Castiel remembers having hands, before this. They were a woman's hands, before, and a man's again before that, and again before that. He is – he. Pronouns have always been the hardest part to understand. He does not fit male pronouns as humans understand them, but his body is male and he must again become accustomed to being addressed as such. The words that denote him do not exist in this world. He must find new ones.
"Brother," Uriel says. This language rolls soft across Uriel's new tongue, like a gift. Brother. The word is so different from the Enochian, the hard sibilant curves of sibling in their true tongue as far unlike the soft vowels of brother as words can be.
"Brother," Castiel replies. This is how their mission begins.
His last vessel had been a slave, a woman so unaccustomed to calling her body her own that she found being a vessel not much of a change. She had still grown to resent him over time, but at first she had been resigned. Not like Jimmy, who in the first panic of possession beats against the walls of his new cage, wild and terrified and suddenly unsure. Castiel does his best to reassure him, and then lets him sleep.
Angels do have preferences in gender, it's true. Castiel has always preferred a male form – his superior Anael, a female one. Gabriel is one of the few who changes more frequently, never taking the same gender as a vessel twice in a row.
"I have no particular attachment," she says, examining her new blond hair. "There is no real reason to have a certain gender. It seems a rather clumsy arrangement, this separation. Look how swiftly the males have turned against the females." Anael thins her lips, an unconscious reaction that Castiel finds fascinating.
"It is our Father's will," she says sternly, and Gabriel shrugs. Sometimes, Castiel suspects Gabriel is more comfortable in a vessel than out of one. Gabriel is wrapped closely with the stuff of earth, the intricacies of human behavior and movement, the reality of physicality. Now Gabriel is tapping her foot, impatient, the motion hypnotizing. Castiel does not understand it, this urge to move muscles that are not your own except by necessity. He never really will.
"It being our Father's doesn't make it perfect," Gabriel says, sniffing dismissively as she flicks a fly off her skin. "He does strange things sometimes, you're well aware."
"It is all part of the plan," Anael says. Castiel can read her irritation in the deepening of her true countenance and the frown lines that crease her vessel's face.
"It is our duty to follow," Castiel says. Gabriel laughs. It is a strange sound, rich and full, and Castiel thinks that it is beautiful, but he does not understand the underlying cause. Joy is received from God's presence only, and what other reason is there for laughter?
"Oh, little brother," Gabriel says, and reaches out her hand to ruffle Castiel's hair. There is mirth still lingering behind her eyes. "In time, you will understand." With a cocky grin, she takes flight, and Castiel watches her for a moment, until she is out of reach.
"We have work to do," Anael says. Castiel turns to it.
After Dean comes back from the future, Castiel reads through the things he doesn't say and follows the thread of time forward, feeling for the snags along it that he knows will come. When he finds the right one he lets himself fall forward, reckless in his need for knowledge. There is pain for a long moment, and he knows that after this he must not stretch his power so far.
In a clearing in the woods his future self is screaming, wings beating uselessly as they burn to ash. Dean is nearby, crouching with his arm over his closed eyes. Finally it ends, and Castiel's body crumples uselessly to the ground, the shape of his wings etched in embers on the ground.
Later, after Dean has fallen asleep by the human Castiel's bed, the angel Castiel comes in the night.
"You've got it rich then," his future self mumbles, and Castiel tilts his head and lets his fingers drift.
"Sleep well," he tells himself, and his grin is disconcertingly human and effortless in the future.
"Yeah. You too," he snorts.
A dreamless, painless sleep is all that Castiel can give him. He hopes that, in the future, it will be enough.
"Gabriel is gone?" Castiel asks Anael, and she nods.
"He has covered himself well. No one can find him." She pauses, and when she speaks again there is anger in her voice. "He became too close to humans, and it was his downfall. You must guard yourself against such pleasures as he took."
"Of course," Castiel says. He knows what he is feeling is betrayal. He has seen it in his vessels, one after another, and it is never unfamiliar to an angel. They were all there when Lucifer fell, when he dragged their siblings down to hell and perdition. Angels are not meant for emotions, but they all know what fear and anger and sorrow and betrayal are. War has broadened their range.
Jimmy Novak speaks sometimes. He is always demanding, something he needs or desires or wants. Castiel does not understand him. Needs are for things of more urgency than food or water, desires and wants are unnecessary. But Jimmy refuses to understand this, incredulous at Castiel's bemusement.
I bet you don't even care about sex, he thinks, and Castiel wonders at him.
Copulation is for procreation or pleasure, he replies. I do not procreate, and pleasure is – unnecessary.
Jimmy is silent. Castiel finds the silence pleasant.
The desert's heat affects his vessel, and Castiel adjusts the temperature around them. It is a minor inconvenience, one that he does not mind. What comfort he can give, he should.
In the distance, the heat blurs his vision, and he tilts his head and moves towards it, the sand crunching beneath his feet. Somewhere in that blur is the town he is seeking, the receiver of the message he must deliver.
