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Unfurl, Like A Wing In A Thermal

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“Dude, put a tie on. Nobody’s gonna believe we’re the feds with you looking like you just walked out of FlasherFest ’15.”

Dean is frowning. He turns to dig through the clothes in his duffel, the set of his shoulders tight beneath his suit jacket.

Castiel watches him. He will never tire of watching. He sees the moment Dean finds what he’s looking for before Dean turns around to announce it. He still struggles with humans, sometimes, but Dean, he can read. The minute twitches and tensions of his body; the shifting nimbus of emotion that surrounds him like the halo of a streetlamp seen through rain; the light and shadow of his soul beneath the skin. Things invisible to the human eye.

Castiel is glad to see those things. They’re one of the few things he’s certain of, these days.

“Here.” Dean holds out his hand, proffering a rolled-up necktie. It’s blue; two shades off from that of the one Jimmy Novak was wearing when Castiel took possession.

Castiel looks at it.

A beat, and then Dean makes an incredulous face. “Tell me I don’t gotta show you how to put that thing on?”

“Gas ‘n’ Sip didn’t require that its employees wear formal dress,” Castiel offers in his defense. “I stopped wearing them after that. They’re… constricting.”

Dean rolls his eyes and steers him over to the mirror. He tugs at the collar of Castiel’s coat until he catches on and shrugs it off, then turns up Castiel’s collar and loops the tie around his neck.

His hands are quick and careful. Castiel feels their warmth, how they hover over the skin at the vee of his collar but don’t touch. He holds very still.

Dean knots the tie. He turns down Castiel’s collar and adjusts the lapels of his coat. He works without looking at their reflections. When he’s done, he takes a step back, casting a critical eye over his handiwork.

After a moment, he nods. “Let’s roll.” He grabs his keys and fake ID from the table, ignoring the sandwich he bought at lunchtime and hasn’t yet touched. “Samantha, you done in Hair and Makeup or do I have to—”

A burst of noise from the scanner interrupts him: a wash of static that Castiel feels vibrate across the surface of him, the faint outermost ripple of a stone dropped into a pond.

Then a voice saying, …corner of Fifth and Poplar. We got another one.

Sam emerges from the bathroom, drying his hands on a rumpled t-shirt in place of a towel. “Okay,” he says. “You guys wanna take the crime scene, I’ll check out the morgue?”

Dean nods. Then his eyes land on Castiel. “Scratch that,” he says. “You take the crime scene, we’ll go look at Stiff Number One.”

He doesn’t object to the assumption that he’ll work with Castiel and let Sam go alone. He rarely does, these days. Sometimes, when Sam makes the suggestion, he actually looks relieved.

It’s only because he’s hiding from Sam; Castiel knows that. How separate they all are. He can stand right beside Dean, and feel that they are as far apart as if he were back in Heaven and Dean still on Earth.

And Dean is careful of him lately, in ways Castiel does not entirely understand. He tried asking Sam about it, and got a cryptic comment about musical theater in response, followed by a sigh and a take care of yourself, okay?

He supposes it’s about the grace that is fading within him. It sparks and sputters, like a firework in its death throes. At odd moments he feels incandescent with it, hypnotized, and he freezes on the spot, brought back to himself only by the weight of a concerned hand on his shoulder, by Dean or Sam looking into his face and speaking his name with an urgency that suggests this isn’t the first time they’ve tried to get his attention.

It makes knowing himself difficult. He’s an angel who has a death sentence hanging over his head as surely as any mortal. A weapon who is also a liability.

“Okay,” says Sam. He gives Castiel a look that seems significant, though Castiel doesn’t know how it’s significant, and grabs his jacket. Dean is out of the door right behind him, not waiting to see if Castiel follows.

He follows.

Castiel closes his eyes on the drive to the coroner’s office. He drove all day and all night to get here. His eyes are heavy in their sockets and his skin feels loose and uncomfortable, like travel-worn clothing. He rests his cheek against the window and feels the vibration of the car engine inside his head, traveling down his spine, tingling faintly in his fingertips.

He used to feel the whole universe that way, once. Now, he finds the sensation hard to call to mind. It’s like trying to remember the voice of a long-dead comrade. There is so much that is escaping him.

 

----

 

“Huh.” Dean blinks down at the body in surprise as the coroner pulls back the sheet. Castiel follows his gaze.

The report mentioned a missing heart. Werewolves were the logical conclusion, but this isn’t the work of teeth and claws. The cuts are neat, surgical, the heart excised with little damage to the surrounding tissue. Whoever removed it wished to keep it intact.

Castiel lifts the dead man’s arm, which earns him a grimace from the coroner and a “Dude, gloves,” from Dean. He ignores both and peers at it. Faint indentation of a needle mark in the crook of the elbow; discoloration in the surrounding area; veins threaded with necrotic black.

“We haven’t been able to identify the toxin,” the coroner tells them. “I guess you’ll want a sample for the lab?”

“Yeah,” Dean tells her. “That’d be great.” He flashes her a smile—the wide, charming kind that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Could you give us a minute, uh… Natalie, wasn’t it?”

She smiles back and steps into her office. Dean takes Castiel’s arm and tugs him away until he drops the corpse’s wrist.

“So,” he says. “You getting anything from this?”

Castiel shakes his head. “In the absence of a soul, it’s hard to tell,” he says. “But that looks like…”

“Dead man’s blood,” Dean finishes for him. He snaps on a pair of disposable gloves before lifting the corpse’s upper lip, making a face as he does so. The minute variations of human sensibility are fascinating; the way that Dean can spend half his life elbow-deep in blood and dirt, but here, in the clean white space of the lab, touching a dead creature becomes a matter of disgust.

Dean presses the tip of his finger to the creature’s gum. The white point of its fang emerges slowly, peeking through like the shoot of a spring plant. Castiel watches it carefully.

Dean removes his hand from the creature’s mouth, pulling off his disposable gloves and tossing them into the trashcan with slightly more force than necessary. “Huh,” he says. “Whoever did this may be cuckoo for cocoa pops—” he indicates the gaping hole where the heart was removed “—but looks to me like they’re doing a public service.”

Castiel regards the body with its neat incisions and frowns. “This isn’t the work of a hunter.”

“Hey,” Dean grumbles, “we can do things clean.” But he scrubs tiredly at his eyes, resignation in his voice. As though he believed, even for a moment, that this meant nothing sinister. “Yeah, it’s weird. We better check it out.” He digs in his pocket for his cell phone, pulls up Sam’s number, and hits Call.

Castiel doesn’t have to strain to hear Sam’s end of the conversation, the way he would’ve done when he was human. The vibrations find their way to him through the air, buzz inside his head like insects. Sensations are sharper, with this latest grace burning inside him. They bite harder. He wonders if this is how Adina experienced the world—this startling clarity. If this is what made her so desperate to stay.

Hey, he hears Sam say, through Dean’s cell phone.

“You check out the body yet?”

Yeah. And get this—

Dean cuts him off. “Lemme guess. Missing heart, shot full of dead man’s blood?”

Sam hesitates. Yes, and… no. The guy in the morgue was a vamp?

“Looked our gift-corpse in the mouth myself.”

Huh.

“Yeah. So you might wanna take another look at vic number two.”

I don’t think so, Dean. There’s puzzlement evident in Sam’s voice. This guy was just out of hospital. I spoke to his wife. Something went wrong during surgery and he was actually ‘dead’ for a couple minutes before the doctors got him back. They’d been monitoring him round the clock, and the wife hadn’t let him out of her sight for more than a couple minutes before he was killed. No way he got turned without somebody noticing something.

Castiel sees the brief sag of Dean’s shoulders; the extra layer of disappointment that settles on him. Their killer is just that. There was no noble motive behind the dead vampire, no concern with saving human lives.

He doesn’t look surprised. Just sad. Castiel wonders that he can still feel it, after everything. That any of them can.

“Okay,” Dean says into the phone. “Well, aside from our victim being a vamp? I got nothing. See you back at the motel. We’ll figure this shit out from there.”

 

----

 

Sam is hunched over his laptop when they return to the room, a mug of coffee untouched at his side.

“I think I found something,” he says.

“Yeah?” Dean’s at his side right away. Castiel follows.

The screen shows a woman with long, unstyled hair, dressed in a loose patchwork blouse and draped in strings of beads. She stands before a storefront emblazoned with the words New Age and Magic Emporium, gazing into the camera with woeful eyes.

“I missed this case before,” Sam says. “It was a burglary, not a murder. But I got to thinking, after you told me the vamp had its heart cut out, too. Reminded me of some of the stuff I found in the Men of Letters files. There aren’t that many reasons somebody would want to steal organs from a supernatural creature. Top of the list though? Ingredients for a spell.”

He taps the screen with a fingertip, indicating the paragraph at the bottom of the report.

As well as the contents of the cash register, it reads, Ms. Langston claimed to have been robbed of several pieces of occult jewelry and the ashes of a phoenix. So if you hear anything go bump in the night, you might just have found her burglar! The reporter’s contempt radiates from the screen.

“Witches?” Dean’s face suggests he’s just found something unpleasant on his shoe. “Please tell me it ain’t witches.”

“Could be.” Sam’s forehead creases. “But I dunno. It seems kind of… familiar? Like I might’ve read something similar back at the bunker.”

Dean raises an eyebrow. “So what’re you thinking?”

Sam shrugs. “The Men of Letters had history, right? They were around for… well, centuries, probably.”

“Right,” Dean says slowly.

“So, what are the chances Sinclair was the only one who ever went rogue?” A shadow crosses Sam’s eyes as he says the name, and he watches Dean’s face carefully.

Castiel remembers the account Dean gave of that incident, months later, after the First Blade was disposed of and it was safe to talk about again. How Sinclair was the one who first put it in his hand. He remembers how Dean shied away, even then, from talking about how it felt, just muttering something about how he didn’t feel like me anymore—quiet, as though the words didn’t feel right in his mouth.

Castiel didn’t push him. They are getting good at that; all of them. Hovering around the edges of things, so afraid of causing harm that they no longer stand shoulder to shoulder. They keep one another at arms’ length.

Dean doesn’t flinch at the mention. Too many touchy subjects ago to bother him anymore, maybe. He nods, and says, “Yeah, no way he was the only asshole around.” He pauses. “So, you go home and check out the records, me and Cas hang around here in case anyone else shows up dead? Or anything else?”

“Sounds like a plan.” Sam gets to his feet, snapping the laptop closed.

It doesn’t take Sam long to pack up his things. “Be careful,” he tells them, before he leaves. He nudges Dean’s discarded sandwich, still in its paper bag. “And eat that, would you?”

Dean tosses an empty soda can at him from where he sprawls on his motel bed. “We can look after ourselves, Mom,” he says. He looks at Castiel. “I can look after ourselves,” he amends.

Castiel scowls in his direction, as he knows he is expected to, and Dean smirks back at him. It almost hides the tiredness in his eyes.

The engine of Sam’s hire car fades into the distance, and Castiel turns to Dean, his mouth open around a question that hasn’t quite taken shape in his mind yet. Before he can voice it, Dean sits up, his loose-limbed sprawl pulled abruptly into tight focus.

“So,” he says, looking into Castiel’s face. “How you doing?”

Castiel blinks back at him. He tugs at the collar of his shirt, at the knot of his tie. Realizes what he’s doing and folds his hands tightly. “What do you mean?” he asks.

Dean rolls his eyes. “You know what I mean,” he says. “You know, you suck almost as much at stalling as you do at lying.”

Castiel frowns at him, and he sighs.

“I mean, how much battery you got left? C’mon, we both know Crowley didn’t fix anything. He just slapped on a Band-Aid, and you’re still bleeding angel juice. So do I gotta worry about you passing out on me while we’re working this job, or not?”

Castiel echoes his sigh. He sinks down onto the other bed so they’re sitting opposite one another, and looks at his hands. He feels the burn of stolen grace beneath his skin, the flicker of it like a guttering candle, the toll that using it takes upon him. Not the heaviness of limbs or eyelids that marked his nights after shifts at the Gas ‘n’ Sip, or those last few weeks crammed into the Lincoln with Hannah, but still—a kind of depletion. As though there is simply less of him.

“I’m fine,” he tells Dean. “For now. I’m in no imminent danger.” He frowns. “And you?”

He thinks that he catches himself before his gaze lands on the crook of Dean’s arm, the spot where the Mark is branded into him and that Dean covers with rolled-down sleeves, but Dean shifts and hunches in on himself a little before answering.

“Peachy,” he says, with a shrug. He turns away to fluff up the pillows on his bed, flops back against them, and grabs the TV remote, flipping through channels until he lands on something with gunfire and a car chase.

