Disclaimer: Not mine. Not mine, I say!
Note: I keep reading wishes for happy endings. So I tried my hand at one. Wackiness, as usual, ensued.
This Christmas Day
One by one the nerves in his legs died in explosions of pain, working upward from his toes. The demon had learned his lesson, learned that going for the quick kill with Winchesters ironically meant causing more delays. No, more fun—and more useful—to torment the worthless older brother in order to make Sam do what he wanted. To get Sam to give in. Like all the other children had.
Dean screamed, not so much because it hurt—which it did; oh, God, it hurt—but because he could see what the demon could not: the black-bladed dagger now in Sam's hand. As long as the demon was focused on him, on making him scream, he couldn't focus so well on Sam. And Sam was only pretending to be caught in a moral dilemma about whether or not to surrender in order to save Dean.
Because he knew damn well Dean would kill him if he wasn't pretending.
The demon was backing off. Ready to make another pass at Sam. Okay, bad wording. But his attention was leaving Dean, and that was very bad—
"How's Meg doing?" Dean gritted out the words. "Seen her lately? Oh, wait."
The demon's eyes blazed brighter. Another nerve cluster died in a burst of fiery agony. Dean couldn't choke down another scream. His left leg spasmed, slammed his knee against the invisible force holding him against the wall, so hard that he could feel the bruise beginning to form.
No. He couldn't. He should have been able to feel it, but all he'd felt was the impact, dull and distant, like his leg had gone to sleep—
Somebody was screaming, and it wasn't him.
The demon fell away, screaming in agony. Dean saw Sam diving out of reach, his hands empty—
The demon whirled on Sam. Invisible power slammed Sam into a wall. A gash opened across his face, narrowly missing his right eye, as if cut by a knife.
The blade was in its back, buried to the hilt. Flames sputtered around it, then, in a burst of light and noise, enveloped the demon.
The quest ends the same way it began, in fire.
The power holding him up dissipated, and Dean slid down the wall, was faintly conscious of hitting the floor. Heat. Fire. Light. The towering fire that was consuming the demon rained ash and sparks onto him—he was going to catch fire, but he was too exhausted, too hurt, to move.
Hands. Tugging. Lifting. Carrying.
Cool air. He opened his eyes and saw darkness and distant stars. And his brother, lit by the burning building.
"We killed it, Dean," Sam said, over and over again, like a mantra, rocking Dean in his arms. Blood dripped into Dean's eyes from the gash across Sam's face. "We killed it—"
"Dean! Stay with me, Dean!"
"I'm here, Dean, I'm—"
"I can't feel my feet."
Dean came out of the familiar dream with a start.
There was a foot poking him in the ribs. He started to roll over, realized that would smush the kid in question, and adroitly relocated the toddler before finishing the roll.
Then he blinked. He'd expected the small body squeezed between him and Marcy to be Ananda, but the child's skin was the color of chocolate and she stared back at him with bottomless black eyes, not Ananda's green. "Kara, honey, what are you doing in here?"
"Pwesents!" she shouted, with a wide baby grin.
"She crawled in about two hours ago," Marcy said. "How is it you never notice?"
"Must've kicked me in the leg," he answered innocently. He'd hoped Kara would take a little longer to figure out the catch on her crib. "Now, Kara—"
"Pwesents!" Kara exclaimed again, lunging for his hair.
"Presents?" Patiently he untangled her fingers. Definitely time for a haircut. "Who said anything about presents?"
"That's tomorrow morning, silly baby," he said, and attacked her with tickles. Marcy watched, smiling—but he could see the weariness in her eyes. Things had been rough for her lately; this was her first real vacation since July, when they'd carted all the kids to the beach. And much as she loved the little brats, she wasn't used to dealing with them the way he was, so that really hadn't been much of a vacation. "C'mon, Kara. It's Mommy's day to sleep late."
Dean levered himself into the chair, plopped Kara into his lap, and rolled around the room with her until she was breathless from giggling and Marcy was glaring at them. "Dean!"
"Yes, ma'am," he said, wheeling over to her side of the bed. "It'll cost you, though."
She gave him a sleepy smile. "It always does," she replied, and kissed him.
"Yes, Kara, one wild ride coming up." He spun the chair around, making her squeal at a pitch that made any adult, even one who adored her, flinch, then drove for the twins' room. "Now, go wake up your brothers so Daddy can get dressed." She bounced out of his lap and into the room; he waited for the chorus of alarmed shouts, then—with a smile he couldn't keep back—headed back to his room, steering around the bed and into the closet.
It was a huge closet, built with the expectation of a man rolling around in a wheelchair. Marcy's clothes hung along the back wall; his—except for the few fancy outfits he owned, for when he had to go to company parties—were stowed in drawers where he could reach them. They'd built these little adaptations all over the house.
He opened the sock drawer and pulled a pair out. Socks were the hardest part, requiring him to stuff unresponsive flesh into a tube of fabric. You just never appreciated the wiggling of your toes until it was gone.
Absently, habitually, he ran his fingers over two of the scars that ran up his calf to end behind the knee. Freak injury, the doctors had said. The clawings—just deep enough to bleed freely, not deep enough to damage muscle, as if the critter in question had wanted him to bleed—couldn't have possibly done that kind of nerve damage. Neither could the burns; they were limited to his toes and instep, and hadn't been more than second-degree. Maybe a congenital abnormality in the nerve structure, the doctors had muttered. Of course, that didn't explain how the numbness stopped just above the knee, five inches from where the clawings ended.
Asymmetric peripheral neuropathy, cause unknown. That was the term they'd finally settled on, because "no fucking idea" looked bad on medical charts.
If there had been real damage, the doctors would have opted to amputate both from the knee down. He would have been fitted for prosthetics and could have still walked, after a fashion, even though it would have meant crutches. But the only thing wrong was the lack of nerve response. No muscle damage, no restricted blood flow. Perfectly healthy. Just incapable of answering any orders his brain sent.
