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Last Resort

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“So… he just took off?”

 

The incredulous sound of Sam’s voice made Dean laugh, though it came out sounding bitter and unhappy. “And this surprises you? It’s Cas, Sam.” He was quiet for a moment before sighing and adding tightly, “It’s what he does.”

 

“But… he fixed you up first,” Sam observed, his voice thoughtful.

 

Dean could feel his gaze as Sam looked him over again dubiously, clearly searching for any sign of the injuries Dean had told him about, the injuries Cas had inflicted on him in the crypt. Dean guessed it would be kind of hard to believe that it had happened at all, without so much as a trace left on his face or body after Cas had healed him.

 

“So… whatever mind control crap they had him under, he broke it. Or something did. Right?” Sam concluded, uncertainty in his voice.

 

Dean shook his head slowly, not taking his eyes off the road in front of them. Sam’s words brought back the vivid memories of what Sam hadn’t seen – Cas’s cold, vacant expression as he’d slammed brutal fists into Dean’s face, thrown him to the ground as easily as if Dean had been a child, with no more concern than if he’d been some random monster, not the friend that had stood by him for the past several years, through Purgatory, through… through everything.

 

Dean shivered, well aware that Cas could have killed him with a single blow.

 

In fact, he had no idea, really, why he was even still alive.

 

He’d looked into Cas’s eyes – and all he’d seen was cold, clear purpose, untouched by any warmth or affection. In that moment, there had been no doubt in Dean’s mind.

 

Cas had intended to kill him.

 

“Sam, I’m not even sure he was being controlled,” he admitted wearily. “I just know that’s what he said, but – but then he just took off with the angel tablet, and – he said he had to protect it, but – he said he had to protect it from me, and that doesn’t make any sense. He was acting really cagey even when he stopped pounding my face in, and I don’t know what he’s up to this time any more than I did last time he just took off like this – or the time before that. Probably won’t until it’s too late.”

 

“Well – maybe he’s got a good reason,” Sam offered, but the words sounded about as doubtful as Dean felt. “It’s Cas. I mean – I’m sure his intentions are good.”

 

That… wasn’t exactly comforting.

 

Dean remembered a few years past, Cas standing in Bobby’s darkened living room, insistent that he was doing the right thing, that he was going to save them from the next Apocalypse – mere days before he unleashed hell on earth upon them all instead. He remembered the news reports of the mass murders and other atrocities that had been committed for what Cas had felt at the time to be the “greater good”.

 

“Yeah,” Dean muttered, his fists clenched around the Impala’s steering wheel, his jaw tight with tension, the cold, heavy ache of dread in his stomach. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

 

****************************************************

 

A week passed, with no word from Cas, and no progress on the nature of the second trial – and Dean was starting to get restless.

 

On the one hand, he knew it was probably for the best; Sam needed time to rest and recover from the effects of the first trial before taking on anything else. Dean tried his best to support Sam’s determination to go through with this and close the gates of Hell, but he was secretly just a little bit relieved that there was currently nothing they could do but wait.

 

Sam, on the other hand, seemed restless and agitated. He studied feverishly, looking for something outside of the missing demon tablet that might reference the trials, or provide some hint as to how to go about completing the next one – with no success. He was growing irritable and impatient, and when Dean noticed that the bunker’s pantry was getting a little low on supplies, he casually suggested that Sam go with him to do the grocery shopping.

 

If nothing else, it would at least get Sam out of the bunker for a little while – and it was a short, safe trip that hopefully wouldn’t take too much out of him.

 

When they walked into Lebanon’s one convenience store to find the clerk slumped over the counter, unconscious, and the handful of shoppers lying in the aisles, still and silent, Dean realized that he shouldn’t have made such an assumption. He glanced over at Sam as he drew his weapon, pleased and relieved to see that Sam already had his own gun out as he warily peered around the corner into the aisle nearest him.

 

“Dean and Sam Winchester.”

 

Dean spun around at the sound of the unfamiliar voice, its slightly stilted, overly self-important note revealing its owner as an angel, even before he took in the dark suit and weirdly placid expression that usually went along with that tone. Dean noticed out of the corner of his eye that Sam had turned too, and now both held their guns aimed at the stranger, facing them with calm, quiet expectation.

 

Unfortunately, Dean knew from long experience just how much good those guns wouldn’t do.

 

“What did you do to these people?” he demanded anyway. “Fix them and get out of here. We’ve got nothing to say to you.”

 

“I will fix them, and I will leave this place – but first, I have something to say to you, Dean Winchester,” the angel said, unfazed by Dean’s demands. “My name is Ion, and I have been sent to find you – no easy task, if I may say – because once again, Heaven finds itself in need of your help.”

 

Dean’s lip curled with the immediate disgust he felt, and he steadied his weapon in his hand. “Yeah, well, we’ve already established I’m nobody’s vessel,” he declared. “And if you’re looking for Cas, we don’t know where he is…”

 

“Wouldn’t tell you if we did,” Sam clarified, his voice taut and wary.

 

Dean nodded once in agreement, giving the angel a false smile as he concluded, “So you might as well put these people to rights and get out of here.”

 

“This is of vastly greater importance than the failed Apocalypse, or a single wayward angel,” Ion insisted, for the first time, a note of impatience creeping into his voice. “Though it does involve Castiel.”

 

“Of course it does.” Dean nodded grimly. “Well, you see – Ion, is it? Cas is our friend, and while I do owe him a serious kicking of his ass right now, there’s no way in hell we’re turning him over to you. I think we’re done here…”

 

“If you cannot help, then not only your world, but all worlds will meet their end, at the hands of the friend you protect so fiercely.”

 

The urgency in Ion’s voice, the barely veiled alarm in his eyes, set a stirring of unease in the pit of Dean’s stomach. It must have shown on his face, a little, because the corner of Ion’s mouth tilted up slightly in an unhappy ghost of a smile.

 

“I take it this scenario sounds familiar?”

 

“Shut up,” Dean snapped. Then he closed his eyes, letting out a slow breath before looking at Ion again and relenting slightly. “What the hell are you talking about?”

 

“Castiel is in possession of the angel tablet.”

 

“And you guys want it. We know.” Sam cut him off, disgust clear in his voice.

 

“That is not what this is about.” Ion’s voice held a thunderous edge that sent an unwilling shiver down Dean’s spine. “Castiel is going to use the angel tablet to end your world.”

 

Dean’s world did seem to tilt a little, right then, spinning out of control for a moment, his stomach sinking with the beginnings of a dreadful certainty, even as a single thought echoed through his mind, pleading and desperate.

 

No, please… please, Cas, not again…

 

“He’s going to end all the worlds – unless you can stop him.”

 

“You’re lying,” Dean said, at the same time as Sam demanded, “How?”

 

Ion’s stance seemed to relax a nearly imperceptible fraction, and he calmed a little as he replied. “Castiel has aligned himself with an angel known as the Keeper of the Gates. She controls all existing and potential doorways to all worlds – Heaven, Hell, Purgatory – and this world.”

 

“Naomi?” Dean guessed, frowning.

 

“No. Naomi was attempting to correct Castiel’s path before it could reach this point,” Ion explained, a disapproving note to his voice. “But her connection with Castiel has been broken. We’re not sure how, but we believe the Gatekeeper is responsible.”

 

“So she’s powerful, this Gatekeeper,” Sam concluded.

 

“More powerful than any other angel, even archangels.” Ion nodded once, solemnly. “And she has become disillusioned with our Father’s plan, since your interference, and Castiel’s, thwarted it. The planned Apocalypse did not take place, and she now believes that God’s will is for her to bring down the walls between the worlds, and thus bring about a new Apocalypse. All-out warfare between angels, demons, monsters, and man. Those who are left standing will be those God wills to be left standing.” Ion paused, allowing his words to sink in before concluding, “And she has convinced Castiel to aid her in bringing this to pass. He has taken the angel tablet, because the tablet is key to the spell required to open the doors.”

 

“Why?” Dean shook his head. “Why would Cas do that?”

 

“Because it’s free will meets destiny,” Sam replied before Ion could speak, his eyes wide and alarmed as they met Dean’s. “It’s a way to reconcile the conflict he’s had all these years. Does God want free will, or destiny, to control what happens to the world? If you go for this Gatekeeper’s reasoning, the answer would be – both.” A nervous swallow was visible in Sam’s voice, quietly horrified. “Dean – it sounds like something Cas would buy.”

 

“No,” Dean objected, staring at his brother for a long moment before turning back toward Ion. “No – you’re making this up. You just want us to find Cas for you because you can’t. Well, newsflash, dude. He’s not answering us right now, either.”

 

“And why do you think that is?” Ion snapped. “He knows well that you would try to stop him – and that’s what Heaven is trying to do, too. This is not about punishing Castiel for his rebellion or bringing him back into like mind with his brethren. That is such a negligible matter at this point that it has ceased to bear any significance. We just don’t want him to destroy everything our Father created – and if he succeeds…”

 

“Why not?” Dean demanded with a harsh laugh. “Why wouldn’t you want that? Sounds to me like the angels would be the ones who’d come out on top. Didn’t think you dicks were too crazy about humanity these days…”

 

“We have not all drifted so far from our Father’s original plan,” Ion insisted. “We do not all wish to see His most prized creation obliterated from the face of the earth.” He paused, before admitting, more quietly, “In the war that would ensue, humanity would certainly be all but wiped out of existence. And… we would lose large numbers of our own as well.”

 

“There it is.” Dean gave the angel a cold, knowing smile. “That’s what this is really about – saving your own asses.” He paused, considering, before asking, “What makes you think we can track him down, if you can’t? I told you – Cas isn’t answering our prayers. We ain’t gonna find Cas, even if we wanted to, if he don’t want to be found.” 

 

“We cannot locate Castiel because he is under the Gatekeeper’s protection, and she is supremely powerful, above any abilities we possess. But you – humanity…” Ion shook his head slowly, and there was a note of confusion mingled with grudging reverence in his voice. “… you have always been the pinnacle of God’s creation, above even angels. Therefore, in some things, God has granted you more power than angels.”

 

“What’s that mean?” Sam demanded, suspicious. “What do you expect us to do?”

 

“There is a summoning ritual which can bind an angel and bring him to the summoner – and only a human can perform it. It will bring Castiel to you. He will have no power to resist the summons, or to leave until you are satisfied, and free him.”

 

“Yeah,” Dean scoffed. “He’ll just kick our asses until we do.”

 

“No, that will not be a problem.” Ion was clearly impatient again, his agitation showing in his voice. “The ritual will not allow it. Study it out for yourself, if you refuse to believe me. Jacob’s Call. You will see. It will work – but not for any angel. Only for you. You don’t have to believe me. If you can constrain him to come to you – perhaps he will tell you his plan. We believe he’s already started the ritual, but he can still stop it. Only he can stop it, if it’s begun. And…” Ion hesitated. “… if anyone can convince him to stop it, it would be you, Dean Winchester.”

 

Dean swallowed hard, a hot, self-conscious flush flooding his face, and he was suddenly uncomfortable with the focused attention of this stranger angel, as well as his brother, who offered no disagreement with Ion’s assessment.

 

“How do we know you aren’t just trying to get us to do your dirty work?” Dean asked. “We find Cas, right – just so you dicks can fly in and take him away? Make him drink the Kool-Aid again?”

 

“Investigate Jacob’s Call for yourself,” Ion repeated. “You will see. But waste no time in doing so. If we are right, and Castiel has already started the process of taking down the walls – we have little time.”

 

Before Dean could respond, Ion had turned away from him, approaching the clerk slumped over the counter. He placed two fingers to the young man’s head, and immediately the clerk began to stir. Ion didn’t pause before crossing the room to the customers who lay on the floor and raising them back to consciousness as well.

 

“You might want to leave before they think to ask questions,” he suggested calmly, before vanishing in an instant from their sight.

 

******************************************************

 

“Okay, so this Gatekeeper is apparently a real angel, like Ion said – just what it sounds like, keeper of all of the gates. And the Call of Jacob is a real thing, too.”

 

Dean’s heart sank a little further with Sam’s verdict, and he leaned forward, taking the glass in front of him from the library table and swallowing down half of its contents. Sam didn’t take his eyes from the laptop in front of him, his mouth set in a grim line as he read further, silently.

 

“A person – has to be a human – can summon a specific angel by name, and that angel can’t leave until the same human performs the counter-ritual to release it. And – it looks like Ion was telling the truth. The Call would block Cas’s connection with Heaven. No angel – not even the Gatekeeper – would be able to find him. Even if one happened to find him – find us – by accident…” Sam paused, drawing in a slow breath and letting it out heavily before going on, “… Cas would be… basically under our power. Bound to us. They couldn’t take him if they wanted to. Not to hurt him, and – not to help him.”

 

Dean nodded grimly, one finger trailing idly along the rim of his glass. It was upsetting to think that Ion had been telling the truth about both the ritual and the Gatekeeper.

 

Did that mean that he was telling the truth about Cas, too?

 

“Oh, here’s what he must have meant when he said Cas kicking our asses wouldn’t be a problem,” Sam continued after a few moments more of perusing the site he was reading from. “An angel bound with Jacob’s Call cannot harm the summoner – can’t really offer any physical resistance to them at all, because anything the angel tries to do to the summoner just goes back on him.” Sam smiled a little, but it was more sad than pleased. “So, we’d be the brick walls this time. He hits us, he knocks himself out.” Sam’s smile faded. “Not to mention the fact that breaking his connection with Heaven basically restrains his angel super-strength, powers, everything. An angel’s grace is fueled by its connection to Heaven, so… yeah. I – I guess it checks out.”

 

“But that doesn’t mean that Cas is doing this,” Dean pointed out, hating the slight tremor that crept into his too-defensive voice. “That Ion guy could still be lying about that.”

 

“Yeah, but why?” Sam wondered, shaking his head. “If this won’t help them find him, or get their hands on him…”

 

“I don’t know,” Dean sighed, staring down at the table and reaching for the half-empty glass in front of him again. “I don’t know about any of this... I mean, if Ion is lying, then what’s Cas thinking? Why’d he just take off again?”

 

“Well…” Sam considered for a moment before meeting Dean’s eyes, resolution and uncertainty warring in his pensive gaze. “… we can always just ask him.”

Chapter Text

“I still don’t like it.” Dean looked around the empty, dusty cabin with a critical frown, eyes settling on the wooden door and its single, ordinary lock and chain. They’d had no need to come back to Rufus’s cabin for a couple of months now, and he wasn’t exactly thrilled about being there now. “I’d feel a lot safer if we were doing this back at the bunker.”

“Unless they’re right about Cas,” Sam reminded him with a sigh. “If he really has – switched sides again, well – we don’t know exactly how this is all gonna go down yet, but I’d feel a lot safer when this is all over if he doesn’t know exactly where to find the super-secret source of all supernatural knowledge and power. Wouldn’t you?”

It was an excellent point.

Having no valid argument to offer, Dean approached the small wooden table where Sam had laid out the supplies necessary to perform the Call of Jacob, eyeing its contents dubiously. He picked up a small bundle of dried herbs and then set it down again. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Sam, couldn’t bear the sympathetic look he knew he’d see on his brother’s face if he did, as he spoke in a quiet, carefully neutral tone.

“And… we’re sure it’s not gonna hurt him. Right?”

As it was, the gentle pressure of Sam’s hand on his shoulder, the softness to his voice, was hard enough for Dean to bear.

“It’ll weaken him,” Sam reminded Dean, his voice quiet and cautious. “But it won’t hurt him – not unless he tries to hurt us. And if he does, well – then, I guess that won’t be such a bad thing.”

Dean nodded, swallowing hard as he stared down at the table. “All right,” he agreed at last. “Let’s do this. How does it work?”

“Well, you mix the herbs in this bowl, and carve this sigil…” Sam pointed to an Enochian marking in the open book in front of him. “… into your forearm, letting the blood fall into the bowl. Then you say the Enochian words over it and… that should do it.”

Dean grimaced, nodding slowly and rolling up his sleeve as he leaned in to take a closer look at the Enochian symbol Sam was pointing out – little more than a single, swirling line that crossed itself at one point before looping back into the center. “At least it’s not too complicated,” he sighed, reaching into his jacket for his knife.

“I can do it if you want,” Sam offered. “There’s no reason it has to be you…”

“Except that you’re doing the trials,” Dean pointed out. “And Cas said it’s… altering your molecules or whatever. What if that makes it – not work, or – or makes you worse, or something?”

Dean.” Sam’s voice was insistent but gentle, his eyes warm and understanding as he shifted a little closer to Dean, one large, firm hand sliding out to come to rest on Dean’s waist. “I’m gonna be okay. Okay? Stop worrying.” Sam leaned down to kiss him, and Dean didn’t – couldn’t – resist him, but he couldn’t bring himself to meet Sam’s reassuring smile when they parted, either. “I promise,” Sam insisted. “I’m going to be just fine.” Sam paused, rolling his eyes a little as he backed off and relented, “But if you feel better doing this one yourself, that’s fine, too. It’s not like it’s going to hurt you.”

So Dean mixed the herbs, then took the blade in his hand and steeled himself for a pain that felt almost familiar after so many countless tests with silver blades over the years. This was only a little more than that, and he managed it easily. He read the Enochian from the book with ease – if with a very slight tremor in his voice – and then waited, Sam at his side, both tense and quiet.

Several minutes passed… and nothing happened.

Dean and Sam exchanged an uneasy look. Just as Sam glanced down at the book again, scanning through the spell to make sure they’d gotten it right, Cas appeared abruptly in the middle of the room, his back turned to them. He stumbled a little, visibly disoriented, before regaining his balance and spinning quickly, eyes wide and worried. He frowned when he saw them, his eyes narrowing as he took in the spell supplies laid out on the table – and then paced toward them furiously.

“What did you do?” he demanded.

“Now, Cas,” Dean began warningly, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. “Just take it easy…”

“How did you find me?” Cas’s voice was agitated, fearful. “How did you make me come here? I can’t be here right now, Dean. I told you, Naomi is hunting me. If she finds me, here, and she will find me…”

“No, that won’t happen, Cas,” Sam cut him off, his voice soft and reassuring. “The spell we used – the Call of Jacob… do you know what it is?”

Cas froze, staring at them in disbelief – and rising distrust – for a moment. “Yes,” he replied at last, slowly. “I know it.”

“Then you know that you’re cut off from Heaven right now,” Dean pointed out, trying to match Sam’s soothing, patient tone. “Naomi can’t find you, and she can’t control you – not until we break the bond and release you.”

Cas shook his head slightly, visibly confused, before looking up to study Dean’s face closely again. “Why would you do this?” he asked quietly. “Why would you force me to come to you, when you know I need to be protecting the tablet?”

A hot rush of angry resentment filled Dean for a moment at the reminder of Cas’s final words before leaving him in the crypt – Cas’s insistence that Crowley and Naomi were not the only threats to the angel tablet – that apparently, Dean ranked among those he couldn’t trust, as well. Dean closed his eyes, with an effort focusing on what they needed to accomplish and pushing his own personal feelings to the side for the moment.

“We just wanna talk, Cas. That’s all,” he insisted, cautious and appeasing. “We need to know… what you’ve been doing these past few weeks.”

“You know what I’ve been doing, Dean!” There was an edge of impatience mixed with pleading in Cas’s voice. “I’ve been running from Naomi! Jacob’s Call might prevent her from tracking me, but it does not prevent her from searching out the tablet. That means she could still…” Cas hesitated, looking away and swallowing, and when he spoke again his voice was strained, as if he was trying very hard to stay calm. “… she could still… find it, while I’m away, and if I’m not there to protect it…”

“You know, we could help you with that,” Sam offered, his tone mild and even. “If you’d tell us where it is. We’re your friends, Cas. Don’t you trust us?”

“This isn’t about trust,” Cas sighed, turning away for a moment, shaking his head. “I just – the tablet… I need…”

“What do you need it for anyway, Cas?” Dean asked, stepping around the table and moving cautiously closer, watching the angel closely as he zeroed in on Cas’s unintentional admission.

As he neared Cas, Cas took a step back, a nervous swallow visible in his throat – and Dean’s heart sank when Cas couldn’t seem to meet his eyes.

That was never a good sign.

“What are you going to do with it?” Sam asked softly from his spot behind the table.

“Why do you care?” Cas demanded with clear frustration, glaring at Sam before meeting Dean’s step forward with his own advance, finally looking at Dean with eyes blazing with defiance. “It’s not yours…”

Dean resisted the instinctive desire to back off, to flee from the threat of another beating like the one he’d received the last time they’d met. It took an effort, but he held his ground, held Cas’s gaze as he replied as steadily as he could manage.

“It’s not yours, either, Cas.”

“No,” Cas agreed, his voice blazing, furious, and his balled fists at his sides did not escape Dean’s notice. “It’s my father’s, and he…” His words broke off abruptly, and he immediately broke eye contact again.

Dean’s heart sank.

It was a tiny gesture, a barely perceptible reaction – but it was fairly damning.

“He what?” Dean persisted quietly, but he could hear the disappointment, the defeat he felt in his own voice. “What does he want you to do with the tablet, Cas?”

Cas finally looked up at Dean again, his wide blue eyes impossibly sad as he replied at last, “I – I can’t explain, Dean. You – can’t possibly understand why I must – I just – must…” Cas gave up with a sigh, shaking his head. “I don’t have time for this. I have to get back to – to the tablet. Before Naomi finds it.”

And then, he just stood there for a moment in silence. It took Dean a few seconds, and Cas’s confused frown, to realize that Cas had been trying to fly away. Cas’s second attempt was more obvious. He closed his eyes, his brow creased with concentration – and of course, nothing happened.

“It’s the Call, Cas,” Sam explained quietly. “You’re not going anywhere until we break it. That mark on Dean’s arm means you’re bound to him, until he decides to let you go…”

Cas glanced down at the barely scabbed over cut on Dean’s arm, his jaw setting with determination, and Dean backed quickly away as Cas reached out toward it with one hand.

“No way!” Dean declared, pulling his arm back out of reach. This was one time when he could do without the angel’s healing touch.

At the same time, Dean heard Sam raise his voice to say, “Cas, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t just heal the mark and make it go away…”

A slight twitch of his mouth betrayed Cas’s annoyance as Dean retreated until his back hit the table and he could retreat no farther, but he seemed undeterred by Sam’s words. Before Dean could react, Cas swiftly followed, closing the distance between them. Dean flinched as Cas reached out two fingers toward his head, vaguely aware of Sam calling out behind him.

“Cas, wait!”

But then Cas touched Dean – and nothing happened.

To Dean, anyway.

Cas promptly collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

As Dean felt the anticipatory tension in his shoulders melt into trembling relief, Sam slowly came around the table to stand beside him, staring down at Cas’s silent, prone form.

“Well, clearly he doesn’t know much about Jacob’s Call.”

“Yeah.” Dean stared down at Cas, a heavy pit of hurt and disappointment settling in his stomach. “You couldn’t have made this easy, could you, Cas?” he muttered.

“No,” Sam sighed. “Then he wouldn’t be Cas.”

“I kinda hoped he’d have a good explanation,” Dean confessed, then added after a moment with a little half-shrug, “Or you know – at least that he’d come right out and admit the bad explanation. Like he did last time we trapped him like this.”

“Yeah.” Sam sighed. “Well,” he concluded hesitantly after a long moment, his voice heavy with regret, “looks like we’re going to need those Enochian shackles we brought from the dungeon after all.”

“What?” Dean looked up at Sam in alarm. “Why?”

“We’re not going to find out anything if he’s trying to stop us every five minutes. If he keeps trying to put us to sleep, or heal the mark, or hit us, or whatever…” Sam shook his head, giving Dean an apologetic look. “He’s not in a frame of mind to listen to reason right now, and we don’t have a lot of time. He’s just going to keep trying to fight us until he knows for sure that he can’t. I think this will go a lot faster if we just… restrain him so he can’t even try.”

Dean considered that for a moment, and realized that Sam was right. Cas clearly wasn’t taking it well, their keeping him here against his will. Even though he couldn’t do any damage to the Winchesters at the moment, his efforts could still keep them from finding out what they needed to know. It was better to put a stop to those efforts before they could really start.

“He’s gonna be pissed,” Dean remarked.

“Yeah.” Sam shrugged. “But what’s he gonna do about it?”

“Nothing,” Dean sighed. “And the sooner he realizes that, the better.”

***********************************************

Cas wasn’t exactly a small guy, and he was dead weight at the moment – so getting him down to the basement turned out to be quite a chore. He wasn’t offering any resistance, of course; but he wasn’t offering any assistance, either.

Finally, Dean and Sam managed to get him down the stairs and to the place where they had fastened the Enochian shackles to the floor. They laid Cas down and carefully fastened his wrists into the gleaming silver cuffs before going upstairs again to consider their options.

“I don’t like doing this to him, especially when we don’t even know if he’s done anything yet,” Sam admitted with a sigh.

“Me either, but you were right. We haven’t got much time,” Dean grimly pointed out. “You heard him. He slipped up. He said his father wants him to – do what, exactly, with the tablet? I didn’t want to believe it, either, but – it looks bad.”

“Yeah,” Sam conceded. “And – if it’s the difference in hurting Cas’s feelings or letting the world die bloody – we haven’t really got a choice.”

“Right.” Dean stared unhappily at the basement door. “Doesn’t make it suck any less.”

“So… what now?”

As if someone, somewhere had sensed that Dean didn’t have a ready answer and acted to provide one, a low rumbling sound began. Dean and Sam looked at each other in alarm as the ground began to shake beneath their feet.

“Cas?” Dean wondered, raising his voice to be heard over the increasing roar.

“Can’t be,” Sam yelled back, taking a couple of backward steps into the nearest doorway, holding onto the door jamb with one hand and tugging Dean into the doorway with him, with the other. “He’s powerless right now, we’ve already seen that! The spell worked!”

“Then… what the hell?”

Almost as quickly as it had started, the shaking and rumbling subsided, giving way to stillness and silence. The Winchesters stared at each other for a long moment, slowly easing their way out of the doorway.

The table with the spell ingredients had been turned over, the spell book upended on the floor. Sam picked it up as Dean righted the table, then gave his younger brother a worried look.

“That’s… never a good sign.”

“Hello, boys.”

The familiar voice with its taunting note and lilting accent drew Dean’s attention in an instant, and he spun to face Crowley, who had appeared inside the cabin, just outside the devil’s trap painted in the doorway. Dean drew his gun by sheer instinct, though he was once again reminded of its utter uselessness against the opponent he was aiming it at.

Sam didn’t even bother. “Was that you?” he demanded.

“Sadly, I can’t take credit.” Crowley smirked. “Would that I could, but I’m afraid that was just your standard, ordinary earthquake.”

“Earthquake?” Sam’s voice was disbelieving. “We’re in Montana!”

“Yes, thank you for that update on the obvious, Moose,” Crowley sneered. “Hence the ‘sadly’. An earthquake of that level, so far away from any actual fault lines, is more than just unusual. It’s a portent.”

“A portent of what?” Dean asked, keeping his voice even and level despite the tightening in his chest.

Crowley met his gaze, something cold and angry in his eyes. “Judging by the remnants of the spell you just cast, and that mark on your arm…” He nodded toward the sigil carved into Dean’s arm. “And the overwhelming stench of ‘angel’ in the air – metaphorically speaking…” Crowley paused for effect before concluding, “I’d say you already know.”

When neither Winchester answered, Crowley continued with a grim, humorless smile. “Seems our Cas is trying to end the world again. And he didn’t even invite me this time. I must say, my feelings are hurt.”

“How do you know anything about this?” Sam asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “If you’re not in on it this time?”

“Hello. King of Hell?” Crowley rolled his eyes. “Anything happens of this magnitude, trust me, Moose, I’m aware. I have my sources – eyes and ears, constantly taking in information – and what they’ve been seeing and hearing these days is very upsetting, boys.”

“We don’t know any of this for sure,” Dean insisted, hating the tremor in his voice, and the desperation it betrayed. “It might not be true…”

“I’m sorry, were you checked out for the earthquake that just shook half of Montana? Montana!” Crowley snapped, impatience bordering on rage in his voice. “But that’s bloody normal, isn’t it? Certainly nothing apocalyptic about that. It’s a sign, you moron.”

“That doesn’t mean that it has anything to do with Cas,” Sam pointed out, but his tone lacked conviction, and it made Dean feel sick.

Everything else seemed to be checking out.

This was looking worse for Cas – for all of them, really – with every moment.

“Anyway, we’ve got this one,” Dean snapped. He’d seen more than enough of Crowley for the moment. “So you can get lost. We don’t need or want your help.”

“Don’t you?” There was a sharp edge to Crowley’s voice, a tense worry in his eyes that belied his cold smile, and it set the queasy feeling in the pit of Dean’s stomach to a higher level.

If the King of Hell was scared…

“Because the way I hear it,” Crowley went on, his voice quiet but taut, warning, “we have less than three days before it’s all over and there’s no saving anyone.”

“Wait – three days? Where are you getting that?” Sam frowned, alarm clear in his voice.

“The word is that our dear deluded little Cas has already performed the ritual. And from that point, it’s three days until the gates open. So it seems we’re running out of time.” Crowley paused. “But I’m sure you two already have him pouring his precious little heart out, don’t you?” Crowley’s sharp gaze shifted between Sam and Dean for a moment, before a predatory smile spread across his lips, a cruel gleam in his eyes. His voice was deceptively soft. “No? I can help you with that…”

Dean took a step toward him in instinctive reaction, his fist clenched and ready. “You’re not gonna touch him…”

Crowley rolled his eyes in clear exasperation, unconcerned with Dean’s threatening advance. “Well, someone’s going to have to do something to make him talk…”

“Well, it’s not going to be you!” Dean declared.

No sooner had the words left his lips than Dean froze, his heart clenching in his chest as he processed the unintentional implications of what he’d just said. The very idea of hurting Cas on purpose, for information made him feel sick. This was Cas they were talking about, and in spite of everything, he was still the friend that had had Dean’s back through Purgatory, that had given up his life for Dean more than once… that had fallen… for Dean.

Vivid images of red and black, the stench of blood and smoke and the sound of panicked, hopeless sobs echoed in Dean’s ears, and he closed his eyes for a moment, suppressing a shudder.

No… not going back there, never again… and certainly not with Cas…

“No,” he said softly, aware when Sam’s gaze darted toward him with visible concern, wondering how much was showing on his face and in his voice. “No – we’re not letting you anywhere near him. And – it’s not like we could hurt him if we tried,” he pointed out. “He wouldn’t even feel it.”

Crowley’s smile widened slightly, a secretive gleam in his eye as he replied, “Oh, there are ways. But you don’t think that will be necessary, so I’m sure we’ll all be just fine.” His final words were sarcastic, angry, and Dean braced himself for a further fight.

But as quickly as he had appeared, Crowley was gone – leaving the brothers with nothing but the taut, anxious silence that stretched between them.

 

Chapter Text

“You know he could be lying,” Sam pointed out, his voice quiet but jarring in the heavy stillness. “It’s – sort of what he does.”

“Yeah,” Dean agreed, but there was a cold knot in the pit of his stomach. “That Ion dick, too.”

“I guess it’s… possible that they’re both telling the same lie.” Sam’s tone made it clear how unlikely he actually found that idea. “They both want to get to Cas.”

As much as Dean wanted to accept that explanation, he found it as difficult to believe as Sam seemed to. “Yeah,” he sighed. “Except if Crowley gets him, then the angels don’t – and if the angels get him, Crowley doesn’t. There’s no reason for them to come up with the same lie. And it can’t be coincidence. They’re getting this intel from somewhere.”

“It – does look bad,” Sam admitted.

“He’s not gonna just admit it, though,” Dean realized grimly. “That’s the first thing. We need to get him to admit it before we can get him to stop it.”

“I have an idea,” Sam replied, heading toward his laptop across the room. “There’s dozens of variations on your basic truth spell. Maybe I can find one that would work on an angel.”

Dean felt a certain measure of relief at the idea of such an easy solution; and he didn’t want to think too closely of why exactly that was… of what alternative means they might be forced into to get the truth out of Cas, if Sam’s truth spell idea didn’t pan out.

“Good plan,” he said, turning away from Sam and heading back toward the basement stairs.

Sam’s voice stopped him just as he reached the door. “What are you gonna do?”

Dean couldn’t look at Sam, didn’t want to see the expression on his face to go along with the concerned tone of his voice. Dean swallowed hard, his hand resting on the door handle as he quietly replied.

“I’m gonna go talk to our friend.”

****************************************

****************

Castiel was awake when Dean reached the basement.

Dean had expected as much. Between the earthquake, and Cas’s angelic constitution, he’d figured the knock-out touch Cas had taken at his own hand wouldn’t last long.

Cas had pulled himself up onto his knees and was tugging experimentally at the cuffs on his wrists. He looked up as Dean approached, his expression strangely calm, his tone even and a little wary, but mostly unconcerned.

“Enochian,” he observed, sounding vaguely impressed. “Where did you get them?”

“I’ve got all kinds of tricks you haven’t seen.” Dean smiled as he leaned against the wall and faced his friend, arms crossed casually over his chest. “But then, maybe you’d know that if you’d been around lately.”

“Dean…” Cas sighed, looking away and shaking his head slightly. “You know I’d be here with you if I could, but – I have no choice…”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before,” Dean cut in, but he kept his tone mild, controlled. “It was right before the last time you went off all half-cocked with your big plans, and it all went to shit.”

Cas flinched – just slightly, barely perceptible, but Dean knew him well enough to see that his words had hit their mark.

“I’m sorry, Dean,” he said, his voice quiet and subdued, his eyes cast down to the floor in front of his knees. “I’ll never stop being sorry for – for what I did. But…” His frown deepened suddenly, and he looked up at Dean, his tone sharp and abruptly worried, “The last time. What does that mean? What ‘big plans’ do you believe me to have?”

“I don’t know.” Dean shrugged slightly, not taking his eyes from Cas’s face. “You tell me.”

Cas shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean. I assure you I’m not… ‘going off… half-cocked’.”

“What are you gonna do with the angel tablet, Cas?” Dean demanded, standing up straight, allowing an edge to creep into his voice.

“I’m – protecting it. From the angels, and the demons – and – well, everyone…”

“Including me.”

Cas’s voice took on that infuriatingly controlled note of sarcasm that usually made Dean feel like the world’s biggest moron. “Yes, Dean. Everyone would in most cases include you."

"But not you, apparently," Dean pointed out. "Somehow, you're the only one who can safely have it - or touch it, or - anything."

Cas looked away, a slow swallow visible in his throat. "I'm - not sure."

"Then why do you think you can handle this any better than the last time?" Dean snapped, his frustration rising and getting the better of him. "What are you going to do with it?"

"I don't understand your question," Cas sighed, sounding a little frustrated himself. "I'm not doing anything with it...”

“Where is it?” Dean demanded, taking an instinctive step forward before he could stop himself.

Cas eyed him warily, and Dean’s stomach turned at the way Cas’s hands tightened into fists, tugging slightly against the chains in automatic response to Dean’s advance. “I find it unsettling that you are so desperate to know,” Cas replied slowly, his tone cautious, though not exactly fearful. “Just now, when the angels and Crowley are so actively seeking it.”

Dean blinked, feeling as if Cas had just slapped him. “You think I’m working with them?”

“I think – you might not be you…” Cas suggested, cautiously watching Dean, his posture tense and wary.

Dean rolled his eyes, reaching into his jacket for the flask of holy water he kept there. Instead, the first thing he found was the angel blade he’d relieved Cas of while he was unconscious. He frowned at it for a moment; he’d forgotten he’d put it there. Then he set it down on the small wooden table beside him.

When he glanced back in Cas’s direction, he saw that the angel’s eyes were passing suspiciously back and forth between the angel blade and Dean’s face, and – yeah, that was actually fear, now… just a little. Dean sighed, running a hand down over his eyes before meeting Cas’s wary gaze.

“Okay, so clearly that wasn’t helpful. Sorry.” Dean’s voice was softened by the understanding he felt, the natural effect of the alarm he could see in Cas’s eyes. He didn’t like seeing it there. “I just took it because you were going all Rambo up there, trying to fight your way past us, when you can’t anyway, Cas. Not with this Jacob’s Call thing switched on. But I didn’t take the angel blade to hurt you with it. Okay? I took it to keep you from hurting yourself. That’s why I put it down. See?"

Cas didn’t say anything, just watched Dean with a silent, solemn gaze.

Dean sighed again. “Okay, look.” He took out his flask of holy water and held it up for Cas to see before taking a long gulp from it and putting it away again. Then he glanced around the dusty basement room until he spotted a cluttered pile of old rags and cleaning supplies in the corner. He searched through them until he found a bottle with the right ingredients on the label, then closed his eyes and sprayed himself with it generously. Finally, he took out his silver knife and made a thin, shallow cut in his own forearm, wincing only slightly at the by now familiar sting.

“See?” he said, lifting the tail of his shirt and pressing it against the wound to stem the bleeding. “Satisfied?”

When Dean looked up, Cas appeared to have relaxed only marginally, still watching Dean with a dubious gaze as he replied slowly, “I’m aware I should find it reassuring that you’re… yourself, and neither possessed nor Leviathan. I don’t. Not really.”

“Because you still don’t trust me.” Dean bit off the words, hurt. “But you should. Just like last time.”

"Last time.” Suddenly, there was fire in Cas’s voice, blazing accusation and anger. “You mean, when I asked you to try to understand, and you refused to listen to anything I had to say? When you trapped me in holy fire and surrounded me as if I was your enemy?” Cas looked pointedly down at the chains on his wrists, jerking them just enough to make them rattle before meeting Dean’s gaze again, defiance smoldering in his eyes. “Then as now, Dean – trusting you seems difficult.”

Dean bit back a sigh, then walked slowly to stand in front of Cas. Only when he saw Cas’s gaze follow his movement, calm but warily expectant, his eyes locked somewhere around the level of Dean’s waist, did Dean realize – he was still holding the silver-bladed knife in his right hand. Stifling his frustration, Dean held up his free hand in a non-threatening gesture, making a show of setting the weapon down on the table next to the spray bottle.

Then, slowly, he sat down facing his friend, cross-legged on the floor.

“Cas,” he said softly. “All I want to do is help, okay? I just want to help.”

“I don’t need help,” Cas replied, quietly stubborn. “Dean – I know I’ve made some… drastically regrettable mistakes. And I will not ever be able to undo those harmful acts. But – I promise you, Dean, I am not making another mistake now.” Cas’s eyes were pleading, earnest, as he pulled against the chains with one hand, as if momentarily forgetting they were there in his desire to reach out to his friend – then lowered his hand again, his shoulders falling. “And I cannot tell you where the tablet is. For – the safety of the tablet – and of you, and Sam. I can’t.”

“Sam and I can handle ourselves…”

“If you knew where it was, and the wrong people knew you knew...” Cas shook his head, looking away again.

“I can handle it,” Dean repeated firmly. “Cas, you have to trust me. If I’m your friend, then – then tell me whatever the hell this big secret is, and then trust me to keep it. Hey.” Dean reached out to touch Cas’s shoulder, relieved when Cas did not flinch or pull away, but only looked up to sadly meet his eyes. “Can you do that?”

Cas studied him for a long moment, before shaking his head. “No,” he replied quietly.

The look on Cas’s face was soft, knowing, and sympathetic – and all at once Dean knew exactly what he meant. Something deep in Dean’s chest went cold, and he withdrew his hand, straightening his shoulders and drawing back, swallowing slowly against the sick wave of defensive shame that swept over him. Suddenly, he was the one who couldn’t hold the angel’s gaze, as Cas spoke, his words careful and measured.

“You are my friend, Dean,” he said softly. “And you are a… a remarkable man. You are a righteous man. But – even you have your breaking point. I’ve seen it. Even if – if it took thirty years to reach it.” He hesitated, searching for words for a moment before continuing, “And – angels have – means at their disposal for – extracting the truth from someone that – well, demons can’t even begin to fathom the sort of suffering…”

“So this is all for our own good. That’s what you’re saying.” Dean allowed the disgust, the contempt he felt to show in his voice as he rose to his feet – and he let Cas believe it was directed at him, when he added, “Again.”

Once again, Cas reacted to Dean’s anger with a calm sort of tension that was not quite fear, but expectation – as if he expected Dean to lash out of him, but wasn’t exactly afraid of it. He went very still, watching Dean closely with his shoulders tensed, his expression resigned but calm, as if waiting for a blow that he didn’t believe could actually hurt him – and a deep-rooted anger bloomed hot in Dean’s chest.

Dean was only aware of his fists clenched tight at his sides when they began to ache, and he looked down to see that they were shaking. He slowly made himself release them, drawing in a deep, shaky breath in an attempt to steady himself.

“I can’t,” Cas said softly at last, when Dean didn’t do or say anything, looking up at Dean with sorrowful affection in his eyes. “Dean, I know you don’t understand. But – I can’t.”

Dean couldn’t do this anymore, not right now, not with the memories raised by Cas’s words fresh in his mind, bringing with them an agonizing awareness of that part of him only Cas had seen when he’d rescued him from Hell. The gentleness, the knowing sympathy in Cas’s eyes, was a silent accusation – a reminder that Cas had seen him at his weakest, right before he’d pulled him out; he’d seen what Dean’s breaking had made of him.

He’d witnessed the last slice of Dean’s razor into the final victim on his rack, in those last few moments before he’d raised Dean’s soul from Hell. And the look on Cas’s face told Dean that the angel believed him to be fully capable of carrying out those same actions now, if he didn’t get the answers he wanted.

And still, there was no fear in Cas’s eyes, but rather concern and compassion, as if Dean was the one that was in danger of being hurt, here. As if his being here, chained at Dean’s mercy, was merely an inconvenience, and he still somehow held the upper hand – as if Dean couldn’t take him apart the way he’d done to hundreds of others.

He’s not scared of me at all, Dean realized, some dark part of himself that had once taken pride in the artistry Alistair had taught him feeling oddly insulted, though shame burned hot in his face at the very idea. He’s scared for me…

Ironically, it was that very concern, that unbearable sympathy in Cas’s eyes, that brought that long-buried part of Dean raging back to the surface in defensive pride and shame and fury all mingled into one dark, seething coil of confusion. He wanted to lash out, to wipe that look of worry and kindness from Cas’s face… to show him just how misplaced his fear and concern really were… to prove to Cas that while he might not be afraid… he should be.

Dean’s mind flashed to the discarded blade on the table beside him, and his fingers twitched with sense memory – the easy give of flesh parted by steel, the hot gush of blood over skillful fingers that twisted just right

He knew, better than Cas could imagine, how to take that softness in Cas’s voice and turn it to screaming, how to drive the pity from his eyes and replace it with dread, with hate… and for just an instant, Dean wanted to do just that.

Dean turned and headed for the stairs.

He had to be somewhere else. Now.

“How long do you intend to keep me here?” Cas called after him, and Dean heard the chains rattle again, heard the frustration in Cas’s voice.

He gritted his teeth, held back the impulse he felt to meet that frustration with his own. His hand was white and shaking on the doorknob, something dark and frightening roiling hot in his stomach. Dean just stood there for what felt like an eternity, waiting until the rage had subsided and he could calmly answer to speak, grinding out the words in a low, determined voice.

“As long as it takes.”

***********************************************

Sam turned away from his laptop, feeling sick.

He couldn’t look at the search results on his screen anymore.

As he’d predicted, he’d found dozens of truth spells – some more effective, but more dangerous, than others. He hadn’t found any that sounded as if they would work on an angel. But he had found a few… other means of compelling an angel to tell the truth.

Sam shuddered, not looking at his laptop as he closed it, a little harder than was necessary.

We’re not doing any of that shit to Cas… no way…

At the sound of the basement door slamming against the wall, then slamming shut again, Sam looked up. Dean’s expression was dark, taut – a little frightening – as he approached and braced his hands against the table, facing his brother across its surface.

“Tell me you’ve got something.”

“Nothing workable,” Sam sighed. He frowned, studying the tense lines of Dean’s face, the exhaustion in his eyes. “You okay?”

“Fine.” Dean was guarded, his smile cold and tight and utterly unconvincing. “No truth spells?”

“None for angels.” Sam hesitated. “And – anything else I’ve found, well – we’re not doing to Cas. No way.”

Dean frowned. “Like what?”

Before Sam could answer, behind Dean, Ion appeared, sudden and silent; before Sam could warn Dean, the angel spoke up.

“There is a way to be sure.”

Dean jumped and spun around to face Ion. “Damn it, why do you guys keep doing that?”

Ion did not offer an answer. “We have discovered more about the Gatekeeper’s spell,” he informed them. “And there is a way to know with certainty whether or not Castiel has begun the ritual.”

Relief mingled with apprehension in Sam’s mind, and he leaned back in his chair, appraising the angel in front of him. “Good. How?”

“The ritual involves an angel chosen by the Gatekeeper to bear the word in his flesh. This means that he must literally rend his own body and bury the tablet inside – near to his heart. If Castiel has hidden the angel tablet in his own body, then we will know that the ritual has been started. If he has not, and you can keep him here until the tablet can be found, then we can prevent…”

“Wait a second,” Dean protested, holding up a hand to stop Ion’s urgent speech. “You’re saying the angel tablet is in Cas’s body?” He hesitated, casting a nervous, guilty look in Sam’s direction before amending, “You know – if he’s doing this? ‘Cause we don’t know that. Maybe he’s not.”

“Yes.” Ion’s tone was calm, matter-of-fact. He seemed to see no problem with his statement.

“How are we supposed to find out if it’s – inside him, or not?” Dean demanded, suspicious. “Some kind of – heavenly x-ray? ‘Cause if that’s your game, dude – if you’re still just trying to get us to let you near him…”

“No,” Ion replied. “We cannot touch Castiel as long as he is under your power… and your protection. You must open his vessel and discover for yourself whether or not the tablet is there…”

No,” Sam cut him off, immediate and certain, everything in him rebelling at the thought of hurting Cas so badly. “We’re not doing that.”

Dean agreed immediately, his words firm and certain. “We won’t hurt him like that.”

“He is an angel, not a mortal man…”

“But his grace is diminished by the Call,” Sam pointed out. “He won’t heal like he usually does.”

“But he will heal,” Ion countered. “It will happen more slowly than is normal for him – but he is still an angel. As long as you do not use the blade of an angel to perform this, then he will recover. In time.”

That wasn’t terribly comforting. Sam was feeling sick again. The look on Dean’s face made it clear that he felt the same.

“I realize that this is a difficult circumstance for you,” Ion went on when neither brother spoke. “But you must realize – time is short. If the ritual has begun, and the tablet has been buried in the flesh of the chosen angel – then we have less than three of your days in which to compel Castiel to stop the ritual, before the walls between worlds crumble, and there will be no putting them back again. Consider this if you must – but consider quickly.”

And with those words, Ion vanished once more, leaving the brothers standing there in horrified silence.

Sam looked at Dean, studying his face for a long, tense moment. Dean was not looking at him, his eyes focused on the closed basement door. His jaw was set and rigid – the only indication that the calm on his face was less than genuine. Sam recognized this look; Dean was not taking this well, was not simply calmly considering Ion’s suggestion. His eyes were shuttered, his expression set – steeled for something he really did not want to do, but felt he had to.

“Dean…” Sam finally ventured to speak, cautious and gentle. “… we don’t have to…”

His voice trailed off when Dean took out his phone, already dialing. “I’m calling Garth,” he said in answer to Sam’s unspoken question. “It took a liquor store to get him drunk, right? That’s what he said?”

Sam frowned, confused by the seemingly irrelevant question. “Cas? Yeah. Dean…”

“Garth?” Dean spoke into the phone, turning away from Sam. “Yeah, it’s Dean. We need your help. We’re gonna need to get our hands on some morphine – and lots of it.”

Chapter Text

“Thanks, Garth. Let me know as soon as you know something.” Dean hung up the phone and sat down on the ratty old sofa, resting his head in one hand and wearily rubbing at his temples with his thumb and forefinger. “It’s gonna take him a little while to get us that much morphine,” he informed Sam, as his brother moved around the sofa to take a seat close beside him. “He said he’d call back.”

 

Dean,” Sam said firmly, concerned. “I said we didn’t have to do this…”

 

“Yeah, but you were lying, weren’t you?” Dean raised his eyes to his brother’s face with a rueful, unhappy smile.

 

Sam looked away, silent and troubled, raising one hand to rest on Dean’s shoulder. He couldn’t exactly argue with that, as much as he wanted his words to be true – not when he couldn’t offer any viable alternatives to the test Ion had proposed.

 

Dean sighed. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s not like we’ve got a lot of options right now.”

 

“If Cas is doing this… if… we find the tablet, then… then we’ll know we had to…” Sam reasoned, but it didn’t actually make him feel any better about what they were about to do.

 

“Yeah, and if we don’t,” Dean cut in, determined, “I don’t care what that dick angel wants us to do, we’re breaking this Jacob’s Call bond and letting Cas get his grace back so he can heal. Period. The way I see it, if he was gonna do this thing, there’s no way he’d let the tablet out of his sight before the spell was done – right?”

 

Sam nodded thoughtfully. “Right. That makes sense. So – we don’t find it, he’s not guilty. We let him go, right away.”

 

“We can’t let the world end on our watch, but we’re not letting the angels play us, either,” Dean declared. “Especially not if it hurts Cas.”

 

Sam didn’t say what he was thinking, what he knew Dean was already aware of – that the test alone was going to hurt Cas, far more than either of them were comfortable with. But at the moment, it seemed to be the lesser of two evils. And it wasn’t as if he wouldn’t heal, very quickly, the moment Dean cut through the sigil on his arm and broke the bond.

 

“We can’t kill him,” Sam reasoned, trying to sound more reassuring than he felt. “Like, literally can’t, unless we use the angel blade, and we won’t. So, what we’ve got to do to – to find the tablet – it’ll heal in like, minutes once the bond is broken.”

 

“And – if we do find the tablet… inside Cas?”

 

Sam felt the shudder that passed through Dean with those words, heard the ragged, trembling sound of his voice, and understood – because this was an utterly horrifying prospect to him, too. Sam edged closer to his brother, sliding his arm around him. Cas was Sam’s friend, too, but Sam knew that Cas had always been closer to Dean. Yeah, they’d been through a lot of ups and downs over the past few years, including times when it had looked as if their friendship was over for good – but that only made this harder for Dean, not easier.

 

“I don’t think we will,” Sam said, for Dean’s sake trying to fill his voice with all the confidence he didn’t quite feel. “But – if we do, then… then I guess we won’t have to feel quite so shitty about doing this.”

 

Dean didn’t answer, his downcast gaze anguished as he folded his fingers together and raised them to rest his head in his hands. Sam sighed, looking away. He knew his words were weak reassurance, but they were all he had to offer at the moment. He knew already, though – there was no good solution to this problem. They could find the truth about the tablet, but if they were wrong, then they’d have badly hurt a dear friend, and more than just physically.

 

And if they were right, well – somehow, Sam doubted that being right about Cas’s betrayal would make either of them feel any better at all.

 

************************************************

 

Garth called Dean back within the next hour – but the nearest of his contacts with access to the necessary amount of morphine was a good four hours’ drive away from Rufus’s cabin. Dean felt a strange sense of relief when he got the message, though he knew it was actually a setback. They didn’t have much time, according to Ion; hours spent on the road were hours wasted.

 

But Dean had spent the time waiting for Garth’s call pacing back and forth across the creaking cabin floor, his thoughts increasingly troubled, his nerves increasingly frayed. Cas was out of sight, locked away in the basement, but Dean couldn’t shift the disturbing image from his mind of his friend, chained and kneeling and just helplessly waiting for them to…

 

He closed his eyes, shook his head, trying in vain to clear it. He just needed to get away for a little while, needed to get out of this cabin just to feel like he could breathe; so the moment the call came through, he took off in the Impala to meet the contact halfway, leaving Sam to keep an eye on Cas.

 

A little under four hours later, when Dean made his way back down to the basement – this time with a nauseatingly large hypodermic needle loaded with an obscene amount of morphine hidden in the place where the angel blade had been last time, and his brother right behind him – he didn’t actually feel any better about the situation.

 

Cas looked up at Dean as he approached, then at Sam behind him – and the relief Dean saw on Cas’s face at the sight of Sam – well, it stung. More than a little.

 

“Sam,” Cas began, urgency in his voice as they approached him. “I don’t know where you’ve gotten your information, but it’s false information. I’m not doing anything with the angel tablet. I can’t even read it, you know that. It’s useless without a prophet to read it. You can let me go…”

 

“We’ll see,” Sam replied, his tone carefully non-committal, not meeting the questioning gaze that followed him as he moved to stand behind the kneeling angel, placing his large hands firmly on Cas’s shoulders to hold him down and in place as Dean stepped up close in front of him.

 

“Wait… Dean… Sam, what…?”

 

Cas’s eyes widened in alarm at the sight of the needle that had appeared in Dean’s hands. He pushed backward in a vain attempt to retreat, but Sam held him still easily as Dean swiftly plunged the needle into the side of Cas’s neck. Cas looked up at Sam with such hurt and betrayal that Sam looked away, his expression pained and guilty. Dean swallowed hard, relieved to see the haze of confusion and disorientation sliding into Cas’s eyes, just before his shoulders went slack under Sam’s hands, and he slid down into a boneless heap on the cold stone floor.

 

************************************************

 

They laid him out flat, and Sam took out the blade they’d chosen from among their weapons. Dean had sharpened it to a razor’s edge, and sterilized it with boiling water and then with alcohol. Sam’s mouth was dry, his heart racing as he knelt on the floor beside their unconscious friend. The idea of what he was about to do made him feel queasy, but he still knew that he could handle it a lot better than Dean could at the moment.

 

Dean just crouched on the floor a couple of yards away, his back against the wall, his fist pressed, slightly trembling, against his mouth, eyes closed, while he waited. Sam almost would have thought he was praying, except that they both knew the only one Dean prayed to at all these days was currently incapacitated and at their mercy. Despite the feeling of revulsion that filled him at that unsettling thought, Sam made himself focus on the task at hand.

 

The sooner it was over, the sooner they could let Cas go, and they could all move on and try to get past this.

 

The feeling of warm, wet blood on his hands – the sick squelch of his thankfully steady fingers against soft parts that should never be so freely exposed to anyone’s touch – those were nothing compared to the leaden feeling of dread that tightened in Sam’s chest when he felt the smooth hardness of stone under his fingertips. He closed his eyes as he carefully withdrew the thing from Cas’s chest, as if doing so could somehow keep him from seeing what he already knew was true – if only for just a few seconds longer.

 

Finally, he forced himself to open his eyes, letting out a slow, shaky breath as he looked down at the stone tablet in his hands.

 

“Dean,” he said softly, his brother’s name coming out strained and hoarse.

 

Dean looked up immediately, anxiously, meeting Sam’s eyes. He bit his lower lip, his eyes lowering to Sam’s blood-slick hands, and the overwhelmingly heavy burden they held. Worry faded slowly into shock and hurt… and then a terrible, overwhelming defeat and resignation, as the implications of what Sam had found slowly sank in. Sam watched bleakly as Dean squared his shoulders and his jaw, visibly forcing himself to come to terms with what he was seeing.

 

The missing angel tablet had been found – right where Ion had said it would be.

 

And Cas was going to end the world.

 

*************************************************

 

“So… the chains keep him from… from flying. He can’t go anywhere. And – the spell will keep him from calling out to Heaven for help. Not that they want to help him right now, anyway. The point is – he’s not going anywhere until we let him…”

 

Sam was talking, and Dean knew what he was saying was important, but he was finding it difficult to focus past the overwhelming weight of the revelation they’d just uncovered.

 

Ion was telling the truth.

 

Cas had started the ritual to bring down the walls between worlds.

 

And Dean couldn’t take time right now to think about how blindsided he was by that knowledge, after he’d nearly managed to convince himself that Ion had been lying, and that they would find nothing inside Cas’s chest; how frustrated and angry he felt that Cas still hadn’t learned his lesson, after all his past mistakes, all his previous rash decisions made with what he thought were good intentions; how hurt he was that Cas hadn’t come to him, hadn’t trusted him, but had instead listened to some random angel and taken the wrong path, again.

 

No, he couldn’t think about any of that right now, because right now, they had to focus on getting Cas to stop the ritual before the walls all came tumbling down.

 

“… won’t be able to fight us, or at least not to hurt us,” Sam continued, as Dean forced himself to focus. “It was… easy to… to hold him down.” Sam hesitated, swallowing nervously, before continuing, “With his grace drained, well – he might as well be human, right now.”

 

Dean’s stomach lurched, his mind going to the bloody gash in his chest that Sam had stitched up as well as he could. “Which means, he ain’t healing ‘til we let him go,” he concluded grimly, rubbing angrily at his eyes. “And we already used all the damn morphine. When he wakes up… damn it, Sam, I hate this,” he muttered.

 

“I know. Me, too,” Sam said quietly. “But – it also means he won’t be able to – to try to smite anyone, or – do any of his magical angel tricks. And – I don’t know, maybe – maybe the fact that he’s not healing – that he’s… hurting…” Sam hesitated, and Dean looked up to see a guilty grimace on Sam’s face. “He’s – he’s gotta know that – the only way it’s gonna stop is if he just – tells us the truth, you know?”

 

Dean closed his eyes, flinching a little as vivid sense memory filled his mind – a black blade with a razor edge, smoke and ash and bright red pouring out over his hand… hundreds of voices, screams and cries and desperate, broken promises for which Dean had no interest… there was nothing they had that he wanted, nothing but their suffering…

 

But… you want something now… and you know how to make him beg to give it to you…

 

It was Alistair’s voice in his head, and Dean drew in a sharp, shaking breath, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, struggling to shut it out. It was like some dark, tiny, whispering thing had crawled into him in Hell, and he’d carried it out with him, a constant reminder that he wasn’t that “righteous man” Cas had fought his way through Hell to rescue. Not anymore.

 

A ‘righteous man’ couldn’t even imagine the things you’re thinking right now… not for a second…

 

Dean felt Sam’s hand on his shoulder, felt his concern although he didn’t say a word.

 

“It’s just…” he tried to explain, before Sam could draw his own conclusions. “… Sammy, it’s Cas…”

 

“I know,” Sam said softly. “It’s Cas. And I hate thethought of leaving him in pain as much as you do, but – we found the tablet. He’s started this ritual. Letting him go right now is – it’s not an option, Dean.”

 

“I know,” Dean admitted, quiet, defeated.

 

“It’s Cas,” Sam repeated, thoughtful, and clearly trying to sound optimistic, “He’s no good at lying anyway, we know that. And as soon as he wakes up, he’s gonna know we found the tablet. And yeah, he’s gonna be in – in a lot of pain, and he has to know we know what he’s doing. All we’ve got to do is just walk in there with the tablet, and he’ll probably fold in a heartbeat. No sense lying if he knows we already know the truth.” Sam hesitated, glancing down before meeting Dean’s eyes with something resembling apology. “I’m just saying, you know… he’s not used to pain. Not – not real, human pain. If it – if it makes him quicker to just tell us how to stop this thing, well… in the long run, it’s better for everyone.”

 

Dean nodded, but there was a heavy weight in his chest, and a knot in his throat that he couldn’t quite swallow down. “Cas is – he can be pretty stubborn,” he pointed out quietly. “And – us knowing the truth – that’s not enough. Ion said Cas is the only one who can stop the spell.”

 

“Yeah.” Sam was quiet for a moment. “We’ll just have to make him see reason,” he said at last. “We can make him understand that he’s not doing what he thinks he’s doing, here. This isn’t ‘God’s plan’ – if he ever had one.”

 

Dean nodded again, slowly, automatically – but he knew Cas a little better than that.

 

He remembered begging Cas not to go through with his plan to take on the souls from Purgatory, remembered trying to get through to his friend, and Cas’s stubborn refusal to hear his objections. In the end, Cas had done what he’d intended to do from the start, heedless of their warnings – and he’d nearly destroyed the world in the process.

 

Dean couldn’t let that happen again.

 

“I can’t believe that Cas is doing this with anything other than good intentions,” Sam went on, the willfully positive note in his voice only making Dean’s heart feel heavier. “He has to think he’s doing the right thing – and after what happened last time, maybe he’ll be more willing to listen this time. We’ll talk to him.” Sam nodded. “We’ll make him understand, and end the spell. And then it’ll be over, and he can get better, and it’ll all be okay.”

 

But Sam’s voice lacked conviction, and Dean was certain that he wasn’t doing any better job of convincing himself than he was of convincing Dean. A cold, creeping feeling was sliding up Dean’s spine – a sinking certainty that it wasn’t going to be so easy.

 

Cas was a heavenly warrior. Cas had taken on archangels, more than once. He had experienced torture at the hands of angels, and while it had shaken him briefly – in the end, it hadn’t broken him. When it had counted, he’d still chosen the right side.

 

Chosen Dean’s side.

 

But… he did give in. For a little while. He fell back in line with what Heaven wanted…

 

And… all we need, now… is a little while…

 

The direction of Dean’s thoughts made him want to throw up, a sick heat of shame sliding over him, as his mind traveled down dark paths into his past that he wished he could leave behind him. It was increasingly difficult to shut out that part of himself that he’d tried to leave back in the fires of Hell – that little part of him that kept insisting…

 

… there’s an easier way to do this...

 

Dean shivered. He’d nearly given Cas a glimpse of that part of himself, just a few short hours earlier.

 

But that’s all it was… just a glimpse… I’m not going there, not with Cas… not ever…

 

“Maybe he’s awake,” Sam suggested. “It’s been a couple of hours. Let’s go talk to him.” Sam took a few steps toward the basement door.

 

Dean stayed where he was.

 

Sam turned to face him with a worried frown. “Dean?”

 

“You go,” Dean said, his voice coming out hoarse and strained. “I – I just – you go talk to him. I’ll wait here.”

 

Sam hesitated, as if he wanted to ask for more information, but then he just nodded. “All right,” he agreed. He paused a moment before adding softly, “Cas is gonna see that he hasn’t exactly got another choice. It’s gonna be all right, Dean.”

 

Dean nodded, not looking up at Sam before Sam turned and headed down the basement stairs. He tried to hope that his brother was right… but he couldn’t quite manage it.

Chapter Text

When Sam descended the stairs to the basement, he found Cas half-lying, half-sitting on the floor, braced on one shaking arm, the other hand reaching upward, straining against the chain that held it down as Cas tried to touch the bandage taped over his wound. He looked up as Sam reached the bottom of the stairs, his eyes harrowed and fearful, the confusion on his face making it clear that he had only just awakened.

 

“How are you feeling?” Sam asked, though even as the words passed his lips, he could hear Cas’s voice from years earlier, slurred and slowed with alcohol, pointing out their uselessness.

 

“Don’t ask stupid questions.”

 

It made Sam’s heart ache, to remember a time when the entire world had been falling apart around them, Lucifer close on Sam’s trail and Dean despairing to the point of saying yes – but even so, at least they’d known who the enemies were. Cas had been so confused, so lost, during those days – and looking at him now, Sam suddenly wasn’t quite sure he’d ever stopped being that way.

 

“Sorry,” Sam offered with genuine regret, as he took in the rather pitiful sight Cas made at the moment. “I guess that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? I wish we had more morphine to give you, but we used it all when we – found the tablet.”

 

“Where is it?” Cas demanded, though his voice was weak and breathless, and he winced with pain as he spoke. “What – what have you done with it?”

 

“I need to know what you did with it, Cas,” Sam countered, keeping his voice even and calm as he pulled up a chair and sat down facing the angel. “We already know about the ritual. Okay? What we need to know now is how to stop it.”

 

Cas frowned, shaking his head. “What – what ritual?” he asked wearily. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know – w-why you’re doing this. If Naomi – gets her hands on the – the tablet…”

 

“Naomi isn’t the problem right now,” Sam cut him off sharply. “Cas – you realize that if your plan works – none of us will even survive, right? I mean – okay, maybe you will, but me and Dean? Not likely. And I don’t like your chances, either, honestly, because when it gets out what you did? Every single monster, demon, and angel out there is going to be gunning for you. Have you thought about that?”

 

“You’re not making any sense,” Cas muttered, lowering his head and closing his eyes, his face taut with pain, his chest heaving with the sheer effort of merely breathing, and Sam felt a sharp pang of guilt at the sight. “There is no plan. What exactly am I supposed to have done?”

 

“We know everything, Cas,” Sam explained with a sigh. “About the Gatekeeper, and bringing the walls down…”

 

“The Gatekeeper?” Cas looked up at Sam again sharply. “What has she to do with this? No one has even seen her in centuries…” He shook his head slowly, looking away again before meeting Sam’s gaze, his own piercing and suspicious. “Where are you getting this information? From the angels? Because, Sam – you know they want the tablet for themselves…”

 

“It’s not… just the angels.” Sam chose his words carefully. He knew that if he admitted Crowley’s involvement, it would only give Cas more ammunition with which to protest his innocence. “We’re hearing this from… several sources right now, Cas. And the thing is – everybody’s stories match.” He paused, his voice quiet and pointed as he concluded, “Everybody’s but yours.”

 

“Then everybody is lying!” Cas snapped, glaring up at Sam in defiance.

 

He automatically leaned toward Sam as he spoke, angry and challenging – and then immediately bit back a cry of agony at the movement, his arm giving out beneath him so that he collapsed to the floor. Immediately, Sam rose from his chair and crouched down in front of Cas, reaching out to help him up. Cas flinched away, hard, the chains rattling loudly in the quiet room.

 

“Cas, hey…” Sam kept his voice soothing, gentle, as he reached out and caught Cas’s arms, carefully helping him back up into a sitting position, his legs folded under him. “Easy… Cas, we’re not gonna hurt you…”

 

Cas was tense, trembling under Sam’s hands, but he looked up at Sam incredulously, as if that was the most ridiculous thing Sam had ever said. Sam swallowed, looking away for a moment before meeting Cas’s eyes, apologetic.

 

He had to admit, it did sound pretty ridiculous.

 

“We had no choice about – this,” he explained softly, nodding in the general direction of Cas’s injury. “We were told you’d started the ritual, by hiding the tablet in your body. We had to be sure, and – the tablet was there, so – clearly we were – right, to do it.” The words felt wrong coming out, and Sam swallowed hard, rephrasing. “We… had to, Cas. But – it’s not like we wanted to hurt you, and – I’m not going to do anything to hurt you now. I just need you to talk to me…”

 

“It… shouldn’t hurt. Not – not like this,” Cas observed, his voice weak and shaky, but thoughtful as he looked down at his own damaged vessel, momentarily distracted from Sam’s line of questioning. He looked up at Sam again, his eyes wide and filled with dread. “What have you done to me?”

 

“It’s the Jacob’s Call bond,” Sam explained, unable to hold Cas’s gaze, feeling uneasy and defensive. “It – restrains your grace so you can’t just go flying off, and you can’t hurt us, and…” Sam frowned, pausing to consider the implications of what Cas had said. “… and I guess that also means you can – feel pain in a way that your grace… doesn’t usually let you feel it.”

 

Cas considered that for a moment, eyes downcast, before he slowly raised his head to study Sam’s face again, his words cautious and measured. “But… you have no intention of hurting me.” His tone carried a note of sarcasm so faint that it would have been missed by anyone who didn’t know him as well as Sam did. “You have – other reasons for wanting me to be – helpless, and restrained, and – able to feel pain more intensely, yet unable to heal. Yes.” The faintest hint of a humorless smile touched the edge of Cas’s lips, but didn’t reach his eyes. “That makes perfect sense. I feel very reassured now.”

 

“We just need to know how to stop this,” Sam insisted, earnest and pleading. “Cas – we can’t just let you end the world.”

 

“I’m not trying to end the world,” Cas replied, quiet desperation in his voice. “Sam – please…”

 

“Then why did you put the tablet inside yourself?” Sam leaned back on his knees, watching Cas closely for his reaction. “What other reason could there possibly be?”

 

Cas looked away, swallowing hard. “You – you wouldn’t understand…”

 

“Then make me understand.”

 

“I can’t.” Cas’s voice was taut, frustrated.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because I don’t understand,” Cas snapped, his voice trembling and uncertain. “I don’t know why I had to do it, I just – it’s my father’s, and I just – I have to…” He stopped, shaking his head slightly, before going very quiet and very still. Slowly, he squared his shoulders as much as possible, his jaw setting stubbornly despite the obvious pain that made his face drawn and pale. He met Sam’s eyes again, firm in his defiance as he repeated, “You wouldn’t understand.”

 

Sam stifled a frustrated sigh. “Cas…”

 

He stopped at the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and rose to his feet, turning to face Dean as he appeared at the base of the stairs. His expression was tense and worried, and he didn’t so much as look at Cas, but instead focused completely on his brother.

 

“Sam… I need to see you for a minute upstairs,” he said tersely.

 

Sam glanced at Cas, who was watching the two of them silently with apprehensive eyes, before meeting Dean’s gaze and nodding. “Okay.”

 

Sam followed Dean up the stairs and to his laptop, where Dean motioned for Sam to take a seat and then stood back, crossing his arms over his chest and waiting. Sam sat down in front of his computer and quickly scanned the screen in front of him. The browser was opened to a news website, and a live feed was playing – a pretty news anchor standing in front of what appeared to be the splintered remains of a house.

 

“… one of six similar tornadoes that have touched down in the state within the last two hours, all of which have been measured as F4s or F5s. There is literally nothing left standing in the wake of this tornado, which has left a path of destruction nearly a half mile wide and nearly thirty miles long…”

 

“What state is she talking about?” Sam asked, frowning as a heavy feeling settled in the pit of his stomach.

 

“Delaware,” Dean replied, pointedly.

 

Sam looked up at him in alarm. “Seriously?”

 

“And there was another earthquake a few minutes before this story broke,” Dean informed him, his voice low and grim. “They were talking about it when I turned on the computer, right after you went downstairs.” He paused to lend emphasis to his words when he added, “It was in Florida.”

 

“… impossible to estimate at this point as to the number of lives lost, but in this small town alone, hundreds remain unaccounted for, with at least 27 recorded deaths so far…” On the screen, the solemn-faced woman continued. “We will keep you posted as more information becomes available…”

 

“Damn it.” Sam closed the laptop, turning away from it, feeling sick.

 

“Yeah,” Dean agreed darkly. “This is some serious apocalyptic shit here, Sammy.” He hesitated before continuing, a faint tremor in his voice, “I – I don’t think there’s any question about what’s going on here. Not anymore.”

 

“It doesn’t look like it,” Sam sighed, shaking his head.

 

“Any luck with Cas?” Dean asked, his voice carefully even and calm. “Did he tell you how to stop it?”

 

“No.” Sam looked up at Dean, shaking his head with a little grimace. “He keeps insisting he doesn’t know what we’re talking about. But when I asked him what he was doing with the tablet, if not the ritual to open the gates – he didn’t have a good answer.”

 

“That’s Cas,” Dean muttered, turning away and swiping a hand down over his face. “Always a crappy liar.”

 

“But stubborn as hell,” Sam added. “And people are dying, Dean. And – we don’t really know how long we have.”

 

Dean turned back toward Sam, frowning. “Three days…”

 

“From the time Cas started the ritual,” Sam pointed out. “And who knows when that was? Things seem to be accelerating pretty quickly. For all we know, time’s almost up.”

 

Dean considered that for a moment, before offering, “Maybe the angels could tell? Or Crowley?”

 

“The angels didn’t have a clue if he’d even started it or not,” Sam replied. “Besides, if we call them here, they can’t take Cas, but they could take the tablet, and apocalypse or not, that’s not a good thing. Anyway, Crowley seemed to have more information. We could summon him, see if he knows anything or can find out anything… but I don’t want him anywhere near the tablet, either. We know he wants to get his hands on it…”

 

“Maybe there’s a way to protect it? Some kind of spell?” Dean suggested. “We could ward it against demons or something, and then call Crowley?”

 

Sam thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, maybe. I can check it out.”

 

He braced himself for whatever new bad news he would find on the screen, then opened his laptop again. He was tempted to simply close the news site, but then thought better of it, and merely downsized the window to a small portion of the screen, so that he could keep track of new events while he started searching for workable spells. After a few moments, Sam glanced up at Dean, who was pacing the floor, looking every few moments toward the closed door to the basement.

 

“You wanna try talking to him?” Sam suggested. “I wasn’t getting anywhere, but – he listens to you, Dean. Maybe you could…”

 

No.” Dean’s voice was a little too sharp, carrying a note of something vaguely resembling panic.

 

Sam frowned, his fingers momentarily stilling on the keyboard. “Dean?” he began with cautious concern. “What…?”

 

“I need some air,” Dean announced quickly, cutting Sam off and heading for the cabin door.

 

Sam’s frown deepened. “Dean…”

 

“Just give me a minute, Sammy, would you?” Dean snapped. “Keep looking for that spell! We don’t have much time!”

 

He didn’t give Sam time to respond before he was out the door, slamming it shut behind him. Sam started to get up, worried by Dean’s behavior – but then another story popped up on the news site – an impending hurricane.

 

In South Dakota.

 

We’re running out of time here, and we don’t even know how fast…

 

Sam bit his lip, considering, his eyes locked onto the door out which Dean had just disappeared. His hesitation cost him the choice, however, because another moment later, Sam heard the Impala’s engine roaring to life outside, and the sound of her tires crunching in the leaves outside the cabin as Dean drove away.

 

Sam took out his cell phone and dialed Dean’s number, waiting anxiously for him to pick up. When he did, on the fourth ring, Sam spoke without waiting for a greeting.

 

“What the hell was that?”

 

“Sammy,” Dean sighed, his voice raw with exhaustion and – something else. Something Sam couldn’t quite put his finger on. “I’m sorry, okay? Just – I need a minute. I’m not going far, all right? I’ll be back in an hour, tops. Just – let me know if anything else happens, or if you find a spell. Okay?”

 

Sam hesitated, but then decided that if Dean was actually telling Sam what he needed for a change, that was at least something.

 

“An hour,” Sam repeated firmly. “And when you get back here – we’re going to talk about this.”

 

Dean was quiet for a long moment.

 

Dean.”

 

“All right,” Dean grumbled. “Fine, just – later.”

 

Sam hung up the phone and attempted to focus his attention on his laptop. It was difficult, amidst the distractions of the increasingly grim news stories that kept popping up in the small window to the side; and the ever-present awareness in the back of his mind of Cas, chained up and in pain and stubbornly alone in the basement.

 

And then there was Dean.

 

But as worried as Sam was about his brother, he knew that he had bigger issues to think about. Sam had two priorities at the moment – finding out just how quickly their time was running out, and figuring out a way to get Cas to give in before it was too late to save anyone.

 

Whatever the hell was going on with Dean… it was just going to have to wait.

Chapter Text

Dean pressed down harder on the Impala’s gas pedal as he took her over the winding country roads, taking comfort in the familiar rumble of her engine and the way she responded to his slightest correction of the wheel with instant precision. He could lose himself in the simple pleasure of driving, forget whatever thoughts were troubling him, forget that anyone and anything except him and his baby even existed, for just a little while.

 

Usually.

 

Yet Dean couldn’t shake the sick feeling of panic swelling in his chest, couldn’t keep from thinking about his friend locked up in that basement, and his brother who was trying to find a way to save the world from that friend, and the fact that they were running out of time, and the only way to get Cas to give in and stop the ritual might just be traveling down dark roads into his past that he’d tried to leave behind forever.

 

Dean tried not to think about the fact that he’d already been thinking it, even before the death toll started rising – that he’d already considered how easy it’d be to take advantage of the unusually human pain threshold Cas had at the moment, to use his own well-honed skills of painful persuasion to shatter Cas’s resolve and just end this thing already…

 

He tried not to think about the fact, the certainty in the back of his mind… that with this much at stake, if it was anyone but Cas… he’d already have crossed that line.

 

Damn it, why can’t he just listen to me? Dean slammed his palm against the steering wheel in frustration, the throbbing pain from the gesture a welcome, all-too-brief distraction from his thoughts. This is just like the last time… when I tried just talking to him, and it didn’t work, and he killed who knows how many people, thinking he was doing the right thing, and…

 

… and I can’t let that happen again. I can’t. No matter what it takes…

 

Dean had been driving for about half an hour when he realized that as much as he dreaded it, he needed to turn around and head back to the cabin. Sam was still weak from the first trial, and with the frequent traffic from the various angels and demons that had been showing up in the past few days, Dean didn’t feel great about leaving Sam there without backup for long.

 

Just ahead and to the right, Dean saw a sign for a gas station and convenience store. He still had about a quarter of a tank of gas, but he pulled into the parking lot anyway. He was aware that he was stalling for time, but couldn’t really bring himself to care at the moment. As he slowed the Impala and prepared to pull up to the pump, Dean noticed a building just beyond the convenience store, with a lighted sign that read “TJ’s Liquor”.

 

Dean hesitated. To say that he and Sam had a lot to deal with at the moment was an extreme understatement, and Dean really needed to be clear-headed right now…

 

… not that the thoughts he was having while stone cold sober were all that useful. Or encouraging. Or fucking sane.

 

Encouraging, no… sanity’s overrated, anyway… but useful… Dean, you know very well how… effective those ideas you took out of Hell can be…

 

Alastair’s voice again, this time with the image of his face, smiling but bloodied, with a measure of fear in his eyes – and the thrill of pleasure and satisfaction Dean had felt at the sight...

 

Fuck.

 

The Impala’s engine roared as Dean gunned it through the convenience store parking lot and brought her to a stop outside the liquor store beyond it.

 

It’s been years since you were physically capable of getting drunk, he reasoned. Just something to take the edge off… help you focus a little and get through this… that’s all…

 

The moment he stepped inside the liquor store, Dean realized that something was very wrong. It was completely silent, and there was no one in sight – at least, not until he moved closer to the counter and saw the still, lifeless body of the clerk lying on the floor behind it. The young man’s dull eyes stared blankly up at the ceiling, and from where he stood, Dean could clearly see the bloody gash where his throat had once been – though there was a lot less blood on the floor around the kid than there should have been.

 

There was nothing that could be done for the poor kid now. Drawing his weapon, Dean made his way carefully through the rest of the store, a grim, leaden pit forming in his stomach with each new victim that he found – three in all, two men and one woman. But what little blood remained hadn’t even dried yet, so Dean knew the attack had to have happened very recently – within the past couple of hours.

 

The absence of blood, the torn flesh at the victims’ throats, all of Dean’s experience and instincts told him that this was a vampire attack – except that most vampires he’d come across still preferred to hunt at night, and tended to keep a low profile in order to keep from drawing the attention of hunters.

 

Unless these are vampires that have spent the last who knows how long in a place where it’s never really dark or light… Dean’s stomach clenched, a heavy sense of dread sliding over him. Unless they’re so starved for human blood that they don’t care if they get caught… or worse, aren’t afraid of anything… have gotten used to fighting things a whole lot scarier than human hunters…

 

Dean’s mind flashed back to Purgatory, and the roaming packs of vampires he and Benny and Cas had run into on more than one occasion there.

 

No… not yet… the walls can’t be coming down yet…

 

But… we don’t really know when they’re coming down, do we?

 

It was too late to do anything for the unfortunate shoppers who’d happened to be here when the vamps had attacked; so Dean knocked out the overhead security camera with the handle of a nearby broom, then took a couple of bottles from the shelves and headed back out to the car. He tossed them into the Impala’s passenger seat and got inside, glancing across the parking lot at the convenience store and wondering if anyone inside had noticed anything strange from the shop next door.

 

Suddenly uneasy, Dean got back out of the Impala, favoring the element of surprise over her speed and power. As quietly as possible, he took a machete from the trunk and closed it again, then made his way carefully across the parking lot, stopping at the wall beside the large picture windows that made up the front of the store. It was only then that he realized: there were no people in the parking lot; the red Volvo he’d noticed at the pump when he pulled in still had the driver side door open and waiting for someone who was probably never coming back.

 

Dean carefully pushed open the glass door to the convenience store, wincing slightly at the tinkling bells that heralded his entrance. But as at the liquor store, there didn’t seem to be anyone around to hear them. There were a few more people in this store than had been in the liquor store – all in the same condition. Dean had just crouched down to inspect the wound in the neck of an older woman when he heard a faint sound from across the room.

 

He rose to his feet silently, weapon ready in front of him as he carefully approached the source of the sound. Dean’s stomach lurched as he rounded an aisle full of potato chips and candy bars, and found a young girl lying on the floor, a weak hand trembling against her gaping throat. Fearful blue eyes rolled toward him as he approached, and a choked whimper escaped her lips.

