Title: Paternal Evolution

Fandom: Supernatural

Summary: Dean gets a phone call that changes his whole life. Preseries AU. Written for spn gen bigbang.

Spoilers: General ones for 'The Kids are Alright' and 'Jump the Shark.'

Phone calls that completely change the way a person lives are supposed to come at 2 a.m. on a stormy night. Ten o'clock on a sunny Tuesday morning typically means telemarketer or possible job. What it should not mean is a cool, official, bureaucratic voice telling a person that they represent the estate of Ms. Lisa Braeden and that Mr. Dean Winchester was needed in Cicero, Indiana as soon as possible to take custody of his three-year-old son, one Benjamin Isaac Braeden. It was the first week of November, though, so the universe had at least gotten that much right.

Considering that the call had woken him up from the first sleep he'd managed to score in two days, Dean figured he would be forgiven the moment of stupefied silence and the request to repeat what the woman had just said. There was a sigh before the woman said, in a biting tone, "We have your son, Mr. Winchester, and the state is poised to assume custody unless you get here as soon as possible."

That woke him up in a hurry, and Dean spent the next ten minutes receiving instructions and as many details as the woman would give over the telephone while hurrying to pack his things back up. He took a quick shower once he'd hung up, mentally planning the trip from Cincinnati to Cicero as he did the fastest job ever of shaving off three days worth of beard.

His dad was on another case, either in Wisconsin or Minnesota depending on how things were going. The last year had taught them both that it was better to be in separate states on November second. Dean called him from the road and let him know that the case was over but that he had something else he needed to take care of and then hung up before the inevitable fireworks. It was the first time he'd ever done something like that: said something that he knew was going to upset his father and then basically run from the rest of the conversation, but Dean found that he didn't really care. He called Bobby next, ignoring the call-waiting messages from his cell phone, and made sure he could use Singer Salvage as a reference/place of employment. Bobby agreed, once he stopped spluttering about 'idjit Winchesters' and 'moronic teenage boys,' which made Dean a little defensive. He even offered a place to come and stay while Dean adjusted, which Dean wasn't expecting. Bobby hadn't exactly made his father feel welcome the last time they were there, and Dean hadn't been entirely sure of his own reception when he called.

Pastor Jim promised to meet him in Cicero when he called to ask for a character reference. Dean had no idea what to expect, though there was a definite worry that he would end up handling Lisa's funeral, something he was ill-equipped to handle. He remembered their conversations well. That long weekend in Lisa Braeden's loft was one of his best memories and possibly the longest string of good ones that didn't also include death or dismemberment since he was four. Lisa had admired how close he was with his brother and father. Her parents were both dead and the only family she had was a much older half-sister that was mostly indifferent to Lisa's existence.

He made the trip in two hours, including a quick stop on the way out of town at McDonald's because in addition to not sleeping for two days, he also hadn't eaten in at least one. At the edge of town he stopped again, exchanging his worn denim and flannel for something that looked a little more respectable and cleaning out the car. He made sure to lock up the weapons cache in the trunk before he made it all the way to his destination. There was no telling what kind of hoops he might have to jump through to make these people happy. He didn't want any potential problems available.

The thought that he had a son, one whose mother was now dead, didn't penetrate until he saw the small face of the little boy (with his nose and the ears that stuck out a little and Lisa's dark eyes) playing with a truck at the feet of the social worker. The woman who had brought him to the group home disappeared as soon as he was in the door, leaving him to make his own explanations and introductions, which suited Dean fine.

Dean had always had a very vivid and detailed memory, and right now he dredged up what it had been like to be a kid just after his mother had died – how he had wanted grown-ups to act around him, what things had only made it worse. It still hurt a little to remember his mother, and Dean tried to remember all that when he knelt down next to Ben.

The little boy looked up when he knelt down. "Want to play with me?" he asked, dark eyes curious. "No one will play trucks."

"I'd love to," Dean said immediately. He could practically feel disapproval at his actions, playing a game with a toddler when there was so much that needed done. There were questions to answer, forms to fill out, plans and decisions that needed made. But the four-year-old that had watched his mother burn knew that this was more important than all of those things.

Pastor Jim showed up about three hours after Dean began to make himself comfortable with his son. Much as Dean had feared, no one had been able to track down Lisa's half-sister and they were more than eager to shove the entire thing into Dean's hands. It disturbed him how little anyone cared; Lisa had been a warm, loving woman and there should be more people upset by the fact that she was dead.

Ben took the idea that he would be staying with Dean very well. The only turbulence came when he asked where his mommy was while Dean settled him into the bed in Lisa's apartment. He had no idea how to answer the question, and the delight he'd felt while playing with his son abruptly evaporated, suddenly leaving him feeling much too old. "Did anyone talk to you about your mom?"

He nodded reluctantly. "They told me she died. What does that mean?"

Dean pulled up his four-year-old self again, but no one had needed to tell him that mommy wasn't coming back. He'd figured that out for himself. "Have you ever gotten hurt, Ben?"

The boy nodded, his confusion apparent. "I burned my arm. It hurt a lot."

"But eventually it stopped hurting, right?" He pulled Ben into his lap and found a small scar that would eventually fade. "Your mom put something on it and bandaged it up and it healed up good as new?" He waited for the boy to nod in agreement. "Well, sometimes people get hurt really bad, not just a little like this. And sometimes when that happens, it's so bad that it can't be fixed." He swallowed hard, trying to think of a way to explain this in three year old language. "That's what happened to your mom, Ben. She was hurt so bad that her body stopped working."

The squirming body on his lap stilled. "But I miss her." There were tears threatening right now, and Dean was frankly surprised that Ben hadn't gone into a full-blown crying fit by now.

"I know." He dropped a kiss on unruly dark hair that smelled like baby shampoo. "Something happened to my mom too. I know how it feels."

The long-anticipated waterworks started then. The toddler started wailing and Dean cradled him against his chest, feeling a few tears escape him. Lisa hadn't deserved this, and their son didn't deserve it either.

Dean stayed with his son until the sobs died down and the boy was asleep, tucking him into the small bed before heading out into the living room and dropping down onto the couch next to Jim.

"You did well, Dean," his friend said. "It's hard to explain such things to a child, but you handled it."

"I shouldn't have to explain it," Dean returned angrily. "No three year old should need to be told that his mom is dead."

"You aren't responsible for his mother's death, Dean."

"I know that," Dean hissed. "Doesn't make it any easier." He headed into the kitchen, bringing back a beer for each of them. "I still haven't figured out how to tell him that I'm his father."

Jim nodded, acknowledging what Dean said. "Have you called your father?" he asked, and Dean choked on his first swallow.

"God, no," he said vehemently. "I told him just enough to let him know I'm not available for hunting right now."

"John should know that he has a grandson."

"I'll tell him soon, just . . .not now. Not until we've taken care of everything at this end."

"And what about Sam?"

Dean glanced over at the worn leather jacket that he'd tossed onto the chair that sat in front of a cluttered desk. His cell was in the left-hand pocket, once again quiet after the flurry of calls from his father earlier in the day. "Did you know I haven't talked to Sam once since he went to school?" he said, almost idly. "He never answers when I call, and he's never returned one of my voice mails. He's been at Stanford for over a year and he hasn't called me once."

"At least try," Jim urged. "He's your brother, Dean."

"Tomorrow," Dean promised. "Not really feeling up to it tonight." He was torn between the desire to kill something and the pressing need to get blindly drunk, but he knew that right now he couldn't do either. Tomorrow he'd have to start defending his right to his own flesh and blood.

"Tomorrow," the pastor agreed. "Do you have someplace to stay once this is all settled?"

"Bobby Singer offered." He smiled, a little bleakly. "Pretty nice of him, considering that the last time he saw Dad he threatened to fill him with buckshot."

"I say this in Christian love, Dean. Your father would make a saint wish to do the same."

xxx

Dean spent the next several days alternating between bonding with his son, jumping through the hoops of Indiana's child custody laws, and dodging his father's increasingly irate calls. In the back of his mind he harbored the fear that John Winchester would somehow prevent Dean from taking Ben, since having a small child on hand would put his hunting on hold indefinitely. Dean had already accepted this, on some level, and was making plans to find other ways to keep his hand in. He'd always had a gift with weapons and gadgets. Maybe Bobby would let him set up a workshop someplace on his place.

Pastor Jim took care of most of the arrangements for Lisa's funeral. She'd been cremated, their lifestyle not settling for anything else since Dean had no desire to come back and dig up the casket just to make sure she was safe and secure in the afterlife. A depressingly few number of people showed up for the memorial service, mostly students from the yoga classes she taught and mutual classmates from the college classes she was taking at night. Her half-sister finally showed up, and Dean was grateful for the presence of both Ben and Pastor Jim to keep him from jumping down the woman's throat when she sniffed at the simple arrangements. There was no official eulogy, but people who had known her stood up and said a few words. It was a sad testimony to the vibrant, laughing woman Dean had met four years ago, and much like the barely-remembered funeral they had held for his mother it seemed like not enough.

The custody hearing was two days later. The half-sister didn't bother to show up for it, which suited Dean fine. He would never have stood for the thought of that woman raising his son. In the end, it was surprisingly easy to gain temporary custody of his son. Lisa had granted it in her will, for one (and how weird was it that he had gone with a chick that actually had a will?), his name was on the birth certificate, and both Bobby Singer and Pastor Jim had vouched for his employment and character. The courts would be setting future dates before granting him full and permanent custody, during which time the state of South Dakota would be making home visits to assure themselves that he was a capable parent, once the case was transferred. Dean wanted to laugh at them a little. The last kid he had helped raise went to fucking Stanford on a full ride scholarship, thank you very much.

