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All the Little Children

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All the Little Children
By JJJunky

To give credit where its due, Mog is responsible for creating the Magnificent Seven ATF universe, K. Poffenberger and S.Berry for the Little Britches AU, and Barbretta Hayden for the LB/ATF AU.

Erik Kripke and the Supernatural writers are to blame for the Weechesters.

To keep closer to Supernatural canon, I have taken the M7 ATF universe back a few years. This story takes place in 1989.

The bell rang, releasing the class for recess. Ten-year-old Dean Winchester dropped his pencil on his desk and walked as fast as he could into the hallway to his locker. Despite the single-digit temperature and the deep snow, he was looking forward to going outside. Christmas decorations already covered the school, though the holiday was two weeks away. Uncertain where he would find the money to put something under the tree for Sammy, Dean found the constant reminders depressing.

Grabbing his coat from his locker, he buttoned it as he ran down the hall. At the door, he paused long enough to pull his gloves from his pockets and put them on. Hitting the bar with his arm, he released the latch, opening the door. Cold air rushed in bringing shouts of annoyance. Ignoring the cries, Dean hurried out. The door closed behind him with a loud bang.

At the top of the stairs, he paused and took a deep breath. The school was on the north-west edge of the city of Denver. Its proximity to the Rocky Mountains seemed to sweeten the air. Unlike other cities they had stayed in, Dean hadn't grown tired of the view here. In the last six years, he had seen more of the United States than most people would see in their lifetime. The Rockies were near the top of his preferred list. Considering the dives they frequently stayed in, it was a very short list.

Tearing his eyes away from the snow-capped peaks, he looked over to the fence where three little boys were waving at him. While Dean had learned not to make friends, Sammy hadn't. Dean had tried to warn him but had soon realized it was a lesson his little brother would have to learn for himself. A lesson Dean was determined to postpone for as long as possible.

Even from this distance, Dean could hear JD Dunne chattering about something. Though only five, he was in the same first grade class as Sam and the two had become instant friends. Both talked incessantly, making Dean wonder if they heard what the other was saying. In contrast, the third boy, seven-year-old Vin Tanner, barely spoke two sentences in a row.

When he found out Dunne and Tanner had been found homeless on the streets of Denver, Dean's stomach had clenched tight enough to give him a stomach ache. This was a something he often had nightmares about. John Winchester's job put him in constant danger. If his dad didn't return from a hunt, Dean knew he couldn't go to the authorities. They might separate him from Sammy.

One lesson his father had instilled in Dean was to always be prepared. So, at first, he had asked Vin how the two little boys survived on the streets. He stopped when he found out the two men who had saved Vin and JD and taken them into their home, were ATF agents. Now Dean just hoped Sammy remembered the rule and didn't tell his friends his daddy was away.

The cold wind biting at his cheeks and ears, Dean wished he had a hat. At the thrift store, he'd barely had enough money to buy the coats and gloves. Hats had been a luxury they couldn't afford. The best he could do was get Sammy a coat with a hood.

"Dean! Dean!" Sam plowed through a path in the snow to his brother's side. "JD says I can sleep over this weekend. It'll be our last chance before the holidays."

Being friends with a kid whose parents were in law enforcement was bad enough. To actually go to their house was dangerous. Dean knew he had to say no.

"They live on a ranch," Sam said with awe. "And have horses and dogs."

Dean put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Sammy, I'm —"

"Dean, please. I promise I'll be good."

From the day Sammy had been born, few people, least of all his older brother, had been able to resist the little boy's pleading voice. Dean bit his lip, knowing he should say no but wanting to say yes.

"If you ask daddy, I'll bet he'll let me go."

Dean almost laughed. No way would John Winchester ever grant permission. He was one of those rare few who could resist Sammy's charms. Shifting his eyes away from his brother's, Dean silently swore as they fell on JD's hopeful face. Even Vin seemed to be silently begging for consent. Holding out against one earnest face was hard; three was impossible. Sighing, Dean said, "All right, Sammy, you can go."

Sam threw himself on his brother and hugged him, chanting, "Thank you."

Giving Sam a quick squeeze in return, Dean thought of one last argument. "How will you get out to their place? Dad won't be home from work until after your bedtime."

"My da says Sammy can come home with us when Chris picks us up from school tomorrow," said JD. "He just wants a note from your father to say it's okay."

Since he signed most of Sam's papers, Dean knew he could forge a note in John's handwriting. "I'll make sure Dad writes one," he promised.

"We're going to have sooooo much fun, Sammy," JD happily pledged.

While he badly wanted JD to be right, Dean had a bad feeling he wouldn't.

***

Chris Larabee poured two small and one large glass of orange juice and placed the tumblers on the table. Filling three bowls with cereal, he put them near the juice. Once the boys were seated in their respective places, he would pour milk into the bowls. One of the first things he had relearned after he had been granted custody of Vin and Buck Wilmington had taken on the responsibility of JD, was to wait before adding milk to cereal. As JD would say: it made the corn flakes soggy.

Less than six months ago, the two boys didn't know what their next meal would be or if there would be one. The best they could hope for was scraps from a dumpster. But they had grown remarkably picky in the short time since their addition to the household. And Chris couldn't be happier.

"Where's Buck?" asked Vin, walking into the kitchen with a bulging backpack.

"He had to go into work early," explained Chris. Noting the worried expression on Vin's face, he quickly added, "A court case he was scheduled to testify in this afternoon was moved to this morning."

Visibly relaxing, Vin sat in his chair and took a sip of his orange juice.

A suspicious gaze resting on the backpack, Chris asked, "Hey, Cowboy, why is your bag so full?"

"Since Sammy is sleeping over with JD, I thought I would stay with Dean." Vin's gaze remained fixed on the spoon he had picked up. "Can I?"

"You should've asked me before you packed."

"Sorry."

"I'd feel more comfortable if I'd met Dean's father."

"He works lots," said Vin. "Even more than you and Buck."

Considering the two men had taken more time off in the last six months than they had in the previous six years, Chris wanted to point out that a father had priorities and children were at the top of that list. But Chris knew Vin wouldn't believe the time off wasn't an inconvenience. The little boy still thought his presence in the household was precarious, that if he became too much of a bother he would be put back on the street. Which meant Chris had to tread lightly.

As badly as he wanted to deny permission, he couldn't. This was the first time since coming here that Vin had displayed his independence. While frightening and difficult for Chris to accept, it was also something he had to encourage. He wanted Vin's life to be as normal as possible. "You didn't ask me. Did you ask Dean's father?"

"No." Vin sheepishly shook his head. "Can I?"

"It's all right with me."

Vin brightened. "I know Dean will want me to."

"I'm more worried about his father."

"He works lots," Vin repeated.

"Which means he might not want another little boy in the house."

"I'm quieter than Sammy."

Chris winced. It seemed like John Winchester was getting the better end of this deal. "I tell you what, you go ahead and take your stuff. You can always bring it back home if you can't have the sleep over."

"Thanks, Chris."

A burden seemed to have fallen off Vin's shoulders. The reaction piqued Chris's curiosity. "Why is this so important to you?"

