Disclaimer: This story implies no claim of ownership of the characters and situations from the television show 'Supernatural'. Because if it did, that would be a lie, and we all know lies are wrong, right?
So there they were, five juniors at Stanford, lounging around a fake Christmas tree in Tanya's spacious apartment the night after end-quarter examinations. The eggnog was just a little bit spiked, and they were all giddy with the relief of the upcoming break, and most of them were way too hyped up on caffeine to go to sleep anytime before three in the morning, regardless of when they were flying out for the holidays. So of course someone (Jessica was pretty sure it had been Amber's fault, curse her bubbly love of the holidays) had started telling Christmas jokes and asking Christmas questions, and then it had turned into a round of hilarious pre-college Christmas stories, which had all been fine and well until Jessica realized that Sam had gotten very quiet and still next to her on the couch. At that point, she remembered her myriad worries and suspicions about the childhood that Sam would never talk about, and became horribly certain that Sam didn't have any funny tales about When Dad Set the Christmas Tree on Fire or When Grandma Accidentally Put Meat Tenderizer in the Fudge or When Mom Mislabeled the Christmas Gifts and Dad Got Lingerie. She didn't want to think about what kind of stories he did have, because speculating about all Sam's secrets just made her angry.
Okay, so she was angry already. She could practically feel the discomfort radiating off her boyfriend, could feel the tension in his arm where it draped across the back of the couch behind her, and she hated it when he got all upset and bottled-up like this. Hated it. She didn't know what to do, didn't know how to help, didn't know if he'd ever tell her what was wrong. Although she could live with that last thing. Really, she could. Chances were she didn't want to know whatever-it-was Sam thought she didn't know that he didn't want her to know.
Whose idea was this stupid game, anyway?
Chris gestured expansively, nearly slopping eggnog over the rim of his chipped mug. "And that wasn't the worst part, either. The worst part was when it turned out he'd used superglue to get the beard on. So with the soot, and the skin that came off when he –" Chris dissolved into snickers, while his girlfriend Amber let out a whoop of laughter like an air-raid siren. "Let's just say he didn't exactly get lucky after the party. He was not a pretty sight."
"That's awful," Tanya groaned. "Worse than mine, even. That's just sad."
Amber rescued Chris's eggnog from a messy demise on the carpet and took a liberal swig. "Your turn, Sam! Funniest embarrassing Christmas mishap, get with the program!"
If looks could kill, Amber would be dead. Because Sam made an indecisive noise, something between a sigh and a not-really-amused laugh, and looked over at Tanya's sparkly fake tree with an expression on his face like a forlorn puppy, and nobody made Jessica's boyfriend look like that.
"Speaking of Santa Claus," Jessica said hastily, "did I ever tell you about the time –"
"Hey, it's Sam's turn," Tanya protested, and Jessica added another name to the list of people who might be improved by a nice fatal yachting accident. "You've gone twice already. Got any good mistletoe stories, Sam?" Tanya waggled her eyebrows meaningfully.
"We've had a mistletoe story. Old hat." Chris reclaimed his mug from Amber and started waving it around again like he thought he was conducting "Joy to the World" in techno. "We're talking major Christmas catastrophe here, like someone getting stuck in a chimney. Now that's pure comedy material. Not to blow my own horn or anything."
Yeah, she wouldn't miss Chris either if he drowned.
"Hit it, Sam," Tanya said. "Show Chris how real men screw up Christmas."
Clearly, she and Sam should start hanging out with more perceptive friends. How could they not have noticed the way Sam's foot was jittering nervously on the carpet, the cornered expression on his face? Jessica wracked her brain for a distraction, but before she'd come up with anything better than the suggestion that they should quit rehashing old stories and make new ones by going and finding a chimney for Chris to get stuck in, Sam gave a hesitant little cough and found his voice.
"Uh, well … Christmas wasn't real big with my family – nothing's really coming to mind, you know?" He smiled almost convincingly and tried to take a drink from his empty mug.
