He's alone in the dark again. They leave him like this sometimes, chained on his knees with the tight metal clasps digging into his wrists and ankles, alone in the dark. Sometimes it might be weeks or longer, he has no way of knowing. Like a forgotten toy at the bottom of a toy chest. The waiting is the worst part, trying to keep his thoughts from spinning out in a thousand directions of panic at what they'll do to him when they come back. They always come back. It's only a matter of time. He swallows. He thinks about remembering to breathe. He repeats his brother's name.
Dean pulls his FBI badge from the inner pocket of his suit, and after a beat so does Sam.
"Agents Banks and Bruford," he says to the young retail clerk across the glass counter. "We're, uh," he flashes Sam a look, like he can't actually believe the next words are going to come out of his mouth. "We're here about the inflatable reindeer."
"Oh my God," she bursts out, new tears brimming in her already red, mascara-smudged eyes. "It was horrible! There was so much blood, you have no idea."
"We saw the crime scene," Sam assures her. "We just wanted to talk to you ourselves. To… hear it from you." He catches Dean's gaze that says, to see if you're the kind of crazy that makes things like this up, and hides a smile.
She nods solemnly at him, her red and white Santa hat skewing slightly atop her disheveled blonde hair. Sam pointedly avoids looking at it. It makes him uncomfortable. "Like I told everyone else. I ended my shift, totaled out my drawer and all that. And I was walking out past the display of the inflatables when I heard the screaming. And then Phil… oh God."
She reaches under the counter and fumbles for a tissue, the fluffy, white ball on the end of her hat bopping down into her face. She brusquely pushes it back out of the way and blows her nose. Sam wishes she would take the damn thing off. It's so unprofessional. He risks a glance around at the blatantly holiday-themed retail space, wishing way too many "Happy Holidays" for his taste. He draws in his shoulders.
"We're sorry to bother you with the details again," Sam says gently. "Phil was your coworker? The one who was murdered?"
She nods. "Blood. Everywhere."
"Before this happened," Dean continues, "did you notice anything else unusual? Objects turning up where you didn't leave them… Weird smells… Cold spots…"
"Cold? The break room gets really cold sometimes."
"Can you show us?" Sam asks.
They follow at a distance as the girl leads the way through departments of clothing and household items, past holiday endcaps and themed displays lined with fake snow, snowglobes, and red-and-green cookware. Sam walks so close to Dean he's practically stepping on the heels of Dean's shoes.
"Seems pretty cut and dried, don't you think. Salt and burn?" Dean says. Sam agrees. Anything that will get them out of there sooner.
He hears music. He thinks he's imagining it. Then the darkness disappears and his eyes burn. He instinctively pulls against the chains to try and shield his eyes but his wrists are held too wide apart, and he cries out with the pain. Lucifer laughs and says oh Sammy with the feigned gentleness that Sam hates, and he hums along to the music Sam thought was in his head. The tune is familiar, even if Sam can't place it.
"It's Christmas time, Sam. I want to play with your Christmases," he says. He curls his body in close behind Sam's, like a spoon, drawing his nails up possessively over Sam's heaving chest. "Show me all your Christmases!"
Sam shakes his head desperately, please not this, but Lucifer plunges his consciousness into Sam's, reaching and searching until he finds the thing he wants. The precious, treasured thing buried and protected so close to Sam's heart. Lucifer smiles. Sam is holding on to it so tightly. He wraps a cold fist around it and yanks it free. Sam screams in agony.
The needle on the EMF bounces to the angry side of the indicator, and Sam looks over at Dean. "Definitely something here."
"Figured there would be. So let's go visit with the rest of the staffers and see if anyone else saw something."
Dean pushes open the break room door, sweeping in the sights, sounds and smells of the cheerful, brightly lit department store. The crooning strains of traditional Christmas music filter in through the overhead speakers, surrounding them with holiday atmosphere. Sam winces, and suddenly the walls are closing in. His chest is too tight to get a full breath.
Sam hesitates. "Do you mind dropping me back at the hotel? I can… see what I can dig up on the building."
"What? Why? You got something against doing this together all of a sudden?"
"I don't know, man. I just… why a reindeer, you know?"
Dean frowns at him, because the two thoughts don't connect. Then he shrugs. "Because it was there. And it's funny. I don't know, does it matter?"
Sam throws his hands up, and his voice has a high-pitched edge to it. "I can't take it, Dean. They play the same Christmas songs over and over in there." He shakes his head and widens his eyes in what might be annoyance, but Dean sees a hint of desperation. "A lot louder than is really necessary. And you can't even turn around without running into a wreath, or a tree, or a bell, or a—a…" He cuts off and starts walking ahead toward the exit.
"Hey!" Dean catches up, putting out a hand on Sam's shoulder. "Sam, are you okay? I mean, I know we've never really been big on the whole Christmas thing, but-"
"Look, you said yourself it seems pretty straightforward anyway, no reason we can't split up. I'll head back, do some research, you finish the interviews. Okay?"