After a moment, Castiel slides back onto the other bed, mirroring Dean’s posture. He looks at the TV without really seeing it and tries not to think about Dean’s fingers adjusting his collar, or how Dean is almost close enough to touch, if he just stretched his arm out and leaned over, or how they might as well be in separate galaxies, for all the good that does.

 

----

 

“Zombies,” Dean says, in disgust. “Why’d this have to be about zombies?”

It’s raining, a fine misty drizzle that Castiel only noticed when it soaked into his hair and began to drip down the back of his collar. They’re tramping through their third graveyard of the day, because according to Sam, the ingredients for the spell mean it likely has something to do with controlling the dead. A vampire, a phoenix, and a man who’d lived after his heart stopped—all of the ingredients came from creatures or people who’d come back from the dead in one form or another, which suggests resurrection is an important component. Their rogue Man of Letters is likely to be hanging out somewhere near whoever it is he wants to wake up.

The tombstones here are old and lichen-spotted, the untended grass knee-high in places. The bottoms of Castiel’s trousers are wet through, and the soles of his dress shoes threaten to slip out from under him at any moment. He eyes Dean’s denim and hiking boots enviously.

“Sam said the spell had never worked,” he points out. “The man who invented it was thrown out of the Men of Letters before he could perfect it. Our chances of meeting any actual zombies are—”

The mound of earth atop the nearest grave begins to move, slow and deliberate.

They both freeze.

“You were saying?” Dean says, without turning his head. He reaches for his gun, aiming at the grave, ready to empty the clip into the skull of whatever should come crawling out.

Castiel frowns at the moving earth, then at the apparently deserted graveyard around them. Dean watches him from the corner of his eye.

“That asshole Sinclair made his place invisible somehow,” he says. “Maybe that trick wasn’t as original as he thought.”

Making oneself invisible takes power. Making a dwelling invisible, perhaps even moving it around—that would take a lot of power. More than the average occult scholar could hope to gain access to. If that’s what’s happening here, the person they’re looking for must be a sorcerer of Sinclair’s caliber, at least. Castiel stills, concentrating—and yes, there it is.

A thrum in the air; a faint, warm vibration. Not the clean, cold power of Heaven. Something darker than that. Blood and earth.

He would have sensed it immediately, once.

“It’s here,” he tells Dean. He walks forward as he speaks, trying to reach out with his grace, but he can’t find the thing being hidden. His senses are muddied; the ether resists him. “But we need to find the—”

He takes another step forward, and the outline of a sigil-engraved door flashes orange-red around him—and then all hell really does break loose.

A surge of power hits him like a fireball. It flings him backwards, and his back hits a tombstone. His human nerves sing with pain, with the bruises that will later bloom beneath his skin. The sigils on the door shudder with light. They’re human: the language is too old to have a name, but Castiel understands what they say. He doesn’t hear them, precisely, but they ring in his bones.

They say, Show yourself.

There’s a moment where Castiel feels the light inside himself, feels it open him out, the edges of his true form scraping against the mortal world. He opens his mouth to say, Dean, close your eyes, but what comes out is the roar of a gale. Then the world expands again and his self collapses in on itself like a soda can being crushed.

He shrinks to a point of pain. A metallic taste in the back of his throat, a nauseous wave of wrongness that washes over him as his body reconfigures itself. What should be shadow and thought suddenly rendered anew in feather and flesh and bone, in nerves that sing and burn. He feels both more and less than himself.

His vision recedes, fades to black. When the scene resolves itself, he’s sitting on the ground in the graveyard and Dean is staring at him. The disturbed earth atop the grave they were watching has stilled. A good thing: Dean seems to have forgotten about it completely.

“What is it?” Castiel begins to say.

The sound of a door opening.

The sigil-engraved doorway is no longer visible, but in the space where Castiel walked into it, a gap opens up in the air. A woman stands in it.

She looks young—in her mid-twenties, at the most. Not that that means anything, necessarily. It may be several decades since the Men of Letters were forcibly disbanded, but to a magic user with the capacity to reanimate the dead and to conceal herself from angelic eyes, a little physical rejuvenation would be child’s play.

But her hair is twisted into uneven dreadlocks and her t-shirt is emblazoned with a logo that Castiel thinks he recognises from some of the cassette tapes in Dean’s car. She wears an assortment of necklaces like the ones in the window of the magic shop: thin leather cords hung with crystals; a carved wooden face; a tiny silver pentagram; a Hand of Fatima. Not the wardrobe choices of somebody raised in the nineteen-fifties; Castiel understands that much.

Her eyes widen as they light on Castiel. A thoroughly un-Woman-of-Letters-like grin splits her face, and she says, “Awesome! It worked! That’s one down.”

They both stare at her.

What worked?” Dean grinds out, after a second.

She jerks her head in Castiel’s direction. “Well,” she says. “I’m guessing your friend there was passing for human a little more convincingly before he tripped my security.”

Her amused gaze is disconcerting. Castiel suddenly feels uncomfortably small, sitting on the ground. Vulnerable. Dean’s standing half in front of him, gun cocked, protective. It should be the other way around, and Castiel feels himself flush with shame and something else that he doesn’t pause to examine too closely. He starts to climb to his feet.

A weight tugs him backward. He stumbles, clutching at tufts of the long grass, and the weathered edge of a headstone scrapes against something that wasn’t there before.

Castiel cranes his neck, disbelieving. But there they are. Twin black shadows that stretch above his head, tentatively furling and unfurling against the cool air.

His wings.

A spell powerful enough to alter the form of an angel. Whoever, or whatever, this girl is, she has more power than any common-or-garden witch.

The same thing has obviously occurred to Dean. He holds his gun steady, meets Castiel’s eyes with a jerk of his head that conveys, Let’s get out of here.

Castiel shakes his head minutely. He looks back at the girl.

Her jeans are ripped at the knees. She’s still grinning. It’s not even malicious, really. It’s the kind of look Sam gets on his face when he finds a breakthrough in some obscure book of lore, or Dean when he figures out just why his car is making that freaking rattling noise, man, it’s driving me crazy.

“Why do this?” he asks her.

She frowns. “Well, obviously it needs a little perfecting. But basically it’s an early-warning system. Reveals the intentions of anyone who approaches my home. The truth of them.” She looks thoughtful. “Maybe I was a little flowery in the wording. I need to narrow it down to intent, not—” She waves a hand in Castiel’s direction. “It definitely worked, though!”

Dean looks at her. “I think he meant the bespoke zombies, Hermione.”

“Oh, that.” She shrugs. “It’s my job. Just like it’s yours.”

Castiel blinks at her. He hears Dean say, “Okay, maybe the annual necromancy convention’s in town and nobody told us, but do we look like we belong to the same freak show as you?” Dean glances sideways, then, and his eyes linger on Castiel’s wings for a minute. There’s a beat and he looks at his feet, opens his mouth and closes it again without saying anything more.

The girl rolls her eyes. “You’re hunters, obviously. Or, well, you are.” She turns her gaze on Castiel. “Your friend’s much more interesting. Gramps didn’t know a whole lot about angels. Said it was after his time when they showed up and started screwing around on Earth.”

Her expression is open, curious. Castiel finds himself picturing a stuffed bird he saw in a glass case in the lobby of one of the more eccentric motels Sam and Dean have stayed in. The bird had had its wings raised and its beak open as though to attack, but its feathers had been limp and dusty, its eyes lifeless beads. The children of a tourist family had clustered around the case, smearing ice-cream fingerprints on the glass.

He clears his throat, suddenly and inexplicably afraid that he will freeze into a lifeless specimen before her eyes if he remains silent any longer. “Are you saying you’re a hunter?”

She laughs. “Do I look like I own a shotgun?”

Castiel looks at her in confusion, and she shakes her head.

“No, I’m not a hunter,” she says. “But basically my job’s the same. The Men of Letters just catalogued all the supernatural crap they came across. Gramps thought they ought to be doing something about it, not handing jobs off to the grunts.” She pauses, looks at Dean. “No offense.
They had the knowhow, right? They should’ve been using it. I’m just doing what Gramps would’ve wanted.” She shrugs.

Dean gives her an incredulous look. “By raising zombies?”

“Better than putting the living in the line of fire, right? And it’s all under control.” She pauses, eyeing the disturbed earth atop that one grave. “Or, anyhow, it will be once I get it working. It’s what the world needs right now.”

“A zombie army?” Dean shakes his head. “Seriously, in what universe does that sound like a good idea? You never watched a movie?”

The girl crosses her arms. “I’ve been watching the world, genius,” she says. “Look—the supernatural isn’t what it was in Gramps’ day. We’ve got demons and angels walking around like they own the place. How many apocalypses have we nearly had in the past decade? Regular old hunters aren’t enough anymore.”

Dean raises an eyebrow. “What, and you’re gonna come along and save us all? The feds are taking over the case?”

The amusement in his voice has a mean edge to it, and Castiel recognizes it for what it is: a shield. A means for hiding old guilt, sparked to new life by the girl’s mention of angels and demons and apocalypses. Things Dean still thinks he should’ve been able to defeat.

Castiel takes a step forward to stand beside him. He has to bend forward at the waist to compensate for the new weight of his wings, and it makes him feel cramped and unnatural. His wings, though—they stretch and find their balance independently of his volition. It’s disconcerting; reminds him of how alien the human body felt, when he first took his vessel. How it breathed and blinked and somehow knew where to put its feet, even though he’d never learned any of those things.

He reaches out, slow and suddenly conscious of the movement. Touches Dean’s shoulder. He couldn’t say why he does it. Perhaps it is simply to feel somebody solid and familiar beside him; to feel that he is still here. Dean doesn’t pull away from him.

The girl is still watching them with folded arms, her expression defiant. “Someone has to do something,” she says.

Castiel swallows. “You know what I am,” he says to her. His wings stretch and shiver above him, as though to emphasize his point. The rustle of their great primary feathers is like wind in the trees. “I’ve known men—angels—who thought as you do. I’ve been one of them. I thought for so long that I knew what was right; that it was that simple. I’ve learned that very little is. But I do know this. Nobody who thinks he deserves an army is fit to lead one.”

From the corner of his eye, he sees Dean turning to stare at him. He feels the tightening of Dean’s shoulders under his jacket and doesn’t dare look to gauge his expression.

The girl tilts her head. For a moment, she looks like she’s considering his words, and Castiel feels a flicker of hope. Perhaps he has gotten through to her.

Then her expression hardens. “Nobody?” she says. “Maybe it was just you.”

Castiel’s hand drops to his side. The girl frowns a little. She says something—too quiet for Castiel to make out what, but it sounds like Latin—and closes the door and vanishes.

Dean raises his gun and lets off a shot, reflexive but too late, and the bullet gouges the side of a nearby tree. The noise rings inside Castiel’s skull as though he’s been punched.

The earth begins to move again. It’s the grave next to where Dean is standing. A skeletal hand pushes its way through the topsoil. It’s slow, floundering: the spell obviously isn’t totally effective yet. A small mercy; Castiel is in no state to deal with a graveyard’s worth of the marauding dead right now.

Dean stands back, aiming his gun at the disturbance in the ground. Castiel mirrors him, and his wings flare in caution. An involuntary motion, like raising his hands to ward off danger.

The muddied dome of a skull mushrooms out of the ground. Dean gets off a shot just as the hollows of its eyes come into view, lit from within with an unhealthy reddish flicker.

The skull cracks like an egg, and the movement stills.

Castiel lets out a breath; meets Dean’s eyes.

“So headshots work.” Dean cocks an eyebrow. “Always figured that was a brainstem thing, wouldn’t work on zombies that ain’t the Romero kind. Good to know.”

Castiel nods. Romero—that’s something to do with horror movies, he thinks. He doesn’t know the details; they weren’t part of the pop-culture primer that Metatron downloaded into his brain. Maybe he considered them too lowbrow to be worth his attention. Castiel makes a mental note to watch them as soon as possible.

“Cas, you with me?” Dean asks him. He nods and takes a step forward to examine the shattered skull.

A bony hand closes around his ankle.

It pulls, and he loses his balance, arms and wings flailing. He goes down with a heavy thump. One wing hits something—something hard, a headstone—and then he feels a snap and pain lances through him and steals his breath and he’s on the ground, gasping as though he’s been punched in the stomach, supernovae exploding before his eyes.

The crack of a gunshot somewhere above him. The grip around his ankle slackens and falls away. When his vision clears, Dean is kneeling beside him, his hand on Castiel’s shoulder. Concern darkens his eyes, softens his face.

“Cas!” he says. “Cas? You okay?”

Castiel swallows. His wing throbs, white-hot and excruciating, and nausea rises in his gut.

