It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

By BurstynOut

 

May 2001

“This for your, uh, partner?” The jeweler asked, cocking an eyebrow knowingly.

Dean flinched back slightly at the suggestion. He hadn’t really considered what it would look like when an twenty-two-year-old boy brought a ring in for resizing, a ring that just happened to match one that he was wearing himself. “Nooo, no, no, no,” Dean protested, then buttoned his lips. Methinks I do protest too much. “It’s for my kid brother,” he stated, then rushed to explain, as that line didn't seem to alter the jeweler's mental image. “We got matching ones when I graduated high school, but, well, he outgrew his. Anyway, now he’s graduating, and I wanted to get it resized so he could wear it again. You know, kind of a symbol of brotherhood.”

He looked away, blushing slightly. God, could he possibly sound anymore girlie? He tried to remind himself that he was doing it for Sam. Sam had a way of making him do things he normally wouldn't. It had been Sam and his puppy dog eyes that had originally arranged the purchase of the matching rings, and at the time, it had just seemed kinda cool. After all, Sam didn’t wear his hair like Dean, didn’t dress like Dean, didn’t enjoy the same subjects in school as his brother. The fact that Sam had wanted to express that attachment between them had meant a lot. Though Dean had teased him about it relentlessly, the older brother had never once taken his off, save hospital stays in which he'd been given no choice.

And they were men’s rings… Said so right on the sign at the mall kiosk where they'd bought them.

“It’ll take a couple of weeks,” the jeweler said, sliding the ring into an envelope. “It’s our busiest time of year, with graduations and weddings. We’ve got quite a backlog.” Dean knew the man really meant he had higher paying customers that would automatically trump Dean's little brother and his cheap silver ring, whether they were actually on the log or not, but he let it slide. He could take the patronizing of one snobbish rich bastard for Sam.

“That long, huh?” Dean frowned. He knew his Dad already had a place lined up for them two states over as soon as Sam was out of school for the summer. “Well, if I pay now, can you just send it to my P.O. Box?” He asked. “We’re going out of town. I don’t know when I’ll be back this way.”

“That’ll be fine.”

“Cool.” Dean laid his money out on the counter. He took the bills from the special clip inside his wallet that held legit money. He’d earned it working at a car wash downtown. Sam didn't always say so, but Dean knew he hated when they used scammed money, and Dean didn't want this gift to be tarnished in any way. Funny, Sam had never complained when Dean bought his Spaghetti-O’s with scammed credit cards. But then, Sam hadn’t eaten Spaghetti-O’s in years. Dean didn't want to be another one of the things that Sam just made up his mind about and quit based on principle. Dad and Sam were impossible when they made up their minds about something. “Thanks,” he said and left the store.

By the time Dean made it back around to check the P.O. Box, nearly two months later, he’d forgotten about the ring. In fact, he'd only stopped to pick up new credit cards before he and John headed out on the next hunt. When he opened the box and saw the tiny package with the familiar logo stamped on it, the scabs of some very fresh wounds peeled back with a tearing, blood-welling anguish.

Sam was gone. And if Dean knew anything about his father and brother, Sam was going to stay gone. It was the principle of the thing, and Dean had never won out over Dad or Sam's ideas of principle.

Dean waited until he got out to the car before he opened the box and, even then, stood behind the opened lid of the Impala's trunk to block prying eyes as he wondered how such a plain, cold thing had come to resemble goodbye. All he had left of his brother was that stupid ring and a whole lot of memories that hadn’t meant enough to Sam to keep him there.

Dean picked up the circle of silver, twirled it around in his hand with a faraway look in his glassy eyes, and tossed it into the trunk. Blinking slowly, he set his jaw and slammed the trunk shut.

By the time he started the engine and pulled away, the blaring strains of AC/DC drowned out the memories playing in his head.

Present Day


The motel room door opened just enough for Dean to slide in. Breath billowed in a white cloud around him as he scooched through, rubbing his hands together and stomping his stocking clad feet.

“Dude, I cannot believe you puked on my shoes,” he accused as he slammed the door shut. He couldn’t really get mad at his brother for being sick, but still, they were his only shoes.

“Sorry, man,” Sam said, laughing half-heartedly. He let his head fall weakly against the headboard of the bed he was propped up on, throat working around a knot that Dean hoped wasn't a second performance of the great shoe painting fiasco. “At least I got the car door open and spared your upholstery.”

