Castiel was sleeping when Dean walked past the living room the next morning, the stacks of books strewn across the coffee table and piled on the floor beside the couch clear evidence that sleep, however badly needed, had not come easily. Dean paused in the doorway and stared at the tuft of dark, unruly hair sticking out from under the top of an old plaid blanket. That, and a shapely foot poking out at the opposite end, was all that was visible of Castiel. The rest of his body was curled up under the blanket as if hiding from what the new day might bring. The pillow which had fallen to the floor and the reading lamp still burning on the end table were proof that slumber had taken him hard and fast when it had finally arrived.
Dean watched the slow rise and fall of Castiel's chest as he gently breathed in and out, and grinned to himself as a loud snore broke the rhythmic breathing. Castiel snuffled a bit, shifted restlessly, and pulled his exposed foot back in under the blanket.
“Awwww,” Sam said, startling Dean with his sudden appearance and resting a sharp chin on his brother's shoulder. “He sleeps like a little angel, doesn't he?”
“I should have left you in hell,” Castiel grumbled. A fierce blue eye made an appearance and blinked owlishly before vanishing back under the covers.
“And here I had him pegged as a morning person,” Sam laughed, slapping Dean on the back and continuing on his way to the kitchen, whistling cheerfully.
“I know you're still standing there,” a muffled voice said after a few long moments of silence.
“You wishin' I was back in hell too?” Dean snorted, vastly amused by Castiel's peevish tone.
“Never!” This time, two blue eyes appeared and the look they bestowed upon Dean was soft and open and –
– Sweet, damn it, Dean admitted in the privacy of his mind.
“You getting up any time soon?” he queried, his voice rough with more than a trace of embarrassment.
“What time is it?”
“A little after 5:30.”
Castiel yawned and sat up, half the blanket trailing to the floor, the other half remaining modestly draped across his lap. A slim and pale, but surprisingly well-sculpted nude torso rose from the upper folds of the blanket. Bony knees and hairy shins peeked out at Dean from below the blanket's ragged hem, and bare toes curled and uncurled in a threadbare carpet as Castiel slowly processed this obviously unwelcome information.
“Dude, you better have something on under there,” Dean said, looking nervously at the slacks draped over the arm of a nearby easy chair. His T-shirt and a pair of black dress socks were in a neatly folded pile on the seat of the same chair.
“You complain if I sleep in my clothes. You complain if I disrobe. Make up your mind, Dean. My vessel – my body – fluctuated between being overheated and being chilled last night. It was most disconcerting. I found the only practical solution was to – Dean?”
But Dean had already fled to the kitchen, unwilling to learn the answer to the age old question boxers or briefs or...
La-la-la, his brain happily supplied. Coffee. I need coffee. A big, hot Cas of coffee – I mean, cup of coffee. Damn!
He really needed to have a talk with his brain.
Breakfast was uneventful, except for Castiel's brush with death.
He padded into the kitchen – still bare-footed, but otherwise fully dressed, Dean noted with relief – and quietly stood observing the buzz of activity in the room. Bobby simultaneously tended a pan of scrambled eggs and a second pan of sizzling bacon, spatula in one hand and a long-handled fork in the other. Sam trekked back and forth between refrigerator and table, carrying over condiments, plates and large glasses of orange juice and relocating the impressive collection of books which had accumulated over the past several days to the top of the fridge. Dean had already set the coffeemaker to work, the strong scent of the brew competing with the tantalizing smell of frying bacon, and he was currently rummaging through a drawer in an apparently vain search for clean utensils.
“May I help?” Castiel offered the room at large, eager to prove himself not to be a burden.
“Sure,” Sam said, and promptly assigned him to toast making duty, in the naïve belief that even an inexperienced ex-angel couldn't screw up that simple task.
He was wrong.
The first few slices were fine, if a little too dark for Dean's liking. Nevertheless, Castiel proudly spread butter on the slightly charred bread and stacked the slices on a plate while he waited for the next batch to pop up from the toaster. Unfortunately, one slice had either torn or been inserted crookedly, and the release mechanism jammed. As billows of smoke rose from the malfunctioning appliance, Castiel casually began to insert the butter knife in the toaster in the hopes of jimmying the bread free.
