Christmas Selection 2009

Stars For Your Shoes

By calUK

Oh Santa may have brought you some stars for your shoes,
But Santa only brought me the blues.
Those brightly packaged, tinsel covered
Christmas blues.

The Christmas Blues, by Bob Dylan (cover)

~~*~~

In the middle of the red and gold sign, there's a flaming eagle, swooping down, wings arched back. Sam looks at it, the ornate shield around it, slick gilding shining brightly in the floodlights. It looks like a nice place and he grins when the man beside him drifts sideways, shoulder checks him. Swats his friend's arm.

“It meet with the royal approval, your highness?”

“Shut up, Jackson. Ass.”

The short blond chuckles, gathers the small gang of students together with purposeful strides towards the wide glass and smooth wooden doors.

“Come on, this place serves up the best beer in California.”

Sam's in the middle of them as they crowd in through the door, shaking off the damp chill, shedding their coats and draping them on the already over-burdened rack of hooks. They're strung with tinsel, he notices, scarlet and gold again, peeping out between the coats and jackets and scarves and hats. The theme carries on around the bar, strings of lights low enough to make him scrub a hand through his hair and sigh, more tinsel and a tower of bottles in the corner, decorated like a Christmas tree. There's even a fairy on top, except... He peers at it, grins as he sees it's an elf, biker boots underneath a glittery tutu and a seriously ticked-off scowl on it's face.

It's the sort of thing Dean would get a kick out of. He pauses, sobers as he flashes back to the bar he spent last Christmas in, sitting silently with his brother, chugging back cheap lager and stealing bar snacks, trying to keep at least two layers of clothing between his skin and any contact with any surface at all. He wonders sometimes, when his friends are laughing and planning parties, if Dean knew that last Christmas. Knew there wouldn't be another one, not for a long while, at least. The jokes he'd told had been brittle, desperate. Not funny.

“Sam? You in there, dude?”

He blinks, realizes he's stopped in the middle of the room, Jackson squinting up at him, the rest of them snagging an empty table and scrounging chairs. “Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine.” Shrugs off the pervasive loneliness that keeps sneaking up on him, every time he sees something, hears something and thinks, It's nice. Nicer than... before. “I'm fine,” he says again, follows his friend as they head toward the mass of people swarming around the bar itself.

Makes himself think it.

Dean would like it.

Pictures his brother's face looking at the elf-in-drag on top of the tree and has to squash down a laugh. It's not the sort of place they ever went in, before. Economics aside, it's the kind of place where people remember, and the one thing the Winchesters were raised knowing, it's how to avoid being remembered.

Squirming in between a buxom red-head and a skinny bald guy following her out of the crowd, Sam stretches out a long arm, squeezes through and bellies up to the bar; a long, gleaming length of wood stained a dark, dark red that looks just a little too much like long-dried blood for comfort. Pinning his eyes firmly to the glittering array of bottles lining the wall, he waits to be served and his gaze traces labels idly, wanders down the bar, skims over the tender leaning forward on one elbow, black shirt straining across his shoulders as he cranes to listen to the girl yelling at him.

Slams to a halt and skitters back and he stares in shock at the man, short, spiky hair plastered to the back of his neck, scattering highlights as he nods, starts mixing drinks with the deft fingers and absolute concentration Sam remembers threading a needle and sewing torn skin together again.

“Dean?” he breathes and maybe he really shouts it because the bartender starts, twists around and stares right back at him, hands still blending and pouring automatically as Sam stands there, rooted to the spot, watching emotions chase each other across his brother's face, so quick, so barely-there he knows no one else would see them. Shock. Anger. Warmth. Guilt.

Loneliness.

Then Dean smiles, quick and blinding, makes change with one hand as he shrugs an open-palm gesture at Sam with the other. That breaks the grip the floor has on his feet and he starts shoving carefully through people, meets his brother halfway as Dean brushes off customers.

“Hey, Sammy.”

“Dean?”

“Last time I checked,” his brother answers carefully, and Sam gets the message, rusty as he is, as he's made himself get. Dean is fine, Winchester probably isn't but he can work with that, for now.

“God, Dean,” he says again, can't seem to remember how to say anything else past the anachronism standing in front of him.

“You said that already,” the older man grins, hands twitching like he wants to reach out, sling an arm around Sam's shoulders like he always did but isn't quite sure if it would be welcome. So Sam leans in, throws a mock punch at his brother's bicep, lets Dean duck it and throw his arm around the back of Sam's neck and pull him closer. It's quick, a tiny moment of manly back-slapping but he breathes in, smells leather and gun oil and beer and forgets to be lonely.

In the wake of the moment, he's left hollow, shocked out of the mild funk he's been drifting through, feeling out of place and out of time for the last week. Gropes for something to fill the void that suddenly seems even bigger now than it did when he sat on the bus and didn't look back, four months ago.

Finds a bubbling, seething anger that surprises him.

“What the hell are you doing here, man?”

“Slinging drinks, what's it look like, Sam?”

He squints, peers closer. His brother sounds normal, just like he always has. A little snarky, a lot cocky, loaded with the bright lie that bares his teeth to the world in a grin not many can see past.

That not many would bother to look past.

“I know what you're doing here, Dean. What are you doing here?

The older man cocks a brow at him, splashes whiskey into a glass and slides it across the bar to a trucker falling asleep on his stool.

“You skippin' English class or somethin', Sammy?”

“It's Sam. Dean, are you...”

He stops so fast his tongue trips a little, flicks an unobtrusive glance around the bar, sees Jackson and the rest of his friends in a corner, laughing at something the short man has said. Jackson's gaze slides to his, question in his eyes and as he has so many times before, Sam wonders how he could be so lucky to find someone who is so much like his brother. Who can ask You okay there kiddo? without saying a word, and who thinks to do so every time Sam starts to feel the first edge of the emptiness around him.

He smiles quickly, nods, holds Jackson's gaze for a moment until the other man shrugs and tosses back his drink. Sam leans into the bar, lips twisting in a moue of distaste as his elbow smears through a small, sticky puddle.

“Are you on a job?”

Dean scowls at him, something dark flickering deep in his eyes as he takes in the disgust on Sam's face.

“No, I'm not on a hunt, Sam.”

It's oddly cut off, and he knows Dean bit back the rest of the nickname. Appreciates it, even as the awkwardness of it grates roughly.

“So, what, you just happen to be slinging whiskey in a bar in Stanford? Come on, man. Don't lie to me.”

“”I'm not!”

“What is it? A... a spirit? Poltergeist?”

“It's nothing, Sam. I just... I'm just working. That's all.”

Sam frowns at him, dread curling cold fingers 'round his stomach as he realizes the only other reason for his brother to be working behind a bar instead of hustling pool or scamming credit cards.

“You're not... you're okay? Dad?”

“I'm fine. Dad's in Florida somewhere.”

The younger man watches him, chews at his lip as Dean shrugs, eyebrows climbing with an exasperated, “What?”

“No. No way. You wouldn't be here without a reason. What's going on?”

“Nothing. Sam - ”

“Dean, talk to me!”

“Are you trying to get me fired or something? I gotta get back to work.”

Sam lunges forward as his brother starts to turn away, grabs at the sleeve of the older man's t-shirt, growling through gritted teeth, fear churning in his throat.

“What's going on?”

