Castiel’s guessing it took Anna roughly twenty seconds to regret sharing her news.
“What’re his grades like?” Michael asks for the fourth time since she arrived a whole ten minutes ago. Anna resolutely ignores the question yet again, which Cas really thinks should tell Michael all he needs to know.
“Is he cute?” Gabriel calls from the sofa. Cas is curled up in the chair, watching Michael and Luke circle Anna like vultures waiting to descend.
“Obviously she thinks so,” Luke says.
“Yeah, but what level of cute? Like ‘least-offensive-way-to-say-you’re-not-hot’ cute? Or ‘right-here-right-now-take-me-on-the-desk’ cute?”
“Gabriel!” Michael snaps.
“Gabriel, do you really want to hear your little sister talk about sex?” Anna shoots back.
Gabriel gives a ‘fair enough’ tilt of his head.
“What’s his name?” Luke asks.
“Dean,” she says, obviously grateful for a question somewhere within the realms of normality. “Dean Winchester.”
“How’d you two lovebirds meet?”
“My car broke down in the parking lot and he offered to lend a hand. He’s an Automotive Engineering major,” she shares. Predictably, Michael’s face breaks into a frown.
“Is that really-”
“How long have you know each other?” Luke cuts in. Michael glowers, but lets it slide.
“About three months.”
“And you’re already bringing him home to meet the family?” Gabe whistles. “Damn, sis.”
“What? It’s Christmas, and he said he didn’t have any plans, so…”
“Are you two going to need a bigger bed? Because there’s no way I’m giving you mine.”
“They can share a single,” Luke says.
“You can’t have sex in a single bed.”
“You most definitely can.”
“Really?” Gabriel asks with interest.
“Castiel, save me,” Anna begs, looking at him desperately.
“Come with me,” he says, standing up. She grabs onto his sleeve and lets him lead their way out of the room, closing the door neatly in Gabriel’s face.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she chants under her breath as they hurry up the stairs, their brothers shouting protests after them.
“You held up well,” he comments mildly, opening his bedroom door and ushering Anna in. “Better than Michael. When he brought Maggie home, he only made it twelve minutes before he locked them both in the bathroom.”
“Yeah, well Michael’s just as bad as the rest of them,” Anna gripes, throwing herself face down on Cas’ bed. “Lucy and Gabe are hard work, but they don’t mean it like he does.”
“He wants what’s best for you,” Cas soothes, sitting down by her. “We all do.”
“I’m a twenty-one year old woman,” Anna says, annoyed. “I can decide that for myself.”
Cas shrugs helplessly. “They’re protective.”
“Yes, there is that.”
Anna laughs into the pillow and then sits up, turning to lean against the headboard. “It’s good to see you again,” she says.
“And you,” he agrees. This is his first time seeing Anna in nearly a year. They still talk on the phone and on the internet, but he misses getting to actually see her.
“I wish we were at the same college,” she says, blowing a hunk of long red hair out of her eyes.
“Then perhaps we should have applied for the same college.”
“True, true. How’s Classics?”
“Incredible. Impossible. How’s Psychology?”
“It’s amazing, but the next time Gabe asks if I can read his mind yet, I’m going to have to throw him through a window.”
“We’ve all considered it at some stage,” Cas says sympathetically. Gabriel entered his ‘difficult’ phase at three years old and at eighteen is not yet over it. Cas would blame Luke for being a bad influence, but really, it’s difficult to tell just who corrupts who. “I’m glad you’ve met somebody, Anna.”
“He’s amazing,” she admits. “I think you’ll like him.”
“Oh?” That’s interesting. As a general rule, Cas doesn’t really like people. He doesn’t loathe them as Luke tends to, or feel an irrepressible urge to ruin their day as Gabriel does; they just don’t really affect his world. They’re like trees, except at least trees never throw parties in the next room at three A.M when you really, really need to sleep.
“Yeah. At least, I hope you will.”
“If you like him, I’m sure that he’s a good person.”
“Thanks,” she says with a relieved smile, “I’m so glad you showed. It freaked me out to hear you were thinking of skipping out on us.”
The annual Milton Christmas gathering is not something one can just ‘skip out’ of, but Cas had tried all the same. Gabriel can call him Scrooge until he’s blue in the face, but the fact is that Cas simply doesn’t like Christmas. He likes the way everything looks- frosty and still and calm- but the rest? The blaring television commercials, and the desperate clamour that fills up every shop from the 20th of December onwards, and the nauseatingly saccharine sentiments of good will and love that it’s clear nobody means? He just doesn’t get it. It doesn’t exist to him.
“Yes, well Michael was very clear about what would happen if I tried.” As the eldest brother, Michael had taken it upon himself to threaten Castiel with bodily harm, serious bodily harm, eating-through-a-straw levels of bodily harm and them all coming up to visit Castiel at college, in that precise order.
“I’m starting to think Dad has the right idea.” Their father’s been taking an annual Christmas cruise ever since Luke was able to legally purchase fireworks.
“As am I.”
“Like you’d enjoy a cruise,” Anna snorts.
“I think I would,” he objects.
“Boats have people, Castiel, not books.”
“There are books if you bring books,” he points out. She sighs affectionately.
“Promise me you’ll quit reading long enough to say hi to Dean?”
“Of course,” he says. “Is he aware of what he’s letting himself in for?”
“I did warn him, yeah. But Dad goes away at Christmas, so it’s not like he has to endure the unholy trinity that is Michael versus Lucifer versus our father.”
“Anna, you know not to call him that. It only encourages him.”
“Luke doesn’t need encouragement.”
Dean is set to arrive on the 21st, and then to leave with Anna on the 26th. Cas doesn’t think there are enough words in the English language to adequately express what a bad idea this is.
“Five days, Anna. Do you know what Luke can do in five days?”
“Dean can handle it.”
Cas himself is staying from the 19th to the 26th. That’s the standard agreement- the one week of the year where every Milton child must return to their childhood home. Cas isn’t sure how their father continually escapes this tradition, other than the fact that he could announce they were burning the house down and Michael would immediately fetch gasoline.
“Well, he wouldn’t be the first guest we’ve had to leave early, and I highly doubt he’ll be the last. What time tomorrow is he getting here?”
“Late evening. He-”
Anna’s phone rings loudly, and she breaks off to answer it. “One sec, Cas. Hey, sweetie. What?” Cas watches his sister’s face fall and frowns in alarm.
“Anna?” he mouths.
“Why?” Anna asks, and listens. “Well, bring him too! Yes, I’m sure. You know I’ve always wanted to meet Sam. Dean, it’ll be fine, I promise. We’ve got space. Yes, we have. No, they’ll be fine with it. I- please? Okay. Okay, see you then. Love you.”
Anna hangs up and pockets the phone. “We’ve got enough space for one more person, right?”
“What terrible thing is happening now?” Cas asks warily.
“You shouldn’t worry so much,” she scolds. “That was Dean. His brother’s broken up with his girlfriend. He proposed last night and she… didn’t feel the same way. They’ve split up, so Sam’s crashing with Dean for now.”
“And I’m assuming Sam doesn’t want to be alone over the holidays?”
“He says he doesn’t mind, but Dean’s refusing to leave him, so I said they can both come down. What’s one more person, right? I mean, Luke and Gabe aren’t that bad. And Michael means well, you said so yourself. Right?”
Cas just looks at her as she carries on, growing increasingly desperate. Denial can only be stretched so far, and eventually she lets a sentence go and sags.
“Why did I invite them?” she says sadly. “Why?”
“I’ll ensure Gabriel wears something appropriate to your funeral,” he tells her kindly.
It’s half eleven at night on the 21st, and there’s no sign of the mythical Winchester brothers. Everybody was fine with the last minute addition to their line-up, excepting Michael’s four minute breakdown when Luke told him Sam was a vegan. Afterwards, a disbelieving and somewhat despairing Anna had reminded Michael that Luke’s entire knowledge of Sam could be summarised with ‘Dean’s brother’. Michael had not seemed heartened by this.
Despite what Anna had promised, the house isn’t actually big enough for all of them. Luke’s room was destroyed three years ago due to what Gabriel termed ‘science gone wrong’ and Michael referred to as ‘dear God in Heaven, give me strength’. Luke, who’s living at home for now, has taken over Cas’ room (“knew you wouldn’t mind, bro,” he said, clapping Cas on the shoulder- actually, Cas did mind, but what can you do?), but the addition of Sam and Dean means that everyone gets shuffled around.
Dean and Anna have gotten their father’s double bed after all, and the look of pain on Michael’s face when he told Anna that really was a Kodak moment. Michael and Gabriel are in their usual rooms, Sam has Cas’, Luke is crashing in Anna’s and Cas has been relegated to the sofa. Such are the disadvantages of being the asocial sibling.
“I knew it would snow,” Anna says grumpily, looking out the window. “Why did it have to snow?”
“Well, when water vapour drops in temperature too quickly-”
“Nobody asked you, Lucy.”
"You asked the room as a whole,” Luke reprimands her. “I’m part of the room, sis.”
“How could we forget?” Michael mutters. Luke and Gabe are currently playing a game entitled ‘things you’ve smashed and gotten away with’. Michael’s pretending not to notice and trying to stop his eyelid from twitching.
“Uh, a wardrobe in IKEA,” Gabe says, picking up where they left off. “Balthy locked me in it, and I wanted to get out.”
“Kicked the door until it fell off.”
“Okay, your turn.”
He considers this. “A wardrobe in this guy’s bedroom. Similar in terms of execution, pretty different in terms of circumstance.”
Before anybody has time to ask further questions, a pair of headlights swings into their driveway. Anna’s face lights up.
“I’ll get my shotgun.”
Anna rushes out to meet them, Michael following to help with bags and monitor their behaviour, and Gabe and Luke trailing behind to see what all the fuss is about. Cas, for his part, stays sat reading. He hears the front door open, and then a voice saying
“- really sorry to keep you up, but it’s so friggin’ icy out there.”
“Yes, frozen water does tend to have that effect,” Cas hears Gabriel say.
“Thanks again for letting me stay,” another voice says- Sam, Cas is guessing. “I’m really sorry about this.”
“Don’t be,” Luke says, in a voice Cas would describe as dangerously smooth. Oh, God, this isn’t going to be an easy week. Cas sets his book aside and wanders out to the hallway, figuring he should at least say hello.
There’s only one person standing in the hallway, with his back to Cas and a thick coat clutched in his arms.
“I can take that,” Cas offers. The man turns around as Cas steps forward, and the word ‘that’ dissolves into a vague mess with far too many syllables.
“Thanks,” he grins, shaking his hair from his head. It’s wet with snow, plastering strands to his forehead, and Cas is pretty sure there are actually snowflakes on his eyelashes to boot. He’s a little taller than Cas, with pale skin and red cheeks from the cold, and every cell in Cas’ body is utterly united in the thought please, God, let this be Sam Winchester.
“Cas!” Anna says happily, coming in behind the ridiculously attractive stranger and slipping an arm around his waist. “This is Dean.”
“Cas, right? Nice to meet you,” Dean says. Cas nods tightly. A figure far too large to be entirely human bundles in through the door and shakes out his hair like a Labrador bounding through puddles. Dean slips out of Anna’s grasp to stand by the newcomer’s side.
“Hey!” the man says brightly when he catches sight of Cas. "I’m Sam.”
“Hello, Sam,” Cas says, shaking Sam’s hand when he holds it out. “My name is Castiel.”
“Really?” Dean says.
“Dean!” Sam scolds. Dean looks mildly abashed.
“Yeah, whole family got religious names,” Anna says. “Me, Luke and Michael were the lucky ones. Gabriel, not so much. Castiel here drew the short straw.”
“I don’t know, I kinda like it,” Dean says. He meets Cas’ eyes and grins again. Cas forgets how to look away, and Dean doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to teach him.
“Yeah, well,” Anna says, after several seconds have passed and the two of them are still standing in silence looking at each other: Dean smiling, Cas relatively sure his mouth is hanging slightly open. “Come on, sweetie, I’ll show you our room.”
“Cool. See you ‘round, Cas,” Dean says, and he drags his eyes away from Cas’ face like pulling two magnets apart. Sam wanders out after them, and Cas heads back through to his temporary room and collapses into the chair. He’s planning to bathe in self-pity and bitterness, but the universe has other ideas.
“Castiel,” Luke breathes as he walks into the room. “Cas, did you see him?”
“Anna’s Ken doll? Oh, Cas, there’s nothing of interest there. He’s all shiny wrapping paper around an empty box.”
Cas would like to know exactly when and how Luke reached this verdict, but Luke’s already pushing on.
“No, I mean his brother.”
“Sam.” Luke sighs the word like it’s holy.
“Stay away,” Cas warns. “He’s only just broken up with his girlfriend.”
“Exactly!” Luke says. “He’s lonely and in need of comfort. I’m willing to be a good Samaritan and provide it.”
“You’re a deplorable human being.”
“Oh, stop,” Luke says fondly. Cas picks his book back up.
“Interesting that you defaulted to Dean, though, don’t you think?” Luke says. When Cas looks up, Luke is perched intently only a few inches away from his face. Cas swats at him with the book.
“There was a fifty percent chance I’d guess Dean.”
“But you didn’t have to guess. You could’ve gone ‘who?’. But no, you heard ‘one fine piece of ass’ and your brain went ‘ahh, yes, Dean’.”
“Luke, it’s been all of two minutes. Can we please not?”
Luke turns his head to squint at Cas out the corner of his eye. Cas holds the gaze fiercely. “Very well, little brother,” Luke eventually relents. “Very well.”
Dean and Sam are tired, so everybody goes to bed fairly quickly. That suits Cas fine. He’s usually the first one up, because his body decided at some stage in early childhood that sleeping past 7AM is for the weak.
He’s up at quarter to seven, glad that he can at least shower without people banging on the door in irritation. Michael gets up at eight and tries to make Cas breakfast; Sam gets up about half an hour later and is naïve enough to accept it. Michael takes the view that bacon should be ‘crispy’, and thinks ‘charred’ really is a subjective term. Sam eats it anyway, being polite as he is, spitting out small sections of charcoal into a napkin.
“Anna says you’re looking to go into law?” Cas asks, sipping at his orange juice. Michael’s left to go and chop them down a Christmas tree, dragging a loudly complaining Luke with him. “That’s an interesting career.”
“Yeah,” Sam says enthusiastically. “I mean, I think so. Dean says I’m too nice for it, but that’s just him.”
“He’s older than you, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. He’s twenty-three, I’m nineteen. I’m very much the kid brother.” Sam pulls a face.
“I can sympathise,” Cas says. “I’m the middle child. Anna and Gabriel are younger than me, but Luke and Michael are older, as they never miss a chance to remind me.”
“Are there big age gaps between you guys?”
“Between Michael and Gabriel, perhaps. Michael’s twenty-eight, Gabriel’s only eighteen. There’s not a huge amount of difference between the rest of us, though.”
“Big family, huh? I bet holidays are hectic.”
“You have no idea,” Cas says drily. “Michael insists everybody migrates back to the spawning ground for Christmas.”
“You all live separately, I’m guessing.”
“Not quite. Anna and I are at college, but Michael moved back in here with our father after he graduated, and Gabriel’s too young to have ever left. Luke comes back when couch-surfing fails him.”
“I can’t believe I forgot you were at college. What do you study?”
“Oh man, really?” Sam says, his eyes lighting up. “That’s awesome. How is it?”
“It’s good,” Cas says. “I enjoy it a lot, despite the level of work. I’m relatively sure I’ve committed the majority of The Odyssey to memory.”
“Sing to me of the man, Muse,” says a voice from behind him. Dean breaks into a sheepish smile as Cas and Sam turn to look. “What? I read.”
“You’re up before three,” Sam says in astonishment. “Is the bed on fire?”
“Cruel words, Sammy. I’m pulling a breakfast run.”
“Ahh, food. Now it all makes sense.”
Dean whacks Sam affectionately about the head.
“You can take what you want from the cupboards and fridge,” Cas says.
“Gotcha.” Dean flicks the kettle on and pulls the fridge open.
“Just not the chocolate milk,” Cas calls out, lest it cause a minor war later on.
“The one with the post-it notes on it?”
“That’s the one.”
“Property of Gabriel,” Dean reads aloud. “I mean it, guys. Lucifer, th- Lucifer?” he queries.
“A joke. Luke doesn’t seem to mind.” Actually, Luke seems to like it far more than he should.
“Fair enough. Lucifer, that means you. I swear, the next time you touch this, I will- wow, okay, not touching the milk,” Dean says, putting it back hastily like Gabe is about to clamber out of the freezer to defend his precious. He goes to the cupboard instead and pulls out bread. All around, it’s the safer choice.
“You want any?” Dean asks, slotting several pieces into the toaster. Cas and Sam both shake their heads.
“How’d you sleep?” Sam asks.
“Pretty good, thanks.”
“Glad to hear it. It must be nice, getting to stay with Anna,” Sam says with a rueful smile. Dean turns from where he’s dumping instant coffee into a mug to frown at his brother.
“Don’t do that to yourself,” he orders. “I mean it, Sam. She’s not worth it.”
“Yeah, well,” Sam says, clearly not agreeing. Cas stays quiet- partly because it’s none of his business, and partly because Dean’s wearing a grey t-shirt and loose pants, and if he was difficult to look away from when wrapped up in layers then like this he’s damn near mesmeric. He finishes making his coffee and turns to face Cas.
“You got any plans today?” Dean asks, forcing Cas into verbalisation.
“Decorating the tree, I imagine,” he says. “You?”
“Nothing special,” he says.
“Except spending time with Anna,” Sam says meaningfully. Cas doesn’t understand why Dean looks at him so sharply.
“Yeah. Obviously. A Christmas tree, though,” he says, turning back to Cas. “That sounds awesome. Don’t think I’ve ever had a proper one.”
“Oh?” Cas says. “Why not?”
“Eh, me and Sam moved around a lot as kids,” Dean says, pulling out the toast. Cas walks over to the right cupboard and pulls out a plate. Dean takes it from him, flashing an utterly dazzling smile of thanks, and reaches for the butter. “Our Dad was never really into all that traditional stuff. We never had anything like that growing up, so I guess I never thought to have one now.”
“Well, you two are welcome to help us if you’d like,” Cas says.
“What do you think, Sammy?”
“Sounds good,” Sam says.
“You sure you trust us not to screw it up?” Dean says.
“After you’ve seen Gabriel’s attempts at M&M-based decoration, very little can distress you.”
“That sounds kinda cool, actually.”
“Interesting that you should say that, considering he strung over three hundred on the tree and left the heating on full all day.”
“With Gabriel, it’s usually best not to ask.”
“Point taken,” Dean says. “So okay, candy is out. We’ll try not to accidentally ruin your house.” He finishes stacking toast on the plate. “Toast accomplished. I’ll see you guys in a couple hours.”
“Don’t get crumbs on the sheets like you always do,” Sam lectures him.
“If I always do, why bother telling me not to?” Dean taunts. “Not that I will,” he says seriously, looking at Cas.
“I believe you,” Cas reassures him. “I’ll see you later.”
“Awesome,” Dean says, and then he disappears, the plate in one hand and the mug in the other. Cas slumps back in his chair, finishes his juice and doesn’t think about Dean. He doesn’t think about Dean going back upstairs with Anna, and he doesn’t think about how Anna got to spend the whole night sleeping next to him, and he definitely doesn’t think about the fact that just because Dean came downstairs in a shirt and pants doesn’t mean he sleeps wearing them.
Okay, maybe he thinks about Dean a little.
He distracts himself, and at about eleven Michael and Luke come home with a tree. They’re not speaking and there appear to be teeth marks in Michael’s arm, so Cas is guessing it was a fairly average trip by their standards.
Sam volunteers his assistance, and Cas watches the three of them drag the tree inside and get it set up. It’s mostly Michael and Sam moving things while Luke ‘gives directions’. As far as Cas can tell, that mostly involves standing directly behind Sam and telling him to stretch.
