Rating: PG-13 (some harsh language) Disclaimer: Nothing you recognize is mine. I gain nothing of materialistic value from this.
Note: This was written for a fic auction and is dedicated to Dolimir. Her prompt was: “What would happen if John came home from a hunt and was transformed into a child?”
Hope you enjoy!
“Sam...” Dean said exasperatedly. “Sit down.”
“I swear to god, Sam, if you don’t get your little butt into that chair in five seconds, I’m gonna put it there for you and tie you up and leave you there.” Sam opened his mouth indignantly. “One,” Dean said between gritted teeth. “Two...”
“I’m not a baby,” Sam huffed, but he stopped dancing from foot to foot and dropped with a sigh into the chair. “But seriously, Dean, what—”
“What the hell did I just say!”
“To sit, and I’m sitting, geez!”
Dean manfully resisted the urge to bang his head against the wall, because Bobby said that that was what had happened to poor old Jefferson Cole one too many times, and, judging by how crazy the old hunter was, it probably wouldn’t help their situation all that much.
Of course, in their lives, ‘crazy’ was kind of relative. Speaking of which...
“Dean, that can’t really be Dad, can it?”
“Were you listening at all when Bobby dropped him off here?”
“But he’s like...like...I mean, he’s...”
“Oh, really, Sammy? I hadn’t noticed. Now just...sit there and eat your—”
“But we have to do something.”
“You are gonna shut up and eat your dinner.” Sam gave him a wounded look and opened his eyes wide like the innocent little kid he wasn’t. Relenting, Dean told him, “I’ll go check on Dad in a second, but not until you listen to me. We might have to help Bobby figure this out, so consider this like a hunt.”
“I’m not allowed to hunt,” Sam said, sounding disgruntled.
“What’s up with you, now? I thought you didn’t want to hunt,” Dean commented, his tone dangerously light. Lately, Sam had started making noises about ‘why do we have to do stuff like this?’ and ‘why can’t we just go to school?’ and ‘why do we have to move again?’ and ‘why why why why why, Dean, why?’
“I don’t want to hunt,” Sam said with a meaningful look that held absolutely no meaning to Dean. “Do you?”
Sometimes, Dean really didn’t get his little brother.
Clenching his jaw, he growled, “We don’t have time for this crap now. I’m in charge on this one, and I say you follow my lead. No, don’t follow me, follow me,” he added when Sam started to stand again.
“I’m not hungry, and I don’t want to just sit here and do nothing.”
“Tough. Then sit there and...count to a hundred. In Latin.”
“Or I’ll tell Jim you haven’t been practicing.”
“Yes, I have been, and you’re not Dad,” Sam complained, but resentfully started, “Unus, duo, tres, quattuor, quinque, sex...” He paused there, as if to leave his brother an opening.
Pushing back a sigh, Dean pasted on a smirk and gave him the expected line. “What was that? Kinky sex?”
Sam huffed and rolled his eyes. “Quinque, Dean.”
“If you say so,” he said with a shrug. He waited until Sam was counting again, then tried to rub the tension out of the back of his neck and turned to push open the door leading to the bedroom.
Their dad jumped down from his perch on the bed and watched him warily as he approached.
“So...” Dean started, staring down at his dad. He couldn’t get over how weird it was that their dad, at seven or eight or however-the-hell many years old, used to slouch like Sammy did.
Right. Because, of course, slouching was the most screwed up part about this. He was also having a hard time getting over the fact that their dad was seven or eight years old, Jesus. What the hell had happened on this hunt? “Da—uh...J-john. Hi.”
“Who are you?” John asked, backing up a step as Dean walked closer. “Why won’t you tell me what you want?”
“Look, John, something unexpected happened to you, and we’re gonna find a way to fix it”—they would, they would totally fix it, because they had to—“so you just need to sit tight until then. We’ll take care of everything.”
“Because...because I said so,” Dean said, hiding a wince.
Holy crap. It was like Sam in second grade all over again. “Okay, you know what, go out there and sit with my brother. I’ll make you some dinner and you can talk to Sam and...stuff.”
“Because I said so!” Dean snapped, frustrated.
He regretted it immediately when John shrank down and took another step back. More subdued, he mumbled, “Y-yes, sir.”
Dean flinched at that. “Don’t—don’t call me ‘sir.’” John looked up again. “Just...call me Dean,” he managed. “My name is Dean.” It didn’t get more screwed up than having to tell your kid father what your damn name was. Dean hesitated, then held out a hand. “Come on, let’s go.” John’s hand crept hesitantly into his own, and Dean really started to hope their dad wouldn’t remember any of this once they got it fixed.
Because they would get it fixed.
Sam was at “Undequinquaginta” when the two of them stepped out. His eyes flicked to Dean first, and then to John. “Dad?”
“What?” John said, confused.
“John,” Dean said, throwing a pointed look at Sam, “this is my little brother. His name’s Sam—but you can call him Sammy,” he couldn’t resist adding.
“Dean...” Sam complained, though his brow was furrowed as if thinking. “Hi...John,” he greeted then, taking the cue from Dean.
John let go of Dean’s hand and climbed into a chair opposite Sam. From behind his father’s back, Dean mouthed ‘Talk to him’ in Sam’s direction.
“About what?” Sam asked out loud. Dean rolled his eyes.
“What?” John asked again.
“What grade are you in?” Dean prompted, because his brother couldn’t take a hint.
“Second,” John said.
“Fourth,” Sam said, then, to John, “Really? That’s so weird.”
“You’re weird,” John muttered.
Satisfied that they’d be talking for a little while, at least, Dean moved to the counter and quickly spread peanut butter on some bread and slapped them together.
“Where’s Bobby?” John asked suddenly.
Dean froze in the middle of picking up a plate, rummaging about for napkins that he knew they didn’t have to cover up his nervousness. “Bobby? Uh... Hey, how come you know who Bobby is but you don’t remember...” ...us, he barely stopped himself from saying.
No. Didn’t matter. This was all just some stupid curse gone wrong or something. It didn’t mean anything that their dad remembered his best friend and not his kids. If he remembered Bobby, that could only be good, because they were going to need Bobby if they were going to figure out what the hell had happened. No big deal.
John’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Of course I know who Bobby is. He’s the big man who found me and drove me here.” Dean tried not to feel relieved. “And remember what?” A panicked look came over his face. “Did I forget something? What don’t I remember?”
“Uh, no, that’s not what I meant. Actually, that...that’s what I was going to ask you,” Dean recovered. “What do you remember about the hu—I mean, what were you doing when Bobby found you?”
“I was taking a math test.”
“You...you were.” Dean tried to imagine his dad taking a math test, but the image was ruined because he couldn’t imagine John Winchester sitting down, surrounded by people and his focus on a piece of paper without also imagining a shotgun leaning against the desk. Which he was pretty sure wouldn’t be allowed in a second-grade classroom.
Sam looked alternately fascinated and freaked, and he stared at their father. John didn’t miss the scrutiny. “What?”
“Oh...uh, n-nothing,” Sam stammered. Then he added, “I’m just not used to having someone smaller than me around here.” A grin tugged at his lips, as if at the thought of looking down at his dad.
“Sam...” Dean warned.
John glared at Sam, too. “Bet I could still kick your ass,” he said in challenge.
Surprised at the language coming from an eight-year-old mouth, Dean chided, “John!”
“Could not,” Sam countered, looking taken aback and defensive all at once.
“Could too. My dad taught me how to fight, and he’s a marine. Who taught you?”
“My brother.” Sam’s eyebrows quirked. “And my dad’s a marine, too.”
“Oh yeah? If he’s so great, where is he?”
Sam opened his mouth to answer, then closed it, looking to Dean for help.
“John,” Dean snapped. “Eat your godd—eat your dinner. And you,” he added, scowling at Sam, “stop pissing off”—Dad—“our guest. If you’re done, go put everything away.”
“But you’re the one who took it out,” Sam protested feebly, but he rose and reached for the butter knife and his plate.
“I could’ve taken him—” John started, then cut himself off when Dean glared at him.
Once their dad was partway through his sandwich and Sam was drying his dish at the sink, Dean took a breath and tried again. “Okay, so you were taking a math test. How did you get to a warehouse in
John gave him a wary look. “How d’you know I was in
“Bobby told us when he dropped you off.”
“He did? Why?”
“So we would know where he found you.”
“But why did he take me here? Where’s my mom and dad?” John’s eyes were widening the way Sam’s did when he was upset, and Dean could not believe how weird it was to see that familiar expression on Corporal John Winchester’s face. Little brothers were supposed to whine; dads were supposed to kick them back into shape.
I swear to god, Dad, if you start crying...
“He took you here—”
“Brought,” Sam-the-grammar-Nazi piped up. “He brought you here.”
“Shut up, geek,” Dean shot back automatically. “John, Bobby brought you here because...he was...looking after you for a while. Remember?”
“N...Maybe. I wasn’t paying attention,” John said cautiously. How did something like this work, with remembering things? There had to be holes in the man’s memory, things that would make him suspicious about whatever freak of nature had cursed him. So maybe he remembered, enough to trust the right people, which was why Bobby had left him here to begin with, but he just didn’t...exactly...remember. Or maybe he didn’t remember shit, and they had a panic attack brewing in the distance, which would do nothing but attract the neighbors, so it was probably a good thing, for once, that they were in a seedy neighborhood where no one would think twice about their dad freaking out because he didn’t recognize his sons.
God, this was insane.
“Well, we’re helping Bobby out for a day or so”—please let it be just a day or so—“while he’s doing some research for a...a really important project he’s working on.”
“I don’t need a babysitter,” John griped.
“Dude,” Dean said. “You’re eight.”
Dean wasn’t sure how he was supposed to answer that. He’d been babysitting Sammy all his life, but then, Sammy complained but accepted it, because that was the way it was in their family. So he decided against trying to answer and said, “You never answered my question, John. Do you remember how you got to the warehouse?”
John folded his arms and shook his head, staring at his plate. “I fell asleep in the middle of the test, and when I woke up, I was somewhere else.”
“You fell asleep taking a test?” Sam asked, sounding appalled.
“That’s awesome,” Dean said.
“What, I’m gonna be a bad influence on him?” Sam scowled at him but didn’t answer. “So. You fell asleep, and then Bobby found you?”
“Yeah,” John said. “After the other guy left.”
Dean tensed. “The other guy? Who?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what did he do?”
“I don’t know!” John burst out. “There was this guy there, and he said something, and then he left, and then Bobby came and...and... “ He broke off. “Where’s my dad? Why isn’t he here?”
“He’ll be here in a bit,” Dean lied. “He’s at your...cousin’s...wedding.”
“He left me here?”
“No, he didn’t leave you. He’ll be back.” When John didn’t look comforted, he added, “He’s just busy, or he’d be here. Come on, dude, you’re a big kid. You’ll be okay with us for a while.”
John stared at his plate. “He wouldn’t do that. Mom and Dad said you’re not supposed to leave kids alone just ‘cause you’re busy.”
Dean stiffened, very conscious of Sam’s eyes on his head. “Well, you’re not alone, are you,” he said curtly, then forced his tone toward something more casual-sounding. “Me and Sam are here, and we’re a lot more fun than”—what story had he just given?—“a stuffy old wedding.”
“Should’ve told me anyway.”
“He’s doing the best he can,” Dean snapped. Two sets of surprised eyes found him. He exhaled heavily. “Okay. Look. We need you to tell us what the...the other guy at the warehouse said and what he was doing. The sooner we figure this out, the sooner everything will be back to normal.”
John sighed. “Fine.”
Dean waited. Sam got impatient first and prompted, “And?”
“I don’t remember.”
Trying to suppress his own impatience—dammit, John Winchester never forgot important things like that on a hunt—Dean asked, “None of it?”
John shrugged. “I didn’t understand what he said.”
“Didn’t understand.” Dean exchanged a glance with Sam, who asked, “Was it Latin?”
“How should I know? What kind of kid knows Latin?”
“The kind whose dad makes him learn it,” Sam muttered. Dean threw him a look that said ‘what the hell is your problem?’ to which Sam shrugged back a defiant ‘why, it’s true, isn’t it?’
Dean turned back to his dad. “John, you told Bobby, though, right? About the other guy in the warehouse?”
“Why the—!” Rubbing his temples, he tried to remember that John was eight and said again, “Why not?”
“He didn’t ask.”
“Did he even know about the other guy?” John looked down again, which told Dean all he needed to know. “Well, that’s probably why he didn’t ask. Sam, go get me Bobby’s number.”
Dean wasn’t sure whether Bobby actually knew how to use the knew mobile phone he’d just bought—the man didn’t like technology all that much—but they had the number, anyway, and he could hope that the man had damn well figured out the phone before going on this hunt.
“Who’re you calling?” John asked, looking suspicious again as Sam found the paper with emergency numbers. Dean reached for the telephone on the counter.
“It’s no big deal. I just thought of something that’ll help with Bobby’s research, so I need to let him know. The faster he’s done, the faster he’ll get back here to get you and bring you back home.”
“I’m not stupid,” John said, standing now and backing away toward the door. “You’re lying.”
“Sam,” Dean said, and his brother was between John and the exit. “Why don’t you take John to the bedroom. Get to know each other.”
Neither Sam nor John seemed very happy about that, but Sam glanced toward the phone in Dean’s hand and nodded, reaching toward their dad. John flinched, and his gaze darted from Sam to Dean to the door, his breaths coming faster and his steps stuttering to the side.
“Da—John,” Sam said, glancing at Dean. “Come on, let’s—”
With a shout, John rushed toward the door, and Sam intercepted him with a grunt. “Dean!”
Cursing, Dean put down the phone and ran toward them, easily pulling his eight-year-old father away from his eleven-year-old brother and wrapping restraining arms around John’s struggling body from behind. “John—John! Calm down.”
“Let me go! Help! I want my dad! Let me—”
“John, it’s okay, I swear, we’re not gonna—”
“—I want my dad!”
“Yeah, well so do I!” Dean said loudly over him. John stopped squirming, trembling in his arms. “So do I,” he repeated more quietly. He glanced up to see Sam frozen in place, staring at them with wide eyes. No, not at them—at Dean.
“Wh-what’s that supposed to mean?” John asked in a whisper.
Dean swallowed hard, tightened his arms around his dad and locked eyes with his brother. “It means, trust me. Please. Just trust me.”
John didn’t move, but Sam nodded once, ever so slightly, and Dean felt something loosen inside him. “John,” Sam said, his voice shaking a little, “let’s go into the other room, just like Dean said. He’ll be right in.” He gave Dean a pleading look. “Right?”
“Yeah,” Dean said immediately. “Follow Sam, okay? Just give me, like, two minutes.”
Slowly, Dean unwrapped his arms, ready to catch his dad if he tried to escape again. John turned abruptly to him, his dark eyes piercing disconcertingly into Dean’s, then bit his lip. Sam stepped away from the door and toward them, gesturing again uncertainly to the bedroom door. Finally, John nodded, staring at the floor, and followed. Sam poked his head out and mouthed ‘Hurry, Dean,’ before disappearing inside and shutting the door.
Dean breathed again when they were both gone, dragging a hand across his forehead and trying to hold onto the phone with shaking hands...
“Bobby, thank god,” he said into the phone when their old friend answered his call. “Listen, there’s something you don’t know—”
“What’s going on?” Bobby asked. “Are you boys okay?”
Dean grimaced, wondering whether Bobby was referring to him and Sam or him and Sam and Dad, which was pretty freaking weird. “We’re...we’re good. But John...uh...Dad remembered something. He said there was another man who said something that might’ve been Latin and then left before you found him. Bobby, what the hell were you guys hunting?”
“Dammit,” came the growled response. “I dug up some more dirt after I dropped your dad off with you. It looks like it’s a witch.”
“What? A witch?” They’d never hunted a witch before, and the only thing he had heard about them was from Jim Murphy, who had taught them that most modern witches worked spells for healing or protection. This thing, here? Not anything Dean would call protection. “You mean, like, an evil witch?”
“No, we were huntin’ a nice, benevolent witch, and that’s why your daddy’s cursed,” the sharp retort came. “This one’s a rogue, Dean. A demon-worshipper.”
Chagrined, Dean asked, “Fine, okay. Just, how do we reverse it?”
“I just need to find the Ladder or fetish, or whatever he used, and destroy it.”
“You’re gonna need backup,” Dean pointed out, unfamiliar with what a Ladder or witch’s fetish would look like, since they’d never had to deal with witchcraft before. Still if someone had gotten one over John Winchester, this was serious business, and the first rule of hunting was never hunting alone.
“I’ve got Caleb. Don’t worry about me—we’ve got this guy. Just look after your dad and Sam. I’ll see you and let you know as soon as we’re done.”
“Won’t we know when you’re done when Dad turns back into...Dad?”
There was a pause, and then, “Yeah, sure.”
“I hope so, Dean. Look, we’ve gotta run. Don’t try anything on your own until we get to you, you hear me? This stuff can be tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
What the hell? Dean brought the phone down to stare at it, as if he could pull out an answer that way. “What do you think we’re gonna do, try to stretch him to his normal size?”
“Just do what I say, boy! Wait for us. And take care of yourselves. Whatever happens, I’ll swing by and check on you in the morning.”
“I’m back,” Dean said, pulling open the bedroom door. He raised his eyebrows at the sight that greeted him. “Is that homework? Sam?”
“He made me,” John complained.
“Well, we all missed school today,” Sam said defensively.
“You’re welcome,” Dean said.
“And John fell asleep during his test.”
“So, what, you’re giving him a make-up?”
“I was just giving him something to read.” Sam tilted his head curiously. “John likes math. Like you.”
“I don’t like math, I’m just better at it than you,” Dean insisted. And then, to the smaller figure sitting on the floor, “You...do?”
“Nuh uh,” John protested immediately, puffing out his scrawny chest, but Dean could see that he’d been scribbling something distinctly math-like that he now tried to cover up with his hands. Huh. Why had they never known that about his dad? Why had he never known that?
Because they didn’t usually stop to do calculus in the middle of a hunt, that was why. But with the precise, analytical way the man did everything, the way he found patterns that could trace every supernatural freak through centuries and across state lines, maybe he should’ve guessed. Could’ve asked him for help on math homework sometimes, like other kids asked their dads for—
“I have to go to the bathroom,” John announced suddenly.
“I’ll show...” Dean started, then rethought it. “It’s right there,” he said, pointing to the other door in their motel room. “You need help in there?” He really hoped not.
Fortunately, John shot him a scornful glare. “No. Do you?”
Sam snickered at him. “Shut up,” Dean muttered to his brother as his dad closed the door behind himself. Lowering his voice to a whisper, he said, “Okay, I talked to Bobby. He says it’s a witch, so they need to destroy whatever’s the power source of this curse.”
Sam sobered, too, then looked thoughtful. “Like a Witch’s Ladder or curse bag?”
Dean stared at him. “Why do you know that?”
“Pastor Jim,” Sam said simply. “I actually pay attention to lessons.”
“Yeah, whatever. So they have to find it and get rid of it or something.”
“What if it’s not there?”
“Don’t worry,” Dean assured him automatically. “Bobby knows what he’s doing. I’m sure they’ll find it—”
“No, I mean...what if it’s not with the witch? What if it’s...” Sam’s eyes darted toward the closed bathroom door. “Pastor Jim says sometimes curses have to be near the victim. Or connected to him or her somehow.”
Ah. So that was why Bobby had warned him not to do anything. Screw that. “Well, I don’t see a ladder in his pocket, so...”
“Have you checked?” At Dean’s look, Sam rolled his eyes. “It’s not a ladder ladder, Dean. A Witch’s Ladder. It’s a rope.”
“Seriously? A rope? Why do they call it a ladder, then?”
“A rope with knots in it,” Sam clarified.
Dean snorted. “Well, it all makes sense now. Okay, we’ll need to trick him”—out of his pants, he almost said, except, ew, there were some things you should never have to say about your dad.
“Why don’t we just tell him?”
“’Cause he’s eight with no normal memories, and I don’t wanna freak him out!”
Sam gave him an odd look. “Huh.”
“What’s that supposed to—”
The door creaked open and they both shut up immediately.
“Hey, buddy,” Dean started. “So, you up for some—”
“What were you talking about?” John asked, clearly still a little suspicious.
Dean blanked for a minute, then said easily, “This girl Sammy has a crush on at school...”
“What?” Sam yelped. “Dean!”
John wrinkled his nose. “Gross.” But he relaxed and stopped asking questions, which was all that mattered. Funny. They could never fool their (adult) dad, and Dean could only remember trying it once, though Sam wasn’t so quick to learn. This John, though—besides that one blip, so far, he accepted Dean’s words the way no one but Sam ever had. He couldn’t decide how he felt about that, so he decided not to think too hard about it.
“Now we’re all here,” Dean suggested, “how do you feel about playing a game, huh?”
“How about...” All of a sudden, it bothered him that he didn’t know what kind of things his dad might have liked, at least as a kid. He glanced at Sam, who looked equally at a loss, then suggested a little too brightly, “You know any card games?”
John shrugged. “I know War.”
Sam huffed softly at that and muttered, “Of course you do.”
Dean gave him a sharp look, but his brother seemed to be intent on the carpet, and his clenched fists were a sure sign that meant questioning him now would only provoke an argument that they did not need to have at the moment in front of...well, the person who would, no doubt, be the subject of that argument.
“We’ll play war, then,” Dean agreed, reaching under the bed for his duffle and extracting a battered deck of cards. “Sammy, you in?”
“Sam,” Dean repeated through his teeth. “You in?”
His jaw tight, Sam glanced at John apprehensively, then lowered himself to sit on the floor. “Fine.”
John sat as well, crossing his legs and eyeing the deck. “Who’s dealing?”
Dean scoffed and shuffled the cards. “Who d’you think?”
“Isn’t it past your bedtime?” Dean asked. He couldn’t remember ever having an actual bedtime, but Sam had had curfews and still did. Not that anyone really reinforced them, but still.
“No,” John said, but he yawned and avoided their gazes.
“Here, you can sleep in here,” Sam spoke up, looking thoughtful and starting to stand. “I’ll get you some pajamas you can change into.”
Dean raised his eyebrows at that, wondering what was going through his brother’s mind, but only said, “Yeah, why don’t you hit the hay? Bobby’ll probably be back soon.” Bobby had better be back soon. Sam extracted Dean’s duffle again and pulled out a shirt big enough for John to use as a nightshirt.
“’M not tired,” John groused, rubbing his eye tiredly.
“Well, go into the bathroom and change anyway, so you’ll be ready when you are sleepy,” Dean ordered, because grumpy little brats who didn’t want to do as they were told at bedtime were his specialty.
John didn’t stop grumbling, but he took the offered T-shirt and obeyed.
Dean blew out a breath. “Can’t believe he’s actually listening to me.”
Sam shrugged. “Maybe he wants his dad to tell him what to do. You’re the closest thing. For—for him, I mean.”
Dean paused, then decided to stay superficial on that statement. “I thought eight-year-olds were supposed to want to be independent and shit. You pissed the hell out of me back then.”
“Well, that’s because—” Sam started, then stopped and gave him a long, considering look instead. Before either of them could say anything else, John came back out and Sam only shrugged again, his gaze skittering away.
Or maybe he was avoiding looking at their dad, who was standing in his eldest son’s clothes as if the old T-shirt were a gown, which was just not right for someone who was supposed to be taller than Dean was. Dean cleared his throat and occupied himself by climbing onto the bed, as well, because there was no way his dad should be looking cute in any circumstance.
“C’mon, John, we can keep playing on the bed. The floor’s too hard, anyway.” John looked at him askance, and he insisted, “My butt’s falling asleep. Move it. And, Sam, bring the card deck.”
As they played, neither of the formerly-younger-now-older Winchesters paying more than the minimum attention to the game, Dean made a mental note to start teaching Sam how to be just a little more subtle about things like impatiently checking his watch. Fortunately, it only took a bit of expressive eyebrow waggling to make Sam remember that he’d forgotten something in the kitchen and stay out there looking for it until John’s boredom compounded his sleepiness enough for him to conk out where he sat.
Easing his dad into a more comfortable sleeping position, Dean carefully climbed off the bed and grabbed the clothes John had just shucked, creeping out of the room to join his brother, who was literally bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“He’s asleep already?” Sam asked incredulously.
“Keep your voice down,” Dean hissed. “And yeah, dude. Dad can fall asleep in, like, ten seconds flat when he wants to. Not everyone spends hours angsting in bed like you do.”
“I slept fine when I was eight,” Sam shot back. Dean still remembered how he’d failed to hide Dad’s journal well enough one night, and Sam’s sticky little fingers had dug it out of the mattress when his whiny little voice hadn’t been able to dig the truth out of Dean. He’d been eight and a half, then, and that was when the nightmares had started. “Just...” Sam scowled. “Just gimme those jeans.”
Dean took a deep breath and tossed them to him. “Whatever. Okay, so what’s this fetish thing supposed to look like?” he said in a low tone, starting to dig through the pockets of the jacket John had been wearing while Sam pulled the jeans’ pockets inside out. Fetish, god. Could it sound any more creepy?
“Not sure.” When Dean glared at him, Sam said defensively, “What? I’ve only seen pictures in books, and you know how that stuff can be inaccurate.” A minute later, he offered, “I don’t think it’s here. I’ve got some lint”—Sam grimaced in distaste—“a blank Post-It note, and...oh, ew. I really hope this isn’t used.” He held up a wrinkled tissue.
Dean smirked at him, but admitted, “Yeah, nothing here. Dude, throw that thing away,” he added when he saw his brother was still holding the tissue. “The hell’s wrong with you?”
“Do you—” Sam started, then broke off.
“Sam, I am not weaning you off a security tissue. You know how much shit I went through getting you to let go of that stupid bear you used to carry around?”
“Dad would never’ve stuffed an old tissue back in his pocket,” Sam said in a tiny voice.
“Dammit, Sam,” Dean sighed, snatching away the offending article and throwing it away himself. “He never would’ve at forty. If you weren’t such a neat freak, you’d probably have all sorts of crap in your pockets, too.”
Sam nodded, but said, “He’s supposed to be forty. What if...what if he never gets back to—”
“He will,” Dean cut him off, jerkily gathering the clothes to throw them aside on the couch.
“The fetish isn’t here.”
“Then Bobby and Caleb’ll find it.”
“But wha...what if they don’t? It could be anywhere.”
“They’ll find it, Sam.”
Sam was looking anywhere except the door to the bedroom. “Promise?”
Like Dean knew any more about this than Sam did. “Promise,” he said, anyway. “Now shut up and go to bed before Bobby calls or something.”
“Uh, John’s in the bed,” Sam pointed out, which was ironic, because usually Dean and Sam shared the one bed in their motels while their dad took the couch.
Obviously, that wasn’t an option this time, so Dean said, “Just take the couch for tonight, then.”
“But where’re you sleeping?”
Dean sighed in frustration and didn’t answer, instead moving to the couch where he’d tossed John’s clothes and throwing them onto the kitchen table instead, not bothering to pick up the shirt that slipped off and landed on the floor. “I said, take the couch, Sammy. Listen to me for once, will you?”
Sam was, of course, ignoring him in favor of picking up the fallen shirt and looked like he was considering folding it before replacing it on the table when he froze. “Huh,” he said, paying more attention to the article of clothing now and running his fingers along the bottom of the shirt.
“Yeah, it’s very pretty, isn’t it, princess?”
“No,” Sam said, his eyebrows drawn low. “There’s something in here. Dean, look at this.”
“Something what?” Torn between impatience and curiosity and hopefulness, Dean grabbed the as well and pushed Sam’s fingers aside to feel...
A lump. Or not a lump, precisely, but something crackly, as if there were something dry inside the seam. He raised his eyes, but Sam was looking up at him blankly.
Dean deftly fished out his pocket knife and had brought it to the seam when Sam said, “Wait, no, hold on. What are you doing?”
Tightening his grip on the knife, Dean paused but didn’t move the blade away. “Trying to figure out what’s inside here, doofus,” he snapped. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to know what it is. What if there’s a Witch’s Ladder or curse bag in here?” A really little one, anyway.
Sam’s caution visibly faded a little in the face of curiosity and hope that they could end this all right now, but he still said, “It could be dangerous.”
Dean glanced in the direction of their mini-dad. “Sam, Dad’s eight.”
Sam bit his lip and nodded. “But be careful.”
“When am I not careful?”
Despite the flippant words, however, Dean cut the stitches away one at a time until a flake of something fell onto the table. He stopped.
“Dude,” Sam said, leaning over the whatever it was. “Is that a leaf?”
Carefully extracting his blade, Dean watched two more flakes of the same fall out as well. “Oh. Nice. Potpourri.”
“Curse bags can have herbs and things,” Sam offered.
“So what’s this stuff?”
Sam looked at him like he was insane. “I’m not an herb-doctor. It’s a piece of a leaf.”
Dean lay the shirt back down, trying to keep more herbs or whatever the hell it was from coming out. “So the shirt was the curse bag? What do we do now, burn it?”
“Uh...I don’t know. Maybe there’s a ritual or...or something. But I think maybe we should wait for Bobby,” Sam said, looking nervously at the cursed clothing.
Which, obviously, would be the prudent thing to do, but Dean wasn’t really very fond of prudence at the best of times, and anytime he was calling his dad ‘John’ and ushering him off to bed wasn’t what he’d call the best of times. And they were so damn close now to just solving this whole hunt on their own and having everything just go back to normal, because Dean wasn’t supposed to be the one running the show. It wasn’t supposed to work that way.
“Look, Sammy, go get the matches and—”
A yell interrupted him, and he froze, staring at Sam’s suddenly terrified expression for a moment before another scream penetrated the panic in his head.
“Stay here, Sam.” Dean turned and threw open the door to the bedroom, flicking on the light. “John?”
The bed was empty, but the hysterical cries were still coming. Dropping to lie flat on his stomach, Dean looked under the bed and found the curled figure pressing himself against the wall, his arms wrapped tightly around his head as if to block out whatever it was he was seeing or hearing.
So much for no nightmares.
“John,” Dean called over the screams. “John, shh, it’s okay, it’s just a nightm—”
“Mary. Mary!” John wailed. “No, no, no, no, no...”
The air was sucked out of the room.
Because suddenly Dean couldn’t breathe at all, except that wasn’t right either, because John didn’t have the same issue and seemed to be hyperventilating instead, and Dean thought he should maybe do something, because there was an eight-year-old screaming the name of his dead mother (not his mother, his wife, his wife, dammit), but there seemed to be something wrong with Dean’s muscles where he couldn’t move until—
“Oh god,” Sammy’s choked voice came from somewhere behind him, and Dean found himself sitting up again and halfway to his feet before he registered the completely white face of his little brother as he slid down the wall. “Oh god, oh god, Dean...”
Sam John Sam John
“Sammy,” Dean said, then tried again, roughening his voice and trying to stop it from shaking. “Sam!” Sam dropped the rest of the way to the floor, and he spluttered into silence, his eyes snapping up to Dean.
“Stay calm Sam,” he ordered, lowering himself again so he could reach under the bed. “You hear? I need you to be strong for Dad now, okay, I’ll be there in a second, just don’t move and stay calm. Can you do that?” Dammit, the stupid, cheap beds weren’t even high enough off the ground for anyone smaller than a runty eight-year-old to fit under, and Dean wriggled in as much as he could, stretching his arm out toward his dad. “Sam, answer me!”
“Yeah. Yes, Dean.”
“Good, now stay there—” Dean touched John’s arm. John shrieked and tried to scuttle away, but Dean grabbed on and held him in place. “John, listen to me—”
“No, why? Mary—”
Gritting his teeth, Dean latched on more tightly and forcibly dragged his dad literally kicking and screaming from under the bed until he could wrap his arms around the flailing body and press him close. “Dad, it’s okay! D—John, listen, it was a nightmare, it’s not real.”
