Dad stumbled in at about three o’clock. Dean heard him, and rolled over. He nearly called out, but he could hear Sam's steady breathing in the bed next to him. Sam had been ill the past two nights, with a low grade fever, and now that he was finally asleep, Dean was hesitant to wake him. Besides - it was enough to know Dad was back, safe. Dean always told Sam not to worry, that Dad could look after himself, and he did believe it; but it was always reassuring to hear the thrum of the Impala pull up outside the thin walls, to hear the key turn in the lock and know that Dad had returned to them.
When Dean woke a few hours later, the room was mostly dark, with a few feeble rays of early sunlight edging their way through the cheap curtains of the motel. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the dim light, another couple of seconds to remember where and when he was. The bed next to him was empty. He heard the toilet flush, and Sam shuffled out of the bathroom. He was in his oldest pair of pyjamas: hair tousled from sleep and face flushed. Dean made a mental note to check his temperature.
The noise of Sam moving around made Dad bolt upright in bed.
"Who’s there?" called Dad, peering across the room.
"Just me," said Sam, yawning widely.
Dad stared at Sam. "Kid, I don’t know what you think you’re doing in here, but this isn’t your room," Dad said.
Sam looked as if he was about to argue, and Dean felt something twist deep in his gut, a crawling unease that shivered and slithered down his spine. Dean was moving out of bed now, throwing off the covers and standing up. "Dad," he said tentatively, but it didn’t matter because Dad was already barking out a laugh.
"Oh for fuck’s sake," he said, "there’s two of you," and that’s when Dean knew they were in trouble.
Dad was in the shower. He'd made a beeline for the bathroom, right after he had swiped his hand across his face, and said "It's too early in the morning to deal with this," - a statement to which Dean wholeheartedly agreed, although he wondered if there was ever a good time for a situation like this.
Dean could hear the shower running, could hear trucks rumbling by on the interstate next to the motel. Life was going on, outside, and it was bizarre that the sun was rising, that birds were singing, that people were going about their everyday lives, when this had just happened.
"Sam," he said. "Sam!"
Sam looked up, eyes wide and frightened.
"You know who I am, right?" asked Dean, cold fear curling and winding its way through him. It had never occurred to him that Sam didn't know, didn't remember.
Sam didn’t say anything, and it was then Dean noticed that he was shaking.
"Sit down," said Dean, hauling him into the chair. "Deep breaths, Sammy," and Sam sat down, but kept staring at him, eyes wide like the world had ended.
Dean supposed it had, pretty much.
"Shit," Dean said. "Shit shit shit."
Sam stared at him balefully. "Dad doesn’t like it when you swear," he said.
"Yeah, well, Dad’s not here, is he," retorted Dean, and then felt guilty, but Sam was too distracted to get upset.
"What do we do, Dean?" asked Sam, and Dean was suddenly crushed with the weight of Sam’s expectations, because he didn’t have an answer, not yet.
"Don’t worry, Sam," he said. "I’m going to fix this."
Dad came out of the shower, vigorously rubbing the towel through his wet hair. When he saw them, he stopped in the middle of the room.
“You’re still here,” he said flatly. “I was hoping this was just a really bad hangover.”
“Still here,” Dean echoed stupidly, and then he shook himself. He needed to figure out what was going on.
Twenty minutes later, and Dean still had no clue what had just happened – although not from any lack of trying on his part. Dad was getting sick of all the questions, he could tell. But the answer had to be there somewhere. Dean just had to find it.
"What’s the last thing you remember?" asked Dean, staring intently at Dad. Dad’s eyes weren’t a different color or anything, although they reflected his confusion as he ran his hand over his beard, and then drained the glass of (holy) water that Dean handed him. “Thanks,” he said, setting the glass down. It made a chinking sound, loud in the quiet room.
Outside, a truck blew its horn.
"I remember checking into the room," said Dad. "Then I left, went out to grab a few beers - and came back a couple of hours later. And when I woke up, you two boys were here." He squinted at them. "I must have left the door open last night," he mused. "Is that how you got in?"
Dean shrugged noncommittally. So. Dad had been drinking, then – but he wasn’t drunk. He didn’t let himself get drunk, especially when they were working a case.
Someone had obviously done something to Dad.
"Christo," said Sam suddenly.
Dad looked at him bemusedly. "Bless you," he hazarded, looking even more confused, and Dean wanted to laugh - except it wasn't funny, not really.
“What?” repeated Dad in disbelief. “You think I’m your Dad?”
“We don’t think it,” Dean said, cautiously, because Dad was looking angry now, as well as confused. “It’s just – you are our Dad.”
“That’s impossible,” Dad said. “I don’t have any kids.”
“Yes, you do,” piped up Sam.
“No,” said Dad, steadily. “I don’t.”
“But I can prove it,” Sam said suddenly, running over to the bedside cupboard and pulling open the drawer. He pulled out Dad’s scuffed leather-bound journal, and Dean felt a wave of relief. Of course, he thought; followed swiftly by guilt – why didn’t I think of that?
Sam hurried back and set it down on the table. “Here,” he said.
Dad looked at it, confusion evident on his face. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“Open it,” Sam said impatiently.
Dad flicked through it, brow furrowing. Dean leaned forward.
“D’you see?” asked Dean.
“See what?” Dad asked, throwing up his hands. “It’s just a bunch of blank pages.”
“What?” said Dean, stomach sinking.
“You heard me,” said Dad. “Blank. All of it.”
“No,” Dean said, trying to stay calm. “Give me that,” and he reached blindly for Dad’s journal. Dad obligingly slid it over to him, and Dean leafed through the blank pages, faster and more frantic, stopping only when he felt the familiar crinkle-slide of a photograph. He let out a low sound of triumph, pulling it out and thrusting it at Dad.
“Here,” he said. “This is us.”
Dad took it and studied it. “I don’t get it,” he said.