Ben came along with Dean to the Braeden's small apartment and toddled along beside him while Dean packed up Ben's things. She'd left everything to Dean, with the instruction that he was to pass things along to Ben when the time came, and his head spun with how generous that truly was. He and Lisa had only spent what amounted to a long weekend together, and while that particular memory held great fondness for him he would never have considered giving her custody over his own meager possessions. Then again, if his only sibling was someone like Grace Braeden he would probably have been more open to the idea.

The lease for Lisa's apartment didn't end until February, but the landlord seemed understanding of the situation and was willing to terminate it at the end of the month without charging anything extra. Dean had no idea if that was normal or not, but he was thankful for it anyway. He didn't have much money and he was already planning on keeping all of Lisa's savings for Ben. He would feel guilty touching that money for anything.

A lifetime of packing both light and well meant that all of Ben's things fit into three boxes that fit in with plenty of room with the car seat in the back. Dean filled another box of things that Lisa had owned that he could use, most notably a laptop that she had apparently used for school. Pastor Jim helped him donate the rest of her things and empty out the apartment before he headed back to his parish at Blue Earth. He and Ben spent one last night camped out on the floor of the apartment, bundled in sleeping bags against the November chill seeping in around old windows. Even factoring in time to sleep and the extra pit stops driving with a toddler who was barely potty trained, they should arrive at Bobby's the day before Thanksgiving.

Dean was almost converted to a churchgoer when it turned out that the Winchester penchant for long road trips was apparently genetic. Ben took to the long drive like a pro, sleeping for large chunks and awake and entertaining himself the rest of the time. They got to Singer Salvage in a respectable amount of time considering the circumstances, a whole day ahead of the schedule Dean had set. Dean carried a sleeping Ben inside, leaving everything else behind for the morning. Rumsfeld nosed at them both before letting them inside, thankfully staying quiet. Dean had missed the dog and its trained nose for demons. Bobby had aired out the spare room that used to belong to Dean and Sam back when they were kids and Dean tucked his son into bed before heading downstairs and slumping down into one of Bobby's hard-backed kitchen chairs.

"He down for the night?" Bobby asked, handing Dean a beer. He had let the kid go without the holy water test since they got past Rumsfeld and walked right through the Devil's Trap on the way upstairs, but if there ever seemed to be a time for alcohol, this was it.

"Should be." Dean took the beer gratefully. He hadn't had any of the hard stuff since he got the call about Lisa, and even here at Bobby's he didn't quite feel safe enough to let go that much. "He sleeps pretty hard. Probably be awake way too early tomorrow morning, though, and I don't know if he'll panic when he wakes up in a strange place." Dean remembered freaking out the first time he woke up in a motel room after his mother died. His father hadn't been in the room at the time and that had made it much worse, so he had every intention of camping out on the narrow, short twin bed upstairs.

"Kinda looks like you," Bobby offered. "How'd he handle the trip?"

"Fine," Dean answered, smiling a little at the thought. "Got enough Winchester in him for that."

Bobby made a non-committal sound. So far his only glimpse of the little boy had been while he was asleep in his daddy's arms, so he wasn't willing to make any judgment calls just yet. "You given any thought to what you're going to do?"

"Some," Dean admitted. "Can we talk about it tomorrow, though? I've had nothing but time to think about my future in the last few days. I'd kind of like a break from it right now."

"All right." Bobby leaned back in his chair, tipping up his bottle to catch the dregs. "You call your daddy yet?"

"That's tomorrow too," Dean said, closing his eyes and letting his head drop down onto the table. "God, I'm tired. We should hook the kid up to a treadmill and let him charge up a generator. You'd never need to pay an electric bill again."

"That's an idea. Maybe you could start a day care and have a whole herd of them." Bobby grinned at Dean's woebegotten expression. "Head to bed, kid. I'll lock up."

Ben woke up bright and early, as expected. He must have gotten this morning thing from Lisa, Dean reflected with a groan as he fought his way out of the comfortable bed and joined his son in the waking world. Granted, the only place he'd ever slept this deeply in years was Bobby's, but even out on the road he'd never been a fan of mornings.

Ben was apparently overwhelmed with the desire to explore his new surroundings, so after a breakfast where the boy and Bobby quickly became friends Dean spent most of the day escorting his son around the house and the closer sections of the junkyard. The old cars were like a little boy's paradise most of the time, and Dean was kept extremely busy hauling his son off of one dilapidated wreck after another. He couldn't blame him; the whole thing was practically begging to be climbed on and explored. When Ben was a little older Dean would probably allow him a little more freedom out amongst the cars, but for now they'd just stick together.

Dean was just about ready to take a nap himself when Ben started his own nap. Bobby was doing some research when Dean collapsed on the couch. "Kid wear you out?"

"Yep." He sat up, rubbing his forehead to ward off the incipient headache. "So, this a good time to talk about future plans? Maybe paint our nails and gossip along with it?"

"You can paint your nails if you feel like it," Bobby said agreeably. "I won't judge."

Dean laughed, the sound brief but welcome. "Hunting's out of the question for now," he said. "I won't make the kid an orphan after he just lost his mom."

"So what do you plan to do?"

Dean shrugged, looking uncomfortable. No one had ever asked him that question before. "I gotta keep my hand in somehow. Thought I could maybe set up a workshop and fix up weapons, that sort of thing." He looked up at Bobby, suddenly a little gleeful. "I made an EMF meter out of an old walkman a couple of months ago. Works like a charm. Think there's any hunters out there that might appreciate something like that?"

"I can think of one or two," Bobby allowed. "Willing to do anything else? You're good with cars. I could use that around here."

Dean nodded, grateful for the implicit offer. "Thanks, Bobby." He rubbed at the bridge of his nose one more time then stood up. Time to fill his dad in on the events of the last week.

He was granted an unexpected reprieve when his father didn't answer his phone and prompted him to leave a message. "Hey, Dad, it's me. Listen, I had some stuff come up. Call me and we'll talk." He hung up, some instinct prompting him to avoid leaving his location on the message. The last thing any of them needed was a classic John Winchester meltdown at Bobby's right now.

While he had his cell in hand, he tried calling Sam one last time. "Sam, it's me. I need you to call me when you get a chance." He didn't have high hopes for a return call. Sam had yet to communicate in any way, shape or form since he'd disappeared on that bus to Stanford with all the cash that Dean had on hand. If Dean hadn't stopped in to check on him every now and then, he would never have known that his brother was alive and well. Even a man as stubborn as Dean Winchester could eventually take a hint when he wasn't wanted.

Thanksgiving at Bobby's was a familiar experience, although probably not a traditional one. Neither Dean nor Bobby really cared about the holiday and Ben was too young to even know what it meant, so it wasn't the big deal that it would have been almost anywhere else. Dean remembered being on the road at Thanksgiving and how lonely and awkward that was, though, and made at least an effort at cooking a decent meal for the three of them. Bobby had a chest freezer in the basement with half of a butchered cow and several pounds of ground venison, so Dean dug up an ancient crock pot and a roast and introduced the two. Bobby was an old bachelor who had learned to eat almost anything so his approval didn't matter much, but Ben seemed to like it and that was Dean's goal.

The next few days fell into a rhythm. Dean started clearing out one of Bobby's outbuildings, tossing old, rusting farm equipment and building a few sturdy work surfaces with things that he found laying around. Ben kept him company for some of it, asking questions about pretty much everything, and when Dean was doing something particularly dangerous Bobby took a turn. It didn't take long for him to make a secure enough space to unload most of the trunk's contents into his new workshop and start tinkering with a few things.

He was building a better model of his EMF meter when John finally called back. "You mind telling me what the hell you're doing, son?" he asked without preamble when Dean picked up the phone. "I've had to pass along three different hunts while you had your little vacation."

"Congratulations, Dad. You're a grandfather," Dean said. There would have been easier, probably better ways to break the news, but this was the most efficient and he was too tired to put up with John Winchester bullshit right now.

"You better be kidding me."

"Not a joke, Dad. I got the call when his mom died. I'm out of hunting until things settle down with him."

His father sighed, the sound a disappointed hiss over the telephone lines. "You have a responsibility, Dean."

"I have a responsibility to my son," Dean said, deadly serious. He'd never given his father an ultimatum before. That had always been Sam's job. "He's three years old and he just lost his mom. I can't make him an orphan."

"You can't make him safe either," his father said.

"Well, I can sure as hell try," Dean spat out. "He needs a father more than the world needs me as a hunter right now."

"Sounds like you need to get your priorities in check." John Winchester's voice was that icy calm he usually got before he got incredibly dangerous. "You don't have time to play Daddy right now."

"You know what? Fuck you and your priorities, Dad." Dean closed the phone with a snap, dropping it onto the workbench with a clatter. He dropped his head down next to it for a second before standing up and throwing one fist into a wall. He went in for another punch, ignoring the pain shooting down his arm from the first and wishing he were aiming for his father's disapproving scowl.

And then he headed into the house. Right now there was nothing he wanted more than some time with Ben. If the rest of his son's family wanted nothing to do with either of them, that was fine. He and Ben would carve out something with just the two of them.

xxx

This, Dean reflected grimly, was precisely why his father had gone out of his way to avoid Child Protection Services. He grunted in frustration and forced the ancient vacuum back into the closet, closing the door quickly before any of the accessories had a chance to fall out onto the newly clean floor. Ben was in the kitchen, eating his lunch and no doubt listening for any new opportunities to expand his vocabulary, and Dean didn't dare curse despite the unbelievable temptation.

