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Fic: Family Ties 3/4



“So are you coming home with me for Christmas?” Jess settled against Sam on the couch, waiting until he put down his book before handing him a cup of coffee. “Don’t leave me alone with my family after last year. They’ll think they scared you off.”

“They couldn’t do that,” Sam answered. “Actually, I was hoping you’d come home with me and visit my family this year.” He slipped an arm around her waist. “You haven’t had a chance to meet any of them.”

The young woman thought about it for a moment. “I guess it’s fair,” she said slowly. “My mom won’t like it, but she likes you so it should be all right.” Jess sipped her own coffee and snuggled a little closer to him. “So what should I expect?”

“Chaos,” Sam answered immediately. “Seven people who rarely agree about anything in one house for a week. Dean will have to work some of it. Kevin has a basketball game. Joan and Luke will pick on each other relentlessly. Mom will spend a chunk of the time out in the garage working on some of her paintings and Dad will make lasagna.” He smiled, his eyes unfocused like he was remembering something. “We’ll put up the tree, make cookies, and Mom will try to drag us all to Mass.”

“Sounds like fun,” said Jessica. The picture Sam was painting had her suddenly looking forward to it. Her family Christmases had always been busy, but she was an only child and the idea of multiple siblings was oddly exciting. Besides, she’d never spent Christmas on the East Coast before, and the idea of snow for Christmas thrilled the child inside her.

It wasn’t quite as thrilling three weeks later, when they trudged out of the airport and into a snowstorm. An old black monster of a car pulled up to the curb and Sam headed for it without hesitation, lugging their suitcases while Jess trailed behind with the carry-ons. Sam gestured her into the backseat while he tossed the luggage into the trunk, and she gratefully climbed into the heated interior. The driver turned around to look at her, eyebrows raised in a manner she recognized from Sam’s family pictures, and she smiled awkwardly. “I’m Jess.”

“Dean,” the man said. “Nice to finally meet you. I was beginning to think that my brother had made you up.” Sam slid in beside her, and Dean looked at him with a smirk on his face. “Way out of your league, little brother.”

Sam huffed but didn’t reply to that particular barb. “Nice to see you too, Dean.”

“Of course it is,” Dean said smugly. “And because I’m such an awesome big brother, I drove my baby all the way to the airport in a snowstorm so you wouldn’t have to listen to Helen probe about how you close you two really are. You can thank me anytime.”

Sam chuckled. “Thanks, Dean. Any chance we can stop and get some coffee?”
Dean grumbled but pulled off the first exit on the interstate and got into a drive-thru line. Jess watched as the brothers bickered, Dean ribbing her boyfriend for his cream and sugar preferences, and tried to remember everything she could about Sam’s family.

Dean, she knew, was Sam’s biological brother and the only blood family he had. Will and Helen Girardi had taken in both boys when they were both young, and Sam had acquired three more siblings. She ticked them off in her head as Dean shared the family updates: Kevin was back with his old girlfriend, Joan was having a hard time dealing with her friend’s recent death, and Luke was still dating Grace.

Sam never talked about his birth parents. He called the Girardis ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ when he talked about them, though Dean didn’t do the same. Jess wondered what that meant at family events like this.

The psych major in her couldn’t keep from analyzing the people close to her from time to time, but she always put a ruthless stop to it when she realized she was doing it. She did that now, forcing herself to sip her drive-thru coffee and simply enjoy the banter between Sam and his brother.

The drive to the Girardi house from the airport only took about half an hour, and the two men kept her so entertained that the trip felt even shorter. Dean pulled up in front of a nicely-kept house with a wheelchair ramp that ran alongside the porch stairs and he and Sam carried the suitcases in. Jess followed close behind with her backpack and Sam’s duffle, surreptitiously glancing around as she stepped into the house.

Sam set the suitcases down and led her into a big open kitchen painted bright blue and yellow. “Made it,” he announced, and suddenly there was a crowd around them both. The next few minutes were chaotic, and she received embraces and handshakes and a blur of introductions.

A high-pitched shriek grabbed everyone’s attention for a moment before Sam’s younger brother (Luke, she reminded herself) rolled his eyes and went back to the business of grating parmesan cheese. Dean came down the back stairs with a squirming body thrown over his shoulder. “One little sister, delivered right to your feet,” he said, grinning and setting her down.