Sam leant over his shoulder to have a look - and then looked back at Dean, shaking his head regretfully.
Dean reached across and snatched the photo back from between Dad’s fingers.
It was the same picture Dad always kept tucked in between the pages of his journal, the photograph taken all those years ago. Exactly the same – except this time there was no Sam perched in his lap, no Dean huddled beside him.
"Look," Dad said. "I’m not your father, but I’m sure he’s out there somewhere, looking for you. Probably scared out of his mind."
Dean didn’t bother to correct him. Sam looked as if he was about to, but Dean aimed a swift kick at him under the table. Sam settled for a glare, and ended up just looking cross-eyed.
Dean cleared his throat, and Dad looked at him, waiting for him to speak.
"What are you going to do with us, then?" asked Dean, and Sam nodded.
Dad gave them a wary look. "Well, I can't keep you. I’m not some kind of pedophile."
Dean's mouth twitched. "No," he said. "You're not a pedophile."
Dad grunted. "I know that. But it doesn't look good to have two young boys cavorting around my motel room in their pyjamas, does it? Besides. I don’t want to get arrested for kidnapping two young kids."
Sam piped up. "It's not kidnapping if no-one wants us back," he said.
Dad looked sad, then. "I'm sure that's not true," he said. "There must be someone who wants you."
"Actually," Dean said, amazed he hadn't thought of it sooner. "Actually, there is someone. Can I make a phone call?"
Dad pushed the phone towards him, and Dean dialled a number he knew by heart.
The phone rang, and rang, and rang, and Dean was worried that it wouldn’t answer, but then he heard the metallic clink and Bobby’s gruff voice saying Singer Salvage Yard, and Dean felt as if his heart would burst from relief.
"Uncle Bobby," he said, "it’s me. Sam’s here too, and we really need your help."
There was a pause.
"Who is this?" asked Bobby.
"It's me," Dean repeated. "Dean Winchester."
"Kid, I think you’ve got the wrong number," said Bobby, and his voice was sharp and Dean started to argue but the dialtone was already ringing in his ear.
"He hung up," Dean said, stupidly.
Dad looked almost sympathetic.
“Don’t worry," he said. "I’m sure someone out there's looking for you."
Dean knew that wasn’t true. He’d just talked to the only two adults in the world who’d notice if he was gone, and they didn’t even remember he existed.
Sam was shivering, although it wasn't from cold. Dean wasn't sure if it was the fever again, or simply the shock of it all. Dad noticed too, because next thing Dean knew Dad had picked up his jacket from where it was hanging across the desk chair and slung it over to Sam.
"Here, kid," he said, gruffly. "Put that on."
Sam nodded gratefully, burrowing into the worn leather. It looked ridiculous on him: hiding his hands, reaching down nearly to his knees.
"Sam," Dean said, throat dry, but it needed to be said, because it mattered. "His name's not kid. It's Sam."
"Sam," Dad said, with a look of faint puzzlement, and because Dean was watching Sam he saw Sam's kneejerk reaction to his name spoken in Dad's voice; the expectant way he looked up at Dad before he realized that Dad didn't know what he was saying, still didn't remember who they were. Dean knew how much that realization hurt - because for a split-second, Dean had believed it too.
"I need you boys to get dressed and get ready to go," said Dad. "We can't wait around here forever.”
Sam obediently went to where his bag was, pulled out a t-shirt and jeans, and began to shuck off his pyjama pants.
Dad looked uncomfortable. “I’m just going to step outside,” he said hurriedly.
Dean shrugged. Who knew Dad was such a prude? He walked over to his own duffel bag and pulled out some clothes.
“This is so weird, Dean,” said Sam, voice small. Dean absently reached out and felt his forehead. It was burning up.
“How are you feeling, Sam?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter how I’m feeling,” said Sam impatiently. “We need to figure out what’s wrong with Dad.”
“I know that,” Dean snapped. His mind was busy working, ticking over how to solve – well – this. This problem with Dad, who wasn’t acting like Dad, and didn’t even seem to realize that he was their Dad.
Sam sat down on the chair as he tied up his laces. Dean just paced the room, trying to figure this out. He didn’t know what to do next – and the problem was, there was no-one to ask. They’d just arrived in town last night, and because Sam had been sick, Dean hadn’t even set foot outside of the motel yet. This wasn’t the kind of problem you could confide to a stranger, and they didn’t know anyone in this town. In fact, one of the only people in the world he trusted enough with this was Uncle Bobby, and he’d called him only to have him act like a stranger.
So. There wasn't anything else he could really do.
Still, when Dad walked back into the room and said "I'm handing you boys over to Child Protective Services", it struck Dean like a punch in the gut, because he knew he should of thought of something that could fix this, and now there was no time.
"So, let me get this straight, Mr. Winchester," said Elaine. She was their caseworker, and had been staring confusedly at them for the past five minutes, in the time it had taken Dad to pour out the whole jumbled mess. "These boys aren't yours."
Dad said "Yes" at the same time Sam said "No". Dean didn’t risk saying anything, because they were already in all kinds of trouble.
Dad was going to snap out of it. Dean knew that. Stranger things had happened than this.
Still, this day was right up there on the scale of Winchester-craziness.
Elaine was crouching down in front of Sam now. Sam was sitting on the bench seat, staring straight ahead. His face was flushed with fever, and he looked younger than usual. He’d barely said a word since they’d got there.
"What’s your name?" she asked. She looked like someone’s mom, probably had kids of her own. "Hey, I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me. What’s your name?" she repeated.
Sam sat there, lips clamped shut. He looked defiant, but Dean knew better, could see that his lips were clamped because they were trembling, that he was looking away because if he had to look at Elaine, had to look at Dad, he would cry.
"His name’s Sam," said Dean. "I’m Dean."
"What’s your last name, Dean?" asked Elaine, transferring her attention onto Dean.
"Winchester," said Dean. "My name’s Dean Winchester."
