Title: Figuring Out Christmas
Characters: Sam, Dean, Castiel, Bobby
Category: Gen, AU, Angst, Schmoopiness
Spoilers: Through 4.10, previous stories in 'verse
Summary: In which Sam thinks about the future, Dean thinks about Christmas presents, Bobby thinks warm fuzzy things, and no one is sure what Castiel is thinking.
Word Count: 3784
Disclaimer: Pretty sure they're not mine.
Author's Note: For katiegirlfics and ina_ami, and also tahirire, just because she's that awesome. This story is set in the Entertaining Angels AU, but it stands alone.
Figuring Out Christmas
Thanksgiving had slipped by them in the fear and confusion of little Castiel's sickness and all the other stuff. Not that Sam and Dean had ever particularly cared about that holiday, except for Dean's unfettered glee over mashed potatoes and homestyle stuffing, but Bobby seemed a little disgruntled when he realized. He had offered his house as a home base until they figured things out with little more than a inquiring grunt, and they had accepted the offer in much the same way.
Though Castiel's illness had been healed, he was weak for a long time afterward, tiring easily and quickly getting out of breath. Climbing just half of the staircase had him puffing and blowing like a tiny steam engine, an alarming wheeze beginning to develop, and that had Dean racing up the steps with wide eyes to scoop him up and carry him the rest of the way, scolding him at every step. The little boy only nodded and clutched the man's collar in one fist, apologetic blue eyes silently promising to be more careful.
That was the end of Cas sleeping upstairs. The couch continued to be his home, frequently rumpled and covered with random objects the child had fetched from elsewhere in order to examine them more closely. He was rather like a magpie, and the men living with him might have found it annoying if they weren't still mostly just worried about his health.
Castiel's curiosity and zeal for exploration returned with his strength. Everything was interesting to him. Everything. He especially loved to touch, fingers fluttering over whatever he was examining like an insect's antennae, inspecting thoroughly, mapping and remembering. Sometimes Dean wondered if angels visiting the earth in bodies not their own couldn't really feel the world fully, if the meatsuit was like a glove, both sheltering the spirit inside and muting all sensation. Perhaps it was just the lack of calluses on those small fingers, still brand-new, still baby-soft, unmarked by the toil and dirt of this planet.
Castiel's very favorite, though, was skin-to-skin touch, human and warm. In those first few days when the boy could hardly stir, Dean sat with him, and Cas rested his ear over the man's heart while his small fingers traveled over Dean's face again and again. He seemed to be memorizing the dips and hollows, the planes of the cheeks and forehead, every bump, every scar, every little flutter and unconscious flinch. Readying himself to find Dean in the dark, perhaps, if the need ever came. He did it with Sam and Bobby, too, running his fingers through the younger Winchester's hair, scratching through the older man's beard and giggling when it tickled. But Dean was his favorite, and the others did not begrudge this connection.
Before they quite knew what had happened, half of December had flown away. Bobby got a lead on a hunt a few hours west and Sam and Dean took it, leaving Castiel with Bobby and many assurances that everything would be fine and they would be back in a day or two. Castiel accepted this solemnly, then motioned them down to his level so he could hug them both around the neck before they left.
It was a simple salt-and-burn, though it took awhile to track down the people and the grave involved. Dean could see something building in his brother for the entire time, though. The quick, hooded glances, the painfully tight forehead-wrinkling, the ten-mile stares into nothing, the lack of complaining about Dean's music and food and choice of motel. He knew the signs. Sam was working up to a rant.
It didn't start until they were on the road back to Bobby's. And then it was pretty much a Sam-grenade, exploding all over the car.
"Dean, we can't do this!"
Sam had been so quiet for so long that the sudden outburst had Dean jerking in surprise, though his awesome reflexes kept him from swerving all over the road. Instead he just gave Sam a narrow look. "What?"
"We can't...this is what Dad did. All those years! Going off hunting, leaving us alone, sometimes with a friend but usually alone. We can't...we can't do this to Cas. Or Bobby, for that matter."
"Bobby doesn't mind. He told me so. Straight to my face. I think he wants to adopt the kid himself."
"That's not the point!" Sam threw his hands up in the air, flailing, then settled back down and fixed Dean with a stern gaze. "Do you even remember our childhood?"
"'Course I remember. It was awesome."
"It was rootless! Transient, unsettled. Never a place to call home, never any real connection with anybody or anything. That kind of life is not good for children, really, seriously, I mean it. And now...what? We're going to do the same thing to this sweet kid?"
"Do what? We haven't even been away for forty-eight hours. I'm sure he's fine."
