Title: Back to the Infinite
By: toneskis
Rating: R for language
Characters: Bobby, John, weeDean, weeSam
Notes/Disclaimers: Gen. Pre-Series. Complete.
Summary: Revenge isn't always aimed at those who deserve it.

***

Bobby's Jeep swerved into the parking lot of Mae's Hootenanny Café, the chalky gravel under his tires cracking and popping like oversized Rice Crispies. He pulled next to a rusty mauve pickup and cut the engine, listening to the vehicle as it grumbled and shuttered to a standstill.

The next part was extraordinarily simple: Open door, step outside, close door. He'd been doing it since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. And yet, here he sat, fingers flexing over the wheel as the motor pinged angrily, body glued to the seat. He was hesitating, and the sensation wasn't something he was fond of. Stage fright just wasn't his style. 

'Course, all this uncertainty was fleeting. Had to be. As much as he didn't want to leave the comforting silence surrounding him - and god help him, he'd rather be anywhere else right about now - he knew he didn't have the time. Couldn't afford such a luxury, even when he felt like part of him was falling to bits, and all he needed was one more minute to get his act together.

Just one more minute... and things still wouldn't be okay.

He cursed, flinging off the seat belt and opening the door. Bobby's ass cheeks had barely lifted from the bench when Winchester appeared at his side, yanking him from the Jeep.

"They took 'em, Bobby! They fucking took 'em!"

"Calm down," Bobby pleaded, freeing himself from the grip John had on his forearms.

Bobby was working blind, save for a phone call he'd gotten three hours ago - John, frantic, babbling that someone had taken the boys. He hadn't been able to get much out of Winchester as to what had actually happened though, just that Sam and Dean were gone, and Bobby needed to get to Springdale, Wyoming, ASAP.

"I fucked up, wasn't paying attention. The bastards must have drugged me. They took-"

"The boys. I know, John. Just breathe for a second, goddammit."

John stopped rambling, but the man still practically vibrated off the ground with the remaining pent-up energy. Bobby pulled off his hat, dragging a hand through his thinning hair.

Hell if he knew how things had gone so wrong, so fast. Two days ago, John had unexpectedly appeared on his doorstep with his boys, a duffle bag and a grin that said I need a favor. This time it had been help on a summoning ritual that had clunked out on him. Bobby had let them stay the night, of course. He was predictable like that, especially when it came to the undeniable soft spot he had for those boys. There was plenty of room, and he didn't mind the company, though Sam's jabbering about his soon-to-be first day of kindergarten had been cute the first hour... and grating the next eighteen.

The Winchesters had only been gone a day, barely past the Wyoming border when Bobby had gotten the call that started his three-hour drive. Well, four and a half, if he'd felt inclined to follow the law.

He hadn't.

Bobby glanced around, spotting a bench out of the line of pedestrian traffic, and motioned John over. He forced the other hunter into the wooden seat and took an injury inventory. Outwardly, Winchester looked okay. A little crazy with his hair all cockwobbly like that, but unhurt. John had been pretty out of it when he called, but the drugs - or whatever had been messing with his head - seemed to have worn off. 

"From the beginning," Bobby instructed.

John learned forward, cradling his head in his hands.

"I finished off a poltergeist last night, nice and routine. This morning on our way out of town I took the boys to eat."

"Mae's, I take it?"

"Yeah. We went in, ordered. Two guys were sitting in the booth behind us. One of 'em and I got to talking about the Impala. Before we left, I told the boys to stay put - Sam was still finishing up his eggs, anyway - and I asked the waitress to watch them as I went to take a piss. Got back from the head, finished my coffee and we left. I wasn't in the car for more than a minute before I got sick. Had to pull over and throw up. That's when the men from the diner showed up."

"And?"

"I felt wrong, off. I couldn't stand, and everything blurred. They moved me out of the car, sat me against an alley wall. I heard Dean screaming and the Impala start, and the next thing I knew I was waking up between the trashcans. It took me nearly ten minutes to get over to the payphone to call you. I... I think I passed out again after you hung up."

Bobby frowned. "No one saw anything?"

"It was 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Bobby. I'm pretty sure everyone but the waitress was at church."

"And you didn't go to the police?"

"The police can't help with this," John murmured. "They said something when they were moving me; probably thought I was unconscious. It was a word..."

"Word?"

"Balas."

"Sonovabitch," Bobby hissed. "They're all dead. We saw them burn."

John looked up, the phlegmatic guise he'd honed so well over the years destroyed by the look of panic now flooding his eyes.

"One of those things survived, Bobby, and now they have my boys."



****



"That's all we have, Caleb," Bobby said, feeding the payphone the quarter it demanded. He ran a hand over his forehead, trying to massage away the headache that was jackhammering inside his skull.

The Balas had been a sect of demons bent on worshiping another, far more powerful demon named Balaam. Bobby wasn't even sure Balaam existed - at least, not anymore. But the Balas were persistent, you had to give 'em that. They'd been a relatively low-key cult, until they started sacrificing humans two years ago. Five people had gone missing from New Fork, Nebraska, their bodies later found mutilated in a mass grave outside of town. The group had gotten sloppy though, believing in the ultimate protection of Balaam, and had left their symbol on one of the victims.

They'd been a nasty bunch, but for all the unlikeliest of reasons.

As far as abilities went, Balas were lower-level - their powers far weaker than even the garden-variety demons hunters stumbled across. Easy to exorcise, they didn't just flinch at the name of God: They stopped, dropped and rolled.

The Balas rarely possessed people, as it turned out, but it wasn't out of any love for humankind. No, the average human spirit was too strong-willed to allow the demon complete control. Possession, Bobby figured, just wasn't as much fun when the body could fight back. Yet, like most bottom-feeders, they'd found a way to adapt. Instead of taking people against their will, they'd rustled up volunteers. Humans who acted as incubators, hosting the demon and sharing the body; Men and women who knew what they were doing, choosing the lifestyle and the evils that went with it.

Caleb had heard about the New Fork killings first. Called Bobby a day later, asking if he'd join him and some greenhorn hunter, a guy named Winchester, to take them out.
   
All things considered, the hunt had gone well. They'd ended up trapping the suckers in their compound as it burned to the ground. The fire had been an accident - a scuffle inside had tipped a candelabrum and the entire place had gone up like a scene from Towering Inferno. No one had wanted to hurt the human hosts, but they'd refused help, and by the time any of them could have repented, the fire had spread, blocking the only entrance.

They'd been lucky to get out only lightly singed - Bobby could still remember the smell of his own burning eyebrows. After escaping the flames, they'd moved quickly to form a circle around the building, performing a one-way ticket to Hell exorcism.

Now it seemed that hellfire hadn't been strong enough. These demons might be able to kill Caleb or John or himself, and they'd just be ending a life; but take those boys and the ballgame changed. Just the thought of Sam and Dean anywhere near a Balas caused Bobby to fight for control of his stomach.

"Look, Bobby, I'll do what I can, but..." Caleb's voice dropped lower, as if John might somehow hear him over the distance. "You know as well as I do that those boys... those boys are probably already dead."

"I know that," Bobby answered, glancing across the parking lot at Winchester, who paced around the Jeep like his feet were on fire. Bobby turned back, leaning closer to the payphone.  "We have to try, even if that means finding bodies."

"This'll kill him."

"I know that, too." Bobby sighed. "Just... see what you can dig up. We're gonna head down toward Masonville. A gas station attendant said he saw a classic black car heading south, so we'll try that.  I'll get back to you."

Caleb hung up, but Bobby kept the phone to his ear, needing a few more seconds. Just another moment where he didn't have to look Winchester in the eye and lie to him, tell him they'd do all they could to find his sons, when he knew in his heart that those two kids were already gone, slaughtered like animals.

Bobby slid the phone onto the cradle, turning back to the Jeep.

"What'd he say?" John asked, coming to a wobbly standstill.

"He's going to call some of his contacts, see if they've heard anything about Balas activity."

