Title: While the Yule Log Burns
Author: JenF
Disclaimer: I do not own the Winchester family, their property, their friends or their enemies. If you recognise something, it's probably not mine.
A/N: This story was originally written and published as part of the Supernatural Virtual Season 4.


While the Yule Log Burns

The pristine white sign proudly declared the gated community to be "Meadow Valley." Dean had found it hard to keep a straight face as he persuaded the hugely inept security guard at the entrance that the Winchesters were simply visiting family. Hadn't the guy heard of Bill and Margaret? They moved here a couple of weeks ago. After that, it had been a piece of cake to find a vacant house, and even easier to jimmy the lock open and move in.

The last couple of weeks had been hard on both Sam and Dean and after much soul searching and casting sideways looks at his brother, Dean had decided maybe a vacation wouldn't be so bad. But it was Christmas time, the first one since Sam had lost Jessica, and Dean didn't want them to be cooped up in some crappy hotel with no pay per view and nothing to do but reminisce.

The late hour of their arrival meant the brothers were able to get into the empty house unnoticed and unhindered. Opening the door and efficiently disabling the alarm system, Dean flicked the lights on in the hallway to reveal an expensively furnished abode. The uplighters fixed to the walls cast a soft glow over oak flooring and designer cabinets. A sweeping staircase led up to a galleried top floor and a huge mirror at the foot of the stairs magnified the perceived size of the entrance hall.

"Dude, look at the size of this place," Dean marveled as he threw his duffel on the floor by the mirror. Spinning around, trying to take it all in, he failed to notice the look that passed briefly over his brother's face. "It's like a palace," he enthused.

"Yeah," Sam agreed, somberly. Catching his tone of voice, Dean turned and studied his brother closely.

"Sam?" he asked. "You okay?"

Sam shook himself down mentally and plastered a broad grin on his face. "Yeah, I'm good," he assured Dean. "It's just this place is so not what we're used to, y'know? We're gonna need one hell of a cover story for the neighbors."

Laughing, Dean made his way into the huge kitchen. "I think I just solved that problem," he called to Sam, flicking through a diary that had been left conveniently on a dresser. Waving the little book at Sam, he smiled. "Joseph Crosswell, date of birth June 14th, 1976. Perfect cousin material." He paused and skimmed through the diary until he came to the present date. "Even better, he's on vacation for three weeks." Dean threw the book down on the worktop and grinned at Sam. "We're house-sitting for our dear cousin Joe."

Sam had to admit it was the best night's sleep he'd had in over a month. Maybe Dean was right about this house-sitting business, although he still couldn't help thinking of it as squatting. Turning onto his back and trying not to get tangled up in the soft quilt, he gazed up at the ceiling. One day he'd wanted this sort of house, with Jessica and a brood of kids running around the place. He wondered what Cousin Joe did for a living and whether there was a Jessica in his life. He knew it was stupid to be thinking along those lines but he couldn't stop himself.

Sighing, he pushed himself out of bed, letting the deep pile of the carpet work between his toes. It was nice not to have to worry about what was embedded in the flooring for a change. They'd stayed in so many places where it was advisable to keep your socks on that it was almost second nature not to take them off. Jess had always laughed at him but he'd passed it off as just one of his little quirks that made him all the more loveable.

Feeling a lump rise to his throat at the memory, he forced himself to rise and prepare for the day ahead.

To his surprise, Dean was already in the kitchen, a pot of coffee on the go and the smell of burnt toast wafting through the living area. Stifling a laugh, Sam remembered why they generally ate out.

"Morning, sunshine," Dean greeted him, butter-covered knife in hand.

Sam raised his eyebrows and looked pointedly at the breakfast Dean was trying to prepare. "Since when did you make breakfast?"

Offended, Dean looked down at the offering in front of him. He'd made more spectacular meals in his time, he had to admit, but he was out of practice and it was an unfamiliar environment.

"Well," he huffed, "I was going to surprise you but, hey, make your own if you'd rather."

"No, no. It's great. Thank you." Sam smiled. It was so simple to wind Dean up over the little things and sometimes it was just what Sam needed. Like this morning. "So, how long have you been up?"

"Long enough to meet the neighbors," Dean replied. "The Humphreys are delighted that Joe thought to protect his property over the festive season." He smirked at Sam. "They even invited us for Christmas dinner."

Sam shouldn't really have been surprised by that. His brother could charm the socks off anybody when the urge took him but an invite for Christmas Day? That really wasn't Dean's style.

"What did you say?"

Dean shrugged nonchalantly. "I declined with thanks," he told Sam. "I told them we were visiting family." He turned away from Sam, grabbing a china mug from a cupboard and filling it with steaming brew. "So," he started, cradling the mug in his hands and gazing out of the window into the back garden, "what do you want to do today?"

Pushing away the remains of his toast, Sam followed Dean's gaze. It was a bright, crisp day and in the spirit of taking things easy for a while Sam actually had no plans. He shook his head slowly.

"I don't know," he admitted. "Maybe take a walk round, see what's here. How about you?"

"Cable TV, man. Need I say more? This guy has every channel under the sun and then some. I have my whole day mapped out." And so saying, Dean pushed off the worktop he'd been leaning against and made his way through to the living room, leaving Sam to his own devices.

In the end, Sam had a surprisingly productive day. True to his word, he donned a thick winter jacket from Joseph's wardrobe, thanking his lucky stars their host appeared to be a tall man, and strolled around the neighborhood.

Just as he was returning home, he spied a neighbor struggling to unload a truck full of logs. With nothing better to do he offered to help, an offer which was gratefully accepted with a smile.

"I'm Martin Humphreys," he introduced himself. "You must be Sam? We met your brother this morning. Joseph never mentioned having cousins but we're glad you're here."

Sam smiled. Dean was obviously relaxed enough to forgo the normal outrageous aliases and that made Sam more relaxed than he realized too. "Joe's not really one to talk about family much," he explained, hoping there was some truth in his statement.

Martin laughed as he passed down another armful of logs. "No, he doesn't. Quiet man. Nice neighbor to have, though." He straightened up, working out the kinks in his back. "I think that's the last lot." He jumped down to stand beside Sam. "Now all I need to do is get them round the back, into the wood shed."

"I'll help." It had been a long time since Sam had indulged in an everyday, mundane activity and he was enjoying himself and the company of the older man who exuded happiness and contentment. Nodding his thanks, Martin indicated the way round to the back of his house and led the way.

The whole task took less than half an hour with the two of them working at it. Mrs. Humphreys appeared as they were stacking the last heap, armed with steaming mugs of coffee. She smiled at Sam, giving him a surreptitious inspection which didn't go unnoticed by the young hunter.

"Thank you," she said, passing over a mug. "Martin takes so long doing this by himself. It's a wonder we're ever warm in the winter."

"I'm not that slow, honey," Martin laughed, putting an arm around his wife. "Ali's prone to exaggeration," he confided in a stage whisper. Turning back to the woman, he introduced Sam as the brother of the young man they met this morning. Sam almost laughed as a slight flush rose in the woman's face and he wondered what exactly Dean had said to garner an invitation for Christmas Day.

"You should come over. On Christmas Eve," she began. "I know your brother said you were busy on Christmas Day but we always have a neighborhood gathering on Christmas Eve. It would be so lovely if you could make it?"

Sam floundered. He knew Dean wouldn't want to go but, well he'd only had a couple of Christmases with Jessica but he'd really enjoyed them. And this was a vacation. Looking at Ali's imploring eyes, he really didn't feel he could turn down the invitation. And it wasn't like it was just them being invited. The whole street would be there.

"Thank you," he finally acquiesced. "That would be really nice."

Heading straight back home, he was unsurprised to find he was right. Dean wasn't happy at the prospect of spending Christmas Eve in the company of complete strangers, happy families making merry. He huffed and sulked for as long as he could until Sam mentioned which family was hosting the festivities.

"The Humphreys? They're the ones at number four, right?"

"Yeah. Martin and Ali," Sam confirmed. "I really think we should go Dean. After all, what else are we going to do? Joe's only got so much beer in his fridge, dude."

Dean nodded thoughtfully. "Okay," he conceded, astonishing Sam. He'd expected a much bigger protest from his brother.

"Okay?" he asked, suspiciously.

"Yeah, okay. It's been a while since we've had a good, home cooked meal. So, yeah. Let's go."

Sam narrowed his eyes and glared at Dean.

"What?" the older Winchester asked, defensively. Sam just tilted his head to one side, waiting for Dean to crack. "Okay, so there might be a daughter there," Dean finally confessed. "It might not be too horrible," and he turned away with a smirk on his face, leaving Sam to shake his head in exasperation at his brother's reasoning.

Christmas Eve came round quicker than Sam had expected, and early evening found the Winchester brothers standing on the doorstep of Number Four, Meadow Valley bearing gifts of fine wine lifted from Joseph Crosswell's cellar. There had been a heated discussion over the wine, during which Sam had told Dean that no self respecting guest turns up empty handed to these parties.

