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Convergence

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Traveling as a subatomic wavelength of light and sound was disorienting to say the least. Everything looked far away and very blurry. Still, Castiel knew when he’d finally reached his destination. He may have never seen the man being forced to his knees in the dirt before, but he recognized him all the same.

The creatures standing around his charge were a little more troublesome. Castiel folded himself inwards carefully, tucking in his arms and legs and focusing his energy like the Arches had taught him to. The halo burned white hot against his forehead but he was able to control his descent enough to disintegrate the attackers as he landed.

(Castiel imagined himself a great comet striking the wicked from the earth, his tail blazing behind him. It made him smile, a little, despite the halo’s warning tremor. Smugness, as a form of arrogance, was a sin.)

He rose, shaking off the small rocks and dust that clung to his robe, and assessed the situation. He was in the middle of a small impact crater and the air was thick with dust. His charge, some twenty feet from the hole, was coughing. There were no visible remains of his attackers so Castiel set about introducing himself.

Climbing out of the crater was fairly easy – one of his sleeves caught on rock but came free with a tug – but Castiel still felt the breath leave him when he reached the surface. King Winchester was… not anything like he’d been expecting. The Arches had said Winchester had been in power for years, had watched his kingdom fall around him, but the man before him was roughly his own age, pale but rosy cheeked from the heat from Castiel’s arrival.

King Winchester coughed a final time and wiped at his face with his sleeve, just smearing patches of filth along the intricately wrapped wrist of his shirt and further across his cheeks. One of the dark feathers from his collar was pushed into his mouth with the motion and he spit it out with a shiver of distaste and a wrinkled nose.

Castiel had never met a monarch before but he’d always thought they’d be more… regal. King Winchester was something altogether different than the leaders he’d had experience with.

King Winchester struggled to his feet, panting with the effort, and shifted until the staff holding him up was raised threateningly toward Castiel instead. His voice was rough from the coughing, much deeper than his appearance suggested. “Who the hell are you?”

Castiel tilted his head. This man was altogether too disrespectful for a king. “I’m the one who just saved your life.”

“Yeah, you’re gonna have to do better than that.”

The orb at the top of the shaft glowed brightly and a pulse of power bloomed through the amber, shooting outward and turning the rocks into more dust. Castiel shrouded himself in the power of his brothers in just enough time to keep the wave of energy from breaking his ribs but not quickly enough to keep him from being pushed back into the crater. He expended some of his own magic to cushion his fall, the loose fabric of his robe billowing around him soft as a cloud.

Not what he’d been expecting at all.

The bolt of power from the staff had been free-form, rustic, and the energy of it flickered briefly across the ground before dying into crackles and puffs of dust. Castiel shook the excess out of his robes and hair – carefully patting down the soft feathers of the halo – and climbed back to the surface again. He wasn’t hurt exactly, but there was a strange hollowness in his chest. It was gone within moments anyway, so Castiel put it aside to think about later.

King Winchester was leaning heavily on the staff, now planted firmly in the ground. His mouth dropped open when he noticed Castiel’s reappearance. He blinked. “All right. Let’s rephrase that last question. What the hell are you?”

Castiel straightened his shoulders. “Your saving grace, Dean Winchester.”

He snorted inelegantly, then his eyelids fluttered and he sank limply to the ground. The staff landed with a dull thud and rolled to a stop against a rock.

Castiel sighed. This was most definitely not how he’d imagined their first meeting to go.

+++

King Winchester didn’t appear physically injured by his confrontation with the creatures but his breathing was labored and the skin of his face clammy with sweat. The healing spells Castiel performed over him were sucked in greedily and vanished without a trace. Exhaustion, perhaps? Regardless, Castiel couldn’t just leave him laying in the dust.

Looking around he realized they were only a few yards from a high wall made of dark stone; Castiel could just make out the rise of a tower behind it. King Winchester’s castle. The creatures had been brazen enough to attack him very close to home, it seemed. Not a good sign for the state of things.

Walking a little to the side revealed a thick wooden gate, boarded and sealed shut a long time ago from the looks of things. There was an aura of repulsive spellwork around it, so much so that his eyes kept slipping away and he had no desire to try knocking. Only one thing to do then.

Castiel gathered his concentration. Gravity was an easy force to bend, so long as one knew what he was doing. His halo tingled and white light glittered around him – the physical manifestation that his powers were working properly. He lifted King Winchester and himself to the top of the gate, which turned out to be more battlement than wall. Laying the king down carefully he turned his attention to gaining information about the land his charge ruled over.

The higher vantage didn’t tell him anything he hadn’t already guessed. There wasn’t a tree or blade of grass for miles; nothing but barren ground as far as the eye could see, and Castiel could see quite well. There were clumps of rocks and fissures spewing clouds of steam and murky black tar, as if the earth itself were dissolving. There’s a blur on the horizon – dark smoke, the suggestion of movement – a village perhaps? A tiny mountain range? It was impossible to tell.

There was no life. No small moving things, no birdsong on the wind. Nothing. Just emptiness and desolation.

Castiel was soon distracted from the view by King Winchester’s slow rise to consciousness. He groaned and rubbed his face again – still just moving the dirt around – and raised his hand above his head with a grimace. There came a distant clunk of rocks stirring below and the king’s staff came flying over the parapet, smacking into his open palm with a thwack and narrowly missing Castiel’s head by inches.

A brief burst of indignation fluttered over him, though he wasn’t sure why. It was perfectly sensible not to touch another mage’s weapon; there was no need for King Winchester to be so testy.

The jewel in the center of his halo tingled and Castiel felt the warmth of his brothers fill him. The connection to the Arches meant more than one set of eyes looked at the king, assessed him, and formed an opinion.

King Winchester had risen painfully to his feet with the help of his staff – weak, that’s weakness – and looked around him. His shoulders sunk when he spotted Castiel. “Ugh. You’re still here?”

It’s incredibly informal language for a monarch. Castiel himself would never think of addressing his superiors in such a way. (His ribs hummed with the Arches approval.) And yet, Castiel couldn’t help but admire his spirit and lack of reverence; Castiel was, after all, a stranger come calling in unknown circumstances. He wondered if the Arches were seeing that determination in the same light Castiel was. If so, they didn’t deem it necessary to share their thoughts on the matter.

King Winchester sighed and shook out his robes. They were the same color as the cloud of dust that rose around him. “Okay. Let’s try this without the violence this time. Who are you?”

“My name is Castiel. I represent the High Arch Mages of the North.” Communion pooled in his mind like a flood and Castiel swallowed the insistent urging of his limbs to move. “We request an accord between our peoples.”

King Winchester winced, as though the multi-toned voice of the Arches communing through Castiel was giving him a headache. “Tone it down will you? I’m not deaf. Or at least I wasn’t a minute ago.”

His mouth opened to speak again but Winchester continued over him. “The wizards hidden in the northern mountains are a myth, anyway.”

“And yet we are here. We humbly offer our service and our soldier to your cause. It is unwise to refuse such a thing, your highness–”

“Fuck off.”

A fissure of anger straightened Castiel’s spine and hardened his jaw, though he knew the feeling wasn’t actually his; he was far too shocked to experience anything on top of it. “We will not be insulted, King of Nothing. You will show us respect.” Heat flowed from the halo and the soft hairs on Castiel’s arms stood on end. King Winchester raised the hand with the staff in front of his face to shield it from the blaze. “If you will not join us in saving your land we will take it from you and do it ourselves.”

A bulb of green flowed out of the king’s staff to curl around him protectively. The Arches light flowed around it, licking the edges hungrily. A swell of satisfaction behind Castiel’s teeth and the Arches voices rose in harmony.

