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Pinching Stars Between Our Fingers

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Sleek, black body, with tires kicking up a cloud of dust that can be seen long before the car itself.

Bobby loves the car and its occupants equally – maybe he loves the car a tad more, if only because it never argues with him – and he's never unhappy to have a visit from the Winchesters. But lately those visits bring the kind of trouble Bobby'd be just as happy to go without.

John, with his face always drawn into a scowl of shortened patience.

Sammy, his face also arranged into a perpetual scowl, discontent and mutiny simmering behind his eyes.

Dean, trying to keep the peace between his brother and his father, with eyes far older than a seventeen year old boy should have.

He doesn't disobey orders, doesn't talk back, never shows anything more than absolute respect and obedience to anything John says or does. But he's not easily persuaded like Sam is, to sit down and shove his nose into one of the hundreds of books stacked on most of the flat surfaces in Bobby's house, or sit with John and Bobby discussing different demons and spirits and curses; Dean's more of an actions-not-words kind of kid.

He's a good kid – they're both good kids. Not for the first time Bobby wonders why John doesn't settle somewhere and let them be kids. He understands hunting, and the need to do something, to hit back when something's hit you, but not at the cost of the family John still has left.

~~~~~

They spill out of the car slowly, and as Bobby gets closer he sees Dean struggling awkwardly to get to his feet, arm around Sam's shoulders. John calls out a greeting as he heads round to open the trunk.

"Leg broke?" Bobby asks, coming forward to provide an extra shoulder for support. Sam's tall enough, but right now he's skinny enough a good wind would blow him over, never mind supporting his brother's weight.

"No," Dean mutters, glancing sideways at Bobby. He has one arm around Sam's waist, holding tight to him, and if Bobby were asked right then, he'd say Dean looks embarrassed.

John reappears with a pair of crutches, shaking his head. "Bad sprain – wrenched his knee, too, I think." He hands them off to Dean. "Sammy, get the bags out of the trunk."

"I want to help Dean inside."

"Do as I say, Sam. I'll get your brother inside." John bites off each word, and Bobby watches weary resignation settle over Dean's face as anger reddens Sam's.

"But I--"

"Sam."

Friction already, and they've only been here all of two minutes. Bobby thinks it must be a some kind of record.

"Sammy," Dean starts. "Just do it. Please?"

"I'll help you get the bags, son," Bobby says, not missing the grateful look Dean throws him. "Let your old man get Dean settled."

Sam looks like he wants to argue, but can't quite justify aiming it at Bobby, and Bobby exhales in relief when he moves away from Dean to the back of the Impala. He watches John and Dean begin the slow trip up the steps and into the house, not looking away until the door swings closed behind them.

~~~~~

"Mind if I leave 'em here with you a bit? So's Dean can finish healing." John's chasing the last of the beans around his plate with a biscuit, glancing between the boys – currently engaged in some sort of whispered exchange at the other end of the table – and Bobby, a question in his eyes.

At his words both boys go still and silent, Sam turning to look at John, and Dean…Dean turning toward Bobby.

Matter of fact, Bobby does mind, but he's not sure how to say that without cleaving a huge chasm in his friendship with John. So he shrugs offhandedly. "Naw, I can put 'em to work. Got plenty of stuff Dean can do while he's laid up."

"It's just a sprain, Dad. I could come with you—" Dean begins, and Bobby watches a slow flush burn into Dean's cheeks, a matching one burning into Sam's.

John swallows down the last bite of his biscuit and shakes his head. "No, Dean. You're in no shape to hunt; you'd just slow me down. It's best you stay here, keep an eye on your brother. Don't want another hunt turning out the way the last one did, do you?"

"No, Sir. But he'll be safe with Bobby, and I can—"

"Dean."

Just that one final word -- Bobby's surprised Dean argued even that much -- and Dean's shoulders slump a bit before he catches himself. Sam leans over and whispers into his brother's ear, the high color both boys are sporting slowly fading. Dean gives John one last look, almost pleading, before turning his attention back to whatever Sam's saying to him.

Bobby wonders why John doesn't see it.

