turned out to be frighteningly well-adjusted. When Debbie told her that Maddie was coming back after three weeks, she still hadn’t found out exactly who she was supposed to be helping. God always had a double or triple-layered plan for what she would accomplish on these missions, and so far the only thing she could see that she’d done was learn how to sing in public without entirely freaking out.

She sighed and headed over to her newest customer. Tonight was her last night. She had to figure out who she should be helping before her little family hit the road again.

xxx

Steven sat down wearily at the table. He’d debated driving through the night, but the thought of the empty house that was waiting for him at the end of his journey was a little too depressing to face. Eating out alone wasn’t much better, but the people in the room next door to his at the motel had a fussy baby and he hadn’t wanted the reminder of Lindsay.

God, he was going to miss his daughter. Driving away from that dorm building had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done. For the last seventeen years it had been just the two of them, Steven and Lindsay against the world. Even though she would be coming back on breaks and for the summer, it would never be the same.

“Hi, I’m Joan. I’ll be your waitress tonight. What can I get you this evening?”

Steven looked up at his waitress. She was young for a place like this, probably only a couple of years older than Lindsay and easily ten years younger than every other employee here, not to mention far more energetic. “Any specials?” he finally asked. He hadn’t even touched the menu.

“Our special today is roast lamb with curried potatoes and mango salad,” she said, smiling at him. “There’s also a pretty good 8 ounce sirloin with baked potato and house salad.”

“The special,” he told her. He really didn’t care what he ate, but he could practically see his daughter making that disapproving face she got when he skipped meals.

She scribbled the order down on her pad. “And to drink?”

Steven sighed and scrubbed at his face. He really, really wanted a beer, followed by a bottle of whiskey, but if he started drinking tonight he wouldn’t stop. “Coffee.”

“All right. I’ll be right out with the coffee.” The girl turned around, long brown ponytail bobbing as she hurried away. Steven watched her leave with a bit of bemusement before turning his attentions toward the stage.

There was a band playing, striking a good balance of audible without becoming ear-splitting. A skinny older man with a grey beard was singing a passable version of Kenny Rogers ‘Ruby’ that the other patrons seemed to be enjoying. When he was finished, he acknowledged the applause with a terse bow and headed over behind the bar, picking up an apron and nodding to the woman currently standing there. She finished up the drink she was pouring, handed it over to a customer, and disappeared into the kitchen.

Joan was back with his coffee a minute later, setting the cup and saucer down in front of him followed by a ceramic cow filled with cream. “Your food will be out in about ten minutes. Let me know if you need anything else before then.”

Steven nodded and took a deep, appreciative swallow. He thought about telling the girl to take the creamer with her, since he drank his coffee black when it was this good, but she was already walking away by the time he looked up.

He was ready for a refill by the time his food arrived, and Joan took care of it with a warm smile that was neither flirtatious nor weary. “I think you like the coffee here almost as much as a friend of mine.”

He managed a smile, which wasn’t as hard as he would have thought. She reminded him a little of Lindsay, though his daughter had never and probably would never end up waiting tables anywhere. “Its pretty good coffee.”

“So I’ve been told. Well, enjoy your meal! I’ll be around if you need me for anything.”

“Joan!”

Steven watched as the girl turned to the bandstand, tray held down at her side. The bandleader was making an imperious come hither gesture. “Come on up here, sweetheart. I think it’s your turn to entertain us tonight.”

While his waitress bantered with the man on stage, Steven took a bit of his food. It was just as good as he expected from the quality of the coffee, and he savored the lamb and potatoes while the band started playing.

He stopped eating as soon as he recognized the song, a lump in his throat. His Maggie had loved Bob Dylan and had passed that love along to their daughter. When her mother died, Lindsay had played this song over and over until the old record wore out and he’d been forced to buy a CD to replace it. It was still Lindsay’s favorite song.

It seemed like the song went by much too quickly. Joan blushed at the applause, her gaze turning to someone that Steven couldn’t see, and hurried off the stage in that direction. There was a quick conversation before she headed back to his table. “Is the food all right?” she asked, a furrow between her eyebrows. “I can get you something else if you want.”

“The food’s fine. The song just . . .it’s my daughter’s favorite song. I wanted to hear it without distractions. You did a very good job singing it.”

The pink that had mostly faded from her cheeks was back in full force. “Thanks. My mom used to play it when she painted.”

“Has she heard you sing it?”

“No.” The girl glanced back over to the mystery person in the corner. “My parents haven’t heard me sing in years. They don’t live around here.”

“That’s a shame,” Steven told her. “I think your mother would love to hear you sing that song. I’m thinking about bringing my daughter here when I get her at Christmas break and requesting it.”

“Oh, I won’t be here by then. Tonight was my last night. We’ll be on the road tomorrow morning.”

“Where are you headed?”

“I think we’ll be going north. We’ll see.”

Steven sighed. “Just think about what I said, OK? Trust me, you should sing that song for your mother.” It had been exactly what Steven needed to hear.

xxx

Sam slipped in through the employee door, nodding to one of the waitresses (Jennifer, her name was Jennifer) as he walked in. They were used to him after three weeks of meeting Joan at the end of her shift and he was able to move past the handful of people without any hindrance.

Joan was still out on the floor, and that was expected. He’d showed up early on purpose, hoping for a chance to hear her sing before they moved on. She only ever sang for Billy, and even that was growing more rare as he got older and had less need for lullabies. Sam missed her voice sometimes.

Almost like the man was reading his mind, the bandleader called her up to the small stage at that moment. Sam watched from just outside the kitchen door as Joan set aside her tray, squared her shoulders and headed up.

“All right, let’s give Joan here a big hand. This is her last night here with us, so let’s make it special. Got anything in particular you’d like to sing for us tonight, Joan?”

She nodded and said something to him, head turned away from the microphone. The man grinned and repeated it to the band, just as quietly, and they launched into a song that Sam didn’t know. Joan stepped up to the microphone, her bearing calmer than he would expect. “You must leave now, take what you need you think will last,” she sang, and the song suddenly clicked with Sam. The tempo was a little slower than Bob Dylan’s version, the tone a little more bluesy, but Sam remembered listening to Dylan back in his angsty teenage phase and the lyrics for “Baby Blue” struck a chord for him back then. Still did, to be honest, though he’d never admit it to Dean.

Joan was swaying by the second verse, her long skirt moving gently from side, and Sam couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Her eyes were closed as she sang, one hand gripping the microphone as the other hand kept the beat against her leg.

She was beautiful.

 

Chapter 6

“It’s late. She should be back by now.” Sam wasn’t quite pacing, but he was obviously having problems settling down. Billy was starting to get agitated, a clear sign of the emotions of his father. “Joan hates grocery shopping.”

“She answer her phone?”

Sam shook his head. “Rang four times and then went to voice mail.”

Dean set aside the whetstone and knife, stood up and stretched. “I’ll walk over to the store, see what’s going on.” His casual manner belied his own worry. “Maybe you-know-who showed up.”

“She would have called.”

“Sometimes she doesn’t get a chance. You keep researching the case. I’ll take a look around.”

The flashing lights were visible a block from the grocery store, and Dean knew that Joan was probably in the thick of the mess. At least he knew that she had a very good reason for not picking up her phone.

Finding out what had happened wasn’t difficult. Dean figured that if there was one universal constant, it was the love of a juicy story. He shook his head as he strode back to the motel to fill his brother in. It just figured that Joan of all people would be the one snatched up by the looney bin.

joaspn

Cassandra sighed as she stripped off her gloves and headed toward the young police officer waiting at the guard station. “We have a problem,” she said without preamble.

“Did she react to the drugs?” The man looked worried. Cassandra was pretty sure this was the first time he’d had someone brought into the ward. She would have remembered a guy this good-looking.

“No, seems to be handling that fairly well. She’s lactating, though, and that makes this situation much more complicated.”

“By lactating you mean . . .”

“She’s producing milk. She’s been nursing an infant recently.”

“So somewhere out there is a baby that we need to find,” he said, catching on quickly. “Shit. Can you tell me how old?”

“Anywhere from six months to eighteen months. She’s completely recovered from giving birth and is in fairly good shape now. Do you want her personal effects?”

“We’ve already confiscated the gun. Anything in there that will help us identify her?”

“There’s not much,” Cassandra admitted. “A necklace, $40 in cash, and the clothes she was wearing. No other jewelry, no I.D., and one tattoo.” She held up the Polaroid to show the unique star inside of a sun that decorated the young woman’s back. “No other identifying marks or scars. I’d estimate her age as somewhere between twenty and twenty-five.”

“Can you get me fingerprints?”

“Already done,” she said, handing him the paper. “Good luck. If she’s not in the system, it’s going to take some pretty impressive legwork to find out who she is. We’ve had patients come through here who never get identified.”

“I’m going to find out who this one is,” he said, reaching out and shaking her hand. “Thanks for your help.” With that he headed out the door.

joaspn

Cassandra stretched and grimaced, feeling the tightness of knots from between her shoulder blades to her neck. A glance at the clock told her she’d been sitting at her desk for almost three hours taking care of paperwork. It was an oddly quiet night, other than the mysterious Jane Doe from the beginning of her shift. Normally there were one or two small interruptions by now, even if they were just requests for a sedative for an uncooperative patient, but tonight it was almost eerily calm.

Shaking off her odd mood, she stood and stretched again, wincing as at least one vertebrae popped. Time for coffee. The walk down to the nurses’ station would do her good.

The scenery when she got there was better than usual, and for a fleeting moment Cassandra wished she’d worn a skirt instead of pants and had applied a touch of lipstick before she’d left her office. Then she shook her head and laughed to herself. The new (hot) orderly was at least fifteen years younger than her. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye while she poured her coffee. He was reading the new employee manual and frowning. She took a few moments to fiddle around with cream and sugar while getting in several more covert, lingering looks before heading back to her office. Nothing like a little window-shopping to brighten a woman’s day.

joaspn

Sam breathed a sigh of relief when the doctor finally left the nurses’ station. How long could someone take to get a cup of coffee, anyway? He waited a few more minutes so that she would be comfortably ensconced in her office and then opened up the computer program that this place used to keep track of the patients. He found Joan’s file (Jane Doe 8-43), read it and tucked it away. Dean had already retrieved her things, so all that was left was Joan herself.

The room was thankfully close to the exit, the first real piece of luck they’d had in this whole debacle. He unlocked both doors and propped them open before turning his attention to the girl in the bed.

Reading the file had been poor preparation for the reality. While he knew academically that she’d been tazered, sedated, and restrained, Sam felt his heart clench when he saw Joan bound hand and foot and lying far too still on the bed. Joan was never still. Even in her sleep she tossed and turned and moved around. He undid the straps quickly. “Joan,” he said quietly but with urgency. “Joan, it’s Sam. You need to wake up.” She stirred but didn’t open her eyes, and Sam reached over and cradled her cheek with one large hand. “Joan!”

The young woman’s eyes slit open. “Smm,” she slurred, and tried to look at him. Her eyes refused to focus and slid closed almost immediately.

Sam felt a small measure of relief at her response, lukewarm as it was. “Hey, we need to get out of here. Think you can open your eyes for me?” Walking was obviously going to be out of the question, but a lookout would be helpful.

After several agonizing seconds, Joan managed to open her eyes, showing pupils that were blown so wide they almost entirely eclipsed the iris. “Good,” he said. “Do you think you can put your arms around my neck?”

