Gabriel was wearing an Akubra, and a t-shirt that read, “I ride my kangaroo to work every morning – ask me how!”
Castiel wasn’t sure, but thought it was probably meant to be ironic. Or possibly just irritating. It was sometimes difficult to know, with Gabriel.
It was almost a holiday. Three days, wandering leisurely up the broad white beaches along the Cape York Peninsula. Watching the sun come up over the many brilliant colours of the ocean, watching it set behind deep, soft-edged hills and the lofty umbrellas of the palms. Searching, but not for a monster (though for something perhaps more dangerous). Sometimes they flew, where there were few humans to see, skimming north with his and Gabriel’s physical wings spread to catch the updrafts where the land rose from the sea. Dean still wasn’t entirely comfortable with being carried through the air so high, even with Castiel’s arms around him, but Sam had always taken to it easily.
Now, of course, they knew why.
Mostly they walked, strolled, waited for Sam to sense that they were getting close, wandering in to fishing and tourist towns because Gabriel and Dean insisted on sampling the local ice cream cuisine and Sam needed the coffee. The further north they went, the older the Reef was, that great vibrant shoal of colour and life. Logically, their quarry would be at the heart of the oldest parts of the reef, the source of life from which it had spread all the way down the coast over the past eighteen million years.
This past hour, Castiel knew they were coming close. Gabriel was high-energy and high-speed, keeping up a running stream of chatter and mild snark in the way he did sometimes when he was trying not to think too much. It pulled Dean along with him, keeping him from slumping into that quiet defensive glower that Castiel could feel almost looming. Sam was excited, practically vibrating and trying not to show it.
Castiel found himself wanting to kiss all of them into submission and relief.
Then Sam stopped midstride, his body one long line of tension and hope, eyes fixed on a distant point out in the greens and brilliant blues of the reef. Gabriel was at his side in a moment, not even bothering to walk the ten metres back over the sand, and Castiel could see the tension in the fingers that closed hard around Sam’s wrist. Castiel reached out, seeking, feeling for that banked thrum of power somewhere out there under the waves, and yes, there. That was it.
“Dean,” he said, low.
Dean turned back, saw the little tableau, and Castiel watched the realisation and the fear mounting in his eyes for just a moment before he cleared his throat and grinned. “Way to go, Sammy.”
Castiel took a moment to miss the ease of the past few days, the way the reality of what they were doing had been, for a little while, suspended. Sam wrestling Dean down into the sand, all long tangling limbs and teeth flashing in laughter, and Dean trapping him in a headlock and rubbing seaweed into his hair. The soft weight of Gabriel’s head, still for once, resting on Castiel’s thigh. The background slough of waves, and the cheerful bickering of Winchesters. The sensation (still strange, even after several years of allowing himself to revel in human sensations and sensuality) of sand between his toes, sand in his clothes, the slippery give of rippled-wet sand under the weight of his sole, the sharp yielding dig of a broken seashell under his heel. The soft, wondering joy that crept over Gabriel’s face (as it always did, still) when Sam jogged over, grinning and happy, for no other reason but to bend down and kiss him. The sound of the gulls, and of palm cockatoos.
He came closer, and brushed his fingers gently over the nape of Sam’s neck. Sam had always been tactile in his affections and his reassurances, and appreciated the same in return.
Dean stayed where he was for a minute, shoulders stoic and bare toes curling into the hot pale sand, then rubbed his hand over his mouth and trudged back towards them. “Okay, so. Tomorrow we’re going swimming. Guess we should look into hiring the gear.”
Gabriel tipped his head against Sam’s shoulder and made a soft, curious noise, like he’d never really considered the human practicalities of this part. “Swimming?”
Sam blinked himself back into reality. “Uhm. More like diving, I think. Not like it’s going to be hanging around at surface level just to make things easy.”
“Dean needs short shorts,” Gabriel decided, with unholy glee.
Forty weeks ago.
Chamael had been the fifth archangel created – younger than Gabriel and Sariel, older than Raphael and Yrihel – and had taken on many of Lucifer’s aspects after that first cataclysmic war. He had been the Tempter, offering humans the chance to fail, giving them a chance to divide light from dark, but never falling himself. Gabriel’s task had been to deliver God’s message, be that judgement or forgiveness or joy; Chamael’s, Castiel recalled, had been one that had led him to be hailed, in some cultures and centuries, as a more implacable angel of death than Sariel, or than Death himself. At Sodom and Gomorrah, Gabriel had delivered God’s punishment in fire and salt and dust, but it had been Chamael, fresh-faced and stern and deadly-beautiful, who had offered them the chance to sin.
It was a task that brought him into closer contact with the depths of humanity than anything Michael or Raphael had ever been obliged to do, especially after the disappearances of Gabriel (sometime in the ninth century) and Sariel (in the seventeenth). Castiel had encountered the archangels rarely enough, but he remembered Chamael well: his dark fury, the ferocity with which he had protected his younger brothers, the gentle humour that had shown itself too rarely in the last few centuries. And he could not help seeing that, sometime in the nineteenth century, looking down on the wars and misery that clustered closer and closer in the world below, something had broken in the archangel. It had been visible to all the Host: his wings, once starkly black and silver with nothing of ambiguity, had begun to grow feathers in shades of every grey between.
In 1917, Chamael had left, and with him had gone Yrihel, quiet and sweet and unguessable. They had slipped away together, vanishing into the sodden mess of humanity in the red-stained mud of western Europe. Every angel had felt the moment when Chamael had torn out his grace, but Yrihel must have hidden it too cleverly for it to be found. Yrihel, the youngest archangel, had simply gone silent. Heaven had been left to Michael, the last of the Princes of the Presence, the four archangels who had once stood in the presence of God.
Chamael’s human form – his first human form, that is – was killed in a nameless trench somewhere in France. In the nine months of his mortality, he had saved three hundred and sixty-eight human lives, and he had not shot one German soldier. (He told Castiel later, in a quiet moment in a motel in Nevada, that he no longer knew how to tell whether any human was ever irredeemable, which “kind of put a damper” on spontaneous heavenly wrath.) Michael had declared him lost. Castiel had watched. Over the millenia, he and his kind had become accustomed to watching.
They did not, however, see the birth in 1918 of a child who did not remember that he had been an angel, nor his death twenty-eight years later; nor did they take note of the birth in that same year of a woman whose soul was far too old for an infant, nor of her death in 1983.
