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Stitches

Chapter Text

The angel knew four things: his body was wet, his body was cold, the ground smelled like home, and it was very, very dark.

There were more things, endless things, that he didn't know. Wouldn't be able to tell anyone if he was asked. How long he'd been here, for example. When he'd found himself out of the water and curled up on the shore. How he'd survived. Why he was alone. Why he couldn't hear his brothers and sisters far away behind the sky.

Every once in a while he forgot who he was, exactly, and panicked until it came back to him.

He knew he was alive, at least, but he couldn't remember how to move. Everything hurt, a blazing and endless agony, so fiery and searing that he could almost forget it.

He'd seen creatures in this kind of pain before. He knew that most of them simply lay back and let it kill them for a moment of peace, but he couldn't for the life of him remember how to die.

His body was wet, and from what he could tell—in the lucid moments between flares of angry aching—it was naked, as well, and the angel couldn't bring himself to care.

His body was cold; he could feel the grass tickling the gooseflesh on his vessel's arms. Bitter cold and bitter pain and perfect agony.

The ground smelled like home, and it took him what felt like days to realise that  home  meant  a long black car and two boys , and it took him what felt like another week to realise that the water on his cheeks was different from the water that lapped at his feet. It was salty.  Tears , the word was.  Weeping .

It was very, very dark.

The angel lay in the mud on the shore of the public water reservoir, face-down in the dirt. His breath was shallow; every rise-and-fall of his ribs made it feel as if they were cracking, little by little. After a long time he identified the scent of blood mixed with the smell of the ground and realised later that the blood must be his.

He wanted to scream and rake at his body to cast off the itch and the stabbing in his wounds, but his arms and legs and hips and neck refused to move. He screamed inside his skull instead, long and howling.

He screamed a name.  Dean . Over and over until it lost any meaning.

The angel knew four things, and he knew one more: that if he was alone for much longer, he would die here. Flicker out and fade away like a candle flame. Snuffed. Whispered away.

Perhaps he slept.

When the air changed, he barely registered it. The mud had dried to the side of his face—he felt it pulling at his flesh, another itch to agonise over—and, blissfully, the feeling had fled from his fingers and toes. Inch by inch of relief. Of course, it only made the fire more torrential everywhere else.

The angel didn't comprehend that anything was different until he heard, very distantly, as if a thousand miles away, the slamming of a car door.  A long black car . And then feet on gravel, and the clanking of the chain link fence, and a long pause hanging over the wind, the bitter cold wind, and then a hoarse voice shouting out over the endless repetition of the water:

“Cas!”

My name , he thought, far back in the darkness, and when he felt the warm calloused hands on his cold, cold body, he finally let himself drift into unconsciousness. Beautiful, painless, and blissful.

The darkness didn't change.

Chapter Text

Sam had been alone in the cabin for four days now, and he was getting worried, but he didn't dare pick up the phone to call Dean. For one, they were still in hiding, and for another, he had a feeling that if Dean picked up, he wouldn't be in the mood to talk.

It had all happened very quickly. Not that Sam wasn't expecting it—the air had been tense and taut for weeks. It was only a matter of time until his brother snapped, and four days ago, he had. He'd packed a bag, taken the last near-full bottle of whiskey, and driven off in the Impala.

Sam had seen him heading west and known immediately where he was going.

Finally, he'd thought to himself, and behind his shoulder a low silk voice had replied,  Got you all to myself now, then? and he'd tried his hardest not to hear it. For a moment panic had sparked in his chest, but it was four days without Dean, now, and though the palm of his hand was red and raw, nothing too bad had happened.

He watched whatever was on the crappy television and only allowed himself to worry about his brother in the small moments of silence between commercials. He field-stripped his guns a dozen times until he grew tired of the feeling of the weapons in his hands. He slept when he felt safe, which wasn't often, but was often enough.

Around two in the afternoon on the fifth day, his hand was finally reaching for the phone when he heard a familiar rumble on the drive and felt his heart leap into his throat.

He'd known all along where Dean was going. The look in his brother's eyes as he'd walked out the door had been explanation enough. And the fact that it had taken this long to get back could only mean that he'd found what he'd been looking for.

Sam forced himself not to bolt out to the car. He turned off the television and waited, half-perched on the end of the sofa, listening for a call from his brother or a knock on the door.

Like a crashing wave it came: “Sam! Come out here and help me—”

He opened the creaking cabin door and saw Dean, crouched beside the passenger door of the car, obscured by the black metal. Then his brother straightened, and Sam saw a limp white hand dangling down by his side, and felt the strangest combination of joy and fear he'd ever known.


XXX


To say that Castiel was a mess would be a horrific understatement. As soon as Dean laid him out on the bed in the back of the house—he'd carried the angel into the cabin in his arms, cradling him like a child, and Sam would have found it sweet if the air hadn't felt so dire—Sam had to resist recoiling in horror.

Words like  shreds  and  broken  and  meat  were floating through his mind—Castiel's skin, opened as if by claws or teeth, long splitting wounds on his stomach and chest, most of his fingers broken and his ankles too, here and there a sliver of bone sticking out of the flesh; caked in mud and dried blood, rust-coloured and sticky, matted into his hair. The side of his mouth split, as if torn with a knife. Sam could see the vague white of teeth through the slit.

And almost worst of all, the flesh around the angel's eyes. Purpled and veined, as if bruised, and his eyelids sealed shut with blood and black muck. His face was the mask of a corpse.

“Is he—?” Sam managed to choke out, and Dean hastily said “No, no, just not awake, I—I think he's unconscious—” and then fell silent.

Out of the corner of his eye Sam saw his brother's hand shaking, ever-so-slightly, pressed against his mouth. He couldn't seem to stop looking at the angel's ravaged body and the gaze was so locked, so intense, that a moment later Sam had to reach out and shake him from his reverie, and say, “We need to clean him up, Dean.”

Easier said than done, as it turned out. They raided what stores of supplies they had left for every stitch of bandage and spool of thread to be had, every clean towel in the place, peroxide and alcohol. Sam sat on the edge of the dusty mattress and gently lifted Castiel's body from the bloody sheets, and no sooner had Dean touched a wet washcloth to one of the jagged cuts on the angel's chest than Cas shuddered violently and a sound that might have been a scream tore itself from his lips.

“Woah, woah, woah,” Dean said, hastily dropping the washcloth; Sam, startled, had let the angel fall back onto the bed. Castiel's head fell back, exposing his neck, Adam's apple working frantically as he gasped, as if for air or a voice. Behind his blue-veined eyelids the Winchesters could see his eyes rolling desperately in their sockets.

“Hey—hey, Cas,” Dean said, trying to sound soothing and failing; he bent over the angel and touched a firm hand to his cheek. Almost immediately Cas calmed. His shoulders still shook but he leaned into Dean's palm as if it were the only warm thing in the world. “You're okay. You're safe, alright? We need to fix you up, okay?”

Cas made a hoarse sound and then stammered out, voice rough as gravel, “D-Dean?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it's me, it's me and Sam. We've got you. Okay?” Very gently, as if by some unfamiliar instinct, Dean stroked the angel's hair away from his temples, ignoring the blood and the muck and the mud that came off onto his fingers. Sam watched from the other side of the bed. His hand was still on the angel's shoulder and, very softly, he squeezed, his own silent encouragement.

“We've got you, Cas,” Dean said, low and smooth. “Sam and I, we've got you. You're gonna be just fine. But we have to clean you up, okay?”

Castiel's face contorted, in pain or fear, neither brother could tell which. With something that sounded—frighteningly—like a whimper, he swallowed hard and nodded, breath hitching as pain shot through his neck.

“Hurts,” he managed, turning his face into the mattress as best he could.  Dark, so dark.

“I know it does, Cas, I know,” Dean was saying. “I'm sorry. God, I'm so sorry—”

Cas felt Sam's strong, warm hands on his shoulders again, lifting him up. The sheets pulled away from the wounds on his back, stinging, and he gasped, but Sam steadied him. The washcloth was cold and far too rough against the cuts on his chest, but Cas bit back the pain as best he could, focusing on the center of the darkness.

“What the hell did this to him, Dean?” he heard Sam hiss. The younger Winchester had gently laid the angel's head on his shoulder, careful of the gash on his cheek.

“Those Leviathan things,” Dean said, hatred sharp in his words, and the hand with the washcloth accidentally slipped and sent a stab of lightning into Castiel's abdomen; the angel screamed, and the sound was like knives on the air, and the lightbulb in the lamp next to the bed burst apart in a shower of white.

“Shit, shit, shit, Cas, sorry—”

Cas felt Dean's hands on his bare chest, steady and strong; heard what sounded like frustrated tears in Dean's voice and swallowed the rest of the scream. His whole body was shuddering and he felt the cool air of the cabin creeping onto his naked limbs and felt a sudden wave of fear crash over him.

“Cold,” he gasped, finally. “Please—cold—”

After that the strength for words left him. Someone must have gone and turned on a space heater or a radiator, because very slowly the cold leached away again, and he lay heavy in Sam's steady arms as Dean slowly worked across his body, expertly sewing up the cuts and gashes as quickly as he could, apologising when alcohol stung and burned over the open wounds or when the needle moved too slowly.

If the pain grew to be too much Dean would pause and lean across his body, run his fingers gently through Castiel's hair, touch his cheek, until he calmed again. Sam looked and didn't say anything.

After what felt like hours Dean had finally done all he could, and his hands were cramping from gripping the needle, and the angel had ceased to shudder and was lying relatively still against Sam's chest.

“Okay,” Dean said, wiping his bloodied hands on the nearest towel, which didn't do much to clean them and simply added to the red smears across his palms. He helped Sam lower Cas back onto the bed and pushed a pillow underneath his head. “Did great, Cas. You're gonna be just fine. You hear me?”

His voice was the sweetest thing, Castiel thought, that he'd ever heard.

He nodded as best he could. Sam hadn't let go of his arm; Dean's hand still rested at the back of his skull, cradling his head like a precious thing.

He wasn't alone anymore, he thought distantly, in the back of the darkness. He had his boys again. His boys had saved him.

“Alright. Try to sleep, okay?” He heard tears in Dean's voice again. “Just try to sleep. So glad you're okay, Cas. So glad you're home.”

Home is a long black car and two boys. Castiel held on to that sentence as Dean's hands pulled soft sheets up over him, covering the nakedness of his stitched-up body, and though the angel had never really slept before, he found that drifting blissful shores rose to meet him out of the tired ache that was his vessel, and he let himself float off on them.  A long black car and two boys.

Somewhere in that dark daze he felt Sam's hand leave his arm, but Dean stayed.

Dean sat on the edge of the bed where the angel lay and gently pulled out the clotted blood and black muck from Castiel's hair with a cloth. Broken though his face was, Dean stared at it—memorised every curve of bone, every crow's foot around the swollen eyes, every misplaced hair at the temples.

A month and more ago he was afraid that he'd never see this face again. Now he drank it all in, every imperfection, and murmured under his breath, over and over, “I'm so sorry, Cas. I'm so, so sorry.”

At least when the angel slept he didn't seem to be in pain. That was enough, Dean thought, for now.

Chapter Text

When Cas drifted back into the realm of taste and smell, some time late the next morning, he felt something warm in his fingers and heard soft breathing beside him. Dean. He'd recognise the cadence of that breath, the touch of that hand, anywhere.

His body still burned, but it was a duller pain now, concentrated around the stitches and the bandages, rough cotton on his flesh. He didn't move, though; lay still and turned his face toward the sound of Dean's breathing.

He tried to make his fingers close around Dean's, somewhere under the sheets, but they ached too much. They froze up as soon as he flexed the ruined bones and he felt, distantly, like he wanted to cry.

The minute motion must have woken Dean, because an instant later he felt the mattress shift and heard a soft voice, hazy with sleep, murmur, “Hey, Cas. You awake in there?”

“Mmm,” Cas managed, a sound from the back of his sticky throat. “It's dark,” he said next, and he felt Dean's hands lifting him up off the mattress. His bones protested but he managed to stay in the sitting position Dean pulled him into, swaying in the blackness.

“Yeah. Eyes are swollen shut or something. We'll fix that in a little bit, okay?” His hands lingered a moment too long on the angel's bare chest. Cas longed after every warm echo of fingerprints. “You hungry? Thirsty? Anything?”

“Just tired,” Cas said, and it came out as a whisper. It only struck him then how true it was.  Tired, so tired. Would give anything to sleep forever.

“Okay. Okay, Cas.” Dean's fingers rested briefly on his cheek, his scabbing sewed-up cheek (the wound had torn further up his face when he'd screamed, the night before, and it had burned like fire) and Cas found himself thanking Heaven for the hands of Dean Winchester. “You sleep, alright? Sleep as much as you want. Just don't go floating off anywhere, okay?”

Cas nodded. Before he even had time to fear the last sentence— don't go floating off —he was gone again.


xxx

Dean was loathe to move from the angel's side.

He was exhausted, and he felt as if he'd run a thousand miles on his own feet to bring Cas out of the water. In the past week he'd hardly slept, had paced hotel rooms at the spare edge of one in the morning itching to be back in the car and on the road again; the drive had been a blur, a horrible restless longing to see the reservoir again, to dive in if he had to and pull Cas from the weeds.

He'd come to in his own head every now and then and hadn't been surprised to find himself on his knees against the hotel bed, praying at the top of his lungs.  Just let him be okay. Just let him be okay. I'm a damn fool. Please, just let him be okay.

And then the water, and Cas, naked and alone on the shore, a perfect mess. Dean had picked him up as if he didn't weigh a thing (and he really didn't), and had forced back vomit at the sight of the broken body in his arms, and driven like hell without stopping to get back to Sam, to get back to somewhere safe.

And now that he was here—cleaner than before, at least, and no longer shivering and seizing with pain, and mending, hopefully—Dean still couldn't bring himself to sleep. Not well, not peacefully. He'd dozed off beside Cas for an hour or so this morning, but even that had been shallow and restless.

Now he pulled the covers back up over the angel's body, and as the pale skin and endless stitches disappeared he realised that Cas was naked, and that he didn't care. Once it might have bothered him. Now, even the barest glimpse of flesh, collarbone or neck or shoulder-curve, was a breathless relief. He was alive. That was all that mattered.


xxx



Sam was sitting in the kitchen when Dean finally came out, beating around the bush of a sandwich he'd found in the tiny cabin fridge. He didn't feel hungry. Every time he thought of Cas in the next room he felt sick, and for the mere purpose of making it worse, Lucifer was sitting on the edge of the table, examining his fingernails, making snide comments about the angel's condition.