He wonders why he does.

~~~~~

Sam, predictably, settles in easily once John's gone. He's happy to do anything Bobby asks of him, from washing up the dinner dishes to recopying notes Bobby made while doing some translations of exorcism rituals. He glances over at the door regularly, like he's keeping track of where Dean is and what he's doing—though Dean hasn't moved since John left.

Dean's out on the stoop, a dull thunk-thunk-thunk sound echoing into the house where he's throwing a knife over and over into the scarred, pitted wood of the porch support. John's final words to him before driving away were, make sure Sammy sticks to his physical training, and you get back to it as soon as your ankle supports weight. There might've been something in there about studying and target practice, but Bobby tuned John out after the bit about training. Much as he likes the man, sometimes he wants to run him clean through with the nearest sharp, pointy object.

~~~~~

It's well on past eleven when Bobby looks up from the demonology text he's been working through, and takes note of the time. Across the room, Sam's yawning sleepily, staring at the pages in front of him with glassy, unfocused eyes.

"Best get on up to bed, Sammy," Bobby says gently, smiling when Sam startles.

"I should go help Dean in," he says, pushing back from the table. Bobby watches him stretch and shakes his head. Way the kid's growing, he's going to end up taller than Dean or John, before he's done.

"I'll help Dean when he's ready to come in." A glance toward the door shows him the silhouette still and quiet on the stoop. "You get the bed ready and a path cleared so he doesn't bang himself up any more."

Sam considers that and nods. "I'll get it all made up and call down when it's done." He frowns and stops in his tracks. "You--call me, if you need help with him? I think," Sam takes a step closer to Bobby and pitches his voice lower. "I think he's kind of mad right now."

"Could be he is." Bobby resists the urge to ruffle Sam's hair like he did when Sam was younger. He's still young, but he's hardly a kid anymore. "Go on with you now."

"G'night, Uncle Bobby." Sam gives one last look at the doorway, then trudges up the stairs slowly.

Bobby waits a few more minutes to see if Dean will come in on his own before pushing the screen door open.

"You gonna sit out here all night?"

The shadow on the stoop shrugs half-heartedly. "Maybe."

"Mosquitoes'll eat you alive." Bobby steps out onto the stoop and settles himself down beside Dean.

"They don't bother me." Dean scuffs his toe – the uninjured foot – in the dust, steadfastly ignoring Bobby.

"Y'know, it's okay if you're mad." Bobby looks out at the night sky, stars blinking down at them. Nothing in this world makes him feel smaller than the night spread out above him.

"I'm not mad." It's said with such vehemence that Bobby knows he's lying. He's mad, and worse than that, he's hurt. "He's right—I'd just slow him down. Can't run on a gimpy ankle."

"Dean. You don't have to make excuses for him."

"I'm not. He's right. Plus, I nearly got him hurt too, when I got hurt. I got careless, and this happened—" Dean gestures angrily at his leg. "What if Sammy'd been with us, and I got him hurt or killed? Dad's right for not bringing me. I need—I dunno. I need to do better. Be better."

"Be better?" Bobby knows he's parroting Dean's words back at him, but—damn. "Listen to me, boy. You couldn't be any better'n you are. I know grown men who aren't as good as you." Damn John Winchester and his nothing matters but this attitude.

Dean makes a quiet snuffling sound and sighs. "I gotta be the best," he says finally. "Gotta watch out for Sammy, gotta have Dad's back. I can't let them down."

Bobby wishes he knew what to say or do that would fix this. That would fix Dean. He settles for patting him on the shoulder and then on his back, an awkward sort of rhythm he hopes is comforting.

"All you can do is your best, son. Can't nobody expect better than that." Bobby doesn't add that it's not Dean's fault if his best doesn't match up to John's standards. They're set so damn high it's a wonder anyone could meet them, including John.

"Guess my best has to be better, then," Dean says softly. Bobby feels the muscles of Dean's back flexing beneath his hand when he shifts, skin warm beneath the thin cotton t-shirt Dean's wearing. Dean freezes in place, and Bobby freezes right after him, realizing he'd gone from awkward patting to gentle stroking, petting almost.

