Hey all,

Gonna have to be short today, 'cause I'm getting ready to head to a teacher conference tomorrow and should really be in bed. Many thanks to those who have reviewed and for the well wishes in those reviews. I'm doing much better now, and the problem with my hands has been pretty much resolved (and without the aid of surgery or invasive testing procedures, yay!). Hope people are still enjoying!

Disclaimer: I am in no way associated with the rightful owners of Supernatural and all trademarks thereof. No money has exchanged hands and I respectfully ask that nobody sue me. It's all in good fun, after all.

"I'm scared."

"Don't be."

They were whispering, their voices barely carrying beyond the bed on which they sat. Dean was scrunched up against the headboard, a flashlight trained on an old, wrinkled comic book he had dug out from the depths of his bag. He was trying to act like he wasn't worried, flipping through the pages of the book with a bored expression on his face.

He wasn't fooling the child curled at his side.

Sammy could tell by the way his brother held himself, all stiff and tight, and by the way he was biting his lip. Dean was scared, too. It was dark out, and almost Sammy's bedtime, and Daddy wouldn't be back until breakfast time the next morning. He'd promised to take them to the pancake house across the street for breakfast tomorrow if they were good while he was gone, but Sammy was starting to think that he'd be happy not to have pancakes if it meant Daddy would walk through the door and pick him up high over his head, the way he sometimes did.

The room was too dark, even with Dean's flashlight. Dean said they couldn't have the lights on or watch TV because nobody could know they were by themselves this late at night. Dean had let him put the 'donot asturb' sign on the door, and he'd helped Dean check the salt lines around the doors and windows. Dean had even let him lay the line around their bed all by himself...mostly. All that was fine, but it hadn't helped one bit once the sun had gone down. Sammy couldn't help it...he was scared. Daddy left him and Dean alone a lot, but Sammy couldn't remember him ever doing it after dark.

He wanted his daddy.

Even with Dean right beside him, the room didn't feel right without Daddy in the bed next to them.

"Dean?" Sammy whispered again.

"What?" Dean sounded a little annoyed, but Sammy knew Dean wasn't angry with him.

"Is Daddy comin' back?"

"Of course he's coming back. Don't be stupid."

"But he's been goned a really long time."

"Goned isn't a word. And anyway, it's only been a few hours. He'll be back tomorrow morning." Dean huffed lightly to himself, and Sammy bit his lip, watching his big brother with wide eyes. Finally, Sammy couldn't take it anymore.

"Dean?" he said yet again, his voice lowering still further. Immediately, Dean threw the comic book down onto the bedspread.

"What?!" the older boy said angrily. Sammy shrank away a little, and Dean took a deep breath, reaching up to rub his eyes with one hand. "What?" he said again, and this time his voice was much softer. Sammy bit his lip and plucked at a stray thread on the bedspread.

"What if somethin' happens to him?" He heard Dean suck in another breath, real hard, and Sammy suddenly didn't want to look his brother in the eyes. He pulled harder at the thread, and hugged his stuffed rabbit closer to him.

"Don't say that, okay? Nothing bad is gonna happen to Dad. He's too tough."

"But what if it does?"

"Sammy, nothing is gonna happen to Dad. I promise! You probably don't remember, 'cause you were really little, but last year he was gone for five whole days! Mr. Bobby had to come and get us and take us to Pastor Jim."

Dean very carefully did not mention that that time, their father was only supposed to have been gone for a few hours. He didn't like to think about how scared he had been as he dialed Mr. Bobby's number, listening to Sammy wailing on the bed behind him, angry and squalling because he was hungry. The groceries Dad had left them with had run out the morning before, and Dean hadn't even been able to give his brother a bottle of juice. They had stayed with Pastor Jim for another three days before Mr. Bobby had finally brought their dad to the older man's farm. Dean had never found out just what had happened, but Pastor Jim and John Winchester had talked for almost two solid hours before they had left in the Impala...listening at the door, Dean had only been able to hear something about 'mouthing off to the police' and 'posting' something. Dean wasn't sure what it meant, but he'd heard his dad promise to pay Pastor Jim back for something, and when they had come out of the study, their dad had been pale and shamefaced.

"I do so a-member," Sammy said...even though he really didn't. "I'm a big boy...Daddy says." Dean laughed out loud at that, his warm, happy laugh that Sammy loved to hear, even though he was pretty sure Dean was laughing at him. He didn't care, though, because it made Dean's whole face look like it was shining.