Dad interrupted. "See, lady, my name’s Winchester too. But I’ve never seen these kids before in my life."
Elaine nodded, pushing her glasses up her face distractedly.
"Sir," she said, "Is there any chance that these could be your children from a – previous relationship? There are cases where the mother sends them to the estranged father…" she paused, delicately.
Dad kept staring at her. "No," he said. "That’s impossible. I don’t have any kids," and his jaw was set the way it always was when he’d laid down the law and wasn’t going to budge an inch.
She must have sensed his resolve, because she backed down immediately. "Okay," she said. "Well, thank you for bringing them in. You did the right thing."
Dad stood up, dusting his hands off on his jeans. "You can take it from here," he said, half question, half statement.
"Sure," she said.
Dad walked away, and didn’t look back.
It wasn’t until Dean felt Sam’s small fingers prying his own apart that he realized his hands were clenched in fists. Sam slipped his hand into Dean’s and held on tight.
Dean didn’t have much to say, mind still churning from all that had happened. Sam sat in the corner. He’d been uncharacteristically quiet all day – and clinging to Dean. He usually got clingy when he was feeling sick, although Dean wasn’t sure if the fever was back or if Sam was just anxious.
Dean didn’t blame him if he was anxious, because Dean was anxious too – sick fear in the pit of his stomach, copper in his mouth and weak to his knees. Because this was seriously bad.
This wasn’t the first time they’d been separated from Dad. Dad had disappeared a couple of times, going off with no warning, once for almost a week without calling, and Dean had been half-frantic the whole time, not knowing where he was. Dad had even left them with other people before (although that was rarer, because there weren’t many people Dad trusted, but last summer they’d stayed with Uncle Bobby for two whole weeks while Dad was meeting up with a contact on the other side of the country). This time was different though.
Before, he’d always known that Dad was going to come back – was going to walk through that door, pick up Sam, tousle Dean’s hair, smile that familiar grin. Now he had no such assurances.
"What's going to happen to us, Dean?" asked Sam. Dean didn’t know, but before he could make something reassuring up, Elaine returned.
"Sam," Elaine said. Sam looked up, and then looked quickly away, edging closer to Dean.
"Sam," Elaine repeated. "I need you to come with me."
"What about Dean?" Sam said, jutting out his lower lip.
Elaine smiled, and Dean felt a cold chill creep down his spine, because he knew what was coming next. Don’t do it, he thought, don’t you dare do it.
"Dean’s going to be fine, Sam. I just need you to come with me for a bit."
Sam hesitated. He was so used to obeying any type of authority figure, and this lady looked sugar sweet, like Sam’s grade school teacher from Nebraska. Mrs Emmet. Sam had loved her, Dean recalled.
Dean decided to make it easier on both of them.
"Go with the lady, Sam," he said. "I’ve got to sort a few things out here." Elaine shot him a grateful smile.
"I’ll see you soon, Sam, yeah?" he said, although the question was directed at Elaine. She nodded reassuringly, and Dean felt some of the tension leave him.
Dad had always told them to avoid CPS like the plague. Anybody who asked too many questions – friendly cops, concerned teachers, worried mothers – and Child Protective Services, especially. Anyone who can take you away from me, Dad had said. They’ll take you away from me, Dean.
He’d never said what to do if he gave them away himself. Dean didn’t have a plan for that.
"What I don’t understand is where your family is," said Mr Jackson. No sooner had Elaine gone off with Sam, than Mr Jackson had come out and taken Dean to a room. Dean kept looking out the window, over Mr Jackson's shoulder. He didn't want to miss it when Sam came back. He'd get worried if Dean wasn't there.
Mr Jackson was a tired looking man in his mid-thirties, with balding hair and horn-rimmed glasses. He’d been sitting across the table from Dean for the last half hour, asking question after question, making notes on his legal pad. Dean had finished the can of coke Mr Jackson had given him ages ago, and was now occupying himself by drawing shapes in the condensation.
They were interviewing him and Sam separately, to see what matched and what was missing. Dean hoped that Sam's story was roughly in line with his. There was no reason to make this any more confusing than it already was.
"What’s there to understand?" Dean said. "It’s just me and Sam. And my Dad."
"Where’s your mother, Dean?" asked Mr Jackson.
"I already told you," Dean said. "She died. When Sam was just a baby. It’s been just the three of us for a long time now."
"That must have been hard on your father," said Mr Jackson.
"It’s not so bad," said Dean. "He’s a good dad."
"I’m sure he is," said Mr Jackson, although he didn’t sound convinced. "Where is your father, Dean?"
Dean shook his head, his shoulders ramrod straight.
"Did your Dad walk out on you and your brother?"
Dean glanced up at that, couldn't help it; and although he was wearing his best poker face Mr Jackson must have seen something in his eyes, enough to know that he'd scored a direct hit.
"I see," Mr Jackson said.
He didn't, not really, but he saw enough, Dean could tell. "Is that why you latched onto John?" Mr Jackson pressed. "Does he remind you of your Dad?"
"No," said Dean - then - "Yes," miserably, because he didn't know what to do with that question.
Mr Jackson shot him a sympathetic look.
"Can I see Sam now?" Dean asked, and he was trying to make his voice sound tough but it came out sounding young and hesitant, even to his own ears.
"Of course," said Mr Jackson, and he reached across the table. For a fleeting moment, Dean thought he was going to pat his hand, but he didn’t, just picked up Dean's empty can of coke and stood up. Dean followed him out of the room, trailing behind, mind working a million miles an hour. Trying to figure out what came next.
He had no idea - and that's what scared him the most.
Dean had been staring at the same spot on the carpet for the last ten minutes. He didn’t know where Dad had gone when he walked off.
That’s what he’d been trying to tell Mr Jackson, before – that he didn’t know where Dad was – but he kept asking all these questions – and Dad had always told him to be careful how he answered questions like that, however politely they were phrased: because words were weapons too, jagged edges slicing sharp and sure as a knife.