They eventually get it wedged into the gap at the right angle, and even Michael looks pleased.
“You’ll help me decorate it later, right?” he says to Cas. Castiel has no idea how he always ends up getting stuck dangling lights off of dead vegetation, but it’s not worth protesting.
“If you want.”
“Can I still help out, Cas?” Sam asks.
“Yes, of course you can.”
“I’ll be helping too, obviously,” Luke cuts in smoothly.
“Will you?” Michael says suspiciously.
“Well, you know me. Always eager to help out my family.”
Michael actually barks out a laugh at that. “Oh, really? Then where are my speakers?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The very, very expensive speakers I spent six months saving up for? That magically disappeared two days after you arrived?”
“You shouldn’t place so much worth on material goods, Michael,” Luke scolds. Michael looks at the wall like he’s seriously weighing up the pros and cons of hitting it.
“Well, I think the tree looks great,” Sam says pleasantly.
“Sure, if you’re a fan of oversized greenery,” a voice behind them drawls. “Though I guess it’s pretty much just a piece of broccoli to you, huh?”
“Excuse me?” Sam says, turning around. Gabriel’s leaning in the doorway in a tank top and pyjama bottoms. It’s half eleven and alarm bells are ringing; Gabriel getting up before midday is comparable to watching a glass of water tremble as a large dinosaur approaches. Cas begins to mentally sift through his longstanding list of ‘Places Michael Does Not Yet Know I Can Hide In’.
“I meant because you’re so freakishly tall,” Gabe explains patiently.
“He’s not freakish,” Luke defends. “You’re just stunted, Gabriel.”
The comment’s weaponised, but it doesn’t hit its target. Gabe shrugs.
“Eh, I make up for it in other departments,” he says. Cas notices for the first time that he’s clutching what looks like a jar of Nutella in one hand and a spoon in the other.
“Gabriel, don’t be mean to the guests,” Michael lectures.
“It’s okay, Michael,” Sam assures him. “It’s hardly the first height joke I’ve heard.”
“And I doubt it’ll be the last,” Gabe comments. “Tell me, you got anything world-shakingly exciting planned today?”
Gabe seems to be addressing the room as a whole, but his eyes don’t leave Sam. “I thought I’d maybe go into the town and look around,” Sam says.
“I’ll take that as a no.”
“Right, so what are you doing that’s so damn fascinating?” Sam says, somewhat defiantly. Gabriel shrugs again.
“Sleeping. Eating. Probably watching porn.”
“Gabriel!” Michael snaps.
“I tell it like it is. It’s what makes me so loveable,” Gabriel says, gesturing with the spoon. “Where’s the standard-size Winchester?”
“With Anna,” Cas answers immediately, and he feels the looks he gets as a result are entirely unnecessary.
“Greased lightning, huh?” Gabe whistles, unscrewing the lid of the jar. Luke is looking at Cas again, and sometimes Cas really does hate that the most perceptive Milton brother is arguably also the most evil. If Luke says anything, Cas is more than prepared to get in his car and drive until he falls off the edge of the world.
“Dean might be coming with me later,” Sam says. “I’m kind of banking on him to give me a lift, actually. There’s no way I’m taking his car with all the ice.”
“I’ll take you,” Luke and Michael say at the exact same time: Michael like a father doing his son a favour, Luke with… differing intonation. Sam blinks, but then grins.
“Okay, wow, thanks! I’ll let you know. Cas, do you want to come?”
“No, thank you,” Castiel says politely. The idea combines public places and low temperatures, and he’s not an advocate of either.
“Ga…” the word dies off in Sam’s throat, and one look at Gabriel tells Cas why. It’s not unusual to see Gabriel eating chocolate spread directly out of the jar, but it is unusual to see him paying that much attention to the spoon. He pulls it out of his mouth and runs his tongue around the edge, making eye contact with Sam at the last second and letting his lips linger on the metal for a moment longer than necessary. Across the room, Michael puts his face in his hands.
“I’m going to my room,” Cas announces, pushing past Gabriel. He would wonder if the situation could possibly get any more uncomfortable, but he’s sincerely worried the universe would take that as a challenge.
“Same,” he hears Gabriel say, and when Cas glances back Gabe is looking at Sam again. “If you get bored and you can fit through the door, maybe I’ll see you there.”
Castiel takes the steps two at a time.
“Gabriel,” a voice says dangerously. “We need to talk.”
“Heyyy, big brother,” Gabriel says, plucking another chocolate from the box and pushing it into his mouth without looking away from the TV.
“Isn’t that the gift Dean bought for Anna?” Luke asks.
“Maybe,” Gabe says through a mouthful of coconut-centred truffle. Cas feels an entirely traitorous spike of pleasure and focuses his attention back on his laptop. He’s twenty-five words into a two thousand word paper, and that’s including the title. He shifts over on the sofa and Luke flops down next to him almost absent-mindedly, before apparently remembering he’s angry at Gabriel.
“Leave Sam alone,” Luke tells him unhappily.
“Yeah, not so much.”
“Gabe,” Luke whines. “Come on, I called dibs.”
“You can’t call ‘dibs’ on people, Lucifer,” Gabe lectures. “I tried. Kali’s mother was not pleased.”
“I think the objection was more to the permanent marker on her daughter’s face,” Cas murmurs.
“Kali never said she didn’t want me to do it.”
“She was asleep at the time.”
“Anyway,” Gabe says, turning his head to face his older brother. “What’s got you all worried? If you’re the smooth talker you always claim to be, Sammy boy will fall under your spell in seconds. Of course, if you’re feeling insecure…”
“I’m not insecure,” Luke snaps. “I’m… concerned. On his behalf. You’re making him uncomfortable.”
“Bullshit,” Gabe says bluntly.
“Yeah, but that’s not why you care. Face it, Luke, you want him. Bad news! So do I. I’m not gonna back off.”
“Well, neither am I.”
The two of them exchange a hostile glare, and Cas tenses. It somehow happened that, at some stage, the Miltons all paired off: Michael is probably the only one still in regular contact with their father, Anna is Cas’ favourite sibling and the feeling is reciprocal, and Luke and Gabriel are two sides of the same dented novelty coin, glued to the floor while somebody in the shadows cackles at those trying and failing to pick it up. As annoying as Luke and Gabe are together, the rare occasions on which they fight are just plain miserable.
Luckily, the antagonism culminates in its usual manner. “Ten bucks says I make him mine.”
“You are definitely insecure.”
“Midnight on the 26th. Conditions?”
“At least one kiss in front of at least one reliable witness.”
“Does mistletoe count?”
“Only if he initiates it.”
“For non-mistletoe he only needs to accept?”
“Sure thing. If me and him bang, is that an extra five?”
“In the absence of Michael, I feel it’s my duty to tell you not to do that,” Castiel warns. Both brothers ignore him.
“You seriously think that fine specimen of a man is only worth five dollars?”
“Right, so that’s twenty bucks to me if I entrance that pretty young thing-”
“He’s older than you,” Castiel says, to no avail.
“- twenty bucks to you if you somehow trick him into saying yes to your creepy-ass advances, plus an extra ten to anyone who persuades him to take his clothes off.”
Castiel considers himself done as well. Looking at his essay, he realises he’s accidentally typed the same word twice, and is in fact only on twenty-four words. It is probably time to stop listening to Luke and Gabe haggle and actually try and get something done. Maybe there’s space in the kitchen.
“Castiel!” Michael beams, intercepting Cas in the doorway.
“No no no,” Cas tries desperately, but Michael’s already removing the laptop from Cas’ arms.
“Yes! Tree! You promised!”
“I didn’t promise,” Cas objects. “I did not say the phrase ‘I promise’. I know I didn’t.”
“Castiel,” Michael says, in his I’m-Your-Older-Brother-And-I-Will-Find-A-Way-To-Smite-You voice. Castiel gulps.
Michael claps happily. “It’ll be fun! Sam and Dean are banking on you being there.”
Cas has to try and process that, and Michael takes advantage of his bewilderment to steer him back into the lounge. Outside, the sky is dark and snow is tumbling lazily down. Sam returned from town an hour or so ago, Michael having snuck him out before Luke could insist on tagging along, and Cas hasn’t seen Anna or Dean since breakfast. Since breakfast. What have they been doing? They must have left the room at some stage, mustn’t they?
Can people actually have sex for that long? Cas wonders. Obviously it wouldn’t be a continuous process, but all the same-
Cas is pulled from his reverie with a guilty jolt when Sam and Dean bustle in.
“Hey, guys. Cas,” Dean smiles at him.
“Hello, Dean,” Cas says, and follows it up with a less strangled sounding “hello, Sam.”
“Hey!” Sam says. “You should’ve come to the market, Cas. I bought so much cool stuff.”
“Like what?” Luke asks.
“Uh, gingerbread. And mittens. And these really cute tree decorations, and a pur-“ Sam goes quiet. Dean looks at him warily.
“Dean, it’s nothing.”
“Sam Winchester, do you really think I don’t know your lying face by now?” Dean says. “What stupid thing did you do this time?”
“Nothing,” he snaps. “I saw this purse, and I… thought of Jess. That’s all.”
“So you walked past it?”
“… no,” Sam admits.
“So you bought it to burn in a ritual sacrifice?”
“Dean, drop it,” Sam says sharply.
“Come on, Sam. You can’t-”
“Oh yeah, I’m the one making crappy love-life decisions,” Sam snaps, and as the last word leaves his mouth guilt fills his eyes. “Dean, I didn’t-”
“Don’t,” Dean nearly growls, and Sam just nods, his mouth a tight line. The Milton brothers look uncertainly between Sam and Dean, not completely sure of what’s being implied but not liking it either way. Silence stretches on, the awkwardness of which nobody is willing to acknowledge.
“Well, this is uncomfortable.”
To be honest, Cas thinks that most claims in the world come with the footnote ‘except Gabriel’.
“Anyway,” Michael says with forced cheerfulness, “do you still want to help with the tree?”
“Yeah,” Sam says immediately. “Yeah, that’d be great.”
“Sure, whatever,” Dean says, his eyes still dark.
“It’s good to have your help,” Cas tells him as Michael delegates tasks. A snake of tinsel gets dropped around his shoulders, and he twists to glower at Gabriel.
“Thanks for asking us,” Dean says. “I think you’ve pretty much made Sam’s Christmas.”
“By the sounds of it, the gingerbread did that for us,” Cas says dryly. Dean laughs.
“Yeah, I’m gonna go check out the market later this week. Me and Anna drove past it when she was showing me around, and it looks cool. Whole town seems nice, though.”
“It’s not bad,” Cas admits, coiling the tinsel around his hand. “It’s a small place- significantly less stressful than college.”
“You’re not a people person, huh?” Luke overhears and snorts. Cas glares and turns back to Dean.
“Not as such,” he says carefully. “I don’t really like crowds.”
“Huh. I’m pretty sure the social side of things is the only reason I still go to college,” Dean says, accepting a box of ornaments from Michael. “I mean, my course isn’t bad- but I don’t need a degree to like cars, y’know? Doing it as an academic thing is sucking the life out of it. I’m considering changing majors.”
“I have no idea,” Dean admits. “I’ve kind of wandered in and out of different subjects ever since I started. I’m no good at sticking with crap I don’t like.”
“Yes, where is Anna?” Gabe asks, because Gabe identifies as a spiteful fourteen year old girl. Dean eyes him carefully for a minute, but Gabriel can pull a very impressive innocent face when he feels like it, and Dean seems to decide that verbally berating his girlfriend’s little brother won’t get him many brownie points.
“She’s getting changed. Apparently the snow ruined her clothes.”
Luke and Gabe’s eyes immediately flicker over to Sam. A thousand possibilities- all equally horrible and all involving the phrase ‘let’s get you out of those wet clothes’- flash through Cas’ mind, but before either brother can get a chance to implement them, Anna makes her appearance.
Anna was raised alongside four boys and she fought the dirtiest out of all of them, and at times it’s almost jarring to remember that she’s actually a woman. The dark red dress is just short enough for Michael to disapprove, and just long enough to make the tight fit of the thing classy rather than trashy. Her hair tumbles down her shoulders, her lips are painted ruby red, and Dean’s jaw visibly drops.
“Well?” she asks, gesturing at the outfit.
“You look amazing,” he grins, eyes going chest-hips-legs-chest-legs-hips-chest-eyes.
“Well, I wanted to look my best for you,” she tells him. In the corner, Gabriel makes vomiting noises. Cas smiles weakly and pretends not to care, Luke doesn’t have to pretend, and Michael does what Michael does best and ruins the moment. He plucks the box from Dean’s hands, agitation levels clearly rising.
“I can’t find the red and green ones,” he says. “Castiel, do you know where they are?”
“I have no idea,” Cas replies, and Dean’s eyes move from Anna to him.
“They might be in the attic,” Luke says. “Me and Sam could go and check.” Cas has the horrible sensation that, at some point, somebody is going to have to Have Words with Luke. He has the horrible feeling that it might be him.
“No, Sam’s the only one tall enough to reach the top of the tree,” Michael dismisses. “Castiel, you go. Take Dean, he can help.”
“He doesn’t have to-” Cas begins, but Dean’s already agreeing. Cas unlocks the door (“Michael uses this as an area to store the things he confiscates from Gabriel,” he explains to Dean. “Gabriel, of course, has his own set of keys.”) and leads Dean up the narrow staircase.
“Dude,” Dean says as Cas flicks the light on. “How much crap have you got up here?”
“I try not to think about it,” Cas says. “Luke’s a hoarder. The last time Michael listed some of our things on eBay, Luke won the auction.”
For somebody who spends so much time making his family’s life hell, Luke is bizarrely protective of them and their things. He’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a tattered Nirvana shirt. When he flunked out of college and came back home, the arrangement was only ever supposed to be short-term. Now it’s more recurring than temporary, with Luke defaulting back each time his band splits up or he’s fired from work or he simply decides that whatever he’s doing at the time is too dull to be worthy of his attention.
“Yeah, Sam doesn’t really like throwing things away either. That includes his freakin’ bitch of an ex-girlfriend,” he adds, but then frowns. “No, it wasn’t like that. Jess wasn’t bad. She was awesome, actually. I’m hoping this’ll all blow over and they’ll get back together.”
I’m sure Luke and Gabe would love that. “As am I.”
“So what are we looking for?” Dean asks.
“They’ll probably be in some form of tattered cardboard box.”
“Cas, everything in this room is in some form of tattered box.”
“So how does Michael expect us to…?”
“Welcome to my world.”
Dean snorts. “Okay, fair enough.” He turns to the nearest box and pokes it open. “Nope, just magazines.”
They search together while Cas attempts to remember how to hold a conversation. He does talk to people at college, but Inias and Alfie can be accurately summarised using the word ‘nice’. They’re Cas’ friends because they’re too nice to be annoyed by him, and somehow Cas doesn’t think Dean will fit into that same category.
“Hey, if I find treasure up here, can I keep it?” Dean asks.
“I shouldn’t think you’ll find treasure. Alcohol is always a possibility.”
“Then can I keep that? I’ll share, honest.”
“If you want, but please be aware that Anna is weepy when drunk.”
“Yeah, I’ve, uh, discovered that.”
“Then you should be fine, as long as you avoid drunken Gabriel.”
“Come on, he can’t be that bad.”
“Dean, believe me when I tell you that thought will be your downfall. I usually get relegated to ensuring he and Luke don’t cause an early apocalypse at parties.”
“How come you get stuck babysitting?” Dean asks him.
“I don’t drink.”
Dean actually drops the box he’s holding. “Shit, sorry,” he curses, but it’s nothing but an old collection of Anna’s Barbie dolls, heads carefully removed and miniscule toy sheep poking out of the necks. The worst part, Cas thinks, is that he can’t remember whether that was Luke or Anna’s doing.
“You’re a student. How do you not drink?” Dean says in disbelief.
“I don't know. I’ve just never really tried it,” Cas says.
“Dude,” Dean breathes. “Never?”
“Never. What?” Cas frowns, because Dean’s actually chuckling.
“You’re so innocent. It’s cute.”
They both freeze.
“Or another word,” Dean says stiffly. “Not cute. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Castiel agrees. The awkwardness is apparently so extreme that the universe takes pity and gives him his allotted annual dose of good luck. The next box he picks up is filled with red and green decorations of various sizes.
“Well, at least we’ll be able to keep Michael off Prozac for a little longer. Look.”
“Awesome. Let me-”
“No, I can-”
Dean attempts to pick the box up at the same time as Cas and their hands touch. Dean yanks his away like Cas’ skin has burned him, and when Cas attempts to meet his gaze, Dean is very determinedly looking anywhere other than at Castiel. Cas picks the box up and they retreat from the attic in silence, Dean leading the way.
This is stupid, Cas tells himself as he follows Dean down the stairs. Why are you so affected? You don’t know the first thing about him. He knows that his name is Dean Winchester, that he’s an Automotive Engineering major at Anna’s college, that he’s changed majors several times and is considering changing again but that he still likes cars- especially his own, some black thing called an Impala which Cas believes is viewed as impressive by People Who Know Cars.
He knows that Dean loves his brother, and that they moved around a lot as kids and never really did ‘Christmas’, and that Dean reads, and that he knows ‘The Odyssey’ and that he’s the same age as Cas and that he takes his coffee black with two sugars and he definitely knows that that that is absolutely not enough information to enable him to form any kind of bond with Dean, reciprocal or otherwise.
The fact that it feels like somebody’s passing an electric current through Cas whenever Dean looks at him is strange, but it doesn’t mean anything. The fact that Dean keeps staring at Cas when there are plenty of other people in the room to look at doesn’t mean anything either. They’re strangers, linked by one person: Anna. Cas’ beloved sister. Dean’s girlfriend. A lovely, kind, beautiful woman, whose boyfriend’s ass Cas is currently ogling and stop it stop it now.
When they enter the lounge, Luke and Michael are standing by the tree arguing about something or other. Sam is sitting on the floor, a huge tangle of Christmas lights on his lap. He’s untangling them with enthusiastic devotion while Gabe lounges on the sofa and watches, a small smile on his face.
“You found them!” Michael says to Cas, hurrying over to snatch the box from Cas’ hands. Behind him, Luke’s face is like thunder. He skulks over to the sofa and pokes Gabe.
“I’m glued to the sofa, I can’t.”
“Don’t you have work to do or something?”
“Probably, but that’s not really relevant to whether or not I’ll do it.”
Gabriel is intelligent to the point of it being irritating- even more so considering that he does absolutely no work at home, and even less at school. Castiel, who has always had to work for the things he wants, finds his views on this alternate between hideous jealousy, grudging pride, and sheer relief that Gabriel is too lazy to turn his vast intellect towards world domination.
“You can help with these, if you want,” Sam offers, twisting to look at Luke. The irritation on Luke’s face melts away to be replaced with smugness (in a perfect demonstration of the only two expressions Luke really has). He gives one final glance back at Gabriel before settling down next to Sam.
Sam and Luke work on the lights, Anna sketches out tree designs in a notepad and Dean tries to cajole various ‘broken’ ornaments back into their usual flashing, glowing or humming lives. Even Gabriel gets bored and starts cutting snowflakes out of paper. Cas is given the task of stapling together rings of coloured paper into paper-chains, because at some point ‘we’ll put some things on a tree’ became ‘the Bloomingdales window displays are too subtle, don’t you think?’.
They run a heavy-duty mission back up to the attic, and soon the floor is littered with box after box of tinsel and mistletoe and wreaths and candles. Anna finds an old ‘Christmas Hits!’ CD to play, and Gabriel produces a bubbly drink masquerading as champagne that would probably drive any self-respecting Frenchman to suicide. The tense atmosphere dissolves, and soon they’re trading stories and laughing uproariously.
“- so there I was, naked-”
“- except for the clothes which I was totally wearing- when who should turn up but our delightful father?”
“You’re kidding,” Dean chokes out through his laughter.
“I wish. He wishes. So, if you were him, what would your first question be?”
“Maybe ‘why are you on a golf course?’” Sam snorts.
