Within a month of Castiel arriving, Dean was giving him lessons in self-defense. It was standard Winchester protocol to teach slaves how to use weapons and anything else to keep themselves safe. And Castiel was an interested student, a fast learner, and, it turned out, he had a lot of natural ability. He was graceful when he moved, like he knew his own strength and how to use it. He looked good doing it all too.That was very difficult to ignore. Dean kept trying.
Mom had taken to smiling at them a lot. It made Sam worse. Dean spent a lot of time at the Roadhouse, especially whenever the storm clouds in Sam's expression got ridiculous and Dean fired up about Ruby and wasn't Sam the one who made bad choices? And then they’d be having Round 30 of Why Helping Slaves in Secret Whilst Employing Them Is Reprehensible and I See the Way You Look At Him, Dean, You Outta Be Ashamed. He'd think up a snappier title later.
Ash was taking apart some kind of machine on the pool table. His collar was old-school, studded with spikes and with a crudely ornate charm hanging down from the side of it. Property of the Roadhouse, for when he passed out drunk somewhere in town. Another one working by choice under a lie. He’d be dead otherwise.
Castiel was talking to Ellen, looking serious with his hand wrapped around a beer bottle. It had taken some effort, but Dean had convinced Cas of the awesomeness of alcohol. He was drawing something for Ellen on a bar napkin, his expression concentrated, saying something about his brother's talent for mechanics. Ellen was leaning over to get a better view as she cleaned a glass. Even Ash was abandoning his pipes and wires to mosey over to pitch in. Dean needed another drink anyway.
"......I believe you will find that a most efficient method.”
"Damn!” Ash sounded impressed. “That's the kind of left-hook thinking I can appreciate.”
Ellen placed a bottle of Ash's favorite booze on the bar-top, the answer to a question not spoken aloud. Ash whooped, grabbing it by the neck, and made fast tracks to his pool table mess. He was still wearing his pants, a sure sign he was actually onto something useful.
Dean slid against the warmth of Castiel's arm. It was better to keep close; the Suits checked out the Roadhouse as frequently as the Winchester house. “Saving the world in your free time, Cas?”
Castiel blinked. “Is that not what you do?”
Dean laughed. “Geez, Cas, we're not exactly wearing capes here.”
Ellen was fixing Dean and Cas with her You're Being Particularly Dumb look. Dean had spent a lot of his childhood getting that look from Ellen, along with the best salt water taffy and peach pie this side of the state line, when he wasn’t getting his ass kicked for drinking the stock, breaking the empties, or persuading Miranda Malek to take her shirt off down in the Roadhouse's cellar where he'd claimed no one would find them.
“You save it, Dean,” Cas said matter-of-factly. “Every day. Someone’s world is changed, thanks to what you, and your family, do.”
Dean's throat went dry. He turned his face away as he coughed. That wasn’t right at all. Dean was just a guy doing what needed to be done, and it wasn't enough. Cas had seen that – every week. But he still sounded like he really believed in Dean, like he cared.
It was all way too close to falling into something that couldn’t be scrambled out of.
Cas, now embroiled in answering one of Ellen's questions, slid a beer down the bar to Dean without looking.
The Winchester house possibly had its foundations laid on fault lines. That could be an acceptable explanation for the often volatile household. It fascinated Castiel how quickly they were able to transform into an entirely acceptable and normal family whenever they were inspected. Lying was not to be valued, but Castiel had seen what good things were done behind the Winchester's facade. He thought his father would approve of that.
The bags under Dean's eyes had started to disappear. With Castiel beside him in bed, Dean was getting a full night's sleep more frequently and without nightmares. It was something. Castiel was pleased.
He gave thanks to his father for how he had been led to a place where a difference was being made and where he could help – as his father had taught that he should. Thank you, Father.
