A/N: This is the next story in a mild AU/canon divergence series called The Other Guardian 'verse. There is a more detailed note about it on my profile, but in brief: after Dean is raised from Hell by Castiel, an entire year passes before the Lilith rises and the seals start to break. During that time, Castiel is assigned to watch over the Winchesters, and finds himself growing closer and closer to Sam.
This story follows "Thanksgiving at Bobby's" and "Darkness Rising," but can be read as standalone. This story will be updated every day until December 25th (or possibly 26th if I come up with an epilogue).
Notes: Cas and Sam centric, slash and pre-slash. Plenty of Dean too, mostly in a humorous capacity. Please enjoy.
Special note: This is the second-to-last chapter, the climax in many ways. Enjoy.
Finale: December 25
Cas was on TV. Not Cas the creepy fucker in a trench coat with a five o'clock shadow smeared like dirt over his jawline—Dean never expected to see that guy on the evening news unless it was in a story announcing a manhunt—but Cas the badass angel of the Lord with the shadows of his enormous fuck-off wings splashed all over the courthouse. The video was blurry at best, the kind of thing Dean would assume was faked if he hadn't been standing right there, wondering if the battle between Heaven and Hell was about to smash down on him and a hundred grimy hippies—all the same, Dean flopped down on the couch in the living room and unmuted the TV, upping the volume until he could hear the moderately hot announcer over the corny Christmas CD Sam had put on while they gobbled down takeout Chinese.
"…was it a prank, a hoax, or a true Christmas miracle?" the anchor was saying. "Eyewitnesses are reporting that the wings in this clip appeared only moments after a power outage that lasted less than a second but happened simultaneously citywide. Authorities at the Boulder County Courthouse have issued a statement insisting that they did not approve the demonstration, and asking anyone with information to come forward…"
"Keep dreaming, sister," Dean said under his breath. He glanced over his shoulder down the hallway toward the master bedroom, but Cas and Sam were still hiding out in there apparently; he had no idea what they were up to, but he wasn't really surprised to be left out—it was the same old at this point.
Dean had been out of his head in the seconds before that power outage—Bobby hadn't been much better, and he'd been yelling at Dean the whole time to tell him what was going on, which was tough when Dean himself had no fucking clue. One minute Cas was stranding him on the courthouse steps with a yard full of cheerful hippies, and the next the whole street was lit up like the goddamn Fourth of July, and Castiel was doing his shadow puppet routine on the side of the building. Dean hadn't had time to pick his jaw up off the freezing concrete yet when Castiel had appeared next to him, looking like Superman with a six-foot-four Lois Lane passed out in his arms. Dean's brain had been spinning so fast he hadn't even given the angel any crap about it—just shoved Sam in the car and took off for the Gerbers' while Cas disappeared, briefly, probably to airlift the bells back to Heaven so that they didn't have to shoot off any more fireworks. One shaky YouTube video of Christmas angels was probably enough.
For a guy who was usually about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the back of the head, Castiel had been really annoyingly vague about what happened on the roof; Sam had been even vaguer, when he finally woke up from a twelve-hour power coma at about noon that day, but Dean sort of expected that from his little brother, because Sam had always been a dodgy sucker. Being left in the dark pissed him off more than a little, but he had enough of the pieces to guess that Sam had probably done something really stupid, and the wing display had been Castiel saving his brother's ass, not just showing off for the grassroots crowd. That had bought the angel at least twenty-four hours of goodwill, Dean had decided, and he hadn't even thrown a fit when the two disappeared into the master bedroom, which he'd let Sam have the night before since he was still unconscious when they'd rolled into the Gerbers' driveway. But they'd been in there for like ten minutes now, and it was getting ridiculous. Dean kicked the girly snowflake blanket Sam had been using all month off the end of the couch and then seized a snowman pillow, settling it behind his head. If they were banging in there, he was going to be pissed—he still had to sleep on that bed at least one more night before they got the fuck out of Dodge.
His cell phone buzzing on the coffee table pulled Dean's thoughts away from the closed bedroom door, and he leaned forward to scoop it up, cutting off the Grinch ringtone. "Bobby," he greeted. "If you're calling to check on Sam again, I'm hanging up—it's been like two hours."
"He went off a building, Dean," Bobby griped. "And then he slept for half a day without so much as a groan. I think I'm entitled to a few phone calls."
Bobby was in a pissy mood, apparently—Dean could practically feel the older hunter's spit spraying his face through the phone. He fought back the urge to wipe his cheek. "Yeah, yeah—fine. Here's your status update. Sammy's fine, we ate like twenty pounds of Chinese food, and I even got half a beer in him before he and Cas disappeared somewhere. They're still being a secretive pair of fuckers," Dean added. He had more to say on that subject, but Bobby just sighed, apparently tired of hearing it.
"For crying out loud, boy. It's Christmas. Your brother's alive, even though a prophet of the Lord saw him take a swan dive off that roof—you want to lay off a little already?"