Chamael was the angel who had been obliged to become what Lucifer was meant to have been. Lucifer should never have had a natural vessel, and the appearance of one had been hailed in Heaven as a miracle that promised the End. In turning his back on Michael’s Heaven, Chamael had inadvertently helped to bring about its ultimate finale. Lucifer had had the potential to be Chamael; Chamael still had the potential to be Lucifer. It was only natural that the mind and body of Chamael’s last human incarnation should be so well matched to Lucifer that they could accommodate the Morningstar.
It was only fitting, however, that Samuel Winchester – and his human older brother – should have been the ones to thwart Michael and Lucifer’s intended end to all things. It was right (in a sense far deeper than the destiny that Michael and Lucifer claimed to perceive) that it should have been Gabriel, his angelic older brother who had preceded him to earth years ago, who snatched him back from Michael and Lucifer’s plummet into the Cage and set his feet on the solid earth again.
Sam did not remember being Chamael, all those weighty years: he chose his own path himself, and made his own way and his own life and loves. It was Sam’s strength, not the ghost of the archangel’s, that made him what he was; the soul, not the memory of grace, that had enabled him to overcome Lucifer in the end.
And when Chamael’s memories woke in the depths of Sam Winchester’s very human mind, they almost broke him.
It happened in a moment of laughter and easy laziness, all four of them “knocking back” together in the study after a long day. Comfortable domesticity had slid suddenly into high battle alert, as Sam’s peaceful, teasing mind spiralled abruptly into bright shards and pain.
The stiffening and writhing of his body, the little noises of panic as his awareness of reality vanished, were only secondary symptoms next to the state of his mind. Castiel reached out, shoved in without ceremony, meeting no resistance: Sam’s mind was turned inward, buried under an onslaught of impossibly age-old memories, heavy and sharp-edged and smothering.
Castiel dove on instinct, bracing himself against the wave, slowing and containing it, realising as he did so that Gabriel was beside him. Gabriel’s grace lashed across his, desperate and confused and viciously stubborn, and Castiel dug in his metaphorical heels and locked his mind around his brother’s, giving Gabriel a moment to take stock. Gabriel growled, mind and body, and Castiel dimly felt it vibrate through his physical arm where it was pressed in tight between Gabriel’s chest and Sam’s shoulder.
Can’t turn it back. Can’t lock it up. Can’t... Fuck, Castiel, hold.
Castiel slipped and dug in tighter, closing steely and defensive against a fresh hot tangle of sensory and emotional impressions.
What is it? Who is it?
I don’t know, I can’t see, I can’t feel anyone but Sam, Castiel, and I can’t find him under all this. Castiel, I need –
Then it all scattered, their hasty dam shocked out of place and swamped, as a jostle and a hard shake and an angry voice jolted Castiel back towards the physical plane.
“… the hell do you think you’re doing to him? Sam! Sammy! Gabriel, if you’ve hurt him, I swear by-”
Castiel’s eyes snapped open, and he hurled Dean across the room.
The shock of it froze Dean against the wall, just for a moment. Then he struggled to his feet, eyes burning, and Castiel stepped between him and the rigid form of Gabriel.
Sam convulsed, slamming his elbow into the wall. Gabriel couldn’t hold his mind and his body at once. Their time was short.
“What are you doing to him?” Dean growled, dark and promising violence.
“Trying to save him. Dean, be still,” Castiel commanded, brooking no negotiation. “You must trust-”
“Chamael,” Gabriel gasped, sudden and shocked. “Chamael.”
Castiel turned to him, thoughts stuttering to a halt for a moment. Because surely…
Dean took advantage, dived past him, reaching desperately for his brother’s shirt. Castiel caught his elbow and spun him around, spreading his wings in the same instant, and carried him to central Arizona.
Dean broke away as soon as his feet touched gritty earth, furious and betrayed. “The hell, Cas? Take me back!”
Castiel shoved him, hard, and pushed right into his space, matching wrath for wrath. “You think you are the only one who loves your brother, Dean? Still?” Dean opened his mouth, derailed for just long enough for Castiel to override whatever he had been about to snarl back. “Only a fool demands answers of the surgeon while he operates. If Gabriel’s hold is broken, Sam’s mind will be shattered and lost.”
“What is it, Cas? Tell me that. What happened to him?”
Castiel hesitated, a moment too long. Chamael. The memories, too vast and aged and beyond human experience.
“I don’t know.”
Dean’s eyes narrowed. “The hell you don’t.”
“I’m not sure, Dean.” Castiel placed a hand flat against his chest, warm and firm. “But you can’t be there. Sam is responding to your agitation. As is Gabriel. As am I.”
“Fuck you, Cas,” Dean spat out, bitter and desperate, tears tracking down his face. “He’s my brother.”
“He is ours too, Dean.” He is our brother. Castiel grabbed for Dean’s head, cradled his face between his hands, fierce and protective, and did not let him pull back. “Dean. I must go to him. Gabriel cannot do this alone.”
Dean punched him. Castiel let it break his skin, and fled.
He and Gabriel cradled Sam’s body between them, as Gabriel held back the weight of one archangel with the sheer bloody stubbornness of another, and Castiel, quick and precise, painstakingly pieced all Chamael’s memories into place around and between all the memories that were only Sam Winchester.
Ten hours passed before he could withdraw, leave Sam sleeping properly on Gabriel’s chest, and go back for Dean.
It was not a good beginning.
Dean blamed Gabriel at the time. In retrospect, regular close exposure to the grace of an archangel and something very like one must have been wearing that wall thin for years, not to mention the shock of hosting all of Lucifer. In retrospect, too, the strange vivid dreams that Sam had been having in recent weeks should have been a warning. Retrospect was all very well, but the sight of Sam convulsing, gasping, unhearing, in Gabriel’s arms was not one to elicit a rational response from his brother. And it had, in the end, been Gabriel whose touch (the lightest of brushes with one wing, casual and laughing) had dissolved the last of that wall into nothing and left Sam flooded with the knowledge of what he had been.
Sam said later that perhaps it wasn’t so much that the wall wore thin, as that he finally felt safe and sure enough, to the depths of himself, to let Chamael out.
And so Sam was Gabriel’s brother as well, and Castiel’s. Some days Castiel suspected that Dean found that particular fact stranger than the fact that he had once been an angel.