When he was talking to Mr Jackson, before, he’d tried to project an air of maturity. He knew it hadn’t worked. No matter what he did, nothing changed the fact that he was only twelve, just a scrawny kid in their eyes.
Sam was eight, even younger.
Dean was supposed to be in the waiting room watching television with Sam, but Sam had fallen asleep on the couch, and Dean had snuck back here, because he needed to know what was going on.
Elaine was off in a corner with Mr Jackson, and the female psychiatrist who’d just arrived. They were all talking in a low undertone, quiet voices so that the boys wouldn’t hear them.
"It’s a classic case of transference," said the psychiatrist to Elaine.
"The younger one is ill, and they’re both rake thin. They’ve probably been on the run for some time. They’re scared of authority, and they’re looking for a father figure to protect them. The eldest one – Dean, is it? - is overburdened by the responsibility of caring for Sam. So - they latch onto John – and convince themselves he’s their father."
"What about them having the same surname?" asked Mr Jackson. “Seems a bit more than a coincidence, doesn’t it?”
The psychiatrist paused. "Well, the boys have no ID on them, nothing at all to back up this farfetched story. Who said the surname first, was it John or Dean?"
Mr Jackson pursed his lips, clearly trying to recall. "I'm not sure," he admitted.
"It was John," said Elaine. "I remember. When he came in, he introduced himself as John Winchester."
The psychiatrist shot them a triumphant look. "Problem solved," she said. "Dean adopted the surname of the man he wanted to take them in."
Mr Jackson persisted. “But what if,” he paused. “What if the youngest one is telling the truth? What if he really is their father?”
The psychiatrist sniffed. “Even if you take their word for it – which I wouldn’t advise – John Winchester made it very clear. He doesn’t want anything to do with those two boys. I doubt he is their father, but even on the extremely unlikely chance that he is, this is still a textbook case of abandonment. The man handed them over to us himself. ”
Mr Jackson sighed. “They’re nice boys,” he said. “Good kids. It’s a crying shame.”
The psychiatrist gave him a weary smile. “Since when has crying ever changed anything?” she said, as she picked up her clipboard and walked away down the corridor. Dean could hear the measured clip-clop of her high heels as they echoed on the tiled floor.
"It’s hard finding homes for older boys," Elaine said, frowning.
Mr Jackson shook his head. "They want to stay together," he said. "I promised them they could stay together."
"You had no right to promise that," she said. "That’s a promise you’re going to have to break."
Mr Jackson sighed, shoulders slumping. "Just do the best you can, Elaine, promise me," he said.
"Of course I will," she said, and her voice was kinder. "I’m not trying to be the bad guy here. Do you think I don’t wish these kids could stay together? I’m just telling it like it is. I see siblings coming through these doors every day, and too many times they don’t leave together."
Mr Jackson put his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels.
"I’m sorry," he said.
"We’re all sorry," Elaine said. "But sorry doesn’t matter here – here’s where people come to move on."
"No," he said, "here’s where people come when they got nowhere else to go."
Neither of them said anything after that.
Dean had heard enough. He ran out back to the couch where Sam was still sleeping fitfully, cheeks flushed, messy bangs shading his eyes.
He shook him roughly by the shoulder. “Wake up, Sam,” he hissed.
Sam was wide-awake almost straight away – he’d always been a light sleeper, and never at ease sleeping in unfamiliar places. “What is it?” he whispered, voice roughened from sleep.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” said Dean, grabbing at his wrist, pulling Sam upright. They were almost at the door when all of a sudden Mr Jackson was impossibly there, his tall frame filling the entire doorway.
Elaine appeared behind him, peering over his shoulder.
“Boys?” she called, uncertainly.
Dean cast his eyes around the room, nerves tight and tense – but it was the only door.
Elaine looked very grave.
“Sam,” she said. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to come with me.”
Dean gripped Sam’s wrist tight, painfully tight. “You can’t split us up,” Dean said.
“I don’t want to do this,” she said, and she did look as if she regretted it. “It’s just temporary, Dean, just until we can work out something permanent.”
Dean kicked out at her, but Mr Jackson intercepted and pulled him aside. Dean struggled, but Mr Jackson had him firmly pinned, and he could only futilely struggle as they loaded Sam into the station wagon, and Elaine got in the front seat. Sam pressed his face to the glass, looking small and shaken.
I’m going to find you, Dean mouthed at him. I’m going to fix this.
Dean suddenly went slack, sagging against Mr Jackson in defeat, and Mr Jackson loosened his hold, patted Dean gently on the shoulder. “It’s going to be all right,” Mr Jackson said encouragingly as they watched the car pull away.
That was the moment Dean broke free - slipping out of the loose grip Mr Jackson had on his wrists, pelting down the street, trying to follow the car they'd put Sam in, the car that was taking Sam away from him.
He was running faster than he’d ever run in his life.
He could see Sam's face peering out through the window, eyes wide and unsure, his face getting smaller and smaller until the car pulled away, out of sight.
Dean kept running. He could hear the sounds of Mr Jackson following him, huffing and wheezing, but he was too caught up in the sound of his own feet, slapping against the pavement, feeling the jarring impact of every footstep. And still he kept running.
He sprinted as fast as he could for at least eight blocks, and then he ducked into an alley and stood in a narrow doorway, bracing himself against the wall, gasping for breath, shock-shakey from the adrenaline crash.
He'd lost them (and Sam, he'd lost Sam) and he was staring at the dingy brick wall like maybe all the answers were written there, somewhere.
He walked for awhile, after that, scuffing his shoes on the worn pavement, ducking behind a fence whenever he heard a police siren in the distance. Dean’s legs were burning from his sprint, but the pain didn’t take his mind off the ache of losing Sam. It just added to his misery.
He didn’t realize how far he had come until he found himself outside the motel they’d been staying at. The Impala was gone from out front. Dean tried to peek in through the window, but all the curtains were closed.