Dean smiled, grimly, and pulled himself out of the chair to begin the delicate balancing-act required to pull on his pants. He could stand, but lacking feeling and control in his feet made keeping his balance tricky, and he didn't dare try it where there wasn't furniture or walls to lean on. At one point in rehab, someone—doctor, physical therapist, he couldn't remember—had suggested that leg braces would allow him to walk with a cane or crutches, but after a week of trying left him with four broken toes and a gash on his heel that required seven stitches—a gash he didn't even notice until a nurse saw the trail of blood on the floor—Dean told them where they could stuff that idea. There was only room for so much risk in a guy's life.
It didn't matter if he could walk, anyway. The demon responsible for so many deaths in his life was dead. Having legs that were useless from the knee down was a small price to pay for that.
He pulled on a shirt and his necklace—more than ten years since his last hunt, five years of overly-curious, overly-grabby toddler hands, and he still couldn't make himself not wear it—and wheeled himself over to Marcy's side of the bed. She'd already fallen asleep again. Work was running her ragged, poor thing. "Hey, babe," he said softly. She opened one eye and gave him a sullen glare. "Should I make breakfast, or just feed them cereal and save the big meal for after Sammy gets here?"
"Which lets me sleep longer?"
"Sounds good." She pulled the covers over her head.
That's my girl. He patted her head, grinned at the growl that issued from under the covers, and drove for the door.
Kara came running out of the twins' room just in time for the stairlift ride downstairs. A parade of stuffed animals floated along behind her. "Kara," he reprimanded.
She turned to look, stomped her foot (quite adorably, but he wasn't about to tell her that), and the stuffed animals went flying back into the twins' room. There was a yell, which meant one of them had probably smacked one of the twins. "We've got to work on your accuracy, young lady," he said as she climbed into his lap. She was only two, though. Not even his father would expect perfect aim this young.
Of course, his father would probably wonder where he'd gone wrong, that Dean was raising a houseful of unrelated children. That Dean was Mr. Mom, since no job he could possibly get would compare to Marcy's in pay or benefits.
Maybe not, he thought, hitting the stairlift control. He doubted John Winchester had ever taken the time to consider the possibility of grandchildren, and if he had, he had undoubtedly expected them from Sam, not Dean. So long as I could still hit a target and kept up the salt barriers, he might approve.
He set Kara on the floor so she could scramble off and he could transfer himself into the downstairs chair. He headed for the kitchen, but stopped at the living room doorway.
This year's tree was magnificent. It was also huge, and probably marked the last time they'd let him go tree-shopping unaccompanied; it had taken three hours to decorate, Marcy had had to climb a ladder to put the star on top, and they'd had to buy six new boxes of lights just to get the thing covered adequately.
Dean had promptly gone out and bought seven more. If there was one thing he'd learned from his father, it was to never settle for "adequate". Besides, the lights were soothing, especially late at night. Maggie—their firstborn, so to speak, the first child they'd adopted—was just as enthralled by them. For her birthday last month he'd given her a string of lights for her room, just because it would keep her from trying to sleep on the couch the entire month of December.
Speaking of wayward firstborns. Maggie, Kevin—who was not theirs—and Johnny—who was—were in a huddle on the far side of the tree; he hoped they were making plans related to sneaking glimpses at presents, and not planning to snare the Ghost of Christmas Past. In this house, with what these kids had seen...
Sometimes—when there weren't caseworkers about, inspecting their mental health—he and the older kids jokingly referred to the house as "Spook Survivors' Central." Marcy didn't much like the name, never mind that a poltergeist had once put her in the hospital for weeks. Dean's father-in-law, however, thought it was the funniest—and most appropriate—thing he'd ever heard.
Last year, Marcy's grandmother—a lovely, cantankerous old Southern lady who not only cross-stitched but could outshoot Dean, belt out more Metallica than he could, and who had taken up exorcising demons as a way to fill the time in her retirement years—had presented them with an embroidered "Welcome to SSC" piece for the front hall. Marcy had sputtered all the way home.
"It's not that I mind our criteria, Dean, I know what it's like to be a kid that nobody believes, it's just— Do we have to advertise it?"
He glanced at her, then looked into the back seat, at Maggie, whose shiny new necklace from her grandparents set off the scars on her neck. Vampire bites, put there by the pack that had killed her parents. Not even Maggie knew why they hadn't finished the kill.
They didn't advertise. There were simply reasons Bill brought them the kids he did. Reasons that had shaken that poor, terminally dull social worker to his mundane core.
"Oh, come on, Marcy." He gave her the charming grin that had gotten him so much information—and other attentions—through the years. "Who'd believe us, except our families? It's not like we're running a hunter's rest stop or anything." He paused. "Well, except when Frankie comes through, but we can't keep him away from Kevin, and he'd probably appreciate the joke."
"When he's sober," Marcy muttered, but the sign went up anyway—upstairs, in their bedroom, where the social workers and less-enlightened houseguests were unlikely to snoop.
"Yes, my wayward daughter," he said. Maggie was standing between him and the tree. "You're blocking my view."
"When's Uncle Sammy getting here? He is coming, isn't he?"
Dean considered it one of his greatest accomplishments that he'd indoctrinated all the kids to call their uncle "Sammy," for the sheer amusement of watching his brother squirm. The fact that they didn't get to see him all that often only made it more fun. "Last I heard, he was. He had to drive from Kansas."
"What's he doing in Kansas?" she asked, as if he'd just told her that her uncle was visiting Mars.
"Visiting an old friend." Dean hadn't yet figured out why Sam had gone to see Missouri. Missouri had stayed on the phone just long enough to tell him that Sam had left her house, heading east, and to expect him in a day or two.
"When will he be here?"
The rumble of a familiar engine outside. A clock striking three.
Dean managed not to flinch. "Probably this afternoon, around three," he said. "Go make sure Kara's not floating cereal boxes again, will you, Maggie? I'll be there in a minute."
"Sure, Dad." She ran off after her soon-to-be little sister.
