Disclaimer: The characters belong to their creator, the Kripke. Many thanks for the use of them in the playground that is my imagination.
Spoiler: Set in Season 3. It was written prior to the airing of "A Very Supernatural Christmas," so it's rather AU, now. Canon-ish AU, if there is such a thing.
a/n: This story was written in December 2007 when I was still part of the Supernatural Virtual Seasons team. If you read it before on that site, or in the follow-on zine published by agentwithstyle, I sincerely appreciate it and thank you. Each member of the VS team was asked to contribute a story for a Christmas gift, but the rules did not specify that the stories had to take place in the VS 'verse. At the time, Season 3 had me in its grip, and I chose to write a story that helped me deal with the brother's struggle to breathe around The Deal.
Therefore, you need know nothing about the VS or it's storyline to enjoy this story. I will, at some point (most likely after I finish Weapon and the Wound and before I start Desolation Angels) be posting the rest of my VS stories.
I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and I cannot wait to see you in the New Year!!
"I don't buy that, Bobby," Sam muttered into the cell phone, his head bowed, his chin tucked into the hollow of his shoulder. "There has to be a way."
"Sam," Bobby's world-weary sigh brushed against Sam's ear through the connection. "I'm telling you that it's just not gonna happen. I've looked in every book, called every contact."
"You're telling me we just gotta let this go?"
Sam was unable to make out Bobby's reply over the sudden exclamation of cold as Dean ducked into the motel room, snow clinging to his short hair and laying in a soft layer across his shoulders.
"I'll call you back," Sam said hurriedly, shutting off his phone. "Where the hell have you been?"
Dean shook the snow from his head and shoulders like a dog stepping from water. Sam saw it still clung to his lashes and was starting to melt in tear-like tracks down his wind-burned face.
"What are you talking about?" Dean pulled his brows together across the bridge of his nose. "I was out looking for that Bose… or Box…"
"Boz," Sam supplied.
"…Boz demon," Dean finished, shrugging out of his coat and dropping it in a damp pile on the chair across from Sam. He shivered again, stepping over to the heating unit and burying the dial in the thick red line indicating heat.
"First, it's not a demon, and second," Sam snapped, picking up one of the small motel towels from the back of his chair and tossing it across the room to smack Dean in the head. "You shouldn't have gone out there alone."
Dean ducked his head to the side, plucking the towel from his shoulder and using it to dry his face.
"What do you mean it's not a demon?" he asked, sliding neatly over Sam's comment about his repeated reckless behavior.
There was no reason to risk Sam's life, Dean knew, when his was already bought and paid for, his own signature etched in fire on a demon's contract.
"Bobby says it's a witch," Sam sighed, curling back against the creaking wood of the poorly constructed chair.
Dean tossed the towel over his shoulder into the bathroom, then hopped onto the bed, kicking his wet boots off, and swinging his legs up on the bed, crossing them at the ankles.
"Huh," he said, folding his lips down in a frown. "Haven't come across one of those in awhile…"
Sam nodded, "Right, so, I've been looking into it—"
"That's my boy," Dean grinned, grabbing a paper bag with edges worn from gripping fingers off of the nightstand between their beds and dug into it to retrieve a stick of beef jerky.
"—and it looks like we're dealing with… well, a good witch."
"What?" Dean's jaw worked on the dried beef, his eyes doubtful. "No such thing, Sam."
Sam lifted a brow. "According to the sites I've come across—and Bobby's books and contacts—there is."
"Well the sites and books and contacts are wrong," Dean said flatly.
"Why, 'cause you say so?"
"Yeah," Dean grabbed the remote and flicked on the TV.
"Stupid snowstorm must've knocked down the antennae… all we're getting is—"
Dean shot an annoyed glance over at Sam. "What already?!"
"Would you pay attention?"
"I am paying attention," Dean shifted his eyes back to the fuzzy screen of the TV. "And I'm telling you Glenda ain't the one out there causing people to go into comas."
"The last one just woke up," Sam informed him.
Dean looked back, surprised. "He did? After, what… four days?"
"Three," Sam said. "And he's fine."
Dean turned off the TV, tossing the remote down on the bed beside him. "Sure, fine, except for an unexplained coma—"
"I didn't say it wasn't weird," Sam rolled his neck. "I just said the witch isn't evil."
"It's a witch," Dean shook his head. "This is our job, Sam. What's wrong with you?"
Sam sighed, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, fingers threading through his hair. Dean pulled one leg toward him, sitting forward and tucking his foot under his outstretched leg.
"Forget it," Sam mumbled.
"No," Dean shook his head. "Talk to me."
Sam pulled his head up just enough to meet Dean's worried eyes. "Believe me, Dean. You don't want to hear what I'm thinking right now."
Dean blinked, pulling his head back at the edges that framed Sam's words. "Listen, if you're upset that I went out without you—"
"If? If I'm upset?"
"Okay, so… you're pissed, I get it—"
Sam shot to his feet. "That's just it, Dean. You don't get it. You're not dead yet, you know."
Dean melted back against the headboard, watching Sam with careful eyes. "I know that, Sam," he said, his voice wary.
"So then quit acting like you are! Quit shutting me out!" Sam stepped forward, his eyes hot. "Quit protecting me!"
"Not possible, Sam," Dean shook his head. "It's my job."
Sam's lips twitched, curling down at the edges, his eyes suddenly dark and dangerous. "For how long?"
Dean swallowed, unable to do more than stare back at his brother.
Sam straightened, light from the motel room window hitting his face and throwing half of it in shadow. Dean suppressed the shudder that ran through him at the sight of his little brother's angry eyes.
"Why are you so eager to give them what they want, Dean?"
Dean blinked. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"They gave you a year—why aren't you using it to figure out how to get out of this deal?"
Dean shook his head, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and pushing himself up. "We've talked about this, Sam," he said, stepping over to the heating unit once more, suddenly bone-cold.
"Not enough," Sam snapped, turning away to stare blankly at the screen saver on his computer. The pictures that Jenny had given Dean when they rid their old house—her house—of the poltergeist had been surreptitiously scanned into his computer soon after John died and Sam incorporated them into his screen saver, reminding him that life held pockets of peace.
Dean's sigh carried the weight of thoughts too deep for tears and too dark for language. "I get out of the deal, you die. You know that, so quit."
"Give it up," Dean shifted his shoulders so he could see Sam, but not quite face him. "Just let it go."
"Give up on you, you mean," Sam said, his chin trembling.
Dean swallowed, looking away, saying nothing. Silence hung in the room, thick and merciless. Wind whistled through the crack of the door and seemed to create an almost visible barrier of icy air between them.
"You want to go talk to coma guy?" Dean said, holding his hands flat against the blowing heat from the heating unit.
"Now?" Sam said, his wavering voice cutting through the chill.
Dean put his back to the heater, letting the warmth blow up his loose shirt and caress the skin of his back. "Sure, why not? We got nothing else to do."
"Dean, do you know what day it is?"
Dean frowned. "Uh… Tuesday?"
"It's December 24th."
Dean stared at him blankly.
"I know what December 24th is, Sam."
"We can't go talk to him now," Sam said, incredulously. "He's gonna want to be with family."
Dean looked away. "So, we'll talk to his family, too." He grabbed his boots. "Wish we had a dryer or something. These boots are gonna be damn cold."
Sam watched him pull on his shoes, then grab his jacket. As Dean turned to the door, Sam dropped his shoulders, knowing his brother was going out into the cold and the snow to talk to the witch's latest victim whether Sam came with him or not.
"Bobby says there's no way to kill a good witch."
"Bobby's not the final word, Sam," Dean muttered, gripping the steering wheel tightly as he navigated the snow-slicked streets from the motel to the hospital. "He's been wrong before."
"So have you," Sam pointed out helpfully.
Dean dared to peel his eyes from the road for the millisecond it took to shoot his brother a glare. "I'm telling you," he said, his voice clipped. "There's no such thing as a good witch. The end."
Sam sighed, looking out of the passenger window at the swirling white world. "Guess it's gonna be a white Christmas."
"Whoopee," Dean muttered, jerking the tires back to the empty road as a snow drift tried to grab them from the road.
"Well, aren't you just a freakin' ray of sunshine," Sam growled.
"What's with you?"
"What's with you?" Sam shot back. "Tomorrow's Christmas, Dean."
"So the hell what?" Dean snarled, pulling into the near-empty parking lot. "It's just another day."