Stamping his feet against the cold, Dean rang the doorbell, blowing into his hands to warm them up while they waited for a response. Within a minute the door was thrown open by Martin Humphreys, wine in hand and a jolly expression on his face.

"Boys!" he exclaimed, as though they were long lost friends. "We're so glad you made it. Ali was beginning to think we'd scared you off." He stood to one side and ushered Sam and Dean through, taking their jackets and hanging them almost reverentially on the coat stand by the door.

The house was filled with the sound of laughter and animated conversation. Dean had to try really hard not to turn his nose up as his senses were attacked by the aroma of spiced apple, cinnamon and pine needles. He was already starting to feel uncomfortable but one look at Sam's face and he vowed to make a real effort for his brother's sake.

Sam looked truly at home, he reflected. Dean could see the stress and worries seeping off his brother and he was sure Sam was more relaxed than he'd seen him in months. He wondered if he should have enforced a vacation before now, even though he didn't know when they could have fitted one in.

Following Sam and Martin through to the living area, Dean was confronted by a trio of children, charging out of the same door he was trying to come in through. Sidestepping neatly, he followed their route up the stairs, listening wistfully to them shouting and laughing at each other.

Hovering by the fireplace, Dean watched benevolently as Sam was swept into conversation and plied with rumcake and eggnog. Finding himself a glass and a good vantage point, Dean settled back to keep guard, although he had no idea what for. He wished he could relax as much as Sammy seemed to have done but in the back of his mind he couldn't let himself stand down. He'd had it ingrained in him from such a young age that he just couldn't do it.

Suddenly a hush fell over the room and the guests cleared a path from the door to the fire. Looking around hesitantly, Dean's eyes met with Sam's. Sam was clearly as clueless as Dean as to the cause of the sudden change in the room. Every face in the room was looking expectantly toward the door as, with great ceremony, Martin appeared, arms wrapped round a huge log, hugging it protectively to his body.

Steadily and carefully he progressed into the room and along the pathway formed by his guests. With infinite care he bent down and gently laid the log in the fireplace as the neighbors broke out into spontaneous applause.

"What the hell was that?" Dean wondered aloud. Martin straightened up and smiled at Dean.

"The Yule Log," he stated simply, clearly expecting Dean to understand everything. Casting another look across the room, Dean noticed Sam was watching the interplay with the hint of a smile playing at his lips.

"The Yule Log?" he repeated, raising his eyebrows in question.

"It's a Christmas tradition," Martin explained, taking pity on the confused hunter standing next to him. "You take a log from a neighbor's garden and light it on Christmas Eve. It has to stay alight for twelve hours and it'll protect us from fire and lightning for the next year." Martin brushed his hands down the front of his pants and looked around the room. "Have you never seen a Yule Log before?" he asked.

Dean shook his head, aware that Sam had made his excuses to his companions and had moved over to join the conversation. "No," Dean said. He waved a hand in Sam's general direction. "We had a fairly unsettled childhood. Wasn't much time for stuff like this," he explained.

"Well," Martin's voice rose a decibel or two as he came to a decision. "You must do the honors this year then. You never know when you'll get the opportunity again." He dropped to a crouch and poked around in the hearth, arranging tinder below the Yule Log and fussing with ashes left from the previous fire. "Let me see your hands," he demanded, attention still on the wood in the fireplace.

"My hands?" If Dean's voice had risen any higher, Sam contemplated, he could justifiably be mistaken for a girl. The look on his brother's face was worth a picture and he wished he could get his phone out before it disappeared. Dean looked at Sam, completely bewildered, mouthing "my hands?" to Sam in the hope of enlightenment.

Deciding to take pity on his confused brother, Sam leant forward. "It's disrespectful to light the Yule Log with dirty hands," he explained, "and we don't want to offend our hosts."

Shooting a quick glare at Sam, Dean put down his now empty glass and raised his hands in front of him. Painfully aware that both Sam and Martin were watching him, he scrutinized the palms of his hands, twisting them this way and that before turning them over to examine the backs. He looked like a first grader getting ready for lunch and Sam had to raise a hand to his mouth to hide the smirk lying there.

"They're fine," Dean declared, dropping his hands back to his side. "Gimme the matches."

Martin shook his head and took hold of both Dean's wrists, raising his arms so he could take a look for himself. Feeling like a bug under a microscope, Dean tried not to offend their host by squirming too much, but the series of little tuts Martin was muttering, along with the miniscule shaking of his head was making the hunter uncomfortable.

"Hmm," he said. "Bathroom's second on the left," and he let go of Dean, waving an arm in the direction of the staircase. Standing back, Martin watched Dean expectantly.

Realizing Martin wasn't going to be moved on the issue, Dean shuffled forward, pushing past Sam. "No one's told me to wash my hands since I was four," he grumbled under his breath to his brother. Sam simply sniggered in reply, enjoying every minute of the show.

The first thing Dean noticed upon his return to the living room was the total silence. The guests had all gathered round the fireplace and, as one, they turned to look at him as he paused at the doorway. He fought an uncontrollable urge to turn and run. He took a deep breath and made his way to the hearth, where Martin was waiting with a charred lump of wood in his hand.

"What's that?" Dean queried, wondering why the hell he'd just had to clean up if Martin was going to hand him a piece of charcoal.

"It's last year's Yule Log," Martin explained patiently. "Or at least, what's left of it. You have to use it to light this year's Log." He passed the wood to Dean, along with a box of matches. "It's tradition,"

Dean shrugged and accepted the items, casting a quick glance at Sam. Sam was hovering to one side, clearly content and enjoying the spectacle. Putting his own feelings about traditions and Christmas merriment to one side in favor of his brother's relaxation, Dean efficiently struck the first match and put it to the corner of last year's log. Waiting for it to catch, he looked up and around the room.

All the guests were fixated on the struggling flame in his hand, and it was with some amusement Dean recognized they were gazing at him in awe. The lump finally flared into life and he leant forward, intent on dropping it in the hearth and getting back to his drink.

Just as he was about to let go, he felt a presence at his shoulder and a hand on his elbow.

"Make sure you do it first time," Mrs. Humphreys implored him. "Please. You need to have enough airflow for the flames to live, otherwise the log won't catch. Do it right. If you do it wrong you'll bring bad luck down on all of us." She gave his arm a squeeze. "Please."

Giving the woman what he hoped was a reassuring smile, Dean gently extracted his arm from her grip. Musing on the fact he had probably lit more fires than anyone in the room, including his brother, he dropped down to a crouch and competently placed the burning lump under the Yule Log, letting the flames lick at the kindling wood and the log, holding it in place just long enough for the flames to catch and take hold. Letting go, he straightened up and surveyed his handiwork.

Standing beside him, Ali gave a satisfied little nod. "Thank you," she murmured and made her way back to the kitchen through the crowd of guests who were now moving away, back into little groups to continue their festivities.

"That was bizarre," Dean observed in a low voice to Sam.

"Yeah," Sam agreed with a smirk. "You being told how to light a fire. Now there's something I never thought I'd see." He paused for a moment. "So," he continued, "how did it feel?"

"How did what feel?"

"Being an integral part of a family Christmas?" and, despite the glower on his brother's face, Sam couldn't hold back the grin.

"Shut up," Dean shot back and downed his drink in one. Slamming the glass on the mantelpiece, he looked around the room. Pointing at one of the neighbors, he told Sam, "I'm going to find out where he got that beer from!"

Ali Humphreys, it transpired, was an excellent cook. Seated at the long oak dining table, Sam's well trained eye took in the expensive crockery, the highly polished silverware and the vintage wine. Wine which was poured in abundance and seemed to serve no other purpose than to relax the guests.

Glancing across the table, Sam was amused to see his brother flanked on either side by the desperate housewives of Meadow Valley. Dean was in full flow, charm switched on, boyish grin firmly in place. Sam wondered idly if their husbands were as enamored with Dean as the women hanging off his every word appeared to be.

Happy that his brother was, if not happy, at least not twitching to get out of the place yet, Sam relaxed, content to be drawn into conversation by the redheaded girl seated next to him, who introduced herself as Nicky.

Every so often, though, he noticed Mrs. Humphreys rise from her position at the table and wander over to the door linking the dining room with the living room. Eventually, his natural curiosity got the better of him and he leaned over to his neighbor.

"What's she looking for?" he asked the redhead.

"Mom?" the girl turned to follow Sam's gaze and laughed when she saw what had captured his attention. "She's checking the fire," she explained.

"Checking it for what?" Sam raised his eyebrows, inviting her to continue with her explanation.

"It's tradition." She nodded sagely. "Mom's a stickler for tradition. You could almost say she's a bit neurotic about the Yule Log. If it goes out during the meal it means bad luck for the next year." She sighed and cast a long suffering glance at her mother.

"Why doesn't she just give it a poke, then?" It seemed the obvious solution to Sam but Nicky clearly had more to say on the matter.