He snatches his hand away, heart thumping weirdly in his chest, and gets to his feet. "Sammy was gonna make the bed up. You need a hand getting up the stairs?"

Dean shakes his head and pushes himself up, one hand gripping the post, the other curled into a fist. He moves slowly and awkwardly, and Bobby lets him go.

~~~~~

The boys have the door to the spare room closed, and Bobby hovers outside it for just a minute, listening for--something. He's not sure what, or why; he just stands there, palm on the door, listening to the quiet undercut by rustling and whispers. After a moment he moves away, closing his bedroom door behind him.

He wakes up in the early pre-dawn, not sure what woke him. Nothing pings as actual danger, and it takes Bobby a moment to identify there's someone in his room. A human someone, standing beside his bed, breathing quietly. A warm hand comes to rest on his shoulder, and Bobby forces himself to stay still, stay relaxed, keep his breathing slow and even.

"Bobby." The word is a whisper, barely even that, and the warm hand moves from his shoulder to stroke up his arm. Bobby's never been so glad in his life that he doesn't sleep naked and that he usually sleeps on his stomach. Dean hisses his name again, and Bobby shifts slowly, tries to make it look like he's still mostly asleep.

"Dean? Whassamatter? You okay?"

"I--" He makes a frustrated sound that has Bobby wondering if something really is wrong, and moving to sit up.

"Dean?"

"I just. I need to--you did--" Dean stops and in the dim moonlight shining in through the window Bobby sees him lick his lips. "I didn't mean to make you mad," Dean finally gets out. He doesn't look at Bobby, just keeps his eyes trained downward on the floor.

"Mad? What the hell're you talking about, boy?" It's way too early and Bobby's not nearly awake enough for this.

"Last night, you, like you wanted, but then you jerked away, and I didn't--I want to be good enough, Bobby, I want, I don't want you to be mad." The words are tumbling out half-formed and way too fast, and Dean's not making a lick of sense. Bobby doesn't remember last night being anything other than routine (or as routine as anything is when there are Winchesters involved). He looks at Dean, standing pale and shivering in the moonlight, hunching in on himself like he's embarrassed, trying to figure out what the hell the kid is talking about--

--and Dean leans in and kisses him.

Soft and awkward, Dean's lips a little dry, a little chapped. Bobby jerks backward but Dean follows, a low whimper coming from his throat.

"Please," he says, brushing another awkward kiss over Bobby's mouth. "Let me, I want--want to--"

Bobby opens his mouth to ask Dean what the hell he thinks he's doing, and Dean licks inward, stealing Bobby's breath and erasing coherent thought.

He gives in to it for the span of a dozen heartbeats -- beats he feels throbbing everywhere through his body. Dean's mouth is warm and wet, and it's been far longer than Bobby likes to think about since he kissed someone. But this is…this is a friend's son, a boy young enough to be Bobby's son. He gives himself one more heartbeat to taste and feel, then gently pushes Dean back away from him.

"Dean. I'm not mad, and you don't have nothing you gotta prove to me."

"Was trying to say thank you," Dean mumbles, shuffling back a step or two, the movement lurching and awkward as he balances mostly on one leg.

"Thank you?" What is it about this kid that leaves him feeling so off-kilter? Bobby shakes his head. "You don't--I haven't done anything, and you don't--"

"You're good to Sammy. To me." Dean lurches backward another step. "I'm sorry, I just wanted. That."

Bobby has the horrifying thought that this isn't the first time Dean's said 'thank you' or 'I'm sorry' this way and again he wishes he knew what to say or do to fix things. He would talk to John, if he thought it would make any difference, but he doesn't think it would. John's too far lost in his quest to notice things happening right under his nose, unless they have to do with hunting.

"Go on back to bed, and get some sleep. We'll—figure things out, in the morning."

He waits until Dean's out of the room, door closed behind him, before sinking back onto his bed, tremors rippling through him from a mix of loneliness, uncertainty, anger and pity.

It's a long time before Bobby falls asleep again.