 

“Hey, it’s okay… I’m here to help you,” Dean assured her gently as he quickly knelt beside her, setting down his machete, pulling her hand away and replacing it with the firmer pressure of his own. As he did, his eyes were momentarily drawn toward the bright colors of the handmade braided bracelet she wore on her wrist.

 

Once she seemed assured that Dean was not going to hurt her, the girl’s eyes shifted up and to her left, and she tried to speak, though all that came out was an agonizing rattle of weak, failing breath. There was an urgency in her eyes, a desperation to the way she grasped at his arm, and Dean instinctively ran his free hand through her hair.

 

“Shhh, it’s okay… you’re gonna be okay…” he soothed her gently, though his heart sank as he took in the blue tinge of her lips, and her wrist fell listlessly into his grasp, too weak even to hold it up any longer. Dean glanced in the direction she’d been looking, and saw that a few feet away from her lay the body of a man in a theme park t-shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap, his face still and frozen in horror.

 

A braided bracelet to match the girl’s was on his wrist.

 

Dean felt sick as he returned his gaze to the girl. She couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. Automatically, although he knew she couldn’t see the man from her position, and she couldn’t move, Dean found himself shifting a little to place himself between the girl and the lifeless body of her father.

 

There was nothing that could be done for him, anymore, but maybe… maybe

 

“It’s gonna be okay. I’m gonna get you some help, okay?” Dean promised, reaching for his cell phone with the hand that wasn’t applying pressure to her throat. But before he could even get it out of his pocket and dial 9-1-1, panic filled the girl’s eyes, as she struggled for one last, rasping breath that failed her.

 

“No, no, no,” Dean muttered, gathering the girl up into his arms, tilting her head back, trying to clear her airways as much as possible. He leaned down over her, prepared to breathe for her if necessary, to keep her alive until help could arrive – but he went still an inch from her face, his heart clenching in his chest. The light had faded from the child’s eyes, leaving them dull and blank and staring into nothing. Defeated, Dean dropped the phone from his hand, lowering his head and closing his eyes as he held the girl’s broken body in his arms.

 

He’d arrived too late, after all. There was nothing he could do for her now.

 

Dean gently lowered her back down onto the floor, then rose to his feet slowly, his jaw setting with frustration and angry determination. He picked up his weapon and headed to the car with swift, purposeful steps, slamming the Impala’s door with one hand and turning the key in the ignition with the other. As she roared to life and took off down the highway back toward the cabin, Dean reached for one of his pilfered bottles and took a long pull, relishing the burn as it poured down his throat.

 

Maybe there was nothing he could do for anyone, anymore. Maybe they’d hesitated too long, and it was too late to change what was going to happen.

 

But he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to die trying.

 

************************************************

 

Sam didn’t find any more answers in his second Internet search than he had the first time around – no angel truth spells, and nothing that could mask the presence of something as powerful and ancient as the angel tablet from the likes of Crowley. Of course, it might have been a little easier to concentrate if he hadn’t been interrupted with a new alert informing him of some new disaster every ten minutes or so: earthquakes, tornadoes, forest fires…

 

You name it, it’s happening out there right now… which means we’re running out of time.

 

It also might have been a little easier for Sam to concentrate if he hadn’t been so worried about Dean.

 

His best friend’s about to blow up the world – again. And there’s nothing we can do about it, short of…

 

Sam’s thoughts went unbidden to the article he’d found earlier, when looking for truth spells – a very different means of eliciting the truth from a reluctant angel than what he’d been looking for. Sam shuddered, trying to banish the mental images that accompanied the remembered words. He wasn’t going to mention it to Dean. No, that was just one additional conflict that Dean shouldn’t have to deal with.

 

This time, Sam was just going to make the call.

 

They weren’t going there. Period. No matter what.

 

There has to be another way. There has to...

 

“No luck?”

 

Sam jumped, getting to his feet and spinning around to face Crowley, who had abruptly materialized behind him. The King of Hell had a somewhat bored expression on his lips, but his eyes were dark and troubled, and there was a tension in his expression that betrayed his worry.

 

Although Crowley seemed far more concerned with the impending Apocalypse than with the angel tablet at the moment, Sam immediately thought of his backpack, lying under the table, with the tablet inside. They could never be too careful with Crowley, and Sam wouldn’t put it past him to use this situation as an opportunity to steal the tablet. With one hand, Sam reached behind him for the demon-killing knife he’d left there beside his laptop, holding it up and giving Crowley a cold smile.

 

“You might want to be careful who you go sneaking up on, Crowley.”

 

Crowley’s smile didn’t falter. “You might want to be careful who you go threatening to kill, Moose,” he retorted in a mild tone. “Considering that I’m here to help you…” Crowley gave an exaggerated shudder. “… as much as it grates me to say so.” He paused a moment, glancing past Sam to his laptop screen before adding, “I see you’ve been keeping up with the events of the past few hours.”

 

“Yeah.” Sam sighed, turning his grim gaze back toward the screen and stepping a bit to the side, so that he could keep an eye on both it and Crowley at the same time. “It’s getting ugly out there. We were hoping you might have some idea of exactly how much time we’ve got left.”

 

Exactly? No,” Crowley replied. “But I can tell you this – it’s started.”

 

Sam’s stomach dropped, and he frowned. “What does that mean?”

 

“There are already… gaps, in the walls. Creatures slipping through into the wrong worlds,” Crowley explained. He nodded toward the laptop before going on. “News networks are covering the major natural disasters at the moment, mostly – which means a few stories are slipping through the cracks. Like random acts of violence that are difficult to explain in… human terms.”

 

“Monsters?” Sam guessed.

 

“All manner,” Crowley confirmed. “Fresh from Purgatory and ravenous for the flesh and blood humans they haven’t had access to in centuries. And not just monsters, either. A class of second graders in Minnesota was found half an hour ago – all dead. Exploded from the inside out. Their teacher had her eyes burned from her skull. Sounds like a case of mass angel possession gone wrong to me.”

 

Sam felt immediately, overwhelmingly sick. He sat back down in his chair, raking a shaky hand through his hair.

 

“People are dying, Moose – and not just your people, mine too. Hell itself is under siege at the moment. And business is depressingly slow.” Crowley shrugged, an unhappy smirk crossing his lips. “No one wants to deal with the devil when the world’s about to end. Which is why I thought it a good time to check in with our heroes and see what progress they’ve made.” His smile faded as he concluded, “I’m finding it rather underwhelming.”

 

“We’re trying, okay?” Sam snapped. “We’re doing everything we can…”

 

“No, you’re not.” Crowley cast a pointed glare toward the closed basement door before meeting Sam’s eyes again, accusing. “Not everything.”

 

Before Sam could respond, the cabin door opened and Dean walked in. The moment he saw Crowley standing there, he pulled out his gun and took aim.

 

“The hell are you doing here, Crowley?” he demanded.

 

“Talking to a brick wall, apparently,” Crowley retorted, sounding extremely unimpressed. “Since neither of you seems prepared to do whatever it takes to find out how to stop this!”

 

Sam was distracted from Crowley’s tirade, however, when his gaze locked onto his brother’s hands, his stomach clenching with alarm. Dean’s hands were trembling slightly on his gun – and they were coated with blood.

 

“Dean?” Sam stood up again, taking a step toward his brother. “What happened?”

 

“Vamp attack,” Dean replied, grudgingly lowering his weapon and putting it away, keeping a wary eye on Crowley. He shook his head slowly with a grimace. “In broad daylight, too. Must have taken out a dozen people.”

 

“What did I tell you?” Crowley held up a hand toward Dean, giving Sam an exasperated look.

 

Dean frowned. “What the hell are you talking about?”

 

“The walls,” Sam spoke up quietly before Crowley could. “They’re – they’re already starting to come down.”

 

Dean stared at him with a sort of sinking dread in his eyes – as if Sam was only confirming a conclusion he’d already reached. “Those weren’t just ordinary vamps,” he said, his voice shaking dangerously. “They were Purgatory vamps. What they did to those people…”

 

Dean shook his head, looking away. His gaze stopped on his own hands in front of him, and Dean froze, a slow swallow visible in his throat. Sam frowned, worried by his brother’s demeanor.

 

“Dean…?”

 

“Bottom line.” Dean’s voice was low and hard, and it took Sam a moment to realize that he was talking to Crowley, not him. “How much time do we have?”

 

“Before it’s too late to reverse the damage to the walls?” Crowley considered for a moment. “I’d say it’s measured in hours now. Less than a day, certainly.”

 

Dean didn’t look away from his blood-stained hands, but he nodded once, slowly, taking in the information.

 

A heavy knot was beginning to form in the pit of Sam’s stomach, and his words came out hushed and cautious. “Dean… what?”

 

Dean didn’t answer for a moment, his hands slowly closing into fists in front of him – before he lowered them to his sides, squaring his shoulders and heading toward the basement door.

 

Dean!” Sam raised his voice, alarmed.

 

Finally, some progress!” Crowley sighed. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

 

Sam had barely glanced toward him when Crowley vanished. Abruptly worried, Sam turned back toward the table and grabbed his backpack from under it, relieved to find that the tablet was still there – but Dean was still heading for the basement.

 

Dean!” Sam called out across the room, and Dean stopped a bare step away from the door, not turning around, just waiting. Sam’s voice was softer when he asked, “What are you going to do?”

 

“Whatever I have to,” Dean replied, his voice low and trembling.

 

“Dean… wait…”

 

“We don’t have time to wait,” Dean snapped, looking up at Sam with anguished eyes. “You heard Crowley. We’ve got less than a day – and people are already dying. Children, Sam.”

 

Sam hesitated. “Then – I’ll go down there with you. We’ll – talk to him, together…”

 

No.” Dean’s tone was quietly adamant, leaving no room for argument, as he looked down. “You keep looking for an answer up here. Keep up the research. If there’s any way to save the world – and – save Cas…” Dean cast his gaze up at Sam again, pleading, desperate, like a man walking to his own execution. “… I need you to find it, Sammy. Fast. Please.”

 

Sam wanted to tell Dean to wait – but there was no time. He wanted to argue that there was another way – but they hadn’t found one. Instead, Sam swallowed down all the useless words he wanted to say, and nodded resolutely.

 

“All right. I’ll keep looking. I’ll find something, Dean, so – so don’t…” He swallowed, his mouth dry, his stomach roiling. “I’ll find something. I promise.”

 

Dean nodded once, wordlessly, before opening the basement door. Sam watched helplessly as his brother squared his shoulders, took a deep breath… and began the descent.

Chapter Text

“Time’s up, Cas,” Dean announced as he reached the bottom of the stairs, his voice sharp and commanding. “I need to know how to end this, and you’re gonna tell me. Now.”

 

Cas winced as he pushed himself up on one hand, looking up to meet Dean’s eyes. He seemed unconcerned with Dean’s question, his eyes drifting downward and then widening in alarm when they fell on Dean’s hands. Dean glanced down, his mouth dry when he realized that they were still covered in blood. The little girl’s fearful eyes flashed into his mind… the way her hand had trembled, and then finally gone still in his; guilt washed over Dean with the memory.

 

If you’d been willing before now to push a little harder… to go a little farther… she’d still be alive… she’s dead because you wouldn’t…

 

“Dean, what happened?” Cas’s voice was soft and urgent, filled with concern that was strangely jarring in the wake of Dean’s brutal self-recriminations. “Are you hurt?”

 

“What?” Dean blinked, startled. “No, it’s – it’s not mine. That’s not the point, Cas…”

 

Cas frowned, looking away, visibly troubled. “I – I should have been able to tell that. Should have sensed it – why didn’t I know?”

 

Dean stifled his rising frustration as he stalked toward the kneeling angel, wiping his hands self-consciously down the legs of his jeans, though the blood was too dry at this point for the gesture to have much effect. “No angel powers right now, Cas,” Dean snapped. “When are you going to get that through your head? That means no flying away, no smiting, and apparently no… freaky mental ESP crap, either.”

 

Dean felt a fresh wave of frustration and anger wash over him with the realization that Cas actually looked relieved that Dean wasn’t hurt – if still vaguely bothered by the idea of his lost abilities. Certainly he didn’t seem troubled in the slightest by the blood that still coated Dean’s hands. As long as it wasn’t Dean’s blood – as long as Dean was unhurt, then apparently the brutal murder of a single human child was meaningless

 

He didn’t know he was going to do it until it was done; in an instant, Dean closed the rest of the distance between them, drawing back one hand into a tight fist and bringing it down across Cas’s face in a brutal backhand blow.

 

Cas toppled over sideways, unable to catch himself with his wrists chained, and he let out a short, startled cry as the wound in his chest was pulled by the motion. Dean reached down, not giving him a moment to recover, and seized a fistful of Cas’s hair, yanking him back up onto his knees. He felt a sense of intense satisfaction and strangely, relief when finally, finally he saw something akin to fear in the angel’s wary eyes.

 

Dean smiled, though it felt wrong on his lips, hard and tight and miserable. “And it also means,” he continued, his voice low and menacing. “That when I do that… it hurts.”

 

Cas held his gaze, his breathing slowly evening out again as the momentary shock faded from his eyes, and he swallowed hard. “Dean…” he began at last, breathless but carefully calm. “I don’t know what else I can say…”

 

“You can tell me how to end this,” Dean ordered, shaking Cas slightly. Guilt and satisfaction coiled together in his chest when Cas winced slightly with pain, biting his lip and closing his eyes.

 

Cas looked up at him again after a moment, shaking his head helplessly. “There’s nothing to end…”

 

The eyes of the little girl, slowly fading to dull, blank darkness, once again filled Dean’s mind, and he let go of Cas with a shove that sent him sprawling to the floor, following it up with a sharp kick to Cas’s side that left him choking, gasping for breath, his fists clenched and uselessly straining against the chains that held them down.

 

The hell there isn’t!” Dean snarled. “People are dying out there, Cas, and that might not matter to you…”

 

“It does matter!” Cas looked up at him, his expression bewildered, shaking his head. His voice was choked and rasping with pain. “But…”

 

“But not enough for you to deviate from this stupid fucking plan of yours, huh?” Dean sneered. “Not enough for you to stop it!”

 

“I’m not doing it!” Cas yelled back – but the effect was rather undone by the ragged cough that followed the words. Cas struggled for breath for a moment before repeating, his voice quieter, weaker, “Dean… whatever is happening out there… I’m not doing it…”

 

“What is happening…” Dean’s words were clipped, slow, his fists clenched at his sides as he tried to maintain control. “… is exactly what the angels – and the demons – told us was going to happen, Cas. The walls are coming down between all the worlds. Angels are here that aren’t supposed to be, and monsters that have been locked up in Purgatory for the last few centuries, and who knows how many demons are topside now, and it’s all falling apart, Cas. The entire world. Because of this fucking stupid plan of yours to bring down the walls.”

 

Cas blinked up at Dean before his mouth twitched slightly in something that on anyone else wouldn’t have been an actual expression at all. For Cas, though, it was as close as he ever got to a sarcastic smirk – and it made Dean’s hands twitch, white hot rage bubbling up in his chest. It made him want to wipe that look from Cas’s face using the most violent means possible.

 

“You’re right, Dean,” Cas said, his tone sharp with annoyance, eyes blazing and defiant. “That would be a… fucking stupid plan. Why would I ever want to do something like that? Have you even considered the question of what my motivation would be to do such a thing?”

 

“Yeah.” Dean smiled coldly down at the angel, taking a couple of steps closer to him. “We have. You’re trying to clean up your last mess… but all you’re doing is swallowing it up in a bigger one. Convenient, though, isn’t it?” Dean sneered, bitter and sarcastic. “Clears you of responsibility for all the angels – all the people that are dead because of you – if you just fling open all the doors to all the possibilities and let whatever happens, happen, right? Hey, if you’re lucky when the dust clears… there won’t be anybody left who even remembers all the stupid shit you pulled before.”

 

Cas flinched, looking up at Dean with wounded eyes. “Dean…” He shook his head, his voice breathless but heavy with sorrow. “I – I wouldn’t… I’m not trying to…”

 

“No, Cas, you never fucking are, are you?” Dean snapped, his voice rising in fury as he went on. “You always think you’re doing the right thing, but then everybody but you ends up screwed in the deal. You’d think sooner or later you’d stop trying and just focus on not destroying every single fucking thing you touch!”

 

Cas flinched, eyes suddenly averted to the floor, a painful swallow visible in his throat, and despite his fury, despite his desperation, Dean felt a pang of sympathy for the damaged angel at his feet. In the stillness that followed his shouted words, his rage momentarily depleted, Dean just felt tired and empty… and overwhelmingly sad.

 

It was true, he realized – everything he’d just said. Cas did keep trying and trying to do the right thing, to help, to fix what he’d broken.

 

And somehow, every time, things just ended up more thoroughly shattered than they’d been before.

 

“Cas…”

 

Dean’s voice was softer, as he slowly knelt on the floor facing his friend. Cas looked up at him warily, his posture tense, his bound hands clenched into useless fists. Dean ignored his vain attempt to retreat, reaching out a hand to rest firmly at the back of Cas’s neck and using his other hand to pull Cas up by his arm until they were face to face. Cas met his eyes, uncertainty in his own as he waited for Dean to go on.

 

“It doesn’t have to be this way, all right?” Dean pointed out, and there was a note of pleading, a tremor in his voice that he hadn’t meant to be there. “You can end it. Right now. You can tell me what to do to – to save everybody, and we’ll fix it. Together… you, me, and Sam. All right? You tell me how to end the spell, right now – and nobody needs to get hurt anymore.”

 

Cas looked away, lips parted in what Dean already knew was going to be another protest, and Dean shook him slightly to silence him, pulling him in closer, lowering his head until his and Cas’s brows were almost touching. Dean closed his eyes, swallowing hard, struggling to maintain control.

 

Think about what I’m saying here, Cas, okay?” Dean raised his voice, a desperate tremor threading through his words. “Because… we’re running out of time, and – if you give me the wrong answer now – I’m not gonna give you another chance to just decide to give me the right one. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

 

Cas’s voice was soft, pained, as he replied, “Dean…”

 

“Do you understand?” Dean pressed, shaking Cas again and wincing at the choked little whimper of pain that escaped the angel’s lips at the motion. “Cas, if you don’t tell me on your own – right now – then – things are about to go in a direction that I don’t want them to. And you don’t want them to. But – but I don’t have a choice anymore. I – I have to stop this before… before anyone else dies…”

 

“I – I’m so sorry, Dean.” Cas’s voice was quiet and achingly sad.

 

Dean looked up at him without backing down at all, his face inches from Cas’s – and his heart sank when he saw the sympathetic, compassionate look in Cas’s eyes and realized that he wasn’t leading up to a confession. Dean felt the heat of frustrated desperation building in his chest, resentment and rage for what Cas was about to force him to do.

 

“I’m so sorry,” Cas continued softly, sounding for all the world as if he was actually sincere. “I’m sorry I’ve so thoroughly broken your trust in me with my past failures that… that you’re incapable now of even considering… that I might be telling the truth.” He paused, hesitant as he continued, “I – understand why you can’t. I – can never undo the damage I did before, although – I’d give anything if I thought I could, but…”

 

“Yeah, well, it doesn’t work that way, Cas,” Dean cut him off coldly. “All those people you killed – no matter what you do, their blood is still on your hands. This blood…” Dean gathered the collar of Cas’s open white shirt in one red-stained fist, close enough to Cas’s face that he had to see it, his other hand still at the back of Cas’s neck, now clenched tight and preventing any attempt at retreat. “The blood of a fuckin’ child who had her throat ripped out by Purgatory vamps – that’s on you, Cas. That is on you.”

 

Cas’s eyes locked onto Dean’s hand, and the way his face fell – the intensity of sorrow in his eyes as he heard Dean’s explanation for where the blood had come from – it was simply infuriating.

 

No, Dean thought, bitter resentment seething in his stomach. He does not get to do that – start this whole fucking thing and then act like he’s sorry, like he actually cares about one little human girl who got caught in the crossfire…

 

“That’s on you,” Dean repeated, his voice low and cold, as he brought his other hand around, clenched into a tight fist in front of him. “And clearly… you’ve made your choice.”

 

Dean simultaneously drove his fist forward into Cas’s wound, and let go of his collar so that he fell backward. Cas collapsed to the floor on his side, his fingers shaking, curling uselessly upward in a vain, instinctive attempt to touch the source of his agony. His face was contorted with pain, his breath coming in short, shallow gasps.

 

“Dean,” he choked out, struggling to pull himself up again, eyes wide and wary and rolling toward Dean as Dean approached him again. “If I knew… how to stop it… I would, but… but I didn’t…” He flinched as Dean reached toward him again, gasping out an instinctive, unintentional, “Please…”

 

And there it was.

 

Something clenched tight in Dean’s stomach – at the same exact moment as a delicious heat began to build in his chest, a sense of satisfaction and success. He remembered relishing that moment, over and over again, in Hell. Sometimes it took a long time to get there; sometimes it was there from the moment the hapless soul was strapped down, panicked and screaming for mercy before he’d ever touched them.

 

But eventually, they always got there.

 

And now, it was a sign of more than simply Dean’s skills of persuasion. It meant that Dean had found a weak spot, that he was actually getting somewhere, that Cas was just that barest fraction closer to giving in and telling Dean what he needed to know. It meant that Dean could still save the world.

 

It meant… that he couldn’t stop now.

 

Dean grabbed Cas by the hair at the back of his head, yanking him up as far as the chains would allow. A cold smile found Dean’s lips, unbidden, his own heart racing with anticipation at the sound of Cas’s breath quickening, the way his hands yanked helplessly against the chains as Dean shifted in close, his free hand hovering over the now blood-stained bandage on Cas’s chest.

 

“Tell me… the truth,” Dean ordered, his voice quiet and commanding.

 

“I am,” Cas replied desperately, his voice shaking, his eyes wide and locked onto Dean’s. “Dean… don’t…”

 

Dean’s hand rested for a moment over the bandage, and he felt Cas’s heart under his hand – rapid and frantic like a tiny bird struggling to escape – and he felt the rush of power flow over him, that old familiar satisfaction that had always come with being the one in control, the one, for once, doing the hurting instead of being hurt. He tore away the bandage and tossed it aside, watching Cas’s face closely – and there it was.

 

Cas flinched, just slightly, almost imperceptible – his jaw tightening, a convulsive swallow in his throat as his eyes darted downward for just an instant before meeting Dean’s eyes again. Dean held his gaze, his fingers brushing lightly over the crude stitching that had been the best they could manage after removing the tablet. Blood was already seeping from the wound again, from the rough treatment Dean had already doled out.

 

Cas’s breath caught in his throat and he closed his eyes for a moment, visibly struggling to maintain control of his reactions. And when he opened his eyes again, the bewildered expression there told Dean that Cas was more surprised by that than Dean was. Dean remembered what Sam had told him, about Jacob’s Call – how Cas’s restrained grace also meant that his reactions would be more human. Not only could he feel things like pain and fear more intensely than he ever had as an angel – but he had no means left with which to conceal his reactions to those things.

 

The calculating, efficient technician that Alastair had trained Dean to be took note of this, filing it away for future use. It was an unexpected side effect of restraining Cas’s grace, but one that would definitely work in Dean’s favor.

 

“Tell me,” Dean repeated, his voice low and chilling. “Or I promise you, Cas… it’s going to get so, so much worse…”

 

Dean…” There was open fear on Cas’s face now, and he looked up at Dean with pleading eyes. “You have to believe me… please…”

 

Dean didn’t hesitate – strong fingers digging into the wound on Cas’s chest until blood flowed, warm and sticky, over Dean’s hand. Cas let out a strangled, agonized cry, blue eyes staring up at Dean in such anguish and betrayal – and suddenly, memory flashed through Dean’s mind… those same eyes, looking up at him with trust and reverence, looking to him for guidance… looking at him with love rather than the hurt and terror that filled them now…

 

Abruptly Dean let go, taking a step back. Cas collapsed to the floor again, shaking and gasping, and Dean felt a cold, creeping horror slipping in alongside the calculated determination that had filled him.

 

No… no, what are you doing? You can’t, this is… this is Cas, damn it!

 

Dean was vaguely aware of the sound of hurried, purposeful footsteps overhead, and he knew that Sam was responding to the unsettling sounds he’d heard from upstairs. The mental image of Sam’s face if he actually made it down the basement stairs – the horror of Sam seeing this long-buried side of his big brother that Dean had hoped he’d never see – suddenly, Dean found himself hurrying for the stairs, knowing only that he couldn’t let Sam get down here – couldn’t let him see what Dean had done...

 

*******************************************************

 

Sam was finding it difficult to focus on his laptop, his mind caught up in worry over all the things that Dean could be saying – or doing – to Cas. But he hadn’t heard any screams or anything too disconcerting, so he tried to do as Dean had requested and keep trying to find an alternate solution. He had given up trying to find a truth spell, and instead focused his efforts on some means of restoring the walls, without Cas’s cooperation – but that was proving to be rather discouraging, too.

 

His attention had just been distracted from his efforts by yet another horrific story of death and destruction – this one of a massive fire that had taken out an entire apartment complex. Some witnesses claimed that they’d seen some residents actually preventing others from escaping the flames, rather than trying to help them. Others said they’d seen some of their neighbors carrying in cans of gasoline minutes before the fire had started.

 

“I just don’t understand,” one young woman wept on the screen as she told her story. “I’ve known Julia since kindergarten. She would never – I – I don’t know what could have possessed her to… to do something like that…”

 

Yeah… ‘possessed’ is definitely the key word here… Sam watched in grim silence for another few moments before trying to focus his attention back on his work… and that’s when he heard it.

 

Sam’s stomach lurched at the sound of the anguished cry from the basement, and he automatically rose to his feet, crossing the floor toward the basement. He hesitated at the door, however, abruptly torn. The idea of what Dean was possibly doing down there, to their friend, made him feel sick. Everything in him wanted to stop it… but… he glanced back toward his laptop, and thought of the children that had died so horribly when angels had attempted to possess them… and of the families that had perished in the apartment fire… of the earthquakes and tornadoes and other natural disasters claiming new lives with every passing minute…

 

The basement door opened, and Dean came out, closing it hard behind him. His eyes were wild and shell-shocked, and he was shaking. He raked one trembling hand, caked with dried blood, through his hair, and abruptly put the other hand behind him. The guilty swallow in his throat as he met Sam’s eyes for just a moment and then looked away broke Sam’s heart.

 

“Hey,” he said softly, reaching out to touch Dean’s shoulder. “Dean… hey, look at me…”

 

Dean shook his head, staring down at the floor, his expression anguished. “Sammy, I – what I just did to him…”

 

Dean was quiet for a long moment, before bringing his hand out from behind his back, holding it up in front of him and staring at it through dull, resigned eyes. Sam looked at it too, his stomach roiling at the sight of the fresh blood – dark, slick red overlaying the previous stains on Dean’s hand – and the realization that it was Cas’s blood – Cas, who had died for them more than once. But then, Sam thought of the blood on Dean’s hands when he’d walked in – the blood of a child, he’d said – and he realized with a sinking heart that one was no better than the other.

 

There’s gonna be blood on our hands either way, Sam thought, reaching out to pull his brother closer, against Dean’s resistance. It’s not like Dean’s going to kill Cas… and… if it’s the only way to keep more children from dying…

 

“Dean… hey.” Sam raised one hand to rest firmly at the back of Dean’s neck, ducking his head to try to catch Dean’s gaze. “Dean.”

 

Dean looked up at him, his wide green gaze searching… for forgiveness, or condemnation, or maybe just direction. Sam knew that last was true, when Dean finally spoke, his voice low and wavering dangerously.

 

“Sam, I – I don’t know what to do,” he confessed.

 

Sam’s heart ached with the choice they had to make, but he knew that he couldn’t leave it to Dean. This was killing him as it was, and if Sam could maybe bear just a little of the responsibility, make the call for him if he could do nothing else…

 

“Where’s the angel blade?” Sam asked suddenly.

 

Dean frowned, glancing toward the door. “O-on the table, downstairs…”

 

“Go get it.”

 

“Sam…” Dean hesitated.

 

“Just do it, okay?” Sam instructed firmly. “Go get it, and come back up here.”

 

Dean was back in moments, his pace hurried, his breath shuddering, and he handed over the blade to Sam, his eyes worried and questioning. “Now what?”

 

Sam tucked the blade away into his own jacket, before resting one hand on Dean’s shoulder, and the other at the base of his neck, gentle and reassuring.

 

“Now,” Sam said softly, “you do whatever you have to do.”

 

Dean’s eyes widened with understanding, as he glanced toward where Sam had put the only weapon that could permanently kill Cas, for safekeeping. He nodded slowly, then closed anguished eyes, lowering his head and shaking it.

 

“Sam… I don’t know if I… it’s Cas, and I…”

 

“I can do it,” Sam offered quietly, his heart lurching with panic even as he spoke. “This isn’t all on you, Dean…”

 

No.” Dean’s voice was firm, and Sam realized immediately that the offer had been a mistake when Dean looked up at him, mask solidly in place again, though his eyes still shone suspiciously. “No, Sam. I – I’m the one – equipped to do this. You’re – you’re research guy. Okay?” Dean’s smile was forced and shaky. “You – keep researching.”

 

Sam frowned. “Dean…”

 

“I’ll let you know if it gets to be too much. Okay?” Dean held Sam’s gaze, and Sam knew even as he spoke that it was a promise Dean had no intention of keeping. “Just – stay up here, all right? Don’t come down there – no matter what you hear. Okay?”

 

Sam was feeling worse about this with every word that left Dean’s lips. “Dean, I don’t know…”

 

Sam.” Dean’s voice was heavy and trembling, and it silenced Sam instantly. Dean was staring down again, unable to meet Sam’s gaze. “I – I don’t want – the things I might have to do, I don’t want you to – you can’t see me like…” He closed his eyes for a moment before meeting Sam’s gaze again. “Please. Just – stay up here. Please.”

 

“Okay.” The word left Sam’s lips in a whisper, before he even knew he was going to agree. There were secrets Dean still kept from everyone – things he’d seen and experienced that Sam just had to accept that he could never understand – and Sam was beginning to realize just how much this task was going to cost his brother.

 

He just wished he had a better alternative to offer.

 

Dean turned his gaze toward the closed basement door, and Sam saw that his lips were trembling, his eyes filled with dread. Dean swallowed slowly before looking back at Sam, his mouth set in a firm line for a moment before he spoke.

 

“I need to… to get a few things. From the car,” he said quietly.

 

He started to move away, toward the cabin’s front door, but Sam stopped him, his hand on Dean’s shoulder tightening and stilling his retreat.

 

“Dean,” Sam said softly, his hand sliding around to the back of Dean’s neck and drawing him in close. “It’s the entire world at stake. I know that. This isn’t something you – want to do, and – you have no choice. I understand.”

 

Dean’s smile was brittle, his gaze averted, and Sam knew that somehow, he’d said the wrong thing again – but Dean offered no explanation for how. He just reached up and gently, almost apologetically pulled Sam’s hand away, squeezing it for a moment before letting it drop and taking a backward step toward the door.

 

“I’ll be right back,” Dean said, his voice low and hoarse.

 

Dean…” When Dean stopped, reluctantly, though well out of Sam’s reach, Sam found himself momentarily lost for words, helpless to think of anything that might help. “I – if I can do… anything…”

 

Dean looked up at Sam finally, such utter defeat in his eyes that it drove the rest of the words from Sam’s lips. When he spoke, his voice was quietly pleading, but there was no hope there.

 

“Find me another way.”

 

And then Dean was gone, out the front door and to the Impala, where he stayed for several minutes, rummaging through the trunk. Sam paced restlessly back and forth between the laptop and the cabin’s front window the whole time, feeling anxious and sick, as he waited for his brother to return.

 

When Dean came back inside, his face was cold and controlled, his eyes dead and expressionless. The handle of his small duffel bag was clenched in his white-knuckled fist, and Sam shuddered inwardly to imagine just exactly what was inside. Dean’s tone was as hard and flat as his eyes, as he finally spoke, his words sending a shiver down Sam’s spine.

 

“I’m ready.”

Chapter Text

Sam watched while trying to look as if he wasn’t watching, as Dean stopped at the ratty sofa and set down his duffel bag, opening it up and rummaging through it. Sam swallowed, making himself look away. Finally, Dean zipped the bag closed again, shouldering it before he approached Sam with one hand extended.

 

“You’d better hold onto this, too,” Dean said, his voice low and unsettlingly calm. “As long as you’re keeping all the deadly weapons for angels out of my reach.”

 

Sam looked down at Dean’s outstretched hand, understanding dawning when he saw the vial of holy oil there. He took it and set it on the table beside his laptop. “It’s not, though,” he pointed out. “Not with his grace restrained.”

 

Sam wasn’t really sure why he’d felt the need to clarify that. Maybe even in the midst of this utterly fucked up situation, he couldn’t stop focusing on the details, couldn’t stop being a “nerd” as Dean would have pointed out if he wasn’t so thoroughly, horrifyingly focused at the moment.

 

Maybe he was just stalling, trying to delay Dean in getting to his intended destination.

 

It worked, if only for a minute.

 

“Huh?” Dean frowned.

 

“The holy oil works because it responds to an angel’s grace,” Sam explained. “With his grace repressed like it is right now, the holy oil can’t kill him. The information I found on Jacob’s Call says it isn’t lethal as long as the bond is in place. The only thing that can kill an angel under the bond is an angel blade – and only in the hand of the person he’s bound to.” Sam paused, a nervous huff of humorless laughter escaping his lips as he added, “It’d still hurt like hell, though.”

 

Dean nodded absently, distracted, as he headed toward the stairs. Sam wanted so badly to call him back that when Dean stopped, Sam felt a tremendous sense of relief. Maybe he’d just thought of something – something that could keep them from having to do this.

 

But when Dean turned, his expression was still carefully blank as he returned to the table. He picked up the vial, turning it over in his hand, looking down at it speculatively for a long moment. Finally, he tucked it into his pocket. His flat, expressionless words, without hesitation or a shred of emotion, sent a chill down Sam’s spine.

 

“Guess this might come in handy, then, after all.”

 

Sam didn’t know what to say. His mouth was dry, his heart racing, and he felt sick to his stomach. Dean looked up at him with dead, cold eyes, seemingly oblivious to his reaction. Sam hoped that meant he was hiding his horror well.

 

“What was that thing, earlier? The other thing? The one you didn’t want to tell me?”

 

Sam frowned, shaking his head in confusion.

 

“The thing you said we couldn’t do to Cas,” Dean clarified, his eyes hard, his tone slightly impatient. “What was it?”

 

Sam’s stomach clenched as he remembered. “Dean…” he whispered, his brother’s name coming out weak and choked.

 

“Come on, Sam.”

 

Sam swallowed hard. “It – it’s bad, Dean…”

 

Tell me.”

 

As Sam hesitated, the mental image of the classroom of children murdered by angels filled his mind. The memory of how it’d felt to see Dean’s hands stained red when he’d walked in the door – how it’d felt to hear his explanation for how that blood had gotten there.

 

Whatever we have to do… we have to do it.

 

“It’s his wings,” Sam blurted out, before he could think himself out of it. “They’re – apparently the most sensitive part of an angel’s body. Where they’re – most vulnerable.”

 

Dean frowned. “Yeah, that’s great, Sam. But we can’t see them…”

 

“Right. We only see the shadow they cast, or the scorch marks when they’ve been burned away. But… there’s a spell.” Sam was quiet, resigned. “It’s in one of the books we brought from the library. It can make an angel’s wings… visible to humans. Tangible. Allow humans to – to touch them.”

 

Dean considered that for a moment, then nodded slowly. “Good. That’s what we need, then, right? We need to break him as fast as possible…”

 

“I don’t know, Dean.” Sam hesitated, finding it difficult to maintain eye contact with his brother at the moment, unsettled by the unnaturally placid expression on Dean’s face as he casually discussed torturing and breaking their closest friend and ally. “This book is… pretty ancient, and… it seems like some pretty heavy mojo to be working.”

 

“Yeah. And we’re in a pretty heavy situation,” Dean pointed out. “World’s ending, Sam. Unless we stop it. Fast.”

 

Sam raised a hand to rub at the back of his neck, frowning and trying to find the words to make Dean understand his misgivings. “It’s just – the book says the spell was carefully guarded by the angels for centuries, because – I don’t know, the writers weren’t clear on the details, but the book refers to it as… well, it literally translates to… ‘the unspeakable’. As in, it was so secret, there aren’t even Enochian words for the spell, because the angels were forbidden to even speak of it, even amongst themselves. The guys who recorded the information believed that, to the angels, it’s like – the worst thing that can possibly be done to them.” Sam watched Dean’s face closely for any sign of hesitation, increasingly unsettled when he found none.

 

“Well, yeah,” Dean reasoned with a harsh little scoffing sound that, strangely, almost made Sam flinch. “Really convenient that the most vulnerable parts of their bodies are always protected from humans. Guess they would want to keep that secret.”

 

“I don’t know, Dean. It just – it seems like a really drastic step to take…”

 

“We’re miles past ‘drastic’,” Dean countered, his tone flat, as he held out his hand. “Give me the book. Show me the spell.” He frowned. “What language is it in, anyway?”

 

“The early Men of Letters translated it into Latin. And the words are – pretty simple, but… this is blood magic, Dean. I mean – if you think we really need to, I’ll…”

 

“If I think we really need to, I’ll do it,” Dean snapped, impatient. “We are officially out of options, all right? We don’t have a choice.”

 

“I know.” Sam’s voice was quiet, his eyes carefully focused on the book as he paged through it, a little slower than he could have, seeking the correct page. “It’s just… the way the book makes it sound… if – if we do something like that – no matter how this ends…” He looked up as he found the page, meeting Dean’s blank eyes with his own, worry gnawing at his stomach. “… Cas is never going to want anything to do with either of us again.”

 

Dean looked away for a moment, his tone bleak and heavy. “Pretty sure that’s gonna be true either way,” he said. He was quiet for a moment, considering. Then, to Sam’s immense relief, he softened just a little, meeting Sam’s eyes again with sympathy. “Look, Sammy,” he sighed. “I’ll only use it if I have to, all right? It’s just – just in case. Just – show me?”

 

Sam bit the corner of his lip, hesitating just a moment before nodding and turning the book around, pointing out the passage to his brother. Dean read over the Latin under his breath for a moment before nodding and taking the book, making Sam cringe when he folded the page down before closing it and tucking it into his bag.

 

“It’s not like I’m actually gonna have to use it, anyway,” Dean remarked, his tone flat and cold again. He looked up at Sam again, and for just a moment, Sam thought he caught a glimpse behind the mask, to the sheer misery in his brother’s eyes. Then it was gone, shuttered behind a cold smile, as Dean concluded softly, “He’s not gonna last that long.”

 

*********************************************************

 

When Dean reached the bottom of the stairs, Cas was lying on his side, curled protectively around his injury; but he looked up as Dean neared him, eyes wide and wary, watching Dean as he set his duffel bag down on the table, opened it, and calmly began laying out its contents on the table, where Cas could clearly see them.

 

Dean didn’t speak to Cas or turn toward him, but he hazarded a glance out of the corner of his eye as Cas shakily dragged himself up on one arm.

 

“Dean.” Cas’s voice was hoarse and weak, and he winced as he struggled to swallow. Dean picked up a knife in one hand, and the half-full whiskey bottle he’d taken from the liquor store in the other, and turned to face Cas without looking at him. “Please… can we talk about this? What’s happening? I know you – you think I’m… causing it, and I’m not, but… but someone is, and… and perhaps… if you tell me what you’re seeing… out there… we can… figure it…”

 

Cas’s words trailed off as Dean reached him and knelt down on the floor facing him. He tried to pull away, but his efforts were useless as Dean reached behind him with the same hand that held the knife, grabbing a bit of his hair and yanking his head back. Cas’s eyes were wide, frantically trying to follow Dean’s hand – or more accurately, Dean figured, the knife – before he gave up and fearfully met Dean’s eyes.

 

Dean smiled, keeping his voice quiet and deceptively light as he observed, “You’re stalling.”

 

With his other hand, he raised the whiskey bottle and took a long drink. Then he raised it again and poured a mouthful past Cas’s parted lips.

 

Cas coughed and choked, trying to pull his head away, but Dean just held him still, forcing his head to stay back until the last of the whiskey had gone down. While he patiently waited, Dean set down the bottle, a low laugh escaping his lips.

 

“Oh, Cas,” he said softly, shaking his head, something like affection, but sadder, darker, in his voice. “Take away one little thing… your grace… and you go from guzzling down a whole liquor store to choking on one drink.”

 

Cas flinched slightly, looking away, and Dean knew his words had gotten their message across – a pointed reminder of the angel’s current state of helplessness. As he tilted his hand, allowing Cas’s head to fall forward without letting go of his hair, Dean reached back to take the knife with his free hand, bringing it around and resting the blade against Cas’s chest. He tapped it lightly a couple of times, watching Cas’s reactions closely with a faintly mocking smile on his face.

 

“Better?” he asked.

 

Cas’s voice was only slightly less hoarse, his wary eyes on the blade, when he managed to reply, “Not… not really.”

 

Dean laughed.

 

Cas’s eyes were pleading, wide with rising fear, and Dean could tell that his behavior was having its desired effect. “Dean… please talk to me. Please, just…”

 

“No, Cas,” Dean cut him off, pressing the blade up under his chin and silencing him as Cas bit down on his lower lip and closed his eyes in a pitiful attempt to control his reaction. Dean kept his voice soft and measured, perfectly controlled, as he continued, “You are going to talk to me.”

 

Sam.” Cas barely managed to gasp out the word as Dean trailed the blade slowly down Cas’s neck to his shoulder, pushing his shirt to the side with it. Dean froze, ice in his veins as his eyes locked with Cas’s again. There was a trace of dread in Cas’s eyes, as if he knew it was possible he had just made a terrible miscalculation, but he swallowed hard and continued, “I – I want to talk to Sam. Where is he?”

 

Dean wasn’t aware of his hand tightening in Cas’s hair, of the blade pressing tighter against his skin, until Cas winced, drawing in a sharp, shaky breath. With an effort Dean eased his grip a fraction, resumed the blade’s idling path down Cas’s arm, using the motion to slide his shirt back and off to hang around his wrist.

 

“You don’t need to talk to Sam,” Dean replied, tracing the knife across Cas’s stomach, smiling a little as Cas flinched away from the touch of the blade, but couldn’t get far with Dean holding him in place. “Sam has nothing to do with this.”

 

“He… he wouldn’t approve of what you’re doing,” Cas tried again, breathless, and Dean heard the slightly higher pitch of his voice, the telltale sign of his rising panic. “He said…”

 

“Maybe he wouldn’t,” Dean cut him off again, watching the knife as it pushed Cas’s other sleeve down, leaving his shirt gathered around his wrists and further restricting his movement, his torso bare and vulnerable to Dean’s blade. “But he’s not here right now, is he?” Dean used the tip of the blade to tug, just barely, against the lowest of the stitches on Cas’s chest, and the angel bit back a frightened cry. Dean smiled. “This is between you, and me,” he concluded. “And you’re gonna tell me how to save the world.”

 

Cas said a lot of things over the next hour, as Dean employed his blade as creatively as he could manage on this plane – but none of them were what Dean needed to hear. He knew he couldn’t kill Cas, not without the angel blade – but he also knew from his own painful experience that it was possible to do enough damage to make even an immortal subject utterly incapable of offering any sort of response. It was a fine line – inflicting enough pain to be persuasive, yet without that pain being so overwhelming that it made the whole exercise pointless.

 

An hour and a half in, and Cas was a trembling, bloodied wreck – but he still hadn’t yielded the information Dean needed. He still insisted that he was innocent, that someone else was causing the disasters, that Dean was being lied to. Dean knew, he assured Cas. He was being lied to, all right. But not for much longer.

 

Another hour in, and Cas stopped trying to defend himself. He became silent and still, unresisting… no more pleading or arguing. His shaking, flinching reaction to Dean’s blade had become a constant fine tremor, and he watched Dean’s hands with blank, glossy eyes that seemed resigned to the suffering – but no longer particularly moved by it.

 

So, Dean brought out the vial of holy oil.

 

And – that got a reaction.

 

As Dean trickled a little of the oil onto Cas’s shoulder, Cas jerked away from it with a gasp, staring up at Dean with horrified disbelief.

 

“Dean,” he rasped out, his voice hoarse from his repeated attempts at pleading his case. “You can’t. You’ll kill me.”

 

Dean didn’t respond, just took out his lighter and flipped it open, staring at the tiny flame with a slight smile on his lips.

 

“This is foolish,” Cas snapped, his voice shaky but stronger than Dean had heard it in hours. “I can’t tell you anything if I’m dead!”

 

Dean looked up at him then, latching onto the slight slip – the first even minor success he’d had during this whole encounter. His smile widened slightly as he closed the remaining distance between them, holding the lighter a few scant inches away from Cas’s shoulder, glistening with the oil Dean had spilled there.

 

“Oh, so there is something to tell, then,” Dean remarked with a note of triumph in his voice. “Thought so.”

 

Cas’s face fell with dismay as he seemed to realize what he’d said, and he shook his head slowly, his eyes shining in the light from the flame as he watched it. “Dean,” he whispered. “No… no, that’s not…”

 

Dean kept the lighter where Cas could see it as he moved to stand behind him, then abruptly grabbed him by the throat, cutting off his protests and any attempts to pull away, as he touched the lighter to the oil, and it erupted in flame. Immediately Dean stepped back, not wanting to get caught by the flame himself – and a moment later, Cas let out a choked cry of anguish, fighting desperately against his chains, struggling to find a way to put out the flame that burned his skin. Of course, there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t reach it with his hands, had nothing to press it against to smother it. All he could do was helplessly let it burn.

 

Dean watched impassively for a few moments, before taking a cloth from the table beside them and pressing the rough fabric against Cas’s scorched skin, deliberately dragging it just a little as he pulled it away. Cas was shuddering, gasping for breath, a low moan of agony escaping his lips as Dean crouched behind him, his hand at Cas’s throat again, pulling him back against Dean’s chest. Cas shook his head, wordlessly pleading, as Dean held the vial of oil in front of him, tilted as if to pour out more, this time on Cas’s wounded chest.

 

“I’ll give you two seconds to start talking,” Dean said softly in Cas’s ear. “Or you’re gonna get it again.”

 

He released his grip on Cas’s throat as he poured the oil out, and Cas’s breath quickened with panic, as he pleaded frantically, “Dean, no… don’t…”

 

Dean lit the oil – and the angel let out a scream, back arching as the flame licked at his skin, and he struggled uselessly to escape it.

 

A mere fifteen minutes later, Cas lay unconscious on the floor, passed out from the pain. Dean sat in the wooden chair next to the table, his head in one hand as he stared at the tools of his trade that he’d already put to use, with no effect – and then at the book that lay there beside them.

 

He’d tried everything he could think of, every trick Alastair had taught him for extracting a confession – not that the confession itself had ever really mattered in Hell. Whenever they’d gotten whatever “information” they claimed to want, they’d simply start all over again with a new question. Or not bother with the question at all, but just carry on with the pain. It was simply a point of amusement for Alastair, a proof of his skill, that he could convince anyone to admit to anything.

 

And it was a skill that Dean had mastered, too, eventually.

 

So why the hell am I getting nowhere? Dean brought his hand down angrily on the table, cursing under his breath. How is he still holding out?

 

He had gone so far already – crossed so many lines he’d sworn he never would again – and with no success. They had only a few short hours left before it would be too late, if it wasn’t too late already – and Dean was running out of options, and ideas. He lowered his head into both his hands, closing his eyes as he drew in a deep, shaky breath, and let it out slowly.

 

The sound of Cas’s panicked, agonized screams filled his head, and he didn’t let himself even think about his brother, upstairs – the things he’d been hearing, the things he must be thinking right now. Sam had told him to do whatever he had to do, and that’s what he was doing. He didn’t have a choice.

 

He couldn’t bring himself to look at his one-time friend – never again, no matter how this ends – bloodied and scorched on the floor at his feet.

 

Dean opened his eyes, looking at the book again. He picked it up and turned to the page he’d marked, laying it open on the table in front of him. It was a pretty simple spell, to be spoken of in such ominous terms by the Men of Letters. A few easy Latin words, spoken over some blood from the angel in question, drawn into a simple sigil on the floor.

 

It’s the worst thing you can do to an angel… Sam had said.

 

But it’s the only option we’ve got left.

 

Dean swallowed hard, finally forcing himself to turn his gaze toward Cas, who was just beginning to shift on the floor with an unconscious whimper of pain. Dean didn’t let himself look away, sitting up and squaring his shoulders, schooling his face into the impassive mask he knew he had to wear, knew he had to present to Cas, because if he let it slip – if he let a trace of how much this was killing him out in his eyes, if he even let himself feel it for a moment – Cas would see it.

 

Cas would see it, and he would know – and any advantage they currently had would be lost.

 

Dean watched, trying to distance himself from what and who he was watching, trying to pretend that it was just another random soul on his rack, just another fool who’d brought this on himself, with his own evil deeds or foolish dealings with demons. And in a way, that was Cas, wasn’t it?

 

He brought it on himself… he’s the one killing the world

 

Cas looked up at Dean, blue eyes blinking in confusion… and Dean watched as it all slid back into place, and Cas remembered where he was, and why. Fear replaced confusion, in the instant before Cas looked away, his eyes on the floor instead of Dean’s face.

 

He remembered that, too – and the rush of pleasure that usually accompanied the moment when he knew his victim held a true and almost reverent dread of him – that they knew the power he held over them, and didn’t dare to risk his anger.

 

Seeing it on Cas’s face… all Dean felt was sick.

 

“Dean,” Cas said, his voice careful and quiet, betrayed by a slight tremor behind the words. “Please. You – you have to see. This is pointless.”

 

Dean glanced down at the book again, before rising to his feet. Cas glanced up anxiously, accidentally meeting his eyes for just an instant – and the angel visibly wilted, drawing back the pitiful amount that the chains and his injuries would allow him. He flinched as Dean crouched down in front of him, placing a firm but gentle hand at the back of his neck. But when no pain immediately followed the gesture, Cas looked up at Dean again hesitantly, questioning. Dean nodded slowly, glancing down at the floor for a moment before meeting Cas’s eyes.

 

“I know,” he said simply.

 

Then he reached down and dipped his hand into the pooled blood on the floor, where his knife had spilled it. Cas watched him with a frown of confusion, as Dean moved a little ways away and crouched down on the floor.

 

“Dean? What… what are you…?”

 

Dean ignored Cas’s quiet, uncertain words, dipping a finger into the pooled blood in his palm and painting the required sigil on the floor. When it was finished, he wiped his hands off on the same rag he’d used to put out the flames, then picked up the book.

 

“Dean… wait…”

 

As Dean began to speak the Latin words over the blood sigil, Cas abruptly went very still, very tense. He jerked against his bonds, his eyes darting back and downward as if he could see over his own shoulder, as a sharp, startled cry left his lips.

 

“Dean… no!” Cas cried out. “Wait, no! Don’t do this! Don’t!”

 

Dean ignored him, continuing the chant as Cas writhed and fought against the chains, desperate to free himself, as if struggling against some unseen attack, and Dean knew that the spell must be working. Dean almost flinched himself as Cas lunged toward him abruptly, as if he could somehow stop Dean from finishing the spell, despite his helpless state, and Dean didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was so desperate, and so pathetic, and he wondered why this spell was so very terrible, anyway, and his voice shook just slightly over the last few words… but he didn’t stop.

 

“Dean, no!” Cas sobbed out, his voice raised and rapid with panic. “Please, you can’t do this! I know you, Dean, and I know you think you have to, but you can’t do this! This is an abomination, and you are the righteous man, and I know you can’t do this, please…”

 

Dean looked up at last, the Latin fully spoken. He swallowed with difficulty, not sure why he felt this hesitation, this something inside him that was quailing under the force of Cas’s desperation, and a near palpable sense of something electric and powerful filling the room. For a moment he considered not finishing the ritual. He could find another way.

 

Except, there was no other way. There was no more time.

 

Just Sam’s voice, echoing in his mind, “Whatever we have to do…”

 

“You were right before, Cas,” Dean said, his voice low and trembling slightly as he held his hand, still coated in Cas’s blood, dripping over the sigil. “Hell broke your ‘righteous man’.” He paused, glancing down at the sigil, increasingly aware of the crackling, electric power surging in the room. “Now – now, I can do whatever I have to do.”

 

Before he could hesitate any further, before his nerves could get the better of him, Dean brought his hand down into the center of the sigil, as Cas let out an anguished, pleading cry. A bright flash of light flooded the room, along with a shockwave of energy that knocked Dean off his feet and onto his back on the floor. The unsettling, ear-piercing sound of angels’ voices faded in, and then out again swiftly, as the light faded away – leaving only a massive wall of black, large enough to block out the light from the tiny basement windows… and the soft rustling of angel’s wings.

Chapter Text

As his eyes adjusted to the changed light in the room, Dean took in the awe-inspiring size and shape of Cas’s wings. They were enormous, each wing stretching out to either side so that they nearly touched the walls. They hardly fit in the room at all, really, the arched joint of each one touching the ceiling, unable to extend to their full length in the small basement room.

 

But an instant after they appeared, there was a rustling of feathers as the wings drew sharply in and down, close to Cas’s back. Dean blinked in surprise; he wouldn’t have thought it was possible for something so massive to be compressed into such a small space, but they were – folded in so that they did not extend on either side of Cas’s body, and only rose to about the level of Cas’s head behind him, the tips trailing on the blood-soaked stone floor.

 

With his wings so withdrawn, Dean finally noticed Cas himself.

 

Dean frowned, an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach as he took in the anguished look on the kneeling angel’s face. His head was bowed low, his trembling hands turned palms up and raised toward his face, as high as he could lift them – which wasn’t far with the chains at his wrists. Still, Dean recognized the gesture Cas was attempting, hindered as it was. He was familiar with the emotion that prompted it, the emotion that was clear on Cas’s face.

 

Shame.

 

He was trying to hide his face, trying to hide his wings – though for his life, Dean couldn’t imagine why.

 

Cas’s wings were magnificent.

 

Dean found himself drawn toward them, crossing the room without realizing it, until he was standing behind Cas, the folded wings in full view. From this side of the room, the sun streamed through the tiny basement windows and made the blue-black feathers gleam, a faint shimmer detectable as they shifted with the tremors that passed through Cas’s body.

 

Instinctively, Dean reached out a hand to touch, wondering if they were as soft as they looked. Cas flinched, though Dean hadn’t yet touched him, as if he’d somehow sensed what Dean intended to do, and let out a soft, hitched breath.

 

Don’t…”

 

Dean didn’t know why Cas didn’t want his wings to be touched… if they were really that sensitive, that easily hurt, or if there was something more at work here, something he’d only be able to comprehend if he was an angel himself. He did know that Cas’s aversion to having them touched was something that could only work in his favor. And besides – the urge to touch, to feel the soft slide of the dark, iridescent plumes between his fingers was almost irresistible.

 

As Dean’s hand neared the wings, he stopped, just barely not touching, struck by the sense of awe he felt at the unbelievable strength and unearthly beauty, just under his hand. There was a strange pit in his stomach with the thought that he was possibly the only human who had ever seen Cas’s wings – ever had the opportunity to touch them. And suddenly, Dean hesitated to do so. There was a sudden, overwhelming sense that here was something precious, almost sacred…

 

Beautiful…

 

The word filled Dean’s mind, accompanied by a pang of something like regret.  But just as quickly, Alastair’s voice followed it, reminding, almost reassuring.

 

This isn’t the first time you’ve destroyed something beautiful, is it, Dean? Dean swallowed hard, closing his eyes, wrestling with his doubts. He’s completely in your power, and he’s so close… can’t you feel him trembling, breaking, right under your hands? You know how to do this, Dean…take him apart… take him apart, and find what you need among the broken pieces…

 

What I need…

 

Dean opened his eyes, squaring his shoulders and forcing himself to focus. Only hours left. Hours, and all would be lost if he couldn’t sack up and do what he needed to do.

 

“Please,” Cas whispered again – or maybe he’d never stopped, maybe Dean had just stopped hearing him – but at any rate, Dean ignored Cas’s protest, reaching out a hand to touch the spot between Cas’s shoulder blades, where the wings were rooted. He deliberately waited a moment, feeling Cas’s shaking intensify at the contact, allowing the anticipation to build, before sliding his hand slowly down the upper ridge of Cas’s right wing. The slightly ruffled feathers smoothed under his hand, and Dean found himself marveling at the sheer power he could feel, thrumming just under the surface, muscles coiled and poised for flight that, for now, they were denied.

 

“Please… please, don’t…” Cas whimpered, but his voice was a little stronger now, a little more urgent.

 

“Why not?” Dean asked, frowning, genuinely curious. After ten years wielding Alastair’s blade, he knew everything there was to know about human physiology, where each nerve was located and how to play it to maximum effect. But these wings were new – foreign and fascinating, and Dean had no idea at all how they worked. Yet. “Does it hurt?”

 

Cas didn’t answer, but he did jerk forward against the chains, trying to pull his wing out of Dean’s grasp. Dean’s jaw set in anger – more at himself than at Cas, for allowing himself to be distracted by the wings themselves and momentarily losing control of the situation. He didn’t have time for this; he had to break Cas, had to get him to confess before the whole fucking world was damned – and if the bound and battered angel was still capable of this much resistance, it meant that he was still much farther from that point than Dean had hoped.

 

Dean responded to Cas’s defiance immediately, retaliating by digging his fingers beneath the soft outer feathers, feeling the thin, fragile bones bend in his clenched fist as he yanked Cas forcefully backward again, back to the place where he’d been before.

 

Cas let out a choked cry of pain as Dean’s other hand reached around to grasp his chin, tilting his head back and remarking in a low, warning voice, “I wouldn’t do that again.”

 

Cas was shaking violently, his breath coming in shuddering gasps, his eyes closed as if he could somehow shut out what was happening to him. And all at once Dean felt strangely sick, a damp chill of apprehension passing through him – because what was happening to him, anyway? Dean had barely touched him yet. He’d done a lot worse in the past few hours to the rest of Cas’s body than he’d even thought of doing to his wings.

 

And yet, Cas seemed on the verge of panic, devastated by the simple touch of Dean’s hands in a way that even burning holy oil on his flesh hadn’t accomplished.

 

Dean wondered why that realization made him feel more anxious and uneasy than satisfied.

 

Focus, Dean… he told himself, setting his jaw and squaring his shoulders, shutting out his doubts and trying to think only of what he had to do. You don’t have time to hesitate. Just get this done… before anyone else dies…

 

Dean let go of Cas’s face and returned his attention fully to Cas’s wings, both hands now slowly running down their length, carefully feeling the framework of bone and tendon that ran beneath their surface. Cas twitched and jerked slightly against Dean’s hands, as if warring with his own instincts to fight, or escape.

 

The thought had just crossed Dean’s mind that perhaps he should find a way to restrain the wings; the muscle definition under his hands was impressive, and Cas’s reactions were becoming erratic and panicky, and if Cas actually figured out that his wings weren’t tied down like the rest of him…

 

It was at that moment that Cas’s left wing jerked free of Dean’s grasp, with so much force that Dean actually stumbled toward it, pulled off-balance. And then, Dean’s eyes went wide when he saw the wing drawn up and back, high and poised like a serpent ready to strike. His mind went back in an instant to an abandoned barn painted with every mystical symbol known to man, and the bone-deep certainty he’d felt when he’d first seen Castiel – the knowledge, even before every single one of his weapons had failed, that this was something far more powerful than he, and he was completely out of his league.

 

This moment felt very much like that one.

 

Dean barely had time to think that this was it; he had made a critical mistake that would cost him the game – and maybe more. As the blow fell, swift and sharp and with bone-crushing strength, Dean realized that he should have thought that the wings might be dangerous, might be used as a weapon. It was too late now; he wouldn’t get a chance to remedy his mistake.

 

But the wing never made contact; it stopped just short of slamming into Dean and no doubt sending him flying. Dean heard a cracking sound, as if it had hit a physical wall, before the wing fell, limp and heavy, to the floor, and Cas let out a shocked, breathless cry of pain, his back arching, his face contorted in agony. All at once Dean remembered: Jacob’s Call prevented Cas from hurting him; any pain Cas tried to cause Dean would only come back on him. Relief overwhelmed Dean for a moment… and was then quickly replaced with indignant rage.

 

This is what happens when you falter, Dean… Alastair’s voice taunted him. You lose control of your subject, and you lose everything… he can’t forget you hold his very life in your hands… his suffering, or the end of it, are yours to decide…

 

As Cas began to regain his breath from the shocking blow, he let out a weak sob of pain, pitifully attempting to lift the damaged limb, which now lay sprawled out awkwardly and dragging in the dust and blood that coated the floor. As Dean moved around to face Cas again, he deliberately drove the heel of his boot down into the center of the shattered bone that ran along the wing’s upper ridge. The pitiful little cry Cas let out as a result choked off abruptly when Dean grabbed his hair and yanked his head back. Dean forced a cold smile as he knelt down in front of Cas and leaned in very close to his face.

 

His words were clipped and vicious as he snarled, “That was very… very stupid, Cas. You forget…” Dean reached out his free hand over Cas’s shoulder, his fingers slowly stroking through the feathers at the root of Cas’s damaged wing; his smile widened a little when Cas shivered, shaking his head rapidly, pleadingly. “… you are not in control of what happens here. You can’t hurt me.” Dean’s smile faded, and he stared into Cas’s wide, dread-filled eyes. “I, on the other hand… I can do anything I want to you…”

 

“Please,” Cas gasped, eyes downcast in submission, trembling words tumbling from his lips in a desperate rush. “Dean… I-I’m sorry, please don’t, please…”

 

“I don’t give a damn about your sorry,” Dean spat out, and Cas shuddered and flinched as Dean tightened his grip on Cas’s wing, twisting sharply, before letting go of him with a shove and standing up again. “All I want to hear from you… is the truth.”

 

Cas fell forward onto his face when Dean let him go, sobbing, but before his face left Dean’s view, Dean thought he caught a trace of a bitter, anguished laugh behind the tears – and something in Dean’s stomach clenched, something worrying at the back of his mind – but he couldn’t think about it, not now, couldn’t let himself lose focus again. Instead, he walked around behind Cas, deliberately placing his foot down on the end of Cas’s good wing and pinning it down, as he drove his fist into the upper half of the wing, clutching a handful of feathers and twisting, hard.

 

“Please stop,” Cas sobbed, choked and desperate. “Please, Dean… please stop…”

 

“You know how to make me stop,” Dean reminded Cas, his voice soft and almost gentle again, and he eased his grip, withdrawing his hand to run it soothingly down the middle of Cas’s back. He knew very well how effective, how unsteadying a gentle touch could be in the wake of violence and pain. Cas shivered, and Dean leaned in close, wrapping his other arm around Cas’s shoulder in what might have been called an embrace under different circumstances.

 

He brought his mouth close to Cas’s ear, raising his hand to run it gently through Cas’s sweat-soaked, blood-matted hair as he said, “You’re making me do this, Cas. You think I wanted to hurt you?” There was an ache in Dean’s throat as he spoke, but he swallowed it down, keeping his words steady and smooth, falsely sympathetic. “You brought this on yourself. It doesn’t have to be like this, and you know it. Any time you want me to stop… you know what to do.”

 

But Cas didn’t confess… and Dean didn’t stop.

 

Dean never knew afterwards just how much time passed, as he threw himself into his gruesome task, all too conscious of the fact that it would soon be too late. He spent all his efforts on Cas’s wings, twisting and breaking, ripping out handfuls of the beautiful, shimmering feathers until they were dull and blood-soaked on the floor. Where the wings dragged the floor, now too large for Cas to hold up in his weakened, injured state, Dean crushed them under his feet, breaking fragile bones and rendering the powerful wings useless.

 

Finally, Dean took out the oil again.

 

He hesitated to use it, not sure how quickly the wings would burn. He didn’t want to take the whole cabin down in the process. He kept the rag he’d used before close at hand, barely lighting a patch of dark, matted feathers before putting out the flame again, over and over, while Cas cried and tore at his chains and begged him to stop.

 

Until he didn’t, anymore.

 

Until he lay shivering on the floor, too weak and exhausted even to cry, his throat stripped raw from screaming. Dean didn’t let himself look too closely, didn’t let himself think about how the sick, uneasy feeling he’d felt before had gone from a background hum in his brain to something closer to a warning shout, insistently repeating that something wasn’t right here. But he couldn’t let himself stop, not before it was finished.

 

To have come this far, to have done so many unspeakable things, to Cas, and have it all be for nothingthat was more unthinkable than any of the vile, cruel acts Dean had committed in the past few hours.

 

He picked up a knife from the table, crouching down in front of Cas and dragging him up by his hair, back onto his knees. Cas was exhausted, barely able to focus his gaze at all. Several times during the past few hours, he’d nearly slipped into unconsciousness. But Dean had ways of bringing him back around, and he’d refused to allow him even that brief respite.

 

Now, Dean patiently waited until Cas managed to drag his eyes up to Dean’s hand in front of his face, making sure Cas definitely saw the blade he held, before tracing the tip of it over Cas’s shoulder and bringing it to rest lightly at the base of one of his wings.

 

“Wonder what happens to an angel if you cut its wings off?” he mused, making his tone almost bored. “Does it die? Like a butterfly? Slowly waste away to nothing?”

 

Cas was shaking uncontrollably, looking up at Dean through glassy, distant eyes. Dean knew he was in shock at this point, overwhelmed with the pain and horror of what he’d been experiencing – and Dean was just beginning to wonder if perhaps he’d lost his window entirely, if Cas was ever going to say anything again… when it happened.

 

Cas’s lips parted, and he started to speak, then faltered, eyes dropping to the floor.

 

Dean stopped, bringing the knife back around and placing a hand at the back of Cas’s head, leaning in close. He could see hesitation in Cas’s face, taking the place of his earlier determination, and his heart raced as he realized that he was closer than he’d been yet to the result he needed.

 

“What?” he urged Cas gently, a coaxing, intimate tone to his voice. “What is it, Cas? Tell me.”

 

Cas looked up at him, fearful and uncertain, as he swallowed with difficulty, then replied in a halting, hesitant whisper.

 

I… I did it.”

 

Dean stared at him for a long moment, almost not believing it after so long without success. He blinked, dragging his lower lip between his teeth for a moment, a wary frown on his face as he said finally, “Come again?”

 

“I did it,” Cas said again, a little stronger, though his voice broke over the words, and he lowered his gaze again. “I – tried to end the world. I’m sorry.”

 

Dean felt his hands begin to tremble, felt tears prickling at the backs of his eyes, and he wasn’t sure whether it was sorrow that what they’d suspected, what everyone had told them, had proven to be right – or relief, that it was about to be over. Dean leaned forward, resting his head against Cas’s, his thumb rubbing gently back and forth against the back of Cas’s neck as he let out a heavy, shaky sigh.

 

“I know,” he replied, his voice low and reassuring. “I know you are, Cas. It’s gonna be all right, you just – you have to tell me how to stop it, okay? Tell me what to do to stop it, now.”

 

Cas looked up at him, blue eyes brimming with fresh tears, and Dean wasn’t sure whether it was the confession or the affection, after so much brutality, that brought them on. Cas’s lips trembled as he met Dean’s eyes and whispered words that abruptly made Dean’s stomach drop, his heart clenching in his chest.

 

Kill me.”

 

Dean swallowed hard, staring at Cas in disbelief. “What?” he managed at last, his voice hoarse and a little shaky.

 

“You… you have to kill me,” Cas repeated, his voice weak and pleading and desperate, and the distinct underlying feeling that this wasn’t right filled Dean’s mind again. “To – to end the spell you – you have to – kill me, Dean…” Cas lowered his head, and just under the rushing in his own ears, Dean thought he caught the sound of a soft, broken, “Please…”

 

It was the “please” that did it. Dean’s unease, the sense of wrongness, the weird suspicion that he hadn’t been able to put into words, hadn’t wanted to put into words once he’d already gone so far… all of it finally clicked into place in his mind. Cas’s almost manic, broken laugh when Dean had demanded the truth, the way he’d clung to his story even when he’d been beside himself with agony, even when he’d barely been able to speak at all… the way he’d almost seemed to believe it…

 

Cas has never been a good liar…

 

Dean suddenly felt like he was going to be sick. He let go of Cas abruptly, rising to his feet and backing away, staring down at the bloodied, broken form of his friend – his friend…

 

He kept saying he didn’t… what if he… what if… damn it, what did we do?

 

Cas collapsed forward onto the floor, now that Dean was no longer holding him up, his bound hands jerking against the chains as if reaching out to try to pull Dean back to him.

 

“Did you hear me, I said I did it!” Cas cried out, his voice hoarse and thin and mindlessly desperate, his shoulders quaking with soundless sobs. “Just kill me!” he cried with frustration. “Just do it!”

 

Alastair’s voice was a sly, malicious whisper in Dean’s mind, the words bringing everything spinning to a dizzying stop, as Dean’s mind filled with sudden, brutal clarity.

 

With the right tools and enough time… you can make anyone confess to anything, Dean…

 

Please,” Cas sobbed, his face to the dirty stone, his voice heavy with exhaustion and despair. “I can’t – just – please, just kill me…”

 

“Well, that would sort of ruin the punch line, wouldn’t it?”

 

Dean jumped, spinning toward the sound of the familiar voice. Crowley stood there smiling at him with his hands folded behind his back. Dean’s jaw set with anger and he glared at Crowley through his tears, snarling, “Get out.”

 

“Gladly. This just isn’t any fun anymore,” Crowley sighed, a smirk on his lips, a single eyebrow raised as he took in Cas’s damaged form.

 

The angel had gone silent and still… Dean hoped mercifully unconscious, as Dean hadn’t allowed him to be for the past several hours. Cas had been fading in and out for the past few hours, but every time his pain and exhaustion had nearly dragged him under, Dean had found some new agony to inflict to bring him back, screaming and pleading. Dean shuddered when his eyes fell on the wreckage he’d made of Cas’s wings, not even a hint of their former glory visible now amidst the blood and ash.

 

Broken. Desecrated. All for… for what? If he really didn’t do it… didn’t do anything… then…

 

Dean pressed his thumb and forefinger to his eyes, trying to shut out his own anguished thoughts. When he looked up again, Crowley was watching him closely, a secretive, satisfied smile on his lips. His tone was almost reproachful as he concluded.

 

“Now you’ve gone and figured out the joke.”

 

Dean stared at Crowley for a long moment, then looked away, staring past the demon king as his mind whirled with the implications of his words, as the pieces slowly began to fall into place… and the picture they formed was a horrifying nightmare of blood and betrayal. Dean slowly looked back at Crowley, voice hushed with dawning horror.

 

“You… you did this.”

Chapter Text

“You… you did this…” Dean stared at Crowley in horrified disbelief.

 

Crowley let out a soft scoffing sound. “What, you didn’t actually think it was that poor sap, did you?” he sneered. “I learned the hard way: he can’t keep up a decent ruse to save his life. You think he’d actually hold out under this amount of torture if he’d actually had anything to do with it?” He looked over at Cas again as he added with a soft, sly smile, “Got to hand it to you, though, Dean… couldn’t have done a better job of it myself.”

 

Dean’s head was spinning. He felt sick. He couldn’t make sense of it. All the signs, all the lives lost… it had all seemed so real

 

“Oh, it was real,” Crowley said, and Dean realized that he must have been speaking at least parts of his thoughts aloud. “Very real. King of Hell, remember? Not too difficult to create an earthquake here, a mass suicide there. Especially when you’ve got an angel or two on the payroll.”

 

Another piece in place, and suddenly Dean’s legs were barely holding him up. “Ion,” he realized in a choked whisper.

 

“Yes. He’s been very helpful. I must remember to give him a nice bonus.”

 

Dean looked up at Crowley with disgust, hatred overwhelming him at the flippant, casual tone Crowley was using to describe the plan he’d put together. “I’ll kill you!” Dean said, his voice low and trembling, but filled with conviction. He intended to do exactly that. Crowley wasn’t leaving this room alive.

 

The demon knife… Sam has the demon knife…

 

Sam!” Dean yelled, not taking his eyes off Crowley.

 

Crowley seemed utterly unmoved, rolling his eyes even as the basement door opened and Sam came rushing down the stairs to stand at Dean’s side.

 

Crowley?”

 

Sam frowned, incredulous, before his gaze shifted to the side to take in Cas, who was still lying with his face to the floor, his eyes closed, seemingly either unconscious or too shell-shocked to be even remotely responsive to what was going on around him. Sam’s eyes went wide with horror, and then Dean couldn’t look at Sam anymore, his face immediately heating with shame, his mouth dry, nausea building in the back of his throat.

 

“What are you doing here?” Sam demanded of Crowley, but there was a slight falter in his voice that told Dean that he was still looking at Cas.

 

“Just filling your brother in on the… misinformation under which he was operating,” Crowley smirked.

 

“Cas… Cas didn’t do anything,” Dean said, the words tasting like ash in his mouth, his voice trembling with rage. “Crowley… he did it all.”

 

What?” The demon knife was in Sam’s hand in an instant, his eyes narrowed, his lips drawn back into a tight line as he advanced on Crowley.

 

Crowley sighed, and vanished – reappearing an instant later, a foot or so away from where Cas was chained. “Really, boys, you should know better by now,” he chided them. He looked down at Cas curiously, his eyes focused on the charred, shredded remains of Cas’s once glorious wings. “Never seen angel’s wings this close before,” he mused, reaching out a cautious hand, a mean little smirk twisting his lips. “Not that there’s much left of these…”

 

No!” Dean snarled, crossing the room in two swift strides to get between them. “Don’t you fucking touch him!”

 

At the sound of Dean’s raised, furious voice, Cas flinched violently, jerking against the chains, as far away from Dean as he could manage – which wasn’t far at all, at this point. He was visibly trembling, his eyes closed, his face turned away, as if braced for a blow.

 

Crowley laughed softly, holding up his hands in a backing-off gesture that was mockingly conciliatory. “Seems I’m not the one he’s worried about, am I?” he remarked.

 

Dean froze, unable to bring himself to look down at the shaking, whimpering angel cowering away from him as if he was the most terrifying thing in the room. He swallowed back the wave of nausea that overwhelmed him, unable to formulate a response to Crowley’s taunting words, as he quickly backpedaled away from Cas, desperate to give him some distance – though Cas was clearly unaware of his efforts, and they were far too little, far too late.

 

Why?” Sam demanded, his voice seething with venom, his hand flexing around the knife – which was unfortunately worthless if they couldn’t get close enough to use it. “Why would you do this?”

 

Crowley’s eyes were dancing with cruel amusement as he shrugged. “Why not?” he countered gleefully. “I’ve had a score to settle with our dear little Cas for a long while now, and it’s not as if the two of you haven’t done enough to earn a little payback as well. Three birds… one stone.” Crowley gave Dean a wicked grin as he added, “And I didn’t even have to do the throwing. And of course, there are added benefits as well. The way I figure… maybe you’ll be less likely to interfere with my Hell…” He paused for effect, looking down at Cas with a falsely sympathetic smile. “… if you’re too busy dealing with your own.”

 

Then, without another word, Crowley was gone.

 

And suddenly… Dean couldn’t breathe.

 

Devastation was a crushing weight in his chest, and his knees gave out beneath him, dragging him to the floor under the overwhelming realization of just exactly what it was that he had done.

 

***************************************

 

Sam could hardly comprehend what he was seeing as he took in the room around him. He didn’t want to comprehend it. He didn’t want to process the congealing blood mingled with ash that littered the floor around the shivering, shattered angel; the mangled wings, blood-soaked and charred with bits of cracked, white bone showing through in places; his brother, kneeling broken on the floor, gasping for breath, eyes wide and shocked as he struggled to come to terms with what they’d just learned. A single thought echoed again and again in Sam’s mind, his blood like ice in his veins.

 

What have we done?

 

“Cas?” Dean’s voice was shaky, bordering on a sob, as he abruptly came out of his shocked stupor, moving forward without rising from the floor, edging closer to Cas on his hands and knees. “Cas, I… I’m…” Sam saw the “sorry” all over Dean’s face… saw the realization that he couldn’t offer it aloud, couldn’t dare, as Dean turned his head away in anguish, closing his eyes against tears that streamed down anyway. Dean looked back up at Cas and moved toward him again, his voice desperate and pleading. “Cas… look at me, man, okay?”

 

Cas didn’t. Instead, he cringed back away from Dean, a choked, terrified sob escaping his lips. “Don’t…”

 

Dean stopped, hiding his face in his hand, utterly grief-stricken in his guilt. Sam swallowed back the nausea in the back of his throat, forced himself to focus on what he needed to do. He stepped forward, placing a cautious hand on Dean’s shoulder. Dean didn’t look up at him, but he turned his head, resting it against Sam’s wrist, and Sam could feel him shaking.

 

“Just… wait,” Sam said softly. “Don’t… just wait here.”

 

He squeezed Dean’s shoulder reassuringly, before letting go and taking a cautious step toward Cas. He crouched down on the floor when he neared him, speaking in a low, gentle voice.

 

“Cas?”

 

Cas froze, flinching a little as he raised his head, harrowed eyes finding Sam’s – and the confusion and fear Sam saw there was heartbreaking. His voice was a hoarse whisper, hesitant and hopeful. “S-Sam?”

 

“Yeah.” Sam could barely get the words out. “It – it’s over, Cas. I just – I just want to help you, okay? Will you let me do that? Let me – take the chains off, at least? Please?”

 

Cas struggled to rise on one arm, streaked with blood and grime. “Sam,” he sobbed, pitifully reaching toward him before collapsing, too weak to hold himself up.

 

The first thing Sam felt in response to Cas’s reaction was shock. After what they’d done, how could Cas want either of them near him at all? Was he simply that desperate for any kind touch, any help, that he would accept it even from Sam? And in the wake of that thought, came the guilt– the agony of knowing that Dean was watchingthis, watching Sam accepted, forgiven, while he was rejected.

 

It doesn’t matter… not right now. Right now, we’ve just got to get close enough to help him…

 

Sam closed his eyes for a moment, regaining control, before he edged closer to Cas, one hand extended.

 

“It’s gonna be all right, Cas,” Sam said softly, though it felt like a lie on his lips. “It’s okay… just…”

 

Sam touched the shackle that bound Cas’s right wrist, wincing but holding on when Cas instinctively jerked away. He quickly spoke the same Enochian words he’d used to lock it earlier, and the heavy iron fell away. Cas’s wrist underneath was red and raw from hours of useless struggling to free himself, and Sam felt tears well up in his eyes as he reached for the other cuff, repeating the procedure.

 

Sam had just finished when he felt Cas’s right hand, weak and halting, barely brushing against his ankle as Cas pushed himself up on arms that shook alarmingly. Instinctively, Sam reached out to catch him before he could collapse, wrapping one arm low around Cas’s back, low enough to avoid touching the ravaged wings, and pulling him up a little so that he could support Cas’s weight.  

 

“Sam,” Cas cried quietly, his voice a breathless sob. “Sam…”

 

It wasn’t fair that Cas should sound so grateful, so nearly worshipful, as if Sam was some savior who’d shown up in the last possible moment, to deliver him from his own personal hell. It wasn’t fair, when Dean was breaking apart just a few yards away, and he wouldn’t have been able to do this, couldn’t have so much as touched Cas’s wings – his poor, destroyed, ruined wings – if Sam hadn’t told him about the spell and placed the book in his hands.

 

But it wasn’t as if Sam could possibly turn away, when Cas was so desperately pleading, reaching out for some kind of reassurance. Sam glanced back at Dean, hesitating only a moment, before sliding down, his long legs folded under him on the floor as he steadied Cas against his side, and Cas lowered his head to rest against Sam’s chest. A distant part of Sam’s mind was aware that his clothes were going to be forever stained with the blood and ash from Cas’s burnt wings and broken body.

 

But Dean was already covered in it, Sam thought as a cold ache settled in his chest. It was only right that he should be as well.

 

“I-I didn’t do it,” Cas sobbed out, but there was relief behind the anguish and exhaustion in his voice. “Please, I didn’t…”

 

“We know, Cas,” Sam said softly, instinctively raising a hand to run gently, carefully through Cas’s hair. “We know… it’s okay. We’re going to get you all taken care of, you’re going to be okay…”

 

“He wouldn’t… I tried to… to tell him, but…” Cas’s words were breathless, coming faster and faster, a residual note of panic in them. “… but he wouldn’t… I… asked for you, but…”

 

Sam.”

