Chapter Notes:

Sorry for the long wait! I had part of this written a while ago and then got stuck on how to finish it. Not to suggest that I am low on material - quite the opposite. It was more that I felt I'd backed myself into a corner with this chapter and didn't know where to proceed.

There's lots more to come. Hope you enjoy, and again, I apologize for the delay!


Morning's sweet tendrils of light filtered through the window in blinding flashes of whiteness, bathing the dark room with bright shards that illuminated the sleeping couple. Ella stretched leisurely and opened her eyes with a contented sigh, not worrying about the sleep crusting them together or morning breath. She got the distinct feeling that Dean Winchester wasn't a man with many bedroom hang-ups, considering some of the amazing moves he'd pulled on her last night, eyebrow-raising, scream-his-name-til-she-lost-her-mind moves. She stretched her toes and leaned into his warmth only to be met by tiny, pink, squiggly digits. She blinked past the bleeriness of sleep and took in the sight of the gorgeous baby tucked snugly into the nook of her sleeping father's arm. Dean had apparently gotten up again at some point in the night to soothe his daughter and decided to bring her to bed with him.

She salivated at the sight of him. Damn he was a fine piece of ass. The kind of hot most women only ever dream about, with a smile that made her knees weak and a body that promised every sweet sin the imagination could conjure up. And boy did it deliver! But the sight of him now, so peaceful in repose with his baby daughter tucked up safely against him, looking both so young and strong, made her stomach do strange pitter-pattery things. If there was really such thing as a biological clock, then hers was ticking now. She guessed it was nature working at its most primal level, her body seeing a strapping young male of the species caring competently for its young, and responding to it in a physical way. It made her want to reach under the covers and snatch off those form-fitting navy boxer-briefs so she could make a beautiful baby of her own - which was just beyond nuts, because she wasn't even remotely ready for kids. But damn. Damn! If he didn't make her think about it…

Ella tried not to think about the baby's mother, where she was and why she wasn't with her daughter now. It made the picture before her, all soft edges bathed in sunglow, somehow blue and melancholy. Sure, the whole single dad thing was hot, but surely it was sad, too. Dean couldn't be a day older than twenty-five, she reasoned, and here he was taking sole responsibility for the tiny life nestled in his arm. They looked so complete together, so formed to fit each other, as if the baby were merely an extension of her father's arm. Both with the same blonde hair, though the baby was fairer, Dean's hair having darkened with age, and both with the same impossibly long eyelashes, the same pouty lips. She could feel that tingling below her navel and had to bite her lip to keep the urges at bay. Just watching them sleep, both with matching blissful masks of sleep on their contented faces, lips slightly parted, dead to the world and lost in the realm of dreams.

So she settled for watching them. The baby seemed to be dreaming, if babies could dream, because she squiggled gently, her lips parting and her little gums and tongue working inside her mouth as if to squeeze sustenance from the very air. Probably hungry, Ella thought, noticing the half-drunk baby bottle resting on the bedside table and reaching over gingerly to place it in the baby's mouth. She eased up beside Mary and held the bottle in place, watching as the baby's blue eyes opened to peer up at her as she suckled greedily. She turned her gaze fondly toward Dean, startling herself at the mossy green eyes peering intently at her.

"Sorry," she stammered, her heart racing. She hadn't meant to wake him up, and he'd seemed so crashed she was sure the slight movement wouldn't have been enough to disturb him. But now he was looking at her with eyes that were alert, as though he'd been awake for hours. And she thought she detected the hint of a smirk on his lips.

"You got that look in your eye," he said wearily, his voice garbled and husky from sleep.

"Oh yeah?" she queried, leaning forward to give him a chaste kiss on the lips. Just because. "And what look would that be?"

Dean tilted his head to the side on his pillow and grinned wickedly at her.

"Like you're thinking of goin' for another round," he drawled. "Even if it means another one of these." And his eyes glided over to Mary. "Your oven isn't screamin' for you to stick a bun in there, is it?"

Ella shrugged.

"It might be dropping a few hints," she conceded. "But let's just say…?" She trailed off and dropped her head tiredly onto his bare chest. "I'm sorry, I can't think of a way to keep this bun/oven analogy going. I was going to say something about dough rising and yeast that would have come out all wrong."

Dean cackled, eliciting a responsive gurgling from Mary as she sucked on her bottle and kicked her legs happily in reply to the rumble of her daddy's chest.

