I'll Be Home For Christmas

By Tree66

 


Just before Christmas - 1998 Mosinee, Wisconsin


“Hey Dean! What are you doin’ here?” Sam asked, dipping his head into the passenger’s side of the black Impala then tossing his over-stuffed backpack into the back seat.

“The awesome, big brother that I am, I just thought you might appreciate the ride home from school,” the nineteen-year-old replied. “Now get in before you let any more snow in on the leather.”

Gangly limbs followed a nearly six foot frame into the car as Sam quickly seated himself just before Dean pulled the old Chevy away from the front entrance to McNulty High School. The car slid slightly on the street, an early season snow having coated the roadway, as well as everything else, seemingly in preparation for the upcoming holiday. Dean immediately corrected, steering back into the proper lane and ignoring the angry honk of a horn from the oncoming car that he nearly missed. He mumbled something under his breath at the other driver, but continued on.

Sam’s eyes narrowed as he watched his older brother’s show of impatience. He knew Dean had been edgy this morning when he’d left for school, but had wisely chosen to remain silent while his sibling grumbled through his barely touched breakfast. Apparently, the past eight hours hadn’t improved Dean’s demeanor.

“So what’s up? Why are you still so pissed off?” Sam asked.

“I’m not pissed off, Sammy. And Dad wouldn’t like you cussing,” Dean reprimanded.

Sam laughed. “You cuss. Hell, Dad cusses worse than anyone. And you’re changing the subject. What’s bothering you? You’ve been in a bad mood all morning. Is it ’cause Dad left last night?”

“No,” Dean quickly answered. But the swiftness of his reply betrayed his denial.

“That’s it isn’t it? You are pissed 'cause he took off,” the younger boy announced triumphantly. “I don’t get it, Dean. What’s the big deal? He does it all the time. What’s so different now?”

“Nothing’s different, just forget it Sam. You want to stop somewhere for dinner? I got a couple extra bucks.”

Sam watched his brother carefully as Dean stared through the windshield. Even at fifteen, the younger boy had come to read his older sibling fairly well and he knew right now that Dean was lying through his teeth. Dean, on the other hand, was pretty good at trying, emphasis on the word trying, to hide his emotions from people around him, preferring to show a strong, invulnerable persona to the world at large. But Sam knew better, actually knew him best of all. As he looked at him now, he could see the tight set of Dean’s jaw, nearly clenched as the young man fought not to let his younger brother see that he was indeed hurt, angry, what?

“You’re such a bad liar. How in the world do you ever con anyone at pool?” Sam posed with a snort.

“And you’re such a pain in the ass. How in the world do you ever keep from getting your butt kicked on a daily basis for always sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong?” Dean shot back. “Now, do you want to eat or not?”

“I know you’re not mad at me. It’s okay.”

“Sam…”

“Seriously. I know you’re just mad ’cause Dad took off on another hunt and didn’t take you with him,” Sam announced. He paused for a second then inhaled sharply. “Wait, you ARE mad at me!”

Dean’s eyes widened as his head turned to look at his younger brother. “What the hell are you talking about? Why would I be mad at you?”

“’Cause Dad made you stay behind with me. He wouldn’t take you with him on whatever this hunt is ’cause I still had school this week before the Christmas break. He made you stay back and take care of me.” Sam rambled.

“Sam…” Dean began, but his brother had plunged head first into the deep end of the guilt-pool.

“Why doesn’t he think I can take care of myself? When is he ever gonna trust me? I can get up and feed myself, dress myself, get myself to and from school. I’m not a friggin’ baby. Why is it okay for him to have left you in charge of both of us when you were my age and I was only eleven, yet I can’t be trusted to watch out for myself at fifteen? Dammit Dean, it’s just not fair!” the dark-haired boy whined.

“You’re wrong,” Dean replied.

Sam stared at him blankly for a moment before spinning sideways in the seat to fully face his older brother. “What? You don’t think I can take care of myself either? Or are you just siding with Dad again? How the hell can you defend him? If the tables were turned and it was you he treated this way, you’d be just as pissed,” he shouted.

“Stop cussing, Sammy. And what I meant was that you were wrong about why he left me behind. You were wrong about why I was pissed,” Dean corrected. “Actually, I’m not pissed, not really I guess.”

The teen softened as he saw his older brother’s green eyes flick back to watch the road, once again avoiding the tell-tale eye contact that would surely give away vulnerability.

“Then what’s wrong?” Sam persisted.

Dean ignored him, continuing down Barton Street and pulling into the spot in front of the small apartment they’d been renting for the past few months. The engine quieted as he turned back the key, remaining behind the steering wheel as he sat staring through the windshield at the snow that had begun to fall heavily. Next to him, Sam wrapped his arms around his chest tightly, the chill already permeating the interior as the shadows of the Wisconsin winter afternoon began to envelop the Impala. Despite the cold, the younger boy wasn’t about to budge until he managed to get his obstinate brother to divulge whatever was eating at him.

Sam’s stomach growled loudly, breaking the strained silence between them and forcing Dean to look at him.

“I told you we should have stopped somewhere. There isn’t crap in the apartment to eat,” he grumbled, reaching to turn the key and fire the engine once more. Sam quickly intervened, his hand snaking out across the interior and closing on Dean’s wrist.

“I’m not hungry and I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on,” he insisted.

Dean glared at him for a split second, then flung open his door. “Fine, sit out here and freeze your ass off, but I’m going inside and ordering a pizza,” he snapped, slamming the door shut behind him to punctuate the sentence.

He could still feel Sam’s eyes on him as he stalked off towards the front door of the apartment. Unlocking it, he kicked off the packed snow from his boots and trudged inside, leaving the door open, his meager attempt to invite his baby brother in from the cold. Tossing the keys to the car on the small coffee table, he pulled off his coat and threw it on the edge of the threadbare couch before moving into the small kitchen. Dean was peering aimlessly into the nearly empty fridge when he heard Sam shuffle inside. Pulling a beer from the top shelf, he turned around to face the teen.

“So, you want supreme or just pepperoni?” he asked with a wan smile.

Sam tossed his backpack down with a huff.

“Not hungry,” he grumbled, peeling off his own coat and letting it drop to the floor.

“You’re being an ass, Sam. You gotta eat something. Tomorrow, we’ll go get some stuff to have around the place since you’re gonna be out of school till after Christmas. Dad left a few bucks, but if we’re careful, we can even get something special for Christmas dinner,” Dean offered.

“Stop! Will ya?” Sam shouted back. “You’re so full of crap. Are you gonna tell me what’s going on or do I have to call Dad?”

“You can’t!”

“I will.”

“No, you can’t,” Dean reiterated.

“You can’t stop me,” Sam answered petulantly.

“Listen, you dumbass, you can’t because I don’t know where he is and he isn’t answering his cell phone,” the older boy shouted back in a flurry of words. “Dammit, Sam, he took off without a single friggin’ word. I don’t know where he went or for how long. Four days before freakin’ Christmas and he just takes the hell off. I mean, what the hell? Two sentences in a note, not one single word, he just leaves. And after he promised…”

Dean’s voice trailed off as he paced back into the kitchenette, turning away from Sam, unable to face his brother after the breach of emotion. Thankfully, Sam remained silent, allowing the older boy a moment’s respite before he pounced on Dean’s revelation. While he leaned against the cold edge of the sink, Dean could hear his brother’s soft footfalls as he came into the kitchen behind him.

“What did he promise, Dean?”

He tilted back the bottle of beer, relishing the cold alcohol as it swept down his throat. He swallowed hard, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth before turning to look at his brother and replying.

“Nothing Sammy, he didn’t promise nothin’. Just forget it.”

“No, Dean. You gotta tell me. Please! If Dad’s in trouble or if you’re worried for some reason, then I want to know everything. Please don’t treat me like a little kid, Dad does that enough himself,” Sam begged, eyebrows raised imploringly.

