Warnings: Highly recommend reading 'Balancing Act' first. Spoilers for S3. 'What If' for 3.02, 'The Kids Are Alright' and AU after that episode. Ben's picked up the boys' filthy mouths.

Disclaimer: If they're giving you that much trouble Eric, just let me take them off your hands. It'll be better for everyone in the long run. If you recognize 'em, it's not mine.

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(for lissa's birthday.)

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juggling ben

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"That boy's been touched by darkness, that's for sure," Missouri had told them.

That had been only a few weeks ago, which had only been a few weeks after Dean's run-in with Ruby and Ruby's run-in with the business end of the Colt. Ben had been a little pissed at the time that he hadn't actually gotten toshoot the demon bitch in the face, but he had been comforted by the fact that he'd technically been the one to kick her ass in the end.

They hadn't hung around for long after the explosion and ensuing demise of Lucifer, piling back into the Impala and roaring off into the sunset like generations of hunters before them.

Well, almost.

"Dude, I totally called shotgun!" Ben was whining from the backseat, his complaints falling on unsympathetic ears. Dean's secure spot as driver was rarely in danger from being stolen from him, but vicious wars had been waged over the coveted passenger seat beside him.

"One," Sam said, craning his abnormally long neck around to smirk at his nephew, "a call for shotgun made while not in view of the car in question is null and void, everyone knows that," he said patronizingly.

"Bullshit," Ben muttered in reply; Sam graciously pretended not to hear him.

"And two, this seat is mine - I'm older and larger than you."

Ben snorted in reply to this. "Yeah, if by larger you mean freakishly giant-like and colossally annoying," he said, not bothering to lower his voice. Dean smothered a chuckle and Sam shot him a baleful glare.

"Thanks for the support Dean," Sam said, narrowing his eyes. He huffed and turned back to stare out the front window, settling further into his seat and crossing his arms across his chest. Ben grinned triumphantly and aimed a hard kick to the back of Sam's seat - not the smartest move he'd ever made.

"Oy!" Dean said immediately, catching Ben's eye in the rearview mirror with a frown. "I understand the urge to kick Sam, but don't take it out on the car, alright?" Properly shamed, Ben slumped down in his seat and pouted for a moment before nodding resentfully.

"Yeah," he said sullenly, glaring out his passenger side window. Dean glanced into the backseat again a moment later before drawing his gaze from Ben back to his younger brother beside him. The identical bratty poses of petulance made him want to laugh, but somehow he managed to refrain.

Mostly.

They'd driven and driven, stopping occasionally to sleep and eat, but mostly just driving aimlessly across the country. They visited Ben's mom's grave and stayed for hours, none of them saying a word. They dropped in on people who they hadn't dropped in on in years and did a little hunting, but the Big Bad had been vanquished so the boys were at a loss as to what came next.

So they ended up at Missouri's. She'd taken one look at the three of them and snorted. "Another Winchester? Just what the world needed," and let them in without a second glance. They hadn't needed to explain a thing - apparently she'd Seen most of it and whatever she had missed out on she could pluck right from their heads.

She had immediately enamored Ben of her only ten minutes after their arrival. "Cute kid," she'd said after a glance, before looking Dean up and down and shaking her head. "Hopefully he turns out better looking than you did, boy."

Sam was instantly reminded exactly why he'd liked Missouri so much and she became Ben's favorite person within seconds. Dean was less than pleased to say the least, but he stayed silent; for his trouble, he got a slam to the back of the head with a wooden spoon. Sam winced - that had sounded rather painful.

"How many times do I have to tell you, boy? No cussin' in my house!" Dean gaped at her open-mouthed.

"I didn't say a thing!" he protested loudly, but Missouri gave him the Evil Eye and he settled.

"I know, but you was thinking it," she said firmly, before returning to her bubbling pot on the stove. Sam and Ben shared mischievous glances, their previous rivalry over the front seat forgotten in their shared amusement over Dean's defeat.