She squinted at him, blinked lazily, and hummed an affirmative response. Sam slid one arm under her knees and the other behind her back, waiting until her arms went around his neck and her head came to rest on his shoulder before straightening up. “Your eyes still open?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Good. I need you to watch behind me. We’re going to head out the room, across the hallway, and down the stairs. Dean’s downstairs with the car. OK?”

She shifted in his arms, presumably moving so she had a better look over his shoulder. “’K,” she agreed.

For once, it all went according to plan. Sam carried her down the stairwell, stopping once to adjust his grip. The drugs had made Joan so pliant that carrying her like this was difficult, but he didn’t want to subject her to a fireman’s carry after everything else she’d been through today.

Dean had the engine running and the car door open, and Sam simply eased the two of them into the passenger seat rather than spend the time trying to get her settled in the back seat. Every second they were in the parking lot was a second they could all get caught. They would blow town and then rearrange the seating.

His brother stuck to the back roads, zigzagging through three counties before finding them a motel. She was still pretty much out for the count, so Sam carried her into the room while Dean followed with the sleeping baby.

Joan murmured something slurred and mostly inaudible when he laid her on the bed and immediately curled up on her side beneath the blankets.

“She fought them,” Sam told his brother quietly once Billy and Joan were cared for, dropping down wearily next to Joan. “Apparently she broke a cop’s nose trying to get to that girl.” They’d been able to piece together the events with the help of a security camera and the stolen police file. A demon-possessed woman had been exiting the store with a child, apparently the host’s daughter. Joan had naturally objected, but things had gone sideways when she tried to exorcise the demon without anyone seeing.

Dean shot him a look and sat down on the vacant bed. “Of course she did, Sam. No way in hell was Joan going to let some demon walk off with a kid.” He stared across the divide at the young woman. “They did a number on her, that’s for sure. If I could get my hands on the bastard who used the taser . . .”

“You’d need to stand in line,” Sam told him grimly. He turned to Joan and stroked her hair back with one large hand. “I’ll take first watch.” His tone didn’t allow for any argument, and Dean didn’t feel like offering him one. Instead he made himself comfortable on his bed, kicking off his boots and pulling the blanket up over him. His last sight before Dean allowed himself to drop off to sleep was Sam pulling the blanket up a little further over Joan.

The next several days were miserable. Joan spent over an hour in the bathroom when she woke up, crying as she expressed milk into the toilet for fear the drugs still in her system would hurt Billy. Billy didn’t care for the sudden complete lack of nursing and fussed almost continuously. Sam couldn’t stop himself from hovering over both of them while Dean decamped on errands for as much time as he possibly could. The immediate danger was past and it was now up to his brother and Joan to put the two of them back together.

This didn’t mean that he couldn’t help move things along, he reflected as he eyed the costume on display. He had a feeling Sam would appreciate the cheerleader uniform.

xxx

It would have seemed romantic to say that he’d looked at Joan one day and realized, like a flash of lightning, that he was in love with her. The truth was, it crept up on him piece by piece. But one afternoon, he looked over at her as she played on the floor with Billy, and the decision that he’d made over the past year to keep his distance seemed to be an incredibly pointless one.

With that realization in place, he closed his laptop, stood up from the table and crossed the room in three long strides. Joan looked up from her game with Billy with a smile on her face and Sam reached down, helped her to her feet and kissed her. She made a surprised sound and drew back, looking up at him with a question in her eyes. He cupped her face with one hand, his fingers tangling in her hair, and Joan leaned toward him and kissed him back.

joaspn

Dean juggled the fast food bags and tried to open the door. It was not working. He was making enough noise that either Joanie or Sammy should have heard him and helped him out. Sam could be pissed at him for his last matchmaking effort and ignoring him (so maybe bringing home the cheerleader’s uniform for Joan hadn’t been that inspired) and heaven knew that Billy could have made a mess big enough to warrant an unscheduled bath.

Finally.

The door unlocked and Dean stepped into the motel room and unloaded everything onto the table. It was a controlled tumble. “I brought all that rabbit food, Joanie, that you seem to think…” he looked up and stopped talking.

Finally.

Joan and Sam were engaged in a very intense liplock. Billy was on the floor, near the bathroom playing with a towel. The child saw Dean, dropped the towel and made a beeline for his favorite playtoy. Dean stood there grinning for a moment. He had begun to wonder if his brother was ever going to get his act together and grab a hold of the best thing that had ever happened to him. Dean scooped up his nephew and grabbed his keys. He was going to give Sammy some privacy while he was on the right track. He had already opened the door, when he realized that this might take some time (hopefully). He made a quick step to the table and grabbed what he thought was his bag of dinner and skittered out the door.

Joan and Sam stopped to breathe. They smiled at each other.

“Subtle, he’s not,” Sam grinned.

“He gets points for trying.”

joaspn

Dean sat in the front seat of the car and frowned at his bag of food. He had grabbed Joan’s selection, damnit. He was in no mood for a salad and a chicken sandwich. He was really in a mood for a celebratory beer and some greasy fries. Unfortunately, he had left his wallet on the motel table with his food.

There was no way in hell that he was going to walk back into that room without a phone call from Joan or Sam first. He and Billy would sleep hungry in the Impala first. He couldn’t go hustle pool with Billy in tow either. They were stuck.

At least Billy didn’t seem to mind. The toddler sat in Dean’s lap and patted his hands against the steering wheel. It was after dark and getting cold outside. Dean hadn’t stuck around long enough to grab Billy’s coat or his diaper bag.

Dean grumbled a bit and took a bite of Joan’s sandwich. It wasn’t half bad. It settled the rumblings in his stomach and gave him something to do. He fed Billy little bits of the bread. They finished the sandwich in record time. Dean glared at the salad. He was still hungry but rabbit food? Joan had been after him for months about his diet. If he caved now, she would know and use it to her advantage.

How hungry was he?

In the end, he grabbed a fork and stuffed the lettuce into his mouth. Hopefully, Sam would have her so bedazzled that she wouldn’t realize that Dean had eaten her salad.

Now what?

As thrilled as he was that Joan and Sam were getting together, he didn’t want to think about the actual process. He needed to do something. So he picked up his nephew, lifted him over the bench seat and strapped him into his car seat.

“I guess you and me are going for a little ride, Squirt.”

Billy liked rides; it might just put the boy to sleep. Dean drove around town for a while. There wasn’t much to this little Podunk town. He nearly slammed on the brakes when he saw the pawn shop. Bonus points, since it was also open.

“Aha.” Dean pulled into the parking lot and lifted the sleeping baby out of his seat. It always surprised him how quickly babies could fall to sleep sometimes. The bell rang when he entered. Billy snuffled a little but quickly went back to sleep. The elderly shop owner glanced from Dean to Billy and back again. Dean knew that they confused the guy. He grinned at him. “Do you have any rings, by chance?”

The owner returned the grin. He could guess what would turn a hard-ass like Dean into one that was comfortable carrying a baby. “Not many.” He reached under the counter and unlocked a safe and pulled out a set of rings.

Dean looked them over and was less then inspired. How was one supposed to get a ring for someone like Joan? Okay, so Sam really should have been doing this, but it had taken the boy this long to get close to Joan. Dean didn’t have the patience to wait until Sam decided to take the next step and make it permanent.

Dean made a gesture of frustration and shoved his free hand into his coat pocket. And this time he pulled out his father’s wedding ring. Even Sammy didn’t know that he had it. There were times that he regretted taking it off his father’s corpse since he had never, ever seen John Winchester without it.

“Getting back together,” the owner asked, trying to make small talk.

Dean shook his head and lifted the ring a little higher in the air. “My dad’s.” Sammy would be able to use it now. He was glad finally that he had saved it. The ring was an heirloom when they didn’t have many besides the car and their job.

That confused the man. “What happened to your mother’s?”

“A fire got her and everything of hers.” Dean’s throat only closed up a little with the words.

The man winced. He hadn’t planned on poking a scabbed memory. He leaned over and looked at the ring. The simple etching on the gold reopened a scabbed memory of his own. Dean saw the man catch his breath.

“I… ah… have something you might be interested in.”

The man hurried away, leaving the rings in plain sight. He didn’t return right away. Dean wandered away from the front desk to look at guns. Nothing truly caught his eye. He had most of the guns he needed for his job and he got his specialized ammo from Bobby and other Hunter stops.

Two sets of footsteps had him turning around. The owner was leading a woman of about forty down the stairs. In her hands was the jewelry box. Dean got a pit in his stomach, like he normally got just before God showed up to talk to Joan. As pinched and sad as the two people before him were, he knew that this was a bad idea. “Maybe I should go.”

“No, please,” the woman pleaded. Dean could hear the tears in her voice and that made him even more nervous. She opened the box and showed him the rings, a wedding band and an engagement ring with a tiny diamond.

They matched John’s ring perfectly.

Dean had memories of those rings on his mother’s soft, gentle hands. Dean resisted the urge to swear. He couldn’t breath. “You need those,” he finally said.

“No,” she said slowly. “I don’t. My husband died in a car crash twelve years ago. I finally… finally let him go and…” she smiled a silly smile here. “Love slipped back into my life.” She flashed the ruby that rested on her ring finger. “I’m getting married soon and Rick doesn’t deserve to know that my past rings are in the dresser drawer.”

“Won’t your kids want it?” Dean had to ask.

She shook her head. “Wes and I didn’t get a chance to have kids.”

Dean shrugged. “Well, you’re young enough and kinda hot for someone your age. If your Rick has any sense, he’ll fix that.” Oops. That was not the thing to say to perfect strangers, ‘cept that the old man was laughing and the woman looked a little shell-shocked.

“Thank you,” the old man wheezed. “Rick and I have been trying to convince her of just that.”

Dean reddened. “’Sides, I know how much those rings are worth.” His dad had worked two jobs for over a year to pay for Mary’s. “There is no way Sammy can afford it.”

Now the two owners were confused. “Sammy?”

“My baby brother is finally getting together with Billy’s momma.” Dean couldn’t help but to pat the baby’s back. “It’s about damn time and I want him to have a ring on him for when he finally takes the next step.”

The woman laughed. “Wesley didn’t believe that I loved him enough to marry him, but his older brother, Wayne, knew. He was the one who convinced Wes to buy these.” She fingered the pair in fond remembrance. “He might have even found them for Wes.”

“Maybe you should give them to Wayne,” Dean suggested.

She shook her head and sighed. “Wayne and Wes died in the same crash. It’s probably better that way. The surviving brother would never have recovered from the loss.”

Dean could understand that. “Yeah.”

She offered the box to Dean. “Here. I think this belongs to you now.”

“No,” Dean said. “Not yet and I really shouldn’t touch it until the wedding and I’m the best man.” The woman was starting to look stubborn. “How about this? I’ll send Sammy to you first thing in the morning. That will give you the night to think it over and to figure out how much you want for them.”

“These are priceless,” she answered. “I couldn’t sell them, but I think that giving them to you is the right thing.”

“Well, you have the night to sleep on it.” Dean was already heading for the door, before he caved to the woman’s persistence. “Have a good night.”

“Send your brother first thing!” she yelled after him.

Dean smiled and waved at her. He wasn’t paying attention to where he was headed and ran straight into Goth God. “Oh. Hell.”

“Not even close,” God said in response.

“I don’t work for you.”

“That’s what you think.”

Dean ground his teeth. “Why are you here?”

