"Uncle Bobby

Little Drummer Boy

Missing scene of sorts from A Very Supernatural Christmas.

xxxx

When the phone rang, Bobby grumbled wordlessly to the dog as he pushed himself out of the chair.

"Yeah?"

"Uncle Bobby?" Dean Winchester.

And that could not be good. For any number of reasons. But primarily because the last time the Winchesters had visited, Dean had been trying out plain old "Bobby" when it had been just the two of them. Had said it tentatively, eyes slanting toward Bobby as he'd said it, watching for a rfeaction. Had smiled shyly, pleased, when Bobby hadn't given him one.

"Dean?"

"Hey." A pause. "Um. Have you talked to Dad recently?"

Bobby frowned. What day was it? "Not for a couple of months."

"Oh." It was one word, but it spoke volumes.

Bobby sighed. "How late is he?"

"Four days."

Bobby frowned again.

"He said he'd be home for Christmas." It was whispered and almost inaudible.

Damn it.

"Where are you?"

xxxx

Sam watched out the window, peering through the slender gap in the curtains that Dean would allow.

The anger and betrayal he'd felt a few nights before had mutated into an awful kind of terror.

Monsters were real. Dad hunted monsters. Dad hadn't come home.

Sam's eyes cut to Dean, who sat motionless on the couch, chewing a hole in his bottom lip.

Dean's reassuring patter of "Dad's OK, he's just late. Dad's OK," had dried up a day and a half ago. He'd called Pastor Jim first, spoken to a friendly church secretary who'd told him the preacher'd been called away on a family emergency. Dean's hesitant attempt to find out if that had meant Dad had been met with polite, but unyielding stonewalling. He'd called Bobby next.

"Get away from the window, Sammy," Dean said tiredly. "Uncle Bobby'll get here when he gets here."

Sam moved obediently, climbing onto the couch with his brother. "How many hours does it take?" he asked again.

"I don't know, Sam," Dean snapped. "Did I know the last time you asked that?"

Sam blinked. "No," he whispered.

"Then quit askin'!"

Sam settled back against the couch, shoulder just brushing Dean's. "Sorry," he mumbled.

"Yeah, well," Dean said tightly. "Shut up."

"'K," Sam said.

They heard the rumble of a familiar engine—nottheImpalanot…—at the same time, and Sam didn't look at Dean before bolting toward the door.

"Sammy." But it was a half-hearted rebuke, and Sam ignored it, fumbling with the lock, though he didn't remove the chain. He pulled the door open and put an eye to the crack. His head whipped back around to Dean.

"It's Uncle Bobby, Dean," Sam said as he shut the door again. He reached for the chain, struggling to get it free. Then Dean was there, slapping Sam's hands out of the way, unhitching the chain.

When the door opened, Sam was out of the room and running.

"Uncle Bobby." He careened into Bobby, wrapping his arms around the solid bulk. "Dad didn't come back. The monsters…."

The hand that had been patting Sam soothingly on the back stilled, and Sam tilted his head back to look into Bobby's face. Bobby's eyes had gone past him to Dean.

Sam turned in Bobby's arms to Dean, who stood white-faced and stiff at the door.

"He knows," Dean said.

There was the barest of hesitations before Bobby just nodded. "OK," he said. He glanced down at Sam. "We don't know any monsters got 'im, boy," he said gruffly. "Let's not jump off that bridge 'less we have to, huh?" He moved a hand up to ruffle Sam's hair. "When was the last time you boys ate?"

Sam leaned into Bobby, comforted by the matter-of-fact attitude. He looked over at his brother.

"Yesterday morning," Dean answered softly.

Looking back up at Bobby, Sam saw a muscle jump in the man's jaw, but Bobby didn't comment beyond, "Well, let's get y'all fed. Then we'll see what we can see."

xxxx

They stayed in Broken Bow two more days, Bobby paying the motel bill and trying to backtrack Dad's movements in the days before he'd left. Dad hadn't told the boys where he was going or what he'd be doing – just that it would be a quick job.

Dean listened to Bobby on the phone while Sammy slept, curled on the bed next to his brother. Bobby'd taken the other twin, though he hadn't slept yet, just sat on it as he flipped through the journal and Dad's other files. Dean lay on his side watching.

"Go to sleep, Dean," Bobby said, eyes never leaving the materials in front of him.

Dean did.

xxxx

They left the next day.

"We're gonna keep lookin', Dean," Bobby said. "But there's no point staying." He watched Dean's face work, struggling with the idea that they were giving up. "There's nothing else to do here," he said softly.

It took Bobby three more days to find John.

Bobby shrugged into his coat. He'd told Dean and Sam only that he had a lead to check out. Hadn't told them he was pretty sure it would lead to John Winchester.

"Don't answer the phone, boys, you hear me?" They nodded obediently. "Let the machine pick it up."

"Let us go with you, Bobby." Dean tried again. "We…"

"No." Bobby said it with finality. He fixed Dean with a look that said he was done talking about this. "I'll call when I've got news." There was no acknowledgement from the boy that Bobby had spoken. "You hear me, Dean?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," the kid mumbled, head going down. He was too well-trained to buck an order given by someone he respected as much as he did Bobby. But it didn't mean he was going to like it.

Bobby reached out and put a hand on Dean's shoulder, gripped it hard. "I'll call as soon as I know something, OK?" he said. "When you hear it's me on the machine pick it up. Otherwise let it be."

Dean nodded unhappily, and Bobby turned one last time to Sam. "Don't give Dean any trouble, OK, Sammy?"

"OK," Sam said agreeably. Sam was still worried about his dad, Bobby knew, but the kid had relaxed considerably once they were back at Bobby's. Familiarity and an adult in the house had eased the boy's panicked anxiety a couple of degrees. And that was a relief to Bobby.

"I'll call," Bobby said one more time and headed out.

It had been a brief blurb in a small town rag that had caught Bobby's attention. They'd stopped at a couple of towns around Broken Bow on the way back to Bobby's, hitting libraries and picking up whatever copies of local newspapers they could get their hands on. When they'd gotten back to the house Bobby had spent the first 24 hours flipping through the papers trying to spot anything that would have caught John Winchester's attention. What he found was a short piece about mysterious goings on at an abandoned house and a later story that the house had burned down, an unidentified man pulled from the flames.