 

Dean’s voice behind him was sharp and commanding, and Cas flinched violently, turning his face to hide it against Sam’s shirt and going immediately silent. Sam could feel his entire body shaking, and a chill ran through him with the knowledge that it was nothing more than Dean’s voice that had elicited such a reaction. Sam’s hand stilled, steadying and he hoped reassuring, behind Cas’s head, and he turned to look at Dean with a frown.

 

“What?”

 

Dean was standing near the base of the stairs, and there was an urgency on his face, in his voice, despite its trembling, as he stated, “I need to talk to you.”

 

Sam blinked, incredulous, glancing at Cas. “Now?” he questioned.

 

“Yes, now,” Dean replied, not quite meeting Sam’s eyes. “Before you say another word. Now.”

 

Sam carefully shrugged out of his top shirt, crumpling it and laying it on the floor before gently taking Cas’s arms and pushing him back. Cas let out a heartrending little sound of protest, trying to cling to Sam’s arm, but it was pathetically easy for Sam to dislodge him.

 

“Shh, it’s okay,” Sam assured him. “Lay back down here for just a minute, okay? I’ll be right back. Just – just rest for a minute.” He gently guided Cas back down so that his head was resting on Sam’s shirt instead of the filthy floor, running a hand through Cas’s hair and trying not to cry himself when Cas leaned into the touch. “Just – don’t try to move, all right? I’m going to – get some things. Bandages. Water. Medicine.”

 

Cas did not respond, his body suddenly still, and Sam’s stomach clenched with alarm.

 

He can’t die… he can’t, not without the angel blade, he reminded himself. He’s just passed out, maybe… and that’s for the best.

 

Sam rose to his feet and turned toward his brother, who didn’t look at him, just started up the stairs ahead of him. Sam followed, silent until he had closed the basement door behind them.

 

“Dean, what…” His voice trailed off when his eyes met Dean’s, and Sam’s stomach clenched with alarm when he saw the wild, desperate look in his brother’s eyes. “Oh, Dean…” he said, his voice softer, stepping forward and reaching out a hand.

 

Don’t.” Dean’s tone was sharp, warning, and he took a step backward, his fist clenched at his side. He quickly averted his eyes, his jaw tight, a slight twitch betraying the difficulty with which he was holding it together at all. His voice wavered dangerously as he continued. “I’m not the one who – first priority is Cas right now, what he needs…”

 

“Dean.” Sam was careful, not sure how to get through to his brother, how not to make him close off completely. “You’re right. But… you need to-”

 

“Who gives a shit what I need?” Dean snapped, and Sam almost flinched away from the venom in Dean’s voice, the disgust in his eyes when he looked up at Sam again before turning away in anguish. “After what I did to him…”

 

“What we did, Dean,” Sam corrected, reaching out to put a firm hand on Dean’s shoulder and turn his brother back toward him. “We both thought we had to. This is not all on you…”

 

Dean shrugged Sam’s hand off, but remained facing Sam, swallowing hard before looking up to meet Sam’s eyes again, his expression hard though his eyes were wet with tears.

 

He thinks it is.”

 

Sam’s heart sank. “No, he doesn’t, Dean. Not really…”

 

“It’s good that he thinks that. He needs to keep thinking it.”

 

Sam blinked, taken aback. He shook his head slightly. “What?”

 

Dean averted his eyes again, but didn’t turn away, his voice as level as he could manage as he explained, “He thinks you didn’t know about… what I did. He thinks you had nothing to do with it. And… since he’s not going to let me get near him for the foreseeable future…”

 

“Wait.” Sam held up a hand, shaking his head, feeling an uneasy sensation building in the pit of his stomach. His voice was wary, almost warning, when he went on. “Dean… why does he think that?”

 

Dean still wouldn’t look at him, his jaw stubbornly set, his voice low and urgent. “Without his grace it’s gonna take him a long time to heal. To let his grace loose, we’d have to break the Jacob’s Call bond, and we can’t do that any time soon, because as soon as we do, the angels can find him again. And odds are they’re not gonna be lining up to help him.”

 

“Shit,” Sam whispered, momentarily distracted from his question by the unsettling implications of Dean’s words. A vivid image of what he’d just seen in the basement filled his mind – the desecration of something once holy, the broken wreckage of a once fierce, terrifying angel of the Lord – and he thought of what he’d do if anyone hurt his brother like that. Suddenly, he was pretty sure it wouldn’t matter how pissed off the other angels were with Cas lately; if the angels found the three of them right now… Cas wouldn’t be their target. “They’ll be lining up to smite us.”

 

Dean either didn’t hear Sam’s conclusion, or didn’t care. “We’ve gotta get him to the bunker where he’ll be safe.”

 

Sam nodded slowly. “Okay, yeah,” he said, blowing out a breath and squaring his shoulders a little.  “We’ll get him home, and we’ll take care of him…”

 

“No, we won’t,” Dean cut him off quietly, looking up to meet Sam’s eyes, his jaw stubbornly set, though his lips trembled slightly as he drew in a shaky breath. “You will. He’s not gonna let me – he’s never gonna let me touch him again.”

 

The resignation in Dean’s voice, the heavy sorrow in his eyes, told Sam that this wasn’t a conclusion that Dean had just reached. Suddenly, it was all painfully clear.

 

“Dean… did you plan it this way from the start? Did you tell him I had nothing to do with it?”

 

Dean’s silence, the trapped look in his eyes before he quickly averted them, were all the answer Sam needed. A dull ache began to build in Sam’s chest as he began to put together just how far his brother had gone to keep Cas’s blood from staining anyone’s hands but his own.

 

“You can’t protect me from this, Dean, this was both of our decision!”

 

“I’m not protecting you, Sammy… not this time,” Dean cut him off quietly, and Sam was surprised into silence. “We thought the world was at stake. If I had to take him apart to save it… fine. I could do that.” Dean’s eyes were anguished and brimming with tears when he looked up at Sam and helplessly concluded.

 

Someone has to put him back together again.”

 

Sam’s heart sank, and he felt sick as it gradually sank in, just exactly what Dean was asking him to do. “Dean… I-I can’t…”

 

“You can’t tell him, that’s what you can’t do,” Dean insisted, his voice trembling, urgent. “You can’t. He trusts you right now, Sam. He – he let you…” Dean stopped abruptly, looking away, struggling to maintain his composure for a moment before looking up at Sam again, his face tear-streaked but resolute. “If he shuts you out, too, then – then he’s got no one. And… and that’s what we can’t do to him. I can – I can do anything you need me to do to help, but – but you’re the one that’s gonna have to be – there for him, all right? We can’t – we can’t let him – go through this alone.”

 

Everything in Sam rejected the idea of letting Dean bear the guilt for this thing that they’d done, together. He thought of the way Cas had clung to him, the relief in his voice when he’d seen Sam there… and he felt sick. But he couldn’t think of a valid argument, couldn’t think of an alternative.

 

Cas was not only physically devastated by what he’d endured, but mentally broken as well. Even if they could figure out how to jump-start his grace so he could heal, without exposing him to the other angels, Sam had a feeling that he’d still need a lot of support to deal with the sheer trauma of what he’d been through.

 

Dean was right.

 

The kindest thing they could do for Cas right now… was to lie to him.

 

Dean was studying Sam’s face closely, and he seemed to see what he was looking for, because he nodded once, his eyes still wet but his tone calm and even as he placed a hand on Sam’s shoulder and turned him back toward the basement door.

 

“Go stay with Cas. I’ll bring you what you need to get him stable enough to travel. Once we get him to the bunker… we can figure out our next move from there.”

 

Sam noted with alarm that Dean’s tear-stained face was too calm now, his voice too steady. Somehow, he’d managed to pull his mask back into place. He was not all right – as pretty damn far from it as possible, Sam was certain – but he seemed determined to pretend that he was.

 

And Sam felt a fresh wave of guilt at the realization that for once, he wanted to let him.

 

He couldn’t let himself worry about Dean right now. It was all he could do to make himself descend those stairs, knowing that he was going to have to face the friend he’d betrayed just as completely as Dean had; only he was going to have to pretend innocence – to look Cas in the eye and reassure him… and all the while, betray him again.

Chapter Text

Sam stopped at the base of the stairs, closing his eyes and drawing in a slow, steadying breath before making himself look at the scene of his brother’s brutal crime. When he’d come down the stairs before, he’d been rushing, responding to Dean’s shout, hearing in Dean’s voice that he needed help, but hoping, hoping that maybe Cas had told Dean how to stop the Apocalypse he’d started; the screaming, the horrible, desperate cries Sam had tried not to listen to upstairs – maybe it was all over. Maybe it was done, and they could all start picking up the pieces and working their way back.

 

Now, looking at the scene in front of him as he slowly crossed the room, Sam realized how stupid that idea had been – stupid and naïve. It was so clear now, agonizingly so.

 

There could be no way back. Not from this.

 

A single glance was all Sam could stand at the rustic wooden table where Dean had laid out his tools – the vial of holy oil, Dean’s favorite lighter, and several blades, now strewn carelessly across the table’s surface, most of them wet and glistening dark red.

 

Sam suppressed a shudder as he turned his gaze from the table and toward the more damning evidence of their cruel rush to judgment.

 

Cas…

 

The angel was still unconscious, lying on his side, completely still on the cold stone floor. The upper half of his body was bare, but covered in blood and blackened with burns, his wrists bloodied from his desperate attempts to escape. His face was bruised, his lip split, tracks of blood streaking from his nose and a spot above his left eye, marks no doubt left by Dean’s fist.

 

But the worst of it was his wings.

 

Cautiously, unwilling to disturb Cas’s rest – a small mercy given the suffering that still lay ahead of him – Sam knelt down between the wings. They were awkwardly splayed across the floor, their fragile framework bent at odd angles, ragged and charred and bare in places where the feathers had been torn or burned completely away.

 

Sam frowned, biting his lip as he wondered suddenly how they were going to manage to get Cas upstairs at all; even in their mutilated condition, the wings were still massive. Sam imagined that they should ordinarily fold in like bird’s wings, able to be tucked in close to Cas’s body so that they’d take up a minimal amount of space – but broken as they were, Sam couldn’t imagine that Cas would be able to move them that much; and even if it was possible, it would certainly be excruciating to do so.

 

Sam reached out a cautious hand, running it gently down the ridge of bone that ran along the top of Cas’s left wing. It was bent sharply halfway between the root and the joint, and Sam wanted to find the place where it was broken, to see if possibly they could bind it up so it could heal properly.

 

He’d barely managed to touch Cas’s wing at all, though, when it jerked under his hand, and Cas awoke with a shuddering gasp, flinching away. Sam instinctively withdrew his hand, as Cas began to shiver, burying his face in his arm beneath him.

 

No,” he moaned, but there was no defiance, only despair in his voice, and the sound tore at Sam’s heart. “Please,” Cas sobbed. “Please…”

 

“Cas,” Sam said softly, getting up and carefully avoiding Cas’s wing as he stepped around to face his friend, crouching down and reaching out a hand to rest on Cas’s shoulder. “Cas, it’s okay… we’re not…” He hesitated, before amending quietly, “No one’s going to hurt you anymore, all right? I promise.”

 

Cas raised his head shakily, wide blue eyes filled with confusion when they fell on Sam’s face. “Sam?” he whispered, before lowering his head again, his whole body shaking with sobs – though Sam recognized his reaction this time as relief. “Sam…”

 

Sam reached down and carefully took Cas’s arms to pull him up, wincing himself as Cas cringed at the motion, letting out a soft little sound of protest. “Shh, it’s all right,” Sam soothed him, keeping his voice low and gentle.

 

Cas leaned into his hold, barely able to support any of his own weight at all, so Sam let Cas rest against him, wrapping a supportive arm around him to hold him up. Sam bit his lip, his brow creased with worry, as he thought of the countless wounds that marred Cas’s bare skin – raw burns and deep cuts, many of which were still slowly bleeding. He knew that the contact had to be painful.

 

It didn’t seem to matter to Cas at the moment. Sam realized with a sinking heart that it was likely nothing compared to the torment in which he’d spent the last several hours; and the simple reassurance of gentle contact was something he needed more than anything right now.

 

“Cas, I need to get you upstairs,” Sam told him. “We need to get out of here. So… I need you to do something for me, okay?”

 

Cas’s head was lowered, heavy against Sam’s chest, but he managed a little nod. “O-okay,” he replied, the word muffled against Sam’s shirt.

 

“Can you – can you move your wings at all?” Sam asked. “They’re – so big, and – I’m not sure we can get you upstairs if – can you try?” Cas shuddered against Sam’s chest, and Sam instinctively tightened his arm around him, his voice hushed and sympathetic as he added, “I know. I’m sorry. We haven’t got a choice, though; we have to figure something out…”

 

Cas was quiet for a moment, and Sam felt his hands curl into trembling fists, clenched in the sides of Sam’s shirt as he drew in a shuddering breath. Finally he replied, his voice hoarse and weak. “H-he did a… a spell…”

 

“I know,” Sam said, swallowing hard, grateful that Cas’s head was buried in his shirt so that Cas couldn’t see his face. “He – he told me.”

 

Cas lifted his head a little, but kept it bowed, his eyes averted, and his voice was hushed as he pleaded, “C-can’t you… undo it?” Sam was silent for a moment, considering that possibility. Cas’s voice shook as he added, desperation in the single, broken word, “Please.”

 

God, how could we be so careless? Sam’s heart sank. He hadn’t noticed a counter-spell in the book anywhere near the spell that had revealed Cas’s wings. If one existed, they had no idea where. So stupid, so recklessto do this thing, without knowing how to undo it when it was over…

 

“We might be able to, Cas,” Sam explained, a dull ache in his chest as he explained his conclusion. “But – I have to find the counter-spell first, and – we don’t have a lot of time. This place – it isn’t safe…”

 

Cas was completely silent, and suddenly Sam felt ridiculously foolish. How utterly ludicrous it must sound to Cas, he realized, given his current condition, what had happened to him in this room… to worry now, that this place wasn’t safe.

 

He should’ve been safe with us… Sam swallowed hard, his throat aching. And instead, we’ve done the worst thing we possibly could have done to him. Sam remembered abruptly what the Men of Letters had called this particular spell – The Unspeakable – and thought that he was beginning to understand why.

 

“I’m sorry, Cas,” Sam said again. “I – I wish we could…”

 

His voice trailed off when he saw Cas’s wing shift, just slightly, his body tensing against Sam as if he was trying to lift it – but then it collapsed to the floor again as Cas choked back a cry of pain.

 

“I can’t,” he whispered, agitation and rising panic in his trembling words. “Please, I can’t…”

 

“Okay,” Sam soothed him with a steadying hand at the back of his neck, rubbing in slow circles. “Okay, don’t… don’t try again, not yet anyway. We’ll… figure something out.” Fresh tremors shook Cas’s body again in the wake of his efforts, and Sam tried not to think about the impossible problem before them, and instead just to focus on calming him down. “It’s okay,” Sam whispered, holding Cas a little closer to him with his arm around his waist, careful to avoid the numerous cuts and burns that scored Cas’s pale skin as much as he could. The gesture was rewarded when Cas settled in against him, his shuddering breaths slowly evening out. “It’s okay… everything’s gonna be okay…”

 

The door at the top of the stairs creaked open, and Cas tensed in Sam’s arms with a shaky gasp, clinging to him tighter. Sam heard the sound of rustling feathers – familiar from years of hearing it, often the only sign that Cas had come or gone. But this time, the sound was sustained. Sam noticed that Cas’s wings were trembling, jerking spasmodically, and realized with dismay that he was trying, instinctively and in spite of the pain, to pull them in close – to protect them.

 

“No, Cas, don’t,” Sam said, his voice sharp with alarm, as Dean’s footsteps descended the stairs. “You’re gonna hurt yourself, don’t do that. Shh, it’s all right, no one’s gonna hurt you, okay?”

 

“Don’t let him,” Cas pleaded, his voice breathless and breaking over the words. “Please don’t let him…”

 

“I won’t,” Sam promised without really thinking, just willing to say anything to soothe Cas’s fears. “I mean – he won’t. He doesn’t want to – it’s just that… well, it’s over now, Cas…” Sam’s voice trailed off as he looked up at his brother with an apologetic grimace.

 

Dean had stopped a few feet away from them – far enough to be out of reach, but close enough to have heard every word. His face was guarded, carefully closed off, but he couldn’t hide the hurt in his eyes as he swallowed slowly, lowering himself to a crouch and setting down his armload of supplies on the floor beside Sam – bandages, medical tape, clean water in a plastic tub, warm enough that it was still steaming. Once he’d laid it all down, Dean took a few long, more-or-less straight sticks he’d had tucked under his arm and set those down too. Sam looked down at them, noticing that they’d been stripped of any bark or knots and made relatively smooth as well.

 

“For, uh… for splints,” Dean explained, unable to look at Sam or Cas, swallowing hard. “You know – until we can get something better.” He moved as if to rise – then hesitated, his lips parted but silent.

 

“Cas,” he began at last, his voice quiet and cautious.

 

Cas went very still at the sound of his name on Dean’s lips, his face hidden against Sam’s chest. Sam wasn’t sure what Dean intended to say, and was even less sure whether it was a good idea for him to try to say anything at all. His eyes locked with Dean’s, a wordless warning, though he made no attempt to intercept whatever message Dean felt he needed to get across.

 

Dean hesitated, visibly searching for words before he continued, his voice aching with helpless regret. “I – I know this means shit to you right now, but – I swear I’m not gonna touch you, all right? Not unless you…” Dean’s words broke off, and he looked away, shaking his head with a sad, brittle smile. “Well, I’m just not,” he concluded. “I’m never gonna hurt you again. I know you – you probably don’t believe me. Might not ever, but – I just had to say it.”

 

Cas remained still and silent, his face pressed so hard into Sam’s shirt that Sam could feel the heat of each tremulous breath through the soft cotton, the pressure of Cas’s forehead against his sternum almost hard enough to be uncomfortable. After a moment, Dean let out a soft sigh, something on his face that might have been disappointment, if Sam thought for a second that Dean had allowed himself to expect anything more.

 

Dean rose to his feet again, not looking directly at either Sam or Cas again as he said quietly, “What else do you think you’ll need?”

 

“I’m not sure,” Sam replied. “We need to get him upstairs… outside and into the car, but – with his wings like this…”

 

Cas shuddered, his wings drawing in again, just a little before he bit back a sharp, startled little cry, as if in his instinct to hide them, he’d forgotten how bad it’d hurt the last time he’d tried. Dean winced, shame falling over his face as he looked away.

 

“Drugs,” he suggested flatly. “We’re going to need – all the painkillers we can get our hands on.”

 

Sam frowned. “Can we get our hands on any, though? I thought Garth’s guy said that was all he could do…”

 

“Don’t worry about that,” Dean said, already heading toward the stairs. “I’ll take care of it. Just – do what you can to help him in the meantime. It’ll probably take me a couple hours.”

 

Sam nodded. That was actually a lot faster than he’d expected; he wasn’t sure he wanted to know exactly what Dean was planning to do. At this point, he was desperate enough not to ask; he could think of no means of getting Cas upstairs that would not be excruciatingly painful.

 

As soon as Dean’s footsteps faded away and the basement door closed again, Cas relaxed against Sam, though he was still trembling. Sam found himself instinctively rocking slowly, his hand running soothingly through Cas’s hair as he tried to find words that would be reassuring, that would offer some kind of comfort, words that could somehow undo what had been done.

 

Of course, there were none.

 

“You’re gonna be okay,” Sam said at last, though the words felt pitifully flat and useless, and he wasn’t sure who he hoped more to reassure with them. “I know it – it hurts right now, but – we’re gonna get you all patched up, and you’re gonna be just…”

 

Sam.”

 

Cas turned his head just a little, just enough so that the word was clearly audible, not muffled by Sam’s shirt, and Sam went quiet, waiting for him to go on. When he did, his voice was low and hesitant, and still touched with that strange note of shame that Sam couldn’t quite figure out. The terror, the tears – those made sense, even if they were unsettlingly unfamiliar coming from Cas. Righteous fury would have been perfectly in order, given the circumstances. But the humiliated hush to Cas’s voice, as if he was almost too ashamed to speak aloud, the way he couldn’t seem to quite meet Sam’s eyes – it didn’t make sense.

 

“I – I understand that it’s – n-necessary to – to tend to my injuries so that they can heal, but – please…” Cas’s voice shook, and he clutched Sam’s shirt a little tighter, pulling it taut against Sam’s back. “… will you do it? Only you? Please, don’t – don’t let D-Dean…” Cas’s voice broke, and he turned his face into Sam’s shirt again with a shuddering sob.

 

Cas.” Sam’s voice was gentle but firm as he leaned back a little, his hands coming to rest on Cas’s arms and holding him so that he couldn’t move with Sam, couldn’t hide. “Cas… hey. I need you to listen to me, okay?”

 

Cas didn’t reply, and kept his head bowed low, eyes averted… but after a moment he nodded, almost imperceptibly.

 

“Dean – he was telling the truth. He’s not going to hurt you again. Not – not because I won’t let him, but because – he doesn’t want to. He – he never wanted to, Cas. He just – he thought…”

 

Don’t.” Cas’s voice was hoarse and raw, but still carried a note of sharp command that stopped Sam’s words short.

 

He frowned. “Don’t what?”

 

Cas swallowed hard, but Sam could see that his jaw was set with stubborn anger, and seeing it was – well, it was almost a relief. Still, Cas was shaking harder now, and when he continued, his words were spoken with a desperate intensity.

 

“Don’t… try to tell me why. What he did. Don’t… explain, like there’s an explanation that will…” Cas stopped abruptly, closing his eyes, and Sam’s heart ached when he saw the tears that escaped between lowered lashes. “Just… don’t. Please.”

 

It was by no means too much to ask for. In fact, now that he thought about it, Sam felt foolish and small for even attempting what must have sounded to Cas like a defense of Dean’s actions.

 

“I’m sorry,” Sam offered quietly, loosening his grip on Cas’s arms, relieved when Cas immediately returned to his former position, arms tight around Sam and face buried. Sam had half-expected Cas to pull away from him, too, now. “I just… I’m trying to help, that’s all. I’m – probably sucking at it, but – that’s all I want to do.”

 

“Then… please don’t let Dean touch me. For any reason. Please.” Cas’s voice was quiet, only slightly wavering, but Sam could clearly hear his desperation. And there was only one answer he could give.

 

“I won’t,” he promised softly. “Don’t worry, Cas. He – he’s not gonna touch you again.”

 

************************************************

 

Breaking into a pharmacy wasn’t even close to the most difficult or illegal thing Dean had ever done. Breaking into three hospital pharmacies, in succession, to steal expensive narcotics – was another level of difficult and illegal entirely.

 

But not impossible. Not when Cas needed those drugs so desperately.

 

Dean’s hands tightened on the steering wheel as he raced back toward the cabin, knuckles white, heart pounding in his ears. And yet, it did nothing to drown out the echo of Cas’s screams. Dean’s eyes were focused on the road, but all he could see was Cas’s impossibly blue eyes, wide with terror, the way Cas cringed away from him every time Dean moved near him.

 

You wanted to break him, he reminded himself with scathing accusation. Well, you did.

 

Now, all Dean wanted was to undo the damage he’d caused – to take Cas into his arms and hold him, to pour out apologies and promises that nothing bad would ever happen to him again – to put his broken friend back together again.

 

But Cas couldn’t even look at Dean now; Dean had given up any right he might ever have had to offer physical comfort. He’d taken the precious thing he and Cas had once shared, and he’d shattered it there on the cold stone of that basement room. There was nothing he could do now, to undo it, or to help… nothing except for this one thing.

 

And by God, he was going to do it – consequences be damned. If Dean got caught and spent the rest of his life in prison, it still wouldn’t be long enough to pay for what he’d done. But he wasn’t going to get caught.

 

Cas was counting on him not to.

 

Even so, when he arrived back at the cabin, Dean found himself standing at the closed basement door, struggling to find the courage to open it and go down – to face Cas’s terrified reaction to nothing more than the sound of his footsteps. Dean knew he deserved it – hell, he’d deliberately cultivated it. Used every dark skill in his repertoire to make sure that Cas feared him more than anyone or anything else. He’d asked for it – the way Cas shuddered at the sound of his voice, the way he clung to Sam and pleaded for protection as if Dean were the worst of monsters. And he was, wasn’t he? Had to be, to do the things he’d done, not letting love or conscience stop him.

 

He was a monster. Had been for a long time.

 

Cas was just the last to know.

 

Before Dean knew it, ten minutes had passed, with him just standing there at the basement door like a useless coward, holding onto the drugs Cas needed so badly in a clenched, white-knuckled fist. Cursing his own weakness, Dean forced himself to open the door and walk through it.

 

When Dean reached the bottom of the stairs, Sam was still sitting on the floor, though he’d scooted back a little so that his back was braced against the leg of the table. Dean tried to look anywhere but at Cas, but his eyes seemed drawn to the angel of their own volition. Cas was lying down, his head in Sam’s lap, and Sam’s blood-stained shirt now spread over his upper body as a makeshift blanket. Cas didn’t react as Dean approached, so Dean guessed he must be asleep.

 

He felt an acute sense of relief – followed immediately by a hot rush of shame for that relief.

 

Yeah, good for you, Winchester. You don’t have to face the friend you just fucking shredded, because he’s too exhausted and traumatized to keep his eyes open. What a lucky fucking break.

 

“Hey.” Sam looked up at him as he approached, his mouth twitching slightly in a weak, failed attempt at a smile, and Dean quickly averted his gaze. “He fell asleep just after you left. I – couldn’t make myself wake him up, not when he’s… hurting this bad…” Dean glanced up to see that Sam was staring down at Cas with sad eyes, long fingers stroking slowly through his hair.

 

Sam’s gonna look at you different, too… The warning words filled his mind. Give him a minute to think about what he’s seen here… what you did… and he’s gonna piece it together. And he’s gonna know what you are. And he’s never gonna want you to touch him again, either.

 

Dean cleared his throat as he knelt on the stone floor a few feet away from Sam, daring to venture a little bit closer this time since Cas wasn’t awake to be freaked out. He inspected the labels as he took out a few bottles of pills, a few small plastic vials full of liquid, and disposable hypodermic needles. “I, uh… I got… just about everything they had. Morphine, Dilaudid, Vicodin.” Dean swallowed, unable to meet Sam’s eyes as he took out another bottle. “Valium. Figured… he might… might need it.”

 

Sam just nodded slowly. “You did great.” He frowned as he looked up at Dean, worry in his voice as he reached out to take Dean’s hand. “Do I wanna know where you got all this?”

 

“I’ll just answer that by saying let’s not waste time talking about it and just get ready to get the hell out of Dodge, okay?” Dean tried to sound as light and unconcerned as possible, but his voice shook, then broke, his eyes burning from nothing more than the simple contact of Sam’s hand on his. Suddenly just wanting to get as far away from Sam and Cas as he could, he started to rise to his feet, trying to pull his hand away. “I’ll just… go get packed up…”

 

His words broke off as Sam held on tight, jerking him back down as he tried to get up. “Dean,” Sam said softly. “Look at me.”

 

Dean couldn’t. He closed his eyes, hot tears escaping despite his efforts.

 

Look at me,” Sam repeated firmly, and Dean reluctantly obeyed. The softness of compassion, the love in Sam’s eyes, only made everything worse. “You don’t have to go anywhere.”

 

“Well, actually, I kinda do,” Dean insisted, looking away again. “Because the car’s not gonna pack itself, and Cas could wake up any second, and he doesn’t need me standing over him when he…”

 

I need you.”

 

Dean froze, finally venturing to glance up at Sam again, uncertain.

 

Sam’s eyes were earnest, and he squeezed Dean’s hand as he continued with a note of urgency in his voice. “I – I know what I’ve got to do, okay? You’re right. Cas is gonna need a lot of support to get him through this. But…” Sam looked away for a moment self-consciously, and the uncertainty in his eyes pulled at Dean’s heart as it always had, and he found himself settling back down onto his knees. “… but so am I. I need you, Dean. I – I can’t do this without you. I need you with me.”

 

Dean knew he was asking a lot of Sam, and he knew that Sam was going to be dealing with his own burden of guilt over what had happened. He couldn’t leave Sam to carry all of it on his own, while he allowed himself to hole away somewhere and drown in his own self-loathing. But it wasn’t so simple as Sam made it sound.

 

A sad smile rose to Dean’s lips as he met Sam’s eyes. “Yeah,” he said softly. “And he needs me gone. So – how in the hell is that supposed to work?”

 

Sam’s lips pressed into a firm line, and Dean saw the stubborn gleam in his eyes as he stated firmly, “We’ll make it work. We’ll figure it out. Just – please, Dean. Don’t – don’t check out on me here, okay? I – I can’t do this if you do.”

 

It didn’t make any sense. Dean couldn’t understand how Sam could even stand to look at him – how the touch of Dean’s hand could do anything but make his skin crawl in revulsion. The beautiful, now shattered thing Sam cradled in his arms was shattered because of Dean – and Dean didn’t know how Sam couldn’t see that.

 

But one thing overrode all of Dean’s doubts, his shame, and self-revulsion. One thing meant that for now, none of it mattered. He couldn’t let it.

 

Sam needed him.

 

“Okay, Sammy,” Dean agreed, surrendering as always to the pleading look in Sam’s eyes. He knew that the task ahead of Sam was going to be pretty overwhelming, and he would make sure that Sam got all the support he needed to get through it, no matter what it took. “I get it. I just – I need to go pack up our things, get the car loaded. You, uh – you got this, for now?”

 

“Yeah,” Sam assured him with a tired smile. “Thanks, Dean.”

 

And Dean squeezed Sam’s hand, silent reassurance that he understood what was needed of him, before letting go and rising to his feet, making his way up the stairs and away from his brother before Sam could see him break.

 

*******************************************************

 

 The closing of the basement door behind Dean startled Cas awake, and he jumped – then immediately winced, letting out a low whimper of pain.

 

“Easy,” Sam said softly, placing his arm gently across Cas’s shoulders to keep him from rising too quickly, his other hand reaching down to stroke Cas’s hair. “You’re okay… don’t move too fast, okay? Just… just relax.”

 

Cas laid his head back down – then raised it abruptly, trying to rise against the pressure of Sam’s hand, eyes wild as they darted around the basement room. “Where’s – where’s Dean?” Cas asked, voice shaking and fearful.

 

Sam’s heart ached, but he made no further attempts to lessen Cas’s fear of his brother. That would have to come later; right now, Cas was nowhere near ready to hear their reasons why it had happened, or why it would never happen again.

 

“He’s upstairs,” he said instead. “It’s just you and me down here, Cas. It’s okay.”

 

Cas relaxed marginally, at least enough that he stopped trying to sit up and laid his head down again. After a moment, though, he shifted with a soft groan, his face twisting into a grimace as he said, “Hurts… so much…”

 

“I know, Cas,” Sam said, reaching for one of the plastic vials Dean had left within his reach, and a plastic-wrapped needle to go with it, lifting his arm off Cas’s shoulders to open it. “I’m gonna help you with that, okay?”

 

Cas carefully raised himself up on his folded arms, looking to see what Sam was doing. The moment he saw the needle in Sam’s hand, his eyes went wide and he tried frantically to get up, practically throwing himself off of Sam’s lap and scrambling away. Almost immediately he cried out in pain, his wings fluttering pathetically as he attempted an escape that was lost to him for the moment.

 

“Cas… Cas!” Sam rushed forward on his knees, closing the little distance Cas had managed to put between them and catching the panicked angel’s arms, holding him still. “Easy… easy, Cas, it’s okay… I’m not gonna hurt you…”

 

“What… what’s in that?” Cas asked, pulling weakly against Sam’s grip, his eyes locked downward on the needle Sam had hastily tossed aside, on the floor where it lay beside them. He looked up at Sam at last through fearful, imploring eyes. “What are you going to do?”

 

“It’s just painkillers, Cas. Morphine. So it doesn’t hurt so much, that’s all.”

 

Cas looked down at the needle again, trembling violently under Sam’s hands. “Will it make me sleep?”

 

Sam considered for a moment before answering honestly, “Probably. I hope so.”

 

Cas swallowed hard, staring at the needle for a long moment before looking up at Sam again and asking in a halting, hesitant voice, “What… what will happen… while I sleep?”

 

Suddenly, the reason for Cas’s fear hit Sam with all the force of a speeding train, guilt slamming into him with it, and Sam closed his eyes for a moment, letting out a heavy sigh. “Cas… I’m so sorry,” he said softly when he opened his eyes to find Cas still looking up at him, his expression bordering on panic. “We – were told that if you’d started the spell to – bring the walls down, the tablet – would be inside you. So – we – we had to know. We – didn’t want you to… to hurt, though, so – we gave you the morphine.” Sam was quiet for a moment, holding Cas’s gaze though shame made him long to look away. “We were wrong,” he stated finally.

 

Cas looked down, at nothing in particular, his gaze distant and haunted as he raised a hand to hover near, but not quite touching, the wound in his chest – the wound which was no longer bandaged, and torn around the edges of the stitches. It made Sam wince to look at it.

 

“He… he used it to…” Cas shuddered, not finishing his thought, and shaking his head slightly.

 

“Cas.” Sam let go of one of Cas’s arms, reaching down a careful hand to tilt Cas’s head up, silently urging Cas to look at him – and Cas obeyed, his eyes wary and questioning. “I promise. Nothing like that is going to happen this time.”

 

Cas considered that, his expression solemn and a little less fearful. “Why… why do you want me to sleep?” he asked cautiously.

 

“Because… I need to set your wings, for one thing,” Sam explained gently.

 

Cas flinched, looking away, his wings jerking slightly in that way Sam knew by now meant that he desperately wanted to hide them. He frowned, troubled by Cas’s reaction in a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Sam continued, keeping his voice level and soothing.

 

“I know that’s gonna hurt if we don’t use the drugs, and… and we have to set them, Cas. Or… they’ll heal crooked, and… they might not… not work right again. Okay?”

 

Cas nodded, his eyes downcast and welling with tears, his lip trembling though his jaw was stubbornly set against it.

 

“And… after that… we have to get you upstairs, and that’s not going to be very comfortable, either. And we have a long drive ahead of us, and… it’s just so that you feel as little pain as possible. All right?”

 

Cas nodded again, closing his eyes for a moment. Then he looked up at Sam again, and there was something pleading and quietly desperate in his eyes when he said softly, “I trust you, Sam.”

 

Sam’s mouth was dry, and the weight of guilt on him nearly drove his gaze from Cas’s face – but he made himself meet Cas’s eyes, nodding slowly. “I know,” he said quietly. “And I promise… no one’s gonna hurt you again.”

 

Cas swallowed hard, drew in a slow, deep breath… and then held out his arm for the needle.

 

**********************************************

 

Sam carefully set Cas’s wings using the splints Dean had brought, and then folded them in as close to Cas’s back as possible, using Ace bandages to bind them into that position. He did his best to bandage any open wounds that were still bleeding on the rest of Cas’s body, resigning himself to the fact that more thorough care would have to wait until they reached the safety of the bunker.

 

Cas was hidden from angels as long as Jacob’s Call was in place, but Ion knew where they were, and could easily inform his brothers of where they could find the traitor, in his conveniently vulnerable condition. And despite the fact that Crowley’s vengeance had been horrifically successful, Sam wouldn’t put it past him to try something else, while they were all weakened and distracted.

 

One thing at a time, Sam told himself. Just get to the bunker. Then we can worry about… everything that comes after.

 

Dean came down the stairs just as Sam was finishing up. He focused his gaze on Sam’s face, not looking at Cas, or at the table still covered in the weapons of torture he’d used.

 

“We’re all packed up,” he stated firmly.

 

Sam didn’t question Dean’s decision to leave everything on the table behind, regardless of its potential value. He never wanted to see any of it again, so he could only imagine how Dean felt about it.

 

“Okay,” Sam said softly.

 

“There’s… something else.” Dean didn’t quite look at Sam as he spoke.

 

Sam suspected that would be an issue for a while. “What is it?”

 

“The angel tablet.” Dean ventured a glance up at Sam’s face, and Sam’s stomach dropped at what he saw there. “It’s gone.”

 

Crowley.” Sam felt a red hot rage building inside him, his fist clenching at his side. “Should have known it was about more than just payback.”

 

A cold, almost predatory smile formed on Dean’s lips, his eyes lit with something dark and a little terrifying, even to Sam, as Dean replied very softly, “Oh, it’s about payback now. He can count on it.”

 

Sam fully agreed. But Crowley was a problem for another time. He turned his focus toward Cas, who was thankfully fully unconscious, and crouched down to lift the broken angel into his arms. Sam was surprised and relieved to find that Cas wasn’t really all that heavy; his wings seemed to add nothing to his weight, which Sam supposed made a certain kind of sense, really. They weren’t supposed to have a physical presence at all.

 

Even so, Sam stumbled slightly as he stood up, and Dean moved quickly to his side. Sam’s lips parted to caution him – but Dean just took Sam’s arm, helping him get to his feet and find his balance – all the while, careful not to touch Cas anywhere at all.

 

It made Sam’s throat feel thick, his eyes burn, to realize how seriously Dean was taking his promise. Sam knew that when they reached the bunker and made sure Cas was stable and safely on the way to recovering, he was going to need to take some time for his brother, to get him on the same path. But for now, it was Dean who was supporting Sam – steadying him as he rose to his feet, and then staying close behind him, a firm hand at Sam’s back as he carried Cas up the stairs and out to the idling Impala, ready and waiting to take them home.

Chapter Text

Castiel was first aware of the sensation of motion, though he knew that he was lying still. It was whatever he lay on that was moving. The dull roar of a powerful engine filling his ears, the scent of aged leather near his face, provided the answer.

 

The Impala. He was in the Impala. But he couldn’t remember how he got there, and his eyes felt strangely heavy, unwilling to open. He shifted on the seat, hands that felt weak and clumsy grasping at the leather in an attempt to push himself up.

 

And… that was a mistake.

 

That slight movement brought back the awareness of pain. Everything hurt – a bone-deep, throbbing pain that seemed to encompass his entire body, though it felt strangely distant. And Castiel couldn’t remember why. Had he been injured in battle? Why couldn’t he remember? There was the nagging feeling in the back of his mind that he’d forgotten something important, that the pain should tell him something he needed to remember. But it was just outside his grasp, fragments of memory floating on the edges of his consciousness – and Castiel lacked both the strength and energy to attempt to pursue them.

 

And after all… it wasn’t really that bad, anyway. He had the sense that it had been a lot worse, but now… now the pain was strangely dull and muted. It was there, and yet didn’t quite touch him, almost as if it belonged to someone else, and he was merely observing it from a distance. It was similar to the way that he’d experienced human pain before, when his grace was unfettered.

 

Wait… before what?

 

A glimpse of memory here and there floated through the haze, confusing and without context – but with them came an uneasy sensation, building in the back of his mind, something tugging at him to focus, to remember – but he couldn’t.

 

A cold, frightening feeling began to creep over him as the pain slowly began to build, coming back sharp-edged and stronger, as the sound of muffled speech began to drift toward his ears. He couldn’t make out the words over the low rumble of the engine and the thick haze that still clouded his senses, but he recognized the voice.

 

Sam.

 

An overwhelming sense of relief washed over him, and Castiel relaxed a little again. It was Sam, and Sam being here meant that he was safe. He wasn’t sure why he was so sure of that fact; certainly he’d been in enough dangerous situations not only with, but because of the Winchesters. Somehow, he just knew – Sam’s voice, hushed and calm and close, meant that Castiel could rest, could stop trying to figure everything out and just drift back into the cloud of sleep that surrounded him… if only the pain would subside again, because it was becoming quite distracting.

 

A second voice joined the first one… quieter, lower, and just as familiar.

 

And Castiel’s insides seemed to seize up, a sensation like melting ice trickling down his spine, his heart racing. His confusion and alarm was only intensified by his unexpected reaction. He wasn’t used to these types of physical reactions in the body that was usually nothing more than a vessel to him. And besides – it wasn’t even as if there was anything to worry about.

 

It was just Dean

 

The older Winchester’s face suddenly filled Cas’s mind – but his eyes, once warm and familiar, seemed to gleam with the fires of Hell, his full lips twisted into a malicious smirk as strong fingers clenched in the feathers of Castiel’s wings… savage, wrenching, tearing.

 

“I could do this all day, Cas,” Dean’s voice echoed in his mind, taunting, warning. “Only one way to make it stop…”

 

Castiel shuddered as memory flooded back to him all at once. Trembling, his muscles drew taut with fear, and a fresh onslaught of pain overwhelmed him, arcing down the ridge of his wings, aching, burning like fire. He tried to distance himself from it, tried to push it back. He had to get away, had to fly, but his agonized wings wouldn’t move, not even an inch. And that was when the panic set in, stealing his breath, and he pressed back hard against the yielding leather behind him, trying desperately to put whatever distance he could between himself, and the man who’d done this to him. A sharp, searing pain shot through his wings as they were pressed between his body and the seat, and Castiel let out a choked cry.

 

“Son of a bitch.” Dean’s voice was harsh and startled, and Castiel flinched away from the sound.

 

A firm hand connected with Cas’s shoulder, and he jerked away instinctively, but it found him again, a warm, strong grip around his upper arm to hold him still.

 

Gentle. Soothing, a thumb stroking slowly over too-sensitive skin.

 

A very large thumb. Large hand. Larger than Dean’s.

 

Sam.

 

The roar of panic in Castiel’s ears began to ebb away, and he could hear Sam’s voice, soft and even, words fading in and letting him know that Sam had probably already been talking for a while. Castiel opened his eyes to look for Sam; seeing only his silhouette in the darkness, he tried to focus on the sound of Sam’s voice instead.

 

“… better… that’s it… easy, Cas, you’re okay…” Sam’s tone changed only marginally as he said, “Pull over,” and then continued, his tone rhythmic and reassuring, as his hand slid gently up from Cas’s arm to his strangely bare shoulder. Where were his clothes? “That’s better, Cas, it’s all right… just calm down…”

 

The steady motion of the Impala slowed and then stopped with a lurch that made Castiel whimper with pain as it rocked him forward a little into Sam’s touch, and he lowered his head to rest against Sam’s wrist. The pain was clear and bright and sharp now, centered almost entirely in his wings. He had other injuries; he could feel them now, but they were mild in comparison to the ache of broken bones, the searing burn that consumed Castiel’s wings.

 

And… he remembered now. What had happened.

 

A high, breathless, keening sound reached Castiel’s ears, and he had time to think that he didn’t like it, it made him feel small and powerless and afraid, before he realized that he was making the sound. He was… crying.

 

But… angels didn’t cry.

 

Something was wrong with him, something was seriously wrong… but Castiel couldn’t think clearly enough to figure out what it was. And then, Sam was pulling his hand away, and all there was for a moment was blinding panic, as Castiel reached for him, a pathetic little choked sound of protest leaving his lips. Sam just shushed him, and Castiel looked up, blinking through tears until his vision finally came into focus… just in time to see Sam sliding into the Impala’s back seat beside him, pulling him up against Sam’s side.

 

Cas.” Sam’s voice was gentle but commanding, and Castiel obediently looked up to meet his serious gaze. Sam nodded toward his own upraised hand, and Castiel’s mouth went dry a little when he saw the needle there. But – he remembered now. It hadn’t hurt, last time. It had made the pain recede and brought on the peaceful haze that he desperately wished would swallow him up again now. “It’s hurting again, isn’t it?” Sam observed quietly. “Let me help.”

 

Castiel nodded, lowering his head to rest against Sam’s shoulder. He didn’t even wince at the tiny twinge of pain as the needle slid into his arm, instead feeling a wave of relief at the knowledge that soon, peaceful rest would take him again.

 

“See, it’s all right,” Sam whispered, as his long, gentle fingers began to stroke through Cas’s hair in a way that made him feel safe and reassured. The sensation was a pleasurable distraction from the pain, which was swiftly fading away again, and suddenly Castiel felt overwhelmingly sleepy. “You’re okay,” Sam continued softly, his voice sounding strangely far away. “I’ve got you, and I’m not going anywhere, okay? You’re all right… that’s it, just go to sleep…”

 

The thought was appealing – and Castiel felt a vague unease at the realization, at this new piece of evidence that something was very wrong with him.

 

Angels didn’t sleep, either.

 

But his strange symptoms didn’t seem to matter all that much at the moment. Nothing did, really. It didn’t hurt so much now, and Sam’s body beside him was solid and warm and reassuring, the cotton of his shirt soft and pleasant against Castiel’s skin. Castiel closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift away into the haze of peaceful oblivion, lulled by Sam’s hushed, steady voice and the motion of the Impala as it started down the road once more.

 

**************************************************************

 

Twice more the return of pain dragged him from sleep, panicked and shaking and desperate. Twice more the sharp prick of the needle drove it back, allowing him to slip back into the quiet dark.

 

And during the in-between moments when the drugs were fading, when the quiet voices of the Winchesters drifted to his ears over the roar of the engine, setting his unsettlingly strong emotions at war and filling him with confusion… Castiel dreamed.

 

He was flying, feeling the rush of the wind against his wings, looking down on the earth from the highest of heights. He glanced back over his shoulder – and shock slammed into him, along with a wave of searing pain.

 

His wings were on fire, gold and red flames consuming his flesh, feathers reduced to smoldering cinders and falling toward the earth… and then he was falling, crashing with no power to stop himself, no control over the limbs that were now nothing more than useless weight, sending him wheeling and tumbling until he hit the ground in a crumpled, broken heap.

 

Castiel blinked in the too-bright light, trying to catch his balance as his vision slowly came into focus. He was half-sitting, half-kneeling in the cool, green grass of his favorite heaven. Shame washed over him when he saw that he was surrounded by his brothers and sisters – silent, watching, witness to his destruction. He tried to draw his wings up around him, to hide from their eyes, but there was nothing left of the wings to shield him, only thin, charred bone and feathers that crumbled away into ash at the slightest movement.

 

A shadow passed over him, and Castiel looked up, his eyes meeting those of his sister, Hester. She stared down at him, her mouth twisted with contempt and disappointment, shaking her head.

 

“I told you,” she said softly. “From the moment you touched his soul – that sick, seething thing infected with Hell – you were lost to us. Lost to everything but his will. You gave yourself to him, Castiel. You’re not Heaven’s anymore, but his.” She crouched down in front of him, and her eyes were devoid of sympathy. “And look what he’s done with you.”

 

Castiel closed his eyes, his head bowed under the weight of his shame, his face hidden in his hands. She was right. His brothers and sisters had tried to warn him, tried to turn him from this path; he hadn’t listened. And now, they held no pity for him. Outcast and bereft, he shivered with the sudden cold. When Castiel opened his eyes again, he was startled to find that the world around him had suddenly gone dark. The angels were gone… Heaven was gone. Everything was darkness and smoke and glowing embers… empty, cold nothingness…

 

There was only him… towering over Castiel, eyes glowing fiery red, teeth bared and too-bright in his smoke-stained face. He was blood and fire and seething hatred, pouring off of him in waves, as he crouched down to face Castiel. His hands burned where they touched Castiel’s chin, forcing his head up, and touched his wing, caressing with a gentleness that made Castiel’s skin crawl… but he was powerless to pull away.

 

“It’s your own fault, you know.” Dean’s voice was soft, secretive, his smile knowing and cruel. “You took too long. You should have gotten me out…” He leaned in close, breath hot and stinging against Castiel’s skin. “… before they got in.”

 

*******************************************************

 

When they reached the bunker, Sam was once again assisted by Dean in navigating the stairs – down this time, instead of up, which was a little less exhausting, but quite a bit more awkward and precarious. But Dean carefully avoided any actual contact with Cas himself. Although Cas wasn’t as big as Sam, Sam wasn’t by any means at his peak strength at the moment. A quiet, guilty part of Sam’s mind thought that it would have been useful to have Dean’s help carrying Cas inside, and it wouldn’t really matter that much, would it? It wasn’t as if Cas would even remember that Dean had helped, later.

 

But deep down, Sam knew that Dean was right about this one. It seemed vitally important to Cas that Dean not touch him again, and he’d more than paid for the right to make that call… paid with his own blood. Sam’s convenience wasn’t worth taking that right away from him.

 

During the trip back to the bunker, Sam had taken careful note of how much morphine had had what effect on Cas, and for how long. He took comfort in the knowledge that as long as Jacob’s Call remained in effect, nothing could kill Cas except for the angel blade; he didn’t have to worry too much about overdoses or negative drug interactions. Still, until he could get a minute to read up on the effects of the various drugs Dean had brought him, he planned to stick with the morphine, since they were at least a little more familiar with its effects at this point.

 

Keeping Cas medicated enough to remain asleep for the trip home had seemed wise; they didn’t want him to suffer any more than he had to. But Sam knew that now, he needed to gradually lessen the dose until he reached a point where the pain was tolerable for Cas, while still allowing him to remain conscious. If they continued using up their supply of morphine at the rate they’d used it on the trip, Sam knew they’d run out long before Cas stopped needing it.

 

Besides, keeping Cas unconscious indefinitely felt too much like a cop out. And then, there was another, more tangible reason, as well. Sam was very much not looking forward to the conversation, but he needed Cas’s input.

 

He needed to know how to care for Cas’s damaged wings.

 

But for now, Cas remained unconscious, and Sam was on his own when it came to figuring out how to deal with Cas’s injuries. Dean had helped Sam get inside and to the bathroom, supplying him with clean towels, antibacterial soap, and several different kinds of medicated creams.

 

Then, he’d disappeared.

 

Sam couldn’t exactly blame him; in hindsight, he supposed maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned aloud his intention to wake Cas up for a while. It was going to be a while before Dean was ready to face Cas – which worked out for the best, Sam supposed. It wasn’t like Cas was going to be in any great hurry to find himself face-to-face with Dean again, either.

 

Sam carefully unwound the bandage that held Cas’s wings to his back, but left the bandages that kept the wings folded tightly in on themselves. He laid Cas out in the tub he’d filled with warm water, the joint where the wings were attached to Cas’s back resting against the edge of the tub so that Cas’s wings remained out of the water for now. As fragile and damaged as they were, Sam didn’t want to risk doing anything to them – not until he’d talked to Cas.

 

For the moment, Cas remained unresponsive; though based on the timing of the last several doses, Sam was pretty sure he was due to come around any time now.

 

Gently, Sam washed the blood and ash from Cas’s body, wincing as the water rinsed away the grime and left only the red, livid wounds in stark contrast to Cas’s pale skin. Sam shuddered as the echoes of Cas’s screams from that basement room filled his ears, and he wanted to look away from the injuries that had caused those screams. But he didn’t let himself. As difficult as it was to face the vicious marks that Dean had carved and seared into Cas’s flesh, Sam also had to accept the fact that he’d allowed it, even encouraged it.

 

Cas’s huge blue eyes filled Sam’s mind, staring up at him, desperately trusting, and Sam stomach twisted inside him when he thought of how easily he’d agreed to Cas’s utter destruction.

 

I took the angel blade from Dean’s hand, and told him that anything else was okay. As long as Cas survived. I told him that… that this was… okay.

 

He’d just sat there, hiding behind his laptop and his books, trying not to listen as Cas had screamed and cried and begged for mercy. He’d shut his ears, shutting out his friend’s agony and occupying his mind with research instead – useless research on a nonexistent Apocalypse, while the real tragedy was taking place just below him. His brother and his friend breaking apart under the force of the same lie – while Sam sat idly by and tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.

 

I should have seen it… should have figured it out. Shouldn’t have let it gone this far… Sam swallowed hard, his throat aching, his stomach roiling. I should never have given Dean that spell…

 

Cas trusted Sam – but he wouldn’t if he knew that Sam’s research was responsible for the worst of what had been done to him. Cas didn’t know that Sam was the one who had made possible the brutalization of his poor, decimated wings.

 

And he couldn’t know. Not if he was going to get through this with any shred of sanity intact. Sam thought of the way Cas had panicked in the car, not once but several times, only calming when Sam touched him, spoke to him, reassured him of his protection. He tried not to think about the look he’d seen in Dean’s eyes, in the rearview mirror – the guilt and hurt and resentment all mingled into a confusing mess that all amounted to nothing less than sheer agony.

 

It wasn’t fair. Not for Dean to bear this alone, or for Sam to get away with not bearing any of it at all.

 

But what was even less fair was taking their friend, innocent, blameless in all of this, reducing him to a traumatized, terrorized shell through hours of brutal torture… and then leaving him to his own devices when it came to recovery, because Sam wasn’t capable of a single, simple lie that would spare him further suffering.

 

Suck it up, Winchester, Sam told himself sternly as he carefully leaned Cas’s limp, sleep-heavy body forward onto his arm so that he could reach the wounds on his back, gently arranging the wings so that they didn’t come near the water. You saw it in the car. He trusts you. He shouldn’t. He shouldn’t want you anywhere near him – but he does. He needs you. And that is all that matters right now.

 

“Hey,” Dean said softly, and Sam jumped a little at the unexpected sound of his voice from the doorway. Sam looked up, taking in the weary lines around his brother’s eyes, the way his eyes kept shifting guiltily toward the tub, but never quite falling on the unconscious angel there. “Got a room ready, when you are,” Dean explained, his voice low and hesitant. “It’s all set up so you can… can patch him up in there, and… and then he can rest.”

 

“Okay, thanks,” Sam said, keeping his voice low and hushed, as he was much closer to Cas, and not sure how close he was to waking up. “I’m almost ready.”

 

He drained the water, then wrapped the soft towels around Cas’s body and lifted him carefully from the tub, before turning toward Dean and nodding. Dean led the way to the room he’d prepared, and Sam was touched when he saw how much effort Dean had put into setting it up so that Cas would be comfortable.

 

The bed was made with fresh linens and a soft quilt, the covers drawn back and ready. The overhead light was turned off, the room illuminated with the soft, warm glow of the single bedside lamp. On either side of the bed, Dean had placed twin-size mattresses from the extra bedrooms.

 

“I figured you could… dry him off and stuff there, without getting the bed wet,” Dean explained with a self-conscious little shrug, smoothing his shaking hands down the legs of his jeans as if he wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. “And you know… this way he won’t hurt himself if he… if he wakes up and doesn’t… know where he is. If he’s… scared, or…” Dean’s voice broke, and he stopped abruptly, turning away.

 

“Yeah,” Sam said softly. “It’s a good idea. Thanks, Dean.”

 

Dean didn’t respond, and didn’t turn around. Sam could see the tension in the set of his shoulders, the way his trembling fists clenched at his sides, and Sam’s heart ached to go to him, to offer him some kind of comfort. But Cas would be waking up any moment, and the last thing he needed to wake up to was the sight of Sam and Dean wrapped up in each other’s arms.

 

Not that Dean would have allowed it at the moment, anyway.

 

Still… Sam had to try. “Dean,” he began softly. “You’re – you’re doing all you can, I know. And I appreciate it. And… I know it’s bad, but… he’s going to be all right. He is.”

 

“We don’t know that.” Dean bit off the words, sharp and angry.

 

Sam had to admit that he had his doubts as well; it was true that most of Cas’s wounds were at a surface level – cuts and burns that would heal, given enough time and the return of his grace. But Sam didn’t know anything about angel wings, and had no way of knowing how much damage was too much to be repaired, or if the injury to his wings might have any other negative effects on Cas.

 

Still… he wasn’t about to say so to Dean.

 

“As soon as we can remove the bond, Cas will start getting better. He’s been hurt worse than this before…”

 

Sam wasn’t completely sure it was true – not that it seemed to matter to Dean.

 

Dean’s voice was low and trembling, so raw and painful that it tore at Sam’s heart and brought tears to his eyes.

 

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

 

And… Sam did. Cas had been tortured in Heaven, as punishment. He’d died twice, and come back from it. He’d defied Heaven’s orders again and again, choosing instead to love and fight for humanity as he believed his Father had intended since their creation – and as absent as God had seemed to be in it all, Sam thought Cas’s efforts must have been appreciated at least a little, if his repeated resurrections were anything to go by.

 

But it was his very love for humanity that, in part, made this so much worse than anything Castiel had experienced before. He’d broken Heaven’s rules, he’d gone against Lucifer himself; he had to have expected the consequences that had followed, and he’d borne them bravely and kept on fighting.

 

But this time – this time he’d done nothing to merit the suffering he’d received – at the hands of the one human he valued above all others, the one person for whom he’d been willing to turn his back on every other notion of “family” he’d ever known. He’d trusted Dean enough to rebel against Heaven, enough to fall – and he’d trusted Dean to teach him how to navigate the confusing world of humanity.

 

He’d trusted Dean with the innocence of a child, clinging to the only source of security and leadership left to him – and Dean had shattered that trust in a few brief hours of betrayal.

 

Cas’s physical wounds might heal completely; but it was an agonizing possibility – no, a certainty, though Sam didn’t really want to consider it – that Cas would never actually be the same again.

 

Sam had no reassuring words to offer his brother… but he had to try anyway, to hold onto Dean, to keep him from spiraling down into his own guilt as much as possible – and the most important part of that, Sam knew, was keeping Dean from isolating himself.

 

“Dean…” he began softly, deliberately putting a pleading note into his voice, well aware that it’d be harder for Dean to ignore him if he thought Sam really needed him. “Don’t walk away. Please.”

 

Just then, Cas began to shift on the soft mattress where Sam had laid him. Dean turned slightly, glancing toward Cas with an expression that hurt to look at – tenderness and affection mingled with regret and resentment. Dean’s hand clenched and opened again at his side, and Sam knew that Dean literally didn’t know what to do with himself. Sam knew his brother, and he knew that Dean wanted nothing more than to be the one taking care of Cas in this moment, as impossible a hope as that was.

 

“Sorry, Sammy,” Dean replied softly, his smile bitter. “Looks like I have to.”

 

And Dean didn’t give Sam a chance to say anything else before he abruptly walked out the bedroom door, closing it firmly behind him.

 

Sam wanted to go after him, but Cas was stirring, a low moan escaping his lips, and Sam knew that he’d be in pain and scared and disoriented – and as much as he longed to, as frustrating as it was to just allow Dean to escape into his own misery – Sam couldn’t go after his brother. Not right now.

 

“Sam?” Cas’s voice was weak and hoarse, and he blinked blearily in the dim light from the bedside lamp. “Wh-where are we?”

 

“A safe place,” Sam assured him, gently pushing Cas back down as he tried to rise. “You’re okay. Take it easy, all right?”

 

Cas nodded, eyes sliding closed again, one hand reaching out blindly to rest on Sam’s arm. The simple trust in the gesture – the sense that Cas felt safe with Sam touching him – it made Sam’s guilt nearly overwhelming. It was awkward and shameful and it hurt – but Sam forced back his own feelings for the moment.

 

Self-pity was something to which he had no right at the moment.

 

The effects of the last morphine dose were fading slowly, but thankfully, Cas was still only semi-conscious, and barely aware of what Sam was doing. Still, Sam took his time, slowly and painstakingly shifting Cas’s body with great care to avoid moving his wings as much as possible as he dried Cas off with the towels, then applied the creams Dean had provided to his burns and cuts, covering each one with a clean, white bandage. When he couldn’t avoid it any longer, Sam turned his attention to the last, worst wound – the one from which they’d taken the tablet.

 

A cold knot in Sam’s throat made it difficult to swallow, and his eyes burned as he carefully repaired the stitches that had been viciously torn out. Cas whimpered and reached toward the source of the pain with an unsteady hand, a pained frown creasing his brow; Sam gently took his hand and pulled it away, his throat feeling thick and sore as he spoke mindless, soothing words and brushed his free hand through Cas’s damp hair until Cas went still again.

 

When he was finished with the stitches, Sam gently taped a fresh bandage into place over the wound. He allowed his touch to linger there for a moment, his vision blurred with tears, taking comfort in the steady rise and fall of Cas’s chest under his hand. His hands trembled, remembering how it’d felt when he’d cut into Cas’s chest, spilling his blood and taking something out of him, something he’d hidden close to his heart.

 

I just hope it’s something we can get back…

 

Finally, tenderly, Sam lifted Cas into his arms again to place him in the bed. Cas startled a little, clinging to Sam with a weak, pitiful cry.

 

“Shhh,” Sam soothed him with a hand behind his head as he laid Cas down. “I know it hurts… I know. I’m gonna give you some more morphine in a minute, okay?”

 

Cas nodded his acceptance, but his hands caught in Sam’s shirt, not letting go when Sam tried to straighten up. Sam pulled the blankets up over Cas’s body, hesitating when he came to Cas’s wings. “Do you… do you want them covered, Cas?”

 

A shiver passed through the half-conscious angel, and he nodded more emphatically, eyes closed against the pillow. “Yes,” he whispered. “Please. Please.”

 

The quiet desperation in Cas’s voice made Sam’s chest clench, a vaguely uneasy feeling creeping over him. But he complied, carefully drawing the blankets up over Cas’s wings, then gently disentangling his shirt from Cas’s grasp. Cas whimpered and reached blindly for him, so Sam just held onto his hand, using his free hand to take the needle with Cas’s next dose of pain medication from the place where Dean had left it ready, on the nightstand. Cas barely winced when Sam gave him the injection.

 

But when Sam let go of Cas’s hand, intending to leave the room and leave Cas to his rest, Cas reached out, clutching at Sam’s sleeve and clinging to it, pulling him back down. His eyes were too bright, glassy and unfocused, but they were filled with tears, and there was desperation in his halting words.

 

Don’t,” he said softly. “Please, Sam… please stay…”

 

Sam knelt down beside the bed, grateful for the soft mattress Dean had placed there. “You’re safe here, Cas,” he said, lowering his head so that he was face to face with the trembling, frightened angel. “I promise. You just need to get some rest, okay? And I have a ton of research I need to be doing…”

 

“Please,” Cas whispered, just holding on tighter, and Sam was alarmed at the way he was shaking, his wings rustling slightly despite the bindings that should have kept them still. His voice rose with panic as he continued, almost frantic, “Please… don’t leave… don’t…”

 

“Okay,” Sam quickly relented. “Okay, Cas, I’m sorry… okay, I’m right here… just a second…”

 

Sam carefully scooted Cas over a little on the bed, sliding under the covers and wrapping a cautious arm around Cas’s shoulders so that his hand could rest at the back of Cas’s neck, gently stroking in a motion that he had already learned seemed to calm Cas down most quickly. Cas immediately settled in close, one hand on Sam’s waist, his head lowered to rest against Sam’s chest. His breath was shaky and rapid with relief, the release of the unsettlingly intense fear he’d obviously held at the idea of being left alone.

 

“I’ve got you,” Sam said softly, his voice low and soothing. “It’s all right… I’ve got you, Cas…”

 

Cas didn’t reply, and Sam was relieved when the shaking of his body under Sam’s hands began to slowly subside. The drugs were taking effect, Sam knew, and he’d just have to wait a little while longer, to allow Cas to fall completely asleep, before he could slip out and do the things he needed to do. But as Cas’s trembling faded away, his breathing slowing down into a steady, soothing rhythm, Sam found that suddenly, he was having difficulty keeping his eyes open as well.

 

He hadn’t realized how exhausted he really was from the traumatic events of the day, and the stress of taking care of Cas after the fact, all while keeping the secret that he knew he’d be keeping for the foreseeable future.

 

But not forever, he told himself firmly. It’s not right… not fair to him to keep this from him. He has the right to know. It’s… it’s just for now, just until he’s well enough to… to handle it… until he doesn’t need someone, so badly…

 

And he scarcely had time to finish that thought before he was out, too – the angel who’d once been his brother’s fast asleep in his arms.

Chapter Text

Sam’s arm was asleep.


He shifted slightly, frowning, still exhausted and unwilling to wake up just yet, but the tingling sensation was more of a painful pins and needles feeling by this point than a tolerable numbness. Unfortunately, his slight movement only seemed to make Dean move closer, rather than encouraging him to roll away. Sam opened his eyes with a sleepy sigh, blinking into the dim light – but as the room came into focus, he realized it wasn’t the one he shared most nights with Dean.


Wait… what…?


His brother’s name was on his lips, barely unspoken, when Sam finally looked down at the figure lying beside him.


Oh. Not Dean. Cas.


Sam’s stomach clenched, a sudden wave of nausea coming over him with the memories of the day and night before, and why it was that Cas was lying in his arms. A moment later, he realized that Cas’s hand clenched tight in his shirt, and the fine, steady tremor running through Cas’s body meant that, despite his silence, the angel was no longer sleeping.


“Cas?” Sam kept his tone low and gentle, not wanting to startle him. “You awake?”


Cas went very still for a second – then nodded against Sam’s chest. “Yes,” he replied, in a voice so soft that Sam almost missed it.


“You’re really hurting, aren’t you?” Sam felt a pang of guilt, wondering how long Cas had been lying there silently suffering. “Next time wake me up, Cas, okay? Just a second, I’ll get you your next…”


“No.”


Cas’s tone as much as his tightening grip kept Sam where he was. Sam put his hand gently on Cas’s shoulder, pushing him back a little to look at him. This time, Cas willingly complied, looking up at Sam with eyes that were solemn and troubled – but clearer. Sam was relieved to see that the confusion and panic of the previous night were gone, and while he still winced with pain as he shifted backward to look at Sam, Cas seemed at least to be calm and aware of his surroundings.


“I… do not wish to sleep anymore for now,” Cas explained. “Not – not yet.”


Sam studied Cas’s face for a long moment, his heart racing with apprehension as he took in the resolve there, the clarity of purpose in his eyes. Cas was clearly no longer inhibited by the drugs Sam had given him, or the immediacy of the trauma he’d experienced the day before. His expression was solemn and uncertain, full of questions, and Sam knew that the time for hiding was past.


“Okay,” Sam carefully shifted his arm out from under Cas’s shoulders, rising up on his elbow and shaking it out a little. “We can – we can try something else, something that might help with the pain without making you sleepy.” He was genuinely concerned, but he was stalling, too. He knew it. “Do you want me to get you something?”


Cas looked up again then, quietly holding Sam’s gaze. “Answers,” he replied at last, his voice tired but determined.


Sam’s heart sank. It was what he’d both feared and expected.


“Okay,” he said again, quiet and much calmer than he felt. “Ask… whatever you want to know.”


And I won’t lie to him, Sam decided. He trusts me, and I don’t want to break that. But that’s why, if he asks… I have to tell him the truth.


There was a sorrow and hurt in Cas’s eyes that tore at Sam, guilt pulling at his heart as Cas asked softly, simply, “Why?”


Sam’s mouth went dry, even as he found himself blinking back tears. “How much did Dean tell you?” he asked finally, his voice coming out a little hoarse.


“Not enough,” Cas replied immediately, looking away, a haunted look in his eyes, and it was so unfair, so wrong, that after what had happened, Cas should look so self-conscious and ashamed. “He… assumed I knew.”


“Right.” Sam swallowed hard, trying to steady his nerves before adding cautiously, “We… we both did, Cas.”


Cas nodded slowly, and Sam knew that there was no reason why Cas should have been surprised by that statement. After all, Sam had helped Dean tie him down, given him the first injection so that they could look for the tablet. It wasn’t as if Cas thought Sam was perfectly innocent in all of this.


He just… doesn’t exactly think I’m
guilty, either.


“Why?” Cas asked again, looking up at Sam with a piercing, desperately searching gaze. “Why… why would you think that? Who told you that I – was trying to start the Apocalypse again?” There was disbelief in Cas’s quiet words, in the slight shake of his head, and Sam winced at what was unspoken.


After he died to stop the first one. Twice. After he compromised everything he believed in, gave up even us to try to stop it again when Raphael wanted to restart it. God, what were we thinking? Ending the world by accident? Yeah. That’d be totally Cas. But starting the Apocalypse again on purpose is the last thing Cas would ever do.


“There was… this angel, who showed up and told us you were trying to take down the walls,” Sam began.


“Yes, and angels never lie.” The bitter words were barely out of Cas’s mouth before he flinched slightly, looking away and swallowing hard. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, almost contrite. “Although I suppose… if it was the word of a stranger over the word of an angel whom you knew had once lied to you, and… and attempted to… to open a door from this world to a dangerous other dimension…”


“Cas. No.” Sam’s voice was firm, and he reached his hand down between them to tilt Cas’s head back up, insistent. “Cas.”


Cas reluctantly looked up at Sam again, regret in his eyes. It hurt Sam to see it there, and filled him with an overwhelming sense of shame that Cas was placing any responsibility at all for what had happened on himself, while virtually absolving Sam of his part in it. Still, Sam held his gaze, willing Cas to see the truth in his words.


“There is no way in which this is your fault. All right? You did nothing to deserve this, so don’t even start…”


“Okay.” Cas’s voice was quiet and subdued, and he lowered his eyes again, visibly uncomfortable. So Sam removed his hand, leaning back a little to give Cas a bit more space. “What did Crowley have to do with any of it?” Cas asked after a moment’s pause. “I – I remember he was there, but – I – can’t remember what he said.”


Sam’s mind went back to that moment in the basement when he’d first seen Cas – the shock, the sick horror at the realization of what Dean had done to him – what Dean was capable of doing to someone they both loved so dearly. Cas had been whimpering, cowering away from the sound of Dean’s voice; it was no wonder he remembered little of the conversation that had taken place around him.


Sam knew something about what that kind of suffering was like; he wondered at what point Cas had lost the ability to process what was happening at all, and simply lost himself to everything but pain.


“The angel who talked to us was working for him,” Sam explained, feeling foolish as the words left his lips. “He set the whole thing up. We thought – it never occurred to us that an angel might be working with Crowley.”


Cas looked up at Sam again, his mouth twitching slightly in a rueful expression, and Sam’s stomach dropped. His voice softened as he clarified, “We just thought… if both the angels and the demons were giving us the same story…”


“Then there was no reason to bother with hearing mine.”


Sam’s heart ached at the soft resignation in Cas’s voice. “Cas… I’m so sorry,” he said. “I know… that doesn’t mean much, but…”


“I understand, Sam,” Cas cut him off quietly, looking up to meet Sam’s eyes again. “I – don’t blame you for not believing me. I – I have done many things in the past – and some quite recently – which have effectively destroyed your trust in me. Yours and your brother’s. I’ve had little opportunity to gain back that trust, much as I have wished to, and I – I cannot blame either of you for believing others over me.”


Sam sighed, repeating insistently, “Cas, it’s not your fault…”


“No, it’s not,” Cas agreed immediately in a tone that was firm and certain, and brought Sam’s protest to an abrupt halt. “It’s Crowley’s.”


Sam studied Cas’s face closely, feeling a tentative sense of relief. It seemed too good to be true that, now that he’d had some rest and was clearly feeling a little better, Cas might see things so objectively as to allow him to forgive the brothers their horrific mistake. But Cas’s expression was calm, if solemn, his tone quiet and focused as he went on.


“There were – deaths. At least one, Dean told me. A little girl. What – what did Crowley do, exactly?”


“We’re still not sure about that,” Sam admitted. “We know he had a bunch of people killed in a convenience store near the cabin, but – we think that was probably just to help sell the story.” He grimaced at even recounting such callous cruelty, before going on. “The other things – all the signs, earthquakes, storms – we’re not really sure yet. I haven’t had a chance to look at the news since we got here, but… I think it’s possible he just… made most of it up. Made it appear on my laptop, when maybe – maybe nothing was actually happening at all.”


“It’s possible,” Cas conceded with a nod. “Crowley has the power to do something like that.”


“It was – so convincing,” Sam said, his regret coloring his words. Cas looked away, visibly self-conscious. “Cas – I’m so sorry,” Sam repeated. “We really thought – we were so wrong, but we really thought there was – no other choice.”


“I know,” Cas replied softly, head lowered, voice carefully measured and calm. But Sam noticed with dismay that he was trembling again, and when he spoke, his voice was strained, taut with pain. “I… understand.”


Sam hesitated, then began gently, “Cas… what… what Dean did… to your-”


No.” Cas’s hands tightened in Sam’s shirt, and his voice was hoarse and sharp as he abruptly cut Sam off, without looking up. “I – I do not wish to talk about… what Dean did.”


“Well,” Sam let out a heavy sigh, ducking his head to try to catch Cas’s gaze again. “We… might not have much of a choice about that. I need to know… what to do for you. For your wings, so…”


“I do not wish to talk about Dean, then,” Cas clarified, his shaking intensified against Sam’s body as he lowered his head until it was pressed against Sam’s shirt again. “Please,” he added in a desperate whisper.


Instinctively Sam put his arm around Cas, above his bandaged, trembling wings. “Okay,” he relented softly. “Okay, Cas, we won’t. Not until – not unless you want to. All right?”


Cas nodded, pressing in close to Sam, hands clenched into tight fists in Sam’s shirt, trembling all over. After a moment, he raised his head a little, not quite meeting Sam’s eyes, but Sam could see the stark fear on his face as he finally spoke again, hoarse and halting.


“I – there’s – something is wrong with me. I – I feel…” Sam waited for the end of that thought, only realizing once Cas met his gaze again, bewildered and frightened, that it was already finished. “What – what’s wrong with me?” Cas pleaded.


“I’m pretty sure it’s Jacob’s Call,” Sam explained softly. “It’s restraining your grace, so – you’re feeling things in a way that’s more – intense. More human.”


“Yes,” Cas nodded, his voice breathless and slightly panicked, and Sam soothed him as best he could, his hand stroking cautiously down Cas’s side. “Dean said… yes, because… he wanted to be able to…” His breath quickened, and he glanced toward the closed bedroom door, dread in his eyes. “Can’t you – can’t you break it? But – no, Dean made it so Dean has to break it. Why hasn’t he broken it yet? Why does he still need it?”


“He doesn’t,” Sam assured him gently. “Cas, try to calm down, all right? Listen to me. Listen.”


Cas went quiet, though he was still trembling, his breath quick and uneven, and Sam knew he was on the edge of a full-fledged panic attack.


“Dean has every intention of breaking that bond. The only reason we’ve waited is because, right now, that bond is the only thing we’re sure is keeping the angels from finding you, and…”


“And they’d smite him.”


Sam’s stomach dropped at the simple certainty of Cas’s words – confirmation of what he’d already suspected – but also at the subtle edge they carried. The tone sounded familiar. It sounded like a sentiment Sam could relate to.


When my big brothers find out what you did…


He couldn’t hold it against Cas; couldn’t blame him a bit if a part of him took some measure of satisfaction in the thought of Dean’s being punished for what he’d done.


He also couldn’t allow that to actually happen.


“Well… yeah,” Sam admitted, his words cautiously measured. “But – they’d come after you, too, Cas. I mean – you’re not exactly their favorite person right now, either, so…”


Cas looked up at Sam abruptly, something coolly appraising in his eyes, breaking through the haze of fear. “So you haven’t yet broken the bond that keeps me at your brother’s mercy, and keeps my brethren from coming to my aid… solely out of concern… for my welfare.”


Sam swallowed hard, forcing himself not to look away, forcing himself to be honest. Cas deserved at least that much from him.


“No. Not… solely.” He hesitated, neither encouraged nor discouraged by Cas’s simple blink in response, and the way he just quietly waited for Sam to elaborate. “I’m… not sure they’d be coming to your aid, Cas. Naomi’s still out there somewhere, looking for you, and… probably planning to kill you. And now, I’m pretty sure they’d want to punish Dean, too.” He paused, concluding softly, “I’d really rather neither of those things happened.”


Cas was quiet a moment longer, studying Sam’s face. Finally, he looked away, confessing with a tone that was quiet and almost surprised, “Me, too.” He hesitated, looking up at Sam again with a bewildered expression as he added, “I’m – not really sure why I’d object… to either of those things at the moment, but – I do.”


“Okay,” Sam nodded, relieved. “Okay, that’s good. Then – we’re on the same page. And – I think we might be safe here, even without the bond. There’s – angel warding, I think, on the doors…”


Cas frowned, incredulous. “Where are we?” he asked again.


“Long story I’ll have to tell you later.” Sam smiled. “But this place is ours, and it’s safe, and if the warding means what I think it does, then it’ll be okay to break the bond. I – don’t want to break it until you’ve looked at the sigils, though, and told me what they mean. All right?”


Cas considered that for a moment and seemed to find it reasonable. “All right,” he agreed.


“Okay.” Sam smiled, encouraging. “So… I’m going to get up and go draw them for you, okay? It shouldn’t take me very long.”


“Okay,” Cas agreed again – but he made no move to let go of Sam’s shirt so that Sam could get up.


Cas…”


“I-I know.” Cas’s voice was quiet and small, and it hurt Sam to hear him sound so vulnerable and confused. “I’m sorry. The Call – its effects are quite – disconcerting. Please, can you just – can you wait a moment?”


“Okay.” Sam settled in closer to Cas, wrapping his arms around him and holding him. “No problem,” he murmured into Cas’s hair, one hand gently rubbing at the back of his neck. “It can wait.”



**********************************************************


Castiel hated… everything about this.


He hated the overwhelming sensation of physical pain, the burning in his wings, the throbbing of broken bones – all things he’d only felt before from a distance. His grace kept his consciousness separate from his vessel, not allowing any injury to his physical form to touch him. But this – this was close and sharp and screaming beneath his skin, an ever-present torment.


He hated the alarming reaction his vessel was having to the trauma he’d experienced, making him cling to Sam Winchester as if he was the only thing keeping Castiel from drowning. He hated that he felt like he was drowning – unfamiliar emotions all in chaos, too much and too conflicting to make any sense of them, overwhelming hurt and confusion and fear, mingled with older, softer feelings that he didn’t understand why he still had… feelings for Dean


He hated… he hated that he didn’t hate Dean, much as he wanted to. A quietly vicious part of him imagined his brothers showing up, tearing into the human who’d dared to violate him so brutally with all the wrath that Heaven had left to give.


And then, another part of him, the part that had loved Dean Winchester since he’d first touched him – imagined stepping in front of Dean and fiercely warning his brothers away.


It made Castiel feel frustrated and guilty and small and just desperately confused. And the last thing he wanted was to be left alone in this unfamiliar room with nothing to keep him from slipping under, into the tumult of his emotions. The last thing he wanted was to have Sam out of his sight, when Dean was somewhere in the same building with them, the mark that kept Castiel at his mercy still carved into his skin.


Still, Castiel made himself draw back from Sam, keeping his eyes averted from the overwhelming concern and sympathy he knew were in Sam’s eyes.


“O-okay,” he said quietly, hating the way his voice wobbled over the word, hating how weak and small he sounded. “I – I’m okay. You can – go and draw the sigils now.”


“Okay…” Sam sounded hesitant. “Cas… I can give you some more morphine before I go, if you want…”


No.” Castiel’s stomach lurched, and he felt a damp chill go down his spine as he thought of Dean, and how he still had no idea where he was. He remembered the loss of control, the slipping-away sensation of the morphine overwhelming him, and panic pushed at the edges of his mind. He forced it back, swallowing hard and carefully repeating, calmer, “No. I – would rather stay awake until you return. Please.”


“Okay. That’s fine. What – whatever you need, Cas. Would you like me to – help you sit up, maybe?”


Sam’s voice was quiet and carefully casual, and Castiel couldn’t look at him. He felt a strange heat, as if Sam’s eyes were burning him, self-conscious and uncomfortable and suddenly almost wanting Sam to leave him alone. And also wanting to grab Sam’s arm and yank him back down and hold onto him and never let go.


Castiel hated this.


He swallowed hard, his mouth dry, his eyes burning. “Yes, please,” he replied softly. “I think I would like that.”


Castiel felt foolish and weak as Sam had to hold him up, in order to position the pillows on the bed to form a soft support for Castiel’s back. Then came the awkward, frustrating process of finding a passably comfortable position against those pillows. Castiel had to lean sort of half-sideways in order to prevent crushing his damaged wings behind him. He bit back a cry of pain as Sam helped him sit back, even the slight pressure of the pillows behind him nearly unbearable where his wings brushed against them.


They felt like they were still on fire.


The blanket shifted down with his movement, allowing the cool air in the room to touch them, and the sensation was soothing, easing the pain momentarily. And yet, Castiel couldn’t bear the thought of their being so exposed. He stopped Sam, just before he turned to walk away, with a hand on his sleeve. Sam sat down on the edge of the bed again, patient and concerned.


“What is it? What can I do?”


Castiel’s throat felt tight, the words thick and clumsy, his face burning with the shame that was becoming dishearteningly familiar. “Sam… could you please… could you… cover…?”