“I told you, Sam! Nothing's going on! There's no hunt, no one's dyin', I just didn't want to be - ”

Dean cuts himself off, yanks out of Sam's grasp, snatching a towel from the bar and wringing the dregs out of it with sharp, savage motions. He ducks away from the younger man's still outstretched hand as Sam blinks at him, tries to catch his eye. Finds someone he doesn't recognize staring back at him and feels his breath freeze in his lungs as he realizes just how much has changed in the months he's been away.

He can't read his brother, can't find a way past the walls that turn his gaze blank and alien and suddenly, Sam feels very alone.

“Dean - ”

He could cheerfully throttle the man yelling to his brother from the other end of the bar, doesn't miss the flash of relief in Dean's sudden smirk.

“Hey, Dupree! You lookin' to get paid tonight or what?”

“Yeah, yeah, alright!”

Dean rolls his eyes at Sam as he yells it back over his shoulder and for a moment it's like nothing has changed, like nothing ever will. He's little Sammy-whoever-they-are-this-week again, kid brother and rebellious son and not Sam Winchester, law student and top of his class and holding down his 4.0 like he always knew he could.

Then a mask slides in behind his brother's eyes, remote and a little cold, aimed just past his shoulder.

“Sam-my-man. You in next round?”

Sam jumps, just a fraction at the too-loud call behind him, the hand that slaps his back.

“Jackson. Uh... yeah. Just, uh... I...”

Behind the bar, Dean snorts, swipes a damp rag through the beery puddles.

“Kid always this verbose?”

Jackson sidles around him, echoing the snort.

“Nah, this is actually pretty chatty for Sam. I get five Slammers?”

Dean nods, starts lining glasses along the bar as Jackson eyes them both. “You, uh, you two know each other?”

Sam freezes, two worlds colliding in his head, lies ricocheting along his throat.

“Friend of his brother's,” Dean steps in smoothly, not looking at him. “Haven't seen Sam here in years.”

“His brother, huh? Bet you've got some stories about him?”

“A few.”

The hunter slides a tray across the bar as he says it, smiling briefly. Sam flinches as his friend's elbow digs subtly into his ribs, sees the minute quirk in Dean's brow and grins feebly.

“Okay, Sam, I'm gonna take these back before the guys start suing your ass for cruel and unusual. Why don't you and...”

“Dean,” he blurts, suddenly afraid his brother might introduce himself with some big-haired, mullet-rock superstar's stage name, then frantically wonders if he's actually ever mentioned his brother by name.

“Dean. Why don't you come on over when you get a break, and tell us a few stories about Sam when he was a kid?”

“Sure. If I get a break.”

“Good to meet you.”

Sam waits until Jackson snags the tray and weaves his way back through the growing crowd to the table.

“Dean - ”

“Don't worry, Sam-my-man.”

He almost groans at the glint in his brother's eye, sobers as he realizes Dean won't have a chance to use the nickname often.

“I won't get a break tonight, not with a crowd like this,” the older man goes on, expertly flipping tops from bottles and swapping them for a handful of bills.

“Dean, we have to talk,” Sam hisses.

“Yeah, well, now's not a good time, Sam. I'll call you later, okay?”

The phone in his pocket suddenly seems heavy, burning hot, all the missed calls he never returned, all the calls he never answered and never quite managed to convince himself he ignored because he was too afraid it would be some sorrowful doctor, and not because he was afraid that if Dean asked, he'd go back.

“You damn well better,” is all he says, takes the beer his brother slides across the bar to him.

“On the house, Sammy.”

“Thanks,” he mumbles, gulps at the cold liquid as he makes his way between the tables, moving on autopilot, his mind whirling with the odd dislocation of seeing his old life mingling with his new one. Jackson shoves a shot glass at him as he folds himself into the too-low chair, one quirked brow asking the same old question. He nods, sinks the tequila and gasps at the burn of the liquor, face screwing up to a round of applause and raucous cheers.

Sits back in his chair and sips his beer as his friends chatter loudly about exams and the Cardinals' next game. And wonders what his brother didn't want to be.

~~*~~

“Hey.”

The low call startles Dean as he gazes blankly at his hands, mechanically polishing glasses.

“What?”

“That'll keep till the morning. I ain't payin' you anymore overtime.”

Smiling tiredly, the hunter tosses his cloth down to the bar and saunters to the man leaning heavily on the far end.

“Busy night,” he mutters, reaching past his boss for his jacket, hanging in a small alcove.

“Yeah. You did good, kid. You sure you ain't gonna be hanging around after the holidays? Could use someone long term.”

Dean chuckles.

“Al, you've asked me that every night for the last two weeks.”

“And every night you say the same thing. Well, can't blame a guy for tryin'.”

Dean grins again as he shakes the older man's proffered hand, shrugging into his jacket, already feeling the first, preemptive shivers creeping up his spine. He never would've thought Palo Alto would be cold in winter, the damp chill at odds with his mental image of the sunny state populated with bikini-clad chicks and surfers lounging in board shorts and bikini-clad...

“Get your ass outta here, Dupree!”

He shakes himself awake, shoulders through the wide doors, throwing a salute over his shoulder. Sucks in a deep breath of the cool night, and wonders what it would be like to change his answer, to leave this place every night and know he'd be back tomorrow, and the night after that and the night after that.

“Yeah, like hell, Winchester. You'd go buckets've crazy before the week was out,” he laughs to himself.

For the first time it sounds faintly hollow.

“You're already nuts, man.”

He blinks at the voice to his left, starts walking to the car, a vague shadow on the far corner of the small, empty lot.

“Hey, Sammy.”

Hears a quiet scuff as his brother pushes away from the wall, falls in behind him. Tension he hasn't recognized bleeds away with the presence at his back and he feels his pace loosen.

“It's good to see you, Dean.”

The younger man lengthens his steps as he says it, until they're walking side-by-side and Dean shoulder-checks his brother, grins as Sam stumbles, comes back with a shove that he twists away from, barely breaking stride.

“We, uh... we're having a party. Kinda. If you wanted...”

The hunter shoots the taller man a glance, squashes down a scowl as he realizes how far up he has to look now.

“You askin' me on a date Sammy? That's sweet, but you're not my type.”

“Dean!”

He snickers, leans on the car as they reach it, elbows folded on the roof as his brother skirts the hood, trailing his hands over the metal.

“There gonna be any sorority chicks at this party?” God help him, the kid blushes and Dean rolls his eyes, mutters socco voce, “I swear you were switched at birth.”

“Nice. It's just... it's been...”

A long time.

Neither of them seems to know quite how to say it, and the hunter ducks his head, watches his breath fog on the roof, fade away, fog and fade. Constantly shifting, impermanent.

“You could have called Dean. Told me you were coming.”

“I didn't know.”

“That you were coming to Cali?”

He nods, doesn't look up, holds his breath until the metal reflects his face back, black-eyed. Lets it go in a rush.

“It really isn't a hunt?”

God, Sam! No!”

“Well, what am I supposed to think, Dean?!”

“You're supposed to think that maybe I missed you, Sam! That maybe I didn't wanna spend this Christmas alone in some crappy motel room while Dad's off celebrating with Jim, Jack and Jose and you're partying with your new best friend Jackson!”

Fleetingly, he's glad the bulk of the Impala is there between them, raw fury simmering under his skin as he shoves against it, sets the car rocking on her suspension and spins away, striding a few paces into the lot. His footsteps echo back at them from the buildings, sharp cracks of sound that just accentuate the silence.