It had taken Bobby more time than he'd liked to figure out what hick hospital the man had been taken to; and even longer to find someone who would talk to him about the guy's description and condition. The hospital wouldn't reveal that information over the phone, though he was welcome – encouraged – to talk to the sheriff and answer some questions… Bobby'd hung up.

But he hadn't given up. And, finally, he'd gotten hold of a perky volunteer who'd been unaware of (or unconcerned about) privacy issues and happy to chatter to him about the tall (she guessed; it was kinda hard to tell cuz he was, you know, lying down all the time), dark (hair and beard anyway; his eyes were closed cuz he'd been in, like, a coma since they'd dragged him out of the building) stranger. He was old, she'd told Bobby, like forty, maybe, and he'd been wearing a wedding ring, which was just a shame, she'd said, according to some of the nurses who'd been sighing over him for days. There'd been no identification in his wallet, just a snapshot of a woman and one of a couple of little boys. Everyone was really sad, she'd breathed happily, thinking there might be someone missing him and not knowing, but they'd been looking and no one could find…

Bobby'd managed to cut her off at that point, thanking her for the information and saying he thought she might just have described his missing brother-in-law.

The hospital was a few hours away and as sure as he was that he'd found John, Bobby had been reluctant to get the boys' hopes up without knowing for sure. And knowing more about John's prognosis. A fire and a coma were a combination that made for some potentially frightening medical issues. He needed to get a handle on the situation himself before he broke any news to Dean and Sammy.

He arrived at the hospital intentionally late, hoping that a small operation in a small town would mean that the night shift was a little less "professional" than those who were there during regular working hours. He wasn't disappointed. The night guard waved him in without even looking up from the small television partially hidden behind the information desk. The nurse on duty was young and inexperienced, her eyes widening when Bobby told her the situation, clearly as taken by the "romance" of John's predicament as the volunteer had been.

"Oh my goodness," she whispered. She put a hand to her heart. "We've been so worried, thinking that surely his wife must…"

Bobby nodded gravely, not above milking the pathos of the situation for all it was worth.

"I'm afraid his wife passed several years ago," he told her solemnly and she blinked at him, tears actually filling her eyes. "I've been taking care of his little boys, and we've been…" He broke off, shaking his head.

"Those poor things," the nurse murmured, reaching out to touch him gingerly on the arm. "Would you like to see him?" she asked.

Bobby just nodded.

She filled him in as she led the way down the hall. Skull fracture, broken ribs, some second degree burns on his arms and legs. He hadn't regained consciousness since they'd brought him in.

The man in the bed was John Winchester, and Bobby didn't stay longer than was necessary to make sure of that.

xxxx

Dean hadn't been willing to play outside long. Nervous that he might miss a call from Bobby, Dean had headed back into the house and would not be budged, Sammy's pleading and cajoling notwithstanding. Sammy had managed almost 20 minutes without his brother before he slammed into the house to flop next to Dean on the sofa. It was getting too dark to see anyway.

Dean didn't take his eyes off the TV. "You hungry?" he asked.

"Yeah," Sam said.

"Make me a sandwich, too, then," Dean grinned, cutting his eyes to his little brother.

Sam huffed out a put-upon breath, but heaved himself obediently off the couch. He stomped into the kitchen, and Dean could hear cupboard doors being flung open and closed.

"What are you making?" Dean called.

"You'll eat what's put in front of you," Sam returned, an unconscious mimic of their father.

Dean sighed, eyes straying to the phone, willing it to ring. He chewed on his finger nail, and having lost track of the time, jolted when Sam dropped a plate on his lap.

Shaking himself, Dean inspected his sandwich. Peanut butter, bananas and brown sugar. Sweet.

"Thanks, Sammy," he said, stuffing a bite in his mouth.

"Y'welcome," Sam said around a mouthful of his own sandwich.

They ate in contented silence for awhile.

"I wish Dad would always leave us with Bobby when he goes on a job," Sam said quietly, not looking at his brother. Like Dad had left them with Bobby this time. Like Bobby hadn't had to come rescue them.

Dean stayed quiet. Whatever had happened, it felt disloyal to Dad to want something other than what Dad wanted. Especially now with Dad gone – no, not gone, late.

Though there was something to be said for staying at Bobby's – a stocked pantry, a fridge with milk and sometimes Cokes, a yard to roam, no hiding, no one pounding on the door demanding payment. Bobby himself, big and solid and safe.

But Dean didn't acknowledge that Sammy had spoken and ignored the darting glances Sam sent his way.

They finished their sandwiches in silence, Sammy drinking his own glass of milk, Dean's and a third one before emitting an enormous burp that Dean swore rattled the windows, though he didn't even flinch at the blast of peanutbuttery breath against his cheek. Dean couldn't help the small flicker of pride at the depth and length of the burp his younger brother produced. After all, he'd been the one to teach Sammy.

Out of the corner of his eye, Dean could see the grin on Sammy's face, waiting for Dean to react. Dean continued to pretend he was unaware of the boy next to him, and Sam took a gulping breath, swallowing noisily as he worked as much air into his gut as he could.

Dean waited until his brother inhaled one last time, ready to unleash another magnificent exhalation, and then turned sharply, driving straight for Sam's belly. Dean punched just hard enough to drive all the pent up air abruptly out of Sam's stomach, collapsing Sam forward on a burst of giggles. Hands positioned perfectly, Dean started to tickle.

The wrestling match lasted longer than Dean would have expected given that Sam usually got pissy pretty quickly about being pinned. But they were both looking for distraction, and while Dean eased up occasionally to let Sam breathe, Sam seemed to welcome the contact and the attention, sometimes even taunting Dean back into the melee when it looked like his brother was about to abandon the field.

They sparred until they were both exhausted, breathless on the floor.

"Dean?"

"Yeah?" Dean flopped on arm to the side so that it rested across Sam's chest.

"Is Dad OK?" Sam's voice was so small, Dean thought that maybe the only reason he knew Sam had spoken at all was that he could feel the rise and fall of his brother's rib cage under his arm.