He's a dead one, if you ask me , the low silk voice said, and Sam spitefully twisted a fingernail into his own palm. Lucifer scowled and flickered out as Dean sat down opposite his brother.

“Is he okay?” Sam asked. His forehead felt tight from furrowing in concern. He had to force himself to relax it.

“No,” Dean said, pressing his fingers into his eyes. “But I don't know. I mean, he'll probably heal—he's still an angel, right?”

“Yeah.” Sam put down the sandwich and pushed it away. He paused, and then said, “Are  you  okay?”

Dean didn't answer at first. He looked down at his hands in his lap and set his jaw.

“I've been worse,” he said eventually.

A silence fell that was almost palpable. Outside the sun was thin; it spilled over the windowsill of the cabin kitchen.

“I'll be better,” Dean said, “when I know he's okay.” He gestured vaguely to the silent bedroom and then leaned his head against the wall, closing his eyes, screwing the lids up tight. He had a headache and he wasn't sure why. Lack of sleep, probably.

Sam saw it and said, “I can stay in there if you want to get some rest.”

“Nah.” Dean's shoulders relaxed, ever-so-slightly. “I'm good.”

“No, you're not.”

“Hm.” Dean opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. “Yeah. You're right.”

Sam didn't quite know how to respond to that, so he got up and put the sandwich back in the fridge. No use in wasting it. “I'll check his stitches.”

As he passed Dean, who had made no protest, Sam paused, and touched his brother's shoulder. Dean didn't move. He stared at a spot on the ceiling and didn't say anything.

Sam prayed that once Cas was better, Dean would be better, too.


xxx



That evening, when Cas woke up again, Sam thought that perhaps the  getting better  would be coming sooner rather than later. The angel managed to sit up on his own, though he shivered with the effort, and his wounds had stopped bleeding. He looked a lot like Frankenstein's monster, but at least the rips in his flesh were clean and his bones were back in place.

His eyes were still shut, swollen and sealed.

Dean kept a hand on the angel's back, careful to avoid the two strange bruises that marred his shoulder-blades. They hadn't quite figured out what those were yet, but they didn't seem to bother Cas as much as the rest of his body did.

“Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” Dean said, hand tight on Castiel's spine. The joke fell flat.

Cas smiled, very faintly and very painfully; the flesh of his torn cheek pulled at the stitches and he winced.

“Think it's about time we fixed those eyes, yeah?”

Cas nodded. He hated how weak the movement felt. He hated how weak  he felt—he was supposed to be a warrior, supposed to be able to heal himself at a moment's notice, and yet here he was, reduced to human medicine and the endless urge to sleep. And it was so, so dark, and he hated that, too. He wanted desperately to see Dean's face again, to see Sam's face again, to see something other than the backs of his own eyelids.

Dean murmured under his breath as Sam went to get whatever clean cloth there was to be had and a bowl of water. “Gonna kill every damn one of those things for doing this to you, Cas. Every single fucking one.”

Cas wanted to say  I know you will , but instead he leaned against Dean's hand and waited for the light to come back.

They washed the blood and the muck, the tears and mud, from around the angel's eyelids, and when they were clean Dean pressed a gentle thumb and forefinger to the top and bottom and slowly eased them apart.

“Here you go,” he said, voice soothing. “Bet you missed my pretty face, huh?”

Castiel felt the lids slide open, felt Dean open the right eye as well, and waited for the darkness to dissipate. Waited for Dean's face to swim into view, or the sheets of the bed, or Sam's hand where it lay on his wrist, or the wood ceiling of the cabin.

Waited.

But the darkness didn't shift. Didn't fall away, didn't dissolve.

Cas felt himself blink, heavy, but the blackness stayed the same. Open and close, open and close, and the blackness stayed the same.

He heard both brothers catch their breath, felt the knowledge creep up to the base of his skull and begin to tap sharp fingers there. Felt something hovering in Dean's throat—rage, and shock, and sadness, perhaps.

“Can you see me, Cas?” he asked, voice thick with horribly falsified cheer. Cas could hear the tears underneath it as clear as a bell.

Cas couldn't even bring himself to say the word.  No . It bit back onto his tongue and the darkness was deep, so deep. So black. So endless.

No. He couldn't see Dean. He couldn't see anything. He squeezed his eyes shut again and prayed to whatever God was left that when they opened again the light would flood in, but his eyelids opened and the darkness smiled back at him, impenetrable.

“Cas?” he heard Dean say, but there was a roaring in his ears and it muffled the voice. He felt like he was choking.

Dark, dark, dark.

On the other side of the black, the angel was staring at nothing, at a point past Dean's shoulder, with eyes the perfect ice-blue of a winter sky, unmoving. It wasn't the blue Dean remembered. It wasn't the pure twilight colour he remembered staring into, adoring. He knew like a lead weight in his chest that those eyes couldn't see anything. Couldn't see a damn thing.

Cataracts , his mind informed him politely.  He's blind .

The word rang loud and obnoxious.  Blind. Blind .

“Dean,” Cas choked, hand reaching desperately out for him, fingers searching through the air, and Dean caught them half-heartedly, unable to hold them as tightly as he wanted. “Dean—”

“M'here,” Dean said, trying his hardest not to scream.  God , he wanted to scream. Wanted to go into the next room and overturn every piece of furniture in the place and scream himself absolutely raw. “M'right here, Cas, it's okay—”

Except that it wasn't okay. None of it was okay. Cas collapsed into his own body, shaking, fingers pulling at the skin under his new ice-blue eyes as if trying to rub sight back into them, and Dean held his hand without really feeling it. All at once he was incredibly numb.

Sam stood in the corner, the damp cloth still clutched in one hand. He stared at the scene on the bed before him, unable to summon motion or words, and behind his shoulder the low silk voice muttered gleefully,  Ladies and gentlemen, it just gets better and better!

Who was he kidding? he thought.  Getting better . Nothing ever got better. That just wasn't their luck.


xxx



All Sam brought out of that evening were the bare facts about Cas. Somehow, he'd been blinded, and he was all-around a huge mess, and the night cold made him shiver and cower under the blankets, and Dean was going to stay in there all night with him.

The thought of it—strong and stubborn Castiel reduced to a frightened, unseeing curl of blankets and scars, and Dean, utterly broken, now, lying there awkwardly and holding the angel as if he were the most fragile porcelain thing in the world—made him feel extremely tired. Even Lucifer was quiet, for once.

He couldn't sleep. A little past midnight he went in to check on them both and found Cas pressed against Dean's chest, bare shoulders prickled with gooseflesh, and Dean out cold beside him. The angel needed more warmth than the sheets could provide—that had been Dean's explanation—but Sam saw right through it. He wished it could have made him happy.

The younger Winchester pulled a quilt from his own bed across the house and covered them both up gently, and then went to sleep on the couch.

Maybe it's all just a really bad dream , he thought as he closed his eyes, and he heard Lucifer mutter,  Don't think you want to wake up from this one, Sammy. Best dream you're ever going to have .

Sam tucked a thumbnail against his palm and pressed it hard until he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

The next morning Sam woke to the sound of very soft voices from the bedroom; finding himself alone, Lucifer corralled into whatever corner of the mind he usually occupied, Sam sat up quietly and listened.

“But they'll come back?” Dean.

“Unless I'm mistaken.” Cas. His voice was soft and broken. Sam could picture them, loose against each other. Dean would have a hand on the angel's torn cheek, comforting. He imagined Castiel's blind eyes and shivered in the vague morning sunlight.

“It'll just take a while.” Dean again. Hopeful.

Sam heard the sheets shifting very softly.

“My grace is...hurt.” He could feel the choice that was made for that word—not  injured , not  weak Hurt . Deeper than a wound, more intimate. He heard Cas draw a shuddering breath, the sheets shifting again. “And the rest of me—”

“I know. You'll be okay. Promise. And if it takes a while, that's okay too. We're not going anywhere.”

Sam could see his brother moving as if he were there himself—he'd be pressing his forehead to Castiel's, thumb gently moving against the stitches on his cheek. Dean was an awkward comforter, but Sam knew from experience what he did. Dean touched and held. Hadn't he been touched and held like that enough, over childish nightmares and bad wounds, his whole life? He knew. He was glad that comfort was for Cas, now.

“I'm not leaving you ever again, okay?”

It was the truest thing Sam had heard Dean say in weeks. Months, even. He got up and went to lean against the doorframe. Dean saw him over the curve of Castiel's shoulder and lifted himself up on one arm.

“Morning,” Sam said to him, and then his eyes flickered to Cas—his pale, bony back, shoulder-blades heavy with dark purple bruises that seemed to pucker over the edge of the bone. He wasn't sure if he wanted to know what those were from. “Hey, Cas,” he said awkwardly, quietly.

He saw the angel's head move painfully on his aching neck. Cas turned onto his other side and his eyes stared in the vague direction of the younger Winchester's voice.

“Hello, Sam,” he said softly. He seemed calmer, at least. His fingers bunched in the sheets, keeping them up against his chest, as if desperate for every bit of warmth he could hold onto. “It's good to hear your voice again.”

“Same,” Sam said. It was true; he'd missed the dark gravel of the angel's words. Not as much as Dean had, he knew, but the relief wasn't any less.

Sam met his brother's eyes and motioned to the kitchen; Dean murmured something to Cas that his brother couldn't hear and got up off the bed. The side of his face bore the faint imprint of the sheets.

“So what's up?” Sam started up the jittery old coffee pot on the counter. He felt like they both needed to be jolted into wakefulness. The air was too slow in the cabin. “Is he going to be okay?”

“He says so.” Dean watched the coffee pot as if it were about to offer him the answers to all life's questions. He hadn't realised he wanted caffeine so much until now. “He slept,” he continued, as if it were a major accomplishment, and in Castiel's condition, it probably was. “Pretty well, I think. Keeps saying his grace'll patch him up eventually.”

“Well. That's good.” Sam was silent until the coffee was done, and then he handed a cup to Dean, who stared into the steam.

“Keeps saying he's sorry,” Dean said then. The steam cooled across his face like fading breath. The night before he'd thanked God (or whoever his prayers went to these days) for every tiny rise-and-fall of Castiel's chest, every moment that hinted at his being alive. “I'm running out of ways to tell him he's got nothing to be sorry for.”

“He's scared out of his mind, Dean,” Sam said quietly, into his own cup. “D'you blame him for trying to put things right? At least in his own head?”

“No.”

The coffee was bitter-black. Dean thought that it needed sugar, but he didn't want to move to get it.

A long silence fell. Birds were singing, distantly, late heralds of morning. They were more annoying than sweet. In the next room Sam heard Lucifer begin to whistle along; he pressed the handle of his coffee cup into his hand at a hard angle and the whistling cut short.

“Are his eyes going to come back?” Sam asked finally.

“He says they will.”

“Then we just have to wait.”

Dean swirled the dregs of his coffee in the bottom of the mug. “It's gonna take a long time. He said.”

“That's fine. We have time for him.” Sam fixed him with a hard look. “Right?”

“I'm not leaving until he's back to normal. So yeah. We've got time.” Dean pulled at his eyes, rubbing the sleep from them. His body felt heavy. “I mean, we  don't , and those Leviathan things are still running around out there, but—”

“—but Cas is more important.”

Logically, that wasn't the truth. But it was Dean's truth, and Sam didn't see any reason it couldn't be his truth, too.

In the next room Castiel was slowly healing, and Sam could almost see the broken pieces of his brother knitting themselves back together, as well.  Cas is the most important thing , he told himself.  Right here and right now, Cas is everything .

And maybe that was what they needed—an important thing, an everything, something to fix that was slow and familiar, a problem to solve with a clear answer. Time and care and patience. Sam imagined the months it might take for the angel to heal stretching out like an endless asphalt road in front of them, and it wasn't an easy one, and it wasn't smooth, but it was empty and safe.

The angel wasn't the only one who needed mending.


xxx

Cas had no sense of time, and this wasn't the worst part of not being able to see, but it was frustrating. He remembered how once he'd been able to trace the arc of the sun from the morning to the evening, how he'd known when was night and when was day. When Dean came back into the bedroom, Cas had no idea how long he'd been gone, if it were afternoon or midnight or somewhere in between.

“How are you feeling?” Dean asked. It was with incredible tenderness; Cas was surprised to hear such soft compassion in that voice. He was used to snide comments and sarcasm—Dean's way of concern—and to have his ears greeted with gentle words was odd. It made small birds of happiness flutter in his chest, but it was odd.

“Better,” Cas said. It was true. The ache had been ebbing slowly away from his wounds all day, or night, or whenever; under the sheets he ran a hand over his own side, feeling the stitches under his fingers like new vertebrae in the wrong places. He remembered scales and teeth and undulating spines and shuddered. “Not so painful anymore.”

“You'll be better in no time, see?” Dean said, endless relief in his voice. Cas wanted to lean his head forward and whisper  never stop talking . He didn't.

“What time is it?” Cas asked instead.

“Almost night.” He felt Dean's fingers in his hair. “Sorry I was gone so long.”

“Just so long as you come back.”

He felt Dean lie down next to him and a little worm of anxiety began to twitch in his throat.

“You don't need to stay here all the time,” Cas said, voice cracking, even though what he really wanted to say was  please sleep here forever . There were too many things he couldn't bring himself to speak aloud. It was eternally frustrating.

“Can't hurt for one more night, can it?”

“Dean—” Here it came again. He couldn't stop saying it. It was the only thing he felt right about saying anymore. “I'm sorry.”

“I told you to stop saying that.”

Dean's body was warm and solid. Instinctually, Cas moved closer, feeling the textures of his clothes, his skin—denim, cotton, buttons. Callouses and tiny scars.

“I need to say it until you believe it.”

“I do. You don't need to worry about it, okay? Not now, anyway.”

“Then when?”

“When you're better.”

Cas didn't want to suggest that he might not get better. He could feel his own grace stirring and pulsing again, and he knew that he probably would get better, but he didn't want to be too hopeful. Hopes were always shot down hard, it seemed, in this world, with these boys. Much as he loved them, bad luck followed them like a dark cloud.