"Didn't used to be," Sam's soft voice was sad with nostalgia.
"Yeah, well," Dean shut off the engine, removing their only source of heat. "That was a long time ago."
They hunched deep into their coats, trudging through the biting wind and ankle-deep snow to the automatic sliding doors of the hospital. Shaking off the snow and sniffing through wind-reddened noses, they approached the information desk, asking for the room number of the man they were here to see. The ride in the elevator to the seventh floor was silent except for Bing Crosby's mellow crooning of Silent Night piped in over the speakers.
When the elevator dinged and the doors opened, the brother's were hit with a flood of warmth and people gathered just outside of the doors, laughing, talking, clinking glasses. Sharing a confused glance, they exited and wove their way through the crowd toward room 7335.
Sam, in the lead, looked back at Dean and mouthed Christmas party.
Dean's eyebrows bounced up and he returned a silent Awesome.
Folding his lips back in a barely-suppressed grin of pleasure, Dean's eyes landed on a tray of pigs-in-a-blanket. He grabbed two, stuffing one into his mouth and grinned at Sam, who rolled his eyes, shaking his head at his incorrigible brother. Turning smoothly around a couple of chatting women, Dean snagged a glass of eggnog from a nurse in a red Santa hat as she passed them out, sighing as he downed half of the glass in one gulp.
Sam narrowed his eyes.
"What?" Dean blinked innocently.
Sam just waved a dismissive hand at him, not bothering to tell Dean what he already knew. They reached 7335 and Dean looked around for a place to set his glass, choosing the discarded tray of hospital food sitting just outside of the next door. After knocking softly, Sam led them in, glancing back at Dean.
"Dude," Sam whispered, pointing a quick finger to his own upper lip. Dean flinched, using the sleeve of his shirt to wipe away his eggnog mustache.
The room was crowded with people all focused on the tired, yet happy-looking man lying in the bed in the center of the room. They welcomed the brothers in, offering them chairs, ushering them close to the bed with smiles all around.
Sam heard Dean pull in a breath, a sure sign of enroaching panic. From experience, Sam knew it was due to the sudden and unexpected attention and introduced them as students from the local college paper writing a piece on the effects of comas and the memory.
Grounded by Sam's smooth lie, Dean was able to block out the pressing confinement of the additional people, and turn his concentration to the man in the bed, picking up where Sam left off by saying they had already interviewed two other people who seemed to have suffered the same injury as he had.
"Oh, I wasn't injured," the man corrected.
"Yeah," chimed in a young girl who looked enough like the man to be his twin. "One second Austin was standing like five feet away from me, then next… pow. He went down."
Dean frowned. "You just collapsed?"
Austin nodded. "It was the weirdest thing."
"Do you remember anything from when you were unconscious?" Sam asked.
Austin blushed. "Yeah, but… you wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Try us," Dean tipped his chin back, his eyes shifting from Austin to the young girl beside him who was staring back with unabashed admiration. He squirmed a bit under her gaze, trying to block her out with the rest of her family.
"Well," Austin looked at the older man standing next to his bed, who nodded encouragingly. "I could swear I was… Oliver Twist."
Dean frowned. "Oliver wha—"
"The Charles Dicken's character?" Sam interrupted.
Austin nodded. "I was living on the streets, talking to the Artful Dodger, working for Fagin, the whole nine."
Sam shared a glance with Dean. "How did you, um, get… out?"
Austin shrugged. "I saved Nancy from Sikes."
"You did what now?" Dean's face curved into a question mark, his hands loose at his sides as he stared disbelievingly at Austin.
"In the story… Sikes murders Nancy," Sam said.
Austin nodded. "I know."
"Austin's always been a hero," the girl at his side said softly, pushing a lock of brown hair behind Austin's ears. "He just never believed it before."
"Shhh, Ashley," Austin admonished, but he was smiling.
"It was obviously his brain's way of dealing with his… affliction," the man standing next to Austin's bed announced. "And his defeat of Sikes in his imagination helped him overcome his… ailment."
"Obviously," Dean echoed, barely able to keep the sarcasm from his voice.
Sam gripped Dean's elbow, smiling gratefully at the family and nodding to Austin. "Thanks for your time," he said. "We'll be in touch when the story comes out in the school paper."
"Wait—" Austin called as they turned.
Dean pivoted to look back at him.
"I know I made it up, but… there was this woman," he continued, frowning at his hands in his lap. "She didn't… didn't fit. She didn't look like everyone else."
"She was there? In the… wherever Oliver Twist is?" Dean asked.
Austin nodded. "She told me I had a choice to make."
"What did she look like?" Sam asked, tilting his head.
A slightly dreamy smile crept across Austin's mouth. "Beautiful. Like an angel."
"Well, that's helpful," Dean muttered. Sam bumped him with his elbow.
"What was your choice?" Sam asked.
Austin shrugged. "She said it was simple, but… turned out to be harder than I thought."
Dean tipped his head forward, encouraging Austin to continue.
"She said I had to… I had to decide if I was going to live or die."
The man next to Austin rested a hand on his shoulder, gripping tightly with the tips of his fingers. "I think that's enough for now," he said softly.
"Of course," Sam nodded, turning away with an understanding smile.
As they left the room, Dean started to walk faster, putting distance between Austin's family and himself. Sam stretched his legs to keep up.
"What's your rush?"
"Just need some air is all," Dean mumbled. He started to push his way through the throng of partying hospital staff.
His clumsy escape bounced him off of the shoulder of one reveler and sent him crashing head long into the same nurse wearing the Santa hat, causing her to stumble backwards. Instinctively, Dean reached out to catch her upper arms, clutching her against him in the chaos and setting her back on her feet.
"Oh my!" she exclaimed breathlessly.
"Sorry 'bout that," Dean said smoothly, a charming smile settling in place before he'd even registered the trim body and dark blue eyes.
"And after you absconded with a 'nog," she clucked her tongue at him, shaking her head in mock disapproval. A lock of blonde hair fell loose from the Santa hat.
"Right," Dean's grin spread. "I should be ashamed." He had yet to remove his hands from her arms.
"Ah, but you're not, I see," she laughed, her eyes dancing in the glow from the white lights that trimmed the nurse's station.
"Sorry, ma'am," Sam interrupted, touching Dean's wrist lightly, causing him to drop his hands. "We're in a bit of a hurry."
"So I see," she commented, rotating to follow Dean with her eyes. "Be careful out there…" she admonished.
As Sam propelled Dean backwards from the nurse, he could have sworn he heard her say his name. He glanced back over his shoulder, but she had already blended back into the crowd of partiers. Sam shook his head, dismissing the thought as paranoia, and shoved Dean into the open doorway.
"That's three," Sam huffed, leaning his pockets against the rail running along the edge of the elevator's interior.
"Three what?" Dean asked, an almost sleepy smile softening his face.
"Victims," Sam reminded him. "Or… whatever you call someone affected by a good witch."
"Man, she was hot," Dean sighed. "Wasn't' she? That little Santa hat… Oh, I wouldn't mind keeping that on when—"
"Dean!" Sam snapped, his voice sharp. Dean whipped his head around, startled.
"Geeze, Sam, you're like a freakin' drill sergeant," Dean slumped against the opposite wall. "You're worse than Dad."
Sam flinched, unsure if he should be offended or flattered. "Well, at least he got you to do what he wanted," he grumbled.
Dean suddenly sobered. "I can't do what you want, Sam."
"Yes, you can."
The elevator reached the landing and the door opened with a ding to a quiet lobby.
"I'm not having this conversation with you every day for the next—"
"Eight months," Sam muttered. "Eight months and eleven days."
Dean took a breath, tightening his jaw and watching Sam watch the ground. With a disgruntled shake of his head, he stepped from the elevator, trusting Sam to follow. The guard at the information desk barely looked up at them. Christmas Eve day was a slow time at the hospital, apparently.
"Do we just let this go?" Sam asked, several steps behind him.
It was on the tip of Dean's tongue to snap an irritated yes, dammit until he realized that Sam was talking about the hunt.
"Why would we let it go?"
"Because the witch isn't hurting them," Sam explained. "And… if you think about it… it's kinda… helping them."
Dean stopped so suddenly that Sam slammed into his back, bouncing Dean forward a step. He turned in the entry of the hospital regarding Sam with incredulous eyes.
"How do you figure that?"