Bobby was always taking Sam's side in the end. Dean didn't need a lecture right now, though, so he cut the older hunter off before he could really hit his stride, absently turning the volume down on the TV again. "Yeah, whatever. Hey, did you get that picture I sent you of your present?"
"I am not wearing that," Bobby told him flatly.
"Oh, come on!" Dean protested. He kicked at a box under the table, knocking the new apron out onto the floor and grinning at the bright red words. "'Show me your buns and I'll show you my dog'? That's classic. Where's your sense of humor?"
"Dead as of 11:53 yesterday night," Bobby grumbled over the phone.
Dean wasn't paying much attention to him anymore, though, because the bedroom door had squeaked open and Sam and Cas were finally making an appearance again, heading in his direction down the hall. Cas had been wearing his normal trench coat all day, but he was down to just his white button-down shirt and black slacks now, which sort of pissed Dean off on principle—at least all his buttons still looked angel-perfect, so Sam had probably just talked the clothes off of him instead of going for a more hands-on approach. Sam was smiling, and he looked less like a zombie than he had in days, which was good because Dean had been worried that pretty soon he was going to have to pull a salt-and-burn on his own undead little brother—way more importantly, though, Sam had a present under his arm, topped with a squashed blue bow, and Dean had a pretty good idea who it was for. He kicked his way up from the couch and met the pair at the top of the stairs.
"Hey, Bobby—you really want to know how Sam is? Why don't you talk to the growth that's been attached to his side for the last four weeks." He put his hand over the earpiece to muffle the sounds of Bobby cursing his bones, and then he held the phone out to Castiel, nodding his head toward Harold Gerber's office, which had everything an office should have except a box of illegal Cubans. "Here, Cas," he said. "I need you to take this phone into the office and talk to Bobby for no less than twenty minutes. Not nineteen—the full twenty, no matter how many times you have to hit the redial button. You got me?"
Cas looked at the phone like it was a barracuda ready to gnaw his face off, but in the end he reached out for it, holding it carefully up to his ear as he walked away. "Hello. Yes. No, I am not allowed to return the phone yet." Sam gave him a look, the bitchface trademarked for the stunts he pulled on their clueless guardian angel—but what the hell was the point of having a jester around 24/7 if he couldn't even get anything out of it? Dean just reached out and slung an arm over his brother's shoulders.
"C'mon, Sammy. Present time. Did you get me porn again this year?"
Sam switched gears to another bitchface, but Dean didn't mind this one as much—this one meant Sam was going to give him what he wanted, he just preferred to whine about it first.
The flat box under Sam's arm was not stuffed full of porn, which sort of sucked, since Dean was definitely in withdrawal after a month in Gerber rehab—instead the older Winchester pulled back the paper to find a pair of brown leather gloves, which felt soft enough to tell him they were expensive. Dean held them up to the light and squinted at the wool inside.
"Cool. Serial killer gloves."
Sam slapped him on the shoulder—a very weak and girly slap that Dean only decided to let pass because his brother had been in a very weak and girly faint for most of the last day. "They're driving gloves," Sam insisted. Dean shrugged.
"Multipurpose gloves, then," he said. When Sam rolled his eyes like an angsty, misunderstood teenager, Dean reached out and popped him in the shoulder—with a manly punch, obviously. "Thanks," he offered, since one word was usually enough to squeak under the chick flick radar. Sam's gooey eyes were about to push them over, though, so Dean switched tacks fast, stepping back to slap his gloves down on the dining room table. "If you wanted me to know they were driving gloves, you should've gotten me a driving sock, too," he said.
Sam just blinked. "A what?"
Now it was Dean's turn to roll his eyes, because surely he'd taken the time to teach Sam these things at a critical stage in his life. "A driving sock. To shove down my pants."
Dean was pretty sure he'd seen that bitchface on the neutered Chihuahua across the street. Fortunately, it was gone a second later, when Sam opened his present and looked up at Dean with a confused Pug expression instead.
"Dude, you got me a box of two hundred lighters?" Sam asked, lifting a little red one out and rolling it over in his hand. Dean laughed as he set the box down next to his gloves.
"Nah, not really. I mean, those are for us, yeah—we tore through our last box a few weeks ago. But no, that's not your present. Here."
Dean had tucked Sam's real present under the coffee table next to Bobby's apron. He'd even gotten it gift-wrapped at the sissy mom store, which he'd been able to stand in for exactly eleven minutes before he felt his manhood starting to degrade, and then he'd found a green bow the size of a honey-baked ham to stick on top, along with his brother's name written in Sharpie. But apparently there was just no pleasing some people, because Sam had barely pulled back the corner of the paper before he was shooting Dean another one of his preteen glares, holding the present away from him like he was afraid to be infected by whatever Dean had.
"You stole me the Gerbers' snowflake blanket?"