"Okay, fine, you're a big boy...but you weren't back then. You still had a blankie and diapers. Big, stinky diapers. All the time. Mr. Bobby said you were the stinkiest kid ever, and he made you ride in the back of his truck 'cause he didn't want you up front with us."

"He did not! You're tellin' stories! S'not nice to lie!" Sammy pouted at his brother, wrinkling his forehead, and Dean finally shook his head.

"All right, all right, you win. Mr. Bobby didn't call you stinky."

"Is Daddy gonna be goned for that long again?" Sammy went back to his original question, and Dean privately wondered when it had stopped being easy to distract his little brother with silly stories or games. Every day, it seemed, Sammy was getting sharper.

"I told you...'goned' isn't a word. It's 'gone.' And no way Dad'll be gone that long again. He'll be back by the time you wake up. So the sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you'll see him."

Sammy shot him a look. Dean regretfully realized that he wasn't going to get to finish his comic book tonight. Sammy licked his lips nervously, and hugged his stuffed rabbit to his chest even more tightly. All the teasing went out of Dean like water draining out of a broken glass. Sammy looked really frightened about something...and nothing was allowed to make his baby brother that scared.

"What if somethin' comes before Daddy gets back?" The words were said so softly that Dean had to strain to hear them, and Sammy wasn't looking at him, instead focusing on the rabbit's black button eyes. Dean sighed heavily.

"Is that what this is about? You think something's gonna happen to us?" Dean asked, deliberately making his voice low and gentle. Hesitantly, Sammy's dark head bobbed up and down in a jerky nod. Dean huffed to himself before scooting a little closer to the smaller boy, wrapping one arm around his brother's shoulders. Immediately Sammy burrowed into his side, as close as he could possibly get, and laid his face against the side of Dean's neck.

"Sammy, nothin's gonna happen to us, okay? Dad made sure there's all sorts of wards and stuff all over the room...and we put the salt lines out just a little while ago."

"But what if one of the bad things comes in anyways?" Sammy sounded close to tears, and Dean worried his lower lip between his teeth. Something tighthurtwrong welled up in his chest at the thought of any 'bad thing' getting anywhere close to his baby brother, and he silently swore all over again that as long as he was around, nothing was allowed to hurt his Sammy. Out loud, though, he just cleared his throat and pulled the little boy tighter against him.

"You don't worry, okay? 'Cause even if that happened...and it won't...but even if something did get in, I'm here. I always take care of you, don't I?"

Earnestly, Sammy nodded, winding one small, chubby arm around Dean's neck. "You take the bestest care of me," Sammy said very seriously.

"And I always will."

Still, though, when Sammy finally raised his head from Dean's neck, there was something else lurking in his eyes. Dean was well-versed enough in his little brother's various moods and expressions that it was obvious the conversation was not yet over. He wasn't disappointed when scant seconds later, Sammy opened his mouth again.

"But what if somethin' bad comes when you're not around?"

Dean's whole body went cold, even though Sammy was cuddled close to him and the blankets were drawn up to their waists. "That's not gonna happen!" he protested instantly, his voice coming out louder than he'd intended. "That'll never happen, you hear me?" Instinctively, he drew his arm more tightly across Sammy's shoulders, hugging the boy close, as though something had appeared that instant to take his brother right out of his arms.

Sammy, though, refused to be distracted from his train of thought. "What if it does?" he asked in a small voice. Dean struggled to calm the sudden racing of his heart, taking a deep breath in the way Dad had taught him.

Despite the fact that Sammy had only recently turned three years old, he'd already shown a disturbingly bulldog-like tenacity when it came to questions. When he asked something, he expected an answer, and his ability to sense when someone was trying to give him the run-around had already had his father reaching for the bottle of aspirin more times than could be counted. Dean knew that once the other boy got something in his head, it stayed there until Sammy was satisfied. So, even though the mere thought of not being there if something happened to his brother made Dean's stomach turn, he nonetheless took a deep breath and spoke truthfully.

"I promise you, I'm always gonna be around as long as I can help it, okay Sammy? But...but if for some reason I'm not...and Dad's not...you don't have to be scared. 'Cause if you needed me, I'd find you."

"Even if I was way, way far away?"

Dean swallowed hard and nodded.

"Even if you had to fight a big, scary monster to find me?"