"Dean looked so sad when he told Sammy he could come here. I don't want him ta be lonely."

Pride filled Chris. He bent over and gave Vin a hug and a kiss. "You're a good friend, Cowboy."

***

Dean looked at the clock. Five more minutes and the bell signaling the end of the school week would ring. It was the first time he had ever dreaded the sound of this particular bell. JD would be waiting to take Sammy away. Dean kept trying to tell himself it was only for two nights, but it didn't help.

It was going to be too quiet without Sammy. He wouldn't be there to ask question after question like "When is Daddy coming home?" Even if Dean knew, he had never told because if their dad got held up, Sammy started to freak out. Once, he had actually worried himself sick. That was when Dean started keeping things to himself. Then, he was the only one losing sleep.

The bell rang. Even though he was expecting it, Dean jumped. As the other children hurriedly put their things away, Dean took his time. For the first time since coming to this school, he was the last one to leave the room. He ignored his teacher's quizzical gaze as he passed, joining the throng of students.

Plans for the weekend were excitedly shouted back and forth as Dean edged his way to his locker. He traded his biology for his English book since he had a test on Tuesday. With nothing else to do over the weekend, he might as well study. Then he would be free to play with Sammy on Monday.

Dean's feet echoed through the almost empty hallway. When he reached the door, he braced himself for the cold and pushed it open. The wind whistled around him making him pull up his collar to keep the bitter cold from going down his neck. He spotted Sam jumping up and down next to a big black Ram truck. His little brother was with JD, Vin and a man. Shorter and not as muscular as John Winchester, he had a military bearing and intelligence Dean recognized. He would have to be careful.

"Dean," urged Sammy, "come on."

Hitching his backpack higher on his shoulder, Dean crossed to his brother's side and handed Larabee the note he had written the night before. He was tempted to force a smile, but Larabee might know it was faked. "Ready to go, Sport?" he asked Sam.

"You're sure it's okay with your father?" Larabee asked, fingering the piece of paper.

Dean nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Please, Chris, can we go?" JD tugged at the edge of Larabee's coat. "I's cold."

A frown creasing his brow, Larabee overtly studied Dean's face before opening the passenger door and helping JD into his car seat. "Come on, Sammy," Chris offered, "you can sit in Vin's booster seat."

Sammy excitedly moved toward the car, only to quickly back away again. "Where's Vin gonna sit?"

"He's not coming with us." A quizzical expression on his face, Chris added, "Since you're sleeping over with JD, Vin decided he would like to stay with Dean."

"If it's all right with you, Dean," Vin hastily added.

Shocked, Dean stared at the younger boy. Bad weather had kept the children inside during recess, so he hadn't seen Sam or his friends all day. When Vin's shoulders slumped and he looked down at his feet, Dean realized the other boy had misinterpreted his hesitation. "It's okay with me, Vin. If you're sure you want to."

Smiling shyly, Vin nodded. "I'm sure."

Dean had no idea how he was going to explain John Winchester's absence for a whole weekend. But he would think of something.

After checking to see if Sam and JD were securely fastened in their seats, Chris turned to the two older boys. "You want a ride home?"

Dean shook his head. He didn't want Vin's dad to see they were living in a motel. "It's only a few blocks."

Chris smiled. "And you could use the fresh air after being cooped up in school all day?"

"Yes, sir." Dean would love to ride in the big truck, but couldn't take the chance.

Giving Vin a hug, Chris said, "Call me if you need anything or want to come home early."

"Thanks, Chris." Vin looked at Dean. "I won't."

Just as this would be the first night he would spend without Sammy, Dean guessed it might the first time Vin would be away from his new family. He wondered if the other boy was as nervous as he was. It looked like the only ones who might actually enjoy this weekend were JD and Sammy.

***

When even Buck was unable to calm the hysterical child, Chris decided it was time to admit defeat. At this rate, Sammy was going to make himself sick.

The afternoon had started well enough. Sammy and JD had loved playing in the snow with the dogs, then helped Chris groom and feed the horses.

When Buck got home, he made a dinner of hotdogs, French fries, and fruit. A meal certain to please any little boy. In fact, everything had gone so well, Chris was unprepared when disaster struck. He had taken JD and Sammy into the bedroom to get their pajamas on before putting a movie in the VCR. Sammy had crossed to the window and started screaming. A quick check had shown nothing unusual inside or outside the glass pane.

A concerted effort from the men to find out what had caused the abrupt change in Sammy's behavior had met with failure. JD's attempts to calm his friend had been equally ineffective.

Much as he hated to, Chris knew he would have to call John Winchester for help. Hopefully, the father would know what had frightened his son and could tell Chris what to do to bring back the happy, laughing little boy. If not, Chris would have to take Sammy home. It would ruin the weekend for JD, but no one was having a good time now anyway.

Grabbing the phone from its base, Chris took it into the kitchen where the sound of Sammy's crying was muted. He dialed the number written on the note and took a deep breath. There was one short ring before it was picked up.

"Hello?"

"Dean? This is Mr. Larabee. Can I speak to your father?"

"He's still at work," Dean replied. "What's wrong with Sammy?"

"He's not hurt," assured Chris. Reluctant to put such a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the ten-year-old boy, he pressed, "Could you give me your father's work number?"

"I'm not allowed to give it out unless it's an emergency."

Even as a particularly loud wail reached his ears, Chris knew this situation wouldn't necessarily be labeled an emergency. Though, if things were reversed and this call concerned Vin or JD it would fit the definition as far as Chris was concerned.

"Mr. Larabee," Dean broke the uneasy silence, "should I come and get Sammy?"

"He's crying," Chris finally admitted, "and we don't know why. All I can get out of him is something about there not being any salt. Which doesn't make any sense. Unless you can tell me what to do to make him feel better, I think someone better come get him."

"Do you have the movie, Bullitt?"

"Uh . . . yeah."

"I'll be there before it ends."

Chris started to ask if the boy needed a ride when the dial tone buzzed in his ear. He was tempted to call back, but the sound of Sammy's cries distracted him. Obviously, Dean would call his father now. Chris had to admit, he was looking forward to meeting the mysterious Mr. Winchester.

***

Dean hung up the phone and turned off the TV.

"What's wrong?" asked Vin, sitting up and pushing away the pillow he had used to prop himself up with.

"I have to go get Sammy," explained Dean, putting on his coat.

Scooting off the bed, Vin said, "I'll come with you."

Dean hesitated. There was no way he could leave Vin alone in this crappy motel. But hitchhiking wasn't safe, either. If he had the money for a cab, Dean would gladly use it. Unfortunately the pizza the two boys had shared for dinner had taken almost all the money he had left. When it came right down to it, Sam was more important. Dean would deal with the rest later. If he had to, he could always take Sammy to the bolt hole John had chosen before leaving on his latest hunt.

"You better pee before we go," suggested Dean.

"Okay," Vin agreed.

As soon as Vin disappeared into the bathroom, Dean grabbed his backpack. Dumping the school books, he quickly filled it with a pistol, holy water, a carton of salt, an extra cartridge filled with silver bullets, and the first aid kit.