The teenager turned and slugged Dean in the arm. “You are so dead,” she threatened, narrowing her eyes and glaring at him before turning back to Sam and tackling him with a fierce hug, nearly knocking him over. “I missed you, you giant geek.”

Sam grunted quietly with the force and braced himself against the island. “Missed you, too. Joan, this is my girlfriend Jess. Jess, my little sister Joan.”

“Hi,” the girl said, brushing long brown hair back from her face. “It’s nice to finally meet you; Sam talks about you every time he calls home.”

“It’s nice to meet you too. You’re going to have to give me all the dirt on your brother here.”

Joan shrugged. “There’s not that much. Sam’s the normal one. Never gets in trouble.”

“I wouldn’t say never,” Dean said, his voice sing-song. Jess looked over to see he was grinning with a particularly mischievous glint in his eye. “I might have some dirt, if you’re willing to share some of yours.”

“You do and you’ll regret it,” Sam warned. “No matter what you’ve got on me, I guarantee I’ve got worse.”

“The difference is that I don’t care who knows about it,” Dean smirked. “I’m pretty sure you don’t want Jess knowing about-“

“Dean!”

The man chuckled and moved away, reaching over his sister’s head for the plates in the cupboard. “Come on, brat, let’s set the table.”

xxx

They ended up piled on the comfortable couches in the family room after dinner, arguing about which movies to watch. Jessica had the feeling that it was a familiar, comfortable argument, given the way Will Girardi sighed as he put away ‘The Godfather.’

Jess had seen ‘Big Fish’ enough times that she didn’t really need to pay much attention to the plot and instead spent the time doing a little covert observation of Sam’s family. Dean dropped down to the floor with careless grace and Joan ended up next to him, her back pressed against her mother’s legs. It was odd, somehow, to see how close the two were considering the differences in ages. They were all pretty close, but Dean seemed to be closer to Joan than the rest of his foster siblings.

Sam and Kevin seemed to get along fairly well, probably due to similarities in personality as well as being nearly the same age, and all of the older kids seemed to alternate between being overprotective of Luke and ganging up to tease him. Jess didn’t know the fine details of how Sam and his brother had ended up with the Girardi’s, and she wasn’t sure if even Sam was aware of what had happened given how young he’d been. It might be nice to talk to Dean about it sometime, just to get an idea. She wanted to know everything about Sam.

When the movie ended the clan broke up and headed off in their individual directions. Jess ended up bunking down with Joan, because there was no way she was sleeping with her boyfriend under his parents’ roof. She was trying to make a good impression on them, after all, and unless both Helen and Will gave her express permission she wasn’t stepping on that landmine.

Joan was quiet as they changed into pajamas and turned out the light, which would have been great if she simply wanted to sleep, but Jess wanted to talk. Sam’s little sister would be an invaluable resource in learning about her boyfriend. “You asleep?”

There was a pause. “I’m completely asleep,” the girl replied. “So are you. You’re just dreaming this conversation.”

Jess ignored the subtle plea to be left alone and dove right in. “When did Sam and Dean come to live with your family?”

Joan thought about it for long enough that Jess worried she’d gone to sleep. “I think I was three, so 1989? Dean was ten and Sam was six. Why do you want to know?”

“I’m just curious. Sam doesn’t talk about it much.”

Joan turned over and looked at Jess in the dim light from the outside streetlamp. “I don’t really remember what it was like to not have four brothers. Sam might not really remember much either. Six is pretty little.”

She took a moment to absorb that. “Dean knows, though.”

“Dean remembers a lot,” Joan agreed. “Sam doesn’t want to know some of it, though. They had it rough with their dad.”

“So you know something about it?”

Joan sighed. “Jessica, I like you. The way Sam talks about you, I’m pretty sure you’re going to be my sister-in-law some day. But that isn’t my business to tell you, and I’m not sharing it. If you want embarrassing stories about Sam when he was going through puberty, I’m more than willing to fill you in, but that’s not mine to tell. Go to sleep.” The girl turned over with a sigh, the conversation clearly over, and left Jessica to think about what the girl both had said and hadn’t said.

