Disclaimer: I don't own Supernatural or the characters of Sam, Dean and John.

Yet another fic for the SFTCOL(AR)S Secret Santa challenge, this one for sendintheclowns. I'm not posting the prompt, because I don't want to give too much away, but I hope it's not too far from what you were hoping for, sweetheart! One-shot at present, though I have the horrible feeling I might be expanding on it at some point (somebody stop me...). Thanks to hepatica for being my helpful sounding-board!

----

Christmas Past

xviii

It didn't snow in California, even in December, for all that every TV show coming out of Hollywood had a white Christmas every year. They used that fake snow, made of soap powder or dandruff or whatever. You could tell if you paid enough attention, because most actors were pretty bad at their jobs and had lived in LA too long to be able to fake real cold convincingly. Hell, most of them had probably never even felt real cold, the ones from Texas and Louisiana and Mississippi, the ones who had left home with stars in their eyes and called their families every week. It was better that way. That wasn't something Dean would wish on anyone.

----

xiii

Swanton, Ohio, another nothing town and another dead-end trail, and Dean was beginning to think that maybe Dad was wrong, maybe, for the first time in his life, there was something that Dad couldn't track (except for the thing that killed Mom, of course, and Dean never doubted, never doubted that Dad would find that one day). It had been too long, over two months now, and the snow (the fucking snow) was beginning to melt, leaving the ground a weird mixture of frozen and muddy that suited Dean's mood. The sky was always white these days. It seemed like they hadn't seen the sun since Christmas Eve.

----

vi

Christmas Day was always a busy time in the Emergency Room of Iowa State General, and given the sudden and violent snowstorm that had blown in last night and caught a lot of folks by surprise, today was no exception. Tidings of comfort and joy, yeah right. Comfort was a long way from the institutional-green tile walls and the smell of vomit masked by industrial bleach, and joy was in pretty short supply both for the patients and the staff who'd drawn the rotation. Tempers were frayed, the floor was slippery with tracked in snow, the ambulances were having trouble getting through, and a couple of baubles and a ratty stretch of tinsel were not about to make things better for anyone.

Oh yeah, also, how many people could manage to electrocute themselves with Christmas lights in one day? The world really was largely populated by morons. How the hell they managed to tie their shoes in the morning, let alone get themselves as far as the hospital on the icy roads, was anyone's guess.

Speaking of icy roads, there was a car wreck coming in, and everyone was tensed and waiting. It sounded like it had been pretty bad, three cars involved, one fatality at the scene. Another family whose Christmas was going to be anything but comfort and joy.

The ambulances piled up outside the door, and the gurneys began to roll in, paramedics yelling out injuries, doctors yelling out instructions, nurses clearing the way to the trauma rooms. All in a day's work, and they had enough doctors to go around, just, so that at first no-one noticed the young man staggering in through the double doors after the last gurney, carrying a body over his shoulder. Well, they didn't notice until the young man started screaming bloody murder, anyway. Kid had a set of lungs on him. Yeah, comfort and joy where the order of the day, all right.

----

ii

Dean Winchester was hungover. No, really. The sort of hungover where you think maybe it might just have been better to finish the job, because no way death by alcohol poisoning could be as straight up Jesus Mary and Joseph fucked up as this, no way. Also, he didn't know where he was. Not entirely unusual, especially with the way his head was freakin pounding like it had somewhere good to go and was not pleased about being stuck on his shoulders, but all the same, it wasn't just that the bed he was in was unfamiliar, it was that it was unfamiliar, smelling of perfume and fabric softener and, yeah, maybe stale beer and BO too, a little, but that was to be expected, right? Anyway, what it didn't smell of was the bleach that motels used, the stuff that was too strong and sometimes brought him out in a rash. Which meant... which meant...

"Jesus, what the hell was I drinking last night?"

...OK, apparently it meant he was in bed with a stranger. A stranger who, by the sound of her voice, wasn't feeling any better than Dean, which for some reason made him feel not quite so bad. He wondered if she was hot. Finding out was going to involve prying his eyelids open, though, and he wasn't up for that, not yet. Needed time. Maybe needed to puke. Definitely didn't need to talk.