He frowns, wonders at the ringing quiet. He'd thought the city would be louder, especially tonight, the noise from a hundred parties layering into a blanket of static, not this empty hush that makes every building feel deserted.

Sam's watching him, he can feel the younger man's attention following him as he paces, and suddenly, he finds himself thinking about just getting in the car and driving, heading East, maybe Washington or Dakota. Clenches his fists at his side to stop them reaching for the keys jangling in his pocket.

“Dean, I'm - ”

“Look, Sammy, just go to your party, okay? Go have fun with your friends. We can catch up tomorrow, maybe.”

No answer for a long moment, so long he almost gives in, can almost feel his brother working through it in his head.

I missed you, and God, he can't believe he said that out loud.

“You could come, Dean. You'd like the guys. And I'm sure there's a few sorority girls who haven't gone home either.”

Dean turns, looks back at his brother from the middle of the lot, sees the way Sammy won't meet his eyes, just leans uncomfortably against the car, fingers tapping on the roof. And imagines his brother standing in a room full of strangers who think they know him, slouching so he doesn't tower over them, hunching his shoulders to disguise his strength.

He shakes his head, can't stand the idea of watching his brother being someone he doesn't know either.

“Nah. I'm kinda beat. Been a long-ass day already.”

“Okay. I'll call you in the morning, we can do... Christmas stuff.”

“What, you want a tree now? Tinsel, candy canes, you can be the fairy on top?”

Sam huffs, unfolds himself from against the car.

“I mean it, dude. No skipping out of town on me, alright?”

Dean spreads his arms, opens his mouth to say “Would I?” and closes it again, turns the gesture into a shrug when the younger man glowers. Fights down a smug grin because, damn, just then it feels like every Christmas he can remember, he and Sam half-arguing in some random, interchangeable motel parking lot.

“Okay! Alright! Now will you please just go? Drink beer, get laid! 'Cause dude, you're way too tense.”

“Jerk.”

He gives in to the smile.

“Bitch.”

Sam laughs, smiles too and takes a few steps backwards, finally turns with a rolling shrug that looks more like discomfort than dismissiveness. He walks away, shoulders hunched, hands stuffed in his pockets. Trying to make himself look smaller, safer. Normal.

Dean's good-humor drains away with every step his brother takes, until he's just weary.

He eyes the car, feels like mimicking his brother's shrug. Twists away instead, determinedly not shoving his fists in his jacket, heading off in the opposite direction for once.

Stops dead halfway down the street, one boot hanging suspended in mid-air. His back is just cool, but his front is icy, bitterly cold, breath pluming thick from bluing lips, fingers curling up into his sleeves as he shivers suddenly, violently.

“No way. No freakin' way,” he mutters, edges back a step, forward. Takes three long paces in a rush, the cold spot just getting colder and colder as he pushes into it until he has to dance sideways out of it, bouncing on his toes, slapping his palms against his arms, trying to beat some warmth back into his skin. He shakes his head, sticks one hand out and circles the empty asphalt, letting his fingers trail through the edge of the phenomenon.

“Aw, Sammy's gonna kill me,” he moans, turns back to the car, already running through an inventory of the arsenal in the trunk. His hand skates over his pocket, the cell phone inside, twitches away again as he watches a flicker of memory behind his eyes; Sam, looking angry and betrayed, oddly scared. “So, what, you just happen to be slinging whiskey in a bar in Stanford? Come on, man. Don't lie to me.”

Reaching the car, Dean skims a hand along the edge of the trunk, reaches for the catch.

“Looks like it's just you an' me this time, baby,” he mutters, hauls the lid up and snatches a quick look around before propping the false bottom open on his sawed-off. Digging in the cache, he pulls out a bag of salt, a small can of lighter fluid, stashing them in his pockets, skin crawling with sensation of eyes watching him. His hand hovers over a large knife, the scant light catching the etchings on the dark iron blade, finally snatches it up and slips it into a leather holster, tucking both into the back of his belt.

“Dean?”

Later on, he'll swear blind his feet didn't actually leave the ground when the call startles a yelp out of him.

“Al? Dammit, man,” he snaps, shuts the false lid quickly, hoping desperately that the older man hasn't seen inside. Dean turns, scowls at his boss.

“What are you still doing here, kid?”

“Uh...” Getting ready to find the remains of a vengeful spirit, salt and burn it, all without anyone noticing. He swallows back the truth, stumbles over an answer, trying to remember the lie that came so smoothly to his lips when he was telling it to Sam's friend. “I was, uh... talking. To a... a friend. Brother. A friend's brother.”

Al peers at him, one brow raised.

“You help yourself to a bottle from my top shelf in there?”

Dean grins, quick and fake.

“Sober as a judge, man.”

The older man laughs, comes forward to slap him on the shoulder and the hunter turns a little, putting the heavily laden pocket on the far side of his body.

“Well, get on home. Gonna be a busy day tomorrow. Christmas Eve always brings out the crazies.”

He nods, eases a step to the side and freezes as he sees something behind Al's shoulder. A shape in the window beside the bar's front door, standing there, watching him. Dean almost gapes as the shape wavers, flickers, lifts one hand to press it against the glass.

Is that thing freakin' waving at me?

He mumbles some kind of acknowledgment to Al, attention fixed on the bar as his boss claps him on the shoulder again and turns to go, the shape in the window watching him. Dean glowers, checks salt, accelerant and knife with one hand, locks the trunk with the other and puts his back to the passenger door, slouching against it. Stares hard at the bar and the slowly drifting figure at the window.

He waits until the echoes of the older man's footsteps have faded before he shoves away from the car again, walking quick and sure across the lot. He swallows hard as the shape turns to face him, and catches a glimpse of wide eyes and teeth bared in something that's probably meant to be a smile before he's just looking at a blank, empty window again.

Licking dry lips, Dean crouches in front of the door, tugs his pick set from his pocket and slips the tools into the lock. The tiny scratching they make seems strangely loud as he works, sweat making his fingers slide on the tension wrench as he twists it in the cylinder. The hunter lets his eyes unfocus, cocks his head to the side as he tries to hear the pins drop into place over the pounding rush of his heartbeat in his ears, curses under his breath when the wrench slips and the pick jolts free of his grasp, clattering softly at his feet.

He grabs at it, forces himself to stop, presses both hands flat against the door, pulling in a long, shaky breath and holding it for a moment.

You can't pick a lock if you're rushing, boy. Take your time. Relax. Forget about anythin' else that's goin' on. Just relax.

He nods at the whisper in his head, remembers crouching on the floor at Bobby Singer's, the gruff mechanic patient as he waited for the young teenager to unlock the door barricading him in the small closet. By the time Dean had finally managed to wrench the door open, he was shaking, drenched with sweat, the tiny room stifling and oppressive in the August heat, but he'd never found a lock he couldn't open since.

There are no walls to close in on him here, no summer heat to blur his vision and make his head swim, no claustrophobia to shudder through his nerves. Gathering his tools again, he eases the pick into the slot, slides the tension wrench against the cylinder and twists, feeling the tiny vibration as each pin falls into place. He grins quickly when the lock snicks open, tucks the tools back into their pouch and drops it into his pocket as he stands, pushes through the door and lets it close behind him.

~~*~~

“Godalmighty, Sam, will you just answer the damn thing or put it away?”

He blinks at the question, stares down at the phone in his hand. Again. Ruefully, he admits silently that he must have pulled the device from his pocket a half dozen times before he even made it back to the dorm.