It took a while to get to sleep, despite jet lag and the mental exhaustion that had accompanied finishing up with finals and the very long day she’d already had. Her brain wouldn’t switch off as she laid there beside Sam’s little sister, listening as the girl’s soft breathing evened out almost instantly. She either was incredibly good at faking sleep, or Joan was one of those terrible people who could drop off to sleep without any real effort. Jess had never been that lucky.

She was still awake, though she was finally starting to drift off, when Joan jerked up from sleep. That was enough to startle her into awareness again and she watched as the younger girl’s eyes darted to every corner of the room before relaxing slightly.

“Nightmare?” Jess asked.

Joan nodded, taking deep, shaky breaths before lying back down. She was shaking badly enough that Jess could feel the tremors through the bed. “Sorry for waking you up,” she said.

“I wasn’t asleep yet,” Jess told her. “Want to talk about it?”

“No,” Joan said, her voice stronger. “Talking won’t help. I just want to go back to sleep.”

“You get nightmares a lot?”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it,” Joan said, probably trying for angry but not quite reaching it. “Go to sleep, Jessica.”

Jess did as she was told. She didn’t know Sam’s sister well enough to push and it wasn’t like she was the girl’s therapist. Still, she lay there for almost an hour before she managed to fall asleep.

The next morning Jessica was the last person up and moving. The smell of coffee and pancakes lured her down the stairs and she took a seat next to Sam at the slightly crowded kitchen table, yawning and snuggling into him without a hint of embarrassment. The conversation didn’t flag or falter, the other members of the family talking over each other, and Jess let the noise wash over her. It was surprisingly comforting.

There was a mug of something warm pressed into her hands and Jess looked down to see hot chocolate waiting for her. Joan was walking away when she looked up, and as best as she could tell the hot chocolate was an apology for the night before. She sipped at the mug and accepted the pancakes when they were handed to her, reaching for butter and syrup and slathering them in both. She didn’t get pancakes very often, so this would be a nice treat.

After breakfast she got in line for the shower. Apparently Dean had gone back to his place to shower and change but there were still seven people competing for two bathrooms and only two of them had managed to shower before breakfast. Joan was awkward with her while they waited, keeping the conversation centered on movies and books and her snippy boss at the bookstore. “I’m working this afternoon, for the so-called Christmas rush, so I’ll miss dinner,” the girl confided.

“I’ve still got a few presents to buy,” Jess said. This was completely untrue. She’d finished her Christmas shopping over Thanksgiving break, delivered her family’s presents at the same time so she wouldn’t have to cart them back and forth, and only had to wrap the things she’d brought for Sam and his family. “Mind if I head over there with you? Sam can pick me up when I’m done.”

Joan shrugged like it was unimportant, as if she hadn’t spent most of the morning keeping Jessica at arm’s length. Jess intended to change that by the time she left the bookstore.

They headed out an hour later, Jess leaving her long, curly hair wet rather than fussing with various types of product. She could always fix it later, but she didn’t want to miss her window of opportunity with Sam’s sister. It turned out that Joan usually walked to the bookstore, which helped. Jess would walk back when she was done instead of calling Sam. That would give her time to process whatever happened with his sister, and something would most definitely be happening. Joan was clearly having nightmares on a fairly regular basis and that couldn’t be good for the younger girl.

She was expecting that she would need to drag the truth out of Joan, possibly with pliers, so Jessica was a bit surprised when they were a block away from the house and Joan said, abruptly, “They aren’t a big deal.”

It took a second to pull her focus away from the cold and figuring out how she was going to broach the subject of Joan’s nightmares. “Really?”

There was a touch of pink on the girl’s cheeks, but Jess couldn’t tell if it was embarrassment or the brisk wind they were walking into. “The dreams are about Judith, mostly. Sometimes they’re nightmares and sometimes they’re not really bad at all. Mom would freak out if she knew I was having them, though, so don’t tell her.”

“Judith was your friend?” Jess asked.

“She was my best friend,” Joan said. “She was so awesome, just funny and really alive, you know? It’s nice, getting to see her in my dreams.”

“She’s the one who died?” Everything made a bit more sense when Joan nodded, obviously close to tears. “And you miss her.”