“I’d be more concerned about the lipstick,” Anna points out.
“Both good guesses! But both, of course, incorrect. No, what daddy dearest did in fact ask was whether or not I’d put gas in the car after I stole it, because he didn’t have his wallet on him.”
Dean and Sam nearly fall over laughing. Luke looks ready to burst with pride. Michael smiles the tight smile of somebody who doesn’t want to ruin everyone’s fun.
“Dude,” Dean chokes out. “How many laws did you break that day?”
“The law is a very subjective thing,” Gabriel dismisses. “I mean, it’s illegal in Kansas to serve ice cream on top of cherry pie.”
Dean looks like this information has changed his entire stance on life.
“Gabe, where do you even find this stuff?” Anna asks affectionately.
“The internet, mostly,” he says. “Did you know that the more older brothers someone has, the more likely they are to be gay?”
“We didn’t need to. The Avril Lavigne albums were a pretty good indicator,” Luke says.
“She,” Gabriel says warningly, “is a visionary.”
“So I’m guessing you’re…?” Dean asks. “Not that it matters.”
“Both ways, baby. Often at the same time.”
“Gabriel,” Michael says again.
“No, it’s okay. Same here,” Dean says. “Except the ‘at once’ bit, I mean.”
“More’s the pity.”
“Gabriel, don’t make me phone father.”
“Like he’d care.” Gabriel blows a raspberry. “Or notice. Have you actually bothered coming out to him yet?” he asks, turning to look at Luke.
“What, and give him something else to yell at me for? No, thanks.”
“He’d be fine with it,” Michael defends. “After all, we all are.”
“Yeah, my Dad has no idea,” Dean says. “I don’t think he’d care, but… I worry, y’know?”
“See, now I was vaguely worried. Vaguely,” Gabriel says. “I did the mandatory month or so of angst, before I eventually decided to suck it up and tell someone.”
“Meaning me. He was pretty nervous,” Luke acknowledges. “He mumbled something about ‘thinking he maybe kind of liked this friend who sort of ‘happened’ to be a guy’. It was adorable.”
“You traumatised me,” Gabriel accuses.
“I did no such thing.”
“What did he do?” Dean asks Gabe.
“He just grinned, leant back and said “you remember my friend Nick?” And I said ‘yeah?’, and he went ‘I totally hit that.’”
Sam spits a mouthful of his drink across the room. Even Castiel has to smile.
“As you can see, we’re actually a family of massive homos,” Gabriel says.
“I’m not,” Anna points out.
“Yes, fair enough,” Luke says. “I’m gay, Gabe is bi, Anna is straight, Michael is the human equivalent of a Graham cracker, and Cas is the resident asexual.”
“That’s not true,” Castiel says defensively. He is aware as soon as the words leave his mouth that they’re too loud, and too desperate, and too… everything. Luke raises an eyebrow. Dean shrugs and takes a drink.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Sam says.
“No, I know that. But I’m not. I’m…” he trails off. The facts are that he’s never really thought of anybody in that way before. Sure, there have been people who he’s noted as being aesthetically pleasing, and there are certain people whose presence he endures more readily than others, but he’s never wanted to be with someone before. He’s never wanted anything to with all that hand-holding, gift-buying, staring-longingly-into-each-other’s-eyes nonsense.
Dean is looking at him with interest. “You’re what?” he asks. His eyes are wide and green and curious, and his lips are already curved into a half-smile, and Cas is suddenly filled with the horrific certainty, like spotting a vase about to topple from a shelf, that if he opens his mouth he will say the word ‘Deansexual’.
He makes a strangled noise at the back of his throat that sounds vaguely like ‘… nnng…’. Dean laughs and holds eye contact for a second more before breaking it off, and the conversation picks up around them. All things considered, Cas isn’t sure he handled the moment particularly well.
Two hours later, there isn’t an inch of the house that isn’t season-appropriate. There are paper-chains strung along every wall (if Cas never sees a stapler again, he’ll die happy), Christmas lights running around the outside of the house, paper snowflakes covering every window, tinsel drooping down from curtain rails, Christmas cards- some of which Cas knows for a fact are at least four years old- covering the doors, and that’s before you even get to the tree.
Anna’s beautiful and intricately planned designs had gone out the window around the same time that Sam discovered the can of fake snow- to be more precise, when Gabriel and Luke had discovered just how much Sam liked spraying the fake snow, and had encouraged him to use it to his heart’s content. Sam had too much fun for Anna to really mind.
After everybody’s said their goodnights and gone off to bed, Cas stands and looks glumly at the mess of plugs and adaptors and cables snaking behind the tree. There’s no way he’s going to be able to turn them off without either electrocuting himself or plunging half the house into darkness. The tree is wrapped in string after string of lights, and they flash so brightly he can still pick out individual colours when he closes his eyes. Somehow, Cas doesn’t think he’ll be sleeping much tonight.
“Hey, you want some help there?”
Cas stands up from where he’s tentatively resting his fingers on one of the many, many plugs. Dean stands in the doorway, back in the same t-shirt and pyjama pants from this morning. Cas swallows.
“Don’t tell Michael, but I’m trying to turn the lights off.”
“After all our hard work?” Dean says, mock-affronted. “I’m kidding,” he specifies when Cas opens his mouth to apologise or complain (he hadn’t quite decided which yet). “I guess it is kind of bright, huh? Let me see what I can do.”
Cas stands aside as Dean carefully reaches through the masses of new and old and barely-holding-together wires (Cas doesn’t care what they say, tin foil should absolutely not be used in that way) and blindly feels for the right switch. He must find it, because the room is plunged into a soothing darkness. There’s still some light wafting over from a lamp in the corner, but the headache-inducing glare of the tree is gone.
“That should be better,” Dean says, getting back on his feet. “You sure you’re okay with sleeping down here? The sofa can’t be all that comfy.”
“I’ll be fine,” Castiel says. “Thank you for your help.”
“Any time, Cas.” Dean’s looking at him again. Dean should be banned from looking at people, Cas has decided. His gaze flickers up to Cas’ hair.
“You’ve got…” Dean says. “You’ve got, uh, a star. In your hair.”
“What?” Cas frowns, reaching up and brushing his hand across his head.
“No, you haven’t- hold still.” Castiel turns to stone as Dean moves forward. Cas feels Dean’s hand brush against his head, and then he’s looking at a thumbnail-sized gold star. It must have fallen off the tree. Dean dangles the ornament from his fingers by the tiny string loop, grinning.
“Make a wish?” he says. He’s close enough that Castiel can smell his cologne, can hear him breathing, can even make out faint freckles splayed across his skin despite the darkness.
I wish I could understand why I can’t stop thinking about you, Cas thinks. I can understand why most people don’t bother looking at me, but I wish I understood why you never seem to look away. I wish I knew the right things to say to you. I wish…
“I wish that we get through the next week without Gabriel setting fire to anything.”
“Yeah?” Dean says. “Then I’ll wish that we get through it without Sam making us watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.”
“He wouldn’t,” Cas says, with genuine horror.
“He would, and he’d cry at the ending.”
“Thank you for the warning.”
Dean chuckles. “Night, Cas,” he says, and Cas watches him go. It’s a good thing it’s dark, because the smile on Cas’ face can really only be described as ‘sappy’.
On the morning of the 23rd, Cas awakes to the smell of burning.
He sits upright, more irritated than alarmed. Once his eyes focus he seriously considers lying back down and pretending nothing is happening- but no, there’s nobody else who’s going to handle this at 6:39AM, and somebody really does have to handle it. Castiel rolls himself from the sofa, wincing at the stiffness of his muscles, and pads over to the other side of the room.
“Luke?” he asks politely. If there’s a genie out there somewhere granting wishes, they have a cruel sense of humour.
Luke looks up and him and smiles serenely. “Castiel,” he greets warmly. It’s always unsettling how calming Luke seems to find casual pyromania.
“Luke- what are you doing?”
“I’m burning my t-shirts,” he says, returning his gaze to the fire. Castiel supposes he should be grateful that Luke’s at least doing it in the fireplace and not in the middle of the kitchen.
“Yes, I thought that was what was happening,” Castiel agrees. He pauses, but Luke seems in no hurry to elaborate. “Um- why?”
Luke blinks and looks back up at him, like he’d forgotten Castiel was there. “Well, when I tell Sam of the tragedy that’s befallen me, I’m sure he’ll take pity and lend me one of his. It’ll be nice. A bonding moment.”
“I- I really don’t even know where to start, Luke.”
“It’s too late for that, little brother,” Luke says, reaching for a bottle by his side. “This is happening.”
Castiel feels like he has to give Luke credit for actually possessing some sense of fire safety and keeping a good supply of water at hand. When Luke happily sloshes some of the bottle’s contents at the fire and the flames leap upwards with a vicious whoomph, he’s almost annoyed at himself for being surprised.
“Alright,” Castiel says patiently, having finally selected a starting point, “how exactly are you planning to explain the destruction of your wardrobe to everybody?”
“I’m planning to blame Gabriel.”
“It’s his vodka they’re seeped in,” Luke says innocently. “And if you think about it, he is actually to blame.”
“In what universe is Gabriel to blame for you setting fire to your clothes?”
“He made a bet,” Luke says, his mouth setting in a determined line. “I don’t lose bets.”
“Go back to bed, Luke,” Castiel says tiredly. “It’s unnatural to see you up before the sun.”
“Ahh, little brother,” Luke says fondly, turning away from Castiel and letting the fire fill his eyes. “You always were a simple creature.”
“No,” Castiel says, not looking up from his book.
“Castiel, there are burned rags in the fireplace.”
“Really? That seems unusual.”
“Castiel, why are there burned rags in the fireplace?”
“Why would I know?”
“Because you slept in there,” Michael says. “So who was burning things?”
“Um…” Cas says. How can he lie to Michael? But how can he betray Luke? He’s trying to weigh up which is worse when Dean wanders into the kitchen, yawning and stretching. He takes one look at Cas’ face and steps forwards.
“Hey, Michael!” he says. “Hey, Cas.”
“Hello, Dean,” Michael says, glancing over at him. “I’m sorry, but-”
“Can I borrow Cas for a minute?” Dean blurts out. “Like, literally sixty seconds.”
“Can it not-”
“You should always honour the guest’s wishes, Michael,” Cas says solemnly, before following Dean out of the room as quickly as he can. Dean leads them into the lounge and shuts the door, and Cas sags in relief.
“You looked like you could do with rescuing,” Dean says by way of explanation.
“I wish I could say you were wrong,” Cas says grimly.
“Wanna talk about it?”
“Not even slightly. How did you sleep?”
“Yeah, pretty good, thanks. But listen, what I said before wasn’t actually total bullcrap, I did wanna ask you something. I’m going to that market thing in town later- wanna come with?”
“If you’d like,” Castiel says, impressed at how level he manages to keep his voice.
“Awesome. Sorry to be such a pain in the ass, but I still haven’t got anything for Anna, and I’ve got no idea what to get her. And well, you two seem close, so…”
“It’s no bother,” Castiel says. “When do you want to go?”
“Like, six-ish?” Dean suggests.
“Six it is,” Castiel says. “Will Sam come again?”
“Yeah, and bankrupt the family,” Dean snorts. “No, he can stay here. Do you think Michael or Luke or anyone will want to come along?”
“I wouldn’t know. I have no intentions of asking them.”
Dean grins. “Aww, they’re not that bad.”
The lounge door is pulled open, and at first Cas thinks that it’s Michael come to seize him. But no, it’s Luke, in baggy black jeans and absolutely nothing else. Between Gabriel’s effortless intelligence and Luke’s male-model physique despite his lifelong romance with cheese flavoured Doritos, Cas is so bitter that he could make a lemon wince.
“Is Sam around?” Luke asks, like there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on.
“Uh, still sleeping, I think,” Dean says. Luke gives a small salute and leaves the room, whistling as he goes. Dean looks as though he’s beginning to reassess his view on things.
Castiel learned at an early age that if you stay very still and very quiet, people tend to forget that you’re there. That usually makes his life a great deal easier, but it does have its drawbacks. It means that if you start drawing attention to yourself, suddenly you’re liable to be accused of eavesdropping- so once a conversation starts, you’re stuck there until it’s over.
“Hey, babe?” Anna says, uncurling herself from Dean’s side to look up at him.
“Yeah?” Dean replies.
“Did you want to go out for dinner tonight? There’s this place nearby that does ridiculously good pasta. Michael won’t mind us skipping out on family stuff this once.”
“Uh, what time?”
“Sorry, no can do,” Dean says.
“Oh?” Anna says, like she can’t decide whether to be annoyed or amused. “Why not?”
“Going shopping,” he says. “Getting you something, actually.”
“Couldn’t you go earlier?”
“Nah, already promised someone I’d go with them.”
“Who? Can’t you cancel?”
“Promised, Anna,” Dean says- even though, Cas thinks, he’d done no such thing. Cas keeps his eyes glued on his book and re-reads a paragraph on forest nymphs for the third time. A few tense seconds pass.
“Fine,” Anna eventually says, and the tension dissolves. “But you’d better get me something good.”
“The best,” Dean says, and she leans up to kiss him lightly on the cheek.
When it gets to early evening and Dean sticks his head around the door to ask “ready to go, Cas?”, Anna’s eyebrows make their way into her hairline. Cas doesn’t look at her as he hurries out the door. He’s done nothing wrong, he knows, so why does he feel so guilty?
Dean’s car is one of those strange vehicles that appear both outdated and incredibly expensive, and so Cas perches bolt upright on the seat and tries his hardest not to breathe.
“Loosen up, would you?” Dean says, glancing over at him. “You’re making me nervous.”
“Sorry,” Cas says. Dean’s eyes are still on him, though, and that’s not exactly conducive to relaxing. “It’s a tense time of year, I suppose.”
“Christmas should be awesome,” Dean declares. “You worry too much.”
“I thought you said you didn’t do Christmas,” Cas points out.
“Just ‘cause I don’t get a tree doesn’t mean I’m the Grinch,” Dean says. “You need to blow off some steam. Have some fun.”
“I don’t know the meaning of the word.”
“Good thing you’ve got me around, then,” Dean says, starting to grin. “Welcome, Castiel, to the Dean Winchester Experience.”
Castiel begins to assess the hazards involved in leaping from a moving car.
Phase One of Dean’s plan involves making Castiel wear a stupid hat, because according to Dean, “that’s what you do.”
“Says who?” Castiel objects.
“I don’t know, the people who decide these things.”
Cas glares at the offending item. “It has a bell, Dean.”
“Exactly. That means I won’t lose you. C’mon, put it on. For me?”
Dean looks at him pleadingly. Castiel thinks that there should be a clause in the Geneva Convention for this type of thing. He pulls the hat on and Dean cheers. He buys himself one too and pulls it on, grinning charmingly at Cas.
“How do I look?”
“Like Dean Winchester in a stupid hat.”
“Then I must look damn good.”
Appropriately attired, they stop by an ATM to draw out cash, and then they hit the market. It’s not a huge market, but it’s fairly busy, and Dean has clearly decided that Cas isn’t allowed to skip a single stall.
“You don’t need that,” Cas reprimands Dean as he picks up the toy snowman.
“I might,” Dean says defensively. It might have sounded more believable if the snowman wasn’t merrily emitting an all-harmonica version of ‘Jingle Bells’.
“Put it back,” Cas says, trying not to smile.
“No. I’m gonna buy it now, just to annoy you.”
“Are you sure you’re not related to Gabriel?” The snowman has not yet stopped playing ‘Jingle Bells’.
“It, uh… it really goes for it, doesn’t it?” Dean says, looking back at the toy.
Dean buys the snowman. After five minutes have passed and it still hasn’t stopped, he performs an emergency battery-ectomy, ripping the thing’s stomach open with his car keys and yanking out the source of the irritation. A passing small child looks at Dean in utter horror.
“Uh…” Dean says. He holds out the disembowelled snowman as a peace offering. The child begins to cry. Cas doesn’t think he’s laughed so hard in months.
At the next stall, Dean holds up the single most hideous sweater Cas has seen in his entire life. It’s covered in reindeer, and whilst they’re all of varying sizes, Cas gets the impression that that wasn’t by intention. It’s lumpy, and a hideous shade of mustard yellow, and even Dean can’t bring himself to joke about it.
“Wait,” Cas says, putting a hand on Dean’s arm as he goes to put it back down. Dean looks at him questioningly. “We’re getting it.”
“We are?” Dean says in confusion as Cas digs in his wallet for money.
“Of course. It would be rude not to give Luke anything for Christmas.”
Dean looks at him like he’s the most perfect human being in all creation.
Phase Two only ends when they can’t physically hold any more bags. There’s the sweater, the remains of a toy snowman, three miniature carved wooden robins, a giant rainbow slinky, a CD of Christmas Carols with their pitch altered to sound like they were sung by chipmunks, six separate pairs of socks, a lollypop the size of Cas’ head and an exact replica of the nativity if every person present had, in fact, been an owl.
“I think I need to sit down,” Dean laughs. There’s nothing inherently funny about the phrase, but they’ve been laughing for about forty minutes straight. It’s like they’ve entered a silent competition as to who can find the most hideous and impractical item, and every time one of them gains the advantage, the other starts giggling. Castiel has genuinely been giggling. He’d be alarmed if he could stop giggling for long enough.
They find a nearby wall and declare it good enough. Dean disappears briefly and comes back with two bratwurst and two steaming cups of punch, carefully tucked up against his body. Cas reaches out and takes one of each and they sit side-by-side on the wall, bags pooled around their feet. They don’t talk much whilst they eat, but occasionally their eyes meet and they smile stupidly for absolutely no reason. It’s cold and it’s dark, but there are colourful lights strung up around the market and the punch is warm. Castiel drains the cup before Dean tells him it’s alcoholic.
“It’s really not strong,” Dean says guiltily. “I mean, I’m still driving home.”
“You drugged me, Dean Winchester,” Cas accuses.
“I thought you knew! I didn’t even know you got non-alcoholic punch.”
Castiel glowers and Dean coughs as the last mouthful of his own drink goes down the wrong way. “What?” Castiel says.
“You glaring like that,” Dean says. “It’s like watching a puppy growl.”
“I don’t know whether I should be offended by that,” Castiel says, crumpling his hotdog wrapper and aiming it at the bin. It misses by about a foot.
“Dude, you suck,” Dean says. He takes aim and misses by even more. Cas looks at Dean and bites his lip. Dean chuckles, shakes his head, and does the walk of shame to dump the garbage in the bin. Cas takes the chance to stuff his hat into his bag, and Dean tuts in disapproval when he returns.
“You’ve got sex hair,” he informs Cas as he takes up his place on the wall again.
“I have no idea what that means.” Dean’s own hair is about as mussed as the short strands can get, and he runs his hand over it to flatten it down. Cas shakes his own head a little, hoping his hair will get the message and return to its usual shape.
“I’m giving Luke the sweater,” Cas says, “and Gabriel the ridiculous, cavity-inducing lollipop. Michael can have a pair of socks, and I already have Anna’s gift.”
“Oh, come on!” Dean says in annoyance. Cas blinks. “Nah, it’s not you. I forgot to get Anna anything, that’s all.”
“You could get another snowman,” Cas suggests. “She has a fairly diverse collection of stuffed animals.”
“Is that enough?” Dean says. “Should I be buying her…? I don’t know, jewellery or something?”
“Do you want to buy her jewellery?”
“I don’t know,” Dean says again. “I could get her earrings, I guess.”
“Her ears aren’t pierced.”
“Right,” Dean says. He’s still holding his hat in his hands, tugging at the material distractedly as he speaks. “’course. You’d think I’d know that, wouldn’t you?”
“I mean, Sam was so friggin’ excited that he’d found something Jess would like, and he’s not even seeing her anymore. You know what? I bet he actually turned this market upside down trying to find something to make her happy. Not even to try and get her back, just… to make her happy.”
“But you’re like that with Anna,” Cas says, feeling incredibly uncomfortable. Relationship advice is really, really not his strong point- much less relationship advice involving his sister and a man he’s fairly certain he dreamt about kissing last night.
