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"You have a natural gift."

Bobby wished he had never heard those words. Say what you like about John Winchester, but the man could be as charming as the Devil himself when he wanted to be; a silver-tongued devil at that.

"Don't worry, they're good kids and Dean will look after Sammy," he had said, leaning a tanned arm out the window of that cherry Impala of his, right hand draped across the wheel and ready to roar off into the sunset, leaving two little Winchesters behind.

"John, I don't know anything about kids!"

John dropped a roguish wink, grinned that damned grin of his, and said, "You have a natural gift."

And that was that.

He was right about one thing; they were good kids. Neat and clean in their threadbare charity-bin clothes, respectful, stayed quiet in the house and saved their roughhousing for outside, kept calling him 'sir' till he told them to knock it off and call him Uncle Bobby.

Dean, probably unconsciously, affected his father's mannerisms as much as a ten-year-old could. He stood like John, spoke like John, had a bit of an attitude like John, and was wild about cars. Once he got over his initial wariness of being around a strange adult, he liked nothing better than to follow Bobby around the yard and watch him tinker. When Bobby figured out that the kid was actually responsible and careful, he got him a step-stool and asked him to help. It was as if Bobby had given Dean the moon; the kid practically glowed with pride and happiness. He turned out to be a pretty good assistant, too.

Bobby didn't think the little one, Sam, would be little for much longer, judging by the size of his hands and feet. He was a quiet, thoughtful kid who was perfectly happy playing by himself or with Rumsfeld while he and Dean worked in the garage. Dean looked after him, as promised, and Bobby almost forgot about the kid until the six year old came up to him one evening with a book in his hands and tears in his eyes and genuine distress in his voice when he said, "Uncle Bobby, I can't read this!"

Bobby took the book from him. "That's because it's in Latin, kiddo. Wait, have you been reading my books?"

Sam nodded, shaking a tear loose. "I put them right back, though. Is that okay?"

There were no age-appropriate books for a first-grader in the house. Bobby was almost sure of that. "It's fine, but...you're actually reading them?"

"Sammy reads everything," Dean declared proudly from his spot in front of the television.

"We're not supposed to tell about that, Dean!"

"It's okay, Sam. Uncle Bobby's like Dad, so we can tell him stuff."

"Oh. Okay," Sam said, trusting his brother without question. "What's Latin?"

And that was how Bobby ended up giving a crash course in Languages of the World 101 to a kid who by all rights should barely have been able to manage Where the Wild Things Are by himself.

That was how it went through that dusty, lazy July of 1989. By day, Bobby had a helpful little shadow following him around and absorbing anything Bobby cared to teach him about all things mechanical, and by evening, he had a knowledge-thirsty little sponge listening to him over a table full of books and maps and charts while he lectured on languages and history and politics, and he had never felt so much like a hero in his life.

One Saturday Bobby sold a rebuilt carburetor to a couple from Sioux City, and when the man tried to pay him, Bobby pointed to Dean instead. "Give it to him. He's the one who rebuilt it."

The man smiled at his wife, who looked at Dean like he was the cutest little thing in the world. "Did you really do that, son?" the man asked, crouching down to just below Dean's eye level.

Dean simply nodded shyly at the toes of his sneakers, but then Sam cruised by out of nowhere on his sun-faded Big Wheel and told the couple, "Dean can fix anything," as if it were a well-known fact. Apparently Bobby wasn't Sam's only hero.

Dean blushed brick red, accepted the three twenty dollar bills the man handed him, and let the woman ruffle his hair with a murmur of thanks.

"I can't take this, Uncle Bobby," Dean said after the couple left.

"You earned it, Dean. Never turn down money you've earned. Besides, that oughta keep you kids in ice cream and comic books all summer."

"I'd rather get us some new shoes," Dean said. "My toes are squished and Sam won't even wear his anymore."

Oh, hell. Bobby had too many decades between the present day and his own childhood to remember what it was like to outgrow your clothes every six months, but he should have seen the boys shooting up like weeds practically right in front of his eyes. They were John Winchester's kids, after all.

He did not let Dean spend his own money on new shoes and clothes, but at the kid's insistence they got them from a Goodwill. He let Dean pick out the clothes, though. The kid was practical and thrifty, checking each item for wear and tear before ducking into the changing room to try everything on. He chose clothes for himself and his brother that were slightly outsized, but clean and durable. When Sam complained about the objectionable orange shade of a t-shirt Dean had chosen for him, Dean rolled his eyes and wondered aloud where he had gotten a sister before marching off and finding Sam a green one that was more to his liking.