He cast one more worried eye around Bobby's now-spotless living room. Dean hadn't even been sure that the man had owned a vacuum cleaner, but they'd used it four times in here this week. Most of the rest of the house was simply cluttered and dusty, but this room was where most of the hunting gear stayed, and the Key of Solomon on the ceiling had been painted over and then repainted two shades from the fresh paint. Bobby wasn't sure if it would be as effective, but until this was over they would just have to keep a careful eye on the salt and iron and other wards. They'd stashed some of the more outrageous looking books and herbs in the trunk of the Impala, the least likely place for a determined inspector to check out, and spent an entire day shelving the rest of Bobby's library. The rest of the house had gotten the same level of attention over the last two weeks, but today was the deadline.

Today was the first visit from South Dakota Family Services, and Dean was more scared than he had ever been. Compared to this, looking down the barrel of a gun at a werewolf was nothing. He had only known he was a father for a month, but the idea of that being taken away, of Ben being taken away, terrified him.

The knock on the door signaled the end of his prep time and with one last wild glance at the mostly-hidden design on the room's ceiling and went to answer the door. It was a good thing he had finished up when he did. She was an hour early and she could have easily caught him with his pants down.

The Winchesters had run afoul of Children's Services three times in Dean's childhood, all of them before he reached the age of fourteen. At that point he'd hit a growth spurt that made him tall for his age and people were less likely to object to him and Sammy being left alone for a weekend. He'd also gotten better at keeping his father's absence under wraps, but that was an entirely different issue. The fear that someone would come and take Sammy away from him was the one that kept him up at night. Social workers were the monster under his bed, and all three that Dean had met had conformed to a specific mold. He remembered them all being old, heavy women with a particular gleam in their eyes that Dean equated with the joy of separating families, though admittedly he'd brought his own prejudices to the table.

This woman was none of those things. Instead, he opened the door to find a woman close to his own age, with dark hair and the kind of lean build that comes with being a dedicated runner. In a different setting, she would have been exactly Dean's type. Now, of course, she was more of a road hazard, something to be carefully steered around if he expected to continue traveling safely in the general direction of where he wanted to go.

"Dean Winchester?" She smiled, the expression polite and a little weary. "My name is Amy Stowers and I'm here to meet with you about your son."

"Yeah," Dean said, standing back and gesturing into the freshly cleaned living room. "Come on in. Ben's still eating lunch, you're a little early."

Amy's smile didn't falter, and Dean realized that she'd arrived early on purpose. She'd been trying to catch him off guard, and that pissed him off a little. "That's fine. We can use that time to go over your case file."

Dean smiled back at her, though he was sure his was far more strained than the social worker's. "Just let me check in on him." He retreated before she could object, needing the glance at his son to ground him. Dean Winchester could play nice with the overbearing woman, for Ben's sake. All he needed was a quick reminder of why he wasn't showing her the door, and the sight of Ben eating his peanut butter sandwich and drinking a glass of milk did its job.

He spent the next hour or so fielding subtly pointed questions about his habits, work, and lifestyle, broken up by a tour of the house. Ben joined them when he was finished with his lunch, thankfully while they were still on the ground floor. His son was steady on the stairs, but he could easily imagine the horror on the woman's face when the three-year-old went up the old, slightly steep stairs by himself.

Ben stuck by his side like glue through the rest of the dog and pony show, only detouring away to play with some of his toys when he and Ms. Stowers sat down to continue the interrogation. He stayed in the room, thankfully, making it so that Dean didn't have to ignore the woman to track down his son.

After two hours of this, the social worker closed the cover on her notebook. "Everything seems to be in order," she said, her tone a little more upbeat. "You have my number, so call if there are any problems. Otherwise, let's say the second week of January for the next meeting?"

Dean nodded, struck momentarily speechless. "Second week of January is perfect," he finally answered.

She smiled at him and gathered her things. "I'll see you then. It was good to meet you, Mr. Winchester. You too, Ben." Amy waved at the boy, who waved back without taking his attention from his play. "You're doing a great job," she said as he escorted her to the door. "I had my doubts, given Mr. Singer's reputation, but you obviously adore your son." And with that final confidence, she climbed into her Volkswagon and drove away.

Dean closed the door, bemused by the encounter and pleased that it was over. He would still probably end up terrified by the time the next inspection rolled around, but that could have gone a lot worse. "I think this calls for pizza for dinner," he muttered as he went to collect his son. Pizza and beer and a Coke for Ben. They deserved it after that ordeal.

xxx

It was the twentieth of December before Dean realized that he had a kid around for Christmas this year and that Christmas was almost there, the last only occurring to him when he made a much-needed grocery run. Christmas last year had been spent in a haze of alcohol and running from job to job in an effort to make the glaring absence of Sam a little less painful. The holidays before he had been busy keeping his father and his brother from ripping each other apart.

Bobby looked a little startled when he brought it up. "Huh. Guess we should do something," he said, and proceeded to drag up dusty boxes of decorations and an artificial tree from the basement.

Ben insisted on helping once he realized what was going on. Apparently he had some vague memory from last Christmas with his mother. He toddled around behind Dean, carrying whatever ornament had appealed to him at the moment. Dean and Bobby stepped around him rather than try to keep the little boy in one spot. That particular plan rarely worked. It was better to just keep him occupied rather than stationary.

Decorations were fairly easy. Presents were a lot harder to come by, especially on the limited budget that Dean now had to keep to. He wished he'd remembered Christmas a little earlier, since he had a feeling he was going to have to make something for both Bobby and Ben. God knew he couldn't afford to go out and buy anything. If it hadn't been for Bobby's generosity they wouldn't even have a place to live.

He was thinking about this as he pulled up Bobby's tow truck to the stalled Toyota from Ohio on the highway just outside of town. Bobby had the market cornered when it came to tows in the area, especially for tows that came from out-of-towners. Dean wasn't quite sure how he'd gotten that piece of very nice business, though he knew it had something to do with insurance companies and an online database.

The car was fairly old for a foreign piece of crap, fifteen years old at least, and the surprise was not that it had stopped working, but that it had made it this far at all. Dean winced when he hooked it up to the truck. He could feel parts of the body disintegrating under his hands when he touched it.

The driver was a woman about Bobby's age with bobbed salt and pepper hair and a spare, lean figure. She climbed up into the cab of the tow truck with the kind of ease and weariness that spoke of long familiarity. If she'd been driving that car around long he had no doubt she'd had to deal with tow trucks before. "Where can I drop you off?" He started up the diesel engine and checked carefully despite the deserted condition of the road. With his luck this would be the first time he'd ever seen more than one car over a mile of road out here.

"Is there a repair shop anywhere near here?" she asked. "I've got to get this thing patched up enough to get me Portland."

"Yeah, there's a couple of places in town." He stopped short of recommending them, because he wouldn't. One of them did crappy work and the other overcharged for work that didn't necessarily need to be done. He didn't trust mechanics that charged by the hour instead of the job. "How much of a hurry are you in?"

"Trying to get there by Christmas Eve," she said, and he winced. There was no way either garage could or would turn a vehicle around that fast for anything more complicated than an oil change or new tires.

"You planning on keeping that car around for much longer?"

She shook her head. "God, no. I'm planning on dumping it as soon as I get there. I just didn't want to bother with buying a new car in the middle of a cross-country move."

"Then you're better off just letting me slap a band-aid on it," he told her bluntly. "It sounds like you've got some problems with the fuel line and possibly the electrical system. I can probably have you on the road by tomorrow morning. It won't be great, but it should get you there." The car had a ton of other problems, first and foremost it being an ancient Toyota, but those were too expensive to fix and if she wasn't planning on keeping the car they were unnecessary repairs.

She looked at him, pursing her lips with a thoughtful expression. "So you'd work through the night?"

"If it needs it," Dean conceded. "It shouldn't actually take that long to fix, but the other shops are going to have a line and you'll have to pay through the nose to get bumped up to the top of it."

"And how much will it cost me to have you fix it?"

Dean shrugged. "Two hundred dollars, maybe? Let me take a look at it and I'll tell you."

"You mean you'll give me an estimate."

"No, I mean I'll give you a price. Life's too short for estimates and stringing out work to fill the time."

There was an uncomfortable silence while the woman thought about it, broken only by the rattle of the chain behind him and the rumbling of the heavy engine. "Yeah, OK," she finally said. "What the hell. Can't be any more of a gamble than the repair places in town."

"All right. Want me to drop you off in town first?"

"I want to know what this is going to cost before I leave my car alone."

Dean didn't exactly want a stranger around the salvage yard, but he was swiftly becoming used to the concept. Bobby's yard was a place of business and everyone knew to keep their distance from the house. Hopefully this woman would be aware enough to do the same. "I can do that," he said. "So, moving to Portland, huh? New job?" Most people moved because of work, he knew that much. Technically, Dad and he'd done the same for most of his life. It had just been more frequent than normal.

"Yes," she said. "Well, new opportunity. I've always wanted to move to the Pacific Northwest and then a friend of mine from college who lives there decided she wanted to start a bakery. I like to bake and I'm good with a mixer and an oven. It seemed like a good fit."

"So you just quit your job to move across the country to help start a bakery because that was what you wanted to do?"

"That's pretty much it."

"That's pretty gutsy."

"I'm fifty-one years old. I figure I'm getting to the point where I can do anything I want."

Dean turned into the long driveway that led to Singer Salvage, glancing at the woman from the corner of his eye. There were wards set around the edge of the property, something Bobby had done when Dean had moved there with Ben. They wouldn't stop the woman from entering if she was some supernatural fugly, but they would cause pain and discourage anything that wasn't quite human from entering the gates.

There was no reaction, and Dean relaxed fractionally. Humans could cause just as many problems and were just as much of a threat to Ben as anything else, but humans were easier to defend against. He parked the truck just outside the garage that was slowly becoming his. "Just let me go inside and check in. I'll be right out to look under the hood and give you a price."