When Vin came out of the bathroom, Dean handed him his coat and backpack. Leading the way outside, he carefully locked the door behind him, even though he knew a hard kick would destroy the flimsy lock.

"How are we going to get to the ranch?" asked Vin. "The buses don't go out that far."

"We'll take the bus as far as we can, then we'll have to hitchhike," Dean revealed. Seeing fear flash across Vin's face, he hastily added, "Don't worry; I do it all the time."

It was a lie, but Dean didn't care when he saw the fear disappear from Vin's face.

***

It was obvious Buck wasn't too happy about JD seeing Bullitt. As much as he liked the movie himself, Chris had to agree with his best friend. The two boys were too young for the action film. However, it was having the affect Dean had promised. Sammy had stopped crying and was excitedly explaining to JD what was going to happen next.

At one point in the film, Sammy covered JD's eyes with one hand and his own with the other, obviously a learned response. Still, Chris, had to question John Winchester's parenting skills.

Buck looked at his watch and whispered, "What do we do if Winchester doesn't get here before the movie ends?"

"Start it again?" suggested Chris, shrugging his shoulders. He really, really hoped they wouldn't have to find out.

Leaving Buck to supervise the boys, Chris went into his office. He could kick himself for not asking Dean to put Vin on the phone. Considering how he felt, it was safe to say this separation was proving more difficult for Chris than for Vin. Chris had known the day would come when he would have to give Vin a little freedom. He just wished that day had waited a few months, or even a few years.

Chris was beginning to wonder how many things he had forgotten about being a father. He should never have let Vin stay with Dean without meeting John Winchester first. What had he been thinking? Even as he asked himself the question he had known the answer: he hadn't wanted to disappoint Vin. The boy had endured so many disillusionments in his short life, Chris had been reluctant to add to the list. A mistake he hoped Vin wouldn't end up paying for.

***

Dean eyed the driver of the truck before reluctantly jumping up into the cab of the pickup, purposely putting himself between Vin and the trucker. He had seen something in the man's eyes he didn't like. They had no choice but to accept this ride. Since turning down the back road leading to the Larabee Ranch, this was the first vehicle they had seen. And Dean was running out of time.

Staying alert, Dean allowed himself to bask in the warmth of the cab. His ears had gone numb and his fingers and toes ached from the cold.

"Name's Bert," the driver introduced himself.

"I'm John," Dean volunteered, "and this is my brother, Chris."

"What're you boys doin' out this way by yerselves so late at night?" asked Bert.

Dean was glad Vin was letting him do the talking. It was obvious Vin didn't trust the trucker anymore than Dean did. "We were at a friend's birthday party, but it wasn't any fun so we decided to go home early."

"Why didn't yer ma or pa pick ya up?"

"Our ma's dead," hedged Dean, inwardly flinching at the truth of the statement.

"And yer pa?"

Dean knew they were in trouble. Hoping to get as close to the ranch as they could, he took off his glove and put his hand in his backpack, taking his time as he answered the question. "He's been working hard. We didn't want to bug him."

"I think he'd rather be bugged than fer you boys ta be hitchhiking." Bert took his eyes off the road and leaned forward, letting his gaze rest on Vin. "It ain't safe."

Feeling Vin shift uneasily in the small space, Dean said, "Stop the truck."

"No little brat is gonna tell me what to do," growled Bert, the friendliness disappearing.

"Stop the truck," Dean repeated as he took the gun from his backpack and pointed it at the trucker's leg. "Or you're going to be in whole lot of hurt."

Bert took his right hand off the wheel and reached for the weapon. "Put that toy away."

Adjusting his aim, Dean fired a round into the driver's side mirror, flinching as the loud retort echoed in the enclosed space. He squinted his eyes to protect them as the glass shattered. "It isn't a toy."

"What the hell!" screamed Bert.

The truck weaved, throwing Vin to the floor. Dean braced his shoulder against the dashboard. "Stop now!"

"All right." Bert skidded to a stop. "All right."

As soon as the vehicle rolled to a stop, Dean ordered, "Chris, open the door and get out."

Vin quickly complied, obviously relieved to leave.

Dean threw his backpack out after Vin and slowly eased himself backward, keeping his eyes and the gun carefully trained on the driver. "You should go now, Bert," he advised, before slamming the door closed.

The tires squealed as the truck peeled away. Dean didn't relax until the red taillights were no longer visible.

Picking up his backpack, Dean said, "I guess we'll walk the rest of the way."

"Dean." There was an edge of pain in Vin's quivering voice.

"What's wrong?" Dean quickly demanded.

"I sprained my ankle."

In the last few months, Dean had gotten to know Vin fairly well. If he was admitting to being hurt, then he must really be in pain.

Leaning down, Dean asked, "Which one?"

"Right."

It was too dark for Dean to see anything, so he gently touched the limb. A hiss told him his contact wasn't light enough. He quickly took his hand away. He could tell the ankle was swelling from even that brief touch. Grabbing a handful of snow, he stuffed it down Vin's boot, hoping to slow the swelling.

"Give me your backpack," said Dean, rising he slipped the straps of Vin's bag over his arms and onto his shoulders so it hung down his back surprised he hadn't noticed how heavy it was before. He put one strap from his own bag over his right shoulder. He wanted the gun handy in case he needed it. Shifting until both packs were as comfortable as he could make them, he put his left arm around Vin's waist. "How far to your ranch?"

Vin looked off into the darkness trying to gauge the distance. "Maybe a mile."

"Think you can make it?"

"I'll make it." There was a trembling in his voice as Vin added, "If you want you can go ahead."

"I'm not leaving you." It was too cold and too dangerous to leave Vin out here by himself while Dean went for help.

"But Sammy needs you."

"Just like JD needs you." Dean wasn't even tempted to take Vin's suggestion. They would get to the ranch, and they would do it together.

***

Chris stared out the kitchen window, willing a vehicle to appear out of the darkness. Recognizing the music that played at the end of the film, he reluctantly abandoned his post and quietly crossed to the living room. A slight shake of his head told Buck there was no sign of the Winchesters.

Forcing a smile, Buck clapped his hands together. "What do you say we watch it again?"

"Yeah!" Sammy happily agreed.

His eyes widening dramatically, JD asked, "Really?"

"Sure," said Buck, pushing the rewind button on the VCR. "Our guest makes this a special weekend. We get to do special things on special weekends."

Confident Buck could handle the situation, Chris returned to his place at the window. He wasn't sure what he would say to John Winchester when the man finally dared to appear. With the boys present, he would have to contain his temper, but it would be difficult. At this time of night there would be no traffic to slow the father down. He should've been here over an hour ago.

When he saw two small figures struggling through the snow that covered the driveway, Chris thought it was an illusion. Children wouldn't be out walking alone at this time of night in these conditions. As reality jolted his mind, he realized one of the boys was limping and that the boy was Vin.

Chris threw the door open, yelling for Buck and ran out without a coat on. He barely felt the cold as he scooped Vin up in his arms, carrying him back to the house and into the kitchen.

"I'll call, Nathan," said Buck, reaching for the phone with one hand and picking up a distressed JD with the other.

