|Jethro looked around the dirty hotel room. Someone had stripped both beds and dumped the sheets near the foot, and one pillow had been flung so it landed behind the television, stuck there like a fly in a spider web. Something wasn't adding up. Their suspect hadn't slept here alone, but this didn't look like the hideout of a couple of hard-core criminals. Considering the brutality of the murder, Jethro figured he was looking for a hard-core psychopath.
"Well, Probie?" Mike asked, his eyes focused on the bathroom door, but Jethro had already figured that one out. No one closed a bathroom door in a hotel unless they were hiding in it. Following procedure, Jethro moved to clear the closet first since that was closest, and Mike covered the bathroom door.
"Looks like everyone has cleared out, Boss," Jethro said loudly. He doubted any criminals were dumb enough to buy the act, but since joining NIS or NCIS or whatever alphabet soup agency they wanted to call it, he'd found that criminals were a good deal stupider than he'd previously given them credit for. Pulling the closet open, he found it empty except for a pile of boxes for brand new Nintendos and Ghostbuster toys.
Jethro looked over at Mike, but his boss looked just as confused as he did.
"Well, I guess we're going to have to just look someplace else," Mike said, shifting closer to the bathroom.
"Looks like," Jethro agreed before yanked open the door.
"Federal agent! Freeze!" Mike shouted as a whirling dervish wielding a golf club came spinning at them. Jethro barely curbed his instinct to fire, but the sight of a boy not much bigger than his lost Kelly made him retreat rather than engage.
"You snot nosed little heathen," Mike snarled as the club hit him at the wrong angle and his gun flew off into the corner. Mike moved to secure the weapon, and Jethro quickly holstered his own weapon rather than risk another disaster.
"Move," the boy ordered, his dark hair and dark eyes and chubby cheeks not matching up with his fierce tone or the steady grip he kept on his weapon. A boy several years younger stood behind, careful to stay clear of the older boy's swing. Now that was interesting. It took soldiers months to not trip over each other in close combat.
"You need to put that down, son," Jethro said quietly. Kids liked him. He'd always figured it was because they could sense that he wasn't trying to fool them. He was the same man, inside and out... well, except for hunting down the murderer who killed his family and killing him in cold blood.
"Yeah, bite me, mister," the brat answered before taking a swing. In the scuffle that ensued, Jethro hated to admit it, but he nearly lost a fight to two prepubescent kids. One caught him on the side of the knee with the club while the other followed up by throwing some sort of powder at him, making him blind. He had to grope to catch an arm, and then he caught a fist upside his head. If these two were full-sized, Jethro just might have lost the fight. Hell, even half-sized they had a good chance of winning when it was just Jethro. Luckily Mike got his weapon secured and came to the rescue.
"We're not telling you shit," the older one shouted.
"You watch too much television, kid." Mike got a firm hold on the boy, and Jethro was pleased to see that even the older agent looked a little worse for wear. Jethro might be a probie, but these two were little hellions.
“I’m thinking these two aren’t going to give us anything.” Mike grimaced and started down the hall, most likely for a cigarette break. When frustrated, Mike tended to retreat to silence and smoking. Jethro followed his boss, waiting while headed out a side entrance and got a cigarette lit.
“The coroner says we have enough skin for a person, but all the internal organs and bones, and even the flesh is all gone,” Jethro reported.
“Dr. Magnus thought we might use some new test the FBI can run, a DNA Short Tandem Repeat…” Jethro stopped. He hadn’t really caught the rest of it. Well, it wasn’t like the boss kept up on all the technical terms anyway. As for himself, Jethro cared about results, not some fancy names for things. “It can give us a way to definitely link any other body parts we find to this skin.”
“That man just likes to run his fucking tests,” Mike complained. “What good is it to have a fancy test result with nothing to compare it to? I’d rather have fingerprints.”
Jethro nodded. He wished that was an option, but Dr. Magnus said the prints were distorted as though someone had pulled at the skin after ripping it off the victim’s body.
