Title: Stepping Out
Characters: John, Mary, Dean, Sam, minor OMCs & OFCs, John's father
Pairings: minor John/Mary
Warnings: lots of John's potty mouth (he drops the "F" bomb a lot). All mistakes are mine.
Disclaimer: No copywright infringement intended. Not for profit. Just playing in Kripke's sandbox!
Rating: R (because of John's potty mouth)
Word Count: 7499
Spoilers: references to events in 4.03 and 5.16
Summary: "I remember this. Mom and Dad were fighting and Dad left home for a few days." A glimpse into a possible "what if" scenario regarding why John left Mary for those few days while they were fighting. One-shot.

A/N: I acknowledge that this likely didn't happen, but in the world of fan fiction we're free to explore a whole plethora of possibilities. And I know some of y'all have been asking the same kinds of questions, and wondering the same kinds of things that are wondered about in this little fic.

The events of wee!Dean's accident are as true as I could make them, considering they happened to me when I was 3 1/2.


He was unhappy in his marriage. A gorgeous wife and two beautiful little boys at home, and yet he found himself doubting, for the first time in his life. It didn't happen overnight. There were no sudden revelations, no light bulb moments of certain clarity, no spontaneous bouts of honest confession. It was little by little, the odd, off-hand comment tossed in here or there chipping away at him. A slow, steady erosion of his solid faith in the life he'd built. It was a natural progression of niggling doubts that slowly but surely made way to something deeper, something darker, something that felt like certainty. His home, his castle, it turned out, was made out of nothing more than sand.

John Winchester was a proud man, and a stubborn one, too. When his first son was born, he'd been so filled with pride his face had hurt for a full week from smiling so hard. Dean. God, the kid was so perfect with his ten little, tiny pink fingers and ten little, tiny pink toes. Dean with his big eyes and sturdy legs. No one could tell this proud papa that his baby boy was anything other than perfect.

Except…

'Doesn't look a thing like you,' was his father's gruff bitch-slap of a comment upon first seeing his grandson. Then, with a harsh belly laugh and a hearty clap on the back, 'You sure you know where that pretty wife of yours has been?'

It was an absurd kind of joke to make – of course it was absurd! John had never doubted Mary's fidelity or loyalty to him. She'd never give him reason to doubt. Except… Except for the fact that she occasionally lied, badly, about secrets in her past. And the fact that they'd get calls sometimes, at all hours, from strange men looking to speak to Samuel Campbell's girl – calls Mary would get flustered and cranky over, hanging up with a frantic, 'You've got the wrong number!' before plastering on a fake smile and pretending everything was fine.

That kind of thing.

Still, he'd never even considered that Mary would be cheating on him. That kind of shit didn't happen in a marriage like theirs, right? They loved each other (though they sometimes fought like cats and dogs). They had a great life (even if money was a little tight). They had a beautiful baby boy together and things were perfect. Mostly… Their life was just starting.

Now, John would be the first to admit that he was a tad possessive of his son. Dean was his boy, his little man. They were the Dynamic Duo of suburbia. The kid was going to be big and strong like his dad, and work in the shop some day fixin' cars just like his old man. From his infancy, Dean became an essential part of his father's make-up, a valuable component that made up the sum of John's most important parts.

So it stung a bit when every little bitty with a penchant for pinching baby cheeks would exclaim, 'Why, he is just his mama made over!'

It was constantly pointed out to the proud papa that Dean looked so much like his mother: that he had her fair complexion, her green eyes, her blonde hair, her sweet mouth. John would have liked to deny it, if only out of a stubborn desire to see some of himself in his boy. And yet it was undeniably there, staring him in the face with each day that his boy grew bigger and stronger – Dean was every bit, in appearance at least, his mother's son.

Still, it was only a small thing. In spite of his insecurities and slightly irrational possessive streak with the boy, John couldn't have been prouder to be that little boy's dad. Dean was everything a father wanted his son to be: he was sweet without being a wuss, caring and thoughtful and courteous to his mama; he was strong and sturdy and fearless, never prone to fits of crying or whining like most little ones his age; he was friendly and outgoing and quick as a whip, too. And Jesus he was funny. When he wasn't being a perfect angel, he was like a kid possessed for the shit messes he could get himself into.

John loved that little guy so much it made him ache in that deep, painful way that hurts so good. Like his love for Mary.