"How badly are you hurt, Cowboy?" Chris asked, setting Vin on the kitchen table. His hands gently inspected the thin body.

Vin stuck his right foot out. "It's just a sprained ankle."

"How did it –"

"Where's Dean?" demanded Sammy.

"He's right here," Chris looked around, worried and angry when he saw the other boy hadn't followed him into the house.

Sammy ran to the door, even though he wasn't wearing shoes or a coat. Chris caught him before he could go outside.

"DEAN!" yelled Sam.

"I'm right here, Sammy." Dean stumbled through the entrance. He fell back against the jamb when Sam slammed into him, wrapping his arms around Dean's waist.

Buck hung up the phone. "Nathan's on his way."

"Did you tell him it might only be a sprain?" asked Chris, disliking the idea of their friend driving out so far this late at night.

Crossing to the drawer where they kept their dish towels, Buck pulled one out. "I told him; he said he's coming anyway, just to be on the safe side." Opening the freezer door, Buck put ice cubes in the towel. "He said to ice the ankle to stop the swelling."

"Dean put snow in my boot," Vin revealed.

Chris carefully started removing Vin's boot and wet sock. "Dean's very smart."

"He's the smartest person in the whole world." Sam spread his arms wide to demonstrate.

Blushing, Dean said, "I'm smart enough to know its way past your bedtime, Sport. Think you could sleep now?"

"Will you make it safe?" Sam hesitantly asked, a big yawn punctuating his request.

"You know I will."

Sam looked wistfully toward the living room. "We were going to watch Bullitt again."

"You can see it another time." Dean put the backpacks down in a corner and took the carton of salt out of his.

Leaning heavily against his brother, Sam conceded. "OK."

"Follow me." A lightly snoring JD draped over his shoulder, Buck led the way to the boys' room.

***

Dean shook salt out along the window sill with Sammy watching intently. Once he had a thick line, Dean helped his brother onto the top bunk.

"Don't forget the door," said Sam, mumbled around a yawn.

"I won't," Dean promised, shaking salt in the doorway.

By the time Dean was done, Sam was sound asleep. Avoiding Buck's curious stare, Dean climbed up the ladder to the bunk and made sure the blankets were wrapped tightly around the small form.

Buck carefully stepped across the white line and waited in the hallway for Dean. "What's with the salt?" he quietly demanded.

"I'll tell you," Dean tilted his head toward the bedroom, "but not here."

Normally, Dean would lie, then get out of the situation as quickly as possible. However, he had seen some weird tracks as he and Vin were walking towards the house. Once Chris grabbed Vin, Dean had followed the trail. They ended below a window Dean now realized belonged to Vin and JD. Dean knew it was too dangerous to pretend. He would have to tell the truth and convince the men to help. He just wished Vin wasn't there to hear.

"OK." As soon as they entered the kitchen, Buck turned to confront Dean. "What's with the salt?"

"Salting windows and doors keeps demons and ghosts out. They can't cross a salt line," said Dean.

Buck exchanged a glance with Chris. "Demons?

"Salt will stop them," repeated Dean, "but it won't stop an Abiku."

"What the hell's an Abiku?" Chris demanded.

"An Abiku is a monster that eats children. And it wants to make Vin, JD, or Sammy it's next meal."

Almost dropping the ice pack he had been holding to Vin's ankle, Chris growled, "If you're trying to scare me, you're failing. But, if you're trying to piss me off, you're doing a bang-up job."

"I don't care as long as you help me kill that thing," said Dean, throwing his shoulders back and defiantly lifting his chin.

Chris took a step toward Dean. "Why should I believe you?"

"There're tracks leading under the window to Vin and JD's room."

Grabbing a flashlight, Buck rushed outside.

"Dean, why would you make up such a story?" demanded Chris, returning the ice pack to Vin's ankle.

"I didn't make it up." Dean hesitated before continuing. "My dad hunts things most people don't believe exist."

Buck returned as man and boy continued to glare at each other. "He's right, Chris, there are tracks. I've never seen anything like them before, and they lead to the boys' bedroom window."

"You say this is what your dad does," Chris slowly repeated, obviously fighting an internal battle. "Can you call him to come kill this thing?"

Dean shook his head. "There isn't time. My dad said an Abiku doesn't have a stomach, so it eats constantly without getting full. If it doesn't get what it wants here, it'll go somewhere else."

"The windows and doors are locked," Chris pointed out. "It can't get in."

"It doesn't need to use a door. It can turn into smoke to get into a house."

Chris shook his head. "This gets more and more unbelievable."

"Buck saw the tracks," reminded Dean. "What more do you need?"

"I know how to catch someone for breaking the law," Buck said, scratching his head. "But how do we stop this Abiku?"

"We set a trap," revealed Dean, surprised the men believed him. He really hadn't thought they would.

Patting his stomach with one hand, Buck said, "I think I could look pretty tasty."

"You can't do it." Dean caught each of the men's eyes with his own before slowly repeating, "It only eats children."

Chris' horrified gaze rested on Vin.

Intercepting the look, Dean hastily offered, "It'll come after me."

"We can't put you in danger." Relief warred with conviction on Chris' face.

"There's no other way."

***

As Chris settled Vin on a chair just inside the bedroom containing a sleeping JD and Sammy, he heard Dean's words echoing in his head. There had to be something they could do to stop this monster before it could kill again--without endangering a ten-year-old boy.

After discovering both men had .45 pistols like his own, Dean had taken four silver bullets from his spare cartridge and given each man two of them. Apparently, Chris had learned, silver had the power to kill things lead couldn't. Dean knew what they were hunting he just wasn't certain how to kill it. So, Dean and Chris had put the silver bullets in their guns while Buck kept a normal lead load in his pistol. Hopefully, a bullet would take down this monster.

As the boy laid out the plan, Chris had surreptitiously pinched himself. The pain had finally made him admit this wasn't a dream--or rather a nightmare. It was real. They were going out to hunt something Chris had never even heard of before tonight. Something that threatened his son.

Propping Vin's bad leg on a footrest, Chris handed him a poker and a bell. According to Dean, lead worked on some monsters. "If you need us, you ring that bell as loud as you can. We won't be far."

"I'll watch out for JD and Sammy," promised Vin.

Chris cupped his hand around Vin's head. "Don't forget to look out for yourself, Cowboy."

"I will." Vin put his little hand on top of Chris'. "You and Buck and Dean be careful, too."

"I think Dean has everything under control," Chris ruefully noted.

Gently giving Vin a comforting squeeze, Chris reluctantly pulled his hand away and returned to the kitchen. He saw Buck had already left to take up his position in the barn. Dean had assured them the Abiku wouldn't go near the horses, knowing they would kick up a fuss and reveal its presence. The dogs had been taken out of their kennels in the mudroom and put in with the boys as another line of defense. Both dogs were asleep, snoring lightly on the floor next to the bunk beds.

Certain they had done everything possible to protect the three youngest boys, Chris felt comfortable focusing his attention on Dean. When he returned to the kitchen, he found the lights had been turned off, but he could see Dean's shadow by the door.