King Winchester had to shout over the din. “Fuck! What the hell do you even care about me for anyway? Why send your fancy emissary here of all the gods forsaken places?”

“You needed help and I came.” The rush of singularity and emptiness made Castiel realize he was alone in the sentiment, the Arches withdrawing their presence to the habitual hum at the back of his thoughts.

King Winchester lowered his arm, the green glow fading, his mouth a grimace. “You didn’t do anything. They sent you. I doubt you had an opinion in the matter one way or another.”

Castiel frowned, not liking what he was implying. He may have been assigned this post but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t devote his everything to it. He’d never resist anything the Arches tasked him with.

“Your name was Castiel, wasn’t it?” He nodded but King Winchester wasn’t looking. Instead he’d turned his gaze to the movement on the far horizon. “Will they do it? Try to take my land from me?”

Castiel thought about the anger shorting through his body, the covetous hum that sent Winchester to his knees. “They will raze this kingdom to the ground without leaving their chambers. And when there’s nothing left they'll salt the earth to keep its disease from spreading.”

Unless you do as they say went unsaid. King Winchester was intelligent enough to recognize an ultimatum when he heard one. Castiel was… less than comfortable with the idea, himself.

Eventually the king sighed and met Castiel’s gaze again. “I’ll think about it. No guarantees of anything. In the meantime I suppose you can come in. I’ll even scrounge something up for you to eat if you like.“

Castiel inclined his head, “Sire-“

“Dean. Call me Dean. None of that sire or highness crap.”

Dean.” Castiel had thought himself too old to blush by years, and yet he felt the tell-tale warmth of it blossom on his cheeks. He took a deep breath - not what Castiel was used to at all – and felt knowledge bloom fully formed in his mind. “The Arches want more than just an alliance.” A curl of anticipation shivered up his spine. “We call for a joining, a proper blending of skill and power.”

“Are you… “ Dean blinked in shock for a moment. “No. No! There is no way in hell I’m going to tie myself to some… sparkly dick just so some assholes thousands of miles from here can have a go at me and my kingdom. No way!”

Castiel would have expected the Arches to respond less than favorably to that but the globe of Dean’s staff glowed brighter suddenly, light and shadow pouring through like the reflection on the bottom of a fountain. It struck the planes of Dean’s face and turned the handsome features into otherworldly beauty. (Castiel had the strangest urge to touch his cheekbones and feel that light for himself. With his lips. It was very strange. He tried to breathe through it and keep his face from betraying his thoughts.)

The Arches remained silent and watching.

Dean frowned up at the sphere of green amber. “Don’t you start, too! I don’t care what they have to say. It’s not like your opinion matters, anyway.” A rumble traveled from the globe down through the staff, vibrating through Dean’s arm and up to his shoulder. Dean scowled at it.

Castiel wasn’t entirely sure what he was witnessing. Had Dean been alone in his kingdom too long? It was best to bring the conversation back on track. “Why don’t you wish to initiate a Bond, Dean? It’s a way to commune and forge stronger ties.” Bonding needn’t be sexual or emotional at all, despite what the stories and legends said. His own connection to the Arches proved that.

"Two people so close together in one head leads to nothing but pain.” The globe shifted again, the colors more muted. It reminded Castiel of sorrow and regret. It wasn’t a feeling often shared by his brothers. He suspected, perhaps, that it had come from inside the staff itself. Could the power inside have gained sentience? Castiel had never heard of such a thing.

Dean sighed, watched the green glow of the staff for a moment, then let the determined edge slide out of his shoulders. His chin still stuck out stubbornly when he looked back at Castiel. “I’m not Bonding with you. I don’t care what anyone says. But… since you’re here and you saved my ass you might as well stay awhile. Chivalry ain’t so much dead as it is sleeping.” He tilted his head toward the staff – curious – then started down one of the narrow staircases along the battlement that Castiel assumed led into the darkness of the castle.

When Castiel didn’t immediately follow Dean sighed and tapped the staff three times on the stone wall. A ripple of dark green energy pulsed along the brickwork. The soles of Castiel’s boots tingled and his chest felt empty for the briefest of seconds, like he’d eaten something too spicy, but it faded with the pulse of magic.

Dean tilted his head toward the stairs in invitation. A fine sheen of sweat on his forehead gleamed in the pale sunlight. “Come on if you’re coming. We’ve got bread and… well, bread. So that’ll have to do if you didn’t bring your own rations.”

“Thank you, but no. I don’t need food.”

Dean sent a sly look over his shoulder, mouth quirking into a grin. “Me neither. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want it all the same.”

+++

Castiel hadn’t lied to Dean; he truly didn’t need to eat, not while the combined strength of the Arches and his brethren flowed through him. He didn’t need to rest much, either, but still he allowed himself to be deposited in a small guest room and left to his own devices for the remainder of the afternoon all the same. The Arches chafed at his imposed stillness but Castiel assured them that Dean simply needed time to think about their proposal. He was unsure about a lot of things regarding the man, but he knew with every ounce of certainty he possessed that there was nothing to be gained from forcing the issue. Stubbornness bled out of Dean Winchester like someone’d opened an artery straight to his heart.

Castiel had planned to pass the time by meditating and seeking communion with his brothers. But the distance made the pull of other thoughts sluggish and the Arches refused any attempt to join in the quiet stillness he usually preferred with them. (Was sulking a sin? Surely the Arches were above something so petty. They must have been busy elsewhere instead.)

It was quiet in the castle, save for the low moan of the draft through the stones by the window. It sent the moth-eaten carpets hanging on the walls fluttering. Castiel counted his heartbeats.

Surely there should have been someone maintaining the rooms of the castle? Some servant or valet? But Winchester – Dean - had implied that this room was the best he had to offer. Was this a kind of passive punishment for Castiel’s presence and the Arches demands? Perhaps the staff were in another part of the castle, instructed to leave the stranger to himself. He was sure they had to be somewhere; such a large home should never be silent.

(As the sun fell behind the curtains there weren’t any birdsongs welcoming the night, or insects waking up to darkness. No crackle of fire in far away hearths.)

Dean hadn’t told him not the leave the room. Castiel wasn’t a prisoner, after all. The Arches’ irritation itched along his nerves, anyway.

The halls were old and completely empty; not even a rat scurrying away in the dark. The oil in the lamps were dried and flaky; if not for the natural glow of his magic Castiel was quite sure he wouldn’t be able to see a thing. He had to force some of the doors open to continue on his way, the squeal of rusty hinges almost frighteningly loud. His robe left a trail in the dust behind him, wiping away the footprints he was no doubt leaving.

So many empty rooms.

One in particular seemed to be the veteran of some ancient disaster. It may have once been something grand, but now chunks of stone and rubble had been knocked from the walls and left to gather dust. The tapestries had fallen and left crumpled, their colorful designs lost to time and strange dark stains. A great stone chair still sat proudly as the focal point of the room – carved with symbols and seals Castiel had seen mirrored on Dean’s own clothing – but even it wasn’t immune to the same destructive neglect as the rest of the castle; an entire corner of the throne was missing, lost to the violence of time.

A smell pricked at his nose not too far away from the throne room, faint and frustratingly familiar. Castiel followed it down to the very heart of the castle, the air growing slightly warmer as he went. The closed doors he passed were heavy with spells for stasis and plenty, common things in every pantry to ward of rot and vermin. Their hold on the walls were very strong, though, stronger even than those of the Arches hoard. They could have keep the food inside safe to eat for years.

There was something comforting about a kitchen, even an unfamiliar one. Castiel had always found himself drawn to his own. Perhaps it was the warmth of the cooking fire or that everyone there was far too busy to care about the soldier hiding in the corner, but he’d spent more time in the vast kitchens of his peoples’ crystalline home than in his own private quarters. He used to justify it to his superiors that there was always enough light to read there, even at night, but he knew in his heart that was just an excuse.