It is a human feeling. He remembers when he worked in the Gas ‘N’ Sip, shutting his hand in the door of a store-cupboard and feeling as though he would vomit from the pain, the unexpectedness of it. He ran to the toilet in the men’s room and he gasped and dry-heaved, doubled over, until the feeling subsided. It was worse than hurting his hand.

Now, he presses his lips together and forces himself to breathe slowly. Reaches in to gather his grace, waits for the cool wash of power that will leave his physical form whole again.

It doesn’t come. It doesn’t come, and he hurts.

“Cas,” Dean says, again. He sounds worried.

“I’m okay,” Castiel says. “I just—” He shifts, and pain flares in his wing again. He squeezes his eyes shut. Opens them to take a look, and sees the awkward angle it hangs at. “I think something’s broken,” he says. He looks back at Dean. “It’s broken and I can’t fix it.”

“Okay.” Dean glances up at the broken wing, and Castiel can see his mind working. This would be a natural situation for him, if only Castiel were Sam or some unfortunate human civilian and his broken wing a broken arm. Dean is better when he has concrete things to do, a clear path to follow. “Okay,” he says again. “We gotta get you to a—” He pauses. “I don’t know where the hell we’re gonna take you.”

“Somewhere—out of sight,” Castiel suggests.

Dean nods. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. That’s a start.”

He looks at a loss. Castiel knows how he feels.

 

----

 

Getting into the Impala is a challenge. In the end, Castiel finds himself awkwardly wedged into the backseat, his injured wing laid out as best they can manage on the shelf above the trunk. The vibration of the engine buzzes in his bones; sends new, hot needles of pain through new, raw nerves. Each bump in the road is a new torture. He closes his eyes and presses his cheek to the window.

With his eyes closed, he listens to Dean talk on the phone, disjointed fragments of conversation making their way through the haze in his head.

Sam? he hears. We got a problem – a vet? Seriously? – what the – yeah, fine, I’ll look on the internet – hope nobody sees – yeah, you tell me – fucking zombies, man – get on it – why are you asking if I’m okay?

Castiel lets Dean’s voice wash over him. It’s a familiar thing to hold onto. A comfort, now that his own body is so suddenly unfamiliar. It troubles him, how this affects him, makes him feel dazed and detached from the world. How closely bound up his borrowed human form and his self have become.

The car pulls up in the parking lot behind their motel, and he lets out a sigh as the engine dies. Dean opens the door and takes his arm on his good side, checking for passers-by before he helps Castiel out of the car—jolting his injured wing enough to make him wince, but only the once—and they make their way to the room. The neon light advertising vacancies scrolls up and down. It bathes them in bright yellow, lending a jaundiced cast to Dean’s face, to Castiel’s own hand as he steadies himself on Dean’s shoulder. Cars rush past on the road in front of the motel, the low building the only thing keeping them hidden from view. A door rattles somewhere in the building, and Castiel feels his breath catch in his throat, but nobody comes.

“Come on.” Dean squeezes his arm. Castiel focuses on his touch and lets it guide him.

 

----

 

His clothes are ruined. There are great holes torn in the back of his trench coat, and his shirt hangs in tatters. Dean cuts them off him with a pair of scissors that he digs out of the emergency medical kit, his hands sure and steady as they hover millimetres above Castiel’s skin.

Castiel rolls up the necktie Dean gave him earlier, and stuffs it into his pocket. He breathes through the pain from his injured wing, swallows the pills and water that Dean gives him, and tries not to think about how he would only need to move a fraction of an inch and they would be touching, or about how even now he craves that more than medicine. He shivers when Dean turns away and leaves him sitting there shirtless, his broken wing draped uselessly across the bed behind him.

Dean reaches for his laptop, flips it open, and brings up the search engine he and Sam use. His fingers hover over the keys for a moment. He shrugs and types in, What do I do with an injured bird?

The first page of results is mostly variations on ‘take it to a vet and try not to get your hopes up’, which Dean scrolls through, sighing. Castiel squints at the screen, and almost doesn’t notice the concerned looks Dean shoots him when he thinks he isn’t looking. He looks at the photographs and imagines being trapped like that. Shut inside a cardboard box with holes poked through the lid for air; held immobile on an examination table in a bright, unfamiliar room.

He would panic, too, he thinks, and then he tries not to think about why he’s thinking about that.

“Hey, this one might actually be useful,” he hears Dean say. He turns to look at the screen.

A video begins to play. Somebody wraps a bandage around the wing of white bird in a figure-eight pattern, immobilising it so that the bird can’t try to fly away and injure itself. Castiel wants to protest that he’s unlikely to try flying anywhere in his current condition—but his body feels unfamiliar now, oddly weighted, and he isn’t sure that he trusts it. It might feel safer, to be swaddled in bandages like that.

He decides that he likes the woman in the video—for not giving up on the injured bird; for seeking to give more than a painless death.

Her hands are small and deft. After the first couple of runs-through of the video, though, he finds himself watching Dean’s hands instead. Strong and calloused; as good for mending things as for killing them, though he doesn’t think Dean would agree.

“Okay, think I got this,” Dean announces, after he’s watched the video through a couple more times, and Castiel nods.

Dean digs in the medical kit and pulls out all the bandages they have. He sits down beside Castiel on the bed, the mattress shifting under his weight. Then he frowns to himself, gets back up, and pulls a bottle of whiskey out of his duffel. He hands it to Castiel.

Their fingers brush, and Dean pulls his hand away a little too quickly. He jerks his head in the direction of the bottle. “You’re gonna need it,” he says.

“Thank you.” Castiel takes a swig and it’s like fire going down.

A few more and he’s starting to feel dislocated, not right there within himself, as though his head might detach itself from his shoulders and float off into the clouds. Alcohol doesn’t work on him this quickly, not usually.

He wonders what, exactly, the girl’s spell did to him. He can’t heal himself. He’s getting drunk almost as quickly as a human would. It’s as though all of his difference is written on the outside of his body, tied up in his wings. He’s cut off from his own power. Trapped within himself.

He sways a little under Dean’s hands, and one of them finds his shoulder, steadying him. It’s rough and warm against the bare skin. He leans into it.

“Okay.” Dean plucks the bottle from his hands, sets it down on the nightstand. “Whoa there, Captain Jack.” Castiel looks at the bottle in confusion. After a moment, he decides looking at Dean is infinitely more interesting.

His movements as he wraps the bandages are careful, but steady and certain—the polar opposite of how he touches Castiel at other times. Of the fleeting touches he pulls away from as though stung, the hugs he never fully allows himself to relax into. Castiel focuses in upon the weaving motion, the comforting sensation of layer upon layer of gauze being wrapped around the wing, securing the broken bone in place.

Once, Dean pauses to check his handiwork, and one of his hands comes to rest in the feathers of Castiel’s uninjured wing. The sensation is unfamiliar, startlingly and inescapably present. Warm and real. Castiel sees; feels the wing begin to relax involuntarily, tension he hadn’t realised he was holding easing out of him.

He hears Dean take in a breath behind him, small and surprised. He removes his hand and gives Castiel an awkward pat on the back instead. His hand hovers there, not touching, for a moment afterwards.

“Okay,” he says. “You’re fixed up. Time your drunk ass got some—I dunno, sleep, or creepy not-sleeping, or whatever.”

It was late by the time they left the graveyard. There’s faint, gray light filtering in between the motel curtains.

“It’s morning,” Castiel points out.

Dean shrugs. “Yeah, well, it ain’t Halloween, so walking around with you all feathered up in broad daylight? Not gonna happen. Plus, I gotta grab some shut-eye unless you want us to end up in a ditch before we get outta town.”

He climbs to his feet and grabs the almost-empty whiskey bottle, taking a long swig before he sets it back down, then disappears into the bathroom. Castiel hears him stand there for a long moment before the sound of running water starts up.

He closes his eyes and drifts, and it’s the door opening that brings him back to alertness.

Dean emerges, sheds his shirt as he pads over to the other bed, and Castiel finds himself watching the roll of his shoulders beneath his t-shirt, the way the muscles in his neck move as he stretches it to work out the cricks. How thoughtlessly he’s able to shrug off physical discomfort, to accept it as one of the many inevitable costs of the hunt, though he’s no longer in his twenties and his aches and pains increase with every passing year.

Dean climbs into his bed and pulls the covers up over his head, and soon his breathing has evened out, slow and sleepy.

Castiel’s injured wing throbs. He shifts and shifts on the bed as Dean snores on the other side of the room, but can’t get comfortable. In the end, he switches on the TV and waits for dusk.

 

----

 

It’s near midnight when they pull over at an almost-deserted gas station, Dean grumbling about needing a coffee and a piss.

They haven’t talked much since they left the motel. Most of the time, Castiel keeps his eyes closed and tries to ignore how he can feel the rumble of the engine in his bones, a dull kind of pain, like scraping his hand on rusted metal. Sometimes when he opens them, Dean is looking at him. Other times, he’s watching his own eyes in the rear view mirror.

Dean slows the car on the approach, looking the place over for curious eyes before he commits to turning in. Behind the window, a bored counter clerk flips through a magazine, not even sparing a glance up at the sound of the Impala’s engine. A trucker dozes in his cab, dead to the world. There’s nobody else in sight. Castiel watches them in the quiet, while Dean fills the tank and disappears into the gas station. The throb of his injured wing, the cramp in his muscles from the unnatural position the backseat of the car forces him into, have become background noise as the night has worn on and he’s gotten used to them, but the momentary quiet forces him into new awareness of them. He’d give anything to take a walk; to stretch his wings.

Dean emerges with two cups of strong black coffee. He hands one of them to Castiel through the car window, and Castiel takes it gratefully. It’s bitter and it burns his mouth when he sips it, making him wince. Bizarrely, the small pain is a relief from the bigger ones that are weaving themselves into the fabric of his consciousness.

“You okay?” says Dean. Easier for him to ask after the small pains than the larger ones he can’t fix. Castiel understands that. He nods.

Dean opens the driver’s side door, is halfway back in the car when Castiel finds his voice and says, “Wait.”

“What’s up?”

“I need—” He shrugs, and then winces at the involuntary way his wings move along with his shoulders. “It aches. Sitting in the car.”

Dean looks at him, raises one eyebrow. Castiel catches sight of his reflection in the side mirror and realises he’s pouting. The timbre of his voice has turned childish. Even now, after the months he spent human, it surprises him how quickly pain overrides all other concerns, how it reduces him to a creature of sensation and need.

He recalls, briefly, a night years ago, when he stood on the side of a darkened highway with a cell phone pressed to his ear, bewildered at the thought that Dean could sleep in the face of imminent apocalypse. That so small a thing as a human body could shut down all the concerns of Heaven and Hell in favour of its own needs.

He wonders what he would say to that self now. He understood the world so much more simply, then. He understood so little of it.

Dean casts a glance around the empty gas station lot, then sighs and says, “Fine. Not here.”

He climbs back into the car and pulls around the side of the building, into its shadow. Not quite out of view of the road, but less obviously visible. Castiel cracks open the passenger door and climbs out. The relief of stretching out cramped limbs is immediate and blissful, and he stands on his toes and arches his back, working out the kinks in his spine. His wings try to stretch out, too, an involuntary movement that he only notices because of the bandage that secures the injured one in place. That’s a kind of discomfort, too, but a different kind. There’s something about it that feels secure—like a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on.

The press of Dean’s hand, near the place where his wing joins his back, startles him for a moment.

“Let me take a look at that bandage.”

Dean’s voice is gruff. Castiel turns his head toward it and finds their faces close enough that Dean would ordinarily take a step back and make an exasperated comment about personal space. Somehow, though, the barrier of Castiel’s wing between them seems to allow it, and Dean wets his lips and looks down at the bandage.

“So,” he says, when he’s no longer looking Castiel in the eyes. “You’re pretty much out of juice right now, huh?”

Castiel nods. “I’m not sure what happened,” he says. “It seems that my grace is—tied up in these.” He shifts, his wings shivering, and he is suddenly very conscious of the way Dean’s fingers sink between his feathers. It feels intimate; unfamiliar and natural both at once.

“So the one time you don’t look like a human, you pretty much are one.” Dean’s hand is still on his wing. His fingers brush through the soft down at its base, a movement so minute Castiel isn’t sure Dean knows he’s doing it. “Man, that sucks.”

Castiel almost smiles at him. “That seems like a fair assessment of the situation.”

“You’re okay, though, right?”

“I think so.”

Dean nods. “You gotta tell me if—if you’re not, okay? You gotta tell me.”

There’s a sound within the gas station building. A window closing.

Castiel glances in the direction the sound came from. He can’t see anybody at the window, but Dean’s hands drop away from him, and a frown spreads across his face.