It took Dean a while to respond. "Yeah, Sammy. He's fine." He finally got it out. He turned his head to look at Sam. Sam was staring up at the ceiling, face telegraphing clearly to his big brother that he was trying not to cry.

"Promise?" Sam asked.

Dean swallowed hard. "I promise."

xxxx

The pealing of the phone startled Dean out of an uneasy sleep on the couch, and he sat up sharply, disoriented and blinking groggily.

"This is Bobby. Leave a message."

"Dean…?" Sam's sleepy voice behind him, wedged between Dean and the back of the sofa.

"Dean?" Bobby's voice coming out of the answering machine.

The boy was across the room in two jumps.

"Bobby?" Breathless with the sudden wakefulness and a sharp anxiety.

"I found him, kiddo."

Dean fought against the rush of emotion and tears. He squinched his eyes closed trying to keep the wetness from overflowing. Don't be a baby, he told himself fiercely. He clutched the receiver. "Is he OK? Can I talk to him?" Dean could barely work the words out around the lump in his throat.

"Dean?" Sammy had moved close and was watching Dean uncertainly.

Dean shook his head at his little brother as Bobby said gently, "He's in a coma, Dean. You…."

Bobby faded to a buzzing in his ears. A coma…. He was hurt. Dad was hurt, hurt bad enough….

"Dean? Dean?" It was Sam's voice, shrill and starting to rise, that shook Dean free of his daze, and he was suddenly aware of Bobby's voice, deep and urgent in his other ear. "Dean?"

"Y-yeah," Dean stammered. "Yeah. Bobby, a coma? What?" His own voice sounded high-pitched and frightened.

"A coma?" Now Sammy was scared, too, responding to Dean's fear and the panic that was clear in his voice.

Dean turned toward Sam, wanting to comfort, but not sure what…. "Sammy…," he started, shaken and hesitant, breath quickening with panic – about his dad, about taking care of Sammy, about….

"Dean." Bobby snapped Dean's attention back to the man on the other end of the phone, the sharp tone trying to stave off the complete meltdown of both boys that seemed imminent. "Dean, you need to calm down, do you hear me? Both of you need to calm down."

Dean blinked out of the haze of uncertainty. Given an order, he responded without conscious thought. Calm down. Right.

"Sammy.' Dean transferred Bobby's snap into his own tone. "Calm down, OK? Just calm down."

But Sam wasn't having any of that. "He's in a coma? Is he going to be OK? What's wrong with him?" Sammy's barrage of questions was typical. Needing to know, refusing to do what he was told without some sort of reason being provided if he didn't understand why. "What happened? Why…?"

"I don't know, Sam!"

Dean really hadn't meant to yell, but Sam's insistence and his own fear combined to make his voice come out a lot louder than he'd intended. "I can't hear what Bobby's saying with you screaming at me, OK, so shut up! OK?! Just shut up!"

Sam had not been prepared for Dean's outburst either and his mouth closed with a click of his teeth, tears spilling out of his eyes, even as his lips pursed together.

Dean swiped angrily at the tears that had escaped his own eyes in the midst of the battle, and he swallowed noisily before he said, haltingly into the phone, "I… Bobby, what happened?" He tried to make his voice steady. "Is he going to be OK?"

"He's going to be fine, Dean." Bobby's voice came smoothly, soothingly across the line, but somehow didn't make Dean feel any better. Dad was in a coma.

"How do you know? Did the doctor say…"

Sam watched with huge eyes, arms crossed protectively over his chest, like he was expecting a blow. His hair was mussed from sleep and there was a crease from the fabric of the sofa on his cheek.

"Dean." Bobby interrupted him. "I'm on my way home right now. We'll talk when I get there."

"Uncle Bobby, please…" Dean's voice hitched and he wasn't even sure what he was asking for – something, anything that would get rid of the sharp pain in his stomach. And he didn't know why he was asking either. Dad would never….

Bobby sighed on the other end of the phone. "Kiddo, it's serious, OK? I can't tell you it's not. But, we've found him. And we're going to do everything we can. We'll talk more when I get home, I promise, but I need to get on the road. The sooner I get back, the sooner I can get you here. Alright?"

Somehow just that little bit of knowing helped and Dean drew in a shuddering breath. "'K," he whispered. Bobby was coming home. And then they'd go to Dad.

"Good boy," Bobby said and Dean felt some of the tightness in his chest ease. "Did I wake you boys up?" he asked.

"No," Dean lied. "Not really." Gave the lie away.

Bobby snorted softly. "Right," he said dryly. "Dean…." Bobby stopped, seemed to be considering. Started again. "Dean, I want you to get Sammy in bed, OK? And I want you to go to bed, too. In the morning, we'll get packed and then head out. But for now, I want you boys in bed. You hear me?"

"Yes, sir," he said. He glanced at the clock on the wall. It was after 11.

"Good. Dean, tell Sammy I said that everything's going to be OK, alright? We found your daddy and we're gonna get him better. There's nothing to worry about." There was perfect conviction in the tone and the words, and despite knowing that things were serious, Dean grabbed hold of them with all that he was.

"OK," he said, felt the ground under his feet steady. "I'll tell him."

"Good boy," Bobby said again. "And you remember it, too, OK?"

"Yes, sir."

"That a boy," Bobby said and Dean could hear the smile in it. "Actually, you know what? Let me talk to Sammy a minute."

Dean handed the phone to Sam without a word and Sam took it hesitantly, watching Dean as he put the receiver to his ear.

"Hello?"

Dean could hear the rumble of Bobby's voice, but not his words.

"Fine," Sam answered, brow wrinkled. "Uncle Bobby…"

He stopped when Bobby started to speak and listened intently, occasionally nodding or murmuring a response to whatever Bobby was telling him. Dean watched as the tension in Sam's posture slowly loosened, until the younger boy was nodding easily along with whatever Bobby said.

"Yes, sir," he finally said. "'night." He handed the phone back to Dean.

"Bobby?"

"OK. You boys get in bed and I'll see you in the morning."

"Yes, sir."

"'night, Dean."

"'night, Bobby."

Dean hung up. He looked at Sam and took a breath. He suddenly felt completely drained. "You ready for bed?" he asked tiredly.

Sam nodded, long, slow blinks telling Dean that his little brother was almost down for the count.