“Thank God for small miracles,” Dean huffed, eyeing Sam worriedly as he put on his laughter-is-the-best-medicine front. “Anyway, gack can’t be much different than most of the monster goo we’ve stepped in over the years. Dad’s trick of freezing it and scraping it off in the morning should work, I hope. It’s plenty cold enough to freeze out there tonight. I just left 'em outisde the door. If someone steals 'em, they're in for a surprise.”

Sam laughed weakly, just a lopsided curl of his lips and a barely visible hitch in his chest. It was pathetic enough to make Dean want to tickle his brother senseless, the way he had when they were kids and Sam was in a mood, but he really didn't want to have to freeze everything else he was wearing, too. Sam nodded toward the television set playing low in the background. “They’re predicting a snowstorm. Looks like we’re gonna be stuck here for a few days, at least.”

“Yeah, and from the looks of you, we’re not gonna get back on the road for another week. Not risking the upholstery until I know for sure your insides ain't coming outside again. Just do me a favor and give me some kinda warning next time. Catching half-digested food that your body rejects is not in my big brother job description.”

Failing to get a chuckle in response, Dean took off his jacket and sat on the bed across from Sam, trying to assess the situation without getting into the mother henning mode that Sam seemed to relish when the tables were turned. He noted the sickly grey pallor that had crept into his brother’s complexion over the past couple of hours and the slight forward hunch that Sam had adopted. Though he’d yet to complain aloud about anything at all, projectile vomiting was apparently Sam’s Benedict Arnold. Yeah, he looked like total crap and no doubt felt it. They were in for a long couple of days, at least.

“Seriously…” Dean said, clearing his throat uncomfortably, “if you think you need a doctor or something, you better say so, cuz I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to get out of here in an emergency.”

Sam shook his head but raised it off the headboard more slowly than Dean would have liked. “No, I think it’s just a mild case of food poisoning. That chicken smelled a little off. I shouldn’t have eaten it,” Sam dismissed with an airy chuckle.

“Told you about eating that low-fat crap,” Dean teased as though one or the other of them hadn't gotten food poisoning from the dives they ate in on a fairly regular basis. “Salmonella is the healthy eater’s E.coli.” In fact, if life was fair, then it probably was Sam's turn to make his tithes to the great porcelain goddess of undercooked, poorly prepared, and overpriced fast food. He just hoped that was all it was.

“Yeah, call me crazy, but I’d rather die of dehydration with clean arteries than to drop from a heart attack before I hit fifty.”

Dean laughed bemusedly as he leaned back on his own bed to watch the TV, remote in hand. “Like either one of us is gonna live to see fifty.”

Sam turned to look at him. “Hey, not funny. Is that any way to talk on Christmas Eve?

Dean sat up with a start. “Christmas?” He looked around the room hastily as though he expected to find a digital display with the time and date to be hanging from the ceiling. He hit the menu button on the television remote, noted the date in the corner of the screen, and fell back with a thud against the head rest once more. “Sam, I’m sorry, man, I completely forgot.” It wasn't like spooks cared about the holidays. Why should Winchesters?

Sam raised a hand in protest. “Don’t worry about it. I forgot, too, 'til I turned on the news. Too bad, cuz I was gonna get you new boots,” Sam teased.

“Good, cuz I was gonna get you barf bags, so now we’ve both missed the boat, and we’re stuck on the pier together.” Dean sat for a second in contemplative silence. “Well, could be worse. Could be stuck here alone.”

Sam turned to his brother, eyes glassy with more than just pain and sickness. Dean had always been the one to make sure Sam had a Merry Christmas growing up. Even if they'd had only peanut butter sandwiches and exchanged ratty newspaper wrapped gifts, they'd been happy. Christmas with Jess had been happy, too, but different, and somewhat lacking in peanut butter and newspaper. A part of it, even surrounded by Jess' family and friends had still seemed lonely, without Dean, and Sam supposed that loneliness had gone both ways. “I missed you, too, bitch.”

Dean tried to duck away, but stupid Sammy and his big, wet friggin’ eyes always sucked him in like whirlpools. “Jerk,” he said, jumping up suddenly. “Anyway, let’s get you settled in.” He pulled out the duffel that held all their miscellaneous supplies and rummaged around for their med kit. He pulled out the battered box and popped it open. “Let’s see, we got Pepto and ibuprofen.” Thinking twice, he put the ibuprofen back. “I dunno, ibuprofen’s kinda hard on your stomach, princess. We got Tylenol instead.” He looked over to find Sam’s gaze following him appreciatively. “Don’t look at me like that. I ain’t gonna wait on you hand and foot. You’re gonna get your own ass undressed and into bed. In fact, you can do that while I get you a glass of water.”