“I made a mistake.” The words tumbled out before Cas could stop them. “I should have trusted you, I should have asked for help, I—was proud—”

“Stop.”

Dean's hand on his neck, fingers warm against the bone of his jaw. Thumb firm against his chin.

“Stop,” he said again, firmer. “Okay? We both made big mistakes. We're both guilty here. So let's stop talking about it, alright?”

“Is it so bad to want to be forgiven?”

“You are forgiven.” Dean's forehead against his. “Hell, you've earned it, haven't you?”

“I don't know.”

Dean fell quiet. It took Cas a moment to realise that his own eyes were closed; he was beginning to forget the difference between the warmth of his own eyelids and the cold of open air. It bothered him.

“Y'know, when I came to get you...I didn't really expect to find you at all.” His voice felt like strings around the angel's body; Cas found himself wanting to burrow into his soft heat, the draw of him. So he did—he carefully edged himself closer, let his head drift into the curve of Dean's neck, and Dean didn't protest. It was a small allowance, but it spoke volumes. “I mean, you know my luck...I'm just glad you're alive. So glad.”

Their legs met and tangled softly beneath the sheets, denim and flesh. Cas fumbled with one hand to find the side of Dean's neck and then touched there delicately, fingers curving into the hollow where his spine found his skull. Cas felt as if he were dreaming.

“So we can apologise all we want later, okay? Just let me have you alive for a while.”

It took Cas an awkward moment to find Dean's face in the flat darkness, to discover his lips with his fingers, and he felt Dean tense in confusion, and it took Cas one more instant to replace his fingertips with his mouth and Dean didn't move, didn't pull away, didn't protest, and that was the most perfect gift he could have given the angel in that moment.

Cas felt Dean's hand slip further up his patched-up face, and his fingers stitched themselves into his hair. This was both extraordinarily new and extraordinarily familiar, and Cas didn't know why; all at once he felt afraid and drifted away.

“Even though I'm broken?” he asked. He felt Dean hovering centimetres away. He felt enormously safe, now, here, held together by Dean's hand and Dean's body and Dean's presence.

Broken doesn't last as long as dead,” Dean said.

“I miss seeing your face,” said the angel, and the truth of it hurt more than any of his wounds.

“I'll be here when you can see again.”

“I'm forgetting it.” Cas didn't think he had the right words for how terrifying it was to lose the green eyes and the freckles and the jaw-curve. “I don't want to forget it.”

He drew his hand away from Dean's neck and across his cheek, fingertips dragging softly against the skin, feeling the indent of the eye-socket and the bridge of his nose, and Dean lay still and let him feel.

They didn't talk any more after that. With his fingertips Castiel learned the contours of Dean's face, and the curve of his Adam's apple, and the pit of his collarbone, and the clothed swell of his shoulder, and the forgiveness in the bend of his wrists.

The angel fell asleep with his hand resting in the valley of Dean's side. Dean didn't have the heart to move it away. He let himself relax into the hollows of the angel's body and drift into darkness. His last thought before sleep took him was this is all he can see anymore. Black.

It was a thought that stung.

Chapter Text

The angel knew four things: his body was wet, his body was cold, he was alone, and it was very, very dark.

“Dean?”

Hesitantly he reached out into the empty blackness, hoping to let his fingers close around warm fingers or soft sheets, but instead they pushed through a thickness that felt like damp, and sickness began to roil in his stomach.

There was no warmth here, no softness, nowhere to curl. He felt water standing out on his skin in beads, burning cold, and it leached into his bones like an ache. The angel felt himself begin to knot up inside, felt his flesh pulling taut, and he snatched his arm back out of the dark and the wet.

“Dean?” His voice was muffled. He was kneeling on something that was mossy and soft and slimy. He made himself as small as he could. Fear crawled into his bones, an echo to the cold.

“Dean!”

For a bleak and horrible moment he wondered if perhaps he wasn't dreaming, if perhaps this was waking, if perhaps the warmth and the kiss and the stitches and the voices had never happened—

“Dean!” His voice was frantic, rising, but still bleached-out, withered by wherever he was. What if Dean couldn't hear? “Dean!”

His own words rang desperate and metallic in his head. He felt the cold and the damp and the dark closing in, like the embrace of some enormous beast, and behind it he heard the clicking and chattering of teeth—


—and then he heard a voice saying “Cas! Hey, calm down, you're gonna ruin your stitches,” and warmth and air broke over his face as if he'd emerged from the clutch of the lake all over again.

“Shit,” he heard Dean say next, and felt a hand on his cheek; his mouth was full of blood. He must have bitten his tongue, and hard.

A clattering in the doorway.

“What happened?” Sam's voice, raw with sleep.

“Yelled and ripped his—can you go get the thread again?”

“Yeah.”

It took a moment for the pain to hit him, and when it did it knocked him out of sleep completely. Cas tried his hardest not to gasp; his fingers rose to clutch his torn cheek and met the back of Dean's hand.

“What the hell was that?” Dean asked. “Screamed bloody murder. I nearly shot something.”

Cas tried to say  nightmare  but all he succeeded in doing was letting blood slip out over his bottom lip. He shook his head gingerly and bit back the pain.

In the back of his head he heard teeth chittering, voices laughing. He swallowed them as best he could and swallowed blood. Sam came back with the needle and thread and every tiny prick made the teeth a little quieter.


xxx



The next morning Sam went into town to restock and for the first time in what felt like years, Cas wasn't naked. Dean had found an old pair of sweatpants crammed into the corner of his duffel bag, a spare pair of boxers, and a T-shirt, and helped ease the angel into them, careful of his cuts. As he pulled the shirt over Castiel's bony shoulders, he paused.

“What are these?” he asked, delicately running his fingers over the enormous purple bruises that emblazoned Castiel's shoulder-blades. The angel winced.

“Wings,” he said. His cheek felt tight where they'd sewn him up again the night before. “They hurt my wings.”

“Not sure I want to know exactly how those things managed to hurt you so bad. And from the inside, too,” Dean mumbled, pulling the shirt down all the way. Dressed, Cas looked less like the fragile skeletal thing he was and more like a very tired outpatient just home from the hospital.

“Are they okay?” Dean lifted the angel's arm up over his shoulder, considered moving Castiel's feet to the floor, and then thought better of it; instead he picked him up as he had the first day—he was still almost weightless, at least to Dean. Weightless and bony. “I'm no expert in patching up angel wings.”

“They're not as bad as the rest of me,” Cas said, leaning his head into the crook of Dean's neck.

Dean brought him out to the couch across from the television and settled him there. Again Cas found himself wondering at the tenderness in Dean's movements, in his touch. He could easily imagine Dean being this gentle with Sam; but he wondered why he, of all creatures, deserved it, especially now.

“Where is Sam?” Cas asked. He was beginning to be accustomed to presence rather than sight, to knowing when he wasn't alone rather than relying on his eyes. Dean was a solidity beside him on the couch, leaning into it; Cas could feel him relaxing for what seemed the first time in ages.

“Out. He'll be back.”

“It's cold out here.” Cas cautiously drew his legs up off the floor, slowly and with difficulty; the sweatpants were soft under his palms.

“You need a blanket?”

“I wouldn't mind one. Thank you,” Cas said, and the  thank you  came out desperate and cracked. He felt like he should have been saying it always, or at least thinking it. Heaven only knew how deep his gratitude lay for the rescue from the damp and the cold.

Dean left for a brief moment and came back, and Cas felt his hands tucking the blanket round his body. Soft heat enveloped him and he burrowed into it, into the cradle of the couch, and he felt Dean smile.

“If you weren't a fearsome Angel of the Lord I'd be calling you adorable right about now,” he said, chuckling. Cas pulled the blanket up to his chin and settled into the warmth.

Dean turned on the television, and for a while they were quiet. Cas listened to the words of the telenovela Dean had tuned the TV to, fingers playing along the stitches on his face. He could feel the vibrations of Dean's foot, tapping on the wooden floor whenever the action seemed to be spiking, and he smiled a bit even though it hurt.

Dean only half-watched the soap opera; his body's concentration didn't seem to know that it could remove itself from Cas for a while. Out of the corner of one eye he watched the angel's minute movements, curling the blanket in his fingers and staring at the point of nothing on the wall above the television. He still wasn't used to the dead blankness in his eyes, or the pale colour, or the unnatural stillness of them, but he thought that every day a little bit more light found its way into them. For that he was glad.

The telenovela ended and rapid Spanish commercials started up, and Dean turned the volume down, and for a minute or so it almost felt as if nothing had ever gone wrong. In the vague warmth, with Castiel safe and mending beside him, and Sam walking-and-talking-functional, and a week or more now without a fight or a confrontation, Dean felt almost domestic, almost secure, and he found that he liked it.

His cell phone rang from across the room and he eased himself off the couch to answer it. Castiel's face followed the sound of his footsteps.

“Sam? You on your way back?”

Is Cas okay to move? ” The question was unexpected, jarring, and Sam sounded panicked.

“What?”

Is Cas okay to move? ” Sam asked again, forcefully. Cas could hear his voice from across the room, he was speaking so loudly.

“I—it's not a great idea, but I guess, yeah—”

Pack your stuff, then, and whatever he's going to need. We need to go .”

“What do you mean, we have to—”

There's a Leviathan in town ,” Sam growled, voice choppy with static, and Dean felt his chest tighten. “ Just—get a move on, okay? We're leaving as soon as I get back. It's not safe.

“Sam, we're in the middle of nowhere as it is—”

Do you seriously want to take a chance on those things getting a shot at Cas again, Dean?

That sealed it. Dean set his jaw and said, “Alright. How far out are you?”

Fifteen minutes, maybe?

“Okay.” Dean went into the bedroom and pulled his duffel bag from under the bed, slung it onto the thin sheets, ran a hand over his face. “Alright. They're not following you, are they?”

I don't know—breaking the speed limit as it is—

“Alright, just don't crash my car. See you in a few minutes.” Dean hung up and shoved the cell phone in his pocket.

“Dean?” Castiel's voice was small from the other room. Dean heard the creak of floorboards and called, “Don't get up.”

He pushed as many clothes as he could find into the bag, stuffed the remaining space full of bandages and tape, thread and needles, the last of the peroxide; he did the same with Sam's bag and then hauled both out to the living room.

Cas heard him moving, heard him open his cell phone again and call Bobby, but couldn't understand what he was saying. In the back of his head the teeth were clicking again, whispers of nasty laughter slipping out from the base of the dark. He bunched his fingers in the blanket to silence them. Nausea roiled in his stomach.

Dean hung up with Bobby just as the roar of the Impala sounded on the drive, and he opened the door; after that it was a hasty scramble, bags changing hands, packing them into the back of the car, helping Cas gingerly over the threshold and over the gravel driveway in his bare feet, easing him into the car.

“We've got blankets?” Dean asked, and Sam said “Yeah, under the seat,” and Dean replied “Place up near Crookston—Minnesota—Bobby said it's stocked for the winter,” and then the doors were slammed and they were growling off onto the highway, Dean driving, Sam in the back seat with Cas, looking anxiously out the windows. Their bags bumped and rattled against his leg.

The further they drove from the cabin and from town, the more Cas felt the nausea settling in his stomach. He buried his fists in the blanket he'd taken from the house and let his head rest against the sun-warm window.

Pathetic excuse for an angel, isn't he?  Sam heard a voice say to his left; he didn't have to look to know that Lucifer was sitting comfortably, enthroned on the stacked-up bags, feet crossed against the back window, head hovering just behind Dean's. He was picking with disinterest at his fingernails.  How much longer d'you think he's going to last? Don't want you getting too happy, now. Don't want you getting too comfortable.

Sam's fingernail left a crescent-moon of blood in his palm, but it shut the Devil up, and he flickered out like a dying television. He looked at Cas for want of anywhere else to look and saw the tiniest fragments of fear on his ravaged face.

Sam found himself reaching out and letting a reassuring hand rest on the angel's leg, as if to say,  we won't let them hurt you anymore . Cas turned his face down and hesitantly let his own hand fall over Sam's, as if to reply,  I know you won't .

They drove past sunset. In Windom, Sam traded places with Dean, and pulled them out into dusk, north to Crookston. Dean let Cas rest against his shoulder and felt the angel's caged-bird heartbeat against his side like a drum.

Chapter Text

It was a ramshackle two-story house, abandoned by all appearances, set far back on a wooded drive several miles out of Crookston. Sam went inside to turn on the lights (the electricity, by some miracle, still worked) and in the process happened upon the cellar door; by the light of a single naked bulb in the center of the ceiling he saw row upon row of shelves, sagging under the weight of jars and cans and preserves. The light didn't even reach the end of them.

 

“Two bedrooms,” Sam said when he went back out to the Impala, leaning into the open back-seat door. Dean was rearranging the blanket over Castiel's thin, shivering shoulders. The night was bitter. “Three beds if you count the mattress in the living room—fridge, TV, and that's about it.”

 

“Running water?” Dean helped Cas out onto the grass, arm tight around the angel's body.

 

“Not sure.”

 

Inside it was dim and cool and smelled of dust. Cas stumbled at the threshold and Dean hooked an arm behind his knees with a grunt, lifting him up.

 

“I can walk,” Cas grumbled.

 

“Sure,” Dean said, affectionately teasing. Castiel's feet dangled bare by his side.

 

xxx

 

 

Once they found the radiator and coaxed it to life, the warmest room appeared to be the bedroom on the first floor, and the brothers piled the bed with blankets to settle Cas into.

 

He murmured “thank you,” under his breath whenever he thought they couldn't hear, but after the first few times, Dean paused in shaking the dust from the pillowcases and touched his face and said “Hey. We know, okay? We know.”

 

Dean chose the mattress that was tucked into one corner of the living room, water-stained but surprisingly pliant. He muttered that he wanted to stay close to Cas just in case, but the angel insisted that he sleep in his own bed.

 

“It's close enough,” Cas said, pushing his feet under the blankets. Their comfort was delicious.

 

After they'd turned on the refrigerator to let it cool overnight, Sam left Dean going over Castiel's stitches for the fifth time since they'd left the cabin and tramped up the stairs to the bedroom at the head of the house.