“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s-”
Dean falls silent. Cas looks on with interest.
“Don’t worry about it,” Dean says. “It’s nothing.”
“Are you sure?” Cas says. “It’s clearly bothering you.”
“It’s not bothering me, it’s like… have you ever been with someone and just felt like they’re way more into it than you are?”
There’s a girl at college named Rachel who goes out of her way to sit next to Castiel in every single class they have together; it took him three months to notice that it was the same girl each time. It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s the best he’s got.
“I think so,” he says carefully.
“Yeah. Well. Anna’s great, she really is. She’s kind, and she’s nice, and she’s goddamn hilarious, but I never wanted… it was only ever supposed to be a one night thing. I didn’t know she wanted more until she turned up on my freakin’ doorstep, and I thought ‘why not?’ And now…” Dean exhales, his breath forming ice-white pearls in the air.
“Dean,” Cas begins, and he’s not entirely sure what he’s going to say. He really hasn’t planned this through at all, but all he can think is how sad Dean looks, how guilty, like’s the worst human being in the world, and all he can think is that he has to find a way to make Dean see that that isn’t right. That Anna’s lucky to have him in any shape or form, that it’s not Dean’s fault that he can’t give her what she wants, that Dean can’t be that bad- not when this has been one of the best nights of Cas’ life.
Whatever he was going to say, Dean never gives him the chance to say it. “Fuck, Cas. I am so, so sorry,” he says.
“She’s your sister. You absolutely do not need to hear me say that kind of crap about her. Man, if I were you, I’d kick my ass.”
“You weren’t saying ‘crap’,” Cas objects. “You were simply-”
“Don’t, Cas. It wasn’t okay of me, and I’m sorry.”
Cas wants to say more, but something behind Dean’s eyes has slammed shut, and he gets the impression that he’d only make things worse. So instead he nods, jumps down from the wall and picks up some of the bags.
“Did you want to go and look around again?” he offers. “I think there’s a woman selling bracelets.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Dean says. He buys the most expensive one they have, a handmade $45 affair that he doesn’t even look at other than to check the price. They drive home with minimal conversation, and when they arrive Dean gets out of the car without saying a word. Cas heads towards the house after him and wonders with a heavy sigh just where it all went wrong.
But it looks like the day’s not done screwing Cas over yet, because he freezes in the hallway. “Oh no,” he whispers. Dean must hear, because he turns around.
“Cas?” he asks.
“Can you hear that?” It’s a very stupid question, because it would be very difficult to miss. All the same, Castiel hangs onto some vain hope that what he’s hearing is, in fact, just a sign of early onset paranoid schizophrenia.
No such luck. “Oh no,” he says again.
“Cas, what’s going on?” Dean says. The tension from the car ride dissolves like it was never there and Dean steps forward to rest a hand on Cas’ shoulder, concern in his eyes.
“Michael and Luke are fighting,” Cas says.
“Uh, not to be rude, Cas- but so what?”
“You’ve never seen Michael and Luke fight,” Cas says darkly.
“I know Luke can be… extreme,” Dean says, “but Michael? Come on.”
Dean’s hand pulls away as he turns towards the unmistakable sound of something shattering. Cas thinks it’s probably a glass or bottle of some description, because it’s too quiet to be a window.
It’s sad, because Cas can remember when Michael and Luke were best friends. It feels like a very, very long time ago, like if you asked a velociraptor for their opinion they’d go “well, that was a bit before my time”. Cas looked up to Michael, of course he did, but not like Luke had. Luke idolised Michael, and Michael doted on Luke. All had been well in the world.
Castiel once watched some utterly unrealistic car chase, in some terrible cop movie shown at 2AM, where a car plunged through one side of a building and came out the other on fire, people screaming and running and bouncing off the bumper. He feels that the scene is an accurate summary of Luke’s journey through puberty.
It probably all started when Luke was fourteen or so, and by the time he’d hit sixteen any notion of paradise was very much lost. There were more holes in Luke’s face than on most golf courses, more expletives on his t-shirts than in most rap songs, and more alcohol in his room than in most breweries. The main thing Cas remembers is Luke changing from a meek, unassuming boy who would do anything he was told, to a rebel whose sole purpose in life was to ignore anything and everything their father said.
In time, Luke got over his teenage rebellion, but Michael never really got over Luke. With their father always taking Michael’s side and Gabriel always taking Luke’s, it was no wonder Cas and Anna had always found solace in each other’s company- hidden away in tree houses, in cupboards, reading out loud to each other and systematically eating their way through family-sized packs of Hershey’s products.
Hearing his family fight always manages to reduce Cas back to a distressed thirteen year old boy, not understanding why they can’t all get along like they used to. Dean looks back at Cas and he must see that written all over his face, because he softens with a sad kind of understanding.
“Hey, come up and hang out with me and Anna or something,” he says.
Castiel is fairly certain setting fire to himself would be less painful.
“No, I…” Cas looks at the door. After all, he’s not that child anymore. He’s an adult, with stubble and a car he doesn’t like driving and everything. Why is it so difficult to remember that?
Maybe it’s because nobody tries to stop Michael and Luke. They all know better.
“You okay?” Dean says. “You look like crap. You’re not gonna faint on me, are you?”
“No,” Cas says. “I’m fine.”
“Yeah, right. C’mon, Cas, talk to me.”
“I wish they wouldn’t do this,” he mutters, already feeling traitorous. “I wish they would stop.”
“Then get in there and tell them to.”
“It’s not that simple,” Cas says, frustrated.
“They’re my family, Dean.” He looks at the door again, and Dean breathes out heavily.
“Listen…” he says. “I know it’s hard, standing up to family and that. That’s more Sammy’s domain than mine, so I can’t really give you any advice worth a damn. All I can say is that you don’t have to put up with things that make you unhappy just because the other guy is older and hits harder. Your opinion matters here, Cas. You matter.”
“Not as much as them,” he says before he can stop himself.
“Every damn bit,” Dean says with utter conviction. “Maybe more.”
“Don’t give me that crap. Tell me, what’s it gonna be?”
Cas swallows. “I’m going to go and talk to them.”
Dean looks surprised, but then genuinely pleased. “Good. Want me to stick around?” He looks like he means it. Cas is so very tempted to say yes, but he can’t. It wouldn’t be fair.
“No, it’s okay. Go up to Anna. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Last chance,” Dean offers.
Dean nods. “If you’re sure. Seeya, Cas,” he says, and goes upstairs. Cas listens to the clatter of shoes on the stairs until Dean’s footsteps fade away. Cas braces himself and pushes the door open.
“- selfish, self-absorbed, self-adoring brat.”
“Oh, that’s rich, coming from Daddy’s little favourite.”
“Perhaps you’d get on better with our father if you’d actually speak to him other than to tell him how much he’s supposedly failed you.”
“What, so that’s irrational or something? He did. He failed all of us, Michael, and if you’d-”
“Don’t you dare!” Michael roars. “Don’t you dare, Luke. I will not have you stay in this house if you talk about our family like that.”
“I am your family, you fucking bastard! I’m your family, not that deadbeat piece of crap. Why do you keep putting him ahead of us? Where is he now, huh? We’re here. Where the fuck is he?”
“He’s taking a well-deserved break from the likes of you,” Michael growls. “If you know what’s good for you, Luke, I advise shutting up very, very quickly.”
“You know what? I am so, so fucking sick of you telling me what to do. You don’t own us, Michael. Just because daddy’s flown the nest doesn’t mean you get to take his place.”
And that makes Cas even more sad, because it kind of does. When their father stopped asking how their days were, and stopped coming to see Anna’s music recitals or go to Gabe’s parent-teacher conferences, and when he spent more and more time out of the house, it was Michael who stepped up. It was Michael who had to cook for them, drive them to school, help them with homework, and it was Michael who got told “Luke’s fucked up; fix it.”
Rather than bother with his disobedient son himself, their father had told Michael it was his responsibility. Michael had tried his best to take over, to make Luke change. Even when their father stopped ordering Michael to shout at Luke or kick him out again, Michael kept on doing it. Sometimes, Cas thinks that Michael thinks that if he does a good enough job, their father will be proud; he’ll come back to them, take interest again.
Yeah. And pigs will fly, and Michael and Luke will settle this dispute in a calm and sensible fashion.
“You two-” he begins.
“Go away Castiel!” they roar as one, not even turning to look at him. Castiel flinches. Well, at least they’re agreeing on something. He slides into the room and takes up his usual place curled up on the chair. Neither of them notice.
“You’re selfish, Luke,” Michael spits. “That’s it. All you think about is yourself.”
Cas notes the half-full glass of water on the table and snatches it out of the way before it can take a second job as a makeshift weapon.
“I’m sorry, I forgot I was talking to the perfect son.”
Michael makes a noise of maddened frustration, a stifled scream. He swings for Luke, but Luke dodges out the way.
“So that’s how you want it to be?” he says. “Again?” Michael raises his hand. “If you try and hit me again, I will hit you back, and I will not miss,” Luke warns quietly.
“Enough!” Castiel says suddenly. They both look over, looking about as surprised as if the sofa had offered them life advice. Castiel finds that the words come easily. He’s so tired of this, so sick of them fighting. According to Gabriel, they just about get by during every other month of the year- but that’s with Michael at work and Luke out most nights. When you stick them together in a confined space with stress, they can’t even manage seven measly days. “I mean it you two. Enough.”
“You don’t-” Michael begins.
“I do,” Castiel says. He thinks he might have snarled the phrase. He wasn’t aware he could snarl. “I understand, Michael. I understand that you and Luke have your differences-”
“Yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” Luke snorts, but Castiel doesn’t listen.
“- but I also understand that it’s Christmas, and for some reason that time of the year means something to many people. Personally, I couldn’t care less, but maybe you should at least consider it before you condemn us to spend yet another holiday sitting in the ER, watching you two sullenly clean each other’s wounds.”
“That was once!” Luke defends.
“Three times, Luke. In five years.”
“You can’t count last year!” Michael interjects. “He fell down the stairs, that wasn’t anybody’s fault.” The fact that Luke had been running after Michael when he tripped, both of them roaring abuse, has clearly been forgotten.
“Yeah, and we didn’t even need to go the other time,” Luke says. “We could have done those stitches at home easily.”
“Exactly!” Michael says. The two of them realise that they just agreed on something and share a sudden glare of hate. Cas can hear somebody coming down the stairs, and has barely finished a silent prayer that Dean hasn’t decided to intervene after all when the door bursts open.
For a change, it seems like somebody’s listening. Gabriel puts his hands on his hips, draws himself to his full five-not-quite-eight height, and narrows his eyes.
“So Sam wanted to know if everything was okay,” he says. “More specifically, he wanted to know if there were wild animals dying in the garden. What the hell is going on here?”
“Fuck off, Gabe,” Luke spits. Gabriel glances at Cas.
“It’s not even Christmas Eve yet.”
“I believe the strain of guests behaved as a catalyst.”
“Well, ain’t that super?” Gabriel says. “As much as you know I adore the annual Michael-Lucifer showdown, can it not wait until our guests have wandered off somewhere? I’d rather not have to explain to the Chuckle Brothers why the delightful folks at the ER know us by name.”
“They sent us a Christmas card this year,” Cas volunteers, before realising he probably could have picked a better time. Michael’s glare flickers from Cas, to Gabriel, to Luke. Having so many people to shout at has an effect on Michael similar to opening every program on a computer simultaneously. Cas can almost see the little ‘loading’ icons behind his eyes.
“Why were you with Sam?” Luke asks Gabe as Michael buffers. His own master plan had failed; Michael had swooped in before Luke even got to the word “fire”, thrusting forward a cache of Luke’s own worn-out and forgotten shirts with near-vicious glee. Indeed, Cas is guessing that Luke’s finally regretting his tendency to stockpile, as it means that rather than being swamped in a huge, soft, and still-smelling-of-Sam jumper, he’s stuck in an old grey t-shirt that proclaims
‘I SUPPORT RECYCLING
I WORE THIS T-SHIRT YESTERDAY’
in cracked black letters. Gabriel goes to reply, but Michael’s got his target locked and he’s firmly back on track.
“That’s another thing, Gabriel,” he says. “I want you to leave Sam Winchester alone.”
“You too, Luke.”
“I mean it,” Michael says. “That poor boy’s going through enough without you two harassing him.”
“I’m not asking!” Michael snaps. “Luke, I’ve come to expect this from- but I’m ashamed of you, Gabriel, I really am.”
“Don’t go yelling at us when Castiel is sitting in the corner!” Gabriel shouts.
“Me?” Castiel blinks. Michael, apparently unable to cope with all three brothers causing problems at once, drops his face into his palms.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did you not want your ridiculously blatant crush on Dean Winchester brought up?” Gabriel says disbelievingly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Cas says, fully aware that his body is too stiff and his voice too strained and that his cheeks are currently filling with traitorous, tell-tale blood. He stares down at the glass still clutched in his hands, determined not to look at anyone.
“Back me up here, Luke,” Gabe says. “What does Cas think of Dean?”
“He wants to ride that ass like Mary into Bethlehem.”
“Everybody in this room is going to Hell,” Michael says, head still in his hands.
“Maybe so, but we’re not making this up, Michael,” Luke says. “We’re not.”
Michael straightens up and looks at Cas. “Castiel, is this true?” he asks- the anger gone from his tone, his voice soft and non-judgemental. And Michael’s the one who picks fights over things that aren’t worth it, and Michael’s the one who is so frustratingly loyal to their father that it makes Cas want to scream, and Michael is about one public breakdown away from being prescribed some kind of soothing herbal medication, but the look on his face makes Cas forget all of that. Michael looks at him with love and care and concern, because something might be happening that makes Cas sad, and Michael wants to know if he can help.
Michael is his big brother. That’s all that matters.
Cas lets his eyes fall away from Michael’s. “I’m sorry,” he says, quietly, his voice barely audible.
He hears a quiet hiss of “yesss” from Gabriel and Luke; Michael groans in frustration.
“Am I the only member of this family that doesn’t want to have carnal relations with a Winchester?” he says tightly.
“Uh, is everything okay?” says a voice from the door. Every head in the room snaps around at once, and Sam smiles uncertainly from the door.
“It’s fine,” Castiel says. “We were just…”
In the hallway, a phone starts to ring.
“Oh, darn. Sam, could you get that?” Luke says. “We’re a little busy, sorry.”
“Uh, sure thing!” Sam says, turning and hurrying off after the ringing noise. Gabriel waits a few seconds, pulls his mobile out from behind his back and hits ‘cancel call’.
“We don’t discuss this,” Michael warns. “Any of this.”
“Of course,” Castiel says instantly, gratefully. Luke and Gabe exchange a look of displeasure, before saying “fine” as one. Despite everything, Cas has to think of this one as a win. He and Gabriel may have genuinely diffused a Michael/Luke fight for the first time in the history of man.
“I mean it,” Michael insists. “Leave Sam Winchester alone, and leave Castiel alone too. He can work through whatever it is that’s going on with Dean without your interference. Do we have an understanding?”
“We get it,” Gabe snaps. “We heard you the first hundred times, okay?”
“Alright,” Michael says, clearly deciding this is a fight for another day. “Good.” As he gets up to leave the room, Cas spots Gabriel and Luke exchange a small, sly grin. Castiel looks down at his glass of water and wonders if, with enough effort, he could drown himself in it.
It’s not paranoia, Cas feels, if everybody really is out to get you.
When it comes to scheming, Luke is the master. Gabriel doesn’t have the same ‘end game’ kind of mentality’- he’s an impatient creature, who picked a college by opening ‘The University A-Z’ at a random point- but he does have a lot of respect for his big brother, and a natural affinity for causing trouble.
So on the morning of the 24th, when they both appear in the kitchen at 8AM on the dot, smile beatifically, pour themselves cereal and eat it whilst making normal-human-being style conversation with Michael and Cas- only throwing the occasional, socially appropriate comment in Sam’s direction- Cas has reason to fear.
“I feel like they really listened to what I said,” Michael says happily. Cas doesn’t have the heart to burst his bubble, and so focuses on stacking the dishwasher instead. He feels somewhat vindicated when, less than two minutes later, an outbreak of cries and shouts and coughs floods downstairs. With a heavy sigh, Cas and Michael get to their feet.
“Luke? Gabriel?” Michael shouts up the stairs while Cas hangs back warily.
“Is everything okay?” Anna asks, coming in from the lounge and peering up the staircase.
“Lucifer and Gabriel are involved. Don’t ask stupid questions,” Cas says darkly. Michael and Anna hurry towards the source of the noise and, against his better nature, Castiel follows.
Gabriel is hanging out of one of the upstairs windows gulping down air like a man saved from drowning. Luke is in what appears to be the fetal position.
“Are you dead?” Anna asks, poking him with a foot. He lets out an unhappy wheeze. The door to Anna’s room is shut tight, and when she touches it Luke shoots out a hand to grab her ankle.
“Don’t,” he rasps. “Don’t let me die in vain.”
“You absolute drama queen,” she says, and goes into the room. Less than two seconds later she’s back out, spluttering and slamming the door shut behind her.
“Told you,” Luke says, and even when huddled in a ball on the ground he still manages to sound smug. Cas tilts his head as he peers down at his brother. Today’s shirt reads
‘JESUS LOVES YOU
BUT I THINK YOU’RE A DICK’
“What did you do?” Michael says, with carefulness reminiscent of the air before a storm. Castiel exchanges a worried glance with Anna. He’d been hoping that this year’s civil war was averted, not merely delayed.
“Nothing,” Gabriel says immediately.
“Gabriel, you aren’t allowed to take part in this discussion until at least 90% of your body is in this room,” Anna says, eyes still streaming. With a long-suffering sigh, Gabriel lets his body slip backwards to fall heavily on the carpet. “Better,” she says, and then her voice gives way to another series of coughs.
“Anna, what is it?” Castiel asks.
“Gas,” she says. “Like someone mixed sulphur with rotting waste and poured on a barrel of sarin for good luck.”
“Quit exaggerating,” Gabe says. “It’s a stink bomb, that’s all.”
“Why did you let off a stink bomb in Anna’s room?” Castiel asks, wondering if he’s missing out on something here.
“We weren’t trying to,” Luke says pitifully, propping himself up against the wall. “We were using Anna’s room to work on it and it accidentally… detonated.”
“Lucas Orion Milton,” Michael says- and if they’ve reached full name stage then it’s time to get in the bunker and assume the brace position- “why were you working on a biological hazard in your sister’s bedroom?”
“Weren’t any other rooms free,” Gabriel calls, ever happy to make things worse. Luke and Michael regard each other for a long, long moment, before Luke breaks. Or rather, he decides to give way: people like Luke do not get stared down.
“Anna, could you get me some water?” he says carefully. “I think I’m coughing up my throat.”
“No, I want to hear,” she demands.
“Do what he says, Anna,” Michael says, never taking his eyes off of Luke. Anna turns to Castiel, incensed, and he looks at her sympathetically.
“Go,” he mouths, and she stamps down the stairs in understandable fury.
“Go,” Michael says- but out loud, to Luke, who sighs heavily.
“We were going to let it off in Anna’s room.”
“But you just said-”
“Not this one. The room she’s sharing with shorter, lighter and less handsome.”
“Why?” Cas asks, horrified at the idea of Luke wanting to submit Dean to that… creation. Gabriel has a very conveniently timed coughing fit. Luke glances irritably at the youngest Milton, but then looks up at Cas with pained eyes.
“Haven’t we suffered enough?” he asks plaintively.
“No,” Michael says bluntly. “Answer your brother’s question.”
“Fine. Well, if our delightful sister and her beau couldn’t sleep in that room, they’d have to sleep somewhere else. Anna, of course, would have been welcome to take her own room back- I was going to crash on Gabe’s floor.”
“I’d have cleared him a space,” Gabriel nods, with the solemn air of somebody whose carpet has its own ecosystem.
“And Dean?” Cas asks with a horrible sense of foreboding.