“Did you call Social Services?” Mike asked.
“I’m on it, boss.” Jethro hated turning those two over to the system, but since they hadn’t witnessed anything—at least not anything they were willing to share with the feds—they got turned over to the state. If Jethro could find their father, he planned to kick the man’s ass.
Heading back into the building, Jethro made a beeline for the phone. When something unpleasant had to happen, it was best to do it fast.
“Hey, Gibbs,” Creswell called over the cubical walls.
“Yeah, what do you need?”
“Are those two kids yours?”
Jethro had a flash of pain. His kid was gone. Kelly’s smiling face flashed through his memory, but he brutally shoved the image away. Remembering her wasn’t bringing her back any more than killing Pedro Hernandez had. Besides, Creswell meant the Winchester boys.
“Franks just asked me to call Social Services to pick ‘em up. You need the interrogation room?”
“Well, there’s a problem with that. Kaplan went to take the young one to the bathroom, and he lost the kid.”
“He… what?” Not bothering to wait for an answer, Jethro sprinted for the interrogation rooms. If Sam was gone, he was willing to bet money Dean was too. But they were in the middle of a federal agency. They wouldn’t get far. Hopefully. With these two boys, Jethro wasn’t sure the normal rules applied.
The alley smelled of urine and vomit. Any other child would be complaining—making faces and picking their way around the worst of the gore. Ninety-nine percent of adults would do the same. Instead, Dean stood where he could use the metal dumpster to cover his flank and held the metal pole like a baseball bat. Jethro suspected that if he got too close, Dean would hit him hard enough to disable him. Even though the regs demanded that Jethro pull his weapon, he left his jacket closed and tightened his hold on young Sam.
“Let him go,” Dean warned as he inched forward. It put his foot in the middle of what was either rotting food or the really disturbing fecal matter of someone who needed to go to the hospital. This was not a part of town for children.
“You know I can’t do that.”
“You know I don’t give a flying fuck about your rules,” Dean shot right back. And yes, Jethro was starting to get that impression.
If Jethro pulled his weapon, this wasn’t ending well. If he didn’t, it wasn’t ending well. If he let Sam go, these two boys were going to run back to a life that had left them acting more like child-soldiers than American kids. Jethro narrowed his eyes. Appealing to them as kids hadn’t worked. When Mike offered Sam ice cream, the look of incredulity had been priceless. So, if they were going to act like soldiers, maybe Jethro needed to change his tactics.
“Look soldier,” Jethro started, feeling strange addressing a twelve-year-old that way, but the kid did have the instincts. “You don’t know where your father is.” Jethro threw that out there on a hunch. Dean’s face remained impassive, but Sam’s big eyes pretty much gave it all away. They didn’t know.
“So, you need to find a place to shelter up until you can reconnect with him, right?”
The weariness on Dean’s twelve-year-old face was enough to twist any father’s heart.
“So, you can either take off and try and feed yourselves out here. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of one of the biggest crime sprees the city has seen. Violence, drugs, people killing each other… it’s all at record highs.”
“We can take care of ourselves,” Dean interrupted, but Jethro could see the fears starting to shine through the cracks in his façade.
“You can in normal conditions, but if a DC gang targets you, I’m not sure you can protect yourself and Sam,” Jethro said, shamelessly exploiting Dean’s obvious need to protect his brother. “And you’re out here, alone and exposed, until you can find a way to connect with your father. However, if you come back, you get three hot meals a day and a relatively safe place to stay where the fights are limited to other kids, and I don’t think you’ll have a problem handling yourself there. Your father is still going to try to connect with you. What’s the smart choice here, Dean?”
“Dean?” Sam asked softly. He wanted to come in, but he wanted his brother more. He squirmed in Jethro’s hold, but Jethro didn’t ease his grip on Sam’s arm and shoulder for a second. Given half a chance, these two would still bolt like wild rabbits.
