One Christmas


“Sam!” John calls. “Get a move on!” He shakes his head at the small wave he gets from the thirteen year-old as he slogs over the snow-laden high school track. Dean's pacing steadily ahead, shortening his stride for conditions, every once in a while looking over his shoulder to encourage – or taunt – his younger brother.

John sighs, tries to ignore the dimming glow of Christmas lights winking from the neighborhood houses as morning breaks over the small Ohio town. Another holiday. Just the thought's enough to make the hunter weary. It's not that he hates Christmas, exactly. He's just out of practice, and it's not like he hasn't had other things to do. Hell, he wishes he could spend all year making a list and checking it twice. His lists are memorized the first time, and whoever's naughty gets dusted.

He squints at the bright light breaking over the snow, biting back a rebuke as his youngest stumbles and catches himself. Sam's not the natural athlete his brother is – not yet, anyway. Kid's face is still round with youth, and he hasn't grown into the promise of those hands and feet yet. But he's fit and determined, and the sloppiness the boy's been exhibiting these last two weeks can only be deliberate slacking.

“Sam; I want to see some effort from you,” John says sternly, as the boy stumbles past him on his lap. The two older Winchesters are going to need to leave for their work at the garage.

“I'm trying, Dad,” Sam pants, looking earnest as only his youngest can, and John tries to tamp down on his frustration.

“Front and center,” he commands, pointing to the ground in front of him. Sam trots over, cheeks flushed with exertion. “You're not trying very hard; just because you're out of school doesn't mean this is a vacation. Not for us,” John adds, before the kid can correct him.

“I am too trying hard,” Sam insists breathlessly, looking faintly insulted at his father's implication. “I'm just tired.”

“That's because you've been slacking on your training,” John tells him, looking around the boy to wave Dean in from the other side of the track. “We're gonna start an hour earlier tomorrow, work on building up your strength.”

Sam's eyes widen, “But, Dad - ”

“But nothing,” John replies. “You wanna be able to back your brother and me up, don't you?”

The boy actually considers, because that's the kind of kid Sam is. “Yes, sir,” he concedes, as if disappointed by the conclusion.

“Good. Go hit the shower,” John says, relenting enough to swat the boy lightly on his way. Christmas Eve is tomorrow, and he really doesn't want Sam sulking. John feels sulky enough for both of them. It's the first holiday the boys and he haven't been on the road since – well, in years – and with the Impala breaking down and the boys' recent growth spurts, there's barely enough money to keep a roof over their heads and the power on, let alone give his boys any kind of Christmas.

The wife of the garage's owner had been stricken with pity at their plight – a poor widower and his motherless sons – and baked them a giant tin of cookies that had lasted in the all-male household all of five hours. John does has an extra large chicken put away in the freezer, some instant potatoes and canned gravy, but it's a far cry from what the boys would have if Mary were here. John remembers the Christmas Eve Dean was three, the huge stuffed turkey and numerous side dishes Mary spent all day cooking just for the three of them, her hand always returning to roam lovingly over the place Sam already grew...

“Dad.” Dean's brows are drawn together. “You coming?”

John glances over to where the seventeen year-old is waiting, at the familiar sea-green eyes staring back at him. “Yeah, Dean,” he says, shoving his cold hands into his pockets. Thank god the garage has a space heater. “Let's move out.”

**************************

Sam hurries down the icy sidewalk, perspiration dampening the skin beneath his thin jacket despite the cold. Five-thirty am. Fifteen minutes earlier than he usually gets home, but still too late. He'd thought about not showing up to his employers' homes this morning, but Mr. Hollis and Mrs. Mencken had been kind enough meet his request of being paid in advance, and Mrs. Dooley was old and had to use a cane and what if she tripped and fell? No, if his father's remembered the extra hour of training, Sam will just have to deal with the fallout. He winces at the thought, wondering if Christmas Eve dinner will be nearly as enjoyable standing up.

The streets are still dark, and Sam tries to cheer himself by looking at the bright lights glowing from the tiny houses' rooflines and windows. “Waste of electricity,” his father would say. John Winchester isn't exactly known for his sentimentality, or frivolous expenditures. But something about the joyful decorations always brings a smile to Sam's face, and even though Dean might scoff, it never stops his older brother from arguing with Sam about which house is the best, and whether or not the chimney is big enough for Santa to squeeze his fat ass down. It's almost enough to make Sam believe again, especially when his own bedroom window comes into view and it's still dark.

He forgot, Sam thinks, almost giddy with relief. “God bless us, everyone.”