“Well, he would have stayed with you.” Michael tightens his hands in his hair and turns away. He lets out an involuntary whimper, the kind usually associated with children encountering a clown for the first time and thinking, with a growing sense of unease, ‘why is he smiling so much?’
“It makes sense!” Gabriel protests. “Cas having the biggest sleeping space and all.”
“And Dean has his own sleeping space,” Michael hisses.
“We were only trying to-”
“Don’t,” Cas says. “Please, don’t.” His voice catches slightly on the second word, and that’s not the kind of detail Luke misses. He catches Castiel’s eye curiously.
“Dean is happy with Anna,” he says- and yes, his voice is definitely wobbling. “They are happy together, and I refuse to have any part in the dissolution of their union. Do you understand?”
He reverts to his preferred method of communicating feelings and stares at Luke with wide and sad eyes. The silence is broken by Gabriel’s sigh.
“Someone fetch the hair shirt,” he mutters.
“You think they’re happy?” Luke says incredulously. “Really?”
“I…” Castiel says uncertainly. He remembers the roughness of brick under his fingers, Dean’s words forming ghosts in the cold night air.
“I mean, don’t you want to be with him?” Luke demands.
“Aren’t you forgetting Anna here?” Cas snaps. Gabriel and Luke exchange a fleeting look that Cas has no way of deciphering.
“Humour us,” Gabriel says. “Answer the question.”
“I…” Cas begins again, a sentence with no intended direction and certainly no end in sight. He doesn’t know the answer. There’s warmth in his chest that isn’t usually there, a fullness where there’s usually a hollow, and he thinks that he understands what it is. He might not have known he was lonely, but he knows that he isn’t now, not anymore.
He thinks of walls again. He thinks of how it might feel to be pushed against one, brick grazing his thighs; of how he could turn the night sky back to ink, breathing in Dean’s air through desperate, needing lips. He thinks about how running his fingers down a book’s spine could become running his fingers down Dean’s spine, how he could trace out the beautiful words that he’s spent his life worshipping, how he could write out testaments to desire and devotion and finally understand what they mean.
He knows the answer to Luke’s question, he thinks. But it’s not the final answer, it’s just a stage in an equation that contains phrases like ‘not your place’ and ‘he deserves better’ and ‘she’s your sister’. Cas never liked math in the first place.
The angry thud of feet against the staircase shoots the conversation dead, and Cas for one won’t be mourning.
“Here’s your water,” Anna grumbles, pushing the glass towards Luke. “What’s going on?”
An uneasy silence; a silent exchange of ideas. Should we tell her? Could we tell her? Is it logical for four fully grown males to be terrified of the wrath of a pint-sized redhead?
“It was meant for you and lover boy,” Gabriel says, and Cas only barely holds back his cry of ‘no!’. “We were planning to let it off if you two got too sickeningly adorable.”
Anna looks at Gabe out of the corner of her eye.
“What, you don’t think we’d have a backup plan?” Luke says, picking up the baton Gabe’s fumbling with and running with it. “Face it, sis, it’s plain insulting. Here we are, trying to score even a flutter of Sam Winchester’s eyelashes, and you’re drooling over each other like Edward and Bella.”
“So for revenge you try to gas me to death?” Anna says in disbelief.
“Not death!” Gabriel protests. “Minor tissue damage, maybe, but certainly not death.”
Anna glares, falters, and then bursts out laughing. Luke and Gabe reach the metaphorical finish line, tearing through the ribbon as the crowd cheer- or, in this case, as Cas and Michael attempt to blend into the wallpaper and leave the lying to the professionals.
“Assholes,” she says. “Utter assholes.”
“We love you too,” Gabe grins.
“So what, is Luke sharing your pit after all?”
“No,” Michael orders. “I am not having you two sharing a plotting space. Luke can share with Castiel.”
“What?” Castiel says despairingly.
“Gee, bro, thanks.”
“The lounge is more than large enough, and there’s a sleeping bag somewhere in the attic. Until going into Anna’s room ceases to require Hazmat suits, Castiel will keep an eye on you.”
“Michael,” Castiel says desperately, uselessly, because Michael has that This Is The Right Thing To Do look in his eyes, and trying to get Michael to diverge from what he has declared the ‘right path’ is like trying to talk the Earth into spinning in the opposite direction for fun.
A few hours later, Dean comes into the lounge to find Cas huddled over a book while Luke flips through channels.
“Boring, boring, boring,” he’s chanting as the number flickers up.
“Cas?” Cas looks up with hunted eyes.
“Dean,” he says desperately, and Dean smirks.
“Heard about your new roommate.”
“Ahh, nefarious as ever,” Luke muses as he carries on clicking through. “Boring- boring! Honestly, this is the third time I’ve gone through the channels in an hour, and everything is still boring.”
“Sam’s baking gingerbread like the twelve year old girl he is. We should totally go steal dough when he’s not looking.”
“Eating uncooked dough is unsanitary,” Cas points out with a frown.
“Boring, bo- oh, he is not anywhere near attractive enough for me to pay that much to see him naked-”
Dean goes to say something else, but Cas is already brushing past him to sweep out the door. When he reaches the kitchen, Anna and Sam are rolling out dough. Michael’s sitting at the table and writing out Christmas cards.
“Isn’t it a little late for that?” Castiel says. Michael looks up with the expression of a drowning man who has just been told he’s slightly damp, and Cas backs away with his hands raised in apology. He turns to Anna and Sam instead, who are more or less the picture of Christmas cheer. As Dean slips his arms around Anna’s waist and presses a kiss into her neck, Cas has to turn his head away.
Two more days, he tells himself. Just two more days until you can go. And then it’ll be a year until he has to see Dean again, and who knows? Maybe he and Anna will break up before then and Cas will never have to see him again. Things will go back to the way they were, and it will all be okay.
The idea shouldn’t make him as sad as it does.
He hangs around and watches them cut out cookies and put them in the oven, Dean sticking to his word and eating a mouthful of dough which he spits out with a somewhat affronted look.
“Dude, those cookies are freakin’ awful,” he says, coughing.
“You’re not supposed to eat them raw,” Sam says, annoyed. Anna grins and pops a small ball of raw dough into her mouth.
“You’re a weakling, Winchester,” she teases Dean. When she kisses him again, Cas decides to get up and go. It’s petty and childish and downright rude, but he can’t find it in him to care.
He spends the rest of Christmas Eve in a cloud of self-pity, confusion, angst and guilt, occasionally punctuated by fierce hunger. Michael’s embarked on the traditional Christmas Baking Initiative, part of his plan to make every Christmas perfect and family-focused. If Michael could somehow talk a group of fat cartoon robins into lining up on the lawn and simpering out awful puns along the lines of ‘season’s tweetings!’, he absolutely would. The fact that nine times out of ten it’s Michael himself who shatters the idyllic illusion via some form of hysterical scream-off always seems to elude his attention.
It means that the house rotates between smelling like vanilla and cinnamon and cloves and ginger and oranges and about fifteen other odours pulled directly from ‘how to sell a house’. If they bake a few more fruit loaves, Cas thinks they could even persuade potential buyers to ignore the burn marks in the shower.
Eventually, though, somebody does find him.
Castiel does his best imitation of a deaf man.
“C’mon, I’m the one you like, remember?”
“That’s true,” he says grudgingly, looking up at Anna.
“I don’t think there’s room.”
“Are you calling me fat?”
“I… don’t want to answer that.”
“Wise choice,” she chuckles. “Okay, new question: why are you sitting in the bathtub?”
“There are people everywhere else.”
“Ahh, that’s the Castiel I know and love. Here was me thinking Dean was dragging you into the land of socialisation.”
It is not awkward that Anna has said her boyfriend’s name. Why would it be? There is nothing awkward there. Cas’ spine only stiffens because reading in a bathtub for two hours would make any half-decent chiropractor weep, and his eyes are only unwilling to meet Anna’s because the light is too bright in here. She perches on the edge of the tub, next to where he’s swung his legs over the side.
“You’re going to come and join in tonight, right?”
“I don’t understand what you’re asking me.”
“The party thing that Michael-”
“No, I understood the situation. I don’t see why you felt it necessary to ask.”
“I know you usually skip out, and we usually let you, but we’ve got guests this year. They’re going to think it’s strange if you don’t show.”
“They already think I’m strange.” Cas’ family never pushes him to attend the annual Christmas Eve festivities, an arrangement which works wonderfully for everybody involved. He doesn’t see why having Dean and Sam around should change anything.
“Then why are we having this conversation?”
“Because you’re my brother, and I love you, and I really want you to be there,” she says, and he does manage to meet her gaze then. She’s not joking now. Her eyes are soft and full of love, but there’s something more. Pain, perhaps? He frowns. If something is making Anna unhappy, then he wants it to stop. If someone is making Anna unhappy- well, should it come to it, Castiel thinks he could handle a short prison term.
“Of course,” he murmurs, still trying to understand what’s going on, but the link they’ve had since she was a little girl begging Castiel to ‘read the words again’- him being a six year old who read the dictionary for fun, and her convinced that anything Castiel uttered was the most important statement in the world- doesn’t seem to be working today.
“Thank you, Cas,” she says, smiling. “Really. This means a lot to me.”
“Just to clarify: I’ll be attending. I won’t be participating.”
“And if there is a God, neither will I. Now might be a good time to take up drinking.”
“Because Gabriel and Lucifer are going to be playing charades, and Sam is going to be in the room."
“I’ll see that the first aid kit is stocked.”
It’s a genuine testament to how much Castiel loves his sister that he’s agreed to this.
Every year, on Christmas Eve, Michael likes to throw a small party. And by ‘small’, Castiel means tiny, and by ‘tiny’ he means ‘every Milton child with the ‘ability to socialise’ allele’. Occasionally one of Gabe’s friends will drop by, and various members of various bands Luke’s belonged to like to siphon off free food and alcohol, but that’s generally it.
Castiel has been known to lock himself in the car.
There are party games.
But Castiel feels that he needs to do something big to atone for spending several days making doe-eyes at Anna’s boyfriend, and so he’s taking the plunge and going along. He makes something which loosely resembles an effort- finds a white shirt that doesn’t have ink stains on it and spends far too long poking his hair this way and that (how does gel even work?)- and decides that if Michael gets too insistent about Castiel’s taking part, he’ll just have to fake a seizure.
Anna’s terrible, terrible Christmas CD is playing again when Cas comes downstairs later that evening, and he takes a moment to acknowledge that the lounge does genuinely look very pretty before remembering that he dislikes Christmas and reverting to his usual state of vaguely irritated bewilderment. He does feel a pang of sadness when he realises that he failed in his task to purchase the most hideous sweater in existence: Michael got there first, and is wearing it with the kind of pride usually associated with the story of the Emperor’s new clothes.
Gabe and Luke are standing at the buffet table, watching Sam from afar like a lion tracking a gazelle. Gabriel’s dressed in a sweater that almost certainly involved the wool of ninety-eight separate incredibly endangered, bottle-fed, regularly-massaged alpacas, and Luke’s t-shirt cheerily declares
‘AS SEEN IN PORN’.
“Cas, you came!” Anna’s in the same red dress that made Dean’s jaw drop. Her cheeks are flushed from the glass of significantly-stronger-than-Michael-thinks in her hands and her eyes glitter, and for a second, Cas is happy to be there.
And then he sees Dean.
Castiel once overheard a truly baffling conversation between two girls sat behind him on the bus about how ‘totally fuckable guys in suits are’. It was a topic on which they were exceedingly passionate, filling the entire forty-three minute journey with names of male celebrities and enthusiastic hand gestures. The next time Cas saw someone in a suit, he had examined them for research purposes, but found nothing of interest. They were the same person in a much more expensive outfit. So what?
So everything, apparently.
Dean’s not even in a suit, but Cas maintains the basic principles are the same. Somehow, when he wears a white dress shirt and black pants, the look is less like an oversized schoolchild and more like James Bond running missions on casual Friday. Along with the just-this-side-of-tight dark blue jacket he’s wearing, Dean may as well be wearing nothing but the godforsaken Christmas lights for how difficult he is to look away from.
Dean turns away from Sam, still laughing at something he said, when his eyes lock onto Cas and he stops dead. The laugh dies in his throat, turns into a hard swallow, and then they’re back to their unique form of chess, both waiting for the other one to make a move while they contemplate what on Earth they’re supposed to do next. The game is frozen in an eternal stalemate, to the point where Cas wonders if archaeologists will find his skeleton in this exact same position in several hundred years’ time.
“Aliens have landed in the garden,” Gabriel says conversationally. “Michael’s getting a sex change. They’re bringing back Firefly.”
“Huh?” Castiel says eloquently, dragging his eyes away like pulling a limb from quicksand.
“Nothing,” Gabe says, and when Cas looks from him to Luke they’ve both got terrible, terrible grins on their faces. Michael looks concerned, and Anna looks… sad. Again. It finally, fully hits Cas that actually, he’s the reason for that.
His car suddenly seems like a very appealing place to be.
“Gabriel, what is the alcohol content of that?” he asks.
“Like 2%? You won’t even feel it.”
He leans in. “And if we assume that Michael can’t hear what we’re saying?”
“I think sniffing it would probably get most people wasted.”
“Good.” Castiel seizes the glass from Gabriel’s hands and drains it in one long, smooth gulp. It tastes like somebody set fire to a factory of cleaning supplies, and he splutters and coughs as he presses the empty glass back into Gabe’s hands.
“I don’t know if I’m impressed or concerned for your safety,” Luke says thoughtfully from nearby. Castiel doesn’t care. It isn’t a good idea for him to be here, but leaving now would make things even more awkward, a feat which would almost certainly result in triumphant music and a large sign stating ‘ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED’. He has no idea what he’s like drunk, but there is no way it can possibly be any worse than when he’s sober.
It’s worse than when he’s sober.
In his defence, he starts out strong. He speaks to Sam about college stress and exams, nods along to one of Michael’s impressively dull stories from work, and chuckles at a filthy joke Luke tells that he doesn’t fully understand. It only starts going downhill when he inevitably runs out of ways to avoid Dean.
“Dean,” he says, and then adds absolutely nothing else as the ‘language’ centre of his brain spontaneously declares a strike.
“Cas,” Dean says. He says it like a holy word, the weight of it heavy on his tongue, still drinking in Castiel like he’s an artefact of God and not a completely ordinary college student who sometimes forgets the water when boiling pasta.
“Dean’s revealed his alter-ego as Betty Crocker,” Luke says, taking pity on Cas for the first and only time since a fish first crawled out of the ocean. “Isn’t that right?”
“Yeah,” Dean laughs, some of the tension gone. “I made a lot of pie.”
“Pie is good,” Cas agrees.
“Pie is God, Cas. Hey, are you drinking?” he says incredulously, looking at the half-empty glass in Cas’ hands.
“It seemed the logical option.”
“You are sullying your body, Castiel,” Dean says in mock horror.
“You were the one who started me off.”
“Yeah, well boozy punch ain’t Gabe’s Disaronno and battery acid.”
The hideously cheery song that’s been playing suddenly stops, and Luke frowns at the speakers in disapproval.
“What’s the point in stealing Michael’s stuff if it doesn’t even work?” he tuts, and heads over to try and fix it.
“So Christmas tomorrow, huh?” Dean says. “Seems crazy. Where did summer go?”
“I know what you mean,” says Castiel, who sometimes gets texts from Alfie to remind him that it’s winter and minus ridiculous degrees, and he really needs to remember to put a jumper on or they’ll have to stop class to check him for signs of hypothermia. Again. “The year always passes quickly.”
“Tell me about it,” Dean laments. “I mean, I’ve taken more majors than most people have craps at this point, and some days I still think I’m in high school.”
Luke manages to get the music working again, eliciting a triumphant fist pump from Gabriel. The song isn’t one Cas recognises, but that’s not unusual in itself.
“Do you really dislike college that much?” Cas asks curiously.
“I don’t hate it, I just don’t love it either. Sam’s like a kid with a puppy each time he walks into class and I’m just like eugh, this bullcrap again.”
“Then why not drop out?” Cas says. “There are jobs you can get with a high school education alone.”
“I know,” Dean says. “I think about it a lot. There’s this badass place run by a friend of the family that’d be so great to work at, but it’d be a big upheaval. I don’t know what my Dad would say.”
“Does it matter?” Cas asks bluntly. “It’s your life, Dean. Not your family’s.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good point,” Dean says, like he’s never considered it that way before. “Thanks, Cas.” He touches a hand, feather light, to Cas’ arm. Across the room, Luke turns the music up.
- your smile sets my heart aflame, electrocute me with your eyes, the very mention of your name, my stomach fills with butterflies-
Cas fails to see how that’s Christmassy, but what does he know?
“You know this song?” Dean asks, lifting his hand away.
“No, I d…” Luke catches Cas’ eye and Cas lets the sentence go.
Dean glances over his shoulder. “You okay?”
“Fine,” he says absently. Gabe waves sweetly at Dean and Cas, while Luke continues to sing along.
- I got it bad again, an O-B-S-E-S-S-I-O-N-
He mouths each letter with the level of precision usually seen in lip reading classes. When Luke inevitably goes to Hell, Castiel sincerely hopes he gets to see some of the highlights.
“Huh,” Dean laughs awkwardly. “This is a weird song, huh?”
“Definitely,” Cas says. He tries to think of a legitimate reason for why he desperately has to evacuate the area, but for some reason all he can think of is some variation on ‘sudden bee swarm’.
- But I wanna get next to you, yeah, I love all the things you do-
“Luke, what song is this?” Cas hears Michael ask.
-I wanna get close to you, you are my dream come true-
“Oh, just something I thought Cas would like.”
- I wanna have sex with you, your sweet caress won’t do,
‘cause I’m obsessed with you, ‘cause I’m obsessed with you!
It’s at this point that Castiel returns to his busy schedule of getting as drunk as humanly possible.
“Cas, are you playing?” Anna whines. He looks at her from below low-lidded eyes, with an expression he sincerely hopes summarises just how fucking stupid her question is. It does.
“Aww, c’mon, Cas!” Sam says. He’s so peppy that it actually hurts to look at him for too long. Cas is pretty sure he’s wearing tinsel as a scarf.
“Because I find the notion of party games patronising and abhorrent.”
“Discovery: Cas is a mean drunk,” Luke says solemnly.
“I had bets on handsy,” Gabe says, sounding dismayed. Speaking of bets, he and Luke have been more or less behaving themselves, which is troubling to say the least. Michael and Luke seem to have marked ‘TBC’ next to the date for World War III, and Anna is her usual vibrant self. Whoever would have thought that Castiel would be the troublesome son?
“Dude, sober up,” Dean says. “Seriously, drink some water or something. You look like you’re about to pass out.”
“I don’t need your help,” Cas snaps, his voice too loud as he yanks his arm out of Dean’s grasp. Gabe whistles, long and low. Michael presses a tall glass of Coke into his hand.
“For goodness sake, Castiel, compose yourself,” he hisses. Castiel has the incredible satisfying vision of hurling the drink over Michael, but refrains from making it reality. He sullenly caffeinates himself, absent-mindedly makes his way through three-quarters of a bowl of cinnamon dusted nuts, and feels somewhat better for it all.
He still refuses to take part in any games, but so does everybody else, preferring to carry on talking and laughing and listening to the (thankfully now season-appropriate) music. He actually begins to feel remotely okay, the feeling that all is well in the world bubbling up in his chest. If you put a gun to his head and forced him to be honest about it, he would have to admit that he likes the people in this room. He loves his brothers and sisters, and Dean and Sam are good people who he enjoys spending time with. There are, he thinks as he watches Sam stifle laughter at Gabe surreptitiously sprinkling glitter onto Michael’s hair, much worse places to be.
A little while later, there’s a sudden yell from the other side of the room and all Cas sees is a blur of limbs. Castiel’s moving before he even thinks about it, a knee-jerk reflex to his family getting hurt, running to where Luke and Sam are sprawled on the floor.
“Luke, what happened?”
