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The Soul Piece

Chapter Text

When a human child is born, their soul is shattered into bright gleaming pieces that scatter to the winds.

It's not really their souls, of course. More like echoes of their souls, a manifestation of each human's essence that slips into the physical body of another. A piece of themselves that they recognize in others.

Castiel thinks it's one of his Father's most beautiful gifts to humans. It's a light on their path, a way to lead them to those people who will bring the most love and joy into their lives. He understands in a distant way that a human's soul carriers may also bring them pain, regret, even despair, but that pales in comparison to the radiant glow he sees within a human when they meet one of their carriers.

There are angels that begrudge humans this gift. There are angels who believe that the Father gives too much to humans who appreciate His love too little. There are angels who crave for themselves the depth of feeling humans have for one another.

There are angels that fall to have it.

Castiel has never spoken about it with any of his siblings. Those considering falling would not find much sympathy with an angel like Castiel and his siblings know this. They know that Castiel is one of the most devoted, the most faithful. He may not always understand his Father's plan or why his existence is so different from the humans his Father loves so well, but he understands his duty and takes joy from performing it.

It is more than enough for Castiel.

Which is what makes it all the more shocking when he is struck full in the center of his being one bright morning with an enormous chunk of a human's soul.

It knocks him off his flight path, sending him tumbling into crystal sands of a vast celestial beach. His wings tangle together and Castiel has the brief thought that he is glad none of his brothers are present to see his moment of terrific clumsiness. The weight of the soul piece is staggering. It is more substantial than Castiel could ever imagine and for reasons he doesn't understand, it feels more real than any other substance he's ever touched.

Once he's landed on his back and the world has stopped whirling, Castiel is able to sit up and examine the soul piece in his hands. It blazes, vivid and intense. A snow white orb with tendrils of cold flame flickering around the edges. It's the closest Castiel has ever been to a soul piece and it fills his chest with terrifying awe. With trepidation, he strokes one finger down the side of the piece. It pulsates and shivers, clearly recognizing Castiel's presence and it reaches for him, tendrils wrapping around his hand and up his arm. Insistent. Claiming. Castiel feels it begin to merge with his own essence. He is filled with wonder. How can a human soul hope to blend with the powerful grace of an angel?

His confusion and fear send him to his feet. He shakes the sand out of his wings, thinking hard. The answer is clear. There are only two angels he can trust to lead him in the right direction. He gently tucks the soul piece into the front of his gleaming white cloak and takes flight. Within seconds, he finds his two siblings in the city, discussing what sounds like the next batch of orders for their garrison.

"Anael," Castiel says quietly. He feels a sense of guilt over interrupting his superior, but the look on her face is welcoming.

"Castiel, child. What are you doing here? I thought you were flying," she says, her tone indulgent. Castiel knows he is not the only angel that enjoys soaring through his Father's creation, wings stretched wide and the gift of wind fresh on his face. But Anael thinks of him as her special younger brother and finds his quirks amusing.

"I was. Something happened though," he answers. To the side, Uriel makes an inquisitive noise, though Castiel can tell he is not terribly interested in the proceedings. If there are battle orders, Castiel feels certain that they command most of Uriel's thoughts.

However, when Castiel reaches into his cloak and draws out the soul piece, he suddenly receives the full brunt of his siblings' attention. The glimmer of the soul piece brightens the already shining room in which they stand. A surprising flash of pride that this soul could improve even the surroundings of Heaven itself cuts through Castiel.

"Where did you get that?" Anael asks sharply. There is something in her voice that frightens Castiel, that strikes him hard, nearly as hard as the soul piece had earlier.

Longing.

"It came to me," Castiel explains, voice shaky. "It...I think it knows me."

The disdain in Uriel's voice is clear when he finally speaks. "How could a creature of dust recognize you?"

"I don't know," he answers honestly. None of this makes any sense to him. He looks to Anael, hopeful as always that she will be able to explain and order the world for him. Instead of the reassurance he seeks, her expression is hungry, her eyes glued to the soul piece as if unable to look away.

"It's so large," she breathes. It's true. Castiel has studied the phenomenon of soul pieces more than any of his brothers, delighted as he is by the concept and though he doesn't truly understand much about it, he knows that this piece is significantly large. This human will only have a very few soul carriers in his or her life. It makes the responsibility heavier, the confusion greater. Castiel has never even properly met a human. He has no idea how he is supposed to bring joy and love into one's life.

Anael reaches toward it, as if to touch it. Wrongness screams in Castiel's being. Without thought, he jerks away from her, tucking the soul piece further against his arm, protective and defensive. The message is clear to Anael. She seems to remember herself and backs away, expression clear once more.

"Castiel," she says and her voice grows in intensity, the way it always does when she is about to impart extremely important information. "This soul piece. It's a soul mate piece."

It's the first time in his existence that Castiel feels true shock. He hadn't seen, hadn't really understood what he holds in his arms. But now that she's told him, it becomes obvious. The possessive nature of the piece, the way it claims him with a sense of entitlement that Castiel's never experienced before. In an instant he goes from being one of a multitude to a single entity, an individual that will command the love and devotion of a human he doesn't even know.

He lacks the understanding to grasp what is happening to him.

"It must be a mistake," Uriel declares, dismissive and once again bored with the situation. Castiel doesn't enjoy the brief flare of indignation that borders on anger he feels at Uriel's words.

"Our Father doesn't make mistakes," he says, tensing at his own ugly tone. "You know that."

"Perhaps." He looks down at Castiel and though Castiel loves Uriel with his whole being, he sees that he'll never truly understand his brother. His devotion to their Father is true, of this Castiel is certain. But his attitudes can be so disrespectful.

"But how can you expect to mate with a human?" He spits the word 'mate' as if to reject it from his body. "You can't be expected to defile yourself by lying with a human. If you didn't destroy the feeble body with your magnificence to begin with."

Castiel frowns. "I don't think the Father would send me to love a human who couldn't withstand my presence," he says carefully, though in truth, he has very little idea what the Father had been thinking when he sent the soul piece to Castiel.

"Maybe you should go to your human," Anael says, her voice blank. "It may help you understand this situation more fully."

Castel considers her idea. Uriel doesn't understand the purpose of the soul mate piece. He thinks all humans approach their soul mates with lust in their hearts. But Castiel knows better. There are a great many humans that wish to copulate with their soul mates, yes, but there are many who find their soul mate piece in a friend or relative. The true meaning of a soul mate is simply the one person without whom a human doesn't truly feel complete. It's not a given that every human will even discover their soul mate piece.

This human will though, Castiel thinks as he turns the piece over in his hands. Already it has begun losing shape and form, dissolving into Castiel's being. Very soon, it will be a part of him and that's the moment that it finally strikes Castiel.

He won't feel complete without this human either.

But angels aren't given to these feelings. They are not built for it. How can Castiel already feel at a loss without the presence of a human he's never met when he's never been anything, but content with his lot in life?

"Perhaps I should," he finally says to Anael's suggestion.

"I could go with you," she offers. The blankness in her tone is spiked with sudden and uncomfortable interest. "I should very much like to see the human who can mould itself to an angel's grace."

He should yes. He should have no problem sharing this moment with Anael as he's shared every moment of his existence with his brothers.

"No," he says. "I shall go alone."

Without an explanation or a pause to hear her response, Castiel tucks the piece away once more and takes flight, his wings echoing in the long marble hall.

Castiel has never been to Earth by himself. His garrison has fought many battles on the earthly plane, but against demons. He's rarely had the chance to see through his eyes to the physical world instead of viewing through the spiritual lens. It's just as beautiful as he remembers from the few snatches he's allowed himself in the past. Truly a masterful creation, a display of his Father's immense creative talents. Castiel could spend endless years watching it evolve around him, but he has a purpose and so he follows the bright trail he senses towards the human. It's not difficult to follow.

The human is rather obvious.

Castiel finds his human in a large room filled with boxes. In each box there is an infant child. For a brief moment, Castiel is puzzled. Their number is too great to constitute one single family, yet Castiel can't imagine why humans would group their offspring together in a room, unsupervised. He sees a door off to one side and when he stretches his senses, he hears several adult humans talking to one another about the children. That's when Castiel finally realizes that this building is some kind of birthing center and the adult humans must be specially trained in dealing with newborn humans.

He has much to learn about human life.

Following the trail once more, Castiel flutters down in front of one box in particular. The child laying in it is similar to the others in the room, but Castiel instantly sees how this child will always be different to him. The soul piece in his arms shudders in proximity to its original master. To Castiel, it feels akin to the love he holds for his Father, but again, there is something different. Something he's never experienced before and therefore can't identify. But it is pleasant.

Castiel allows the physical realm to fall away and peers into the child's soul. At first Castiel is so enthralled by the purity and intensity of the soul that he can't discern any details. The passage of time, strictly enforced on Earth and lightly felt by angels, falls away completely and it isn't until a woman appears in the doorway that Castiel's attention is broken. Infant humans can perceive an angelic presence without damage, but many adult humans cannot, so Castiel has kept himself cloaked. While he waits for the woman to leave, he peers at the child's soul without losing himself in its beauty.

He sees the place where the soul piece broke off. It will be an empty void within the child unless Castiel is nearby. An emptiness the child will be able to tolerate, may not even feel at all until it's filled and then the human will always notice its absence. Along with Castiel's piece, he sees other empty slots, all large. Two have already been filled and Castiel assumes these belong to the child's parents.

There are two pieces still within the child, meaning that they belong to humans not yet born. One piece is smaller than the rest, but brilliant and warm. A short but important relationship.

The other piece is unnaturally large. Bigger even than the piece Castiel carries. He is fascinated by the dormant strands of emotion threaded through and over it. It is not a mate piece, but its importance obviously equals Castiel's. He doesn't mind. After all, since Castiel will not be able to enter into a sexual partnership with the human, the child will have to find that partnership elsewhere. It's possible this piece belongs to the child's future spouse. Castiel briefly entertains the notion of watching the child growing up and getting married, having children as well and it makes Castiel feel rather warm.

When the woman finally leaves, Castiel reenters the mortal plane and focuses his attention on the child's physical appearance. He is male. His skin is pale and pink. His cheeks and limbs are round and fat and for some reason that makes Castiel smile. He has no frame of reference for human beauty standards, but he thinks the boy presents a sweet image.

He notices a round white card at the base of the box and peers closely at it. The words, "WINCHESTER, DEAN" are printed on them in English.

"Hello, Winchester Dean," Castiel says.

All at once, every child in the room awakens. Some begin crying while others merely gurgle and squirm, grabbing for their own feet. Castiel frowns. His human's eyes open as well, but he doesn't cry or smile or do anything, but stare at Castiel with big blue eyes. Once again, Castiel finds himself caught by the child, unable to think much beyond the strange unique love growing in his chest. He barely remembers to cloak himself when several adults burst into the room, frantically searching for the source of the noise which woke their charges.

Castiel's human begins to cry the instant Castiel disappears.

His usual patience wears thin waiting for the adult humans to finish settling the children. When they leave, he appears again. Winchester Dean reaches for him, tiny arms flailing. Castiel doesn't want a repeat of earlier events, so instead of speaking, he leans over the box and cautiously presses forward the tip of one wing. The child catches the end, small fingers wrapping around the edge of one single feather.

That's when Castiel notices that the soul piece is entirely gone, merged completely with his grace.

He is caught forever.

Chapter Text

Several hours pass in Earth time before Castiel tears himself away from the child. Mere moments after their first meeting, one of the adults returns and collects the human. She carries him to another room where two more adults wait. One is female and laying in a bed while the other, a male, sits at her side. After some verbal exchange, Castiel ascertains that the two new adults are the parents. While the mother learns to feed her new son milk from her breast, Castiel reads the chart of information at the foot of the bed. He feels somewhat foolish upon realizing that Winchester is a common family name. The given name of his human is Dean.

He knows so very little of human customs.

The mother's name is Mary Winchester and the father's is John Winchester. Their souls are deeply entwined and it's clear even to Castiel that each carries the other's soul mate piece. The mother's soul has been wounded, but is full of love. It is the kind of love that attracts Castiel the most; the sort that stays pure through pain and time and grief.

However, he does feel some trepidation when he spots a small blotch of darkness, a dull and evil blemish that is clearly demonic in origin. It is the sort of mark left behind by a deal. He will have to be mindful of that deal in the future.

In contrast, the father's soul is free from demonic interference. It is almost simple in its consuming devotion for both mother and son.

Despite the deal, he believes they will be good parents for Dean.

Castiel watches the small family for a long time. It is the longest space of time he's ever spent with an individual set of humans. Castiel is not a guardian angel nor is he a messenger. He is a scholar and warrior, not meant to mingle often with humans.

The Father has a complex sense of humor.

By the time Castiel drags himself away from the scene, he has learned several things about humans he didn't know. For instance, words do not always reflect the feeling in their hearts. When Mary tells John that Dean is 'as greedy as you are', she does not really think Dean or John is exceptionally greedy nor does she believe this is a negative quality.

Also, humans touch each other excessively. Castiel understands that Mary must keep her hands on Dean in order to hold him properly. But he hadn't realized that adult humans touch as much as John and Mary touch each other. He wonders if the physical contact creates the same sort of intimacy he enjoys through touching the souls and minds of his brothers. Angels rarely touch one another's physical bodies. It's an utterly alien concept to Castiel.

Although, he thinks as he remembers how Dean curled his fingers around Castiel's wing, it might not be such a bad thing.

When Castiel decides he's intruded on the Winchesters' privacy long enough, he takes flight.

He is halfway to the Heavenly realm before he identifies the curious feeling in his chest as reluctance to leave Dean.

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

Though he knows Anael and Uriel expect from him a report, Castiel indulges his first desire to fly. Over and around mountains where the air is thin and refreshing. In and out of storms, cold drops of water to his face and wings. Down into a pool, currents of deep ancient water dragging at his cloak.

He is wasting time.

Angels aren't equipped to deal with personal property. Everything they need to survive, they share as one. Ownership leads to jealousy and greed. There is no room for it among faithful servants. Yet, the Father sent the soul piece only to Castiel. It belongs to him fully.

He doesn't want to share.

It's a terrifying thought. How can the Father expect Castiel to properly serve Him when He sends such a doorway to sin?

It occurs to him while he is laying on his back in the pool that this could be a test. A way for the Father to determine whether Castiel is strong enough to own a soul piece and still put his duty first. Perhaps as preparation for a more difficult task. The thought sends a thrill of joy coursing though his whole body, from his head to the tips of his wings.

If this is a test, Castiel is determined not to fail.

It is with that thought in mind that Castiel shakes the water out of his hair and takes wing once more, this time flying to his brothers' side. He will not let ownership result in mistrust and doubt of his own siblings.

They are waiting in the same room, the same scrolls of information laid out before them. For all Castiel knows, it's only been a moment since he left their side. Time passes so strangely on Earth. He'll have to pay better attention or his human will be half-grown before Castiel sees him again.

"Castiel! Come, tell us of your human," Anael invites him. The false cheer of his tone grates on Castiel. He doesn't understand her reaction to this situation at all. "What is the child like?"

Castiel lacks the words to accurately describe the way he felt looking into Dean's soul. He sees that his hesitation peaks Anael's interest, though Uriel is as stoic and indifferent as ever. So he says the first thing that comes to mind.

"He is very small." When Anael and Uriel only stare at him, Castiel adds, "He is a good child."

"Did you not speak with him?" Uriels asks with knowing amusement, as though he would not be surprised if Castiel flew all that way only to hide in the shadows. For his part, Castiel is not surprised that Uriel knows less about humanity than even himself. The only reason Uriel ever acknowledges humanity is when he is given an order to destroy it.

"He is too new for speech," Castiel explains patiently.

"Yes, of course," Anael agrees. "Humans must learn to speak. They aren't created with knowledge, like angels," she says. It sounds like she is quoting from one of her scrolls. Castiel wonders when Anael took the time to study the ways of humans. Perhaps she would be a good source of information.

"Castiel, I should very much like to meet him," she says gently. There is no demand in her tone. She is leaving open the path to denial, if he should choose to take it. But he must not be selfish. Denial is a far too dangerous path.

"I will lead the way," he answers and receives a bright smile in return. It is so very like normal that Castiel feels a sense of ease return. He glances at Uriel. "Would you like to join us?"

"I would rather shear the wings from my back," he answers absently as he turns away, nose pressed in the scrolls once more. Anael shrugs lightly and Castiel can't help, but grin. Uriel really is the most amusing of his brothers.

They leave him alone with his battle plans and swiftly descend to Earth. There is no activity Castiel loves so well than flying and no better way to fly than with a brother. They soar in circles, almost chasing one another back and forth, flipping end over end. It's not like Anael to act as though she just discovered flight and therefore, the fleeting abandon of their journey is all the more wonderful to Castiel. Anael and Uriel are far too serious, he thinks secretly.

When they land with breathless laughter, they are in a darkened room in a different building from the one before. There is another box in the room, but this one is larger than the previous ones and is decorated with fluffy yellow material. There is an odd contraption hanging over the box, a collection of metal bars. Hanging from each bar is a distorted representation of an animal. It spins lazily in the warm air circulating through the room.

Castiel?

Anael's voice tugs him from his contemplation of the device. No wonder he is not allowed to Earth alone very often. His ability to focus around humanity and its odd creations is nonexistent.

"Yes," he answers and steps forward. A knot of tension Castiel doesn't realize he carried eases when his gaze falls onto Dean. His eyes are open and Castiel can't help thinking that Dean was waiting for him to show up.

"Hello, Dean," he says quietly as he can. A framed picture on the wall trembles and the curtains hanging over the window quiver. Dean doesn't exactly smile; it's possible he doesn't yet know how. But Castiel sees the happiness shimmering in his soul. Dean is very pleased to see him again. That curious pleasure, so close to serving his Father and yet so very different, washes over Castiel. Without really giving it conscious thought, Castiel's wing finds its way into Dean's box and when Dean claps both hands on either side of the wing, Castiel actually laughs.

I've never seen you this way, brother, Anael shares silently. Her true voice would be much too loud for the building to withstand, even if she were whispering.

What way?

This outward with your joy, she answers. You are usually so very quiet and private.

Oh. Castiel didn't realize this about himself. Nor did he realize that being around Dean changed him that much. He doesn't know what to say. But it doesn't matter because Anael turns her attention to Dean. She leans over the box and graces him with a loving smile.

The grip on Castiel's wing tightens. Though Castiel is not truly comfortable with it, he says nothing as Anael stretches her fingers forward, reaching towards Dean, intent on stroking the soft side of his small face, but before she can make contact, Dean bursts into tears. Hard waves of displeasure and fear ripple in his soul, dark and ugly. Castiel jumps forward, a protectiveness he didn't realize he possessed forcing his hand against Anael, pushing her back.

He doesn't want to look at her. There is no excuse for raising a hand against his superior. So he concentrates on Dean, on stroking his fingers over the child's forehead and sending him into a dreamless sleep. When he turns back, Anael is gone.

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

"Anael!"

Alarm and concern speed him in his search. He does not fear punishment. He'll take what he deserves as long as Anael doesn't stay angry with him.

To his surprise, he finds her still on Earth. She is standing on the roof of a tall building that towers over a great city Castiel doesn't recognize. They are both cloaked and it is a lucky thing because otherwise, her terrible anger would have destroyed the building on which they stood.

"Anael, I apologize-" he starts immediately, but she interrupts.

"I am not angry at you, Castiel," she says, her emotions drawing her voice tight and brittle. Castiel fears what will happen when it breaks. "I would have protected him too, if he were mine. But he's not. He was given to you and it's not fair."

She might as well have struck him across the face.

"I thought...I thought you were pleased..." he stutters, though as the words reach his ears, he knows they aren't true. He knows that Anael has not been herself since the soul piece came to him.

"Pleased?" She is in disbelief, her tone mocking. "Pleased for what? That the one thing I want more than anything was given freely to you? You who thoughtlessly obey a non-existent Father? You who can't possibly appreciate what it means to have this gift?"

Castiel's wings draw close around his body, feeble protection against her words. There is so much wrong. He was so wrong. Through the painful whirlwind in his mind, Castiel finally locks onto the one thing that hurts the worst of all.

"How can you say the Father doesn't exist?" His voice is weak with pain and when Anael laughs, he actually tugs on his wings, fighting the urge to bury his face in them and hide from her betrayal.

"How can you say he does? Look around you, Castiel," she orders, stretching both hands and wings to encompass the city below them. "Look at how much he's given them. They have everything and we have nothing. He gave them such love, so much joy, even his Son and what did he give us? Orders! Demands and punishment for free thought," she bites, bitterness turning her voice into ice.

"How can I believe in a Father that loves me so little? I'm tired of being second best, Castiel. I want to feel."

She turns to him, back against the city and her eyes glow feverishly.

"I want someone to feel about me the way Dean feels about you. Come with me," she says suddenly, voice melting into pleading warmth, holding her hands out to him.

Castiel's horror and confusion has grown throughout her speech and it makes it hard for him to understand what she is saying, what she is asking him.

"What?"

"I'm so tired," she whispers and if Castiel didn't know better, he'd say she was close to tears. "I can't feel Him anymore, Castiel. I need more. I need to leave. I have to, but I don't want to go alone." Anael shakes her hand at him again, beckoning. "Please, come with me. We could still be siblings. You could be with Dean! You'd only be a little younger than him and you could find him. You could be together with him the proper way."

"This...you're..." Castiel is terrified. What she is saying is disobedience of the highest order, blasphemy so profound that it burns Castiel just to think on. He wonders wildly if this is the test he’d welcomed earlier.

"You're crazy," he gasps, trembling with fright and panic.

She changes in an instant. Her hand falls stiffly to her side and her face is wiped of all expression.

"I should have known," she sneers. "Little Castiel, angel of Thursday. Never a thought in his head or a feeling in his breast."

To his surprise, she comes forward, into his space and cups his face in both her hands. "But you were my most faithful follower. I thought you would stay with me until time ended." Her disappointment washes over him as strongly as Dean's happiness had earlier.

"He should have been mine. I would have known what to do with him."

She releases him and rises up, wings flapping slowly.

"Goodbye, Castiel."

"Wait!" Through the fear and the hurt, Castiel recognizes regret. She is almost right about him. He doesn't want to lose her, but he won't disobey the Father. He won't doubt Him. But maybe he can make Anael listen to reason.

Maybe he won't be abandoned.

"Please, Anael, don’t go like this. You don't need to do this."

When she laughs, it is gentle and soft, even peaceful as if she is pleased to have come to this decision finally.

"You wouldn't understand. Please don't worry about me, Castiel. I will be happy." For a brief moment, she flies closer, close enough to run her fingers through his hair. "I wish I could say the same about you."

Then she shoots up, out of his reach.

He doesn't follow her.

Chapter Text

Castiel feels nothing when Anael falls.

It surprises him. He expects to feel a painful tugging in his chest. He expects to feel as if part of his grace is being ripped from his body.

But there is nothing. After she disappears, Castiel flies up as far as he can go and still be within the mortal realm. He casts his eyes downward and watches as a dazzling mass of golden white light streaks towards the Earth, almost too fast for his eyes. When it strikes, Castiel loses his sense of Anael and that is how he knows she is truly gone. She is one of billions of humans and no longer his trusted commander.

It doesn't hurt the way it should.

He is given no time to ponder. The song of his brothers changes tone. The news of Anael's betrayal spreads quickly through the ranks, touching each and every angel, even those with whom Anael rarely worked. Even spoken lowly, Castiel can hear the whispers and the questions. He can hear the comparisons to others that have fallen.

Castiel does not want to speak with his brothers about Anael. It's too new and he doesn't know how to talk about what he doesn't truly understand anyway.

So he flies. Among his usual haunts, flying as fast and hard as he can and he lets all consideration of time or recent events fall away from his conscious thought.

He's not entirely surprised when he finds himself circling over top of Dean's home sometime later. Time on Earth has moved along enough that the seasons have changed. Snow was falling when Dean came into the world, but now the air swirling over Castiel's face is warm. He looks down at the building, taking in the details of its location for the first time. It's one of many other buildings, each edged against a dark gray road. The space before the home is dominated by an old and beautiful tree. In front of the home, there are two transport vehicles. One is small and modest, pale white in color. The other is quite large and pitch black. Castiel wonders what a family of only three humans needs with two vehicles. Perhaps one is for Mary and the other for John.

It's probably time that Castiel learned more about Dean's life. He knows he's on Dean's street, but he doesn't know its name or the name of Dean's country of origin. He need look no farther than scripture to understand how seriously humans treat their connection to their birthplace.

Castiel follows Dean's soul light into the building, keeping himself cloaked to spare his parents. He finds Dean in a room Castiel has never seen before. Castiel is surprised to see that Dean has grown since the last time they were together. It can't have been more than a few months in Earth time, yet Dean's appearance is quite different. He is not only larger, but appears to have more control over his facial expressions and body movements, judging by the way that he continuously smiles and grabs at John's nose, chin, shirt collar and every other part of his father he can reach. Castiel wishes he could uncloak and let Dean see him, but he can't risk hurting John.

John is sitting on a low chair, Dean tucked comfortably in the crook of one arm and his attention is directed towards a noisy box that is displaying moving pictures.

Television, Castiel reminds himself and then he smiles. The things that humans develop to adapt and control their surroundings truly amaze Castiel.

"Alright, kid, it's time for another lesson," John is saying. As soon as he starts talking, his voice a low rumble, Dean stops moving and stares, enraptured. His soul is filled with truly inspiring devotion. Castiel is certain Dean is the most astonishing human in existence.

"This is baseball," John continues. Castiel settles into a comfortable position. He needs this lesson as well and he is determined to get every detail.

"It's the greatest game ever invented," John explains as Dean pats the side of his face. "Other sports are good too, but none of them even come close. Now, you're a Winchester, so you have to cheer for the Kansas City Royals." Dean makes a gurgling noise that John apparently takes to be a question. "It's true. I'm trying to start a tradition. You see, your grandpa didn't much like baseball or anything else fun for that matter."

There is a faint trace of bitterness in John's tone that attracts Castiel's attention. But it is gone the next moment when John begins talking again.

"But I've been a fan since the Royals started playing in 1969 because your daddy is nothing if not loyal. The first time I ever saw the Royals play was in 1972 when I took your mother to a game. And when she loved it as much as I did, that's when I decided to marry her," he confides.

That startles Castiel. He didn't realize humans developed important relationships so easily. Although his decision was most likely based on Mary's possession of his soul mate piece and not simply because of their common interest in a game. Soul pieces really are imperative, Castiel thinks to himself.

"Today, we're playing the Angels," John says and Castiel is shocked out of his contemplation of soul pieces. His eyes snap to the screen and he leans forward, peering at it. "We don't like the Angels," John adds, bouncing Dean a little in his arm and making Dean laugh.

Castiel glares at him.

When he turns back to the screen, he sees only human men. One set of men is clad in blue and the other in red. Upon closer inspection, Castiel finally sees the word 'Angels' emblazoned across the shirts of the men in red.

It takes him a moment to understand that the team of human men has appropriated the word to represent their team and they in no other way have an affiliation with his Father or his brothers.

He is somewhat offended.

It's silly, even ridiculous, but Castiel finds himself hoping that the Royals win as well.

For the next hour, John explains the rules and regulations of baseball as well as share tidbits of the history of the Royals. Somewhere in his monologue, Castiel discovers that the Winchesters live in the state of Kansas and within the nation of the United States of America. To his surprise, Castiel loses himself in the gruff cadence of John's voice. There is something soothing about being in his presence. Castiel suspects it's because John holds an important part of Dean's soul as well. They share Dean's soul. This makes them kin.

During what Castiel now knows is called the fourth inning, Dean falls asleep against John's shoulder. Peace radiates from Dean's being, soft and innocent, lulling Castiel even more than John's deep voice. It's a secret that crawls into Castiel, this strange triangle of father, son and angel. A quiet place Castiel knows he'll visit again soon.

For awhile, John lets Dean sleep undisturbed, but soon enough, he stands and carries Dean upstairs to his boxroom. Castiel watches as John lays Dean in the box with gentle hands and stays a moment longer, rubbing the back of his fingers against Dean's cheek.

Once he is gone, Castiel uncloaks himself, but doesn't speak. Just watches Dean the same way John had, except it's a gleaming feather that strokes over Dean's forehead now. Dean's dreams are whimsical shapes and powerful feelings. His mother's face. His father's voice. And to Castiel's pure delight, visions of giant white wings wrapping around him.

They are alone for only a brief time when the air splits around them, signaling the arrival of one of Castiel's brothers. He quickly cloaks himself as a reminder to the arriving angel.

It's Uriel.

So this is the human.

Castiel doesn't like the way Uriel stares down at Dean with obvious scorn. Uriel accuses Castiel of letting his fancies carry him away. Castiel could say the same to Uriel about his pessimism.

Yes, this is Dean, Castiel answers quietly, turning away from Uriel. He doesn't want to speak of Anael, but he knows of no other reason for Uriel's presence. He would not have come all this way just to see Dean.

Our garrison was favored by a visit from Zachariah today, Uriel informs him casually, as if the commander of their division visits every day.

Castiel tenses. Oh?

He was very curious about the last moments of our ill-begotten sister. There is no warmth or understanding in Uriel's voice. To him, Anael's betrayal spells the end of any respect Uriel ever had for her. Castiel knows how Uriel's mind works. He must think Anael lower than humans, little more than a stain upon the glory of the Father's creation.

And what did you tell him? Castiel asks. His last conversation with Anael remains private as far as Castiel knows, but Uriel is wiser than he. Castiel would not be surprised if Uriel realizes the truth of what's happened.

That neither myself nor any of my true brothers know the reasons for her disgusting actions, Uriel answers calmly. And when he asked of you, I told him you were away on business.

This is unexpected. Castiel turns away from Dean to look at Uriel's face. Uriel keeps his eyes on Dean.

A lie?

It's no lie, brother. Your business may be exasperating, but it's business nonetheless. His eyes meet Castiel's. They are ancient and knowing. They see straight through to the heart of Castiel's being and Castiel is both comforted and unsettled. It's beyond a relief to have one brother he can truly trust, one that sees him fully, knows him completely. Yet, it is disconcerting that one should understand how deeply Dean Winchester has already entrenched himself within Castiel's grace.

Take care, Castiel, Uriel warns. Share the existence of this particular human with only a few. Our superiors might not find your dalliance with Dean Winchester nearly as tolerable.

A short gust of cool air and then he is gone, leaving Castiel astonished. Never would he have imagined that Uriel would encourage or at least tolerate his growing relationship with Dean. He leans over Dean's box once again, studying the child's serene expression, his small tufts of yellow hair, the single piece of bright green material his body is wrapped in.

Surely his superiors wouldn't seek to hurt Dean. He is an innocent. It's not his fault that the Father decided to grant a piece of his soul to one of His angels.

And yet, Uriel's words echo in his mind.

No one will hurt the child. Not while Castiel has power enough to fight.

With a final stroke of Dean's face, this time the way he saw John do earlier using the back of his fingers, Castiel leaves the boxroom. As he floats down the stairs, he realizes that he didn't think once about Anael until Uriel showed up.

That's when he realizes why Anael's fall didn't hurt as much as it should.

Because he has Dean now.

Castiel carries his smile with him through the Winchester's home, passed where John is bemoaning the Royals' apparent loss and on into the heavens.

Chapter Text

When Castiel returns to his duty alongside Uriel, it doesn't take him very long to understand that his anger and disappointment about Anael isn't gone. It was silly of him to expect a physical pain of separation. Angels aren't connected the way humans are. In fact, Castiel knows he isn't meant to have a particular fondness for one of his brothers over another. But he's spent so many endless thousands of years sandwiched between Uriel and Anael. Without her comforting steadfast presence alongside his, Castiel isn't sure what his future holds.

And yet, there is something about Dean's innocent love that drowns Castiel's doubts.

Human emotions are so much stronger than anything Castiel's ever felt. His pain over Anael has no chance against the sweet warmth of human affection.

Castiel must resist the temptation to spend every moment in Dean's presence. It wouldn't be fair to always intrude on Dean's privacy, not to mention John and Mary's. Nor would it be wise to bring the attention of his brothers to Dean's existence.

He doesn't have to worry about keeping his own attention away from Dean. As soon as he returns to Heaven, his garrison is given orders. There is a battle raging on the Outer realm, a series of demon attacks against which they must defend. As usual, Castiel's duty is strategy, his place at the back of the ranks. When he turns his mind towards the front command with advice and information, he is surprised when he finds Israfel instead of Anael. The heat of battle has overtaken his reality, making him forget everything in favor of calculating the infinite paths the battle can take and the best way to arrive at a suitable outcome.

His distraction lasts only a few seconds and then he is focused once more. Israfel is a capable commander, but Castiel sorely misses the deep and flawless connection he had with Anael, the way he could speak few words and trust she would understand. He feels clumsy. His natural ability to predict how each action on the battlefield will affect its outcome falters occasionally. Even with Israfel's patience and Castiel's determination to compensate for his lack, the battle lasts far longer than it should.

When they return to the city, weary and barely victorious, they are given time to rest while another garrison is assigned to further Outer realm defense. Most of his brothers elect to the join the rest of the Host and lift their voices in praise to the Father.

Castiel returns to Dean Winchester.

He is shocked by Dean's appearance. To Castiel, the battle felt as if it lasted but the rising and setting of one sun, perhaps two. It's clearly been longer on Earth. When Castiel slips into the main room of the Winchester's house, instead of the mostly immobile infant Castiel remembers, he sees Dean standing under his own power. His hands are clenched around the side of a wooden table. He is bouncing in place and making a strange noise with his mouth. A very loud noise. Castiel tips his ear towards Dean and tries to discern what, if any, language he is speaking.

After a few moments of listening to Dean gurgle and hum, Castiel decides it's not a language after all. Although Castiel can tell what Dean is thinking. Mostly about his mother and his stomach. Castiel thinks he must have dropped in during a meal.

Sure enough, just a moment later, Mary walks in from the kitchen and scoops Dean up in her arms, swinging him back and forth as she goes. His soul lights up with pure delight, which translates into a shriek that rips past his throat.

"My goodness," Mary coos as she inserts Dean into a small chair with a tiny table attached. "You really do have a set of lungs on you."

Castiel frowns. He doesn't really know what that phrase means. Obviously Dean has lungs or he wouldn't be able to stay alive.

"Are you going to sing to me?" Mary asks when Dean begins to chant nonsense in bright wild tones. Castiel's confusion melts away in favor of faint amusement. He knows that humans fiercely protect their offspring. He knows the love and devotion of a parent is one of the most powerful forces on Earth. He just has never really understand how endearing children can be.

"Oh I see," Mary says to Dean. She is speaking to him like John had the last time Castiel was with them, as if she were holding an intelligent conversation with Dean. "You want peas for lunch, huh?"

Dean answers with another round of burbling non-words and reaches towards Mary. She laughs and squeezes his tiny hands, her soul pulsating with wide and strong waves of love. A moment later, she lets go and picks up a bowl of peas. Castiel watches in fascination as Mary helps Dean eat. While they continue their strange one-sided conversation, their souls carry on an exchange of their own. Every time Mary leans towards Dean, his sense of safety increases and he smiles. When Mary sees his smile, her soul glimmers with renewed purpose, as if she feels that Dean is the reason she was born onto the Earth.

Eventually they move onto another form of food, something brown that Castiel doesn't recognize. Dean eats with gusto and Castiel wonders if he'll have trouble keeping him fed when Dean becomes a fully grown adult. He wonders if he should learn to cook.

Near the end of the meal, when Dean is beginning to grow tired of being confined in his chair, a jarring noise strikes Castiel's ears. His body jerks under the onslaught. It’s so unpleasant that Castiel considers leaving for the time being. Mary sighs and wipes Dean's mouth before standing.

"Don't go anywhere, honey," she says with a smile and then walks into the next room over. Castiel hears a clicking sound and thankfully, the awful noise stops. Then he hears Mary speaking.

"Hello? Oh hey, sweetie."

A communication device then. Castiel shivers and draws his robe around his body. Only humans could produce both beautiful music worth of the Father's ears and repulsive screeching worthy of no one's ears.

Dean bangs his hands on the tiny table and squawks. Castiel looks to the door. Even from here, he can sense Mary's intent to keep her conversation with the caller short. He'll only have a few moments more if he wants Dean to see him. So, keeping part of his attention on the door, Castiel swiftly uncloaks himself.

Dean's hands still and he stares up at Castiel, mouth hanging open.

For a long moment, they only watch each other and then, with a tremendous squeak, Dean's hands reach for him and his legs start thumping against the bottom of his chair. Waves of pleasure crash over Castiel and perhaps, under it all, the slightest hint of relief. Castiel instantly feels guilty for leaving Dean for so long. He doesn't think at all when he reaches for Dean as well and plucks the child from his chair.

Dean is beside himself with happiness. The soul piece nestled deeply within Castiel's grace jumps and twists, eager like every soul piece to reconnect with its original owner. Castiel's battle fatigue breaks apart and dissipates entirely. It's too bad that more angels aren't granted soul pieces. This would be an excellent way to renew their troops.

One small hand creeps over Castiel's shoulder towards his wing. Always fascinated with his wings. Castiel wraps one wing around his front, behind Dean and over his face. Dean laughs and pushes past the feathers. When Castiel removes the feathers, Dean reaches for them, so Castiel covers his face once again. The game continues for several minutes as Dean doesn't tire of it and in fact, seems to think its new every single time his vision is obscured by pure white.

This is when Castiel learns how dangerous his attachment to Dean can be.

"Get the fuck away from him."

Castiel spins around, shock and horror spilling over him. For a split second, he's certain he's hurt Dean's mother, that she's going to lose her vision or worse, but Mary stands still in the doorway, feet planted and a long metal object pointed in Castiel's face. It takes him a moment longer to recognize it as a gun.

She intends to shoot an angel.

In the next instant, her shoulders relax and the gun droops as amazement trails across her face.

"Oh my god," she breathes, voice whisper soft. "Are you...you're an angel."

He nods, afraid still of hurting her with his true voice. In his arms, Dean watches his mother and yawns, resting his head on Castiel's chest.

"Are you?" She steps forwards, gun forgotten in her hand and her soul suddenly burns with hope, hard and desperate. "Do you watch over him?"

It's not his duty to watch Dean, not really. But Castiel knows that he'll always do it regardless. So he nods again. Relief explodes within her, followed by overwhelming gratitude.

"Oh thank you," she says and one more step brings her within a foot of Castiel. "Please protect him. I'm so..." She shakes her head and Castiel senses her anger and grief. "I'm so scared for him. Please, you have to keep him safe."

He can't use words, so instead he curls the wing not wrapped around Dean towards her and trails a feather across her cheek. Her eyes flutter closed and he sees wetness gathering there. With care, Castiel tugs the gun from her hands and transfers a now sleeping Dean into her arms. She holds him tight and kisses his head.

When she opens her eyes, Castiel is cloaked once more.

"Oh Dean," she murmurs to him. "Oh baby, angels are watching over you."

Chapter Text

Castiel decides it might be easier to visit Dean at night after his parents are already asleep.

It's a miracle that Mary Winchester is special enough to withstand the sight of Castiel's true visage. It's very unlikely that John Winchester has the same ability. Castiel can't afford to take chances with the safety of Dean's family.

And yet, he is not willing to stop visiting either.

Which is why two Earth days after his encounter with Mary, Castiel materializes inside Dean's boxroom late in the night. He stretches his senses beyond the room and is pleased to discover that both John and Mary are asleep. Pulling back before he gets an unfair glimpse of their dreams, Castiel focuses on Dean once again.

Dean is also asleep.

His dreams are somewhat more sophisticated than the last time Castiel watched them. More than random images and feelings. Although it doesn't mean that Castiel really understands what he is seeing. There are animals, but distorted ones that remind Castiel of the strange metal contraption that still hangs over Dean's box. As Castiel watches what he thinks is a brightly colored rabbit walking around in the dream, he is surprised to feel amusement ripple through Dean.

Castiel wonders if all humans amuse themselves in sleep.

He glides closer to the bed and allows his true form to emerge. The brilliance of his cloak throws light across the room and steals the shadows gathering under a large desk and nearby table. But it doesn't have an effect on Dean.

Perhaps visiting at night wasn't the best idea. He'd forgotten that Dean would also need to sleep while his parents rested.

Having a relationship with a human is difficult, Castiel thinks to himself as he pulls Dean's blanket further up around his shoulders. Castiel suspects the Father knew it would be difficult and that this is part of his test. So he tries not to feel disappointed when he prepares to leave Dean again.

Except before Castiel can shake out his wings for flight, Dean wakes up.

This time, instead of a shocked pause, Dean immediately rolls over and starts to pull himself to his feet. Before his struggle can progress, Castiel lifts Dean up and turns him, holding him against his chest. Castiel reaches out once more and with a little push, dampens the sound he is about to make. Then he lowers his voice as far as it will go and whispers to Dean.

"Hello."

Dean pats the side of his face and grins.

"Ba."

This startles Castiel. Not the word itself, which means nothing to him. But Dean's intent, the thoughts in his mind are clearly of Castiel. Somehow, to Dean, 'Ba' means Castiel.

He is trying to talk.

"My name is Castiel," he informs Dean gently, translating his true name into a word that Dean's language will allow him to pronounce.

Dean stares at his mouth and his head falls to the side as he contemplates this new information.

"Ba," Dean tries again with a hopeful expression.

"Castiel," Castiel repeats slowly.

Dean sighs with frustration and kicks against Castiel's stomach. This must be a trying time for humans Dean's age. The concepts are clearly inside his mind, but his mouth just can't quite catch up with them. But Castiel is nothing if not patient. He sets Dean on the floor with care and then joins him. As soon as he finds a way to sit on the ground without trodding on his own wings, Dean climbs into his lap, tugging at the front of his cloak and the bottom of his hair. Castiel is reminded of learning about baseball from John, only this time he is the one giving the lesson.

For the next half hour, Castiel carefully points to objects around the room and says their given name.

Table. Chair. Floor. Box. Metal Contraption. Wings. Cloak. Hair. Face. Castiel. Dean. Ball. Human. Angel.

Dean murmurs along with him, admirably focused on their lesson, but it's not until Castiel decides that they can start again later that something intelligible comes out of Dean's mouth.

"Cas."

Castiel's surprised pleasure must be apparent on his face because Dean laughs and jumps with excitement.

"Cas! Cas!"

"Well, not quite," Castiel interrupts, but it's too late.

"Cas," Dean says and presses a hand against Castiel's chest. And they've been in close contact for quite some time, but for some reason, that touch triggers a shockingly strong reaction from Castiel's soul piece.

"Yes," Castiel consents. "Cas."

With a tired grin, Dean nods and rests his head against Castiel's chest. He curls the fingers of one hand around the closest wing feather and then shuts his eyes. Within moments, he is once again asleep. The ease and safety Dean feels seeps into Castiel and that is first time that Castiel fully understands the dull ache of an unsatisfied soul piece. The longer they touch, the more dependent Castiel becomes on Dean.

It's not safe.

When the cold light of dawn begins to creep into the room, Castiel places Dean back in his box and watches him for a long conflicted moment. He hadn't realized their connection could grow deeper. And he doesn't think there's anything to do about it. Because even if Castiel didn't need to protect Dean, he doesn't think he'd be able to stay away.

He's addicted.

Chapter Text

When Castiel returns home, Israfel is waiting for him.

"Castiel," she says. Her voice is warm, but cautious and it instantly puts Castiel on alert.

"Israfel," he answers, inclining his head in a sign of proper respect. Castiel sees by the way her piercing gray eyes soften a touch that she is amused by his somewhat archaic mannerisms. There are other angels like Castiel that still abide by the old ways, but they are becoming fewer in number the longer time marches on.

"I have not felt your presence among the others since the end of our last battle," she says as she walks towards him, her long silvered robe trailing behind her. For a breath of a moment, Castiel finds it difficult to speak. He'd forgotten how it was to receive Israfel's full attention. Her voice is light and full of music that echoes in his mind. When faced with the glory of her beauty, it's easy to see why humans reach the heights of creative achievement under her influence.

"You're wasted on battle," Castiel says without thought.

Israfel's laugh is as lyrical as her voice.

"We all must do our duty, Castiel. But you know that." She rises on graceful wings and lands beside him, straying into his space. "I am not the only angel who inspires humanity," she reminds him. "And I knew Anael very well. I was the best choice to replace her."

"Yes, I remember," Castiel say softly. "Anael spoke very highly of you."

"As I have always spoken of her," Israfel replies and her tone changes to one of such helpless sorrow that Castiel walks closer. "Her choice surprised me greatly," she admits.

He doesn't answer. There's no need. His own sadness is apparent through their universal link. But for the first time in his existence, Castiel is tempted to offer solace through physical touch. That tangible sign of comfort is so powerful. But to reach out and touch one of his brothers, to share himself in that manner is unthinkable. Israfel is not Dean. She is unlikely to laugh and clap her hands if Castiel wraps a wing around her back. So Castiel just nods and walks along beside her, following the golden lane until it turns onto a larger thoroughfare.

"But I didn't come to you to speak of Anael," she continues. "At least not directly."

A prickle of worry worms its way into Castiel's mind. Perhaps it had been foolish of him to think that his superiors would not notice him leaving for Earth so frequently. He doesn't want to lie to Israfel, but he must protect Dean.

"What do you mean?" He keeps his tone as neutral as possible and he thinks he achieves a politely distant quality. Castiel is not much of an actor, but he knows how to keep a level head during a dangerous situation.

"I've been told you enjoy flying," Israfel says. "I understand that entirely, of course, but I can't imagine you would leave us so often just to fly."

She stops them on the street and the serious aura she suddenly exudes keeps their passing brothers from offering greetings. Castiel is pinned by her eyes and he thinks he understands why she is a capable commander as well as inspiring muse.

"I know you were close to Anael. Maybe closer than anyone with the exception of our brother Uriel. I have no worries about him, but you are different, Castiel. You are so devoted, so loyal. I don't want to see you making the same mistakes as Anael out of misguided loyalty to her," Israfel says as she looks up into Castiel's face. The concern washing over Castiel is genuine. Israfel really is worried that Castiel will be tempted into disobedience by their former brother.

It's almost funny, Castiel thinks with a rare flash of irony. If he is ever to be tempted into disobedience, it's quite a different human that will be the source.

"Israfel, I assure you. My loyalty is to our Father," Castiel says earnestly. Our Father who gave me Dean, he adds in a private place he didn't know his mind possessed.

Israfel searches his face, asks for silent permission to delve deeper and while Castiel knows he should feel insulted by the implication, he can't deny that he was very close with Anael. Israfel is right to suspect. So he carefully removes any thought of Dean from his heart and allows her to see that he meant the words he just spoke. A moment is all she needs before she is satisfied.

"My apologies, Castiel. I see that your heart is true. I confess, I worried you were leaving to follow our brother's progress as a new human."

"Anael?" Castiel shakes his head, bemused. "The thought hadn't even occurred to me," he says slowly, a little amazed by the realization.

"I see that now," she agrees.

He bows his head once more and thinks he will soon be dismissed, but Israfel's gaze does not turn soft, does not stop searching his face.

"But you haven't been disappearing to go fly, have you?" she asks.

Castiel's thoughts whirl. He can't lie. Lying to his superior is disobedience. She will know it instantly. But if he speaks, Dean will certainly be in danger, right? An angel can't be tied to a human. Israfel can't trust a brother that divides his attention between his duty and his human.

"Humans seem to have so much to offer us, don't they, Castiel?"

He just stares at her, his thoughts shocked to a standstill. How could she possibly know? He would have sensed it if one of his brothers followed him and he knows that Uriel wouldn't say anything. But again, before he can speak, Israfel is continuing.

"But we can never truly touch their hearts. Not in a personal way. Not without bearing one of their soul pieces and you must understand that no matter what you do, you will not be able to take a soul piece for yourself," she says as if to let Castiel down gently. He is struck with a surprising and entirely inappropriate urge to laugh, but he's smart enough to realize that would be a very bad idea.

"I haven't been going to see a human from whom I desire to take a soul piece," Castiel says after a brief moment of giving his word choice careful thought.

Israfel's eyes narrow at him, but the truth of his statement cannot be disputed.

"Very well. But whatever you've been doing, I'd like you to spend less time in the Father's earth and more time in his Heaven. It's difficult for our kind to be there often. I'm trained to deny those temptations, but you're not," she says and Castiel can read the dismissal in her tone finally.

"Yes, of course," he murmurs as she takes flight and leaves him.

He isn't sure what to do. In fact, he almost agrees with Israfel. Dean is a distraction, albeit it a pleasant one. Spending too much in his company has already made Castiel's mindset shift and tilt towards a treacherous path. And yet, he can't forget that God decides who is awarded soul pieces. Is it possible that his Father gave him a part of Dean's soul in order to keep them apart? Castiel could accept that if it was only meant to teach him. But punishing Dean in that manner is unthinkable. He can't believe the God he loves so well would torment one of His children just to train one of His angels.

Perhaps the solution to this problem would be to keep a set schedule of visitations. Instead of taking off whenever the fancy strikes, Castiel should keep a careful watch on the passage of Earth time and only go to Dean at certain times. On a schedule that appears random, but is in fact planned by one of Heaven's more talented strategists.

Even if Castiel does think so himself.

With that satisfying thought in mind, Castiel lifts himself into the air and flies back towards his garrison, his mind already turned towards his plan.

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

Castiel's plan almost succeeds.

For several months Earth time, Castiel spreads out the timing of his visits and varies the length he stays with Dean.

Sometimes Dean's parents are at hand and Castiel can do little more than watch as Dean goes about his day. Other times, it's late enough that John and Mary are sleeping and he can communicate with Dean.

Once John and Mary weren't present at all and instead there is a young girl who was supposedly watching Dean, but was in fact engaging in lustful acts with a young male in the television room while Dean was meant to be sleeping in his box. Castiel is not pleased by this event. He spends the evening watching Dean himself and in a fit of unusual anger, plants the notion in John's head that he and Mary should return home early from where they are eating a meal. When John finds the girl in the arms of the male in the television room and Dean alone upstairs, he is livid.

Castiel is very satisfied by the swift manner in which the girl is shown to the door and told not to return again.

None of Castiel's brothers question him. None of them suspect. And they would have continued to remain ignorant.

If Dean hadn't fallen ill.

Castiel understands that there is something wrong right after a tactical planning session held in the heart of the city ends. He is walking alongside Israfel, Uriel and Hadakiel when his soul piece begins shuddering with some strong emotion. It's so foreign that at first, he can't identify it. By the time he realizes what it is, he is already flying, gone from his brothers' side with little more than a cursory farewell.

Dean is afraid.

More than afraid. He is terrified and upset and his soul calls to Castiel.

Castiel doesn't remember ever flying so fast. The wind rips at his face, painful and frigid and yet he feels nothing, but blind panic and a determination to reach Dean's side before any harm befalls him.

When Castiel stops flying, he finds himself back in the building he thought was a birthing center. But now that he sees Dean here again, he begins to understand that the safe delivery of human infants may not be its only purpose. John is standing outside the room where Dean lays, talking to a man wearing a long white coat. Inside the room, Dean is alone, but only because Mary is inside the small closet humans use to wash themselves.

Castiel only keeps an eye out for John when he uncloaks. He doesn't particularly care at this point if Mary sees him again.

Dean's skin is a deep unhealthy pink and his eyes are glazed. When he sees Castiel, he coughs and lifts one hand towards him, but it's clear he is too weak to hold it up for long. Castiel catches it with his own and examines Dean's body as closely as possible with his physical senses. Dean’s temperature is elevated beyond normal parameters and Castiel can see by the evidence on his throat that Dean has been vomiting.

"Cas," Dean says faintly.

The panic begins to fades, both in Castiel as well as in Dean. Castiel crouches by the bed and lays a hand on Dean's forehead. He knows it will be conspicuous to do this, but he can't allow Dean to continue suffering when he can help. So he eases the cramping in Dean's stomach and encourages his temperature to slowly lower.

"Cas," Dean repeats and he gives Castiel a tired grin. "My Cas."

Castiel can only nod. The door to the washing closet begins to open, but Castiel only cloaks himself because the door to the main room is opening as well. Mary comes out of the washing closet, pressing a tissue under reddened eyes. John has a similar ragged appearance, his chin covered with an unusual amount of hair and exhaustion radiating in his expression.

"Cas?" Dean struggles to sit up. Mary is instantly at his side, smoothing a hand over his forehead and gently pushing him back down. "Cas..." Dean's voice sounds more annoyed than worried and Castiel finds himself smiling.

"There he goes again," John says, falling into the chair on the other side of Dean's bed. "I really wish I knew what the hell 'cas' meant." He leans forward and smiles at Dean. "Daddy? C'mon, I know you can say Daddy."

Castiel feels the slightest bit of guilt and makes a mental note to work with Dean on words like 'Mother' and 'Daddy'.

"John?" Mary looks up at him, her eyes wide. "His fever is gone."

"What?"

Castiel watches in pleasure while John reaches over to touch Dean's forehead as well. The relief that pumps through both adults is so overwhelming that Castiel can't help, but think his own relief was nothing in comparison. Not because he isn't overjoyed that Dean will be safe. But rather because he wasn't helpless like John and Mary must have felt. He can't imagine how hard it is to be a human parent.

"Well, well. What do we have here?"

Castiel whips around, his wings getting caught up together in his haste and when he realizes what he's seeing, the panic he felt earlier is nothing to the stark dread he now feels. Just a moment after thinking he wasn't helpless and now Castiel realizes there's no way he can protect Dean from this.

It's Zachariah.

Chapter Text

"I have to say, Castiel. This just isn't exactly what I expected to find."

Zachariah peers around Castiel at the Winchester family, but to Castiel's relief, doesn't try to move closer to the bed. He can't imagine trying to stop Zachariah from touching Dean the way he had stopped Anael and yet he knows if his superior raises a hand against the human, it is exactly what Castiel will do. He's never been this close to certain disobedience and while it's terrifying, Castiel also feels a kind of strength he's never experienced. As if the very righteousness of the decision to protect Dean has given Castiel special power.

Or perhaps this is simply the way human love works.

"Israfel is very worried about you," Zachariah continues, his eyes roaming over the room. "She's afraid you're becoming intoxicated by the pleasures of the earthly realm. You wouldn't be the first of us that's happened to, of course," he adds and he looks back at Castiel with a little grin that sends a prickle of irritation under Castiel's skin.

"Sex is usually the source, but unless you're a lot more interesting that I gave you credit for, you're not coming down here to mate with a human couple," he says, his gaze returning first to Mary, then to John. The notion is so offensive that Castiel can't help, but speak on his behalf.

"I would never do such a thing," he says with enough heat to surprise himself and he thinks, judging by the curl of his lip, Zachariah as well. "I have no interest in sexual relations with humans."

Castiel doesn't understand sex. He knows that God created sex as a gift to humans, much like the gift of soul pieces. It's a way for humans to experience intimacy and of course, to procreate. Neither of which are necessary for angels. Their mental connection affords them all the intimacy they could desire and God creates angels fully formed, so there is no need for procreation.

But he gets that it's necessary for humans and that it feels very good. He just doesn't understand why it causes so many problems. Surely the momentary pleasure of sexual intercourse is not worth the emotional pain and physical diseases Castiel sees it causing. If he were human, Castiel feels certain he wouldn't bother with it.

"Alright, so not sex," Zachariah concedes, amused. He begins pacing, walking first one way and then the other, always staying behind the invisible barrier Castiel is creating with his aggressively protective stance. He has no illusions that Zachariah couldn't break through that barrier, but it doesn't stop Castiel from holding himself tense and ready to defend Dean.

"Then what? Not greed surely," he says, trailing a disdainful eye over the austere setting. "What is it about this place and these humans that drew you so suddenly from your duty?"

For the first time since Zachariah arrived, Castiel hears a hint of steel in his tone. He doesn't like that Castiel has something he's put above his devotion to his garrison. Castiel isn't sure if he should answer the question or simply wait for Zachariah to figure it out. He doesn't want to draw attention to Dean, but he also doesn't want to make it obvious that he's trying to hide something.

"The small one is sick," Zachariah says suddenly. His blue eyes zero in on Dean for the first time, as if the child had been beneath his notice until that moment. Despite the situation and the fact that Castiel wishes Zachariah hadn't noticed Dean, he feels strangely insulted. Dean is much more important than any of the other beings in the room, himself included.

"Yes," Castiel confirms.

"I see," he says and he pauses in his pacing, standing at the far end of the room, a searching gaze focused entirely on Dean. Castiel stills, body stretched taut and thinks that if nothing extraordinary happens, then Zachariah might believe that Castiel only wishes to watch this human out of curiosity. He might shake his head at Castiel's foolishness and warn him not to come back often as Israfel did. Then Castiel would be free to continue his surreptitious visitations, taking more care this time not to draw attention to himself.

If nothing happens.

Dean chooses that moment to force himself up past his mother's placating touch and grab the side of his bed, leaning over towards where Castiel is standing.

"Cas? Cas!"

Castiel sighs.

Dean must always make himself known.

"He seems to know you," Zachariah says in apparent good humor, a smile gracing his lips. Castiel knows better. He can see the shrewd calculating edge to Zachariah's expression, can see his thoughts flying furiously through his mind.

It would be pointless to deny it now and besides, the thought of denying his association with Dean fills Castiel with such a sense of shame that it's not worth considering.

"He does," Castiel says, steel now entering his own tone. "Our Father has given him to me."

It's a bold statement and the truth tends more towards that the Father has given Castiel to Dean, but Castiel knows he must stand firm with Zachariah. His superior doesn't like weakness. If he is to see Dean through this safely, it will be with his wits, not his physical strength.

"God doesn't give humans to angels, Cas," Zachariah says rudely. Castiel doesn't like the way the nickname sounds falling from lips other than Dean's.

"If you believe that, you should look closer at the situation," Castiel says and it's near enough to a snarl to shock himself.

His meaning is not lost on Zachariah. The power of his gaze intensifies, goes beyond the physical realm and Castiel can see the moment that Zachariah understands. His stance changes and he leans forwards in surprise. The surprise is quickly quashed and then he does something Castiel never would have expected.

He grins.

"Oh now this is interesting!"

Suddenly, he is by Castiel's side and to Castiel's surprise and discomfort, he lays a hand on Castiel's shoulder. He turns them so that they are both looking down at Dean and even though Zachariah is totally relaxed and apparently pleased, Castiel feels less certain of Dean's safety than ever.

"I didn't know you had it in you, Castiel," he exclaims and claps Castiel's shoulder. "And I mean that literally. What's his name?"

"Dean," Castiel answers stiffly.

"Dean. Not a very big word is it? 'From the valley'. I wonder if that means anything?" It sounds as if Zachariah is speaking to himself only. "A low place. Hmmm...well, anyway, humans aren't nearly as good at symbolic naming as they could be."

"He's named for his mother's mother," Castiel says, more out of confusion over Zachariah's behavior than belief that it matters.

"What did I tell you?" He raises his hands as if in surrender and then laughs. "Still, this all must mean something."

Castiel privately agrees, but he feels that if he explains his secret belief that God is testing him that Zachariah would think him presumptuous. And he wouldn't be wrong. After all, Castiel is not a very highly ranked angel. Talented, yes. But hardly significant enough to assign this important task. He still doesn't know what it all means.

"Alright then, new orders," Zachariah announces, startling Castiel.

"Yes?"

"We have a human whose soul mate piece has ended up with an angel," he says and Castiel feels an unexpected thrill to hear Zachariah confirm the piece as a soul mate piece.

"What we don't know is why. I don't like not understanding things. So you're going to watch the boy and report back to me everything he does. Well, everything interesting," he corrects himself.

Castiel blinks. Something warm and sweet, something he suspects is hope, lifts his insides.

"You want me to watch over him?" It's more than he ever expected.

"In addition to your other duties, of course," Zachariah confirms. He is still smiling, but again, Castiel is not entirely comfortable with the way he is looking at Dean. There's a strange light in his eyes, something hungry and dark, something made of shadows. Castiel knows in that moment that Zachariah doesn't care for Dean, not truly. He only wants to understand this event. He wants to know how they can use Dean.

And yet, he's given Castiel an amazing opportunity. Zachariah is not the only one who wants to understand why Castiel owns a piece of Dean's soul. Now he can visit Dean without fear of harm befalling the human. This isn't the time to chastise Zachariah for his lack of genuine concern.

Castiel will simply have to keep an eye on Zachariah as well.

"Of course," Castiel answers, bowing his head. "I'll do my best."

"I have no doubt of that," Zachariah says with a chuckle. He gives Dean one last long look, then the air parts around him and he is gone.

Castiel feels weary. He turns his attention to the Winchesters and allows himself to smile. Dean, who is now mostly improved, is trying to climb down off the side of the bed where Castiel stands. John finally grabs him and holds him, bouncing him.

"You're like a whole different kid," John comments, grinning as Dean stares at the spot where Castiel is standing, invisible. "What's so important over here, huh?"

"Cas," Dean answers, though Castiel thinks he probably didn't actually catch the meaning of John's question.

"Cas? Is Cas your imaginary friend?" John walks towards where Dean is staring. Castiel twists around, moving out of the way until John is standing in his abandoned place. Standing this close to him, Castiel can feel the tired pleasure wafting off of John, the relief at Dean's improvement and the peaceful flow of protective love Castiel always enjoys sensing from John. He takes a step closer and though he knows Dean won't feel it, Castiel brushes his wing over Dean's cheek and takes a moment to soak in the warmth of Dean's soul. The frustration Dean feels makes Castiel feel good instead of bad. From now on, he'll try not to disappear on the boy without saying goodbye.

"I'll return soon," he promises Dean.

The next moment he is gone from room, soaring through the heavens, feeling lighter than he has ever felt before.

Chapter Text

"Put 'em up!"

Dean holds up a small stuffed doll in the shape of a squirrel and gestures towards Castiel in a threatening manner. Castiel understands the words themselves, but he's not certain what Dean means by them. As the moment drags on, he can sense Dean becoming impatient, so he lifts his wings up in the air, shaking them out and spreading them across either side of the room.

Dean falls over laughing.

Apparently, that wasn't exactly the right thing to do. But Dean seems happy about it, so Castiel doesn't worry over it.

Castiel smiles at him and thinks to himself that he hadn't expected Dean to grow so quickly. Knowing that human children grow from a very small size into adults in a relatively short amount of time is altogether different from watching it happen step by step. The most surprising part of watching Dean grow is the day Castiel realizes that the blue of Dean's eyes is slowly changing into a strange muted green color. It's hard to find the exact word to describe the shade of green. Castiel thinks it suits Dean far better than the blue.

On that particular evening, they are sitting alone in Dean's boxroom. It's Thursday, the night of Castiel's weekly visit. As usual, he's waited until Mary puts Dean in his box before he swoops into the room and plucks Dean from the box. Castiel tries not to think about how good Dean's gotten at pretending to fall asleep for his mother's benefit. It's a necessary deception if Castiel is to carry out his orders and protect Dean to the best of his ability by spending time with the child in the hopes of discovering the reason they are connected.

"I'm sorry," Castiel says sincerely. "I don't know this game."

Dean straightens himself and hands Castiel one of his other stuffed dolls. He points to it and lets out a string of muddled words. Dean is nearly two years old now and he knows a great deal of words, but he's not always easy to understand for those only listening to his verbal cues. Castiel has watched in amusement as Dean and John have held extended conversations that consisted of Dean babbling nonsense while John desperately tries to translate. Mary is somewhat better at understanding him because she spends more time with Dean during the day than John. Neither of them is as good at interpreting Dean as Castiel, but to be fair, Castiel only has to look into Dean's soul to understand his meaning.

So it doesn't take him long to understand that Dean intends to use the variety of stuffed dolls to create fake battles against foreign enemies. Dean is basing this game on the war movies John watches occasionally. 'Put 'em up' means that Castiel is to surrender by lifting his hands into the air.

"But I'm not afraid of you," he says.

Dean blows out a frustrated sigh, one that Castiel has grown accustomed to by now.

"S'pretend," Dean explains with little patience.

"Oh, I see."

Pretend is Dean's favorite game at the moment. Castiel is not very good at pretend. It's difficult for him to imagine the world in any other way than what he knows is reality. The whole concept makes him slightly uncomfortable, but extensive exposure to the game has allowed Castiel to understand that it's not dangerous. In fact, exploring his imagination appears to be imperative for Dean.

"Here." Dean passes Castiel another two or three stuffed animals. At first, Castiel is stumped, but as Dean hands him a stuffed dog, an idea strikes him.

"Thank you," he says and he begins to gather the toys around him. Dean immediately senses that Castiel has a plan because he lets out an excited squeak and toddles to his closet to gather more dolls. Once they have enough to satisfy Castiel, he starts arranging them in the pattern of his garrison's last battle with demonic forces. It was a difficult battle, one that nearly ended in their defeat and Castiel thinks it might prove an exciting story for Dean. He sets up a line of stuffed rabbits and dogs to represent himself and his brothers and then positions a number of bears on either side of their flank to represent the demons that attacked. Dean watches in fascination and chews on his forefinger. The squirrel, Dean's favorite of the dolls, stays firmly clamped in the crook of his elbow.

"This is the scene of a great battle," Castiel says softly. He decides against explaining the exact nature of the battle. It's been a difficult journey, but he's learned over the past months that small children are easily frightened. Best not to describe demonic evil right before putting Dean to bed.

He points to the rabbits and dogs. "These warriors are made from light and these," he says, gesturing to the bears, "are their enemies."

Dean looks concerned, so Castiel tugs Dean to his side and wraps a wing around his shoulders.

"It's not real," he assures him. It's not technically a lie because although the battle was real, the dolls are obviously not angels and demons. "This is just a representation."

Dean leans against his side and nods, more in response to Castiel's reassuring tone than anything. Once Castiel is certain that Dean is again comfortable and at peace, he continues.

"The warriors of light are strong and true, but their enemies are also fierce and powerful. The warriors knew their battle was going to last for a long time, yet they were not afraid. They knew their cause was just and that their Father was watching over them," he says. Castiel assumes his brothers felt this way. It's how he always feels during warfare. Even in the darkest of battles, his faith keeps him from losing hope. His faith and his concentration on creating battle strategies.

"The enemies attempted to overwhelm the warriors of light by attacking on either side of their flank," he explains and moves the bears closer onto either side of the other dolls with the power of his grace. Beside him, Dean makes a delighted noise as his dolls move around the floor seemingly without aid.

Here in Dean's boxroom, far from the Outer Realm, the battle seems like a story that happened to someone else. Yet Castiel can't forget how intensely the fighting waged, how close he came to losing several of his brothers. He pauses, lost in thought and is only brought back to the moment when Dean looks up at him and nudges his side.

"Cas?"

"My apologies," Castiel says and smiles at Dean.

"What happen?" Dean asks, true interest shining in his eyes.

"The enemies were unable to break through the line the warriors of light created," Castiel answers. "One of the warriors planned and created a diversion to draw the attention of the enemies from the source of the true counter-attack." As he speaks, Castiel uses other dolls and a few wooden blocks to demonstrate his meaning. When he runs out of both dolls and blocks, he looks around and then spots the squirrel Dean is still clutching in his arms.

"May I borrow your squirrel?"

Dean makes a face and tightens his hold on the squirrel.

"No," he says stubbornly. Castiel is not surprised. He's heard Mary and John speaking about Dean's tendency towards a bit of selfishness lately. From what Castiel has read in his research into human life, this is normal for children Dean's age. He quickly checks around the room.

"Alright then," Castiel says as he sweeps one of Dean's shoes to his side with his wing. "I'll use this instead."

The shoe plays the part of the diversion Castiel had planned and Uriel had executed perfectly. The thought of Uriel as a shoe brings an unexpected smile to Castiel's face. If his brother could see him now, sitting with Dean and using his angelic grace to move toys across the floor, Castiel suspects Uriel wouldn't speak with him for several days. Uriel is not a fan of Castiel's assigned duty to protect Dean. Castiel feels certain he would like it even less if he knew Castiel were playing like a human child.

Dean watches in breathless anticipation as Castiel manipulates the dolls, creating the end of the battle in real time. It's less impressive with twenty dolls rather than the thousands of angels and demons that fought, but it doesn't matter to Dean, who watches the battle unfold with his mouth hanging open. As the battle comes to its explosive conclusion in a brutal clash of angel against demon, Castiel realizes he's allowed himself to get slightly carried away when Dean yelps and hides his face in Castiel's robe.

The dolls fall to the ground, motionless and Castiel smoothes his fingers over Dean's head.

"Forgive me," he says, chagrined. Sometimes it's hard to remember that he and Dean are so different. Most humans can't begin to comprehend the ferocity of battle between angel and demon, the sense of ancient animosity that allows each being's central purpose to become totally and completely about the destruction of their opposition. It's certain that small children are even less familiar with the concept.

"Cas," Dean admonishes him and glares at him.

"I said I was sorry," Castiel points out. Dean just sighs and crawls back to the toys. Castiel notices that he mainly avoids the dolls that represented the bears and realizes that he probably deserves Dean's glare.

"Cas?"

"What?"

Dean throws one of the 'angel' dolls at one of the 'demon' dolls with a sense of righteous indignation that amazes Castiel. Perhaps Dean understands more about the battle than Castiel realized. With a nod of satisfaction, he glances back at Castiel and grins.

"What you want for Christmas?"

The question surprises Castiel a great deal. He knows that the date known as Christmas is drawing near on the human calendar, of course. About two weeks ago, Castiel was bemused to discover the presence of a large fir tree in the Winchesters' living room. Which was puzzling enough without the addition of the round balls, bright baubles and twinkling lights adorning the tree. He'd stood there staring at it for so long that he almost missed his appointed meeting with Dean. At which time Dean explained that tree and decorations were somehow connected to Christmas. It distracted him so badly that Dean had pouted for their entire visit. After he left, Castiel went straight back to his research about human rituals.

So he now understands that humans in Dean's culture celebrate the Son by decorating their homes with strange items and by giving each other's gifts. But it never occurred to him that he would be included in this ritual. Angels don't receive gifts, nor do they observe a particular time of the year to praise their Father's generosity. The choirs sing at all times. Castiel doesn't really understand human holidays.

Although he does have some experience with receiving gifts. But after being granted the treasure of Dean's soul piece, it would be wrong to expect more.

"I don't want anything," Castiel says honestly. The answer doesn't sit well with Dean. He frowns and gazes at Castiel.

"Your mom not gonna get you something?"

It appears that Castiel is not the only one who doesn't always understand how different they are.

"I don't have a mother," he explains.

His words create an explosion of sorrow and fear within Dean. Before he realizes his actions, Castiel has scooped Dean off the floor and into his arms.

"What happen to her?" Dean whispers the question, his voice low and intense. Castiel can't understand why the simple truth should hurt Dean so much and he doesn't like that he can't shield Dean from this pain because it won't ever stop being the truth.

"I never had a mother," Castiel answers. "I have a Father who created me. But He's never given me a Christmas present," Castiel says with a smile, hoping to distract Dean from the issue of his lack of a mother. "My family doesn't celebrate Christmas as yours does."

Dean is suitably distracted, though Castiel can sense his lingering grief on Castiel's behalf. "No Christmas?"

"No," Castiel confirms, pleased the issue has been settled.

They sit together in silence, Dean lost in thoughts that revolve around the trying to accept that Castiel doesn't celebrate Christmas and Castiel thinking about his next report to Zachariah. Castiel still isn't sure what Zachariah is hoping to hear about Dean. Nothing Castiel ever has to say interests him. Zachariah and Castiel have very different ideas about what is fascinating when it comes to Dean.

When Dean yawns, Castiel decides it's time to replace Dean in his box and take his leave. He uses his wings to lift himself to his feet, mainly to amuse Dean, who loves watching Castiel's wings flapping. Then he sets the boy in his box and helps him get comfortable under his dark blue blanket.

He is about to leave when Dean's small voice stops him.

"Hey Cas?"

"Yes?"

Dean holds out the ragged squirrel doll and shakes it at Castiel, indicating Castiel should take it. Castiel stares at it uncertainly.

"I don't understand," he confesses.

"For Christmas," Dean explains sleepily. His green eyes are dark and peaceful. "You need it," he says. His thoughts of Mary and of Castiel. Castiel doesn't know what to think when he realizes that Dean is worried Castiel is lonely. He knows he should explain to Dean that he is never alone, not when he can feel his brothers. And he knows he should tell Dean to keep the doll for himself because Dean will get more use out of it than Castiel will.

Instead he closes his hand around the doll and tucks it in his robe.

"Thank you," he says with earnest sincerity.

"See you, Cas," Dean says as he turns on his side, face pressed comfortably against his small pillow.

"You will," Castiel promises.

He stays until Dean falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Despite his promise, Castiel doesn't see Dean again for a very long time.

Barely a moment after he leaves Dean tucked under his blanket, sleeping peacefully, Castiel is called home. When he arrives at Israfel's side in the war room, he is surprised to discover she is nearly frantic. Her normally graceful movements are clipped, her voice tight with stress.

"What's happened?" Castiel asks before he lands.

"Demons have broken through the Barrier," she informs him tersely.

Shock and dread roll over Castiel in heavy insistent waves. Never before in his existence have demons breached the great divide between the Outer Realm and the divine sphere. It's true that despite their best efforts, their defense has grown weaker in recent times, but Castiel never believed that any demons would be strong enough to penetrate the ancient Barrier. It's unthinkable and terrifying.

"I'll have to brief you in flight. We're needed immediately on the front lines," she says as she rockets into the air. Castiel takes a split second to carefully tuck the stuffed squirrel into his chair before he follows after her, flying so close that their wings caress mid-air and it's reassuring to him. He thinks of Dean for a moment, safe and sleepy in his box, before he banishes the thought. This is not the time to be distracted by anything, even a thing that gives him such soothing comfort.

Israfel explains how the demons found and manipulated a weak spot in the Barrier. A number of their brethren were nearly killed by the surprise attack and ever since, the battle has waged non-stop. They will be flying into the middle of combat. Israfel reaches into Castiel's grace to establish connection and floods his mind with images, the quickest and most efficient way to show him what's happened. His dread turns into bone-deep terror when he realizes that the demons forced their way into the divine sphere on sheer strength rather than impressive tactics.

Everything is changing. Demons are growing stronger while angels grow weaker and Castiel doesn't know what they are going to do about it.

Castiel drops out of flight moments ahead of Israfel into his usual place on the back lines. The cries of rage and anguish from his brothers clamor against the mental link he shares with them and it overwhelms for a split second before he resolutely pushes the strength of their emotions away from himself. He concentrates on Israfel, reestablishes their connection and clasps his hands together, bows his head and starts giving her suggestions and warnings.

Demons are pouring through the small crack in the Barrier, so many that it's hard for his brothers to reach the crack to repair it. The presence of pure evil in the divine sphere offends Castiel, fills him with holy anger. It's difficult to stay still and not throw himself into the battle. He craves retribution, desires to destroy, to smite the evil beings that dared approach the dominion of his Father.

Then, with a suddenness that knocks him out of his stance, he loses his connection with Israfel. Her glory hasn't disappeared from existence, so Castiel knows she still lives, but his direct link into her mind is gone and he can't reconnect it. She must have sustained a serious injury.

Castiel doesn't give it a second thought before launching himself into the air and flying to the front. Technically, Uriel is the second in command and charged with replacing their fallen leader, but Castiel can feel Uriel locked with in a struggle with several demons on the opposite side of the battle. It's up to Castiel to take Israfel's place.

The black smoke of a dozen demons obscures the area where Israfel must have fallen. Castiel dives headfirst into the melee, reaching out with ruthless vengeance to smite every demon in his path. He's not as talented at killing at Uriel or Israfel and he knows it's very likely he won't survive this encounter. But this is his duty. He must protect his Father's kingdom. Just as he loses himself totally in the passion of righteous fury, Castiel prays to his Father that his destruction won’t hurt Dean too badly.
************************

"I was wondering if you were ever going to join me."

Castiel's thoughts are murky and confused. It takes him a very long time to understand that he is waking up from an unconscious state. The feeling is utterly foreign to Castiel. He's never been unaware of himself, his surroundings and he doesn't like it one bit.

"What? What happened?"

His voice is weak and scratchy and he's beginning to feel a dull ache in his body that alarms him. He tries to send a healing flow of grace towards the pain, but something is blocking him.

"Ah ah," the voice which spoke earlier says. Castiel flinches away from the oiled darkness in the tone. "You be good now, angel. Using grace to heal yourself is cheating. Your kind is against cheating, right?"

His kind. Castiel stiffens with realization. The voice belongs to a demon. The memories flood back into his mind in a sickening rush. The endless fighting, the flow of demons through the break in the Barrier, his brothers struggling to retake sacred ground. Castiel had lost track of how many demons he killed. He remembers several moments when he felt certain he was living his last moment, but he always managed to sneak his way around death until finally he felt his brother Uriel at his side. Together they began to sew up the breached Barrier. They'd been moments away from victory, to sealing the demons back in the Outer Realm and then Castiel had felt icy cold hands clamp around his neck.

That's all he can remember.

"Where am I?" he demands.

For the first time the demon comes into view. His face is a grotesque mask, a physical manifestation of wickedness. The eyes glow a malevolent red and though Castiel can't connect with the demon as he would with his brothers, nonetheless he can tell the demon is beyond pleased to have Castiel in his clutches.