"But you were right about one thing," Ella said meaningfully, her hand slithering under the covers to ghost over warm, golden flesh, trailing down taut muscle.

"Another round?" Dean guessed, and his voice sounded husky again, only this time it was with want.

It was an awkward tangle of limbs and tongues as they pawed and groped at each other even as they climbed out of bed to put Mary back in her crib. They shuffled and stumbled, not wanting to lose contact through their fevered kisses, and Mary squawked in complaint at being caught in the middle of the panted game of tug-of-war. Once the baby was settled down safely, all bets were off. Ella wanted to lose herself in the fantasy of sun-warm skin and bodies calling to each other and babies and the whole circle of life thing - she wanted to ride the whirlwind, get blown away into another world and then miraculously come back out of it herself, still single and childless and free of ties.

Lord praise the sexual revolution! she thought, somewhere in the recesses of her mind. Birth control and condoms made the fantasy possible. Made having lots of sex with the hot single dad possible without actually having to worry about making a baby of her own.

She was just enjoying the taste and feel of his collarbone when his head suddenly snapped up, all senses on alert.

"Did you hear that?" he asked, whispering suddenly as if he were a teenager and his parents were in the next room.

"Hear what?" Ella asked, equally hushed, if only because he suddenly seemed like a spooked horse about to bolt.

She watched as his intense, steely green eyes flicked about the room, his ears trained on sounds only he seemed able to hear, or was attuned to. He held his breath and waited, straining to pick up whatever sound it was he thought he'd heard. Then he let out a relieved sigh and gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze.

"Nothin'," he said at last. "I thought I heard…" Then his eyes went wide and he gasped. "Fuck! Does that sound like a truck?"

And she heard it then, the loud rumble of an old engine, the distinct crunching of gravel under heavy tires, and Dean was on the move like a scalded cat.

"Shit!" he hissed, scurrying to the window to peer into the scrap yard below. "Fuck! They're back. FUCK!"

Ella could only stand and stare in complete bewilderment.

"Who's back?" And then a horrible thought occurred to her. Maybe she'd been played. Maybe he wasn't who he said he was at all. Maybe he wasn't single so much as attempting to engage in some shore leave. "Yourwife?" She felt suddenly hollow and sick at the same time. "Oh my God, you're married! You're not a single dad at all, you dick! You're fucking married!"

And she punched him several times in the back of the shoulder as he made a mad scramble to pick up their clothes.

"So your wife went away for a few days to some kind of spa or to visit her sister or something and you thought you'd get a little something on the side, is that it?" she accused angrily.

"Listen, Bella -"

"ELLA!" she roared, her nostrils flaring.

Dean winced. "Sorry,Ella. I'm not married. I swear to God, I'm not married!" He shoved her clothes into her folded arms and ushered her towards the closet. "But any minute now there's going to be a very angry ex-marine storming in here at the sight of your car in the driveway and you really don't want to be here to see it."

"What?" she asked, completely taken aback.

The sound of a truck door creaking closed ghosted through the window and Dean was on the move again, madly tugging his jeans up his well muscled thighs.

"On second thought, you might wanna sneak out the window," he suggested.

Ella was completely dumbfounded and stood still like a dummy for a full thirty seconds while Dean scrambled about the room, burying the many used condoms from their night's endeavours in the trash under a wad of unused Kleenex that he pulled from the box.

"What the hell is going on here, Dean?" Ella demanded.

"Hurry up an put some clothes on, woman!" Dean hissed, snagging her shirt from the pile of clothes in her arms and attempting to manhandle her into it.

"DEAN!" an angry voice called from downstairs, followed by the loud boom of the front door slamming.

"Crap!" Dean hissed again, ushering Ella towards the window. "Quick, out the window!"

"Stop!" she screech-whispered, clinging her clothes to her chest. "Let me put something on first!" She hopped on one foot and tried to pull her underwear on. The loud thudding of heavy feet on the stairs made her knees tremble and suddenly she was scrambling as desperately as Dean had been only moments ago to put her clothes on.

"DEAN!" the voice shouted again, much closer now, scarily closer!

"Yeah, Dad!" Dean called back. "In a minute!"

The loudness from the shouting startled the baby, who began shrieking bloody murder.