"Yeah, this time. But we can't leave him with Bobby for every trip. Even if Bobby wouldn't mind, I know you and Castiel would. He decided...he stayed...he chose to be here, as he is, for you, not for Bobby. He'll want to come with us. And you'll want him with you. You think I didn't notice that last night you had your first nightmare for weeks?"
Dean gave him a scowl, but Sam didn't notice. He was on a roll, much like a boulder heading down a steep hillside.
"And then, what, we take him with us on hunts? We need each other as back-up, and it's not like he can stay in the motel room alone—he's freaking eight years old! Well, he looks like it anyway. Is, for all intents and purposes. He'd be scared! You can't tell me that you weren't scared when Dad went off and left you alone to take care of me when you were that age, and Cas wouldn't even have a brother to keep him company. And what about school? Does he even need school? We don't know! Not to mention the Apocalypse...."
Dean's head was starting to hurt. This was like when Sam had his epic freak out about Cas's lack of antibodies, his freakishly huge brain immediately rushing all the way down to he could get polio! Granted, Sam had been right to worry, considering everything, but c'mon.
"Dude, do we have to figure all of this out right now? Get a grip! Poor kid's still recovering, and no way we're leaving Bobby's until he's a hundred percent, which probably won't be till after Christmas. And you were the one who wanted some downtime for us, too. So relax. Take a chill pill. We'll worry about this later."
"You always want to worry about it later," Sam said darkly, slumping down in his seat and folding his arms across his chest. "Later never comes for you, Dean."
"Sure it does. Now stop bitching and let me drive."
Dean reached over to turn up the music. He hoped that Sam hadn't noticed his slight hesitation, the way his mind caught on the idea of "later" never coming for him. Because of course it had, hadn't it? "Later" had come for him in a suburban house in New Harmony and cut him to shreds, buried him in icy black for forty years.
He knew all about "later."
They returned home to Bobby's gruff smile, quickly hidden, his questions about the hunt. Dean let Sam answer them, wandering into the next room. He found Castiel laying on his back on the carpet with his knees raised and his shirt pulled up around his chest, literally navel-gazing, completely fascinated by his own bellybutton. At the footstep in the doorway he was on his feet in a flash, though, throwing himself into the man's arms with a joyful shout of "Dean!"
He caught the boy, lifted him up, hugged him close, and didn't think at all about Sam's innumerable worries.
One week later, Dean was standing in the toy department at Wal-Mart, staring at the selection with something akin to horror. God, this had been a dumb idea.
What kind of Christmas present did you get for a kid who used to be an angel?
More coloring books? No, he really needed to switch it up by this point. A toy car? He had a vision of Castiel opening and closing the little swinging doors for a few hours, then getting bored and leaving it under the couch to rot. They wouldn't have room in the Impala for bulky puzzles or board games, and besides, Dean had absolutely no idea of what age range would be appropriate. In some ways Castiel acted far younger than his apparent age, and in others he seemed much older, showing glimpses of that immense memory and wisdom he carried locked up somewhere inside him. A lot of that stuff required too much talking, anyway.
Dean wandered the aisles in a daze, rejecting toy after toy, pushing around whining kids and frazzled mothers rushing to finish their holiday shopping. He saw another guy who seemed to be in the same fix, staring at one thing after another with a complete lack of decision in his eyes, and they shared a commiserating look. "Haven't seen my kid for three years, hardly know a thing about him," the guy muttered at Dean, standing next to the display of handheld electronic games. "And now my ex wants me to come for Christmas. Great timing."
"Um...baseball glove?" Dean offered. It sounded reasonable.
The guy's eyes lit up, and he hurried off. Dean kept wandering, looking around without much hope. He'd rejected sports equipment at the beginning of this hunt. Sam would surely get the kid a big geeky book full of geeky information and glossy photos, and Bobby probably had some kind of charm or protective amulet he'd been squirreling away in one of his cupboards. So what did that leave for him?
He turned another corner, walked past at least a hundred different Barbies, and then ground to a halt, his eyes widening in relief and wonder. He had found his Mecca.
Decorating the tree was...awkward. Sam knew it was a traditional, family Christmas-time sort of thing, popping popcorn and making hot chocolate and all gathering around to put up the ornaments together. They gave it the old college try, for Castiel's sake, though there was no reason for this kid to care at all about this particularly useless seasonal ritual. All of the family ornaments were Bobby's, none of the stories behind them shared, and even making the popcorn-and-cranberry garlands felt weird, too domestic for the road-warrior Winchesters. Sam could feel Dean straining, trying to make it real, and Cas was oblivious as always, just happy to be with them, but Sam wasn't feeling it.