"Austin wanted to be a hero—he saves Nancy from Sikes and rewrites Oliver Twist. Sally the florist wanted to find love and manages to hook up Mrs. Havisham with her lost love, changing Great Expectations. And George—"
"Yeah, I never got that one," Dean shook his head, face puzzled.
"David Copperfield," Sam explained patiently.
"The classic by Charles Dickens," Sam sighed. "George wanted to teach his boss a lesson and—"
"Oh, right, he's the dude that shut down that… blacking factory… whatever that is." Dean's eyebrows danced out his disbelief.
"Doesn't matter," Sam shook his head, pushing past Dean and exiting through the automatic doors. "What matters is that she—"
"Well, I'm assuming it's a she…"
"According to Dad's journal," Dean said, sliding behind the wheel of the Impala and closing the door. He rubbed his cold hands vigorously. "Witches can be male."
"Well, whatever," Sam sighed. "If Bobby's right—if I'm right—Boz is kinda… granting wishes."
Dean reached for the keys, pausing at Sam's last words. "What… like… a djinn?"
Sam shrugged. "I guess, kinda."
"Sam, that right there should tell you it isn't a good anything… the djinn killed people," he paused, shuddering. "Almost killed me."
"But this… this Boz isn't killing people. That's just the point," Sam turned in his seat to regard Dean earnestly. "I mean… Jesus, Dean, when did you stop believing in magic?"
Dean had reached for the keys once more, pausing again at this next thing from Sam. "What the hell are you talking about? Of course I believe in magic! We use spells and—"
"Not that kind of magic," Sam shook his head. "The… the possibility of good… the idea that… Santa comes down the chimney and good wins over evil and… Tinkerbell's pixie dust makes Peter Pan fly."
Dean pulled his head back, his eyebrows up.
"Okay, forget I said that last part," Sam amended, shifting his eyes to the side.
"I just think… I think this one we should let go…"
"I think the woman Austin saw in his… dream thingy… was the witch," Dean countered, finally turning the car on and revving the engine so the heater began to warm the interior of the Impala.
Sam dropped his chin. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Dean nodded. "Looking all beautiful… giving him a choice between life and death… just the sort of thing some being on a power trip would do."
Sam froze. He literally stopped breathing. Realization slammed into him like a freight train leaving him dizzy and feeling slightly stupid. Looking all beautiful… she looked like an angel… Man she was hot…Be careful out there… Sam…
Oh… my God… Sam thought. She was there… the witch had been there…
"I mean, seriously, this is our job, Sam," Dean continued, Sam's pallor and shocked, stuttered breathing for once going unnoticed by his uber-observant brother. "Just because the people survive doesn't mean we don't stop her from putting them in danger in the first place."
Sam licked his lips, an idea grasping him so hard, so fast he was afraid to turn his mind's eye directly toward it in case it escaped him. Could I… what if…
"I say we find this beauty and smoke her," Dean rolled his neck, reaching up in an unconscious gesture of weariness to rub at the back of his neck. "Any idea how we—"
"I'll be right back," Sam interrupted in a shaky voice.
Dean turned to look at him as Sam put his hand on the door. "Sam?"
"I'm okay, I—" Sam swallowed, unable to look directly at Dean. "I, uh… I forgot to ask Austin a question."
"What question?" Dean frowned.
"I'll be right back," Sam repeated, hurriedly, then practically dove from the car, slamming the door behind him. He jogged through the cold wind to the hospital door, then went inside without a backward glance to his brother. He knew he was right. He knew this was dangerous, but he was right… and if this worked… if he could pull this off… he might get his one wish for Christmas this year: his brother.
Dean bounced his fingers on the steering wheel in nervous time to the beat of his heart. It hadn't even occurred to him to turn on the radio. Sam had been acting weird since they started this hunt and Dean couldn't figure out if it was the apparent wish-fulfillment that was getting to his brother, or the proximity of a hunt around Christmas.
Dean sighed, looking at his watch, then back at the entrance. He'd give Sam five more minutes and if he didn't see that mop of brown hair in the swirling white, he was going back in.
The tap on the glass from the passenger side of the Impala startled him. Jumping back, he swore, then peered at the figure standing outside of the car. It was a woman, and by the looks of it, she needed help.
He leaned over and pulled the handle, opening the door.
"Thanks," she breathed, sliding in and shivering. She turned to face him and he saw that it was the pretty nurse from the holiday party. "Oh, hi!" she greeted him cheerily. "Haven't quite left yet, eh?"
"No, not yet," he grinned at her. "You have car trouble?"
"Yeah," she nodded, folding her arms across her chest and burying herself deeper into her black overcoat. "I think the battery is dead."
"I could take a look at it for you," Dean offered.
"You know about cars?" she asked, blinking large blue eyes up at him innocently.
He noticed her milky white skin was practically flawless. Not a freckle to mar the smooth plane or a wrinkle to indicate the passing of time. Her lashes were thick and dark, offering the illusion of makeup, though he saw none. Blonde hair peeked out from under a black cap and curled around her face. Watching her mouth as she spoke, all Dean could think about was how he wanted to taste her lips.
"Yeah," he nodded. "I know a bit about cars."
"Oh, that would be fantastic," she sighed, her mouth relaxing into a smile. "I was going to ask you for a ride, but this would be even better. I'm just there," she said, point to a dark figure of a car across the lot.
"Let's get it done," Dean nodded, shutting off the Impala and stuffing the keys into his pocket. He stepped out into the wind, zipping up his dark blue canvas coat, and pulling black gloves from his pocket, shrugging his hands into the cloth.
He followed the nurse over to her car.
"Get in and pop the hood," he instructed over the wind. "I'll see if I can figure out what's going on."
"Oh, I don't think that will be necessary, Dean," she said, her voice pitched low, the sound sneaking close to him under the wind.
He jerked at her use of his name, and turned to face her, his boot sliding a bit in the snow. Her hat was gone, her blonde hair lifted by the wind. Her blue eyes looked lit from within. He stumbled back once as she stepped forward.
"You have a few things to figure out, my boy," she whispered, but it may as well have been a scream, the impact of her voice in his ears was so great. "And I'm here to show you how."
"What—" Dean started, but couldn't finish.
The witch reached up and cupped his cheek, her hand impossibly warm in the swirling cold, her eyes growing larger. Dean tried to pull away, pull back, but he found himself falling forward, his body tipping, spinning, plummeting in a vortex that tugged at his heart, captured his breath, and sent him into the dark.
Be careful what you ask of me, Sam, she'd said when he found her. I can't say no.
Can't say no, Sam thought as he hurried down the seven flights of stairs, the wait for the elevator too much for him in that moment. Please, let this not have been a mistake.
He'd known who the witch was in the Impala… he only hoped his request for Dean to see the he had to fight to live… he had to fight to survive… that Sam couldn't do this alone… that Sam was lost without his brother would be as successful as the witch's last three… clients.
She actually calls them clients… Sam shook his head in wonder as he grabbed the rail and twisted his body around the third floor landing, running down the stairs as fast as his long legs would carry him. Sweat ran down the back of his neck and gathered at his waistband and in the hollow of his collarbones. A mantra of pleasepleasepleaseplease kept time with the pounding of his feet.
He hit the ground floor and slammed through the stairwell door, looking frantically around for the exit. Finding it to his left, he sprinted forward, dodging three wheelchairs and a man on a walker. Exiting into the wind was a shock. The air was frigid and stole his breath as he looked toward the dark, silent Impala. He was sure Dean had started the engine before Sam had run back inside to make his request of the witch.
Sliding a bit on the snow, Sam made his way to the car, tugging hard on the door handle and finding it locked.
"Dean…" he breathed. Where are you?
Where would he have gone? In this weather, with Sam not there, where would he have gone? Sam looked frantically around the lot.
"Dean!" he called. "Hey! Where are you?"
The howl of the wind was his only answer.
Only until midnight, Sam… this is a one-time deal… your brother has been claimed by another and I can only give you until midnight to convince him…
"DEAN!" Sam bellowed, the wind pulling tears from his eyes. He had to find him soon; he instinctively knew she'd gotten to him first. "Where are you…" he muttered under his breath, ineffectually slamming a frustrated hand against the roof of the Impala. He glanced once back at the trunk, knowing Bobby had said none of their weapons would combat a good witch…
If Bobby is right…
Heading to the trunk, Sam slid his hand under the left rear wheel well for the spare trunk key, opening their arsenal, and retrieving a small flask of holy water and a sawed-off shot gun.