She was moving, whoever she was, stumbling out of the bed, which meant she couldn't have taken as bad a hit as Dean. He thought about trying to remember who she was, but even the idea set up fun little spikes of disco music in his head that he really could do without. Wow, drinking really did suck. He was so never doing that again.

"Fucking hell," the girl said from somewhere a little further away. "Guess the heatwave's over, then."

Dean had a go at replying, and managed to make a sound somewhere between a grunt and a groan. Not too bad, for a first attempt.

"There must be, like, three feet of snow out there."

Snow. Well, fair enough, it was winter, after all. Christmas, even. Snow was what you would expect, right?

Except that there was something Dean wasn't doing, something he wasn't remembering. Oh well, he figured if it was important, he would remember it soon enough.

----

xix

It never snowed in California, and that was one of the reasons Dean was there. Not the main one, but good enough for now. Christmas Eve, and it was warm enough outside to go without a jacket, especially if you were used to the harsher climates inland. Dean wasn't outside, though, not really; the Impala's windows were rolled up, and this space was as close to inside, as close to home, as anything Dean knew. The air outside may have been balmy for December, but Dean had the heating up full blast, because some days he felt the cold worse than others.

----

xii

Dad never said it wasn't his fault, not once. There were plenty of good reasons for that, the main one being that it was, of course it was Dean's fault, it was Dean's fault that they had spent the last two months in motel rooms that seemed to quiet and too cold, his fault that Dad spent the days making endless phone calls and chewing his fingernails down to the quick, hell, it felt like it was even his fault that the snow never seemed to stop falling, like it was mocking him or something, some stupid weather-god up there saying your fault, your fault, your fault.

Sam was gone. And that was Dean's fault, too.

----

iii

Dean's jeans were soaked through with melted snow, and there was more coming down now, the sky dark with whirling flakes, cold meltwater sliding down his neck. He wasn't dressed for this goddamn weather, but then, when he'd left the house yesterday the temperature had still been well above freezing, and no sign that that was going to change soon, otherwise...

No, no point thinking about otherwises now, not till he got back to the apartment, because probably the Impala would be sitting outside on the road, all snowed in and hell to pay before he could get it dug out and started, probably Sam would be at the kitchen table glaring and drumming his fingers, waiting for Dean to come back because it was Christmas, and OK that hadn't meant anything in their family since Mom died, but Sam had been trying this year, really trying, no matter how much Dean mocked his threadbare tinsel and the forlorn-looking pine branch he'd found in a dumpster and set up like it was a tree. Yeah, Sam would be mad all right, but at least Dean was here now, hung-over yeah but ready to do Christmas just like Sammy wanted, and OK Dad was out of town but that was probably better anyway, because Dad wasn't exactly good with the whole holiday spirit thing. At any rate, Sam would be there.

Except when he turned the corner and slogged through the snow to the point where he could see the apartment, the street out front was empty except for a thick blanket of undisturbed white.

And Jesus Christ, Dean was cold.

----

vii

It took three orderlies to pry the body away from the kid, and he just kept up with the noise the whole time, sometimes crying for them to help him, sometimes just making incoherent sounds or talking to someone who wasn't there. When they'd finally laid out the body on a gurney, Doctor Hughes sent Caroline with the kid to take a medical history and get him calmed down. It seemed pretty obvious to everyone after only a minute or two that they only had one patient to deal with here, but from all the signs he wasn't going to deal well with the fact that the teenager he'd brought in was dead.

Caroline smiled at him and led him away, making sure he had his back turned before Doctor Hughes stopped working on his friend and headed back to the three-car pile-up. His clothes were wet through, he wasn't wearing a jacket, and he was shivering so hard his teeth were rattling, but he didn't answer when she asked him if he was cold, just stared blankly and let her push him down onto a bed and start pulling off his shirt.

"Honey?" she asked, grabbing a thermal blanket. "Can you tell me your name?"

He looked up at her and seemed to actually see her this time. "Sammy," he said.

"OK, Sammy, now I'm going to try and warm you up, OK?" Caroline said, but she stopped when he grabbed her wrist.