“Oh, right, of course. I’m sorry.” Sam’s tone was light, the brush of his hand down Castiel’s arm reassuring, and Castiel felt that strange prickling behind his eyes with the rush of relief and gratitude he felt that Sam understood, that he hadn’t forced Castiel to finish the request. “Here you go…” Sam carefully pulled the blanket up, pushing the edge of it down behind the pillows so that it draped over Castiel’s folded wings without putting too much pressure on them.


“I’ll be right back,” Sam promised, and Castiel hoped it would be true. “It shouldn’t take long.”


And indeed, Sam had only been gone a few minutes when Castiel heard footsteps approaching down the hall. He felt a momentary rush of relief, and closed his eyes, drawing in a deep, shaky breath, trying to steady his nerves and compose himself so that he didn’t appear too pathetically relieved when Sam appeared in the doorway again.


He opened his eyes as the footsteps stopped, going so far as to attempt a smile for Sam’s benefit.


Except… it wasn’t Sam.


The smile died on Castiel’s lips when he saw Dean standing in the hall, just outside the door, hands jammed into his pockets, shifting nervously from one foot to the other.


“Hey, Cas.”


Dean’s voice was quiet and hesitant when he finally broke the silence – but it still sent shivers running down Castiel’s spine, his heart racing and his skin breaking out in a cold sweat. Suddenly, he was trembling, and the motion sent fresh shockwaves of pain coursing up and down his spine, through his shattered wings. It was simply by sheer force of habit that he managed to get out a soft, breathless whisper.


“H-hello, Dean.”


“I, uh… I didn’t think you’d be awake.” Dean’s voice was soft, apologetic. “I just wanted to – to see how you’re doing.”


Despite Dean’s obvious caution, the careful quiet of his words, the sound of his voice alone still made Castiel’s stomach clench, nausea rolling up into his throat and threatening to spill over with the vivid memories that overwhelmed him – the acrid stench of burning feathers, the chill of that dank, stone room on his bare skin when Dean had finally put the flames out. Dean’s voice had been soft and soothing then, too, just as it was now – deceptively gentle, falsely compassionate.


“I know it hurts, Cas… but you can make it stop… I know you know how…”


The intensifying of the tremors that passed through him made Castiel’s wings ache and burn, fresh agony overwhelming him. The blanket Sam had wrapped around him began to slip down a little, exposing the top of Castiel’s wings to the cool air of the room – but the physical relief was meaningless compared to the knowledge that he was uncovered, that Dean could see them...


“Can I, uh… can I come in? Is that okay?” Dean’s voice was low and cautious, oblivious to the heat of shame that washed over Castiel, making his face burn and driving his eyes downward to the mattress and away from Dean’s face.


The words themselves made Castiel’s stomach lurch dangerously.


No, no, no, go away, don’t come any closer, please just go away…


“Please, I – I mean, I don’t… just…”


Castiel was aware that he was babbling, senseless words spilling, trembling, from his lips, as he tried to reach over his shoulder to the place where the blanket had fallen, tried to tug it back into place. But he couldn’t quite reach it; the slight motion he’d managed to make was agony, the stretch of it pulling at his countless cuts and burns, causing his wings to brush against the pillows behind him. The light contact against the soft fabric burned like fire, like dragging raw flesh over broken glass, and Castiel couldn’t choke back the cry of pain that rose to his lips.


“Cas?” Dean’s voice sounded concerned, anxious, and he took a step forward into the room. “What is it? Do you need – can I help?”


The memory of Dean’s hands on him – skillful fingers caressing over his broken skin with brutal intimacy, dragging casually through the damaged feathers of Castiel’s wings, as if it meant nothing, as if Castiel was nothing but a broken toy for Dean to handle carelessly, as he chose - the very thought of Dean touching him overwhelmed Castiel with panic.


No!” he cried out, flinching away from Dean – and in the process causing the blanket to fall away completely.


He reached out for it blindly, desperate to cover himself – but his clumsy, trembling hands couldn’t get it back into place, and the pain, the panic, the utterly confusing press of everything he was feeling, all at once, was simply too much. Castiel gave up on hiding his wings, hiding his face instead in his folded arms, his knees pulled up in front of him.


Shit, I’m sorry! I just… forget it, I’m sorry, Cas… I’m so sorry…”


Dean’s voice was trembling and anxious, but no closer than it had been when he’d last spoken, and Castiel just stayed where he was, not looking up, not moving or making a sound. Every nerve was taut and screaming with agony, his heart racing, blood roaring in his ears.


And then, Dean was gone – hurried footsteps retreating down the hall. And it was still and quiet and over. Hot tears filled Castiel’s eyes, his body racked with violent tremors – mingled relief and residual panic, as deep, wrenching sobs rose in his throat, tearing themselves free as he just sat there and hugged his knees, trying desperately not to think or feel or do anything at all but just wait for Sam to return.


****************************************


“Sam?”


Sam was kneeling on the floor of the library, paper and pencil in hand as he carefully copied the sigils that lined the doorway, when he heard his brother’s voice behind him – quiet and shaky and heavy with tears.


He turned to look up at Dean – and his heart sank when he saw the devastation in his eyes, the tears that streaked his face. Pencil and drawings forgotten on the floor behind him, Sam rose swiftly to his feet and closing the distance between them, reaching out to take his brother by his arms and steady him.


“Dean?” He spoke cautiously, concerned. “What happened?”


Dean wouldn’t meet Sam’s eyes, his mouth trembling as he shook his head. There was anguished defeat in his voice as he replied, hoarse and tearful. “I – I screwed it up. I just wanted to – to look in on him, I thought he’d be asleep, but he’s awake, and – and now he’s upset, and you need to get back in there, Sammy, I shouldn’t have even tried, should have just left him the fuck alone, I’m such a fucking asshole…”


Dean’s words trailed off as he shook his head, raising a hand to press at his eyes, as if trying to physically force the tears back. Sam’s heart ached with compassion for his brother, and he raised one hand to rest high on Dean’s shoulder, fingers brushing soothingly against the back of his neck.


“Dean… are you okay?” he asked softly, edging in closer.


“Don’t worry about me, Sammy, I’m the one that fucked up,” Dean protested, tearful and frustrated, shrugging out from under Sam’s hands. “He needs you. He’s all… he’s fucking falling apart in there, so you’d better – just go, all right? Go take care of him.”


Sam hesitated. Dean was the one who looked like he was falling apart.


“Dean…”


“Just go,” Dean snapped. “I can wait, Sam. He can’t. Go.”


Sam wanted to protest, but he knew that Dean was probably right. Cas was the farthest thing from stable at the moment, and if he was lying alone in his room, in the middle of a panic attack while Sam wasted time trying to comfort his brother who wasn’t willing to let himself be comforted at the moment…


“Okay,” Sam relented at last. “Okay, I’m going. Just… I’ll be right back, okay?”


Dean had turned away already, reaching down to collect Sam’s discarded drawings. Sam stifled a sigh; he hadn’t really expected a response, anyway. He turned and made his way down the hallway at a jog, slowing his pace as he neared the bedroom door, not wanting to startle Cas with a sudden entrance.


His heart sank at the sight that met his eyes when he stepped into the room.


Cas was huddled on the bed, curled into a tight little ball around his knees as if he was trying to make himself invisible. He was shaking violently, quiet, breathless sobs falling from his lips, as Sam carefully approached him.


“Cas?” Sam spoke softly, wanting to be sure Cas knew who was there before he sat down cautiously on the side of the bed. “Cas… you okay?”


Cas didn’t answer, didn’t look up, and Sam ventured to place a gentle hand across his shoulders, his free hand taking Cas’s arm and tugging a little, encouraging Cas to leave the shelter of his own arms for Sam’s, instead.


“Cas… hey, come here…”


Cas complied, turning into Sam’s chest and clutching at the sides of his shirt. “I’m sorry,” he cried, the words coming out halting and uneven, his breath hitched and labored. “I don’t know what’s… what’s wrong with… me… sorry…”


“You’re okay, shhh… you’re okay…” Sam assured Cas, a hand carding slowly through his hair, thumb working in slow circles at the base of his neck as he pulled him in close and spoke softly near his ear, hushed and soothing. “You’re safe, Cas… no one’s gonna hurt you, you’re safe… you’re okay…”


“C-cover…” Cas choked out, barely intelligible amidst his breathless sobs. “Please… can you… please…”


It took Sam a second, but then he noticed that at some point, the blanket had fallen away from Cas’s wings. And that uneasy feeling in the pit of Sam’s stomach rose up again, even as he pulled the blanket up around Cas’s shoulders to cover them again.


Was it possible that all this was really just because Dean had seen Cas’s wings again? After everything he’d done to them?


Sam couldn’t possibly know – not without talking to either Dean, or Cas, or both. And Cas was barely coherent at the moment. Maybe once he was calm, if Sam could get away long enough to try to talk to Dean, to get Dean to tell him what had happened in more detail…


“H-hurts… so much…” Cas sobbed out, breathless, his head pressed against Sam’s chest, his body racked with fine tremors so strong that they shook the bed itself. “S-so bad…”


“Okay,” Sam soothed him, his voice hushed and even. “Okay, Cas, let me get you some more medicine, okay? I know you don’t want to sleep, but…”


“Are – are you going to stay?” Cas raised his head abruptly, searching Sam’s eyes through his own, filled with tears. “I – don’t want to sleep if you’re going to – to leave…”


“I’m not going anywhere for a while,” Sam assured him. “It’s okay, let me help you, okay? Just a second…”


Sam felt a wave of relief himself when the needle slipped into Cas’s skin, and Cas relaxed against Sam almost immediately, letting out a heavy, shaky breath.


“There we go,” Sam said. “It’s all right… that’s it, Cas, just let it go, okay? You need to rest…”


Just before he faded out, Cas raised his head to meet Sam’s eyes, blinking sleepily. “Sam?” he said, his voice just slightly slurred. “Please, I need… you have to…”


“What, Cas?” Sam pressed softly. “What is it?”


“Find the way to… to hide them,” Cas persisted, struggling to find the words against the sleep that was overtaking him. “Please. They’ll… heal better, and… and I can’t… you’re… not supposed to… to see... please…”


“Okay,” Sam promised softly. “Okay, Cas, I will… just rest now, that’s it… it’s okay…”


Under the combination of the powerful medication and sheer exhaustion, it didn’t take long for Cas to fall asleep completely. As he laid Cas down gently on the bed, Sam realized that he was going to have to break his first promise to keep this last, vitally more important one.


Cas was going to be out for hours; Sam had a lot of work to do before he woke up. He had to talk to Dean, to find out what exactly had triggered Cas’s reaction. And he needed to spend some time in the library. Sam was suddenly certain that the spell to hide them was only one of many things he needed to learn about angels’ wings.

Chapter Text

Sam waited quietly, watching the clock on the nightstand until Cas had lain still and heavy against his chest for a full fifteen minutes, before carefully sliding out from under him and getting to his feet. He couldn’t afford to fall asleep like he’d done the night before – not this time.

He carefully adjusted the blankets so that they covered Cas’s bandaged wings, an odd lump forming in his throat as he looked down at the angel’s face, still troubled even in sleep.

His wings are burned, Sam realized, confusion settling uneasy in his chest. The blankets over them… the contact, the body heat… should be unbearable. So why is he so desperate to keep them covered?

Sam headed down the hall toward the library where he’d left Dean, mentally reciting his swiftly growing list of things he needed to do. First of all, he needed to find out exactly what had happened between Dean and Cas. Then, he needed to finish drawing the sigils so that Cas could inspect them when he woke up, and let them know if it was safe to remove the bond that kept him from healing properly… that kept him helpless.

And finally, Sam needed to find out anything and everything he possibly could about angels’ wings.

Whatever it is, we did this to him… Sam’s mouth set in a grim line as he reached the library. So we have to find a way to undo it.

Dean was sitting on the step that bore the sigils, his head in his hands. The papers he’d been gathering when Sam left were now scattered on the floor around him. A brief glance told Sam that Dean had tried to finish the drawings – shaky, uneven lines added hastily to Sam’s careful work, rendering them all but indecipherable.

Sam noticed with alarm that a couple of the sheets were stained with drops of dark red. There was a slight smear of the same on the stone wall a few feet above Dean’s head. Dean raised his head when he heard Sam’s approach, looking up at Sam with anxious eyes, and Sam noted his red, broken knuckles with mingled heartache and relief; at least the blood had come from nothing worse.

“How is he?” Dean asked, moving as if to rise.

Sam stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, sitting down beside him instead. “Sleeping,” he replied softly. “He’s…” Sam’s voice trailed off, swallowing hard.

“Okay” was a lie too obvious to leave his lips.

“… calm,” Sam finished at last. Then he focused his attention on Dean’s hand, reaching out to take his wrist so that he could inspect the damage. Dean’s knuckles were scraped and bleeding, skin broken open by the force of his ill-advised attack on his much steadier opponent. Bright red blood glistened where it welled from the wounds.

Sam sighed, the exasperation in his words softened by his concern. “Dean, what the hell’d you do?”

Dean was uncharacteristically subdued, unresisting as Sam carefully unfolded and folded his fingers again, making sure nothing was broken. “Hey,” he pointed out, a brittle smile on his lips. “At least it’s mine.”

Sam’s heart sank, and he wanted nothing more than to take Dean into his arms, to do something, anything to drive that lost look from his brother’s eyes. But Sam knew Dean wouldn’t accept it. He needed it, yeah… but he’d just push Sam away. Make some excuse and clear out before he could reveal just how devastated and broken he really was.

As if Sam couldn’t see it. As if his anguish wasn’t written all over his face.

And… Sam wasn’t sure that it would actually fix anything, anyway, even if Dean would let him get close enough to try.

So instead, Sam focused his attention on what he could fix.

“Come on,” he said softly, rising to his feet and pulling Dean up with him. “Let’s get this hand patched up, okay?”

“I can do it,” Dean insisted, quiet and self-conscious, trying to pull his hand away – but not trying too hard. “You don’t have to…”

Sam cut him off with a gentle tug on his hand. “Shut up and come with me.”

He led Dean from the library to his own room, the one they usually shared at night, before turning to face his brother and look at him – really look at him, for the first time since they’d returned to the bunker – and what he saw was alarming.

Dean’s skin was pale, his eyes hooded and dull with exhaustion. His hand trembled in Sam’s. Sam frowned, wondering how much longer Dean was even going to be capable of staying on his feet. He pushed him gently back until he was sitting on the edge of the bed

“Wait here,” Sam instructed quietly. “I’ll be right back with the first aid kit.”

When he returned, Dean was leaning back against the pillows, his eyes closed. He had drawn his legs up onto the bed in front of him, and his injured hand was clenched into a bloody fist resting against his thigh. Sam winced at the sight of it, the blood that still ran at a slow trickle from the wound, and reached out to carefully move it away from Dean’s jeans, away from the bed.

He’d barely made contact at all when Dean startled awake, lurching up from the pillows with a gasp, blinking at Sam through weary, hooded eyes.

“Hey, it’s me,” Sam said quickly, raising his free hand to show the absence of a threat. “It’s just me.” As recognition showed in Dean’s eyes, he relaxed a little, leaning back against the pillows again, and Sam slowly sat down on the edge of the bed, letting out a soft, relieved breath. “Geez, Dean, when was the last time you slept?”

Dean shrugged, his weary gaze following Sam’s hands as he set the first aid kit on the nightstand. “Sorry about your sigils,” Dean mumbled, eyes downcast, voice flat and listless. “Tried to finish them. Just fucked them up.”

“Well, it’s kind of hard to draw a straight line when you can’t even see straight,” Sam pointed out. “Let me see,” he instructed softly, and Dean complied, obediently raising his damaged hand for Sam to take. “I’ll get to the sigils when we’re done here,” Sam went on quietly as he took out bandages and tape and ointment. “We won’t need them for a little while. Cas will be sleeping for a few hours yet.”

“You give him more morphine?” Dean’s eyes rose to meet Sam’s, anxious concern behind a false calm Sam knew well by now.

“Yeah,” Sam replied. “But he does seem a little better now, since he got some sleep. More… lucid, I guess. And – he actually didn’t want the morphine when he woke up…”

“No,” Dean interrupted, a slight edge to his voice, not looking at Sam, “not until I scared the crap out of him.”

Sam hesitated a moment before conceding with a sigh, “Yeah.” He was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke, he kept his words carefully measured and even. “So… tell me what happened.”

“I just wanted to check on him.” Dean sounded so defeated, quietly ashamed. “I thought he’d be asleep, but – he wasn’t, and he – he totally freaked out. I just – I should have known better.”

“You couldn’t have known he’d be awake.” Sam didn’t look up as he removed the cap from the tube of antibacterial ointment in his hand. “So… he saw you standing there, and… what then?”

Dean swallowed hard, his hand twitching slightly in Sam’s grasp, his voice low and trembling. “I – I don’t know. I – I asked if I could come in, and – and that was a fucking stupid thing to do. He was practically falling all over himself trying to get me to go away without saying it outright. Pulling at that fucking blanket like it could… could protect him or something…”

Dean’s voice broke, and he looked up at Sam. Sam stopped applying the ointment to Dean’s knuckles for a moment, holding Dean’s gaze and waiting as Dean hesitated, tears shining in his eyes.

“He couldn’t even look at me, Sam,” he said at last, with the hushed, guilty tone of a confession. “Couldn’t even put enough words together to tell me to get the hell out.”

Dean turned his face away, and Sam’s stomach tightened with empathy. There was guilt and anger bubbling underneath, and Sam swallowed hard, trying to keep it all down. “Hey,” he said, voice coming out low and rough. “It’ll get better, okay?”

He instinctively reached a hand toward Dean’s face, but Dean flinched slightly, guarded and wary. He glared up at Sam through tears, his voice hoarse and shaky as he demanded, “How?” When Sam could find no immediate response, Dean looked away again, swallowing hard. After a moment he concluded in a voice that was flat and devoid of hope, “This isn’t the kind of thing that gets forgiven, Sam.”

Sam dropped his gaze, fighting back the wave of anxiety that rose up at Dean’s words. He returned his attention to the one place his brother wouldn’t refuse it at the moment, focusing his energy on wrapping Dean’s hand in a clean, white bandage. Taking a deep breath, he carefully considered his next words before he spoke. When at last he did, his tone was quiet and measured.

“I… don’t think that’s necessarily true. I mean - I’m not saying Cas has - has forgiven, exactly, but...” Sam grimaced apologetically. “He – doesn’t want the other angels to smite you, anyway.”

“What?” Dean looked up again in surprise, eyes wide. Sam thought he glimpsed just a trace of hope there before Dean looked away with a soft scoffing sound. “No, probably not,” he retorted. “Probably wants to wait ‘til he’s up to doing it himself.”

“Actually, no.” Sam tore a piece of tape from the roll on the nightstand and carefully lined it up with the seam of Dean’s bandage. “What he said was – that he should want you dead, but – he doesn’t. So that tells me – there’s a chance.”

Dean shook his head slightly. “Of what?”

“Of him… forgiving us. Of – the three of us, putting this whole nightmare behind us.”

Dean scoffed softly again, blinking against the tears that fell despite his efforts, as he looked away.

“It’ll take a while, yeah,” Sam admitted. “But – there’s a chance.”

Dean didn’t look up, didn’t make a sound, and Sam didn’t say anything else either as he finished taping the bandage into place. Then he set Dean’s hand down on the bed, letting his own linger on top of it. When Dean made no move to pull away, or to get up, Sam ventured again to reach a cautious hand toward Dean’s face. Dean closed his eyes when Sam touched him, a slow swallow visible in his throat.

“I wish I could take it back.” Dean’s voice was a raspy whisper, strangled and desperate. “I just want… so damn much… just to take it back…”

“I know.” The back of Sam’s throat was burning, threatening to close up on him as he shifted forward. “I know, Dean.” He turned and drew his legs up onto the mattress, sliding back into the sliver of space between Dean and the nightstand and pressing his head against Dean's shoulder. He closed his eyes. “I want that too.”

Sam felt Dean’s head tilt to rest against his, the tension in Sam’s chest loosening at the contact - before Dean abruptly pulled away. “Stop it,” he hissed, disgust seething in his words, as if he’d only just realized what he was allowing. “Get the fuck off me, Sam,” he demanded, his shoulder pushing at Sam’s in an attempt to put some distance between them.

Sam grabbed at Dean’s waist to steady himself, even as he recoiled at Dean’s words. “Dean-”

“I mean it!” Dean snapped, pulling out of Sam’s hold and glaring over at him, defiant through tears. “God, how can you even – how can you stand to touch me?”

Sam faltered, anger and despair coiling in him as he looked at Dean across feet that felt like miles. “You don’t get it,” he whispered, pulling his arms up against his chest, as if they could hold in the ache threatening to explode. “Dean, please, let me - I need to – I need you.”

Why?” Dean demanded, aghast, suspicion in his eyes.

“Because… I’m as guilty as you are,” Sam replied, his own voice shaking with the confession as he held his brother’s gaze, silently imploring for him to understand. “And you’re the only one who knows it.”

*****************************************************

Sam’s words stopped Dean in his tracks.

They changed everything.

Dean had spent every minute since Crowley had shown up in that basement, worried sick about Cas, and the damage he’d done to his friend, and what he could possibly do about it, to help, to make things right, to somehow ease the suffocating burden of guilt he felt for what he’d done… so damn grateful that at least Sam was there, to help pick up the pieces if he couldn’t...

And the whole time, Sam had been quietly falling apart right in front of him.

“Sammy…” Dean instinctively reached out a hand toward his brother, but then hesitated, his fingers curling back against themselves as he put his hand down again. “No. You - you didn’t…”

“I did, Dean.” Sam’s voice was strangled. “I’m the one who found that spell, who told you how to use it, who told you it was okay…” Sam dragged in a wheezing breath, and seemed to curl into himself a little, broad shoulders hunching in as his arms tightened around himself. “I helped you tie him down, and drug him, and… and rip the tablet out of him…” Sam’s eyebrows were drawn together, forehead scrunching up in the way Dean knew was a precursor to tears.

“It’s - it’s not the same thing, Sammy,” Dean insisted, unable to resist any longer the impulse to reach out, to shift closer to his little brother and put his arms around him. “You didn’t-”

“Yes, it is,” Sam cut him off, voice stronger as he pulled back enough to meet Dean’s gaze. Sam’s eyes were wet but fierce, mouth set in a stubborn line. “So what if I didn’t wield the blade? I enabled you, I encouraged you; if you hadn’t done it I would have. And we can talk all day about how we were deceived, but that doesn’t change a thing that we did to Cas.” Sam let out a harsh breath. “I know you feel guilty, Dean, and I'm not going to try to convince you that you're not. But don’t try and say I’m not guilty just because you are. We both know better. There’s no point in pretending.”

Dean frowned, a feeling of alarm building in the pit of his stomach. “But… we have to keep pretending, Sam,” he reminded his brother. “Cas needs you to…”

“I know,” Sam bit out impatiently, then took another shaky breath. “I know. I can’t act like I’m guilty when I’m with Cas, but Dean, that’s why I need to be able to be guilty with you.” He reached out, then aborted the movement before making contact. “He… he thinks I’m his hero, that I’m safe, and it’s so hard to be around that when I know the truth-” His voice broke, and he dropped his gaze, chest heaving a couple of times before he continued. “I can’t pretend with you too, Dean. Please. I can’t.”

“Okay, Sammy,” Dean answered without thought, as automatic as breathing. If that’s what Sam needed from him, it was all he could do. His arms tightened instinctively around his brother, and he brushed a kiss against Sam’s temple, closing his eyes and holding on tight. “Okay. I’m not asking you to. Okay.”

Sam’s arms settled around Dean’s waist, close and comfortable, like they had countless times before - but this time, Dean had to fight the impulse to push them away. Not because he didn’t want Sam to touch him; he did, desperately. Sam’s embrace seemed to push back the confusion, anchoring him, steadying him. Dean needed it, like food, or breath.

But that didn’t mean that he had a right to it.

He imagined the dark, coiling thing in the pit of stomach - the thing that had crawled its way out of Hell inside him, and been a part of him ever since - twisting slowly around his insides, seeping out through his skin… infecting his brother with the same evil, malicious darkness that had crept its way out of him in that cold basement room.

You already let it get to Cas…

Dean didn’t want to let Sam touch him. He had no right to expect comfort, or accept it – even though he ached for it. He didn’t deserve it. Sam needed to focus every ounce of his energy on helping Cas, on pouring out that affection and attention on him – not Dean.

But…

Sam’s arms tightened around him, and Dean couldn’t help but stiffen a little. “Dean,” Sam said, his voice muffled by Dean’s shoulder. “Please don’t shut me out. Okay? Please.”

“Okay, Sammy,” Dean promised, even as his heart sank. It wasn’t going to be an easy promise to keep. “I won’t. I’m right here… and I’m not going anywhere.”

********************************************

“You’re sure?” Sam spoke quietly, glancing down at the papers spread out across the comforter that covered Cas’s lap, as Cas nodded thoughtfully at the last of them in his hand, before setting it down and looking up at Sam expectantly. “I know you’re in a hurry to get the bond broken, but we need to be absolutely certain that it’s safe before we do.”

“I understand.”

Cas’s voice was low, but stronger, calmer, than it had been earlier. He was sitting up on the bed, his side propped against the headboard with soft pillows, to avoid putting pressure on his wings. He still looked drawn and tired, and the bruises Dean had inflicted on his face stood out starkly against his pale skin. Every so often he would tense with pain - sometimes if he shifted just wrong, sometimes for no apparent reason at all - but he insisted, despite Sam’s repeated offers, that he didn’t want any more medication, not yet. So Sam just sat on the foot of the bed, cross-legged, close at hand in case he was needed, and watched closely as Cas studied the sigils he’d drawn.

“I am certain. As long as these sigils are placed at all entrances and exits to this place, no supernatural being may enter unless they enter with the one who holds the key - whom, I would presume, is you?”

“Yeah.” Sam nodded.

“Even if someone did pray to angels from this place, and they heard him - they would not be able to do any harm to anyone inside. And…” He glanced up at Sam, his eyes solemn and intent. “... I am not going to pray to angels to come here. You have my promise, Sam.”

“I know, Cas,” Sam assured him. “I know.” He opened his mouth to go on, hesitating a moment. “Cas… I know you’re in a hurry to get this bond broken, and I don’t blame you,” he began at last, carefully weighing his words as he continued, “But… don’t rush through it, okay? You didn’t spend more than like - half a second on any of those. Make sure you know…”

“I know, Sam,” Cas insisted, mild exasperation in his eyes - and Sam had never been so glad to see it; it seemed like a good sign after Cas’s mental and emotional state of the past day. “How long does it take you to read a single English word?”

Sam smiled, lowering his head and nodding. “Point taken,” he conceded. He drew in a deep breath, straightening a little, and met Cas’s hopeful, anxious eyes. “Okay, then. I guess it’s safe for Dean to break the bond. Do you want to - to see him do it?”

Cas frowned slightly, considering, before nodding slowly. “Yes.”

“Okay. I’ll go get him…”

Sam started to rise from the bed, being careful not to shift it too much, but a light, tentative touch on his leg stopped him, and he turned to look at Cas, who was suddenly not looking at him at all, staring down at the blanket and picking at it anxiously.

“Wait,” Cas said softly, before looking up at Sam, imploring. “Please?”

That familiar mix of fear and shame that was simply so wrong on Cas’s face was there again, and Sam’s heart ached as he carefully sat back down on the edge of the bed. He glanced down and reached out a gentle hand to rest over Cas’s trembling fingers, stilling them before he ended up tearing his own makeshift shield to shreds.

“Cas,” Sam said softly, carefully. “You know he’s not going to hurt you. Even if he did want to - and he doesn’t - I wouldn’t let that happen…”

“No, I - I know,” Cas replied, his voice hushed and thick with shame, his eyes abruptly downcast. “It’s - not that. It’s…” He swallowed hard, before looking up to meet Sam’s eyes again and confessing, “... there’s… something else.”

“Okay.”

Sam kept his tone carefully neutral, his thumb stroking soothingly over the back of Cas’s hand, as he waited for Cas to go on. But Cas didn’t. He just sat there, his head bent low, his free arm wrapped awkwardly around his torso, looking like he wanted to throw up. Finally, Sam drew in a slow, steadying breath, and shifted a little closer on the mattress, gently squeezing Cas’s hand.

“Cas?” he began, gently leading. When Cas looked up at him at last, eyes stricken with shame, he ventured to ask quietly, “Is this about… does this have something to do with your wings?”

Immediately Cas’s wings jerked back - an automatic response to Cas’s instinct to try to hide them, as impossible as that was at the moment - and just as immediately Cas let out a choked moan of pain, collapsing forward, both arms wrapped around his stomach. Sam reached out to catch and support him, both touched and dismayed when Cas lowered his head to rest it against Sam’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” Cas rasped out, his bandaged chest heaving against Sam’s as he choked back a sob. “I - didn’t mean to…”

“Shhh, it’s okay,” Sam murmured, raising a hand to run through Cas’s hair, soothing him. “It’s okay… just take it easy, okay? Don’t hurt yourself again…”

Cas didn’t reply, just nodded against Sam’s shoulder, and Sam waited until his breathing had slowed a little, and his trembling wings had settled again, to gently push Cas back enough to face him. Cas’s head remained stubbornly lowered, his chin tucked against his chest. Sam ducked his head to try to meet Cas’s gaze, but Cas averted his eyes.

“Cas…” Sam’s voice was hushed and reassuring, as he let his hand slide down from Cas’s hair to rest at the back of his neck, stroking slowly. “You can trust me. You can talk to me. All right? I need you to tell me what you need.” He paused, quietly emphatic when he added, “If you don’t tell me… I can’t help.”

“I-I know,” Cas replied, his voice trembling and barely over a whisper. “It’s just - you’re - not supposed to be able to see them…”

Sam’s stomach clenched at those words, and he swallowed back the nausea that rose in his throat.

No human is supposed to… to be able to see them…” Cas clarified, his voice rising with agitation, shaky and uneven. “And… I have to ask you to… I… I wouldn’t, but I can’t… do it myself, and…”

Cas.” Sam’s hand gently squeezed the back of Cas’s neck, his voice quiet and soothing. “Take a breath, okay? Slow down. Just… what’s the problem? What do you need me to do?”

“We can’t just… break the bond. Not yet.” Cas’s agitation was swiftly shifting into panic, his answer coming out higher and more and more confusing with every word. “Because… I’ll start to heal, and… and I can’t yet, because we have to get it off first, if we don’t… we have to, and I can’t, and there’s no other choice, you need to do it, there’s no one else…”

“Do what, Cas?” Sam interrupted, frowning, shaking his head. “I don’t understand. Slow down. Okay? Hey.” Cas stopped, biting his lower lip as if to physically stop himself from talking, his lips trembling dangerously. Sam reached out his free hand to tilt Cas’s chin up, and this time Cas met his eyes, though his own were filled with dread, brimming with tears. “Trust me,” Sam said softly. “All right? Whatever you need, I’ll do it. And - I’m not going to let anything else happen to you. Okay? So just… take a second… get your breath… and talk to me. All right?”

Cas nodded, obediently making a visible effort to calm himself. “The… the oil,” he began again at last, looking away, uncomfortable and embarrassed. “That… Dean used to… to…”

“I know,” Sam quickly offered, ashamed when Cas glanced up at him with gratitude for the reprieve. “What about the oil, Cas?”

“It’s… still on… on my wings. And…” He hesitated, looking up at Sam, and something in his gaze made Sam’s stomach roil with apprehension. “... there’s… there’s a reason why we can’t touch it when it burns. Any angel who… who touches it…”

“Dies,” Sam concluded grimly, nodding. “You told us that before.”

“Yes,” Cas agreed, his words quiet and subdued. “Any angel who touches the oil dies. But… not necessarily instantly.”

Sam frowned, confused. “What?”

“That oil was specially created to react to the grace of angels. Once it touches us… once it’s lit… it… it doesn’t matter if you put out the flames. The oil itself, it… it consumes. Until… there is nothing left to consume.”

Sam considered that for a moment, feeling sick at the implications of Cas’s words - the horrifically slow, agonizing fate they described.

“But… it shouldn’t work that way for you,” he argued. “Jacob’s Call makes it so the holy oil can’t kill you. It works just like ordinary oil would.”

Cas nodded wearily, eyes downcast. “Yes. And… when Jacob’s Call is broken…”

Oh.” Understanding slammed into Sam with brutal force, knocking the air from his lungs, as he realized how close he had almost come to following Cas’s brutal torture with an even more cruel and agonizing death. “Oh, God, Cas…” He looked up at Cas, aghast.

Cas looked miserable, humiliated, in the instant before he turned his eyes away, focusing on the quilt that covered him.

It didn’t make sense. Sam didn’t understand what Cas had to feel so ashamed of. Sam was the one who’d almost made such a fatal mistake. He and Dean were the ones who’d put Cas in this situation in the first place.

“Cas.”

Cas looked up at Sam, anxious and self-conscious.

“Thank you for telling me,” Sam stated, gently emphatic. “Now… what can I do? How do we fix it?”

Cas swallowed slowly, his anxiety fading into dread and resignation. “You have to… wash the oil off,” he admitted, his tone quiet and humiliated, as if he was confessing to some horrible crime. “Every trace of it must be gone from my wings… from my body… before the Call is broken. Or… I may begin to heal, when it is broken - but the oil will continue to burn away my body and my grace… until there is nothing left.”

An image filled Sam’s mind of Cas’s mangled wings - broken bones poking through the matted feathers, glistening with blood and oil… and he imagined those bones straightening, new flesh growing over them, the feathers pristine and glossy, as Cas’s angelic healing took over.

And then he imagined the trace remnants of that oil… slowly burning away Cas’s restored flesh, from the inside out.

“I… I’d do it myself,” Cas said softly, looking away. “But… I can’t. I need… I need you to…”

“Of course,” Sam agreed immediately, suppressing a shudder at the vivid nightmare images that filled his mind. “I’ll do it for you, Cas, it’s no problem…”

His words trailed off when he saw how badly Cas was shaking, his arms wrapped around his torso again. His breath came in soft, shuddering sobs, and tears dropped from his face to his arms, running down to fall on the blanket.

“Cas,” Sam said gently, sympathetically, reaching out to touch his arm. “I know it’s… not gonna be easy. It’ll probably… hurt, I know. But I’ll be as careful as I can, and we’ll make sure we get it all. Nothing’s going to happen to you. I won’t let it.”

Cas was quiet for a long moment, not looking up, not meeting Sam’s eyes. “You’re… not even supposed to see them,” he finally replied, his voice aching with shame and misery. “And… now you have to…” His words broke off, and he shook his head, eyes tightly closed as he choked back a sob.

A heavy uneasiness settled in Sam’s chest, an awareness that there was something at work here that he didn’t quite understand. He wasn’t sure why exactly this was such a big deal to Cas - he supposed it was something unique to angels that he couldn’t possibly grasp - but he knew that it went beyond the fear of pain, or even death.

Cas didn’t care that cleaning his wings was going to hurt. He cared that Sam was going to have to touch his wings at all.

Yeah, because the last time a human touched his wings, that went so well for him...

“Cas… I’m not going to hurt you,” Sam promised softly. “Please… please trust me.”

Cas looked up at Sam, blue eyes shining with tears and a desperation that tore at Sam’s heart. It felt like the weight of a promise he couldn’t quite comprehend, let alone keep, when Cas replied, his words a soft, surrendering whisper.

"I... I do."

Chapter Text

Looks like the Men of Letters were literally Apocalypse-ready.

 

Sam had never been so grateful for the bunker since they’d found it. Between the well-stocked general storeroom, the infirmary, and the storage cabinet attached to the kitchen, he had managed to locate all the items he would need to tend to Cas’s injured wings, and then some.

 

Which is a really good thing, since the last thing I want to do right now is leave Dean and Cas here alone together.

 

It took Sam a little more than half an hour to gather his supplies and set them up in the largest of the bunker’s bathrooms – which was, conveniently, just down the hall from Cas’s room. The tub was wide and deep, with an old-fashioned hand-held showerhead that would make washing the oil and ash from Cas’s wings easier.

 

Sam swallowed back the wave of nausea that rose in his throat at the thought of what he was about to do, instead focusing on a last minute catalogue of the room, making sure he had everything he needed. He drew in a deep, shaky breath, letting it out slowly and closing his eyes for a moment before heading out and down the hall to where Cas was waiting.

 

He supposed he was as prepared for this as he was going to be.

 

He found Cas sitting up on the side of the bed. His elbows rested on his knees, his head bowed to rest in his hands, but he looked up when Sam approached. Sam’s heart sank; Cas looked like a man headed for the gallows, catching first sight of his executioner. Cas looked down again immediately, though he let his hands rest idle against his folded arms. As Sam sat down carefully beside him, he noticed that they were shaking.

 

He reached out slowly, making sure Cas saw the movement coming, to place his own hand over Cas’s. Cas closed his eyes, going still, a slow swallow visible in his throat.

 

“You know… we don’t have to do this right this second,” Sam pointed out softly. “If you’re… not ready, Cas… we can wait a little while.”

 

Cas was silent for a moment, and when he spoke, his voice was halting but remarkably controlled. “My understanding of human emotions is… limited,” he admitted quietly, frowning. “Inexplicably, I find them… more difficult to comprehend than ever, now that I’ve begun to experience them. But…” He looked up at Sam, uncertainty in his eyes. “… I believe that… the longer we wait… the less comfortable I can expect to become with… with what needs to be done. Is that correct?”

 

Sam smiled sadly, nodding. “Yeah,” he replied, apologetic. “That’s… generally the way it works. Waiting to do something that makes you nervous just… gives your nerves more time to get all worked up. I just… wanted you to know, you have the choice. It’s up to you. I won’t… make you do anything.”

 

Cas nodded again, slowly, accepting and holding Sam’s gaze. “I understand. Thank you.” He paused, drawing in a soft, unsteady breath, before concluding, “I’d rather do it now, please.”

 

“Okay.” Sam rose to his feet, placing a hand on Cas’s arm to steady him. “Ready…?”

 

To his surprise, Cas pulled away from Sam’s gentle grasp, casting a look of veiled annoyance up at him. “Dean did nothing to harm my legs,” he pointed out, quiet but terse. “I am fully capable of walking on my own.”

 

“Okay, sorry,” Sam replied, holding his hands out in an appeasing gesture. “Sorry. I just… wasn’t sure, with your…” Cas glared at him, and Sam backed off a step. “Sorry,” he repeated. “Just… if you do need help…”

 

“Thank you. I don’t.” Cas looked away, swallowing hard as he braced one hand on the nightstand beside the bed, the other on the mattress, and pushed himself to his feet. Sam winced, resisting the impulse to reach out and steady him. He reminded himself that the wings hadn’t weighed anything when he’d carried Cas out of the cabin – that they presented no additional physical burden to Cas now, either.

 

Cas straightened slowly, stifling a pained little sound as he got his bearings, then started toward the bedroom door. Sam stayed close at his side, not quite touching him, but ready in case he should find himself less able to navigate the distance to the bathroom than he had expected.

 

They reached the bedroom door without incident. Sam went ahead of Cas to show him the way, and Cas stepped out into the hallway. As he did, he didn’t account for the metal hinge that stuck out an inch or two more than the doorframe, and accidentally brushed the edge of his wing against it. Immediately he let out a startled cry, folding in on himself, his knees buckling – and Sam hurried to catch him, putting his arms around him and holding him up so he didn’t crumple to the floor.

 

Cas tried to push his arms away, a choked sob escaping his lips – and Sam recognized the sound he heard behind it. He’d certainly felt it enough, even if he’d seldom let it show. Frustration, embarrassment, helpless anger – the sound he’d felt, screaming in the back of his mind, when he couldn’t even function by himself, when he’d been violated by something outside his control… when his body wouldn’t do what he told it to…

 

… when it didn’t even feel like his own.

 

Sam held on, gentle but unyielding, as Cas pushed weakly at Sam’s arms around him, his efforts impeded by the fact that he was barely able to stay on his feet.

 

“Shhh,” Sam soothed him, voice soft next to his ear. “Cas… it’s okay. It’s okay, I’ve got you…”

 

“I don’t… need you to… don’t…” Cas’s words were halting, breathless, even as he gave in out of sheer necessity, his weakened body slumping against Sam’s as he gasped for breath.

 

“Cas,” Sam said quietly, one hand lightly cupping the back of Cas’s head, the other arm around him, supporting him. “It’s okay to need help… all right? It’s okay.”

 

Cas’s chest heaved with his exhaustion, but he was quiet, struggling for control for a long moment before he finally replied, voice quiet and trembling. “Let’s just… just get this over with. Please.”

 

A sharp pang of guilt in his chest at the knowledge that Cas shouldn’t have to be depending on him for anything – shouldn’t have to be in such a helpless state to begin with – Sam quietly obliged, saying nothing else, but taking most of Cas’s weight as he helped him the rest of the way into the bathroom.

 

Sam had filled the tub halfway with warm water – not too hot, so as to avoid further aggravating Cas’s burns. He’d found some dried lavender in a cabinet with other herbs and spell supplies, and crumbled some of it into the water; the calming properties of the scent could only help soothe Cas’s frayed nerves. On the counter, Sam had arranged a stack of clean towels, and several bottles of dish soap he’d found in the kitchen’s well-stocked storage area. He’d placed a chair beside the tub for himself; he was pretty sure this was going to take a while.

 

For now, Sam led Cas to stand in front of the chair, just in case he needed it. He hesitated, unsure how to proceed from this point. Besides the dozen or so bandages that covered most of his skin, Cas was wearing a pair of soft gray pajama pants and boxers. Sam had found them among the left behind belongings of the Men of Letters – thankfully, as neither he nor Dean possessed anything that would comfortably fit Cas.

 

In order to make sure that none of the oil lingered on Cas’s skin, that all the ash and grime was washed away, Cas was going to need to take them off. And as vulnerable as Cas was already feeling… Sam just couldn’t bring himself to ask.

 

As it turned out, he didn’t have to. Cas unceremoniously slipped out of both the pants and boxers, letting them drop to the floor without hesitation. He straightened, looking up at Sam again. He made no attempt to cover himself, as most humans would have done – didn’t seem in the slightest self-conscious about his state of nudity – but his eyes were anxious and wary as he waited for further instruction.

 

Of course, Sam realized. It’s just a vessel… not his actual body. Not… not like his grace… his wings… Sam felt a heavy, sick sensation in the pit of his stomach. Both of which we violated like it was nothing. And that’s what he’s worried about… what’s freaking him the hell out right now… the fact that I’m gonna be handling his wings…

 

Sam purposefully averted his eyes, picking up the first bottle of detergent and a soft, dry towel and moving around behind the tub. “Okay, we need to get all the bandages off first. So… why don’t you get started on that while I’m getting ready?” he suggested.

 

Cas immediately began to comply, without a word, wincing a little as he pulled the bandages from his burned arms and stomach. Sam kept himself busy doing nothing in particular, small tasks that didn’t really need to be done… waiting for him to finish. He wanted to give Cas as much space as possible, a little time to adjust to the idea of what they were about to do.

 

And… it was possible that he needed a moment, too.

 

Sam glanced up to see that Cas had finished all of the bandages he could reach, except the one over the incision in his chest. With a pained grimace, Cas pulled that one off as well, dropping it into the trash can before bracing one hand on the edge of the tub and preparing to get in.

 

“Wait, wait a second…” Sam held up a hand, taking a step toward Cas. “Can I take a look at that first?”

 

Cas bit his lip, frowning anxiously, but he nodded, and Sam closed the rest of the distance between them. Taking Cas’s arm in a firm but gentle grip, Sam guided him to turn around and sit down in the chair, then knelt down on the floor in front of him. Cas watched warily as Sam leaned in close, cautious fingers gently inspecting the stitches, and the wound beneath them. The flesh was beginning to knit itself together again, and Sam nodded slowly, pleased with what he saw.

 

“Any place the oil’s still… on you…” He glanced up to watch Cas’s face closely. “… you can feel it. Right? So… you can tell me if I’m… missing anything.”

 

Cas didn’t look up, swallowed slowly. “Yes.”

 

“So… how about here?” Sam cupped his hand gently over the general area of the wound. “If there’s no trace of the oil here, I’d like to cover it back up… protect it from getting… infected…”

 

Really, infection was the least of Sam’s worries. Once he had Dean break Jacob’s Call, such ordinary human ailments would no longer be an issue for Cas. Rather, it was nightmare mental images of accidentally washing some oil residue into an open wound, and not being aware that it was there until it was too late, that filled Sam’s mind.

 

“Once the bond is broken, I’ll have no need to worry about infection,” Cas pointed out quietly. Then he glanced up at Sam, vaguely apologetic when he saw that Sam was still waiting for an actual answer. “But… no, there’s none of the oil there.”

 

“Okay.” Sam nodded, reaching for a bandage from the counter where he’d arranged his supplies. “I’ll do this again, after, but… for now, this should protect it.”

 

As Sam carefully re-bandaged the wound, he noticed that Cas was shaking under his hands – a fine tremor that made his entire body seem to vibrate, though it wasn’t visible. He looked up at Cas’s face to see that the angel looked like he was about to be sick. He was staring down at the space between himself and Sam, pale, sweating, his breath shallow and uneven.

 

“Cas,” Sam said, his voice hushed and intent. “Hey. Look at me, man, okay?”

 

Cas reluctantly obeyed, and the sheer dread Sam saw in his eyes made his stomach clench.

 

“It’s gonna be okay. All right? You can trust me.”

 

Even as the words left his lips, Sam felt a sharp ache in his chest, a reminder that he had no right to speak them. And the way that Cas was looking at him, open and desperate, drinking in the promise they held – only made it worse.

 

“I know,” Cas whispered, holding Sam’s gaze, his face flushed with shame he didn’t deserve to feel, eyes brimming with tears. “I just… it’s…” He stopped, lowering his head into his hands and shaking it helplessly. “I don’t know,” he concluded at last in a miserable whisper.

 

Sam rose up a little higher on his knees, sliding an arm low around Cas’s waist, to avoid contact with any of his exposed injuries, his free hand rising to stroke gently through the short hair at the base of Cas’s neck. His guilt only intensified with the gesture, and the acute awareness that if Cas only knew the truth, he wouldn’t want Sam touching him like this.

 

But – he didn’t know, and he did want it. The way that Cas leaned forward into him, his head resting against Sam’s shoulder, desperate for the reassurance, told Sam that his touch was having the desired effect. Already Cas seemed a little calmer, a little less panicked.

 

“That’s okay,” Sam said, soft and reassuring. “You don’t have to explain it to me, Cas. It’s… okay to be scared. It’s okay to hate this, because… it sucks. I know. But… we have to get through it. Right?”

 

Cas nodded, not raising his head.

 

“And… we will. You and me. Right?”

 

Cas nodded again.

 

“Good... good. Now… I want you to stand up, and I’m gonna help you get into the tub and sit down. Okay? And… once you’re comfortable, I’m going to take the bandages off your wings. All right?”

 

Cas didn’t move for a long, long time. Then, finally, he nodded again. “Okay,” he whispered, rising to his feet, halting and slow, as Sam rose with him.

 

“Good.” Sam’s tone was warm with approval, soothing and quiet. “That’s good, Cas. Come on…”

 

Sam kept one hand under Cas’s arm, steadying him as he stepped over the edge into the tub and then lowered himself slowly into the warm water. Once Cas was seated, Sam crouched down beside the tub and reached out to take his hand for a moment, to draw his attention, his heart lurching when Cas looked up at him with raw panic in his eyes.

 

“It’s okay,” Sam repeated. “I’m going to take the bandages off first, okay? And… you just tell me if you… if you need a break, or if I’m… hurting you, or… if you need anything, just tell me, all right?”

 

Cas nodded, reluctantly releasing Sam’s hand as Sam straightened to his feet. Sam ran his hand lightly, reassuringly over Cas’s shoulder as he moved to stand behind him. Cas drew his knees up slowly in front of him, trembling arms wrapping around them as he bowed his back and lowered his head into his folded arms, his breath coming in slow, shuddering gasps.

 

Sam kept talking, though the more he repeated the same useless words of comfort and reassurance, the less meaning they seemed to hold. He was pretty sure it was doing more to keep himself calm than Cas, as he carefully unwrapped the dirty gray bandages that held Cas’s wings in tight. Immediately Cas let out a low groan of pain, as the splinted bones shifted and flexed, the warm air of the room meeting raw, sensitive skin that had been shielded from such contact for days. The decimated feathers rustled softly as the wings trembled, along with the rest of Cas’s body.

 

“Are you cold?” Sam asked softly, leaning forward and pressing a gentle hand to the spot between Cas’s shoulder blades.

 

He immediately regretted the question – because, what could he do, if Cas said yes? If it was anyone else, he’d offer them a towel to cover their shoulders, to at least make them feel less exposed – but that wasn’t exactly an option here. At any rate, Cas shook his head without lifting it, a shuddering sob passing through his body. So Sam withdrew his hand, returning to the work at hand – and resolving to stop stalling, no matter how daunting he found his task.

 

Once the bandages were removed, Sam crouched beside the tub again, taking the hand-held shower head from its cradle and turning on the water, carefully aiming it away from Cas as he adjusted the temperature until it was warm, but not hot.

 

“Okay,” he said, his own voice less steady than he’d intended. “I’m going to get started, all right? I – I know it’s gonna hurt, at least a little, but – I’m going to be as careful as I can, okay?”

 

“Okay,” came Cas’s muffled reply from beneath his folded arms.

 

Sam stood up again, moving to stand behind him. He frowned, uncertainly running his free hand down the upper ridge of Cas’s left wing… very, very gently, barely even making contact. Cas shivered under the touch nonetheless, the tattered remnants of charred feathers rustling as Sam withdrew his hand.

 

He tried to shut out the soft whimper he heard from just beyond the massive, shattered wings, instead forcing himself to act – to carefully place one hand under the bone, steadying the wing, as he raised the shower head and began to gently spray it down. Immediately a stream of gray water ran down Cas’s back into the tub, whole feathers, ashen and broken, falling with it. Cas let out a plaintive moan, flinching, and Sam pulled the shower head away, alarmed.

 

But Cas raised his head just enough to be heard, his shoulders shaking even as he choked out, “Don’t stop. Please, it’ll just – just do it.”

 

Shaken, Sam hesitated, but then nodded, letting out an unsteady breath. “Okay,” he agreed. “Okay…”

 

He returned to his work, spraying gently and painstakingly until the large wings drooped down at Cas’s sides, heavy with water. Then, Sam moved around to the front of the tub, rolling up his sleeves before he reached for the plug, letting out the murky gray water. He grimaced as he reached into the tub to take out handfuls of wrecked feathers, hesitating for just a moment over the trash can. It felt wrong to just throw them away – but there was nothing else to do with them.

 

Sam carefully used the shower head to rinse out the tub, then began to fill it again. While it filled, he turned his attention to Cas, who was sitting, shivering with cold, or trauma, or both. Sam reached out a hand to rest on Cas’s neck, the other hand finding Cas’s hand and squeezing gently. Sam’s effort was rewarded when Cas squeezed back fiercely, shuddering.

 

“I’m so sorry we have to do this, Cas,” Sam told him softly, his words choked with how deeply he meant them. “This… this next part… I know it’s… not gonna feel good. Just water isn’t… isn’t enough to wash away oil. I’ve got to… work the soap into the feathers… it’ll cut the oil and make sure it’s all gone. All right?”

 

Cas was still and quiet for a long moment. Finally, he lifted his head just a little and nodded. The tiny glimpse Sam got of his face made his heart ache. Cas’s eyes were tightly closed, his mouth trembling, face pale as death and contorted with pain, or grief, or shame, or whatever overwhelming emotions he hadn’t been able to put into words himself.

 

Sam hesitated before reaching out to place a hand at the side of Cas’s neck, relieved when Cas leaned into the touch rather than pulling away. “You’re doing great, Cas,” Sam murmured. “You’re doing so good, we’re gonna get through this, okay?”

 

Cas nodded, eyes still closed, and as Sam moved his hand, he buried his face again, knuckles white where they wrapped around his knees. Sam felt cold, and sick, and utterly overwhelmed with guilt. He’d never seen the fierce, powerful angel look so broken and small – and the knowledge of who had broken him was… well, it was too much to think about at the moment.

 

Sam had to focus on getting this done.

 

He sprayed Cas’s wings one more time, lightly, before taking a handful of the soap and setting to work. He kept his touch as gentle as possible, but there was no avoiding a certain amount of pain, as he worked the soap into a lather, gradually intensifying the pressure he applied as he worked it deep into every inch of the mutilated wings. Sam knew that, even splinted as they were, every time he shifted Cas’s broken wings to get at a difficult spot had to be agony; every spray of warm water against burned, raw flesh had to make Cas want to scream with pain.

 

He didn’t scream – but after only a couple of minutes, Cas was openly sobbing – a deep, wrenching sound that tore at Sam’s emotions and made his chest tighten with sympathy, and unspeakable regret. And yet, Sam knew that he couldn’t stop. The only way to ease Cas’s pain was to finish this task, to wash away the lingering remnants of the torture that had been inflicted upon him so that he could finally begin to heal. As much as it hurt… Sam couldn’t stop.

 

It was only when he couldn’t see straight anymore to do his work that he realized… he was crying, too.

 

*********************************************************

 

It hurt.

 

It hurt so much, more than anything Castiel had ever experienced before. Of course, he’d never before been so connected with his physical vessel… never before had his wings so exposed to physical touch… never experienced the torment of burning holy oil against the most sensitive parts of his being. Of course he hadn’t; of course it hurt beyond anything he could have imagined.

 

It wasn’t supposed to have been possible.

 

Castiel knew that Sam was being as gentle as he could – large hands warm and steady, reverently handling the damaged bone and feathers, working the soap in and the oil out with careful, skilled fingers. He was as kind, as cautious as he could possibly be – but Castiel couldn’t forget that Sam wasn’t supposed to be touching his wings at all.

 

The warm, hushed sound of Sam’s voice, keeping up a steady, rhythmic cadence of reassurance and encouragement, made Castiel feel safe and comforted – but strangely, somehow, it made the tears flow harder, rather than easing them. And it seemed that the more frustrated he became with his lack of control, the more difficult control became.

 

Castiel decided that it was pointless trying to figure it out; human emotions simply made no sense.

 

It had been so frustrating when Sam had come into his room, all soft and cautious, as if too sharp a tone or too certain a phrase might have shattered Castiel into pieces. He wasn’t helpless, wasn’t a child to be coddled and protected. Nothing could protect him, anyway – not from what had already happened.

 

Not from the reality of what was happening to him right now.

 

And yet, the worse the pain got, the more Castiel clung to those meaningless words, the more he strained to hear Sam’s voice through the roar of his own agony, even after he hurt too much to even make out the words at all.

 

He knew it had to be done. He knew he’d die, slowly and in unspeakable agony, if Sam didn’t do exactly what he was doing. It didn’t make it any less painful, or humiliating, or a repetition of the same violation Dean had inflicted on him in that dark basement room that filled his dreams.

 

Shame made him sick, his stomach roiling, palms damp and cool, sliding against his knees as he tried just to hold himself still, hold himself together, and keep back the sobs that rose in his throat with every brush of Sam’s careful, gentle fingers against raw, burn-blackened skin, every accidental shift of his broken bones. They throbbed unbearably even when they weren’t being touched, but when Sam moved them to get at the rest of Castiel’s wings, it felt like a white-hot blade slicing through them.

 

It hurt so much he couldn’t scream… could barely breathe.

 

Three times, Sam stopped, and Castiel’s heart sank, because he knew Sam wasn’t finished. He could still feel the oil searing into his wings where it lingered. Sam would let out the dirty water and refill the tub – and while it filled, he sat in the chair beside Castiel, gently stroking his hair, speaking softly to him. And Castiel relished the touch, pleasant rather than painful, the reassurance that soon it would be over, that soon he would be whole again and all this would just be a distant memory.

 

He relished the reassurance – even though he knew it was a lie.

 

How could I ever… ever forget?

 

When Sam stopped for the fourth time, Castiel found himself nearly shaking apart with the overwhelming sense of relief – because he could feel it. The last traces of the oil were gone from his wings. Sam drained the water from the tub, then used the shower to carefully rinse any remnants of it from the rest of Castiel’s body, until finally, it was completely washed away.

 

But his wings still burned, and the hole in his chest where he’d once hidden everything he’d known was true, and sure, and safe… ached with its emptiness.

 

“You’re doing so good, Cas,” Sam said, his voice low and tender, his large hand warm and steady against Castiel’s head. “So good…”

 

Castiel could hear the thick, choked sound of Sam’s voice, and realized, startled, that Sam was crying, too. And suddenly – that made all the difference. The tenderness in his voice no longer felt patronizing and shameful. Sam wasn’t pitying and patronizing him, so much as he was sharing in his suffering – and so, there was no longer frustration mixed with the gratitude Castiel felt toward him. He raised his head just slightly, saw Sam’s hand resting on the side of the tub, and reached out to grasp it tightly, turning his face to rest his brow against their joined hands.

 

Sam was quiet for a moment, and then his next words came out as a broken, startled sob. “Oh, Cas…” Castiel felt Sam’s head lower to rest against his own for a moment, before he choked out, “I’m so sorry…”

 

Castiel raised his head slowly, his entire body shaking with pain and relief and so many things he couldn’t begin to comprehend, let alone name. “Y-you had to,” he managed to get out. “I – I understand, Sam. Don’t be sorry. I – I thank you for it.”

 

Sam let out a choked sound that Castiel couldn’t quite identify, before gently extricating his hand from Castiel’s and rising to his feet.

 

“Okay, we’re… we’re almost done,” he said. “I need to dry your wings and… and put the bandages back, and… and then it’ll be over, and you can rest. Okay?”

 

Castiel’s heart sank. He hadn’t even considered that that would be necessary. He’d felt such relief that the cleaning was finally over.

 

Starting at the top and working his way down, Sam gently pressed Castiel’s wings between soft towels, wringing out as much excess water as he could, before laying aside the towels and picking up the roll of bandages instead. This time, the bandages were not so tight, and Sam wrapped each wing individually, not binding them down to Castiel’s back as he’d done before.

 

When he was finished, Sam leaned down and took Castiel’s hands, pulling them away from his knees until he raised his head, raised exhausted eyes to meet Sam’s. Sam was smiling, even if it was a little shaky, and his eyes were red-rimmed.

 

“We’re done,” Sam told him gently. “It’s all done now, Cas.”

 

And of all things, now that the suffering was over, now that he could rest and heal – Castiel found himself crying harder than ever, sobs so deep that they made his chest ache, bubbling up in his throat and escaping, while Sam just sat down beside him, his warm hand slowly stroking Castiel’s back as he patiently waited it out.

 

Castiel didn’t understand. Human emotions were just so strange.

 

Finally, bone weary and exhausted from the tremendous ordeal of the past couple of hours, Castiel managed to regain his composure, and struggled to get to his feet.

 

“There we go… come on,” Sam encouraged him quietly, steadying and supporting Castiel as he managed to get one leg over the side of the tub, and then the other. Sam reached around his waist with a large towel, gently wrapping it around him and securing it before putting a warm, secure arm around Castiel’s waist. “Good… there we go… let’s get you back to your room.”

 

A sleepy haze settled over Castiel in the wake of his trauma, and he found himself leaning heavily into Sam’s side, allowing Sam to support the greater part of his weight and lead him back to the warm, comforting safety of his bed.

 

His wings still hurt, but it wasn’t even close to the same as what he’d felt before, with the oil still slowly burning into him every moment. And as Sam helped him to lie down and then pulled the blankets up over him, Castiel felt himself slipping under, falling into sleep, before he even had time to thank him.

 

*************************************************************

 

Dean was sitting at the library table, surrounded by a dozen different books about angels – amazed at the amount of information that could have been at their disposal this whole time, had they only known. There was a book on angelic physiology, another on their customs and practices, yet another on the intricacies of the Enochian language. The one that held the most interest for Dean currently, and was open in front of him at the moment, was one on rituals of angelic magic.

 

And he’d barely even scratched the surface of the library’s section on angels.

 

So much of this crap would have been pretty useful a few years back… Dean thumbed forward from a particularly interesting chapter; it was pretty intriguing, but it wasn’t what he needed at the moment. Who knew there was a whole list of ways to gank archangels? Yeah, it’s a fucking short list, but still… would have come in handy…

 

Impatient, Dean turned to the back of the book, hoping to find an index where he could just look for the single focus of his study at the moment.

 

Angels’ wings… the right spell to make them invisible again’s got to be in here somewhere…

 

Before he could get there, the soft sound of footsteps drew his attention, and he looked up to see Sam entering the library.

 

“Hey, Sammy,” he said, putting on a smile for his little brother’s benefit – but it faded swiftly when Sam neared him, and Dean got a good look at the state he was in. “Sammy?”

 

Sam’s eyes were shadowed and red from crying, and he looked utterly exhausted. His clothes were splashed with water and grey with ash, his pace heavy and weary. Dean started to get up, but Sam was already almost to the table, where he slumped down into the seat next to Dean’s. His eyes were downcast, his lips parted as if to speak, though no words came out.

 

“Sam?” Dean repeated, cautious, studying his brother with concern. “You okay?”

 

Sam was quiet for a moment before looking up to meet Dean’s gaze – and the stricken expression of shame and grief in Sam’s eyes took Dean’s breath. Sam bit his lip for a moment, then shook his head in response, before closing his eyes and lowering his head. As Dean reached out on instinct to pull Sam into his arms, Sam’s shoulders began to shake, and he leaned into Dean’s embrace gratefully, burying his face in his brother’s shoulder.

 

And Dean knew what he was feeling, because he’d been feeling it every moment since the cabin. He knew that there were no words to offer to make it all right, no promises or suggestions to make any of this better. Words couldn’t change anything – so Dean said nothing, and did the only thing that he could.

 

He sat there with his brother wrapped tight in his arms, holding him close, and let him cry.

Chapter Text

“Just… give me a minute to talk to him, all right?”

Sam winced at the exhausted scratch of his own voice, his eyes burning with the salt of the tears he’d shed not even an hour earlier. All he really wanted right now was a few hours’ sleep – but Cas had waited long enough, had suffered enough needless pain because of them. Sam and Dean stood in the hall outside Cas’s bedroom. In his hand, Dean held the same blade he’d used to carve the sigil into his arm to initiate Jacob’s Call. It was time to break the bond, to finally allow Cas to begin to heal, now that it was safe to do so.

“I just don’t want to – to catch him off guard, you know?”

Sam studied Dean’s reaction as he spoke, his heart sinking as he took in the taut lines of his brother’s face, the way Dean wouldn’t quite look at him. Sam knew the last thing Dean wanted was to be reminded again of how horribly things had changed between himself and Cas, how terrified Cas was of Dean now.

“Yeah, sure,” Dean agreed, his eyes averted, a swallow visible in his throat. “Don’t want any repeats of what happened last time, do we?” His tone was low and controlled, but there was an unmistakable note of disgust in his voice, and Sam knew it was directed at himself, for his own mistake. Sam instinctively stepped forward, reaching out a hand toward his brother.

Dean…”

Dean tensed, taking a half step back before Sam could touch him. “Don’t, Sam,” he said, holding up a hand in front of him, but still not meeting Sam’s eyes. “This isn’t – isn’t about me…”

“Dean, you… don’t,” Sam said softly, making no attempt to disguise the slight tremor in his voice as he edged forward, deliberately turning so that when Dean backed away again, the wall behind him kept him from going too far. “Please. You promised. You promised you wouldn’t shut me out.”

Dean closed his eyes when his back hit the wall, shrugging Sam’s hand off his shoulder, eyes focused on the floor. “I know, I – I’m not,” he insisted, agitated and defensive and not even a little bit convincing. “It’s just – Cas. We need to focus on getting this done right now, getting him… getting better, you know?”

Sam hesitated. Dean was visibly trembling, everything about his demeanor screaming for Sam to back off – but Sam knew it wasn’t because Dean didn’t want the contact. It was because he didn’t believe he deserved it.

“Not now, Sam.” Dean’s voice was sharp and impatient, but Sam couldn’t miss the desperation behind the words. “This isn’t the time to talk about – how I feel. I’ll feel a hell of a lot better once this bond is broken and I know Cas is healing. Once he doesn’t have to wonder every second if I’m gonna – come in there and – and take advantage of the fact that he can’t fight me back.” Finally, Dean looked up to meet Sam’s eyes, and the sorrow there took Sam’s breath. “Let’s just… just do this for him, okay?”

Sam couldn’t argue with that. He took a step back, feeling a little hurt when Dean let out a visible sigh of relief. “Okay,” Sam relented softly. “I’ll be right back.”

Dean nodded, eyes averted again – and Sam could almost feel the walls he was already putting up again. Sam knew it was going to be a constant job, breaking them down again, making sure Dean wasn’t cutting himself off from the only support he had left to him. He had no intention of allowing Dean to close himself away and quietly self-destruct.

But at the moment, he had to focus on another, more immediate task. Sam knocked lightly on Cas’s bedroom door before opening it just a little and looking in. Sam was pleased to see that Cas was awake and standing beside the bed, half-turned toward the door with wide, startled eyes. He was wearing only the soft pajama bottoms that Sam had given him after his bath, the white bandages on his chest and arms barely contrasting with the pale skin they covered.

“Just me,” Sam assured him, holding up his hands as he carefully approached. “It’s okay.”

Cas visibly relaxed as Sam reached him, extending a hand to rest on Sam’s shoulder, lowering his head with a heavy breath.

“It’s okay,” Sam repeated, hushed and soothing, raising a hand to rest at the back of Cas’s head. “He’s not coming in without your permission, Cas. All right?”

Cas lowered his head further, nodding against Sam’s shoulder without making a sound. Sam could feel the fine tremor of Cas’s body against his, and slid an arm around his back, beneath his wings, pulling him in close. Cas’s nearly tangible fear, his desperation for safety and reassurance, called out to something strong and protective in Sam and demanded a response – and Sam found that with each passing moment, that response felt more natural and easier to give.

He wasn’t exactly sure whether or not that was a good thing. It was just – how things were.

Sam stroked his fingers slowly through Cas’s hair, his voice quiet and concerned. “Are you ready?”

Cas shook his head, drawing in a shaky breath and looking up to meet Sam’s eyes with dread. “I – I have to see him do it,” he stated, as if trying to convince himself.

“Yeah, I think you do,” Sam agreed with an apologetic grimace. “You need to know it’s done.”

“I just… wish I didn’t have to see… h-him…”

“I know,” Sam said softly. “I know it’s hard, but – I’ll be right here. You’re perfectly safe, Cas.”

Cas nodded, looking no less miserable at the prospect.

Sam considered for a moment, quiet, slowly stroking the back of Cas’s neck. “What can I do to make you feel more comfortable with this?”

Cas looked up at him, unmasked gratitude in his eyes. His voice was barely over a whisper when at last he replied, “Stay close?”

A pang of guilt struck Sam’s heart with the words. “Of course,” he agreed softly, swallowing down the ache in the back of his throat.

“And…” Cas hesitated. “Can you help me cover my wings? I don’t want him to see – any of them. Please.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Sam glanced around the room for a solution before taking the quilt from the bed and draping it carefully over Cas’s shoulders, from behind this time so that he could hold it closed in front of him. Unthinking, he ran a gentle, protective hand down the quilt over Cas’s back, as he walked around to stand facing him again.

“How’s that?”

Cas shivered, and Sam immediately pulled his hand away, holding it up in front of him, studying Cas’s face with a worried frown. “Sorry… sorry…”

“No, it’s… it’s all right.” Cas’s voice was strangely shy, and he offered Sam a faltering, self-conscious attempt at a smile. His face was flushed bright red, his eyes averted as he continued, “You – did not hurt me. It’s all right.”

Sam considered Cas’s choice of words, before adding cautiously, “It’s not about - not hurting you. Not just about that, anyway. Cas - I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. If you - don’t want me touching you…”

“I do,” Cas interrupted. His eyes widened and he looked away again, amending quietly, “I mean… it doesn’t make me… uncomfortable. When you touch me. It makes me feel…” He hesitated, frowning slightly as he tried to come up with the right word, then concluded softly, “... calmer. Safe. So…” He glanced up at Sam again, that shy, self-conscious expression on his face again. “... please. I don’t want you to stop.”

Sam studied his face for a moment, until he was confident of Cas’s sincerity, and then nodded. “Okay,” he agreed, feeling a small surge of warmth that something he was doing, however small, was actually helping. A smile curved his lips before falling away. “Are you ready?”

Cas closed his eyes, swallowing slowly, and Sam felt Cas’s hand tighten in the fabric of his shirt, before he finally nodded, letting out a shuddering breath. “Yes. Okay. Yes, I’m ready.” But he didn’t open his eyes, didn’t let go of Sam.

Sam lifted his hand to cover Cas’s, squeezing gently before sliding his fingers under Cas’s to carefully uncurl them. “It’ll be okay,” Sam promised one more time, as he lowered their joined hands, then let go and stepped away toward the door.

*******************************************

Dean paced the hallway, anxiously waiting for Sam to return, his ears straining to pick up some trace of whatever conversation was taking place on the other side of the bedroom door. He could hear their voices, but so quiet and muffled that he couldn’t make out the words. His heart raced, damp fingers sliding against the hilt of the knife in his hand.

He was about as eager to see Cas right now as he guessed Cas was to see him.

His stomach lurched when the door finally opened, and Sam looked out into the hall. “Come on,” he said quietly, nodding for Dean to follow him before disappearing back into Cas’s room.

Dean drew in a steadying breath, squaring his shoulders and stepping across the threshold. It took him a few moments to work up the nerve to look up, and by the time he did, Sam was already close at Cas’s side, both of them seated on the edge of the bed. Cas’s hand was white-knuckled, clenched around the corners of what seemed to be becoming his security blanket, Sam’s arm draped protectively around his shoulders.

It wasn’t rational, and it wasn’t fair, but something rose up in Dean at that sight - something ugly and accusing, a whispered reminder in his thoughts that Sam hadn’t any right to be touching Cas like that - as if he was Cas’s champion, the hero standing between Cas and the monster that had hurt him.

As if Sam had to prevent Dean from hurting Cas again.

And Cas - Cas wouldn’t even look at him. He was staring down at his lap, leaning hard into Sam’s side, his face pale and eyes wide as saucers. As Dean watched, Sam bowed his head next to Cas’s ear, speaking softly, and Cas nodded, closing his eyes. Sam’s hand rose to cup the back of Cas’s head, long fingers slowly carding through disheveled dark hair - naturally, almost casually intimate - and Dean felt a sick feeling creeping up the back of his throat.

This wasn’t just jealousy, or resentment, or even regret that he’d lost any right to such contact with Cas.

This was a gut-deep certainty, undeniable - that this was wrong.

“Dean.”

At the sound of Sam’s voice, Dean drew his gaze away from the expression on Cas’s face - fear mingled with relief, and an almost worshipful level of trust that made Dean’s stomach churn with his rising unease - and forced himself to focus on his brother.

Sam was looking up at him with compassion, clearly understanding that this wasn’t an easy thing for Dean to do - but his expression was expectant as well, his eyes darting a little impatiently toward Cas for a moment before he met Dean’s gaze again.

“Come on,” Sam said quietly, with a single, encouraging nod. “Let’s do this.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Dean held out his left arm, sleeve rolled up to expose the sigil he’d carved there, the blade held ready in his right hand. Dean opened his mouth to speak, but his mouth was suddenly dry, and he swallowed hard, struggling to maintain his composure before trying again, quiet and cautious. “Cas.”

Cas tensed visibly at the sound of Dean’s voice, his eyes darting toward Dean, faltering slightly before settling on the mark on Dean’s arm.

“I never should have made this bond in the first place.” Dean watched Cas’s face as he placed the edge of the blade against the sigil. “If I could go back…” He stopped, letting out a frustrated sigh. He kept trying the same words, kept hoping for some kind of absolution, some measure of peace - but they were just as useless, every time. “This is all I can do. So…”

Dean drew the blade across the sigil, wincing at the sting as it sliced through flesh that was still sore from the original ritual. Then he wiped the blade on his jeans, setting it down on the dresser beside him. He kept his eyes focused on the blood running from the wound, rather than on Cas, as he spoke to him.

“There,” he said, his voice low and grim. “It’s done. You’re no longer - bound to me, and your grace - it should be free, now. So I - can’t hurt you. You know, any more than anyone else can. And - you can hurt me - and, I couldn’t blame you if you wanted to, so…”

Dean glanced up then, and his voice trailed off when he saw the way Cas was shaking, his face hidden against Sam’s chest, his hand clenched tight in the sleeve of Sam’s shirt. Sam was intently focused on Cas, who seemed alarmingly small and vulnerable, wrapped in Sam’s long arms. Dean knew how those arms felt - remembered Sam’s voice, steady and reassuring as he’d held Dean at the top of the basement stairs in Rufus’s cabin.

Whatever you have to do… there’s no other choice. Whatever you have to do, it’s okay…”

As Dean watched, Sam looked up at him, hazel eyes locking onto Dean’s - but only for a moment before Sam abruptly looked away. He focused his attention back on Cas instead, speaking to him softly, one hand slipping beneath Cas’s blanket to rest at the base of Cas’s spine - and Dean felt suddenly, overwhelmingly sick.

He couldn’t watch this - not for another second. Without another word, he spun on his heel and headed for the door, closing it none too gently behind him.

*************************************************************

Sam felt Cas flinch against him as the door shut behind Dean, and tried to suppress his own response. Dean’s abrupt departure had done nothing to release the tension in the room, and Sam could feel his own anxiety rising in his chest as his brother got further away. That little scene hadn’t provided any of the closure they’d all undoubtedly hoped for, and Sam couldn’t miss the hurt in Dean’s eyes when he’d taken in the way Sam and Cas were together.

And while part of Sam wanted to stay and soothe Cas, who was trembling worse than ever after the brief encounter, the greater part of him needed to go after Dean.

“Hey,” he murmured, schooling his voice so his tension wouldn’t show. “It’s over now, Cas. He’s gone.” He rubbed a hand up Cas’s back, only realizing when he brushed the edge of a bandage that it was still underneath Cas’s blanket. Feeling guiltier than the gesture probably warranted, he quickly pulled his hand away and settled it safely on top of the quilt. “How do you feel? Any different?”

Cas was quiet for a moment, going still in Sam’s arms before he slowly, awkwardly straightened up, drawing in a hitched, shuddering breath and letting it out slowly. “I - I’m not sure,” he admitted at last. “It’s - probably too soon to tell.” He glanced up at Sam, self-conscious and apologetic. “I’m sorry…”

“It’s okay,” Sam said, trying not to show the worry caused by Cas’s answer. He’d been anticipating that at least some of the healing would be immediate, and Cas’s uncertainty made him question if something might have gone wrong – if the bond had even been undone at all. “Maybe you just need some rest.” He pulled his hand down from where it was resting on Cas’s back, though he didn’t shift away just yet. “Do you want to try and sleep?”

Cas hesitated, but then nodded, visibly fighting to get his emotions under control. “Yes. That could be helpful. I’ll - I’ll just lie down here for a while.” He paused before adding uncertainly, “You… don’t have to stay.”

Sam opened his mouth in automatic protest, then stopped himself, as the image of his brother - distraught and retreating, pulling further away from Sam with every moment - filled his mind. “Thank you,” he said instead, and stood, reaching out to assist Cas to his feet as well. “Get some rest. I’ll check in on you later.”

“All right,” Cas agreed, waiting until Sam had moved away from the bed to lie down carefully on his side, pulling the blanket up over himself as best he could. “Thank you, Sam.”

“No problem.” Sam leaned down to adjust the blanket, settling it over Cas’s wings and smoothing it a little before straightening up again and heading for the door.

He found Dean pacing angrily back and forth in his own room, the slightly open door all the invitation Sam was going to get - and all he needed, at the moment. He pushed the door open, but didn’t enter. “Hey.”

Dean stopped for a moment, glaring up at Sam, lips parted to speak - before resuming his furious pacing, muttering something under his breath as he turned away from his brother.

Sam leaned against the doorframe and closed his eyes for a moment, suddenly overwhelmingly tired and certain that he wasn’t going to like whatever was coming. Lifting his head, he took in the set of Dean’s shoulders and crossed his own arms in response. “All right, Dean, lay it on me.”

Dean turned to face Sam again, incredulous, eyes blazing. He was quiet for a moment before he spoke, his voice tight with barely controlled fury. “Like you don’t know?”

Frustration came over him in a wave, and Sam clenched his jaw, trying to hold it back. “You know what, Dean? Apparently I don’t!” He took a step forward into the room before halting himself. “Believe it or not, between running from Cas to you to Cas to you for days, I haven’t been able to pick up a lot of nuance.”

Dean stared at Sam for a long moment, before a cold, angry smile formed on his lips, and he replied in a tone that was clipped and a little too calm. “Well, then allow me to spell it out for you, Sam, if you really can’t see anything wrong with what was going on in that room. With the way he’s - hanging all over you like you’re - his fucking savior or something, and you - allowing it like it’s perfectly normal, and your hands all over him like you didn’t…” Dean stopped, attempting to regain control before trying again. “Like you’re his fucking…” He gave up a second time, looking up at Sam with furious accusation. “It’s fucked up, is what it is, Sam. And don’t even pretend like you don’t know it.”

An incredulous little laugh escaped from Sam’s lips. “That’s what this is about?” He shook his head, training his gaze on the wall for a moment before returning his gaze to Dean. “You actually think I don’t know that this is ten thousand kinds of jacked?” He lifted his arms. “What are my alternatives here, huh? Do you want me to leave him alone? He said it makes him feel safe, Dean. But I’m supposed to tell him, nope, sorry, can’t do it because my brother is jealous? I’m not going to touch you, even though I’m the only person you’ll allow near you, because I know I don’t deserve to? What do you want me to tell him, Dean?”

Jealous?” Dean’s voice shook with rage. “You think this is because I’m jealous... of you and Cas?” Dean let out a hoarse, mirthless laugh, his words bitter and angry when he continued. “This is so not about me, Sam. No, this is about what happens when he finds out the truth… if he ever figures out that there were two of us involved in this whole thing, and he’s been pouring out his fucking heart to one of them all this time - and you’ve just been letting him…” Dean shook his head, his voice lower, almost pleading, as he concluded, “It’s not fair to him, Sam. It’s not right.”

Sam let his arms drop, breath leaving him in a rush, most of the anger going with it. “No, it’s not,” he said. “It’s an awful situation, and we’re just trying to do the best we can. But – this was your idea, Dean.” Dean opened his mouth to protest, and Sam held up a hand as he continued, “It’s the best idea we’ve got. It’s not like we’ve got a lot of options. I’m just saying that… you’re the one who wanted to keep this a secret, so Cas could have someone he felt he could trust.” He shrugged helplessly. “If that’s what you’re upset about, well, you’re going to have to tell me what you want, because – I thought this was it, and if it’s not, then… then I just don’t know.”

Dean’s shoulders fell, his voice quiet and defeated as he replied. “I - I don’t, either. I - I didn’t want any of this, not - not this way.” He pressed his thumb and forefinger against his eyes, letting out a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry, Sammy,” he whispered at last, shaking his head. “I’m sorry.”

Anger now entirely gone, replaced with a deep ache in his chest for the grief and confusion Dean had to be feeling, Sam stepped forward and put his hands on Dean’s upper arms, attempting to draw him in.

“Sam… don’t.” Dean’s voice was broken, miserable, as he pulled away, taking a backward step that took him up against the wall, trying to shrug off Sam’s hands. “Just…”

“Dean.” Sam kept his voice quiet but firm, not letting Dean keep any space between them. “Hey, don’t shut me out, okay?” He pulled Dean back against his body, wrapping his arms around Dean’s stiff form and hanging on.

Dean remained resistant a few moments longer, his body taut and trembling in Sam’s arms, his breath coming in shuddering gasps until he finally relented, lowering his head to rest on Sam’s shoulder and sliding his own arms around Sam’s waist. A moment later, his hands were clutching Sam closer to him, a muffled sob escaping his lips against Sam’s shirt.

“Shh.” Sam kept his arms tight around Dean’s body, and brushed a kiss against his temple. “I’m sorry, too. I know you wish you could do more.”

Sam felt an overwhelming sense of relief when Dean turned into his kiss, closing his eyes and relaxing a little more into Sam’s arms. Sam pressed his lips to Dean’s cheekbone, then the corner of his mouth, coaxing until Dean turned his head the rest of the way, allowing their mouths to meet. He kept the contact gentle, just comfort, pressing their lips together over and over until Dean was pliant in his arms. Then he pulled away just enough to murmur, “Lay down with me?”

