"You should talk to him, John," the woman named Missouri told the man who was standing next to her. The two of them were watching a boy of four while he sat unmoving and silent on her couch, watching Saturday morning cartoons on television, but not really seeming to enjoy them. Not like most children would. No laughter came from him, no smiles, no words. He hadn't spoken in weeks, but to acknowledge having been spoken to. He was a good boy. He never argued, never made a fuss of any kind, did what he was told without argument or coaxing, but it wasn't normal, and it worried her.
"What do you want me to tell him, Mis? That his mother is dead, and I don't know what happened to her?" John Winchester asked. He'd wanted to talk to Dean so many times. He'd tried, but he just couldn't. He couldn't bear to acknowledge the pain in his son's eyes. He was his father. He was supposed to be there to protect him, to keep him safe, to make sure things like this didn't happen to him, but he'd failed. He'd failed Mary, and now he was failing Dean. Sam was too young to know better, but Dean knew.
"The boy's scared, John. You should tell him everything's gonna be all right," she suggested gently, laying a reassuring hand on his forearm.
"You want me to lie to him?" John asked, turning his head toward her, anger flashing in his eyes, anger that wasn't really directed toward her, but toward whatever it was that had destroyed their lives. "That's what parents do, isn't it? Lie to their kids. Tell them everything's gonna be all right, when they know damned well it isn't. Life is hard. It's full of pain, and you want me to tell him it's all rainbows and unicorns."
"I want you to be his father," she explained gently. "Just give him a hug, talk to him, spend a little time with the boy."
John stood there for a moment, silently watching his eldest son as if he was contemplating doing just that, but what should he say to the boy? Should he talk about football? Who might make it to the playoffs that year? Football didn't matter. Nothing mattered. The only thing that mattered was finding out who or what had killed Mary. "I need to make some calls."
"John, those boys need their father."
"No, what they need is for me to find out what happened to their mother so it doesn't happen to them, too."
"John!" she called, but he had already turned his back on her and on Dean and left to do whatever it was he felt he needed to do at that moment. The man was like a firecracker, just waiting to go off, and Missouri dreaded what might happen to anyone who got in his way, no matter who they were.
"Damned stubborn mule," she muttered, turning back around to find Dean watching her with a mingled look of curiosity and sadness on his young face. She forced a smile for his sake. "Your daddy's just going out to run some errands, honey pie. Can you come help me with your brother while he's gone?" she asked, offering him a hand.
Dean looked at her a moment, that same look on his face that his father had when he was contemplating his actions, and then he nodded mutely and slid off the couch. He turned off the television set and took her hand, the first human contact he'd had in days, except for that of his baby brother.
"You know how to change a diaper?" she asked, as she led him along. With that smallest touch, she could feel the pain coming off him in waves. Pain, confusion, terror. If someone didn't do something to pull him back to reality soon, he was going to be lost amidst the confusion forever.
Dean looked up at her with a confused expression on his face, as if she'd asked him the strangest question in the entire world. He nodded again, but a little more enthusiastically this time, as if to silently prove that he could take care of his little brother just fine. He didn't need anyone.
"All right then, honey lamb, you show me what you know." She let go of his hand when they reached the bedroom, where little Sam was napping in a portable crib he was quickly growing out of.
She watched as Dean went over and picked up his brother, as carefully as if he was made of glass, and carried him over to the bed, where he laid him down and started methodically stripping him of clothing, like one might strip a firearm. From what she could tell, he knew what he was doing, and he was doing it well.
"Good!" she praised, smiling encouragement. "Now, you tuck him back in. I wanna talk to you about something."
Again she watched as Dean cradled his brother in his arms and then gently laid him back down in the crib, carefully tucking a blanket around him, though it was warm enough without one. He seemed to hesitate a moment, as if to make sure his brother was indeed safe, before turning and making his way back to her side.
"You like milk and cookies?" she asked, sliding an arm around his shoulders. "I just made a fresh batch this morning."
He nodded his head again and followed her to the kitchen, where she settled him on a chair and poured him a cold glass of milk and set out a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies on the table in front of him. He looked to her as if for permission before taking two, and she smiled and nodded her approval.
"Now, I know it's hard to talk about, but I need you to tell me about that night."