“I wanted to celebrate with the one person who wanted Sam and Joan to get together almost as much as I did.”

That surprised Dean. God had planned this. “What? Why didn’t you do something before now?”

“Free will.”

“Not a fan, here.”

“Sure you are. You hate anyone bossing you around, even your family.”

Dean now knew why even Joan didn’t argue with God. “Why are you talking to me?”

“I want you to send Samuel here tomorrow morning.”

Yeah, Dean had been considering leaving this town without looking back. He hated taking the rings from someone like that woman. He was even less thrilled that God was calling him on it. Taking the rings smacked of charity.

“Dean, I want you and Samuel to accept this gift.” God turned around and walked away.

“Hey!” Dean yelled after him. “Don’t I get a chance to argue more?”

God just waved his hand and never turned around.

Dean glared at the receding figure.

He took his brother back to the pawn shop as promised, though he wasn’t happy about it. Dean might not work for Joan’s Boss, but even he knew better than to ignore one of those tasks.

joaspn

When Sam stumbled over the threshold, Dean rethought his plan. He’d talked his brother into going out after the hunt, partly to blow off steam and excess adrenaline and partly so Sam and Joan could have some time apart after the latest fight. He couldn’t help but tense up when they fought, certain that some part of his new family would end up walking away. He remembered the fights before Sam left for Stanford just as clearly as Sam, even though these were nowhere in the neighborhood.

Standard practice after the two of them argued was an hour or two of sulking, although Sam called it ‘cooling off.’ Dean had elected to have the sulk take place in a bar, getting in some increasingly-rare adult fun time. But Sam was apparently a little more drunk than he’d thought and planned on, if he was tripping over the door. Dean ignored the way he’d been tripping over his own feet since they’d left the bar; he’d never be the lightweight Sam was. Immediately after the thought crossed his mind, he moved forward and cracked his skull on the door frame.

Once the stars cleared from his vision, he glared at the seemingly-benign lintel. He didn’t remember the thing being that low before. Must have moved on him.

Sam was still sprawled on the ground next to the door, though he’d somehow managed to do so without the usual tangle of limbs. He was staring owlishly at the threshold, then at his own feet. “I think I’m wearing your shoes.” He made a face and added, “And my voice sounds weird.”

Dean frowned. His brother’s voice did sound weird, rougher and with more than a little gravel to it. He shook his head and helped his brother up.

They made the short trip to their respective beds without further incident. Dean could hear the water running in the shower, which was a good sign. Showers calmed his brother’s girlfriend like nothing else. He made sure that the door was locked and the salt lines were in place and fell asleep quickly.

Joan shook him awake half an hour later. “Sam?”

“What’s wrong?” He didn’t sit up or open his eyes, though he did roll over onto his back.

“Why is Dean on my bed?”

Dean groaned. It was definitely too early in the morning for this and he was far too hung over to parse out what strange thing was going on with his brother’s batshit girlfriend. “Try again, please, with a little more clarity.”

She huffed out one of those exasperated sighs, no doubt accompanied by an eyeroll that he didn’t see since he refused to open his eyes and admit that this conversation was taking place. “Sam. You are on Dean’s bed. Dean is on our bed. You two need to switch around and fix it.”

“I’m Dean, I’m on my bed, and I’m either hung over or still drunk right now. Go away, Joanie.” He turned over on his side.

Joan huffed out a sigh. He could hear the rustle as she moved away, rummaged in her bag and then came back to his side. This time the shaking to wake him up wasn’t as gentle. “Dean?’

“Come on, Joanie, what the hell? I’m trying to sleep here.”

“Open your eyes and look at this first.”

Dean went through a litany of mental curses, wishing that Joan would just take whatever this was over to Sam so that he could sleep. He cautiously opened his eyes, squinting even in the dim light of the motel room.

It took him a second to process what he was seeing, partly because the only mirror Joan had managed to dig up was inside of a makeup thing and was therefore tiny. It was Sam’s face reflected in that mirror, and Dean stifled a groan. He sat up slowly, anticipating and dealing with the spike of pain through his head. The occupant of the other bed was lying on his stomach, but enough of the face was visible for another groan, this time as much for the situation as the pain. “Wake him up.”

Joan bit her lip and nodded, clearly too freaked out about this turn of event to argue with him. Dean watched as she sat down next to a body that looked like him, leaned over, and said something into one ear. Sam rolled over onto his back, clearly still a little drunk. “I’m up,” he said, in Dean’s rough voice, before making something very close to one of Sam’s classic bitchfaces and clearing his throat.

“Come on, Sammy. Up and at ‘em, we’ve got a problem.” Dean’s head was pounding; his brother’s body didn’t have the alcohol tolerance his own did and the drinking from earlier had gotten a little out of hand.

Sam sat up slowly and turned his head. Dean watched as his own green eyes grew wide. “What the hell?”

“Exactly,” Joan said. “I just came in here and you two were like that. It’s weird. I want you to fix it.”

“Sam, you got a feeling we didn’t get the witch?”

“Or maybe they managed to get a hex bag in somewhere?”

“No one came to the room. It’s just been me and Billy tonight.”

“The car, maybe?” Dean gave an involuntary shudder at the thought of someone messing with the Impala.

Sam shook his head. “We haven’t been in the car. But it can’t be in here, because nothing happened to Joan or Billy.”

Dean sighed and stood up, wobbling a bit before he achieved equilibrium. “All right. Joanie, you go through your stuff and Billy’s bag and then call Bobby. I’ll check the car and my bag. Sam, you get started on the room. I’ll help once I finish up outside.”

Sam cracked his neck and rubbed his forehead. “Can we have coffee first? How do you even survive with your body like this?”

“Suck it up, Sammy. The sooner we find out what caused this, the faster we can get it reversed and get back to normal.”

Joan was on the telephone with Bobby by the time they had determined that there wasn’t a hex bag. Bobby asked questions about the case they had just finished up (witches, hence the time spent looking for hex bags) and had nearly laughed himself sick before promising to call them back in an hour.

When he called back, it was to basically tell Sam and Dean to wait it out. “Something like this would take too much effort to make permanent. It probably happened right around midnight, so it’ll probably end at about the same time. If it doesn’t we’ll try digging a little deeper.”

It was a very long day, all things considered. Dean’s body had a bad left shoulder and his knees ached a little in the cold, and Sam’s back wasn’t the greatest because he often ended up stooping over for everyday tasks. They did some research on the witch they had sent packing, but the woman was practically a ghost before they’d sent her on her way and they didn’t really find anything new. Witches got a warning unless they had killed someone because neither of them really wanted to kill a human unnecessarily and it wasn’t their place to lecture anyone about her beliefs, but usually by the time a witch came to a hunter’s attention they were already pretty deep into the dark side. Nowadays they let Dresden know about the person and moved on. The magic community apparently had some sort of police, though Dresden was reluctant to talk about it and neither one of them really wanted to know.

Joan was completely uncomfortable with the situation, which would have made Dean chuckle if it wasn’t obviously hurting Sam’s feelings. She spent most of the day running the errands that needed to be done, leaving Billy with the two of them. Billy was a little confused about it all and could apparently tell that something was up, but he didn’t really seem to have a problem with it like his mother.

They all breathed a sigh of relief when midnight came and the two of them were back in their own bodies. Dean welcomed the familiarity of his bad shoulder and the lost inches of height, watching as Sam became reacquainted with his shaggy haircut and sore back.

It was good to be back.

Chapter 7

Sam was a little apprehensive about how this would go. Will Girardi didn’t really like him all that much, and Sam was honest enough to admit that the man had legitimate reason for the dislike. This whole situation had the potential to become very messy very quickly.

He turned around in the passenger seat to look at Joan, who was knitting ferociously with the kind of focus and intensity on her project that typically meant she was avoiding thinking about something that was threatening to upset her. It had been her decision to do Christmas with the Girardi’s and New Year’s at Bobby’s after a phone call from her mother, and Sam wasn’t entirely sure if she regretted it now.

Dean, as usual, was pretending that the tension didn’t exist as he drove down the narrow residential streets, humming along to the Zepplin mix tape currently playing. They’d only been to the Girardi house once before, having spent Thanksgiving and Joan’s 21st birthday in South Dakota with Bobby and Billy’s first birthday with the Carpenters, but Dean had been born with that freaky Winchester navigation gene and rarely got lost.

“Do we need to stop and get presents for everyone?” Sam asked, mostly because the lack of talking was starting to get to him. Also because he had no real idea. His Christmas experiences were somewhat limited. If they went by last year as a template, he and Dean should at least get something small for each one of the Girardi’s. Given how many there were, comparatively speaking, that would mean stopping on the way. He doubted Helen would be letting Joan and Billy out of her sight once they arrived.

“Probably,” Joan said, not looking up from her knitting. “It doesn’t have to be much, but maybe something from all three of us?”

“Suggestions?”

She sighed, finished off a section with a vicious clacking of needles, and stuffed the bundle of yarn into her bag. “Maybe a book for Luke? Either something brand new or really old. Art supplies would probably go over well with Mom.” Joan took a drink from the coffee cup she had carefully propped in the corner of the seat, blocked off by Billy’s car seat. After a loose bottle of water had made Dean clench his teeth and grip the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white, Joan was always careful to make sure her beverages were secured. “Any ideas for Kevin and my dad?”

Sam shook his head. He didn’t know either one of them very well. Luke and Helen were the ones who kept the communication lines open. “We can look around when we stop.”

There was a sound of disgust from the driver’s seat. “It’s going to need to be some kind of mall, isn’t it?”

“There’s one just outside of Arcadia,” Joan chirped, suddenly cheerful. “We can split up and look around.”

“I’m not splitting up at a mall two days before Christmas,” Dean declared. “No way in hell we’ll ever make it back out.”

“Then you’d better wait outside a couple of the stores,” Joan said matter-of-factly. “I’ve got a couple of things I need to pick up that I don’t want you to see.”

“Come on, Joanie, not the mall.” And Sam knew that Dean was specifically saying, ‘Not the mall at Christmastime.’ Dean absolutely hated crowds.

“Then find a thrift store before we hit Arcadia. Sam’s right, we need to get gifts for my family.” Joan picked up her knitting again, the discussion apparently over from her point of view.

Dean managed to find the best compromise possible when he pulled into a parking space at a modest shopping center. Joan put away her yarn and needles and disappeared with Billy into the thrift store across the parking lot, Dean headed for the discount store, and Sam made a beeline for the used bookstore. He would probably detour into one of the other stores before they left, since he still had to pick up a few things for presents now that he was finally away from his brother and his girlfriend. There was little doubt in his mind that Joan and Dean were doing the same thing with their relative solitude.

As always, it was a good thing to for Sam have a deadline when entering a bookstore. He could easily lose an afternoon in a new bookstore without goals and a specific timeline, sometimes almost an entire day before he surfaced for food. Someone would still probably have to drag him out, but Dean didn’t really have a problem with doing that in the past.

Joan ended up looking for him, eventually finding him in a corner with a stack of possibilities that he was mulling over. “We found something for Mom and have an idea for my Dad, but nothing for Luke and Kevin. You have any luck in here?”

“I think so,” Sam muttered. “I’ve found something about the history and practice of alchemy. Think Luke will go for it?”

“Yes, perfect!” She smiled and plucked the book out of his hand. Billy tried to get his small hands on it, but by now they were all experts at keeping things away from him. “What about Kevin?”