“Yeah, sorry,” he mutters, glances one last time at the blank screen and tries not to feel disappointed when it stays just that; blank and stubbornly empty. A glass of amber liquid appears in his view, beer slopping over his hands and he snatches the phone out of harm's way, stuffs it into his pocket and grabs for the glass with a nod of thanks. Jackson sinks into the other corner of the sofa, slurps nosily at his own drink.

“You waitin' on a call or something, Sam?”

“No. No, I just... I thought...”

“Your brother's friend? Dean?”

He has to swallow down the proud declaration of truth. My brother. He's my brother.

“Yeah. I guess.”

Hoped, at least. Had walked home from the bar, waiting to hear his name at first, then praying he'd hear his ring tone, some last dregs of betrayal and anger keeping him from calling first.

“I just... when I saw him, in the bar. It was kind've a shock,” he finishes on a weak laugh. Jackson slouches down on the couch, rolls his head along the back to peer at Sam.

“You never talk much about your family.”

Sam shakes his head, the motion almost habitual by now. Most of his friends have stopped pushing him for answers, just understand that his past is ancient history and let sleeping dogs lie. It still startles him, the simple acceptance when he'd been prepared to spend the next fewyears defending his silence. Startles him, warms him and leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, a faint crawling of guilt at the back of his mind.

“We... we didn't exactly part on the best of terms. You know? I haven't spoken to them in... jeez. Four, five months?” It comes out hushed and surprised, the weeks passing him by without him even noticing and he doesn't look up from his beer, sees the other man nod in the corner of his vision. Sam drains his beer in three long gulps.

“You ever call him?”

“Who?”

“Your brother.”

He tips his head back, sighs gustily at the ceiling.

“No.”

Doesn't mention the countless times he's sat there, staring at Dean's number, blinking slowly on the screen. Waiting.

“Maybe you should.”

Closes his eyes and listens in his head, to the message he'd played, over and over, in those first weeks. “Hey Sammy. It's Dean. I...uh, I'm not mad, dude. I'm... I'm not. I know you probably don't wanna hear that right now. Hell, I'd be surprised if you're even still listening but... anyway. Just don't... don't do anythin' I wouldn -”

He's always heard what his brother never said.

“I'm not mad. I'm scared. Don't forget us.”

“Yeah. Maybe,” he murmurs, feels the couch shift as his friend clambers out of it, grumbling vague promises of more beer. Sam nods, blinks once, and behind his eyes he watches the moment he looked along the bar and saw his brother, Dean, attention fixed tight on the layered drink he was pouring with exquisite care. Dean, right there, scruffy black t-shirt faded to gray, hair spiked, green eyes glittering dark when he glanced up. And it's only now that Sam realizes, he knew. He already knew I was there. He'd seen the way his brother's shoulders lifted, tightened, glimpsed a muscle in his jaw start ticking, a dozen pounding heartbeats before he'd met Dean's gaze.

The thumping beat from the corner of the room suddenly feels like fists, pummeling his skin and he flinches, throws himself out of the couch and bolts for the door past a startled Jackson. Outside, it's too quiet, too dark, too empty when he knows his brother is there just a few blocks away but not there beside him, where his mega-watt grin and snark fill a space that's been hollow around Sam for weeks.

He hesitates just once, fingers already dipping into his pocket. Calling feels uncomfortably like giving in, like admitting he was wrong. It's startling, and unnerving to discover he'd do that in a second if he really thought it would erase the new mask behind his brother's eyes, if it would make Dean Dean again, but it was leaving that put the distance there, not being gone.

Then his phone is trilling shrilly, tinnily into his ear and he doesn't even remember dialing, just knows he's holding his breath as it rings once, twice, three, four times and click -

“Dean, hey, listen man, I...”

He stumbles to a halt as his brother's voice mumbles over his.

“This is Dean. Leave a message.”

He just gapes at the tone, actually pulls his phone away from his ear to peer at the display, checking he's called the right Dean and not some other random man he doesn't remember putting into his contacts. The call disconnects while he's gazing blankly at the screen, and he feels acutely alone, the party on the other side of the doors carrying on without him.

“He always answers,” Sam breathes, suddenly almost bereft for a moment. He always answers. Okay, so I haven't called in five months but he always, always answers. Unless he's hunting.

“Goddammit, Dean. You promised me...”

He trails off into silence again, thoughts raging in his head, his brother's impatience, frustration, edging the sorrow out of his gaze and Sam winces as he belatedly recognizes the hollowness that had seemed like walls in Dean's stare.

“You're supposed to think that maybe I missed you, Sam! That maybe I didn't wanna spend this Christmas alone in some crappy motel room while Dad's off celebrating with Jim, Jack and Jose and you're partying with your new best friend Jackson!”

“You weren't lying.”

And suddenly, he knows something's wrong. In the back of his mind, there's a flash, a flicker of negative shadow and if he squints, it looks sort of like his brother, outlined for an instant against fire, arms thrown out in the instant before it swallows him whole. He blinks and it's gone and then he's running, grabs the top of the fence ringing the tiny garden and vaults it with a convulsive heave that he knows he'll feel in the morning.

There's a startled cry somewhere behind him but he shoves it to the back of his mind as he lands in a sprinters' crouch, pushes off again and the beat of the music is soon lost in the pounding of his sneakers on the sidewalk. The phone is clamped against his ear again, ringing its shrill tone until his brother's voice chimes in with its terse command. Sam's heart is already racing, but every time he hangs up, dials again, his pulse kicks up a notch, until he's sure his heart's about to beat its way clear out of his chest.

He slides around the corner at the end of the small, residential street, grabs at the lamp post when his feet start to slide out from under him, puffs out a breathless curse as he stumbles onto the campus drive. Dials his brother's number again, heart lodged solidly in his throat by now when it clicks over into voice mail yet again.

“Dean... you better... be... in seri... serious trouble...” he gasps into the phone, snaps it shut. Makes it another two blocks around the drive before he can't stand the thought that the last message he might ever leave is brother is that and digs the phone out again, dials without looking at the keypad.

“Screw... that... just... be okay. Okay?”

And as he runs he tries not to think about how weird it felt to invite Dean to their Christmas party, how strange and awkward and wrong it felt, when a year ago, he would have laughed long and loud at anyone who even hinted that one day, he'd ask the brother he hasn't seen in five months to come, and lie.

He ducks off the road, mud splattering his jeans as he cuts across the practice field, hears the thwack of softballs and wonders who's playing a game the night before Christmas Eve. Pants out a desperate laugh when he wonders who'd go hunting spirits and monsters the night before Christmas Eve, and forces a little more speed out of his burning legs. He skirts the edge of the stadium, pauses for a second, a brief moment, clinging to the wall and trying to suck in twice as much air as his lungs can actually hold with each heaving breath. But when he squints his eyes shut to focus on breathing he gets that flash again, that searing shadow and the silhouette he'd know anywhere, any when, drowning in the middle of it.

He starts running again.

Dodges a few revelers who stagger out of his path when he bellows at them to “MOVE!” and cheer him on drunkenly, like he's heading for the finish line of the quarter-mile in the Olympics. Loses his footing again as he charges headlong onto University Avenue, no convenient lamppost to save him this time, and he goes down hard, skins his knees and palms and bounces back up again, lips drawing back unconsciously in a snarl as the cold, damp air stings the raw nerves through the new holes in his jeans.

