Title:It's a Wonderful Life

Rating: R for talk of suicide and swears

This is my attempt at a Christmas fic with the boys. A story about a hunt gone wrong, a ghost, an alternate reality, lots of emo!sam and emo!dean. It's Christmas and the boys love each other. (NOT in a wincesty way.)

Disclaimer: I don't own 'em, but I wish I did.

Warning: I was in a hurry and did not have this betaed.

Chapter 1

Sam wakes with the taste of smoke in his mouth and the smell of burnt wood clings to him like cobwebs. And that's after three showers.

Digital numbers glow 3:27 and Sam sighs. His eyes still burn, but he doesn't know if it's from the smoke or the tears.

He rolls over and looks at Dean. His brother is stretched out in the other bed, oblivious. Sam envies him.

All he had to do was pull the kid to safety.

Dean went to burn the bones and Sam went to get the kid.

Simple.

Only Sam had fucked it up. Big time.

The bones were burnt and the spirit was dead. But so was the fourteen year old. Not to mention the barn was nothing more than a smoldering ruin.

Just like the kid.

Sam had been running for the door, the kid slung over his shoulder, when the floor buckled and they both went flying.

Sam fell clear of the fire.

The kid didn't.

Sam's stomach clenches. He should have held on to the kid tighter.

Should have anticipated the heat would buckle the floor boards.

Dean hadn't even acted pissed. He'd just patted Sam on the back and said I know you did your best. We can't save everyone, Sammy.

He doesn't think the kid's parents would be that forgiving if they knew what really happened.

Sam finally gives up on sleep and creeps out of bed. He slips into the bathroom and shuts the door quietly. He turns the shower on and tries to wash the smell of death away.

Sam sits hunched in the booth. His shoulders are slumped, his neck bent. He looks everywhere but at Dean.

Dean frowns and stabs his fork at a pancake. "Dude," he sighs. "Come on." Which in Dean speak means: How many times do I have to say it isn't your fault?

Impossibly, Sam hunches further into himself. "Not hungry," he mumbles. And, as an afterthought, he adds hoarsely: "I'm sorry."

Dean lets the fork drop to the plate with a clank. The waitress glances over, but Dean ignores her. He leans forward, head down and hisses, "Quit it, Sam. You don't need another guilt trip, ok? It was an accident. It's not like the spirit was going to be all accommodating, right?"

Sam flicks a glance at Dean's face and his eyes shine with pain. His lips pull into a broken smile. "If the guilt fits . . ."

Dean shakes his head. "Sam, I am not gonna sit here and listen to you beat yourself up about this. Quit being such a drama queen." He stares hard at Sam. "Do you hear me?"

Sam's smile tightens. "I hear you."

"Good."

----------------------------

Back at the motel, they pack their stuff in less than five minutes. It doesn't take long when they barely unpack to begin with.

On the way to the car Dean tosses a newspaper to Sam. "Why don't you find us our next hunt."

Sam catches the newspaper and gives a stiff nod.

They drive in silence for the first fifteen miles.

Dean shifts uncomfortably and tries to draw Sam into a conversation.

He glances at the open newspaper in Sam's lap. "Find anything?"

Sam is staring at the newspaper, but his eyes aren't moving. Dean is pretty sure Sam has no idea what he's looking at.

Sam blinks and shrugs. "Not yet."

Dean nods his head toward the box of tapes on the floor. "Want to pick out some music?"

Despite the depression Sam is mired in, he recognizes Dean is really trying. Especially since it's his job as passenger to keep his cakehole shut regarding music preferences.

Sam manages a strained smile. "You can pick." He aims a look above Dean's head. "Thanks, though."

Dean notes Sam's pale complexion and the haunted look in his eyes. He sighs and bites the inside of his cheek. "Look, Sam. If you want to talk about–"

"I'm fine," Sam says, too quickly. His hand finds the radio. He turns it on.

Dean shoots Sam a dubious look. "Really? Because–"

Sam pulls the turn the radio up too loud to talk trick and the strains of Electric Eye bury whatever Dean is going to say.

Sam thinks all the way to Medford. He tries not to think but it never works. He leans his head against the window once, in a vain effort to doze. When he closes his eyes he sees the boy burning, hears the screams. When he inhales, all he can smell is death. It's in his hair. In his pores.

He is the reason the kid died.

And his mom.

Jessica.

Dad.

He'd managed to wipe out his entire family except for Dean.

It's just a matter of time until he does something to get Dean killed.

