Very gently, so focused that he wasn't even aware of his protruding tongue, Sam forced his hands to remain steady as he lowered the roof onto the gingerbread house before him. When it was settled, he removed his hands with a flourish, letting them hang in the air as he appreciated his hard work, then he pressed on the roof gently, ensuring good contact with the icing adhesive.
He was done.
Sam sat back, his eyes burning from the strain they'd endured the past couple of hours. He took a deep breath of stale, hotel-room air, and grinned even as his shoulders pressed painfully against the back of his wooden chair.
On the card table before him sat the most perfect gingerbread house he had ever seen. It rested on a thick piece of cardboard, which was covered by a layer of white icing. Small squares of red gum made up a brick sidewalk that led up to the front door. A fence of rope licorice and gum drops surrounded the house. Yellow icing filled in the window panes, giving the appearance that the family inside was happy and celebrating. A multi-colored patchwork of M&Ms covered the roof, giving the appearance of cheerful shingles. Red and white striped mints formed a row of bushes alongside the house, and a stack of three marshmallows turned into a snowman adorning the front yard.
He had picked up the kit the night before as he and Dean had grazed the supermarket, looking for a cheap dinner. The days were painfully long when you were stuck in a hotel room with nothing to do, and since Sam had enjoyed playing with Legos as a kid, he thought building a gingerbread house might be a suitable form of seasonal entertainment.
So the box had been thrown in the cart, on top the six pack of beer and the package of Oreos, and Sam hadn't thought anything more about it until this afternoon. They'd woke up late, showered and shaved, surfed through the 11 snowy TV channels, checked emails and phone messages, and quickly found themselves bored out of their minds.
Dean, always hating inaction, gathered their dirty clothes and left to find the nearest laundry mat. So Sam had sat alone, watching families come and go in the parking lot. They all looked so happy… the children laughed and played, the parents looked at each other with love… they were perfect, and Sam felt something prick his heart.
It was Christmas Eve day. When had 'the season' turned into the Day Before Christmas? How had it sneaked up on him so silently? But without Dad, they had nowhere to be, no one to come home to. Their fractured little family was incomplete. Sure they had made a lot of friends over the years, and they even had close extended family, but no one had offered the boys a place for the holidays and they hadn't asked. It wouldn't be the same without Dad anyway- even though the man had never practiced a 'normal' Christmas himself- and Sam found that he was actually content to spend the time with Dean.
Which was good, because most of his time was spent with Dean.
Even as children, the brothers were inseparable. They had slept in the same room, eaten the same things at the same times, played games with each other, fought with each other, and hunted with each other. Sam knew how Dean's mind worked, and Dean probably knew Sam just as well. Sam could predict Dean's movements, knew his thoughts, understood emotions that Dean couldn't even understand. If it were possible to be in a categorized in a class closer than brothers, they would be.
A familiar rumble grew and leveled out in the parking lot, then died. Sam looked out the window beside him and, seeing the familiar black Impala, his eyes flicked to the door to make sure it was unlocked. He watched as Dean got out of the car, laundry sack in tow, and smiled at the amount of domesticity his brother had picked up.
Dad had never been a mom. He'd learned enough- he could cook simple meals, clean the house before the roaches moved in, pick up the laundry when they'd run out of clean clothes… but Sam's visits to his friend's houses told him that a mother did all that, and more. A mother folded your clothes, she didn't leave them in the dryer for everyone to pick through. A mother kept the house smelling sweet, like sugar or flowers, not old and stale like moldy food and dirty clothes.
But of course Dean would know how to do the laundry. When the time for chores did roll around, each brother got their fair share. Sam was an expert at getting blood out of clothing and carpet. He knew how to tape, mud, sand, and repaint holes in the walls. He could replace windows. He knew all about home electrical boards and circuitry.
And being older meant Dean knew all that, and more.
The doorknob jiggled half a second before the door swung open and Dean walked in, heading a gust of cold air that left Sam shivering before the door was shut. Dean dropped the bag just inside the door and stomped the slush from his shoes.
"Dude, it is cold out there."
"It's December," Sam replied flatly.
Dean moved off into the room and grabbed his duffle bag. "No shit. You hungry?"
Sam shook his head and repositioned himself so the chair back was no longer pressing against his shoulder blades. He propped one elbow on the chair and the other on the table. "We just ate like, three hours ago."
"Hey, a lot happens in three hours. I'm hungry."
"You're always hungry," Sam sighed as he got up and moved to the bed. Dean was rooting through his duffle bag, pulling out weapons and toiletries as he searched for whatever he was looking for. "Did you find us a job?"
Dean grunted. "Yeah, if you're interested in the janitorial arts. I dropped your blue shirt on the floor by accident- you might wanna sterilize it before you put it on. Man, that place was a mess."