"No," he said, and his voice sounded hoarse, like he'd been screaming for hours. "How's Sammy? Is Sammy OK?"

Caroline bit her lip at the look of desperation in the kid's eyes. He couldn't have been older than twenty-one. "Sammy's your friend you came in with?"

The kid looked away. "Brother. He's my brother."

Outside the window, the snow kept falling. It was a white Christmas. Tidings of comfort and joy.

----

xiv

Madison, Wisconsin, and Dean felt like it wasn't enough. All his life there had been Dad and Sam and the hunt. Sometimes the hunt for Mom's murderer, sometimes just the hunt for anything that was evil and needed killing. It had always been enough for Dean, he hadn't needed anything else, any dreams or ambitions to be something other than what he was, and if he had had them, well, he had kept them to himself. Dad and Sam and the hunt had always been enough.

And now it was just Dad and the hunt, and Dean didn't think it was enough any more.

Not that he was starting to have dreams, oh no, going off to college or getting himself a white picket fence were so far from the agenda it wasn't even funny. If anything, what he needed was to be more involved in the hunt, because it had changed now, since Sam had been gone, mutated from checking the papers and searching the internet for weird occurrences to calling in favours, searching piles of paperwork, and, when Dad got desperate, door-to-door visits, bewildered civilians standing in slippers on their porches saying I'm sorry, I can't help you. It seemed like they'd crossed the Midwest a hundred times already, but always there was another lead, and Dad would gun the Impala's engine and look ten years older than he was, and Dean would sit in the passenger seat and try not to pray.

He knew how his Dad felt about the hunt for Mom's killer, now. Because the idea that he might fail in this hunt, this most important hunt of his life, the only thing that had him getting up in the morning, was something that woke him in the night in a cold sweat with visions of blood and darkness.

----

iv

The Impala was half-hidden under a snow drift when Dean found it, and he felt his heart-beat speed up. Jesus, Sam, why didn't you just go home?

He knew why, though. And there wasn't time to dwell on it now, because Dean knew that the old car's heating had been screwy lately, and he didn't know exactly when during the night the storm had struck, but it had been long enough ago for the snow to be up to mid-thigh on him, and that was not good. It was drifted up on the driver's side, so Dean waded round to the passenger door and dug it out enough to pull it open, his hands going numb pretty quickly in the biting mixture of wind and snowflakes. It felt like maybe it was still the middle of the night, the sky was so overcast, and at first, once he'd managed to wrestle the door open, Dean couldn't see Sam at all, but then his eyes adjusted to the dim light inside the Impala and he saw a dark huddle against the driver's side window, long legs curled up in front of him.

"Sam?" Dean said, crawling inside the car. The light was weird in there, like being underwater or something, hardly anything coming through the snow-covered windows on the driver's side at all, but at least it felt slightly warmer than outside. "You OK in there?"

Sam shifted and mumbled something, then unfolded. "Dean? What are you doing here?"

Dean sighed with relief. His brother's voice was blurry with sleep, and he was shivering, but he was OK. "Dude, you let my car get buried in snow. It's gonna take hours to dig her out."

Sam's face was unreadable in the darkness. "Sorry. Didn't realise it was gonna snow so much."

"Yeah, well," Dean said, "that makes two of us. Let's get you home, OK? You must be freezing."

"'M fine," Sam said, and Dean rolled his eyes.

"Well, of course you're fine, dumbass, it's just a bit of snow. Now get your ass in gear, I'm gonna get frostbite if we stay out here any longer."

----

xv

In Geneva, Illinois, Dean caught his father crying and thought maybe he was going insane. It had been too long now, too many months of silence between them that Dean could only interpret as accusing, and even the snow had stopped falling now. In a twisted way, Dean missed it, like he had lost his last link to Sam. Not that he let himself think like that at any time except in the depths of the night when Dad had disappeared on another of his walks and Dean was alone with nothing but his thoughts for company. He wondered now whether Dad cried when he was out walking, whether he had cried like this after Mom died, and whether Dean could bear the way his stomach twisted when he saw how broken his father looked.

He could bear it. He had to bear it, for Dad's sake, for Dad and for Sam, because if Dad couldn't be strong for this hunt, if Dad couldn't see it through, then it was Dean's job, and Dean had failed to do his job for the last time.