 

It was quiet up there; he had to brush some cobwebs away from the iron headboard of the bed. The room was empty otherwise. Sam looked at the bare walls and thought of the slowly-mending angel downstairs and decided that as soon as he could, he'd make this place feel a little more welcoming. They were going to be there a while.

 

The sheets were stiff and cold and Sam added clean this stuff to the list of things to do in his mind as he climbed underneath them, wishing the heat up from the bottom floor. As he turned on his side and settled into the pillow, he felt the mattress gently dip behind him and a familiar voice clear its throat.

 

Could have all sorts of fun up here , said Lucifer's low silk voice.

 

“Leave me alone.”

 

Mmm—nah. Don't feel like it.

 

Sam closed his eyes tight and slipped his thumb down against his palm. The familiar ache began to slip out across his hand, but Lucifer only made himself more comfortable behind his back, legs brushing against Sam's in a way that was far too affectionate, far too familiar.

 

That trick won't last you forever, Sammy.

 

Sam clutched pain into his hand until he felt the bones shift under his fingers. Lucifer didn't leave. He lay whistling softly at Sam's back, and the younger Winchester stared at the blank wall across the empty floorboards until the worm of despair in his chest grew too strong.

 

It was ink-dark on the bottom floor and Dean was curled up under a thick wool blanket from two Christmases ago on the sunken mattress. Sam looked at him; the dark air was cold on his own arms and he wondered if Dean needed more warmth, too.

 

“Dean.”

 

He gently pushed against his brother's shoulder until Dean's eyelids fluttered open.

 

“Sammy?” He ran a hand across his face and yawned. “'S the matter?”

 

“It's cold upstairs,” Sam whispered. “Mind if I—um—”

 

“Yeah. Whatever.” Dean lifted up his blanket and let Sam slip underneath, and then turned to face the wall. “Night, Sammy.”

 

“Night.”

 

Sam watched the rising and falling of his shoulder-blades until their rhythm lulled him to sleep. He could feel Lucifer sitting on the couch across the room, scowling at him, as if unable to touch him when Dean was nearby; and so it was with a certain triumph that he dreamed of white spaces and summer.

 

xxx

 

“Come on, let me see.”

 

“There's no need—they're fine.”

 

“Your definition of fine is pretty far off, from what I've seen.”

 

The morning sunlight was thin through the dirty window of the angel's bedroom.

 

Reluctantly, Cas let Dean pull his shirt off; on the flesh of his back the bruises were puckered and mottled, like the skin under the feathers of a bird, pocked and hollowed.

 

“Jeez,” Dean breathed, running careful fingertips over them. “They're worse.”

 

“I couldn't tell,” Cas said.

 

“Alright, open them up. Let's see.”

 

“Dean—”

 

“Look, I don't want you to heal wrong or anything, okay? I won't touch them.”

 

Cas gnawed at his lower lip.

 

They emerged from the aether slowly, painfully, and Dean was surprised how small they were, physical at last. He'd seen the shadows, but shadows could be decieving, he supposed. In reality Castiel's wings were small, ragged and sparrow-brown, and both hung at awkward angles from his shoulder-blades in a way that worried Dean.

 

“Do they hurt?” He could see some odd splays of feather in the soft curve of bone, and could picture splintered cartilege; blood spackled the feathers at the base of them, against the flesh.

 

Cas nodded. “Badly,” he said, from his throat. He flexed his shoulders and his chest tightened in pain.

 

Dean didn't know quite what to do with them—when Sam was younger he'd once fixed the broken wing of a bird, but hadn't shown Dean how to do it, and he was currently hunched over brackish coffee made haphazardly in a rusted coffee-maker they'd found in the cabinet, and Dean didn't want to bother him. The way he'd climbed into Dean's bed the night before had been strange, almost desperate, and though Dean hadn't protested (had seen no reason to protest), it had worried him.

 

Cas stiffened as Dean's hand moved toward his wings, puncturing whatever atmosphere kept them aloof from the human plane, and only whimpered softly when his fingers brushed the feathers.

 

“They're healing,” he said, rolling his shoulder; the purple bruise rippled over his flesh. “They'll be better soon. They're no bother, I promise.”

 

He sheathed them away with a careful grimace.

 

“Okay. Alright.” Dean's hands, without wings to fall into, drifted instead to Castiel's shoulders. “If I can think of anything to do for them, will you let me?”

 

Cas nodded.

 

He felt Dean press his lips gently to his temple and say, “Yell if you need anything, okay?”

 

“Mmm.”

 

The angel's fingers trailed along Dean's wrist as he left, and the scent of him lingered, dust and sunlight, and settled into the sheets. Cas lay back down in their comforting curl and breathed it in. It broke like colour behind his eyes.

 

xxx

 

“Must be boring. I mean, you can't do much without—seeing, can you?”

 

Cas sat with his back against the headboard of the bed, holding his arm out palm-up in front of him. His pale eyes stared up at the ceiling.

 

“I am restless,” the angel conceded.

 

Sam held his wrist in his lap, gently coaxing the stitches out of one of the gashes on Castiel's arm. Most of the cuts on his shoulders and hands were healing already, settling into slick puckered scars. He winced slightly as a length of thread slid out of his forearm and Sam flicked it onto the towel spread out across the bed.

 

“Well, you're healing pretty fast,” he said. “You'll probably be up on your feet soon.”

 

Castiel's face softened as if he thought otherwise.

 

“Alright. One more on this side.” Sam's fingernails picked gingerly at a knot on the inside of the angel's upper arm, scissors between his teeth.

 

“Where is Dean?” His presence had left the house that morning without explanation. Cas was losing track of days, but from the gentle touch of warm sun on the bed, he decided that a day had passed since he'd shown Dean his wings. Time was too fluid when it was constantly dark.

 

Sam laughed a little in his throat. “Went to get some 'real food.' I guess the jars down in the basement weren't exactly his idea of a good meal. Okay, hold still.” The stitches hissed out of Castiel's arm. Where they had lain the flesh was pale and scarred, a long whitish streak over his skin.

 

Sam got up to come around to the other side, and when he touched Castiel's arm to turn it veins-upward his scarred palm brushed against the sensitive skin. Castiel stiffened and turned his face down towards the younger Winchester's touch.

 

“You're hurt,” he observed, distantly.

 

“Nah, it's old. It was just a cut.”

 

“I didn't mean the scar,” Cas said softly.

 

He gently pulled Sam's hand away from his arm and turned it over in his own, sightless fingers examining the knuckles and the palm, and when he found the scar Cas touched it gently with one fingertip.

 

Sam watched his face, unsure of what he was doing.

 

The angel paused, there, touching the pursed and calloused flesh; he seemed to concentrate on it, and Sam felt something pushing into the bottom of his mind, very vaguely, like the nudge of a shoulder.

 

Castiel's face slowly fell. His wrists began to shudder, very slightly, and his grip tightened on Sam's hand.

 

“What did I do to you?” he whispered.

 

“It's nothing. Cas—it's nothing.” Sam tried to pull his hand away, but the angel had turned his face to it and his blind eyes were staring past it with such empty horror that it was almost painful to look at.

 

“What are you seeing?” Cas asked. There was a note to his voice that Sam couldn't quite place. Loathing, perhaps. Self-loathing. “Sam—”

 

“Just memories. They're not bad.”

 

“Don't lie to me,” Cas said, his voice biting-firm, and Sam felt an old chill run up his neck. That was the voice he remembered, the dark gravel, demanding respect.

 

Sam, at a loss for what to say—how to explain what he was seeing? How to explain the difficulty he had in getting to sleep, in staying lucid, in knowing what was what?—eventually settled for murmuring, lamely, “Hell. Stuff from Hell.”

 

Cas continued to stare past his hand, fingers pressing into the thumb-shaped scar, learning every minute contour of it.

 

“If I could stop it,” Cas murmured, “I would.”

 

“I know you would.” Gently Sam drew his hand out from the angel's grip and turned his arm around. “But you need to get better first.”

 

“The moment I've strength enough—”

 

“You're most important, alright?” Sam plucked the knot out of the skin, gently snipped it with his scissors. “Right now you're first priority. Just focus on getting well.”

 

“But I'm not important,” Cas murmured, half to himself. “I hurt you. I need to make amends—”

 

“I can live with it a while longer.”

 

“Can you?”

 

The question was so soft and thick with worry that Sam almost missed it. He paused; looked up at the angel's face as he pulled the thread out from the first of three cuts across the back of Castiel's hand.

 

Though Cas couldn't see him, his scratched and scabbing face was a mask of concern and apology and distress.

 

“Get well for Dean. Dean needs you,” Sam said. “And then you can worry about me. I'm fine.”

 

“Your definition of fine is about as good as mine,” Cas muttered. “And Dean says mine is far off the mark.”

 

Sam laughed. “Yeah, well.”

 

There was quiet for a moment as Sam finished with Castiel's hand, and then Cas asked, “Is it difficult to tell what's real?”

 

“Sometimes.”

 

Cas said, “I'm sorry, Sam.”

 

Sam began to gently work his way through the suture that ran over the angel's right shoulder, careful and precise.

 

“You're forgiven,” he replied quietly, after a moment. “You always were.”

 

Chapter Text

When Dean came back from Crookston with an arm full of plastic bags nearly bursting with food, it was to find Sam and Cas sitting together on the sagging couch in the living room, the TV on to a crackling, static broadcast channel. Under his breath Sam was explaining the plot of whatever rerun was playing, and Cas was nodding along as if it were some kind of deep, intimate, and important secret. Dean couldn't help smiling as he went into the kitchen and began stocking the fridge with what he'd bought.

 

“You two hungry?” he called. Sam called back a confirmation.

 

When Dean emerged from the kitchen some time later, he helped Cas to his feet and Sam followed them in to where, by some miracle of Dean's cooking, a fairly decent-looking meal of Philly cheesesteaks and bagged salad waited.

 

“Wow.” Sam raised an eyebrow as Cas fumbled his way into a seat. “What's the occasion?”

 

“You need an occasion for Philly cheesesteak?”

 

Sam laughed, and Cas laughed too, a rough and joyful little sound that made Dean feel warm.

 

They ate in the dimming of the night, and Dean teased Sam about the extra length he'd gone to to bring him his beloved salad.

 

Cas listened to their bickering and smiled as best he could, picking at his food, carefully slipping as much as he could into his torn mouth. His arms itched where the stitches had been, and he had to try very hard not to scratch the scars, but the discomfort was mild.

 

Home is a long black car and two boys , he thought. My boys . Affectionate and petty and ill-tempered, kind and gentle and ridiculous, sometimes. My boys .

 

Afterward Dean lingered in Castiel's bedroom for longer than he should have, looking at the angel's scars, quietly judging when the rest could come out. “Need to be careful about the ones on your stomach,” he said, letting his fingers trail over the lines of the sutures, and Cas shivered, but not from cold.

 

Dean kissed his eyelids before he left him for the night. The brush of his lips felt almost like a blessing.

 

Upstairs, Sam settled into bed without any sign of Lucifer. In fact, the Devil had been out of sight and out of mind all day. Blank-faced dreams came up quick and swallowed him whole.

 

xxx

 

On the late edge of midnight, Sam woke to the creaking of floorboards outside the bedroom.

 

Thinking at first that it was Dean, using the upstairs bathroom or some such thing, he didn't move. But then the sound came again, and it was just outside his door, and in his peripheral vision he saw something standing there.

 

He blinked sleep away and sat up. “Dean?”

 

“Sam,” said the shadow standing there, and it wasn't Dean's voice. It was—

 

“Cas? What are you doing?” Sam hastily got out of bed and went to the door. The angel was leaning heavily against the doorframe, breath ragged, knees buckling sideways. He lifted up a weak hand and clutched at Sam's shoulder, and Sam sank to the floor with him, bewildered. “What's the matter?”

 

“Something wrong—” Weakly, Cas held out his arms, and Sam looked down to see the skin blistering and red where that morning only pale scars had shone, and he sucked in breath.

 

“What the hell?” He touched one of the wide, dark sores and Cas gasped, pitching forward. “Why didn't you wake Dean?”

 

Cas didn't answer; he went limp against the door, head lolling forward, blind eyes wide and staring.

 

“Okay—hold on, let me go get Dean, okay?”

 

Sam made sure he wasn't likely to collapse and hit his head and then made to stand from his crouch when the angel's hand shot up and caught his wrist, stronger than it should have been.

 

“What is it?” Sam asked, and then looked down.

 

There was quiet for a moment, and then the last thing Sam wanted to hear began to rise from the angel's mouth.

 

Slow and dark and damp.

 

Laughter.

 

“Ooooh, we had you going , though,” said a voice that was far too high to be Castiel's, and he raised his head. The flesh around his blind eyes was throbbing red, and black muck was trickling out of the corner of his mouth, oozing slowly down his chin—

 

“No—” Sam tried desperately to shake the angel's grip off—no. Not angel.

 

That worst possible alternative—Leviathan.

 

How had it tricked them this long?

 

The thing's grip was splintering and Sam felt his bones shifting under the scabbed, scarred knuckles; it pulled him down painfully, pushing the unseeing face far too close to his.

 

“You didn't really think that pathetic little angel-thing was going to survive us, did you?” it snickered. Sam could see the teeth in the back of the mouth beginning to lengthen—

 

“Dean!” he shouted, and though the idea of hurting anything that even looked like Cas made his stomach lurch, he managed to aim a kick at the thing's ribs, and it let go of his hand with a screech. Sam stumbled to his feet and bolted down the stairs, shouting, “Dean! Dean, wake up, there's—”

 

But then he paused—because in the open doorway to Castiel's room, he could see the angel lying still, eyes closed, breathing slowly.

 

Sam froze, mind whirling. Leviathan couldn't move that fast—but what had that thing been upstairs, then?

 

He heard a chuckle from behind him on the stairs and suddenly knew.

 

Interesting, Lucifer observed lightly. I'll have to play with that one some more.

 

Not real. Just a hallucination. A machination. An illusion.

 

Sam stood with one arm against the stairframe and stared at Cas, thin and curled-up under the blankets; he turned over and settled his head into the pillow. Around the corner Dean was stirring, as if belatedly hearing Sam's shout.

 

You see, chains and meat-hooks—we're past that. He heard Lucifer come casually down the stairs and saw him lean against the opposite wall, nonchalant as an artist surveying his newest work. I think I'm really starting to get at the core of what you're afraid of, Sam. It's all really very fascinating.