“They’ll split us up.”
“They may,” Jethro agreed. He had the feeling that Dean wouldn’t appreciate empty promises and platitudes. “It’s hard to find a home willing to take in two boys. Sam is more likely to go to a foster home, and you’re more likely to end up in a juvenile facility, especially if you take credit for this little prison break, and I think you plan to do exactly that. However, it won’t change the fact that you will be sheltering up somewhere safer than out here.”
“I want to go with Dean to the facility,” Sam said. Jethro took that as one vote in favor of going back, but Dean seemed to have the authority here, so that’s where Jethro focused.
“I can request that you stay together, but that’s not my call, guys.”
“Yeah, they’ll just shove us anywhere that we won’t get in the way.” The bitterness spoke of experience with the foster care system.
“You only need to use them until you can move on,” Jethro pointed out.
Dean eased back an inch and looked Jethro up and down. “You’re supposed to be telling us that we’d be better off in the system.”
Jethro sighed. He knew what happened in the juvenile system, but he also knew these two were living in dirty hotels and stealing so they could trade for food. “Personally, I do think you’d be better off, but that’s not my call. I don’t know how you live.”
“Considering that you’re the one refusing to tell me how you live, you know that’s true.”
“Yeah, but you’re thinking that you could make everything better for us, that you can save us poor little urchins. Fuck you,” Dean announced grandly. They’d picked up an audience of two winos and a hooker who was out early for a shift. One of the winos started applauding slowly.
“I think if you can’t save yourself, I can’t do anything for you,” Jethro answered honestly. “But I am taking Sam back. Since I’m not willing to fight with you over this, I guess you have to make your own choice.” Jethro waited as Dean seemed to think that one over. If Jethro could only help one boy, that was better than nothing. Besides, Jethro suspected that half the reason Dean was so strident was his fears about not being able to protect his brother. Left on his own, he might come in sooner rather than later.
“Dean, you could get some of that medicine that makes your stomach feel better,” Sam said.
“Shut up,” Dean snapped at the same time Jethro demanded, “What? Why would he need medicine?”
“Sometimes his stomach hurts and he throws up and it comes out all pink,” Sam explained.
“It does not,” Dean protested in the most obvious lie Jethro had seen since Kelly had tried claiming that it wasn’t her who had colored on the living room wall with green crayon.
“Shelter up in the safest place you can find, and gather resources in the most efficient way possible. You know what you should do here, Dean,” Jethro urged him. The kid needed medical attention, which changed this game. Unfortunately, that fact didn’t make Dean any more tractable.
“I’m only doing this so Sam doesn’t have to sleep out here,” Dean said as he took a careful step forward.
Wary of the weapon the kid still held in his hand, Jethro retreated, pulling Sam with him. “Okay then, let’s get back to the car,” he said in his most neutral tone. With a nod, Dean dropped the metal pole. It rattled loudly against the concrete, but decision made, Dean ignored that as he strode past Jethro and Sam and headed for the NCIS car.
Jethro gestured toward the door on the right. "That'll be your bedroom."
"And Sam's," Dean said. He turned to give Jethro a 'don't fuck with me' glare. For a twelve-year-old, he pretty much had it down.
"That's between you two," Jethro said mildly. He wasn't about to start trying to micromanage these two, not when it seemed like their own father had let them do whatever they wanted. Jethro was going to have to go slow enough to keep from sending Dean running in the opposite direction.
"What's that room?" Without waiting for any sort of permission, Dean darted under Jethro's hand as Jethro tried to catch him. Throwing open the door to the old master bedroom, Dean stood looking into it. Shannon's sweater lay on the bed, and the sight of it was enough to make Jethro's heart press into a hard little ball of pain.
"Who stays here?" Dean asked, that edge of challenge in his voice.
Jethro had to take a breath just to avoid snapping. Dean didn't deserve that.