Dean sighed. Telling Sam what their dad had promised meant also letting his brother see how much it hurt him that the promise had been broken. After all, was it really that big a deal? Was he being childish about the whole thing? What was Christmas anyway, just another stinkin’ day out of the year? No big deal, right? But deep down, maybe it was something more than just another broken promise. What was one more in a long line of them anyway? Inside, a little voice was screaming in the back of his head, telling him no way would his dad just take off like that unless something really bad was going down. In the end, it was his worry that overshadowed his pride.

“He promised he’d be home for Christmas this year, Sammy. Swore he’d be around after the past few years when he wasn’t. Said he had plans for us to have this real nice Christmas and everything. I mean, I know it wasn’t gonna be anything all that spectacular, but you know, just the thought of us all being together, having a good dinner, a real tree, acting like maybe normal people for once. It would have been nice Sam, ya know? I wanted that. I wanted it for all of us, I wanted it for you.” Maybe I even wanted it for me. Just once!

He waited for Sam’s response, knowing it was coming as sure as the sunrise tomorrow. Lately, it didn’t take much of anything to set his younger brother off on an anti-Dad campaign and Dean had just given him brand new ammunition for the cannon. So he was more than reasonably shocked when the fifteen-year-old merely walked back into the living room and plopped down onto the couch with a heart-heavy sigh.

“I’m sorry, Dean,”

“Huh? What?” Dean stammered, caught off-guard by his brother’s response.

“I said I was sorry. I mean, here I was thinking you were just being a jerk cause you were stuck behind with me. Really, Dean, Christmas is no big deal. We’ll make do,” Sam offered.

The corner of Dean’s mouth curled up slightly in an almost sad smile. Green eyes centered on the shaggy brown hair and sincere face of his brother. Sam looked up and met his gaze, eyes wide and seeking in that manner that Dean hated the most. He knew that look, knew it was the face that Sam made when he was trying to pretend that something didn’t bother him, when he wanted his older brother to think he was being “tough” and sucking it up. But Dean knew his baby brother all too well. That’s what happened when you played surrogate mom and dad for the past fifteen years.

Looking down at his brother’s eyes, Dean felt the heat roiling up inside of him. The same irritation he felt when he woke up this morning to find his dad gone with a couple twenties on the counter and a note saying that something had come up, now resurfaced. Suddenly, Dean was angry, actually furious, all over again. Forget being worried, forget that their dad might be in some sort of trouble, he was tired of promises being forgotten on a whim, of hunts being more important than sons.

Slamming the beer bottle down on the kitchen table, Dean strode purposefully toward the hallway leading to the bedrooms. He called out to Sam as he passed through the living room, not even waiting for his brother’s response.

“Go pack a bag, Sam. Warm clothes for a couple of days. Bring any homework you gotta do while you’re on break.”

“Dean, where are we going?” Sam asked, jumping up from the couch and trailing behind.

“We’re going after Dad. He might get pissed, but we’re having Christmas together for once if hell freezes over,” Dean replied from the bedroom as he hastily tossed clothing into a gear bag. What the hell am I doing? he thought with chagrin as he pulled the 9mm from the nightstand drawer. I don’t need to worry about hell freezing over if we find Dad, I better pray it does before he kicks my ass straight there.

***


John Winchester awoke to pain and the sting of blood trickling into his right eye. He struggled, trying to shift his weight off protesting shoulders that were stretched taut above his head and secured by rope to a pipe in the ceiling. As the pounding in his head subsided slightly, he forced himself to focus on his surroundings. The last he remembered he had walked into the quiet cathedral, dimly lit by candles and adorned in fresh holly for the upcoming holidays. John remembered calling out to Jim, surprised that his long-time friend had not eagerly come out to greet him at the sound of the church’s large oak door creaking open. He’d called out several more times but was answered only with silence and the echo of his own voice off the high vaulted ceilings.

Walking toward the rectory, thinking that perhaps his friend might have gone there, John passed by a large, brightly-lit Christmas tree adorned with multi-colored bulbs and sparkling tinsel. Below it lay several beautifully wrapped presents, bows hugging them tightly. The elder Winchester paused for a moment, looking at the gifts and realizing that he hadn’t bought anything for the boys yet. When was Christmas Day? Next week? He still had time didn’t he? Time just enough to help Jim with this problem and then hurry back to Mosinee.

John turned back around and nearly stumbled head first over a nun. The older woman paled, letting out a tiny squeal as the towering man sent her sprawling into a pew. The hunter rushed forward, extending his hand to help the nun to her feet.

“Sorry, Sister. I didn’t see you there,” he stammered an apology.

She smiled graciously, smoothing out her habit before carefully folding her hands within the long sleeves of the black robes. “It’s alright, my child. I didn’t mean to startle you. Have you come for confession?”

John laughed, but quickly cut it off as it echoed raucously within the chamber. “No, Sister. I don’t think the walls of the church would withstand the shock of my confession. Actually, I’m looking for Jim Murphy. He’s expecting me.”

“Ah, well, I haven’t seen him this morning, but I’m sure he’s hanging about somewhere. I’ll be sure to let him know you’re here if I see him,” she promised.

Nodding to her, John moved off in search of his fellow hunter. He didn’t see the nun’s brown eyes flash with quicksilver, irises snapping shut like the lens on a camera. He also didn’t see the large, ornate cross she lifted above her head, but he felt the ramifications of both as darkness enveloped him and he collapsed in a heap to the floor.

Awake now, the memory flooded back and John knew that he’d fallen into a trap set by the very thing that Jim had called him to come and help dispatch. A soft groan to his left pulled his attention and he twisted slightly, grimacing as the rope dug into the flesh at his wrists.

“Jim?” he called out tentatively. “You okay?”

“Yeah, John. I’ll be alright. What happened?” the cleric asked back.

“Uh, well, I came in looking for you and ran into a nun, which I assume wasn’t a nun? That the reason you called me?”

“Aw, you saw Sister Mary Agnes? No, not a nun exactly, but more like what was posing as her,” Jim replied.

“Posing? You got a shapeshifter on your hands Jim?” John asked, pulling against the rope on his wrists.

The priest groaned as his weight shifted. “I wasn’t sure at first, I thought it might be demon possession, but as more of my congregation started acting strangely, I knew it had to be something else,” he explained. “Then, I was down in the boiler room the other day and I came across the skins, knew what I was dealing with then.”

“Damn, Jim. How the hell did the thing get into the church?”

“It’s a church, John. It’s always open. We don’t exactly lock the doors, kinda defeats the purpose.”

Silence fell between the two men as John yanked again on the bonds holding him suspended from the rafters. His efforts only produced more pain in his shoulders, while the warm, slick of blood saturated the cuffs of his shirt from the skin that abraded away from his hands. He ceased his struggle and instead took the opportunity to canvas the space where they were being held. Dark, cluttered with boxes and very hot, it was undoubtedly the same boiler room where Jim had first found the shapeshifter’s lair.

“So, anybody gonna think to look for us down here? Anyone might come and check the boiler any time soon?” John asked.

“Well, I called Caleb right after I called you. He was on his way. And I left a message for Bobby Singer, but I don’t know if he got it,” the priest answered. “Other than that, we’re on our own. The thing has been shifting from one body to another right and left though. If it’s pretending to be Sister Mary now, then it’s jumped again. I’m pretty sure it was posing as Carolyn Richter, our organist, when it got me. She was practicing this morning when I came into the sanctuary. We were talking about the Christmas Eve program on Sunday then all of a sudden she hit me over the head with a music stand.”

“Did you warn Caleb what we were up against when you called him or were you as cryptic with him as you were with me? You’re damn lucky I came with Christmas so close. I promised the boys we’d do something special.”

“Well, like I said John, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure if I was right. I knew I was gonna need some serious help trying to contain this thing if it got out into the community. Besides, I’ve never dealt with one of these things before. Can you just imagine what that thing will do if it gets to my congregation on Christmas Eve?”