Dean palmed the Tylenol and went into the bathroom to get water and give his brother some privacy. He could hear Sam rustling and groaning weakly in counterpoint to the squeaking of the box spring in the main room as he turned on the faucet. As was frequently the case, however, the water came out piss yellow, and he changed his mind. No way was his brother drinking that. He was pretty sure there were still some bottles of water under the backseat of the car that would probably work better.

Glass in hand, he was on his way out the door when two hundred pounds of Sam nearly mowed him down. Grimacing, Dean turned to see Sam kneeling beside the commode rather ungracefully at the exact moment that his whole body convulsed and the rest of his chicken salad made its presence known.

“Well, at least you didn’t get any on my socks,” he sighed, glad that he hadn’t gotten the Tylenol into his brother before the big exit. He set the glass down, wet a towel, rolled it, and draped it over the back of Sam’s neck. “Hold that thought, kid. I gotta go out to the car. 'S water’s not fit for human consumption. Not fit for whatever species you are either.”

Sam raised his hand in a gesture of, ‘dude, not right this minute, 'k?’ Dean let him finish in peace.

Merry frickin' Christmas.

About halfway through the night, or approximately somewhere between the fifth mad dash to the bathroom and the twentieth groaned “I’ll be fine in the morning,” Dean realized that the four bottles of water he’d managed to scrounge up wouldn’t be enough to keep his brother hydrated until whatever bug this was worked its way out of his system.

When morning rolled around and kids all over the country were already creeping down the stairs to see what treasures Santa had brought, Dean tiptoed out to the vending machines to see if there was any more water to be found. Finding none, he got the last bottle of tropical punch flavored Gatorade, and made his way back to the room, checking the skies and wondering if he could make a trip into town before the storm hit. He decided he had to try, and paused at the door to pick up his shoes before ducking back inside.

He found Sam sitting up and looking at him, long strands of sweat-streaked hair matted to his forehead and t-shirt plastered to his chest. At least he was awake and coherent, a sign that the fever wasn’t as high as Dean feared. He wished, not for the first time that night, that they’d replaced the digital thermometer they’d tossed after an unfortunate fall into the brown-stained toilet of that Motel Hell in Arkansas last summer.

“Ho, ho, ho!” Dean teased, tossing the drink onto the foot of Sam’s bed. “Here ya go. Don’t shoot your eye out, kid.”

Too tired to whip up a comeback, Sam rolled his eyes and picked up the bottle, hands shaking noticeably as he forced open the top. The first swallow of fruity liquid was already halfway down his throat when he was startled by a squeak from his brother who jerked and dropped his shoes with a clatter, clutching his hand as though he’d been bitten.

Even sick, Sam couldn’t help but laugh. Big, brave ghost hunter, my ass. The Gatorade sprayed out in a red mist onto the comforter, just one more mysterious stain on the questionable patchwork of the quilt. “You scream like a girl!” He smirked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I do not,” Dean said defensively, swallowing hard to lower his voice back to its normal octave. “And you’d scream, too." He pointed a wavering finger accusingly at the fallen footwear. "Something’s in my shoe.”

“Dr. Scholl?” Sam asked, eyes alight, the perfect reflection of the sickly sheen that highlighted his drawn features.

“Very funny, puking boy. I’m serious. I felt claws," Dean stammered, backing away from the soiled boots slowly. "I’m talking needle-sharp. Gremlin? You didn't go all Gift of the Mogwai on me, did you?” Dean slunk over to his own bed, keeping his eyes fixed on the offensive objects.

Sam raised his eyebrows in astonishment as the right shoe actually started to wobble. "What the hellll?"

With slow, precise movements, Dean reached under his pillow for the hunting knife he kept hidden there and withdrew it. The lamplight glistened off the blade as he held it out in front of him, placing his own body between the mysterious entity and his brother’s bed.

Moving in slow motion, Dean crouched down and raised the knife, prepared to deliver a killing blow to whatever vile creature emerged. The air seemed almost to crackle with anticipation as both brothers held their breath and waited.

Meow!

“Ahhh!” They jerked back simultaneously, screaming in unison as a tiny, white kitten poked its head from the top of the shoe and let them know in no uncertain terms that it was hungry.

“Duuddeee,” Dean exhaled with a whimpering laugh. He slumped back against the bed and rubbed a hand over his hair in disbelief. “I think we’ve been punk'd.” As his heart settled back into a more normal rhythm, he glanced over his shoulder at his brother and studied the smile that lit up his face. Dean could hardly even remember the last time Sam had smiled like that, let alone the last time he'd smiled while sick. He turned from his brother to the now squalling kitten, wondering at the effect such a tiny animal could have on a man who'd seen as much as Sam had.