Ella fastened the clasp of her bra at her back and gave Dean an arch look. "Your dad?" she whispered in disbelief.

Dean shrugged helplessly and gave her a very pathetic attempt at a smile. "He's kinda touched in the head," he explained nervously, yanking her top over her head as she struggled into her jeans. "Last year he got a piece of rebar through his head and ever since he's had like these crazy mood swings. Plus he's a born-again Christian. He thinks premarital sex is evil."

"You're so full of shit, Dean," she whispered, zipping up her jeans.

She turned to the window and heaved an angry, frustrated, extremely nervous sigh. The very idea of sneaking out the window like some horny teenager was so appalling she almost thought she'd rather face the irate father whose thunderous footsteps were pounding like Zeus' thunderbolts through the floorboards in the hallway. On second thought, climbing out the window couldn't be that bad.

Dean stole a quick kiss before leaning over the crib and extracting the squalling infant, shushing her with a gentle bounce and tucking her close against his bare chest just as the bedroom door suddenly burst open.

Ella wasn't sure what she'd expected, but the large, lumbering black-haired man with several days' worth of beard growth and the smouldering dark eyes was not it. Mr. Winchester was as handsome was he was imposing, gruff, large and solid like a tank, all hard muscle like Dean but without the tight, chiseled definition. He was taller than Dean, with darker skin to go with that almost black hair of his. And right now, looking like he could huff and puff and blow the house down, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to suggest that Hell had just spat him out.

"What the hell is this?" the man demanded, pointing a finger at Ella.

"Hey Dad!" Dean greeted with a friendly grin that almost looked relaxed as he rocked the crying baby in his arms, pretending to be engrossed in her care instead of shitting bricks with fear like Ella was.

"Don't tell me," his father snarked, "you've brought home another fucking waitress."

That smarted. Ella's head snapped back as though she'd been struck.

Dean coughed awkwardly and continued to rock the screeching baby.

"So uh... you're back early," he commented conversationally, as though there weren't a mad man standing looking like a thundercloud in the doorway.

"Um... I should probably go," Ella suggested delicately, really not wanting to be in the way of this particular fight, or dressing-down, or whatever it was that was about to happen.

"That's a fantastic fucking idea," the angry ex-marine barked, never taking his eyes off his son. "And while you're at it, you might want to spread the word around town that this one," he pointed at Dean, "is off limits or has herpes or something. Keep anyone else from sniffing around."

Both youngsters were horrified and affronted at the insult.

"Excuse me?" Ella dared demand at the same time that Dean exclaimed, "Herpes?" in outraged incredulity.

She was indignant and stung by her lover's father's harsh words. "I was not sniffing around. And it might have escaped your notice, but your son's a grown man. He can do what he pleases."

Dean groaned and shifted the baby so that she was resting on his shoulder, taking a few tentative steps towards her to lay a warning hand on her shoulder. His body language clearly said, 'back off' but Ella wasn't going to stand around and be insulted. Maybe Dean was used to being talked to that way but she sure as hell wasn't.

For his part, the gruff angry tank actually huffed a laugh and cocked a grin. It was a handsome, devilish smile, even for an older guy, but it looked slightly sinister on his dark features, and given his tempestuous mood.

"You're right," he admitted, almost softly, thoughtfully. "He is a grown man. And I got no cause to insult you. You're both adults."

Dean's eyebrows shot up in surprise.

"I'm sorry, Miss. Now if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to talk to my son now." There was an unmistakable edge to his voice and Ella didn't fail to catch the bob of Dean's Adam's apple as he gulped in anticipation.

"And for Christ's sake, Dean!" the man barked, "put Mary down and stop using her as a goddamned human shield! I know you only picked her up when you heard me coming."

Dean had the grace to look sheepish, but kept his arms protectively ensnared around his daughter, who was still crying helplessly against him.

"Maybe," he admitted with a nervous laugh, "but you'd never get me to admit to it in a court of law. Anyway, she's screamin' now and I'm thinkin' she needs another round with the blow-dryer."

"Fine," his father conceded with the slightest growl. "Bobby'll take her. You and I need to talk."

"Right," Ella said smartly, grabbing her keys from the nightstand. "My cue to exit."

She paused to share a last parting glance with Dean, noting that his panicked eyes softened, crinkling at the corners when their gazes met, and he smiled lightly with one side of his mouth, a tight, almost shy smile, one brow quirked maybe in amusement, or maybe in a kind of tease, over all they'd done to each other the previous night. How that boy could look both shy and like a sexy tease would remain a mystery to her, but she figured that was part of his charm.