“We should go,” Dean says.

Castiel sighs. He follows Dean back to the car.

 

----

 

They make it back to the bunker without stopping for longer than it takes Dean to refill the tank and pick up snacks for them to eat on the move. The first time, he comes back with a burger and a bag of fries that he leaves on the shotgun seat to dip into as he drives. He doesn’t comment, when Castiel finds his stomach rumbling and reaches across to take a handful, but the next time they stop, he orders double.

When they walk into the bunker’s library, Sam is sitting at the table, grim-faced in the light from his laptop screen. His eyes widen when they land on Castiel—his wings, his injury, the state of his clothes—but he doesn’t comment.

“You seen this?” he asks them in place of a greeting, and turns the laptop so they can see the screen.

Castiel squints at it. The video is fuzzy and unsteady, filmed on somebody’s cell phone, so for a moment he isn’t sure what he’s looking at.

Beside him, Dean lets out a sigh and mutters, “Dammit,” and that’s when Castiel sees it.

It’s them. Him and Dean, a few hours ago, standing outside the gas station. The shapes of his wings are black impossible shadows against the empty lot, even in the dark. The span of Dean’s hand, pale against his feathers.

The only mercy is that they’re both facing away from the camera. Nobody who didn’t know them would recognise them immediately.

Dammit,” Dean says again.

On the video, the sound of a window closing.

Castiel glances sideways, at Dean. “The gas station clerk,” he says.

Dean nods. “The one time a civilian actually notices there’s something weird going on. Jesus.” He rubs at his eyes, and Castiel notices that he looks tired. As tired as Castiel feels, perhaps.

There are comments below the video. Castiel leans in to read them, catching himself on the back of a chair when he forgets about the new weight of his wings and they threaten to topple him forward.

Seriously? I’ve seen realer-looking pictures of Nessie.

whys that dude topless? looks like teh start of a bad gay porno to me.. :))

Ofcourse the sheeple are out in force, making jokes about what they don’t undestand. Their are things the government dont want you to know, and if you had half a braincell, you wloud know this already.

Angels are among us. I’ve always known. Welcome. <3

Got to admire his cosplay skills, but ComicCon isn’t til next summer, guys! :D

Dean huffs and snaps the laptop shut, narrowly missing Sam’s fingers. “Okay,” he says. “You done Perez Hilton-ing us? Rogue Woman of Letters, zombies, any of this ringing a bell?”

Sam gives him a serious look. “Guys, we can’t ignore this. We aren’t the only hunters who know how to use YouTube. And right now? Cas looks like nothing any of them have ever seen.” His gaze lands on Castiel, his brow furrowed. “You should be careful. Stay in the bunker. Don’t go outside unless you have to.”

Castiel nods. What else is he going to do?

Dean nods, impatient. “Got it. We’ll keep Big Bird here on lockdown.” He shoves the laptop back at Sam. “C’mon. Zombies.”

Castiel learned long ago that there’s no point taking offense at the way Dean glowers and grumbles—that it’s his way of expressing worry, and that worry is his default state when it comes to the people he cares for. It’s the only language he knows for these things.

Castiel lifts his arm, almost reaches over to touch Dean’s shoulder, to reassure him.

He thinks better of it before he makes contact. Nods and says, “Yes. Zombies.” He glances down at his bare chest. The bunker is deep and windowless, and there’s a chill in the air. His skin is coming out in goosebumps. “I think I’d like a shirt.”

Dean raises an eyebrow. “Thought you’d never ask.”

Sam says nothing. He’s smiling faintly, but when Castiel catches his eye, it fades.

 

----

 

He ends up wearing one of Dean’s old t-shirts, deconstructed with scissors to fit around his wings and held together with safety pins at his shoulders. Dean fastens them for him, careful to keep the sharp points away from his skin, but they’re cold and it makes him wriggle.

“Quit it. This is worse’n giving Sammy a haircut.”

Dean glares at him, the same way he does when he fights with Sam over something inconsequential, and Castiel can’t help his smile.

Dean stills. “Cas,” he says. “What?”

“Nothing,” Castiel says, after a moment. He lets the smile fade from his face.

He’d felt as though they were—close to something, earlier. Close to what, he couldn’t say. He knows it was a mistake, to get out of the car and linger there, just to feel the air on his skin and Dean’s hand on his feathers. Still, he wishes the moment had been longer.

Dean fastens the final pin and steps back to take in his handiwork. He snorts. “We gotta get you some actual clothes,” he says. “Fix ‘em up for you. We ain’t homeless anymore, no need for you to walk around looking like it.”

Castiel casts him a startled over-the-shoulder glance at that. We ain’t homeless, said so casually, as though it has always been a given that this is Castiel’s home, too.

He’s caught, suddenly, by the memory of sitting at the same table in the library where Sam is now, of a mouthful of reheated food that tasted better than Heaven and that turned to ash on his tongue when Dean told him, You can’t stay. Something clenches inside his chest.

Dean glances away from him, eyes flickering downward as he registers Castiel’s surprise.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Castiel points out. “Nobody else will see me, and you don’t care how I look.” He frowns. “But I would like my coat back.”

Dean looked at it doubtfully, back in the motel room, and said, “You wanna toss this out?” Castiel’s “No” was more vehement than he intended, but Dean didn’t look at him strangely, just nodded and folded it up with the rest of their things, mud and torn fabric and all.

“We’ll take a look at it tomorrow,” Dean says. “Go help geek-boy. I’ll get the coffee on.”

But Dean turns into the bathroom instead of making for the kitchen, and when Castiel glances around the door, he’s standing stock-still in front of the mirror, looking his reflection in the eyes. After a moment, he rolls up the right sleeve of his jacket, fingering the raised skin where the Mark is branded onto him.

With his wings, Castiel can’t simply walk through the door. He has to do an awkward sideways shuffle, which ruins any intentions of stealth he might have had. Dean doesn’t look at him, though. He stares at the mirror like he’s looking for something.

Like he doesn’t really want to find what he’s looking for.

Show yourself, Castiel remembers. The words of the spell. It didn’t hit Dean, but he knows that doesn’t matter. He knows how little it takes to bring the fear welling up.

This time, he does reach out and touch Dean’s shoulder. Dean doesn’t say anything, only closes his eyes and shudders.

Castiel would like to reassure him. But he is so weakened now himself. So reduced. He wouldn’t know where to begin.

So he does what both Heaven and Dean have taught him to do, when there’s no hope of fixing the things that really matter, of smoothing the ragged edges of their selves and fitting them back together again. He turns to the mission. Zombies. Research. They can do that. They know how to do that.

He lingers a moment longer, then lets his hand fall to his side, and makes for the library. He hears Dean’s sigh behind him before he follows.

 

----

 

“Lemme take a look at that.”

Castiel starts, setting down the grimoire he’s holding close to his face. He sits at the table in the library, his chair turned back-to-front so to leave room for his wings, his book balanced on the chair back. It’s an uncomfortable position, and he’s been concentrating as hard as he can on The Necromancer’s Compendium to distract himself. The pain of his injured wing is dulled, mostly, by the supply of extra-strength, possibly-stolen-from-a-hospital painkillers Dean keeps slipping him, but it itches maddeningly beneath the bandage, and he has to remind himself constantly not to scratch it.

He sighs as he stands, stretches—careful of the lights with his wings; the first time he forgot about them led to half-an-hour of fumbling in the dark with flashlights as they tried to fix it—and follows Dean into the bathroom.

Dean’s quiet as he checks the bandage. He surprises Castiel when he touches his shoulder to get his attention and says, quietly, “How you doing?”

Castiel tilts his head to look at him. It’s the kind of question Dean and Sam ask one another; the kind that could mean a hundred different things, none of which they ever answer directly. Castiel turns over possible answers in his head for a moment before he says, “It’s healing. That’s what the itching means, isn’t it?” He frowns. “But I couldn’t fly on it, I don’t think.”

Dean gives him a considering look, distracted for a moment. “You think you could, on these? Once you’re healed up? Like, actually fly, like a bird, not just—” he waves a hand “—zap?”

Castiel shrugs. “It would be a shame not to try.”

“Your funeral,” Dean says, shaking his head, but the corner of his mouth twitches upward.

Castiel watches him. The way his hand hovers at the juncture between Castiel’s wing and the bare skin of his back; how the corners of his eyes crease up when his smile is genuine. Dean has lived so much of his life in the dark, but there’s light in him still. Sometimes Castiel sees it and it makes him feel like those other winged things, the moths and crane flies that flutter round the edges of candle flames and fear to touch.

The tips of Dean’s fingers brush feather, then skin, and Castiel’s breath catches in his throat.

Abruptly, Dean’s expression sobers. “But you know that ain’t what I was talking about. How are you? I mean—” He makes a vague, all-encompassing gesture.

“I’m weakened,” Castiel says. “My grace was fading before, and this spell—it’s cut off my access to it, somehow. It’s as though my power is—latent, somehow. Trapped in these.”

He moves his wings gently, and black feathers shiver in the periphery of his vision. Dean looks up at them, and his eyes linger there for a moment before he focuses on Castiel’s face again.

Castiel looks down. “I’m afraid I’m of little use to you like this.”

“Cas. Dude.” Dean waits until he looks back up, into his eyes. They’re standing too close together, but Dean doesn’t seem to have noticed. “That ain’t what I meant either.”

Despite himself, Castiel finds that he’s smiling. “I don’t want to be stuck this way,” he says. “It’s inconvenient. But—I’m okay. Dean, I’m okay.”

He expects Dean to say nothing more, change the subject, maybe clap him on the shoulder and leave, but instead he lets out an unhappy huff of breath. “I notice it,” he says, so softly Castiel has to strain to hear him. “I—sometimes I think maybe, now, I could take you down.” His hand drops from Castiel’s shoulder, finds his own forearm and lingers there.

Castiel looks at him—looks hard, at the creases in his forehead, the involuntary way he worries at the Mark. Remembers him watching his own eyes in the rear view mirror as they drove away from the graveyard. “Maybe you could,” he says. He isn’t sure if it’s the right thing to say.

Dean shakes his head. “I think about Sammy that way, too. Everyone I run into, not just the monsters. On a job, at the store—everyone.” He pauses. “Guess that’s just how I think now.”

“But what you asked is how I felt.” Castiel turns. It’s awkward, with his wings fanning out behind him, the movement too big for the small space, but the conversation seems to require him to look Dean in the face. “That is you. Not the Mark.”

Dean doesn’t answer, doesn’t look at him, and Castiel reaches out to cup his jaw, to turn Dean’s face back to him. Dean’s skin is warm beneath his fingers, his eyes wide and puzzled.

“I don’t mean that it isn’t a problem,” he says. “It’s acting on you. I know that. We all do.” He swallows. “But that doesn’t erase all the other things you are. We’ll fix this. And on the other side—you will still be there.”

He thinks about the crack of his unfurling wings, about stolen grace, about the black souls of Purgatory, about sitting in a mental hospital with the legions of the dead marching through his head. He’s talking to Dean right now, but there are so many versions of himself he could be talking to instead.

“Cas,” Dean begins, and then appears to think better of whatever he was going to say and falls silent again.

Castiel feels the shift of muscles in his jaw, the scratch of stubble, and realises he’s still touching Dean. He slides his hand down to Dean’s shoulder and leaves it there. Dean radiates warmth through his clothing, and it’s so very human, so very real, familiar and strange both at once.

He inches closer. Dean doesn’t move away.

“Guys!”

It’s Sam’s voice, out in the corridor. The bathroom door swings open, and Castiel lets his hand drop to his side. Dean takes half a step back.

Sam’s face appears in the doorway, his brow furrowed.

“Check this out,” he says, jerking his head in the direction of the library, where his laptop sits open on the table. “North Dakota. We got zombies.”

 

----

 

Dean and Sam leave thirty minutes later. Dean takes the wheel, while Sam balances his laptop across his knees in the shotgun seat, a map on the screen in front of him while he talks into his cell phone.

Castiel watches them go from the door of the bunker, and when he retreats back inside and closes it behind him, the place feels bigger. It’s too quiet, and his footsteps echo off the walls.

He is alone, and it’s strange and unpleasant. Even with stolen grace, his awareness of the Host is usually somewhere in the back of his mind, a low hum that he can tap into when he has need of it. And when he was human, sleeping in the Gas ‘n’ Sip, the noise of passing cars and the awareness that there would be customers early in the morning kept him from feeling quite so isolated. The bunker is quiet as a grave. Quieter, given recent occurrences. Castiel imagines that the world could end above his head while he hides away and reads books and sips coffee, and he wouldn’t even know.

