The house was warm and cosy: a good place to spend Christmas. The snowstorm that stranded the Winchester family here in Minnesota was a blessing in disguise. Had there been a few inches less of snow, they would have been halfway across the country by now, no doubt eating Christmas dinner in whatever diner was poor enough to be open and sleeping in a cold motel. This was better.
Jim Murphy would permit Christmas decorations in only one room of the house. Dean, who had assumed the job of supervising the seasonal preparations as only a 7 year old can, insisted the room be very decorated to compensate for the lack elsewhere. Streamers in clashing colours - yellow, red, pink, purple, blue and orange - hung in great quantities from the ceiling. The tree was weighted down with lights, tinsel, beads and baubles. Dean had inspected the tastefully decorated tree and declared it inadequate. He and Sammy went into the woods where the density of the trees had kept the snow to a minimum and collected hundreds of pine cones. The pine cones had been painted, mostly with left over emulsion, and these too decorated the tree. The mantle above the fireplace, every bookshelf and every picture frame all sported tinsel or some other hand-made piece of frippery. Jim seemed to love it.
Outside, it was beginning to snow again.
John Winchester stood at the window, a glass of cold beer in his hand, enjoying the rich smells coming from the kitchen while he watched his sons playing in the snow. He enjoyed their delight at the fresh snowfall all around them. A few years before, John would have been out there playing with them, tumbling around in the snow and loving every minute of it. But that was before the world changed on him; if he went out there now he'd end up turning the game into a training session. It was Christmas day: John didn't want to spoil their fun.
As he watched, Dean tilted his head back to catch snowflakes on his tongue. He was wearing his new coat although it was too big for him - the kid was growing so fast John had bought him a coat he could grow into - and a bright red knitted hat and gloves. Snow clung in patches to the blue coat: the legacy of their snowball fight.
Sammy was running in circles around his big brother, shouting words John couldn't hear. He wore yellow rubber boots, a black coat and a red scarf. There had been a hat, like Dean's, but it now adorned their snowman. As John watched, Dean scooped up a fresh handful of snow. Sammy realised his danger and started to run, although on his 3 year old's legs it was more like jumping from one pile of snow to the next. Dean let him run for a few moments, then lobbed the snowball after him.
That was when Sammy slipped. Dean's snowball sailed over his head, though John noted with approval that it would have been a score. Sammy didn't get up at once. John's instinct told him to run outside and help his baby boy, but he forced himself to wait there, at the window, to see what Dean would do.
Dean knelt in the snow next to Sammy, holding out his gloved hands. John saw Sammy reach for him, then Dean lifted the smaller boy up. Sammy hooked his arms around Dean's neck and Dean set him on his feet. Immediately, Sammy sat down again in the snow. Dean remained kneeling while he talked to Sammy. John saw Sammy nod, then, surprisingly, Dean bounced to his feet and began to run, leaving Sammy standing there unhappily up to his thighs in snow.
Dean didn't go far. He scrabbled under a lump of snow and returned dragging the sled John had made for them a few days earlier, when Pastor Jim asked them to stay for the holiday. (Truthfully, Jim called John a damned fool if he thought the Impala could get anywhere in these conditions, snow chains or no, and insisted he stick around if he didn't want to risk the boys' lives. John, who wouldn't have taken that kind of talk from anyone else, admitted Jim was right about the car, and agreed to stay.) The sled was just five planks of wood, two roughly shaped into runners and nailed together with a rope at the front, but it was good enough for the boys. John watched Dean get Sammy to sit on the sled. Once Sammy was settled, Dean moved up to the front, stepped inside the loop of the rope and harnessed himself to the sled like a horse. Moving slowly at first, Dean began to drag the sled, and Sammy, toward the house.
John was waiting in the doorway when Dean reached the end of his journey. The boy was breathing hard, his face flushed from the cold and the exertion, but he straightened up when he saw John. "Sammy's hurt," he reported, looking a little scared.
Since he'd seen the incident, John wasn't inclined to blame Dean for what had clearly been an accident. He stepped outside into the snow and lifted Sammy off the sled. Sammy clung to him, getting snow all over John's sweater.
"Come on, Sammy. Let's take a look at you."
Before he carried Sammy inside, John glanced down at Dean. "Put the sled away in the garage, Dean. Then come inside and help me with your brother."
Dean hung his head. "Yes, sir."
Damn it, John didn't mean that as a rebuke. "Dean," he said softly, "it's okay."
Dean smiled a little and trudged off, dragging the sled behind him.
John sat Sammy in a chair. He could see the tracks of tears on Sammy's cheeks, his big eyes red-rimmed. He was obviously in pain.
"I fell," Sammy volunteered and sniffed.
"You're being very brave." John fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and gave it to Sammy. "Where does it hurt?"
Sammy pointed to his left leg.
"Your knee?" John guessed.
Sammy shook his head.
Sammy nodded miserably.
"Okay. Let me take a look." John unbuttoned Sammy's coat first and pulled the snow-caked mittens off his hands. He laid them on the ground beside the chair and saw Jim watching him silently. "Jim, I may need the medkit," he instructed.
Jim nodded and went to get it.
John pulled the boot from Sammy's left foot. Sammy yelled in pain and started to cry again. John took back his handkerchief and wiped the boy's tears. "I'm sorry, Sammy. It's going to hurt a bit more. Can you be a brave boy for me?" He waited for Sammy's assent before pulling the boot off. Sammy's sock came off with it. There was no sign of swelling.
Relieved, John looked into Sammy's eyes. He could see the boy struggling to hold back tears. The ankle looked okay, but was he missing something? "Sammy," John explained, "I'm going to do some things to your foot. It might hurt, and I need you to tell me if it hurts real bad, okay?"
"'Kay." Sammy bit his lip.
John probed the ankle with his fingers, applying pressure but being as gentle as he could. He watched Sammy's face, noticing when he winced and when he relaxed. He was aware of Dean coming into the room, but he concentrated on Sammy. Next, he supported the leg with one hand and carefully moved the foot with the other, checking that Sammy could fully rotate the joint. Sammy didn't complain once, though when John finally released his foot, the boy's eyes were once more brimming with tears.
John smiled. "That's good, Sammy. Nothing broken."
"Is Sammy okay?" Dean asked fearfully. He was carrying Jim's first aid box in his arms. He brought it to John.
John smiled reassuringly. "Thank you. Yes, he'll be fine. No more snowball fights for a few days, though."
"Cheer up, Dean. I saw what happened. It wasn't your fault. Now, get me a bandage from the medkit."
Dean knelt to open the box. "What kind?"
"The stretchy kind." John accepted the bandage from Dean. "Now watch what I do, in case you need to do this someday."
Dean moved closer, watching intently as John wound the bandage around Sam's foot and ankle. He didn't believe it was really necessary, but it would make Sammy feel better and it was a good opportunity to teach Dean. "There you go," he said finally, pinning the bandage into place. He pulled Sammy's sock out of the boot and carefully drew it on over the bandage. "Sammy, I want you to find something to do sitting down until dinner is ready. Watch TV or have Dean read to you, okay? If it's still hurting when we're ready to eat, tell me. Understand?"
Sammy nodded, no longer tearful.
"Dean, I'm going to help Pastor Jim. Keep an eye on Sammy and don't let him walk around too much. If his ankle keeps hurting him, come and tell me."
"Yes, sir." Dean brightened suddenly. "Can we watch cartoons?"
"You can watch anything you like. Just as long as you take care of Sammy."
"Thanks!" Dean shot over to the television.
John carried Sammy to a chair closer to the TV set, then gathered up Sam's coat and boots and went to put them away.
By eight that evening, the boys were all Christmassed out. Stuffed with roast goose and cake, worn out with playing - John's injunction to sit still hadn't lasted more than an hour - and TV, they both lay curled up on the couch, sound asleep.
John watched them sleep, slowly sipping a glass of Jim's good scotch. They seemed so innocent, lying there, so vulnerable. Being responsible for their lives in such a dangerous world was almost more than John could bear. He longed for the old world, where such mishaps as Sam's slip up today were the worst dangers his sons would have to face...a world where they still had a mother to take care of them both.
Dean slept with one arm curled over Sammy's waist, as if reassuring himself that his brother was still there. John recognised the sign as something he should worry about, but he knew he would never try to stifle Dean's need to protect Sammy. Just the opposite: he needed Dean to keep Sammy safe, whatever the cost.
Because there was no one else.
John felt an upwelling of love for the sleeping boys, but love was tempered by his fear for them. He loved his sons, not only because they were all he had left of Mary, but for themselves. So young, so fragile...they were his reason for living, and always would be.
Hearing Jim at the door, returning from evening mass, John set his glass down and headed into the vestibule. He held a finger to his lips, glancing back toward the room where the boys slept.
Jim, understanding, spoke just above a whisper. "Do you want help putting them to bed?"
John shook his head. "No, I can take care of them. Thanks."
"Alright." Jim hung his coat on a hook and yawned. "Well...goodnight, John."
John was surprised, but he didn't let it show. "Jim. Thanks. For giving them a Christmas."
Jim smiled. "It's my pleasure to have them here. They're great kids and I enjoy company."
"You're welcome." Jim turned toward the stairs, then hesitated, moving to the doorway to glance in at the boys. "John...perhaps it's not my place, but you do have a choice, you know. It's not too late to go back."
To give them a normal life, John heard the subtext loud and clear. But he shook his head. "It was too late the night Mary died, Jim. Whatever killed her...it'll be back some day. I've got to prepare them for that." He didn't trouble to mask the irritation in his voice. Jim knew all this.
"Boys need a childhood," Jim answered gently.
"And they'll get as much as I can give them. But in some ways it's too late for that, too." John sighed heavily. "Do you think I don't know what I'm doing to them? I know, Jim. I...I'd rather they live long lives hating me than..." but he couldn't finish the sentence. Couldn't make that fear real.
Jim nodded sadly. "I spoke out of turn. I'm sorry, John. Sleep well."
"I will," John answered automatically.
And he would. When he had put the boys to bed and checked the salt lines.