"I'm coming, Dean," he whispered, hefting the gun and slamming the trunk shut.
The first thing he realized was the wind was gone. There was literally no sound around him. He licked his lips, cautiously opening his eyes. He expected pain. He hadn't expected emptiness.
Frowning, Dean looked around. He saw nothing. Literally nothing. The harder he looked in one place, the more nothing gathered and shocked his eyes with its hollowness. Pressing his hand flat against… nothing… he pushed himself up on his elbow, rolling to his back, then sitting up. He looked around him. He looked above him. He looked down.
"Okay, I give!" he called out. "Where am I?"
"Nowhere," came a female voice laden with humor and rich, like liquor. It was a sound Dean could imagine tasting.
"Well, that's specific," he commented dryly. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," the voice replied.
Dean heard the unmistakable sound of a match being struck. He smelled the sulfur from the match head and saw the orange flame reflect off of the smooth planes of the blonde nurse's face. She brought the match up to a thin cigarette, inhaled, then blew the smoke from the cigarette onto the match, extinguishing the flame. The dim, glowing embers of the cigarette's end glowed as she pulled more smoke into her lungs, sighing it out of her body like a lover's plea.
"Those things'll kill you, y'know," Dean pointed out, wrapping his arms around his bent knees, waiting.
"Life'll kill me faster," she replied.
"So… we're nowhere together," he said, trying desperately not to think about what she might have done to Sam. "Original."
"Sam is okay, Dean," her voice was soft, motherly. He started at the fact that she'd honed in on his exact concern.
"So, what… you read minds?"
He narrowed his eyes as the scent of the burning tobacco wafted around him. "What exactly do you do?" He released his arms, pushing himself to his feet, ignoring the fact that he was essentially standing on… nothing.
"Someone needs to learn something—I show them how."
"I need to learn how to see through the deceit of a pretty girl…"
"Not what you want to learn," she said, and then suddenly, she was inches from him, her breath on his face, strangely devoid of the stench of cigarettes. "What you need to learn."
"Oh, so there's a difference?"
She laughed, a deep, throaty laugh that sent pleasant shivers down his spine. He cursed his body for reacting to this witch.
"Oh, there's a big difference," she sighed and he felt her move away from him in the dark.
"I told you," she said, her voice edging with irritation. "He's fine."
"I want to see him."
"You can't," she replied. "Not until this is over."
The beginnings of apprehension dug talons into his gut. "Until… what… is over?"
"You need to learn something, Dean," she said.
"So I've gathered," he muttered.
"You're going to be visited by three spirits… well… three beings. They will appear in forms that you will recognize. One you will know well. Heed these beings, Dean. If you do, you'll see Sam again. If you don't…"
"What? I'll die?" He chuckled. "Sweetheart, I'm dead already."
"It's not your death you should worry about," she sighed. "Heed the beings, Dean."
He couldn't see her, but he did feel her sudden absence. "Hey! Wait!" His voice echoed back through the nothing that surrounded him. "Okay, Dean… just… calm down. You've been in worse situations… right?"
He swallowed, looking around. It was like watching black eat black. Nothing was full of fear, he suddenly realized. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being defenseless. Fear of being alone.
Dean jumped, turning and realized he was standing in a house. A living room, to be exact. His living room. In the house they'd had in Lawrence. And, he realized as his gaze slowly traversed the room, it wasn't Jenny's décor… it was Mary's. This was literally his old house.
"Dean," the voice called again, and Dean looked to his right.
"Pastor Jim?" he asked, incredulous.
"I suppose…" Pastor Jim looked down at himself. "If that's how you see me."
"What the hell—"
"Hey, if I'm a pastor, should you be talking to me like that?"
Dean raised a brow. "If you are really Pastor Jim, you couldn't give a shit."
"Fair enough," Pastor Jim nodded. "Recognize this?" he asked, spreading his hands wide.
"It's our old house," Dean said in wonder, stepping over to a bookshelf that held a collection of school books, novels, and pictures of John and Mary and baby Dean. "God, they look so young," he said.
"They were young," Jim commented.
"I don't remember these pictures," Dean said softly. "They must've burned up in the fire."
"No," Jim shook his head. "The fire only destroyed Sam's room. Most of this stuff is still in storage somewhere in Lawrence."
Dean shot a glance over his shoulder. "Seriously?"
"So, what, you're like… the first… spirit thingy?" Dean asked, facing Jim.
"Yep," Jim nodded. "I'm the ghost of Christmas Past."
Dean blinked at him a moment, then tipped his head back and laughed.
"Something funny?" Jim asked, his face mild.
Dean wheezed, tilting forward. "Are you… are you serious?" He asked, bracing his hands on his knees, his laughter squeezing tears from the corner of his eyes. "The ghost of Christmas Past? Like that movie?"
"Movie… book, pick your poison. I am what I am."
Dean wiped his eyes, gasping. "Oh… okay… sure… Christmas Past… got it."
"I'm here to show you what you used to have," Jim said.
Dean sobered suddenly. "I know what I used to have," he said, his voice hard. "I had a family. And a demon took it from me." He stepped forward, all mirth forgotten. "I had a father, and a demon turned him into a drill sergeant. I had a brother and a demon killed him."
Jim simply lifted an eyebrow. "You had a soul and you gave it up."
"Your soul is a gift, Dean. It's yours to save."
"I don't want to save it at the sacrifice of Sam," Dean turned away from Jim, shaking his head. "It's not worth that."
"Well…" Jim sighed. "Let's see if you can figure out why Sam might disagree."
Dean felt a vague, nauseating pull at his belly and suddenly he was standing next to Jim in the living room of the Lawrence house, Mary, her belly rounded, her smile beatific, sat on the couch, and John sat on the floor in front of a three-year-old Dean as he unwrapped a baseball glove.
"Holy shit," Dean breathed. "I forgot they gave me a baseball glove."
"Who were you going to play with?" Jim asked.
"Sam, of course," Dean scoffed, unable to tear his eyes from the scene in front of him. "I couldn't wait to meet him."
Like a microfiche file, the scene before him changed and he saw a gray, dingy motel room, heard a baby crying, and a small voice crooning nonsensical words in a tuneless drone. Dean blinked, dizzy, and saw John sitting on a faded rose colored couch, an opened bottle of Jack Daniels resting on his knee, his left hand loosely gripping the neck, listening to the same thing Dean was listening to.
"This… this is our first Christmas without Mom," Dean whispered as if his presence in this memory might startle John from his grief. "I forgot it was even Christmas. Sam had trouble sleeping…"
"He needed you," Jim said softly.
"He just needed to know he wasn't alone is all," Dean shrugged, staring at his father with sad eyes. "Dad would have worked just fine."
"But he didn't," Jim reminded him.
"He did… sometimes…" Dean said, closing his eyes briefly and looking away from John's tears to the closed bedroom door. "When he could. It was hard for him."
"And it wasn't for you?"
Dean shrugged. "So what, you're going to show me all the Christmas's from when I was young? Hate to tell you… it's a lot of the same."
"No," Jim shook his head. "Doesn't have to be Christmas to show you the miracle that is your life, Dean."
"Miracle?" Dean shot his eyes to the side and stumbled once more as the environment spun around him and showed him scene after scene of his youth.
Shots of he and Sam alone in a motel room blended with Sam and Dad arguing and Dean standing between them. Those scenes faded into Dean patching up John and Sam, Dean running into darkened buildings, through wet trees, into firefights, pulling John free, tucking his body around Sam, holding Sam's hand while John stitched him up, pinning Sam's eyes with his, reassuring his brother that they would get out of this, they would be okay…
"Jesus Christ," Dean whispered, reaching out to brace himself on something and finding emptiness. "Stop already."
And then the images did stop.
"You remember this, Dean?" Jim asked softly. "You remember your first Christmas without Sam?"
"It wasn't Christmas," Dean replied dully, watching a repeat of the second memory played out in front of him: John sitting alone, dejected on the couch, a bottle of whiskey opened and propped on his leg.
"It was December 25th," Jim reminded him.
"I don't care what the friggin' calendar said," Dean snapped, hazarding a look over at Jim. "It wasn't Christmas without Sam."
"Why is that?" Jim asked, walking up to John and peering down at the drawn face of Dean's father. "You had your father. You two could have—"
"It didn't matter without Sam," Dean said softly. "I didn't care about presents. About magic. About all those friggin' lights and trees and carols and all that shit. Sam did. And I wanted him to have it."
"You cared," Jim replied.