Dean reached into a pocket on the chair for the Tylenol. Little glimpses like that sometimes left a gnawing not-quite-pain deep in his sinuses. Oddly, the bigger visions—the ones that involved all five senses and a future more than a couple weeks distant—didn't hurt. Just the little ones.
Missouri thought it was the blood—Sammy's blood, the blood that had dripped into Dean's eyes that night. Ellen and Bobby agreed. Blood could carry power, and under the right conditions could transfer that power from one person to another. Not a perfect transfer—there was always some alteration by the time the power manifested in the recipient—but a transfer nevertheless. That was why Sam didn't have visions anymore. He'd accidentally given them to Dean.
Dean bullied the others into keeping the secret. Let Sam believe the visions had disappeared because of the demon's death. His brother harbored enough guilt over that last fight as it was.
He glanced at the clock. Eight-thirty. Six and a half hours before Sam arrived.
Time to feed the troops. Then he could put them to work cleaning and wrapping presents for their aunts, uncles, and grandparents. That way, none of them would have anything to do when Sam arrived other than attack the poor man.
Dean laughed—Sammy hated getting met at the door by the kids—and wheeled towards the kitchen.
It was just before three on Christmas Eve when Sam pulled the Impala into the long driveway that led to Dean and Marcy's house. Dean and Marcy's impossibly huge house. Even with all the kids, how had Dean gotten used to such a huge place, after growing up in shitty motels and tiny rented houses? Sam's house was half this size and he'd never—
No, not his house. Never had been. It had been Lisa's place, he'd just moved in when she accepted his proposal. And moved out when—
He turned the engine off, regarding the place. Not what anybody would have expected out of a Winchester—not ten years ago, not now. Sam still didn't believe it. Still didn't know how the hell Dean had adjusted to this.
Christmas greenery was hung everywhere—a little haphazardly, betraying the fact that the only people in the house who could reach that high were kids on wobbly ladders, but with enthusiasm. There were thirteen lighted figures on the lawn: two deer, necking, and eleven others in various shapes and colors. One for each child. Two were identical—blue-lit snowmen—which told him that the twins were still here. There had been some question of that a few weeks back. Dean had been worried. At least, Sam thought Dean had been worried. He tended to let his attention wander when Dean started babbling about the kids, which meant he didn't hear three-quarters of his brother's conversations these last few years; the kids got all the energy Dean had once poured into the Impala, womanizing, and hunting. Combined.
Such a domestic scene. Not a hint of Dean's previous life. Nothing to clue the casual observer to the special precautions built into the very walls: layers of rock salt, poured over the foundation and inside the drywall; every kind of charm bag he and Missouri and Dean could think of, stuck in the corners of the house; pentagrams etched in the window- and doorsills.
And under the ramps.
"Dean, they told me—"
"Yeah, dude, I know. No more walking. But that's not what bugs me."
Dean reached into the nightstand drawer and tossed something at him. He caught it, and stared in shock at the title to the car. To Dean's car. To the Impala. "Can't manage it anymore," he said, his voice oddly flat. "Can't adapt it for the hand controls I'll need. So—" He shrugged.
"Dean—" Sam couldn't manage more than that before his throat closed, choking on tears he didn't dare shed. Not in front of Dean. Not while he was still recovering.
"You take care of my baby," Dean ordered, sounding like himself, "or so help me, I'll run you down in my wheelchair if I have to."
"'Cause you know I'm going to get the most powerful motor humanly possible on one of those suckers."
He got out of the car, and winced. Snowing in the pines, my ass, he thought; every restaurant and rest stop since he'd hit Tennessee had been blaring "Christmas in Dixie" until the words were carved into his brain. Seventy fucking degrees on Christmas Eve. Two years ago, it had been eighty. Christmas dinner had been a cookout accompanied by a family volleyball game and everybody had been wearing shorts.
What the hell had possessed Dean to stay here? Sure, now he lived here because this was where Marcy's family's business was based, because Marcy wouldn't leave her family, but what had possessed him to settle here in the first place, before he met Marcy? Just because they'd finally killed the demon outside of Siler City? Because he'd been sent first to Chapel Hill and then to Durham for recovery and PT?
He hadn't come to Christmas last year. Lisa had wanted to see her family for the holidays, which meant California, not North Carolina. Sam suspected that she just hadn't wanted to face the madhouse that was Dean and Marcy's place at the holidays, and she didn't have the courage to tell him.
Maybe she'd been trying to tell him something else.
Sam unlocked the trunk and stared at its contents. Presents, brightly wrapped by the nice ladies in the mall who did that sort of thing. Suitcase. Boxes. The compartment beneath was stuffed with his rattier clothes, those few weapons he'd kept after the end of the hunt, and assorted smushables. Most of the books were in the back seat. His life made quite the pitiful little load; he'd managed to get everything he owned into this car with room to spare. Not as bad as his younger days, when his life fit into a duffel bag, but still.
Maybe that was what she'd meant. The only real possessions, things he actually cared about, that he'd accumulated in the years since the fight were books. He'd never broken the habit of living minimally.
Maybe minimalists just didn't have futures.
Sam lifted out the suitcase and slammed the trunk shut. There was no point in trying to carry in more, not right now. The kids who lived in this house were an aggressively affectionate bunch—Dean and Marcy somehow brought that out in every kid they fostered—and he was going to be tackled as soon as he stepped in the door. He'd get the presents later.
He didn't even get to knock. The front door swung open as soon as his foot touched the doormat, and pandemonium ensued. In a combination of reflex and self-defense, Sam caught the first kid that threw herself at him—luckily, a small toddler, not a four-year-old; last time he'd nearly thrown his back out. The child in question squealed happily, right in his ear, which made it particularly deafening over all the other cries of "Uncle Sammy!"
He gritted his teeth. "Hi, kids." Then he got a good look at the girl—black hair, black eyes, chocolate skin, about two years old. He didn't remember her at all. "Do I know you?" he asked. She giggled.