Dean had wanted to leave the next day, if only to escape Missouri's serenely offered insults, but they ended up staying a whole week at Ben's request. During the day, the boys did chores and caught Ben up on the schoolwork he would need to have completed in order to move on to the next grade after the summer. At night, Ben stuffed his face with home cooked meals before collapsing in sleep on the couch in front of the TV.

Missouri smiled; what a picture that boy made. Curled up asleep, flanked on either side by Sam and Dean who worked hard not to jostle the child as they drank their beers and watched the news. She'd had her doubts about the two boys, hardly more than children themselves now, taking care of a young one all by themselves but over the past few days she had been reassured. She saw the way Dean laid a protective hand on the boy's shoulder, hackles raised at the slightest threat towards his son. She saw the way Sam instantly buried a comforting hand in short dark strands of hair when Ben thrashed with a nightmare.

No, Sam and Dean raising Ben no longer troubled her as it once did. No, what troubled her now was a darkness hanging over the boy. Sam picked up on her anxiety quickly, which was no surprise to her. She always knew that boy had more of the Gift left in him than he thought.

"What's been bothering you Missouri?" Sam said, as soon as he and Dean were seated at her battered kitchen table, having carried the comatose Ben upstairs to his bed a few minutes ago and settled him in. She bustled around, making coffee for the three of them to distract herself for a moment. She had to figure out how to tell the boys this the right way, without frightening them - because it would. The idea that Ben was being followed by something murky would only send them into a panic and that wasn't what they needed at all.

"Out with it," Dean said, forever impatient. Missouri rolled her eyes - would that boy never learn?

"I've Seen something," she said finally, settling weary bones into her creaky, comfortable chair at the head of the table. Both boys immediately glanced up from their mugs of coffee, intent on her face. "More vague than not, but it's about Ben." Something like panic started across Dean's face and she laid a firm hand on top of his. "Nothing world ending or death making," she said firmly, determined to wipe those ideas away before they sunk in too deeply. "Just…" she cast her mind around for the right words but couldn't find any, "Just dark." Silence settled.

Sam was watching her closely, hands wrapped around his steaming cup. "Evil?" he asked a few moments later, the first to break the quiet. Missouri hesitated.

"I wouldn't say that," she said, shaking her head.

"Well what would you say?" Dean said through clenched teeth. Missouri had half a mind to smack that boy a good one for his impertinence, and another half a mind to smack him even harder for the cusses running around in his head. Fortunately for him, she knew it was all out of concern for the boy, so she let it go. This time.

"First, I'd say you better watch your mouth boy," Missouri began, leaning back in her chair more comfortably. "Second, I'd say that it was something supernatural following him, but not necessarily evil."

Dean's skepticism was palpable, especially because the two terms had been interchangeable for years with him. "Can you tell us anymore?" he demanded, before Sam gave him a meaningful stare. "Please," he added hurriedly.

Missouri 'hmph'ed but shook her head. "No, nothing more. If anything else shows up, I'll tell you of course."

Sam sighed. "Why does this stuff always happen to us? Happen to Ben?" He took a long sip of coffee, staring sightlessly into its depths. Dean made a noise of agreement.

"Ya'll are blessed and cursed with unnatural luck," Missouri said simply. "And anyone could see that boy's been touched by darkness, that's for sure." Problem was, they all had been and they knew that any darkness - however vague - never boded well for them.

-

The boys had decided not to tell Ben about it, but that had only lasted a few hours in the car before Ben demanded to know what had crawled up their asses and died. Dean had been tempted to reply back just as obnoxiously, but Sam gave him a long look that spoke volumes.

Sam's looks always spoke volumes. Dean managed sentences in the way he raised an eyebrow, or curled a lip but Sam stared soulfully out a window into the rain and he got a fucking six-volume-set of sonnets. Ridiculous.

This time, Sam was clearly saying that he wanted to tell Ben. Dean could read it on his face as if he'd typed it out in 72 size font and pasted it on his forehead - which was a byproduct of spending the last twenty-five years of his life in Sam's presence.