Dean later swore that his manly cry of warning (“It was not a girly scream, Sam!”) was meant to draw Castiel away from the counter. Instead, Castiel startled forward, accidentally knocking the appliance into a sink filled with suds and soaking pots and pans and dousing himself with water to the point where his bare feet were firmly planted in a sizeable puddle. Unthinkingly, he reached for the toaster...
Dean's desperate hip check saved Castiel's life, if not his pride. Momentum carried Dean forward and the two men toppled to the floor in a tangled jumble of arms and legs.
Breathless from the impact of Dean's weight, Castiel looked up at his rescuer and blinked in dazed confusion as sparks from the drowning toaster sputtered and died, a circuit breaker having finally been thrown by the sudden surge of power.
For several moments, complete and stunned silence reigned, that silence broken only by Dean and Castiel's ragged breathing as they stared into each other's eyes, their noses a hair's breadth away from touching and their lips not that much further apart.
“Dean?” Castiel said uncertainly.
As if Castiel's voice was a trigger, sparks of another kind began to fly as Dean's temper flared and his head jerked violently back.
“What the hell, Cas? You have a death wish I should know about?”
“Sorry doesn't cut it!” Dean raged. “Actions have consequences! Did you stop for a moment to think about what you were doing? Did it cross your mind to wonder how I'd feel if you died?”
“Dean, I – ”
“You stupid sonofabitch,” Dean roared. “Fucking ask for help if you fucking need it!”
“Dean,” Sam said cautiously. “Dean... It's only toast.”
But it was clearly more than that, and Castiel knew it. Numbly, he remained on the floor as Sam reached down and hauled his sputtering brother to his feet. It took the repeated waving of a hand in his face for Castiel to notice that Sam was offering him assistance too. Wordlessly, he accepted a hand up and stood, head bowed, intently looking down at his sodden clothes.
“Breakfast is getting cold,” Bobby observed matter of factly, deftly doling out generous portions of food on four waiting plates. “Sit,” he barked when his three companions made no move to join him at the table.
Sam and Dean obediently slid into their seats.
“Cas,” Bobby said softly. “Would you bring the coffeepot over?”
Castiel shot the old hunter a grateful glance as he moved to obey. When he also set the surviving burnt offering of toast on the table, Sam quickly suppressed a snort of laughter.
“Sit,” Bobby repeated firmly.
“Pass the toast, please,” Dean muttered.
Castiel accepted this as the only apology Dean was likely to make. It didn't entirely revive his flagging appetite, but at least it allowed him to swallow around the lump which had formed in his throat.
Dean spent the remainder of the morning tinkering with his car. He appeared back in the house just before noon, looking slightly pink from exposure to the sun, his hands meticulously cleansed of grease and his hair slicked back from a freshly scrubbed face.
“Where's Cas?” he asked, seeing only Bobby and Sam bustling around the kitchen.
“He said something about grabbing a shower,” Sam said. “But that was an hour or two ago.”
“Hope you told him to take his clothes off first,” Bobby chuckled.
“I never thought,” Sam said, a stricken look crossing his face. “You don't suppose...”
“He's human, not crazy,” Dean snapped. Still, it wouldn't hurt to check up on the guy. He bounded up the stairs two at a time, slowing as he approached the washroom and spotted the wide-open door.
“Cas?” he called, reluctant to intrude on Castiel's privacy. “Cas, you in there?”
There was no reply. Cautiously, Dean peered into the room. The mirror was fogged over, the air still hot and steamy, proving Castiel had indeed recently been there, but there was no sign of the man himself.
He wasn't in any of the other upstairs rooms either, but Dean's duffle was open, its contents moved this way and that, indicating that someone had rummaged though his clothes. Several of Dean's T-shirts and a pair of jeans were missing. Castiel's suit coat and white shirt were also conspicuously absent. His blue necktie trailed forlornly on the floor, half way between the bag and the bedroom door, as if Castiel had dropped it in his haste and not noticed. Dean picked the tie up and stood staring at it blankly.
“Cas?” he called more loudly, clattering back down the stairs. But Castiel wasn't in any of the downstairs rooms either. Nor was he in the panic room.
Dean was beginning to panic a little himself.