“I miss her a lot. She just died a few weeks ago, you know. I don’t think Sam ever even got a chance to meet her.” There were tears rolling down Joan’s face now and the girl didn’t try to wipe them away. “So, you know, don’t worry about the dreams. If you want I’ll take the couch downstairs or go over to Dean’s or something so that you can get some sleep.”

“I don’t mind.” Jess felt a smile creep up over the edges of her face. “It’s not really any worse than sleeping with your brother.”

“Oh, ew.” Joan raised up her arms in protest and hurried a few steps ahead, turning around and walking backward so she could still address Jessica. “We’re not talking about that ever, thank you very much. The absolute last thing I want to think about is my brother having sex.”

Jess hurried after her, really smiling now. “He’s a great kisser,” she teased, and Joan clapped her hands over her ears.

“La la, can’t hear you,” she said. “Oh look, we’re here. I’m going to go clock in now.”

She made a few purchases to keep her cover even though it was obvious that Joan had seen through it, lingered just long enough for Joan to smile and roll her eyes, all gloom dismissed for the time being, and then started her walk home. She passed an older lady on the sidewalk, bundled up in a heavy wool coat and her glasses on one of those chains that librarians use for their reading glasses, and smiled back when the woman nodded at her.

xxx

Sam wasn’t all that surprised when Grace Polk and Adam Rove showed up the day after Christmas, filling the already crowded house to the brim. He liked the two of them well enough, though he wasn’t sure if Adam was good enough for his baby sister and Grace never quite knew what to do with him. Sam had the feeling that she was a little bit disturbed by the fact that he was studying to be a lawyer at an Ivy League school and that his brother and father were both cops. It was a little much for a supposed anarchist to handle. To be honest, sometimes he wasn’t sure how the girl handled Joan and Luke. Those two were pretty high-strung, Luke especially.

Jess was understandably fascinated with his family and their friends, but Sam needed a little time away from them and he had a project he needed to handle anyway so he shanghaied Dean and escaped within a half hour.

Once he realized their destination, Dean complained bitterly about going to the mall on his day off when he’d just pulled a long shift on Christmas day. Sam ignored him, as usual. His sister might have actually been a better choice, but she seemed happy with Grace and Adam there and it was so good to see her happy that he didn’t have the heart to pull her away. Maybe if this trip turned out to be fruitless he’d cave and ask Joan for advice on picking out engagement rings, but he was confident that they could handle this. He’d snatched the ring Jess wore to use for size and he knew her tastes. It should be a piece a cake.

It was fairly easy by the end, but only because Sam gave into Dean’s urging and called his sister into the fray. He had intended to get a classy diamond solitaire, hopefully within his price range, but apparently even those had so many varieties and options that they all started to meld together in his mind. Joan showed up demanding a latte for her troubles and Dean gratefully disappeared. Sam had a feeling that he wouldn’t be seeing his brother until they got to the parking lot.

“You know, this isn’t really all that hard,” Joan said, her voice impatient. He’d pulled her away from her boyfriend, after all, and that was a big deal when you were a teenager. “Jessica just wants something simple.” Her dark eyes roamed over the case for a minute or so before pointing. “Second row from the bottom, four over. Can we see that one, please?”

The salesperson obliged, still trying for the commission even though Sam was being incredibly difficult. If Sam could have spared a thought for the guy he would have probably apologized, but right now every single aspect of him was focused on figuring this out.

The ring that Joan had picked didn’t really look any different than several others. If anything, it was smaller, the diamond set in a little more closely to the band than most of them. There was some engraving in the band that looked a little like a trailing vine and it was white gold rather than yellow. “Really?”

“It’s special without being bling, and Jessica wears silver or white gold instead of yellow in all of her jewelry,” Joan said, her tone matter-of-fact. “Trust me, dork, this is the ring you want. Now can I please have my coffee?”

It wasn’t quite that simple; it took Sam an hour to get everything squared away. Dean had eventually showed up with Joan’s coffee while Sam was signing his life savings away and the two of them wandered into the bookstore next door. He went after them once he had the ring box securely tucked away into his inside jacket pocket. Joan never bought anything in one of these chains and probably wouldn’t let any of them do much more than buy a beverage while they were inside. His sister was pretty loyal to the little shop where she worked. They were hanging out by the CD’s, trash-talking each other’s tastes in music, and she made him buy another latte on the way out as payment for this little excursion.