In the darkness of the basement, something other than the two hunters moved, startling both men into silence and causing them to scan the shadows for the creature they knew was approaching. John could hear the thing grunting as it stumbled about, suddenly crying out as it began to shed its most recently acquired form. The sound of wet flesh splattering noisily against the concrete accompanied the sickening smell of body odor and deteriorating tissue alerted both men that the thing was soon to take on a new appearance.

John grunted his affirmation to the priest’s earlier statement. “Well, unless you have a plan or a knife that’s handy, we’re in a world of hurt here, Jimbo. You better hope that Caleb or Bobby figure something’s up when they get here or Christmas is gonna pretty much suck out the ass for us worse than your congregation.”

“I called Caleb right after you, he said he’d be here tonight. I guess we wait?” the religious man answered as the noise in the shadows continued.


***

“Where are we going?” Sam asked, tossing his backpack into the back seat of the Impala for the second time that afternoon. The backpack was followed by a stuffed duffle, as Sam stood upright and leaned against the edge of the passenger’s side door, watching his brother load similar bags into the Chevy’s trunk.

“Not sure, I called Bobby, but there wasn’t any answer. I called Pastor Jim too, but some nun said he wasn’t available. I’m thinking we’ll head towards South Dakota first, unless we hear from Dad or Bobby,” Dean answered.

“Do you think Dad would have gone to Bobby’s? I mean, if he took off on a hunt, he could have gone anywhere couldn’t he?” Sam questioned, watching as Dean checked a shotgun, then placed the weapon into the trunk.

“Yeah, maybe. But we gotta start somewhere and if Bobby ain’t answering, maybe they took off together. Pastor Jim might know, we’ll keep trying to reach him. Hey, why don’t you try Caleb?” Dean suggested, tossing his brother his cell phone.

Dean continued to load gear into the Impala’s trunk, yet keeping an open ear and occasional eye on his younger sibling as Sam dialed the demon hunter. Finishing, he came around to the driver’s side just as Sam made contact.

“Caleb? It’s Sam Winchester. Yeah, Hi. Merry Christmas to you too! No, I’m okay. Yeah, Dean’s okay too. Hey Caleb, we were wonderin’ if you’d heard from our dad?”

There was silence from Sam as he listened to the long-time friend’s reply. Dean waited, fingers tapping impatiently on the roof of the car.

“Okay, thanks Caleb. No, I’ll let Dean know. He won’t like it. Yeah, okay, we will. Bye,” Sam finished, flipping closed the phone and tossing it back at his brother.

“So? What did Caleb say? Did he hear from Dad?”

“No. But he was on his way to Pastor Jim’s. He said Pastor Jim called him last night wanting him to come help with some problem he was having.”

“Hmmm.” Dean mused. “Let’s go, Sammy! We’re headed to Blue Earth.”

“Pastor Jim’s? Why there? I thought you said we were going to Bobby’s?” Sam reminded him.

“We were. But now I’m thinking that Pastor Jim’s problem was probably the Dad, Bobby, and Caleb variety. Matter of fact, I’m willing to bet on it,” Dean answered adamantly.

“Dean, Caleb said something about us just staying put. I think he thought we might go looking for Dad and I didn’t get the impression that he thought we should.”

“He’s not our dad, Sammy. And Dad’s not here, so I’m in charge, right?”

“Yeah, I guess, but Dean, I was thinking…”

“Well, that’s usually the first thing you do wrong…”

“Funny, Dean, but seriously, what if we take off to get Dad and in the meantime, Dad comes home and finds us gone?”

Then it would serve him right for once! Dean kept the thought to himself as he ducked inside the black car. “Get your ass inside the car, Sam, or jog along behind it, either way, we’re going to Minnesota,” he shouted out to his brother.

He turned the key in the ignition, feeling the deep rumble of the Chevy’s engine vibrate through his chest like the reverb of bass from a Metallica song. It was as instantly comforting as anything else in his world, sometimes more so, considering that the Impala might as well be another family member in Dean’s mind. He was dimly aware of Sam sliding into the seat beside him, the passenger door slamming shut with a screech. Without missing a beat, Dean reached over and turned on the radio.

“We’ll be at Pastor Jim’s by midnight. Catch a few Z’s if you want and I’ll wake you when we get there,” Dean offered. Besides, wouldn’t want you to miss all the fireworks if Dad really is there when we show up. My ass is so gonna be grass!

Sam grunted in response, and Dean knew that his brother was still skeptical about them just taking off to hunt down Dad in order to have Dean’s version of a Winchester family Christmas. Yet, as he pulled the Impala out of the drive and onto the snow-covered street, the voice in the back of his head told Dean that he was doing the right thing.


***


Caleb tucked the phone back into his pocket as he parked the Camero and killed the engine. Pausing before he opened the door to the battered old car, he reflected on the call he’d just received from the youngest of John Winchester’s boys. While Sam Winchester was undoubtedly one of the most precocious kids he’d ever met, it was actually the older one, Dean, who always impressed Caleb more. The few hunts that he had gone on with John and Dean, the older boy had always handled himself well. Striving to prove himself, never faltering, Caleb watched as Dean prepared for and undertook each job like a seasoned hunter. To say the kid was a natural was an understatement. Granted, John had literally indoctrinated both boys to the life, but Sam hadn’t taken to it nearly as effortlessly as Dean.

Considering that, then why had Sam just called him? Why were they looking for their dad? And could he trust Dean to heed the advice he’d relayed and just sit tight at home?

“Probably not! I bet anything those damn boys are already on their way here. Friggin’ Dean’s way too smart, I bet he’s already figured it out,” the demon hunter muttered. Shrugging to himself, he finally flung open the car door and took a step toward the large concrete steps of the church.

He took them slowly, taking in the lights shining out of the stained glass as he approached the oversized oak doors. The massive entrance groaned loudly as Caleb pushed it open and walked inside the cavernous interior.

“Jim? Hello!” he shouted out, continuing to walk down the center aisle of the sanctuary towards the altar. Dozens of candles flickered, while the lights from a Christmas tree sitting at the edge of a row of pews twinkled rapidly, throwing multicolored hues off the walls and ceiling. “Jim? You around?”

Caleb continued toward the front of the church, senses keenly alert. Despite the festive decorations and the holiday preparations, there was an ominous feel to the place. He wasn’t spooked, but he was getting concerned. First Jim Murphy calls him, frantically imploring him to come and help with some emergency, then after he busts ass getting here, the place is deserted and Jim is MIA. If something was going on, something big enough to freak out Jim Murphy, then Caleb was concerned enough to be cautious.

A noise to his right startled him and Caleb spun, his hand automatically reaching for the .44 inside his coat. He relaxed immediately, the weapon lowering as the black suited, white collared form of Jim Murphy peeked from around a column, smiling generously, his arms spread open in a gesture of welcome.

“Jim! Where the hell you been hiding out? I been looking for you,” Caleb greeted.

“Sorry, I was, um, just a little busy with something,” the holy man answered.

“No problem. So, let’s get down to business, what the hell you got going on here Jim? What’s up with the emergency call?”

“Aw, Caleb. All work? What’s the rush, sit down a bit. How ’bout some coffee first? You have a good trip here?”

Caleb’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at his long-time friend. Despite the familiar face, the passive, calm attitude, the gentle demeanor, there was something about the man’s behavior that was just “off.” Staring incredulously as the priest motioned him to follow, the hunter followed obediently but warily, remaining two or three steps behind, his right hand still tentatively on the grip of the pistol within his pocket.

They reached a large kitchen and dining hall that Caleb knew was used for church socials and potlucks. It was already arranged for the upcoming holiday festivities, tables adorned with red and green clothes, fragrant centerpieces sitting atop and garlands draped from the ceiling. His head connected with one of several cut-out snowflakes and for a moment he lost sight of the clergyman as he ducked to avoid another of the hanging decorations.