"Because," she started, "it's forbidden. More bad luck apparently." She sat back. "Still, it keeps her happy. Personally I don't go in for all these superstitions and stuff. How about you?"

Sam laughed, wondering if Nicky would dismiss her mother's beliefs quite so readily if she ever found out what the brothers did for a living. Deciding, as ever, she was best off in the dark, he simply directed the conversation to pastures new and innocent while her mother cleared dishes around them.

Before he knew it, dinner was over and the gathered neighbors were moving into the living room once again. Senses pleasantly muted by a full stomach and a couple of glasses of wine more than usual, Sam readily let Nicky take his arm and lead him toward the fireplace. Debating whether to fight her off or not was unnecessary when he realized everyone had taken the same course and the area around the fire was crowded with people. Allowing Nicky to settle him on the sofa, perching next to him on the arm, he watched in amusement as Ali made a beeline to the once roaring fire, now a smoldering mound with a few red embers floating up the chimney.

"You should have done it yourself," she hissed at her husband as she grabbed the poker and gave the fire a violent jab, sighing in relief as the flames reignited and leapt skyward. "What were you thinking of? Leaving it to an amateur?"

Smirking, Sam cast a glance at his brother, propped up by the back wall looking unimpressed by the whole proceedings. He filed the comment away at the back of his mind for an appropriate moment and settled back for what looked like the culmination of the evening's festivities. He felt Nicky lean against him and found, to his surprise, he didn't totally object to her disregard for personal space.

"This is the best part," she whispered in his ear. "Dad always wraps up the evening with a ghost story. I'm telling you, he can scare the pants off anybody in this room!"

"Really?" Sam tried to sound suitably enthralled and caught Dean's eye over her head.

Dean was keeping a careful watch over events. He didn't have the benefit of a pretty girl whispering in his ear but he could hear enough other mutterings to know what was going on. He tried to hide a snort of derision when the woman in front of him clung theatrically to her husband's hand. In his mind, there was nothing as scary as some of the things he and Sam had lived through, so a couple of fairy tales weren't going to upset his beauty sleep.

Shaking his head, he watched as Ali moved around the room, flicking switches and plunging the room into darkness, save for the glow of firelight. Noting Martin move to face his audience, glass in hand, Dean let the voices fade into a general hubbub. Studying the tableau, he couldn't help wonder if this was the future Sam had been so set on, wondered if this is how Christmas would have been for his little brother and Jessica if things had turned out differently. He could imagine Sam and Jessica with a troop of rugrats running round and wished, for the thousandth time, his brother could have had the life he'd longed for.

Brought back to the present by a collective gasp from the audience, Dean looked away from Sam, aware he'd been unintentionally staring. Nobody seemed to have noticed, though, and he let his gaze wander, admiring the soft shadows made by the firelight.

"Hey, Sam," he whispered suddenly, "why's your shadow got no head?"

It was an innocent question and it was directed at the younger Winchester, but unfortunately Dean's timing sucked. He managed to break the frightened silence with his question and, as one, everybody turned to stare at Sam's shadow.

"Oh my God. No, no, no," Ali burst out, dropping her glass, letting it shatter on the wooden flooring. Surprised by her exclamation, Dean turned toward her. She had both hands over her mouth and even in the dim light, Dean could see her eyes were wide and terrified. She was staring at the shadow which had flickered and now looked no different to the others.

"What?" Dean demanded, stepping away from the wall. "What's the matter?"

She turned to the brothers, shaking her head continuously. "I'm sorry," she told Sam. "I'm so sorry."

"For what?" It was Sam's turn to be confused. Ali's look of horror remained but it was vying for position with the sympathy creeping into the corners of her eyes.

"The shadow," she began, hesitantly. "Your shadow had no head. It's an omen. Oh, I'm so sorry. You're so young. This shouldn't be happening to you."

Dean's patience was wearing thin and although he knew it was bad etiquette to snap at your host, he couldn't help himself. "What are you talking about? What omen?"

"Of death," Martin interjected, solemnly. "Whoever the headless shadow belongs to will be dead by year end," he intoned. "It's never happened before. I thought it was just a story but…" he waved his hand at the wall where Sam's intact shadow wavered in the firelight.

"It is," Dean barked. He grabbed Sam's arm and yanked him up off the sofa. No way was he going to stay and let his brother become the main attraction in some macabre fairytale the Humphreys had invented. "C'mon Sam. Time to go."

Pulling his arm free, Sam glared at his brother. He thought the reaction of the guests was a little over the top but, knowing what he knew, he wasn't so ready to dismiss it as Dean. And he wasn't going to be pulled away like a misbehaving child. He knew Dean meant well but sometimes his brother had trouble adapting to "polite" society. Dean, however, didn't seem to notice Sam had pulled free and was half way to the door. Shrugging apologetically at Nicky, he rose from his seat.

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "My brother's tired. He has a stressful job and he hasn't had a break for a while."

Following in Dean's footsteps, Sam wasn't surprised when Ali stopped him by the front door as he was pulling his jacket on. "Be careful," she implored him. "Seven days. That's all you have. I'm sorry," and she gently placed her hand on Sam's cheek before bidding him farewell with a sad smile.

Christmas morning brought watery sunshine through the blinds of the bedroom Sam was currently occupying. The events of the previous night were almost forgotten, although it had taken him a while to get to sleep. He had spent some time listening to his older brother stomping around downstairs and he was pretty sure that several more of Joseph's beers had been consumed. He didn't know what Dean had been up to but there had been rustling of paper and a deal of loud huffing going on before Sam had succumbed to the sandman.

Showering and dressing quickly, Sam made his way quietly past the closed door to Dean's room. It was his Christmas present to his older brother – the chance to sleep in. Padding down the stairs, he aimed directly for the kitchen, stopping to do a double take through the living room door.

Dean had obviously never made it up the wooden hill. He lay sprawled across the plush leather sofa, fast asleep. Sam stopped to study him for a few moments, wondering how much rest Dean had gotten last night. His brother's eyes were fluttering beneath his lids and for a moment Sam considered waking him. But some of his words last night had been true. Dean did have a stressful job and as for a break? He didn't think Dean had ever had one of those before.

Continuing on his way to the kitchen, Sam decided if Dean was ready to be roused, the scent of fresh coffee would be a far more effective, and pleasant, way to do it.

Joseph Crosswell's kitchen, Sam mused, could have come from the cover of any interior design magazine. The appliances gleamed in matching chrome and every work surface shone with cleanliness. He spared a quick glance out of the window, taking in the neatly manicured lawn, sparkling with winter frost. His hand curled around the smooth, sleek handle of the kettle and he filled it quickly. Setting it back on its stand to boil, he turned his attention to grinding the coffee beans the brothers had discovered on their first morning in the house. Joseph Crosswell, it seemed, didn't like to do things by halves.

Transported by the aroma of freshly ground coffee and the glistening grass outside the window to dreams of a life that might have been, Sam didn't notice the kettle boiling. And boiling. And boiling until water erupted out of the chrome spout, falling onto the worktop and spilling over on to the slate floor. It wasn't until the socket began to spark and crackle that Sam snapped out of his trance and realized the appliance was faulty and could cause a major problem.

Wondering how he was going to disconnect the kettle from the power supply, Sam ran through all the facts he knew about water and electricity and conductivity. Grabbing a towel from the handle of the oven, he wrapped it round his hand, not really sure if he was protecting himself or not, and advanced on the offending appliance, not noticing his brother's arrival in the doorway.

"Sam?" The tired enquiry halted Sam just long enough to take in his brother's tousled hair and sleep-laden

eyes.

Totally focused on the task at hand, Sam grunted a morning greeting at his brother. Too tired to be put out by the detachment in his brother's voice, Dean shuffled forward into the kitchen. The first he knew of the over eager kettle was a wetness on his socks, soaking through to his toes, the heat taking him by surprise. The combination of slate tiles and hot water, however, was enough for the older Winchester to lose his footing and, in a spectacular display of flailing limbs, he slipped, going down hard and hitting the side of his head on the corner of one of the cabinets on his way down.

"Dean!" Jolted out of the zone he'd found himself in by his brother's cry of pain, Sam instantly abandoned his crusade to make the kettle safe and rushed to his brother's side. He dropped to a crouch and reached out a hand. "Oh, God. Are you okay?"

Blinking furiously and cursing a blue streak, Dean slapped his brother's hand away, struggling to regain some semblance of dignity. "I'm good, Sammy," he managed. "Get off me."

Grinning in relief, Sam relaxed and shook his head. He lifted his hand away from Dean and, intending to haul himself upright, he pressed his hand down on the worktop. The same worktop covered in water from the malfunctioning kettle. The water currently sizzling and hissing from the power escaping from the socket at the wall.

It was a lesson Sam learnt in school many, many years ago. A lesson drummed into him by his father and his brother. As a river of blue light shot from the socket to Sam's hand, he just had time to think "water conducts electricity" and then there was pain, and shock, and darkness.