"Missouri told us something was up," Dean started, taking a wide turn before glancing in his rearview mirror at Ben, who was staring back with an unreadable look.

"Something about me?" Ben guessed and Dean sighed and nodded. The kid was smart. "What was it?" Ben leaned forward and settled his chin on the back of the bench seat by Sam's shoulder, peering curiously up at Sam and Dean. Dean gritted his teeth, so Sam continued.

"She said that something was following you," Sam said heavily, turning to look at Ben, who suddenly looked so much younger than Sam had ever seen him.

"Is it…" Ben trailed off before trying again, swallowing hard. "Is it real bad?" He was looking a bit pale in the face and he fidgeted uncertainly.

All of a sudden, Dean swore and swerved off the road into the shoulder, hitting the brakes and cutting the engine. "Alright, you listen to me," he said roughly, looking Ben straight in the eyes, "Whatever's after you is toast, y'hear that?" Ben blinked. "Missouri said it was just something supernatural and not evil, but even if she's wrong," Dean pressed his forehead against Ben's and spoke intently, "Whatever it is, it's not gonna lay a finger on you, alright? Do I make myself clear?" He said forcefully, and Ben nodded slowly in response. "Good."

Silence reigned in the car, all three Winchesters a bit wary of breaking it. Ben sat back in his seat as the car roared back to life, looking much better and a lot more calm, if still a bit anxious. Suddenly inspired, Sam scribbled something on the back of one of the countless take out menus in the front seat before dropping it in Ben's lap.

Look at it this way, the make-shift note said in Sam's tall, slanted handwriting, I bet if you ask Dean right now to put on Journey, he wouldn't be able to say no. Ben snorted with laughter and smirked at Sam via the rearview mirror. Sam returned the smile and settled further in his seat. There. Now Ben looked better.

-

They were hunting a Black Dog when Missouri's vision finally caught up to them. It had been storming out in this tiny bumfuck town in the middle of god knows what state for almost a week and a half, but that didn't mean that Sam and Dean and Ben could sit on their asses indoors, where it was nice and warm. No. They were stuck tromping through soaking wet, pitch black woods in the middle of the night, searching for what was inevitably a needle in a haystack.

"A Black Dog, in the pitch dark, at midnight," Sam was saying as they clambered over fallen tree trunks and stomped through muddy marshes. "Somehow, this was not our most thought out plan."

"Shut your yap, quit your whining and keep your eyes open," Dean snapped, the mud making him tetchy. "Ben, remember to keep your gun as dry as possible." He waited for an affirmation, or at least a sarcastic remark in return, but heard nothing but silence. "Ben?" Dean craned his head around wildly, but he could barely see six inches in front of his face, never mind through the thick brush of the forest. "Shit! Ben!"

"He was here a minute ago!" Sam said, his voice rising in volume as he spoke, failing to keep the panic from his tone of voice. "Fuck, shit, Ben!" They froze when their calls were interrupted seconds later by a blood curdling howl, somewhere off to their left, followed by familiar yelling.

"Shit," the boys swore together before taking off through the woods after the Black Dog, trying to get as close to the sounds as possible. Fortunately Ben's yelling continued, allowing them to follow the noise with relative ease. They crashed through the trees more gracefully than either of them thought possible. Seconds later, they broke through the forest and ended up in the center of a clearing that was lit dimly by shards of moonlight stealing through the storm clouds.

It was well enough lit that they saw a gun-less Ben, prostrate on the ground in front of the largest Black Dog Dean had ever seen. Dean had never given much thought to the phrase 'heartstopping'. He'd had plenty of moments in his life that most people would've deemed 'heartstopping' and several occasions where his heart had stopped due to some injury - but those were nothing like this. Time didn't slow and his breathing didn't halt, but there was silence now, when before there had been blood pounding deafeningly in his ears. When seconds later he finally felt the stuttering beat that was his heart again, he thought it would tear straight out of his chest.