Bobby, though... Bobby's face had gone as soft as the failed cookies they had tried to make that afternoon. It was an odd look on him, unfamiliar, but somehow it felt right. The new gentleness there was so blindingly obvious that even Dean noticed it, and teased their friend for going mushy. It was a gentle taunting, no harm in it, but Dean accidentally shoved too far and hit a raw spot when he mentioned Bobby's lack of a dog since Rumsfeld died as further proof that the older hunter was getting sentimental in his old age.
"Rumsfeld was a good dog." Bobby scowled and tugged the brim of his cap down a little, as if to hide his face. "You don't replace a dog like that in a day."
Dean looked at Sam, and they both refrained from pointing out that it had been two years. Some wounds took a long time to heal.
Castiel just looked at them all silently, nothing showing on his face, but Sam thought that he must somehow understand something of what wasn't being said, because he sat next to or near Bobby for the rest of the night. The ice of Bobby's scowl melted pretty much instantaneously under that quiet warmth, and they went back to trying to figure out how to do Christmas.
Christmas Eve, Sam intended to sleep in, because that was what people did on holidays. Never mind that he'd been sleeping in almost every day since they landed at Bobby's—it was still a holiday. He was a bit irritated, then, when Dean shook him awake before noon. His protest died on his lips, though, when he saw the naked fear in his brother's face.
Sam was on his feet and dressed before his brain caught up with his body, already asking about the kid's typical hiding places. Besides his pack-rat tendencies, Cas had also displayed a cat-like ability to find and infiltrate the oddest cracks and crannies. In the first few weeks when he seemed to need as much sleep as a cat, too, he was often found napping in one of these crevices, after a flurried and panicked search. Sam and Bobby had gradually become accustomed to this wanderlust and learned not to freak out when the boy vanished briefly, but Dean never got used to it. It didn't help that Bobby's old house was riddled with out-of-the-way corners and niches where a small boy could curl up and disappear.
Dean's responses now were clipped, impatient, as he led the way down the stairs to grab coats and gloves. No, he wasn't in the spare room's wardrobe, or under the sink, or in the knee hole of a desk in the attic, or somewhere in the panic room, or squeezed in the crack between a couple of bookcases. "He's not in the house, Sam," Dean finally spat, exasperated. "I've been looking for almost two hours, okay? He's not in the house!"
And that was...bad. Sam's mind stuttered there and just sort of stopped, unwilling to come up with a more specific word than just...bad. Practically no snow outside, but a sudden cold snap had hit the entire region, dropping the temperature more than fifteen degrees in less than twenty-four hours, or so Dean told him in a flurried rush of words. It might even be below zero out there right now. especially with the wind chill, and Castiel was so little and thin and he'd been so sick and he didn't even have a good coat.
Sam's eyes were wide, his mouth dry. "Is...is the fleece jacket still here?"
Dean paused with his hand on the doorknob, his shoulders slumping slightly, and gave Sam a grateful look as if to say, Yes, you get it, thank you. "It's gone. He took it with him. But he hasn't even been outside since Missouri's place—I don't think he has any idea what winter is like."
And this was one area where all that angelic wisdom wasn't going to help a thing, even if the kid could still access the memories. Castiel hadn't been to earth for two thousand years, and probably even then he'd never experienced the fury of a Dakota winter in the body of a human.
Bobby was already out in the salvage yard, wandering through the cars, occasionally calling the boy's name. He sounded more irritated than worried, but both Winchesters knew the older man well enough to know that that meant nothing. Bobby always let his irritation with humanity in general cover up whatever else was eating at him. It was just easier that way.
They split up, Sam going for the trees in back of the place, Dean heading for the road. Sam tried not to think about all of the hidden, nigh-invisible hiding spots that a little child could find in a patch of woods like this. Tried not to think about icy roads and inattentive drivers and a kid with a short profile, how hard that would be to see. Tried not to think about the fact he was pretty sure he could hear Dean cursing loudly, almost yelling, somewhere off in the distance.
He picked a direction and just walked, striding through the trees, letting his long legs carry him at a loping pace. Filled his voice with all the urgency he was feeling, calling the boy's name, stopping to listen for a response. Felt his finger joints already beginning to ache from the bitter cold even inside his gloves, each breath turning to a puff of frozen mist the instant it left his mouth. Time was dilated, stretched, everything taking far too long.
Then he heard it, a soft sound, but infinitely familiar, infinitely welcome. "Sam. Here, Sam. Here."
Sam turned toward the voice, huffing air in fear and relief. It sounded so small, so distant. Then he saw him, a slim figure through the trees, slowly coming closer, hugging both arms around his middle.