"You don’t recognize it? It must have been awhile for you," the demon says with a nauseating grin. Dark and deep scars cut into his face and the evil under his skin glows through them with a ghastly scarlet light. The demon stretches a finger towards Castiel and lightly draws it down the side of Castiel's face.

Castiel arches away from the flat hard surface where he lays as razor sharp pain slices through his body. All is red and scorching hot and evil. His grace cries out, violated by filth and Castiel pants under the onslaught.

Then it's suddenly over.

"You angels," the demon says, snorting. "Your greatest power if your greatest weakness. Really, if I were you, I'd throw out all that pesky grace and learn how to throw a punch."

"Where," Castiel gasps. "Where?"

The demon sighs.

"Does it really matter? Either way, you're not going to like it," he says and he draws close to Castiel once more, but thankfully doesn't touch him. "But if you must know, where you are is alone without your brothers. Where you are is the last place you'll ever see alive."

The demon draws up a chair and sits. For the first time, Castiel realizes they are in a darkened room. The windows are too soiled with dirt for Castiel to see what lies beyond them, but he can sense that they are still in an Other realm and not in the Earthy sphere. He is lying on a cold slab and his wrists are encircled with cuffs of pure black that are attached to the slab. The material is unknown to him. He loathes the way it feels against his skin. It's not as painful as touching the demon's skin, but it's clear that the roiling black material is what's dampening his grace.

"But don't worry. You still have quite some time before I kill you. You see," the demon says casually as he takes a spike dripping a wet viscous substance from a nearby table. "You're my reward for helping with that pointless battle," he says and stabs the spike through the top of one of Castiel's wings, pinning it to the table. A fiery blaze of unbelievable pain explodes through his body.

Castiel screams.

The demon draws in a deep satisfied breath.

"Now that is worth something. I told them we wouldn't get far into your divine realm," he says. He picks up another spike and Castiel can't help flinching away from it. "And really, why would we want to go anyway? This is so much more fun," he says with a grin and leans over Castiel, driving the spike into the opposite wing. Castiel just barely manages to bite back the scream that wants to burst from his lips. The demon frowns.

"Don't be brave, kiddo," he warns, his slimy breath puffing across Castiel's face. "It'll be so much worse for you if you do," he promises as he brushes his fingers along one wing feather now shiny with Castiel's blood. The excruciating pain flares again, but it's nothing compared to the memory it brings to Castiel. The memory of Dean smiling sweetly at him as he pats Castiel's wings in wonder.

Dean.

Sudden fear, deeper and more terrible than he's felt thus far, grips Castiel. If they are connected, their very souls entwined, is it possible that Dean can feel what's happening to Castiel? Castiel would do anything to keep this pain from Dean. He would reach inside himself and rip the soul piece from his very grace if he could save Dean from this pain. It takes his mind, feverish with pain and fright, far too long to remember that humans can't feel the physical sensations of their soul carriers. Dean is not angelic. He won't be able to sense if Castiel is in danger, not like Castiel could for him.

Castiel sags in relief. The physical pain the demon will inflict on him is horrible, but he can withstand it as long as Dean will be safe. Dean is only a human. He shouldn't be punished by their connection in such a way. It's Castiel's duty to feel Dean's pain, not the other way around. Although, Castiel thinks with a sick shudder, he doesn't think he could survive it if their situations were reversed, if Dean were somehow in the hands of a demon. Not with his sanity intact.

"Where are you, little angel?" The demon taps on Castiel's forehead and the pain brings his attention back onto the demon.

"These actions won't go unpunished," Castiel gasps. "Even if you kill me, my brothers will find you and will destroy you. Your days are numbered, demon."

The demon makes a tsk-tsk noise at the front of his mouth.

"So very rude." He stands and picks up a long curved knife from the table. "That wasn’t very nice. Even demons have proper names, you know."

He places the tip of the knife over the center of Castiel's chest and begins to slowly drag it down, carving into Castiel's skin.

"You can call me Alastair."

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

When Castiel finally decides he will truly never see his brothers or Dean again, Uriel and Hadakiel explode into the small room where Alastair has spent what feels like years trying to find a way to dig his knife into the pure core of Castiel's grace. Uriel charges against Alastair with a ferocious roar while Hadakiel speeds to Castiel's side and begins to remove the black cuffs from his wrists. He gasps in pain as he touches the material, but it doesn't stop him from ripping the cuffs away from Castiel. Castiel's grace blazes back to life, courses through his body and heals his broken and bloody skin.

The same cannot be said for his wings. There's no time for care in removing the spikes and so Hadakiel rips them out as quickly as possible to spare Castiel any pain he can. It doesn't really work. Castiel whimpers, too tired to even vocalize his anguish. Hadakiel picks him up without comment and cloaks them both, lifting out of the room as Uriel and Alastair fight.

Castiel tries to send his grace to his wings, but it's clear that whatever fluid the spikes were covered in has slowed his ability to restore himself. He'll have to be taken to the Healer.

It's only a brief stretch of time before they cross back into the Outer Realm. The house he'd been in must have been located in the Between. No wonder Alastair was so pleased with himself. It's a wonder his brothers found him at all.

From the Outer Realm, it takes but a breath of time to reach home. Being back in the divine sphere washes away some of the darkness that had seeped into Castiel's mind. He clings closer to Hadakiel, unashamed as he buries his face in Hadakiel's neck. His brother only tightens his arms around Castiel and flies faster towards the Healer.

"Set him here," the Healer commands Hadakiel, pointing towards a low soft bed. For a moment, Hadakiel is unsure how to lay him to keep from hurting his wings further. The Healer huffs and points again, impatient.

"On his stomach, if you will, Hadakiel. Thank you."

Castiel falls onto his belly with a small moan. He senses the Healer hovering over him, feels cool fingers pressing delicately against his wounded wings.

"I never expected to see you in here, Castiel," the Healer comments. Castiel only grunts in response, which earns him a chuckle from the Healer. The cool fingers press harder and it hurts again, hurts as much as when the spikes first crushed the bones of his wings. He struggles on instinct, but the Healer holds him steady with a firm hand on his hip.

"Just a moment, brother," the Healer murmurs. Icy cold shards of pure healing grace shoot through both wings. The strange thick fluid Alastair used on him begins to dissipate and the holes start to close. As the pain recedes, Castiel's thoughts start to reorder themselves and he says the first thing that comes to mind.

"Dean."

"Your boy is fine," the Healer assures him. "Our brother, Israfel, watched over him."

"Israfel? She's alright?"

"Oh yes. She healed herself quite nicely," the Healer assures him.

"How long?" It's the question Castiel dreads the most. He suddenly fears that it's been years. He fears that Dean is a withered old man and that Castiel has lost his chance to walk at Dean's side through his life.

"I suppose you mean how long on Earth," the Healer says, amused. "According to the time of Earth, it's been eight months and seven days since the battle started."

Castiel feels a strange mix of relief and horror. He's extremely thankful that he's not missed very long of Dean's life, yet he also can't believe he missed so much. He wonders if Dean longed for him.

"I need to go," Castiel says and he starts to sit up. The Healer pushes him back down again.

"No," the Healer says, implacable. "You need to heal."

"I'm healed," Castiel insists. "I feel no pain."

"No, but your wings are not fully restored," the Healer says and points to the jagged holes still ripped into Castiel's wings.

"I need to see Dean," Castiel whispers.

"If you see him now, you'll only scare him," the Healer replies gently.

Castiel sees Dean's face again, enthralled by Castiel's perfect white wings and he nods. The Healer is right. If Dean sees the wounds in Castiel's wings, he'll be very upset.

"It won't be long before you're fully healed now that I've removed the poison. I'll summon Israfel and she can report on your boy's activities."

Castiel nods again, this time in gratitude as the Healer leaves. Moments later, Israfel appears. Her face is calm, but Castiel can sense that she is grieving.

"Israfel?" he asks, confused.

"Castiel," she answers, inclining her head, bowing to Castiel in a way she's never done before. Castiel stares in shock. "I ask your forgiveness."

"What..why?" His voice is low and awed and even though he doesn't understand her contrition, he is humbled by it all the same.

"If I had not fallen to injury, this would not have happened to you," she whispers, visibly distraught. For the first time in his existence, Castiel offers a hand to a fellow angel. Israfel takes it and comes to his side, kneeling by his bed. She kisses his hand.

"I'm very pleased you were returned to us. We searched without rest," she says and in her smile, Castiel can see the easing of her sorrow.

"Thank you." The words are not enough to express his gratitude, so he initiates a deep connection with Israfel, allows her to see how he feels. "You have nothing to apologize for. The battle was overwhelming for all of us."

Israfel doesn't answer in words, only allows his gratitude to sweep over her and returns the feeling with profound affection. Castiel squeezes her hand and finally sits up. The wounds in his wings are almost completely gone. It won't be long now before he can see Dean again.

"How is Dean?"

"He remains in good health," Israfel reports with pleasure.

"Did he ask for me?" Castiel asks shyly. She frowns and cocks her head, puzzled.

"We didn't speak. I only checked on his health once a week."

Castiel leaps out of the bed, alarmed. "He didn't see you?"

"No," she answers, standing as well. "Should I have spoken with him?"

"It's been months! He'll think I've abandoned him!" He strides towards the door. "I have to go now."

This time he won't let anyone talk him out of leaving. His wings are nearly back to normal. By the time he flies to the Earthly sphere, he feels certain they'll be fully healed. He hears Israfel calling after him, but he ignores her as he dives down to Earth. It hurts a little to stretch his wings, but feels good as well. He hadn't been sure he'd ever get to do this again. Even so, he doesn't take time to play, only shoots straight towards Dean's soul.

He finds Dean in the television room surrounded by his blocks. John is sleeping in the sofa chair. Castiel doesn't sense Mary's presence in the house. It's early morning, so Castiel assumes she's gone out and left Dean in John's care. He uncloaks and presses two fingers to John's forehead, pushing him into a deeper sleep.

"Cas?"

Castiel turns to find Dean's big green eyes staring at him, his mouth hanging open a little.

"Hello, Dean."

For a moment, all Castiel can sense from Dean is disbelief and then a complex rush of emotions beats into his senses. Anger and hurt followed closely by wary hope that is ultimately drowned out by all-consuming joy. Dean scrambles up from the floor and runs towards him. Castiel drops to his knees and catches Dean in his embrace, holds him tight and tries not to tremble at how powerfully overwhelming it is to touch Dean when he thought he never would again.

"Cas? Whatsa matter?" Dean pulls back and looks at Castiel's face, obviously sees the shadows of pain in his eyes. "Where you been?"

"Away," Castiel struggles to say. "I was away, but I'm back now. I'm back."

Dean reaches for his wings, as always and his fingers push through the feathers of Castiel's perfectly reformed wings. Castiel feels the stain of Alastair's touch fading away to be replaced by Dean's love. The soul piece Castiel carries quivers with pleasure at being in Dean’s presence once more.

"Ok," Dean says and even though he is smiling, Castiel reads the loneliness in his soul. "Don't go away anymore."

"I won't," Castiel whispers, overcome with equal measures of guilt and relief.

He prays that it's a promise he can keep.

Chapter Text

John thinks maybe it started the day Mr. Squirrel disappeared.

He gets out of bed before Mary because he's always been an early riser. When he climbs out from the warm cocoon of blankets, the cool morning air rushes into his empty space, drawing a sleepy grunt of protest from Mary. John grins and tucks the blanket around her before leaning down to drop a kiss on her forehead. Her drowsy protest melts into a murmur of approval before she slips off to sleep once more. John considers staying for a minute longer, but if he's up, then so is Dean. Somehow, his boy has managed to develop the exact same sleeping patterns as his father.

Sure enough, when John pokes his head into the nursery, Dean is standing in his crib, fingers clenched around the edges.

He is singing.

Or at least, it sounds to John like Dean is singing. He's just not sure he's ever heard the song before. But he wouldn't be surprised if it was a song Dean made up. The kid's far more imaginative than John would have expected from a child he fathered.

When Dean sees John in the doorway, his song breaks off with an almighty screech of joy and he starts shaking the sides of his crib.

"It's good to see you too," John says overtop of Dean's garbling. His short arms wrap around John's neck and he squeezes as hard as he can, which is surprisingly hard for a two year old.

"Daddy," he says by way of greeting. The word crawls inside John like no other ever has and echoes through his heart. This is something altogether different than anything John's ever experienced. Even hearing Mary tell him she loves him isn't quite like looking into the eyes of this little person you've helped make and seeing his absolute devotion staring back at you.

It's just about the scariest thing in the world.

But then John's always kind of thought that the best things in life were always a little frightening.

"You hungry?" John asks as he begins to search in Dean's crib for Mr. Squirrel. He's learned the hard way not to take Dean anywhere without that damned toy. Dean leans over and watches into the crib with John.

"Where'd you put Mr. Squirrel, buddy?" John asks absently. With one hand, he shakes out Dean's blanket, but still doesn't see the elusive doll.

"Cas got him," Dean informs him.

John frowns. That's unusual. While Dean babbles about Cas all the time, he rarely actually blames anything on his imaginary friend. Except the time John left Dean in the living room to grab a drink in the kitchen only to dash back seconds later when he heard a terrific crash. And yes, it was weird that Dean somehow managed to knock that lamp over from halfway across the room, but it didn't stop John from scolding him when Dean told John something or other about Cas' wings doing it.

The whole bit about this Cas thing having wings kind of freaked John out too.

"Cas took him?" John asks.

"Hum...no," Dean admits, frowning in concentration as he apparently attempts to recall the exact nature of Mr. Squirrel's disappearance. "He need him."

"Okay," John says slowly, bemused.

With one last fruitless search, John decides that Dean lost or somehow destroyed Mr. Squirrel and is using his imaginary...bird? Fairy? Well, whatever 'Cas' happens to be, Dean is using him to cover up for his own transgression. It's not a habit John wants Dean to get into and so, while he carries his son down to the kitchen, he patiently explains why it's wrong to blame other people for his mistakes. Dean listens avidly, but John thinks maybe it's just because he keeps talking about Cas and Dean is kind of obsessed with Cas. John knows that Dean understands more of what they say to him than John realizes, but he's never quite sure how well he absorbs the more complex lessons.

Either way, Dean doesn't blame Cas for anything else and in fact, John doesn't hear anything about Cas until the following week when he finds Dean pouting in his crib when he goes to get him for breakfast.

"Whatsa matter, buddy?" John asks him as he scoops Dean up. Dean just frowns and buries his face in John's neck. It worries him a little, but he decides Dean'll feel better tonight when they go to the Christmas party. John has a feeling Dean is going to make out like a bandit and it's a good thing too. He needs a good Mr. Squirrel substitute.

John's right. Dean laughs and claps his hands and basically spends the entire party rolling around the living room with the other kids from the neighborhood. It'd been just a temporary funk, John tells himself and he decides not to worry about it anymore as he catches Mary under the mistletoe and gives her one hell of a kiss.

That is, until he finds Dean quietly crying in his crib several days later.

"Dean?" He rushes to him, panicked and carefully lifts him, running his hands over Dean's body to check for physical injury. He finds nothing wrong beyond the miserable expression on Dean's face and the thick stream of tears winding down either side of his face.

"What's wrong?" John wipes at the tears with the back of his hand. "Did you have a bad dream?"

"Cas," Dean sobs, pressing against John's hand. He hiccups and says something else, but it's lost in the dense flood of tears. John has no idea what Dean's talking about and he doesn't think it matters right then anyway. He pulls Dean close and rubs his back, bouncing him lightly as Dean cries himself out on John's shoulder and eventually falls asleep again.

When John walks into the kitchen with a still sleeping Dean, Mary is busy piling bacon into a frying pan. Her eyes are smiling when she looks up, but at the expression on John's face, they darken.

"What happened?"

"I have no idea," John confesses, brushing Dean's hair back from his face as he talks. "He was crying when I went to get him. Something about Cas."

"Cas?" She frowns and peers closely at Dean.

"Dean?" Her voice is quiet, but it's enough to rouse Dean from his light slumber. When he sees her, he immediately tips forward, yawning, but determined and John transfers him to Mary's arms. Sometimes you just need your mom, he thinks to himself.

"What's the matter, baby?"

"I miss Cas," he mutters against her neck. She and John exchange a glance over his head. Surely this wasn't normal. If Dean made up Cas in the first place, how could he miss the thing's presence? Couldn't he just pretend Cas was there with him?

They talk about it later that night after Dean's been put to bed.

"Maybe he's trying to let go of Cas," Mary suggests. She opens herself a beer and then passes one to John. He gives her a grateful look before he pops off the lid and takes a deep swallow.

"So he wants to get rid of Cas or something?" John makes a face. "But if he was ready to move on or whatever you want to call it, why is he depressing the hell out of himself?"

Because John knows it’s more than just regular sadness. It isn't just random depression. Dean had been genuinely hurt by Cas' mysterious disappearance. It didn't seem like something he made up in his own mind, at least not consciously.

"Maybe he had a nightmare," John says absently, deep in thought. Dreams could seem really real to little kids, right? John thinks it’s probably true. So maybe Dean dreamed that Cas took off back to the mothership or wherever the hell he lived and Dean can't tell the difference between reality and his dream.

"That makes sense," Mary says.

They agree to keep a close eye on Dean and cheer him up when the need arises. In other words, take Dean's emotions seriously, but stay calm about it, so that Dean understands it's not a big deal. Even if his imaginary friends abandon him, he'll still have his mom and dad.

For the most part, Dean is fairly normal after that. Sometimes John catches Dean staring off into space, a look of melancholy in his eyes and once or twice, he finds Dean red-eyed and whimpering. Neither he nor Mary bring Cas up, but like they promised, every time they see Dean becoming quiet and sad, they drop whatever they are doing to play with him or just hold him tight and tell him they love him.

It's not until months later that Dean finally brings Cas up again.

He and John are sitting together in the grass on the front lawn with a ball between them that they'd been tossing back and forth. Dean rolls the ball between his hands and suddenly sighs. It's such a world-weary noise, such an adult sound that John's eyebrows draw together.

"Tough day at work?" he asks with a smile.

"Cas is gone," Dean informs him sadly. The smile falls off John's face. There is heartbreaking acceptance in Dean's tone. It's supposed to be a good thing, John thinks. Acceptance leads to healing, right? But instead of relief, John just feels sorrow for Dean. The acceptance has only come after obvious grief and it doesn't matter that it's not real. Dean's been in pain. John wonders why he hasn't said anything. He wonders if perhaps he and Mary should have taken this whole thing a lot more seriously.

"What's Cas like?" John asks gently. He’s never asked Dean that before, never thought it mattered. But maybe Dean needs to talk about it, about him.

Dean shrugs and bounces the ball at his side.

"He's my friend," Dean says, his mouth twisting unhappily. "His wings is big and white." He sighs again and looks up at John.

"He loves me," he says.

And Cas is fake, but the emotions are very real. A deep down secret part of John worries that Dean needs to make up a fake being to love him because he doesn't get enough affection at home, but he ignores that part for now. John tugs the ball out of Dean's hand and pulls him onto his lap, hugging him close.

"I'm sorry he's gone," he murmurs. Dean's small arms wrap around John's neck and squeeze tight.

That night after Dean is tucked into bed, he grabs John's hand asks him to stay.

It doesn't occur to John to leave until morning light creeps over Dean's windowsill into the room. When Dean wakes up, he seems more peaceful. At breakfast, he smiles and while it's good to see, John can tell it’s hard-won. It's not the innocence and simple joy that John associates with his son.

Mary leaves them in the living room to go grocery shopping and John watches Dean play with his blocks on the floor as he drifts off to sleep in his chair.

His last thought before sleep claims him is that Cas better be glad he's not real or John would probably beat the hell out of him.

When he wakes up, he smells apple pie and hears Dean singing in the kitchen. His voice is loud and happy.

John grins.

Maybe Dean will be alright after all.

Chapter Text

Castiel worries that he won't be able to leave Dean's side this time.

His time with Alastair had felt endless and it's made Castiel aware of how his time with Dean is precious and short. Even if Castiel is never again pulled from Dean's side, Dean's life is but a brief flare in the long light of Castiel's existence. For the first time, Castiel finds himself wondering what will become of Dean after he dies. Not where Dean will go, but rather whether Castiel will be allowed to see him. There are angels that dwell among the souls of God's departed children, but Castiel is not one of them. He is a warrior and not made for comfort.

He doesn't want to miss another moment of Dean's life. Not after missing so many months.

Dean has grown since Castiel last saw him. His speech is clearer and his thoughts are more complex. They sit together on the floor of the television room while John sleeps so deeply that he can't perceive Castiel's voice. Dean is babbling about a visitation he had with another young child down the street whose mother is friends with Mary. It is clear that Dean loves being around humans his own age. Castiel wonders if John and Mary will ever have another child. He hopes so because that way even if Castiel can’t be with him, Dean would never have to be alone again.

Dean doesn't say anything about Castiel's absence, but he also doesn’t stray far from Castiel's side. When Castiel sits on the floor, Dean climbs into his lap and reaches for his face and wings, any part of Castiel he can reach to touch and convince himself that Castiel really is there. Castiel leans his head against Dean's and lets his continuous string of words warm his cold grace.

This is when Mary Winchester manages to sneak up on him a second time.

"Oh!" Even bright and high with surprise, Mary's voice is gentle. "It's you!"

Castiel is too fatigued to indulge his first impulse to jump and spin around. Instead, he carefully sets Dean on the floor and stands slowly. Mary is holding a brown paper bag out of which is sticking a leafy green vegetable. Castiel reads an equal measure of surprise, reverence and caution in her soul. She hadn't expected to see Castiel again and now that they are standing in the same room, she is overwhelmed and worried that Dean is in trouble. Castiel wants to reassure her, but he's still not certain she could withstand his true voice.

"Mama," Dean says happily as he toddles to her side and wraps his arms around her knees. She brushes a hand through his blond hair.

"Are you ok, baby?" she asks, her worry winning out over her awe. Dean nods into her leg.

"Yeah," he says, looking up at her with a brilliant smile. "Cas is here."

Mary's eyes widen and snap to Castiel's face. Then, to Castiel's very great surprise, joyful laughter bursts from her lips.

"Oh my god, you're Cas," she says, her words struggling through her mirth. Castiel finds the way her amusement shines across her soul in bright white starbursts truly enthralling. He thinks to himself that this must be what John Winchester sees when he looks at Mary.

"I can't believe I can't tell John about this," she continues, wiping at tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. Castiel doesn't understand why Mary refuses to tell John about the world beyond the mundane, though he suspects it has to do with fear. Still, it's her decision, so Castiel only smiles in silence.

Speaking about John brings him to Mary's mind and when she spots John in his chair, she sets her bag down hurriedly and goes to his side.

"John?" Her fingers smooth over his forehead, but Castiel's sleeping suggestion is too strong for her touch to draw a reaction. She looks at Castiel once again, but this time she is glaring and all the good humor is gone from her voice. It reminds Castiel of those times when Dean went from clingy and loving to annoyed with Castiel within the blink of an eye.

"What's the matter with him?"

Castiel ponders what to do. He doesn't want to hurt Mary, but even if he does, it won’t be her fault, so he would be within his rights to heal her. He's never heard of a person who could see, but not hear angels. Perhaps he is being overly cautious.

"Well?" she demands. Her reverence is all, but gone. Her respect carries only so far as her family remains unhurt. Castiel decides to compromise. He makes a small noise in the back of his throat to test her. Her eyes narrow at him.

"Did you just growl at me?"

"He is unhurt," Castiel says, now certain that his voice won't injure her.

The awe floods back into Mary's soul at his words. Castiel is aware that his voice is nowhere near the loveliest of his brothers. In fact, he has been told that his true voice is somewhat rough compared to those of his brothers that excel at music. But even his coarse tone will sound like the ringing of crystal bells to human ears. Or so he's been told by his brothers that regularly speak with special humans.

"Oh," she whispers, then swallows. "Okay then."

They stare at each other for another moment in silence until Dean becomes impatient. He comes back to Castiel's side and reaches up to him in an obvious request to be picked up. Castiel obliges. Something flashes in Mary's eyes, but Castiel doesn't recognize it until he looks into her soul. Under the joy and relief that Castiel watches over Dean, he sees a glimmer of sadness and of loss. She understands on some level that she's already lost a part of Dean to Castiel. It's a feeling that Castiel has seen before, but never really understood. There are some humans that share a soul mate piece with a parent, but it's rare. And yet, in all the times Castiel has traced the path of a human's soul piece, he always sees the inevitable sadness when a parent subconsciously realizes they are standing in the presence of their child's soul mate piece carrier.

"Cas went away, but he camed back," Dean says, his fingers clenching around the feathers just over the place where Alastair drove spikes into Castiel's wings. Mary frowns.

"You went somewhere?" There is concern, but also a hint of accusation. In ways, he and Mary hold a contract as binding as the one she shares with an unknown demon.

"I was unable to visit, but another of my kind watched over Dean," Castiel explains.

He is purposefully vague. While Mary, with her knowledge of the underworld, might be able to accept his fight with a demon, Castiel doesn't want to scare Dean. And yet, even though he doesn't come close to explaining the real reason for his absence, Mary's gaze softens and she takes a cautious step forward.

"Was it...are you alright?"

She is being vague too, but Castiel sees in her eyes that she knows. Perhaps not the details, but she knows how bad it can be, how much pain evil can cause.

"I am well now," Castiel says. He hitches Dean further up his side and Mary gets the point. Her smile is warm.

"I'm glad." She takes another step forward and lifts her hand. A great desire wells up within her, a desire neither she nor Castiel truly understand, but which Castiel is willing to oblige. He catches her hand in his and brings it to his cheek, pressing her palm flat against his face. The desire melts into a powerful flow of gratitude and affection and as it swirls over his grace, he realizes that she wants to comfort him just as much as Dean did.

"I'm so sorry," she murmurs. Dean watches with parted lips, eyes wide as Castiel nods and squeezes her hand.

"Thank you."

They stay locked together for a brief moment more. It's both like and unlike the odd triangle he shares with John and Dean. The protective affection for Dean is the same in Mary as it is in John, but her soul is wearier than John's, more scarred. Her knowledge of Castiel's existence is only part of the difference. She understands Castiel in a way that Castiel suspects that John wouldn't if he were suddenly aware of him. Castiel isn't sure which way is preferable for humans.

Mary takes a step back and presses her hands against her cheeks as if feeling her body temperature.

"Cas," she says with a chuckle and Castiel recognizes an attempt to bring levity to a serious situation. "That's a strange name for an angel."

"My true name is Castiel," he says. "Dean doesn't seem to care for it."

"Cas-tel," Dean offers, but he makes a face as he says it. Mary laughs.

"I guess not," she says and rubs her hands together. A silence follows, which doesn't bother Castiel. However, he notices Mary begin to fidget, smoothing her shirt down over her stomach an unnecessary amount of times. He wonders if he should take his leave. The thought is not a pleasant one.

"Well, um, is there anything I can do for you?" Her nervous gaze suddenly hardens into determination, as if the idea of offering services hadn't occurred to her and now that it has, she is enthusiastic about it. "I know I can't ever repay you and your...um, your friends for watching over Dean, but I'd like to try. I mean, is there...do you want anything?"

Angels aren't meant to receive gifts from humans. Any praise belongs to their Father.

And yet...Castiel can't deny that an answer to her question instantly springs to his mind. It's not technically praise nor is it a tangible gift. In fact, it really counts as research for his duty in watching over Dean, so perhaps Castiel wouldn't be wrong in asking for it.

"Would you teach me to cook?"

Mary's entire stance pauses in apparent surprise, then she shakes herself and starts to laugh again.

"That is not what I expected you to say," she says, grinning.

"My apologies if it's inappropriate," Castiel says. He doesn't know why it would be, but humans can be very confusing. She shakes her head and leans down to retrieve her brown bag.

"Oh no, it's fine," she assures him. "But I am curious. Why do you want to learn to cook?"

"Dean eats a lot," Castiel says. This makes Mary laugh even more.

"He really does, don't you?" The question is directed at Dean, who is distracted playing with the collar of Castiel's cloak. He just shrugs. Mary gives him an amused smile and then turns to leave the room. Castiel follows her.

"Well, I can't teach you everything in a day, of course," she says as she walks into the kitchen and sets her bag down on a flat surface. "We're having a roast tonight, which is already cooked." She reaches into the brown bag and pulls out a bag of fruit.

"But how do you feel about learning to make a pie?"

Castiel smiles.

"I would like that."

Chapter Text

As Mary walks into her kitchen, she is fully aware that this might be the most surreal moment of her life. Given the nature of her upbringing, she also realizes that is certainly saying something. But demons and witches and ghosts seem somehow tame compared to leading a full-blown angel, a being of light, one of God's own messengers towards the stove so she can teach him to cook.

Although she is not entirely sure the being is a he or a she. It's just that Dean calls Castiel a 'he' and it's easier to think of him that way. There isn't anything particularly gender specific about his face except a square jaw that Mary suspects is what tips her mind towards male rather than female. His nose is straight and long and his lips are thin. His dark brown hair flows thick over his shoulders and is apparently a favorite of Dean's as his hands constantly return to grab and tug fistfuls of it. But as far as Mary is concerned, the real stars of the show are Castiel's eyes. They are a deep black-green that makes Mary think of walking in the woods at night. The green is threaded with gold streaks and strongly resemble the round jeweled marbles she used to play with as a child. Not just in color, but in quality. They aren't exactly cold, but they speak no emotion. It's disconcerting.

Yet despite this, Mary thinks he would make for a handsome human. Not sexy like John, but attractive enough to warrant some female attention.

When Mary realizes that she's pretty much checking Castiel out, she flushes and tries to think of something to say.

"What do angels eat?" The question sounds stupid in her ears, so Mary clarifies. "Or rather, do angels eat?"

"No," Castiel says. His eyes are focused on Dean, who is thumping a rhythmic pattern into Castiel's collarbone with his forehead. She is just the slightest bit relieved by his distraction. Looking straight into Castiel's eyes makes her feel like she's a second away from coming unhinged. There is something in his gaze that's more than wisdom and greater than truth, but closely related to both. She wonders how Dean's handled it all this time, but given the way he is now rubbing his cheek against Castiel's shoulder and chanting Castiel's name, it seems he's pretty desensitized to the angel's overwhelming presence.

"Can you eat though?" she asks as she turns away to finish unpacking the groceries. There is a pause and when she looks back, Castiel seems puzzled, though Mary can't be sure if angel expressions match human expressions.

"I've never tried it," Castiel finally says. "I doubt it as I lack a digestive system."

Mary nearly drops a bag of bread. "Oh. Oh okay. Um, well, I guess you can just have Dean or someone else be your taste tester," she stammers, but really she's not paying as much attention to her own words as she is to the sudden striking realization that Castiel is simply not human. She'd promised herself over eight years ago that she'd never deal with another supernatural creature and now here she is, trusting one to watch her child.

She suddenly flips around and for a split second, she is intent on ripping Dean out of Castiel's hands. All she can see in her mind's eye is her father, her own beloved dad with yellow in his eyes and an evil grin on his face as he took John from her.

But even as her hands reach toward Dean, her eyes clear and she sees. She sees Dean grinning, his face full of a loving devotion she's only ever seen directed towards herself and John. She sees the way Castiel holds Dean against his chest, one arm and the edge of one wing wrapped protectively around the boy. Castiel's face, his eyes are nearly impossible to read and yet, in this case, Mary can clearly see the deep affection written in his expression.

Her hands fall back to her side.

"There is no reason to fear me," Castiel says. Mary jerks back in surprise.

"You read my mind!"

Angelic devotion towards her son or no, Mary is extremely uncomfortable with having her thoughts scanned by an outside force. Especially given that she was just considering whether that outside force was attractive or not.

"It would be more accurate to say that I sensed your sudden fear towards me," Castiel says. His eyes slide from Dean's face to hers and Mary shivers at the intensity she sees. "It isn't necessary. I would rather allow my own end than see Dean's."

She knows the feeling well. Even as it occurs to Mary that Castiel might have the power to make her believe, she relaxes. She's got years of training to sense evil and she can't discern anything evil in Castiel. Besides, Mary knows she needs all the help she can get. So she nods and goes back to unpacking the groceries.

Behind her, she hears Dean whisper something quietly to Castiel. Mary doesn't know whether to laugh at Dean's shy questioning or feel pained that he already feels the need to hide things from his mother. It takes her only a moment to decide on humor. She'd never liked it when her father insisted on knowing every detail of her life. Dean deserves a little privacy like anyone else.

Except Castiel answers in a normal tone of voice.

"Yes, I missed you very much. I didn't like staying away."

Another hushed inquiry and then Castiel speaks again.

"I wasn't able to return to you. I wanted to, but could not."

This time, when Dean answers, he doesn't bother to lower his voice, nor to keep his tone free of indignation. "But why?"

The question sets off alarm bells in Mary's head. She doesn't know what kept Castiel away from her son, but she feels certain only a powerful and very likely evil force could hold an angel against its will. Mary doesn't want Dean's mind being filled with stories about that kind of evil. Compromising her promise for Castiel's sake is one thing. She won't do it for something evil.

She turns to answer for Castiel, to stop him from telling the truth, but he speaks before she can formulate words.

"I experienced some trouble while performing my duty and I had to wait for my family's help before I could leave," Castiel explains. Mary smiles. The truth without frightening details. Castiel would make a fair parent, she thinks to herself. Dean narrows his eyes at Castiel, apparently in contemplation and then he nods, hugging Castiel around the neck.

"Okay," he says in acceptance.

"C'mon," Mary says as she lays out the last of the ingredients they will need. She snags Dean from Castiel's arms. The flicker of surprise in his eyes makes Mary think that maybe Castiel's eyes show more as he grows comfortable with someone. Maybe Dean sees everything Castiel feels as plain as day. She hopes so. She'd like to get to know Castiel too.

"Let's get you some toys to play with while Mommy and Castiel make a pie, okay?"

They return to the living room where Dean selects a number of toys while Mary makes sure that John is still sleeping comfortably. A shot of guilt heats her face as she smoothes his bangs off his forehead. She doesn't like keeping secrets from him. She doesn't like that he's the only member of their little family that doesn't know Castiel. But she doesn't think she can explain how she knows about angels without revealing far too much of her past and that is one thing Mary refuses to budge on. She won't burden John with the knowledge of his own death and the deal she made to fix it. She won't do that to him.

Mary leans down and brushes a kiss against his temple. She'll find a way to make it up to him later, even if he doesn't know it. In way he'll find very enjoyable, she feels certain.

Once Dean's gets his toys together, Mary grabs a blanket and lays it at the edge of the kitchen. She helps Dean get settled and tells him to stay put. When she looks up, she sees Castiel leaning over the kitchen island and peering closely at the blender.

"Castiel?"

"What is this?"

"It's called a blender. It mixes ingredients together," Mary says, hiding her smile. Castiel nods very seriously.

"I see."

If nothing else, he'll be an earnest student, Mary decides. She walks to his side and opens a drawer, pulling out an apron.

"Here, put this on," she says. Castiel takes it from her and frowns at it.

"What is it?"

"It's an apron. It's to protect your robe. I don't want it to get messed up."

When Castiel does nothing more than stare at the apron, it becomes apparent he has no idea how to work the thing. Mary pulls it back out of his hands and shakes it out.

"Dip your head."

Castiel complies and Mary slings the top of the apron over his head. It presses his hair against his neck and before Mary can talk herself out of it, she slides both hands along his neck and pulls his hair out from under the string. She instantly understands why Dean loves Castiel's hair. It's not just soft, it's silk. She doesn't want to let go. Castiel stands still and quiet as she runs her hands through it over and over, fascinated and enthralled. When she catches herself doing it, she snatches her hands away and blushes.

"S-sorry," she stutters.

"I'm not offended. Dean also likes to do that. Although he prefers my wings."

Mary dearly wants to ask to touch them, but something stops her. It just seems like it would be more intimate and she doesn't really know him well enough yet.

"Right, okay. Um, well, then let's get to it. The first thing we have to do is peel the apples," she says. She grabs an apple and a knife. "Like this."

She demonstrates the process for him, edging the knife along the inside of the apple's skin. Castiel watches silently as she peels the entire apple, earning herself one long curly strip of apple skin. He catches it just as it’s about to fall to the floor and examines it.

"That was impressive," he says with such apparent sincerity that Mary blushes again.

"It's not so hard," she says, handing him the knife. "You try it."

It becomes immediately apparent that Castiel has never done anything like this before in his life. The knife settles awkwardly in his hand and Mary has to correct the position before he puts the edge against the apple. The first thing he does is push the knife forward far too hard. So hard that he nearly chops off a bit of his own flesh.

"Careful!" Mary admonishes, her heart pounding in her chest. "Gently, Castiel. These tools can be dangerous."

He cocks his head at her, apparently confused, but then he nods and tries it again. It takes him a moment to work out the right amount of pressure, but before long, he gets the hang of it. The skin comes off in smaller bits than Mary's, but he's getting the job done just fine. She takes another apple and begins to peel it as well. They are silent for a long moment. It's not exactly uncomfortable, but Mary feels a little strange having an angel at her side and pretending he is just another human friend. The questions she has about him come floating to the surface of her mind and she can't seem to stop herself from asking one.

"I was wondering Castiel. You know how much I appreciate that you watch over Dean," she starts.

"Yes," Castiel says.

"So I don't want this question to come across as ungrateful because nothing could be farther from the truth. But why? Why Dean?"

The only reason she can figure is that angels are sent to protect the family of humans stupid or desperate enough to make deals with demons. But that doesn't explain why Dean seems to be the only Winchester with his own personal angel. Mary thinks she would have noticed if another angel were following John around all the time. Certainly she would have noticed if that angel were as enamored of John as Castiel is of Dean.

"We have an unusual connection," Castiel says, his eyes focused entirely on the apple he is slowly stripping of its skin. "Our souls are entwined."

Mary stops in her work to stare at Castiel. His tone is simple, even casual, but his words are astonishing. They send a shockwave of fear and awe through Mary. A shockwave that Castiel apparently notices because he finally looks up from his apple at her.

"You were unaware of this connection," he says and though he sounds faintly puzzled, the feeling quickly fades from his tone. "I see. It must be very difficult for humans to follow the Father's hints if they can't immediately identify their soul carriers."

"Soul carriers?" Mary thoughts are whirling. She had no idea Castiel's involvement in Dean's life went so far as to include his very soul.

Castiel returns to his apple, determination in his expression. It really is becoming easier to read his emotions as they spend more time together.

"I carry a piece of his soul with me," Castiel says. "Our Father gave it to me."

Mary doesn't know what to do with that information. She believes in God, of course. It was the only way for her to mentally survive the way she grew up. She had to believe there was something good to balance out the evil her family experienced. But she's never really been devout. It was enough to believe in good without expecting God to personally do anything in her life. And now Castiel is telling Mary that God gave a bit of her son to one of His angels.

"I don't understand," she confesses. Castiel smiles at her.

"Neither do I. But I believe there is a reason for it. My Father will show me in time," he says. And for a very brief moment, all the barriers in Castiel's expression fall away and she sees his pure fervent faith in God. It is beyond humbling. That feeling of becoming unhinged returns and Mary has to turn away. She busies her hands with the fruit and when silence falls again, she lets it stay until they are done peeling.

She shows Castiel how to cut the apples and then begins to explain how to make the dough. Castiel is an excellent student. Mary never has to explain anything twice. They run into one snag when Castiel flaps one wing suddenly and accidentally covers them both in flour. But almost as soon as it happens, Castiel flicks his hand and the flour is gone. Mary swears he looks a little embarrassed after the incident. She teases him about having itchy wings and Dean, who has stopped playing with his toys in favor of watching them cook, falls over in laughter.

It's not until they are pouring the pie filling into the newly made crusts that another of Mary's questions bursts forth. Castiel insists on pouring the apple filling himself and his expression of concentration looks exactly like the one John gets when he's working on a car. It makes her think of her earlier comparison between the two and the words come out of her mouth without her permission.

"Do angels have genders?"

Mary is the only person she knows that would ask a denizen of Heaven about angelic birds and bees.

If the question bothers Castiel, he doesn't show it.

"No. Not in the way you mean," he says. "We were created before that distinction came into effect. But our Father made each of us unique and your mind would identify those among my brothers as female and others as male. However, those are only visual differences. There are no biological or psychological differences between any of my brothers based on gender."

"So you're..." Mary shook herself. This conversation was beyond surreal. Her mind picked out one concept from the others that startled her the most. "You're millions of years old?"

"No," Castiel answers. "I was created later."

When he doesn't offer anything else, Mary just nods.

"So that's why you kind of look male to me," she says.

"Yes. I hadn't realized until I began spending time on Earth with Dean. I suppose I could pass for a human male if not for my wings. And of course, the destructive power of my true face and voice."

"Yeah, sure, of course," Mary says with a nervous laugh.

"What do we do now?" He points the pie. Mary tries her best to focus on the task at hand and not allow her mind to wander to thinking about what exactly then that Castiel and all his brothers have between their legs. They go through the rest of the process of making the pie without a hiccup until Castiel tries to take the finished pie from the oven with his bare hands. Mary realizes after she grabs his hand to stop him that it probably won't hurt him, but it just looks wrong. She shows him the oven mitts. The look of faint disgust on his face makes his feelings about having his hands shoved into bulky gloves very apparent, but he uses them to humor her.

"It'll take some time for it to cool down," Mary says. By this time, Dean's gotten bored and wandered over from his blanket. She picks him up and swings him a little, earning herself a laugh and a kiss.

"I can help with that," Castiel says and he touches the side of the pie pan. "I believe you will find it's a reasonable temperature now."

Mary presses the tip of one finger to the top of the crust and grins. It's perfect.

"Well, in that case, let's try it, shall we?" she says to Dean.

"Yeah!"

Mary hands Dean to Castiel and goes to pull out a plate. She cuts a piece out and puts it on the plate. Dean kicks against Castiel's side in excitement and anticipation. Mary stabs the end of the piece off onto a fork and holds it out for Dean.

"Here you go, sweetie. Castiel's first ever foray into the world of cooking."

Dean eagerly sucks the pie off the fork. His eyes light up with happiness and he makes a little pleased sound in his throat.

"Hmmm," he says and leans forward. "More!"

Castiel fairly glows with pleasure and that's when Mary realizes that the very best way to tell what Castiel is feeling is to watch him with Dean.

Mary gives Dean more and tries some herself. It’s really quite good. Together, they polish off two pieces while Castiel watches. Dean gets pie filling all over his face, like always and Mary thinks it amuses Castiel a little bit. She's just about to try to convince Castiel to at least taste the pie when they both hear a noise from the living room. It seems like John is beginning to stir. Before Mary can say anything, Castiel is gone. Dean lets out an annoyed grunt, but is so distracted by licking the crumbs off his hands that it doesn't seem to matter. Once he gets all the crumbs, Dean grins and starts singing a tuneless, but merry song.

He's happy again.

A moment later, John trudges into the kitchen, rubbing at sleepy eyes. When he sees Dean, covered in food and blissfully content, he breaks into a huge grin.

"What's this I see? Pie and smiles?"

Mary meets him halfway and tips Dean into his arms.

"Yes, some of our favorite things," Mary says and leans up to kiss his mouth. Her guilt makes itself known again, but she quashes it as best she can. John doesn't need to know why Dean is so happy. Judging by the look on John's face, it's enough to know that he is. Mary makes a mental note to thank Castiel again later.

Maybe it would be easier on Dean if he never met Castiel, but Mary knows he wouldn't be nearly as happy.

For that, she is thankful.

Chapter Text

Castiel only leaves the Winchesters’ home that afternoon when John begins to stir from his deep slumber. He sees a flash of surprise on Mary's face as he cloaks himself, leaving her to deal with the sticky apple-flavored gel smeared across Dean's face. Castiel would have gladly stayed to help Mary clean up, but he believes she would prefer cleaning on her own to having her husband's eyeballs melted out of his skull.

Dean makes a noise of protest when Castiel disappears, but he is too distracted licking the crumbs on his hands to be truly upset. It puts Castiel at ease. Despite the past months, Dean obviously trusts that Castiel will return to him this time. Castiel is determined to prove him right.

When Castiel returns to the Heavenly realm, he immediately seeks out Israfel. She is standing on the shores of the celestial beach, not far from where Castiel first received Dean's soul piece. Her countenance is calm, but Castiel feels the slight unease churning her grace.

"Israfel?"

She smiles, but keeps her eyes on the water lapping against the shore. Castiel watches the sparkling blue waves crash against the diamond sands, soaking them till they shine enough to almost hurt his eyes. After a few silent moments, she turns to him.

"I didn't understand your duty, Castiel. I apologize if my actions caused any problems for the human," she says and with her words, the anxiety she carries dissipates. It's not easy for a superior to apologize to one of their ranks. Castiel admires her humility.

"Dean was worried for me," Castiel admits. "But I don't think there's been any permanent damage."

"I'm glad to hear it. He is a sweet child," she says and when the comment makes Castiel's grace flutter with pride, he finds it doesn't bother him.

"I thought you didn't spend time with him," he answers, meeting her warm gaze and grinning. This is the first moment since Israfel was assigned to his garrison that Castiel realizes how important she's become to him. All his brothers are precious, of course, but of them all, he is pleased that Israfel is the one who watched over Dean in Castiel's absence.

"We didn't speak, but I couldn't resist occasionally watching him for longer than it took to check on his health. I was understandably curious about the human who gave a piece of himself to an angel," Israfel says, matching his happy expression with one of her own.

"His heart is full of love," she continues and the nod of her head in his direction implies the compliment. But Castiel isn't responsible for Dean's character.

"He is as our Father made him," he says.

"Yes," Israfel agrees. "He would always be inclined to loving generously. But I believe you are teaching him how to love unconditionally. They are two very different things."

It's true that Castiel loves Dean without reservation, but he isn't comfortable taking full responsibility for that particular trait of Dean's. It's bad enough to take credit for God's work. But if anyone's influence is truly shaping Dean, it's his parents. They spend every day with Dean whereas Castiel only visits once a week when he can.

"It's more likely genetic," Castiel says, shaking his wings out in his embarrassment. "Dean's parents both demonstrate that trait."

To his surprise, Israfel laughs and the sound of ringing chimes reminds him of Mary.

"The way you think of yourself astonishes me, Castiel," Israfel says and though her tone is light, Castiel senses her consternation. "You're second only to myself and Uriel in our whole garrison and yet you think of yourself as the least of God's servants."

She moves closer to him, peering up into his eyes. The mood shifts without warning from playful to grave as Israfel places a palm against Castiel's chest, overtop of where Dean's soul piece pulses.

"Things are already changing, Castiel," she murmurs and her eyes fall shut. "I know you feel it. You have an important part in all this. Our Father chose you over us all to cradle this human's soul. It must mean something."

Israfel seems far away from her words and Castiel is mesmerized by the change that overcomes her, by the strange bliss growing on her features. There is something in the air, something that tingles and it makes Castiel wonder if she is receiving Revelation. He doesn't really know what her words mean, but he's afraid to speak and break the spell.

"You must not lose faith, Castiel. No matter what losses you suffer," she whispers and just like that, the oppressive presence of otherness lifts. Castiel stares at her and struggles to find the words to question her. He doesn't have experience with loss. But if it feels anything like it felt to be separated from Dean, Castiel isn't sure if he'll be able to adequately deal with it.

There isn't time to ask her because Castiel feels a tug on his connection to his brothers.

Uriel is returning.

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

Castiel finds him with the Healer.

"Are you hurt, my brother?" Castiel asks, falling back onto his most intimate endearment out of concern. Uriel huffs and sends a glare at the Healer. The Healer ignores him and goes about the business of inspecting Uriel's wings for damage. Castiel enjoys watching the Healers' fingers shifting through the blinding white feathers. Uriel's wings are truly magnificent. Dean would like them, Castiel thinks to himself.

"I'm fine," he growls. His grace throbs with anger and frustration, but Castiel can tell it's not directed at himself or even the Healer. And besides, Castiel's never been intimidated by Uriel, despite his taciturn nature and destructive powers. Castiel sits beside him.

"What happened?"

"It escaped," Uriel snarls. It galls him to admit defeat, especially over one lone demon, but he can't be blamed for it. The Between saps the power of grace and distorts reality. It's one of the reasons that Castiel's time with Alastair felt never-ending.

"Will you go after him?"

It would please Castiel to know that Alastair was destroyed for good, but he knows he's not suited for the job.

"Not at present," Uriel says, snatching his left wing out of the Healer’s hands. "I'm fine, Healer," he snaps. "Leave us."

Castiel frowns at Uriel before turning a warm and apologetic smile on the Healer. Judging from the icy expression on the Healer's face, Castiel's kindness does little to erase Uriel's rudeness. But then, the Healer is used to dealing with Uriel. He's seen more battles than most of Castiel's brothers and therefore has sustained a great number of injuries. Castiel suspects this is the reason that Uriel dislikes the Healers' domain so much.

Uriel waits until the Healer is gone from the room before he speaks again.

"The demon descended into Hell," he explains softly. "I gathered from its pathetic attempt at banter that it prefers to remain there."

Castiel nods. There is little they can do about Alastair in that case. He can't be sure that an angel has never entered hell, but Castiel greatly doubts it's happened. He can't imagine the pain of walking where the Father is absent. He doubts he would be strong enough. He doubts even Uriel could do it. Perhaps Michael could. But even if he were willing to speak with Castiel, he wouldn't be willing to sully himself in hellfire just to destroy Alastair.

"At least there, he can't hurt another of our kind," Castiel offers, but he knows that Uriel will not forget the affront any time soon.

"I would remain vigilant," Uriel says, pinning Castiel with a somber expression. "The demon was no more pleased that it lost you than I was to have lost it. He'll remember the taste of your grace."

"I don't fear him," Castiel says truthfully. He wouldn't want to experience the pain of torture again, but he has faith than his Father will take care of him. If for no other reason than Castiel needs to take of Dean.

"I shouldn't think you would," Uriel says. His voice is slowly losing the anger as he calms from the battle. Soon enough, Castiel knows he will be back to his old self. Irascible, yes, but not filled with righteous indignation.

"You went straight to the human, didn't you?" Castiel dislikes the faint hint of disgust in Uriel's voice.

"He needed me," Castiel answers calmly. He won't be stirred up by Uriel's prejudices.

"You were hurt," Uriel says, tearing his eyes from Castiel's face in favor of staring absently out into the Healer's bay. "I don't like that your allegiances are divided. I fear that one day your concern for the boy will cause you some permanent damage."

Castiel's grace trembles with deep affection. Uriel isn't given to displays of brotherly fondness, but whenever he is struck by the depth of his emotion, he always says it outright. Castiel admires his forthright approach and can't help but bask in the obvious love between them. Perhaps he might have distanced himself from the emotion before knowing Dean, but Castiel is beginning to understand that familial bonds can be and should be very rewarding.

"I will take care of myself, brother," Castiel promises Uriel quietly. "If for no other reason than carrying out my duty."

"He doesn't deserve your loyalty," Uriel spits, sudden anger flaring within his grace once again. Castiel jerks back in surprise.

"Uriel, you don't...you can't mean that," he splutters.

"Sometimes I wonder if any of them do." He sounds oddly petulant and he reminds Castiel so strongly of Dean when he is pouting that he nearly laughs.

"You don't really believe that," Castiel surmises, relieved. "You're only upset because the demon escaped."

"I'm upset because the demon tormented you and we couldn't find you," Uriel corrects him and Castiel feels knocked off-balance. "And I'm upset that your mind is always with the child. He will change you, brother," he says, shocking devastation coloring his tone. "How long before you join Anael?"

"I would never," Castiel whispers, his earlier relief utterly destroyed. "I would never disobey, Uriel. You must believe me."

"And what if he asked it of you?" Uriel challenges. "Could you deny the child? Humans are greedy filthy animals, Castiel. It's inevitable. He will ask you to join him and he won't care that it tears you apart. He will think only of himself and his sinful desires." All at once, Uriel seems to deflate and his anger drains away, leaving only fatigue and faint concern in its place. "I worry that when that time comes, the child will steal you from us."

"Hey now, this is pretty heavy duty stuff," a cheerful voice suddenly calls out. Uriel and Castiel's locked gaze snaps and they both whip around to see Zachariah grinning at them.

"You're not planning on quitting, are you, Castiel?" Zachariah sounds genuinely curious rather than accusatory. For a moment, Castiel can't speak. He had no idea Uriel felt this way, had no idea his brother could hide such strong emotions from him. The future Uriel paints is bleak and yet Castiel can't bring himself to believe it. Uriel didn't speak with the power of revelation, but rather with his own anxiety. Castiel is being tested yet again. He can't succumb to fear. He must have faith that Dean would never ask Castiel to choose their connection over his duty to his brothers.

"Of course not," he finally answers. "Uriel has had a hard day."

"Ah yes, the demon." Zachariah nods in apparent sympathy. "I'm surprised at his escape, but we can't win every time," he says with a smile. "Why don't you join the Host in song? You need the break and I need to speak with Castiel."

Uriel and Castiel exchange a glance. Uriel is not a fan of singing with the Host. His voice is gorgeous, of course. Every move Uriel makes echoes with beauty and grace, even those that result in utter destruction. But he doesn’t enjoy taking time away from his duty to replenish himself. However, he doesn't argue with Zachariah. He simply nods at him and then meets Castiel's eyes one last time before taking flight.

"I'm glad to see Uriel is his usual sunny self," Zachariah comments. Castiel wonders how long it had been since Uriel and Zachariah last exchanged words.

"Yes," Castiel answers because he doesn't know what else to say.

"I heard you had your own trouble with the demon." Zachariah unfurls his gray-tipped wings and rises over Castiel's head, landing just in front of him and peering closely at him. "I take it you're all better now."

"I am," Castiel says. He is bewildered by this visit. In all the times he's spoken with Zachariah, they have met at the Citadel. Zachariah has never come to see Castiel instead.

"Good, good," Zachariah says absently as he runs his fingers along the edge of a table full of the Healer’s instruments. "And how is Dean?"

"He is well. A little upset about my disappearance, but I've taken care of it," Castiel reports.

"Hmm, I see. He managed to stay attached through your absence." It sounds to Castiel as if Zachariah is talking to himself, so he remains silent. "Makes sense, of course. Once humans get their claws into their soul mate, they don't let go easy."

Perhaps not the most elegant or gracious way of putting it, but Castiel can't deny that he has a point.

"Tell me, Castiel," Zachariah says and though his voice is casual, Castiel notices how his blue eyes sharpen. Castiel finds himself straightening under that gaze without really knowing why. "This deal the mother made. Do you know when it comes due?"

The deal Mary made to save John's life is one of the first things Castiel explained to Zachariah when he began watching over Dean. He is still concerned about the nature of the deal, but the more time Castiel spends around Mary, the more certain he feels that the deal has nothing to do with Dean. It doesn't stop Castiel from worrying about Mary, but he doubts Zachariah cares as much about her as he does about Dean.

"In approximately two years," Castiel says. In fact, it comes due in two years, one month and one week, but Castiel thinks his answer is close enough to satisfy Zachariah.

"Interesting," Zachariah says. He plucks absently at one of his wing feathers, a sure sign that he is deep in thought. Castiel waits patiently until he speaks again. "And Dean is not in danger from the deal?"

"No."

"Does Dean have any siblings?"

Castiel frowns. "No. Why?"

"It's too bad," Zachariah comments as if Castiel hadn't asked him anything. "I keep thinking Dean will turn out to be very exciting and he blocks me at every turn."

Castiel has no idea what to make of that statement. Once again, he and Zachariah disagree about whether Dean is interesting or not.

"But there's still time, of course," Zachariah muses, twisting his wing feather until it nearly falls away from his wing.

"Time for what?" Castiel is thoroughly befuddled by this conversation.

"More children, of course," Zachariah says, his tone implying that he thinks Castiel is not very bright.

"I see," Castiel says. He does think that Dean would like having a sibling, but he can't imagine why Zachariah should care.

"Well, either way, I'm sure I can trust you to take up your duty again, yes?"

"Of course," Castiel answers. He already feels annoyed by being unable to follow this conversation. It doesn't help that Zachariah feels the need to clarify Castiel's duty.

"In that case, I'll let you get back to it."

He is gone before Castiel can answer. He lets out a sigh and looks around him at the empty room. Maybe it'll be nighttime on Earth by now, Castiel thinks to himself. He extends his wings and rises into the air on lazy flaps. Perhaps he should ask Dean if he wants a sibling. Maybe that was the point Zachariah was trying to make. That Castiel won't always be there for Dean, that he can't always be there for Dean. Castiel's guilt returns. He wonders if it's too soon in his relationship with Mary to speak to her about the matter. He needs to make sure that Dean has someone else, just in case.

With that thought in mind, Castiel dives straight down, towards Earth and Dean.

Chapter Text

It is nighttime when Castiel arrives in Dean's boxroom. The very first thing he notices is that there isn't actually a box in the room anymore. In its place is a miniature version of the type of bed John and Mary use. This must be a sign that Dean is growing more mature, Castiel thinks to himself. He is no longer being confined to the cage-like box to guarantee he will remain in the same place throughout the night.

Although, judging by the fact that the little bed is empty, perhaps switching from box to bed is premature.

Dean is standing at his window, peering over the windowsill into the night where a storm is raging. Castiel watches silently for several moments. There is no fear in Dean's soul, but Castiel does notice tension. Dean is not scared, but he is wary and watchful for danger.

Sudden lightning illuminates Dean's face and for a split second, he is frozen to the spot. Then a great crash of thunder follows and with a small squeak, Dean tears back to his tiny bed and dives into it.

Castiel uncloaks himself and sits beside the bed. Dean doesn't notice his presence because his face is buried in a pillow. For a moment, Castiel considers just announcing his presence, but then he realizes that Dean's soul is trembling with excitement. Being startled by the storm is clearly a practice Dean enjoys. Castiel didn't know that humans could enjoy fear.

He ponders the concept for another brief moment, then decides this might be a good opportunity to give Dean some happiness. Castiel owes him many such moments for being missing for so long.

He lifts the edge of one wing as quietly as possible and arches it over Dean's body. The tip of one feather taps on the shoulder furthest from where Castiel sits.

Dean gasps and throws himself away from the wing. His backward motion forces him to roll into Castiel's waiting arms. When Dean sees Castiel's face peering down at him, he explodes into raucous laughter.

"Cas!" Joy stutters across Dean's soul in time with his laughter. "Don't...Cas, stop it," he scolds, but Castiel understands that Dean doesn't mean it. And even if he did, the event is already over. Castiel has already stopped doing it.

"Hello, Dean," he says and helps Dean right himself, setting the boy on the edge of the bed.

"You camed back," Dean says happily. He pats Castiel's face and then does something thoroughly unexpected. He leans up into Castiel and presses a wet kiss onto Castiel's cheek. Until that moment, Castiel had never understood the purpose of kissing for humans. It is not the first time he's been kissed, of course. Only a short time earlier, Israfel had kissed his hand at the Healer's to express her regret. He's seen other angels exchange kisses to communicate gratitude or apology or even reverence.

Angels don't exchange kisses to express affection.

The soul piece Castiel carries blazes with delight at such a simple action. Perhaps it’s the simplicity itself that makes the kiss sweet. There is no reason for it other than for Dean to show Castiel that he loves him. The trust implicit in placing one's mouth against another's skin resonates strongly with Castiel.

"I did," Castiel finally answers. "I will always come back if I am able."

Dean hugs him and then climbs off the bed, stumbling over to a box overflowing with toys. "You wanna play?"

It's rather late, but Castiel can see that Dean is wide awake. Besides which, Castiel has missed Dean fiercely. Seeing him earlier in the day had been very nice, but Mary had been present. It is difficult for Castiel to concentrate on more than one human at a time because their souls speak so loudly. It's even more difficult for Castiel to concentrate on another human when Dean is present. His soul demands Castiel's complete attention.

"Yes, I would like that," Castiel says and he gets a beaming smile in response.

Dean drags out a familiar collection of toy animals. There are some new additions, but for the most part, his supply of faux dogs, bears and rabbits are the same ones Castiel used to tell Dean a story all those months ago. They appear tattered and ragged. Well-loved. Castiel smiles. Dean is loyal even to a group of toys.

"Here," Dean says and he hands Castiel a brown rabbit. "Let's do star wars."

"Star wars," Castiel repeats slowly with some concern. "It sounds dangerous."

Dean just rolls his eyes in response and sets onto a long winded explanation of the nature of star wars. It takes several moments before Castiel understands that Dean is talking about an entertainment program and not an actual series of battles. Dean arranges a group of his animals and assigns them names before then ordering Castiel to play a number of parts. It quickly becomes apparent that Castiel is playing the parts that Dean considers less entertaining than his own assigned roles. But Castiel doesn't have a preference, so he doesn't mind playing mentor to the young hero or faithful side-kick to the gruff pirate or the Princess in any capacity.

They play together for almost an hour, long enough for Castiel to almost understand the plot. Every time he comes close to figuring it out, he is distracted by the strange noises emitting from Dean's mouth. High-pitched whining, approximations of explosions, deep throaty growling. Castiel's favorite is the odd short bursts of sound Dean tells him is called 'beeping'. When Dean catches on that the beeping amuses Castiel, he does it over and over while Castiel laughs each time, even when he knows to expect it.

When Dean starts to droop and his speech becomes too slurred to understand, Castiel scoops him up and returns him to the bed. Dean protests vaguely, but his heart isn't into it. Castiel pulls the dark blue blanket up around Dean's shoulders. He is about to leave when Dean reaches out and grabs the edge of Castiel's wing. It reminds Castiel of their first meeting, of the innocent baby Dean had been. His life has only spanned two and a half Earthly years and already his soul has learned heartache and sorrow. And much of the source is Castiel himself. He feels guilt, but it is not the guilt that keeps Castiel at Dean's bedside, his wing draped over the human.

It is only a moment later that the door to Dean's boxroom creaks open.

"Castiel?"

He doesn't turn away from Dean nor does he speak. Footsteps fall behind him and a shadow falls across his wings just before Mary settles on the ground beside him.

"Is he alright?"

Castiel nods. There is a heavy pause before Mary speaks again.

"Are you alright?"

"I wish I could always be here," Castiel confesses, though it pains him to do so. This has been his fear since Dean's soul piece found him. Castiel needs Dean. He can't go back to before he understood yearning, before he knew what it was to be lonely for someone. And the truly scary part is that he doesn't wish to go back. He wants to be nearby to protect Dean and to make him happy.

"Dean would like that," Mary says kindly, but she wears a sad smile. They both know it isn't possible for Castiel to be with Dean every day. It's supposed to a gift, but Castiel thinks that Dean has been cursed. His soul mate piece belongs to a being whose very presence would destroy most of the people he loves. He deserves more than this. He deserves someone who can spend the day with him.

Castiel remembers Zachariah's questions.

"Have you thought of having another child?"

The question obviously startles Mary. It takes her a moment to answer.

"What...why do you ask?" Castiel hears the disbelief and humor in her tone. She is apparently amazed by this train of thought coming from Castiel.

"I thought it would help Dean be less lonely," he says. He is surprised when Mary laughs and he turns to her, confused. "What?"

"You really don't know much about humans, do you?"

"No," Castiel answers truthfully.

Mary grins and squeezes his arm. "It's not a bad thought and I can see why his guardian Angel would worry about him, but Castiel, humans don't have children for the sake of their other children. At least, this one doesn't."

Castiel has never given thought to why humans would have children. He assumed it was simply a biological urge implanted within them by the Father to ensure the continuation of their kind. But Mary's words imply there might be another element to the decision to reproduce.

"What reasons do humans have for giving birth?"

"Well, to be honest, there are all kinds of reasons. And not all of them are good. I knew a girl in high school who tricked her boyfriend into getting her pregnant so that he would be forced to stay with her," Mary says. Castiel stares at her, horrified. He can't comprehend the kind of emotional desperation that would lead a human to use their own child for selfish purposes. As soon as the thought passes through his mind, Castiel is disgusted with himself. Didn't he just suggest using another child of John and Mary's in like manner?

"Forgive me, Mary," he says, distraught. "I would not have you use a child in such a way."

"What? Oh no," Mary says and her hand lands on his arm again. "No, you didn't mean it like that. It's not so unusual for people to have more than one child so their kids have siblings. I mean, I always wanted a younger brother or sister. Being an only child can be tough sometimes."

Castiel wouldn't know. He has untold number of brothers and the thought of being without them is incomprehensible. His guilt eases a touch at Mary's earnest expression, but this whole conversation is serving to remind Castiel how little he really knows about humans. Even with his research and his time with the Winchesters, he has so much to learn.

"As matter of fact, we've talked about having another child," Mary continues, now wearing a pleased secretive smile. "But we're not ready just yet. Dean is a handful all by himself without adding an infant into the mix."

"I can believe that," Castiel agrees, drawing a chuckle from Mary. His curiosity swells, forcing him to ask his next question. "Why did you have Dean?"

"Because we love each other," she says. She takes her hand away from Castiel's arm and places it on Dean's head, stroking his hair gently. "That's the only good reason to have a baby."

Castiel likes that answer.

"I guess angels don't have kids," Mary says. Castiel hears the curiosity in her own tone and figures he owes her for helping him understand humanity.

"Not generally," he answers. He knows it’s possible, but hasn't occurred for many thousands of years. "Angels don't have families in the same manner of humans."

Not like humans who search and try so hard to find their soul mate, Castiel thinks. John and Mary love each other and they are soul mates. His eyes fall on Dean. Another thing Dean deserves. To have a family with his one special person, but Castiel is an angel. They can't possibly form a family together. His guilt returns full force.

"So there's no missus waiting at home?" Castiel senses she is joking, but he doesn't really understand why it's funny. He just shakes his head.

"I share no special partnership with any of my brothers," he says. It's the truth, of course, but Castiel also knows there is more to it than that. "Although I do spend more time with certain of my brothers over the others." He tries and fails to imagine Uriel's face upon hearing Castiel telling a human that he is Castiel's closest friend.

"Ah well, at least you don't have to worry about someone getting jealous of you spending so much time here on Earth with us," Mary says. Castiel thinks to himself that he's not so sure about that, but he only smiles and nods. He doesn't enjoy thinking about his brothers' reactions to his connection with Dean.

"I should take my leave," Castiel says and they both stand.

"Hey," Mary says. "Are you sure you're alright?"

He wonders if she can sense his guilty melancholy. Her concern soothes his grace. He shouldn't allow himself to become caught on negative emotions. His Father saw fit to give Dean to him. Castiel must have faith that he can make Dean happy, regardless of whether they share each day or a family together.

"Yes." He touches her cheek. "Thank you, Mary."

She is smiling when he flies away.

Chapter Text

It's many months before Castiel sees Mary again. For the first time since Castiel met Dean, his existence settles into the kind of familiar pattern he remembers from before he received the soul piece. His time away from Dean is filled with garrison meetings, defense preparation and the occasional battle. They don't see the level of aggressive attack that they experienced when Alastair captured Castiel, but the whispers of a gathering storm continue unabated. Several of Castiel's brothers are sent on recon missions and they very nearly lose Hadakiel. The low level thrum of urgency that pervades the Heavenly realm make Castiel's calm moments with Dean even more desirable. But he manages to restrict himself to their normal weekly appointments sprinkled with infrequent special visits.

Despite not seeing Mary in the physical sense, she finds a way to communicate with Castiel. Several months after their conversation about children, Castiel finds a sheet of paper with his name written on it in English folded up beside Dean's small bed. When he opens it, a pictorial representation of Dean falls out into his hand. Dean is wearing strange clothing in the picture. His shirt is a cross patterned design and instead of his normal shoes, he is wearing a pair of taller shoes. Black strips of material cover the legs of a pair of blue pants that Castiel recognizes. On his head is a large brown hat. In addition to the strange clothing, a pair of miniature white wings sprouts from Dean's back. Castiel assumes they are made from some kind of white clothing material, but he can't see how they are attached to Dean's back. He stares at the picture, puzzled for a long moment before he thinks to read the other words on the paper.

Castiel-

I was thinking the other day that you might like a few pictures of Dean. I don't know if angels really have photographs, but I thought it couldn't hurt to see. Anyway, this is a picture of Dean from Halloween night. The costume might be a little confusing. You see, he wanted to go as you, but he also really wanted to go as a cowboy. So instead of choosing, he just decided to be both. I spent most of the evening trying to find a way to explain to people why my son was dressed an angelic cowboy. But he was really happy, so it was worth it!

I hope you're well!

Love,

Mary

Very little of this paragraph makes sense to Castiel. He doesn't know what a cowboy is or why Dean is pretending to be one or why he is pretending to be Castiel, but as long as it made Dean happy, he thinks that's all that matters. Later, he feels somewhat horrified when he discovers the connection between Halloween and Samhain, but his research indicates that the correlation is no longer important and that Halloween is simply an opportunity for humans to have fun. The inclusion of concepts that might prove frightening confirms Castiel's belief that many humans actually enjoying feeling fear. He resolves not to worry about the holiday, partly because he trusts Mary's judgment.

Plus, it pleases Castiel that Dean wanted to emulate him.

Holidays seem to be grouped in the end of the year for humans in Dean's culture. Less than a month later, Castiel finds another note and another picture. The picture is of both Mary and Dean. They are sitting together on a square of hay and waving in the direction of the picture's viewer. It appears as if they are waving to Castiel. In the note, Mary mentions that the picture was taken at a 'fall festival' and she explains that the Winchesters are celebrating Thanksgiving that week. Castiel immediately likes the sound of that holiday.

A month later, it is Christmas again and Castiel gets another photograph of Dean. In this one, he is sitting on the floor in front of the decorated tree and he is surrounded by scraps of colorful paper. Mary tells him in the note that Dean enjoys playing with wrapping paper more than he enjoys the toys she and John buy for him. Castiel wonders why then Mary doesn't simply buy Dean a collection of wrapping paper for a gift, but he suspects there is some confusing human concept he is missing involving gift giving. In fact, the note makes Castiel realize that Dean probably expected a gift from him. It's so difficult to remember all the human customs that rule Dean's life. But once Castiel remembers the gift giving element of Christmas, he feels guilty. After all, Dean's old stuffed squirrel is always tucked away in Castiel's robe and even though Castiel doesn't really use the doll for its original purpose, he enjoys holding it and remembering the feeling of receiving it.

The only problem is that Castiel doesn't know what gift to find for Dean. The picture and note indicate that John and Mary provided Dean with plenty of clothing and toys. And besides, Castiel has no way of entering a shop and purchasing an item for Dean. Not without a vessel and Castiel would never enter into such an extreme contract for something less than an absolute life-threatening emergency.

The more Castiel thinks about it, the more he realizes that the squirrel is meaningful because it once belonged to Dean and because it was difficult for Dean to let go. This suggests that a worthy gift would have similar qualifications. The only problem being that Castiel has no personal possessions beyond the doll and the photos from Mary. He thinks it would probably be in bad taste to return these items to Dean in the guise of a gift.

It worries Castiel so much that he finally brings it up to Dean one night, almost a week and a half after Christmas is already over. They are sitting together on the floor of what Castiel is finally thinking of as Dean's bedroom. After a long-winded and frankly bizarre explanation from Dean of a game called football, they fall silent while Dean tugs at and plays with Castiel's wings. The floor around them is littered with the toys Dean received from his parents for Christmas. They remind Castiel of his problem and he uses the silence to introduce the topic.

"Dean, I would like to give you a present for Christmas, but I don't know what you need," he says.

Dean cocks his head, his hands pausing in their digging search through Castiel's feathers.

"Um," he says, and then he shrugs. "I don't know."

Castiel frowns. He hadn't expected that answer. Dean always seems to know exactly what he wants. Maybe it's not an acceptable policy to ask for specific items for Christmas.

"I want to give you something personal," Castiel explains. Dean nods and buries his hands in Castiel's wings again. Castiel's soul piece jumps a little as it always does when Dean touches Castiel's wings. He's never really understood Dean's fascination with them. To Castiel, they are nothing more than a necessary part of his body, a means to travel as he does his Father's will. But they mean much more to Dean. So much so that Castiel can see that they represent safety in Dean's mind.

The thought gives Castiel an idea.

"Would you like a feather from my wings?"

He's never purposefully plucked one of his own feathers, but he's lost some in battle before. They generally grow back, unless the injury is very severe. In this case, he would gain another feather eventually. Dean's eyes grow round and, to Castiel's surprise, he senses dismay in him.

"Is that wrong?" He is confused. It's not wrong that Dean loves Castiel's wings, so he can't understand why Dean should be upset by the offer.

"No," Dean says and wraps both hands protectively around the edge of one wing. "Don't ruin them."

"It won't ruin them," Castiel says, even more surprised by Dean's feelings on the subject, though he knew he shouldn't be. Dean's always been a very possessive and protective human. But Castiel still isn't used to having those type of feelings directed towards him. Certainly not towards his wings.

"But it would hurt?" Dean asks, wrinkling his nose and looking generally displeased.

"Yes," Castiel answers. As matter of fact, having a feather ripped from his wings is very uncomfortable and not something he would consider doing for just any human.

"But the pain is temporary and I'm willing to make the sacrifice." After all, he believes this is the point of special Christmas presents. It will mean more to Dean if he makes a sacrifice.

Apparently, Dean disagrees.

"No!" He glares at Castiel. "You went away and when you were back, your wings were hurted and I didn't like it."

Castiel's shock is so great that he is speechless. He'd had no idea that Dean knew his wings were hurt, had been so blinded by his utter relief at being back at Dean's side that he hadn't seen how much Dean had understood. He's never been so distracted by his own thoughts that he didn't perfectly read a human's soul or a brother's grace. His love for Dean makes Castiel give him more attention, but also blurs his perception. It's so strange that love should make him both more and less selfish.

"I apologize for upsetting you," he says solemnly. "I'm afraid it means that I have nothing to give you."

Dean shakes his head and climbs into Castiel's lap, leaning his head against Castiel's chest. When Castiel concentrates on his soul, determined to read it clearly, he is not particularly surprised when he senses all of Dean's focus is on Castiel.

"Just come back," he says and there's a trace of fear in his tone. Castiel wraps his arms around Dean and they remain silent, each lost in thought. It's not the first time Dean has requested this of Castiel. He believes his long absence has given Dean a fear of abandonment. Since Castiel has returned, Dean has clung harder to him than even before. Even now, he keeps one hand clamped firmly in the front of Castiel's cloak. It appears his love is somewhat selfish too. He loves the feeling of being around Castiel and fears losing that feeling. Just as Castiel fears being held away from Dean again.

Castiel wonders if his Father is trying to teach him something with the discovery of the dual nature of human love.

To the best of his ability, Castiel honors Dean's request. Instead of finding him a tangible gift, Castiel remains diligent in their appointments and begins to visit at unexpected times as well, just to hear the squeal of surprised joy it earns him. On one such visit a month after Christmas, Castiel finally sees Mary again. She and Dean are alone in the kitchen.

It's the afternoon of Dean's third birthday.

Mary is alerted to Castiel's presence when Dean shouts happily and stumbles across the kitchen towards him. Dean spends their visit kicking his feet against Castiel's stomach and humming to himself as Mary gives Castiel his second cooking lesson. He learns to prepare a dish called meatloaf which Mary tells him is Dean's current favorite. Right before Castiel leaves, Mary and Dean teach him the traditional song used to celebrate the birth day of humans. The tune stays in Castiel's head and he finds himself singing it later with the Host. Which amuses Israfel so much that she has to drop out of Song for a moment.

Further evidence that his association with Dean distracts him in ways he's not equipped to handle. He can only pray it won't keep him from properly serving his Father.

Castiel assumes the holiday season is finally over on Earth, but discovers only a few weeks later that he is wrong. Mary leaves him another photograph and note. The picture is of John and Dean. John is sitting on the front steps of the Winchester home and he holds Dean on his lap. Both are grinning.

The note reads:

I took this picture on Valentine's Day-the two loves of my life! Dean made you a Valentine, so I wanted to explain, in case you aren't familiar with the holiday. It's a day to celebrate love. A lot of people only celebrate romantic love, but I think it can be for anyone who loves someone. So, a Valentine is a card you give to someone you love. I helped him make it, so I guess you could say it's from me too. I hope you enjoy it!

Love,

Mary

The Valentine card is lying under the picture and note. Castiel picks it up and examines it. On the front cover is a collection of red and pink shapes that Castiel doesn't recognize. On the inside, there are more of the same shapes as well as some words scrawled in Mary's handwriting.

Happy Valentine's Day, Cas! Love, Dean

The opposite page is covered in a mess of scribbles that mean nothing to Castiel. Under the scribbles is written Dean drew this for you. He said it's what he thinks your home looks like.

The drawing doesn't resemble the Heavenly realm in the slightest, but Castiel appreciates the effort. He opens his cloak and carefully tucks the card into his front pocket. This will be a good addition to his growing collection of Dean-related items. Especially since he doesn't have a photograph of John yet. At first, Castiel didn't understand the point of photographs. He can perfectly recall every detail of Dean's appearance. But then he realized that all the photographs he has of the Winchesters are from events in their lives which Castiel could not attend. The photographs give him a way to experience parts of Dean's life that he misses. Like this celebration of love.

For this reason, Castiel treasures the photographs.

His collection slowly grows. There is one of Dean and John playing football, another of Dean riding around on a device with three wheels, one of Mary and Dean asleep in a living room chair, John and Dean at a baseball game. Eventually Mary begins to include photographs of herself and John without Dean. By the time the temperatures become hot in Kansas again, Castiel has over a dozen photographs of the Winchester family. He stores them in the side of his chair in the council room and carries with him only one, a cheerful shot of all three Winchesters from a celebration of their nation's birth.