"Even if I had to fight a big, scary monster." Dean licked his lips, suddenly wishing with all his might that his father was back...or that they could turn the TV on...anything so that he didn't have to keep talking about this with his brother. Sammy, though, finally seemed satisfied. The little boy wiggled for a moment, before stretching up to sloppily kiss Dean's cheek.

"I love you, Dean. I love you the biggest," Sammy said solemnly. "And Gus loves you, too." He held up the worn stuffed rabbit that he rarely went anywhere without.

Dean snorted, secretly touched, though he'd never admit it. "Yeah, well, tell Gus he's not my type. Now, will you please go to sleep? It's almost past your bedtime."

Sammy giggled softly, but obediently flopped back down against the pillows, pulling the blankets up tight against his neck. Dean held himself still as Sammy shifted around, getting comfortable. Finally, the little boy settled on his side facing Dean, yawning widely, Gus the Rabbit tucked close under his chin. "G'night Dean," Sammy muttered sleepily, weariness setting in with the typical on/off suddeness of the very young.

Dean waited for the other boy's breathing to deepen and even out, before gently laying one hand against soft, dark curls. "I'll always be there when you need me. Always. I promise."

Sammy pretended not to hear the softly whispered words, instead simply rolling closer to his brother's warmth, and smiling gently as he fell asleep.

The footsteps were coming closer.

They clump, clump, clumped their way down the stairs that he remembered the bad thing carrying him down, getting louder and louder by the second. The other little boy and girl jumped at Maria as soon as she woke them, wrapping themselves around her the way he held onto Dean when he was really, really scared. Maria reached out with one hand to him, and even though Daddy always told him that he was a Winchester and Winchesters weren't afraid of anything, he grabbed onto her hand as tight as he could.

Dean would call him a baby for needing a girl to hold his hand...but it was dark, and he was scared, and Maria said she was going to take care of him. They were going to take care of each other, like Dean took care of him, and he took care of Dean. Sammy didn't know how they were going to do anything, but it made him feel just a little better to stand beside the older girl and hold tight to her hand.

"It'll be okay, guys, it'll be okay," Maria whispered.

The footsteps stopped, right outside what had to be the door to the room they were in.

Sammy felt the other two kids pushing themselves back behind Maria, holding onto her waist. They were both crying, and Sammy could tell from the sound of Maria's voice that she was about to start, as well. Sammy wanted to start crying, too. He didn't know what was on the other side of the door...but he knew it was one of the bad things his daddy hunted. He knew it was fast and strong enough to grab him up and take him away from Daddy and Dean before he could even scream. He knew it was a bad thing that had hurt him and scared him.

He wanted to cry, but he was trying hard not to. Dean wouldn't want him to cry, or be scared. Just thinking about his big brother made him feel better, braver. Dean wouldn't be scared! Dean wouldn't cry! So he wouldn't, either. He would be a big, brave boy until Daddy and Dean found him. Sammy took a deep breath and straightened up, throwing his shoulders back the way his big brother always did when he was about to do something he really didn't want to do. He could be brave, the way he knew Dean would want him to be. He could be brave until his brother found him, the way he promised he always would.

Silently, Sammy squeezed Maria's hand as the door swung open.

Detective Gary Ross was pushing the edge of complete exhaustion. He hadn't actually seen the inside of his house for the past three days, instead catching quick naps on the breakroom couch and showering in the locker room. He'd been mainlining the crappy breakroom coffee and living off delivered Chinese takeout and the sandwiches his wife had brought to the station with a change of clothes, yesterday. He was pretty sure he was about to hit the point of uselessness as far as the investigation went. Already, his supervisor had 'suggested' he take a couple days off and get some rest. No doubt it would be an order, soon.

Ross knew it would be the best thing, but he couldn't make himself leave, just yet. It would have to be an order...he wouldn't put his investigation on hold for anything else.

This case was driving him to his limits, in more ways than one. Finding Michael Warner's body had been yet another blow in a series that had left him raw in ways he hadn't felt since his rookie days. This was the kind of case that every law enforcement officer prayed he or she would never have to deal with. Bad enough that it involved children...but to have to see the kind of brutality that had been visited upon such innocent victims. It turned his stomach. Seven times, he'd failed in the worst way possible. Seven deaths, seven families shattered in a way that they would never truly heal from.

No, he would not be going home until he was absolutely forced to.