"You don't have to do this," Chris quietly offered.

Slipping his gun into the pocket of his coat, Dean said, "It's the only way to kill it."

"I've got your back," pledged Chris, uncomfortably aware Dean was right.

"OK."

Without another word, Dean opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. Wondering at the easy response, Chris crossed to the door, shifting to the side so he could see the boy as he walked toward the woodpile next to the shed. Experience had taught Chris how to read the shadows, what could represent danger and what was natural.

Dean reached the corded wood and filled his arms with logs. A mixture of relief and disappointment filled Chris when nothing showed itself. While he hated to see Dean in danger, he also wanted to kill the thing endangering the little boys sleeping soundly thirty feet away.

Unless the thing wasn't real after all?

A black shape streaked across the moon-lit snow, toppling Dean to the ground. Chris threw open the kitchen door and ran to the boy, gun in hand. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Buck exit the barn. A quick calculation told Chris he had the better angle on the struggling figures. When the shadow partially rose, Chris didn't hesitate. He stopped in his tracks and took aim, his finger gently squeezing the trigger. The force of the bullet drove the creature off Dean and into a snow bank.

Chris rushed to Dean's side.

"No, Chris," warned Dean.

As the boy struggled to get his gun out of his coat pocket, Chris quickly turned his attention on the creature. He barely had time to put up his arm, before it was upon him. Two guns fired simultaneously. The Abiku went limp, falling to the ground.

One razor sharp claw had cut a groove along Chris' left forearm. He ignored the feel of the warm blood running down his skin and pointed his gun at the monster lying at his feet.

"It's dead," Dean assured him.

Adrenaline slowly draining from his bloodstream, Chris didn't move. "Are you sure?"

"The only way to be sure," said Dean, "is to pour salt on it, cover it with gas or kerosene, and burn it."

"I'll get the rock salt and gas," Buck offered, keeping his own gun drawn as he walked backwards to the shed.

Chris didn't put the safety on his pistol until the creature's corpse was blazing. Now that the danger was over, his wound started hurting. Staring into the fire, he cradled the aching limb in his other hand.

"Dean," Buck said, "why don't you go with Chris into the house? I'll be there in a minute to look at his arm."

"Don't put the fire out until there's nothing left but ashes," cautioned Dean.

Buck gave a salute. "Yes, sir."

Noticing the gesture didn't go over well with the young boy, Chris put an arm around Dean's shoulders and turned him in the direction of the house. "Buck isn't mocking you," he quietly insisted. "He's showing you respect."

"Don't look like it to me," growled Dean.

"Guess you'll just have to take my word for it." Chris could feel the hazel eyes study him.

Dean finally nodded. "I can do that."

Considering Chris had to believe in the existence of a child-eating monster, he decided Dean had the easier situation to accept.

In the warmth of the kitchen, Chris carefully eased his coat off. He unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt sleeve and pushed it above his elbow so he could get a better look at the slice in his flesh. The cut was about three inches long, running from his wrist along the underside of his arm.

"It's going to need stitches," said Dean.

Chris sighed. "I guess it's a good thing Nathan's coming after all."

Taking a box from his backpack, Dean put it on the table. "I can do it."

"Chris?"

Vin's soft call from the hallway offered Chris a reprieve. Dean was already feeling slighted by Buck's remark, Chris knew he would have to tread carefully with the young boy or chance a confrontation. One he wasn't sure he would win. "We're all right, Vin."

"You stay here." Dean pushed Chris onto a chair. "I'll help Vin."

A protest came to Chris' lips, but Dean was gone before a single word could be uttered. He watched anxiously as Dean supported Vin as he limped to the kitchen chair next to Chris'.

"You're hurt," cried Vin.

"It's only a scratch," Chris soothed. "It looks worse than it is."

His attention focused on Vin, Chris barely noticed when Dean took his arm, until pain from a liquid washing over the wound, made him take a deep breath to keep from screaming. "What the hell are you using for an astringent, acid?"

"Holy water," explained Dean.

Chris swallowed nervously when smoke issued from the cut. "What the –"

"The holy water is killing any poison the Abiku left behind."

"Chris," Vin tentatively pointed out, "you owe the swear jar twenty-five cents."

Digging in his pocket with his free hand, Chris pulled out a coin and put it on the table. "I'll put it in the jar as soon as I can."

"I kin do it."

"You keep that foot elevated until Nathan gets here," ordered Chris.

Vin slumped in his chair. "'K."

Satisfied Vin would obey, Chris returned his attention to Dean to discover the boy had catgut threaded through the eye of a needle and was about to push the tip into his flesh. Realizing it was useless to argue, Chris quickly looked away forcing Vin to meet his gaze. Hoping to focus his thoughts on something other than what was being done to his arm, he asked, "So, Dean, why did your father start hunting?"

"I'd like to know the answer to that myself," A cold breeze preceded Buck as he entered the room. Closing the door behind him, he took off his coat and sat at the kitchen table across from Vin.

The silence lasted long enough to make Chris think Dean wasn't going to answer. A glimpse of a sad face made Chris realize he didn't want Vin to hear the answer. "Buck, why don't you put Vin on the couch where he'll be more comfortable?"

"I'm fine," insisted Vin.

"I think you'll be more fine on the couch." Chris frowned, making it clear what he wanted.

Buck picked Vin up in his arms. "Come on, Junior, I'll put your favorite movie in the VCR."

When Buck had returned to his seat at the kitchen table, Dean finally spoke, his voice so low it was almost inaudible. "Something killed our mother when Sammy was six months old."

Shocked, Chris barely felt the tug as the needle passed through his flesh. "Did your father kill it?"

"Not yet." His lips pursed defiantly, Dean confidently added, "But he will, when he finds out what did it."

"In the meantime, he's killing every monster he can find," said Buck.

"That's his plan."

"So," Buck cleared his throat, "what does he hunt?"

"Wendigos, shapeshifters --"

"Those things are real!" demanded Buck.

"Yeah," nodded Dean.

"What else?"

"Werewolves--"

"Now I know you're kidding."

The conversation continued as background noise as Chris realized there were things out there threatening Vin and JD besides the criminals the ATF hunted. Somehow, he and Buck would have to find a way to protect their boys.

"How does Sammy deal with these monsters?" asked Buck.

"He doesn't know." Dean looked up to glare at the two men. "Me and Dad don't want him to know."

Chris tore his gaze away from Vin. "But he knows salt protects him."

"He only knows I salt the windows and doors of any room he sleeps in. He doesn't know why."

"Hasn't he ever asked?"

"Of course he asked; he's Sammy." Dean smiled. "I told him salt keeps him safe. So far that's been enough."

Looking down at the neat stitches running up his arm, Chris said, "It won't satisfy him for much longer."

"I'll keep him innocent as long as I can," Dean heatedly proclaimed.

Chris wished he could have done the same for Vin. "Don't worry," Chris said, "we won't tell Sammy or JD. I'll talk to Vin. He won't tell, either."

The sound of a car engine brought Buck to his feet. One hand on the gun in his pocket, he looked out the window, visibly relaxing as he reported, "It's, Nathan."