"What? No! I bought you your own snowflake blanket," Dean said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the pile of white and blue stuffed down next to the couch. "You always complain about being cold when we sleep in the car, but you seemed pretty damn happy to chill on this couch for a month, so…"
For a second Sam's expression got all murky, like Dean had missed something—it was gone again just as quick, though, and Sam finished pulling the paper back, holding up the puffy white fleece and inspecting it from all sides. "And you left the '50% Off' sticker on it, too," his pain-in-the-ass little brother remarked, his tone dry like it always was when he thought he was being funny. "So thoughtful, Dean."
Dean just snorted. "Hey, I wasn't gonna pay full price for that piece of crap. And I spent the rest of the money on those lighters, so it's not like you didn't get it in the end. Greedy little bastard."
Sam was shaking his head, giving him the patented you're-an-idiot-and-I-don't-know-how-we-share-DNA look—but he was also smiling, and Dean was happy with that, because he hadn't seen his brother smiling at him in at least three days, and that was too fucking long. Sam reached around him to set the snowflake abomination on the table, too, and then drew back, tucking that same girly strand of hair behind his ear.
Dean knew what came next in the annual holiday gift-giving sapfest: the issue of the Christmas hug. Sam had his doe eyes out in full force and was shuffling his feet like he was going to go for it, and usually this was the part where Dean sidestepped his gigantor brother or suggested more alcohol, in the hopes that they could all be falling down drunk before anybody had to touch anybody else. But for once he stood his ground, and then held out his arms to the side and just let Sam barrel on in—because fuck it, it was Christmas, and they were both alive, their bellies full of six-pack beer and mushu pork, and Dean could be charitable for an hour before he drank himself into a nose-dive and then crashed like a galaxy destroyer.
It was only one day, after all.
Sam stumbled a little under his brother's weight, reaching out a hand to brace against the wall of the long hallway leading to the master bedroom. His hand slid against a framed picture of an eerily lifelike snowman, knocking it askew, and Dean muttered something about melting the fucker with Tina's hairdryer. The tall hunter just shook his head a small smile playing at the corner of his lips and hoisted Dean's arm to wrap more securely around his neck.
His brother had been running on fumes for as long as Sam had these past few days, plus all the hours Sam had been sleeping, or passed out—there wasn't a consensus between his brother and the angel about that one, and last he'd heard Dean was waiting for Bobby to weigh in.
Dean had gotten drunk, torn into the boxes of Chinese food like the great famine was coming, and then passed out into a fat snowman pillow and started drooling onto its eye. Sam couldn't have cared less about Frosty. Castiel had told Sam in a low voice over Dean's sprawled form that the hunter had barely left Sam's side the entire time he had been unconscious, sitting on the edge of the Gerbers' bed and alternating between giving Sam words of encouragement and very explicit threats.
Sam shook his head, his long hair sliding into his face as he turned to look at his brother. Dean's eyes were at half-mast, with the lids slipping down every few seconds and remaining glued to his cheeks longer and longer. Sam had opted to rouse him from the couch long enough to help him stumble to the master bedroom. And Dean had grouched, and cussed out the snowman as the carrot nose went directly into his eye when he tried to roll over and ignore him. In the end they were walking together, with Dean's hand gripping Sam's neck at moments when his eyes fell open enough for him to watch his footsteps, and the tall hunter half carrying him the rest.
Dean deserved to be carried from time to time, too. Sam was certain that Castiel would have been more than willing to lift his brother and bear him to his destination, just as he was certain that Dean would resist adamantly if he tried. His brother counted on him, and in moments like this, with the warm air rushing out of the heaters and sleep hanging in the air, Sam didn't really want it any other way.
The door to the bedroom wasn't closed all the way, and Sam lifted a foot, pushing it open gently. It creaked on its hinges, making Dean's eyes shoot wide for one moment under his crazy mess of hair, and he shook Sam off finally, stumbling his way forward to fall face first onto the thick white and blue comforter. The entire bed, from the down blankets to the memory foam, seemed to rise up to swallow him.
Sam felt something warm in his heart watching his brother wiggle toward the center, dragging at whatever covers he could grab and burying his face into the pillows. It was the same warm feeling that he had gotten from Dean's gift—more thoughtful than porn but still undeniably accompanied by that particular brand of older brother mocking. It was the warmth of those hands, roughened by years of holding a gun, fixing a car, and taking care of Sam. The tall hunter walked over to the side of the bed where nothing more than the top of his brother's head poked out by this point. He reached a hand down to straighten the edge of the blanket, more for the chance to feel the solid form resting under the covers one last time than anything else.
"Merry Christmas, Dean," he whispered, watching the lump roll over, the feet kicking back and forth to warm up the sheets. "Sleep well."
Sam backed away slowly, only pausing for a moment to lean down where the brown coat he had been wearing the day before was tossed in a careless heap on the floor. The edge of the wrapped blue box was jutting from the corner of the pocket. Sam removed it carefully, tugging at the ribbons that had been flattened lying between the heavy material and the carpet.
His socked feet were almost silent against the floor. The bedroom door closed with a soft click, and then the only sound was the soft swishing of his footsteps. The package didn't look as pretty with part of the blue paper scuffed up, and the silver ribbon irreparably bent. Sam let his fingers slide along the edge.