"See you around, Ella," Dean said.

"Not likely," his father grumbled, escorting her not-so-kindly toward the door as she made her exit. She was spared having to say anything further by the door shutting abruptly in her face, though she could still hear the voices coming from inside the room as she paused in the hallway to take a deep, steadying breath.

"I leave you alone for less than twenty-four hours and this is what you do with your time?" Dean's father demanded.

She didn't hear Dean's reply but could imagine his face bore something of the 'well duh' variety expression.

"This isn't a game, Dean!"

"Come on, Dad," Dean's voice filtered through the door, placating and apologetic. "It's cool, okay? We were careful."

Ella grimaced at the thought of having to explain her own sexual habits to either of her parents and shook her head sadly. Dean really needed to leave the nest, especially with a daughter in tow. His dad sounded like a control freak – and a puritanical one at that. She startled when she noticed the gruff old guy in the trucker's cap waiting at the top of the landing, eyeing her with a curious expression.

"Don't mind them," he said, rolling his eyes. "Winchesters like to fight. It's what they do – only in Dean's case John fights and Dean just stands there and takes it. It'll all blow over soon."

Ella found that hard to believe but kept that thought to herself. It wasn't her business, anyway. She'd gotten what she came for: she'd indulged in the fantasy, several times, of the hot, young, single dad. She hadn't asked for forever, had been happy enough to be Miss For-Right-Now. Besides, if getting involved with Dean meant regular interactions with his dad, then she was probably well shot of him. Still... he was sweet and attentive and a god in the sack. Maybe if she was lucky some day she'd stumble upon another hottie like him – one that was interested in her and equally attentive – and this lucky fellow wouldn't come with the crazy-ex-marine dad baggage and screaming toddler. Because honestly, she wasn't really up for taking on someone else's infant. Not now, anyway.

And with that thought, she made a hasty retreat.

888

"You can't honestly expect me to never have sex again, Dad. That's just not fucking happening!"

"Watch your tone, Dean!" John warned. "I'm getting real sick of your attitude and it stops now, you hear me?"

"Yes sir," Dean acceded. "And I get that you're pissed – I do. But you've got to chill. Seriously. I was careful. There will be no more slip-ups like with Ellie."

Mary struggled to lift her heavy head, wobbling pitifully as she raised her tiny face to wail full-force in her daddy's face. The shouting was upsetting her, and given that she'd been recently ill it was really like playing with fire. Dean ran a hand soothingly back and forth across her tiny back, rubbing hypnotically to ease her suffering.

"You wanna be there for Mary?" John asked archly. "Then you gotta wise up. You can't go runnin' around chasin' tail like you used to before you became a dad. Those days are over."

Dean opened his mouth to reply and then bit it back, trying desperately to 'watch the attitude,' as his father was so fond of saying. He paused, mouth open, jaw working as he considered his words carefully. Arguing, or rather, disagreeing, with John Winchester was always like trying to sprint through a minefield carrying nitroglycerine. One false move could blow everything to kingdom come.

"Believe me Dad, I know," Dean admitted. "I haven't been on a hunt since Mary was born, I barely sleep more than two hours a night, and last night was the first time I've been laid since August. Believe me, I get it. And I'm tryin'. I'm doin' my best, Dad."

John's expression didn't change, though his eyes did flicker toward the screaming baby with something like guilt, showing that, at the very least, the old man felt guilty for raising his voice and upsetting the baby. That was something, anyway.

"But could you please just cut me some slack?" Dean asked. "Please?

And John felt his walls crumbling. Because Dean was actually asking for something, and the boy never did that. Pleading to be able to keep his own daughter was probably the only time John had ever seen his eldest speak up about his own needs or wants. Ever. Sure the boy could bitch, and would do about petty things, like the radio or the quality of the coffee at the latest motel they were staying at. But Dean never complained and he never asked for things for himself. Maybe John had underestimated how much his son's sex life meant to him.

And that thought made him cringe. Surely to God Dean could get by without the usual string of conquests. Was his son some kind of nympho or something? Begging to be allowed to get laid?