Bobby's wasn't one hundred percent sure, but he thought Sam rejected the shirt just for his own entertainment. Hero-figure or not, the kid had his brother wrapped around his little finger.

The clothes and shoes came out to just under fifteen dollars for the lot, which was what Bobby had estimated shoes alone would have cost had he had his way in shopping venues. Dean had chosen well.

He let the kids loose in the toy section for a while, curious to see what each would choose to play with while he pretended to browse the sporting goods.

When he checked back a few minutes later, Dean was fighting a pitched battle with a set of little green plastic army men who were arranged in a pincer movement around a large stuffed...bug? It was filthy and goggle-eyed and had bent antennae and too many legs and it was no wonder Dean was attacking it with extreme prejudice. It wasn't a kid's toy, it was nightmare fuel.

Sam had chosen the more peaceful and constructive option of a set of Lego bricks. Or maybe not so peaceful, Bobby thought a moment later when he saw that the kid was building a kind of tank/killer robot hybrid. When he was finished, he moved it around to flank Dean's soldiers and made some fairly violent sound effects as he attacked the stuffed bug. Dean cheered him on (using his inside voice, of course—those kids never forgot their manners for long) and the army closed in while the robot tank stomped the enemy flat and soon the battle was won.

The kids grinned at each other and Dean raised his right hand, palm up. "Up top, Sammy!"

Sam gave him an enthusiastic high five followed by an equally enthusiastic hug. "We did it!"

"Good job, kids," Bobby said. He couldn't stop grinning himself.

Dean blushed and pushed Sam off of him, perhaps embarrassed at having been caught cuddling the little squirt. Or maybe he was just shy about having their private Sam-and-Dean bubble invaded. Whatever it was, Bobby felt vaguely guilty.

"Time to go, Sam," Dean said. They began to put the toys away, making sure not to leave any pieces behind before closing the boxes. They even put the stuffed bug back exactly where they had found it. They stood up and Dean brushed some lint off the knees of his jeans. He looked up at Bobby expectantly. Bobby looked right back.

"Well?"

Dean looked at his brother, who gave a little shrug, then back at Bobby. "Well what?"

"Aren't you going to buy those toys? You've got all that cash burning a hole in your pocket, son, I'd've thought you might like to spend a little of it."

Judging by the look of delighted surprise on the kid's face, Dean had forgotten all about his money. "Sammy, get your Legos, I'll buy them for you."

"Really?"

"Yeah, really." He picked up his box of army men and tucked it under his arm. "And you know what? I'm gonna buy us all cheeseburgers for lunch, too."

Dean didn't push his little brother away when Sam wrapped his arms around him this time.

==

Bobby's worries about stepping on sharp little pieces of plastic when he was wandering around the house in his socks vanished when he found the kids on the floor that evening sorting out and cataloging each of their new acquisitions. Sam did the counting and Dean wrote it all down in his careful, neat handwriting on a sheet of notebook paper.

"Are you kids taking inventory?" Bobby asked, half amused and half incredulous. He crouched down to watch.

"What's inventory?" Sam asked, pausing in the act of collecting all of the blue Lego blocks.

"Making lists of our stuff," Dean said. Sam nodded and resumed his task, satisfied. Dean looked up at Bobby. "It was Sam's idea."

"We don't want to lose anything," Sam said, and Bobby's heart broke a little. These kids, these sweet, smart, thoughtful kids, didn't have much more than the clothes on their backs and each other in their lives. Their dad was an obsessed, drunken fool and their mother was nothing but a distant memory for Dean; just stories for Sam. Crappy as Bobby's own home life had been, at least he'd had a home.

"Fifteen blues," Sam said. "That's all of 'em."

Dean dutifully wrote that down. "Good. Now get ready for your bath."

"Okay," Sam said and scampered off, not quite running. Dean would bark at him if he ran inside the house, or if he did anything else that went against their father's rules. Dean didn't need to do a lot of barking.

"He minds you well," Bobby remarked.

"Yeah, he mostly does what I tell him," Dean said nonchalantly, carefully putting Lego blocks back in their plastic bucket. Bobby helped him fit the tight lid on top.