“Sammy, you okay?” Dean reaches them at the same time as Cas does, and they both extend hands to their brothers.
“I tripped,” Luke says, voice far too charming for what should be a simple statement. “I accidentally caught Sam and dragged him down with me. I’m so sorry.”
“No problem,” Sam says, brushing himself off.
“You sure you’re okay?” Gabe says, having materialised by Sam’s side. He pulls him gently by the elbow, and alarm bells (GABRIEL HAS HIS HANDS ON AN INNOCENT) begin to go off in Cas’ head.
“Honestly, guys, it’s fine,” Sam says, and apparently satisfied, Luke and Gabriel step back. In perfect tandem, they spy something above Cas’ head and tilt their heads like curious puppies.
“Say, Luke, what’s that?”
“I think it’s mistletoe,” Luke muses.
Please, God, no.
Dean and Cas look up together and see the neat green and red bundle, pinned above their heads. Cas lowers his head, ready to apologise for his brothers’ general existence, but Dean’s sucking his bottom lip in what looks like anxiety and that’s… distracting.
“C’mon you two, you know the rules!” Luke says.
“Be a sport,” Gabe agrees. Everybody in the room is focused on Dean and Cas.
“I dare you,” Sam declares. “I double dare you.”
“Can’t say no to a double dare,” Dean jokes weakly, but as he faces Cas his eyes are anxious, seeking reassurance. If Cas were sober, he’d already have left the room so quickly that physicists everywhere would have had an existential crisis and switched career paths- but, as it is, he murmurs “is that so?”
“Go on!” someone giggles- Anna. Cas isn’t sober enough to work out whether that’s ironic or not.
Alcohol makes most of the decision for him when he turns back to Dean and grins brazenly. “Okay,” he says, and Dean’s lips are on his before he’s even finished the word.
Cas might never have been in a proper relationship, but he was once a fourteen year-old who played Truth or Dare, and he’s been accosted at parties by women who think he’ll take interest if they’re showing enough leg. He’s had kissing quite safely marked down in the category of Things I Just Don’t Get, along with Christmas, relationships in general and why anybody would ever apply for Hell’s Kitchen. And well, Dean’s main goal in life seems to be to take everything Cas thinks he knows and flip it upside down, but somehow Cas is finding it difficult to be as angry as he should.
It starts out soft, the gentle press of closed lips to his, but it’s like how every quick glance at Dean somehow melts into a stare that can’t be broken. Cas finds that he can’t pull away, that every reason he can possibly think of to stop won’t stay in his head long enough to have any effect, leaves blown away by the wind. Dean’s hand slides to cup the back of his head, fingers tangling in his hair, and Cas thinks he makes a noise in the back of his throat as he kisses harder, the movement accidentally pushing Dean’s lips apart a little. He finds that he’s okay with the new arrangement, Dean’s mouth hot and insistent on his as he slides his own arms around Dean’s neck to bring him closer, needs him closer-
He doesn’t know how much time passes before his lungs switch from ‘Cas, could you breathe?’ to ‘Cas, I know you’re having a good time up there, but…’ to ‘CASTIEL YOU PIECE OF SHIT’ and force him to pull back. His lips slip away from Dean’s and he breathes in a quick pull of air. One of Dean’s hands is still cradling his head and the other rests on his hip, the weight and heat of it doing things to Cas that he didn’t know his body had mechanisms to support. His own arms are still draped around Dean’s neck. Cas can see life sparkle in Dean’s eyes from across a room, so it really shouldn’t be surprising that, up close, he can see worlds in them.
Dean’s entire face is swallowed by a look of ‘that’s not what I was expecting to find and now I really, really want to repeat the experiment’. Cas would be happy to oblige and he very nearly does, but the look in Dean’s eyes changes to one of a rapidly dawning horror and Cas remembers that there are people in the room.
Nobody says anything. Even the music has stopped, and Cas thinks that it has to be bad if inanimate objects are feeling embarrassed for him.
“That sure was enthusiastic,” Gabriel breaks the silence cheerily, like he’s commending them for it, and Cas realises that maybe now would be a really good time to take his hands off of Dean. Dean seems to realise the same thing simultaneously and they snap apart, Cas catching one last glimpse of Dean’s eyes before he makes it his life mission to look literally anywhere else.
“Yeah, well,” he hears Dean say, attempting a joke, “I don’t do things by halves.”
“I’ll say,” Sam says- but it’s peculiar, strange, like Dean’s spent Sam’s whole life telling him that two plus two is five and Sam’s just found out the truth and would like to talk about it. Like, now.
“You did dare us,” somebody says, and Cas realises about a second after the rest of the room that it was him.
“Boy, am I glad we didn’t play Twister,” Gabriel says. Castiel is 98% sure that Michael is reciting a Hail Mary.
“I’m leaving now,” Cas says, and it doesn’t even cross his mind to offer some form of excuse. He’s not stupid enough to try and drive, which limits him somewhat in where he can go, but their house is pretty big and, with any luck, nobody will care enough to look. Or maybe they’ll care enough to leave him. He genuinely doesn’t care which it is.
He shuts himself in his room on autopilot, before remembering nope, that’s not where he’s sleeping this year. Who is sleeping here? Sam. Sweet, kind-hearted Sam, who makes the Sears Tower feel inadequate and has just watched his host drool all over his older brother’s face. He could probably step on Castiel if he so chose. Cas doesn’t know whether to feel guilty or afraid, and so he settles for falling asleep.
Several hours later, he wakes up to somebody shaking him, very very gently. “Castiel? Uh, Cas?”
Castiel refuses by way of slurred mumbling, pushing his head further into his arm.
“No, I honestly don’t mind-”
“I mind,” says a new voice. “Punch him in the face if you have to.”
“I’m not punching him in the face!”
“Why not? He’s not in much of a state to fight back.”
Castiel decides that perhaps it is time to wake up after all. He blinks and the blurry form of Sam Winchester swims into view, Luke standing behind him.
“Sam,” Cas says, his voice croaky. All at once, he remembers everything- the party, the look on Sam’s face when he kissed Dean, topped off by the fact that he is currently sleeping on Sam’s bed. At least he’s not under the duvet. If he was, then it would be kinder for everybody involved if someone smothered him with it.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, getting up off the bed and focusing on not falling over. His head hurts. His head hurts a lot.
“No, it’s fine! I didn’t want to wake you, honestly, I didn’t, but-”
“- I made him,” Luke cuts in smoothly. Gabe sticks his head around the door.
“Party’s moving upstairs, champ,” he says happily. For one hideous moment, Castiel is convinced that Luke and Gabe have decided to settle their differences via a threesome.
“We felt bad not giving you anywhere to sleep,” Sam says, “so Gabe said we should go up to his room. Anna and Dean are coming too, but I think Michael’s turning in for the night. How about you?”
“I’ll do the same, but thank you anyway, Sam.”
“No problem,” Sam says. He turns and looks at Luke and Gabe. “Uh, guys? Could you give us a moment?”
“No,” Luke says bluntly. Cas narrows his eyes and, pulling a face, Gabe drags Luke away. Cas turns to face Sam, his heart pounding in his chest. He prays for a swift death.
“I just wanted to say,” Sam says, bouncing a little on his heels, “that, uh, I like you. I like you a lot, Cas. I think you’re a great guy.”
This is apparently the hour-long special of of Castiel’s Stupid Sleep-Deprived Hypotheses, because suddenly he’s terrified that Sam is trying to ask him out. If that’s the case, it’ll really become less of a love triangle and more a kind of love octopus, with several thousand trawling tentacles that occasionally twist into each other or get severed at the stump. The octopus would also almost certainly be mentally deficient in some way.
“Heh,” Sam says, an awkward little laugh as he turns his head away. “Um, Dean would kill me if he knew I was doing this, and Anna’s an amazing girl, but… I know my brother, Cas. He’s not happy with her, and I don’t think he’s ever been, actually. I know when Dean’s happy, and he’s happy with you.”
The words die on Castiel’s lips.
“And, as much as I like Anna, I want him to be happy. So, yeah,” Sam says awkwardly. “You get what I’m saying.”
Cas does not.
“It was good talking to you, man,” Sam says, clapping him on the shoulder. Cas recognises the dismissal and takes it, hurrying out with a stunned look on his face. He makes his way downstairs, wincing at the maliciously loud music blaring from Gabe’s room, and is relieved to find the lower half of the house in blessed darkness.
The lounge is strewn with glasses and cans, and bowls of half-filled dip and crumbs, but the worst of the mess has been pushed to the side. The speakers are off, the lights are off save the unobtrusive lamp in the corner, and the bed he makes for himself on the sofa every night has been done for him. The cushion is laid on the arm of the couch, the blanket draped with careful precision, and as he draws closer he sees something on the pillow.
It’s a star. A tiny, glistening, golden star, dangling from a red string loop. There is absolutely no reason to suspect that it is the same one Dean pulled from Cas’ hair. All the same, Cas knows that’s what it is.
He picks it up and thumbs it in his palm, staring blankly ahead without seeing anything. He hadn’t given a single thought to what Dean had done with the star. He doesn’t know why Dean kept it, and he doesn’t know why he’s giving it back now. Cas has only just woken up but he’s tired again, and he thinks that he doesn’t want to try and think. His eyelids are heavy as his head hits the pillow, and he falls asleep with the star still clutched in his hand.
T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring-
Except, that is, for whichever twisted being of pure malevolence has decided 1:58AM is the perfect time to take a stroll around the house.
Cas can hear shuffling in the hallway, footsteps that somebody is trying and failing miserably to muffle. The tiny star falls out of Cas’ hand as he pushes himself upright, blinking unhappily. In the dim light of the room, he can see Luke fast asleep on the other sofa, curled up under a thick duvet. How did he get a duvet? Castiel only got some threadbare old blanket. Cas swears, Luke could be put in the middle of the Sahara and he’d generate a waterpark.
Whoever is making their way down the hallway opens the door a crack, and a thin halo of light frames the space. They push the door open a little further, and then a little more. Luke’s closer to the door than he is- Cas having chosen the sleeping spot as far away from people as possible- and when the door swings open completely, Luke stirs.
Cas squints at the shape in the doorway. It takes him a moment to adjust to the sudden light, and when he does, he’s still not sure what’s going on. Gabriel’s standing alone, still in his clothes from the party, and he’s swaying a little. The longer Cas looks at him, the more sure he becomes that Gabe’s eyes are rimmed with red; that his hands are trembling slightly.
“Luke?” he asks, his voice small. Luke stirs again, properly this time.
“Mmm?” he yawns, sitting upright.
“I…” Gabriel’s voice trails off. He looks, suddenly, very young and very small. Luke takes a proper look and pushes the duvet aside, hurriedly getting to his feet.
“Li’l bro?” he asks, concerned.
“He said no,” Gabe says. “I asked him if- I told him that- and he said no.” He looks at Luke plaintively. “He wasn’t supposed to say no.”
Castiel holds his breath and waits for Luke to come out with some sarcastic comment. He waits for him to mock Gabriel, or to fist pump that Gabe has lost, or to start to laugh and not stop. Cas looks at his older brother, with his loose pyjama pants and his stuck-up blonde hair and the fresh t-shirt he’s changed into for some unknown reason, with
scrawled in an arc across the back, and he waits for Luke to make things worse.
Luke looks at Gabriel for one long moment, and then murmurs “I know, Gabe. I know.”
Gabriel goes to him and they sit on the sofa, Luke’s arm slung protectively around Gabriel’s shoulders as he murmurs reassuring things to his little brother. Castiel watches for a while, feeling suddenly, irrationally annoyed at Sam Winchester. Gabriel’s breathing starts to slow as he drifts towards sleep, and Luke meets Cas’ eyes.
“Go back to sleep,” he mouths. Castiel nods and does just that.
Castiel is awoken by the sound of Slade ft. Gabriel Milton. As far as alarm clocks go, it’s one he would very much like to hit to turn off.
“Everybody’s having fun- except Castiel, who needs to get his lazy butt off the sofa and open his presents!” Gabriel belts out, dancing around Cas and prodding him in time with the music.
Cas and Luke and Michael and Anna are delicate creatures, that feel hurt deeply and hold grudges in their hearts. Gabe, in contrast, is the human equivalent of a bouncy rubber ball, purchased from vending machines by children with the desire to drive everyone around them insane. Gabriel, Cas knows, will be fine.
At another time, Cas might take some comfort in that. Another time. When his head wasn’t pounding like something’s about to burst, and he’s not worried that he’s going to vomit over the Christmas tree, and he’s not recovering from the first hangover he’s ever had. This is his third time waking up in eight hours, and it’s the worst yet.
Castiel forces his eyes open and considers that excellent progress. Anna crouches down by him, and he turns his head to face her.
“Hey, Steely,” she sings quietly. Despite the near-death state of his body, Castiel’s lips twitch into a smile.
“You haven’t called me that in years.”
“Funny, huh? I used to call you it all the time.”
“I hated it.”
He has to chuckle. “Merry Christmas, Anna.”
“Merry Christmas.” She leans in and carefully loops her arms around his neck, and he gains enough control of his limbs to pull her into a loose hug. Her hair tickles his face, and she lets him go.
“You look like shit,” she says, looking him up and down. “How do you feel?”
“I have reason to believe I died at some point during the night.”
She chuckles. “Yeah, my first hangover was a bitch.”
“You were fourteen.”
“I know, I started late. Work on staying conscious and I’ll make you some coffee.”
“You’re too kind to me,” he murmurs.
“Only because I’ve seen there’s a present with my name on it under the tree. If it’s not any good, I’m throwing the coffee over you.”
She leaves his side, and Castiel drags himself up. It’s barely even seven o’clock. Christmas is one of the few times of year when the rest of the world operates on his time scale. It’s a shame, because just this once, he really doesn’t think he’d mind sleeping until midday. Everyone’s in their pyjamas- except him, that is, who passed out fully clothed. Castiel Milton, this is your life.
“So?” Gabriel says expectantly, plopping himself down by Castiel.
“What about it?”
“Where is it? What is it? How much was it? Do you still have the receipt?”
“Do you really have that little faith in me?”
“Castiel,” Gabriel says, in his ‘cut-the-bullshit’ tone. “Present.”
“Under the tree,” he says, and Gabriel scuttles off to collect it. When Cas looks over Gabe gives him a thumbs-up, beaming around the Frisbee of sugar stuck in his mouth. He got that one right, then.
The coffee helps. The happy light in Michael’s eyes upon receiving his gift helps (Michael always appreciates ‘a good pair of socks’), as does the mixture of revulsion and delight on Luke’s face upon receiving The Sweater Of Unspeakable Horror. He looks like he doesn’t know whether to smack Castiel around the head or to hug him like a proud father.
Cas himself receives books from everybody but Gabriel, who gives him an invention from somewhere around the fourth layer of Hell. The tie plays a tinny version of ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ when squeezed, as Gabriel delights in showing them until Anna threatens to stuff him in the washing machine.
Sam hovers at the door until Michael spies him and invites him in. He sits on the side-lines watching them exchange gifts, waiting for Dean to get up, and very pointedly not looking at Gabriel. Gabriel continues to ogle him, apparently deciding he now has nothing to lose.
Dean’s the last to arrive. Everybody (bar Michael) is suffering from some level of hangover, but Dean’s seems worse than most. He leans against the doorframe and shields his eyes.
“Friggin’ lights,” he mutters.
“Happy Christmas to you too,” Sam snorts. Dean flips him off and sits down heavily next to him.
“Under the tree,” Dean says. “Get mine too.”
“You make it so special,” Sam says, but he fetches the presents all the same. “Merry Christmas, jerk.”
They’ve exchanged what appears to be a mixture of candy and pornography. Gabriel shoots an offended glare at every family member in order, as if to say ‘why are none of you that awesome?’
Cas looks down at his book when Dean walks in, and he doesn’t look up again until the clock hits 8:30. The instant the numbers change, Michael morphs from ‘in a warm bubble of Christmas cheer’ to ‘overworked housewife in a room of crying infants’. He leads everybody into the kitchen and begins to delegate tasks.
“Peel!” he announces, armed with a huge sack of potatoes and a large bowl. “Cut into large dice, put in bowl, do not drop. You and you,” he orders, pointing at the two people closest to him. Anna and Sam look at each other, smile, and take their assigned duty.
“Make stuffing!” he commands Luke and Gabe, gesturing towards a turkey that’s so large it probably has its own national anthem. “Stuff turkey with stuffing! Do not let Gabriel near the knives!”
“Michael, I’m eighteen years old.”
“Do not let Luke near the knives!”
“I’m really not sure you’ve thought this through,” Luke says.
“No one near the knives!” Michael says hysterically. Anna pats him gently on the arm.
“Nobody will be going near any knives,” she reassures him. He gives her a thankful nod before shooing her and Sam off to begin work.
“Carrots, parsnips, yes, peel, yes, chop. Carrots into circles, parsnips into batons, yes?” he says, looking at Castiel fiercely.
“Yes! You too,” he throws at Dean.
But Dean nods and grabs the ludicrous quantity of parsnips, leaving Cas to take the other pan, and Michael disappears before Cas can pull him aside and quietly enquire about making a switch.
“We’d probably better get out of the kitchen,” Dean says. The space isn’t huge, and it’s a good idea not to try and keep out of the way. “Ideas?”
They end up sat on the lounge floor because, somewhere, there’s a thesaurus which lists ‘sofa’ as a synonym for ‘trash can’. It looks like Cas is going to be sleeping on top of about forty sheets of wrapping paper tonight. For now, he and Dean sit side by side- Cas cross-legged and straight backed, Dean slouching against the wall with his legs stretched out front of him- and they get to work.
At first, they stay in silence. Cas balances the chopping board on his lap and devotes a zealous level of attention into slicing carrots.
He’s reaching for the third one when, across from him, Dean puts his own board down. Still staring straight ahead, he says, “so do we need to talk about last night?"
“I don’t know,” Cas answers curtly.
“Thanks, that’s helpful.”
“What do you want me to say?” Cas frowns. “What is there to talk about?”
Silence. “Okay, fine, whatever. Just tell me this, Cas: have I got this all wrong? Am I imagining something that’s not actually there?”
Cas doubts that Dean is confessing to some form of psychosis, but he’s not quite sure what Dean is suggesting. “Like what?”
“Are you serious?” Dean says in disbelief. “Listen, if you’re not interested in me, that’s fine- but tell me, don’t screw me around.”
“I’m not ‘screwing you around’,” Cas says angrily.
“Then answer the damn question.”
“Are you interested in me?”
“Yes,” Cas snaps, turning his head towards Dean in time to see his eyes grow soft and wide in surprise. Cas looks away again.
“Yeah?” Dean says warily.
“Okay.” A few more seconds of silence. “Same.”
“What do you mean, same?”
“What do you think?”
Cas knows what he hopes, but he’s not sure it’s what Dean means.
“So do we need to talk about this?” Dean asks again. “About- I don’t know, fuck it- us?”
“I don’t know!” Cas says defensively. “In case you’d forgotten, Dean, I’m pretty new to this.”
Dean doesn’t reply, and when Cas glances at him he sees Dean’s lips curving with a soft smile.
“What?" Cas says aggressively, wondering if he’s being mocked.
“You’re still so damn innocent,” Dean says. “And it’s still so damn cute.”
Dean meets his gaze and holds it for the first time since last night, and the anger drains from Cas like water through a sieve. His entire world is Dean’s eyes, warm and twinkling with a mischievous light, and there’s nobody else in the lounge. He’s a handspan away from Cas, maybe less, and it’d be so, so easy to lean in and seal the distance again. Dean’s clearly had the same idea, his gaze flickering down to Cas’ lips, and a shudder passes through Castiel at the way Dean looks at him.
But then Cas’ attention is drawn randomly, inexplicably, to the empty mug from where Anna made him coffee earlier, and he can’t do it. He can’t. He pulls back, averting his eyes and retrieving the pan of half-peeled vegetables.
Cas swallows. “We’d better get back to work,” he says, his voice hoarse.