It had survived somehow, though—that was the amazing thing, and no matter what shape it was in, he still wanted to give it to Cas. Sam paused in the hallway, straightening the picture he had knocked askew and staring at the coal-black eyes. He hadn't managed to give the angel the present before, but maybe that was because it had been complicated by hopes, and bells, and especially mistletoe.
The tall hunter swallowed away something uncomfortable. He had thought that he was wrapping his heart when he had turned the box round and round in his hands, and there was no taking it out now, but maybe he had been going about this all wrong. He should have given Castiel the present much earlier, with a smile, a casual touch—as a friend.
Sam fiddled with the frame for a moment longer, but then accepted that it would probably always be crooked and took a deep breath, heading back toward the living room with renewed determination. Because it wasn't too late.
When Sam rounded the corner he was surprised to find that the lights were off and the tree had been turned on, its little lights twinkling through the twilight. Castiel straightened from behind the green branches, turning to look at Sam as his steps slowed in the entrance. Friends was a beautiful word, and Sam wasn't quite sure why it seemed to stick somewhere in the vicinity of his heart.
It wasn't really dark enough yet for the tree. The sun had just started to sink, the last of its rays shining through the windows with a golden glow, but Sam found his gaze lingering on the soft bulbs, tracing their pattern as he had so many nights with the angel so close Sam's outstretched fingers brushed his leg where he sat. They kept ending up right here in this room, with these lights, Sam reaching out, Cas reaching out, and the rest of the world plunging into darkness.
Sam's voice was soft, but the word drew the angel toward him, the same magnetism that Sam himself seemed unable to resist, no matter how many times he warned himself of the outcome. Friends, he reminded himself, clearing his throat and sitting down on the edge of the couch. The coffee table had been pushed almost to the TV, and the tall hunter had cleared away the boxes of takeout before his brother could put a red-painted toenail into the remains of the lo mein. Now it seemed like there was too much space somehow, and Sam had nowhere to set the gift in his hands.
"So, Dean's asleep," he informed the angel as Castiel sat down next to him. He was too far to lean against, but maybe too close to turn and look at without leaning in toward blue eyes. The distance was impossible to judge, because Sam wasn't sure his heart had really understood the meaning of friendship. And he suddenly wasn't sure he really wanted that.
Just sitting next to Cas made his heart skip strangely. His toes wiggled against the carpet, and every nerve in his entire body tingled with the urge to move closer, promised that bliss was just six inches away. Sam bit his lip.
"I didn't get a chance earlier with all the…you know…" The tall hunter trailed off, glancing over and meeting blue eyes for just a second before he focused on the damaged present in his hands. "Well, anyway—I have a Christmas present for you, Cas." He lifted the little package from his lap.
Castiel looked down, studying the box before his gaze lifted to find Sam's. His brows were drawn together and his head tilted slightly.
"I do not have anything for you," the angel said. His voice was flat, but Sam thought he could sense another emotion somewhere in that tone—or maybe he was just wishing it was there.
The irony was that he had once told Cas that with love—real love—you just know, no matter who you are, no matter where you are. He just hadn't thought he was talking about himself. But there was no denying that the word friend had become impossibly too restricting, and his heart was running away again. Running from all Sam's good sense, and toward the angel.
"Well," Sam said, smiling and pressing the present into the angel's hands, "you saved my life, you know…so that can probably count as my present this year." His tone was playful, and Castiel's eyes lingered on the curve of his lips as he took the gift. "Open it," Sam urged, letting his socked foot slide closer to the angel's.
"Thank you, Sam," Castiel said, turning the box upside down and pulling the paper away. The tall hunter waited with a giddy anticipation, holding his breath in with the swirling butterflies. The paper was set aside on the couch and Castiel turned the cardboard box back over to stare at the cover, which depicted a small black flip phone, little white bubbles pointing out the features.
Sam had gotten Cas the simplest prepaid cell phone he could find, and then called in enough cards to fill it with eight hours' worth of minutes. He would have to show the angel how to use it, but that was the part Sam was looking forward to the most.
The angel had a look of concentration, and Sam scooted a few inches closer to lay a finger on the picture of the phone, tapping it twice.
"It's a cell, Cas—like the ones we have," he breathed. "So that, you know…you can stay in touch." The words tumbled out one after another, and Sam couldn't quite pinpoint the reason his heart was hammering so wildly—only that he was trying to bridge that distance between them again, hold onto some human bond.
The box lowered in Cas's hands, coming to rest against his thighs, and his head lifted to show an unreadable expression. Was it curiosity on the angel's face? Emotion? Hope?
"Sam," he said slowly, "prayer is a far more effective means of communication for angels."
Sam's heart plunged into ice. There was something in Castiel's eyes, something in his voice maybe, but it wasn't what Sam wanted. He nodded almost mechanically.
"I have no need of this," the angel finished.