He eventually worked up the courage to rap on the door.
There was no answer - and although he was disappointed, in some ways it was a relief.
The thing was, Dean discovered quickly, that no matter how mature you were for a twelve year old - as far as legal stuff goes, you may as well not exist. Unless you're a ward of the state, which was apparently what Sam was now, and Dean too, if they ever found him.
They wouldn't even tell him where Sam was. He'd tried. He'd hung around outside the police station for the whole afternoon, and waited for Elaine to step outside on her lunch break. When she did, he jumped out of the bushes, and she made an odd choking noise, and pressed her hand to her heart. "Dean," she said. "We've been looking everywhere for you," and she was reaching out for him but he ducked and moved out of her reach. "Where's Sam?" he demanded, and his voice didn't tremble, not at all, but her eyes still softened and she said "I'll take you to him," but he knew she was lying.
It was okay. He was getting good at running away by then.
So. He needed a new plan.
He'd hung around the bus station for most of the morning, scouting out the crowd. So far, he'd wheedled several handfuls of loose change out of motherly-looking women and slipped a few bills out of the pockets of harassed looking men in expensive suits - the kind that looked like they wouldn't miss a twenty dollar bill or several. He didn’t feel guilty. Desperate times, and all that. This was for Sam, for Dad.
Once he'd got together what he hoped was enough money, he asked a woman in her fifties if she'd buy a ticket for him. She looked especially concerned. "You're too young to be out alone," she had said. Dean hastily launched into the story he'd concocted, of how he had to travel interstate to South Dakota to see his uncle. She was still shaking her head, but he suddenly clutched at her arm, half-desperately, like he was drowning and she was his one chance at solid ground. "Please," he said, "I need to get to my brother. He's sick."
They were two half-truths, but put together they sounded real – so real, in fact that Dean suddenly worried that he'd been too desperate, revealed too much.
Still, it had worked. She'd been much nicer after that.
She'd bought Dean a donut, and when it turned out he didn't have quite enough money for his fare (who knew Greyhound tickets were so expensive?) she’d insisted on paying his bus ticket for him. "Poor dear," she said. "Can't believe your parents would send you clean across the country alone like this."
She spent most of the trip regaling him with stories of her two granddaughters, who were about his age. As she talked, she knitted, her needles flashing in and out of the wool. Dean watched, entranced; measuring time by the motion of the bus, the scenery flickering by outside the window.
When she woke him up several hours later, his first thought, stupidly, was I must have fallen asleep, but it didn’t matter because they’d arrived, he recognized this main street from visits with Bobby. Bobby just lived a few miles down the road.
"Here you are," she said, as he stood up to go. "This was going to be for my youngest granddaughter, but you look like you need it more," and she handed him a woollen scarf, knitted in blue and green. Dean thanked her, a lump rising in his throat. "I hope your brother gets well soon," she said.
"Thanks," Dean said. "Me too."
“Is someone coming to pick you up?” she asked, peering out the window.
“Yeah,” Dean lied.
“Maybe I should wait with you,” she said, and she started gathering her things, as if she was really going to do it, as if she was really going to get off the bus and postpone the rest of her trip so that she could make sure Dean got to his folks safely.
Dean swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Nah,” he said, “they’ll be there. For sure.”
“Okay,” she said slowly, still hesitant.
She was watching from the window as Dean got off the bus, so he made a show of looking around him for a couple of seconds, and then acting as if he’d spotted someone in the distance; started waving to them crazily. He cast a quick glance behind him to check if she was still watching – she was. He gave her a shy smile, and she looked satisfied, and then the bus gave a tired wheeze and pulled away, and Dean was able to abandon the pretence.
Dean started walking in the direction of Bobby’s place. It was only a few miles, wouldn’t take too long. As he walked, he passed the time guessing at all the different ways this could go down, trying to map out the one scenario that would work.
Standing on Bobby’s front step, all his carefully rehearsed sentences flew out the window, his mind frustratingly blank. He knocked at the door – a sharp rap, once, twice.
It had never occurred to him that Bobby wouldn’t be home. He knocked again, more urgently this time, as if by sheer volume Bobby would emerge.
"Bobby?" he called, when there was still no answer, raising his voice nice and loud. “Bobby Singer?”
Bobby answered from behind the door, suspicion in his voice. "Maybe," he said. "Depends who's asking." He slid the door open a fraction, chain still in place. His eyes widened when he saw Dean. “Hey,” he said. “You’re just a kid.”
Dean stalled. "Listen, this is going to sound crazy," he said, "but the first thing you need to know is that everything I'm about to tell you is true."
Bobby snorted. "Crazy doesn't bother me, kid," he said. "I eat crazy for breakfast. Truth, on the other hand? That takes a bit more convincing.”
"You haven't even heard what I'm going to tell you yet!" Dean protested.
"So get on with it," said Bobby, and he was looking edgy, as if he was about to shut the door on Dean.
"My dad's a hunter," said Dean, quickly, before he lost his nerve.
It felt strange admitting it out loud, because he'd never told anyone that before. It seemed ridiculous, as well, telling it to Bobby of all people, because Bobby had always known. He spent a crazy second wondering if Bobby had forgotten even those basic facts, but from the way Bobby caught his breath and said "Go on," in a rough voice, Dean knew that Bobby knew exactly what sort of hunting he was referring to. "You don't remember me," Dean continued, "but I remember you. We used to stay with you, Sam and me. Sam's my little brother. Sometimes Dad would leave us with you. Except two days ago, Dad woke up and he wasn't Dad anymore."
"Wait," Bobby said, slowly. "Dean Winchester, right?"
Dean was so relieved he nearly stopped breathing, thought his heart would burst from the adrenaline, the sense of right, because at last. At last someone knew.
"Yeah," he said. "That's me. You remember," and his voice cracked, a little bit, because it was going to be okay now, Bobby remembered.