"No one who's coming back," Jethro said. Reaching out, he went to pull the door closed, but the little shit slid into the room before Jethro could stop him.
"You drove her off, huh?" Dean asked with a smirk, and Jethro nearly lost it. He might like kids... he might cut them some slack... but Dean wasn't a kid by any measure other than a yardstick. He was a short adult. A mean, short adult.
However, as Jethro opened his mouth to shout, he saw the flinch, the moment where Dean stiffened his spine to endure what was to come. The gesture cut Jethro off as fast as a civilian walking through his line of fire. Standing in the door of the room he had shared with Shannon, the room where Kelly had crawled between them during thunderstorms, Jethro couldn't yell at a child who had never been given any of that. Taking a breath, Jethro rethought his strategy.
"You know how you don't want to talk about your father? Well, let's make some ground rules. I don't make you talk about your father, and you don't ask about this room and the woman who lived here." Jethro watched as Dean carefully considered that offer with the seriousness of a banker considering interest rates or a sniper taking in the angles.
"Deal," he finally decided, holding out his hand to shake on the matter. Jethro took Dean's hand. Usually when children mimicked that sort of adult gesture, it felt cute, but this was a serious moment between two men, one of whom happened to be twelve.
Dean turned and walked out the room and headed for the one Jethro had indicated. He opened it and stopped cold. "Pink?" he demanded incredulously.
Jethro smiled at the horror. Maybe it was because Shannon and Kelly had repainted the room while Jethro had been overseas, but Jethro had the same reaction. His little girl would always live in her sunny yellow nursery with a bright rainbow painted behind her bed. This bubble-gum pink wasn't his Kelly.
"We can paint it," Jethro offered.
"We aren't going to be here long enough to bother," Dean said, all defenses in place.
"And I would prefer any color you picked over this," Jethro said, and even as he said it, he could see Dean narrow his eyes. Jethro had a feeling he was about to have a shit-brown colored room. Dean wasn't going to make this easy.
Jethro plodded toward the phone. This single father crap was worse than boot camp. Hell, at this rate, he was going to end up apologizing to Jackson for all the shit Jethro had done while growing up before begging the old man to help him out.
"Gibbs," Jethro answered the phone.
"How are they?" an unfamiliar voice asked. Jethro's threat assessment hairs on the back of his neck all stood at attention.
"Depends on who wants to know." If this was social services again, Jethro couldn't afford to piss them off. Dean had the market cornered on that.
"I did my best for them."
Well, shit. It was their no-good father. "Look, you can lie to yourself any way you want, but if you come near me or these boys, I'll have you put in prison."
"I didn't..." There was a pause. "I'm not a murderer."
Jethro sighed. This was not a conversation he wanted to have when Dean and Sam were asleep upstairs. He lowered his voice. "I know you're not. And I know some strange things were going on with Peterson. However, I will arrest for what you did to those boys. Dean has ulcers, you bastard. You might have taken him to a doctor when he said his stomach hurt."
Another pause spoke of John Winchester's guilt. "I didn't know."
"You're their father. You should have."
"I know. I should have done a lot of things. I should have gotten them a dog."
Jethro's guts tightened into a knot. "Are you stalking us? If so, you should know I'm an armed federal agent and I don't particularly like you right now." It would kill Jethro to pull the trigger because that one act would destroy any fragile truce Jethro had managed with those two boys upstairs, but to protect them, he'd do it.
"I had to make sure they were okay."
"The way you did when you abandoned them in a dirty hotel room?"
"You know, they would have escaped any other cop." John sounded strangely proud of that.
"And then Dean would still have his ulcer and Sam would still be so desperate for approval that he pretty much turned to anyone who could give it to him," Jethro shot back. This was feeling like war, and Jethro wasn't losing. Not this time. He'd killed for family before, and he damn well would again.
"That's why I didn't take them out of that school," John said. "When the bus stops outside the school, they always look for me. And I stood behind the coffee shop on the other side, and I thought about it. I wanted to call them to me, because they would have come and you never would have seen them again."