He said many thanks, for new discoveries and pleasures in a world where there were too few. The pies that Cindy baked and Dean made him try. The beer that Dean had persuaded him to enjoy. Dean's rare genuine laugh. Castiel wanted to hear more of that and be the cause of his smile. He wanted to know more about Dean. He wanted to learn the secrets of the Impala and the hold that it had over Dean. He wanted Sam Winchester to stop carrying so much unnecessary guilt and to see his family the way that Castiel did.
It took a while for Dean to find out about any of Castiel’s family. Weirdly, his Mom got there first. Dean came downstairs after taking a shower to find Castiel talking to his Mom over slices of cake thick with chocolate frosting. The lines at the edges of his Mom's eyes were laughing.
“Dean, why didn’t you tell me about Castiel’s sister?”
Dean retrieved a beer from the fridge and placed another in front of Castiel. Cas nodded his thanks, with that tiny glimpse of a smile that was emerging more and more frequently. Dean sat down, his knee knocking against Cas’.
Castiel ducked his head slightly. Mom reached across the table and pressed her fingers to his free hand. It was a weirdly intimate gesture, leaving Dean to wonder just how many of these cozy little chats he’d missed out on and why the hell nobody had told him about them.
“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” she told Cas firmly, on her way out the door.
It turned out that Cas’s sister was Anna, the deceptively fragile-looking redhead who ran the crazy splinter group a few states over. Dean worked with them off and on. They were dedicated to the freedom of slaves. But when they stopped being covert, and became upfront and dangerously obvious and defiant about it, a lot of watch lists took notice. It was the sort of reputation that Dean couldn’t have.
And there was the time that he’d slept with Anna after a really long blood-soaked day and she’d hit all of his buttons and had smelled like chocolate cake.
“Your sister’s crazy,” he informed Cas once his Mom had gone.
“She is…..focused. I believe she is still hurting.”
“She left our family and they took her back, forcefully.”
That didn’t sound like anything good. The tight look on Cas’ face made Dean’s hackles rise. He slid another beer towards Cas. Cas reached for it, their arms brushing. He smelled like storms coming in and a hypnotic contour of frosting and beer. Dean pulled back.
“I left too,” Cas continued, quiet and careful. “And they found me. It hurt.”
Dean’s fingers twitched. That didn’t sound like family. That sounded like the kind of thing that Dean should take his shotgun and fists to.
“They have not done what my father would want,” Cas said quietly, like it broke him to vocalize it.
Dean’s insides squeezed. There was a familiar feeling rising – protectiveness, rage, love. A natural reaction if anyone hurt his family. But this…..it was like his legs were already going and he'd better get the hell out before he fell on his ass. His skin was prickling in the exact same way it had done before that automobile pile-up. He still had the scars.
But Cas wasn’t family.
It was one hell of a warning.
Sam’s eyebrows almost rose into his hairline when he entered his parents’ kitchen to find Castiel trying to make an apple pie. He had all the ingredients out and flour plastered from his fingertips to his elbows. It was the first time Sam could ever remember seeing Cas without his suit jacket on. He looked almost domestic.
He was still wearing a collar though, and Sam tried really hard to keep the anger out of his voice, because none of this was Castiel's fault.
“Cas, did Dean tell you do this because, it's definitely not your job.....”
“Dean does not know about this,” Castiel replied solemnly, her fingers shaping pastry dough. “It is a surprise.”
Sam paused, watching. Castiel was concentrating hard, like a child would. Sam liked talking to Cas. The breadth of Cas’ knowledge was so vast and fascinating. There were weird gaps though, like Cas had missed out on a lot of the basics. Sam had thought, more than once, that Castiel would be really helpful for his ongoing anti-slavery casework.
But Castiel belonged to Dean and God, why did Dean have to be so hard-headed? It was dumb question, because that was Dean - stubborn to the end, determined to be right. And Sam just wanted to tear him apart for perpetuating the problem, supporting the system even as he tried to break it down brick by brick. Couldn't he comprehend that there was something completely wrong about trading slaves during the day, even if you were setting them free at night?