“Okay,” Dean says, in a ‘whatever you say’ kind of way. Cas can’t tell if he’s disappointed or relieved; if he doesn’t care or if he’s pissed beyond belief.
As Cas focuses on peeling carrots, he’s suddenly punched in the face by ‘same’. Dean said ‘same’. Dean feels the same way he does. Cas is attracted to his sister’s boyfriend, and his sister’s boyfriend is attracted right on back, and all the while his older and younger brothers are pursuing their sister’s boyfriend’s younger brother and seriously, when did this become his life? When people at college claim their Christmas was stressful, Cas is just going to stare at them until they leave the room.
They finish their job and are quickly shepherded onto the next one by Michael. Every year, Michael attempts to run things with military precision, and every year, Luke and Gabriel decide to be the landmine that fucks everybody’s day up. In their defence, Cas imagines it must have taken a great deal of time and talent to sculpt that many vegetables into phalluses.
Michael doesn’t seem to notice, and he turns a blind eye to the various cakes and cookies and pastries they sneak out in their pockets, but he draws a line when Gabriel attempts to put christmas lights in the microwave ‘to see what happens’. Gabe and Luke find themselves reassigned to setting the table, with Cas being told to watch them. Only in their house would setting a table require supervision.
“Wanna make placeholders?” Gabe says, glancing at Luke.
“You know what? I think I do.”
Rather than try and find card or paper, they decide to be ‘a little more creative’. Cas follows them around the house but they keep splitting up and disappearing on him, and he soon decides that it’s easier to simply let them get on with it. He devotes his attention to replacing all of the Disney character spoons with silver ones instead. He finds a ‘happy new year!’ banner in a drawer and makes a disgusted noise at it. December’s been bad enough, thank you; the New Year is going to be terrible.
The morning passes in something of a blur, which keeps Cas out of his own head and out of the company of others. At about one o’clock, they start to gather in the dining room. Whilst Cas is relatively certain the large Venus fly trap in the middle of the table had been a vase of lilies this morning, Luke and Gabe don’t seem to have done anything too catastrophe-inducing.
“Yeah, there’s a seating plan,” Gabe says before anyone can sit down. “Should be pretty clear.”
Luke and Gabriel have chosen to represent themselves using a guitar pick and a Whoopee cushion respectively, but that’s about as appropriate as the talismans get.
“Gabriel,” Anna says in a quiet and dangerous voice. “Why is there a pair of my underwear on that chair?”
“Because that’s where you’re supposed to sit,” he explains patiently.
“I don’t even-” she hisses, before snatching up the pink silk and crumpling it in her hand. In the corner, Sam’s turned the colour of a fire engine, and is currently attempting to shrink several inches in size.
“Well, you are the only girl,” Luke says. “Cool it, sis. It’s just a joke.”
Anna shoots him a brief death glare before relenting. “I may be the only girl, but I know for a fact that I’m not the only one here who’s worn panties.”
“Oh, come on! That was one time!” Gabe objects.
Michael’s placeholder is a hammer (“because they’re both tools. Do you think he’ll get it?” “I sincerely hope not.”). They have to point Sam towards his seat.
“What are they?” Sam asks, picking up one of the shrivelled pink berries sitting in front of him and examining it.
“What, you never set foot inside a Trader Joe’s?” Gabe says, crinkling his nose. “They’re goji berries, Jamie Oliver.”
“Oh, very little of interest,” Luke says smoothly. “Very high in vitamin A, excellent for brain health- and, of course, a potent aphrodisiac.” Castiel inhales half a glass of water.
Dean arrives after everybody else, having helped Michael carve the turkey, and immediately identifies his own place. After all, Anna’s already found her seat, and the Cosmo article ‘Is Your Boyfriend Gay?’ couldn’t really have been meant for anyone else.
“Do you understand yours, Cas?” Luke says cheerily.
“I think so,” Castiel says with forced politeness. He’s shoved the tiny golden star under his plate, lest anyone notice it and question its relevance.
“I noticed you slept clutching it, that was all,” Luke says sweetly. “You dropped it when you woke up. I thought you might like it back.”
When Castiel finally dies from a stress-related heart attack, he wants the coroner to list ‘Luke Milton’ under ‘cause of death’. He doesn’t dare look at Dean, staring down at his plate until Michael demands their help with carrying things and Cas makes his escape.
It should be, by all means and measures, the single most awkward experience of their collective lives. Sam and Gabriel should be squirming, Michael and Luke should pitch a fight over how Michael always sits at the head of the table and, as for Cas and Dean, they shouldn’t even be able to sit in the same room- let alone one with Anna in it.
But somehow, it works. Somehow, it doesn’t matter that Gabe put food colouring in the mashed potatoes so they’re a strange shade of blue, or that Luke’s wearing a shirt that says ‘cunnilinguist’, or that Michael insists everyone say grace. Anna’s playing that godforsaken Christmas album again, and whilst Cas is almost certain he’s memorised the track listing by now, he finds himself slowly filling with a warm glow.There’s something about it all- the sweet lilt of Anna’s voice as she sings under her breath, the look of genuine happiness on Michael’s face, the way Sam smacks Dean’s hand when he tries to steal things from his plate and then passes him double the amount of whatever he was trying to take- that makes it all okay.
Dean eats the most- Cas genuinely hadn’t thought a stomach could hold that much- with Anna drawing a very close second and matching him drink for drink. The Milton brothers refrain from competing; they’ve long since learned it’s not worth trying to outdrink Anna. Cas avoids the alcohol, deciding his most recent foray isn’t one worth repeating.
Once they’ve had dessert- and Dean has proved that no matter how full a person is, they can still make room for pie- most of them enter the standard Post-Christmas-Food-Coma. Gabe and Luke crash straight on the lounge floor, with Michael taking the slightly more classy option of falling asleep in an armchair. Sam offers to wash up, but Anna persuades him that it isn’t necessary. He ends up curling up in front of the TV instead, volume down low, and Cas spots the opening to ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.
“Warned you,” Dean mouths at Cas, his own eyelids half-closed. Cas smirks and leaves him, tiptoeing up to his room (Sam's asleep, so Cas thinks it's safe to temporarily borrow back the space). Anna, having a metabolism that would make Michael Phelps weep with jealousy, joins him a few minutes later.
“Hey,” she greets him. In her hands is a slim box, wrapped in silver paper. “You ready?”
“Of course,” he says, shyly offering her his own painstakingly-wrapped green package. Too many gift exchanges that dissolved into screaming matches have led them to develop their own private ritual. The sweater she’s bought him is a deep shade of blue and one of the softest things he’s ever felt.
“Thank you,” he tells her, and he means it. She grins and opens her own gift. He really, really hopes he chose right; he never knows what to buy anybody. Her eyes fill with wonder when she lifts it from its wrapping, though, and he doesn’t even have to tell her to be careful with it.
“Castiel,” she chuckles softly. “Only you.”
“Is it okay?”
“I can’t even believe you remembered.” He finds that almost strange- how could he not? Every time Anna had a nightmare and wanted reassurance, every time Michael or their father was screaming and Luke was screaming right on back, Cas would get a knock at his door and find Anna quivering, determined to keep a brave face. They would find some nook or cranny- sometimes in the house, sometimes sat at the end of the garden in the midst of the frost or rain- and he would read to her. There was one book that she loved above all others, one book which could make everything okay, and he doesn’t understand how she thinks he could ever forget something so important.
“The Wind In The Willows,” she reads aloud. “How old is this copy?”
“Early 1900s,” he says. She carefully opens it and runs a finger over one of the ink illustrations.
“How much did you pay for this?”
“A substantial amount.” More than substantial, actually. He’d lived on instant ramen for two weeks. The sweater looks expensive too, and he makes a mental note never to wear it around Alfie, a man so clumsy he’s one dropped coffee pot away from being forced to wear a bib.
“Thank you,” she says, her words heartfelt. She sets the book carefully aside and takes a deep breath. Castiel’s brow furrows.
“There’s something else,” she says. Something heavy settles in Cas’ gut. He knows what this is about, and he knows that it’s too late to try denying it. His baby sister knows him better than anybody else on the planet, and he’s not about to insult her by trying to lie.
“Dean,” he murmurs. Anna nods.
“Did he tell you how we got together?” she says.
Cas doesn’t think “you were a one-night stand that stuck around” is the right thing to say here. “Some of it,” he says carefully.
“Like I told you, I met him when he fixed my car. I offered to buy him dinner to make up for it, and he said he wouldn’t let me pay, but that he’d pick me up at eight all the same. He was so funny, Cas, and so charming. I stayed the night, and he left in the morning without asking for my number. I didn’t realise what that meant. I was so naïve, I thought he’d just been in a hurry.”
“That wasn’t kind of him,” Cas frowns.
“No, it wasn’t like that. I didn’t try and give him it- I didn’t even bother leaving it when I went. I just kind of assumed that we’d meet up again at some point, that it was bound to happen. It was only when I saw how shocked he was to see me for the second time that I realised I’d read things wrong. I don’t know why he even agreed to a second date.”
“It didn’t work,” she says. “Within a week, I knew it wasn’t going to work. But I wanted it to, I so badly wanted it to, so I kept on pretending everything was fine. The more he distanced himself, the more I chased after him. That’s the only reason I invited him this Christmas- I hoped that maybe, away from the college and all that stress, things might be different. He said yes, but I think that was only because he saw how upset I got when he tried to say no. It was so stupid, but I couldn’t help it. He makes me clingy and desperate and I’m not usually like that, Cas. I’m not.”
“I know,” he comforts her. She swallows, reassured, and continues.
“And I’m not an idiot, I know that it’s nothing personal- we’re just not meant to be together. No matter how hard you cram two puzzle pieces together, you can’t make them fit. I’d already decided that if this didn’t work out- if, after Christmas, things still weren’t right- I was going to end it. Do the grown-up thing.” Anna raises glistening eyes to meet his. “And then he met you.”
Cas just looks at her, lost for words.
“It was like a penny dropping. The first time I saw the way he looked at you, I knew.”
“The way he looked at me?” Cas says. He had thought Anna was going to talk about the way Cas won’t leave Dean alone, had thought he was the one at blame here.
“God, Cas, don’t you see it? He looks at you like you’re everything he’s ever wanted, like you’re some angel sent from Heaven just for him. He spent the whole of the evening he arrived asking questions about you whilst trying to pretend he wasn’t asking questions about you.”
Cas tries to turn that over in his head, carefully pushing it this way and that. He remembers when he first saw Dean’s face, can picture it- does picture it- whenever he closes his eyes. It was snowing outside and Cas had been reading a very good book, one he swore he wouldn’t put down until it was finished, and when he went to bed that night he couldn’t even recall the main character’s name.
Love at first sight. How nauseatingly applicable.
“I’m breaking up with Dean,” Anna says.
“What?” Cas says, his head snapping towards her. “Anna, no.”
“Why not? It’s making him miserable and driving me insane, and that’s not fair on either of us.”
“It’s Christmas,” he objects.
“Exactly, so let me give you this. You and Dean are meant to be together, Cas, anybody can see that. I want to give you something that you really, truly want, and I think you want to be with him.”
“Anna, no. This is… too much to ask of you,” Cas says.
“Which is why you’d never ask it,” she says. She looks back to the book at her side. “My big brother,” she murmurs. “Always trying to make it all okay.”
“One day I’ll manage it,” he says, with more bitterness than he intended.
“Steely,” she says, with a fierce kind of affection, “you’ve never failed yet.”
Sam tells Castiel that he can hang out in his old room whenever he wants, and Cas makes good use of the privilege. The world leaves him be until early evening, when Michael sticks his head around the door.
“Charades,” he says enthusiastically.
“No,” Cas says. Michael glances around and comes into the room, shutting the door behind him. Cas represses the urge to bury his face in the duvet. The last thing he needs is a heart-to-heart with Michael.
“I’m sorry,” Michael blurts out. Castiel stares.
“For fighting. With Luke. You were right. It’s… not fair. On you. Any of you.” Michael is delivering his speech in short, clipped phrases, like if he has to think about the thing as a whole his brain will come pouring out his ears.
“Oh,” Cas says- and then “oh” again. “
“I blamed Luke,” Michael says, fiddling with his jacket. Michael’s the oldest and tallest of all of them- dark where Luke is blond, broad where Gabriel is slight, charismatic where Castiel is awkward and stubborn where Anna is open-minded- but he right now, he looks like a child confessing they broke something expensive. “Every time. I never considered that… I mean, it’s never as bad during the year because we very rarely have to spend time together… and it’s not that I don’t love him, it’s just that-”
“I know,” Castiel says. “Thank you, Michael.”
Michael gives a firm nod, glad to be absolved and very glad to get to stop talking. “Oh, and Castiel?”
“I’ve known you were attracted to Dean since the day he arrived,” Michael says. “And if I’ve noticed it, that means it’s no small thing.”
“Michael, I don’t want to talk about this.”
“Believe me, neither do I. I only wanted to say that I hope it works out- whatever ‘it’ is.” Michael scuffs his foot awkwardly against the floor. “You’re a good kid, Castiel.”
“Thank you,” Cas says again, significantly less sure of whether he means it this time. Michael nods a final time, and then opens the door.
“Charades?” he says, looking at Cas. Cas considers this.
“I’ll come and watch,” he says, and the happy surprise that lights up Michael’s face brings a grudging smile to Cas' lips.
Watching Sam play charades is bizarrely comparable to watching a giraffe attempt to walk a tight-rope. It involves a lot of arm flailing and a lot of breaking down into hysterical laughter whenever anybody makes eye contact with him. Dean still manages to guess it every single time, to the point where Gabriel starts demanding they throw him in a lake to check if he floats.
Anna and Luke are on opposite teams and both alarmingly good, Michael wrote out the suggestions and so isn’t allowed to play, and Dean is hopeless but enthusiastic. When Cas somehow manages to guess Dean’s terrible depiction of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, Sam and Luke insist that he join their team on the promise that he won’t have to act anything out.
It’s fun. It shouldn’t be, but somehow, it is.
“Do you give up?” Gabriel says gleefully as he watches Dean’s team flounder. Everybody is looking at Cas pointedly, but he’s as lost as they are.
“It’s a TV show,” he says plaintively. “I don’t watch TV.”
“You absolute liar, Castiel Milton,” Anna says, sounding appalled. “I know for a fact that you have seen every episode of Ace Of Cakes.”
“That show is excellent,” Castiel defends.
“You all suck,” Dean declares. Castiel’s inexplicable penchant for awful daytime reality television aside, he’s hopeless at guessing TV shows, and they do eventually give up.
“Have you really not heard of ‘Desperate Housewives’?” Dean asks in disbelief as he sits down heavily next to Cas.
“I’d heard the phrase,” Cas grumbles, shifting up to make room. “I just assumed people were strangely invested in the lives of stay-at-home mothers in their area.”
Dean laughs at that, laughs hard and long, and whilst Cas hadn’t intended it to be funny he can’t help but feel proud. Sam gets up, takes a piece of paper, looks at what he’s supposed to be acting out and his mouth falls open.
“Oh, come on!” he says in disbelief. “How do I do that?”
“I don’t suppose there are any pornography titles in there, are there?” Luke murmurs to Gabe out the side of his mouth.
“More’s the pity.”
Sam takes the floor and Dean tilts his head to speak into Cas’ ear.
“I’m not a praying man, but I’m thinking now would be a good time to start.”
Sam’s already giggling and he hasn’t even started acting yet. Gabe and Luke bicker good-naturedly as Michael watches the scene unfold with a contented look and Anna hums happily along with her awful, deplorable, life-ruining Christmas CD. Cas realises that somehow, despite everything, this has been one of the best Christmases he can remember.
(After fourteen solid minutes of unsuccessful guessing, Sam reads the slip he picked out loud.
“1984- and no, you can’t do the numbers on your hands.”)
After half an hour or so, Cas makes his leave. He had a good time, sure, but there’s still a cap on the amount of socialisation he can handle in one go, and he doesn’t feel like pushing it. Sam and Michael wave merrily as he goes, Anna and Dean both say “good night”, and Luke and Gabe completely ignore him in favour of trying to sneak their own slips of paper into the bag of suggestions. Castiel would wager a good proportion of his life savings on some variation of ‘Casa Erotica’ being in there.
He faces the same issue as yesterday: he’s just left the one place he can go. Cas doesn't want to use his old room when Sam might want to go to sleep soon, and he doesn’t feel brave enough to venture into Anna’s room just yet. Gabriel’s room genuinely terrifies him and he’s not about to go barging into Michael’s or their father’s, so that leaves somewhere downstairs or the attic. The entire lower half of the house is flooded with upbeat music and cackles and cries from the lounge, so the attic it is.
He picks his way over various piles of books and videos- and seriously, what on Earth is that?- to a floor-level window at the far end of the attic. Propping himself up in the corner where wall meets wall, he slides to the floor and splays a hand against the glass. Outside, the snow has stopped, replaced with a slow ooze of rain. Cas closes his eyes and listens to the hushed pour of raindrops.
About ten minutes later, he hears footsteps behind him. He doesn’t bother moving.
“So much for a white Christmas.”
“I don’t mind,” Cas replies. “I like the rain.” He opens his eyes. Dean sits down opposite him, crossing legs underneath him.
“It is pretty relaxing,” Dean admits. “And dude, I frickin’ love storms.”
“Storms are incredible,” Cas agrees. “Michael used to have to lock the doors during them because me and Anna would go outside and play in them.”
“You were badass kids.”
“We’re fairly badass adults.”
“You swore,” Dean says, with a look of shock and delight. “Well, if you count ‘ass’ as a swearword. Is ‘ass’ a swear word?”
“I don’t recommend saying it in church.”
Dean nods, pulling a ‘fair enough’ face before growing serious.
“Me and Anna broke it off,” he says. “Early this afternoon, she came and found me and we talked. It’s over.”
That means they’d already split up by the game of charades. You wouldn’t have guessed, Cas thinks. He tilts his head to press his cheek against the window, staring out into the darkness.
“Why?” he says tightly.
“It wasn’t working. It’s never worked. She said ‘we need to talk’ and I knew, right away, what she was gonna say, because it was just what I didn’t have the balls to.”
“Is she okay?”
“I think so.”
“She liked you a lot.”
“I know. I liked her, just… not in the same way.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.”
They sit in silence for a little while, Cas trying to digest the new information. He has no idea if it’s supposed to change things- if so, how much, in what way, and when does said change come into effect? He wonders if there was some kind of ‘Terms and Conditions’ thing that he blindly clicked ‘Agree’ on a few years back that would have explained this all.
“Does your brother have a thing for Sam?” Dean asks out of nowhere.
“Gabriel or Luke?” Cas asks without thinking. “Or Michael,” he adds hastily. “Or Anna.”
“Cas, Anna’s a girl.”
“I know. I thought, uh- I don’t know. Words,” he says helplessly. “Other words.”
Dean stares at him incredulously, but then breaks down into laughter. “Holy crap,” he says. “Gabriel? Are you telling me I could end up with Gabe as a brother-in-law? I’m pretty sure he put chili in my coffee this morning.”
“Which is precisely why I always make my own.”
“I did. He stuck it in there when I wasn’t looking.”
“You should feel lucky. Last year it was laxatives.”
“Oh, ‘cause that’d be awesome,” Dean says in disgust. “I swear, I could spend the rest my life trying to understand your family, and I still wouldn’t frickin’ get there.”
“If you ever do manage it, please let me know.” Cas pauses. “Have you been trying?”
“I’ve… formed some ideas,” Dean shrugs.
“Are you sure? They’ve not all exactly flattering.”
“You asked for it. So uh, Gabriel is some trickster kid who strays way too close to crossing the line, and Luke is the trickster kid who can’t even see the line anymore. Anna’s five hundred pounds of badass in a hundred-and-twenty pound body, and Michael’s like some seriously overworked fire fighter who hasn’t figured out he started half the goddamn fires.”
“True, true, true and true,” Cas says, nodding slowly. He swallows. “And me?”