Dean watched in horror as Sam's hand slapped down on the marble surface. Too late with his warning cry, Dean could only look on helplessly as Sam's eyes widened briefly in shock. In Dean's slightly befuddled mind it was as though someone had attached a string to Sam's waist and yanked him backward. His little brother flew across the kitchen in a sick parody of one of their many encounters with spirits, and landed in an ungainly heap against the back door, a good few feet away from Dean.

Ignoring the throbbing pain in his own head, Dean scrambled to his knees, not quite trusting his equilibrium enough to attempt standing upright. Crawling across the floor to his brother's side he placed a trembling hand to Sam's neck, not releasing the breath he was holding until he felt a steady pulse throbbing beneath his fingers. Reluctant to break contact with the unconscious hunter, Dean gently ghosted his other hand through his brother's hair, checking for any injuries.

Relieved to find nothing other than the expected bump on the back of Sam's head, Dean gave his brother a little shake.

"C'mon Sam," he urged. "Wake up."

A couple more shakes and Sam began to stir. Eyes fluttering under closed lids, he tried to work out what was going on. He could hear Dean's voice coaxing him back to awareness and he was vaguely aware of the tinge of panic lacing his older brother's words. He felt tingly all over and as his limbs began to reacquaint themselves with his nerve endings, the tingle grew in intensity until it left him shaking and breathless. Grasping his brother's shirt, tangling it in his fingers, he turned scared, wide eyes up to Dean's face, begging him, imploring him to make it better.

The heavy reassurance of a firm grip on his wrist pulling his hand onto a steadily rising chest gave him more succor than a 911 call could have done, and he gradually found his own breathing falling in line with the rhythm of his brother's. Trying to ignore the sharp stabbing pinpricks of residual electricity, he let Dean take control, allowing himself to be gently pulled to his feet and steered into the living room.

Depositing Sam on the plush sofa and checking his pupils and breathing for what felt like the thousandth time, Dean finally let himself relax a little. Dropping to a crouch in front of his brother he rested his hands on Sam's knees, closing his eyes briefly. He was used to seeing Sam in a variety of precarious situations, beaten, bloody, unconscious. But it had always been on a hunt. In a life of making constant risk assessments, brewing coffee had never reached the top ten in Dean's list of life threatening activities.

"You okay, dude?" he enquired, giving Sam a gentle slap on the leg as he pushed himself to his feet. Sam gave a weak smile in reply and nodded his head carefully. "Okay. Stay there. I'm gonna go clean up in there," Dean instructed, waving a hand in the direction of the scene of the accident. Waiting till Sam acknowledged his intentions, Dean reluctantly left his brother's side.

It took him a good ten minutes to mop up the offending water and make the electric socket safe with a kitchen towel. He glared at the kettle and chewed his lower lip in thought. Making up his mind, he snatched the appliance from its position and filled it with water. Being careful not to use the same socket, he flicked the switch and watched it. Sure enough, as the water boiled, the kettle cut out, water settling back down without a drop being spewed from the spout. Dean tried it again, just to be sure, with the same result. Casting an uneasy glance to the room where Sam was resting, he couldn't help but think back to the previous evening and Ali Humphreys' dire prophesy.

Sam was still sitting upright when Dean returned to the living room. He eyed his older brother with concern and not a little confusion. "Dean?" he asked. "What happened in there?"

"Don't you remember?" Dean worried.

"I remember you slipping and banging your head," Sam pondered, looking up suddenly at Dean. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Sam. What else do you remember?"

Sam frowned. He remembered rushing to Dean's side, he remembered putting his hand down to haul himself upright and then after that. "Was I electrocuted?" he asked, a puzzled look on his face.

"Yeah, dude, you were electrocuted. By a damned kettle!"

"Huh."

"Huh? That's all you've got to say? Sam, the kettle tried to kill you."

"It did not try to kill me, Dean. It's a kettle. It was an accident."

"No," Dean refused to be treated like a five-year-old, "it wasn't. I boiled that kettle twice. Nothing. No water spilling over, no faulty electrics, nothing."

"Dean," Sam shook his head, trying to clear the clouds of confusion away. He couldn't understand why Dean, his normally sensible, if somewhat hotheaded, brother was suddenly convinced they were in a house full of killer appliances. "It could have happened to anyone."

"But it didn't," Dean insisted. "And after last night…" he trailed off into an uncertain silence.

Sam sighed and dropped his head back on the soft cushions of the sofa. "It's an old wives tale, dude. There's no such thing as headless shadows and Yule Logs predicting deaths. Ali's a lovely woman but I think she's letting her imagination run away with her. It was just a trick of the light. Nothing to worry about."

Dean huffed and turned away from the younger hunter, digging into his pocket. "We'll see," he muttered ominously as he pulled out his phone. Wandering into the hallway, he quickly located Bobby's number and hit the send button.

It took a couple of rings for Bobby to answer his phone and when he did, he didn't sound very awake. On any other occasion Dean would have made a lewd and suggestive comment, but his worry for Sam overrode his natural inclination to base humor.

"Bobby?"

"Who else would it be? You called me."

"We've got a problem," Dean told him, ignoring the distinctly unsurprised snort from the other end of the phone.

"When don't you?" Bobby asked, good-humoredly.

Ignoring the implications, Dean quickly filled the older hunter in on the events of the last twenty-four hours. He paced up and down the hallway as he told his story, pausing every so often for Bobby to grunt or mumble under his breath.

Reaching the end of his version of events, Dean paused, taking the opportunity to glance through the open doorway to where Sam was dozing on the sofa. "What d'you think, Bobby?" he asked, wincing at the hint of desperation in his voice. "There must be something I can do. Sam thinks it's all rubbish but I don't know, man. Something caused that accident."

"Are you actually listening to yourself, boy?" Bobby griped down the phone. "There's nothing goin' on there but an overactive imagination and a lot of sittin' around doin' nothing. Your brain's gone soft. Sam's right. You're overreacting."

"Bobby," Dean began, only to be interrupted.

"Okay, okay," Bobby sighed. "I'll look into it, but I can tell you now I won't find anything."

"Thanks, Bobby." Dean was surprised by the wave of relief that swept through him, leaving him needing the support of the wall to stay upright.

"Oh, and Dean?" Bobby's voice caught him by surprise. "Merry Christmas," and Dean could almost hear the smile in the old man's voice.

"You too, Bobby," he whispered to the now dead phone in his hand.

By the time midday rolled around Sam was about ready to punch his brother. He could understand the fraternal concern heading in his direction, but the constant scrutiny and never ending enquiries regarding his health were beginning to wear a little thin. He didn't think he could take another bathroom break without incurring a full medical examination from Dean and whilst he appreciated his brother was a little freaked out by the Kettle Incident, as he'd come to think of it, he really didn't need to be mother-henned quite this much.

Standing from his position on the sofa, he stretched his arms up, rolling his head around on his neck to work out the kinks from inactivity. Dean's head instantly spun round to watch him and Sam only just suppressed a sigh of irritation. Making his way over to the kitchen he wasn't surprised to feel Dean dogging his heels. Sam wondered if his older brother had been this intense when they were younger or whether he'd just left a sick Sam to his own devices in those days.

"I'm fine, Dean," he sighed, throwing a backward glance at his brother. "I'm only making a sandwich."

Dean simply grunted and propped himself up against the backdoor to watch over Sam. He knew in the back of his mind that he was being irrational and that one accident didn't make a curse but he'd spent his whole life looking out for Sam and it wasn't something he could turn on and off like a switch. He could tell he was irritating Sam by the stiffness in the younger man's back.

"Seriously, Dean" Sam snapped. "I can handle a bread knife. Go and watch some more TV or something. I'll shout if I need you."

"Fine," Dean huffed. "But don't come crying to me when you cut your finger."

Sam smiled and turned to face his brother. "I'll make you one too, if it makes you happier."

"When have you ever known me to turn down food?" Dean replied, finally acquiescing to Sam's instructions and leaving the younger hunter to his endeavors with the bread.

It took Sam just over ten minutes to source the ingredients for a perfect lunchtime snack but, relishing the solitude, he spent another ten gazing out of the window at the birds hopping around the backyard in search of water and worms. Taking pity on them he opened the door and threw out the crumbs on the breadboard for them. Deciding he'd probably used up his time limit, he piled the sandwiches on two plates and returned to where Dean was sitting on the edge of the sofa, looking as though he was about to bolt to the kitchen at the slightest sound. Handing a plate to Dean, Sam smirked.

"See?" he said. "I'm more than capable of looking after myself."

Relaxing, Dean accepted the plate and sat back, playing with the remote for the TV. Refusing to eat until Sam was settled next to him, Dean was pleasantly surprised by how filling the food was. He hadn't thought he had much of an appetite but, on reflection, it appeared it would take more than a household incident to put him off his lunch.

