The rules changed, and Dean was the last to know.
"What do you mean you can't help him?" he demanded.
Anna lowered her head and had the good grace to look ashamed, frightened. Her hands were shoved deep into the pockets of her jeans and for in that moment, she seemed so completely human that Dean could forget she had the power to destroy the entire motel with a word, a thought. "He's trapped. There are not many things that can trap an angel. If it's what I think it is..."
"What do you think it is?" asked Sam, stepping up to his brother's side. "What could be so bad you would let him rot there?"
"There's a sigil," she said, a tired breathiness in her voice. She glanced out of the window, up to the sky; Dean wondered if she was seeking strength from the Heaven she could never see again. "It's similar to your devil's trap, but it holds angels and traps their grace. He tries to step over that line, his grace will stay inside the circle and his vessel will fall outside it. And his grace will be at the mercy of whoever holds him."
"And who is that, exactly?" asked Dean, but before she spoke he already knew the answer.
The car revved up loudly, the violent noise sending birds scattering from the low-hung roof nearby. Sam was still inside the building gathering their things and it was all Dean could do to stay put, wait a few more minutes. No doubt Anna would disappear as soon as she could for fear of stumbling into another of those traps, and honestly Dean didn't blame her. There was nothing she could do.
He didn't appreciate how much she insisted there was nothing he could do either. Dean knew Alastair better than anyone this side of Hell. He knew exactly what Castiel would be going through in there, angel or not, and he would not leave him there. Not a chance.
The window was rolled down and he leaned out of it as Sam emerged from their room. The morning breeze was warm; they'd been having a heat wave here for the last few days and some angry spirit who'd died in a fire was getting a little too excitable. They hadn't had the chance to salt and burn it yet. "Hurry the fuck up, Sammy."
Sam scowled as he approached the car but instead of stepping around to the passenger side, he pressed his hand on Dean's side of it and gave his brother that big-eyed concerned glare he'd gotten so good at lately. "We can't leave, Dean."
"Uh, yeah we can," he replied and jerked his head back. "Get in, okay? Cas has done a lot for me lately and he isn't gonna save himself."
"There's a ghost here setting buildings on fire," Sam said. "You can't just disappear in the middle of a hunt like this. You really think you can face Alastair?Really?"
"Maybe," he said. "But no one else is gonna do it. Look, either get in right now or get the hell away from the car and go save the day here. I make it out of there alive, I'll come back for you. Deal?"
But Dean held up his hand and reversed quickly out of the parking lot, leaving Sam standing there with a heavy bag slung over his shoulder and a seriously pissed off look on his face.
Anna had told him where Castiel was being held. It was only a few towns over, which meant that Alastair knew exactly where Dean was and that Dean would come for the angel. Which meant it was a trap. Dean knew all of that, but it didn't stop him driving too fast down the highway, eyes fixed straight ahead and his usual soundtrack blaring out of the open windows. The breeze was cooler at this speed, refreshing. Dean's eyes stung from the whip of it and the complete lack of sleep he'd got last night.
The thing was Castiel had started coming to him lately, far after sunset when the only sounds were the dull roaring from the nearby roads and the slow level breathing coming from the other bed in the room. Sam was always asleep, and Dean never was. He'd been struggling to sleep for a long time with the dreams that plagued him.
Cas had taken that away for nearly ten days now. He appeared at Dean's bedside like some blue-eyed, vaguely intimidating vision, and pressed two rough fingertips to his forehead.
Dean had woken up confused the first time, pissed off the second, and grateful the third.
Last night, he'd lain awake for hours and Castiel hadn't come. He even got up to check Sam was asleep, waving a hand in front of his face and poking his shoulder but the man batted at him and rolled over. He was dead to the world, and still Castiel hadn't appeared.
He didn't sleep and when dawn came, he called out for him - aloud, because he knew no other way, the angel usually turned up when he needed him - and Anna had appeared in his stead.
Castiel had been getting him through this last week and a half when the memories and dreams had threatened to break him down into a screaming mess. Dean owed him and if the angels wouldn't make sure he was safe, Dean would take the chance instead.
The building was right in the middle of a busy street. It threw Dean entirely as he slammed the door of the Impala and looked up at it. He couldn't risk opening the trunk and pulling out his weapons here in broad daylight, surrounded by people and kids and cops. Alastair wasn't a fool. There wasn't much Dean had that could hurt the demon, but he wasn't taking any chances.
Dean was taking close to the biggest chance he could here.
It was the only residential building on the street and it seemed entirely out of place, standing out in the bright Texas morning with its dark wood and tinted windows. People watched Dean curiously as he approached it but he paid no attention, just pushed open the heavy door and slammed it shut.