The kitten was white with long hair that all but covered its face. Dean picked it up and set it on the bed with his ailing brother. “Better check to make sure it doesn’t have black eyes,” he warned. “Cases of demons possessing small animals are rare, but they're not unheard of,” he joked.

Sam picked up the kitty and petted its fur back away from its face. “Nope, not black,” he laughed. He turned an evil grin on his brother. “They’re yellow, actually.”


“Christo!” Dean jibed. “Nope, I think it’s good." He reached up and stroked the kitty under its chin thoughtfully. "The little booger musta climbed in my shoe to get outta the wind. The chill’s gotta be twenty below out there.”

Sam placed the kitten on his chest and looked down into its tiny face as he stroked its fur in an attempt to quell its pitiful cries. “Aww, 'ts alright cutie.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls, little brother,” Dean teased, glad that Sam had gotten something to take his mind off how miserable he felt.

Within a few minutes, the kitten curled up into a contented ball and went to sleep.

“You know, some people believe that cats sit on your chest and suck the life outta you while you sleep,” Dean suggested. “You want me to paint a sigil on your ass to protect you from the demon spawn?”

Sam laughed but stopped when a searing pain tore through his stomach, causing him to wrap his right arm around himself protectively. Taking shallow breaths, he waited for the muscles to relax before he chanced opening his eyes. When the wave passed, he met Dean’s worried gaze, swallowed, and forced himself to sit up straighter, presenting a posture of strength he knew he didn’t have. When that failed to divert Dean’s eagle-eyed, big brother gaze from his sickly, baby brother self, Sam resorted to another diversionary tactic, intellectual spam. “You know,” he said, “this reminds me of that old Christmas story. You know the one, right?”

Dean shook his head, still eyeing his brother keenly.

“Well,” Sam said, “kids used to put their shoes outside the door on Christmas Eve for Santa to fill with toys and candy. Probably the precursor to the modern day stockings, I guess. One little girl always woke up to empty shoes, because her parents were too poor to put anything in them. But she always believed Santa would remember, so she put her shoes out anyway. Then, one Christmas morning, she went out to get her shoes and found a kitten sleeping inside. If she hadn't left her shoes, the kitten would probably have died.”

“So, you’re saying that by puking on my boots, you inadvertently saved this innocent little kitty from freezing to death on Christmas Eve? Next I suppose you'll try to tell me that you forgetting to take your Bean-o and forcing us to air out the car in Missouri that time miraculously saved someone’s pooch from becoming road pizza,” Dean sneered.

Sam started to laugh, then went ghost white and bolted up, dropping the kitten in Dean’s lap as he stumbled into the bathroom. Dean stroked the kitten’s fur absently and grimaced as the sounds of Sam dry heaving into the toilet filled the room. “Guess I shouldn’t have mentioned the pizza,” he said to the kitty, guilt painting his features. As the sounds of puking died down, Dean tilted the critter’s chin up to look into his face. “All right, gremlin, duty calls. A big brother’s work is never done, you know.”

Dean stood, expecting the animal to jump gracefully off of his lap onto the floor. Instead, it hung, suspended over the crotch of his jeans, as Dean gazed down at it bemusedly. He heard a scuffling in the doorway and turned to find Sam leaning heavily against the doorframe with a weak grin on his face, despite the vomit-induced tear streaks on his cheeks.

“I see you found the fur bikini I ordered you from the Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog,” Sam joked. “I knew it’d look hot on you.”

“I’m glad that me being fondled by a hairy chick against my consent gives you the jollies, little brother. Gives new meaning to the expression, Ho, Ho, Ho.”

Sam moved away from the doorframe, stooping with a hand clenched over his stomach until he found the edge of his bed and settled with a sigh. “FYI, kittens have no control over their claws. And you’re only assuming it’s a chick,” he pointed out. “Did you even check? Could be a Rainbow Alliance kitty.”

Dean pried the kitten off his jeans, each tiny claw leaving a loop in the fabric of the denim. “I am not looking up some cat’s skirt.”

Sam settled slowly back into the bed. “How’re we gonna name it if we don’t know which team it’s playing for?”

Dean set the kitty down beside Sam and watched as it curled back up on his chest, not missing the twinges of pain that crossed his brother’s features as the tiny feet traversed his stomach. “We can’t name it, Sam. That would only confuse it when it finds a real home.”

“Yeah,” Sam agreed, face darkening with disappointment.