Uriel pretends not to notice, but Israfel asks to see them. Castiel feels uncommonly proud when he drags out the photographs and shows them to her. He may have only received a soul piece from Dean, but in ways, the whole Winchester family belongs to him. He loves them, even John who doesn't believe Castiel is real. He loves Mary's notes and her cooking lessons. He loves that no matter what John loves in this world, it can't compare to how much he loves his family. And he just plain loves everything about Dean. They are his favorite beings in existence.

So, it is with great delight when Castiel realizes there will soon be another Winchester in the world.

It is late in the season called summer when Castiel arrives at the Winchester home to find Mary alone in the living room. She is sitting on the couch and reading a book. Castiel uncloaks and speaks immediately so he won't startle her too badly.

"Hello, Mary."

She jumps anyway, but quickly recovers herself and smiles at him.

"Hello, Castiel!" She sets aside the book and stands to greet him with a kiss to his cheek. It's been many months since Mary's become comfortable with physically touching Castiel. "I'm afraid you've just missed Dean. His dad took him to the park."

"I see," Castiel says, but he is distracted by a difference in Mary. He focuses on her, searching and then shakes his wings in surprised happiness.

"You're with child."

Mary's lips part in surprise. "Excuse me?"

Castiel touches her stomach, feels the spark of life there, feels Dean's soul piece shudder gently within him. "You carry a child. Did you not know?"

"I...no," Mary says faintly and her hands join Castiel's on her stomach. "I mean...that is, we've been trying, but..." She breaks off with a breathy laugh and Castiel feels her own joy begin to swell. "No, I didn't know. Really? Are..." Another shaky laugh. "Are you sure?"

"Yes." He concentrates again. "He is very new."

"He? It's a boy?"

It's only after Castiel says it that he thinks maybe he might have ruined a surprise. He never thought being surprised was a good thing until he really got to know humans. But Mary isn't upset with him. In fact, she is overjoyed. They share a smile, then Castiel is confused when a ripple of humor passes through Mary's soul.

"Um, it's John's right?"

For a moment, Castiel is appalled by the question and the possible implication that it could be anyone, but John's. Then he sees she is joking, but he doesn't understand it.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it's just..." She gestures at her stomach. "A woman called Mary." Then at him. "An angel telling her she's pregnant...glad tidings of great joy..."

When Castiel gets it, he finds he is actually faintly amused and wonders what the Father would think of that.

"No, I assure you, this child is entirely human and belongs to John." He removes his hand from her belly and steps back. "Dean will be pleased."

Mary hugs herself around the middle. "Do you think so? Sometimes kids can get jealous of siblings."

"No," Castiel says confidently. "Dean will have nothing, but love for his brother."

"Yeah," Mary agrees quietly and she gets that secretive happy look in her eyes she always wears when thinking about her family members. "Yeah, you're right."

There is a short pause where Castiel just watches Mary digest this news and then, without warning, she throws herself at Castiel and pulls him into a mighty hug. It takes him a moment to react, but he finally wraps his arms around her and then, for good measure, encloses her in his wings as well. Mary lets out a tear-choked laugh against his chest.

"No wonder Dean likes your wings so much," she says, muffled and pleased. "Everything is so lovely. I never thought...didn't think I'd get this..."

She isn't making much sense to Castiel, so he just lets her mumble against his cloak and continues to hold her.

"You deserve good things," Castiel says when she finally trails off. He suspects her sudden sensation of being overwhelmed by many different emotions is connected to the dark moments of her past. He doesn't support the decision she made with the demon, but he thinks maybe he understands a little now the strange and dangerous actions love can induce humans to commit.

"Thank you, Cas," Mary says and oddly enough, it's the first time she's really called him that to his face. He finds he doesn't mind her saying it so much because, after Dean, Mary is his best friend.

"You're welcome," he replies.

When it becomes apparent that John and Dean aren't going to return for some time, Castiel finally takes his leave and as he is flying back to the Heavenly realm, he says a prayer of thanks to his Father for the joy He has given the Winchester family.

Chapter Text

"Hey Cas?"

Castiel watches Dean tugging something out of the small shelf that sits beside his bed. He turns and pins Castiel with a hopeful expression as he walks back to Castiel's side.

"What is it, Dean?" Castiel asks.

Dean grabs the front of Castiel's robe and pulls, a silent cue that Castiel should sit on the floor. Castiel allows himself to be pulled down and once he is fully seated, Dean crawls into his lap and hands him the object. It is a green book. On the front cover, there is a picture of two yellow creatures that Castiel cannot identify. The book is labeled, "The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss."

"Will you read this?"

Castiel is a little surprised. He knows Dean can't yet read and that his mother sometimes reads books to him, but Dean has never asked Castiel to do so. Whenever they spend time together, Dean prefers talking to Castiel or playing games that require hands-on action. But if he wants to be read to, then Castiel will read to him.

"Yes," he agrees and takes the book from Dean. The strange creatures on the front cover disturb him. They have large round bellies, long skinny necks and a tuft of white hair around their collars. Castiel has never seen the like before in his existence. He opens the book and after taking a moment to make sure Dean is settled comfortably between his stomach and his wing, Castiel begins to read.

"Now the Star-bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-bellied Sneetches had none upon thars."

Castiel stops and stares at the last word. "This isn't a real word," he says, puzzled.

Dean points at the word. "Thars," he says as if that explains everything. "Go on."

There is a demanding edge to Dean's tone. Castiel decides this must be another human concept he doesn't understand. There must be a need to manipulate their own languages at times in order to send certain messages or teach lessons. It reminds Castiel of Scripture which is written in verse much like this book.

"The stars weren't so big; they were really quite small. You would think such a thing wouldn't matter at all," Castiel continues.

Dean turns his eyes from the book to Castiel's face and back again, enraptured as Castiel speaks the words on the page. As he reads along, Castiel discovers that the poem is actually a simplistic and somewhat nonsensical message of tolerance. He's never heard of Sneetches or creatures with stars on their bellies and certainly never of a man named Slyvester McMonkey McBean, but he does like the message. He thinks his Father would approve.

Dean also approves. He grins and laughs and even claps his hands together at certain points in the story. He loves the phrase 'snooty old smarties' and the line, "It bonked. It clonked. It jerked. It berked" quite a bit. After Castiel reads the last line and closes the book, Dean taps it and tugs at Castiel's robe.

"Again," he commands.

Castiel frowns and considers asking if there is anything in the poem that Dean didn't understand. But then he realizes that there is much in the poem that Castiel didn't understand himself. So perhaps it's not the worst idea to open the book and read it one more time.

This is what he does.

"That day, they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches, and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches. That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars, and whether they had one or not upon thars," Castiel finishes for a second time. He thinks he understands better now that Dr. Seuss is playing pretend in his poem, like Dean does with his dolls. The Sneetches aren't real creatures. Dr. Seuss invented them to tell express a message, like a parable. Castiel smiles, pleased with himself and turns to Dean.

"Did you understand it better this time?"

Dean nods and presses his hand against the pages, shuffling them back to the beginning. "Again," he says in a pleading tone.

Castiel is at a loss. "You've already heard it twice," he says, concerned. "Was the message not clear?"

"I like it," Dean says. He leans into Castiel's side, cocking his head and touches one wing feather. "Please?"

For some reason, Castiel feels as if he is being tricked. Not that Dean's desire isn't sincere, but that his actions and facial expressions are more intense than his desire. As if he is making himself appear more loving so that Castiel will do what he wants.

"You're becoming less innocent, Dean Winchester," Castiel says and for some reason, he is very amused. He is also strangely compelled to give Dean what he wants, regardless of being tricked. He thinks this might be another element of human love.

"Very well," Castiel says. "I will read it once more, but that's all. Alright?"

"Ok!" Dean bounces in place and listens avidly as Castiel reads through the poem yet again.

When he is finished, Dean takes the book and climbs off the bed. He replaces the book on the shelf and holds out his hand to Castiel.

"C'mon," he says. Castiel takes his hand and lets himself be lead out the bedroom. He has to stoop over to retain his grip on Dean's hand, but he doesn't mind. If Dean gets too quick for him, Castiel can always lift him in the air with his grace to halt his progress. It puts Castiel on equal footing to Dean, he thinks.

Dean drags Castiel into the kitchen where Mary is constructing sandwiches. She smiles at them when they appear.

"There you are. I thought I was going to have to send in a search party in after you," she says.

"My apologies. Dean insisted that I read the same story three times," Castiel explains.

Dean lets go of Castiel's hand and stumbles to Mary's side, reaching up to press eager hands against her stomach. As usual, the large soul piece still captured within Dean glows and quivers happily. Castiel can tell it is anxious to depart Dean and travel to its rightful owner. He'd been caught off-guard the first time he'd seen Dean with Mary after the baby's conception and realized so much of Dean's soul belonged to his brother. Castiel is pleased that Dean will grow up with such an important companion, but it makes him worry for Dean's future. There isn't a piece left for Dean's future partner and Castiel doesn't want Dean to miss that connection if he wants it.

It's been nearly five months since Castiel first noticed the life growing within Mary. She's changed very much since then. Of course, physically, her body expands as the baby grows. This appears to be the most fascinating aspect for Dean. Whenever he is in the room with Mary, his little hands pat her stomach and he talks to the baby as if it can hear him.

While it is interesting for Castiel to monitor the physical changes, he finds himself more enthralled by how the baby's soul entwines with her own. The tiny spark of new soul is cradled gently within the familiar warmth of Mary's soul and for these months of time, they are very nearly as one. The added burden of the baby's presence creates a flush of joy in Mary's countenance that Castiel finds very pleasing. He believes that this physical evidence of Mary's connection to the child is John's favorite aspect of the pregnancy. He can't seem to get enough of watching Mary, touching and kissing her.

Mary is the most popular person in the family right now.

"Was it the Sneetches?" Mary asks as she strokes a hand through Dean's hair.

"Yes, it was," Castiel says. "I began to worry that Dean suffered from a learning problem, but I don't think he misunderstood the book."

"Oh no, it isn't that," Mary says and she takes the plate of sandwiches to the table, leading Dean to a chair. "He just loves it. I have to read it twenty-seven hundred times a day."

Castiel assumes Mary does not mean that number literally.

"I suppose it is common for young children to seek repetition," Castiel says and it sounds logical in his head. After all, Dean enjoys playing the same games time and again. He only likes a certain number of foods and becomes annoyed if he's asked to eat other items. It makes sense that he would also want to hear the same book many times.

"Well, yes, but I think it's a special case with Dean," Mary says. She goes to the refrigerator to gather juice. "He really only likes what he likes and that's it. His dad can be like that too," she says in a confidential whisper. Castiel nods solemnly.

"I see."

"Come on and sit down with us," Mary says after she returns to the table. This has become something of a common practice with them. Since Castiel no longer has to visit at night, he usually arrives at the Winchester home in the mid-morning and stays until after Dean and Mary eat lunch. It's a ritual Dean has come to rely on, so Castiel agrees silently and takes a seat across from Dean.

"Is the baby hungry, Mom?" Dean asks. He loves to ask questions about the baby.

"Oh yes," Mary says. She places a sandwich on a small plate as well as a selection of raw vegetables and hands the plate to Dean. He immediately picks up the sandwich and takes a huge bite, ignoring the vegetables.

"Does the baby like turkey?" Dean asks through a mouthful of the same substance. Mary gives him a look and Dean quickly chews, then swallows. "Sorry," he says cheerfully.

"I don't know if the baby likes turkey," Mary admits as she fixes herself a plate. "But I do and he hasn't complained, so we'll say yes."

Castiel listens to them continue to discuss 'the baby'. He wonders when the child will be given a real name. It's not something on which he's done any research. Perhaps humans don't name their children until after they are born. There might have been a time when Castiel would let a question like that wait until he could research it, but since his friendship with Mary has grown, he finds it more agreeable to simply ask her.

"When will you name the baby?" Castiel asks at the next lull in conversation.

"Oh well, we've been talking about names actually," Mary says. "But we haven't really settled on one yet. Dean wants us to name him Batman."

Castiel thinks over the name while Dean chants 'Batman' to himself.

"I don't like that name," he confesses.

"Neither do I," Mary agrees and she shoots Castiel the special smile she reserves only for him. It's a mix of amusement, affection and an ever present shyness, as if Mary can't quite forget that Castiel is a powerful creature. He doesn't blame her and in fact, likes the smile very much because it belongs only to him.

"I told John he should name the baby after one of his parents since, you know, we named Dean after my mother," Mary explains though Castiel is already aware of this information. "His father's name was Roger, but truth be told, their relationship was strained."

Mary's eyes are on Dean and since he is distracted singing a song with the word 'Batman' in it, she again lends a quiet secretive tone to her voice.

"Roger didn't like that John went into the military. Obviously, he was just scared for John, but they had a big fight and well, honestly they never really got along. So I don't think he'll use the name." The pitch of her voice brightens as she continues with her next words. "Now, John adored his mother. She died when John was in high school and he was just devastated, but her name was Gladys Sue and well...you just can't turn that into a boy's name. Not unless you're Johnny Cash."

There is a great deal of this monologue that Castiel doesn't understand. But he absorbs the main point, which is that John doesn't wish to name his son after his own parents. He hadn't realized until this moment that human names were gendered. As matter of fact, it never occurred to him that there could be other people in the world with the name Dean. Obviously he knew of other Marys and Johns from the scriptures, but Castiel always thinks of Dean as being unique. It's strange to imagine other little children named Dean, although apparently there are no little girls with the name.

Once again, the limitations humans contrive for themselves is baffling to Castiel.

"Why then don't you name the child after your father?" Castiel asks. "Unless it's considered unfair to honor only one set of parents in this manner," he adds once the thought makes itself known. Castiel almost smiles. He's thinking more like a human as every day passes.

"We...we talked about it," Mary says and her slight hesitation puzzles Castiel until he notices the way her soul darkens. On instinct, he reaches for her hand, clasping it between both of his. He doesn't like those sorrowful thoughts hovering so near the unborn child's essence.

"You musn't let that interfere with your memory of the man who was your father," Castiel says, keeping his words vague so they won't alarm Dean, who is already watching his mother in concern. Mary and Castiel have never spoken about the deal she made or how it happened, but Castiel's done his research. He's seen the memories flowing so stronger to the surface of her mind and knows that the evil creature that forced her hand had taken her father's body for his own.

"I've tried," Mary says and she keeps her voice normal for Dean's benefit. She squeezes Castiel's hand and releases him, standing to fetch Dean more fruit juice. "It's hard to explain how something like that can leave a lasting impression."

"That wasn't your father," Castiel says. "You loved your father."

Mary stares into the open refrigerator and her eyes become distant. Castiel thinks she's not seeing what's in front of her, but rather old memories. The way her soul wavers under small currents of warm affection, Castiel thinks the memories are of her actual father before he was taken by the demon. She shuts the refrigerator and leans against it, turning her distracted eyes on Castiel.

"Yeah, I really did," she says softly.

"There is no reason to give those unpleasant memories power," Castiel says reasonably. To him, this is the simple truth and not an earth-shattering notion, but Mary reacts to them as if she's undergoing a life-changing experience. She presses both hands against her curved belly and her lips turn up in a tremulous smile. Within her, Castiel sees a bond breaking, watches hard pieces of unhealed pain fall away from her soul.

"Dean?" Mary walks over to the table and sits, taking Dean's hand into her own. "How do you like the name Samuel?"

Dean cocks his head at her before looking at her stomach.

"Sam," he says and Castiel is in no way surprised that Dean already wishes to shorten the name. Mary laughs and gathers Dean against her in a giant hug.

"That sounds good too," she says. "Baby Sam."

Dean squeezes her back and then pushes away in excitement.

"Sammy!" He says the exclamation straight at Mary's stomach and if the baby could hear, his ears would hurt under the volume. Mary snorts and kisses the top of Dean's head.

"Indoor voice," she reminds him. Looking over at Castiel, Mary raises her eyebrows. "What about you? What do you think of Samuel?"

"It sounds like an angel's name," Castiel says.

"Well that's what he is," Mary says, turning her gaze once again to her own middle, hands continuously stroking over where the baby is nestled within her. "My little angel."

Castiel again assumes that like with the twenty-seven hundred readings, Mary does not literally think that Sam is an angel. He supposes it's possible for Sam to be a fallen angel since there isn't an easy way to tell the difference between a regular human and one that was once angelic, but Castiel doubts it greatly. It's not the first time he's heard humans refer to other humans as 'angels' as a way to show affection though, so he merely nods and gives her a calm smile.

Dean's hand joins Mary's on her stomach and he leans in again, though this time his voice is much quieter.

"Hi, Sammy," he says.

"I hope John likes the name because I think it's sticking," Mary says with such apparent joy that Castiel's smile grows. "Hello, Sam," she adds and Dean giggles at his mother for following his example. They then both look at Castiel, who is confused by their attention.

"Yes?"

Dean points at the baby. "Say hi to Sammy,” he commands.

"Oh," Castiel says and he inclines his head towards Mary's stomach. "Hello, Sammy."

"And now he's kicking," Mary says, shifting around in her seat as Sam moves inside her. She pins Castiel with a teasing grin. "I think he likes you."

And for some reason, an oddly strong surge of pleasure washes through Castiel and the soul piece he carries responds in kind, growing warm and heavy in its resting place. He wonders if Sam really can sense his true voice inside the womb and really did like it. The thought eases a part of Castiel. If he is to share almost equal parts of Dean with Sam, it's imperative that they like each other's company.

This appears to be a good start.

Chapter Text

Castiel is standing in the Winchesters' living room, cloaked and watching the small family when Zachariah appears. It is only five days from the time Mary says the doctors told her Sam will arrive. She is sitting on the long sofa and though Castiel can read the discomfort in her posture, she is also happy and excited for her second son's birth. John sits nearby in his special reclining chair and while he is supposedly watching a baseball game on the television, his eyes often turn to Mary and each time it happens, Castiel sees love explode across his soul in an almost violent fashion. Dean is seated on the floor in front of John's chair, one arm wrapped around John's leg. His attention is fully caught by the game and even when John occasionally slides his fingers through Dean's hair, Dean barely reacts.

They are at peace.

It's not a day that Castiel normally visits the Winchesters. But as Sam's birth draws near, Castiel finds it difficult to wait an entire week between visits. John and Dean take good care of Mary, but Castiel wants to be extra insurance. He's not even sure why since Mary is perfectly healthy. He just knows that she carries a precious new life within her and when Castiel is not at the Winchesters, he is preoccupied with thoughts of her safety.

Perhaps it's something he should remember to ask Mary about during his regular visit.

Just after the thought manifests, Castiel is distracted by a pulse of power and the space next to him disappears in favor of allowing Zachariah's presence in the living room.

"You know, Castiel, when I assigned you this duty, I didn't think you'd take it quite this seriously," Zachariah says, but his tone is somewhat fond. Castiel gives him a little smile without turning his eyes from Dean.

"I assumed that if my dedication to the Winchesters didn't overtake my devotion to our Father, extra visits would be acceptable," Castiel answers.

The strange tension that often exists between himself and Zachariah has been absent of late. While it was Zachariah's idea for Castiel to watch over Dean, he's never been particularly understanding of Castiel's interest in Dean. But now when Castiel makes his regular reports, Zachariah is engrossed by them. Castiel's not stupid. He knows it’s possible that Zachariah's received Revelation about Dean's purpose in Castiel's life. But the one time he questioned Zachariah, he got no satisfactory answer. If his superior knows anything, he's not telling Castiel. For the time being, Castiel knows he must be patient and trust God.

And whatever the reason, Castiel is pleased that Zachariah seems to understand now that Dean is of great import. It makes Zachariah's company far more palatable to Castiel.

"Extra visits are certainly understandable at a time like this."

Zachariah glides on gentle flaps down in front of the sofa and squats till he is eye level with Mary. She stares through him towards the game, oblivious to his presence.

"What with the younger one about to arrive."

"Yes," Castiel agrees. "I'm anxious to meet him."

"Aren't we all?" Zachariah asks, but it doesn't sound as if he needs a real answer, so Castiel remains silent. He watches Zachariah lean in and peer at Mary. This is the first time Zachariah's been in the same room with Mary since she became pregnant. Castiel assumes Zachariah is searching Sam's soul much like Castiel did when he first became aware of Sam's presence.

"I see what you mean about the brothers' soul pieces," Zachariah comments. "They'll be nearly inseparable, I imagine."

He straightens himself and turns his gaze onto Castiel.

"I hope you're prepared to be attached to them both for the length of Dean's life," he says in an almost pitying tone. But Castiel feels no compunction over Sam and Dean's connection. Just like Dean can't expect to totally own all of Castiel, he cannot expect to own all of Dean. Nor would he wish to do so. First and foremost, Dean belongs to the Father. After that, Castiel knows he can't give Dean everything he needs. All humans need many other humans to feel happiness. Or so Castiel understands from the time he's spent with the Winchesters.

"There is very little of this situation that I was prepared for," Castiel confesses with a slight smile. "But I am not concerned about Dean's connection with his brother."

"Because you have faith," Zachariah says and he smiles as well, but there is something odd about it. Almost as if Zachariah is amused when Castiel sees no reason for it.

"Yes," he says because it's true, regardless of what Zachariah is thinking.

"Ah, well, I have faith too, you know," Zachariah says and he looks away from Castiel to Dean. "I believe these young humans, these brothers, are very important."

Castiel frowns. This is the first time Zachariah has included Sam when discussing Dean's importance. Of course, by virtue of his connection with Dean, Sam is very important to Castiel. But there is something else to what Zachariah means. Castiel doesn't know what. Just that he can sense it.

"I see," he says cautiously.

"And because they are both important, I'm expanding your duties," Zachariah continues, keeping his eyes on Dean who is falling asleep against John's leg. "I want you to watch over the younger one...what was his name again?"

"Samuel," Castiel supplies blankly, his mind reeling.

"Samuel, yes. I'm assigning you to both brothers. You will guard them and watch their activities. And I want you to visit more often," he adds as he finally moves away from Dean and rejoins Castiel. "Do you understand?"

"Yes," Castiel says softly.

"Good!"

With that exclamation, Zachariah disappears, leaving Castiel feeling stunned. Thinking Sam is important and having this confirmed by his superior are very different things. Castiel had planned to appoint himself the task of watching over Sam. Now that it’s part of his official duty, Castiel begins wondering how Sam is part of whatever plan God had in mind when he gave Dean’s soul piece to Castiel.

Castiel sighs to himself and sits beside Mary on the couch.

Everything has been so complicated since he met Dean, Castiel thinks as he watches Dean drooling on John's pant leg.

He doesn’t leave until the game is long over.

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

It's when Castiel is soaring through the swirling clouds of a growing storm that he feels a strange tug of excitement from within his Grace. He stops mid-flight and listens, unaccustomed to the emotion he feels. It takes him far too long to realize that he's feeling an echo of tension and pain from Mary though Dean's soul piece. It's the pain sensation that sends Castiel diving out of the clouds towards the Earth. If she is suffering enough for Castiel to be aware of it through Dean's soul piece, then she could be in great danger.

He focuses on Mary's soul as best he can. Its normally steadfast light is flickering under enormous emotional fluctuations. Castiel is nearly inside the birthing center before he realizes that the most likely cause of Mary's stress is the imminent arrival of Sam into the world. Castiel is surprised. Mary has not yet been pregnant the average number of days.

Sam is early.

Castiel feels a spark of concern, but tries to suppress it. Mary explained patiently that the due date given by doctors is merely an estimation and that children often take more or less time than expected before they are ready to be born. It is one of his Father's miracles that the human body simply knows when the time is right. Apparently, now is Sam's time.

He finds Mary in the exact room where he first saw her. Castiel wonders if this fact is deliberate or just another example of human habit. Either way, it reminds Castiel of the day he met Dean in his box and realized everything had changed. He wonders what he'll feel when he meets Sam.

Judging by the state Mary is in, it'll be a little longer before that happens. She is lying in a bed and John is by her side, holding her hand and talking low into her ear. They are the only two in the room at present. Since the doctors aren't nearby, Castiel assumes she is still preparing for birth and is not quite ready. This close, he can see the pain clustered tight around her middle. When John speaks, the pain eases a touch, but Castiel can see that she is still in considerable discomfort. He thinks back to his discussions with Mary and his research into human birth. His first instinct is to erase her pain like he did when Dean was ill in this building, but he fears it would interrupt the birthing process since the pain is natural and not part of an injury or illness.

Still, Castiel doesn't like the thought of not helping, at least a little. He moves close to the bed and draws the tip of a wing feather across her belly. The intensity of her discomfort fades enough for Mary to notice. She heaves a deep sigh and relaxes back into the bed.

"You ok?" John asks, concern radiating throughout his being.

"Yeah," Mary says and her voice is more breathy than usual. She hands him a small paper cup and gives him a weary smile. "Will you get me some more ice?"

"Sure," John answers. He leans over to kiss her forehead before leaving with the cup.

There is silence for a short moment, then Mary glances around. Castiel notices a new emotion flushing through her and only realizes its embarrassment right as she begins to speak.

"Ok, I feel like an idiot, but...Cas?"

Castiel uncloaks several feet to the right of where Mary is looking. Despite having asked for him, Mary still jerks with surprise.

"Hello, Mary," Castiel says.

"I thought that was you," Mary says, a hand pressed against her breast. "You know you have a distinctive feel, don't you?"

Castiel tilts his head at her. "A feel?"

"Yeah," Mary says, nodding. Both her hands travel to her abdomen, which she rubs with a grimace. "Whenever you do your mojo thing."

"Mo...jo?" Castiel is reminded of Dr. Seuss and wonders if this is another of his fake words.

"Whenever you use your powers," Mary explains with a fond smile. "It feels like...I don't know...like drinking...warm gold..."

"I don't know what that means," Castiel confesses, although he does enjoy how it makes him feel to hear it.

"Me either," Mary says. "But it helps, thank you. I'm glad you're here."

"You're welcome," he answers, but he's certain thanks are not necessary. He can't imagine where else he'd be at this moment than with the Winchester family. "I've been looking forward to Sam's birth. He's been given to me to watch over as well as Dean."

"Oh," Mary says and then she starts to cry.

Castiel steps forward, panicked and confused, but before he can say or do anything, he senses John returning to the room. He has no choice but to cloak himself and leave John to discover Mary weeping into her sleeve.

"Mary?" John rushed to her side, setting the cup down and throwing his arm around Mary's shoulders. "What's wrong?"

Castiel suspects that neither he nor John truly understand the words spilling from Mary's mouth into John's neck, but he easily sees that she is overwhelmed. Partly due to her gratitude and relief over Castiel's news, but these are only a portion of the complex feelings churning inside her. Castiel isn't sure he could pick them all out even if he spent many hours studying them. Since Mary is not given to emotional turmoil, Castiel assumes this state is a result of Sam's arrival. It's hard for him to understand how it feels to expel another member of your species from within your body, but it must be extremely trying.

"Sorry," Mary says a moment later as she wipes at her wet face. "I'm just so happy and I feel like crap and I can't believe he's finally here..."

Her words dissolve into more tears, which concerns Castiel, but John apparently knows what to do because when he quietly pulls Mary closer against his side, her emotions stabilize somewhat. This is not something Castiel can do. He can ease physical pain, but in this life-changing moment, Mary needs John, her soul partner.

The thought makes him stretch out his senses to search for Dean. He is a little surprised to discover that Dean is not in the birthing center. Castiel glances at Mary one last time to be certain she is well and then he unfolds his wings. A moment later, he lands in an unfamiliar room. It is similar to the room where the Winchesters keep their television set. Dean is sitting on an unattractive brown sofa and eating something rectangular. It bothers Castiel to find Dean in a place he doesn't recognize until an adult woman enters from another room. Castiel has seen her before in the Winchester home and in any case, he sees no ill intent in her soul. She is here to watch over Dean. Castiel relaxes.

"How's the pizza, kidlet?" The woman asks. Castiel thinks her name is Kamilla.

Dean shrugs and looks away, a faint blush blooming across his cheeks. This is unusual. Dean isn't a particular shy child. Castiel watches Dean closely as he refuses to meet Kamilla's eye. His actions suggest that he finds Kamilla's company unpleasant, but his soul tells another story. In fact, Dean likes Kamilla very much. So Castiel isn't sure why Dean feels bashful around her.

Kamilla just smiles and continues watching the cartoon playing on the television while Dean finishes the pizza. Once he's done, she takes the plate into the kitchen. Castiel wishes he had the time to uncloak and visit with Dean, but Kamilla returns promptly and rejoins Dean on the couch.

"Your mom told me you're really excited about the new baby," she says. At the mention of Sam, Dean forgets to be shy. He turns towards her, eyes lit with excitement and nods.

"I'm gonna be Sammy's big brother," he announces as if it's a job assigned to Dean rather than a relationship. "Mommy said I could help take care of him."

"Oh I bet you're going to do a really good job too," Kamilla says and Castiel can see she really means it. Her words cause Dean to puff up with pride.

"I got to be a man when Daddy isn't home," Dean says and it sounds as if he's reciting something he's heard. It sounds like something John would say, Castiel realizes. He isn't sure he agrees though. Dean is only four years old. Surely that's far too young to task with responsibilities usually reserved for an adult. Perhaps Castiel misunderstands John's meaning. Obviously he can't expect Dean to respond to problems in an adult manner.

"That's true," Kamilla says. Castiel can tell she is amused by Dean, but she keeps her features neutral. Castiel is glad. Dean wouldn't enjoy being laughed at when he is so serious about this matter. "Your mom and dad are going to depend on you, but don't forget, you get to have lots of fun with Sammy, too."

Dean nods happily. Castiel listens for several more minutes as they discuss the various fun activities Dean plans to teach Sammy such as baseball, bicycle riding and how to build a fake fort out of couch pillows. The way Kamilla leads the conversation implies that she is slightly worried about how Dean will react to having a younger sibling commandeering much of his parents' attention. Castiel remembers Mary feeling the same worry in the past. It doesn't make sense to Castiel and that's not even taking into consideration that Dean is a very loving child. Castiel just can't imagine resenting a new brother. There have been very few additions to Castiel's family since he was first created, but with each new brother he meets, Castiel's love for his family only grows.

It still baffles Castiel how different adult humans and children are from one another.

Castiel is nearly ready to return to the birthing center when the horrific jangling of a ringing phone echoes from the other side of the house. Kamilla tells Dean to stay put and leaves the room to answer it. Castiel waits until she is safely out of the room, then uncloaks. He pushes out at the edges of the room, dampening the noise he feels certain is about to occur.

"Cas!" Dean yells. He launches himself off the couch and into Castiel's arms without his feet touching the floor once. Castiel pretends to fall back under Dean's weight so he can enjoy Dean's barking laugh.

"Hello, Dean," he says. Dean grabs the side of one wing and shakes it hard. He is trembling and nearly breathless with excitement. The soul piece that belongs to Sam is no longer fully settled in Dean's possession. Its connection to Dean is a ghostly white thread, ready at any moment to snap and allow the piece to hurtle towards Sam.

"Mommy went away to the hospital to get Sammy and bring him back," Dean says with a huge grin. Castiel considers correcting Dean's concept of Sam's birth, then decides it would take too long to explain.

"And you are very pleased," Castiel comments and he brushes a lock of Dean's hair away from his forehead. Dean leans into Castiel's touch. Dean's immense affection for him wraps around Castiel like a cloak and Castiel decides he's happy his presence doesn't make Dean feel awkward or shy.

"Do you know when the baby'll get here?" Dean asks as he worries the edge of Castiel's collar. The soul piece twitches and slips further away from Dean.

"Very soon, I think," Castiel answers. He senses Kamilla finishing her conversation, so he begins to speak quickly.

"I have to go for now, Dean. But I'll return tonight to see you," he says. Dean nods and hugs Castiel. He is finally accustomed to Castiel leaving at a moment's notice when other adults than Mary are nearby. Castiel sets Dean on the floor and just as he cloaks himself, several things happen at once. Kamilla walks in the door right as Sam's soul piece rips away from Dean and the tremendous force of its movement causes Dean to physical stumble.

"Oops, you ok?" Kamilla says as she catches Dean under his arms. He straightens up, a look of confusion on his face and rubs at his chest.

"Yeah," he says faintly.

Castiel makes sure Dean is unharmed before he shoots after the soul piece. He catches up to it and for a short time, they fly side by side. The soul piece leaves a bright streak of light in its wake, an intense glow that makes the world around it seem bleak. There is only time enough for Castiel to marvel at its true size before they arrive in yet another room. There are several people in the room Castiel doesn't know. He assumes they are doctors. He sees Mary and John, both emanating relief before his attention is drawn to the infant cradled in one of the doctor's hands. The child is crying. Dean's soul piece hovers over him, waiting and watching the new soul. The soul quakes and tension builds, cracks appearing over its golden surface.

Sam's soul shatters.

Pieces explode out in all directions, many more pieces that Dean had. Two travel for a breath of a moment, finding their way to John and Mary while the rest fly out of the room. Soul pieces pour in from other humans, filling the empty spaces. Dean's piece crashes into Sam and makes itself at home.

There is one of Sam's soul pieces that Castiel instantly recognizes and he dives after it without thinking. It feels like Dean, like his soul and Castiel can't help but follow it. He finds himself on the same path he'd just traveled. He can't keep his eyes off the soul piece. It feels so familiar to Castiel and it’s not just because he feels a kinship with all Dean's soul carriers. Castiel reaches out to it and as his fingers glide over the blazing heat of the soul piece, light curls around them. When he draws his fingers away, they leave luminous imprints behind in the air. His hand glows as he stares at it and Castiel watches in shock as the light seeps into his skin. He senses wisps of Sam's soul meld with his Grace.

Castiel has stolen a bit of Sam's soul.

He snatches his hand away, horrified by his theft. This is not how it works. He can't just take bits of soul. Not if his Father didn't give those pieces to him.

The soul piece pauses in midair as if in response to Castiel's panic. Castiel feels exposed. This is nothing like receiving Dean's soul piece. In that case, it was like welcoming home someone Castiel already knew. Now, Castiel feels as if he's facing a fellow soldier on battlefield. They share a common mission. The soul piece circles around Castiel's body and when it brushes against him one last time, Castiel thinks he understands.

He is sealing a contract with Sam. They will share Dean and between the two of them, they will keep him safe and happy.

The soul piece takes off again, darting away from Castiel and this time, he lets it go. He'll let the moment when Sam's soul piece merges with Dean remain private. In a little while, he'll return to the birthing center and get his first proper look at Sam. For now, Castiel feels the need to find a quiet place and pray for guidance and to offer praise for Sam's safe arrival.

As he flies, he feels the small strands of Sam's soul wrap over the piece Castiel carries, tying Dean’s soul piece even closer to Castiel's Grace. Their three destinies are deeply entwined.

Castiel just hopes he's ready for what's coming.

Chapter Text

By the time Castiel finishes praying and flies back to the birthing center, Sam has been moved to the strange room full of children in boxes. Castiel finds this room extremely off-putting. He thinks children this new should stay with their mothers. It's not as if the infants can use this time to become acquainted with their fellow age-mates since humans this young are unable to communicate verbally. Still, he doesn’t want to ruin his first real meeting with Sam, so Castiel resolves to ignore his unease as he touches down in front of the box containing Sam.

Like with Dean, there is a white card on the front of the box. On it is written, "WINCHESTER, SAMUEL". Castiel remembers the chaos his true voice caused the last time, so he makes certain to cloak the small space around Sam's box before speaking.

"Hello, Winchester Samuel," Castiel says with a slight smile because he also remembers how ignorant of humans he'd once been.

Sam's arms and legs move up and down as he contemplates Castiel. This is very different than the many appraisals he's received from Dean. Dean always approached Castiel with instinctive trust and profound affection, even from his very first moments. Sam, on the other hand, mostly exudes curiosity. His feelings are more distant than Dean's and Castiel doesn't know if it’s because Sam is naturally more distant or if because Castiel must first earn his affection.

Either way, Castiel will endeavor to win Sam's favor.

"My name is Castiel," he says. "I am an Angel of the Lord. I am also your brother's soul partner."

Sam makes a familiar gurgling sound. Castiel is surprised to discover that a part of him misses the small innocent newborn Dean had once been. He wouldn't dishonor Dean by attempting to reverse his life's journey, but Castiel can't deny it is soothing spending time with something as pure as a new born soul.

"You haven't met Dean yet," Castiel continues. He's aware that Sam doesn't understand his words, but he also knows Sam can understand his intent through his tone and more importantly through the cautious out-reaching of his Grace. He wants Sam to know that Castiel is a friend and is here to protect him.

"I think you will like him though," he says. "He is very anxious to see you."

Castiel feels the stolen strands of Sam's soul piece reacting within his Grace to Sam's presence. The strands are less powerful than Dean's soul piece, but equally as insistent. When Sam reaches up towards him, Castiel is unable to resist reaching back. He plucks Sam from the box and holds him up so that they are eye to eye. He wraps the top of one wing around Sam's head in order to hold him steady.

"You are larger than Dean was at this age," Castiel comments. "And you have more hair."

Sam only blinks and leans back, resting his head against Castiel's feathers.

"Nevertheless, you do resemble Dean," Castiel says. Now that he's gotten a good look at him, Castiel pulls Sam closer to his body. Sam lays his cheek against Castiel's shoulder and heaves an unexpectedly heavy sigh as he curls his tiny fingers around the edge of Castiel's cloak. Once again, Castiel finds himself cataloguing the differences between Sam and Dean. When he is this close to Castiel, Dean feels a soul deep sense of safety and belonging. On the other hand, while Sam is at ease in a manner he might not feel with a total stranger, Castiel doesn't feel love from him. Not yet anyway.

But this is the similar to his relationship with Mary. She immediately felt gratitude towards Castiel, but she didn't love him until she got to know him.

It’s possible Castiel still hasn't quite grasped what a magnificent gift Dean really is.

"I shouldn't compare you so much to Dean," Castiel says quietly as he brushes a feather tip down Sam's back in soft strokes. "I apologize. I have a tendency to compare all humans to Dean. But I believe you are special as well. I hope we'll be friends."

Even if Sam could speak, he wouldn't have answered because he's fallen asleep against Castiel's chest. His thoughts slow and his sleep is dreamless. For a moment, Castiel allows himself to fall into the quiet of Sam's mind and he memorizes how Sam's feels at his most peaceful. If Sam's like most humans, he'll soon learn to fill his mind to bursting with memories and ideas and trivia, but for now, he is new, a clean slate. He is at his most natural, untarnished by the process of living. It only took a few short years for Dean to learn pain and sorrow. He hopes Sam won't learn them as quickly, but just in case, Castiel wants to remember what Sam is like before he does.

Their visit is cut short when Castiel senses the approach of several adults. He carefully lays Sam back in his box and cloaks himself. Sam makes a small noise of complaint about losing his comfortable pillow, but Castiel is unable to soothe him because seconds later, a young human male charges into the room. Castiel watches his approach and relaxes when he senses nothing, but cheer and a determination to do his job well.

"Hello, Sam," the man says quietly as he reaches into the box to gather Sam into his arms. The small noises of complaint turn to large noises of complaint as Sam makes his opinion of this constant movement known. Unlike Castiel, the man is unfazed by Sam's apparent displeasure.

"There, now, shhh," he says softly against Sam's head. "It's ok. We're going to see your mom. Don't you want to see Mommy again?"

Castiel relaxes even more. If Sam should be anywhere right now, it's at Mary's side. He stretches out his senses in search of Dean, but still can't find him in the building. Castiel frowns. Dean should be with his family now too.

The man carries Sam to the door. Castiel stays in his place, considering if he should follow Sam or seek out Dean. His natural inclination is to locate Dean, but he feels the strangest reluctance to leave Sam. Not because Sam is now more important than Dean, but rather because this time of Sam's life is more important. The feeling is very bizarre, but Castiel is loath to miss these first moments of Sam's life.

He's just made his decision to return to Mary's room when he hears the rustle of wings just before Israfel materializes at his side.

"Here you are," she says, breathless, running a hand through her long pale blond hair.

"Am I needed?" Castiel asks in mild alarm, but Israfel's silent negation puts him at ease. "But you've been looking for me?"

"When you left suddenly, I surmised the new child was on the way," Israfel explains. Her eyes catch the scene of the room finally and she peers around in apparent delight. "Ah, so many new souls! What a delightful room!"

Castiel follows her gaze with a frown. "You don't find it worrying?"

"No, why should I?" She looks down at the closest child, a female with dark brown skin and wide clear eyes. "Children are our Father's most precious creation," she says with such loving sincerity that Castiel smiles as well. Put that way, Castiel can see how an angel might enjoy being in a room filled with such creations. Still, it seems a little impersonal for Castiel's tastes.

"Would you like to meet Sam Winchester?" he asks. Shy pleasure gathers around his Grace. He does hope Israfel will approve of Sam the way she approved of Dean.

"Of course," she answers and looks around the room. "Is he here?"

"Ah, no. Follow me," Castiel instructs and he is gratified when she does without question. They slip under the mortal realm and glide through the underspace to their destination. When they explode back into Dean's reality, they are in Mary's birthing room. The young man who brought Sam is just handing him to his mother while John watches with such pride Castiel thinks he must ache with it.

"Hello, baby," Mary croons softly, pulling Sam safe against her breast. "I missed you."

Castiel finally gets to see Sam's soul light up with that instinctive love he'd always felt from Dean. His soul glows so brightly, but Castiel is not even a little surprised. This type of abiding endless devotion is a common Winchester trait. All three present Winchesters shine with it.

"Oh," Israfel sighs. Castiel smiles at the amazement in her tone, but then he looks at her and sees it's more than just amazement. She looks truly awed and that, Castiel did not expect. Israfel has spent many of her long years inspiring the words and sounds to describe endless beauty. She creates awe. It does not often visit her, at least not in the mortal realm.

"Israfel?"

"These children," she says absently. "It's not just that their souls are pure and loving. They are truly strong. Especially this one."

Castiel can't help the tiny flare of useless indignation and it makes Israfel chuckle.

"I mean no disrespect to Dean, brother. But you shouldn't let your love for him blind you to the truth, Castiel," Israfel says with a trace of a lecturing tone. "There are different types of strengths. Sam Winchester's soul is curiously...unconventional."

"I don't know what you mean," Castiel says, perplexed. Israfel must be seeing deeper than Castiel can. Her power lends itself well to reading the hearts and souls of any human. Castiel can read souls, of course, but he wasn't built to do so with such ease. He sees that Sam has a strong soul, but he can't see the subtleties like he can with Dean. He knows Dean's strength lies in his protective nature and the sheer depth of his feelings. He can't see Sam's strengths without having time to get to know him.

"It's difficult to say," Israfel says, which makes Castiel feel better about his lack of insight. "Even in the presence of two of his most important soul carriers, his soul is unfettered. Not free of their love, but independent," she explains. "Independent in a way Dean Winchester is not. In ways, this makes him stronger."

"But...how can devotion and attachment be considered a weakness?" Castiel asks, troubled. "Our devotion to our Father is our greatest strength."

"Yes, it is," she agrees. Her expression is thoughtful, undisturbed by Castiel's questions. "As is devotion to God a strength in humans. But our Father is unchanging and faithful." She turns to look at Castiel with a rueful expression. "The same can't be said about humans. Even when they love each other, they hurt each other. When a human depends solely on other humans, they always end up disappointed."

"I didn't know you were so cynical," Castiel says. This conversation makes him uncomfortable. He doesn't like thinking about Dean being disappointed.

"You misunderstand me," Israfel says lightly. "I don't think Sam Winchester will feel anything, but fierce loyalty towards his family. I merely meant..." She pauses, choosing her words carefully. "I look at Sam's soul and I can honestly say I've never seen one like it. There is a strength in his uniqueness that I don't quite understand myself."

"That is how I feel when I look at Dean," Castiel murmurs, his eyes on Sam. He searches as deep as he can and still, he sees nothing other than a warm pleasing soul he has yet to learn intimately.

"I believe you," Israfel says seriously. "Perhaps I'm wrong about Sam Winchester."

Castiel didn't think that was the case. If Israfel saw Sam in this special light, then she was not mistaken by what she saw. But what it means and whether other angels see him that way remains to be seen. Either way, Castiel resolves to put the issue at the back of his mind for later perusal. He wants to concentrate on Sam's present. Not his nebulous future.

"Are you sure you didn't receive a soul piece from him?" Castiel asks to lighten his own suddenly dark mood. The surprised laugh he draws from Israfel does the trick. Very few things bring Castiel such joy as tugging that crystal bright sound from his superior.

"Very sure, my brother," she says and the tender endearment gives Castiel the impulse to open his wings against hers. Israfel stiffens briefly, but it is only shock that quickly fades as she returns the caress. The darkness in his mood is gone completely.

It retreats even further when he feels a very familiar tug on his Grace.

Dean is finally here.

"Castiel?" Israfel asks, noticing his shift of attention.

"It's Dean," he says and he glances back at Sam. The chunk of Dean's soul he carries begins to glow brighter than the rest in anticipation. The feeling transmits itself into Castiel's Grace. Whether because he's excited himself or because of the influence of Sam's soul strands, Castiel doesn't know or care. He settles into the sensation and decides to enjoy it. Israfel's wing shifts against Castiel's and he knows she can feel it too.

"It's been a long time since I've seen two soul carriers meet," Israfel whispers, as if the humans can hear them.

Castiel doesn't have time to answer because there's a light knock on the room's door. When John answers it, Castiel sees the woman, Kamilla, holding Dean's hand.

"Daddy?" Dean sounds very nervous, possibly even a little distressed and Castiel longs to go to him. Instead, he stays in place as John sweeps Dean into his arms.

"It's ok, buddy. C'mere. I want you to meet someone," John says. He carries Dean to the side of Mary's bed and lets him down. Mary shifts on the bed, leaning over enough so that Sam and Dean are on eye level.

"Hey, Dean," Mary says, her voice more gentle than Castiel's ever heard it. "This is your brother. This is Sam," she says. Both she and John's gazes are fixed on Dean's face and Castiel senses the worry in them. They know their son very well. They know how excited Dean was for Sam's arrival. It seems that hoping for something and being faced with it are very different, if Mary and John's reaction is a reliable judge. Here, at the last moment, they still worry that Dean will have problems with the new addition.

Castiel has no worries. He sees how the great hunk of Sam's soul piece expands and blazes inside Dean. The emotional equivalent of this display must feel overwhelming, like joy and comfort and excitement rolled into one. Castiel may be Dean's soul-mate, but Dean is meeting the human that owns him more completely than any other. Dean can't possibly feel anything negative right now.

And he doesn’t.

It doesn’t stop Castiel from being surprised by the way Dean reacts.

Instead of the exuberant greeting Castiel anticipated, Dean holds tightly onto John's arm and sticks a finger in his mouth.

"Hi, Sammy," he mutters, though through his finger it sounds like 'Hi, Schammy.' Castiel stares.

Dean is being shy.

"He's concerned that Sam won't like him," Israfel surmises with a fond smile. Castiel would answer, but he's too busy watching Dean reach out tentatively to touch Sam's arm. As his touch, the soul piece Sam carries jumps so hard that Sam's arms flail and he lets out a high-pitched gurgling sound. Dean snatches his hand away as if it was burned.

"It's ok, honey," Mary says, holding in her laughter. "You can touch him if you want."

Dean jerks a nod and tries again. The trembling of his own soul piece is too strong for Dean to shy away from the second attempt and this time, when Dean takes Sam's little hand, Sam stills and Dean grins.

"Hi, Sammy," he says again, more strongly and the residual worry in John and Mary melts into relief and pleasure. Clearly, they both find the image of their two children holding hands to be extremely charming. Castiel can't blame them. It feels very natural to see Dean this way, hovering over Sam and holding him steady. He remembers what Israfel's said about Sam, but watching him now, seeing the way his soul thrums with contentment, Castiel can't feel uneasy.

All he feels is slight regret that he can't uncloak and join them properly.

"Don't worry, Castiel," Israfel says and that's how Castiel knows his emotion was more obvious than he meant it to be. "I still have faith in our Father's plan for you. You won't always be on the outside looking in."

As Castiel watches Mary shift and John help Dean climb up next to her, he's not so sure. They are complete like this, together and connected. It's hard to see how Castiel could really fit.

Yet, despite this feeling, Castiel won't complain. He sees waves of joy crashing through Dean's soul and that's more than enough.

It's everything.

Chapter Text

"Cas?"

Dean's voice is sleepy and Castiel considers hushing him back into slumber. He probably shouldn't have come to visit at this particular moment. It's just that Castiel hasn't had the chance to see Dean since the night of Sam's birth. He'd returned to the Winchester home to find that Sam had been kept at the birthing center that evening while Dean had been sent back home with the neighbor woman. He’d been very glad to see Castiel. Most of their visitation had consisted of Dean babbling breathlessly about his brother while Castiel held him on his lap and nodded occasionally.

A somewhat grueling reconnaissance mission has kept Castiel from returning since that night. As he looks down at Dean's sleep-swollen eyes, Castiel knows he should come back during the day. But then Dean crawls to his knees and buries his face in Castiel's cloak.

"Eh miffpht uee" is what Castiel hears with his physical ears, but he translates it with his Grace.

"I missed you too," Castiel says as Dean hugs him tightly around the middle.

"C'mon!" Dean squeals and he nearly falls off the bed in his haste, but Castiel rights him. Dean grabs his hand and tugs him towards the bedroom door. "You gotta meet Sammy!"

Castiel considers telling Dean that he's already met Sam, but he knows Dean well enough to know that Dean probably doesn't care. He'll still want to show his brother off. So Castiel just nods silently and allows himself to be pulled down the hallway. It's when he realizes they are heading towards Mary and John's bedroom that Castiel halts their progress.

"Is your brother with your parents?"

Irritation flits across Dean's face and he grabs the sleeve of Castiel's robe. "Yeah, Mommy said he gots to sleep with them for awhile till he gets bigger. C'mon!"

"Give me a moment," Castiel says and then he cloaks. Dean lets out a frustrated sigh, then leans against the wall to wait, arms crossed over his chest. Before he opens the bedroom door, Castiel sends a jet of cool air through Dean's hair, ruffling it and earning himself a grudging giggle.

Mary and John are both asleep. It's very strange being in their sleeping room. Castiel has seen the room, of course, but he rarely walks here. Much of the room is devoted to a bed large enough to accommodate both of Dean's parents. Currently, Mary is turned on her side, facing a tiny box suspended in a swing-like contraption. John lies beside her on his back, one arm flung high over his head as he snores lightly. His sleep is much deeper than Mary's and Castiel senses he is dreaming about his sons. Mary merely dozes. As Castiel flies over top of the bed, he sees why.

Sam is nestled in the tiny box, but unlike his parents, he is not asleep. Castiel peers at him. Sam doesn't seem to want for anything. He's not hungry or in need of cleaning. He's just...thinking. His thoughts are very simple, but less chaotic than what Castiel remembers of Dean's thoughts at the same age. They turn from Mary to John to Dean and back again at fairly regular intervals. Castiel isn't quite sure what to make of it.

He watches only a brief moment, aware that Dean is waiting on him, then turns to the bed and uses his Grace to send Mary and John deeply into unconsciousness. Satisfied with his work, Castiel uncloaks and beckons Dean to join him.

"Are they sleepin'?" Dean whispers loudly against Castiel's cloak sleeve.

"Don't worry," Castiel says in a normal tone. "They won't hear us."

"Oh." Dean takes Castiel's hand and pulls him to the swinging box. "This is Sammy!"

He reaches into the box, apparently with the intent of picking up Sam, but Castiel beats him to it. Perhaps Dean has some practice carrying Sam, but Castiel doesn't want to take chances. They are both such young humans.

When Sam sees who is picking him up, he adds Castiel to his mental line-up with a spark of happiness. Castiel can't help smiling. Sam is pleased to see him.

"Hello, Sam," Castiel says as he cradles Sam the way he remembers Mary holding baby Dean. Sam lies back with a small sigh and kicks his feet. It inspires Castiel to wrap his left wing around his body and flutter the tip of one feather under Sam's foot. In response, Sam kicks harder and makes a gurgling sound that Castiel wouldn't recognize if he didn't sense Sam's amusement.

"Hey," Dean says, standing on his toes to try and see Sam in Castiel's arms. "I can't see," he adds, annoyed.

"Forgive me," Castiel says and he carefully seats himself on the floor at the end of Mary and John's bed. Dean scrambles to him, slotting himself between Castiel's side and his wing, shuddering with pleasure once he's settled fully against Castiel and can see Sam. It occurs to Castiel that this is probably the happiest place of Dean's life. Huddled in close proximity with his two most significant soul carriers, secure in Castiel's touch and with Sam in full view.

"Sam," Dean says, patting Sam's belly. "This is Cas. Cas is my angel." He glances at Castiel. "Are they gonna send Sammy an angel?"

"I've been assigned to watch over your brother," Castiel assures him. But this information doesn't please Dean. Instead, a frown turns down the corners of his mouth and Castiel senses in him a shot of unease.

"They sent you to Sammy?" His manner is calm and careful, but Castiel can hear his heart thumping hard in his chest. Castiel is taken aback. Something about this situation is upsetting to Dean, yet Castiel can't do anything to change it. He can't disobey his orders.

"Yes," Castiel answers, eyeing Dean closely. Dean is watching Sam and chewing the inside of his mouth. "It won't be time consuming," Castiel says, in case Dean is worried that his duty towards Sam will shorten their time together. Even with his assumption that much of their time would be spent with Mary and Sam, Castiel had always planned on making certain he and Dean have their own time alone together.

"Yeah," Dean says and he pulls away from Castiel a little. Not much, but enough to confuse Castiel, who is used to Dean wanting to be as close to Castiel as possible. "He's pretty little."

"Yes," Castiel says again, but in truth, he is very confused. A swirl of negative emotions begins to grow within Dean's soul, a troubling combination of disappointment and hurt. And even more worrying is the bleak acceptance tumbling in after. Sam obviously senses it too because the strands of his soul piece that Castiel carries tighten in displeasure. With the addition of Castiel's own confusion and apprehension, they create a miserable little triangle.

"He needs an angel, I guess," Dean says forlornly. "'Cause he's still little and I'm much bigger." It sounds as if he is reasoning with himself. "Mommy says Sammy needs our help now and I have to share."

"Dean-" Castiel says as he gets an inkling of what's going on, but Dean suddenly interrupts him, lifting wide bright eyes to Castiel's face.

“Please don't stop being my angel, Cas," Dean pleads. "He’s mine to look after. I don't wanna give you to Sammy."

Dean's emotions are as strong and complex as ever. Castiel reads in Dean two overwhelming desires that pull and push at one another. The first is to keep Castiel to himself and to remain Castiel's only special human. The second is to prevent Castiel from taking the particular role as Sam's protector because Dean desires the role for himself. They are almost the same desire, but pointing in two different directions. The only real difference is that Dean's feelings towards Sam are protective while the feelings towards Castiel are distinctly possessive.

Hardly a surprise. As Sam's older brother and soul carrier, Dean can't help feeling protective of him. And Zachariah was right about the way humans act towards their soul mates. Once they identify their soul mates, humans want that person to belong to them as fully as possible. The only difference with Dean is that he shares such a large portion of his soul with Sam that the protective feelings equal if not surpass the possessive ones he feels for Castiel.

It's obviously confusing and upsetting to Dean because tears begin to spill down his cheeks and he buries his face in Castiel's cloak, erasing the space he'd created between them. His distress transmits itself to Sam, who bursts into tears.

Just like that, Castiel finds himself holding two crying Winchesters.

It's not a very comfortable feeling. Castiel will never like it when Dean is hurt, but it's also difficult dealing with Sam's helpless pain. He has no way of explaining to Sam that everything will be fine, so Castiel does the next best thing. He wraps Sam in his Grace and while it's not as calming as it would be with Dean, Sam quiets a little.

"Dean," Castiel says softly, brushing a hand through Dean's hair. He can't see Dean's face because Dean is hiding it. He doesn't want Castiel to see him upset. "Dean, I need to put your brother to bed."

Dean nods and pulls back, wiping at his face with both hands. Castiel quickly transports Sam to the swinging contraption and puts him it. With the brush on one finger over his forehead, Castiel sends Sam into sleep.

"Come, Dean," Castiel says, reaching out for Dean's hand. "I think we need to talk."

Dean takes his hand and on the way out, Castiel removes the insistent sleep suggestion from Mary and John so they can attend to Sam if he needs them. He then leads Dean out into the hallway and back to his bedroom. They sit together on the bed. Dean picks up his pillow and holds it against his stomach, leaning over it and sighing heavily. It's so very obvious that he doesn't expect Castiel's comfort that Castiel is amazed. The memory of Mary's fear that Dean would resent Sam returns to Castiel's mind. Dean doesn't resent Sam, but perhaps this situation is an echo of that fear.

"Dean," Castiel says and then he wraps a wing around Dean's shoulders, pulling him closer. "You've misunderstood me. I am assigned to watch Sam and you. I am not replacing you with Sam."

The hurt inside Dean eases at his words, but he is still troubled.

"You got us both?" Dean looks up at Castiel, eyes red and damp, but no longer crying.

"My superiors want me to watch over you both, yes," Castiel says. He runs the edge of a feather through Dean's tear tracks, soaking up the moisture. Dean touches the feather and frowns.

"But you're my angel," he says and though he sounds stubborn and decided, Castiel senses the guilt he feels at his own words. Dean desperately wants to share with Sam, but he's having trouble fighting his soul deep instincts. There is a part of Castiel that wishes it were this simple. That he himself weren't being tugged in two different directions. But in this, Castiel and Dean are similar. They both must find a way to balance their duties.

"You already share me," Castiel reminds him. "My first duty is to God, our Father. Your first duty is to your family."

"I gotta share you with God?" Dean asks, sounding rather annoyed.

"Yes, of course," Castiel says sternly. "Everything belongs to God."

Dean narrows his eyes at Castiel and grips the feather he still holds.

"You belong to me," he states firmly.

There's suddenly a voice in Castiel's ear, an echo of his brother and he sees Uriel's rare distraught expression in his mind's eye.

Humans are greedy filthy animals, Castiel. It's inevitable. He will ask you to join him and he won't care that it tears you apart.

For a moment, a sliver of time, Castiel feels a terrifying burst of delight and he has no idea why. There is nothing pleasant about being torn apart, about the way Dean is building a heart for Castiel just so he can take it away. And yet, in the fraction of a second, Castiel feels nothing, but Dean's ownership and he wants to sink into it.

Then the sensation falls away and Castiel is dismayed, both at Dean and at himself.

"I'm an angel of the Lord, Dean," Castiel says, capturing and holding Dean's gaze. "My life and service belong to Heaven."

There is silence for a long stretch of time as Dean processes this information. He finally nods, not happy, but rather accepting and leans against Castiel's side.

"But there's no reason to choose," Castiel says as he puts an arm around Dean. "You can have me and love your family at the same time. Just as I can have you and love mine."

"Ok," Dean says quietly. Then he adds, voice even smaller, "Sorry, Cas."

"Don't apologize," Castiel says. "It's true that you must share me, but I will confess." He lowers his voice as if telling Dean a great secret. "You are my favorite human."

He is surprised by the power of the joyful surge Dean experiences at the promise. Dean laughs and throw his arms around Castiel's waist, hugging him tight. It seems the perfect opportunity, so Castiel reaches under Dean's arms and tickles at his sides. Which makes Dean screech and twist away from him, breathless with laughter. Just as he's out of reach, Castiel tugs him back with his Grace and starts the whole process over again. Dean's soul shudders over and again with happiness and love and it's almost enough to make Castiel forget Uriel's frightening warning and his own bewildering reaction to it.

But not quite enough because as Dean lays back against his pillow, exhausted with mirth and tells Castiel he loves him, Castiel can’t help feeling relief that Dean has yet to ask Castiel to join him.

It's the 'yet' that really troubles Castiel.

Chapter Text

"Oh Castiel, I keep meaning to tell you about next week."

Castiel is in the Winchester's living room with Mary, Sam and Dean. Mary is seated on the long sofa and Sam is nestled happily in her arms while she feeds him. Dean is sitting on the floor across from Castiel and together, they are playing a game called 'hot hands'. Dean lays his small hands in Castiel's larger ones and tries to tear them away before Castiel can flip his hands over and slap them. Dean's reflexes are extraordinarily quick, so Castiel tests him by using his much faster wings. When Dean jerks back under the hard tap of feathers, he accuses Castiel of cheating, though he is laughing as he does so.

"What happens next week?" Castiel asks curiously. He likes being included in the Winchesters' plans.

"Dean's going to school," she says somewhat wistfully.

For his part, Castiel is stunned into silence. He knows what school is, of course and he understands education is a necessary element of surviving in Dean's world. But his research had led Castiel to believe that Dean would not have to start until the following year. It isn't something Castiel is eager to welcome because it will complicate their visiting schedule. Between sleep, time with family, Castiel's other duties and Dean's classes, it will be difficult to find the time for each other.

"Isn't that early?" Castiel finally asks with a frown.

"Well, it's pre-school actually," Mary explains. She is feeling equal measures of pride and melancholy. Castiel thinks perhaps she is also not ready for this change in their normal schedule, though she is more accepting of it than Castiel. But Mary's had her whole life to become accustomed to human traditions. Castiel doesn't understand why Dean has to go away from his home to learn what he needs to know to survive. Surely Mary and John could teach him the necessary tools.

"What is the difference?" Castiel asks as Dean makes him trade hand positions, so that he can try to escape Dean's slaps.

"It's not as formal as regular school. It's more about getting ready for kindergarten," she says. "They'll help him keep learning his letters and work on vocabulary. Things like that."

Castiel nods. Dean has been learning to recognize and write the letters of the English alphabet. As much as Dean enjoys having stories read to him, he's been having an easier time identifying the words of his favorite songs. Castiel isn't very surprised. Music is a special language all its own. It helps write words of power into the hearts of men. It makes sense that it would do the same with ordinary words. Castiel has been helping as much as possible, though once Dean discovers that Castiel can speak any language known on Earth and several that aren't, Castiel ends up spending most of their reading time translating Dean's songs and stories into dozens of different languages. Dean favors Spanish, Latin and Arabic, but his favorite is Castiel's own native tongue, a language without name. Dean likes it because he thinks it sounds like rain and crickets.

"But mostly it's about learning social skills," Mary adds as she wipes at Sam's mouth.

"Social skills," Castiel repeats uncertainly.

"Yes, you know." Mary glances at him and then smiles when she sees he obviously doesn't know. "Socialization. Dean has to learn how to act at school. Away from home."

"Oh," Castiel says, understanding a little better now. He forgets sometimes that humans must learn the difficult and often irrational rules that govern their own particular culture. Angels don't have to deal with this education. They are created with full knowledge of their world and their purpose.

"What rules must he learn?" Castiel asks, eyes on Dean as he pulls away from their game in favor of standing and turning in circles.

"There's all kinds really," Mary says, also watching Dean make himself dizzy. "Getting along with the other kids, obeying the teacher, sitting quietly. Basically learning how to function in the world outside our family."

Castiel feels an unexpected pang at this information and he thinks maybe he understands why Mary felt a bit sad. Not only because she'll have less time with Dean, but because Dean will be widening his circle of acquaintances. It's the beginning of a separation process that appears to take years to complete in Dean's culture. Of course, Dean will always be connected to his home and family, but he'll be slowly building his own life and eventually will create his own family.

School is just one of the many places Dean will go that Castiel can't follow.

"I don't want to go to school," Dean suddenly says, pausing and stumbling to the side.

Mary sighs wearily as if she's heard this before, but Castiel is surprised. He knows Dean enjoys spending time with the children his age in their neighborhood.

"Why not?" Castiel asks as he stretches out one wing, catching Dean before he can spill into the floor. Dean rolls into the wing until he ends up by Castiel's side.

"I wanna stay here with Sammy," Dean says forlornly, wrapping Castiel's wing around his shoulder and burrowing into Castiel's side.

"He's mad that Sam isn't old enough to go with him," Mary says, hiding a smile.

Dean doesn't want to go where Sam can't follow.

Castiel never thought he'd have so much in common with a human.

"Daddy says I have to go," Dean says with resigned acceptance. This is the final word in Dean's life. His father says he must go and so he will go.

Another thing they have in common.

Castiel hugs Dean, wrapping him in wings and waves of warm affection from his Grace. It helps bolster Dean's mood, but Castiel still senses that Dean is upset about this school development. He is even less eager than Mary and Castiel to change their schedule.

"You must go to school so you can teach Sam what you have learned," Castiel says reasonably. He thinks this is the best way to convince Dean of school's importance. Judging from the way Dean's mood brightens even further, Castiel sees that he is correct.

They spend the rest of Castiel's visit talking about the various topics Dean will study. When Castiel takes flight once more, he leaves Dean holding Sam in his lap and telling his brother that he will teach him colors and numbers. Sam doesn't understand anything Dean is saying, but his soul glimmers with pleasure at Dean's attention.

A few days later, Uriel catches Castiel's mind wandering during their guard duty. Since Castiel's distraction was due to worrying about Dean learning to focus his attention, Castiel is too embarrassed to confess the real reason to Uriel. Although Uriel's sour expression is a fairly accurate indication that he knows the subject of Castiel's thoughts regardless.

When Dean's first day of school arrives, Castiel decides to check on him. Just to be sure he's having a good day.

The light of Dean's soul calls to Castiel from a large brick building not far from the Winchesters' home. The building has only one level, but is spread out enough to accommodate the presence of hundreds of humans. Behind the building, there is a flat grassy area sprinkled with metal contraptions that Castiel identifies as large toys. They are covered in children, but as none of them are Dean, Castiel continues into the building, taking care to remain cloaked.

Castiel finds Dean in a room that is labeled PRE-SCHOOL-MRS. CRENSHAW. He is sitting in a circle with other children his age and they are playing a game that involves passing a ball to one another. The teacher, an adult female Castiel suspects is the aforementioned Mrs. Crenshaw, leads the game with a firm, but gentle voice. Castiel watches as Dean is given the ball and must decide which of his classmates will receive it next.

He is having fun.

The game ends a short time later and the students return to small chairs attached to low desks. Mrs. Crenshaw takes her place in front of the classroom and raises her hand into the air. This must be a signal to the children because they become quieter, their little voices trailing off as Mrs. Crenshaw waits for their attention. Once she has it, she gives them a wide smile.

"Very good!" Her voice is bright and encouraging and Castiel can see how it pleases the children. "Alright. It's time to move onto another lesson. We're going to learn about families. Everyone has a family and everyone's family is different. In a little while, we're going to draw pictures of our families."

This information sends a wave of excitement through the students and Mrs. Crenshaw has to raise her hand again to command their attention.

"But before we do," she continues. "Would anyone like to tell us about their family?"

Fifteen small hands shoot into the air, Dean's included. In this case, the raised hand must signal the desire to speak rather than a desire for silence because after a quick perusal of the students, Mrs. Crenshaw points to a girl with blond hair flowing down her back. The girl stands from her chair and twirls a lock of her hair around her finger.

"Yes, Marisa," Mrs. Crenshaw says. "Who do you live with?"

"Um, there's Mommy," Marisa says. Her voice is soft and her soul glimmers quietly, almost shyly. "And Grandma and Janie."

"Who is Janie?"

"My big sister," Marisa explains, her timidity easing a touch at the thought of her sister. "She's ten."

This process of sharing continues through three of the other children. In between each presentation, Mrs. Crenshaw points out the differences and similarities between each child's family and emphasizes that each family is special in its own way. Castiel enjoys this lesson. He thinks about his own family. It's probably a good thing he's not in this class because it would take far too many hours for Castiel to enumerate all his many brothers.

After the fourth child, Mrs. Crenshaw calls on Dean to share. He stands up, cheeks blushing, but doesn't say anything for a long moment. Having the attention of his entire class has apparently embarrassed Dean into silence.

"It's alright, Dean," Mrs. Crenshaw says in an encouraging tone. "Why don't you tell us about your family members?"

"Um," Dean says. It's a common word among the children. "Um, there's Daddy," he finally says. "And Mommy and Sammy and Cas."

Castiel's wings flutter in pleasure at being included and the soul piece he carries answers with a shiver of its own.

"Who are Sammy and Cas?" she prompts dutifully.

"Sammy is my brother," Dean states proudly, his shyness forgotten. "He's a baby and I get to help take care of him."

"Oh I see!" Mrs. Crenshaw looks impressed, but Castiel suspects that is more to support Dean to express genuine amazement. "Do you like being a big brother?"

"Uh huh," Dean says with a nod. "It's fun."

"Is Cas your brother too?"

"No," Dean says, drawing the word out and huffing a laugh as if the thought of Cas as his sibling is hilarious. "Cas is my angel."

Mrs. Crenshaw is taken aback by this information, but Castiel isn't sure why. Her soul has the shine of a faithful believer, one who truly loves God, so Castiel doesn't understand why she should be surprised by the presence of one of His angels in her student’s life.

"An angel?" she says, bemused. A closer look reveals a certain degree of disbelief. Castiel finds this very strange.

"Yeah," Dean confirms.

"Oh. Well...what does he look like?"

"He's tall," Dean says, stretching a hand up to indicate Castiel's great height. "He's got really big white wings and he wears a white jacket and he frowns a lot."

Castiel didn't realize this about himself.

"Oh an angel," Mrs. Crenshaw says, as if she now understands, though Castiel sees that she still doesn't believe Dean. "And he lives with you?"

"No," Dean says, frowning at her. "He lives in Heaven," he adds and it's clear he thinks this should have been obvious. "But he visits me a lot and when I grow up, we are going to live together and be a family."

Surprise blooms on Mrs. Crenshaw's face and she begins to say something, but Castiel is too shocked to note her words. Dean's never said anything like this to Castiel before. They've never discussed the future, but he’d believed Dean knew Castiel would always just be a visitor. In all the times Castiel had thought of that fact and felt regret, he'd always assumed Dean understood it as well.

He doesn't look forward to correcting Dean.

The sharing session continues for a short time and then the children are given piece of white paper and colored sticks. Castiel watches as they use the colored sticks to draw ill-formed pictures of their families. Dean's drawing is not very accurate, but Castiel recognizes himself as the splotch with two big triangles attached to either side of its body.

The next several minutes pass quietly and Castiel considers returning home to ponder what he's learned today, but before he does, Mrs. Crenshaw calls the class' attention and tells them to ready themselves for 'recess'. Castiel is too curious about 'recess' to leave before finding out its purpose. The students line up in front of the door and after Mrs. Crenshaw summons another adult for assistance, the class marches down the hallway and out of the building to the flat grassy area with the large metal toys. After a short explanation of the rules of 'recess', Mrs. Crenshaw allows the students to break their line. They run towards the metal toys, yelling and laughing as they go.

Dean goes to the metal toy he always favors at the playing grounds he visits with John on occasion. It is a swinging seat suspended from a metal bar. Dean sits in the seat and curls his fingers around the metal links attaching it to the metal bar. He steps back as far as the seat will allow and lifts his feet. This release propels his body forward quickly and like always, Dean's mouth curves up in a broad grin. He likes speed.

His swinging is interrupted a very brief time later by a short black-haired boy. The boy grabs the metal links, halting Dean's progress.

"I wanna swing," he says. All the other swinging seats are occupied, but Castiel still thinks the boy could be nicer about his request.

"I'm not done," Dean informs him, pushing at his hand. The boy holds tight and scowls.

"You been on it already. Lemme get on," he demands. His soul is a good one, but it's consumed with selfishness at the moment. A childish reaction, but not an evil one. Castiel wonders what Dean will do.

"Quit being a jerk," Dean says, frowning at the boy.

"I'm not!" The boy's face turns red. Apparently, Dean's reaction was not a desirable one. "You're dumb."

Dean plants his feet and crosses his arms over top of the metal links, so that they are captured firmly within his grasp. "No, I'm not. Leave me alone."

"Yeah, you are," the boy says, pointing at him. "You think angels are real."

"They are real!" Dean snaps, now becoming truly angry. "They are and I got one, so shut up."

"No, they're not," the boy counters. "You made it up."

"No, I didn't," Dean insists vehemently. His soul is affronted at this child's disbelief over Castiel's existence. He is offended on Castiel's behalf and on behalf of their connection. "He comes to see me when I need him. He always comes, I'll show you." Dean stands, abandoning the swinging seat and looks up. "Cas?"

Castiel's grace twists with unhappiness. He is trapped by this request. If he appears, he'll risk damaging the children playing nearby and the adults watching over them. Most of the children here are already losing the ability to see his true form and it's a certainly that the adults already have. Yet, if he doesn't appear, Dean will feel abandoned.

There is no doubt which choice he must make. Castiel can't hurt innocents, even to spare Dean this pain.

"Cas?" Dean says again, hesitation entering his tone. When Castiel still doesn't appear, the boy sneers at him.

"Told you, dummy," he says and stomps off.

Dean sits back in the swinging seat, his soul wounded, but there's nothing Castiel can do. Nothing except stay by his side, an invisible presence and watch him through the rest of his day.

When John stops by the school in his large black vehicle to retrieve Dean, Castiel finally takes his leave, shooting fast into the Heavenly realm towards the cool lake of crystal water where he always finds solace. As he dives into the lake, the frigid water pulling at his hair and cloak, Castiel thinks to himself that this is just one more reminder why Dean's vision of their future needs to be corrected.

Castiel returns to the Winchesters that evening after Dean's been put to bed. He is not surprised to find Dean wide awake and sitting beside his window, looking out into the night.

"Hello, Dean," Castiel says softly. Dean doesn't turn to him.

"Hi, Cas," he mutters.

"Are you alright?" Castiel can see that Dean is not alright, but he knows humans must be given the opportunity to discuss their emotions.

"Before, you didn't come because you was gone and I knew it. But I knew you was there. I felt you and you didn't come. So I'm mad at you," Dean informs him very calmly. His soul is more hurt than angry, but Castiel doesn't think it would be a good idea to make that distinction.

"I am sorry," he says instead. "I wish I could have appeared, but I didn't want to hurt the other children."

That comment finally turns Dean's attention towards Castiel and he gives him a reluctantly curious look. "Hurt them?"

"Yes. You can't forget that you are very special, Dean," Castiel explains, chancing to come closer. Dean longs to reach out to Castiel, but he is too stubborn to overlook how disgruntled he is with him in order to do so. Castiel sits on the floor beside him, leaving a space between them. "Only special people can see me without being hurt. Remember how I told you that your father couldn't see me?"

Dean nods slowly.

"It's the same. I truly am sorry, Dean, but I can only visit with you when it won't risk others," Castiel says.

"I don't like that," Dean says stiffly, crossing his arms over his chest, his frown still firmly in place.

Before Dean, Castiel never had a preference for how humans perceived him. He thinks it was clever of their Father to give the ability to only certain humans, those special enough to understand the awesome power angels wield. Those who wouldn't be tempted into taking that power for themselves.

But now, all Castiel wishes is that he could be seen by anyone Dean wanted.

"Neither do I," Castiel agrees.

They sit in silence for a time, Dean brooding to himself and Castiel waiting for Dean speak. It's quite some time before that happens and when it does, Dean sounds anxious.

"But what about when I grow up and we live together?" he asks, turning worried eyes on Castiel.

Castiel knows what he should say. It's the perfect opportunity to explain to Dean about their future. But Dean's eyes are pleading, asking Castiel to make everything alright and his soul fears further rejection. He trusts Castiel and Castiel is in danger of losing that trust. A sense of failure swells within his Grace, making Castiel feel weak and helpless and he hates it.

He can't disappoint Dean.

"We'll figure something out," Castiel says, the lie burning through him like hellfire. "Don't worry."

His wing stretches out, his feathers warm against Dean's back and Dean closes the space between them, leaning into Castiel's side.

"Okay," Dean says, relief making his head light. He lays it against Castiel's chest and Castiel envelopes Dean in his wing. "I love you, Cas."

Castiel tightens his hold on Dean and lays his cheek on Dean's head, his grace churning with guilt.

"I love you as well, Dean."

Chapter Text

Dean is pretty sure he and Cas are going to get married someday.

Not that he knows exactly what that means. It has to do with being grown up and living together. Like his mommy and daddy who live together and share a bedroom. Dean's pretty sure that's what's going to happen with him and Cas. And they will live across the street from Mommy and Daddy and Sammy will live in a bedroom down the hall with somebody he married.

In fact, Dean is positive this is what's going to happen.

But first, he's got to get grown up and suffer through lots and lots of school. Dean’s not a fan of school, although he does like it more than he did when it first started a few months ago. He's made two friends named Scott and Amanda. They play together on the playground and sometimes they go to each other's house to play. Dean likes Amanda's mom, but not Scott's because she’s very strict. But it's still fun to play together with them, so it's not so bad.

Scott and Amanda believe in Cas. They've never met him because of what Cas says about being too bright for the other kids' eyes. But they believe Dean when he talks about Cas and that's important. After Robbie made fun of Dean on the first day of school, Dean was wary of telling the other kids about his angel. It takes a little while before Dean gets up the courage to tell Scott and Amanda, but it's worth it.

