The sheer absurdity of the size of his bed is never so apparent as when Sam wakes up in it alone.
He must have shifted in his sleep, sprawling out across the vast expanse of rumpled, empty sheets in search of bodies no longer there. Waking from his daylong nap without the now-familiar tangle of limbs is disorienting, but voices drift through the open door and chase the last blur of sleep from his head. An indistinct rumble from somewhere deeper in the house that can only be Gabriel. Soft tinkling laughter like silver bells—Rowena.
Sam stretches, and rolls out of bed to find his family.
"I've don't think I've ever seen you covered in so much dirt."
The sometimes-queen-of-Hell glanced over her shoulder. One delicate brow arched in his direction, amused, before refocusing on her task. Sam sank to his knees in the soft earth, gaze fixed on the movements of her hands. She had the most beautiful hands of anyone he'd ever met. Small. Nimble. Belying their strength—much like the woman to whom they belonged. He watched her gather bundles of lavender between her long fingers, separating the stalks with deft strokes of a rune-inscribed blade.
She'd been at this for almost a week. Strings of herbs festooned the walls and countertops of their home, flowers and roots drying in the open air. They lent a green, earthy fragrance to the house that Sam had begun to associate in equal measure with mealtimes and with spellwork.
"Good witchcraft is often a dirty endeavor, Samuel." A length of twine curled around her wrist, and she unspooled it slowly as she worked, tying the bundles and depositing them in a neat pile at her side. Sweat beaded on her forehead in the summer heat, and the hand she scrubbed across her face succeeded only in smudging a long streak of dirt across her nose and cheek. "You should know that by now."
"I'll take your word for it," he laughed, and reached out to rub the dirt off the tip of her nose with his thumb.
She caught his hand in her own, turned her head to press her cheek against his palm. "We'll make a real witch out of you yet." Her smile curved sweet and warm against his skin, and her eyes sparkled with humor. "For now, be a dear and fetch a pail, if you don't mind."
He stood. The small garden behind their home was her domain—at her insistence, the others left the beds of herbs and wild tangles of greenery to the designs of her care and her magic—but he knew where she kept her tools: a small ramshackle shed near the back fence. Inside, a shaft of sunlight through the sole dirty window caught drifting motes of dust. Tin buckets towered in a haphazard stack opposite the door, and he selected the cleanest from the top of the pile.
When he emerged, she had relocated to the other side of the garden, shaded by the young maple trees bordering the southern fence. The nettles at her feet seemed to lean up into her touch, and she cut the soft green leaves without apparent fear of their sting. Sunlight dappled over her face, her copper hair. Where it touched her, she glowed.
He drew up behind her, entranced. This wild, powerful, brazen creature—and here she was, nurturing a garden. Putting down roots.
The pail dropped near their feet, forgotten. Instead he drew her back against him, winding arms around her waist and setting his chin atop the crown of her head.
"What are you making, anyway?"
She pressed back against him, tossing the nettle leaves toward the pail. Then she turned in his arms, and tipped her head up to smile at him, something soft and secret behind her eyes.
"You'll see," she said, "when it's ready."
Gabriel's preparations were a matter of days, not weeks. Then again, it was difficult to distinguish his normal claim over the kitchen as his sole domain from this pointed, industrious spate of round-the-clock baking. As Sam had the library, tucked away in the spare room on the second floor, as Rowena had the garden, and as Eileen had the converted workroom, so Gabriel made himself most at home in their bright, airy kitchen. While the others were not unwelcome (despite his affectionate grumbling about their notable lack of culinary skill), as he was not unwelcome in their own private spaces, it was clear enough to all of them that the room and its trappings were Gabriel's. His presence and energy expanded to fill it; in turn, it responded to him as though he belonged there.
Odd, Sam thought, the shape their home together had taken. And yet... comfortable, and comforting. Humanity and divinity, the mundane and the arcane. The four of them, with such disparate personalities and desires and needs, carving out a place to coexist.
"You're still at this? We must have enough food by now." Sam leaned one hip on the counter, avoiding a large pot of something that smelled tantalizingly of ginger and cumin.
