First appeared in Route 666 #4 (2011), from Ashton Press
K Hanna Korossy
"I'm going to town to pick up some stuff for dinner."
Something clanked under the Chevelle, and Dean's legs shifted. Sam had kinda figured that was all the answer he was going to get, but it was still disappointing.
"Bobby's started the turkey, and we've got potatoes and salad and bread, but I figured it wouldn't be Christmas without that canned cranberry sauce you like, and stuffing." He wasn't sure why he was bothering, except he couldn't seem to shut Dean out like his brother had done him. No doubt in part because of the different ways they grieved, Sam needing to talk while Dean needed to rebuild cars and…well, whatever else he had going on inside his head. But also because Sam needed his brother particularly a lot right now, and knew the same was true for Dean whether he admitted it or not.
Dean's boots scuffed in the dirt as he kept working. The unusually warm fall had given way to a typical South Dakota winter, and snow was in the air, but that hadn't stopped Dean from bundling up and crawling under one of the cars in Bobby's lot. He preferred warmer climates, as did Sam, but when Bobby had awkwardly asked them out for Christmas, Dean hadn't even hesitated. It was one of the few spikes of hope Sam had had in those last two months.
He cleared his throat. "Bobby says Miss Cora's got some pies left, too. Got any requests?"
There seemed to be a pause, both of movement and sound. Then something squeaked under the car as it was tightened, or maybe loosened.
Sam nodded wordlessly, lifting his head to look out across the barren landscape of the junkyard. It was never a green place, but in early winter it looked especially inhospitable. The house behind him was warm and glowing with light. Bobby's place was rapidly becoming a sort of home to them, as it had been when they were kids. And the older hunter a father figure to two grieving orphans. Sam had been more grateful than he could express for the invitation for the holidays, the idea of spending this first Christmas with just the two of them, trapped in some depressing motel room, wholly unbearable.
He just wished it felt like he was there with Dean, and not some stranger. Not the guy who'd spent last Christmas watching Buffy and doing Coke shots with Sam to keep him from thinking about Jess being gone. Sam wasn't doing much of a job so far returning the favor.
He sighed. "Yeah, all right. I'll see you later, man." Sam turned away, stumbling back toward the house. Away from the depressing scene and suffocating silence, toward the promise of warmth and a friendly word…but it still felt like loss.
He almost missed the gruff voice behind him. "Pecan."
Sam stopped, not turning back, a flutter of…something in his chest. "Pecan. Okay. Anything else?"
"Take the car, Sammy." It was said even more quietly.
Sam's throat clogged up, eyesight blurring a moment. Dean was still there. Layered in hurt so deep, sometimes Sam could barely reach him, but he was still there. Sam swallowed, nodding again, even if Dean couldn't see him. "Dinner's in an hour, man. Don't make me come drag you in."
Dean just grunted, and the sound of metal on metal started up again.
This time when Sam kept going, however, it was walking to instead of walking away.
Sam had always thought too much.
It had seemed pretty simple to Dean: this was his last Christmas. If they were gonna celebrate any year, it should be this one, right? Make it one for Sam to remember, because he didn't seem to recall much good from the previous ones, and maybe even something for Dean to hang on to down…down below when he was gone.
So, yeah, alcohol, football, Boston Market, and presents, not to mention a day of not thinking about where he'd be a year from now? What wasn't to love about that plan?
Sam had never been one to just live in the moment, though, and Dean should've seen that one coming. That huge overactive brain was already thinking about next year and missing Dean when he was still sitting right there and getting all worked up over this being their last Christmas. Although, it really didn't seem like Sam had any good memories of Christmases before, so Dean wasn't sure why that would matter, and seriously, what was up with that anyway? They'd celebrated Christmas every year, Dean had made sure of that. And it wouldn't be any fun if Dean was celebrating alone, so…yeah. He pretty much wrote off the idea as soon as Sam suggested Dean have a good Christmas without him. Like that was gonna happen.
He couldn't help it: he'd still gone out and gotten Sam a couple of classy gas station mini-mart gifts. But beyond that, Dean had surrendered the idea of a final blowout Christmas. How lame was that, anyway?
And then he'd walked into a room decorated with lights and a scrawny little tree in a bucket and some seriously alcoholic eggnog, and a genuine smile on Sam, even if one tinged with sadness. And suddenly it hadn't seemed like such a stupid idea anymore.
"The Broncos suck."
"Two of their players died in the off-season, Dean. That's gotta affect them."
Yeah, death did that. Dean grunted and took a swig from the beer for which he'd exchanged the nog.