Once they got back to the house Sam tucked the ring into his carry-on and tried not to think about it. He wasn’t about to propose in front of his whole family and there was no way he’d get enough time away from them while he was here. It would have to wait.

xxx

Joan had only a few hazy impressions of what life had been like before she’d had four brothers, before Dean and Sam had joined their family. They were more what she thought it had been like, rather than any concrete memory. She did remember the night her father had brought them home, the memory of it bright against the background of her childhood.

She was coloring at the kitchen table when she heard the door open and her father call out for her mother. The little girl dropped her crayons and slid out of her chair, running for the door with an excited cry. Her daddy swept her up when she reached him and kissed her on the cheek before kneeling down with her still in his arms. It wasn’t until then that Joan noticed the two boys. “Are you here to play with me?”

Daddy smiled and set her down. “This is Dean and Sam. They’re going to be staying with us for a while. Boys, this is my daughter Joan.”

Joan grabbed a hand for each boy, already bored with introductions. “Come play with me,” she insisted, pulling them into the family room, the corner of it crowded with toys. There was some resistance, and Dean was really quiet, but eventually they joined in her game.

Years later, Joan tried to hold onto that happy memory as she stared at her oldest brother. “You did what?”

Dean didn’t pause as he constructed his sandwich. “I had a talk with your ex-boyfriend. You want one of these?”

“No. What did you say to Adam?”

“I told him that if he ever hurt my sister again, no one would ever find his body.” The man leaned against the counter and took a bite out of his sandwich. “It’s my right as a big brother.”

Joan sighed and dropped her head onto her folded arms. “How did you even find out?”

“Luke told me,” he said shrugging.

Of course, the world’s biggest blabbermouth had spread the news. She should probably count herself lucky that her mom hadn’t dragged her in for a talk yet. “I’m gonna kill him.”

Dean looked up from his food. “No, don’t do that, kiddo. I need my narc from the high school. Otherwise I won’t know who I need to beat up for messing with my little sister.”

“I had it under control!”

“Sorry, kiddo. It’s my right and privilege to beat up any boys that do anything to you. Take it up with the board if you’ve got a problem with it.”

“If I’d known it was going to be this much trouble, I wouldn’t have gotten so excited about the idea of having more brothers.”

Dean shrugged. “No exchanges or refunds, kiddo. You’re stuck with me now.”

And deep down, Joan knew she wouldn’t have it any other way. “You going to give the same speech to Grace Polk? You know she and Luke are totally macking on each other.”

“It would be a little too weird to give the speech to a girl. Luke will just have to look out for himself.” Dean cut his sandwich in half and slid one part of it over onto a plate. He handed it over to Joan and the girl sighed as she took it from him.

“You might be giving Luke a little too much credit. Maybe I should give Grace the talk.”

“Let’s give Grace the chance to screw up first. We both know Luke’s more likely to do something first, anyway. How are you holding up in physics?”

“Hanging on by my fingernails, but I think I’m going to pass. I’ll have to study my butt off for the final, though.”

“Get any replies from schools?”

She shook her head. “Not yet. Hopefully I’ll get something soon.” A bright smile spread across her face. “I think I’ve picked out a major, though. How would you like to be the big brother to not one but two lawyers? Depending on me getting into anything but a trade school.”

“You’ll get into a decent college, brat. Stop worrying about that and start trying to figure out how you’re going to help Helen and Will pay for it.” He considered her for a long moment. “What kind of law are you thinking?”

“I want to end up in criminal prosecution.” Her eyes lit up at the prospect. “We had a mock trial at school and I was really, really good at it.”

“Sounds good,” he said, biting into his sandwich. “Will and I can catch the dirtbags, you make sure they get where they’re supposed to be.”

xxx

Sam hated the airport and flying, but he didn’t have many other options open to him. His finals ended earlier that morning and Joan and Luke were graduating from high school on the other side of the country tomorrow at noon. There was no other way to attend both events, so he sucked it up and booked the flight at Christmas time when that fact became apparent. Jessica was traveling with him, so at least it wouldn’t get too boring. He could spend the time on the plane catching up on his sleep and trying to figure out when he was going to show Jess the ring in his carry-on. He’d been carrying it around since just after Christmas but hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask her to marry him yet. With the way things were going, he might not manage it until next Christmas.

