'Tis Bitter Cold
Disclaimer: The show's not mine, the boys aren't mine.
It's Christmastime for the boys… which got me thinking about last Christmas and all the time in between…
'Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart.
- Hamlet, Act I, Scene i
So… Christmas. Again.
It was three AM and Dean was haunting the local 24 hr drugstore across from the motel. He slowly walked up and down the aisles, scanning the shelves, hoping something would jump out at him that screamed, "Sammy," and "Buy me."
Christmas was still a few days away, but Dean hadn't managed to pick up anything for Sam and had decided now was the time. He hadn't been sleeping anyway, and the thought of trying had nearly given him hives. Sleep used to be a respite, but now his only break came from work and lots of it, anything to keep his mind occupied with the present and only the present.
Dean supposed he should be grateful. He'd been sure that the Christmas before, spent skewering pagan gods with a Christmas tree, would be his last. Yet, here he was again, after another lifetime of fire and pain, walking around a brightly lit drugstore looking at cheap knickknacks hoping to find something that would bring a smile to his brother's face. To say that it felt weird might be the understatement of the millennium. Half the time he felt like he was wandering around in someone else's life anyway.
Of course maybe that was the only reason he wasn't running around completely insane or, at the very least, a sociopathic time bomb. At least he hoped he wasn't a sociopathic time bomb.
He just had to stick with the program. Two totally separate lives, and never let them cross if he could help it. Hell. Not hell.
And, right now, focus on the friggin' shopping.
The scabby, twenty-something clerk was watching him warily in the mirrors. Dean supposed he must look like a potential robber or shoplifter. He had a bad case of bed-head and was wearing his oldest and most comfortable jeans, which just so happened to have the most holes. He had a momentary urge to take the gun out of his waistband and use it to scratch his nose just to see the look on the clerk's face.
Dean skipped the first aid supplies. In their line of work, that would be kind of like buying wire for an electrician. He rounded the end of the office supply aisle and started down the next, blinking at the sudden assault on his exhausted, gritty eyes. He mentally dubbed it the RCC aisle. Random Christmas Crap. Ornaments, specialty chocolates, gift boxes, decorations, etc. The clerk would probably call it the seasonal aisle.
He meandered past the crammed shelves, touching items here and there, inspecting a few, shaking his head at others, wondering who in their right mind would pay money for such garbage. An ice-skating penguin? With antlers, no less. That was just wrong.
Dean stopped in front of the rack and let his eyes roam over all the trinkets. There were still people out there who went to work from 9 to 5, came home to the wife and kids, went to the mall on the weekend, bought presents, left them under the tree… As a kid, it had always felt like another world, but after forty years of… not this world, it was even more remote. It just didn't feel real.
One day he was elbow deep in blood and the next he was lying through his teeth, Sam was making cracks about hell like it was nothing and Dean was trying not to flinch.
"You're gonna pay for that."
Dean felt his heart skip a beat. He blinked and looked up, his eyes focusing again on what was actually in front of him. "What?"
The clerk took a step closer and pointed to Dean's hand. "I said, you're gonna pay for that."
Dean looked down and eased his crushing grip on a now broken ornament. He suddenly felt the bits of glass digging into his hand, felt the little points where the skin was broken. "Sorry, man," Dean said, his voice a rough croak. "Just put it on my tab."
The clerk shook his head. "Whatever. Just don't break anything else, mister, or I'm callin' the cops."
"Got it. No breaking."
No breaking. I couldn't do it anymore, Sammy. I couldn't. Dean shut his eyes, his fingers closing involuntarily around the shards of broken glass.
Dean's eyes snapped open to find the very last person he wanted to see standing beside him. "Really not in the mood, Cas."
Castiel ignored him as usual, seeming to peruse the shelves in front of him. "Let it go, Dean."
Castiel held out his hand palm up and simply waited. Dean realized what he wanted and dropped the broken ornament into the angel's hand. It made him feel like a child being disciplined, which was pretty much par for the course these days. Hard not to when he was keeping company with beings that got their orders directly from the Man Upstairs and would burn his eyes out if he even got a glimpse of their real form. Talk about an inferiority complex.
His hand was stinging and Dean focused on the pain to keep him tied to the present. For his part, Castiel was looking at the broken ornament, curiously twisting it this way and that, and Dean realized what it was. He'd been holding an angel.
"I understand that you are not happy with us," Castiel said, his voice a low, smooth growl.
Dean huffed out a laugh of disbelief. Honestly, he was so friggin' confused about what was right and what was wrong and what he should be doing…
"You think…" Castiel paused, for once seeming uncertain about how to continue. "You think I should have questioned my orders." It was a statement, not a question.
"About Anna?" Dean felt himself bristling just at the thought. "Yeah, pretty much."
Castiel's eyes met Dean's, his gaze unnaturally steady. "Do you understand the difference between angels and demons, Dean?"