Dean leaned forward as Sam pulled back, his hands clinging to Sam’s waist, keeping him close. “Yeah,” he agreed, his voice hoarse and heavy with exhaustion. “Yeah, sounds good.”

Sam methodically stripped them of their clothes, taking them down to t-shirts and boxers before leading Dean over to the bed and climbing in beside him. Shifting close, Sam pulled at Dean until he was tucked up against Sam’s side, head resting on Sam’s shoulder. “He’s gonna be okay,” Sam murmured, closing his eyes and feeling sleep dragging at him immediately. “He’s gonna heal now, and he won’t be so scared, and it’ll get better, Dean.”

Dean was asleep almost before Sam finished talking. And with Sam’s exhaustion sweeping over him, tugging him under, it was easy to believe the hushed promises he was offering - to let the doubts in the back of his mind fade away, and simply give into the enticing pull of sleep. For the first time in far too long, Sam allowed himself to just rest in the warm familiarity of his brother’s arms, the reassuring litany repeating itself in his mind.

It’ll get better. It will. Everything is going to be okay...

Chapter Text

Castiel wasn’t even sure that he could sleep.

With his grace restrained as it had been for the past few days, and the exhaustion and trauma he’d experienced, sleep had come easily, just about every time he’d sat still and closed his eyes. Of course, it was always interrupted by suffocating, terrifying dreams that dragged him from his rest and left him gasping, sweating, blinking into the light until the strange room came back into focus and became familiar again – usually with Sam’s arms strong and warm around him, Sam’s voice quietly intent in his ear, leading him back into the light with soft, reassuring words.

But he did sleep, without dreaming, for once.

And when he awoke, Sam wasn’t there.

Immediately, his stomach clenched, his heart thudding against his ribs at the thought that he’d been alone, and Dean might have been close by, maybe even close enough to touch, while Castiel had been sleeping and therefore vulnerable. Where was he now? Castiel struggled to maintain control of the panic he felt bubbling up in his throat, his eyes darting around the room to continually confirm what he kept repeating in his mind.

He’s not here… you’re alone, and safe… he’s not here…

Castiel fought the impulse to call out for Sam, knowing that Sam was almost certainly near enough that he’d hear him and come running. Sam had stayed close, ever since they’d come to this place, doing everything in his power to make sure that Castiel felt safe. But it wasn’t fair to Sam, to expect him to simply drop everything and spend every waking moment at Castiel’s side, for no reason other than that Castiel couldn’t seem to manage the overwhelming fear that had taken hold in that cold basement room, and hadn’t let go.

And that was a bad sign, Castiel knew. Jacob’s Call was broken. Dean no longer held power over him, and his grace was no longer restrained – but if that was true, then why could he still feel the terror on such a powerful, visceral level? It wasn’t like the fear he’d felt in a dozen different seemingly hopeless situations as an angel at full power – distant, controlled, easy to push down and think through, so that he could continue to do what he had to do despite its presence. This was overwhelming, dark and all-consuming and so physical.

It didn’t make sense – and it only added to the sick sensation of apprehension he felt at waking up alone.

Carefully, wincing at the shifting of his aching wings, Castiel sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. His heart sank, his worry rising as he carefully inspected his bandaged arms and torso, and found that his injuries had begun to heal – but far less quickly than he would have expected. The shallow cuts and burns Dean had made, up and down his arms, on his shoulders, stomach, and back, were now reduced to nothing more than faint lines, nearly healed.

But the wound in Castiel’s chest was still raw and tender, no different than it’d been when Sam had cleansed his wings. And the wings themselves, though Castiel couldn’t see them to inspect them properly, still throbbed with every movement, the burns a constant torment. They didn’t feel any different than they’d felt when Dean had broken the bond.

Did he break it, then? The whisper in his mind was suspicious, and his stomach churned. He lowered his head into his hands, trying to steady the increasing pace of his breathing. Maybe there’s more to breaking the bond than what he did. Maybe he just wanted you to think he broke it. He doesn’t want you to leave here, doesn’t want you out from under his control… so he faked breaking the bond to appease you… but nothing’s changed. You’re still weak, still barely more than human…

… still at his mercy.

Castiel struggled to force down the panic, resisting the overwhelming desire to call out for Sam.

You can’t expect Sam to be there every moment. You can’t require all of his time and effort. He still has his brother to think about, and himself. You have to learn how to handle this on your own… you’re an angel of the Lord, not a helpless child, so act like it.

Castiel raised his head, letting out a slow, shaky breath as his eyes focused on the closed bedroom door. He swallowed hard, sitting up and squaring his shoulders, suppressing a wince at the wave of pain that crested across his wings.

He wasn’t sure of exactly how long, but he knew that several days had passed since Sam and Dean had brought him to this place. And he had spent nearly every moment of that time in this room. Castiel was suddenly certain that if he was going to start functioning on his own, going to stop depending on Sam Winchester for his every need… he was going to have to start by changing that.

Castiel swallowed hard, not taking his eyes off the door as he rose to his feet. His heart raced as he touched the knob, his mind working against him, and calling up images of what – and who – he might find just on the other side. He forced himself to open it anyway, even as his breath caught in his throat and his stomach clenched – but the hallway was empty, quiet and dimly lit.

Castiel started down the hallway, padding quietly, the smooth tile cool against his bare feet. His apprehension faded a little as he found no sign of anyone else present, and figured that the brothers must be sleeping. He hesitated outside one room where the door stood open, the soft glow of a lamp shining out into the hall. His chest tightened, a cold tingling sensation sliding down his spine as he took in the scene inside the room.

The floor was littered with discarded clothing. In the bed lay Sam – and Dean, wrapped around each other in a tangle of limbs, Dean’s head on Sam’s chest and Sam’s arms around him, instinctively protective, even in sleep. Dean’s brow was furrowed, and he shifted slightly. Cas’s heart leapt up into his throat, a sick sensation churning in his stomach, and he found himself backing away down the hall, in the opposite direction from which he had come. He stumbled and caught himself against the wall, gasping for breath that seemed to escape him, closing his eyes and trying to block out what he’d just seen, trying to regain control, trying desperately to fight back the overwhelming sense of hurt, of betrayal he felt at the sight.

His fingers clutched at the wall, and he rested his head against it, drawing in several slow, deep breaths, listening as the roar in his ears gradually began to subside.

You’re being emotional. Irrational, he told himself sternly. Too… too human. Sam and Dean have been intimate with each other as long as you’ve known them, and Sam made it perfectly clear that his concern in this situation is not only for you. Sam has every right to… to…

But Castiel was beginning to feel sick again, so he shut out the thought and continued down the hallway, steps lurching and too fast, just desperate to carry himself as far away from the sickeningly cozy, intimate scene that he couldn’t seem to wipe from his mind. He wasn’t sure where he was going, or how he got there, but Castiel found himself in a large, open room, books lining every wall, with a huge table taking up most of the floor space.

On one end of the table, books were piled in stacks a half dozen high, with more scattered open in front of an empty chair. It was so familiar, so similar to a hundred different times when Castiel had visited the Winchesters in the dismal motel rooms they frequented on their hunts. The familiarity of it made his heart ache, made him desperately wish that he could go back – that they could all go back to just a few days earlier, before…

Castiel swallowed hard, his mouth dry and his throat aching, as he approached the empty chair and sat down on the edge of it, careful to avoid crushing his wings. He scanned the spines of the stacked books, eyes widening as he read the titles: Angelic Physiology, Rituals in Enochian, Spells of Revelation.

It wasn’t difficult to surmise what was the focus of the research that had been done here. Castiel smiled, surprised at the hot sting of tears in his eyes that blurred the letters until he couldn’t read them anymore.

Sam… Castiel ran a hand down the notepad that lay directly in front of him, hastily scrawled notes covering most of the top page. Sam’s been doing research, attempting to find a way to conceal my wings again. Sam has been so kind to me… what right have I to resent what little time he spends with his brother? When he spends nearly every waking moment…

Castiel frowned, considering. It was true. Sam had spent nearly all of his time during the past few days at Castiel’s side.

So… when had he had time to do all this research?

He hasn’t. Sam – Sam didn’t do this. Castiel swallowed, his heart in his throat. Dean did.

A momentary terrible suspicion came over Castiel, and he hurriedly scanned the notes on the page in front of him.

What exactly was he researching? Ways to hide my wings, or – or something else? Ways to fake the breaking of Jacob’s Call? Ways to keep me under his control permanently?

And now that he looked at them more closely, it was clear that this couldn’t possibly have been Sam’s work. The hastily scrawled writing was barely decipherable. Still, after a few minutes, he was able to make out enough words to confirm that Dean had indeed been looking for a means to undo the spell that had made Castiel’s wings corporeal.

The thought of Dean sitting at this table during the long hours that Sam spent at Castiel’s side, poring over dozens of books and desperately searching for some way to undo the damage he’d done – it was jarring in contrast with the image that filled Castiel’s mind now – vindictive smile, eyes lit with cruel satisfaction as his blade had drawn screams and sobs and desperate pleas from Castiel’s lips.

No, this was – this was more like the friend Castiel had come to know, the one he’d risked everything for – and who’d risked everything for Castiel in return, time and again. It hurt to think of Dean, guilty and alone and hurting, and Castiel ran his hand down the page, for just an instant wishing that he could reach out to Dean so easily, and ease his suffering. But only for an instant, because just the thought of getting close enough to Dean to touch – it made Castiel shudder, the sick feeling creeping back up his throat.

It was all so confusing, and overwhelming, and it drained the life out of the anger and resentment Castiel had been feeling, drained away the suspicion and left only an overwhelming sense of sorrow for what had been lost between them.

Castiel lowered his head to rest on his arm on the page, letting out a heavy sigh.

It was just too much, too exhausting and painful to think about.

“Cas? You okay?”

***************************************************

Cas tensed visibly at the sound of Sam’s voice, carefully soft, from a few yards away – but he didn’t raise his head, didn’t acknowledge Sam’s question in any way. Sam hesitated for a moment before closing the rest of the distance between them, grabbing the nearest chair and pulling it nearer to the one where Cas sat before settling in close beside him. He reached out a cautious hand to rest on Cas’s shoulder.

“Cas? Hey… what’re you doing, man?”

Cas did react then, shrugging out from under Sam’s hand and turning his head away. Sam felt a cold ache in his chest at the rejection, withdrawing his hand and straightening his shoulders.

“Okay, then,” he said quietly, rising slowly to his feet. “Sorry. I’ll just… get out of your way.”

No.” Cas’s hand shot out and caught Sam’s wrist, his grasp trembling but firm, and Sam turned to face him again, his heart aching when he saw the pleading look in Cas’s eyes looking up at him. “I-I’m sorry, Sam, don’t… I don’t want you to… please…”

“Okay.” Sam sank back down into the chair beside Cas, allowing Cas’s hand to remain on his wrist as he rested his hand on the table between them. “It’s okay, don’t apologize, man. You got nothing to be sorry for, all right? If you don’t want me to touch you…”

“But I do, I just…” Cas looked away, miserable and confused. “I’m sorry…”

Hey.” Sam ducked his head, trying to catch Cas’s gaze, concerned. “Cas… what is it? What’s got you so upset?”

Cas just stared down at the table in front of him for a long moment before placing one hand on the notepad in front of him and sliding it across the table so that it lay in front of Sam instead. Sam scanned the page in front of him, taking in Dean’s chicken scratch handwriting – easy enough for him to read after years of practice. He studied it for a moment before looking up at Cas again, questioning.

“This is how Dean has been spending his time since… since we got here.” Cas’s voice was quiet, unsteady. “He’s been… trying to find a spell… trying to help me…”

There was a dull ache in Sam’s throat, and his eyes burned, as he slid his arm around Cas, gentle and reassuring – even as he recognized that this was an opportunity he’d been waiting for, and one he wasn’t likely to get again anytime soon. He was quiet, careful, the words coming out thick and a little shaky when he finally found them.

Of course he has, Cas. Like I told you, he – wants to… make things better. He’s… he’s so sorry for what he did…”

Cas pulled away from Sam, eyes brimming with tears, jaw set in stubborn anger as he retorted, “He doesn’t even know what he…” His words broke off abruptly, and he swallowed hard, shaking his head a little.

It wasn’t a new concept to Sam – the idea that somehow, in what they had done to Cas’s wings, they had done far worse than they’d anticipated, damaged Cas on some level that they had yet to understand. It was still deeply unsettling to hear coming from Cas’s lips, and Sam fought back the nausea that rose in his throat.

“After what he… did to me…” Cas fairly spat out the words, bitter and resentful, before his voice broke off. He reached out toward the notepad in front of Sam, his fingers tracing the edge of the page. When he spoke again, his tone was much softer, a lost look of confusion in his eyes. “… how can he still do this to me?”

Sam frowned, puzzled. “Do… what?”

Cas just shook his head, listlessly picking at the corner of the page under his hand. He looked so sad that Sam ached with it – and suddenly, it all fell into place in Sam’s mind, a picture so clear that he wondered why he’d never put it together before. He reached out and placed his hand over Cas’s, stilling it, but Cas just ducked his head lower, refusing to meet Sam’s eyes.

“You love him,” Sam concluded softly. “Or… you did. Didn’t you?”

Cas said nothing, just closed his eyes and swallowed hard – and that was answer enough.

Sam hesitated, weighing the risks, the undeniable inappropriateness of pursuing this conversation given everything that had happened – and then pushed on anyway, gently, as far as he dared before his window closed. This could be his only chance to help bridge the rift between Cas and Dean. He had to try.

“He – he loves you too, Cas,” he said quietly, intently. “Just like he loves me. We’ve – talked about it before…” Sam stopped, taking a deep breath before venturing to add, “Cas… this is killing him. You have to know that he didn’t want to…”

“But he did.” Cas looked back at Sam, eyes blazing with such breathtaking conviction that it stopped Sam’s protests in their tracks. Cas’s voice ached with grief and utter certainty as he concluded, “If it’d been you… he’d have let the world burn first.”

There were simply no words.

Sam tried to find his voice, tried to answer – but any comforting words that came to his mind would have been a lie. Cas was right, and knew both Dean and Sam far too well for Sam to try to deny it. Sam guessed that his dismay must have shown quite clearly in his expression, because Cas’s face fell, and he lowered his eyes, self-conscious.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “It’s – unfair for me to place you in such a position. I know you – you love…” His voice broke, and he let out a shaky sigh, swiping angrily at his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Sam watched him for a moment – and slowly, understanding fell into place. He’d awakened to a wide open bedroom door, which he’d forgotten to close in his urgency to care for Dean the night before – an open door that Cas would have had to pass in order to get to the library.

“You saw us, didn’t you?” Sam said softly, a little regretfully. “Me and Dean.”

Cas was quiet, eyes locked onto the table in front of him, and Sam knew he was right.

“I’m sorry I left the door open.” Sam weighed his words carefully, reaching out a hand to rest gently on Cas’s hand, to soften any unintended sting that might accompany his next words. “I’m not sorry that I was there with Dean.”

“And you shouldn’t be,” Cas hurried to agree, meeting Sam’s gaze with earnest, sad eyes. “I know that he needs you, too. It’s just…” He looked away again, his voice a hoarse whisper. “It was… strangely difficult to see.”

“I know,” Sam conceded softly. “I’m not sorry it happened, but – I am sorry you saw it.”

Cas shook his head, a bitter shadow of a smile on his lips. “I’m sorry. I realize it doesn’t make sense. I’m just – overly emotional right now.”

An uneasy feeling settled in the pit of Sam’s stomach, and he ran his hand down Cas’s arm, taking in the smooth, mostly unblemished skin, where hours earlier there had been livid burns and dark scabbed cuts.

Well… that at least is promising, but… the rest…

“Speaking of… your emotions, Cas…” Sam began carefully. “How are you feeling, after getting some rest? Is your grace any stronger? You look better.”

“I have begun healing.” Cas offered what positive news he could, but the worry was unmistakable in his eyes. “That… must be a good sign.”

“Yeah,” Sam conceded, cautiously non-committal. “But… emotionally…”

“No change,” Cas grimaced apologetically. “As is clearly evident.”

Sam ran a sympathetic hand down Cas’s back, carefully stopping just below his shoulders. “How are your wings?” he asked softly. “Any better?”

Sam felt Cas shiver slightly under his hand, his eyes downcast, his face flushed. “I don’t know,” he said very quietly. “They feel... much the same, but… I can’t see them, so…”

Sam was quiet for a moment, cautious, wanting to be as respectful as possible. Finally, he ventured to ask, “May I look at them for you, Cas? See if they’ve started healing?”

Cas shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I – yes, please,” he whispered at last. “Thank you.”

“Want to go back to your room?”

Cas nodded, his voice barely audible at all. “Yes.”

Sam rose to his feet, and Cas rose with him, catching Sam’s sleeve just as he turned back toward the hall. Sam stopped, turning to look Cas in the eye. Cas swallowed slowly, looking up at Sam anxiously.

“Is – is Dean…?”

“He was asleep when I left the room,” Sam replied. “He probably still is.”

“Okay.”

Cas’s voice was small, scared. And as they started down the hall, Sam noted with a sinking heart that Cas kept his eyes down, kept to Sam’s left, making sure that Sam would be between him and the open bedroom door. When they passed it, Dean was still sound asleep in the bed. Sam’s chest tightened when, just at that moment, he felt Cas’s hand slide into his, Cas’s body shifting closer to Sam’s side. Sam freed his hand just long enough to put his arm around Cas’s shoulders and hurry their pace to the security of Cas’s bedroom.

The moment they crossed the threshold, Cas turned out from under Sam’s arm, pushing the door shut hard. Immediately his shoulders fell with relief, his eyes closed, as he rested his head against the door, his breath coming rapid and uneven. Sam reached out a cautious hand to touch Cas’s arm, to steady him, and Cas flinched.

“Sorry,” Sam whispered, withdrawing his hand. “Sorry.”

But as Sam backed off, Cas swiftly turned to face him, moving back within his reach and clutching at the hem of Sam’s shirt, his head on Sam’s shoulder. “No,” Cas replied, his voice muffled and hoarse. “Don’t be. Just… please…”

Sam didn’t need any further clarification. He put his arms around Cas, sheltering and protective, and backed toward the bed, pulling Cas with him. Cas went willingly, clinging to Sam, as Sam sat down, and maneuvered Cas down to sit beside him. They sat there in silence for a few minutes, Sam just holding Cas and listening as his harsh, rapid breathing began to even out, and the fine tremors that shook his body gradually ebbed away.

“I’m sorry,” Cas said at last, the words punctuated by a loud sniffle. “I know… Dean’s not going to… I just… I can’t seem to…”

“You don’t have to explain,” Sam assured him, running a hand through Cas’s hair, his voice hushed and soothing, his lips nearly brushing Cas’s ear.

For a single, very weird moment Sam almost leaned in to press a kiss to the soft skin so close to his mouth, before he stopped himself, alarmed. It was almost habit; he was only accustomed to being this close, this intimate, with Dean – but Cas wasn’t Dean, and such a presumptuous gesture would certainly not be welcome. Sam drew back a little, slowly enough that Cas wouldn’t see it as a rejection, and waited until Cas looked up at him to offer a reassuring smile.

“I get it, Cas,” Sam insisted gently. “And it’s okay. I’m here, all right? Until – until you feel safe when I’m not. All right?”

Cas nodded gratefully, letting out a shaky sigh. “Thank you, Sam,” he said, his voice low and hoarse. “You… are kinder to me than I deserve.”

Sam’s chest clenched, and he suddenly found it difficult to breathe. He swallowed hard, schooling his features to conceal what he felt as he changed the subject. “Okay… are you ready for me to take a look at your wings?”

Cas immediately looked away, but he nodded again. “Yes. Thank you.”

Cas lay down on the bed on his stomach, his arms folded in front of him across the pillow, his head resting in his arms. Sam sat down beside him, placing a hand low at the base of Cas’s spine as he spoke quietly.

“Tell me if I’m hurting you, or if you want to stop,” he instructed. “I’m going to take the bandages off and see if there’s any improvement since… since last time.”

Cas nodded into the pillow, and Sam proceeded to gently unwind the bandages from the wing nearest to him. Cas shivered at the exposure, and Sam instinctively ran a hand over the dark, glossy feathers that rustled in the cool air of the room, smoothing them down.

“You okay?”

Cas nodded, and the muffled, wordless sound that reached Sam’s ears sounded like assent. Still, he wanted to be sure.

“Does that hurt?”

“No,” Cas said, lifting his head just a little so that Sam could hear his response. There was a strange hesitation in his voice, but he added haltingly, “No, it… it feels… pleasant.”

Sam smiled. “Good.”

He gently lifted the wing in his hands, leaning in close, gently pushing aside the feathers to inspect the damaged flesh beneath them. His heart sank when he saw that they’d barely changed at all since the last time he’d seen them. Cas tensed at the contact so near to his most painful injuries, letting out a little whimper, and Sam backed off a little, running his fingers lightly through the surface feathers again, since Cas had said that it felt good.

“Shh, it’s okay,” Sam said quietly. “I’m not gonna hurt you, Cas. It’s okay.”

He continued gently stroking through the surface of Cas’s wing with one hand, soothing him, as he unwound the bandages from the second wing with his free hand – though he was fairly certain he was going to find it in the same condition. And unfortunately, he was right. It was barely changed at all in the past couple of days.

But Sam did notice that a few more feathers seemed to have died since he’d cleaned Cas’s wings, hanging loosely among the feathers that were still attached and relatively healthy. There were smaller, new feathers growing in between the others, and Sam took that as a good sign.

“Hey, Cas,” he said, keeping his voice quiet and level. “I’m gonna get rid of some of these feathers that are falling out, okay? Make room for new ones to grow in. That’s how it works, right?”

Cas nodded. “Y-yes,” he whispered.

Something in his tone gave Sam pause, and he hesitated, one hand resting lightly against the upper ridge of Cas’s wing, his fingers sliding gently down over the glossy black feathers that lined it. “If that’s okay,” he amended gently. “Cas – if you don’t want me to, I won’t…”

“No, I – it’s okay,” Cas insisted, but he turned his face so that it was buried in the pillow again, and Sam noticed with concern that Cas’s fist was clenched tight against the sheet by his head, knuckles white. “It – doesn’t hurt, and – it has to be done, so…”

“Okay.” Sam frowned. He was quiet a moment before venturing, “You’re sure it doesn’t hurt?”

Cas nodded, silent, and Sam cautiously continued, running his hands gently, slowly, down the length of Cas’s wings, smoothing the healthy feathers, tugging gently at a few that were barely attached until they came free, and combing out dead, loose feathers with his fingers. As he worked, he noticed with some surprise that Cas’s wings seemed to arch back into his touch, and Cas let out a soft gasp now and then in reaction to the contact. Cas was trembling, too, his tight fists flexing against the top of the bed – but he didn’t cry out, didn’t ask Sam to stop.

“You okay?” Sam asked for what felt like the hundredth time, as he slowed the pace of his touches, sliding gentle fingers between the feathers and just stroking lightly downward, hoping to soothe Cas’s unease. “Cas, I can stop…”

“N-no,” Cas whispered. “You have to – I mean, I d-don’t want you to – don’t stop.” Cas struggled over the words, and Sam’s frown deepened.

“It feels good?” Sam asked.

Cas’s breath hitched in his throat as he gasped out, “Y-yes… feels… good, Sam…”

Sam kept up what he was doing, gently smoothing Cas’s wings until they were free of any damaged feathers, and the remaining healthy ones gleamed from his attentions. They were trembling, though, the sound of rustling feathers and Cas’s increasingly harsh, shuddering breaths the only sounds in the room.

“Cas?” Sam said at last, when he was finished. “Sit up for me, okay? Come here.”

Cas pushed himself up on one shaky arm, drawing his legs up and folding them beneath him, and Sam immediately was certain that despite Cas’s assurances, something was very wrong. Cas wouldn’t look at him, his eyes locked onto the mattress, his face flushed and his breathing shallow and rapid, one arm awkwardly placed so that it lay across his lap.

“Hey, Cas, what’s going on? Are you okay?” Sam asked, reaching out a hand to run down Cas’s bare shoulder.

Accidentally, Sam’s fingers brushed the top of Cas’s wing, and he gasped, his entire body shuddering under the touch. Sam raised both hands in front of him in a gesture of surrender, backing off of the bed and standing up.

“Okay, that’s it. I’m hurting you. Cas, if I’m hurting you you’ve gotta tell me, man, okay? I can’t just…”

“Y-you’re not,” Cas insisted, breathless and ragged, still not meeting Sam’s eyes. “It’s not – I mean… I don’t know… what…”

Sam drew in a deep breath, trying to quell his rising alarm, before cautiously approaching the bed again. He sat down gingerly on the edge, reaching out a very tentative hand toward Cas’s wing.

“Okay, let’s slow down,” he said softly. “Because… this isn’t making any sense. Cas… when I do this…” Long fingers threaded through the sleek, downy feathers, and Sam watched Cas’s face for his reaction. “Does it hurt? Or does it feel good? I thought it was helping, but I don’t want to… hurt…”

Sam’s voice trailed off, his eyes widening as Cas’s eyes suddenly locked onto his. There was confusion, and shock, and panic, and – Sam’s mouth went dry, his own pulse racing as he took in the blown pupils, the haze of pleasure in Cas’s eyes – arousal.

And suddenly – horrifically – so many things began to make sense.

The way Cas had desperately tried to hide, in the basement of the cabin, when he was in too much pain to even speak, and yet had still struggled to draw in his mangled, broken wings… the shame on his face every time anyone mentioned the wings in those first couple days… the way Cas had exposed his human form like it was nothing when getting into the tub for Sam to clean his wings – yet had utterly fallen apart, shaking, weeping at the prospect of having his wings examined.

Sam’s breath caught in his throat, and he withdrew his hand abruptly, standing up. Cas’s wide eyes watched him closely – and then Cas’s gaze dropped, his face flushed, his arms wrapped around his body and his shoulders drawn in and shaking. Sam knew immediately that he’d reacted wrongly, only compounding the shame and confusion Cas was feeling.

“Cas… I’m sorry,” he offered softly, crouching down in front of Cas beside the bed. “I didn’t know…”

He reached out to take Cas’s hand in both of his, trying to reach out to him in a way that wasn’t so horrifically inappropriate as what he’d been doing just moments earlier – but Cas jerked his hand away, sidling out of Sam’s reach and getting to his feet at the foot of the bed. He held out his hands in front of him as if fending Sam off, his eyes still averted, his backward steps lurching and unsteady.

“I-I’m sorry,” he stammered out, his voice thick and hoarse. “Something’s… something’s wrong with me, I didn’t – mean to… I… I’m sorry.”

“Cas… wait a second…”

But Cas was rapidly backing toward the door, stumbling the last step so that his damaged wings, unprotected by the bandages Sam had removed, slammed into it, and his knees buckled as he let out a yelp of startled pain. Sam instinctively started forward, but Cas’s anguished, “Don’t!” stopped him in his tracks. Cas held up one hand in front of him as a warning as he struggled to steady himself, then fumbled for the doorknob with his other hand.

“Cas… please just wait a second so we can talk about this, okay?” Sam pleaded.

“I’m sorry, I – I can’t…” Cas shook his head as he finally managed to open the door, then stumbled out into the hall. “Please, just… leave me alone. Please.” Then he turned and hurried away down the hall, leaving Sam standing there in shocked dismay, still processing what had just happened.

The Unspeakable… that’s what they called it…

His stomach roiled, and Sam found himself reaching out to catch the edge of the dresser, the room momentarily spinning around him as all of the pieces fell into place.

… because it’s the ultimate violation. Because it makes an angel vulnerable like nothing else does.

He sat down slowly on the edge of the bed, mind and heart racing.

So when we exposed his wings, by force… we stripped him bare… left him naked and humiliated and so, so vulnerable… and he still is. God, he still is… and… Dean… when he touched them… when he tore into them and violated them…

When I touched them… just now…

God, no

Sam lost the battle to his churning stomach, lurching to his feet and barely making it to the bathroom before he was violently sick. But even as his stomach rejected its contents, his mind could not reject what it had learned – and an overwhelming, anguished guilt swept over him, hot tears spilling from his eyes as he knelt beside the toilet and struggled to regain his breath.

Oh, Cas… Cas, I’m so sorry… we didn’t know… God, we didn’t know…

Chapter Text

The steady beat of pounding water echoed against the tile walls and floor of the shower room, and Dean moved further under it, closing his eyes and allowing the hot spray to fall on his face, the pleasant sting numbing other, less pleasant sensations and for the moment, silencing the tumult of his thoughts. It felt good to just allow his mind to go blank for a few minutes, to focus on nothing except the feeling of the water on his skin, the scent of the steam as he slowly breathed it in.

This morning when he’d awakened, Dean had felt better than he had in days – better than he’d felt since before all of this had started.

Okay, so the way things were going between Sam and Cas at the moment was… unsettling, yeah. But Sam was right; Dean had no right to be angry with him for simply following through with the plan Dean had set into motion. It was unhealthy, a little creepy, and fourteen million kinds of fucked up – but it was the only course of action they had.

And Sam was still here, for him and for Cas, and Cas would be getting better soon… at least physically. Dean hated to think how things might have gone if Sam wasn’t able to be there for Cas, in the wake of… what had happened.

What you did, he mentally amended. You did it, Winchester, so own it.

Dean drew in a deep breath, letting it out slowly and feeling the heavy tightness in his chest ease some as he pushed the thoughts out of his mind. It didn’t do anyone any good to keep dwelling on it. What he needed to focus on right now was finding the spell to hide Cas’s wings. He actually smiled a little to himself as he stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist, his mind already going to the books he had spread out on the library table.

I’m close… I know I am… just need to find the right Enochian words…

The difficulty in finding the spell to reverse “the unspeakable”, the act they’d performed to expose Cas’s wings, lay in the fact that it was… well… unspeakable. The angels had been forbidden to record it, and therefore there was no recorded counterspell for it, either. The Men of Letters who’d created the original ritual in Latin apparently hadn’t bothered with a counterspell, not that Dean could find – so he’d resorted to attempting to come up with one himself.

The problem was finding an appropriate Enochian word to describe what they’d done to Cas. He was pretty sure if he asked Cas, Cas would be able to tell him.

Yeah… probably have a few other choice words for me, too…

But Dean knew that wouldn’t be the case. The last time he’d tried to talk to Cas, the angel had been too terrified to even look at him, much less tell him off the way he deserved. The familiar cold knot returned to Dean’s throat, and he swallowed slowly, shivering as he stepped out of the steamy shower room and into the hall, the air cooling the water on his skin.

No. Not putting him through that again. Staying away as long as he wants me to. I’ll have to find some other way, because talking to him is out…

For me. But… maybe not for Sam, he thought as he headed toward his own bedroom at the end of the hall. Upside to this weird thing they’ve got going at the moment… maybe Cas would talk to him about it…

Dean averted his eyes, unease settling on him as he neared Cas’s bedroom door, and he hurried his pace. But then, Sam abruptly appeared in the doorway, carrying Cas’s blanket under his arm, one end of it wadded up in his fist. He glanced both ways down the hall, before settling his wild, worried gaze on Dean.

“Did you see Cas?” he asked, the words abrupt and a little breathless.

“What? No.” Dean frowned, his stomach lurching with alarm. “Wasn’t he with you?”

“He was, but…” Sam grimaced, looking away and shaking his head. “Something… happened, and…”

“Yeah, that’s real descriptive, Sam. Very helpful.”

Sam didn’t reply, didn’t even spare another glance for Dean before heading down the hall, away from the bedrooms and toward the library.

“Hey, Sam, whoa, whoa, whoa!” Dean hurried to get ahead of Sam, holding onto his towel with one hand and grabbing Sam’s arm with the other as he stopped in front of him. “Hold on a second, is he okay?”

“I – I don’t know,” Sam admitted, huffing out an impatient breath, his voice trembling and tense. “I just – I made a mistake, and he freaked out, and I’ve gotta find him, he doesn’t know his way around the bunker and there’s like a hundred rooms and God knows what in them, and – shit, what if he tries to leave?”

“You think he’d do that?” Dean’s stomach clenched with fear, and he studied Sam’s face closely, troubled by the way Sam wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Sam.” Sam finally looked at him, so guilty and scared, and Dean’s voice softened automatically in response to what he saw in his little brother’s eyes. “What happened?”

Sam swallowed hard, his expression faltering, uncertain, before he looked away again, pulling out of Dean’s grip on his arm and pushing past him to proceed down the hall. “I’ll tell you later,” he muttered. “Gotta find him.”

“Hang on, I’ll help,” Dean offered, following Sam. “Two sets of eyes have got to be…”

No.” Sam rounded on him abruptly, and the alarm in his voice and on his face stung. “No, you… you shouldn’t, okay? I need to be the one to find him.”

“No, no,” Dean shook his head, frowning. “We’ll find him faster if we both look…”

“And what if you find him?” Sam cut him off sharply, his eyes suddenly locked onto Dean’s, challenging. “He’s in full-blown panic mode. Confused and freaked and scared out of his mind. So what happens if you find him first? How does that help, Dean?”

Dean tried not to physically flinch at the words, which struck him harder than a blow. He knew that if Sam hadn’t been so worried about Cas at the moment, he would have chosen them more carefully – but that didn’t keep them from hurting. Still, he swallowed back the hurt he felt, focusing instead on what Cas needed at the moment.

He was getting pretty good at doing that.

“Okay,” he relented quietly. “I get it, just… I can’t just do nothing, Sam…”

“That’s the best thing you can do right now,” Sam insisted, his voice softening as he took a step toward Dean. “I’ve got my phone in my pocket, I’ll call you when I find him. Just – wait here, and…” Sam glanced over him, and there was something unfamiliar in his eyes as he muttered, “… and for God’s sake, put on some clothes.”

Dean frowned, a little offended by those last words, though not quite sure why.

“It’s never bothered you before,” he grumbled to himself as he turned down the hall back toward his own room.

He did as Sam instructed and got dressed, then returned to the library to wait while Sam searched the bunker. If he couldn’t help, he might as well get some research done in the meantime. But he couldn’t focus on the words in front of him, couldn’t make any sense of what he was reading, or even the progress he’d already made.

Dean lasted about twenty minutes before shoving back his chair and standing up, heading toward the basement.

If I was freaked out and looking for a hiding place… that’s probably the first place I’d go…

************************************************

Sam found Cas in the computer room, huddled on the floor behind the massive machine, his knees drawn up in front of him, his face buried in his folded arms wrapped around them. His massive wings were drawn in close, and Sam swallowed hard, his gaze drawn to them, though he now felt horribly guilty even for looking. Cas was trembling, and didn’t react, seemingly unaware of Sam’s presence.

The soft, hitching sound of Cas’s ragged breaths, his quiet, anguished sobs, tore into Sam’s heart and brought hot, stinging tears to his own eyes.

He backed off silently, moving back outside the room and leaning against the wall, hugging Cas’s blanket to his chest and drawing in a few deep, steadying breaths.

Give him a minute… he doesn’t need you to see him like this…

Sam’s heart raced, his mind running in circles as he tried to figure out what he should do.

He doesn’t need you to see him at all, that’s the problem… if he needs some space, that’s perfectly understandable, but… you can’t just leave him here. He probably doesn’t even remember how he got here, and couldn’t find his way back when he wants to.

Sam’s stomach was twisted in knots, his mouth dry, nausea building up in the back of his throat again, at the painful memories that had been pushing at the edges of his mind since the moment when he’d realized just what he and Dean had really done to Cas. Cas had taken the hallucinations, taken the constant torment that had nearly killed him the previous year, but…

Sam still remembered.

The Cage. Lucifer.

And he understood better than he wanted to what Cas was feeling right now.

He doesn’t want to talk to me right now, I know, but… he needs to know that… none of this is his fault. That… he has nothing to be ashamed of.

Sam knew that even if he could convince Cas of that at an intellectual level, it would still be difficult for him to accept it, deep down. There were days here and there where Sam still struggled with it himself.

But… he had to try.

Sam drew in a deep breath before stepping through the doorway again, making sure his footsteps were clearly audible this time.

“Cas?” he said softly, not leaving time enough for Cas to wonder who was there. “Are you here?”

The crying sounds from the other side of the computer went abruptly silent, and Sam bit his lip, closing his eyes.

“Cas, I… I know you wanna be alone. All right? But – I need to know you’re okay. I need to know you’re safe, and… do you even know how to get back to your room from here?”

Silence met his words, for a long moment, and Sam was trying to decide how to proceed from there, when he heard Cas’s voice, quiet, subdued but almost sullen, from the other side of the computer.

“No.”

Okay. Okay, well… that’s something.

Sam steeled himself for whatever was to come before stepping further into the room, rounding the side of the computer and bringing himself into Cas’s view. Cas’s head was raised from his knees, turned toward Sam, but his eyes were downcast. Sam approached him slowly, cautiously, and then held out the blanket in front of him in his hand. Cas looked up at it, eyes widening in surprise for a moment, before he looked away again. Sam carefully draped the blanket over Cas’s wings, crouching down in front of him to pull the ends together and place them gently in one of Cas’s hands. He allowed his own hand to linger there for just a moment before withdrawing it, remaining crouched down at eye level with Cas.

“May I sit with you?” Sam asked softly.

Cas’s tone carried a subtle edge as he replied without looking up. “It’s your bunker. I suppose you may sit wherever you choose to sit.”

Sam stifled a sigh. “Cas… you know that’s not what I’m asking.”

Cas didn’t reply for a moment, but his lower lip quivered and his eyes were brimming with tears when he finally looked up to meet Sam’s gaze. He shook his head a little as he confessed in a hoarse, desperate whisper, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me…”

“Cas, no…” Sam whispered, a deep ache in his chest as he dropped to his knees beside Cas. He reached out his hands to steady Cas’s arms through the blanket, just as Cas’s face crumpled, and he dissolved into despairing tears. “There is nothing wrong with you, okay? Nothing.”

When Cas lowered his head onto Sam’s shoulder, the hand that wasn’t tightly clenched in his blanket reaching out to wrap around Sam’s waist, Sam felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Cas was sobbing again, so deep that he could barely draw breath, and Sam could feel Cas’s entire body shaking against his.

“Come here,” he murmured, lowering himself onto the floor and scooting back against the wall, pulling Cas into his arms – careful to avoid any contact with Cas’s wings, even through the blanket. “Come here, Cas… you’re all right… you’re all right…”

Sam held him, stroking his hair and whispering words that he hoped were soothing and reassuring, while Cas poured out all the pain and confusion… all the things Sam knew he couldn’t find words for. Sam knew all too well that sometimes, there just were no words. And none were necessary. Sam heard the echo of his own brokenness, of the shame and desperation he’d felt in the Pit, in Cas’s breathless, wrenching cries.

“I know, Cas,” Sam found himself whispering, closing his eyes against his tears. “I’ve got you… I know…”

Eventually, they both fell silent, Cas’s sobs ebbing away more from sheer exhaustion than any sort of resolution, if Sam could judge by the way Cas’s body sagged against him, weak and weary. Sam hesitated to speak at all in the heavy stillness that fell between them, but he knew that Cas wasn’t going to start the conversation – and he knew that there were things that had to be said. Things that Cas had to be feeling and thinking but would never voice without prompting… things Sam had to make him understand.

Finally, he spoke softly, his voice hushed and private. “Why… what makes you think there’s something wrong with you, Cas?”

Cas was quiet and still in Sam’s arms, and he didn’t look up. They were close enough that Sam could hear Cas swallow before he finally spoke, his voice a raspy whisper.

“Because… when you… t-touched my wings…” Cas’s voice was a shamed whisper, and he tucked his head down as the words left his lips. “I-I liked it.” There was a quiet horror in his words, a rising disgust as he continued, “How – how could I like it, when… after… Dean…”

“Cas,” Sam cut him off gently, sensing his rising agitation, the panic beginning to build again with his confusion. “Listen. Your wings…” Cas tensed in his arms, but remained silent, so Sam pushed on. “They’re… sensitive, right? That’s… part of why they’re supposed to stay hidden?”

Cas nodded. “Yes,” he whispered, barely audible at all.

“And… private,” Sam continued, careful. “No human is supposed to see them…”

“Few ever have,” Cas confirmed softly. “Those occasions when it did happen, well…” He hesitated, and Sam could hear the faint smile in his voice as he concluded, “… usually resulted in little Nephilim babies, so… it’s forbidden.”

Sam nodded, his suspicions supported by Cas’s words. “So…” he ventured. “… it’s like… sex.”

“Not exactly. It’s… similar in terms of… of intimacy, and meaning. It’s something that’s… only shared with someone for whom you care deeply and… well… it’s similar, but… not quite the same thing,” Cas sighed, sounding tired, but thoughtful, and Sam guessed that explaining this to Sam in objective terms was probably actually good for Cas, helping him to feel more calm and focused. “It’s only that… for an angel to trust a human with such a… to willingly make himself so vulnerable before a human’s eyes… usually, they’ve formed such a bond with that human that… it does lead to… intercourse. It’s… difficult to explain. It’s… not explicitly sexual, but… it’s incredibly intimate.”

Sam nodded slowly, trying to process what Cas was telling him, trying to put all the pieces together.

“It’s not supposed to happen. It’s… wrong, but… when you… touched me, Sam… it felt… good.” Cas sounded bewildered, and ashamed, as if he was confessing to some great sin – and from what he was telling Sam, it sounded as if he was. Then Cas was quiet for a long time, and Sam felt him shudder as he finally whispered, “It didn’t feel that way when Dean did it.”

Sam couldn’t breathe for a moment, and he couldn’t see, either, through his tears. “No,” he agreed at last, trying to steady his voice. “No, because… you didn’t choose that, Cas. From what you’re telling me, it’s… something intensely personal and intimate, and… and he just… he…”

“Took it.” Cas hid his face against Sam’s chest, his voice muffled as he whispered, “He took it from me.”

The quiet, broken words were like a knife in Sam’s heart, and he drew Cas in closer, trying to comfort him where there were no words to offer.

“I wish I could hide them.” The grief and humiliation in Cas’s voice made Sam feel helpless and guilty and small, because he had done that to Cas. He had found the way to expose Cas more completely than he was ever meant to be exposed. “With them… out, like this… it feels like… like I’m…”

“Naked?” Sam offered faintly, feeling sick. “Like it’d be… to be naked? For me, or Dean?”

Cas nodded. “I – know you can’t do anything about it,” he assured Sam softly. “And… I know Dean’s been trying while you’ve been… taking care of me.” The shy, self-conscious gratitude in his voice hurt to hear. “I’ve… almost gotten used to… you, seeing them, because… you help me keep them covered, and… you only touch them to help me, and… I trust you, Sam… but…” He hesitated, before concluding in a voice of quiet horror, “… it’s shameful. Every time you look… every time you touch them… I remember what he…” Cas shuddered, his hand tightening in Sam’s shirt at his side. “Why… why would I feel pleasure in such a thing?”

“Cas…” Sam considered his question carefully before speaking, quiet and gentle. “When I was touching your wings upstairs… were you thinking about Dean then?”

“No,” Cas replied, thoughtfully. “I… was trying very hard not to think of him.”

“Okay.” Sam took that in. “So… blank slate. Not thinking of anything in particular.”

“Yes,” Cas agreed.

“And… you trust me. You knew I wasn’t going to hurt you. Right?”

“Right.”

The unhesitating devotion in Cas’s voice was overwhelming, but Sam went on, needing to get this point across and make Cas understand. “And… your wings are very physically sensitive… that means to pleasure as well as pain, right?”

“I… I suppose so.” Cas sounded uncertain.

“So… it was an intensely intimate, physically pleasurable sensation… with…” Sam hesitated, choosing his words carefully, “… someone you trust. It’s perfectly understandable that that would make your… your human body feel… good. Sexually.”

Cas was quiet for a moment. When he spoke, there was a note of wonder to his voice. “I… hadn’t considered that. My human body has always been nothing more than a vessel. I don’t… feel human sexual arousal. Or… I haven’t.”

“Until your grace was restrained,” Sam concluded for him. “And… it’s not as restrained as it was, or you wouldn’t be healing, but… maybe it’s taking it a little while to come back? Maybe the fact that your wings are physical right now is making it possible for you to feel that? I don’t know, but… Cas… it’s very natural. Nothing is wrong with you. I promise.”

Silence fell between them for a few moments, and when Cas broke it at last, his voice was soft and wondering. “You know, after… what happened… what Dean…” He hesitated, a faint tremor in his words as he pushed on. “… I hadn’t considered that it was possible that it could be pleasurable to be touched…” He shook his head, his words dropping off with a heavy sigh. “There is so much I do not know,” he concluded wearily.

Cas sounded as if he was actually beginning to feel better – but his words sparked a new and unsettling question in Sam’s mind; one to which he felt the answer was dreadfully obvious, but… he had to be sure.

“Cas… can I ask you something?” he began, hesitant, and Cas nodded against his chest. “Before… Dean… had anyone… anyone ever…”

“No,” was Cas’s quiet, immediate answer. “No one ever… touched my wings… before Dean.” He let out a soft huff of laughter, but it was raw and painful, and it made Sam flinch, as Cas went on, “It’s odd. I’d… at one point harbored thoughts of… of one day, maybe… but…” He shivered, and turned his face into Sam’s shirt, his words a muffled, broken whisper as he concluded, “… not like this. Not like this.”

“I’m so sorry, Cas,” Sam whispered, closing his eyes against tears that fell down his face anyway and into Cas’s hair, wrapping his arms around the angel and holding him closer. “I’m so sorry.”

“You – you didn’t hurt me, Sam,” Cas insisted, raising his head and looking into Sam’s face. His eyes widened and he tilted his head in confusion as he studied Sam’s expression, saw his tears. His jaw slowly set, brow furrowed with determination, and his voice was fervent, almost fierce in its intensity as he declared, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You asked me if you could touch them, and I told you yes. I… was never at any point in pain or in fear because of you, Sam. You have only helped me, and cared for me, and I trust you.” He paused, glancing away, thoughtful, before looking up at Sam again and concluding gently, “What happened upstairs… it was… confusing, and… it troubled me because I did not know what it meant. But… even that distress, you have mended, Sam.” The devotion in Cas’s eyes was unmistakable, and it took Sam’s breath, made his chest seize up, stricken with guilt, as Cas concluded, his words clear and precise in the quiet room.

Dean… violated me. He’s the one who… humiliated and… and broke me. You have spent every moment since then… putting me back together again. When you touch me, it – it is not a violation, because… I do trust you, Sam. Completely, and… intimately. And I am grateful to you, Sam Winchester. I will always be.”

Sam couldn’t breathe, couldn’t bear the adoration in Cas’s eyes, but couldn’t bring himself to look away either, to send even a subtle message of rejection in the face of such devotion and love. But he just wanted Cas to stop – to stop talking, to stop praising him for things that wouldn’t have needed to be done if Sam hadn’t broken Cas in the first place, to stop… stop placing such faith, such gratitude in Sam, who did not deserve it.

Unable to form words, Sam simply offered Cas a weak, watery smile that he hoped conveyed his affection, and gently pulled Cas back down against him – so he wouldn’t have to see that blind adoration in Cas’s eyes… so Cas couldn’t see him break apart under the weight of the grief and guilt that came with it.

********************************************************

Dean heard their voices through the open door of the computer room, and slowed to a stop, relieved, before turning to go. Sam had found Cas, and he was safe. He never needed to know that Dean had even been here. But then – Dean heard his own name, on Cas’s lips, and…

He shouldn’t have stayed. He knew he was only asking for more pain, before he heard a single word more. But… he stayed anyway.

And within moments, he desperately wished he hadn’t.

Cas’s words reverberated in his mind, repeating themselves again and again, driving the agony of the true weight of his guilt home with every beat, as Dean realized just exactly what he had done to his friend, on the cold, dirty floor of that dark basement room.

He heard again in his mind the broken sound of Cas’s voice as he confessed to Sam how violated he felt, how ashamed and humiliated… and then, similar words, but stronger, accusing.

As they should be…

You are a monster, aren’t you? God must have left the building for good, for sure… or He’d have struck you down the moment you touched him… the moment you dared to just… put your filthy, murderous hands all over his pure, untouched…

Dean fought back the urge to vomit, knowing only that he couldn’t call attention to himself, couldn’t violate Cas again by letting him know he’d overheard everything.

Violate… yeah, just call it what it is, Winchester…

You raped him. You heard what he said: you took the most personal, intimate thing he had to offer, that was his to share with who he chose. You took it. You raped him.

The roar of accusation in Dean’s mind was overwhelming, the deep ache in his chest, the sick heat of shame that flooded his body as realization washed over him – and suddenly, he just knew that he couldn’t be here. Couldn’t be standing outside this room when Sam and Cas came out. Couldn’t bear the hatred and revulsion he knew Cas had to feel for him… or the fresh disgust that he would see on Sam’s face, now that Sam knew what he’d really done.

Dean turned and fled, swearing under his breath as he crashed into the cabinet in the hall in his haste. A sick sense of dread washed over him, and he knew they’d come looking to see what had happened – and he couldn’t let them find him.

So Dean fled, back down the hall and up the stairs to the library, where he’d left his backpack in the chair next to where he’d been studying. He glared down at the few pathetic, indecipherable notes he’d taken as he fished his keys out of the pocket of his pack.

Useless. Pathetic. How could you think for one second that it’s even possible for you to fix what you’ve done?

Keys in hand, Dean headed up the stairs to the bunker’s exit. He paused for a moment, listening for the sound of his brother’s voice – but heard only silence. He blinked through bitter tears as he stepped out into the incomprehensibly bright, cheerful sunlight and headed for the car.

Just as well. He needs to focus on Cas. And Cas needs me gone.

Chapter Text

A crashing sound from the hallway shattered the stillness that had fallen over Sam and Cas. Cas flinched violently against Sam’s chest, and Sam instinctively tightened his arms around him, shushing him gently – even as his heart sank. There was only one person who could have made that sound – and Sam had no idea how much Dean might have heard.

“It’s okay, just… let me go see what happened, all right?”

Sam gently pushed Cas back a little, running a hand through his hair before tilting his head up to look at him. Cas looked like he was going to be sick, his eyes moving between Sam’s face and the open doorway before he lowered his head into his hands.

“He heard. Sam, he heard everything…”

“Maybe not,” Sam muttered, getting to his feet. “Cas, just wait here, okay? I’m gonna catch up with him and make sure he’s all right, and I’ll be back. All right?”

Cas nodded, looking up at Sam as he clutched the blanket tighter around himself. Sam hated to leave him, but it was a matter of prioritizing risks at the moment; if Dean really had just heard their entire conversation and found out what Sam had just discovered – then Dean was definitely the highest priority at the moment.

“Dean?” Sam called out as he stepped out into the hall, looking both ways and seeing no sign of his brother – just the cabinet in the hall slightly shifted from its usual position. “Dean!” Sam yelled his brother’s name as he took off at a run toward the stairs. “Dean, come on! Where are you?”

He took the stairs several at a time, calling for Dean, and receiving no response. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Sam took the next set of stairs up to the main door, opening it and stepping out into the bright afternoon sunlight. It took his eyes a moment to adjust – and then he saw what he’d been afraid he’d see.

The Impala was gone.

Damn it!” Sam hissed as he stepped back into the bunker and closed the door, already reaching for his cell phone with his other hand.

As he descended the stairs and returned to the library, he listened to Dean’s phone ringing on the other end of the line – with no response, as he’d expected. He glanced up and noted with surprise that Cas was standing in the doorway across from him, watching Sam with an anxious expression on his face, the blanket still wrapped around him. As Dean’s voicemail picked up, Sam closed his eyes, drawing in a deep, steadying breath – grateful that he’d seen Cas standing there before he started to speak.

“Dean,” he began, choosing his words carefully. “I’m… not quite sure what you heard, but… we need to talk about it. You need to come home, right now. Okay? Or… at least pick up your phone. Call me back.”

He disconnected the call, and then immediately dialed again – with the same result. With a shaky sigh, Sam sat down in the nearest chair, resting his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. When he thought of Dean standing in the hallway, overhearing everything that Cas had said – he felt sick.

As if he didn’t already feel shitty enough about it… and he had to find out in the worst possible way…

A soft touch on his shoulder startled Sam out of his thoughts, and he jumped a little, looking up to see Cas standing beside him. Cas immediately withdrew his hand, slowly sitting down in the chair next to Sam’s.

“You should go after him,” Cas said quietly, his eyes averted, his expression unreadable. “He needs you.”

“I know,” Sam sighed. “But, how? He took the Impala, and we’re five miles from the nearest civilization. By the time I get to anywhere I can get a car, who knows where he’ll be? I don’t even know what direction he went.”

“I would imagine he’ll be heading in the direction of the nearest establishment that sells alcohol,” Cas suggested with an apologetic little grimace, glancing up to meet Sam’s eyes for a moment before looking away again with a heavy sigh. His tone suggested he was confessing to some embarrassing flaw when he continued, “At least I hope that’s where he’s going. I – I’m experiencing a surprising level of concern for his safety.”

Sam felt a rush of affection for the confused angel, and he reached out to rest his hand over Cas’s on the table. “Yeah, me too, Cas,” he sighed. “Me too.”

************************************************

It was all terribly confusing.

On some level, Castiel felt relief just to know that Dean wasn’t in the same building with him at the moment. But at the same time, an uneasy sensation was settled in the pit of his stomach – a pull of responsibility, of concern as familiar as breathing – an awareness screaming out inside him, the awareness that Dean Winchester was in danger, and he had to do something.

But… there was nothing he could do.

And there was nothing Sam could do, either.

Sam took out his phone for the fourth time, rising to his feet again and resuming his pacing as he dialed Dean’s number again. He waited a few moments, then spoke – and his voice was taut and sharp, like a frayed rope a fraction from snapping.

“Dean. You need to call me. I need to know – I don’t care where you went, all right? I just have to know you’re…” His voice broke off, and he was quiet for a long moment, before continuing in a lowered voice that Castiel was fairly certain was intended to prevent him from making out what was said. But apparently his grace was gradually replenishing itself, because he could clearly hear ever word. “I just need to know you aren’t going to just go… drive the Impala off a cliff somewhere or something. Just – Dean – please.”

Sam disconnected the call, raising a hand to cover his eyes and swearing under his breath as he dropped his phone onto the table with a little more force than was strictly necessary.

Castiel bit his lip, frowning, feeling restless, helpless. A few days earlier, he could have located Dean in a matter of moments. Now, he was sitting here with his broken, useless wings on full display, some secret, shameful part of him relieved that they wouldn’t carry him to wherever Dean was – and feeling terribly guilty for that relief.

He couldn’t wait for his grace to come back at full power, and free him from the confusing, overwhelming tumult of human emotions.

Castiel approached Sam cautiously, reaching out a hand to touch Sam’s arm, and Sam lowered his hand from his face with a heavy sigh.

“I wish I could take you to him,” Castiel said softly, and for all his apprehension, it wasn’t a lie. “I’m…”

Don’t you dare.”

Sam’s voice was low and firm, and he looked up to meet Castiel’s eyes, something fierce and commanding in his tearful gaze. Castiel blinked, startled at Sam’s reaction. His mouth went dry, and he went immediately, obediently silent. The guilty feeling intensified, and he wondered if Sam had somehow sensed his conflicting feelings when it came to Dean, and his current absence in the bunker.

But then, Sam’s eyes softened, his mouth trembling as he let out a shaky breath. His shoulders fell and he reached out a hand to rest on Castiel’s shoulder, his voice much softer as he explained.

“Just… you shouldn’t be apologizing for – for the fact that your wings don’t work right now, Cas.” Sam let out a brittle, breathless little laugh, shaking his head. “There is just – nothing that is right about that.”

Castiel understood, then, and reminded Sam quietly, “It’s not your fault, either.”

Sam closed his eyes, his mouth drawn taut and tense, and Castiel backed off a step, feeling somehow incredibly small, and obnoxiously intrusive at the same time. Sam looked up, his eyes locking onto Castiel’s, and there was something unreadable there, some strange intensity that Castiel didn’t have the human experience to name.

“Cas…” Sam began, then hesitated, a slow swallow visible in his throat.

Castiel was on the verge of apologizing again, though he wasn’t sure what for, when Sam’s phone vibrated on the table. Sam snatched it up and looked at the screen – then let out a heavy sigh, visibly relieved, as he sank down into the nearest chair again.

“ ‘I won’t. I promise. Back later,’ “ he read aloud, before looking up at Castiel with a weak, faltering smile, relief and sorrow mingled in his eyes. “Well. I guess that’s the best we’re getting for now.”

Castiel sat down slowly beside Sam again, vaguely surprised at the level of relief he felt. “It’s something,” he acknowledged quietly.

“Yeah,” Sam agreed, looking down at his phone and letting out a heavy sigh as he set it down on the table. “And – I don’t have a car, so – I guess we have to take what we can get, and – and wait for him to come home.” Sam was quiet for a moment, before he glanced around at the messy stacks of books and papers Dean had left on the table. “Well,” he began after a moment, “I guess we could try to make good use of the time – see if we can figure out where he left off, and… and maybe find the solution for your wings.”

Sam looked expectantly up at Castiel with a smile that was a little too bright – and Castiel couldn’t miss the weariness around his eyes, the slump of his shoulders. A fresh pang of guilt went through him as he realized for the first time something that he was fairly certain had already been true for quite a while.

Sam was exhausted.

Looking after me, and looking after Dean, and worrying about one every time he’s with the other… how is he still functioning at all?

“Thank you, Sam, but we don’t have to do that right now,” Castiel suggested. “This would be a good time for you to get some rest.”

Sam’s smile softened, and there was warmth and appreciation in his eyes as he reached out to cover Castiel’s hand with his own. “I couldn’t sleep,” he pointed out. “Not until I know for sure he’s okay. Besides, I like research. It’ll make the time go faster.”

Castiel tried again. “Sam, you look terrible. You need sleep…”

“Thanks, Cas,” Sam chuckled, his voice low and weary. “But I’ll sleep when Dean’s home safe. I promise. Just… let’s try to get something done while we wait.”

It was quickly apparent that Sam was not to be dissuaded from his chosen course of action, so Castiel gave up and opened one of the books Dean had chosen to the place he had marked.

It was also quickly apparent that if Dean was looking for a spell to hide Castiel’s wings, he was looking in the wrong places. There were notes taken down in the margins of the book, marking rituals with similar aspects to the “Unspeakable” ritual he’d already performed, along with notes on certain spell ingredients and what their properties were. The more Castiel found, the more uneasy he began to feel, as things slowly became clear. It seemed Dean had become impatient, and was now pursuing an entirely different course of study. Castiel let the book in his hands drop the couple of inches to the table, looking up across it at Sam, feeling sick. Sam looked up, a frown creasing his brow.

“I don’t think Dean’s looking for a spell anymore,” Castiel explained quietly. “I think he’s… attempting to design one himself.”

Sam’s eyes widened as he took that in, his frown deepening. “Oh,” he replied at last, his voice carefully even. “Well, that’s… that’s just…”

Terrifying,” Castiel whispered, the word escaping his lips before he could stop it. Sam froze, his expression stricken, and Castiel’s heart sank. “No, no,” he hurried to clarify. “I don’t mean… not because of what he…” He stopped, willing down the wave of nausea that had risen in his throat, drawing in a shaking breath and struggling to calm his racing heart. Finally, he tried again, slow, carefully choosing his words. “I don’t believe that Dean intends to harm me. Nothing like that. It’s just – working magic is dangerous enough. Composing it… especially when one is… inexperienced at doing so…”

“Yeah,” Sam agreed, sighing, his shoulders relaxing a little as he understood. “It’s… not a good idea. We’ll – I’ll talk to him when he gets back. And – sobers up.” He grimaced, apologetic.

“Why would he even consider something so reckless?” Castiel murmured, frowning down at the book in front of him. The churning in his stomach was intensifying, and his hands were damp and cold. He tried to swallow down the rising panic he felt, but he heard it in his own voice. “Dean of all people should know by now the danger of magic. He’s always been particularly cautious about its use. So why would he…?”

“He’s desperate.” Sam’s voice was quiet, but somehow arresting, silencing Castiel’s musings and settling an ache deep in Castiel’s chest. “He… wants so badly to fix things that… he’s willing to try anything at this point. Even something as reckless as…” His voice trailed off, and he shook his head. He looked up at Castiel, forcing a smile. “But we won’t let him. I’ll make sure he knows that’s a bad idea, we’ll find another way…”

Sam was still talking when Castiel pushed back his chair abruptly, rising to his feet. Sam frowned.

“Cas?”

Castiel closed his eyes, trying to shut it all out – the hammering in his chest, the queasy feeling in his stomach, the confusing, distressing feelings that overwhelmed him at the thought of Dean’s desperation to help him, to undo… what he’d done – all in combination with the constant, hovering presence in the back of his mind… the memories of what had happened in that dark basement room. Sam’s soft words, explaining and defending Dean’s perspective in all of this – it was too much, and suddenly Castiel felt trapped and claustrophobic.

If he’d had the use of his wings – he’d have been halfway around the world by now.

“Cas?” Sam repeated, one hand braced on the table, about to stand, about to approach him and hover and touch him and ask all kinds of agonizingly concerned, cautious questions. “What…?”

“I’m all right,” Castiel insisted, holding up a hand to hold off the gentle onslaught. “I am, I just – I need to take a walk. To – to think. Alone. Please,” he added as an afterthought.

Sam hesitated, visibly doubtful. “I’ve gotta say, Cas, if you’re both out there, who knows where, and me stuck in here worrying, I think I’ll…”

“I won’t leave the bunker,” Castiel promised quietly, offering Sam a reassuring smile, though he couldn’t quite meet Sam’s eyes. “I can’t, really, with – my wings like…” His voice trailed off, his face flushing hot with embarrassment, and he cleared his throat, struggling to find some explanation that would convince Sam to let him go, and to make his words come out in something resembling a normal tone. “I just… it’s time I explored this place further, isn’t it? Learn my way around?”

Sam remained silent, so Castiel forced his eyes up to Sam’s face, still smiling, hoping to put Sam at ease.

“My grace is returning, a little at a time. I still have an excellent sense of direction.” At Sam’s raised eyebrow, Castiel looked away, once again embarrassed as he thought of their conversation earlier in the computer room. He clarified, feeling awkward and self-conscious, “At least… when I’m not fleeing in panic.”

Sam let out a soft laugh, finally, and Castiel knew before he spoke that he was relenting. “All right. I’ll stay here and see what I can find out, and you just… take your time. I’ll be right here if you need anything.”

“Thank you, Sam,” Castiel replied with genuine gratitude, before heading down the hall nearest to him, away from the library as quickly as he could.

It was just incredibly overwhelming – the weight of Sam’s constant concern, and the feeling that he was letting Sam down every time he showed his fear, or anger, or uncertainty about his current situation; the confusion of seeing the evidence of Dean’s research, Dean’s attempts to somehow make up for the unspeakable damage he’d done to Castiel’s body, to his grace, to his very being; the strange anger he felt at that knowledge – swiftly followed by guilt for being angry, because Dean was trying to help, wasn’t he?

It was all incredibly confusing – but the further Castiel got from the library, the more the confusion faded away, taking with it the overwhelming sense of dread that had weighed him down. After days of desperately, instinctively clinging to Sam, panicking every time Sam had tried to leave him for even a few minutes – the quiet and solitude were an unexpected balm to Castiel’s frayed thoughts and emotions, soothing him and stilling the clamor in his mind. Reassured by the fact that Sam was far out of sight, and he was alone, Castiel allowed the blanket to slip from his wings, clutching it in one hand as he slowed his pace, taking his time and finally venturing into one of the small, dark rooms that lined the hall.

He’d made the excuse that he wanted to go exploring; it couldn’t hurt to give himself a little distraction by doing just that.

Most of the side rooms off the hall seemed to be for storage, filled with stacks of boxes and books, shelves lined with various containers that Castiel knew better than to open and investigate. Who knew what might be inside? And the last thing Sam needed right now was another supernatural mess to clean up.

One room, close to the bedrooms, was a little den area, furnished with an over-stuffed sofa covered in worn, soft leather, and a television and DVD player. There were stacks of board games along one wall, many of which Castiel recognized with a fond smile, and a pile of worn throw blankets and pillows in various colors along another. It was a place designed for relaxation, and it warmed Castiel’s heart to know that the Winchesters had it – that they had this place at all.

They deserve it. They’ve earned it.

Both of them.

He swallowed slowly, an aching knot in his throat, his eyes burning, as he knew simply by instinct, by his knowledge of the brothers, that Dean had had the greater part in setting this room up. And in light of all that had happened, that intimate knowledge was a stinging pain in his heart, an ache of loss when he imagined Dean sitting in here watching a movie, laughing at something he found amusing – and realized that even if Dean did get back the laughter and lightness he’d had before this… it wouldn’t be something that Castiel would ever be a part of again.

Castiel made himself go on, and after a little while, found himself in a large, industrial kitchen, well-stocked and immaculate. Castiel started to continue down the hall – but then stopped, reconsidering. He thought of Sam, sitting alone in the library, poring over dusty, dry texts with tired eyes, working without complaint to try to make things easier for Castiel, while consumed by worry over his brother’s safety. He smiled as he opened the cupboard over the stainless steel coffee maker, and found a box filled with various flavored teas.

Maybe there was something he could do for Sam, after all.

Castiel set his crumpled blanket on the counter and searched the cupboards until he found a large mug, and then filled it with water. It was at that point that he found himself extremely grateful for the printed instructions on the box, as he had no experience whatsoever in the process of making tea. Even with their assistance, it took him a few minutes to get it right. But eventually, one steaming, fragrant mug of hot tea in one hand, and a fistful of sugar packets in the other, Castiel headed back down the hall toward the library.

He found Sam exactly where he’d left him – his head resting on the open book in front of him, arm folded over his head on the table… sound asleep.

Castiel set the steaming mug down, safely out of reach of Sam’s long arms, before going to Sam and touching his shoulder. Sam startled awake, blinking up at Castiel in confusion.

“Come,” Castiel said softly, tugging at Sam’s arm to get him to his feet. “You need to sleep, Sam.”

Was sleeping,” Sam muttered, but he allowed Castiel to pull him up, instinctively wrapping an arm around Castiel’s shoulders to steady himself, but stumbling a little anyway.

Castiel supported him more easily than he’d expected, feeling stronger than he had in days. “You can’t sleep there,” he informed Sam matter of factly. “The weight and length of your body are too great to be accommodated by that position. You’d awaken with considerable discomfort in your spinal area.”

“Uh-huh,” Sam mumbled, clearly not having caught much of what Castiel had said. He woke up a little more as they started walking, Castiel guiding Sam toward his room. “Cas – I need to research…”

“Not right now, you don’t,” Castiel insisted firmly, leading Sam the rest of the way down the hall and toward his bedroom doorway. “Right now you need to sleep. You can’t continue to function properly on as little sleep as you’ve been getting.”

“But… if Dean calls…”

“I’ll keep your phone with me,” Castiel offered quietly.

Sam looked down at him with a worried frown, eyes sleepy but still concerned as he stood up straight, awake enough to realize how much weight he’d been letting Castiel bear, and removing his arm from Castiel’s shoulders. “Cas… if he calls…”

“I can’t guarantee I’ll answer, no,” Castiel admitted as they reached Sam’s room and he guided Sam inside with a hand on his back. “But I’ll bring your phone immediately to you and tell you…”

He froze just past the door, taking in the sight of Dean’s discarded clothes littering the floor, the familiar scent of Dean that permeated the room as much as Sam’s did – but he fought through it, pushing it to the back of his mind as he led Sam to the edge of the unmade bed and sat him down on it. Sam blinked sleepily up at him, a lazy smile on his lips, and Castiel realized that it was as relaxed as he’d seen Sam look in quite a while. Sam fumbled in his pocket for a moment before producing his phone and placing it in Castiel’s hand.

“Thanks, Cas,” Sam said softly. “You don’t have to do this.”

“I’m not doing anything,” Castiel insisted, pushing at Sam’s shoulder to get him to lie down. “You’re exhausted. Dean isn’t even here. You don’t need to care for me, because I’m fine. What you need is to rest.”

“Okay,” Sam agreed, too exhausted to argue, lying down on his side on top of the tangled mess of sheets and coverlet.

Castiel glanced around the room before he noticed a thin quilt hanging over a chair in the corner. He picked it up and spread it out over Sam’s body, smoothing it down as Sam had done so many times in the past few days, when covering Castiel’s wings. He hesitated a moment, unsure what to do next. He thought about lying down on the bed next to Sam, but knew that if he did so, he risked falling asleep himself – and he couldn’t do that, not with Sam trusting him to watch for Dean’s call. He thought about taking a seat in the chair across from the bed, but it felt too far away; something in him, some rising part of him that had been growing in strength and intensity these past few days, wanted to be close to Sam – in contact.

Finally, Castiel settled on the floor at the side of Sam’s bed, turned to the side so that he could lean against it without crushing his wings. Sam was already sleeping – far more exhausted than he’d realized – and Castiel reached out a cautious, tentative hand, threading his fingers lightly through the fingers of Sam’s hand, studying his face closely.

Even as he drifted further into sleep, Sam was restless and anxious, his brow furrowed with worry. Castiel set Sam’s phone down on the floor beside him, then closed his eyes, focusing on the faint glow of his grace he could feel building deep down – a flickering spark that he quietly, intently willed to flame. Mentally holding onto that flame, envisioning the power he knew it had once held, Castiel reached out a hand and passed it tenderly across Sam’s brow.

Instantly, the tension eased, Sam’s face going slack, the creases fading, as he slipped into a deeper sleep than his worries and fears would have allowed. Castiel found himself shaking, his breathing heavy, light-headed – and decided that he didn’t need to do that again anytime soon – not before his grace had had a little more time to recover.

Still… he didn’t regret it.

After all that Sam had been doing for him, he was finally able to do something for Sam in return, even if it was a very small thing like grant him a few hours’ peaceful rest.

“It’s okay, Sam,” Castiel whispered, his fingers tightening gently around Sam’s, as he reached down to take up Sam’s phone again and then rested his head against the side of the mattress. “Sleep, now. I’ll watch over you.”

Chapter Text

As it turned out, there were no actual cliffs anywhere near Lebanon, Kansas.

While Sam was calling and texting Dean, however, Dean was sitting on the edge of a decent-sized outcropping of rock, overlooking a stream of running water, the Impala parked behind him. And he had contemplated driving her right over the edge – except that he wasn’t sure the water at the bottom was even deep enough to cover her, and Baby deserved better than to go out like that.

For Dean, on the other hand – it seemed a much more appropriate fate.

Dean sat on the edge of the bluff, his legs dangling over the side, trying to work up the courage to simply push himself off, to just let himself fall over the edge. It wouldn’t even take much effort. The ceaseless torment of his own guilt and helplessness would end in an instant – and he’d be out of Cas’s life for good. Maybe by taking himself out of the equation, he could at least give Cas some measure of peace, if not vengeful satisfaction.

He was going to do it, he decided. He just needed a couple more minutes to work up his nerve. Then he’d do it. Dean’s cell phone sat on a mossy stone to his left right, vibrating incessantly with a metallic clatter against the rock surface where Dean sat, but Dean couldn’t bring himself to pick it up, to accept the dozens of text messages and voicemails that Sam was no doubt leaving him.

He couldn’t bear to hear the disgust he knew would be in Sam’s voice – now that he knew what Dean had really done.

The jarring sound of his phone against the stone surface beside him faded, drowned out by the sound of Cas’s voice in Dean’s head – broken, halting words, explaining to Sam what Dean had done to him, with the tone of a confession… as if Cas had anything to be ashamed of! He’d tried everything he knew to make Dean believe him, to warn Dean against the course of action he’d taken. He’d cried and screamed and begged Dean to stop.

But Dean hadn’t stopped.

God help him, he’d had no idea what he was doing – but Dean’s ignorance didn’t make the damage any less done. It didn’t take back the desecration of something holy and precious that Dean had ruthlessly violated. It didn’t give Cas back… any of the things Dean had taken from him.

His dignity, his – his innocence

His faith in the Righteous Man…

Dean choked back a sob, one arm braced across his stomach to hold back the overwhelming wave of nausea that came over him with that thought. He could see Cas’s open, trusting gaze, looking to him for direction – the devotion and reverence that had always been there when Cas had looked at him. And now – Dean had stripped all that away. Replaced it with terror and shame that drove Cas’s eyes away from him, made Cas cower and cringe at the very sight of Dean… the memory of the violation

I didn’t know… God, I didn’t know…

Except… that’s not entirely true… is it, Dean? It was Alistair’s voice again, a dark presence in the back of his mind. It was all so… familiar, wasn’t it? On some level… you knew exactly what you were doing.

Dean shivered, clenching his fists against the silken glide of Cas’s feathers that he could still feel under his fingers… calculatedly alternating gentleness with cruelty. He remembered vividly how close he’d been behind Cas, close enough to feel the shudder that passed through his bound body, the way his breath had quickened with panic as Dean had trailed his hands idly, intimately through Cas’s wings.

I can do anything I want to you, Cas…”

He’d deliberately made his voice soft and intimate, just to make his vicious threats more effective, speaking close against Cas’s ear and taking satisfaction in the way Cas had whimpered and turned his face away.

And Dean knew perfectly well just where he’d learned those techniques.

The quiet sobs of his friend mingled with older memories in Dean’s mind, and he shivered as vivid flashes filled his vision – blood and smoke and the glint of a razor sharp blade… his own voice hoarse and desperate and breaking as he pleaded uselessly for mercy… the shame he’d felt as he’d broken down in tears when he was brutally violated, his shame compounded by the mockery of softness and affection in Alistair’s voice close behind him.

You knew. And this time, the voice accusing him was his own, seething with revulsion. Maybe not about his wings… but you knew how to violate and shame him… knew what would break him, because it broke you... you knew, and you chose it…

… so don’t try to pretend for a fucking second that you didn’t.

Dean’s phone had fallen silent, and the rush of his own blood roared in his ears, his heart racing, his hands clenching around the edge of the rock. He’d done a lot of terrible things in his life – in Hell, and on earth. There were a lot of things he buried in the back of his mind, locked away because he knew he couldn’t live with them if he let himself think about them too closely. But this – he couldn’t push away, didn’t have the right to while Cas was still shattered by it, while Sam was still struggling every moment to find a way to help him heal.

It was a burning deep in his chest, an overwhelming burden bearing down on his shoulders, and Dean didn’t know how much longer he could stand it – but it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He couldn’t get it out of his mind, not with the constant reminder of it there in the bunker with him all the time. And Cas couldn’t recover – not with Dean’s presence constantly there, compounding his fear and humiliation every time they happened to accidentally cross paths.

Better for everyone if he just let himself fall over the edge. Better for Cas. Better for Sam, even if he wouldn’t know it for a while. Better even for Dean himself – because he’d experiencedHell, and from what he’d been told, under Crowley it was a lot tamer than it’d been during his stay.

It couldn’t possibly be worse than what he was feeling right now.

He could almost feel the easing of his guilt that would come with the punishment he deserved. If he could just work up the courage… just get over his own selfish fear enough to do everyone a favor and…

Dean’s phone vibrated again beside him, and Dean closed his eyes, swallowing hard. If he was gonna go – he wanted to at least hear Sammy’s voice one last time. Even if it was laced with disgust and anger at the knowledge of the extent of Dean’s guilt. Letting out a shaky sigh, dreading what he would hear, Dean picked it up and pressed the button to access his messages.

The barely bridled panic in Sam’s voice made his stomach clench, his hand tightening around the receiver, as he listened to his little brother’s frantic words, desperately begging him to come home. Dean closed his eyes against the tears that burned them, his body remembering Sam’s hands clinging to him, Sam crying in his arms and pleading with him.

Don’t shut me out, Dean… please, Dean, I need you… I can’t get through this without you…

Dean disconnected the call halfway through the third voicemail, putting his phone back into his pocket and carefully getting to his feet. He stared down at the rocks at the foot of the bluff, jagged and sharp – and not really all that far down.

Not far enough to guarantee it’d kill you, anyway… it’d be just like you to fuck it up and survive, and leave Sam to take care of Cas and you as a vegetable for the rest of his life.

Dean drew in a deep, shaky breath, the heavy, oppressive feeling bearing down on his shoulders again as he got back into the car and closed the door.

No checking out, he told himself firmly. You don’t get to take the easy way out, no way… not while Sam’s still got all this to deal with. You gotta stick around… gotta go back to the bunker and be there for Sammy and make sure he’s okay.

Dean turned the key in the ignition, and then just sat there for a long time, trying to bring himself to start back down the road toward the bunker.

But not yet, he decided at last, putting his foot on the gas pedal and heading off in the opposite direction – toward downtown Lebanon and its meager selection of bars. He knew he was running; knew it couldn’t last, and sooner or later he was going to have to face Sam, and Cas, and the reality of what he’d done.

Not yet…

************************************************

Castiel knew that he was dreaming.

He knew… because he’d been here before.

He was with Dean, walking toward the Impala, down a dimly lit alley after an unfortunate encounter with a very angry sex worker. And yet, for some reason, Dean couldn’t stop laughing. Castiel was confused, as he often was by Dean’s actions – but then Dean smiled at him and clapped him on the shoulder, and Castiel found himself smiling back, uncertainly, as a strange, unfamiliar warmth began to bloom in his chest at Dean’s attention.

“I don’t know what you find so amusing,” he remarked, and a faint note of unease began to creep into the dream, because… he hadn’t said that before. Had he? “She was unhappy, and I tried to ease her pain, yet – somehow, I seem to have made it worse instead.”

“Yeah,” Dean laughed, warm and easy, his tone amused and affectionate. “But… that’s what you do, isn’t it, Cas?”

Castiel felt vaguely uneasy as he walked around to the passenger side of the Impala, and Dean followed him, because he hadn’t done this the last time, hadn’t spoken those words, had he? And this was wrong, wrong, wrong

Irrationally, Castiel felt that if he could just get into the car like he’d done the first time, maybe things would still be okay – but just as he opened the door, Dean’s hand reached around him to shove it shut again, the handle jerking out of his hand as Dean’s body pressed in close behind him. Castiel’s heart hammered in his chest with rising panic as Dean slid a hand around his waist, pulling him in.

Dean’s voice grew softer, crueler as he continued, so close that Castiel could feel the heat of his breath against the back of his neck. “You try to help… and then you screw it up.”

Castiel tried to push away from the Impala, to push Dean back away from him, but Dean grabbed a handful of his hair and slammed his head into the roof of the car, snarling at him, “Don’t move.”

And suddenly… Castiel couldn’t.

Bright stars of agony exploded across his vision; his wings fluttered uselessly at his back, incapable of any more movement than the fine tremor of panic that passed through them – and when had his wings manifested themselves? He didn’t remember them being there before – but Dean’s hands were running through them, gentle at first and then yanking, twisting, hard, relentless fingers digging deep into the soft feathers and wrenching them out.

“Don’t,” Castiel sobbed, breathless with pain and panic, but unable to lift a finger to defend himself. “Dean, don’t…”

Dean just laughed, low and affectionate, shifting in closer to press his body in tight along Castiel’s. “I didn’t listen last time,” he pointed out softly, and Castiel stared at Dean’s reflection in the Impala’s side window with mounting horror. Dean’s smile was cold and malicious, his eyes gleaming with a predatory light. “Why would I stop now?”

All at once searing pain consumed Castiel’s wings, and he looked away from that unholy light in Dean’s eyes – to see the reflection of his own wings, glowing red and seething with flame, clumps of burning feathers like embers falling away as Dean stroked through them. Castiel moaned and flinched from the contact, every brush of Dean’s fingers seeming to ignite new sparks of flame throughout his wings; but he couldn’t escape as Dean idly pulled out handfuls of ashen feathers, discarding them like so much garbage. Castiel closed his eyes, trying to shut out the agony, the humiliation and helplessness, as his wings were violated and destroyed.

“Please stop,” he cried quietly, despairingly, knowing that Dean wouldn’t. “Please… please don’t, please stop, please make it stop…”

“Cas… Cas, shhh, I’m here, I’ve got you…”

The voice at his ear was abruptly warm and reassuring, the hand on his wing large and gentle and wiping the pain away with a single long, gentle stroke. Suddenly free to move again, Castiel spun around to see Sam standing where Dean had been, his eyes concerned and searching, as he raised a hand to press it to Castiel’s cheek.