 

Sam felt like he couldn't breathe. As if by reflex he began to clutch the rough wood of the wall-corner, pressing the splinters into his scar, knuckles white. Pain sparked, needle-thin, up his arm, but Lucifer just smirked.

 

“Leave me alone,” Sam found himself whispering. “Please, just leave me alone.”

 

He'd been saying it for months now. Every time it passed his lips it was more desperate.

 

Why would I do that? It's just starting to really be fun .

 

Sam felt something hot begin to prick in his eyes. Just starting to be fun? he wanted to say. This hasn't been fun so far? How much longer until you're done with me? What do you want? Hasn't all of this been enough?

 

But he didn't say anything, because Dean had woken and had come round the corner.

 

“Sam?” he said, and then he saw the tears in his brother's eyes. “What happened?”

 

Through the blur Sam saw Cas stir and sit up, heard his voice—the right voice, the right pitch and sound—say, “Sam?”

 

“Sam—hey, what are you doing? You're bleeding—”

 

The palm of his hand was wet. Dean pulled it away from the wall and hissed “Jesus, Sam, what the hell?” and plucked an enormous splinter from the edge of the scar.

 

There was a small tamp of feet from Castiel's bedroom, and the angel shakily made his way to the door, fingers brushing the wall for balance, and he leaned out from the doorway and felt through the air until he managed to place both hands on either side of Sam's face.

 

It was like warm water, or soft cloth, smoothing over the inside of his eyes, and when he blinked again Lucifer was gone. He felt the breath slowing in his lungs and a sudden dark pain in his hand.

 

Dean was looking at Cas. “What are you doing?”

 

“What I can,” Cas said softly. Dean couldn't place the emotion on his face. Something like anger, or sadness.

 

 

 xxx

 

Sam explained in short sentences and the entire time, Castiel sat on his bed looking wracked with guilt.

 

“This hand just never gets a break,” Dean said after he was done, trying desperately to lighten the mood as he finished nudging the splinters out of Sam's palm. It didn't work. Sam looked utterly beaten and Cas remained quiet.

 

Looking exhausted, Sam thanked Cas for whatever it was he had done, and then went in to sleep on the couch.

 

As he left, Dean turned to look at the angel.

 

“That,” Cas said softly, “is what I did that I apologise for, Dean.”

 

He turned his face down toward the limp hands in his lap and his face fell in distress.

 

“I need to keep saying I'm sorry for what I did to you and what I did to Sam until I feel that I've earned your forgiveness,” he said. “I know you say you've forgiven me, but I know you, Dean. The spirit is willing but it is also weak.”

 

The angel took a deep breath.

 

“I will find a way to redeem myself to you,” he said. “Didn't I tell you that? And I'll do what I can for Sam until I'm strong enough to fix him. I owe that to you, Dean,” he said, reaching out until he found Dean's wrist and holding it tight. “You cannot tell me otherwise.”

 

Dean stared at him. The angel's face was healing very slowly; the stitches led up the side of his cheek like one half of a grin. The other corner of his mouth was horribly sad.

 

“Okay,” he said finally. “Okay, Cas. Alright.”

 

Cas nodded, one short up-and-down of his head, and slowly let go of Dean's arm. Then he said, “goodnight,” very quietly, and eased himself back down under the covers.

 

Dean waited until he'd fallen asleep again before he left.

 

Sam was out like a light on the couch. For that, Dean was grateful. His hand was hanging off the side of the sofa; he bent down and moved it back up onto the cushions, and pulled a blanket off the mattress on the floor to place over him.

 

He lay down on the water-stained, sheetless, creaking springs and looked up at the ceiling.

 

What was this situation, anymore? Cas blind and as fragile as he'd ever been, Sam slipping further into his delusions. When had they all become so broken? Even though he was feeling better himself, now that Cas was alive and healing, he still longed sometimes after a bottle of liquor to drown the darker moments in. Sam hadn't let him bring more than a beer into the cabin in the week they'd been looking after Cas and he hadn't dared buy any in Crookston.

 

When he thought of how much there was to do, how many things needed to be fixed, how many battles needed to be fought against Leviathan and everything else unholy that still lurked out there and against the demons that still plagued them all, all three, inside, he wanted nothing more than to lose himself in the hazy amber burn of alcohol.

 

Dean had fought wars for the world, had won more than he'd lost, had seen every manner of unspeakable thing, but it was getting to the point where he wasn't sure he could take another Armageddon, global or personal.

 

There was only so much a man could endure.

Chapter Text

 

“Open 'em up. Let's see.”

 

Two weeks later, the year was slowly turning from the golden-orange face of autumn to the darker nights and duller days of winter.

 

By now, the brothers knew the house in and out, and it was beginning to feel like a permanent sort of place. Sam had taken the sheets and blankets and soiled clothes to a laundromat in town, and now everything smelled like cheap soap; the water that ran through the sluggish taps was cold and clear. They'd moved the bed down from upstairs to the first floor, and every so often Dean muttered something about throwing together a bedframe for his mattress. Cas always politely suggested that Dean sleep with him, if the mattress bothered him, and at first Dean had protested but now he only smiled and said, “Maybe.”

 

“The bruises are better,” Dean said, as Castiel's sparrow-wings flickered into the mortal plane. “Is it okay if I touch them?”

 

Cas nodded.

 

From the doorway, Sam watched their little tableau. Castiel's bed was beginning to look like something of a nest; Cas horded as many blankets as the brothers could spare, more and more as the weather turned colder, and though he was slowly regaining the ability to walk, most of his time was spent nestled among them in Dean's old sweatpants and T-shirts. Right now, he was slouched slightly forward, chest bare, wings limp and ragged and protruding from his back.

 

They'd pulled the stitches out of his cheek a week ago. The scar, Sam thought privately, was probably the worst he'd have; it was long and pale and evident, and sometimes he caught the angel running his fingers over it with a little sadness on his face.

 

Sometimes he also caught Dean murmuring to him about it, saying things like “it's not so bad,” or “I don't mind it,” or “maybe it'll go away when you're strong enough. Doesn't matter, okay? Not to me.”

 

Sam never mentioned it to him.

 

Every so often they'd sit quietly and simply touch each other, Cas examining whatever part of Dean's body Dean would let him, learning his face again with his hands. Dean traced his scars and stitches with what he probably thought was a professional detachment . Sam knew better. He left them to it. He suspected that they were happiest in those moments.

 

“Hey, these look tons better,” Dean said, gently bending one of Castiel's wings into his palm. The angel shuddered, very small, and turned his head towards him. Sam was getting used to his new eyes, finally, and he knew Dean was, too. “How do they feel?”

 

“Better,” Cas said. “More whole.”

 

Sam, ever-curious, would have killed to know exactly how an angel's grace healed things. A few days ago they'd looked at the wings and there had still been splinters of cartilege protruding from the feathers; now there wasn't a single bone to be seen, and though the brown eider-down was still ragged and the left wing was bent slightly out of shape, on the whole they seemed brighter, softer, more luminous.

 

Cas sheathed his wings away with caution and Dean pulled his shirt back over his dark-haired head. His fingers were cold against Castiel's stomach, and the angel shivered.

 

He was beginning to wrap his mind around time again, by temperature rather than sight, and by the distant cool ache of the window behind them he judged it to be evening.

 

“I'll go start the food,” Sam said in the dark up ahead, and he felt Dean nod. The hunter's calloused hand was lingering on his back. Cas wished it would never move.

 

 xxx

 

 

Sam called what Cas was doing with his blankets and sheets “nesting.” The angel found that he liked the way the word sounded. Under his hands the bed was a mountainous mess of soft folds, and he was very comfortable among them.

 

That night he lay awake for a while listening to Sam and Dean talking about something in the living room, a subject he couldn't determine through the wall, and when they fell quiet he settled into the darkness that had become everything.

 

It wasn't so much a foe anymore as a flat reality. Sometimes Cas still heard the click of teeth in the back of his head, after-echoes of blank nightmares, but they always faded without too much bother. He dreamed less these days.

 

He was lost in warmth and the gentle itch of a wool blanket, long past midnight, when he felt the mattress dip beside him. A hand slid itself into the valley of his neck and the solid feeling of Dean relaxed into the sheets against his body.

 

“Hello,” Cas murmured, remembering to open his eyes.

 

“Hey,” Dean murmured back. “Mattress has the shittiest springs.”

 

“Mmm.”

 

They lay still for a bit. Dean said, “You can go back to sleep.”

 

Cas found the hollows of his body where his own could fit best. Dean didn't protest when he slid closer, pressing them together. “I sleep too much.”

 

“Man,” Dean laughed, “if I could sleep as much as you have in the past two weeks, I'd be even for every all-nighter I've ever pulled.”

 

“I doubt that,” Cas said, but the skin on his cheek pulled before he could stop it. He hoped Dean still liked his smile when it was scarred and lopsided.

 

Some of that thought must have shown on his face, because Dean, hand slipping up to cradle the puckered flesh of his cheek, said, “You don't smile enough.”

 

It was times like these that Cas wished desperately for his eyes back, wanted to see the expression on Dean's face. He wanted to be able to press his lips to the curve under Dean's eye without slipping or knocking chins, to be graceful.

 

“I know you don't have much reason to,” Dean said, “but your face just—lights up when you smile.”

 

His lips were soft against the angel's, and they were hesitant and a little fearful, and Cas wanted to say, be not afraid, but instead he leaned into the open heat and the embrace of the hunter's mouth. It was nothing like the first kiss, flat and distant, two weeks ago in the cabin on the sheets stiff with dried blood—this was full and dark and sweet, and Dean tasted like cinnamon, and Cas didn't know why.

 

How long they lay there, quiet, exchanging short breaths and flicks of the tongue, long and slow, Castiel couldn't tell. He felt as if he were dreaming, as if this were some falsehood in his head, because he couldn't believe it had taken so long to come to this. He wanted to lie in this soft, sweet curl forever.

 

 xxx

 

“Haven't told Dean yet,” Sam told him, two days later—they were sitting on Castiel's bed, gently working out another suture from the angel's chest—“but I'm meeting up with Bobby in town later. There's a coven of witches in Duluth.”

 

“He won't want to let you go,” Cas said. He helped Sam pluck the knot from against his skin. The stitches pulled, disconcerting. He was glad to be rid of another length of foreign thread in his flesh.

 

“Yeah, well. I'll have Bobby. And I'm better these days.”

 

“You have always been a terrible liar, Sam Winchester. Particularly to me.”

 

Sam smiled. The thread came out and he examined the scar left behind; some of the older ones were already fading away, smoothed out by grace or time, he couldn't tell. The scar on Castiel's face still stood out white and prominent.

 

“Is there anything I can do?” Cas asked, face following Sam as he got up to throw away the thread and put away the scissors. “To help?”

 

“I don't know. But I'm fine, really. Don't put yourself out for me.”

 

“It's no trouble. I owe it to you.”

 

Sam sighed, sitting back down on the bed, disrupting a sculpted hill of blankets. “You don't owe me anything, Cas.”

 

The angel's face fell.

 

“At least let me—”

 

He reached out, fingers searching. Sam sighed again, softly, and let his own marred palm be caught by the angel's hands.

 

“You really don't have to,” he murmured.

 

“I want to.”

 

Cas held his hand between his own. He was warm and soft, and Sam found that he couldn't really mind. Cas had done this twice since the incident with the Leviathan-look-alike and though Sam didn't want to admit it, he liked the way the gentle heat of Cas felt, coiling up his arm and softening the edges of his feverish mind. Afterwards Lucifer was always quiet for a day or more, but Cas was always very tired, and though he pretended that it wasn't exhausting him, Sam knew better.

 

Guilt prickled at the back of Sam's head and he gently pulled his hand away. “That's enough,” he said quietly. “Thanks. Really.”

 

“I wish I could do more,” Cas said. His fingers drifted up across the scar on his chest.

 

“You're doing more than enough. Okay?” Sam squeezed the angel's knee and then got up. “You hungry or anything?”

 

“I'm alright.”

 

Sam nodded, and was halfway out the door before he stopped and turned back.

 

“Oh, and while I'm gone?” he said. “Take care of Dean, okay?”

 

The insinuation flew right over Castiel's head and disappeared somewhere into the corner of the room. “What do you mean?” he asked, tilting his head in that way that was so distinctly Cas.

 

Sam rolled his eyes and grinned. “Never mind,” he said.

 

It would happen eventually, he was sure. With the way Dean looked at Cas these days—like he was the most precious object in the world—it was only a matter of time.

 

 xxx

 

 

Dean protested, as both Cas and Sam had known he would, but in the end they both managed to talk him down a bit. Sam said it'd be good for him to get a change of scenery, that he was dreaming less anyway, and Cas nodded in agreement, murmuring to Dean that his brother wasn't going to change his mind.

 

Eventually Dean sighed and ran a hand over his face.

 

“Only if you swear to me that you're getting better with this hallucination crap,” he said, “and if you promise to tell Bobby if anything starts going south.”

 

“I swear.”

 

“Sam,” Cas said, a very quiet warning.

 

He sighed. “Okay. The hallucinations aren't—going anywhere. But they're under control, okay?”

 

“You call seeing fucking—Cas-Leviathan under control?

 

“Dean, that was forever ago—”

 

“A few weeks.”

 

“Sam will be fine,” Cas said. His pale eyes flickered up in the direction of Dean.

 

“How do you know?” The bite in Dean's voice was harsh, but Cas didn't flinch. It was more concern than anger, he knew.

 

“I've been doing what I can for him,” the angel murmured. “Softening the edges of things.”

 

Dean paused for a moment.

 

“It helps,” Cas said. “It's not a permanent solution, but it's good enough for now.”

 

He got to his feet, slowly and carefully, and by reflex Dean moved forward to touch his arm and keep him from stumbling; Cas found his hand and held it loosely.

 

“Let him go,” he murmured, close to Dean's neck, and he felt Dean tense and then sigh.

 

After a long silence he said, “You be back in a week or I'm coming out after you.”

 

Sam smiled, clapping his brother on the shoulder. “Thanks.”

 

 xxx

 

 

“Can I talk to you for a second?”