Lunch was a quiet affair, followed by a quiet afternoon of Christmas viewing. There was the obligatory children's animated film, the evergreen feel-good movie, the collection of apparently hilarious outtakes from the year's best, and worst, shows, all topped off with the ultimate chat show. Sam watched Dean follow each program from start to finish, wondering where the beer had come from that seemed to be constantly in his hand.

Between each show, Dean would get up off the sofa and disappear from the room. Sam wondered briefly if he ought to be shadowing his brother to see what he was up to, but in the end the warmth of the room and the comfort of the sofa decided the issue for him.

As day was turning to dusk, and Dean had wandered out for the hundredth time, Sam felt his phone vibrate in his pocket, accompanied by a guitar riff Dean had thought he would like. Pulling it out, he inwardly cursed his brother for messing with his stuff, again, and glanced at the caller ID.

"Hey, Bobby," he answered cheerfully, genuinely glad to hear from the older hunter. "Merry Christmas."

"Don't Merry Christmas me," Bobby grumbled on the other end of the line, taking Sam aback with his gruffness. "D'you have any idea how many times that idjit brother of yours has called me today?"

"Um, no?" It was becoming clear what Dean had been up to every time he left the room. "Lots?" he hazarded, rewarded by a snort of laughter from Bobby.

"Oh, yeah. And then some. That boy is gonna drive me to an early grave. If I've told him once, I've told him a thousand times, you're not cursed."

Sam couldn't hold back the sigh of resignation. "He's bugging you too, huh?" he asked sympathetically.

"I'm this close to coming out there just to kill him," Bobby admitted. "Can't you do something with him?"

"It's Christmas Day, Bobby. Where am I going to take him?"

"Find a bar," Bobby retorted sharply. "Take him to one of those. There must be one open somewhere. And leave him there if you have to. I'll call when and if I find something."

Sam smiled, retaining a black satisfaction that he wasn't the only one suffering as a result of Dean's paranoia. Disconnecting his phone, he looked up to where Dean was hovering by the TV. "Bobby says I have to take you out," Sam explained, ignoring the unspoken query on his brother's face. "He reckons you need to chill and a bar might be just the place for you."

Dean stared at Sam and for a brief moment the younger Winchester thought he was going to have a hissy fit. But then his face cleared and he broke into a grin. "A bar, you say? Cool. Where are we going then?" And he spun on his heels, grabbing his jacket from the coat rack at the bottom of the stairs. Shoving his arms through the sleeves, he proceeded to gather his daily accoutrements to him – gun, wallet, keys – and turned back to Sam.

Who was standing at the bottom of the stairs, one hand pressed to his stomach with a grimace worthy of a gargoyle on his face.

"Sam?" Dean was at his brother's side in a heartbeat. Sam's face had drained of all color and he was swallowing convulsively. Laying a hand on his little brother's shoulder, Dean could feel the younger man shivering, minor tremors building in strength until Sam was barely just holding on from heaving over the floor were they stood.

Covering his mouth with a hand, Sam pushed Dean to one side and dashed to the bathroom, slamming the door closed with his foot. Through the closed door, Dean could hear the unmistakable sound of Sam throwing his guts up inside the small room. Giving him a little privacy, Dean hovered outside until he could no longer hear the sounds of Sam's misery. Tapping softly, Dean pushed the door open gently to reveal Sam on his knees, retching pathetically into the toilet bowl.

Rubbing soothing circles on his back, Dean frowned in concern. Not two minutes ago Sam had been absolutely fine, suggesting the trip to a bar and smiling. Now he looked as though he'd lost not only the contents of his stomach but most of his innards too.

"You okay, dude?" Dean enquired.

Sam managed a half-hearted nod, which was quickly followed by another round of dry heaves. Waiting a few minutes for his stomach to settle, Sam allowed Dean to help him to his feet. Closing his eyes against a sudden wave of nausea, Sam gripped his hand in Dean's jacket and, try as he might, he couldn't help the small groan escape his lips as the acid churned around his belly.

It was an easy task after that for Dean to persuade Sam the best place for him was bed. He got Sam up the stairs with minimum of fuss and fetched him a glass of water. Putting the drink on the bedside table, Dean perched on the edge of the bed, ghosting a hand over Sam's forehead. Slightly perturbed by the heat seeping through Sam's skin, Dean frowned.

Sam flung his arm out in an ungainly attempt to knock Dean's hand away. Missing his mark completely, Dean couldn't help but smile as he caught hold of the offending limb and tucked it under the covers. But the frown returned quickly as Sam's eyes flickered left and right until finally focusing on Dean.

"How you doing?" Dean enquired, not really expecting much of an answer.

"Crap," Sam answered honestly. "But I'll be fine."

"Bit of a coincidence don't you think?" Dean mused. "You being so sick just after being electrocuted. Especially with the headless shadow thing."

"Dean." Sam didn't mean to whine but he was drained, physically and mentally, and the last thing he needed was Dean going all over protective on him.

"C'mon Sammy," Dean exploded. "You were poisoned. It's the only possible explanation."

Sam considered rolling over on to his side, effectively ending any conversation, but his unsettled stomach had other ideas and he decided, on balance, he was best where he was. "I wasn't poisoned," he muttered. "You're overreacting again."

"Of course you were," Dean retorted. "What else would have caused this?" He placed his hand back on Sam's brow, nodding significantly. "You're way too hot, dude."

"So would you be if you just lost your dinner," Sam grumbled. "Anyway, how can I have been poisoned? We haven't been anywhere. It was just something I ate."

"Ha!" cried Dean triumphantly. "We ate the same things! And I'm just fine. Explain that one to me."

"You eat crap all the time," Sam explained tiredly. "Your stomach's probably developed its own lead lining."

Dean's face fell as he acknowledged the truth in Sam's statement. "Whatever," he huffed. "Stay put, princess. No going out for you tonight." He stood up and studied Sam. His brother's eyes were growing heavy and it was obvious to Dean that Sam would be asleep before he got to the bottom of the stairs. Softening his voice, he asked "You sure you're okay, Sammy?"

A tired little nod was the only response Dean got and, happy with that, he headed back downstairs, resolving to check on Sam in a little while.

When Sam woke the only light was from the clock glowing softly on the bedside table and the fluorescent glow of the street lamps outside the window. He stretched languidly on the bed, gently rubbing his stomach, relieved to find the only after effects of his sickness was a tightness in his belly that was only to be expected after a sudden spasm of muscles like the one he'd experienced.

Glancing over to the clock, he saw it was nearly three in the morning. Christmas Day was officially over and, although it hadn't been the worst ever, it didn't rank up there in the top five either. Rolling his head back to gaze at the ceiling he became aware of a flickering light coming from the lower story of the house. His brother, he guessed, was still downstairs.

Deciding to investigate what could have possibly captured Dean's attention enough to keep him downstairs till this time in the morning, Sam swung his legs over the side of the bed, relishing the sensation of plush carpet between his toes. Stealing quietly into the hallway, he stopped at the top of the staircase. He had been right, the living room was bathed in the glow of the TV screen and a single table lamp was burning brightly by the front door. There was no sound of movement and Sam felt it was safe to assume Dean had crashed on the sofa in front of some cheesy late night flick.

Smiling inwardly, he realized this was the perfect opportunity to get his own back on Dean for all the unnecessary mollycoddling he'd had to suffer over the last day or two. He put his foot forward to rest on the first step when the light in the hallway died, leaving Sam to flounder in sudden darkness. Taken aback by the change in light, Sam's eyes didn't adjust quickly enough to compensate and his foot missed the step completely.

Suddenly Sam's height didn't seem to be such an advantage as he flung his arms out to regain his balance. His efforts proved to be in vain, however, and he found himself tumbling head over heels, back smashing into every riser on the staircase, head connecting with the railings at every opportunity. The bone jarring fall sent him crashing to the first floor in half the time it would have taken him to run, and he knew by the second step he had cracked at least one rib, possibly more. And then it became academic as his head found the hardwood floor of the entrance lobby with a vengeance and he knew no more.

Startled from the doze he'd nodded off into some time ago by the sound of thumping and crashing from the hallway, Dean jerked up from the sofa, heart racing, on immediate alert. As far as he was concerned, Sam was safely tucked into bed for the night. His mind whirling through possibilities from an intruder to Cousin Joe returning home early, he was up off the sofa, gun in hand, before he really had time to process his actions.

Creeping from the room with a stealth his father would have been proud of, he threw all caution to the wind when he saw the cause of the noise. Sam was lying in a crumpled heap at the foot of the stairs, one arm lying across his chest, the other flung out to the side. Skidding to his side, Dean fell to his knees, frantically checking for a pulse which he knew, just knew, had to be there. Panic turned to relief when he felt a steady throb beneath his hand. Gently turning Sam's head, he knew his brother was bleeding before he saw the blood. The warm sticky sensation at the back of his brother's head could only be one thing.

Rolling Sam's head back to the side to ensure his airway remained unobstructed, Dean rocked back on his haunches. Sam was unconscious, and although he was breathing comfortably, Dean was unable to wake him by conventional methods. Not wanting to move his brother more than was necessary, he dragged a throw off one of the armchairs, laying it gently over his injured brother.