"Why didn't you just wash it again?"
"Out of quarters."
Sam rolled his eyes and leaned back against the wall. "Thanks for telling me."
He watched as Dean finally dug out what he'd been searching for. His gun cleaning kit. Automatically, Sam reached over and grabbed the .45, then proceeded to dismantle it. "Hey Dean?" he asked, waiting for acknowledgment before continuing. No use talking to a brother who wasn't listening.
Sam hesitated. He wanted to ask if Dean was as lonely as he was feeling, if he missed Dad as much as Sam did, or if Dean had ever even had a 'merry' Christmas after Mom… but when he opened his mouth, he lost his courage. "What do you want for Christmas?"
Dean looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Where'd that come from?"
Sam shrugged, feeling uncomfortable, and he pushed his feelings further down. "Come on, I wanna know. Just answer the question."
Dean snorted and went back to wiping down the shotgun. "I dunno Sam… we're low on silver bullets, how 'bout that?"
Sam shook his head. "I asked what you wanted, not what you needed."
"Why? Are you gonna get me something? Cuz I didn't get you anything."
Sam rolled his eyes. "I'm just asking a simple question. What do you want?" Good Lord, couldn't Dean ever give him a straight answer?
"I don't know," Dean replied, not lifting his gaze from the gun. "I haven't thought about it."
Sam looked at the gingerbread house on the table in the corner. "I know what you mean," he said, grabbing the oil. "Kinda crept up on us, didn't it?"
"Yeah," Dean snorted softly. Then, "What do you want?"
Sam focused on the cool weight of the gun. He knew the answer immediately, and it didn't matter what time of the year it was. He wanted a family. One that didn't hunt evil or live out of cars and cheap motels. He wanted to ignore what crept through the shadows. He wanted to be in love, and be loved. He wanted a mother, and he wanted Dean to be happy.
He shrugged. "I dunno."
"You miss him, don't you?"
Sam scoffed. He knew who Dean was talking about. "Miss him? Why would I miss him? The man gave us knives for gifts, Dean. Remember the year I wanted a CD player? I got five encyclopedias on the paranormal. Try explaining that to your classmates."
Dean stiffened, bristling. "If I remember correctly- and I always do- those books saved your ass a few times."
"Hey, I'm not saying I don't love Dad. But come on, Dean. He couldn't give it a rest for one day?"
"No," Dean snapped, laying the gun on the mattress and pinning Sam with a glare. "He couldn't. Avenging Mom is the only thing that kept him going some days, Sam. It wasn't just a fucking hobby, something he did when he was bored. He lived for her. You don't remember how messed up he was after she died, but I do. If you'd seen him then… you'd be glad for what he is today."
Sam took a hesitant breath, softening his eyes before looking away. He didn't want to fight. He'd never win anyway. "Sorry," he murmured, and Dean went back to cleaning. Sam felt tears start to burn in his eyes, and he blinked them away quickly. Dean couldn't help the soldier he'd become. Loyalty is what made Dean Dean, and Sam wouldn't trade that for the world. But Sam had gotten a taste of the world outside of hunting. He'd seen what could have been. Hell, he'd almost had that life. He wished Dean could see it too.
"You better watch what you're doing," Dean said, interrupting the silence, "Or you'll blow your hand off."
Sam looked down and repositioned the gun. As depressed as he was, he'd like to keep all ten fingers.
"I did get you a present, you know."
Sam looked up. "What?"
"I got you something." Dean shrugged, then, "You look surprised."
Sam looked back to the gun. Dean had been thinking of him? Like, in an emotional sorta way? He was surprised. "Well I thought, you know… we haven't really talked about it and neither of us have much money-"
"Dude, chill out. It's no big deal."
"I got you something too." Sam looked up.
He smiled. "I'm not telling."
Dean shot him a look of disappointment, then it changed to hope. "Does it have boobs?"
Sam snorted and closed his eyes in exasperation. "No, Dean."
"Damn. Dose it have 350 horses?"
"Can I eat it?"
Sam laughed as he began reassembling the gun. "No."
"Are you sure it's for me?"
Sam looked up. Dean was grinning. "Yes, it's for you," he replied, "but you're going to have to wait." Dean never was good at waiting. Sam may be the little brother, but he could still push buttons.
And suddenly Sam realized he wasn't all that sad anymore. Dean had a mysterious power sometimes, and it never ceased to amaze him how Dean could change his state of mind without Sam even realizing it.
"I bet I can beat it out of you," Dean announced, setting his own gun aside.
Sam swallowed, shrugging one shoulder. "Go ahead and sit on me, I'm still not telling."
"That's what you say now. Wait until I'm on top of you."