"Tell you what, you kids have been really good today. What say I pick up up a couple of movies and some popcorn and you can stay up late tonight?"

Dean looked up at him with shining eyes. "Really?"

"Yeah, really. There's this new video place in Sioux Falls called Blockbuster, I think they have some Disney movies."

"Do they have Terminator?"

"I'll see about that," Bobby said, and like hell he would.

"And could you get Red Vines?" Dean asked. The little charmer hunched his shoulders like he was pressing his luck, but Bobby would have given him the world by then. He pretended to think about it.

"I think they have the black ones."

Dean wrinkled his nose in disgust. "Never mind. Popcorn's good. Thanks, Uncle Bobby!"

==

Kids' movies were scary and depressing, Bobby decided when he actually arrived at the video store. Charlotte's Web, The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music...

He picked out Terminator, Alien, a box of Red Vines, and a couple of packages of extra-butter popcorn. The kid at the sales counter approved of his choices and wished him a good evening. Bobby resisted the urge to grump at him.

The Winchester boys were clean and dressed for bed when Bobby came back. They were seated on the couch, Sam wearing one of Dean's old t-shirts, which hung down to his knees, and Dean in a pair of blue shorts and a faded Led Zeppelin t-shirt that might have been new in 1979. Judging from the size, it had probably belonged to Mary.

That hurt him. He had never known the woman, but he suspected he would have loved her as much as he loved her kids.

"Well, they were out of Disney cartoons and black licorice," Bobby said, rummaging around in the plastic shopping bag, "so I guess we're going to have to settle for these."

Dean practically pounced on the Red Vines with a rushed, "Thanks, Uncle Bobby!"

Bobby nodded at him. "Sam, do you like popcorn?"

"Yes! Please," he added a moment later.

"Good. Do you think you could zap it for us?"

"Sure!"

He could, too, once Bobby tore the damn industrial-strength plastic wrap off for him. Sam read the directions very carefully and followed them to the letter and produced a perfectly-popped bag that they split into two bowls.

Dean was edging into the age where most boys fall in love with anything gross and gory, the grosser and gorier the better. He freaking loved Alien. Bobby himself thought he might have to change his underpants a few times, but he swore he saw genuine bloodlust in the kid's green eyes whenever the mouthy, slimy alien appeared onscreen. It might have been a disturbing sight if Dean hadn't also been cuddling Sam.

Sam edged stealthily closer and closer to his brother as the tension built. Bobby half expected him to burst into tears at some point, but Sam never did. Once inside Dean's hugging range, he settled right the hell down and watched the movie without batting an eyelash, completely calm as long as he was in Dean's arms.

Well, maybe not completely calm. "Stop hogging my popcorn!"

"Haven't you ever heard of sharing?"

"It's not sharing if you eat it all!"

"You're not eating it," Dean said as he stole another mouthful.

"I was gonna!"

The fight stopped as abruptly as if had begun when Dean held out a handful of popcorn to his brother and Sam took it, being careful not to spill any on the couch.

Bobby woke up just as the end credits for Terminator were rolling. It had been a long time since he had fallen asleep in front of the TV; he didn't usually want to go to bed till after midnight, and the old grandfather clock by the kitchen was showing 11:50. On the couch, Dean was still awake and staring at the television with an unusually solemn look on his face.

"That was intense," he said once he realized Bobby was looking at him. "You really need to watch it, Uncle Bobby. You'd like it."

Bobby twisted a little in his chair to work a kink out of his back. "I'll be sure to do that, Dean," he said, and he would, too. Though why he was taking movie recommendations from a ten year old, he had no idea.

Sam was crashed out with his head in Dean's lap. He didn't wake when Bobby picked him up to take him up to their room.

"You can wake him up and make him walk, you know," Dean said.

"I think I can handle carrying the kid for a few steps," Bobby said. Hell, Rumsfeld was probably twice Sam's weight and he had to wrestle the cowardly mutt out of the truck every time they went to the vet. Sam was nothing compared to that. Smelled a lot better than that old hound, too. He carried the kid upstairs with Dean trailing behind and tucked him into bed while Dean climbed in the other side. "I'd tell you to have sweet dreams, but after those movies I'll settle for asking you not to wet the bed."