The smell of baking drew Castiel onward into the darkness, his steps quickening until he came through the doors at an almost jog. His smile rose easy and soft for the servants no doubt hard at work despite the late hour. Instead…

Oh, Arches protect him. He reached out blindly for the doorframe, knees suddenly weak.

Instead of the gaggle of servants Castiel is confronted by the king himself, stripped down to just an undershirt and thin trousers, his face flush and pink as he fished piping hot loaves out of the oven with a long wooden pole. He flicked them onto a rack to cool with the ease of long practice, the motion of his body smooth. Castiel spied small patches of sweat between his broad shoulders. The dark shirt was just starting to stick to the skin of his lower back.

Castiel forced a swallow through his suddenly dry throat, the urge to taste Dean with his mouth returning full force. It had been a very strange day, indeed.

Dean grunted when he saw Castiel standing dumb in the doorway. “The hell are you doing here?” Castiel thought someone of Dean’s social class would have been mortified to be caught working a peasant’s job, but he didn’t seem anything but mildly interested.

“I, uh. I was curious. And it was quiet. So I went exploring.”

“Uh huh. Find anything interesting?”

Castiel’s eyes traveled down the length of Dean’s body before he could stop himself. The ovens were very warm, and Dean’s skin looked very golden in the red light. And the muscles in his arms – was the bread especially heavy? Did he absolutely need to flex that way?

Dean laughed and shook his head, flipping the last loaf onto the rack and setting the pole aside. He swung the oven door shut and stood there staring at Castiel for a moment. As embarrassing as his reaction was, Castiel was surprised to see actual pleasure on Dean’s face for the first time since his arrival. There were laugh-lines at the corners of his eyes, and finer hints of age Castiel hadn’t noticed upon the battlement.

Dean shook his head again and nodded to the back of the room. When Castiel didn’t immediately follow he turned and looked over his shoulder. “Come on in, Cas, I’m not gonna bite. You look like you’re hungry.”

Castiel swallowed around the lump in his throat and forced himself inside. Dean was opening a small cabinet and removing – Oh. Bread. (Castiel felt the blood rush to his cheeks again. Honestly, what had he been expecting?) It was a small loaf wrapped in cloth, not as flat as the ones cooling on the racks behind them. The crust had a disturbingly red tinge.

Castiel raised his eyebrow.

Dean laughed again and Castiel felt the warm glow of the hearth settle in his stomach. “Go on. Try it.”

The loaf tore apart easily despite the slightly sticky crust. The inside was springy and just as pink as the outside. But the smell of it was so strong – flour and herbs and home – that Castiel pushed his nose against the crumb and closed his eyes on the inhale. The taste of it was a revelation; sweet, and so soft. It practically melted in his mouth. He chewed as slowly as he could to savor the sensation.

Dean was watching him with soft eyes when Castiel finally swallowed, the corner of his mouth curving upward. “Good, huh? Tomato bread, our old cook’s recipe. The secret’s in the basil and the honey, with a little dab of sugar on top.”

Castiel pulled apart another piece and let it dissolve a little on his tongue before chewing. “Where is she? Where are all your servants? Surely a king has better things to do than baking bread?”

Dean shook his head a little and took a breath, like he was shaking unfair thoughts from his head. “Other things, yes. Not so sure they’re better.” He shut the cabinet tight and wandered back to the stove, touching the door with his palm so a ripple of energy pulsed over the latch - a stasis spell to keep the fire burning. He spoke to the heat of the fire within. “Ellen died years ago. Even kings learn to cook if there’s no one left to do it for them.”

Castiel sighed, mournful of his blunder, and let the mystery of the castle fade into the background of his thoughts. Instead he ripped the remaining sweet loaf in two, offering the slightly larger piece across the space between them. And continued to hold it there when Dean refused to acknowledge it.

Dean bowed his head after a moment, then huffed out a breath before grabbing the bread and taking a large bite.

They chewed in silence for awhile. When every crumb was gone Dean settled the dusty robe around his shoulders, nodded politely to Castiel, and disappeared into the darkness beyond the kitchen. Castiel took the lingering smell of bread and the memory of a laugh with him when he returned to his lonely bed.

+++

Castiel made it through the night, surprising himself by drifting off to sleep while counting the holes in the tapestries lining the walls (sixty-five, and less than he’d thought). He woke to the ire of the Arches plucking at his brain and the halo buzzing against his forehead. They would wait no longer.

After searching through the kitchens and even the abandoned throne room, Castiel found Dean on a battlement on the opposite side of the castle from the day before, adjusting the ties of a large and lumpy canvas sack. His staff is leaning carefully on the parapet next to him and his clothing is clean but firmly fastened. He was going traveling somewhere.

“King Winchester. We have given you time to consider-“

“And I still am. But I can guarantee you the answer’s gonna be no you keep asking in that tone of voice. I’ve got other things to worry about right now.”

“What could be more important than-”

None of your business, I said. Now leave it alone.” Compined with the angle of his chin and the hardness of his eyes, the tone of voice left little doubt that Dean wasn’t someone to be trifled with. For the first time he truly looked like a king. “I’ll give you my answer when I’m good and ready and not until then. Now give Castiel back and leave me alone; he’s more entertaining than you are.”

Castiel felt his mouth curl into a snarl and the Arches awareness snap out of his mind with a swiftness that left him dizzy. The Arches had actually done what Dean had told them to do. That was… unprecedented.

Dean, unaware of the mountainous and impossible task he’d just accomplished, went back to securing the sack and muttering curses under his breath.

Castiel blinked dumbly into the sunrise for a moment before realizing there was another gate below them – this one just as heavily warded as the other – and that a small dirt road trailed away from it and towards a small cluster of shapes far in the distance. It was decidedly less ominous than the disturbance on the other side of the horizon but Castiel was still leery of letting Dean out of his sight.

He straightened his shoulders and raised his head, mimicking Dean’s own posture from moments before. “If you’re going away from the safety of the wards I should come with you. The creatures from yesterday may not have been alone.”

“Demons, Cas, they’re called demons. And they’re never alone.” He looked up at Castiel’s confused frown. “You telling me you honestly don’t know about them? Isn’t that why your stupid Arches sent you in the first place?”

Castiel isn’t sure how to respond to that. He was given his orders and the boost of power that allowed him to travel here, but no one had offered an explanation as to why.

His brothers remained pointedly silent through their connection.

Dean was watching him again, frowning himself this time. “You didn’t actually know what was going on yesterday, did you? You just jumped into the fight and saved my ass.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Demons are dangerous, Cas. They’re strong and ruthless and enjoy causing pain and chaos everywhere they go.”

Castiel nodded. “All the more reason for me to come with you. If we’re going to initiate a Bond then this will be my problem, too.” He didn’t bother pointing out that Dean himself had almost fallen under an attack just the day before. He was fairly certain Dean was thinking that exact thing anyway.

Dean shook his head and huffed out another curse under his breath. Then he nodded toward Castiel. “You gonna use your mage superpowers to keep that clean then? This ain’t a joyride, moonbeam. If you’re coming you’re gonna have to-“

Castiel looked down to where the hem of his long robe was already turning brown from all the dust. Then he let his power flow through him for a moment – his own limited ability, not the awesome might of his brethren banded together, but sufficient enough to get his point across. The wind rose around him and billowed his robe free of the dirt, light shining through and lifting him a few feet from the ground.

“I’m fine on my own, thanks,” he smirked, the reflection of his shine huge in Dean’s green, green eyes. “And how were you planning to leave the castle then? Jump? Those wards haven’t come down in years.”