“You’re okay,” Sam said softly. “I’m here, Cas… you’re safe now.”

“My wings,” Castiel cried, stumbling forward, hiding his face against Sam’s shirt in shame and clinging pathetically to the comfort he offered. “Sam, my wings… they’re…”

“Cas… shhh,” Sam murmured, sliding a hand along the ridge of one of them, and Castiel was startled at the wave of pleasure he felt where he’d expected only excruciating pain. “You’re okay…”

The trauma was still fresh in Castiel’s mind, and he shook his head, struggling to regain control of his breath as he gasped out, “But… my wings… Dean…”

“Cas… Cas, look…”

He didn’t turn, but suddenly he was facing the window again, staring at his own reflection there.

And his wings were whole, glistening and glorious – untouched by the flames that had previously consumed them. They were strong and black and gleaming, and they arched into Sam’s hands as he ran them slowly over their ridges, meeting Castiel’s eyes in the window with awe and admiration in his own.

“See?” Sam whispered against his neck, his breath sending delightful shivers down Castiel’s spine, setting an unfamiliar yearning ache deep in his chest. “You’re beautiful.”

*********************************************

“Cas? Cas!”

Castiel sat up abruptly, startled out of sleep by the hoarse croak of Sam’s voice close to his ear – not at all resembling the soft, silken tones from his dream. He blinked up at Sam for a moment, blank and uncomprehending, as Sam kept talking, asking him… something. Confused, Castiel shook his head.

“I – what?”

“My phone.” Sam didn’t sound angry, but he was clearly repeating himself, judging from the urgency in his tone. “You got it?”

“Oh. Oh, yes. I – it was just…” Castiel was still foggy with sleep, realizing slowly that Sam’s phone was no longer in his hand where it’d been when he’d… fallen...

“I’m so sorry, Sam, I fell asleep!” Cas realized abruptly, not quite able to look at Sam, his face warming with shame as he felt around the floor for the phone, finding it just under the edge of the bed. “I was supposed to be… waiting… I’m sorry…”

“Nothing to be sorry for, man,” Sam assured him, his voice tired and scratchy as he accepted his phone from Castiel’s hand and inspected the screen, frowning at whatever he saw. “It’s fine.”

“Did Dean call?” Castiel asked, anxious. “Did I miss his call? I’m so sorry, Sam…”

“No, no, he didn’t,” Sam assured him, but his worried frown only deepened. “Cas… you didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t call, so you didn’t miss anything. It’s just…” Sam sighed, setting the phone down on the mattress and swinging his legs over the side of the bed as he sat up fully, rubbing at his eyes. “… he didn’t call.”

“Oh.” Castiel understood finally, his head beginning to clear, and a sick sensation settled in his stomach that had nothing to do with his own failure to stay awake. “How – how long has it been?”

His grace was not back to full power yet, he observed absently. If it was, he’d have known immediately without having to ask precisely how long had passed since he’d fallen asleep.

But then, if his grace had been fully restored – he wouldn’t have fallen asleep at all.

“Four hours,” Sam replied, his voice heavy and troubled. He was quiet for a moment before adding, “Cas… I need to go find him.”

“Yes,” Castiel agreed, although the thought of being left alone in this large empty bunker was a little unsettling. “Of course.” He frowned, considering. “How will you go, though?”

“I’ll walk into town.” Sam yawned as he got to his feet, reaching out a hand toward Castiel. “If I don’t find him at one of the bars, I’ll hotwire a car and go look further.”

Castiel stared at Sam’s outstretched hand blankly for a moment, not sure what it was for, until Sam rolled his eyes in gentle exasperation and grabbed Castiel’s hand, pulling him to his feet. Castiel stumbled a little, falling into Sam for a moment before righting himself – and he found that suddenly he couldn’t meet Sam’s eyes, his face flushing hot and his thoughts scattered at his vivid memories of the more pleasant parts of his dream.

“You okay?” Sam asked softly.

His hand came to rest gently at the back of Castiel’s neck, and it wasn’t exactly where he’d touched him in Castiel’s dream, but it was so close, so intimate, and his voice was so much – too much the same. It made Castiel’s heart race, his mouth go dry and speech come with difficulty. He swallowed hard, forcing himself to look up and meet Sam’s concerned eyes.

“Yes,” he whispered thickly.

“You gonna be all right here by yourself for a little bit?” Sam pressed gently. “I mean… you could go with me, but… with your wings and all… if someone saw us…”

“No, you’re right,” Castiel agreed. “I should stay. I – I can stay, it’s fine. I’m… fine.”

Sam frowned slightly, clearly less than convinced. “If he hadn’t been gone so long… but…”

“No, go find him,” Castiel urged Sam, pushing him toward the bedroom door and forcing a smile. “We need to make sure he’s all right.”

Sam’s expression softened, grateful and affectionate. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, Cas, I promise.”

Castiel nodded, continuing to smile forcefully, desperately trying to convince Sam that he was perfectly okay with this. They both knew he wasn’t, exactly… but it couldn’t be helped. And besides, Castiel told himself firmly – if he was ever going to be okay with being alone again, it was going to require… being alone, again.

He followed Sam as far as the library, where he settled down at the table in front of their partially done research, hoping to busy his mind while Sam was gone – or at least to convince Sam that he wouldn’t just be sitting anxiously waiting the entire time. When Sam gave him a worried look from the door at the top of the stairs, Castiel smiled and gave him a little wave, which Sam hesitantly returned before taking a deep, resolute breath, and walking out into the night.

**************************************************

Sam was awash with guilt as he closed the bunker door, the image of Cas, so clearly anxious – no, scared, and trying so hard not to show it – filling his mind. He’d looked so small and so alone sitting there at the massive library table, a forced smile on his face and fidgeting hands folded in front of him.

You can’t be in two places at once, Sam reminded himself sternly. And Cas is perfectly safe in the bunker, and not potentially suicidal at the moment, so Dean is priority number one.

Sam kept clinging to that last message Dean had sent him – letting him know that he had no intention of harming himself. But Sam knew his brother, and he knew that Dean was probably off somewhere drinking himself to oblivion, his own mind torturing him with all the reasons why he should have known about Cas’s wings, why everything ever was his fault, and… depending on how drunk he got and where he was when he finished drinking, well…

Sam couldn’t safely rule out the possibility of a swan dive off a cliff just yet.

Which was why he had to find Dean – even if Dean really didn’t want to be found.

He kept up a quick pace as he closed the distance between the bunker and downtown Lebanon, his thoughts distracted by his worries about Dean, and Cas, and Dean-and-Cas, and what in the world he was going to do in order to somehow resolve this situation enough that they could all function under the same roof for a while – because there really wasn’t any other option, was there?

Sam was so focused on his troubled thoughts that he barely noticed as the sun went down, only hurried his footsteps to a steady jog, absently pulling his jacket tighter around himself as the air became cooler. There were five miles between Lebanon and the bunker’s remote location, and Sam only had one left to go when he spotted the glow of distant headlights approaching from the opposite direction.

He frowned, noticing that the oncoming vehicle seemed to be approaching at an alarming rate of speed. And, those headlights seemed familiar… and the ever-building distant rumble of the engine… Sam’s breath caught in his throat, momentary relief overwhelming him.

Dean…

The relief swiftly faded into apprehension, though, as the Impala neared him, and Sam noticed how erratically Dean was driving – veering across the center line and back again, edging so close to the shoulder as he neared Sam that Sam found himself stumbling back off the pavement in alarm, afraid that Dean might actually hit him. At the last moment Dean seemed to register that someone was there, because the Impala swerved wildly toward the opposite side of the road, tires squealing before Dean regained control and sped on down the road… back toward the bunker.

Clearly, while he’d at least noticed the pedestrian at the side of the road – Dean hadn’t realized that that pedestrian was Sam.

Shit, how drunk is he? was Sam’s first uneasy thought, a queasy feeling building in the pit of his stomach. And then, At least he’s headed back to the bunker… but there’s still a few miles between here and there… God, he’s gonna kill himself by accident!

And then… Oh, God… Cas.

Sam turned and started back toward the bunker at a run, praying that Dean would make it safely back to the bunker without wrapping the Impala around a tree… and that he could cover the four miles’ distance before Cas and Dean could have any unfortunate interaction, and any further damage could be done.

************************************************

Castiel didn’t stay at the library table for long. He was too restless and jittery to focus on research, so after a bit, he got up, picking up the abandoned cup of tea he’d made for Sam earlier and heading toward the kitchen to empty it. He poured the liquid down the sink, then carefully washed the mug and spoon and set them in the rack on the counter to dry.

It was only when he turned toward the door to leave that he noticed his blanket, discarded hours earlier on the counter. He blinked at it for a moment, startled – then smiling a little as he picked it up. He supposed that was a good thing, really, that he’d managed to forget it for so long. Alone in the bunker, Castiel felt no need for its coverage, and carried it under his arm as he made his way back down the hall toward the library.

He found his steps slowing, however, as he neared the cozy, dark little den he’d found earlier, and he hesitated just a moment before venturing inside. He selected a movie at random from the stack of DVDs on the shelf below the television and put it in to play. He’d always found television to be a pleasant distraction, and figured that was exactly what he needed right now. He sat down on the soft leather sofa, pulling his legs up to fold under him as he sat sideways to accommodate his wings. He nestled in under his blanket and rested his head on the over-stuffed cushion behind him, closing his eyes and breathing in the pleasant scent of old leather.

It was familiar in a way that made his chest ache, and Castiel swallowed hard, keeping his eyes closed against the burn of fresh tears. It smelled like the seats of the Impala. It smelled like Dean – and not the nightmare vision of him that filled his mind so much these days, but the warm, safe memories like the one he’d first seen in his dream earlier.

It was confusing, trying to reconcile those memories with their present situation – so for once, Castiel didn’t try. He simply let himself drift into those pleasant, safe memories, shutting out all else, letting the quiet background noise of the movie on the screen lull him into a peaceful rest.

He was just drifting off when he heard the door to the bunker open, and then close again.

He frowned, sitting up, a little uneasy. It was too soon for Sam to be back - unless something had gone wrong. He got up, wrapping his blanket around his shoulders as he headed down the hall toward the library.

“Sam?” The echo of his own voice was unsettling in the stillness as he made his way across the atrium, stopping in the doorway to the library, to look up at the bunker’s main entrance. The door was closed, and no one was in sight. Castiel swallowed slowly, his mouth suddenly dry, pulling the blanket tighter around him to counteract the unexplained chill he felt. “Sam, are you here?” he called out, reluctant to venture any further.

There was no response, but as the reverberations faded Castiel began to pick up another sound: breathing, the exhale heavier than the inhale, and then a soft creak of leather.  Castiel braced himself to face the intruder, before turning toward the sound - and then froze, when he saw Dean in the shadows, leaning heavily against the wall, perfectly still… just watching Castiel.

Castiel’s stomach lurched, and he took a swift backward step before he could stop himself - unfortunately, taking him not out of the room but further into it. He saw Dean straighten, then step forward before drawing himself up short, face falling into sorrowful lines.

“Cas,” he said, and even in the one syllable Castiel could hear the alcohol-induced heaviness of his tongue.  “Cas, no… ‘m not gonna hurt you.”

“I-I know,” Castiel replied automatically, hating the weak, breathless sound of his own voice. His eyes darted toward the doorway to his right, leading back down the hall and to safety - but getting through that doorway meant moving closer to Dean - and as much as he tried, Castiel simply couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he found himself taking another step backward, toward the stairs.

If it came to it, if he had to - if he couldn’t get past Dean back into the bunker, maybe he could get out.

Dean didn’t move any further forward, instead sagging back against the doorframe, staring at Castiel with wide, sorrowful eyes.  “‘M so sorry, Cas,” he said, and his head lolled a little before he jerked it back upright, suddenly looking serious.  “Wish I’d never done it, never believed those bastards.  Shoulda trusted you, shoulda believed you.”

Castiel automatically opened his mouth to respond, but couldn’t find words. It wasn’t all right. He didn’t understand. And the impulse he felt to let those words spill out, to ease Dean’s guilt by taking some measure of it onto himself - it made him frustrated, and angry, a hot coil of resentment twisting in his chest. And Castiel found himself startled when instead of those words, something else entirely came out, low and trembling and disgusted.

“Stop, Dean. Just… stop.”

Dean looked stricken for a moment, and then dropped his gaze.  “No, I know,” he said.  “I know I can’t make it better, nothing can make it better.”  He drew in a sharp, staccato breath, a sound Castiel didn’t think he’d ever heard Dean make.  “I know what I did, and… and nothing ever makes that better, I know.”  Dean raised a hand to scrub roughly over his face, and there was blessed silence for a beat.  Then, “Why’d you do it, Cas?  Why’d you save me?”  Dean’s voice cracked.  “I just… I can’t ever get Hell out of me, and now I’ve taken you there.”

“You can’t blame Hell for this, Dean.” Castiel was surprised at the sudden burst of anger and resentment he felt at Dean’s words, the hard tone of his own voice, despite its shaking, despite the tears burning in his eyes. “When I pulled you out… the man I saved… would never have done a thing like this.”

There was a harsh, broken laugh, and Castiel frowned, appalled. Nothing about this conversation was funny.

“You think that… oh Cas… you have no idea the things I did down there, do you?”  Dean straightened, his voice and eyes suddenly clearer than they had been.  “I went easy on you.”

Castiel flinched as if he’d been slapped, the words jarring and incomprehensible. He could barely draw breath to respond, shaking his head as he finally managed, “You went… you…” He stopped, lowering his head, struggling to maintain his composure before looking up to meet Dean’s eyes again, everything in him trembling with restrained fury. “How can you dare to say that?”

“You still had all your skin when I was done with you.” There was an unholy gleam in Dean’s eyes as he stared down at Castiel, his expression unreadable.  “I was trained by the best Hell had to offer for thirty years, and you think the best I could do was a few cuts and burns?”  He stepped out of the doorway, only a slight waver to his gait.  “I flayed people alive, inch by inch, until all that was left was a bloody mess.  I took their bones and broke them until I could tie their limbs into knots.  I cut them open and made them eat their own insides.”  Castiel wasn’t sure which was more horrifying – Dean’s words, or the slow, unsteady steps Dean was taking toward him as he spoke. “I raped people, with my dick, with my fist, with anything I could find until their insides were soup.”  For the first time Dean’s voice wavered - but his pace didn’t.

Castiel took a few hurried steps backward, watching the swiftly shrinking space between them and trying desperately to maintain some distance. “Stop,” he whispered, shaking his head, fighting to push back the vivid mental images Dean’s words brought to his mind. “Dean… don’t...”

Dean’s voice grew more urgent and intense, but no less hard as he got closer.  “There was one girl… had her on my rack for months.  She’d been molested as a child, never had a positive sexual experience in her life.  By the end of her time with me, I had her begging for it.  I taught her to love the most twisted things I could come up with, and I could see how much she hated herself for it.  She taught me that it’s possible to rape someone’s soul.”

Castiel shuddered with revulsion, closing his eyes and turning his head away as he retreated. He was sick, and shaky, his hands cold and damp and clenched into tight fists at his sides. His mind was filled with the vivid memory of the searing agony when Dean had torn into his wings, and the rare moments of relief when Dean’s touch had gone gentle and soothing - and how he’d been so pathetically grateful for those moments, how he’d craved them...

And he couldn’t stand it. He wanted, needed to be anywhere but here.

“Dean, just… just stop, please,” he repeated, quiet and desperate, opening his eyes but unable to bring himself to raise them to Dean’s face. “Why - why are you saying these things?”

But Dean closed the distance between them, close enough that Castiel could smell the alcohol on his breath over his own fear.  “Because it’s the truth, Cas. You think I’m not the same man you rescued from hell, but I am exactly the same man!” Dean’s voice rose with every word, anger and anguish echoing through the atrium.  “That is what I did, who I was, that is who you pulled out and that is who is still here!”  His body seemed huge, towering over Castiel as he kept pressing forward.

“I was never your Righteous Man!”

Castiel scrambled backward, overwhelmed with panic and desperate to escape - and lost his footing, stumbling over the bottom stair and toppling backward. He tried to catch himself on the banister, but his hands tangled in the blanket, and he couldn’t stop his wings from being crushed beneath him. He let out a choked cry, his back arching, muscles seizing up at the wave of pain that went through him.

“Cas?”  Dean’s voice sounded distant now, through the pain ringing in his ears.  “Oh God, Cas-”

And then hands were on him, Dean’s hands, fumbling and then tugging at his arms, pulling him upright, the blanket falling away on the stairs - and it was all too much like his memories of the cabin basement... the searing agony that wracked his wings, Dean’s intimidating frame towering over him, Dean’s hands on him against his will, too firm, too familiar, touching him, when all he wanted was just for Dean to

STOP!” Castiel cried out, and the thin, panicked sound of his human voice was drowned out by a crack of thunder, a shockwave of power rocking Dean’s body backwards, his hands off of him, as sparks showered down on them, an electric buzz preceding the abrupt extinguishing of every light in the atrium, the library, and as far as Castiel could tell from here… the entire bunker.

He sat there in shock for a moment, trying to catch his breath and to process what had just happened, as the power that had risen up in him slowly receded, sinking back into him and making him feel strong and alive like he hadn’t felt in what seemed like forever. A moment later, with a faint buzz, the emergency light over the bunker door came on, shedding a dim glow over the atrium. It was only when the light came on that Castiel realized – he’d been able to see perfectly fine without it. His thoughts slowly coming into focus, Castiel straightened on the stair where he sat and turned his gaze toward Dean.

Dean’s body was on the ground a good six feet away, curled up a little, face hidden by his arms. When Dean didn’t move, Castiel looked a little closer, worried that he might have inadvertently hurt him.  But then he saw the rise and fall of Dean’s breathing, and then beneath that, the way Dean’s shoulders were shaking.

“Dean?” he asked, not venturing closer, but somehow unable to keep himself from checking on Dean’s welfare.  “Are you all right?”

Dean’s back shuddered, and there was a muffled, wordless sound that subsided into soft mumblings that Castiel couldn’t make out from where he was.

“Dean,” Castiel repeated, rising to his feet, then taking a moment to steady himself. There was no doubt, he was undeniably stronger now, the constant pain in his wings less, the ever-present exhaustion faded and leaving him clearer, more aware.

None of those things kept him from feeling an anxious rush of nausea at the thought of approaching Dean, though. But he did, crossing the room to Dean in a few steps, hesitating just a moment before crouching down on the floor beside him.

“Dean… are you hurt?”

“I’m sorry.”  Dean’s voice was whisper-soft and muddled somehow, face still hidden behind his forearm.  “I’m sorry, Cas, oh God, I’m so sorry.”  His breath hitched and he shifted a little, revealing his face enough that Castiel could see the tears that streaked it.  “I never wanted to do that to you, never meant to, I didn’t know about your wings, would never have ra- would never, ever, oh God.” He turned his face away, into the floor, broken apologies still spilling out between shuddering breaths.

Castiel’s heart ached with the desperation and despair he heard in Dean’s voice, the longing for an absolution that… just wasn’t there to be given. Not yet. Some part of Castiel wanted to speak the words, if only to ease Dean’s pain and give him some kind of peace. Beyond the tears on his face, Dean’s sheer exhaustion was evident, and Castiel knew that since the moment he’d realized his mistake, Dean probably hadn’t really rested at all.

And Castiel was all too familiar with that particular brand of restlessness - an ache for forgiveness that he knew he didn’t deserve, a yearning to heal something he’d shattered too thoroughly to ever put back together again. For that reason alone - he wanted to offer Dean that forgiveness. But it wouldn’t be anything more than a merciful lie. Not yet.

Still… he could offer Dean rest.


He lifted one hand and laid it gently against Dean’s forehead – and the shaking in Dean’s shoulders, the tension in his body faded away as he fully relaxed, collapsing on the floor, completely unconscious. Castiel rose slowly to his feet again, staring down at the still, quiet form of the man who’d once been his friend, and now…

Castiel wasn’t really sure what Dean was to him now. He just knew that in that moment, amidst the tumult of confused emotions he was feeling – but his fear had receded to the background, replaced with something more closely resembling… pity. It was difficult to feel anything else for a man who was weeping on the floor at his feet, broken and pleading in vain for absolution.

Castiel glanced back at the stairs where he’d fallen, and the blanket he’d left there – forgotten in his urgency to make sure that Dean was all right, clarity cutting through his thoughts and leaving him with a moment of certainty – the first one since he’d awakened in the cabin basement with a gaping hole in his chest. He wasn’t sure how long it would last, wasn’t even sure he’d feel the same way in the morning, once Dean was sober and his mask of control was back in place.

But for the moment… Castiel was unafraid.

So, he turned his attention to the practical matter at hand, a task that was as familiar to him as his own name – taking care of Dean.

Dean would be all right, Castiel knew, once he’d slept off the effects of the liquor in his system, and allowed his body an adequate amount of rest for the first time in nearly a week. There was just one problem, though – getting him up off the floor was going to be a somewhat tricky task.

Castiel, frowned, considering.

Unless…

Castiel glanced over his shoulder at his drastically healed wings, flexing them cautiously, experimentally, encouraged when the movement caused him less pain than it had only a few hours earlier. His wings still felt stiff and tender, and there were places where Castiel could feel the pull of unhealed cuts and tears - but he could freely move them now without excruciating agony – which meant that it wouldn’t be long before he could attempt to fly again.

In fact… perhaps, if it was just a very short distance…

Castiel swallowed hard, closing his eyes and focusing every ounce of his intent as he reached out to touch Dean’s brow again.

And an instant later, the two of them were gone.

**************************************************

Sam ran harder as he neared the bunker, and saw the Impala parked outside. He stumbled to a stop, his knees momentarily weak with relief to know that Dean had made it safely home – but that meant that Dean and Cas were alone inside, and Cas had to be freaking out, absolutely panicking if he was even still there at all, if he hadn’t fled the bunker rather than be alone there with Dean, without Sam there to provide the reassurance that Dean couldn’t hurt him again.

Breathless, Sam rushed down the stairs, alarmed when he saw that the entire atrium and library were pitch black, the only illumination emanating from the emergency light above the main entrance to the bunker.

“Cas?” Sam called out, anxious as he stepped through the doorway into the library. “Are you here?” He hesitated a moment before adding, “Dean?”

“I’m here.”

Cas’s voice was startlingly close, and Sam jumped back a little, his eyes slowly coming into focus on the shadowed figure sitting quietly at the library table, in the chair closest to the stairs. Cas stood up as Sam tried to catch his breath, moving into the dim glow from the emergency lights so that Sam could see him.

“Thank God,” Sam gasped out, trying to catch his breath. “I passed Dean on the way toward town. I ran back as fast as I could. Are you all right? Is – is he…?”

“I am fine, Sam,” Cas assured him in a quiet, level voice, and the faint hint of a smile on his lips was surprisingly serene. “And Dean is safe as well. Quite inebriated, and exhausted, but he’s resting in the den now. He’ll be fine.”

Sam considered that, frowning slightly with confusion. “What happened to the lights?” he asked, glancing around the room before focusing on Cas again.

Cas looked down, momentarily self-conscious. “I seem to have damaged them somehow,” he admitted. “I’m sorry. My grace – it appears to be returning, and… I didn’t realize how strongly. It… was not an intentional use of my grace, I just… reacted, and…” His voice trailed off, and he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Sam,” he concluded with a little grimace.

Sam just blinked at Cas for a moment, stunned, trying to take in what Cas was saying. As his mind began to put the pieces together and he realized just exactly what Cas had likely “reacted” to, he reached out a cautious hand to rest on Cas’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “You’re sure you’re okay?” he asked. “I know that must have been… upsetting, being here by yourself when Dean…”

“I’m really all right, Sam,” Cas insisted, a full, genuine smile spreading across his face, though his eyes were distant and vaguely troubled. “Really. I just – I need some time to… to think. I think I’ll… go to my own room, if that’s all right.”

Sam studied him closely, a little unsettled, though Cas did seem as calm and composed as Sam had seen him during the last week – and not the slightest bit afraid. “Of course that’s all right,” he replied. “Just let me know if you need anything.”

Cas nodded, his expression soft and grateful, as were his words. “Thank you, Sam.” He hesitated a moment before adding, “Good night.”

Sam watched Cas disappear into the darkness of the hall where his room was located, and then headed for the circuit box – thankfully located in the atrium, where there was at least minimal light to work by. Sam reset the circuit breaker, then flipped the switch – relieved when the bunker was flooded with light once more.

The way now clear, Sam made his way swiftly down the hall toward the den Dean had set up a couple of months back, where Cas had said that Dean was resting. Why Dean was sleeping there and not in his bedroom, and how exactly he had gotten there in the first place, were mysteries that would have to wait at least until morning.

For the moment, Sam was simply overwhelmed with relief at the sight of his brother, laid out on the soft leather sofa, his head pillowed on one of its arms – but that wasn’t what brought tears to his eyes.

Dean’s still, peaceful form was covered with Castiel’s blanket.

Sam was more mystified than ever as to exactly what had taken place in the few minutes between when Dean had gotten home, and when he had arrived. But clearly something had happened to change… something, between his brother and their angel.

And all evidence seemed to point to the idea that it was a positive change.

Sam felt suddenly exhausted, all of the adrenaline draining from his system with the knowledge that both Cas and Dean were safe and resting. But he couldn’t bring himself to let Dean out of his sight. So instead, Sam took one of the blankets from the pile in the corner and sat down on the floor beside the sofa, resting his back against the side of it and his head on Dean’s chest, taking comfort in the contact, and the steady, slow rise and fall of each breath.

Chapter Text

Sam awakened several times throughout the night – each time with his heart hammering in his chest, panic seizing him at the images not quite left behind in his dreams. Each nightmare was different, and yet each one was the same, his subconscious sadistically twisting the events of the night before into scenarios that had Sam waking in a cold sweat, gasping for breath.

Sam saw the Impala, careening down a road far steeper and more treacherous than the one Dean had actually traveled between town and the bunker… watched Dean taking a sharp curve too quickly, and then spinning out and slamming into the rock face along the side of the road. He ran toward the silent, smoking wreckage with all his strength, as what was left of the car exploded into flames, the blast throwing him down to the ground – much too far away to reach his brother before it was too late.

Then, he saw Dean sitting on the end of his bed in the room that meant so much to him here in the bunker, resting his head in his hands and weeping, before picking up his own cherished .45 from the mattress beside him. Sam stood in Dean’s bedroom doorway, watching in horror, useless fists pounding at a wall made of nothing but air, trying to get Dean’s attention, to stop him. And then, Dean looked up, his anguished eyes swimming with tears as they locked onto Sam’s – just before he pulled the trigger.

The last nightmare was Dean, caught in a deep, swirling body of water, a powerful current dragging him away as Sam raced along the shore, helpless to reach him. He knew, somehow, that he couldn’t touch the water. It’d burn his skin like acid, scar him, mark him – and Sam knew even in the midst of his dream that it was very important that he remain unmarked by the dark, viscous fluid – not water, close enough he could see that it wasn’t anything so natural or innocuous as that – that was pulling Dean under. Dean choked and gasped and reached out a flailing, frantic hand toward his brother – and then was pulled under for the last time… drowned before Sam’s eyes.

Over and over again throughout the night, Sam watched Dean die – at his own hand, or simply drowning in the guilt and despair that overwhelmed him – while Sam himself was powerless to stop it.

Each time, Sam had to reassure himself that Dean was there, and alive, and safe. Heart clenching painfully, Sam laid his hand on Dean’s chest over the threadbare blanket that Cas had left with him, feeling the slow, steady rise and fall, taking comfort in the soft rhythm of his brother’s breathing. He laid his head down against Dean’s stomach again, struggling to gain control of his own reactions. Throughout the night that passed, Sam didn’t think he slept more than a couple of hours without interruption.

Dean slept peacefully through to morning.

His body weary and aching, his mind still unsettled, Sam finally dragged himself up off the floor, adjusting the blanket over Dean’s still form before turning toward the door.

Cas would likely be up by now – if he’d slept at all. With his grace returning, Sam wasn’t sure whether Cas needed to sleep anymore. He didn’t want to disturb Cas if he was resting, but he needed to know just exactly what had happened the night before between Cas and Dean – and just exactly how much damage control he was going to have to do this morning.

He knocked softly on the door to Cas’s room, then opened it just a little when there was no answer. Finding it empty, Sam moved on down the hall into the library – also empty, the research Dean had abandoned the night before still laid out on the table. He found Cas in the kitchen – his back to the door, hands busy with something on the counter in front of him, the sharp, pleasant scent of fresh coffee filling the room. Sam knew that he should speak, at least make some sound to make Cas aware of his presence before he startled him. But for a few brief, breathless moments – Sam simply couldn’t.

It was Cas’s wings.

The difference from the last time Sam had looked at them was remarkable. There were still spots where they seemed ragged and bare, but the wings were mostly covered in new, pristine feathers that gleamed black in the light. Broken bones, muscles too damaged and weak to hold them up - neither seemed to be an issue anymore. Cas’s wings tensed, shifting slightly, unconsciously as he focused on whatever he was doing; and Sam was struck by the sheer power he sensed in the unintentional motion… and he found himself wondering at what they’d be capable of if Cas was actually trying to move them.

These were wings that had carried Cas high above the earth, from one continent to another in the span of a second – wings that had lashed out at his enemies in battle and struck them flaming to the earth.

These were Cas’s wings as they should be – whole and strong and lethal. Sam’s awestruck eyes couldn’t seem to stop drinking in the sight.

And Sam was suddenly, acutely aware that… he hadn’t any right.

“Hey, Cas.”

He kept his voice soft and level, not wanting to startle Cas – but he did anyway. Cas didn’t turn immediately, but his wings arched upward, abruptly tensed and ready – to fight or to fly, Sam couldn’t be sure. But a moment later, they settled downward again and Cas turned around to face Sam, holding a steaming mug clasped in both of his hands. He offered Sam a warm smile, nodding slightly.

“Good morning, Sam.”

Cas lifted the mug to his lips, and as Sam approached him, he noticed that his hands were just barely trembling around it. But Cas was still smiling, and Sam didn’t think he realized how his wings had given away his reaction – so he pretended not to notice as he slid onto the stool nearest to where Cas stood.

“Did you sleep?” Sam asked, glancing once more at Cas’s wings before averting his eyes, forcing them back to Cas’s face.

“A couple of hours,” Cas replied. “My body no longer seems to require the level of rest it’s needed these past few days.”

“That’s good.” Sam nodded approvingly. “And your – your injuries look a lot better today, too.”

“Yes.” Cas’s smile faded a little. “I – did not realize how swiftly my grace was returning. Not until… last night.” Sam hated to see the guilt in Cas’s eyes as he asked, halting and cautious, “Is… Dean all right?”

“Yeah, he’s still sleeping,” Sam assured him. “He’s fine. I’m sure he needs the rest.”

“Yes,” Cas agreed with a slight nod, looking down at his coffee and stirring it absently, leaning back against the counter behind him. “When I touched him, I ensured that he would sleep until his body was rested.”

“Oh.” Sam blinked, considering that. He hadn’t realized that was something Cas could do. “Well,” he observed after a moment, giving Cas a rueful smile. “I guess that means we’ll see him sometime next week.”

When Cas didn’t smile, or respond to Sam’s weak little joke, Sam leaned forward on the stool a little bit and tried to catch Cas’s eye. “Cas,” he began, and waited until Cas reluctantly looked up at him to pat the stool beside his. “Come here, come sit down,” he suggested. “I want to talk to you.”

Cas was hesitant, but obeyed, crossing the short space between them and sliding onto the stool next to Sam’s. “I-I’m sorry,” he began, eyes focused on his cup. “I know Dean is… fragile right now, and… was not in his right mind, and I… I could have harmed him without meaning to…”

“But you didn’t.” Sam reached out a cautious hand to rest over Cas’s. “You didn’t. And I’m glad you didn’t, but… it’s not like I could have blamed you if you did.”

Cas looked up at Sam, eyes plaintive and earnest. “I wasn’t aware that my grace was so strengthened. I didn’t intentionally strike out at him, it was just… I… wasn’t prepared for him to come so close, and…”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Sam insisted. “Dean was the one who screwed up, all right? He shouldn’t have come anywhere near…” He stopped, then shook his head with a heavy sigh. “I just – I don’t know what he was thinking, you know?”

“I believe he was inebriated beyond the capacity for rational thought,” Cas offered, and Sam couldn’t help but laugh a little, despite his heavy heart. Cas was quiet for a moment, thoughtful, before he continued, “At first I – I thought his intention was to apologize again, but… but the things he was saying…”

An uneasy feeling settled in Sam’s stomach at Cas’s words, and he swallowed slowly, not sure he wanted to know the answer as he asked quietly, “What… what kinds of things?”

“He told me… about the things he did in Hell,” Cas explained, his voice gone very soft and almost ashamed, as if he didn’t want Sam to know, either.

Sam’s stomach lurched at the answer, not at all what he’d expected. He couldn’t even begin to fathom why Dean would have brought up something like that, to Cas of all people – what he could have possibly been hoping to accomplish.  They sat there in silence for a moment, Cas seemingly lost in his own thoughts, while Sam tried to process and make sense of what Cas was telling him.

Cas glanced up at Sam after a moment, and the depth of sorrow and compassion Sam saw there nearly took his breath, as he said, “I think he’s forgotten that… I was there. I know about those things, because I saw him, before I pulled him out, and… and that wasn’t his fault. He was given no choice – at least not one that any mortal is capable to withstand.” Cas was quiet for a moment, considering, before he went on. “And yet I think… he expected me to blame him for those actions as well as…” Cas stopped, swallowing hard, closing his eyes for a moment, before looking up at Sam again. “It almost seemed as if he was… trying to provoke me to violence.”

All at once, it made sense – although it wasn’t the sort of sense that Sam wanted to consider. His heart sank as he replied, quiet and certain. “He wanted to be punished.”

Cas looked up at Sam, a little startled, then thoughtful. Then he nodded slowly. “Yes,” he agreed at last, a distant sadness in his eyes that made Sam’s heart ache with memories of Cas when he’d been an entirely different kind of broken, in the weeks immediately following his taking on Sam’s memories of the Cage. “I suppose he probably did.” He looked up at Sam again, eyes urgent. “It was not my intention to punish him. I just – reacted. I just – I’m very glad I hadn’t healed any further at that point, or...”

Cas didn’t finish – but he didn’t have to. A cold, clenching fear seized Sam’s chest, as his mind filled in the rest, every bit as horrifyingly vivid as the nightmares that had plagued his sleep. If Cas had only been a little bit stronger – if he’d only struck out a little harder – Dean would very likely have been dead.

And just like in his dreams… Sam would have been too late to save him.

Sam rose from his stool abruptly, taking a couple of lurching steps toward the door, only stopped by Cas’s light grip on his hand. His stomach was churning, his heart racing again, unable to focus on anything but how close Dean had come to leaving him behind – without even realizing it. Anger and panic overwhelmed him, swirling together and feeding off each other, swelling up in his chest until he couldn’t breathe.

“Sam?” There was concern in Cas’s voice. “What’s wrong? What…?”

“Nothing,” Sam muttered, avoiding Cas’s eyes as he pulled his hand free. “I just – I need to talk to Dean.”

“Sam… Sam, wait…”

Cas sounded worried, but Sam didn’t look back as he left the kitchen and headed back toward the den. All he could think about was his brother, peacefully oblivious to the danger in which he’d placed himself, and the terror he’d inflicted on Sam – and anger coiled hot in Sam’s belly.

Rested or not – Dean was about to get an abrupt wake up call.

***********************************************

Dean woke up all at once, clear-headed and alert.

He sat up slowly, blinking into the dim glow of the lamp on the table beside the sofa, glancing around the room to take in his surroundings. He realized that he was in his den, having enjoyed a far more comfortable sleep than the lumpy leather sofa would typically have allowed. He didn’t remember coming into this room, had no idea how he’d gotten there.

As he swung his legs over the side of the sofa to sit up fully, Dean became aware of the light pressure across the lower half of his body, and glanced down to see what it was. He abruptly went still when he saw Cas’s blanket draped over his legs. He swallowed slowly, reaching out to touch it cautiously, almost reverently.

And all at once, the memory of the night before slammed into him, driving the breath from his lungs, his heart sinking with regret. He’d said… horrible things, and pushed into Cas’s space in a way that was appalling, given the circumstances, and frightened Cas to the point of falling and hurting his already damaged, vulnerable wings further.

Cas… oh, God, Cas, I’m so sorry…

And yet… it was what had happened afterwards that Dean couldn’t remember, couldn’t even begin to make sense of. Why would Cas have left his blanket there, with Dean, instead of keeping it with him? And why was Dean not awakening with the mother of all hangovers, after the alarming amount he’d had to drink the night before? How had he gotten to this room at all?

Had to be Cas. Not sure where Sam was, but it was just me and Cas until – until I woke up here.

Dean was fairly certain he wouldn’t have been able to manage getting here on his own, let alone getting his shoes off. And Cas’s blanket… the one he carried around like some kind of magic protective shield, the one he didn’t go anywhere without… he couldn’t possibly have left it by accident.

The image that filled Dean’s mind next seemed impossible, something he wouldn’t have dared to imagine – but it was the only explanation he could conceive of: Cas, helping him to this room, then covering him with his blanket and making sure he was comfortable before leaving him to rest. A dull ache started in the back of Dean’s throat. He swallowed hard, closing his eyes, and fighting back the wave of emotion that came with the scene in his mind – disbelief, guilt, and… tiny and flickering but just barely there… a vague sense of hope.

Cas can’t even stand to be near me these days… so why would he do that? Unless… he is starting to… to forgive me? I wish I could remember!

Dean frowned, folding the edges of the worn fabric between his fingers, trying.

“You’re awake.”

Dean looked up at Sam, who was standing in the doorway, watching him with an unreadable expression. Sam looked like hell - dark circles under his eyes, still dressed in the same clothes he’d been wearing when Dean had fled the bunker the day before. And then other memories from the night before came flooding in – memories of Sam’s voice, frantic with worry, on his voicemail; text after text that was just Sam telling – no, begging him to answer his phone, to not do anything stupid, to just come home…

Dean couldn’t look at Sam anymore, so he looked down at Cas’s blanket again, swallowing slowly. “Yeah,” he replied at last, not sure what to say.

He was pretty sure already that Sam was pissed – he’d certainly given him every reason to be. And when Sam opened his mouth again, taking a few measured strides into the room, his words were clipped and sharp, and any doubt as to his mood left Dean’s mind.

“How are you feeling?”

Dean rose to his feet as Sam advanced, tossing the blanket down on the couch with a weird little pang of reluctance that he didn’t want to try too hard to analyze at the moment. “Great, actually,” he replied, pasting on a smile and letting out a forced little chuckle. “Which is… kind of amazing after the night I had. I can’t remember the last time I got that staggering, stupid drunk and didn’t have the mother of all headaches the next morning…”

His words were abruptly broken off as Sam closed the remaining distance between them, his hands tangling in Dean’s collar and shoving forward, slamming him hard against the wall. Dean let out a startled, indignant little cry as his head knocked painfully against the wall behind him, and Sam crowded in close, close enough that Dean could hear the shuddering hitch of his breath, could feel the trembling in his fists clenched tight in the fabric of Dean’s shirt.

“Ow,” he complained, closing his eyes with a grimace as the slightly delayed pain of the impact bloomed through his skull. “There it is,” he groaned.

“You stupid son of a bitch, what the hell were you thinking?” Sam demanded, his voice low and shaking. “How could you do that?”

Dean flinched, looking away, any trace of humor leaving his thoughts as he realized that Sam must have gone and talked to Cas, and Cas must have filled him in on what Dean had done and said the night before. Sam was pretty protective of Cas these days – with good reason – and right now, he had every reason to be pissed off.

“Is Cas okay?” Dean asked, his eyes averted, head lowered. “I’m sorry. I was… really fucking hammered, Sam. I know I shouldn’t have tried to talk to him, but…”

“Not to Cas, you idiot,” Sam snapped, shaking Dean hard enough to make him wince. And when Dean looked up in alarm at his not-so-little little brother, he froze at the anguish in Sam’s eyes. “To me,” Sam hissed. “How could you do that to me?”

“Sam…” Dean shook his head, bewildered. “I… I don’t…”

“Do you know how scared I was?” Sam demanded, fists tightening in Dean’s shirt.  “Hours, Dean.  You took off for hours and I didn’t know what you might be doing… getting yourself stinking drunk was the least of what I was worried about.”

“Just ‘cause I take off for a while is nothing to freak out over,” Dean pointed out, defensive irritation rising up in him at the accusation in Sam’s tone. “I’m a big boy, Sam. I can handle myself.”

Sam tightened his jaw, eyes burning. “I was there, Dean,” he spat out. “Out there on the road last night. I was heading into town to find you, and you passed me headed back to the bunker. What were you thinking? Going out and getting wasted and then driving home?”

“Come on, Sam,” Dean objected, trying for a laugh that came out weak and guilty. “I’m not exactly a lightweight, you know that. I’ve driven way more wasted than that-”

“You almost hit me!”

The blood in Dean’s veins turned to ice at those words, and he could only stare up at Sam in mounting horror as Sam went on.

“Do you even remember that?  How you had to swerve to avoid a person walking beside the road, and almost wrecked in the process?” Sam’s eyes were wide and over-bright, his face suddenly too close.  “Or did you just not care?”

“Sam…” The words felt thick and clumsy in Dean’s mouth, his face flushed hot with shame, and suddenly he couldn’t look at Sam. “I… I’m sorry. I didn’t - I - don’t remember. But…” He forced his eyes up to meet Sam’s, his words quiet and subdued. “... I’m so sorry, Sam. I didn’t mean to… I would never…”

“But you did.”  Sam’s voice cracked on the last word, his fists burning hot where they rested against Dean’s chest.  He sucked in a long breath, eyes flicking away and then back as he gathered himself.  “Dean, God, I just… you could have died so many times last night, and the only thing you care about is that you might have hurt me?”  Sam’s voice grew tight and thin, each word sounding painful.  “Do you have any idea how much it would hurt me if something happened to you?”

“Nothing happened,” Dean said, his words level and cautious in response to the note of panic in his little brother’s voice. “I’m okay, Sammy. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

“How am I supposed to believe that?”

The words were a tight, choked whisper, and the despair in Sam’s eyes made Dean’s heart sink. Concerned, he reached out to Sam, one hand falling at the back of his neck, the other on his shoulder as he pushed Sam back a little to better study his expression. “What? What’s that supposed to mean? Sam, I’m telling you-”

A sound caught between a laugh and a sob cut Dean off, and Sam shook his head.  “What, like you saying it makes it automatically true?”  Sam’s voice was uneven, but the edge of anger was back.  “You almost killed yourself twice last night without even trying!  And it’s not like that’s the first time you’ve gone all self-destructive!”  He dropped his hands from Dean’s shirt and pushed them through his hair.  “After - after what Cas said yesterday…” He inhaled shakily; a tear that had been threatening spilled over, and he looked away.  “I didn’t know what you might do.”

Dean couldn’t find words to argue Sam’s point. He’d just been so upset, so blindsided, that all he’d thought about was getting away – not having to face Cas, knowing what he’d done. The fear Sam must have experienced that night – the memories that must have tormented him, memories of every other time Dean had reacted with reckless, self-destructive behavior to far less than Cas’s accidental revelation of the previous day – it hadn’t even crossed his mind.

“I - I know,” he admitted at last, the words thick, his face flushed with guilt. “You’re right, Sammy, and… I’m not gonna lie to you, okay? When I found out what - what I - did to him…” He cleared his throat, fighting back his own emotions and forcing himself to focus. “I - I thought about it. I did.” He felt Sam tense under his touch, and hurried on, “But then I got your message. Okay? And… and I couldn’t do it.” He let out a bitter huff of laughter, shaking his head. “God knows I deserve it, after… but… I can’t - I’m not gonna do that to you, Sam. I’m not gonna… make this whole fucked up mess and then… leave you and Cas in the middle of it, alone. Hey. Sammy.” Dean ducked his head to try to catch Sam’s eyes, his free hand sliding around Sam’s waist to tug him closer. He waited until Sam looked up at him, a lost expression in eyes that were swimming with tears, to continue. “I promise, okay? I’m here. And I’m not gonna leave you. Not ever.”

Sam gave a quick, tight little nod, chest heaving as he breathed in.  But then a couple of tears fell, and he squeezed his eyes shut, lifting a hand to cover them as he turned away.

Dean caught his arm as he turned, pulling him back. “Sam… Sammy, wait… come here…”

Sam pulled his arm away, but Dean tried again, moving around to face his brother again and putting his arms around him - and this time, Sam didn’t offer any resistance, allowing Dean to draw him close and coax his head down onto Dean’s shoulder. It was then that the tears flowed freely, wet against Dean’s neck, as Sam’s arms wrapped around Dean and held on tight. Dean felt his brother trembling against him, deep, shuddering breaths hot against Dean’s skin.

“You’re not allowed to leave me.”

Sam’s voice was wet and muffled against the skin of Dean’s throat, but his tone was almost defiant, and Dean was reminded of when Sam was very young, masking fear with bravado. The rush of protective affection he felt for Sam was nearly overwhelming, mingled with a sense of shame for making Sam feel this way – and Dean struggled for a moment to control his own emotions, steadying his voice into something low and reassuring.

“I know,” he said softly at last.

Promise.”

Dean’s chest clenched painfully at the desperation in Sam’s voice, and he automatically tightened his arms around his little brother. He closed his eyes, swallowing hard, as he replied in a fierce whisper, words he meant with all his heart.

“I promise. I’m not leaving you, Sammy. I promise.

Chapter Text

When Sam left the kitchen, Castiel’s first instinct was to immediately follow. Sam’s demeanor had been alarming – shaky and stumbling and abruptly distracted, as if he was suddenly very upset – and Castiel was concerned for his friend. But then, if Sam was going to talk to Dean, he reasoned, then they would probably want their privacy, and… and well…

… it was Dean.

Castiel was stronger today than he’d been last night, his healing rapidly accelerated, his body energetic and his grace increasingly powerful.

And still, the thought of being in the same room with Dean Winchester made his insides quake, a cold trickle of fear slipping up his spine.

You’re being silly. Dean won’t hurt you. And… Sam might need you.

Eventually, Castiel followed Sam toward the den – but even from several doors away, he could hear the raised voices coming from beyond the door. He stopped, hesitating, before turning around and walking away. Sam wouldn’t want him eavesdropping on their argument.

An argument that was only happening at all because Castiel had told Sam what had happened last night.

He went back to the kitchen and collected his half-full coffee cup, before making his way to the library, where he waited for a little while. Eventually, Sam would come back, and Castiel could check on his well-being at that point. But then, it occurred to Castiel that it might not be Sam who left the den first when the fight reached its conclusion, but Dean – and he would probably be headed right for the spot he’d occupied most of his waking hours since they’d come here: his seat at the end of the library table.

As soon as that thought occurred to him, Castiel left the library and headed for the privacy and security of the room he’d come to think of as his own. He lay down on the bed on his stomach, his wings spread out on either side of him, and let out a soft sigh of relief as their weight settled onto the mattress. His injuries were vastly mended… but his wings were sore today, aching and throbbing at the places that had been broken.

Castiel just lay there resting them, trying not to think too much about the heated conversation Sam and Dean were having, until finally, he drifted off into a dozing half-sleep. The soft sound of knocking on his door drew him from it, and he glanced at the clock on the bedside table to see that at some point he’d gone from dozing to a full sleep, and more than an hour had passed.

“Cas?” Sam’s voice was slightly muffled beyond the door. “You awake?”

“Yes, come in, Sam,” Castiel replied, his voice hoarse as he drew himself up on his arms, wincing at the ache in his muscles as he did so.

The door opened, and Sam appeared – looking utterly exhausted. His hair was disheveled, his clothing rumpled – but those were details Castiel had noticed when he’d first seen Sam that morning. What really stood out to him were Sam’s eyes – shadowed, puffy and bloodshot from crying. Still, Sam offered him a tired smile.

“Hey,” he said softly as he approached the bed. “Sorry for running out on you like that.”

“It’s all right,” Castiel assured him, wincing as he maneuvered his body up to sit cross-legged on the bed. “I… fell asleep.”

“Yeah, I know.” Sam’s voice was warm with affection, and his smile was genuine despite his obvious exhaustion. Castiel was relieved that everything seemed to have worked out all right between the Winchesters, for the moment, anyway. “I looked in on you a little while ago, but you were out, so I left you alone. Dean made some breakfast. There’s still some down there if you want it.”

“No, thank you,” Castiel replied without really considering the offer. “I have no need for sustenance.”

A slight frown formed on Sam’s face, and he tilted his head slightly, lips parted in an unformed question. Castiel realized what was the source of his confusion before he could ask, and shrugged, looking down self-consciously.

“I don’t need to eat, but I do enjoy the taste of coffee. It’s… a taste I’ve recently acquired.”

“Huh. Okay.”

Sam still seemed vaguely amused, and Castiel didn’t really understand why. He felt oddly uneasy under Sam’s focused attention – anxious in a way that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, and tremendously self-conscious. Glancing back up at Sam, he tried to think of a way to turn the direction of the conversation away from himself.

“How is Dean?” Castiel asked at last, realizing as the words left his lips that he was actually concerned about the answer. It was endlessly confounding to him that, while he could barely tolerate so much as being within sight of the man, he still worried and wondered over Dean Winchester’s well-being nearly as much as he’d done before all of this had happened.

“He’s okay.” Sam’s voice was quiet, as he sat down carefully on the side of Castiel’s bed, turning toward Castiel, his eyes warm and concerned. “Are you?”

“Yes,” Castiel assured him, hesitating over his next words, eyes focused on the pale blue of the bed sheet. “I – I’m sorry, Sam. I didn’t mean to… to cause conflict between you and Dean.”

“You didn’t,” Sam assured him. “Dean did when he left yesterday without saying a word. From that point… conflict was pretty much a given. But… we’re okay now, really, Cas,” Sam insisted. “Actually… I think we’re better than we’ve been in a long time.”

Castiel was confused. “That’s… strange.”

“Really?” Sam laughed in surprise, and Castiel dropped his gaze, a little embarrassed. “Maybe a little, I guess,” Sam conceded. “It’s just… sometimes people need to fight a little bit, just to – to get them talking, you know? We… cleared the air a little. Dealt with a couple of issues that’d been building up. We needed to fight. Does that make sense?”

“Not really.” Castiel was still confused, and he felt bad for making Sam waste his time trying to explain. “I’m sorry.”

Hey.” Sam leaned forward a little, reaching out to place a hand on Castiel’s bent knee. He didn’t say anything else right away, but he gently squeezed Castiel’s leg, and Castiel reluctantly looked up at him, to see mingled fondness and sternness on Sam’s face. “Would you stop that?” Sam’s tone was mildly exasperated.

He frowned. “Stop… what?”

“Apologizing when you didn’t do anything wrong.” Sam’s affectionate, vaguely sad little smile belied the gently scolding tone of his voice. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“I’m quite certain that isn’t true,” Castiel replied, a brief pang of sorrow making his chest ache for a moment, and he looked away again, self-conscious. “But… I don’t mean to… to worry you. I’m…” His voice trailed off, as he abruptly realized that this was probably precisely the kind of apology that Sam wished for him to stop offering. He looked up at Sam, guilty… to see the warm amusement in Sam’s eyes, the way he was trying very hard not to smile. When Castiel’s words broke off, Sam let out a quiet laugh, and his hand on Castiel’s knee rubbed lightly back and forth for a moment before he withdrew it and placed it on his own thigh.

“Well,” Sam stated brightly. “That’s a start, right?”

Castiel returned his smile, a little uncertainly, and nodded. “Yes,” he agreed. “I will attempt to refrain.”

Sam nodded once, decisively, as he rose to his feet, and Castiel shifted back to rest against the headboard. The cool, smooth surface felt good against his aching wings; but the movement itself made him bite back a little groan.

Sam frowned, turning around and eyeing Castiel cautiously. “What’s wrong? Where are you hurting?”

Castiel attempted a weak, faltering smile. “It’s nothing. I just… my wings are a little sore today.”

“They hurt more today?” Sam was clearly alarmed as he sat back down on the corner of the bed. “That can’t be good.”

“Oh, no, my wings are much improved,” Castiel hurried to reassure him. “It’s just… I seem to have… over-worked them somewhat, flying Dean to the room where he slept last night. They’re… a little worse, since I woke up.”

Sam opened his mouth as if to speak, then hesitated, biting the corner of his lip with a little frown. Then he began again, cautious. “Would you – do you want me to look them over? Make sure you haven’t – torn anything open again, or…?”

A strange fluttering feeling rose in Castiel’s chest as he considered the offer, frowning.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said quickly, holding up his hands. “I shouldn’t have asked, I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable, Cas. I just… I know you can’t see them yourself, and – if you’re hurt…”

“No, it’s all right,” Castiel insisted. “I – I’m used to you touching them. It – it doesn’t make me uncomfortable.”

It wasn’t quite the truth. Castiel wasn’t sure that having his wings touched by a human was something he’d ever really get used to – and he desperately hoped that he wouldn’t have to get used to it.

But it wasn’t quite a lie, either – because he trusted Sam. And if someone had to check his wings, to touch them and feel carefully for any hidden injuries, Castiel was glad that it was Sam.

“If you don’t want me to, I won’t.” Sam spoke softly, his tone carefully neutral. “It’s entirely up to you. Whatever you need from me.”

A little shiver passed through Castiel’s body as he remembered the last time Sam had touched his wings, the day before. Yes, the feelings evoked by Sam’s hands moving with capable ease through sensitive feathers, massaging the muscles beneath them, carefully seeking out any places in need of care and attention – those feelings had been confusing. But… they’d been confusing because they had felt so good. It wasn’t fear or shame that Castiel felt now, at the thought of those strong, gentle hands on his wings again.

It was… anticipation.

Sam moved to stand up, clearly taking Castiel’s silence as refusal.

“Yes,” Castiel said abruptly, reaching out to catch Sam’s hand and hold him there. “I – I want you to. Please.” Sam hesitated, studying Castiel’s face closely, and Castiel fought the instinct to avert his gaze, instead holding eye contact with Sam as he stated firmly, “I trust you, Sam. And – you’re the only one I trust to do this for me, so… please. Yes.”

“Okay,” Sam agreed at last. “Turn around for me, okay?”

Castiel obeyed, wincing as he shifted his body on the mattress so that his back was to Sam, his wings fully exposed to Sam’s attentions. When Sam’s hands finally made contact, stroking slowly and firmly through the outer feathers first, and then deeper, pressing gently into the muscles of Castiel’s wings, Castiel found himself not shuddering away, but rather instinctively pushing into Sam’s touch, closing his eyes at the pleasurable sensations that passed over him.

“Your muscles feel a little tight,” Sam observed, his voice a little strained, but calm. “I’m not finding any open cuts or anything, though. I think you’re right. You probably just over-worked them a little bit. You’ll want to take your time before you do any flying again, okay, Cas?”

Castiel nodded. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, that’s… wise.”

Sam’s hands moved carefully downward, inspecting every inch of Castiel’s wings for hidden damage. The sensation was physically pleasurable, and emotionally reassuring as well. Castiel wasn’t sure just how he’d come to associate Sam Winchester with security and comfort; he just knew that he felt safe when Sam was touching him. As Sam completed the process, however, Castiel began to feel a little uneasy, after all – not with the contact, or his own exposure.

It was the silence that troubled him. Last time, Sam had spoken softly to him the entire time, asking him if he was all right, making sure he wasn’t in pain, or just keeping up a steady stream of soothing sound. But this time, Sam didn’t speak at all – and he seemed to be moving more quickly than he had the last time, too. The hands that had been so steady the last time were now trembling just slightly, and suddenly an unpleasant thought occurred to Castiel.

Was it he that was making Sam uncomfortable by asking him to do this?

It was a very personal, very intimate thing Castiel was asking of Sam – and Sam was with Dean. Why would he want to touch Castiel like this, now that he knew what it meant, the weight it carried for an angel? Suddenly, he felt foolish, and exposed in a way that he hadn’t really felt, not with Sam, in quite a while, despite the state of his wings.

By the time Sam was finished, Castiel was trembling, too, his arms wrapped awkwardly around his chest, his head bowed low. Sam ran a hand lightly down the back of Castiel’s left wing, and he reflexively pulled away, the unnecessary, affectionate touch making him recoil.

“Cas? Hey…” Sam’s voice was soft and concerned, and then his arm was warm and firm around Castiel’s back, under his wings, his head bowed close to Castiel’s. “Hey, come on. What’s wrong?”

Castiel’s face felt hot and his eyes were burning; he couldn’t bring himself to look at Sam, humiliated by his own emotions. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, shaking his head.

“No, don’t be sorry.” Sam’s words were hushed and coaxing. “What’d I do? Talk to me.”

“It’s – you didn’t do anything, it’s just…” Castiel swallowed hard. “I – you shouldn’t have to do this. To – see me like this. I… it’s too… personal. Too - too much to ask of you. I – I don’t want to make you uncomfortable…”

Sam was silent for a moment, and Castiel intensely felt his attention, burning under his skin. His wings shrank inward and down, and once again he felt the need to hide them. He felt sick, wanted to be anywhere else – and at the same time, wanted nothing more than the comfort of Sam’s arm around him, protective and reassuring. Something inside him felt like it was breaking at the thought that maybe Sam didn’t want to offer that; maybe he just felt like he had to.

When Sam finally broke the silence, his voice was quiet and measured. “This is because of yesterday.”

Castiel was silent.

“You think… it changed things. That… I don’t want to touch you now, after – now that I know,” Sam concluded gently. “Is that it?”

Castiel hesitated, then closed his eyes in shame as he nodded slowly.

“Cas,” he began, drawing in a breath slowly. “You know what yesterday changed for me?” Cas couldn’t bring himself to respond, and Sam’s hand squeezed gently at his waist as Sam went on, his words low and gentle. “Almost nothing. Okay? You’re still my friend. My friend that’s hurt in a place he can’t reach and needs me to help him take care of that. I don’t see you any differently. It didn’t bother me to touch your wings yesterday – and it doesn’t bother me to do it today. All right?”

Cas nodded again, feeling the beginnings of relief winding their way through the leaden weight in his chest – though he still couldn’t bring himself to look up.

“What it changes – the only thing it changes – is this,” Sam continued. “That you – ask me to do this for you? That you trust me that much?”

Castiel was quiet, unable to bring himself to speak, closing his eyes and just focusing on the steady pressure of Sam’s arm around him. Sam’s voice was hushed, almost reverent, and it made Castiel and everything around him seem to go suddenly still.

“It’s an honor.”

Sam was quiet for a moment, and then he reached out with his free hand, tugging gently as Castiel’s arm to turn him so that they were sitting facing each other on the bed. “Cas… maybe this isn’t my place, but…” Sam hesitated. “… I know it’s different for angels. I mean… your wings… they mean something different to you than… than they would to a human. And… I know I’m just a dumb human and I can’t really get it, but… to me?” Cas glanced up at Sam, uncertain, and Sam shook his head slightly. “When I see your wings? I don’t see ‘naked’. I don’t see ‘victim’.” A faint, grim smile formed on Sam’s lips, and Castiel could see the awe in Sam’s eyes as he went on, “I see ‘badass’. I see ‘this is someone who is not to be fucked with’. All right? And that’s how any human would see them.”

Castiel looked away, thoughtful, caught off guard by Sam’s words. He’d felt such an innate sense of shame at his wings’ exposure, he’d never stopped to consider that to someone who was not an angel, they might be perceived differently. Sam waited until Castiel looked up to meet his eyes again before continuing, his voice filled with quiet conviction.

“They’re powerful, Cas. And they’re beautiful. So… I know you want them hidden. And I wish I knew how to hide them for you right now. But… until we can... you should know that… you have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Castiel looked away from the intensity in Sam’s eyes, feeling self-conscious again, but in an oddly pleasant way.

“I’m gonna go help Dean with the research,” Sam said as he stood up. “He said he’s feeling really good after last night’s sleep, so… he doesn’t intend to sleep again until he finds the way to conceal your wings. So… I’m gonna get down there and see if I can make that go a little faster.”

Castiel nodded, silent, and Sam left him to his thoughts. He stayed there for quite some time, drawing conclusions and trying to piece his thoughts together in a way that made sense.

The echo of Sam’s words cut through his preconceived notions, his self-conscious fears of what Sam – and Dean, too – might be thinking of him when they saw his wings.

Of course, there was more to it than their mere appearance. There were the memories that assailed his mind, every time he was even in the same room with Dean, memories of his wings being forcibly torn out of their natural, hidden place and ripped to pieces by brutal hands. There was the implication, just by allowing Dean to see what he’d done to them, that Dean could possibly do the same thing again.

But his wings were growing strong again now. He remembered lashing out in desperate terror, attempting to strike out at Dean and free himself in the basement of the cabin – and he remembered how the blow had come back on him, shattering his wing, the unspeakable agony emphasizing how powerless he’d been in that moment. Robbed of their power, retaining their sensitivity – his wings had been reduced to a point of vulnerability, the most effective point of torture for the man who had bound him.

But there was no spell binding him to Dean Winchester now.

And his wings were no longer a liability. They were no longer weak and vulnerable. They were a weapon, again. If he were to strike out at Dean with one of his wings now, Castiel knew with certainty… the result would be much different, this time.

Sam’s words had changed the way he saw his entire situation. It was a lot to process, and Castiel felt just a little overwhelmed by the way those few simple words had tilted his entire worldview on its axis.

Finally, Castiel left his room and headed down the hall toward the library – determination in his footsteps, even if his stomach did clench a little tighter with each one, his nerves screaming for him to turn around and go back.

He stopped near the doorway, momentarily frozen by his fears – and then suddenly made an alteration to his course, turning back down the hall and toward the den. He wrapped his blanket carefully around his shoulders, covering his wings as best he could, before returning to the library – and cautiously stepping inside.

**********************************************************

“Do you have that book on Enochian symbolism?” Dean was already tired of studying, but determined to complete this task once and for all as he glanced across the table at his brother.

He immediately froze when he saw Cas, standing near the doorway a few yards behind Sam. He was silent, watching Dean through wide, solemn eyes, his fingers working nervously in the corners of his blanket clutched tight together in front of him. Dean’s heart sank a little at first, because this looked much more like the Cas of recent days than the powerful, assertive Cas he’d briefly encountered the night before. But then, Dean realized.

The Cas of recent days wouldn’t have dared to set foot in this room – not while Dean was in it.

“The 1902 version, or the ’43?” Sam asked, sounding distracted, before he looked up at Dean.

Immediately he frowned with alarm, turning in his seat to see what Dean was looking at. He blinked in surprise, then put on an inviting smile. Sam’s voice was carefully level as he spoke.

“Hey, Cas. Is there something you need?”

“No.” Cas’s voice was quiet, and he looked down at his own fidgeting hands, a slow swallow visible in his throat, before his jaw set and he looked up again, deliberately focusing his gaze on Sam and keeping it there as he went on. “I think perhaps there’s something you need. As you’re attempting to locate the counter-spell to an Enochian ritual that was never actually recorded in writing… I believe it’d be helpful to have someone involved in the effort who actually… speaks Enochian, would it not?”

Disbelief accompanied the slow understanding that filled Dean’s mind, and he looked at Sam to answer. He was too dumbstruck – and even if he hadn’t been, he knew that this was up to Sam to handle. The wrong word from him right now could easily spook Cas and send him fleeing back to the safety of his own room.

A slow smile spread across Sam’s face, and he reached out his hand toward the angel. “It sure would,” he agreed. “Thanks, Cas. Come on, why don’t you sit down?”

Cas hesitated, glancing toward Dean for the barest of instants before shuffling into the room a little further and taking the seat nearest Sam – of course. Dean looked away, trying to ignore the pang of jealous hurt he felt when Cas reached out to briefly clutch Sam’s hand, like a lifeline, like he needed the reassurance that Sam was close enough to touch, to give him enough strength and courage to stay.

Dean tried not to question his own emotions, and whether he was bothered by Cas touching Sam, or by Sam touching Cas. He tried to remind himself of what this meant, of the huge thing that it was, just that Cas was willingly in the same room with him at all.

It didn’t make the sting go away, but it did ease it somewhat.

Dean and Cas didn’t interact, not directly. When Cas wanted a book that was in Sam’s stack, Sam handed it to him; when he needed one in Dean’s, he spoke quietly to Sam, and then Sam retrieved the book for him and brought it to him. When Dean asked a question about a word he was having trouble with, Cas would state the required information, but he always directed his words more toward Sam than Dean, and shifted uneasily in his seat, usually reaching out to touch Sam as if the contact alone settled his nerves.

Get over it, Dean told himself fiercely when Cas leaned in to whisper to Sam for what felt like the millionth time. You don’t have the fucking right to be pissed at him for anything he does or says right now. Considering he’s got his angel mojo back, you’re damn lucky to be alive right now, let alone in the same room with him and working together. More or less. So get over yourself, and do what you can to try to make things right.

But Dean wasn’t angry – not really. He realized as the evening wore on that, more than anything, he just… missed Cas. It stung, watching Sam with Cas – because Dean remembered when he was the one Cas talked to when he had questions about humanity, when he was the one whose relationship with the odd little angel seemed weird and strangely intense to Sam. Even when he hadn’t wanted it, or hadn’t realized he’d wanted it – Dean knew now: he’d always been Cas’s person, the one he turned to for help, for support, for friendship.

And now, Cas was scared to so much as meet Dean’s eyes.

And that was Dean’s fault.

Not Cas’s. Not Sam’s. So suck it up, Winchester.

It was around the time that Dean was giving himself this rather brutal mental dressing down that Cas closed the book he was working with, gave a frustrated sigh, and rose from his seat. He crossed the room toward the shelves behind Dean, and Dean kept his eyes carefully focused on the notes he was taking, barely daring to move even enough to write – not wanting to do anything to startle Cas or scare him, now that he’d dared to leave the “safety zone” that was Sam’s side.

Dean froze completely as Cas moved so close to his seat that the edge of Cas’s blanket brushed Dean’s sleeve – and then stopped. Dean’s mouth went dry, and he hesitantly glanced up to see that Cas was leaning slightly over the table beside him, frowning down at his notes. Cas drew a slightly uneven breath, hesitating just a moment before he pressed a finger to the page, directly under a certain Enochian word beside which Dean had scrawled, “reveal?

“This is… actually something more like ‘illuminate’,” Cas said in a very soft, subdued tone, his eyes never leaving the page. “As in… illumination of something already visible. It wouldn’t be to… reveal something hidden. That would be…” He froze, then reached down, lightning quick, as if afraid he’d not be able to make himself complete the motion, and snatched up the pen that lay on the table, a few inches from Dean’s hand. A few quick, graceful strokes, and he’d replaced the Enochian symbol Dean had crudely drawn with his own, much clearer, much more specific writing. “… this. This is to reveal what’s hidden.”

And without another word, Cas set the pen down and moved with hurried steps back to Sam’s side, where he sat down in his chair and fumbled with the book he’d selected for a moment before hiding both hands in his lap, his eyes downcast, his breath too quick and uneven. Sam wasn’t at all subtle about reaching under the table to clasp Cas’s hand in his – but Dean couldn’t resent him for it, not when he saw the way Cas’s eyes closed in relief, the way his shoulders fell and relaxed at the contact.

Not when Cas had actually ventured to talk to him.

Not around him. Not through Sam – but to Dean, directly.

Dean was appalled at the sudden burn behind his eyes, the way the word Cas had just written so beautifully blurred in front of them. His throat ached, and his chest felt tight, and the sense of gratitude he felt for so simple a gesture was pathetic.

But he knew how much that simple gesture had cost his friend.

Thanks, Cas… for the missing information… for breaking the silence… for acknowledging I exist… for taking this step and being in this fucking room in the first place…

After a few minutes, Dean managed to get himself together enough to focus and continue his work.

Sam didn’t last very long, sitting quietly and studying. Dean was aware that his actions of the night before had kept Sam from sleeping much at all, because it showed in the weariness of his eyes, in the heaviness of his steps – and Dean was not at all surprised when Sam fell asleep literally with his face in the large, boring book he’d been working with.

Immediately Cas rose from his seat, not looking at Dean as he spoke. “I’ll put him to bed. He needs to rest.”

Before Dean could even decide whether or not to answer, Cas had reached out to touch Sam’s brow, and both of them were gone.

Dean frowned, momentarily jealous again – though this time it was clear to him why. He was the one who put Sam to bed when he was sick, or drunk, or simply too dead on his feet to stand.

Cas doesn’t know how to take care of him, he thought, a little agitated. He considered going to Sam’s room to make sure he’d been properly put to bed, but then decided against it. It was almost a certainty that Cas would stay with Sam and, if not sleep beside him, at least watch over him while he rested. And Dean’s showing up would be a sure way to make sure that he spoiled what little rest and peace both Sam and Cas were trying to get.

And, well… Cas did all right by me, didn’t he?

Dean actually smiled a little at that thought. Sam had told him what Cas had done when he’d put Dean to sleep the previous night, how he’d ensured that Dean would not wake until his body was rested. And Sam definitely needed that kind of a rest.

So he stayed put, and renewed his research with fervor more determined than ever to find the answer as quickly as possible. Cas was so brave, and trying so hard – but he was still clearly so self-conscious, so timid in a way he’d never been before his wings had been forced out into the light. Dean imagined how he’d feel, forced to walk around naked in public at all times – trying to fight, while utterly vulnerable to his opponent’s gaze – being violated, and then forced to parade in front of the person who’d done it, completely exposed.

He had done that to Cas – and he had to find a way to undo it.

He was going to find a way. And he wasn’t going to rest until he did.

************************************************************

Sam awoke the next morning, alert and rested, in his own bed, with no idea how he got there – at least, until he felt the weight of an arm across his chest, and turned to see Cas sleeping with his head on the pillow beside him. Sam smiled, feeling the warmth of affection bloom through his chest as he realized that Cas had done the same thing for him that he’d done for Dean the night before.

He frowned, as he considered that it must have been the exact same thing.

Cas stirred as Sam shifted his arm over and sat up. He blinked sleepy eyes up at Sam, and Sam gave him a stern look.

“Did you fly me here, Cas?”

“Yes,” Cas mumbled, turning his head back down into the pillow. He was already asleep again, and oblivious to Sam’s disapproval.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Sam sighed, his words and touch both soft as he ran his hand down Cas’s arm, then pulled the blanket up to better cover him.

He rose from the bed and made his way to the door, suspecting that he’d have to go to the library and wake Dean to send him to his bed – but instead, he nearly tripped over his brother, sitting in the hallway outside his bedroom door, asleep with his back against the wall.

Alarmed, Sam crouched down in front of Dean, shaking his shoulder gently. “Dean?” he asked, his voice hushed but urgent. “Dean…” He waited until Dean opened his eyes, blinking sleepily at him as his vision slowly came into focus. “Dean, what are you doing sleeping here? Are you okay?”

Dean was quiet for a moment, sleepy confusion in his eyes fading into awareness – and then excitement. He smiled – a bright, beaming, happy smile like Sam hadn’t seen on his brother’s face in longer than he could remember – and he raised one hand from the floor. In it he held a crumpled piece of paper covered front and back with his familiar scrawl that Sam knew only Dean would actually be able to read.

“I found it, Sammy,” Dean said, his voice a hoarse, exhausted croak, his eyes tired, but his expression one of peace and relief – and as he spoke, Sam felt that same relief flooding through him, as he realized what Dean meant. “I found it. We can help Cas now. We can fix his wings.”

Chapter Text

"So… you're absolutely certain. This is the only way the spell can be reversed."

Cas's voice was quiet and calm, his posture erect and confident – but as Sam had carefully explained to him what Dean had discovered about the ritual they were about to perform – Cas's wings betrayed him. As Sam spoke, a supportive arm wrapped low around Cas's waist, Cas's beautiful, majestic wings had gone from a high arch in his excitement… to slowly wilting with every word that fell from Sam's lips, as what was going to be required of him became more and more clear.

"I'm sorry, Cas," Sam softly replied. "I've checked and double-checked - and then I checked again, and… I can't see another way. And maybe we could find a different spell, with enough time – or maybe there isn't one. We can't be sure." Sam sighed. "I just wish…"

"All right, then." Cas cut him off with a single, slow nod, his words unnaturally measured and even, his gaze focused straight ahead. "If you say it's what must be done, then… I trust that it's true. Whatever we have to do."

Sam felt the soft brush of feathers against his arm, heard the tell-tale rustling that betrayed how Cas was trembling. He instinctively shifted closer, his arm around Cas gently squeezing in an attempt at reassurance.

"Cas… it'll just be a minute, and it'll be over. It's gonna be…"

"May I…" Cas broke in, his voice slightly raised, and Sam fell silent, waiting. Cas hesitated a moment before meeting his eyes and asking, "May I… have a moment alone, please?"

************************************************************************

When Sam returned to the library where he'd left his brother, Dean was pacing the floor, anxiously glancing at the clock on the wall. His eyes were wide and haunted as they darted up to meet Sam's, the moment Sam walked through the doorway.

"Is he coming?"

Dean's voice was impatient and fearful, as if he wasn't quite sure which answer he was hoping for. His excitement over finally finding the means to conceal Cas's wings again had lasted only about halfway through his explanation of the ritual to Sam, when it had slowly dawned on both of them just how difficult and traumatic the specifics of the spell would be for their friend.

"I think so," Sam replied, moving further into the room, closer to Dean. "He wanted a few minutes alone first, so I told him we'd wait for him here."

Dean nodded slightly, running a shaky hand down over his face before looking up at Sam with anguished eyes. Almost immediately his gaze shifted away, guilty. Sam ventured closer, reaching out to touch Dean's arm. Dean pulled away, but Sam shifted to block him, pressing in so that Dean's back was to the table and he couldn't get away. Only once there was no escape left to him did Dean allow himself to surrender, his shoulders falling, his head lowered as he drew in a shaky breath and let it out slowly.

"I don't want to do this to him, Sammy," he confessed, his voice cracking over the words. "Not - not again."

"You know it's not the same thing." Sam reached out to put his arms around Dean and pull him in close. "This time, you're helping him. This is what he needs - and you're the only one that can do it for him."

"Yeah. And he wouldn't need it at all if I hadn't…" Dean's words trailed off, and he raised his hand again to press against tired eyes, letting out a heavy sigh.

"This is different," Sam insisted. "It's his choice-"

"What choice?" Dean cut him off sharply, raising his head, his voice trembling with anger. "This isn't a choice. To let me do this ritual, or - or to never have his body be his own again? What the fuck kind of a choice is that?"

Sam had no reassuring answer to offer, because Dean was right. This sucked. So instead, he just stayed close, keeping his hands on Dean, hoping his touch was soothing, stabilizing - and it did seem to ease Dean's rattled nerves, judging by the way he leaned into Sam's touch, resting his head on Sam's chest for just a moment before looking up again.

Immediately, Sam felt Dean tense against him, and looked up to see that his eyes were locked onto the doorway. His stomach twisted with a sudden, irrational stab of guilt, and Sam automatically stepped back, moving away from Dean a little as he turned toward the door. This was not the time for Cas to find Sam locked in an embrace with the man who had tortured and violated him - the man who was about to put his hands on him again, in order to give him the closure he needed. Cas was far too fragile right now to have to…

The words faded, unfinished, in Sam's mind as his vision focused on Cas, standing just inside the library doorway - because "fragile" was not a word that could be used to describe the way he looked in that moment.

His posture was regal, his back straight and head held high. His eyes were wide and wary, but his expression was calm as he glanced between Sam and Dean, silently taking in the scene - and once again, Sam felt unreasonably ashamed. He resisted the urge to take another step away from his brother; Dean needed his support as much as Cas did in this moment - maybe more.

Because Cas seemed perfectly composed - calm and in control. As Cas slowly advanced until he was standing just a few short feet away from them, Sam found his eyes drawn toward Cas's wings - no longer folded against his back in that shamed, submissive stance from a few minutes earlier - but fully unfurled, erect and flowing out gracefully behind him as he moved.

The sight of him took Sam's breath, and he found his heart inexplicably racing.

Cas's voice was soft but steady when he broke the uneasy stillness that filled the room.

"I'm ready."

With an effort, Sam managed to draw his gaze away from Cas to look toward Dean, who glanced back at him uncertainly before turning his attention toward Cas - but his gaze remained somewhere around Cas's knees, unable to make eye contact.

"Are - are you sure? Because… if you need more time, we can…"

"I said I'm ready." there was an edge to Cas's voice, and his jaw was stubbornly set, defiance in his eyes. "Let's just… just get it done, please. I want…" His voice trailed off, and his eyes lowered as he swallowed hard. When he finished, his voice was softer, and the quiet desperation there made Sam's chest ache. "I just want it done."

Sam heard Dean draw in a shuddering breath beside him, before nodding once, firmly, squaring his shoulders, visibly steeling himself. "Okay," he agreed, a little too emphatically. "Okay, so… you know how this is gonna work, right? Sam…"

"He told me everything." Cas's tone was strained, a little impatient, and Sam noticed with alarm the way his wings twitched and shifted slightly, even as his human body remained still and outwardly calm. "I have been informed of all that you have to do. So do it."

"Right. Okay." Dean reached into his jacket and took out a knife.

Immediately, Cas's wings arched upward, assuming a stance that Sam recognized at once to be defensive - although Cas's human form barely flinched. Still, Sam could see the dread in Cas's eyes, the tension around his mouth as he struggled for control. Sam glanced back at the knife in Dean's hand - and was sick with sudden understanding.

The reversal spell had to be done by the same person who'd done the original spell – and it had to be done using the same knife that had originally shed Cas's blood.

Dean looked like he was trying for all he was worth just to not throw up, a slow swallow visible in his throat as he closed his eyes, holding up his empty hand in an appeasing gesture. "It just takes… a small cut, Cas… just enough to get a little blood," he explained in a voice that was apologetic, almost pleading. "So… wherever you want…"

Cas silently held out his arm, palm upward, toward Dean, though his wings maintained their poised, ready stance. Dean took a cautious step toward him, and they rose a little, like the hackles of a cat. They looked powerful, intimidating - but Sam could hear the faint sound of their trembling.

Dean's eyes widened as he took in the awesome, terrible sight of Cas's most natural weapon, battle ready - against him. He edged nearer to Cas, his every motion measured and cautious, eyes drifting warily between Cas's wings and his face.

"I - I don't want to do this," he said softly. "But… I'm the only one who can, so… so don't smite me, okay?" He let out a choked sound that was probably supposed to have been a laugh, but came out way too forced and fearful, before adding, "Then you'd be stuck like this forever, and that would suck, right?"

Cas blinked in surprise - and then his eyes narrowed, even as Sam cringed at his brother's poorly chosen attempt at levity.

To his credit, Dean realized how it sounded a moment later, and grimaced. "Sorry," he said. "That's not… that was stupid. What I meant was… I'm just trying to help." He hesitated a moment, biting his lip, before raising his eyes to Cas's face, his eyes pleading, his voice soft. "I'm not gonna hurt you, Cas-"

"No." Cas's voice was quiet, but edged with unmistakable certainty as he cut Dean off. "No, you're not."

As he spoke, Cas's wings arched upward just a little, and Sam's blood ran cold.

"Cas," he began, cautiously taking a step toward the angel, reaching out a steadying hand toward Cas's arm - but Cas side-stepped away from him with a wary glance. "It's okay," Sam insisted. "All right? Here, let me…"

"No, Sam," Cas said softly, his eyes back on Dean as he held up a hand toward Sam. There was a barely detectable tremor underlying his words as he stated, "You must not touch me. Not - not until this is done."

Sam froze, mentally double-checking Dean's research. He frowned, confused; there was no reason why he shouldn't touch Cas, no dangers involved with physical contact. He studied Cas, a little closer - and that was when he saw it. The almost frantic gleam in his eyes, the way his outstretched hand was shaking just a little. Cas seemed calm and controlled, as ready as he could possibly be for what had to be done.

But his control was an illusion; he was just one moment of panic away from smiting first… and regretting it forever.

"I'm… I'm all right," Cas insisted, tense and quiet, not taking his eyes off Dean. "Just - please just get it done."

Only a step remained between where Cas stood, and Dean. Another taut moment passed before Dean managed to tear his gaze away from Cas's wings, draw in a deep breath… and close that remaining distance. Standing only inches from Cas, the knife in his trembling hand, Dean finally ventured to lift his eyes to Cas's face.