He’s almost gotten used to his wings, within the confines of the bunker and his earthly family. He hasn’t really minded. The way his injuries bring Dean closer to him, give an excuse for touches he would otherwise shy away from—it’s almost been enough to make him grateful he was hurt. Until now. Now, he feels his body like a lead weight, like a steel trap, and he paces the library until he catches a lamp with the edge of his wing and sends it tumbling to the floor.

The crash brings him back to himself, and he sighs. At least picking up the broken glass will give him something to do.

It’s a painstaking task, requiring care lest he cut himself on a jagged edge and damage this too-fragile form yet further. He picks up a large shard between his fingertips and looks through it. It reflects his eye back at him in sickly yellow.

He remembers Dean, then. Standing before the bathroom mirror, searching his own face for signs of the demonic, for the thing he fears he really is.

Castiel has no spell for showing the true nature of things. He can’t show Dean to a mirror and tell him, See how human you are. Perhaps he cannot help at all.

Still, when he’s done cleaning up, he sets aside Sam’s volumes of zombie lore, and picks through the scant box of papers they’ve managed to collect on the Mark of Cain. There’s little enough that he’s been over it several times already, and soon his optimism dwindles and he finds himself staring at a page of Latin that he’s read a dozen times already. It tells him nothing he doesn’t already know. The gist of it is, Love saves.

Castiel has seen enough of Earth to know that love alone is not enough.

It occurs to him that if it were, he would be able to fix things so easily.

The thought itself isn’t a surprise to him. Its clarity is.

 

----

 

His cellphone lights up with a text late the next morning, while he’s sipping bitter black coffee and wondering why it tastes so much better when Dean makes it.

not sure this is our girl, it reads. looks like witches. fuckin awesome. :-/

be careful, he sends back, but he gets no reply.

For hours.

He tries calling, eventually. Every number he dials goes straight to voicemail.

Castiel pictures cell phones lying smashed on the side of the road. He tries not to picture Dean and Sam lying broken beside them.

He does his best to tamp down on his panic, to placate it with Google searching and pacing and, eventually, alcohol, the way that humans do.

It won’t let him. Sam and Dean are seasoned hunters, he tells it. They’ve dealt with witches before, he tells it. They know what they’re doing, he tells it, but it won’t be reasoned with. His heart rattles like a panicked bird inside his ribcage and won’t settle.

Early evening, sun burning a line of orange along the horizon, he climbs into one of the cars from the bunker’s garage, his wings shoved up painfully against the roof.

He follows the road Sam and Dean took. Let the world see him if it will.

 

----

 

When Castiel finds the abandoned farm building where Sam and Dean are being held, it’s late.

He pinpointed the place more by luck than skill: his memory of the map on Sam’s laptop screen, and hanging around the center of the town at dusk until the store with purple drapes and a pentagram in its window closed its doors and a black-clad woman emerged. When she climbed into her car and made for the dilapidated farm on the outskirts instead of one of the houses in town, he was sure he was onto something.

The sky may have been darkening, but there were enough passers-by in the town center that Castiel couldn’t be sure he wasn’t seen. It didn’t seem important, compared to finding Sam, finding Dean. It still doesn’t. The thought of a dozen hunters appearing with silver blades and shotguns—or a dozen newspaper crews with cameras, or a vengeful witch ready to kill him for interfering—is nothing next to the thought of losing them.

He pulls up at a reasonable distance from the farmhouse, killing the headlamps and hunching down in his seat as he watches the probably-witch emerge from her car and circle round the building to a barn out back.

Castiel spares a glance behind him. The road leading up to the farm is rough and narrow, barely more than a dirt track. A truck rumbles past on the highway, lit up in front like a fairground and then gone. In front of him, the darkness is enveloping.

He climbs out of the car and makes for the barn.

There’s a wide door in front, propped slightly open with a small rock. That must be where the witch entered. She’ll be watching it.

Castiel ducks into the shadows beside the barn and listens. He hears implements being placed on a table, the scrape of metal and bone, the sound of a match being struck. A low female voice humming, as though she’s simply making breakfast or checking her emails, going about her daily business like any other human being.

A muffled groan.

Ice fingers its way down his spine. It’s Sam.

Low voices. He presses himself into the wall and strains to catch them.

“Dean?” he hears. “That you?”

“Mmph.”

“Okay, good to know you’re alive. What happened? We knew it was the store owner. How’d she get the drop on you?”

A pause, in which Castiel imagines Dean’s scowl. “I got distracted.”

“Distracted.” Sam will raise an eyebrow, at this juncture. They’ll look exactly as they do when they’re arguing over whose turn it is to get the grocery shopping back at the bunker.

“She knew we were onto her, okay? She’s quick.” Dean pauses, then counters with. “Anyway, what happened to you?”

Castiel has heard enough. They’re here. They’re alive.

He circles around the side of the barn. Touches the gun tucked into the back of his trousers. He’s rarely needed one before now, and he isn’t sure how effective he’ll be with it. It isn’t as though he’s ever had to practise shooting. The cold night air chills him through his shirt, raising goosebumps on his forearms, and he suddenly misses his trench coat quite badly.

There’s a side-door near the back of the building. Castiel tries it softly, and finds it locked. This, at least, he knows how to do. It’s been more than a year since the angels fell from Heaven, and in the absence of flight, picking locks was one of the first skills he learned.

He leans in close to the door as he works. He feels his wings spread out behind him, instinctively. Perhaps it’s for balance; perhaps it’s to hide him; perhaps it’s just for the sake of working out the kinks, after so many hours crammed into the car. The ache of the injured one lessens a little as it stretches. It doesn’t hurt, the way it once did.

The lock clicks open, loud in the silence, and Castiel holds his breath. Nobody comes.

He opens the door. The back of the barn is in shadow. The carcasses of rusted machinery loom up before him, their skeletons blocking his view of the interior.

Castiel maneuvers himself through the doorway. He has to duck to fit his wings through it, wincing when his feathers brush the doorframe with a sound that seems louder than thunder to his ears, but that brings no magical vengeance down on his head. He creeps forward, peering through the skeleton of a dead machine.

He can see one figure tied to a pillar, its hands shackled behind its back. He sees the sleeve of a familiar plaid shirt. Dean.

He’s scrabbling on the dirt floor behind him—looking for a sharp stone or a piece of broken glass, something he can use to cut the ropes. To Castiel’s inexpert eye, he doesn’t look injured, and Castiel allows himself a flicker of relief.

Still, he’s at a loss as to how he’ll get Dean and Sam out of here. He can’t see Sam, but has to assume he’s similarly incapacitated. And Castiel—well, he may look like an angel, but he’s as helpless as a man right now. He has to assume that he’s just as vulnerable to magic. With his wings, he has no hope of sneaking close enough to untie Dean or Sam before he’s noticed.

He pauses. Gives his wings an experimental stretch.

He won’t be able to avoid notice. He still looks like an angel.

And how likely is it that this witch has ever seen one before?

 

----

 

There’s a generator out back, which must be powering the lights the witch is using to work by. It would make little sense for her to waste her power giving herself light to see by when the electrics in the barn are working.

Castiel eavesdrops a moment longer before he goes, to reassure himself that she has no intention of doing Sam or Dean imminent harm. Then he takes a deep breath and ducks back out the side door, propping it open with a brick.

There’s probably a simple way to kill the generator. Dean would know. Castiel thinks back to all the times he’s watched Dean tinker with the bunker’s power system, intent on his task and frowning in concentration, but the solution doesn’t come to him.

The problem, he thinks, is that he was always too busy watching Dean’s hands to register what they were doing.

Still, there are other methods. Simple can be effective. So, he pops open the front panel of the generator and smashes it with a rock.

The sound splits the quiet, so sudden it’s like a physical pain.

It has the expected effect. The humming stops.

Castiel ducks back inside the barn, kicking the brick away from the door so it falls softly closed behind him. He hears the front door slam shut, and he runs.

He’s at Dean’s side in an instant.

Dean blinks up at him, his eyes taking a moment to adjust to the dark. When he recognises Castiel, his eyes widen, and for a moment Castiel is struck with a memory.

Another abandoned outbuilding, not so different from this one. Lights going out, and Dean looking at him with amazement in his eyes.

Then, of course, it was the kind of awe that is mostly terror. Dean had looked at him as though he were a monster.

Now, it’s recognition; a brief flare of relief. For a moment—before he tamps it down with a hiss of, “Cas, what the fuck are you doing here?!”—Dean looks at him like he is a miracle.

It is a brief moment of elation. It flowers and it fades.

“Cas,” Dean says, again.

He hears Sam’s voice, from somewhere near the door. “Cas? Guys, what’s going on?”

He reaches for the knife he grabbed before he left the bunker and saws at the ropes binding Dean’s wrists. It only takes him a moment until Dean is free, wincing as he rubs circulation back into his hands.

“Here,” Castiel says, and hands him the gun. He makes for Sam.

That’s when the door bursts open.

The woman from the shop strides through it, her black skirts swirling around her in the wind. “Okay,” she says. “Looks like you two have some friends dumb enough to—”

Her eyes land on Castiel. She stops. She stares. He watches her eyes follow the shapes of his wings; the involuntary half-step backwards she takes as she registers the size of them.

“You,” she says. “What are you?”

He swallows. Reaches within himself and tries to dredge up the memory of older, simpler times; times when he would have thought it only natural that human beings should cower before him. He tilts his head and looks at her. Tries to remember how it felt to study people like ants.

“What,” he says, “do I look like?”

“No,” she says. “I’ve heard things, but—no.”

This is when you choose to disavow the evidence of your own eyes?” he asks her. “You should run.”

She opens her mouth. Hesitates. For a moment, Castiel thinks she will heed his words.

Then, her mouth snaps shut. “Why would you tell me to run?” she says. “Why haven’t you killed me already?”

He can’t find an answer. The witch’s eyebrows shoot up, her mouth curling in the beginning of a smirk. “You can’t kill me,” she realizes. “You’re not an angel. You’re just some other monster. And that means I can kill you.”

Her expression changes; becomes that of someone reciting from memory. She cups her hand, and a greenish glow begins to form in her palm.

Sanguinem—” she begins.

A shot rings out in the darkness.

The witch’s body falls, the light in her palm extinguished. Castiel exhales, hard. He realises his hands are trembling.

Across the barn, Dean meets his eyes. Neither of them speaks.

 

----

 

They’re halfway back to the bunker, having abandoned the car Castiel stole on the other side of town, before either of them says anything.

“Seriously, Cas,” Dean says to him. “What were you thinking? We had the whole thing under control.”

Castiel glares at him in the rear view mirror. “That was not under control,” he says. “You were tied up in a barn.”

“We had a plan!” Dean looks at Sam, as though for backup. Sam glares at him, as though to say, Don’t get me involved in this, but he sighs and turns to Castiel.

“That was a dumb thing to do, Cas,” he says. “If anybody saw you—it wasn’t safe.”

Castiel crosses his arms. “It’s what either of you would have done.”

It worked, he doesn’t say.

You looked at me like I was amazing, he doesn’t say.

It would sound pathetic, if he said it aloud. He knows that their grumbling is a symptom of affection, of family. But that look Dean gave him, back in the barn—he wants to see it again. He wants it so badly it hurts.

Dean glowers and presses a button on the tape deck, filling the car with music in lieu of argument. They don’t talk much, on the rest of the drive. Castiel is nodding by the time they reach Lebanon, despite the loud music and the uncomfortable way he’s jammed into the back seat. It’s Sam’s voice that wakes him.

“Guys?” he’s saying. “Cas? What the hell is this?”

Castiel blinks his eyes open. They’re approaching the bunker, and Sam is gazing through the windshield in bewilderment. Dean brings the Impala to a halt and stares.

Castiel follows their eyes. There’s movement, up ahead.

Dean shuts off the tape player with a loud click. “I got no idea,” he says, “but it can’t be good.”

Castiel narrows his eyes, and the darkness ahead of them resolves itself into—people.

A dozen of them, maybe, standing before the bunker’s front entrance. Dean starts up the engine again and they part as the car approaches, making room for it to pass through, as though all moving on some unspoken cue.

Castiel looks out through the back window and catches a glimpse of one of the faces in the little assembly. She’s young, in her early twenties, perhaps, and wrapped in a hooded sweatshirt several sizes too big for her, pale thumbs poking through holes in the sleeves. She holds a mobile phone before her like a votive offering, the light from the screen illuminating her face. Her eyes shine.

She lifts her gaze from the screen as the car passes her. Her eyes find Castiel’s face through the window and stay there. She gazes at him open-mouthed.

He sees her lips move through the window, and though he can’t hear her, he sees what she’s saying.