“C’mon, man,” Dean said. “You know we can’t keep it. Life on the road isn’t fair to us, let alone a helpless animal.”

“I know…it’s just," Sam sighed reluctantly, rubbing the back of his neck as he stared at his feet, "well, it almost seems kinda like we’re meant to have it, don’t you think? I mean, it showed up in your shoe on Christmas morning. It's just like that Christmas story. And truck drivers keep pets all the time.”

Dean looked away, hating that he had to play Dad when he’d given his father the very same argument more than a dozen times when they were kids, only to be shot down every time. “Truck drivers also have air-conditioned sleeper cabins, Sam, not leather-upholstered metal ovens.”

“Yeah, you’re right, I guess,” Sam finally conceded. “But we can keep it 'til we leave town, right? Drop it by the animal shelter on our way out? So, it needs a name 'til then.”

“'Kay, then let’s call her It. You know, with all that hair, it kinda reminds me of that freaky cousin from The Addams Family.”

“You’re a real sentimentalist, Dean,” Sam chuckled. “All right, then, It it is.”

“Well, we coulda called it Ralph after the paint on my shoes,” Dean jabbed, picking up the boots and carrying them into the bathroom before they could melt. He cleaned them up as best he could, put them back on, and emerged, reaching for his coat and keys.

“You gonna be all right here by yourself for awhile?” He asked. “I need to go get some more water before you dry up and blow away. The way that wind’s picking up, I think the storm’s gonna hit any time now. That little bit of sleet last night was just the appetizer.”

“Yeah, sure,” Sam agreed. He stroked the kitty’s fur tenderly and let his eyes slide shut, shivering slightly. “Me and It will hold down the fort,” he slurred, already half-asleep.

“You sure?” Dean asked, suddenly skeptical. A feeling of dread unexpectedly washed over him, clenching in his stomach like a frozen fist. For a second, he almost changed his mind, but the half-empty bottle of Gatorade on the end table brought him back to reality. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he promised.

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“As soon as I can,” was nearly four hours later. The only thing open on Christmas morning in the town they were in was the local stop 'n rob convenience store. While it had plenty of water, it had very little in the way of cat food and other kitten-sitting supplies, and Dean had to drive twenty miles over to the next town, where the Wal-Mart was still open.

The snow began coming down in a blinding sheet of white at about the exact moment he pulled into the parking lot. He looked up at the sky, “Yeah, Merry frickin’ Christmas to you too, Jackass,” he swore, figuring the only respect he needed to pay was to mentally put a capital ‘J’ on the word to make sure there was no confusion as to whom he was addressing. At any rate, he was already out of the car, point of no return, so to speak, so he hurried into the store.

He wasted five minutes in the pet supplies aisle staring at bags of kitten food and twenty different varieties of litter. Any sliver of inkling he might have felt to keep little It, if just to keep that dorky grin on Sammy's face, vanished the second he realized what a cat box would contribute to the Eau du Winchester aroma of their tiny living quarters. Very few things made Dean Winchester’s stomach flip, but he was pretty sure it did cartwheels at the notion of having a kitty toilet in the backseat of the Impala.

“Can I help you?” A sales associate asked. Poor kid looked to be barely eighteen, just rookie enough, Dean knew, to get stuck with Christmas day duty by default.

“Uh, yeah, we found a stray kitten, and we’re kinda stuck with it until after the holidays,” Dean said, scratching at the back of his neck. “I haven’t got a clue what I’m even looking for.” He pointed to the umpteen bags of litter. “I mean, we got clay, we got clumping, we got crystals, beads, baby powder scented. The cat’s still gonna crap in it, right?”

The girl, a petite brunette with freckles and a stupid elf cap pinned to her head laughed. “Preaching to the choir, man,” she agreed. “I taught my cat to use the toilet. Makes life much simpler.”

“You can do that?” Dean asked.

“Yeah,” she shrugged. “It’s not really even hard. You still gotta have a box for the initial training period, but you’d be surprised how fast they pick it up. I’ve never been able to get mine to flush, but yeah, no cat box makes me a happy kitty owner.”

Dean’s brow furrowed thoughtfully. No cat box. That was one major check mark erased from the cons side of the Keep Kitty-Don’t Keep Kitty list in the back of his mind. Sam really liked the kitty. Big Plus. Dean didn’t hate It. Another big Plus. Truck drivers kept pets all the time. Not a Minus. Dean had completely forgotten Christmas... Aw, hell. Merry Christmas Sammy.