Dean grinned and hefted the bag onto his shoulder with a grunt. “Cocky little shit, aren’t you?” The staff thwacked into his palm, his eyes closed in concentration, and – with no warning or cause at all – the earth opened under his feet and swallowed him whole.

Castiel clutched his chest, sinking until his feet took his weight again. The hollow feeling was back; it was making it difficult to breathe properly. But he could also feel Dean, somehow, body merging forgotten and comfortable among the stones of his castle. Then he was moving, quickly gaining speed, an invisible force burrowing its way through the earth to some unknown destination.

Castiel would not be left behind.

Flying as quickly as he could without drawing too heavily from his brothers, it was still some time and several miles before Castiel spied Dean rising from the dirt. He’d curled over himself, gasping and sweaty, and had to lean against Castiel for a moment before his legs would support him. It was worrisome and strange; the toll of working magic could be high but this was something beyond even Castiel’s understanding of it. Dean’s magic seemed effortless one moment and debilitating the next. Another point in the mystery.

The distant shapes Castiel had noticed turned out to be the remnants of a village, a poor and ramshackle thing clinging to the very edge of existence. Some of the buildings may once have been sturdy, even beautiful, but those days were clearly long past. The same might have been said for the people watching them make their slow path along the main road, hiding behind windows and in the mouths of alleys. None dared make eye contact with either Dean or Castiel, and the few children he could see were clutched tightly behind their trembling parents.

Dean stopped in the center of town, climbing atop what must’ve been a fountain in the middle of a wide square – now dried and cracking – and let the heavy sack fall from his shoulders. He looked around, cleared his throat, scratched the back of his neck. These people, Castiel realized, made him nervous. But he also obviously expected something to happen. Did he expect these poor urchins to pay him taxes, or some other tithe just because he was their king? These people?

A woman broke away from the gathering crowd and bowed to him, her joints creaking. She was old, but it was impossible for Castiel to gauge her accurately through the decaying layers of her dress. Dean raised his hand - to help her, Castiel was sure – but the gesture stuttered when she flinched away from him. She did something with her hands Castiel couldn’t see from his position on the far side of the plaza and the color left Dean’s face. He swallowed and straightened his back, every inch the king Castiel knew he could be, then offered her something from inside the canvas sack.

Bread. Flat and brown, dotted sparingly with herbs or a rough nut of wheat, the loaf was made of hardier things than the one he and Dean had shared the night before. It would probably be enough to feed the woman for a few days, maybe a week if she rationed it carefully.

The woman took the loaf with shaking hands, gestured again, and backed away into the crowd. Soon a man took her place, then another, until one by one the twenty or so people crowded around Dean with their hands in the air, grabbing at every loaf Dean could provide.

None of them spoke or dared meet his eyes. And each one made the same gesture as the woman before coming close; Castiel could see it now, and recognized a protective ward when he saw one. They believed Dean – the breath caught in Castiel’s throat, a pain growing slowly behind his eyes and in his heart – Dean’s own people believed him to be monstrous. Evil.

It was a wonder that their fear would even let them accept the bread at all, that he and Dean weren’t stoned within yards of the village. But then Castiel felt a great shame come upon him; of course they would accept the food. He’d flown over no farms or crops of any sort on the journey there, though there was certainly space set aside for them. And there were no livestock roaming around or chickens getting underfoot. Not even a rogue dog wandering the streets.

Castiel watched Dean carefully not touch any of the villagers. He supposed that when people were desperate enough it didn’t matter where the help came from, only that it came.

After the last person was slowly backing away, bread clutched tightly to their chest, Dean made a circuit of the alleys and buildings along the edge of the square, offering a kind word and soft rolls to the townsfolk too weak or sick to join the others at the fountain. When even that was done, Dean flung the empty sack over his shoulder and began walking back the way they’d come. He slowed when he passed by Castiel’s hiding spot but did not look his way when he joined him on the road. They continued on alone and unchallenged, side by side down the dry and unused road leading back to the castle.

It felt strange being so out in the open, without even a tree or a bush to hide their location should an enemy demon come spying for them. Flying would have been safer… but Dean was pale and shaking and Castiel didn’t dare suggest putting anymore strain on him than was already there.

They walk in silence for a long while, shoulders brushing, robes and boots leaving tracks behind them. Eventually Dean cleared his throat. “I know you saw back there, what they did. It’s not their fault, Cas. they don’t mean to be cruel, they’re just… hungry. And tired. They’ve been like that for a long time.”

Castiel glanced over his shoulder at the town slowly fading in the distance. What must it have been like, he wondered, to live huddled so near the high walls of Winchester Castle with fields of green and plenty growing over the vastness? Surely there must have been green here once. Surely there was more green now than the shade of Dean’s eyes.

“You have a very unforgiving land, Dean. I admit it’s not what I expected.” Castiel was coming to suspect that the world itself was very different than he’d thought it was. (He waited for the halo to burn or tingle with disapproval but there was only a distant hum in the back of his mind, the Arches still distant and disinterested.)

“You’re always welcome to leave, you know. Nothing’s keeping you here.”

Castiel just frowned and kept walking. For a smart man Dean could be insufferably stupid sometimes. “My home is a very isolated place. As a child I used to sit in the courtyard garden and imagine that’s what the world was like outside the walls. Green and soft and growing.” He kicked a rock out of his way, watching it bounce down the road ahead of them. “Obviously I was wrong.”

Dean grew quiet again, watching the dust turn his shoes and the bottom of his robe a rusty brown, staff tapping quietly with every step. Then he took a breath and let it out with a sigh. “It used to be like that, before my mother was… when she was queen. Nothing’s been the same since she died. Now all that’s left is me and the rocks and the fire burning inside them.”

If Castiel was ever going to ask… Yes. It had to be now. “Dean. What happened here? Why is your kingdom the way it is?”

Dean’s answer was so long coming Castiel thought for sure he’d offended him into silence. But when he does finally speak his voice was soft, a whisper almost lost to the shuffle of their feet. “Years ago all the trade routes started disappearing, one by one so no one would notice right away. Landslides covered the passes, bandits put everything in a chokehold, ships just stopped coming. Then the demons started attacking and…” He shrugged. “The people started disappearing, too. Some left on their own. Some my dad kicked out of the kingdom, said they were lucky exile was all they were getting if they couldn’t keep their queen from being burned alive in her own nursery. The demons took everyone else.”

Dean leaned heavily on his staff, the dark wood of it leaving deep holes in the dirt. “My brother was the last to be taken from the castle. They wanted him so badly, Cas, I don’t know why. But I couldn’t let them have him, you know? I couldn’t… I had to make myself stronger to save him. To take back what I could. Then everything started drying up. Dying.” He shook his head, eyes seeing something far away. “I saved what I could.”

His brother? Castiel didn’t recall hearing anything at all about a second Winchester.

A beam of weak sunlight glittered through the amber orb of Dean’s staff, prisms flowing dreamlike over the drab colors of the road. Castiel squinted when one got in his eyes.

Dean laughed, the pain lingering in his features momentarily forgotten. He twirled the staff until the light bounced off rocks and craters and his own face. “I’m sorry, you want to add your side of the story, too? Go ahead, princess, we’re all ears. Oh, wait. All you can do is make rainbows.” He laughed again, for all the world like he was teasing his own…

Castiel wasn’t sure if it’s comprehension or growing horror making his vision blur. “Dean? Your brother…”

Dean took in his expression, his grin slowly fading away and eyes shuttering. The staff spun to a halt in this hands, the smooth wood rasping against hardened skin of his palms. He stopped walking and raised his chin. It was the same air he wore when the woman approached him in the village.