Bobby interrupted him, his voice gentle, like how he used to talk to his dog, Rumsfeld, the time Rumsfeld had crawled under the house and refused to come out (and when Bobby finally coaxed her out, a whole day later, she emerged with a litter of puppies, and Bobby had looked more surprised than Dean had ever seen him. When they left the next week Sam had smuggled the runt of the litter, Pinto, in his backpack and Dad hadn't realized until they were thirty miles down the road and Pinto started whining in the backseat so loud that even Dad could hear it over the noise of the engine. "You can't do that, Sam," Dad had said. "Babies need a mother," and he'd swung the car around, and Sam hadn’t talked to Dad for three days after that).
"Only thing I remember is a phone call from two days ago, that I can't get out of my head. You better come in,” Bobby said, sliding the chain across and opening the door, and Dean stepped inside, heading blindly for the kitchen. He sat down heavily at the table. Rumsfeld trailed in behind him, licking at his hand, and Dean absently patted her on the head. He was tired from the walk.
Bobby followed him in, giving him a small nod as he sat down. “Seems like you know your way around the place,” he observed mildly.
“Yeah,” Dean said. “Like I said, we used to stay here with you sometimes. Me and Sam.”
It all came pouring out, then - the whole jagged mess - how Sam was somewhere that Dean didn't know, and he didn't know where Dad had gone, and nobody remembered who they were except him and Sam (Sam who was gone) and he didn't mean to, but he was starting to cry, now, and he tried to stop because how could Bobby believe him if he couldn't hear what he was saying, but turned out the tears did the trick, because he'd forgotten that beneath his gruff exterior Bobby had a soft spot a mile wide for pint-sized puppies and boys named Winchester, and before he knew it Bobby was awkwardly patting his shoulder and telling him it was going to be okay.
“You believe me?” asked Dean. Bobby looked away as Dean wiped his eyes surreptitiously on his sleeve.
“Guess I do,” said Bobby. “It’s a crazy story, you’re right, but I’ve heard a lot crazier. And Rumsfeld likes you. That’s good enough for me.”
Dean shut his eyes for a second, dizzy with relief. His eyelids felt heavy.
“Where did you sleep last night, Dean?” asked Bobby.
Dean mumbled a reply.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch that,” said Bobby.
“In the park,” said Dean, ducking his head.
“Real comfortable, I bet,” said Bobby. “Cold too. C’mon, let me get you some food.”
As he ate, Bobby kept peppering him with questions, trying to work out what had happened to Dad, why he couldn’t remember, why Bobby couldn’t remember, why Sam and Dean could. Dean tried to answer each question as best he could, but it was getting harder to concentrate.
“Tell me Dean,” Bobby asked, eventually. “How’d your Daddy get into hunting?”
Dean paused, looked down. “Mom died, when Sam was just a baby,” he said. “Something killed her. We don't know what. When Dad found her, he said she was pinned to the ceiling, and then she was on fire, and Sam was just lying there, in his crib.”
Bobby gazed at him, sharply. “Did you see her?” he asked.
Dean jerked his head. “I saw enough,” he said. “Mostly just smoke, and then Dad got me to take Sam outside. I don’t remember much,” he admitted. “I was only four. Dad remembers it all, though.”
Bobby rubbed his beard. “I bet he does,” he said. “Losing your wife like that… that kind of thing doesn’t just go away.”
“It wasn’t his fault, though!” Dean protested.
“Even so. Doesn’t make it any easier,” said Bobby, and his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.
The first thing they had to do, obviously, was get Sam back. Dean was halfway through explaining that to Bobby, when suddenly a giant yawn hit him, cutting him off mid-sentence and splitting his mouth wide open. He rubbed his eyes, and then realized Bobby was looking at him assessingly.
“What?” he grumbled.
“How much sleep did you get in that park?” asked Bobby, but he looked as if he already knew the answer.
“I’m not tired,” protested Dean, as another traitorous yawn escaped him.
“Yeah,” said Bobby, “and I’m Miss South Dakota. C’mon, you can sleep in the spare room.” He stood up and walked to the doorway, and then paused. “Although I’m guessing you already know where that is.”
As he was lying in bed, drifting off to sleep, Bobby came in and stood there for a long moment, just looking at him. “Dean,” said Bobby, “I meant what I said before. It’s going to be alright. I’m going to fix this.”
They were the same words Dean had used to reassure Sam, that first morning, but this time someone else was saying them – and this time, Dean believed them.
When Dean woke up the next morning, Bobby was nowhere to be found, but there was a plate of eggs and bacon ready for Dean. He sat down and began eating – only to choke on a mouthful of food when Bobby rounded the corner wearing a suit and tie, his hair slicked back neatly.
“Shut it,” said Bobby, pulling at his collar uncomfortably, and his obvious unease made Dean laugh even louder.
“What are you all dressed up in a monkey suit for?” asked Dean, when he finally got his breath back.
“You want to get your brother back, don’t you?” said Bobby.
“Yeah,” Dean said, throat suddenly dry. “Yeah, I do.”
He didn’t tease Bobby again, after that, and he was quiet for the rest of the car trip back.
Turns out, Bobby had a way with words, and was pretty good at impersonating a lawyer; and after an hour at the police station, Bobby had managed to get the address of the foster home where Sam was staying.
It was about fifteen minutes away, and the drive there was spent in nearly complete silence. Dean's hands were clenched into fists in his lap.
It was a bit of an anti-climax pulling up and seeing Sam sitting forlornly on the swing out in the front yard, shrouded in Dad’s leather jacket – Dean thought it would be harder than this, stealing Sam back, but he wasn’t about to complain.
He was out of the car in a flash, even as Bobby was hissing, “Dean, wait,” and then he was kneeling down at Sam’s side, clutching him by the shoulders and holding him close.
“Dean,” Sam was saying, “Dean,” and then Dean came to his senses, because they had to get out of here. Dean grabbed Sam and forcibly dragged him to the beat-up car where Bobby was sitting tensely, engine running.