"Okay. Sure, if that's what you want to do…"
He releases Sam from the chains and lets him drop, curling himself into a trembling ball. "This is nice, Sam," Lucifer remarks. "Your brother was good to you."
Sam raises his head slightly and looks around to see the cage transformed into one of the run-down hotel rooms he remembers from his childhood. Lucifer sits on the worn couch in front of a thin spruce tree brightened with colorful lights. The room is littered with pizza boxes and other take-out trash. Beyond the couch, Sam can see two twin beds with metal frames.
"No," Sam whispers, recognizing it, his eyes filling with tears. "N-no, please, don't. Leave it alone."
He hears Dean's key shift in the lock, and Sam straightens on the bed, adjusting the laptop screen and rubbing his forehead. He hasn't made much progress, but he's been staring at the screen for hours.
"You in here, Scrooge McDuck?" Dean calls.
"Hey Dean," he answers.
Dean comes into view carrying a couple of sodas and a bag of fast food, along with a large, plastic department store bag.
"Figured you didn't get dinner," he says, setting the drinks down on the nightstand between the beds and handing the bag of food to Sam. Sam smiles and takes it gratefully. "Plus, I got you a present."
"Yeah, I did." He holds up the oversized department store bag. "You can call it an early Christmas present if you want."
Sam's stomach twists into a knot. "Dean…"
"You… you shouldn't have done that."
On the couch next to Lucifer, the younger boy unwraps a Sapphire Barbie and a sparkle baton clearly intended for someone else. Then he digs into his backpack and pulls out a crudely wrapped package and hands it to his twelve-year-old brother.
"No," Dean says. "That's for Dad."
Lucifer looks down at the younger boy beside him. "Your dad lied to you," he says knowingly, before the boy has a chance to say the words. "That's why you want Dean to have it." He looks over at Dean. "He wants you to have it."
Sam, kneeling on the floor a short distance away, begs, "No, no please don't, leave it alone, please."
"Go on," Lucifer urges, easing his arm around the younger Sam and nodding to Dean. Dean takes the package and unwraps the amulet, turning the precious gift over in his hand.
"I love it," Dean says. "Thanks, Sam."
Sam is begging, tears streaming down his face as he watches. "Please! Please let me keep this. Oh god. Please."
Lucifer smiles at Sam as he leans in close to the eight-year-old. "He's going to throw it away."
A sharp spear of pain runs through Sam.
Lucifer is humming. It's that song Sam almost recognizes.
Dean reaches into the bag and grins at Sam. "Look, I know you're pissed that we never have 'real Christmas.' So here. Check these out." He pulls out a ridiculous pair of foam reindeer antlers and sticks them on his head, and then holds out a pair to Sam.
The goofy smile melts off Dean's face as all the color seems to drain from Sam's. "Sam?" He quickly snatches the antlers off and pushes the bag and the rest of its contents aside, coming to kneel on one knee on the bed beside his brother. "Hey! Hey, Sammy, you okay?"
Sam fights down the nausea and puts a hand out for Dean, taking a breath. "'m okay," he mumbles.
"Okay, so no reindeers. Or are you just suddenly allergic to anything with antlers?"
Sam gives him a weak smile and shakes his head. "No, no really. I'm fine." He looks down, and as he does he sees that the department store bag has shifted, revealing one of the branches from Dean's other surprise. A miniature, artificial Christmas tree.
The room spins. Flashbacks to the cage assail him, Lucifer's voice in his head, invading his consciousness and his memories, and he can hear Dean calling his name but he can't make himself respond.
He can't breathe. He can hear music.
"White Christmas," Sam gasps, clutching onto Dean's shirt. "The song he was always singing."
"What? Sammy, who?"
Sam leans forward, just trying to breathe and trying not think about Christmas and the terrible feelings it brings up surging through him.
"Lucifer," he said at last.
"Oh, Sam." Dean's brow creases as he puts the pieces together. "Sam."
He takes his time with each memory. He draws up close to Sam so he can feel him writhe and shudder when he's reduced to begging, trying so hard to hold tight to the tiny bright spots of happiness where he's hidden them inside his soul. Lucifer searches each one out with relentless precision, plucking them out of Sam's feeble grasp and opening them up, letting the darkness of the cage infect them.
There is so much Dean in these memories. He's sure that eventually Sam will run out of Dean and have nothing left of his brother to keep, but there seems to have been no Sam without Dean. No Dean without Sam. No bright spot in Sam's life that didn't in some way involve his brother's smile, his shoulder bumping up casually against Sam's, the simple peace of falling asleep knee-to-knee in the back seat of the Impala, or the knowledge that one had the other's back.
These are the things Lucifer so enjoys picking apart as Sam cries out at the loss of them.
"What did he do?" Dean asks. "Sam. You have to tell me."
Sam shakes his head.
"Talk to me, Sam."
"He just… went over it and over it, and it never stopped, you know. Kept… making me feel it all, every terrible thing that happened at Christmas."
Dean takes hold of Sam's hand and squeezes it reassuringly. "What do you mean? Every terrible thing, what does that mean?"