“You okay there, Sammy? You’re looking kinda beat up.”
“Yeah. Apparently I knocked myself about pretty good.”
“So. Archangel, huh.”
“Yep. For… quite a while now.”
“So… what do I call you?”
“Dean. I’m still me. Just… got some more memories, that’s all.”
“Yeah, but… who was he? You? Before? You remember not being… you. That’s gotta be… weird.”
“I made a choice to become this, Dean. And now I’m choosing to stay.”
“Gabriel’s pretty hurt, you know. What you said to him after...”
“Gabriel can bite me.”
“No, seriously, Sam. If he hadn’t been poking around in your head these last four years, shoving his grace into you for fun sexytimes, weakening that wall thing that angel-you made to keep you in when he – you – fell, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“And that’s different from what you and Cas – hell, you and Gabriel sometimes – have been doing, how exactly?”
“Newsflash, Sam - I don’t have an archangel stashed away in my noggin.”
“How the hell was Gabriel meant to know about that? Or Cas, come to that?”
“He should have known that something like this could happen. He should have said.”
“Something like this?” A pause, and a shift in the air, to something less heated and more fraught. “Is it – is it really so bad, Dean? Me being… what I am?”
“No, Sammy. No. Of course not. Just… it’s going to take some time, okay? Just to… get used to it.
“Tell me about it. Dean, I… I know it’s kind of freaky, okay? As all hell. But I’m not going after my grace. I’m not going to change.”
“… Hey. Did you see the ice age?”
“Come on, Sam. Because that had to have been pretty neat.”
“Yes, Dean. I saw the ice age.”
It was a tentative peace.
“Giant killer alligators.”
Gabriel grinned around his ice cream, his mouth stained weirdly green. “That’s Florida.”
“… Australia just has crocodiles. Especially up north.”
“Giant killer ones?” Dean asked, almost hopeful.
“They’re crocodiles. What do you think?”
“Yeah, point. Bunyips?”
“A few dozen different kinds of water monster in the lakes and rivers and billabongs across the country, one of which was called bunyip in one local language, but yeah, mostly.”
“Riding kangaroos to work.”
“Only me. Because I’m that awesome.”
“Christmas in summer.”
“Well, obviously.” Gabriel spun on his heel in the middle of the street, arms stretched out dramatically, encompassing pale blue sky and dusty red earth and the sun beating off the grey weatherboard shop fronts and the dog panting on his side in the shade of the eucalypts. “It’s December 23, hot shot – does it look like winter here to you?”
“It’s Australia. It’s meant to be freaky hot.” Dean shuddered. “Summer Christmases. Talk about unnatural.”
“Hey.” Sam’s large hand curled around the back of Castiel’s neck. “How’re you going?”
A warm throb of affection stirred itself in Castiel’s chest. How very characteristic a question – to him, who had least reason of all of them to be nervous about the coming day. Castiel gave the question careful consideration anyway, because Sam usually had reasons for asking.
“Concerned,” he decided after a minute, “but not afraid.”
Sam’s thumb brushed thoughtfully back and forth through the hair at the nape of Castiel’s neck. “You don’t think we’re all gonna screw this up horribly and kill each other afterwards?”
It was said lightly, as if signalling a joke; but there was a little pulse of anxiety beating low underneath it, a little thread saying, this is on me, I chose this, this could ruin us.
Castiel looked ahead, to where Dean’s head was leaning down towards Gabriel’s, the warmth in his laugh muted but genuine, heartfelt. Gabriel’s throat was a soft vulnerable curve edged by golden sunlight as he tipped his face to grin back.
“Hey, are the sheep poisonous?” Dean’s tone suggested that he could forgive any country summer Christmases if it offered him something as interesting as poison sheep.
“Yep.” Gabriel smirked at him indulgently. “Everything’s poisonous. Especially the sheep. Also, rocks in the shallow water, and old cans and bottles on the beach.”
Dean eyed him narrowly. “That’s your I’m-secretly-telling-the-truth face.”
“Stonefish and blue-ringed octopus. Do your research. If you get yourself stung, I’m making your brother do all the resurrection paperwork.”
Sam’s hand was all damp heat and gentle strength at the back of Castiel’s neck.
“No, I don’t,” Castiel said, firm and low. “I trust each of you.”
Sam’s long easy stride faltered for just a moment; then he leaned over and pressed his mouth hot and grateful and sweet against the corner of Castiel’s jaw.
Castiel went with Dean to hire the boat for the following day. That is to say, Castiel stood back and listened with quiet fascination to Dean’s and the owner’s passionate discussion of this particular vessel’s mechanics, specifications, adaptations, and personality quirks. Apparently boats could be as individual as Dean insisted a car could, to the discerning and devoted individual.
When Castiel stepped softly into place beside Dean and settled a familiar hand on his hip, the boat’s owner didn’t bat an eyelid. Dean called it a personality litmus test; Castiel liked the quiet statement of possession it made. Either way, the deal was settled within two minutes.
While Dean was signing off on the paperwork, the man chatted his way through a list of reef marine life they should keep an eye out for. Castiel privately doubted that Dean would be in any mood for admiring sea urchins and manta rays, but he had to admire the rather hopeless ingenuity of humanity when the man recommended seeing off a great white shark attached to your leg by poking it in the eye.
Dean grinned his easy, charming grin. “Not a problem. I’ll just set Cas here on it.”
The man – James Phillip Ladurie – laughed, sun-bleached and friendly. Castiel smiled a little with him, enjoying the amusement Dean found in playing on the discrepancy between Castiel’s true strength and the slight appearance of his vessel beside Dean’s solid form.
When they were out of sight, alone in the angle between the wall of the kiosk and the rise of a sand dune, Dean stopped, reached for Castiel’s wrist, and pulled him into a rough hug. His breath misted hot and restless over Castiel’s ear and the edge of his cheek, and Castiel turned his face in to nuzzle along Dean’s jaw, to press a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth.
Dean exhaled, quiet and frustrated, and leaned into him a little.
This was still new. Dean, daring to reach out and ask when he needed it.
Castiel slid his fingers into Dean’s hair and held him there, let Dean’s heart beat slow and strong against Castiel’s, separated only by a few inches of flesh and bone and cotton. For all that Castiel had many he loved now – truly loved, had learned to love, not just an inherited love that had been sown in him at his creation – this soul, burning bright and stubborn under his hands just as it had done since he had seized it in the Pit, this was by far the most precious to him.
