Summary: He listens long enough to hear Monument, Colorado and then he hangs up, pulls back onto the road and starts driving.
Spoilers: post-"Jus in Bello"
Original story: Warm Strangers by extraonions
Thanks to iuliamentis for beta!
Warm Strangers (The Next of Kin Remix)
Bobby's on the road when the call comes in on the last cell phone in the row of holders rigged above the windshield--the one with NOK written on the back in permanent marker. He's just heading out of Aberdeen, and he pulls the truck over even as he reaches for the phone, wondering which one of those fool boys got into what kind of trouble now.
"This is Rufus Winchester," he says, because that's the name of the fictional uncle Sam and Dean put down on their forms these days as their last surviving relative. "What the hell do you want?"
"Mr. Winchester," says the voice on the other end, so smooth and featureless that Bobby pegs the guy immediately as a Fed. He thinks, all right. They got arrested. Shitty, but it could've been worse. "This is Agent Bremer at the Denver Field Office of the FBI. Sir, are you the uncle of Samuel Winchester and Dean Winchester?"
"I am," Bobby snaps, wondering if they'll be up on bond, wondering if he could pull the money together and whether he oughta--whether he could see a way clear to just bailing out Dean, give him a few months of fun before the end, and keep Sam out of trouble...
"Do you know of any other closer relatives?"
"Their folks are dead," Bobby says flatly. "It's just me and those boys now. They in some kind of trouble?"
"Sir, I'm sorry to inform you this way, but there has been an accident--"
The rest of the words come through in pieces, like a radio station fuzzing in and out, but the tone of voice is enough to tell him: the boys are dead, both of them, in exactly the kind of freak accident that isn't likely to have been an accident at all. Doesn't sound like the kind of thing he could have done a damn thing about, but those little fools never even called him to say they were in trouble, and now...
He listens long enough to hear Monument, Colorado and then he hangs up, pulls back onto the road and starts driving.
Notifying the deceaseds' old Uncle Rufus must have been the last thing they did before the story hit the press, because Bobby's other phones start ringing one after another, hunters calling to ask whether it's true, and what really happened, and whether he wants to get a posse together and go fight whatever it was. He keeps telling them to sit tight, he doesn't know for sure, he thinks they might really actually be dead but he doesn't know what happened, he's going to check things out.
Ellen Harvelle calls, and doesn't cry when he tells her it seems like it's the real thing. Jo calls, and does cry, and cries harder when he yells at her to call her mama and let her know she's all right--and then admits that she's on her way to Ellen's new place right that very moment. Pamela calls, offers to see what she can see if he can help her get a proper bead on these boys she's never met--there's too much chaos and disturbance around the town to see anything that way. Bobby promises to think about it, if it comes to that.
Pete calls, Olivia calls, Roger calls, Jackass Crazy Mike calls (not to be confused with Crazy Mike, who's dead, or Jackass Mike, who threw in the towel and moved down to Florida in 1993). Guys call who Bobby could have sworn would've liked nothing better than to see Sam Winchester, well, die in a fire, and Dean with him. They all call and offer their help, even if they sometimes talk their way carefully around actually saying they're sorry the boys are dead--even if they sometimes seem like their first order of business is to be sure the boys are dead. Whatever else they were, the Winchesters were hunters to a man, and if hunters can't cooperate on one other damn thing, they're pretty good about cleaning up each other's messes, in the end.
Between the endless road and the repetitive calls, Bobby's in kind of a daze. He keeps looking from the clock to the odometer to the road signs, calculating how long he's got yet to drive, and in between he speeds up, slows down, passes, brakes for deer even before he sees them, and answers the phone to tell yet another hunter that they don't know anything for sure yet, so just hold tight. The phone rings again; he picks it up again and says, "Yeah, I heard."
"Oh," Dean says, sounding startled. "Shit, Bobby, sorry. I didn't think to call until just now."
For the second time in eight hours, Bobby pulls over in a damn hurry--it's a little more like driving off the road this time, but there's no one to see him and he doesn't go into the ditch, so he'll call it what he wants to call it.
"You idiots," he yells, his own voice coming back at him with full force inside the cab. "It's been eight hours, every hunter west of the damn Mississippi has called me asking what the hell happened--"
"Lilith," Dean says, softer, and Bobby cuts himself off. The boy sounds beat. "Lilith happened."
Faintly, Bobby hears Sam say something--sounds angry, and Dean sounds even more beat as he says, "Shut the hell up, Sammy, we're not arguing about this anymore."
So, all right. The last eight hours probably haven't been any more fun for the boys than for him. Dean says they're going to ground and they'll explain more later. Bobby wishes them luck with that and makes the usual promises to keep an ear out. He hangs up before it occurs to him to tell the boy that he's on his way to Monument himself.
Bobby sits on the side of the road for a while with the phone in his hand, thinking about having to return all those calls to tell folks the boys survived after all--thinking about whether that's even a good idea, considering how the FBI found them the first time--and thinking about turning around and driving home. But he's eight hours out, just over the Colorado line, and only four hours from Monument. He might as well go and see what the hell's happening there.
He gets breakfast in Larkspur, just north of Monument, at a diner with a local pun in the name; he's not hungry and doesn't taste a bite of it, but he knows it's been fourteen hours and eight hundred miles since he ate. The explosion is all anyone's talking about, telling their own stories about the police officers, the young secretary. They cluck over those poor FBI agents, wrong place, wrong time. No one says a word one way or other about the dangerous criminals who everyone believes went up with the rest of them.
Bobby would almost rather they were cracking jokes about the boys getting what they deserved, because at least then he could think about how wrong they were--but as far as these people are concerned, they just don't exist, and even though they're alive, at least for now, even knowing they're better off flying under everyone's radar... still, Bobby hates to hear them just being forgotten like this.
After he eats, he goes out to the truck and tells himself the usual bullshit about just closing his eyes for a minute--he snaps awake an hour later, and his head's a lot clearer. He checks the phones, even though he knows he's never slept through any of them ringing, but the first rush of calls has ended now. He called Ellen a few hours ago, so she and Jo know the truth, at least, and will tell it to those who will want to know. Bobby puts his seatbelt on and heads for Monument.
It's not hard to find the police station, or what's left of it. There's a helicopter hovering in the sky above, official vehicles and civilians' cars and trucks parked all around it. Bobby closes up the car with all his usual means--far more than just snapping the locks down, for damn sure--and heads toward the center of all the commotion.
There's a fence up to keep people away from the blast site, and firefighters and such are still digging around in the rubble. He wonders if it'll give them any pause, when they don't find enough bodies--but it doesn't look like they're going to find as many as they should anyway. There's a crowd, with clusters of people at various points on the fence. Bobby counts them off, squinting to try to see the photos and teddy bears and candles, to identify each makeshift shrine. The sheriff, six officers, the secretary, a few others. There are perfunctory remembrances for those three FBI agents--out-of-towners, nothing against them but nothing much for them, either.
And there's one more big cluster around the corner from the others, a little out of the way--it's almost hidden, from the main group, though the size of the crowd that's gathering there isn't exactly inconspicuous. It's a group of people who don't quite look like they belong; people on the edge are looking around warily, like they expect an attack.
Bobby looks around again at the vehicles and starts spotting the out-of-state plates. There are a more of them than he would have expected, for a local tragedy like this.
He walks over to the group of strangers, already pulling out his wallet, sorting through until he finds his picture of the boys (he won't miss it, he made a copy and doesn't go carrying the original around with him). They're ten and six, and Dean's standing on top of a junked car with Sammy on his shoulders--Sam's got his hands in the air, but Dean's hands are firm on Sammy's knees, holding him steady. Dean's looking down, making sure of his footing, but Sammy's looking up to the sky.
Bobby runs a thumb over the surface of the photo, worn around the edges from being kept in his wallet, and then he shoulders his way quietly up to the fence. Sure enough, it's remembrances of Sam and Dean--all jumbled together, with no attempt to give each of the boys his own shrine. There's some weird stuff--that doll would have given either of the boys the creeps, but it probably means something--but there are drawings and notes and a couple of photos, too, enough to make it unmistakable.
For a half a second, the idea flits through Bobby's mind: he could stand up in front of all these people and shout out the good news, tell them Sam and Dean are safe and well away. They can stop grieving and go home. But that wouldn't serve the boys any--if there's good that comes of this, it's that everyone who might trouble them thinks they're dead--everyone human, anyway.
To say nothing of the fact that the grief is only premature, not misplaced.
Bobby shakes his head and picks a spot in the middle of the fence. He puts his picture up at eye level, where no one will miss it, and then he steps back a little to let people see, not so far that they'll miss who put it there.
A woman steps up a moment later, reaching out her hand but not quite touching the picture. She looks around and her gaze falls on Bobby right away. "Is this--this is Dean and Sam, isn't it? Did you know them when they were young?"
Bobby nods, and remembers the past tense. It's easier than he'd like. "I'm 'bout the only family they had left, with their daddy gone."
Somebody grabs his arm, and Bobby remembers to keep on company behavior, despite the smell of sulfur and ash on the breeze; he only tenses a little, turning to look at a middle-aged man wearing a slightly grimy white dress shirt, tie and suit jacket probably left in the car.
"Their daddy, John--he's...?" The guy stops short, and Bobby is maybe more tense than he realized, because the man lets go of his arm, takes half a step back, and offers his hand. "Jerry Panowski. John helped me out with a problem, years back--two years ago Sam and Dean helped me with another one, but they just said John was away, then."
Bobby counts back and nods. "He was, then. John died two summers back."
A young black woman with a notebook in her hand and a recorder dangling from her wrist--lights off, Bobby sees, and she has the notebook but no pen out--comes up through the crowd behind Jerry. She touches Jerry's shoulder--tentatively, but not quite like a stranger--and Jerry shifts aside.
"Cassie," he said, "this is..."
Well, he's gotten himself smack into the middle of this. Might as well keep on going and see if he can get out the other side. "Bobby. Bobby Singer."
Jerry nods. "Bobby Singer, Cassie Robinson."
"Did you say--Dean's dad?"
Bobby nods. "John passed almost two years ago."
Cassie bites her lip, looking sort of sweetly anxious. "I--Dean and I--" she shakes her head, waving a hand to dismiss whatever she was about to say, but it didn't sound too much like she wanted to hunt Dean down for child support or a long-delayed slap across the face.
"Do you know if he and his dad were on speaking terms by then?" she finally asks. "All three of them, really--John and Sam and Dean?"
She knew them that much, then. Bobby gives her a grim smile. "The boys were right there in the hospital with him when he died. I can't say they were all hugs and smiles, but when push came to shove, they were family."
A couple of tears spill onto Cassie's cheek, but she nods briskly and turns away. It occurs to Bobby that Cassie's the first one he's seen cry--these folks are all here to hold vigil for the boys, but they mostly didn't know them enough to grieve them; if they're upset for anyone it's themselves, left behind in this ugly world without those two boys to protect them.
"So John's not going to show up," Jerry says, sounding weary but not really surprised. "Damn. A lot of us were hoping--I mean, Sam and Dean being who they were, this can't be just--"
He waves toward the fence, beyond it, at the wreckage. The smell of sulfur seems stronger for a second, but it fades without the breeze changing.
"No," Bobby says, forcing himself to turn his back to the fence and what happened on the other side. "It was not, but we're handling that. You folks don't have to worry about it."
"You--oh. Well." Jerry looks relieved and like he's having his mind blown, all at the same time--Bobby recognizes the look of someone completely prepared to let the professionals take over. "Of course. I guess there are a lot of you folks?"
Bobby sighs, looking over the ashes again, the firemen poking slowly through the rubble--not expecting to recover anything, just waiting for the ashes to cool. "Not near enough."
"Mr. Singer?" Bobby turns, meaning to protest the name, and sees the first woman he'd spoken to. She's got a boy pressed to her side now, and a sheet of paper and pen in hand. "You said--you said you're the closest thing to family they had, but do you think they'd mind too much, if..."
She offers him the page, and Bobby takes it gingerly. It's a list of names, all in different handwriting. The one at the top, probably hers, is Andrea Barr + Lucas, followed by a phone number and email address. Jerry's listed halfway down the page, Cassie a few lines further.
"We all kind of--we thought it would be good, to keep in touch," Andrea says shyly. "We were even talking about getting together sometime--maybe at the end of the summer, maybe a year after... But we were thinking of calling it the Winchester Family Reunion."
Bobby's startled into a laugh, thinking of John and his rules, his half-crazed isolation that even he could never keep up for long--but which his boys came to believe like Gospel truth, the way boys will cling to anything their daddy says often enough.
"I think they'd all spin in their graves," he says, as gently as he can, ignoring for a minute all the ways that idea doesn't apply to hunters, live and on the run, or dead, salted and burned.
Bobby clears his throat. "But you do it. You've all earned it."
Andrea gives him a shy, uncertain smile, and nods. Bobby turns away again--damn crowds, he feels like a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, somebody always behind him or watching him--but the silent presence he senses is standing at a respectful distance.
She's well away from him, and from everybody else in the Winchester crowd, dressed like she just came from work--no, from church. She's holding one hand tight around what's probably rosary beads. She's got dark hair and olive skin, and Bobby remembers the photos he glimpsed, the shrine for the dead young secretary, and prays like hell that her mama's not here to take on the people who dare to mourn for the murderers who died with her daughter.
"Ma'am," Bobby says cautiously.
The woman gives him a nod, straightens her shoulders and gets ready to speak her piece. "My neighbor, she heard someone over here saying that those men who died in the cells--someone said they cast out demons."
John might have gone too far in going it alone, but Bobby's not exactly ready to go on the local news and chat about what's happened here.
"A lot of folks say a lot of things, at a time like this," Bobby says carefully. "These boys just--"
"I was here, the other night," the woman says, her voice shaking, and she gestures backward with her closed hand. Bobby looks past her and sees a group of people all standing together looking dazed, but not hugging each other, not speaking like the ones who are simply grieving. These are people who saw something, survived something. Bobby recognizes it, and he knows everyone standing with him does too.
"There was this--thing, controlling me. It brought me here. It wanted to--to kill." The woman's voice breaks, and Bobby reaches out a hand, but she holds herself up straight. "I heard a voice I didn't recognize--and I know--I knew Phil and Melvin, and--and Nan--"
She presses her closed hand to her mouth, and Bobby waits, not quite holding his breath. The group behind him is silent; he thinks they might be holding theirs. They know how hard it is to tell this story. They've all been there.
"And that voice--whoever he was--he forced it out of me. Out of all of us. Whoever that was, he saved us all."
Bobby blows out a slow breath, but he can't avoid giving credit where credit is due, not when they're officially dead and it can't do any harm. "Probably these boys, then. Yes ma'am."
"Is that--did it come back for them?" Her voice is strangled, pitching upward into almost nothing, but she gets the words out straight, and he notices she doesn't once glance toward the remains of the police station.
"Something like that," Bobby says softly. "Something just like that."
She turns back toward the others, and nods. A few of them start to step forward, while others still just stand there looking lost. Bobby's got no idea what he's going to say to all these folks--that's a hell of a lot of cases of demon possession to deal with all at once, and at some point he really is going to get the boys to tell him what exactly happened here--but then Andrea steps around him and goes to meet the woman.
"They helped me once, too," she says. "Me and my son, that's why we're here. To remember."
A second later they're hugging, and he sees Cassie slip into the oncoming crowd, and a few others, touching hands and shoulders, making introductions, a quiet, murmuring tide of it happened to me, too--children being presented, she wouldn't be here if.
Bobby's just thinking he's finished here, and he can fade back to the truck, when there's a light touch on his elbow. He looks and finds Jerry still standing next to him, and Jerry just nods down at the paper Bobby had forgotten he was holding. "We're gonna need that. I think we've got a few more signups coming."
"Yeah," Bobby says, and then hesitates. Well, what the hell. No point telling people his name and then just vanishing--and it probably won't hurt to have a few more ears to the ground when whatever's coming next starts boiling up.
Jerry sees his hesitation, smiles and offers him a pen, and Bobby scribbles down his name. He adds one of his more frequently-checked email addresses, and, after a second's hesitation, the number of the cellphone with NOK written on the back. Wouldn't hurt to have some other kind of news come in on that line once in a while.
"If you're planning that reunion," Bobby says slowly. He's thinking about Lilith coming down into this town and wreaking open destruction, thinking about Dean's time running out.
Jerry raises his eyebrows as he takes back the sheet of paper.
Bobby shrugs. "Sooner's probably better."