“Did he say anything else?” he demanded, thundering back into the kitchen, not realizing until he burst into the room that he still held the tie gripped tightly in his hand.
Sam looked up in surprise, pausing in mid-stir of a savoury smelling stew. “No,” he said, brow crinkling as he thought. “I don't think so. In fact, he didn't say much all morning. He pretty much kept to himself.” His frown deepened. “I think you hurt his feelings, Dean. You've been so damned nice... and then to rip into him like that out of the blue...”
“Excuse me for objecting to him trying to off himself.”
“You have a funny way of showing that you care.”
Dean threw his hands into the air and slammed his way back outside, Castiel's tie flapping over his shoulder and the door rattling on its hinges from the force of his furious exit.
“Trouble in Paradise?” Bobby said, stepping up to the stove with a heavily loaded cutting board of chopped vegetables.
“It would appear so,” Sam sighed.
“Good,” Bobby said. “It's about time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Dean's been biting his tongue so hard I'm surprised he hasn't bitten it off. Cas has been tip-toeing around like he's walking on eggshells. It ain't natural. You've seen those idjits squared off in shouting matches, neither one willing to budge an inch. That's just what they need to do now.”
“I don't know, Bobby...”
“Take it from an old married man, son. Clear the air, then kiss and make up.”
I trust,” Sam said wryly, “you don't mean that in a literal sense.”
Bobby laughed and dumped the vegetables in the stew. “You never know,” he said.
Bobby's truck was still parked in the welcome shade of an ancient oak tree, and none of his old clunkers were missing, so if Castiel had left the salvage yard, Dean decided, he had done so on his own two feet. Or maybe he had hitched a ride – or been spirited away by someone or something unknown, for nefarious purposes that Dean really didn't want to think about right now. He was already half out of his mind with worry.
Planning to drive into town to start his search for Castiel, Dean headed for the Impala. He had just opened the car door and was about to slip behind the wheel when an unexpected flutter of white caught his eye. Curiosity piqued, Dean quietly closed the door and began to pick a torturous route around stacks of car bodies, heading towards the line of trees that stood on a little hill at the far edge of Bobby's property. A second flutter of black cloth – Castiel's dress pants, Dean noted, arching an eyebrow in surprise – came into view, swiftly followed by a glimpse of the Zeppelin T-shirt that Dean had let Castiel borrow.
“What the hell?” Dean muttered as he warily drifted closer, the better to examine the mysteriously floating clothes. Suspiciously, he peered around the final mound of cars...
And there was Castiel, leaning over a battered plastic bin as he picked up another item of clothing. He was wearing one of the missing T-shirts and an old pair of Dean's jeans, the cuffs rolled midway to his knees. His bare feet rustled contentedly through the sparse grass of the knoll as he moved back and forth along the improvised clothesline he had strung up between two sturdy trees. A light breeze ruffled his dark hair, and dappled sunlight caressed the thickening stubble on his face.
Dean's heart stuttered in his breast, his mind flashing forward to that other, human Castiel of 2014: the self-destructive hippy... the drugged up sex guru... the tragic and bitter figure Dean had sworn he would never let his Cas become. But here the mirror image of that man stood before him, not fallen nearly so far as his future self – not yet, anyway – but, oh, he was so very vulnerable looking. So very human. And three years wasn't all that far away...
He must have made a noise, perhaps the whimper caught deep in his throat somehow managed to escape and betray his presence, because Castiel's head abruptly turned towards him and – Thank, God, Dean sighed – bright and unclouded blue eyes pinned him with a sharp glance.
“Hello, Dean,” Castiel said calmly, breaking eye contact as he turned to drape a pair of socks over the line.
“I – I thought you were gone,” Dean whispered. “I thought I'd driven you away.”
“Why would you think that?” Castiel asked, honest puzzlement in his voice as he bent to pick up a dripping wet flannel shirt. Casually efficient, he wrung out the excess water and hung the shirt on the line.
“It would be the smart thing for you to do,” Dean said quietly. “Getting as far away from me and Sam as you can. Starting a life somewhere. Being normal. Being safe.”