"But I didn't," John cut him off. "I can't stop hunting the thing that killed my wife. I can't. There's too much at stake."
John's voice turned into a low growl. "What would you know about it?"
Every bit of anger that Jethro had ever stored up came raging out. "I killed the monster that took my family. I laid on a hill and I waited until I could blow his brains out. And you know what? My wife is still gone. My little girl is still dead." Jethro did something he rarely did... he shouted out his rage. "You can hunt down every fucking monster and they've still won because the people you love are gone and they stay gone."
Horror stopped Jethro's rant. He looked up to see Dean standing at the top of the stairs.
"They're dead?" Dean asked. "The woman who stayed in that room, she's dead?" Jethro didn't answer. He couldn't answer. Slowly Dean started down the steps and Sam appeared at the top, his wide eyes solemn and fearful.
The truce Jethro had with Dean was too tentative for lies, so when Dean asked if his father was on the phone, Jethro nodded. The world shifted under his feet as he felt the battleground start to shake. But Jethro couldn't win by force. Dean had proven too resistant and defiant and every other word the state child psychiatrist could pin on him. So when Dean held out his hand for the phone, Jethro surrendered it and turned his back. Walking to the front window, he went to look out at the darkened street.
Beowulf snuffed and stuck his nose in Jethro's hand, and Jethro scratched behind the shepherd’s ear. If the boys wanted to take Wulf, Jethro wouldn't stop them any more than he'd stop them from going to their father. Oh, he’d shoot John dead if it meant protecting the boys, but trying to force the boys to stay when they didn’t want to would simply inflict more wounds on two young souls that already carried too damn many.
Dean was making a lot of affirming noises, and Jethro started walling off his heart from the coming pain. He shouldn't have taken them in, not so soon after losing Shannon and Kelly. Maybe there'd be time for a wife and kids later, but right now, his soul was about as raw as an open wound.
"Okay," Dean said. Jethro kept his eyes focused on the street. He didn't need to see Dean smile at the thought of escaping the unreasonable old marine who was forcing them to go to school.
"Dean?" Sam asked softly.
"He said we should stay here."
Jethro whirled around to see both boys standing at the bottom of the stairs with matching confused expressions.
"He's not coming back?" Sam asked softly, and Jethro ached for the boy. As much as Jethro didn't want John Winchester anywhere near his family, he hated the man for not trying to come back. His feelings didn't make sense, even to him.
"He said this was a good place for us, that this last time, it was too close."
Sam chewed on his lip, which was never a good sign. However, Jethro knew enough about the Winchesters to make a few assumptions.
"In war, a soldier can't have someone he loves too close. It's dangerous," Jethro said. "We lose focus. We put ourselves and others at risk. And the more he loves you, the more dangerous it is."
"Is that why he leaves us behind?" Sam's quivering voice begged someone to tell him the pretty lies that would help him chase away the nightmare. The fact was that John Winchester had lost himself to his own need for revenge, but that was a truth for another day. Besides, clearly John did love his children--he loved them enough to leave them, and as a father, Jethro understood the depth of that kind of love.
"Yeah, kiddo, it is." Jethro went over and scooped Sam up, holding him tight and wishing he could do the same with the more prickly Dean. "Your father needs to fight, but he needs to keep you safe, and he doesn't know how to do both. But I shouldn't have woken you up with shouting."
"We weren't sleeping. Dean was showing me pictures of women."
Jethro's eyebrows went up, and when he looked over, Dean was slowly turned a rather shocking shade of red.
"Well, maybe your brother and I can discuss that issue later," Jethro offered, giving Dean a sharp look. Surprisingly, Dean actually ducked his head as though sorry.
For now, though, Jethro just wanted to get his boys upstairs and tucked in. And then he wanted to sit in the dark and have a big drink of bourbon in honor of a father's sacrifice. Tomorrow would be time enough to worry about the rest.