The local Boston Market and Biggerson's were already closed, so they'd gone with a place that was both open and delivered. That meant General Tso's Chicken and fried rice instead of turkey and mashed potatoes, but it had still tasted awesome. Sam had somehow managed to track down a pie, too. The filling was a little too sweet, but it had a great crust and a hard-to-beat combo of plump apples and walnut crunch, which pretty much made it the best dessert ever, especially with the nog. The coffee table was soon a graveyard of paper boxes and plastic containers scraped clean. Dean ended the meal with his gift candy bar and the beer, while Sam idly paged through a skin mag during commercials.
"You know, you're making me uncomfortable reading that here," Dean said with a grin.
"Yeah, right. Because you're such a prude."
"I am when it comes to my brother."
Sam just rolled his eyes and tossed the mag aside.
Dean watched another failed pass, and spoke without looking over. "So, you have any good Christmases at school?"
"Not really," Sam said quietly. "The first year, I didn't tell anybody I was staying over break, so it was pretty quiet. Jess invited me the next two times, and I went during junior year, but…"
Dean glanced over, thumb rubbing against the neck of the bottle nestled against his stomach. "But?"
Sam shifted. "It felt…weird. Like I didn't belong."
Dean pursed his lips and looked deliberately back at the game. Sam didn't know how to belong because their bizarre life was all he'd been exposed to. And now Dean was leaving him alone in that unfamiliar world, and—
"But looking back on it now, I don't know, man, I think I was just missing you and Dad," Sam continued thoughtfully. "I mean, holidays are about family, right?"
Dean had to blink hard before he could throw him a smirk. "Aw, Sammy, you just missed the awesome presents I stole you."
Sam laughed. "Yeah, Dean, that must be it. Nobody ever gave me a training bra or a set of kitchen knives for Christmas at school."
Dean chortled, knocking his boot against Sam's foot. But he was right, the holidays—and every day in between—had always been about family. Just being there together was what made this Christmas.
And this time, Dean was the one who was trying not to think about Sam celebrating alone the next year.
"You don't keep stirring that and it's gonna burn."
Dean startled, looking first up at Bobby, then at the bubbling gravy in the pot in front of him as if he'd never seen it before. Guiltily, he started the spoon circling again.
Bobby sighed. "Son, he said he'd be here in time for dinner."
That drew a snort. "Right. 'Cause Sam's been so good at keeping his word these days."
Bobby stabbed the crisp-skinned bird in the rear end and eyed the thermometer. Another half-hour should do it. He closed the oven door and turned back to his real concern. "He's had a hard year, Dean—we all have."
"You don't have to tell me that, Bobby," Dean said stiffly.
Because, yeah, Hell. Like Bobby needed any reminder. And he knew that Sam's terrible grief still couldn't even begin to compare with what Dean had been through, the memories Bobby had started to see seeping back into the boy's eyes. But that didn't negate Sam's pain, nor the way he was still struggling with his brother's sacrifice.
"Look," Dean sighed, shutting off the stove with a jerk and moving the gravy to a free coil before he turned away. He crossed his arms over his chest, but it just made him look oddly smaller. "I get that he…did some things while I was gone because he didn't know what else to do. Really. But he's still doing it, with her, and the…the lying, and the going around behind my back—"
"Once you get lost, it can take a mighty long time to find your way back again, even with a guide," Bobby cut in with a drawl.
Dean's eyes narrowed at that, darkening briefly in anger until his brain finally kicked in and he thought about the words. Bobby tried not to sigh. Idjits, both of them, almost blind with pain and all their love for each other.
These two boys had become the family Bobby hadn't thought he'd wanted after Karen died, the only people in his life he really loved. They came as often for help and holidays and sometimes just to hang out, as he imagined his own sons might've one day done. But the invite this year had been at least as much about trying to fix a rift that hadn't healed right even with Dean's return, to remind Sam and Dean and even Bobby himself about what was important. What they all still had.
The quiet was interrupted by the stomp of boots on the porch. Even as Dean drew a breath and visibly shored himself up, Sam appeared in the kitchen doorway, pulling off a snowy jacket and smiling tentatively at them both. "It's really coming down out there."
"She handle okay on the road?" Dean asked roughly, turning back to mess with gravy that was already finished.
The coat went on the back of a chair, and Sam was unwinding the long red scarf Bobby had given him as an early Christmas present when he'd discovered Sam didn't have one. "Dude, she's a tank—she didn't even swerve. Might have trouble getting out of here, though, by the time the snow's done." Sam leaned forward to sample the gravy and got swatted for his efforts.
"You get the pie?" Bobby asked the all-important question.
Sam glanced over at him. "Had to go to three places—Miss Cora was out—but the co-op was still open and it had a few left."
Dean made a face. "The co-op? What kind of pie did you get, dude, wheat germ-molasses?"
Sam produced a pair of pans from a paper bag with a flourish. "Sweet potato and tart cherry."