 

Dean looked up from the television, finger in the lip of his beer bottle. He was watching the same crackling telenovela he'd been following since they'd holed up in the old cabin. Sam suspected that Dean was gaining something of a grasp of Spanish, he'd been watching it so much; sometimes he caught him muttering Spanish curse words under his breath if something went wrong in the kitchen.

 

“'Bout what?” Dean shifted over on the couch to make room for him. In the room down the hall Cas was asleep, curled into a little angel-ball among his sheets and blankets. He slept better these days, longer and deeper, and he hadn't had any nightmares in a week or so. “This isn't gonna be a heart-to-heart or anything, is it? I'm too tired for one of those.”

 

Sam didn't sit, but leaned against the corner of the wall, and smiled. “Don't worry,” he said.

 

“Alright. What's up?”

 

“When are you going to stop pretending you aren't head over heels for Cas?”

 

Dean nearly choked on his beer, and Sam had to force back laughter as he recovered from the shock of the question. “What?” Dean gasped, thumping his chest and coughing.

 

“Dude, don't act surprised.” Sam lifted an eyebrow, smiling to himself. “You don't drive halfway across the country to save a guy you don't care about. And you don't touch people like you touch him unless you really, really like them.”

 

“Just. Checking his stitches,” Dean mumbled, but even he didn't sound like he believed it.

 

“It's no big deal, Dean. Hell,” Sam said, “I don't think I've seen you this happy in a long time. And that's—really all I care about.”

 

Dean looked at him, long and hard, and his face was the face of someone fighting with himself. He bit at the inside of his lower lip.

 

“To be honest I'm surprised it's taken this long,” Sam said, a little quieter. The wall corner was nudging into the side of his chest.

 

After a long silence Dean murmured, sounding horribly confused, “I don't know if I'm in love ...with him.”

 

“I know love when I see it, Dean.” Sam couldn't help smiling a little bit, still. “I had Jess. So if you need any more convincing, take it from me. You love him.”

 

It took Dean a long time to meet his eyes again, and when he did he looked both relieved and a little confused. “Maybe,” he said, and Sam knew he really meant yeah. You're right. I guess I do.

 

The younger Winchester nodded, perfunctorily, and said, “Okay, then. So—you're gonna sleep with him while I'm gone, right?”

 

A couch cushion hit him square in the face and for a minute Sam thought Dean was going to literally chase him down the hall and tackle him for that, but Dean stayed on the couch and fought back a smile, and Sam laughed like he hadn't laughed in years, and sat down with his brother to watch the telenovela. He thought about hunting witches with Bobby in Duluth, Dean and Cas alone together, safe and happy, and he thought, things are going to get better, and soon.

Chapter Text

Bobby came to get Sam the next morning and stopped in to see Cas before they left. The angel smiled gently as he entered the bedroom and said, “Hello, Bobby.”

 

Bobby's own smile was fond. “Good to see you, sport.”

 

They left as the lone clock, sitting on the kitchen counter, clicked over to noon. Dean watched them drive off the dirt road onto the distant highway from the door and then locked it behind him.

 

“Few days to ourselves,” he said as he came into Castiel's bedroom, hands in his pockets. “How much you wanna bet we're at each other's throats by Friday?”

 

“I doubt that would happen,” Cas said, lifting his face as Dean rolled onto the bed next to him, crossing his legs. “I enjoy your company.”

 

“What are we gonna do for a week?” Dean looked at Cas. Really, sometimes he wasn't all that bothered by the angel being blind, because it gave him endless opportunity to simply memorise his face. He missed the dark vivid blue that used to meet his gaze, but there was a feeling in his gut that it would come back someday, and for now he loved the freedom to stare.

 

“What would you like to do?” Cas asked, lying down against Dean's side, finding the curve of his shoulder. “I know you are restless.”

 

He shrugged. “TV. Might be some books upstairs I could, I dunno—read to you. Go into town, maybe? If it's safe.”

 

“I can think of other ways to pass the time,” Cas said softly, warmly against Dean's throat. His fingers touched softly on the hunter's cheek and turned his face, missed his mouth but managed to kiss his top lip, felt Dean's hand come to rest on his scarred cheek.

 

“Well, yeah,” said Dean, grinning against the angel's mouth. “There's that, too.”

 

 ***

 

In the end, despite the inherent boredom of being stuck in a house in the woods with only broadcast television and not much else to do, the first two days were pleasant and slow. Cas helped Dean stuff old T-shirts against the drafty windows to keep the cold out, tucking them into place with his fingers; they opened the angel's wings to find them a day or less from being totally healed, and Cas beat them back and forth for a few moments before it tired him, blowing cool waves of air against Dean's face. Dean laughed and told him not to wear himself out, and then slipped the feathers back into place, marvelling at their soft sparrow-brown, their gentle sheen.

 

“Your wings are awesome,” he said, and Cas might have blushed. Dean wasn't sure.

 

Dean made them frozen pizza rolls for dinner. Cas didn't like them much, but he managed a few for Dean. They sat on the mattress on the floor of the living room and talked about anything—about the winter weather, about the football game Dean had been listening to on the radio that morning, about the canned fruit in the cellar that Cas loved but Dean hated, about how the other had slept the night before, about the Impala. They filled up hours, and the pizza rolls went cold on the plate between them, and Dean thought that the angel's laughter grew stronger and sweeter and quicker every day.

 

They sat in front of the television on low volume until Cas fell asleep, and Dean carried him back to the nest of his bed and covered him up. He lay down beside his angel in boxers and a T-shirt and watched the soft pale curves of his scars until sleep claimed him, too.

 

The next day they woke too lazy to move, and lay in bed murmuring pointless things or simply being silent, until Dean's stomach grumbled. They didn't talk much that day; they didn't have to; as the hours passed Dean's hand lingered longer on the angel's shoulder in passing until they wound up after dark in the warm tangled sheets of Castiel's bed, kissing without words, which was just how they both liked it best.

 

 ***

 

Sam called early in the morning on the third day. Dean reached an arm backwards to the nightstand where he'd left his phone to answer it; Cas was still asleep against his shoulder.

 

“Hey.” His voice was low.

 

“Hey. How's Cas?”

 

“Good as he can be.”

 

He's right there, isn't he?”

 

“How'd you know?” Dean smiled down at the angel, let a finger toy at his hair.

 

“I just do .” Sam's own smile was nearly audible. “Listen, we're finishing up here—we'll head back tomorrow unless something else crops up.”

 

“How are you holding up?”

 

Me? I'm fine.” Dean heard Bobby talking in the background and heard Sam clear his throat. “Cas knows what he's doing, apparently.”

 

“No freaky stuff?”

 

Not yet. Hope it stays that way. Look, we have to go—call you on the way back. Say hi to Cas for me.”

 

“Got it.”

 

Have you slept with him yet?” Sam asked, in a low conspiratorial chuckle, and Dean muttered “bitch” into the phone before he hung up, tossing the phone back onto the nightstand.

 

 ***

 

In late morning the sky in the west took a turn for the sour. Dean watched it roiling up on the horizon; the sun over the cabin clashed bright golden against the silhouetted trees, like some strange waking dream.

 

“Aw, hell,” he muttered. “Hope we don't get snowed in.”

 

Cas shifted, restless, against his pillows. “Storm coming?”

 

“Looks like.”

 

The angel grimaced. “It makes my bones ache.”

 

“Speaking of.” Dean turned away from the window where the sun was dying, eaten up by the oncoming weather, and let his fingers touch and drag down the angel's abdomen. “Should look at your stitches. I think the ones on your stomach might be ready to come out.”

 

He went to get the scissors while Cas pulled his shirt off, and then gently rolled the sweatpants off his legs. A long suture trailed down into the valley of his hipbones, against the inside of his leg, and he traced it with a fingertip. The stitches were tiny corrugations under his touch.

 

“Oh, yeah, those look tons better,” Dean said as he came back into the room; the mattress dipped as he sat down, and Cas rearranged himself to allow his stomach to lie flat.

 

“I'll be glad to have them out,” the angel said as Dean pulled out the first line of thread. “They itch.”

 

“We'll look at the ones on your back, too. Should be okay to pull out, I think. It's been a long time.”

 

In silence Dean worked, until the only gash left untouched was the one that split up the angel's leg and hip, and Dean murmured that they'd look at that one later. Cas turned around and sat on his knees, and the hunter set to work on the last four sutures on his back, parallel lines like the tearing of a clawed hand, or tooth marks dragging.

 

“Looking good,” Dean murmured. “Bruises are going down a lot, too.”

 

For a moment he stopped, scissors poised in his fingers, and looked at the angel's back. He was still too thin to be healthy. The bruises were like smears of pale violet.

 

He found himself touching the white ladder of the angel's spine, the scissors fallen to the sheets, fingers bumping over the ridges. Cas tensed up but didn't say anything; his shoulders bowed forward.

 

“You're so skinny,” Dean said, softly. Outside the sun was vivid and unnatural against the crowding dark sky.

 

His hands slipped down the angel's back, touching the stitches and the scars, and Dean felt compelled to kiss them, and so he did.

 

Cas tipped his head back and closed his unseeing eyes. There. Warm lips on his skin, hands holding his hips. Dean's calloused fingers slipping around, finding the long suture on the inside of his hip, following it down under the waistband of the boxers the angel wore—Dean's boxers, old and faded and soft.

 

Dean kissed his neck and despite himself Cas sighed, and leaned back against Dean's shoulder, hand coming to grip the back of the hunter's. The edge of his boxers came down across his hip and the sharp line of his bones stood out in the new, strange, pale winter-light.

 

Lips on his neck, his shoulder, the edges of his bruises. Something hot beginning to pool in the base of his stomach. Castiel murmured, “Dean.”

 

“You okay?” Dean asked. He didn't know what he was doing. The angel's suture was rough against his palm and his skin so warm around it. Cas was shivering, but not from cold, he knew instinctively—he could see the angel's lips out of the corner of his eye and they were open, trembling a bit, ravaged face flushed. “We don't have to—”

 

“I'm alright,” Cas stammered. “I'm alright.”

 

“Are you sure? I don't—want to hurt you.”

 

“You could never hurt me,” Cas murmured. He dipped his shoulder back, turned his body, felt through the air until he found Dean's neck, touched it. Gentle. Everything gentle—Dean's hands soft, his kisses soft, his words soft. “I trust you.”

 

“You do, huh.”

 

“Completely,” Cas whispered. Dean's kiss was smooth and full and his hands came up to gently hold the bruises on the angel's back, and the pressure somehow didn't hurt at all.

 

The nest of Castiel's bed collapsed under them, warm under the angel's back, and Dean was a pleasant weight on his body, and he had his lips pressed to the scar on Castiel's cheek. Cas smiled, and waited for Dean's lips to come back to his mouth.

 

But they didn't.

 

Dean hovered there. The new skin had felt smooth against his lips and he paused to look at it. It swept up the angel's cheek like the tracing of a fingernail, curving away from the edge of his mouth, dividing his face in half—oval of his eye socket, sunken, heavy eyelids over pale blue frosted eyes, and jawline, smooth and stubbled.

 

He looked, and lingered there. Cas breathed softly, looking up blindly at the ceiling, waiting. Patient. Always patient , Dean thought. Always waiting, breathing, asking for nothing, deserving everything.

 

Even before all this Dean had thought that the angel had a beautiful face. Tired eyes, chapped lips, brows eternally puzzling and expression always pensive—he had loved that face even before he knew that he was capable of loving it, had traced it with his eyes but never known it, and now—

 

It wasn't ruined. It wasn't awful. Castiel was not ugly, but he was changed, and Dean stared at the scar on his cheek, and hated himself for not memorising him earlier, for not being able to conjure up every line in his skin and dimple of his mouth, every fleck of silver or green in his bright blue eyes, every hair in its misplace on his temples.

 

You're beautiful , he wanted to say. Even though you're broken up. You're so beautiful. I wish I'd told you that before all this—

 

“Dean?” Cas asked, very softly. He didn't move.

 

In the flat black, he felt Dean kiss his scar again. Softly. Reverent. Gentle. And he kissed it again, and again, and blessed the angel's face with his lips, and every touch and press and breath against his cheek said I'm sorry. I'm sorry for what I did to you. I'm sorry they did this to you. I'm sorry you're hurt and broken and confused. I'm sorry.

 

And every instant between their meeting said please forgive me.

 

He kissed it again and again and his hands kissed the scars on the angel's chest, and his breath kissed the darkness of his eyes and Castiel felt something huge and sad and terrible rising up behind his ribs, like words or a wave, and heat began to pool atop his eyelids, as if replying, I forgave you a long, long time ago.

 

“Don't cry,” Dean whispered.

 

Castiel was dissolving. He couldn't help it. The warmth of Dean's lips was on his cheek and the warmth of Dean's hands was on his chest, and he was so, so safe—so protected, so secure—in the heat of Dean Winchester's body and the love in Dean Winchester's kiss, and he was thinking of the lake and the dark and the cold, and salvation and Messiahs, and snowstorms and green near-forgotten eyes, and of Sam's hand squeezing we won't let them hurt you against his knee, and of Dean's presence like gold and light, and for a moment he thought, Heaven is a long black car and two boys.

 

“Don't cry,” Dean whispered, but the angel's chin was shaking and tears were trickling from the corners of his eyes, and though he made no sound Dean could feel the sobs wracking in his chest. “Please don't cry.”

 

“But you're crying, too,” Cas whispered, and as the wind began to beat at the eaves of their little house, their little nest, Dean kissed his mouth.

 

And they tangled themselves together, ever-so-softly, porcelain and clay, righteous and fallen, and Dean touched him like he was made of glass. They cracked and they broke together, slow and gentle, and Dean eased into him and whispered “you're okay, you're alright, I've got you, Cas, you're okay, you're alright.”

 

And the angel bowed his head against Dean's shoulder, breath catching in his throat, and whispered back, “I know. I know.”

 

Dean held him through every rock of his hips, every shudder that ran through his body, touched him softly, novels at his fingertips, confessions in his breathing. He held him up and over the pain and the adrenaline and Cas sighed against his neck, hot and slow. The angel clutched at his back, arching against him, bodies soft together.

 

Snow roared in over Crookston and buried them in white and cold.

 

They lay quiet together afterwards, and Dean softly asked why the angel was still crying. His finger drifted up to brush away the tears.

