Title: A Very Supernatural Toy Story
Author: JenF
Disclaimer: I do not own the Winchester family, their property, their friends or their enemies. If you recognise something, it's probably not mine.
A/N: Originally part of the SN Virtual Season (4) over on Ungen


Sam Winchester closed his eyes against the harsh light cast by the setting winter sun and let his head fall on the back of the passenger seat. The day had been crisp and almost perfect for the time of year. Dean had been complaining constantly for the last hundred miles and Sam was on the verge of fratricide. He knew Dean didn't have particularly good memories of this time of year but he couldn't believe it had all been so bad. He could take the griping and the whining, he'd had plenty of practice at it, but it was beginning to grate on even his calm temperament.

When his brother passed the fourth comment about the lack of a hunt in as many minutes, Sam finally snapped.

"Dude! Seriously, what is it with you today?"

Dean's expression was, to be honest, comical. The surprise on his face, coupled with badly disguised innocent indignation was worthy of an Oscar, if not a lifetime achievement award. He turned wide eyes to Sam, eyebrows raised.

"What d'you mean?" he asked.

"You've done nothing but complain since we got in the car. Six hours, Dean. Six hours of non-stop grumbling. That's coming close to a record, even for you."

"I'm not grumbling. Ten year olds grumble, Sam. I'm voicing an opinion."

"I've heard your opinion, man. Over and over and over. Would you just give it a rest now please? You're giving me a headache."

Dean heaved a sigh and turned his attention back to the road. "Drama queen," he huffed, lapsing into a sulky silence.

"You're sulking and I'm the drama queen?"

"I'm not sulking either, Sam. I'm… bored," he admitted after a few minutes silence. "I need to be doing something."

If Sam was surprised, he didn't let it show. He had suspected something along those lines but to hear Dean actually voice it gave him a petty sense of satisfaction. He couldn't help the smile that crept onto his face.

"It's Christmas, Dean. Peace and goodwill. Remember that? Holiday season. Maybe we should just kick back for a few days." Sam paused, studying Dean whilst wondering whether to finish his sentence. "Maybe have a Christmas of our own?"

It was a hesitant question and Dean wasn't sure if Sam was expecting an answer or not. If truth be told, he was unsettled. Christmas never really sat well with him. It was an overhyped season full of hypocritical sentiment he could live without. He couldn't understand the frenzy that swept over the majority of people, couldn't be doing with the plethora of cheap gifts, false goodwill and forced merriment and he couldn't bear to be reminded of what he and Sam had missed out on as children. As far as he was concerned, the only good things about the season were eggnog and those cute Santa's Helpers outside department stores.

Looking back at Sam, Dean's heart sank as he realized yes, Sammy was waiting for an answer. It seemed it wasn't just a throw away comment, the kid actually looked like he wanted a Christmas.

Mentally shaking himself down, he sighed. "We'll pull into the next motel," he offered, hoping he could fob Sam off long enough for him to forget the whole holiday issue. "Get some rest."

Sam had been around his brother long enough to know when to push and when to let something slide. And he knew when Dean was trying to change the subject. He let his eyes drift back to the passing scenery, taking pity on Dean by letting the matter drop. For now. He closed his eyes and let the gentle purring of the engine wash over him.

True to his word, the first motel they came to, Dean turned off, the Impala coming to a graceful halt outside the reception office which was garishly decorated with multicolored fairy lights and a plastic tree in one corner. Playing the big brother card, Dean sent Sam in to register, unable to stomach the tackiness of the place.

The room they ended up with was small and hideously decorated in a mauve fleur de lys design, but thankfully no effort had been made to acknowledge the festive season. Dean decided it was a room best not to wake in with a hangover. In fact, it was a room best not dwelt in for too long at all.

Flinging his duffel on the first bed, Dean made a beeline for the bathroom, leaving Sam to explore what comforts the room offered by himself. When he reappeared, Sam was reclining on his bed, a variety of local tourist information leaflets spread around him like leaves fallen off a tree. Sam looked up at his brother with a mischievous grin on his face, waving one particular leaflet at him.