Sam had no idea what expression he had on—a blank mask, maybe—but inside his ribs were squeezing too tight against his chest, and a burn had started in the back of his throat. No need. The words echoed around in Sam's head—or maybe it was his heart. After all, it took a vast, empty space to create an echo.
"Right. Of course." The empty words fell from his lips, and he reached shaking hands out to wrap his fingers around the little box, pulling it from the angel's loose grip. From the very start, maybe the distance had just been too wide—one tiny human looking up at the sparkling dots in the sky and imagining he could touch a star. Sam tried to force a smile onto his lips as wetness stung behind his eyes. "I mean, it's a human thing, right?" he said in a dismissive tone that made him want to cringe away from himself. "Needing things."
And Sam had meant to tell Cas something else, to say something that had the word friendship in it but didn't sound bitter, but his traitorous heart had different plans. He squeezed the phone between his fingers.
"You were here this whole time, Cas," Sam whispered, shaking his head back and forth. "But you're still so far away." His emotions were too close to the surface, with none of his usual protections—no wall of lies, no convenient retreat, no quick escape from the pain. He had set out with the knowledge that he might break his heart over this, and now it was time to do it.
Castiel looked uncertain, the empty hand where the present had rested curling closed as his eyes searched Sam's face. "I am right here, Sam."
"But you're not, are you?" Sam felt the first warm tear sliding down his cheek, followed by another and another. He lifted a hand, reaching it toward the angel. Cas tipped his head slightly as Sam's hand hovered by his jaw, but in the end the hunter thrust his fingers into the space behind him—the empty space where his wings were—and as his fingers reached desperately into the air, Sam felt nothing, not even the barest brush against his heart.
He had thought he'd seen the Castiel's wings finally, for one long moment, as he hung suspended in the air, falling from the roof. The great shadows of feathers had spread across the courthouse, but there had been something else too, shining through the blackness of the demon. Something real—something that Sam could almost feel, as Castiel's body slammed into him, starting his heart beating again.
His fingers were empty now, and Castiel's eyes had darkened, filling with something that looked like the beginning of an apology to Sam. He didn't want that.
"I'm not even close, am I?" He withdrew his hand slowly, letting it hang suspended for a moment before dropping. He could feel the tears coursing down his face, blurring the form of the angel. There was no sorry in a broken heart—nothing but a waterfall of tears that had to empty from the overflowing ocean of the heart before the tide could recede.
Sam offered the angel a watery smile. He could see concern on Castiel's face, or maybe some amount of pain, and even though it hurt it was a genuine smile.
"We had a lot of moments, Cas," he told the other man. "Beautiful moments…human moments." Sam tasted salt in his mouth with the words, and he moved his fingers forward, just enough to touch the very edge of the angel's white shirt. "But the thing about moments is that they don't last—they pass us by." He took hold of the white material between his fingers. Cas's eyes traveled from the hand to Sam's tears, and for once the angel's emotions were right there, but too hazy for Sam to read.
"Sam…" Castiel said, his voice rough and low. Sam's fingertips tugged against the white fabric and he squeezed his eyes shut against the sound.
"No, Cas, just…" Sam looked up, releasing the tight grip with a soft sigh. "This is a moment, passing us by. My whole life is going to be just a moment in the end, passing you by."
The tears were so wet they were choking Sam, drowning him, but he made no effort to stop their flow, letting the warm wetness cover his cheeks and fall around him. He wanted to let it go, wanted to stop his own heart, leave it somewhere else for just a moment and remember how to use his head, but Sam was a wave unable to stop breaking himself against the same shore over and over.
"I want this so badly, Cas," he told the angel, tipping his head to look up pleadingly at something beyond both of them. "But I can't have it, can I?" The tears slowed finally back to single drops, chasing each other from his eyes one at a time. "Because you don't want this…or maybe you just don't need me."
Sam looked down at the box in his hands. In spite of everything, it was a question on his lips, bated breath in his lungs, and his heart he was holding out to Castiel, asking him to break it one more time.
Castiel's hands ached. He had not known what to do with the cell phone box, but its absence was excruciating, the emptiness tangible as his fingers rested, half curled, in his lap, his eyes locked on Sam. One of Sam's hands was still just brushing his sleeve, a grip so tenuous Castiel would never have dared to break it, but the other was wrapped around the box in his lap, his long fingers clinging to the cardboard corner as if searching for something to anchor him. Castiel longed to reach out and take it back, but he had missed his chance, and he was not sure Sam would give it to him anymore. For a long moment he sat helplessly next to everything he wanted, watching the tears on Sam's face glitter like broken glass in the hushed light.
Need. It was such a human concept. It had taken Castiel a long time to understand that when humans said they needed something, they did not mean only air and water and shelter from the dark, the things that kept their hearts beating; that more often they meant abstract things—freedom, purpose, faith, love—and most often, they meant each other. Angels did not need anything, but that was no longer true of him. Castiel understood it now—that deepest kind of need. He felt the ache of it in his bones every time he looked at Sam Winchester.