----

viii

It wasn't Caroline's job to tell the kid that his brother was dead. All the same, it felt wrong to pretend she didn't know, like she was betraying the kid's trust or something, especially when he looked at her with those frantic eyes and said Sammy's gonna be OK, though, right? I got him to the hospital, he's gonna be OK?

"The doctors are taking care of him now," was all she could say. "He's getting the best care available." Which was true, because really the best care available for a dead teenager was just to leave them be and let their loved ones linger in ignorance for just a little longer.

She tried not to let her thoughts show on her face. The kid – Dean his name was – was beginning to shiver less, and she decided she'd averted the danger of him developing a more severe case of hypothermia. She still had to ask the standard questions, though.

"Dean, can you tell me what happened to you?"

The kid shuddered under the blanket. His eyes were bloodshot, and there was a smear of lipstick or something on one cheek. "Sammy... he was out in the car all night, and the heating's not real good. I didn't know it was snowing, I would have gone to get him sooner."

"OK," Caroline said gently, "but I need to know what happened to you, Dean."

The kid looked up at her like he didn't understand a word she was saying. "Nothing's wrong with me. It's Sammy. He was so cold."

Caroline opened her mouth to make another attempt, then blinked, once, twice. So cold. Out in the car all night. The heating's not real good.. "Dean," she said carefully, "can you tell me exactly what Sammy did after you found him?"

Dean nodded, eager to talk about his brother. "He was... I guess I thought he was sleepy, he was slurring his words, and then we were walking back to the apartment and he said he was fine, oh God, I asked him and he said he was fine, but then he just fell over and he wouldn't move, and I was so scared because he felt so cold, so I just picked him up and I ran here, all the way. He's gonna be OK, now, right?"

But Caroline didn't answer him, because she was already racing out of the room.

----

xx

Dean's phone rang four times before he could pull himself back from the past for long enough to work out what it was. When he did, the number on the caller ID made him pause for too long, and the phone went to voice mail. Outside, the leaves rustled in the gentle California breeze, and a shadow moved out from the dark bulk of the buildings, moved towards a bench in the middle of the grassy, open space, and Dean was instantly alert, hunkering down in his seat even though the likelihood that he would be seen sitting in a dark car in the shadow of the trees was slim to none. He couldn't risk it, not now.

When the phone rang a second time, Dean was ready.

----

v

"Jesus, Sam, you're slower than my freakin grandma."

The wind had died down just a little, but the snow was still falling fast, and Dean was pretty wet by now and really just wanted to get home, take a hot shower and maybe have some eggnog or something to take the edge off the hangover that was back full force now that he knew that Sam was OK. Really, he was the one who was having to forge a path through the snow, and Sam was taller than him (goddammit), and his clothes were mostly dry, so there was no excuse for him to be lagging behind. Dean shivered violently.

"Hey," Sam said just behind his shoulder. "You're cold. Here." He started taking off his jacket, and Dean stared at him in disbelief.

"What the fuck? You really want to freeze to death?"

"I'm fine, I'm not even cold," Sam insisted. He was still slurring, Dean noticed, and the observation sent a thrill of worry through his stomach, because it wasn't like Sam was drunk or anything, and really, all this freezing air should have woken him up by now.

"Did you hit your head or something?"

Sam frowned at him, holding out his jacket now. "What are you talking about?"

Dean shook his head. They just needed to get back to the apartment. It wasn't far. "Put your goddamn jacket back on, genius."

Sam didn't move, and when Dean rolled his eyes and grabbed the jacket, flinging it round Sam's shoulders, the younger boy blinked and said, "Dean? How come we're outside?"

OK, that was not good. "Cos you were dumb enough to try and sit out the storm in the Impala instead of going back to the apartment," Dean said, trying to sound natural, his mind racing. Disorientation, that was a sign of head injury too, right? But Sam had been sitting in the car all night, how could he have hit his head?

Sam rubbed his face and looked confused. "I don't..." he started, but then he shuddered violently and dropped to his knees.