 

Smiling a shaking smile, Cas whispered, “Because I'm alive.”

Chapter Text


Bobby slowed beside the turn-off up to the house, tires complaining against the slick asphalt.

“You coming in?” Sam glanced at him, pulling the strap of his bag up over his shoulder.

“Nah. Got wind of another job out west. I'm just dropping you off.”

Sam nodded. They said their goodbyes, and as Sam climbed out of the truck, Bobby called, “Let me know how those two are doing, y'hear?”

“Will do. Thanks, Bobby,” Sam said.

Bobby reached across the close the door with a smile, and then sputtered off back onto the road. Sam waited until he was out of sight before he turned to walk up the drive. It was hard to see, covered in snow as it was.

When Dean opened the door Sam knew right away that something had changed. There was a lustre to his brother that hadn't been there when he'd left, a rested look to his face.

“How was it?” Dean asked, stepping aside to let him in. In the next room on the couch, Cas lifted his face to the sound of Sam's footsteps.

“Good.” Sam dropped his bag on the table. “Took a while to root them out but they pretty much took care of themselves.”

“Hate witches,” Dean muttered. “Want a beer?”

“Uh, sure.” Sam looked at Cas, who was perched almost bird-like on the couch, knees up to his chest. “Hey, Cas.”

“Hello, Sam.”

“How are you doing?”

Cas smiled, just a little bit. Dean said, “All his stitches are out.”

“That's great,” Sam said—a small wave of relief slipped over him. “I mean, that's awesome—you're a quick healer, huh?”

“Grace does have something to do with it,” Cas said modestly. He was turning the corner of a blanket over and over in his fingers, as if learning every stitch.

Dean was about to go back into the living room with him when Sam caught his arm.

“Dude,” he said, in a low voice. “So did you?”

Jeez , your interest in this is bordering on creepy, you know that?”

Sam cocked an eyebrow. “So you did.”

“Well—I mean—” Dean looked at Cas, obliviously staring at a point on the wall, and then back to his brother, and sighed, exasperated. “Yeah, okay? Yeah. I did.” He shrugged off Sam's hand and rolled his shoulders, as if shaking off an insect. His voice took a turn for the sarcastic. “And there were rainbows and butterflies and passionate pillow talk. Happy?”

“Be serious.”

“I am serious. Not about the—the butterflies, but yes. Okay? We had sex. Now stop asking, you're starting to sound like you've got a fetish.”

Sam smiled. “Alright, alright. I'm just glad you finally got it over with.”

“What are you, a matchmaker? Drink your beer,” Dean muttered, turning to leave. “Is nothing sacred?”

He didn't see it, but Sam was smiling ear to ear as his brother went back into the living room with the angel.  His  angel, that was. It had always been the case, Sam supposed, but now it was truer than ever.


***

“Duluth. Details.”

Sam and Dean were sitting on opposite ends of the couch, sleepily enduring another rerun of God-even-knew-what. Cas had gone to sleep, tucked snugly under his nest of blankets.

“Went fine. I told you.”

“No, ah. Funny stuff?”

“Funny stuff?”

“Come on, Sam. No hallucinations? No Devil?”

Sam hesitated, watching the television. Then he shrugged, mouth coming down at the corners. “A few bad dreams,” he said. “Nothing huge.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yeah, Dean. I'm sure.”

They were silent for a bit longer. Sam decided that they might have been watching That 70s Show, but at the same time it could well have been Friends.

“So,” Dean said eventually, “you...expect me to believe that you're getting better. Just because Cas used some angel mojo on your brain.”

Sam looked at him. “Why wouldn't you believe that?”

“Because that's not the way our lives work, Sam.” Dean ran a hand over his face and fixed the television with a sour look. “Cas is running on fumes, it's not like—it's not like it's gonna be as easy as touching your forehead a few times. Before he started doing that you were seeing some crazy shit, and you said yourself it was getting worse, not better, so am I really supposed to think that it's gonna be this easy?”

Sam stared at him. The words he found emerging from his mouth were, “Good things do happen, Dean.”

Dean looked at him hard, then, as if startled, and Sam didn't know why; there was an after-echo of something in Dean's eyes, and eventually he said, “I just can't hope that much anymore, Sammy.”

“If you keep expecting the worst all the time, you're never going to be happy.”

“I am happy,” Dean said, sharply, and in the quiet that followed he realised slowly that—it was true.

He was happy. Here, safe, with Cas mending quicker than he'd ever hoped, and Sam supposedly seeing less of Lucifer, nothing chasing them down just yet or sending them on the run; but he knew—how well he knew—that happiness like that just couldn't last. Something would happen. Sam's mind would come crumbling down again, or Cas—

He forced his mind to stop, there. Just the thought of something happening to Cas, now, when everything was looking up, was too much to bear.

“Yeah...but without hope, happiness doesn't mean much, does it?”

“Just don't lie to me, okay?” Dean said, looking at his brother in the flickering light of the TV. “If things get bad again, tell me. Don't—don't hide it. I hate it when you hide stuff.”

Sam bit at his lower lip until Dean looked away again, and then said, “Okay. I won't.”

“Thanks.”


***

Cas had taken to making knots. Dean had left the last spool of stitch-thread on his nightstand and, for want of anything better to do, whenever his hands were idle, he began to tie the thread in loops, fingers twisting as he stared up at the ceiling.

When Sam asked him why, Cas said, “I like the way things feel.”

It was a bit odd, Dean thought, but the angel seemed very content when his hands were busy. He made long chains of tiny bumps and when he ran out of thread, he'd pick them all out again, one by one, and start again.

It was the dead of winter and the radiator, already on the brink of death, was beginning to give out more and more. Sam began going out to get firewood, just in case it ceased to work entirely, and every so often he brought Cas back something from the woods—pinecones, acorns, once a tiny violet that had frozen solid and yet somehow remained purple and soft under the veneer of ice.

Cas would turn them over in his hands, learn the ridges and the smooth edges of things; the violet he put in a tiny baby-food jar that Dean had found in the attic, let it melt in warm water. Sometimes he would sit and touch the petals for a while.

He kept it for weeks, and it never died.

Particularly he loved a nest that Sam had found, very small and intricate, fallen from its perch on some high tree branch; it was empty, formed from the tiniest twigs. Cas marvelled at it, fingers trailing over it, wondering what bird had lived there, what eggs had lain there.

He arranged all the little gifts on his bedroom windowsill.



***


“So what do you think?” Dean asked him, late, two nights before Christmas. Castiel's face was puzzled, so he gently stroked a finger under the curve of one of his eyes. “About these.”

“They'll come back,” Cas said, blinking slowly. (Before all this he'd rarely blinked anyway; now he almost had to remind himself to do it.) “I'm nearly certain.”

Dean was quiet for a while.

“Once they do,” he said slowly, “you know we'll probably have to go back to hunting.”

Castiel's pale eyes drifted down. “Yes. I know.”

“I wish to God we didn't have to.”

Cas leaned his head down against Dean's shoulder, fingers clutching gently at his shirt, at the sheets.

“I'd give anything to just—stay here with Sam, and with you, and never have to worry about—demons or ghosts or shapeshifters or Leviathan ever again.”

“I know.”

“I mean, is it so much to ask?” Dean turned onto his back, looking up at the ceiling of the angel's bedroom; Cas lay loose against him. “We've saved the world so many times I'm starting to lose track—can't it be someone else's job for once?”

“Unfortunately,” Cas said softly, “that doesn't seem to be the way this world works.”

“It's just one damn thing after another. We never catch a break, I mean, one of us is always hurt or crazy or hunted, and someone always needs saving—”

He fell quiet; sought out the angel's hand on his chest. Cas turned his own over and slipped their fingers together. Dean's pulse was small and irregular under his fingers.

“Sometimes I wish you and Sam had been born somewhere else,” Cas said, very quietly. “I wish that your mother had never died, and that your father had remained a better man, and that I'd met you content and happy—a wife and child—Sam at college—sometimes I wish you'd never needed me, Dean.”

“Don't say that.”

“That I'd been able to simply watch you from afar. Admire and love you without being seen.”

Outside the snow lay thick on the ground. It was very, very dark.

“But then I remember that without your tragedies—without your restlessness, and your dedication, and the things that have shaped you—I may have met you, but I wouldn't have loved you.”

Dean looked at him, then, pulled by something thin and raw in his voice, and drew an arm around him. The angel pressed close to his body and closed his eyes.

“I love you broken, Dean Winchester,” he whispered. “I love you battered and tired and restless, just as you are.”

It wasn't until later that night, when Cas had drifted off and Dean was still staring up and memorising the cracks in the ceiling, that he realised what Cas had said.

Hoping the angel could hear him in his dreams, wherever those were, he said,“I love you too, Cas. All guilty and stubborn and sad.”

He kissed the angel's forehead, his scar, his parted lips.

“I hope you're okay with that.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Cas managed to walk the length of the downstairs hallway on his own, fingers only grazing the wall. He was exhausted when he finally stumbled into Dean's arms on the other end, but he was smiling through his laboured breath.

Sam watched them with a smile.

“Better every day,” Dean said, holding the angel's face gently in his hands, and he kissed him on the forehead.

That peculiar slime just won't die, will he , said a low silk voice from the corner.

Sam swallowed hard. He tried his hardest not to look at Lucifer, casual as could be across the room, arms crossed, face thoughtful.

You know...a few months ago...I had you all fired up enough to point a gun at your brother.  The Devil came to him across the room, with a saunter in his step, and came to a stop right behind him, breath cold against his neck. Sam stared long and hard at Dean and Cas, focused on them, angel balancing on his own two feet and brother smiling, but he couldn't shake the shiver that ran through him.

Maybe I could do that again,  Lucifer mused aloud,  only this time...make you point a gun at that pretty little angel...take him away from Dean, just when he was getting him back...oh, that would  hurt , wouldn't it?

“I wouldn't,” Sam whispered. “I can tell what's real. You are not real.”

I'm real as real can be, Sammy boy.  The apparition's finger made its way across Sam's shoulder-blades; he shivered, as if touched by ice.  You were ready to kill that...Leviathan thing, weren't you? Ready to rip its head off...that could well have been your dear Cas, you know. Could well have been...

“Leave me alone,” Sam hissed, shrugging off the Devil's touch, and he twisted his thumb into his palm as hard as he could.

For now , said Lucifer, smirking.  For now .

“You wanna try to the stairs?” Dean was saying, as if walking up the stairs was the best activity in the world, and Cas shook his head, looking a little embarassed, and Dean laughed and said, “Alright. That's okay. Doing great, Cas. Doing great.”

Sam looked at them, the glow on his brother's face, the contentment on the angel's—only a few weeks ago his face had been so tight and torn that it had seemed unable to be untangled, but now he smiled, and the scars on his body faded, and he walked on his own. It was a happy house.

He was damned if he was going to let anything happen to them. Their happiness would not be broken here. Not by him, and not by anyone.


***



“How is Sam?” Cas asked. The younger Winchester was out getting fire-wood; Cas and Dean were sitting on the couch, Dean enraptured by something on the television, Cas knotting his thread. His loop of string was beginning to look like a rosary.

“Seems to be okay,” Dean said. “He hasn't said anything to me.”

“He rarely says anything to you about it,” Cas murmured. His fingers felt along the line of knots, tiny and firm.

“Promised he would, from now on.”

“As soon as I have my eyes back,” Cas said, “I will fix him.”

“I know you will.”

“I just pray it doesn't become irreversibly worse before that time comes.”

Dean stiffened a bit beside him, and his hand faltered where it had been moving up and down across the angel's thigh.

Eventually he said, “Me too.”


***




Christmas came and went without much fanfare.

It passed like any other night, except that Cas was very quiet.

When the brothers asked him why, he said, “The Lord's birthday. Or at least the day we've chosen for it, now.” He was toying with one of the big pinecones Sam had brought him, delicate in his hands. “I'm listening to my brothers and sisters. They're singing.”

After that Sam and Dean were quiet, too, and though neither admitted it, both were listening hard, to see if they could hear the angels, too.

Perhaps they could.


***




Dean slept with Cas more and more, over those next weeks, during the waiting game, the impatient days spent hoping for his sight to come back. Sam eventually resigned himself to the fact that he was sleeping alone in the living room. He didn't like the nights when Dean was gone—he felt exposed, unsafe, though Lucifer rarely showed himself anymore—but at the same time, he didn't think he could do much about it. Lovers slept together, he supposed. Hadn't he slept with Jess like that?

He'd only heard them having sex once, and found it slightly embarrassing, so he'd taken himself up to the second floor and looked through some old boxes by flashlight until they were done. He didn't mind it so much, really. Some of the boxes had photographs in them, of people Sam had never met, which sparked stories in his head that certainly weren't true.

He took a few favourites downstairs with him when he heard their voices murmuring again, to look at in daylight. One had a smoothness to the photograph paper that he thought Cas might like to touch.


***



None of them stayed up for the arrival of the New Year. The radiator had finally died, and the fire Sam had built in the fireplace, though huge and warm, was making them all tired. Dean went out to the car to get their coats, and helped Cas into one of Sam's old Stanford sweatshirts. They went to bed and curled up close to each other for warmth.

Sam watched the fire until it died down to embers, and then climbed into bed on the creaking stead they'd brought down from upstairs. His breath was steam in the dark, hanging white; he clutched the blankets close to his body and wished he had someone to sleep with, to keep him warm.

He pulled his scarred hand out from under the covers, held it up to the thin moonlight. His palm was criss-crossed with smooth new skin, from the glass cut to the splinters Dean had pulled out, destroying his life-and-heart-lines, making maps across his flesh. It was raw and muscle-red.

He'd promised Dean he'd tell him if it got any worse—but it wasn't getting worse ; it was getting scarier. He almost felt more at ease when Lucifer was there, smirking at him or making awful comments, because when he wasn't there, Sam was never sure if something was coming. He'd gone a long time without nightmares, without tricks, and every noise at night made him start awake, catch his breath hard in his throat.

The waiting was the worst thing of all.

***


Later, Cas would not be able to say why he woke when he did. A change in the air, perhaps, or instinct. Whatever the cause, he fell back into the cold of the tall house in the woods sometime after two in the morning on the first day of the new year, and though for all intents and purposes the house was quiet, he had the distinct feeling that something was very, very wrong.