Within ten minutes, Dean had his cart filled with everything from cat nip to feathers on strings and was making his way to the checkout counter before he could change his mind. The bottom of the cart held the largest bag of clay litter they had in the store, because the clerk had assured him that, for odor control in small spaces, nothing beat clay litter, and the giant bag should be plenty to get them through It’s toilet training phase.

When Dean pulled back into the motel parking lot, crawling at a snail’s pace over the ice-covered snow pack that had already covered the entire world for fifty miles in every direction, he had lost most of his Christmas spirit again. Driving at five miles an hour for twenty miles did that to a guy. This storm was really one for the record books.

Turning off the engine, he gazed into the backseat at the pile of shopping bags. He clenched his jaw with a scowl and decided to leave them for the time being, taking just a six pack of water bottles and a couple cans of cat food to tide them over.

He dove through the room door and slammed it shut behind him before the wind could catch it and blow it in, although the hole in the plaster behind the door knob suggested it wouldn’t have been the first time that had happened. Sam was still asleep, It curled up on his chest, just the way Dean had left them.

Dean set the water down on the nightstand and blew into his fists to warm up his fingers before laying the back of his hand against Sam’s cheek. The younger brother was burning up and still shivering, but he opened his eyes at the touch and greeted Dean with a weak smile. “Took you long enough,” he whispered. “Was getting ready to send out the posse," he rasped, pointing at the sleeping kitty.

Dean opened one of the bottles of water. “Yeah, the weather’s really taken a turn. Here,” he said, holding out the water bottle and helping Sam lift his head to sip from it. After a few small swallows, Sam choked, and Dean took the bottle away. That inkling of dread was back in Dean’s stomach, but one look out the window at the white wall of snow, and he knew he was beyond the point of being able to do much more than pray that Sam didn’t get worse before the storm passed. He wasn’t a praying man, but Sam had a way of making him do things he normally wouldn’t. Sam had a way of making him do anything.

Thinking that It might be making it hard for Sam to breathe by sleeping on his chest, Dean tried to lift the kitten off, but the tiny claws latched into his t-shirt stubbornly, and Sam groaned weakly in protest, putting one of his giant hands in the fur and stroking in a placating motion. Dean conceded and settled the kitty back into place.

“Fine, but if it sucks the breath outta you while you’re sleeping, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Dean whispered, knowing Sam was already asleep. He pulled up a chair, put his feet up on his own bed and took up watch at his brother’s sickbed.


Dean awoke with a start, uncertain how long he'd been asleep, with his heart racing as horrendous screams filled the air. He almost fell off his chair as he lunged for the drawer where his .45 was tucked safely away, his head still swimming with disorientation. The cool metal of the gun sent a shiver up his arm that cleared his head enough for him to realize that the screaming was coming from It.

The kitten had attached itself to the front of his shirt, halfway up his chest, and had its head turned up, yowling like it was on fire. “Geez!” Dean said, snatching at the cat and ripping it off the cotton of his t-shirt, "shoulda named you Velcro." As It continued to wail, Dean's first irrational thought was that the cat was possessed and really was trying to suck the life from him. When It continued to meowl and yell after he dropped her on the floor, Dean thought desperately for a way to quiet the ruckus before it disturbed Sam.

That was when he realized that Sam hadn’t moved at all, despite the uproar that was taking place only inches from his head. Panic clenched in his chest as Dean dropped to his knees beside the bed and reached a shaking hand up to touch his brother’s dripping brow. Sam didn’t move even as Dean lifted his eyelids one at a time, but he flinched involuntarily, curling in on himself the moment the older Winchester reached a hand beneath the comforter and probed across his stomach gently.

“Shit, shit, shit!” Dean said, heart pounding in his throat. “That’s it! We’re going to the hospital now!” Barely pausing to throw on his coat, Dean rushed out into the storm. Hands trembling, but not from the cold, he brushed as much snow off the windshield of the car as he could and reached in to turn the key and crank up the heater before heading back into the room.

Not wasting time to fumble with Sam’s clothes, Dean scooped up his brother’s limp body, blankets and all, flung him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and tried his best to ignore the sobbed choke of pain that his brother made as he dashed out of the room. He stumbled across the parking lot, squinting into the blowing snow with just one arm thrown across his eyes to shield them. He managed to get Sam arranged in the backseat, pushing most of the cat supplies onto the floor and tossing the rest in the trunk. “No peeking at your presents, there, bro,” he said absently, more to hear his voice as opposed to the thudding of his heart in his chest, and slammed the door, barely missing Sam's feet.