Once his vessel lived here, but that was many years ago now. There is no one here to receive him, and Castiel lets him sleep. Baruch will not want to see the passage of time on his home.
He finds hands to be the most fascinating thing. He remembers this, from a long time ago, the feel of something in your hand, the solidity of it. It is a kind of pleasure, like earth between his fingers, like the tangibility of his brother and sister's presences, like Heaven surrounding him. He is not sure pleasure is the right word, but it is the only one he has here, far from his home.
"Little brother," Gabriel says, his mouth curving upwards. Castiel attempts to imitate him, but the impulses get tangled up and his vessel just frowns, uncertain. Gabriel reaches forward and smoothes Castiel's vessel's hair down.
"This doesn't feel right," Castiel says, uncertain. He cannot ever remember being uncertain before this. "To take their bodies, like this. It cannot be good for us or them."
"It is our Father's will," Gabriel says, and there is a hint of something in his voice that Castiel can't place.
"It is," Castiel says.
"And it is not all bad," Gabriel says. "There can be happiness in a human existence." Castiel does not say anything. The word happiness does not mean anything to him. "You will see," Gabriel promises. "It isn't all bad."
Their ranks have thinned, over the years. It is harder to tell in Heaven, but here on Earth with one body for each of them their small numbers are clearer.
Castiel is a warrior, a tactician above all. He knows that they will lose more, and that Heaven cannot afford these losses.
"Oh my siblings," he says. His human tongue stumbles over the unfamiliar structure of Enochian, but Jimmy Novak's language does not have words for the depth of Castiel's regret. He can name every gap in the line, every place a brother or sister of his should have stood, every missing piece of his family. Few are missing by choice, and them at least he has no need to mourn for.
His garrison stands only twenty strong, now. He knows each of them intimately, has spent centuries in heaven with his family, and once again war has come to scatter them.
It is not that he does not feel for their absence, he thinks. It is that his feelings do not have names, as human feelings do. There are no words to describe the loss of someone you have known since the dawn of time, no words to describe how deep that wound goes. Language is a limited thing, in the end.
He goes to ancient Mesopotamia, when he is searching for God. Pazuzu still lives there, a beast lurking in the dark and sulking, weary.
"Have you heard any news of God?" Castiel asks, and Pazuzu flexes his wings and yawns, teeth sharp in his warped face.
"Perhaps, perhaps not," he says. "Sit with me awhile." The sun is almost blinding, and Castiel is impatient. He does not have time for the mischief of a demon, no matter how ancient and powerful.
"I must move on," Castiel says. "I have only just begun."
"No, I haven't heard any news," Pazuzu says. And then, casually, as Castiel spreads his wings, "This will be my kind of war."
"I know where to find you," Castiel promises.
"I do have other hiding spots," Pazuzu says. "How do you think I've survived this long?"
"I'll find you," Castiel says, and takes flight.
Castiel is a warrior, above all.
Dean forgets this frequently. Sometimes Castiel makes it easy to forget. He can be patient, though it has always come with difficulty to him. He does not see the need for prolonging what is necessary.
"This doesn't require deliberation," he says. There are places he needs to be, things he needs to be doing. There is a running tally in his head of deaths and injuries, of absences from the field, of voices in his head that should be there but aren't. Dina is in the far northeast of Russia, surrounded by demons. Castiel sends orders, dispatching Tsuriel and Piniel to her aid. It is all he can spare from the battlefronts, and even they will be sorely needed back at their posts soon. The world is too big for this battle.
"These are human lives you're playing with!" Dean protests.
"Yes," he says. Dean never does remember to count the lives of angels among the things to be salvaged. "Six billion of them. I'm well aware." He doesn't understand why they need to have this conversation every time. It does nothing but waste time.
"People, Cas," Dean says, and Castiel frowns.
"So save them," he says. "I have a job to attend to." They're still outnumbered in Russia.
Lilaea lives in Central Greece, one of the oldest naiads. Castiel invokes her, and she comes willingly.
"I have not seen him," she says gently, and he nods.
"Thank you," he says.
"I must return," she says.
"Of course," he says, scuffing the spell's ingredients. She collapses into the stream, and he leaves as well.
"You have been quiet recently," Castiel says to Anael, and she smiles.
"I have been thinking," she says. "I will regret leaving Earth."
"But we return to heaven," Castiel says. "Surely you are pleased to return to our home?"
"Of course," she says, but there is something in her gaze that he finds disconcerting. It reminds him of Gabriel, almost.
It takes most of the alcohol in the store to spill over into his grace, to make things blurrier than they should be. Memory has always been a boon to him, but now he finds that he desires only to erase it, to forget what has passed. Fuck God, he thinks in a sudden burst of anger and loss of judgement. There isn't any lightning, so he assumes he doesn't need to worry about that anymore. Taking God's name in vain suddenly seems like a reasonable thing to do.
The alcohol burns his throat. He shouldn't notice that, but he does.
He misses his wings.