He could be quiet if he wanted but Alastair would have felt him coming miles away. He was probably waiting right through the door at the far of the hallway. He opened it without a second of hesitation.
The place smelt like blood and rotten meat, but it was a small empty room, and Dean huffed out his relief and frustration all at once. He stopped in the middle of the room and listened, hard, but then a voice came from above him as clear as a bell. A seriously creepy bell.
"Try upstairs, Dean," came a nasal, slithering voice. Familiar in ways Dean didn't want to think about.
Then there was a sweeter sound, the rough tone of an angel sneaking through thin floorboards. "Dean. No."
"Oh, but he's foolish enough to try this," Alastair hissed loudly. "What did I tell you, my angel? You're rooting for an idiot."
Dean climbed the stairs two at a time, his only weapon a comforting weight in his hands. He flung open the cracked door at the top of the stairs, the snap of the wood filling the room.
It was big. Bigger than Dean had been expecting, considering the size of the room downstairs, as though it stretched through the entire length of the building. The ceiling was high and angled, black with dirt and mold. It was disgusting but Dean paid it only a cursory glance; his attention was taken up by the scene in the centre of the room.
Castiel was standing a few feet away, eyes closed and blood dripping from his mouth, staining his pristine white shirt. His coat lay on the ground, trampled and torn, and though he was holding himself upright it was… unnatural. Like bones bent wrongly and his muscles weren’t doing a good job of keeping his body in its natural shape. Like someone had taken a blade to all of his tendons.
If Dean knew Alastair – and he did, intimately – that was exactly what had happened.
Alastair stepped around the circle that surrounded Castiel and fixed his eyes on Dean, who had stopped a step into the room. "Hello boy," he said, holding his long, thin knife up to glint in the dim light of the only bulb hanging from the ceiling. "Nice to see you finally decided to show up. How about you watch a while? Maybe I can persuade you to pull out those old talents of yours?"
"Let him go."
"Oh, yes, I forgot," Alastair said with a thin-lipped grin that looked more like a grimace drawn tight over skin. "You're too busy pretending to be human again. You're not fooling anyone, you know."
"Let him go," Dean repeated, darker and lower than before. He stepped up close, fixing his gaze on the demon; looking at Castiel in such a state made his heart beat too hard and too high in his chest. A divine being shouldn't look so vulnerable.
"Are you planning on making me, Dean?" the demon asked, his eyes rolling back into white. "Because you might be good but you're not that good. No, I think I'll have you watch a little while. It's more fun that way."
And in that instant, as he attempted to take a fierce step forwards, Dean realized his legs were all but glued to the ground. He tried to lift the hand that held the gun but his arms were frozen - he couldn't even turn his head or open his mouth. Like so many times down in Hell, Alastair had complete control of him.
Panic shot through him and he struggled desperately against the invisible bonds. It did nothing.
"Alastair," said Castiel, his voice little more than a croak. "Let him go. Do with me what you will, I shall not resist."
"Oh, such pretty words, angel," Alastair replied. "But I think we'll play the game my way for now. Good job on the self-sacrifice though, you're really learning the Winchester way."
"Dean is of no use to you now."
"Wrong again." Alastair held a thick blade in his hand, curved at the tip with a solid black handle. He spoke to Castiel, moved towards him, but his eyes lingered on the motionless man standing a few feet away. "Now. Let's see if we can find those wings, shall we?"
By the time Sam arrived, guns blazing and eyes dark, it was too late.
Dean hadn't moved, of course. Alastair had held him fast but had not paid the man any further attention; instead, all of his deadly focus was turned onto the angel. Castiel was still held solidly upright, his head held almost proudly straight. His eyes were closed, sealed shut with the congealing blood running from a wound on his brow. His human form was wrecked and broken, splintered and fractured and bruised and bleeding, but that wasn't the worst of it. It wasn't even close.
Somehow, Alastair had reached inside of the angel and exposed wings that were... beautiful. Even now, torn and bloodied, they burned brightly through the air around them and lit the room with a stunningly sublime light. Dean was forced to watch as Alastair ripped into them with a jagged knife, expertly drawing it along the lines of strong muscles beneath the feathers. There was one place where the pure white skin was exposed, mottled where the feathers had been plucked out one by one. It was obscene. Dean couldn't move, but every second he was held under that grip, he struggled against it.
The entire time, Castiel barely made a noise. "Too scared of hurting your pet human?" Dean heard Alastair hiss into his ear. "Come on. Scream for me, my angel. You were making such pretty noises before."
Watching a divine being slowly being taken apart was worse than anything Dean had seen, and he had seen a lot.