No sooner did Dean open the car door than a woman came out the front door, looked over towards the swings and then spotted them there, by the sidewalk. She let out a startled cry, and then came tearing down the steps towards them - but Dean was quicker, pushing Sam into the car and sliding in after him, slamming the door and then Bobby was peeling away from the pavement as if there were hellhounds on their trail, casting a nervous glance into the rearview mirror every couple of seconds.
“Great,” Bobby grumbled under his breath, once they were a few miles away. “Now I’ll have to change my number plate,” but he was smiling when he turned around and looked at them both in the backseat.
“You must be Sam,” he said. “Dean’s told me a lot about you.”
Sam nodded, pressing closer to Dean, hand clenched tight in the folds of Dean’s shirt.
“Hey,” Dean said, in a low voice. “Sam. You okay?”
“Yeah,” Sam said. Then - “Dean. I’m sorry.”
Dean looked at him, square in the eye. “You got nothing to be sorry for,” he said. “Nothing. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Sam looked back at him, eyes suspiciously shiny– and Dean suddenly wondered how sick Sam was, because Sam didn’t usually get this emotional.
“I got us split up,” Sam said, bottom lip quivering.
“No,” Dean said. “You didn’t. They were going to split us up anyway – they didn’t have room for two of us. It was nothing to do with you.”
Sam shook his head. “I wanted to run away,” he said. “Except I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know where you were.”
Bobby suddenly spoke up from the front seat, causing Sam and Dean to jerk their heads upright, having forgotten momentarily that Bobby was even there. “Sounds to me like you did exactly the right thing, Sam,” he said. “I bet your Dad’s told you before – when you’re lost, safest thing to do is stay right where you are, and let him come find you, right?”
Dean could feel Sam nodding.
“Well,” Bobby continued. “You did the right thing – you stayed put, so Dean and I could find you. If you’d run off, we wouldn’t have known where to begin,” and Dean was suddenly horror-struck at the thought of Sam running away from the foster home, disappearing into the city; a needle in a haystack, never to be seen again.
Everything seemed easier to face, now that Sam was back with him.
“Thanks Bobby,” Dean said, and Bobby shot him a grin.
“One down, one to go,” said Bobby. “Now let’s seeing about finding this father of yours.”
They went back to the motel, on the off-chance that Dad was still staying there. The Impala was still gone from the car park, but when Bobby described Dad to the motel clerk, the man assured them that Dad hadn't checked out yet.
It was mid-afternoon, by then, so Bobby booked them a room for the night at the motel - although he made Sam wait in the car while he checked in, and then snuck him through the side door when the clerk’s back was turned. Just a precaution, Bobby had said, I don’t want to be slapped with kidnapping charges. Once they were settled in the room, Bobby went out for about an hour. He said he was just going to drive around for a while, to get a feel for the place, but he came back on foot, and Dean knew that he’d hid the car somewhere, just in case Sam’s foster mother had reported it.
“The problem is,” said Bobby, when he returned, and they were all sitting around the room, “the problem is, we still have no idea what happened, so we have no idea how to go about fixing it.”
Dean nodded. He was sitting by the window, and kept looking up every few seconds to see if he could spot Dad.
He hadn’t seen any sign of him yet.
Sam was sitting on the ground, fiddling with something.
“What’ya got there, Sam?” asked Dean.
“Dunno,” said Sam. “I found it in Dad’s jacket.”
Bobby sat up at that, and looked over, and his expression changed. “Sam!” he snapped, all traces of tiredness gone. “Put that thing down right now.”
Sam dropped it as if it had burnt him, and stared up at Bobby with wide shocked eyes.
Dean stood up to look at what had caught Bobby’s attention. It was a chip of wood, but carved into it was a strange drawing – three interweaved circles and squiggly lines that seemed to shimmer and shift as Dean stared at them.
“Sorry,” Bobby said, gruffly. “Didn’t mean to scare you. But that’s some serious mojo you were playing with. Like father, like son, I guess.”
“Here,” said Bobby, “give me that jacket,” and he turned the pockets inside out. Amidst the lint and the rattle of loose change there was a coaster from a bar named O’Flannagans, and underneath was printed a name – Moira Sullivan, and a phone number.
“Do you know her?” Dean asked.
“Heard of her,” Bobby grunted. “She’s a witch. What’s your Daddy doing meeting up with her?”
Dean shook his head, didn’t know the answer.
“You boys go watch television for a bit,” said Bobby. “I’ve got some phone calls to make.”
Dean sat down on the couch next to Sam. Sam picked up the remote and started flipping through the channels. Dean was trying to listen to what Bobby was saying but he couldn’t quite make out the words, just the murmur of Bobby’s voice.
He tried to get up to edge closer, but Bobby shot him a look, and Dean stayed put, but he was too distracted to follow what was happening on-screen. Sam seemed to be enjoying it, though.
Dean was still watching Bobby out of the corner of his eye, so he knew when Bobby hung up the phone and swiped his hand across his face.
Dean turned the television off, ignoring Sam’s protests, and stood up, walking over to Bobby.
Bobby drew in a breath, sharply. “The damned fool,” he said, under his breath, but his voice was soft and he didn’t sound angry.
“What is it,” asked Dean, motioning to the chip of wood, which was still sitting innocuously on the table next to Bobby. “Bobby, what does it mean?”
Bobby looked at it for a long moment. “It means two things,” he said, slowly and carefully, as if each word was being drawn out of him. “It means that your Daddy’s an idiot,” and he shot Dean a glare, as if that was somehow his fault. Dean didn’t mind though, because then Bobby said “It also means we can fix this,” and Sam let out a whoop and threw his arms around Bobby, and Dean was too busy laughing at the expression on Bobby’s face to care much about Bobby calling Dad an idiot, because they were going to get Dad back.