He was even responsible for Max's death. If he'd just said the right thing. If he'd had a little more time. . .

He glances at Dean out of the corner of his eye. Thankfully, he's given up on trying to talk and is singing along to the radio.

Tears leak out of Sam's eyes and he turns, unseeing, to the window. He draws a sleeve roughly over his face. He has no right to cry. He doesn't deserve to cry.

He doesn't deserve anything.

------------------------

A few snowflakes drift past the Impala's windshield.

"I'm pulling off at the next exit," Dean announces. "We gotta get some gas." He stifles a yawn. "And some coffee."

"I can drive if you want," Sam says.

Dean's not sure if he trusts Sammy with the Impala in his current condition. "Maybe." He shrugs, noncommittal.

Sam pumps the gas and Dean goes in to pay.

Sam leans against the car watching Dean through the window. He's flirting with the girl behind the counter. The girl laughs at something he's said and twirls a lock of blond hair around a finger. Dean adjusts his charm to high and she laughs again.

Sam is freezing. He muscles tighten against the cold and he can't stop shivering. But he doesn't want to go into the convenience store and he refuses to get in the car. He doesn't deserve to be warm.

The snow is a little thicker now, fat flakes swirl like feathers. A fiber optic Christmas tree shimmers in the display window. A tinny rendition of White Christmas blares out of the speakers. Sam snorts as the snow dampens his long hair. Looks like Bing Crosby got his wish.

Dean and the girl are still dancing around each other when Dean abruptly turns to the window and looks out. He sees Sam leaning against the car and his eyebrows do a little jig of annoyance. He motions for Sam to come inside.

Sam shakes his head.

Dean scowls and moves away to get the coffee.

He comes out a few minutes later carrying two Styrofoam cups.

"What the hell, Sam?" Dean snarks. "Are you trying to be a popsicle, or what?"

"Or what," Sam says, taking the coffee. He sniffs at the container but all he smells is burnt hair. "What kind is it?"

"Some girly kind," Dean sniffs. "Toffee Dream Swirl with Cinnamin Chocolate Kisses, or some shit."

Sam smiles weakly. "Thanks. I think."

Dean notices the smile doesn't reach his brother's eyes. He grasps at straws and asks, "You wanna drive?"

"Sure."

Dean throws the keys and Sam catches them with one hand. He slides behind the wheel, puts the coffee between his legs.

Sam pulls onto the highway while Dean talks about the girl at the gas station. "I told her we like to check out urban legends and stuff. I asked her about Crystal River and she said she hasn't heard anything weird about it."

Sam doesn't answer.

"She did say that a guy drowned the night before last."

Now Sam looks at Dean. "That's the fourth one in the space of six months."

"And they're all in the same quarter mile of the park. Tell me that's not weird."

A smile ghosts over Sam's face. "That's not weird."

Dean rolls his eyes.

He sips his coffee (no cream, three sugars) and squints through the snow. "This weather sucks."

The radio station turns to static so Dean fiddles with the dial. They have a choice between Christmas music and new age instrumental. Dean looks disgusted. "Great. Crap and more crap." He switches the radio off.

"So much for your Christmas spirit."

"You're not exactly Father Christmas yourself," Dean observes.

Sam just shrugs. He doesn't want to argue. And he can't bring himself to care about the holiday.

Or much of anything, really.

All he wants is to find a way to keep Dean safe.

He needs a way to protect Dean.

From himself.

"What?" Dean demands.

Sam turns toward Dean but keeps his eyes on the road. "What what?"

"I dunno. You've got a look on your face like you just ate a spider. And it's legs are twitching all the way down your throat."

Sam's nose wrinkles. "Nice image."

"Then spill."

Sam cuts a half moon shape in the side of his cup with a fingernail. "Nothing."

"Nothing, my ass," Dean gripes.

"It's just . . .well . . ." He takes a deep breath. "Do you think I'm cursed?"

Dean stares at him, considering. "I guess. That could explain why you're freakishly tall."

"I'm serious," Sam says, jaw clenching.

"So am I. I don't think you're cursed with anything but giant genes and slightly below average looks."

Sam thinks about The Demon and death and wonders.

-----------------------------------

They pass a string of motels that blink on and off like Christmas lights. They pass snow covered manger scenes.

They pass the Medford Falls Park and there, partially frozen is the Crystal River. They both turn and look, but that's all. They'll check in to a motel first and come back in the morning.