He ended up spending most of his time reading over Jess’ shoulder, too jittery with caffeine and nerves to sleep and too tired to truly plan anything. Jess put up with it with a smile and even let him stretch a little into her space despite the fact that she was just as cramped in coach as he was. People over five feet nine inches really shouldn’t ride in anything but first class.

Between the connection in Houston and the time difference, they didn’t arrive in Maryland until almost two in the morning. Dean picked them up just like he had last time, although he was almost manic from the effort of staying awake. They crashed at Dean’s apartment this time rather than going to the Girardi house and his brother dropped down onto the couch and waved them into the bedroom without further words. Sam couldn’t help but wonder how long Dean had been awake. He kept strange hours as it was.

They squeezed in about six hours of sleep before Helen started calling, her attempts to get them all over for brunch before the graduation ceremony were not something that any of them could ignore. Jess got the shower, by virtue of her gender and with the practiced application of puppy-eyes, and Sam and Dean crowded around the kitchen sink for a quick birdbath while the coffee pot gurgled in the corner. None of them really felt like braving the insanity waiting for them without caffeine.

Dean’s apartment was within walking distance, but Dean was planning on driving to graduation so they took the Impala instead. Joan was flitting back and forth, running up the stairs to get ready only to run back down and take care of some small detail that she had apparently forgotten earlier. Sam managed to get a hug from his sister before she disappeared again. Jess and Dean settled in the kitchen while he went in search of Luke.

His brother was as high-strung as Joan sometimes, but today he was a calm counterpoint to his sister’s whirlwind. The dress shirt, tie, and khakis that Luke would be wearing under his cap and gown were all neatly laid out on the bed and Luke was chatting with someone via instant message. “Needed a little peace and quiet?” he asked, glancing up from his computer.

“Yeah,” Sam said, sitting down on the bed. He had to wonder if this was one of those obscure girl things, Joan being all flustered about graduation. Luke was valedictorian, for crying out loud, and he wasn’t as nervous as Joan. He had to give a speech and everything.

“Joan’s worried about my speech,” Luke said, his mouth quirking up in a smile. “I’m the one giving the stupid thing and she just keeps flipping out about me speaking in public.”

“You worried?”

“No.” The teenager stood and stretched. He looked like he might be taller than he had been at Christmas, but Sam still had several inches on him.

“All right,” Sam said. “Food’ll be ready in ten. I’m going to talk to Kevin.”

It was a little strange, sometimes. Excluding Dean, Sam used to be closest to Kevin, mostly because of proximity. Then Dean had moved out and Sam started sharing a room with Luke instead of Kevin so that Joan could have her own room. Kevin started hanging out with his friends more, getting neck deep into sports. After the accident and the move Kevin pushed them all away for a while, and just when he started making some inroads Sam went away to Stanford.

Kevin, for all that he was the popular, ‘normal’ one of the family, was probably the most difficult to get to know, even within the family, and it had gotten much worse after he was paralyzed. Sam hovered outside his door for a moment before he knocked once and stepped inside. The knock was mostly for a heads-up and he didn’t wait for a response.

The room was a little more disorganized than Sam would have thought, and there were a couple of packing boxes on the floor next to the shelves, shoved against the wall so they wouldn’t interfere with the wheelchair path. “You moving out?”

“Trying to,” Kevin said. He had his laptop up and running on the desk and was typing faster than Sam had ever seen him type. “Mom’s not exactly liking the idea, but if I ever want a shot at Lily I’m going to need my own place.”

“So you are dating the former nun, then,” Sam teased. He’d heard about it from Dean, who’d picked it up from Joan. The family had a pretty good gossip system set up.

Kevin smiled. “I am dating the former nun. And she’s pretty awesome. Likes to talk, though.”

“You’ve always liked your girlfriends chatty,” Sam pointed out. “Can Jess and I ride with you to graduation? I think Dean’s heading over early.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem.” There were a few more clicks before Kevin closed up the laptop and backed the wheelchair out of the desk space. “Is there food?”

“Unless you somehow slipped into an alternate reality,” Sam replied. “There’s always food.”

“Awesome. Meet you downstairs.”

“If you can avoid Hurricane Joan.”

“It’s easy when you’re not out of practice.”

Part 4