It was no surprise, then, that his feelings were somewhat conflicted when Mary announced that she was pregnant again, after three and a half years of Dean. On the one hand, it would be great to have another rugrat running around the house, someone for Dean to play with and look after, someone to fill their house with even more smiles and more laughter. But there was that niggling fear in the back of his mind, the kind no parent ever dares give voice to, that it was possible this new baby somehow wouldn't compare with the first.

What if I don't love this baby like I love Dean? he'd thought near-hysterically. What kind of terrible parent would that make me?

Of course, in the end those fears had been completely unfounded. Sam came to the light of the world and he was just as perfect as his big brother (even if his ten little, tiny fingers and toes were noticeably longer than Dean's had been). Only this time around, there was no talk of Sam being made in Mary's image. Oh no. Because Sam was John's spitting image from head to toe. Sam had his father's dark eyes, thick, dark hair, and deep, prominent dimples.

'He has your smile,' Mary would say wistfully as she rocked the dozing baby in her arms.

And it felt strange to look at his two sons and see them both, knowing they were both part of him, but seeing the night and day differences in their physical make-up in ways that made them seem hardly like brothers at all. Where Dean was fair, Sam was dark; where Dean was tiny, Sam was long (with the biggest feet John had ever seen on a baby); where Dean was easy and compliant and obedient, Sam was moody and stubborn.

'He gets it from you, you know,' Mary had chided him one day while John fought with his infant son and a jar of mashed peas.

Sam, who had devoured an entire serving of those very same peas not 24-hours prior, had now clamped his jaw shut and shook his head 'no' before promptly tossing the bowl and its contents onto the floor with barely controlled chubby fists. Big eyes shining in indignation, he'd pursed his tiny lips together tightly before yowling in impotent baby rage.

John had been completely at a loss.

'Sammy doesn't like peas today,' Dean had said knowingly from his side of the table, as if that explained everything. He'd paused, half-eaten PB 'n J sandwhich poised in little, dimpled fingers, as he looked at his father with an expression of long-suffering (which was only slightly lessened by the smears of grape jam spreading from the corners of his bee-stung lips to his rosy cheeks). 'Cos he had 'em yesterday.'

Personally, John just thought his youngest was just being fussy. But Dean was powerfully observant where his little brother was concerned. Maybe he knew a few things that John didn't.

'Oh yeah?' John had queried. 'Then what do you think Sammy wants instead?'

Dean had scrunched his mouth to one side and pondered for a long moment before answering decisively:

'Marshmallows.'

Parenthood was really great, if a little terrifying, and it sat well on John's shoulders. He liked being a dad and husband. It felt natural: felt right. Except that Mary, for all her sweetness and light, seemed to grow moody and introverted and all 'hands off' after Sam was born. John figured that could mostly be explained away by hormones or whatever. Women often lost their appetites for sex and intimacy after giving birth. It was normal.

Didn't mean he had to like it, though. And it didn't mean it didn't make him wonder if maybe there was another reason. If maybe she was getting her lovin' somewhere else…

But that was impossible. John knew that. He knew it as well as any man can rationally know that his gorgeous wife is satisfied in her husband's bed and his alone (which is to say that he kinda knows it, hopes he knows it, and secretly fears he doesn't know it at all). Mary would never cheat on him. Not after everything they've been through. Not with two boys at home. Not ever.

He was mostly pretty sure about that. Until the bottom dropped out.

The Impala was rumbling loudly and John was loose and relaxed behind the wheel, his back molded to the leather as though he were cocooned in it. Dean sat happily in the backseat, his little feet swinging back and forth to the wild guitar chords screeching through the speakers, his head bobbing to the music in a way that made his blonde hair flop on his forehead as though someone had puffed air just beneath his bangs. His cheeks and nose were freshly freckled with the new summer sun, his hair already lightening to that almost-white shade it bleached to every summer since he was an infant.

Just John and his little man cruisin' to pick up Mommy and baby Sammy at the doctor's office.

"What're we lis'nin' to, Daddy?" Dean queried lightly as he paused between head bobs.

"Van Halen," John replied with a grin, reaching for the volume and turning the knob fractionally louder. He grinned when Dean's face split into a mischievous smile and his head resumed its childish bop-bop-bopping.

"Van Halen," Dean parroted knowingly. "Mmmm… We like Van Halen, don't we Daddy?"

"Yup. They're pretty cool."

And really, how awesome was it that his four year-old liked heavy metal bands? Most fathers were stuck listening to sing-along tapes of choruses of kids screeching "The Wheels on the Bus." John's kids totally kicked ass.

"Mmmhmm," Dean said enthusiastically. "They're cool. And we're cool too 'cos we like 'em, right Daddy? We're cool."