"No," Dean shook his head. "I didn't."
Jim lifted an eyebrow, then stepped through the closed door across from John. Dean blinked and before he knew it, was on the other side of the door as well, standing next to Jim. He saw himself, several years younger, several less scars, several less battles, but no less weary. Younger Dean lay on his bed, one leg on the floor, the other tented with knee bent, ready to get up at a moment's notice. He could feel his own tension.
One arm was flung across his eyes, and his jaw was tight. The other hand held his Bowie, twisting the large knife around in a circle by the hilt.
"He's in pain, Dean," Jim said.
"Don't you think I know that?" Dean snapped. "Sam was gone and Dad said he couldn't come back. I was… I mean what point was there without Sam?"
Jim nodded. "You wanted Sam to have a chance to live."
"You're damn right I did," Dean nodded, staring at himself, knowing what happened next, hoping Jim did one of his magic time-is-motion moments before it did.
"You wanted him to fight the future laid out for him."
Dean nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I wanted him to be safe. Can we go?"
"Don't you think Sam wants the same for you?"
Dean pulled his brows together, shooting a puzzled look to Jim. "What?"
Before Jim could answer, what Dean knew was coming began. John stumbled through the door, not bothering to knock. Younger Dean startled, jerking upright, and stared at his father in confusion and worry.
"What'er you layin' in here for?" John slurred. "Donthca got somewhere t'be?"
"No, Dad," younger Dean stepped forward, grabbing his father as he stumbled, going to his knees with John on the bedroom floor. "I'm here with you, remember?"
"You're here," John repeated, clumsy hands smacking against Dean's face. "You're here."
"Yeah, Dad," younger Dean replied, his voice choked with emotion. "I won't leave you."
"Everybody leaves, Dean," John sighed, his forehead dropping to his son's shoulder. "Everybody leaves."
"I won't leave you," younger Dean promised, his arms wrapping around his father's strong back.
"Yeah, but," John's sigh was wet and heavy. "I'll leave you."
"Can we go now?" Dean asked Jim quietly.
"He did leave, didn't he?" Jim asked.
"You already know the answer to that," Dean grumbled. "Mom left, Sam left, Dad left…"
"But Sam came back," Jim reminded him.
"I brought him back," Dean shot a look at Jim. "I brought him back," he repeated, feeling cold. "Twice."
"And now you're the one that's leaving."
"Can we just go?" Dean said. "I don't know what you're supposed to teach me, but—"
Dean turned to face Jim, seeing nothing. He shot his eyes back over his shoulder to where young Dean and John had been and saw nothing.
"Oh, swell," he sighed. He looked up into the gray nothing around him. "A little warning might be nice next time!"
"Dean!" Sam yelled into the wind. "Where the hell are you?!"
Sam knew he couldn't have gone far… he hadn't been away long enough and the Impala was still here. Unless she took him somewhere…
Sam turned quickly to face the remaining cars in that lot, knowing there was no way to tell if one was or was not here from when he'd run back inside. He'd not been paying that close of attention. He started toward that lot, a strange pull that screamed Dean in his belly.
"Dean!" he yelled again over the bite of the snow smacking his wind-chapped face. Hurrying across the snow-covered black top, his right foot slid out from under him and he was forced to look down to catch his balance.
Had he not done so, he would have completely missed the dark lump that was his brother's body.
"Dean!" Sam gasped into the wind, dropping to his knees beside Dean's still form collapsed on the pavement next to an empty parking space.
He rolled Dean to his side. Dean's face was pale except for a shock of red that covered his cheeks from contact with the snow.
"Oh, shit," Sam whispered. "Dean…"
Shuffling forward on his knees, Sam set the shotgun on the ground then lowered his ear to Dean's mouth, feeling the shallow, stuttering puff of air against his skin as Dean breathed. He pulled his brother's lax form up onto his lap. Dean's head rolled toward Sam's body, his skin, as Sam pressed his own icy fingers against Dean's throat, was too cold.
"I gotcha," Sam whispered. "I gotcha, Dean."
Shifting Dean up against him, Sam struggled to his feet, tipping Dean's upper half over his shoulder and, with a low growl, gripped the barrel of the shotgun and lifted his brother up in a fireman's carry. He paused as he turned, debating between the Impala and the hospital. If he was right—and he was sure that he was—Dean wouldn't need a hospital, and they would risk exposure to the authorities by going to one. But… Dean was so cold… and they had such limited supplies…
"If you don't wake up by midnight, I'll bring you back," Sam promised his unconscious brother.
He stumbled through the snow to the Impala. He had to balance Dean between his shoulder and the car to dig into his brother's pocket for the keys, then unlocked the door, laying his brother in the front passenger seat. He tossed the gun on the floor next to Dean's feet, then reached behind the seat to the floor and grabbed a discarded hoodie and two towels left there from who knows what. He wrapped the hoodie around the front of Dean's chest, covering his brother's legs with the towels.
Hurrying around to the other side, Sam slid behind the wheel, turning on the Chevy's powerful engine and cranked up the heater. He shot a glance over to Dean, watching as his face twisted in a grimace, his lips moving rapidly, yet silently.
"I gotcha, Dean," Sam repeated, yanking the gear shift down to reverse. "I'm not going anywhere."
He flung his arm across the back of the seat, burying the accelerator in the floorboard of the car. The tires spun in the snow a bit, fishtailing the Chevy as it backed up. Dean's body slid sideways, his head bumping against Sam's hand. Sam suppressed the urge to jerk away from Dean's cold skin, pulling his lower lip in as he shot a doubtful glance back to the hospital.
Sam gripped his brother's shoulder, the jacket wet from lying in the snow, and eased him down onto the seat between them, the top of Dean's head resting against Sam's leg. He wrapped the hoodie tighter around Dean's damp clothes, keeping one hand on his arm, anchoring him against the seat.
"Stay with me, man," Sam pleaded, pulling onto the deserted highway and heading back to the motel.
"Seeing anything interesting?"
Dean spun, surprised to see the witch make another appearance. "I thought you were supposed to let the ghosts work me over."
"Well," she lifted a delicate shoulder. "Can't let them have all the fun."
"Where's Sam?" Dean circled her, watching as she stepped carefully in a reverse circle from him, keeping her blue eyes on him. The nothing around them held a little light this time around, he realized. He hadn't been able to see her before.
"You're awfully pretty, Dean," she said, a smile quirking the corners of her mouth.
"Where is he?"
"If a bit of a broken record," she muttered to herself. "I told you, he's fine."
"I want to see him," Dean stepped forward.
"You have seen him," she pointed out.
"Not past Sam, now Sam," Dean nearly yelled. His fist curled tight enough the sound of his knuckles cracking from the effort echoed between them.
"You're gonna see that soon enough."
"Is being a bitch just part of your charm?" Dean growled.
The witch's lips pouted down in a frown. "Now, Dean," she said. "Is that any way to talk to a lady?"
"If I see one, I'll let you know."
She sighed, shaking her head and turning away. "You're much more difficult than the others."
"Good," Dean stepped around her until she met his eyes just by glancing up.
"You don't understand," she said, the deep blue of her gaze cooling as she regarded him.
Dean tilted his head. "Why don't you educate me, then?"
Her answering smile was secret and sad. "I think he can do a better job," she said, glancing over his shoulder.
Dean turned and was surprised to find himself standing in Bobby's book-littered house. His eyes darted quickly from side to side, then up to see the unmarked ceiling above him. No Devil's Trap.
"Haven't painted it up there yet." Bobby's voice to his left was both welcome and disconcerting.
"Jesus, Bobby, you're not—"
"Dead?" Bobby chuckled, removing his ever-present trucker's hat and scratching his head. "Hell, no. But… you don't listen to anyone, Dean. And you need to listen."
Dean took a step back. I listen… I listened to Dad…
Bobby adjusted his hat, pressing his lips together. "Sorry your Daddy couldn't be here, Dean."
Dean pulled back in surprise. "Damn, Bobby," he muttered. "Or… whatever you are. Mind reading is friggin' creepy."
"Have to agree with you there."
"So… what happens now?"
Bobby took a breath, tucking his thumbs and index fingers into the waistband of his jeans. "Well, son, I'm the ghost of Christmas Present."
"Uh-huh, and you're gonna show me all the ways I'm screwing up Sam's life right now, right?" Dean shook his head, wandering over to an over-flowing bookcase, frowning when he realized that none of the spines of the books held any words. He reached out and plucked one from the shelf, flipping through it quickly. The pages were blank.