Bobby was busy with his slowly growing bank of 'official' phone lines and Ben was situated with his small stash of Hot Wheels that Dean had left behind at Bobby's years ago to keep them from disappearing when his dad had been cleaning out the backseat of the Impala. There were more than a few things like that socked away either here or at Pastor Jim's; Dean had just stumbled across a stack of battered, used paperbacks that Sam had left behind in the upstairs closet.

"I'm going to do a patch job for the tow, get the customer back on the road," he told Bobby, who nodded and waved him out the door.

The customer was still next to her car, which was reassuring. There wasn't much of anything that would blow their cover out in plain sight outside, beyond the wards at the gate, but Dean wasn't discounting the possibility of someone getting too curious and somehow finding his hiding spot for all the projects he had in progress, some of which were decidedly illegal.

She was rummaging around in the back seat of the packed car when he got there. "Need something to keep me busy while you work," the woman told him, standing up and stepping away from the car and over to the frayed lawn chair set against the wall. Dean had put it there so he'd have a place for Ben to stay while he worked when Bobby didn't want the distraction. He turned back to her car after she pulled a wad of yarn and some weird little metal thing from the bag.

The problem was both easy to fix and could be done with the materials they had on hand at the salvage yard. It wouldn't last much more than a few thousand miles, but that should get her where she was going.

The pile of yarn had resolved into something that was shaped more like a dog by the time he was finished, and Dean couldn't help but look at it and think about how he still needed to come up with Christmas presents for Ben. "What's that for?"

She shrugged and tucked it into her bag. "My sanity, mostly. I don't do boredom well. I have to have a project to work on while I'm sitting around or I might go crazy."

"Ever think about selling them?" Dean asked. He had no idea what something like that might actually be worth, but maybe he could negotiate some kind of deal and knock down the price of the car repair.

She shrugged. "I usually give them away to someone. I've got two nieces and four nephews so there's always a birthday coming up, or Christmas or something."

"I'll only charge you cost on the car if you trade me the toy."

"Huh." She looked taken aback at the offer. "I've never heard anyone be quite that gung-ho about the things before."

"I've got a little boy up at the house and it's three days to Christmas," Dean admitted. "I haven't got the cash to buy him toys." It was a blow to his pride to say something like that to a stranger, but he was starting to get desperate. There just wasn't money around for much more than the necessities and no way to get more right now.

The customer's harsh features softened a little, thankfully not into the pity he was expecting. "How much would you have charged for labor?"

"Twenty bucks, maybe?" It hadn't taken an hour, and most of that had been spent getting into and out of the proper place.

"Well, for twenty bucks of labor I'll trade you that and these." She returned to the backseat of the car and pulled out a blanket of some kind and a tupperware container full of cookies. "Merry Christmas."

Dean swallowed any objections and a fair amount of pride and took what was offered. He couldn't afford much more than clothing and maybe shoes for Ben right now. Life without the ease of fake credit cards was much more challenging than he wanted it to be, but it would be a bad idea to take them back up here at Bobby's. They had a good thing going here, him and Ben and Bobby, and messing it up because he got greedy would be the epitome of stupid acts.

The woman paid for the parts and drove off in her currently functional Toyota, leaving Dean behind with a stuffed animal, a blanket, a thing of cookies, and no idea what her name had been. Ben unwrapped the homemade dog on Christmas morning, the only toy he received that wasn't something scrounged from Bobby's attic, and Dean drank his coffee with bleary contentment as his son made up some sort of traveling story that heavily featured his newfound friend.

xxx

Dean had never spent much time in Sioux Falls: a week here or there at Bobby's, sure, but not much time in the actual town. He wouldn't pull shit in a town where his friend lived, after all, and Dean's typical methods of survival up until now had included the kinds of things that got him run out of town if he kept them up. Now, of course, there was Ben and the always-impending threat of a visit from social services. Getting busted for credit card fraud or hustling would have been a red flag that might have made it harder to gain permanent custody.

Now that he was a somewhat honest citizen, though, he had to do things like buy groceries and shampoo and small sneakers that his son grew out of absurdly fast. He'd only really been a parent for six weeks, but somehow Ben now needed new shoes, so he'd bundled his son up in the car and headed into town.

It turned out that introducing himself as Bobby Singer's nephew was more likely to draw derisive snorts than any sort of connection with anyone in town. Dean bristled internally at their belittling of the man who was swiftly becoming Ben's grandfather in practice if not in blood, but he didn't let it show. Bobby had his own form of camouflage, after all, and if being thought of as the town drunk and the town crank meant that people dismissed pretty much everything that should have tipped them off to something strange in their midst, Dean had no doubt that the older man had intended it.

Instead of correcting their misconceptions, Dean shrugged it off, grinned, and let it be known that he was working as a mechanic out of Singer Salvage if anyone needed any car repairs. Ben charmed his way through half a dozen women who tried to help Dean figure out how shoes worked for three-year-olds. He got an unprecedented number of unsolicited phone numbers by the time he got out of there, but he had the feeling that they were all looking for more than a one night stand and Dean just didn't want that kind of complication right now. Ben was what mattered now, and as much as he would welcome the relief from a one-night stand he just didn't have the time or energy for more. If there was one thing he'd learned from traveling around the country, small town girls always wanted more.

Ben jumped around at his knees while Dean finished up his other errands, making the little lights on his new sneakers flash while Dean purchased electronics and tools and a few things he needed for some weapon modification experiments. Word of mouth was starting to trickle around the hunting community about a few of his projects and he had a few requests sitting on the workbench back at the Salvage Yard. They didn't have everything he needed here, but Ben was already getting a little too cranky to chance a trip into the city today. He'd head out on a longer run in a day or two.

They were on their way out of town, Ben strapped into his car seat in the back seat of the Impala, when Ben pointed to the playground next to the elementary school. Dean gave in fairly easily, pulling into the parking lot and setting the toddler out to run. Ben made a beeline for the swings and Dean hurried to catch up, lifting his son into one of the seats and starting to push. They stayed there for close to an hour before they both got too cold to stay outside and retreated back to the shelter of the Impala. Ben fell asleep on the way back home, leaving Dean to carry him inside in what was becoming a very familiar, practiced movement.

The playground turned out to be a mistake. Ben woke up the next morning with a sore throat that progressed to a cough throughout the day, and by bedtime Dean had a sick, miserable toddler on his hands with a burgeoning fever. His good-natured son actually whimpered when Dean tried to put him to bed, clinging to his father with tenacity even though he was clearly exhausted. He ended up dosing him with infant cold medicine and walking the floor with him, feeling guilty about how sick his son now was. After an hour or so of pacing, Dean got desperate enough to drag through his own childhood memories, trying to remember what his mother had done when he had been sick like this.

The only things that came to mind were tomato rice soup and Hey Jude. Ben wasn't going to be able to eat at the moment, and Dean was desperate to ease his kid's suffering, so he took a deep breath and started to sing.

Bobby cleared his throat in the doorway just before Dean began the third repetition of the song. "Kid feeling any better?"

"I think he's almost asleep," Dean said. Ben's vise-grip on his shirt had slowly lessened over the course of the song. "Poor kid. I shouldn't have kept him outside so long."

"Want me to take a turn? You could use a little rest."

It was tempting. He was tired to a degree that he'd only ever felt before after a memorable black dog hunt. Ben made a soft noise and relaxed, finally asleep, and made his decision. "I think I'll just lay down with him. Maybe he'll sleep that way."

Bobby nodded. There was an odd expression on his face, but Dean was too wrung out just now to try and decipher it. "There's some stuff we can try if the medicine doesn't knock his fever down."

"Yeah, okay," Dean said, rubbing at his forehead with his free hand. He cautiously sat down on the edge of the twin bed, leaning back and balancing Ben against his chest until his head hit the pillow. "I'll check his temperature in a few hours."

"Need me to wake you up?"

"Yeah."

Ben was still clearly despondent when the sun came up, his temperature still hanging out at one-oh-one, so Dean grimly bundled his son up and made a call to Ben's doctor.

The woman was spectacularly unhelpful. She agreed to see Ben, but cautioned Dean that it was likely just a little cold or virus and that kids picked these things up all the time. That was one of the least comforting things he'd ever heard. By the time he made it to the doctor's office he was such a jumble of emotions (worried, scared, angry) that he had to force his hands to unclench from around the steering wheel.

Ben hated the exam. He clung to Dean, refusing to be cajoled away by the doctor, and cried whenever she came near him with any instrument, no matter how benign. Finally Dr. Armstrong sighed and sat back on her stool. Even her short grey hair seemed frazzled by the encounter. "From the looks of it, I'd say he's got an upper respiratory infection with the beginnings of an ear infection."

"And? What do I do?"

"Well, that fever is a little worrisome. I can prescribe antibiotics if you want, but most ear infections end without any treatment. Give him children's Tylenol for the pain and fever and apply heat to the ear to alleviate the symptoms. A hair dryer works great."

"That's it?"

She nodded, her expression not entirely unsympathetic. "That's it. Most ear infections don't even require antibiotics, but I'll go ahead and prescribe them because he's still young. Find ways to alleviate the pain, make sure he gets plenty of rest, and his body should fight it off on its own. I know it's hard to get used to it, but children get these kinds of infections all the time. It's how their bodies learn how to fight things off in adulthood."

Dean bundled his cranky son back up into his jacket and headed back out, stopping at the local pharmacy to fill the prescription and pick up children's Tylenol. He paused before the check out counter, toddler hitched up on one hip, and went back for a hair dryer. On the off chance that there actually was such a thing in Bobby's house, it was probably older than Dean and he didn't want to chance the thing working on his son. The cashier made a sympathetic face as she rang up his purchases. "Ear infection?"

Dean nodded. "First one. Poor kid was up all night."