Sam's heartbeat got quicker, anticipating Dean's first move. It was a game they played: How long could Sam hold out before Dean got the best of him? The boys had invented it and Dad had encouraged it. Sam had the feeling that if he and Dean were pit bulls, Dad would have invited the neighborhood over to place bets.
He set the gun on the nightstand and instantly, Dean was on top of him with a demanding, "Tell me!" Sam fell backwards, instantly stiffening and grabbing Dean's arms to keep the older brother at bay.
"No!" he argued, twisting and squirming until at last, they fell onto the floor, Sam on top of his brother and pinning his forearms to the carpet. "You're gonna have to wait!"
Before he knew what was happening, Sam found himself flying through the air and landing hard on the carpet on his stomach, burning his cheek on the rough fibers. Above him, Dean grabbed his wrists and pressed a knee into the small of his back. "Tell me what you got me and I'll let you go."
Damnit, how did he always wind up on the bottom? "No," he growled, and attempted to twist to the side.
Dean pressed down harder, and Sam felt a vertebrae pop. "Come on Sammy, just gimme my present. It's almost Christmas anyway."
Sam had a flashback to an afternoon years ago, when Dean had caught him off guard as he was walking home from school. Sam had found himself in a similar predicament, face down on the pavement and Dean on his back, except back then, his friends had been witnesses to the humiliation. He'd never lived that one down, and had finished out the school year with the nickname, 'Sammy the Shrimp'.
"Get off, jackass," Sam ground out, struggling for breath as his ribcage was flattened by 160 pounds of big brother.
A second vertebrae popped. "No." Just because he was pinned didn't mean his ego was ready for surrender.
"I can sit here all night. Kinda comfy, actually."
Sam narrowed his eyes, studying the tan carpet as he cheek was ground into it. It smelled like smoke and feet. Dean had won, but admitting defeat had never been Sam's strong point. "Fine," he said at last, only because he was getting short of breath. "I got you a subscription to Napster."
"Sam," Dean laughed, "I don't have a MP3 player."
"No shit, Sherlock," Sam panted, still trying to free his arms. "I got you one of those too."
"What?" Dean replied, loosening his grip. "Sam, those are expensive… how did you-"
"I had a little money… in my checking account from school," Sam gasped, laying still to maximize lung capacity. "It's no big deal… I know a guy who works at Best Buy… it's for my own sake, really. I'm tired of listening-"
"Shut up," Dean interrupted, then his voice became full of awe. "Dude… thank you. I don't-"
"I can't breathe."
"Oh," Dean said, and the pressure was gone. "Sorry."
Sam took a deep breath, content to lay on the carpet until his strength and air supply returned. The bed springs creaked as Dean sat down.
"I'm afraid you out did me, little brother." Dean's voice was soft, tinged with embarrassment. "I didn't have that much money."
"I don't care," Sam replied, finally pushing himself into a sitting position. "I did it because you're my brother, and… well… you kinda do a lot for me. I just wanted to say thanks." He took a deep breath, appreciating the tightening in his chest.
Dean looked away, then nodded once. "Someone's gotta look after your ass."
His brother looked uncomfortable, so Sam placed his hands on his hips and arched his back, readjusting his spine. "You really need to go on a diet."
Dean took the out. "Hey, it takes a lot of fuel to feed this muscle machine."
Sam shook his head and moved back onto the bed. "Speaking of which, what's for lunch?"
"Finally! Stick-boy gets an appetite. Lemme take a piss and we can go."
Dean got up and made his way around the beds, towards the bathroom. As Sam gathered the weapons (because it really sucked when housekeeping found your arsenal) he failed to notice Dean stopping beside the card table.
"Aw, sweet," Dean exclaimed, but it was the snapping sound that caused Sam's heart to stop. The sound of Dean's crunching cemented the loss.
"I love gingerbread houses!"
Sam closed his eyes, bringing up one hand to rub his temples. All his life, Dean had tried his patience. If Sam was eating too slow, Dean would steal the food from his plate. If Sam challenged him in a competition, Dean would always win. If Sam mentioned that he was attracted to a girl, Dean would get her number. Sam got the leftovers, the hand-me-downs, and he had to meet whatever standards Dean had set. Sometimes, it all seemed grossly unfair.
But now, as he watched Dean devouring the gingerbread house that Sam had so painstakingly put together, it all made sense. Because while Dean was good at teasing and pushing, he was even better at taking care of Sam. Everything Dean had put him through had made Sam a better person, and it drew them even closer as brothers.
Sam smiled as he watched Dean bite the head off the marshmallow snowman. He had known it all along, but today Sam realized exactly how much he really did love his cocky, pain in the ass brother.
"Merry Christmas, Dean."