Grimacing, he reached up to massage his temple as he flipped through the case file for perhaps the thousandth time. The details never changed, the leads never miraculously became more helpful, but he couldn't stop hoping that somehow they would. There was so much about this case that didn't make any sense. How could eleven children just vanish? And that was exactly what seemed to have happened. There were no witnesses, no physical evidence...and the security footage they had been able to find--well, Ross just couldn't find any rational explanation for the tapes. The children literally seemed to have vanished into thin air.

He sighed heavily, throwing the folder back down onto his desk with a snarl of disgust. Seven children were dead in his city, and he and his team were no closer to finding answers than they had been the day the first victim disappeared. He cracked his neck from side to side for a moment, before reaching down to scoop the latest file off the pile that had taken up permanent residence on his desk. The Carter family.

That had been a kick in the teeth. At only three years old, Samuel Carter was the youngest victim so far. Ross's heart had gone out to the father and the brother...it was obvious that they were a very tight knit family. The older brother, especially, had been devastated. Ross couldn't help but shake his head at the memory of the boy's pale face, the way his hands had been shaking as he wretched, actually sick from worry. For them to be merely passing through town, far from any family that could provide comfort and support, had to make this doubly hard for them. It wasn't fair.

John Carter's statement read almost exactly the same as those of all the other parents. A bit more concise and detailed--Ross was willing to bet his pension that the man had a military background--but ultimately as unhelpful as the others. Shaking his head, Ross reached for the folder of photos of the various scenes where the children's bodies had been found, frowning slightly as his questing hand came up empty. Strange...he was sure he had placed the crime scene folder on the lefthand corner of his desk.

Wait...no, he'd had it on him when he'd gone to interview John Carter. He'd been looking at the pictures of Michael Warner's body when he'd been called down to speak with Carter, along with some copies of the witness statements. The photo file had been the only file in the stack he'd taken into the conference room with him that hadn't been a copy, in fact. Crap, it had been in the stack the Carter boy had lost his lunch on. Great. Just great. With a sigh, Ross levered himself up out of his chair and crossed the few feet that separated him from the door of his small office.

He opened the door and poked his head out into the chaos that was the floor of the San Jose Major Crimes division. "Sanchez!" he barked, and several feet away, a dark haired man in a suit and tie no less rumpled that Ross's own raised his head from some report or another on his desk.

"Yeah?" the younger man called back.

"You supervised the cleanup of those files that kid ruined yesterday, right?"

A disgusted grimace curled the other man's lips. "Uh-huh. Thanks for that, by the way."

Ross couldn't help the small smile that quirked his lips. "Delegation, rookie. That's what I get paid the big bucks for. Were you able to salvage any of the crime scene photos from the missing kids case?" The files were backed up, of course, but Ross really didn't want to go hunting for them in the station's massive storage rooms.

At his desk, Sanchez raised one eyebrow in surprise. "Sorry, sir, there weren't any photos in the files. Bunch of witness statements, but that was it."

Ross's brow furrowed. "What are you talking about? You sure?"

"I went through all the papers myself--and again, thanks for that. No crime scene reports." That couldn't be right. Ross's eyes narrowed as Sanchez shrugged. "Are you sure you had them in that stack?" Sanchez continued, and now he was looking confused as well. Ross opened his mouth to snap back that of course he was sure...but something held his tongue.

"No...no, I guess I must have put it somewhere else," he said, instead. Without another word, he closed his office door and returned to his desk.

He knew he'd had that file with him when he went to interview John Carter. He was tired, but he wasn't so tired that he would start being careless with his case files. No, the file had been on the table when he had taken Carter out into the hallway. But that had to mean...

Ross's eyes narrowed still further.

Slowly, he reached over and snatched the handset of his desk phone off the hook, raising it to his ear. He dialed an extenstion quickly, his face never once losing its thoughtful look.

"Angela?" he asked quietly as the extension was picked up on the other end. "It's Gary...listen, I need some information."

It paused outside of the door that lead to the room it held its victims in, just savoring the smell of fear, the sounds of whimpering cries that reached it. Too long, it had been denied this, and it knew that its time was drawing to a close yet again. Who knew when it would be able to break free from its prison again? Best to make this time count, to truly enjoy itself. It licked its lips, practically salivating at the thought of the misery it would cause with its final victims.

Especially the prize it had taken the day before.

It chuckled darkly as it finally undid the latch on the door, allowing it to swing open.