"That would be Kara," Dean said, emerging from the chaos. The wheelchair's motor purred as he drove it closer to the door. "She's our newest. Kara, meet your uncle Sammy."
"What this?" Kara's exploring fingers nearly jabbed him in the eye as she reached for his scar. He heard Dean chuckling, just as three small whirlwinds attached themselves to his legs. The twins, Ricky and Nicky, and—hm, by the green eyes, this must be Ananda. She hadn't been here two years ago either.
"It's a scar," Sam said, trying not to laugh.
"A monster made it," one of the twins informed her solemnly. Sam nearly choked, trying not to laugh.
So did Dean. "What have you been telling my kids, Sammy?"
"Only the truth." He grinned at his brother. "Scary scars should have scary stories behind them." Scary was okay, here where the only worries these kids had were mundane.
Dean studied him a long moment. "You okay?"
"Fine," Sam lied. Dean might catch it, but he wouldn't call him on it in front of the kids.
"Lisa coming later?"
Oh, shit. He thought he'd told them. "She's not coming."
Dean shot him a look—shock, partly, but also a silent admittance that he'd caught that lie—but he only said, mildly enough, "C'mon, kids, let him in, don't keep him in the door all day." He turned the chair around—a new one, Sam noticed then; the last one hadn't been able to manage a 180 in this space—and led a parade of kiddies back into the house.
The twins let go, but Ananda didn't, and that, combined with carrying Kara, meant Sam had to walk slowly. He let his gaze flick over the walls, looking for any changes, but the hall's primary focus was still the panorama of wedding pictures. Dean and Marcy; Marcy and her family; the bridal party—and what passed for the groom's family: Dean, Sam, Missouri, Ellen, Jo, Ash, and Bobby, every one of them scrubbed and dressed-up and looking distinctly uncomfortable.
"What the hell did you promise Ash to get him into a suit?"
"Didn't. Sicced Missouri on him. Dude, lean down."
"Your tie's crooked. And maybe you didn't notice, but I can't reach that high. Lean down." Reluctantly, Sam obeyed, let Dean tinker with his tie.
Dean, getting married, in a full church ceremony. In a tux, no less. Somewhere, Mom and Dad, Pastor Jim, and maybe even Jess were laughing their asses off about this. Hell, Ellen had when she got the invitation. She'd called Sam to see why Dean was trying to play such an elaborate prank, and it had taken him an hour and a three-way call with Missouri to convince her this was serious.
Dean finished with the tie. "Is it just me, or are you more nervous about this than I am?"
"You realize you haven't been able to lie to me since you were seven?"
"I have too!"
"Mm-hm. Stand up straight." Dean rolled his chair around Sam, studying him. "Well, I don't think anybody's going to be confusing you for the actual best man, title aside. I still think you should have gotten a haircut. How often does your big brother get married?"
"I'll get one the next time."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sammy."
"You just met her, Dean—"
"It's been six months, which is longer than Dad and Mom knew each other before they got hitched. You're just pissed I'm getting married before you are."
"I am not!"
"Uh-huh. Where's the ring?"
Sam pulled the case out of his pocket. "Right here. Want to inspect it?"
Dean gave him a look. "You are going to give it to me, right? You're not going to be lodging any protests mid-ceremony or anything?"
"Just checking. C'mon. Drive me to the altar, Sammy."
"For the last time, quit calling me that."
Dean only grinned.
Pain jerked him back into reality. Kara had gotten over her fascination with his scar and was tugging on his hair. Hard.
"Sam, you coming?" Dean yelled from another room. "Don't make me send in the troops!"
"Sam's here?" Marcy shouted from somewhere deeper in the house. "Dean! I told you to tell me when he got here!"
"I just did!" Dean shouted back, just as Sam crossed into another room and found himself surrounded. Maggie hugged him and Kara, and Ananda was fighting with Consuela, Maria, and the twins for possession of his leg. The older boys weren't quite so hug-happy, of course, but they were there, lurking on the fringes, and periodically steering one of the little ones out of a potentially bone-crunching collision.
Across the room, Dean was sporting a smug, amused smirk. He was enjoying this, the bastard.
Sam gritted his teeth and silently swore revenge.
The problem with having fourteen people in one house was that it made it damn near impossible to corner somebody for a private talk. Especially when eleven of those people were youngsters who were extremely curious about Uncle Sammy, who never showed up except at Christmas, and even then not every year, and who lived in that mysterious, possibly demonic, place called New York. Ananda had attached herself to Sam's side and wasn't leaving, no matter what enticements Dean and Marcy tried.
Ananda, who had taken six months to quit screaming at the sight of any stranger, who still hid behind his chair or Marcy's legs whenever they went out.
Well, we never did figure out why that demon refused her as a sacrifice and ate her parents instead. Maybe it doesn't like the taste of psychics. Visions, he thought, though nothing that had yet differentiated from dreams, and an unnerving instinct for knowing who was capable of protecting her from supernatural threats. Marcy's family—and, apparently, his.
Naturally, dinner was a madhouse. Poor Sam barely got a chance to eat, between the rapid-fire questions and Ananda surreptitiously stealing things off his plate. Thankfully, Kara was too awed by the presence of a stranger—and possibly too confused by the earth-shattering revelation that daddies could have brothers—to make the pepper shaker explode again.
Talking to Sam after dinner was impossible, too, because then the family piled into the living room for a session of television. Dean personally despised the Grinch, found Garfield barely tolerable, thought Rudolph needed a firm kick in the antlers, and usually wanted to play baseball with Charlie Brown's head, but watching all that was the tradition, and the kids—and Marcy—would hurt him if he didn't play along. Talking was strictly forbidden during the Christmas Eve TV Marathon, and had been since his and Marcy's first Christmas, when he'd spent the duration of How the Grinch Stole Christmas wondering out loud what ammo would most efficiently kill Grinches, Whos, and pre-roasted beasts.