They trudged up the stairs to their room, brushing teeth and stripping down to their underwear before they dropped into their respective beds.

xxxx

Dean stirred briefly when he heard the dog downstairs "woof" a greeting to Bobby as the man came in. He was about to get up when the door opened.

"Uncle Bobby?" he asked, sleep still in his voice, and made to push the covers away.

"I'm home," Bobby said softly. "No. Stay in bed," he ordered gently when he noticed Dean start to angle himself up.

Sam had kicked all the covers off his bed and was curled in a tight ball in the center of the mattress. Bobby moved into the room and bending down, picked up the blankets, shaking them out and pulling them up and over Sam's body. He came around the bed, and did the same with the quilt on Dean's bed that had been shoved down to the footboard.

Bobby stood for a minute between the two beds, looking down at Dean with an unfamiliar expression on his face.

"Bobby?" Dean asked.

Bobby shook his head. "It's nothing, kiddo. You OK?"

Dean nodded his head against the pillow, and Bobby stooped slightly to reach out a hand, skimming it gently, awkwardly over Dean's hair. Dean stilled. Bobby had never done that before.

"OK," his father's friend whispered, wide palm against Dean's cheek. "Good." Bobby straightened, hand retreating with him. "We'll try to get on the road by 8, alright?"

Dean nodded again, watching, not saying anything.

Bobby turned to Sam and did the same thing he'd done with Dean, hand against the younger boy's hair, his face. Sammy mumbled querulously, and Bobby responded softly, something Dean couldn't hear. Sam huffed out a sleepy sigh of acknowledgement and flipped abruptly onto his stomach, stretching out under his covers.

Bobby left the room, closing the door behind him, and Dean fell back asleep without even realizing it.

xxxx

When Dean woke the next morning, there was sun streaming through the curtains and the clock on the table between the beds said 9:53.

"Sammy, get up! Get up! We're late." Dean jumped out of bed, heart starting to hammer as he shook his brother awake.

Why hadn't Bobby woken them up? He wouldn't have left, would he? Dean jerked on his jeans, trying unsuccessfully to put a t-shirt on at the same time.

Poking his head out from under the covers, Sam stared at him, sleep-befuddled. "Dean?"

"Sammy, get up," Dean ordered. "Bobby's going to take us to Dad, we…"

That got Sam moving, and the younger boy actually fell out of bed in his haste to obey, landing with a thump on the hardwood floor before scrambling to his feet.

"When are we going? Now? Wh - ….?"

"Bobby said eight," Dean interrupted, glancing at the clock fretfully, "but it's almost 10, and…"

"Did he leave us?" Sam asked, hopping awkwardly into his own pants, "Would he…?

The door swung wide, and Bobby stood in the entrance. "I thought I heard…"

He took in the two frantically dressing boys and stopped. They all three stared at each other.

"You said last night we were leaving at 8," Dean said, unable to keep the accusation out of his voice. He was cramming his foot into an untied sneaker.

Grimacing his sudden understanding, Bobby came into the room and sat on Dean's bed. "I did," he admitted, giving Dean an apologetic glance. "But I realized after we talked that we didn't need to leave that early, and I decided to let you boys sleep."

"Are we still going to see Dad?" Sam asked.

"We are," Bobby reassured him. "But we can't get in until this evening, so there's no point leavin' at 8."

Sam sat down next to Bobby. "Is Dad really gonna be OK?" he asked, needing the confirmation again from Bobby in the flesh.

"He's going to be fine," Bobby said, eyes going to Dean, still standing and motionless.

"Why can't we see him until tonight?" Dean asked unhappily.

"Because the night shift nurse won't be there until then." Bobby stood, effectively ending the conversation. "You boys want some breakfast?"

The adrenaline and panic that had gotten the brothers moving was starting to fade and both boys were left with the sluggish, slightly dazed feeling of having been startled from a deep sleep.

"Yeah," Sam said, nodding slowly. "C'n we have scrambled eggs?" he asked, fumbling awkwardly with the buttons on his jeans from his sitting position. He toppled onto his back to get a better angle on his fly.

"Yep," said Bobby. "Bacon's already on, so you two shake a leg."

Suddenly the aroma of frying bacon was everywhere, and Dean's stomach rumbled in response.

"Two minutes," said Bobby as he left.

They finished dressing in a rush, and slid into their seats just as Bobby was emptying the cast iron skillet of its contents onto three plates. Schultz was gulping his food noisily in the corner, bits of bacon-greased dog food flying when he raised his head to watch the Winchesters enter the room. He gave them a quick, messy loll of his tongue before returning his attention to his breakfast.

"Milk," said Bobby, and Dean got up to pull the jug out of the fridge. Sam reached for his fork, distracted by the pile of eggs and potatoes and bacon on his plate.

"Glasses," said Bobby shortly, giving Sam a swat on the back of his head to get the boy up out of his seat. Sam complied with a somewhat overly dramatic wince.

After they ate, the boys did the dishes while Bobby took care of some business – John and scrap yard related. The boys got packed and, unable to settle, Dean trailed anxiously after Bobby while the man tried to do the same.

"Boy, I swear if you don't get out of my way, it's going to take me twice as long to get this done." He'd turned to get something out of his chest of drawers and almost stumbled over his 12-year-old shadow.

Dean startled at Bobby's tone, not even aware he was being a nuisance. He backed into a chair in the corner of the room, perching on the edge, not sitting fully because it held a stack of books and clothes and papers.

"Sorry," he mumbled, eyes on the floor.

Bobby watched the boy, poker face hiding his very real concern—for John, for Dean and Sam, for the whole messed up situation.

"You packed stuff to keep Sammy occupied while we're on the road?"

Dean's face came up, and he looked a question at Bobby. "He's got his books and stuff," he said.

"Yeah, well, we may be hanging out for awhile at the hospital." Bobby took his hat off and scrubbed a hand over his head. Replaced his hat. "Go look in the closet in my office, back behind the file cabinet. There're some things that might keep him amused." And Dean, as well, but Bobby didn't say that. "And in the pantry behind the dog food, there're some snack things, too."

Dean's eyes were wide and a little confused.

"What?" Bobby asked gruffly. "You brats are here enough." He frowned at Dean. "What are you waiting for?"