"Cas!" For once the time dilation worked in his favor, and Sam found himself standing next to the little boy without seeming to take a step in between. Castiel smiled up at him hesitantly, his arms still wrapped around a strange bulge in his coat. He was shivering hard, which Sam distantly realized was a good thing. Then Sam was on his knees, hands on the boy's shoulders, his face, checking, making sure—he was so cold—and then he wrapped both arms around the kid in a fierce embrace.
The bulge in Castiel's coat yelped, wriggling between them. Sam pulled back, staring helplessly, and couldn't even form the question. "What was...what? That what?"
Castiel shivered a little harder, small bare hands shaking—God, they hadn't even gotten him mittens—and he unzipped his coat to reveal the tiny face of a golden yellow, floppy-eared puppy. "Heard c-c-crying, Sam. Outside alone. So sad. I g-go. S-s-sorry. Dean..."
"Aw, Castiel, it's okay. I'm sure Dean will understand. We were worried for you, though. Next time tell us, all right?" He took the boy's face in his hands again, brushing away the evidence of incipient tears. Poor kid was just about ready to cry from cold and weariness. "Let's get you back, all right? Dean and Bobby are really scared."
Sam unzipped his own coat and pulled boy and puppy inside, then zipped it up again and lifted the entire bundle in his arms for the walk back to the house. Castiel shivered against him, face buried under Sam's chin, and the puppy hardly wiggled at all, probably just as cold and tired as Cas was. As soon as he could see the house Sam called as loud as he could. "Found him! He's okay!"
By the time he reached the yard both men were rounding the house, jogging toward him, young face and old equally stressed and creased, opening in relief when they saw Sam and the small burden he carried. Bobby went to open the back door while Dean stepped over to Sam, placing a hand on the boy's back. Castiel felt it even through the layers, relaxing into Sam just that little bit more.
"Found a box of puppies abandoned by the road," Dean said in a low voice. "Three of 'em, cold and dead. I thought... God, Sam, people are such dicks."
Yeah, of course Dean hadn't been able to avoid thinking of little lost Castiel when he found that. It certainly explained the cursing Sam had heard earlier.
"There was a fourth one," he said, but didn't bother explaining at Dean's sharp look. In a few steps they were inside, and he opened his coat and let the puppy speak for himself.
For some reason, Christmas was a lot easier after that. Castiel and the puppy both recovered pretty quickly, though Christmas Eve involved a lot of napping and snuggling by the fire. Nobody seemed to mind. The puppy was a gorgeous little mutt, though it turned out she was female. Bobby still had kibble, two years stale, and she didn't mind a saucer of eggs and milk, either. ("All God's chillun got eggnog!" Dean exclaimed, laughing, and Bobby and Sam pretended that it was a good joke, because the poor guy was still a touch hysterical and it only seemed kind.)
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear. Once again, Dean was the one who woke Sam up, shaking him out of a sound slumber, but he woke everyone else, too. The older Winchester was as excited as a little kid, and it was impossible to say no to him. Castiel just blinked and yawned, still curled around the puppy on the couch, but he smiled at Dean's enthusiasm. The tree was pretty and there were presents for everyone. Just small things, mostly, but they already had everything they really needed and wanted.
Cas was happy with the thick, heavy children's encyclopedia, and Sam knew that soon all of the pages would be well-thumbed, every beautiful picture carefully studied and thoroughly loved. Bobby gave him a selection of small wood and metal mechanical puzzles, obviously made by hand in his workshop with scraps of materials, big nails and shiny metal clips and scavenged wood. Dean seemed a little shy about his own present, a very large, squashy package, but the enormous silky teddy bear was pretty obviously Cas's favorite present of all.
Sam and Dean gave each other pretty much the same stuff as last year, because it was hard to break tradition, and presented Bobby with a rare book they had hunted down months ago. For them, Bobby had made a customized case for Sam's lance. And now Bobby even had a dog, too, because no way was he going to give up this little girl.
Last of all, Dean presented a manila envelope he'd been keeping in the desk. "Now, this isn't really a present," he cautioned, handing it to Castiel. "But I figured now was as good a time as any to bring it out."
Cas couldn't quite figure out the little metal brad that held the envelope shut, so Sam helped him, then carefully removed the single sheet of paper inside. It was thick, good-quality, fancy border and important words inside. A birth certificate, the finest forgery could make.
"Jonathan Casper Winchester," Dean said proudly. "There's other paperwork around here somewhere, too, all that custody junk. Don't worry about it. Now no one can say that you aren't really our cousin. And we're keeping you."
In the general uproar that followed, it took Sam quite a while to figure out that Dean had probably picked that name just so Castiel's name could be shortened to "Jonny Cas." Because, really, it would be just like Dean to do that.
Figuring out Christmas hadn't been so hard, after all.