He took a bite of one cookie, lowering it from his mouth at her question, that haunted expression back on his face. He didn't have to ask which night she was asking about. There was only one night it could be. The night of the fire. The night everything had changed. He said nothing, but only looked at her, as if speaking of it would only make it all the more real, and it was already real enough.
"Sweetheart," she said, kneeling down in front of him and turning him to face her. "I know it's hard. I know it's painful. I know it hurts more than anything, but you have to talk about it. If you don't talk about it, it's gonna eat you up inside, just like your daddy," she said, searching his eyes. Even if he never say a word, his eyes said it all. There was intelligence in those eyes, and she knew there was a lot more going on inside that young head of his than he let on. "Your daddy loves you and your brother, even if he can't say it. He's doing his best, but he's scared, Dean. He needs your help, as much as you need his. Do you understand?"
Green eyes that had seen far too much pain for his four years on Earth filled with tears suddenly, something inside him breaking. There never seemed to be any lack of tears. His mouth moved silently for a moment, before his voice found the words his head was trying to say. "Is... Is she... Is my Mom..." It was a question he'd wondered about since that fateful night, part of him knowing she was dead, part of him holding on to some hope that maybe she was still alive somehow, somewhere, waiting for him.
Missouri's heart felt like it was going to break at that simple, honest question, knowing what he was trying to ask, what he needed to know. She laid a hand against his cheek, smiling sadly. He deserved an honest answer, and she would give him one. "She's gone from this world, darlin', but her soul lives on. A mother's love never really dies. You can be sure she's still watching over you and your brother, even if you can't see her or hear her. I promise you that."
"But..." he started, his voice sounding small and weak and full of anguish, tears sliding down a young face that was sprinkled with freckles. "I'll never see her again."
"Oh, I don't know about that," she replied, brushing his hair back from his face. It had gotten long in the last few weeks since his mama had died, and his daddy hadn't thought to cut it. "So long as you remember her, she lives on in your heart and your memories. And sometimes, those who are very lucky, catch a glimpse of those who've gone before us."
"But I want her back," he told her, his voice catching in his throat, something breaking inside him, something he'd tried to keep buried since that night, and suddenly he was crying again and didn't think he was ever going stop.
She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close, giving him the affection he was craving, the affection every child needed and that he so lacked, the affection his father seemed unable to give. She stroked his hair while he wept, heart-wrenching sobs that shook his young body and left him feeling empty and weary. She held him there until he was finished, and then she pulled him back and looked into his face, holding his eyes with a steady gaze. "I won't lie to you, Dean. I don't know why this happened, but I do know that everything happens for a reason. Everything. God has some kind of plan for you, some kind of destiny, and you have to be strong. You can never give up, you hear me? No matter what happens, you never give up."
He looked at her through bleary, red-rimmed eyes, as if trying to understand what she was telling him. It seemed important somehow, critical to his very survival, but he wasn't sure why. He was just a kid. What did he know about fate and destiny and free will? And yet, he believed her because everything she said was making sense. It had to. There had to be a purpose behind what had happened. His mother couldn't have died in vain. "I'm not giving up," he told her. "I have to take care of Sammy. Mom would want me to take care of Sammy."
She smiled and very gently brushed the tears from his face. "That's my boy. You take care of Sammy and your daddy, too. But don't you forget to take care of yourself, you hear?"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, somehow understanding that there was some kind of connection between them now that no one would ever understand but them. She had explained things no one had taken the time to explain before, not even his own father. "I promise."
She ruffled his hair and smiled warmly again. "There, now. Don't you feel better? A good cry never hurt no one. You remember that."
He nodded again, and his freckled nose wrinkled with a small, boyish smile, the first she'd ever seen from him. "Can I finish my cookies now? They're really good."
"Course you can finish your cookies, and when you're done with that, I'm gonna show you how to give your baby brother a bath."
He smiled up at her, feeling better than he had in days.
By the time John got back, they were fast friends, and Dean was telling her all about baseball and how he was going to be a pitcher someday. John didn't have it in his heart to tell the boy the truth. That there wasn't going to be any baseball in his future. That there was no point in dreaming because dreams didn't come true. That he was already planning on teaching the boy how to defend himself. The sooner, the better. Four wasn't too young to learn if he wanted to survive.