“I got it,” Dean said, dropping down onto the floor next to them. “Found some music he’ll love. You got stuff for your parents?”

“I found this vase that’s exactly like one that got broken when we moved to Arcadia for mom,” Joan said. “I thought we could pick up a bottle of wine for my dad?”

“Sounds good to me,” Dean said, grabbing Billy and standing up. “Are we eating on the way or waiting ‘til we get there, ‘cause I’m starving.”

“There’s spaghetti at my parent’s house,” Joan said, smiling at Sam.

He grinned back at her and climbed to his feet, reaching down to help her up. “That sounds like a good idea to me.”

xxx

The welcome wasn’t as awkward as it had been back in August, though it would have been hard to top that one. Helen and Will had been in the kitchen when they pulled up, but Helen hurried out into the cold without a coat and lightly dusted with flour to sweep Joan into a hug and herd them all into the house. Luke and Grace were engaging in a spirited conversation while Luke chopped onions by the time they’d dropped their bags in Joan’s room and shrugged off their coats and Kevin was setting the dining room table.

There was a flurry of embraces all around and a little fawning over Billy, which Sam felt was entirely justified. His son was both adorable and well-behaved and he really didn’t get enough grandparent attention. Even he and Dean received hugs from Helen and smiles from the males of the family.

After dinner and the obligatory fussing over Joan and Billy, the Girardi’s crowded into the family room with an only slightly unwilling Grace Polk and a vaguely claustrophobic Sam and Dean Winchester to watch movies. Sam had witnessed (and been fascinated by) the argument over the chosen movie last time they had been in town, and it was eerie when the exact same movie choices were brought up again. Will wanted to watch the Godfather, which made the rest of the family groan in protest. Kevin voted for Die Hard 4 and was rebuffed by his mother. Luke picketed for the latest Batman movie and was shot down by Joan, who was championing the cause of Princess Bride. Helen just sat back, apparently enjoying the bickering between her children and husband, and Grace wisely stayed out of it.

Dean, of course, waded right in and made his case for the original Star Wars, surprisingly winning both Kevin and Luke’s approval. Joan huffed and gave up when she couldn’t rally her mother to her cause, and Will just sighed and put away the other movies.

There was ice cream with the movie, of course, because they were at the Girardi house and ice cream was the junk food of choice, so Sam sat back with Joan and the rest of her family and watched one of his favorite movies. Once Episode IV was over, Luke campaigned for Empire Strikes Back and there were few enough objections that they put the DVD in and watched as Yoda schooled a slightly whiny Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Jedi. Grace headed home in the middle of the movie, claiming exhaustion. Sam had picked up enough from his girlfriend’s old high school friend to know that she didn’t really like crowds, even ones made up of family.

They decided against the third movie despite Dean’s protests and individual family members began disappearing off to bed until the Winchesters were left alone to bed down on the couches. After they’d double-checked the doors and windows and debated about salt lines, Sam ended up in the den while Dean dropped onto the couch nearest the door.

It didn’t take much to wake Sam from even a deep sleep; the sound of Joan’s quiet voice saying his name was more than enough to pull him out. “What’s wrong?” he asked, working to clear his head as quickly as he could. They couldn’t put up any of the usual protections here and were mostly counting on the strong Girardi threshold and locks on the doors to keep out any interlopers. Dean was sleeping on the couch next to the front door with his gun under the pillow, which alleviated some of Sam’s worry. He knew that it would be almost impossible to get past his brother when Dean was in guard mode.

“I can’t sleep,” she said, nudging him into a seated position and sitting down next to him. Sam slipped one arm around her shoulders as Joan leaned into him. “It’s too quiet in my room.”

“It’s quiet down here, too,” he pointed out, and she nudged him with one elbow.

“Fine. I missed you. It was weird being in the room with just me and Billy.”

“If your dad catches us together down here he might shoot me,” Sam pointed out, even though it had been hard for him to fall asleep as well. He hadn’t slept in a room by himself since Stanford, when his roommate freshman year had left halfway through the semester. Winchesters didn’t handle ‘alone’ well. “Is Billy going to be all right in your room alone?”

She pointed to a clunky baby monitor sitting on the end table before shivering and tucking her arm back in close to their bodies. “He won’t shoot you,” Joan said, her voice sleepy. “Too much paperwork.” There was a yawn and Sam felt her body settle in against his. “Besides, all we’re going to do is sleep. There’s definitely not enough space or privacy to do much else.”

“We could always head out to the Impala,” he suggested, brushing the hair back from her face and nuzzling her neck a little.

“Too cold,” she murmured. “This is good.” Sam felt the remaining tension in her body melt away as she pulled her feet up off of the floor and burrowed under the blanket, her head sliding down to rest on his leg. This unfortunately meant that Sam was left to try to sleep sitting up, though thankfully the blanket was big enough to cover both of them. There had been plenty of opportunities for him to practice sleeping in weird positions over the years, between Dean’s hospital visits and the occasional night spent in the car, and between the shared body heat and the soothing, even sound of Joan’s breathing he drifted off to sleep.

xxx

Helen loved the way the house felt when it was full to the brim with family, but she also especially loved the quiet before any of them started to wake up.

Sam was the first one to stumble into the kitchen, which Helen blamed on proximity to the coffee. Helen was determined to keep the situation from becoming too awkward; Joan’s abrupt departure last summer was still agonizingly fresh in her mind. She wanted to have her daughter and grandson here for a few more days at least and if the price for that was making nice with Sam, so be it. He was surprisingly easy to talk to when you made an effort.

Joan stumbled in shortly after Sam and Helen bit her tongue and didn’t comment on the fact that she came from the living room rather than her room upstairs. Her daughter was an adult now. She had to be trusted not to do anything inappropriate while under her parents’ roof.

The conversation doesn’t die completely when Joan came into the room and started making a cup of tea, but it did dwindle while Sam watched Helen’s daughter with an affectionate smile. Joan ended up leaning against the island next to Sam, close enough that her hip brushed against his leg, which Helen studiously ignored. She remembered that feeling, the desire for physical proximity in even the most awkward of moments, and still had it on occasion. The two of them continued the familiar pattern of casual, intimate touches while they talked about future plans. Sam was trying to finish his senior year of college online and then planning to see about similar situations for law school. Joan was a little more vague about what she wanted to do, but Helen was used to that.

After about half an hour of this, Joan drained her mug and set it aside. “I’m going to run upstairs and take a quick shower before Kevin and Luke wake up.” She gave Sam a quick kiss that Helen pretended not to see and left the two of them in the kitchen.

Helen was the one who broke the uncomfortable silence that followed her daughter’s departure. “Thank you,” she said, trying not to choke on the words.

The expression Sam turned towards her echoed nothing so much as ‘confused puppy.’ “For what?”

“You make her happy,” Helen stated simply. It didn’t make sense and it hurt a little, but it was true. Sam and his brother and Baby Billy all made Joan happy in a way that her family did not. “You help give her a purpose,” she added, which was also true.

Sam shrugged and set his empty coffee mug aside. “Joan has her job and I have mine,” he said, which was annoyingly vague, before smiling the dimpled smile that Joan had no doubt fallen in love with. “Trust me, she has enough purpose for all of us, sometimes.”

The thought had her smiling in return, thinking of a dozen different things that her daughter had picked up over her years in high school. “She’s always been rather determined.”

He laughed. “Determined is one word for it. Stubborn as hell might be a little more accurate.”

Dean shuffled into the kitchen at that moment, before she could make any sort of reply. “Debating Joanie’s personality quirks?”

Sam nodded and poured his brother a mug of black coffee from his spot next to the coffee pot. “She’s in the shower. I’m going to go up and get Billy ready for the day.” He disappeared up the stairs and Dean sat down with his coffee on the stool at the counter.

Helen wasn’t quite sure what to make of Sam’s brother. While she could easily see how well Joan and Sam fit together, Dean was a little bit harder to peg. If he had been a high school student he would have been the one in and out of the office. He practically exuded trouble from his pores, but she’d also seen how gentle and protective he was when it came to Joan and Billy and even his taller brother.

“Sam’s in love with Joan,” he said abruptly, breaking the awkward silence. “Trust me on this one, I know my brother. He’s carrying around an engagement ring in his jacket pocket and when he thinks she’s ready he’ll ask her to marry him. I just thought you deserved a heads up.”

She took a deep breath, let it out, and carefully set her coffee cup down on the counter. “Why would you bother telling me?”

“Because I know how much Joan cares about you,” Dean said. “I mean, she’s still got a few issues with your husband, but I know Joan and she’ll get those ironed out pretty soon. I think the only thing she regrets is cutting you off the way she did, but she can’t decide how to undo it.”

“I know she was hurt,” Helen said, her hands clutching the edge of the counter so that she wouldn’t start pacing. “Will said some things when he found out she was pregnant, but he knows that what he said was wrong and he was sorry as soon as the words left his mouth.”

“But those things, the ones that we say in the heat of the moment like that? Those are the ones that stick with us,” Dean replied. “Trust me, I get that. Our dad died with Sam still mad at him for something like that, and I know he regrets it. Joan doesn’t want anything like that to happen here, and she’s working on forgiving him.”

“You know what he said,” Helen stated, her grip tightening until her knuckles turned white, and Dean nodded.

“She told Sam and Sam told me,” he said simply. “No secrets on the road if we can help it. The thing is, she looks at Billy and thinks about what her dad said, and she knows that if she’d given in and done the thing that made the most sense, she wouldn’t have him now. And Billy is worth all of the crap she went through, no question about that.”

She gave in to the temptation and started moving around the kitchen, pulling things together for breakfast. Today would be a busy one and they all needed a good breakfast to start things off. “What did your father say to Sam?” she asked, moving to deflect the attention from Will.

Dean sighed and took a drink from his coffee cup. “Sam got a full ride scholarship to Stanford University and he chose the most confrontational way that existed to tell our dad that he was leaving. Dad told him that if he walked out that door he shouldn’t bother coming back.” There was a grimace that he tried to turn into a sardonic smile. “They didn’t talk for four years.”

“At least Joan didn’t hold out that long,” Helen said, pulling out a carton of eggs and a package of bacon. She took a moment to contemplate those two things before heading back into the fridge for more of both, thankful that she had loaded up on everything at the grocery store.

“That’s because Joan’s not as stupidly stubborn as my brother,” Dean told her. He had a bemused expression on his face as he watched her move around the kitchen. “She missed you and she wanted to see you. She just didn’t want to get trapped into doing the easy thing.”

“I missed her so much,” Helen told him, setting out an enormous frying pan and slicing the first bacon package open.

“Yeah, well, it’s hard not to miss her once you get used to her.” Dean smiled, finally, the mug cradled between two worn, calloused hands. “You’re a lot alike, sometimes. She does this too, this whole ‘moving around in a whirl while you’re thinking shit through.”

Helen let the swearing pass by. “She’s never going to really trust us again.”

“I wouldn’t say never. Like I said, she’s not as stupidly stubborn as Sam. It’s just going to take a while for her to work through it.” He drained his coffee and stood up. “You’re her mom and Will is her dad, and that’s never going to change. It just might not be the way it used to be.” Dean turned away and headed up the stairs, signaling the end of the conversation, and Helen turned her concentration to making breakfast.

Sam managed to surprise Helen that afternoon when he readily agreed to attending the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass and then proceeded to talk both Joan and his brother into coming along as well. Helen had been going to Mass alone since they had moved to Arcadia and wasn’t quite sure what to do when all three of them, plus Billy, filed into the pew beside her.