"Look," he grinned, "late night shopping. We could check it out? If you're, y'know, bored."

"Will there be anything to kill?" Dean snatched the offending literature out of Sam's hand and crushed it in one swift move, hurling it with deadly accuracy into the trashcan in the corner of the room. "Other than you."

Sam simply picked up another leaflet, thrusting it at Dean. "Well, if you don't fancy shopping we could always take the mystery tour round the town. It leaves at 10am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Looks good value for money."

Dean glared and Sam raised his eyebrows in mock innocence. "No? How about the annual Christmas gathering round the tree in the market square? 'Carols followed by mince pies and mulled wine. Fun for all the family.' We could walk it from here in about fifteen minutes…"

"Sam…" Dean's growl would have put the fear of God into most people, but Sam wasn't most people. He could hear the affection behind the threat and in a bizarre way it felt good. Maybe stopping here wasn't going to be too bad. Maybe he could persuade Dean to relax for a few days after all, enjoy a little downtime.

It was a thought that Sam held on to as his head hit the pillow and he sank into a peaceful sleep that night.

XXXXXX

The coffee was black, wet and hot but that was about all Dean could really say about it. He didn't demand a lot from his caffeine intake but he did like a bit of taste to it. He slammed the mug back down on the Formica surface of the table with enough force to jolt some scalding liquid out of the container and onto the paper Sam was currently engrossed in.

Whatever had captured Sam's attention was obviously so interesting not even Dean's exaggerated sighing and fidgeting were enough to draw his eyes away from the paper and over to his brother. Finally, impatient and restless, Dean flicked a teaspoon across the table, making sure it careened into the middle of the page Sam was looking at.

"Hey, Sammy. You still in there?"

"Mmm?" Sam's eyes appeared over the top of the page. "What?"

"What'cha got there? Must be fascinating. You've been looking at it for hours."

"Hardly hours, Dean. We've only been here twenty minutes."

Dean waited for Sam to share but his brother's head had disappeared behind the broadsheet again and seemed to be lost within the paper again.

"Seriously, dude. What's so interesting there? Is it a hunt?" Dean couldn't contain the excitement in his voice. Whenever Sam found a potential hunt he went quiet for a while before indulging his brother's almost constant need to know. He was pretty sure this was a case in point. It seemed to him Sam was being deliberately offhand about his current reading material.

Sighing loudly, Sam slid the paper over to Dean, pointing at the article which had had him so captivated. Picking up his own coffee he sank back in his seat, watching as Dean scanned the words in front of him, brow creasing in confusion.

"What the hell's this, Sammy?" he queried. "A sob story for Christmas? 'Local toy shop faces bankruptcy.' Hardly our kind of thing." He pushed the paper back disappointedly.

"I know," Sam agreed. "I never said there was. I just… It's sad, y'know. Someone puts all that effort into building a business and then it fails. I mean, it's a toy shop, Dean. At Christmas."

"And your point is?" Dean picked his cup up, eyed it distrustfully and put it back down again.

"It's just," Sam paused, waving his hand aimlessly in the air as though he could catch hold of the right words, the exact phrase he was looking for. "It's Mortimer Westland, dude."

Dean frowned and wracked his brain. The way the name tripped off Sam's tongue sounded as though it ought to mean something to him. He rifled through the catalogue of names he held in his head. Fellow hunters, people they'd met along the way who had helped or hindered them, people Dad had warned them about, people to avoid at all costs. Nothing.

Watching Dean's face, Sam suddenly realized Dean had probably never heard of the man before. They had been back together for so long now Sam sometimes forgot there were four whole years of experiences and knowledge they hadn't shared. Every so often it crept up on him and hit him between the eyes like a sack of potatoes. Dean hadn't been at his side in Stanford, hadn't been to the parties with him, hadn't heard him expand on his latest theories for essays and theses, hadn't learned about things like Mortimer Westland with him.

"He was a highly respected business man out in New York. Made Vice President of Mayla Industries when he was just twenty-seven. One of the most successful businessmen of his generation. If anyone should be able to make it in business, it's him."

