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?"
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
"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."
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.
"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.
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?"
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."
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.
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."
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.