"We're awesome," John assured him with a big grin through the rearview mirror.

Dean sighed contentedly and sank back into his seat. Then he tilted his head to the side and did an excited little shimmy dance, swaying his shoulders from side to side.

"We're awesome!" he said, twisting in his seat. "We're awesome! We like Van Halen and we're cool! We like Van Halen!"

John could see his little boy's excitement rising as he sing-songed in the backseat, his eyes brightening with hyperactivity barely bridled beneath his swaying body as he see-sawed his head and shoulders from side to side. If they weren't in a car, Dean would probably be running laps around the house, hooting maniacally and waving his arms around as he shouted out his new 'We're awesome!' mantra.

"We're Van Halen!" Dean laughed as his cheeks reddened at his own hilarity. The kid thought he was a comic genius once he got himself going. "We're Van Halen, Daddy!"

John sighed and reined his own laughter in.

"All right, buddy. Settle down."

But Dean was still caught up in his own joke, giggling gleefully as he squirmed like a hyperactive monkey in his seat.

"I'm Dean Van Halen!" he laughed, turning his face into the leather upholstery and peeking up at his Daddy with one eye through the rear-view mirror, waiting to see if his old man was going to bust a gut or pretend to be shocked or what.

But John didn't have to pretend to be shocked. He didn't have to pretend at all.

"I'm Dean Van Halen!" Dean fairly squealed as he threw his back against the seat and laughed.

John had never heard anything less funny in his entire life.

John Winchester had never considered himself to be a particularly bright or scholarly man. He worked with his hands, settled arguments with his fists, and wasn't much for books or theories. Not much of a thinker, as his Dad would say. But he was good at puzzles, and had always been good at math. He knew how to put two and two together; knew how to connect the dots, how to link together the jagged edges of a difficult puzzle.

And it was all slotting into place in his head.

That fucker Dean Van Halen. Some sauced-up wino from years ago sprung suddenly to the forefront of John's mind. Fair hair, green eyes, freckled skin. Hovering around like some kind of stalker, showing up at the diner and then talking to John about fucking cars like they were pals or something.

Sizing him up.

Jesus fucking H. Christ he was a moron. He didn't know how he hadn't seen it before.

"You're Daddy Van Halen!" Dean giggled from the backseat, drawing his father's gaze to settle there with a sick, stone-dropping sensation in the pit of his stomach.

Fair hair, green eyes, freckled skin.

Oh Jesus. Oh sweet fucking Jesus. He isn't mine. He isn't fucking mine!

There were logistics to be worked out, obviously. That drifter fuckface Dean von Shithead had been on the scene at least ten years ago. Right before Mary's parents died. Long before Dean Winchester (my Dean! mine!) was born. Had he been… Had he been back?

God, it was all coming back to him in fucking technicolour. The shifty-eyed glances that'd made John feel so uncomfortable under the guy's gaze. The way he'd just sort of inserted himself into John's space, like he fucking knew him or something. Christ, he'd convinced John to buy the Impala! And Mary – Mary'd said she hated it when she saw it.

It felt like a fucking joke now.

Everything had a double meaning to it now. Mary running out of her front door, distraught, flinging herself into his arms and begging John to take her away. And he… Dean Van Halen, had been inside her fucking house. Talking to her fucking father.

What the fuck was going on?

There was obviously a history there. She knew the guy. She fucking knew him. He'd been in her house. Something had happened – something that upset her enough to induce her to beg him to whisk her away. A lover's spat, maybe?

"Daddy?"

Oh Jesus. Fucking fuck! Dean. Fucking Dean. Big green eyes looking scared and uncertain, laughter dying in his eyes as he wondered what'd made his father fall so silent.

John gritted his teeth and blinked past the tears forming in his eyes.

'I want to name him Dean,' Mary'd whispered exhaustedly as she held the squiggling, squishy bundle in her arms. The first time John had met his son. 'After my mom.'

And she'd cried because her mother wasn't there, would never get to meet him. But maybe… God, what if it wasn't her mom's absence she was lamenting? What if she'd been wishing someone else was there in her mother's place? Dean's real namesake…? Dean's real fucking father?

"Daddy?"

The little boy in the backseat had shrunk, all sense of hilarity gone. Perceptive little bastard he was. Connecting some dots of his own, just like his… Just like John.

"I'm Dean Winchester," Dean whispered solemnly, gravely. Joke's over now, Daddy. Please don't be mad.

John pulled the car onto the exit ramp and choked back the lump in his throat.

'No you're not,' he thought miserably.

