Spoiler warning: Spoilers for Season 5, with special emphasis on Episodes 4 (The End) and 10 (Abandon All Hope)

Warnings: harsh language

Author note: I do not warn for character death in any of my stories, since I consider it a plot spoiler. If character death is an emotional trigger for you, I urge you to avoid my work. Thank you for understanding.

Disclaimer: All characters from Supernatural are the intellectual property of Eric Kripke, Warner Bros. Television, and Kripke Enterprises. I make no profit from this fanfiction.

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Chapter 4. Epilogue

Looking back, it was a bad idea from the get-go.

Oh, not apocalyptically bad, not on the scale of, "Hey, gang, let's get a gun and go shoot the Devil in the head!" But it was definitely a candidate for Dishonorable Mention in what Bobby has dubbed "The Winchester Idjits Book of Stupid-Ass Stunts That Oughta Get 'Em Killed and Would, But For a Guardian Angel Who Saves Their Sorry Asses, 'Cept He Ain't the Brightest Star in the Night Sky, Neither."

Dean can't exactly argue, since the end result of their not-so-good idea has him out on Bobby's porch applying ice to burns on the angel's hands and face while trying to scrape pasty gunk from the trench coat.

"Dean."

"Yeah, no, shut up." He knows what Castiel's going to say, 'cause the angel said it just two minutes ago, all that bullshit about healing eventually.

Eventually is the key word. Dean's not stupid enough to say it out loud, but he's noticed that nowadays Castiel is taking longer and longer to heal; he can't seem to do the instant fixer-upper he displayed when they first met. So fine, maybe it takes only fifteen minutes to get back to square one, but that's still fifteen minutes of pain Dean doesn't want Cas to suffer.

With that in mind, he tosses the ice over the porch rail and pulls the tube of burn ointment from his pocket, the good prescription stuff with lidocaine in it. He and Sam usually save it for those thankfully rare occasions when one or the other has gotten burned deep enough that he can't sleep (he'll take a knife cut or concussion any day over the relentless sear of a second-degree burn). And yeah, he can already picture the bitchface Sam'll be wearing when he finds out Dean used some of their precious stash on a self-healing angel—but fuck him. This was all Sam's fault, anyway.

Okay, to be fair, maybe not all Sam's fault. Dean might've had something to do with it, showing Sam his last gift from Cas and making some joke about classic Christmas songs. But it would've gone nowhere if College Boy hadn't run up to the attic and come back down carrying something that looked like a frying pan attached to a long wooden handle.

.

"The fuck is that, Sammy?"

"It's an antique bed-warmer; I noticed it when I was looking for the Christmas lights. It's missing its lid, but it should still work fine—we can put it in the fire and not burn our hands trying to hold a regular pan."

"Like hell! I ain't putting food in somebody's bedpan, I don't care how old it is!"

"Bed-warmer, Dean, not bedpan. People used to put hot coals in it and run it over their sheets to warm them before going to bed. No central heating back then."

"Okay, fine. But only if you're sure no one ever used this thing to take a crap in."

.

Except it wasn't fine, 'cause look what happened. Fuck Sam and his fucking enabling of Dean's stupid-ass ideas.

"Dean."

"Unh-uh," Dean grunts around the tube cap clenched in his teeth as he carefully smoothes the ointment over the large blister on the back of Castiel's hand.

"This wasn't Sam's fault."

Okay, fine, it wasn't Sam's fault. All the same, somebody should've put a stop to this before it went too far, somebody who knew what was what. Like Bobby, for instance. If only he'd come out of his room even five minutes earlier, he could've prevented the entire clusterfuck. Instead, he'd arrived just in time for all hell to break loose.

.

"So what're you chuckleheads up to? Been too damn quiet in here, and that always spells trouble with you boys."

Sam grins, balancing the bedwarmer handle on one knee as he stoops before the fireplace, Castiel at his left shoulder. "Hey, Bobby, you came in two minutes too early. We were hoping to surprise you." He shakes the bedwarmer, rattling its contents.

Bobby squints suspiciously, craning his neck to look at the pan. "Whaddaya got there, popcorn? Need a lid if you don't want it all landing in the fire."

"Better than that! Cas got me real chestnuts, so we're roasting them." Dean picks up a newspaper from the tinder box, rolls it into a cylinder, and croons into it like a microphone, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose. Blah, blah-blah-blah, some shit words I forgot, and folks dressed up like Eskimos…"

"Michael Buble won't be losing any sleep tonight," snarks Sam, for which he gets the newspaper microphone bounced off his head. "Jerk!"