"Well, this should help." She tossed in a sucker from a canister next to the register with a wink. "Hope he feels better."

"Thanks." He hefted his son up on his hip, having set him down to reach his wallet, and headed out to the car. Right now there was probably nothing either of them wanted more than to ease Ben's pain.

The hair dryer worked as advertised, working with the medication to apparently get rid of the pain long enough for Ben and Dean to both get some sleep. It took a week before Ben was back to top form, and Dean had never been so grateful to fall into bed exhausted after chasing his son around all day in his life.

xxx

"I got an errand you need to run." Bobby stood in the doorway of Dean's little shop. "Probably should have been done before now, but I was waiting until the kid got better."

"What do you need, Bobby?"

"There's a bar out in Nebraska that caters to hunters, run by this cast-iron bitch named Ellen Harvelle. I figure if you're going to be trolling for work with other hunters, that's a good place to start. You can drop off this book when you go."

Dean was quiet for a second, eyes going from Ben, who was playing with his toy cars on the floor of the workshop, and Bobby. "I've never heard of anyplace in Nebraska where hunters hung out."

"John got chased out of the place with a shotgun years ago. I'm guessing he never mentioned it."

"You'll watch Ben?" He didn't want to be away from his son for as long as this would take, but hunters were generally assholes and Dean would prefer to meet anyone like that before he introduced them to Ben.

"Sure, we'll have a blast. I'll give him some whiskey and he'll sleep like a baby." Bobby chuckled at Dean's glare. "I'm kidding, you idjit. I watched over you and Sam back in the day and you two turned out fine. Go, get this taken care of."

"You'll watch out that he doesn't start coughing again and that he gets to bed?" Dean glanced down at his son's dark head and replayed the words he'd just said. "God, that sounds weird coming out of my mouth."

Bobby chuckled. "Suits you. We'll be fine, Dean. Ellen needs that book and it's not exactly something I can send FedEx."

The ride to Nebraska was surprisingly lonely. Dean missed the happy chatter that Ben usually provided on any car trip, including trips to the grocery store. Playing his music louder than normal didn't truly drown out the silence that he used to be accustomed to. He pulled into the parking lot at dusk, mostly by design, and parked next to a slightly rusted truck that would have been at home practically anywhere Dean had visited in his life. Unlike his baby, which stood out in a crowd, this was a vehicle that was chosen to blend in. A careful second look showed that the deterioration was completely cosmetic.

The roadhouse was the kind of place he'd been intimately familiar with only four months ago, and stepping in felt like shrugging on a comfortable shirt. He headed for the bar and the woman behind it, leaning against it with his best earnest face. "I'm looking for Ellen?"

"And who might you be?" The woman tilted her head at him, her expression stern.

"Dean Winchester. Bobby Singer sent me."

"John's boy?" There was a gleam in her eye when she said it, and Dean wasn't sure if it was something that should worry him.

"Yeah," he admitted. It was a bad idea to lie outright to hunters, who tended to be suspicious bastards at the best of times.

"How's he doing?"

"Haven't seen him in a while." His smile dropped a little. "Listen, I've got this book I need to drop off. Are you Ellen or not?"

"Yeah, I'm Ellen Harvelle. I own this place. Come with me." She headed into the back room and Dean followed. "Drink this," she said, handing him a glass. Dean looked at it, sniffed it cautiously, and then downed it. It was only water, and he gave her a look as he sat the shot glass down.

"Can I have a shot of Jack now?"

"I don't know, are you old enough?" She grinned at him. He must have passed the test. "Way I heard it you and John were hunting together."

"I had some things come up." He didn't want to go into the issue of Ben and his father's current attitude toward Dean's son. It might just be paranoia, but the fewer people that knew about the kid the better. "So, Bobby sent this book out for you," he said, setting it down on the table.

"All right, if you don't want to talk about your family that's your business," she said. "I got something for Bobby in the safe downstairs. Go up front and tend bar for me while I get it."

Dean raised his eyebrows but complied. He'd learned over the years to not fight too much against strong-willed women. Bobby's description of Ellen was spot-on and Dean wasn't about to rock the boat too much.

It wasn't terribly busy. There were a handful of gruff, barely civilized men, the kind that fit the mold of Hunter that his father and Bobby had hewn out in his mind, but they didn't seem to care that he was behind the bar. After a couple of minutes a scrawny guy with a mullet wandered over, introduced himself as Ash, and asked for a PBR. "Dean Winchester?"

"That's me," he answered, a little wary. Being John Winchester's son was a mixed blessing at best among this kind of crowd. His dad could and would piss off just about anybody he encountered.

"Heard you built a working EMF meter out of a Walkman. Interesting." There was a lazy smile, the kind Dean had learned to associate with the burnout in shop class who was up to something that was probably going to be fun to watch. "When you're done filling in for Ellen, I got something you might be interested in."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but I don't swing that way," Dean said quietly.

"Dude, me either. I'm talking about my computer. I got this awesome system upstairs. Built it myself one day when I was bored."

Dean considered this for a second. "Sounds good. When I'm done here?"

Ash smiled. "I live here. Rent out a room upstairs. Just come looking for Dr. Badass."

Dean nodded. He could do that. It wasn't that hard to put up with this guy's idiosyncrasies, even if the hair was a little frightening.

Ellen gave back after ten minutes or so with a small leather pouch. "You tell Bobby we're even, you hear?"

"Sure."

Ash's inventions managed to keep and hold his attention for the rest of the night, and he crashed on the floor in the room upstairs around three in the morning. It was probably more comfortable than sleeping in the car, and definitely more enjoyable than fielding questions about his dad and why they weren't hunting together. All Ash was interested in was Dean's abilities when it came to tinkering, which suited Dean fine.

Ellen allowed him to use the kitchen the next morning and Dean pulled together enough scrambled eggs for him, Ellen, and Ash, more out of habit than anything else. "Bobby tells me you've got a little boy at home," she said when he set the pan down on top of he bar.

Dean choked a little on the incredibly strong coffee that Ellen had made. "Bobby's been talking, huh?" he managed once he'd cleared his windpipe.

"Just to me, and I think we can keep it between the two of us. That's why I waited until the morning to talk to you." Ellen raised her eyebrows and took a deep swallow of her own very hot coffee. "I'm guessing John was less than thrilled."

"You could say that," Dean hedged. He was very much not interested in dredging up the Winchester dirty laundry for a stranger, no matter how nice she was being at the moment. She seemed to figure that out because she nodded and let the matter drop.

"So, tell me about your kid." Ellen gave him a wry smile. "I bet he keeps you and Bobby on your toes."

Talking about his son to someone so deep in the Hunting community was another dicey prospect, but Dean had a feeling that Ellen could keep her mouth shut when it mattered. "He's three years old. Just got over an ear infection."

She gave a low whistle. "And you left him alone with Bobby? Hope the old man's still functional when you get back."

"He'll be fine," Dean insisted. "I think Ben keeps him sharp."

"I bet. I remember when my Jo was three and was into Ieverything/I. I used to lock myself in the bathroom for some peace and quiet."

"Ben would take something apart if either one of us tried that." Dean smiled. He'd been putting Ben up on a box to watch while he fixed cars and it had given the little boy ideas on how to operate simple hand tools. The kid was a natural with a screwdriver. "He's an awesome kid."

Ellen smiled. "Of course he is. Look at his dad." She stood up and swatted him on the shoulder as she walked past. "Have a safe trip, kid. Don't be a stranger."

The drive back to Bobby's didn't seem to take as long. Dean relaxed more behind the wheel this time around and enjoyed this time alone with his first love. Not too long ago this had been the only life he'd known, his car and his music and the road, and while it was lacking in bright chatter it had it's own charm.

His good mood lasted until he pulled into Bobby's and saw his father's truck pulled up to the side of the house, at which point it abruptly vanished in the fire of his anger.

Dean managed to hold onto his temper with the simple expedient of thinking about how much he'd missed his dad. After Sam had left their little family unit of three had dissolved and the two of them had started taking solo hunts, dividing their resources. They hadn't spent more than a week or two together in the last year and a half. As long as the man had behaved around Ben, this might go all right.

John was sitting on the couch when Dean walked through the door. He looked stiff and uncomfortable, but thankfully neither drunk nor angry. Dean could handle that. "Dad," he said, standing outside of easy reaching distance. No sense in being stupid.

His father looked up and Dean felt a familiar pang. The man looked wrecked, like he'd just been dragged through hell with a tow chain, and it was painfully reminiscent of his childhood. "Dean."

He could have let the awkward silence drag out, but that had never been Dean's style. "You want a beer?"

There was a snort of laughter. "Wouldn't say no to one right now."

"All right." Dean headed into the kitchen, dropping Bobby's thing from Ellen onto the table. He diluted one with a little holy water, just to be on the safe side. He hadn't been expecting to see his father for a while yet. John's temper tended to burn long.

His dad swallowed down his beer thirstily and with no ill effects and Dean relaxed fractionally. "What brings you out here, dad?"

"Got some news." John looked at the bottle in his hands. "Bobby got anything stronger around here?"

"Yeah." Dean didn't move to get it. He wasn't about to make things too easy on his dad, not after what the man had said when it came to Ben. "You been here long?" Hopefully his dad's answer would tell Dean his son's location.

"A couple of hours. Bobby snatched up that boy of yours and headed out when I told him what this was about."

Dean looked at him, a little skeptical. "A couple of hours and you're just now looking for some alcohol?"

"Wanted to wait for you. Figured I should at least start out sober for this conversation."

Dean sat down and took a long drink from his own beer. "All right, lay it on me."

"I'm sorry, Dean."

"Christo."

John snorted out another laugh and thankfully didn't flinch. "I forgot what it's like. Somewhere along the way I stopped being your dad the way I should have been, and I forgot how it feels when you find out you're a father for the first time."