But Sam arrived at last and to Dean's surprise, he shoved Alastair up against the wall without even touching him. The demon laughed, a horrible sound, but neither Castiel nor Dean moved. "Let them go," Sam said, his hand outstretched and his eyes narrowed. "Now."
"Why would I do that?" Alastair asked. "You don't think you can hurt me, do you Sammy-boy?"
"How about we find out?"
There was a long silence. All Dean could hear was his own heavy heartbeat and Castiel's breathless gasps of pain. When the hold on Dean's muscles was lifted abruptly, he moved to Castiel's side in an instant and managed to catch the angel before he fell. He was a dead weight in Dean's arms, limp and surprisingly light considering the heavy droop of white wings behind him. Where Dean's fingertips brushed a feather, his skin tingled.
"Break the circle," Castiel said. His voice held the same command as it always had but it was weakened, roughened by the torture. Dean lowered him carefully to the ground and did as he said, grabbing one of the bloodstained knives to score a line through the old floorboards.
Light filled the room, blinding Dean for an awful second and disorientating him entirely. He stumbled, hitting the ground awkwardly on his knees, the rough wood scraping his palms raw. He looked up to see Sam stood with his hand still outstretched, but his eyes turned back towards Dean and Castiel. Alastair was looking to the side, his eyes pulled wide.
Dean turned his head.
The room, which had seemed large when he arrived, seemed to have folded in on itself at the weight of all the angels that stood side by side at the back of the room. Dean drew in a breath through his mouth. The air was warmer than it had been moments before. The sight was incredible; though each of them stood in human bodies of all sizes and shapes - there was a young boy with dark skin and dark hair, his eyes glowing white, standing beside a tall blonde woman - they all seemed bigger, more than the sum of their parts. Just like Castiel.
"Sam," Dean croaked, and his brother was at his side in a second, though his eyes did not leave the crowd of angels filling the room. It was impossible to look away.
"Are you okay?" Sam asked.
Dean had no answer to that when 'no' wouldn't even begin to cover it, so he deigned not to reply and dragged himself to his feet instead. His will was strengthened by the presence of so much angelic power, it seemed. He managed to wrench his gaze away from the eerie crowd to study Castiel who lay flat on the floor, eyes open but glazed. If the body hadn't still been breathing, Dean would have been even more on the edge of panic.
He looked back to the angels. "Can you help him?"
"Thank you, Dean Winchester," said the young boy Dean had noticed before, "for finding him."
Then they were gone, taking Alastair and Castiel but leaving an angel's blood smeared over Dean's shirt and jeans.
They drove for an hour before Sam spoke. Dean wished he could have waited longer, or forever. The silence was a comfort now.
"Do you think Cas will be okay?"
Dean shrugged and picked up speed. "Don't know. Did you get the ghost?"
"No," Sam admitted, slumping more in his seat. "I didn't have time. Had to steal a car and come after you."
"Yeah. Better get back there before it strikes again," Dean said.
Sam didn't bother mentioning it again.
Three days later, Castiel returned.
Sam was out gathering supplies, though really at this time of night the only thing he was likely to find was beer or pizza. Possibly both. Dean was hoping for both. He hadn't slept for more than a couple of hours since he left that building, which had lead to a rather interesting ghost hunt that involved a lot of running around - much more than they had originally expected. Now that was over and they were resting for a day before they had to move on again.
Dean was tired, but as he spread himself across the bed fully clothed, he knew already that he would find no peace. The moment he closed his eyes a vision of Alastair appeared but this time, the demon was not guiding his hand to carve up some soul in hell. This time, as had been the case for days now, he watched as he ripped apart the wings of an angel. It was hard enough to keep the sight from his mind while awake; when trying to sleep, it was impossible.
But then Castiel appeared, a silent form by the window, and Dean jumped to his feet.
The angel had his back to Dean, gazing out through grimy net curtains into the parking lot beyond. When Dean spoke, he moved his head but did not turn fully to look at him. "Dean. I came to thank you."
Dean stopped a few feet away from him and tensed, jaw clenching tight and cutting off any smile that had been beginning to form at the angel's reappearance. "Yeah, well. Save it. Sam did all the work."
Castiel turned then. He looked just as healthy and pristine as he always did - even his coat was back in perfect condition. He frowned. "I do not understand. You saved my grace and prevented Alastair opening a seal."
"That was a seal?" Dean asked. Alastair had made it seem so mindless and without meaning. The demon was good at that.
"Yes. A demon shall cause an angel to fall," he replied. His arms were limp by his side but he raised them and clasped them together, staring down at his own fingers. Dean's gaze drifted down too. "Alastair planned for me to Fall in that room. He knew you would come for me, and he planned that I should give up my grace to save your life. What you saw... that was him weakening me before he turned his attentions to you."