Dean grunted against his cheek, turned his head to kiss him once, fierce and brief, then pulled back. “Seriously, Cas. No sharks.”
“No sharks,” Castiel promised him gravely.
Dean grinned at him, almost easy, and ruffled his hair up in the way he knew Castiel found irritating. “Let’s go see if Gabriel’s managed to get them arrested yet.”
Monsters and evils were one kind of a challenge. Castiel suspected that this, what they were facing now, was perhaps the hardest one they’d faced together yet, as a family. But they’d made it this far.
Thirty-nine weeks ago.
While he was technically aware of every single event in human history, Castiel was endlessly fascinated by the stories people told about themselves. This applied both to Chaucer’s version of the Trojan war and to twentieth-century critics’ commentary on Chaucer. Dean had called him a nerd and then bought him the out-of-print, costly Riverside Chaucer for Christmas, because the internet had told him that it was the definitive edition.
Gabriel, curled up into a ball in the frankly extravagant nest of blankets and cushions he’d built in front of the television, raised his head warily.
Castiel watched over the top of his book as Dean held out a giant bowl of hot caramel- and salt-coated popcorn, which Gabriel could easily have fetched for himself if he’d wanted to. “Since you’re parked in front of the TV anyway.” He shrugged, aiming for casual and coming off as awkward. “Just made up a big batch, so…”
One of Gabriel’s eyebrows crept up, like a bemused and ironic caterpillar, and Castiel wondered for one sharp moment whether he should glare a warning at him, before he said something sarcastic and irreparable. But all he said was a half-mumbled, “Thanks,” and he snugged the bowl into his lap.
(There were some aspects of the human sensory experience that Castiel suspected he would never understand, caramel with salt being among them.)
Dean stood there for a moment, hands shoved into his pockets, looming like a sheepish boulder. Then he squared his shoulders a little, lifted one foot and prodded at Gabriel’s blanket-swathed knee. “Scoot up, angel.”
Gabriel hesitated a moment before wriggling over to one side and nudging the blankets barely open next to him. Dean took the inch and made a mile of it, as you had to do with Gabriel when he was in this wary and unwanted sort of mood, shoving his way into the nest and knocking the archangel’s shoulder firmly against his own.
Instead of looking at him, Gabriel eyed the television narrowly, until it conceded defeat and started spontaneously showing a Dr Sexy marathon.
Dean carefully stole some of his popcorn.
They were all getting better. Learning how to work around each other’s weak points, rather than shove against them. Learning how to fix things when they broke. Castiel thought they could manage this, together.
Two episodes later, shoulder fitted snugly against shoulder, Gabriel muttered, “You’re a little bitch when you’re grumpy, you know that?”
Dean let out a slow breath, then kicked him under the blanket. “Yeah, you might have mentioned before. Once or twice. Sammy too.”
Gabriel’s mouth twisted into something too soft to be a smirk, and he cocked an eyebrow at Castiel over Dean’s head.
Castiel turned a page. “Don’t look at me. Dean and I never argue.”
Dean snorted, a soft, amused puff of air, which turned into a swallowed hiss when Gabriel abruptly snaked an arm around his waist, nipped the side of his neck, and appropriated his shoulder as his own personal chinrest. “So, if some dick stuck you in this show and you were forced to have a threesome with Dr Sexy and one of the chicks to get out – Piccolo or Wang?”
Dean laughed, startled, and leaned back into Gabriel a bit, his voice a low rumble of amused relief. “I don’t know, big man. You think someone’s likely to?”
Castiel smiled to himself, and returned his attention to Criseyde and Pandarus.
Gabriel insisted on a good hotel, except there weren’t any that matched up to his standards of decadence because the town was too small and apparently spas weren’t what counted as luxury out here. So instead Sam insisted on a pleasant B&B run by an old Torres Strait Islander couple, in which the dressers were overrun with seashells and glass dolphins and the beds were as soft and deep as any Castiel had ever lain in.
Only, there were two bedrooms.
Castiel watched Sam’s eyes slip from Dean’s stiff jaw to Gabriel’s too-nonchalant shrug. He didn’t need to dig below the surface to see the fears and desires in all of them; could see how a night alone with Sam would play out for either.
Dean’s fear of losing his brother pulsated pale inside him: that whatever he would hold in his arms in twenty-four hours would be some other creature, too ancient and bright for Dean’s hands, for Dean’s protection. And coupled with that, the queasy fear of being left behind, of being the only human remaining in their strange little family. As if he thought they would tire of the mortal, in their own (eternally long) time.
Gabriel – Gabriel feared hurting Sam, feared that his own strength and control would not be great enough to keep from burning Sam out when he passed over Sam’s old grace; or perhaps to keep from mutilating his soul beyond repair so that Sam was an angel again, only a soulless angel, with nothing of his human self remaining. Killing Sam through his own inadequacies. Losing Dean to grief and fury, losing Castiel to Dean’s needs. Breaking the family. Losing Dean even if they succeeded – that Dean would not forgive him, and that the sundering would come about that way. Some way. Gabriel’s old fear, the broken family, one way or the other. Because even now, after four years (so short in his lifetime, so long for the humans), Gabriel could still never entirely believe himself beloved, wanted, included, trusted. Dean’s instinctive reaction when Sam’s memories had returned – to blame the person he had trusted most to protect Sam – had done more damage than perhaps either Gabriel or Dean had recognised.
Dean would be rough and tender and quietly desperate tonight, pressing bruises into Sam’s skin, digging his thumb into the soft human flesh to prove that it wouldn’t burn him, not yet. Possessive and jealous, never moving away from Sam’s mouth for long, keeping it for his own. Gabriel would be sweet with him instead, sweet and insistent. Would want to be held down and claimed, until he was breathless and wordless and lost. To feel Sam’s strength and love to the depths of him. And both, both would spend all night secretly glad and savagely guilty that Sam was with him, and not with the other.
Castiel pushed down the urge to lock Dean and Gabriel together instead, to make them kiss and bite and shove and hold, and himself to take away from Sam the need to look strong and relaxed. To pin Sam’s powerful body to the mattress and take him apart, touch by touch, to hold him down and break him and keep him, and remake him into something loose and sated and sure.
He stretched out his hand, and lightly touched the inside of Sam’s wrist.
“We stay together,” he told them, low and definite.
Gabriel’s eyes went honey-deep and sharp; Dean relaxed a little, and slipped his hands into its familiar spot in the small of Castiel’s back; Sam smiled his brilliant lopsided smile; and no one raised an argument.
Twenty-four weeks ago.
Castiel paused outside the motel room, scenting gun oil and old rags and tequila on the air. Dean’s voice, thrown out like a lazy challenge, just a little slurred around the edges with drink, made him reconsider his impulse to stay the night.
Sam made a rude noise. “Exactly what he looked like from down here. Overzealous on the hard stuff, not interested in the rest of it. Crap sense of humour.” Castiel heard him toss back a shot. “Not afraid to call his superiors out on something if it went against his judgement, but his judgement was shit.”
“Okay.” The click and slide of a gun barrel being taken apart, professional and easy. “Balthazar.”
Sam hummed thoughtfully. “Irreverent, lazy. Doesn’t know when to stop. Takes loyalty personally. I’m pretty sure he covered for Cas to me, once or twice.” That, Castiel had not known. He made a mental note to hunt Balthazar down and frown at him. “No good at the whole ‘good of the whole before good of the one’ thing, but freaking fierce if anything threatened you once he liked you.”
“So, not actually a dick?”
“Nope. Your default.” This time it was Dean who knocked back a shot.
A brief silence, then Sam sighed. “Honestly? Big brother. Kind of like you could have been, if, you know, Dad had left you in charge of an army instead of just me. And the bits where he isn’t like you are the bits where he’s even more like Dad. He’s… screwed up, but he really tries. Just… really, really not that good at listening.”
Dean’s voice was ironic and a little heavy. “Yeah. Kind of got that.”
Castiel could hear the half-hearted smirk in Sam’s voice. “Drink up.”
Dean snorted, but obeyed. Then, predictably, “Lucifer.”
Sam barked out a short laugh, and knocked back a shot straight away. “Bastard ran off and left me to deal with his workload. Do you know how much lore confuses me with him, Dean?”
“Fuck, yes,” Dean slurred, fervent and heavy. “You think I haven’t been reading up?”
Sam’s voice vibrated between teasing and something deeper, something that ached. “Aw, look at you. Little Dean, all growed up, doing his research all by himself.”
“Screw you, angel.” It was amiable, casual, almost easy, and followed by the sounds of a brief scuffle.
There was a pause. Then,
Sam laughed, more freely. “If you want to get smashed, Dean, don’t let me stop you.”
Castiel stepped back through the folds of space, opened his wings, and left them to it.
The wind blew cool and salt in Castiel’s face. The speed and the wind felt almost like flying – lazy physical flying, not true angelic flight – save for the thrum and purr of the boat underfoot. Dean steered her from the harbour as tenderly as if she had been his own sleek car, skudding out away from the wide pale sweep of the bay’s arm and the dark pillows of the hills beyond. Sam was helping by lounging around in the cabin with him, all long limbs and lazy pointless comments of the sort that made Dean roll his eyes and smile, just a bit.
Castiel turned his face toward the eastern horizon, the strange vastness of the ocean. Vaster than space, because it meant more, just as a tiny human soul was inexplicably greater than the immense grace of any angel. He tried to categorise the hues of the water that heaved and scattered under the prow according to the colours of precious and semi-precious stones. Erinite, sapphire, peridot, indicolite, turquoise, Pacific opal, chrysolite, blue zircon, and the logical aquamarine. Clear and beautiful as any of them, but sparkling and shifting, changing. Living. Not frozen, like a jewel, like an angel’s vessel. Alive and true.
Angels had been warriors for millenia; but first, first of all, they had been built for wonder and delight. Too many of his brothers had forgotten it.
The buzzing warmth of Gabriel’s grace and body settled against Castiel’s arm, as the only angel who had never quite forgotten leant his elbows on the rail and made a lascivious comment about selkies. Castiel purred something unimpressed and indulgent, and watched the waves with him.
“It’s remarkable,” he observed after a while. His voice was a deep rumble in his own ears, as if the motion of the water had lulled it into submission. “Even with only human vision, there are so many colours in it.”
Gabriel tapped his fingers thoughtfully on the metal of the railing, nails rattling a jagged compound rhythm. “Guess Dad did a decent job of it.”
Castiel sharpened his gaze to focus on the micro-lives teeming below the surface, millions of thriving, wriggling creatures to each drop. “He, and they.”
Gabriel made a sharp, amused noise. Castiel looked sideways at him, at the soft edges of him, at the way the light curled around his throat and hair as if it had known and loved him for a very long time.
“How much do you think he did?” he asked quietly, of the archangel who had once carried God’s word. “At every step along the way? Did he intend the melanistic leopard and the coral polyp and the mountains of Spain?”
His brother was quiet for a while, but it was the quiet he put on when he was steeling himself to answer something honestly, without the mask of play. “Used to figure it was everything,” he replied in the end. “Then I thought, well, just the bits he likes, on the days he gets bored with his X-box and wanders out of his basement. Now?” He tipped his head a little, grinned at Castiel like they were both in on the maddest of jokes. “I think maybe he gave everything the potential and just… nudges sometimes. Puts interesting options in the way.”
Castiel thought about that for a while, watched the bright butterfly-flashes of fish appear and vanish in the water below him. “We know he wanted humanity.”
“Nah.” Gabriel shoved at Castiel’s arm with his shoulder, and Castiel obediently moved his arm, let Gabriel slide in warm and unfathomable against his side. “We just know he wanted something with the imagination to think of him, and go further than him. Don’t mean he was nudging monkeys towards being apes and apes towards being people. Could just as easily have been really sneaky hermit crabs.”
There was something under his voice, a vibrating edge of need, that drew Castiel’s mind back suddenly and vividly to the previous night. To Gabriel and Dean kissing each other hungry and possessive over Sam’s thigh, while Castiel knotted his fingers in Sam’s hair and dragged him in for his own mouth. To Gabriel climbing up Sam’s body to steal Castiel’s breath from them both, leaving Dean’s mouth behind him where it could be put to most effect.
Castiel turned his head now and brushed his lips against Gabriel’s temple, let him feel them curve into something close to a smile. “Why did we let you take us to the Creation Museum last time you got bored?”
The oldest of all angels, save for the two locked in the Cage, nudged Castiel in the ribs with a sharp elbow and peeked up at him coyly through his eyelashes. “You’d look really cute wearing a hermit crab.”
“Dean. The angels are discussing evolution again.”
Castiel looked, and Sam was grinning down at them from the upper deck, balancing easily with the roll of the boat, all lazy and relaxed and wind-mussed. Soft, and touchably human.
Gabriel made a soft noise beside him, like he’d been hurt.
“Don’t make me turn this boat around, boys!” Dean sang out from the cabin.
Then Sam had hopped over the railing and was down on the lower deck with them, crowding a half-grumbling Gabriel back so he was caught against the rail and Castiel’s body.
“Hey,” he murmured, sweet and low against the edge of Gabriel’s jaw, against Castiel’s shoulder. “You’re mine. I trust you.”
Gabriel scoffed half-heartedly, and shoved at Sam’s shoulder with not nearly enough force to move it. “Then you’re a sentimental half-wit, Winchester. Get off me.”
“Sure,” Sam said amiably, and tangled his hand in Gabriel’s hair to kiss him wet and playful and deep. A deep growl shook through Gabriel’s body where he was pressed between them, and he pushed up into Sam’s mouth, all heat and teeth, so suddenly that Sam had to snake an arm firmly around Castiel’s waist as an anchor. The boat rolled underfoot, and Castiel hooked one elbow through the rail, pinned Sam and Gabriel’s legs steady with one thigh, and held on to them both.
Sam pulled back, chest heaving, and glared down at Gabriel in that fond, why-am-I-surrounded-by-idiots way he usually kept for Dean. “I can take your grace, and my old memories, and I took all of Lucifer. You’re not gonna lose me.”
Gabriel’s teeth flashed, bright and sharp. “Keep it that way,” he said flatly.
Sam beamed sunnily at him. “So. Nearly there. Dean’s going to pull her over, or whatever you say when it’s a boat, just up here by this big shoal-thing.”
“How precise can you be?” Castiel asked
Sam shrugged, and shifted off them to lean on the railing himself. “Couple of hundred cubic yards. I can feel it almost all around me now – still room in that for a bit of legwork, though, to find it exactly.”
Gabriel hummed thoughtfully. “So what you’re saying is, it’s about time you took off all your clothes and got all wet.”
Sam’s smile went happy and indulgent under the curtain of his hair. “That’s pretty much the shape of it, yeah. You joining me?”
One month ago.
Sam took a deep breath, and sat down beside Castiel on the Impala’s bonnet. “I want to go looking for it.”
Castiel took the wine glass Sam was holding out to him, and squinted through the sunset glare off the car’s windows at his older brother’s human face. It had that scrunched-up, determined look that Sam got whenever he was set on something that he knew Dean wouldn’t like and which he was kind of terrified of himself; and it was that that told Castiel what he meant.
“You guys could really do with a hand upstairs – a real hand, not just a mostly-human freak with Chamael’s memories weighing in on the arguments sometimes. And I’ve been talking to Gabriel and, well… Raphael means well, but he isn’t a leader, and he doesn’t really get it, I remember that now. And it’s not like it would be something foreign, not like Azazel’s blood. It’s still me, just… more of me, and I remember it, and I know how to use it, and I…” Sam stopped, stared at his empty glass, shoved a hand through his hair, and plunged on. “I miss it. Especially the way things are down here. We could be doing so much more. I mean, having you and Gabriel to help, it’s great, but every day, every time I turn around and see a ghost going for Dean’s throat and I don’t have a clear shot at it, or something like that…”
Sam shifted restlessly against the bonnet. “I know what I could do, and it feels like such a waste of time to have to rely on you guys for the simple stuff that I should be able to do myself. When you could be doing better if you weren’t tied down to protecting two humans.” Sam shot a little testing glance sideways at Castiel, his mouth tight. “It doesn’t make sense not to. It’s the memories that make the real difference, after all.”
Castiel reached for the bottle, removed the cork with gentle, efficient movements, and poured Sam another glass. The rich red liquid, which he and Sam had all to themselves because neither Gabriel nor Dean bothered with it, swirled and danced around the bowl, bright and luxurious in the evening sun.
“Do you want to tell Dean, or shall I?”
The tension swept out of Sam in a little huff, his body shifting into one warm, sloping line of muscle and denim and damp skin against Castiel’s side.
Dean took it better than Sam seemed to have expected, although Castiel, who knew better than anyone the lengths Dean went to to try to make everything seem normal for Sam, was not entirely surprised. He nodded, grim but listening, when Sam explained that he meant to search; promised to help work out where Chamael’s grace might have landed; conceded that, with the number of supernatural things the abortive Apocalypse had stirred up, they could do with all the advantages they could get; even confessed, when Sam asked, that he didn’t really like it but that he trusted Sam to make that call himself.
Castiel was proud of him.
It was only later, in bed, that Dean ventured very quietly, “I should trust an angel with his own mojo, right?”
Castiel turned his head against the pillow.
Dean stirred a little, restless, tugging the sheets into a soft dry slither over Castiel’s chest. “I mean, it’s not as if he doesn’t know how to use it.”
“No more than you should inevitably trust every man not to do harm with his own hands.” Castiel’s hand sought out Dean’s hip under the blanket, and gave it a squeeze. “But I believe in Sam.”
Dean made a vague grunt. “Just. He doesn’t really have a stellar track record when it comes to… power.”
Castiel hummed vaguely, and thought of Sam as he had first known him. Suspicious and clever, playing his brother without entirely meaning to, inviting in the darkness to throb in his veins. Sacrificing his own soul for the world. “I think… this is different.”
“Yeah, that’s what he says. Every time.” Dean scrubbed his hand over his face in the dark. “Cas, tell me I’m being a dick. I don’t know what he was like back then. I don’t know what Chamael would do with it. But I know him damned well now, and… I’m not sure that he’s the best guy to trust with phenomenal cosmic powers, you know?”
Castiel let him have his doubting, here, safe in the dark. “I understand.” He was silent for a minute, listening to Dean’s breathing. Then he offered, soft and certain, “I don’t know what will happen, Dean. I only know that I fell, and the two of you were there to catch me; that Sam has turned back from the brink every time, at the call of someone who loves him; and that there are three of us now who will not let him go.”
Dean stayed quiet, his breaths stirring the air beside Castiel, slow and shallow and hot. Then he turned abruptly onto his side, and buried his face in Castiel’s neck.
Castiel ran his hands up the solid curves of Dean’s back, drew his nails over the top of the spine to soothe him, and tasted the faint salt of the skin just under his ear. Dean made a noise in his throat, tired and hopeful, and Castiel held him until he relaxed.
Then he pressed his lips into the soft prickle of Dean’s hair. “Go to him.”
Dean took a deep breath and nodded mutely into Castiel’s shoulder. Then he lifted himself up, hovering big and hot and sleek over Castiel’s body in the dark, and kissed him fierce as a promise. Castiel sank his fingertips into the muscle of Dean’s neck, arched up against him, and let him go.
Five minutes later, Gabriel crept into the room and between the cooling sheets to attach himself to Castiel’s side like a clingy starfish. To his brother’s demanding heat Castiel opened his arms, then his mouth, then his legs.
Castiel wasn’t very good at swimming. Dean and Sam had both spent long hours trying to teach him, in the lake by their house where Sam swam every morning when they were there, but those sessions often devolved into other less nautical (although equally physical) activities. The body that Jimmy had left him didn’t seem particularly inclined to move in the way demanded by water, and Castiel hadn’t ever seen any particular need to become more efficient at it.
Searching the crevices of the Great Barrier Reef, however, was something that would be more easily done if he had a means of propelling himself simply through the water. Flying every five metres underwater seemed wasteful, and somewhat contrary to the adventurous spirit with which Dean was currently striking out, be-suited and be-masked with an oxygen tank on his back.
After a moment’s consideration, Castiel manifested his wings, and adjusted their relation to physics just sufficiently to account for water’s increased drag and weight support, so that he might swim through water as if it were air.
Gabriel, he found, when he turned his attention outwards, had opted for a more showy solution. Having more control over his custom-made vessel than any angel bound to a truly human body could, he had grafted a long fish-like tail over its legs, and seemed rather smug about the fact. Sharpening his gaze, Castiel could see that the legs were still intact inside the tail, and that a few crude but powerful sinews attached the joints of the limbs to strategic points along the length of the tail. By these means, Gabriel could drive it in long, lazy waves, propelling his whole body forward to circle an amused Sam in casual figure-eights.
A few gestures and nods, and Gabriel and Sam set out to circle around the north side of the shoal and Castiel with Dean to the south. It was almost like any hunt: reading each other in silence, knowing half by instinct and half by senses where each of the other three was and what he was doing. But where Gabriel and Dean would usually be carrying out a mute commentary on everything that happened through lifted eyebrows and smirks and detailed gestures, here they were stiff and tense – had been ever since the wetsuits had come out – and were barely meeting each other’s eyes.
Colours, and movement. The weight of water impeded his human ears, but it was a simple matter to keep his eyes clear; and even with most of his attention dedicated to other senses, the visual panorama beneath the water was thrilling. The coral shelf was a riot of colours: corals, sponges, anemones, fish, sea cucumbers, starfish, and lichens. The joyous buzzing sensation of life pattered against him, millions of small and tiny and infinitesmal lives.
A silvertip shark turned away from the intruders with a flick of its tail, slid away from the coral shelf and down into the dusty blue depths beyond. Castiel watched its graceful, efficient movements until it faded into the shadows, then angled his wings down and dived.
It was safer lower down, but the physical danger to Dean was minimal here, certainly insignificant compared to a regular day on the job. Dean’s perception of the grace hidden somewhere within this coral shoal would be far more limited than either angel’s, and only a murmur next to Sam’s. If he were any other human being he could have touched wherever it resided and felt nothing, disturbed nothing; but the bond between his and Sam’s souls, not to mention his increased sensitivity to grace since his resurrection, meant that at close range he should be able to feel its tug. It was logical, therefore, for Dean to swim farther from the bottom, closer to the centre of the reef, while Castiel cut a broader, swifter arc around its base.
Awesome. Dean’s voice slid warm and familiar into that place of Castiel’s mind reserved for the perception of prayer. I just found a giant spotted slug.
“Most likely an Argus sea cucumber,” Castiel replied, projecting the subtle audio vibrations that would be produced by his voice in air directly to Dean’s inner ear.
Argus? Wasn’t that some Greek watchdog thing with a metric crapload of eyes?
“Hence the name, I imagine. That particular species is also called a leopard, marbled, eyed, or ocellated sea cucumber. Don’t poke it – they self-eviscerate to dissuade predators, and it takes them some energy to regrow their innards.” The pale fingers of a grove of anemones rippled searchingly over a coral ledge, and with the edge of his vision Castiel saw the dark red flank and the flash of white as a cinnamon clownfish darted back to safety.
Seriously? The tone of Dean’s prayer suggested the giant spotted slug had just gone up several awesomeness points. Talk about shitting yourself in terror. And, hey. When do I ever just poke random things?
The lonely tug of lost grace was calling him around to his left, urging him to dive into the solid mass of coral and find it, touch it. “You always just poke random things, Dean. Especially if they’re cursed.”
I didn’t poke that weird-arse sun disc in Ohio!
“Only because Gabriel poked it first,” Castiel pointed out. Around the next corner, and the next, up and over the shelf, and it was coming no closer. It felt farther away, probably on the north side where Gabriel and Sam were searching.
Dean’s thoughts conceded, not bothering with actual words to project, that this was a fair point. Then, in a tangential way that suggested he was looking for anything but the obvious to think about, How does your great angel/human dictionary know all those names for some weird sea vegetable anyway, when you don’t get what I mean when I say Lucifer’s like Sam’s evil twin? Who decides what goes into it? I bet there’s a hell of a lot fewer people on this planet who know what an ocellated sea cucumber is than an evil twin.
“I don’t know.” Castiel glided around a projecting blade of rock and arrowed further up and in, closer to Dean, sending fish scattering under the shadow of his wings. “I’m sure Sam would have a theory.”
Then he felt it – the throb of that familiar grace that Yrihel had hidden so well, too well, casting it millions of years back in time and losing it in the vastness of the oceans. The surge and the pull of it, as it reached out for the first time in aeons to answer its brother’s touch.
He closed his hand around Dean’s arm, flexed his wings, and carried them toward the glimmering surface, with Gabriel’s “Found it!” ringing triumphantly through their minds.
One week ago.
“The effects of Anna’s grace were limited, local. The effects of an archangel’s would be… immense. Global, in their repercussions.”
“Don’t tell me you killed the dinosaurs, Sammy.”
“Nah, that was me.” Gabriel tossed a peanut into his mouth and took his time over eating it under the weight of three stares, emanating the smug ability to derail conversations. “What? I had a weekend off, and I was bored.”
Dean looked rather like he wouldn’t put it past Gabriel, but Sam’s mouth was soft and comfortably exasperated. Castiel had noticed that Gabriel’s claims to have done everything interesting in history had been getting increasingly outrageous ever since Sam had got his memories back, and thus his ability to contradict them.
“Creation, not destruction,” he put in gently. “On a massive scale.”
Sam nodded. “And it’d be something pretty damned unique and impressive, too. Like… the Amazon rainforests.”
“Uh, guys?” Gabriel pointed to the television, which obligingly switched to the previous day’s Discovery Channel. “Like the only living organism that you can see from space?”
… world heritage area, and among the seven wonders of the natural world, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef. It covers more than three hundred and fifty thousand square kilometres, an area bigger than the United Kingdom, Holland and Switzerland combined. Blessed with an abundance of marine life, the Great Barrier Reef is comprised of over three thousand individual reef systems and coral cays and hundreds of islands, with some of the world’s most beautiful sun-soaked, golden beaches.
The Great Barrier Reef is threatened by climate change, continued declining water quality from catchment run-off, loss of coastal habitats from coastal development, and, as a result of the increased water temperatures and a decline in water quality, high levels of coral bleaching. Mass coral bleaching events due to elevated ocean temperatures occurred in the summers of 1998, 2002 and 2006, and coral bleaching is expected to become an annual occurrence.
“Space is nice, by the way,” Gabriel dropped into the silence. “Peaceful. Sort of big.”
Castiel mostly noticed the way his fingers were drumming against the arm of the chair.
Dean cleared his throat. “Sammy? Thoughts?”
Sam was staring at the screen, wide-eyed, even though it had frozen on one still as soon as Gabriel’s focus had shifted, wholly and completely, to Sam. It showed all blues and azures, an aerial shot, thousands of tiny life forms busily working away under the surface, sustaining others who sustained others who sustained others who sustained a thriving tourist industry despite the fact that all of them were dying.
Castiel touched his arm, and murmured, “Sam?”
Sam started, and looked up at him with wide worried eyes. Then he gathered himself, and smiled. “Sounds good. Let’s look into it.”
“Okay.” Dean stretched out in his chair, going for casual in a way that screamed “going for casual” and that all three of them knew him too well to buy. “Guess we’re touching up our fake passports.”
Gabriel snorted. “Please. As if you need passports.”
Dean waved a hand dismissively. “Sure, not when you’re travelling by angel air, but what if we get locked up for something?”
Dean and Gabriel were very good at covering potentially awkward moments with chatter.
“You know, most people don’t plan what if I get locked up for something into their holiday schedules.”
“Most people aren’t us. There’s probably bunyips. Or demon spiders. Or something.”
“And a great star fell from heaven, burning as it were a torch,” murmured Castiel, “and it fell upon the fountains of waters.”
Gabriel, who had wooed Castiel with Solomon’s Song, slanted him an amused, dark look. “The Bible, sparrow? Seriously?”
Castiel shrugged. “I like it. It is poetic, in places.”
“So’s the Marquis de Sade. Speaking of, there’s a gent who knows how to throw a good -”
Sam cuffed Gabriel over the back of the head. “Don’t you start. Australia it is, guys.”
Gabriel was the first back to the boat. When Dean reached the ladder, Gabriel reached down to give him a hand up, mouth twisted awkwardly at the side and eyes too rich and dark. Dean looked up at him, half out of the water and visibly hesitating between accepting and protesting that he wasn’t too old to climb a ladder thanks very much. Then he curled firm fingers around Gabriel’s wrist, and let himself be hauled roughly up onto the deck.
By the time Castiel had swung himself up onto the boat, Dean had already toed off his flippers and set aside the oxygen tank. Gabriel’s skin was thrumming almost audibly with the heady weight of the alien grace inside him, and he was jiggling up and down, hands shoved deep into the pockets of the jeans that were his only concession to modesty. He hadn’t bothered to do them up, so they rode dangerously low on his hips, already soaked around the waist with the water creeping down his back and chest as if it was seeking refuge from the sun.
Castiel stalked over to him, brushed his hands aside, and remedied the situation with stern fingers. Gabriel rolled his eyes extravagantly skyward and muttered something rude about mother hens, which Castiel cut off midway by licking the seasalt from his mouth.
“You can do this naked or clothed, Gabriel, not both. Unless you want to be distracted by your jeans falling down halfway through.”
“Why are you always the sensible adult?”
“Sam’s the sensible adult,” Castiel pointed out gravely. “Which is why you should keep your trousers on.”
Dean cleared his throat pointedly. “Speaking of, guys.”
Sam clambered up the last rung of the ladder and unfolded into a sleek dripping tower of wetsuit and muscle and nervous grin. “So. Let’s do this.”
Gabriel’s skin crackled with white-hot power under Castiel’s fingers; and his eyes, which had once flickered silver like any angel’s in moments of turbulence and power, began to glow a deep burnished gold.
Castiel stepped away from him, and left him standing alone in the centre of the deck.
“Dude. Lose the equipment,” Dean offered gruffly. “Oxygen tanks? Kind of explosive. And I’m not paying for the wetsuit if you go all angel-flamethrower on it.”
Sam pulled a face at him, and stripped down on deck for the second time in two hours, quick and business-like as if he were changing for a hunt. This time, there was no helpfully lascivious commentary, just the slap of the waves against the hull and Dean’s carefully controlled breathing at Castiel’s side. Then Sam came over to them, tall and smiling and beautiful, and looped an arm around Castiel’s neck. He leaned in, pressed his forehead against Castiel’s, and just breathed for a moment. For luck, he would probably have said; but it was possible, it had to be possible, that it would have to serve as goodbye.
Castiel raised his hand and smoothed the tangled wet hair back from Sam’s cheek; turned his head just a little and brushed his lips against the corner of his softened mouth.
Too soft for Dean to hear, Sam breathed, “If it comes to it – take care of them for me, yeah?” Castiel felt the slow curve of his lips against the scratch of his own stubble. “I know you can this time.”
This time – this time, