There was a small kid, stepping from foot to foot outside the City Limits bar as Bobby walked in, a sort of colorless kid with dark hair and ragged clothing. He looked young, which is the only reason Bobby noticed him, maybe 8, and his face was blank and stoic, the gaze never wavering from the bar's front door.
Bobby slowed, dragged a step out a bit longer to assess the boy, and the kid's eyes flicked to him immediately, noticing Bobby noticing him. Bobby was quickly evaluated, and quickly dismissed, the boy's stare back to the bar's front door. Bobby tried to shrug it off, instinctively sidestepping the why behind the kid's presence and stepped inside; but his head turned unwillingly, catching a last glimpse of a solemn face and dark green eyes before the kid was lost to view.
He paused briefly, vision adjusting to the darkness after the golden and chill autumn evening, the door swinging shut behind him. The bar was maybe half full, the buzz of voices still mellow and relaxed with the jukebox crooning Patsy Cline, the City Limits not yet geared up for the weekend. Most of the patrons were at the bar, but as Bobby scanned the room he found a lone figure sitting in a booth at the back, solid and contained, a duffle bag at his feet. The figure raised his head and met Bobby's gaze, gave a slight nod.
Bobby nodded back, and went to the bar, asked the barkeep for a glass of whatever was on tap. He sipped off the foam, listening to the chatter of steelworkers around him, and the door opened again. He glanced up, caught a glimpse of the kid again, peering around the bulk of the man entering, before the door swung shut and cut off his view.
Again, a surge of emotion he did not want to feel, the dark thoughts tumbling through his head, and he gazed too long at the closed door.
A mental shake as he turned away, grabbing up a bowl of peanuts and his beer before he made his way back to drop down in the booth next to the duffle bag. He carefully set both peanuts and beer down, pushed the peanuts towards the quiet man sitting across from him. "Winchester?"
"Sorry I missed you in L.A."
A humorless chuckle. "Yeah. Your demon wasn't."
"Wasn't a demon. Some fucking ghost thing. And here Murphy told me you were some big demon expert."
Bobby felt his patience thin. "I talked to Murphy about that. Carmen used a demonic ritual, was able to borrow demonic energy– "
Winchester waved his head dismissively. Bobby gritted his teeth. "I don't care what it was, it wasn't a demon. You ready to talk demons?"
"If you're ready to listen," Bobby ground out.
There was a small silence, and Bobby watched Winchester's shoulders slump a bit as he relaxed into the worn leather of the booth's bench seat. "Look, Jim told me you were the best. I've been looking for you for nearly a year, just to listen to what you have to say."
Only five minutes of knowing this guy, and Bobby knew this was the closest he'd get to an apology. He leaned back, took a swallow from his beer, watching Winchester over the lip of his mug. The guy was still, created an aura of peace, but his eyes gave him away, cutting to Bobby, around the room, touching faces quickly, judging quickly.
The door opened again, bringing in a gust of autumn wind, and a snippet of conversation from the two union guys walking in; "... who's the kid's dad?"
Winchester's eyes flickered again, a minute shift, but Bobby had trained himself to catch the smallest of tells, and Winchester had just given himself away. Bobby finished his long pull on the beer, set the mug down carefully and threw a couple of peanuts into his mouth. Chewing, casual, he asked, "That your kid outside?"
Winchester had gone taut, like a pulled bow. "If he is?"
Bobby nodded, took a last swallow from his beer, and stood. "Then we have nothing left to talk about."
Winchester was silent as Bobby walked away. The kid was still outside when Bobby opened the door, eyes meeting Bobby's, then away. Bobby hesitated, wondering what to say, but the kid had sidled away, his gaze going to a car parked away from the others. Bobby followed his gaze, saw a small face pressed to the window of the black Chevy, and clenched his fists.
He thought about calling a couple of guys, thought about jumping Winchester in the evening darkness. Any man dragging two boys into the lifestyle of a hunter deserved a couple of rednecks in steelworker boots stomping the shit out of him. He watched as the older kid walked across the parking lot to the car, watched as the door opened and the two spoke quietly together. The little one raised his voice slightly, and Bobby heard "….want Daddy, where's Daddy?"
He turned away abruptly, heading for his truck parked on the street. He knew his weaknesses, knew when it was time to call for a retreat, and the two kids abandoned outside of a bar opened him up and gutted him with surgical precision. Kids and dogs. He had never been able to think straight about either one, operating on emotion and sentimentality, which was a bad habit for someone in his line of work.
Not to mention the shadow of his own boy, lost so long ago, that hovered over any kid he laid eyes on.
He slid into his truck, turned over the engine, and flipped a U on the road, passing the parking lot. Winchester was just exiting the bar, his head up watching Bobby, and the older kid was running across the parking lot toward him. Bobby looked away before the boy reached his father, and that image of the small boy always running, his form sharp in the autumn air, stayed with him long.