They find a passable motel five blocks from the park. It's called The Sleep Inn and fake pine boughs decorate the check-in desk. Sam waits in the car while Dean goes in to pay. He just wants to get into the room and shower. All of his clothes stink of smoke. He doesn't know how Dean can stand to be in the car with him.

Dean comes back out and wraps on the window. Sam follows Dean to their room carrying their duffel bags. "I need to take a shower," Sam says, the minute he's in the room.

"Dude, is there something I should know about? Are you part fish?" His eyebrows do a sly dance. "Or maybe I don't want to know what you're doing, eh, Sam?"

Sam's answer is the click of the lock on the bathroom door.

Inside the bathroom Sam strips and tosses his jeans, t-shirt and hoodie on the floor. He turns the water to hot and steps into the shower. He crouches there, letting the water hit him. If he could just get rid of the smell.

Maybe he's imagining it. Maybe he doesn't really smell like smoke and burnt flesh. Maybe it's all in his head. He puts his arms in front of his face and inhales. No. It's real, it's there. He smells like death and--

the kid is screaming, his voice spiraling up with the flames

Jessica looks down at him, her mouth a shocked "o" and then why, Sam? and her blood is on his face and the fire rolls out in waves and she's burning, the whole room's burning and Sam screams and she's dying right there, but he can't reach her and the smell, the smell is--

"Sam?" Dean's voice punches through the door. "You okay in there?"

The sound of Dean's voice pulls Sam out of the memory. The water is scalding but he's shivering. He leans his head against the wall, trying to stop the sounds coming out of his mouth.

He's crying.

On his knees.

In the shower.

His hands are clenched and the crappy little bar of soap is squished beneath his fingers. Little flecks of soap swirl around and down the drain. He wishes he could join them.

Now Dean pounds on the door. "Sam!"

Sam manages to choke out a reply. "What?"

There's a moment of silence and then, "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Sam lies. "I'll be out in a minute."

Dean doesn't sound convinced but he backs off. "Okay."

Sam bows his head and listens to the water pound against the tiles. He needs something stronger to scour away the smell.

And the memories.

Something like steel wool.

Or lye.

When the bathroom door opens an actual cloud of steam disperses into the room. Dean is cleaning weapons but he looks up when Sam exits the bathroom. He frowns. "Dude, that's my shirt."

Sam looks down at himself, then nods. "Oh. Yeah. I hope that's okay. All my clothes are dirty."

Dean eyeballs the dried coffee stain on the hem of the shirt Sam's wearing. "So are mine."

Sam stuffs his pre-shower clothes into his bag. "I'm going to go to laundry. Do you have stuff you want me to wash?"

"Yeah. That shirt you've got on, for starters."

"Okay," Sam mutters, not really listening. He grabs the dog-eared phonebook and flips to the yellow pages.

Dean sets the gun he was cleaning on the bed and wipes his hands on a rag. "Uh, Sam? It's the middle of the night. And it's snowing. And you're going to go do laundry?"

Sam's finger moves down a list of names. "Yeah." His forehead creases and he looks up at Dean. "We're on Wilson Street, right?" He spots the matchbook on the desk and checks the address. He nods, satisfied. "That's what I thought."

"Sam," Dean asks hesitantly, "are you sure you're okay?"

Sam runs a hand through his wet hair, an annoyed expression on his face. "Dean. We do laundry at night all the time. Why are you making a big deal about this?"

Dean tries to gauge Sam's expression, the set of shoulders, but he can't get a reading. "I just thought, before, when you were in the shower . . . I thought I heard you . . ."

Sam's eyes latch on to Dean's and the look says whatever you think you heard? You didn't.

Dean sighs and backs down. He kicks his duffel bag toward Sam. "Never mind. Take my stuff too."

Sam nods and hoists Dean's bag. He moves to the door but Dean stops him with, "Sam?"

Sam waits at the door, his back to Dean. His knuckles are white on the doorknob. "What?"

"Bring back something to eat, okay?"

"Okay," Sam says. And is gone.

----------------------------------

Sam spends two hours at the Wash-n-Go. He washes all his clothes twice. He throws Dean's shirt in the wash and puts on a clean one. He pulls the warm clothes from the dryer, a little tentative. When he brings his hoodie to his face he smells fabric softener.

And smoke.

He sits on a hard plastic chair for a while and wonders what to do.

He doesn't want to go back to the motel yet. He doesn't want to explain to Dean he's going crazy and that he smells like death.

Sam gets in the Impala and thinks about going through a drive-through for Dean. The thought of food makes his stomach cramp.