"Oh," said Amber, sounding way, way too understanding and sympathetic. She had hung out with Sam and Jessica just enough to know that Sam wasn't much on the whole family thing, although apparently not enough to be able to remember this fact at a useful time, and definitely not enough to realize that Sam hated it when people looked like they were sorry for him. "I'm very sorry to hear that," Amber added with all the inevitability of an avalanche, and Jessica made a mental note to take Miss Sensitivity off her Christmas card list forever. And possibly to put out an assassination contract on her.
Sam looked kind of stung, as far as Jessica could tell when she was very carefully not staring at him in a worried mother-hen kind of way. She'd figured out that he didn't appreciate that kind of concern the previous Christmas. They'd been dating for two months and she'd asked him home for the holidays anyway, and all his initial anxious uncertainty had thawed into real enjoyment of the holiday right up until Christmas Day itself. That evening, he'd gotten a call on his cellphone during the post-feast snacking, and let it go to voicemail, and crept out later to sit on the porch in the dark for half an hour listening to the message over and over again and not making any return calls, until at last she went out to ask him if everything was all right and he actually snapped at her. Gone from still and unhappy to furious and hurtful in a nanosecond, and stalked off into the dark for a good half-hour. She'd forgiven him, of course, because after the wide-eyed way he'd reacted to a normal family holiday, she was pretty darn sure what was wrong with him that night – but just because he later apologized humbly and profusely didn't mean she'd forgotten.
This time, she was going to be absolutely cool about it, not worried at all, not giving him the slightest inkling of suspicion that she thought he was acting weird, because that was the one thing he couldn't stand. It was all right, though. She loved him enough to put up with actual weirdness, so weirdness about the original weirdness was not going to be a problem.
She also loved him enough to get up and punch Amber in the middle of her stupid face if Miss Sensitivity didn't wipe that oh-poor-little-boy look off her face pretty darn quick.
Sam's foot stopped jiggling, and his face smoothed out into that guileless, aw-shucks expression that Jess had only just that semester realized was a total fake (which, perversely enough, just made it more endearing). Surprised at the shift, she twisted around to watch him.
"Well, there was this one time," Sam said, perfectly pleasant and a little bit sheepish. "Not as good as a stuck-in-the-chimney story, but a bit more exciting than mistletoe."
Amber lost the I'm-so-sorry face instantly in favor of a return to her I'm-a-giddy-ditz face. "Tell, tell!"
Sam took his arm off the back of the couch, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, eyes on the mug cradled in his hands. Jessica thought about snuggling up to his side, but people were looking and Sam was actually talking about something non-school-related from Before Stanford (from the Dark Ages, in fact), so she held still and looked at his downcast lashes, and listened very hard.
"I guess it was the Christmas when I was eight years old," Sam began slowly, and then, to Jessica's astonishment, his mouth curved up in that hesitant, wistful little half-grin that always made her want to kiss him hard enough to turn it into a genuine smile. "We'd somehow ended up with a ridiculous amount of silver tinsel – a garland, a really long one. Must have been twenty yards of it. Christmas Eve, we suddenly decided to put it on this tree outside, this big pine, kind of Christmas-tree looking, you know. The thing was at least twelve feet tall. We – my brother and I – we couldn't get the stuff to hang right on the branches – I wanted it all spiraled around, the proper way. So we, uh, we found this ladder and propped it up against the tree, but we didn't pack the snow at the foot down hard enough. The snow was pretty deep, a good seven inches, not even counting the drifts. And when my brother was almost all the way up the ladder, one of its feet just punched through the crust on the snow and, uh, the whole thing went sideways." An undercurrent of real laughter swirled beneath his words, and Jessica found herself holding her breath, as if that would keep him talking, keep the story from somehow going wrong.
"He jumped free, but – there was this inflatable snowman, that enormous eight-foot-tall kind, and he landed right in the middle of it, really hard. He just, just disappeared right into the vinyl, like it was swallowing him, and the snowman swayed over into the drift next to it, and then there was this pop –" Now Tanya and Amber were giggling like loons, and it was perfectly okay because Sam was looking up instead of staring at his mug, and his eyes were alight with glee. "The whole thing deflated – melting snowman doesn't even cover it – and Dean was so tangled up in it that I had to go cut him loose. Uh, eventually. Once I stopped laughing."