"We should go then," John said. "They have a few hours on us, but we might get lucky, run across someone who saw the boys, the car."

"It's a real possibility they dumped the car, John." As soon as the words left his mouth, Bobby knew they were wrong, and he bit his tongue. There was a reason the ancient Greeks left hope behind in Pandora's jar; sometimes it was all they had. "But you never know, I suppose. Could be. Get in."

Seconds later, Bobby's tires skidded as he accelerated onto the asphalt.

"Did the waitress say anything about the men?"

Bringing up the kidnappers seemed to infuriate Winchester all over again, and Bobby watched the other hunter's hands close into tight fists. He didn't blame him. This wasn't some random act; This was planned. John had had his boys taken right from under his nose, easy as apple pie.

Those fuckers were going to regret the day they'd ever walked into Mae's.

"She said they'd been there about fifteen minute before we showed up," John said, his jaw tightening. A few more clenches, and he'd be able to shatter diamonds. "They hadn't been very talkative, just sat quietly, at least until we got there."

"So they were there before you?"

John shrugged. "There were only two or three other places open for breakfast, probably a lucky guess."

That rang strangely to Bobby, though he didn't know why. "What else? Anything unusual?"

"Nothing, as far as I could tell. I'd just finished my food when one of them leaned over the booth and said he liked the car. We started talking. He seemed nice, you know? What a fucking joke."
   
"What was the other one doing?"

"Just listened mostly; smiled and nodded a lot." John turned toward the window, muttering something Bobby didn't catch.

"Say again?"

"They left her a twenty-dollar tip. Can you believe that? A fucking tip. They're plotting to take my children the whole time they're sitting there, and they act like standup citizens and leave a tip worth twice their meal."

Bobby pondered a few minutes, letting the quiet country music pouring from the radio wash over him. They'd gone a handful of miles when Bobby heard John speak again, perhaps to Bobby, perhaps to himself.
   
"I need to get them back. I have to get them back."



****



Two days of failure sure was a kick to your self-esteem's gonads, Bobby mused, stepping under the Motel 6's near-scalding shower spray.

When Bobby had suggested stopping for a short rest, Winchester had put up a bitchfest. He didn't like himself anymore for being the one to suggest it, but after days of driving, questions and more questions, Bobby felt like a walking zombie. He'd managed a 30-minute catnap during the first day, and had enough caffeine to give most people a heart attack, but 48 hours - and then some - of no sleep had finally taken its toll. His adrenaline was good, but it wasn't that good. And even if he didn't want to admit it, John wasn't looking any better. Bobby'd try his best to explain that passing out in the middle of all this wouldn't do any of them any good, and they'd be no use to those boys if they were still alive - not that he'd uttered that last part aloud.

They'd gotten a few hits since leaving Springdale, including an old car buff at a reststop welcome center three towns over who'd seen a black '67 Impala headed east, two guys in front and two little boys in back. But as Bobby and John quickly discovered, east meant three different routes, two of which led to major highways. Realistically, Bobby knew any chance of catching up to the kidnappers had been lost by now. Lost the moment John passed out in that alley Sunday morning.

Bobby had only been in the shower a few minutes when he heard the buzz of the telephone. He didn't even bother rinsing the shampoo from his hair, just stumbled out of the tub, his ass hanging out one of the motel's midget towels.

He stood dripping in the bathroom doorway as John 'uh-huhed' into the phone and scratched notes onto a pad of paper, head glued to the earpiece. The clock next to the bed read 5:45. a.m. When Winchester finally hung up, he glanced at Bobby, raising an eyebrow at what had to be the room's sudden increase in nudity, before saying, "Caleb found a lead."

Bobby hiked up his towel. "Okay."

"He says there's a--" John stopped and took a breath, as if he needed that tiny respite to just get through the next words. "He said there's a bounty out for my boys, Bobby."

"Fuck."

John stood up, pacing around his bed. "After the locater spell failed, he called in a favor with some witchdoctor down in Louisiana.. Guy said he'd heard something a few weeks back about some demons looking for a couple of kids. All he could give Caleb was a name, possibly a middleman for whoever placed the bounty."

"What's the reward?" Bobby asked.

"Money, though he didn't know the exact total. But, a bounty, that's a good sign, right? They could have taken us out at any time if it was just a hit, but they didn't. They want the boys alive. If we can track down this guy, he can lead us to them."

A drop of water slid into Bobby's left eye and he blinked it away. "Yeah. Yeah, I suppose so. Look, just, uh, lemme get into some clothes and we'll head out."

Finding someone with only a name turned out to be far easier than Bobby had figured it to be. The middleman had left a phone number, an honest-to-god human phone number, in lieu of any of the typical mystical shit Bobby'd been expecting. A name and an area code narrowed the list down substantially, and a call to the operator revealed only one Hank Danning in the Lebanon, Missouri, area. 

It took all the daylight hours to get to Lebanon, the ride a quiet journey across the Midwest. They switched off driving once, stopped at a couple places to piss, but conversation was held at a minimum. Smalltalk just didn't suit the situation, and what else was there?

As disgusting as it sounded, and as much as Bobby hated himself for thinking it, a part of him wished someone had just killed those boys right there at Mae's. Taking them alive meant a small chance of rescue, yes, but it also meant that there'd be days in between filled with unimaginable horrors. The Balas and their followers were sick bastards, and they didn't care about children any more than they did for any human being. They didn't have pity or empathy or mercy. They wanted retribution, and Sam and Dean would be the ones to pay. If he and John found those kids, they might be breathing, but they wouldn't be alive.

A little after sunset, the Jeep came to a creeping stop across the street from Danning's house, a suburban one-story building with white siding and no frills. Ten minutes passed with no movement in or outside of the house, the windows dark and lifeless and the carport empty.  

John shifted in his seat, his agitation rising as each minute passed. "If that goddamn witchdoctor was lying to us I'll--"
 
"Just hold your fucking horses," Bobby said. "Stay put."

Bobby slid out of the passenger side and shut the door. He saw John move, as if he was going to get out, but Bobby thrust a finger at him, demanding Winchester stay in the vehicle. He got a glower, but to his surprise, John kept his butt stuck to the seat. For now, anyway.

Instead of heading to Danning's home, Bobby made for the neighboring house, where an elderly man was standing in his lawn rolling up a water hose.

"Excuse me, sir," Bobby called, jogging up the driveway. He could already feel the mosquitoes making a buffet of his arms. 

The man looked up. "Yes?"

"Sir, I was wondering if you could help me," Bobby said, putting on his best smile. "A buddy and I were supposed to play poker with Hank, your neighbor, tonight. He's late though, and I'm getting worried. I was just wondering if you'd seen him, or had any clue as to where he might be?"

The man bent down into the dewy grass to retrieve the sprinkler attached at the end of the hose. "Well, I don't know the fella too well; He's only been renting here a few months.  But if I had to guess, he's probably still down at the library. He's an assistant to the librarian or something. He stays every night after closing to restock shelves. Maybe he got busy and forgot about y'all."

"I'm an idiot!" Bobby grinned, smacking his forehead lightly. "I completely forget he said he might have to work late. The library, it's where exactly?"

The man stared strangely at him, fuzzy eyebrows rising. "Downtown? Corner of Fifth and Sycamore?" He threw the hose over his shoulder. "You ever read a book, son?"

Bobby shrugged, hands in his pockets. "Oh, from time to time. I mostly like the pictures. I appreciate your help, sir. Have a nice evening."
   
When Bobby got back into to the vehicle, John glared daggers - and probably other dangerous pointy objects.

"If you ever jab your finger at me like that again, Singer, I'll--"

"I might have found our guy. You interested?"

John answered by starting the engine.



****


Bobby leaned nonchalantly against his Jeep, a half-smoked cigarette resting between his fingertips. It was more for show than taste, though he did have a nostalgic longing for them, like a dalliance with an old lover. Great to catch up again, as long as you remembered the reason you broke up in the first place.
   