The second shock of the evening came when both Winchesters sang along to the Latin Gloria, albeit very quietly. Joan’s attention was mostly occupied with keeping Billy quiet and compliant, but even she joined in under her breath as she played some quiet finger game with her son.

She asked about it when they were on their way back to the house, Billy and Sam and Joan in the backseat and Dean sitting shotgun and fidgeting, and Sam was the one who answered. “Dean and I had a family friend when we were growing up that we used to spend a lot of time with when we were kids. He was a Catholic priest, so we ended up learning most of the traditional stuff out of self-defense.”

Joan piped up from the backseat, her voice a little drowsy. “I learned it when I stayed with the Carpenters, back when I was pregnant with Billy. Charity and Michael are really, really Catholic, and I ended up helping Hope memorize all sorts of things while I was there.”

This was another gaping hole in what Helen knew about the lost year and a half of her daughter’s life, the first time she’d ever really been without her daughter, and Helen found that she was alternating between insatiable curiosity and dread at this new piece to the puzzle. “Oh?” she asked, trying to keep her tone as neutral as possible.

She probably wasn’t entirely successful, but Joan smiled and obliged her. “I was in Chicago, at the beginning, and one of the first people I met there was a priest at this absolutely huge church. Father Forthill was the one who brought me to Michael and Charity’s house, and they let me stay there for a while in exchange for helping out with the kids and some house stuff.”

“But you didn’t stay there?” Helen already knew the answer to that question; she remembered Luke calling home with news that Joan had been in Missouri late last summer.

Joan looked down at Billy, fast asleep in his car seat. “I didn’t stay. It wasn’t fair to them, and I . . .I needed to be other places, sometimes. And then I met back up with Sam and Dean in Wyoming and Billy was born.”

She wanted to ask more questions, find out more details of where her daughter had been. Joan had started reminding Helen of the more enjoyable portions of Aunt Olive, and she couldn’t help but wonder what the older woman would make of Joan and her small band of drifters.

In the end, though, she let the moment and the conversation pass by. Joan was falling asleep in the backseat next to her son and the young man who was in love with her was watching her in a way that made her throat close up a little as she remembered that feeling.

xxx

It hadn’t surprised Sam when Joan came back downstairs after the house had gone quiet for the night. They’d spent the last year in each other’s pockets and hadn’t actually spent the night apart since he’d woken up to the fact that he’d been in love with her for an unknown amount of time. She fell back asleep almost immediately after she’d come downstairs and Sam had attempted to do the same.

He was woken up from a light doze by a sound in the kitchen and he was off of the couch with an almost unbelievable swiftness and moving silently towards the disturbance. He didn’t have a weapon on hand, since that would be hard to explain to any of the Girardis, but Sam had been trained since he was nine in hand-to-hand and he was fairly certain he could take care of any intruders with a minimum of fuss.

Once he realized that the noise in the kitchen was Will Girardi, Sam was doubly glad that he’d left the weapons in the Impala. Dean was still armed, of course, but he wasn’t likely to run into his future father-in-law in the middle of night. He could have gone back to the den without saying anything, of course. The two of them hadn’t spent more than three cumulative minutes together without the buffering presence of at least Joan this entire visit and he didn’t really have any desire to expand that time by any significant margin.

It was just that some part of him understood completely what it was like to be separated from your family because both sides were too stubborn to forgive. Will Girardi was a good deal like the man John Winchester might have been if it hadn’t been for demons and the death of Mary Winchester and Sam was well aware that he and Joan were a lot more alike than made him comfortable sometimes. Sam had more regrets in his life than any twenty-four year old should carry, but the one that stung the most was the time he and his father had spent apart and how they’d still been angry with each other when his dad died. That particular regret was the reason that he stepped into the kitchen.

Will startled at his entrance, his hand going to where his gun probably stayed when he was on duty, but he settled into some sort of calm almost immediately. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“I was awake,” Sam offered, pulling out a stool and sitting down. He was a little too on edge around Joan’s father to box himself in around the kitchen table, but the stool was open enough and neutral enough to suit his needs. “Is something wrong?” It was, after all, three in the morning and while that’s not entirely unheard of in Winchester world, most people are safely in bed by this time.

“No,” Will said shortly, and Sam could pick up the unspoken ‘nothing I’m talking about with you’ that went along with that one word.

If he’d been facing John Winchester for this conversation there would have been an explosion there, but Sam wasn’t quite as blindly emotional in this particular situation and he could actually take the time to take a breath and calm down before saying anything. When he does speak, what comes out isn’t anything that is conducive to the calm, rational mood he was attempting to reach. “I’m planning on spending the rest of my life with your daughter.”

Will’s head jerked up at that statement and Sam was assured of his complete attention. “What!”

“I am planning on spending the rest of my life with Joan,” he repeated. “I’m the father of your grandson and the guy who’s planning on marrying your daughter as soon as she’ll have me. I’m not going anywhere for a good, long time, so get used to me.”

It was confrontational, and Sam hadn’t planned on being confrontational with Will Girardi. He still had dim memories of trying to impress Jessica’s parents, of being on his best behavior and not letting anything slip past his control, but that seemed less important in this situation. If things went the way he was praying they would, Will would be seeing him consistently for the rest of his life. Sam needed to make him aware of that little fact.

“I did a background check on you and your brother,” the older man said, his tone flat and dry.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Sam shot back.

“Does Joan know that you and your brother were wanted for murder and grave desecration and fraud, and about fifty other things that would take too much time for me to mention?”

“Of course she knows. She was one of the people who helped get the charges dropped.”

“There’s no way that I’m going to let you ruin my little girl’s life like this.” The words were said with the quiet, deadly menace that was an odd echo of Joan when someone threatened a member of their family.

“That’s enough,” Joan said from the doorway. “I won’t let you talk to him like that, Dad.”

xxx

Will was startled into silence when Joan spoke up, the tirade he was ramping towards dissolving as he looked at her. She was looking at Sam, one hand on his arm, saying something to him so quietly that he couldn’t hear it. Sam nodded and went up the stairs, leaving Will alone in the room with his daughter for possibly the first time in nearly two years.

She sat down on the stool that the Winchester boy had just vacated and looked at him for a long moment, her steady gaze as surprising as her sudden appearance. It was one of the many differences he had noticed in his daughter since she’d returned to his life, the way Joan seemed to look into people. She was more careful with the words she spoke, too, though she still had his temper.

It wasn’t as if he’d spent the last two days entirely ignoring Joan, but here in this kitchen, with her on that stool, it was impossible not to see the changes in his daughter. She was a lot quieter, for one thing, less prone to dramatic outbursts. The last little bit of childhood puppy fat had melted away, along with any weight she might have gained during her pregnancy. She didn’t look unhealthy, but she was definitely thinner than he’d ever seen her. Helen had been worried about the dropped weight, anxious that Joan wasn’t getting enough to eat, but this looked more like working out than cutting meals. He’d seen enough of society’s emaciated ghosts to know the difference.

She cleared her throat, her hands folded into fists and resting on her lap. “I’m an adult, Dad. I can make my own decisions, and I’m willing to take the consequences.”

“I know that,” Will objected, but Joan cut him off by standing up and moving around the kitchen in a way that was painfully similar to Helen’s own method of coping. “You’ll always be my little girl,” he tried, and she smiled in a sad way that looked horribly inappropriate and mature for his daughter.

“You’re my dad, and I love you,” she said finally. “But you don’t get to make any kind of choices for me, not anymore. I love Sam. I’m staying with him and his brother, and we’re going to keep doing our jobs for as long as we can. And yes, I’m completely aware of his history, and Dean’s history and how screwed up it all is. But this is where I belong, and this is where I’m staying.”

He wanted to say that she didn’t belong out there, that it wasn’t safe and that she should be here with her family and going to school. There wasn’t a future for his daughter in the life she was living, no security to speak of and no stability at all.

Instead, he nodded and reached out to her, hand resting hesitantly on her shoulder. He felt the muscles there tense and then relax and they stood there for a second or two before she turned towards him and wrapped him in a hug.

xxx

Helen stood on the front porch, wrapped in a blanket and clutching a cup of coffee, and watched as the Winchester’s car started up with a throaty rumble and pulled away from the curb. Will slipped his arms around her, rested his chin on her shoulder, and sighed as their daughters’ new family drove away. He and Joan had managed to mend a few fences over the last several days.

“She’s happy,” Helen offered into the chilly morning air. “Sam makes her happy.”

“I know,” Will muttered. “I just wish she could be happy here instead of out there. I can’t protect her when she’s so far away.”

Helen refrained from reminding her husband that it wasn’t his job anymore. She was still occasionally overwhelmed by the same urge. She leaned into him instead, relishing his warmth and stability. “It was good, having her here for Christmas.”

“Yes, it was,” he agreed. There was a long comfortable silence while Helen waited patiently for him to work through a few things. “They take care of her,” he finally said. “Sam and his brother keep her safe.”

Joan was happy and alive and protected, and so was their grandson. Helen really didn’t think she could ask for much more.

xxx

“Adam? Adam Rove?”

The young artist turned at the sound of his name; the voice that said it didn’t catch up with him until the movement was nearly complete. He hadn’t seen Joan Girardi since the summer after graduating high school. They’d written back and forth for a while his first year at college, but the e-mails had gotten sporadic and then stopped altogether about two years ago.

So seeing Joan standing a few feet away with a smile on her face and a basket of groceries in her hands was more than a little surprising. The last he had heard, she was in school in Maryland. “Joan? Wow, what are you doing here?”

Her smile widened. “I’m in town for a few days, thought I’d stop for groceries. I definitely wasn’t expecting to see you.”

“Me either,” said Adam, his eyes drinking her in. She was wearing a long, loose skirt and a jacket over a red long-sleeved shirt, and she looked so much like herself that his hands itched for a sketch pad. Her ability to inspire him had always been what had attracted him to Joan in the first place. “So, uh, how have you been? I haven’t heard from you in a while.”

“Yeah, things got kind of crazy. They’re still that way, really, but I love it. How’s everything going with your art?”

“Pretty good. It’s weird how the timing worked out, actually. My first independent showing is tonight at this local gallery. Maybe you could come?”

“Which gallery?” She dug into the purse hanging from her shoulder, finally coming up with a pad of paper and a pen.

Adam jotted down the name and address for her along with his cell number. “Hey, do you have to be someplace? We could get some coffee, catch up a little.”

She shook her head as she stuffed the paper back into her purse and picked up the basket of groceries. “I’m sorry, Adam. I’m running late as it is.” She started up the aisle, stopping a few feet away. “See you at the gallery tonight.” Adam watched as she disappeared around the corner and forced himself back to his own shopping.

joaspn

The now-familiar smell of gun oil welcomed her as Joan let herself into the motel room. Dean had their most-used weapons laid out on his bed and was meticulously cleaning them, utterly focused on the task. Billy was asleep on the other bed, and Sam was sitting at the table with his laptop. Joan stowed the groceries in the tiny kitchenette, stopping for a quick kiss as she walked past her boyfriend, and them came back to the table and sat down next to him when she was done. “So, do you have a new case?” They’d finished up a triple salt and burn yesterday, a lover’s triangle that had gone incredibly wrong fifty years ago and that had started going after anyone who got into some kind of tryst anywhere near the same spot. She’d been called off the bench to wield a shotgun of rock salt while they worked on all three graves and was nursing a bruise where her arm met her shoulder.