The motel was cheap. Everything about it was shabby, tacky, and without any of the soft edges that make a space home. The bed was a double, with a hideous black floral-printed comforter that had some kind of synthetic shimmer to it. When John sat on the bed, the comforter was so slick it would slip and slide with the tiniest movements.

He let out a huffed breath and lay on his back, staring at the stuccoed ceiling with a kind of numb detachment that only comes when one's mind is truly swamped with too much emotional baggage. His eyes felt grainy and sore, too many hours of sobbing in the dingy little bathroom, curled up on the floor like a kid that's lost its blankie or some shit. And maybe it wasn't manly to cry like a baby, but John made allowances for the fact that his whole fucking world was ending.

The fight with Mary had been small at first – smaller than John ever thought it would be. He couldn't bring himself to actually say the words, at first, so he'd poked and prodded at her instead, picked a fight. Made off comments about the ridiculous shirts she'd dress Dean in (seriously? 'I Wuv Hugs'?).

"You want our son to grow up to be a pussy, Mary? Winchesters aren't pussies!"

Bitched about her cooking. Made off-hand comments about how distant she'd been lately, how uninterested she'd become in their sex life. Hinted at the fact that she might have found someone else.

Then they'd really gotten into it. Days of hurling whisper-shouted insults at each other. Mary calling John a right fucking bastard for daring to suggest that she would ever be unfaithful. John accusing Mary of lying to him for the past ten years (and by the way her eyes startle-jumped with guilt, John knew he'd hit one helluva bull's eye). Neither one of them daring to speak a damned word of truth, instead cloaking their conversation in innuendo, hinting at the truth as often as they skirted away from it.

He knew he was on to something when he accused her of lying to him (which he did at every turn). Her eyes would dim, her whole body would go tight with the tiniest of flinches, and he'd think, 'Aha! Gotcha!' She was definitely hiding something from him – something that started ten years ago and, John was positive, culminated in an affair with Dean Van Halen (whoever the fuck that mystery man actually was), and then led to Mary's bastard son, Dean Jr.

Not that he could actually bring himself to say that. The words were too awful to speak aloud, and if he were to get confirmation of it from Mary…? He was afraid of what he might do.

He hadn't left any explanations when he packed his bags. Couldn't even look at Mary for the agony shredding his chest to ribbons, for the rage building so deep in him he actually wanted to hurt her for making him feel this way. Making him love her and that little boy who wasn't his – making him think that Dean was his son when he fucking wasn't! He'd barely offered a gruff farewell before his duffle was packed and he was out the door, saying he needed out, needed away from her, from this. Needed time to think about things.

Then he'd spent the next two days trying to form some kind of plan. He'd scoured every phone book he could get his hands on, driven miles all over the State collecting the damned things, searching for the name Van Halen so he could track the bastard down and get some fucking answers. Look the bastard in the eye and demand to know if he'd been fucking his wife.

But there were no Van Halens in the State of Kansas.

So John had contacted a specialist in New York to ask about this new super-blood test called DNA or something, thinking maybe he could at least prove with science, cold, hard factual science, whether or not Dean was his kid. But the technology was so new, apparently, that it wasn't for the use of the general public. If he wanted to send the blood samples off to Europe for testing (with about a year's worth of John's salary), then sure, DNA testing would be the way to go. No problem.

That left calling Mary at home and asking her if Dean Van Halen was the father of their first-born son, and John felt like he'd rather gouge his own fucking eyes out than even try to utter the words. Just the thought of hearing her voice, of hearing her say the words, "Yes, John. I cheated on you and Dean isn't your son" was enough to send him into a despairing rage so deep he thought he could commit murder.

But he had to know.

The phone only rang once before Mary picked up. Her voice was soft and mellow, the sweet "Hello?" ringed in the kind of honeyed tones usually reserved to talking to Dean and Sam. John's anger flared white and hot in his chest, burning through the agony of his shattered dreams like napalm.

"Did you cheat on me?" he croaked. "Was it him? You can tell me – I just need to know the truth."

"No John," Mary cut him off in a hushed, careful voice. The kids were probably in the room, then. "We're not having this conversation again."

"You've lied to me Mary and I need… I need time to think about things…"

"Time to think about what?" she whispered incredulously. Then, almost pleadingly, "You have two boys at home."

Two boys. Huh. Fuck that hurt like a kick to the 'nads. Two boys at home. Well wasn't that just the kicker? Two boys at home.