He took another drag as he eyed the library a few blocks down, watching for any movement. They couldn't be positive that Danning was in there, of course, but there was still a car parked in the lot even though the front doors were locked. So far, no police cruisers had come roaring toward the library, which meant John hadn't triggered any alarms, thank god.

Downtown was dead, though an open bar a few buildings over provided him with some decent cover. To anybody passing by, he should look like nothing more than a barfly out for a breather. He hadn't been gaga at the prospect of John going into the library alone, but both of them getting ambushed wouldn't do their mission any good, either. Winchester had twenty minutes, and then Bobby was coming in after him.

It didn't get that far, however, because at the eighteen-minute mark, John slinked out the back of the building, fading into the tree line for a few moments before reappearing next to the vehicle. He didn't say anything other than to tell Bobby to get in. Bobby dropped the cigarette, crushing it under his boot.
 
He didn't ask any questions as he pulled away, just drove, John waving him down the street. The other man said nothing at first, and Bobby felt a little lightheaded as the possibilities warp sped through his brain.

What he didn't expect  was for John to murmur, "They're here."

Bobby blinked. "Who's here?"

"My boys are in Lebanon, Bobby"

"How-- how in the hell do you know that?"

"Had a nice long conversation with Danning," John offered casually, his eyes unreadable in the dark. "He's a human follower, but the go-to guy for the bounty. One of the demons escaped the fire that night and has been trying to rebuild the group."

"There's only one Balas?"

"So far. A bunch of human worshiper though, all hoping to be future hosts."

"And the boys are here?"

"Yes, but the Balas doesn't have them yet."

"What?" Bobby balked. "How is that even possible? These SOBs were ahead of us and they knew where they were going."

"Danning told me they contacted him this morning, but refused to hand over the boys. They're not followers, just in it for the reward. They demanded an exclusive meeting with the leader, to negotiate for a higher price. The demon is coming here - hell, it's probably already here. We don't have much time."

"I assume you know where?"
   
John smirked darkly. "Foreclosed farmhouse just out of town, a couple of miles off the main road. Turn left on Mills Hollow and follow it until it dead ends." 

Bobby's foot made friendly with the accelerator, fast food restaurants flashing by. He glanced over at John.

"Did Danning survive this conversation?"

John shrugged, staring ahead into the night. "Yeah, though he'll probably want to get those knees checked out."

Bobby felt the side of his mouth quirk slightly. Good.



****



"This is a bad idea," Bobby grumbled, pulling the hood lower to better cover his face.

"What do you suggest?" John snarled back, but his voice came out as a whisper, which lost intimidation points.

Bobby yanked at the brown cloth again, feeling the material stretch tightly over his shoulders. It was snug, but nothing that looked abnormal. Abnormal, as if he hadn't just clubbed the previous owner over the head, stripped him, hogtied him, and then buried him under a bunch of dead leaves. Nope. Not abnormal at all.

"We look like fucking Jedi," Bobby mumbled.

Crouched behind a mammoth oak, John was focused on the house ahead of them, but managed to turn his head enough to shoot a piss-and-vinegar look at Bobby. "I'll talk to the cult's fashion coordinator. See what they can do."

Bobby shook his head. "No need to get fussy, Winchester. What do you see? Any more patrols?"

Besides the ones they'd already incapacitated and stripped, there were still four other robed figures roaming the premises. The followers were lightly armed with some kind of dagger hanging from a scabbard on their belts, but none appeared to be on any particular guard duty. Well, at least any good guard duty. They seemed more interested in what was going on inside than anything outside.

As for what was happening in the house, Bobby couldn't fathom. Every few minutes one or two of the followers would venture inside and then return a few minutes later in quiet whispers.

The final obstacle was one of the kidnappers, who leaned against the Impala like he owned the thing. It had taken all Bobby's strength to pull John back when they'd noticed that bastard against the car. Winchester'd looked like he wanted rip the guy limb from limb - still did for that matter - but he was tempered now, eyes on the prize.

No sign of the boys yet.

"They're coming out," John murmured, gaze directed at the house as two robed figures emerged from the front door, padded down the steps and around the house. "Let's move."
       
This seemed to be the night of stupid plans he wasn't gung-ho about. And he'd told John as much. Several times. Though he might as well have been talking to the lint in his pockets. Not that he could suggest a better solution, per se. John's plan did offer the potential for surprise, which was better than rushing in guns-a-blazing. There wasn't time for backup - the nearest hunter Bobby knew was hours away, and they couldn't wait around outside if Sam and Dean were really there, being subjected to who knew what.

Bobby stepped out of their hiding spot, careful the mimic the rigid posture of the other followers. It might be an idiotic plan, but that didn't mean he wasn't going along. Of course, the shotgun slung over his shoulder, hidden by the bulky robe, and the .45 resting in his waistband didn't hurt his confidence any.

As he and John passed the kidnapper, Bobby kept his eyes averted, but he could feel the man watching  their backs. His brain screeched at him like the Lost in Space robot as he walked, one foot in front of the other like a good tin soldier, but he guy never moved from his position against the trunk. Bobby tried not to sigh as his feet hit the porch and he ascended the stairs.
 
He risked a sideways look at John as he pulled open the screen door and the thicker one behind it. The hinges creaked slightly and they stepped into the foyer. Inside, he and John inched forward, into what looked like a living room. There was no electricity, but six or seven camping lights were set up around the place, providing a decent glow.

"... promised she'd be here."

As they moved over the threshold, Bobby could sense the argument they were stepping into. The room was tense, but controlled - at least for now. Nobody seemed to pay them much mind, and he and John slid along the wall. There were six people in the room. Five were human disciples, obviously from their clothing, and the other Bobby pegged as the second kidnapper. Besides the knives, there were no other weapons visible, save for the two worshipers holding semi-automatic rifles.

"She will be," remarked one of the parishioners, a balding man just on the shady side of old age. "Her Highness' vessel is ready and waiting."

"Yeah, well," the kidnapper smirked, "tell her Highness to hurry her ass up, or my compadre and I take her little prizes for ourselves."

Bobby felt John shift next to him, and he knew why. If the partner had the kids, it might mean they were in the car. Which would be why the guy didn't move from the truck. Shitshitshit. 

"Our illustrious Leader will arrive when she sees fit."

"Yeah, and I ain't got all day," the kidnapper said, strolling easily around the room. He picked at a piece of cracking wallpaper, then moved on, pausing in front of the sentinels to nod toward the guns. "Those necessary for such a simple business transaction?"

"You can never be too sure," the bald worshiper replied dourly, as the two women behind him glared at the kidnapper.
   
The kidnapper continued his walkabout, which unfortunately sent him in their direction. Bobby's eyes shot to Winchester. John had tucked himself pretty deeply into that robe, head nearly touching his chest, so no reason the guy should get more than a passing glance. Still, Bobby tensed as the man neared, hand itching for his gun. Just as the kidnapper stepped in front of him, a plume of black smoke appeared from the fireplace, wriggling out of the brick opening and into the room. The demon writhed in the air and a hum filled the room as the followers all dropped to their knees and began chanting.

In the melee, Bobby lifted his gaze to get a better look. It was only when he'd raised his face that he realized the kidnapper wasn't looking at the demon: He was looking at Bobby.

They made eye contact for a brief moment, and though the man didn't move a muscle otherwise, his eyes looked startled as hell. Behind them, the demon invaded the nearest disciple, a blonde who looked like she was barely out of her teens. The kidnapper still didn't seem interested in the possession, and slowly panned his gaze over to John. The man froze, and again, something flashed in those green eyes. When the kidnapper finally turned back to Bobby, he only spared him a glance before turning away as if he'd never seen them.

The possessed girl across the room, with eyes now moonlighting as bottomless pits, stood and stretched. The demon took a few paces toward the kidnapper in its new suit.

"You ignorant piss-ant," it snarled, pretty face turned ugly by the demon's malice. "How dare you interrupt my work? The bounty we offered is sufficient, and there will be no debate. Comply, or we take the children by force and rip you and your pathetic accomplice to bloody pieces."

Bobby was still trying his damndest to figure out why the kidnapper hadn't turned them in when the front door swung open and two of the robed guards from outside stormed in, each screaming, "Imposters!"

And wouldn't you know it. Their fingers were pointing right at him and John.

If they survived this, he'd be giving Winchester the loudest I"“told-you-so in the history of ever.
   
The room erupted into shouts and screams as he and John moved together, darting toward the most serious threats. Bobby threw an elbow into the nearest sentinel's face, and as the man squawked in horror at the blood gushing out of his broken nose, he grabbed the semi-automatic, smashing it into the side of the guard's head. A few feet away, John was fighting for the control of the other gun. Suddenly, the rifle exploded to life, firing a series of wild shots into the room. Bobby threw himself to the right just as a line of red dots burst across the head worshipper's chest.

Bobby stood, moving to help John, but was thrown off balance again when something attached itself to his back like a cracked-out spider monkey. Long fingernails dug into his cheeks as he jerked and weaved, finally resorting to slamming himself into a wall to get the unwanted passenger off. The woman was up in seconds, already pulling a knife from a boot sheath, as Bobby fumbled for his gun under his robe. The worshiper jumped, just as Bobby drew his .45 and fired. Her knife, already in a downward arc for his chest, only managed to slash his shoulder as she toppled over, bullet through her heart.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bobby caught movement by the front door. The two robed figures who'd come from outside were running in opposite directions. One dashed headlong into the clash, while the other took one look at the scene and hightailed it out the door, tripping his way through the frame.

It's so hard to find good minions these days, Bobby thought, turning to John.

He'd gotten a foot, maybe two, when the brave guard change directions and  launched himself at Bobby. Unable to block the meaty fist that impacted his jaw, Bobby was thrown backward by the blow, smacking into a bookshelf and hitting the ground hard enough to jolt his spine. Dazed, he watched the man approach, holding Bobby's own gun in his hand. The guard was a step away from Bobby when a golfball-sized hole exploded in the man's forehead, brains and blood leaking from his skull as he collapsed, gun clattering to the floor.

Behind the dead man, the kidnapper lowered his pistol.

Trying to ignore the bongos playing in his head, Bobby peered up in surprise, waiting for the man to turn his aim down. But the kidnapper just moved back to the brawl. Bobby staggered up, holding onto the shelf for support. All the worshipers were on the ground, in various states of dead or unconscious, and that just left the...

There was a shrill scream, and suddenly the demon-possessed girl steamrolled John, knocking the man over and sitting atop his chest like a demented version of Hop on Pop. As one of its hands held John's throat, the other wielded a cult-issued knife.

Bobby stumbled forward, but he knew in his bones he wouldn't make it in time.

From the side, the kidnapper flung himself at the demon, tackling it off of Winchester. The two rolled a few times before jerking apart.
   
The man pulled a flask from his jacket, spraying holy water - given all the smoldering the demon was doing - across the girl's chest.  Screeching, the demon lashed out, knocking the flask across the room, and went for the kidnapper's throat.  The man stumbled back. Pulling out his gun, he shot it twice in the chest before it, too, was slung from his hands. Out of weapons, the man kicked toward the demon's knees, but the creature was faster. Grabbing the man's leg mid-thrust, it pulled up, throwing the kidnapper to the floor on his back. The guy rolled, managing a decent jab at the demon's solar plexus with his boot, before the demon plunged the knife into his gut.

The demon raised the blood-soaked dagger again, intending another blow, but Bobby got there first. Grabbing the thing around the neck, Bobby yanked it up and held on tightly, putting just the right amount of pressure on the girl's airway. The demon flailed and kicked its legs, knife swinging up toward Bobby's face. But the sleeper hold finally took, and it went limp in his arms. He dropped it to the floor.

John appeared next to him, rubbing his throat. "Fuck."

Bobby moved toward the window, peering outside, but nothing moved. Of course, that wasn't surprising, given that the ground was littered with corpses.

He nodded to John, and provided cover as Winchester searched the bodies both inside and outside for any signs of life. All the Balas followers in the house were dead, except the two unconscious sentinels. Around the porch were the bodies of three of the robed guards, including the one who'd wimped out from the fight in the house. Gunshot wounds seemed to have been the fatal blow on each. The Impala was still sitting where it had been before, but the kidnapper was nowhere to be found.

Bobby stepped back inside, and went to squat in front of the kidnapper they still had in their possession. The man groaned and rolled over, holding a red-stained hand tightly to his stomach. The kidnapper wouldn't look at him, but Bobby continued his one-man staring contest until he heard footsteps behind him.

"They're not there," John growled. "They're not in the car."

Bobby knew it was going to happen, as well as that he couldn't stop it, so he remained crouched as John rushed forward, pulling the kidnapper up by his jacket.

"Where are my boys, you fuck?" John yelled, slamming him into the wall.

The kidnapper winched, probably from his wound - or from the fact that his head nearly cracked the drywall. Still, he didn't speak.
 
"John," Bobby murmured, knowing how careful his next words had to be. He had to stop John from pummeling the guy into the next room. Literally. "You kill him, and we don't get information. Let him go, Winchester.  Let him go."

With a shove, John released the kidnapper and the guy dropped back to the ground.

"Now," Bobby said, still in his stooped position, "tell me where your accomplice took those boys."
   
That seemed to get a rise out of the man, because he struggled to sit up. "He's not out there?"

"Nope. Not a sign, didn't even take the car. But he did leave this behind." Bobby reached into his pocket, pulling free a square silver talisman and dangling it by its chain. "Figured it was his, seeing as you have a matching one."

The man grabbed for the similar chain around his neck, but Bobby had been expecting the move, and his fingers encircled the man's wrist, holding it back from the charm. The kidnapper's other hand was still plastered to his bloody belly, but Bobby was watching it too.

"Ah ah ah. No touching."

John bent down next to him. "What is it?" he asked, reaching for the amulet. Bobby's free hand smacked John's away.

"You either. He's still wearing it, which means it might be some kind of protection curse. The symbol's familiar, but I need to do a little research, so it stays for the time being."

"Look," the kidnapper offered, "I'll tell you where they are, but you leave me here."

"Like we'd trust you," John snarled.

Bobby, ever the diplomat, shrugged. "Look, you're not the one in any position to be making deals around here, bud. This is how it's gonna go: You tell us where those kids are, and we take you with us. Then we see how we feel once we know the state Sam and Dean are in. After that... well, maybe we decide to take you to a hospital."

The kidnapper turned his head away.

"They're at a motel off of Highway 32. Budget Inn, room 202. Key's in the car's glove compartment."

Surprised at his candor - or the ability to lie so well - Bobby pulled the guy from the wall and tied his hands behind his back with one of the worshiper's leather belts.

Before they went after the boys, they had to do one last thing.

With Bobby presiding, the exorcism was quick and dirty - wham, bam, into Hades ma'am. They'd gone as far as to draw a quick devil's trap, but it wasn't needed. The only time the demon woke was at the end, as it was being expelled from its body.

After making sure the sentinels' bounds would hold, Bobby dragged their captive up by the back of his jacket and led him out the door and into the Impala. At the end of the road, Bobby, with the kidnapper in tow, switched to the Jeep. Ahead of them, John sped onto the road like a drunken Nascar driver.

Following the black streak to the main road, Bobby couldn't rid himself of the foreboding that enveloped his senses. This whole thing was like rain on a sunny day - it just didn't feel right. He was well aware they might be getting played. Send them on the road, give the partner time to escape with the boys. If it was, Bobby wasn't sure he could stop John from finishing the job the demon had started on the kidnapper.

He glanced over at his passenger.

"Why'd you do it?" he asked. "It doesn't make any decent sense why some child-stealing scumbag would help us."

As he'd expected, said scumbag maintained his silence.