“Not yet.” He looked up and smiled before returning his attention to the computer. “A few possibilities, but I’m going to need to do more research. Why do you ask?”

“I ran in to someone while I was out getting groceries.”

“So you’ve got a job?” Sam pushed the laptop away and focused on Joan instead.

“Not that Someone. Adam Rove from Arcadia.”

“Ex-boyfriend Adam?”

“That’s the one. He’s got a showing tonight in a local gallery. Can we go?”

“If you want to, I guess we can,” was his non-committal reply. Art galleries weren’t really his thing, but he could fake it really well. Then he grinned. “We could make it a date night.”

Joan smiled back. “Date night sounds good.” Date night meant leaving Billy with Dean and doing whatever they wanted, even if it was as simple as going out for coffee and talking without any interruptions. They only happened when everyone was completely healthy and no one was ‘on the job,’ which made them a rare occurrence. “Dean, can you watch Billy tonight?”

There was a look shared between the brothers before Dean answered. “Yeah, but you owe me.”

“I’ll bake you a pie the next time we stay someplace with a stove,” Joan promised. It was her standard bribe when it came to Dean.

“Deal.”

xxx

Sam stood in front of the mirror in the motel room and worked on tying the tie on his one suit, which until now had only been worn when he was impersonating a federal agent.

“Dude, you’ve still got it, right?” Dean was sitting on the floor with Billy, who was playing his new favorite game of climbing all over his uncle.

“Yeah, I’ve got it. I swear, you’re more nervous about this than I am.”

“I wish you’d gotten a ring on her finger before she ran into the old boyfriend,” Dean grumbled, reaching an arm out to steady his nephew as he clambered up one shoulder.

Sam shook his head and checked his wallet. “I wanted her to have something a little normal.”

“Dude, you’ve basically been married for over a year, only without the sex.”

“And that’s something we’re not gonna talk about in front of my son the mimic,” the younger Winchester said with a groan as he reached down and scooped Billy up before the boy launched from Dean’s back. He held the toddler upside down with one arm and tickled his ribs with the other hand, eliciting a series of giggles. “Seriously man, thanks for watching him.” Billy grabbed his father’s tickling arm and pulled himself up, and Sam tossed him in the air and tucked him against his chest.

“Name the next one after me and we’ll call it even,” Dean said with a smirk

“Dude, I don’t think the world can handle two Dean Winchesters,” Sam said with a laugh. “Anyway, I think that’s rushing things a little bit. She hasn’t said yes yet. Let us have a little breather first before you start asking for a namesake.”

Joan came out of the bathroom at that moment, forestalling an affronted retort from his brother. Sam turned with a smile on his face. His smile widened when he saw her. “Wow. You look . . .wow.” The dark red dress was a definite departure from her normal wardrobe of comfortable, eclectic clothing.

Dean gave a low whistle as he climbed to his feet. “Damn, my sister-in-law is smoking hot.” He grinned and slapped Sam on the back. “Go get ‘em, tiger.”

Sam shot his brother an annoyed glance as he handed Billy over before walking across the room to Joan. “You look amazing,” he said, leaning over and kissing her. The way the dress clung to her curves made him think that Dean might have a good point about the necessity of getting a ring on her finger before they met up with her ex-boyfriend. “Ready to go?”

“In a minute.” She reached for Billy, giving him a quick hug and kiss. “You be good,” she told him, handing him back to Dean and looking up at the older man pointedly. “You too. Please don’t use my son to pick up girls,” she teased. It had been a long-standing joke between the two of them ever since that time at the grocery store when Billy was three months old.

“One time,” Dean protested.

“One time that you got caught,” she returned. “I refuse to believe that the incident at the grocery store was the first time.” She picked up her coat and purse, and Sam ushered her out the door, glancing behind him at Dean’s grin and thumbs-up.

They got into the car without problems and Joan started reading off the directions she had received earlier. He paid half-attention while he mentally rehearsed his speech, keeping his mouth firmly shut so that he didn’t blurt out his practice lines. He was abruptly pulled away from his focus by her hand on his knee.

Joan looked at him, her expression somewhere between curiosity and concern. “Sam? Is everything all right? You’re really quiet tonight.”

Sam took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Screw it,” he said, and abruptly turned the car into a parking lot. He shut off the engine and turned to the woman beside him. “Joan,” he began, then broke off and fumbled in his pocket for the ring. He drew out the box and held it out to her. He’d wanted this to be perfect and romantic, but nothing in their relationship had ever been that way. They were better off straightforward. He reached for her hand and looked into her eyes. “Joan, I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?”

She was laughing and crying at the same time, a combination he had come to regard as uniquely Joan, and she nodded through the tears.

Every muscle in his body relaxed, and he sighed. “Good. I mean, I was worried about the ex-boyfriend and I’ve been carrying the ring around in my pocket for weeks and was going to do it tonight anyway, but then you suggested this and you’re wearing that dress ---,” his babble was cut off mid-sentence when Joan slid across the bench seat and kissed him. His arms went around her waist automatically, sliding under her coat and pulling her onto his lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck, breaking off the kiss only when oxygen became an issue. He gave her a moment to catch her breath before returning the favor.

“Do you realize,” Joan said after a few minutes, “that you just proposed to me in a Burger King parking lot?” She was still curled up on his lap with her face resting against his neck.

Sam glanced up and laughed. “Not exactly what I had planned. But as long as we’re here, you want something?” He was still a little giddy from the events of the last fifteen minutes or so, and grinned down at the woman in his arms.

“Yeah, a trip through the drive-thru would complete the glamour of the moment.” She kissed him again and then slid off his lap. “We should probably use the bathroom, though. You’ve got lipstick from ear to ear.”

He looked into the rearview mirror and smirked. Not quite from ear to ear, but there was a definite trail from his mouth to his neck. A glance at Joan revealed that what little lipstick remained was smeared, her hair was disheveled, and her earlier tears had smudged her makeup. She was smiling, though, holding the velvet box in her hand. “Are you going to put this on me?”

Sam picked up her left hand, opened the ring box, and slid the gold band with its small diamond onto her finger, leaning in for another kiss. Then they got out of the car and went inside, heading towards the bathrooms in the back. He scrubbed off the lipstick, unable to do anything about the blossoming hickey just under his left ear, and loitered next to the door waiting for Joan.

His fiancée came out after ten minutes with her makeup repaired and her hair more or less in order. He was looking forward to messing it up again later.

They were only thirty minutes late, something that made Sam a little proud of himself. If it had been up to him, they would have spent the rest of the evening in the backseat of the Impala. Dean would have been thrilled if his namesake had been conceived there with this kind of speed, and that was the only person who would have really known anyway.

Joan was big on keeping her word, though, so they went to the gallery. He let her take the lead once they were inside. He might know enough about art to make a decent first impression, but it was obvious that Joan had more experience at these things. What little discussion he’d had with Helen Girardi made it clear that she was responsible for that little quirk; art had obviously been a priority to Joan’s mother.

Joan found her ex-boyfriend’s sculptures quickly despite the size of the gallery and the number of artists exhibiting that night. They were . . .interesting, Sam had to admit. Adam used almost everything he could get his hands on in his sculptures, welding things together in ways that drew the eye. In some of them the artist had inserted small paintings or parts of photographs. One in particular contained images of multiple eyes, many which he recognized from his time with the Girardis. Despite the inclusion of Helen Girardi and Grace Polk, Joan was conspicuously absent. Sam couldn’t help but think that it was deliberate. A part of him even understood the decision. Joan was an all or nothing person.

xxx

It was probably some long-dormant instinct from high school that told Adam the instant Joan walked into the room. He hadn’t been able to keep an eye out for her; things were much too busy for that. Somehow, though, his eyes were turned to the door just as she came through. In that moment it was like the past three years had never happened.

Then she turned to the tall man who followed behind her, smiling as he slipped one hand around her waist, and the moment was gone. Sarah was nearby, chatting with someone who had just purchased one of his paintings, and he was engaged to her. Joan was just a friend.

He headed in her direction when he saw exactly what sculpture they were near. It was the warrior, holding out her heart. Adam hadn’t really wanted to display it or sell it, but it was just too good to keep and putting it out there had felt like closure, like he had moved on from the memory of Joan Girardi. Having Joan see the sculpture wasn’t part of his plan. He got there just as the man with her bent down to say something in her ear.

“Joan?” She turned and smiled at him without dislodging the man’s arm. “Hey, I wasn’t sure you were coming.”

“I told you I’d be here,” she said. “Adam, this is Sam Winchester. My fiancé.”

Sam reached out one enormous hand and Adam shook it, a little bemused. Sam wasn’t the kind of guy Adam would have seen Joan going for. He wondered for a second what had happened to that one guy who always seemed to hang around Joan in high school before focusing on the very tall man in front of him. “Nice to meet you. Can I show you around?”

“No, I’m sure you’re very busy tonight.” Sam gestured to the sculpture in front of them. “So, that’s Joan, right?”

Adam flushed in concert with Joan, who gave her fiancé an elbow in the ribs. “Yeah,” he admitted. It seemed impossible to lie to the guy about that, especially when it was apparently obvious if you knew Joan and knew about their history together.

Sam nodded. “It’s beautiful,” he said simply.

It wasn’t, really. It was actually kind of painful to look at because when he’d been working on it, all he could see was her face when she confronted him about Bonnie. The warrior was clearly in agony, a hole gaping open in her chest, her heart held out in one hand and a sword in the other. Adam knew it was one of his better works, but he couldn’t understand how anyone would want to look at it on a regular basis. Sarah had already started receiving bids on it, though, so obviously art was subjective. “Thanks.”

Joan was looking up at Sam with a tranquil look on her face, but she turned to Adam when he spoke. “You know you didn’t do that to me, right?”

“I’m pretty sure I did.”

She shook her head. “No one can rip out my heart but me. She pulled out her own heart so that everyone could see it and so that she could protect it when the time was right. It hurt, but it was worth it.”

Adam had never thought of it that way. That entire situation was one of his biggest regrets. He had made his peace with losing her as a girlfriend, but they had been friends first and Adam missed that. Joan had been the one to push him into sharing his art. There was no telling what his life would have been like without that nudge.

Sarah came up beside him right then, probably curious about whom Adam was talking to, and he turned to her and smiled. “Sarah, this is Joan Girardi. Joan, this is my fiancée Sarah Gordon.”

“Nice to meet you,” Joan said. She was leaning against Sam now, just a little. “I’m an old friend of Adam’s. This is Sam, my fiancé.”

Sarah looked from Joan to Adam to the statue of the warrior, the pieces slotting into place easily for his girl. Adam had never mentioned Joan’s name to her, but he had no doubt that Sarah now knew exactly what Joan had meant to him once upon a time. “It’s nice to meet you too,” she said, her voice polite. “Adam, someone was asking about the Bird sculpture.”

“We won’t take up any more of your time,” Joan said quickly. “I remember how busy this kind of thing is. Do you think we could all meet up tomorrow morning for breakfast? I’d love to catch up.”

“Sure,” Adam said immediately, not quite daring to glance at Sarah. He knew she would back him up no matter what, but there was no way she was one hundred percent happy with this situation. He wouldn’t have been happy if the reverse had happened with her, after all. “Sarah and I can be there. When and where?”