“Jim?” Caleb called out, eyes searching the large room and wondering where the man could have disappeared to so quickly. “Jim? Dammit, where’d you go?”

Suspicion turned to paranoia when the lights suddenly went out in the dining hall, plunging the hunter into utter darkness except for the red glare of the emergency EXIT sign. His hand immediately drew the pistol again, fanning it back and forth in the darkness, confused as to why his friend was acting so bizarrely, but determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

“Jim? Come on out. Let me help you,” he offered into the darkness.

“Help me? I don’t need your help. I just need you to die!” The threat came as an unfamiliar snarl even though the voice was the same soft alto that Caleb had known for years.

“He’s possessed!” Caleb muttered softly, shaking his head. “That’s why he was in such a panic when he called. He must have known, must have been fighting for control when he called.”

“CALEB… come on. Where’s your Christmas spirit?” The sing-song voice called out from the darkness, taunting him.

The hunter moved slowly forward, his free hand skimming the nearby wall as he touch-felt his way around the darkened room. His fingers barely skimmed the jamb of a doorway when something slammed into him knocking the weapon from his hand and tossing him into a nearby table. Caleb’s body crashed to the ground as the table collapsed beneath him, the air driven from his lungs as his back protested the hard abuse of a chair leg being jammed into his spine.

As he struggled to recover and regain his footing, hands grabbed at his coat and yanked him roughly to his feet. In the blackness, he couldn’t make out the form, but the strength being exhibited didn’t seem proportional to the physical presence that held him. As his mind fought to deny the obvious, a fist connected with his face and his nose erupted in a torrent of blood. Two more punches landed in combination to his head and abdomen eliciting a “woof” of air as his attacker continued.

Managing to land a right hook of his own, Caleb heard a satisfying grunt of pain as his attacker reeled backwards. The demon hunter sprang to his feet, prepared for the next assault that came in the form of a flying kick. He took it in the side of the rib cage, absorbing the blow and capturing the incoming foot in the crook of his elbow, wrenching the leg around and spinning his attacker to the ground. He immediately rushed in, throwing several punches and absorbing more in return.

As the momentum of the fight carried them from the dining area back into the hallway, Caleb’s eyes widened as he stared into the bloodied face of Jim Murphy glaring up at him from the floor. The priest hissed between his teeth as he lunged toward Caleb, his hands tearing towards Caleb’s exposed throat and tossing him backwards to the ground. The hunter fought back, striking again and again at the man above him while fingers closed around his windpipe threatening to suffocate him.

“Jim … gasp… stop … gasp… why …” Caleb pleaded, as his vision darkened.

He was answered with laughter that bordered on insanity, stared up into eyes that no longer bore any trace of humanity. The last thing Caleb heard as consciousness faded sent a chill spreading through ever fiber in him.

“I’m not Jim…”

***


Dean pulled the Impala into the twenty-four hour gas and convenience store, trying to be quiet and not wake up his brother. He grimaced as the door screeched upon opening, looking quickly over to Sam to see if his brother had stirred. Sam moved, turning slightly and pulling his coat tighter around him as the cold, night air entered the car.

The snow had started coming down heavily again, whipped about by the swirling wind and quickly covering Dean’s hair and clothes as he stood outside pumping gas. He huddled in, trying to shelter himself as the old Chevy gulped down fuel, silently wishing he had a thicker coat. Finishing, he dashed inside the store to pay, also grabbing a cup of hot, black coffee to make up for what he lacked in winter clothing.

He was about to head back to the car when he spotted the rack of paperbacks just at the exit to the store. While reading for pleasure was never something that Dean could be accused of doing, he knew just how much his younger brother prized books. Actually, that might be an understatement. Dean was pretty sure that Sam would dive in front of a speeding car to save one of his precious books, few as they were, their lifestyle not exactly catering to the hauling around of recycled trees. If Sam was like a fish in a pond at school then he was certainly a shark at the library, devouring anything he could get his hands on. That made the three or four books that Sam actually did call his own all the more special to the young boy.

Dean scanned through the books in the rack, discouraged when the first offerings were romance novels. He chuckled as he briefly considered playing a joke on his brother, wondering how desperate Sam would have to be to read about some damsel in distress and her swashbuckling savior. But no, even Dean couldn’t be that mean, not at Christmas.

He spun the rack a quarter turn then quickly glanced out the store glass and through the heavy snow to the Impala. He could make out Sam’s shaggy brown hair splayed against the passenger’s side window. Satisfied that his brother was still asleep, Dean went back to his shopping. He looked up and down the line of paperbacks, his eyes settling on one that seemed familiar.

To Kill a Mockingbird? Hmm? Didn’t I have to read that once when I was in high school?” he mused, plucking the book from the holder. It was thick; thicker by far than the rest of the books in the rack, and although Dean was more familiar with classic cars than with classic literature, he was pretty sure he recognized the title as something his bookworm brother would be interested in.

He turned the books once more for argument's sake, pausing momentarily when he spotted Stephen King’s Christine at the bottom of the rack. It was tempting to say the least. After all, a story about an awesome car and a haunted one at that had to be better than any book about a stupid bird, didn’t it? Besides, they made a movie from Christine. Didn’t that make it better? Still, knowing his brother, Sam would go for the boring, way too many pages mockingbird one.

Sighing, Dean replaced the King book and hefting the Harper Lee work, proceeded to the checkout once again. The clerk eyed him strangely, looking at both the dust covered paperback and the disheveled young man before him.

“Hey, can I have a bag for that?” Dean requested as the clerk handed him back his change.

“Sure, you want it wrapped with a pretty bow and tag on it too?” the old man asked, sarcasm thick in his voice.

Dean threw him a dirty look, but grabbed the book from the counter and stuffed it into the interior pocket of his jacket before stalking out of the store. He dashed back out to the car, shaking off the accumulated snow as he dropped into the driver’s seat. Sam stirred awake, arms stretching above his head as he groggily looked around the interior of the Chevy.

“We almost there?” he asked before yawning widely.

“Almost. About another hour and a half I think. I just filled the tank, but you want something to eat or drink before we take off?” Dean offered.

“Nah, I’m good. Um… Dean, you really sure about what we’re doin’?” Sam asked tentatively.

Dean rolled his eyes and let out a mixture of half sigh and exasperated groan.

“Dude, when did you start giving a damn lately about what Dad was gonna think about anything we did? Hell, just the other day, you and him were arguing about whether to have corn or peas with dinner. I mean really Sam, what’s up with you and him lately?

Sam recoiled slightly as his older brother confronted him. It was one thing to stand up to their dad, but somehow facing Dean was never easy. Instead of defiance, he lowered his eyes beneath overly-long brown bangs.

Dean’s eyes narrowed as he took in the solemn look of his younger sibling. Those damn eyes! Hadn’t Sam been playing those eyes on him since, well, nearly since the kid was old enough to know how to wrap Dean around his littlest finger? Then why the hell didn’t they work on their dad? And why did Sam and Dad have to go at each other these past couple of months like a couple of junkyard dogs fighting over a scrap of meat? Sure, Dad had been pushing for Sam to take a more serious interest in hunting lately and of course Sam had resisted, choosing instead to focus on math and science rather than crossbows and Latin rites. Still, if Sam only put half as much enthusiasm into reading Binsfield as he did Biology then maybe everyone could get along a little better.

Relenting, those damn eyes, Dean’s voice softened slightly. “Look Sam, maybe this started out about wanting us all to be together for Christmas for once okay, but now, I just think there’s something more going on. I just have this feeling. I’ve tried Dad, Pastor Jim, even Caleb again while you were sleeping and none of them are answering. Something’s up.”

“So you think it’s smart for us to be heading in there then if something bad is happening? I mean really, Dean, if Dad and Caleb can’t handle themselves, what are you and I gonna do?”