Amanda, in particular, is extremely impressed by Cas and begs Dean to tell her every single detail about him. Scott is slightly more skeptical at first, but after Amanda says she'll refuse to speak to him if he doesn't believe, Scott agrees that he will. When Dean tells them that he is going to marry Cas someday, Amanda asks if she can be Dean's Best Man and Dean says she can as long as Sammy can be one too. Scott volunteers to be the ring bearer like he was for his aunt's wedding.

Sometimes they all three pretend to be angels. Amanda is always a girl angel with long blond hair and big purple wings while Scott favors being a male angel with a mohawk and black wings.

Dean pretends to be Cas.

It’s fun to play with Scott and Amanda, but Dean prefers to play with Cas. He explains to Cas about the play pretend game, but Cas doesn't get pretending to be an angel when he already is one. Dean tries to get Cas to say which kind of angel he would be if he could choose. Cas always says he would choose to be Cas still because he's the only angel in the whole world that has his own human. It's hard to argue with that.

He wishes he could introduce Cas to Scott and Amanda. Although, there is a part of him that likes having a special secret too. Still, it would be better to show Cas off. When Dean explains this to him, Cas does the best he can, which is to fly away to get a look at both Scott and Amanda. After he gets back, he tells Dean that they are 'fine children and worthy friends'. Dean thinks that's pretty cool.

At least he can show Sam to Scott and Amanda. Neither one of them has a younger brother. Amanda thinks Sam is very smart for a baby and Scott thinks he sleeps a lot. Dean agrees with both of them.

They also like Dean's dad because Dad drives the best car in the world and plays baseball with them in the front yard. Mommy joins them when Sam is asleep and it's funny to watch her swing a bat against Daddy's pitching because she taunts Daddy. Dean likes when they tease each other and it makes Amanda and Scott laugh. He can't wait until Sammy is big enough to play too and be swooped up in Mommy's arms as she runs to the tree that acts as first base like she does with Dean.

He won't be able to play baseball today. It's raining outside when Daddy drops him back home from school in the Impala and then leaves to get back to work. Mommy welcomes Dean at the front porch with a kiss and a hug. She seems different to Dean, but he doesn't know why. Just that she hugs him for a bit longer than normal and her eyes don't seem like they are really looking at him.

"Mommy?" Dean asks. She smiles at him and rubs his shoulder.

"It's okay, baby," she says absently, pushing him towards the kitchen. "You want a snack?"

Dean always wants a snack, so he says yes. Mommy makes him some apple slices and some juice and after they eat, Dean sneaks into Sammy's room to say hi to him. Sammy is supposed to be asleep, but instead, he is playing with his feet. Dean picks up the blanket and covers Sam's face, which makes Sam screech. Dean jerks it off and opens his mouth wide like he's shocked. Sam laughs. Then Dean covers his face again.

They do this over and over until Dean feels a tug of familiar electricity lift the hairs on his arm. He tucks the blanket around Sammy and pets his belly.

"Go back to sleep, Sam," Dean whispers. "Cas is here. I'll be back later." Then he kisses Sam's forehead before turning and bolting out of the door.

He thinks Cas must be in the living room with Mommy, so he skids through the kitchen, nearly falling on the smooth floor in his sock feet. He's almost to the living room when he hears something so shocking, he stops in his tracks, mouth hanging wide like before only this time the shock is genuine.

"...fucking deal," Mommy says. Mommy never cusses. Ever. "I know he said he wouldn't hurt anyone-"

"Mary." Cas' low growling voice interrupts Mommy and then he suddenly appears in the doorway, looking down at Dean. "Hello, Dean," he says.

Normally Dean would crawl into Cas' arms and hug him, but Mommy's voice scares him. She'd sounded so upset.

"Is Mommy okay?" Dean asks quietly. He tries not to sound worried, more like a grown-up would sound, but he's not sure he got it right. Mommy pushes past Cas' wings that are blocking the doorway and she picks Dean up, hugging him close.

"I'm fine, sweetheart," she says and her voice does sound more normal. But her eyes are a little red and Dean realizes with a start that she's been crying. "Just a little sad today. Thinking about my mom and dad."

Earlier in the year, Mommy and Daddy had explained to Dean about death. He'd sort of known that something eventually happened to old people, but the conversation helped solidify in Dean's mind the concept that people died and went on up to live in Heaven. Dean sensed that Daddy had some kind of problem with this idea, but Dean thinks it sounds nice because Heaven is where Cas lives. Then Mommy explained that her mom and dad had gone up to Heaven before Dean was born. Dean asked her if babies come from Heaven and if so, does that mean that he knew Mommy's parents up in Heaven before he came to live on Earth. The question made Mommy's eyes get teary and she said she hoped so.

He asks Cas the same question later that night and whether he knows Mommy's parents. Cas tells him that God knows every soul before it's born, but that Cas doesn’t, so he’s never met Mommy's parents. And he says that since he lives in a different part of Heaven from human souls, he isn't sure what they do there.

It's weird when adults don't know things.

Anyway, Dean thinks he understands now. Even though it's good that people go to Heaven, their family still misses them on Earth. So Dean hugs Mommy hard and kisses her cheek.

"It's okay, Mom," Dean says. "Cas say it's nice in Heaven."

That makes Mommy huff a short laugh. She holds Dean for a lot longer while Cas stands at her back and squeezes her shoulder with one hand.

Eventually, Mommy lets Dean down and wipes at her face.

"Why don't you go play with Cas while I start dinner?" Her face and eyes are completely back to normal and Dean is happy again.

"Okay," he agrees, grabbing the edge of Cas' wing. "What are we having?"

"Fried catfish," Mommy says with a grin and Dean hops in place. Catfish is Daddy's favorite dinner. "Daddy has to work late tonight, so I'm making him something special."

Dean doesn't like it when Daddy works late, so he's glad Mommy is making him something good. He tugs on Cas' wings and drags him into the living room. Once they get into the room, Dean stops unexpectedly and then laughs when Cas trips to one side to avoid falling into Dean.

"You are very mischievous today," Cas comments. His voice is always calm, even after Dean surprises him. Dean likes Cas' voice. It's deep like Daddy's, except even deeper and when he talks, Dean can feel it inside his chest.

"Thanks," Dean says because it sounded like a compliment. "I wanna play flying."

Flying is a game where Cas picks up Dean with his wings and magic and flies him across the room. Dean loves how he feels weightless and he especially loves when Cas makes him dive down. It's not too quick, but fast enough to thrill Dean. They try not to play it in front of Mommy though because Dean thinks she might get nervous. He doesn't though because he knows Cas won't let him fall.

"Alright," Cas agrees and he stretches his wings to either side of his body. Dean makes sure to watch closely. Cas' wings are his favorite part. Not just because they can fly Dean around a room, but because they are the best thing Dean's ever seen. They are huge, twice as tall as Dean himself and they drag the ground. But they never get dirty, not even when Cas walks through dust and dirt. They are always the exact same shade of snow white. When Dean looks closer, he can also see threads of silver and gray mixed into the white. The feathers are really long and really soft. Softer than skin and warmer too. Like a warm blanket in winter, when everything warm feels even hotter because it's so cold outside. Cas doesn't seem to think much of them, so Dean secretly decides they belong to himself instead. He hasn't told Cas yet, but he'll get around to it sooner or later.

Dean turns in front of Cas and lifts his arms. A moment later, the wings touch his sides and the floor falls away from under his feet. His heart leaps in his chest and Dean grins.

He's flying.

Once across the room and then back again. In a slow lazy circle, then a short fast drop up into a long ascent. Cas is always behind him. Sometimes lifting up too, other times just standing beneath him. Dean points his hands forward and pretends to be Superman. He thinks he hears Cas chuckle, but when he looks down, Cas' mouth is straight. But then Dean looks up at his black-green eyes and sees the amusement hiding there.

"Cas," Dean says and he trusts Cas will understand his request. One more flip around and then Dean is pulled into Cas' arms. He melts into the embrace and buries his face in the front of Cas' cloak. He wants to say thank you to Cas, but he feels too happy to speak. So instead, he winds his arms around Cas' neck and tightens his hold. Cas' hair falls soft on his face, surrounding Dean with that particular Cas-scent. It smells like peppermint and water and maybe oranges. Dean isn't sure really. He just knows he likes it.

"Everything will be fine," Cas says and it's kinda weird really because Dean never thought it wouldn't be. Cas kisses the top of his head. "I'll take care of you."

Dean believes him.

Chapter Text

The first thing Mary does when Castiel appears in the Winchester home is hand him three photographs. The first photograph is of Dean wearing an unusual black outfit. His face is obscured by a black mask that covers his eyes and nose. There are two bits of the same material pointing up on either side of his head and a long black square of cloth hangs off his back. The second picture is of Sam. He is dressed all in orange and there is an orange and green hat on his head. The third photograph is of both Sam and Dean in their odd clothing, sitting on the Winchesters' sofa, Sam clutched tightly in Dean's arms.

"They’re Halloween pictures," Mary says. She sounds very distracted. "Dean went as Batman and Sammy's a pumpkin."

Looking back at the photographs again, Castiel can see the vague resemblance to a squash and he recognizes the yellow symbol on Dean's chest from those times that Dean insisted Castiel watch the Batman program with him.

"I see."

"They had a lot of fun," Mary mutters as she lifts a soapy plate out of her sinkful of water.

"Mary," Castiel says. He believes he understands the reason for her odd distracted mood. All it takes is her name, spoken quietly in the tension created by her uncharacteristic behavior and Mary falls apart. She drops a glass back into the water with a wet plop and clenches her hands around the edge of the sink.

"Damnit," she grunts, her shoulders drawn tight. "I didn't think. Didn't think at all."

Castiel doesn't speak. He agrees with her assessment. The decision she made ten years ago must have been fueled by reckless emotionalism rather than wisdom or foresight. But the decision is over; there's no reason to criticize it. That is not what Mary needs now.

"The worst part," she whispers, staring down in the bubbles. "The very worst part is that I wouldn't change my decision. Not if it meant not having this time. And my kids. My babies."

She spins suddenly and Castiel can see the guilt heavy in her eyes.

"I love my family. I wouldn't change them for anything. It's just...this fucking deal."

She keeps talking, but Castiel becomes aware that Dean is approaching. This is not a conversation that he should hear.

"Mary," he says again, this time a warning and she stops talking. Castiel turns to see Dean standing in the doorway, eyes wide and confused. Clearly, he's heard at least part of their discussion.

"Hello, Dean."

"Is Mommy okay?" Dean asks instead of answering his greeting. Mary sweeps over, brushing Castiel's wings out of her path and gathers Dean into her arms. Her expression is mostly back to normal and Castiel can see her words are comforting Dean. But the same isn't happening for Castiel. In fact, even after Mary shoos them from the kitchen, ordering them to go play, Castiel is worried. Not just about Mary's state of mind, but about the approaching danger. The time has finally arrived.

When Dean asks to play flying, Castiel immediately agrees. There's nothing as soothing as causing Dean to feel joy. This time is no different.

After they finish playing, Castiel finds himself with an armful of sleepy and extremely content Dean. For a long while, Castiel merely stands in the middle of the Winchesters' living room, holding Dean close. One wing wraps around Dean's back and Castiel murmurs blessings against Dean’s temple in his own language. It is a moment just for them, a lifetime spent in seconds, Dean sheltered safe in Castiel's protection.

"Love ya, Cas," Dean mutters tiredly.

"I love you," Castiel answers.

He waits a moment longer as Dean drifts pleasantly, not quite sleeping, but drowsing. Castiel isn't keen to break this comfortable companionship, but this is a good opportunity to finish his talk with Mary. He lays Dean on the sofa and brushes a lock of blond hair off his forehead.

"Have a nap," he says. "I'll come say goodbye before I leave."

Dean mumbles unintelligibly, but Castiel understands his acceptance of this plan. A flutter of feathers across Dean's face earns Castiel a smile before Dean finally eases into true sleep.

Mary is busy frying catfish when Castiel reappears in the kitchen. Her manner is less tense, Castiel suspects due to the sweet balm of Dean's love.

"Sorry about earlier," she says immediately. "Dealing with demons is kinda stressful," she jokes, but it is weak and not at all to Castiel's taste in humor.

"I don't blame you for being worried," he says.

Mary sighs and turns away from the stove.

"I just keep telling myself that he said he wouldn't hurt anyone as long as he isn't interrupted. But interrupted doing what? What could he possibly want that doesn't involve interacting with one of us?" Her voice turns to a dark ragged whisper. Castiel goes to her side, wraps a wing around her shoulder.

"I don't know," Castiel answers truthfully. He's given the issue a great deal of thought, but never one to understand the motives of evil creatures, Castiel is even more at a loss to explain this demon's actions.

"But I will watch over your home without ceasing until the demon makes his move," Castiel promises her.

Mary relaxes against his side.

"I was hoping you'd say that," she confesses, her voice sounding small and young. It strikes Castiel hard then how terribly young these humans really are. Only aware for a handful of years and then they are gone from the mortal realm forever. At 28, Mary has already lived almost a third of her potential life-span. Their brevity makes humans all the more precious. Castiel easily understands why his Father loves them best.

"If you like, I can help with your anxiety," Castiel offers. The tension, though muted now, still exists in her posture, waiting to spring on her again at any moment. He fears her distress may create a dangerous situation.

"I need to be alert," she says quickly, but Castiel shakes his head.

"My methods won't put you to sleep," he assures her. "You'll still be very aware of your surroundings. But I can help soothe your nerves."

Mary looks skeptical for a long moment and Castiel is about to tell her that it's not required when she suddenly agrees.

"Yeah, okay. That sounds pretty good," she says. The smile on her face doesn't quite reach her eyes, but Castiel senses that she genuinely desires to be more at ease. Without moving from his spot pressed close to Mary's side, Castiel carefully allows the peace of his Grace to flow into her emotional aura. The dark red shades of worry in her soul fade into the cooler impression of calm she usually carries. A sigh wells up from her breast and she puffs out the breath against Castiel's shoulder.

"Thanks," she mumbles wearily.

"You're welcome. I want to do whatever necessary to help this family through the next few days," Castiel says, squeezing her shoulder in the way he's learned is comforting to humans.

"I don't know what I'd do without you, Cas," Mary declares. She pulls away to attend to her pan of frying fish, her movements far smoother now. "I mean, I think John knows something weird's up, but I can't talk to him about it, you know?"

Castiel didn't know. If he were partnered with another being in the manner Mary is with John, Castiel would be truthful with them. But he's already made the decision not to judge Mary by angelic standards. Humans are strange creatures. So he merely nods helpfully.

"Anyway, you're...well, cliché as it is, you're a real godsend," she says with a chuckle. Castiel smiles. He likes seeing her normal humor return.

"Yes, I am."

"Where'd you stash Dean?"

"He's sleeping on the sofa. Our flying game tired him," Castiel says. Mary points her spatula in his face.

"Thought I told you that game makes me crazy," she accuses, mostly good-naturedly.

"You told me no such thing," Castiel argues. He wouldn't do anything to alarm Mary. If she'd told him to desist the game, he would have.

"Well, I told Dean," she says, applying the spatula to a piece of flat browned fish. "The little snot probably forgot to mention it."

Castiel tries not to startle, but it's a hard thing. The human custom of insulting loved ones to show affection is still a lesson he is learning. It'd been rather disconcerting the first time Mary called him 'an angelic stalker'. For a moment, he really thought he'd offended her and would be forced into invisible surveillance, but then he'd spotted the amusement lingering in her light eyes and she patiently explained that it was a term of affection. One that Dean repeated occasionally just to see the way Castiel's eyes flashed.

"I'm sure he didn't mean to cause trouble," Castiel says faithfully.

"I'm sure he did," Mary retorts, but again she doesn't sound angry. More fondly resigned. "I'll talk to him about it tomorrow. I guess it’s not the world’s worst game. And it's not that I don't trust you...I just don't want to see it or hear about it, okay?"

Castiel nods. Another strange human habit. They feel that if they can't see or hear something, they can pretend it's not real and then they won't have to deal with it. In this case, Castiel can't see that it's a problem. At other times, well...this situation they are in now, waiting on the pleasure of a demon's company, is partially due to this tendency.

"If nothing else, he'll have to get a talking to about disobedience," Mary continues absently as she flips the piece of fish onto a plate. "I don't know where he gets that streak from anyway. I mean, John was always great at following orders and that's pretty much your life's calling."

Castiel thinks he knows exactly where Dean inherited his mischievous stubborn personality. In fact, it's his opinion that Dean is his mother made over in many ways. But he chooses not to comment on it. Instead, he watches Mary finish the family's dinner and absorbs the little cooking pointers she gives him. By the time she is done, Dean is awake and stumbling into the kitchen, rubbing at his eyes.

"Hey, shorty," Mary says, reaching down to place her hand on Dean's head as he leans into her leg. "If you're up, then we probably need to rescue Sammy from his crib."

She leaves Dean with Castiel to claim her other son from his nap. Dean wordlessly lifts his arms, requesting to be picked up and Castiel obliges.

"I must take my leave soon," he says, which earns him a pout from Dean. "It's almost time for you to eat your supper. But I will be watching over you tonight."

"Yeah?" The pouting expression recedes slightly at this information.

"Yes. So there's no reason to miss me or feel fear. I'll be near you, even if you can't see me," Castiel promises him.

"'Cause you're a stalker," Dean says with a grin.

Castiel glares at him.

This is when Mary walks back into the kitchen with Sammy perched on her hip. He peers out at everything around him, his huge eyes round and curious as always. Even at less than a year in age, Sam's thirst for knowledge and wisdom is extraordinary. In terms of average intelligence, Castiel would venture to guess that Dean and Sam are nearly equal. But in terms of the desire to learn, Sam is incredibly different from Dean. Castiel believes their eventual lifestyles and career choices will be drastically dissimilar.

"Say hi to Cas, Sammy," Mary croons, holding Sam's chubby little arm and waving it towards Castiel. When she releases it, Sam continues to wave, though Castiel thinks it has more to do with his enjoyment of the motion than that he wishes to greet Castiel.

"Hello, Sam," Castiel says. "You've caught me at the beginning of my goodbye."

Sam screeches. This is his current favorite form of communication.

"Geez, Sammy," Dean complains, hiding his face in Castiel's neck. "Lower the volume."

Sam screeches again. He generally makes the most noise when Dean is the one talking to him. Mary presses her lips against Sam's forehead and laughs into the kiss.

"I'm so glad your lungs are as healthy as Dean's," she comments.

Castiel decides he should leave now before he becomes distracted into another conversation or teasing session. He finds it becomes harder and harder to leave the Winchesters' home at the appointed time. Israfel asked him the previous day if he'd decided to move in with them. The thought was not entirely repugnant, although Castiel knows he would miss Heaven greatly.

At any rate, he's not been invited to live there and it would be somewhat trying to avoid John when he was home.

"Good-bye, Dean," Castiel says, hugging Dean close. There is a moment of the typical whining and pouting before Dean accepts the inevitable and allows Castiel to set him down on the floor. Mary receives a light hug and Sammy a press of feathers over his eyes, which makes him flail even harder.

Then Castiel cloaks and begins his watch.

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

The demon comes after midnight.

It is exactly ten years to the day of Mary's deal. It is also the six month anniversary of Sam's birth.

Castiel quickly learns that this is not a coincidence.

Mary puts Sam to bed at the usual hour, just as John is returning from his late night working. Dean's excitement over his father's return delays his own bedtime for several moments. It takes an extra nightly tale to ease Dean into a peaceful slumber. After their children are in bed, John and Mary stay up in the living room and talk to each other. Mary sits sideways on their sofa and tosses her legs over John's lap. John strokes her calves distractedly as they talk and the peace surrounding them is a relief after Mary's earlier anxiety.

Soon enough Mary grows sleepy and heads to bed. John's mind is peaceful, but too awake and he opts to stay behind. After Mary gives him a deep and loving kiss goodnight, John transfers to his special chair and begins to hunt through television channels for a program to watch.

Except for the faint sounds of human battles playing across the TV screen, the Winchester home falls silent and still. Castiel stations himself outside the home and stretches out with his Grace, keeping a close watch.

The demon doesn't walk to the house. Instead, he appears outside, jumping in from nothingness. This is how Castiel understands the extreme power of this particular demon. At the first sensation of demonic aura, the first breath of filth and fire, Castiel swoops towards the house, wings spread wide. In his mind he calls to Israfel, already aware that he will require back-up to purge the Winchester home of this demon. He senses her approach, but all thoughts are knocked clean from his mind when Castiel reaches the frame of the house.

He cannot pass through the wood.

Simple Earthly wood, mere inches thick and never before has Castiel had trouble travelling through the substance. There is a dense barrier spread over the entire house. A barrier that should be impossible, but is very real and Castiel pushes against it as hard as he can. The wood bows in under his assault, but only slightly and then his fingers are bounced back. He turns his senses to the inside of the house and is both relieved and dismayed when he realizes he can see what's happening in the home, even if he can't enter it.

The demon walks into Sam's bedroom.

"Israfel," Castiel calls out, his voice higher under the strain of his desperation. "Sam! He's gone into the baby's room. We have to stop him!"

Israfel concentrates her Grace, her beautiful terrifying Grace, onto the now shimmering barrier and jets of pure Grace explode out from her hands, slamming into the barrier and skittering away in bright blue tendrils. She lowers her eyes, staring, seeking and while she is motionless, Castiel tries again, hitting at the barrier with his less powerful Grace, watching in horror as the demon slices his host’s wrist and holds it over Sam's box. Drops of thick dark blood splatter onto Sam's face.

"No!" Castiel cries, rage growing inside him. His movements become erratic and all he can think is how dare this creature, how dare he touch one of Castiel's.

"Stop, Castiel," Israfel says gently, but Castiel ignores her, beats his wings and grabs at the barrier, drawing traces of Grace from the wounds he's inflicting on himself. She takes his hands and holds them tight. Castiel struggles against her, some of his anger transferring to her.

"What?" He barks.

"It's a free will barrier," she says, apparently unaffected by his anger. "Mary chose to make this deal. We cannot interfere until it's completed."

"But-"

"You know there's nothing more powerful on our Father's Earth than the free will He gave humans," she says and the note of consolation in her tone infuriates Castiel. This is not something to be accepted with angelic patience. There is a demon, an evil base creature, in the Winchester's home, in Castiel's home and his family is in danger. Dean is in danger.

Castiel rips his hands out of her grasp, knocking her off and he can't help noticing how resigned she looks. He turns back to the barrier and begins hammering at it again. It's even worse than when the demons attacked the Heavenly realm. This is more than righteous indignation.

It's fear.

"Castiel," Israfel breathes beside him, her sense focused on the baby's room.

Mary is walking into the room.

"No," Castiel whispers. There's no use screaming, no point in trying to get her attention. All he can do is scratch and dig at the barrier and be helpless. All he can do is fail Mary completely. Through his haze of fury and grief, Castiel watches Mary leave the room again and then come running back when she realizes the being in her child's bedroom is not John. But she is too late. Enough time has passed and the demon's been alone with Sam. The blood from his wrist drips down into Sam's mouth, into Sam's heart and soul and he is infected. The demon was never after Mary. He was after the children.

The children.

"Dean," Castiel says, more loudly, focusing his attention on Dean's bedroom. Dean is still sleeping peacefully, totally unaware of what's happening just down the hallway. Castiel pulls up, is about to fly around to Dean's window to see if the barrier is thinner there when a jagged sharp pain explodes across the soul piece he carries. He shudders and falls back, insensate for a split second and then he hears his name.

"Cas," Mary pants. Her body is affixed to the ceiling, her night dress stained red with her own blood. "Castiel," she says weakly. "Please."

The soul piece jolts with pain, but it is not only sorrow of Dean's soul that Castiel feels. His Grace pulses with anxiety, straining, wanting to reach out to save her. Save his friend, his sweet stubborn Mary with her loving soul and that hint of humor always lingering in her eyes.

But the barrier will not give. The demon is cloaked, but still present, waiting. Waiting for what, Castiel cannot tell. He cannot understand any of the demon's motives. Why he should desire to taint innocent children. If there is a reason beyond sickness and evil.

Mary's struggle has drawn John's attention and though Castiel doesn't wish him danger, he is relieved that one of the family's protectors is free to approach the nursery. For a moment after John runs into the room, he doesn't seem to believe there is truly a problem. He walks to Sam's box and Castiel can easily see the relief pumping in John's soul. The belief that he must have been dreaming and his family is perfectly safe.

Then he notices the blood dripping from the ceiling and looks up.

Everything changes in an instant. John's life path veers off into a new and frightening direction. A lonely direction. Because Castiel can see now clearly. It's been too long and Mary's lost too much blood. Her life is slowly draining away. The soul piece John carries, his soul-mate piece, begins to brighten, growing to a blinding orange-red. It is aware its owner's end is near. The weight of his grief knocks John off his feet.

Then the demon makes his reason for staying behind known.

Flames explode out from around Mary's body. Castiel finds himself pushing again, unable to stay still as John freezes for a split second. Then Castiel's fear is tugged in another direction as Dean wakes suddenly, drawn down the hall by his father's shouts and the sound of fire crackling along the ceiling of his home. Beside him, Castiel hears Israfel working against the barrier too, in with Castiel even though she knows it's useless. John's muscles unlock and he grabs Sam from the box. Dean is standing outside the room, too afraid to move, but when John runs out with his brother, with the instruction to take Sam and run away, Dean jumps into action. His fear transforms into determination, the fierce desire to protect Sam at all costs. He turns and runs while John dives back into the nursery. The fire is growing and Dean is stumbling down the stairs. Mary's body is consumed by flames and Castiel feels it like shards of broken glass across his Grace when her life ends. There's no reason for John to stay and the fire is becoming unstable.

None of them are going to make it.

The instant Castiel realizes this, he attacks the barrier with renewed fervor. Free will or not, Castiel doesn't care. He won't allow another Winchester to die. He won't allow Dean to come to harm. Not if he has to spill out his very Grace to destroy what keeps him from Dean's side. Israfel makes a noise of alarm, probably scared by Castiel's rage, but she doesn't understand. She doesn't understand the power that comes from personal love. That when you love a human, when you know them, you are willing to kill and to die. But Castiel sees this, he knows this. His Father knows it too, Castiel thinks. He would understand why Castiel is fighting with Grace, hurting himself, damaging his wings and feeling a tiny spark of hope when his presence inches inside the house.

The soul piece he carries reaches out and connects. And that's when Castiel learns that Israfel is wrong. Free will isn't the greatest force in their Father's Earth.

The power of the connection snaps Castiel to Dean's side, jerks him through the barrier and the pain of the passing shocks Castiel. But it hardly matters. He scoops Dean and Sam off the floor and darts towards the front door. The foul presence of the demon's blood within Sam sickens Castiel, but he ignores the feeling.

"Cas?" Dean asks, fear and confusion lacing his tone.

"Run now, Dean," Castiel instructs him as he sets the boys on the door's threshold and pushes a little. Dean obeys, charging away from the house and whispering comfort to Sam. Castiel turns and shoots back up the stairs. He bursts into the room with just enough time to cover John with his wings as the fire explodes away from the ceiling. For a second, he's feared that John's been blinded by his true visage, but John had already turned away from the ceiling, already sensed the explosion. Castiel quickly cloaks himself and watches in relief as John staggers out the door, down the hallway. He turns away and searches for the demon, but he finds nothing. The demon is gone.

"Castiel?" Israfel appears at his side. Castiel only gives her a glance before he blinks out, sliding through the underspace to Dean's side.

Dean is standing beside John, Sam still clutched in his arms. They are both watching the home burning. John wears his grief plain on his face. Mary's soul piece is already fading within him. It won't disappear. They never do. When humans lose a soul carrier, the soul piece fades through time to a dull aching presence. Humans never forget their precious ones, but they heal. Castiel can already see that John won't heal easily. The scars left behind will always hurt him. Unfortunate, but hardly unexpected, Castiel thinks to himself. Mary was everything to John.

And now she's gone. The knowledge explodes into Castiel's mind again, almost as if he'd forgotten it.

Like if he doesn't think about it, it isn't real.

"Mary," he murmurs, turning his own eyes on the burning building. He tries to tell himself that Mary's at peace with the Father, but it doesn't help. She may be with the Father, but she is needed here. Her family needs her. Dean needs his mother.

"Daddy?" Dean's voice is small, quiet, but it commands all of Castiel's attention. His gaze turns from the burning building to Dean and Castiel nearly falls back in horror at what he's seeing.

Mary's soul piece isn't fading in Dean. Instead, it is glowing brighter and brighter, streaked with pain and as Castiel watches, Sam's soul piece reaches out. Eager to protect and help, it connects, touches Mary's soul piece like it touched Castiel and a strange kind of melding takes place. The two pieces melt together, lopsided and so very dangerous. It takes mere seconds and then the piece settles. Castiel draws a ragged breath, his Grace churning with worry.

Sam now owns over half of Dean's soul.

The lines are crossing. What Sam must see now when he looks at Dean, what he must feel. The blurring of roles. Brother and mother. Friend and protector. Playmate and guardian.

"Dean," Castiel says quietly. The desire to uncloak and pull Dean into his arms, to take this burden from Dean, is strong. But he cannot.

He can only stand aside and watch as everything changes.

Chapter Text

It is physically painful to leave Dean's side.

Castiel has no idea how much time passes in the Earthly realm as he watches the remainder of the Winchester family. Men dressed in uniforms and driving vehicles with flashing lights show up and put out the fire. Some question John, who answers numbly. He doesn't tell them the complete truth. His confusion and the beginnings of real knowledge hold his tongue. He does say that he thinks he saw someone in the home. The men in uniforms seem suspicious, but allow John to leave after extracting a promise that he will be available for further questioning.

Dean stays silent by John's side the entire time. The uniformed men suggest that the children not be present for the interview, but John refuses to let them go. He doesn't let them go for the rest of the night. Not when the uniformed men leave. Not when the neighbor, Kamilla, offers to let them stay in her home. Not even when they bed down in her spare bedroom, all three huddled in a pile. Dean lies in a protective circle around Sam's body that is mirrored by the one John creates around both children.

Castiel watches them sleep for quite a long time. When John's dreams fill with fire, Castiel brushes his fingers across the human's forehead and eases him towards less disturbing images. He is forced to do the same for Dean a little while later. Even Sam needs a measure of comfort, though his distress is more formless, the unfulfilled desire to see his mother's face.

There is a part of Castiel that wishes to push John and Sam into a deep enough sleep that he can speak with Dean. But that would mean waking Dean from what little peace he's likely to receive in the coming days. Castiel won't steal these moments from him out of a selfish impulse for the comfort of Dean's presence.

Israfel finds him in the middle of Earth's night. She approaches quietly, cloaked and touches Castiel's arm. There are no words between them, but Castiel senses the silent request to speak with him away from the Earthly realm where she can employ her true voice. Castiel ignores her for a moment. He reaches out and presses his palm over the curve of Dean's cheek. His soul piece mourns, shares the grief of its owner, but Castiel can't help feeling pleasure when Dean's soul reaches for his Grace. The two twist around each other and nothing's changed. Sam's ownership, his superior claim, does not dampen the need Dean feels for Castiel.

Another selfish moment, but Castiel nearly chokes on his relief.

"Come," Israfel whispers. "Hadakiel is keeping watch."

Castiel doesn't realize until she says it that he's still been keeping watch, unconsciously keeping his senses stretched out for any sign of the demon's return. His instincts tell him that the creature has already accomplished his goal and won't return. But that doesn't mean he's willing to take any chances.

He allows Israfel to tug him away from the family. Hadakiel nods to them in passing and then they are flying. Shooting straight up past the edge of the Earthly realm and into their Father's Heaven. Israfel leads Castiel to the celestial beach and he wonders without much interest if she intentionally meant to bring him to the exact spot where he first knew Dean's soul.

When they land, Castiel stumbling a little, Israfel immediately begins to speak.

"I'm sorry for your loss, Castiel," she says.

But Castiel doesn't want sympathies.

"What possible reason could a demon have for polluting the innocence of a human child not yet above a year in age?"

The boiling rage he'd felt at the demon's intrusion returns in full force and his injured wings toss against his back. It's bad enough to be helpless in protecting his claim. Not knowing the true reason for the attack or what further dangers await burns frustration through Castiel's Grace. Frustration and anger and when he continues, his voice is little more than a jagged growl.

"Why this family, Israfel? Why grant Dean Winchester my protection if I am totally useless to implement it?"

"You did protect Dean, brother," Israfel reminds him, calm against his wrath. "I've never seen anyone overwhelm a free will barrier in that manner before."

"But I couldn't save Mary," Castiel counters, his hands clenched into fists. The action reminds him of the way John holds himself when he becomes angry. At any other time, Castiel would worry about so human an action being nearly second-nature to him. Now, all he can think is that it's not helping. He wants more. He wishes to hit something the way he smashed his hands and wings against that accursed free will barrier.

"You weren't contracted to protect Mary. That order only existed in your own mind," Israfel reminds him.

"Do you not think the condition of Dean's family affects his life? Even if he could heal well from the loss of his mother, how will he cope with Sam's condition?" Castiel challenges her. The need for violence and revenge forces his steps away from her and then back again. He is pacing, he realizes with a jolt, but does not stop.

"I don't know," Israfel confesses.

Castiel barely hears her. His mind is whirling now, combing over the events of the night in way he'd hadn't because of the distraction of watching the Winchesters and his own grief. If Israfel is right, if Castiel was never meant to save Mary and her death at the hands of this demon was decided at her birth, isn't it still true that Castiel could have stopped Sam's infection? If he hadn't given into this dangerous need he carries to comfort the pains of the humans he loves, would Mary have been more on edge? Would she have known immediately that the demon wasn't her husband and distracted him long enough for Castiel to burst through the barrier before he tainted Sam?

He knows what ifs are pointless. All that matters is what happened, but knowing it and feeling it are not the same. Guilt swims in after his anger, surrounding it and he feels like he's being drowned in it.

"The fault is mine," he whispers and only then does he realize that he's stopped walking. He is hunched over and staring at the shining grains of sand, the crystal clear water turning them opaque.

"The fault lies with the demon," Israfel argues. "And perhaps with Mary Winchester."

At the center of his Grace, Castiel knows Israfel doesn't mean to imply that Mary deserved to die. In fact, that logical part of him, the only part of him that existed before he met Dean, knows she is correct. But the other part, the one created by the soul piece he carries, feels a wash of indignation.

"She did not ask for this," he spits.

"Perhaps not," Israfel allows quietly.

"She must have seen him," Castiel suddenly says as his mind continues to pick apart what happened. "He didn't kill her immediately. What if he spoke with her?"

"What if he did?" Israfel says, frowning with confusion.

"We have to find him. We need information. I need...I need to see her," Castiel says and then he's trembling with the strength of the need to see her again. To speak with her and touch her. To apologize. He straightens and stretches his wings. The pain of his wounds makes him flinch, but he ignores it.

He cannot ignore Israfel.

"You can't be serious, brother," she protests, reaching for his arms. "They'll never let you through. And you require medical attention," she adds, eyeing his wet bent feathers.

"They will," Castiel says in determination. "I will make them."

And then he takes off without another word. When Israfel doesn't follow, Castiel understands that she's given up on teaching him rationality. For some reason, this saddens him, but he doesn't stop. His course of action is decided.

His flight path takes him passed the Citadel towards the north end of the city to the entrance of the Fields. A simple gate, golden in color, but standing alone in the middle of a stretch of empty road leads into the Fields of the Lord, the Paradise that awaits the faithful. The Guardian of the Fields, a deceptively frail-looking cherub with wispy blond hair falling into huge brown eyes watches his approach with mild interest. There's no surprise on the Guardian's face and Castiel thinks perhaps much of the host has overheard his conversation with Israfel.

The Guardian speaks as soon as Castiel lands.

"State your business, Seraph."

"I wish to speak with Mary Campbell Winchester," he answers solemnly. The anger and guilt still rages within his Grace, but Castiel doesn't allow it into his demeanor. His case will be hard enough to argue without the added insult of disrespect. "She entered the Fields of our Lord under four Earth hours ago."

"You are not a Comforter," the Guardian states. "Warriors are not allowed beyond the gates. You know this."

"I'm not asking to be let passed the gates," Castiel explains patiently, though in truth he would have accepted that solution. "I am requesting Mary be brought forth so that I may speak with her. I have some claim to her."

"You speak of her son, Dean Winchester, the human child given to an angel," the Guardian intones.

Castiel nods and remains quiet.

"This claim is valid," the Guardian says and Castiel feels hope curl around his Grace, sweet and thick. But then the Guardian continues.

"And yet Mary Campbell Winchester does not reside in the Fields."

The Guardian's meaning explodes into Castiel's mind. He knows what the Guardian is saying, but he doesn't believe it. It's simply not possible.

"But she was a believer!" Castiel exclaims, losing his hard-won calm. "She prayed so faithfully. How could she possibly...?"

He cannot even finish the thought. If Mary truly has descended into the flames, she is lost forever. There is no way Castiel could retrieve her from the knotted squirming mess of damned souls that toil endlessly in the Pit. Even if he could find her soul, he would not have the power to raise her to the surface without dying himself. The risk of leaving Dean in this manner is too great to consider it.

"Her soul is not in Perdition," the Guardian says, surprising Castiel. Not just with the information itself, but the fact that the Guardian is offering it. He would not have thought it possible, but now Castiel wonders if his grief has actually moved a Guardian, one of the most impassive of angel ranks.

"It is neither here nor there," the Guardian continues. "Instead it is between."

It is both relief and horrified shock that replace the anger in Castiel's Grace. The joy of understanding that Mary didn't pass into Hell is tempered by the knowledge that she chose to stay behind. Mary may have felt sorrow of her life's decisions, but she never stewed in regret. She dealt with her decisions and moved forward. Castiel would have never imagined that her spirit would feel unable to depart the Earthly realm.

"I'm...Thank you, Guardian," Castiel murmurs, bowing low to the cherub.

"You're welcome, Seraph. Please return if ever the need arises," the Guardian answers and it's another surprise, but Castiel is already too distracted to really make note of it. His wings unfurl, striking another blast of pain through his body. The free will barrier must have been stronger than Castiel even realized if he's having this much trouble healing. Yet, his thoughts don't turn to the Healer's. Instead, he flaps them once, becomes accustomed to the pain and dives down, back towards the Winchester home.

The house lies in ruin. Much of the upper story is gone, though portions of the walls remain. The wood is soaked through and tinged with the smell of smoke and rot. It's nothing like the warm inviting home Castiel learned to love. This is a grave.

He settles down on a section of the upstairs floor that remains, a bit at the top of the stairs. The echoes of pain and happiness fight one another in Castiel's senses and it takes a great deal of concentration and focus with his Grace before he finally feels what's he's been waiting for.

Familiarity. The presence of a friend, the slightest hint of humor and a brief wash of powerful love that's lost as soon as he reaches for it.

She is here. Infused in the structure of her home, more present than even during her life, but hidden from Castiel. Closer to humanity, to her sons and husband. She’s made a protective sacrifice that ensures Mary can touch her boys, but not her angel. She will not taste Paradise or Perdition. Not until she finds a way to defend her family in a way she couldn't in life.

"Mary," Castiel whispers. All his emotions, those strong volatile emotions he's borrowed from his human charges, settle all at once into a deep fathomless sadness. He wonders if this is what humans mean when they say their hearts are breaking.

"Castiel."

He turns to see Zachariah standing halfway up the stairs. His commanding officer peers at the wreckage, the burnt shell of the Winchester house and shakes his head.

"This is a shame," he says quietly. "Mary Winchester didn't have to die."

"What do you mean?"

"Come with me," Zachariah says instead of explaining himself. "We need to talk and I don't want you distracted by all this mess."

Castiel doesn't protest when Zachariah reaches for his arm, touches his cloak and transports them away, tugging Castiel through the underspace to the edge of the Heavenly realm. From there, he follows Zachariah in flight to the Citadel. They pass through the huge silver doors and without touching down, zip through the halls to Zachariah's particular domain, a room colored in grays and blues.

"I hear you paid the Fields a visit," Zachariah says once they land.

It's very difficult to resist the urge to shrug.

"I had hoped to speak with Mary Winchester to discover the reason behind the demonic attack," Castiel reports. Surely, Zachariah can't fault him for this action.

"Yes, well, that's no longer your concern," Zachariah answers, his sharp blue eyes hard as ice chips. "We can't have our Warrior angels going around and demanding the whole of Heaven change its structure for him."

"I believed finding out the reason for the attack was more important than our structure," Castiel argues, feeling his anger returning and in ways it's a relief. Anger is much easier to handle than helpless sadness.

"That's not for you to decide," Zachariah says in a cutting tone. "Besides, we already know the reason."

Shock pounds into Castiel's Grace and he finds himself stepping forward.

"Why then?" he demands. "What's happening?"

Zachariah doesn't so much as flinch or blink an eye even though Castiel is less than six inches from him. He remains maddeningly calm and smirks.

"Don't worry, Castiel. You'll have your part to play. But for now, I'm giving you new orders."

"What do you mean, new orders?"

Dread, heavy and sickening crushes against Castiel's Grace. This can't be happening. Zachariah can't possibly be suggesting that Castiel give up his duty towards Dean. It's not possible. Their Father wouldn't allow it. Not when Dean so clearly needs him. Especially now.

"You can't be saying you want me to leave Dean unattended?" Castiel says slowly.

"I'm saying," Zachariah answers, just as deliberately, "that it's no longer any of your business. We'll keep an eye on them, but what with these new developments, the..." His face twists, a mask slipping and for a split second, Castiel sees raw aching hunger on his face. "The beginning of something very important, we need to be careful. You've gotten way too close."

"But Dean needs me," Castiel says desperately, actually reaching out to grab Zachariah's arms, shaking him, willing him to understand. "Not another faceless angel. He needs me."

And I need him.

"Ah, well, luckily there's two parts to your orders," Zachariah says as he shrugs off Castiel's grip and pushes him back. "The first part is that you are being reassigned to the front lines. Congratulations, Castiel. You're getting your first command."

Castiel never desired command, not before and not now. This information rolls over him and away, hardly noted.

"And the second part?" he prompts.

"You are to remove yourself from Dean Winchester. In body and in mind. I want every trace of you gone from his little heart," Zachariah says, lip curling on his last words.

He'd been wrong before. Whatever he felt before wasn't drowning. This is drowning. This is dying. Just hours off his mother's death, the destruction of his life and the reordering of his very soul and now Zachariah is asking him, asking Castiel to steal his relationship from Dean.

"No," Castiel says faintly. "No, I won't do it."

"Well, of course, you don't have to," Zachariah says, but Castiel knows better than to feel any relief. "Angels have been known to choose disobedience. But you know what happens to them, Castiel. They don't get to saunter down to Earth like your friend 'Anna'," Zachariah says with a sneer, startling Castiel. He had never heard her human name till that moment. "You're more than free to join the ones who suffer real punishment."

But Zachariah already knows Castiel would never choose that path. Not just because he wishes to avoid pain. Castiel would rather tear the Grace from his body and have his existence ended outright than disobey their Father. And if he chooses to suffer, it will end any chance of ever seeing Dean again.

"I don't understand," he says, voice strained, posture tense. "Why would our Father demand this of me? Why give me to Dean only to tear me away?"

"I grow tired of your questions," Zachariah says, his false cheer edging true impatience. "All you need to know is that the Father commands it and you will obey or suffer."

And Castiel knows he should remain quiet. That he should accept and make the best of his new command, secure in the knowledge that Dean will be protected, if not by him. But he's seen too much. He's learned too much.

He hurts too much.

"No," he growls. "No. Dean deserves more than this! You will tell me, Zachariah," he orders, back in his superior's face, shouting with all the power of true voice and his human-tinged Grace. "Why are you taking me from Dean?"

"Because hope is a powerful tool," Zachariah snaps, his frustration boiling over into a genuine display of anger, so different from the pleasant mask of artificial happiness he usually wears.

Castiel stumbles back, not because of Zachariah's fury, but rather because of his words. His senseless words. Their Father would not wish to withdraw hope from one of His children. He would not want to inflict pain through one of His angels. The concept is such a strange non sequitur that Castiel doesn’t even know how to approach pondering it.

There is annoyed regret in Zachariah's eyes. Castiel senses Zachariah wishes he hadn't said anything at all. As he watches, unable to speak, the anger recedes out of Zachariah's countenance as suddenly as it appeared and he gathers himself.

"You've never questioned the Father before," Zachariah says. "You obeyed because you knew that even if you didn't understand it, His plan was just. The same applies here. Stop letting your...attachment to these creatures turn you away from Him."

Castiel hates the way Zachariah calls them 'creatures', but he still remains quiet. There is nothing for him to say. Zachariah speaks nothing less than the truth. Castiel hasn't always understood his Father's actions. He didn't understand it when he received Dean's soul piece, but he kept his faith and discovered the meaning of true friendship and loving ownership. He remembers the test, the certainty that his Father was testing Castiel's faith by giving him to Dean and he wonders if this is another step in that test. But surely this has grown beyond just Castiel. This is Dean's life too and Sam's. If Castiel protests, if he chooses punishment, will he be the broken cog in a great complex plan his Father has devised?

He told Dean once that his Grace and his life belonged to the Father.

It still does.

"I...understand," Castiel struggles to say.

"Good!" Zachariah's mouth turns up in a grin. "Then there's no time like the present. I want every memory altered, Castiel. I don't care what you put in your place, but take it all from him. Oh and wipe the dad's mind while you're at it. Can't have him name-dropping around the kiddies."

He claps his hands together, as if very excited and pats Castiel's shoulders.

"Good luck, brother," he says and then Castiel finds himself outside the City, on the edge of Heaven, looking down into Earth.

There is a very long moment where he just stares down at the spinning blue orb. Pausing a moment to delay the end of his relationship with Dean.

But his Father is waiting and Castiel must obey.

He dives down.

Chapter Text

The Winchesters are still asleep when Castiel returns to Kamilla's home. He stops outside the house to exchange words with Hadakiel. His brother offers to continue watching while Castiel performs his last duty to the Winchesters, but Castiel refuses. He wants to be alone with his family. Hadakiel hesitates a moment, clearly unsure if he should leave Castiel in such a state, but Castiel waves him off. He appreciates his brother's concern, but this business belongs only to Castiel.

After Hadakiel leaves, Castiel floats into the home, setting down gently beside where John lays with his children. John's slumber is very light and Castiel can tell that he's struggling to hold onto sleep. He has probably awakened many times since Castiel left them. In contrast, Sam is deeply asleep, the fingers of one hand curled around John's thumb. Dean is snuggled between Sam and John and he is dreaming. Castiel touches his mind. The dream has a feeling, like flying and Castiel sees the edge of wings, white feathers on either side of Dean's line of vision. He smiles, despite himself.

Castiel wishes he could fly Dean away too.

His eyes stay on Dean's face for a long time. It's strange. Castiel knows what he must do. His decision to remain faithful to his Father is final. And yet, he can't bring himself to begin the process of altering Dean's memory. Just a moment longer he thinks to himself. He'll wait a moment longer before he betrays Dean.

Dean or God. Love is love. Castiel shouldn't be forced to choose.

But anger is pointless. It only makes Castiel feel guilty. He doesn't like feeling resentful of doing what his Father asks of him.

Just a moment longer.

An idea occurs to Castiel. A way to delay the inevitable while still doing his duty. Zachariah has also ordered him to erase John's memory. Though they never met, John understands that 'Cas' is a big part of Dean's life. If Castiel left his memory intact, he might mention 'Cas' to Dean and it would lead to questions. It's very clever of Zachariah to remember John in his orders. Castiel doesn't want to alter John's memory either, but it should be done before Dean. If Castiel is to be kept away from the Winchesters, he wants his last moments to be spent with Dean.

Castiel doesn't have any experience with erasing memories. Before Dean, he was rarely sent to Earth and even more rarely dealt with humans. But Castiel knows the trick of it. He understands how human brains work, if not the emotions that flow from them. A touch is all that's required. That and the great deal of concentration it takes to search through each individual memory and create something to replace any mention of himself.

He places a hand on John's forehead. John's eyes dart under his lids and Castiel pushes John’s mind further down into sleep, into dreams. John's soul doesn't feel the same. The love and the protective devotion remains, but his grief soaks through every emotion. It permeates every inch of his being. It will likely affect every action he takes in his new life. Sorrow strikes Castiel anew. He never got a chance to really meet John. Not his natural self.

Mary was wrong to keep John out of her past. He should have been an ally.

Another idea forms in Castiel's mind. While Mary lived, Castiel honored her desire to protect John from the fear of what her life used to be. But hiding her past didn't keep John from hurting. And Mary is not here anymore.

Castiel wants to speak with John. Even if John won't remember it, Castiel will. He wants to speak to him and see John's eyes on his face. Mary is out of his reach, but John is not.

Of course, John won't really see Castiel. Not in reality, but Castiel thinks he knows how to connect with John. After all, angels have been appearing to humans in dreams since time began. It's another activity with which Castiel has no experience. In ways, it is similar to memory suppression. It's just another way of manipulating a human's thoughts. His hand still pressed to John's forehead, Castiel focuses not on his memories, but on his present. A jet of calming Grace encourages John to select a comforting setting, a dream landscape where Castiel won't seem threatening. When he senses that John is fully relaxed and dreaming, Castiel reaches into his thoughts and creates an image of himself that can interact with John without harming him. It's difficult at first and Castiel feels trapped by the limitations of humanity. John's thoughts are cramped and alone. Castiel didn't realize how much of his self is wrapped up in connections. The innate link he shares with all his brothers casts his mind across creation, through the Heavens and down over the Earth. He doesn't just exist in John's thoughts, but anywhere a brother walks, there Castiel walks also.

No wonder humans cling to each other so voraciously. No wonder they are desperate to join their bodies so closely. He wonders how that physical joining, the feeling of holding another so deeply within yourself, compares to the bond he shares with the whole of his kind.

Castiel casts the musing from his mind. This is not the time and certainly not the place. He focuses on what John's conjured up for them.

It is a lake. John is sitting in a chair at the end of a long wooden floor that stretches out over the water. There is a pole with a string attached to it in his hand and a box of ice at his feet. Castiel sees several bottles of the alcohol John likes pushed down into the ice. There is a slow peaceful feeling in the air. Castiel realizes he recognizes this setting. It's calling "fishing". John took Dean to "fishing" several times since Castiel met them.

Castiel walks to the end of the peer, peering down at the water over the edge of the wooden platform as he goes. Every so often he spots a fin skimming the surface, sending ripples of water away in all directions. When he reaches John's side, he stays quiet, strangely reluctant to break the tranquility of the moment.

John does so instead. When Castiel's shadow falls across his shoulder, John turns his head and jerks in place, startled by Castiel's presence. Their eyes meet and it is even more pleasing than Castiel imagined to truly have John's attention. There is no recognition, of course, but there is comprehension. John has no idea what he's seeing, but he knows he's seeing it.

"I'm dreaming, aren't I?" John asks.

"Yes," Castiel answers. "But that doesn't mean I'm not real."

John's eyes track from Castiel's face down his gleaming white robe to his feet and back up again, pausing on the wings flowing over each shoulder.

"Actually, I think it does," John comments.

"My name is Castiel. You know me as 'Cas'," Castiel says as if John hadn't spoken.

John narrows his eyes at Castiel.

"So what you're telling me is that my son's imaginary friend came to visit me?"

"No, I am telling you that your son's very real friend has come to visit you," Castiel answers. He is not very surprised that his first conversation with John is not going well. John is loving and devoted, but his surface persona can be prickly at times.

"Uh huh. I thought you were a fairy," John says and he turns back to the lake. "I gotta say, I'm kind of relieved."

Castiel doesn't know what he means, but he senses that John still doesn't believe Castiel is real. Humans have a hard enough time believing what they see with their waking eyes. It follows that it would be even harder to convince them of a reality sent in dreams, the dwelling of ultimate imagination.

"I am real, John."

"I've heard that's what the voices always say," John retorts as he tugs the string out of the water and flicks it back again. A surprising rush of anger explodes through Castiel's Grace. He did not come here to play games with John Winchester. Before rational thought has time to stop him, Castiel finds himself clutching John's shoulders and leaning down in John's face, his voice a dark menacing growl.

"Do not presume that you know of everything this world holds, John Winchester. You cannot afford disbelief anymore. You know Mary's death wasn't natural," he says and Castiel knows his presence has grown in John's estimation as his grief-fuelled anger allows an echo of his Grace to filter around the edges of this dream fiction.

"What...what did you say?" John asks faintly. His tired flippancy is washed away in favor of stark fear.

"That fire was not started by man," Castiel says, trying to find control. He pulls on his Grace, coaxing it back to restfulness.

"She was on the ceiling." John struggles with the words, with the idea, but his expression hardens into determination and he stands, throwing aside the pole and grabbing the edge of Castiel's sleeve.

"What the fuck are you?"

"I am an angel of the Lord," Castiel answers. He is not fazed by John's sudden desperate belief. "I am your sons' guardian. I have been protecting Dean and Sam since their births."

John makes an angry sound at the back of his throat.

"Well, fucking fantastic job, Cas. House burning down and mom dead is great protection," John snaps and he rips away, pushing against Castiel as he turns. Castiel watches the lines of John's posture, the stiff tension weighing on his shoulders and says nothing. There is no answer for John's accusations because he is right. Castiel turned out to be poor protection. It aches to hear John say these things. Castiel always considered them partners in maintaining this family's well-being. John has every right to be upset, but it still hurts Castiel to see it.

"What was it?" John asks and his voice is quiet, but no less intense than when he'd been snarling at Castiel.

"A demon," Castiel answers. He's not sure why since he'll have to take this memory from John as well. Castiel realizes then how selfish he is being. He is creating yet another set of memories that will have to be wiped away just to settle his own aggrieved Grace.

"Angels and demons, huh?" John laughs without a shred of humor. "Guess I wasted all those years not believing in that shit."

Castiel flinches.

"I'm sorry, John. I truly am. I wanted to save Mary. I tried, but...I could not. I am sorry," Castiel murmurs, eyes cast down at the lake, at the fish circling around the end of the platform.

"Sorry is a waste of time, Cas," John says, but his anger seems to have dissipated, leaving him tired. As the grief returns, taking back its control of his soul, John sinks back into his chair. Holding one overwhelming emotion is exhausting enough. Carrying two at once is even worse and apparently too much for John.

"Why are you here?"

"I wanted...I wanted to see you," Castiel says, feeling foolish and guilty. "I wanted to apologize and...before I lose the chance, I wanted to tell you that I love you."

This statement draws a startled look from John that is quickly converted into an odd nervous laugh.

"Okay, well, that's kinda creepy."

"Love is not creepy," Castiel says sternly.

"You don't even know me," John counters, refusing to meet Castiel's eyes. Instead, he picks up the abandoned stringed pole and watches his hands fiddle with it.

"I know your soul. I have learned many things from you. Do you remember when you taught Dean about baseball? We watched a game together. The Kansas City Royals versus the California Angels," Castiel says, frowning at the memory of the name appropriation. "The Angels were victorious. You were very distressed."

"You like baseball?" John asks cautiously. Castiel senses that John is pushing part of his amazement away and is focusing on smaller issues that don't frighten him as much. He doesn't blame John. Castiel knows that humans struggle with learning their lives aren't as private as they imagined.

"I like the Kansas City Royals," Castiel says. "They did well this season."

"Yeah," John answers. "Second in the division. S'not too shabby. Especially after that whole pine tar mess."

"Yes, that was a regrettable incident. It is fortunate that President MacPhail overruled the umpire's decision," Castiel says, remembering how baffling he'd found the whole situation. Humans become so obsessed with tiny mistakes when it comes to games, but forgive themselves so many sins in daily life.

"Seriously? My kids have an angel and he watches baseball?" John asks, his eyes wide, the amazement swelling.

"Dean enjoys baseball. I pay attention so that I can share that enjoyment with him," Castiel answers truthfully. Baseball is a fascinating concept, but Castiel has no emotional attachment to it. Dean is the only reason he knows anything about it.

"You ever been to a game?"

"No. I never thought of going," Castiel says.

John shrugs. "You should. It's better in person."

He falls quiet for a long time and they both watch the water rolling across the lake's surface in tiny waves. The peace from before does not return. John turns Castiel's existence over in his mind, but he can't seem to find a place to store the information. It's another step in his journey towards real understanding. Castiel wonders if the impression of what John's learned will remain on his soul, even after Castiel withdraws the information from his mind.

"Hey, why'd you leave that one time? Seems like you were gone for awhile. Dean was pretty pissed about it," John says, slight accusation in his tone. Castiel flushes again with guilt.

"I was captured by a demon."

"The same one?"

"No," Castiel answers. He will never forget the shape of that particular evil.

Another silence, then another question comes forth.

"How come you waited all this time to talk to me?"

"If I had spoken to you in reality, your eyes would have melted in your skull and your eardrums would have exploded," Castiel answers.

"Well, okay then," John says, rubbing his eyes and leaning back in his chair. "But Dean and Sam? They see you?"

"Yes." He is grateful when John doesn't ask about Mary. It's better to allow the assumption that all adults can't see angels than to explain that his wife had been lying to him. Even if he will forget the knowledge.

“So why now? You said you might not have the chance to...you know, say what you said," John says and a light blush appears high on his cheeks. He is honestly embarrassed by the notion that Castiel loves him. There are some things about humans that Castiel knows he will never understand.

"I've been reassigned."

John frowns at him.

"You're leaving again? What the fuck? It about killed Dean the last time and you're leaving now?"

The anger is returning, trading places with the grief and Castiel can see that it eases John's soul a bit. Eases him to feel fury at this otherworldly being standing in front of him instead of slipping under the sorrow, drowning in the sadness. He's out of his seat and it's like they were never speaking calmly.

"What kind of angel are you, anyway?"

"I'm a warrior Seraph," Castiel says, straightening and holding himself firm against John's disappointment. "I obey my Father."

"No matter what, is that it? Even if it destroys a little kid that relies on you?" John pushes against Castiel's chest, forcing him to lift up on his wings to avoid being tossed into the lake.

"Just get the fuck out of my head. I don’t have time for a God that just drops us poor humans whenever he feels like it."

"God isn't abandoning Dean," Castiel protests. "He will be protected. Another will-"

"Yeah, in case you don't get this, Dean doesn't want 'another'. He wants you, but if you're just going to keep disappearing on him, don't bother coming back," John spits and he turns again, gives Castiel his back once more. This time, Castiel senses the finality in the action. John wants nothing more to do with him.

"I'm sorry, John," Castiel tells him. John doesn't say anything, just holds himself stiffly, pointedly away from Castiel. Castiel watches him, shocked by how much this dismissal hurts, but there is nothing more to say. Nothing more to do except carefully extract himself from John's mind. Being free from the confines of John's thoughts offers little relief.

"I'm sorry," he says again and this time when he presses his hand on John's forehead, Castiel concentrates only on John's memories.

Time passes as Castiel pours through the memories, plucking out the mentions of 'Cas' and replacing them with something else. Another kind of childhood friend, a figment of Dean's imagination that truly isn't real. It takes quite while and when Castiel is done, when he slides his fingers off John's forehead, caresses down his cheek, John has no recollection of 'Cas' or Castiel.

"Goodbye, John," Castiel whispers.

Dean moves a little in his sleep and draws Castiel's attention. Castiel sighs heavily. The delay is over.

It's time to leave Dean.

Chapter Text

Dean wakes up from his flying dream before Castiel can decide how to proceed. He blinks, eyes drawn to the brightness of Castiel's robe and he sits up.

"Cas?" His voice is tremulous, already edged with tears. Or perhaps still carrying tears from hours before. Castiel doesn't know how much Dean understands of what has happened, but he can't mistake that his mother is missing.

"Yes, Dean," Castiel says softly. A quick touch to both John and Sam's foreheads ensure that the other two humans are sleeping deeply enough and then Castiel plucks Dean out from between his brother and father. Dean is crying quietly before he's even fully within Castiel's grasp. Castiel pulls him close and sinks to the floor, wrapping both arms and wings around his grieving and confused charge. Dean's soul piece is a point of blistering sharp pain within Castiel's Grace. It feels like a hot coal lodged deep in Castiel's chest. Yet there it is also a comfort to hold Dean as he falls apart. Castiel doesn't understand how its possible that this is the last time he would be allowed to do so.

It's a very long time before Dean can do more than drag an exhausted breath between sobs that shudder through his small frame. His tears soak into the collar of Castiel's robe and trickle down the skin of his neck. Eventually, they stop flowing so hard and quick, leaving Dean limp against Castiel's chest. Castiel presses a kiss into the soft hair at the top of Dean's head.

"Cas?" Dean asks tiredly.

"Yes?"

He pulls back enough to look up into Castiel's face.

"Daddy said Mommy was gone away, but he meant she was dead, right?"

Castiel is not surprised John felt unable to say the words to his son. It is difficult for Castiel as well, but he owes Dean the truth in this manner.

"Yes, he did. I'm very sorry, Dean," he says gently, curling the tip of a feather along Dean's tear-stained cheek.

Dean's expression crumbles and though he'd been crying with the grief born of knowledge, this confirmation seems to have brought about another round of tears. Not the wracking sobs of before. Instead, they fall quietly and simply, a straight line down either side of his face.

"I don't want her to be dead," Dean says.

"Me either," Castiel agrees and he uses his feather to brush away the tears gathering on Dean's chin.

"Is she in Heaven now?"

Castiel pauses in his movement, temporarily uncertain of what to do. He begins to consider the morality of lying versus the pain of truth when Castiel remembers with an incredibly painful blow that Dean won't remember anyway. John will have to explain this to Dean, no matter how uncomfortable it makes him. And at this point, Castiel really could not care less about the ethical objections to lying.

"Yes, she is."

"Not the part where you go?" Dean asks, already resigned to Castiel's answer. "You can't go and get her?"

"No. She's...we can't see her anymore," Castiel says, feeling helpless again. He thinks of Mary's spirit, tied to their old home and he wonders how long it will before she finds peace. Or if she ever will. If the Winchesters decide to find another house instead of fixing their destroyed one, will Mary ever get the chance to see her boys again?

"Cas," Dean says, now quieter and he sounds so lost. "How come you didn't stop the fire?"

It's so much worse than John's accusations. Dean doesn't sound angry, just so tired. So adult. Far too old for his years. The odd melded soul piece he carries shifts powerfully within Dean. It's a reminder of the tremendous weight he now carries. A weight that will no doubt give Dean great joy, but will extract a heavy price.

"I couldn't," Castiel whispers and that's not even the real truth. He could have put out the fire after extracting the humans from the Winchester home, but it didn't even occur to him. What did the fire matter when Mary had already been lost and the others saved?

Nevertheless, Dean nods and pushes his face into Castiel's neck. His little arms weave around Castiel's chest and he heaves a deep sigh. Castiel feels more tears wetting his neck, but Dean has mostly calmed by now. Castiel opens the connection they share fully, pouring as much warm soothing Grace into Dean's soul as he can. Dean's hurt is too deep for Castiel to erase entirely, but he never expected he could. He may not like it, but pain is part of the human existence. Castiel could no more remove this pain than erase the love that created it.

The thought gives him a measure of hope in this mess. Castiel can alter Dean's memories, but he can't remove the connection they share any more than he could rip the soul piece out of his Grace. It's not fair to leave Dean with the pain of missing his soul-mate piece carrier, but if the connection remains, then Castiel can live in hope that his Father will revoke this enforced separation. He might see Dean again one day and be able to reestablish this loving relationship.

"M'tired, Cas," Dean says thickly a moment later.

"I know, Dean," Castiel answers. "It's alright if you go to sleep. I'll stay here with you until you do."

Dean doesn't answer for a moment, so long that Castiel thinks he may have drifted off, but then he abruptly sits back again and reaches for the edge of Castiel's right wing.

"What's the matter with your wings?" Distress filters into Dean's tone, making him sound more alert than he has so far. "They look hurt. Are you hurt?"

Castiel had forgotten about his injured wings. Truthfully, the wounds had finally healed themselves, but the feathers were still mussed and sticky with the physical manifestation of Grace. Dean touches the wing cautiously, afraid of hurting him further and his eyes flick up to Castiel's face, suddenly terrified.

"You're not going to die too, are you?" he asks, now trembling with fear.

"No," Castiel assures him quickly, flapping his wings twice to help make his point. "No, my wings are fine, Dean. They were injured, but they are healed now. I will be alright."

Dean wipes at the renewed tears tracing along his cheeks and he nods again, apparently trying to pull himself together.

"Please don't die, Cas. I don't want you to go away too," Dean says as he stares at the wings.

It almost doesn't hurt anymore. For a brief moment, Castiel feels panic. This process, this removal, is the most painful experience Castiel's ever known. It should hurt like jagged rocks, like dripping spikes shoved into his wings or having his Grace torn away, but instead, it's just another hurt to add to the pile and it's just too much.

Then the moment passes and Castiel realizes that he's become numb. It really has been too much at once and his inexperience with human emotions means he's not equipped to deal with this much pain. Something inside him has simply shut down.

"I don't want to go away either," he says finally. "I really don't."

Dean accepts this with a wan smile before lying back against Castiel. There is silence as Dean's breathing becomes slow and steady. Just before he drops off, Dean snuggles into Castiel's neck and breathes a noisy sigh.

"Love you, Cas," he murmurs.

"I love you as well," Castiel says, but Dean's already asleep and doesn't hear him.

Changing Dean's memories will take much longer than John's. Castiel doesn't delay any longer. It's time to do his job, to act like the angel he is. He dives into Dean's memories and is immediately overwhelmed by their strength. These are not merely pictures for Dean to replay to himself. His memories are everything to him. His past is his life.

Castiel ruthlessly shoves back the dismay that worms its way through his numbness and sets to work. The first memory he chooses is one Dean would not have remembered anyway. Their first meeting. The first time Dean blinked up at Castiel with those blue-turned-green eyes and grabbed hold of the end of Castiel's wing. There is no reason to substitute here. Castiel will simply remove the memory altogether. He slips his Grace under and around the memory, making sure to touch both the physical location of the memory in Dean's brain as well as its spiritual resonance in Dean's soul. He tugs gently.

The memory refuses to move.

Castiel jerks back in surprise. John's memories did not act in this manner. They slid away with ease when Castiel called for them. He tries again, this time pulling harder. The memory refuses to budge.

He has no idea why until he notices Dean's soul piece expanding and hitting the sides of his Grace, as if in anger. The soul piece that's part of his Grace, as completely a part of Castiel as the Grace itself.

It won't allow Castiel to do this to Dean.

"You don't understand," he says to the soul piece and it's a strange feeling addressing the soul piece as if it had the ears to hear him. But he doesn't know what else to do. If his Grace won't let him erase Dean's memories, then Zachariah will surely send another angel. He may even take the memories himself. The thought of Zachariah's cold unfeeling Grace rooting around in Dean's heart and soul sickens Castiel beyond belief. He'd rather die than let Zachariah violate Dean in such a way.

He ponders the problem for a very long time before a spark of an idea flickers through him. If Castiel can't rip away the memories, could it be possible to hide them? Suppress them enough that Dean won't have access to them and arrange place-holders for the empty spaces they leave behind?

Castiel cradles the first meeting memory again and very carefully pushes on it, sinking it into the depths of Dean's soul. He is not altogether surprised when it settles into the empty space created by what would be Castiel's soul-mate piece if he had one to give Dean. It is the part of Dean's soul that most fervently craves Castiel's touch, the part of Dean that makes him Castiel's soul-mate. It is a natural hiding place for the memories and as Castiel begins transferring other memories there, he silently hopes that the memories will somehow help Dean feel less lonely without Castiel.

He creates the place-holders as he goes along. Some interactions are just totally glossed over, like their first meeting. Instead of seeing Castiel standing over his box, Dean sees nothing. In others, Castiel must create a false memory. Times spent playing with Castiel are changed to playing with Mary or John. Dean's obsession with Castiel becomes an obsession with his imaginary friend, 'Mr. Squirrel.' A game of pretend switches from angels to fairies. Dean's favorite pie is cooked by his mother only. A cowboy loses his wings.

The hours pass quickly and by the time Castiel is finally done, sunlight is peeking over the horizon. Dean is snoring lightly and he is relaxed and warm against Castiel's chest. Castiel pulls him into a firmer embrace. Wraps him up in wings, creating a small perfect sphere. Their special place.

"I'm sorry, Dean," he says against Dean's temple. He senses Dean begin to dream again, but it's not feathers and flying. It's flames and grief and Castiel quickly soothes it away. Grace pours into Dean's soul through their still-opened connection and though Dean doesn't remember Castiel, the touch still calms him. Once he is sleeping peacefully again, Castiel reluctantly lays Dean back in his place between John and Sam.

"I love you, Dean," he says, brushing the hair away from Dean's eyes. "I always will."

Castiel removes the deep sleep suggestion from Sam's mind and is about to do the same to John when something catches his attention.

Sam is dreaming of big white wings.

He stares in surprise for a moment and then Sam wakes up. Yawns and reaches out for Castiel, who picks him up and smiles at him. The taint of demon blood stings Castiel, gnaws at him, but under it, Castiel can still sense the same odd curious soul, the same innocence and devotion. He prays it will be enough for Sam’s soul to survive the trials to come.

"You won't forget me, will you, Sammy?" Castiel says, bouncing Sam.

Sam is an oversight. Zachariah knows how human minds work. Since Sam won't consciously remember Castiel's presence, Zachariah had not thought him important. But Zachariah only knows their minds. Castiel knows their hearts. A part of Sam will remember this connection to the Heavenly realm.

"It's up to you now. You must show him unconditional love," Castiel says and maybe he should feel guilty for charging such a young human with this duty. But it's no less than they've already agreed upon. And no less than what he suspects Sam will do.

"I shall miss you as well, Sam."

Sam squawks loudly and earns himself a kiss to the forehead. Castiel sets him back down, but Sam doesn't like this. He waves his arms and reaches for Castiel, squealing and upset about being denied. Castiel has just enough time to cloak before Sam's noise awakens Dean, who frowns at Sam.

"What'sa matter?"

More reaching, Sam tries to roll away, obviously annoyed and confused about Castiel's disappearance.

"Stop it, Sammy," Dean whispers, tugging his brother's arms back to his side. "There's nothing out there, silly."

And like that, the numbness is lifted and all the sorrow and wretched pain of betrayal and separation comes crashing in on Castiel. It lances through his Grace, clusters around Dean's soul piece and digs in. Here to stay. He watches, invisible and unknown, as Dean pulls Sam into his arms and whispers to him until they both fall asleep again. Then he uncloaks and reaches over with clumsy fingers to lift the sleep suggestion from John's mind.

Castiel only allows himself one more look. A glance at Dean's smooth untroubled expression and then Castiel is gone. Out of the home in an instant, transporting through the underspace rather than flying. He reenters real-time at the edge of the Heavenly realm and is surprised to see Uriel waiting for him.

"Uriel," he says.

"Brother," is Uriel's answer. One word, but many things spoken. Regret and anger and even a hint of superiority. Not pleased superiority, just the impression of knowledge that, in ways, Uriel had been right about the soul piece. It did bring Castiel many problems and resulted in a good deal of pain. But what Uriel doesn't understand is that even now, Castiel believes the problems were worth the rewards.

"You haven't just come to offer support, have you?"

"No. I've been ordered to escort you to the Healer's and then to your new post. Zachariah seemed...anxious to ensure your safe arrival," Uriel says, but he is sneering and Castiel thinks they both understand that Uriel's true purpose is to make certain Castiel reports to his new command.

But it is not necessary. If this is the path that Castiel must walk, then he will walk it.

“And the Winchesters?”

“Our brother, Israfel, will watch over them,” Uriel informs him. That is a relief. She is the only of his brothers that Castiel could trust with such an important task.

"I see. Well, then, you better lead the way," Castiel says, stretching both a hand and a wing in the direction of the Healer's.

"Castiel," Uriel starts, but Castiel shakes his head. He doesn't want to dwell on the situation any longer.

"Let's go," he says.

He unfurls his wings and starts his journey away from love and warmth and Dean.

Chapter Text

Twelve Years Later

Castiel touches down in the Healer's domain and tries not to become overwhelmed with relief. His left wing hangs at an awkward angle against his back. An unwelcome infusion of demon's oil has kept Castiel from healing and the pain of flying all way back to the city from the Outer Realm has deepened the exhaustion Castiel already feels. It's been far too long since his unit was allowed rest time. For at least five tours if not more. He has no idea how long it’s been on Earth.

His unit's medics, Lamach and Donachiel, limp along behind him and it's a sign of how badly their last battle went. They were too injured themselves to provide medical attention. The accursed demon's oil that Castiel first encountered when he was captured by Alistair works specifically on eliminating healing capabilities. So far, he's not lost any of his brothers. But it doesn't stop the injuries and the battle fatigue from being a serious problem. Castiel can sense his soldier’s Grace-deep ache to join the Host, to sing praises and restore their nearly depleted energy.

Castiel just wants to speak with Israfel.

"I've seen you looking better, brother," the Healer comments when Castiel trudges through the door to the domain. He acknowledges the comment with a tired shrug, but waves off assistance when the Healer approaches him.

"There are those with more serious injuries. I can wait," he says as he slumps into a low chair. The Healer frowns at him, examining him closer. But Castiel has spoken truly. His injuries can wait. The Healer sighs, but moves away to attend Shimshiel, who is nursing a fractured wing joint.

Castiel looks around the Healer's domain, counting his brothers, making certain once again that they all made it home safely. He doesn't begin to relax until his final count is accurate. Too many are injured, but he is grateful that they all made it back alive, if not wholly intact.

Another kind of worry creeps into Castiel's Grace and he very nearly decides to forego treatment in favor of assuaging his anxiety when Israfel appears beside him. Her spirit sings, fresh and snow white, so different from the ugly darkness that has crept into Castiel's essence. Without conscious thought, Castiel leans towards her, eager to soak in her bright healing presence. Israfel's most recent assignment to resume her duty as a creative muse has remade her in their Father's joy.

"Israfel," Castiel breathes and he smiles a little when she wraps a wing around his shoulders. His soldiers always give them odd looks when they touch in this manner. The thought of such physical intimacy appalls them, but they know only the fear, not of the benefits. When Israfel embraces him like this, it makes Castiel feel less alone.

"How badly are you hurt, brother?" Her Grace smoothes over his, easing away the taint of time spent in the presence of evil.

"It's not serious," he answers and then he places his hand on her arm. "How long?"

Israfel sighs. Castiel immediately dislikes the sound.

"Five years," she says quietly.

Dismay floods Castiel's Grace. Five Earth years. Little more than an instant for Castiel, but an eternity in Dean's young life. The last time Castiel had spoken with Israfel, Dean had been on the cusp of his twelfth birthday. A child in age, but an adult in responsibility. Castiel's Grace quivers in remembrance of the dangers Dean has already faced. The werewolf in Canada, the striga that nearly consumed Sam's life-force, the angry spirit that knocked Dean unconscious, requiring an overnight visit to a human hospital.

Not that Castiel had actually witnessed these events. He is forced to hear them second-hand through Israfel. Each new danger draws her attention, but she has only been forced to use her powers to save Sam and Dean once. John has learned much since the last time Castiel saw him.

"How is he?"

"Discovering the joys of sex," Israfel answers with a chuckle.

"Sex?" Castiel asks, surprised. It's difficult to alter his perception of Dean to include a sexual appetite. His mental image of Dean is still that of a four year-old boy wrapped tight in his wings. Israfel described the way Dean has grown, but Castiel doesn't have the imagination to see it in his mind. Now he must try to add another five years and the entrance into the next stage of Dean's life.

"He's been experimenting," she says and when she sees Castiel's troubled expression, she adds. "Nothing serious."

"I wasn't concerned about that," Castiel says immediately, but even as he's speaking, he realizes it's a lie. Castiel doesn't begrudge Dean the comfort of physical intimacy, not one bit. But he can't help feeling envious of those humans that get to be close to Dean while Castiel is forced to stay away. Still, he won't let that envy interfere with the joy Castiel knows he'll feel when Dean finds a life partner.

"What..." There are so many questions. "Is he healthy? Happy?"

"As happy as can be expected," Israfel says with a sigh. "He misses you terribly, of course. And his reliance on Sam continues to worry me, but he's holding steady under the pressure of his responsibilities."

'Holding steady' is not what Castiel would wish for Dean, but at least he's not truly unhappy.

"There have been some close calls, but Dean grows more confident at hunting evil. I find myself more concerned with Sam's safety these days," Israfel continues. Castiel feels a stab of concern.

"Has there been a problem with Sam's infection?" Castiel asks.

"No, the demon blood remains dormant," Israfel says and Castiel feels something unclench deep within his Grace. This is one of Castiel's greatest fears for the Winchesters, for Dean. If the demon blood flowing through Sam's veins is ever aroused, Castiel has no idea what will happen to the child. He just knows it can't be good.

"He is too young to be involved in such dangerous situations," Israfel says, her voice lined with worry. It draws a startled smile across Castiel's face.

"You are becoming emotionally involved, brother," he teases.

"Why should you be the only one?" Israfel teases back and Castiel feels even more of his weariness fade away.

"How does he look?" Castiel asks after a moment of warm cheerful silence. He watches the Healer flit from one patient to another, casting speculative glances towards where Castiel leans against Israfel. The Healer worries too much, but then that's probably the Healer's job.

"He grew quite a lot," Israfel says and then she stretches her wing high, indicating Dean's new height. "I believe he will have yet one more growth spurt. Your soul-mate is going to be a large human."