At least he'd been able to forbid Frosty. If they wanted to watch a possessed snowman too stupid to stay out of a greenhouse, they did it when he wasn't around. Marcy snuck in the damn 'Twas the Night Before Christmas mice between Rudolph and Garfield, though. And Dean couldn't even argue against that because Sam had a soft spot for geek-mouse and his broken clock.
Once the marathon was over, it was time for bed. Christmas Eve might be the one night of the year when the kids willingly went to their rooms early, but it was also the night it was impossible to get them into bed. The twins were picking fights with each other, Mikey wanted to sleep in Kevin and Johnny's room to be closer to the stairs, Consuela and Maria were belting "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" at the top of their lungs, and after the fourth time she got zinged with a pillow that Kara wasn't anywhere near, Maggie threw up her hands, turned the baby over to Marcy, and stalked off to her own bed.
"Do we have any idea where everybody wound up?" Marcy asked him, collapsing across the bed and burying her head under a pillow. This, too, was a Christmas tradition.
"Mikey's in with Kevin and Johnny, but everybody else—" No, wait. "Ananda is sneaking into Rissa's room right about now." He glanced down the hall, and by the nightlight saw a flash of white nightgown disappearing into Carissa's door, accompanied by muffled giggles.
"I am never going to get used to you doing that."
"That makes two of us." The kids hadn't picked up on it yet—not even Maggie, who was incredibly observant for a sixteen-year-old. But he could hardly hide it from Marcy. Especially after he'd locked her in the bathroom to keep her from getting on a plane that crashed. "I think that just leaves one unaccounted for."
"Huh?" Marcy lifted her head. "Oh. Sam. He's probably just staying out of range until the war's over. He doesn't have anybody to defend him this time."
The yell echoed through the house—an adult male voice, startled beyond all endurance, accompanied by half-muffled laughter and an insulted girl-child screech. Then a very familiar bellow: "DEAN!"
"I think Sam and Lisa just had a visitor," Marcy said, before dissolving into a fit of giggles.
"We just got them all to sleep," Dean groaned. "You need help in there?" he shouted, not inclined to go to all the trouble of getting out of bed just to get Sam away from one of his nieces or nephews. They made excellent vengeance for all the years Sam had been a brat.
"No, Dean, we're fine!" Lisa sounded about as amused as Marcy. "If you're looking for Maria, she'll be in here with us!"
Sam's voice was such a perfect combination of bewildered and annoyed that Dean didn't stop laughing for another half-hour.
Sam was here alone this time. And having the kids in their beds—or a near approximation—meant that Sam was actually alone for pretty much the first time since he'd arrived.
And something was wrong.
Dean had been his brother's protector too long to let this go. "I'll be back up in awhile," he said, heading for the door.
"Dean—" Marcy's eyes met his. Whatever she saw there, it explained things better than he could. "Don't be all night," she said finally.
She understood. That was why he loved her.
Family tradition—that is, Marcy's family tradition, of course, as there just weren't any Winchester holiday traditions that didn't involve salt, fire, and dead things—demanded that the Christmas lights stay on all night on Christmas Eve. Dean hadn't asked Marcy if that was to lure Santa or to make it easier for the kids to sneak peeks at their gifts. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to know.
Sam sat on the couch, staring at the tree as if mesmerized by the lights. He didn't move as Dean drove over and parked in the intentionally empty space left next to the couch. Dean let the silence sit a few minutes, waiting to see if Sam would speak. "Waiting for the Ghost of Christmas Past?" he finally asked. "Because the chances of a ghost getting into this house aren't very good, considering the salt barrier."
"Did we ever have a Christmas tree?"
Dean glanced at his brother. The mingled colors of the Christmas lights darkened the scar across Sam's face to nearly black. Something was wrong, and Dean suspected that scar—or at least the event that had resulted in that scar—was at the root of it. Maybe if he followed this roundabout conversation... "After Mom died? A couple of times. Nothing this fancy." He grinned at a sudden memory. "Remember that time we stole a box of tinsel and decorated the shotgun?"
Sam smiled. Finally. "Dad got so mad. I thought he was going to kill us."
Dean snorted. "He about killed me. You just gave him the puppy-dog eyes and all was forgiven."
"Then he went out and bought a string of lights and draped them over the tinsel," Sam continued quietly. "He spent the whole evening muttering about what a shitty excuse for a tree a propped-up shotgun was, but if it was what we wanted... I think that was the last Christmas he remembered to buy presents."
"Presents that weren't weapons, anyway. How old were you? Seven?"
"Five," Dean repeated softly. "God, that seems like forever."
Nothing he could say to that, so he changed the subject. "When did you and Lisa split up?"
He could see the tension return to Sam's body. "Two months ago."
"Your fiancée dumped you two months ago and you didn't think to tell me? Jesus, Sam." He called Sam every week! How had this not come up before? "Did you throw furniture?"
Sam grimaced. The telekinesis tended to come out under extreme emotional stress. "Had to pay for a hotel window."
"Ouch. When did you take up bowling?"
"Wasn't mine. Belonged to the guy next door."
"Now you're stealing things to throw?"
"He walked by just as— Well, Lisa had just hung up."
"Lucky you didn't bring him through the window with it."
"I tried telling him that. He didn't quite appreciate his luck."
Dean laughed. "Some things you just can't explain, I guess."
Silence, again. There were no words for how much Dean hated silence. Sometimes it was necessary, but so were trips to the dentist, and he didn't much care for those either. "Sam, talk to me. This is more than just Lisa, isn't it?"
Sam still didn't look at him. "When did you start wanting to talk about things, Dean? What happened to 'no chick-flick moments'?"
"Every time I said it, Marcy stole my batteries, sabotaged the brakes, parked me in front of the TV, and made me watch chick flicks. She's vicious in the pursuit of quality communication." That should have made Sam laugh, or at least smile. It didn't. "She also said that it was a sure-fire way to raise kids as fucked-up as me and you were, which is what we're trying to avoid." Still no reaction. "Come on, Sam. Spill."