Bobby awkwardly thumped Sam on the shoulder. “There, there,” he said, seemingly awestruck by the full-force of Sam’s blinding grin, “I told you from the beginning that I’d fix this. You didn’t believe me or something?”
“Nah,” said Dean. “I believed you. It’s just good to hear you say it again.”
“That’s him,” said Dean, pointing outside to the Impala. Dad was just getting out of the car, and was walking briskly to his motel room. “That’s our Dad.”
Bobby quickly glanced over, following the direction that Dean was indicating. “Is that so,” he said, staring at him curiously. “I’ve never seen that face before in my life.”
“Yeah,” said Dean. “I’m sure he’d say the same about you.”
Bobby bit out a laugh. “Reckon so,” Bobby said. “You ready?”
Dean nodded, and Sam said “Yes,” and Bobby flashed them a reassuring smile. “Won’t be long now, boys,” he said. “Let’s go get your Daddy back.”
Bobby went first, rapping on the door. He was still dressed in his suit – maybe that’s why Dad opened the door.
“Yes,” he said, “Can I help you,” and then he spied Sam and Dean standing in front of the car, and he let out a heavy sigh. “Not this business again,” he said. “I already told you everything I know, and your pals at the office said they’d handle it.”
“Nothing to worry about,” Bobby interjected smoothly. “Apologies for dropping by so late. I just need to get your signature on these forms,” he said. “Can we come in?”
“Yeah,” Dad said grudgingly, holding the door open as all three of them dutifully filed in, Dean bringing up the rear.
Once inside, they arranged themselves around the room – Sam plonking down cross-legged on the double bed, Dean sitting beside him, and Bobby and Dad standing there awkwardly staring at each other.
“Here,” said Bobby, thrusting his clipboard at Dad, “we need you to sign here, and here,” he said, as he pointed rapidly at various points on the pieces of paper.
“Where?” said Dad, peering intently at the pages, and that’s probably why he didn’t notice when Bobby shoved the chloroform rag in his face. He looked surprised, and then indignant, and then his knees gave way; and he sank to the floor, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
Dean and Sam watched as Bobby draw a chalk circle around Dad, who was sprawled out on the floor.
“What’s he doing, Dean?” Sam whispered, in what he no doubt believed was a quiet voice.
“He’s bringing Dad back,” Dean answered confidently, hoping against hope that that was the truth.
The circles took awhile to draw - intricate swirls and complicated whorls, and Bobby worked quickly in silence, every now and then pulling out a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and comparing it to what he'd drawn so far.
Dad was coming to, now, stirring – and then he was sitting up. Bobby was still drawing, faster now, but Dad was fast as well, and he lumbered to his feet. “What the hell,” he bit out, and then Bobby gave the chalk a final swipe and said “Now, Dean, go” and Dean held up the wood chip in his hand, and fumbled with the cigarette lighter. Once, twice, and then it was alight; billowing out a curious green smoke that permeated the whole room, making it hard to see.
When the smoke cleared, all four of them were standing there, a frozen tableau.
Dean and Sam’s eyes were fixed firmly on Dad, who was still staring at them blankly. "We’re yours," Dean wanted to say, "we’re your sons," except his throat had gone dry and the words that he couldn’t say were choking him – so he was just left there, staring stupidly at Dad.
Sam wasn’t doing much better. He was chewing his lower lip, the way he always did when he was worried about something.
Bobby remained silent, casting his eyes back and forth between them, as if he was waiting for something.
Dad shook his head briskly, like his ears were ringing, and Dean thought for a split second that it hadn't worked, that it had all been for nothing; but then Dad was looking straight at them - and Dean could tell the exact moment he saw them, even before he saw the glint of recognition in Dad's eyes, even before he heard Dad gasp.
Bobby saw it too. He was halfway across the room before Dad had even had a chance to catch his breath, all up in Dad's face, pushing him roughly against the wall. "What the hell were you thinking, John?" he asked, and from the practiced way he jabbed his finger straight into Dad’s chest, Dean figured it was pretty clear that Bobby’s memory had come back, too – because he was acting the way he usually did around Dad, although this time he was more riled up than Dean had ever seen him.
It seemed to be a night for firsts, because Dad looked guiltier than Dean had ever seen, head hung low. Usually Dad got angry right back when other people started laying into him, but this time Dad just looked tired and indescribably defeated.
“What the hell,” said Bobby. “You know how dangerous that stuff is, John, and you went and messed with it. What the hell,” and he let go of Dad’s shirt and backed away slowly, shaking his head. All the fight was gone out of him too, and he looked old and sad, and about as weary as Dad.
Dad answered Bobby's question, but he was staring at Dean the whole time. "I wanted to forget Mary," he said slowly, hesitating over his words. "I thought I could be a better father to you boys if I could put her memory behind me, if I could let go of all of – this," and he gestured vaguely around the room, trailing off.
His eyes snapped back to Dean’s. "I never wanted to forget you," he said, voice gruff like Dean had never heard it before.
Dean didn’t say anything, just rested his hand on Sam’s shoulder, and met his father’s gaze squarely.
Bobby coughed in the background. "Guess I'll give you folks some time alone to catch up," said Bobby, backing out of the room.
"Thanks Bobby," Dad said, his eyes never leaving Dean's face. "Thanks for everything."
Bobby just shrugged, and shut the door behind him as he left - and as he shut it, Dean could have sworn he heard him mutter "idjit" but it didn't matter, not at all, because Dad was back, and they were all together again.
"I'm so sorry," Dad said, the stubble of his beard grazing the top of Dean's head. Dean could feel every breath he took, could feel Dad’s heartbeat thudding through his flannel shirt, could feel the tight grip Dad had on the both of them, as if he was hanging on tight enough to never let go. Sam squirmed in his grip, but Dean was a solid presence at his back, keeping him pressed in close. “I’m so goddamn sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Dean said, breathing in the smell of DadandSamandhome. “We’re okay. You came back.”