Dean jumped into the front seat and took a deep breath as he put the car in gear. He eased his foot down on the gas pedal slowly, clenching his jaw as if he could will the car to move, but the tires spun ineffectually on the ice, and they moved all of about six inches, sideways. “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” Dean chanted under his breath. “Uh, I take it back. You’re not a jackass, all right. Just, please…”

He jumped out of the car, knees trembling with anxiety. There had to be something…

He ran to the back of the car and popped the trunk. Rock salt was good for melting ice, right? He picked up the nearly empty bag and remembered that they had been planning to buy more in the next town. He berated himself for not remembering to get it at Wal-Mart. Spent all his cash on cat toys, dammit. Scrabbling to keep his head in the game, his eyes fell on the bag of kitty litter. He shrugged, pushing out his bottom lip. Hell, it was worth a try.

He ripped into the bag with his frozen fingers and cradled it under his arm, using his free hand to scatter the clay gravel under the tires and around the car and praying silently under his breath.

Finally, the bag empty, he jumped back in the car, closed his eyes, and put the car into gear once more. His face lit up with relief as the car inched backward, fishtailing only slightly on the slick surface. He made it to the road frontage just as a snowplow roared by on the feeder, clearing the path ahead of it and dropping sand behind to add traction.

Dean paused momentarily to let the swirling snow clear enough to give him some visibility and glanced up at the street sign on the corner: 34th street. Dean didn't put much stock in miracles, but irony he could appreciate. Winchesters had pretty much cornered the market on that. With one long glance into the rearview mirror at his too-silent, shivering baby brother, he shook his head and pulled slowly out onto the road, following the plow and the blue Highway signs to the nearest hospital.

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“Your brother’s going to be just fine,” the young doctor assured. “He came through the surgery with flying colors, and we got that hot appendix out without any complications. It was good you got him here when you did, though. Appendicitis is nothing to play around with. A few more minutes, and who knows?”

“Thanks,” Dean said, his voice thickly painted with relief. “I can’t thank you enough. Can I go see him?”

“Just give us a few more minutes to get him settled in Recovery, then we’ll come get you,” the surgeon said, shaking his hand and turning to leave.

Dean slouched back into his chair in the surgical waiting room. He only managed to sit for a few minutes more with his head in his hands before he felt the need to just get up and move, somewhere, anywhere. His nerve endings were still firing at the speed of light, and his knees jerked up and down as his toes pressed into the floor. He jumped up and decided to take a walking tour of the Emergency Room while he waited.

He’d only made one lap around the front desk when he heard a sniffling sob coming from the corner of the room. Dean looked over and saw a man, a woman, and a little girl, all smudged with soot and wrapped in emergency blankets huddled in the chairs. The nurse at the reception desk followed his gaze.

“They’re lucky,” she said. “House fire. They just made it out in the nick of time. Apparently the family cat alerted them to the fire and made sure they all got out. Sad, though, the cat didn’t make it.”

For half a second, Dean was tempted to turn away and pretend he hadn’t heard the story. After all, he didn’t know these people from Adam, and they probably didn’t want to be bothered by a complete stranger in light of their recent loss. Still, he was Dean Winchester, dammit, and he’d never been able to turn his back on anyone in need. Especially not a kid. He had plenty to be thankful for this Christmas. He supposed he had a little Christmas spirit left to share. Sorry Sammy.

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“You don’t know how much this means,” Mr. Johnson, the patriarch of the family who’d lost their house in the fire, said as Dean handed him the last of the kitten supplies he had stashed in the car. The final few bags came out of the trunk, and Dean failed to notice the tiny clink of metal on the packed snow as something, long lost and nearly forgotten, hooked on the plastic and fell to the ground.

Mr. Johnson stooped and picked up the tiny object. “Oops, you dropped something,” he said, holding it out to Dean.

Dean held out his hand, slightly confused, then grinned from ear to ear. He knew exactly what it was the second the cold silver hit his palm. Years of Sammyless Christmases and forgotten bonds of broken trust and tested brotherhood suddenly melted away, despite the freezing temperature.

“Haha! Merry Christmas, Mr. Johnson. I’ll bring the kitten by in the morning,” he laughed, clapping the older gentleman on the back. “I know she’ll have a great home with you.”

“Thank you, son.”

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It was still a few minutes before midnight when Sam opened his eyes in the recovery room, groggy, but obviously in less pain than he had been when he came in.

“How you feeling?” Dean asked, unable to resist the urge to push the bangs away from Sam’s eyes.

“Like a cat sat on my chest and sucked the life outta me,” Sam chuckled tiredly.