It was a cruel parody of a familiar scene Sam had been witness to many times - Dean and Cas, unnaturally close, Cas's eyes locked onto Dean in open fascination, as if he was a brand new mystery to be figured out, every single time that they met. Only this time, Dean was staring back at Cas with sorrow in his eyes, as if he was seeing something precious and priceless, something he hadn't even realized was his until it had been snatched from his hand.

Sam had known about Dean's feelings for Cas before Dean did - but it didn't make him jealous. There was no question in Sam's mind that he was and always would be Dean's entire world. So, it had always made him happy to see the way Cas looked at Dean, as if Dean was his entire world. Dean deserved that, though he'd never see it.

Now, however, Cas's watchful eyes were guarded, wary, as if he was trying to figure out how he could possibly have been so betrayed, how someone who was everything to him could have hurt him so badly… how everything could have gone so horribly wrong.

"Cas…" Dean broke the silence, his voice aching with sorrow. "I - I'm so…"

"Don't." Cas's sad eyes didn't falter, but there was something raw and desperate in his whisper. "I - I know, Dean. But… it doesn't…" Cas shook his head, at a loss, his gaze finally dropping as he closed his eyes and lowered his head a little, pointedly holding out his arm a little further. "Just… do it. Now. Please."

Dean was quiet for a moment, watching Cas with defeated eyes, before he finally replied. "Yeah. Okay."

He drew in a shuddering breath, reaching out an unsteady hand to take Cas's wrist in a firm but gentle grasp. Cas's wings jerked and his breath caught audibly in his throat, but he didn't strike out or pull his arm away, or even open his eyes. Dean hesitated, lips parted as if to warn Cas, but then he seemed to think better of it, and drew the blade swiftly and surely across Cas's forearm.

Blood welled up quickly from the cut, and Dean slid his hand across it, collecting it on his fingers, then doing the same with his other hand. Cas opened his eyes and looked down at the wound for a moment before glancing up at Dean again. Dean made eye contact with him, making sure Cas saw what he was doing before he reached out toward Cas's wings where they curled forward around his body.

Dean hesitated just a moment before placing his blood-stained hands against the surface of the gleaming black feathers. His voice shook and broke over the awkward Enochian that fell from his lips, and Sam's own vision blurred when he saw the tears that streaked Dean's face, illuminated by the brilliant white light that began to glow, and then shine forth from the point of contact between Dean and Cas, swelling and brightening until Sam had to turn his head away and close his eyes.

As the light faded away, Sam blinked a few times, his vision slowly coming into focus. He heard the echo of swiftly retreating footsteps, and wasn't surprised that by the time he could see clearly again, Dean was nowhere to be found. Cas stood alone, still and silent, one arm wrapped protectively around his stomach. The spell had worked, and his wings were no longer visible - and Sam immediately felt guilty for the irrational sense of loss he felt at that realization.

This was what Cas wanted, what he needed - to have his privacy, his dignity returned to him.

So… why did he look so utterly bereft? His eyes were downcast, and so very, very sad.

"Cas?" Sam kept his voice soft, cautious, as he took a step toward him.

Cas looked up at Sam, blinking, and he looked so lost, so utterly shell-shocked, that Sam immediately closed the remaining distance between them, wrapping his arms around Cas and pulling him close.

Cas remained rigid, unmoving, for a long moment… before his body slowly, slowly began to relax into Sam's arms. And then his own arms came up to slide around Sam's waist, and he buried his face in Sam's shirt. His entire body was shivering, and Sam instinctively shifted him closer.

"Shhh," Sam whispered, running his hand slowly, soothingly over the smooth expanse of pale skin where only moments earlier, Cas's wings had been, and trying not to think about the cold ache he felt at their absence. "It's okay. I've got you, Cas… I've got you…"

Cas's shaking hands grasped at Sam's sides, and his head pressed against Sam's sternum, so hard it almost hurt, as if he was trying to literally hide himself in Sam. His entire body was shaking all over as he gasped for breath - and suddenly, Sam understood why Cas had told him not to touch him until the spell was complete. It wasn't the fear of lashing out that had made Cas reject his support.

It was the fear of breaking down.

Cas had managed to pull himself together, to hold onto a facade of strength and composure that he needed to help him face the prospect of willingly allowing Dean to put his hands on him, on his wings, again - but he'd been desperately clutching at it, barely able to keep it within his grasp, and he'd known what Sam knew now - all it would have taken to shatter him was a single, gentle touch of Sam's hand.

"It's all right," Sam whispered, raising one hand to stroke gently through Cas's hair, his words thick with the protective tenderness he felt. "It's over now, Cas. It's really over. Okay? You're all right…"

It was strange, how now that his wings were hidden, Cas seemed more vulnerable and exposed to Sam than he'd ever seemed before. His breathing was hitched and uneven, his skin cool and shivering under Sam's hand. Sam wasn't sure whether he was actually cold, or just in shock, but he drew back a little, shrugging out of the loose, unbuttoned shirt he wore over his t-shirt and then wrapping it gently around Cas's shoulders. Cas settled in closer to him, slowly regaining control of the residual panic released in the wake of the ritual.

"Sam," he said at last, his voice a hoarse sob, and he raised his head a little - but whatever he wanted to say, he couldn't seem to get it out, and only repeated, his shoulders shaking and his voice muffled against Sam's t-shirt. "Sam…"

"I'm here," Sam murmured, closing his eyes and lowering his head. He almost, almost pressed a kiss into Cas's hair - but stopped himself at the last moment. He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry, his heart racing; that was for Dean - and the last kind of complication Cas needed right now. "I-I'm here, Cas… it's all right," he repeated, trying to ignore the heavy pit in his stomach and focus on what Cas did need from him.

Whatever questions or feelings Cas had wanted to voice, but couldn't, Sam's response seemed to calm him, and he went quiet, gradually stilling against Sam's chest. Finally, he drew back, looking down at the enormous shirt wrapped around his shoulders. He glanced up at Sam, and the hesitant half-smile, the wondering look in his eyes as he slid his arms into the sleeves of Sam's shirt made Sam's stomach twist uncomfortably - because this was wrong, so wrong to let Cas feel this way, to let him go on seeing Sam with such grateful, worshipping eyes.

And… that wasn't even the worst of it. Sam tried to ignore the way the look on Cas's face made him feel, how ridiculously adorable Cas looked in his shirt, practically swimming in the extra folds of soft fabric… how much he wanted to brush Cas's disheveled hair out of his face with a tender kiss, to slide his hands under the shirt and pull Cas into his arms again.

He knew Cas would let him. Hell, Cas would be fucking grateful for Sam's attention and affection - never guessing that there might be a reason why he shouldn't be.

A sick feeling of guilt crept up Sam's throat, but he managed to hold a reassuring smile until Cas impulsively, unabashedly hugged him again, his face pressed against Sam's chest. He seemed to be too overwhelmed to speak - and that was okay, because Sam couldn't speak, either.

Not when he knew what he really needed to say.

He just held onto Cas for a while longer, and wondered how he was ever going to find the strength to do what he had to do, and soon.

Because Cas's feelings weren't the only ones that were beginning to get out of hand.

********************************************************************************

Dean couldn't stand to be in that room a moment longer.

The unmasked betrayal and hurt on Cas's face, the way he had to brace himself with all his strength just to tolerate a simple touch from Dean's hand - Dean couldn't blame Cas, not for any of it. But it just hurt too much to linger there, continuing to feel it. Cas's wings had vanished back to wherever they usually were, which meant the spell had worked - which meant that Dean was no longer needed.

Sam'll take care of him…

The bitter thought was no less painful than Cas's rejection; in fact, it was just a reminder of it. And retreating to his own room didn't help - not when all Dean could picture was Cas's wounded, tearful eyes staring up at him… and Sam, stepping in the moment he'd gone, to comfort Cas and hold him and perfectly fill the empty space in Cas's heart that had once been overflowing with Dean.

The satisfaction of having put to rights one of the many wrongs he'd done to Cas quickly shifted into restlessness; his mission accomplished, Dean needed something else to occupy his mind, or he was going to lose it.

He returned to the library, only long enough to take a stack of inventory files from the cabinet. He was there less than a minute - but it was long enough to catch a glimpse of Sam with his arms locked around Cas, leaning against the edge of the table to support both of their weight… Cas's face buried against him, and Sam's shirt wrapped around him.

This is wrong, he thought, not for the first time. It's… it's fucking sick.

Sam avoided his eyes as he passed - and that was just fine with Dean.

He retreated to the deepest part of the bunker with which he was familiar - the dungeon-slash-storage room, where he was fairly certain he'd find what he was looking for, if it existed to be found. A couple of hours later, and he was seated cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by open boxes and files spread out around him, his thoughts successfully distracted - mostly - from whatever was going on in the rest of the bunker.

A shadow fell across the doorway, and Dean stifled a sigh. He wasn't in the mood for a heart to heart about the hurt and jealousy and other feelings that he was trying very hard not to have at the moment.

"We need to tell him the truth."

Sam blurted out the words, as if he was afraid he'd lose his nerve if he didn't speak as quickly as possible - and Dean froze, caught off guard. It wasn't at all what he'd expected to be on his brother's mind. He didn't look up, though, kept his gaze on the file in his hand, kept his tone as level as possible.

"Bad idea. He's gonna freak."

"Maybe," Sam conceded, moving further into the room, crossing his arms over his chest. "We've still gotta tell him. He's… he's getting… too attached."

Dean finally looked up at his brother, taking in the stubborn set of his mouth, the challenge in his eyes. He raised an eyebrow. "No shit, Sherlock."

Sam looked away, visibly uncomfortable, a slight falter in his resolved tone as he persisted. "I'm just concerned, because if he has… feelings... it's inappropriate, considering."

"Inappropriate like him walking around in your clothes?" Dean let out a derisive huff of laughter. "Good thing you never got a letterman's jacket. You gonna give him a ring, next?"

"Dean…" Sam sighed, and the patient, tolerant tone of his voice was more than Dean could bear. "He was cold, okay? He wasn't wearing anything, so I let him wear my shirt. It doesn't mean anything…"

"And Cas is the only one." Dean cut Sam off flatly, lowering the file in his hand and studying his brother closely until Sam reluctantly met his gaze. He searched his brother's eyes as he clarified, "With these… inappropriate feelings."

Sam couldn't hold Dean's gaze - and that was answer enough. Still, he swallowed hard, then finally spoke, his tone forced and taut.

"No."

A sharp ache tightened in Dean's chest, and he returned his gaze to the file, nodding with a mirthless smile. His voice remained controlled, but the words were too sharp, too accusing; he knew it, but he still couldn't seem to stop them from spilling out.

"So… you wanna tell Cas the truth… so you don't have to feel so guilty about wanting to get into his pants."

"That's not fair," Sam retorted, voice hot and trembling with defensive anger.

"Yeah," Dean muttered, laying aside the file and digging into the box nearest him for the item it told him he should find there. "But what is fair, these days?"

"Us, being honest with him." Sam's voice was quiet, but filled with the intensity of his conviction. "And… taking whatever consequences that brings."

Dean thought about it for a moment, trying to imagine Cas's face if Sam were to tell him - and no matter how the Sam in his mind phrased it, no matter how gentle his approach, Dean couldn't envision a scenario in which Cas wouldn't end up devastated and alone.

"And the consequences for him? What's the truth gonna do to him?"

"He's stronger all the time," Sam insisted. "He won't be happy-"

"Understatement," Dean scoffed.

"Okay, he's gonna be fucking pissed!" Sam admitted. "Of course he is! But - we can't lie to him forever, and the longer we wait…" He stopped, shaking his head slowly. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, almost imploring. "We have to, Dean. He has the right to know. And the longer he goes on not knowing, the more it's gonna hurt when he finds out."

"And then what?" Dean asked, feeling a moment's satisfaction even in the midst of the argument, when he found the set of heavy iron shackles, etched with complicated spellwork, that the inventory file indicated should be there. "You two skip merrily off into the sunset?"

He was careful to keep his tone lightly mocking, indifferent.

Apparently, he failed.

"Dean…" Sam moved closer to him, and the concern in his voice grated on Dean's raw nerves. The last thing he needed right now was Sam's pity. "How could you think that? That I'd want to leave you?"

Dean turned away, scanning the file again, though he wasn't actually taking in any of what was written there. His eyes burned, and he swallowed back the knot in his throat.

"Even when we talked about this before," Sam continued, "when it was you and Cas… it was never about leaving. It was always gonna be the three of us…"

The ache in Dean's chest was overwhelming as he thought back over the conversation Sam was talking about, one they'd had way back in the final days before the Apocalypse that wasn't, when Cas had been human and they'd all been staying at Bobby's and preparing for a battle they weren't sure they'd actually win. It had felt good, to consider the possibilities, how promising it had all felt at the time - once the Apocalypse was over, once they had time to rest for a little while, and help Cas acclimate to being human, how things could have been for them.

But then Sam had gone to Hell to stop the devil, and Cas had become an angel again and shattered Dean's trust with the best of his intentions, and… everything had fallen apart.

And now… now, that was a dream that was shattered beyond repair.

Dean glanced up at Sam, and saw the reflection of his own bitter memories on his brother's face, the regret for speaking about it at all. He bit his lip and looked away, blinking back tears.

Yeah. That's a thing that's never gonna happen. Not now. You made damn sure of that.

Dean struggled to find his voice, needing to regain control, to turn the conversation away from the painful point it had reached.

"He's not ready," he said at last, his voice hoarse but mostly steady. "Not for the truth, and not for…" He waved a hand in a vague gesture in Sam's general direction. "He's just not ready."

Sam was quiet for a moment, and Dean knew he was debating whether or not to insist on dealing with the can of worms he'd just accidentally opened. He was relieved when Sam finally spoke, a simple response to Dean's objections.

"Well... I think you're wrong about the first part," Sam insisted quietly. "And… once he knows the truth… the other part won't matter. Because he won't want anything to do with me, either."

Dean looked up sharply, startled. It had crossed his mind, yeah - but he hadn't realized that Sam had thought of that. He was so willing to come clean; Dean hadn't really considered that Sam knew doing so might cost him his fledgling bond with Cas.

"He has to know, Dean," Sam reiterated softly, a sad, knowing look in his eyes. "Whatever happens. It's not fair to let him – fall for me, and… and not know."

Dean was quiet for a moment, subdued and contemplative - looking at his brother's motives in a somewhat different light. Finally he sighed - relented. "If you have to. I - I might not like it, but - I'll back you. Whatever you feel like you need to do, Sammy."

Sam let out a shaky sigh, relief and gratitude in his eyes as he nodded. "Okay. Thanks, Dean." His weak smile faded a little as he paused near the door, turning back for a moment to look over the mess surrounding Dean. He appeared to be trying to figure it out for a few moments before he finally gave up.

"What are you doing, anyway?" he asked at last.

"Moving on to item number two on the to-do list," Dean replied. After a moment, he looked up to meet Sam's confused frown with a cold smile, his voice soft and controlled. "Crowley," he explained. "I'm gonna find him. I'm gonna catch him. And I'm gonna kill him. But only when he begs me to." Dean's smile faltered a little, a sharp pang of memory running through him as he concluded softly, "Like Cas did."

Sam looked back down at the assembled items with wide eyes, lips slightly parted in surprise, and Dean braced himself for the disapproval - the expected speech about the dangers of giving in to his darker nature - but it didn't come. Instead, after a moment, Sam simply nodded, a grim half-smile touching his lips.

"Good," he replied, and Dean blinked, surprised. "Let me know if you need any help."

Dean collected himself enough to nod in response, and Sam left - but Dean didn't anticipate needing any help with this particular task.

This was something he wanted to do himself.

********************************************************************************

Sam made his way to his own room, hoping to get some time to himself to think, to try to come up with some way of telling Cas the truth that wouldn't absolutely crush him, and leave him feeling like he couldn't trust anyone. Cas was getting better, and stronger all the time - but he clearly still needed support, and Sam didn't know where he would get it if he couldn't turn to either of the Winchesters.

He opened his bedroom door, and then froze, startled.

Cas was sitting on the end of his bed, hands folded in his lap, looking up expectantly toward the door.

"Hello, Sam."

Sam forced a smile, though his stomach was fluttering nervously. "Hey, Cas."

"I hope it's all right that I'm in here," Cas said quietly, anxious eyes studying Sam's face as he approached and sat down beside him. "I just - I wished to speak with you, and I didn't want to disturb your time with Dean, so I thought I'd wait here."

Sam was overwhelmed by the rush of affection he felt for this angel of the Lord, so uncertain and eager to please and still wrapped up in Sam's shirt like a - God, like that fucking blanket! - Sam winced, closing his eyes and struggling to steady himself. That was it. Cas was looking at him as some kind of savior, his protection against a world that no longer made sense to him - with no clue how little of that trust Sam actually deserved.

He had to come clean.

He had to do it now.

"Sam?" Cas's voice was concerned. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Sam replied, smiling reassurance at Cas as he automatically reached out to put his arm around him - as natural as breathing. Like there was no reason in the world not to do so - and Cas scooted a little closer on the mattress, happily settling into the space under Sam's arm as if he was made to fit there. "I'm fine."

God, how did I let us get here?

"Good," Cas said, oblivious to Sam's turmoil. "I just - I wanted to thank you. And - to apologize."

Sam forced a lightly warning tone, a teasing smile. "We talked about this, remember?"

"No, I - I am sorry," Cas insisted, looking up at him regretfully, his face mere inches from Sam's, and perfectly comfortable with that. "I was harsh with you when I told you not to touch me. And - I wanted you to touch me." He spoke it as a matter of fact - a simple, obvious statement for which he felt no shame, no self-consciousness. "I always want you to touch me, Sam."

Sam's stomach clenched, his heart racing.

Fuck. How the hell am I supposed to do this?

"It's just that… I knew, if you did… I couldn't… I couldn't stay strong enough to let Dean finish the ritual. But - you have to know that I still couldn't have done it without you there. Without - knowing that when it was over, you'd - you'd be there, and… and I'd be safe…"

Sam's heart was heavy with guilt, Cas's earnest, guileless words tearing at his resolve.

Open and adoring, and God, so fucking blue that it hurt, Cas's eyes slowly took in Sam's face, with something between awe and gratitude. "I was harsh with you, and… ungrateful, and… you need to know how much I needed you there, Sam. I - always do."

Finally, Cas lowered his gaze, and Sam remembered to breathe - though he couldn't take his eyes from his angel's face. There was self-consciousness there now, and the hushed tone of a confession as Cas continued.

"It - it scares me, sometimes." He looked up again, confusion and yearning in his eyes as he clarified, "How much I need you."

Something in Cas's face was so vulnerable, so pleading for reassurance - and Sam could do nothing but give it to him. He raised a hand to tenderly push Cas's hair back, allowing his fingers to linger, stroking gently and feeling a little thrill when Cas's eyes fell closed for a moment in pleasure before focusing on Sam's face again, solemn and waiting. Sam held his gaze, his voice quiet and intent, as he promised.

"You've got me. Okay?"

Cas nodded, relief falling over his features, eyes shining up at Sam in unmasked adoration, and Sam couldn't resist the impulse to pull Cas into a hug, warmth blooming through his body as Cas returned it without hesitation.

"I'm right here… and I'm not going anywhere," Sam promised softly.

And deep down inside, he knew it was a mistake. He knew he should have come clean, right then and there - but he just couldn't. Not yet.

I'll give him just a little more time… let him get a little stronger, a little surer, on his own… and then I'll tell him.

Just… not quite yet...

Chapter Text

Dean was in the library studying the spellwork etched into a set of handcuffs he'd found in a box in the dungeon when Sam and Cas emerged from Sam's room later that evening. There were no tears, no commotion, and Cas was still wrapped up in Sam's ridiculously over-sized shirt. Judging by the adoration that remained in Cas's eyes, and the way Sam's guiltily shifted away from Dean's, refusing to make contact – it was fairly clear that Sam had chickened out.

"Nothing's changed," Sam explained quietly, the moment Cas's attention was diverted. "I'm still going to tell him. Just…" He glanced over his shoulder at Cas, who was studying the titles of the books that lined the library walls. The "I told you so" died on Dean's lips at the anguish in Sam's eyes as he turned to face Dean again and concluded miserably, "… just not yet. I – I couldn't, not the way he was – not until I know he's ready."

"I'm not trying to be a dick here, okay, Sam?" Dean replied, hushed and a little apologetic. "You know I'm in no hurry for you to tell him. It's just… how do you think you're ever gonna know that?"

"I'll just…" Sam shook his head slightly, putting on a smile as Cas glanced up at him. "I'll know when I know. All right?"

It was a non-answer, and a clear enough attempt at stalling that it filled Dean with relief. If Sam was waiting for some magical sign, some perfect moment when the prospect of shattering Cas's worshipful illusions didn't suck ass, well – he was going to be waiting a long time.

As the days continued to pass, with no sign of any change between Sam and Cas in the brief moments he spent with them together, Dean allowed himself to relax, and to focus more fully on the task at hand – finding Crowley, and torturing him to death in the slowest, most agonizing ways he could possibly imagine.

Of course, there was far less urgency to this mission than there had been to the last one. That had been all about helping Cas to heal, finding a means to conceal his wings as quickly as possible, and Dean hadn't allowed himself to rest until it was done. Now, Cas was physically restored, almost completely, and growing stronger and more confident with each passing day. He had no problem being in the same room as Dean, now, as long as Sam was there too, and once or twice he'd even stuck around in the library when it was only him and Dean present.

Granted, he'd remained on his guard the entire time, watching Dean warily out of the corner of his eye and positioning himself so that his back was never turned to the elder Winchester – but it was progress, and Dean was grateful for it.

He couldn't focus quite as much of his time and attention on dealing with Crowley as he would have liked, because now that Cas didn't need to sleep, and therefore didn't have nightmares, Sam's nightly attentions became more focused on Dean again, and making sure that Dean got at least a little rest. Dean indulged him, well aware of the scare he'd given his little brother, and guiltily determined to reassure him in any way that he could. He let Sam push him to his bed every night, lying down beside him with an arm cast across his chest as if to keep him there – and some nights he even slept, straight through to morning.

After all – there was no rush with this task.

Dean didn't have to find some obscure spell, or locate mysterious ingredients, or come up with some intricate fix to a problem that didn't quite make sense. As it turned out, he already had everything he needed right there in the bunker, neatly inventoried and ready to be put to good use. He had a plan, and the means to carry it out. All that remained was to work out the specifics – to plan out in intricate detail every suffering he wanted to inflict on the demon king, and lay out all his tools in readiness for action.

And with that, Dean wanted to take his time.

He was almost ready. He surveyed the room where he meant to carry out his plans. It was now a proper dungeon, with restraints hung up along one wall – chains and collars and handcuffs etched with spells to bind a demon's power, to keep it locked into its host body, powerless – and a table against another wall, with all manner of weapons laid out there. Dean hadn't bothered with holy water or salt – standard against most demons, but almost useless against one at Crowley's level of power.

Instead, he'd laid out Sam's knife, an angel blade, a couple of other specialized blades he'd found in the inventory that were supposed to have rather… interesting effects; a vial of holy oil, which he now knew could reduce a demon's host body to ash without killing the demon inside; a set of hypodermic needles in various sizes, alongside several vials containing potions, some of which Dean knew would have particularly nasty effects on demons. Others, he had no idea what they did – but he was looking forward to finding out.

Dean crouched in the middle of the large devil's trap in the center of the room. On either side, well within the circle, Dean had fastened short chains attached to iron cuffs, etched with spellwork to bind a demon's powers, just far enough from the floor to keep a captive bound on his knees. He'd briefly considered placing a chair in the middle of the trap, but had swiftly rejected the idea.

No way in Hell was he gonna allow Crowley a mercy that he'd denied to Cas.

"Looks like you're about ready."

Dean looked up to see Sam standing in the doorway, looking mildly impressed as he surveyed Dean's work. Dean nodded slowly, looking down at the chain nearest him, watching it go taut as he tugged on the cuff, testing its strength.

"Yeah."

"How're you gonna get him here?" Sam asked, frowning slightly.

Dean tried to gauge Sam's reaction to what he was seeing, without obviously scrutinizing him. Sam looked a little pensive, but not exactly disapproving; Dean found that his brother was frustratingly difficult to read at the moment.

"He has to come if he's summoned, right?"

"Yeah," Sam conceded. "But he doesn't have to come to the center of our conveniently positioned trap. How are you gonna get him…" Sam waved a hand toward the spot here Dean was. "… you know, there?"

A grim smile passed Dean's lips as he looked up at Sam again. "I'm working on that. It's not gonna be a problem."

Sam nodded slowly, thoughtfully, as he moved to the narrow table against the wall where Dean's chosen tools were arrayed. As he picked up a vial of dark blue liquid, inspecting it, his lips parted to speak, but he hesitated – and Dean braced himself.

Here it comes…

"Are you sure-?"

"Damn right, I'm sure!" Dean cut him off sharply, standing up. "Crowley's had it coming for a while, but what he did to Cas is the last straw, Sam. And I can't believe you're gonna try to talk me out of it, you know better than anyone how much damage he did to…"

"Dean, no, I'm not…" Sam's voice rose until Dean stopped, surprised, blinking at him, and then it went soft again. "… trying to talk you out of it. I was just going to say… are you sure all this stuff even works on Crowley? I'm all for taking him apart. Believe me." The cold anger in Sam's eyes, the cruel little twist of his mouth, made it clear enough that he meant it. But his eyes softened a little as he looked away from the bottle in his hands to meet Dean's eyes and concluded, "I just… I want you to be safe about it. He's not worth you getting hurt."

Dean felt an unexpected but welcome warmth bloom in his chest. He allowed his posture to loosen, relaxing a little as he assured his brother, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure. The Men of Letters were pretty careful with their records. Shocker." Sam let out a little chuff of laughter, and Dean allowed himself a smile. "They've tested all this stuff out on demons before, Sam. And according to the files – it works. So I'm not worried." Anticipation coiled hot and eager in Dean's chest, and he reached down to check the second chain, smiling in satisfaction as he tested it. "Once I get him in here… he's not getting out."

"Sam?"

Cas's voice echoed in the hall outside the dungeon, and Sam replied immediately, his tone casual, but his words specifically chosen, "Dean and I are in here, Cas."

As he spoke, he turned toward the doorway, and Dean felt a pang of unwilling resentment at Sam's apparent attempt to spare Cas the unpleasantness of Dean's company by meeting him in the hall instead of allowing him to come to them.

A moment later, however, Cas appeared between Dean and Sam, his back turned toward Dean. It was strange, hearing the rustling of his wings, but no longer being able to see them. Dean could still almost visualize them, as they'd been in the basement of the cabin, when he'd first seen them – and even that filled him with a sense of shame.

It was intimate knowledge to which he had no right.

"Sam!" Even with Cas's back to him, Dean could see the way not just his face, but everything about his demeanor just lit up at the sight of Sam. Cas quickly closed the distance between himself and Sam, his voice animated and excited like Dean had rarely heard it. "I went into the kitchen to make coffee, but we've run out of coffee, and I wasn't sure where you were. As you know, it's quite difficult for me to pinpoint your location within this bunker, because of the warding, but it occurred to me that it's really not far to the convenience store in the nearest town, so…"

Cas paused for breath, and Dean couldn't help a slight smile at the affectionate amusement on his little brother's face, the way he drank in Cas's infectious excitement, nodding encouragingly as Cas went on with his rambling, seemingly pointless story.

"I left the bunker, Sam."

Sam's face broke out into an elated grin, and he reached out instinctively to touch Cas's arm, as Cas went on.

"I used my wings. They're getting… stronger, and… and I wasn't even…" Cas's voice slowly trailed off, and though Dean couldn't see his face, he could still see the tension that crept into Cas's posture, as his gaze was distracted by the vial in Sam's hand, and then by the table beside him. "What – what is all this…?"

Dean's stomach clenched painfully at the abrupt note of alarm in Cas's voice, and he mentally inventoried the items Cas was taking in – the various blades and potions, the fucking angel blade laid out ready for use, right next to the…

God. The holy oil. Oh, shit. Oh, Cas…

Bile rose in Dean's throat as he realized how this looked. Face to face with Cas, Sam could certainly see better than Dean could the thoughts that had to be going through the angel's mind. Dean watched helplessly as Sam reached out his other hand to brace Cas's arms, his voice suddenly gone low and cautious.

"Cas… Cas, it's okay. Cas, look at me…"

Cas didn't. Instead, he pulled himself free of Sam's grasp and took a couple of lurching steps backward. Aware that accidentally running into him would only make Cas's alarm worse, Dean set the chain down on the floor and swiftly rose to his feet, taking a couple quick paces back. It was quiet, the slight scrape of iron against stone – but it was enough to make Cas whirl around toward the sound, bringing him face to face with Dean.

Cas's eyes went wide, his expression stricken as his gaze shifted between Dean and the chains. His breath quickened, and he shook his head rapidly, backing away.

Dean's heart sank. He knew that it made no sense, that logically there was no reason for Cas to think that they would hurt him, now. But he also knew what it looked like – chains locked to the floor, deliberately identical to the ones they'd used to bind him in the cabin. The table laden with weapons, many of which would do as much damage to Cas as they would to Crowley. Dean standing there between them, standing right behind Cas like he'd been about to…

Fuck.

Dean's face burned with shame, and he shook his head, trying to find words. "Cas… we weren't… we wouldn't…"

But the useless words died in his throat. Because they had, hadn't they? Things had been getting better. Cas had no reason to believe that they'd want to hurt him. But – they'd had no reason to hurt him before, either. Cas had trusted that they were his friends, that they were incapable of doing anything like that to him, that if he was innocent, truly innocent, they would have to see it. There was no way they could possibly punish him so brutally.

And still… they had.

"Cas." Sam's voice was almost stern, and Cas turned so that he could see both brothers, his back to the weapons table. "Cas. Hey."

Cas looked at Sam for a moment, but then back at Dean with wild eyes, his panicked gasps uneven and harsh in the quiet room. Dean's heart raced, and he held his hands out in front of him in a gesture he hoped would show Cas that he meant no harm.

He'd already provoked Cas into one panic-induced grace explosion. If Sam got hurt now, because of him…

"Cas… look, this isn't for you, it's for Crowley, and… and I'm the one that set this up, okay? Sam had nothing to do with it…"

"Dean, shut up," Sam snapped, his voice terse and trembling, and Dean automatically obeyed, falling silent, his bottom lip caught between his teeth as Sam focused his efforts on Cas. "Hey. Cas, look at me. Yeah, that's it…"

Cas's gaze finally focused on Sam for more than a moment, and Sam nodded encouragingly, holding out a hand toward him as if approaching a skittish, wild animal.

"Cas – you're safe, okay?" Sam assured him softly. "I'm not gonna let anything happen to you."

As Sam spoke, Cas's gaze dragged slowly back to where Dean stood, dread in his tear-filled eyes.

"No," Sam said sharply. "Look at me."

Cas flinched, but he looked back over at Sam, miserable and so, so damn scared that something in Dean broke under the weight of the shame, the guilt that he had taken the fierce, powerful creature who'd fought his way through Hell to rescue Dean, and reduced him to this. Dean closed his eyes, but it did nothing to block out the mingled images that filled his mind – the shadow of fearsome wings against the sigiled wall of an abandoned barn… the reality of those wings, torn and bloodied and burned to ash, crushed beneath his fists and feet.

"That's it…" Sam repeated softly, and Dean opened his eyes to see that Sam was just a couple of feet away from Cas now, approaching cautiously. Dean barely dared to breathe, watching Cas tense up, shifting backward just a little. He remembered the way Cas's wings had looked in the moments before he'd completed the ritual to hide them, and wondered if they looked the same way now – trembling and poised to strike. "Come on, Cas, it's all right… just come here to me, okay?" Sam coaxed him gently. "Come on…"

"I-I can't…" Cas swallowed hard, closing his eyes for a moment, and Dean's heart ached to see the tears that slipped down his face as he opened them again, looking up at Sam. His voice was an aching, apologetic whisper as he shook his head and concluded, "I can't… I can't stay here…"

Sam drew in a breath of alarm. "Cas… Cas, wait…"

He took an abrupt step toward Cas, reaching out for him, and Dean's stomach lurched.

"Sam!"

Dean barked out a warning, moving toward his brother without thinking – but Cas didn't lash out, didn't send Sam flying across the room like he'd done to Dean before.

He just… disappeared.

"Shit!"

Sam slammed his hand down on the weapons table which was now directly in front of him, rattling everything on it and sending a couple of items toppling off to the floor. He closed his eyes for a moment, his back to Dean, visibly struggling for control. He raked a trembling hand through his hair as he turned toward Dean, his face anguished.

"I've gotta find him. He's in the middle of a full-fledged panic attack, and he could be anywhere…"

"Well, probably not… anywhere," Dean pointed out gently, moving closer to Sam. "He just left the bunker on his own for the first time, right? I mean… he's probably not gonna go far, if he's just starting to get his nerve up…"

"Right," Sam agreed, his voice shaky and a little breathless, nodding hurriedly. "Right. His wings are still healing, anyway. He probably can't go far yet, you know?" He headed for the door, his pace swift and purposeful. "I'm gonna drive into town and see if I can find him." He paused in the doorway, casting an apologetic grimace at Dean over his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Dean."

Dean waved his apology away. "He needs you," he said simply. "Go."

Dean wanted nothing more than to go with Sam, to search until they found Cas and he knew for sure that Cas was okay, safe in the bunker with them. But he knew that the best thing he could do right now for Cas was to just stay away from him. If he was with Sam when Sam caught up to Cas, it would certainly do more damage than good. So he busied himself with tidying up the minor mess in the dungeon, then tried to pass the rest of the time perusing the Men of Letters' inventory for anything he might have missed that might be useful for Crowley.

But he was restless and distracted and fairly certain that if there was something he'd missed – he was probably missing it again. He poured himself a drink – and then another, while he waited for word from Sam. By the time he heard the main door of the bunker open, he'd polished off half a bottle. Still, he stood up quickly, his breath catching in his throat – and then his heart sinking, at the sound of a single set of footsteps descending the stairs.

Sam's posture was dejected, his expression worried and weary as he stood in the library doorway, his hands jammed into his pockets.

"Nothing," he sighed. "No sign of him anywhere. Not even anyone in town who seems to have seen him." Sam sank down into the chair at the end of the table. "There's nothing we can do," he concluded. "Because… he really could be anywhere. I guess all we can do is… wait for him to come home."

Dean nodded slowly, taking that in.

"Please, Cas…" Sam's voice went soft and almost reverent, thick with warmth and concern, and Dean's eyes burned at the sound of it. "Please come home."

"Well, if he does," Dean said at last, when the weight of the empty silence that followed became too heavy, "I probably shouldn't be here." He threw back the last of the whiskey in his glass, then rose to his feet.

"Dean?" Sam looked up at him with a worried frown.

"It's fine, Sammy," Dean assured him, trying for a smile that faltered, never quite forming on his face. "I'll be in my room, okay? Just… come tell me if he shows up, all right? Just so I know he's safe."

Sam hesitated, but Dean didn't give him time to question. His uncertain, "O-okay," followed Dean down the hall as he made his way to his own room, where he quietly shut the door behind him.

He lay down on his neatly made bed, closed his eyes for a while – but he didn't sleep.

He couldn't. Not knowing that Cas was out there, alone and confused and scared to death. Not knowing what Cas thought he'd found in the dungeon.

Finally, Dean sat up on the edge of his bed. He glanced toward his closed bedroom door, leaning forward and bracing his elbows on his knees before lowering his head, closing his eyes and drawing in a deep, shaky breath. All at once his resolve was shaken; he knew what he'd intended to do, but he suddenly, desperately wanted to turn back.

His palms were damp, his stomach in knots, and it'd been so long since he'd felt this anxious , deeply self-conscious feeling that it took him a moment to place it – but when he remembered, it shook him to his core. It was the same way he'd felt whenever he'd made a mistake on a hunt, and had to explain to his dad what went wrong – when he knew that there was no explanation, no excuse that would be good enough.

He'd simply screwed up – and no amount of apologies or explanations would fix it.

But he still had to try.

"Cas?" he began, uncertain, his voice coming out rough and shaky. "Listen, I – I know you don't wanna hear from me right now. I know – I'm the last person's got any right praying to you at all, but – I just – I have to try, okay? 'Cause I know what you saw, Cas, and – and I know how it must have felt, and what you thought, but – it's not true, all right? It's not for you, Cas. I swear it's not for you. It's for Crowley. I – I've gotta make him pay for what he did…"

Dean hesitated, shook his head slowly and amended, "What he… made me do… to you. So – yeah, I made it look like – like it looked in the cabin. Because – I guess it seemed like a kind of justice, you know? Maybe it's fucked up, I don't know. It is fucked up, all of it is, I – I just – I have to try and make it right, Cas." The hot tracks of tears slipped down Dean's face, and his voice broke as he continued, pleading, "I have to try to find some way to make it right. And I know you got no reason to believe me, or – or trust me. I just – I wanted you to know what it was you saw. And that you are safe here, Cas. Sammy – he's freaking out, worrying if you're okay. And – and I'm freaking out, and – we just want you here. Okay? We – we want you home." Dean struggled to maintain his composure, his last words coming out in a desperate whisper. "Please come home."

Dean didn't open his eyes for a long moment. There was so much more he felt, so much more he wanted to say – but most of it he couldn't put into words, and what he could, he'd said a dozen times already. It didn't change anything. He swallowed back the ache in the back of his throat, drawing in a shuddering breath.

He almost thought he imagined the soft rustling sound that broke the silence, the brush of displaced air against the cooling tears on his face. He opened his eyes, looking up in disbelief at the angel who stood just inside his closed bedroom door, watching him with solemn, wary eyes. Dean's mouth went dry, his heart thudding against his ribs, and he moved to stand.

"Don't." Cas's voice was hushed, strained, and as he spoke he glanced furtively toward the door, his hands flexing into fists and unfolding at his sides, as if he was struggling to keep himself from fleeing the room. "Don't – don't get up. Please."

"All right," Dean agreed softly, holding up his hands in front of him, conciliatory and soothing as he settled back down onto the side of his bed. He swallowed slowly, his voice carefully level as he added, "Thanks for coming back, Cas."

"I did it for Sam," Cas stated, and there was a faint note of something like defiance there, something stubborn and challenging and so much like the old Cas that it made Dean want to weep with relief just to know that he was still there. "I don't want him to worry."

"Okay." Dean nodded once, accepting. He bit his lip, hesitated, before asking, "So… he knows you're here, then?"

Cas looked away, swallowing, before meeting Dean's gaze again, steady but wary, as if the slightest wrong move from Dean might still send him flying from the room.

"I – wish to speak with you first."

"O-okay."

Cas was quiet for a moment, before he finally spoke again, his words soft and level. "You don't know how it felt," he stated at last, his intent gaze boring into Dean, making him feel exposed, the tears in Cas's eyes filling him with a deep, overwhelming sense of shame. "To… see that room, after… after being in… in the other one. The one where your closest… where… where you…" Cas looked away, closing his eyes, interminable moments passing as he fought for his composure. Finally he continued softly, "Don't ever say that you know. Because you couldn't possibly."

Dean's throat closed up, his face burning with shame – because he knew what Cas was struggling so hard to get across. Dean had experienced torture before, yeah – but never at the hands of someone he'd trusted so completely. Never at the hands of a friend. "I-I'm sorry." Dean could barely force the words out, words so familiar they'd ceased to hold even what little meaning they'd once had.

Cas went on as if he hadn't even spoken. "And… Crowley deserves to be punished. Not only for his deception and manipulation in this instance, but… for many other things he's done. Many other lives he's both taken and ruined. I will not argue that he is worthy of death, and worse." He looked up at Dean again, and there was something fierce in his gaze, something that dared Dean to argue, as he added, "But he did not make you do anything, Dean."

Dean's stomach dropped, and he looked away, unable to hold Cas's gaze.

"You said many things a few nights ago, when you were intoxicated, and – some of them I know were true, but – you're wrong about some things, too. For example, you seem to believe that what you were forced to do in Hell is the same as what you did to me. It isn't. In Hell, you were made to torture, or be tortured yourself. You were given a choice that was not a choice at all. It was against your will."

Cas went abruptly quiet, and Dean made himself look up, forced himself to face Cas, because he owed him at least that much, didn't he? To look him in the eye while he said what he needed to say, to really hear him, because he'd refused to listen when it really mattered? His vision was blurred with tears, but Dean blinked them away, and Cas's face came into focus – his expression a little distant, composed, but achingly sorrowful. His voice was very soft when at last he continued, quietly grief-stricken.

"With – with me, you had a choice. You were presented with – with false information – and you were presented with the truth. And – you examined all options available to you, given what you'd been told, by me and by Crowley, and – and you decided…" Cas was visibly struggling to speak now, his voice trembling, breaking over his words as he persisted, "… you decided that the best possible option you had… was to believe that Crowley was telling the truth, and that I was a liar, and a traitor." Cas looked at Dean again, and the wounded look in his eyes, the confusion and hurt, was still as fresh as in the moment of Dean's betrayal. "You made the choice," he said in a hushed, aching voice that tore at Dean's heart. "And…you didn't choose me. If it'd been Sam, you would've never…" Cas swallowed hard, blinking away tears as he looked down at the floor, and it was so fucking unfair that he should look so ashamed, as he whispered, "If it'd been you… I would have never…"

Dean couldn't speak. His throat, his chest ached, and he couldn't draw breath enough to respond – not that there was any response he could have offered. Each word drove into his heart like a dagger, condemning him afresh with simple truth.

"I – I can't stop feeling – afraid of you," Cas admitted softly, as if he was confessing to some humiliating sin. "I can't trust you again. Because – I can't know you wouldn't do it again." Cas looked up at Dean, and the tears on his face were devastating, because Dean knew Cas didn't deserve to feel the shame and the hurt that colored his words. "I know I've broken your trust before, Dean. I know I've – made terrible mistakes. But – if you believe Crowley over me, then… what happens if someone else brings false accusation against me again? How can I know that you wouldn't believe them, too? I can't ever…"

Cas stopped abruptly, shook his head, drew in a soft, shuddering breath before continuing, his words aching with loss and desperation. "I want to forgive you, Dean. And I want to trust you again, but – these are the reasons why I – I just don't know how. And… you keep trying to explain to me, but… these are the things that I need you to understand." He was quiet for a moment before adding, barely over a whisper, "I-I'm sorry."

Dean looked up sharply, the words so wrong coming from Cas, given the circumstances, that he had to point it out, had to tell him that he had nothing to be sorry for – but Cas was already gone, leaving Dean alone with the crushing weight of the truth he'd spoken. Dean stared in silence at the spot where Cas had been for a long moment, until it grew hazy, obscured by the sheen of fresh tears in his eyes. The ache in his chest tightened, the weight of own shame overwhelming.

He had no defense – no argument that rendered Cas's words untrue. He was guilty as charged – and nothing he could do to Crowley, or for Cas, would change that. Despairing, Dean lowered his head into his hands and let the tears flow freely for the friendship he'd lost, the trust he'd broken – and could never get back again.

 

****************************************************

 

Sam was nearly asleep at the library table, his head resting in his folded arms, when he heard Cas's voice, soft and unsteady, close at his side.

"Sam?"

Immediately Sam sat up and saw Cas standing beside his chair, his eyes downcast and mouth trembling, his face streaked with tears. Sam rose to his feet at once, his arms itching to fold Cas into them, but not quite daring to touch him, not until he knew it was all right.

"Cas?" Sam kept his tone quiet and gentle. "Are you okay?"

Cas just shook his head, and took a single step closer to Sam. It was all the permission Sam needed, and he closed the remaining distance between them, wrapping one arm around Cas's waist, the other hand gently cradling Cas's head as it fell against Sam's shirt. Cas put his arms around Sam, so tight that it nearly took Sam's breath, soft, hitching sounds buried against well-worn flannel, reduced to nothing more than hot puffs of breath against his chest.

"Shhh, I got you," Sam whispered against Cas's temple, his hand running slowly, soothingly, up and down Cas's back. "You're safe. I've got you, Cas…"

After a few minutes, Cas withdrew a little, enough to raise his head to meet Sam's eyes. He looked drained and exhausted, his eyes shadowed and heavy. "I'm sorry I worried you, Sam," he said shakily. "I – I won't scare you like that again..."

"You aren't a prisoner here, Cas," Sam cut him off firmly. "You're free to come and go as you please, it's just – I wanna know you're safe, you know? That's all. You don't have to be sorry."

Cas grimaced, looking away. "Maybe… not for that."

Sam frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I – I went to talk to Dean. Before I came here," Cas admitted softly. "He – prayed to me, and – and he said something that made me…" Cas's voice trailed off, and he shook his head a little, frowning. "No, I… I reacted, and… there were many things I needed to say to him. They were all true, and – he needed to understand, but…" Cas looked back up at Sam again, anxious. "Perhaps I shouldn't have said them… all at once."

Sam's heart sank, as he began to understand. "Do you think – is Dean okay?" he asked cautiously.

Cas shook his head sadly. "Probably not." He offered Sam a tired, shaky smile that was clearly forced, as he added, "I am, though. Really. I – I think I'd like to go to my room and rest. And – and you should go to Dean. I'm sure he – he needs you right now."

"You're sure?" Sam studied Cas closely. "You were pretty freaked out. I mean, understandably. But – you know that room wasn't…"

"I know," Cas assured him, nodding. "It's for Crowley. I understand. I am fine. I just – I would like some quiet time in my own room to – to think and – and you should go to Dean now." Cas's tone was firm, more than a suggestion.

Sam opened his mouth to argue anyway.

The next moment, Cas was gone – the discussion clearly closed, as far as he was concerned. Sam felt a rush of warmth and affection for him, that even in the midst of his own confusion and pain, despite whatever words he'd said that had apparently left Dean suffering, Cas was still more worried about Dean's well-being than his own.

And for the moment – Sam was inclined to trust Cas's assessment on this one. He headed down the hall, bracing himself for whatever he would face beyond Dean's bedroom door.

 

Chapter Text

Dean stepped back, casting a critical eye over the preparations he'd laid out in the map room – a devil's trap near the door facing the map table, just because it'd seem strange if he didn't have one, not because he had any intention of actually using it; the supplies for a summoning spell laid out on the floor, a half-empty whiskey bottle and a glass on the map table in front of his chair – and his secret weapon, tucked into the back pocket of his jeans, folded small and completely invisible from the outside.

His heart was pounding, his mind racing ahead with anticipation. This was the moment he'd planned for, and he had everything he needed.

It was time to summon Crowley to the punishment he deserved.

Dean looked over everything again, considering. Then he poured a little of the whiskey into the glass before raising it to his lips and downing it, leaving only traces in the glass, for more realistic effect.

He needed his head clear and his focus sharp for what he was about to do, so he'd avoided alcohol completely that day – but he didn't want Crowley to know that. Dean recited the words to the spell, lit the herbs in the bowl, and then sat down at the table to wait.

He wasn't kept waiting long.

Crowley showed up a few yards away from the trap, eying it with disdain before smirking at Dean. "You didn't really expect that to work, did you?"

The sight of him and his vaguely bored expression, his casual stance and general air of superiority – Dean felt the familiar rage he'd been nursing for the past few weeks building to a slow boil deep in his gut. His fingers flexed into a fist under the edge of the table, his mind filled with vivid, bloody images of the things he wanted to do to Crowley – but he wasn't going to get there if he didn't keep it together for the moment.

Dean fought back the desire to attack, and instead looked away, silent and sullen for a long moment, before replying, "Worth a shot."

Crowley's smile faded a little, and he sighed, impatient. "No, Dean," he replied flatly. "It's really not. You may be able to summon me here. Those are the rules, after all. But you can't by any means keep me here. You can't touch me. You can't trap me. So you've managed to do nothing except to reveal the location of this rather impressive clubhouse of yours. Really, Dean, I'd think you'd be more careful."

"Should've been, a long time ago," Dean retorted, allowing his regret to color his words. "Too late for that now, isn't it?" He poured another drink into the glass in front of him, setting the bottle down hard on the table before continuing. "That trap, this place… nothing means shit as long as he's…" He bit off the words, turning his head away and closing his eyes, as if frustrated at himself for saying too much.

Crowley's head tilted slightly, eyes narrowing, and he turned toward Dean a step. "Castiel?" He paused a moment when Dean didn't deny his assumption, a slow smile spreading across his face that made it clear he already knew the answer, as he asked, "As long as he's what?"

The fury Dean felt at the satisfaction, the fucking delight he saw on Crowley's face, was nearly overwhelming. He lowered his face into his hand, feeling it tremble against his brow, aching to slam into Crowley's smug, evil face. Instead, he used it – visualized instead Cas's pleading, terrified expression as he'd looked up at Dean and begged him to believe him… Cas trembling and clutching his blanket around him, face hidden in his knees on the bed as he shrank away from the sound of Dean's voice… and allowed the guilt and despair to flow freely from his words.

"Broken," he replied at last, looking up at Crowley with very real tears welling in his eyes. "He's fucking broken, all right?"

"Yes, I'd be quite shocked if he wasn't," Crowley replied, soft and cruel, and still so infuriatingly self-satisfied. "After all… Alistair trained you quite well, didn't he?"

Dean's fist clenched at his side, but he forced himself to keep his reaction in check. Alistair had trained him well, yes.

But so had John Winchester.

He didn't quite meet Crowley's eyes, lowering his head in shame, voice trembling with frustrated rage. "You son of a bitch."

"What?" Crowley demanded, eyes wide with false innocence, one hand dramatically over his chest. "It wasn't I who broke him, was it now?"

"Never mind that," Dean spat out the words, bitter and resentful, as if he hated himself for even uttering them. "Can you fix him? That's the question."

Crowley blinked, surprised, then appeared to be considering. "Assuming I could," he replied at last, guarded. "Why would I?"

Dean swallowed hard as he rose slowly to his feet, leaning heavily on the table with both hands. He closed his eyes, lowering his head and shaking it as if he just couldn't believe he was about to do this. He drew in a deep, shaky breath, and finally looked up at Crowley.

"Let's just say," he answered, defeated, resigned. "I didn't call you here to trap you."

Crowley's eyes widened slightly, and Dean felt a rush of triumph at the light of intrigue he saw there, as Crowley put it together. "You want to make a deal."

Dean was silent, watching and waiting for Crowley to answer his question.

"Yes," the demon king answered at last, nodding slowly. "Yes, I could do that. Wipe all the pain, all the trauma from his memory completely, make it like it never happened. You and Moose would still have the memories of it of course, but I'd wager they'd be easier to bear if your dear sweet Cas didn't have to bear them too."

"He's an angel," Dean pointed out, eying Crowley suspiciously. "You sure you've got that kind of juice?"

"No, I don't, Dean," Crowley sighed. "You still don't quite grasp it, do you? The power doesn't come from me. It comes from you."

Dean nodded slowly. "My soul."

"Yes."

Dean swallowed slowly, lowering his eyes. "So uh… my soul…" The shame, the uncertainty in his words was all too real; it was a question to which he needed to know the answer, even if the deal he was proposing was completely false. He didn't have to fake the thickness in his voice, the hesitance and quiet humiliation, as he concluded, "… my soul… is, uh… still intact? Still… has that kind of power?"

"Well, it is practically mine already," Crowley conceded with a smirk that widened at Dean's slight flinch. "So any deal we make here, I'm automatically getting the weaker end. But yes – even as tarnished a soul as yours has power you can't begin to imagine."

Dean nodded, taking that in for a moment. "I hear Hell's not so bad these days, anyway. Just waiting in line instead of real torture."

"Eternal waiting with not so much as a paddling to ease your guilt?" Crowley scoffed. "For you? That's an even worse nightmare than the forty years of torture you got last time."

Dean shrugged. "I'll take my chances. I don't really care. I'll do it. I get ten years – and Cas gets put back together again. Like it never happened."

Crowley watched Dean closely, speculative. "After what happened the last time you made a deal like this… you're sure this is really what you want to do?"

"Can't start another Apocalypse," Dean pointed out. "Not with Michael and Lucifer still stuck in the Cage." He was quiet for a moment, thinking over all that Cas had been through in the past few weeks, starting with that basement room, and allowing the guilt to wash over him, letting it flood his voice, his face, with the anguish he felt. "I did this to him," he confessed, voice low and unsteady. "I have to… to take it back."

"Your soul… for Cas, healthy and happy and seeing you as his precious, revered Righteous Man again. That's the deal."

"Yeah."

Dean moved slowly around the table, taking a couple of steps toward Crowley. Crowley tensed slightly, his body just barely shifting backward.

"Ah,ah… wait just a moment, Dean…"

Dean froze in place, giving Crowley a questioning look. He met Crowley's narrowed, suspicious eyes with a wry, self-effacing smile and shrugged a little, holding out his hands to show that he was unarmed. "These things are still sealed with a kiss, right?"

"Of course." Crowley nodded once, slowly – still wary. "But surely you don't think I'm so blinded by your delicate features that I've forgotten what you're capable of. Disarm yourself."

With slow, exaggerated motions, Dean opened his jacket and took out the demon-killing knife, holding it up so Crowley could see it before he set it down on the map table. Then he held open both sides of his jacket, revealing that there were no other weapons hidden inside. He continued moving toward Crowley with his hands outstretched, and Crowley seemed to relax a little. He turned to face Dean fully, smiling a little, his anticipation more evident in his eyes with every step Dean took.

Dean covered his revulsion with determination and dread, holding Crowley's gaze as he closed the distance between them. Crowley was looking up at him with something like fascination, almost mesmerized, as Dean stopped in front of him. Dean almost thought there was more there than simple eagerness to be in possession of a soul that, as Crowley put it, was already mostly his anyway. But the very thought sickened Dean – and it didn't matter, anyway.

In a few short moments, Crowley was going to be his. And the only thing that would matter was what Dean wanted.

"Well?" Crowley teased, a flirtatious smile playing about his lips. "Are you going to kiss me or not, gorgeous?"

Dean allowed his mouth to twist with disgust as he let out a shaky sigh and muttered, "Right. Let's get this over with."

He closed his eyes and leaned down, halting and reluctant, for the kiss. He felt Crowley shift a little closer, felt a hand come to rest on his left arm, and fought the impulse to pull away; he could use that. Crowley was off his guard, distracted – and the moment was right. Dean slipped his right hand into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out the slim, silver, magically etched handcuffs he'd stashed there.

Crowley turned his mouth up towards Dean's, eyes open and watchful as ever – but they were watching the wrong place. The kiss never connected, because as Dean lowered his head, he reached out to snap one cuff onto Crowley's left wrist.

Crowley's eyes went wide with shock and he immediately, instinctively tried to jerk away, but couldn't. Dean took advantage of his surprise to deliver a sharp punch to Crowley's midsection – immensely satisfied when Crowley doubled over in pain, gasping. As the Men of Letters' records had promised, the spells on the cuffs reduced Crowley's strength and endurance to nothing more than human. While Crowley was still trying to recover from the blow, Dean grabbed his right arm and turned him around, slamming him face first into the wall.

Crowley groaned as Dean yanked his right hand behind his back and fastened the cuffs together, quite a bit more tightly than was strictly necessary.

"Get off me!" Crowley snarled as soon as he could draw breath, struggling frantically against Dean's much stronger hold, one hand on his bound wrists and the other on his shoulder. "What the hell have you done?"

Dean couldn't help but smile at the faint note of panic he heard behind the words. "Oh, nothing, yet," he replied, leaning in close, his voice soft and menacing. "But I can't wait to get started."

Crowley attempted to butt his head back into Dean's face, but Dean easily dodged the blow and grabbed Crowley's hair instead, yanking his head back hard enough that Crowley let out a startled yelp of pain.

"Stop it," Dean snarled, the humor in his tone fading into vicious command. "Don't fight me, Crowley…"

Of course, Crowley didn't stop fighting; Dean would have been a little disappointed if he had. So Dean let go of his hair and jammed his fist into the demon's lower spine, once, twice, and then again in quick succession. Crowley's knees buckled and the breath left his body, and Dean slid a hand around to rest over his chest, holding him up. He marveled at the feel of Crowley's heart, racing under his hand, erratic with panic.

Dean knew it had probably been centuries since Crowley had felt actual pain – and now, his powers were completely bound, his meatsuit vulnerable to every single blow – blows that hit with the same impact as if he were human. The cuffs were doing their job, Dean knew – because of Crowley's reactions, as well as the fact that he was still there at all. Dean imagined Crowley had already tried to smoke out or simply disappear from the room – but the cuffs wouldn't allow it.

He was completely helpless – just as Dean wanted him.

Dean grabbed Crowley's hair again, pulling his head back and smiling against his ear at the shallow, uneven gasps that escaped his captive's lips.

"Scared?" Dean sneered softly, pressing in close behind Crowley to hold him in place as he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, taking out a dark cloth which he quickly wound into a tight band, before wrapping it around Crowley's face, over his eyes. Crowley flinched, trying to pull away, but Dean tied it tightly and then held his head back by the knot, adding coldly, "You should be."

"Dean – you realize this is counterproductive." Crowley tried for his usual imperious tone, but the breathless, rapid pace of his words gave him away. "I thought you wanted to help Cas. This won't help him. You kill me – and there'll be no one left who can put him to rights…"

"Thought you said the power wasn't yours," Dean pointed out as he grabbed Crowley's bound wrists and began steering him toward the stairs and his basement dungeon, stopping for just a moment beside the map table to reclaim the demon knife and tuck it into his jacket. "And besides… who said anything about killing you?"

"All right, then," Crowley tried again, unable to disguise the quiver in his voice as Dean roughly dragged him down the stairs and the short way down the hall. "Surely there's something you do want – something I'm in the perfect position to see that you get…"

Dean stopped just outside the devil's trap in the center of the dungeon floor. "You're not in the perfect position, not yet," he declared, shoving Crowley roughly forward so that he stumbled directly into the center of the trap. Dean's voice was hard, commanding. "On your knees."

Crowley staggered to a stop, catching his balance – then let out a quiet, scoffing sound as he straightened up, his chin jutting out defiantly.

Retaliation was swift and brutal – the steel toe of Dean's boot against the back of Crowley's knees, dropping him instantly to the floor with a sharp cry of pain. Dean silenced him with a second sharp blow to his throat that left him struggling to draw breath. Dean took advantage of Crowley's distraction to uncuff his wrists and fasten them into the iron shackles on either side of the trap, before ripping the blindfold off and tossing it aside.

"Got it," Crowley rasped, blinking into the light before looking up at Dean. His tone was deliberately careless, if a little breathless; but his eyes were wary, taking in the trap and the chains, the table covered in tools of torture, Dean's slow, measured pace as he circled him like a predator. "It's in my best interests… not to piss you off."

Dean chuckled, shaking his head a little before taking the demon knife from his jacket and crouching down in front of Crowley. "That's cute," he remarked, his smile fading completely as he pressed the sharp edge up under Crowley's chin, pushing his head back and watching as Crowley swallowed convulsively, wary eyes locked onto the blade. "That you still think you have a best interest here."

"I told you…" Crowley's eyes darted between the blade and Dean's face, fear beginning to show on his face, his words rapid and terse. "I can help Castiel. But I won't do it as long as you've got me chained up here like a dog…"

His words were abruptly cut off in a sharp, muffled cry of alarm as Dean quickly shifted the blade, slipping the tip of it past Crowley's lips and pressing it against the roof of his mouth. Dean held his hair tight, not allowing him any retreat, a cruel smile on his lips as he met Crowley's suddenly, openly panicked gaze.

"Yeah, that's the thing, Crowley," he said. "Turns out Cas is doing just great. Yeah, he's a little worse for wear, but he's getting better every day. He's stronger than you ever gave him credit for, you sick son of a bitch. And we don't need your help. In fact…" Dean pressed the blade against the back of Crowley's throat, relishing the strangled whimper of protest the demon king gave at the painful pressure. "… you haven't got anything I need, or want. Except for one thing." Dean leaned in close, holding Crowley's gaze a moment longer before moving near enough to speak next to his ear. "For you to fucking suffer for what you did." Dean looked Crowley in the eyes again, drinking in his despair, as slow understanding dawned there, before concluding with a vicious smile, "And I've already got that."

He gave a slight twist of the blade, closing his eyes and savoring the choked, desperate sounds Crowley made, sounds which would no doubt have been pleading words if Dean had allowed it. But he didn't. Crowley was going to pay in blood and agony – and Dean was going to make sure the price was as costly as he could make it.

"Dean?"

Dean froze at the sound of Cas's voice from just outside the room – soft, tentative, and completely unexpected. It was jarring, immediately flooding his chest with the heavy weight of his guilt, the certainty that he could not let Cas see him like this.

But then… he couldn't let Crowley see him any other way.

He took a moment to regain control, before raising his voice just enough that Cas could hear him, without turning around. "Just a minute, Cas. I'll be right out."

He opened his eyes, momentarily refocusing on his captive, tightening strong fingers at the back of Crowley's neck and tilting the tip of the blade up against the back of Crowley's throat so that he gagged on it. Crowley's eyes were locked onto Dean's, wide and frantic, his white-knuckled fists clenching and desperately pulling at the chains that held him down.

Dean thought about just ripping the blade out, tearing Crowley's face to pieces with a single sharp, merciless blow – he teased the idea, jerking just slightly up and forward with the blade, chuckling at the way Crowley flinched – but he wanted to build up to the real suffering… draw out the anticipation until it was just as bad as the pain itself.

He wanted to take his time.

Dean's voice was soft and patient as he smiled at Crowley and promised, "I'll be right back." Then he carefully removed the blade, taking a moment to enjoy the way Crowley shuddered with mingled relief and terror, his head bowed, gasping for breath.

Dean set the knife down on the table as he turned toward the door. He stopped just before the doorway, taking a deep breath and readying himself to face Cas. When he stepped out into the hall, he found the angel anxiously waiting, shifting his weight back and forth from one foot to the other. Dean was caught off guard by how very human his anxious fidgeting was. He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly painfully dry as he thought of just how it must feel for Cas, just to know what Dean had been doing, what was going on in that room.

"Hey," Dean said softly, unable to meet Cas's eyes as he pulled the door shut behind him and ventured a little closer. "Cas, I – I'm sorry about all this. It's just – I can't let him get away with – I mean, he deserves…"

"No, Dean, you don't – don't have to explain to me." Cas held up a halting hand, and Dean fell silent, forcing himself to look up at Cas's face. Cas's eyes were downcast, and he swallowed slowly before raising them to meet Dean's eyes. "I would… like a few minutes alone with him. Please."

Dean stared at Cas for a long moment. That was just about the last thing he'd expected to come out of Cas's mouth. "Okay," he replied at last. "But… why?"

"Don't I have the right?"

Cas's tone was direct, his gaze unyielding, and Dean barely suppressed a flinch. "Well of course you do, Cas, it's just – are you sure you'll be…"

"I will be fine," Cas insisted, just a little impatiently. "He's restrained, and – and besides. He's not the one who… he never actually…" Cas abruptly fell silent, visibly stricken by whatever he saw on Dean's face – and Dean could no longer look at him. His chest throbbed with the guilt of Cas's unintentional accusation, and he wanted to sink through the floor with shame. But Cas wasn't quite finished. "What I mean is, well… I'm not physically afraid of Crowley. I just… I need to face him. On my own. Alone."

Dean struggled to speak, managing to get out only a hoarse whisper. "Of course," he agreed, struggling for control. "Yeah, um… I'll just be right out here if… just let me know if you need anything."

"I'm sorry, Dean," Cas said, and the sincere regret in his voice only made it worse. "Sam says I shouldn't be, and shouldn't say it, but – I truly am. It was not my intention to hurt you."

Dean couldn't speak, couldn't look at him at all – and by the time he got it together enough to even attempt a response – Cas had vanished. Dean just waited in the hallway, leaning up against the wall and trying to regain his composure. For the moment, his own shame overwhelmed his desire to see Crowley punished. If Cas chose to obliterate the demon in an instant, Dean would just have to accept that.

Whatever vengeance Cas wished to exact on Crowley – it was certainly not Dean's place to deny him.

When Cas still hadn't emerged from the room after several minutes, Dean began pacing anxiously. He knew that Crowley was helpless, and Cas's grace was strong again, and there was literally nothing Crowley could do to hurt Cas, but he still felt uneasy, wishing he could protect Cas, wishing he could support him… wishing that he was still someone from whom Cas would want either of those things.

He tried to distract himself with thoughts of what he would do to Crowley once he had him to himself again – but it wasn't working. Those thoughts didn't hold the satisfaction they'd had before Cas had shown up, and his mind kept drifting back to the basement of Rufus's cabin, and those first few days when Cas had barely even been coherent, let alone strong enough to face down the King of Hell.

"Dean?" Dean looked up, down the hall, to see Sam approaching. "Hey, have you seen Cas?"

Dean glanced unhappily back toward the closed door. "Yeah, he went in there with Crowley, like… ten minutes ago."

Sam frowned, alarm in his eyes. "Really? You sure that's a good idea?"

"Cas's idea," Dean explained unhappily. "Said he needed to face him. Needed a few minutes alone with him. Anyway, Crowley's completely restrained. He can't reach any weapons, can't use his powers. There's no way he can hurt Cas…"

"Are you kidding me?" Sam's worried tone and expression only intensified Dean's sense of unease. "It's Crowley. All he needs is his mouth."

Dean considered that for a moment, his heart sinking as he pictured Cas again, as fragile and vulnerable as he'd been in those first few days – while Crowley lit into him with vicious glee, verbally laying waste to him while bound on his knees in a devil's trap.

"Shit," Dean muttered, heading toward the door. "Should've gagged the little bastard…"

"Wait, Dean, let me," Sam insisted, stopping Dean with a hand on his arm and moving past him to the door.

Dean knew he was right, no matter how much it stung, and stepped back, allowing Sam to take the lead. Sam knocked sharply twice on the door before calling out through it, "Cas? We're coming in."

He waited only a moment before swinging the door open and stepping inside – and then froze. Dean stopped in the doorway, ice cold dread coiling in his gut as he stared into the center of the devil's trap – empty, the chains piled useless on the floor.

Both Cas and Crowley were gone.

Chapter Text

"Okay…"

Sam drew in a deep breath, running a hand through his hair, his mind racing as he paced back and forth in front of the weapons table – undisturbed, nothing missing.

Which means Cas is unarmed… but so is Crowley…

His eyes were continually drawn toward the empty devil's trap in the center of the floor, the useless chains that Dean was examining intently, almost frantically, for any sign of tampering or other damage. Sam let out his breath slowly, struggling to keep his tone calm and controlled and not accusing, not his fault, what else was he supposed to do if that's what Cas wanted?

"Okay… okay, how the hell did this happen?"

"I don't know!" Dean tossed down the iron shackle in his hand in frustration. "He was completely restrained! There was no way he could have gotten loose!"

"Okay." Sam frowned, trying to put the pieces together. "So… maybe the cuffs weren't secure?"

Doesn't mean Crowley hurt Cas… maybe he just escaped, and Cas went after him… Cas can take care of himself now, he's fine, he's okay…

"They were secure." Dean's fierce glare made Sam swallow hard and look away. "I fucking quadruple-checked everything, Sam! There was no way for Crowley to escape!"

"Okay," Sam repeated, soft and appeasing, holding up his hands in front of him for a moment in a conciliatory gesture. "Okay, so… so then maybe Crowley didn't escape. I mean, he couldn't have, right? So – Cas did it."

"What?" Dean looked up at Sam, visibly alarmed. "No. Why would Cas break Crowley out? That makes no fucking sense!"

Sam considered the question, shaking his head. "I don't know, but – he has been testing out his wings lately. He's gotten pretty strong again, and… he could've done it. And Crowley couldn't have. So – it's the only thing that makes any sense."

Dean looked down at the empty shackles for a moment, before meeting Sam's eyes, his tone a little calmer. "Maybe he wanted to do it himself," he suggested quietly. "Take care of Crowley." He glanced at the heavily loaded weapons table, his eyes hard and resentful, before concluding grimly, "Couldn't blame him for wanting that."

"No," Sam agreed. "And Cas is stronger than Crowley. If that's what happened, then there's really no need to worry…"

"Cas is stronger than Crowley on a good day," Dean countered, a slight tremor in his voice, worry in his eyes as he looked away from the weapons to meet Sam's gaze. "But… he's still recovering. And Crowley was all chained up, couldn't use his demon powers or anything – but now he's not. If he sees a chance to get the jump on Cas…"

"Dean – we have to let him start making his own calls again, you know?" It was a struggle even to get the words out, Sam's stomach clenching with fear at the very thought of the scenario Dean was suggesting. "I – I want to protect him too, but – we don't get to decide for him what he does. We…" Sam went quiet, finding it suddenly difficult to go on.

But Dean finished the thought for him, his words low and soft, resigned. "We don't have the right."

Sam shook his head, staring down at the floor for a moment before closing his eyes, swallowing hard. "Cas, man… we get it. You've gotta do whatever you've gotta do, but…" He hesitated, letting out a shaky breath before concluding, "I sure hope you know what you're doing. Be careful, okay? And… come home soon. Please."

 

****************************************************************

 

It had been a long time since Castiel had considered himself anything even close to holy. In fact these days he felt all too human – and as the door to the dungeon closed behind him, he certainly felt the rush of hot, resentful fury at the sight of the demon king who had orchestrated his ruin. His fists clenched at his sides, and for a moment, he saw himself lashing out, using the power of his grace to slowly sear out what was left of Crowley's excuse for life, to obliterate him as he'd done to so many demons before.

But then in the next moment, Castiel got a good look at Crowley – saw the way he was trembling, the white-knuckled fists straining against the chains that bound him, the wild look of panic behind the defiance in his eyes as he glared up at Castiel from his knees.

"So what's this then?" he sneered, but his voice was unsteady, and a trickle of blood fell from the corner of his mouth as he spoke. "You've come to take your turn while there's still a pound of flesh left?"

Castiel didn't reply, just stared down at Crowley, taking in the surprisingly pitiful sight he made at the moment – and remembering all too clearly what it felt like to be in that position. That exact position, helpless and desperate and filled with the despair of knowing that nothing he could do or say would end the suffering intended for him.

The difference was… Crowley deserved to be punished. But… not by Dean.

And not… not like this.

Castiel said nothing for a moment, glancing to Crowley's side, at the discarded handcuffs Dean had left there. He picked them up, then reached down and caught Crowley's wrist, effortlessly holding him when he tried to jerk away. The magic shackles fell away, but Castiel immediately replaced them with the handcuffs. He pulled Crowley up to his feet, showing no reaction to the suspicion and confusion on his face.

It was vaguely satisfying, the way Crowley flinched when Castiel reached toward his head, and Castiel could feel the demon's terror the moment his hand made contact, felt his twisted spirit writhing frantically, desperate to escape the searing grasp of angelic grace. But Crowley's pain was not Castiel's purpose, and an instant later they were standing somewhere in the middle of a cold, quiet forest in Maine – well out of the Impala's reach, if the Winchesters had even known where to begin to look.

Crowley stumbled a little before regaining his footing, looking around at their surroundings before looking back up at Castiel, incredulous. "What's this about?" he asked, tone guarded, eyes narrowed. "What exactly are you playing at here, angel?"

"I'm not playing," Castiel replied, taking a step toward Crowley.

Crowley immediately backed up, wary eyes watching Castiel; Castiel easily caught the chain of the handcuffs and pulled him back toward him. But then he touched his free hand to the right cuff, and they both fell away as easily as the shackles had before.

"I couldn't allow you to be free in Sam and Dean's home," he explained to Crowley's perplexed expression. "Couldn't allow you to do whatever damage you desire to them. But – I also couldn't allow Dean to do – what he was going to do."

Crowley's confusion faded slowly into knowing relief. "Why, Cas, darling," he drawled with a flirtatious smirk, flexing his hands and rubbing a little at his chafed wrists. "You do care."

"About Dean." Castiel looked away, swallowing hard, before meeting Crowley's gaze again. "You deserve every moment of every torment he would have inflicted upon you. You deserve to be utterly destroyed – and you deserved it long before this last deception."

Crowley raised an eyebrow, silently waiting for Castiel's point – so he made it, his voice quiet to mask its trembling, a deep ache in his chest for the things he felt that he had no desire to feel.

"But – Dean would have been utterly destroyed, too. And – I can't allow that to happen."

"It's too late for that," Crowley sneered. "That boy's soul is nearly as black as mine."

"You forget, I can see Dean Winchester's soul." Castiel's free hand clenched into a fist at his side, his other hand gripping the handcuffs so tightly that he could feel the metal biting into his skin, and he resisted the urge he felt to strike out at the smirking demon in front of him, to wipe the cruel satisfaction from his face. "He is not beyond saving."

"Perhaps not." Crowley shrugged, careless, his smile settling into something colder, more calculating. "But that profound bond you used to speak of… the… connection you used to have… that is, isn't it?"

Castiel looked away, suddenly feeling overwhelmingly exposed… and, inexplicably, ashamed. "That is none of your concern…"

"But that's all right, isn't it?" Crowley continued as if Castiel hadn't spoken, looking him up and down with calculating eyes. "Seems you didn't take long to find a passable replacement."

The sick feeling in the pit of Castiel's stomach intensified, and he swallowed hard, shifting uncomfortably on his feet. He couldn't look at Crowley, and found himself instead focusing his attention on the intricate markings of the handcuffs he held.

Crowley continued, zeroing in on the weakness he saw and latching onto it viciously. "That ridiculously over-sized scrap of flannel you're wearing belongs to Moose, doesn't it? Cruel, isn't it – how it's always so much harder to forgive the ones we love the most…"

"I didn't bring you here to listen to you talk!" Castiel snapped, turning back toward Crowley to fully face him and taking a menacing step into his space.

Crowley just smiled and snapped his fingers, disappearing only to reappear a few yards away. "Yes, about that. Bringing me here. Just to let me go. Mistake, Castiel." His tone was gently scolding. "Because now I'm free to use all of the considerable power at my disposal once again – and I know where the Winchesters' little clubhouse is located. So seems you've lost a move or two in this little chess match, haven't you?"

"Have I?" Castiel spoke the words, then matched Crowley's little trick by using his wings to disappear, and then reappear directly behind the demon. "Where is that clubhouse, again? Do you remember?"

Crowley had regained enough composure that he didn't startle at Castiel's move, only turned calmly to face him, scoffing, "Well, of course I remember, I was just there! It's in…" He stopped abruptly, a frown forming on his lips, as he thought hard. He shook his head in confusion. "It's… I was just…" He looked up at Castiel's satisfied smirk, understanding slowly dawning. "Bollocks." His eyes narrowed. "Must be getting your strength back fairly quickly," he remarked. "To pull off a maneuver like that."

Castiel shrugged, smiling tightly. "Simple memory wipe."

"On me."

Castiel took a step forward, and Crowley snapped his fingers – then blinked, surprised, looking around, before trying it again. "What… what did you…?"

"Finding yourself blocked?" Castiel observed, taking another step forward, gratified when Crowley took a hasty step backward at his advance. "You've no idea of the 'maneuvers' I'm capable of. For example… there's one other thing I've done – to you – that you're not yet aware of."

Crowley's retreat was abruptly stopped when he backed right into a tree, and Castiel moved in too close and too quickly to allow him to correct his mistake. Crowley's eyes widened and he stared up at Castiel for a long moment with mounting suspicion; when at last he spoke, there was anger and impatience in his voice – but Castiel could sense the fear of which they were born.

"Just what are you talking about, Castiel?" Crowley demanded. "Get to the point."

Castiel felt a slight tugging pressure against the power he was exerting, knew that Crowley was trying again, uselessly, to flee – and he smiled.

"You'll begin to feel it soon enough," he replied, matter-of-fact, his voice low and intent as he shifted in closer to Crowley, feeling a rush of satisfaction in his own power at the flash of fear in Crowley's eyes, the way he pressed back tighter against the tree behind him, but was unable to put any distance between himself and Castiel. "A faint burning under your stolen skin – a constant reminder that you are a marked – well…" Castiel reconsidered his word choice, amending, "… you're not quite a man, are you? But marked, you are, with a trace amount of my grace."

Crowley's eyes widened slightly, a slow swallow visible in his throat. His words were too quiet, too controlled, when he finally managed to reply. "And what, exactly, does that mean?"

"It's a mercy that you don't sleep," Castiel remarked, quiet and utterly in control, "because you'd surely find sleep difficult to attain. The touch of angelic grace against your withered soul will make it writhe and struggle and burn… but you won't be able to rid yourself of it. And it won't allow you to hide – not anywhere."

"Hide from whom?" Crowley scoffed, but his derisive voice shook almost imperceptibly. "You?"

"Yes," Castiel answered simply. "Because I'm not yet prepared to destroy you. For reasons which I have no desire to share with you at this time. But destruction is coming to you, Crowley. And when you meet it – it will be at my hand." He paused before continuing, "As the king of Hell, you do have the power of teleportation, yes – but angel's wings are even more effective. And anywhere you go in an attempt to avoid me – I'll be able to easily locate you there. So… I suppose what I'm saying, essentially, is…" Castiel concluded, glancing downward as the appropriate reference occurred to him, and then lifting his eyes to give Crowley a cold smile. "… you can't run… or hide."

Crowley swallowed slowly, his words too careful, steady only with a noticeable effort. "Why the theatrics?" he managed to ask, watching Castiel with wary eyes. "Why not just… be done with it and kill me now?"

Castiel had his reasons – but he'd already made it clear that he had no intention of telling Crowley what they were. Instead, he just smiled, secretive and reproachful and highly unsettling, judging from the quiver he felt run all through Crowley's dark soul in the moment before he finally released him. Castiel did not wait for any further response from the shaken demon before he took flight himself, allowing his strong, healthy wings to carry him back to the bunker, and the worried Winchesters who'd barely stopped thinking about him, and occasionally whispering his name, since the moment he'd left.

 

*******************************************************************

 

He chose to land in the library, where he thought it most likely that he'd find Sam, trying to occupy his mind with research and distract himself from the worry he was feeling. He found both brothers there, Sam seated at the table with a book open in front of him, and Dean pacing near the door.

Immediately they both froze, looking up at the sound of his settling wings – and then both moved toward him at once. Dean was the first to speak.

"What happened? Are you all right?"

Castiel tensed, turning toward him, wary and guarded.

He's just concerned… poses no threat… has no intention of harming me…

Frustrated irritation flooded through Castiel at the tone of his own thoughts, and he squared his shoulders, forcing himself to meet Dean's eyes.

Not that he could if he wanted to. I'm strong now. I'm whole. He can't hurt me.

Before he could bring himself to answer Dean's question, however, Castiel felt Sam's hand on his shoulder from behind him, pulling him around and into a close embrace. His voice was breathless, unsteady.

"Cas, thank God you're okay!"

"Yes," Castiel answered simply, glancing back over his shoulder toward Dean, who had stopped a few yards away, just within Castiel's line of sight. He was awkwardly shifting from one foot to the other, very clearly trying not to watch Castiel's interaction with his brother. "I – I'm sorry to have worried you."

"What happened?" Sam asked, drawing back enough to meet Castiel's eyes. "Where's Crowley?"

"Gone," Castiel answered, quiet, his eyes dropping between them.

"You took him?" Dean asked, his tone tense and tightly controlled.

"Yes," Castiel replied. "I – wished to deal with Crowley on my own terms."

"Yeah." Dean nodded slowly, his stance relaxing a little at Castiel's explanation. "Yeah, that's – one hundred percent fucking fair, man. Whatever you wanted to…" He stopped, shaking his head, a rueful smile touching his lips. "Just tell me you made it hurt."

Castiel hesitated a moment, hating the lingering fear that clung to him, that made him wary of incurring Dean's anger – and he knew that his answer would make Dean angry. He averted his eyes, his hands instinctively holding a little tighter to Sam as he made himself answer, simply and honestly.

"I let him go."

 

***************************************************************

 

Dean's mind refused to process the words for a few moments. He just froze, staring at Cas in disbelief, trying to make it make sense. But he couldn't think of any reason, any possible good that could have come from such a choice. He swallowed slowly, struggling to maintain control as he choked out a response.

"You – you did what?"

"I let him go," Cas repeated, refusing to meet Dean's eyes, not quite guilty, but still guarded.

The words were just as jarring as the first time, but Dean's shock was beginning to fade, replaced by a smoldering heat of rage. "Why would you…?" He fought to keep the anger from coming through in his voice, but he knew he was failing by the way Cas shifted just slightly closer to Sam as he spoke, his voice quiet but defensive.

"It is my right to do with him as I choose. Those were your words."