It's busier here, off the mostly deserted campus and he has to slow down, dodge people and traffic and not everyone is obliging now. He yells at pedestrians to move, and some do but others don't quite seem to realize what he means and just stand there while a few actually refuse to get out of his way, turn and seem to try and square up to him like they think he's maybe a bag-snatcher and they've just now decided to play have-a-go-hero.

He just barges through, elbows striking out when he needs to, getting them out of his way with minimal damage and leaving them gaping after him. He never even thinks about it, just processes need and obstacle and acts on the answers his hind-brain throws up and if there's a tiny voice, wailing “I don't do this anymore! I got out!” in the back of his head, he doesn't let himself hear it.

Faintly, Sam's aware he's never been to that bar before tonight, that it should maybe be harder to find, even right on one of the main streets as it is. But it's like there's a map, laid out in glowing neon before his eyes and as long as he doesn't actually think about it, as long as he doesn't stop to wonder, “Did we cross the Freeway?” his feet just seem to know where to go.

But, of course, he does stop, he does think, and then he's standing stock still, staring blankly at the cars streaming by on the underpass.

“Crap!”

His frustrated yell bounces back from the walls around him. He twitches in place for a moment, takes a few steps one way, turns to peer down another street, all of them looking familiar but not quite familiar enough.

Out of practice, he thinks, wonders if you can really lose a sense of direction if you never use it.

“Hey buddy, you lost?”

He jolts at the rumbling question, spins around and sees a huge colored guy, towering over him, even leaning on a door jamb as he is. Not just tall, this guy is massive, he looks like the bastard offspring of an NBA power forward and an NFL quarterback. Sam actually swallows as he backs up a step, something twitching inside him, an instinct almost dormant as he tries not to stare and fumbles for an answer. Too big. He's just too big. The shadows behind the guy are deeper than they should be too, the streetlight's hitting him full in the face but Sam can't see anything behind him but emptiness.

Jumping at shadows, Sammy. Don't have time for this. The voice berating him silently is his brother's, always, and he jumps again, shakes himself. Wishes his own voice would stop squeaking when he stammers, “Yeah. Kinda. I'm lookin' for a bar. The, uh...” He almost closes his eyes again as he tries to remember the name of the bar, catches just a flicker of a fireball with a black shape at its heart and flinches, snaps them open again. “The Firehouse Grill.”

“Sure,” the guy rumbles again, and Sam can feel it in his chest. “Straight down the avenue over the freeway, then hang a right onto Donohoe Street. The Firehouse is just in behind Office Depot.”

“Thanks,” he grins, turns to go.

“Any time. Good luck, kiddo.”

He stops, squints back over his shoulder at the door as it shuts the last inch and speculates on the likelihood that he could just happen to catch the attention of someone willing and able to help when he needs it the most.

'The way he said it,' he thinks, '“Good luck, kiddo.” It sounded like...' like the way his brother always says “Sammy,” and Sam's breath hitches at the reminder. He turns a third time, jogs to where the road climbs up over the Bayshore Freeway, the sidewalk narrowing as it crosses the bridge. At the apex, each breath he drags in comes flavored with salt and mud as well as exhaust fumes and north east of him, he can make out the way the light changes, stops suddenly where the city gives way to the ocean.

It's partly why he came here in the first place, amazing school and the fact that this is where his scholarship took him aside. He'd wanted to be near the sea, the sun and the sand and the normal. The first time he'd gone out to the shore though, he'd hung back at the edge of the dunes, inexplicably nervous of the shifting water, the way it changed everything around it. He'd wanted stability, permanence, and found a little too much familiarity in the exact opposite.

He hasn't been back to the beach since.

The road drops down again and he picks up speed as he heads down the long incline, until he's loping along with the long-legged stride that had every coach in every school he went to after the age of thirteen eying him greedily. Throwing a quick glance back over his shoulder, he dashes across the empty street, cuts into the small park in the corner of the roads and barrels through it, straight across the quiet street on the other side and hurdles the fence ringing the parking lot. He recognizes where he is now, pours on speed as his head swims dizzily and his vision blurs but he keeps going, sneakers slapping loud against concrete as he crosses the lot, squeezes through a narrow gap between the edge of the fence and the gates, barely noticing the long, thin scratch one sharp end of wire leaves across his bicep.

He stumbles onto the sidewalk, trips a little, chest heaving as he runs on, following the road as it curves south again, sees the way it opens out up ahead, the edge of the shopping mall parking lot, the long, low building on the other side and he smiles, breathless relief at finding the building still standing making his knees tremble with every long stride. He gets closer, close enough to see the Impala on the edge of the lot, smile turning into a grin, worry to the kind of anger that burns itself out hot and fast and he digs in his pocket for his phone again, certain, like ninety-nine percent sure that Dean's just crashed out in the car in the middle of the deserted parking lot, or maybe, even more likely, is 'entertaining' some random chick in the backseat.

Sam's thumb is just hovering over the 'dial' button when there's a flash of light in one dark window of the bar, a flicker of white-heat that stops his feet running before his brain quite gets the message that he's stopping. He trips, goes down hard and rolls in an untidy tangle of arms and legs, his phone skittering out of his hand in a jumble of plastic and circuitry, etched with golden light as the flicker in the window explodes into an inferno.

~~*~~

There's something hard under his side. Hard, with sharp corners digging into his ribs, shifting painfully every time he breathes. He blinks one eye open, thinks hazily about reaching up to try and wipe away the glue that's apparently sticking the other closed but his left hand is so numb he almost looks down to make sure it's still attached. The right is trapped under his side and when he shifts to pull it free, ice shoots from his toes to his hip and he sucks in a surprised gasp, which ignites fire in his chest and when he flinches at that the dynamite apparently packed into his skull detonates and sends him spinning down into the dark again.

When he wakes up, he isn't sure how long he's been out. Long enough for most of his side to go numb, for the screaming roar in his head to mute down to a ringing like a thousand old fashioned alarm clocks all going off at once. He cringes, rolls his head back and squints through his good eye.

Sees a floor, battered and scarred and littered with scorched glass that flickers and dances. It takes him a moment to realize that it's the light that's moving, blurry vision and depth perception that's shot to hell making it seem like it's the world that keeps twitching around all over the damn place. He groans as he tips backwards, lets himself slide over onto his back and looks at the scorch marks on the ceiling.

“Al's gonna be pissed,” he mumbles, realizes then that his lip is split and swollen as he tastes copper on his tongue. Dean blinks, drags the arm he can still feel up to his face and rubs carefully at the blood closing one eye, manages to pry the lids open enough to squint at the ruined bar. “I'm so fired.” Lifting his head an inch feels like someone chained it down with barbed wire wrapped around the inside of his skull, but he strains up, teeth gritted, looks around at the scattered kindling that used to be chairs and tables, the gaping holes where the glass was in the windows.

Grimacing, he rolls painstakingly to his hands and knees, listing awkwardly to one side as sensation returns like a million tetanus shots, all at once. His arms shake with the strain, the tremor spreading fast across his shoulders and down his back. Sweat, stained pink, drips from his nose, from the point of his jaw as his head hangs low, trying to ride out the waves of pain that are screaming over him.

Dazedly, he wonders if pain has ever had a voice before, one that sounds almost like...

“Sam?”

He can barely hear his own croak, so he isn't really surprised when the yelling just carries on, getting ever more frantic, loud enough for him to hear it clearly, even though it sounds like someone tied a pillow over his ears.