“Yeah, about that, uh, Sam,” Dean stammered. He hesitated, hating that he felt like such a Scrooge for saying it, but not wanting to postpone the inevitable. “I kinda gave the cat to someone while you were...indisposed.” He looked away guiltily and cleared his throat. “She’s got a real good home, though, or at least she will have once they rebuild it,” he snickered half-heartedly.

“'Ts okay,” Sam said, but Dean caught the shadow that darkened his glass-bright eyes. Luckily, he hadn't come unprepared to deal with his brother's inevitable disappointment.

“Look, I know your Christmas sucked and all,” Dean said, “and I hate that I forgot to get you anything, so, uh, here…” He held out his hand, dropping a tiny, tissue-wrapped object into Sam’s. “Consider this an IOU.”

“What? Dean you didn’t need to get me anything. It’s not like I’m gonna be hitting the gift shop anytime soon, myself. You’ll make me feel guilty.”

“Don’t. Dude, just open it,” Dean insisted.

With trembling fingers, Sam worked at the tissue, and halted suddenly when a silver ring fell out onto the blanket. He gazed at it in amazement, his face simultaneously twisting in joy and disbelief. “Dean, isn’t this...?”

“Yeah, I mean, you don’t have to wear it, if you don’t want, but I thought you’d like to have it back.”

Sam picked up the ring and rolled it between his fingers. He couldn’t even count the number of times he’d wondered what had happened to that ring. After he’d gotten to Stanford, he’d gone through every pocket of his duffel bag a hundred times, certain he’d stashed it in there for safe-keeping the day he could no longer slide it over his knuckle. During the four years he and Dean had been apart, Sam must have repeated that fruitless search a thousand times more. It was just a cheap ring, but it felt like the frame of a hole in his heart that never healed.

“Dean, I don’t know what to say…” Sam said, eyes glassy again, though this time not with fever or pain.

Dean rumpled Sam’s hair, something Sam hadn’t allowed him to do since he’d graduated elementary school. “Merry Christmas, little brother.”

“Merry Christmas, Dean," Sam returned, shifting his gaze to the ring for a few more seconds as his brow furrowed in wonder. "So, if this is an IOU, what exactly is it that you owe me?" He asked.

"One super-duper, never gonna forget your birthday, never gonna forget Christmas, never ever gonna let you forget about puking on my shoes, bestest big brother ever," Dean smirked, eyes atwinkle.

"Well, in that case," Sam shrugged stiffly, laying the ring down on the nightstand, "I can't accept this." He leaned back, eyes drooping with exhaustion and satisfaction.

Dean's face fell, and Sam could have sworn he actually pouted, just a little. "What? But Sam..." His voice trailed off, lips working around a silent argument his brain failed to form.

Sam met his gaze solidly, unblinking for all of about three seconds before his chin dimpled tellingly, and he snatched the ring back up off the table. "I'll wear the ring, Dean," Sam relinquished, unable to follow-through with his planned fraternal torture. He pushed the band onto his finger and looked at the way it glinted, shiny and new again after years spent tarnishing and forgotten. At that moment, he felt closer to his brother than he had since he graduated high school and cast a wet gaze up at Dean. "I just wanna keep the brother I have, if that's all right with you."

Dean sighed audibly with relief, chest deflating about three sizes as his held breath escaped. He didn't do sentimental, and this was a prime example of why. A guy could get killed with his heart hanging on his sleeve like that. "That depends," he said. "You got another brother I don't know about?"

"Nope, big brother, just you...dumbass."

"Yeah, well, that's probably wise," Dean bolstered. "Can't improve on perfection."

"Dean, I never said you were perfect," Sam snickered, "just that I like you the way you are."

"Damn straight," Dean agreed. "But you puke on my shoes again, I'm gonna make sure there's a gremlin in 'em when I make you clean 'em off...with your tongue."

"Couldn't help it," Sam mumbled, nearly asleep again. "One look at your grubby old boots, and my stomach just leapt. I must have a friggin' foot fetish."

Dean chuckled and pushed Sam's hair off his forehead once more, noting the much cooler temperature of the skin beneath. "Merry Christmas...you kinky little freak." He cocked an eyebrow appraisingly at the ring on Sam's hand, just like his own, and settled into a chair to wait for those eyes to open again. As his chin settled onto his chest, he wondered if it was such a bad thing that the Winchesters seemed to have cornered the market on irony. Something about this whole ironic, twisted Christmas felt less like tragic irony and more like mysterious blessing.

Miracle was a word Dean didn't use, but Sam had a way of making him do anything. "God, I'm such a girl."

The End

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