Sam took aim with his shotgun and fired a shot dead center into the creature's chest, but that merely sent it sprawling. Moments later, it was picking itself up, a thick, rumbling growl filling the air and setting Dean's teeth on edge. The enormous beast seemed to take up the whole clearing at once, and as Ben scrambled to get away and Dean sprinted towards him, the only thought in Dean's mind was Fuck, what now?

The answer came moments later, as Sam was readying another shot and Dean was hauling Ben up out of the mud. All of a sudden, the clearing was filled with incredible amounts of bright, pure, white light. The Winchesters all raised their arms to shield their eyes and Sam heard the whimpering of a dog in pain. A second later the light had simply disappeared and they all dropped their arms, readying themselves for another attack, when they saw a black and white figure standing in the center of the meadow.

She - because it was a she, there was no doubt about that - was flickering madly, like a bad television set with even worse reception. But as the Black Dog recovered from the painful light attack, she seemed to steady herself and the flickering stopped long enough that Dean could finally get a good look at her.

"Mom?" Ben said wonderingly and took a step forward, but didn't leave the circle of Dean's arms.

The Black Dog stood again, growling and frothing at the mouth at the figure before it. It couldn't seem to make up its mind whether to attack the newest arrival, or return to its attempted meal made solely up of Winchesters. Dean tensed, but the figure held up a hand and croaked something unintelligible.

The beast whined and snapped its teeth, but didn't move otherwise. Lisa spoke again, though this time her voice rang out. "Leave them be!" she commanded. The intense bright light flared for half a second and when Dean could finally see again, the Black Dog was gone and the clouds above had lifted somewhat. The clearing was now bathed in moonlight and all that remained were dark stains of blood on the grass and the ghost of Ben's mother. Jesus.

"Mom?" Ben repeated, his voice thick with tears, taking a few steps closer, forcing Dean to let him go. Lisa flickered, smiled, then mouthed something. There was a gasping sob as Ben lunged forward towards the ghost. "I love you too, but Mom-"

But she was gone then.

Ben collapsed in the mud, though a few extra stains meant nothing for his already ruined clothes. Dean looked helplessly at Sam, who stared back, just as powerless. They both went to Ben's side and sat with him, letting their clothes soak up the mud and rain and blood and eight-year-old tears.

-

Ben was inconsolable for days. He didn't speak for awhile and barely ate. But Dean finally sat him down and told him that his Mom had saved them all and had been with him for weeks on end, watching his back and protecting him. He seemed to take some comfort from that, though it was several more days before he was back to wrestling Sam for shotgun and being a general pain in Dean's ass.

They returned to Missouri's a week after that and explained the whole story to her as Ben slept like a log on the couch. She smiled wonderingly. "I couldn't see it," she had said and Sam asked her what she meant. She gave him a Look, like he should know better than to ask, but continued anyway. "I couldn't see the whole picture. I said he was being followed by darkness," she laughed self-deprecatingly and Dean raised an eyebrow, "It was a shadow," she explained, but neither of the boys looked enlightened.

She huffed. "Shadows only exist where there is light to cast them," she clarified. "I said he was being followed by darkness. What I should've said was that he was being followed by light."

The boys' eyes cleared and it was obvious they understood now. "What luck," Sam murmured, taking a long sip of coffee.

"Winchester luck, yes," Missouri said, nodding and smiling. "You Winchester boys will certainly never lead boring lives."

Dean raised his mug and quirked an eyebrow. "I'll drink to that," he said with a smirk. Sam clinked mugs with him and returned the grin. Missouri hid a smile at the boys. She had had her doubts about those two, but they were doing just fine. The addition of Ben to their family could've been disastrous, but now she was certain. Whether unnaturally cursed or unnaturally blessed, the three boys had luck on their side and they would be just fine.

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Author's Note: I wrote it in a couple hours for a present and liked some bits of it too much not to post it up. I'm hoping I'll be equally inspired with some of my other Ben-and-Dean-and-Sam fic ideas that have been running around. I like this verse too much to leave it alone.

Leave one at the tone, pleases and thank yous in advance.

-B