Certain he didn't want to know how a ten-year-old had gotten so good at sewing stitches, Chris said, "I guess we brought him out here for nothing after all."

"He should look at Vin's ankle," Dean disagreed.

Chris smiled. "As if we could stop him."

The kitchen door opened, allowing cold air and a tall African-American man to enter. Buck made the introductions. "Nathan Jackson, this is Vin's friend, Dean Winchester."

"Pleased to meet you." Nathan took his gloves off. "Something smells terrible out in your yard, Chris. I think we better check it out before the boys go out there."

Buck put a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "We know what caused it."

"We'll tell you all about it later," added Chris.

Noticing the arm with its neat row of stitches, Nathan expertly inspected it. "What happened to you?"

"That goes along with the explanation for the smell," Chris revealed. "Dean stitched me up."

"I'll get Vin," Buck said, exiting the room.

"You did a good job, Dean." Nathan gently examined the wound. "You would make a good doctor."

"Glad to hear it." Chris wasn't being facetious. He really didn't want to go through the ordeal again with a different seamstress.

His arms full of little boy, Buck returned to the kitchen.

Nathan turned to the blue eyes anxiously watching him. "Since Chris is taken care of, I'll check your ankle, Vin."

"No!" Vin refused. "Dean's leg is bleeding, Uncle Nathan. Look at him first."

Furious, Chris turned on Dean. "You're hurt?"

"Not that bad," Dean sullenly replied.

"Why didn't you say something?" demanded Chris.

"Figured I'd take care of your arm and then do my leg." Dean shrugged his shoulders. "No biggie."

Chris wasn't sure if he should admire the boy or strangle him. Then again, if he wanted to be mad at someone, he could put himself at the top of the list. He should have noticed Dean was hurt, or at least suspected it. Chris only had contact with the creature for seconds and had ended up with a nasty cut. Dean had fought the thing for close to a minute before Chris had put a bullet in it.

"Sit down and let Nathan fix your leg." When Dean opened his mouth with what Chris guessed would be a negative response, Chris growled, "Sit down."

Watching Dean reluctantly comply with his request, Chris felt a sense of satisfaction that was way out of proportion considering he was dealing with a child. Sadly, it was easy to forget Dean was a little boy.

"Buck, would you get me some warm water?" asked Nathan, inspecting Dean's wound.

Grabbing the flask of holy water he had left on the table, Dean handed it to Nathan. "Use this first."

Nathan hesitated before taking the container.

"Just do it," Chris advised, understanding his friend's unwillingness.

Trust shining from his eyes, Nathan poured it over the cut. When smoke rolled from the wound, he growled, "I suppose this is something else you'll explain later?"

"Let's put it this way, I'll try," promised Chris.

***

Dean stared at the Christmas tree stretching from floor to ceiling, filling a corner of the living room. Even to his cynical eye, it was beautiful. Presents overflowed from underneath it, spreading across the floor. Dean had been tempted to take a few for Sammy. But, knowing they were for Vin and JD, he couldn't. It looked like the few hours Sammy had enjoyed the night before would be the only Christmas present he would receive this year.

Once the adrenaline from the hunt had worn off and the injuries taken care of, everyone had been yawning, making it clear any further explanations would have to wait until they had gotten a few hours of sleep. Vin would share Chris' bed, while Nathan had the spare bedroom. Buck had offered to move JD to his bed so Dean could take the bottom bunk, but Dean had opted for the couch in the living room. Probably more uncomfortable, it would make his get-away a little easier.

The pillow he had been given looked so inviting, Dean had to fight to stay away from it. He was so tired. Pinching himself to dispel the lethargy, he pushed the cushion and blanket out of his sight. The warmth they offered was inviting but dangerous. Dean couldn't allow himself to forget whose house he was in. The light of day was certain to change the men's perspectives. They were, after all, federal agents. Once he was sure everyone was sound asleep, Dean would wake Sammy and they would make their escape.

Tears filling his eyes at how devastated his brother would be, Dean defiantly rose to his feet. Gathering the blanket and his backpack, he quietly went into the kitchen and out the door.

The cold air took his breath away as he crossed to Nathan's station wagon. He was relieved to discover the man hadn't locked the doors. Dean could have gotten them open, but it would've taken time he might not have. He threw the quilt in the back seat and opened the driver's door. After moving the front seat as far forward as it would go, he sat down to see if his legs would reach the pedals. Only his toes made it. While it wasn't the safest way to drive, it would have to do.

Ducking under the steering column, he pulled out the wires he would need to hot-wire the car. He liked Nathan and felt bad about stealing his car. But Dean wouldn't let his feelings interfere with what he had to do. They couldn't be here when the family woke up in the morning.

Returning to the house, he paused at the door to listen. When there were no sounds to indicate his activities had been detected, he made his way down the hallway to Vin's and JD's room.

Carefully placing one hand over Sammy's mouth, Dean used the other shake his brother awake. He had done this often enough that Sam didn't panic, he merely swatted at the restraining hand and tried to mumble a protest. Used to the reaction, Dean held fast until Sam was awake enough not to give them away. JD's loud snores allowed Dean to keep an audio check on the younger boy.

With practiced ease, Dean helped a sleepy Sammy down the bunk bed ladder and into the bathroom. His brain working on autopilot, Sam peed on command.

Grabbing Sam's coat and backpack, Dean guided his brother out of the bathroom to the kitchen. He paused long enough to put Sam's coat, socks, and shoes on. Indecision making him chew his top lip, Dean found a piece of paper and wrote a note, before taking the money from the swear jar.

Sam leaned against the door jamb, eyes closed, his breathing indicating he was almost asleep again. Dean gently straightened him and led him outside to Nathan's car.

"Dean," whined Sam, "stop taking all the blankets. I'm cold."

"You'll warm up in a minute," Dean soothed.

Opening the car's back door, Dean took the blanket Buck had given him and wrapped it around Sam. As Sammy sighed contentedly, Dean helped him lay down on the long seat.

Once Sammy was as comfortable as he could make him, Dean crawled into the front seat. Bending down, he took the wires he had pulled earlier and twisted them until the engine started. He held his breath and kept one eye on the house as he shifted into gear. He only released it when no one appeared to stop him. Hopefully, he could get everything out of the motel room and over to the bolt hole before Chris Larabee discovered Sam and Dean were gone.

However, the really hard part would be telling Sammy he couldn't go back to that school again. Could never see Vin and JD again. Sometimes, Dean decided, life sucked out loud.

***

Chris was sitting up in his bed before he was fully awake, automatically reacting to the loud bang as his bedroom door slammed against the wall. "What the--"

"Sammy and Dean are gone," announced Buck. "So is Nathan's car."

"What?" Chris repeated, blinking the sleep from his eyes as he tried to comprehend what his friend was saying.

"Dean stole Nathan's car," Buck succinctly repeated.

"Why would he do that?"

"To get home," a quiet voice from the little boy beside him answered.

Shifting his gaze to Vin, Chris asked something he knew he should have found out the night before. "Vin, how did you and Dean get here last night?"

