Sam sneezes, wiping his nose on his sleeve before opening the last box. There are some lights in this one, though god only knows if they'll actually work. He pulls them out, a tangled mess of course, and pokes through the rest of the box. Roughly half of the nativity scene made it through the years unscathed, which should go perfectly with the third of a Christmas village and couple of pieces of unbroken Santa's workshop knickknacks. There's a fine powder of glittery dust at the bottom of this box, same as all the others – all that's left of the delicate ornaments that were packed away haphazardly.
He salvages what he can into the least beat-up boxes and carries them into the war room. They've moved the map table aside to make room for the tree that Cas has insisted on. The tree is still alive – sitting in a pile of dirt in the center of the room. Sam isn't sure he wants to know how a tree can survive like that. It's creepy enough that he can see the roots peeking out from under the tree skirt. They move once in a while, stiff, brown tentacles that make his skin crawl.
"Well, what've we got here?" Dean asks, poking through the boxes. He grabs the lights off the top of the first one and plugs them into the nearest outlet; they light up fine – huge, brightly colored bulbs that are no longer in fashion. He starts untangling them as Sam pulls out the various bits and pieces of Christmas nativity village workshop. Cas sets them up carefully, lining up the stable with Santa's elves next to the quaint snow-covered house with Joseph and a camel inside. The manger is in Santa's workshop, with an ice-skating little girl attempting a precarious arabesque in the trough.
They try stringing popcorn, but it keeps breaking apart in Sam and Dean's too-tight grips, so instead they string Froot Loops and Apple Jacks and rope those around the tree instead. The ornaments are whatever happens to be hanging around – spark plugs and kitchen implements and probably a few dangerous artifacts that Dean pulled out of a storeroom somewhere. That's what happens when Cas decides he wants to do a traditional Christmas the night of Christmas eve in a small town in Kansas. It's either scrounge around in the bunker or drive three hours to a town big enough to have the kind of stores that'll be open on Christmas eve.
The presents are simple but oddly touching. Dean gives Sam dad's bowie knife. Sam had wanted it from the very first – when they divided up the weapons in Dad's trunk after he died, they'd taken turns, but Dean'd gotten to go first because he was the oldest. Sam never pushed back on that; there was very little that gave Dean happiness, and letting him pick first was one of those things that meant a lot to him and not so much to Sam. Unfortunately, he'd been eyeing dad's bowie, too, apparently, even though he had one of his own, that dad'd bought him for his twenty-first birthday. Sam had even argued the point, which, come to think of it, had probably sealed its fate – he might have been convinced to trade it for the black, curved ninja-ish butterfly knife Sam picked second, but Sam had whined about the bowie and that meant Dean was never giving it up. Sam turned the knife over and over in his hands, memories of dad overwhelming him.
Sam gives Dean his AC/DC shirt back. He'd been wearing it when he left for college, and he wore it a fair amount while he was at Stanford. He'd stuffed it in his duffel when he first went back on the road with Dean – meaning to rub his face in it at some point over the hunt. He knew it was Dean's favorite shirt; he'd stolen it out of Dean's laundry pile on purpose the morning he left.
Dean immediately strips and puts the shirt on. It's faded after so many years, but when Dean claps Sam on the shoulder and breaks out into Back In Black, Sam knows he's been forgiven.
Cas gives them each a feather. He'd given them feathers before, just extra ones that'd fallen out. Angel feathers are extremely useful, particularly in spellwork, so Sam had always assumed Cas was just giving them something else for their arsenal.
"These are a little different," Cas says, and lowers his eyes. He's done that more and more recently. Sam doesn't know when he started to notice, but it's almost coquettish and always gives Sam pause. He's seen Cas do it to Dean before, but then Cas started doing it to him, too, and Sam can't help but frown at Cas, try and work out what it's supposed to mean. He thought he knew what it meant with Dean, but when Cas levels it at him, too, he figures he must be missing something.
"Angel feathers plucked from our wings and freely given," Cas says, handing them over, "are a symbol of an angel's protection."
When Cas lets go of the feather, Sam can feel a burning sensation on the back of his hand. The feather disappears, and he shakes his hand to get rid of the sting. Dean's doing the same thing, so Sam turns his hand over to see what's there. It's a symbol. Enochian, he's almost positive, but he doesn't recognize it as anything he's seen before.
"What is it?"
Cas shrugs. "My name. Though there is much more in my name than simply Castiel."
Sam looks up from the mark on his hand, intrigued. "What's in a name, Cas?"
Cas casts his eyes down again. "Our symbols are not static like our short names. The symbols evolve as the angels change. This symbol means Castiel, favored and outcast, defender of humanity and instrument in its downfall, bound to the Winchesters to defend them above all else."
Sam is fairly certain he's wearing a match for the dumbfounded look on Dean's face. "Bound to the Winchesters?" Sam asks. "What does that mean?"
Cas looks up, meeting his eyes with the fire and determination Sam has seen a thousand times before – just… about the job, or Heaven, or fixing his mistakes.
"You are fluent in English, Sam," Cas says, the ghost of a smile crossing his face – just a flash of an upturned corner of his mouth.
"But you're…. we're not bound," Dean says. "We would have noticed, wouldn't we, if something bound you to us?"
Cas smiles for real now. "Yes, Dean And you did. I just bound myself to you by putting you under my protection. By accepting my feather, you have agreed to this."
"Cas," Sam breathes. He doesn't even know where to begin.
"You can't take it back," Cas says, hurriedly. Sam had briefly had that thought – they seem to get their friends and loved ones killed – but dismissed it as irrelevant almost immediately. They've been informally bonded for years now. Making it public isn't that big a deal.
"Not backing out," Sam says, looking down at his hand again. He's not sure how he could if he wanted to. "This is just… wow. Thanks, Cas."
"You're more than welcome," Cas says. He looks at Dean, worry back on his features. Dean still looks thunderstruck. "Say something," Cas says, his hand twitching like he wants to reach out to Dean.
"Bound to the Winchesters," Dean says softly. "Both of us."
Cas nods. "You each value your brother's safety and wellbeing over your own. I've helped both of you find your way back to each other. I couldn't bind myself to only one of you."
"So… it's not…" Dean flicks a look over at Sam that he can't understand and looks back to Cas. "It's like… family. Bonds of family."
Cas shrugs. "I will do everything in my power to keep you safe and together."
"Us," Dean says. "You'll do everything in your power to keep all of us safe and together. You, me, and Sam."
Cas smiles, then. "Of course."
Dean nods, apparently satisfied with that. Sam nods too. He's not satisfied, exactly, but he's content. For now.