"Wow!" Dean stared up at his brother, although Sam wasn't sure if the look on his face was amazement or bewilderment. "You are just a font of…something. How the hell do you know all this stuff?"

"What do you think I did at Stanford, Dean?" Sam smiled.

Dean shrugged. "Not what I'd have done," he retorted, lost momentarily in dreams of student bars and sorority parties.

"Dude! Focus!" Sam snapped, although the smile on his face belied the tone of voice. "I did a paper on him in my second year there. He's an amazing man, Dean. He had a really hard childhood, had next to nothing, and yet he rose up through the ranks of industry relying on nothing but his own determination and intelligence. He was the original 'rags to riches' poster boy. Ruthless and hardheaded in the boardroom and a perfect gentleman everywhere else." Sam paused, turning the newspaper round to face him again. He traced his finger along the headline. "I just don't understand how someone like him can fail at running something as simple as a toy shop. I mean, he's got it all – business acumen, financial understanding, people skills – everything. If he can't make it…" Sam paused, seeing his brother's eyes glazing over. "All I'm saying is…"

"You're a bleeding heart, you know that? So, some high flyer can't make it out in the real world. So what? It's one of those things, Sam. What's the big deal?"

"No, you're right Dean. There's no big deal here. Man's life's falling apart at Christmas and all is right with the world."

"Geez – you can be so dramatic, you know that?" Dean shook his head in exasperation. "If it'll make you happy, let's go meet this childhood hero of yours. It's not like we've got anything better to do." He threw down a couple of bills on the table and slid along the bench seat till he could stand unhindered by the table. Casting one last look at the now stone cold coffee, he couldn't resist having the last word. "If you're really good, I might even buy you a present."

XXXXX

Westland's Toy Shop was even more idyllic than Sam could have imagined. A small, one roomed shop, it could have been lifted straight from any one of the seasonal greetings cards currently spilling off shelves in every card shop, department store and gas station. If Sam closed his eyes and relaxed for a minute he could almost see Santa's sleigh coming in to land on the roof. It brought to mind boxes of chocolates and snow sprinkled children skating across frozen ponds in velvet coats and hats.

Every couple of minutes the bell above the shop door rang across the street as another customer entered, generally followed by a child or two clutching a brightly colored package. Sam noted with interest the children didn't look especially happy and the family groups leaving the store were, in the main, empty handed. While the adults looked satisfied, their offspring appeared crestfallen and the spirit of Christmas seemed to have been left behind.

"Doesn't look like a failing business to me," Dean grunted, still trying to work out how they came to be sitting in the Impala, staking out a damned toyshop.

"Yeah, but look at the kids though," Sam returned. "Nobody looks very happy."

Dean snorted. "It's Christmas, dude. They're shopping. Three days before Christmas. Who'd be happy doing that?"

Holding back a heartfelt sigh, Sam turned to glare at Dean but the sharp retort on the tip of his tongue died when he saw the expression on his brother's face. He had expected the comment to be accompanied by a belligerent stare, or at least an unspoken challenge to refute his statement. He hadn't expected Dean to be gazing at the family group just leaving the store, the mother's arm around a small child of about four or five who was in floods of tears. He hadn't expected his brother's eyes to hold the sympathy they currently concealed. If he didn't know better, he almost would have said Dean looked wistful.

He was just about to break the semi-awkward silence when Dean saved him the trouble. "Do you remember our Christmases, Sam?" he asked. "Remember the god awful gifts we got each other?" He turned to look at Sam, a slight smile turning the corners of his mouth upward.

"I remember the Barbie doll," he chuckled and watched with some satisfaction as Dean's face colored slightly.

"It was the best I could do," Dean defended himself. "And we did have fun with the baton, didn't we?"

"I remember you didn't use it as a baton for long. Who knew they worked just like light sabers!"

"Hey, you were asking for it!" Dean smiled at the memory of chasing his eight-year-old brother round yet another shoddy motel room armed with a sparkly cheerleader's baton. But the moment didn't last long as he remembered why Sam had ended up with such girlie presents that year. Just another Christmas Dad hadn't made it back to the boys. And Sam wondered why Dean reserved judgment on the festive season.