Guess deceit only goes so far…
"It's all part of the show," Bobby nodded, stepping up beside Dean. "And I gotta say, it's a good thing they sent me."
"Yeah?" Dean lifted a brow, looking at Bobby out of the corner of his eyes.
"Hell yeah—especially if you think you've screwed up Sam's life," Bobby shook his head. "Pretty sure your brother would disagree with that."
Dean put the book back on the shelf. "That's only because—" He was unable to finish as the dizzying pull in his gut sent him stumbling backwards, his shoulder bumping against Bobby's.
He blinked, watching himself sit in a motel chair, John's journal open in his lap, his eyes on Sam's sprawled form as his brother obviously struggled through a nightmare, waking with a gasp and a jerk.
"He still have nightmares?" Bobby asked.
"Sometimes," Dean replied, watching Sam work to orient himself. "Not as much as right after Jess died."
"He really needed you then," Bobby nodded.
Dean shook his head. "He would have been okay without me. Sam's strong—he's a lot stronger than he realizes. He would have been okay…"
Bobby sighed and on his exhale the scene before them scattered like flames on a birthday candle, shifting and solidifying until they were once again standing in the Lawrence house—only this time Dean realized it was Jenny's house, not his own. Sam lay on the floor of a bedroom, clutching and clawing at his neck, a lamp cord wrapped tight and cutting off his air.
Dean stepped forward instinctively, his heart hammering at the sound of Sam struggling to breathe. Bobby rested a light, restraining hand on Dean's shoulder as the door burst open and Dean saw himself in the doorway bellowing his brother's name. Dean watched as he fell to his knees next to Sam, cursing as he pried the cord away from Sam's neck as his brother fought for air.
Dean stepped back beside Bobby, weak with relief as he watched himself pull Sam close, clutching Sam against him and patting his brother's dark head to soothe them both.
"I gotcha," he heard himself say. "I gotcha, Sammy. You're okay."
"Dean," Sam rasped, swinging a clumsy hand up to grasp Dean's arm. "'S over?"
Dean watched himself release his brother slowly, remembering the clutching need to hold on longer, to assure himself of Sam's well-being through the comfort of touch. He swallowed, feeling Bobby's eyes on him and watched the brothers before him.
"Yeah, man," Dean nodded. "It's over. You did good."
Sam patted him. "So did you," he whispered. "Thanks."
Sam tipped his head back, a hand at his neck, blue-green eyes filling with residual tears. "For being there," he said.
"See?" Bobby pointed out. "He wouldn't have made it had it not been for you."
Dean chewed on his bottom lip.
"I got more of those," Bobby offered.
"What, more of Sam nearly dying? No thanks. Been there, done that," Dean watched himself climb to his feet, reaching down and helping Sam up next to him. He smiled a bit as Sam stepped through the door in front of Dean. He never really realized how obvious their difference in height was.
"That's just the point, Dean. You've been there," Bobby said. "And you need to stay—"
"Oh, for God's sake!" Dean whirled to face Bobby. "Did Sam put you up to this? I mean you sound just like him!"
Bobby shifted his eyes away, then over Dean's shoulder. Dean frowned, turning and saw himself in a hospital bed, a tube down his throat, another threaded into his sinuses, monitors tracking the beat of his heart, a soft hiss as his lungs were pumped by a machine.
"Holy shit," Dean breathed, stepping forward, only then realizing that Sam was also in the room, standing next to the bed, staring down at him, tears filling his eyes. "Oh, man. Bobby, don't do this to me."
"You need to listen to someone, Dean. Your brother needs you. He's been trying to tell you, but you're so stubbornly sure you made the right decision you aren't listening to him."
Dean glared at Bobby. "I did make the right decision. I had to save him, Bobby. You know that. He's my brother."
"Yeah well, you aren't leaving him with a helluva lot of hope, boy!" Bobby stepped up to stand close to Dean, thrusting his chin forward, reaching out to grab the back of Dean's neck and grip it tightly.
Dean flinched, but didn't pull away. He'd given Bobby an authority over him long ago—an authority he hadn't granted anyone other than John. He was compelled to listen to this man.
"You are just rolling over, letting them win!"
"I have to, Bobby!" Dean pleaded, feeling emotion building at the base of this throat, threatening to choke him. "I try to get out of it, Sam dies."
"And you just can't live with that," Bobby growled.
"No, dammit!" Dean shot back. "He has to live. He has to. He's more important than me. He's stronger than me. He matters more!"
Sam's voice cut into their verbal battle of wills and Dean froze under Bobby's fingers, shifting his eyes away from his mentor to rest on his brother.
"…don't know how to help you. But I won't give up… I won't give up on you, Dean. Not as long as you keep fighting… Come on, man, you can't… you can't leave me here alone with Dad. We'll kill each other, you know that. Dean… you gotta hold on. You can't go, man, not now. We were just starting to be brothers again."
"You hear that, Dean?" Bobby whispered.
Dean nodded. "But I didn't leave him." He looked at Bobby, his eyes burning. "He left me."
"You want him to have to feel this?" Bobby asked and Dean frowned in confusion.
Bobby dropped his hand and Dean stepped back, hearing mud suck at his boots, feeling the cold humidity of the Wyoming autumn press around him. He shook his head in denial, knowing where they were.
"You don't fight this… you don't want to live… you're sentencing Sam to feeling this," Bobby looked to his right, drawing Dean's eyes to the pair huddled in the mud to his left.
A sharp, stabbing pain shot through Dean, compelling him to press his hand against his chest as if to hold his heart in place. He heard his own voice, once again feeling the limp, impossible weight of Sam in his arms as if he'd just traded places with the Dean kneeling in the mud before him.
"Sam, hey. Hey, come here. Let me look at you… Hey, look. Look at me. It's not even that bad. It's not even that bad, alright? Sammy? Sam! Hey, listen to me. We're gonna patch you up, okay? You'll be good as new. Huh? I'm gonna take care of you. I'll take care of you. I got you. That's my job, right? Watch out for my pain-in-the-ass little brother. Sam? Sam. Sam! Sammy! SAM!"
"I wanna go now," Dean said softly, trying to swallow around the lump in his throat. "Can we go?"
Bobby sighed. "Dean—"
"Bobby, just… I can't, okay? I can't…" he shifted his eyes to his old friend, unable to keep the weight from them. "I wasn't there for him. And the demon took him. He wasn't supposed to die. So I fixed it. Okay? I fixed it. So, let's just go."
"Don't make that choice, Dean," Bobby pleaded.
"What? What choice?" Dean pulled his head back, realizing suddenly that Cold Oak was gone. The wet, stifling air was gone. Everything was gone except Bobby. They were once again surrounded by nothing.
"Don't choose to die," Bobby leaned forward, imbuing his words with earnestness. "She gave you a choice and you only get one shot at this."
"What the hell are you talking about? She who? You mean the witch?"
"Don't make that choice," Bobby repeated and was suddenly gone. Dean blinked, rubbing his eyes, turning in a circle, looking first one way, then another.
He was alone. And he was starting to get angry.
"Fine," he grumbled. "That's the way you want to play?" He lifted his face to the silent blank above him. "Bring it on, bitch!"
Dean was shaking.
Sam had been able to wrestle his brother's inert form from the front of the car into the motel room, remove his wet boots and jacket, and wrap him in the comforters from both beds, but Dean's skin remained pale and cold, his breathing shallow.
Sam cranked up the heat pouring from the heating unit until he was sweating. He stripped down to his jeans and white T-shirt, removing even his socks in the suffocating heat of the room, but Dean's unnatural chill remained.
Then, without warning, Dean started shaking. His teeth chattered, his body trembled, his hands jerking in scary repetition.
Sam sank to his knees beside his brother's bed, grabbing Dean's icy hand and rubbing it vigorously between his own warm ones.
"Dean?" Sam called hesitantly. "God, what is she doing to you…"
Sam rubbed harder, hoping the friction alone would return some heat to Dean's extremities. He carried his motion up Dean's arm, under the blankets, trying to return life to the lifeless.
The ring of his cell phone caused Sam to jump. He used the edge of the bed to push himself to his feet, looking over at his coat where he'd pocketed the phone, then back at Dean, shaking roughly on the bed. In a desperate dive, Sam launched across the room, grabbed his phone, then returned to Dean's side.