"Awesome and terrifying at the same time, huh?" Dean smiled and let himself relax a little more.

"Exactly." John drained the remainder of his beer and set the bottle down on the coffee table, not making eye contact. "You've got another brother. His name is Adam. I just found out about him. Heading out to meet him in the morning."

Dean took a deep breath and let it out carefully. "How old is he?"

"Thirteen." John grimaced and Dean couldn't blame him. Sam had been horrible to be around at that age, argumentative and short-tempered.

"Here's hoping it goes better this time around," Dean said. His tone was more bitter than he was aiming for. It wasn't hard to see this as a do-over for his dad, and as much as he loved the man Dean was well aware that John had made some massive mistakes as a father.

"I don't . . .it isn't like that, Dean." His father finally looked up and met his eyes. "You know, when you were a kid you were always taking care of Sammy, but I don't think you know how much you took care of me, too." John twisted the wedding ring on his hand, a familiar gesture that had always meant his father was thinking about his mom. "You're so much like your mom, sometimes. She was always protecting the family." He glanced over at the cabinet where they both knew Bobby kept the whiskey, his gaze longing. "I ever tell you she was a Hunter?"

Dean felt his eyes go wide. "You mean, demons and ghosts and werewolves? That kind of Hunter?"

John nodded. "I didn't figure it out until years later, after she died. She used to lay down salt lines, especially when she was pregnant with you and Sammy. Before the fire, she had a charm bracelet that was filled with protection symbols." He continued to twist the ring, lost in thought and memories. "She loved you boys so much. Mary loved to watch you sleep, you and Sam both. She wanted to keep you protected. God, she'd be so pissed at me for the way I raised you and Sam." His mouth twisted up in a smile with a bitter edge, the only kind of smile Sam had ever really known from his father. "It was one of the first things I realized once I cooled down. Mary's a grandmother now."

Dean continued to breathe slowly, careful not to make any sudden noises or movements that would break the spell. He didn't think he'd ever heard his father talk this much about his mother while sober. The part of him that was still starving for his mother wanted to flood his father with questions, but he'd learned a long time ago that to press his father would shut the reminiscing off completely.

"She would be so excited about your son," John said. "And she would be so pissed at me for dragging you and Sam into this life. She never wanted it for you boys."

"You going to come back and get to know Ben?" Dean wasn't touching the can of worms of another Winchester brother. It was one thing to academically know that your father wasn't exactly a monk; he'd seen enough evidence of that over the years, mostly by accident. He wasn't about to contemplate the temptation of a little brother who might actually answer his phone calls. He had Ben and he had Bobby, and it looked like he might have a chance at having his dad in his life again. Dean wasn't going to let himself hope for more.

His dad nodded, his eyes back on his wedding ring. "I'd like to," he said. "Wasn't sure if you were going to let me, after everything that happened."

Dean shrugged and stood up, offering his father a hand. "Ben deserves the chance to get to know you. Just so long as you know that if you hurt him, you're gone." He slapped his dad on the shoulder, a little harder than was really necessary. "Want to see what I've been working on? Bobby let me set up a workshop. I've got a few things you might be able to use."

John was gone before Bobby came back with Ben, the timing of it suspicious. Dean had a feeling that Bobby had been waiting somewhere out of sight until John left and he was surprisingly touched by the gesture.

Ben was asleep when the older man carried him inside and he didn't stir when transferred to Dean's arms, which caused the now-familiar mixed reaction. Dean had missed his son while they'd been apart and he wanted to see him, but it was clear that the kid needed sleep as well.

He carried the little boy upstairs and tucked him into bed before tramping back downstairs. Bobby had pulled out the bottle of whiskey, now kept in the highest cabinet in the kitchen, and Dean joined him on the couch and gratefully took the glass offered him. "What did John want?"

Dean snorted out a laugh. "Guess who just got a call saying he had a kid?"

It got a surprised laugh out of Bobby. "Well, if that isn't karma smacking him in the face I don't know what else it is."

"He wants to try with the new one. Adam something. And then I guess he wants to give being a grandfather a try too."

Bobby raised his eyebrows at that last one, and Dean belatedly wondered if the man would be hurt by the statement. "You going to let him?"

Dean shrugged, the movement made a little loose by the alcohol he'd consumed. He hadn't really touched the hard stuff since Ben came into his life, remembering all too clearly what it had been like when his father had come home drunk when he was a kid. "He's my dad, Bobby. Even when he's being an ass, he's still my dad." He peered up at the older man. "You going to be OK with that?"

"John can be an unbelievable bastard most of the time, especially when it comes to you kids." Bobby glared down at the bottle on the battered coffee table. "Just so long as he knows that I've got a shotgun I've got no problem with using, we should be fine."

"If he messes with Ben, I've got a shotgun of my own," Dean said matter-of-factly. Bobby gave him an odd look that Dean was too tired to decipher. "I'm heading for bed. Wake me up if it looks like the world's going to end."

xxx

Dean soon figured out that Ash was an invaluable contact when it came to his experiments. The roadhouse gave the burnout plenty of opportunities to pass the word along about whatever Dean had created and before he knew it Dean had become the go-to guy for odd hunting equipment. The basic, proven technologies were the first to develop a demand and Dean quickly found that his homemade EMF meters could easily find a home at cost plus ten percent, not bad when you considered that he could make one in about two hours with all the equipment at hand. He got quite a few gruff compliments on how reliable they were when return customers came back for anything else he might have that could help.

He field-tested his next idea at a haunting a few hours away and came away satisfied and ready to pass the idea along. The salt rounds for shotguns caught on fairly well and between that and the EMF meters word began to spread a little further beyond the influence of the Roadhouse. Dean started getting more specific requests for things like flamethrowers and homemade explosives. He was more careful about filling those orders, reluctant to end up on some sort of government watch list for potential terrorists. They would take Ben away for sure if someone traced anything like that back to him, or force him out onto the road. Dean was sure that he could hit the road and disappear if something like that happened, but it wasn't the kind of life that Ben deserved.

His father was the source of his next major project and Dean spent a month or so researching it before he even attempted to build it. Ash was the one who managed to get his hands on the software, never Dean's specialty, and after three failed prototypes Dean had a device that could be used to detect recent demon activity in a specific location. Technically, it could be used for more than that, since it simply absorbed trace amounts of whatever chemicals were in the room. The software that Ash provided allowed a computer to break down all the components, but all John wanted was evidence of trace amounts of sulfur. Apparently all demons left behind traces, but unless they were doing something major it was undetectable to the human senses.

Once Dean managed to get the finicky wiring under control, his father took the demon detector with him and didn't return for a month. When he came back, limping from a strained knee and with evidence that something had broken his nose once again, he simply announced that it worked before crashing onto Bobby's couch for almost a day.

Ben wasn't quite sure what to make of his newfound grandfather. John had pretty much lost the ability to tone down his gruffness and make nice, if he'd ever had it to begin with, and Ben tended to gravitate toward the more familiar Bobby. Dean left the two of them alone to work it out. Ben might be only three going on four, but the kid was as stubborn as Sammy and would make up his own mind in his own time. The only thing you would get if you tried to push either one was a headache and a kid that dug in his heels in resistance.

For his part, John did his best to make nice with all three of them. It was fairly clear that he had no idea how to interact with a child as young as Ben, and even less of an idea how to talk with Dean or Bobby outside of hunting. The fact that Dean's current hunting experience stayed limited to day trips to test his latest invention seemed to rub his father the wrong way, but Dean had no intention of getting back on the road anytime soon. It was too dangerous, too likely to leave his son an orphan. Maybe when Ben was a little older he would get back into the life, but for now he was enjoying what he did. Life was stable and good and he was helping people, even if he wasn't on the road actively hunting anymore.

The first winter with Ben passed by pretty quickly with all these distractions. Ben was content to stay in his workshop most of the time, playing with the old stash of Legos that had been left at Bobby's once upon a time. It was surprising how many of their possessions he and Sam had managed to tuck away here at Bobby's house to prevent them from being tossed into the garbage when they threatened to take up too much room. His son had managed to find almost every toy that they had left, from the bags of green plastic army men and ragged stuffed animals to this set of mismatched Legos, picked up from a half-dozen garage sales and thrift stores and kept in an oversized plastic container. Dean was still avoiding the stack of dog-eared paperbacks that once belonged to Sam, but the other toys were all fair game.

At the beginning of May, Dean and Ben trekked back to Indiana for a second custody hearing. Grace didn't show up for that one either, and the court awarded full custody to Dean after reading the reports from the social worker in South Dakota.

Before he knew it Ben's fourth birthday was nearly there. Dean had no idea how Lisa had celebrated it with their son and what Ben would remember about it, whether he would miss his mother. He couldn't begin to compete with the kind of parties that he'd glimpsed when he'd been a kid, so Dean did what he had always done best: he improvised. Money was tight as always, but he managed to get in a few under-the-table car improvements for different hunters, adding in wards etched into the frame and various hidden compartments and making them more likely to withstand the kind of things that a person might encounter while using their car as a weapon. One particular truck underwent a complete engine overhaul to make it much faster than it's rusted body would indicate, a job that left him exhausted and aching and also flush with cash for the first time in a long time. Enough word had spread about his capabilities that Dean now had a steady stream of work, most of it even paying gigs even if the pay wasn't that great. It was enough for him to close up for a week or so and take Ben on a car trip.

They drove west, partly because it was the closer coast and partly because that had always been Dean's natural compulsion. He loved the ocean and especially the beach, always had, and it was time to share that love with his son. There was so much crap that would come about because Ben was a Winchester. Dean was ready to embrace some of the good things about it: the freedom and the ties with his family, two things that Dean had always loved the most about his life before Ben.

