The only Christmas Dean Winchester had ever had, was when he was three. He had vague memories of a fireman's helmet, a train set and a red tricycle his Dad had wheeled him around the living room on. Mountains of discarded wrapping paper all over the floor and the warm smiles of his Mom and Dad as they watched him unwrap each present with wide eyed wonder.
That had been before Sam and before the fire that took his Mom away from him, destroying any normal life he'd had in the process. Christmas had lost it's appeal after that. That Christmas after the fire, Dean had curled up in Sam's crib with him, singing about Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, while in the other room, he could hear his Dad crying.
The Christmas after that, they'd been at Pastor Jim's while John was away hunting a werewolves in Denver and Dean had been sent to his room for saying that Christmas was a pile of crap. He'd spent the night sat with his knees tucked up against his chest, watching out the window and asking baby Jesus to bring his Dad home safely.
Sam had grown up never really knowing what Christmas was. The boys would see the decorations in each new town they stopped in, would see it on TV and hear about it from other kids, but Christmas never visited the Winchesters anymore. Money was too tight, it was just another day.
But this year? This year Dean was ten years old, Sam was six, and he'd been devastated at not being able to play a sheep in the Christmas pageant. He'd had his costume made with some help from Mrs. Kellinsky, his teacher and was looking forward to being the "cutest little lamb she'd ever seen". It was normal, it was nice and Sam had been so excited about it all.
Then John had come back to motel room, explaining that he'd heard of a real live gargoyle three counties over. He was off on another hunt and the boys were stuck in the motel room until he returned. It was too risky going to the pageant, having people wonder where John was and maybe calling Family services on them. Dean understood the drill and was the good little soldier his father was raising him to be. Helping to pack his bag and get his weapons ready, making that last pot of coffee before John slipped out the door with a distracted "be safe, boys, watch your brother, Dean".
That had been five days ago. Five long days of Dean keeping up a brave face and keeping things running smoothly. Making sure Sam washed himself and ate his spagettios and went to bed when he was told. Five days of Dean sitting up, watching the front door, listening for the familiar rumble of the Impala. The sound of Dad and safety and everything being alright in the world again.
But there'd been nothing for five days and Dean was barely holding it together. What if Dad never came home again? What if something had gotten him? No...that could never happen. Dean had seen his Dad, knew how tough he was. There was nothing his Dad couldn't take down.
" Dean? " Sam was standing in the bedroom doorway, rubbing his eyes. " Is Daddy ever coming back for us?"
" 'Course he is, Sammy. You know that." Dean said, making himself sound far more confident than he felt.
" But he's been gone so long. What if he's hurt? "
" He's fine." Dean said sharply, not wanting to think about that. He got up and walked over to Sam, placing a hand on his shoulder the way he'd always seen his Dad do it. " Come on, back to bed. It's nine o'clock already. Tomorrow's Christmas Eve and Dad'll be home...I'm sure of it."
" Really, Dean?" If Sam's eyes were any bigger at that moment, he'd have looked like something from a Disney movie, all big eyes, trembling lip and tears just threatening but not heavy enough to fall. Dean turned Sam around and walked him to the bed again, tucking his little brother in tightly. He ruffled Sam's hair affectionately. " Really. Night, Sammy. "
" Yeah, Sammy?" Dean perched himself on the bed beside his brother.
" Why doesn't Christmas ever come to us? Doesn't Santa like us? Is it cause we're bad?"
Dean shook his head, giving Sam a smile even though inside he felt like crying. " No, dude...it's just that we move around a lot, that's all. It's hard for Santa to find us sometimes. But he'll find us this year...you wait and see. Now sleep, or nothing will happen."
Dean closed the door, leaving it open just a fraction so that Sam had some light from the other room to reassure him. It wasn't fair that they'd been left like that. That they had to worry like that. Where was Dad?
Opening the front door a little, Dean peeked out and scanned the carpark for the Impala, before closing the door again. He touched his forehead against the door and fought back the tears that were forming. He was a good soldier, he was Daddy's brave little trooper and the one who could be trusted to hold the fort when Dad was hunting. He couldn't cry. He wouldn't.
Straightening up again, Dean took several deep breaths and calmed himself. He had to think of Sam, had to distract him from the fact that Dad was missing and Dean was getting close to calling Pastor Jim. Just another couple of days...that was all Dad needed. He'd be home then.
Reaching into his pocket, Dean pulled out one of his prized possessions his Dad had given him. It was a fold out knife with a wood handle that had an eagle carved into it and his father's initials scratched in at the bottom. John had given it to Dean a year ago and it went everywhere with him. But it was also worth money...because it had been his Dad's in the army. The guy six doors down has seen Dean with the knife two weeks ago and had offered to buy it off him. At the time, Dean had politely refused, ignoring the voice in the back of his mind that demanded he flip the guy off for even suggesting he sell his Dad's knife.
But now things were looking very different and the money Dean had been offered would be more than what he needed to keep Sam distracted. He hesitated for a moment, crept back and checked that Sam was asleep, then slipped out the front door, locking it behind him.