The silence stretched thick between them until Dean began to think Sam wasn't going to answer at all. "I can't do this anymore." His brother's voice was hardly more than a whisper. "All these years, I've tried so hard, and it doesn't help— Dammit, Dean, nothing helps. I've run off three fiancées—"
"You didn't run them off."
"Didn't I? Sarah, Renee, Lisa, they all said the same thing. Too much past and not enough future. Hell, for all I know, that was my boss's excuse too."
"What are you talking about?"
Sam took a deep breath. "About a week after the split, I lost my job. He said it wasn't anything I'd done, just downsizing, but I don't think I believe him."
"Shit. Sam, why didn't—"
"I don't know." His voice was hollow. Broken. "I just couldn't take it anymore. When I broke that window— I apologized to the guy, paid for it, got in the car, and just started driving. I don't even remember where. Just that last week I wound up in—"
"Lawrence. Missouri called me."
Sam sighed. "I thought she was pushing the family Christmas a little too hard."
"You know Missouri. If she'd told me you'd be staying, I would have told you to take the room down here. Not quite as noisy. I'd tell you just to stay in it tonight, but I don't think there's any sheets—"
"I'm not staying, Dean."
The instant the words were out, Sam knew he'd made a mistake. He should have prepared Dean better for that revelation. Immediately, Dean had the stubborn expression he'd always assumed right before he made Sam do the really unpleasant chores, like scrubbing a crappy motel bathroom clean of blood. "Do you have a place to stay, Sammy?" he asked.
Concern. Anger. Warning—the threat of Wheelchair or not, I am still the oldest, I am still a Winchester, and I can still kick your ass. And he was mortally sure that Sammy had not been an accident, an absent-minded lapse into an older habit, but an intentional reminder that Dean was the elder, the protector. His protector, whether he wanted one or not. "No," Sam admitted. "But—"
"Are you going to start hunting again?"
"God, no! I—I couldn't ever do that—"
"Good, then we're agreed. Your ass is staying here until you get back on your feet."
"I can't, Dean, it—"
"You're family, Sam. I take care of my family."
I always have. The unspoken words hung between them, clear and sharp.
Blood is thicker than water, and love is thicker than blood. That was Dean's other motto these days, as he and Marcy stuffed their house with the children of strangers. Sam didn't understand that, didn't know why Dean and Marcy hadn't put their energies into producing a couple of their own. He knew it wasn't due to celibacy. Dean got quite a bit of amusement from correcting people who made one too many assumptions regarding that wheelchair. "Why don't you have your own kids, Dean?"
Dean's eyes hardened; when he spoke, it was in a soft, deadly voice. "I do. I have four. And two on the way, soon as the paperwork comes through."
"You know what I—"
"Marcy can't. I told you. There was an incident with a poltergeist and some rebar when she was fifteen." Sam didn't remember ever hearing that, but he wasn't stupid enough to challenge that voice. "And if you ever say these kids aren't mine again..." He let the words trail off. There was no need to dwell on the details. Sam knew better than anyone what Dean was capable of when it came to family.
"It's just— You call me, and you babble about the kids and Marcy, and you never mention hunting. You lived for the fight! And now you can't, and—"
"I can't hunt," Dean corrected evenly. "That doesn't mean I don't fight."
"That's bullshit, Dean, and you know—"
"Where do you think the kids came from?" Dean interrupted. "Drug addicts? Left on doorsteps? Abusive homes? There's a thousand other foster homes for those kids, Sam. But not for mine.
"Maggie's parents were killed by vampires. She saw the whole thing—they left her alive for some wacked-out vampire reason. Nobody believed her. The more she insisted, the more the shrinks insisted she was emotionally disturbed. She's been in and out of therapy and mental health group homes ever since. Until she came here. I was the first person who ever listened to the poor girl! Johnny's parents were immigrants, they didn't know the local folklore and accidentally camped on a Devil's Stomping Ground." Sam flinched. "The twins' father was possessed. Leaving them with the state was the last thing he managed to do before the demon took over completely, but after the demon slaughtered their mother. They're five years old, which is why I can't tell them that a hunter exorcised him in Salisbury six months ago and the man's body was so injured he fell apart. Ananda's parents had her to sacrifice to a demon so they could save her older brother; it didn't like her and ate them in retaliation. Consuela and Mikey's parents' ghosts followed them around, attacking foster parents, until Marcy and I banished them. Carissa and Maria had poltergeists and Kara is a telekinetic. And Kevin's not even really a foster kid. His father's a hunter. I talked him into leaving Kevin here so that he wouldn't grow up the way we did, left alone in shitty motels with a bag of groceries and a gun.
"I still fight, Sam. I will always fight the shit that's out there in the dark. Just because I'm not out there chasing after bad guys with a shotgun doesn't mean I quit!"
"I—I didn't know."
Dean shrugged. "You said you wanted normal. As I recall, you were pretty damn insistent on it. So—I decided not to mention that aspect. I didn't want you to feel like I was trying to drag you back." He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "I wanted you to stay, you know. When they sent me to the rehab center. I knew if I asked, you would. But you couldn't even look at me without flinching, and I couldn't stand that. So I gave you the car and sent you to find normality, whatever the fuck that was supposed to be."
Sam stared at him. "Why didn't—"
"You asked me to let you go," Dean said quietly. "Remember? Back in Chicago? You told me that when the hunt was over, I'd have to let you go. So I did." He smiled then. "I still got to check up on you, and you'd talk to me, and you came to visit, so it wasn't as bad as it was when you were in school. Felt like I still had a brother."
Sam couldn't wrap his mind around this. Any of this. "That was why you told me to leave?"
"You kept looking at me like you did that time I got electrocuted. I wasn't dying. I couldn't take it."
"You can't walk!"
Dean snorted. "Walking's overrated. All the important parts still work. It—" He stopped. "You don't understand, do you?"
"I understand," Sam said, his voice shaking on the guilt and the pain, "that if I'd gotten the thing when we first went in, you'd still be walking."
"And I'd still be hunting."