He avoided California for two reasons: first, it was far too crowded for Dean's taste, and second, the entire state seemed to belong to Sam. Going to any part of California would feel like intruding on his brother's life somehow. The Oregon Coast was far more his speed, small towns dotting the entire coastline and somehow less frenetic than California. Someday he wanted to take Ben to the Winchester Mystery House, but that would have to wait until the boy was older. For now, it would just be the two of them and several days spent on a public beach.

They stayed at an older motel that used to be haunted and that Dean and his dad had cleared out back when he was a teenager. It was a place that Dean knew they would be safe, which helped keep him from worrying. The owners were still pretending that the place had a resident ghost, since that apparently helped bring in the tourists, but they were grateful enough to Dean for helping to remove the very real threat that they gave him and Ben a room for free.

It was the first vacation that Dean could clearly remember taking in his life, and making sure Ben had fun made it worthwhile. He and Ben went down to the beach the first morning after a liberal coating of sunscreen. Dean let Ben play in the sand and the waves for more than hour. He called his son under the shade to reapply the sunscreen and then Dean coaxed his son into the water to learn to swim. This was something he remembered his mother teaching him how to do, though those lessons had taken place at the local pool rather than the ocean. "You ready to swim, kiddo?"

Ben nodded eagerly and Dean positioned them in a spot that would mostly have the four-year-old at chest height. He got down on his knees, making the water reach just above his belly button, and gripped his son gently just beneath the armpits. "Lean forward, Ben."

The boy hesitated for a second, primary survival instinct fighting against the trust that Dean knew Ben had for his father. "It's all right, I've got you. Just trust me and the water to hold you up. You don't have to put your face down if you don't want to."

Ben looked at him, a skeptical expression on his innocent face, and then he slowly tilted forward, legs coming up and arms wrapping around his father's much larger forearms. "Good job, kiddo. Just relax. I'm here. I've got you." Dean waited until he could feel the tension ease out of his son's body and Ben was a little more comfortable in the water. "All right, Ben. Now I want you to kick your legs. Don't worry about doing anything else, just kick your legs." Dean could hear the ghost of his mother's voice in his ears as he instructed his son to keep his legs straight while he kicked. They practiced until Dean could feel Ben getting tired. "Want to learn how to float, Ben?"

" 'M tired," Ben said, his voice bordering on a whine.

"That's ok, we can come back to it later. How about lunch. Are you hungry? 'Cause I'm starving." Food and maybe a nap, Dean figured. A nap would probably do them both some good. Ben put his feet down and grabbed Dean's hand as they walked back up onto the beach.

After they ate hastily assembled sandwiches in their motel room, Dean managed to find a showing of Back to the Future on the motel room's slightly snowy television. He laid down with Ben to watch the movie, and like clockwork his son had nodded off before Marty McFly's mother started to hit on him. Dean turned off the television and closed his own eyes, grateful for the down time. He had a working hypothesis that small children were the answer to renewable energy.

Ben was ready to head back down to the beach when he woke up around three in the afternoon, so Dean slathered him up with another dose of sunscreen and they headed out. "Why don't we practice swimming again tomorrow? Right now I'm going to teach you how to float."

"What's that mean?"

"You know how Bobby sometimes puts ice in a glass of lemonade for you, or people put ice in their Coke?" He was straying from his mother's lessons now, but she had never taken the time to explain the mechanics of it. It had been enough just to lay face up in the cool water with his mother's arm under his back. She'd slowly eased her hands away until only the water supported him, and that had been enough. Dean wasn't sure that Ben had quite that level of trust for him, so he was starting out with how it all worked. "The ice floats to the top, right?" Ben nodded, his attention on his father, and Dean continued as he brought Ben into water that was a little deeper than they'd been in this morning. "That's because the ice is lighter than the lemonade. And we can do something almost exactly like that."

Dean got down on his knees again, feeling the water ebb and flow from mid-chest to his waist. It was probably not the ideal place to learn how to float, but he had a feeling that if Ben learned in the ocean he'd be able to swim everywhere. He put one hand on his son's lower back and the other just under the small shoulder blades. "Just relax, Ben. Remember kicking earlier? You have to trust in the water and me. Just stretch out like you're lying down on your bed back home. Take deep breaths in and out and stay relaxed." Dean looked down at Ben's small face and wondered if his mother had felt anything like this when she'd taught him how to swim. Ben was focusing so hard on staying relaxed that it was very nearly counter-productive. "Just listen to the sound of the water," he told his son, feeling ridiculously new-agey and more than a little silly. "Breathe like that, Ben. In and out, nice and steady." He eased the pressure from his hands as he felt his son grow more accustomed to what the boy was doing, finally removing the one from under his shoulders entirely. "You're doing great, Ben." Dean kept his voice soft and gentle, remembering Mary Winchester's voice in his ears as she let him go, floating on the top of the water at the indoor YMCA pool in Lawrence. Sammy had been a baby, sitting asleep in his car seat out of splash range. "Just like that, kiddo," he echoed past the lump in his throat as his left hand slipped away and Ben was floating on his own. Ben's eyes were closed against the sun, his dark hair wet and spiky and the plain, cheap swimming trunks that they'd picked up at Wal-Mart moving with the lapping of the water.

Dean watched his son for a few more minutes, making sure Ben didn't float out to deeper water. "All right, Ben. Stand up now, dude." He gave Ben a little help, one hand back to supporting him on his back, and Ben dropped back down. His head fell under the water for a second and he popped back up, spluttering but with a beaming smile.

"Dad, did you see? That was Iawesome/I," Ben laughed, his intonation a perfect copy of Dean's. Dean returned the smile, the now-familiar warmth in his chest.

"You did a great job, kiddo. Think you can do it again, on your own?" That was the real test, he knew. He remembered two or three spluttering attempts before he made it, his mother coaching him from nearby but not offering any sort of physical assistance. Looking back on it now, it was just as much a test of his mother's willpower as anything else, because he had a feeling that it would be hard to not reach out and help if Ben floundered at all.

He didn't have to worry. After one short-lived attempt his son figured it out and was dropping in and out of a float like he'd been born in the water. They took a quick break for yet another sunscreen application, Dean still vividly remembering the bright sunburns of his childhood and how badly they'd hurt. By the time he was ten he'd learned the lesson about sunscreen very well. Dad and Sammy had never really burnt, but Dean took after his mother and his fair skin took forever to slowly cultivate into a tan. "Want to practice kicking again?" he asked, and Ben nodded enthusiastically, charged by his success with floating, and dragged Dean back out to the water.

They stayed out until the sun began to dip close to the horizon line and the air got a little cool before heading back to the motel to clean up. Ben nodded off in his plate of diner spaghetti and meatballs and Dean eyed the curvy brunette waitress regretfully before asking for the check. It had been a fairly long dry spell in the sex department, with only two hookups since he'd learned he was a father. He'd gotten more phone numbers in that time frame than ever before, but rarely acted on them, and definitely never in a place where Bobby or his father weren't around to act as babysitter.

That first day set the pattern for the rest of the week. The two of them headed out to the beach every morning and every afternoon, with a break in between for lunch and a two or three hour nap. Ben's swimming lessons went better than Dean had hoped for and every day his son became more comfortable in the water. Dean packed up the car Friday morning, unwilling to take up a room for free during a weekend in peak tourist season, and they headed back to South Dakota and their normal lives.

It was a good start to the summer, one that marked the best summer in Dean's adult memory. Ben was fun and funny most of the time, as long as he got enough sleep, and the things he said sometimes had Dean, Bobby and even the stoic John Winchester howling with laughter. John continued his practice of regular drop-ins as the summer wore on and Ben gradually warmed up to him.

It was on one of these visits at the end of July that John mentioned Adam again. Ben was in bed for the night and Dean, Bobby and John were all sitting around the living room, drinking beer and discussing different aspects of supernatural lore. It was as domestic as scene as Dean had seen his father in years, and his father ended the relative calm in his typical manner. "I think you should meet Adam."

Dean had a feeling that he should be glad his father had even brought it up first instead of just appearing one day with a preteen. "Did you mean just me, or were you using the royal you there, Dad?"

"You and Ben." His dad glanced over at Bobby. Apparently they'd been talking behind his back. Dean couldn't bring himself to feel more than mild annoyance at that little fact. "I told Adam about you two. I'd like it if you could come with me next time."

Dean wanted to get to know Adam. The kid was his brother, after all, and Ben deserved a chance to have at least one uncle, even if said uncle was closer to his own age than his father's. "You're sure?"

"Yeah, I think it's time." His dad drained the bottle and left it in a stack with the empties. "I'm pretty sure that Kate isn't going to completely cut me out of his life. It should be stable enough to keep from confusing Ben."

Dean leaned back into the cushions of Bobby's surprisingly comfortable couch. "All right, pick a date. I'll put a little more hustle into finishing up some projects so I'll have some cash and some free time."

His father gave him an odd look, one Dean had categorized as 'I can't believe this shit.' Every time the man visited it seemed like he was surprised that Dean wasn't back out on the road, working the family business like he always had. "I was thinking that we could head out there in a couple of weeks, visit before school starts."

"Go there, not have Adam come here?" He could pack Ben up in ten minutes easily, a matter of lifelong habit, but it would still be easier to move a preteen than a four-year-old.

"I haven't told Adam about hunting," his father said, voice low. "Kate threatened to kick my ass if I did. There's way too much to explain here."

Dean raised his eyebrows at that piece of news. "She's not going to pitch a fit or something when I put down salt lines, is she?" There was no way he would let his son sleep somewhere that wasn't protected. He wasn't so picky when it came to his own safety, but he was responsible for Ben.

"I don't think so. You lay the salt down every time?"