He’s here! she says, and from the rapture on her face, she could be talking about God himself. He’s come to us.

“What the fuck?” Dean says, and his words come to Castiel as though they’re underwater. “What the fuck?”

The girl raises her cell phone, showing it to the person next to her—a middle-aged man in threadbare clothes, a ratty beard on his face and a heavy pack on his back—and then raising it as though in triumph. Castiel catches a glimpse of the picture on the screen—a blurry photograph, taken from a distance, but unmistakable.

It’s him, in his car outside the magic store, early in the evening.

His heart sinks. “Someone must have seen me,” he says. “When I came to find you.” He shakes his head. “I don’t know how they got here. I don’t know how they found us.”

Sam shrugs. “All they’d need is one person with computer hacking skills. If they got your license plate—there are eyes everywhere if you know how to look. Whatever Man of Letters it belonged to back in the day registered it in town? Lebanon isn’t exactly a big place. All they would’ve had to do is poke around in town, ask if anything weird’s been going on around here. I’ll bet someone would’ve sent them out here.”

Anything weird. Castiel shifts, suddenly very conscious of his physical form. How unwieldy it is; how conspicuous. He looks in the rear view mirror and Dean won’t meet his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

Dean shrugs. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, bringing the car to a halt. There’s resignation in his voice, and Castiel understands.

They have more important things to worry about than apologies right now. Damage control.

Silence falls as Castiel opens the back door and climbs out of the Impala. It’s awkward, as always, and he feels like a creature of bathos, unsuited to the reverence with which he is being watched.

But then he’s out, standing up, and his wings stretch themselves to their fullest span—a reflex, independent of his volition. There is a gasp that makes its way around the crowd. How real they are; how unmistakable for a costume or a prop. The car doors close, loud in the hush, as Sam and Dean climb out to flank him. It occurs to him, vaguely, that they look a little like bodyguards.

Perhaps it’s not so strange an image. They have been taking care of him almost as long as he has been watching over them, after all.

Eyes turn to look at them, but only linger briefly. The people keep staring at Castiel.

They seem to be waiting for something.

“Okay.” Dean’s voice breaks the silence. “You got a good look at the freak show, you can write about it on your blogs, tell the world how it’s all because of aliens or GMOs or the real life Avengers or whatever. Ain’t like the great American public is gonna believe you. Now scram.”

Nobody moves. It’s as though he didn’t speak at all.

“Are you crazies deaf, or—”

One of them—the man with the heavy bag—takes a step toward Castiel. “What would you have us do?” he asks. He doesn’t even glance at Dean.

Castiel frowns. There’s a look in the man’s eyes. It’s wonder and terror, and relief and desperation, and a whole host of other things. It’s as familiar as starlight.

All those things—Castiel saw them before, only a few short years ago. In the eyes of the congregations he appeared to, clothing himself in the divine, full to bursting with unearthly power and drunk on hubris, travelling Heaven and Earth dishing out what he thought was justice because he thought he knew it better than anybody else, because he thought he had the right. Sometimes in the eyes of the sinners he smote, right before they fell beneath his hands.

He has felt these things before, too. This is the way people look when they think they’ve found God.

He should have thought of this, before he left the bunker and showed himself. It occurred to him that hunters would want to kill him; that the curious would want to come and stare. This didn’t, and he curses himself for it.

He knows humanity well enough, by now. He should have remembered its desperation.

Castiel swallows. The man standing before him bends as if to kneel down, and suddenly he thinks that he might vomit.

“Stop!” he says, and his voice sounds harsh in the quiet. “Stop it!”

The man freezes; stares. Waits, again.

Castiel sighs. “It isn’t—” He breaks off. “I’m not what you think I am.”

“An angel,” says a voice from the back of the little group, “sent to save us.”

“We know you exist,” chimes in another. “You’ve walked the Earth ever since that night. The night the stars fell.”

Castiel looks at Dean, at Sam. Sam blinks back at him, helpless. Dean has a face like a thundercloud.

“I’m nobody’s saviour,” Castiel protests. “That isn’t why I’m here. I don’t—I don’t know any better than you. I don’t have anything to tell you. I’m the same as you.” He hangs his head. “I try to do my best, and mostly I fail. That’s all.”

They keep right on staring. The man’s expression turns beseeching, and Castiel sees it mirrored on a dozen other faces. A confused murmur passes through the group, but doesn’t turn into anything.

A voice at Castiel’s side says, “You’re hurt.”

It’s the girl in the too-big sweatshirt. Up close, she’s tiny, barely coming up to Castiel’s shoulder, and she’s young, maybe even still in her teens. She tucks her phone away in the big pocket on the front of her sweatshirt, and reaches up to indicate the bandage on his wing. It’s dirty from sneaking around inside the barn where Dean and Sam were tied up, and there’s a faint spot of blood seeping through to stain it. He must have hit it on something, earlier. The rusted machinery inside the barn, maybe. He’s vaguely surprised at not having noticed it before now.

The girl’s eyes are big and soft. Concerned.

“It will heal,” he tells her.

She gives a solemn nod.

“You should go,” he says. “I’m not— Whatever you came here for, I can’t give it to you. I don’t have the power to do that. I can’t heal you, or protect you, or—”

He breaks off, helplessly. A hand touches his other shoulder, and he starts, but when he looks around, it’s only Sam. Castiel hears the front door close, and realises Dean has disappeared into the bunker.

“Cas is right,” Sam says. “You can’t stay here. Just—go back home, get on a bus and go see your mom and dad, or go back to school, or—wherever you’re supposed to be right now.”

“I’m supposed to be right here,” the girl says. Her face is bright. She looks into Castiel’s eyes. “I didn’t come here to be healed, or to ask a favour, or anything like that. I’m here for you.”

There is a murmur of assent from the group, and Castiel’s heart sinks.

Persuading the people to leave proves to be a losing battle. Their eyes follow Castiel’s every move, and when he steps aside to talk with Sam, they drift in his wake as though he is a magnet trailing iron filings.

He leans in close to Sam and lowers his voice. “I don’t know what to do,” he says.

“Me either.” Sam sighs. “Look, it might be best if you kept out of the way for now. Might be the only way they’ll listen to reason.” He jerks his head in the direction of the door. “Go inside. Get Dean to rewrap that bandage for you.”

Castiel eyes the little crowd doubtfully. “You didn’t bring these people here,” he says. “This isn’t your mess to clean up.”

Sam gives him a rueful smile. “Hey, it’s on my doorstep and it’s happening to my family. Pretty sure that makes it my mess.”

Despite himself, Castiel feels a little spark of warmth in his chest. “Thank you, Sam.”

 

----

 

The door closes behind him, and he feels a wash of guilty relief.

All those eyes. All that wonder. It fills him with shameful memories, makes his skin feel like it no longer fits, like he’s about to burn out or burst open. He pauses a moment longer before he turns into the bunker.

He finds Dean in the kitchen, leaning against the counter, a whiskey bottle in one hand and a tumbler in the other. He raises an eyebrow when Castiel walks in, but doesn’t move, doesn’t offer him a drink.

“Are you alright?” Castiel asks.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Castiel shrugs, and the movement of his wings rattles the cooking utensils on their hooks. “You seem troubled.”

Dean snorts. “Yeah, well, Christian Rock Coachella just pitched camp on my doorstep. Excuse me if I don’t wanna break out the welcome banners just yet.”

“That isn’t what I mean,” Castiel says.

Dean sighs and sets down the whiskey bottle. He’s quiet for a long moment, and Castiel expects another dismissal. But Dean looks up, resignation in his eyes, and says, “I don’t know, man. I guess—seeing you pretend to be all badass of the Lord again, back there in the barn? And now seeing you try to convince those guys that isn’t you anymore?” His shoulders slump. “Kinda weirded me out.”

He rubs at his forearm, apparently unaware of what he’s doing.

“You know how that witch got the drop on me?” he says, after a moment. “She’d been selling wishes. That was where the zombie thing came from. People who’d been bereaved wished for mom or dad or Auntie Josephine to come back from the grave, and it came true—until the spell wore off and there was a rotting corpse in the front room.” He gives a short, mirthless laugh. “She had other things in her store too, though, and I got caught looking at them. Stuff for healing. Stuff for ending curses.” He pauses. “Don’t get me wrong. I know that shit comes at a price. I ain’t dumb enough to go messing with it. But for a minute there, I thought…” He trails off.

Ending curses. Castiel wonders which one of them Dean was thinking about.

Castiel would like to move closer. To touch him; to comfort him somehow. He feels as though he should be able to do that. But his wings are unwieldy, and the kitchen is full of breakable things just waiting to be knocked to the floor, and he finds himself standing rooted to the spot, one hand held out uselessly before him.

Dean gathers himself; pours another inch of bourbon into his glass and makes for the door. “C’mon,” he says, indicating Castiel’s bandage with a jerk of his head. “Lemme take a look at that.”

His arm brushes Castiel’s as he passes, and Castiel feels the ghost of the touch for a long moment afterward.

They don’t speak again until they reach the bathroom. Dean looks at him, then. “How about you?” he asks. “You okay?”

Castiel lets out a sigh. “It’s disturbing,” he admits. “I don’t understand what they want from me.”

Dean shrugs. “They wanna feel like there’s somebody out there who knows what the hell’s going on. ‘S where it all comes from, right? Religion, whatever.” He shrugs. “I mean, I get it, you know? I ain’t saying it’s right, and I sure as hell ain’t saying I don’t want them off of my lawn. But I get it.”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Castiel says, helplessly. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that nobody does. I don’t even know how to save myself. I don’t know how to save—”

He breaks off abruptly, swallowing his words because he knows where they are going. If he could save anybody, could make things okay for anybody, it would be Dean. And he doesn’t know how, but Dean doesn’t need to hear that, and Castiel doesn’t need to say it.

Dean nods and opens the first aid kit. “I get it,” he says again, and he starts bandaging.

 

----

 

Sam is still outside when they’re done. He has propped the front door open with a fire extinguisher. Dean frowns and moves to look through the gap, and Castiel peers out cautiously from behind him.

He expects to see Sam talking earnestly to the little crowd, perhaps calling parents or spouses to ask them to come collect their loved ones. Instead, he’s handing out coffee and packet soup in a collection of mismatched mugs from the bunker’s cupboards.

Dean narrows his eyes. “What the hell, Sammy?” he says.

Sam frowns right back at him. “What was I supposed to do, Dean? These people are cold. Some of them have been here for hours, and they don’t have any way of getting home, and—”

Dean opens the door and faces up to him, arms crossed over his chest. “No way,” he says. “No. I can see what you’re thinking, and—just no.”

Feeling his stomach twist up with guilt, Castiel inches away from the conversation.

As Dean and Sam argue, he finds himself next to the sweater girl, who’s sitting on the ground cross-legged with a mug of something caffeinated steaming between her hands.

She looks up at him and her face brightens, and a different kind of guilt spears through him.

He can’t bear to step away, though maybe it would be kinder in the long run. He can already picture the disappointment in her eyes.

“What’s your name?” he asks her, instead of leaving.

“Elinor,” she tells him. “My sister called me Elmo.” She smiles faintly; it refers to something he doesn’t know about, he realises.

“Where is your sister?” he asks.

“She went to be with an angel,” she says, softly. “That’s what she said. I thought she was crazy. But when I saw you—”

“That’s why you came here,” he realises. “You think I can take you to your sister.”

A sister who went to be with an angel. A vessel. Even if Castiel could contact the angels in Heaven in his current state, what hope would he have of persuading one to abandon its Earthly home?

“Can’t you?” Elinor asks.

He sighs. “I wish I could, Elinor. I truly do.”

Her disappointment is visible. But after a moment she sighs and says, “I miss her.”

Castiel nods and lets her go on.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong—she can be a pain in the ass. She borrows my shoes without asking and she never puts the milk back in the refrigerator. But she always makes me hot chocolate when I’m feeling down. I don’t even have to ask. It’s like she just knows, you know? And she sings these dumb songs, doesn’t even care if people think she’s crazy. And she listens to me talk about all my stupid TV shows and doesn’t tell me to shut up. And I—I always know she’s got my back.” She looks down. “At least, I thought I knew that.”

Castiel touches her shoulder.

“I know,” he tells her. He pauses. “I’ve lost brothers and sisters before. Comrades. But back then—I always felt that it was necessary. Justified. It’s only since coming to Earth that I’ve really understood what it is to miss someone.” Or to fear missing them, or to miss them even though they’re standing right beside you. “I only wish I knew how to make it better.”

She looks sideways at him. Her eyes widen in surprise. Of course—nobody expects an angel to talk this way.