“DEAN! Dean,where are you! Can you hear me? DEAN!”

Dean struggles to push himself up to his knees, suddenly wanting, more than anything, for his brother to not find him helplessly crouched on all fours, or threes, whatever. He loses time in the struggle, blind to the effort that seems way more difficult than it should. When hands clamp around his arms, haul him up, he chokes out a startled cry, sags into his brother as ice explodes in his hip and distantly, he wishes that the numbness would come back.

“Dean? God, Dean, hey, hey, come on.”

“Sam?”

It comes out as a whimper and he coughs raggedly, tries again.

“Sammy?”

“Yeah. What the hell, man?”

He pries open his eyes, gets a blurry, too-close vision of letters, words he can't make out against a dark background. Blinks, and discovers he's crushed against his brother's chest and he's looking at Sam's shirt, listening to the younger man ramble on at him. He can feel Sam twitching, jerking, constantly shifting as he searches the bar for threats.

It's strange, unfamiliar now to let his eyes slide shut again, to let someone else take watch.

“No no no no, Dean, open your eyes. Come on, look at me.”

For a moment he wonders when Dad got there, follows orders and looks up at Sam's face, screwed up with worry and fear. He wonders why his brother isn't pissed.

“Sorry, Sammy.”

Sam blinks at him, pulls back, eyebrows climbing.

“What? Why?”

“Didn't know...”

He can almost watch the wheels turning behind his brother's eyes.

“It's a spirit?”

Starts to nod, gives up when the motion burns from his skull down his neck.

“Yeah.”

“A spirit blew the bar up?”

“Um. No. Think... that might've been me.”

It's almost funny to see the color drain right out of Sam's face.

“You blew the bar up?!”

He shrugs, tries to shake some life back into the other arm. It's still numb, tingling, even when sensation has mostly returned to the rest of his side. His fingers are cold.

“Wasn't exactly part of the plan, but... yeah.”

“HOW?”

Dean winces as the yell starts the alarm clocks going in his head again, levers himself gingerly away from his brother, props his back against the side of the bar.

“Bitch had smashed most of the bottles behind the bar. When I tried to torch her, she tossed me. Lighter landed in the booze. Booze caught fire. Boom.”

He wraps his arm around his ribs as he speaks, gasping in sooty air between each sentence as they shift, stomach churning as he feels bone grating.

“Jesus, Dean.”

Sam sinks against the bar beside him, shoulders brushing. Dean frowns, rolls his head along the wood, hissing as it presses against a lump behind his ear.

“What are you doing here, anyway?”

“Saving your ass.”

He quirks an eyebrow, feels dried blood crack and flake away.

“I know what you're doing here, Sam. What are you doing here?” he parrots, sees Sam grin, but it's tight, strained.

“I just... You weren't answering your phone.”

“That's 'cause it's over there. And over there.” Dean waves a hand vaguely at the far corners of the room as he speaks and his lips twitch into a smirk when Sam's shoulder hitches against his in a silent laugh. He doesn't ask why the younger man had tried to call him, recognizing in Sam's quiet sigh the helpless strain of knowing, bone deep that something was wrong.

He bites back an echo, rubs absently at one ear, the ringing still playing a shrill undertone under everything and watches his brother. There's something different about the younger man, he looks more like the pictures of Sam Dean carries in his head. It takes him a minute to realize it's the lines bracketing his brother's eyes, the simmering tension in his shoulders that's familiar, that he hadn't even noticed were missing until now.

“Sam.”

Sam makes a non-committal grunt, half turning to look back at him.

I'm sorry, he wants to say. I shouldn't have come, dragged you back into all this. But he doesn't get the chance to do more than open his mouth before the air shifts around them, whispers cold across their skin.

“Dean, you did torch the remains, right?”

He has to think about it, prying apart the confused jumble of memory, scouring the building with the EMF meter dark in his hand until it lit up, all thematically red and gold over one battered square meter of floor, ripping up floorboards in the bar as bottles shattered behind him, pity lodging in his throat when he found the desiccated husk in the tiny cave carved into the ground beneath the crawlspace, stifling his breathing as he sprinkled on salt and lighter fluid and flicked the flame on his zippo to life and...

Watching the spirit materialize in front of him, hovering over her bones, lashing out with a blow that sent him spinning to the floor and the lighter sailing out of his hand.

“Aw, hell!”

Dean throws himself sideways, feels his brother dive in the opposite direction and lands heavily, scrambling away from the long shard of table leg that's embedded where his head was a moment before. Her shriek is like an ax driving into his skull as she fades in, looming over him and he cringes away, buries his head in his arms, trying to block the sound out. He can feel the vibration in his throat, knows he's yelling, but he can't hear anything other than the feedback-roar of the explosion that had ripped apart the bar around him and is playing out again, on seemingly endless repeat inside his head.

Crystals rain down on him where he cowers against the bar, stinging in the myriad of cuts on his face and hands and he flinches before he realizes it's salt, looks up to see his brother whip one long arm around, spraying the rest of the contents of the canister through the mist between them. It shreds away, disappears with a howl that leaves him cupping his hands over his ears, convinced they must be bleeding. Sam steps forward, leans down to him, confidence and surety suddenly gone as he mouths something unintelligible and holds out a shaking hand, looking abruptly young and terrified.

Dean shakes his head, scrubs hard at his ears, winces when his fingers catch against a shard of glass lodged in the shell of one.

“I can't hear you!” he says, surprised when Sam jerks back and frowns at him. He gets it when his brother flattens his outstretched hand in the air, pats it a few times. “Sorry,” he says, deliberately softly, sees his brother smile tightly and nod.

Anything? Sam mouths with exaggerated care and he shakes his head again, answers in the same near-whisper.

“Just the bells of Notre Dame playing in my head.”

His brother quirks a brow at him and Dean scowls.

“Whatever, dude, let's just torch this Carol Anne. Tell me you've got a lighter?” he almost pleads, grabbing Sam's hand and hauling himself painfully to his feet. The younger man nods, fumbles in his pockets for a moment and pulls out a small, plastic lighter as Dean starts dragging himself toward the middle of the floor, where a tangle of shattered furniture is piled in a heap almost as tall as they are. The hunter manages to yank half a chair away, staggers as he tosses it aside and then his brother's there, shoving the lighter into one hand, a bundle of salt sachets into the other. It's just like it always was, no need to speak, no need to look back over his shoulder to see where his brother is, just playing the same old scene and he finds himself grinning, even as he feels something wind tight inside, a whisper he pretends he can't hear behind the screaming in his ears.

I can't stay.

Then Sam's there, grabbing his arm, turning him and reaching for the lighter. Dean twists it out of his reach, grimacing as bone grates in his chest again. He's broken ribs before, knows he hasn't done that now but they're cracked, badly, and he breathes carefully, smacks at his brother's hands when Sam goes for the lighter again.

I'm torchin' her, Sammy.”

The younger man just rolls his eyes, steps back and Dean limps up to the edge of the hole he's uncovered. He half crouches as he strikes the flint, tosses it in, watching the tiny flame streak through the dark, skin crawling with anticipation but the fumes rising from the fluid ignite with a whoosh he can feel, if not hear, and the bones follow a heartbeat later. He turns to Sam, grins triumphantly and reaches out to slap his brother on the shoulder, and that's when he feels the pressure of her scream against his skin, sees Sam cringe and throw his hands overs his ears. He knows what's coming, can feel it building, like a dozen atmospheres all suddenly crushing down on him and he fumbles at his brother's shirt, shoves the younger man in front of him; all he can think about is the solid mass of the bar, just like earlier when he saw the alcohol ignite in the split fragment of time before the explosion shattered the world.