Dean shrugged. “I dunno, Sam. But we ain’t gonna just sit at home with our thumbs up our asses wonderin’ if Dad’s gonna come back or not. Besides, look at it this way, when all those other dweebs at school talk about their Nintendos and whatever else they got for Christmas, you can tell them about the spook we dusted.”

Sam laughed. “Yeah, right Dean. Is that before or after Dad would kick my ass for telling about what we do or better yet, right after they call the school counselor to come down and have me evaluated for a padded room?”

“Yeah, well there is that. Look, it’s gonna be okay. I promise. Dad can’t get too mad ’cause it’s Christmas, right? And even if he does, we’ll have Pastor Jim and Caleb and maybe even Bobby to protect us,” Dean assured him.

“If it’s all the same to you, Dean, I think I’d rather keep the shotgun full of rocksalt handy for protection against Dad,” Sam joked uneasily.

Dean loosed a brief laugh as he pulled the Impala back onto the highway. Deep down, he shared Sam’s sentiment and in the back of his mind as he drove the ninety plus remaining miles to Blue Earth, he did a quick mental inventory of just how many rocksalt shells he had thought to pack in the trunk of the jet black muscle car.

***

Caleb awoke with a groan and a migraine. The throbbing in his head was soon accompanied by the steady ache of his ribcage with every inhalation. He coughed, regretted it, and then coughed again when the first only brought the coppery taste of blood to his tongue.

“Caleb? That you?”

“John?”

“Yeah. Jim’s here too.”

“He is?” Caleb asked. “Then who or what tried to choke the crap out of me upstairs?”

“Shapeshifter,” John replied. “Been living here in the church basement for a week or so. That’s why Jim called us in. He needed the help in getting rid of the thing.”

“Sorry Caleb,” Jim apologized. “I figured between you and John and Bobby, you guys would make short work of this thing. I just wanted it gone before Christmas services.”

“Yeah, well, I guess we should have come a little better prepared. By the way, where’s Singer?” Caleb chanced.

“No sign of him yet. I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” John answered. “Haven’t seen the creature either since it dragged you in here.”

“And it’s a shapeshifter huh?”

“Yep, a skinwalker I think 'cause it’s been taking off out of here looking like one of us. You ever dealt with one before?” John questioned.

“Nope, demons are my thing, John. Hey, Jim, what do you know?”

The priest snorted. “I think that’s why I called all of you. Looks like we all need a Hunter 101 refresher course maybe?”

“Smartass!” Caleb and John both muttered simultaneously.

“So, where does that leave us?” Caleb added as he twisted against the ropes that held him in a similar fashion to his comrades.

“It leaves me with a church full of parishioners that will fall prey to that damn thing if we don’t get ourselves out of here and find a way to stop it,” Jim reiterated with frustration.

“Well, considering the three of us are hung up here like deer carcasses, I think you better start praying for a Christmas miracle or that Bobby figures it out when he gets here,” John suggested.

There was moment of quiet, only the creak of the pipes sounding as steam heat from the old furnace rushed through them. The three hunters each tested their restraints, struggling to free themselves as thoughts of the creature running rampant among a throng of holiday worshipers ran through their minds.

Each stilled their movements abruptly as the sound of footfalls broke through the darkness of the basement room. John twisted to his right as a flash of movement came near him.

He smelled the creature before he actually saw it, the thing’s body odor assailing his nostrils and nearly gagging him with the stench. Before he could cough against the smell, a set of nearly iridescent eyes flared right in front of him.

John startled, flinching backwards as far as the ropes would allow him as he came face to face with Jim Murphy. The seasoned hunter knew it wasn’t his longtime friend, if for no other reason than he knew that the real Jim Murphy was hanging next to him just a mere five feet away. Beyond that, this version of the cleric just wasn’t right. To the naked eye, the shapeshifter was a good copy, despite the odor. But on closer inspection, there was wildness to the face and a snarl that seemed to hover just behind the lips.

“What do you want with us?” John snapped. “Why are you keeping us here?”

The Jim-creature held in front of him, sniffing the air like a predator. John cringed as the thing pulled in even closer, nearly touching him as it reached out with a hand bearing tissue that was already beginning to deteriorate.

The thing grinned broadly, stepping back slightly to take in all three trapped hunters.

“I’ve never hurt anyone before, not really. I only ever did what I needed to survive. Tried to stay under the radar and avoid attracting the attention of hunters like you. So, imagine my surprise when I decide to hole up in a church. I mean, what could be safer, right?” it asked as it began to pace in front of its captives. “And just my damn luck, I end up in the church where the damn priest knows every friggin’ hunter in the country!”

Caleb laughed loudly. “You stupid sonofabitch, the priest IS a hunter. You sure picked the wrong church to shack up in.”

The shapeshifter whirled back around, striking the hunter squarely across the jaw and causing him to slam backwards into the concrete block wall.

“In case you haven’t noticed, despite the slight setback, I seem to have managed the hunters just fine,” it snarled back.

“Well, you haven’t finished us off yet,” John added defiantly.

“True,” the creature agreed. “But, I’ll be taking care of that soon. Actually, I don’t need either of you two. I’ve got the priest’s face, that’ll get me plenty of mileage.”

“What have you done with Sister Mary Agnes and Carolyn Richter?” Jim demanded.

Jim Murphy stared at Jim Murphy as the shapeshifter turned toward the priest. The creature was beginning to falter, more of its assumed skin beginning to melt away as it started to tremble. It staggered slightly, righting itself before it spoke.

“Well, I assume Carolyn must be the blonde that tried to bite me. She’s still stuffed inside one of the closets in the back of the church. A little beat up, but still alive I assure you. As for the nun, well, I didn’t mean to hurt her, I’ve never killed anyone before, but the old girl’s ticker apparently couldn’t handle seeing me change into… well, her, right before her very own eyes.”

“Oh dear God! She’s dead?”

The creature didn’t respond. Instead, it spun away and into the shadows with a cry of pain. The hunters listened as it began its tortured shedding of skin, banging around from one point to another as pieces of flesh fell from its distorting body and fell to the concrete floor with a sickening sloppy sound. Groans mixed with growls from the darkness as the shapeshifter altered its form once again.

“Hope it hurts like hell, you sonofabitch!” Jim shouted into the blackness.

“Jim? Little harsh for a priest, and in your own church no less,” John teased.

“That was for Mary Agnes. She was a dear woman, John. She might have been suspicious about what I was doing around here, under cover, but she never questioned me. Never demanded a single explanation for the many hunters that have sought refuge here over the years.”

“I know you’re upset about her Jim, but it isn’t solving our immediate problem,” Caleb reminded him.

“We just have to hold on to the hope that Bobby will make it here and figure it out. Until then, we’ll just have to keep trying to get free of these ropes…”

John was interrupted as the sound of the main doors to the building being opened and then slammed shut echoed throughout the silent church. The three men held their breath as they listened intently to the footfalls on the hardwood floor above them.

Not heavy enough for Bobby, John thought as the steps moved slowly across the sanctuary on the main level.

Then suddenly a second set of footsteps joined the first. Separate and trailing, they seemed to shuffle rather than plant determinedly as the others had. To the trained ear, one set wore boots, the other, something softer soled.

“If its Bobby, then he brought someone with him,” John whispered. “Someone smaller, a woman maybe? Does Bobby know any female hunters?”

Next to him, Caleb groaned, realization striking him.

“Aw shit, John. It’s not Bobby,” he whispered back.

“It doesn’t matter who it is. They won’t be able to help any of you!”

The hunters looked up to see the shapeshifter had recovered and was again standing before them. Eyes wild once more, it strode up to face the elder Winchester this time.

“So you have one more hunter coming to join the holiday party?” it sneered. “Let’s go greet him with a familiar face, hey John?”

It whirled away and into the darkness before John could shout out a protest. The hunter yanked at the ropes holding his arms above his head to no avail, grunting with pain and frustration until Caleb’s voice cut through his angry fit.