Except it was, and must’ve seemed pretty real in the dream.
“S’okay,” Dean whispered, shuffling until he was sitting against the wall, facing his wide-eyed brother and tucking his dad’s head under his chin, where the screams were muffled in his shirt, so that he could feel Mary Mary Mary reverberating into his chest as John chanted his wife’s name against Dean’s heart. “It’s okay. Nothing can hurt you. It’s okay, c’mere.”
Dean stared straight at Sam then, still rubbing his dad’s back the way he did when Sammy had nightmares, and said again, “Come here. It’s okay.”
The wails were turning into gasps and then into frantic sobs. Hands fisted in the fabric of Dean’s shirt, and he whispered the same nonsense he had learned years ago to whisper to another boy in the middle of the night. Then the other boy was burrowing into his side, and Dean unwrapped one arm from his dad to pull his brother in against him.
“Shh,” Sam whispered, and Dean couldn’t tell whether it was an attempt to soothe John or Dean or himself, so he tightened his arms around both of them and decided maybe all of them needed it a little.
John lifted his face enough to choke out, “I don’t g-get it, th-there’s this girl and she’s on f-fire, and I don’t know who she is, but she’s Mary, and I don’t get it, and it hurts...”
“I know, I know. It’s just a dream,” Dean lied, because what eight-year-old mind could handle the images and grief that accompanied watching a wife’s murder that he didn’t remember seeing and probably couldn’t understand at all?
“But she’s gonna burn and there’s fire everywhere—”
“No one’s gonna burn,” Dean managed with some difficulty, because Sam flinched hard next to him, and now all he could see was the fire and the feeling of heat against his back as he ran out the door with Sammy in his arms. “I’m here. Won’t let anything get you.”
It didn’t calm John, but it made him stop struggling and squirming around, and Dean could hold him until he cried himself out and fell asleep, sniffling. It would’ve been easy from there to ease out from under him and leave him on the bed again, except that Sammy was wide awake on his other side but clearly not intending to move anywhere anytime soon, and Dean didn’t really mind spending the night with the hard floor under his butt and the uneven plaster against his back as long as he had his family at his side.
When Dean woke to the sound of someone banging on the door, his first impulse was to call ‘come in, please!’ which was odd, because that wasn’t an impulse he had ever had in his life. Also, he didn’t know who it was at the door, even though he was sure it had to be Bobby, mostly because please, it’s gotta be Bobby.
The problem with that, of course, was that the door was locked and bolted and chained shut, and he had a moment of insanity in which he was tempted to tell Bobby to climb in the freaking window, old man, because then he wouldn’t have to get up and untangle himself from what seemed to be a couple of human blankets, except that the windows, of course, were also closed and locked, and the only way in through them would be to break them.
Eventually, the banging came again, along with Bobby’s shout of “Dean, wake up and open the damn door, you idgit!” so Dean had no choice but to pull one arm away from John and use the other to peel Sam away, leaving both of them leaning against the wall.
When he pulled the door open, Caleb was nowhere to be seen, but Bobby stepped in, took a quick look around the room, and asked Dean, “You and Sammy okay?”
Dean started to answer that John was in the bedroom before realizing that hadn’t been the question. “Uh, yeah, we’re...we’re good,” he replied, knowing he probably looked rumpled and ridiculous from sleeping on the floor against the wall.
“We found the curse bag.” Dean turned to see Sam slipping out of the bedroom, too, his bangs slightly wet, as if he’d tried to wash away embarrassing evidence of a freakout.
Bobby looked like he wanted to yell at them, but then he zeroed in on both of them and only nodded, asking gruffly, “Where is it, then?”
Sam pointed at the table where they’d left the shirt-turned-curse bag the night before, but Dean put an arm out to stop Bobby from approaching. “Wait, just, uh...is he gonna remember?” he asked. “Jo—my dad, he’s gonna forget all this, right?”
Bobby’s piercing gaze told him he wasn’t fooled by the would-be casual tone. “Won’t remember a thing,” he said finally. “I just need to do the counter ritual and burn the damn thing.”
“Right,” Dean said, sharing a glance with Sam, who looked half-relieved and half-disappointed. Dean was totally relieved, of course, because that kid in the bedroom was not his father, so yeah. Relieved. Good. “Good,” he said aloud. “Thanks. It’ll be...good to have him back.”
Sam avoided his gaze. Dean avoided his right back.
Ten minutes later, their Dad’s voice—not John’s but Dad’s—let out a string of curses from the bedroom.
It wasn’t until John Winchester, hunter extraordinaire, flung the door open, looking confused as hell and almost as pissed, that Dean repeated, “Good,” and meant it.