John cleared his throat and shifted awkwardly on his feet. He'd allowed his thoughts to stray into an area he'd vowed never to venture into: the big quagmire that was Dean's sex life. It was something he'd tried to ignore back when he'd discovered that his fifteen year-old son was sexually active. 'An early bloomer,' he'd told himself. 'A heart-breaker... a charmer.' The fact that the kid's appetite only seemed to grow more voracious as he got older had been some cause for alarm, but John figured it was Dean's way of compensating for all the crap that he saw on the job. Dean's way of unwinding.

The rest he'd just sort of left to his imagination, opting never to go there because Dean was his son and no matter how many girls his son screwed Dean was still his baby boy, and thinking about your kids as sexual beings was just... damned uncomfortable. It had always been understood that Dean was free to do what he wished with the ladies, as many ladies as he liked, as often as he liked, so long as it didn't interfere with the job and so long as it didn't get him into any trouble.

Well guess what? John thought ruefully. Trouble's come a'knockin'.

"Fine," John conceded at last, huffing an angry breath. "You get a pass this once. But don't think things'll be going back to the way they were. You got responsibilities here: to me, to the job, and to your daughter, and any play time you get comes after everything else."

"Yes sir." And Dean looked so relieved he seemed to deflate on the spot.

"I mean it, Dean," John warned. "Nights like last night are gonna be few and far between. You don't have the luxury of followin' your dick around like you used to. You screwed up and now you gotta pay the piper."

"Yes sir," Dean said, nodding. "Just... you know..." He shrugged and averted his gaze to the top of Mary's blonde head as he struggled with what he was about to say. "When I do manage to get lucky, if you could maybe..."

John waited impatiently, raising his eyebrows in a silent command for his son to continue. Dean noticed his father's impatience and cleared his throat.

"Maybe you could not act like a lunatic and run in screaming and insulting the chick I'm bangin'? That would be awesome."

John laughed and slapped his son on the shoulder.

"No promises," he said, taking the baby from his son's tear and drool-slathered chest and wrapping her in his strong arms. "Now go take a piss before you start dancin' on the carpet. You've been doin' that thing with your right leg for the last five minutes."

"Thanks Dad," Dean said in a rush as he escaped the bedroom and made a beeline down the hall for Bobby's bathroom.

John could only shake his head. "What are we gonna do with him, huh?" he asked the now calming bundle in his arms. "If you can't whip him into shape we're doomed kiddo. So you can't let me down."

Mary hiccoughed and gurgled, squiggling uncomfortably for some kind of reprieve. Probably wet and needing that dryer to her ears again.

888

November 1, 2005

Sam Winchester knew his brother well. It was the natural result of spending nearly twenty-four hours a day in close quarters with someone for eighteen years. There was a time when Sam would have said that he knew the meaning behind every twitch of his big brother's brow, every quirk of his grin, every flash of his mossy green eyes. He could read every gesture and give you an accurate read-out of what foreign language his brother was speaking, proud that there were only two other people on planet Earth that could speak 'Dean': himself and John Winchester. But the years of separation had put some distance between them, and in the interim Dean had learned some new signs, some new expressions, and Sam hadn't been around to learn how to translate.

His heart squirmed with a twinge of pain and guilt at the last two years of complete silence. He'd cut his brother out, said in not so many words that he didn't want his new life interrupted by his old one, and Dean had complied like he always did and given Sam his coveted space. And in that time Dean had developed a new language that only Dean and Mary Winchester spoke. Sam felt an irrational spike of jealousy at the thought that John probably spoke a word or two of this new language: hell, he was probably fluent in it.

Sam sat on the bench and watched his brother pushing the pig-tailed toddler on a nearby swing. Dean's face looked serenely happy, a light and easy smile playing across his lips as he pushed Mary and listened to her squeals of joy, crying, "High, Daddy! High!" The swings themselves were designed for younger children, with full-rounded scoop bottoms and holes for young legs to poke through, a safety bar that slid up and down on a chain resting above the children's knees to keep them securely in place. They couldn't swing very high, but for a two year-old it was like flying, Sam supposed.

Other children raced through the park with wild abandon, older boys chasing each other, tossing a ball back and forth and taunting some of the smaller children. A couple of little girls played in a nearby sandbox, gathering large mounds of dirt to pile it up into a lumpy, unrecognizable shape. A few nearby mothers chatted and sipped coffee as they absently shifted their strollers with sleeping infants inside, keeping a watchful eye on their older children who were playing on a jungle gym, shouting the occasional, "Watch me, Mommy! Watch me!" as they came down the slide.