And now this? This was Stockholm Syndrome. And there was no way that Sam could broach the topic without appearing patronizing, and after all that Castiel had probably been through, that was the last thing he wanted to do.
“Look, I know that this feels like freedom, but it isn’t.” Sam took a breath. “And I’m sure Dean’s been good to you, but what you’re feeling, it can’t be….”
“I am not fulfilling an obligation, Sam.” Castiel’s words, precise and firm, cut mercifully into Sam’s floundering unhappy sentence.
His eyes fixed on Sam, the careful meaning of his words sinking in. Sam flushed, hating the awkwardness of this entire conversation but needing to complete it. Because dammit, somebody needed to open Castiel's eyes to what was happening.
“But then you know that anyone in this kind of situation would think that what they’re feeling is…..”
Castiel stopped his pie making. He wiped his hands on the damp cloth over his shoulder. He chewed his bottom lip. He was thinking carefully. Sam felt pulled tight as piano wire, like any second now this entire situation was going to make him snap.
“I am grateful, Sam, for what you are doing,” Castiel said at last.“What you are trying to achieve is extraordinarily brave.”
Of all the things Cas could have said, Sam wasn’t expecting that. He had the strange feeling that he was the one being patronized now.
“Cas, I don’t think you….”
“Sam.” And that was sharp, followed by an apologetic look. “You believe that I stayed here out of gratitude to Dean. But I choose to be here to widen the difference your family makes, to help as they helped me.”
And Cas’ eyes bored into Sam, right on the edge of anger. He believed what he was saying. His spirit wasn't broken yet. He was one of the strong lucky ones, the ones who believed that the Winchester house made a difference, collar or not. Dean claimed that the change was obvious from the Cas he'd bought at Crowns. The guy was still wearing a collar though. It wasn’t freedom, not really, no matter what Mom, Dad, and Dean said. And what Castiel felt about his ‘rescuer’ and master…..
“I believe I am finished,” Cas announced, pleased.
He was looking at his pie dish. The pie itself was not perfect; it was lumpy and overfilled and the pastry didn't look right somehow. But Castiel was pleased, carefully handling the pie into the oven and taking note of the time before he began clearing away his mess. He was pleased because he had made a pie for Dean.
The look in his eyes when he'd confronted Sam reminded Sam of Dean when his brother defended the family business.
Sam stayed where he was, gaze concentrated. There was a familiar sensation flickering at him now, like something significant was out of his reach and not quite visible. It was the same feeling that he always got just before he broke a case. His fingernails bit into his palms. Cas had made it clear that he didn’t want to hear anymore. So Sam kept quiet for now, not wanting to cause Cas to clam up about it forever, and watched instead, ready to take mental notes and grab answers, anything to get hold of whatever was eluding him as Castiel hummed under his breath, eyes on the oven and mind clearly elsewhere.
Cas wanted to find Anna. Apparently it’d been years since they’d seen each other. He hadn’t even known that she was still alive.
“She looked after me, Dean,” Cas said, almost fondly, his eyes searching the horizon. “She taught me. It is thanks to her that I ventured into the world outside of our family at all.”
“Stopped you drinking the Kool Aid, huh?”
Castiel frowned and Dean gestured that it didn't matter. What did matter was that there was a job in Anna’s area that needed doing and Dean volunteered, taking Cas with him. They dealt with the trader, paying her and arranging for the slaves to be sent back to the Winchesters’ nearest complex. Castiel stayed quiet throughout the transaction, eyes fixed compliantly on Dean.
“He’s well-trained,” the trader said admiringly, sizing him up expertly. “They all like him in that training house?”
“One of a kind,” replied Dean, with his lucky grin. He could feel Cas’s stare.