"I'm not surprised," Castiel comments, thinking back to the way Dean ate while still a child. The memory saddens him unexpectedly. He'd been hoping to use his cooking skills for Dean someday.

"I can't imagine it, Israfel," he suddenly says. "I have no idea what he looks like. I don't even know if he feels the same. His soul piece twinges occasionally, but there is just so much distance between us. It feels almost like a dead weight within my Grace, except nothing dead could hurt this much."

Shocked silence follows his speech. Israfel is not the only one surprised by his confession. Castiel hadn't been aware he needed to speak the words until they were flowing from his very center. The wing around his shoulder squeezes hard and then Israfel's voice is in his ear.

"I've been thinking about it, Castiel. Come find me after the Healer finishes with you," she whispers, dark and urgent. Castiel turns, a question on his lips, but Israfel shakes her head and disappears out the door just as the Healer approaches.

"No more delaying, brother," the Healer says. "Let me look at that wing."

Castiel obliges the Healer's request, though his typical patience is hard-won. The look in Israfel's eyes, the intensity, has set Castiel on edge and he wishes to discover her meaning more than he wants to continue sitting here while the Healer combs through each of his individual feathers.

"That's enough," he finally says several moments later when his wing feels perfectly normal. The annoyed frown the Healer gives him inspires a measure of guilt. "Forgive me," he says. "I have business elsewhere. Thank you for your time."

"I see," the Healer says, distant. Castiel hides his wince. Years on the front have roughened his smooth edges. But he does not insult the Healer by belaboring his apology. Instead, he merely nods and takes his leave, hurtling along Israfel's unique Grace trail. He finds her at the edge of the City, in a quiet section where few of their brothers tread. It's not unusual to see two angels walking these areas, but it's not exactly common. The perfect place to hold a private conversation. Castiel prepares himself for the painful process of obscuring this conversation from the rest of the Host. Again, not an unusual action, especially for military leaders. But uncommon enough that they will have to speak quickly.

"What is it, brother?" Castiel asks as soon as he lands.

"I have been struggling with whether or not I should say anything to you about this, but after what you told me at the Domain, I believe I've made my decision," Israfel begins, peering over Castiel's wings towards the end of the street.

"Which is what?" Castiel asks curiously.

"I have...I wonder if Zachariah has correctly interpreted our Father's will," Israfel murmurs, abruptly turning abreast of Castiel and beginning to walk. He hurriedly follows her, propelled by shock and confusion.

"What do you mean?"

"Zachariah believes Dean Winchester should not be aware of angels. I cannot fathom why the Father would want this, but I have faith in His plan," she says determinedly, almost defensively as if she thought Castiel would accuse her of being unfaithful.

"Yes, of course. As do I," Castiel agrees, partly because it's true and partly to prompt her further.

"But I wonder if this means he cannot interact with you at all," she says softly.

Castiel stops walking and tugs on her robe, halting her progress. A terrible kind of hope, vague and aimless, pulses through his Grace.

"Israfel?"

She glances both ways again and then suddenly Castiel finds himself dragged down a shadowed alley. Once again, Israfel is speaking right into his ear, her tone no less intense than it was at the Healer's. Except this time, they are edged with worry.

"It's clear to me that Dean has been chosen for some task. Our leaders expect him to accomplish it while experiencing the lack of his soul-mate. Had he not met you, it might be different, but his soul has already touched your Grace. It aches for you and I fear he will not have the strength to carry out our Father's plan after being separated from you all these many years. You need to visit him. Even if only for a few moments," she says in a rush, her breath cool across his cheek.

When she finishes, Castiel can only stare. The hope inside him struggles against the approaching dread of disappointment and it takes several moments before he can speak.

"I can't appear to him, Israfel. It is expressly forbidden," he whispers and the hurt returns again, fresh as it had been all those Earth years ago.

"You, Castiel, cannot visit him, yes. But Zachariah did not say you could not interact with him on any level," Israfel says, her eyes full of meaning that is lost on Castiel.

"Do you mean...a dream vision?"

"I was thinking of something a little more corporeal," she says.

It hits him with a wave of mind-blowing amazement.

"Israfel," he hisses, alarmed not just by her suggestion, but by the way his hope expands once more. "You can't possibly mean for me to take a vessel for this?"

"That is exactly what I mean, brother," she says firmly. "You have never taken a vessel?"

He shakes his head. His wings beat helplessly against the wall he's using to hold himself off the ground.

"The contract is too binding, Israfel. I couldn't possibly risk a vessel for something as unimportant as a visit," Castiel says.

"It's not unimportant. It could make or break our Father's plan," she protests, finally easing away from Castiel. If any of their brothers were to glance down the alley, they would only see two angels speaking normally. "But that is beside the point. You don't fully understand the vessel contract. It's true that taking a human body and using it to conduct angel business will make it difficult to extract from that body. But that is only if you reveal yourself. There is power in lending your name to a human form. However, if you were to find a vessel and appear to Dean in the guise of that vessel...you could easily leave that human body and Dean would be none the wiser."

Castiel sorts through this information in his mind. He pushes aside the painful longing to see Dean again, so that he can be rational about this decision.

"Dean wouldn't know it was me?"

"No and therefore you would not be disobeying your orders," Israfel says. "He doesn't need to know it's you. He just needs to feel the presence of his soul-mate. He needs to touch your skin and look into your eyes."

"Even if they aren't truly my eyes?"

"But they will be. For that moment, they will belong to you. It will be your Grace he sees in the human's eyes," Israfel assures him. "I have done it many times, brother. How do you think I use my powers to inspire humans? Many artists find no better inspiration than a beautiful human. And what could make possibly make a human more beautiful than the powerful Grace of an angel?"

Castiel thinks that certain humans are beautiful enough on their own, but he understands Israfel's meaning. He's always thought she spoke only to special humans who could withstand her presence. It did not occur to him that she would appear as a human herself.

"Give it some thought, brother, but don't wait too long. We don't know when Zachariah will order you back to the front," she says, placing her hand on Castiel's shoulder. "Come find me when you decide."

His thoughts are moving faster than light. If the only thing stopping Castiel from taking a vessel is fear of damaging a human and Israfel has just eradicated that anxiety, then what else could stand in his way? What objection could he possibly find that would keep him from the opportunity to be near Dean, to relearn Dean's face, his soul?

"I want to do it," he blurts before Israfel has time to leave.

She smiles and holds out her hand.

"Then come with me."

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

They are standing just above the barrier between Heaven and Earth. Israfel still holds his hand and with the other, she gestures towards the Earth, indicating its entirety.

"You must reach out with the particular desire to find a vessel," she says. "I want you to connect with my Grace, so I can demonstrate how it works."

Castiel does so immediately. He will enjoy this part. It's been far too long since he shared this special connection with one of his brothers. The intimacy overwhelms him for a moment. All that Israfel was and all she is and all she will be binds close to his Grace and for a split second, they are one.

It is not enough, but it puts a momentary dent in his aching loneliness.

"My brother," Israfel murmurs as his emotions pour into her Grace. As she understands the sorrow and the fatigue and the crushing distance. "Perhaps this is not only about Dean after all. These feelings put your command in danger."

He should feel chastised, but instead all he feels is the soothing love and joy Israfel exchanges for his grief. They commune in this manner for longer than Israfel probably intended, but soon enough, she begins to tug at his Grace, asking him to follow her lead as she casts her own Grace towards Earth. Her thoughts turn to vessels and she whispers a silent wordless question into the air. Castiel startles when he realizes he's hearing an answer. Not to Israfel, but to himself, the question he asked without knowing it.

His vessels call to him.

At least a dozen humans, faithful bright shining souls, reach for his Grace and Castiel laughs in delight.

"I never knew them," he says, somewhat senseless with this joy. Israfel squeezes his hands.

"Choose one, brother. They are all willing servants," she commands gently.

The vessels are scattered across the globe. Castiel connects with first one, then another. A third offers the same helpless happiness and Castiel doesn't think he can choose between them. They are all so beautiful.

"I don't...Israfel, this..."

"Hush," she says. Castiel hears her move closer and only then does he realize his eyes are shut. "Don't try to choose between them based on merit. Instead, find a vessel close to Dean. Their similarity in dress and accent will prevent questions."

 

Castiel immediately shuts out the call of the vessels, though it pains him to do so. The pain can't compare to the ecstatic joy of what he's about to do. His Grace turns towards Dean and within a moment, a heartbeat, Dean's soul is greedily tugging it towards him. The light of his soul shines a thousand times brighter than the vessels and Dean's body might not be built to receive Castiel's Grace, but his soul is and that's a thousand times sweeter.

"Dean," Castiel breathes. It's been ages since he was this close to Earth. Since Dean was only six, just after Castiel's first tour in command. It doesn't seem possible, but Castiel's almost forgotten the warm possessive nature of Dean's soul. Or at least Castiel's mind is unable to fully recreate the feeling.

"Don't become distracted," Israfel says with a lilt of amusement. "Choose a vessel near him and go to the human. They will be able to see you. You must ask them for the honor of using their body. This part will come more naturally I think."

A vessel calls out clearly to Castiel. A human with perfect love in their soul, less than a day's travel by transport vehicle from Dean's current location.

"Good choice, Castiel," Israfel praises him and then she pushes him a little. "Go now."

Castiel dives towards his vessel.

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

The vessel is in the topmost room of a tall three-story house. The sloping ceiling reminds Castiel of the tiny room near the roof of the Winchester home, though this room isn't filled with old dusty boxes. Instead, there is a neatly made bed with an intricately woven blue quilt in one corner and a boxy set of drawers in another. A large mirror is connected to the boxy drawers and Castiel smiles at the metal cross attached to a string slung over one corner of the mirror. Photographs of humans speckle the walls and there is a squat bookcase crammed full of books near the bed.

It's a cheerful bedroom.

The vessel is sitting on the bed, reading one of the books, a thick volume entitled "European History Since 1713."

Castiel uncloaks and the vessel shrieks.

"Oh my God!" she shouts and Castiel thinks blasphemy is probably not the best way to start this relationship.

"Hello," he says in answer.

"You..." She holds the book in front of her stomach, as if it were adequate defense. "What are you?"

"My name is Castiel," he says and he opens his Grace to her, allowing her to fully sense him. "I am an Angel of the Lord."

"Oh," she breathes and the book falls out of her now lax hands. "Oh, wow."

"Your name is Katie?" Castiel says, drawing the name out of her mind.

Katie nods mutely, eyes round and staring. Castiel assumes she's never met one of his brothers before. The initial fear he sensed in her soul has transformed into a terrified worshipful awe. Her belief is so strong that she's already accepted his presence in her room. It's little wonder she is an angelic vessel.

"I have need of your help, Katie," Castiel says and he takes a step closer. Katie's eyes trail to his wings and he can tell she finds them very pleasing. He flaps them once and is rewarded with a guileless child-like grin.

"Anything, Angel," she says and then Castiel is surprised when she shakes herself and adds sternly. "Within reason, of course."

Aha, faithful, yet independent. Castiel likes this quality very much.

"I wish to use your body to speak with another human. You will not come to harm and I will return you to your home within twelve hours," he says. A prickle of concern flares in Katie's eyes.

"Use my body?"

"It will be like our minds have joined. I will control your movements and speech, but you will be well cared for," Castiel promises her. He understands that this must be a frightening concept for humans, though he doesn't really know why. But he is more than willing to answer her questions, to ease her mind.

"Will I...like will I know what's going on?" she asks. She sounds thoughtful rather than afraid.

"I'm afraid I don't know," Castiel confesses. "I've never taken a vessel before." That concern flares again, brighter, but Castiel holds out a placating hand. "I know how it's done though."

Katie laughs, surprising him again.

"Well, who am I to question an angel? Um, Castiel, was it?" At his nod, she continues. "Well, okay, as long as I'll get back safe and sound, then I agree."

Joy surges through Castiel's Grace yet again. He moves forward, intending to begin the joining process, but a voice bellowing from beyond the door stops him short.

"Katie!"

There is a rhythmic pounding that Castiel recognizes as a human running up a flight of stairs and then Katie whirls on him, panicked.

"It's my brother! Can you...should you...?"

Instead of waiting for her question to develop, Castiel cloaks himself. He can't be sure this brother can see his presence and really, the fewer humans involved in this process, the better.

Katie's bedroom door bursts open and a young man of perhaps twenty or twenty-one tumbles into the room.

"Jimmy!" Katie snaps, throwing both hands on her waist. "What did I tell you about barging in without knocking?"

A chagrinned expression crosses Jimmy's face and he begins to say something, but Castiel doesn't hear him. He is too distracted by the blazing bright soul stored within Jimmy's slender frame. This boy, Katie's brother, is more than another vessel. Castiel's Grace aches to reach to him, to slip into this perfect mold and join with him. Of all the humans Castiel has seen, all the souls he’s touched, this soul is second only to Dean’s in sheer powerful beauty. No, Jimmy isn't just any vessel.

He is the vessel.

Jimmy is Castiel's natural vessel. His most ideal human dwelling and it's incredibly difficult not to ask for him instead.

But it would nearly impossible to separate from Jimmy. If Castiel ever takes this vessel, it must only be in the direst of circumstances.

"Uh huh, yeah, right," Katie is saying, rolling her eyes. "You thought I was in here talking to Amelia."

"Well...she's supposed to come by," Jimmy says, his pale skin flushing a deep red. "We're going to study."

"You're such a romantic, Jimbo," Katie says, but her teasing is good-natured. Even the glare has fallen away from Katie's bright blue eyes. She begins to push Jimmy towards the door. "Anyway, I wasn't talking to the girl you’re too chicken to ask out properly. I was talking to God, so get out."

"Since when do you pray so loudly?" Jimmy asks through the embarrassment he feels for reasons that escape Castiel.

"Since right now."

"Whatever," Jimmy answers. "Tell God I said hi."

"Like God wants to talk to your skinny ass," Katie says as she strong-arms Jimmy out into the hallway. "Oh and by the way, I'm going to be late tonight, so don't wait up. I'm sure you can find something to do. And it's your turn to do the dishes."

She shuts the door on Jimmy's face. The loss he feels when Jimmy turns and clatters down the stairs again shocks Castiel.

"I believe God would enjoy talking to your brother," he says as he uncloaks. He knows Katie was not being serious, but he feels compelled to say something in Jimmy's defense. Katie smiles at him.

"I know. I just like to make fun of the kid. 'Side it's hard to be a Christian nowadays. Sometimes you just gotta laugh about it," she informs him. Castiel doesn’t understand finding faith difficult, but he lets her words pass without comment.

"So, um...shall we?" Katie asks.

It begins with a thread. A trickle of Grace, slipping into her soul, an entry point to joining. The faith and devotion suffusing Katie's soul eases his way, but even with her touch of righteousness, she is still human. There is still a certain kind of darkness within her, the innate shape of humanity and Castiel nearly panics when that darkness curls around his Grace. Then, with unexpected suddenness, Katie's soul clamps down hard on Castiel's Grace and pulls. He instantly cloaks, his physical body dissolving into little more than light and he is snapped into Katie's body. Her soul climbs into his Grace, cradled safe beside Dean's soul piece, near without touching.

She is small. Separate and so terribly alone. Castiel remembers how it felt to walk in John's mind. That cramped stifling restriction is infinitely worse inside a human body. It pains his Grace to be so limited. His natural form is vast in comparison.

And yet, the sensations are not all negative. Once Castiel is full seated in Katie's body, he opens her eyes. His eyes. His own senses remain. The world looks as it always has, but then Castiel dampens his Grace, curious by this human experience and looks out with her human eyes only.

It is an explosion of color and light. Colors that Castiel recognizes, that he has seen this vividly only in Heaven, never on Earth. The light pouring from Katie's bedroom window is as warm and golden as the light glinting off the silver walls of the Citadel. As much beauty as Castiel always found on Earth, he never understood so well that it was not created for angels. It is a gift from the Father to his precious children and Castiel is humbled by His generosity.

Castiel lifts a slender feminine hand to his face, rubs the fingers together. The dry slide of skin against skin sends shockwaves of sensation down through Katie's body and small bumps rise along her flesh. This body senses so much. The thick press of artificially warmed air against her cool flesh. The invasive scent of wood, chemicals and natural human odors in her nose. The wet warmth and a hint of taste that Castiel can’t identify in her mouth. Too much information at once and Castiel is in very real danger of becoming overwhelmed.

He jerks his Grace back into control of his senses. In comparison to the hot damp human experience, his Grace is cold as ice. Castiel finds the pure frigid sensation very comforting. The spirit world, the glowing tendrils of underspace, melt back into existence and once again Castiel is connected to a much bigger existence. It reminds him to keep his thoughts away from the Host. Not shielded necessarily, but merely unimportant. Unworthy of notice. He hopes it will be enough.

Katie's mind touches Castiel's then and her memories pour over him. He learns her inside and out. Her full name is Katherine Lynn Novak and she lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her brother, James Novak and their grandmother, Claire Ravenscraft. She is nineteen years old and a student of history at Xavier University, where Jimmy also attends. Their parents live in Chicago, Illinois, but both children agreed to attend college in Cincinnati so they could live with their aging grandmother and help her care for her large home. Her family is second only to her faith in importance, an ideal that appears to be shared among the rest of her family. They are truly blessed by the Father.

Castiel? Katie's voice is weak in his mind.

Are you alright? Castiel asks, concerned by how tired she suddenly sounds.

It's...a little uncomfortable she admits. Castiel dampens his Grace further and feels Katie become more alert. It seems the less he is present, the more Katie can sense. She obviously understands this too because he feels a nudge on his Grace and her voice continues.

It's okay. Just let go and let me like just sleep out the rest of the time or something. I think I'd prefer that.

Are you sure?

Yeah. It'll give you guys some privacy anyway she answers, causing Castiel to tilt her head in confusion. He has no need for privacy, though it occurs to him that Dean might appreciate it. If he were aware of the true nature of the conversation, that is.

"Very well," he says aloud, testing her vocal chords. His throat vibrates, tickling him. Castiel allows himself to feel it, but only distantly. "I will speak with you soon," he promises and then he releases the hold on his Grace. Katie's presence, her mind and personality, is totally subjugated by the force of his power. Her soul is safe within his Grace, but beyond that, Castiel is alone inside this body.

He walks to the mirror to examine his new vessel. She is not very tall. Certainly much shorter than Dean, according to Israfel's estimates. Her hair falls in waves across her shoulders and is very dark, nearly black. Her face is very pointed and angular, especially her sharp nose and her large expressive eyes are the same color as ocean water. She is wearing a skirt made from a black and red cross-patterned material and a black long-sleeved sweater that fits closely against her upper body. Her legs are covered in a thin black material and there are shiny black shoes on her feet. She appears well-groomed and neatly dressed. Perfectly suited to appearing in public. Castiel has never been a good judge of human beauty, but from an angel's standards, Katie looks very nice. Hopefully, Dean won't be repelled by her appearance.

"We should go," he says to the reflection and smiles when it perfectly matches his words.

Then he shuts his new eyes and unfurls his wings. They are present, but invisible, lifting him and carrying him. It's not quite as free flowing and natural as his true form, but it will do. He allows his Grace to connect to Dean and then the room disappears around him.

When he reopens his eyes, Castiel finds himself in a small narrow restaurant. On one side of the room, there is a long counter beside five rounded seats. The other side contains six tables with four regular chairs each. Several of the tables are occupied by families and couples. But Castiel only vaguely notes them. His attention is focused on the young man perched on the middle of the five stools.

Dean may as well be four years old for all that his soul has changed. Even the scars of living cannot obscure the same bright loving soul that claimed Castiel so long ago. He does not enjoy seeing the pollution of pain within Dean, the darkness of bleak and terrifying experiences, but in all ways that matter, Dean is still same person. Years have changed nothing and Castiel suspects, years will never change anything.

Dean will always be Castiel's favorite human.

Dean's soul reaches to him, even though the human hasn't noticed Castiel. The soul piece within Castiel's trembles in anticipation and when it finally feels the touch of its original owner, it relaxes. Truly relaxes for the first time since Dean was last in Castiel's presence and the pleasure is so intense it nearly hurts. Castiel's first inclination is to go straight to Dean's side and gather him into an embrace. His wings tremble in the underspace, unfurling and shaking with the desire to touch their human. But of course, Castiel does not allow it. The charade must be maintained. He is not Castiel, angel of the Lord and Dean's soul-mate. He is Katie, a young girl and total stranger. He must act accordingly, no matter how violently Dean's soul calls to him.

Castiel adjusts his perspective, looking away from Dean's soul to Dean's new physical appearance. The first thing that strikes Castiel is how very thin Dean's become. His body is lanky, even bony. A quick scan with his Grace assures Castiel that Dean isn't unhealthy. This state must be normal for humans his age. Still, it is difficult for Castiel to change his mental impression from the round-faced little blond child Dean once was to the tall lean boy on the verge of becoming man Castiel sees now. Dean's hair has turned brown and sticks up off his head in tufts. He is looking down into a plate of food, so Castiel can't tell if his eyes are still the same soft green. The desire to find out draws Castiel across the restaurant. Katie's hard shoes clatter noisily on the floor, gaining Dean's attention. He looks up from his sandwich and then they are looking into each other's eyes.

It's been so long, but it was never the time; it was the distance. And now they are close, so very near and the connection Dean's soul has already made with Castiel's Grace tightens, dragging him closer almost physically. He doesn't resist it and walks to Dean, right up to his side.

As he walks, Dean's eyes act unexpectedly. Instead of staying on Castiel's face the way Castiel's stay on his, Dean's eyes wander up and down Castiel's borrowed body. They linger first on his vessel's chest and then on her hips. His pupils expand slightly and Castiel senses in Dean a flush of some emotion he can't recognize.

"Hey," Dean says and one side of his mouth turns up in a smile. He rotates a little on his chair, leaning against the counter on one arm and letting his eyes move and down Castiel's body again. Castiel knows he shouldn't be surprised by how deep Dean's voice sounds, but he is. Dean's soul may be the same, but it's still difficult to accept that his physical being has changed so much.

"Hello," Castiel says, only catching the name 'Dean' just before it falls off his tongue. Dean's eyes, which indeed are the exact same shade of green Castiel remembered, widen a little in surprise. Castiel assumes his voice is the reason. When Katie spoke, her words were light and soft. Young and feminine. By contrast, when Castiel speaks with her voice, the weight of his power drags it down, makes it rough and uneven. Much like his true voice sounds. But it doesn't seem to repulse Dean. In fact, he leans closer and that peculiar emotion surges stronger. It seems like Dean's about to say something, but then Castiel can't help reaching towards Dean with his wings. Unseen, but very present, they wrap gently around Dean's shoulders and Dean's words die in his throat. He can't see or feel them, but they are clearly affecting him. That unidentified emotion fades under a much more intense pulse of comfort and familiarity.

They stare at each other for a very long time before Dean finally regains his voice.

"Uh...hey," he says again. "I'm Dean."

"My name is Katie," Castiel says, though it feels very wrong. But even using his old nickname of 'Cas' would be too risky and Katie is a suitable name to use.

"Katie," Dean repeats and then he smiles faintly. "I like that."

When Castiel doesn't answer and just keeps staring at him, Dean's cheeks turn a reddish color. His features are somewhat feminine, Castiel thinks. Not that Dean isn't clearly a male. But he lacks any of John's rough masculinity. At least so far. Instead, Dean has his mother's softness.

"Um...are you...you wanna sit with me?" Dean offers, pointing to the rounded seat next to his.

"Yes, thank you," Castiel answers. Katie's skirt and low height make it difficult to navigate climbing onto the seat. There is a brief moment where Castiel isn't sure what he's meant to do and then Dean's hand curls around his elbow. The soul piece's trembles turn to erratic vibrations. Israfel had been correct. The joy growing in Castiel's Grace is a healing balm. The dead feeling that had grown up around Dean's unsatisfied soul piece melts away and Castiel hadn't truly realized how lonely he'd been for Dean until this moment.

"You need some help?" Dean's breath flows across Castiel's ear. For a split second, Castiel lets Katie's human perceptions take hold and when he feels that warm breath again, her body reacts very oddly. It feels as if her stomach has moved inside her body and a strange weakness attacks her legs. It's difficult to stand just then and Castiel must lean on Dean's hand.

"Yes, please," Castiel murmurs. Dean's slenderness hides surprising strength. He tugs Castiel up onto the seat and doesn't relinquish his hold until Castiel is fully settled on the seat.

"Thank you," he says, watching Dean's eyes trail over his face. Katie's body continues to distract him with inexplicable heat and warmth. Castiel wonders if humans feel like this all the time and if so, how they manage to go through their days without collapsing every few moments. He decides that it's not a very good idea to filter this experience through Katie. His Grace overtakes his senses once more and the warmth cools.

"Were you going to eat?" Dean asks. "I'm almost done with my burger, but I was thinking about getting some dessert."

There is no reason for Castiel to eat, but he finds himself curious about the experience. And he doesn't want Dean to become suspicious of the girl who came into a restaurant, but doesn't wish to eat. He thinks back through Mary's cooking lessons, trying to remember what Dean liked best to eat.

"I would like some apple pie," Castiel says carefully.

Dean's eyes light up.

"A woman after my own heart," he says with a grin.

Castiel doesn't really understand this phrase, but it sounds very like the truth to him.

"Yes," Castiel agrees. He earns himself another wide grin and then Dean's turned away, attracting the attention of a sullen-faced employee. As he places their order, Castiel searches Dean's soul. As close as they now are, it's easy for Castiel to see that the memories he hid long ago remain intact and in place. Dean's soul has stubbornly protected them. Unfortunately, judging by the way his soul is also hungrily drawing on Castiel's Grace, insatiable and eager for relief, Castiel thinks the memories weren't able to stave off Dean's loneliness. He prays it was at least less painful than it could have been.

"They have pretty good pie here," Dean informs him once the employee's moved away.

"I will trust your judgment," Castiel assures him. For some reason, it makes Dean give him an odd look. He seems to find Castiel just the slightest bit strange. Although it does nothing to decrease his interest. Dean doesn't understand why, but he is clearly drawn to Castiel and that pleases Castiel a great deal.

"So I haven't seen you in here before," Dean says, obviously dismissing whatever he'd been thinking. "You from Lexington?"

"No," Castiel answers. "I am only in this town...visiting a friend," he says. It wouldn't do for Dean to look for Katie after Castiel leaves. It's better for him to think that she won't be available for further discussion.

"Oh," Dean says guardedly. "You're supposed to meet...him here?"

Castiel cocks his head, thrown by the change in Dean's emotional state. The feeling he couldn't recognize twists Dean's heart and it takes Castiel a second to understand that Dean feels threatened. That the thought of Castiel meeting another human concerns him. A closer inspection helps Castiel understand that Dean is particularly against the idea of Castiel meeting another male human. He puzzles on it, finally deciding that Dean believes Castiel desires a male to pass the time and that he fears Castiel will choose the other male. Since he's fabricating a story anyway, Castiel changes it to suit Dean's desires.

"My friend is female," he reassures Dean. "She is not available to me for the day, so I am forced to entertain myself."

Dean relaxes.

"Well, here's the thing," Dean says and then he's leaning closer again. "I've lived here for a couple of months now and I got a pretty good idea of what there is do around here. I could help...entertain you," he says. The way he says 'entertain' is unusual, laden with meaning, but when Castiel looks closer, he only sees that unknown emotion.

"Thank you, Dean," Castiel says. "That would be very helpful."

The employee returns then to place a small white plate with a piece of apple pie on it before Castiel and another before Dean. Castiel picks up the fork and going by his memory of the last time he watched a human eat pie, he slides the fork through the tip of the piece. He then spears the piece on the fork and transfers it to his mouth.

Castiel doesn't know how to describe the taste. It feels warm and sticky, but the taste means nothing to him. It's neither enjoyable nor disgusting.

Dean appears to disagree. He cuts into his piece with glee and makes a gruff pleased noise in the back of his throat when he tastes it.

"Man, see what I mean?" Dean asks after swallowing. "So freaking good."

"It's very nice," Castiel says because it's mostly true. If nothing else, it's pleasant to satisfy his curiosity about pie.

"So what do you like to do?" Dean asks after a few more silent bites. "I mean, what kind of thing were you thinking of doing today?"

Castiel thinks. He has no human interests, of course. And he's not entirely sure any of his angelic duties translate very well into human activities. He can't very well tell Dean that he enjoys eradicating the evil presence of demonic creatures from his Father's Heavenly realm. So he tries to focus on less disturbing aspects of his life.

"I like to sing," Castiel says slowly. "And I like flying."

At this, Dean makes a face and shifts uncomfortably on his seat.

"Seriously? Ugh, I hate flying. Makes me sick," he says.

Dismay coils in Castiel's Grace.

"You do? Have you felt this way always?" Castiel asks anxiously. Surely not. He can so clearly recall the delight Dean always felt when they played their flying game. There was little Dean liked better than the speed and the weightless sensation the game gave him.

"As long as I can remember," Dean says and Castiel feels guilt replace the dismay. As long as he can remember. "My dad took me and my brother on this flight once, years ago. I don't know what it was. Turbulence or whatever, but I hated it," he continues, his eyes clouded by the unpleasant recollection. "I'd be okay if I never flew again."

It hurts more than it should. Castiel knows Dean means aircraft transportation, but it hurts nonetheless.

"I see," Castiel says, sighing and staring down at his pie.

"It's not like we can fly anywhere this afternoon anyway," Dean says in an encouraging tone, obviously picking up on Castiel's mood change. "I mean, I gotta get my brother from school in a couple of hours," he jokes.

"How come you aren't in school?" Castiel asks in surprise. He had not realized schools were open today. His old research seemed to indicate that students must attend until eighteen years of age. At seventeen, Dean should not be done with the program.

"Oh, um, I already graduated," Dean says, but Castiel immediately senses he is lying. "I'm 19," he adds, another lie.

Castiel almost protests. But Dean's soul swirls with fearful hope and he can also sense that it's important to Dean that Castiel accept this lie. The wish to seem older is so strong that Castiel can't disappoint Dean.

"I'm 19 too," he says instead and Dean is flooded with relief.

"Cool," he says and Castiel assumes 'cool' is good because Dean is grinning at him again.

"We should pick an activity that only takes two hours then," Castiel says, folding his hands in his lap. "I don't have a preference. You should choose."

The feeling swells in Dean's soul and appears to be affecting his body too. His temperature increases slightly as the blood races under his skin and his breathing hitches once or twice. Castiel senses that Dean is struggling to make a decision. For a moment, it seems like Dean's going to let the feeling make the decision for him, but then he stops short. Takes a deep breath and forces his emotions to stabilize. Calm returns to him.

"We could see a movie," he says.

A movie. Castiel smiles. This makes a good deal of sense. Dean always enjoyed watching stories on the Winchester's television.

"I would like to see a movie," Castiel decides.

The decision made, Dean gets the employees attention and offers to pay for Castiel's pie. Which is good because Castiel had completely forgotten about the need for money. Dean hands the employee a green ten dollar bill and then he stands, holding his arm at an angle beside Castiel. Castiel stares at the arm for a brief confused moment before he realizes that Dean wants to help him off the seat again.

"Thank you," Castiel says politely and he almost wants to reach for Katie's senses again as he presses close to Dean's body. He does not, but the temptation is a surprise. Once they are standing, Castiel is amused by their new height difference. Keeping his eyes straight ahead, Castiel looks into Dean's neck. Another big difference from how Castiel used to tower over his young charge.

And then they are walking away, out into the bright sunlight towards their afternoon.

Their one afternoon together.

Melancholy catches at Castiel's Grace and when he feels the urge to touch Dean, he doesn't resist it. He wraps his small hand around Dean's and when Dean immediately threads their fingers together, a smile on his face, Castiel feels his sadness ease.

This is their one afternoon and Castiel plans to make the most of it.

Chapter Text

The building where movies are shown is a short walk from the dining establishment. They travel in a comfortable silence Castiel remembers from Dean's childhood. He wonders if Dean is always quiet or if the silence is the result of their shared connection. The child he knew was not shy, but Castiel only ever saw Dean in his home where he felt the most comfortable. And the years he'd missed must have made an impression on Dean's personality. But Israfel never reports on Dean's personality, only his health.

This moment of quiet gives Castiel hope that Dean's soul isn't the only thing that remains fundamentally the same. Not that he would love him any less if Dean was completely different.

"What kind of movies do you like?" Dean asks as they approach a glass booth in front of a large building. Behind the glass sits a young woman who looks very bored. Over her head, Castiel sees a list of phrases printed in black against a white background. It takes him a moment to understand they are movie titles.

"I don't have a preference," he answers honestly.

Dean raises an eyebrow, but his emotions are too pleasant for the confusion over this statement to truly bother him.

"Well, have you seen any of these movies?" He nods towards the list.

Castiel makes a show of reading the words, but in truth, they mean nothing to him. He understands their meaning, but Castiel remembers that literal meanings in English don't always translate properly to the actual situation. So he can't be certain he knows what any of the movies are about from their titles.

"I haven't," he finally says. "You can choose for us if you wish."

Another flicker of amused confusion passes through Dean, but once again, he doesn't comment. Instead, he studies the movie list briefly, then gives Castiel a sidelong speculative glance.

"You're not the kind of girl that hates scary movies, are you?"

The only time Castiel has ever felt fear within the mortal realm was when Dean was in danger. He very much doubts these films manage to capture that same feeling, so he shakes his head and gives Dean a slight smile.

"I don't frighten easily," he says. Surely there's nothing in these films that compares with the horrors he's witnessed while fighting demons on the Outer Realms. He believes he will manage just fine with whatever Dean picks.

"Good," Dean says with satisfaction and then he drags Castiel up to the girl in the glass box and orders two tickets. The girl gives Dean an admiring look that puzzles Castiel for a moment until he realizes her admiration is most likely not for Dean's personality. It's difficult for him to remember that humans respond to so many differing biological impulses. She wishes to share her body with Dean. The desire pulses faintly in her veins and bursts across her soul in deep muted colors. But the girl won't make any progress with Dean in this manner. Castiel puts his hand on Dean's elbow and tugs him away from the girl as soon as their transaction is complete. His insistent pulling earns him a pleased grin from Dean.

"You want some popcorn?"

Castiel assumes popcorn is the source of that cloying pervasive scent that fills Katie's nostrils. It's so strong that even his angelic senses are aware of it. It's also decidedly unpleasant.

"No."

"Seriously?" Dean asks in apparent dismay. "You don't like popcorn?"

He hates to disappoint Dean. Especially since he never thought he'd shared a meal with him. But that scent really is exceedingly distasteful. Then again, isn't this the point of love? A small and silly sacrifice, perhaps, but this would constitute one nevertheless. Castiel has already subjugated his true self for Dean today. There's no reason to stop now.

But before he can tell Dean he will eat popcorn with him, Dean takes Castiel's hand again and squeezes it.

"Well, we can get candy instead. There's gotta be some candy you like, right?" he asks as he looks down into Castiel's upturned face.

Apparently, it's alright to be himself after all. A soft warm feeling grows in Castiel's Grace. It'd been so long since he'd experienced that curious human trait of accepting loved ones, faults and all. Dean had never wanted Castiel to be anything other than what he is.

"Yes, I would like to eat candy," he says.

Dean buys Castiel a bag of candies called M&M's and another bag of candies called Twizzlers for himself before they enter a large room. There are dozens of rows of seats that are almost entirely empty and there's a very large screen at one end. Castiel stops for a moment to stare, causing Dean to accidentally press against Castiel's back.

"Are you alright?" he asks over Castiel's shoulder, one hand falling to rest on Castiel's hip.

"The screen is quite large," Castiel explains. For some reason, he thought they were going to view a movie on a device like the Winchester's television. He remembers John and Mary 'going to the movies' when Dean was a child, but he never followed them.

"You are so strange," Dean comments fondly. His hand squeezes Castiel's hip, pulling it and for a brief moment, they are pressed together, Dean's front to Castiel's back. Castiel feels Dean's heart beating through his house of flesh and when he feels the urge to let Katie's senses take over, he allows it. He wants to feel Dean's presence close beside him the way a human would. This is something he did see of John and Mary. The way John would rest his head on Mary's chest and close his eyes so he could concentrate all of his focus on the steady beat of his soul partner's heart.

That overwhelming heat curls around Castiel once more. It's such a bewildering sensation. One that combines the fury of a blazing flame with the gentle comfort of personal love. It scorches up Katie's skin, drawing shivers despite the heat and when Dean slides his hand around Castiel's waist to press against his stomach, the feeling turns insistent. A heavy aching sensation settles between Castiel's legs with a shocking suddenness.

He snaps his angelic senses back in place, but to his surprise, Castiel still perceives an impression of frustration, an empty feeling that he doesn't recognize.

"We should find a seat." Dean's voice is husky and close, his mouth right beside Castiel's ear.

"Yes," Castiel agrees as he pulls away from Dean. He is both relieved for the separation and disappointed at the loss of contact.

Dean leads Castiel to a row of chairs at the far left that are tucked into a dark corner. As soon as they are seated, Dean slings an arm around Castiel's shoulder. Castiel smiles. This action is more familiar. Odd though it feels to be the one held protectively, the emotions he feels are the same. Contentment and gratitude to his Father for this gift.

They stay in that position as the movie begins and for several moments, nothing changes. Castiel's attention is caught by the gigantic images rolling across the screen. The first five movies shown are very short, more like truncated versions of larger stories. Castiel doesn't like them very much because he finds the stories muddled and poorly constructed. He is relieved when the sixth movie starts and spends more time establishing a storyline. It's hardly worthy of the ancient tales of scripture and other epic works of human literature Castiel has read, but it's fascinating nonetheless. It's pleasant to sit in the darkened room pulled close against Dean's body warmth, Dean’s fingers stroking lightly over Castiel's shoulder.

Thirty minutes into the sixth movie, everything changes.

It starts when Castiel hears an odd squeaky noise to his right. The noise is loud enough to draw Castiel's attention from the screen. Across the aisle and forward three rows, there is a young man and woman watching the movie together. While Castiel peers at them, the woman makes another frightened noise and hides her face in the man's neck. After this movement, the man's mouth quirks into a satisfied smile and he slips his arms around the woman. Even from here, Castiel can see both their auras begin to thrum with the same feeling that pumped through the ticket girl when she saw Dean.

A moment later, the woman lifts her face and presses her mouth against the man’s. The man growls and leans over her, his hand moving under the woman’s shirt.

They are close to fornicating in public.

Castiel thinks he should look away from the sight. He's seen humans copulating before, but it's not something he enjoys spying. Not since he understood the feelings that generally flowed between sexual partners like John and Mary. It seemed too private an action to view. Then again, he's never seen humans copulating in public areas before. Perhaps they wish to be seen?

Then the woman emits a low keening sound and slips out of her chair. The action startles Castiel into jumping a little in his seat.

That's when he first feels Dean's hand settle on his thigh. The hand still caressing Castiel’s shoulder pulls him closer, turning him to slightly face Dean.

"You okay?" Dean asks, his voice low and intimate.

Castiel nods jerkily and looks away from the now definitely fornicating couple.

"Yes, thank you," he says.

"Alright. Just wanted to make sure you weren't scared," Dean says softly. Castiel becomes distracted by the gentle curve of his smile and the knowing spark in his clear green eyes. Castiel had been so right about those eyes. Green did suit Dean. Without thought, Castiel reaches up, watching curiously as Katie's small hand fits over the swell of Dean's cheek.

"Dean," Castiel whispers. "I..." I missed you.

The unknown emotion from the diner surges inside Dean's soul. Only this time, it's not unfamiliar. As Dean begins to lean towards Castiel, he realizes with a jolt where he's sensed that feeling before.

The ticket girl who desired Dean. The couple currently engaging in sexual acts across the aisle.

It's sexual attraction. Pure and animalistic attraction that Castiel's never truly experienced. Not from this side. He thinks back to his time spent with Dean's parents. The feeling was there with them too, but it was tempered by a deep emotional link missing from the ticket girl and the fornicating couple.

It's not missing from Dean.

Then Dean's lips graze Castiel's and he stops thinking. Stops thinking and stops holding onto his angelic senses. His borrowed humanity crashes over him and the heat returns, hotter and more unrelenting than before. The ache in his groin becomes adamant, a pressure built of emptiness and when Dean's hand sweeps up Castiel's thigh, his body moves on instinct. He squirms in his chair and spreads his legs, somewhat alarmed by the wetness he feels, but also desperate for more of Dean's touch.

"Dean," he whispers once Dean relinquishes his mouth in favor of pressing kisses along Castiel's jaw.

"Katie," Dean whispers back, ragged and breathless.

Castiel freezes. Katie. This is Katie's body. Not Castiel's. He shakes himself and clutches at his Grace, commanding it to clear the fog from his mind and that devastating want from his body. Shame files in after what Castiel now understands was lust. He allowed Katie's natural human tendencies to commandeer his good sense. Castiel is dismayed. He'd promised Katie her body would only be used for discussion.

"What's wrong?" Dean asks, obviously noticing Castiel's lack of response.

"I..." He can't explain about the body issue, so Castiel tells Dean another truth. "I've never kissed anyone before."

It doesn't exactly help ease Dean's sexual fervor. In fact, the statement appears to add another layer to the desire. Something Castiel suspects is possessive satisfaction.

"Then it's about time you did it some more, don't you think?" Dean asks with a grin, leaning over for another kiss. Castiel raises his hand and presses it to Dean's mouth.

"I would like to continue kissing you, but I can't," he explains. The truth tends more towards Katie wishes to continue kissing Dean, but its close enough that Castiel doesn't feel guilty. He thinks for a moment before settling on a concept he believes should apply to normal human couples. "We should know each other better before doing that sort of activity."

Of course, they know each other very well. More intimately than most others in their lives, but Dean doesn't remember that. And at Castiel's words, indignation grows in Dean's soul.

"But we..." He doesn't finish his sentence. Castiel doesn't need to read Dean's soul to understand the vulnerable embarrassment that flickers across Dean's face. The way he feels around Castiel, that familiar comfort, is so complete that Dean had forgotten they weren't supposed to know each other. He'd been treating Castiel as a beloved soul partner and now the violent recall of the 'truth' left Dean feeling exposed and upset.

"Sorry," he mutters, leaning away and withdrawing his arm from Castiel's shoulders. The loss assaults Castiel, easily shoving past his Grace.

"Dean." Castiel takes Dean's hand and raises it to his mouth. "I did enjoy the kiss," he says and then presses his lips to Dean's palm. The flavor of his skin is unique, completely indescribable. Castiel likes it very much. Dean obviously likes the kiss as well because his breath hitches and he nods shakily.

"Yeah, me too."

Castiel cradles Dean's hand in his lap throughout the end of the movie. He's lost track of the story, but it hardly matters. His thoughts are too full of the kiss and of Katie's reaction to it. It's little wonder than humans create so many fiascos over the pursuit of sex. And yet, Castiel is more satisfied by the other type of embrace that overtakes them once they are no longer physically holding each other. His Grace comforts Dean's confused soul, his invisible wings settle around Dean's shoulders and it might have been twelve years ago for all the difference Castiel feels between them. He shuts his eyes and they are in Dean's old bedroom, sitting together on Dean's floor as Dean snuggles into Castiel side and tells him a story. This is their enduring love. Time and sex and separation may tear at it or add other layers, but they cannot change this fundamental connection.

He feels disappointed when the movie ends. The fornicating couple slinks out the back, both wiping their mouths and shooting furtive glances around the room.

"Did you see those people fucking?" Dean whispers to Castiel.

"I did," Castiel confirms and they share an amused grin.

"Um." Dean glances at his watch. "I gotta pick up my brother. D'you...d'you wanna come with me?" he asks hopefully.

Castiel feels his Grace lift. He'd assumed they would have to separate again now.

"Yes, I'd like to meet him."

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

Sam's school is a two story brick building on a crowded downtown street. There are already children swarming around the front entrance and side lawns when Dean and Castiel arrive by foot. Castiel wonders absently if Dean has learned to drive motor vehicles yet or if John has procured one for him. Either way, he thinks it's nice to stroll down the streets of Dean's current hometown, still connected to him by the hand. Dean points out the sites he already knows and talks about various subjects. They have just begun a discussion about baseball that has Dean strangely excited when Castiel spots Sam.

He doesn't recognize his body, of course. Sam had been so much smaller and younger when they last saw each other. But Castiel instantly recognizes Sam's soul. It's the only one in the crowd of children that holds a piece of Dean's soul. It is also the only one touched by the taint of demon's blood. It's wrenching to see Sam this way. Even with his extra years, Sam is still so young. And now he is divided from his fellows by something he didn't seek and doesn't deserve. Castiel feels like Sam is standing on the other side of a glass door and he wishes he could find a way to open it.

"Hey, Sammy," Dean calls out, attracting Sam's attention. He turns to Dean with a smile that fades into suspicion when he sees his brother holding hands with a strange girl.

"Um, hey," Sam says as he trots towards them. "Um...Dean?"

Castiel hears Dean introducing him and vaguely answers, but his focus is drawn away by Sam's soul. Now that they are closer, Castiel can easily read Sam's soul and what he sees is bewildering. It's marked by knowledge that Dean's forgotten, those special six months he shared with an angel before his mother died. But what's even more intriguing is the presence of Sam's soul mate piece.

It's not been given away yet.

"Katie?" Dean's looking at Castiel cautiously and once again, Castiel shakes himself.

"Forgive me. I was distracted just now," he says, smiling at Sam. "It's very nice to meet you, Sam Winchester."

Sam's soul flickers with recognition. Castiel believes this is the reason for Sam's sudden relaxation and his shy grin. His soul obviously remembers Castiel's Grace. It reaches for him and they meet, patting hesitantly at each other like small children. Castiel supposes Sam must feel like a child again as he sees someone he's not met since his infancy.

"Thanks," he says. "You too."

"You hungry?" Dean asks. They turn onto the sidewalk and Dean tosses his arm around Sam's shoulder, keeping his other arm by his side so he can continue holding Castiel’s hand. A bright powerful emotion flashes though Castiel when the three of them connect. It hums to life as if it had been laying in wait and Castiel isn't exactly sure of its composition. It's like friendship, but more. In fact, it's quite similar to the connection he experiences when he flies with Israfel or speaks with Uriel.

"I guess," Sam mutters.

"Alright then. I think we got some sandwich stuff left," Dean says, glancing to Castiel. "You coming?"

"Yes." Castiel wants to draw out their visit as long as possible.

The Winchester's new home is the bottom floor of a three story apartment complex. Dean makes a show of stopping to pick up their mail while sending Sam ahead into the building. Understanding their lifestyle as Castiel does, he suspects Sam is clearing away any evidence of hunting paraphernalia. That's fine with Castiel. It gives him the opportunity to study the building. It's wide and made of bricks. Solid in construction, but old and in disrepair. Nothing like the well-loved and well-tended home that burnt down so long ago. It pains Castiel to know that Dean lives this transient lifestyle, that he must suffer without the steady home he knew for four years.

Dean obviously mistakes Castiel's sadness for pity because he straightens his back and when he speaks, his tone is defensive.

"It's not much, but you know, it's just my dad working," he says stiffly and Castiel knows even that’s a lie. His father works, yes, but not for pay.

"I don't disapprove of this building, Dean," Castiel assures him. At least not in the way Dean feared. "All that matters is who lives with you. Anywhere you are is home," he says.

Dean relaxes. "Yeah," he agrees.

The inside of the building is similar to the outside. Adequate, but not beautiful. Dean only shows Castiel the living room and the kitchen. He thinks perhaps because he senses the same feeling Dean had when he told Castiel he was 19. Castiel's senses also tell him that there are only two bedrooms. Dean and Sam still share a living space. Castiel doesn't understand why this is shameful, but doesn't ask to see the rest of the house. Instead, he focuses on choosing between roast beef and ham while Dean makes Sam tell them about his day.

"I don't like my history teacher," Sam comments as he watches Dean slather mayonnaise on a sandwich for him. The piece of Mary's soul that mutated into Sam's soul piece inside Dean quivers lightly as he cuts the sandwich into two and hands it to Sam.

"Why not?" Castiel asks politely.

"He thinks we're all stupid or something," Sam says through a mouthful of ham. "All his lectures are so obvious and boring."

Dean snorts. "To you maybe, but not everyone's a geekboy like you," he says, but with no small measure of pride. Sam grunts in response.

"It's still annoying."

"I'm sorry," Castiel says as Dean hands him a thick roast beef sandwich. He still has the unopened bag of M&M's in his pocket. It makes Castiel smile. One afternoon in Dean's presence and he spent most of it plying Castiel with food.

Sam shrugs.

"S'ok."

Dean talks about the movie for the next few moments, spinning the tale for Sam and making up the bits he missed while he was kissing Castiel. Just as Castiel has finished the first half of the sandwich, which actually tastes rather good, the front door of their home swings open. Both boys startle and Dean makes an aborted motion with his hand, as if he wants to reach for something. Both relax when they see it's their father. Castiel's Grace flutters with wistfulness.

Once more, Castiel feels as if it could be the same day he last saw Dean. John's soul throbs with the exact same pain. The scars haven't healed in the slightest and in fact, the wounds have only grown worse, become infected with guilt and shame. Castiel aches for him, wishes he could close John up in his wings and comfort him like he can with Dean. But their connection is much weaker. John's memories of their time have truly been erased and if any of their former link remains, it's buried under years of sorrow.

"Dean," John growls, eyes glued to Castiel. "What's going on?"

"Oh." Dean hops up and Castiel follows. "Sorry, we didn't know you'd be home so soon."

It's obviously the wrong thing to say. John glowers and folds his arms over his chest. Dean hurries to fix his mistake.

"I just meant, I didn't think you'd mind. This is Katie. She's cool," Dean says with a meaningful stress on the word 'cool.'

"Well, that's good to know, son, but I think it's time for Katie to leave," John says pointedly. His soul glimmers with protective fear. Castiel doesn't know if John can sense his otherworldliness or if he always feels uncomfortable with strangers in his home. Either way, his ire is not directed towards Castiel, but towards Dean. Castiel doesn't know how to fix it.

"Forgive me, Mr. Winchester," Castiel says. "I'll leave you now."

Dean is angry and embarrassed. The glare he throws John on the way towards the door is scathing, but also muted. Castiel suspects he won't say anything to John once Castiel is gone.

"C'mon, Katie. I'll walk you out," Dean says sullenly, tugging on Castiel's hand. "Or do you want us to call a cab?"

Castiel shakes his head.

"No, thank you. I'll walk to my friend's home," he says. Right before Dean reaches the door, his soul fills with a sense of daring and he turns back to John. "I'm walking her home. I'll be back later."

"Goodbye, Sam," Castiel says, giving Sam one last smile and another tentative touch with his Grace. Sam's answering smile is regretful. He gives a little wave.

"Bye."

They are silent as Castiel leads Dean through the streets of Lexington aimlessly, once again drawing out their time by creating a lengthy fake path to his imaginary friend's home. Dean's anger eventually fades out and he pulls Castiel close, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.

"Sorry about that. My dad...he's just...he's really protective over us," Dean says.

"I don't blame him for that," Castiel answers softly.

"Yeah, well, I just wish he'd stop acting like I can't take care of myself," Dean growls. He glances at Castiel and the corner of his mouth quirks. "You're not exactly scary."

If only Dean knew, Castiel thinks to himself and returns the smile.

"No, I'm not."

The sun is losing its hold on the sky. Castiel doesn't wish for their time to end, but he already broke one promise to Katie. He must not keep her away from her life for much longer, so he chooses the next empty home he senses and stops.

"This is my friend's home," Castiel announces. Dean eyes it distrustfully.

"There's no one home. You gonna be okay?"

"Yes, I have a key," Castiel lies. "Thank you for staying with me until now."

"Yeah, well, it's okay," Dean says, his cheeks turning faintly red. "Are you...I guess I won't see you again."

Castiel hates the way Dean's soul shimmers with unhappiness. It's been too long and their visit far too short. Dean's soul does not want to give up Castiel's Grace. The way Castiel's Grace clings to Dean's soul answers the sentiment perfectly. For a brief mindless moment, Castiel imagines taking Dean and running away with him. Hijacking Katie's body and building a life with Dean away from the dangers Dean faces so often.

But then reality reasserts itself. Of course Castiel won't abandon his duty and he certainly won't steal a human body. It's just so hard to leave Dean again when Castiel knows what he faces.

"Not for awhile," Castiel says. "But I hope we meet again sometime soon."

"Me too," Dean answers. His soul fairly trembles with desire borne both of lust and of love. He obviously wants to kiss Castiel again, but doesn't want to risk upsetting him. So instead he grips Castiel's hands in both of his and squeezes them tight.

"Goodbye," he says fiercely as if he has to punch the words out of his mouth to produce them.

"Goodbye." Castiel tugs one hand out of Dean's grip and presses it gently against Dean's chest. His Grace flows around Dean's soul completely, hiding it away, a small indulgence of that desire to take Dean for himself.

I love you, he thinks.

The way Dean's soul shivers is answer enough for Castiel.

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

As much as Castiel appreciates the use of Katie's body, it's an extreme relief to climb out of her skin and shake free his wings. He catches her before she can fall, the sudden return of muscle control and consciousness turning her clumsy.

"Castiel?" she asks weakly.

"I'm here, child," he answers as he guides Katie to lie on her bed. "You are yourself again."

"Oh." She begins to struggle and Castiel moves again to help her sit up. "My head feels funny," she comments, but her body and soul seem intact and healthy. Israfel had been right about Castiel being able to extract himself without harming the vessel.

"Did you find him?" Katie asks suddenly, gripping Castiel's sleeve. "Did you get everything taken care of?"

"I did." His guilt at the way he used her body pulses in his Grace again. "Katie, I have a confession. I did not anticipate the overwhelming sensations of living within a human body. When I spoke with my human, I'm afraid I allowed myself to indulge in some of the...baser sensations."

Katie frowns at him. "What are you talking about?"

"I kissed Dean," Castiel confesses shamefully. "Your body responded to his touch in way I didn't expect. Your human desire was difficult to resist."

The emotions swirling in Katie are not expected. Instead of indignation and anger, Castiel senses confusion, faint annoyance and even a hint of amusement.

"Okay, wait a second. You're saying you met this guy, he felt you up and you kissed him?"

Castiel ponders for a moment and then nods.

"And you got turned on? I mean, aroused?" she clarified.

"This body became aroused, yes," Castiel says, but Katie shakes her head. Her returning strength allows her to sit up completely and push her legs over the side of the bed.

"Not my body, Castiel," she says without looking him the in the eyes. Her soul turns shy and fearful, but also remains determined to make her point. She takes a deep breath and speaks, though her eyes remain on the floor. "I've never been turned on by men before. I'm...I only like girls." She finally looks up at him and that amusement grows a tiny amount. "If you liked kissing him, then that was all you."

Castiel stares at her. It can't be possible. He doesn't have the capacity. Shouldn't have the capacity. And yet there is truth in Katie's eyes. Her body doesn't function in that manner. The feelings must have come from Castiel.

From the connection that sewed a human soul piece to his angelic Grace.

"I...see."

A pause of silence and then Katie asks, "Are you okay?"

"Of course," Castiel say, although he's not sure it's true. She's given him much to think over. "Thank you for your help. I am sorry for using your body in that manner."

"Well, it's weird, but you know...at least you caught yourself," she says graciously and her smile eases Castiel's shame. She pats his arm. "It was my honor to help you, Angel."

Castiel says a quiet blessing over Katie, a prayer for protection and in the next moment, he's arriving back in the Heavenly realm, mind full and Grace trembling with confusion.

He is not entirely surprised to find Zachariah waiting for him. It was perhaps too much to believe he could truly avoid knowledge of his visit reaching through the Host.

"Zachariah," he says stiffly.

"I'm surprised at you," Zachariah says, overlooking the greeting. "I never imagined you'd stoop to outright disobedience."

"I didn't disobey," Castiel argues. "Your orders regarding Dean were to rid him of angelic knowledge. He remains ignorant of our existence."

"Technicalities, Castiel? Really?" Zachariah almost sounds impressed despite himself, but Castiel knows this won't end well. It's a very good thing that he got to see Dean when he did because it may be quite some time before he sees Dean again.

See Dean or see his home.

Even so, Castiel knows, it was very much worth it.

Chapter Text

Zachariah's punishment is far more painful than Castiel expected.

He'd been preparing himself for further battle and that suffocating separation that accompanies it, but there is a peace in that situation that Castiel is denied. Fighting demons without rest makes it difficult for Castiel to dwell on the pain of missing Dean. He'd been counting on the righteous satisfaction he felt at protecting his Father's realm to fill the void left by Dean's absence.

"I'm not going to punish you, Castiel," Zachariah says as he turns to stroll down a golden lane. Castiel follows at his side. Suspicion crawls into his Grace. It's Zachariah's right to punish those under his command that he feels have strayed. If that's the case here, then Castiel deserves his punishment.

"I understand why you did it," Zachariah continues with apparent sincerity. "Well, not completely. I obviously can't imagine the burden of a human soul piece, but I see that it must be a struggle to resist."

Castiel frowns. He doesn't like thinking of Dean's soul piece as a burden. In ways, the piece is the easiest thing in Castiel's existence. But he supposes he understands Zachariah's meaning. It is very difficult to resist the urge to speak with Dean. As well as other activities that still partly occupy Castiel's mind.

"Of course, I'll have to insist that you don't work around the rules anymore, but I suppose I can't begrudge you a short visit with the boy," Zachariah says pleasantly as they turn a corner. "As for your use of a vessel, well, the girl did agree and there's nothing wrong with potential vessels knowing of our existence. So no harm done there."

Castiel's suspicions grow. If this were any of his other brethren, Castiel could believe their words. Not that he thinks Zachariah a liar. But his superior's words of truth always come with extra layers. In this conversation, Castiel can't decide what hidden meanings he is missing.

"What then are your orders?" Castiel asks bluntly. He dislikes the maze of Zachariah's mind. He'd rather get straight to the point.

"I think your particular talents are somewhat wasted in the field," Zachariah answers. Castiel only just manages to avoid snorting like a human would. He could have told Zachariah this himself. Command is no place for a talented strategist. Castiel is always more useful when supplementing a bolder commander than himself. A passing thought of Anael and their long lost connection causes a flicker of grief within his Grace.

"I agree," Castiel says, somewhat daringly. It earns him a slight huff of amusement.

"Yes, well, the point is I think you'd be an excellent replacement for Famiel at the Citadel."

Castiel almost stumbles. Famiel is the master tactician of their garrison. Answering only to Zachariah, Famiel organizes each individual unit of command in their particular garrison. Being elevated to this position would place Castiel above his current station. Above Uriel and Israfel and even above Anael were she still with them. It's nothing less than a staggering shock to receive this post.

"I don't understand. What has Famiel done to deserve demotion?"

Zachariah's razor sharp blue eyes stay off Castiel's face, instead peering out over a nearby crystal garden.

"Nothing. He will be given another task. I feel that this is your place, Castiel. You start immediately." His head turns slightly. Their eyes meet for the briefest of moments and in those seconds, Castiel sees Zachariah's real emotions. There's fury yes, but what alarms Castiel more is his panic. Something about this situation makes Zachariah feel out of control.

Something about Castiel scares him.

"Yes, of course," Castiel says and he leaves without hesitation. He needs to be away from Zachariah, away from any of his brothers so he can think. About this new life and about the one perfect day that created it.

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

It doesn't take Castiel long to understand the punishment. The master tactician serves his function in the Citadel building, seldom leaving for any reason. Castiel is cut off from the joy of flying and is allowed to join the Host, but rarely. He is allowed to visit with his brothers, of course. Uriel comes to see him with some frequency and Israfel visits every day. But it's an isolated position. Critical, but lonely.

All this Castiel could handle. It's when he feels the first distant strain of heartache that he truly understands.

He's close enough to sense everything Dean experiences.

Their connection never faded completely when he worked in the Outer realm, but so much of Dean's life was a mystery to him because the distance was too great for Castiel to feel everything Dean felt. There's no such barrier now. The Silver City pulses with human emotion. The prayers of humans aim for this heart of the Heavenly realm. Even humans who don't pray have their thoughts and concerns on loan to this center of angelic business. Their Father may not appear to them often, but His will cannot be doubted. Their focus must be on the care and comfort of human beings. Everything is for them.

Spending every day at the core of human concern enhances the already intimate connection Castiel shares with Dean. All the pain and sorrows Dean experiences, Castiel feels just as strongly. And he is powerless to help. He cannot leave his post. Even if he could leave without being noticed, his absence would surely be noted before much time passed.

It's not long before Castiel also understands that Israfel's visits are a punishment as well. Not that he resents her and he wouldn't end her visits for anything. But hearing second-hand accounts of Dean and Sam's life creates a palpable envy within Castiel that mortifies him. The first report she gives Castiel is that she believes Dean is feeling 'lovesick.'

"He misses you greatly," she says mournfully. "His dreams are filled with your vessel's image. I'm sorry, brother. I think I must have been wrong about the need to visit with him."

"No," Castiel denies vehemently. "You were right, Israfel. Dean needs to understand, however distantly, that his soul mate exists. I'm positive it will give him strength."

Anything less than certainty would be admitting that he is the burden to Dean and Castiel can't abide the notion.

As time passes, Dean's problems evolve. Sometimes they are as petty as embarrassment over a romantic rejection. Other times, they weigh so heavily on Dean that Castiel imagines it must seem like a physical weight bearing him to the ground. When Sam leaves John and Dean for college, Castiel is blank with shock for days. His own distress over the split mixes with Dean's grief and it's a hardship to continue functioning adequately at his post. The task is complicated, but not beyond Castiel's capabilities. It just feels that way during those first terrible months when Dean finds himself alone. Castiel is forced to pray without ceasing for the strength not to abandon Heaven to go to Dean. And it's not just sadness. There's anger too. Anger at Sam for breaking the contract his soul made with Castiel's Grace. They were meant to watch Dean together and between the two, both had abandoned him as effectively as possible.

Much of the anger is directed at Castiel himself.

But there's nothing to be done. Even if Castiel did leave his post, he knows he would be dragged back. All he can do is sit by uselessly while Israfel brings him news. She worries about Castiel, but also must deal with her own pain over the situation. Castiel thinks it's impossible to know the Winchesters and not find yourself caring for them, at least a little. Israfel doesn't like seeing Sam and Dean separated anymore than Castiel does.

"If only there were a way you could just see him," Israfel says one afternoon as they sit in Castiel's office. "Even if you couldn't appear to him, he would feel your presence. That would be a great comfort."

"If I left, I would be detected eventually," Castiel says with a sigh. "It would just take too much time."

An idea explodes into Castiel's mind. A horrible stupid irresistible idea.

"Time," he murmurs. Israfel sits forward, pinning him with a look of confusion.

"Castiel?"

"Time," he repeats more strongly and then flutters to his feet. "If I leave my post and go to Dean, I would be detected eventually. But if I returned instantly, no one would ever know."

Israfel narrows her eyes at him, apparently working through his meaning. He can tell when she understands because her eyes widen and she leaps up.

"If you had more time!" she exclaims. "Oh brother, that's a...well, potentially a terrible idea, but I find it has a certain beauty to it."

He begins pacing about his office. "I couldn't do it alone, Israfel. I'd need you to stay here and be certain none of our brothers sense it," he says, stopping before her. "It might not be worth the trouble it could cause you."

Israfel grabs his upper arms and shakes him a little.

"You've been nothing, but trouble since I was first assigned to command your unit, Castiel," she says sternly. "Because of our association, I've edged around rules, doubted my commander and been charged with keeping watch over the two most infuriating humans our Father has ever created. I wouldn't change a moment of it, not even if I was ordered to do so. Do not speak to me of trouble, as if you believe we have not formed an alliance of sorts. This might be the worst idea we’ve ever heard, but all I can think is that we should have thought of it sooner. We must keep Sam and Dean happy and if this is how we do it, then it's what we do."

Her gray eyes are fever-bright with passion that surprises and overwhelms Castiel. He knew, of course, that she could be trusted, but hearing this blunt outline of their friendship strikes hope right into Castiel's Grace. The loneliness he'd been suffering eases immediately. Not totally disappearing, but becoming less cumbersome.

"I apologize," he says softly. Israfel snaps a satisfied nod and begins pacing herself.

"I'm more than powerful enough to turn our brother's attention away from this room for a few short moments," she says. "How far forward do you wish to travel?"

Castiel ponders. Obviously he must go forward or Israfel would already be aware of his visit. And it makes sense to go forward. Time travel is always complicated, but traveling into the past risks changing it in ways that are hard to foresee. Perhaps not destined events, but smaller ones that could adversely affect Dean's future.

"A few Earth months should be sufficient," Castiel says.

"Tell me when and where exactly and I'll meet you there at the appointed time," Israfel says. "That way I can protect you in the future as well."

Several moments of discussion later, they settle on precisely three months into the future. Castiel knows he can't risk spending too much time there, but with Israfel's help in the past and present, he should be able to be with Dean for at least an hour. He only suffers one vague thought that he's lost his senses. It's hardly worth noting. His relationship with Dean has been nothing, but a progressive spiral into utter insanity. Castiel isn't exactly sure where it'll end, but he knows he'll never be the same as his natural self. Or perhaps that being was never his natural self. Perhaps it was merely the beginning point of a journey he was always meant to take.

Either way, Castiel doesn't particularly care about the risks.

It's been a long time since Castiel bent time. He remembers the process well enough though, so he's not worried. Before he leaves, Israfel gives him a warm smile and touches his cheek.

"Farewell, brother. I'll see you in a few moments. And in three months," she says and Castiel can feel her humor twisting around his Grace. He's glad for it. If not for Israfel, he would probably be too anxious to function.

He nods quietly and closes his eyes, gathering his Grace into a powerful charge of energy. He forces the charge into the time well, drawing himself forward and it backwards. His perception of the world closes around him, pressing so close it hurts. His wings are bent towards his body in a painful motion that steals his thoughts briefly before he finds himself tumbling forward into Israfel's arms. They stand at the beginning edge of the Earthly realm.

"Israfel?" Castiel gasps, his wings tossing against his back, relieved at their newfound freedom. She soothes him with both Grace and touch.

"Calm, brother. You're here. You made it," she croons softly, carding her fingers down through his long hair.

He grabs her arms and peers into her eyes.

"You escaped detection?" he asks worriedly. Despite what Israfel said about their partnership, Castiel wants to keep her safe. If anyone should experience punishment on Dean's behalf, it must be him, not Israfel.

"Yes," she assures him, the tips of her wings floating up to massage his back. "Zachariah never knows."

"I can't believe it worked," Castiel breathes, genuinely shocked. He'd been caught unawares so many times by Zachariah. "I'm really going to see Dean?"

Israfel's eyes cut away from his as she turns, leading them down into the Earthly realm. Normally, he would be unconcerned by this change, but there is a tension in her body that creates a flash of anxiety within him. A hesitation that firmly catches his attention and makes him stop, tugging her out of flight.

"What is it, brother? Don't I see Dean?"

"Yes, absolutely," she says and her expression clears. The tension drains out of her form, but Castiel has spent too many years in her presence not to see that she's holding something back. There's no fear in her or anger though, so Castiel feels himself relax. Whatever she doesn't wish to share is not dangerous at least. Still, he can't help asking.

"What is it then?"

Israfel takes his hands in hers and squeezes them. Her eyes are dark and serious. He feels her Grace wrap around his body, offering comfort for something he hasn't experienced yet. The feeling is pleasant, but it's difficult to truly take comfort when he has no idea what is happening.

"Please just remember not to judge yourself too harshly, Castiel," she says. Almost pleads. "You can't help how you feel. I don't think our Father expects you to."

The warning does nothing to ease Castiel's anxiety. He wants to stay and question her further, shake her until she talks. But there is no angel in the Heavens more stubborn than Israfel. If she won't talk, then he must simply go forward and deal with whatever he'll meet. In any case, being this close to Earth has increased the pull he feels towards Dean. His soul piece is knocking against Castiel's Grace, insistent and eager to rejoin its master. Castiel decides to trust that Israfel wouldn't let him go into a situation without knowledge he absolutely needs.

"I'll be waiting here for you," Israfel says and she pushes him a bit. "You must return within the hour."

"I will," he promises before cloaking himself and diving down, following Dean's soul trail.

It's the middle of the night at Dean's location. Castiel travels along a quiet street full of houses until he is floating above the one where he senses Dean. He doesn't recognize the house or the city around it. Another new home for Dean then. He's had dozens in the years since Castiel last saw him.

Castiel pauses over the house, suddenly overwhelmed by nerves. He feels different from the last time he'd been separated from Dean. After the agony of their connection's disuse, Castiel had been nervous about what he'd find, the type of person Dean had become. Now, after years of constant emotional updates, Castiel's afraid it won't be enough. He's afraid of the emptiness of watching Dean without touching him. And he's afraid of being forced to tear himself away from Dean in a mere sixty Earthly minutes that they’ll have together. It's impossible to understand how humans manage. How they don't lose their minds knowing that their time with loved ones must always quickly end.

He reaches into his pocket and wraps his hand around the old doll Dean gave him years ago. Castiel had transferred Mr. Squirrel back to his pocket when he'd been reassigned from the battlefield. Touching Dean's token calmed a bit of his tension. A prayer for strength added another measure of comfort and then Castiel slides through the underspace into the home.

Dean is lying in a bed in an upstairs bedroom.

He is not alone.

There is a young woman beside him, but for a long time, Castiel barely acknowledges her. Dean had been seventeen years old when Castiel last saw him and for some reason, Castiel had expected him to look very much the same. Israfel's descriptions of Dean's growth failed to accurately represent how much he really had changed. At twenty-four, Dean is no child. While he still resembles his younger self, there is nothing of the child Castiel used to hold. Dean is all muscles and angles and rough masculinity. The hint of feminine beauty lingers around his mouth and eyes, but there is no mistaking that this person is a man. Castiel aches to touch his face, to wrap his hands around Dean's shoulders just to feel their shape and size. He remembers being inside Katie's small form and wonders how it would feel to be the one laying next to him. How it would feel to be gathered up in Dean's adult arms and pulled tight against his broad adult chest.

He imagines it could prove quite overwhelming.

Dean's soul reaches for his Grace happily. Castiel smiles and sends out tendrils of Grace, covering and surrounding Dean's soul protectively. Like their previous meeting, nothing can change the way Dean's soul reacts to Castiel's Grace. No matter that he is laying with another person or that he is unaware of Castiel's presence. Most of his soul's focus lands squarely on his invisible soul partner.

A flickering in the corner of his vision draws Castiel's gaze away from Dean. When he sees what it is, Castiel is surprised, though he knows he should not be.

The girl carries one of Dean's soul pieces. He draws closer to examine her. Her soul is lovely. Strong and independent. In that respect, she reminds Castiel of Sam. It makes sense that Dean would feel drawn to her. Castiel had not followed the progress of this particular soul piece, although he knew where all Dean's soul pieces had gone, of course. When this piece released from Dean's soul, Castiel remembers feeling a shot of sadness for the inevitable end of the relationship. There is no way of knowing exactly how long Dean will know this girl, but Castiel feels that same melancholy now.

He focuses away from her soul to her physical being. Her hair and skin are both dark brown and for the first time, Castiel realizes that she is wearing very little. For that matter, neither is Dean, although the girl at least has a shirt on. Castiel very nearly leaves right there. And not because he should not be spying on Dean in such a private situation. Castiel wishes that were the real reason. But no. It's because of the emotions Castiel sees glowing in Dean's soul. As he wraps an arm more tightly around the girl's waist, Castiel sees the warm spark of genuine love within Dean. This girl is not like the others Israfel told Castiel about. Dean really loves her.

A sensation Castiel's never known grows in his Grace and he doesn't need a second guess to identify the emotion. It's a repulsive feeling unworthy of his angelic Grace and Castiel now understand Israfel's warning. But how could she think their Father wouldn't blame him for this?

Jealousy is an ugly sinful emotion.

Between the jealousy itself and the dismay over it, Castiel almost shoots back towards the Heavens, but the girl starts speaking and Castiel's attention is caught.

"What about your first kiss?" she asks. There's humor in her voice, but there is something subtly different about it. Something that, unlike the jealousy, Castiel can't recognize.

"Let's see," Dean says, his own voice dripping with that special humor. Castiel doesn't like the sound of it. "Maria Cornell. I was twelve and she was thirteen."

"Oh, an older woman," the girl says, grinning. "How very not surprising."

"Hell yeah, man, Maria was hot. She used to wear these tights...god, they were fucking ugly, but at the time, they were hot," Dean says in an assuring tone. "She let me kiss her out behind the gym while I was waiting for my brother to get out of soccer practice. No tongue, but still good."

The girl snorts with amusement and reaches up to press her hand over Dean's heart. The emotions in Dean's soul are interesting to watch. He is pleased by her touch and a thread of arousal begins weaving its way through his physical being. Yet, the vast majority of his soul is occupied with Castiel's Grace. The girl is important, but nowhere near as consuming as Castiel's presence. The thought gives Castiel a savage pleasure that shames him.

"I can easily imagine your twelve year old self being disappointed by lack of tonguing," she deadpans and Dean laughs. The joy Castiel senses in Dean shames him even further. For the first time in a long time, Dean is truly happy. Castiel has no right to feel grief over this happiness.

"Okay, now tell me about your first love," she orders playfully.

Some of the good humor drains out of Dean's soul.

"And what if I told you, you were my first love?" he asks. It sounds like a deflection. To her credit, the girl sees through it.

"Uh uh, I don't think so," she says, lifting herself up on one elbow and glaring down at him. "Everyone has a first love. I mean, even if it's just a huge crush in high school. So come on. 'Fess up."

Her smile and needling apparently prove irresistible to Dean because his lips quiver and turn up reluctantly.

"Fine, but it's not really a good story anyway," he says. "So don't say I didn't warn you."

"I won't," she promises.

Dean sighs and turns his eyes up, towards the ceiling. Castiel sees that his focus is turning towards the past to memories he holds close to his heart. The hidden memory cache Castiel created within him rocks lightly, very gently affected by his mental searching. It holds steady however and Castiel sags with relief as Dean begins talking.

"Her name was Katie," he says. Surprised delight rockets through Castiel. "She was...kinda weird, actually."

"Weird?" the girl asks with a laugh.

"Yeah," Dean says with a grin, apparently warming to his topic. "She just showed up out of nowhere when I was about seventeen." Castiel notes that Dean is at least willing to be truthful with this girl about his age. "I was in this diner, just minding my own business when the door opened and she like...floated in."

"Floated? My god, you must have had it bad," she teases, but Dean nods seriously.

"It was crazy. She just showed up and I was just....gone. Instantly, you know?"

"Yeah," she says softly. Her soul also glimmers with memory and Castiel realizes with a jolt that she is dwelling on her own soul mate. There is a foreign soul mate piece within her soul. Whether she understands it or not, this girl has already met her actual soul mate. Strange how humans deny themselves their true destiny.

"Everything she did was fucking bizarre," he continues, sounding achingly fond. "She looked at me like I was a science experiment," he says and then demonstrates by cocking his head to a sharp angle. "Always looking at me like this like she was listening to my thoughts or something. She seemed utterly fucking bewildered by everything around her."

"Dean..." The girl dissolves into laughter and Castiel finds himself liking her more and more. Unlike himself, she is able to hear about a fond connection without the scorching jealousy bubbling within his Grace. "That doesn't sound like something you'd like at all."

"I know," Dean agrees. Castiel tries not to feel too insulted. "I don't know though. I guess I just liked it. Well, I mean, she was really cute too, but it's weird. It's like I can barely remember what she looks like. Except her eyes. She had these blue eyes," he says in a faraway voice. "But I've never forgotten her. Man, I was tore up when she left," he adds and now he's laughing along with her. "I thought Sam was going to kill me. Even my dad told me to shut up about her after a couple of weeks."

There's sadness in his soul when Sam's name passes his lips, but neither he nor the girl mention it. Castiel wonders if Dean's told her about their separation.

"Well, they say that first love cuts the deepest," she says and then pulls Dean a little bit closer. "What happened to her?"

"I don't know," he confesses with a sigh. "I only ever saw her that one day and then she was gone. I thought about looking her up, you know? But I never got her last name. And anyway, I eventually got over it," he says, but Castiel can easily see he's lying. Their meeting clearly reawakened Dean's need for him and Castiel wonders if Israfel isn't at least partially right about their last visit being a mistake.

"And now you're here," she murmurs, brushing her fingers through Dean's hair. He smiles down at her and nods.

"Yeah," he says, just as quietly and leans over to kiss her.

Castiel watches in struck fascination as the girl turns into Dean, flipping her leg over his waist and climbs into his lap. Her lips move from Dean's mouth to his neck and he arches forward, his arms encircling the girl's waist. And then something very strange happens.

Dean's eyes open and look straight into Castiel's. The lustful passion Castiel sees there entrances him, but then something else happens that knocks Castiel's thoughts completely off-course. Dean's lips part and he draws in a ragged breath.

"Cas," he pants.

Castiel falls back, staggered and panicked. There's no way Dean could see him. Castiel is perfectly cloaked. He knows it.

Then Dean looks away and buries a hand in the girl's thick curly hair, pulling her down for a kiss. Just before their lips touch, Dean speaks in a tender heart-breaking whisper.

"I love you, Cas," he says.

That's when Castiel understands. Dean was not speaking to him. It's not Castiel who is earning that expression of loving desire. It's the girl. The girl is Cas and right now, she has everything. She has Castiel's soul mate and his nickname and his rightful place.

