Notes: set early season seven (at Rufus' cabin)/sometime around the flashbacks in After School Special. This is a study in perspectives as much as anything. The first chapter will be from older Dean and Sam's POVs, the second from their younger counterparts', and the last (longer) chapter and epilogue from John and Bobby's.
Title comes from one of Gollum's riddles in the Hobbit. The answer was Time.
Dean awoke to the sound of footsteps behind him. Sam, he quickly deduced from their light tread. Sam . . . walking really weirdly, light-footed but not his soundless Hunter's prowl. Huh. Probably the kid was trying to strike some balance between letting him sleep and not startling him if he was awake. It was the sort of ridiculously over-thought thing he would do.
"Hey, Sammy, how about some breakfast?"
The footsteps stopped, and there was a sharp intake of breath. Dean bit back a sigh. Looked like he was jumpy today.
. . . or maybe a little more than jumpy. Sam's breathing had picked up to a frankly alarming rate, and Dean struggled to haul himself upright so he could see over the back of the sofa.
"Sam –" He began, carefully calm, ready to talk his brother out of whatever Hell-vision he was caught in this time – and stopped. Because sure enough, there was Sam, white-faced and wide-eyed . . . and about fourteen. "Son of a bitch!" Dean exclaimed, the composure which was completely artificial to begin with evaporating in an instant. "What the hell?"
"How am I supposed to know?" said the inexplicably shrunken Sam. He was obviously trying to sound brave, but his voice wavered in a way anyone would have noticed, let alone Dean. His hand shook as he gripped his butterfly knife with white knuckles. "You're the one who kidnapped me."
"I didn't kidnap you," said Dean, in the forcibly level voice he had had way too much practice with recently. "Look, just – put the knife down, will you?"
Sam hesitated, and Dean groaned in exasperation.
"I'm a gimp, dude. What am I going to do to you?"
Sam frowned suspiciously. He edged around the couch, remaining far out of reach, and examined Dean with critical eyes, taking in the huge cast which had him immobilized. He shut the knife, but kept it in his hand.
"Who are you?" he questioned, sounding a bit less panicked.
"I know this is going to be hard to believe . . ." Even by their standards. ". . . but I'm your brother."
"My brother's eighteen," said Sam, in his 'do you think I'm an idiot' tone. It was really, really weird to hear an octave higher than Dean was used to.
"And mine's twenty-nine," Dean retorted. "Looks like there's been a mix-up. Come on, man, I don't look that different."
Sam eyed him suspiciously, and Dean held his breath. He really hoped Sam didn't ask for proof – he didn't have anything to show the kid, no scars on his resurrected body, no information which couldn't be gleaned by any mind-reading fugly worth its salt, hell, not even the freaking amulet. But as much as it felt like lifetimes ago, he hadn't changed that much physically from when he was eighteen; mostly just put on muscle and hardened around the edges.
Dean tried to look as young as possible. It must have worked, because Sam's mouth dropped open.
Dean looked at his little brother – his little brother, two feet shorter than him with wide hazel eyes filled with shock and wonder – and gave a genuine grin for the first time in what felt like forever.
Sam awoke to the very familiar sound of a shotgun barrel slamming into place. The voice which accompanied it was almost as familiar.
"Hands where I can see them and don't try anything."
Crap. He was still asleep. Either that or his hallucinations had gotten creative. Very slowly, he sat up and raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, opening his eyes to meet his father's steely gaze.
"You've got five seconds to tell me where my son is before I shoot you full of buckshot."
Sam frowned. That wasn't right. Oh, he was used to his father's voice telling him that he wasn't his son, that he was demon spawn, a freak, a disappointment – but this was different. There was fear behind the hatred, and the boy standing behind him, while also not an uncommon fixture in Lucifer's highly creative torments, was much younger than he usually appeared. This Dean couldn't be more than eighteen, and his terror was not nearly as well masked as his father's.
"Don't look at me," said Lucifer from where he was suddenly perched on the grimy metal table. "It's not one of mine. Unless, of course, it's all one of mine. So either you're still in the Cage, or your life is literally weirder than Hell. Think about that one."
"Five," John growled, and Sam's attention snapped back to him. Hallucination or no hallucination, he would rather not get shot. Again.
"Look, I have no idea what's going on."
"You really expect me to believe that?" John snorted. "Four."
"Honestly, I just woke up here," Sam protested, panic beginning to flutter in his stomach. Chances were slim that he'd be able to disarm John without the gun going off, and even if he could, he had no doubt that Dean had a loaded piece within reach of his restlessly twitching fingers.
"Lying ain't gonna get you anything but an early grave," John told him coldly, shifting his grip on the weapon. Sam flinched. "Three."