"Aw, Sammich, it's like you've never been to a harvest celebration before. Absurd, gratuitous piles of food and drink are the whole point. Trust me on this." Gabriel knelt to pull yet another tray of shortbread rounds, heady and fragrant with sugar and starch and some unidentifiable blend of garden herbs, from the oven. Turning to the cooling racks that lined the countertop, he removed each one carefully from the tray. The last he broke between his fingers, smaller crumbling pieces that he popped into his mouth with a contemplative expression. A satisfied grin crossed his face. He held half the cookie out to Sam, the tips of his fingers grazing across Sam's wrist as he accepted.
"Nothing like celebrating the Solstice with a witch in the family. Red's been nice enough to share the fruits of her labors with us, how am I supposed to turn that down? That'd just be rude. Besides, if there's any holiday to throw together a feast for, it's this one." His smile turned wolfish. "You should've seen some of the midsummer festivals the pagans and their followers put on. Those people knew how to throw a party. You know I had my first hangover at one of those? Drank three casks of mead, woke up naked and using a sheep as a blanket while Sigyn braided a flower crown into my hair."
He shook his head, chuckling. As he made to move away Sam caught at his arm, tugged him forward to crush into an embrace against his chest. Gabriel, surprised, stumbled into him, ungraceful but happy. He looked up at Sam through his eyelashes. "What was that for?"
Sam huffed out a quiet laugh. "Just wondering how many people you're planning on inviting to this thing." He paused, as though in thought. Then, teasing: "And whether I should shore up the wards on the house."
Gabriel rolled his eyes in mock offense. "Aw, you're no fun." He extracted himself from Sam's arms, and moved to the stove, raising the lid on a steaming pan to poke at the contents with a wooden spoon. "Don't worry, I'm not planning on dragging the old crowd over for a drink or ten. This is all for us." His gaze was fixed on the pan in front of him, but Sam could see the warmth written in the crinkled corners of his eyes, the quirk of his lips. "Just us. Our family. Celebrating what we have."
As it happened, Eileen's Solstice contribution had been in progress the longest. This was due less to any particular advance planning, and more to the length of time required for fermentation.
When they had first moved in, this space had been a garage, a late addition grafted onto the side of the house and barely spacious enough to fit a compact automobile. As none of them had any interest in it for its original purpose, however, it sat unused and gradually accumulated dust for months.
Eileen had changed that. Of the four of them she was most given to tinkering, to building and crafting with patient hands. They'd woken one morning to find her outfitted in coveralls and a layer of grime and sawdust, the garage having been transformed into the beginnings of a proper workshop. Since then, she'd outfitted it to her needs. Power tools and woodcarving chisels shared space with more esoteric hunting equipment, a small furnace, even a place for metalworking. Her life had always been one of self-sufficiency, and settling into domesticity hadn't shaken the habit.
Far and away, though, what covered the shelves she'd built into the walls in greatest abundance were jars.
Some of these were spells, potions on which she'd collaborated with Rowena, Sam, or Gabriel. Most of them weren't. Instead, their contents were more conventionally edible: preserved fruit, jams and jellies of all kinds, liquors mixed with rich aromatic spices. Bottles, too, of mead and wine and beer. The hobby had surprised Sam, when he first learned of it. "I like making them myself," she'd explained, smiling at his bemusement. "If I make them, I know what's in them. I know where they came from. And I know that I'll like them."
He couldn't argue with that.
"Help me move these?" she'd asked that night. She hefted two large, dust-covered crates of bottles in her arms. Pointed with her chin to the half dozen that remained, stacked near the shelves. Sam picked two boxes off the top of the stack, and turned to face her again.
"Where are we taking them?"
"Out to the garden," she replied. "Rowena wants to do something with them before tomorrow."
She turned away, and he followed, out the exterior door and around the side of the house toward the back yard. Rowena was nowhere to be found, but they deposited the crates at the shaded base of the fence in an area that appeared to have been cleared for the purpose. Eileen rose, scrubbing her hands on her jeans in an effort to scrape away the dust.
"What does she want them for, anyway?" Sam asked. "Are we going to be drinking enchanted mead, or does she just want to hide the good stuff for herself before Gabriel gets to it?"
Eileen laughed. Sam slid his hand into hers as they walked, tracing his thumb idly across her knuckles.
"Dunno. Maybe she just wants to get us all drunk before the Solstice orgy." She raised her eyebrows, flirtatious. "I'm told those are her kind of thing."