Dean scoffed at him. "As if." Then he remembered his manners. "Thanks, Uncle Bobby, I had a really great day."

"Me too, Dean," he said, and was surprised to realize that he really had. "Good night, then."

==

Bobby came downstairs the next morning to the smell of fresh coffee and wondered how in the hell a six year old could possibly make him coffee in his ancient percolator when the kid could barely see over the counters. He knew Sam was up because he could hear him playing with the dog in the scrapyard, and Dean was still asleep.

John Winchester looked at him over the top of the Argus Ledger and nodded a greeting. "Did the kids give you any trouble?" he asked.

"Good morning to you, too," Bobby said, moving to fix himself a cup of coffee. "Would it have killed you to give me a little heads up?"

"What, that I was coming? I said I'd be a few weeks at most."

"Yeah, five weeks ago. If Caleb hadn't called me last Sunday I'd've thought you were dead."

"Time flies when you're knee deep in cryptid guts."

Bobby grunted and looked out the kitchen window. Sam had found an old tennis ball from somewhere and was tossing it from hand to hand while Rumsfeld drooled at him expectantly. Sam finally threw the ball. Rumsfeld galloped after it like a pony-sized puppy, moving faster than he had in years. The boy had a pretty good arm. "What'd you get?"

"Not much. I spent a few weeks tracking demon signs all across NorCal, then I got tangled up in a wendigo hunt with Caleb, and—hey, son!" John's eyes suddenly lit up as Dean ran into the kitchen on bare feet, launching himself into his father's arms.

"Dad! You're back!"

"Of course I'm back. I said I would be, didn't I?" John kissed the top of his older son's head and hugged him close. "Did you boys behave for Bobby?" he asked, holding Dean back at arms length.

Bobby had to chew on his tongue to hold back a caustic remark. Of course those boys had behaved.

But Dean didn't take offense; he was chattering away about their summer adventures a mile a minute while John smiled down at him in bemusement.

"That's great, son!" John interrupted after a few minutes. He set Dean back down on his feet. "You call your brother in now to get your stuff packed, okay? We've got to get moving."

It didn't seem to matter to Dean that he had been cut off mid-story. He nodded briskly, said, "Yes, sir!" and ran off to call Sam inside.

"You're not leaving without breakfast, are you?" Bobby asked. He already knew the answer, but he was hoping for a private word with the kids before John whisked them off.

"Chupacabra in El Paso," John said, his nose buried in his coffee mug. "It's going to be a long drive if we're going to get there tonight."

"You want to get there tonight?" Bobby asked. "John, that's got to be two thousand miles, you can't be thinking of making it in under a day!"

John's dark eyes, snapped with red from either fatigue, highway hypnosis, or hangover, pierced Bobby like a skewer. "I can and I will. There are lives on the line, Bobby. Or have you forgotten about the job?" He slammed his mug down on the table with a vehemence that shocked Bobby out of his nascent rage.

"What about your boys' lives, John?"

Instead of answering, John rose from the table and called for his sons. "Dean! Sammy! Shake a leg!"

Half a second later Dean marched his brother into the house with the air of a border collie who just found a missing lamb. "Here we are, Dad."

John scooped Sam up into his arms with an exaggerated grunt of effort. "Look at you, kiddo! You're getting big."

Sam seemed shyer than Bobby had ever seen him, and younger somehow. He looked like he was inches away from putting his thumb into his mouth. "Uncle Bobby bought us new shoes," he said in a quiet voice.

"He did, did he?" John threw a sidelong and not entirely approving glance at Bobby, who glared back at him. The hell with Winchester if he didn't approve of keeping his kids in good clothes.

But then the disapproval around his mouth parted and let out a glimpse that brightened into a smile when he looked at his children. He bounced Sam in one arm and ruffled Dean’s hair. “That’s good, but you need to pack it up now. No toys. You can play with them when you come back.”

No toys. Jesus.

“I’ll keep them safe for you, kids,” Bobby said to Dean, who was getting ready to scamper up to his room.

Sam slithered out of his dad’s arms, preparing to follow. Just before he did, though, he paused and wrapped his arms around Bobby’s waist, which was about as far as he could reach on his tiptoes. They didn’t go all the way around, but it was an impressive effort. “Thanks, Uncle Bobby. We had a really great time!”

Bobby’s hand dropped down onto Sam’s head. “The feeling’s mutual, son.”