Finding Anna wasn’t so difficult. She was still working out of the rebuilt church. The stained glass was almost totally replaced now and there were still guards on the door who sneered at Dean’s I.D., clearly itching to try out their pistols on a slave trader.
“They’re okay,” Anna commanded from inside.
She was still milk-pale with hair so bright that it looked like it was on fire. She also had a blade in her hand and Dean had time to think shit, Cas’s collar before Anna was in Cas’s personal space and eyeballing him carefully. Dean kept his hand on the shotgun trigger. There was one guard up on the balcony that he could see. The others he could roughly guess at if he needed to.
Anna smiled. “It’s good to see you, brother.”
She pulled him into a hug, a gesture that Cas carefully returned. Dean could read relief in every part of his body. They parted and Anna fingered his collar with an amused look.
“Dean bought me,” Cas said, his words level as though the event was not to be argued.
“His choice to stay,” Dean put in since Anna was holding a knife that he knew she could use well and he’d be all for doing some damage if it was his brother wearing the collar.
“I know.” Anna looked even more amused now. “You’re doing good work, Dean. Sam too. Tell him that we’re telling everybody we can about Ruby. People here will talk to him again.”
Dean nodded. That right there might go some way to restoring Sam’s reputation and stop him moping about how slow his anti-slavery casework was going now. Anna turned her attention back to her brother.
“I am sorry, Anna, for…..”
“Ssh, Cas, I don’t blame you.” Anna’s words were gentle now and she placed a kiss to his forehead, like some kind of benediction. “You’re forgiven, brother.”
Cas bowed his head, like he didn’t deserve that. Dean’s frown deepened. He cleared his throat, getting Anna’s focus off Cas, and got to talking about what Anna’s group was thinking of doing next and any plans she had for coming over their way any time soon.
Eventually, a few hours later, Cas was waiting to leave by the Impala after another hug from his sister, and Anna stood with Dean at the church’s entrance. She looked good, her knife hidden under her fitted jean jacket and her carefully forged I.D. displayed at her hip. She always looked good.
“I didn’t think I’d see him again,” she mused quietly. “When he stumbled out here without any I.D.…….He’s changed, a lot.”
She sounded far away, her eyes thoughtful and almost on the sweet side of sad. Dean shifted uncomfortably, obstinately not looking at Cas. Cas was squinting into the sun, looking like he was seeing it for the first time. Everything seemed to fascinate him. He made a hell of a picture.
Anna’s next words sliced hard through that imagery. “Do you still get those dreams?”
Dean swallowed down the none of your damn business that almost escaped him. Because Anna had seen him in the middle of the night, shaking and shouting. She’d whispered something to him in a weird language and had covered his body until he’d eventually stilled.
“Not as much,” was all Dean said at last.
“It’s never been a sin to want, Dean,” Anna sounded amused again and gentle. Like she knew things that he didn't. “Cas knows that too.”
Then Anna was suddenly close and she pressed a kiss to Dean’s forehead before he could move. “Thanks, Dean.
She still smelled like chocolate. But there was cement dust and burning wood in there too and the familiar copper of blood. She looked in control. When she turned her head, Dean got a sense memory of her arms around him and sweat sliding. His life was fucked up.
“If you need anything, you’ve got my number,” Anna reminded him, already heading back into the church.
Dean nodded, scratching a hand through his hair. Castiel opened the Impala driver door for him.
“Your sister’s still crazy,” he said once Cas had slid into the passenger seat.
Cas's smile was almost normal-sized and he sounded as though he’d decided something. “I am glad.”
Dean snorted, kicking his baby into reverse. Then almost swerved when Cas lay his hand over Dean’s on the steering wheel.
“Thank you, Dean.”
Cas’s intense stare felt like it was boring into him. Dean's neck felt hot, his skin prickling uncomfortably. Anna’s words ran on a loop in his head, fighting with a ton of blood and the sight of Cas’s collar. This wasn't helping at all. Cas didn’t move his hand for the rest of the journey.