As soon as the thought streaks across his mind, Castiel bursts away from the house, flying so fast he barely sees the scenery passing him in colorful blurs. Now he understands the full meaning of Israfel's warning. Everything has irrevocably changed. Gone are the days when Castiel faithfully anticipated Dean's future happiness with a loving human partner. Left now are only thoughts of envy and wretched covetousness. Castiel has no idea what he thinks will happen.

There is no way for them.

"Brother," Israfel says shakily when Castiel hurtles past her. She falls into place beside him, matching his speed easily. "Please, Castiel."

"Do not speak with me," he warns her and even the guilt he feels at her resigned expression doesn't penetrate the horrified haze surrounding his Grace. "I'm returning now. Thank you for your help," he snaps right before he plunges back into the time well.

There is no way for them and Castiel has failed Dean and yet again, the only thing he can do is abandon him.

Chapter Text

Everything changes two years later.

After Castiel returns to his correct time, he reaches out to Dean with his Grace and senses that the Dean of this time period has not yet met the woman 'Cas'. Which means that their love affair he’d witnessed just one month hence is abrupt and powerful. The sort that Castiel imagines will leave a lasting impression on Dean. He is torn in two different directions. His knowledge of the soul piece tells him that the relationship will end after a short time. That dark ugly jealousy that has grown up around the soul piece he carries feels nothing, but satisfaction over it.

The rest of him is dismayed.

He does not want Dean to experience the sadness of lost love. Even if it means Castiel will lose that place in his heart forever. It would not matter if he did anyway because Castiel has no way of filling it. He is forbidden from seeing Dean, from appearing to him even as a stranger.

Castiel prays to his Father that he's wrong about the relationship.

But he is not.

Several months after his return, long after his brief visit to the future, Castiel senses a deep melancholy ache pulsing through Dean's soul piece. There is none of the sharpness Castiel expected when the relationship ends. Instead, there is resignation and painful acceptance, as if Dean had not expected anything besides an sudden ending to this love affair.

He changes his prayer to a request that someday Dean will not always expect good things to end.

And once again, his prayers go unanswered.

After Dean and Cas' relationship ends, Castiel senses no great emotional turmoil from Dean for what Israfel informs him is nearly a year and a half in Earth time. He experiences the normal ups and downs of human life and as always, the low thrum of loneliness he's felt since Sam abandoned him. But his emotions are steady, if not particularly happy.

Then one day, panic explodes across the soul piece he carries. Castiel is halfway across the Heavens before he's realized he's left his post. A cold wind rushes past him, tinged with Grace and he hears his sister's voice as she passes him.

"Remain here, brother," Israfel commands in a tone not to be dismissed. "I will investigate."

He catches himself at the edge of the Earthly realm, unable to go to his soul mate. Unable to protect him. Fury rises up within Castiel like a great flame, flickering up around his Grace, threatening to consume him. There is no point to this connection, no reason for them to share a soul piece if he is not allowed to be nearby when Dean needs him. He's never felt less sure of his Father's plan than in that moment, trembling with fear and anger, peering down into the Earthly realm and seriously wondering what it would be like to fall into it.

Then Israfel returns.

Grief coils through her Grace and shows itself on her normally stoic expression. He is shocked to see actual tears falling from her light gray eyes. She hurtles towards him and he holds out his arms to catch her, his wings closing hard around them as she weeps into his shoulder.

"She's gone, brother," Israfel sobs. The strain of sorrow on her gorgeous voice pains Castiel deeply. He reaches out to Dean again, needing that connection, that familiarity. The panic he'd been feeling has faded into a deep endless well of grief that perfectly matches what Israfel is feeling.

"Who is gone?" he asks urgently. "Israfel, what's happened?"

"Jessica," she says through a fresh wave of tears. "Killed by demons. Such an innocent, Castiel. She didn't know anything!"

Anger, righteous and terrifying is building up behind Israfel's sorrow and Castiel knows that if he does not calm her soon, she may do something they will both regret. He sets aside his own dismay at this terrible news and leans back, shaking her shoulders gently.

"I don't understand. Tell me exactly what happened."

He senses her grapple for her focus. Her struggle with this tragedy is not surprising to Castiel. Israfel had been delighted when Sam found a partner in Jessica Moore. With Castiel's focus elsewhere and Sam separated from his family, Israfel had worried that no one was taking care of Sam. Both angels had been expressively forbidden from taking vessels unless ordered. Neither is able to truly see and speak with the humans they long to protect. Then Sam met Jessica and she carried a piece of Sam's soul. Not his soul mate piece, but a large enough piece that Castiel could see she would be important to him for many years.

Now he understands that it's her memory which will stay with Sam.

He also understands Dean's reaction. Panic and pain, fear and anger, all deeper on Sam's behalf than for his own.

It's just the beginning.

Israfel reports that Sam and Dean begin travelling together in search of their father. They can both exactly sense John's location, but again, they're held back by Zachariah's orders. They are watched closely. Not openly, but Castiel can sense his brothers' awareness of his location and actions.

"It's so frustrating," Israfel laments, her wings closed tight around her body. "I don't understand why John Winchester won't just go and speak with his children. I could so easily make it happen."

At Castiel's silence, Israfel's expression turns chagrinned. "Forgive me, brother. I know it's infinitely more difficult for you."

"How are they?" he asks instead of acknowledging her sentiment.

"I very nearly stepped in this time," she confesses as they walk along a golden path during one of Castiel's rare breaks. "Dean's gotten in trouble with the human law enforcement."

Castiel pauses. "Why?"

"Not through any fault of his own," Israfel assures him. She threads her arm through his and tugs him along. "A shape shifter took his appearance and committed several serious crimes."

"So not only are they in danger from the other realm, but from their own government," Castiel says. Frustration is not a strong enough description for what he's feeling.

"They escaped and saved the life of an innocent," Israfel says in her calm comforting tone. Which Castiel understands. He's extremely proud of Dean and Sam for their mission to save lives and eradicate evil. But their ability to draw danger to themselves, even beyond that which must always accompany a hunt for evil, baffles Castiel.

"And Sam's infection?"

Israfel sighs heavily. "The blood continues to stir within him. I fear it will only become worse as time passes."

The demon's plan remains unclear to Castiel. Anytime he tries to broach the topic with Zachariah, his concerns are dismissed out of hand. His commander must understand that a bigger plan is in play. Castiel could be an important source of information. His connection to Dean could be invaluable and yet his superiors refuse to use it.

Only his faith in his Father keeps Castiel from running mad. There must be a reason God hasn't stepped in.

There must.

Always perfectly in-tune with the variety of Dean's emotions, after the incident with the police, Castiel listens even more closely. Since he can't be with Dean or physically protect him, Castiel uses his ability to sense when Dean's in danger to alert Israfel. She jokes that she spends more time on Earth now than in Heaven.

Israfel has a more finely developed sense of humor than Castiel.

Castiel is sitting at his work desk, studying the patterns of a recent battle when he senses a tug against Dean's soul piece, a presence he has not felt for such a long time. A presence he instantly recognizes.

"Mary," he murmurs as he stands. As he abandons his work and takes flight. Her presence grows stronger. He senses astonishment and a rousing of long buried hurts within Dean as well as crashing waves of love. The innocent childlike love Dean carries for his mother, a kind never allowed to mature.

His first instinct is to travel to Earth and return to Kansas, the last place he knew that Mary's spirit dwelt. But he stretches out with his Grace and senses that she is already gone. Her presence has grown stronger because it's drawing nearer.

The reality of what's occurred strikes him hard in the Grace and for the first time in many years, Castiel feels himself begin to smile.

He shoots away from the edge of the Earthly realm, back towards the center of the Heavens, past the Citadel to the north side of the city and lands before the small golden gate that serves as the entrance of the Fields. The Guardian gives him a thin smile.

"I have been awaiting your arrival, Seraph," he says.

"Is she here?" Castiel asks, ignoring the other questions clamoring for attention within his mind. He wonders if the Guardian knew this would happen and how much the Guardian knows, but seeing her is more important, more immediate.

"I have brought her forth," the Guardian says. Castiel nods. Warriors are not allowed with the Fields. The Guardian steps aside as the gate silently swings open. A warm yellow light spills out over both angels and Castiel's Grace grows weak with awe. It is more than simple light. It is pure love given physical form and it washes over him like a gentle fall of rain.

It is another gift to his Father's beloved children.

Within the glow, a darker form takes shape, streaks of light spinning together to reveal the figure of a human. Castiel peers closer, unable to recognize and without realizing it, he takes a step forward. The Guardian holds out a hand.

"No further, Seraph."

Then a face appears and relief unfolds within his Grace.

"Mary," he says.

She smiles as bright and lovely as always. The Guardian moves out of the way just in time as she throws herself into Castiel's waiting arms.

"Cas," she cries, face buried in his robe. "Oh, Cas, how I've missed you so much."

The soul piece in his Grace shudders violently, pleased beyond measure to feel Mary's presence, her soul given human form again. He wraps his wings around her and gathers her close.

"I have missed you as well."

She laughs. "I'd forgotten how formal you are," she teases as she leans back. Her eyes sparkle as much as they always did. Castiel thinks he understands why John Winchester fell so violently in love with her.

"What happened, Mary?" He glances at the Guardian, asking a silent question with his eyes. The Guardian nods and Castiel turns Mary, leading her a few steps away from the gate. Not very far, but enough to give them the illusion of privacy.

"My boys came home," she says. They pass a low stone bench and Mary sits, pulling him down with her. "They've grown so much, Cas! I can't believe how tall and strong they are. Especially Sam!" She laughs joyfully. "The last time I saw him properly, he fit perfectly into my arms. Now he could pick me up and throw me over his shoulder."

Castiel's smile returns. "I doubt he would do such a thing."

"But he could," she insists. "And Dean! Such a handsome man. Oh they both are. I'm so-"

Her joy is suddenly tinged with that old sorrow, the regret that kept her soul trapped on Earth for these many years. Tears well in her eyes, spilling down her cheeks as she leans into Castiel's shoulder again.

"I should have been there. I missed so much and I could-"

Castiel brushes the tip of a finger along her damp cheek. "Hush. That's in the past. This is your reward now. Leave your cares behind."

"Oh Cas, I don't think humans work like that. Even in Heaven," she murmurs.

"It's not your fault," Castiel insists. "I couldn't protect you."

His own sorrow tugs at him, his regret and shame at failing her crashing into his Grace. He pushes Mary up so he can meet her eyes.

"I am sorry, Mary. I promised you I would protect you and I failed."

She places her palms flat against his face. Her tears still fall, but she ignores them and her voice is steady as she speaks.

"I don't blame you, Castiel. I know you tried as hard as you could. The fault is mine. Don't take that responsibility onto yourself. It's mine to bear," she says with determination. Castiel senses her absolute conviction. It's something of a comfort to her. Trapped in her formless state, Mary could not feel this pain. It's her mistake and if she wants to own it, Castiel will be gracious.

"I am sorry it happened the way it did," he says.

"Me too." She wipes at her face and rests her temple against his shoulder. "I couldn't see much in these past years, but I saw enough of my boys to understand what's happened. Sam in pain and Dean so very lonely." She glances up at him. "Lonely for you, I think."

"Yes," Castiel says softly.

"I didn't understand then what you meant when you said you owned a piece of his soul. I didn't know he'd fall in love with you."

Castiel frowns. "I don't think he loves me in that manner. We've only met once since I was forced to remove his memories."

"Doesn't matter if he's even aware of it," Mary says, looking up at him. "I saw it written into his soul. It was a deep and obvious message, I'm afraid."

Her teasing smile belied her words.

"It doesn't bother you?" Castiel asks, incredulous. "We can't be together in the proper human way."

"It'll work out," she says with a certainty Castiel can't comprehend. "Don't worry, Castiel. If you can't find a way, Dean will. He's even more stubborn than his father, I think," she adds with a grin.

Which may be true, but Castiel can't see how Dean's stubbornness is any match for the forces of Heaven.

"But Mary-"

"You're an angel, right?"

He frowns. "Of course." That's the problem.

"Then have faith. Sometimes you can have faith in something other than God. So have faith in Dean," she says.

Castiel considers this concept for a very long time. For as long as he's known Dean, Castiel has been concerned with how he could protect and comfort Dean. How he could become someone Dean could always trust. He's never really given serious thought to the path going both ways. That Dean might be the one to find a way for them to be together.

It's an overwhelming notion.

"I will...try," he promises with some difficulty.

"To tell you the truth, I'm more worried about Sam," Mary admits. "That part of him, his soul's partner?"

"His soul-mate piece," Castiel provides.

"Yes," she says, nodding. An odd smile touches her lips. "The part of me that John owns. I saw that part inside Sam. But how could he still have it? Does he not have a soul mate?"

"He has one or he wouldn't have that piece," Castiel says. The thought always troubles him and now is no different. "I don't know why it hasn't been released yet."

Mary draws in a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "It's not because of the deal, is it? The darkness inside him?" She swallows around what Castiel suspects is another wave of tears. "It's not because of me, is it?"

"No, that isn't it," he says with as much conviction as she'd shown him earlier. "Sam's soul partner was decided at his birth, long before the darkness touched him. That person exists somewhere. Perhaps they are not yet born. Some people share a mate piece with a child."

A measure of relief eases the tension in Mary's face. "I thought...when I realized the loss he'd just experienced, I worried that he'd be alone now."

"He's not alone," Castiel argues. "Dean is with him and my sister, Israfel, watches over him."

Mary smiles. "I know and I'm grateful for that. I'm so glad Dean and Sam are still friends. I don't think...I know how much Dean needs that."

Her tone is awkward and Castiel knows why. Dean's mutated soul piece makes them both uncomfortable. The danger inherent in that shared piece is not lost on either of them.

"I wish I could be near him more," Castiel admits quietly. Mary squeezes his hand and leans against him again.

"I wish you could too. I worry for Dean, but I worry for you too, Cas. It's...it's very easy to see that you are in love with him too," she whispers, as if afraid to be overheard.

"I am?"

It's not as much of a surprise as Castiel would have guessed. He remembers all those years ago when he first learned he'd received Dean's soul mate piece. How the idea of romantic love made so little sense to him. He'd been wary of the problems that kind of love causes. The very same problems he'd grown to experience. The jealousy and longing, the peace and joy he felt the two times he could be near Dean. The physical response he'd felt to Dean's presence while in his vessel.

All characteristics of all too human romantic love.

"You didn't know?" Mary looks up at him. Her smile is gentle and knowing. "I remember realizing how I felt about John. How everything suddenly made sense."

"I suppose I did know," he says. He thinks of how he wished he could be the one in Dean’s arms. "Yes, I did know."

"When I was a kid, I always thought I'd grow up, find the perfect man. We'd fall in love and everything would be amazing," Mary says. "And I did and it was. Until everything fell apart. No one tells you that part. The hard part."

She stands and holds out her hand, pulling him to his feet. Together, they begin to walk back towards the gate.

"But you know what?" When Castiel shakes his head, Mary grins, so brightly and warmly that Castiel can't help feeling lighter just by seeing it.

"All of it, the pain and grief and everything...it’s all totally worth it."

And when Castiel considers how he feels when he’s with Dean, when he can see him and touch him, he thinks maybe he agrees.

Chapter Text

Castiel is listening to Uriel describe his latest skirmish in the Outer Realm when the feeling hits.

His first impression is of fire, of a pain so intense and consuming that his Grace initially numbs itself to the effect. He stands abruptly and frowns at the floor, concentrating on the sensation, trying to understand its meaning. Uriel cuts his story short and he stands as well.

"What is it, brother?"

"I don't know," Castiel says vaguely, though he knows the feeling must be connected to Dean. His Grace never feels anything so intensely unless the source is Dean. Panic edges his awareness, but Castiel pushes it back. He can't help Dean if he doesn't understand the problem.

"I don't know," he says again, taking a step forward, his wings flared and ready for flight.

"Something has happened to Dean."

As soon as the words leave his mouth, the pain his Grace try to reject explodes across his senses with a ferocity that nearly brings him to his knees. Immediately, he knows it's not emotional pain. Dean's emotions are deep and complicated, but they are a slow burn, a dull endless ache inside his chest. His brief flares of anger and grief never shine so brightly as this excruciating pain. And yet, in all the times Dean's been physically hurt, Castiel never felt the bleakness that slashes through the pain.

Realization sets in hard and fast.

It's not just Dean that's in pain. The soul piece he carries is twisting ruthlessly within his Grace, squirming in fear and anger and grief.

"Uriel," Castiel whispers. "I have to go to him."

Uriel immediately grasps his arm. The shock of touch, the inherent unfamiliarity of being this physically intimate with Uriel briefly snags his attention from Dean.

"You can't," Uriel snaps. "If you go, they'll have you in irons until the final battle."

Despite Uriel's words and the very real truth to them, Castiel beats his wings once, rising from the ground. He knows he's not thinking clearly. He knows this has always been Uriel's worst fear for him. That Castiel's devotion to their Father would by tested beyond endurance by his love for Dean.

But something is very wrong and Dean needs help.

"I have to-"

Uriel's incredible anger bursts forth and his grip tightens. The power of his fury has always lent astonishing strength to his Grace and this time is no different. He's in battle-mode and Castiel's recklessness is his opponent.

"You will stay here. Israfel was already on Earth. She will attend to Dean Winchester."

But it's not a comfort. Castiel's own ire flows over his fear and he rips his arm out of Uriel's hand.

"I grow weary of always depending on Israfel," he snarls. "She does not carry Dean's soul. I do!"

"And you will have the soul piece ripped from your very being if you do not calm down and think rationally!" Uriel roars. The echo of his warning carries over the hillsides that surround them. Castiel would not be surprised if the entirety of the host hears them arguing.

"Allow Israfel time," he continues in a far more quiet tone.

Castiel knows he must listen to Uriel. But knowing and accepting are two very different things and Castiel can only do one of them with any amount of grace.

"Fine," he bites out. "I will remain here and be useless." He turns and begins pacing, his wings tossing angrily against his back.

"It's become a talent of mine."

There's no time for Uriel to utter what would most likely be a clever sarcasm before Israfel bursts into the Heavenly realm beside them from the underspace.

"Castiel," she says urgently. "Oh Uriel, I'm glad you're here too."

"What? What is it?" Castiel asks as he flits down to land right beside her. The feeling in his Grace, that unimaginable numbing grief has only grown stronger. Castiel has no experience with death, but he thinks this must be what it's like. A part of him slipping away and there's nothing he can do to stop it.

"Dean." She curls her hands under his elbows and tries to push serenity into his Grace. But Castiel doesn't want peace. He wants answers.

"What?"

"He's dying," she says simply.

And he'd known. It is the only logical reason for the sensations Castiel feels. The soul piece is curling into itself, trying to wither away to nothing like it would inside a human's heart.

But Castiel has no heart. He only has endless Grace. The soul piece cannot go, but it cannot stay the same and no matter if they save Dean now, no matter if he lives a long and full life, Castiel will always carry this piece with him, as vibrant and alive as the day he received it.

Except the longing it brings will never be satisfied. Dean will be beyond the gate in the Fields and Castiel will be stuck on this side.

It all passes through his mind in an instant and then Castiel hides it away. Those concerns hardly matter. Dean is far too young and strong to die now. Castiel will not allow him to slip away without trying to help, no matter if it is now at Dean's twenty-six years or when he's a hundred.

"What is the cause?" Castiel asks carefully. Perhaps too carefully if the worried glance Uriel and Israfel share is any indication.

"Electrocution," she reports as if giving a battle account to a superior. "An accident during a hunt. His heart is damaged beyond repair without divine intervention. I checked myself. Sam is..." Here, she falters, shaking her head sadly. "Sam is desperately searching for a cure, but he won't find one."

This mention of Sam is the first time Castiel gives thought to the miserable vibrations he senses from Sam's soul strands. The pain seemed inconsequential in comparison to that of Dean's soul piece.

"Then we must intervene," Castiel declares.

"We can't," Israfel argues. "We would be prevented from performing the miracle before we could do it."

She's right. His argument with Uriel, Israfel's hasty return to Heaven and Castiel suspects, the close eye Zachariah keeps on the Winchesters must have made the Host aware of the situation. They will be stopped if they try anything.

He flings himself into the air.

"Where are you going, brother?" Uriel asks suspiciously as he joins Castiel.

"Going to save Dean the only way I can," he says, shooting off back towards the Citadel. He senses Uriel and Israfel following close behind him, even as he charges through the light blue hallways and into Zachariah's office.

"Hello, Castiel," Zachariah says pleasantly.

"Our Father wouldn't have given him to me if he were meant to die so quickly," Castiel says by way of greeting. He's learned over the years that it's easier to deal with Zachariah if you ignore his meandering conversational style and cut straight to the heart of the matter.

"Someday we'll get you to understand that you can't exactly know the Father's will," Zachariah says with a sigh, as if Castiel were just a mild annoyance.

He stalks up to Zachariah's desk.

"I'm not presuming to know our Father's will. But this is just common sense. His soul piece belongs to me. To Heaven. Whatever the reason, I doubt it's so he can destroy a few paltry evil spirits," Castiel says, his calm once again descending as he pleads his case. "He has not yet fulfilled the destiny which our Father intends for him."

"I see," Zachariah says, leaning back in his chair. "And you'd like to ride in like the cavalry and save the day."

"I want to save Dean," Castiel clarifies. He doesn't care if Zachariah wishes to tease him, but he won't let the matter be vague.

"No."

Castiel reels back as if physically struck. "You can't mean that," he says in dismay.

"You aren't strong enough to save him. Not in the way he needs now," Zachariah says. His cold eyes flick to Uriel. "But you are, brother Uriel."

Hope tumbles in after Castiel's horror, lifting him so much he doesn't even care that yet again, he will not be allowed to help Dean.

"What would you have me do?" Uriel asks. His tone is blank, but Castiel senses his discomfort. He never feels at ease on Earth when he must deal closely with humans.

"Save him," Zachariah orders. "Castiel is right. The idiot can't get himself killed just yet."

Only the knowledge that Zachariah is fickle and cruel holds Castiel's tongue. Behind him, he hears Israfel make a low angry noise that Zachariah, luckily, ignores.

"Just remember though," he says, suddenly fiercely intent. "He can't know the source of his rescue. Don't appear to him."

Castiel stares in confusion. If Uriel cannot appear, if he cannot touch Dean, then how is he to heal him?

"Save him at all costs," Zachariah continues, "but don't let him understand the true nature of this miracle."

As always, the stricture of Dean's knowledge greatly bothers Castiel. Even if he must stay away from Dean, Castiel can't understand what good it does anyone to painstakingly keep the existence of Heaven and its angels from him. He believes their Father wants to offer hope, not hide it from His children.

But he is bound by his orders and his desire to save Dean.

"I understand," Uriel says, voice carefully blank. Castiel reaches out to his Grace, but Uriel shoots away to the Earthly realm before Castiel can feel much more than his distant determination to complete his task.

"There. All better now," Zachariah says with counterfeit cheer.

Castiel only glares at him and rises on his wings, flying low to the ground away from his superior's loathsome presence. A few moments later, he senses Israfel join him. He wonders if she stayed behind to exchange words with Zachariah, but he doesn't question her. They fly silently towards the crystal beaches. Castiel always ends up here when in need of comfort. The soul piece quivers gently at the return to the place where it first met Castiel's Grace, but any relief the feeling gives him in lost in the face of the powerful fear and unimaginable grief the piece still carries.

He sits in the sand and gathers his wings around his body. Israfel gracefully seats herself alongside him, close enough to touch, but not quite doing so. They stay silent and still, waiting for Uriel's return.

It does not take long.

Castiel senses the change long before they see their brother's approach. The stifling sorrow in Dean's soul piece abruptly eases, leaving Castiel feeling strangely empty. He had not realized the sadness had become like a physical presence. Sam's soul strands stretch and shiver in exhausted relief and pure joy. But while Castiel feels the relief himself, he can't quite reach out to the unreserved joy. Dean's soul glimmers with worry. He is very upset.

Something is still wrong.

"There," Israfel says, pointing to the West. Uriel has chosen to fly to them rather than explode in from the underspace. His expression is hard, his eyes blank, but when Castiel reaches out with his Grace, this time he is able to sense Uriel's emotions. He is irritated with being unable to act decisively and openly. Uriel has never been fond of subterfuge.

But that is not all Castiel senses. Edged along his Grace is the unmistakable scent of spilled blood. Castiel has sensed it on his brother's Grace too many times after a cleansing not to recognize it. Strong disquiet pours through his own Grace.

"What did you do?"

Uriel meets his gaze without flinching. "I did my duty, brother."

He doesn't know the particulars, can't quite sense what Uriel specifically did, but Castiel knows what's important. Dean is alive and an innocent is dead. His disquiet grows into horror and he finds himself pushing into Uriel's face, his wings stiff and pointed forward aggressively.

"What did you do?" he demands again, though he knows. "What was the human's name?"

"Why do you care?" Uriel asks with scorn.

"You killed an innocent-"

"I killed no one," Uriel denies. "But yes, a human was traded. His name was Marshall Hall, if you must know."

Castiel stumbles back under his shock. "How could you? His own path-"

"His path was of no consequence next to Winchester's," Uriel says with genuine callousness. But he is not without emotion. Anger and what Castiel is surprised to see is deep hurt glow in his bright eyes.

"Can you honestly say you would make another decision?" He presses forward, closing down the space Castiel opened between them when he fell back. "I told you this would happen, Castiel. I warned you. This is the result of the soul connection you so obviously celebrate. You believe Zachariah is out to sabotage you, but in truth he saved you a decision today."

He grabs Castiel's arm and once again they share an uncomfortable intimacy. Castiel's Grace swirls around Dean's soul piece as if to protect it from Uriel's hard truthful words.

"I did what I was ordered, but you would have done the same without that impetus. They are all supposed to be the same to us, but given the choice between Dean Winchester and all others, you would have slaughtered a hundred humans. A thousand," Uriel spits and the truth of it lances through Castiel's Grace. Uriel's face fills with disgust and even a hint of loathing.

"You're no better than one of them now," he snarls and throws Castiel's arm off. They stare at each other for a long tense moment. Castiel buries his dismay deep within his Grace and meets Uriel's revulsion with defiance. No matter what doubts he might feel about his own actions, Castiel refuses to feel shame over Dean himself.

"Brothers," Israfel finally says, startling Castiel. He hadn't forgotten about her, but until that moment, she'd dampened her presence. "The deed is done. Allowing it to sow discord gives offense to our Father."

Her words are sensible, but it's still another long moment before Uriel finally backs down. He turns away without another look at either of them and takes off, his powerful wings beating hard and slow. Israfel sighs.

"He's wrong," she states decidedly as she comes to stand by his side. They both look out over the clear waves, not meeting the other's eye.

"He's not," Castiel contradicts, but before he can continue, Israfel shakes her head.

"He's right about your specific concern for Dean over other humans, but you are not like them, Castiel. You're an Angel. Whatever changes the soul piece wrought in your Grace were blessed by our Father or he wouldn't have sent it to you in the first place," she explains.

Castiel wishes he could believe her.

Chapter Text

The next time Dean nearly dies, things don't go nearly so smoothly for Castiel.

The physical danger and emotional turmoil of Dean's life since Sam rejoined their hunt continues unabated after Uriel's visit. In fact, their situation grows more perilous and without John there to protect them, Israfel spends more time than ever on Earth, watching the brothers' every move. She becomes so absorbed in their lives that Castiel is forced several times to send another angel after her to remind her to return home for reports. During one such report, she brings Castiel an explanation for the odd mixture of deep discomfort and edgy hope he'd been sensing from Dean for the past several days.

"Their recent case centers on the family of Cassandra Robinson," Israfel explains.

An echo of his old jealousy curls around Castiel's Grace, but it fades almost as soon as he acknowledges it. Zachariah's made it perfectly clear that Castiel won't be seeing Dean again anytime soon. If he can't be present to offer happiness, perhaps it's time he stops being so selfish as to wish away a person who can.

"He still cares for her," Castiel says quietly.

"Yes and she for him, but I'm afraid her affection is tempered by their reality," Israfel says.

Castiel frowns in confusion.

"What do you mean?"

His soul connection to Dean is strong enough that he can sense the satisfaction of Cassandra's soul piece within Dean, but he can't sense her emotions.

"She has a strong loving soul, quite generous and spirited," Israfel says in admiration. "But her desires are typical of most humans, Castiel. She wants a safe stable home life and a partner she can rely on not to leave at a moment's notice or be killed by angry spirits."

It takes Castiel a few moments to understand what Israfel is trying to tell him.

"She doesn't think Dean is worth a risk?"

His Grace is flooded with a confusing tide of emotions. From an angelic standpoint, he can absolutely understand Cassandra's caution. He knows most humans crave emotional and physical stability, even if they desire adventure in their lives. For all that their lives are dangerous, Sam and Dean are no different. Particularly Dean. Castiel knows very well that Dean is roaming from town to town and person to person in a vain attempt to recreate what he had in the first four years of his life. He knows this is how humans operate and he can't blame Cassandra for not wishing to become embroiled in Dean's treacherous lifestyle.

That knowledge is hidden away under a towering rage.

Castiel knows Dean. He knows Dean would give himself to this woman, though she doesn't possess what he seeks, in order to steal what happiness he can. She could have as much of Dean as any human could hope to own. She can be there with him and instead she will choose safety.

"Castiel," Israfel says. She lays a hand on his arm and squeezes it. Castiel recognizes the warning in her touch, the silent reasoning and some of his rationality returns. Cassandra's decision is hardly unexpected. Castiel knew from the moment he saw her small soul piece within Dean that the relationship wouldn't last. But it's hard to accept that someone would choose to throw away what Castiel yearns for so very ardently.

"Yes," he murmurs. It will be harder on Dean this time. When Cassandra lets him go even after he saves the lives of her family, it will hurt more than their last separation. "You will ease his soul?"

"I will." The melancholy in her smile shifts into a teasing lightness that Castiel immediately appreciates. "His soul has almost come to accept my touch."

"It's not my fault that it's a stubborn thing," Castiel protests.

Like with everything else about Dean, his emotions are torn over Dean's soul's reticence to accept the loving comfort of another angel. He wishes Dean wouldn't block out the other angels just because he desires Castiel instead. But he is also secretly delighted that only his touch pleases Dean's soul.

"At least Sam enjoys my comfort," Israfel says. "When I ease him, his good mood can usually carry over to Dean."

"Dean's soul will always be happy when Sam is content," Castiel agrees.

The reverse is also true. As each day slips by, Sam's infection grows more problematic. His headaches worsen and visions appear to him more frequently. The visions are ultimately helpful in saving lives, but worrisome nonetheless. As frightened as Sam is of his strange new powers, there is absolutely no rest for Dean. Even in sleep, he is anxious. Between his fears about John and worry over Sam, Dean is stretched thin, brittle to the point of breaking. He acts the same as always, but Castiel senses the charade. Realms away, Castiel feels Dean's pain and sometimes he wonders if his careful cradling of Dean's soul mate piece is all that keeps Dean's psyche intact.

He wonders if perhaps this is the true reason his Father gave Dean to him. Not so that they could share their lives, but so that Castiel could be a safe place for Dean's soul. A distant, but steady anchor.

It's not an entirely unpleasant idea.

In fact, Castiel is ruminating on this very concept when he's struck through the center of his Grace with a bolt of surprising joy. He doesn't even need to wait for Israfel's report to understand that Dean has finally found his father.

A gathering battle storm along the Heavenly realm steals his attention from Dean. Or as much anything can. Even while planning strategy and sending missive after missive along his Grace to various angelic commanders, part of Castiel always monitors Dean. He senses highs and lows more erratic that Dean usually experiences. The decline of Sam's spiritual health is Castiel's first clue. The increase of demonic commotion near the Heavenly realm is his second. This heightening of tension and negative otherworldly activity surrounding the three Winchesters is the third. Something is happening. Or will happen very soon.

Castiel doesn't see Israfel for a very long time and he makes no complaint. He needs to know she's there to correct any minor injuries and to report back if any permanent damage befalls any of his small human family. Any interruption would distract her from her duty and detract from Dean's protection.

However, none of that matters when Castiel catches the first wisp of recognition in Dean's soul. It comes on a pulse of virulent hatred unlike any Castiel's ever sensed in Dean. There is only one being who could possibly have that affect on his soul partner. The same one that ripped his family apart when Dean was only a child.

They've found the Demon.

The only reason he doesn't leave the Citadel at that very moment is because he's orchestrating a battle that could cost the lives of dozens of his brothers if he abandoned it. The trust he's cultivated with Israfel, along with the knowledge that she's a far more powerful angel than he, keeps his frantic desire to act in check. It doesn't make it any easier to listen to Dean's fear and helpless fury, but nothing ever does.

Fortunately, he doesn't have to listen for long. He senses a sudden spike of intense of physical pain that has him passing the battle off to the nearest seraphim despite his recent conviction to stay with it. But he only gets as far as the Citadel doors before Dean's pain turns to overwhelming relief and he sees Israfel charging his way.

"I thought I might find you heading for Earth," she says. In her hurry, Israfel grabs the edge of his wing and tugs him back to his office where she relieves the poor confused seraphim and takes over the battle herself. In the back of his mind, past the anxiety he's feeling for Dean, Castiel is somewhat in awe of Israfel's multi-tasking as she commands the battle while giving him a detailed account of what happened.

"It was the very same demon we saw that night," she says as jets of message-laden Grace shoot from her hands towards the battlefield. "He possessed John Winchester's body."

That explains some of the intensity of Dean's loathing. There is a ripple of the selfsame emotion in Castiel's Grace at the thought of the detestable creature inside John's heart and soul. Before he can register this feeling vocally, Israfel continues, speaking low and quick.

"It wanted to use John's body to harm the boys, but John resisted it," she says. A measure of hard satisfaction appears in her gray eyes. "With some help of my own."

"What happened to it? Did they destroy it?"

"No. John wanted Sam to use the demon-killing gun to destroy him, but he refused. He was tempted, but Dean's soul tugged on his too terribly for him to give in. Thankfully," she adds.

"Thankfully?"

Castiel doesn't wish John dead any more than his sons do, but if Sam could have saved his and Dean's lives while taking out who Castiel suspects is a major player in the developing situation, then he is not surprised that Sam was tempted.

"Killing John would have destroyed Sam," Israfel says. "If he is to keep himself from the dark path that demon tried to set him down, then he must stay as true to his humanity as he can. Murdering John would have pushed him further along that path." Her eyes meet Castiel's and there is a reprimand lurking in them. "The further Sam falls, the more danger Dean will find trying to save him."

"I have no desire for-"

But he can't finish the statement. Red-hot pain slams into his Grace, gathering into a hard knot around Dean's soul piece. He tugs at his cloak helplessly, as if he could dig inside himself to soothe an injury he doesn't yet understand.

"Castiel?" Israfel's alarmed voice is suddenly close. Her hands clamp around his shoulders. "What is it? What's happened?"

"I...I don't...Dean," he struggles to say. "Something's wrong."

Israfel's eyes narrow in concentration and her unique bright Grace curls around his own, searching for answers. It takes but a moment and then she draws in a short sharp breath.

"Brother," she says, her voice weak. "The soul piece. It's trying to fade."

Trying to fade like Mary's soul piece faded to a deep scar in John's soul. Trying to melt into a simple wound that can heal with time, allowing Castiel to move on with his life. Except his Grace won't allow it and the pain is so extreme that Castiel feels a wave of clarity wash over him. His senses are alert and sharp. The world around him, the objects he sees and emotions he senses, are crisp and clear. This isn't like the last time. Dean's body isn't dying. It is already half-dead. There is part of him in the Earthly realm and a part of the otherworld.

"I have to go," he says.

"Castiel-"

He throws off her hand without sparing her a glance. It's so strange that he's waited this long, Castiel thinks as he rises on his wings. The pain in his chest grows tighter and tighter. He wonders if it's building to a climax that will quite simply destroy him.

He wonders if that wouldn't be a relief in ways.

Israfel says something from the ground in a supportive tone. Perhaps to inform him she will stay with the battle and keep his absence hidden as long as possible. Whatever it is, it requires no response from him and so he leaves, soaring across his Father's Heaven down into the Earth He created for His special children. Towards one child in particular, a little blond-haired boy that never stopped searching for Castiel, even when he didn't know what to look for.

The reaper is waiting for Castiel's approach.

"You can't have him," she says, confidence radiating from her being. This particular reaper is clothed in the flesh of a small dark-haired human female. She reminds Castiel of Katie Novak. He wonders if she did that on purpose to lure Dean into death's waiting arms.

"I already have him," Castiel answers. "It's not his time. The Father has a purpose for him."

"You're right about one thing. This isn't his time. It's time stolen from another," the reaper says. The truth of her statement cannot be disputed, but reapers are not meant to question the orders of angels.

"He was meant to live this time," Castiel says. He feels his wings thrashing against his back. An energy born of pain and grief crackles around his Grace and though the reaper does not visibly react, he can sense her sudden caution. Not quite fear, but an increase in respect.

"He's dying, Angel," she says simply. "He will be mine and there's nothing you can do to stop me."

She raises an arm and pushes out, sending him out of the room and building, but Castiel was prepared for that action. There is little else more powerful on Earth than Death. But he has not come to surrender. With swiftness, Castiel dives back towards Dean's soul. He can feel Dean's confusion and sadness, his regret and reluctance. The reaper is speaking with him again. He has little time, but when Castiel returns to the building, he is met by a solid resistance. Other reapers, some in the guise of humans, others in their natural ghostly state face him in defense of their sister. Part of Castiel wants to shout at them, urge them to consider that they are on the same side against the demons and that Dean Winchester is too important in this battle to be lost, but he knows it's not the entire truth. Reapers are no friends to demons, but their purpose is much more neutral than that of angels.

Castiel meets them with battle-hardened Grace. His years spent in the field return as naturally as if he'd never left. The reapers are stronger than the low-level demons he's met, but create an equal match to his own power. Or would if his power were not fueled by grief and desperation. One by one, he banishes the reapers, sending them much further than Dean's reaper had sent Castiel. Their wall of defense slowly crumbles, much too slowly and Castiel is wracked with fear and frustration by the time he breaks through and plunges into the building.

He arrives in time to see Dean's reaper succumb to the power of the Demon.

"Today's your lucky day, kid," the Demon growls in the reaper's stolen voice.

As Castiel watches in shock, it touches Dean, sending his soul back into his newly healed body. The expression on its face when it looks at Castiel is cruelly amused.

"You again," it says. "Always a few minutes behind, aren't you?"

"What have you done?" Castiel growls, that crackling energy returning as he pulses with the desire to smite the Demon into oblivion.

"Nothing John Winchester didn't say I could," it says with a smirk and then it explodes out of the reaper's mouth. Castiel sends out a bruising whiplash of Grace, but it's too late. Whatever injury he visits on the Demon isn't enough to keep it grounded. The reaper falls to her knees, but Castiel no longer cares about her condition. He soars towards Dean's soul, back in its body and terribly confused about what just happened to it. Castiel reaches out with a comforting tendril of Grace, but instead of Dean, it slams into Uriel.

"Brother?" Castiel asks in his own confusion. He'd almost forgotten about his post and the disobedience he'd committed by coming down to Earth.

"Castiel," Uriel says. He sounds regretful rather than angry.

"I suppose Zachariah wants to see me?" he asks, feeling oddly tired for all that he hadn't expanded that much Grace in battle.

"Our superior is done with you for the moment," Uriel informs him. "He's sent me here with two choices for you."

Castiel silently prays that at least one of the choices keeps him alert and aware of Dean. Another bolt of helpless pain surges through Castiel and though the soul piece is no longer trying to die, Dean is clearly still being deeply hurt. By what, Castiel can't tell, but he believes Dean will need him now more than ever.

"What choices?"

"A command post beyond the Outer Realm," Uriel says. Castiel's Grace twists unpleasantly. Beyond the Outer Realm is as far from Earth as he could possibly be. So far that he would barely be able to sense Dean at all, much less his individual emotions.

"And the other?"

Uriel's regret increases into what Castiel believes is genuine sorrow on his brother's face.

"Isolation."

For a brief moment, Castiel's own shock and fear overwhelms whatever Dean is feeling. Isolation is the most terrible of angelic punishments. Worse even than falling from Grace entirely. Isolation is being completely cut off from his brothers, the silencing of the hundreds of sweet loving voices in his mind, the loss of the communion of a thousand familiar Graces touching his own.

"No," he says. "I don't wish." He pauses, gathers himself and straightens his back. "I will take the command post."

"I'm glad," Uriel says fervently and just then, he is the same brother Castiel used to spend each day alongside, when Anael was still their commander. He grips Castiel's arm. "You must go now. Report to the Citadel."

It is Israfel that meets Castiel at the front of the Citadel.

"This must be our farewell for some time," Castiel says dully.

Israfel shakes her head.

"No. I'm afraid we've grown far too close for that," she says.

Castiel frowns.

"What do you mean?"

"I'm not to be trusted on Earth anymore," she explains as she curls a hand around the edge of his cloak and tugs them both into flight. "Our command is to be a joint one."

As they fly, their wings occasionally brushing each other, Castiel shuts his eyes and says a prayer of supplication and of gratitude. A request to protect Dean and fervent thanks that he won't be alone on this leg of his journey.

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

A year later, Castiel falls out of the sky and plunges towards the ground. Only the quick reflexes of his brother keeps his body from breaking on the jagged rocks the battle wages over.

"Castiel," Israfel gasps before shouting an order to Leliel to take command of their unit. "What's wrong?"

"It hurts," he whispers, too mindless with pain to explain further than that.

His soul piece is contracting and expanding within him, throbbing with anguish and despair. There are no angels to help. No one to send comfort and appeal to Dean's senses. There is only recklessness and a sudden determination fix everything, to end the pain.

"No." Castiel struggles in Israfel's arms, tries to stand to his feet and take flight, but she stays his motion.

"Brother, tell me," she pleads. "What's happened?"

"Stop," he commands. "Let me go."

But as the first rush of demonic energy pours into his Grace, soiling his holy aura with evil, Castiel knows it’s too late. The only part of himself that Castiel knows is truly his own no longer belongs to him. It's been given away in exchange for the life of another.

Dean's soul is damned.

Chapter Text

Dean's soul piece is not any more pleased about its condition than Castiel.

As Castiel flies back towards the heart of the Heavenly realm, the piece shudders and twists inside his Grace. It feels as if the piece is trying to shake the evil taint from itself. Castiel knows it’s no use. Whatever contract Dean's made is as binding as the one Mary made years earlier. There's a certain futility to Castiel’s haste to return to Dean that is almost comical. Never once since Castiel received the soul piece has he been able to successfully act on his own will. But he keeps trying. It's such a human quality, this drive to repeat the same deeds even when one knows the outcome will never change. Castiel wonders if it's hope or plain stupidity.

His flight is lonely. Israfel stays behind to maintain their defenses against the demon incursion. In the year since he last walked the streets of the Silver City, Castiel has been inseparable from Israfel. Though she is needed to hold the line against the increasing onslaught, Castiel misses her presence with a deep penetrating ache. The pain of it is heightened by his very great need of her soothing touch within his sullied Grace. The demonic taint jabs Castiel with constant spikes of hurt. He is repulsed and angered in turns and it’s impossible to escape the feeling. During his long journey home, he even tries turning his smiting power on his own Grace. The only thing he manages to accomplish is to waste time.

The worst part is that he can't help being angry with Dean.

Castiel has no confirmation of what caused Dean to make this deal. But there can be only one explanation. It's what Castiel has feared since he saw Mary and Sam's soul pieces merge inside Dean. Joined with his years of protecting Sam, of defining his successes and failures based on Sam's well-being, Dean really did come to believe that he can't live without Sam.

Castiel knows without true knowledge that Dean sold his soul to save Sam's life. But what he saved Sam from is a new home in the fields of the Lord. Of this, Castiel has no doubt, cannot doubt, not even knowing of the infection in Sam's soul. Dean has snatched Sam back from reunion with his mother and Jessica. For the pleasure of a few short years with his brother, Dean has cursed himself to hellfire and Castiel has never been so angry with anyone in all his life.

It's exhausting, these feelings. His grief and rage and the strain of the demonic taint piles in on top of his battle fatigue and the protracted length of the journey across the Outer Realm. He is forced to stop multiple times to avoid skirmishes or fight off attacks. By the time he lands outside the doors of the Citadel, he is battered and drained. His Grace reaches out for his brothers, but even that comfort is hard won. His brothers recoil at the presence in his Grace and Castiel is met at the doors by a pair of guards.

"Castiel?" It's Hadakiel. His expression is confused and troubled as he searches Castiel's Grace for understanding. "What has happened to you?"

"I'm not tainted," he says wearily, though he feels as if he were. "The soul piece I carry is."

They stand aside with reluctance and allow him to travel towards Zachariah's domain.

He finds his superior sitting at his desk and Uriel standing beside the tall narrow window, peering out into the lush green garden of the courtyard.

"You're late," Zachariah says as he reads from a dark tan scroll. "I expected you weeks ago."

"I came as fast as I could," Castiel says blankly. "It's quite a journey across the Outer Realm."

"Yes, well, you shouldn't have rushed," he says, placing the scroll aside and meeting Castiel's gaze. His light blue eyes are as cold as ever, but Castiel thinks he looks tired. The situation must be taking its toll on Castiel's commanders as well. Not that he feels any sympathy for them. Let them experience the scorching heat of demonic filth on their Grace and then Castiel will cast sympathy on them.

"Why do you say that?"

It's an old familiar dance. Castiel will ask what Zachariah means, Zachariah will tell Castiel he can't help Dean, Castiel will rage at him and nothing will change. All of the sudden, Castiel doesn't want to do it. He doesn't want games. He wants answers.

"Are you going to let Dean go to hell?"

"Yes," is the succinct answer, given in clipped tones.

To his surprise, Castiel is not too exhausted to feel the violent rush of despair. His wings close around his body in a pathetic attempt at protection from this truth. Whatever hope he carried for Dean's life shatters and falls away from his Grace.

There is no point to Castiel. He can't protect his human. He was wrong about the Father. There was no reason for Him to give Castiel the soul piece. It had all been an exercise in pain and grief. An experiment to teach Castiel how love hurts more than it’s worth.

"If it makes you feel better," Zachariah says, coming around to stand in front of the desk and lean back against it. "I've looked at the deal from every angle to see if there is a way to get him out of it."

"You did?"

"Oh yes. I told you, Dean Winchester is a very important young man. If he's going to be lost to us, I want to make to absolutely certain there’s nothing anyone can do about it," Zachariah says.

There is something wrong with the statement, but Castiel can't discover what. He glances to Uriel, but his brother keeps his back turned from Castiel. His rigid posture isn't unusual, but his wings are held close against his back. He is upset.

"How long does he have?"

"By now? About seven months."

Another wash of powerful grief. So little time. Most deals are for ten years. Castiel knows he's not taken that long to return from the battlefield. For some reason, Dean wasn't given the usual amount of time.

"My hands are tied, Castiel. Dean made this decision of his own free will," Zachariah says in a lecturing tone.

Of course. Free will. The precious gift of humans. Castiel hates it. Humans shouldn't be allowed free will. All they do is make destructive decisions that spread pain and all for the mistaken belief they are making them out of love. Dean wasn't thinking of Sam. He was thinking of himself. Like every other selfish human.

"I'm sensing some bitterness here," Zachariah says. "You've always been so in awe of God's little children before now."

Castiel glares at him. "I'm allowed to be angry at my mate."

It’s the first time he's referred to Dean that way in front of Zachariah and it feels good to remind him of Castiel's ownership. Zachariah will never truly understand human relationships. Anger is simply the active side of fear. Castiel's fatigued and allowing himself a moment of petulance because loving Dean is difficult work.

"Ah, yes. Your mate. Nice gift he left you." Zachariah nods at Castiel's chest to indicate his sullied Grace. "What exactly were you hoping to accomplish by returning here?"

Castiel gives the question careful thought. There really hadn't been any plan. All he knows is that when Dean is in danger, Castiel must do something. He may not know why he carries Dean’s soul piece, but he does. He does carry Dean's soul and he cannot step aside while it's pulled in the lake of fire without trying to stop it.

A measure of faith returns to Castiel's Grace. He's spent years trying to understand why. But in reality, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that it happened and Dean belongs to Castiel. He doesn't have the right to give his soul away like that. Not without Castiel's approval and to this, Castiel most certainly does not agree.

"I want to see if I can break the deal," Castiel says.

"With the understanding, of course, that you can't? That our Father binds even the most powerful of his angels against interfering with the free will of a human?" Zachariah asks carefully.

"Yes," Castiel answers boldly. "I know I can't save him."

"Then why?" Zachariah asks with honest confusion.

Castiel smiles and walks to the door. Just after he opens it, he glances back over his shoulder and lets his smile turn to an odd wistful grin.

"I love him."

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

Uriel catches up to him after Castiel leaves the Citadel.

"I wish to help you, brother," he says.

"Why?"

The offer is appreciated, but Castiel is somewhat surprised by it. Uriel has made his opinion about Dean and Castiel's involvement with him plain. He doesn't see why Uriel should care if Dean goes to hell or not.

"The human is an idiot and his decisions have stained your Grace," he says, his eyes straight ahead away from Castiel's face as he speaks. "I would like to save him so I can have the opportunity to make his life miserable."

That draws a startled laugh from Castiel. He can't read anything from Uriel other than a sense of truthfulness and the real desire to help. His motives probably don't matter. Castiel doesn't need the help. He can fail just as well on his own as he can with a brother at his side. But he prefers not to be alone.

"Let us away, then."

"First, you see the Healer," Uriel says. Castiel considers arguing, but doesn't see the point. It won't lose them more than a few days on Earth and the last several weeks really have drained him.

"Fine. A short visit and then we leave."

The Healer fusses over the demonic presence in Castiel's Grace. Castiel and Uriel both try to explain that it won't matter what healing is done, but the Healer insists. The strong thick jets of ice-cold healing Grace don't do anything to the demon's taint, but they feel amazing nonetheless. Castiel soaks up the Healer's unrestrained touch. He has a feeling he'll need the fortification on this mission.

Once Castiel is finally released from the Healer's domain, he and Uriel plunge out of the Heavenly realm down to Earth. Dean's soul tugs at Castiel's Grace, desperate for his presence. He feels that Dean's covering it the best he can, but that doesn't stop Castiel from sensing the constant thrum of panicked fear in Dean's soul. Free will or not, Dean really doesn't want to die. Sam's soul piece within Dean and the strands covering Castiel's Grace shiver and ache with the same dread. Castiel and Sam are on a similar mission. The pact they made long ago to protect Dean springs to life anew.

Despite the intense longing to be at Dean's side, Castiel merely sends waves of Grace in Dean's direction. If he goes to him now, he fears he won't be able to accomplish his mission and the certainty of failure doesn't mean that's acceptable to Castiel.

They start by tracing Dean and Sam's recent past. Initially, Castiel steers them away from interactions with demons. He doesn't want Dean's deal holder to hear angels are pursuing it. But demonic investigation is not needed to hear what transpired to bring Dean to his decision. Some of it, Uriel knows. The rest is filled in by neutral spirits and human psychics. The ripples created by opening the hell's gate spread throughout the entirety of the otherworld and even into the mundane realm. To have that much evil released into the world at once affects every being on Earth, whether they understand it or not. Some of the Demon's plan becomes clear. Obviously, he wanted to open the hell's gate and needed a human to help him.

But now that the Demon's been destroyed, Castiel doesn't know if Dean's deal was part of his plan or not. It seems like a great deal of work just to release demons into the world. They will create havoc and ruin lives, no doubt. But to plan for that since Sam was a baby? It doesn't make sense to Castiel.

What does make sense to him is the satisfaction he feels when he learns it is Dean who killed the Demon. Revenge is not an angelic quality and so Castiel does not feel satisfaction for himself, but rather on Dean's behalf. It's doubtful Dean fully enjoyed it, but he earned that shot many years ago.

Halfway through Dean's remaining time, when Castiel and Uriel begin carefully investigating among demons, Israfel shows up.

"Brother," Castiel says, perplexed. "You're here."

"Of course I am," she says while nodding a greeting to Uriel. "I came as soon as we finished our battle. Zachariah seemed to think my presence is wasted here, but I managed to convince him I deserved a break."

"I made it clear I was coming whether he liked it or not," Castiel says and Israfel chuckles.

"A fine argument if I've ever heard one."

There is a moment where they just peer at each other, reveling at being back together. Then Israfel releases a strange half-swallowed sob and throws herself into Castiel's arms. Her wings curl around his shoulders as her arms wind round his waist and tug him close. But even sweeter is the way her familiar beloved Grace gathers around Dean's dirtied aching soul piece. There's no hesitation or disgust, just wave after wave of comforting loving Grace.

"I'm so sorry, Castiel," she says into his ear, her long thin hair brushing against his cheek.

She knows it’s hopeless too, Castiel is sure. It warms him greatly that she's willing to try regardless.

"We are losing time," Uriel reminds them. He looks befuddled by their interaction, but makes no comment on it as they all three take flight to continue Castiel's search.

The very first thing that happens then is that Castiel loses his sense of Dean.

He pauses in flight, ears pricked, listening hard to what his Grace is telling him. It's not the same feeling as when Dean nearly died. The soul piece isn't in danger. In fact, it seems as confused as Castiel, but with a blankness that worries him.

"What's wrong?" Uriel asks.

"I can't tell. It's like...it feels like Dean is missing."

"Missing?" Israfel and Uriel exchange a look. "What do you mean, 'missing'?" Israfel asks.

Castiel shakes his head. "I don't know. He's not dead or hurt. I just can't really tell where he is or what he's feeling."

"You mean like when you're a long distance from him?"

"No. Even then, even when I can't tell what he's feeling, I can tell he's somewhere. Now he just feels...cloaked," Castiel says helplessly.

He can't think of another way to describe it. Dean is simply gone. Castiel’s never felt this alone, not even from before he received Dean's soul piece. Feeling that kind of love, being completed in that manner and then having it ripped away leaves a void larger than what existed in his Grace before he met Dean.

"What could possibly hide him so effectively that even his angelic soul mate can't feel him?"

The answer to Uriel's question frightens all three of them, whether they admit to it or not. Even the Demon wasn't that powerful. Zachariah himself isn't that powerful.

"Our Father could," Castiel says softly.

Uriel scoffs. "Why would God hide Dean Winchester from you?"

"I don't know. I don't know why our Father does anything He does," Castiel admits. He can't quite keep the pain out of his tone. The ache is growing. It's different than the burning hurt of the demon's taint. Instead Castiel is simply numb and empty.

"We should go to where you last sensed him," Israfel suggests.

Castiel immediately agrees. He needs him back, even if the soul piece hurts Castiel to senselessness. Not having the pain means he doesn't have the love.

He needs Dean back.

Their search has barely begun when it abruptly ends. His sense of Dean explodes back across his senses, filling the void inside him so sweetly that Castiel is forced to drop out of flight. His Grace greedily pulls on Dean's soul, but it's not enough. Before he can stop to think, Castiel takes off again, shooting away as fast as he can. His brothers follow with protests on their lips, but Castiel doesn't care. He needs to see Dean. Just to see him and be close to his soul.

Castiel lands in a lot full of cars. Dean is pushing a luggage bag into the trunk of John's big black vehicle. It's been so long since Castiel has really seen Dean. The brief glimpse he got when the Demon took over the reaper's body was not nearly enough. Dean looks older than Castiel would have guessed. His cares have aged him. They weigh on him, making him as drained as Castiel feels.

None of that diminishes his beauty. Castiel will never understand if he truly finds Dean physically appealing or if it's just a side-effect of the soul piece, but he's certain he's never looked on anything that pleased him more than Dean Winchester.

"Come the fuck on, Sam," Dean yells as he slams the trunk shut.

Laughter bubbles up from Castiel's chest. Pleasing, yes. Polished, no. Dean is nothing, but rough edges and aggressive passion and Castiel's Grace can't get enough. He moves closer, carefully staying cloaked, but moving right beside Dean, so he can clearly see the brilliant green of Dean's eyes. His wings sweep up behind Dean's back and press against him.

Dean sighs and those compelling eyes fall shut.

"Dean," Castiel says.

"The fuck," Dean gasps, his voice breathy and wrecked.

The desire to uncloak and touch Dean's face, really touch him and feel the warmth of his skin is so strong that Castiel nearly gives in. The only reason he doesn't is because Sam chooses that moment to bang the door to their motel room shut. The sound snaps Castiel back to his senses.

"I'm coming, sheesh," Sam complains, but stops short when he spots the dazed look on Dean's face. "What's wrong? What happened?"

"Huh?" Dean shakes himself. "What? Nothing! Come on. Let's get the hell out of here."

Sam continues to question Dean, but Castiel isn't paying him attention. He's watching Dean so closely he doesn't miss it when Dean glances back to the spot he'd been standing and for the briefest of instances, looks straight into Castiel's eyes.

It's not the first time it's happened, but this time is so much more important than the time when Dean lay in Cassandra Robinson's bed. Joy thuds across the soul piece, wild and overwhelming, reminding Castiel of how immensely satisfying it feels to truly command Dean's attention, even if Dean doesn't realize it’s happening. He'd almost forgotten how good it could be. It's been nothing, but the bad part of their connection for so long that Castiel nearly forgot how thankful he was for Dean's soul piece.

This could be the last time Dean ever sees him.

"Make me leave," Castiel whispers. He's aware that Uriel and Israfel landed several moments ago. Blindly reaching out, Castiel's hand lands on Uriel's cloak sleeve. "Please. Make me leave him."

Together, Israfel and Uriel tug him away from Dean and Sam.

Along the way, Israfel tells Castiel that she sensed something powerful nearby, but couldn't understand what it was. Just that its power outweighs her own by a staggering margin. They decide not to pursue the being. It has let Dean go. Getting themselves killed won't help Dean at all.

They also decide directly confronting the demon following Dean and Sam's trail would bring unwanted attention to themselves. Not that Castiel wouldn't love to destroy her. He is extremely uncomfortable with her presence, though he is not quite as angry about it as Israfel.

"I don't understand why Sam doesn't destroy her," Israfel rages. "Demons cannot be trusted. He knows this. I don't understand what he's thinking."

"He's desperate," Castiel says. It's hard to be angry with Sam when he understands the feeling so well. "He would do anything and speak to anyone if it could save Dean."

"Yes, but she's a demon," Israfel says and Uriel makes a noise of agreement. "Sam knows better. I don't understand!"

He quietly listens to more ranting as they seek information from other demons. Most won't speak to them, but that doesn't stop them from trapping the demons and threatening them for information. When it becomes apparent that most won't cooperate, they take turns smiting them into non-existence. If nothing else, it's extremely fulfilling to eradicate these creatures from the Earthly realm.

Learning the name of Dean's deal holder is the easiest part. The name Lilith sparks recognition within Castiel, but it's Uriel who remembers her true origin.

"What horror did you stumble across when you found that soul piece?" he asks in apparent wonder after recounting Lilith's connection to their second oldest brother.

Castiel only shakes his head. It has always made him unspeakably sad to ponder on the downfall of Lucifer. He never had the chance to speak with their fallen brother and while he doesn’t feel a shred of sympathy for Lucifer's complaints, the pain his betrayal must have caused their Father saddens Castiel. As does the loss Michael suffered. So many of their oldest brothers are in hiding, removed from the Host, Castiel always assumed, in an effort to heal from that tragic fracture among the angelic ranks.

He can't begin to imagine what Lilith has to do with any of this and can only pray Lucifer has no part in it.

As their time runs out, Castiel feels himself growing more anxious. The knowledge that his mission is useless doesn't mean he isn't dreading Dean's impending demise. He spurs them on to greater risks, more potent demons and far more difficult smitings.

None of it matters. The demons aren't just unwilling to talk. They're unable. Even when they risk following the demon Ruby, they can't discover any information. No one knows where Lilith is and if they do, they aren't talking.

"Brother," Israfel says late one afternoon. "The day after tomorrow is-"

"I know," Castiel cuts her off.

"Even if we find Lilith, how could we convince her to give up Dean's soul?"

The answer is simple, but Castiel had been hoping she wouldn't ask. "Perhaps she's willing to make a trade."

The instant Israfel understands, she pushes close to him, her face inches from his and her gray eyes glowing with dismayed fury.

"You can't be serious," she spits.

"Surely an angel is worth more than a human," he says calmly.

"Of course you are," Uriel says, his wings tossing with anger. "Making this sacrifice would be as foolhardy the one Dean Winchester made."

"No, it wouldn't. Dean sold his soul for one simple year. I would be trading myself to keep Dean out of hell for eternity. That's a much better deal," he argues. It sounds perfectly rational in his mind. In all this time, Castiel's never been able to fully protect Dean. This way, he could finally help him.

"Castiel..." Israfel's horror makes it difficult for her to produce words. "You...if you...they would be merciless. It would be a hundred...a thousand times worse than when you captured by that demon. Forever." Her voice breaks. "Unending."

It's so easy to imagine, but it's not himself Castiel sees enduring the torment. It's Dean. His own beloved Dean he sees stretched on a rack, Dean's blood he sees dripping from countless wounds. His Grace curls tightly around Dean's soul piece, trying to banish that future through sheer force of will.

"I can't..." Castiel draws a deep breath. "If Dean is lost forever, I will be destroyed anyway. Best it just be me and not the both of us."

He refuses to listen to his brothers' arguments after that and focuses on trying to find Lilith.

She becomes rather easy to locate after she destroys a police station in a giant blaze.

Now that Dean's year is drawing to a close, Lilith comes out of hiding. Castiel has no doubt that she wants to draw Dean to her. But perhaps she doesn't count on drawing another group of beings altogether. While Dean and Sam struggle to make a plan, Castiel presents himself to Lilith.

Of course, he has to go around a veritable army of demons to get there. He and his brothers engage in all-out war with Lilith's minions. Castiel loses track of how many demons he kills. It feels right, like Castiel's old self, the pure angel he was, that only lived to obey his Father's will and destroy evil. Castiel is a warrior and it feels good to battle.

To that end, he is disappointed when Lilith calls off her followers and comes out of the home she's been hiding within. The vessel she's stolen is that of a young girl. An innocent child. Castiel burns with righteous anger. He is not powerful enough to destroy her, but he wonders if his power combined with Uriel's and Israfel's might be enough.

"I heard there were a bunch of meanie angels following after me," Lilith says with the voice of a petulant child. "Why don't you just go away?" she shouts.

Uriel makes a motion, as if to attack her, but Castiel holds out a hand. They have to be careful or they will end up dead and Dean will still go to hell.

"I have a proposition for you," Castiel says calmly. "A trade. Myself for Dean Winchester's soul."

Lilith scrunches her nose and sneers at him. "Why would I want a stinky old angel?"

"I have far more power than a simple human," he says, trying not to let his panic show on his face. "And I would be your willing prisoner. In hell, that would increase your strength, would it not?"

To his dismay, Lilith throws her head back and peals of laughter tear out from her small chest.

"Angels think they know everything," she says through her giggles. "You have no idea. Dean is my toy and I'm not giving him up for anything!"

Her words signal the end of any hope Castiel carried for Dean. Even if he couldn't sense her absolute refusal to lose Dean's soul, Castiel knows there's no dealing with demons. They'd hold onto something that could hurt them just to spite an angel. All the fear, anger and despair he's been holding at bay comes crashing into his Grace and for the first time in his existence, Castiel loses control of himself. He honestly has no idea what he's doing, just that it feels violent and thrilling, an amazing relief to fight with the strength of his emotion rather than the depth of his faith. He thinks Lilith flees the scene, but there are demons aplenty to kill and Castiel plunges into the swirling mass of darkness. Sparks of light at his sides tell him that Uriel and Israfel fight alongside him.

When the demons suddenly withdraw, the reason why immediately becomes apparent.

Castiel's Grace is being ripped apart.

That's what it feels like. Like his very essence is being torn away, shredded into jagged useless pieces. He stumbles to the ground, reaching out for what, he doesn't know, but he pulls Israfel down with him. The soul piece burns inside him as Dean's beautiful loving soul is sliced and mutilated. He had thought the pain of Dean's near-death was the worst he'd ever felt. But this…this isn't even pain.

It's agony.

Not just physical hurt, but spiritual death. The beginning of never-ending torment and Castiel knows, he understands right then in that moment as Dean draws his last breath that he will feel every second of it.

"Israfel," he gasps. "Please. We have...I have to do something..."

Israfel grips his arms. The helplessness on her face tears at Castiel, angers him.

"I don't know what we can do," she whispers. "We can't go after him into hell."

Castiel stiffens. Realization pours over him in thick heady waves and to Israfel's apparent shock, Castiel laughs. The soul piece trembles. Fine lines crack along its brittle surface as Dean dies and Castiel just keeps laughing.

"Castiel." Israfel shakes him. "You're scaring me."

He struggles to his feet, using Israfel as a crutch. There's so much pain Castiel can barely see through his blurry vision, but it doesn't matter anymore because he finally blessedly understands. It was never about the relationship. That was just a pleasant side effect.

This. This is the reason Castiel received Dean's soul piece.

"Don't you see?" Castiel knows he must seem crazy, his eyes wild with the relief of finally knowing. Certainly Israfel and Uriel's expressions imply that he doesn't seem himself. He clutches Israfel's arms.

"We can go after him."

"No, brother. No," Israfel denies. "We'd be destroyed and we'd never find him in the mass."

"Twenty-nine years and only a few hours of it did I ever not know where Dean Winchester was," Castiel says. "You once told me that our Father hadn't created anything more powerful than free will."

"As evidenced by the failure of our mission," she interjects.

"You were wrong," Castiel says with such conviction Israfel reels back a step. "Dean Winchester is mine. I can find him anywhere. Even in the Pit."

"You can't seriously be thinking of descending into Hell," Uriel says, stepping into the argument. Unlike Israfel, he doesn't seem worried or upset. Instead, he is merely thoughtful, as if simply pondering the likelihood of Castiel's success.

"I would rather perish in the flames than not try."

With that straightforward statement, Castiel shoots up through the Heavens.

The pain he feels only continues to grow. Dean's torment transmits itself into Castiel's Grace with such clarity, he might as well be alongside Dean on the torturer's rack. Whatever being is hurting Dean must be attempting to cut down to Dean's very core. The intrusion digs into Dean, the echo into Castiel and he can't move fast enough. Even a moment of this molten hot agony is far too much for Dean to suffer. Castiel must retrieve him before Dean loses his sense of self.

The first place he goes is his old office for his supplies. Rarely has Castiel had need of these particular items, a gleaming sword of fire and a plate of armor blessed by Raphael himself while he still roamed the Heavens. The battles he fights on the Outer Realm will seem paltry in comparison to the war he is about to wage on Hell itself. There will be many demons that meet their end on the edge of his blade. Castiel smiles grimly as he sharpens it.

"Brother."

Israfel stands at his door, her expression tense.

"You can't stop me," he warns her.

"I have no wish to stop you," she says. "I want to help. As does Uriel."

Uriel stands at her back and they both wear identical stubborn expressions.

"You can't be risked," he says, shaking his head. "I will be protected by my connection to Dean, but-"

"And we don't share a connection? If your love for Dean can protect you, then our love for you can protect us."

It's the fact that these words come from Uriel rather than Israfel that keeps the argument off Castiel's tongue. He looks away, unable to speak and unwilling to waste time finding his voice. Instead, he only nods and continues to work on his blade. He hears them both leave, presumably to retrieve their own weapons. It seems to take an age to prepare his equipment, but finally, he is satisfied that it will survive the Pit. He turns to leave, but his eye catches on something and he pauses.

Reaching down, Castiel gently tugs Mr. Squirrel out of his hiding place on the side of his chair. The little doll is only a ragged piece of fluff, but it radiates a sense of Dean. Castiel holds it up to his face, rubs his cheek against the soft fake fur.

"I'm coming," he murmurs.

He returns the doll to its holding place and with one last lingering look, spins away and marches out to meet his brothers.

They are waiting for him at the edge of the Silver City.

"Zachariah will stop us before we get there," Uriel says.

Castiel very pointedly stabs the end of his sword into the ground and meets Uriel's gaze.

"Let him try."

"Are we ready?" Israfel asks.

Castiel's answer is lost as a new kind of anguish overtakes Dean's soul piece. This pain is not physical. It speaks of betrayal and rejection, an excruciating sense of abandonment.

"Are you alright?"

"No." Castiel voice sounds thick and odd in his own ears, like he is underwater. "The memories. They found them."

He looks up into Israfel's worried gray eyes.

"Israfel," he says sadly. "Dean's remembered everything."

Chapter Text

At first, Dean can’t stop screaming.

Knowing that being in hell would suck and actually experiencing it are two very different things. For all that he spent his life fighting against the slimy bastards that crawled out of the Pit, Dean is no way prepared for the reality of being here himself.

After his body is ripped to shreds by grotesque hounds with giant dripping fangs, Dean wakes up in a storm. Banks of thick oily fog wash over him and the first sensation he registers is abject loneliness. Without really understanding how, Dean knows he's completely and utterly alone. Abandoned and isolated from any measure of love and comfort.

He screams for Sam.

In his mind, in that small part of himself that isn't paralyzed by the pain and terror, Dean knows yelling for his brother won't help him. But he can't stop himself. All he wants is to leave, to return to the unending battle. He'll take the danger and the worry about Sam and the nagging sensation that he's missing something over this unbearable pain.

His body is run through with what feels like heated metal wires. One such wire is struck through where his heart would be if this were his real body and every time his phantom heart beats, it pulses acid through non-existent veins. For awhile Dean tries to tell himself that it's a mental state. He only feels the pain in this form because his mind still thinks it has a body. So all the while his mouth is continually shouting Sam's name, his mind is on a constant loop.

This isn't real. It's not real. I'm not real.

Hell doesn't work like that.

Every so often a blackened cloud will roll over and around him. A demon or group of demons. They laugh at Dean's desperate yelling. Their ice cold fingers clutch at him, searing agony into vulnerable skin that feels so very real. Sometimes they grip so hard his bones break. The ragged white edges rip through his skin and the demons grind the bones into dust. His injuries always heal, but it doesn't matter. While one wound is melting away, another is stealing his breath and attention. The pain pounds and pounds and throbs harder and more and it will never ever stop.

Dean has no idea how long he's been in hell, but one moment, there is a mass of demons chewing on his flesh and the next they scatter in the wake of something powerful. Even Dean, in his mindless state, can tell this demon is far stronger than those who've been tormenting him. It sweeps over his body and under him until it reappears on the opposite side.

It revolves into the outline of a man.

That is different. The demons have fingers to break and teeth to tear, but they haven't taken a human appearance. Dean wants to ask what's happening, but he can't stop screaming. Sam's name over and over, becoming muddled, but still a hopeless plea for his brother to save him.

The demon clamps a hand over his mouth to stop the sound. It leans down and, to Dean's vague surprise, presses a nose against his chest and inhales deeply.

"I know this scent," it says in a voice of rust and broken glass. It looks at Dean with red glowing eyes and grins.

"You reek of angel, boy," the demon says.

Then he plunges his free hand into Dean's chest.

Dean's head snaps back as fresh waves of agony break over him. This pain is at another level. It's not in his physical body, imagined or otherwise. It goes deeper, further inside him, climbing inside his mind. At first, Dean can't understand what's happening to him. All he knows is a rising tide of pain, those moments right before normal pain would start to recede, but this only grows inside.

Realization pours another level of horror over him.

The demon is touching his soul.

More than touching. It's digging. Tearing at Dean's real self, the only part that's really here and if he thought this would be better than torment to an imagined body, he was vastly mistaken. If the pain isn't bad enough, the violation would ensure the experience is elevated to the very worst of Dean's existence. Every thought he's ever had, every memory is on display for this evil son of a bitch.

The demon abruptly pulls its hand away.

"It's the same, I'm sure of it," it says conversationally. It licks its fingers and moans softly. "Oh yes. The one that got away."

It pats Dean's chest as if he were a beloved pet. Each touch burns white hot.

"You know, the angel robbed me of all that delicious Grace," it says. "But you have an echo of it right here." Its smile frightens Dean more than anything else he's ever known. "All for me."

"What," Dean murmurs, trying to understand, to make sense through his terror. "What're you talking about?"

The question manages to surprise the demon, or so Dean thinks. Its red eyes and dark slash of a mouth make it difficult to understand what it's thinking.

"You don't know, do you?" The demon dives under him again and pops up on the other side, frowning down at him. "The angel's made a claim on you. How could you not know?"

"Don't..." Dean draws in a labored breath. "Don't believe in angels."

The demon breaks into peals of laughter that sound like deep iron bells.

"Oh yes, you do, human," it says. "You're in love with one."

A small degree of Dean's old stubbornness returns. He can't fight against the demons gnawing on him day and night, but Dean knows this isn't true. Angels aren't real and even if they are, Dean's such as fuck never met one.

"No," he protests weakly. "M'not."

"Well, your soul is," the demon says, as if that were an acceptable concession. Dean opens his mouth to argue again, but the demon straightens up and talks over him. "Either way, it hardly matters. No angel is descending into hellfire for any one human. Certainly not one they already abandoned. But if they're going to throw this wonderful gift into the Pit, who am I to refuse?"

It claps its hands.

"A change of scenery is needed, I think," it says right before it jerks the wire out of Dean's chest.

He starts screaming again.

The demon lets him get on with it this time as it plucks all the hot wires from his body, tearing great bloody chunks of Dean's flesh along with them. By the time it's finished, half of Dean's body has been shredded by the sharpened edges of the wires.

"Let's get you home," the demon says.

Dean doesn't feel himself moving or the healing that obviously happens in the interim, but when he finally stops screaming again, he's stretched out on a hard surface in what looks like a cave and his body is whole once more. The walls are close on either side and the ceiling is low. Of all the pains he's suffered, Dean is almost amused when claustrophobia sets in. As if he thought there was any chance of escape before. Being suddenly afraid of this closed-in space is pretty ridiculous.

"Welcome to my chambers," the demon says.

It holds up an iron cuff.

"You'll forgive me for being a little paranoid," it says as it dips the cuff into a weird black liquid that shines and clings to the cuff. "I'm not eager to lose track of the scent again."

It attaches the cuff to a long metal chain and then closes it over Dean's ankle. Nothing happens. Dean can't lift his leg, but the liquid doesn't do anything. He watches as the demon dips three more cuffs, one for his remaining leg and two for his wrists.

"It might take a minute to set in," the demon says cheerfully.

Within his chest, a dull ache begins to grow. It takes Dean awhile to understand it's the effect of the black liquid starting to take its toll. He's shocked the pain isn't worse. This discomfort is but a shadow of the pain he's experienced so far.

The demon walks to a nearby shelf cut into the reddened walls and picks up a curved black blade that seems to suck light out of its surroundings.

"I don't know if you have any actual Grace or if you've just got residual on you," it says as it returns to Dean's side. It holds up the blade. "This will help me find out."

Dean's eyes move with the blade as the demon waves it slowly from side to side. It turns away and walks around Dean's body to the other side of the room to a table he hadn't yet noticed. The demon lifts a thick white stone and begins sharpening the blade. Dean's breaths pick up. He can't imagine what the demon's going to do with the knife. Before it visited him, Dean could guess at the level of the coming pain. He thought he knew how bad it could hurt.

Now he has no idea.

"You know the first rule of torture, Dean?"

Dean jumps. Obviously he knows the demon rooted around inside his thoughts, but hearing his name said in that scratched-up inhuman tone lends an intimacy to this situation that adds to his revulsion.

"No," he grunts.

"Don't underestimate the power of anticipation," the demon says in a lecturing tone. It smiles over its shoulder and picks up a piece of cloth to shine the blade. "Humans are uniquely talented in the arena of imagination and the resulting fear is so enchanting."

"Yeah, well, I'm so fucking happy to help," Dean growls.

He has no idea where it comes from, but hearing his own sarcastic tone gives Dean a boost of strength. Not enough to fight off the crushing loneliness and cruel longing for a soothing touch, but it is enough to keep him from drowning in his terror.

The demon seems to appreciate the effort.

"Ah, I knew you'd be a fun one, Dean," it purrs. "The angels might be assholes, but they aren't stupid. They only pick the very finest for their little crusades."

"Told you," Dean spits. "Don't know any goddamned angels."

Across the room it comes, too swiftly for Dean's eyes and it whips the blade around its side.

"We'll see about that," it says.

Whatever came before were just preliminaries. Just a simple taste, a ghost of what was to come.

This is hell.

As the demon's blade slices into his soul, Dean redefines his understanding of pain. This hurts inside and through him. He can’t think away any bit of it because it climbs into his center, his very essence. The damage left behind by that razor sharp edge won't ever be healed. The demon presses the knife deeper, shaving away a layer of soul and carefully peeling it back.

"A piece for mommy and a piece for daddy," the demon chants as it peers into the mess it’s made. Dean can't even yell or maybe he is yelling, but he just can't hear it. All his senses focus on the hurt, the throbbing black agony. White-hot. Ice-cold. His raw and bloody soul.

The demon points the tip of the knife onto something and pushes in. The image of his father's face springs to mind. Dark with disappointment as Dean fails some practice drill. Contorted in anger as he rocks Sam after Dean nearly let the striga take his brother's life. Lined with sadness as Sam walks out on their life. Oddly regretful as he leans over and tells Dean he might have to kill his baby brother.

And a thousand others. A montage of the very worst of John Winchester, every time Dean let him down or pissed him off, all rolled into one long agonizing show.