"Oh, my gosh, that's just – did that really happen?" Tanya shook her head, snickering and horrified at the same time. "He wasn't hurt, was he?"
"Nah, worst thing that happened was a bang on the elbow. And he got really coated in something slimy – I think they'd put some kind of spray on the snowman to melt ice or to keep birds from sitting on it." Sam was still grinning, fond and reminiscent, and Jess was still too surprised to laugh.
"What happened to the snowman?" Amber asked, and Jessica didn't try to shut her up because Sam was actually talking about his childhood, and maybe he'd keep going. Just a little while longer. "I mean, it was wrecked, right?"
"Depends what you mean by wrecked." Sam's mouth twitched. "We got the ladder back up and … Well, we draped the snowman over the tree. So that it looked … still inflated … um. IWe tied it on with the tinsel. I don't think anybody even noticed. It was Christmas Eve, and then it was snowing pretty hard the next day, and we only stayed until – and we never got any flak about it. It was a pretty crummy-looking snowman, actually, really faded and someone had sprayed graffiti on its … backside. Dean insisted we were doing its owner a favor by taking it out of circulation."
"I didn't know you had a brother," said Amber, suddenly inappropriately curious. Jess scowled at her, absolutely certain that this was not on the safe-questions list. But Jess didn't miraculously develop death-ray vision, and the ditz still couldn't take a hint. Even worse, she was too far away to surreptitiously kick into silence. "Older or younger? What's he do? Does he go to school around here?"
"No. He doesn't." Three short, clipped words. Sam's face barely changed, but all the good humor was gone, just like that, faster than the air from a punctured inflatable snowman. Jess had a lump in her throat, and she was pretty sure it had nothing to do with the eggnog.
"Okay." Amber blinked, obviously taken aback. "What –"
Sam coughed, grinned, and swiveled toward Jess with his most ingenuous expression back in place. "So, what were you saying about Santa Claus?"
Jess was a little impressed with how quickly she was able to collect herself, roll her eyes, and theatrically groan, "Oh, you wouldn't believe it. It started when I decided I was going to help Mom mash the potatoes – and I was eleven, mind you, so I should have known how to do it …"
Maybe she should switch her major to Drama.
Or maybe she should actually ask Sam about the past that apparently wasn't as uniformly horrible as she had assumed, so that she could understand why he needed the subject changed so badly. But not tonight, not in front of these puzzled, smiling friends who complained that Mom stifled them, that their siblings were embarrassing, that Dad "didn't understand," and that family vacations to the beach were seriously uncool. Normal families, normal family problems; she bet none of them lived in Palo Alto year-round and worked and saved and bought all their own clothes and were frighteningly grateful to be invited home for the holidays with their brand-new girlfriends and didn't get gifts and cards in the mail on their birthdays and wouldn't discuss the single, solitary photograph of their parents that they had pulled out of a duffel bag and put on the mantel of their new apartment and barely looked at since. She bet none of them were sweet and kind and funny and smart and really, honestly good and still woke up in the night startled and shivering from night terrors that couldn't be shared.
She talked about Santa and mashed potatoes and the difficulty of cleaning fake beards, and everyone laughed, and the conversation went to shopping mall Saint Nicks and letters to the North Pole. By the time the caffeine wore off and they all remembered that they had packing to do and sleep to catch up on, Sam was smiling and yawning and cheerful, speculating about the nutritional value of eggnog and the sobriety of the TAs who would be grading their exams.
They walked home through the cool, clear night, waving cordial farewells to Chris and Amber at the corner, and Jess was pretty sure no-one else remembered the story about the two little boys and the ladder and the inflatable snowman. She was also pretty sure that no-one else was wondering if the reason why the tinsel had to be hung just right was that the tree outside was the only tree, and if getting to laugh in the snow had been Sam's only Christmas gift.
By the time they got home, she had decided not to ask.