****************************

John paces the small room Sam's claimed as his own, moving through the lifting darkness with a restless agitation. Should never have let him have his own room, John thinks, rubbing a hand over his stubbled face. Dean left to check the track just minutes before, just in case the younger boy had somehow been motivated to start the morning's training on his own. Get a grip, Winchester. He's fine. No signs of a break in or struggle. Bad things just don't happen on Christmas Eve in the suburbs, right? Wrong.

There's a scuffling sound from the window, and John falls back into the shadows, eyes narrowing. He's astounded to see his thirteen year-old climb in the open window, rosy-cheeked from the cold and snow. “Samuel Winchester.”

The two words cause Sam to startle, and he loses his balance, tumbling to the floor in a frozen heap of tangled limbs. John shakes his head, moving past the boy to shut the window, then firmly turning the latch. “You'd better have a damn good explanation. What the hell are you doing sneaking out of the house?” He switches on the bedside lamp.

“Uhhhh…” Sam looks up at the man, wide-eyed. His dad looks like a giant from this angle. An angry giant, Sam amends with a wince, as his father reaches down and grabs his bicep, pulling him to his feet.

“I expect an answer,” John says, holding onto the boy and giving him a small shake.

Sam gives him an apologetic look. “I can't tell you,” he says. This is the first Christmas the Winchesters are going to celebrate like a real family – at least that Sam can remember – and he wants it to be perfect, at least some small memory of normal that they can hang onto when the Winchesters are chopping down werewolves instead of Christmas trees. And a confession might save his ass, but it will ruin his surprise, and he's not about to let the two weeks of careful planning go to waste.

“Sam,” John growls in warning.

Sam shifts nervously on his feet, peers up at John through long lashes. “I wasn't doing anything wrong, Dad – I promise.”

John releases the kid's arm, moves his hands to his hips. “I've just about had it with the excuses, Samuel. I'm gonna give you one more chance to tell me what's going on, and then I'm taking care of this the old-fashioned way.”

Sam swallows hard. This is going nowhere good, and fast. “I can't,” he maintains, feeling a little weak in the knees.

Exasperated, John walks over and takes a seat on the quilt-covered bed. “Get over here,” he commands. Sam's been asking for this all week, and maybe a good spanking will make the kid a little more cooperative.

“Dad, please,” Sam pleads. “I'm sorry.” And too big to be spanked. Can't his father see that?

“You heard me. Or are you looking for a new bedtime, too?”

Sam blushes at the question. “No, sir.” The last time he'd been grounded he'd been put to bed at eight every night, and it'd been a humbling experience for the teen. One Sam has no desire to repeat.

John's shoulders relax the slightest bit. Finally, some deference. “Okay, then. Get over here,” John repeats. He waits as Sam reluctantly shuffles over, then pulls the boy a little closer to unbutton his jeans. “You know you're not allowed out by yourself after dark,” John scolds, finishing with the button and deftly working the zipper. “I don't know what's gotten into you lately, but it's gonna stop here.” He shucks the jeans down, letting them fall to the boy's knees before toppling him over his lap. Sam groans at the position, but allows his father to wrap an arm around his waist. He only fusses when John's fingers hook in the waistband of his briefs.

“Dad, no,” he begs quickly, trying to push up on his elbows even as the thin cotton is skimmed down to join his jeans. “Please not like this - ” Not on the bare, not like some baby. He can't remember the last time Dean got spanked, but he'd bet good money it wasn't with his briefs dangling from his ankles. His stomach plummets wildly as his father's warm hand settles on his chilled buttocks. His jeans had provided little protection against the cold, but Sam guesses that shortly won't be a concern.

“Exactly like this,” John promises the boy, lifting his hand and letting it smack firmly down on his son's bare behind. Sam jerks at the impact, then hisses as John begins landing a series of sharp swats all over the pale skin. He concentrates on creating a good smart, using more wrist than arm and raising heat and color that soon sets the kid squirming.

“Dad! I'm sorry!” Sam gasps, his fingers grappling in the covers and his feet starting to kick in spite of his best efforts to keep still. He tells himself that he can endure this, that he's tough, taken things much worse than a spanking with a stoicism rivaling Dean's. But his father isn't letting up, isn't missing a beat, and Sam begins to ouch and yelp at every inexorable smack. “Dad! I won't do it again; I promise!”

“I hope you mean that,” John says, disappointed that he's having to do this today of all days. “Because if we have to have this talk again, you're gonna be one sorry little boy.” Wanting Sam to remember this, he concentrates the last and most vigorous swats on Sam's bright pink sit spots, wringing a desperate yell from the kid before John sets him summarily on his feet. It's a measure of Sam's discomfort that the kid doesn't bother pulling his briefs and jeans up, and John can't help the small curve to his mouth as his youngest bounces from foot to foot, rubbing frantically at his scorched behind. He remembers the dance well enough from his own childhood.

After a minute or two, John takes pity on the kid and leans to pull him back over, batting Sam's hands gently away as he draws up both the briefs and the jeans before standing and thumbing away the boy's tears. “You think you can behave now? At least until Santa gets here?” he adds wryly.

Sam sniffles, too distracted by the burning of his behind to notice the subtle tease. “Yes, sir.”

“Good boy,” John says, dropping a hand to the boy's shoulder and giving it a light squeeze. There's none of the resentment or attitude John might expect from the teenager, just tearful, little boy remorse, and he feels himself soften. “You go clean up and change. Dean should be back any minute, and then I want you out running laps. I'll have breakfast up when you get back.”

****************************

“Here you go, boys.” John hands each of his sons a plain, white apparel box. His calloused hands, so adept and capable when holding a weapon, are virtually useless when it comes to the finer skills of wrapping packages and tying ribbons. Fortunately, neither boy seems to mind. Just like they didn't seem to mind John's overcooked chicken or lumpy instant potatoes, and their easy pleasure makes something in him ache.

“Thanks, Dad,” Sam says, eyes shining up at John from where the two teens are kicked back on the couch. The kid shakes the box and shifts in his seat for what must be the hundredth time this evening.

Dean smirks. “Guess it's pretty obvious this year who's been naughty or nice.”

“Dean,” John reproves, as Sam glares at the older boy. “Don't tease your brother.” But there's a small quirk to his lips he can't quite suppress. They're growing up so fast. “Go on, take a look,” he prompts his sons, taking a step back and shoving his hands into his pockets so they don't betray him. There's so much he can't give them…

“Wow,” Sam says, opening up the box and finding a coat; a new, brown, down-filled coat that didn't belong to someone else before him. “This is – wow,” he says again, pulling the coat out from the tissue to get a better look.

“You needed something warmer,” John tells him. “That old thing you have is about to fall apart. That goes for you, too, Dean,” he adds dryly, as Dean pulls out his own coat. “Believe it or not, that leather's not all-weather gear.”

Dean rolls his eyes, but he's smiling. “Thanks, Dad.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Sam repeats, changing position on the worn sofa again, and John reaches out and drops a hand to the shaggy head.

“You're welcome, kiddo.”

There's a rustling, then, and Dean's leaning over his side of the couch and pulls out a paper bag. He pulls out a couple of books and tosses them to Sam. “Here, geek.”

“Hey!” Sam automatically protests, just before his eyes go round with amazement. Arabian Nights and Great Expectations. “How'd you know I wanted these?”

Dean scoffs. “I'm the big brother; I know everything.”

Sam grins in spite of himself. Dean might be a jerk sometimes, but his brother knows him; really knows him. “Thanks, Dean,” Sam says sincerely.

“Ho, ho, ho,” Dean replies, grinning back as he reaches into the bag again. “Catch, Dad.”

John moves on reflex, catching the new gloves in one hand, the strange blue ball in the other. “I get the gloves, son, but what's this?” he asks, nodding at the other gift.

The seventeen year-old blinks innocently. “It's a stress ball, Dad. To keep your blood pressure down.”

John raises a brow. “You know what else would keep my blood pressure down?” Sam's snickering now, and John's more than a little amused himself. “You not being such a smartass.”

Dean purses his lips, thinks about it. “Maybe next year.”

John gives the ball a meaningful squeeze, then snorts. “Thank you, Dean.”

“Anytime.”

The promise is casual but genuine, and John fumbles tucking the gloves into his pockets. All the shit you put him through, and the kid never complains. Nope, to Dean, giving is as natural as breathing, and John has to wonder if that's a testament to his parenting or a condemnation of it. “Well,” he says gruffly, all the things he won't say sitting heavy on his tongue. “If we're all done here, why don't - ”

“Wait,” Sam says, jumping to his feet. “I'll be right back!” The pledge hangs in the air as the boy makes a run for the hallway. John glances over at Dean, but his eldest merely shrugs. Well, then. John takes a seat in the armchair and waits.