-- - -
Winchester tried to contact him a number of times in the next couple of weeks, but Bobby dodged him, letting the phone ring, not returning the messages. He puttered around the salvage yard, stripping cars and sorting parts, grimly not thinking of the two boys. He puttered around his library, annotating old books and cataloging relics, carefully not thinking about the small face squished against the window.
He was reaching for the photo album his ex-wife had left him, when he stopped himself with an oath, turned neatly on his heel and called Jim Murphy; irritated with the constant calls and the path those calls had set him on.
"Why didn't you tell me about Winchester's boys?"
There was a pause, the phone line humming with distance. "Would you have agreed to meet with him, Bobby?" Jim's voice, cool and calming as usual, was a salve for Bobby's ragged nerves.
"You know I wouldn't. I don't like to deal with kids." He cleared his throat, him and Jim dancing around what wasn't being said. "Tell Winchester to quit calling me. I don't want to talk to him."
"Sorry, Bobby, I can't really tell Winchester anything. He knows you're the best, and he needs what you know."
"So you're telling me I'm on my own?"
Bobby could nearly hear Jim shaking his head. "Pete's sake, Bobby, what are you, five? You can handle Winchester."
Bobby was silent, his grip on the phone tightening. "I don't want to. Help me out here, please?"
When he next spoke, Murphy's voice had roughened slightly. "Boys lost their mother about four years ago, Bobby. Some demon eviscerated her in the baby's nursery. John's trying to find the demon that killed her, and the only thing keeping him human are those two boys. I didn't send him to you just because of the demon."
Kids and dogs. Bobby knew either one or the other would be the death of him. He blinked rapidly, one hand scrubbing at his face. "Shit on a cracker, Jim." And he could hear Jim smiling from miles away. "I'll take care of Winchester."
-- - -
He heard it first; a low rumble like a thunderhead rolling in, and Lucifer next to him came to his feet, Satan beside him. Both dogs lifted their ears, pointed their muzzles to the bend in the road, and Satan's lip fluttered with a voiceless growl. Bobby took a swig of coffee, liberally doused with Irish cream, and set the mug down on the porch railing in front of him. "Easy, dog." Satan subsided, but Bobby tilted his head slightly, catching view of the shotgun leaning on the house behind him in the corner of his eye.
The car was beautiful, black and in top condition despite the miles on her, and she glided to a stop next to the porch, her engine a bit rough until Winchester cut it. Bobby's hand found his coffee mug again, and he watched Winchester over the brim as he raised it. Winchester twisted around in the front seat, speaking to the boys in the back, and Bobby ignored the phantom twinge at the sight of their heads nodding solemnly together.
The door squeaked as Winchester slid out, squeaked again as he shut it. He looked at Bobby over the roof of the car, and Bobby looked back, neither of them going for polite or make nice. Winchester spread his hands. "Do we still have a problem?"
Satan answered with a sharp bark. Bobby smiled with nothing like humor touching his face. "Only if you bring one."
Winchester's smile matched Bobby's, sharp and cold. "Murphy said you're the best, and I need the best. That's all I'm here for."
Bobby lifted his coffee again, drained it in one long swallow. "You like some coffee?"
There was slight widening of Winchester's eyes to give away his surprise, and he ducked his head, scuffing at the ground. Bobby could tell from his bent head that he was looking at the boys in the back seat. "And I have juice and cereal, for the boys." The answering silence was brutal. Bobby gestured with his coffee cup, conciliatory. "If they're hungry."
"Yeah, they're hungry. They're always hungry." And Bobby was suddenly looking at a father, Winchester's eyes wry with the travails of parenthood. He had to turn away, shooing the dogs in front of him, and his voice was rough as he called over his shoulder to the family to come in.
- - - -
Dean was solely his father's creature, green eyes going first to his father's face when the man entered the room, small fingers touching his father's knee, his elbow, and any part of him he could reach. Apart from his father he showed a guarded curiosity, examining car parts and ancient books with a deep intensity at puzzling out their uses, turning away only when finding Bobby watching him. Around the dogs he was wholly a child, running his fingers through the ruffs around their throats, amazed at the silkiness of their ears, and Satan and Lucifer had melted at his first touch.
Sammy was, to put it simply, fearless. Roaming the littered salvage yard with glee, staring down the dogs until they turned away in shame, utterly entranced by the stacks of books in Bobby's house. He watched over his father's shoulder as Winchester struggled with Latin exorcisms, copied the ornate sigils in little boy handwriting in his own notebook, and asked Bobby about his filing system.
He wasn't sure when Winchester became John; maybe it was the evening around Christmas when the eggnog got spiked with too much rum, and stories about nineteen year old marines and Asian hookers profaned the air. Bobby couldn't remember the last time he had laughed so much. And John on couch, bent over with tears in his eyes as Bobby explained to him exactly why and what and where in his hunt for the legendary Seacater Succubus down in Georgia. John swore up and down that what Bobby had accomplished that night was physically impossible.
But when he woke up the next morning the photo album he swore was in the bookcase in the library was suddenly on the floor next to his bed, and he panicked, backing away and throwing up walls. After that he kept his arms at his sides when giving Sammy a glass of water, resisting the urge to tousle too long hair, and he bit his tongue when Dean finally, hesitantly, asked him how exactly the sparkplug sent fire to the engine.