“John, are you listening to what I just said?” Caleb shouted.

“Huh? No! What?” John demanded angrily.

“I said that right before I came in here, I got a call from your boys, from Sam actually. They were looking for you. I didn’t tell them you were here, but let’s face it, they aren’t dumb those two. I tried to convince them to stay put, but I got the distinct impression that they probably wouldn’t,” the demon hunter explained.

“Sam and Dean? No. No way. Dean wouldn’t. I mean, he’s been calling my cell but he knows I don’t always answer when I’m on a hunt. I left him instructions and Dean always follows orders,” John insisted.

“It’s Christmas, John, and you left them. I’ll bet you anything those boys were determined to find you come hell or high water,” Jim added in. “When are you ever gonna listen to me about that? Been warning you for years that sooner or later, Dean was gonna get tired of following orders and was going to take matters into his own hands. Especially if he was doing it for Sam.”

“Hey, you’re preaching to me, when it was your ass I came to bail out? Besides, I know Dean. He does as he’s told. He knows how important it is.”

The men became silent once more as the footsteps in the sanctuary continued again. John listened as the sounds moved across the first floor of the church, his mind filling with doubt and concern.

Surely Dean would stay put in Mosinee and watch out for Sam? Hadn’t Fort Douglas taught him the very valuable lesson about following orders to the letter? No, they were in Mosinee, safe, sound and waiting.

“Pastor Jim? Caleb? Dad?” Dean’s voice carried throughout the empty church, augmented by the vaulted ceilings and the silence that permeated the place. “Pastor Jim? Hellloooo…”

Doubt and concern turned into full-blown worry and fear as John listened to his oldest son calling out, knowing that the thing that was about to answer Dean’s call was neither his father nor even human.

“DEAN!” he shouted back, tugging with a new fervor on the ropes that held him, desperate now to save his sons.


***


“Pastor Jim? Caleb? Dad?” Dean called out as he walked toward the altar. “Pastor Jim? Hellloooo! Anyone here?”

Behind him, Sam shuffled slowly down the main aisle, his tennis shoes scuffling along the hardwood floors as his backpack bounced from the back of one pew to the next.

Dean turned back to face his brother, shrugging his shoulders to indicate that he had no idea why no one had come to meet them. Even though it was a little late, he was still surprised that no one had responded to his shouts. The church was still lit up and after all the time he and Sam had spent here, he knew that Pastor Jim rarely turned in early.

“Maybe they aren’t here after all?” Sam said, dropping down into the nearest pew dejectedly.

“Somebody ought to be,” Dean insisted, moving over to the Christmas tree and toying absentmindedly with one of the ornaments. “Didn’t you say that Caleb told you he was on his way here?”

“Yeah but…”

“No Sammy, something’s up. I can feel it.”

“Probably just ’cause you’re inside a church, Dean,” Sam mumbled.

Dean turned, the start of a dirty look marking his face when one of the large oak doors to the church swung open and forced him to look up instead. The gust of cold winter air that rushed through the entry caused the candles within the church to flicker, dimming briefly before they settled and began glowing again as a body blocked any further onslaught.

“Bobby!” Both Winchester boys exclaimed simultaneously as the hunter closed the door behind him.

Sam tore from his seat, charging down the center aisle toward the bearded hunter.

“Bobby, good to see you. We came looking for our dad and there’s nobody here, not Dad, not Caleb, not even Pastor Jim,” he rambled. “Caleb said you all were coming here, but now no one's here.”

“Whoa, easy there. Take a breath,” Bobby directed, raising a hand to stave off the eager young boy.

Sam retracted, taking a step back and quieting as Dean joined him at his side. Bobby looked at both boys, obviously confused by the presence of the two teenagers.

“Alright now, what the hell are you boys doin’ here?” When Dean averted his eyes and Sam smiled sheepishly, Bobby groaned and shook his head. “You come after your dad didn’t ya? Damn dumb kids. We didn’t come here to help Santa deliver presents, what were you thinking?”

When both boys still remained silent, Bobby turned directly to the older Winchester brother, reaching out and grabbing Dean by the shoulder.

“Dean, you know better. What are you doing here, dragging Sam into the middle of a hunt no less? And so close to Christmas too?” the veteran hunter asked.

Dean tried to avoid Bobby’s piercing gaze as he scrambled for some believable lie to tell the older man. As words fumbled from his lips, Sam suddenly intervened.

“We just wanted Dad to be around for Christmas, Bobby. He’s always promising, but then just like now, he takes off again, like there’s always something more important than us,” the younger boy explained.

“Sam, just shut up…” Dean interrupted, pulling his brother behind him. “Really, Bobby, we’ve both been on our fair share of hunts. We can handle ourselves just fine. There was no reason Dad couldn’t have brought us along.”

“Yeah, well, I got twenty bucks says that argument won't get your ass out of a sling when your daddy shows up,” Bobby suggested. “So, you ain’t come across none of them yet?”

Dean relaxed slightly, recognizing that the family friend wasn’t immediately going to continue with the chastising or worse yet, send the brothers packing back to Mosinee.

“No, but we just got here a few minutes before you. It’s kinda strange that not even Pastor Jim has come around. He’s usually somewhere in the church, usually meets us at the door when we’ve come here before. We were yelling for everyone pretty loud.”

Bobby nodded as Dean updated him. The hunter looked around the dimly-lit open sanctuary, taking in all the darkened crevices and becoming uneasy. A sudden movement in the shadows put him fully alert and he drew a sawed-off shotgun from underneath his camouflage coat while moving in front of the two boys.

Dean pushed forward to stand at Bobby’s side, pulling a 9mm from the interior pocket of his own jacket with his right hand while his left kept contact on Sam’s sleeve. A nerve-wracking silence filled the cavernous sanctuary as the three waited on guard.

“Dad?” Sam called out as the figure stepped out around a column and into the candlelit nave.

“John? How the hell are ya? Where’s Jim? What the hell’s going on 'round here?” Bobby rapidly questioned.

John moved in closer to the trio, but then stopped, remaining at the far edge of the long pew. He forced a wry grin as he looked at Bobby and the boys.

“Hey there. You all made it finally, huh?” he greeted.

“Uh, yeah,” Bobby replied suspiciously. “Sorry to keep you guys waiting.”

“No problem, everyone was just hanging out, reminiscing about old times,” John assured him.

Beside him, Bobby could feel Dean tense and could see that the older boy still held the pistol in his hand down at his side. Good! Smart boy! You know your daddy’s not acting right.

“So Dad, I’m sorry that Sammy and I are so late getting here. The uh, truck blew a tire outside of Chicago,” Dean apologized.

“That’s alright kiddo. You made it here safe, that’s all that matters. Now what you say we all head out and grab a bite to eat or something?”

Dean shook his head and laughed low and deep. Raising the gun, he aimed it at his father’s chest as Bobby leveled the shotgun once more.

“Who are you?” Dean demanded.

Brown eyes flashed as the creature’s mouth widened in a broad smile. “Why son, is that any way to treat dear old Dad at Christmas?” it sneered, leaping forward over the end of the pew.

Dean grabbed Sam and dragged his younger brother with him as he broke for the main aisle. He heard the blast of Bobby’s shotgun followed by a loud huff of air as the hunter was tackled by the thing wearing his father’s features.

Reaching the archway to the back hall, he cast a quick look over his shoulder, seeing that Bobby was engaged in exchanging blows with John. Sam froze beside him, confusion apparent on the younger boy’s face as he stared at the melee between the two older hunters.

“Dad?” he called out.

“It’s not Dad, Sammy. Come on. We gotta get out of here. Bobby can handle himself. We gotta find Pastor Jim or Caleb,” Dean directed, tugging on Sam’s sleeve.

“But… if that’s not Dad… it looks like Dad… what if…” Sam stammered, unmoving and still staring back at the form of the man that wore his father’s face.