But she puts her hand over his and says, “Yeah, it sucks,” and he begins to hope that he’s gotten through to her. That she’s seeing somebody she can talk to, instead of something to pray to.

Not everybody else is so easy. After his conversation with Elinor, Castiel finds them coming to him one by one, telling their stories in low voices.

Trevor—the man with the heavy bag—lost his wife to cancer two years ago, and when Castiel tries to explain that she’s likely in Heaven, passed through the veil, it’s clear that all he hears is, I can’t bring her back.

Then there’s Nina, a thin woman with a strange distance in her eyes, as though she’s looking at something the rest of them can’t see. Her father was a pastor, she tells him—or something of the kind, anyway, the head of a sect that believed themselves to be chosen ones. The idea makes unease twist in Castiel’s guts.

“He lost his faith,” Nina says. “Abandoned us. But now you’re here. I saw you and I knew you were calling to me. That I was chosen again.”

Castiel shakes his head. “I never called anyone,” he says. “Human beings aren’t mine to choose. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

The smile on her face and the shine in her eyes remain undimmed.

 

----

 

Night falls, and there’s no sign of their uninvited guests leaving.

Dean and Sam retreat back inside the bunker, and Castiel hears their muffled conversation through the door.

– No way, Sammy, this ain’t a sanctuary for strays!

– It’s gonna be cold tonight, we can’t let them freeze.

– Hey, nobody made them come here.

– Nobody’s gonna make them leave, either, Dean. You don’t think they’re actually gonna take our advice?

A pause and – They’re freaking Cas out, dammit, can’t you see that? He didn’t ask to be fucking worshipped—well, not recently anyway. A bunch of people turned up on the doorstep claiming you were the Messiah, would you want them crashing on your floor?

Castiel sighs, and opens the door. He steps through and closes it behind him.

“I don’t mind,” he says, softly.

Dean turns to stare at him.

“I don’t know what else we can do,” he amends. “I knew there would be consequences to my leaving the bunker, and I have to take responsibility for them. I know I didn’t ask these people to come here, but they’re here because of me. I can’t simply—let them sleep outside.”

It was hard, sleeping rough. He remembers that—how all the little human indignities that would’ve been minor inconveniences at any other time piled up on him and grew heavy. Most of the people outside—they don’t know that yet. He won’t allow them to, if he can help it.

Perhaps Dean sees the memory on his face, because he makes a disgusted noise and his shoulders sag in defeat.

“Fine,” he says. “But you gotta lay down the law to them, okay, Cas? No plus-ones, no inviting their friends to the party, no telling the goddamn internet where they are. Nobody goes further than this room. And I’m locking everything the fuck down.”

He stalks out of the library.

Sam looks after him. “Huh,” he says, and turns to follow. “I guess we better look for bedding.”

 

----

 

The night turns into two nights, and then three, and there’s no sign of anybody leaving.

Mostly, they’re good at following the rules, though there are incessant questions once they get a glimpse inside the bunker. Nina sits alone in a corner, most of the time, a dreamy expression on her face. Trevor and Elinor immediately ask whether they can make themselves useful, and seem happy to take on any odd jobs thrown their way.

Elinor proves to be adept at using computers, and eventually Sam puts her to work on the hunt for zombie-girl, telling her that he’s trying to track a string of grave-robberies. She seems remarkably unfazed; but then Castiel remembers that she lost her sister to an angel, and that little else could be quite so devastating.

Trevor busies himself with grocery shopping and peeling potatoes, organising everyone else to help out with the chores, and even Dean seems to soften toward him when he realizes Trevor’s help leaves him with more time to devote to the hunt for zombie-girl. He even allows Trevor the run of the kitchen.

One day passes, and another, and nobody else appears.

On Day Three, there’s a knock at the door.

Sam looks up from his books, his abstraction turning instantly to alertness. Dean gets to his feet and makes for the door, hand at his waistband, ready to pull out his gun.

He glances at Sam. Sam nods. He opens the door.

There’s a young man standing there. His hair is dishevelled, and he wears an enormous woollen sweatshirt and baggy jeans. He looks as though he’s been on the road for days. His eyes widen when he catches sight of Dean’s expression, and he turns a shade paler.

“Uh,” he says. “Is Elmo here?”

Dean frowns at him. “Who?” he says, but the young man is already looking over his shoulder, his eyes lighting up. It’s as though he doesn’t even notice the winged man sitting a few feet away.

Elinor gets to her feet. Castiel turns to look at her and she reddens a little, but can’t quite keep the smile from her face. “Danny,” she says. “Hey.”

A grin splits the young man’s face. His eyes are full of love.

It makes Castiel think about seeing Dean wake up human again in the bunker’s basement, and he looks away.

“Seriously?” Dean says, but he sounds more resigned than angry. He passes by Sam and Castiel on his way back to the kitchen. “We have got to fix this,” he mutters.

Castiel glances over at Elinor and Danny, at Nina typing something on her phone, at Trevor coordinating volunteers to make soup, at the way they all steal glances at him when they think he isn’t looking, and he nods.

 

----

 

The next day, there’s another knock at the door. Castiel glances up in suprise from the old Men of Letters file he has been reading—though truthfully, it tells him so little of use that the interruption is welcome.

Sam answers, this time. But before he even has the door fully open, Nina is on her feet, ducking under his arm with her hands outstretched.

“There you are!” she exclaims. For so small a woman, she must have inordinately sharp elbows, since she manages to barge Sam out of the way.

Two women and a man trail after her into the library. They’re dressed in baggy, shapeless clothes. The man has a beard, and the women’s hair is long and unstyled. Nina raises her arm to point at Castiel, and they turn as one to gaze at him with awe.

“Didn’t I tell you?” she says to them. “He’s come for us. We’re chosen again!”

Castiel feels the blood drain from his face.

One of the women takes a step toward him. “Is it true?” she says, her voice soft and reverent. “Have you come to save us?”

He can’t help himself. Castiel has faced archangels, demons, monsters of all kinds—he has stormed the gates of Hell—but in the face of their adoring gazes, he turns on his heel and runs.

 

----

 

He shuts himself in the small bedroom Dean made up for him when he was first cursed. He’s still unused to sleeping, but he finds that he gets tired, and he dozes on the bed for an hour or two at a time when it becomes necessary, sprawled on his belly with his wings spread out over him like a blanket.

Now, he perches on the edge of the mattress and puts his head in his hands. He tries not to think of the way they looked at him, of how helpless he feels in the face of everything happening here. He tries to think of nothing but the sound of his heart pounding in his skull.

He breathes in, slowly. Out again. He has vague memories of Sam telling a traumatised civilian that this would help.

In. Out.

His heartbeat begins to slow. In. Out.

There is a tap at the door. He glances up, panic threatening to take hold again.

“’S only me.”

Dean. He lets out a sigh of relief.

“Can I come in?”

Castiel nods. Then he remembers Dean can’t see him, and clears his throat. “Yes,” he says. His voice is hoarse.

Dean lets himself in and closes the door behind him. He raises an eyebrow, when his gaze lands on Castiel’s face, but says nothing, just comes to sit on the bed beside him.

“We have to find a cure for this,” Castiel says, after a moment. His voice sounds like ground glass. “We have to find that girl.”

“Amen to that.” Dean pauses, watches him carefully. “How you doing, Cas?” he asks.

Castiel half-smiles. “I think the phrase is, ‘How do you think I’m doing?’”

“That bad, huh?”

That bad seems to be a permanent state of affairs.”

Dean makes a sound that’s almost a laugh. Turns to look at Castiel’s bandaged wing.

The knock he gave it in the barn didn’t do too much damage. The bleeding was mostly superficial. The pain is almost gone—it just itches like a fire beneath the feathers, sometimes.

Dean frowns at it. “You think that can come off now?” he asks.

He’s changing the subject. Castiel is glad of it.

“Maybe,” he says. “I would be glad to have it gone.”

Dean nods and gets to his feet. Gently, he loosens the end of the bandage and begins to unwind it. Castiel closes his eyes, concentrating on the steady, rhythmic movement.

“Yeah,” Dean says, at last. “Looks pretty good.”

Castiel expects him to move away; to leave, perhaps. He doesn’t. Instead, his hand comes to rest on the arch of Castiel’s wing, a steady anchor. It moves as though unconsciously, stroking a long flight feather down to its tip.

Castiel leans into the touch, his breath catching in his chest. A warmth curls through him. He doesn’t dare open his eyes.

They stay like that for a moment, very still. Castiel thinks that he would stay here forever if he could. He’d be as still as the carven angels that decorate tombstones, and he wouldn’t have to face zombies or witches, or young girls who think they are saving the world, or people who think he can tell them how to live their lives. He would stay here, and Dean would be with him.

There is a tap at the door.

“Hello?” says an uncertain voice. Elinor. “Sam sent me. He wanted to know if you were okay?”

Dean removes his hand. Castiel swallows.

“Yes,” he says. “We’re fine. We’ll be with you soon.”

He looks up, but Dean’s expression has already closed itself off.

 

----

 

They are in the library when it happens.

They’ve taken to keeping a police scanner running over the past couple of days, just to ensure that the small crowd currently camping out at the bunker hasn’t pinged anybody’s radar. Dean has it set up in his room, which Castiel suspects is mostly to give him an excuse to hide away from everybody else.

It seems like a good idea.

Nina’s friends haven’t tried speaking to Castiel, since he ran out of the library when they first appeared. They disquiet him, though. They sit in a corner, not bothering themselves with chores or research, the way the others do. Mostly, they pray. Castiel sometimes sees them staring when he turns to look at them, and it feels like a weight on his back.

He has his head buried in an ancient, moldy volume of Latin when Dean slams open the door to the library and beckons Castiel and Sam with a jerk of his head.

“Disturbance in the cemetery,” he says, when they’re out of earshot of the library. “Sounds a little too close to home to be coincidence, don’t it?”

“You think she’s been looking for us?” Sam says.

Dean shrugs. “Far as she’s concerned, Cas is a monster and we’re the assholes hiding him. Figures we’d be on her list. And if grandpa was a Man of Letters, he must’ve known about this place.”

Sam frowns. “Isn’t it abandoned, far as she knows?”

“Maybe.” Dean pauses, his gaze flicking toward the corridor. “But if any of those guys have been talking, if she’s seen anything about a dude with wings in this neck of the woods? It ain’t exactly a hard conclusion to jump to.”

Castiel’s heart sinks. The girl who cursed him was young—stupid to think she’d be living in an old-fashioned house, like the one where Dean and Sam found Sinclair. She probably has wi-fi. And she’s had time to work on her spell. Who knows how effective it is, by now?

“I’ll come with you,” he says. “I want to help.”

“No way,” says Dean, at the same time Sam says, “Someone should stay here. Protect these people.”

He’s right, of course. Castiel nods. “I’ll—”

There is a knock at the front door, loud enough to ring right through the bunker. He falls silent.

It is a hollow sound, as though the hands making it are something other than flesh and blood.

Or at least, not flesh and blood anymore.

“Fuck,” Dean mutters, and disappears into his bedroom.

He emerges with the bag of weapons he keeps beside the door, ready to go.

“Here.” He pulls out a machete and offers it to Castiel. “Heads off, remember?”

He doesn’t wait for an answer. They make for the library.

The front door shudders on its hinges. Elinor and most of the others crowd into a corner of the library, chairs piled up in front of them in an impromptu barricade. Nina stands up in front of her little group of followers, arms spread protectively, and in some recess of his mind, Castiel feels his estimation of her rise a notch. She may have made his life more difficult, but at least she is no coward.

He forces the thought away and faces the door, gripping the handle of his machete tight, every part of him rigid with tension.

There is a thud like that of a battering ram. Another.

The door bursts open.

And everything blurs.

It’s all adrenaline and movement, slashes and gunshots and bony hands clawing. Screams from the civilians; footsteps echoing down corridors as they sprint into the recesses of the bunker. Castiel finds that his wings make an effective distraction, drawing the mostly-mindless zombies’ attention away from the others, and powerful enough to beat back several at a time. It’s exhausting, but fear fizzes through his veins like a drug and keeps him going. Not because of the zombies, or because they don’t know where the girl controlling them is, but because there are civilians right here who wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t seen Castiel’s photograph on a website somewhere, and if one of them dies, it’s all his fault.

Whatever anyone says about it, it’s his fault.

There’s a crash somewhere on the other side of the room. Castiel turns, and sees that Elinor has managed to take out one of the zombies by throwing a vase at its head hard enough to knock it from its bony shoulders. Though, judging by the pained expression that crosses Sam’s face when he sees the shattered mess on the floor, it must have been an artefact with some mystical significance.