"We hitchhiked." Vin looked down at his hands.

It took a great deal of effort, but Chris managed to control his temper. Vin was expecting recrimination, but Chris knew the little boy didn't deserve it. He knew exactly who to blame in this instance, putting himself at the top of the list. He never should have let Vin stay overnight until the Winchesters had been vetted. Then, Chris should've followed up his initial call for help by making sure Dean – and Vin, had transportation to the ranch. For some reason, all Chris' parenting skills seemed to have gone into remission this weekend. Sometime today, he and Vin would have to have a long talk – and then Chris would have to think up some kind of suitable punishment for himself to atone for his bad judgment.

"Chris," Buck raised his voice, "did you hear what I said?"

Chris threw back his covers. "Vin, do you know where Dean and Sammy live?"

"At the Mountain Vista Motel, room 16." Vin shifted lower on the bed so the blanket partially covered his face.

Once again, Chris found himself fighting to hold his temper, knowing Vin wouldn't believe the anger wasn't directed at him. The Mountain Vista Motel was a favorite meeting place for drug dealers and gun runners. Team Seven had made several busts there in the last year. It was no place for decent people. Certainly no place to raise two little boys. Chris knew it was a good thing John Winchester wasn't within his reach or the man would be fighting for his life.

"Buck," Chris rose and grabbed some clean clothes from his dresser, "you stay here and look after the boys. I'll take Nathan to look for his car."

His solemn face regarding the other man, Buck hesitantly asked, "Are you sure, Stud? I could go with Nathan."

His hand cupping his injured arm, Chris was glad he had a legitimate argument to explain why he should be the one to take Nathan into town. "I wouldn't be able to clean stalls anyway."

"Right." Buck turned away to head for the kitchen. He had only taken a few steps before he returned to his position in the doorway. "I know it's easy to forget, but remember, Dean's only a kid."

Slipping a clean shirt on, Chris paused in his task to catch Buck's eye. "It's not Dean I'm mad at."

"Just remember that when you see him," said Buck, slowly walking away.

"Chris," Vin hesitantly whispered, "Dean's doing the best he can."

Returning to the bed, Chris put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Dean's doing a great job. But it's a job he shouldn't be saddled with."

"What're you gonna do?"

For the first time, Chris realized he didn't have a plan, he was letting his emotions dictate his actions. "I don't know," he honestly answered.

"Will you put him in jail?"

"No!" Chris unconsciously tightened his grip on the thin shoulder. "Dean hasn't done anything wrong."

"He stole Nathan's car," reminded Vin.

"I'm sure Nathan won't press charges." Chris finished dressing. "I just want to make sure the boys are all right. I'll figure out what to do once I know."

Vin trustingly nodded. "'K."

Chris pointed a finger at the little boy. "You stay in that bed until Buck comes to get you. You heard Nathan. You need to stay off that ankle."

"Yes, sir," Vin unhappily agreed.

Leaning over, Chris kissed the top of Vin's head. "I'll see you later."

Vin's wistful expression almost breaking his resolve, Chris hurried from the room. In the kitchen, he found Buck and Nathan waiting for him. "Buck," Chris said, "see if you can get Vin to go back to sleep."

"Right, like that's going to happen." Buck held up a piece of paper. "I found this in the swear jar."

"What is it?"

"An IOU for fifty dollars. It's signed 'Dean Winchester'."

"Damn!" Chris wasn't angry about the missing money. He was angry Dean had obviously felt he had to steal it. Chris and Buck would've gladly have given it to him – and more if he had needed it to take care of himself and Sammy.

"Call me when you find them," said Buck, handing Chris his coat.

The stolen cash had dashed what little hope Chris had of finding the two boys. Speaking with a confidence he didn't feel, he said, "I will."

***

Dean's first stop was the Mountain Vista Motel to pack their belongings. It was dangerous leaving Sammy asleep in the running car, but he had little choice. Pushing the motel room door wide open, he kept one eye on the car as he packed. They didn't have much, but they couldn't afford to leave anything behind. There wouldn't be any money to replace it. Dean would have to watch every dime he spent, even more than he usually did.

When everything was in the back of the station wagon, he made one final check, looking in drawers and under the mattress, Sammy's favorite place to hide things. He wished he had time to make a complete search, but he couldn't take the chance.

Driving down the street, Dean turned into the parking lot to the motel their father had chosen as a backup in case of trouble. To Dean, this was trouble. Parking under the burned out security light, he got out and went into the office. Most places they stayed in didn't care if a kid checked in as long as he had cash. The clerk didn't even look up as Dean explained how they had driven so far his father was too tired to come inside himself.

Money and key quickly changed hands. Dean watched out of the corner of his eye as the clerk returned to the old movie he had been watching on TV. Once he felt it was safe, Dean got back behind the wheel of the station wagon and drove to Room 9.

Leaving Sammy asleep in the car, Dean took the motel room key from his pocket and opened the door. The smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke rushed out to meet him. Dean wished he could air it out before bringing Sammy inside. But he knew he didn't have time. He just hoped his brother would be too tired to notice the stench. Sammy could be quite vocal when he disliked something.

The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Dean returned to the car. He started hauling their belongings into the room, leaving Sammy sleeping in the backseat until there was only one thing left to take inside. Dreading what his brother would do, but unable to put it off any longer, he gently shook Sam awake.

"Go away, Dean," mumbled Sammy. "Don't wanna get up."

"Wouldn't you rather sleep in a nice, soft bed?" enticed Dean.

Pulling the blanket tighter around him, Sammy grumbled. "Nope."

Resigned, Dean took a firm grip on his brother, blanket and all, and pulled him out of the car. Once he could get his arms around the bundle, he carried it into the room. Kicking the door closed behind him, Dean staggered as he made his way to the bed farthest from the entrance and laid Sammy down. As he put his hands on his knees to catch his breath, Dean realized it wouldn't be much longer before Sammy would be too heavy for him to carry safely.

Dean made sure Sammy was comfortable and warm before crossing to the door. As he started outside, Dean found himself torn. He didn't want to leave his brother alone, but he couldn't afford to let Nathan's car sit out front any longer in case Larabee was looking for it.

With a last worried look at his brother, Dean closed the door, double checking to make sure it was locked. Driving the stolen car back to the Mountain Vista Motel, he parked in front of the room that had been their home for the last month.

Going inside, Dean made one final check. All that was left were his school books and a flea-bitten, fake Christmas tree he had found in an alley. Though only about a foot tall, Sammy had spent hours making decorations for it.

Biting his lip, Dean shrugged out of his coat and took off his sweater. He made it into a pouch and put all the homemade ornaments inside. There was always a chance he would find another discarded tree. It would be freezing walking back to the new motel, but it would be worth it if it made Sammy smile.

It was over a mile to the new motel across unplowed parking lots and icy sidewalks. Shivering, Dean walked as fast as he could in the early morning light. He kept glancing over his shoulder, expecting to see a familiar black truck bearing down on him. His neck soon grew stiff from the constant motion.