“SAM! IT’S NOT DAD! I don’t know if he’s possessed or what, but I’m telling you it’s not him.” When his brother still didn’t respond, Dean spun him around, grabbing Sam by both arms and nearly shaking him as he shouted. “Dude, were you not paying attention? Did you not hear what Dad said? He didn’t even care that we were here. Don’t you think that was a little weird? And then he didn’t even pick up on when I said anything about losing a tire on the truck outside of Chicago. It was like he had no idea what I was talking about. I’m telling you, whoever or whatever that is, it isn’t John Winchester. Bobby knew it too. Now get your ass in gear and let’s get the hell out of here.”

Both boys spun around as they heard Bobby yell out a warning. They watched the hunter go down in a bloody spray as the thing that looked like their father brought the stock of Bobby’s shotgun smashing into his face.

PseudoJohn stood up over the unconscious hunter, surveying its handiwork before turning to scan for the absent boys. Making eye contact with the shapeshifter about the same time it spotted them, Dean pushed Sam ahead of him with a shout.

With his younger brother running down the back hallway before him, Dean slowed for a second to see if they were being followed. He didn’t have to wait long as the large form of his dad turned the corner and lumbered down the dark corridor towards him.

“Come on son, don’t make Daddy chase you down and beat your ass,” the creature taunted Dean.

“Go to hell,” Dean shouted over his shoulder and sped after Sam.

“You know, I already got the other hunters. Do you really think I won’t get you too?”

Dean ignored the voice, focusing instead on protecting his brother and escaping the thing that was now hunting them through the church. He caught up to Sam near the entrance to the small library, ushering him inside and slamming the thick door shut behind them.

Sam moved to the farthest wall away from the entry, his eyes wide as he panted breathlessly. The elder Winchester sibling turned the lock on the door then pressed his back into the wood as though his slight weight would keep anything from getting in.

“Dean, if that isn’t Dad, what the hell is it?” Sam questioned. “And if that isn’t Dad, then where is Dad, and Pastor Jim and Caleb?”

“Dude, do I look like a crystal freakin’ ball? Do you mind if I concentrate more on keeping 'Dad' out there from truly killing our asses?” Dean snapped back.

Dean moved away from the door, pacing the room nervously as he ejected the clip from the 9mm and checked it. Looking over at Sam, he then reached for the knife tucked into the side of his boot and flipping it around, offered it hilt-first to his brother. Sam looked at him cautiously, but accepted the weapon, dropping his backpack to the nearby table.

“Now what, Dean?”

“Now, you’re gonna hide your ass over in that closet and I’m gonna go try to find everyone else.”

“You’re going out there? With the… Dad-thing?”

“Well, it might be your dream come true to spend Christmas in a library surrounded by books, but I didn’t drive all this way to be trapped in here with your sorry ass on one side and a Dad-thing on the other,” Dean teased, laughing slightly and reaching out to playfully slug his brother in the upper arm as he moved back over to the door.

Sam withdrew, clutching his bicep in mock pain and trying to appear wounded by his brother’s comments. More than anything, the younger Winchester didn’t really want to see his brother walk out that door alone. But if he knew one thing, it was that there was no dissuading a determined Dean.

“You wait here and bury that knife in anyone that can’t tell you how you got that little scar on your ass,” Dean warned, chuckling as he peeked out the half cracked-open door before sliding out into the darkened corridor.

***

Dean hugged the wall as he quietly made his way through the silent church. He silently berated himself for dragging his brother into this mess, whatever this mess was, knowing full well if and when he ever found his dad, his real dad, he truly was in for the ass-chewing of his life.

A moment of fear overtook him. What if his dad was dead? What if they were all dead, Dad, Pastor Jim, Caleb, maybe even Bobby.

“Can’t think that way,” he rebuked aloud.

Turning down another hallway, he found himself at the back of the altar just at the base of the stairwell that led to the choir loft. Pulling back the heavy curtain, he peered out into the candlelit sanctuary, cautiously looking for any sign of his dad.

The church was silent once more, something Dean despised. In all the times he’d spent at Pastor Jim’s, he’d never liked it when the church was quiet and empty. It was eerie, unnatural. Not that Dean particularly liked the church or what it stood for to begin with. Empty churches were empty promises; just like his mother’s promise that angels watched over them or that God would somehow protect them, just like the empty casket in the ground that would never hold her body, all empty…

Dean flinched away from the memory, hating that he had managed to be distracted by thinking of his mother at this moment. He knew she’d probably be disappointed by his lack of “faith,” especially at this time of the year. But then, if she were still alive, chances were he’d be in a church at some sort of Christmas service rather than being on some sort of hunt.

“HO HO HO…”

Spinning around, Dean came face to face with the copy of John Winchester. Without hesitation, he raised the 9mm and fired off a round that tore into the upper arm of the shapeshifter. The creature howled in pain, lashing out and knocking the weapon from the young man’s hand as it flung him into the nearby wall.

Momentarily stunned, Dean scrambled back to his knees, hands searching in the dim lighting for the lost gun. Within seconds the shapeshifter was on him, one hand clawing for his throat while the other connected solidly with his abdomen. Dean threw both of his hands around his attacker’s arm, fingers tearing frantically as his lungs screamed for air.

As darkness threatened to overtake him, Dean looked up into the familiar face of his father that was now sneering down at him. Desperate to escape, Dean let go of the arm and put everything he had behind a punch to the face hovering above him. As his knuckles connected with the ridge of the cheekbone, several inches of skin peeled away in a long ribbon of bloody flesh leaving raw fatty tissue exposed underneath.

“Ewwww, gross,” Dean choked out in a raspy voice. He swung a left hook that connected as well, this time bloodying the creature’s nose and causing the thing to step back from him.

The young man managed to get to his feet but was immediately driven into the stairs as the creature tackled him.

“Do you really think you can beat me? I’ve already taken care of the other hunters, do you think I’m worried about some dumbass kid?” the fake-John taunted.

“I knew you weren’t my dad, but so help me, if you’ve hurt him, I’ll freakin’ kill you,” Dean hissed back as he climbed backwards up the stairs to break away from the thing.

The creature laughed, charging up the stairs behind Dean and grabbing the young hunter by the material of his jacket before lifting him up and throwing him effortlessly back down to the floor below.

His head and shoulder drove into the hard wood of the floor as the rest of his body crumpled behind. He curled in protectively, momentarily dazed as he tried to force himself to get back up.

“DEAN!” Sam’s voice rang out as the boy dashed to his brother’s side.

“Sam! What the hell are you doing? Get out of here!” Dean ordered, grimacing as he rose up on an elbow, looking over his brother’s shoulder for sign of the creature returning.

Before Dean could react, Sam was snatched away from his grasp, an echo of sadistic laughter accompanying the action.

“SAMMY!” he shouted, jumping to his feet and rushing after the fleeting shadow of the creature as it pulled his brother behind it up the stairs toward the choir loft.

Dean could hear Sam struggle, yelling in defiance as he fought against the thing that wore their father’s face. He smiled briefly as he listened to the string of curses come out of his brother’s mouth in response to the hollow sound of a fist connecting with Sam’s body.

Taking the steps two at a time, Dean flew up to the loft, arriving at the top of the stairs just as the creature slammed another fist into Sam’s stomach. Dean shouted out, distracting the fake-John, causing him to divert his attention back to the older sibling and allowing the younger boy to sag to his knees, a thin trickle of blood seeping from his nose and mouth.

“Get away from my brother, you sonofabitch,” Dean demanded.

“Now that’s just not the Christmas spirit. I don’t think Santa’s gonna bring you anything but coal.”

“Which I’ll be glad to shove right up your ass…”

The creature laughed loudly, amused by the brazen defiance of the young man before it. It growled like an animal, extending its arms and broadening its chest, taunting Dean to attack it.