"Bobby, God, I—"
"Sam," Bobby's urgent voice cut him off. "Listen to me. I was wrong. You hear me? I was wrong."
Sam stopped breathing. "What?" he squeezed out through strangled vocal chords.
"The witch—Boz—she ain't evil, but she's completely looney toons. You need to bind her powers before she hurts anyone else."
Oh, my God… Dean was right…
"But," Sam swallowed. "She hasn't… the others didn't…"
"The other victims did what she wanted them to," Bobby supplied. "See, she has this… obsession with Charles Dickens."
"What?!" Sam almost slammed the phone against his forehead in realization.
"That's where she got her name: Boz. That's his pen name."
"Are you serious?!" Sam's incredulity rose with his voice.
"As a heart attack," Bobby said, rushing forward. "Her real name is Annabeth Walker and she has escaped from more than one asylum. Thing is, she's the real deal."
"No, really a witch. She has real magic," Bobby explained. "You have to bind her powers now before she—"
"Bobby," Sam interrupted, sinking onto the bed, his hip next to Dean's. He felt the bed trembling beneath him with the force of his brother's tremors. "Don't kill me."
There was a significant pause, then Bobby's voice shifted over the line with the weary weight of dread. "What did you do, Sam?"
"I thought she was… good… helping people," Sam tried to defend himself. "I would never have done it, except—"
"He's right here."
"Let me talk to him."
"Because he's unconscious."
"I wanted him to fight this, Bobby! I want my brother back!"
"You trusted a witch?! You know better than that, boy!"
"God, Bobby," Sam exhaled into the phone. "I know… I know I just… I can't lose him. I can't. He's my brother!"
Sam heard Bobby's sigh across the miles and gripped the phone tighter. "Is he okay?"
"He's cold—I mean really, really cold," Sam said, touching Dean's pale cheek. "And he just started shaking—like super-powered shivers—right before you called."
"Is he having a seizure?"
"Not like that—it's like he's violently shivering."
"Keep him warm, whatever you have to do. Keep his heart rate up."
"She said… Bobby… she said he only had until midnight," Sam revealed.
Bobby cleared his throat. "Until what?"
"She didn't say," Sam whispered. And I didn't ask… "What did you… what did you mean by the others did what she said? What happens if you… if you don't?"
"I don't think you want to find out, Sam."
"God, Bobby, what have I done?"
"Hang in there, kid," Bobby said softly. "Keep him warm. I'm on my way."
Dean dropped his eyes, his challenge to the witch still tingling his tongue, and found himself staring at a figure cloaked in black. All in black, a large hood up over its head, shielding its face.
Dean tilted his head, lifting an eyebrow. "What are you, some sort of Jedi?"
The figure was silent.
"Oh, I get it," Dean dropped his hands into the pockets of his jacket, swinging the garment forward and wrapping it around his middle. "We've had Christmas Past and Present. You must be Christmas Future, that it?"
The figure nodded.
"Got a name? A face? You Ellen? Jo? Caleb? Ash?"
The figure shook its head slowly.
"Not much of a talker, huh? Well, that's fine with me. I've had about enough talking. Why don't you show me what you're gonna show me so we can get this over with and I can get back to Sam."
The figure pointed behind Dean and for the briefest moment, Dean thought he saw the tip of a rotten, bony finger jutting out from the edge of the black cloak. Sighing, knowing that he was going to be thrust into another environment foreign from the nothing he could currently see, Dean turned.
What met his eyes wasn't what he expected. He was on a busy city street, cars and sirens echoing behind him, neon lights buzzing and flashing above him, people pressed around him, eyes down, steps quick and scared. Frowning, Dean looked around for the cloaked figure, finding it just to his left.
"What the hell?"
The figure pointed at a person striding toward them, also dressed in black, but this black felt more dangerous and more protective than Dean's silent companion. Dean's frown intensified as he sized up the thin, lanky figure approaching. Long, powerfully muscled legs were wrapped in tight-fitting black denim, boots with buckles and chains—more serviceable then decorative, Dean saw—stretched above his ankles. His hands were wrapped in black gloves and a long coat brushed the tops of his thighs, yet fit closely to his slight build. He looked wiry and menacing at the same time. His walk spoke of intent, of purpose, as if he placed each footfall knowing it could be his last step.
Dean's eyes skimmed the figure's face once, but as he watched, the figure side-stepped an elderly woman, glancing up and over and Dean caught his breath.
The years had not been kind to his little brother. His hair was still too long, but now it hung to his shoulders and was cut away severely around his face. Scars Dean knew didn't exist traversed Sam's face, crossing his cheeks and nose, puckering the corner of one eye, bowing the side of his mouth into a perpetual frown.
"What happened to him?" Dean asked the black cloaked figure next to him.
Silence was his answer. Snarling at his companion, Dean took off after his brother, following him down the busy street and around the corner into a darkened alley. The danger in the alley was palpable. Dean squared his shoulders in reaction; instinctively reaching to his waistband for his weapon and finding nothing.
Sam never stopped moving. His walk telegraphed that he knew his target, knew his reason, knew his purpose. He approached a figure hidden in the shadows Dean hadn't even seen. The figure jumped away and Dean saw blood on its mouth.
"Vampire," Dean breathed.
Almost effortlessly, Sam grabbed the vamp by the neck, slamming him against the wall and snarling in its face. The monster's teeth glistened with the blood of its victim and it bucked, pushing Sam away with the flat of its feet. Sam rolled with the kick, coming around behind the vamp in a smooth rotation, relieving the creature's shoulders of its head in one smooth slice from a knife Dean hadn't even seen him pull.
"Hot damn!" Dean exclaimed. "Did you see that?" he asked his hooded companion. "I told him he was stronger than me. See? He's badass. He couldn't do that now if he tried. Me leaving him is the best—"
Dean stopped speaking as Sam approached the vamps victim. It was a young girl—not more than fourteen. She was huddled against a green dumpster, crying, bleeding, looking up at Sam with grateful eyes. Without blinking, Sam used the same blade he'd killed the vamp with and cut off her head. Dean stumbled backward at the violent act, swallowing hard as Sam calmly used the edge of the girl's shirt to clean his blade, then returned it to a wrist holster hidden inside his long coat.
"Can't take any chances, right, Dean?" Sam whispered, looking down at the girl's body.
"What?" Dean whispered, then realized Sam was simply talking to himself.
Without a backward glance, Sam continued down the alley. Dean watched him go, his heart like a lead weight in his chest. Sam's innocence was gone. He was no longer Dean's little brother. He was no one's littler brother, no one's son, no one's lover. He was a hunter. He'd adapted, survived, and Dean was witness to what his absence had turned his brother into.
"This is only a possible future, right?" Dean turned to the cloaked figure. "This isn't like… what's really going to happen. Right?"
The figure was silent.
"Answer me, you son of a bitch!"
The figure simply pointed and Dean turned in the direction of its arm. He was in an apartment of sorts, walls covered with blades, table covered with guns, bags of rock salt lining the walls. Sam was standing in front of the table, pulling off his blood-smeared gloves and dropping them on top of a collection of silver bullets.
Dean stepped forward. "Sam?"
Sam rolled his neck, his long hair hanging a bit further down his back with the motion. He turned to head to his kitchen, grabbing a beer from the fridge and popped off the top with a silver ring he wore on his right hand. Dean looked down at his own hand, a chill shimmying down his spine as he realized Sam was wearing his ring.
Sam tipped his beer to a window situated in the uppermost corner of the room.
"Merry Christmas, big brother," Sam whispered. "Didn't think I'd make a decade, but looks like I was wrong."
"Ten years?" Dean whispered. "I've been gone ten years?"
The silent figure beside him nodded.
"Sam's not… married? No kids?"
The figure shook his head.
"But… he always wanted normal," Dean said, looking back at Sam with heavy eyes. "Why didn't he try for normal? I wasn't hauling him around from hunt to hunt… the yellow-eyed demon was dead… he could have just dropped off the grid. Found someone like Jess… been happy…"
"Sure do miss you, Dean," Sam sighed, rubbing the sweaty bottle of beer across his forehead. "But you were right. There's too much evil in the world. Someone's got to fight it."
Sam flicked off the kitchen lights, crossed to the table and picked up Dean's .45. Dean watched as Sam sat on the worn green sofa, swung his legs up on the opposite end and settled back with a tired sigh, the gun resting on his chest, his finger poised over the trigger.
"This is my brother's life?" Dean asked, turning toward the cloaked figure. "Pain and scars and loneliness?"