When he reached the new motel and entered room nine, he was glad to find Sammy still sleeping. His leg was really hurting, so Dean dug out a bottle of Tylenol and took one. Pulling a tie from his father's pack, he put it on the outside doorknob, under the "Do not Disturb" placard. The tie would let John Winchester know where the boys were.

***

Chris wasn't surprised to find Nathan's car parked in front of Room 16 at the Mountain Vista Motel. He was, however, relieved. More so when they discovered there were no dents or scrapes, indicating that despite his small stature, Dean was as good at driving as he was with first aid.

Still uncertain what he would say when he found the boys, Chris left Nathan to finish his inspection of his station wagon and hurried to the motel room. Hoping something would come to him in the next few seconds, Chris turned the door knob, actually disappointed when the door opened. It was almost anti-climatic when he found the room empty. Sitting forlornly on the table in front of the window were a pile of school books and a dilapidated plastic Christmas tree.

His emotions in turmoil, Chris sat on the end of the nearest bed. He had wanted to find the boys to make sure they were safe. Yet, at the same time, he hadn't known what he would do when his search ended. They obviously loved their father. And while Chris might question the man's parenting skills, his sons didn't seem to.

Nathan entered the room, making Chris look up. He saw a black, muscle car drive slowly past. Seeing the distinctive vehicle, he wished he had asked Dean what kind his father drove. If they canvassed the nearby motels, they might have been able to find the Winchesters. But there was no way to trace the family, they were probably long gone. The books told Chris the boys' wouldn't be returning to school.

"Find anything?" asked Nathan.

"Just those." Chris pointed to the table containing the school books and the scrawny Christmas tree.

Crossing to peer into the bathroom, Nathan suggested, "Maybe we should call Josiah and Ezra. We could check out the motels in the area."

"We won't find them." A sad smile curved Chris' lips. "Dean's too smart. He knows how to cover his tracks."

"Are you sure he's only ten years old?"

Chris ruefully nodded. "I'm sure."

"What do you want to do?" asked Nathan.

Rising to his feet, Chris said, "Go spend some time with Vin."

"Do ya need me?"

"Nah." Chris clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Go home to your wife and enjoy the rest of the weekend. I'll see you on Monday."

Though obviously not happy with the plan, Nathan reluctantly nodded. "See ya Monday."

As he started to follow his friend, Chris' gaze circled the rundown room before resting on the discarded school books. Deciding he would return them to the school, he picked them up and carried them out to his truck.

***

Half frozen, Dean scooted next to the heater, but the tepid air did little to warm him up. He wistfully remembered how cozy it had been at Larabee's ranch. It had been years since he had stayed any length of time in a normal household. It made his stomach hurt to think about it.

"Dean?"

Sammy's muffled voice reached Dean. He gratefully pushed the sadness aside and crossed to the bed. "I'm here, Sammy."

"Where are we?" Sam looked around the small room, his nose crinkling as the odors filled his nostrils. "And why does it stink in here?"

"We had to go to another motel."

"Why?"

Dean sat on the bed next to his brother. "After your meltdown, I thought you might not want to see JD again. So I stole their Uncle Nathan's car and brought you here. Vin knew about the other motel."

"But I'll have to see him when we go back to school on Monday, won't I, Dean?" said Sam.

Hating himself, Dean shook his head. "We can never go back, Sammy. I stole a car. They'll put me in jail if they catch me."

"But you didn't keep it, did you?"

"It doesn't matter."

Sam looked stricken, but Dean wasn't sure if it was because he couldn't go back to school or because Dean could go to jail.

The familiar rumbling of a car engine echoed through the thin walls of the motel room, filling Dean with relief. Hoping to distract Sammy, he said, "Daddy's home."

Scrabbling to get out of his quilted prison, Sam finally achieved his goal with Dean's help and ran to the door to greet their father. "Daddy, can you fix it so I can go back to school?"

"Hey, Sport." John lifted the boy up into his arms, hugging him close as he sent a quizzical gaze in Dean's direction.

"Ugh." Sammy pinched his nose shut. "You smell worse than the room."

"Daddy's been working hard." Putting Sammy back on his feet, John knowingly suggested, "Why don't you go to the bathroom, Sport?"

The suggestion making him realize how long it had been since he had last gone, Sam grabbed himself and shuffled to the bathroom.

As soon as the door was closed, Dean quickly explained what happened the night before. Once his father learned why they had to leave town as soon as possible, Dean knew he would be in trouble. Not because he had stolen a car, but because he had let Sammy go on the sleep over.

"Can you, Daddy?" Sammy ran out of the bathroom. "Can you make it better?"

"Daddy finished his job and we're leaving town as soon as I get some sleep."

Crestfallen, Sammy asked, "Do you want to hear what I got to do at JD's?"

"Of course I do." John kissed the little boy on the top of the head. "Later."

"Are you sure you can wait?"

"I'm sure." John smiled. "Dean, keep your brother quiet while I get some sleep."

Dean gently grabbed Sammy's hand. "Yes, sir."

"We'll talk later"

Unhappily nodding, Dean looked longingly at the bed as his father made a quick visit to the bathroom before crawling beneath the ratty covers. Dean grabbed the thick quilt he had taken from Larabee's and wrapped it around himself and his brother as they sat on the floor near the heater. "Sammy, why don't you tell me what you did with JD in your, Daddy's trying to sleep inside voice?"

"OK," Sam happily agreed.

As he listened with half an ear, Dean hoped that wherever they were going next it would be warmer. With no snow. It was easier to pretend it wasn't Christmas when there was no snow.

***

Warm air scented with the smell of freshly cut grass wafted in through the open window, making Chris yearn to be outside instead of in his office writing checks. The happy cries of JD and Vin playing made it even more tempting to leave the bills for another day. Except that's what he had done the day before and the day before that. He couldn't put it off any longer.

"Hey, Chris." Buck entered the room and threw an envelope on the desk. "This came in the mail today."

Chris groaned. "What is it, another bill?"

"I don't think so."

The tone of his friend's voice making him curious, Chris picked up the letter. It was addressed to him in a handwriting he didn't recognize. There was no return address. Exchanging a puzzled glance with Buck, Chris used the letter opener to rip off the top edge and pulled out a bundle wrapped in white paper. Tearing the paper, he was surprised to find money inside, two tens, four fives, and ten singles.

"There's writing on the paper?" said Buck. "What does it say?"

For the first time, Chris noticed the childish scrawl. Opening the sheet so it lay flat, he read, "Fifty dollars, paid in full. Dean Winchester."

"Where did it come from?"

Chris looked at the envelope. "It has a Springfield, Illinois postmark."

"Do you want me to have Ezra check to see if he can find them?"

"No." Chris shook his head. "They're long gone. Dean wouldn't have mailed this until they were ready to leave town."

"I hate thinking of those boys out there with so many monsters."

"Me, too." Chris looked at the books he hadn't been able to return to the school. They were the only tangible sign of a night that had changed his life.

"Ezra made contact with a man in South Dakota who knows all about this supernatural crap," said Buck. "I thought we might go see him next month when the boys are out of school."

"Sounds like a plan," Chris agreed. "What's his name?"

"Bobby Singer."