"I don't know where your son is!" That one was kind of a lie. Sam didn't know, but he did suspect. Still, he knew his father, and he knew that the time travel explanation, however true it was, wouldn't fly.
"He never did listen to you," commented Lucifer.
"No, listen, I'm –"
The desperate plea slipped unbidden from Sam's mouth, and amazingly, it worked. John faltered, his face freezing, and Dean's eyes widened in an almost comical expression of shock.
"It's me," said Sam quickly. "I'm Sam. From about . . ." He did a quick calculation. "Fifteen years in the future. I don't know how, and I don't why, but it's me."
His father began to look skeptical again, and Sam glanced sideways at the clock to find the date, praying that his idea would work.
"Look, I can prove it."
Still keeping his movements as slow and nonthreatening as he could manage, he reached over with his right hand to pull up his sleeve, revealing a thin white scar on his shoulder. Dean gave a sharp intake of breath.
"It was a couple weeks ago, right?" Sam prompted, straining for the details, shifting through hundreds of false memories in search of the real one. "Sparring accident. I ducked when I should have weaved, fell on that nail. Ten stitches." He forced his lips into a weak smile. "You let me have a shot of whiskey."
"And you still cried like an infant," said Lucifer. "We've really done wonders for your pain tolerance, haven't we, Sam?"
Sam ignored him, watching his father. John was staring at him, the gun wavering. Sam clamped down on the instinct to leap forward and wrench it from his hands, instead sitting very, very still and waiting for a response.
When it came, it wasn't from John.
Sam turned to the boy he had once thought was invincible, the boy who now looked impossibly small and young with his father's jacket on his shoulders and astonishment on his face.
The first thing Dean did was call Bobby.
Well, okay, the first thing he did was get mini-Sam to bring him some water (little bastard wouldn't give him beer) so he could down three different prescription painkillers. His leg hurt like a bitch.
But the second thing he did was call Bobby.
"What?" came Bobby's irritated greeting.
"Either someone slipped acid into my happy pills or we've got a problem," said Dean, with equal preamble. Sam shot him a disapproving look from where he was examining the labels on the pill bottles. That was one thing that hadn't changed at all in fifteen years.
"What sorta problem?"
There was a long silence, and then Bobby's voice again, careful instead of annoyed.
"Well, it ain't exactly unheard of, with this sorta thing. Have ya tried showin' him a mirror?"
The painkillers were already beginning to kick in, and took Dean a moment to work out what he meant. It took him another moment of idle pondering of whether regression would be better or worse than Hell-visions before he forced his drug-hazed mind back on track and replied.
"No, he's really fourteen. Physically, mentally . . . everything-elsely. Like a de-aging spell or something."
Another silence, this one even longer.
". . . dammit," Bobby concluded finally. "I'll be there in half an hour. Keep the kid outta trouble. Better yet, let him keep you outta trouble."
He hung up before Dean could think of a suitable retort.
"You . . . stay out of trouble," he told the phone, which blinked back at him, unimpressed.
"It says 'call ended,'" mini-Sam informed him.
"I know that," Dean snapped, and instantly regretted it when the kid jumped and took a step backwards, wariness in every line of his expression and posture. It was a look he hated to admit he'd seen in Sam more than once over the past few years, but it never been like that with this Sammy. This Sammy had always looked at Dean with absolute trust, saving the fear and suspicion for . . . their father.
Dean tempered his tone, doing his best to insert affectionate teasing around the sudden tightness in his throat.
"I can read, bitch."
"Just wasn't sure how many of these 'happy pills' you had taken," Sam replied, with a cautious touch of the sass which Dean had never thought he'd miss until it was buried beneath guilt and pain. Sam dropped his head and peered at Dean through his bangs, his lips curling into a tentative smile. "Jerk."
"Yeah, yeah," Dean griped, but he was smiling as well, more easily than he had in lifetimes.
"If you're from the future, where's the other Sam?" Dean demanded.
"Dunno," said Sam with a shrug. "Maybe we got switched. He should be fine, though. You're there."
Dean looked a little startled by the statement, as if the idea of his older self hadn't even occurred to him. Bobby would be there, too, but that would bring up awkward questions about where John was in the future, so Sam didn't mention it, instead pulling the covers back and standing.
It was, Sam had to admit, a little gratifying to see the surprise on John and Dean's faces when he stood and their eyes followed him up . . . and up . . . and up.
"You'll have to make do with my clothes," was all John said, while Dean gaped.
"Yes, sir," Sam agreed, the response falling automatically from his lips. John relaxed marginally, and Sam realized, with an internal wince, that the (still) older man had been testing the waters, trying to see what sort of reactions he could expect from this taller, harder version of his stubborn youngest son.
"Really, Sam?" Lucifer complained. "Falling in line like a good little soldier? We both know that isn't you."