The children were huddled in much the same place as they had been the day before, two of the smaller ones clinging to the dark-haired girl who was forever spouting off words of faith as though they could save her. The children had their faces buried in the front of her torn and dirty green dress, their shoulders shaking with sobs. The girl herself was holding to them tightly, one arm wrapped around them both. She had pushed her face into the smaller girl's blonde curls, and by her harsh breathing, it could tell that she, too, was struggling not to cry.

And then, there was the smallest boy.

It met the child's dark, defiant gaze and something inside of it positively shivered in anticipation. Oh yes, the child was special. To its preternatural gaze, the boy still glowed...power practically pulsing within, around, and through him. Incredible. Intoxicating. It smiled, stepping further into the room. Its borrowed fingers itched to touch, to rend and tear, and hurt. To destroy the light and the power that swirled around in the small basement room. It knew such would be the ultimate thrill, the ultimate triumph.

The other children flinched and trembled at the sound of its feet on the concrete floor, but not the boy. He merely continued to stare, the only sign of his fear the way that he clutched that the older girl's hand, his knuckles going white with the strength of his grip. Brave child. It always enjoyed the brave ones...breaking them was so much sweeter. It stalked forward stopping only when it loomed over the huddled children, a twisted smile lighting its mouth as the three clinging to each other suddenly sank to their knees with terrified screams. The older girl tried to draw the small boy closer to them, but the child refused to move.

The boy stared up at it, his face pale and his eyes wide...and minute shivers had started to wrack his small frame. His gaze, though, was still steady. The child was not backing down. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Slowly, so, so slowly, it reached down tracing one hand along the side of the child's face--and then the boy showed his fear, flinching away from the touch with a small whimper. The dark eyes grew even wider, and glassy with the start of tears, but the boy seemed to will them away, refusing to let them fall. Its smile widened, and it made a quick, jerking motion.

The boy screamed in pain and surprise, falling down to the ground as he threw his small body backwards.

Blunt, human nails weren't nearly as effective as claws, but four lines of scarlet appeared on the child's soft, plump cheek. It chuckled again as it raised bloody fingers to its mouth, its tongue flicking out to lap at the scant drops. Its eyes nearly rolled back into its head at the taste.


So much power and potential. The child's blood danced on its tongue, sparking with a richness that called to something deeper than deep and darker than dark within it. With a mad cackle, it reached down again, snatching the child up by his arms and bringing him level with its eyes. The other, smaller children screamed and cowered, and the older girl finally seemed to find some of the spirit she normally showed. The girl shoved the other two behind her, and then lunged, beating at its legs with her fists and screaming at it to let the boy go.

Casually, it kicked her aside, ignoring the screams of the other children as they scrambled for their fallen friend.

The small boy in its hands was gasping, now, the tears he had fought so gallantly against spilling down his cheeks. It grinned nastily, bringing its face in close to inhale the scent of the child's blood, scraping its teeth against the open scratches, desperate for another taste. The delightful, electric flavor exploded on its tongue again, the swirls and eddies of power becoming even clearer to its senses. For a moment, it seemed that everything within and around the child was laid bare to it.

And suddenly, it laughed.

"Marked," it chortled, throwing its head back in malicious mirth. The child shivered in its grasp, kicking feebly, but it ignored the boy's pathetic struggles. "Marked," it whispered again. "Marked by demons and destiny...all light and shadow, aren't you little one? Marked by so many."

It could taste the truth in the boy's blood, sense all that was centered on this small being.

The deadly, dangerous claim of one of its own kind...one of the ancient, powerful demons. Was its 'brother' even aware that the claim on this child had been challenged?

The pure, glowing light of the child's innate abilities, dormant still, but so strong. The child would be a warrior for the light if those gifts were allowed to develop freely.

And beneath it all, something else. Something beyond the machinations of a demon, or the glow of goodness and light. Something that had almost passed out of all human understanding.

This child was marked by the power of the Old Ones. Marked by a power it never in a thousand lifetimes would have dreamed of being in the presence of.

"Bringer," it breathed, almost reverently.

To tamper with the forces twined in this child's existence was to invite ruin. Of that it was certain. Its smile stretched still further, tinged with madness. Such, such fun. There was a flurry of movement, the sounds of flesh striking flesh, a scream louder and longer than any other so far.

And when it was over, and the door slammed shut again, there were only three children in the small prison.