In the end he decides he'll drive past the park again.

Just a quick look.

-----------------------------------

The park is deserted.

A moon peers through a veil of snow and the trees hunch their branches against the wind.

Sam's shoes leave faint tracks in the quilted grass. His shoes are completely inappropriate for winter and his toes have been numb for quite some time.

He keeps telling himself he should leave. He should come back in the morning with Dean and the EMF meter.

But Sam keeps walking, hands thrust into his pockets. The handle of his gun is cold against his back.

He stands at the edge of the river, looking. There's nothing unusual. Just black water rushing through the night. Fingers of ice cling to the river's edge.

He sighs, and his breath is a plume of white.

There's nothing here. The silence is deeper than the snow. His hair is wet and his ears are cold. But he doesn't mind.

He inhales deeply, exhales, and watches his breath puff away. It's so cold he can't smell anything but the cold.

No smoke.

He turns to walk back to the car when he sees her.

A solitary figure on one of the benches along the river. She's wearing a winter coat and her blond hair falls softly around her face.

Sam's breath catches in his throat. He feels the cold air pull into his chest, expand, and freeze. The pain of seeing Jess is shocking.

He's imagining things.

But now Jessica is walking toward him, hands outstretched.

He's dreaming.

But his chest hurts, tears mix with the snow on his face, and his ears feel frozen.

He stares, incredulous. "Jess?"

She smiles. "Sam." The sound of her voice is everything good in the world.

Her voice is the sound of happiness regained.

Her smile flickers and so does she. One minute she's there and the next moment she's on the other side of him. She touches his arm with a cold hand. "Sam," she says, "I'm not Jessica."

Sam blinks. Her words shatter the hope in his chest. The pieces lodge there, sharp as knives.

Not Jessica's smile tilts toward sadness. "I've taken this appearance so you won't be...alarmed."

Sam's tear-filled eyes narrow slowly. He swallows with an audible click and feels rage spark to life.

He pulls away from the apparition and his lip curls. "Get away from me," he growls, low and hoarse.

Not Jessica shakes her head. "I can't Sam. I've come for you."

Sam regards her through a haze of anger. "I don't care what you want. Just–just don't look like her."

Not Jessica looks down at herself. "You don't like it?" She is genuinely curious.

Sam twists away from her and concentrates on breathing.

He suddenly knows what he wants for Christmas.

A shotgun filled with rock salt.

"I take it you're responsible for the deaths of those people?"

"No, Sam. I show them the truth and they decide for themselves."

Sam's laughter is harsh. "You're telling me you don't give them a helpful push into the river?" He turns slightly, careful not to look at her. "Let me guess, you're one of those lonely, misunderstood spirits who likes to have company?"

"You're angry."

"Angry?" Sam's voice cracks. "I'm fucking furious! How dare you wear my girlfriend's face like a–a fucking Halloween costume." He stalks away from her. "If you thought I was going to listen to you because you look like Jess, you're not only dead, you're stupid."

She calls out to him, but he keeps walking, long legs carrying him away. He's going to go get a shotgun out of the trunk right now.

There's a flicker and she's standing in front of him.

Sam makes a startled noise and veers wildly to the left. He almost slips in the snow and throws an arm out to steady himself. "You bitch," he hisses. "Get away from me!"

"I can help you get to Jessica," she says into his hear. "Your Jessica."

Sam hesitates, heart pounding.

"I can help you stop the burning." Her voice is a whisper of bells.

"What burning?"

She steps back a little and looks him in the face. "The way you feel. The way you can't get the smell of smoke and death and pain off you. Death is seared onto your soul, Sam. Do you really want to carry that with you for the rest of your life?"

Sam rolls his eyes. "Is this the part where I'm so thrilled to be with Jess again I go jump in the river?" He sneers. "Does this really work on people?" He walks around her, still intent on the car. "You talk people to death? Do they drown themselves just to get away from you?"

"Sam."

"Fuck off," he growls.

She flickers at him again and he wants to punch her–it–whatever it is in the face. "I told you to–"

"Look," she says, "and see the truth." The palm of her hand connects with his forehead. Her hand is cool marble against his skin.

Sam looks, but all he sees is darkness.

------------------------

Something whispers against his eyelashes.

What the–

"Come on, Sam."

He starts at the sound of Not Jessica's voice. So much for everything being a dream.

His eyes flicker open and he's on his back looking up into an army of snow. He does a mental inventory. He feels okay. He pushes himself to his feet with a grunt.