"You mean other than the whole wings vs. spitting pea soup thing?" The angel didn't bother to respond. "You guys have totally different decorating styles, too." Castiel simply raised an eyebrow and once again Dean felt like a child who was a sore disappointment to his teacher. He grinned. "You want me to keep guessing or do you wanna just get on with the lesson here?"
Castiel remained perfectly still and perfectly silent, just staring at him, until Dean was reminded of Sam at eight years old. The little brat could stare at him until he'd give the kid anything just to knock it off. Dean cleared his throat. "Faith, I guess?" There. That sounded nice and… church-y.
"Demons have faith. That is not it."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Faith is not a great mystical thing," the angel said solemnly. "It simply means belief. Demons believe in God, Dean. They know His power and fear Him as they should. Many demons have more faith than humans," he added gravely. "The demons fear and tremble while men ignore their Father's call and refuse to believe in anything but their own existence."
Dean didn't move. The way Cas was staring at him, he felt a bit like a gazelle that was being stalked by a lion. Dean had spent his whole life as one of those who refused to believe. Before hell… before an angel pulled him out.
"Angels and demons both believe, Dean. The difference," he said, his eyes never wavering from Dean's, "is that angels obey. I obey. I follow the rules of conduct He has given. I follow the orders I have been given. Even if I do not always understand the reasoning behind something, I understand that One greater than myself sees more of the puzzle than I do."
"Swell," Dean said, unable to keep the snide tone from his voice. "You obey. No matter what."
"Laziness and disobedience are often easier, even more pleasant in some cases. But even though it requires painful choices, hard choices, it is an honor and a privilege to serve."
"That's swell," Dean said again. "And you keep showing up here to tell me all about it and that I have a job to do. But see, the problem, Cas, is that I just don't know whether you're really on my side or not."
Castiel spent several seconds studying him with that unnerving gaze that made Dean want to squirm. "Do you know Joshua?" the angel asked.
"Joshua…" Dean was drawing a complete blank.
Castiel sighed as if he despaired of ever making anything of Dean. "Joshua was a great general and a brave man. He led the Lord's people into the promised land."
"Oh," Dean said, the light dawning, "Bible Joshua." He really should have guessed that. Castiel didn't strike him as big on current celebrities. Dean tried to remember what he could from his hit and miss Sunday school lessons during their childhood visits to Pastor Jim's. "Uhh… Jericho? The people walked around the town and the walls fell down." Dean really hoped Cas wasn't going to ask anything else because that was the sum total of what he remembered. He probably only remembered that much because he hadn't minded listening to a story about a war. He'd been intensely interested in being a good soldier at that age.
Castiel's mouth quirked up on one side, almost as if amused with Dean's admittedly pathetic efforts. Dean kept his face impassive to hide the fact that it pissed him off. He was getting really tired of feeling like an idiot who was being humored by the grown-ups.
The tiny bit of amusement fled and Castiel returned to stoic angel mode. "As Joshua approached the city of Jericho, a Man appeared in front of him with His sword drawn. Joshua asked the Man if He was on their side, or on the side of their enemies. The Man's answer was, 'No'."
"What? The guy was Switzerland?" Dean sniffed.
Disapproval flickered in Castiel's borrowed eyes. "The Man said no. That He was the commander of the Lord's army."
"So he was on Joshua's side. Why didn't he just say so?"
"Cas, enough with the cryptic. I have shopping to do."
"Joshua asked the Man if he was on their side or the enemy's and the Man said no, He was the commander of the Lord's army. He was not there to be on Joshua's side, Dean. Joshua was there to be on His."
Dean managed not to roll his eyes, but it was close. Now he got the reason for the remedial Sunday school lesson. "So you're not on my side. I should be on yours."
"I am not the commander of the Lord's army. I am a messenger, a servant and soldier. Dean, God loves us and rewards His followers. What happens to us matters to Him. But He leads. He does not follow. He is not on my side, Dean, and He is not on yours. God is. I choose to follow and those who are wise will do the same."
Dean's head hurt. He was dog-tired and his eyes felt like sandpaper. What he wouldn't do for a simple salt and burn instead of all this. "Why are you here?" he asked wearily. "You just stop by to lecture me?"
"I want you to remember whose side you're on, Dean. That's all. Help your brother remember. No one on this earth is free of sin, or of difficulties, but you must choose to rise above it."
Dean sighed. "We're doin' our best."
"There are worse things than dying," Castiel said earnestly. "There is hell. I know you understand that. Help your brother understand."
Your brother is headed down a dangerous road, Dean. We're not sure where it leads. So, stop it. Or we will.
Merry friggin' Christmas.
Dean rubbed his hand, the one not bleeding and throbbing painfully, over his face, digging his fingers into his eyes.
"Dean, what'd you do?"
At the sound of Sam's voice Dean's head snapped up so quickly, he was almost dizzy. Sam wanted to know what he'd done. Wasn't that just great. He'd already told him more than enough. He'd told Sam what kind of man he'd become.
Dean felt Sam's hand squeeze his bicep, grounding him in the here and now. He forced his eyes open, focusing on that freaking antlered, ice-skating penguin until the world steadied around him. Castiel was gone, but Sam was there looking frazzled and worried.