It was Sam's turn to splutter laughter, sudden and unexpected. Eileen grinned, smug and self-satisfied, and squeezed his hand. They let themselves back into the garage, and the transition to the dim, cool space after the brightness and warmth outside was jarring. As Sam's eyes adjusted, he reached out to Eileen. Leaned down to brush a kiss across her mouth, meeting smile with smile.
"What would I do without you?" he asked, pulling back to meet her eyes.
She squinted, wrinkled her nose, then chuckled. "Be a lot more bored, probably. Guess it's a good thing I'm here." Raising up on tiptoe, she took his face in her hands. The kiss she gave was slower than the last, deeper; as though she were staking territory. It filled him with tingling warmth, affection he could sense along his skin down to the tips of his fingers.
"I guess it is," he replied, and kissed her again.
Rounding the corner into the kitchen, he narrowly avoids collision with Gabriel, who lunges after Rowena with flour-covered hands.
"Don't you dare, you feathered menace!" The words are scolding, but she giggles as she dances out of reach. She ducks behind Sam, peering out around him. "Keep testing me and see what it earns you. Archangel or not I will turn you into a frog, Gabriel."
The archangel in question smirks, and advances on Sam. "Then you'd have to kiss me to turn me back. Doesn't sound that bad to me. I'll take my chances."
His advance is effectively halted by Sam's hands on his shoulders; for all that he is stronger and quicker, Sam's reach is undeniably greater, and he holds Gabriel at arm's length. Gabriel repays him for his trouble by reaching upward to grip his forearms, dusty white handprints left in the wake of his touch like ghostly afterimages.
"Hey!" Sam says, eyeing the flour. "She's right, you're a menace. And a mess. You know you're supposed to bake with that, not wear it, right?"
"You try to make food for the people you love, and this is the thanks you get." Gabriel sighs dramatically. Then he lets out a sudden, surprised oof; Eileen wraps arms around his waist from behind and picks him up, leaning her back into it as he flails.
The grin she flashes from behind his back at Sam and Rowena is victorious. "You want me to put him outside? I can put him outside."
Sam shakes his head. "Nah, let him go. Otherwise he might make us start cooking for ourselves again."
Eileen winces at the prospect. "Good point." She releases Gabriel, who promptly turns and pulls her into a hug—pointedly burying his hands in her hair, streaking it with white. Rowena, still unmarked, slides behind him and reaches for the bag of flour. With a sly smile, she dips one hand into the bag.
A moment later, the back of Gabriel's neck is covered in flour. Sam doubles over laughing, tears beading at the corners of his eyes.
Gabriel is momentarily stunned. Then with a whoop of joy, he buries his hands in powder and dashes across the kitchen after Rowena. Sam and Eileen recover themselves enough to follow suit, and within minutes they've managed to coat every available surface—but especially each other—with a thin dusty veneer.
Sam sinks to the kitchen floor, struggling to catch his breath. He pulls Gabriel down onto his lap, a broad grin plastered across his face, and Rowena and Eileen collapse next to them, arms around waists and heads on shoulders.
"That was ridiculous," Sam mutters, and Gabriel's shoulders shake with laughter. "But I've woken up to worse."
"How long do we have to get ready?" Eileen asks. "I could use a shower."
Rowena cranes her neck, peers up at the sky outside the window above the sink. "A few hours, yet. Time enough to get clean and get packed."
Gabriel springs to his feet, all catlike grace and fluid movement, and pulls Sam up after him. "I think we could all use that shower," he says, shaking his hair out of his face and raising a faint cloud of powder around him. "Dibs on sharing with Samsquatch."
"Like hell," Eileen replies jovially, and rises to her feet. "We're going to hose you down out in the yard."
"You have to catch me first!" Gabriel cackles, and dashes off into the house. Grinning and tripping over each other, the others follow after.
The sun is just beginning to sink below the western horizon as they set out from the house, crimson and gold fading into the cloudless vault of starry indigo overhead. Eileen and Rowena lead them along the path, through an overgrown field and ascending the slope of the low hill across the way. It's a short walk from the house; the hill represents the highest point for miles, a slightly larger-than-usual elevation gain amidst the gentle rolling countryside.
Gabriel and Sam hang back a few paces. They all have full arms, laden with the baskets of food and drink, firewood, a pile of blankets: all that they need for the night.