Another tear slid down the soft curve of Sam's jaw, and Castiel felt the answering clench in his chest; the force had been so strong, in the moment when Sam first began crying, that the angel had thought his vessel was collapsing, his ribs suddenly caving into the hollowness of his lungs. Now he realized that the physical pain was secondary, only a reaction to the desperation pulsing like a heartbeat in his ears, racing with the need to soothe him. Castiel had seen Sam cry before, but he didn't remember ever being the cause. The sensation was almost unbearable.
You don't want this. You don't need me. It still amazed Castiel, after all this time, how humans could be so certain of things about which they were so wrong.
Castiel reached out to lay two hesitant fingers on top of the cell phone box; Sam didn't stop him from taking it, but his hand clenched into a loose fist as soon as the angel lifted it away, his breath rattling in his unsteady lungs. Castiel studied the front of the package again. He did not understand all of the words written there, bright red letters explaining about minutes and rates and battery life—but he understood the words in the bottom right corner, next to a picture of a smiling woman with dark eyes: The easiest way to stay connected, no matter where you are. Castiel set the box down behind him and glanced up in time to see another tear roll down Sam's cheek, wavering for a moment at his chin before falling into the weave of his cream-colored sweater. The expression on his face was so open, so resigned, and it cut right through Castiel's vessel to the center of his being, leaving him breathless and sore.
Castiel had never truly understood the term heartbreak. He thought he did now.
"You are wrong, Sam."
The soft words lifted Sam's head, and he blinked back at the angel, the motion shaking another tear loose from the corner of his eye. Castiel watched it slide down the curve of his cheekbone and vowed he would not let one more fall.
"What?" Sam asked. His voice was rough and dry, and his eyebrows drew together, his expression drowning in so much sadness and doubt. Castiel tipped his head to one side.
"You are wrong," he repeated, just as quietly. "I do need you, Sam."
He longed to reach out and take Sam's hand, or at least to rest his palm over the warm crests of his knuckles, to still Sam's shaking hands—but he did not know if the touch was welcome, so he held himself back, unwilling to hurt Sam any more than he already had. Perhaps if he understood human emotions as more than vague intuition, a conflict of sense and reason at the edge of his comprehension—if he knew what he had missed, in that moment under the mistletoe, when the whole world had seemed to be holding its breath—he wouldn't have done so much harm in the first place.
Sam exhaled into a small sigh. It was such a soft sound, barely strong enough to carry across the six inches between them, but it was all Castiel needed to know that Sam did not believe him. The young man squeezed his eyes shut and then shook his head, his chin dropping as his hands tightened into fists.
"Cas, please—you don't have to—"
"Sam," Castiel broke in. Sam stopped at once, as he always did, whenever Castiel said his name, but he kept his head bowed, his gaze fixed resolutely on his lap. Castiel breathed out and found it impossible to breathe in again, the expression on Sam's face sinking like a physical weight into the depths of himself. "Sam, I would like you to look at me. Please," he murmured—the second time in two days that he had been left with nothing but prayer.
Sam lifted his head slowly. Castiel had intended to take nothing he was not offered, to be infinitely gentle with this fragile creature he had hurt so easily—but Sam's eyes coming open sent a tear spiraling down his face, and in that instant Castiel found that he had lost control of himself, one hand rising to cup the slope of Sam's cheek and catch the tear with the pad of his thumb. Sam blinked twice and Castiel watched his eyelashes brush his face, each black curve striking against his shimmering wet skin; it was a beauty he never wanted to see again, if the price was Sam broken open like this. Castiel pressed his lips together.
"If you had perished in the battle with Archosias, my life would have ended as well," he said simply. He heard Sam's breath catch in his throat.
The word broke and Sam let it hang, staring back at Castiel with wide hazel eyes. He still sounded uncertain, his expression wavering—but he was leaning toward Castiel now, just a tiny slant to his body, just enough to tell the angel he was listening. Castiel traced his thumb over Sam's cheekbone and watched those eyes flicker closed, sending one more tear spiraling down the other side of his face; Castiel slid his hand down to cradle the young man's jaw and caught it at the corner of Sam's mouth, wiping it softly away with the backs of his fingers. He breathed in and the inhale throbbed in his chest—so much pressure and tension he barely understood.
"I lived an eternity before I met you, Sam. But that eternity is meaningless now. All time without you is meaningless," he said, resting his thumb against Sam's trembling lips. Sam shook his head softly.
"I don't understand," he whispered. He leaned in just a little farther, so that their knees brushed together at the edge of the couch; Castiel glanced down at the soft abrasion of cloth and bone as a frown crossed his face.