As if knowing what was running through his older brother's head, Sam turned away to the street, just as a man and his two sons walked past them and on into the shop, a hand laying casually on each boy's back.

"He did make it some years, Dean. They weren't all bad." He sat back, watching the man and his boys through the panes of Westland's shop and the milling crowd. "And he did get you some awesome presents when he was there."

"Tools of the trade, Sammy. That's all they were."

"Maybe. But you tell me you didn't want them. He knew what floated your boat, even then."

"And you? You're telling me you were really that thrilled when he got you your first hunting knife?"

Sam paused. It wasn't exactly a limited edition of Lord of the Rings, but it was something his father had put some thought into. The knife had been a perfect fit in his hand, the handle smooth and warm to the touch, the blade razor sharp, shining in the moonlight glinting through the window that year. He had to admit it, he had been a little bit thrilled with it. An acknowledgement from Dad that he was ready to join his older brother on the hunt in the New Year.

"It wasn't that bad, Dean. We just got a bit…jaded…about the whole thing. I guess it's hard to believe in Santa when you know what's really out there."

"Oh, you believed in him. Trust me. I remember." Dean slipped Sam a sideways look and smirked. "In fact," he teased, "I reckon you'd still believe if I hadn't told you the truth."

"You are such a liar. If I believed, it was only to stop you feeling hurt 'cause you'd been found out."

"Found out? How could you 'find me out,' Sam? There were never any gifts around till Christmas morning."

"Only because you didn't steal them till Christmas Eve. D'you really think I didn't know you snuck out every year? You didn't exactly hide your movements. I knew it was you." Sam smiled as memories long since buried made their way to the forefront of his mind.

Dean looked hurt as he regarded his brother keenly. "When did you stop believing then?" he questioned quietly and Sam wondered how to answer tactfully. It was quite possible, he suddenly realized, that Dean had never worked out Sam knew what he was up to. Every so often it hit him how easy it was at times to hurt his older brother's feelings over something so far in the past.

"I was six, Dean," he admitted softly. "I just never let on. I didn't want you to stop. Didn't want the magic to end."

Dean swallowed hard. He had tried to keep Christmas special for Sam for so long, tried to make sure he had a childhood occasionally, even if it was just once a year, and to find out his kid brother had known all along, had been humoring him for years, was an unsettling discovery and he wasn't quite sure how he felt about it.

In true Dean Winchester style, he decided to ignore his emotions, to push past any hurt feelings and disappointments. Casting one last look at Sam, he pushed open the door of the Impala.

"C'mon," he ordered. "Time's a wasting. Shop'll be closing for the night soon. If you want a present this year, I suggest you get your ass in gear!"

XXXXX

It was just as Sam had imagined it to be. The brass bell jangled merrily every time the door to the store opened. It didn't discriminate between those leaving the shop and those entering, but sang its song regardless. All his senses assaulted at once, Sam didn't know which one to give in to first. The shop smelt of cinnamon and the heady scent of seasoned hardwood, sawdust and varnish permeated his nostrils, as his eyes drank in the sight of row upon row of exquisitely crafted wooden toys. There were trains, cars, soldiers and fortresses for the boys while for the girls there were shelves stacked with dolls, picnic sets and a selection of fairy castles and princess palaces. Every age group was catered for, from sturdy baby rattles to sophisticated jewelry boxes. Sam could easily picture children spending hours scouring the shelves for the perfect toy.

The shop was buzzing. There was no other word for it. As the brothers looked around them they could see no obvious signs of a business on the verge of collapse. Straight in front of the door, at the back of the shop, was a counter with a cash till that looked as though it came with the Ark, and behind it stood a middle aged woman, smiling at her customers, making time to pass a few words of conversation with every one of them. Dean couldn't hear what was being said over the general tumult in the store but he was rapidly losing interest in the whole affair. He twisted his head round to where his brother seemed to be rooted to the spot, gazing at the store keeper. Dean hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary about the woman but it looked as though Sam had spotted something of note.