Bobby ignored them after that morning, which was easy for the most part, as John was learning at a slow pace and required all of Bobby's patience as they traced demon lineage. It was when the boys required a father that Bobby would suddenly become too aware of them; when Sammy stumbled in with a scraped knee, when bedtime rolled around, when Dean refused to eat the mysterious casserole Bobby had concocted out of leftovers. Then he would watch the family in small glimpses, catching John bent over the hurt knee as the band-aid was applied, catching Dean's mutinous look behind his father's back as he shoveled in dinner. He would watch until it was too much, and then slip away to his library with Satan at his heels, blinking too fast.
Dogs and kids. He shook his head, standing in a rough circle of stacked books, one hand on Satan's head. He wasn't sure he was going to survive this.
- - - -
It was after the New Year, with frost sharp on the window in the dark of the morning, when Bobby came awake with a pounding heart to the sound of Sammy screaming. He stumbled from bed still half-asleep, cursing the darkness, Satan and Lucifer in full voice in the yard, and sprinted along the hallway to the kitchen.
John was pacing, Bobby's ancient phone in one hand, and the other cupped over his ear to block out Sam's crying. Dean was perched uncomfortably in a kitchen chair, Sammy on his lap, and he was patting his brother's back and watching his father.
Bobby hesitated, blinking stupidly in the sharp light.
"Where?" John paused, his back to his children, chin tucked. "Where in Iowa?"
Bobby stepped into the kitchen, and Dean's glance went to him quickly before returning to his father. "John?"
John didn't acknowledge him. "Just give me the address." Pause. "Fuck, Jim, I don't care. Just give me –"
Sammy took a moment to catch his breath, and Bobby found himself next to Dean's chair, holding his arms out in invitation to Sammy. The boy blinked at him, tear stained and rumpled, and immediately accepted. Sam came easily into his arms, and Dean's glance was unreadable, his thin arms suddenly holding nothing.
John turned abruptly, took in the sight of Bobby holding his son, and blinked. Bobby could hear Jim Murphy's voice buzzing in the ear piece. John's attention went back to the conversation, his chin tucked slightly. "What?"
Sam put his head down on Bobby's shoulder, shuddering and sighing from too many tears. Half-forgotten memories threatened to tumble out, take Bobby down in a tidal wave of scent and feel. Sammy was too warm in his arms, his pajamas too soft, and Bobby had to close his eyes.
"No, I'll be there in three days." Pause. John's eyes went to Bobby's face, flicked back to Dean's. "No, I'll bring them with me."
Sammy's chest rested on Bobby's shoulder; Bobby could feel the child's heart racing like a rabbit's.
"No, Jim, don't you tell me that. They're coming with me. Don't you say that." John closed his eyes, weariness etching lines across his forehead. "I'll call you when I get there." The phone went on the cradle, and the kitchen was abruptly quiet. Outside it was snowing; sharp flakes thin in the sodium glare from the lights in the salvage yard.
John moved first, gently taking Sam from Bobby's grasp, the boy quiet and yielding. Sam's eyes met Bobby's for a moment, grave and tired, and Bobby's arms dropped slowly to his sides. He scratched the side of his jaw, awkwardly looking away from John. "So you're leaving?"
There was a muffled sound from Dean, but when Bobby glanced at him the boy's gaze, as usual, was on his father.
John was watching the snow fall, his face unreadable. "Yeah. A friend of Jim's called about some fires he uncovered in Iowa. Happened the same year that -- Happened back in '83, with other demon activity in the area."
Bobby had to move, couldn't stand there like an idiot missing the feel of a child in his arms. He went to the coffee maker, desperate for busy work. "Which friend?"
John shrugged. "Don't know."
"Probably Caleb," Bobby said, and then he couldn't contain it anymore, couldn't temper the rise of anger. "Goddammit, John, you can't take the boys –" He stopped, his teeth clicking together painfully. He measured out coffee sloppily, hearing John's footsteps away down the hall. Then, after a pause, Dean's lighter step, following his father without a backwards look.
Bobby stood silently on the porch, Satan and Lucifer at his feet, a cup of coffee warm in his hand. The Impala idled roughly in the quiet, her exhaust pluming out into the frozen air. The boys were hidden from view in the back seat, piled high with blankets and pillows and a thermos of hot chocolate. John watched Bobby over the roof of the car, and Bobby watched back.
"Can I come back?" John asked finally, his words visible in the January morning.
Bobby took a swig of coffee, wincing at the burn of whisky. "Yeah," he said. He kept his eyes down, swirling his coffee; watching golden stripes of whisky slowly blend into blackness. "But we may have a problem."
John was silent. Satan whined softly at the tense atmosphere. "I'm doing the best I can," John said finally, and the quiet tone of his voice brought Bobby's head up sharply.
"I know," he said, meeting John's gaze. "That's why you can come back."