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Fic: Paternal Evolution 1/2

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. 


Part 2

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
hammersxstrings
Sep. 16th, 2011 08:43 pm (UTC)
“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.”


i love this exchange. Wonderful.
faithburke
Sep. 17th, 2011 12:48 pm (UTC)
*blushes* Thank you!
jujuberry136
Sep. 17th, 2011 01:46 am (UTC)
I think you've made all the text a link to the next part fyi
faithburke
Sep. 17th, 2011 12:23 pm (UTC)
*grumbles*

Freaking LJ. It was, then it wasn't, now it is again, and for some reason when you go in to do a post-edit the cuts freak out. Should be fixed now.
rifle53
Sep. 19th, 2011 01:18 am (UTC)
This is easily one of the greatest fics I've ever read- this mostly stems from the fact that I lovelovelove Dean as a Daddy! Ahhhh must go read the rest!!!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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