"Whenever we're not at Bobby's house. He's got this place so warded that it would just be a waste of salt," Dean said absently, already mentally planning out how much he'd need to pack in Ben's bag. "How long do you think we'll be there?"

"Weekend, maybe? I'll need to talk to Kate first. Like I said, it'll be a week or two. You can finish up some of your projects."

His dad somehow managed to keep out the slight edge of disdain and disapproval that was usually in his voice when it came to Dean's work, for which Dean was thankful. The things he did were useful, both the under-the-table hunting gear and the more legitimate car repairs that were starting to come in through word of mouth. Once people in the area realized that he was faster and usually cheaper than the two local garages, he had started seeing more business on that front than he could really handle. It was a nice ego boost for a guy who had dropped out of high school.

It took three weeks before they made the trip to meet Adam, and for Dean at least they were a very busy three weeks, tying up enough loose ends that if this supposed weekend ended up dragging out longer he wouldn't have a problem. He made sure his dad took the truck, not in the mood to be a passenger in the Impala or to get stuck babysitting his newfound baby brother should his father take off without warning.

The house was academically nicer than Bobby's house, but it didn't make him feel especially safe. Singer Salvage was home now and walking through the front door felt good. This was the kind of place he normally only stumbled into when he was working a case, a completely normal home without even the slightest bit of protection against the supernatural. Dean had no idea how his father could stand it.

Ben had his seatbelt off and was tugging at the door handle when Dean guided the car into the gravel driveway, but thankfully he was too small to open the heavy door. "Cool it, kiddo. Wait for me, I'll get the door."

"Daddy, I have to go potty," Ben said urgently. He continued trying to open the car door with obvious desperation and Dean hurried out of the car and practically sprinted around to release Ben. His son scrambled out of the car and the two of them hurried to the front porch while John pulled up in his truck.

"What's the rush?"

"Bathroom," Dean called back over his shoulder as he rang the doorbell. Ben was doing a fairly impressive rendition of the potty dance next to him as they waited for someone to answer the door. When the blond woman answered the door Dean scooped Ben up and flashed her a smile. "Hi, Dean Winchester. Bathroom?"

She glanced past him at his father and stood back from the door. "Second door on the left," she said.

"Thank you!" Dean stepped inside and set Ben down, following with long strides as his son made a beeline for the door in question.

"I can do it myself," Ben informed him seriously before stepping into the bathroom and closing the door.

Adam's mother came up beside him. "I'm Kate Milligan. Long trip?"

"Not that bad. I'm Dean, that's my son Ben."

"Nice to meet you." She smiled, looking just enough like his mother to make him uncomfortable. "I'm going to get Adam down here." She headed up the stairs.

His dad came into the house while she was upstairs, staying a few feet away from Dean. "So, you've met Kate Milligan."

"Yeah, I've seen her, Dad."

His father ducked his head down a little, which surprised Dean. It wasn't like John Winchester to admit any kind of shame, even nonverbally. "No excuses from me, Dean. I was lonely and drunk and she's a good woman."

"Who just happens to look like she could be Mom's sister," Dean stated flatly.

John shrugged and didn't say anything. There wasn't much that he could say, really. "Guess we should have stopped for a bathroom break." He gestured toward the door of the bathroom.

"It's only an hour and a half, Dad. He didn't go before we left." Dean hadn't spent much time on that kind of thing; they didn't go on road trips much longer than the trek into Sioux Falls and so a bathroom was never far away. "Guess I'll have to start enforcing that if we're going to be making trips again."

John grunted. "You were pretty much the one who potty-trained Sammy. I guess you can handle it."

The sound of sneaker-clad feet coming down the stairs like a herd of adolescent elephants stopped that train of reminiscing, something that made Dean very thankful. The way it was going, his dad was probably getting ready to bust out Dean's potty-training stories next.

The teenager that had to be Adam stopped several feet away from where Dean was leaning against the wall next to the bathroom door. Dean nodded in greeting and waited for the kid to make the first move.

The sound of the toilet flushing ended their awkward standoff. "Remember to wash your hands, kiddo," he reminded Ben through the door.

"I can't reach," his son replied, and Dean rolled his eyes and opened the door, picking up his son and holding him close enough to the sink for the boy to play with the soap and water until his hands were probably clean enough for government work.

After a hurried drying on the towel hanging across from the toilet, Dean hustled Ben out into the hallway. "All right, Adam, this is my son Ben. I'm Dean. Ben, kiddo, this is Adam." He refrained from sticking any family labels on the relationship, unsure if Adam was ready to be an uncle to a precocious four-year-old.

For his part, Adam seemed floored by the appearance of Ben, which probably meant that John hadn't said anything about Adam being an uncle. He snorted and was oddly at ease with the gesture. Dad had always done protective in his own way.

The awkwardness of the situation wore off as the day progressed. Adam reminded him painfully of Sammy, with his brains and curiosity and even his looks to some extent, and Dean had always known how to act around Sammy. He hadn't hit the surly, rebellious stage of being a teenager, which was a good sign, and once the surprise had worn off he'd cautiously began showing his possessions off to Ben and Dean. Once he was a little more comfortable around Dean, it turned out that Adam couldn't be quieted at all. He began to chatter about school and his friends and the things he and his mother did and baseball practice and track and how he was planning on signing up for cross-country next year.

It was all a little exhausting, being the focus of that much attention.

Ben nodded off for his customary naptime around three in the afternoon and Kate Milligan disappeared for work and the late shift at the hospital sometime afterwards, leaving Dean sitting between Adam and John.

It was hard to recognize this man sitting next to him. Dean had to remember back to before the fire to realize that he was looking at his dad, if not entirely at peace at least relaxed and happy.

If nothing else came from this relationship, at least Adam had given them this man back. Dean settled back and listened to the teenager talk about how he wanted to be a doctor.

xxx

When the end of October rolled around his dad disappeared again. Dean was ashamed to admit that he was a little relieved. This year marked the twentieth anniversary of his mother's death and there was no way he wanted his son around when his father was grieving. The first week of November was going to be bad enough for both of them without his father.

Dean wasn't sure if Ben would make the connection between the time of year and his mother's death at such a young age, but Dean would always remember the second day of November and he'd only been a year older than Ben when his mother had died. It was better to be prepared.

He still felt guilt over Lisa's death, if only for the fact that his life had become truly happy after she died and he got custody of Ben. Part of him couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if she'd called him when she found out she was pregnant. He'd only been twenty when Ben was born, nineteen when he'd known Lisa. Would he have gone to her, offered to help her raise Ben? He'd still been nominally in charge of Sammy back then, and leaving his brother would have been hard. His dad wouldn't have wanted him to leave and he wasn't sure he would have had the strength to defy him. It would have probably ended up exactly like the night Sam left for Stanford, with Dad demanding he choose, and Dean had no way of knowing which way he would have gone.

November second rolled around with its usual faded pain and Dean put aside his projects when his lack of concentration gave him a mild electric shock on an in-process EMF meter. Bobby kicked him out with a grimace and the threat of a blast of rock salt and sent Ben out after him, tossing Dean's jacket at him with the instruction to not come back for at least twelve hours.

He took his son to the local diner for cheeseburgers and pie and then to the elementary school playground, but either Ben picked up on his mood or he was feeling the weight of Lisa's death despite his youth. After about half an hour of half-hearted play Dean bundled Ben back into the front seat of the car and started driving. The Led Zeppelin mix tape was already in the player and he let the familiar combination of the Impala's rumbling engine and the music sooth him while he drove.

He headed east, toward Minnesota, and was across the state line in ten minutes, but faltered when he tried to decide where to go from there. Pastor Jim was only two hours away and was overdue for a visit, but Dean wasn't sure he wanted to be around anyone who knew his history today. After about an hour of driving he eventually found a small convenience store and bought bread, lunchmeat, and a six-pack of Coke before turning down a dirt road and finding a creek.

It was too cold to go wading or spend any time in the water, but the sound of it was almost as soothing as his baby's engine and his music. Ben was quiet, much more so than usual, and he sat down on the blanket, bundled up in his coat, and slowly ate his sandwich. Even the can of Coke, a rare treat for the kid, was only sipped carefully.

"You okay there, kiddo?"

Ben nodded. "I'm okay. What's wrong?"

Dean sighed. "When I was your age, I saw something bad happen to my mom. It happened about this time of year, so I can't help thinking about it, and about what happened to your mom."

"I miss her," Ben said, still quiet. He inched closer to Dean.

"Yeah, I know," Dean answered. "I still miss my mom too."

They stayed there together, leaning back against the front bumper of the Impala until Dean felt his son start to shiver. "Come on, " he said, standing up and reaching for Ben's hand. "Let's go home."

He loaded up the Impala, took one last deep breath, and pointed the car toward South Dakota. Ben fell asleep after about fifteen minutes and Dean turned down the music to a whisper.

He was already home.

Epilogue:

It was probably some sort of testament to how much he'd changed that he was only vaguely uncomfortable standing outside the school building. Dean usually let Ben take the bus back to Singer Salvage. It was an hour-long ride, but Ben finished up his little bits of homework on the way and got home ready to get into trouble and never seemed to mind the time spent on the bus.

After the phone call from his father, however, Dean wasn't willing to wait for the bus to make its way out to the far reaches of Sioux Falls. He'd put down his latest, hopefully improved, EMF meter and packed up the car for both him and Ben before driving straight to the local elementary school. If Bobby had been in town he would have simply driven back home and dropped his son off before tearing away to California, but Bobby was in Florida with his buddy Rufus and Dean had to be content with a phone call to both him and Pastor Jim warning them both about what was up. Ben would have to come with him.

It was time for his son to meet Sam, no matter how much of a brat Sam had been since he'd left for college. He was just going to have to suck it up. They were all in danger now.