Human words were so insubstantial, so changeable, and no matter how simple or straightforward they never seemed to convey what he wanted. He wanted Sam to feel everything that he meant, everything that he felt, the way that he felt it, in the breathlessness between every heartbeat and the throbbing of his bones at every place they touched. It wasn't enough for Sam to understand—Castiel needed him to believe. For a long moment he was silent, studying Sam's expression in the play of light and shadow, the Christmas lights soft on his face now as the tracks of saltwater slowly dissipated from his skin; then Castiel tipped his head to one side and lowered his hand slowly until it covered the one resting in Sam's lap. Sam's fist sprang open beneath his and the angel hooked the gaps between their fingers together. Then he tugged Sam's hand gently up and over his shoulder, into the space Sam had searched with such desperate fingers, words of distance on his lips. He rested the flat of Sam's wrist against his shoulder and slid his own hand down to settle at Sam's elbow, looking up into puzzled hazel eyes.
"I will never be far from you, Sam," Castiel promised, squeezing his arm lightly. Then he closed his eyes and focused on the wings trailing from his back, and filled them with the flood of his grace, trying to manifest them not as they were but as everything Sam had ever wanted angel wings to be: warm and light and physical, God's love shining as brightly as Sam's own faithful soul, symbols of mercy instead of war—great arcs of glowing white feathers.
Castiel had never questioned what angels were. But that wasn't acceptable anymore, because he wanted to be more than just a foot soldier—he wanted to be an angel as Sam had imagined them, believed in them, entrusted himself to them for so long without a reply. Castiel wanted to be the one Sam entrusted himself to. He wanted to be worthy of that.
For a moment there was nothing, the living room silent with waiting—then there was a whirl of chimes and Sam gasped, his arm jerking under Castiel's hand. Castiel opened his eyes to find the living room awash with light and soft movement, the bulbs on the Christmas tree glowing brighter and the snow swirling inside the glass of every single snowglobe, snatches of their songs lilting for a moment through the half-darkness—and Sam staring at him, breathless, his lips parted and his hazel eyes wide in an expression of unabashed wonder. Sam stretched out his fingers and then curled them softly, and Castiel felt those callused fingertips stroking the curve of his wing, sending a shiver all the way down his spine at that astonished touch, the impossible collision of corporeal and incorporeal things. Even manifested, his wings were still invisible except for their shadows, the barest intimation of movement on the wall behind the couch—but that didn't stop Sam's eyes from scouring the air over his shoulder as his lips curved into an awed smile, all trace of sadness vanishing from his face.
"Cas… that's… these are…" Sam broke off as he stared into the angel's blue eyes. Then he released the edge of Castiel's sleeve and lifted his second hand, reaching out, desperate and faithful as a child, to bury all ten of his fingers in the warmth at the angel's back. Castiel pressed his wing into the curve of Sam's palm and the tall hunter's eyes flickered closed, his eyelashes resting like snowflakes against the hollows of his cheekbones. "I can feel them," he whispered.
For an instant Castiel felt himself back in Bobby Singer's kitchen with a whispered prayer settling into his ears, the infinitely slight weight of this precious creature pressed into his shoulders. That weight was even less now, only the light pressure of Sam's forearms resting against his collarbones, but Castiel felt exceedingly closer to him with those long, callused fingers tangled in the deepest part of himself. Castiel's wings succumbed to a light shudder as Sam pressed his fingers down one at a time, if he were playing a piano in the air.
"They're so soft," Sam breathed. "And so warm. They feel like down. They're beautiful," he finished as his eyes came open again, his smile just a little shy at the corners.
Castiel did not think invisible things were allowed to be beautiful. But he wondered, suddenly, about the subjectivity of beauty—because in that moment he could not imagine anything more beautiful than dark bangs falling into hazel eyes bright with the reflection of Christmas lights, streaks of red slowly disappearing from the strong, graceful lines of Sam's face, and the feeling of reverent fingers threading through his manifested grace.
For a long moment, they stayed where they were, the last chimes of the snowglobes settling the only sound between them. Sam traced the curved base of each wing and Castiel got lost in the sensation—not just hands on his wings, but Sam's hands, the same hands that had slipped into his pocket beneath the exultation of Christmas lights, that had massaged warmth back into his cold, gray fingers, that had fidgeted with a curling silver ribbon under a spray of mistletoe. Those hands that were so hesitant, always, when they reached out for him—now moving slowly, painstakingly over his wings, as if determined to learn the shape of every feather. Everywhere Sam touched, his grace felt as if it were aflame, burning with an ache that Castiel never wanted to end, and he wondered, as he watched the rapture on Sam's face, if perhaps he were as addicted to Sam's touch as he was to the feel of the young man's skin under his fingertips. Then suddenly all of the uncertainty was back in Sam's expression, and his hands stilled along the arcs of Castiel's wings, his eyebrows drawing together. Castiel frowned.
"Sam?" he asked softly, praying he had not done something wrong again.
Sam looked down and bit his lip. When he looked up again, his eyes were complicated, hope and anxiety at war across his face. His voice was suddenly hoarse. "Cas, at the church—you know, when you…you couldn't feel the glass, right?" Castiel nodded slowly. Sam hesitated for a moment before giving a shaky exhale and stroking one hand down the smooth plane of his wing, his fingers trailing through the spaces between feathers. "Can you feel me?" he whispered.