“Yes. I couldn’t bear to let them have my brother so I stole his soul away.” He nodded at the staff, whose light was contained inside the orb once more. “Castiel meet Samuel Winchester, Prince of Campbell, second in line to the throne of Winchester.”

Castiel blinked and some of the blurriness went away. Distantly he realized he might have been crying.

Dean shuffled his feet in the dirt, looking away to squint into the low hanging sun. “It’s just his soul, Cas. It’s not… He might not like it but he’s safe now. It’s better than if I’d left him in his body, okay?”

“His body?” Castiel just shook his head, feeling adrift.

When Dean finally looked back at him his shoulders sank even further. “Fuck, Cas. Don’t you get it? Where’d you think the demons come from in the first place? In a week’s time half that village back there will be black-eyed and after my blood.”

And with that Dean tapped the staff on the ground – his brother, it’s holding his brother – and let the earth take him the last few miles to the castle walls.

+++

He didn’t actually make it all the way. Castiel found him struggling to breathe at the top of the spiral staircase leading down from the battlement, his white knuckled grip on the staff the only thing keeping him upright.

Castiel carefully – but forcefully – lowered Dean to the floor, watching him pant and feeling the emptiness begin to grow behind his ribs. Of all the feelings pushing their way through his brain Castiel found himself more frustrated than anything else. There was so much he still didn’t know. And he needed to understand.

If the staff was the source of Dean’s magic then spreading that power to envelope and contain the pieces of his brother’s soul could account for the magic’s erratic weakness. But Dean’s physical reaction – and deterioration, though Castiel shied away from thinking about that – suggested his power was tied to him more intimately and that the staff was just a focus to channel it through. But then how was he holding onto his brother still? And how much of his brother’s consciousness was actually aware? Was he sentient?

Castiel’s mind was running in circles. He desperately wanted to ask the Arches for their wisdom but he thought (he knew) that that would only lead to more trouble. He can feel them on the edge of his thoughts as it was, sniffing like dogs on the hunt.

Dean’s shoulder shook beneath Castiel’s grip. “You should’ve let them take me, too. Should’ve just stayed away.”

“Dean. It wasn’t your fault. None of it was.”

“You don’t understand.” He grunted, leaning heavily between the wall and his staff until he was standing. Castiel’s hand fell limply against his own thigh. “The demons left us alone for years, Cas. It’s only once my magic initiated that they started raiding towns. Saving Sam was the last straw. I asked for more power and it sucked the life out of everything. Everyone’s dead because I opened the door.”

But if the demons were staying away, Castiel thought, how did they know about you in the first place? How could they –

A heavy fog rolled over Castiel’s thoughts, heaving over his body until his hearing and vision filled with the white static of communion.

The last thing he heard was the tap tap tap of Dean’s staff on the stairs.

+++

Castiel came back to himself slowly, limbs tingling as if his whole body had been asleep.

He’d never been forced into communion before, never had the Arches or his brothers drag him into the stillness he sometimes preferred. He’d seen it done, to criminals and those who disobeyed orders, but he’d never… Had he? If the Arches would do that to him when he didn’t even deserve it, would they have let him remember him doing so?

It was painful to suddenly know that someone had so much control over his actions. Castiel used to find it comforting. (Was this how Dean’s brother felt when he awoke in the staff? Or before Dean stole him away?) The halo buzzed and Castiel rubbed the skin on his forehead underneath the main gem. It would be bruised in the morning.

The soft pain had made him look up into the sunset, though, and Castiel was alarmed to see smoke billowing on the horizon. For a heart stopping second he thought it was coming from the village but no – he was facing the opposite direction. The ominous presence lurking just out of sight had stepped forward. Demons. Several dozen, and moving closer. The wards on the gates would hold against that many but not for long. Not forever.

Anticipation curled along Castiel’s spine. You must Bond with Winchester. It is the only way you’ll be strong enough to save him.

Castiel tore down the steps, bumping into the rounded walls until his legs regain some of their coordination. He stumbled and tripped over his long robe twice before just ripping it off his shoulders and leaving it there. He has no idea where Dean’s private quarters are but hope she knows him well enough to guess where he’d go after the disaster of an afternoon.

The hallway leading to the kitchen was warm as always thanks to the stasis spell on the oven, but the clatter and hum of work was absent. He almost turned away before movement caught the corner of his eye. Dean, stripped of his heavy robe and carrying a large empty bowl, stood staring into one of the pantries, his shoulders slumped.

“There’s an army of demons approaching. They’ll be here by morning.” Dean didn’t react to the news, or the panting mess Castiel was sure that he made. He just sighed and let his head fall back, exposing the long glean of his neck above the high collar. “Dean? Did you hear me?”

“We’re out of flour.”

“What?” Castiel moved closer until he could see over Dean’s shoulder. The room was empty of anything even vaguely resembling provisions. Flat and useless bags took up an entire corner.

Dean tipped his head toward the bowl in his arms. “We were out in the kitchen so I came to get some more. I knew we were running low, we’ve been out of rye and salt for months, but I thought I could make some dough anyway, maybe something with spelt or wheat but. There’s nothing. The other rooms are all like this, too. Some are worse. How’d I let this happen, Cas? I didn’t think…”

“Dean.”

“And it’s not like we can get more, you know? They were the damn farmers that gave it to me in the first place, I can’t just not take care of them. What are they gonna eat now?” Dean threw the bowl into the room where it bounced with a clang, then shoved the door closed after it. He punched it, twice, the skin of his knuckles bruising almost immediately. Then he just leaned against it, panting. “Fuck. I’m a terrible king, aren’t I?”

Suddenly it was too much for Castiel, too many blows one on top of the other. He grabbed Dean’s shoulder and spun him around so his back was pressed against the door. “Listen to me right now, Dean Winchester. You starve yourself to feed your people when they show nothing but fear of you. When they treat you like contagion to be shunned.”

It felt good to know that the anger tightening his jaw was entirely his own. He pushed Dean flat against the door again. The villagers didn’t know how lucky they were to have Dean’s love. Everyone should be so lucky. “You care more for your country than yourself. It makes you a prefect king, Dean. It makes you perfect.”

The tension bled out of Dean’s shoulders. He would have sunk to the floor if Castiel hadn’t leaned his weight forward and added the other hand to hold him up. His knuckles grazed against the soft skin of Dean’s collarbone.

“No such thing as perfection, Cas,” Dean mumbled. “You don’t know me at all. There’s nothing about me worth caring about.”

The simmering anger slid away from him, leaving a warm type of sadness in its place. (Castiel thought it may have been fondness, but he wasn’t sure.) He let his hand travel from Dean’s neck to where a few strands of hair tangled in the spires of his crown. It wasn’t metal like Cas had originally thought but some kind of rock, pocky and smooth, like pumice turned lava black. His touch lingered along the curve of Dean’s scalp and he had no desire to pull it away. “You’re wrong, Dean. I know you well enough to know that.”

Dean sighed, pushing his head against the scratch of Castiel’s straying fingers. “Thanks, Cas. But… Uh. Demons?”

The world came rushing in with an almost audible pop. “Right. There’s two dozen demons out there that have been working their way here for at least a day. You could barely withstand three and I got lucky. We need to Bond. It’s the only way we’ll be strong enough to stop them. There is no other choice.

The Arches flashed in and out of his mind so fast he barely was aware of their presence. Dean studied his face for a long few moments, then nodded, jerkily, and took a deep breath. Castiel raised both hands from his shoulders to his forehead, thumbs above each eyebrow, fingers splayed along his temple.

“Whoa whoa whoa whoa.” Dean grabbed Castiel’s wrists. “Right now? Here? Don’t you think we should, I don’t know-“

“Dean, the demons are almost literally at our doorstep. We don’t have time.”