Dean shook his head and got up, heading for the door. He faltered at the threshold, turned to look at Bobby. "Uncle Bobby…."

"There's an extra duffle under Sammy's bed in your room. Use that," he answered. As if that had been the question.

Dean stared at him, eyes dark and green and giving away every emotion the boy was feeling. "Yes, sir," he said.

xxxx

The trip went much more smoothly than Bobby would have imagined possible. Both boys were used to long car rides and they entertained themselves easily. One lesson learned, though: when Sammy said he had to go to the bathroom, he had to go to the bathroom right then.

The first gas station Bobby had driven by after the initial announcement had gotten him wide-eyed glances from both boys. The second had earned him a startled, "Uncle Bobby" from Dean and a whining, "I have to gooooo!" from Sammy. His annoyed, "You can't hold it a few more miles?" had elicited desperate tears from Sam and frantic head-shaking from Dean. He'd pulled over and let the kid relieve himself by the side of the road.

As Sammy had squirmed out of the car, dancing hurriedly toward the concealing brush, Dean had turned to regard Bobby solemnly. "Dad says we better really have to go when we tell him we have to go." He'd then gotten out of the car to join his brother. Because, evidently, you'd better take advantage of any bathroom break offered, as well.

Bobby had nodded to himself. Got it.

By the time they got settled in the hotel and fed, it was close enough to late enough for a trip to the hospital.

Bobby sighed out a relieved breath of air when he saw the same security guard on duty. The man looked up and away and Bobby guided the boys to the elevator.

"Hold my hand, Sammy," Bobby said as they approached the appropriate floor. Sam didn't answer, but slipped his hand into Bobby's, gripping tightly. With his other hand, Bobby pulled Dean closer, and when the boy looked up at him, Bobby realized that Dean knew exactly what Bobby was doing and shifted closer.

"Good boy," Bobby told him, squeezing his shoulder in approval.

When the door opened, Bobby led them down the hall toward the nurses' station. He smiled softly at the young nurse who had been there the night before. She smiled in return, eyes drifting to the two boys on either side.

"You're back," she said, giving Dean and Sam their own gentle smiles. Both boys moved closer to Bobby even as they blinked at the nurse. "I'm afraid I missed you when you left last night," she said to Bobby.

He nodded. "I'm sorry about that. I just… when I realized it was John, I wanted to tell the boys as soon as possible. I'm afraid I didn't think…" he drifted off, playing up the helplessness of the situation, and the girl didn't disappoint.

"I completely understand," she said. "I'd just hoped to get your name and his, so we…" She stopped, regarded Dean and Sam. "I bet you boys want to see your daddy," she said kindly.

Sam's fingers tightened around Bobby's, and he could feel the nod of the boy's head against his side.

"Can we?" Dean was breathless with need and hope. "Is he OK?"

The nurse, Julie, according to her nametag, said gently, "We're working on that, sweetheart." She looked at Sam. "But we're very hopeful, alright?"

Frightened, unsure, both boys nodded.

"Can we see him?" Dean asked again. He'd moved away from Bobby, toward the person who could take him to his father. In contrast, Sam seemed to be trying to press his body into Bobby's, his hold on Bobby's hand starting to make the man's fingers ache.

"Yes, of course you can… What's your name, honey?"

"Dean." The boy cast a quick glance at his little brother. "He's Sammy. Is Dad…?"

The nurse interrupted him. "Dean, let me tell you and Sammy what you're going to see when we go into your dad's room, OK?" She was gentle, but firm, and Bobby realized he'd done her a disservice when he'd assumed that her compassion the day before indicated a lack of professionalism. Her plain, open face was giving Dean the same consideration she'd given Bobby, voice pitched to soothe, but not condescending to the frightened, desperate boy. "I want to tell you, because sometimes it looks a lot scarier than it really is." Her eyes now went to Sam and back to Dean. Dean's eyes followed hers and his expression shifted, understanding.

"OK, Sammy?" she asked, looking at the other boy, voice and face changing subtly to ease the younger boy's fears.

"'K," Sam said.

"OK," she agreed. Swiftly, she went through the equipment they'd see in their father's room, explaining briefly, in terms understandable to young boys, what each did and how each was helping their dad. Dean and Sam nodded along, Sam moving closer to his brother and the nurse as the explanation went on, though he continued to hold Bobby's hand.

"Do you have any questions?" Julie asked. They shook their heads. "OK," she said. "But if you have any when we get there, you just ask." Now she turned her attention to Bobby. She lifted an eyebrow. "OK?" And Bobby nodded, too.

She led them down the hall and into the room Bobby had visited last night.

With one hand holding Sam's and the other on the back of Dean's neck, Bobby felt the tremors of both boys at the sight of their father motionless in the hospital bed. Heard the strangled breaths drawn in. Neither said a word.

Julie moved in ahead of them, checking monitors and smoothing the blankets over John's still body. When she turned, she said, "Remember what we talked about boys." She pointed to one of the machines. "See. This one shows how steady his heartbeat is." Her finger moved to indicate a number that blinked green at them. "And this lets us know that his blood oxygen is good, too."

Slowly, Bobby got the boys moving toward their father, steps dragging.

"Come over here, sweetie," Julie said, motioning to Dean. She seemed to realize that Sam was not going to be detached from Bobby quite yet. When Dean hesitantly stepped forward to obey, Bobby shifted Sam in front of him, putting both hands on the boy's shoulders. Sam didn't let go of the one hand he'd had a hold of since the elevator, but he let himself be moved.

"Here." The woman gave Dean the spot she'd had. "You can hold his hand, if you want. And talk to him."

Dean reached haltingly for John's hand, eyes going to Bobby, looking for something—reassurance. Bobby nodded. Dean peered into his father's face. "Hey, Dad," he whispered.

"Dad." Sam's voice was an almost inaudible echo of his brother's, fingers moving convulsively in Bobby's.

There was no response from John, and Dean looked to Bobby again.

"'s OK, Dean," Bobby encouraged him. "Go on."

Dean blinked and nodded, looking back at his dad. "Hey, Dad," he said again. "It's OK, OK? Me and Sammy we're here. And Uncle Bobby." Dean stopped. "Wake up, now, please, Dad. Please."

The tears in the kid's voice made Bobby clear his throat. He bent down and spoke into Sam's ear. "Come on, kiddo. Go talk to your daddy." He disentangled his fingers from Sam's and gave him a gentle shove in the right direction.

Sam moved close to his brother, and Dean shifted slightly to give Sam room. Sam's fingers crept across the light blanket until he fisted it in the fabric against John's side.

"Daddy?" Sam was blinking rapidly. "Dad, please wake up." He looked up at Dean.

"That's good, boys," Julie said. "You keep talking to him, alright? You can tell him you whatever you want." She glanced over at Bobby. "Your uncle and I are going to be right outside, if you need us."

"Is he going to wake up?" Sam's question was directed at the nurse, sharp and more pointed than Bobby would have expected.

"Yes, Sammy, I think he is," she said calmly.

Sam watched her unblinkingly for a beat, then turned his attention back to his father. "OK," he said, jaw setting determinedly as he stared at John. "Dad…"

Bobby followed Julie out into the hall. He'd spent a large part of the morning working out false names and insurance coverage for John Winchester. He was pretty sure he could buy them a week or so before someone realized that there would be no money to pay for "John Johnson's" health expenses. He could only hope John would be conscious and well enough to move by then.

It took almost half an hour to get paperwork filled out the best a "brother-in-law" could be expected to manage. When he went back into John's room, the boys had moved a chair to their father's bedside, and Sam was actually stretched out on the bed, whispering earnestly into John's ear.

"Sammy," Bobby started, "you shouldn't…"

"She said we could…"

"We made sure…"

Both boys started to talk at once, Sam asserting that they had permission, while Dean tried to reassure Bobby that they hadn't done any harm.

"Sam, get off the bed," Bobby ordered, and with an outthrust lip, Sam slid down.

Dean watched Bobby nervously, flicking quick glances at his dad, as if he were afraid John would wake up while he wasn't looking. "Uncle Bobby, we didn't…"

Bobby huffed out a frustrated breath. He wasn't mad. Just tired beyond belief. "I know you didn't, boy," he said. "But if you accidentally…"

"I was real still!" Sam insisted indignantly. "I didn't hardly move at all, did I, Dean? And I was tellin' him…"

"Sam," Bobby snapped. "Stay off the bed."

Sam's face set mulishly and he opened his mouth to say something more when Julie walked in.

"Well, I think that's it for tonight boys, you need to let…"

The cries of protest from Dean and Sam were almost wails.

"We wanna stay!"

"We'll be quiet! We won't…"

Helplessly, Julie turned to Bobby. "It's past visiting hours and I really shouldn't have…" But Bobby was already nodding.

"I know and we're real grateful," he said sincerely. "Boys, that's enough." Surprisingly, the low, firm voice shut them down more effectively than his earlier barks.

"Uncle Bobby, please…" Down, but not up, apparently. Sam, of course, but with added tears, not mad now, desperate, hurting. "Please."

"Sammy." Bobby made sure his voice was as gentle as he could make it, putting his hand on the back of the boy's neck and tugging him forward. "Nurse Julie's already made exceptions for us. And now you've seen your daddy, and we'll be back."

Sam moved into Bobby, hiding his face in Bobby's shirt front, fingers coming up to twine in the fabric at Bobby's waist. Patting at Sam's back, Bobby lifted his eyes to Dean.

"OK, kiddo?" he asked.

Dean stood next to the bed, his own fingers wrapped around his father's. He looked lost in a way Bobby had never seen from him before.

"We'll be back in the morning, Dean," he said softly. "He'll be OK."

"Give your daddy a kiss and tell him goodnight," said the nurse gently. "You'll see him in the morning."

Blinking at her for a minute, Dean finally turned and whispered something in his father's ear before brushing his lips against John's cheek. As Dean moved away Sam took his place at the bedside, though he didn't let go of Bobby as he went, tugging the man with him around the bed.

"Goodnight, Daddy." Sam's strident child's whisper, aimed at John's ear, carried clearly. "We'll be back tomorrow." There was a moment of silence before Sam went on, "Please wake up, Dad. Please." When there was no response, the boy rested his cheek on his father's chest for a moment and with a shuddering sigh withdrew.

Bobby looked down at his friend, bruised and burned. Carefully he put the hand not held by Sam on John's arm. "I'll bring the boys back in the morning, John," he said gruffly.

Wake up you stupid, stubborn son of a bitch, he added silently.

xxxx

The next four days were some of the longest Bobby had ever experienced. He'd never had children of his own and while he'd watched the Winchester boys for John in the past, Bobby was flummoxed and a little awed by the responsibility of caring for the boys now.

In the past at Bobby's, with John on a "business trip," Dean and Sam had been pretty self-sufficient, used to being on their own, Dean in charge and Sammy mostly automatically responsive to any command or suggestion given by his big brother.

It was easy to forget sometimes that Dean was still a child. He'd always carried himself with the assurance of a boy much older than himself, responsible for his little brother as if he were another parent, treated by John as if he were a grown man, an integral part of the unit John Winchester was fashioning in his war against whatever evil had killed his wife. There were glimpses, of course, of the truth—flashes of immaturity or need or uncertainty. But those indications of the child Dean was were few and far between.

Here, though; now…

There was no getting around the frightened child Dean was. He was impatient with Sam, angry at Bobby, and terrified for his father to a degree that was beginning to concern Bobby. He wouldn't be comforted or cajoled, would only sit by John's bedside for hours, talking, pleading, watching. Uprooting him was a fight every time and both Bobby and the nurses on the floor were at a loss as to how to make things better for the boy.

And if Dean wouldn't be pacified, Sammy demanded attention and comfort what seemed like 24/7. He was frightened, too, and Dean's laser focus on John meant that Sam was deprived of his usual source of comfort. So Sam clung to Bobby like a limpet, dogging the man's every step and asking questions Bobby couldn't answer. He watched Dean with enormous, uncertain eyes, hurt and scared.

Bobby did the best he knew, trying not to snap at either child. Or shake John Winchester in his hospital bed until the man's teeth rattled and his eyes opened.

"Dean? Will you play hang man with me?"

Bobby had to give Sam credit. The kid did not give up.

Dean's eyes didn't leave his father. "No."