Again Sam was overcome with how surreal this whole thing was. Dean a dad. Dean a freakin' dad. It shouldn't have been a surprise, considering how much of a playboy his big brother had always been. Sooner or later his wandering ways were bound to catch up with him. As a teenager Sam had had visions of his big brother and a shotgun wedding, some angry rifle-wielding Dad forcing Dean down the aisle with a heavily pregnant bimbo at his side and their father scowling angrily from the sidelines. That or maybe a long line of girls with their hands held out for Dean to pay for their abortions.

But no matter how many times, or how many different scenarios his imagination had conjured up, the reality of Dean Winchester as a father just never stopped being absolutely fucking crazy. Dean was wildness unleashed: he was blatant disregard for the rules; he was wanderlust; he was roving eye and restlessness; he was no strings attached and love 'em and leave 'em; he was 'real jobs are for pussies' and barroom brawls, credit card fraud; he was take down the evil sonovabitch; he was die young and leave a beautiful corpse.

But he was other things, too, Sam chided himself. Dean was responsible, for all his other glaring proofs to the contrary. He'd taken care of Sam for as long as Sam could remember. Hell, he'd taken care of their Dad, too. In that sense Sam supposed Dean had always been sort of solid, reliable, sturdy, and permanent. And Dean was giving, too. He never asked for anything for himself, but went out of his way to make sure his little brother had everything he needed. Sam remembered Dean taking on odd jobs every summer, like mowing lawns and cleaning gutters, so that he could have spare change to buy popsicles and sodas for Sam when it got too hot, or for groceries when Dad stayed away too long and the money ran out. And Dean was always there, at the drop of a hat, whenever Sam needed him.

Sam smiled wistfully, realizing suddenly that in many ways Dean was perfect for fatherhood. He was strong and protective and self-sacrificing, willing to give up everything for the ones he loved. He'd been doing it since he was four and a half years old, since their mother died in fire and ash all those years ago.

Sam frowned. Twenty-two years ago tomorrow, in fact. A chill ran through his spin and shivered up his vertebrae, causing him to shudder.

"Uh-oh," his brother's voice cut through his thoughts. "Looks like Uncle Sammy's gettin' all moody and mopey."

Sam looked up and saw Dean striding towards him, Mary hop-footing happily at her Daddy's side. She tilted her head upwards and grinned, which Dean returned with a grin of his own: a silent communication that was playful and mischievous. Sam frowned in suspicion.

Then the toddler was running at him, launching her tiny body onto his lap and wrapping her chubby little arms around his neck. He melted when he saw her grinning face pressing close to his, her tiny rosebud lips planting a wet kiss on his cheek. He thought he might die right there of her sheer cuteness.

Dean grinned cockily, knowingly, and smirked at his baby brother being seduced by a two year-old. Mary nuzzled her face into Sam's cheek, fine wispy blonde hairs tickling his nose.

"You're so whipped," Dean commented with a chuckle.

"Yeah, like you aren't," Sam countered.

Dean shrugged. "Whatever."

Sam could feel Mary's long eyelashes brushing his cheekbone and he allowed himself to sigh deeply in contentment. His niece was sweetness personified. She loved to cuddle and hug and snuggle, was forever planting kisses on her Daddy's cheek, and now, apparently, on Sam's as well. Jess had already been the recipient of a few wet kisses of her own, earlier that morning, and would likely be receiving more by the time this visit was over. He listened with a grin as the little girl hummed to herself and pressed her cheek closer, rubbing back and forth. She blinked, her lashes tickling Sam's cheek again, and pulled back, her brow drawn in confusion.

"Daddy?" she called, eying her uncle Sam with big, wide, green eyes.

Dean grunted in reply as he rifled through the duffle at Sam's feet, emerging triumphantly with a clean diaper.

"Isn't she old enough for toilet training?" Sam queried.

Dean blushed and gave his brother a weary look.

"We're gonna try again in a little while," Dean hedged. "Give her a bit of a breather after the last time."

"Last time?"

"Daddy?" Mary pressed.

"What is it, babe?" Dean asked distractedly as he laid out a blanket on the grass.