"Yeah," Dean replied. "Yeah, but…"

The more Dean thought about Crowley, and how close he'd come to making him pay for what he'd done, the stain of his blood on Dean's blade – not nearly enough – the fear in his eyes – so close – just to have Cas come in and decide to fucking let him go…

"Dean?" Sam's voice cut through his fury, and Dean looked up to see that Sam had moved to stand between him and Cas, holding out a cautious hand toward his brother. "Hey, take a second, okay? Just… hold on. I'm sure Cas had a reason…"

Dean had no interest in Cas's reasons. He stared down at his own trembling, clenched fist, vaguely alarmed at how violently angry he felt, and all at once his only interest was getting away from Cas before he blew up. He turned on his heel and stalked away toward his own room, ignoring Sam's anxious calling of his name after him.

He slammed the door, hard enough that some of the weaponry displayed on the walls rattled, in danger of falling. Dean paced back and forth, restless and agitated, fists flexing at his sides. They were itching for violence – but their target had been stolen away, and Dean found himself overwhelmed with frustration. He sat down on the edge of his bed, trying for a moment to gain control – but a moment later he swept everything from his nightstand with a guttural snarl of fury.

When he raised his eyes again, Dean froze – because Cas stood just inside his bedroom door, quietly watching him with wary eyes.

"Cas… I – I didn't know you were…" Dean swallowed hard, looking away. Guilt swelled up in his chest, overwhelming his anger, and he lowered his face into his hands, drawing in a breath and releasing it slowly. "Sorry," he whispered, shaking his head. "Sorry, Cas… sorry…"

Cas was quiet for a moment, before he broke the silence, his words soft and careful.

"I should explain."

Dean looked up at Cas, his heart sinking at the way Cas stood, eyes downcast, his back almost against the door – as far as he could possibly be from Dean while still being in the same room.

"No, Cas," Dean sighed, his words heavy and sad. "No, you don't owe me any…"

"You require explanation in order to find any peace with the situation," Cas insisted. "What I do or do not owe you is of no import."

It took Dean a moment to understand what Cas was trying to say, but when it sank in, he was overwhelmed with a sense of disbelieving gratitude – because whether or not he deserved it, no matter what he'd done to Cas, Cas still wanted to make sure that he was okay, to bring him any measure of peace that he could.

Dean couldn't even begin to fathom why.

"I – didn't want you to torture again," Cas explained. "Anyone, no matter how deserving of it. So – I let Crowley go."

Dean couldn't help it; the reaction was automatic, to the very idea of Crowley getting away with what he'd done to them all. His jaw tightened, his hands clenching into fists – and Cas visibly tensed, wide eyes darting down to Dean's hands before meeting his gaze, calm but cautious.

"You think I made the wrong choice," he observed. "And – that makes you angry. You're – angry with me."

Dean swallowed hard, but couldn't keep his voice from shaking with frustration as he ground out, "No… no, I'm not…"

"You are. Right now, you're – angry enough to hurt me."

Dean couldn't breathe for a second, his chest clenched and aching, and he looked up at Cas in dismay – his heart sinking, horrified and guilty when he saw that Cas's eyes were focused on his fist, trembling against his knee.

"Cas…" His voice was strangled with tears. "Cas… no…" Dean lowered his head into his hands, his anger utterly dissipating into overwhelming shame. "No, I'd – I'd never…" He stopped, horrified. "I mean… that's not… I wanted to hurt him, all right? Not you. God, I never wanna hurt you again. I – all I want is to make this right." He was crying before he realized it, tears streaking his face and staining his jeans with tiny dark spots, and he swiped at them angrily for a moment before giving up, covering his face and allowing the tears to fall.

There was only silence in the room for a long moment, Dean agonizingly aware of every harsh breath, every choked sob – until he felt the mattress beside him slowly pressed down.

Dean completely froze. He didn't dare move. It could only be Cas, unbelievably venturing to sit next to him, closer than he'd dared to come since the cabin – and Dean desperately wanted to keep him there, at all costs to avoid frightening him away.

"I know, Dean," Cas said softly, and the hushed nearness of his voice, surreally familiar, like a memory from another life – it made Dean's heart race, and he ached to reach out, to touch, to hold Cas there with him. "But – punishing Crowley – that would only make things worse. It would only – feed that darkness, that part of you that – is capable of…"

Cas's words were quiet and haunted, and Dean couldn't bring himself to look up, a hot rush of shame flooding his face. "I'm sorry," he whispered, shaking his head slowly, fresh tears sliding down his face. "I'm sorry…"

Cas was silent for a moment. His voice was barely over a whisper, heavy with emotion as he confessed, "I… just wanted to protect you. From – from what you were going to do."

Dean felt an overwhelming weight of mingled guilt and gratitude. "I don't know why." His thoughts spilled out before he could stop them, weary and tearful. "Don't know how you can even still give a damn."

"It's my curse," Cas replied, and the touch of humor in his voice caught Dean off guard. He glanced up uncertainly to find Cas seated about a foot away from him, watching him with those intense eyes, the faintest trace of a sad smile touching his lips. "I can't seem to stop."

Dean barely dared to breathe, couldn't tear his eyes from Cas's face – and a moment later, Cas dropped his gaze, folding his hands in front of himself anxiously, abruptly self-conscious. Dean swallowed slowly, clearing his throat, before speaking softly into the silence.

"I'm sorry," he said, and for the first time in a long time, he wasn't talking about that night in Rufus's cabin.

Cas was silent for a moment, his lips parted, hesitating, before he admitted softly, "I'm not." Dean froze, trying to process what Cas was saying, desperately trying to push down the hope that rose, blooming in his chest, with those simple words. Cas finally looked up at Dean again, something aching and wistful in his eyes as he explained, "I – said I didn't know how to forgive you, Dean. Not that I didn't want to."

Dean took that in for a moment, his heart racing as the hope he barely dared to feel was confirmed. He struggled to keep his movements slow and careful, turning just a little to more fully face Cas, fighting to keep his eagerness in check so as not to push too far, too fast, and scare Cas away.

"Just – just tell me what to do," he pleaded, low and urgent. "Tell me what to do and I swear I'll do it."

Cas was quiet for a moment, before he spoke, soft and certain into the stillness. "Leave Crowley to me."

Dean's chest tightened and he fought against the desire for vengeance that made everything in him rebel against that idea. He wasn't sure yet that Cas had the strength or the will to make Crowley pay like he deserved, and he didn't want to be denied the revenge that might not fix things between him and Cas, but would certainly make him feel like at least on some level, he'd gotten some justice for his friend.

"Cas… I… I don't think I can…"

"Please." Cas cut him off, but his voice was quiet and imploring. "Dean, I – I don't know what it will take to get past this. I don't even know if – if it's possible, but – but I do know that – you don't trust my judgment, or my decisions. And – with good reason."

The shame in Cas's voice tore at Dean, making his chest ache, and he shook his head. "Cas, no…"

"I've made many mistakes, Dean," Cas continued, insistent. "I've – tried to do the right thing and failed, on many occasions. And – the thing that makes me afraid to – to trust you again… to let you in, is… I'm afraid that… that's all you'll ever see."

Dean couldn't answer; the pain in Cas's voice mirrored his own, and he couldn't find words to reassure Cas that it wasn't true – not when his recent actions were such damning evidence that it was.

"Someone will come to you with an accusation and – and you'll believe it, because – because why wouldn't you? I've failed so many times before. Or – you'll mistrust my actions and believe I'm going to – to mess things up, even without such an accusation, because… so many times…" Cas's voice trailed off, and he shook his head sadly, looking away. "What I'm saying is… I think that in order to trust you again, Dean… I need to know that you trust me."

"I do, Cas," Dean insisted, turning fully toward Cas, then wincing and going still when Cas flinched slightly. Dean lowered his voice, soft and reassuring. "I do. I've learned my lesson, believe me! I trust you…"

"Then… leave Crowley to me."

Dean went quiet. It felt like a lot to ask for – a lot to let go of. But – if it meant that Cas just might be able to forgive him…

"This is… what you need. To – to believe that… I can change. That things can be different between us. Better."

"I can't promise it'll fix anything," Cas admitted, looking down at his own knees. "I just know that – it's a start. I – do need you to do this, Dean. To – to trust me on this."

Dean took a moment to weigh the situation, to consider the consequences of either choice; it didn't take long. He nodded, waiting until Cas looked up to meet his eyes, to answer.

"Okay."

Cas blinked, visibly surprised. "Okay?"

"Okay." Dean nodded. "You're the one that got screwed over the worst in this whole thing; it's your call. With the condition that if he starts stirring shit up again, all bets are off. Me and Sammy'll take him out if we have to, but – I won't go looking for him again, not about this. All right?"

"Yes," Cas agreed with a hesitant little smile and a slow nod. "That - that is fair."

"I'm trying, Cas," Dean said, earnest and pleading. "I'm really trying, here. I'll do whatever I need to do to prove to you I – I'm not gonna…" He stopped, swallowing, struggling to keep his voice under control.

"I know," Cas replied, and the warmth and gratitude shining from his eyes was light beaming out over the darkness that had surrounded Dean for the past several weeks – reason for hope and the possibility for change. And in the next moment, that hope bloomed in Dean's chest, overflowing, when Cas reached out a hesitant hand to rest on his shoulder. His eyes were downcast, his voice almost shy as he said softly, "Th-thank you, Dean."

And then his touch, his smile, those warm, expressive eyes were gone – but Dean sat there for a long time, still basking in the glow of hope, and the chance he'd been given. It was just a crack in the door, just the faintest scrap of light seeping through – but he would cling to it with everything he had, and hope that with time and trust, it could become so much more.

"No, Cas," Dean whispered, closing his eyes, certain that wherever he'd disappeared to, his angel was still listening. "Thank you."

Chapter Text

The soft rustling of wings alerted Sam to Cas's presence in the library, a moment before the angel appeared in the seat next to Sam's. Sam had been waiting for him to get back from talking to Dean, trying not to worry about how their conversation might have gone, and to trust that if Cas felt he was up to it, he really was capable of having a private conversation with Dean that wouldn't end in tears and trauma. Now, Sam sat back in his chair a little, laying aside the book he'd been trying to read and focusing on Cas.

It wasn't difficult; Cas was sitting very near to him.

There were eight chairs around the table, and yet Cas had chosen the one placed less than a foot away from Sam's. Dean had often complained about Cas's utter lack of regard for personal space – but now, it seemed that Cas wasn't satisfied unless he was as close to Sam as he could possibly get.

Sam took in Cas's wide-eyed, vaguely stunned expression with concern, then reached out a hand to rest over Cas's where it rested on the table. "You okay?" he asked, hushed and careful. "Cas?"

"He – listened to me." Disbelief was clear in Cas's quiet words, as he looked up into Sam's eyes. "He – he agreed to trust me. To trust Crowley to me. I – didn't really think that he would."

Sam was quiet for a moment, taking in Cas's obvious shock at Dean's response. He wasn't at all surprised, himself. He thought back over the past few weeks, and every desperate attempt Dean had made to find some way to prove to Cas how sorry he was, how willing to do anything he could to make things right between them. He swallowed hard past the thickness in his throat, his thumb running slowly back and forth across Cas's wrist.

"Of course he did," he replied at last. Cas looked up at him with an uncertain little frown, so Sam continued. "He'd do just about anything for you at this point. You've gotta know that. He – he loves you, Cas."

Cas looked away abruptly, withdrawing his hand from Sam's and folding it with the other in his lap. Staring down at them, visibly uncomfortable, he countered softly, "He loves you."

Sam blinked, taken aback. He waited until Cas glanced back up at him again, uncertain, to ask, "Can't both be true?"

Cas's lips parted as if to speak, but then he looked away again, worrying at his lower lip for a moment. Finally he replied, "I – I'm – I don't wish to think about this. It's – too…" He shook his head, and Sam heard the taut edge in his voice as he concluded, "I can't right now."

"Cas… Cas…" Sam turned in his seat, reaching out to take Cas's hands again and tugging him around to face him. "Hey… look at me."

Cas reluctantly obeyed, and Sam counted it a small victory that he didn't snatch his hands away. But there was something close to dread in his eyes as he silently waited for Sam to go on.

"No one's expecting anything from you, okay? Not me, and not Dean. Whatever you're thinking, or – or feeling, or not feeling, about either of us right now is – is okay. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything." Sam sighed, shaking his head and looking away for a moment before meeting Cas's eyes again. "I just wanted you to know that… as hard as it is to believe… Dean does want you to have what you need. He does want to fix things. You just – shouldn't be surprised that he's trying."

Cas was studying Sam's face now, so intently that Sam fought the urge to look away. Cas's brow furrowed slightly, and he looked as if he wanted to ask a question – but when he spoke, his words were calm and certain.

"You should go to Dean now."

Sam frowned. "Cas – what…?"

"He was upset, when I left him," Cas explained. "I'm fine, Sam. I just – have much to think about. But Dean – he needs you. You should go to him."

Sam barely had time to even begin to formulate his protest before Cas was gone with a soft fluttering of wings. Sam was almost certain that if he went looking for Cas, he'd find him behind his closed bedroom door – but seeking him out now when he clearly wanted privacy seemed like an unwelcome intrusion, so Sam decided to leave Cas alone to his thoughts, and for the moment, follow the angel's advice – and focus his concerns on his brother.

 

****************************************************************

 

Sam found Dean lying in his bed, his face toward the wall. Dean didn't move or otherwise acknowledge Sam's entrance, but Sam could tell by the tense set of his shoulders that he was awake. Sam quietly undressed, stripping down to a thin t-shirt and shorts before sliding into the bed behind his brother and cautiously slipping an arm around him. Dean didn't pull away – and after a moment, he raised a hand to rest on Sam's arm, shifting in closer.

"He came to me," Dean said quietly at last, wonder in his voice. "Like – close to me, you know? He – he touched me."

Sam's heart leapt at that news – details Cas hadn't given him. Despite Cas's confusion, the fact that he'd ventured to close just a little bit of the distance that remained between himself and Dean…

"That – has to be progress, right?" Sam smiled as he pressed a kiss to the soft skin at the base of Dean's neck. "That's great."

"It feels like it. Like progress," Dean admitted, but his words were hesitant. "I just – I know I'm being impatient. I can't ask him for a damn thing, you know? It's just – I wish I knew how to get back to where we were before."

Sam thought about it – thought back over the past few years of their lives, since Cas had been a part of them. He thought about half-truths and manipulations, well-intentioned lies that had ended in death and destruction, cruel accusations flung out and angry, biting words that wouldn't have hurt either of them half as much if they'd come from someone, anyone else.

"When?" he asked softly, before he even knew he was going to speak.

"What?" Sam could hear the frown in Dean's voice.

"You wanna get back to where you were – when?" Now that he'd said it, there wasn't any taking it back – so Sam pressed forward, hoping he could find a way to make his brother understand. "I mean – I can't really remember a time when things were really – good between you two, you know?"

Dean was quiet, and Sam worried that he might have offended his brother into shutting him out – but then Dean broke the silence, his voice distant and almost wistful.

"Purgatory."

Sam grimaced, surprised. "Really?"

"Yeah." Dean chuckled softly. "Go figure. Happiest me and Cas ever were with each other was in monster paradise. But – it kinda makes sense, in a weird way." Dean's voice was hushed and thoughtful, and he pulled Sam's arm closer around him, callused fingertips brushing back and forth against Sam's bare skin in a soothing, rhythmic motion. "I mean – it wasn't just pure because – because there was nothing but the fight. That was true, too, but – but it was also pure because – the Apocalypse, Cas screwing around with Crowley, the Leviathans and all that crap – it just didn't matter. I had his back, and he knew it. And I knew he had mine. And – we didn't have to talk about – you know – our feelings and shit. We just – we both just knew. You know?"

Sam thought of Cas, sitting at the library table with him minutes earlier, wringing his hands and choking out halting words.

Dean loves you…

"You're sure he knew?"

Dean's hand stilled on Sam's arm, and he sounded startled when he replied, "Yeah. Yeah, of course he did. I mean – I'm sure he did…" A note of uncertainty crept into Dean's voice, and it was just a little shaky as he breathed out, "Shit. Maybe he didn't."

"Anyway," Sam continued, "Purgatory… that wasn't exactly a set of circumstances you can recreate here, was it?"

Dean let out a low, dark laugh. "Or would want to."

"Yeah," Sam agreed, a sad smile touching his lips. "And – here, in this world – there've always been… issues between you two. Lying and going behind each other's backs and… you want to go back but…"

"But you're saying… maybe there's nothing good to go back to?"

Dean's tone was abruptly tight, defensive, and Sam felt Dean's body tense against his own. He swallowed hard, weighing his words carefully. The last thing he wanted was to make Dean shut down, to put him on the attack – because once that happened, he knew Dean wouldn't really hear another word he had to say. He was quiet for a moment, before replying in a quiet, measured voice.

"I'm saying… maybe you don't need to be looking back at all. So… you can't see the way back to where you guys were before. Well, maybe that wasn't such a great place, anyway. Maybe – you need to focus on… you and me and Cas, just… moving forward. Building something new."

Dean was quiet for a long moment, before letting out a soft, thoughtful little, "Huh," that didn't sound quite like agreement – but it didn't sound like hostility, either. And Dean relaxed again in Sam's arms, which Sam could only take as a good sign. They lay there for a long time in silence, Sam holding his brother and stroking his arm until he heard Dean's breath even out and his body went fully lax and pliant against Sam.

It wasn't long after that before Sam drifted off as well, joining him in peaceful rest.

 

***************************************************************

 

Six weeks passed from the night they left Rufus's cabin and began trying to put themselves back together, to the day when Cas ventured to reach out and touch Dean for the first time – to the day before Dean decided he was ready to take on a hunt again. Based on the online news articles he'd found from just a couple towns over, it appeared to be a simple salt and burn – not exactly a two-man job.

"I can go," Sam insisted, leaning in the doorway of Dean's room as he packed his overnight bag. "In case things get tricky…"

"Nah," Dean dismissed the offer with a wave of his hand before zipping up his bag and hoisting it onto his shoulder. "I've got my phone in case things go south, and it's like, an hour away. Besides…" He gave a warm, genuine smile in response to the anxious look his little brother was giving him. "… I could use a little time to think things through, you know? On my own."

Sam's frown deepened, and he stood up in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest. "Dean…"

"Sammy." Dean's voice was soft, reassuring, as he closed the distance between them and put his hands on his brother's arms, soothing him. "This is a good thing. I wouldn't say this, but I know you're already thinking it, so I'll just spell it out – this isn't a suicide run, I'm not in that same place anymore, all right? I'm good. Really. I just – I need to think about what you said last night, need to – figure out how to do that, and – and I also need to get my head back in the game, you know? I'm sitting around here doing nothing, and there's people dying out there, and… it's just time. Okay?"

Sam bit his lower lip, his frown not easing, but he nodded, closing his eyes and letting out a sigh. "Okay," he conceded.

Dean smiled, rising up to give Sam a warm, slow kiss. Sam's mouth was taut, his kiss vaguely reluctant – but Dean persisted until Sam relaxed a little, raising his arms to wrap around Dean and pull him closer, returning the kiss with fervor.

"Be careful," Sam whispered, pulling back so that his lowered brow rested against Dean's. "You promised."

A dull ache formed in Dean's chest, as he remembered the promise Sam was referring to – the promise not to do anything stupid and leave Sam alone in this mess they'd created.

"I know," he replied. "I'm coming home, Sammy. Promise."

Sam nodded, and Dean kissed him one more time, softly, before pulling back and steadying his bag, and heading for the door. When he reached the library, Dean found Cas sitting quietly, hands folded in front of him on the table. He looked up at Dean with troubled eyes, and Dean's stomach dropped, but he only missed a single step before he forced a smile onto his face and continued on toward the stairs.

"Hey, Cas," he said as brightly as he could manage. "Off on a hunt, I'll be back in a few days, okay?"

Cas frowned. "Sam isn't going with you?"

"Nah, he's gonna stay here. It's an easy hunt, nothing to worry about…"

"He's gonna stay here… with me." Cas sighed, lowering his eyes.

Dean stopped. He hesitated a moment before setting his bag down and sitting down in the chair next to Cas's. "Cas… it's not like that," he insisted. "We know you're doing – great these days, and it's not like you need a babysitter or anything, it's just… I could use the time alone, and…"

"Sam was yours first, Dean."

Dean froze, startled by the unexpected turn in the conversation, as Cas looked up at him matter-of-factly.

"I – I am fine on my own. He doesn't have to stay for me… especially when he'd rather be with you, and…" Cas swallowed slowly, staring down at the table as he concluded, soft and hesitant. "The last thing I want to do is – is to come between the two of you."

"Cas… that's not what's happening here," Dean assured him quietly. "I promise. Even if you weren't staying here at all, I'd – I'd still need to take this time, all right? It's not because of you."

"It isn't?" Cas looked up, frowning. He seemed less than convinced.

"No," Dean stated firmly. "It isn't." He hesitated, mentally debating whether to say anything more, before finally pushing forward. "But… since you brought it up, Cas… you're not coming between me and Sam. Whatever – whatever it is that you and Sam have – I need you to know that – I'm okay with it. I mean, we're okay with it, me and Sam. We've – talked about it, and – and we get that this situation isn't exactly normal, you know? And – we both care about you, and – and want you to have whatever you need to get better, and – and be okay, and – well, I'm just saying… we're open to… to whatever happens. Between… you and him, or… well… you get me?"

Cas looked a little confused, but more thoughtful, and when he finally, slowly nodded, Dean felt an overwhelming rush of relief. "I… I think so…"

"Thank God." Dean let out his breath in a shaky rush as he got back to his feet. "I'm outta here. See you in a few days, Cas."

Even if Cas wasn't entirely clear on what Dean was saying, Dean had no desire to stick around and attempt to explain it any further. In fact, as he thought back over the past few weeks and how much closer Cas and Sam had been getting, a very small but insistent part of him wanted nothing more than to take back the words he'd just spoken.

But that wouldn't be fair… not to Cas, and not to Sam…

Dean knew that Cas needed to know the truth – sooner rather than later – but he'd come to a tentative sort of peace with the fact that it was Sam's issue to handle, in whatever way he thought best. Sam was the one spending every day with Cas, helping him work through what had happened, and what he was feeling – so Sam was the one who would certainly know when he was ready – and what he was ready for.

For his own part, Dean just couldn't let Cas feel like he had to hold back, like he couldn't open up to Sam however he wanted, for Dean's sake. He wanted Cas to feel safe and secure with Sam, not like a burden, but welcomed and loved. So he did what he could to encourage that, and pushed down the persistent worries as to the damage that might be done if Cas felt too loved, too soon.

Sure hope you know what you're doing, Sammy… He closed the bunker door behind him and headed for the Impala, keys in hand. You're the only one he trusts… so let's hope you can keep it that way.

 

****************************************************************

 

Castiel sat alone at the library table for some time, just thinking about what Dean had said, mulling it over and processing it until he was fairly certain he understood – and what he understood was both terrifying, and thrilling.

Sam had told him weeks ago that Dean loved him, and Castiel wasn't quite ready to give that idea too much thought. He still couldn't allow himself to focus on Dean for more than a couple of minutes without his mind drifting back to that dark basement, and Dean's cruel hands and soft, taunting voice. Although it had once been something he'd only dreamed could be possible, now the idea of him and Dean in any sort of… romantic sense… was simply too much.

And… then there was Sam.

Sam, who had saved him from the darkness – carried him up into the light when he was too broken to move under his own power. Sam, who listened as he rambled about things he was somehow capable of feeling, but not of comprehending; who'd held him through nightmares and panic attacks and other human horrors that he'd only had a technical concept of before, but of which he now had an intensely personal, devastating understanding.

Sam had become the most important person in Castiel's life, and he was increasingly aware of his own steadily intensifying feelings – the way he felt safer, happier whenever Sam was close to him; the little fluttering thrill that went through him any time Sam reached out and touched him. He'd pushed those feelings down, forced himself to ignore them – because Sam belonged to Dean. They'd belonged to each other, all their lives; Castiel did not want to intrude.

But… Dean had just made it quite clear that he wasn't.

Castiel knew that Dean and Sam had some kind of understanding that left room for either of them to have relations, or even relationships, with others, outside of what they shared. But he didn't know what the rules were when it came to those outside dalliances, or what he was allowed to share with Sam without crossing the line and offending or usurping Dean.

But… "Can't both be true?"… Sam had said.

And… "We're okay with it… We're open to… whatever happens," Dean had said.

And for the first time since he'd begun to feel these strange, enticing new emotions – Castiel allowed himself to consider the possibility that he might be able to have what he wanted, without taking it from the two people in the world he cared for most.

 

**************************************************************

 

The day after Dean left on his hunt, Sam was feeling a lot better about the whole situation, much more calm and relaxed and comfortable with Dean's decision.

It might have had something to do with the way Dean called every few hours or so to reassure him that he was all right, and that everything was going well. The vivid, troubling memories of a swerving Impala on a dark road… the disturbing mental image of Dean, drunk and distraught and handling a loaded weapon with shaky hands… Sam was able to push those aside, and reassure himself with confidence that this trip was nothing like the last one.

He and Cas had spent a little bit of time together the evening before, but for the most part Cas had kept to himself – though he didn't seem upset about anything, so Sam figured a little bit of personal time wasn't really a bad thing for any of them. He had just settled in on his own bed with a new book – or rather, a very old one he hadn't had the chance to read yet – when he heard a soft, tentative knock on his bedroom door.

"Come in, Cas," he said, sitting up a little against the pillows and smiling as the angel opened the door just enough to timidly look inside. "Everything okay?"

"Yes," Cas replied, closing the door behind him and slowly crossing the room. Sam immediately noticed that his steps were halting, and he was anxiously fidgeting with his hands, his eyes downcast. "I just – I need your help with something, if it's all right."

Sam laid his book aside, focusing fully on Cas. "Anything. What's up?" When Cas didn't speak for a moment, just stood there shifting back and forth on his feet, Sam softened his voice, sitting up a little and patting the bed beside him. "Come here, sit down. Talk to me."

Cas obeyed, but he wouldn't look at Sam, as he visibly struggled over his words. "I – I believe that my wings have finally – completely healed," he said at last.

Sam considered that for a moment, puzzled. "Okay. That's – good, right?"

"Yes." Cas was quiet for a moment before looking up to meet Sam's eyes – and the intensity of his expression, the low rumble of his voice, set Sam's stomach quivering, even before his careful fingers began unbuttoning Sam's shirt that he still wore – had worn every moment since Sam had first given it to him. "Could you – would you check them for me? To be sure?"

Sam went very still, but he could feel his heart racing at the request. There was a deep longing in Cas's eyes, as if his self-conscious behavior hadn't made it clear enough exactly what this request meant to Cas. Alarm bells were ringing in Sam's head, warning him against taking this any further; but another part of him, the part that ached with loss every time he ran a hand across Cas's shoulders, the part that could still feel the soft slide of downy feathers between his fingers, and the thrill of knowing how much Cas trusted him to allow it – that part of him was surging forward, desperate and eager to touch.

"Cas, I…" Sam's words were hoarse, and he swallowed hard to wet his aching throat. "I'll do – whatever you need. Just – are you sure?"

"Yes," Cas replied, quiet but firm, holding Sam's gaze as he slid the shirt back off his shoulders and let it fall onto the bedspread. "I – I want you to."

The hesitation that had been there in the past, the sense of fear and reluctance overwhelmed by necessity – none of that was present at the moment. Cas seemed more than willing, as eager to have Sam's hands on his wings as Sam was to touch them.

And… that was the problem.

"Cas…"

Sam's breath caught, his words dying as Cas turned his back to him – and a moment later, with a soft rustling sound, his wings appeared – breathtaking, iridescent, spreading out on either side of the bed and onto the floor beyond it, whole and healthy and gleaming in the light. Sam tried to find the strength, the will, to object – to tell Cas to hide them again, because he didn't have the right to see them – because if Cas only knew, he wouldn't want Sam to see them.

But… it simply wasn't there.

"It's all right, Sam," Cas said, his voice strangely hushed, trembling with anticipation. "I want you to."

Sam reached out a careful, hesitant hand, fingers ghosting lightly along the ridge of Cas's right wing – and Cas shivered a little under the touch, drawing in a soft, sharp breath. Sam's hand froze, fingers drawing away – and Cas glanced over his shoulder, eyes wide and dark with obvious desire, his hand reaching back to rest on Sam's thigh.

"No, don't… please don't stop," Cas whispered.

Sam bit his lip, struggling with his own conflicting emotions. He gently, reverently ran his hands along the length of Cas's wings, and then down, careful fingers threading through the surface feathers and deeper, to the downy warmth of the softer ones beneath them. He was relieved to find that they did in fact seem to be completely healed, not a trace of a scab or a scar left on them.

He knew this – and yet he couldn't quite bring himself to stop.

It didn't exactly help, the way that Cas leaned back, closer to him, pressing his wings insistently into Sam's touch, soft, stuttering sighs of pleasure escaping his lips. Unbidden, Sam's mind abruptly flashed back to the first glimpse he'd ever had of Cas's wings – ravaged and broken, blood red and burned black – and the way Cas had struggled, pitifully, uselessly, to hide his wings against his abused body.

Sam drew his hand away, sick. "Cas… I… I'm sorry, I…"

Cas turned slightly, looking over his shoulder at Sam with worried eyes. "What's wrong? Are they still… damaged?" He turned toward Sam further, anxiously reaching one hand back toward his wings – the other still conspicuously resting on Sam's thigh.

"No, no," Sam hurried to assure him, reaching a hand out instinctively – faltering for a moment before allowing it to settle on Cas's bare shoulder. "They're – perfect. They're beautiful, Cas, it's just…"

Before he could think of a way to explain, Cas looked back up at him – deep, searching eyes inches from Sam's own, softening with awe and gratitude at Sam's words, neither of which he deserved. Sam looked down, shaking his head a little, lips parted for an explanation that he couldn't bring himself to offer.

But he had to. He knew it, now. No matter the cost.

He had to tell Cas the truth. This had already gone too far.

"Cas…" Sam looked up, steeling himself to speak.

His words, his breath, were stolen away from him as Cas leaned forward to close the inches left between them, pressing his mouth to Sam's in a tender, hesitant kiss. Sam froze, heart racing, thrilling at the contact as Cas raised a careful hand to rest at the back of Sam's neck, fingers sliding through Sam's hair. But as much as he wanted to drink it in, as much as he wanted to put his arms around Cas and hold him and relish what Cas was offering to him – Sam knew that he couldn't.

He raised his hands, placed them on Cas's arms – and gently pushed him back. Cas looked up at him, anxious and troubled, as Sam bit his lip, hesitating, then shook his head slowly, holding Cas's gaze.

"Cas," he whispered, apologetic, as gentle as he could. "We can't…"

Cas frowned, confused. "Why? I thought… you wanted…"

"I do," Sam assured him, looking down between them, miserable. "God, Cas, I do, but… I can't do this. It's – it's not right."

"Because of Dean?" Cas guessed, withdrawing from Sam, increasingly self-conscious. A moment later the beautiful wings vanished, and Sam was filled with mingled feelings of loss and relief. "But… Dean said… he told me that it was all right, if…"

"It's not that," Sam interrupted softly, shaking his head. "It's not… not Dean."

Sam looked up again at Cas, forced himself to meet his eyes, his heart sinking at the look of hurt and confusion on Cas's face. He couldn't leave it there, couldn't let Cas believe that any part of this was his mistake to bear. And he couldn't allow Cas to continue to feel what he was feeling, to look at him with that kind of devotion, to believe that Sam was deserving of the kind of trust he'd just displayed – when he was the one who'd laid Cas bare in the first place – the one who'd been key to his destruction.

"Cas…" Sam reached out a gentle hand, his gaze focusing on his own trembling fingers as they touched Cas's face, rather than meeting Cas's eyes. "There's something – something very important… I have to tell you."

 

Chapter Text

Silence hung heavy between them, Sam allowing his hand to linger against Cas's face, all too aware that he might be touching him for the very last time. He willed himself to go on, to explain – but he couldn't force the words out. And after a moment, Cas shifted back away from Sam a little on the bed, and Sam had to let his hand drop. A cold ache of loss settled in his chest as Cas looked away from him, eyes downcast, fumbling behind him on the bed for the discarded shirt.

"I – I'm sorry."

Sam's heart sank at the self-conscious sound of Cas's voice, as well as the fact that he was apologizing again. A dull ache settled deep in his chest; Cas had felt so safe with him, had been so open and unguarded for so long. But now, he seemed to be shutting in on himself, shame in every aspect of his demeanor… and Sam knew all too well that it wasn't Cas who should be ashamed.

It's all falling apart already… and I haven't even said a word yet…

"I – I've overstepped," Cas mumbled, his eyes carefully focused on his fingers as they struggled with the buttons of the oversized shirt. "I – didn't mean to…"

"No," Sam objected, reaching out to still Cas's hands, ducking his head a little to seek Cas's eyes. "No, Cas, you didn't."

Cas looked up at Sam, hurt and hope in equal measures in his eyes, and Sam wanted to pull his hands away, suddenly acutely aware of how inappropriate it was to be touching Cas right now with any sort of intimacy.

If he knew the truth… when he knows...

"Cas," Sam tried again, forcing himself to hold Cas's gaze, his words firm and emphatic, "you've done nothing wrong. All right? That's not it. You have – no idea how badly I'd love to just – to let you keep going, okay? But – I can't."

Cas stared at Sam, innocent and trusting and concerned, and Sam felt his face burning with shame, guilt making his stomach roll as Cas whispered, "Why not?"

"There's, um…" Sam swallowed hard, closing his eyes for a moment and struggling to steady his nerves. "… there's something you don't know, and… and you have to know. About – that night." He looked up at Cas again, forcing the words out. "At the cabin."

Cas's hands tensed under Sam's, his eyes wide and trapped for a moment before he looked away, shaking his head. His voice was low and unsteady. "I d-don't want to talk about – that night. There's – nothing I need to – to know…"

"Yes, there is," Sam insisted. "Cas… it's important. We – haven't told you everything…"

"Things are just beginning to get better." Cas's tone was imploring, quietly desperate. "Dean and I – we're speaking again, and I'm beginning to – to see a way to…" He swallowed slowly, his eyes reluctantly dragged back up to Sam's face, pleading. "I know enough, Sam. If there are – other things – details which might – make forgiveness less possible than it is now, then – I don't want to know them."

Sam nodded slowly, taking in Cas's words – and the depth of love and generosity, so sorely undeserved, that made it nearly impossible for Sam to keep control of his own emotions. Cas was offering Sam a way out – unconditional forgiveness, total trust, offered freely – without having any idea how grievously he'd been wronged, or even who he was actually offering it to. It would be so easy to just agree, just accept it and move on… and Sam desperately wanted to accept it.

But he couldn't.

"I get it," he replied when he trusted himself to speak again, his voice hushed and thick, his eyes burning. "But… you have to."

Cas pulled his hands away from Sam, frustration in his voice. "Why?"

Sam steeled himself for the sacrifice that came with the truth that was about to pass his lips. It was a necessary sacrifice, because what he was giving up had never really been his to begin with. He took a deep, steadying breath, then finally replied, pushing the words out in a rush of breath.

"Because… it's not about Dean."

Cas frowned, confused – but then his expression softened into sad acceptance. "Sam – I understand that – you both believed I was guilty. You both thought I was trying to destroy – everything. And – and that you'd both do it differently if you could. Beyond that – do any of the details really matter?" He shook his head, reaching out to gently squeeze Sam's hand. "No one ever tells anyone everything. I trust you, Sam." He was quiet for a moment, before adding simply, "I love you."

The ache in the back of Sam's throat intensified, and his eyes burned with unshed tears, his voice thick and hushed as he struggled for control, fighting to get the words out. "That's – exactly the problem, Cas," he admitted, hesitating before finishing in a choked whisper. "You shouldn't."

Sam ventured a glance up at Cas's face, just in time to watch it fall with hurt and disappointment; that was clearly not the response he'd been hoping for. And Sam knew better than to expect him to understand, when this was all done, that it was Sam's returned love for him that left him no choice but to do this, to come clean and shatter everything that had been building between them these past weeks.

"I do… want this, Cas," Sam tried to explain. "I want – us, but… before that can ever happen, you – you have to know some things, and – and once you know them…" Sam looked down at the bedspread between them, unable to bring himself to pull his hand away from the warmth of Cas's touch – too aware that it might be the last time he'd ever feel it. "… once you know them…" He swallowed hard. "… you won't, anymore. Love me. You'll – you'll want to get as far away from me as you can."

The hurt in Cas's eyes faded slowly into confusion, and then dread, and he shook his head, pulling his hand away and shifting back a little on the mattress. "Then… I don't want you to tell me," he replied. "I – don't want to know…"

Sam's heart sank. "Cas…"

"Please don't, Sam…"

There was a note of frantic desperation in Cas's voice as he rose to his feet, backing away until he stood near the foot of the bed, and Sam's heart lurched with the sudden panicked certainty that Cas was about to flee the room, that he was about to miss this chance – and if he let it slip away, this time, Sam knew that there was no way he'd be able to find the strength to try again. He rose with Cas, reaching out and catching his arms.

"Don't go, Cas," he pleaded urgently. "I – I have to say this."

"No, you don't." Cas looked up at him, frantic. "You don't have to. You said you wanted… us, together, right? So let's just go back to that. Please, you don't have to say anything, please don't say anything, Sam…" Cas leaned in as if to try to kiss Sam again, but Sam held him back, closing his eyes to shut out the desperation in the angel's eyes, turning his head away. A moment later, he felt Cas's face fall against his shoulder, Cas's hands at his waist, holding on tight… soft, defeated words muffled against Sam's shirt.

"Sam… don't. Please don't."

The swelling ache in Sam's chest was almost more than he could bear. Cas knew that there was something that had been kept from him, something that would change the way he saw Sam – and here he was literally begging Sam to keep quiet, to keep it to himself, to keep lying to him. And God help him, that was all Sam wanted to do. Sam could keep his mouth shut, and things could go on just like Cas was begging him for, just as he'd almost let them a few moments before, sweet and warm and intimate, and Cas never had to know, ever… but…

Sam would know.

And Dean would know. And Dean would never forgive Sam for allowing Cas to blindly adore him while struggling every day just to find a way to love Dean again, at all. And Sam would never forgive himself, every time Cas gave himself to Sam, every time he was allowed a glimpse of those breathtaking wings – for the fresh violation Cas wouldn't even know was happening.

Sam knew that if he didn't do this now, if he gave in and surrendered to Cas's pleas and his own desires, he'd never find the strength to speak again. Cas was clinging to him, hands tight in Sam's shirt. Sam wasn't sure he could dislodge him if he tried – and he didn't want to try. Eyes burning, Sam swallowed hard past the painful knot in his throat, as he slid one hand gently up Cas's arm to his shoulder, stopping when it was cupping the back of Cas's neck. Cas was still shaking his head, a silent plea, and Sam slid his free arm around Cas's waist, lowering his head so that his cheek rested against the top of Cas's head, momentarily stilling him.

"That night…" he forced himself to begin in a choked whisper, ignoring Cas's soft little whimper of protest and pressing on. "… at the cabin… we didn't know what to do, Cas. We were… running out of options, and we thought the whole world was going down if he couldn't make you talk, and you wouldn't talk, and… I found this book…"

"Don't, Sam, don't, don't…"

The words were a small, despairing sob, and Cas's body was shaking in Sam's arms now, but Sam didn't let himself stop, didn't let himself focus on the pain the truth would cause. He kept his eyes closed, even as tears escaped in hot tracks down his face, because he knew if he looked at Cas right now he might not be able to go on.

"It had a spell in it… the… the Unspeakable…"

Cas flinched away from him, but Sam held on, desperate to finish this now that he'd started, his words tumbling over each other in a mad rush to escape, his voice rising in speed and volume and thick with tears.

"I found it, Cas… I gave it to Dean. I – I told him to use it, if he had to, to – to save the world. Dean – he didn't think he could do it, and I – told him if – if we had to…" Sam's voice broke, and he struggled to maintain his composure, as Cas shook his head against Sam again in silent denial. "We – I thought we were saving the world, Cas." He spoke with a pleading fervency, desperate to somehow make Cas understand the reasons that had felt so important at the cabin – that now seemed so futile, so worthless. "That… had to come first, right? Over and over we keep putting each other first, and every time the world gets a little bit shittier, a little bit more fucked up, and this time we just couldn't do that anymore, you know? We had to save the world…"

Sam's voice broke, and he couldn't go on. He wanted to be sick – because it all sounded so hollow, like worthless excuses to somehow justify the absolute worst thing he and his brother had ever done.

Cas was still and silent in Sam's arms, his body tense but unmoving, and Sam couldn't bring himself to open his eyes. He felt everything inside him breaking apart, felt the closeness and warmth that had built between him and Cas over the past few weeks slipping like sand through his fingers. He sank onto the end of the bed, his hands sliding down and clinging to Cas's clenched fists, covering them like a prayer as he bowed his head, tears streaming.

"I should have saved you, Cas," Sam sobbed out, wretched and ashamed. "I should have saved you."

Everything was silent and still, the only sound the harsh, choked sound of his own sobs – and suddenly Sam lost his balance, shaking hands grasping empty air where Cas had been. Sam looked up, blinking, to see Cas across the room, out of his reach, glaring at him through eyes that glittered with angry tears.

"Why would you do this?" Cas demanded.

Sam lowered his head into his hand, shaking it in despair. "I – I thought we had to. I was wrong, Cas…"

"Why would you do this now?"

Sam blinked, taken aback, struggling to process the unexpected question. "What?"

Cas looked away, his jaw clenched. "For weeks," he clarified in a voice that was barely under his control. "You lied to me. And… you made me trust you, and feel things that I – I showed you… and you let me…" Cas looked up at Sam again, wounded horror in his eyes. "How could you keep this from me?" When Sam couldn't find an answer, Cas lowered his eyes, his voice soft and despairing. "How could you tell me, now?"

Sam was confused, utterly at a loss as to how to answer that question. This conversation… wasn't going at all how he'd expected that it would. Cas almost seemed more upset about being told the truth now, than about being lied to in the first place. The shock, the outrage that Sam had anticipated – both were far more subdued than he'd imagined; there was more of a quiet, sorrowful resignation in Cas's reaction.

And suddenly, the truth hit Sam with the force of a speeding train, rocking him back on his heels and leaving him speechless, his heart sinking with slow, seeping comprehension.

He knew.

Sam's mind went back to the cabin, and what had actually happened there – not just the brutality and trauma, but the sequence of events – and wondered why he'd never thought to question it before. Cas had known Sam was there, with Dean, when they'd cast Jacob's call and trapped him in the cabin. Sam had physically held him down while Dean drugged him so that they could remove the tablet from his body. Just because Sam wasn't actually in the basement with Dean was no reason for Cas to assume that Sam had left the premises entirely while he was being tortured. Cas had screamed and cried out for rescue while Dean had brutalized him.

Which means… he had to have believed… there was someone there to hear him.

He knew. Not all of it, not every detail, but… on some level… he knew.

"Cas… I'm sorry," Sam tried, shaking his head, well aware his efforts were weak, meaningless. "I had to tell you. It… it wasn't right, lying to you all this time, and…"

"And now you're so concerned with doing what's right. Convenient." Cas's voice was hard again, bitter words spit at Sam, and he flinched a little before looking up to meet Cas's accusing gaze – and there it was… the fury of betrayal that Sam had prepared himself to accept. "Like how you and Dean decided to change your methods of doing things… to put the world first… the very first time that the sacrifice wasn't one of you."

Sam reeled, Cas's words like a slap. "Cas… no…"

"Yes." Cas's tone was disgusted, emphatic. "Dean wouldn't have done it if it'd been you instead of me. And if it'd been Dean keeping the secret that could end the world, and you found a spell that could save the world by utterly destroying him until he was too shattered to hold his secrets any longer… you'd have burned that spell rather than hand it over to anyone."

Sam tried to find the words to argue, but there were none. Cas spoke the truth – and as Cas watched Sam's reaction, his shoulders fell with defeat, and he looked away.

"I would have, too," he admitted in a voice gone quiet, empty with exhaustion. He looked up at Sam with desolate eyes. "I was foolish," he stated softly. "To trust you so completely. Knowing that… just like Dean, you'd never… never choose…"

Cas couldn't finish, his voice breaking over the last word, and his head bowed, eyes closed – but he didn't have to. It was all too clear – and it smote Sam's heart with guilt and regret. He stood up, taking a cautious step toward the angel, now silent and still, across the room.

"Cas… you're wrong," Sam attempted gently. "Okay, you were right about… before, but… we've learned from this, okay? And – things are different now. It's not about… me choosing you or Dean… or Dean choosing you or me. It's… the three of us, in this together. At least… that's how we – how I – want it to be." Sam swallowed hard, taking another step, though Cas kept his eyes downcast, offering him no encouragement or warning. "What you said," Sam ventured, uncertain but desperate to reach Cas, just wondering at the fact that the angel was still there, at all, in the room with him. "How – how you feel… Cas… I feel it, too. You have to know that, no matter how many horrible mistakes I've made, no matter how I've hurt you, I – I do. I love…"

"Don't."

Cas's voice was low like thunder, his eyes blazing as he raised them to meet Sam's in an arresting gaze that made Sam's stomach drop with alarm. As Cas spoke, the lights in the room began to flicker, a low hum rising around them that was just the barest echo of Cas's true voice – and though Sam couldn't tell what that voice was saying, the fury of it – Cas's pain and rage and betrayal too overwhelming for human words – filled the room, and Sam froze, falling silent, barely daring to breathe, let alone take another step.

"Don't," Cas repeated, voice quieter but no less commanding, holding Sam's gaze. He was silent for a moment, before continuing, a soft and certain condemnation. "Every word you've said… every single time you've touched me… has been a lie."

Sam's eyes burned with tears, his heart sinking with despair. He knew he wasn't going to be able to fix this, didn't deserve the chance to – and the loss of the tenderness and intimacy that'd existed between them mere moments earlier pulled at him, making him long to go to Cas, to hold onto him, to desperately try to claim him back.

He didn't dare.

"Cas…" he choked out, lowering his head, struggling to find words. "I'm so… so sorry…"

But the words died in his throat when he looked up again – and saw that he was staring at empty space where the angel had stood. The silence, the stillness that filled the room in his wake was such a crushing weight in Sam's chest that he suddenly found it difficult to breathe. He staggered back a step or two, his mind reeling as it began to catch up with the finality of what had just happened. And as he sank down onto the floor at the foot of his bed, he could only gasp out Cas's name through his tears – a broken and despairing prayer that he already knew would go unanswered.

Chapter Text

It felt better than Dean could have imagined, just to get out of the bunker for a while and do what he did again. The hunt was, as he'd predicted, a fairly simple salt and burn; but the ghost turned out to be aggressive and strong, and it was a bit more of a physical fight than Dean had anticipated. Before all was said and done, he felt battered, bruised and exhausted – and more satisfied than he'd been in months.

The physical ache in his body was almost a relief, familiar and strangely soothing, and the near-constant torment of guilt he'd been experiencing receded to the back of his mind.

Dean checked the time as he climbed into the Impala, weighing his exhaustion against his desire for the pounding heat of the bunker's awesome shower, and the familiar comfort of his own bed. It was an easy decision; the hour-long drive back to Lebanon was worth it.

He left the half-full bottle of Jack crammed under the seat untouched, and instead stopped for some cheap, strong gas station coffee to help him stay awake. He blasted his music and sang along at the top of his lungs, and thought about how for the first time in a very long time, he was really looking forward to getting home.

The bunker was quiet when Dean entered, the common rooms empty; so he made his way down the hall to his own room, stopping only long enough to grab his robe and a soft towel before continuing on to the shower room. He took his time, savoring the heat and the pressure and allowing his weary body to relax until every trace of leftover tension from the hunt was gone.

At one point during his shower, Dean opened his eyes and thought he saw a brief flickering of the lights. He paused, blinking the water out of his eyes and warily watching for it to repeat; but when he saw that the lights were steady, he decided to finish his shower. It was unlikely that anything nasty could get into the bunker, past the extensive warding left by the Men of Letters. It was probably just the last of the adrenaline from the hunt that hadn't left his system yet, making him imagine threats where there were none – nothing more than that.

But as he turned off the water and left the shower room, Dean couldn't quite shake the vague sense of unease he felt. There'd been no further sign of anything not right, only that brief flickering – but he still couldn't help the cold quiet worry that tugged at him as he made his way down the hall toward Sam's room.

It was unsettlingly quiet. Where were Sam and Cas, anyway?

Maybe Cas had simply taken Dean's advice to heart, and maybe Sam and Cas were shut away in the privacy of Sam's room, taking advantage of Dean's absence to take their relationship to the next level – as much as that thought made Dean simultaneously shudder with revulsion, and ache with jealousy.

But when Dean turned the corner and saw Sam's bedroom door standing open – suddenly he was convinced. The flickering of the lights hadn't been imagined, after all. Something was wrong.

Dean broke into a run down the hall to Sam's door, skidding to a stop in the doorway with his pistol drawn. He froze for just a moment when he saw Sam huddled on the floor at the foot of his bed, his eyes blank and staring – looking so strangely small and lost and alone. Dean put away his weapon and crossed the room to his brother in a couple of steps, kneeling at Sam's side and reaching out to turn his face, to gain his focus.

"Sam… Sammy," he tried, his voice breaking over his brother's name. "Hey – look at me. Sam!"

Finally, Sam shifted his gaze from the empty doorway, turning to look at Dean through dazed eyes, wet and rimmed with red. "Dean?"

"What happened?" Dean demanded, his hands skating over his brother's arms, sides, searching for any sign of injury. "Are you hurt?"

Sam looked back toward the door again, his breath shuddering out of him, his voice a quiet sob.

"He's gone. Dean, he's gone."

Suddenly, Dean understood – and his heart plummeted, his voice coming out in a hoarse whisper. "Cas?"

"I told him." Sam's tone was flat, eyes staring blankly at the empty doorway. "I had to tell him. Didn't I? I had to…"

"You – you told him?" Dean swallowed hard, the pieces starting to fit together in his mind. He hesitated a moment, wincing a little as he asked, "All of it?"

"Everything," Sam breathed out the word, an exhausted, defeated whisper.

Dean took a moment to process that, his heart sinking as he imagined how Cas might have reacted to Sam's confession. All at once, the flickering of the lights in the shower made sense; Cas wasn't entirely in control of his rapidly healing grace just yet, especially when he was upset or emotional; Dean felt a chill of mingled fear at the thought of what could have happened to Sam, and relief that it hadn't happened, that Sam was okay – physically, anyway.

"I screwed it up." Sam looked up at Dean through eyes that widened with dawning horror, as if remembering all over again what had happened. "Dean, I – I screwed it all up, and he's gone, and I – maybe I shouldn't have…"

"We didn't have a choice, Sammy," Dean argued quietly. "He was wrecked. There's no way he could have taken knowing that we both…"

"He knew."

Dean considered that for a moment – and realized that the only thing that was surprising about that statement was that he wasn't surprised. Cas was naïve, and too trusting, and often reckless, with a tendency toward tunnel vision when it came to whatever mission he had claimed at any given time.

But one thing he was not, was stupid.

"Yeah," he replied softly, a heavy sadness sinking into his bones with the truth. He reached out a gentle hand to rest between Sam's shoulder blades, swallowing hard. "Yeah, I guess he probably did."

"He just… he needed to believe that… that there was someone he could trust…" Sam's voice broke, and he lowered his face into his hands with a shuddering gasp. "Oh, God… he trusted me, Dean, and… and now…"

"Shhh, Sammy, it's all right," Dean lied, falling back on instinct as he braced his back against the footboard of the bed and pulled his brother into his arms, running soothing fingers through his hair and holding his shaking form close against his chest. "It's gonna be all right. He's a lot better, right? So – he'll be all right, wherever he's gone. And we knew this wouldn't exactly go over well, right? He just needs some time. He's gotta – process, or whatever. And then – once he's cooled off a little – he'll come home. Okay?"

Dean wasn't even slightly convinced of what he was saying, but he hoped at least some little part of it might be giving Sam some comfort. His heart sank as Sam shook his head against Dean's chest, hot tears soaking through Dean's shirt.

"No, he won't," Sam whispered, despairing. "He thinks… everything that ever happened between us… he said…"

Sam couldn't finish, and Dean was pretty sure whatever Cas had said, he didn't really want to know. He stroked Sam's back gently, helplessly silent, searching for words to reassure him somehow, though the situation seemed increasingly hopeless.

"People say shit when they're pissed, Sam," he said quietly at last. "Doesn't mean they always mean it. I mean – come on. I've seen the way Cas has been walking around here the last few weeks, the way he looks at you like you hung the moon. He fucking loves you, Sammy..."

Immediately Dean knew that that was somehow the wrong thing to say, because Sam's entire body flinched against him, and Sam let out a choked sob, shaking his head slowly. "He did," he replied in a hoarse, desolate whisper. "But… he doesn't. And I never should have let him."

"Okay," Dean said, pushing Sam away a little so that he could get up. "You're done. This isn't helping anything. I need you to get up for me, Sam. Come on, come here…" Dean pulled his little brother to his feet beside him, alarmed at how easily Sam went along with him, and led him to the side of his bed to sit down again. "Here, let's get you changed, okay? Everything's gonna be all right, and I'm gonna try to get ahold of Cas, but you – you need to rest."

Sam shook his head. "Can't," he muttered. "Couldn't sleep if I tried… don't need…"

"Sleep is exactly what you need," Dean argued, as stern and authoritative as he could make himself in the face of his little brother's tears. "You've barely rested at all since this whole thing started, and it's not doing Cas or anyone any good for you to sit around here worrying yourself sick."

Dean pulled Sam's shirt down off his shoulders, setting it aside and leaving Sam in only a light t-shirt and the sweats he'd already been wearing. Sam allowed Dean to push him down on the bed on his side. Dean wrapped his own body protectively around his brother's and settled in close behind him, reaching down to pull the blanket up over them both.

"He's never gonna forgive me," Sam whispered after enough silence had passed that Dean almost thought Sam had fallen asleep.

"That's bullshit," Dean scoffed with more certainty than he felt. "Sam – I tortured him. I nearly fucking burnt his wings off. He pulled me out of Hell… died for me, twice… and I nearly destroyed him. On purpose. And six weeks later, he's already talking about forgiving me. If he can forgive me – then he'll forgive you, Sammy. He will. He just needs time."

Sam didn't argue, but he didn't answer either. He just lay there in silence, his back turned to Dean. But slowly, as Dean held him close, stroking gentle fingers through his hair, Sam's shaking began to ease, and his breathing became slow and even. Once he was certain that Sam was asleep, Dean rolled over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling for a long time and trying to come up with words that might mean a damn thing to Cas given the circumstances.

 

****************************************************************************

 

Castiel was half a world away from Lebanon, Kansas, deep in a mountain forest, when Dean's prayer came through.

"Cas, man… I hope you're listening. I know you're pissed, man, but you've gotta know – Sam thought he was doing what was best for you. He was trying to protect you. He didn't want to lie to you at all, I kinda forced him into it, but – if you can tell us what else we could have done… I don't know, man. I just don't know."

The words were rambling and awkward and utterly infuriating to Castiel.

What else could they have done? Castiel could think of a few cutting responses to that question – like not torturing him without even hearing his explanation first… or not sitting idly by and listening while he suffered, pleading for mercy and rescue and receiving only more violation instead. Maybe once it was done, telling him about Sam's part in it wasn't exactly easy – but Sam could have chosen not to betray Castiel in the first place, couldn't he?

He wanted to go to Dean, to tell him all of this and more; but he wasn't certain he'd be able to control his emotions, or his grace, at the moment. And in spite of everything they'd done to him, all the pain and confusion of the last few weeks that was entirely their doing – Castiel truly did not want to hurt either Winchester.

He just felt so betrayed – vulnerable and violated. He'd known, before Sam said anything; he thought that on some level, he'd always known – but he'd tried to block it out, ignored the evidence that was right in front of his face, in favor of the safety and reassurance that Sam had offered him freely. And Dean was right about one thing – how desperately he'd needed that.

He needed it now.

Castiel nearly laughed at the bitter irony of the situation in which he'd found himself – the fact that in the midst of this hurt and confusion, when his entire world seemed to have shifted around him, leaving him once again without any sure footing or anything stable to cling to, all he wanted in that moment… was Sam.

Only this time, Sam was the one who had hurt him – though some weak, broken, dependent little part of his brain hadn't seemed to register that information yet.

He could almost feel Sam's arms around him, gentle fingers stroking his hair, his back… his wings. He closed his eyes, desperately craving the reassurance he had found at Sam's hands, the softness of his voice soothing away the nightmares, the panic that had closed in on him so many times over the past few weeks. He felt it again, now, creeping around the edges of his thoughts – but this time, Sam would not be able to calm him.

He sat down on a fallen log behind him, burying his face in his hands and struggling for the emotional control that had been so automatic for him before these past few weeks. Now, the only thing keeping him from falling apart completely was the bright, hard hurt and anger burning just under his skin.

"Well, well. Fancy finding you here."

Castiel did not turn to look at the sound of Crowley's voice; he'd felt the demon's nearness before he'd spoken, and was unsurprised by it. The touch of his grace he'd left on Crowley's blackened soul meant that Crowley could find him as surely as he could find Crowley; and while the bunker's warded walls had kept Crowley out, now Castiel was out in the open and easily found – but he was unafraid.

As clearly as he could feel Crowley's foul presence, Castiel could also feel his desperation, pouring off of him in waves.

He had no patience for it at the moment.

"This is not a place you want to be right now, Crowley." Castiel ground out the words without looking at him.

"Perhaps not," Crowley conceded, moving to stand directly in front of Castiel despite his warning. "Seems to be a rather depressing place at the moment. Or perhaps that's just you."

"Go away," Castiel growled.

"No, I don't think I will just yet." Crowley shook his head. "See, you've been a difficult one to get a hold of since our last meeting. Locked away in that bunker where you can't be contacted by the likes of me."

"Good," Castiel retorted. "I've no desire to converse with you, Crowley. Now is… not a good time."

Crowley's eyes narrowed, and Castiel looked away from the piercing scrutiny, well aware that the demon king was far too perceptive for his liking. He wasn't sure just how much Crowley could pick up from his mood, or from the grace bond that now existed between them. Though the thought of the suffering it must have been causing Crowley offered him at least a little satisfaction.

And now that he thought about it… that was almost certainly the reason that Crowley was here.

But if he was picking up on Crowley's weaknesses, Crowley seemed to be picking up on his as well. A slow, knowing smile spread across his face as he concluded, "So you finally figured it out, did you?"

"Figured what out?" Castiel snapped, rising from his spot on the fallen log and turning his back to Crowley.

He was unwilling to admit, or believe, that Crowley could have possibly put it together so quickly. But then, he realized – Crowley had been there when it had happened, hadn't he? He'd seen Sam, upstairs in the cabin while Dean tortured Castiel in the basement. He'd known all along what was being kept from Castiel – and probably taken great delight in knowing how it would certainly turn out in the end.

"What's been in front of your face the whole time," Crowley replied with a smirk. "Really, Cas… those two may have their differences from time to time, but when it comes down to it, it'll always be the Winchesters for each other, and the rest of the world can sod off and die. Including you." His tone shifted into a soft, cruel sneer as he concluded, "A bit of regret after the fact doesn't change that."

Castiel suppressed a flinch at those words, unsteady fingers idly picking at the soft flannel that still covered him. His mind was filled with images of Sam, so gentle and reassuring and affectionate – and the sick realization that all along, those actions had been motivated by guilt, rather than love. Sam didn't give all that he'd given to Castiel because he loved him, but because he believed he owed it to him. Castiel was irrationally torn between wanting to tear off the shirt and obliterate it with a single thought – and wanting to cling to it, protect it, as the last remaining trace he had of all he'd lost.

"You'd have liked to think that all those times you risked your life – even gave your life – for Sam and Dean would mean more than that, wouldn't you? But in the end, it turns out you're just like everyone else around them, Cas," Crowley continued.

"Stop it," Castiel snarled, turning to face him.

Crowley did not stop. "Disposable." His knowing smile made Castiel want to lash out, to wipe it from his face just before wiping him from existence. "It was inevitable, you know – that eventually even you would be destroyed – simply by virtue of being within their orbit."

"Shut up," Castiel ground out, taking a menacing step forward into the demon's space.

Crowley did not back down, merely grinned defiantly up at Castiel. "Make me."

Castiel frowned, caught off guard by Crowley's behavior. Castiel's physical health was completely restored, and they both knew that Crowley's power was no match for his. And while antagonizing Castiel was certainly something Crowley would enjoy – he had never been the type to be so dangerously reckless in his actions.

If there was one thing Castiel had learned about Crowley over the years, it was that everything he did had a purpose.

Castiel smiled slowly as he finally really looked at Crowley, and took in the tension in his posture, the nearly feverish light in his eyes.

"Has it really gotten so bad so quickly?" Castiel asked, moving closer to Crowley. And although he did not yield any ground at Castiel's advance, Castiel could see the brief flash of fear in his eyes at the gesture. "So bad that you're actually seeking out my wrath?"

"Please!" Crowley scoffed. "I'm many things, but suicidally reckless is not one of them. No, I'm here to propose a deal. A – truce of sorts. Something that would allow us both to go back to the way things were before all this ugly business."

Castiel studied Crowley through narrowed eyes. "You're at a decided disadvantage already. Why would I agree to any sort of deal with you?"

"Because as miserable as I am at the moment," Crowley declared, edging closer and glaring defiantly up at Castiel. "You are nearly as bad off. And I have the power to make it all go away. As if it'd never happened."

"I'm perfectly capable of time travel all on my own," Castiel reminded him.

"I'm not talking about time travel." Crowley shook his head. "I'm talking about erasing the memories of this whole dark time from your head, and from Sam's and Dean's as well. Deal of the century, really – because all I'd ask in return is that you remove the grace you've left in me. Nothing more. And trust me when I say that no one gets such an easy deal with me, ever." Crowley smiled, glancing up and down Castiel's body with a look that was a bit too lascivious for Castiel's comfort. "You're fully healed at this point, yes? Physically speaking, anyway. No nasty scars left behind to be explained away. So why not let me simply clear your minds of all the bad-touch memories and feelings and let the three of you go back to where you were before?"

Castiel would have been lying if he'd said it wasn't a tempting thought. He'd just been sitting there, wishing for almost exactly that, when Crowley arrived. But he considered all that he'd experienced in the past few weeks, the ways in which, despite the suffering, his relationships with both Winchesters had grown and changed – and he knew that, even with the boys' consent, it was not a choice that he could make.

"Because… where we were before," Castiel answered softly, a bit of his anger fading into sadness. "Was not a place I'd choose to return to. It was – a place that could allow this to happen, between Sam and Dean and I, and… I choose to retain those memories… those learned lessons… even if it means I have to retain the pain that comes with them."

"And what good do those lessons do you, now that your entire relationship with the Winchesters is shattered?" Crowley snapped, and it was impossible to miss the desperate edge to his voice. "I could fix all of that for you with the snap of my fingers, for almost nothing in return, and you're going to refuse that?"

"You can't fix it." Castiel's heart ached at Crowley's words, ached with longing for Sam, and Dean, and everything that was so broken between them – but he knew better than to accept Crowley's offer. "It isn't that easy. If you take those memories, you're leaving us back where we were – with little enough trust between us that such a thing as this could happen in the first place. What we had was… distant at best. More like… broken and… and toxic. And… I can't go back to that place. I won't."

He lowered his gaze for a moment, swallowing hard, backing up a little to allow Crowley the space to move. "You can't undo what you did to me." He met Crowley's eyes again, matter of fact. "And I can't undo what I've done to you. Even if I wanted to. The damage is done. There's no going back now."

"Castiel, listen to reason…"

"Go, Crowley," Castiel ordered, though the heat in his voice had been replaced with weariness and resignation. "I can't remove it, and I won't smite you – but I can and will make it worse if you don't leave me. Now."

There was just a moment's hesitation, a slight movement of his mouth as if he wanted to say more – but in the next instant, Crowley had vanished, and Castiel found himself utterly alone once more. His fingers toyed listlessly with the soft fabric across his torso, before reaching up to unbutton the shirt and slide it back off his shoulders. He held it in his hands, leaned down and pressed his face against it for a moment, breathing in the familiar scent that he'd found so comforting.

Now, it just made him ache with loss.

He held it in a crumpled ball in front of him, in one hand, focusing his energy on it until it was consumed in sparks of fire, swirling upward and away with the wind until there was nothing left of it. Then he glanced down at his body, unaffected by the cold, but still exposed, and with a thought willed himself clothed again, with the familiar outfit of Jimmy Novak. The weight of the suit and trenchcoat hung comfortably over him, oddly reassuring in a way – but Castiel felt cold inside, and bereft.

There was no going back; no fixing what was broken.

Castiel sat down on the fallen log once more, his face in his hands, and bitterly, silently wept.

Chapter Text

Sam stayed in bed for the next three days.

 

Well, Dean supposed he must have left his bed at some point. The water glass beside his bed was at varying levels every time Dean stepped in, and if he was consuming water, then that meant that Sam had to be getting up to go to the bathroom occasionally. But Dean saw – and smelled – no evidence that Sam had showered during that time, and the food Dean brought to his room remained untouched on the bedside table until Dean eventually took it away.

 

It wasn’t like Sam to wallow like this.

 

Dean was the one who’d lose himself in the bottom of a bottle, close himself away from everyone and contemplate simply ending his own suffering – then ultimately decide not to, because who would look after those he loved if he was gone? Sam – Sam was typically more action-oriented. Endlessly, ridiculously optimistic, no matter what level of crap the universe threw at them, Sam would hit the books, break out his laptop and exercise his best hacking skills, and do everything in his power to find the answer to the issue they were facing.

 

But – that was the problem, Dean realized.

 

The answer to this one wasn’t in any of their books, or any dark corner of the Internet.

 

This one – might not have an answer at all.

 

Dean had prayed many times to Cas, with no response. He didn’t think Sam was praying; Sam seemed fairly certain that Cas had no desire to hear from him. Dean wasn’t so sure. If Cas could forgive him for what he’d done, surely he could forgive Sam for being a party to it… and then lying to him about it for months… while allowing Cas to fall ever deeper in love with him the entire time

 

When it came right down to it, Dean… wasn’t so sure.

 

But as long as Cas didn’t want to be found, there was nothing Dean could do for him. He took comfort in the fact that Cas was nearly back to full strength, physically, and probably fully capable of defending himself. So Dean tried not to think about the fact that Naomi and the angels in her employ were still out there, hunting Cas, looking for the angel tablet which he no longer had – because Crowley had it. Dean chose not to think about any of those things that he couldn’t do anything about at the moment, and chose to focus instead on what he could do, and that was the same thing he’d done his entire life – take care of his little brother.

 

If only Sam would let him.

 

Dean had tried all his best recipes – homemade burgers, steaks, spaghetti, anything he could think of that might tempt Sam’s appetite. He had to be starving by now. But Sam never took more than a couple of half-hearted bites, showing no pleasure in what he ate, and leaving the rest to spoil on the nightstand.

 

So, Dean was reduced to this – standing in the bunker’s kitchen and trying to put together something that might appeal to Sam – no matter how unappealing Dean might find it himself. He’d made a trip to a farmer’s market in a neighboring town, one Sam had visited, and gushed about, a few times, though he’d never managed to convince Dean to go with him. Dean had done his best to select the best lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, celery, and several kinds of vegetables that he wasn’t sure he’d ever tried before. He cut all the vegetables up and threw them together into a bowl, then stared down at the dubious collection of rabbit food.

 

It needed more flavor.

 

He went to the refrigerator, took out what was left of a bag of grated cheese and poured it on top of the vegetables, then took out a bottle of ranch dressing and doused the whole thing. Grabbing a fork from the drawer, he headed for Sam’s room.

 

Sam took one look at the bowl and pushed it away, looking sick.

 

“Dude… how much dressing did you put in here?”

 

“It’s a big salad!” Dean pointed out, defensive. “Come on, Sammy, you’ve gotta eat something, man. You can’t survive on just water.”

 

“The average guy can survive a month with just water,” Sam argued listlessly, setting the untouched salad on the nightstand and turning over to lie down on his side. “Dean… I know you’re trying, okay? But what I need is just… to be left alone for now, all right?”

 

“So you can wallow in your guilt and misery?”

 

“Exactly,” Sam replied without hesitation.

 

Dean was quiet for a moment. “Fuck that,” he muttered at last, walking around Sam’s bed in order to lie down on the side of it not occupied by Sam’s overgrown frame. Sam turned to glance at him over his shoulder as Dean nestled in close to him, wrapping an arm around him and settling in.

 

“Dean…” Sam’s voice was quiet, terse. “What are you doing?”

 

“If you’re wallowing, I am too. You didn’t do this alone, Sam. In fact it’s more on me than on you…”

 

“No.” Sam cut him off, low and resigned. “Cas didn’t leave because he was tortured. If that was why, he’d have left weeks ago.” He was quiet for a moment before concluding, “He left because I lied to him. Because I – let him fall in love with me, when he had no idea he shouldn’t. And I did.”

 

Dean considered that for a moment. “It was my idea,” he pointed out. “I painted you into a corner where you had to go along with it, and… and there wasn’t anything else we could have done…”

 

“Dean…” Sam sighed, turning his head down into the pillow. “… we’ve been over this and over it and… any way you try to spin it, I fucked up. He trusted me, and I let him. And… there’s no way to undo that.”

 

“I know,” Dean admitted at last, softly. He sighed, brushing Sam’s hair aside to gently kiss the back of his neck, “but he’ll come around…” Dean pulled Sam a little closer, kissing his jawline. “… give it time…”

 

“Stop,” Sam muttered, shifting uncomfortably in Dean’s embrace, pushing his arm off. “Dean… no, not right now…”

 

“If you can’t change it,” Dean pointed out, backing off a little, but still gently stroking Sam’s hair, “then you need to stop thinking about it… just for a little while…”

 

No.”

 

Dean fell silent, removing his hands completely and rolling over onto his back. “Okay…” He threw his hands up for a moment in defeat. “Then… if you don’t want a distraction, let’s talk. Get it out.”

 

“I don’t want that either.”

 

“Sam, come on. It’s eating you up, and you need…”

 

“You know better than me what I need, now?” Sam snapped, turning over to face Dean, his jaw tight with frustration. “I told you to leave me alone, but no, you can’t do that, because that doesn’t make you feel any better, does it? You’ve just gotta keep… pushing, until you get what you need, right?” There were angry tears glittering in his eyes, cold accusation – but Dean knew with swift clarity that neither was really meant for him.

 

“You had to tell him,” he stated quietly after a long moment. “Sammy…” he held his brother’s gaze, then reached out a hand to turn Sam’s face back to him when Sam dropped his eyes. “… you wanted him to know the truth. You wanted him to have a choice about… the two of you… a real choice, and… there’s nothing wrong with that.”

 

“I wanted that because I wanted him.” Sam’s voice was flat, resigned. “We couldn’t be together unless he knew the truth, and I felt guilty every day he didn’t know it, and… I needed for him to know. Maybe it’d have been better… maybe he’d have been… better off… if I’d thought more about what he needed than what I needed and kept my fucking mouth shut.”

 

“You were doing what you thought was best for him,” Dean insisted. “You couldn’t have kept the secret forever. And… it’s done. So you can’t just… stop. You know? You gotta leave this room at some point.”

 

Sam was silent for a moment, looking down at the bed between them. Then he reached out a gentle, conciliatory hand to rest on Dean’s arm, leaning in to press a soft, chaste kiss against his lips. “I know,” he admitted at last, his voice hushed. “I just… I need a minute. Okay?”

 

Dean was reluctant, uncertain just how long of a “minute” Sam was talking about – but he nodded. “All right,” he said. “But… I’m gonna be here, Sam. Just outside that door. And I’m not gonna let you lose yourself in here.”

 

Sam nodded, accepting, a small, tired smile on his lips. Then he laid his head back down on the pillow, closing his eyes, a slow swallow visible in his throat. Although everything in him called out to him to stay, to wrap his arms around his brother and keep him close – Dean forced himself to give Sam what Sam needed. He kissed Sam’s temple softly, then got up from the bed and left the room.

 

***************************************************************

 

When Dean woke up the next morning, it was to the smell of fresh coffee wafting through the bunker’s halls. For just a brief moment, he thought of Cas, and his affection for coffee, and allowed himself to hope that maybe he’d returned – but he knew that was unlikely.

                                                                                                  

And he wasn’t exactly disappointed to walk into the kitchen and find Sam seated at the table, his laptop in front of him and a steaming mug lifted to his lips. His hair was damp, and the t-shirt and jeans he wore were clean. He looked up at Dean as he entered, holding up his mug and nodding toward the counter.

 

“Morning,” Dean said, forcing himself to head for the coffee instead of wrapping himself around his little brother in sheer relief. “You’re looking 100% less like crap.”

 

“Thanks?” Sam actually smiled a little, though his eyes still looked weary and sad. He turned the laptop a little toward Dean and continued, “Think I might have found us a case.”

 

Dean raised his eyebrows, sitting down at the table with his coffee. “Wow. When you said a minute, you meant…”

 

Sam studied his screen for a moment before responding. “Well,” he said at last. “You don’t balance the scales lying on your ass in bed.” He was quiet a beat longer, his expression grim as he continued. “Not that we can, this time. But still… I’d rather be doing some good, you know?”

 

“Yeah.” Dean nodded. He really did. “So what’s the case?”

 

“A couple of deaths in Michigan.”

 

“Yeah? Is there a pattern?”

 

“Well, no one has been able to identify the victims, seeing as they were melted. Completely.”

 

Dean raised his eyebrows, nodding. “So, our kinda pattern then.”

 

They were on the road within an hour, and Dean had to admit – it felt good. It had been way too long since they’d done this, just him and Sam driving in the dark toward the next fight, no idea exactly what they were heading into but certain that they were doing the right thing. Fighting the monster, not – being the monster.

 

And if Dean’s mind was a little preoccupied with Cas and where he might be, and if Sam couldn’t keep staring out the window with a sad, solemn look on his face – well, that was what good music was for.

 

The case turned out to be a weird one – some disgusting slug monster was feeding on the residents of a small town, dissolving their bodies with its highly acidic slime and then ingesting them. Killing it proved to be difficult, since the thing didn’t exactly have a head to speak of, and dissolved anything that came close enough to touch it.

 

And it was just typical Sam, Dean figured, that that was exactly the distraction he needed to pull him out of his funk a little – a good, researchable mystery to solve. Finally, Sam found an obscure bit of lore that described something that sounded like their monster, and a hunter who’d killed it by using a salt-encrusted silver blade.

 

“Makes sense.” Sam shrugged. “Salt kills ordinary slugs, so why not this one?”

 

Finding a salt-encrusted silver blade was… a bit harder. But after calling a few connections, they managed to find someone who had one and could meet them near the town to lend it to them.

 

The monster was easy enough to find, once they were ready to kill it. After all, its gross slime trail scorched anything it touched, so tracking it was not a problem. And it was slow-moving and stupid, which didn’t hurt. Dean stabbed it through its body, as close to dead center as he could manage, and it collapsed, still and lifeless, on the ground. They stared down at it, wondering what to do next. Anybody who touched its slimy residue was likely to still get a nasty burn at least.

 

“So… salt it down?” Sam suggested after thinking for a moment. “We’ve got plenty of salt in the trunk. We dissolve its body so that no one can find it and touch it.”

 

“Yeah,” Dean agreed. “Wait here, make sure no one stumbles on it in the meantime, while I go get the salt.”

 

Dean left Sam standing over the slug’s body and made his way around the corner and the half a block or so to where they had parked the Impala.  He opened the trunk and gathered up all the salt they had, combining smaller bags and filling larger containers so that he could more easily transport it. He set the two large gas cans filled with salt onto the ground, then turned to close the trunk.

 

Dean.”

 

Dean spun around, startled – but already his heart was racing at the familiar voice. He stared in disbelief at Cas, standing next to the Impala, for just a moment – before registering that Cas was not alone. Sam was next to him, one arm slung across Cas’s shoulders, supported by Cas – and completely unconscious. Dean’s stomach dropped.

 

“Cas – what happened?”

 

“The monster wasn’t dead,” Cas replied without preamble. “It regained consciousness, and Sam didn’t notice. It would have killed him, but – I killed it, instead.”

 

“We thought we killed it.” Dean moved quickly to Sam’s other side, automatically looking and feeling for any obvious injuries. “What happened? Is he hurt?”

 

“The salt blade method is a myth. You would have needed much more salt than you have here to kill it,” Cas explained. “But that is no longer an issue, as I smote it into oblivion…”

 

Cas!” Dean cut him off sharply, and Cas flinched a little, eyes wide and wary on Dean. Dean winced, apologetically. “Sorry, just… what happened to Sam? Did the monster hurt him?”

 

“No,” Cas assured him softly, opening the door of the Impala and moving toward it with Sam in tow. “Sam is unharmed.”

 

Dean frowned, confused, as Cas carefully laid Sam down in the backseat of the Impala. “Then why is he unconscious?”

 

Cas straightened, closed the door and turned back to face Dean – but couldn’t seem to make eye contact. “Sam’s back was to the monster when it regained consciousness and started toward him – very slowly, of course, which is fortunate. Sam heard me attack it and turned around and – saw that I was there.” Cas was quiet for a moment before admitting, “I – did not wish to speak with Sam, so…”

 

“You had him take a nap,” Dean concluded, letting out a heavy sigh, nodding. “Okay… I get that.”

 

“He’s exhausted, and distracted.” Cas looked up at Dean then, sharply, frowning. “He should not be hunting in this condition, Dean.”

 

The concern in Cas’s voice sparked a cautious hope in Dean, and he fought back the trace of a smile he felt rising to his lips at Cas’s disapproving words. Instead he schooled his face into a solemn expression, nodding.

 

“I know, Cas,” he said quietly. “He just – he’s been moping around for the last few days, and he needed to get out of the bunker for a while. He feels like he ought to be doing something, you know? Until…”

 

“Until what?” Cas snapped, and Dean blinked, taken aback by the uncharacteristic anger in Cas’s voice. “Until I – get over what he – what you…” He took a step backward, shaking his head. “This was a mistake.”

 

“You saved Sam’s life,” Dean spoke up quickly, before Cas could disappear and take away the chance. “That couldn’t be a mistake.”

 

Cas at least stopped his retreat, looking dubiously up at Dean but not arguing the point.

 

Dean was quiet for a moment, glancing down. There were so many things he wanted to say, but he couldn’t find the words. Instead he settled for a hushed, simple, “Thank you.”

 

Cas swallowed slowly, holding Dean’s gaze, and Dean’s heart ached with the anguish and confusion he saw on Cas’s face. His lips parted as if he wanted to speak, but he just shook his head and looked away. Dean hesitated, then took a cautious step forward, eyeing the slowly decreasing distance between them and then taking another step.

 

“Cas… we miss you, man. I hope you know that. We fucked up. Bad. Neither one of us would ever dream of denying that, and… I know there’s a lot of shit we have to – to try to work out, even if… there’s a lot that – you might not ever be able to forgive, but… Sam was just trying to protect you. He – he loves you, Cas, and… and I…” Dean stopped abruptly, his courage failing him. He swallowed, regained his composure, before concluding softly, “We want you to come home.”

 

Cas just stared down at the ground for a long time, and Dean’s chest clenched painfully when he caught sight of a tear dropping from Cas’s face into the dirt. Finally, Cas spoke, and his voice was hushed and halting.

 

“You hurt me,” he said simply. “In ways that I never imagined anyone could. And Sam – he enabled and supported your actions, and then lied to me – for months. Allowed me to – to feel things that I didn’t think I could…” Cas shook his head, swallowing hard, then letting out a sharp, hoarse little laugh. “And it was one of my own brothers who betrayed me into your hands to have this done. Even now, they hunt me.” He looked up and met Dean’s eyes, and he looked so lost, so bereft, that all Dean wanted was to move forward and embrace him, to offer some form of comfort.

 

But he knew Cas would not want to be touched – not by him.

 

Cas looked away again, his voice quiet but sharp in the stillness. “There is nowhere on this earth, or any other, that is home to me. Not anymore.”

 

Dean’s heart sank. He could feel the hollow ache of the truth in Cas’s words, and the burn of tears behind his eyes. “Cas… no, that’s not… not true…”

 

But Cas was already gone.