Dean's face lit up. "Okay, you're forgiven."
Something skittered across Sam's face so fast, Bobby almost missed it, and Dean, studying the pies, definitely did. But if he'd had to put a finger on it, Bobby would have called it…longing.
"You get anything else while you were out there?" he asked Sam quietly, pretending not to see Dean's shoulders tense at the question.
"Couple more things for under the tree." Sam smiled, as honest as Bobby had seen him in a long time. He might be struggling, but he was also joyful at having his brother back. Bobby knew how he felt. "And some movies for later on."
"Let me guess, Goonies and The Princess Bride," Dean said with a smirk. But he'd finally relaxed, content for at least that night that they were back to old times, no secrets or lies or baggage. Just family.
On his third try, Sam finally succeeded in sampling the gravy before he got whacked, and was soon deep in a spirited discussion with Dean over what constituted a classic movie and what was a kid flick.
Bobby, for his part, couldn't care less as he leaned back, sipping his Coke and watching the live entertainment. And more grateful than he could say for the company.
Holidays did not have the same meaning in Heaven.
Castiel had walked the earth some months now, and had gone through one "Christ-mas" season already. He understood the idea of an annual commemoration, and approved of its origin even if many now seemed to forget what it was they were celebrating. But the birth of Christ truly was cause for joy, and it was good to see that humans still had some memory of their God.
In Heaven, there was no time in the conventional sense, no cycle of months nor anniversaries. The Great Events were always cause for rejoicing, not just when it was time to commemorate them. In Heavenly time, they had only just happened, were happening, would still happen. They were…always.
In the human world, however, everything was so fleeting.
Even this, Castiel paused outside the window, looking in. This "holiday" they looked forward to and spent such a frenzy of preparation for: the tree they severed from its roots, the fragile ornaments they put out, the perishables they cooked. It was over so quickly, just one night and day, then would not come again for another year. Even for such a momentous commemoration as the Lord's birth, why would humans go through this much trouble? How did they not despair over how transient it all was?
How did they keep hope alive, when he, an angel—or at least some part of an angel—struggled so hard to maintain his own faith?
"You gonna stand out here all night, or are you coming in?"
Some part of him had been aware of the door opening and the man coming out onto the porch, but Castiel's attention had been elsewhere. He finally turned to look at Dean, who stood shivering in front of the open door. Castiel did not need light to see the fatigue that pooled around his…friend's eyes, the halting way he moved or the thinness of his frame under his clothes. "You do not look well."
Dean blew out a breath, a response Castiel had learned to read as affectionately scornful. "Yeah, well, going up against a hellhound will do that to you. So, you coming in or not?"
The last time he had spent an evening in this house had been the night before they had challenged Lucifer, and the Harvelle women had left the living. The loss had been hard on the three men inside, Castiel knew—even he had felt the pain of their sacrifice—and that had been before Dean had grappled with a surviving hellhound. They were a battered and weary remnant, Dean's "Team Free Will," and Castiel had not thought he would be a welcome reminder and had kept his distance. Even tonight, he had only come to…to look in on them and remember why he continued to fight. "I did not mean to intrude."
Dean scoffed outright this time. "Dude, it's Christmas—it's all about intruding on family."
He opened his mouth to point out that he was not family…and closed it again as Dean's eyebrows drew together. Castiel did indeed know better. Sometimes he just…forgot. This was all a new experience for him. Just like the longing he felt to step into the house.
"Cas," Dean whispered, lifting an arm briefly before letting it drop. "C'mon."
He looked again, seeing Sam's shadow looming behind Dean in the doorway now. Probably coming to check on his brother. Castiel had initially been uncomfortable with the younger Winchester, first because of what the Other Side whispered about him, then because of the truly terrible sin he'd committed in releasing Lucifer. But there was a shame and humility now in young Sam Winchester that made it hard to stay angry with him. He was trying hard to make up for what he'd done, and while Castiel still had some doubt he would be able to, it was hard with these Winchesters not to at least feel hope.
Which was, perhaps, why he'd really come, after all.
Castiel moved slowly from the window, across the yard and up the porch steps. Sam had fully materialized behind his brother, and he mirrored Dean's expression of friendly invitation.
Castiel stopped in front of them, looking gravely at them both. "I believe it is customary to wish you a…Christ-mas of merriment."
Dean's mouth twitched, and Sam smiled. "Yeah, merry Christmas to you too, Cas," he said quietly.
"You three gonna get in here, or you wanna let out all the warm air first?" Bobby's voice bellowed from inside.
Dean finally broke into a grin at that, and dropped a hand on Castiel's shoulder to steer him inside. "I bet you've never had eggnog before, have you? 'Cause Sam makes this killer nog…"
The door closed behind them, shutting out the cold and lonely junkyard beyond it.