“Dean?” The piercing gaze was back in full force, a frown creasing Castiel's forehead as he intently studied the tormented expression frozen on Dean's face. And, then, without the faintest trace of hesitation or concern for propriety, he swiftly crossed the distance between them and wrapped Dean in a fiercely protective hug.
“W-what?” Dean stammered, the word muffled against a broad, warm shoulder, the side of the hunter's face pressed so snugly against Castiel's neck that he could feel the pulse of Castiel's heart, its slow and steady beat in marked contrast to the mad tempo of his own.
“I will not make the mistake of abandoning you again, Dean,” Castiel stated firmly. “If you want me to leave, you will have to tell me to go.” His arms tightened as if in dread of the very thought. “Please promise you won't ask that of me.”
Dean's arms stealing up around him to return the hug was his reply. And for a few long, quiet moments the two men let the world spin on its way without them.
“You're different, this time 'round, Cas,” Dean said several minutes later, helping Castiel hang the remainder of their clothing up to dry.
“What do you mean?” Castiel tilted his head, an achingly familiar gesture that made the hard-nosed hunter suddenly feel all warm and buttery soft inside.
Dean smiled. “Let's just say that being human has never made you a happy camper.”
“Ah... Yes, that is true. It was true.”
“So... what's changed? Doesn't being human still suck? I mean, you've been demoted big time, dude. Downgraded from god to mud monkey all in the same day. That's got to hurt, man.”
Castiel shook his head in quick denial. “My Father has generously blessed me with my continued existence not once, not twice, but three times now. How can I be anything but grateful? And a good part of that gratitude goes to you, Dean. I would not be here this time if it were not for you.”
Dean's smile widened as he playfully grabbed Castiel's hand and held it up between them. “Then you wouldn't have prune fingers from hand-laundering my clothes.”
“I wouldn't have hands at all,” Castiel smiled in return.
“And where the hell did you learn to do laundry, anyway? You been reading Good Housekeeping behind my back, Cas?” Dean teased.
“I have observed generations of women beating clothes on rocks at the water's edge,” Castiel replied loftily. “Filling a bathtub with soapy water does not take a vast stretch of one's imagination.”
Dean held up Castiel's suit coat and peered at it dubiously. “None of those women thought to check the label before washing, huh?”
Castiel shot him a sheepish glance.
“Good thing you dropped your tie,” Dean chuckled, flipping the end of it up from where it dangled safely in its rightful place on Castiel's chest. “Even I know silk is dry clean – or angel zap – only.”
“It would appear I still have much to learn,” Castiel allowed, eyes sparkling with amusement.
“We both do,” Dean replied. “Maybe we can help each other out along the way?”
“I think I'd like that.”
“And maybe I can make the past year up to you.”
“Dean... You owe me nothing. It is my debt to you that is incalculable.”
“No, it goes both ways,” Dean argued. “Just as there's blame on both sides.”
“Dean – ”
“I'm sorry I wasn't there for you,” Dean blurted, the words, once started, tumbling off his tongue in a cascade he found impossible to halt. “I'm sorry I couldn't help you with your war, that I kept making demands that further weakened you, that I took for granted all you did for me. But, most of all, I'm sorry that I ever gave you cause to doubt how much I care, how much I – ”
“No, Dean. You have it wrong. I told you lie on top of lie. I made bad decisions with the best of intentions, and in my pride I thought I was strong enough to handle a power too terrible to bear. But there is one thing I never once lied about: I did it, all of it, for you. Not to bring peace to Heaven, not for personal glory.... but for you. To keep you safe. And I'm sorry for everything else that happened, but I will never apologize for that.”
Somehow, Dean noted absently, their hands had once again migrated together, their fingers tangled now, each man clinging to the other as if the simple touch was a lifeline, anchoring them in a stormy sea. It felt so good... It felt so right...
“Shouldn't you be doing your glowy thing?” Dean asked gruffly. “I don't know what you're waiting for. The moment can't possibly get any more perfectly chick flick than this.”
“Are you saying you forgive me?”
“Maybe a little,” Dean smiled.
Castiel gently eased his hand free from Dean's warm grasp and slid it underneath the sleeve of Dean's T-shirt until his fingers found his mark. His eyes closed in concentration then, as did Dean's, but after a few minutes of absolutely nothing happening, both men opened their eyes and met each other's questioning gaze.