They walk in silence, but Sam can feel them, each of them, their nearness a warm weight at the edge of his mind. He thinks he could probably find them anywhere, in darkness or silence. Not even by magic—although between the tracking spells Rowena keeps on them all (she thinks they don't know), the tracery of runes hidden like a promise along their ribs (Sam had rolled his eyes and made comments about being a canvas for angelic graffiti; Gabriel, all snark, had replied that if Sam wanted something more visible he would be happy to tattoo "property of the Archangel Gabriel" along his lower back), and the perpetually suspicion-inducing hacked state of every GPS-capable device they own (he'll never underestimate Eileen's technological aptitude), he thinks it might actually be impossible for them to lose each other ever again.
The thought makes him smile.
The top of the hill is a clearing, a large flat expanse of grass surrounding a rock-lined fire pit. Sam sets to work building a fire, stacking wood he'd chopped days ago and let dry in the summer sun into a tower around kindling and dry grass. Rowena kneels beside him. From the bag at her hip, she extracts smaller bundles of cloth-wrapped herbs. Her face a mask of concentration, she whispers words in a language that slips past the edge of Sam's understanding like oil over water. Then she nestles them securely near the base of the pyre.
"For us," she says quietly, not quite meeting Sam's gaze. "Old spells, and strong. Protection for the coming year. Health and good fortune through the lean months." She looks up then, and the last rays of sunlight glint in her eyes. "We should light them together. All four of us."
His hand finds hers, twists fingers together. "We will."
He turns to glance over his shoulder, finds Gabriel and Eileen already there. Presses matches into each of their hands. Side by side, they stand at the edge of the firepit.
One. Two. Three.
Matches strike, and are dropped. The kindling catches and blazes, crackling sparks.
Sam moves to tend to the rest of their supplies, and finds the others have beaten him to it. Eileen has created a nest of blankets several paces back from the fire, and the food they brought has been laid out nearby, a banquet under the night sky. He selects a bottle of something deep crimson and richly-scented, and settles himself back onto the blanket.
Eileen curls next to him, leaning into his side. "Cherry wine," she says. "Plus whatever Rowena did to it."
"Blessed cherry wine now, my loves," the older woman replies, and seats herself near Sam's feet. "Spirits for the good of the spirit." Her soft tinkling laughter drifts through the darkness, and Sam smiles in turn.
"Only one thing left to do, then we can eat." Gabriel circles the fire. He draws a small cloth-wrapped loaf of bread, no bigger than a fist, from the depths of one of the baskets. Snags a bottle of Eileen's wine as well, and uncorks it, advancing on the fire.
The firelight flickers, and casts deep shadows across his face. Power tingles in the air. For just a moment, it's easy for Sam to remember what lives behind that face.
"In thanks for all we've been given," he mutters, crumbling the bread between his hands into the base of the fire, "the first and best of the harvest, and our gratitude." He pours a measure of the wine across the rocks, and it hisses where it makes contact with the flames. His voice is odd, solemn, echoing up a hollow chasm of meaning that takes Sam by surprise. Then the moment passes, and Gabriel grins, his usual cheer restored. He drops himself across the blanket, sprawling over Sam's legs and taking up more space than his small frame would seem to allow.
"All right! I can't wait to drink whatever this is, El, it smells delicious. Red, grab whatever's closest to you and pass it this way, would you? I'm starving."
Sam chuckles down at him. "Harvest offerings, huh? Thought you'd given up on the paganism."
Gabriel shrugs. "Eh, old habits. You know how it goes."
"Sure you don't miss it?" He traces a hand slowly down Gabriel's spine, then back up again. Beside him, Eileen silently buries a hand in the angel's hair, gently scratching at his scalp.
Gabriel closes his eyes, and a smile plays at his lips. "Nah. That life... it was what I was then. It'll always be a fond memory, but..." He cracks open one eye. When he continues his voice is soft, almost too quiet to hear. "This, now? I wouldn't trade it. It feels like... something worth protecting."
Sam gazes down at him, then looks around. Eileen rests her head on his shoulder, warm and contented at his side. Rowena curls next to Gabriel, setting out plates of steaming food, her presence a reassuring spark against the darkness.
"I know what you mean," Sam says.
Together, they wait for the sun to rise.