After what seemed hours, Dean reluctantly acknowledged that Sam wasn't waking up any time soon. He had slapped his brother with decreasing gentleness, called his name countless times hoping for a reaction and rammed his knuckles against Sam's sternum. All to no effect. Sighing in despair, Dean scrubbed a hand over his face and came to a decision. Sam's continued state of unconsciousness was a concern and Dean reluctantly had to accept he wasn't going to be able to cope with it by himself. Every so often, no matter how much he hated doing it, he had to rely on professional help.

Unwillingly Dean left his brother's side in order to retrieve the keys to the Impala, glancing out of the window at the darkened street. Snow was falling in flurries and the wind had picked up, causing drifts to collect by the curbside and mailboxes. Dean bit his lip and studied his fallen brother once more. In any other circumstance, Dean wouldn't contemplate taking his baby out in this weather but Sam needed a hospital and he couldn't see any alternative. He could dial 911 and wait for an ambulance but every minute wasted waiting was time he wasn't sure Sam could afford.

Biting the bullet he heaved his little brother over his shoulder, gently steadying his legs and muttering an apology as he manhandled him out of the house and into the back seat of the car. Carefully replacing the blanket over Sam's body, Dean made his way to the driver's seat and threw the car into gear.

Backing onto the street was easy and the time of night meant the roads beyond the gated community were deserted. He drove as quickly as he dared, flinching every time the Impala hit a patch of ice, occasionally slipping to the side. Gripping the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles showed white through the darkness, Dean couldn't stop himself glancing back in the rear view mirror every couple of minutes. Sam seemed comfortable enough every time and Dean returned his full attention to the road for another five minutes.

The ice under the snow-covered roads was becoming hazardous and it took all Dean's skill to keep the car in a straight line. By the time they had reached the signs into town, Dean was almost as exhausted as he had been when he fell asleep. Realizing he had no idea where the hospital was, he took his eye off the road momentarily to really look at the street signs, hoping for some indication which direction he should be taking.

It was only a moment, but it was long enough. Just as he narrowed his eyes to read the nearest sign through a mini snowstorm, the Impala hit a patch of black ice. Throwing the car into a 360 degree skid, Dean grappled with the steering wheel. The car, though, was heavy to control and had already made up its mind that it was going to do its own thing. Frantically trying to turn its wheels into the skid, Dean felt the car fight him every inch of the way. Just as he thought he was winning, the Impala left the road, spinning yet again. Dean just had time to watch in horror as a nearby lamppost came to meet them and the car hit with a force strong enough to jolt Sam off the back seat and on to the floor, throwing Dean into the side window, shattering both the glass and his hold on awareness.

Dean woke to the sound of hustle and bustle and the distinctive smell of antiseptic. Cracking his eyelids open, he confirmed what he had suspected. He'd wanted to get Sammy to a hospital, he mused, but this wasn't quite the method he'd had in mind.

Lifting his hand to absently rub at his head, he was disgusted to find an IV taped to him. Squinting against the harsh light, he followed the line from his hand to what he assumed was a drip attached to it. He dropped his arm back down and stifled a groan when a bolt of pain shot across his brow. Closing his eyes against the discomfort he was mildly soothed by a soft hand on his wrist and another on his forehead.

"Hey there," a voice broke through the haze in his head. "We were wondering how long you were going to sleep."

Dean prized his eyes open again to see a middle aged woman efficiently taking his pulse and watching him closely. Not wanting to engage in conversation yet, he grunted at her.

She smiled at him benevolently. "Not feeling too bright, huh? I'm not surprised. That was some accident you boys had. Any chance of telling me your name?"

Dean looked at her stupidly, his sluggish brain taking in what she'd said. "Dean," he told her, losing all interest in his own health. "Where's my brother?"

"Your brother? Is that the young man you were with?" she enquired, dropping his wrist and making a minor adjustment to the IV in his hand. "He's being taken care of. I'll let them know you're awake and I'm sure someone will be along to talk to you soon. How's the headache?"

"What d'you mean, being taken care of?" Dean demanded, ignoring her question and trying to sit upright.

The nurse glared at him and pushed him back down. "Like I said," she reiterated, "someone will be along soon. You need to stay calm and rest," and she turned back to Dean's notes. "Or do I need to sedate you?" she threatened as she caught Dean struggling back up.

"Fine," Dean huffed, hoping to fool the woman into leaving as he dropped back onto the unforgiving pillows. He watched with satisfaction as she completed her paperwork and left in search of other patients. The minute he was alone, Dean ripped the IV from his hand, oblivious to the stinging sensation as the needle was yanked out. Swinging his legs over the bed he stood, swaying briefly while he adjusted to the change in altitude. Checking the coast was clear, he sauntered as casually as he could into the corridor in search of Sam.

He'd been around enough ERs to be able to find his way around without looking out of place. It took him only minutes to find the room where the medics had seen fit to put Sam. He pulled the curtains aside fully, shocked to see the younger man completely surrounded by doctors and nurses. They were bustling about and there seemed to be some sort of argument going on between two doctors.

"What's going on?" Dean demanded, causing an immediate silence to fall over the room. The staff turned as one to eye Dean suspiciously. Evidently deciding the young man posed no threat, a young nurse moved toward him, holding out a placating hand.

"I'm sorry, sir," she began. "You can't be in here."

"That's my brother," Dean explained. "What's wrong with him?"

"Please, sir," she tried again. "You have to leave. Your brother's in good hands but you need to give us room to work."

"No," Dean shook his head vehemently. "I'm not leaving until someone tells me what's wrong with my brother." He strode forward to get a better look at Sam.

The nurse gave an exasperated sigh that made Dean wonder how many times she'd had this conversation. But he didn't care. Sam was in the middle of a gaggle of medics and nobody was telling him anything. He pushed past her protests until he was close enough to touch Sam.

"Sir." Her tone of voice had changed considerably, a hard edge now coloring her words. "If you don't step outside I'm going to call security. Your brother needs help and you're getting in the way. Someone will be with you shortly."

Dean spun round to face the woman. He towered over her and later he would feel guilty about intimidating her. "Listen to me," he hissed. "I am staying right here until…"

"Dean, don't be such an ass." It was weak and Sam's voice trembled halfway through but the statement was enough to stop Dean in his tracks.

"Sam?" he whispered, suddenly losing the ability to stand unaided as relief swept through him. Clutching the side of his brother's bed, he leant forward. "Geez, dude. You had me scared. How you doing?"

"I'd be a lot better if you'd stop arguing and keep the noise down," Sam grumbled.

Dean smiled and then frowned as his vision began to waver. The adrenaline that had been keeping him going was running out and he could feel his legs begin to shake with the effort of staying upright. He vaguely saw Sam's face turn from mild humor to concern. He tried to tell him that it was okay, that he was good, but somehow, although he opened his mouth, nothing came out. The room began to sway and with a flash of clarity, Dean realized he was about to pass out.

Sam sat by Dean's bedside, reflecting on how their roles had been reversed in a matter of minutes. When he came round, he'd been relieved to see Dean even though he couldn't quite remember what had happened, but when his older brother had collapsed on the floor, he had been seized by an irrational panic. He vaguely remembered falling down the stairs and then nothing till he'd woken in the ER. He had no idea of how they got there, just that Dean was there when he came round so it couldn't have been anything too serious. Right?

But when Dean passed out, Sam had to reconsider his initial observations. His brother had been rushed out of the room and back to his own room and Sam had been reassured he was being taken good care of. Sam didn't have the same propensity for annoying medics trying to help them so he lay back and submitted to being poked and prodded.

And now, he mused, he was the one watching over his brother, ribs taped, head stitched, instructions not to stay too long and to call for help if he needed it. He'd nodded compliantly at the time, but he knew in his heart as soon as Dean woke, they'd be out of there like a shot.

Dean stirred once or twice before opening his eyes to find Sam's face almost in his. He tried to jerk back in surprise but the pillows prevented him from getting too far.

"Stay there, Dean," Sam muttered. "You've already fallen over once, don't push your luck," and he gave Dean a wan smile.

Dean, however, just pushed Sam's hand away and glared at him. "Get off me, dude. I'm fine."

"Yeah, right. Which is why you passed out in my room." He paused and studied Dean as he levered himself into a sitting position. "What happened?" he asked.

"What d'you remember?" Dean asked cautiously.

"Waking up, seeing the light downstairs, tripping over and then, nothing."

"Huh. Well, you 'fell' down the stairs and wouldn't wake up so I had to bring you here." Dean wondered if that would be enough information for Sam. He could still dream.

"So why are you in here too?"

"Because I kinda crashed the car," Dean admitted after a pause. "But it was trying to take you out, Sam. The poisoning, the fall, the crash. Are you getting the message yet?"

Sam sighed. Dean was like a dog with a bone when he got hold of an idea and it seemed he wasn't going to rest until the Yule Log mystery, if there was one, was put to bed.