The figure nodded.
"This is what I saved him for??"
The figure remained silent.
"Show me your face, you bastard," Dean challenged. "I want to see your eyes. I want you to look me in the eyes and tell me this is real. That this is Sam's future."
The figure turned away and Dean saw they were once again wrapped in nothing.
"Hey!" Dean bellowed. "Show me your face!"
The figure remained unmoving.
"Fine," Dean growled. "If you won't show me, I guess I'll have to see for myself."
Dean strode forward, unconsciously mirroring future Sam's purposeful stride, and grabbed the hood, wrenching it back and away from the ghost of Christmas Future. The countenance that faced him was horrific. It was empty and full of grief. It was nothing and everything. It was bloody and angelic. It was terror and grace.
Dean stumbled backwards, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. He tried to look away, but the face held him fast. He raised his hands to ward off the figure's approach, but it came relentlessly. Dean grabbed at the cloak, struggling to keep the figure at bay, fighting to deny the figure's ardent wish.
Because Dean now knew what the figure was. And he knew he had to fight it with everything inside of him.
It was Death.
"Hold onto him, Sam!"
"I'm trying!" Sam had climbed on the bed next to Dean, wrapping his long arms around his brother's shaking body, wrapping one long leg around Dean's trembling ones. "He'll… k-kill me if he w-wakes up and we're… like this," Sam informed Bobby.
"We should be so lucky," Bobby muttered, continuing to wrap the tiny doll symbolizing Annabeth's Boz witch with a wide black ribbon and chanting the binding spell as Sam held tightly to Dean's quivering body.
"Tell me you're a-almost d-done!" Sam pleaded, Dean's head snapping back and hitting Sam's chin with a jerk, causing him to bite down on his tongue.
Bobby recited the last of the binding spell, then set the doll down on the table. He looked over at Sam and Dean lying next to each other on the bed. Dean's shivering was still evident, but the violent shaking had dissipated.
"Did it work?" Sam panted, reluctant to release Dean, even though the shivering that coursed through his brother could now be explained by cold and not magic.
"I-I don't know," Bobby shook his head helplessly.
"Bobby," Sam whispered, loosening his grip on his brother. "What time is it?"
Sam propped himself up on an elbow and looked down at his brother's pale face. "Come on, Dean. Don't give in now, okay?"
"Where is it?"
"Where's what, Dean?"
"That… death thing," Dean waved a shaking hand in the direction of the witch, belatedly realizing that light filled the nothing around them.
In fact the light was so bright he found himself squinting just to look at the witch.
"It's gone," she said. She stepped toward him. "And I'm going, too."
"Honestly, I'm not sure," she said, a slim line of worry dividing her brows. "I've never had my powers bound before."
"Someone's binding your powers?" Dean asked, impressed.
"Your brother is."
"Atta boy," Dean whispered.
"Did you choose?"
Dean lifted an eyebrow. "What, you can trap me in the space between reality and dreams, but you can't tell if I learned your lesson?"
Her lips quirked into a smile that said touché. "Usually I can… you've been… difficult."
"It's part of my charm."
"So, Dean… did you choose?"
Dean was silent for a moment. "Why is Sam binding your powers?"
"To amend a mistake."
"His, he thinks," she looked off to the right as if she heard something. "It was his wish that got you here."
"What?!" Dean exclaimed, his shock staggering him. "Sam…"
"Wished for you to see that you had to fight for your life."
"Jesus Christ, Sammy…"
"I have to leave, Dean," she said.
"What about me?" Dean asked, suddenly concerned.
"Well, that's up to you…" she turned, her smile tipping to sadness as her eyes left him.
"Boz," Dean called after her. She paused, inviting his question with her eyes. "You said one of the beings I'd know well… What did you mean by that? I knew Pastor Jim and I know Bobby…"
"It wasn't either of them I was referring to," she said, her voice sad. "You've seen the face of death, Dean. You've seen it, fought it, denied it… you just never embraced it before."
"What are you talking about?!" Dean exclaimed. "I'm not embracing anyone!"
"Not yet, but," Boz looked down, then lifted her eyes to meet his with heat. "You will."
And then she was gone.
"Why isn't he waking up?" Sam knew his voice sounded young, almost petulant, but he didn't care. He was scared and he needed his brother. "It's midnight, Bobby."
"Why isn't he waking up," Sam repeated, his voice barely a whisper.
Dean had stopped shaking, but was still cold to the touch. If it weren't for the faint but steady thrum of a heartbeat beneath his fingers, Sam would swear he was holding a corpse against him. He had shifted up in the bed, resting his back against the headboard, pulling Dean up next to him, the comforters wrapped around his brother, followed by Sam's arms.
Bobby sat at the foot of the bed, his hand loose in his lap, his worried eyes never leaving Dean's face. Sam felt the guilt of putting Bobby through this almost as heavy as his own worry for Dean's well being.
"C'mon, Dean," Sam pleaded. "Open your eyes."
"Sam…" Bobby cautioned.
"Don't," Sam snapped. "Don't say it. He'll wake up. He's got 30 more seconds. He's gonna do it… he's gonna wake up."
"Sam, don't do this to your—"
"Did you see that?" Sam asked excitedly. "Dean?"
Dean moaned low in the back of his throat, then swallowed. His lashes quivered as he worked to pry his eyes open.
"That's it," Sam encouraged. "That's it, Dean."
Raising his eyebrows to help his lids lift from the heavy pull of sleep, Dean succeeded in opening his eyes.
"Hey!" Sam greeted him, blinking back tears. "'Bout time you woke up!"
"Sam?" Dean voice ground out of him with the beauty of gravel crushed beneath heavy wheels. He blinked up at his brother. "What…"
"It's a long story," Sam said, sniffing. "Bobby's here."
Dean slid his eyes down, meeting Bobby's. "Saw you."
"You saw me?"
"You… were there…"
"Where, Dean?" Sam asked, unconsciously tightening his grip on Dean's shoulders.
Bobby's eyebrows shot up, and he looked over Dean's head at Sam. "I gave you a Christmas present?"
Dean shook his head, his hair rustling against Sam's chest.
"No…" Sam said in wonder. "No, Bobby… you… you were Christmas Present."
"She took him through the Christmas Carol," Sam whispered, wondering what Dean had seen.
"Sam," Dean whispered.
"Yeah, Dean," Sam leaned closer. "I'm here."
Dean looked right at him, licked his lips, then spoke in a strong, clear voice. "You try anything like that again, I'm gonna beat you."
Bobby and Sam blinked at him blankly for a moment, then Bobby started to chuckle.
"Dean, I—" Sam started.
"I'm serious," Dean tried to push himself away from Sam, realizing quickly that the witch's spell had taken more out of him than he thought. He ceased struggling and leaned back against his brother's warm chest. "Next time you need a heart to heart, just tell me."
"Good witch, my ass," Dean muttered, grabbing the comforter and pulling it tighter around him, his body shuddering with lingering cold.
Sam pressed his hand against Dean's forehead, relieved when he felt the beginnings of a normal warmth there, and eased his brother's head back against his shoulder.
"I'm sorry, man," Sam whispered, looking down, away from Dean, away from Bobby. "I just… sometimes you don't… and then I feel like…"
"I get it, Sam."
"Glad somebody does," Bobby muttered.
"Yeah," Dean nodded, feeling the back of his head slide against Sam's chest. "I don't know how we can beat this deal… I can't fight it if I lose you, but… I won't just… I won't give in."
"You promise?" Sam whispered.
"Yeah, man," Dean said, closing his eyes as a latent shiver slid through him and blocked out the residual memory of Sam's empty eyes as he killed the girl in the alley. "I promise."
"You two done kissing and making up?" Bobby groused good naturedly. "Because some of us need some sleep."
Dean pushed himself weakly away from Sam, slumping in the pile of quilts and reaching a hand out to Bobby. The older man grasped it, holding on a moment longer than necessary.
"Thank you, Bobby," Dean said softly. "Thanks for always being there for us, man."
Bobby lifted a shoulder, looking away. "It's what friends do."
"No," Sam corrected from behind Dean. "It's what family does."
Dean smiled, looking over his shoulder at his brother. "Merry Christmas, Sammy."
"Merry Christmas, Dean." Sam replied with a watery smile.
"You guys are breaking my heart," Bobby grumbled, a smile teasing the edges of his whiskers. "Can we just get some sleep… before Santa gets here?"