"What are you doin' here? You're gonna ruin Christmas if you see your present, Sammy." Dean knew his voice was a little shaky, but then so was the rest of him.
"What happened to your hand?" Sam took Dean's hand and cradled it with his own so he could get a better look.
"When ornaments attack…"
Sam ignored him. He once again grabbed Dean's arm and began dragging him down the aisle. Sam looked up and down at the signs for the aisles and then pulled him toward the first aid section. Sam stopped in front of the shelves and immediately began ripping open packages.
Dean raised an eyebrow. "Ya know, this could wait 'til we get back to the room."
"Well, maybe I don't wanna wait until we get back to the room," Sam said angrily.
The clerk appeared at the end of the aisle and began stalking toward them. "Hey, buddy? Are you just beggin' for me to call the cops?"
"This man was injured in your store," Sam nearly snarled. "Unless you want a lawsuit the size of Texas on your hands, I'd suggest you let me take care of him."
"Maybe… Maybe I should call the manager," the man stuttered.
"You do that," Sam said, already turning back to the shelves as the clerk retreated.
Dean pursed his lips. "Sam, you know I love it when you channel your inner lawyer, but uhh… the guy's got a point. I'm all over the larceny thing, but I normally wait until I leave before I start opening stuff. Just one of those crazy rules."
Sam opened up a package of pre-soaked swabs and ruthlessly began working on Dean's hand. "Yeah, well that was before I woke up in the middle of the night and you're gone, there's no note, I finally find you and you're standing in the middle of a drugstore, bleeding, and lookin' like you're gonna pass out. I mean who manages to get hurt in a drugstore? I mean what the h-"
Sam abruptly stopped, his eyes flying to Dean's before dropping just as quickly. His brother was a little twitchy with the 'H' word since Dean's roadside revelation. Most of the time, he didn't notice, but every so often, Sam realized what he was saying and looked like he'd just swallowed a bug.
"So, I, uhh… guess I shoulda left a note or something," Dean said, wincing as Sam kept up his work with the antiseptic swabs before moving on to some sort of antibiotic ointment.
Dean's instinct was to rip his hand away and take care of the injury himself, but he left it where it was since it was the only real way he had of apologizing for scaring Sam. Because that's what this was. Sam had woken up in the middle of the night and panicked when Dean was gone… or was gone too long anyway. Dean wasn't really sure how long he'd been wandering around the store and now… now Sam knew Dean was breakable.
Sam began winding gauze around Dean's hand, visibly working to calm himself. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Too tight?"
"Gotta watch out for those ornaments, man. Dangerous…"
"Tell me about it. Freakin' angels are hazardous to your health." And not just the glass kind. They did tend to smite first and ask questions later, after all. Or smite first and not bother with the questions at all. No reason to ask when right was right and wrong was wrong and wrong got smited. Smitten… Got dead.
Sam finished wrapping and tied off the ends. "Angels?"
Dean held up his now bandaged hand. "Angel ornament. And apparently not child-safe."
Sam huffed out a laugh, although he was studying Dean almost as closely as Cas had. Things were just awkward since Dean had told him. Sam kept staring and Dean kept deflecting. So maybe it was just business as usual.
"You ready to go?" Dean asked. "Manager's gonna have your head for messing up his store."
Sam snorted. "You're the one leaving a blood trail."
Dean looked down at his hand where a hint of blood was showing through the white of the bandage. It was kinda… Christmassy. Red and white.
Christmas. Winchester style.
Sam was looking worried again. Crap. Dean ordered himself to try and act like he wasn't a complete head case. "Sure you don't wanna look around? Only a few shopping days 'til Christmas."
Sam sighed, knowing Dean was using diversionary tactics 101, but he allowed it. It was one of the reasons Dean loved his brother. Sam put up with his crap.
"Maybe later, man," Sam said.
"You countin' on St. Nick to take care of it?" Dean asked incredulously.
For the first time since he'd tracked Dean to the store, Sam grinned broadly. "Actually St. Bobby is sending it. Gonna mail it to the motel."
"Yup." Sam began walking toward the front entrance and Dean fell into step beside him.
Sam pulled some cash out of his wallet as they passed the counter and threw it down in front of the nervous looking clerk.
"Please tell me it's something totally illegal to mail. Something that shoots or explodes." Dean would have rubbed his hands together if he hadn't screwed one of them up.
Sam shook his head, looking particularly pleased with himself. "Can't tell you. It'll ruin the surprise."
Dean barked out a laugh as they crossed the road toward their motel. "Ha! That means yes!"
Sam chuckled, glancing over at him, clearly enjoying Dean's enthusiasm. "You'll just have to wait and see, man."
Dean just smiled as they walked back into their motel room, crappy though it might be. He wasn't in hell. He wasn't completely insane. The angels hadn't whacked Sam yet, or him either for that matter. And Sam had got him an awesome gift, even if Dean didn't know what it was yet.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
Thanks for reading. Merry Christmas!