Sam turned away from his father and brother, pretending to survey the room as he dug his thumb into his wound. (Trying to ignore the thought that if that had been him, way back now, he might not have fucked everything up so badly.) In his peripheral vision, Lucifer flickered and disappeared.
"What happened to your hand?" Dean asked sharply. Sam nearly laughed (nearly cried), because he was ten years older and a foot taller than the boy in the leather jacket but there had been a time when Dean couldn't see him as anything but his little brother.
"Nothing, it's fine," he replied, facing them again and adjusting the bandage. "Fell on some glass." He smiled, and this time it was less forced. "You patched me up."
"'Course I did," said Dean, but John cut off whatever else he had been about to add.
"You and Dean are still hunting."
It wasn't quite a question, but Sam nodded anyway. He wasn't entirely sure how much he should reveal about the future, but he figured that if he was going to do irreparable damage to the fabric of time or something it already would have happened.
A half-formed idea tinged with something like hope wormed its way into the back of his mind. Maybe, just maybe . . . later. He'd have to think about it more.
"Yes, sir. Though, um, not right now. Then." He frowned. Time travel made tenses difficult. "We had kind of a rough hunt; we've been laid up for a couple weeks."
"What were you hunting?"
"Nothing that would do something like this." He was pretty sure about that. The Leviathans were vicious and deadly, but they didn't engage in the same infuriating brand of mischief as, say, angels.
John's brows lowered at his cryptic answer, but he didn't question him further. Not now, anyway – Sam was certain he was filing the information away for later use.
"Can't think of anything like that on our end, either," he said. "We'll have to do some research. In the meantime, I think we could all use some breakfast, Dean."
Dean looked unhappy, but the command was clear behind the statement, and Dean never disobeyed their father's orders. He was always the good son whispered through Sam's ears, and he couldn't tell whether the thought was his own.
He bit down on his tongue, hard. Today was not going to be a good day.
The door snapping shut jerked him back to reality, and he found John watching him closely. He kept himself from swallowing and did his best to look composed, consciously straightening his shoulders and relaxing his jaw.
Without a word, John pulled out a flask. Left pocket. That meant holy water and not whiskey, Sam recalled. He accepted it in silence, took a swallow, handed it back. He knew what came next, but he couldn't stop himself from tensing up when the silver knife came out. Still, he held out his arm and allowed John to administer a shallow slice, though every fiber of his being was screaming at him to run fight hide beg.
"So," said John, putting the knife away and stepping around him to take a beer from the fridge. "The future, huh?"
"The yellow-eyed demon," said John abruptly. "Do we kill it?"
". . . yeah," said Sam, thrown for a moment, though he shouldn't have been. He had forgotten how single-minded his father could be. "We kill it." He could barely remember a time when he had thought that would be the end of it. (But he would have to, if he was going to put his idea into motion. What had that hunter's name been? Something beginning with an 'E' . . .)
"Good," John said, and set his beer down beside the books which still lay on the table from their last hunt. "Get dressed. Let's get to work figuring this out."
They had both settled (somewhat uneasily) into the hard plastic chairs on either side of the table when Lucifer's voice suddenly spoke in Sam's ear.
"Ah, yes," Lucifer said, and Sam just managed not to jump. "Azazel. What a presumptuous cockroach. He really thought that his petty little schemes were the epitome of ambition. Be we know better, don't we, Sammy? You were meant for so much more than playing king for a swarm of bottom feeders."
Sam clenched his jaw and remained silent. He could feel Lucifer shift position, and when the archangel spoke again his tone was light, falsely contemplative.
"Funny how he called it a demon."
Sam's eyes flickered involuntarily to his father, who was focused on the book in front of him, his eyebrows drawn together in a familiar frown.
"You didn't think that he knew that yet, did you?" Lucifer continued. "Makes you wonder what else he knew.
"This is about the time the cracks started to show, isn't it? Did you really think that was all you and your teenage angst? Of course, I suppose it was all you, in a way," Lucifer mused. "Just less your teenage angst and more your father finally seeing just how little you belonged with him."
Another shift, and this time Sam did jump at the sudden chill of cold breath on the back of his neck.
"Do you think he knew about us?"
Sam clenched his jaw, nearly biting through his tongue as he wished that John were less observant. As it was, he couldn't risk aggravating the wound in his hand, not when John has already noticed his odd behavior and was frowning at him across the table.
"You alright, Sam?" There was suspicion and wariness in his voice, but it was accompanied by undertones of concern which Sam had never appreciated when he was younger.
"Fine," he bit out, and tried to force his mind back to the task at hand.
"Liar, liar," Lucifer murmured. Sam could feel the twin prongs of his tongue slide along either side of his ear, and he wasn't sure whether it was that or the flames suddenly licking up his legs which broke his tenuous grip on reality.