Joan broke away from Sam to dig through her purse, coming up with a small notepad and a pen. “At this address, around eight? Does that work?”

“Can we make it nine?” Sarah asked, moving in a little closer towards Adam. “I’ve got the feeling we’re going to be here very late tonight.”

“Sure, nine works.” Joan handed him the slip of paper and then moved back to the shelter of Sam-the-giant’s long arm. “See you tomorrow! Good luck tonight!” The two of them disappeared into the surprisingly dense crowd and Adam headed into the fray with Sarah at his side.

xxx

Joan was waiting for them by the time Adam and Sarah managed to find the tiny hole-in-the-wall that her frighteningly large fiancé had named. She waved them over to a booth in the corner with a two-person table tacked onto the end, and the two of them sank down into chairs with a sigh of relief. A waitress bustled over with a coffee pot that he would have gladly kept entirely to himself if Sarah hadn’t delivered one of her terribly eloquent looks.

After three gulps of scalding hot black coffee, Adam looked up and realized that it wasn’t just the four of them.

To be fair, Joan had been saying something that he had completely missed in the pursuit of caffeine, and he was willing to bet that the conversation he’d zoned out on had included introductions.

“Addiction’s a bitch, dude,” the unidentified man said, snorting a laugh. “You should have told the waitress to leave the pot.”

Joan rolled her eyes. “You’re just saying that so you can get your caffeine faster.”

Adam blinked at the stranger. “Who are you again?”

“Dean. The soon-to-be brother in-law.” The man gave a somehow sarcastic two-fingered wave with one hand, leaving the other to continue cradling a coffee cup.

“And this is Billy,” Joan said, bending her head to press a kiss on the crown of the baby sitting in her lap. She had a bowl of lukewarm runny oatmeal in front of her and was expertly feeding it to the kid. “He’s mine and Sam’s.”

“But I thought you two just got engaged?”

Joan flushed red but didn’t duck her head or do anything to indicate she was ashamed. “Yes, we just got engaged last night. And yes, we have a son who is fifteen months old. The math isn’t hard to figure out.”

“I’m guessing this is why you dropped off the radar two years ago.”

“Got it in one.” She continued to apply oatmeal to the kid’s mouth. He opened his mouth obediently for every spoonful, occasionally reaching for the spoon with chubby hands. “Dad wasn’t exactly happy about it, so I left.”

Adam looked at Joan and the child she was holding, not failing to notice how her somewhat scary boyfriend had an arm wrapped around her protectively. Whatever had happened with Mr. Girardi, it had obviously been bad.

“So how’d your art thing go?” Dean asked in an obvious ploy to change the subject.

“I sold The Warrior,” Adam said, glancing at Joan. “For, like, a ridiculous amount of money. A couple of other things, too.”

“That’s good,” Joan said, her tone bright. She looked like she was getting ready to ask more questions, but the waitress came right then with plates of food and the entire table became distracted by the important business of eating breakfast.

“The Warrior is a great sculpture,” Sam said as he ate his pancakes and sipped at his coffee. “I’m not surprised it sold. Of course, you had great subject matter.” The taller man smiled at Joan, who smiled back and nudged him with one elbow.

They talked about the show and Adam’s art and his future plans for about an hour while the five adults ate breakfast and drank coffee, occasionally dipping into the life of Joan Girardi and Sam and Dean Winchester but never digging too deeply.

Eventually the talk wound down and Adam and Sarah got up to leave. Joan stood and gave him a tight, familiar hug. “It was nice to see you again,” she murmured before taking a step back and sitting down next to Sam.

Adam took one last look at her through the windows as he and Sarah got into the car. She was smiling at the baby in its booster seat, her lips moving in some sort of conversation with Sam and his brother.

Then he started the engine and drove away, Sarah at his side.

xxx

“So, Reno or Vegas?” Dean took a long, appreciative swallow of his coffee once Joan’s ex was gone. It was strong and black and so hot it almost scalded his throat. Perfect. “Or, hey, Gatlinburg has awesome food and drive-thru wedding chapels.”

“No,” Joan said, rolling her eyes. “I’m not getting married by some tacky Elvis impersonator. I want a real wedding.”

Dean glanced at his brother, but Sam was using the baby in the booster seat across from him as an excuse to avoid Dean’s eyes and he knew he wasn’t going to be getting any help from that direction. Weddings were expensive. Dean wasn’t quite sure how expensive, but the loss of income when they’d ditched the fake credit cards meant that any expense was going to hurt. They scraped by on the money from the Order, occasionally supplemented by Joan’s odd jobs and his and Sam’s hustling, but most of the time just barely.

“It doesn’t have to be a big one,” Joan hedged, probably catching on to Dean’s thoughts. “We could go to Chicago. Father Forthill will probably do it for free. It’s just . . . I want my mom there when I get married.”

“All right,” Sam said, abandoning the apparently fascinating sippy cup and smiling across the table. “That sounds good. We can do that.”

It was Dean’s turn to roll his eyes. His brother was so whipped. “All right, then. You two go ahead and plan the wedding. Let me know how much we need to pay for it so I can hustle up the cash.”

Joan was looking oddly thoughtful. “It might not be very much. I’ll call Charity, see what she says. I’m pretty sure she could throw a wedding for almost nothing.” Charity was the MacGyver of those types of things, possibly with secret ninja skills thrown in for a little extra spice.

The call to the Carpenter household once they got back to the motel room was both enlightening and harrowing by turns. Charity laid out the details that Joan and Sam would need to take care of, both legally and for the party, and then proceeded to give her extremely low-budget options for everything. Joan wondered if their wedding was a dry run for Molly’s eventual marriage, but she couldn’t begrudge Charity the practice.

She got to talk to Molly before Charity hung up. Sam was going to have a best man, of course. It was unthinkable to deny Dean the privilege of standing up next to his brother. That meant she needed an attendant as well, and Molly was her first and best choice. Her ears were still ringing from Molly’s expression of joy when she hung up. Dean had made himself scarce during the conversation, but Sam had stayed, going back and forth between her and Billy. “Charity pretty much just planned the wedding,” she told him, a little bemused at how much had taken place over the hour-long conversation.

Sam smiled. “I could tell. I talked to Father Forthill. He says to pick a date and let him know.”

“That just leaves calling my mom,” Joan said. It shouldn’t worry her as much as it did. She was pretty sure her mom liked Sam, even if Sam and her dad didn’t get along at all. Christmas with her family had been beyond awkward, especially since she and Sam made no effort to hide their relationship. They hadn’t shared a bedroom while under her parent’s roof, but she liked being physically affectionate and had no desire to behave otherwise.

“It’ll be fine,” Sam assured her. “Your family just wants you to be happy. It just took your father a while to figure out what was going to do that.”

Joan made a little non-committal humming noise and wrapped her arms around his neck. “You know what would make me happy right now?”

Sam grinned and pulled her in close. “I can make a guess.”

xxx

“Hey Mom,” Joan was pacing across the motel room on her cell phone and was wishing for something, anything to keep her hands busy. This was the first time that she had called since Sam had proposed. She had mostly kept in touch with her family with e-mails and especially with pictures of Billy.

“Joan.” Her mother’s voice was relieved and cheerful just to be able to talk to her. “It’s been a while.”

“Yeah. Uhm. Is the family available for a long weekend anytime soon?”

“Joan?” Her mom paused. “I’m sure we can arrange something. How soon?”

“Whenever you’re available.”

“Are you going to tell me why, honey?”

“Sam and I are getting married and I want you to be there.”

Helen Girardi pulled in a ragged breath. “Honey…” Joan could practically hear her mother think through and then discard several questions. “Is this what you want?”

“Yes.” There was no hesitation on her part. She’d known for a while that a life with Sam was what she wanted. “I love him, Mom. I knew I was in love with him months ago.”

“All right.” There was quiet on the other end of the line for a moment before her mother spoke again. “Do you need any help planning?”

“I don’t think so. There’s the priest in Chicago that I’m friends with. He said he’d perform the ceremony.” She’d talked to Father Forthill before she’d called her mother, just in case there was a problem. He’d given her an all-clear and a list of the things she needed to take care of in order for everything to be legal. Charity was willing to host, since she wasn’t planning on having anyone but the Carpenters, Bobby, and her family there. Now all she needed was a date. “So is there a weekend that works for you?”

There was a rustling at the other end. Joan spent the time waiting for a response by picturing her mother looking at the calendar. She could feel Sam’s eyes on her as she made her circuit, but he kept his promise and stayed away. This was one conversation that she wanted to stay private. “How does the week of March 23rd sound? We’re on spring break then.”

Joan thought that one through. Spring Break usually meant Easter, and she’d need to double check with Father Forthill, but a wedding in the middle of the week after Easter should be all right. They weren’t planning on having it at the church, after all.

“Wait a minute,” she told her mother. She opened the door and poked her head through the opening. Sam was waiting at the table for her question. “Could you call up Father Forthill and ask about the week of March 23rd?” He nodded and reached for his phone. Joan closed the door behind her and returned her attention to her mother. “Sam’s checking.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. “So where is the wedding?”

“Friends of mine, Michael and Charity Carpenter have offered to host it in their backyard. You remember when I told you about the Carpenters?” She was hoping for something resembling pleasant temperatures and weather. It was going to be a small enough wedding that if it turned into an ice storm they could probably all cram into the Carpenter’s living room, though. Michael had assured her that they could fit plenty of people into the house if need be.

“Who all is coming?” Her mother was trying to be circumspect in her questioning.

“You guys, Sam and Dean’s uncle, and the Carpenters. Molly –she’s the oldest of them- made noises like she already invited her teacher. And, of course, Father Forthill will be officiating. Patricia McDonald, she was my mid-wife for most of my pregnancy, might also be there. That’s about it.” She’d toyed with the idea of inviting Adam and his fiancée, but that didn’t seem to fit.

“That’s a pretty small group.”

“It’s the important people,” Joan retorted firmly. She might have dreamed about a big fancy wedding when she was a teenager, but that was utterly impractical for the life she lived now. “If you could pass on an invite to Grace?”

“I’ll make sure that happens.”

“Thanks Mom.”

Another pause, but this one wasn’t tough.

“Can we bring anything, honey?”

“Just yourselves. And food. A big veggie tray and maybe a salad. I don’t want to be a burden on the Carpenters. They have a lot of mouths to feed without me inviting guests over. Michael was talking about grilling, so if you bring whatever meat you want in a cooler, that would help.”

“That won’t be a problem,” her mom promised.

“Thanks Mom.”

joaspn

“That was Ceria,” Dean announced when he hung up the cell phone. He shook his head in disbelief. “She heard about the wedding and would like to come, if we don’t mind. She said that Ellen would drive with her.”

Sam and Joan exchanged rueful looks. Though the guest list would never be large, it had increased. Missouri hadn’t given them a chance to tell her ‘no.’ Father Forthill had told them that Sanya was going to be in Chicago during the same week as the wedding and it’d be rude not to invite him. Molly had invited Harry Dresden and again it would be rude to bar someone that had helped keep them safe. Harry had called them directly about bringing a date, who wasn’t a date, it was all very confusing. The one item that stuck out was that she was a cop in the know.

Joan really, really didn’t like that almost everyone but her family would know about the supernatural. Charity had pointed out that these people liked her and the Winchesters and wanted to share in the happy day. Also, the more hunters that were floating around, keeping an eye out for the boogey monsters, the more Joan and Sam (and Dean) could just focus on the wedding. Molly had squealed with glee when being asked to be Joan’s only attendant opposite Dean, as Best Man. Charity had ignored any protests and was sewing Joan’s and Molly’s dresses. She had promised that they would be simple. She had even e-mailed Sam the pattern for Joan’s approval.