"That's ridiculous," Dean snapped before he could stop himself. "You're okay, though, right? The angels fixed you up?"
"Yes," Castiel said, a smile twitching at the corner of his dry lips. "They came to stop the seal being broken. You are very lucky; you saw an entire garrison there. Most humans do not see more than two angels together. It is considered a risk."
Dean took a deep, tired breath and backed up to the nearest bed, folding down to sit on it with a slump to his stance. "You know, my life didn't used to be this bizarre."
"It was close," replied Castiel. "You have spent your life in strange situations, Dean."
"Yeah. I guess." Dean ran fingers over his face, tired and strung out. He felt as though he'd been awake for a year, maybe more. The sight of Castiel at his bedside, that scent of warm air and freshness that came with it, caused it all to flood back in. He closed his eyes and sure enough, he could see those bare and bloodied wings behind his eyes. "I can't believe he did that to your wings, man. That's just... it's fucked up."
"They are healed," said Castiel. "I would have come earlier but my human vessel heals much faster than my true form. Besides, I had to wait for your brother to leave."
"Why?" he asked, gaze snapping up. "He's the one who saved your ass, not me."
"I know," replied Castiel, but he shook his head slightly. "He is... dangerous. The other angels would have taken him with Alastair if I had not intervened. Would you like to sleep?"
Dean frowned, then opened his mouth, then shut it again. It took him a moment to catch up with the conversation, the sudden change that he was sure was deliberate and honestly he did not have the energy to start arguing for his brother's morality right now. Sam's strength against Alastair had been bothering him since he saw the demon pinned motionless against the wall when even an angel couldn't vanquish him. He should question Castiel, try and find out what the hell was going on with that, but instead he nodded. "Yeah. Really would."
Castiel stepped closer, looking down at Dean as he kicked his legs up onto the bed and rested his head on the pillow. "Thank you for coming for me," said Castiel, "though you fell into Alastair's trap. Do not do that again."
"Okay," said Dean, but he raised his hand and caught Castiel's wrist before he could press those fingers against his forehead. "Wait."
"Is there something wrong?" asked Castiel. That frown was back and he tilted his head a little to the side. He didn't try to pull his hand away from Dean's grip.
"Can I..." Dean started, and then paused. He cleared his throat and propped himself up on his free elbow, neck craning to look up at the angel. "Your wings. Can you show me again? Just... I want to see they're okay."
Castiel raised an eyebrow and for a second Dean was sure he would refuse. His heart thumped against his ribcage but then the angel nodded once, taking a step back. Dean let his hand drop back down to the bed.
"This is not... regular," Castiel said hesitantly. "You should not look on them for long in their purest state. They were weakened before."
"I'll be fine," promised Dean. "I'll look away if my eyes start burning out of their sockets."
"Do not joke," Castiel said sharply. "You must close your eyes if you feel any pain at all."
"Yeah, yeah okay," said Dean. "I will."
Dean expected something like the display the first time they met. Flashing lights, dramatic crashes, awesome unfolding shadows. In the end it was nothing so spectacular, yet it was infinitely better; he blinked and the wings were there.
They were just as beautiful as before, and Dean’s fear was just as intense as if Alastair was standing behind them wielding his knife. Dean's breath caught in his throat and Castiel took a step forward, arching the wings as far as they would go in this cramped, murky room. They were something from another world, a sharp contrast to everything ugly in Dean's life.
Dean couldn't tear his eyes away.
Castiel moved closer, eyes fixed on Dean's. Dean couldn't breathe, like the angel was sucking all the air from the room and he was on the edge of panic when Castiel knelt on the side of the bed and brushed fingers down his chest, over the thin fabric of his black t-shirt. "Relax," the angel said. His voice seemed...different here. No longer as rough, like his grace was smoothing out the edges. "Are you okay, Dean?"
"Oh yeah," Dean agreed. He was more than okay. Overwhelmed perhaps but in the best way possible. He had an angel at his side, a goddamn angel, and that had never been so impossible to ignore. He could forget it sometimes when Castiel looked at him through those borrowed big blue eyes. He couldn't forget it now. He swallowed hard as a lump grew in his throat.
"You like them," Castiel said, like this was unexpected. Like he didn't have the epitome of beauty growing from his back. His head tilted and his hand still rested on Dean's chest. "Why?"