"I know I'm no prize, Mary, but I'm your fucking husband. You're supposed to be honest with me." John could feel his eyes misting with tears, his lip jiggling traitorously. "You've been lying to me for years – about your family and that fucking drifter Van Halen. About Dean. I have a goddamned right to know. You want me to come home? Fine. Tell me the fucking truth and I will. Otherwise, I see no reason for me to come home."

He was such a selfish prick sometimes. 'I see no reason for me to come home.' Like Sam wasn't a fucking reason. Hell, like Dean wasn't a reason. After all, it wasn't Dean's fault that he was some drifter's bastard child (if he really was the drifter's bastard child – John was still clinging to the vain hope that this was some kind of hideous mistake). Even if he couldn't work it out with Mary – Mary and her lame excuses and dead parents and many, many lies – those boys were two very good reasons to come back home. Two very compelling reasons.

But he had to know.

"Fine. Then don't," Mary snapped defensively. "There's nothing more to talk about."

And hung up.

John wanted to turn that conversation into some kind of ultimatum. He'd laid out his demands, set out the terms of his surrender, and Mary had refused. Turned him down. Said no. If he was stubborn enough (and by Christ, he was stubborn enough), he'd dig his heels in, harden his heart, and kiss his shallow mockery of a family goodbye. But there were Sunday mornings with early make-out sessions, twining his thick fingers through Mary's spun-gold hair. There was her tinkle, bell-like laugh as he nuzzled his whiskered chin into her neck and nibbled at her tender flesh. There were her warm green eyes beckoning him to her, like the lighthouse leading ships to safety.

There were chubby little-boy hands clamping over his eyes from behind, saying, "Guess who, Daddy?" There was Dean's tiny, trusting upturned face watching and drinking in every move he made as he ratcheted around in the toolbox to fix this or that thing. There was bath time with a blonde, sudsy Mohawk, impish grinning face singing CCR slightly off-key while John provided the guitar sounds as back-up.

There were toothless, gummy, dimpled grins and dark trusting eyes glistening at him in the late hours of after-work quiet, when the house was still and John was alone in the nursery with just his infant's quiet gurgles of contentment to keep time with his proudly beating heart. There were Sam's squeals of joy when his big brother would tickle his pudgy baby belly. There were trips in the car with Mary and John fighting over the appropriate volume for traveling with children while Dean chattered away in the backseat while little Sammy goobered on his own knit-stockinged foot.

Walking away from all that felt a lot like dying.

He was in a whiskey-soaked stupor, draped over the rumpled mess of slippery bedspread and sheets, arms and legs akimbo like a marionette with its strings cut when a loud knock rounded smartly on the motel room door. John started up like a shot and then groaned as his head pounded its displeasure at the sudden movement. He slumped down in abject misery, pulling a pillow over his head to try to drown out the drum solo pounding through his skull. The door rattled nearly off its hinges as the knocking continued.

"John Winchester, you open this fucking door now, or so help me I will kick your ass!"

Jesus, no one could sound pissed and commanding like that but Joseph Winchester at his most foul.

John groaned again and slowly peeled his body up from the bed, one aching limb at a time. His throat felt like something had crawled in it and died, and his stomach was doing this uneasy flip-flop thing that made him feel pretty sure that he'd be revisiting last night's whiskey binge in the worst possible way.

"Open the goddamned door!" his father bellowed in his most menacing, authoritative voice.

John heaved a growled sigh and stumbled to a standing position. The world tilted slightly on its axis, but he held himself mostly upright as he lurched in the general direction of the door. When his brain finally caught up with his body, he was unlatching the chain lock and turning the deadbolt to open the door. The grim, sour face of his old man was not a sight he longed to see.

"Where the fuck have you been?" the elder Winchester growled as he forced his way into the dark, shuttered motel room. "Jesus Christ, it smells like a fucking brewery in here!"

"Pleasure to see you, Dad," John deadpanned in a weak croak.

He watched as his father took a quick turn about the room, his dark hair showing much more gray than it had in recent years, his thick moustache sprinkled with salt and pepper streaks. The man paused in his disappointed scrutiny to give his son a good, hard hairy eye-ball of a look. He pursed his lips in thought, choosing his words carefully.

"I don't know what crawled up your ass, son," he said at length with forced calm, "but you need to get yourself cleaned up and get back to your family where you're needed."

John threw himself down into a slouch on the bed with an angry sigh.

"Just stay out of it, Dad. There's more going on than you know."

And God, it was humiliating to even think about his father knowing that he'd been played for such a fool. Winchesters didn't get fucked around on – they were proud and strong and… not fucking dupes like he'd been.