"You loved that life! Jesus, Dean, you said it yourself, a thousand times, it was what you wanted to do!"
"It was," Dean admitted. "And if I'd gotten out of that barn with both feet, I'd probably still be doing it. If I wasn't dead by now. We both know I'd've probably never made it past thirty-five."
"You would've been happy," Sam whispered.
"Christ, Sam, do I strike you as unhappy? Is that what this is about? Shit."
"I was the one who wanted normal. Not you."
"Our caseworker would argue about whether or not we have normal around here," Dean said dryly, "considering that we have an arrangement for him to bring me any case he thinks might be supernatural. Hell, Sam, there's a two-year-old upstairs who routinely has stuffed animals follow her out of the room. Imagine what it's going to be like around here once she can float bowling balls."
"This isn't what you wanted."
Dean sighed. "No. Twenty years ago, I would probably have shot myself first. But I didn't really have a choice, did I? Any more than I did about being a hunter in the first place. A hunter in a wheelchair? Hunting things that prey on vulnerabilities? I might as well have tried to be an airplane pilot." Sam couldn't keep back a chuckle at that image. "Sam, do you know what my first thought was when they told me my new best friend was going to be a wheelchair?"
"No." He avoided thinking of that, tried not to imagine the sheer terror Dean must have felt on learning that life as he knew it had just ended forever.
"'I'm free,'" Dean said softly. "I just sat there and stared at the doctor, he must have thought I was going into shock from hearing that I was never going to feel my feet again, but all I could think was 'it's over, and I'm okay, and Sam's okay, and I'm free.'"
Sam stared at him. Had he really missed that? He'd thought Dean was just putting on a show of acceptance for his benefit, the way he always did. Had he misinterpreted things that badly?
"Those first couple of days, when they were doing all those tests to figure out the extent of the damage, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I mean, we'd just killed off the most powerful demon encountered by man in God knows how long. I just knew it had put some kind of time bomb in me, some damage that I hadn't felt, something that would make my heart stop or make me have a stroke or something, because it sure as hell wasn't going to let us get away from it again. And when the doctor told me that everything showed up perfect, except for the nerves in my legs— Goddammit, Sammy, it was the first time I felt any kind of real joy since before Mom died. I—I think I understood for the first time how you felt, when you got that letter from Stanford. You saw a whole other world open up in front of you."
His eyes stung. Treacherous, traitorous tears. Sam swiped at his eyes. Felt the sunken scar beneath his fingers. "You never told me that."
"Would you have believed me?"
No. He would have thought Dean was downplaying the whole situation. Because that was what Dean did. He protected Sam at all costs.
"No," Dean said, echoing his thoughts. "Because you were too busy blaming yourself for this." He smacked his knee, hard enough to bruise—and didn't flinch. Sam did. "You did not do this to me. The demon did. Nothing you did could have stopped it. It was the price we paid. And it's a price I'd pay again."
"No, Sammy. No more. You've got to let go of the guilt. It'll kill you. And feeling guilty on my behalf— It's just stupid. Really fucking stupid. Look at me. Look at me, Sammy. Not the chair. At me."
Not the chair.
Dean was right. That was all he'd seen. All he'd let himself see.
"I have a wife who loves me for the fucked-up ex-hunter I am," Dean went on. "I have a houseful of kids who are not having to put up with the kind of shit we saw growing up. And I wouldn't have any of that if I could still walk. If this was your fault, there's no way I can pay you back. Nothing that would come close to what losing these—" He pointed at his feet "—gave me."
Sam stared at him. "Are you serious?"
"Serious as a werewolf bite. The only thing I want and don't have is a little brother who'll move on with his goddamn life and try to find as much happiness as I've got. You want to give me a great present this year? Give me that. Let it go, Sammy. Just let it go."
Let it go.
It couldn't be that easy. It was never that easy.
Then again, had he ever really tried?
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I never meant—"
"I never thought you did."
"I'll stay." He hadn't realized how worried he had been about finding a new place until then, when he felt the anxiety leave. "I—I can't make any promises, Dean, but—I'll try."
"All I ask. Now, enough with the chick flick," Dean said, grinning. "Since you're better with stairs, you go get Marcy and your stuff, and I'll get some beers. We'll find the sheets for the downstairs room, get you settled in, and then you can help Santa set the kids' presents out."
"Do I have—"
Sam shook his head, smiling, but obeyed.
The best part of Christmas morning, as far as Dean was concerned, was the paper, the blizzard of wrapping paper in drifts knee-deep around the tree, requiring the kids to sift through it to make sure no goodies were overlooked. It was the craziest damn thing, but he just loved the sight of a half-destroyed living room on Christmas morning. He wasn't sure if it was because he'd never had a living room or just because he'd had so few Christmases full of gift-wrap and presents.
He was showing Mikey how to put batteries in his new lightsaber when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ananda jump to her feet; he didn't pay close attention until she said, "Unca Sammy."
Dean looked up from the batteries. Ananda, clutching her new Care Bear around the middle so hard that Dean was half afraid stuffing was going to come out its ears, trudged through a paper-drift as deep as her waist to Sam's chair. "This is for you."
"For me?" Sam, confused, accepted the gift she handed him.
Dean frowned. That wasn't the wrapping paper they'd used for Sam's gifts. He glanced at Marcy, questioning; she shook her head. "Sam, who's it from?"
"It doesn't say," Sam said, sliding one finger under the taped seam.
"Sanda!" Kara crowed.
"Santa?" Dean echoed. "Did Santa—"
"Not that he told me," Marcy said. "Kara, honey, quit bouncing, you're going to break my leg."
Sam got the wrapping off the present—and froze, staring at it.
"Sam?" Dean asked. No answer. "Sammy."
"Unca Sammy?" Ananda, concerned, hauled off and whacked Sam with her Care Bear. Bedtime Bear's powers apparently did not include startling Sam out of a state of shock.
"Clear a path," Dean ordered. The older children scrambled to get the empty boxes out of his way. He drove through the paper drifts to Sam's chair. "What is it?"