"What did you do to me?" he asks, more than a little suspicious.

"I allowed you to see the truth."

He gives her a look. "Now you're Mulder?"

Not Jessica looks at him.

Sam sighs. He tries again. "What truth?"

"The thing you've always wanted to know, Sam. What the world would be like if you had never been born."

Sam's eyes go wide. "What?"

"Let's go," she says and takes Sam's hand.

They're standing in the front yard of a house. Sam recognizes the big tree first and his mouth drops open in shock. He turns to Not Jessica. "We're in–"

"Lawrence," she finishes. "This was your home."

Sam's brow wrinkles. "Was?"

Not Jessica nods. "You were never born."

Sam scowls. "What are you, the Ghost of Christmas Past?"

The ghost offers a gentle smile and motions toward the house. "Go ahead. Take a look."

Then they're standing inside the living room. Sam stumbles at the sudden change and catches himself against a chair.

The room is filled with music and laughter.

There's a Christmas tree in the corner of the room. He can smell the pine needles and the faint odor of cinnamon.

There are people sitting around the tree.

Sam's throat constricts and his eyes well over with tears because right—in front of him--is Dad.

His dad is smiling (smiling!), his arm around the woman next to him.

Mary Winchester.

His mom.

She's in her late forties and her shoulder length blond hair is tucked behind both ears.

Sam gasps for breath and sinks into the empty chair. Sam reaches a hand toward Mary. "Mom?"

Not Jessica puts a hand on Sam's shoulder. "She can't hear you, Sam. None of them can. You're not really here."

Sam ignores her and gets down on his knees in front of his mother. He just wants to look at her. To see her alive. He wants to feel her arms around him again. He smiles through the tears and says, "Hey Mom. It's good to see you."

"Get away from her, dude!" Dean's voice calls and Sam spins toward his brother. But Dean's not looking at him.

He's looking at the toddler who's crawled up the arm of the couch. The little boy balances precariously, trying to place a bow on top of Mary's head.

"Gamma," the little boy says with a dimpled grin.

Mary reaches out and captures the little boy, tickling his belly and kissing his neck. "What do you think you're doing, kiddo?" She plants a loud, wet kiss on his cheek. "Grandma's got you!"

Sam can feel the love pressing in around him. His Dad, Mom and Dean. The beautiful woman Dean's sitting next to Dean. They're holding hands. Dean is holding hands with a girl.

Dean has a son. A beautiful little boy with light brown curls and blue eyes. Dean makes a face at the boy and the child laughs, delighted.

"You took this away from them, Sam," Not Jessica says quietly.

Sam can't believe this. It's an illusion. But it feels real. It smells real. He instinctively moves toward Dean. He wants his brother. All this love, and none of it for him, hurts. His voice is parchment. "Dean. Can you hear me? It's Sam. Sammy."

"Look at him, Sam. He's happy."

It's true. The shadows beneath Dean's eyes are gone. So are the worry lines on his forehead. This Dean's shoulders aren't stooped with the weight of the world. The weight of a brother.

Abruptly Sam stands. "Let's go."

Not Jessica glances up at Sam. "Are you sure?"

Sam stumbles toward the door. "Get me out of here!" His voice wavers. He doesn't know how to feel. Is this true? Is this really what his family would be like if he hadn't been born?

"It's not your fault," Not Jessica coos. "I know you didn't mean to kill them."

His mom.

His dad.

His fault.

Dean will be next.

It's too much. It hurts too much. This family died the moment he was born.

"Get me out!" he screams.

-----------------------

Sam feels the world shift and he's sitting on a chair. A kitchen chair. There's humming and the rattle and clink of dishes.

He opens his eyes.

Jessica is making cookies.

He's seen her do it a hundred times. She's wearing head phones, dancing from the refrigerator to the counter and back again.

There's nothing left of Sam's heart to break.

He just watches her, letting the tears come.

His throat is raw.

Not Jessica is with him. "Do you see?" she asks.

Sam nods.

If he hadn't been born Jessica would still be alive.

Vibrant, beautiful Jessica.

The woman he wanted to grow old with.

Footsteps in another room. Sam turns to see a man with dark hair walk up behind Jess and slide his arms around her waist. She leans into him and Sam tries to keep air going in and out of his lungs.

Jess turns and kisses his ear. "Hey babe," she smiles. "I'm making cookies for you."

Once, she said the same thing to Sam.

Sam turns his head. "Take me away," he whispers. "Please."