“I get it, all right. It’s just…” Dean bit his lip, cheeks growing even pinker than usual. This close Castiel could see a smattering of freckles across his nose and over his forehead. “I’ve never done this before. I don’t want to get it wrong.”

After everything, Dean was nervous about initiating a Bond, one of the simplest spells a mage could perform. The warmth of fondness tickled in Castiel’s chest again. “It’s simple. Just do what I do and leave yourself open to reception. After a few moments it will become instinctual.” Castiel returned his hands to Dean’s head, fingers tugging gently through the soft hair until Dean raised his own. His nails were thick, sharper than Castiel would have imagined, but he sighed at the contact all the same. One of his long, square fingers had to push underneath the halo to reach his skin. Castiel sighed and leaned into the touch.

Then he shook himself. This was serious. “All right, Dean. Do exactly as I do. And try to relax.” He leaned forward and titled his head so they were looking eye to eye, noses brushing together with every breath. Castiel inhaled deeply - once, twice - pleased to see Dean do the same. When they were breathing mostly in tandem he reached out to the power living under his skin. It thrummed under his attention, anxious for release. The magic rose inside him, brimming with radiance until it burst out of his skin, arcing like lightning toward the green blooming in Dean’s eyes.

His voice came from a great distance somewhere outside himself, the same lines recited at his initiation with the Arches, and he found he meant every word. “I, Castiel Novak Emmanuel of the northern mountains, soldier and servant of the High Arch Mages, offer and open myself to you, with the hope that you will accept and share in my strength. My heart and my will are yours to use as you will.”

He could feel Dean next to him, cautious and hopeful. His magic flowed out and around Castiel, powerful and hot like magma. It pulled in every one of Castiel’s sparks until he gasped with it, consumed and shared.

“I, Dean Winchester, king and rightful ruler of the western lands, son of John and Mary, brother to Samuel, offer and open myself to you, with the hope that you will accept and share in my strength.” He swallowed. “My heart and my will are yours to use as you will.”

Castiel stroked his thumb back and forth, gently. “Do you accept my offer?”

“Yes. Do you accept my offer?”

“Yes.”

For a moment – a brief, infinitesimal moment in time – they were one being, living and breathing as one. There were no thoughts between them. No secrets. Just the closeness of union.

Then a storm blew into Dean from behind Castiel’s eyes and set fire to everything it touched along the way.

The Arches brushed Castiel aside from his own mind as if he were a peel separated from overripe fruit, nothing more than unnecessary packaging. He writhed against their hold, biting and scratching, sending bursts of power across the connection between them, all the while feeling them overtake Dean, his trembling consciousness growing fainter and fainter. The Bond trembled, grown bulbous and taunt with the influx of the Arches own magic. Dean was so very afraid.

Cas?

Castiel was blown backward, shocked into the confines of his own body when it landed hard against the stone floor. His mind felt like it was bleeding. Everything swelled, screaming – the light brightened until it hurt to look – Dean hung stiff against the door, body trembling – silence – glowing so brightly Castiel could see his insides, not a hint of green, not anymore –

The halo made a sound like breaking glass as it rolled down the hall, rolling off the cracked stones and disappearing into the darkness. Castiel hadn’t been aware he was throwing it until it’d already left his hands.

Dean slumped against the opposite wall, veins glowing red for another moment before slowly fading.

It was very quiet. Castiel felt the light shining from within him dim until the corridor was dark and threatening as a cave.

It was quiet.

+++

Dean was up and moving within moments of the corrupted Bonding, the lines around his eyes deeper with exhaustion despite the way he bounced from thought to thought and practically crackled with energy. Castiel needed some time to sort his thoughts. He left Dean pacing the corridors, muttering to himself about war rooms and strategy and “fucking demons and warlocks and shit”.

He wouldn’t meet Castiel’s eyes. He thought, perhaps, it was because Dean felt ashamed. Or it could have been because Castiel had just allowed a powerful coven of Arch Mages access to his body and soul. Either one was likely.

Castiel wandered the dark halls, fingers touching the walls to guide himself away from Dean. There were cracks he hadn’t noticed before, hairline and otherwise, spiraling along the brickwork in a web of trauma. The grit under his shoes suggested it was new.

His feet led him to the vast central room, the farthest he could get from the kitchens without coming back again, and he collapsed on the floor beside the broken throne. Castiel had scooped up the halo from its resting place against a chair leg along the way. The metal was duller than he remembered, the once clear jewels gone cloudy and opaque.

Castiel never understood why people were afraid of the dark before. He did now.

The halo had been a gift from the Arches, a symbol of their gratitude when he’d opened himself to their service after his power had initiated as a child. He hadn’t taken it off since the High Mage placed it there with his blessing. They’d been so proud of him. So he was proud, too.

He’d been a fool. A stupid, willful fool.

“Those demons are getting awfully close out there.”

Castiel hadn’t noticed Dean followed him until he’d settled into the throne itself with a sigh, flinging his leg over the armrest as if sitting in it like a normal king was beyond him. Castiel smiled despite himself and waved away the cloud of dust that puffed out around them.

Dean looked pale and waxy in the little light Castiel was able to provide. The spires of his crown had somehow grown less sharp intimidating, almost hidden by the tips of his hair. Castiel noticed for the first time that his ears were pointy. He found them oddly charming.

They sat quietly in the throne room for awhile, Castiel brooding about the desolation that’d become of their respective lives, Dean picking debris out of his signet ring. When it came, Dean’s quiet and raspy voice echoed through the empty space.

“My parents were Bonded when the demons killed her. Dad was never the same after. He never talked about it but I knew he felt her die. Some said it drove him mad, forced him into waging a war he had no chance of winning. Made him obsessed with revenge.” Castiel risked a glance over his shoulder, though he needn’t have worried; Dean was staring at the ring, fingers stroking idly over the emerald inlay. “My father wasn’t mad, Castiel, he wasn’t. But I can tell you that he wasn’t happy a day in his life after Mom left us. He’d smile, even laugh if the mood was right, but there was always something heavy in his eyes.” Dean finally met Castiel’s stare, his own eyes pale and shadowed in the darkness. “Bonds are dangerous, Cas. I shouldn’t have let you do that.”

Castiel frowned. “It wasn’t the Bond that failed, Dean. It – I –“ Words have never deserted him so completely. He almost wished for the Arches to speak through him again. “That was not our fault. Surely you felt how right it was in the beginning. What do you think just happened?”

“We said the words, did the spell. I felt you in me –“ Dean cleared his throat and shuffled in his seat, high spots of color blooming on his cheeks. “I mean, your presence or whatever, not. Anyway. Uh... Then it got all stretched out and bright and hurt a lot.”

Castiel’s frown grew deeper. “Stretched out?”

“Yeah, but not like normal stretched. Like, like something was in me and pushing out. Like I was a riverbed being dried out by the sun but way too quickly. Parched. And forced wider. I’m not explaining this very well, am I?”

“No. What do you mean normal stretched?”

“Like. Normal stretched. When I’m in the earth.” Dean said it like Castiel should already know what he was talking about. “I’m king, Cas. I hold the responsibilities for this world. Or this part of it, anyway. I’m connected to it, every ruler is. I stretch out through the ground, feel what it feels. It’s sick most of the time, angry or quiet. But it’s there. I suppose it’s hard to understand.”

“It sounds like communion with my brothers.”

Communion. Dean was speaking like he communed with the earth. Like he was Bonded to it.

Pieces of the mystery Castiel had nearly forgotten about were sliding into place, the puzzle Castiel had been worrying over finally coming into view. How could Castiel have been so blind? Dean’s magic, the demons, the Arches, all of it was part of something bigger. But he had to be sure

“Dean, I know this will be difficult but I need you to be honest with me now. How exactly was your mother killed?”