Dean couldn't find his voice and definitely couldn't find an answer. It didn't hurt to look at them exactly, but if he gazed too long directly at long, immaculate feathers, he began to feel decidedly strange. It was easier to let his eyes linger on Castiel who seemed enhanced by the light cast from his wings, even more handsome than before and no, Dean really didn't want to analyze where that thought came from. "I, uh," he started, then after a few stuttered vowels he admitted defeat and fell silent.
Castiel had a glint in his eye that Dean had never seen before. If he wasn't a divine being, it could almost be described as wicked, a little dark hint of something more going on in his mind. "You can touch them."
"Oh," said Dean, blinking stupidly for a moment. When Castiel's gaze turned softer, more amused, he remembered himself and reached up to run fingertips slowly down the feathers. They were almost waxy but incredibly soft beneath that, all backed up with the thick strong muscles that carried them. Dean made a quiet noise of appreciation and slid his fingers deeper, pressing behind the feathers against warm skin below.
"Dean," gasped Castiel when Dean lay flat on the sheets so that he could lift the other hand to take full advantage of this strange situation. Dean hadn't realized his eyes had closed but at the sound of his name spoken with such blatant desire, they snapped open and his fingers stilled. Castiel shook his head and lifted himself over Dean, straddling his hips. "Don't stop."
"Cas, this is..." he started. He was determined to keep his hands still, maybe even consider pulling them away and making his escape, but the heavy-lidded look he was given stopped him in his tracks. He took a slow breath. "You should put them away now."
"Not yet," Castiel replied. He folded himself over Dean with his arms resting on either side of his head and face far too close. Dean would be ready to freak out and run but then the wings folded around him and the claustrophobic feeling from before sunk down into deep, dark peace. He relaxed almost against his will, the shelter drawing out the fear and anxiety, leaving his muscles lax and his mind blissfully clear. Castiel smiled. "This is not a sin, Dean."
It took Dean a shamefully long time to work out what the angel was talking about; it was only when his hips moved beneath the solid weight of Castiel that he realized this close contact had made him hard. The realization flooded him with sharp, embarrassed heat and he desperately attempted to push down his hips, hoping he'd somehow magically sink through the mattress and escape this horrifying situation. One that had occurred to him on long drives when his mind would go anywhere but the road ahead. He'd always pushed those thoughts - fantasies - down so quickly.
But Castiel did not move and Dean did not want him to. When he stilled, silence stretched out between them and the gap between their mouths seemed immeasurably large but then Castiel leaned forward and captured his mouth with a noise that no angel should ever be allowed to make.
Dean's brain short-circuited. The kiss was a little awkward, and Castiel's lips were a little too dry, but it was perfect all the same. The slight tilting movement of Castiel's body left their hips caught close together and Dean realized with a strange, detached feeling that the angel was hard too, heavy and swollen in the crease of Dean's thigh.
"Christ, Cas," Dean gasped. He was endlessly grateful that the angel didn’t choose that moment to smite him for blasphemy.
When Castiel pushed away his clothes and settled between his legs, everything blurred and sharpened all at once. He could feel Castiel all around him, over him and, after a few long minutes full of harsh breaths and awkward glances, inside him. The feathers from his wings fell to nothing beneath his hands and Castiel apologized breathlessly. "I cannot hold them back from hurting you." Dean thought he could deal if Castiel would just move.
It was uncomfortable and unexpected but Castiel’s usually emotionless face broke into a picture of pleasure as he tilted his hips into Dean and suddenly, Dean didn’t care. He just wanted more, pressing his feet down into the mattress as he reached for any touch of skin he could get. Castiel’s eyes never closed and his scrutinizing, adoring stare sent shivers down Dean’s spine.
When Castiel came, his eyes fluttered but still didn’t close, and his arms slid under Dean’s back to hold him up and close. He groaned long and low into Dean’s ear and Dean, so close to the edge, shuddered and fell into it, come slick between their stomachs and hot skin. He didn’t make a sound.
The moment the pleasure slid down into comfort, Dean was tired. Exhausted. Castiel carefully lay him down upon the bed and Dean moaned quietly as the fullness inside him disappeared, the warm skin against his own gone. He couldn’t open his eyes.
He felt lips against his forehead, soft and sweet, and then he slept.
Everything changed, and nothing did.
Castiel came to him in the night just like before. If Sam was there, he would press fingers to Dean’s forehead and leave him with that sweet dreamless sleep. If Sam was gone, which was more and more frequently lately (something Dean would rather not think about), they would lose themselves in that hot slide of skin against skin, wings sheltered around them.
It made everything more bearable to sleep so well and to have an angel so firmly on his side. Images of Hell and broken wings no longer haunted every moment of this day.
For the first time, Dean felt ready to fight.
He had to wonder if that was Castiel’s purpose.