"Why not?" Sam's voice hitched into a whine. "You …"

Sighing heavily, Bobby looked up from the book he was reading, opening his mouth to tell Sam to leave his brother alone.

"Hnph." From John.

Three heads whipped around to the man in the bed, whose leg had moved restlessly under the covers as he made the first sound they'd heard yet.

"Dad?" Dean whispered breathlessly. "Dad?" He grabbed John's hand and hung on.

Sam tripped over his feet in his rush to the bed, but righted himself with hardly a pause in his flight across the floor, flinging himself at John's side. "Daddy? Daddy?"

Bobby stood as he saw John's head move fractionally from side to side, responding to both his sons' voices.

"Sammy, go over by Dean," Bobby said, thinking it would be easier on John if he didn't have to ping-pong between the boys. Sam obeyed immediately as Dean moved over for his little brother.

"Dad, hey," Dean said to his father, eyes glued to John's face. "Open your eyes, Dad," he said and Bobby blinked at the gentle command in Dean's voice.

John's eyes fluttered, and he mumbled again.

"Come on, Dad," Dean prodded. "Open your eyes."

Sam watched, transfixed. He was holding the hand Dean had abandoned when he'd put his own on John's chest. "Come on," Sam echoed in a whisper.

"That's it," Dean said as John continued to struggle, eyes moving sporadically under still closed lids. "You got it." It was John's tone.

"You got it." Sam repeated.

And John did. His eyes cracked open, moving sluggishly, seeking out the two boys at his side. He was confused, but Bobby could see the gaze sharpen as he saw his sons.

"Hey, Dad," said Dad, a grin splitting his face.

"Hey, Dad." Sam was worming closer to Dean, seeming to want to stand in the same place Dean was. And Dean shifted, letting Sam press into him, get nearer to John.

"Hey." John's voice was a rasp, understandable only because they knew what he was saying. He blinked heavily, confusion shadowing his face.

Bobby reached over to press the call button. John's eyes shifted slowly to Bobby, drawn by the movement at the edge of his vision.

"It's about damn time," Bobby told him. John nodded a weary acknowledgement, but he didn't say anything, swallowing, trying to work moisture into his throat.

Bobby leaned over the bed beginning to fill the other man in. "You've been out over a week. Caught in a fire. Burned, concussed, some broken bones."

John's head moved almost imperceptibly in response, eyelids slipping. He propped them open to meet Bobby's, shifted them to his sons.

"Dean called me," Bobby told him. "It took us awhile, but we tracked you down."

John nodded again, and Bobby saw his fingers tighten slightly on Sam's. "Good man," John rasped, heavy-lidded gaze resting on Dean approvingly.

"Dad," Dean breathed, moving close.

At that moment, the nurse answered the bell and seeing that John was awake, called in a phalanx of medical professionals who swarmed the patient, and Bobby and the boys were swirled out of the room. They leaned against the wall, Dean against one shoulder, Sammy on the other side, pressed into Bobby.

"He's going to be OK." Dean's broken whisper was more a question than a statement, and Bobby said softly, "Yeah, kiddo. He's going to be OK."

Bobby was not prepared for the strangled sob from the boy beside him, but his instinctive reaction, pulling him close, seemed to be the appropriate response because he suddenly had an armful of 12-year-old.

Dean didn't make another sound, just held onto Bobby. And Sam watched, wide-eyed and silent, until Bobby opened his embrace to include the younger boy.

When they were finally allowed back in the room, John was out again, but the doctor was upbeat and more positive than he'd been the last four days.

"He's sleeping," the doctor said, "not unconscious." He smiled at Bobby as Dean and Sam broke away from him to stand by John's bed. Sam was petting his father's arm anxiously, and Dean's face had clouded when he'd realized his father wasn't awake. Both boys turned to the doctor as he spoke.

"Really," he said gently. "This is a good thing, OK?" He spoke now to Bobby. "He'll probably sleep pretty soundly for a day or so." He looked pointedly at the boys, then back at Bobby. "That might be good for everyone," he said, and Bobby nodded.

"Yeah."

The doctor shook Bobby's hand. "I'll keep checking by. Get some sleep."

After the doctor left, Bobby gave Dean and Sam about half an hour with John before starting to gather their things.

"Alright, boys. Say goodnight to your daddy."

Dean's jaw set stubbornly, and Bobby knew he was in for an argument if he didn't nip it in the bud.

"This isn't up for discussion, boy," Bobby's voice was flint hard, and Dean's eyes dropped, though the mulish, unhappy look on his face didn't alter. Through his eyelashes, Dean watched his father, hand tightening and loosening on John's.

Sam opened his mouth to protest and Bobby leveled a stare at him. "You got something to say?" he asked, eyebrow hitching up.

Sam blinked, uncertain now. Bobby so rarely took the hard line with either boy, it threw Sam. "No, sir," he mumbled, shuffling away from his father's side, though he glanced back over his shoulder at the bed.

It was only when both children had moved toward their things in reluctant obedience that Bobby let himself soften his stance.

"We'll be back in the morning," he said gently.

"If he wakes up…" Dean started, fretting, though he continued in the direction Bobby had gotten both boys headed out of the room.

"If he wakes up," Bobby interrupted, closing the door quietly behind them, "he'll go back to sleep. He knows you boys are alright, knows you're here. He'll remember that, and he'll go back to sleep. Which is what he really needs right now."

Dean looked back at the room worriedly, then up at Bobby. But he didn't say anything else.

xxxx

Both boys had fallen asleep in the car on the way back to the hotel, and Bobby found himself in the unique position of carrying one pliable little body into the room, while the other stumbled—still asleep, Bobby suspected—in after him. Dean fell obligingly into bed while Bobby placed Sam in next to him. Bobby stripped both boys of their clothes, pausing momentarily at the sight of the amulet he'd given Sam for John hanging around Dean's neck. Neither child stirred until Bobby pulled the covers up over them, when they rolled into each other, Dean throwing an arm over his brother, who had sighed and settled without opening his eyes.

And for the second time in a week Bobby found himself staring down at two sleeping boys, the tight ache in his chest making it difficult to breathe, the reality of his love for these boys almost strangling him.