"I never raised my son to be no deadbeat Dad," his father chided scornfully. "Whatever issues you got with Mary? You get the hell back home and you work 'em out. 'Cos those kids need their father. Right now."

'And what if I'm not it?' John wondered despairingly as he stared at the off-coloured carpet. 'What if that man isn't me? What if I'm raising someone else's kids?'

"You don't got time to sit around feeling sorry for yourself," his father went on, his voice sounding more urgent, more urging. "You got a booboo on your heart? You suck it up, buttercup, and get your ass back where it's needed. Now. Right now!"

Suck it up. Right. Like John could just forget this heaping load of steaming crap he'd just discovered? Like he could just suck up his pride and go on being the family man even though he'd be left doubting every move his wife made from here until death did them part? Would that be fair on anyone?

"John!" the man barked, drawing his son's bleary-eyed, bloodshot gaze up. "We need to go. Now."

There was something in his father's voice that resonated deep in his guts, something like blood calling to blood, flesh calling to flesh, some kind of father-to-son bond that spoke in ways that words couldn't. Used to be John could read just about every nuance in his father's voice, having spent so much time with him working at the garage and all. Maybe time and distance and an all-night bender of whiskey had sharpened his senses, because John had somehow missed the almost wild-eyed panic in his father's intense, dark gaze.

Something was wrong.

"What happened?" he asked, heart leaping into his throat.

Joseph Winchester ran a weary hand over his face, scratching at his stubbled chin as he heaved a sigh.

"Dad?" John pressed, rising from his seat as panic began to set in. "What happened? Is it Mary? The boys? Are they okay?"

"There was an accident," his father said quietly, all traces of the raging ogre he'd just been long gone. "It's Dean… It-it's not good, John."

They talk about babies' heads as being soft, tender, fragile things. So easily damaged: so easily broken. A shake too hard and things rattle and swell inside. If the lungs are too weak, lesions can form on the brain. If not handled properly, the fragile neck can tremble and break under the weight of their heavy heads. So soft… so soft and tender.

Four year-olds as stubborn as Dean Winchester might seem like they have heads made out of adamantium, but it turns out they're tender and soft enough to cause swelling on the brain if you bang them hard enough. One tumble onto a hard surface and his wee little head just cracks like a melon.

John could barely feel his feet as he rushed through the emergency room doors, his father hot on his heels. Joseph had filled him in on the ride over: something about Dean in the basement, falling off the workbench, severe concussion, swelling on the brain, and intensive care. John could feel his blood turning to ice with each step, wondering how his life had gone from something so simple to… this. This just… it wasn't how things were supposed to be at all.

And Dean. God – Dean. If anything happened to Dean, if they lost him… John didn't think he could survive. Not without seeing that impish grin, or hearing that sweet little voice, or feeling that tiny hand in his. Not without holding his boy – his boy – in his arms to carry him off to bed every night. Mussing his hair and tucking him in.

The main reception and triage area was a bit like a war zone. Some kind of bus accident, a whole slew of flu sufferers, and a man with a nose so bloody and swollen it was clearly broken, made up the main stage of traffic through the bustling room. John bullied his way past a large Italian family bickering about insurance and forced his place at the front of the line where he demanded to speak with someone right away.

"My name is John Winchester," he said breathlessly. "My son, Dean… he was brought in early this morning…"

The woman consulted a chart in front of her, flipping back a page until she found what she was looking for, and then picked up the receiver of the phone at her left and pressed one of the extension buttons.

"Dr. Watson? Hi, this is Heather in reception. John Winchester is here to see his son Dean. Yes, thank you Doctor."

She hung up and wrote something down on her chart.

"The doctor will be with you in a moment."

Everything that happened after that came in a blurry haze. An aged and respectful-looking man in his late 50s arrived through a set of double doors and led the frazzled father and grandfather down a long corridor to a set of elevators. The doctor talked and John listened, explaining basically the same things that Joseph Winchester had already explained: that Dean had fallen and hit his head; that there was a concussion and severe swelling; that he was being kept in the Intensive Care ward under observation.

"If the swelling doesn't go down within the next twelve hours, we're going to have to bring in a neuro-surgeon to operate."

John felt his world tilt in a violent heave to the left.

"We've got Dr. Groetgutt on stand-by," the doctor went on, as if to assure or comfort. "Your son is in good hands."

John wasn't aware of the corridors that they passed when they made their way off of the elevator. He wasn't aware of the nearby exits, stairwells, bathrooms, or nurses stations. He didn't take note of the sick and dying waiting on gurneys in the hall, or hidden behind curtains. He was only aware of the rush of blood in his ears as he moved inexorably closer to his little boy. His little boy.