Outwardly, nothing about the kidnapper screamed evil to Bobby. No beady eyes, no crazy facial ticks, no ratty hobo beard. The guy was a little younger than Bobby, fairly attractive - the specifics for that particular judgment based solely from what he knew growing up with three sisters who lusted after boys like it was an Olympic sport. There was an edge to the man, like he'd lived far longer than the lines on his face cared to admit, but still, those weren't exactly features that struck someone as, "Hey, I'm the type of bastard who abducts children for money. Ask me how."
 
Then again, evil rarely played by the rules. Even demons wore angelic faces when it suited them.

"Best I can figure," Bobby said, keeping his eye on the road, "you thought you might need our help when it all went to shit. 'Course, your saving us doesn't mean we owe you squat, but I'll tell you this: For your sake, I hope you're telling the truth. Because if you're not? And those boys have so much as one hair out of place? I'd hate to be you when their daddy gets a hold of ya."

There was still no verbal response, but out of the corner of his eye he spied the guy swallowing pretty hard. The Crazy of John Winchester could be a good motivator sometimes.

The conversation ended there.

When a Budget Inn appeared some 20 odd miles down the road, Bobby had to admit to himself, he was shocked. Pulling into the parking lot, he eased into a spot in front of 202, keeping the engine running. The place only had one story, and 202 sat in the middle of about a dozen other rooms, so no obvious ambush from above or below. Nothing seemed particularly off about the room, other than the windows were drawn and a white tag hung from the door, requesting morning maid service. Aside from a light coming from the manager's office and a few cars scattering the lot, the place was quiet and empty. Normal.

"You realize," Bobby murmured, "if this is a trap, you're the first who'll die."

Across the lot, John remained in the Impala as Bobby got out of the Jeep and pulled the kidnapper from his seat, throwing another jacket over his shoulders to hide his bindings. Bobby then slung an arm around the guy's waist as they ambled toward 202, looking like nothing more than two buddies stumbling in after a long evening of drinking. No one, except someone inside, would know Bobby was using the other man as a shield.

Bobby slid the key in with his free hand. Turning it slowly, the lock gave way with a soft cha-chunk, and Bobby twisted the knob. As the door cracked, he heard a faint, high-pitched voice from inside. He tensed, pushing the muzzle of his gun deeper into the back of his "buddy." His instincts told him they'd been conned, but it was his brain that kept him from pulling the trigger. The voice was familiar.

Bobby kicked open the door... and was greeted by the smiling face of Bugs Bunny on the television set.

Across the room, Sam and Dean were lying on the room's sole bed. Each boy was gagged and handcuffed to the bedframe, but to Bobby's unexpected delight, they seemed okay. No visible bruises or blood, no glassy stares. They just looked happy to see him.

Bobby pushed his captive to the carpet and did a quick sweep of the room. Other than the bathroom and a closet no grown person could squeeze into, the place was empty.

As expected, Winchester was five seconds behind him. When Bobby gave the all clear, John rushed to his sons, pulling washcloths from their mouths. Sam was the first, and as soon as John had the fuzzy material free, Sammy squealed, "Daddy!"

Seconds later, Dean's delighted gasp of "Dad!" was just as welcoming.

"Boys," John murmured, touching their faces, their arms. His fingers moved to the handcuffs holding their wrists.

"Dad, the key's on top of the TV," Dean said, nodding toward the set.

Bobby stepped over to the television. Like the kid said, a single silver key rested on top. As Porky Pig began a stuttering monologue behind him, Bobby tossed it to Winchester.
   
"Did they hurt you?" John asked, voice catching as he unlocked the cuffs.

Sam bounced on the bed as he was freed. "We're okay, daddy."
 
"Dean?"
   
John pulled Dean's hands into one big paw, looked guilty as hell at the red cuts that lined the kid's thin wrists.

"I'm fine," Dean muttered. "That was my fault. I was trying to get out."

John chuffed lightly, pulling his eldest to his chest. "Good boy."

Sam looked a tad jealous by the attention his brother was receiving, but before he could get a word out, John's hand had already snaked out and pulled the kid close, holding him just as snugly as he had Dean.
   
"I'm so sorry," John whispered into their hair.

Bobby turned away, offering a moment of privacy. Things had worked out for now, but they needed to get out of there before the other accomplice showed up. Bobby moved to the man he'd haphazardly slung to the floor.

As he pulled the guy toward the door, Bobby tried not to think too hard about the way the kidnapper couldn't seem to keep his eyes off John.



****



Six hours and one state later, Bobby sat in another motel going through a tome on magical symbols. The book - and the stack of twenty others sitting next to him - were on loan from a Little Rock hunter who'd been kind enough to drive the small library down for him.

Behind him, Sam and Dean lay dozing on one of the room's queen size beds, an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies playing quietly from the TV in front of them. They'd been out before Jed and co. even made it California.

John had gone back to Lebanon a few hours ago to salt and burn the bodies and see if he could find any signs of the second kidnapper. They'd leave the guards there another day or so, and then call the police. As much as it irked him, those men were still human, and scum or not, he and John weren't going to kill unless it was absolutely called for. Of course, that didn't mean John couldn't - or wouldn't - kick a man while he was down, as long as they remained in one piece for the authorities.

Bobby yawned and stretched, feeling his bladder protest the move. On the way to the toilet, he glanced into the adjoined room at the kidnapper. The man was still sitting against the bed, arms tied behind him with an ankle handcuffed to a bolted down radiator.  His back was to Bobby, but Bobby knew he was still awake.

He'd patched the guy up as best he could, but he'd seen enough wounds like that to know the knife had nicked something internal. The bleeding hadn't quelled and it was already leaking through the pressure bandage. A few more hours, and he really would need a hospital.

Bobby left the bathroom door cracked as he relieved himself, then washed his hands and splashed a little water through his hair and onto his face. Looking at himself in the mirror, he ran a finger across the dark circles under his eyes. He wasn't a vain man, never had been, but even he knew he was looking a little rough around the edges. He took a couple Excedrin from the bottle in his shaving kit and washed them down with tap water.

Back in the room, Bobby was halfway to the table before he realized Sam wasn't on the bed anymore. His eyes flashed to the front door, but the chain was still attached, which meant...

Bobby pulled the gun from his belt and ran to the other door, expecting the worse. Instead, he froze in surprise. The kidnapper was exactly where he'd been before, but now Sam was plopped down next to him, babbling about his desperate need for erasers, preferably the ginormous pink ones because even though they were pink, it was okay, because anyone cool in kindergarten had one.

The kidnapper just sat quietly, listening to the little boy with rapt attention, wordlessly agreeing about the superiority of pink erasers.

Bobby lowered his gun, but the noise of his arm scratching the half-opened door must have alerted the kidnapper to his presence because the guy turned slightly, face in profile. Bobby automatically raised the weapon again, waiting for the man to make some predatory move toward Sam.

"Hey, Sammy," the kidnapper said, cutting off the boy's new rant about the Garfield lunchboxes he'd seen at Wal-Mart.

"Yeah?" Sam answered.

"I think it's time for you to head back over."
   
"But I..."

"Go on," the man admonished gently, leaving no room for debate.

Sam nodded and stood up, and when he noticed Bobby standing in the doorway, he smiled. "Hi, Uncle Bobby!" Sam chirped, before sliding past him and into the other room.

Bobby spun toward the kidnapper. "You try something like that again, and I'll kill you myself, you hear?"

The man heard, but said nothing. Surprise surprise.

Bobby followed the kid.
 
In the other room, Sam was a step away from hopping back onto his bed when Bobby sat down on the other, pulling the boy to him by a skinny elbow.

"Your dad and I told you you weren't allowed in that other room, Sam," he said, whispering so he didn't wake Dean.

"I'm sorry."

Bobby tried not to roll his eyes. Sam was about as sorry as Bobby was a butterfly. The kid looked guilty at being chastised, perhaps, but Bobby knew the littlest Winchester pretty damn well, and Sam wasn't sorry about leaving the room.

"What did he say to get you in there?"