Carefully, he untangled himself from Dean's arms, and slipped quietly out of bed. The floorboards were cold under his feet, and the shock of it almost sent him reeling back into the warmth, sent fear shooting down his spine— cold and damp, teeth, so many teeth —but he pulled his arms close to his body and stepped carefully, feeling for the door with one hand.

When he found it, he leaned out into the hall, and then he heard it—the sound of laboured breathing, short and hitching. Hyperventilating, almost. From the living room, to his left, close to the wall.

He found the corners with his hands, felt his own breath against his face, hovering in warm clouds. He made his way into the living room and paused there, one hand on the corner of the wall, face looking into the wide empty dark.

“Sam?” he asked softly. There—on the far end of the couch, the sound of the breathing, fast and hard, slowly transforming into what sounded like sobs.

“Sam,” he said again, and bent, feeling for the couch, making his way along the floor with his hands against the stiff fabric, searching for Sam in the dark. He found his face, the soft cold brush of his hair, and Cas maneuvered himself down onto the sofa beside him, body shaking with chill.

Sam's face was wet, slick with tears; his eyes were closed, Cas felt, fingers drifting across the shut lids, and gently he felt the rest of him—hands clutching his head, knees tight to his chest, rocking back and forth, mouth trembling and whispering, over and over, “It's not real, it's not real, it's not real—”

“Sam,” Cas said, louder this time, feeling a pang in his chest. The younger Winchester's fear was like electricity, sharp and erratic, and Cas could feel his heartbeat fluttering like a dying bird, trapped and terrified. “Sam—”

Sam was shaking like a leaf, body wracked, and the name became a mantra, the only thing Cas could say, because what else was there? The angel's hand drifted across Sam's wrist and felt something warm and wet there—blood. His scarred hand was bleeding wide and hot down his arm, against his cheek.

Cas felt for his temples and found them, and bowed his head against Sam's shoulder, and focused—pulled all the grace he could spare from wherever it lay inside him, out through his fingers, golden and threadlike. Smoothed at the edges of Sam's ravaged mind, whispered and caressed there, sought out the bare bones and flames of Hell that cackled inside and snuffed them out. Sam shook and his breath came ragged, and Cas whispered, “I'm so sorry, Sam. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.”

He felt strength leaching from his bones and cold searing in but still he concentrated, hummed and murmured, until Sam began to calm, and stopped whispering. Cas felt his eyelids open against the inside of his wrist, and heard Sam say “Cas?” in a voice very small and broken.

The angel heard the floorboards creak behind them, behind where he was holding Sam Winchester to his chest, and heard Dean say, “God, what happened?”

It wasn't really a question. Dean saw them—Sam shaking and hiccuping sobs against Castiel's chest, and Cas carding gentle fingers through his hair, ignoring the blood from his hand and the damp from his tears, murmuring “It's over now. It's over now.”

Sam couldn't feel anything except the angel's touch, and then Dean's touch, and then both were holding him very close, rocking back and forth with him, saying gentle things, coaxing him out of the dark. He didn't know what he'd seen—only that it had been horrible, that there had been broken bones and knives, that there had been wide mouths open to swallow them, and tears on Dean's face, and light dying in Castiel's eyes, and Lucifer smiling at it all from the shadows. Jumbled images in the mess of his mind, being chased out by the angel's touch, smothered in white light and a foreign peace.

Dean held him as if letting him go would make him fall into a million pieces.

Somewhere in the blur of it, Dean looked at Cas, cheek laid against Sam's head, and saw that he was crying, too, soft silent tears from the corners of his blind eyes.

Neither of them dared to leave him. When he quieted, finally, and collapsed into an exhausted sleep, they laid him down gently on the couch. Dean sat beside him, holding his bloodied ravaged hand in his own, and Cas sat on the floor, head in Dean's lap, staring into the endless dark.

“I'm sorry,” he said softly, at what hour Dean knew not. “I'm so sorry.”

Chapter Text

Dean went into town to pick up some more food. He swore he'd only be gone an hour at most, but the roads were slick and traffic choked the highway, and so Sam and Cas were left alone for the greater part of the dim afternoon on the first day of the year.

Sam had protested, but Cas had insisted on using what little grace he had left to spare on healing the younger Winchester's hand. He murmured that it wouldn't remove the scars, but Sam said not to worry about it.

It took a good quarter of an hour for Cas to muster the strength, and when he was done Sam's palm shone with new skin and the angel was exhausted.

“You need to stop doing that,” Sam said softly, as Cas was resting against the arm of the couch, head pillowed on the armrest. “It drains you.”

“That doesn't matter,” Cas said, voice hazy, eyelids drooping. “It's the least I can do.”

Sam saw that the angel was likely to simply drop off on the couch, and got up to get him a blanket. He covered up Castiel's thin body as his blind eyes drifted closed, and said, “Thank you, Cas.”

Sleepily, Cas touched the back of his hand with cold fingertips, and then he was out. Sam left him and went up the stairs to the attic.

The boxes were still out, tops opened and a few of the old photographs littered on the floor.  Idle hands , he thought to himself, knowing that his mind would turn to the night before unless he made himself busy.

Sam made little piles of Polaroids and sepia-tone faces, tucked some back into their boxes and pushed the boxes back into the corners. The single skylight in the attic roof was harsh with winter sun.

Then he remembered the photo he'd taken because of its texture, to give to Cas, and pulled it out of his jeans pocket. There was a glare from the skylight against its surface, so he crouched down in the shadow of the eaves to look at it.

Cas would have liked it had he been able to see it, too, Sam thought. It was a picture of a bird, wings caught on the verge of flight, spread wide in perfect arcs. It was old, faded, the colours dim, but he could make out a soft brown on its breast, a soft twilight blue on its wings. A thrush, maybe; a bluebird.

Very small, and delicate, perched on the edge of a birdhouse rail, about to fly away. It had reminded him, instinctively, of Cas, in the way it held itself, in the way its head was cocked, curious, anxious.

He turned it over. Etched in pencil, very faint, in a cursive hand he couldn't identify, it read  Eastern Bluebird. Pontiac, Illinois. 1963.

“Pontiac,” Sam murmured to himself. He smiled a little bit.

Wasn't that just an irony to best all ironies.


***



When Dean came back, he asked Sam to help him with a few bags of groceries, and on the way back up to the house he said, “Whatever that was, last night—that can't happen again.”

Sam sighed; his breath came out in steam. There were snowflakes on his eyelashes, and on Dean's. “Can't really help it, Dean. You know that.”

“I know.” Dean kicked a stone and it skittered off into the woods. He shouldered open the door and let Sam go inside first. “But you're not sleeping alone anymore. Not until Cas can patch you up.”

“Dean, there's no place for that bed in Cas' room.”

“Then you can sleep with us. Plenty of space in that bed. It's huge.”

“Dean—no.” Sam opened the refrigerator and automatically regretted it; cold air drifted out of it like an open window. He stuffed the frozen food into the freezer as quickly as he could and shut it tight. “You two need space to—to do your thing.”

“Bullshit, Sam. You being safe is more important than anything we'd get up to. 'S not like I live off sleeping next to the guy, I mean, I love him, but—”

“I'll be fine.”

“—just try. Just tonight. Please?”

Sam heard something breaking in Dean's voice, and turned to look at him. He was leaning against the kitchen counter, arms straight, looking at him with such pleading in his face it was nearly painful to see.

“—okay.” Sam held his hand up, a small movement of surrender. “If it makes you feel better. Okay.”

Dean nodded. He touched Sam's shoulder as he passed him, and his touch lingered there for a moment longer than it should have. He left Sam standing, staring at the curve of the kitchen counter's edge.

Sam thought that he hadn't seen Dean's face so broken in a long time. Not since they'd lost Cas, at least.


***



It was awkward, and a little uncomfortable, but in the end they managed it. The bed was plenty big enough, and Cas so relatively small, that no one really had to give up much space. Cas looked happy to have the extra warmth of Sam's body on his right, and though at first Sam felt like the biggest third wheel in the world, neither of the other two seemed in the mood to get up to anything that night.

Sam was the second to fall asleep, after Cas. Dean drifted off only after he was sure of them—after he'd seen the angel's unseeing eyes fall still behind his eyelids, after he'd made sure that Sam was really there. He found Castiel's hand under the blankets, small and cold, and folded it into his own, and only then did he let himself go.

And Sam didn't dream that night. The only thing he saw was a soft and perfect whiteness, like snowfall, like clouds, warm and comforting.

And Dean didn't dream that night. He slept, deeper than he'd slept in months or even years, secure in the gentle heat of his angel and his brother and the blankets on the bed.

And Castiel certainly didn't dream that night, and that was the sleep that he liked best—the sleep too soft and comfortable to procure imagination. There were no teeth in the back of his head, no wet, no cold. He lay between his boys— home —and didn't dream a thing.


***



When Cas felt the touch of sunlight on his face the next morning, he bid his eyelids open. Darkness for another day.

Except—something was different.

At the edge of the dark, there was grey.

Chapter Text

It was gradual, as all the healing had been.

 

On the first morning he saw grey, blurring in the periphery of his vision; by the end of the week, very bright lights, and by the end of two weeks the black had thinned enough that he could see motion, like the waving of one's hand in a dark room.

 

“Another week or so they'll be back,” Dean said, perfect joy in his voice, kissing the angel's forehead with something like pride. “We made it, Cas. Made it.”

 

By the time Cas could see shapes, the brothers had each had calls, from Bobby and others, always with one word on their lips— Leviathan. The name still made Cas feel ill, but not as much as it had before. The fear was being replaced, slowly, by anger, by bitterness, by the urge to hunt rather than to cower.

 

Colour met shapes, and lines formed objects, and though detail was hazy and rough and far-away, by the end of four weeks into January Cas didn't need the wall to walk anymore. He sat by the window in his bedroom while Sam and Dean planned, talked about leaving, talked about not leaving, talked about when was best and if there was a best. He sat and turned his pinecones, his bird's nest, over in his fingers, his string of knots, watching the snow fall in soft white flurries against the dark green blur of the trees. He'd missed colour. The unchanging scenery never grew boring.

 

February began, and if he held things very close to his eyes, he could see them nearly perfectly. He lay in bed with Dean after dark and simply stared at him, and Dean never protested.

 

Cas never said it, but he thought that the way the blue light of evening, the soft pallor of the sheets, touched Dean's face in a way that made him almost unbearably beautiful. For the first time, Cas could kiss his lips without slipping, kiss the curve of his cheek without faltering. He loved the grace of moving like that.

 

On the night when Cas found that he could finally see the freckles on Dean's skin, clearly, pale and brown, they made love in the chill hours after sunset, and Cas kissed the raised handprint on Dean's shoulder as if it were a holy relic. Half-delirious with adrenaline and half-feverish with need, he said, “You taste like stars.”

 

When only the furthest objects were dull, and all else was bright and sharp and vivid, Cas and Sam went up to the attic together.

 

“Only if you feel strong enough,” Sam said, as they knelt on the dusty warped floorboards, and Cas fixed him with a look that was long and sad.

 

“I only wish I could have done this sooner,” he said.

 

He cupped Sam's temples in his hands, palms gentle, and closed his eyes.

 

Sam may have heard the rafters creak, a stir of wind kick up the loose photographs that still lay on the floor, a breeze caress across his forehead, a warmth fill the room—but he couldn't be sure. All he knew was that when he opened his eyes, there was a wholeness where once an emptiness had been in his mind, and a glow to the angel that hadn't been there before.

 

Though there was laughter in the back of his head sometimes, and the dragging of chains, Sam didn't see Lucifer after that.

 

“I can see everything now,” Cas told Dean, a few nights later. The sweat of their bodies was cooling on their skin. That morning Cas had looked into a mirror for the first time and had touched the scar on his face with a look in his new bright eyes that Dean couldn't identify.

 

Dean smiled. Touched his face, kissed his top lip.

 

“You know that means we need to leave, soon,” he said, after a long spell of quiet, all the smile gone from his voice.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I wish we didn't have to,” Dean murmured, hand cradling the angel's neck. “But those Leviathan things are moving fast, and we didn't get the word out fast enough on how to deal with them, and...people need us.”

 

“I understand,” Cas said. “You weren't made to live quietly, Dean. You need to move. Fight. All I ask is that you take me with you.”

 

“I told you, didn't I?” Dean smiled, and Cas wished he'd never stop smiling. “I'm never leaving you ever again.”

 

It was with a sense of sadness, a week later, that they packed what wasn't already tucked away in the Impala into their bags, and Dean gave Cas his trench-coat back from the trunk of the car—worn and washed and smelling still of lake-water. Cas pulled it on over the T-shirt and jeans he wore. It lay big and soft on his thin frame.

 

“Good place,” Dean said, looking up at the ramshackle house as they were preparing to leave. They were going to drive west, meet Bobby in Sioux Falls. The hunt was on again and none of them knew if they liked it or not. “Might come back someday.”

 

“Wouldn't mind that,” Sam said. He slammed the trunk of the Impala down and came around the front, hands in his pockets. Dean was leaning against the hood, one arm around Castiel's waist, their heads leaning together.

 

Despite the pain and the nightmares, Sam thought, it was a good house. It was a house that had healed them.

 

Sam remembered the photograph of the eastern bluebird as they were climbing into the car, as a light snow was beginning to fall. He got into the front next to Cas, and pulled it from his pocket, handing it to him.

 

“Thought you'd like this,” he said. “I found it in the attic.”

 

Dean glanced at it as the angel's fingers took hold of it, and a smile alighted on his face.

 

“Reminds me of you,” he said.

 

Cas held it up to the light as Dean started the car, as the Impala's familiar rumble began underneath his legs. In the unusual sheen of the photograph's surface he could see them both, his boys—Sam on his right and Dean on his left. The sagging old house behind them, a mere echo now.

 

He'd grown to love that house—the splintering floorboards, the warm first-floor bedroom, the old television and stiff couch, the smell of Dean and cool white sheets, the lilt of Sam's laughter. He wouldn't mind coming back someday, either.

 

But it wasn't home, Cas thought. He looked at the photograph, at the tilt of the bird's head, the arc of its wings. No house would ever be home to him.

 

Home meant a long black car and two boys.

 

And as they drove out onto the highway, the long dark stretch of ice and asphalt, Castiel decided that he would never want it any other way.