Dean's smile faded. “It didn't work,” he whispered disappointedly.
“It doesn't matter,” Castiel said, no trace of disappointment in his voice, his hand instinctively moving back down to recapture Dean's. “It is enough to be alive. To be here, with you, on a beautiful day in a world that holds infinite possibilities.”
“But I want to forgive you,” Dean said. “I really do. Maybe not with my whole heart... not yet. But what I feel now is a damned good beginning. Oh, God!” he exclaimed. “Don't tell me that this feeling isn't real. It is, I know it is!”
“How the hell am I supposed to help you get your wings back if I have no control over – ”
“Dean!” Castiel said sharply, interrupting the hunter in mid-rant.
“What?” Dean snapped.
“I think... I think I may be glowing.”
And he was. Not just his hand, but his entire body was emitting a shimmering aura that bathed him in holy light from head to toe.
“Oh,” Dean breathed, involuntarily leaning closer, irresistibly drawn to the transcendent being that stood before him.
Once again, Castiel's hand sought out the handprint on Dean's shoulder. And, as his grip grew tighter, so too did the glow expand and intensify until it enveloped them both in a radiant sphere that pulsed in rhythm with every quickening beat of the former angel's heart.
This time, aware of what was happening to him and therefore prepared for the encounter, Castiel felt no pain or confusion as he interacted with his lost Grace. Instead, he embraced the moment, his blue eyes locked with Dean's green, both men willingly surrendering to an all encompassing sense of bliss which lingered long after the glow flickered and was gone.
The cut the angel sword had left on Castiel's forearm was healed. The mild headache which had plagued him since breakfast time had vanished. He felt... revitalized. The air smelled fresher, sweeter. The cloudless sky was myriad shades of blue, not the flat blue of a child's crayon drawing that it had been this morning. As for the swirl of colours and emotion in Dean's eyes...
Beautiful, Castiel thought. He's beautiful with his face lit up like that, so trusting and open. He doesn't need my Grace to make him shine. I don't need to be an angel to see the purity of his soul. Truly, God must look down upon His Righteous Man and smile... Oh, Father! That's it! I know how and why it happens!
“Oh, God,” Dean repeated – and, much to his startled surprise, Castiel's warm hand quickly pressed itself against his mouth, sealing his lips shut.
“Prayer, Dean,” Castiel whispered in an awestruck tone. “It is the Mercy of your prayer that brings my Grace back to me.”
Dean gently pried at Castiel's fingers until they fell away. “But I wasn't praying,” he said.
“You spoke my Father's name and He answered your plea.”
“Oh, great. I have direct dial to God, now?”
“That I do not know. But, clearly, if you grant me forgiveness and invoke His name, He does reply.”
“Well... good, then. I'm glad we got that little mystery figured out.” Dean stared at Castiel appraisingly. “So... are you all juiced up with Grace? I'm feeling pretty good, myself.”
“I am human – an exceptionally healthy human – but human all the same.”
“No wings yet?” Dean circled around Castiel, patting his hand across his back, as if expecting to feel little nubs poking their way out through the thin fabric of his faded black T-shirt. “Not a single feather?”
“No,” Castiel snorted. “Apparently, I still have a way to go until you are no longer 'seriously pissed' at me.”
“In that case,” Dean grinned, lightly rapping his knuckles on Castiel's chest, just to the left of his sternum, “Let's take care of business the old fashioned way.”
“Let's go get you a tattoo. We can't have you wandering around without protection. We'll whip you up some fake ID too. Credit cards, driver's licence, FBI, the works. Hell, I'll even set you up with Book-of-the-Month Club. What name would you like to use? Castiel Novak has a nice ring to it.”
“I would be honoured to adopt Jimmy's name,” Castiel said softly.
“Good,” Dean nodded. “That's your primary ID taken care of, but we should probably make up a couple of alternates while we're at it. You never know when they might prove useful. Any suggestions?”
“Cas Jagger?” Castiel suggested shyly.
Dean laughed and draped a friendly arm across Castiel's shoulders as he began to shepherd him back towards the house. “Cas Jagger it is,” he said. “I've already met the guy, and I really liked him. Maybe he and I could grab a beer sometime?”