Moving over to a shelf full of wooden puzzles, he fingered the smooth pieces, admiring how each one fit so perfectly with its neighbor, seamlessly joining together to form the whole. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed the woman passing a paper bag over to the latest customer. He couldn't see anything suspicious about her. In fact she was, quite possibly, the most unthreatening character he had met in a very long time. But Dean was a Winchester, raised a hunter, trained to trust no one but family, taught to expect the unexpected and to never let his guard down. So he watched her carefully, following her hands as they moved effortlessly round the counter, handling money and goods confidently.

Eventually he decided whatever had caught Sammy's attention was beyond him and he shuffled surreptitiously toward him. Nudging him none too gently with his elbow, Dean nodded at the woman.

"Not really your type, is she?" He raised his eyebrows suggestively. "Although if I'm wrong, just say the word and I'm gone..."

Sam turned to his brother and cast a withering glare in his direction. Dean lifted his hands in mock self defense and smirked.

"If you must know," Sam began, "that's Tessa Westland. Mortimer Westland's wife. They were childhood sweethearts." He broke off as the woman in question smiled at the last paying customer in the store and handed over a package wrapped in plain brown paper.

Sam and Dean were now the only people in the showroom and it was fairly obvious they weren't there to purchase anything. Regardless of the web of lies both brothers could spin at the drop of hat, for some reason neither was willing to fabricate a falsehood for being in the shop. The woman threw them a worn smile and gestured at the shelves surrounding them.

"Anything got your interest, boys?" she enquired, although from her tone of voice it was clear she already knew the answer.

Moving over to the counter, Sam cast a quick glance at Dean over his shoulder. Dean gave an imperceptible lift of one eyebrow and stood to one side, happy to let Sam say or do whatever he needed to say or do so they could get out of here.

"No, ma'am." Sam was saying, almost apologetically. "We saw the article in the paper about the bankruptcy and, well, I recognized the name."

"Westland?" Tessa looked surprised. "I didn't think we were that famous." She smiled, silently inviting Sam to continue.

"Oh, I um, I studied at Stanford for a while. Your husband was one of our case studies and I remembered the name. He's an amazing man - we all wanted to be him. I just wanted to come see how things could possibly have gone so wrong for him. From everything I learned…" he trailed off as Tessa's face fell and her hands dropped to the counter in front of her.

"It was going well," she confirmed, "until about a month ago." She laughed wryly, "Just in time for the Christmas rush. Then things just started to go wrong for us and now we're a couple of days off closing."

"Doesn't look like things are going wrong to me," Dean interrupted. "Seems like you've got more customers than not."

"See these toys here?" she asked, waving at the piles of wooden gifts sitting on the counter and stacked up behind her. "They're all returns. Every single one of them. These people aren't buying toys, they're bringing them back. There's nothing wrong with them but folks are demanding full refunds and our policy..." She stopped and her forehead creased, exaggerating the worry lines around her eyes. "I wouldn't mind if there was a reason. I'd prefer them to say nothing rather than these lies. And they're all telling the same lie! I don't understand it. It's as if the whole town suddenly has a grudge against Mort and it's just not right."

"Lies?" Sam asked. "What lies?"

Tessa looked up at him, tears in her eyes. "They're saying the toys are bad news. They're saying that at night, they come to life! Toys! Coming to life? How ridiculous is that? Whoever heard of toys coming to life? It's an insult to Mort and me." She was clearly on a roll now that she had started her story. As she spoke, Sam wondered how long she had had to keep this tale bottled up inside her. She plainly didn't believe the reasons for the returns, and why should she? Sam and Dean, on the other hand, had seen much, much more implausible things.

Dean raised a suitably surprised eyebrow. "Coming to life?" He picked up the nearest toy, a wooden workbench designed for chubby toddler hands, complete with hammer and nuts and bolts. The wood was smooth and somehow pleasing to handle. To Dean's untrained eye it looked the perfect present for a three year old. He twirled the hammer absently round his fingers. "How does a hammer come to life?" he wondered.

"Exactly. The first time I heard it, I just thought someone didn't want to admit it was an unwanted present. By the fifth time..." Tessa shrugged. "But what can I do? It's destroying Mort. The only toys returned are the ones he makes. He hardly comes out of the workshop nowadays, I can't get him to talk about it. In fact, he hardly says anything at all." She leant forward, lowering her voice. "It's starting to affect Nathan now too," she confided.

"Nathan?"

"He's our son. He's twelve now and we rarely see him before midday."

"So, he sleeps in," Dean observed, swapping the hammer for a perfectly crafted miniature steam train. "Isn't that what twelve-year-olds do?"

Tessa laughed, "Maybe it is. Maybe this is just getting to us all more than I thought."

Sam was about to reply when the cheerful sound of the doorbell rang through the store and a woman entered carrying a bag in one hand and a determined, yet haunted, look on her face. She hovered in the doorway momentarily, eyes flitting over the shelves and displays positioned strategically on the floor. Her gaze settled on the counter, taking in the conversation she had obviously interrupted, and she took a few steps in that direction. Seeing the conversation was about to be ended, Dean waved the little train at Tessa.

"I'll take this one, please," he told her, digging in his pocket for the cash. Both Sam and Tessa looked at him in amazement.

"Really?" Sam asked.

"Are you sure?" Tessa couldn't quite understand why the young man in front of her was about to make a purchase after the bizarre story she had just shared. "You'll be bringing it back before the week's out."

Dean simply handed over the bills, smiled his most disarming smile at Tessa and pocketed the train. "I'll take my chances."

XXXXX

By the time the Winchester brothers had made their way back to the motel, the moon had risen in the winter sky. The clear night showed the stars to maximum effect and if it hadn't been so damned cold out there, Sam would have been content to stay outside for a little while longer. Dean, on the other hand, couldn't get inside quick enough.

On leaving Westland's Toy Shop they had headed for the nearest diner, ostensibly to get something to eat, but Sam suspected Dean was just trying to stay out of the crappy motel room for as long as possible. After what seemed an age he had persuaded his older brother the time had come to pay up and leave. Dean had dragged his heels a little but the motel couldn't be avoided forever. Plus, Sam wanted to see if he could find any other instances of toy animation. He'd never heard of it before, but there were plenty of supernatural phenomena they'd not come across yet.

Once the door was closed behind them and salt lines laid, because they were both too well traveled to ignore the basics of the hunting life, Sam's first move was to get his laptop up and running. Burying himself in various promising websites, he closed himself off to the outside world in general, and Dean's fidgeting in particular. It was as he suspected, however. He could find nothing at all that sounded even vaguely similar to the situation Tessa had explained to them and he was beginning to wonder if the root of the problem, if there was a problem, lay not in the toys but in the toymaker. Switching his search from toys to Mortimer Westland, he sat back and stretched his arms out in front of him, noticing for the first time that Dean was sitting staring at the pocket train he'd purchased earlier.

The train was resting silent and still on the bedside table, Dean sitting on the bed, staring at it, almost daring it to do something. Sam idly wondered how long he'd been glaring at the toy and couldn't help the smile that crept onto his face. Dean's sixth sense must have kicked in about the same time because his head snapped up, eyes locking onto his brother's immediately.

"What?" he asked, defensively.

"Nothing," Sam replied. "Just wondered what you're doing?"

Dean shrugged noncommittally and turned his attention back to the train. He ran his fingers along the little locomotive's tank as far as the funnel. Picking it up, he slowly turned the wheels, admiring the precision with which the turning rods moved in perfect synchronization. Placing it back on the table, he pushed it along, stopping only when the surface ran out and the train would have fallen to the floor.

Smiling benevolently, Sam turned back to his laptop and his research on Mortimer Westland. He found little new on the website regarding the man himself, but the shop itself had caused quite a stir when it opened. He had just found a particularly interesting website on new toy manufacturers when his concentration was interrupted by a strange noise emitting from his brother's direction. Something between a hiss and a snort.

Looking up, he was surprised to see Dean had moved from the bed to the floor, train and all. He was lying on his stomach, pushing the train along with one finger and imitating the sound of steam and train wheels click clacking over rail tracks. Sam toyed with the idea of getting his cell phone out. Photographic evidence of this moment would be worth its weight in gold one day and it really was an opportunity too good to pass up. Just as he was reaching into his pocket though, Dean let out a loud "whoo whoo," making Sam jump, knocking a bottle of water off the table he was working at.

"Dude! What the hell are you doing?" he exclaimed, no longer able to contain his amusement. Dean, for his part, looked startled. He had become so absorbed in his activity he had actually forgotten Sam was in the room still and his face colored ever so slightly.

"Research," he mumbled, face turned away from Sam.

"Research?" Sam repeated. "How can playing with a toy be research? This," he waved a hand at his laptop, "is research. That," waving at the train, "is messing about. If you're bored why don't you go find a bar or something? There must be one in town you haven't been to yet."

Dean rolled on to his back and sat up, resting against the side of his bed. He picked up the train and brandished it in Sam's direction. "Tessa said the toys are waking up kids to play at night. If this is gonna work, I have to make it believe there's a kid in the place." He let his hand drop by his side, giving Sam a triumphant look. Sam, however, wasn't convinced and merely raised his eyebrows at his supposedly older brother. Dean didn't miss the look and tilted his head to one side. "Hey, it could work. If you've got any better ideas, I'm all ears," he defended himself.

"Whatever," Sam conceded. "How come you're suddenly taking this so seriously, though? I thought this was just a sob story for Christmas as far as you were concerned. Why the sudden change of heart?"

"It's children, Sam." He sighed as though that answered all Sam's questions. A cloud passed over his features and he scrubbed a hand over his face. Sam waited patiently for his brother to continue, knowing when to give Dean space. Dean shook his head and studied Sam seriously. "If the toys are just playing with children, Sam, there's no harm done. But toys aren't meant to come alive. They're meant to sit quietly until they're picked up. These toys aren't natural, Sammy. And if they're not natural, then it's just a matter of time till someone gets hurt. And chances are that someone is gonna be a kid." He paused, collecting his thoughts, appreciating Sam's silence. He turned back to the loco still resting in his hand. "I couldn't live with myself if a child dies and I could have done something to stop it, Sam. I just couldn't."

"What makes you so sure this toy is going to do anything?" Sam asked softly after a pause, digesting his brother's admission.

"It might not but Mort made it and all the 'magic toys' have been made exclusively by him." Dean shrugged, his maudlin mood passing like a leaf on the breeze. "And if it doesn't, well, that's your Christmas gift sorted." He gave Sam a cheeky grin and pushed himself up from the floor. Passing by Sam on his way to the bathroom he placed the wooden train next to him. "Keep an eye on it, for me. Just in case."

XXXXX

Lily Campbell was six. She had been six for twenty-four hours and she had worn herself out. The party her mom and dad had thrown her earlier that day had been beyond spectacular and she had eaten enough chocolate cake and candy to see her through to puberty. Her friends had surpassed themselves in their generosity and her mom suspected it had a little more to do with keeping up with the neighbors than love of her Lily. But Lily didn't know, or care, for the politics behind the gift giving. She just knew that Aunty Linda had the best taste in dolls. She'd never had a wooden doll before but she was certain that Millie and she were going to have the most awesome tea parties in the history of, well, tea parties.

There had been the obligatory sulks at bedtime. Lily had tried to tell Mom that now she was six, she should be allowed to stay up till Daddy got home from work at least. Mom had just smiled and put her to bed at the normal time, stashing all her toys away in the wicker toy basket standing in the corner of her pastel pink bedroom. Lily had watched with eagle eyes as Millie had been placed reverently at the bottom of the basket, other softer and older toys placed gently on top of her. She made up her mind that as soon as Mom was out of the room, she would rectify the situation. Millie deserved to be at the top of the pile.

But it had been an exhausting day and by the time Mom had reached the end of the Lost Little Duckling, Lily had been fast asleep, dreaming of birthdays and parties and cakes and Millie.

Lily wasn't sure what had woken her but she knew it wasn't getting up time yet. It was still dark outside and there was no noise in the rest of the house. If it was time to get up she would have heard her parents moving around, getting breakfast ready, preparing for the day ahead. As it was, there was only silence and the shadows cast by the night light in the corner of the room, throwing a warm glow over her dresser, bookcases, toy box and other various childhood accoutrements.

Sitting up, rubbing her eyes, Lily slowly adjusted to the light and slight chill in the air. She cocked her head to one side as her ears detected a scraping noise coming from her toy box. With the curiosity and fearlessness only childhood can muster, she shoved her bedcovers to one side and swung her legs over the edge, toes curling in the deep pile of the carpet. When the noise came again, she twisted her head in the direction of the sound, watching with fascination as the lid lifted slightly, then dropped back down again.

With no idea that perhaps she should be afraid, Lily made her way over to the corner of her room, carelessly kicking her stuffed bear out of the way. She placed her hand on the wicker lid and raised it, propping it up against the wall. Delighted, she spied Millie sitting on the top of the other toys in the box. Lifting her carefully out, untangling her long, woolen hair from the skipping rope she'd become entwined in, Lily gave her a swift hug, clasping the doll to her like a long lost friend.

Suddenly Lily moved the doll from her chest to her ear, listening intently as she imagined a conversation she might have with the doll. It was obvious to her young mind that Millie wanted to play. There was nobody around to say no to Lily and she decided that at six years old she could make her own decisions about these things now. She nodded, as though in agreement with the doll, and pulled her robe off its peg on the back of the door, and together Lily and Millie made their way downstairs and into the kitchen.

Setting Millie on the worktop, Lily pulled a stool over from the breakfast table and climbed up on to it, careful not to knock any cutlery or crockery while she was at it. Listening intently to her doll, she scurried around the kitchen, opening cupboards and drawers until she had all the necessary ingredients and equipment to begin baking. Putting flour and sugar, butter and eggs into a large white bowl in no particular order or quantities, she grabbed a large wooden spoon off of the worktop, chatting all the while to Millie. Nonsensical, childish chatter which would have meant nothing to an onlooker. Covered in white flour and sticky from egg white and yolk, she poured the resultant mess into a muffin tray and ever so carefully, just like Mom had shown her, placed them in the oven, set to a random temperature.

Satisfied with her work, she trotted back to Millie and, grasping her hand, pulled her from the kitchen, into the living room where the game quickly turned from homemaking to tea parties. But tea parties have a habit of becoming sleepovers and before the hour was out, Lily had succumbed to fatigue, curling up on the sofa, a cushion beneath her head and her arms wrapped tightly round Millie.

David Campbell was convinced he was dreaming about bonfires and barbecues but when he heard the shrill whistle of his home fire alarm all images fled his sleep-fuddled brain. He shot up in bed, checking immediately his wife was still by his side. Alice was now fully awake too and her thoughts immediately turned to their young daughter, sleeping in her room across the hallway.

Leaving David to ring the emergency services, she tore into Lily's room, panic seizing her heart when she saw the empty bed. Spinning around to ensure she hadn't missed Lily hiding in a corner, she caught sight of Millie resting on top of the wicker toy box. Too scared to worry about the fact she had placed the toy firmly at the bottom of the box, she dashed from the room, heading to where the smoke was coming from. Meeting her husband on the stairs, they split up, unspoken direction taking over.

Alice spun round on the spot at the bottom of the stairs, running through the blueprint of her house in her head, debating where her daughter would most likely be. Putting herself in Lily's place, she decided the living room held the most attractions for a six-year-old child. Rushing to the doorway, she felt a weight lift from her shoulders as she spied a huddled shape on the sofa and, flicking on the lights, she almost sobbed with relief to see a peaceful face, thumb firmly in mouth, snuggled round a cushion.

Lily woke with a start as her mother shook her gently on the arm and gathered her in her arms. She looked on with confusion as her dad appeared in the doorway, beckoning the pair of them out of the room, and out of the house. She couldn't understand the look that passed between them but, as they passed the smoke filled kitchen, she wondered where Millie was and whether she was safe.