“Demons snuck into the nursery and lit the whole thing on fire. Mom fought but there wasn’t anything she could do.” He shrugged, a world of youthful pain dismissed in the gesture.

“You were there?”

“Yeah.” Dean rolled his long sleeve passed his elbow to show a shiny patch of scar tissue along his left forearm. He tugged it quickly back over his knuckle, worrying the trim. “By the time it was too late the entire castle was on high alert. Someone gave me baby Sammy and I ran.”

“But you said the demons didn’t start hurting people until you initiated.” Surely Dean would have been too old to still be in nursery then.

“I was an early bloomer. Literally.” Dean smiled wryly, holding out his palm. A small leafy frond grew out of his lifeline and curled around his wrist. It was yellowish and shriveled away to nothing after a few seconds, but it was still a marvel. Castiel’s chest ached. “Flowers and grass and shit starting following me around after my fourth birthday. The first person in my family that’d happened to in ages. They grew on everything, even out of the rocks in the walls. Embarrassing as hell at first but thankfully I figured out how to control it before too long. After that it didn’t really seem worth worrying about.”

“Because your kingdom became a demon ravaged nightmare.”

“Yeah, Cas, that was the reason. Thank you for pointing that out. I’ve never made the connection before.”

“No, Dean, don’t you see?” He shifted onto his knees so he was facing Dean, leaning over the arm of the throne in the excitement of discovery. His mind was busy for the first time since he’d torn off the halo. “It’s you. It’s been you all along. I've never felt magic like yours before. It doesn't exist inside you like mine does. It’s more like... you're just a vessel for the power, pulling it from other places. The earth. Me.” It was only as he said it that he realized how much it made sense. The hollow feeling in Castiel’s chest only happened after Dean had been forced to use his magic. Dean must have already been drawing from him, too. “Your power is the key. It must have been passed down through the entire royal line, protected for generations. Your parents probably had it; your brother, too. That’s why they wanted him – to steal that ability for themselves.”

Dean stared at the staff propped against the side of the throne, carefully running a blackened nail along the wood. The amber orb remained dull in the weak light, whatever left of the man inside remaining silent. “Oh, Sammy. I’m so sorry.”

It was remorse that sunk Dean’s shoulders and left him leaning heavily against the throne. He believed Castiel, had perhaps seen the mystery of his kingdom for himself but was never able to complete the connection. Then why was he…

“Dean, you shouldn’t feel guilty. It was your choice to send your brother into the staff but the demons forced your hand. None of this was your fault.”

“No, Cas!” Dean was suddenly shaking and on his feet. “According to you the demons only attacked after they knew what I could do and how I did it. And it was because of them I took on more power than I should have and killed the land without even trying. I’m poison. How is any of this not my fault?”

“Oh, Dean. You didn’t mean to.” Castiel had to have been missing something, something that would convince Dean... “But how did the demons know about you in the first place? Could there have been spies among the court?”

“Not likely. My dad went through a real witch hunt after Mom died, ferreted out anyone who wasn’t one hundred percent loyal. If there was a demon sympathizer around he would have found them.”

Castiel expected as much. It would have been too simple. But the other option… that was too impossible. “Years ago, when the mountains were still new and the Arches just risen to the Light, there was a – mutiny, I suppose. Beings turned to darkness.” Castiel had never thought of it that way before, never as a mutiny. The stories whispered among children and quashed before their endings were told had always called it an uprising. Had painted the Arches as heroes without placing the damning thought of rebellion in anyone’s mind. If they were true… “The Arches pushed the radicals out into the world and sealed the gates shut behind them. It’s why we live in seclusion.”

But they must’ve been keeping an eye on them. Must have had a reason for sending Castiel to the aid of a kingdom so far beyond their borders no one ever spoke of it.

Castiel was so caught up in his wonderings that Dean’s voice startles him. “Beings of darkness. You mean the demons, don’t you?”

“I think so. The Arches must have done something to them as punishment, or started the process and then forced them into exile and out of communion. And then continued to use them like pawns to cultivate damage and fear. To control the outside world without exposing themselves to the danger of it.” And to eventually tear apart the land until a king was desperate to align himself with their puppet.

“But…why? If these guys are so all-powerful then why the scheming? Why the years of planning?”

There was only one thing that made sense. Why hadn’t Castiel seen it before now? “Their powers are failing. The only way they can keep their stronghold on the other mages is if they use you to take the power out of everything else.”

“Fuck. So what are we gonna do about it?”

Castiel truly had no idea.

Dean cried out and clutched his stomach just as a pulse of energy surged through the stone under their feet and up to the rafters, sending a cloud of dust down onto their heads. It was vicious and dark and clearly pained Dean more than he let on. His connection to the earth must be sorely rejecting whatever was happening to it on the other side.

Someone was knocking on the castle’s wards and testing for weak spots. The demons had arrived.

+++

Dean and Castiel stormed up to the battlement to find the small army a mere hundred feet from the wall, for all appearances settling in for a long siege. Or a very comfortable short one. (The village was on the far side of the advancing horde, though Castiel wasn’t naive enough anymore to think that would spare the people there if he and Dean didn’t stop the demons first.) There was a crumbly feeling in the air. An expectation.

The shine of communion was hazy over them all, the light of it clear now that Castiel could study them more closely. After Castiel severed his connection to them the Arches must have turned to the thin strands of truce they’d established with the demons. It would make them more powerful. More desperate. It was an advantage they did not need.

The demons were winding up some kind of weapon though Castiel had never seen anything like it before. It pounded the barren ground, sending a shockwave of ugly force toward them. The wards trembled and Dean was nearly left on his knees.

Castiel may have forced himself earthbound by rejecting his brothers, but he was far from helpless. And he’d be damned before he let them have Dean.

He tucked Dean back into the safety of the spiral stairwell, rubbing at his arms and hands until he roused enough to open his eyes. “Dean,” Castiel said, very clearly so he’d be sure to understand. “We need to Bond again.”

Dean was already shaking his head before Castiel had even finished his sentence. “No. I’ll hurt you. I’ll suck you dry without meaning to. I-“

“No, Dean, listen to me. It won’t be like before. It won’t hurt. It’ll just be the two of us. No Arches, no demons, just us. I’ll be there to keep you safe. This time I’ll know what to look for and so will you. We’ll be able to guide each other, Dean. Your strength. My knowledge. We can beat this. But I need you with me now.” He cupped Dean’s face in his hands, gently, and tried uselessly to swallow back the emotion seeing so much fear and pain on Dean’s face caused him. “I believe in you, Dean. Please say you believe in me, too.”

Dean looked deep into Castiel’s eyes for a moment, a single tear spilling down his pink cheek. “I trust you, Cas. I do.”

Castiel sighed, unbearable fondness pearling up from the depths of his chest. Another pulse shuddered through the wards and he pulled Dean close quickly, muffling his shout with his mouth (honeysuckle, his lips tasted like flowers in the spring) until the trembling faded. Their foreheads touched and Castiel stroked the thin skin of Dean’s temple with his thumbs.

“Let’s keep it simple this time, all right? Just… try to relax. I, Castiel, offer and open myself to you, with the hope you will accept and share in my strength. My heart and my will are yours.”

He couldn’t see it, but Castiel could tell that Dean was smiling, a spark of light dancing between them in the dark. “I, Dean Winchester, offer and open myself to you, Castiel, with the hope that you will accept my dumb and worthless ass. My heart is already yours, though my will can be somewhat stubborn.”

Castiel gasped as Dean blossomed beneath him, throwing the confines of himself as wide as possible. Castiel fell inward and let himself be consumed.