"Ah, yes, I remember Daddy," the demon says. "But who could forget one of their finest students? I wasn’t pleased to lose him,” it says with a vicious twist of its blade. “I wondered how long it would be before one of you boys made it down here. Never imagined you’d be such a fine prize."

It doesn't matter that Dean's being presented everything he always hated about his father. The idea of John down in this misery hurts Dean so deeply that the intensity of that emotion manages to overwhelm the pain crowded into the torn edges of his soul.

The demon makes a thoughtful noise.

"You are an unusual human, Dean Winchester," it comments.

It moves the object it'd touched in Dean's soul aside with the tip of the knife and hums quietly to itself as it searches through Dean's soul.

"Aha!" It finally exclaims. "Here's Mommy's piece. Oh my my, it looks likes Mommy's piece has mated with Baby Brother's. How very incestuous of them."

"Don't you fucking talk about my family," Dean rasps. He finds his way to another emotion besides grief and fear. "Shut your goddamned mouth."

"Look at the size of it," the demon marvels, seemingly unaffected by Dean's anger. It rubs at its chin and Dean could swear it looks worried.

"There won't be much left for the angel."

Again with the angel. Dean wants to reach out and ring the demon's neck, even lifts his hands till they are stopped by the cuffs. He wants to press the truth into the demon's mind through force. It's bad enough to be tortured, but to be tortured over something that's not even real enrages Dean.

But he can't make an argument. The demon starts cutting again and Dean's mind is filled with pictures of those he loves most when they hurt him worst. Mary's death. Cassie's rejection. Sam leaving him. Bobby ordering John, and through him Dean and Sam, out of his life. John dying.

Sam dying.

Over and over, the demon pokes and cuts at the large object he identified as belonging to Sam and Mary, trying to find something. Time and again, Dean sees Sam's death. Played out in visuals and emotions. He sees Jake coming up behind Sam and feels a swell of helplessness. He sees Sam fall to his knees and is knocked over by the crushing weight of despair.

The begging starts.

"Please," he mumbles. "Please, stop. I can't...it's too much. Please."

The demon ignores him. It digs and slices, its motions growing more frantic as it rips apart Dean's soul in search of something it's clearly not finding.

"This doesn't make sense," the demon growls. "I smell him in you. I know you belong to the angel."

"Please," Dean whimpers.

The demon stabs hard into his soul and they both startle when it hits something else. Another object that doesn't feel anything like those connected to Dean's loved ones. This new object is more pliant, gives more to the demon's knife. Bending without breaking.

A smile twists the demon's mouth.

"Here we go."

It begins working on the new object. The point of the knife pushes into the object without reprieve. The demon leans on the knife, attempting to gore the object on the end of his tool, but it doesn't work. Whatever the object is, it's extremely strong.

"Nothing in creation like angels' Grace," the demon says when it finally steps back from his knife. The break doesn't stop the intense throb of fiery pain in Dean's chest.

While the demon considers Dean, apparently deciding its next move, there's a commotion at the entrance to the demon's cave. Dean's too lost in pain to register what's happening, but he does experience a very tiny measure of relief when the demon's face leaves his line of sight. He's not stupid enough to believe the demon's going to leave him for long, but it's the first thing that's happened to him since he died that could count as good, so Dean resolves to enjoy it.

The demon returns all too soon and when he does, his expression is pleased.

"I bet you're wondering what that was all about," it says and then laughs when Dean only stares blankly at it. "Of course you weren't. The only thing you can think about is the pain."

It slides close to him, moving with liquid grace that sickens Dean and sidles up to him, leaning down to speak in Dean's ear.

"That pain could go away, Dean," it whispers, soft and enticing. A serpent, promising lies, but Dean can't help turning towards him and it's the hope that's more painful than anything he's experienced in hell so far.

"What?" he pleads. "How?"

The demon lifts the blade to Dean's face.

"So simple, Dean. Just take my knife. Take all that pain and all the sweet fear and turn it on another. Slice another soul for me and I promise your pain will end," it croons, almost singing quietly to Dean, promising such exquisite relief.

"No," Dean moans as his hope crashes down, wiped away and leaving a deeper hurt in its place.

"No?" The demon doesn't sound all that surprised. "But they'll be tortured anyway, Dean. They're evil and they deserve their fate."

It doesn't matter that it's probably true. Dean's no innocent, but there could be others who don't really deserve to be here. Some poor misguided schmuck who sold his soul to help someone else. Dean can't fathom taking up a knife and tormenting any soul like he's been tormented, but the idea that it might be a true innocent makes his refusal absolute.

"No."

"Ah, well, suit yourself. I'll ask again soon and we'll see how you feel then," the demon says.

It returns to work. While it pays close attention to that object it can't breach, the demon doesn't neglect any avenue of pain. It rips and tears at the body Dean's mind created as much as it does the soul underneath. At the start of each torture session, the demon cuts off Dean's eyelids, so he can't hide from the suffering. He then begins to slice at Dean's flesh and muscle, all the while describing the best way to draw excruciating pain from a human form. Very much against his will, Dean begins to pick up techniques. He learns that it hurts far more to shave thin layers of muscle rather than just stabbing a knife into one. He discovers that slowly twisting a needle into an eyeball is worse than plucking it out altogether. Cut veins open along a parallel line rather than cutting straight through them. Let stab wounds heal in order to inflict them again, but let burnt flesh fester and decay. Crack bones and then apply pressure so they grate against each other before then crushing them into powder.

The demon's method for torturing the soul itself is harder to understand because that's when Dean's mind enters a state of panic and distress that's impossible to think through. Each time the demon hits one of the strange objects in his soul, Dean sees his family and friends. Some memories are real. Others are hallucinations created by a combination of his grieving mind and the demon's ingenuity. Dean sees his father brutally murder his mother. He sees Bobby lift a gun to his own head and pull the trigger. He sees himself in the demon's place and it's Sam he's torturing, his own beloved Sam begging for Dean to stop, please stop, Dean, why, why are you doing this and it never fails to make tears spring to his bloodied eyes.

In the middle of the sessions, at the height of Dean's agony, the demon asks him.

"Will you take up a knife against another?"

Each time, Dean clings harder to his negation. Sometimes it feels like that it's all he has left. The only thing Dean has to fight the demon and he's determined to keep it.

It doesn't take long to lose count of the sessions. For all Dean knows, he just arrived in hell or it could have been years already. His existence becomes long stretches of anguish divided by that one simple question.

Until one session when the demon finally says something that's not its lessons or the question.

"Such a disappointment," it says with a sigh.

Dean swallows hard. He's been screaming again and it takes him a moment to work the words through his throat.

"So fucking s'rry," he whispers.

"This isn't Grace at all," the demon says as if Dean hadn't spoken.

It hardly matters to Dean. He's given up on the whole business about angels and this Grace shit, whatever it is. In all other ways, the demon seems lucid and in control, but it's still a demon and it can't be trusted.

"Whatev'r," Dean sighs.

The demon frowns and leans down, getting so close Dean feels the heat of its skin inside his chest. A shudder of disgust rolls down his body, followed by a burst of pain as Dean's broken shoulder bones grind together.

"Oh," it says excitedly. "I see! It's a cache! Sealed by Grace. Very clever, angel. Very smart."

The demon pokes at the object. It's weaker than before. Hardly surprising since the demon's been digging at it for awhile now. The object aches in Dean's soul, but the pain's nothing compared to what else he's experienced.

"Yeah," Dean says and he manages a weak snort. "Way to go, angel."

For some reason, his sarcasm angers the demon. Its bright eyes snap to Dean's face and it glowers, power gathering around its form with the force of its emotion.

"It's about time you believed me, kiddo," it snarls.

The demon thrusts its blade into the object as hard as it can.

The protective skin of the object gives way. The very tip of the knife pierces through and for a brief moment, nothing happens.

Then the object bursts open.

Dean is transported. He is looking up into strength and safety. He is held close in arms that will never drop him, gently touched by hands that will never hurt him. About him, all Dean sees is white. Blinding white. So clean and pure. Gleaming bright feathers closed around his body and face and Dean is warm and protected.

The image flashes to deep black-green eyes, shot through with gold. Glowing with love unlike any Dean could possibly have imagined. Such powerful love, it's almost painful to look on, but the ache is eased by understanding that Dean loves this being just as well. This tall imposing figure with a slight smile and long honey-brown hair, clad in a robe Dean can still feel soft against his small hands.

In his mind, he hears a smooth melodious voice, dark and masculine, but falling lightly on his ears.

Hello, Dean.

Star wars. It sounds dangerous.

Everything will fine. I’ll take care of you.

It’s true that you must share me, but I will confess, you are my favorite human.

I love you, Dean

"Cas," Dean sobs.

Tears fall freely down either side of his face. The longing he's never understood wells up inside his soul and is defined, narrowed to a target. It turns to unbearable yearning, a vicious craving for the angel he's not seen since he was four years old. The want is so strong Dean can't feel anything else, even the demon. He wants Cas. Wants to see him and touch his slender face. Pull those huge elegant wings around his body and melt into Cas' embrace. He wants to lay his cheek on Cas' chest and feel the rumble of his words as Cas tells Dean he loves him over and over and over again.

He never will.

Cas removed his presence from Dean's life. Years ago, long before Dean condemned himself to eternal separation from light and love, Cas took his comforting touch away. Their last night together the same as Mary's death, Dean remembers leaning into Cas' arms and crying so hard and so long. He remembers needing Cas' strength then and he remembers after, when he had to make up his own strength. All those times Cas was there for him and Mary and for Sammy and then there was no one. Sam too young to understand, John lost in his grief and Cas just simply gone. Dean's best friend, the love of his life found so early only to lose him a few short joyous years later.

Dean can't wrap his mind around it, can't stop crying long enough to reason through his memories. All he knows is that Cas left him and it hurts so bad, so goddamned bad that the demon doesn't even bother torturing him just then because there's nothing that could feel worse than this rejection and abandonment.

Hours or days later, a rough hand slides over his cheeks, wiping at the flow of tears. Dean flinches away from the touch, but the demon grips his chin, turning Dean to look into his scarlet eyes.

"He threw you away, Dean," it says gently. "Tossed you aside like trash and I know it hurts. You could make so much of the pain go away. You could hurt him, Dean."

"W-what?" Dean stutters, honestly confused by the demon's logic.

"I tortured him, you know," the demon says, leaning on one elbow as it lovingly gazes down at him and Dean feels too much sorrow to indulge anger at the confession. "Just think of how much it would hurt him to know you did the same thing to others. He would know. He'd feel it because he's got a bit of you inside his Grace, a bit of this," the demon says as he draws a fingertip along the torn edge of Dean's soul.

"He'd know and it'd hurt him just as much as he hurt you."

The demon slowly smiles.

"Will you take up a knife against another, Dean?"

It's so easy to imagine. Dean sees Cas' gorgeous green eyes go wide with shock and grief, sees him clutch at his chest and sway on his feet, overwhelmed by grief and distress. Dean could hurt him so badly. Just by taking that knife, Dean could deliver a weighty blow.

Dean's seen Cas hurt before. When he returned from the demon's torment, after that first long absence. The night Mary died as he barked at Dean to take Sam out into the yard. Looking into memories presented so clearly to him, Dean now sees the edge of grief in Cas' eyes as he came to say goodbye.

He said goodbye.

"You d-don't understand humans at all," Dean says faintly.

"What's that?" The demon frowns down at him. "What do you mean?"

Cas left him, but in all those years, Dean can't remember a single time when Cas didn't look at him with love. All Cas ever offered him was happiness and protection. He didn't fake it. Dean knows he didn't, can't believe he could.

The demon clamps a hand around the edge of Dean's soul and twists.

"I said, what do you mean?"

"Fuck you!" Dean spits with sudden strength. "Fuck you with a fucking screwdriver, asshole! I'm not picking up your goddamned knife!"

The demon reels back from this surprising passion. It flickers to its natural smoky state and rolls over Dean to reappear on the other side, clearly agitated.

"Why not, Dean? The angel's not coming. If he cared about you, he'd have come for you long before you sold your soul, so why not give him pain? Why try to save him from that?"

Dean doesn't want to answer, actually bites down hard on his tongue so he won't speak, but the demon knows how to draw words just as well pain. It twists the knife into the broken pieces of the memory cache, the pieces touched by Cas' Grace.

"Why?" it demands and Dean's answer spills across his lips.

"I won't become his enemy," he pants. "I won't become like you."

There's no question in his mind. If Dean takes up the knife, he will slowly, but surely evolve into a demon. His humanity will be erased like Ruby's was and someday, long from now, but eventually, Dean'll find a way to sneak out of hell. He'll get out and if he ever meets Cas again, the angel will destroy him.

If Dean becomes a demon, he'll lose Castiel's love forever.

"Never," Dean murmurs.

The demon sighs and picks up his knife.

"I'll ask you again soon," it says and the torture starts anew.

Dean has no way of knowing it, but his first week in hell has just ended.

This is just the beginning.

Chapter Text

Zachariah finds them before they cross over the Outer Realm. Castiel doesn't bother arguing with him. Words are useless at this point. Dean is suffering. Castiel's Grace is under constant assault and the pain he feels is only a fraction of that which Dean must feel. Time is precious and Castiel will not consult with any other authority than his own in this manner.

"You mistake my intentions," Zachariah says in response to Castiel's silent challenge. "I have no desire to stop you. I've only come to ask you to report back to me when you've saved the soul."

That surprises Castiel. He did not think Zachariah would in any way approve or condone this mission. But his surprise is not enough impetus to delay his course of action.

As he passes around Zachariah, however, his superior says something that Castiel can't help, but pause to consider.

"I wish you luck, brother. I fear you won't like what you find."

"What do you mean?" Castiel demands as a shiver of dread creeps down to his wingtips.

"When the time comes, they shall discover the seals and the seals shall number sixty and six," Zachariah quotes, his blue eyes glowing with the power of the ancient words he speaks. "And the righteous man in hell shall break the first seal."

The fact that Castiel doesn't recognize the prophecy informs him of its immense importance. But he can't parse its meaning. The only thing he does know, the only certainty curling hard and unyielding around his Grace is that Zachariah has known about the prophecy for quite some time and believes wholeheartedly that it refers to Dean.

"What does it mean?"

"I can't honestly tell you," Zachariah says. Castiel understands Zachariah means he does not wish to tell him rather than that he cannot. "But what I can tell you is that it's about Dean Winchester and when he breaks, I don't really know what's going to be left of him."

"How can you be sure it's about him?" Castiel demands.

A malicious smile creeps onto the corner of Zachariah's mouth.

"A righteous man," he says, holding his arms out to either side. "What soul could be more righteous than that which commands the holy Grace of one of God's angels?"

That's not the way it works. Zachariah would never even try to understand that Castiel chose to answer the call of Dean's soul, just as he chose not to answer it in those times Dean's cries for him went unanswered. But it doesn't matter. Whatever those seals are protecting, whatever it means for Dean to break, it only adds more pressure to find Dean quickly. Without another word or glance at Zachariah, Castiel takes flight once more, tugging his wings close to his body and rocketing through the air at speeds his brothers obviously find difficult to match judging by Israfel's calls to him.

Castiel chooses not to answer those either.

Hell is a physical place. There are entrances to it on the Earthly plane, like the one opened the night Sam died. Other gates open into the between and of course, there are numerous openings in the Dark Realm. These are not the gates Castiel seeks. On the very edge of the Outer Realm, just before the powerful evil of the Dark Realm seizes control, there is a hell's gate. It is the same gate that has been causing the angels problems for as long as Dean's life. This is the gate that cracked open and spilled forth an invading army, one of which captured and tortured Castiel all those years ago. It's the only gate in an area dominated by angelic power. Not in the Heavenly realm, but close enough to feel the strength of God's holy fire. Of all the gates' locations, this area is where Castiel and his brothers will be the strongest.

Not that it matters. The battle fury growing in Castiel's Grace could carry him past the iron bars of the deepest hell's gate in the Dark Realm.

There is a risk in choosing this path. Crossing the Outer Realm is a lengthy journey. Castiel cannot know how much time it will translate into for Dean, but they need to preserve their Grace for the battles within Hell. It's a risk they are going to have to take.

Their flight is a long and silent one and when it’s finally over, Castiel pauses at the edge of the Outer Realm for his brothers to rejoin him.

"Are you ready?" he asks them.

Israfel steps up to his right side and despite his single-minded focus, for a brief instant, Castiel is awestruck by her fierce beauty. Her long fine blond hair clouds around her head, tossed to and fro by a stiff wind and her breast is covered with a steely silver shield that outshines even the brilliance of her snow white wings. In her slender hands, she carries a terrifying blade of fire and copper, blessed to deadly sharpness by the hands of their long-lost brother, Gabriel. Her gray eyes are hardened by determination and righteous anger.

"I'm ready to return Dean Winchester to his brother," she confirms.

On his left side, Castiel feels Uriel approach and turning to him, Castiel is no less awed by his brother's radiance. This is Uriel's element and the prospect of battle sparks enthusiasm deep in his jewel-bright eyes. The sword in his hand is a twin to the one Castiel carries, a blade lovingly created and blessed by their brother Raphael. He lifts it and to Castiel's surprise, quirks the edge of his mouth in a sharp grin.

"I'm ready to retrieve the soul," he says in a low growl.

Castiel returns his attention to the gate and as one, the three angels strike the very foundations of Hell.

The surprise of their attack eases the start of their battle. The gate is not constantly guarded by demons or any other creature. Demons use the gate to escape their prison. Rarely is the gate used to press into hell and so they are initially met with little resistance. The hardest part of forcing past the tall rusted iron rods that form the gate itself is the unexpectedly devastating loss of connection with their Father. Castiel knew intellectually that God is absent from Hell, but that knowledge is nothing compared to the experience. His intrinsic connection to the Host fades to a mere whisper in the back of his mind, a tenuous thread to light and safety.

"I didn't think it would be this bad," Israfel says breathlessly.

There's no time to respond before they are set upon by a swarming cloud of demons. The creatures are no more happy to see angels in their domain than the angels were to have demons attacking Heaven. Yet even as the demons assail their small group, Castiel senses their confusion. One demon splits from its fellows, allows its body to create a humanoid shape and approaches Castiel with hatred in its glowing yellowed eyes.

"Why are you here, Angel?" it snarls, but Castiel hears the genuine curiosity in its tone.

"You have something that belongs to me," he informs the creature before slicing through its torso with his flaming blade.

The demons come and come and time becomes meaningless as Castiel loses himself in battle.

Eventually, Israfel and Uriel move ahead of Castiel, both striking out with their weapons and with their Hell-dampened Grace, felling demons with each step. Castiel takes the unspoken offer to withdraw from battle and concentrate on the soul piece he carries. As soon as Castiel turns his attention to the piece, he realizes their connection has been numbed by the unending torture being visited upon Dean. Not because their connection is actually weaker, but rather because Castiel has unconsciously turned his awareness from it. And maybe it was necessary before, to give him a clear mind for decision making, but now Castiel wraps his Grace fully around the piece, gathers it close and follows along the invisible band that stretches from his essence to Dean's soul.

Castiel understands quickly that it will be even harder to find Dean than he anticipated. Hell does not have the clear delineations of Heaven or even those of Earth. Hell is Chaos, a sickening jumble of demonic spirits and condemned souls that are slowly losing grasp of their humanity. Castiel's urgency grows ever more pressing. He must find Dean's soul before he loses the ability to recognize it. The faint tug on his Grace comes from below, further in the roiling mass and without thought, Castiel plunges downward, past walls blackened by fire and lined with bones. The holy light of his sword cuts through the dismal greenish glow that pervades Hell. The light both attracts and repels demons. Castiel loses count of how many of the creatures he destroys with sword and Grace, but as he flies ever further down, he notices the black swarm lessening.

It's a retreat.

He pauses in flight and turns suddenly into a small cavern. Without having to tell her, Israfel seals over the entrance with her Grace.

"Can you sense him, brother?" Uriel asks. Despite the gloom of their surroundings and the ferocity of their battle, Castiel is nonetheless surprised by the state of his brothers' cloaks. They are torn and sticky with traces of Grace seeping from deep wounds. The flow is heavier than what angels typically experience in normal battles. The atmosphere of hell and the loss of connection with anything Holy must be affecting their Grace. Castiel's worry increases another notch.

"Yes, faintly. How long have we been battling?"

Israfel shakes her head.

"I cannot tell. Time does not move here as it does on Earth or in Heaven," she answers. The entirety of her left sleeve has been ripped to shreds and beneath it, her normally smooth skin is marred with deep scrapes. Without thought, Castiel drifts closer to her and lays his hand on her injured arm, but before he can allow healing Grace to flow into her aura, Israfel pulls away.

"Don't, brother," she says. "We won't be able to restore our Grace while we're here. You need to keep your strength to retrieve Dean."

Her wisdom doesn't make leaving her in pain any easier for Castiel. He concentrates on the faint tug in his chest and the oppression of continued torment on Dean's soul piece. Whatever pain they feel or injuries they acquire, it's nothing to what Dean is still experiencing and may have been experiencing for years.

Pausing here any longer is a mistake. Castiel steps up to the door and peers past Israfel's Grace seal.

"We should continue in this direction," he says, pointing towards a vast bog. Sickly green mist rises from the pit that squirms with both demon and damned soul alike. Israfel unseals the cavern and the angels take flight, passing over the swamp, stopping occasionally to fight off a creature that reaches for them, mesmerized by their blinding weapons and vibrant cloaks. It seems to Castiel that the bog grows ever wider the longer they fly over it. His connection to Dean's soul becomes dimmer and Castiel can't tell if it's because Dean himself is growing weaker or because of their surroundings.

Halfway across the swamp, they are beset by demons once more and their battle begins anew. Even though all three angels are used to prolonged fighting, the way time progresses in Hell confounds Castiel. When a new demon attacks, Castiel feels as if the fight before it lasted only moments, but during each battle, it seems like years pass. He does not feel fatigued, but his Grace begins slowly dwindling as he expends it on dispatching his enemies and his body sustains more and more damage. During the infinitesimal pauses between each attack, Castiel glances at his brothers and sees that they are experiencing the same gradual decline.

They need to pass through this horde.

"Israfel," he calls out. "Join with me."

She doesn't need further explanation. This tactic is one they used during their time patrolling beyond the Outer Realm. It will speed the drain on their Grace significantly, but Castiel would rather quickly spend Grace he will lose anyway than allow this war of attrition to continue. Israfel reaches out with her warm smooth Grace and twines it around Castiel's. Their combined power pulses once, twice and then with force that Castiel sees startles Uriel, they push. Their Grace explodes out in a circle, casting demons away into the darkness and in the stillness that follows, the angels make good their escape.

Over the pit, to the foothills of vast mountain range and over, they fly. Down into a valley, past a river of mud, slashing their swords of flame through any demon that approaches.

At the base of a lone mountain, they're attacked in earnest again, but Castiel barely notices because suddenly it feels like there's a straight shot to Dean's soul. Whatever cluster of negative emotion or evil aura that has kept Dean's soul slightly obscured for what now seems like endless eternities lifts so abruptly that Castiel falters to a stop. The sheer unexpected nature of the clearing shocks Castiel into what he might consider a reckless action if he could think past finally blessedly reaching his soul partner.

He shoots away from Uriel and Israfel, away from the coiled mass of demons they still fight and surges forward, past hot rocky caverns and pools of liquid fire, the bond joining his Grace with Dean's soul tugging him hard. Castiel flies alone, fearless and so angry his wings shudder helplessly on his back under the weight of his emotion. In Hell, separate from the cool logical presence of his Father's mind, Castiel's self-built heart pulses out of control with his emotions.

Sooner than Castiel expects, sooner than his hazy mind could calculate, he bursts through the entrance of a dark murky cave similar to ones Castiel has seen ever since they lifted wing in this wretched place. But this one is different. So very different.

"Dean," Castiel breathes, inexplicably shocked to his core. After all this time, a stretch of moments that together seem longer than the whole of Castiel's existence, Dean is here. Right here before Castiel's eyes and he can't possibly be seeing what he's seeing.

Dean's soul remembers his shape. It’s formed into the well-loved figure Castiel knows, but it's hard to see Dean's features. Hard to see through the cuts and tears and blood blood blood. So much blood and gore, staining Dean's face and his hands and dug down deep in his soul. He leans over a stretched table and in his right hand, there's a razor sharp knife.

There's another soul on the table and Dean's cutting.

"Dean," Castiel says again, dismay welling in his Grace, choking him.

Dean's eyes snap up and he grins, so wide and cruel.

"Hey, Cas," he growls, disdain dripping from every syllable. "Heard you were around."

Then he lifts the knife and hurls it at Castiel, catching him hard in the tip of his wing, the very same place the demon had stabbed with his terrible spikes years ago. Sharp pain radiates from the wound and Castiel thinks poison must lace the knife because the pain begins to seep into his Grace, but it’s nothing to the despair Castiel feels.

He's too late. Far too late and Dean has turned into something Castiel can't truly recognize. It won't stop Castiel's mission. Nothing could stop him in this purpose, but Castiel doesn't know what he'll bring back with him.

"Dean, I've come for you," Castiel gasps, reaching up to jerk the knife out of his wing.

He doesn't get the chance. Dean appears by his side, moving faster than Castiel can follow and he grabs the knife before Castiel can. With an angry grunt, Dean twists the knife harder into the wound, drawing an anguished scream from Castiel's reluctant lips. For the first time in Hell, the combined emotional and physical pain nearly overwhelms Castiel. He remembers Dean at three years old, his sweet little face dark with anguish over Castiel's injured wings.

"Did you think I'd come with you?" Dean murmurs into Castiel's ear. His voice is softer now, intimate and almost gentle. Like a lover's. "After you abandoned me over and over? You thought I'd ever want to see you again?"

Hell isn't a place. It's a feeling and Castiel knows it well now.

"I never abandoned you," Castiel says even as Dean draws the knife down from the entry wound, cutting a ragged gash through his feathers. "My thoughts were always with you."

Dean's mouth opens to respond, but before he can't speak, he screams and his body explodes into a cloud of black smoke. The knife falls away with the lack of support, giving Castiel some relief, but in his confusion he barely notices. The long single-note shriek ends abruptly and then Dean disappears from Castiel's vision, leaving the rage-filled expression of Uriel in his place.

"Uriel?" Castiel asks, sinking down a few inches under the weight of his broken wing.

"You must be more vigilant, brother," Uriel snaps, reaching his side and carefully touching Castiel's wing. At Castiel's hiss of pain, Uriel frowns and sends a weak pulse of healing Grace into the wound, just enough to barely knit the shattered bones back together.

"I don't understand," Castiel says. He tries not to lean into Uriel's touch, unwilling to drain his brother’s Grace any more than necessary.

"Concentrate," Uriel advises. "Think past the pain and concentrate on the soul piece."

He can't draw on Uriel's Grace anymore, but Castiel uses his calming aura, his brother's very presence to help bring order to his chaotic emotions. Reaching for Dean's soul piece is so deeply ingrained that Castiel finds it easier to do than he anticipated and he is somehow less surprised than expected when he can still sense Dean's soul at the other end of their bond. Aching with raw agony, but still very much present.

"Hell is hell for every creature," Uriel says, glancing to the entrance of the cave where Israfel now stands watch. "You must keep your focus or you will find yourself too easily tricked."

"I thought," Castiel rasps. "I thought he wanted to kill me."

"And you may yet find that to be the truth," Uriel says grimly. "If we do not hurry. It's already been too long, I fear. More years than I can keep clear in my head."

Of the three of them, Castiel's mind is the most organized and attuned to detail, but in this environment, with Dean's torment tearing at Castiel's senses, that claim belongs to Uriel. And if his oldest companion can no longer tell how long they've been searching these boiling depths, then Castiel fears not only have they failed Dean, but that when they do find him, they'll have lost years of Earth time. They could find Dean only to return him to a world he no longer recognizes, a home of ashes and faded memories.

"Hurry, brothers," Israfel calls out, as if hearing Castiel's worries in the air. "They are returning."

They plunge back into battle.

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

In another cavern, another time, months or years from the first one, they find Dean again.

This time, he's tied down on a rack, his arms stretched wide in disturbing parody of the Son’s sacrifice. His body is uncovered, giving Castiel a clear view of torn flesh and mangled limbs. It’s the result of years of torture and it hurts Castiel so deeply he nearly plunges into the room to help him. His progress forward is stayed by Israfel’s hand.

"Careful," she says. "Concentrate."

Dean spots him. Powerful relief and pure intense heartbreaking joy erupts on his ruined face.

"Cas," he moans, tears streaming down either cheek. "Please, help me."

Castiel closes his eyes and prays.

Father, guide me. Do not let me go astray.

The soul piece pulls at Castiel's Grace, hard and insistent as the first moment they joined. It wants Castiel, need him to come, to move further along and save Dean.

"This is not Dean," Castiel struggles to say and the moment the words leave his lips, his siblings pour into the room, destroying the demons who mock Castiel's bond. For a moment, Castiel thinks the weakness of his love for Dean will keep him from battle, but then reality strikes hard at his Grace.

This is a demon pretending to be Dean.

Wrath fuels Castiel's attack and nothing, not even the demon's last minute attempt to unsettle Castiel with fabricated whimpers stops him from thrusting his sword through the demon's middle. It's not easy to see his own hand destroying even a false Dean, but Castiel would not be here if he were unable to complete difficult tasks. The moment his blade cuts into flesh that turns to murky smoke, Castiel senses his faltering determination return.

He won't waver again.

"Come," he says to his brothers and he leads them onward.

With each step, the soul piece trembles harder and harder. Castiel's sense of Dean is not growing clearer, but the simple motion of the piece lets him know that they are getting nearer to their goal. Their own injuries keep adding up and with no way of truly healing themselves, the journey only becomes more difficult. Castiel's broken wing throbs continuously. In any other situation, the agony of it would swallow all his attention, but this mission pushes him forward, numbing him to it. Israfel and Uriel's wings are not broken, but still thoroughly damaged. Burnt and torn feathers stick out from both furiously moving shapes on their backs and yet they fly, swinging their slowly dimming swords through the demons that attack without ceasing. Grace oozes from wounds that become more numerous and grievous as time all but ceases to touch on the angels in any way.

They meet Dean every so often. The demons soon learn that Castiel struggles harder with an angry vindictive Dean and so he is forced to slice into the mirage of his attacking soul partner time and again. Though the words aren't Dean's, the voice is the exact same and the words stay with Castiel through each encounter.

I'd never choose to love something like you.

What even gives you the right to come down here after me?

Fuck, Cas, the things I’d do to you...

The last said with an edge of threatening sexuality that sickens Castiel so thoroughly that it comes the closest to causing him to falter since he realized demons were impersonating Dean.

But Castiel lets it wash over him and away. This is his punishment and Castiel believes he deserves every moment of it.

As they draw closer to the real Dean, the fake sightings increase exponentially. Castiel is following a line, a tracked path guided by the light of Dean's soul piece and the demons are becoming desperate to stop their forward motion. Yet when the false Deans prove to do little more than draw all three angels to greater heights of anger, they change tactics. The angels struggle to climb the side of a great dune in what must surely now be the deepest levels of Hell and as they finally crest the top, tired aching wings relaxing into a floating pattern as they plunge towards the bottom, Castiel sees something that sends a thrill of horror through his Grace.

Caught in the midst of three demons is Sam Winchester.

To his surprise, Uriel is the first to react.

"What is he doing here?" he snarls, almost sounding annoyed.

"Sam," Israfel gasps and it seems to Castiel as if none of them have learned anything. He is halfway to Sam, Israfel and Uriel on either side before he remembers himself. Stopping up short, he reaches out and catches at his brothers' wings, wincing when the force of his hand drags cries of pain from both. The commotion snags Sam's attention and he calls weakly to them.

"Cas," he moans. "Please, help me. I didn't mean..." He coughs and struggles feebly against the demons holding him steady and grinding his bones against each other until they snap with a resounding crack.

"Why are you here?" Israfel asks, her musical tones leaping across the space between them easily.

"Made a deal," Sam mumbles, grunting as one of the demons punches him hard in the ribs, clearly breaking one or more of them. "M'time ran out." He lifts his head with obvious difficulty and pins Israfel with imploring eyes. "Please, I must find him. I need him."

She pulls against Castiel's grip and he understands the urge. Though he can't say he's unaffected by seeing Dean in pain, however falsely, Castiel has at least come to expect it. Seeing Sam in the same situation, telling a story that's more than plausible cuts nearly as deeply and his first best instinct is to go to him.

But this is Hell.

"Hold," Castiel commands Israfel and something in his tone must convince her because she eases away from her attempted escape.

He probes the soul piece. It is still fairly shuddering with the desire to rejoin its owner, but Castiel focuses away from the piece itself and onto the strands that cover it, the tiny slivers of Sam's soul he claimed for himself. His eyes close, shutting out the tortured image of Sam, little Sammy who never truly forgot him.

The strands are silent.

"It's not him," Castiel says with such relief that his wings droop. Pain flares in his damaged wing, but it’s worth it.

This time, he is unable to stop Israfel from ripping out of his grasp and surging forward to thrust Gabriel's sword through the false Sam's throat.

The demons turn as one and swarm on them again.

And on it goes. Hell's demons offer them physical and mental assault. The demons branch out from the images of the Winchester brothers. They are attacked by a pair of demons fronting as John and Mary Winchester and the rage twisting John's features is so believably familiar that Castiel is almost amused. Another approaches in the form of an angel, but since the demons can't possibly understand the innate knowledge each angel has of its brothers, there is not even a hint of hesitation as they dispatch it. Castiel is caught off-guard when a demon chooses to attack in the form of Jimmy Novak, but though he has no true connection with the human, in fact having only spent a few short moments in his presence, Castiel cannot believe he would end up so far from his Father's arms. He kills the demon quickly.

At one point, when Castiel believes they are nearer than ever, they are met by a grim-faced human female that Castiel does not recognize.

But it's clear that Uriel does.

"Anael," he snarls.

Castiel stares at him in shock. If this apparition came from Uriel's diminishing Grace, then Castiel is not the only of his brothers illicitly visiting humans.

"Uriel," the human says coldly. "So very good to see you." Her eyes snap to Castiel's face and the smile that curls her lips sends icy fingers down to the tips of Castiel's abused wings.

"I told you, Castiel," she says as she slinks forward. "I knew the moment you got his soul piece, you'd fuck up."

She shakes her head sadly.

"Dean deserves a better angel than you."

"Yes, I know," Castiel answers before he stabs the demon in the gut.

His sword no longer shines, the holy fire sapped entirely from the sturdy blade, but the force of his Grace is still more than enough to finish off the demon. He looks back at his siblings, at their bruised and blackened faces, their dull eyes and burnt wings and smiles.

"Not long now."

The words are not away from his mouth a second before Castiel is struck through the center with a kind of pain he's never before experienced. It's similar to the feeling of Dean's death, the same kind of wrenching splitting sensation crackling through his Grace, but it's not awash with despair. This is not the feeling of dying.

It's the feeling of giving up.

"No." Castiel is blind with panic, literally unable to see, only to feel hands on his face and arms, pulling him close. "No, no."

He hears both his brothers calling his name, asking questions, but it's not until Israfel clamps both hands on other side of his face and calmly says, in a low inescapable tone, "Cas," that he is able to respond.

"Dean broke," Castiel says. "They broke him."

The feeling in his soul piece is so very different now. Gone is the physical torment that Castiel had been holding at a distance and in its place, there is the crushing weight of guilt and hopelessness. Whatever the demons have done to break Dean, it's finally convinced him that he is truly abandoned in this abject misery. No one and nothing will save him and Dean has no choice but to do whatever the demons tell him to do.

After having experienced so many different versions of his soul mate in this place, Castiel can easily imagine what this might entail.

And of all the many pains Castiel has suffered on Dean's behalf, all the worry and fear, anguish and regret, this feeling is truly the most wretched. Knowing that this soul, this kind gentle soul that cannot be entirely hidden under Dean's odd gruff masks, is being forced to perform evil acts, to inflict pain on other beings wounds Castiel so profoundly that he doesn't think he'll ever recover from it, even if they do find their way out of this place.

"Faster then," Israfel says in clipped tones. She jerks on Castiel's arm. "Lead on, brother."

She won't allow this development to slow their journey and neither will Uriel. Together, they gather their grieving brother between them and for a time, they lead the way.

A leadership that only lasts until they are confronted by a very familiar face. One that Castiel knows is entirely real.

"You angels really do impress," the creature says in apparent genuine admiration. "I didn't actually think you'd get this far."

Castiel straightens, shakes out his wings without any visible acknowledgement of how stiff and pained they truly are and strides forward, drawing his dimmed weapon from his side. The aggrieved malaise which assaulted him is blasted away as if it never existed. There is no room for it in his Grace alongside the nearly mindless rage that suddenly springs forth. He considers words, so used to the comfort of them, but Castiel finds he's not interested in engaging this demon in any way other than through battle.

This demon that reeks of Dean.

He lifts his blade and the fight begins.

From all sides, more demons pour forth from no source Castiel can see. He ignores them in favor of this particular demon, trusting his brothers to keep the others off Castiel. The demon materializes into human forms. First Dean, then Sam. A young girl with innocent features, a haggard old man, a round-faced woman, always with cruel eyes and it's revenge. Pure sinful revenge to stab and strike at this creature who tortured Castiel and then tried to finish the job through Dean. Who very nearly succeeded.

"You know the only reason I'm here, don't you?" the demon asks as their blades clash off each other. "I couldn't leave him until he was ready to be in charge."

Castiel clips the edge of the demon's ear and smiles in satisfaction when it hisses in pain.

"You were getting so close and I wanted to come myself, but not until my best pupil passed all his lessons," it continues, sliding into its natural form long enough to billow over Castiel's head and reform behind him. On the way past, it penetrates Castiel's wounded wing with a wisp of smoke and earns for itself a very reluctant groan.

"But Dean's all grown up and graduated with honors, Castiel. You'd be proud of him," it taunts as it stabs its own knife into Castiel's other wing. The wound is not nearly as jarring, but it smarts nonetheless. Castiel flaps hard once, shaking the demon off and he spins around to fling a strap of bruising Grace at the demon. It catches the demon in the shoulder and it stumbles, but doesn't stop fighting. They trade injuries back and forth, neither strong enough to truly incapacitate the other. They are so evenly matched that this battle could last for the rest of time were they not in the demon's turf rather than neutral ground. The now totally mundane sword he carries dents and twists with each blow.

It occurs to Castiel in a very distant part of his mind, the part he virtually left behind at the gates of Hell that this battle is lasting longer than he realizes. Beside and ahead of him, he knows Israfel and Uriel are holding the line, fighting with the last of their Grace to keep Castiel from being overwhelmed by demons. In that rational part of himself, Castiel knows this could very well be the end for them and for Dean.

But his Father gave the soul piece to him.

"I will save him," Castiel suddenly says, breaking his silence.

"Yeah, I know," the demon says with a sneering smile.

Then it abruptly disappears, relaxing into its natural foggy state and shooting up in the air before landing into the middle of where Israfel and Uriel fight. Castiel watches in horror, time returning with surprising force to tick by in wrenching seconds as the demon stabs his knife deep into Israfel's shoulder, so deeply that Castiel can see it pierces her very Grace and then circling her waist with both hands, plunges straight down, through the appearance of a floor and into the depths.

"No!" Castiel screams.

He rockets forward on damaged wings, shouting senseless words the entire way, but he is soon halted by Uriel.

"Let go," Castiel cries desperately. "We have to save her."

"No," Uriel snarls, shaking him hard. "You have to save Dean Winchester. I will go after Israfel. This is your chance, brother. The way is clear."

And Uriel speaks the truth. Castiel can feel Dean's soul ever so close, the soul piece squeezing so hard in his Grace that it’s a nuisance and the demon won't stop Castiel from reaching his goal. For some reason, he is willing to let Dean go, but only at a terrible price.

"But she'll die," Castiel says, though he already knows his choice.

"Not without a fight," Uriel promises, his severe eyes glinting ice-cold. "Go retrieve the soul. If our brother does die, I won't allow it to be in vain."

Uriel lifts wings that are still mostly intact and dives after their stolen brother, leaving Castiel alone for the first time since entering Hell's gates. Even the demons around him have retreated, following their leader to wherever he's taken Israfel and as Uriel says, the way is clear. Castiel can feel Dean's soul more clearly now than he has yet. His eyes search the landscape. In the heat of battle, Castiel hadn't noticed his surroundings, but now he sees a level plane that stretches to a far wall, a steep vertical climb to a dizzying height. Near the bottom, he spies another entrance, the same cavern entrance he's been seeing since the first false Dean and Castiel doesn't hesitate to fly towards it. He knows he's on the right course when the soul piece clenches into a knot and begins pounding on the side of his Grace. The typical desperation to see its owner is heightened to fantastic levels in the face of Dean's exile from light and it's building to an alarming pressure inside him.

He can't fly fast enough.

Ages later, time once again bearing down on Castiel when he least wants its touch, he reaches the threshold of Dean's home what Castiel suspects have been these many years at least.

Dean's eyes flick up from the broken soul in his hands and they land on Castiel's face.

There's silence, not even broken by whimpers from the soul Dean's tortured into near insanity and they see each other with true knowledge for the first time since Dean was four years old. The form Dean remembers is replicated perfectly, down to the freckles dotting his cheeks, but Castiel's never seen those green eyes so hard and lifeless. His body is terribly broken, shredded and scarred to an unimaginable degree. Though his physical form appears healthy and functional, Castiel sees so much scarring underneath the mirage, evidence of old wounds inflicted time and again. The soul piece beats against his Grace, as if it wants to separate from Castiel entirely and rejoin with Dean so it can fill in the humanity that's been carefully stripped from its owner and Castiel would gladly give it up for the task. This soul before him is Dean, but Castiel barely recognizes him.

Then Dean's eyes drop to Castiel's torn wings

The cold tension around him shatters. He draws in a ragged gasp and it seems the first real breath of his life.

"Your wings," he sobs.

Castiel springs forward. Nothing in Hell or Heaven, not any demon or even the Father Himself could stop Castiel from touching Dean right now. He shoots to Dean's side, ignoring the half-destroyed soul on the rack and slides his palm against Dean's cheek.

"Dean," Castiel says, his voice soft and reverent.

The soul piece pulses with staggering satisfaction. There can be no doubt now.

This is his Dean.

"Cas." Dean leans into Castiel's touch, so sweet and trusting, so perfectly different from all those false Deans and Castiel could cry if his body knew how to make tears.

But then Dean is tearing himself away, jerking out of Castiel's grasp with inexplicable panic on his lined and bloody face.

"You can't be here," he declares and before Castiel can react, Dean stumbles to the door, peering out as if to check for approaching enemies. He looks back at Castiel, at his wings. "Fuck, Cas, your wings. Shit, you gotta get outta here. I don't know when he'll be back."

Castiel assumes he means the demon.

"The demon is otherwise occupied," Castiel says, once more flying to Dean's side. "But I don't want to waste another moment. We must leave this place."

"We?" Dean asks, oddly childlike in his confusion.

"Dean...I've come for you," Castiel explains in bewilderment. He should have thought this point would be most obvious. But Dean is stunned. Shock sprawls over his face and Castiel will have to work hard to make up for putting it there. Dean cannot believe that Castiel would come for him, even when presented with the evidence.

"I don't...no, oh fuck," Dean mumbles, shoulders slumping with fatigue. Tears roll down his cheeks, seemingly without Dean's notice and he turns to trudge back to the rack. "Just get the fuck out of here."

There isn't time for Castiel to sort through what Dean's experiencing right now. His deserved lack of faith in Castiel aside, Dean needs to be released from this prison and if Castiel has to be forceful, then so be it. He sweeps over to the table and clamps his hands around both of Dean's shoulders.

"Listen to me, Dean," he commands, allowing his Grace to infuse his voice with the full strength of his power. "We are leaving this place. Right now."

The tired anger slides out of Dean’s voice as he turns his face back up at Castiel and true amazement filters into his gaze.

"Cas?"

Castiel gathers the remaining light of his Grace around him and though he can hear Dean's tainted skin begin to sizzle, Castiel doesn't stop. There are two ways out of Hell. Through the gate where Castiel came in, back through the years of dark infested wilderness and silent deadly caverns or through a gate of Castiel's own creation. A temporary opening that will very nearly drain him of Grace, but presents a faster escape route.

"Hurts," Dean slurs, trying to tug out of Castiel's grasp.

"I know, beloved," Castiel says softly. "It will be over soon."

Castiel wraps his useless right wing around Dean's wrecked body, searing a fanned imprint of feathers into his flesh over the scars of suffering and when his Grace is thrumming so powerfully that it shakes the sides of the cavern where they stand, knocking pieces of grimy filth from the walls, Castiel lifts his less damaged wing.

"I've got you," he says to Dean and then they explode upwards.

Castiel doesn't really know if they are moving up or down after that, left or right. He lets Dean's soul piece guide the way, deciding that he'll have an easier time escaping the clawing hold of hellfire if they leave the place near where Dean's Earthly body resides. The claim that form has on this soul will soothe the passage. Dean curls into Castiel's body, pressing his soiled hands under the edge of Castiel's ripped cloak, pressing firm against his skin and it burns the palms of Dean's hands, but he doesn't seem to care anymore. Dean's soul craves the absolution it receives from what's left of Castiel's holy Grace, even at the risk of destroying itself. Burning away the evil, scarring heavy over what will soon be clean smooth skin. As soon as Castiel has a moment to pause and thoroughly heal Dean.

Just as he reaches the edge of hell itself, he spares a thought for Israfel and he prays for her safety.

Dean screams when they break the barrier and Castiel has never heard the sound with such relief.

The earth trembles and splits around their entrance. A great gust of wind explodes out from around Castiel's one wildly flapping wing and he sees trees toppling around them. Dean's soul reaches feebly for its body, but Castiel tightens his hold on it. He can't possibly put Dean back in his body in this condition. With this much damage on his soul, Dean would never survive the transition.

No, there's only one place Dean needs to be now.

Castiel flies home.

Every angel he passes watches him closely, some with simple curiosity, others with outright alarm, but Castiel doesn't care what they are thinking, just that they are there. His family so near and vibrant with God's blessings. He feels his own voice rejoin the chorus of the Host, hears their murmurs pour into his mind like cold refreshing water. His Grace is already reviving, the renewed connection to his brothers started the much needed healing process. Castiel suspects he'll need a visit to the Healer's before his wing is fully repaired, but even so, he senses the other wounds on his body beginning to close. It's a brilliant relief for the pain to finally recede, but Castiel is more pleased by the fact that his renewed Grace will aide in his healing of Dean's soul.

"Where...?" Dean tries to peek past the edge of Castiel's arm, but he's too weak to move much.

"Shhh, we'll be there soon," Castiel promises.

He takes Dean to where they first met. That wide stretch of celestial beach where Dean's soul piece so effectively claimed Castiel's Grace for its very own. A ways back from the beach, there is a gathering of large rocks that form a small circle. Not a cave like the one where Dean suffered so much, but a position Castiel could easily defend.

Not that he suspects he'll need to, but Castiel is not in the mood to second guess his protective urges.

Placing Dean carefully in the center of the rocks, where the sound of the waves is muffled, Castiel then erects a shield of shimmering protective Grace over Dean's prone form. It’s more of a message than anything, a warning to his brothers to stay far away from this space until Castiel is done with his business. Angels don't understand the concept of privacy and property, but none could mistake the intent of Castiel's unique signature on this shelter.

Don't even come close to him.

Castiel stands to leave. He has several more tasks to complete before locking himself away with Dean for however long it takes to heal him and perhaps, slightly longer. Dean does not like this idea. He grasps at Castiel's good wing, clutching one feather.

"No, don't go," he begs.

Without hesitation, Castiel lies down beside Dean and covers the soul with his wing, gathering him close in his arms.

"I will return in moments, Dean," Castiel promises.

And yet, he stays for a long time, easing Dean back from the edge of his panic and murmuring reassurances in his ear. Castiel wonders how long it will be until Dean is coherent enough to even understand the reality of his escape, before he more closely resembles the bold young man Castiel knows still lurks inside this shell of a soul.

"I will return," he says again and this time, Dean lets him go without much complaint.

He checks the validity of his shield one last time and then he's off, flying as hard as his damaged wings will allow him towards the Silver City. It doesn't take long to find and track his superior's movements and soon enough, Castiel is landing in front of him. Zachariah raises his eyebrow at Castiel's ragged appearance.

"Well?"

Castiel draws the now twisted and useless sword from its sheath and tosses it to the ground at Zachariah's feet, sending a wave of dirt over the edge of Zachariah's pristine white cloak. When he speaks, he allows his Grace to permeate his Voice, ensuring that the message will reach every last member of the Host.

"Dean Winchester is saved."

Chapter Text

Castiel's intention is to leave Zachariah without another word. Though it pains him to stay away from Dean for a moment longer, Castiel knows he'll have to make a brief stop at the Healer's. The damage to his wing is too severe to leave untreated while he tries to heal Dean's injuries. Not to mention that the sight of his mangled bloody feathers might upset Dean further. With that thought in mind, Castiel spins on his heel, but does not even take a step before his arm is caught by Zachariah's firm grip.

"Where are your brothers?"

He doesn't turn back to Zachariah while answering.

"You must sense where they are," he says in a low dangerous tone. There's no time to indulge Zachariah's usual inducement of guilt. Castiel already knows he is to blame for Israfel's predicament. But Dean needs him, so Castiel has set the emotions aside. He cannot help Israfel now and dwelling on his sorrow will only hurt Dean.

"So much loss. So many lives given for this one human," Zachariah murmurs at Castiel's back. "Did you ever wonder why so much trouble has gone into preserving his life? Into creating it?"

That finally creates the desire to face Zachariah. His superior's expression is utterly serious. Despite his tendency towards flippant sarcasm, Zachariah is not making light of this conversation.

"Of course I've questioned it," Castiel says, his tone harsh. That of an equal. In terms of orders, Zachariah is Castiel's superior. But when it comes to Dean, they are on equal footing. Zachariah may know more about the prophecy, but neither of them can be certain of their Father's will in this matter. Of that, Castiel feels strongly.

"I have spent many years wondering why my Father would give Dean to me and once I realized I was to save him, I wondered then what I was saving him for." He peers more closely at Zachariah, at the swell of knowledge in those cool blue eyes.

"You know."

"Not why, but yes," Zachariah says, a subtle acceptance of Castiel's belief that neither understand God's purpose. "I know the meaning of the prophecy. The seal Dean broke is the first of sixty-six seals that hold back our brother, Lucifer."

Zachariah's knowledge crushes into him, drawing Castiel to new heights of disbelief and abject fear. He'd thought going into Hell would be the pinnacle of terror, but this? This is the confirmation of the end of all things. Not just Dean's life, but the very end of their Father's gift, the earth He created for humans who don't deserve His love. His Father's anger has finally boiled over and their most beloved brother is returning to destroy everything he has so long hated.

And Dean is at the very heart of the fight.

"Your face shows such emotion these days," Zachariah murmurs, reaching up with one cold hand to cup Castiel's cheek. "I think you misunderstand this, brother. Our Father has allowed the seal to be broken, but He also gave us a way to fight Lucifer. Dean is the key."

"What?" Castiel becomes very still, rigid down to each individual feather. His mind has already leaped to several logical conclusions and none of them to his liking. Castiel would rather take on the forces of Hell alone than allow Dean to be a pawn in this oncoming battle.

"The righteous man," Zachariah says and there's almost a note of pity in his tone. "The man who breaks the first seal is the only one who can end the war."

Castiel's eyes fall closed. Inside his Grace, there is a moment of curious blankness, the likes of which he hasn't felt since he took Deans' memories the first time. Never in all his contemplation of the soul piece did Castiel guess the burden of this connection would fall on Dean. Always he believed his Father was testing him, preparing Castiel for some future ordeal. Not Dean. Not a human who will prove nearly defenseless against their greatest enemy.

"How?"

"That I don't know," Zachariah admits and when Castiel opens his eyes, he can't tell if Zachariah is lying or not. "All I know are our orders. You are to place the soul back in its body and then assist him through his coming trials."

"I am to stay with him?" Castiel asks, his genuine surprise penetrating some of that awful hollowness within his Grace.

"You know him better than anyone," Zachariah points out. "But you must be careful, Castiel. Humans are so very greedy."

Castiel frowns.

"What do you mean?"

"If you are with Dean in this journey, he will want more than you can give him." Zachariah crowds close to Castiel. His razor sharp gaze intensifies even further and there can be no doubt that he is about to give Castiel an order which he cannot consider disobeying.

"You will be Dean Winchester's guide, Castiel. You will not be his friend and you must not consider becoming his lover."

Denials leap to Castiel's tongue, but instantly die when he remembers the way Dean had reacted to him while he possessed Katie's body. In his true form, Castiel would be able to control his reactions to Dean's physical presence. But the same can't be said for Dean. If he wanted Castiel, if his body thrummed with need and desire, Castiel doesn't know that he'd be able to refuse his soul partner.

"It's not a matter of simply being frowned on," Zachariah says. "If you make the choice to seal even a fraction of your loyalties to a human, much less the amount that would transfer to Dean once he had a romantic claim on you, in the eyes of Heaven, you will be considered rogue."

He steps back, allowing Castiel space, but his gaze leans too heavily for the movement to be considered a relief.

"That choice would, at the very least, earn you a session in Isolation. But I would not rule out a harsher punishment. You must understand, Castiel." Zachariah finally takes his eyes off Castiel and turns back to the Citadel, carefully stepping over Castiel's ruined sword.

"You may have slogged through Hell for a human, but you belong to Heaven," he tosses casually over his shoulder, as if the information is nothing more than a simple truth.

And really, it is. No matter how much Castiel feels connected to Dean, no matter the trials he's suffered on Dean's behalf, Castiel still belongs to Heaven.

Yet, in spite of the fear at Dean's bleak future and the discouraging reminder that Castiel cannot serve two masters, there is a glimmer of hope in this darkness.

He will be able to see Dean as much as they both want.

"Go and heal the soul," Zachariah calls to him. "But heal yourself first. You look terrible."

With that likely very true comment, Zachariah disappears into the Citadel and Castiel takes flight.

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

It takes far longer than he would wish to heal his wing back to full functionality.

"I have never seen injuries this severe," the Healer fusses as Castiel's wings are pumped full of icy healing Grace. "Our Father surely protected you. If any of this damage had reached your Grace, I am not sure I could have healed you."

Castiel thinks of Israfel's pierced Grace and for a moment, allows his grief to seep up over the rest of his emotions. While the Healer continues working on his wing, Castiel closes his eyes and enters into an ardent communion with the Host and with his Father.

Please, Father. See fit to spare to Israfel's life. Give Uriel strength to bring her home.

"She will return," the Healer says, gently lowering Castiel's wing with a final pat to his now silky smooth white feathers. "We must have faith."

"Why does that seem so hard these days?" Castiel asks softly, unaware that the question has been boiling away inside him until he releases it. The Healer's smile is knowing. A strong hand grips Castiel's forearm. He stares at the long graceful fingers. So much pain eased away with these hands, but how much more lingers in the Grace, untouchable except by his Father's hands.

"Humans. They have a way of making the best of us do strange things. Even the Father," the Healer says, squeezing Castiel's arm and then walking away to another waiting patient.

He contemplates those words for a brief moment. They deserve longer reflection, but Dean is waiting and Castiel is entirely back to normal. Flying to the beach is an odd collection of relief and urgency. Removing the evidence of Hell from his physical body, if not his mind, makes Castiel feel lighter than he's ever felt. As if going through hellfire and surviving has made all the days leading up the experience less significant than those he's now earned in the future. But feeling healthy only makes Castiel more anxious to share the sensation with Dean.

Castiel is satisfied to note that the protective shield remains untouched. He lands besides it and releases its hold long enough to slip under. His first sight of Dean is nearly enough to falter in returning the shield to its original state.

"Dean?"

The wretched soul is curled into a ball and pressed as far as possible between two great boulders. He is silent but for a few low moans and he is shaking hard. Massive tremors unfold up his wrecked body and as Castiel watches, Dean tucks his face further into the arms crossed protectively over his knees. The position hides much of Dean's naked body, leaving only his shoulders and legs vulnerable to further attack.

Further torture.

"Dean, you're safe now," Castiel says, cautiously approaching. His instinct is to simply pull Dean into his arms, but Castiel doesn't know how Dean will react. He doesn't want to scare him more. Understanding Dean's current state of mind is impossible. Castiel senses the obvious pain and denial in Dean's heart, but this Dean is both like and unlike the one Castiel knows. This Dean is stripped bare of all defenses. Castiel must be careful with him.

"No," Dean says, his voice muffled by flesh. "Not falling for it again."

Rage lances through Castiel's Grace. So this is the reason for Dean's doubt. The demon or one of his monstrous colleagues tried to trick Dean into believing he'd been saved. For what nefarious reason, Castiel doesn't know, but he imagines it has to do with convincing Dean to break. If Dean's hope had been raised and dashed enough, the effect would be devastating.

Had been devastating, judging by the increase in Dean's trembling as Castiel's shadow falls across him.

"Dean." Castiel keeps his voice calm, though he's not entirely sure a harsher tone might not get through to him faster. "You are no longer in Hell. I saved you. I came for you."

Dean stays silent and it's worse than arguing with him. He simply pulls his knees harder against his chest, effectively sending the message that Castiel is beneath his notice. Or rather the demon Dean believes him to be is beneath his notice. Castiel has to do something fast. No soul should feel such misery in Heaven. He considers appealing to Dean's recovered memories, but rejects the notion out of hand. Dean knows demons can easily access his memories.

In Hell, Castiel had captured Dean's attention briefly by way of his Grace. It is the only thing he can think to try now.

Seating himself beside Dean's shivering form, Castiel slowly opens his right wing over top of Dean's body. The feathers push between cold clammy rocks and dip down, gently tugging Dean out from his position wedged between the boulders. Dean tries to jerk away, but he's too weak to do much more than flail in Castiel's steely grasp. Castiel begins to allow his Grace to flow into Dean's soul. The darkness he senses there refocuses Castiel on his fury. Dean should not have suffered such a fate.

"Please," Dean whimpers.

Castiel immediately withdraws his Grace. This will not work if he terrifies Dean with his merciless rage.

"Forgive me, Dean," he says into Dean's hair.

He tries again, this time easing his Grace into Dean more slowly. Calling on his connection to his Father, Castiel forces his emotions to stabilize so that Dean can sense his Grace in its normal condition. So his soul piece can wrap the Grace firmly around itself and relax into the pain of believing that he’s really been saved this time.

"Cas?" Dean pushes feebly at Castiel, lifting his scarred face to look into Castiel's eyes. "What...what's going on?"

Castiel smiles. Dean had become accustomed to protecting his mind against tricks in Hell. He knows very well that no demon could possibly create an accurate representation of an angel's Grace. Particularly not that of an angel that shares such an intimate connection with his soul.

"I plucked you out of Hell. It's not a trick or a lie. You are really safe now," Castiel says, infusing his words with a touch of Grace so that they bury themselves deeply in Dean's subconscious mind. "Nothing can hurt you here."

He does not expect Dean's expression to crumble into terrible grief. Tears spring to his glassy eyes, spilling down cheeks made raw by flame. His body remembers the sensation of salt water draining into wounds, but even as pain flares in his soul, Dean ignores it and cries harder.

"Dean?"

But it's no use. His feelings are too strong for words. Human emotions must find an outlet and if Dean's outlet is this unusual flood of tears, then Castiel will simply hold him while he sobs into Castiel's cloak, his hands clenching the edges as hard as they can. Castiel opens his Grace fully and as Dean's soul piece soaks up the loving attention, a part of Castiel wishes for the relief of tears.

Another of his Father's gifts to humans that angels do not share.

Eventually, Dean begins muttering, pushing words past the emotion choking his throat. At first it's difficult for Castiel to understand the words themselves. All he can tell is that Dean feels a crushing sense of regret, but Castiel does not know why. It's difficult to push the anger away again. Castiel has no way of knowing what lies the demon told Dean to make him feel this awful burden of responsibility.

He tugs Dean up from his chest, placing his palm against Dean's cheek, wiping at the tears with his thumb.

"What the matter, Dean?"

Dean can't look at him. His eyes dart from a point over Castiel's shoulder down to the collar of his cloak over to the thumb at the edge of his vision and back again. Shock erupts through Castiel's Grace as he abruptly realizes that he is the source of Dean's guilt. His surprise steals Castiel's words momentarily. How could Dean think Castiel would judge him unfairly for any actions he might have taken in Hell?

"M'sorry," Dean murmurs. "I tried, Cas. I couldn't do it. Wasn't strong enough."

"Tried to what?" Castiel asks, bewildered. Surely Dean doesn't believe Castiel expected him to escape.

"I...I tortured them," he manages to say, his voice little more than a throaty horrified whisper. "Those souls. I destroyed them."

Castiel's Grace aches. Only Dean could survive year upon dreadful year in Hell only to feel guilt for doing the one thing that could ease his own suffering. Any other human would excuse their very understandable choice. Perhaps feel regret and desire not to dwell on the experience for long. But as always, Dean values the lives of those he can save over his own.

Zachariah was wrong. It's not Dean's connection to Castiel that labels him the righteous man.

"Dean, listen to me," Castiel says.

He wants to tell Dean that those souls most likely deserved to be there, that no human on Earth or angel in Heaven would blame him for giving up hope in a hopeless place, but Castiel knows Dean won't accept it. Dean's fluttering gaze lights on Castiel's eyes and though he can tell Dean wants to tear it away again, something he sees there holds his eyes steady.

"There is no way to withstand the torture you suffered. I wish you wouldn’t feel grief over it, even though I know you will. But it's not necessary to engage guilt. You had no choice, but to break," Castiel says, his voice still lined with Grace.

Confusion displaces a measure of the misery in Dean's eyes. The slightly vague quality of his gaze sharpens, offering Castiel a glimpse at the Dean he remembers. Relief catches at his Grace. Until this moment, he had not been entirely sure Dean would appear again.

"'Course I had a choice," he argues. "I coulda left the fucking knife in Alastair's hand."

This time, Castiel doesn't try to hold back the rush of sickening rage he feels at that name. Dean flinches, but is now aware enough to understand the anger is not aimed at him.

"Hey," Dean says, awkwardly patting at Castiel's throat, his broken wrist making it hard for him to do much more than stroke an inch or two of the bare flesh he finds. "Dude, I hate him too, but calm down."

"Oh," Castiel says, surprised and overwhelmed by Dean's attempt at comfort. He'd forgotten the joy of requited love, the sweet power Dean held over him. Castiel won't allow Dean to exert too much energy on worry for him, but the attempt is enough to make Castiel's Grace quiver happily.

It is not enough to delay Castiel's intent to heal Dean. Leaving the issue of Dean's guilt unresolved is not comfortable, but Castiel hopes they shall much time to discuss it. Once Dean's soul stabilizes from the ordeal in Hell. For now, Castiel wants Dean to feel only pleasant sensations.

Which means it's past time to fix his broken soul.

"Dean," he says softly, lifting Dean's hand to his lips and brushing a kiss across his exposed wrist. A wisp of Grace passes from Castiel's lips into Dean's skin and under, carefully knitting the bone back together. Dean shudders hard and releases a quiet moan. His eyes flutter shut and his body twists oddly in Castiel's arms.

"That's good. I liked that," Dean pants. "You got more where that came from?"

Castiel chuckles and the quiver in his Grace turns to a consuming quake. He'd forgotten about laughter. A strange joy, very nearly only possible with humans.

Only possible with Dean.

"Yes, of course. Let me see you."

Judging by the hesitation in Dean's movement, he's not keen on showing Castiel his injured body. Shame flushes his face a deep red. The soul piece Castiel carries stills in the churning ocean of Castiel's Grace. He gently lowers Dean to the sand.

"Don't feel shame. I want to help," Castiel murmurs.

There's no verbal answer, but Dean relaxes his body, sprawling onto the sand with his hands laying palm up on the ground. The full extent of his wounds is revealed to Castiel. They steal his breath and freeze his Grace. He's not sure there can be healing from this damage. Even if Castiel smoothes Dean's skin and melts his broken bones into their proper shape, the mental scars will linger.

Humans are not meant to survive Hell.

Every inch of skin is marred. Some with deep cuts or scrapes. Others with infected boils. Some is simply burnt black and brittle. Over the evidence of his torture, there are deep sweeping marks left by Castiel's hands and wings, seared there by the strength of his Grace. An imprint of his formerly injured wing crawls over Dean's shoulder from his back and spills down his chest, over his heart. Handprints dot Dean's body, each an indication of a time when Castiel shifted Dean in his arms while he flew.

"It's bad?" Dean asks, his voice small.

"Not for long," Castiel promises him.

He starts with the broken bones. Given that Dean had taken up the mantle of torturer, most of his bones are intact. However, the demon had left several of Dean's ribs shattered, Castiel supposes as a reminder of the pain he could feel if he laid down the knife. Castiel lays his warm hand against Dean's chest and sends a jet of cool Grace into the smashed bone. He can tell by the way Dean's mouth tightens and how he shifts on the sand that some small amount of pain accompanies the healing of a more severe injury.

"Hurts," he says quietly. Not the plaintive whimper he made in Hell, but rather calm information. Letting his mate understand his discomfort. Castiel can't help smiling. Perhaps he's allowed to take pleasure from one aspect of Dean's state of mind. He's not hiding any of himself from Castiel, not like he did when Castiel possessed Katie's body.

"I'm sorry. I'll try to be quick."

"Yeah," Dean breathes, his eyes tightly shut.

The pain lining Dean's feature draws a memory to Castiel's mind of a much younger Dean lying in a hospital bed, sweet little face red with fever. The return of his thoughts to Dean's childhood spurs his next action.

He covers Dean's face with feathers.

There's a brief moment where both are absolutely still. Then Castiel lifts the wing long enough to spy Dean's odd expression of bliss before he covers his face again.

Dean laughs. His warm breath shifts through Castiel's feathers, seeping into the skin beneath.

"Dude, I'm not four anymore."

Castiel removes the wing once more and lifts his hand from Dean's chest.

"No," he agrees, his slight smile still in place. Privately, Castiel wonders at Dean's true age. His years in Hell must have unnaturally extended his life.

"S'ok." Dean pulls the wing back and buries his face in the soft feathers.

"I thought about this," Dean confesses. His soul piece glows bright and hot in Castiel's Grace, overjoyed with this rediscovered intimacy. "When I wanted the knife, I thought about your wings."

He rubs his cheek against the feathers. The emotion stirring in Castiel's Grace at Dean's confession is unrecognizable. That Dean would rely on Castiel in this manner, that thinking of Castiel gave Dean such strength, creates a pulse of wild possessive joy within him. He is unable to stop himself from pausing the healing and pulling Dean into his arms.

"I missed you so much, Dean," he says and had he been human, his voice would have trembled under the force of this truth. "I hated being away from you. I hated it," he says. The power of his feelings frighten him. In that moment, Castiel doesn't know how he's going to stay aloof from Dean, how's he can sit by his side and not touch Dean.

"Hey, hey," Dean croons into Castiel's ear. "C'mere."

Dean takes over. He pulls Castiel onto the ground, carefully spreading his right wing across the sand. Confusion tears at Castiel's fear and anger until Dean rolls onto his side atop the wing. His body is small and fragile cradled in Castiel's giant wing.

"Oh," Castiel says in understanding. This is a very clever idea. He lies beside Dean and covers him with his other wing, gathering him close in his arms. Dean's satisfaction and pleasure pour into Castiel, easing him away from sensations too strong for him to handle. Angels are not meant to fall into such emotion. Castiel tucks his face against Dean's neck and breathes in deeply. Beneath the lingering taint of hellfire and pain, Castiel smells the familiar scent of Dean. Not the mixture of sweat and mechanical oil Castiel has smelled on his human form, but rather something deeper. A sense of Dean's soul that reminds Castiel of the smell of summer trees and thunderstorms. It's an addictive scent.

"This is what I'm talking about," Dean says finally, though he hadn't spoken a word about it. Castiel feels Dean's fingers graze his cheek, sliding up to tangle in his hair. He lets the long smooth strands slide through his fingers. Castiel doesn't have to look up to know that Dean finds the action extremely soothing. His soul piece radiates contentment and the delight of total safety. After being in Hell, the reality of shelter in Castiel's arms pleases Dean even more than it did when he was a child.

Castiel silently thinks a selfish useless prayer that he can keep Dean here always.

Silence follows for several long moments. Castiel knows he'll have to keep healing Dean and in fact, takes the opportunity of their positions to press his Grace against the deep wounds on Dean's back. But he doesn't move away from Dean. In light of the coming battle, they need this moment of peace together.

"How long's it been?" Dean asks tentatively. "On Earth, I mean. And...Sam?"

As soon as the question is out of his mouth, his soul piece tenses painfully, telling Castiel how much this issue had been weighing on Dean's mind.

"I don't know how many years you were in Hell, but time moves very strangely there. I doubt it's been more than a year on Earth. Sam is alive and well," he promises Dean. Sam's soul strands draw tight around Dean's soul piece, as if to prove that his brother is very much alive and waiting for him. A burden tumbles away from Dean, lifting his spirits even further. It triggers an odd reaction. Dean places his forehead against Castiel's collarbone and begins crying again. Not the sobs of earlier, but rather a helpless release of happiness.

Castiel holds him through it, healing his injuries and occasionally wiping the tears from his face. A good deal later, so much later that his back is fully healed, Dean speaks again.

"So how you been the last twenty-five years?"

Castiel releases an amused huff against Dean's hair. "I have been agitated and frustrated. Yourself?"

"Just, you know, the usual. Hunting, sleeping, walking around not knowing I had some angel's mojo inside me."

Now it's Castiel's turn for guilt. But Castiel feels there's no forgiveness to be had for leaving Dean. So instead, he says the other thought that sparks in his mind as he pushes Dean onto his back, his Grace searching out every piece of ruined bone.

"Your mother called my Grace 'mojo' as well," he comments.

"Yeah?"

The information curves the edge of Dean's mouth. Mary would be pleased that thinking of her still pleases her son so much.

"You are very like her," Castiel says.

Dean sighs. "I'll have to take your word for it."

They are silent for a long time as Castiel finishes hunting out broken bones. There are two in his left foot and one of his right thigh bones has a fine crack along the edge. He quickly heals those and then checks Dean's face. His eyes are closed again and he is breathing shallowly.

"Are you alright?"

"Little better now, thanks. So hey, why did you leave anyway?"

The tone is casual, but the words abrupt, forced out on a nervous breath. Castiel doesn't pause in moving on to heal the infections on Dean's body, but he takes a moment to consider his answer. Dean deserves to hear it from Castiel. Though that truth doesn't make saying it any easier.

"I was ordered to stay away from you."

"Why? I can't be all that dangerous to angels," Dean says with a snort. His eyes are still closed, as if he can't bear to look at Castiel. As if he still fears rejection. Castiel keeps one hand on a deep wound at the groove of Dean's hip, but uses his free hand to cup Dean's chin.

"I must obey my Father."

Suddenly, Dean's eyes snap open.

"God? God told you to stay away from me?"

It's like he is four years old again, upset that he must share his playmate with a distant God. Anger isn't the only emotion now swirling in Dean's soul. His soul piece grasps at Castiel's Grace, eager to claim it once again.

Dean is jealous.

"The order came to me from my superior, Zachariah, but the plan is my Father's. A plan I’ve tried to have faith in, though it's been difficult," Castiel confesses as he presses both hands to a collection of sores on Dean's legs.

"Well, then you shouldn't have followed a bullshit rule," Dean spits, withdrawing from Castiel's touch even as his soul piece gathers Castiel's Grace around itself like a cloak. His disbelief punches into Castiel hard. He knew Dean didn't carry a faith in his Father, but feeling the full brunt of his disappointment is crippling.

"If I had not, I would have been punished. I was punished-"

"What? For what?" Dean’s anger switches its focus, from Castiel to the nameless angels who dared punish Castiel. The abrupt change is briefly disconcerting.

"I took a vessel to see you," Castiel finally explains. Another thing he'd forgotten. Even returning Dean's memories would not give him knowledge of Castiel's visit. He never knew the truth. The pleasure of finally being free to tell Dean these secrets ripples through him.

"What does that even mean?"

"This form," Castiel says, gesturing to his body. "It's my real self. I was ordered not to appear to you in my true form. But angels can join with willing human subjects in order to communicate. So, in my foolish desperation to see you, I found a vessel and I used it to visit with you."

Dean's eyes widen and his lips part in shock, his body stock-still. The only movement between them is the press of Castiel's hands to injuries on Dean's arms.

For some reason, Castiel enjoys Dean's surprise. That trip had been pleasant. Exposing the truth of it creates excitement deep in his Grace.

"So what you're saying is that somewhere in my past, some person I knew was actually you?"

"Yes. It-"

"Oh god, it was Katie, wasn't it?" Dean interrupts, thoroughly ruining Castiel's dramatic reveal.

But then, that shouldn't be a surprise. Now that Dean remembers the shape of Castiel's Grace, the exact knowledge of his touch, it must have been an easy connection to make. Dean's soul piece beats against Castiel's Grace, as if in admonishment.

"I should have fucking known. No one is that big a freak," Dean says and then he starts laughing. "Holy shit, Cas, I was pawing a fucking angel in that movie theatre? No...no wonder y-you said you were a v-virgin," he chortles.

Castiel's not sure he understands the humor. "I never said I was a virgin," he corrects, although it's the truth.

"You said you never kissed before," Dean points out, but his humor melts a little to be replaced by contemplation. "What the hell are you anyway?"

"I don't understand your meaning," Castiel says. The last of the infections, this one on Dean's stomach, shrinks into nothingness. "I'm an angel."

"No, I know, but...okay, you got pretty girly hair, but your face looks sort of masculine," Dean says, tilting his head as he considers Castiel. His frank perusal draws warmth into Castiel's Grace. "No tits either, but you got some weird shapely hips going on."

Castiel looks at his hips. He'd never thought about them before.

"I have no gender, if that's what you're asking," he says.

His Grace feels a bit fatigued, but Dean's burns and scars must still be erased. Castiel starts with his face. His fingertip grazes along the edge of Dean's nose, leaving healthy freckled flesh behind. Dean's eyes cross as he watches Castiel's fingers.

"But people call you 'him.' Mom called you 'him'," he says.

The burns fade away from his chin, his forehead, his cheeks, slowly revealing to Castiel the face he knows so well. Dean's physical form means little to Castiel, but he prefers the beauty of Dean's health to the evidence of his torture. But then, Castiel has always found Dean pleasing, so perhaps it would be fair to say he finds Dean handsome.

"It's for simplicity sake. Your language and culture demands a pronoun and my appearance seems to favor male humans," Castiel explains as his hands travel down Dean's chest. "But I assure you, I have no gender. I have no experience with being male either. I have some small amount of experience with being female. It was...warm."

Dean snorts. "Yeah, I remember just how 'warm' you got."

"I should not have allowed it to go so far," Castiel says sternly.

"Right, right. Sure," Dean says and though he's smiling slyly at him, Castiel senses he really means it.

"Okay, you aren't a guy or a girl," Dean continues, eyes on Castiel's hand against his stomach. "So if I think you're hot, that doesn't make me gay?"

"Hot?"

"Attractive? Sexy? Doable?"

Only his intent to heal Dean as quickly as possible keeps his hand on Dean's hip. Surprise bites at his Grace. "You think I'm...doable?"

"Yeah. I mean, I'm not exactly ready to get it up. In fact..."

Castiel cups Dean's flaccid penis, healing Grace glowing in his palm. "In fact what?"

"Uh...well, come to think of it, you've been feeling me up for about an hour now and normally, this kind of thing..." He nods to Castiel's hand. "Especially that kind of thing would make more of an impression. I know I'm hurting, but I ain't hurting that damn bad."

"Oh I see." Castiel carefully lays Dean's penis on his stomach. "This is not your body."

"Excuse me?"

"Your body did not go to Hell. You must have known that."

Dean grimaces, memories sailing behind his eyes for a short moment before Dean snatches them up and locks them away in a safe place of his own making. Castiel doesn't like that. If Dean hides away his negative emotions, they will do nothing but grow sick within him. His Grace reaches out, tugs at the feelings, but Dean's soul is stubborn. He doesn't wish to deal with them right now.

"Yeah, I remember. So this is just my soul?"

"Yes. Your soul has no access to physical sensation."

"Good thing, I guess. This whole thing would be pretty awkward if I popped a boner," Dean muses.

Castiel stares. "Are you really that attracted to me?" he asks, inferring from context that Dean means Castiel's touch would give him an erection. He knows Dean felt sexual attraction to him while he inhabited Katie. But he assumed at the time that much of the physical part of his attraction was aimed solely at Katie's body.

"Yeah, I don't know, man. I couldn’t tell if you were a guy or a girl, but there's just something...I don't know. Something about you. Same as with Katie. I thought I had lost it, you know? I just met her that one time, but I couldn't forget her. Forget you, I guess," he says. "Must just be you."

"That will be the soul piece, I suspect," Castiel says. He doesn't know if the soul piece causes Dean's attraction or if the attraction is only enhanced by the soul piece. Or if it really matters. Zachariah's warning abruptly leaps back into his mind. Dean's ordeal in Hell has loosened his tongue, but if he's this insistent about his attraction to Castiel, how much more aggressive will he be once he reaches full health? They are heading firmly towards a rejection of some kind, Castiel can feel it.