"Sam? Sam!" Dean was on the ground in an instant, but Sam had already fallen the rest of the way and was curled in a foetal position in the snow, arms and legs rigid. "Sam, what the hell, say something. Are you hurt? What's going on?" But Sam didn't move, his jaw locked, and when Dean reached out and touched his cheek he thought at first he couldn't even feel it, but then realised that Sam's skin felt the same temperature as the air, and at that point Dean felt everything falling away from him. He had no idea what was going on, this was like no head injury he'd ever seen, but he knew it wasn't something he could fix with pain pills and stitches back at the apartment. He needed a hospital.

"Sam, can you move, can you walk?" he tried, already knowing that it was useless. Snow caught in Sam's hair and eyelashes, making him look like a Christmas fucking angel, and Dean couldn't think of anything except this is my fault. This is my fault.

And then he hauled Sam's body up onto his shoulder and started towards the hospital.

----

ix

Caroline ran into the charting area of the hospital and grabbed the first doctor she could find. "That kid, the one who came in with my patient, where did they put him?"

The doctor frowned at her, and she tried to remember his name – some new guy, probably wouldn't stick around too long, ER rotation usually knocked em down fast. "After the pile-up? The dead kid? I think he's in exam four waiting for the morgue."

"Wait, what?" Caroline heard behind her, and she turned to see the other kid, Dean, staring at her in utter horror. Shit.

"Listen, Dean," she said quickly, "I don't have time for this right now, you go back to the room and I'll come get you in a little while, OK?"

The kid didn't move, and suddenly he looked very dangerous. "What did you say about my brother?" he asked, directing his question to the doctor, but staring straight at Caroline.

The doctor – shit, what was the guy's name – took a step back, obviously cottoning on that he'd said something inappropriate. "Uh..."

And then the kid had the doctor by the front of his shirt, they were nose-to-nose, and it happened so fast that Caroline wasn't even sure she'd seen it at all.

"Sammy is not dead," the kid hissed. "You understand?"

The doctor looked terrified, and nodded quickly. Yeah, he wouldn't last through ER rotation. Caroline put her hand on the kid's shoulder and said, "Dean, this isn't helping your brother, OK? We don't have time to fool around if we're going to save him." She met the doctor's eyes over the kid's shoulder, and he stared at her like he didn't have a clue what was going on (which he didn't), and she yelled over her shoulder, never taking her eyes from the kid, "Somebody go and check the patient in exam four for hypothermia."

----

xvi

Two days after they arrived in Oakridge, Montana, Dad's cell phone rang and Dean left the room. He had started doing that every time, now, because he couldn't bear it, any of it, the way Dad's face always looked at the end of the calls, sometimes fixed with determination if there was a new lead, sometimes shadowed with despair if the trail had dead-ended again. He couldn't bear the idea that he had put that look on his father's face. He couldn't bear the idea that maybe his own face looked like that, too.

He was leaning against the Impala, considering taking up smoking again, when Dad came out of the motel room, and his expression was completely blank. "Dean," he said, "get in the car."

"New lead?" Dean asked, even though these days normal conversation seemed weird and wrong.

Dad's face didn't change. "Positive ID," he said. "Let's go."

----

i

"Jesus Christ, it's Christmas."

Dean rolled his eyes. "You keep saying that like it means something."

Sam's lips went tight, pursed in that way that meant he was real mad. Dean didn't care. Seemed like Sammy was always real mad these days, and always about nothing. "It does mean something, Dean. It means something to everyone except him."

Dean shrugged. "Doesn't mean anything to me. Angels and reindeer and freakin carol singing? You've gotta be kidding me. Also, Santa? Totally possessed."

Sam flopped into a chair beside the pathetic pine branch with its tinfoil ornaments and said, "It's not about that."

Dean didn't ask what it was about. He wasn't sure he could stand another conversation where Sam held their lives up to normal and found them wanting. "Whatever, dude, there's no use whining. Dad won't be back for at least three days, and we gotta watch the goddamn house." And to be honest, he kind of felt like whining about that last part too, because if Christmas was good for anything, it was parties, and Dean had been invited to this really awesome Christmas Eve party that evening over at some rich kid's house – apparently her folks had gone to Aspen or wherever it was people with more money than sense went at this time of year, and the alcohol was going to be practically infinite. But duty called, and unlike Sam, Dean knew that whining wasn't going to get him anywhere.

Sam scuffed his shoe along the floor. "I don't see why we've both got to sit out there all night. I don't need a babysitter."

"Yeah, well," Dean said, and he wasn't going to have that conversation either, because Sam knew as well as he did that watch out for Sammy were always the last words out of Dad's mouth before he went anywhere without them, so much so that it had become a ritual, like the words themselves didn't mean anything more than see ya. And actually, Dean could totally see Sam's point on this one – he was sixteen, for Christ's sake, and Dean at sixteen had been, if not footloose and fancy-free, then at least a skilled killer and most definitely no longer a virgin. He certainly hadn't needed anyone to watch out for him all the time.

"Well, that's very eloquent, Dean, thank you," Sam snapped.

God, tonight was going to be a total bust. Sam had been in a bad mood all day, and Dean had been cooped up in the freakin apartment long enough to know that if he was stuck in the car with Sam all night, too, he might just murder the kid. Maybe he should just let him stay home and go watch the goddamn house by himself.

Except... Actually, there was a way he could kill two birds with one stone, because it wasn't like Sam actually had anywhere to be that night, unlike Dean, and he was even old enough to legally drive the car these days...

"OK."

Sam frowned. "OK what?"

"OK, we don't both have to watch the house. You can watch it on your own." The words were out of his mouth too quickly, but really, what was wrong with that? Sam wasn't a kid any more.

Sam's lips pursed again. "Wait, what?"

Dean smirked inwardly. He knew Sam had been angling to get to spend the night at home with his books and his bed. Well, tough luck, little brother. "You're always saying how you're so grown up. Time to take a little responsibility for yourself, kiddo."

And the beauty of it was that Dad would never even know. It was the perfect plan.

----

x

Dean sat by the bed and shivered. They said Sam was going to be OK, that they had caught him before his body had shut down altogether, but he still looked too pale, too still, and his skin when Dean touched it was still cold. They said it would take a while for the circulation to return properly to his extremities (extremities they said, just like that, like hands and feet was too human or something). They said it was damn lucky that he hadn't lost any fingers or toes. Damn lucky he wasn't dead.

They had thought he was dead.

They had thought it, and they hadn't told Dean, and it would have been so easy, so easy for Sam to have been sent down to the morgue and have died there without anybody being any the wiser. Dean had taken his eyes off his baby brother, had trusted the doctors to do their best for him, and they had abandoned him without even trying. He could hear Dad's voice in the back of his mind, nobody's going to be looking out for you, Dean, you gotta look out for yourself, and for Sammy. Watch out for Sammy. He'd heard the words so often they had become almost like a string of meaningless syllables. Not any more.

He reached out and touched Sammy's hand (too cold), wanting to apologise, to tell him something, to make him better, but the words choked in his throat. Dad wouldn't be back for another two days. Sam was going to be OK. It was Christmas. Sam had been dead. Nothing made sense.

"Excuse me, Mr. Redgrave?"

Dean turned. Some woman was standing there in a suit, but he didn't really register any of the details about her. She wasn't his, so she wasn't important.

"I wonder if I could ask you a few questions? In private?"

Dean turned his eyes back to the bed. Sam's hair was dark against his forehead, making his skin seem even paler, almost bluish. "I gotta watch my brother," he said.

"Sammy'll be OK for a minute," the woman said. "This is important."

Dean blinked a couple of times and tried to remember when the last time he'd felt this tired had been. Thinking was difficult, but the woman had said Sammy like she cared, and Dean wanted to believe she did, wanted to believe that it wasn't just them against the world, that other people looked at Sammy and loved him too, wanted to protect him, saw what Dean saw. If they didn't, what was the point in all this endless fighting to save them?

And so he went, and he should have guessed from the suit, really, because doctors and nurses don't wear suits, or at least if they do they have white coats or scrubs or whatever over the top, but he wasn't thinking straight, so it wasn't until she had asked at least three or four carefully worded questions about his home life and his dad and then mentioned as if it was a casual piece of small talk that Sam had a surprising number of old fractures that Dean realised what was going on.