“Bring it on!” it invited.

Dean took a step forward but halted, a flash of silver catching his eye. He watched as Sam rose behind the fake-John and drawing the blade that he’d been given earlier, plunged the knife into the back of the creature.

The thing screamed in a voice that no longer resembled anything human, much less their dad’s, whirling around as it tried to reach for the hilt that rested squarely between its shoulder blades. In a flurry of motion, it rammed into Sam, grabbing the young boy with one arm firmly around his neck as it backed away towards the edge of the balcony.

Dean moved in closer, determined to retrieve his brother and put an end to the thing that had been hunting them through the church. As he drew near, Sam’s hands tore free more flesh from the bare arms of the creature; chunks of skin fell off and dropped to the floor with a resounding plop. Yet the thing never cried out, never reacted.

“What the hell are you?” Dean asked one last time as he rushed toward the creature.

“I am whoever I want to be,” it answered, swinging around and throwing Sam over the edge of the choir loft.

Dean yelled in defiance, screaming his brother’s name as he threw himself toward the edge in an effort to grab any portion of Sam’s body. His hand’s closed on nothing but air as his body slammed hard into the oak handrail.

Recovering quickly, he spotted the creature still hunched over the balcony. Looking over the side, he saw that Sam clung to the edge; legs dangling out into the open space above the altar below.

“Sammy, hang on!” Dean pleaded, hands reaching to grab his brother even as the creature tried to push Sam off to his death.

As the tug-o-war over the youngest Winchester waged, the shapeshifter swung a backhanded fist at Dean, catching the younger man on the side of the head and sending him sprawling backwards.

Bloodied and dazed, Dean knew he had to get back up, could see the creature still trying to dislodge Sam’s precarious grip. Launching himself across the small gap that separated them, Dean ripped the knife from the back of the shapeshifter and in one continuous motion drove it upward into the base of the creature’s skull, twisting the blade as he felt it hit home.

The creature went limp almost immediately, its brainstem severed. With the blade still in place, Dean pushed his shoulder into the back of the shapeshifter and heaved it up and over the edge of the loft, watching as it smashed into the altar below.

It was only Sam’s panicked voice that snapped the older boy out of the transfixion of staring at the familiar open brown eyes that stared back at him from the corpse below.

It wasn’t Dad, it couldn’t be! Dean assured himself. But even as he pulled his bruised and bloodied - but alive - brother back to safety, the voice in the back of his head nagged at him. What have I done?

***

“Where in the world have those boys gotten off to now?” John whined as he dropped the duffle bag into the pew with an irritated groan.

“I’m pretty sure I saw Sam back in the kitchen with Jim, loading up on sugar cookies and reading some thick-ass book,” Caleb answered. “Not sure where Dean’s at. Why don’t you all just hang out here anyway, John? No point in busting ass home with Christmas just tomorrow.”

“Nah, I gotta Caleb. I promised the boys a real Christmas this year, err at least something close. I’ve spent too many Christmases away from ’em. I guess that’s why they showed up here the other day. Figure Jim was right, they were pissed, figurin’ I ditched ’em again,” John rationalized.

“Yeah, well damn good thing they did,” Bobby added. “Seeing as how the rest of us pretty well got our asses handed to us by that skinwalker. Seems like it took your boys showing up to do a little ass-kickin' of their own.”

John grunted in disapproval. “Seems like they both nearly got killed. I could have been burying them for Christmas. Pretty damn stupid, I’ll be speaking to Dean about it, but not now.”

“John, back off. They’re both going to be great hunters someday. You mark my words. Give them time to grow, to learn. Be proud of what they did here,” Caleb counseled the father.

John merely nodded, “I am proud of them Caleb, very proud. I guess I just need to tell them that a little more often.”

The three men became silent as Jim and Sam entered the large sanctuary. Laden with packages, Sam dropped into the nearest pew with an exasperated sigh.

“What’ve you got there kiddo?” John asked.

“Cookies, ham, sweet potatoes, rolls, and Pastor Jim says we can’t open the other two boxes till Christmas morning,” Sam replied.

“So, you’re sure you all won’t stay? The ladies' auxiliary will be putting on a huge spread tomorrow. This is just a small sample,” Jim said temptingly.

“Thanks Jim, I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got a surprise for the boys,” John replied. “All we need now is your brother. Have you seen Dean, Sam?”

His nose buried in a book once again, the young boy didn’t respond. Raising his voice and pulling the thick paperback from his son’s grasp, John repeated the question.

“What in the world are you reading?” he asked.

Sam looked up excitedly. “To Kill a Mockingbird. Dean got it for me for Christmas. Gave it to me early. It’s a totally cool story Dad. About these two kids and their dad who’s a lawyer that defends this black man accused of rape. He doesn’t stand a chance but their dad doesn’t give up. It would be so cool to be a lawyer like that, standing up for justice no matter what,” he rambled breathlessly.

“Alright then. Wish you could be as excited about Binsfield, but, whatever dude. So, where is your brother?” John asked again.

Sam shrugged. “Haven’t seen him since breakfast, Dad.”

“Fine then, I guess if we’re gonna get out of here sometime today, I better go find him.”

John strode out of the main sanctuary and down the hallway that broke off toward all the ancillary classrooms and offices. He peeked into each one in turn, but there was no sign of his eldest son. He circuited the entire church, large as it was, nearly giving up, when he decided to climb the stairs to the choir loft.

Reaching the top, the area was dark and for a moment John nearly turned around and headed back down again to resume his search for Dean elsewhere in the church. It was only the quick bob of movement that drew his attention back to one of the short pews and the cropped-hair of his son barely rising above the top.

“Dean?” John called out tentatively, walking over to where his son sat quietly. He dropped into place next to him, observing that the boy seemed to be lost in deep thought. “You okay, son?”

“Yeah.”

“You ready to go?”

“Sure.”

“Something wrong? You okay? You hurtin’ still?”

“Nah, I’m fine!”

“It’s Christmas tomorrow. I haven’t forgotten my promise.”

“It’s okay, Dad.”

“No, Dean, it's not. I know that and I’m sorry,” John apologized.

“Dad, really, it’s okay. I thought that if we weren’t together on Christmas it was a really big deal. But after the other day, I kinda realized that… well… it is just another day… and not being together for it isn’t nearly as bad as not being together ever again… like with mom… or like with…” Dean’s voice trailed off.

“With what?” John questioned.

“You. You or Sam.”

In that instant, John knew what was eating his son. Fighting the shapeshifter had been difficult enough, but the thing had worn his skin, had looked just like him as it had hunted and threatened his sons. He couldn’t imagine the turmoil Dean must have suffered as he fought to save his brother while seemingly killing his father.

“It wasn’t me. It was never me,” he assured Dean, one hand reaching out to encircle Dean’s shoulders.

“I know,” Dean replied quietly. There was a moment of silence before the young man broke into nervous laughter.

Surprised, John looked at him incredulously. “What?”

“I knew it wasn’t you from the start,” Dean said simply between laughs.

“How’s that?”

“It wasn’t pissed enough at me for coming here in the first place. You would have been.”

“Damn straight,” John agreed, joining in the laughter. “And we’ll be discussing that at some point, you can count on it.”

“Oh great!”

“But not anytime soon, I don’t think. Now, what do you say let’s hit the road and have that Christmas I promised?” John offered.

“Hey, Dad?”

“Yeah, Dean?”

“I know I was pissy about that and all and I know I said I wanted you home for Christmas, but um… well… Pastor Jim, and Caleb and Bobby, they’re all here, and we’re here, and well, this is pretty close to home anyway… so, I was thinking, maybe staying here, with them, for Christmas, if you didn’t mind of course, that would be okay?”

John smiled and patted his son on the back, knowing that in the darkness and seclusion of the loft, the show of affection was allowed.

“Yeah Dean, I think that would be fine. We’ll all be home for Christmas this year.”

 

The End



 

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