"You're just jealous of my fine and sexy singing voice. Hey, are those things done yet? I think I can hear them sizzling."

Bobby leans back in his chair. "Shouldn't be long, then. Damn, been a while since I ate roasted chestnuts—not since I was a whelp. Used ta beg my mom to let me make the cuts in the shells, but she didn't let me handle a knife till I was older. Just as well—slippery little buggers, chestnuts. You manage to get away with all fingers intact, or did Wings here magick the shells for you?"

Three identical looks of confusion are directed at Bobby. "What are you talking about?"

Bobby's eyes widen with horror. "Didn't you make cuts in the shells to let the steam escape?" Met with blank looks, he grabs the wheels of his chair and moves rapidly backwards. "You muttonheaded, featherpated, dimwitted numbskulls! You got serious ordnance in that pan there!"

At that moment, there is a loud popping sound, and a round missile escapes the fireplace to impact hard against the lapel of Castiel's coat.

Suddenly, everything's a flurry of motion: chestnut shrapnel exploding across the room, a dropped bed-warmer, Sam ducking and running, Bobby roaring, "My BOOKS!"—and a blur of tan trenchcoat that manages to be everywhere at once: at the fireplace; in front of Dean, shielding him; pushing Bobby's chair into the safety of the hallway; grabbing the pan from the flames—

A voice sounds in his head, "Dean, the sigils!" and he swipes his elbow to break the lines. After that, there's a blast of frosty air accompanied by the muffled reports of the remaining chestnuts as they explode in the snow outside, and—

.

—here they are. There's an angry red mark right on Castiel's cheekbone, way too close to his eye for comfort, but even as Dean fumbles with the ointment, it fades away. For some reason, this act of self-healing adds to Dean's frustration instead of soothing it, because at least he'd felt halfway useful for the past few minutes. It's yet another example of timing gone wrong; none of this had to happen at all if only—

"Dean."

Dean scowls as he recaps the tube and slides it in his pocket. "Fine, it's not Bobby's fault, either. So who does that leave? Oh, wait—what a surprise! The Daily Fuck-up Award once again goes to our perennial champ—"

"Stop." Castiel's hand clamps down on Dean's wrist hard enough to hurt. "You're…boring me."

Somehow that statement made in the usual gravelly monotone hits Dean just the right way, and he's startled out of his dark mood into a snort of laughter. "Fine, dude, message received. God forbid I should harsh your party squee. Rock on, Garth!"

Okay, wait for it, wait for it

The lips part, the eyes cut sideways, and yes! Another stick in the spokes of angel Babelfish. Sometimes Dean wonders if he's turning himself into a babbling font of pop-culture references just for the pleasure of eliciting that expression from his angel…uh, the angel. Cas. Whatever.

Surprisingly, Castiel's confused expression morphs into a casual shrug. "You didn't harsh my squee, Dean. I've enjoyed this Christmas very much."

Dean blinks. "Dude. You got that?"

"Yes. I've broadened my cultural references to encompass those of a human twenty years older than you, and ten years younger. Although I'm not certain why." Castiel loosens his grip on Dean's wrist but doesn't let go.

Dean feels his face heat up. "Cable reruns, man. Let's leave it at that." He ought to pull his hand away from Castiel but doesn't, taking comfort in the warmth of his long fingers. "So, you, uh, liked Christmas, then? Deadly exploding chestnuts and all?" He uses his free hand to scratch idly at some residue stuck on Castiel's lapel, residue that disappears even as he touches it.

"Yes, deadly exploding chestnuts and all." Castiel's eyes shine. "I believe you have an expression: some day, we will look back on this and laugh."

"You really think we'll get the chance?"

"Have faith, Dean."

And maybe it's the ridiculous memory of him and Sam running around screaming under the onslaught of flying nut products, or the sound of Bobby's blistering diatribe on the essential fucknuttery of "idjits who damage my goddamn books!" …or maybe the image of Castiel placing himself between Dean and harm once again, or just the lingering warmth of the angel's hand even after he has released his wrist…maybe it's any one of these or all of them put together that ignite a tiny flare in Dean's chest—not faith, nothing that strong or certain, but just a spark of hope that somehow they'll all make it through in the end.