~~~~~

Not surprisingly, there is no talking about it later that morning, or any other morning for the remainder of the time the boys are there. Bobby doesn't have a clue how to start a conversation like that, Dean shuts down the few awkward attempts Bobby does manage, and Sam…well, he's Dean's shadow most of the time, and that's a conversation Bobby doesn't ever want to have with Sam around.

Bobby does do his best to let Dean know how much he appreciates the help, both inside with research and later out in the yard, working on the cars. He tells both boys, and while Sam seems glad to hear it, it doesn't appear that he needs to hear it, not like Dean.

By the time John comes to retrieve the boys, almost a month later, Dean is more-or-less his usual self and Bobby can -- mostly -- pretend that odd night never happened.

Mostly.

He draws Dean aside as John finishes packing the trunk, and claps a hand to his shoulder. "You ever need anything, Dean, you call. Anything at all, all right?"

Dean gives him a look that plainly says he's lost his mind, then nods. "Thanks, Bobby."

Once the trunk is packed and the boys are settled into the car – Dean shotgun, Sammy stretched out in the back, nose already in a book – Bobby takes John aside.

"You got good kids, John," he says, then stops, because how do you tell a friend to be nicer to his kids? Especially when you ain't got any of your own, never have parented, got nothing to go on. John nods, looking at Bobby like he knows Bobby's not done yet. "Tell 'em, sometimes, wouldja? Let 'em know."

John exhales, long and slow, then says, "Don't want them getting too soft," and Bobby's right back to wanting to run him clean through with a kitchen knife.

"Telling them they're doing a good job ain't gonna make 'em soft. Neither is lettin' 'em know you're not mad at 'em."

John raises an eyebrow at that, and Bobby thinks for a minute about telling him how his oldest son says 'thank you' or 'I'm sorry', and how the youngest mirrors the oldest because he's the only constant in the boy's life. Then he thinks about that kiss, soft mouth sliding across his, and knows he can't say anything to John without completely damning himself at the same time.

"Just let 'em know once in a while, John. It doesn't hurt anything."

John purses his lips like he's going to say something; instead he stretches a hand out to shake. "Take care, Bobby. I'll be in touch."

Bobby nods and steps back as the Impala roars to life.

Just before the car disappears in the dust, he sees Dean turn and raise a hand in farewell.

~~~~~

It's several years before Bobby sees any of the Winchesters again; a late-night visit that brings Sam and Dean both bloodied and limping, bearing a John who's wheezing around broken ribs. They're barely patched back together and John's ready to go barreling off again, target still in sight, no listening to anything like reason. Their discussion breaks down into a shouting match, and the boys watch wide-eyed from the Impala as Bobby cocks his rifle and threatens to shoot if John doesn't get the hell out until he's ready to show some common sense.

Boys. Bobby snorts in amused disgust. By his reckoning, Sam must be about seventeen, which would put Dean into his twenties. Men, both of them, and John has them leashed tightly to his side, barking orders and issuing ultimatums. Proof that nothing's changed and probably never will.

Which doesn't mean Bobby doesn't step up to the plate when Sam and Dean come knocking on his door, because he does, without hesitation. Past grievances mean nothing in the face of a friend – or his sons – who needs his help, and a hunter's life is too short as it is to shorten it intentionally.

And he keeps stepping up. John and Dean both in the hospital, the Impala scrap metal and Sam looking as wrecked as the car. John, dead and Dean miraculously alive and whole. Sam and Dean, men who never got to be children, who don't know how to grieve, stumbling along uncertainly. Bobby takes them in, gives them space and a shoulder – though neither accept that, and damn, they learned that lesson well – and any other support he can offer.

There's no roadmap for dealing with the kind of grief that comes with a loss like this. Bobby remembers his own journey and wishes he could spare Sam and Dean that. He watches them circle around each other, broken, and wonders how they'll survive this. Wonders how Dean will survive this.

He stands in the hallway one night – their last night, leaving in the morning, Dean said, got things to do and a demon to find – looking at the closed door. He listens to the soft squeaks and rustlings, the quiet hiss of whispers, secrets shared and kept, and thinks he knows—and hopes like hell nothing ever takes Sam away from Dean.

~fin~