"Accidents, Dean. Just accidents. Okay, so it's a run of accidents but, trust me, that's all there is to it. You have to let it go."

"You know what? I don't have accidents. I'm the best damned driver you are ever gonna meet. I do not crash my car. Ever."

"Dean, did you even see the conditions out there?" Sam tried to appease his brother. " No one in their right mind would go out in that. You're lucky you got as far as you did."

"No, Sam. You can say what you want, but there's no way I would have crashed my baby if it hadn't been for this curse."

Sam threw his head back and rolled his eyes. "This, again? Dean, there is no curse. I wasn't driving. Hell, I wasn't even conscious."

"Exactly," Dean retorted triumphantly, throwing Sam into confusion.

"What?"

"This Yule Log curse doesn't care about taking out bystanders. If you'd been driving, we'd both be dead now."

"You're not going to let this drop, are you?" Sam wondered.

"Nope. Get used to it, Sammy."

Getting out of the hospital was a piece of cake. The tricky part had been getting back to the house. As the two Winchesters stood outside the entrance to the ER, Dean had remembered why they were both there in the first place. There was no way the Impala was going anywhere other than the local bodyshop for the foreseeable future and getting a taxi was out of the question.

Sam suggested calling somebody, but Dean had shot that idea down.

"Who do we know to call?" he demanded. "Bobby's hundreds of miles away." He stomped his feet against the cold, glaring at the slowly rising sun on the horizon as if it held the answer to their problems. "We could borrow one from the parking lot?" he suggested.

"And how practical is that in a town like this?" Sam enquired. "The cops would find it in half an hour. Like it or not, Dean, I think we're gonna have to call someone." He hesitated, eyeing Dean from lowered lashes. "Like Nicky," he offered.

"Nicky?" Dean was incredulous. "You got Nicky's number? Sam, there's hope for you yet, you sly dog."

"She gave it to me," Sam confessed sheepishly. "I didn't ask for it."

Dean appeared to consider the options for a moment before shrugging his shoulders. "Well, if she's sweet on you, I say we use it to our advantage. Make the call, Romeo."

Which is how they ended up in Nicky Humphreys' basic but comfortable Toyota. Crammed in the compact backseat, Dean couldn't help but smirk at the girl's blatant attempts to seduce Sam and Sam's obliviousness to the whole effort. As he tried to unfold his legs to a more comfortable position, the conversation died completely and the rest of the journey was made in silence. Sam's responses were vague at best, muddled at worst and Dean began to wonder about the strength of the pain medication they'd managed to lift from the hospital.

Sam knew Nicky was trying to strike up a conversation but every time he thought of a witty reply, or even just a simple answer, to her questions, his mouth filled with saliva and he had to swallow down the urge to be sick yet again. He was conscious of the fact Dean was watching his every move but the motion of the car, coupled with the painkillers he'd been given, was starting to affect him in an adverse manner.

He was relieved to see the white gates of Meadow Valley rise up out of the dawn and he turned what he hoped was an appreciative smile to the girl who had given up her post-Christmas sleep in to rescue two comparative strangers. As Nicky pulled into the driveway to Cousin Joe's house, Sam recognized the now familiar roil of his stomach and, bolting from the car like a startled colt, he dashed into the house, barely waiting for Dean to chase him down the path to unlock the door.

Dean knew something was up with Sam as soon as the car rolled to a halt. Leaning forward to rest a hand on the younger man's shoulder, he was shocked by the heat leaching through the fabric of Sam's jacket. He opened his mouth to comment but before a word could slip out, Sam had thrown the car door open and was halfway to the house, one hand on his belly, the other swinging wildly as though he was having trouble keeping his balance. Realizing Sam was in need of the bathroom if he wasn't going to embarrass himself in front of Nicky, Dean gave the girl a brief nod of thanks and followed Sam.

Watching the two hunters scurry up the path to their cousin's house, Nicky wondered what she should do. It was clear to her that whatever had befallen the Winchesters, Sam wasn't fully recovered and she wasn't convinced Dean was in a state to be of much help to his brother. Locking her car, she cast a look around the street. The neighborhood was asleep, recovering from the festivities and overindulgences of Christmas. Nobody would miss her for several hours yet and even if they did, she had her phone. Mind made up, she followed in Dean's footsteps, softly closing the front door behind her.

The brothers were in the kitchen by the time Nicky made her way into the entrance hall. Feeling like an interloper, but unable to tear herself away, Nicky found herself, if not quite eavesdropping, overhearing the conversation going on in the kitchen.

Dean and Sam were seated at the kitchen table, Sam with his head in his hands and a glass of water on the table in front of him. Dean's hand rested on the table by the glass and every so often he reached out to give Sam a reassuring pat on the arm.

"How's it feel now?" he asked.

In reply, Sam simply shook his head, muttering a pained, "Brutal," taking it for granted that his brother, of all people, would understand just how excruciating his headache was. The painkillers had either worn off or had never worked in the first place. Sam didn't know, and didn't care. He was in more pain than he could remember ever being in before and right now he was close to blowing his own brains out just to stop the drums beating a rhythm inside his skull.

Dean shifted uncomfortably in his seat and toyed with the glass of water he'd fetched for Sam, playing for time before bringing up the subject of the Yule Log again. "You know this is all connected, right?" he began tentatively, not wanting to upset Sam overly but determined to get an admission from his brother. "This is all down to that damned log."

"Dean." Sam dropped his head onto his arms which he had folded on the table in front of him.

"I'm sorry, Sam, but surely you must see it now? The headless shadow, the sickness, the fall, the accident. It's all connected. And it's not like we haven't seen stranger things. Why can't you just accept this is down to that log and let me try and fix it?"

"There's nothing to fix, Dean." Sam's voice was muffled but Dean could hear the underlying frustration in it. It was time to pull out the big guns.

"It's in Dad's diary," he stated, watching closely as Sam groaned and raised bloodshot eyes to stare at him. "I checked last night and, well, Dad mentioned it once or twice. Happened in Ohio about forty years ago and again in Nebraska ten years later. And it never ends well, Sam."

Nicky, listening at the door, couldn't keep her silence any longer. She stepped into the kitchen, taking the boys by surprise. They had both forgotten the girl who'd brought them home and they'd abandoned at the door.

"So, are you guys, like, into this sort of thing?" she asked. "Because my mom, she has loads of stuff about traditions and spooky goings on and stuff."

Spinning around to study her, Dean cocked his head to one side. "What sort of stuff?" he asked, instantly suspicious of the girl's mother.

"Oh, you know. Books, crystals, herbs. That sort of stuff," she continued, undaunted by the expression on Dean's face. "She keeps it all in the cellar. She used to be really into the occult when she was younger but apparently Dad won't have it in the house. She won't throw it out though. Says it would bring bad luck down on us." She shrugged. "Mom tends to be a little over dramatic," she finished.

"In the cellar, you said?" Dean queried, working out how he could get to the potentially rich source of information. "Where's your mom right now?"

"She'll be clearing up from last night, probably," Nicky informed him.

"Can you get those books for me?" Dean pressed, totally focused on the girl standing before him to the exclusion of everything else. There was a possibility she had the answer he was looking for and didn't even know it.

She shook her head and laughed. "Mom would know the second they went missing. It's like she's got some sort of alarm system in her head. It's weird. She never says anything but if you ask me, she had a bad experience once. If you ask her about it, she clams up and gets really pissed."

Wrapped up in their conversation, Dean and Nicky failed to notice Sam slowly losing what little color he had in his face. The pain in his skull had escalated to dizzying heights and when he managed to raise his head from his arms, the room swayed nauseatingly. Trying to capture Dean's attention, he was disconcerted to see not two, but three versions of his brother dancing around each other, merging into one, then splitting into three separate entities again. Disorientated by the confusing images his eyes were sending to his brain, and sickened to the pit of his stomach by the perceived motion of the room, all Sam could manage was a groan before clutching both hands to his heads and sliding, gracefully, off his chair in a dead faint.

Nicky uttered a short cry of shock as Sam collapsed at her feet. Dean was by his side instantly, checking for a pulse in what was now a well-rehearsed and unwelcome routine. He cursed softly under his breath as he found an unsteady, weak beat pulsing through Sam's veins. As he reached out to pull Sam round into a more comfortable position, trying to wake him at the same time, his phone began to ring, its vibrant rock riff somehow at odds with the atmosphere in the room.

Fumbling in his pocket with one hand while trying to tend to Sam with the other, he glanced down at the caller display. It was Bobby and Dean almost cried with relief. Flipping his phone open, he barked a greeting down the line.

"Going well, huh?" the older hunter responded, not in the slightest offended by the tone of voice he'd been welcomed with.

"Bobby. Tell me you got something," Dean pleaded.

"What's happened?" Bobby asked, knowing instantly things had gone from bad to worse. He listened quietly while Dean filled him in on events since they'd last spoken, grunting occasionally, and Dean could picture him scratching his head.