And by then, it was too late.

----

xvii

Oakridge High was an imposing two-storey building, but it was a small town with barely any crime to speak of, and there was no fence around the school grounds, not that it would have stopped them anyway. It was ten minutes till recess, and Dean sat next to his dad in the Impala and counted off the seconds, just like he knew Dad was doing. He wanted to say something, something that would let Dad know how sorry he was, how every night he lay awake and wished he could erase the mistakes that had led them to this point, but the words were locked up somewhere behind the swelling lump in his throat, and he knew that they wouldn't make anything better anyway. Dad's fingers tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel, and maybe anyone else would have thought it was just idle fidgeting, but Dean, used to a father who could stand stiller than a rock for hours at a time, recognised it for the desperation it was. It had been almost three months. The snow was all gone now, but Dean still felt frozen.

The bell rang, and kids started pouring out of the school doors, and they waited, hardly breathing, scanning the crowd for the one thing they had been searching for all this time, scanning and scanning, and the torrent of kids had slowed to a trickle, the last few stragglers stumbling out, and Dean had begun to feel the cracks of disappointment and despair opening up in his heart once more, when Dad said there.

There were no embraces, no tears. They came later, when the ice had begun to thaw. Now, though, the two of them just walked up to him where he sat alone, and Dad said time to go, kiddo. And Sam looked up, first at Dad, and then at Dean, staring at him for too long, and then he nodded and stood up.

That night, Sam and Dean shared a bed in a motel room hundreds of miles from Oakridge, but Sam's skin still felt cold, and sometime in the small hours Dean thought he could hear him crying.

----

xi

When Dean got back to Sam's room, two burly security guards blocked his way, and Dean didn't exactly help matters by pulling a gun on them. He spent the next two nights in jail until Dad got back into town and came to bail him out, and by then Sam was gone from the hospital as if he'd never existed, as if he'd never been their Sam to keep in the first place, and Child Protective Services would only say we have your son's best interests at heart, sir. After he wrecked the CPS office, Dad shut down, piled Dean and their stuff into the car, and set off out of town. He made the first phone call when they were ten minutes outside the city limits. Dean kept his lips pressed together and his hands fisted in his lap, and looked out at the featureless white sky and the snow that never seemed to stop falling, and even though the Impala's heating was on full blast, he shivered.

----

xxi

"So what're you doing?"

Dean looked out the window at the darkened quad. It had been a clear, sunny day, and somewhere up above the lights of Palo Alto the stars were out. "I'm at a Christmas party."

"Oh yeah?" Sam's voice echoed a surprising amount on the line, considering he was sitting only a couple of hundred yards away. "Sounds kinda quiet."

"Yeah, well," Dean shrugged, "it's in Iowa, so." He was never going to a Christmas party in Iowa again.

Sam sort of chuckled. "Dad let you go? Must be getting soft in his old age."

"Yeah." Dean chewed his lip. "You OK? You keeping warm?"

Sam laughed again. "I'm in California, man. It's not like the Midwest, you know."

No, it isn't. "Sam, listen..." he wanted to, he wanted to apologise, to ask for forgiveness, something, but the words were still locked up, like the lump in his throat had never melted, and he wondered, not for the first time, if this was his fault too, if somehow the roots of Sam leaving this time, leaving for college of his own accord, went back to last time, when he had gone against his will, if somewhere inside Sam had a place that had never unfrozen, matching the ice that Dean sometimes felt deep under his ribcage.

"It's OK, Dean," said Sam. "It's Christmas."

Dean rolled his eyes. "It doesn't mean anything."

Sam went quiet for a minute or two, then said, "It does to me."

The hot air from the heater stung Dean's face, making his eyes water. "Whatever, dude. Listen, I gotta go, there's this hot chick staring at me like she's starving and I'm a steak dinner."

"Gross," said Sam. "Your metaphors need some serious work."

"Kinky," said Dean. "OK, well, you make sure and keep warm, OK, Sammy?"

There was a short pause, and then Sam said, "Yeah, you too."

It doesn't snow in California, not even in December. That was one of the reasons Sam was there.