Castiel felt his lips twist into a small smile at the sensations rippling through his wings, at the idea that those exquisite hands conducting a symphony in the folds of his grace would be so inconsequential as to be intangible. He could feel every brush of those tentative fingers so deeply he wondered if it was really his wings Sam were mapping, or if he'd worked his long, soft fingers around his heart, every press of his thumbs hastening the beats. Sam's hands felt like candle flame, warm with faith and prayer and reverence, and Castiel thought those fingerprints might be burned into his wings for eternity like shining, rippling scars—scars he would be honored to carry. He tightened his hand around the hunter's elbow.
"Yes, Sam," he said. "I can feel you."
He curled the tip of one wing around until the pinion could brush Sam's cheek; Sam jumped at the sudden contact, but then his shoulders relaxed and he leaned into the touch, resting his head against the curve. Castiel's breath caught as he felt the tip of Sam's nose graze his feathers.
"Sam," he began. He hesitated as those hazel eyes found his again, bright with the glimmer of Christmas tree lights. His wing flickered against the line of Sam's jaw. "No human has ever touched these wings," Castiel said, "and no other human ever will. Because they are…" The angel broke off, struggling with the words, and wondering why the things he wanted to say to Sam were always so complicated. In the end he had no choice but to give the young man the only words he had, and he lifted one hand, feeling the soft tickle of every strand as he tucked a wisp of hair gently behind Sam's ear. "They are for you, Sam," he finished, his hand falling back into his lap.
For one moment, as Sam stared back at him without speaking, he was concerned that he had said the wrong thing. But all of his anxiety vanished as Sam's lips curved up into a smile—because the expression on Sam's face was bliss, and he had never seen a smile so beautiful. Sam surged forward and wrapped his arms around Castiel, burying his face in the angel's shoulder, and Castiel struggled to breathe, his heartbeat stuttering under the crash of the sudden embrace—then he pulled Sam into him with everything he had, one hand wound into his hair, the other arm locked around the arc of his back, his wings sweeping forward to engulf this fragile, beautiful thing that was trying to fold into him again. Sam's breath hitched against his neck as the wings closed around him; Castiel just pulled him closer, threading gentle fingers through his hair. Tangled together like this, he could feel Sam's soul pulsing against him—one tiny human soul, so impossibly breakable, but so bright within the folds of his grace, shining like a distant star. He had never been more certain what his wings were meant for.
Sam laughed against his shoulder and then turned his face up, stroking his fingers softly through the furl of feathers along his back. "I guess I'm lucky that you keep catching me, Cas," he whispered. "Because I just keep falling, over and over."
Castiel was not certain he understood. All of the falling was long over. All the same he brushed his hand through Sam's hair, his fingertips lingering on the warm curve of his neck. "Always, Sam," he promised.
Sam's smile told him he had missed something again. It seemed to be all right this time, from the way Sam laughed once before he tucked himself against the angel's shoulder, nuzzling his face into the soft white collar. Castiel closed his eyes and listened to Sam's heartbeat—just one among billions, but so precious, the most beautiful sound in the world. He could have heard them all if he had chosen to, every human heart beating just like this, the pulse of the very earth; but he only wanted to listen to one, Sam's heart beating so close to him, proof of the miracle of one single existence. He wanted to listen to that sound forever.
Sam had melted into him, the lines of his body soft with surrender. Only his fingers were still moving, trailing through his wings as through still water. "Can we stay like this?" Sam asked, the question more vibration than sound against his skin. Castiel pressed his cheek to the top of Sam's head and watched his breath ruffle the soft hairs along his crown.
"For as long as you wish," he murmured in return. Sam sighed and Castiel felt it in his bones.
Outside, the snow had started to fall again; the window behind the Christmas tree was fogged, and its lights glowed twice as brightly in the milky glass, a scatter of clouded stars brought down to earth. On the tree, Sam's ornaments had tipped together, the snowman and the strange conical figure pressed into each other as far as the constraints of their forms allowed. Castiel wondered if his wings had done that. For a moment he watched the snow coming down beyond the windows, the shimmer of its reflection in the glass of all the snowglobes, as if they had been shaken by invisible hands—then he closed his eyes and folded himself around Sam, focusing his attention on the warmth in his chest. Because this was a moment, one he would hold in his mind for the rest of eternity, and never allow to pass him by. Castiel brushed his lips over Sam's hair. He was drifting off now, his head growing heavy on the angel's shoulder, and Castiel held him as gently as he could, and treasured every breath in and out of infinitely fragile lungs.
In the sky above them, angels were singing, summoning him back to Heaven, but Castiel didn't move, didn't even consider it. He had promised to stay for Christmas, after all, and he had a few hours left. A few hours could be an eternity.
Don't shoot me - there wasn't a kiss in this story in the end, but there will be one in the next story, the fourteenth story in the Other Guardian 'verse. It will be posted Dec. 31st, the last story in this special first year for Sam and Cas, though certainly not the last story I'll be writing for Cas and Sam. Thanks for reading my long Christmas story, and I hope everyone enjoyed it.