When they finally rounded a corner and entered the hushed confines of a wide, open room with six different, tiny beds behind six sets of curtains, John had pretty much made up his mind about all the ridiculous business of Dean Van Halen. Then his eyes settled on the ghostly white pallor of that tiny face, the wide, pain-filled green eyed stare of long-lashed eyes peering up at him so hopefully.

"Daddy?" Dean whispered breathlessly.

John had expected him to be asleep or unconscious, but he wasn't. The little dude was curled up in his bed, knees tucked up to his chest and sitting upright with a host of pillows behind settled behind him. His tiny dimpled little hands clutched tightly at the bedrails, holding on for dear life, IVs and tubes protruding from the underside of his wrist, an Oxygen cannula wrapped around his face resting under his nose. And God, it was amazing they made them for noses that small.

"Daddy?" Dean repeated with a terrified, desperate little lip wobble that threatened tears were imminent.

"Hey, buddy," John said in a rush as he swooped in to take the empty chair at his son's right (Mary having taken up the place on his left). "I'm right here, kiddo."

He resisted the urge to ruffle the floppy blonde mop, afraid of damaging the tender, bruised melon that was his son's head. He settled for rubbing a calloused thumb along his cheek to wipe away a rogue tear.

"I hear you took a tumble," John said, trying for light-hearted and reassured. "Broke your head open like Humpty Dumpty."

"You went away," Dean whispered sadly, raising tear-teepeed lashes to peer questioningly up at his father.

"Your old man had some business he had to take care of," John explained as he looked his son in the eye and held his gaze. "But it's done now." He nodded to prove his point.

Dean nodded a timid little nod and sucked back the urge to cry as his lip wobbled again.

"I fell off da workbench," he lamented with a sniffle. Then, with a sad little shrug. "Hurts."

John gave in to the urge and pulled his little boy close to him, hugging him in a gentle squeeze that felt a lot like ownership.

"I know, Buddy. You're okay. You're okay."

He held Dean like that for a long while until the nurses came and told them they had to leave so they could run another battery of tests. Dean looked at both his parents with such stricken eyes brimming with tears, clearly hurt at being thus abandoned, but there was nothing they could do to ease his fears as they were ushered out of the room.

John was about to kick up a fuss when Mary hushed him with a gentle push down the hall.

"I've already been through this," she whisper-grumbled. "It's hospital policy. They don't want the parents around when they administer tests or draw blood because the apparently the kids end up blaming the parents for standing by and letting it happen."

That sounded dumb, but John wasn't about to argue. He had other things he needed to say to his wife.

"Sam's with the Guenthers." Seemed important to her that she explain that. "I left him with Mike and Julie when everything… when we came to the ER."

"Listen, Mary…"

"I don't know what's gotten into you the last few days, John," Mary said angrily, earnestly, her own green eyes welled to glistening with fat, unshed tears. "I've put up with a lot of crap from you over the years with the drinking and the poker nights and the missed mortgage payments. And I've stood by you."

"I know," John admitted, heavy-hearted and feeling suddenly guilty as hell. "Mary, I'm sorry about –"

"I haven't always been honest with you, John," she admitted with a self-deprecating little grimace. "There are things about my family that I… I just don't like to talk about. Or think about."

John knew that much was true.

"But I have never lied to you about us. Not ever. You, me, Dean, and Sam? That's all the truth I have, John. I swear. To God. I have never cheated on you."

He felt like such an ass he was thoroughly ashamed of himself. This was the truth. He knew it deep down in his bones. Whatever ridiculous circumstances had led that drifter Dean Van Halen to his wife's doorstep all those years ago, it had nothing to do with what they had now. It might never have had anything to do with them at all.

Still… It was one hell of a coincidence. That fair hair, those green eyes, that freckled face… The man looked like Dean.

"Why didn't you just say?" John found himself asking as he heaved a relieved laugh.

"Because you should have trusted me!" she whispered indignantly. "Because you – how dare you even think it, John? Me? Cheat on you? It's fucking ridiculous – that's why!"

Fair enough.

"And the guy?" he couldn't help asking. "Dean Van Halen?" He'd thrown out the name before and had watched as Mary's eyes had widened with recognition before she paled.

"Friend of my father's," was her terse reply. "Are we done here, John? Because I have a sick son who needs me right now."