The fight seems endless. Castiel isn’t sure how many zombies there are—only that they seem to come in waves, inexorable as the ocean, and that surely there can’t be this many dead people in Lebanon.

It occurs to him that he’ll fight until he drops dead, right here in the library where he stands.

It occurs to him—and then it’s over.

The last zombie drops to the floor as Sam takes its head off, and they stand there staring at each other, breathing hard.

Castiel’s chest hurts.

No door opens out of nowhere this time; no figure appears in the doorway. They wait, but the girl doesn’t show herself.

Elinor raises her hand. “Okay,” she says. “What just happened?”

 

----

 

They pick up the pieces of zombie, and set them to burn at the back of the bunker. It’s mindless work, if disgusting; a relief after the fight.

And Castiel explains as best he can. He’s not sure whether he expects them to believe him. They came here looking for an angel, after all—and they found one, after a fashion. But a human being raising the dead because she believes she can save the world? Who would choose to believe that, if they could help it?

When he’s done explaining, though, Nina steps forward.

“We have—a compound,” she says. “My father’s church—we weren’t always popular, so it’s pretty secure. If you came to lead us—we could get enough people to man it. We’d be safer there.”

If you came to lead us. And that’s the problem.

Castiel looks her in the eyes. “Lead you to what?” he asks.

She raises her eyes to the ceiling. “Heaven?” she suggests.

“I can’t.” He shakes his head. “I’m not a leader, not like this. You should go to the compound yourselves. You’ll be safer away from me.” He turns to indicate the others, Elinor and Danny and Trevor. “You should go. You should all go.”

He turns away from them. Nobody follows him.

 

----

 

Castiel joins Dean out back, when they’re done with the clean-up. He’s sitting beside the pyre, poking at the glowing embers and grimacing when he uncovers a still-recognisable piece of zombie. Castiel sits beside him.

“So,” Dean says, after a moment, “they got some Fortress of Solitude you can go live in?”

“Apparently.”

“Hell, maybe you should go.” Dean’s watching the fire, not Castiel’s face. “Keep you outta trouble.”

“Dean,” Castiel says, and waits until Dean turns to look at him. “You remember what you said to me, when we were working against Metatron? About the angels who chose to follow me?”

Dean shrugs. “That they were douchebags?” he says. “Can’t remember if I said that, but I definitely shoulda done.”

“You said they were a cult,” Castiel says. “You were angry about that. And now you’d have me become a cult leader?”

Dean frowns, his expression going distant. Castiel doesn’t know what he is remembering.

Then Dean looks down, his eyelids flickering, and says, “Nah, you’re right.” He hesitates. “I was just thinking about—you being safe, is all.”

Castiel can’t help but bristle. “Because I’m useless like this.”

He’s startled when Dean reaches out and touches his hand, his fingers hovering there, as though he’s unsure whether or not he’s allowed to do this. It’s both less intimate than Dean touching his wings, and more so—because Dean doesn’t hold hands with people, and Dean certainly doesn’t hold hands with him.

“Hell no,” he says. “Because you’re not.”

Castiel blinks at him.

Dean looks back at him, his lips parted as though he is about to say something. Castiel watches his mouth. How soft it looks. How visible Dean’s hesitation is.

Dean breaks away from him. He gets to his feet and scrubs his sooty hands on the thighs of his jeans. “C’mon,” he says. “Let’s get this shit organised. They can’t stay here, but tonight? We should move them all out of the library, set up a watch in there in case she tries anything else. We can take shifts.”

Castiel reaches out and takes his hand before he can stride back into the recesses of the bunker. He almost misses, just manages to catch hold of Dean’s index finger, but Dean comes to a halt anyway. He looks back at Castiel, concern written all over his face, and it occurs to Castiel that this is how human infants hold the hands of their mothers.

He must look utterly pathetic.

“Thank you,” he says, and Dean laces their fingers together, a little awkwardly, and gives his hand a squeeze.

It gives him the courage he needs to go on.

“Some of them can stay in my room,” he offers.

Dean looks at him, a measuring kind of look, as though he’s trying to read between the lines. “You gotta sleep, Cas,” he points out. “Your angel juice is all—tied up.”

“Yes,” Castiel says.

Dean looks at him. And looks.

“I’d prefer not to be alone,” Castiel confesses, and Dean stares at him for a moment.

He shakes himself. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, sure, you can camp on my floor or whatever.”

Castiel smiles at him. That’s enough, he thinks. Not to be alone.

 

----

 

Sam has first watch. Castiel and Dean sit up with him until late, drinking coffee around the table in the library. It’s bitter, brutally strong, but still Castiel feels his eyelids growing heavy.

“Guys,” Sam says, stifling a yawn. “We gotta stop avoiding the obvious here. We’re not finding anything that could help us stop zombie-girl, but we do know a guy who knows more about spellwork than probably anyone else alive.” He shrugs. “Or, sort-of alive, anyway.”

Dean understands before Castiel does. His eyebrows shoot up cartoonishly. “Seriously? You’re suggesting we call in Crowley?”

“I know it isn’t ideal. I want to kill the guy at least as much as you do, believe me.” There’s a thin set to Sam’s lips, something there passing unspoken between the brothers. He sighs and spreads his hands. “But I don’t see what else we got.”

Dean looks at him. Looks around the library at the evidence of the earlier fight, and of all the people who have been camping out here. Castiel sees the moment when he gives in.

“Fine,” he says. “Fine, I’ll call the douche.”

 

----

 

Crowley appears in the library in a puff of sulfurous smoke before Dean has even hung up his cell phone. He glances between the three of them with an amused expression, and Castiel shifts uncomfortably in his seat, waiting for the mocking comment about his wings.

Sam cuts in before Crowley can make it. “So,” he says, “Dean filled you in. You got anything that could help us?”

“I think,” Crowley says, “the question is, why would I?”

“Because it’s only a matter of time before she sends them after your guys.”

Crowley puts his head on one side. “So you say.”

“So she says. Of course, if you want to wait for her to start taking out demons left, right and center, be our guest.” Sam shrugs. “Wonder how that’ll play in the polls?”

“Hell,” Crowley says, all pretense of good humor suddenly vanished from his face, “is not a democracy.” But then he glowers, says, “I’ll be in touch,” and vanishes with a snap of his fingers.

“Huh,” says Dean. “That went better than expected.”

Castiel opens his mouth to agree and a yawn comes out instead. Dean nudges him with a foot under the table.

“Dude,” he says. “Go to sleep.”

“I’m fine,” Castiel means to say, but he finds himself yawning again. His whole body feels heavy; his wings ache. He nods and gets to his feet.

 

----

 

He pads down the corridor to Dean’s bedroom and opens the wardrobe to hunt for bedding. The bunker’s floors are cold, but he has an oversized sweatshirt stolen from Sam which is big enough for at least two of him, and a pair of fleecy sweatpants which neither brother would lay claim to. He should be fine—and if he isn’t, well, a little discomfort is a small price to pay not to be alone.

Castiel finds a pillow and a pile of blankets big enough that he suspects Dean is stockpiling in case of another Apocalypse, and is about to close the wardrobe when he sees it.

He’s given up hope of ever rescuing his trench coat, but he sees a corner of tan fabric peeking out from under the bedding. He tugs at it and the end of a sleeve appears.

It’s his coat. He pulls it out from under the blankets, and takes a breath of surprise.

It’s clean. Not only that, but it’s been mended, the tears where his wings broke through painstakingly hemmed into spaces like arm-holes. There are even buttons at the shoulders, so he can fasten it up over his wings.

The stitching is imperfect, and the buttons mismatched. It isn’t as good as new. But he could wear it.

It has scars, he thinks; the same way they all do. Perhaps it will suit him better this way.

“You, uh.” He startles at the sound of Dean’s voice behind him, and he turns on the spot. “You don’t have to wear that.”

Dean is looking at the floor. It’s hard to tell in the dim light, but Castiel thinks he might be blushing a little.

He puts his head on one side. “You didn’t tell me you were doing this,” he says.

“Yeah, well.” Dean doesn’t meet his eyes. “Didn’t wanna disappoint you if I screwed it up.”

“But you didn’t.”

Dean shrugs. “Hey, you got a lot of stuff going on. I dunno.” He pauses. “Seemed kinda stupid.”

There are things in there that Dean isn’t saying. Castiel doesn’t dare assume he knows what they are. Still, he moves closer.

“Dean,” he says. He holds up the coat. “This is not stupid. You did this for me.” He can’t keep the wonder out of his voice. He struggles for words to explain himself, to explain how he could have all the devotees in the world and none of them would ever be as important as Dean—who never ceases grumbling and teasing and pointing out his mistakes, who loves him exactly as he loves his human family.

He doesn’t have the words. But Dean is still looking at him, not moving, and there’s color in his cheeks and relief in his eyes, and he looks as though he wants to say something but can’t.

Castiel feels his heartbeat in his ears. This could all go so terribly wrong.

But he doesn’t have words, he only has this, and so he closes his eyes and closes the short distance between them, and he kisses Dean on the mouth.

Dean goes still. Castiel pulls back fractionally. His stomach drops.

This was all a mistake. This was a mistake, and Dean will never want to speak to him again, and—

Dean’s hand is on his waist. And Dean is leaning in close to him, and he murmurs, “Fuck, Cas, this is a terrible idea,” against Castiel’s lips, and then they’re kissing again. Soft and slow and sweet, a surprise in itself, not a prelude to something else.

There is warmth in Castiel’s chest, and he lets his coat fall onto the bed and wraps his arms around Dean instead, closing his eyes as though he might be able to get lost in Dean’s warmth, his presence, how solid he is in Castiel’s arms.

After a moment, Dean pulls back from him, just a fraction of an inch. “Uh,” he says. “Cas?”

Castiel opens his eyes onto darkness. He blinks owlishly, and after a second he realizes it’s him. He’s wrapped his wings around both of them, like a shield.

He flushes with embarrassment. “I didn’t—” he begins, but Dean is laughing.

They’re both laughing, then. They’re holding onto each other, and laughing, and their world is on its way to Hell as usual, but just for a moment, they’re laughing.

 

----

 

Crowley shows up again late the next afternoon, this time startling everyone as he materialises in the library. Elinor squeaks audibly.

He raises an eyebrow. “Didn’t realise this was Battersea Dogs’ Home,” he says. “Have to say, boys, you used to have a better class of tenant.”

Dean gives him a smile edged with danger. “Your old room’s free.”

Crowley glowers at him, but hands over a rolled-up piece of paper. It looks ancient. “That should do it,” he says. “If not—well, don’t come crying to me.”

 

----

 

Castiel is out back, near the remains of the zombie pyre, when Dean finds him. He sits down without speaking, pushing at the dirt with the toe of his boot. Then he looks up.

“So,” he says. “King Douche came through, we think. Sammy’s got us a location.”

Castiel looks sideways at him. “Tomorrow, then?” he says.

“Tomorrow.”

Castiel feels a curl of apprehension in his gut. Tomorrow, if it works, he’ll be himself again, draining-away grace and all. He’ll have to find a way to save himself. Dean will have to find a way to touch him without excuses.

He pushes the thoughts away. One fight at a time. And the next one on the list is neither of those things. He remembers Dean looking at his own eyes in the mirror, Dean touching the Mark on his arm, Dean dismissing his own gift as stupid.

The next thing they have to save is Dean.

“Do you think they’ll be okay?” he asks, instead of saying it. He inclines his head toward the bunker, to indicate the civilians inside.

Dean shrugs. “I dunno, Cas. They’ve seen some crap.” He reaches out and takes Castiel’s hand—quickly, as though he’s trying not to think too hard about it. “It ain’t your job to babysit them,” he tells Castiel. “You did what you could to help them, but—” He shrugs. “’S a big, shitty world out there. Can’t save everyone.”

Castiel raises an eyebrow. How many times has he heard someone try to give Dean the same talk? How many times has he tried himself?

He doesn’t say that out loud.

He stretches out a wing to encircle them both, and holds his breath until Dean leans back and relaxes into it.

“You never did try flying,” Dean says, after a moment. He reaches out to touch the tip of a feather.

“I… don’t think I mind,” Castiel tells him, and is surprised to find it true.

They’re quiet for a long moment. Dean closes his eyes and Castiel watches his face; the lines of worry etched under his eyes.

“I’m not a savior,” Castiel says, at length. “Not the way they want me to be. Neither are you.” He pauses; turns his head, his lips grazing the stubble at Dean’s jaw.

“Hey,” Dean says. “Preaching to the choir, Cas.”

“We are not saviors,” he says, soft enough he isn’t sure that Dean hears it. “But we will save you.”

And maybe then we’ll save me, he thinks. Maybe we’ll save each other.