"Nothing. I went on my own."

"You went-- Heaven almighty, son. Look, when we tell you something, you need it listen to us, okay? No ifs, ands or buts, Sam."

"I know, but I had to go," Sam protested, face turning serious.

Now that had Bobby raising an eyebrow. "Why?"

"He's sad."

"How do you know that?"

The boy shrugged, biting the inside of his cheek. "Dunno. Just do."

"And why's he sad?"

Sam's face shifted to downright glum, and he leaned forward, as if he didn't want anyone else to hear him. Especially the man in the other room.

"'Cos his brother died."

Bobby blinked a few times, unsure of what to say to such a declaration. Perplexed, he waited for the boy to explain, but Sam seemed pretty sure that the conversation to be over because he'd already crawled back onto the bed next to Dean, eyes focused on the television.

Grumbling about the cons of procreation, Bobby went back to his research.



****



Bobby dropped the tome he was holding, his breath catching so hard it burned his lungs. The forgotten book clattered to the floor, pages flipped to some random chart on the levels of animal transfiguration. 

Holy hell. Holy. Fucking. Hell.

Bobby stood slowly, fighting the nausea that threatened to expel the mushroom pizza he'd had a few hours ago. He grabbed the silver amulet from the table and moved past the dozing boys and into the adjoining room. The kidnapper didn't react when Bobby entered, or when he slumped down against the adjacent
wall.

Bobby stared at him for what had to be five minutes, trying to find the right words.

"I knew I'd seen that symbol before," he finally offered, tongue as dry and scratchy as a strip of sandpaper. "I saw it in passing, years ago. Didn't pay it much mind; far too big league for anyone to actually try it, humans and monsters alike. Funny, huh? Old magic that even scares the shit out of evil."

The kidnapper remained quiet, his eyeballs exploring the layer of mud coating his boots. He acted as if nothing Bobby was saying made any sense.

But, god help them all, it did make sense.
 
Bobby held up the charm.

"John's out there right now, looking for your partner. But we both know he won't find him, will he?"

When the kidnapper refused to acknowledge him, Bobby leaned forward, using a thumb and index finger to hold the guy's jaw. He twisted the kidnapper's head, forcing their eyes to meet.

"Your daddy's on a wild goose chase, idn't he, Dean?"

***

Bobby dropped his hand, but this time the man didn't turn his gaze away. He stared at Bobby, the challenge clear in his eyes, demanding that the insane hunter across from him take it back, pretend like he was spouting crazy talk. But Bobby wasn't, and they both knew it.

If this was a battle of wills, Bobby would gladly dig his heels in if that's what it took. He wasn't losing this one.

He raised an eyebrow. Your move, bucko.

Time passed, seconds, minutes, and still, no denial... or confirmation for that matter. 

When it happened, it was more subtle than Bobby had expected. One moment they were staring at each other, playing an epic game of eye-chicken, and the next it was all over. Something broke in the man's demeanour, and the stoic face Bobby'd been peering at all day finally slipped. What he saw now wasn't a look of defeat or submission, just weary acceptance. Almost like he was glad it was over and done with.

The man offered a tired smile. "Hey, Bobby."

He'd been so sure, confident in every word he'd said, but now he knew.

Looking at Dean now, it wasn't the eyes that gave him away. Bobby'd never spent long hours staring deeply into Dean's eyes, memorizing the color patterns in each iris or any crap like that. The physical resemblance was there, sure, now that he knew, but it wasn't something so overtly obvious that he should have known the moment he'd laid eyes on him in that living room. No, it was the expression on his face that did it, the same façade Bobby had seen countless times over the past couple years. Every time the kid got caught feeding dinner scraps to the dogs or covering for his baby brother, he'd always looked at Bobby with that same mix of guilt and pride and stubbornness that defined Dean Winchester. Age hadn't changed that look.
 
"Mercy," Bobby whispered. "It really is you."

Dean looked chagrined, like he didn't quite know what to say himself. He shrugged, offering a quiet, "In the flesh. Sort of."

Bobby bent over, using his pocket knife to cut the ropes holding Dean's wrists. As the shredded bindings fell, the younger man pulled his hands to the front, rotating his left shoulder. 

"Thanks."

Next came the handcuff holding Dean's ankle, and when that was done, Bobby leaned back, resting his arms across his knees. "You've got some serious 'splaining to do, Lucy. Starting with how the hell you're even here. Are you... human?"

Dean laughed, rubbing at his wrist. "Human? Oh yeah. Hundred percent, grade-A human being."
    
"But from the future," Bobby expounded.

"When you put it that way, it sounds very Terminator, doesn't it?" Dean smiled. "Look, I know you're gonna ask, so I might as well get with the exposition. That demon bitch has been after Sammy and me a long time. Kind of like our own personal Wiley E. Coyote, minus the anvils. Every couple of years since I was sixteen, she'd send someone after us. She wanted revenge and figured the best way to start would be to come through us. Thing of it was, she sucked at her job. Honestly, she was more of an annoyance than any real threat, but she was slippery. Dad went after her a few times, but she'd bolt the moment he got near the same zip code. She went a little batshit over the years when she couldn't catch us, and finally decided the only way to really off us would be to get us when we were most vulnerable."
   
Bobby sighed. "As kids."

"Bingo. She started gathering the needed material, but old spellwork like that draws attention, and the supernatural grapevine got back to us. By the time we got there to stop her, she'd always sent her man through to deliver the message. We wasted her, but the damage was done. The only way to stop it was to do our own spell. Right the wrong."

"Dean, I don't know anyone with enough knowledge to put that spell together, forget be willing to conduct it. Are you telling me you did all this?"

"Nah," Dean chuckled, tipping his chin toward Bobby. "You did."

Bobby froze. "I... what?"

"You did. Or, at least, the you in twenty years. You're pretty awesome like that."

"But... I... you..." He took a breath. "Do you have any idea how incredibly stupid you are? How dangerous that spell is? You would've had to..."

"Die? Believe me, we thought of every way possible to get around that, but it was the only option. It was either wait around and stop existing because she snuffs us out as kids, or take the fight to her. Time travel's not as simple as Spock always made it look. Solid bodies can't travel through time and space or anything like that. But souls - essences, really - can if it's done right."

"So you're a ghost?"
   
Dean smirked. "Think of me as a really kickass astral projection."
   
"And that's what the amulets are for, to keep you corporal."

"You're earning your kewpie dolls tonight, Encyclopedia Brown. Yeah, the spell would have only kept us corporal for a few hours. Without those, we would have been as useful as Casper at a barfight. Thanks to you, we were luckier than that Balas minion; guy probably wasn't around long enough to even offer any future stock tips. The spell's navigation is a little wonky though, so we had to go all the way to Ohio for you to conduct it, 'cause that's where you knew we could find the necklaces when we got to the other side. Some friend of yours owns an occult shop there."

"But I don't have..."

"You will." Dean frowned. "Gotta say, those first twenty minutes hiding in the woods au naturel really sucked. We had to streak through a Wal-Mart for clothes. On the up side, I think we gave that blue-haired greeter the time of her life."

"Goddamnit, Dean - what's wrong with you?" Bobby growled. "Huh? You didn't think we could protect you?"

Dean actually looked a little offended by that. "Come on, man. I trust you with my life - always have. But you guys would have been broadsided. You can't fight what you don't know is coming. Hell, look how easy it was for me and Sam to take... well, take us from Dad."

"You could have come to us! You could have told us!"

Dean sighed, running a hand behind his neck. "Sam had a hissy about not changing the past. He made me swear not to get involved; it's that whole kill-your-own-grandfather butterfly-theory. I mean, I saw that Kutcher movie, I get it. It seriously fucks things up. We just wanted to make the deal, kill the demon, and get out. And, okay, we needed mini-us for proof of life to the bounty guy, but no way we were taking us anywhere near the Balas. We just didn't expect you and Dad to show up so fast."

"But it didn't go as planned, so you just decided to let yourself die in some shitty motel, five feet away, and not tell us?"