"Okay," Bobby announced. "Listen to me, Dean. The first thing you need to do is stay calm. There ain't no point in taking your brother back to the hospital. There's nothing wrong with him that the docs can fix. Whatever's ailing that boy ain't got no cure in modern medicine."

Dean frowned, confused and worried by Bobby's news. "What d'you mean, Bobby? Are you telling me my brother's gonna die?"

"Now hold your horses. Nobody said anything about dying. That's not going to happen. Okay? Dean?"

Dean looked at Sam, lying on the floor, Nicky kneeling at his head, wiping his forehead down with a damp face cloth she'd procured from somewhere. He swallowed hard at the sight, trying not to imagine his little brother dying while he looked helplessly on.

"Dean? You still there, boy?"

"Yeah, Bobby. I'm listening." Dean shook himself out of his stupor, blinking away the moisture in his eyes that he refused to acknowledge.

"Well, listen good. I did some research and turns out there's some truth to this Yule Log business. Looks like you were right all along."

"I know," Dean replied. "It's in Dad's journal. Nebraska, Ohio and probably a couple of other places too."

"First recorded incident was in 1903 in Billings, Montana. John Lewis noticed he had a headless shadow, three days later he was dead in a freak domestic accident."

"That's great, Bobby," Dean snapped, "but I don't need a history lesson. I need to know how to stop it happening here."

Bobby sighed and Dean felt his nerve ends tingle and his gut clench. "I don't know for sure," the older hunter admitted. "It's never been done before. But that doesn't mean it can't be stopped. Far as I can tell, you need to salt and burn the log and that should lift the curse."

If Dean had had any energy left, he would have laughed. "Burn the log?" he asked incredulously. "Are you serious? How the hell am I supposed to burn a log that's already been burnt, Bobby?"

"You got any better ideas, go ahead and try them," Bobby bit back. He knew Dean was stressed and frantic with worry but he wasn't the only one worried about Sam.

"Sorry. I'm sorry," Dean apologized, scrubbing a hand over his face.

"I know," Bobby relented. "You need to make sure the log's salted first. You going to be able to manage that?"

"Damned straight I will," Dean replied. "Somehow. Thanks Bobby."

"You're welcome. And Dean? Call me, okay?"

Flipping his phone closed, Dean turned back to Nicky, just as Sam coughed and spluttered. Dropping to his knees next to him, Dean gently helped Sam to sit up, easing the pressure on his lungs from what sounded frighteningly like an accumulation of fluid.

"Dean?" he asked, trying to get his bearings again. This was getting old, he thought ruefully as he steadied himself against Dean's arm.

"Hey there, Sleeping Beauty. You back with us again or you going to be nodding off again in a minute?"

Sam glared at him as best he could, which wasn't very effective but he felt slightly better for trying. "I'm fine," he muttered.

"Course you are," Dean snorted, sounding less than convinced. "Bobby called. Turns out I have to go salt and burn the Yule Log. Which could be tricky seeing as it's already been burned once this weekend. But don't worry. You just hang in there and I'll work something out." He gave Sam what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

Sam frowned and for a minute Dean thought he was in pain, but then his face cleared and he returned the smile. "It's not all burnt," he told his brother. Taking pity on Dean's confusion, he continued. "A bit's always saved to light the next Yule Log. There must be some left somewhere."

Dean froze as the significance of Sam's words hit home. He turned to look at Nicky who was hovering uncertainly, not sure whether she should stay or leave the brothers to it. "Where's the Yule Log kept?" he demanded of her.

"In the cellar," she told him, not understanding the look of triumph that crossed the older brother's face. "But there's no way Mom'll let you just take it. It'll bring down bad luck on our family."

"Too bad," Dean retorted. "We have to burn it or Sam," and he gestured at his brother, "is gonna die. Do you want that on your conscience?"

Nicky started, looking from Dean to Sam and back to Dean again. She shook her head. "This is ridiculous," she told herself.

"Trust me, sugar, this is nothing. Now, are you going to help me or not?" Dean didn't wait for an answer as he heaved Sam up off the floor, maneuvering him to the sofa, covering him with a throw. "You'll be fine here, Sammy," he told his brother. "I'll get this sorted out, I promise," and for a moment, he could almost believe it.

Crossing the street with Nicky trailing behind him, muttering about crazy men and their crazy ideas, Dean made a beeline for the Humphreys' house. Reaching the front path, he turned and waited for the girl to catch up to him.

"Where's the log going to be?" he asked, trying his hardest to tread gently with the girl, gradually realizing her mother wasn't the only one who held on to superstitions. Nicky had become increasingly agitated every time he mentioned burning the log, adamant there must be another way, that the Winchesters were going to bring a run of bad luck down on her family if Dean insisted on pursuing this course of action.

"In the cellar," she finally conceded after a pause far too long for Dean's liking. "Mom will have moved it down there as soon as it was cool enough to handle."

"Okay. I need you to keep your mom busy while I get down there. D'you think you can do that?" He wasn't sure, not at all, but he had no choice. Sam was depending on him and while he didn't want to barge his way into the Humphreys' house he would, if he had no choice.

"Yes. I think so," Nicky convinced herself. "But she is so going to freak when she finds it's gone."

Dean looked down at the girl, shaking his head in exasperation. She clearly hadn't grasped the fact this Yule Log had caused no end of problems and right now it was the reason for his little brother's rapidly declining health.

"When is she going to notice it's gone?" he asked.

Nicky thought about it briefly before tilting her head and raising one eyebrow. "Probably not till next year," she conceded.

"Good," Dean declared, working out how much distance he could put between them and the Humphreys in one year. "That gives you a year to either persuade her to drop this tradition, which may not be as hard as you think, or to find a replacement. Now, are you going to get going?" and he waved an arm at the house.

He watched her disappear through the front door, calling her mother as she went in a cheery, if blatantly false, sing song voice. Waiting till he heard Ali's reply, he made his way quickly round to the back of the house, opening the storm doors to the cellar, thankful the Humphreys placed so much faith in the security of a gated community and consequently hadn't bothered to lock the entrance to the basement.

The Humphreys' cellar was bigger, and cleaner, than many of the motels he and Sam spent the majority of their time in. Letting his eyes adjust to the light, Dean flicked on a pocket flashlight he carried in his jacket pocket. There were walls racked from ceiling to floor, shelves stacked full of suburban life. Pots of half used paint vied for position with boxes of aged school report cards. Toolboxes nestled next to packets of laundry detergent and there, in the corner, was a neat woodpile.

Dean could have cried. There were no other logs in the cellar and the logs in the pile were indistinguishable from one another. The Yule Log he'd so carefully set alight could be any one of the logs in front of him. He'd been hoping the charred remains would be easy to spot but in the poor light it was going to be impossible to pick out one specific log.

Looking around, Dean spotted an old potato sack. With no other idea springing to mind, he grabbed the sack and began to fill it with logs off the pile. He hoped the Yule Log would be a later addition to the pile and therefore to the front of the stack. If not, he theorized, he could come back for another load.

Hefting the sack over his shoulder, and feeling like a poor imitation of Santa Claus, Dean crept out of the cellar. Grateful that the residents of Meadow Valley clearly overindulged the previous day, he made his way unobserved back to Cousin Joe's house.

Dumping the sack in the back yard, Dean took the time to check on Sam. The younger man was where Dean had left him on the sofa, but he now had his eyes closed. Dean stood for a minute, trying to convince himself Sam was merely sleeping but knowing it was so much worse than that. Turning on his heel he returned to his sack of logs and upended it on the neatly manicured lawn, not caring he was about to ruin a decade's worth of loving care.

Retrieving the salt he'd scavenged from the kitchen cupboard, he poured a liberal amount over the impromptu bonfire, keeping some back in case the Yule Log wasn't in the pile. Dousing it in lighter fuel, he stepped back as he struck a match, waiting for the small flame to take hold before throwing it on to the heap.

The bonfire leapt into life, burning hot and fierce. Dean could feel the heat on his face, had to brush sparks off his jacket as the wood hissed and crackled. Biting down the urge to return to his brother's side, he stood watching the flames until the heap of logs had been reduced to a pile of ash.

He shivered in the now cold air and stepped forward, poking at the remains with the toe of his boot, checking for any sizeable chunks of wood.

"What are you doing?" Sam's gently posed question startled Dean and he turned on his heel, staring at Sam in relief.

"Sam!" His brother looked the picture of health. All evidence of his recent accidents and illnesses had vanished from his face. He was a healthy pink and, although he looked tired, Dean could have been fooled into thinking he'd just got out of bed after a good night's sleep.

Sam smiled and shrugged. "I feel great," he told Dean in answer to his unspoken question. "Whatever you did, it worked."

"Of course it did," Dean told him, a cocky smile on his lips. "I'm an awesome brother, dude." He pushed past Sam, heading back into the warmth. "I'll tell you something, though," he threw over his shoulder. "That's the last time we go somewhere for Christmas!"

THE END