Sam looks at him and frowns. "You know. Christmas. All the bad stuff. Dean, we both know nothing good ever happened to us over the holidays. Most of my worst memories are either of Christmas day or the holiday season. I guess Lucifer just took advantage of that."
"Sam… I don't understand."
Just thinking about it is starting to make him feel lightheaded again, and he draws in a breath that feels too shallow.
"Easy," Dean soothes. "One thing at a time. What do you mean your worst memories are of Christmas? You always kinda got into the Christmas thing, Sam."
"What? No. I… Dean. Christmas has always been one of the worst..."
He looks up at Dean, and Dean is looking at him with so much sadness.
"It wasn't a CBS special, but we had good Christmases, Sam. We really did. What about the Christmas before.. before I died, Sam? When you bought me motor oil from the quickie mart and we watched the game together? Was that so bad?"
"You went to Hell, Dean! I had to watch you die just a few months later."
Dean gets it. He looks down at his little brother's hand in his, feeling rage bubble up inside him at the injustice, that even Sam's memories weren't safe from Lucifer in the cage.
"Sam. Believe me when I tell you this, okay? Nine times out of ten, you were happy on Christmas. We gave each other stupid presents, we ate pie, and made fun of people who wore ugly sweaters. Whatever Lucifer did to you down there, whatever he made you see or feel, it was a lie. It was all a lie."
"It wasn't a lie, Dean. I thought the Christmas I gave you the amulet was a good memory, but you—" Sam stops, because there's too much pain, it hurts too much to admit, and Dean won't understand anyway.
Dean looks down. "Oh, shit, Sammy, I… I didn't… Shit. That wasn't even about you."
"Don't worry about it," he whispers.
"Hey." Dean says. "We can get through this, okay? Christmas is just another day, we'll just tune out all the Santa crap and wait it out. Before you know it it'll be January again. And we can get drunk off our asses along with the rest of the world on New Year's, find a girl to spend the night with, and pretend like it matters that another year has gone by. Right?"
Sam gives him a shaky nod.
"And I'll take care of Rudolph the murder-nosed reindeer. It's just a salt-and-burn. You can sit this one out."
Sam smiles and squeezes Dean's hand before letting it go and running both his hands along the thighs of his jeans. "Okay. Dean… thanks."
The hunt resolves without incident, a vengeful spirit attached to the forklift operator in the store warehouse that actually had very little to do with the holidays at all. It turns out Dean was right, an inflatable reindeer just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. And no matter how much Sam can tell he wants to laugh about it, he keeps his Christmas-gone-wrong comments to himself. Sam is grateful. And so very glad that the whole thing is over so they can put it behind them.
Sam heads out on a food run a few days later, and when he pulls into the hotel parking lot, he's alarmed to find Dean standing outside the door to their room, waiting for him to get back.
Sam gets out of the car in a hurry. "What's wrong?" he demands.
"Nothing," Dean says, leaning against the door frame. "Did you get the pie?"
"Of course I—what are you doing out here?"
Dean puts a hand on the doorknob but doesn't open the door, not yet. "Sam," he says. "If this isn't okay, you tell me. All right?"
Sam looks at him questioningly. He turns the knob and nudges the door open, and Sam leans in to peek around him. On the table in the middle of the room is a menorah. A freaking menorah. Every one of the candles is lit, and next to it is a small present wrapped in silver and blue wrapping paper.
Dean is watching him carefully. "I don't know shit about Hanukkah. But I figured neither do you, so it doesn't matter if I get it wrong."
Sam pictures Dean picking out a menorah without the first clue what he's looking at or why, taping up wrapping paper even though he knows Dean hates that sort of thing, and surprising him with all this because he can't stand the idea of Sam not having any holiday memories that aren't all tangled up with Lucifer and torture and misery. It touches something deep inside him, and a feeling of incredible warmth steals over him. And he knows somehow that this is what Christmas used to feel like. Lucifer took it from him, twisted it, and still Dean found a way to give it back.
"Is this okay?" Dean asks.
"Yeah," Sam says. He smiles, wanting Dean to see that it's so much more than okay. "It's perfect."
Dean grins broadly and walks into the room, scooping up the little clumsily wrapped gift and thrusting it at Sam. "It's not booze, and it's not a skin mag," he says. "Sorry to disappoint."
"I didn't get you anything," Sam says lamely, unable to dismiss the smile from his face as he wrestles with too many layers of tape.
"Buy beer next time you go out, we'll call it even."
Sam laughs. He rips aside the paper and reveals an intricate gold charm on a leather cord.
"It's amazing," Sam says, holding it up. "I love it.
"It's old," Dean explains, "Buddhists call it an om. It symbolizes inner peace. Supposedly."
"Aw, Dean. You got me inner peace for our first Hanukkah?"
"I got you an amulet. Because I fucked up the amulet you got me, and I should never have done that. Because I'm an asshole, Sam. Can you forgive me?"
"Of course. Dean, thank you for this. For… doing this for me. You don't know how much this means."
Dean nods and breaks out in another grin because he can't say this yet with a straight face. "Happy Hanukkah, bro."