"Basically? Yeah. Until... well, you. I knew I couldn't get away with lying to you when you called me out, never could." His forehead wrinkled. "How'd you know?"

"It was Sam, the little one. He said something to me after I found him in here talking to you. I didn't think much of it, until I found the amulet's connection to maintaining a corporeal entity. There are only a few uses for something like that, including one that linked back to a spell meant to bend space and time. It was crazy as hell, but things just started to click after that. There was something familiar about you, the way you looked at him, like you'd do anything for him. I wasn't putting two and two together until--" He paused, suddenly feeling like a bucket of ice water had been dumped on his insides. "He's really gone, isn't he? Your Sam." 

Dean's eyes flickered downward, away from Bobby's inquisition. 

"One of those robed bastards must have gotten him, but not before he got them," Dean said, voice proud. "Either the amulet got yanked off in the struggle, or his wound was too bad to humanly survive and it stopped working."

"God, Dean, I'm so sorry."

Dean ran a hand across his bandage-wrapped waist and glanced at the connecting door. "It'll be okay. Sam, my Sam, is right over there in the other room. He's fine."

"But what about you? You're dying? You're..."

"Bobby, I'm only bleeding out on this crappy shag carpet because it's what my real body would have done after getting shanked. I'm no more dying than a ghost is. It's all mental."
   
"But we could take you to a hospital, we could--" Bobby stumbled to his feet, already calculating where the nearest trauma center was. If he could just find the phonebook maybe he...

"You can't," Dean demanded, grabbing his arm.

"You're going to die if I don't. I won't let--"

"I don't belong here, Bobby. The plan was never to stay. Sam and me, when we finished the job, we knew we couldn't exist in this time, this place. We couldn't just start up some beet farm somewhere and settle down. We knew too much, we'd be too tempted to change things. God, I could do so much with what I know, and it fucking hurts to have this power and not use it. But Sam was right. I can't, because if we change something, alter one..." He paused, swallowing. "Alter even one death, we have no idea what the consequences could be. This is how it has to go down; always was, even when you got involved."
   
"Your dad... at least tell him, talk to him."

"No, especially not him. We already changed things by coming here; we can't risk anymore. I want to, god, do I want to, but I can't... I can't talk to him. It was hard enough at the diner. I can't do it again."

"Dean..."

"Please don't tell him, Bobby. Please."

Bobby crouched, caught between wanting to protect Dean and wanting to honor his request. Rock, meet hard place, courtesy the Winchesters. He sighed, stretching a palm across the side of Dean's clammy face. There was so much he wanted to ask, so much he wanted to know - and other things he probably didn't.

"Okay, kid," Bobby murmured.

He dropped back to his butt, closing his eyes a moment. They sat for a while in silence, listening to the faint sounds of the television in the other room drifting through the door. The Beverly Hillbillies had moved onto Green Acres. Bobby's brain was so jumbled with questions, he didn't know where to start.

Across from him, Dean snickered.

"What?" Bobby asked, opening one eye.

"You. Sitting there trying to figure out something to ask that won't screw up the fuckin' space-time continuum."

Bobby snorted. "Well, you gotta give a guy a break. I have my own personal fortune teller here and I can't ask anything good. Like, whether I win the lottery, or decide to live my lifelong dream of opening an ice-cream parlor."

Dean laughed, then winched as the motion pulled his wound. 

"Do you think you changed things much?" Bobby asked. "I mean, will this Sam and Dean have your life?"

Dean pursed his lips. "I guess. I mean, they won't have a Balas on their tale, but other than that? It should be the same."

"So you and Sam stuck to hunting?"

"Yeah. Mostly."

"Mostly?"

"Stints at the Ivy League aside."

"You--"

Dean waggled his eyebrows. "Guess you'll have to find out."

"Tease."

"I try."

"Is there anything you can tell me?" Bobby asked, crossing his arms in mock exasperation.

Dean's eyes got thoughtful. "Well, there's a new Superman and James Bond - one of which kicks major ass. Avoid the Macarena like the plague. Y2K's a crock. Oh, and Oprah Winfrey is the supreme overlord of the world."
   
"What about you?"   

"Me?"
   
"I don't know. Hell, tell me something - anything. How old are you?"
   
Dean smiled. "Old enough for a beer."

"Are you happy?"

Dean's grin faltered, dipping just so that most people probably wouldn't have noticed the shift. Of course, most people weren't Bobby Singer.

"Never been better."

"I'd swear--"

"Did you know that ghosts don't have to piss?"

Bobby blinked.

"No, seriously," Dean continued. "It's been almost a week, and zilch. It's freaky."

"So you've traveled through time, and this is your great epiphany?"

"What? It's interesting. I didn't even realize it until mini-Sam pointed it out. He asked why Sam and I never went to the bathroom. We had to start faking it. Of course, he wouldn't leave us alone after that."

Bobby smiled. That wasn't exactly surprising. The kid could talk the ears off a goblin...

He frowned. "Dean, did you tell Sam who you were?"

"No. You're the only one."

"You didn't tell him anything about you?"

"We tried to keep contact with them pretty minimal." Dean's eyebrows lifted. "Why are you asking?"

"Earlier, he told me you were sad because your brother had died. It was a little uncanny how much he empathized with you, but he couldn't tell me how he knew that. So, if you didn't tell him, how'd he know?"

Dean shrugged nonchalantly, body language clearly meant to join in Bobby's puzzlement. But Bobby wasn't sure he believed him.

"It was almost like he could sen--" Bobby paused, ears catching a low but familiar rumble.

Dean noticed it too, his eyes shooting over Bobby's head and to the window. Bright lights flashed through the shades before settling frozen in the middle. After a few seconds, the headlights were cut, along with the Impala's engine. 

"Look, Dean, just wait a little while," Bobby beseeched. "I won't tell him anything, I promise, but I want to talk to you more, okay?"

"Sure," Dean said.

Bobby uncrossed his legs and stood, just in time to hear a heavy knock echo from the other room. He'd barely made it to the doorframe when he heard Dean call his name.

"Yeah?" he asked, turning back.

Dean hesitated, as if he wanted to say something important but couldn't bring himself to get the words out. He chuckled softly.

"Hasta la vista."

Bobby frowned, his high school Spanish rustier than a junkyard car. Another bang on the door broke the moment, and Bobby sighed. Damnit to hell, man, are you trying to wake those boys?

He held up a one-minute finger toward Dean and jogged to the other room to let Winchester inside.

"Took you long enough," John groused when the door opened. He hovered in the doorway, sweat plastering his hair to his forehead.

"Using the toilet," Bobby offered, standing aside.

As John went to inspect his sleeping sons, Bobby re-locked the door and stepped back into the adjoining room.

He tried not to be surprised - but he was.

With more sadness than he thought possible, he bent down in the spot where Dean had been barely a minute before. All that remained was a rumpled set of clothing and a pair of still laced boots. A white bandage rested between the t-shirt and jacket, but there wasn't a single speck of blood to be found on it, or anywhere else for that matter.

On top of the clothing, something caught his eye. With gentle fingers, Bobby lifted the silver amulet from the pile and held it in his palm. It might have been his imagination, but the thing still felt warm to the touch.

See ya in a couple of years, kid.





****

epilogue

****




When John Winchester burst through Bobby's front door, leather jacket whipping behind him like some kind of crazed superhero vigilante, Bobby calmly glanced up from the less-than-titillating grimoire he was transcribing.

He leaned back, stretching his legs. "Where's the fire--"

He didn't get to finish the question, mostly because his jaw was suddenly making best friends with John's fist. The blow knocked Bobby from his chair and sent him sprawling onto the floor, limbs flailing like a flipped turtle.

"Fuck!" Bobby bellowed in pain and surprise. He rolled to his knees, the first lines of a powerful Latin incantation on the tip of his tongue. There didn't seem to be any need, however, because John didn't come back for another pass.

"You bastard!" John snarled, pacing in front of Bobby's desk.

Bobby stumbled to his feet, holding the left side of his face and trying not to envision the China-sized bruise that would be setting up shop on his mug tomorrow. So John was more with the pissed-off persuasion than the possessed. I think I'd rather have the possessed.

"That's usually my line, Winchester," Bobby growled back, eyes narrowing. "You're lucky I woke up on the right side of the bed this morning, 'cause I'm gonna refrain from kicking your ass back to Kansas and instead ask: What the hell is your problem?"

"How could you not tell me?" John demanded.
 
"Vague, much?"

John threw his arms in the air, but after a beat seemed unsure of where to put them, so he shoved them under his armpits, hiding them in the folds of his thick jacket.

"God, Bobby, we just... the boys and I stopped for lunch today at some local greasy spoon, but the place was packed and we were in a hurry. So we're sitting in these back-to-back booths, and I'm drinking my coffee, when suddenly Dean leans back and taps me on the shoulder, and he starts talkin' about the Impala. He's just messing around, you know, asking if I own her and whatnot; and as he's talking, Sam's just sitting there across the table, playing with his food, and suddenly... fuck!"

Almost as soon as John began rambling, Bobby knew where the rant was going. He'd been waiting for this moment some eleven-odd years now. Figured it would be sooner, frankly, but John had the funniest way of being dense at all the wrong times.

Bobby worked his jaw, and then bent down to retrieve his ballcap. He dusted it carefully on his pants leg and slapped it back across his head.

"I'm sorry," he said. "He made me promise."

John sank down onto the nearby couch. He didn't look at Bobby. "I nearly had a heart attack. I don't know why it just clicked like that. It was them in that diner, all those years ago. They were older, but, god, it was them. How is that even fucking possible?"
   
Bobby moved to chair he'd so been so hastily expelled from. "I haven't found all the research material yet to figure out the exact spell, but I know the basics," he said, righting the chair. "Essentially, they created a fold in time, and then removed their essences from their present and sent them back. It's fuck-all complicated, that's all I can say."

"Why?" John asked.

"They came to stop the last Balas. Granted, it started the whole time traveling thing; they just followed."

"What... what happened to them?"

"The amulets they were wearing were the only things keeping them corporal. Sam's must have stopped working during the fight. Dean pulled his off a little after I freed him. I tried to stop him, begged, once I figured it out; but, well, he's stubborn."

"You told me he escaped," John murmured, running a hand through his hair. "Jesus. Jesus Christ, Dean."

"I'm sorry."

"We could use this, we--" John looked up, eyes bright. "Mary. We could--"

Bobby sighed heavily. He'd also been expecting this for over a decade now.

"No, John. I'm sorry, I am, but this is something we don't - can't - mess with. You have to understand that. What Sam and Dean did was wrong, but it was settling a balance. You can't just alter fate because you want to. It doesn't work that way. There are always consequences. You might get Mary back, only to lose Sam and Dean in the process. There are people I'd die to have back, give my soul to see again, but I'm not willing to risk the world for it. Are you? Is that what she'd want you to do?"

John turned toward the fireplace, staring at the logs like they might somehow help him process the mind-fuck that had just been thrown his way. He didn't say anything, but from the slump of his shoulders, Bobby read the reluctant no clear as day.

"They weren't much older than they are now," John said quietly. "Ten years, if that. Sam, that Sam, couldn't have been more than 25, 26. They saved us, and I didn't even get to say thank you. I... I got my sons killed."
   
"Those boys love you, John, as much as you love them. Past, present, and future. They'd do anything for you. Look, all I know is, we're here now, and the only thing we can do is focus on what comes next. It's our job to take care of them."

"Sometimes that doesn't seem like enough."

Bobby shrugged. "Well, thankfully those brats take self-reliance to a whole new screw-with-the-cosmos level. You trained them well. They'll keep each other safe. Speaking of, where are they?"

That seemed to break the tension, because John signed, rubbing his neck. "I told them to go for burgers. I meant to actually eat them before they came back, but I know Dean probably found the closest drive-thru and is hauling ass back here as we speak. I think he thinks we're beating the shit out of each other. I was acting a little crazy."

Bobby snorted, which was followed by Winchester rolling his eyes.

John looked up. "Did he seem okay?"

"Who?" Bobby asked, though playing dumb wasn't his usual forte.

"Dean."

He pretended to think about it a moment, then shrugged. "Yeah, I think so."

"Did he say anything?"

"Warned me about the Macarena, so I was ahead of the curve on that one. But otherwise, no. I think he was afraid of changing the timeline if he said too much."

John looked back toward the cold fireplace.

"Though," Bobby added, "the cheeky little bastard quoted Terminator 2 to me, 'cept I didn't know it at the time."

"'I'll be back'?"

"'Hasta la vista.'"
   
"Ah. A classic."

"You can imagine how pissed I was when I watched the movie for the first time a few years later."

"He was always--"

Outside, Rumsfeld began to bark, cutting the conversation short. It was more subdued than the usual warning, meant to give Bobby a heads-up, but there was no fear in the howl. Bobby moved to the window, pushing back the curtain in time to catch the Impala roll to a stop in front from his porch. Through the glare on the windshield, he could see Sam and Dean talking heatedly in the car.

Bobby turned back to John. "Maybe I should bloody your nose, Winchester. You know, to maintain our crotchety reputation."

John stood. "Nah. If I keep silent for a few hours they'll assume I got my ass handed to me."

"Leaving?"

"We were on our way to Montana for a hunt. Possible wendigo; or just a rabid puma. Needless, it's best to check it out. We'll stop by on our way back. I know they're looking forward to taking a break."

"I'll keep the light on," Bobby said, then added: "You sure I can't chase you out of here with a shotgun or something?"

"Next time, Singer. Next time."

"Spoilsport."

John paused at the doorway, hand hovering over the knob. He peered over his shoulder at Bobby, winching slightly.

"You'll probably have one hell of a bruise tomorrow," John offered.

"'Magine so."

"Maybe I could stop by the liquor store on the way back, grab a bottle of tequila or something. Might help with the pain."

It was about the closest thing to an "I'm sorry" Bobby was ever going to get from Winchester. Apology by alcohol. He could either accept it, or hold a grudge until he was gray-haired and fending off demons with his walker.

Bobby crossed his arms. "None of the cheap shit - s'all I'm saying."

John nodded, walking out of the house without another word.

Bobby followed a few steps behind, loitering in the doorframe as Winchester stomped down the porch toward the car. Bobby did his best to look grumpy - which really wasn't all that hard.
   
Dean practically flung himself from the driver's seat when he noticed his dad headed their way. From that angle, the boy clearly saw something in his father's expression that demanded silence, because he crossed in front of the Impala without uttering a word. Sam got out of shotgun and as he opened the back door, he tossed Bobby a small wave, which Bobby returned.  
   
Dean hesitated at the open passenger door, glancing back at the house, worry and guilt etched across his face. Bobby winked. The gesture was enough to melt some of the grimness from the kid's face and Dean smiled lopsidedly at him before sliding into the car.

Bobby watched the Impala back out of his driveway.

He'd told John they couldn't play God because it wasn't right. He believed his own rhetoric, had to, otherwise he'd try something damn foolish. But, good intentions or not, he couldn't get the image of Dean's face out of his head. The older, harder Dean of a decade from now. The Dean who'd treated Sam and Bobby like old friends, but looked at his father like he was staring at a ghost.

And it made a kind of sense, really. If Bobby knew one thing in this world, it was that John Winchester would have never let his sons perform that ritual. Over his dead body.

Stepping back into his house, Bobby shut the door and flipped the deadbolt, returning to his abandoned grimoire.

If this life had taught him one thing, it was that nothing was set in stone. Screw fate, screw prophesy. The future was still theirs to shape as they saw fit. All he could hope for - the best anyone could hope for - was that when the time came, they managed to make the right choices.

And if they didn't?

Well, he just hoped they were strong enough to deal with the consequences.

***