"Umpy Sammy inna swatchy," she said, running a sticky hand down her uncle's cheek. "Hmmm—mebbe Umpy Sammynatta boy..." and the rest of what she said was lost to Sam in incoherent toddler gabbling, though he distinctly caught the word "girl" somewhere in the question at the end.

Whatever she said, Dean threw his head back and laughed, hard, high pitched, and uproarious, for a full minute and a half before he would bother to translate.

"Dude, she just totally asked if you were a girl," Dean explained through hearty guffaws.

Sam jumped in surprise, his eyes darting to the grinning toddler in his arms, who threw her head back in imitation of her Daddy, not sure what exactly she was laughing at but joining in because it looked like fun.

"What?" Sam demanded.

"You got no hair on your face," Dean said, wiping at his eyes. "I guess I never really thought about it before, but all the men she knows kinda have beards."

"You don't!"

Dean shrugged. "Got scruff, though. Not all freshly shaved like you there, Samantha." He renewed his chuckles at the thought.

"Well who else has got a beard besides Dad?" Sam demanded, refusing to be insulted by a two year-old.

"Bobby," Dean replied. "And Pastor Jim."

"You took her to Pastor Jim's and Bobby's?" Wow. That stung. That really stung. The old mechanic and kindly pastor had met Mary before Sam even knew she existed?

Again Dean shrugged.

"Course. Where do you think she goes when Dad and I are on a hunt, Sam? You think we leave her waiting in the car or something?"

Sam's mind was reeling. He wanted to punch something – Dean being the most appealing target – and had to resist the urge to just deck his big brother for being so nonchalant about the whole 'I have a kid and I never bothered to tell you' thing.

"I can't believe you!" Sam said at length.

Mary sensed her uncle's unease and slid off his lap, coming to her father's side and leaning against him with greedy fingers pawing at him to pull her close. His hands instinctively pulled her near, his body responding to her needs without conscious thought.

"What?" Dean asked defensively, confused.

"You should have told me, Dean!" Sam said. His nostrils were flaring and he knew he was wearing the look that Dean called his bitch face but right now he didn't care. "Bobby and Jim knew all about her but you didn't see the need to pick up the phone and tell me – your own brother – that you had a daughter?"

Dean rolled his eyes and sighed, his expression darkening.

"If I did would you have answered?"

Sam paused mid rant and considered it. No, he conceded. He probably wouldn't have.

"You could have left me a message," Sam said lamely. "If I'd known about Mary I would have called back."

Dean grimaced and scoffed a mirthless laugh.

"Screw you, Sam." Dark eyes flashed angrily. "You didn't want to talk to me? That's fine. I may not be Mr. College but I'm not an idiot. I can take a freakin' hint. You didn't want to talk to me. Whatever."

"But you had a kid..." Sam argued.

"And I'm not gonna beg you to call me back," Dean went on. "You wanted out so I left you out, okay? So what, you think I'd use my freakin' daughter to lure you back in? Leave you some kind of lame message: 'Oh hey, Sam. I know you wanna pretend you don't have a family, but just so you know, I got a kid now. Later man.' I'm not that pathetic."

Sam was taken aback.

"I never said you were pathetic."

Dean ignored him and resumed rifling through the duffle.

"Come on, Mare," Dean said. "Let's get you changed, huh?"

Mary laid down on the blanket and obediently lifted her legs so her Daddy could change her diaper.

There was an awkward moment of tension-filled silence where no one spoke while Dean tended to Mary's soiled bottom, hands working meticulously, methodically, deftly, as the dirty diaper was removed, a handy wipe applied to clean the tender skin, and a fresh diaper applied. Feeling it was his place to break the tension, Sam cleared his throat and spoke.

"So what happened last time?"

"Huh?" Dean asked absently, not really wanting to engage in any more conversation.

"With the toilet training," Sam explained.

"Oh," Dean said, shoulders relaxing fractionally as he pulled his little girl's tiny denim jeans back up her hips. "Well, Dad kinda mentioned that it was probably time to start potty training her a couple of months ago. So Mary decided she was going to teach herself."

Sam raised a questioning eyebrow.

"She uh... She tried using the toilet and it uh... didn't work out so well."

Sam tried not to smile picturing his little, tiny niece trying to clamor up onto a toilet.

"She couldn't reach it?"

Dean nodded.

"Why didn't you guys get her one of those little potty training toilets they have for toddlers?" Sam asked.