"C'mon," he tugs at Castiel's sleeve, "let's get back inside and repaint the sigils. Don't need any gatecrashers at our family celebration."

Castiel's expression softens for a moment before it resolves into determination tinged with regret. "Since I'm outside now, I should go."

"Already?" The protest slips out before he can catch it, but yeah, Dean's pretty sure he's exceeded the Maximum Allowable Chick-Flick Moments Per Sentimental Holiday, so he reels in his disappointment and mans up. "I mean, sure. Gotta strike while the iron's hot. All that singing and praying going on; Big Guy's probably out and about today."

"I have no idea," Castiel confesses, "but I have to hope."

For the first time, Dean wonders what Castiel's quest must be like. He imagines the angel moving through crowds of people who are begging for God's attention even as a manifestation of Heaven walks unnoticed in their midst. He pictures Cas windblown on snowy, jagged mountaintops, pacing restlessly through arid deserts, standing silent and watchful in old growth forests—vigilant, focused, and always, always alone.

"Hey," he rasps, and places a hand on Castiel's lapel, pulling him a little closer, "before you go, there's something I gotta say." He keeps his eyes on the scarf he's adjusting, its soft folds pristine once more, like the trench coat and everything else about Castiel. "Most of my life, it was just me, my dad, and Sam. Nobody else ever really stuck around, or maybe it was us who never stuck to anybody… Then I lost my dad, and all I asked was, just let me keep Sam. If I could have Sam until the end, I'd be all right."

Dean releases the scarf and forces his gaze up to meet calm blue eyes. "You know how that worked out for me; it's where you came in. And ever since then, things have…" he spreads his hands. "And Sam's still at the center of things, but there's Bobby, too, and Ellen and Jo once but not anymore. And you. And that thing I used to think, about being all right with only Sam—now I'm not so sure."

Castiel is staring again, eyes slightly squinted like when he doesn't quite understand something but really, really wants to. Dean takes pity on him (he didn't mean to play Confuse an Angel this time), so he cuts to the chase. "What I'm saying is, be careful out there, 'kay? Watch out for dicks with wings or demon bitches or even speeding trucks or shit like that. 'Cause it's important to me that you…it's important."

And Dean really hopes Cas doesn't give him Confused Head Tilt, 'cause he can feel heat creeping up his neck in spite of the cold, and he doesn't think he could repeat any of that even on a bet.

To his relief, Castiel does his smile thing where his eyes light up, giving the impression that he's beaming even though his mouth barely moves. "I will," he says, and the words spoken in that low, serious voice sound like a promise. "You take care as well. You're…important, too."

Okay, Dean's neck is practically on fire, and he's fairly certain that additional declarations in this vein would veer awfully close to ministers and vows and exchange of rings (not to mention Sam laughing his ass off if he were to overhear any of it), so he coughs and changes the subject. "So, um, anyway, good luck hunting. And listen, maybe tonight you'll be busy cracking a few beers with your old man—but if that doesn't pan out, you're welcome to rejoin the party here. Probably just Chinese food and dumb movies, but we'd be, uh, glad to have you."

"Thank you, Dean," and there's another of Castiel's "beaming smiles" (someday, Dean swears, he's gonna make Cas show some teeth), an errant gust of wind, and Dean finds himself alone on the porch between one blink and the next.

He works his jaw a few times until his ears pop, and fights back a curious feeling of loss, 'cause, come on, seriously, he's not a chick. Besides, Cas all but promised he'd be back tonight—maybe, probably—and Dean intends to hold him to his word, even if he has to text him twenty million times.

Still not a chick, though. Shut up.

With that last thought, Dean goes back into the house, leaving the crisp air behind as he's drawn into the warmth inside. He inhales the green, festive scent of the Christmas tree interlaced with the rich fragrance of his coffee from the kitchen, listens to the sound of Bobby grouching comfortably in the living room as Sam replies with his easy laugh, their conversation punctuated by the thump of books being moved around.

He feels the cool press of metal against his chest, thinks about where he got it from, which brings an answering bloom of warmth from deep inside. 'Cause see, he was right:

Most awesome Christmas ever.

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The End

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Thank you to everyone who took the time to read this story; you've made a relative newbie to the SPN fandom feel very welcome. A special warm hug to those who reviewed and kept me going in my efforts, even though I fell dreadfully behind in writing and posting the rest of this Christmas story. (Hey, post-Valentine's Day isn't too late, is it? Huh? Huh? :D)