“You?” Dean says. “You really wanna know?”
“Yes,” he says simply. Dean nods.
“Okay. Uh, you don’t normally drink, and you don’t wear jeans or t-shirts, and I seriously don’t know why you’re not at Harvard because you’re so friggin’ intelligent you’d probably break the IQ scale. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t point to the engine on a car and you’ve probably never heard of half the bands I listen to, and I’m goddamn certain I won’t recognise any of what you like. You talk like you’re writing an essay and you hate most people. Or are scared of them. Either. Both.”
Dean licks his lips and shifts forward slightly. “And you love your family, and you love to read, and your eyes crease here-” he touches the corner of his eye “-when you smile. Your laugh is stupidly infectious and you’ve been in my head every damn second since I met you. I’ve known you for- what, five days?- but it feels like I’ve known you for years. I can’t imagine leaving here tomorrow and never talking to you again. I don’t even want to think about that.”
“Why did you leave that star on my pillow?” Cas says, the words slipping from his lips without his consent.
“So I’d stop taking the damn thing out of my bag just to hold it.”
“Why did you keep it in the first place?”
“Why do you think?” Dean’s moved closer- or maybe Cas has, he’s not sure. The gap between them was definitely bigger a few seconds ago.
“Would I ask if I knew?”
“Too many questions there, Cas.” Dean’s voice is intimate, quiet, a soft drawl like syrup.
“One more.” He ducks his eyes briefly away from Dean’s, looks up and finds him even closer. “What happened yesterday- as you said, with the mistletoe.” They’re both kneeling now, legs folded beneath them, close enough together that Cas can see Dean’s eyelashes- no snow on them this time, he thinks. “Do we need to talk about that?”
“No,” Dean breathes, and then, somehow, they’re kissing.
Cas’ arms wrap as tightly around Dean as they can go. Dean’s own hands are splayed on the ground, pressing against the floor for leverage as his lips move over Cas’, claiming his mouth with slow, languid movements. It’s not as frantic as it was before, more of a slow discovery than a desperate outpouring, a beginning rather than an end.
Mine, Castiel breathes into the kiss, the thought coming out of nowhere but somehow fitting perfectly. Dean’s teeth graze his lower lip and his breath hitches and he thinks it again; mine.
Cas shifts backwards, his back pressed against the wall as his legs stretch out. Dean moves forwards with him, planting one thigh on either side of Cas to straddle his legs. He breaks away and hesitates for a moment, looking into Cas’ eyes, a silent question of ‘is this okay?’. And it’s more than okay, it’s right- like this is everything Cas was built for, like it’s everything he’s ever wanted- and so he answers by grabbing Dean’s shirt and closing the gap. Dean moans into his mouth, grips the side of Cas’ face with one hand and kisses him hard, kisses him like he doesn’t ever mean to stop.
“Castiel,” comes the weak voice. “Castiel, help us."
“What time is it?” he mumbles into the arm of the sofa.
“It’s half seven. I- I think we’re all dead.”
“Can’t your resurrection be postponed?” Cas groans. He’d already been semi-awake, but he’d been hoping for a few hours of peace while his family slept off their Satan-delivered hangovers. No such luck.
“Make us breakfast.”
“You’re the only one to do it, Cas. You’re the chosen one.”
“Go back to sleep, Gabriel.”
“I can’t,” he groans. Cas opens his eyes and looks out across the lounge, which reminds him of some hideous indoor festival. The floor is littered with wrapping paper, glasses, burst balloons, and- much to his chagrin- various family members.
He doesn’t know what time it was when he and Dean came back downstairs the night before. They’d spent a long time together, alternating between kissing and talking and sitting side-by-side and just being. Dean, Cas is finding, is good with silence. When Cas wants to be quiet, Dean doesn’t push him to talk, but he has a way of drawing conversation out of Cas all the same.
Cas thinks that he could probably spend a very long time in Dean’s company and be okay with it, and that’s a frightening prospect. The good kind of frightening, though- unlike the kind associated with having to see Anna.
The worst part, he thinks, the absolute worst part, is that he can’t even bring himself to regret it. Sure, there’s some guilt there, but when he catches sight of the familiar curve of Dean’s body, lying face down on the floor with his face pressed into a pillow, the warmth that floods him swamps everything else.
Whatever time it was last night when Cas and Dean finally re-joined the land of the living, it was late enough that a good deal of the others had gone to sleep. Luke and Gabe had both decided the lounge would do, and whilst the others had found their way to rooms upstairs, they weren’t all in the right ones. Dean had no idea where Anna had gone and no idea where he was supposed to go, so he’d settled for the floor (after point blank refusing to take Cas’ place on the sofa). Right now, Dean and Luke are still asleep, and Gabriel is the one croaking out requests like a man on Death Row.
“Cas,” Gabriel says again, miserably. Cas, who still hasn’t taken his eyes off of Dean, decides that he needs all the good karma he can get and rolls onto his feet. He hasn’t even made it to the door when it’s flung open and somebody comes stumbling in.
“Hey,” Sam says breathlessly. “Uh, is Dean around?”
Cas gestures wordlessly behind him. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s just, um. Jess. She called me,” Sam said.
“Last night. At like, 5AM or something. I didn’t pick up, but I woke up at like seven and got the missed call, so I phoned back-”
“At 7AM?” Gabriel says incredulously, words still muffled by the sofa. Sam carries on talking.
“- and she was saying that she thinks she made a mistake, and that she wants us to get back together.”
“What did you say to her?” Cas asks, though the sheepish look on Sam’s face gives him a fair hint.
“I said we’d talk,” he says, surprising Cas a little. “I said there were some things that we need to talk through, so sheasked if I could get to hers, and I said yeah.”
“Soon,” Sam says. “There’s a train I can get, so…” He looks awful- pale and shaking, and Cas is relatively sure he’s vomited in the past five minutes. “I’ll go soon.”
“Would you like to stay and have breakfast?”
“God, yes,” he says, with the level of gratitude normally reserved for life-saving medical procedures.
“I heard ‘breakfast’,” Dean shouts, face still buried in the cushion. “Cas, is intravenous bacon a thing yet?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“I hate my life,” Dean groans into the floor. Cas looks at him fondly, the hint of a smile tugging at his lips. When he turns back to Sam, he’s somewhere between satisfied and smug, like he doesn’t know whether to hug Cas or high-five him. Cas sincerely hopes he attempts neither.
Cas cooks a truly ridiculous quantity of bacon due to a prediction that’s soon proved correct: the smell wafting up the stairs acts as a kind of pied-piper tune, drawing every person in the house out of their beds and into the kitchen. Michael doles out aspirin and Anna makes coffee that Cas has to stop Gabe from putting whiskey in, because at some point that has to start being considered a problem.
Nobody says much, but they demolish enough bacon to make Babe the endangered species poster child, and it’s about half an hour before Cas actually gets to sit down himself.
“Hey,” Dean says with a small smile, looking up from the dregs of his coffee.
“Hello,” Cas replies, unconsciously shifting a little closer. There’s not much more he can do, not with everybody (including Anna, the guilt centre of his brain delights in reminding him) in the room. He keeps catching Dean’s eye, and every time he does, he has to remind himself not to beam like an idiot. He’s apparently become a love-struck twelve year old girl, and that concerns him. If he starts swooning, he’ll have to put himself on testosterone supplements.
Sam decides to get the train leaving at eleven, and Dean offers to drive him to the station. While they pack up Sam’s stuff, Cas is left to tidy up the landfill site that’s busily pretending to be a lounge. Luke swans in at about ten o’clock, and Cas braces himself for what he knows is coming.
“Hello, Luke,” he says tiredly.
“You and Dean,” Luke says smoothly, wasting no time.
“What about us?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to acknowledge that I’m right! I’m guessing you didn’t have sex, because that doesn’t seem like you- not to mention you’re still walki-”
“Luke, in the name of all that is good and holy, I am begging you not to finish that sentence.”
“C’mon, little bro. You two are an item, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Cas says, perfectly honestly. He picks up an armful of rubbish and heads towards the kitchen. “He and Anna broke up yesterday, Luke. That’s hardly a sufficient refractory period.”
“But if he broke up with her for you,” Luke presses, following him out. “Then that’s different.”
“That isn’t what happened. Anna was the one to terminate their relationship.”
“Yeah, so he could be with you.”
“Am I? Was it you she came to at some stupid hour of night confessing how guilty she felt?”
“Guilty?” Cas stops in his tracks. Luke, with the reflexes of a man unhealthily attached to video games, diverts his path to step smoothly around him.
“Guilty, and like a bad person, and like a bad sister and a bad friend, and about forty other negative adjectives. You and her are two peas in one self-denying, repressive little pod.”
“I don’t understand. What would Anna have to feel guilty for?”
“After you and Dean had your first date- that thing at the market,” he has to add when Cas’ brow furrows in confusion, “- apparently he was somewhat taken with you. She said, and I quote, that it was the ‘happiest she’d ever seen him’. She came and found me at about two in the morning- said she’d been lying awake next to him. I had a very long outpouring of how it hadn’t been working and how it could so clearly work with you two, and how she was a terrible person to get in the way of that, etcetera etcetera. They were on their way to breaking up, Cas, but you were one hell of a catalyst.”
Cas doesn’t know how to respond to that. The guilt curling in his stomach doubles, thickens, black smoke bumbling inside of him. He feels guilty for making Anna feel guilty. This is getting ludicrous.
“I need to talk with Anna,” he declares. He pushes the rubbish into Luke’s arms, who has the good grace to look surprised before Cas turns and heads up the stairs. He finds Anna in her old room.
“I sincerely hope the biohazard team have been and gone,” Cas says, edging his way in. They’ve had every window in the room open for days (Gabriel and Luke had approached that in a way that made guerrilla warfare teams seem slapdash), and despite the air being thick with the cloying scent of air-freshener, it’s bearable.
“I would attempt to get my own back,” Anna muses, “but I think we all learned our lesson after the guinea pig incident of ’08.”
“Anna, we swore on our mother’s grave to never discuss the guinea pig incident of ’08.”
Anna chuckles and slides her laptop shut. She pats the end of her bed, and Cas sits down. He might have seen her this morning, but they haven’t had a chance to talk until now.
“I’m guessing you’ve talked to Dean?” she asks, swinging around to sit by his side.
She nods. “And by talked, you mean…?”
She reads his answer in the way he averts his eyes. “Oh, Cas,” she says, and when he gets the courage to look back, she’s smiling- really, properly smiling.
“I knew it,” she says. “I knew things would work out for you two.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Anna, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she chides him. “I told you, this is what I want.”
“Luke told me what happened,” he says quietly.
“What about? Oh- oh God, no. Not that ridiculous soap-opera style breakdown?” she says, in the horrified tones of somebody who’s just checked their ‘Sent’ folder after a very long, very drunken night.
“You never should have felt bad,” he tells her fiercely. “Not for one single second.”
“Thank you,” she says. He can’t tell if she believes him, but her gratitude sounds sincere either way. “I feel better now, though. Now I know things are as they should be.”
“Why aren’t you angry at me?” he asks- and it doesn’t make much sense, but he’s getting frustrated. He thinks he’d feel better if she’d hit him, but that doesn’t seem to be on the cards.
“Why should I be?”
“I made you and Dean-”
“Not to be rude, Cas, but you couldn’t make me do anything if you tried,” she objects. This is true. The last time anybody tried to ‘make’ Anna do something, she was five years old, and she bit them until they gave up.
“You know what I mean,” he relents.
“Do I? It was what I wanted, Cas.”
“But you and him…”
“Weren’t working. You know that.”
“You loved him. You still love him,” Cas says, his final objection, the one that should mean more than anything else. Anna lets out a quiet sigh.
“I do. But he wasn’t happy with me, and I wasn’t okay with that. I love him, yes- and I love you, and that’s what you want for the people you love. For them to be happy.”
“You are,” he says slowly, “the most selfless individual I have ever had the good grace to encounter.”
“And the prettiest,” she agrees. “Now come on, you, that’s enough soul-baring for one day. What time are you leaving?”
The week’s passed quickly, Cas thinks. It’s probably the fastest he’s ever known a family Christmas go.
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” he admits. That’s unusual in itself; usually, he’s away by seven, eight at the latest. “You?”
“After lunch, I think. I’m staying with Ruby for a couple of days- we’re hitting the sales in a big way.”
“Don’t end up on the news again.”
“If that guy didn’t want his nose broken, he shouldn’t have gotten between Ruby and the last pair of heels.”
“… Anna, that was you.”
“I was kind of hoping you’d forget that."
The rain shows no intention of stopping just because people have places to go, and Sam and Dean are both wrapped in about five layers each.
“Dean, I can carry it myself,” comes a voice from upstairs.
“You’re not allowed to carry heavy things until you get your bangs cut. You’re one gust of wind away from taking a swan dive over the bannister.” Dean’s voice is faint, but unmistakable. Cas shakes his head and returns to his essay. He’s made excellent progress: he’s now on thirty-six words.
“Go on, then,” Gabriel says, with a heavy sigh. Luke blinks.
“He’s delusional enough to not want a piece of this, so I quit. I give in, I lost, whatever. This is your last chance before he runs back into the wholesome arms of Jessica ‘I’ve-Never-Started-A-Fire-In-A-Target-Bathroom-Stall’ Moore. Make your move, if you’re man enough.”
Luke considers this. “Nah,” he eventually says.
“Nah. With you out of the running, it’s just too easy. Whose face am I supposed to rub it in? Nah. That’s boring, li’l bro, and I don’t do boring.”
“You like him,” Gabriel accuses.
“So? So do you. Doesn’t mean one of us has to have him. I mean, you like chocolate milk, and I like chocolate milk, but if you died in a hideous accident I wouldn’t feel the compulsive need to drink every carton in existence.”
“That’s one hell of a grisly analogy, even for you.”
“I agree,” Cas says. “And it doesn’t even make sense.”
“That’s because it was just my way of letting Gabe know I drunk all the chocolate milk.” Luke rolls off the sofa, and the book Gabe was swinging towards his face sinks into the sofa cushions.
“Worst! Human being! In existence!” Gabriel shouts after Luke, who actually cackles.
Sam appears a few minutes later to say goodbye, wrapping Castiel in a hug that leaves Cas awkwardly patting Sam’s back and Dean trying not to snigger. Luke and Gabe both watch Sam leave, their eyes lingering a little longer than they really should.
Cas can’t help but think of Gabriel’s jibing as less of a challenge and more of a blessing, like he was giving his consent. And if Cas noticed the look of sheer thankfulness on Gabriel’s face after Luke ‘changed his mind’, then Luke certainly did. As Cas regards the two of them, he finds that Anna’s words from before swim to mind.
That’s what you want for the people you love. For them to be happy.
Apparently the Christmas spirit is getting to them all.
(That being said, Cas also notices that actually, Luke’s sweater seems a little too big for him. It’s not the one Cas bought, and he doesn’t remember seeing Luke in it before- it’s baggy and too long, and too… wholesome.
Cas thinks that, earlier this morning, Luke and Sam had been probably been alone together in a room for two or three minutes, and that Luke is very good at making his appeals sound like throwaway requests- all “I was wondering…” and “no real reason”.
And finally, Cas thinks- as he watches Sam open the car door and get in- that he doesn’t remember Sam owning a t-shirt with
‘I’M SO CHEERY
I SHIT RAINBOWS'
written across the back.)
Dean finds Cas in the attic again, back in his spot by the window.
“You like it here?” he asks, sitting down next to him.
“I used to come up here often as a child. I’d forgotten how much I like it.”
Dean sits next to him and covers Cas’ hand with his own. In the short space of time Castiel has been allowed to notice such things, he’s realised that Dean likes to touch him. Whether it’s the ghosting of a hand along the small of Cas’ back, or an arm thrown around his shoulders, or lips brushing against the hair at the back of Cas’ neck, Dean finds it hard to keep himself to himself.
Cas turns his hand so that he can link his fingers through Dean’s. As far as habits go, this is one he’s fully prepared to indulge.
“What time are you leaving?” Cas asks.
“… uh, about that,” Dean says. Cas shifts to look at him. “The plan was for me to go stay with Anna and Ruby, but for obvious reasons, that ain’t happening. I thought I’d go back with Sam, but that’s not happening either, so I guess I’m just going back to my flat. So yeah- whenever you go, probably.”
Cas hesitates. “How much of Luke and Gabriel can you put up with?”
“I was thinking of staying for a few extra days. I have nothing to hurry back to, and staying here this year has been… less awful an experience than is customary.”
“You’d let me stay a couple more days?”
“If you wanted.”
“That’d be awesome. Like, seriously awesome.”
“Hell yeah,” Dean breathes, and Cas wants to ask a question but somehow he ends up kissing Dean instead. He supposes it still involves lips.
“I get like, another three days of you,” Dean says when they finally break apart. “Just to warn you, I’m gonna spend most of it doing that.”
Somehow- miraculously, considering how dazed Cas is, all mussed hair and swollen red lips- enough remains of his earlier question for him to piece it back together.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?” he asks. “There’s another reason why you don’t want to go back.”
Dean stiffens, but then sighs and slumps. “I’m thinking of dropping out of college.”
“Now?” Cas knows that Dean hates college, knows he was considering it, but he doesn’t understand why Dean’s suddenly leapt into action. “What changed?”
“I know this is gonna make me sound so crappy, but I was with Anna when I didn’t really want to be, and now I’m out of that… it seems stupid to stay in something else that isn’t working, you know? Might as well go the whole hog. New year, new me, and all that crap.”
“What will you do instead?”
“There’s this place I mentioned before- a salvage yard- that a family friend owns. I was thinking of calling him and asking if he could hook me up with a job. He’ll probably chuck a dime my way once every three weeks and ride my ass the whole damn time, but it’s gotta be better than college. Even if it’s not, I’ll have tried, you know?”
“I do,” Cas murmurs. “Where is it?”
Dean names a location. Cas is starting to think that his entire life until this point has been one long session in purgatory, and now that he’s suffered for the mandated period of time, he’s being rewarded for his hard work.
“That’s less than thirty minutes from my college,” he says. Dean’s eyes light up.
“Are you serious?”
“I know a man named Inias who has family there. I’m positive.”
“So I could see you?” Dean says, his voice quiet but brimming with excitement.
“Definitely,” Cas confirms. A grin spreads over Dean’s face.
“Cas...” he says, “this could actually work out. Me and you, I mean.”
“You sound so shocked,” Cas muses. “Then again, you have reason. I have a pathological aversion to making phone calls, and I don’t think I’ve checked my emails since November.”
“I have a car.”
“You may need to use it.” Somehow, though, Cas doubts it. He can’t imagine forgetting Dean- rather, he worries he’ll forget that he has classes to attend. He decides not to think about it until he absolutely has to- after all, he has other things to get through first. Whilst he’d guess that Gabriel already knows he’s with Dean, he can’t be sure, and somebody’s going to need to tell Michael. At some stage. Probably.
“Is it weird that I didn’t buy you anything?” Dean asks out of nowhere. “For Christmas, I mean.”
“What?” Cas frowns. “No, of course not. Though, actually-” Cas slips a hand into his pocket and pulls something out. “Open your hand.”
“Dean.” Dean obliges, warily, and Cas presses something into his palm. “I thought you might like this back.”
“Yeah,” Dean says, sounding strangely choked up as he looks down at the tiny, glittering star. “Yeah, you were right about that.” And then he kisses Cas again, kisses him until Luke starts banging on the ceiling with a broomstick and shouting at the top of his voice that he knows Cas is up there, and if Cas is up there Dean must be up there too, and if that’s the case, do they need to borrow any lubricant?
“Luke, stop it!” Cas shouts downstairs as Dean splutters. “My brother,” he apologises to Dean, “is a terrible human being.”
“He is,” Dean agrees. “But you love him all the same.”
“I do,” Cas acknowledges.
“Winchester, quit violating my brother!”
“Bite me, Lucifer!” Dean shouts back down the stairs.
Cas smiles. It’s going to be a damn good year.