"What's a soul piece?"

Humor flickers in Castiel's Grace. All these years, all the joy and trouble brought them by Dean's soul piece, and he never really understood what they are. He picks up Dean leg and lays it across his lap, absently healing his burns and cuts as he explains.

"A soul piece is what drew me to you. When you were born, your soul was broken in pieces that then travelled to their owners. It is our Father's way of marking who will be important to humans. You gave a soul piece to me. In fact, it came to me on this very beach," Castiel says fondly, the memory setting off a cascade of warm pleasure in his Grace.

"Pieces? Like little glowing things?"

Castiel nods. "They do have a rather brilliant sheen."

"Right," Dean grunts. "I hate those fucking things."

Surprised dismay beats against his Grace. "Why?"

Dean shifts, obviously uncomfortable with the topic. "Let's just say Alastair made good use of that shit," he mumbles.

A clear picture springs to Castiel's mind. The demon digging into Dean's soul. Tormenting the soul pieces to create even deeper pain than physical torture could ever hope to achieve. Twisting the joy of Dean's soul pieces into an ugly hatred for that which should only ever bring him absolute happiness. Sorrow instantly replaces the dismay Castiel feels. He remembers thinking long ago that the hurt soul pieces could bring was such a distant concern in comparison to the pleasure. Now he understands how very different it is for the humans who experience that hurt.

"I'm sorry, Dean," he says helplessly.

"It's not your fault," Dean says, shrugging. "It was a good tactic on Alastair's part."

Horror thrums through him, but Castiel pushes it aside. There is a part of Dean that hasn't yet come out of hell, he thinks.

"There wasn't a piece for you," Dean says, frowning as the thought occurs to him. "I couldn't even remember you until he found this...I don't know what it was. Some kind of cache of memories."

"Yes, I sealed your memories away with my Grace. Your memories of me," Castiel adds when he senses the question on Dean's tongue. "When I was ordered to leave you, my superiors did not want to leave any evidence of our connection behind."

"Goddamn," Dean breathes. "I don't get it. What was the point of letting you near me when I was a kid if they were just going to make you leave later?"

"I don't think they understood why your soul piece had come to me," Castiel says and somehow it feels good telling Dean that his superiors had made mistakes. Not that he wishes they had not allowed Castiel that time with Dean. But Zachariah is not Castiel's favorite angel right now. It feels nice to complain about him, however subtly.

"Okay, I'm confused," Dean says with a frown. "If angels don't get why my soul piece went to you, how did my soul know to do it?"

"I don't know. It is one of my Father's mysteries," Castiel says proudly. Once more, he is awestruck with his Father's ingenuity and generosity. Despite his anger and dread at Dean's fate, Castiel's gratitude towards God is endless. Dean need not suffer alone. He was not left to torment in Hell. God gave him rescue.

"Along with jerking you away for no good reason," Dean says, the bitterness in his tone pulsing hard in his soul piece.

"Dean-"

"You know, I don't want to talk about it right now. Tell me when I'm back in my body and you can make it up to me with sex," he says, resolutely pushing his frustration away.

Castiel's hand stills on Dean's knee. Any measure of tranquility drains out of his Grace. Since the first soft moan Dean released at Castiel's touch, he knows he's been dreading this moment. Of course Dean would expect more from Castiel. Of course he would want to touch his soul mate, extend this intimacy in the most powerful way humans know. Castiel has no desire for human sex, but the idea of giving up this warm familiarity, the right to trace his fingers across Dean's skin, seems an unspeakable loss.

But they stand to lose much more if Castiel disobeys.

"Dean, there is much you need to know," he says.

Dean's eyebrows lift. "About what?"

"Your destiny," Castiel starts, his hands distractedly returning to their task of erasing the scarring from Dean's legs. "A very long time ago, my brother Lucifer fell and was sealed in the Pit. The seals holding him back have begun to break and according to prophecy, you are the only person who can stop him from destroying Earth and all its inhabitants."

Even Castiel knows it's a great deal to lay on a human, especially one only just saved from Perdition, but Dean needs to understand what's coming. He needs to know that there is a good reason why Castiel cannot engage with him in the manner they would both wish.

"What the fuck," Dean spits, shooting up off his back. "What the fuck, Cas? Lucifer? Like Satan? He’s real?”

“Oh yes,” Castiel assures him. “He’s very real.”

He feels Dean struggle with the idea, only his trust in Castiel allowing him to attempt belief. Castiel wonders why Dean is able to believe in Lucifer and not God.

“You expect me to fight off the fucking Devil?" Dean demands, his expression thunderous.

"You won't be alone," Castiel says quickly, wrapping his wing around Dean's shoulders to steady him. "I will be there to help you. And Sam."

"Sam?" Dean gives a laugh of disbelief. "You think I want Sam anywhere near this clusterfuck?"

Castiel falters. "I thought you'd want your brother with you-"

"Yeah, but not...shit, Cas, how can you expect me to be a match for something like that? Even at full strength, I couldn't do that and in case you hadn't noticed," he says, gesturing to the scars still littering his body. "I'm not exactly at full strength."

"But you will be," Castiel says, even though he suspects Dean will never return to his normal self. "I don't know what's awaiting you. I don't know how you are to destroy my brother. I only know I have orders to assist you." He drops his eyes from Dean's face to concentrate on healing his feet, unable to see Dean's expression when he says his next words. Feeling Dean's reaction through his soul piece will hurt enough.

"And that I am not allowed to become emotionally involved with you."

Instead of the rage Castiel expects, he only senses confusion. When he chances a glance up, he sees Dean's brow furrowed, his mouth twisted into a frown.

"Don't you think it's too late for that?"

Castiel rests his hand on Dean's stomach.

"I mean, my superiors have ordered me to refrain from a close friendship with you. Or a romantic connection."

The confusion fades, but it's not replaced with anything. For the first time since Castiel's known Dean, he feels blank, the soul piece little more than a lifeless lump in his Grace.

"You mean, we can't be together," Dean says, his voice flat.

"We'll be together," Castiel corrects. "Just-"

"Just you're choosing Heaven over me again," Dean says. A spark of emotion creeps into his tone. Anger hiding a great deal of hurt. He presses the heel of his palms over both eyes. "You know, Cas, I'm not exactly known for big emotional moments, but I'm not stupid. I think I've been in love with you pretty much my whole life. Are you ever going to feel that way about me?"

Castiel is taken aback. He doesn't understand how Dean can question that of him.

"Of course I love you, Dean," he says, a hint of anger now underlying his own voice.

"It's not what I asked," Dean says. He sounds so tired. The soul piece wilts into an alarming kind of malaise. Castiel doesn't know what to do or say. "I mean, if it came right down to it. Me or Heaven. You'd choose Heaven."

The warnings are coming true. Dean is asking Castiel for more than he can give. Each one of his brothers who warned him was right about Dean. He is as greedy and possessive as any human, perhaps even more so now that his emotions are heightened and unmasked by hell's torment.

"I must," Castiel whispers, horrified by his own answer. "For this coming battle, I must. The survival of your world depends on you. If I am not there-"

"What if there was no battle?" Dean asks suddenly, eyes now glowing feverishly. His expression comes alive, his soul piece tugging on Castiel's Grace. "If I were just some other guy, would you stay with me? Really with me?"

Castiel stares at him. His immediate answer should be no. But that's Heaven's answer. As Castiel sits here on the beach where he first met Dean's soul and looks into the recreation of Dean's beautiful green eyes, he realizes he doesn't know his own answer. The decision between Heaven and Dean has not yet been made. He does not want to risk Isolation or Falling, but Castiel cannot honestly admit that he wouldn't at some point.

"I don't know," he confesses.

For some reason, this answer makes Dean smile. There's no true pleasure trembling in his soul piece, but Castiel feels another emotion there. A kind of determination that he doesn't understand.
.
"I want you to do something for me," Dean says, turning to kneel before Castiel. "I know I'm not exactly myself right now. I'm having trouble keeping my thoughts in my head and that'll probably change when I get back in my body, but I know I want you. I've only ever wanted you, even when I didn't know you existed. I don't think I can handle seeing you all the time and not have you."

"But there isn't anything I can do-"

"Hide my memories again," Dean interrupts, reaching out to take Castiel's hands in his own.

The logic in this idea instantly appeals to Castiel's rational self even as his feelings rebel against it. The very last thing he wants to do is lose Dean again. To look into these beloved eyes and see nothing.

And yet, he does not wish to see pain there either.

"Dean-"

"Look, the other angels, they're going to be watching, right? Making sure we're doing this destiny shit?" Dean asks.

Castiel nods. "The situation will be closely monitored."

His hands are drawn to Dean's heart, pressed hard over the last scars that linger, the fanned imprint of Castiel's wing. "I can't be with you and not be with you, Cas. Not anymore. Especially not after hell. It's just too much, okay?" Emotion draws his voice taut, nearly to the point of breaking. "If we gotta do this first, then take my memories, but you have to promise me you'll give them back."

"How will I know when to return them?" Castiel asks, his wings shuddering with nerves and confusion. He wants to trust Dean, but this plan sounds crazy.

It sounds like it will lead him off the edge he's been travelling towards for years now.

"If we're alive at the end," Dean jokes, his eyes sparkling with odd humor Castiel doesn't understand. There is little humor to be found in this situation. A closer look reveals that Dean's joking covers no small measure of hysteria. Whether the result of Hell or if losing Castiel will always make Dean just the slightest bit insane, Castiel doesn’t know.

"Are you sure about this?" Castiel asks. After all, they are Dean's memories. This choice is his.

"Fuck, no. I don't want to forget you, but if I'm going to save every fucking person on Earth, I can't deal with this shit," he says.

Castiel sees it’s the only reason why Dean can accept this situation. He wouldn’t give Castiel up for anything other than saving innocent lives. His soul is too damaged to handle both the burden of fighting Lucifer and the temptation Castiel offers.

Once again, Castiel's doubts about their connection spring to the forefront. Yes, he was needed to save Dean, but the emotional backlash of their love for each other seems like an unnecessary complication, however much Castiel enjoys it.

Dean grasps Castiel's cloak in one hand, tugging hard. His eyes carry the evidence of his desperation. They burn into Castiel's mind, a vision he knows he won't soon forget.

"But you have to promise. Not forever. Even if you have to leave after, you gotta give them back, okay?"

In all the times Dean's asked Castiel to choose him, Castiel has always qualified his positive response. Yes, so long as it doesn't interfere with my duty. But Dean is broken and pressing against Castiel, asking for so little. Just the relief of this burden while bearing the brunt of one so much heavier.

He remembers Mary telling him to trust Dean.

Castiel can't refuse him.

"I promise, Dean," he says, laying his forehead against Dean's. "I will return them."

Dean sags against his chest, relief flowing hard into his soul piece. "So fucking stupid," he mumbles into Castiel's cloak. "Stupid destiny."

"Yes," Castiel agrees, wrapping his arms and wings around Dean once more. It's their last moment together, Castiel realizes. Maybe even for the whole of Dean's life, if this coming war claims him. Never again will he hold Dean close. Never feel Dean relying on Castiel to hold him up. The last chance to sink into their own private world, a warm peaceful cocoon of feathers.

"I love you," Castiel says, unaware the words were going to emerge until they whisper against Dean's cheek.

"Yeah, me too," Dean says.

The soul piece explains to Castiel's Grace the extent of Dean's love.

And then Castiel understands it's time. They have already lingered too long. Pulling away from Dean rips into his Grace, more painful than the slice of a demon's blade. Judging by the way Dean clings to him, begging one last moment, he agrees. Castiel indulges him, encircling Dean and opening his Grace fully, showing Dean everything he's feeling, both the good and the bad. Sharing with him as an equal partner before Castiel must take up his position as Dean's guide. Dean's soul answers in kind, giving to Castiel his fear and disbelief. His doubts and regrets. The pain of the decision to lose his memories and the hope that he'll see them again. Castiel carefully stores each and every one of Dean's unique feelings away in his Grace to treasure for those times when an unknowing Dean might not be so generous.

"Sorry," Dean murmurs into Castiel's neck.

"Me too," Castiel answers.

This time, when Castiel pushes him away, Dean goes. There are still a few scars left on his body that require healing. Castiel sweeps his hands over the wing imprints, quickly removing them from Dean's body. Dean watches sadly as Castiel wipes away the fingerprints from his sides and chest.

"I'll be done soon," Castiel promises.

There's only one scar left. A handprint seared into Dean's shoulder, the first Castiel gave him in Hell. He thinks of Dean in that place, unwilling to believe until he felt the impression of Castiel's Grace, the memory of his mate's presence.

He reaches for the scar, but Dean's hand suddenly clamps around his wrist.

"Hey," Dean says, tone heavy with something Castiel's doesn't recognize. "You don't have to."

Castiel frowns. "I don't have to what?"

"You know." Dean shrugs, his cheeks flushing as hard as if they had real blood to rise under his skin. "You don't have to take everything."

His meaning eludes Castiel. Leaving his skin marred by Castiel's touch is senseless. It will only lead to questions on Dean's part and ruin what should be perfection. Besides this scar, Dean's body is perfect, all evidence of injury wiped clean, even those received before Hell. Why Dean should desire a reminder of pain baffles Castiel.

"I don't understand."

"It's...I don't know. It's you," Dean says, frustration at being unable to express himself coloring his tone.

But Castiel abruptly understands. He realizes what he was hearing in Dean’s tone a moment ago.

Dean enjoys being marked by Castiel.

The soul piece shivers happily at Castiel's guess and he knows he's right. For Dean, this scar doesn't represent pain and torment.

It represents Castiel's claim on him.

"I don't want to forget," Dean whispers. "Not really."

"I don't wish you to forget," Castiel answers, just as quietly.

What's more, the idea of leaving a mark on Dean's flesh joins together in his Grace every moment of possessiveness he's ever felt towards Dean, since he was an infant. It's an incredibly powerful feeling and Castiel is drunk on it. He strokes the mark with fingers devoid of Grace, simply touching it. Dean moans quietly.

"Mine," Castiel says, laying his hand fully over the mark, slotting each finger into place.

Castiel sees a brief glimpse of that hard passionate glint in Dean's eyes before he jerks Castiel towards him, pressing his mouth over Castiel's. The kiss shocks Castiel. They kissed as Katie and Dean, but Castiel's never experienced such a thing in this form. Touching his lips to another is such an alien sensation, Castiel doesn't know what to do. But Dean has no trouble leading him. He tilts Castiel's head to one side with his hand and licks at Castiel's closed lips, a question rattling in the soul piece. Castiel opens to him, surprised by how nice it feels to trail his tongue across Dean's. Despite his lack of physical response, Dean pours himself into the kiss, making his own claim with his enthusiasm. A low satisfied grown rumbles in his chest as Dean finally pulls away, laying his forehead against Castiel's once more.

"One for the road," he pants.

"I see," Castiel answers, his thoughts made slow by Dean's actions.

Dean smirks.

"Just remember this moment if I ever act like an asshole, okay? I love you," he says fiercely.

"I love you too," Castiel says, never tiring of saying it. But Dean's words bring a question to his mind. "How am I to act around you?"

"I don't know. Not like Katie," Dean says, sitting back and looking down at his body, now fully healed with the exception of Castiel's mark. "You can't." He looks up suddenly. "Yeah, you can't act like that. I didn't know you then and I was still all over you. If we're going to actually stay apart, you gotta make me not like you."

"How am I supposed to that?" Castiel asks, frowning. Everything he does seems to make Dean like him more.

"I don't know. Act like a dick, I guess."

"Dick?"

Dean sighs, but smiles fondly. "Just don't be nice, okay? I can handle a little, but you can't look at me with big doe eyes like you did as Katie. And keep those wings away from me," he says regretfully, eyeing the wings he loves so much. "I think I'd probably fuck you even if you were a dick if I could touch those wings."

Pleasure thrums in Castiel's Grace. "You must not say things like that then."

"I'll try not to," Dean says, snorting.

They watch each other for a long silent moment. A goodbye, Castiel realizes. Dean puts his hand over the one Castiel still has pressed to the scar.

"You promised, okay?"

Castiel nods and strokes the scar, his promise, one last time. "Yes."

"Is it going to hurt?"

"No, but I will ease you into sleep regardless," Castiel says. "So you won't be afraid after the memories are gone."

"Hidden," Dean corrects, squeezing Castiel's hand. "Don't fuck with them. Just put them away."

Castiel smiles. "Yes, of course. Only hidden."

Dean's soul piece burrows into Castiel's Grace, seeking safety from Dean's decision. Castiel soothes it the best he can. It will not be easy for either of them, but there's comfort to be found. No matter what happens, Castiel has made a promise he will not break. They will see each other again. He hugs Dean tight and then helps him lay flat on the sandy beach. Dean tugs Castiel's wing against to his chest, holding it like a child's toy.

"I'll catch you on the flip side," Dean says.

"I will be waiting,” Castiel answers.

He cups Dean's face, keeping their gazes locked until Dean's eyes fall shut, Castiel’s enforced sleep overwhelming him. It takes some time to hide Dean's memories again, to repair the damaged cache. This time, Castiel makes the surface of the cache extra hard, as resistant to force as possible. Hiding the memories of his childhood takes less time than hiding these new memories they've made. He tries to obscure the entire experience of being in Hell, but the soul piece's curious reaction stops him. It pulses angrily within his Grace and holds those memories close. Almost as if Dean wishes to remember Hell.

"It'll be easier this way," Castiel says.

But the memories won't go. Castiel wishes he understood. He tries again. There's no reason to leave Dean in this kind of pain. But the soul piece is stubborn. Dean is stubborn. Castiel huffs. One last try proves impossible.

"Why do you want this?" he asks, frustrated.

Dean doesn't answer.

He has little choice. The best he can do is alter their meeting in Hell and obscure the edges of the memories, blunting their sharpness as best he can. The soul piece will allow Castiel to ease the memories, but not take them completely. Hiding this interlude in Heaven is much easier. Instead of leaving a placeholder, Castiel merely hides it completely. When he wakes up in his body, Dean will remember going straight from Hell to his healed body.

"You are impossible," he tells Dean's sleeping form, brushing Dean’s hair off his forehead. "I will miss you."

Standing, Castiel erases the seal over the boulders and gently gathers Dean into his arms.

It's time to return Dean to his body.

Chapter Text

Healing Dean's actual body takes only a single touch. The amount of decay confirms Castiel's suspicion that it's been little more than several months in Earth time since Dean descended into Hell. He's both surprised and pleased that Dean hasn't missed much here. Facing Lucifer will be bad enough. It would be even more difficult to find many years had passed for Sam.

The matter of sealing Dean's soul back into his flesh is somewhat more difficult. The soul recognizes it's former home. Each of the soul pieces Dean carries are eager to rejoin with this house of flesh, but it's not as simple as placing the soul inside the body. The soul is not an inanimate object. It's the essence of Dean's stubborn and strong-willed personality. The hardest part will be trying to convince the sleeping soul to start the process of transfer. Dean's soul grasps at the mate piece Castiel carries, anchoring itself to Castiel's Grace.

"It's time," Castiel says sternly.

The mate piece reaches back and holds Dean's soul just as firmly.

"You must rejoin with this body," he says, wrapping his Grace around the soul piece and gently tugging. He keeps the touch light and loving because Castiel understands. He doesn't wish to part with Dean's soul either. His choice would be to remain on their beach together for much longer. But Dean's already made the choice for him.

"Your desire for sex will not be fulfilled unless you join with this body," he tells the soul. Not that he wishes to push Dean into a sexual relationship with another, but he also knows how much Dean enjoys the activity. He wouldn't deprive him of it because of Castiel's orders.

However, the soul is not convinced and clings harder. It's a mindless action, born of the soul's recognition of the piece Castiel carries rather than for Castiel himself. Castiel doesn't understand the soul's panic. Being in this body can't hurt more than the torture it suffered in Hell and yet, he senses a trickle of fear as he tries to coax it into the body. Even with Castiel's warm encouragement, it's a lengthy process convincing the soul to climb back into its original home.

Perhaps humans feel trapped in these houses of flesh.

And yet, despite the soul's anxiety, it's also attracted to the feel of Dean's body. Torn between it's physical home and its emotional one. For all that Castiel would like to cradle the soul in his Grace against the coming storm, the price is too high for such selfishness.

"It's time," he says gently.

He's not sure if its the tone of his voice or the soul's own sense of resignation, but after that moment, it's much easier to convince Dean's soul back into his body. Before the soul slips into place, the body is a meaningless piece of clay, but as Castiel watches, the soul transforms the body, warms it with the touch of life, so precious and vibrant. Color returns to Dean's face, deepening his cheeks to a healthy ruddy glow.

Castiel lets his eyes fall shut and sinks his hand past the awakening flesh, once more touching the soul beneath. It's settled into position, but Castiel knows something extra is needed. A breath of holiness like the original blessing that cleaved Dean's soul to his new body. Castiel doesn't know what creature, whether angel or God Himself that made the first connection, but the second will be made by Castiel's hand. The soul trembles under Castiel's touch, a shudder of pleasure rather than pain, an expression of welcome. Castiel chuckles. No matter what form, Dean enjoys touch.

His other hand presses against the soul further along, above Dean's belly and with a deep breath, Castiel pulses a hard jet of sealing Grace into the soul. Dean's body jerks lightly as the soul molds to the flesh, sinking into bone and blood, sewing the physical and spiritual together. The hand print on Dean's shoulder, Castiel's mark, deepens to a fetching scarlet, their connection solidifying even further. Light glows bright around Castiel's hands and then fades into dimness. The transfer is complete and Dean's soul is locked into his body. Dean's chest lifts high on one massive gasp for air and Castiel smiles.

Dean is back.

Castiel lifts one hand to Dean's face, fingers skimming the curve of his jaw. Now that the process if finished, he must get Dean out of this terrible wooden prison. And then begins his deceit. It will be a relief to inform Dean of his true nature, if nothing else. But lying to him about their shared past and acting...how did Dean put it? Like a dick? It won't be easy. But if it helps Dean complete his mission, then Castiel is more than willing to make the sacrifice.

He is just placing his palm back against Dean's chest to transport him away from this manky dark space when the ground around them begins to tremble. Dust rises off the side of Dean's coffin as the trembling quickly turns to a violent quake deep in the earth where they're settled. The portal Castiel created to bring Dean out of hell ripples as if in preparation to open once more. The only creature with enough power to break the binding of hellfire is another angel.

"Dean!"

It's the only word Castiel is able to speak before he is blown backwards by an immense pulse of Grace. He immediately loses sight of Dean's coffin as he is tossed above ground level and against a fallen log. The power of the re-entry is shocking. His wings bend at a painful angle and searing white light blinds him for a brief instant. In that split second he flinches, the space before him is abruptly filled with two forms. Through the light, Castiel is barely able to make out the shape of two angels shoot straight up and pause, a dark shadow in the wall of light. A set of strongly beating wings holds the pair in the sky, but they are not the wings that draw Castiel's attention. The second angel hangs limp in the other's arms, one wing ragged and torn against her shoulder.

The other wing is missing.

No.

Castiel leaps to his feet, all thoughts of Dean erased from his mind. Now that the light has completely faded and Uriel is landing on the ground, Castiel can see the extent of Israfel's injuries. The entirety of her left wing has been sheared from her body, leaving a massive wound that fast leaks Grace across the scraps of her ruined cloak. Her face and arms are scratched and bleeding and he thinks both legs are probably broken. Uriel is not much better and Castiel senses his Grace is nearly depleted. He must have used the last of his energy to bring Israfel forth from the flames through the weak spot between realms.

"Brother! What happened?" Castiel asks as he falls to his knees by Israfel's side and places both hands over the raw mess on her back. Her body hungrily soaks up every ounce of Grace Castiel pours into her. Though he is by no means a medic, Castiel knows how to sense her vital signs and what he learns dismays him. Another moment without a good dose of healing Grace and Israfel might have crossed over only to die in this Earth field. If he had not been here with Dean, Castiel might have lost her.

"Brother?"

Uriel's strange silence unnerves Castiel. He spares a glance away from Israfel and sees that Uriel's expression is troubled. His gaze stays firmly fixed on the large wound on Israfel's back, but Castiel does not think he is seeing it. There's distance in Uriel's eyes that Castiel has never seen before. An odd feverish light that worries him.

"Uriel! I need you to focus. What happened?"

It's not really important. Castiel can see that Israfel was gravely injured and that they managed to find escape. But he needs Uriel to come back to him. With Israfel in this state and Dean lost to him again, Castiel needs Uriel's strength.

"They took her down," Uriel says faintly. "My pursuit was relentless. Israfel fought hard, but her injuries were too severe. Her wing..." His expression hardens, freezing to a cold detachment that Castiel can't face for long. He turns his eyes back to Israfel's wound. Even with Castiel's rush of cooling Grace, Israfel is not healing well enough.

"Go and bring the Healer," Castiel orders. "I'm afraid of moving Israfel from this place."

"Did you save the human?" Uriel asks instead of obeying.

Frustration prickles at Castiel's Grace. As much as he would like to sit and discuss his happy fortune with Dean's rescue, they don't have the time. And he does not like Uriel's calculating tone. It reminds him too strongly of Zachariah.

"I will tell you later. You must bring the Healer now."

This time, Uriel doesn't hesitate to disappear as quickly as his own injured wings can carry him. Castiel places his concern for Uriel to the side. Israfel needs his entire focus now. Keeping one hand flat against the torn flesh surrounding her destroyed wing bone, Castiel slides the other to smaller, but not minor injuries along her neck and shoulders. He's grateful he did not expend his Grace on Dean's healing all at once. He has more than enough strength to keep Israfel alive under the Healer arrives.

"I'm sorry, brother," he says quietly, though Israfel won't hear him. He's not apologizing for leaving her when he did. She would not enjoy such a sentiment. Their mission had been to retrieve Dean. Nothing is more important to Israfel than fulfilling her duty. Her allegiance has never wavered. Not like Castiel's.

But it does grieve Castiel that their mission caused such immense damage to her. In his existence, Castiel has never heard of an angel losing their wing. He doesn't know what the healing procedure is for such an injury or if she even can be healed back to her original state. All he knows is that there's a long frightening journey before Israfel and Castiel prays he can be alongside her for it. As he waits for Uriel to return with the Healer, Castiel hovers over Israfel's motionless form and keeps a steady stream of Grace flowing into her.

An odd scratching noise tugs at Castiel's attention. He can't move from his position, not without putting Israfel at risk, but the sound grows closer and Castiel must protect them both. He opens his wings over her body, creating a protective shield and glances past one feathery edge.

It's Dean.

Somehow, during Castiel's rush to save Israfel, Dean has managed to smash his way out of the coffin and the ground that holds it. A filthy hand bursts through the ground and Castiel immediately cloaks himself and Israfel. Finding Castiel hovering over his gravely injured brother is not a good way to introduce Dean to the concept of angels. Instead, he holds them both secret and watches as Dean claws his way out of the ground, dragging his body above the surface with great gasping breaths.

His face and clothing are dirty and battered, his aura confused and fearful. But he looks wonderful to Castiel. Alive and blessedly healthy. With some difficulty, Dean pushes off the ground and stumbles to the edge of the clearing. Castiel's Grace aches to reach for Dean's soul. But even diverting that small measure of Grace from Israfel's wound is too risky. Castiel settles for watching Dean limp out of the clearing, his eyes tracking every step until the human is completely out of his sight. Alone without Castiel once more.

It's strange how accustomed Castiel has become to having Dean nearby in the short amount of time they've shared since meeting in Hell. Those moments in that terrible place and the sweet intimacy of the healing in Heaven has taken an already profound want and deepened it to an acute need.

Not for the first time, Castiel greatly doubts his ability to do what Dean has asked of him. He thinks about a much younger version of Dean, always begging to play pretend. But Castiel had never excelled at that particular game. Being anything other than what his Father made him is difficult for Castiel.

The light of his returning brethren pulls Castiel out of this melancholy contemplation. He frowns. Uriel has not accompanied the Healer to Israfel's side. His injuries must have been more significant than Castiel realized. He will have to check on him very soon.

The Healer's eyes are grim when they fall on Israfel, but Castiel notes with relief a lack of hopelessness. Her wounds are grievous, but not deadly.

"Thank you, brother," the Healer says gently, removing Castiel's hands and replacing them with an expert touch. "You've done a good job, Castiel. She will live."

"Her wing?" he asks.

"I can only heal what's present," the Healer says regretfully. "I don't know what this means for her future."

The Healer's tone is dismissive, but not unkind. There is work to be done and Castiel won't interfere. He watches for a long moment as the skin around Israfel's missing wing slowly closes and then begins to silently pray. Some prayers of his own wording and some of the ancient models his Father left them, to teach them. Castiel hopes they will please His ears and garner His loving attention. In fact, he's certain they will. God would not turn His back on such a faithful servant as Israfel.

"Can I do anything else?" Castiel finally asks, once the Healer appears satisfied that Israfel can be moved safely.

"Not at present," the Healer says, tone lightly weighted with concern. "She will not wake from this coma. The only thing I can do is take her back to my domain and monitor her condition." The Healer stands to face Castiel. "You have work of your own, I suspect."

He has Dean. No matter what else is going on in Castiel's world, he always has Dean to worry over. It's a comfort by now.

"Yes, Healer. I'll return as soon as I can to visit her," he promises before rising on both wings, a pang striking his chest for Israfel's loss. "Take care of her."

Without waiting for her answer, Castiel turns the direction he'd seen Dean walking. Nerves cluster deep within his Grace. Yet another first meeting for himself and Dean. And this one a total deception. He must not act overly familiar or pleased to see Dean. Keeping a blank expression won't be too hard. The difficult part will be in keeping his Grace from wrapping warm and safe around Dean's troubled soul. But it will help them both in the long run, as Castiel understands the plan.

That doesn't stop him from being quite anxious by the time he reaches a small broken down building where he senses Dean's soul. Dean is still confused, but his fear has fallen away in favor of determination. Thankfully, he is alone. Castiel won't have to delay their first meeting.

He is speaking the moment he passes through the hard wooden walls.

"Hello, Dean Winchester."

Nothing happens. As far as he can tell, Dean doesn't hear Castiel at all. He's busy stuffing a bag full of items perched along dusty shelves, his concentration high, his body tense. Making plans no doubt on his next actions. Castiel is baffled. True, he is speaking in a much lowered tone, but it's the one he's used for Dean since they first met. The one he used for Mary. Dean should have heard him.

"Dean?"

Again no reaction. A kind of panic arises in Castiel's Grace. Something is terribly wrong. Dean should hear him.

Dean's always heard him.

He needs to speak up. Something has changed. Perhaps Dean's newly healed soul has not yet grown accustomed to being home and Castiel only needs to increase his volume.

"Dean," Castiel says again, louder now and drawing more on his True voice.

Dean frowns and glances at the small television sitting on a nearby counter. He's obviously hearing a noise, but judging by the growing discomfort on his face, Dean does not find it a pleasant one. Castiel's panic skyrockets. It's not right. He can't lose this too. Torn from Dean's side time and again, only to find that he can no longer communicate with him. There have already been too many changes. This is one that Castiel can't tolerate and in his distress, he finds himself unable to stop from shouting.

"Dean!"

The windows explode under the force of his powerful Voice. He watches in helpless dismay as Dean smacks his hands over his sensitive ears and falls to the ground, stunned by the ugly noise Castiel's voice now embodies for Dean. Castiel instantly withdraws, fully cloaking and silencing himself.

He hurt Dean. Just like he'd warned Dean he would all those years ago when Dean wanted them to be a family together. Castiel couldn't because he would hurt the other people in Dean's life. Except they aren't allowed to be a family and now they couldn't anyway because Castiel hurts Dean.

His first instinct is to fly away to Israfel and seek advice or barring that, the comfort of her cool logic. But she's hurt too. And Uriel cannot bear the burden of Castiel's troubles now, so soon after escaping his own hellish trials. Going to Zachariah is not a viable option.

Castiel has no idea what to do.

Chapter Text

He flies. Up above Dean's still confused soul and away from the alluring bindings of Earth back into the Heavens. No thought or purpose guides his path. In his mind and Grace, Castiel ponders the stumbling blocks laid out along the route of his next journey. He needs to guide Dean, but without the benefit of their relationship or even the ability to speak with him. It's difficult to fathom the lesson in this situation.

Then again, Castiel is not entirely certain his Father is teaching him lessons anymore.

His aimless wandering is wasting valuable time. Castiel knows this, yet he cannot stop himself. His Grace slides into wordless prayer for guidance and he floats across his Father's first creation. Below him, the structures of Heaven glitter with cold beauty, great buildings of snow white or pearled coral or translucent blue. No warmth to be found here. The love of his brothers and his Father deep and abiding, but not nearly the consuming fire of human affection.

Castiel wishes human comfort.

The realization strikes the moment before the Gate appears on the horizon and Castiel finds himself smiling. He'd been flying towards her this whole time without understanding his destination. There's no way of knowing if his Father's hand guides this choice or Castiel's own selfish needs, but it feels like the right thing to do.

The Guardian watches with solemn eyes as Castiel lands a few paces from the single golden gate that leads to the Fields.

"I sensed your approach, Seraph," the Guardian comments. "You are making a habit of this."

Two visits in the whole of eternity is hardly a habit, but given that Castiel is probably the only angel to ever seek audience with a deceased soul, it probably feels like one to the Guardian.

"I'm at a loss," Castiel says simply, unable to explain the depth of his uncertainty.

"I greatly doubt the human you seek will have the answers," the Guardian warns.

His fellow angels would not understand seeking discussion solely for comfort. Every conversation has a distinct purpose. To receive or clarify orders, to make reports or offer praise to the Father. Castiel has spoken of his new found emotions with Israfel, but only after teaching her the concept. It does not come naturally for angels and Castiel thinks perhaps their Father overcompensated for the lack when he made humans.

"I know she won't. Will you bring her forth?"

"I have no authority to keep the human from you."

Interesting.

Before Castiel can question the Guardian further on this statement, the Gate begins to glow with that familiar holy light. He turns from the Guardian to bask in the warmth, the swell of possessive love and for the first time in his endless existence, Casitel feels envy for his Father's children. How much easier could his life have been if he'd been given a human soul? One he could share fully with Dean and give to a Father that would welcome him beyond the Gate.

"You have much changed," the Guardian comments as a solid form begins developing within the light.

"I have," Castiel allows.

"You are not the only one," the Guardian intones, his voice lower and flatter. As though he is receiving Revelation. "You give to each other until you become a joined being, each one equally a part of the other."

Castiel's reaction to this piece of encouragement from his Father's messenger is surprising.

He laughs. All these years of wonder and frustration with Dean's all too human soul and here this messenger is telling him Dean would not be himself without Castiel's influence. There exists in the dark past a Castiel without feeling or knowledge of love, but there was never a Dean without Castiel. The logic of the notion is not to be disputed. Mates can do no less than change each other. But logic aside, Castiel's worry and mental fatigue twist the idea into something hilarious. He's shaped what he loves so dearly. Dean would undoubtedly protest the notion.

The Guardian merely frowns at Castiel's odd behavior and any questions he'd ask would go unanswered anyway because that's when the shape steps away from the light.

"Castiel?"

"Mary."

She's as lovely as ever, her youth captured in her death and the laughter fades from Castiel's throat. No matter how much he's changed, it's unlike an Angel to dwell on the past and so Castiel did not realize how much he's missed her presence until she is capturing him in a tight embrace.

"I didn't know if I'd ever see you again," she says, her voice shaking on barely suppressed emotion. "It's so good to see you." Pulling back, she brushes a lock of Castiel's long brown hair away from his face and smiles. "And I really never thought I'd see you laughing. What was so funny?"

Castiel feels certain he wouldn't be able to explain it. "I don't know."

"You seem different."

He catches her hand and squeezes it.

"I am different. Many things are different."

At these words, his former melancholy returns, thoroughly pushing away any good humor he'd been feeling. There's so much he could tell Mary, but as he looks down into her worried blue eyes, Castiel knows he will conceal much. If Mary is unaware of her son's journey through Hell, he does not wish to burden her with the knowledge. Especially not when she is supposed to be at rest.

"What's wrong?"

Perhaps he should have known Mary would sense his change in mood. Even if she were not well acquainted with his personality, she is no longer tied to a human body. The emotions she could only barely sense when wrapped in flesh now freely touch her soul.

"Dean can no longer hear my voice," Castiel admits with some reluctance. It feels like a failure to confess it. As though he lost Dean through some mistake of his own making. And for all he knows, that may be the case. "I attempted to communicate with him and nearly destroyed his ear drums."

Mary's concern brightens into surprise. "But I thought he was...how could he not hear you if you're soul mates? That doesn't make sense."

Indeed it does not. Although if Castiel is correct in his deduction that the Father gave Dean to him so that Castiel could save the soul from Hell, then perhaps there is no longer any reason for their bond to function like a typical soul mate connection. Maybe his Father's plan has carried out and Castiel is clinging to Dean like an emotional human who doesn't know how to let go. After all these years, Castiel would not be surprised if this were the case.

"I don't know," he says, feeling helplessness and a growing sense of anger.

"A gift, once given, can be returned," the Guardian suddenly speaks with that same flat tone.

Both Castiel and Mary jump slightly. He'd put the Guardian's presence out of his mind, though the other angel remained a mere five feet from them. Castiel's gaze snaps to the Guardian's blanked expression and carefully still wings. A message is being received and when the Guardian breaks the connection to deliver it, Castiel knows that whatever words are spoken are sanctioned by their Father.

"What does that mean?" Castiel asks slowly, both eager and dreading the answer.

"The ability to hear God's first children is not a gift given lightly. If the human in question rejects it, the gift is then removed," the Guardian explains before falling silent with a finality that Castiel can sense. There won't be a further explanation and in fact, the Guardian withdraws closer to the Gate, returning to the familiar position.

"I don't understand," Mary says at his side, her confusion splashed across her features. "Dean rejected it?"

"No," Castiel says, also confused, but verging on the edge of understanding. It feels as though the Guardian's words should be obvious, but it's difficult for Castiel to imagine Dean rejecting him when they just spent such pleasant hours together, diving deep into their bond and wrapping themselves in its warmth. "He never..."

Hide my memories again.

It can't be.

"But that was not a rejection," Castiel protests, spinning around to face the Guardian. "That was a necessary element of Dean's protection!"
"'When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me,'" the Guardian quoted. "Dean has become a man. He has put you away, Seraph."

"The only reason he asked me to take those memories is my orders," Castiel says, his voice twisting from shocked protest and into true anger. "He wanted to keep our connection alive. He didn't choose to 'put me away' as you say," he growls. The accusation stings his Grace. After fearing for so long in Hell that Dean would choose to turn him away, Castiel cannot tolerate this untruth. Dean chose him. Freely and with the knowledge of what Castiel is. Castiel is the one who rejected Dean. He is the one who no longer deserves to hear Dean.

"You may shape the situation to suit whatever version of events comforts you," the Guardian says, a hint of kindness threading into the monotone voice. "The truth remains. The first time the memory suppression was forced upon him. This time, it was his decision. By choosing to forget, Dean Winchester has forfeited his right to hear your Voice. If you don't wish to destroy him, you must choose another way."

Another way. There is only one other way. A way that Castiel once promised he would never use. Not under such permanent conditions. This mission with Dean will not be a short one. Defeating Lucifer together will take intricate planning and intense focus. They won't be able to accomplish the task without speaking to each other.

"Is there another way?" Mary asks, one pale hand falling whisper soft on his arm.

"There is," the Guardian says. A step back and the delicate cherubic form begins to fade, though Castiel knows the Guardian will stay nearby while he says goodbye to Mary. "And there is but one choice. One actor to play this role."

Castiel stares at the Guardian, willing more answers to fall from those lips. But no confirmation will come. His Father will not coddle Castiel. He knows what must be done.

"Yes, Mary," Castiel confirms. He turns away from the shivery image of the Guardian and lays his own hand over Mary's. "I have to go now. The next time we meet, I may not seem like myself."

Confusion marred the space between her eyebrows. "I don't understand, Castiel. What's going on?"

"I wish I could explain more, but I can't. But I want you to know that I will continue to protect your son with my life," Castiel promises her. When he tries to move away, Mary catches his hand. Even in her somewhat insubstantial form, she is able to hold him quite effectively. Castiel frowns at her. "Mary?"

"Take care of yourself too," she blurts. Then her expression turns wry. "And you know. I have another kid down there."

Castiel's confusion deepens. "Protecting Dean means protecting Sam," he says. It's so obvious, Castiel wonders why he even has to clarify. To his surpise, Mary only laughs in apparent delight and tugs him down to kiss his cheek.

"You know you're my best friend, don't you?" she says, her breath cool and sweet on his cheek. On impulse, Castiel closes his wings around her shoulders and pulls her into a full-bodied embrace. It's a moment of silent support Castiel instinctively knows he'll need in the coming months. The last of his dear close friends that remains aware of herself and of him. Yet truly Castiel feels blessed. Many angels never taste true friendship. Castiel has tasted it three times.

"I do," he confirms. Castiel draws back and touches her cheek once. "I will return when I'm able. But I have to go."

She nods. "I'll see you around, Cas."

The gate begins to glow, a signal. Mary doesn't move, but within the space of one thought and the next, her body dissolves away, her soul tucked back safely behind the Gate. Castiel watches the light until it has entirely faded. This part of his Father's love may not belong to him, but it's been so long since Castiel felt any portion of it that he allows himself a moment to indulge.

But the moment passes quickly. Time spins on and Castiel has a mission.

He must find Jimmy Novak.

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

By the time Castiel reaches Earth again, he knows it will be useless to seek Jimmy at this current point in time. Sinking into his true vessel requires a serious commitment. It will be dangerous and even potentially unpleasant. Jimmy will need plenty of time to choose or reject this path as he sees fit.

Castiel hopes Jimmy will accept. Finding another vessel that can hold his Grace for so long won't be easy.

Before beginning his search, Castiel checks one last time on Dean. He's standing outside an unknown house with Sam and a man called Bobby Singer. Bobby is the only of Dean's soul carriers that Castiel has never met. He suppose that will change soon. Singer's soul bears familiar damage, the haunting aches of grief and fatigue. But it is also loyal and good. Dean has benefited greatly from his relationship with John Winchester's old friend.

In contrast, it hurts to look on Sam. That innocent soul he once knew is buried so deeply under a demonic taint that Castiel can barely recognize it. He thinks of Mary's words. Sam needs help. Possibly even more than Dean. Castiel is just not certain he knows how to offer that help.

What's important now is that Dean appears safe. He prays Dean holds in that position until Castiel returns.

Then he turns his attention to his vessels. It takes a few moments to conjure up Israfel's advice on how call out his silent question into the void. His body of vessels has grown slightly since the last time Castiel sought them. Each one so pure and beautiful it pains Castiel to think of sullying them with his scarred Grace. Were it not necessary to protect every one of them, he would not consider it.

His questing Grace touches on one after another, searching for the brightest light. A familiar soul snags his attention and when Castiel turns towards it, he feels himself smile. Katie Novak lays with her head pillowed on the shoulders of a woman who carries a piece of her soul. A soul which glimmers happily. The sight pleases Castiel's Grace, but he can't stop to enjoy it. Not when the soul he seeks finally makes itself known. Very near to his sister, the light of Castiel's perfect vessel outshining every other around him. Jimmy stands alone in a home office, obviously working. Castiel memorizes the location. Traveling through time requires much of his attention. He won't have the luxury of second-guessing these little details.

Once again, Castiel's thoughts turn to Israfel. So many of these important moments in his past she stood beside him. Repeating a prayer that hasn't yet been answered is foolish, but as Castiel gathers the necessary energy to punch through the walls of time, he once more asks his Father to tug Israfel out of Death's hands.

Castiel's Grace compacts under the painful pressure of the passage, but he senses the success of his venture. His aim is one year previous to Dean's resurrection. One year should be sufficient enough time for Castiel to make his case. The scenery blurs around him, Jimmy's house darkening with a year-old nightfall. Castiel glimpses Jimmy asleep in a reclined chair, a television flicking light on him. A hint of the energy from his journey slips ahead of him, a tendril that draws an irritated whine from the television set. Castiel draws back and he would have landed safely and quietly if not for the voice.

"I invoke, conjure, and command you, appear unto me before this circle."

It isn't the first time that a human voice has called to him. His name exists in their languages. Castiel is old enough that his presence has been noted by those special humans that can speak with his kind. But he's never felt compelled to answer them. Not like this. The voice is strong and confident, but it's not his name that attracts his attention. It's not what jerks Castiel back from his path. There's power behind her words that is based in something undeniable.

His very own Grace.

Somehow this woman is commanding a strain of his own Grace to draw Castiel to her.

"I invoke, conjure, and command you, appear unto me before this circle."

In his struggle against the draw, Castiel sees another punch of energy escape his control and whip out at Jimmy, knocking him to the floor. Anger stirs within him, but Castiel won't risk Jimmy further. He breaks the connection to the past and lets the voice bring him forward again.

"You must turn away from this path," Castiel commands the voice. "Please, Pamela," he says, plucking her name from her thoughts. "My name is Castiel. I'm-"

"Castiel?" she says, interrupting him. There's derision in her tone when she continues. She has no idea what she is dealing with and Castiel suspects she wouldn't believe him if he told her. "No, sorry, Castiel. I don't scare easily."

"Castiel?"

A second bewildered voice lances through Castiel. Of course. He should have known. There is only one truly powerful source of his Grace outside his body and the owner of that voice is that very source. Dean must be already searching for the creature that brought him back from the depths.

"Its name. It's whispering to me, warning me to turn back."

This is a disaster. There's little chance this Pamela is a special human and Castiel knows his presence could also hurt Dean now. She must stop. "Please," he begs. "You don't understand. I will hurt you." In Pamela, Castiel senses a flash of indignation rather than fear. She had not been lying when she said she did not scare easily. Her soul has touched the otherwordly before. But nothing so destructive as Castiel. "Stop!" he bellows. "You must stop."

Pamela continues to murmur her command, her innate powers strengthened a thousand fold by the connection with the Grace Castiel left sewn into Dean's shoulder. Her voice rises as Castiel launches his power at her, warning shots that won't cause true harm.

She won't stop.

"I warned you," Castiel says sadly. The only thing he can do is try his best to keep his power confined to Pamela. Castiel doesn't want to hurt her, but he can't hurt Dean or Sam.

"Show me your voice now!"

The second his Grace enters the room, Pamela is thrown back. She sees him for only a split second, but he has no doubt the vision will remain seared in her mind for the rest of her life. An image replayed behind sightless eyes. Sorrow explodes in the Grace that turns those eyes to flame. Pamela screams, a wrenching sound he will also replay, but thankfully also an ending signal to the connection she created. Castiel immediately withdraws, flitting fast and far from that room.

That was not the first impression he wished to make on Dean. Besides his grief at hurting an innocent, Castiel knows he has already begun teaching Dean to fear him.

He needs Jimmy now more than ever.

Castiel doesn't allow for a moment to gather his wits. He doubts Dean will make another similar attempt. But he also knows Dean well. He won't give up until he can force a confrontation. If Dean is remain unharmed during it, Castiel will need a vessel of some kind. He hopes Jimmy recovered well enough from that last attempt.

With that thought in mind, Castiel sets his next attempt a few weeks after the first. By then, hopefully Jimmy will have filed the incident away with other unexplained events and won't fear Castiel. It's easier to gather the energy this time, whether because of the recent attempt or because of Castiel's urgency, he doesn't know or care. The pain is present again, but Castiel ignores it as he squeezes his Grace through the walls back into the past.

He steps carefully. Holding his Grace tightly contained so no tendrils escape. Castiel doesn't want a human appliance to announce his presence. This time when he lands in the past, it's late afternoon. Golden sunlight warms a cozy living room. Jimmy sits on a low couch alongside a slight woman, his fingers tangled in her dark blond hair. They both watch the television, a sense of peace in their souls. Castiel admires the love he sees in Jimmy for this woman, but something odd immediately catches his attention.

The woman is not his soul mate.

Clearly, he loves and desires her. The closeness of her body creates a low level pleasant buzz in Jimmy's that Castiel recognizes from his brief time as a human. But she only holds an ordinary piece of his soul. A large significant portion, but not the mate piece.

Interesting.

Castiel remains cloaked. He can only be certain of Jimmy's ability to see him and he's not in the mood to even contemplate the ramifications of harming another innocent. Instead, he watches and plans his next move. It's not a hardship. Castiel enjoys the moment to marvel at this man's soul. Pure in a way Dean's hasn't been in many years. Endlessly devout, composed of love, threaded through with keen intelligence. Castiel's bias towards Dean will never be overcome, but even so, he feels as though he could wile away a lengthy portion of his life in Jimmy's presence.

His contemplation is broken by the sound of a door slamming. A young voice calls out from the front hall.

"Daddy? Mom?"

The voice belongs to a female child who inherited her mother's physical characteristics and her father's beautiful soul. The match between the child's and Jimmy's is almost shocking. She is clearly another of Castiel's vessels and would be a powerful choice. But the connection is even stronger than that.

The girl carries Jimmy's soul mate piece.

Castiel is fascinated. He's never actually personally known a human that shared their mate piece with offspring. Jimmy's soul lights up with instinctive joy when his daughter squeezes in beside her parents on the couch. The answering happiness in the child twinges melancholy in Castiel's chest. In truth, it's only been a few short hours since he last saw Dean, but Castiel misses him powerfully. The faster he makes his overture, the faster he will see his own soul mate again.

He needs to catch Jimmy alone. The child might be able to bear his presence, but Castiel won't chance it. A quick pulse of traveling energy sends Castiel forward five hours. Night has fallen and both female humans lay sleeping in their beds. Jimmy is locking the front door, but his mind is focused on another task. He is praying.

Please keep my family safe tonight, Lord. Thank you for your loving care. Jimmy pauses by the staircase, his soul suddenly overcome by a deep emotion Castiel recognizes very easily. The desire to please the Father. Please make me a vessel of your word, God.

His phrasing is too precise to be a coincidence. Castiel wonders if he dare hope this is his Father's way of showing him he's on the right path. After everything that's happened, allowing himself that hope is difficult. Still, it certainly doesn't dim Castiel's confidence in his plan. Castiel lifts the cloak that keeps him hidden.

"Jimmy Novak."

Jimmy startles and whirls on Castiel, his hands coming up in a defensive maneuver, but when he sees the creature facing him, shock slackens both his features and his posture. "What...what are you?" he murmurs even as understanding lights in his soul. The truly faithful are so much easier to communicate with. Castiel creates a protective barrier for the room to keep his Voice from leaking into the other areas of the house.

"I am an angel," Castiel says. "Which you have already guessed. My name is Castiel."

"Castiel," Jimmy repeats, his voice nearly disappearing under the weight of his awe. Castiel sees a certainty settle over Jimmy's soul, locking his belief into place. Even the faithful must contain doubts. That is human nature. But with this confrontation of something he only hoped to be true, Jimmy's belief turns concrete. "Why are you here, Castiel?" he asks with a flush of joy at the pleasure of saying his name.

In spite of his desire to do so, Castiel can't rush this interaction.

"I wanted to meet you, Jimmy. You are one of my Father's most faithful children," he says. "Someday soon, I will ask you a very important question. But before then, I must ask this one. Will you allow me to visit you again?"

Surprise steals Jimmy's words momentarily. Castiel senses his slight confusion. It seems as though his question was unnecessary.

"Of course. Of course, any time," Jimmy rushes to assure him, stepping forward, though not close enough to touch. His fear and reverence keep Jimmy a respectful distance away. Castiel nods and lifts his wings, partly because he needs to soon leave and partly because he's learned to enjoy human's reactions to his third set of limbs. Jimmy doesn't disappoint. His intriguing blue eyes widen and his breath gets trapped in his lungs. The amazement feels different to Dean's. Less affection and absolutely none of the possessiveness. Instead, Jimmy's awe is worshipful. He view angels as part of the hierarchy of his life and considers himself in the bottom category. Dean views angels as beings who should provide him with fun. Or at least he used to. Castiel lets his lips quirk up in a very slight smile.

"I will return soon," he promises Jimmy and without waiting for his response, Castiel once more collects the energy for travel. This time he allows only one week to pass before finding Jimmy standing in his kitchen. Around him lay the ingredients and tools to create a meal. He is alone and so when a wisp of Castiel's traveling energy catches on the radio, it snags his attention immediately. His body tenses, but Castiel doesn't let him listen quietly for very long.

"Hello, Jimmy."

Jimmy drops the spatula he'd been holding. "Castiel!" His surprise turns his tone familiar, the scolding of one friend to another. But the second he registers exactly who he's addressed, his expression phases into the fearful respect Castiel expected. "You came back."

"I told you I would," Castiel says. He watches the way Jimmy's eyes move over the shape of his wings. Humans must suffer from wing envy. "I will always keep my promises, Jimmy. Do you believe that?"

He can tell by the way Jimmy's soul reaches for Castiel's Grace that his instant answer is yes. There's no question of Jimmy's belief or his faith. Castiel thinks he could probably ask for Jimmy's help in that moment, but he needs for Jimmy to understand how serious this decision is.

"Yes, of course," Jimmy assures him with a shy smile. "Are you here to ask me the question?"

His soul is eager for it. Jimmy wants to prove himself to Castiel and to God. His sweet unspoken offer endears him ever further to Castiel's Grace.

"I am here to explain the question to you," Castiel corrects. "All humans are special to my Father, but you are unique, Jimmy. You were born with an ability no one else on this Earth can claim."

The fear in Jimmy grows. Castiel is not surprised. No matter how faithful and willing, no human could avoid feeling the weight of such awesome responsibility. In fact, the weight might be even more crushing on someone who believes so fervently. He can't use the excuse of disbelief to cast off the task so easily.

"I...I don't know what to say," Jimmy confesses, rubbing at the side of his mouth, an obvious nervous habit. "I want...I want to be useful." Something settles in his soul, the fear soothed by calling on the vast love he carries there. "I want to prove my faith to him."

Castiel thinks for a moment. As far as he's concerned, Jimmy has already proven himself. But under the rock solid belief, there is a flicker of doubt. Not in Castiel or in God, but rather in himself. Jimmy isn't entirely sure he has the strength to complete whatever mission Castiel has for him.

Perhaps a test wouldn't be amiss.

"You can prove your faith to me now," Castiel says suddenly, but his mind blanks when Jimmy gives him an expectant look. All Castiel needs to do is look into his soul to find his satisfaction. But Jimmy needs more. He must think like a human.

He must think like Dean.

The idea that leaps into his mind has its roots in Dean's self-sacrificing personality. Castiel has never before known a being so willing to hurt himself to demonstrate his love for others. Maybe the message will translate with Jimmy as well. Castiel loses little from trying.

"Do you believe I can protect you from harm if you were to..." The pot bubbling away on Jimmy's stove catches his eye. "If you were to dip your hand in that boiling water?"

Jimmy's throat muscles jump, but he doesn't vocalize the hint of uncertainty that clouds his soul. This time, Castiel sees that uncertainty stems not from Jimmy's disbelief in Castiel's ability to protect him. But rather from the rational part of Jimmy's mind that tells him the water will hurt. It takes him only a few breaths to bury that part again. Castiel is impressed. His Father chose this vessel well.

"Yes," he declares.

It's a simple matter to cool the water. Bubbles continue to pop and spray water against the pot's side, but it won't harm Jimmy in the least.

"Then do it," Castiel orders. "Then you will see that your faith is true."

If nothing else, hearing that Castiel believes it may convince him. Jimmy steps up to the pot and with one last fleeting glance at Castiel, slowly presses his hand under the rolling surface. Wonder immediately blossoms across his handsome face. "Oh," he breathes. That kernel of uncertainty melts away with each passing second that Jimmy's skin remains unmarked. "You really did it."

"I could say the same," Castiel says.

He would have said more, but he senses the approach of Jimmy's wife. Castiel cloaks himself just as he hears the front door open. He stays long enough to see the wife drop the bags in her arms and rush towards her husband. Jimmy's reassurances do little to calm her shock and fear. He leaves them to argue about it. She will have to be made aware of Jimmy's potential decision and they deserve the privacy to discuss it. On his next push forward, Castiel only lets a few days pass. It's the dead of night when he arrives. The pressure of splitting time lessens each time he does it. Instead of being painful, now it's merely unpleasant.

"Castiel," Jimmy says, his voice quiet and sad. "I was hoping I'd see you soon."

"What is wrong?"

"Amelia...that's my wife." He pauses to let out a nervous chuckle. "Which I guess you'd know." Another pause. "She's having trouble understanding this."

"Yes," Castiel agrees. "It's not an easy thing for any human to accept. But I am more concerned about you. Do you understand it?"

"I don't...parts of it, I think," Jimmy says, his gaze focused on his hands twisting in his lap. "I believe that God has something important for me to do. I just don't get...why me?"

There are mysteries clutching at the vessel system that Castiel doesn't understand himself. He knows how people are known as vessels. But he can't say exactly why certain individuals are chosen. "We can't begin to question God," Castiel says, holding up one hand to stall Jimmy's immediate babble of apology. "I know it's human nature to do so. But in this, you won't find an answer. I know you were chosen for this task because I can sense it in your soul. In your blood," he clarifies.

"My blood?" Jimmy asks, his forehead wrinkling with confusion.

"This particular task is generally passed down through the generations," Castiel explains. "Though not every family member is chosen."

"So...it's like the sins of the father, but...but a positive thing instead?" Jimmy asks. His human desperation for understanding adds another layer to Castiel's admiration. He'll never quite understand how human brains function, but Castiel finds their constant curiosity enthralling.

"Something like that."

"I wish I could introduce you to Amelia. She...I mean, she believes too, but it's harder when you haven't seen you."

Castiel sympathizes. If he were being asked to accomplish an important task, he'd want Dean to believe him and speak to him about it. But Amelia's acceptance is less important than Jimmy's and certainly less important than the chance he might harm her with his true visage.

"I'm sorry, Jimmy, but my appearance is destructive to most humans. You are special in that way as well," he says fondly.

The knowledge startles another weak laugh out of Jimmy. "A few weeks ago, I was just this guy. And now..."

"Trust me, I know the feeling," Castiel says, his mind playing a vivid memory of the day Dean's soul piece first smacked him in the chest. "I will give you more time."

Another exit without waiting, another few days passing to the next visit. Each time that Castiel succeeds in finding Jimmy alone, they speak in quiet tones. Jimmy asks many questions that Castiel can't answer, some he won't and several he enjoys answering. The half hour he spends describing the angelic portion of Heaven gives Castiel a thrill of homesickness and blurs Jimmy's eyes with tears. Each time they meet, Jimmy asks Castiel how he can prove himself. He's not ready to hear the final question, but each new test builds his confidence, drawing Jimmy towards Castiel's goal. It tasks Castiel's imagination to come up with new tests every time, but he must say he rather enjoys the night Jimmy allows Castiel to lift them both onto the roof under the power of his wings.

"This is incredible!" Jimmy shouts, his delight erasing his caution. A light flips on at the next house over and when Castiel leaves him, Jimmy is trying to explain to an irritated neighbor what he's doing standing on his roof and screaming in the middle of the night.

Castiel is not entirely surprised when Jimmy initiates the next visit. His tests have drawn the attention of Jimmy's family and the fellow humans in his life. It's time for a decision, but Castiel does not expect the anxiety he senses in Jimmy's soul. The vessel stands ramrod straight outside his home, folded into the darkness of night, his breaths silent clouds puffing from his lips.

"So, I wanna to help you. I'm about to lose my family here if you don't tell me how . . . Please, Castiel, just talk to me. What do you want from me?"

He had not realized Jimmy's home situation had become so difficult. A flash of guilt is brutally squashed. Castiel feels for the absence this family is about to suffer, but ending Lucifer's threat is simply more important. They will suffer far more if Dean and Castiel cannot complete their own God-given mission.

Castiel doesn't bother uncloaking when he answers. Already he feels his Grace losing the connection with his natural form. Jimmy's answer is not in doubt.

"I have been given my own task," he says. "In my natural form, I am too dangerous. I need you to be my vessel, Jimmy. I need you to let me use your body as though it were my own. I don't know how long I will have this need and I don't know how safe we will be." In this last moment before being given permission, Castiel refuses to hide the truth. "But I do know that if I am not successful, the world will burn. It won't be easy, can you see that?"

"Yes, I understand," Jimmy says and Castiel believes him. His soul is reverent as always, but it's also solemn. He senses the enormity of what Castiel is asking him. It makes his swift answer even more amazing to Castiel. "Promise my family will be okay and I'll do it."

"Of course," Castiel says. He will personally ask one of his brothers to watch the Novak family.

"Then...yes."

One simple word and Castiel's Grace jumps forward. The permission changes their relationship in an instant. Ever since Castiel first saw Jimmy Novak all those years ago, his Grace has desired the connection it begins to make. The first touch of Grace and soul stuns Castiel. He hadn't expected it to feel so right. Like a perfect fit, his Grace slipping into the cracks Jimmy's 'yes' created. His Grace lovingly wraps around Jimmy's soul as Castiel feels his senses shrink. Though he doesn't feel as cramped and awkward as he did in Katie's body, his Grace is still being severely constricted. Even the perfect human is so finite. A hundred sensations flood Castiel's Grace. The frigid night air touching Castiel's new skin. The scent of pine tickling his nose. Harsh wool scratching his body. An odd strip of material hanging loosely around his neck. Each one alone compelling enough, but together, more than enough to overwhelm Castiel.

I...I don't. Castiel.

Jimmy's voice is faint and breathy. Castiel can sense his discomfort. He needs to focus. But it's much more difficult to draw his calming Grace between himself and such visceral sensation. Don't be afraid, Castiel whispers back as he uses all his strength to push away the human feelings. I'm going to help you rest.

Oh, um, alright. Yeah, that's good. But when Castiel touches Jimmy's mind, the human resists.

Jimmy?

Just...be careful, okay? And...and good luck.

Thank you.

Luckily, the ease with which Castiel can sooth a human's mind into sleep remains the same as before. A shaky kind of peace settles in the soul Castiel holds safe. Leaving him alone in a human body for only the second time in his existence. A male body this time. It feels quite different. Jimmy is shorter than Dean, but he's still much taller than Katie had been and his body is both flatter and broader. Castiel lifts one of Jimmy's hands and stares at it. Even for an angel, it's no easy thing looking at your body and not actually seeing it.

"Daddy?"

Jimmy's child stands behind him. Castiel turns and contemplates her in confusion. Despite the fact that Jimmy's soul sluggishly responds to her presence, Castiel finds it hard to believe the girl can't sense the difference between Jimmy and Castiel. Surely she must see this is not the bearer of her soul mate piece. At least not only.

The sooner she knows, the easier her acceptance will come.

"I am not your father."

His thoughts are already on Dean as Castiel walks away, leaving the girl watching after him. His journey in the past has most likely only taken the span of one day, but that's already too much time. They need to start right away.

Unfortunately, Castiel quickly discovers that flinging his Grace foward in time is much more complicated when it's encased in human flesh. These fragile bodies aren't built to facilitate angel powers. Jimmy's body doesn't strand Castiel in the past, but as he aims for Dean's soul in the future, Castiel very quickly loses control of his power. It lashes out in great heaving ropes made clumsier by Castiel's sudden panic and before he really understands what's going on, he sees Dean falling to the ground and curling in on himself to avoid a crashing avalanche of glass.

Castiel wrenches back the travel energy, but it's too late. His second meeting with Dean is nearly as destructive as the first and even in the brief time Castiel stays nearby, he senses the fear and anger in Dean's surface thoughts. His soul still reaches eagerly for Castiel's Grace, shining with the light of loving recognition. But for the most part, Castiel is building an awful reputation with this amnesiac version of Dean.

Zarhariah would likely approve and isn't that what Dean told him to do? Act like a dick. Maybe playing on this fear will even help. Dean's soul knows what it wants. It's Castiel's job to convince it otherwise. Being a threat would help.

But Castiel doesn't have to like it.

He flits away, his wings only at half-strength. More than enough to transport an angel and human condensed in the same body away for a few hours to regroup. Or rather to let Dean regroup. Castiel doesn't want to approach Dean while he feels vulnerable from a perceived attack. A bit of time to settle his powers back in both this body and this time. His entrance rouses Jimmy enough for Castiel to sense a hint of confusion. He lulls Jimmy back to sleep and touches the memory core of his mind so his vessel will dreams of happy times with his family. Castiel doubts he can completely ease the discomfort of sharing such intimate quarters with the power of an angel, but he will do his best by Jimmy. In that same vein, Castiel uses the time to issue an order to one of his brothers to offer protection over the Novak family.

Only an hour or two have passed when Castiel feels ready again. His Grace alert and calm, his senses untroubled by any stray human sensation. Jimmy sleeps quietly and the time has come.

It's time for Castiel to finally speak with Dean again.

His Grace locks onto Dean's soul. It hasn't moved far from its previous location. A quick connection shows Castiel that Dean is tense with both boredom and anticipation. Perfect. He's expecting Castiel. He slides through the underspace and when he emerges, Castiel is standing outside of a dilapidated old barn. Dean and another soul, his carrier Bobby, are waiting within. He takes one step forward, but the plan to intimidate Dean returns to Castiel's thoughts.

He sighs.

"I will expect reparation for this," Castiel mutters.

With the flick of his wrist, a tendril of Grace whips out at the barn, shaking the structure enough to alarm Castiel. But it stands, so Castiel keeps up a steady flow as he walks forward and drags the doors open with another tendril. The Grace shooting out from his body isn't enough to harm anyone, but the force of it does prove too much for the fragile glass bulbs hanging from the barn's ceiling. Castiel has no idea what this production looks like from the other side, but judging by the growing terror in Dean's soul, he's getting his message across.

The bullets are also convincing evidence.

The only pain Castiel feels is emotional. He wants Dean to run to him the way he used to as a child and throw his arms around Castiel's neck. Castiel wants Dean to say how much he's missed him.

Instead, he gets more bullets. By the time Castiel stops in front of him, Dean's expression has cycled through anger, disbelief, fear, shock and now back to anger.

"Who are you?" he snarls.

So many answers to that question cluster on his tongue.

I'm one of your soul carriers. I'm the holder of your memories. I'm your mother's best friend.

I'm yours.

But Dean needs another simpler truth now. The proof that Castiel wants to help him instead of hurt him.

"I'm the one who gripped you tight and raised you from Perdition."

None of the anger lifts from Dean's face and it's joined by no understanding.

"Yeah, thanks for that," Dean growls before plunging a knife through the center of Castiel's chest.

Well.

This is an excellent start.

Chapter Text

Jesus fucking Christ, what the hell is this thing?

It's the only thought in Dean's mind, rotating on a loop as the doors of the barn explode open and a creature wearing a human body walks in. Fucking strolls in like he owns the place and hey, bullets don't mean anything to me because I'm a fucking badass mother fucking demon that dragged your ass from hell.

Dean's having a pretty shitty day.

Granted, not as shitty as anything that happened to him in the Pit, but still frustrating and infuriating. He wants to crawl away to lick his wounds. Not deal with asshole demons continuing to mess with his life. Dean is so sick of demons, he could puke. In fact, he wishes he would puke, right into this cocksucker's face.

Maybe he could stab the demon in the face instead. When the bullets fail to even faze their target, Dean sneaks Ruby's knife off the table into his right hand and turns as the creature approaches. The demon has shockingly blue eyes, tousled black hair and a grim expression. In truth, he doesn't look much like the other demons Dean has encountered. Not in his physical body because Dean knows that's someone else's meatsuit. But rather in the way he holds himself and the lack of emotions. Most demons carry an eternal smirk and can't wait to start taunting. Most would have started mocking Dean right from the door. This guy marches up to him without a smile or facial tic of any kind.

It's freaky.

"Who are you?" Dean demands.

"I'm the one who gripped you tight and raised you from Perdition," is the creature's bullshit reply.

Dean could stab him just for being melodramatic.

So he does.

"Yeah, thanks for that," he snarls as well, but instead of the expected sizzle and shocked expression, the thing fucking smirks at Dean. Smirks and tugs the knife out of his chest. Dean's been too angry to be afraid, but the thing's careless attitude towards what should destroy it creates the first spike of real fear in Dean's chest.

The knife clatters to the floor. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean sees a hint of movement and he can't tell if his eyes telegraph Bobby's actions or if the creature can just sense these things, but it catches Bobby's tire iron before the metal can do any damage. Then he reaches up and with one touch to the forehead, knocks Bobby to the ground. Panic jumps into Dean's throat. He can't lose Bobby. Not after losing both his parents and not to the bleak-eyed son of a bitch turning to pin Dean with an intent gaze.

"We need to talk, Dean. Alone."

"Most people just ask," Dean growls, pushing past the creature and dropping to his knees beside Bobby's body.

Please don't be dead. Oh god, please don't be dead.

"Your friend's alive," the thing says in a bored tone. It's moved over to examine one of Bobby's books. The fact that it's casually touching Bobby's things overrides some of the fear churning in Dean's gut. That and the fact that the creature is right. Whatever power the thing used on him, Bobby's still breathing and his pulse is steady. Dean slowly lifts his eyes from Bobby to the creature.

"Who are you?" he repeats because if he doesn't get some goddamned answers soon, he's going to lose what's left of his mind.

The creature doesn't even bother to look up from the book.

"Castiel."

Great. Of course Dean would get the over obvious demon.

"Yeah, I figured that much. I mean what are you?"

That question manages to snag the being's attention finally. When it looks up though, its freakish eyes are confused. Like it thinks Dean should already know who and what it is.

"I'm an angel of the Lord."

That was not what Dean expected it to say. For a moment, he's speechless. Not with surprise or even anger, but rather a tingle of odd grief. Angels always make him think of his mother and her unwarranted faith.

The connection refuels his anger, but just before he lets loose a string of abuse, Dean catches the briefest flash of emotion in those ice-cold eyes. Something that looks very much anxiety. Deep fucking breath-taking anxiety. It confuses Dean enough to soften his words into simple denial.

"Get the hell out of here. There's no such thing."

Whatever Dean saw is now gone. The thing...Castiel, whatever...turns to face him. He lowers his eyes and gives Dean such a smug look that the desire to stab him in the face returns.

"This is your problem, Dean. You have no faith," he says.

Like he actually knows Dean. Like he thinks he's Dean's best friend instead of a lying son of a bitch demon. It's such bullshit. The worst kind of deception because it's too good to be true. An angel? A cosmic good guy somehow on Dean's side that fought his way through Hell just to pluck one pathetic asshole out of the flames?

Yeah, right.

The words don't have a chance to fall off his tongue. No, because right then actual lightning fills the barn and a pair of huge shadowy goddamned wings explode off Castiel's back. They cast two shaking outlines on the spray-painted walls behind him and in them, Dean sees individual feathers, each one ragged and wilted. As though they hadn't been cared for or were recently injured.

Dean only just manages to choke down a strangled sob.

The inexplicable reaction throws him off-balance and the only thing he can think to do is fall back on insults. It helps that Castiel's expression is particularly smug now, as though challenging Dean to deny his angelhood now that he's seen winged evidence.

"Some angel you are," Dean taunts, his heart pounding a different emotion through his body. "You burned out that poor woman's eyes."

No matter how much Dean wishes Castiel weren't really a demon sent to torment him, the fact that he melted Pamela's eyes out of her skull surely must cancel out the proof of Castiel's wings. Besides, who says demons can't have wings, right? Especially if they're black. It's all wrong. Angel wings are supposed to be shiny pure white.

"I warned her not to spy on my true form," Castiel says with something parading as true regret. He takes a step closer to Dean and for all that they are standing in a huge open space, Dean feels like Castiel is crowding him. It's like there's something bigger than the man standing before him, something that can reach out beyond Castiel's form and touch at Dean in ways that he can't understand. "It can be...overwhelming to humans. And so can my real voice. But you already knew that."

Dean understands his meaning immediately, but can't quite grasp the enormity of it.

"You mean the gas station and the motel. That was you talking?"

Jesus. He's never ever heard of something that could cause that much pain just with a few words. But Castiel's almost shy nod confirms the story.

Come to think of it...if Castiel is an angel, Dean got stuck with a really fucking dumb one.

"Buddy, next time lower the volume."

The aggrieved expression on Castiel's face would be funny if they weren't discussing his ability to shred Dean's various senses with his voice.

"That was my mistake." Oh, a demon that admits mistakes. That's a new one. "Certain people, special people, can percieve my true visage. I thought you would be one of them. I was wrong."

It stings far more than it should considering Dean doesn't truly believe him. He doesn't care if Castiel thinks he's special or not, but of course of course he wouldn't be. As if Dean Winchester's eyes were good enough to see an angel's face.

If angels were real, that is.

He's disgruntled enough to attack Castiel on another front, picking at a disturbing part of this whole ordeal that just now occurred to him.

"And what visage are you in now, huh? Holy tax accountant?"

The most interesting part of Castiel's get-up are the bullet holes Dean and Bobby added to his ensemble a moment ago. Accountant is the most boring job Dean can think of, but he could easily believe Castiel a lawyer, history teacher or librarian. Something Sam would like, no doubt.

"This?" Castiel plucks at his ruined coat as though he hadn't remembered the body he wore even existed. "This is a vessel."

The very word curdled Dean's blood.

"You're possessing some poor bastard?"

Not exactly making him lean towards the angel column in the 'What's Castiel?' game. Possessing bodies is demon's work and if angels are in the same business, Dean doesn't want anything to do with them either.

"He's a devout man. He actually prayed for this," Castiel says and just no. Fucking no. No one would pray to give up their body. No one would volunteer their freedom like that and certainly not to let some angel dig Dean's worthless soul out of hell.

It's all a lie. A huge devastating enticing lie.

"Well, I'm not buying what you're selling, so who are you really?"

Stop lying to me. Why are you lying to me?

Castiel frowns like a hurt puppy that lost its ball. "I told you," he says and Dean can hear the underlying Shouldn't that be enough? Why don't you trust me? It's easily the worst part of this encounter, that bewildering familiarity.

"Right," Dean says, practically shaking with the strength of his confused and tumultuous emotions. "And why would an angel rescue me from Hell?"

How could something that good have anything to do with someone so bad?

Then Castiel is moving closer. Right into Dean's personal space, that strange flowing kind of power he carries seemingly wrapping all the way around Dean. It's warm somehow, though Dean feels cold in the damp night air. The intense focus of Castiel's sharpens to laserlike precision, zeroed in to the deepest part of Dean.

"Good things do happen, Dean."

Good things. Good things happen, but all of Dean's memories are fire and death and pain down to his bones, to his essence, every fiber of his being throbbing with cutting wrenching soul piercing loneliness.

The good things don't override the emptiness Dean's felt inside him his entire life.

"Not in my experience," he barely manages to say, his voice choked.

It feels like Dean can actually sense Castiel's confusion as well as his desperation to understand. Demon or angel, it doesn't matter. Castiel trying to understand Dean makes no sense. Either he wants to kill him or wants to help him. Caring about him is ridiculous.

It'll just get him hurt.

Castiel's expression abruptly lightens, an epiphany scrawling across his features and bringing life to his marbled eyes.

"You don't think you deserve to be saved," Castiel breathes.

The words puncture that empty space Dean's just been thinking of and the truth of it sinks deep. He hates it. In that moment, Dean hates himself and he hates Castiel. He hates Castiel for knowing a secret about him and for making Dean believe, if only for just one brief instant. Just long enough to rasp out a question that scares the fuck out of him.

"Why'd you do it?"

Castiel lowers his eyes and when he speaks, his voice is weighted with authority beyond what Dean can really understand.

"Because God commanded it. Because we have work for you."

His chest constricts so hard Dean can barely get a breath. It's not real, he says to himself. Not real. No such thing as God. Panic bubbles up through his stomach, pumped out through his heart to his whole body and even as he chants to himself, Dean's never felt something more true in his life.

Please not me. I can't do this. I can't, Cas.

That's not what he says. What he says are words meant to cool the fires of belief and the clenching fist of certainty. Dean doesn't want this work or this angel or hell, even this life. He's just so tired of it all.

"Fuck you, man," he grunts, voice still stretched thin. "God's not real and if he were, I wouldn't lift a finger to help the asshole."

Castiel looks off to the side for a moment, frustration creeping into his expression.

"I should remember you're stubborn," he murmurs.

"Excuse me?"

Those eyes quickly snap back to Dean's face and this time, Castiel's gaze is hard and angry. Intimidating, if Dean were being honest. He only realizes he's stepping back when Castiel moves forward to keep the distance the same between them.

"You will fulfill your destiny, Dean Winchester. You don't have a choice."

That statement doesn't sit right with Dean. Not one bit.

"Humans always have a choice-"

Castiel's gaze flickers off to the side again, but his focus blurs so much that Dean thinks he's seeing something that isn't there. Or hearing something that isn't there.

"I don't have time to explain this to you right now," Castiel interrupts him as his eyes refocus on Dean's face. He sounds deeply irritated. "You are not the only one hurting this night. I'll return when I can."

And then he's gone. Disappeared with a light flapping sound and leaving Dean with a now stirring Bobby. A low groan steals Dean's attention from the empty space where Castiel had been standing.

"What the hell happened?" Bobby grumbles, rubbing his forehead and struggling to sit up. "What was that thing?"

So many ways to answer that question. Too many. So Dean goes with the one thing he knows without a doubt.

"Whatever he is, he's a dick."