He pushes Sam hard, sends him tripping forward, dives down and lands more or less on top of his brother, huddled against the bar, arms wrapped around his own head and neck.

And then it's like deja vu all over again.

~~*~~

It's a voice that calls him back, drags him up through the nothing. It's familiar, rough and gravelly and worn. And scared.

“You remember when you were small, Sammy? You wanted Christmas in the worst way, but Dad was away hunting somewhere and I didn't know how.”

He drifts away again, fades back to watching his big brother pace in front of the window, a thin, scraggly tree decorated with thinner, scragglier tinsel scraps tied expertly together into a chain.

“We watched Santa Claus The Movie, you remember? And I asked you what you wanted for Christmas, and all you said was “Stars for my shoes.” I didn't even know what it meant. Hell, I don't think you did either, really...”

He remembers walking around a small town strip mall, everywhere draped in red and silver garlands and playing “Winter Wonderland” or “White Christmas” and then one bar, tucked into the far corner of the mall, thin strains of a scratchy guitar and a ragged voice crooning something different. “The jingle bells are jingling, the streets are white with snow. The happy crowds are mingling, but there's no one that I know.” It stuck in his head then, and years later, stalking through the shoving Californians, he'd jolted as he heard it again. “Oh Santa may have brought you some stars for your shoes, but Santa only brought me the blues. Those brightly packaged, tinsel covered, Christmas blues.”

“I remember,” he whispers, hears a rustle of sheets and soft footsteps, feels someone grab his arm.

“Sammy?”

Sam cracks open one eye, squints at his brothers, hovering above him. All three of them.

“Yeah?”

“You askin' me or telling me, Sammy? Come on dude, wake up already.”

“'M awake,” he murmurs, peels open the other eye and blinks the three Deans into one. Hears a soft beeping, smells starch and too much pine air freshener, sees industrial beige walls and vertical blinds on the windows. “Hospital?”

Dean nods, pales, turns a disturbing shade of green and Sam looks at him, hard. He's pale, sweating, one arm cradling his ribs, the other hand clamped around Sam's arm. From the way he's swaying, Sam figures that's more for support than out of worry, rethinks it and decides it's a measure of both when his brother's smile breaks out, tired and relieved.

“Should you even be out of bed?”

Dean shrugs and Sam twitches his arm in the older man's grip. “Seriously, dude. You look like crap.” He works himself up the bed as he says it, panting by the time he's propped half up on the pillows and shoving insistently at his brother, trying hard to not see the blood still flaking out of Dean's spiky hair.

“Mr. Dupree? I can and will have you restrained if you don't stay in that bed.”

The new voice has them both bristling and Sam twists, flinches as a buzz saw starts up in his skull, bounces down his spine. In the corner of his eye, he watches his brother's face close up, shoulders squaring with a wince as he stares levelly at the door. A man stands there, short, white coat brushing the backs of his calves as he flips officiously through the chart in his hand.

“You used the call button. I'm assuming that was to tell us your friend was awake?”

“You know what they say about people who assume, doc.” The hand on Sam's arm tightens fractionally and he nods to show he got the message. They're sticking with the cover story Dean gave Jackson, it seems, and although he knows it makes sense, being there as friends instead of family twists a knot inside Sam's stomach. He can only guess at what sort of tale Dean had to spin to get them in the same room.

The doctor raises one elegantly trimmed eyebrow and ignores the older Winchester's snark, crossing to Sam's bed with quick, snappy steps.

“Mr. Winchester. How are you feeling?”

For some reason, the older man is solicitous, obsequious around Sam, practically fawning over him as he checks the hunter's pupils, blood pressure, heart rate.

“Fine. I'm fine,” he answers, craning to meet his brother's amused gaze as Dean shuffles back to his own bed and perches on the edge.

“How's your pain?”

“I don't... I'm fine.”

He seems to be stuck on “I'm fine” but the doctor doesn't notice, just “Hmm”s and scribbles down a note on the chart. Over his shoulder, Dean is laughing silently, grimacing with every other chuckle as the short man nods and sweeps back through the door with a curt promise to check on them both in grand rounds.

As soon as the door clicks shut, Sam rolls painfully up to mirror his brother's pose on the edge of his own bed.

“Dude, what hell? What happened?”

Dean sobers, shifts uncomfortably.

“What do you remember?”

Sam closes his eyes, watches the bar explode again inside his head. He'd clambered to his feet in the parking lot, staggered to the door hanging limply from one pretzled hinge and peered inside, felt his heart slam to a standstill when he saw the wreckage inside and started yelling.

“You blew the bar up?” he hisses, waves one hand in a vaguely incoherent gesture. Dean shrugs.

“First time, yeah. Kinda.”

First time?” Sam strangles, can feel the blood rushing to his head and wavers, teetering on the edge of the high bed, suddenly dizzy. “Whoa,” he mutters, faintly aware that there's a scrambling sound, then a hand clamped around his arm again, steadying him. He leans into it, for a moment, like he's sixteen, just woken up with his first hangover and Dean's there with a rueful smile and concern tucked away beneath the snark.

“Hey, take it easy, Sammy.”

He breathes in leather and gun oil and smoke, feels the scratchiness in his throat, heart stuttering loudly on the monitor when he realizes how close, how really, scary-close this one was. Forces out, “I'm good,” and hears his brother sigh a little.

“Yeah?”

He nods against Dean's shoulder, catches his brother's twitch and shoves carefully at him. “Get back to bed before the doc throws you in restraints.” The older man chuckles tiredly, hobbles the few feet between their beds and hitches himself awkwardly up onto his mattress. It's silent for a while, just the monitor beeping, plastic ticking against metal as Dean fiddles with the IV in the back of his hand. Sam watches him, sees the spectacular bruising peeping out under the collar and sleeves of his brother's gown until he can't stand the restless fidgeting anymore.

“So who blew the bar up the second time?” he murmurs, after a quick check to make sure there's no one in earshot.

Dean flicks a smile at him. “Freakin' spirit did. She...” he waggles his hands, brings them together in fists in demonstration. “Imploded.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah.”

“Well that's new.”

“One for the journal.”

The reminder of John drops like a lead balloon, sits there, the elephant in the corner, lurking behind the tiny, scraggly Christmas tree. Sam worries at his lip, thinks he liked the beer-bottle-tree better. “Hey. That elf in the bar. That you?”

Dean grins, elephant forgotten as he nods, almost proudly.

“Where the hell, man?”

“Weird little goth place couple of states back. Had 'em in the window.”

Sam hides a frown in a laugh, wonders why his brother was buying Christmas decorations at all.

Maybe I didn't wanna spend this Christmas alone in some crappy motel room!

The echo in his head is so sharp, so clear he almost thinks Dean said it again and he looks up, catches his brother looking almost wistful before the older man ducks his head to his IV again.

“When'd you get here, anyway?” Sam asks, just for something to say.

“Couple've weeks back.”

“Were you...” he trails off, not sure how to ask what he wants to know, not actually sure if he really wants to hear the answer. Were you going to hide from me? Were you going to come here for Christmas and never find me?