She moved out of his space and made as if to head back towards the ICU room where Dean was being poked and prodded, but John carefully snagged her by the wrist and drew her back. He didn't wait for permission before pulling her to his chest and holding her tight, running his hands through her hair to press her head to his chest. At first Mary was stiff and unresponsive – no doubt still pissed as hell at him for putting her through the hell of abandonment with two kids at home – but eventually she sagged in defeat and sniffled against him.

"Tell me about Dean," John whispered into her hair. "Tell me what happened."

Mary dragged in a ragged breath, her arms snaking around his back to grip him at last, before she choked out a tiny sob.

"Oh God, John!" she cried brokenly. "It was so awful. I was making dinner last night and Dean said he was going to go get something for you for when you came home. I guess I was a bit distracted because I didn't notice he'd gone down to the basement. I thought he'd be grabbing your baseball glove or a book or something."

She sucked in a quaking breath and clutched his shoulders tightly, speaking into the fabric of his shirt.

"He'd crawled onto the workbench so he could get your tools," she sniffed again, "for when you come back."

John could picture it now, for he'd seen his son do it a dozen times in the past. The workbench was really nothing more than a thick slab of sanded and varnished wood set into the wall on the south side from one end of the basement to the other. It was high up off the ground, but it ran at about a 90-degree angle from the basement stairs where the stairs and bench meet at the wall. Dean would merely crawl from the fourth step down onto the workbench and then make his way over to where the tools were at its centre. Granted, he'd never gone down there, especially not onto the workbench, without his father around.

"But he couldn't reach the light switch…" Mary explained. "He was jus-just stumbling around in the dark and he tr-tripped on one of your stupid tools and fell onto the cement floor. I found him lying there unconscious."

John squeezed his sobbing wife tight, trying not to imagine the horror she must have felt at seeing their live-wire hyperactive little boy looking so still and lifeless.

"I was afraid to move him," she admitted, peering up at him with red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes. "But then he came to and, even though he was crying he seemed like he was okay. I called the hospital and asked if I should bring him in and they said to just monitor him. They told me what things to look out for, but said I shouldn't bring him in."

She shook her head ruefully, the self-reproach evident in her eyes.

"I knew better," she said. "With my Dad and his… business…" she averted her gaze awkwardly. "I knew better than to just let it go, John. But he seemed fine. He cried for a good fifteen minutes straight, more scared and startled and confused than anything, I think. But then he just settled right down and ate his supper like nothing was wrong."

But something was wrong, obviously.

"I put him to bed a little later than usual, just so I could keep an eye on him, y'know? And everything was fine. But then at around midnight I heard this sound… It was – I don't know how to describe it, John. Dean was – he was throwing up in his sleep, and then I couldn't wake him up."

She was frantic now, reliving the moment. John drew her to him again and held her close, running his fingers along her shoulder blades in soothing circles.

"It's okay," he whispered. "You got 'im in here and the doctors are taking good care of him. He's awake and alert and he's going to be fine."

"He was crying for me, John!" she bawled. "They made me leave the room while they did a needle aspiration in his left wrist – and of course he's so tiny and his veins are buried under all that baby fat… they had to dig around in his wrist to try to find a vein, and he was crying for me and they wouldn't let me go to him!"

John's own resolve not to cry was rapidly breaking down, his traitorous lip wibbling pathetically as his eyes blurred with tears.

"I could hear him from the hallway," Mary went on. "'You're hurting me on purpose!'" she said brokenly, and John could practically hear his son's voice saying those words. "The nurse tried to explain that she wasn't, but Dean was having none of that. 'Yes you are,' he cried. 'You hurt me on purpose! My Daddy's gonna beat the crap outta you!'"

John did cry then. Big, fat, salty tears taking a joyride down the rocky crevices of his three-days' worth of bearded cheeks.

"The doctors said if the swelling doesn't go down they'll have to operate!" Mary wailed. "They'll shave his head and… cut him ope—"

John gave her a gentle shake to nip that thought in the bud but quick. It was as unbearable to him as it was to her.

"That's not going to happen," he insisted in his sternest voice.

"But—"

"And if it does, he'll make it through just fine." John knew it was true. It was in the kid's genetic make-up. In his DNA. "Dean's a Winchester. And he's a tough little sonovabitch."

It turned out John was right on all three counts: Dean did make it through just fine; the swelling on his brain receded through the afternoon and he was transferred to the regular pediatrics ward before the day was through; Dean was, and would continue to be, a tough little sonovabitch (even when he wasn't quite so little anymore); and Dean was most definitely a Winchester.

Fin.

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