"We did," Dean defended. "It was in the bathroom right next to the bathtub, asshat! God, I'm not a freakin' moron, Sam!"

"Sorry!" Sam defended, hands raised in surrender.

"She didn't want to use that one," Dean explained. "She wanted to use the grown-up toilet like her Daddy and her grandpa."

"Gumpy," Mary said wistfully.

Sam had an idea where this was going and grimaced in anticipation.

"I was researching a haunting in Wyoming when I heard her start bawling in the bathroom. I thought she musta cut herself or somethin' but she was just standin' in front of the toilet cryin' like the world was ending. Her pants around her ankles and... well, you know."

"I peed onda floor," Mary said with a sniffle.

"Yeah, but it was an accident," Dean replied, giving her a gentle kiss on the temple. "You're a good girl, aren't ya Mare?"

She nodded and sniffled again.

"So she was trying to..." Sam said vaguely, waving a hand in the general direction of his crotch. "Use the bathroom like you and Dad...?"

Dean nodded.

"Girls donn habba pee tandenup," Mary explained to her uncle Sam, a lesson she had unfortunately learned too late. "Girls donn habba peepee but I habba bagina."

Dean closed his eyes and chuckled, blushing deeply. Sam didn't envy his brother that conversation. How exactly did one explain to a little girl with no mother that she didn't have the same parts as her Daddy? That must have been one hell of an awkward conversation, especially for his run-away-from-awkward-conversations-like-the-plague big brother.

They made their way back to the Impala and back to Sam and Jess's apartment without incident. A quick lunch and then they'd be hitting the road to find their Dad. Jess was waiting for them when they got back, glad to have had the time to herself to get some studying done while they played with Mary at the park. Lunch was filled with the chatter of the happy two year-old, who garbled nonsensically to her new Uncle and Aunt about the park and Dora the Explorer. Sam couldn't understand half of what she said, but Jess seemed to be picking it up all right. Dean, on the other hand, was fluent in Mary Speak and would translate here and there, delicately of course, so as not to let his little girl know that she wasn't quite being understood by anyone but him.

"That's right," he would say, "tell Uncle Sammy about the gorilla that Dora found on one of her adventures."

Well that explained what a 'gorrr' was, Sam thought.

After lunch was finished Dean and Sam packed up their things in the trunk and readied themselves for the trip. Mary's toys and necessities were stacked in the spare bedroom, where she would have easy access, and Dean gave Jess a quick walk-through of the general routine.

"She usually has a nap at around three," Dean explained. "If she doesn't she can get kind of whiny. That'll give you some time to yourself."

Jess smiled weakly, mildly terrified at the thought of being left alone with her boyfriend's brother's two year-old. Memories of last night's tantrum resounded like a gong in her head.

"Make sure she picks up after herself," Dean ordered. "She knows she's not allowed to leave her stuff lyin' around, so don't let her get away with it if she tries."

"I left her nightlight on the bedside table. She doesn't like to sleep in the dark. Oh – and she might try to crawl in bed with you if she gets scared in the night. Where she doesn't really know you so well yet, that probably means tonight."

His smile was apologetic so she gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

"No problem," she assured him. "If she gets scared, we can just have a sleepover in my bed, can't we Mary?"

Mary grinned up at her hopefully.

"Okay," Dean said with a heavy sigh. He crouched down low and gave his little girl a hug. "You be good, okay Mary? Uncle Sammy and I are going to go look for Grandpa. So you gotta stay here with Auntie Jess. You be a good girl and do what she says."

Mary nodded solemnly, her big eyes wide and dewy with unshed tears.

"We'll be back before you know it," Dean promised. "You just be a good girl. Remember what Daddy told you, all right? Be a good little soldier and follow orders."

"Yes sir," she piped up proudly, puffing up her tiny chest and saluting her Daddy.

Dean swallowed convulsively and averted his gaze, and for a brief moment Sam was sure he saw his big brother's eyes looking distinctly wet. Then Dean gave Mary's cheek a firm kiss, squeezing her tightly before letting her go.

"I'll call you tonight," Dean said as he stood up.

And without further ado they made their way out of the apartment in search of their father. They had less than a week to make it to Jericho and back, and Sam hoped John Winchester wouldn't be too hard to find, and that when they did find him he wouldn't hold to his promise that Sam should stay gone. He hoped a lot of things.