********************

Sam dashes for his room, drops to his knees beside his bed and rummages beneath. The glint of bright, shiny paper can't be missed, and he pulls out the two presents he's wrapped for his father and Dean. He smiles again at the paper he found. It's bright blue, and covered with snowflakes and the Abominable Snowman from Rudolph – a monster John Winchester surely would have salted and burned before he ever got a chance to terrorize the North Pole. He'd pressed a stick-on white bow to the center of each, and besides looking a bit flattened by their seclusion, Sam thinks they look pretty good.

He gathers the presents into his arms and hurries back to the living area, smiling when both Dad and Dean look up in surprise. “Here, Dean,” he says cheerfully, handing his brother the smaller present before walking over and putting the larger package into his father's startled hands. “Merry Christmas, Dad.”

It takes a moment for the hunter to recover. His fingers move awkwardly over the carefully wrapped box, as if trying to remember how to open something without a lock pick or explosives. Somehow John manages, though, stunned to see the neatly-folded shirt from an actual department store. He hesitantly touches the burgundy wool, glances over to where Dean is exclaiming over the two new cd's he's unwrapped.

“Sammy, how did you - ”

“How did you buy these things, Sam?” John asks. God help him, if the kid's been using their credit cards…

“I – uh…” Sam falters under his father's gaze, suddenly wondering if his dad's going to be mad about this. “I got a job.”

Dean's eyebrows shoot up, but it's John that asks the question. “What kind of – where?”

“Clearing driveways,” Sam says, flushing at bit with the confession. “People don't want to shovel snow in the morning, so I just offered…” he trails off uncertainly.

John's chest tightens strangely. Of course. So that's why the kid's been so hard to drag out of bed in the mornings, so exhausted for training. And that's where he was this morning – this morning. Christ. John stares numbly down at the shirt in his lap, knows just what Sam's paid for it. Things go a little blurry, and he wipes a work-roughened hand over his face.

“Dad?” he hears Dean ask, a trace of alarm in his voice.

“Are you mad?” Sam asks, also sounding apprehensive, but likely for an entirely different reason, John thinks, and swallows hard.

“No, Sammy.” He drops his hand, tries for a wobbly smile. “I'm not mad.” He pauses, watching relief wash over the boy's face. “I'm sorry, kiddo; I should've – I didn't realize,” he finishes simply, not knowing what else to say. “Why didn't you say something?”

Sam blushes, knowing his dad is thinking about the first-class spanking he dished out this morning. “I wanted it to be a surprise.” His brow furrows. “It is, isn't it?”

John huffs, a small sound of self-deprecating amusement. “Yeah, Sammy; it sure is.” He holds out an arm, hoping it's enough. The kid doesn't disappoint, either. A shy smile breaks out over his youngest's face as he moves into John's reach, allows his father to tug him closer, squirming only slightly when the hunter pulls him up onto his lap.

“Dad,” Sam groans, but since the boy's already leaning comfortably into his chest, John feels free to ignore the protest.

“Thank you,” John says sincerely, dropping a kiss to the dark head. “It's just what I needed.” He glances at Dean. “You wanna put on some music?”

“Really?” The kid's eyes brighten, and he drops his gifts to the end table and runs off to get his cd player.

John clears his throat awkwardly. “So. Just so we're clear here, this was a one-time deal, right? You don't have any other secrets or surprises we should know about?”

“No, sir,” Sam replies sheepishly, his hazel eyes lifting to John's. “Once a year's about all I can handle.”

John chuckles, squeezing him tighter for a moment. “Thank god for that.” Then, “Sometimes I might forget to say it, but I - ” The hunter looks up as the phone rings from the kitchen.

Sam frowns. “We don't have to answer it; it's Christmas Eve, Dad.”

John's mouth twists into a sad smile, and he pats the boy's hip gently. “I know, Sammy. Better hop up so I can get it.”

**************************

John tosses his last duffel into the truck with a weary sigh, heads back for the warmth of the small house. He'll be leaving early tomorrow, spend his Christmas Day hunting a poltergeist in Richmond. As expected, the hunter finds the two boys asleep on the sofa, Dean sitting with his boots kicked up on the table, Sammy's head resting in his lap. John smiles to himself, wishes he was the kind of dad who took pictures and kept photo albums, because this is one moment he wants to remember.

Can you see them, Mar? Your little firefighter? Brave as hell, and real good at watching out for his brother; for me, too. And Sammy, well – kid's too smart for his own good. Needs a reason for everything. And yeah, don't know where he gets it. Must have done something right, even when I've fucked it up... Maybe I can't give them half the things they deserve. But I can save them. I *will* save them. If it's the last thing I do…

“Merry Christmas, boys,” he murmurs.

He takes a last long look at his children, then quietly switches off the light.

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