Patricia had volunteered to make the cake and she promised that it wouldn’t be a ‘cake wreck.’ Whatever that was. Joan remembered the scones and cookies the mid-wife always had fresh baked. She had no doubt that Patricia could bake. Harry Dresden wanted to bring the adult drinks. Something about having a paycheck to spend and wanting to share some dark ale. He promised that Karrin Murphy, his not-date, would be able to pick out an appropriate wine to share. Sam and Joan felt that it was a little out of control. They had no idea how their wedding day would turn out.

She would have felt stressed over it, except she’d already decided that those kinds of details didn’t matter. Sam would be there, she would be there, and their families would be there. Everything else was something that could be dealt with later.

joaspn

Ceria awkwardly pulled on the front of the sundress and Ellen occupied herself with the pasta salad she had made in the tiny motel kitchen and brought. Ceria hadn’t worn a dress since she had found out about the supernatural –at the tender age of five- and was extremely uncomfortable. Ellen had tried to make the experience as easy as possible for the older woman, once Ceria admitted to needing help. The hunter wanted to come to the wedding and felt that this would be a perfect time to practice Joan’s words of wisdom: she needed to express her feminine side and an informal wedding was a perfect place to start.

So Ellen had taken her shopping. They had found the green sundress and matching cardigan in the fifth store that they had arrived at. It fit, accenting all the right places, and so Ellen had Ceria buy it before any second thoughts could roost. In the same store, Ellen had found a colorful, flowy shirt (but not too colorful and flowy). When matched with a jean skirt, Ceria was set. Ellen had helped her choose a couple make-up essentials, all natural colors and a pair of nice sandals. The purse had ended up being the hardest part of the shopping trip, but they had decided on small messenger bag, one that was designed to hang diagonal across the body. While they were out and about, they had bought gift cards for the newlyweds, packable and practical.

Ceria had decided on the sundress for the wedding, even though Spring had yet to take hold in Chicago. Ceria’s fingers flexed again and Ellen knew that she was dying to scratch at her face; the make-up was still itching her intermittently. Ceria distracted herself by adjusting her purse and then took another step closer to the door to knock.

A car door slammed and Ellen turned to look. Missouri Mosley headed her way with a crock-pot hitched up on one hip. The wind changed directions and Ellen could smell Missouri’s famous jambalaya. Her mouth was already watering. Missouri was brightly arrayed in reds and oranges and she walked with confidence in her heels. She addressed Ceria first. “You clean up nice,” she said with the perfect inflection to make the hunter relax.

Ellen tossed a grateful look her way and murmured her hellos. Ceria knocked on the door and a man taller than Sam opened it. He was a hunter of some sort, but he had never been through the Roadhouse.

“Guests of the bride or groom?” he asked.

“Both,” all three women chorused.

He raised an eyebrow. “Names please?”

“Ellen Harvelle.”

“Ceria Johnson.”

“Missouri Mosley.”

The man looked down and Ellen realized that he had a huge dog at his side. “What do you think, Mouse?” The grey dog ‘woofed’ and the man stepped out of the way to let all three women pass without a verbal invitation. Ellen had to admit that between the two, no uninvited supernatural creatures would get through the door. A hunter that took cues from his dog –which could rather easily be trained to identify the supernatural – would keep out problems.

“And what’s your name, young man?” Missouri asked.

“Harry Dresden, ma’am.”

The name meant nothing to Ellen but obviously Missouri had heard of him before. There was an up and down look while the older woman took his measure. “You’re too skinny,” she finally said, and the man laughed.

“So people keep telling me.”

Missouri stepped through the door first, Ceria and Ellen close behind.

The house was carefully organized chaos. They followed in the wake of Missouri as she made a beeline for the kitchen, introducing themselves to the tall blond woman who was obviously in charge of the proceedings. Charity put them to work almost immediately, handing Ceria a well-worn, well-sharpened kitchen knife and directing her to a pile of raw vegetables and leaving Ellen in charge of a stack of potatoes. Missouri quickly ensconced herself into a supervisory position, setting up the food table so that when it was time for the reception they could just throw the meat onto the grill and be ready.

Dean charged into the room after they’d been working for about ten minutes, a little wild-eyed and trailed by a handful of small children, with Billy held in one arm. “Help me,” he said, and Charity rolled her eyes and directed the children out to the yard.

“Help your father set things up,” she instructed before shooing them out of the room. “You should be with your brother,” Charity told Dean, holding her hands out for the infant in his arms.

Dean passed Billy over with an exasperated expression. “I’m trying,” he said. “They swarmed me when I went down to the car to get the rings.”

“Go.” The tall woman flicked a glance towards the living room. “Take Joan’s brothers with you when you go. The younger one is distracting Dresden and I want him to do one more check to make sure everything’s safe.”

Dean reached for a deviled egg and scowled when Missouri smacked his hand with a warning look. “If I do that someone else has to distract Joan’s dad. Sam’s already a nervous wreck and those two shouldn’t get within ten feet of each other until after Sam and Joan get hitched.”

“Does Sam not get along with his new in-laws?” Ellen asked, honestly curious. Sam had a way of getting along with just about everyone. Dean shrugged and didn’t say anything, obviously unwilling to air his family’s dirty laundry.

“I’ll go,” Missouri said, taking off the apron she had put on the instant she walked into the kitchen. “I know how to keep a stubborn man like Will Girardi from asking too many questions. You take care of your brother. God only knows what kind of trouble you two get into when you’re separated.”

There was a flash of a grin and Dean disappeared around the corner into the living room. Missouri bustled out after him a moment later, leaving the kitchen a little quieter. “Joan’s family doesn’t know about anything,” Charity said into the slightly more empty room. “She wants to keep it that way, so it would be a good idea to keep the shop talk to a minimum when they’re around.”

“They don’t know anything?” Ellen was a little skeptical about that. Dean was not exactly subtle and Joan was a terrible liar.

Charity shook her head. “You know what it’s like for most people. Unless something big happens right in front of them, people rationalize away everything.” She snorted and turned her attention back to the preparations. “Sometimes even that’s not enough.”

xxx

Helen wasn’t quite sure what to make of the handful of guests that had shown up for her daughter’s wedding. Joan had developed a habit of making friends that went against the normal, but this group went a little beyond even that. The obvious affection she held for Sam and Dean’s uncle, for example, who was blunt and uncomfortable in his dress clothing but clearly adored her daughter, or the woman named Ceria who was crass and a little rude to Helen’s new son-in-law but softened around the Carpenter children. They all had sharp eyes and were clearly wary around the Girardi family and Grace, especially the incredibly tall man who introduced himself as Harry Dresden. The woman with him was probably a cop, which eased Will’s mind a little, but even she held herself a little more carefully around Helen’s family.

It was a little unsettling, but Joan was happy and she was safe and that was what mattered. Sam obviously loved her daughter and their son and he and his brother had already demonstrated their abilities to take care of them both. It wasn’t ideal, and it wasn’t what she’d dreamed of for her daughter, but it was enough.

Right now she was in a small upstairs bedroom with her daughter and her daughter’s friend Molly, yet another demonstration of Joan’s tendencies when it came to making friends. The young woman’s surprisingly modest dress didn’t hide the elaborate tattoo that stretched up her arm and disappeared beneath the neckline and her hair was dyed a light shade of pink that somehow coordinated well with her bridesmaid attire.

Molly was snapping pictures with a small disposable camera despite Joan’s attempts to snatch the thing from her hands, and Helen watched as her daughter was finally successful. She turned the camera back on her tormentor almost immediately with a triumphant laugh, taking a handful of pictures while the tall girl preened and posed. “I’m going to check and see how things are going,” she said when the camera was done. “We should be getting started soon, assuming everyone managed to find the place.”

“I’m pretty sure everyone’s here,” Joan said. She was smoothing the soft, light material of her dress.

“Good. One more chance to ogle Dean in his suit then. I’ll let Father Forthill know that we’re ready.”

“Tell him ten minutes,” Joan said, her voice quiet, and Molly nodded and slipped out the door, leaving Helen alone with her daughter.

Xxx

Joan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She’d once thought that she would be nervous on her wedding day, but she was more worried about her parents getting their minds blown with the truth than anything else. This was right. She’d made the decision to stick with Sam months ago. Getting married was just a formality, a way to make her a Winchester in name as well as spirit.

Her mother stopped fussing with the simple dress that Charity had made and stepped back, her eyes filling with tears. Joan immediately felt sympathy for Sam and Dean and the random times she had burst into tears over the last year or so. “If you start crying I’ll start crying, and we both know I don’t have time to fix my makeup,” she warned, her voice already choking up a little.

There was silence as her mom worked to pull back the tears. Joan wrapped her arms around her in a hug and took several shaky breaths. “You’ll always be my mom,” she said. She didn’t know what else to say, so she kept her mouth shut and held on tight.

“And you’ll always be my little girl,” her mom told her. There didn’t seem to be much more to say, so they stayed like that for a minute or so before Joan took a step back and away.

“Can I have a few minutes alone?” she asked, and her mother nodded, dabbed away the tears still threatening to spill over, and stepped out of the small guest room.

Joan waited until the door was securely closed behind her mother. “You’ve been kind of scarce lately,” she said, and God stepped up next to her.

“This is an important step for you,” He said. “You didn’t need any distractions. Besides, you were already doing what I needed you to do by putting this thing together. A lot of connections are being made today, and those things are going to be important in the future.” There was a smile as He tucked His hands into the pockets of the corduroy jacket. “Spend a little time with Dresden and Murphy if you can. They’re going to have some important roles to play in the future and could use you as allies.”

She nodded, smoothing her dress and resisting the urge to fuss with her hair. “This is the right thing,” she said. “Are Sam and I going to be happy?”

“You know I can’t tell you that, Joan,” He chided. “I will say that you and Sam are good for each other, and you and Billy are good for Dean. That was the plan from the moment I introduced you. And there are all sorts of interesting things waiting for you in the future.” He leaned in close and kissed her on the forehead. “Also, while you’re on your honeymoon you might want to go with Sam to a few museums, and maybe Northwestern University. Just something to think about.”

He waved on his way out the door, leaving Joan alone. She looked in the mirror one last time, smiled at her reflection, and went to the door. “I’m ready.”

xxx

The wedding was a brief and welcome respite before the Carpenter children began clamoring for their favorite plaything again, but Dean passed them along with only a slight feeling of guilt. Keeping Sam and Joan happy was his main focus for the rest of the night. The older Carpenters would reclaim responsibility soon enough.

In the meantime he had Billy to keep occupied and in-laws to divert. The Girardis were all more or less happy with the current arrangement, barring some dark looks from Joan’s father, but Dean wasn’t taking any chances. He’d enlisted Bobby’s help early on and discovered that the older Hunter was almost as good as Missouri at distracting Will Girardi.

Sam and Joan were sitting next to each, a little closer than normal, and the sight made Dean smile and relax a little. Despite everything, his brother was happy. It wasn’t perfect, but it was as close as the Winchesters were ever going to get.

Now he just had to convince his brother and sister-in-law that they wanted a houseful of kids. Dean settled back into a comfortable chair and started plotting.

xxx