Thirty dollars. That was all he had been given. But as Dean got the living room set up, he couldn't help but smile. This was going to be worth it. In the corner beside the TV, a small pine tree stood. It was scrappy and skinny, but the guy at the tree lot had pretty much given it to Dean after a little sweet talking. Now there was a thready line of fairy lights around it and a packet of candy canes had been hung from wherever Dean could attach them. The tiny gold painted star Sam had brought home from school was perched on top of the tree and Dean stood back, hands on hips and assessed what he'd done. Not perfect by a long shot...but it was still enough to make Sam smile.
Dean then placed the presents he'd wrapped for Sam under the tree. Two colouring in books, pencils, a twin pack of Hot Wheels cars and a copy of Roald Dahl's Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.
Money had gotten tight towards the end and they still needed food for the next couple of days, so Dean had settled for a few Batman comics for himself, wrapping them up and placing them under the tree to show Sam that they'd both been good boys.
It was two in the morning when he was done. Giving the scene one last look over, Dean rubbed at his eyes and realised he still had to get washed up before he could go to bed. He was half way through brushing his teeth, when he heard the sound he'd been craving those past few days. The deep, comforting rumble of the Impala outside their door.
Dean walked quietly back out into the kitchen and put the pot on for coffee, taking each step carefully to avoid mess and allowing the routine to calm his pounding heart. A moment later, the front door opened and John Winchester locked eyes with his eldest son. " Dean? You're still up?"
" Yes, sir."
John limped into the room, his clothes covered in dried blood. Dean was by his side in an instant, slipping his arm around his father's side and allowing John to take some of the weight off his injured leg. They stumbled to the kitchen table, John lowering himself into a chair with a hiss of pain. He'd found out a lot about gargoyles on that particular hunt and would never underestimate them again. He'd be lucky if he wasn't left with a permanent limp.
Dean had gone to the bathroom, returning with the first aid kit and helping his Dad to tend to the various cuts and tears the gargoyle's claws had inflicted. There were even a few stitches required and Dean held the disinfectant for his father as John performed his own suture work on his leg. Once it was all over and John finally felt he'd be able to have a shower without collapsing, he nodded towards Dean. " You'd better get to bed, son. It's late. I'll look in on you and your brother once I'm all cleaned up."
" Yes, sir." Dean turned without question, heading for the room he shared with Sam.
It was then that John took in all the Christmas decorations, the tiny, pathetic tree and the tiny bundle of presents. " Dean? You did this?"
" Yes, sir. To keep Sammy distracted cause you were gone so long. He was worried." Dean admitted solemnly.
" Were you worried?" John asked, watching his son carefully.
" No, sir. You always come home. "
" But if I didn't?"
" Then I was going to call Pastor Jim in two more days. I had enough food to see us through in the meantime." Dean stated it simply, as if it had been expected of him.
John frowned, wishing things could be different. " Next time you don't wait. You call Pastor Jim as soon as I'm late coming back, ok?"
" Yes, sir."
" How'd you afford it all? I didn't leave you that much money..." John asked.
Dean lowered his eyes to the floor. " I...I sold the knife you gave me. There was a man, a few doors down that was willing to buy it. I'm sorry, Dad. I just...I just wanted to make Sammy happy again. He asked if Santa doesn't come to see us because he's naughty. I just wanted him to see how good he is. " He took a step forward, still unable to meet his father's eyes and see the disappointment he expected there. " I'll make up for it. Whatever punishment you see fit, sir. "
" Go to bed, Dean. " John said, his voice tired, his heart heavy as he watched his little boy dutifully turn and slink away into the bedroom. He had to make amends, had to show his boys that they really were good boys. The best boys any father could ask for. He always put so much on them, on Dean especially and it was making his son a man too soon.
Dragging himself to his feet, John went back out into the night, intent on making things right.
" Dean! Dean! You gotta come see!! Come on!! Get up!!" Sam was pulling on his brother's arm, threatening to drag Dean out of bed.
" Sammy, Sammy...slow down. I'm up...I'm up." He stumbled out of the bed, rubbing at his eyes and wandering out to the living room where he knew Sam had seen the decorations. But as he got there, Dean froze in his tracks and blinked. Under the tree were more presents than he had placed there the night before. What was going on?
" Merry Christmas, boys.." John appeared from his room, a tired smile turning up the corners of his mouth. " You wanna see what Santa brought you. He told me you'd both been extra good this year."
"DADDY!!!" Sam squealed, almost knocking John over as he leapt into his father's arms.
John buried his face in Sam's hair as he held his son tight, sending up a grateful prayer of thanks that he'd been given this chance. That he'd come home again to his precious boys. " Hey...how about those presents?"
With a whoop, both the boys tore into their presents, squeals of delight filling the small motel room as they saw what Santa had bought them. There were water pistols, a game of monopoly and a GI Joe doll each for Sam and Dean. On top of what Dean had bought, it was quite a bounty and Dean was beaming from ear to ear, watching his little brother with a sense of satisfaction as Sam took stock of his presents, handling each one like it was gold.
" Dean? " John held out a small present towards him. " Santa left one last thing for you..."
A puzzled look crossed Dean's face as he quietly peeled away the wrapper to expose a neat rectangular box. Lifting the lid, his eyes widened to the size of dinner plates before he looked up at his father, startled and overjoyed all in one at having his knife back. " How? "
John placed a hand on his son's shoulder, a warm smile gracing his lips and lighting his eyes. " What? You think Sammy's the only one who's been good this year? Merry Christmas, Dean..."