"It's a picture," Sam finally said.
Confused, Dean looked at the object in Sam's hands. A framed photograph. Of them.
"Oh, come on, Dean—"
"I said no."
"No, Ellen! No pictures!"
"Dean's afraid of two things," Sam put in, laughing behind his beer, "planes and cameras."
"Bite me, Sammy," Dean snapped.
"Look, you wanna be welcomed back here? You get your picture taken." She pointed at a wall that had previously housed only a few neon beer signs; now it was a veritable photo directory of the hunters that drifted through. "Now stand over here by the jukebox—"
Dean drained his beer and slammed the bottle on the bar. "No."
"You want a Winchester family portrait? It's gonna include the whole family. Outside, Sam."
"The car is not a family member!"
"Yeah, well, I'm the oldest, I get to say who's in the family, not you. Coming?" Nobody moved, just as he'd expected. "You were the one who wanted the picture, Ellen. My baby not good enough for your family album?"
"I'll be waiting for you outside," she said evenly, heading out the door.
"My God," Dean said softly. "I'd forgotten all about that picture." He gently took it out of Sam's hands.
The Impala was parked outside the Roadhouse. Dean leaned against the driver's door, arms crossed, an I dare you to take this picture smirk on his face. Sam propped against the front bumper, looking solemn.
"This was what, two weeks before we found it again?" Dean asked. He'd forgotten how young Sam had looked before the fight. Before the scar.
Sam looked up. "Where did you find this?"
"Wasn't me," Dean said, handing the frame back to Sam.
"Marcy wouldn't know how to find that picture. She only met Ellen and Jo at the wedding; I don't think they've talked since. And this—" He picked up the discarded wrapping paper. Navy background, musical instruments and ribbons. It looked—old. Distinctly old. Familiar, but—
"C'mon, Dean, let's see what's in this one—"
"John! Let him unwrap them! You've got your own presents."
"Yeah, but he's not going to be here till April, you said."
Mommy laughed. "You're terrible, John Winchester."
Dean turned the paper over in his hands, and smiled. "This isn't ours."
Dean sat in the living room of Marcy's parents' house, nursing a cup of her grandmother's legendary Christmas punch and stroking Kara's hair where she'd fallen asleep in his lap, and watched his brother with no small amount of amusement. Sam, not familiar with the unspoken rules that governed gatherings in Marcy's family, had sat down on the floor when he saw that the other chairs were all occupied.
I really should have warned him that any grown-up who sits on the floor is considered fair game.
There were currently five granddaughters in the four-to-seven age group, and they had glomped onto Sam the instant they saw him sitting next to the coffee table. Now Sam sat surrounded by a pack of determined little girls, with Lori "fixing" his hair, Caitlyn trying to paint his nails, and Ananda and Chelsea applying makeup that had been intended for Caitlyn's Barbies. Every now and then Sam shot Dean a look—the long-suffering look of a little brother silently vowing that he was going to kill his big brother as soon as the ordeal was over.
Invariably, Dean tried not to laugh and wound up choking on his punch. Especially once Ananda chose the purple eyeshadow. Nobody else was trying to hide their giggles, but nobody else was Sam's family. Sam wouldn't threaten to kill anyone else. At least, he wouldn't mean it.
Their grandchildren are going to laugh about this.
Dean froze. Kara sensed the change in mood and shifted in his lap, her hand clenching on a fistful of his shirt. He smiled, and closed his eyes, trying to follow that little burst of vision.
"What kind of idiot picks the hottest day of the year to get married?"
"The kind of idiot who marries his brother's sister-in-law."
"I still don't see why you couldn't have gotten married in October the way you planned. Just because you two anticipated things—"
Sam's ears turned a bright pink. "Dean, you know how they are about that damned wedding dress! They couldn't let it out that much!"
Dean grinned. "Well, if she has the kid on my birthday, I still expect a present. Now let's go get you two legal, because I am not having a bastard for a niece."
He snapped back to reality, where Kara had woken up enough to try sneaking a sip of his punch. "Sorry," he said, adeptly moving the cup out of the toddler's grasp. "I miss anything?"
"Hannah's here," Marcy said, and plopped her baby nephew Kenny into his lap so she could greet her wayward sibling. Hannah was the youngest, a few years younger than Sam, and a poltergeist magnet, which was what had given Marcy's family the first reasons to investigate supernatural things, and the reason Dean had been able to be completely honest about his past with them. She'd moved out when she realized what was going on, living alone and learning to deal with the poltergeists herself. He suspected it was because she still felt guilty over Marcy's injuries.
He also suspected that she indulged in some hunting, though he hadn't told Marcy that. Marcy worried enough about the girl as it was. He did know that Hannah was in regular contact with Jo and Ellen, and possibly Bobby; he'd introduced her to them in hopes they knew or could find something to help her block the poltergeists.
"I, Sam, take you, Hannah..."
"Dean, what the f—" Sam abruptly realized he was still sitting in the middle of five small girls. He had not yet realized that the three barrettes in his hair were bright pink and clashed soundly with the purple eyeshadow and blue nail polish. "What the heck are you smiling at?"
Dean shifted Kenny's weight in his lap so that Kara couldn't stick her finger up the baby's nose, and was saved from having to answer by his wife, who chose that moment to help her sister cart in two armloads of presents.
Hannah set the pile of presents under the tree, looked at Sam, and burst out laughing. Sam groaned, and probably would have crawled under the coffee table if Lori didn't have her hands wrist-deep in his hair.
"You're Dean's brother, aren't you?" Hannah sat down on the floor next to Sam. "Would you like someone to share your pain?" she asked, her eyes sparkling, and the girls squealed and accosted her—without quite abandoning their previous work-in-progress.
Dean met Marcy's gaze; she nodded, hardly noticeable to anyone who didn't know her as well as he did. He hid his grin behind his punch. Ah, Marcy. His beautiful, devious matchmaker of a wife.
Leave it to her to pay Hannah back for the rebar like this.