It wasn't that Bobby hadn't known that he'd loved these kids; he'd loved Dean and Sam for awhile. But up until a week and a half ago, it had been a casual kind of affection, the not-particularly-invested kind of love that one has for other people's kids. Uninvolved. Easy. Or at least as easy as anything could be with John Winchester involved in it.

This, though….

This fierceness, this rush of protectiveness and pain when they hurt… This was something new, something he'd thought he'd protected himself against a long time ago, something he was completely unprepared for.

And it scared the crap out of him.

xxxx

They'd all slept until after noon, but when Bobby called the hospital John was still asleep. So, he'd taken the boys to a restaurant where they could sit at a table to eat and then thrown a load of clothes into a washing machine at a nearby Laundromat. He'd suddenly been aware of the sorry state of all their clothes and decided that making sure John's sons looked actually taken care of might reassure the man about their well-being.

Dean had been anxious and impatient to get back to the hospital, but had finally accepted that they wouldn't be headed there for a few hours. Bobby'd sent him out to the playground next to the laundry with Sam and was surprised at the easing around his heart when he looked out the window to see both boys involved in some game of chase around the park equipment. Dean was swinging overhand across the monkey bars, just out of reach of Sam, but careful not to out-pace his little brother by too much. Even at this distance, Bobby could see the smiles on the boys' faces as they played.

When they got to the hospital, John was awake; still groggy, but definitely more aware than he'd been the day before. And his attention sharpened another degree when his children entered the room.

"Dad!" Sam's happy exclamation lightened the weary expression on John's face, and the man reached out toward the boy who flung himself across the room.

Bobby opened his mouth to say, careful, but stopped himself when Sam slowed dramatically to ease into the space between his father's arm and the side of the bed.

"Hey, kiddo," John responded, a hand coming up to rest on the side of Sam's shining face. He didn't say anything more for a second, just looked at his son, thumb brushing lightly over the skin of his cheek. "You OK?" he asked softly.

Sam nodded, eyes suddenly swimming as he leaned into his father's touch. "Yes, sir."

John nodded, his own eyes suspiciously wet. "Good," he whispered. His eyes moved across Sam to Dean, who had joined his brother.

"Hey, kiddo," John said. He didn't reach for Dean immediately like he had for Sam, left the hand on his younger son.

"Hey, Dad." Dean didn't meet his father's eyes, and John hesitated for a beat.

"I'm sorry, Dean," John said finally. "I'm sorry I scared you, bud," he said gently.

Dean nodded stiffly, eyes coming up now, broken open.

"I'm sorry, Dean," John said again softly, reading his son's expression as easily as Bobby was.

Without realizing he was doing it, Bobby put a hand on Sam's shoulder, tugging the younger boy back from the bed just as John finally reached out for Dean. Sam moved easily back into Bobby, while Dean let himself be pulled against his father.

"Dad," Dean whispered into John's chest. "Dad."

"I know, Dean," John murmured into Dean's hair. "I know. I'm sorry."

It was a few minutes before Dean raised up away from his father, and John let him go.

"I missed Christmas, didn't I?" John asked roughly into the silence that had followed as everyone in the room tried to pull himself together.

"It's OK, Dad," Dean said quickly, and Sam was just as fast to echo him. "It's OK, Dad."

John looked at Bobby consideringly. "I don't know, Bobby. What do you think? Is it OK for a dad to miss Christmas?"

John was exhausted and struggling. But he was determined, too, and Bobby could help him out, so he narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "Doesn't seem OK to me," Bobby agreed. "It's a bad thing for a dad to miss Christmas. Even if he is laid up in a coma."

John nodded. "That's what I think, too." He looked at his boys, then at Bobby again. "You know, I didn't mean to miss Christmas, so I do actually have something for these kids." He gave Sam a quick glance. "And Santa may have left something with me for you."

Sam stared at his dad for a minute, then said softly, "Really?"

"Yeah," John said. "He thought I'd take care of it for him. Didn't count on me getting laid up. He'll be pretty pissed at me for screwing that up for you two."

Dean was perfectly still next to his father, eyes fixed on his little brother.

Sam didn't shift his eyes from his father's and a small, sad smile curled his lips upward. "I'll write him a letter and tell him it's OK," he whispered.

John's eyes, intent on his son, were sober. "Thanks, bud. I promise it won't ever happen again."

"I know, Dad," Sam said.

"Good," John said. "Good." He was almost asleep again.

They made arrangements to pick up the Impala from where John had hidden it and for Christmas the following morning. The boys were quiet on the way out of the hospital. There'd been no protest at leaving as John had drifted back to sleep, and Dean measured his steps to his brother's, an arm around Sam's shoulders as they walked down the hall.

"You want it back to give to him?" Dean's question was intended for his brother.

"I don't mind," Dean went on quietly, assurance in his voice. "'s OK, Sammy, if you want to."

But Sam shook his head, turning to look up into his brother's face. "No," he said softly, but firmly. "I want you to keep it."

Dean's hand came up to brush the amulet under his shirt. "You sure?" he asked.

"Yeah," Sam answered, leaning into Dean as they walked. "I'm sure."

They still hadn't addressed the fact that Sam knew the truth about what John did for a living, and Bobby knew that would be a conversation with the potential to wreak all kinds of havoc on this little family. It wasn't a discussion Bobby was looking forward to, but it was one he would make sure he was a part of, even if it was only as an observer, quiet, but there. For whoever needed it.

But for now they'd have Christmas presents and Santa and the eggnog Bobby would smuggle in for him and John. For now they would pretend that the world hadn't been irrevocably changed for one little boy, that Santa was real and monsters were not.

Bobby couldn't help the heavy sigh that escaped, and he rubbed a weary hand over his face.

"Uncle Bobby?"

Bobby refocused his attention on the two boys in front of him. "Yeah?" he asked absently, digging in his pocket for the keys.

"Merry Christmas." It was Dean, standing by the truck, watching Bobby with the too-adult look he often wore.

"Yeah, merry Christmas, Uncle Bobby." Sam now, a smile lightening his face as Bobby joined them.

Bobby huffed out a breath, smiling back in spite of himself. "Merry Christmas, boys," he returned.

And they climbed into the truck's cab to go in search of their presents.

xxxx

The End.