Dean shrugs, sliding his eyes up to meet Sam's and the younger man forgets how to breathe for a moment when he sees the raw hurt in his brother's stare.

“Ah, we got both you boys for company tonight then?”

Sam sucks in air when his brother twitches away, smiles over at the middle aged nurse standing in the doorway. She's forty if she's a day, olive skinned and carrying twenty extra pounds, but her eyes are warm, greeting Dean easily, comfortably and Sam can almost feel the flirt in his brother's answering grin. She shakes her head as she walks in, a small tray steady in her hands, the syringes and vials on it rattling slightly when she sets it down on the mayo stand between the beds.

“You're Sam?” she asks him, smiles when he nods mutely. He can hear his brother shifting around on the bed, a quick hitch in his breath almost lost in the rustling sheets and wants, badly, to shove the nurse out of the way and make sure Dean's alright. “Well, Dr. Lesh seemed to think you may need some more pain meds?”

“No, I... I'm fine.”

“Take the meds, Sammy,” Dean tells him from behind the nurse's back and she looks at him, one thick eyebrow arched telling him they're so busted. She just holds up the syringe, waits for his nod and slides it neatly into the port on his own IV, shifts her fingers around to start pressing down the plunger when Sam grabs her hand, stares an urgent message at her. She nods, ticks her head over to the second syringe on the tray and he sighs as the drugs spread warm through his veins.

It's not strong, but it ratchets down the throbbing in his head and back and shoulders, lets him lie there limp and lax in the bed, hearing her turn to his brother.

“How're you doing, Dean?”

“I'm good.”

She takes her time with the older man and Sam rolls his head sideways, watches her check Dean's pupils, tug at the edge open his gown and probe gently at the spread of black over his hipbone. Dean winces once or twice, just the tiniest flinch but every time she pulls back, eases off, and her touch is even more gentle when she carries on, stretching out his leg, manipulating the hip with exaggerated care. Still, his brother is chalk-white under the bruises, panting a little, sweat beading on his brow as he sinks back into the pillows, and he doesn't protest at all when she pushes clear liquid into his IV, meeting Sam's gaze as she does.

“He okay?” Sam murmurs, and the nurse nods.

“He'll be out in a few minutes.”

He winces, because drugs strong enough to knock you out, to knock Dean out in a few minutes, are pretty powerful stuff.

“He ain't out yet,” Dean growls, and both Sam and nurse jump, blush, refuse to meet anyone's gaze. She bustles around a bit, straightening blankets and tidying equipment that's already tidy and Sam realizes she's waiting for his brother to go under, for his unsteady, too-quick breathing to settle.

When it does, she turns to the younger man, arms crossed.

“Brothers?”

He has to nod, can't bring himself to deny it but by her satisfied hmm he wonders if maybe Dean had some help getting them admitted into one room together.

“You take care of him, you hear me? He only woke up a couple of hours before you did.”

Something in the way she says it makes his mouth dry up.

“He's... he's okay though, right?”

“He will be. He's got a few broken ribs, and the blow to the head caused a pretty nasty concussion. It did some damage to his ears, too, so he'll be dizzy for a few days, probably nauseous.”

“His hip?”

“Just bruised. Keep it iced for now, maybe a few heat packs once the contusions have faded and the swelling's gone down.”

She smiles at him, sweeps out and Sam's still nodding thoughtfully when he realizes he's been filing all the instructions away like he's going to be there to catch his brother when he can't walk straight, to press ice or heat packs on him. He looks past the nurse, sees Dean lying pale and small in the other bed, face taut with pain even in his sleep. Thinks about Jackson, sitting drunk on the couch. You never talk much about your family.

Thinks about the loneliness that sneaks up on him sometimes, the way he could never quite manage to answer his phone, 'cause no news is good news, right? And if he never hears, Mr. Winchester? I'm sorry, it's your brother then maybe it'll never happen.

“Quit thinking so loud, Sammy. You're giving me a headache.”

“That'll be the concussion,” he retorts, trying to hide the way his heart is racing after jumping a mile at the sudden order.

“Eh, it's fine,” Dean murmurs, slurs a little and Sam looks over at him again, sees the way he's still pale and bruised but limp has turned to simply relaxed, utterly and completely.

“Good drugs?” he asks, feels something unwind inside him when his brother nods slowly and grins.

“Oh, hell yeah.”

He watches for a while, just watches, etching the memory into his mind, the loose, easy smile as his brother naps.

“Don't, Sammy.”

Sam rolls over, stares at the ceiling, hears Dean shift lazily.

“Don't what?” he asks, doesn't manage to pull off the innocence he was trying for.

“Quit lookin' for reasons.”

Reasons for what? he wants to say, can't quite bring himself to play straight man tonight. Reasons to leave, to come with me. He can't get the words out, so he doesn't say anything, feels his brother's gaze rake over him.

“Hey,” Dean breathes softly, startling after the quiet. “You got the time?”

Automatically, Sam looks at his wrist, finds just a faint tide mark where his watch habitually sits. Frowning, he casts around, sees a clock on the wall.

Blinks at it.

“Damn.”

“Merry Christmas, Sammy,” Dean murmurs, voice full of his smile, eyes sad when Sam turns to him. The walls slide back into place, somehow brittle and thin when the older man's pupils are dilated by opiates and Sam can see the goodbye there already, knows this is it, that this, right now, is all the chance he'll get to say everything.

I'm sorry, Dean. For not calling, for not answering. For leaving.

He teeters on the brink, more than ready to go back to his dilapidated dorm and throw what few belongings he's managed to scavenge into his bag and slide into the passenger seat.

“You never even got me anything, did you?”

The laugh is surprised out of him, deep and full and it hurts but he gives in to it, gives in.

“Little bitch.”

“J-j-jerk,” Sam gasps out between peals, the moment gone, slipped past. “I s-s-saved your a-ass.”

Dean cocks his head sideways, shrugs a pained acceptance, lips twitching. The laughter fades slowly, leaves the room comfortable and still, just the beeping of Sam's heart monitor and their breathing, steady and synched almost perfectly.

“You still want to get that tree?”

Sam smiles at the ceiling.

“You got another elf?”

“Nah. Maybe we could call up a faerie, compel her to sit on top, or something.”

He quirks a brow, slides a glance sideways at his brother, poker faced and huffs. Grins.

“You're gonna be around for a while?”

“I guess. Heal up some, head out and find Dad. Heard rumors of a Black Shuck down in New Orleans, might run down there. Stay around for Mardi Gras.”

There's no space in there for him, he knows, and he knows Dean will call, knows he won't answer but not answering is an answer in itself, even if it isn't one either of them want to hear. Still...

“Maybe I could - ”

Don't, Sam.”

He bites off the instinctive protest, chokes it down at the near plea in the angry refusal.

“Just don't,” Dean whispers, and Sam nods, locks his jaw against the tremor in it.

It's all he has to give.

“So, you think you're fired now?”

His brother's turn to laugh now, hitching and startled.

God, that hurts.”

“I mean, blowing up the place kinda leaves a bad impression.”

He catches the pillow that rockets at his head with unerring accuracy, misses the chart that sheds his brother's notes on its flight into his stomach.

“Merry freakin' Christmas, Sammy.”

It's all he needs to be given.

“Yeah. Merry Christmas, Dean.”

Even if it is a little too Walton's for their liking.

 

 

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The Winchester Chronicles

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