Do you accept?

Yes.

Yes.

The Bond arced between them, like lightning, like growth. Something new created from something broken.

Castiel let himself float there whole and happy until a presence poked him in the back of his mind. Cas? This is nice and all, and I’d really like to try this sometime without our clothes and an army of demons in the way, but we have other things to worry about right now.

The walls shook with another pulse; this time Castiel felt it in his bones, a jarring shriek from the very earth itself. Dean was trembling around him, showing him how to read the fissures growing below the grounds crust. The wards were tied directly to them and the demons were almost through. They were running out of time.

+++

Castiel had an inkling of how powerful Dean could become once he learned the actual nature and origin of his magic, if only Dean would allow himself to do so. Over the span of a few mere decades he’d drained the earth itself until there was nothing left but ashes and rock. With a stable enough power source Dean could be capable of anything.

Castiel wouldn’t exactly call himself stable anymore, but he was certainly willing to pretend for awhile.

Dean traveled through the earth to rise out of the empty field behind the demon army, soothing as much of the damage as he could along the way. Castiel remained on the battlement, using the high ground to hurl blinding bolts through the demons to direct Dean’s attack.

And what an attack it was. The staff whirled and blast with all the fierceness of a forest fire, the tickling remnants of (Sam, oh hello Sam) burning and smiting with a violence to rival Dean’s own and aiding his own strength to the battle. They were stronger together, all of them.

And together they decimated the demon army, burning them out with a magic so brilliant it turned the night into day.

+++

Castiel doesn’t remember succumbing to the exhaustion riddling his bones, but he was fairly certain it was sometime after Dean rejoined him on the wall and collapsed at his feet. The light glinting from Sam-in-the-Staff winked at him, then dimmed politely.

Castiel found that he liked Sam, though all his interactions with him so far have come secondhand through his Bond with Dean.

It was a new day when Castiel awoke, literally and figuratively, the sun streaming down on their little huddle under the parapet and making Dean scrunch his nose before stretching out like a cat napping on a windowsill. Castiel had never been much of a morning person but he found this soft wakening was something he wanted, Dean a grumbling warmth on the edge of his thoughts.

Eventually he stretched himself, peering out at what was left of the world around them. The evidence of the battle was still there, bodies burned to charcoal on the rocks. Castiel felt a little guilty, knowing they might have once been innocent people. But what they used to be and what they became were two very different things and until a way to rid them of the demons could be found there was nothing to do but end whatever suffering they may be in.

There was something else, too, something Castiel hadn’t been aware he’d been missing: the hint of moisture in the air, morning dew on the wind. Rain, somewhere in the distance, bringing the hope of new life.

Castiel felt Dean behind him before he was actually there, but when he turned it was to see Dean changed, too, in small ways it was hard for Castiel to classify. He held himself taller, perhaps, his eyes sparking bright and grass green in the sun. But he was worried about something, tightening his hold on his wandering thoughts before they could wander over the connection to Castiel’s, but yearning for the openness they’d shared on the battlefield.

He cleared his throat, tilting his chin and squaring his shoulders until his body language read king and not friend. “I’d like to keep the Bond, Castiel. I know it means that you’ll probably have to stay here instead of returning to the north, and that I didn’t want it at first, but I do now. I want it. You deserve to make your own decision about this, but I thought you should know.”

Castiel shook his head, allowing the exasperation he felt course plainly over them. Dean could be so infuriatingly stupid sometimes.

Dean grinned, his posture and grip on his thoughts loosening until he resembled that cat on the windowsill again, lolling in satisfaction. It made Castiel shake his head again, but this time he was smiling while he did it.

Dean shuffled closer until their shoulders bumped together. “Hey. You took your coat off. Afraid of getting your coattails muddy, after all?”

Castiel rubbed a hand through his hair, sleep-mussed and sweaty without the halo to keep everything in place. He’d lost the heavy belt and collar somewhere, too.

Dean bumped his shoulder again. “Stop that. I like it. You still shine, just less like the moon and more like the stars. Besides, bed-head’s a good look for you.”

Castiel felt heat rise to his cheeks - curse this damned blush! – and covered his face with his hands. He still heard Dean laughing, the buzz of happiness quivering through the Bond between them.

“That is no way for a king to behave, Dean.”

“’Course it is. You’ll figure that out now that you’re sharing a castle with one.” Castiel sighed and watched the sun climb slowly higher into the sky. “Speaking of, you ever think about running a kingdom of your own, Cas?”

“Why, are you offering yours?”

“Cheeky bastard.” Dean’s smirk grew wider, but Castiel sensed a hint of nervousness. “It’s just... Well, we’re Bonded now. And a king needs a companion, doesn't he? Since you’re the expert and all.”

Dean could call him cheeky all that he wanted to; Castiel was on to him now. “I am not going to be your queen.”

“But you were already wearing a crown and everything.”

“It was a halo and that is the worst proposal I have ever heard.”

Dean laughed so hard he rocked onto the heels of his feet and back again. “Oh, don’t worry. I wouldn't propose to someone like that.”

A surge of nervous daring rolled up Castiel’s spine, a flicker of warmth he couldn’t pinpoint the origin of. It made him feel dumbly brave… and perhaps a little cheeky.

He squared his own shoulders and turned until he was facing Dean. “Then how would you do it?”

Dean swallowed loud enough for Castiel to hear it, his breath gone shallow. Then he shrugged carelessly, a cocky smile tilting his mouth. It was an altogether useless ploy, though; Castiel knew what was in his heart.

“You could start by kissing me. If you were open to suggestion about the sort of proposals suitable for a monarch.”

Dean raised an eyebrow, so Castiel closed his eyes and tilted his head challengingly. Waited until he could feel Dean’s breath warm and moist against his lips as he leaned closer. He breathed out a quiet sound – a soft sort of sigh – and Castiel mimicked it without thinking, pushing himself forward until the space between them disappeared.

It was a good kiss, much better than their first. Castiel wasn’t trying to distract Dean from pain this time, for instance. And they were both actively involved, rather than stunned and shoved desperately against a wall. Involved with tongues, no less.

Dean’s hands carded through his hair, fingers hovering over the lobes of his ears, caressing the silver studs there. His own grip tightened in the fabric of Dean’s shirt, his hands having strayed completely without his permission to just above the rise of his hips. A warm breeze tickled along the back of his neck, and the smell of honey and spring growth fragrant between them.

Dean pulled away the tiniest bit, leaning their foreheads together as Castiel had done during their Bonding. “This doesn't mean I like you.”

Castiel grinned, wider than he ever remembered doing before. “Then what does it mean?”

Dean hummed and his eyes fluttered shut. Castiel glimpsed the curve of a petal along his cheek but was too distracted by their third kiss to mock him for it. Dean’s hands slipped down to Castiel’s shoulders with the smell of crushed grass.

“Stay,” he whispered, so quietly that if they hadn’t been pressed so close together Castiel doubts he would have heard it. “Please stay.”

“Of course I’m going to stay. There’s still so much to do, after all. We have to ferret out the rest of the demons and find a way to close them out for good. Your brother’s body is still missing; we should really try to get it back for him, don’t you think? Your villagers need tending to. And then there’s the Arches. We can’t just let them keep plotting away in their crystal tower, now can we?”

Dean shook his head, huffing out a teasing little laugh at Castiel attempting seriousness while they were practically wrapped around each other. Castiel caught it with his mouth and swallowed it down just before their fourth kiss. Dean’s happiness tasted like the summer sun finally rising from behind gray clouds. Or maybe Dean just tasted that way.

He really had to stop counting their kisses, the way they were going. He’d run out of numbers far too soon.

“Of course I’m going to stay.”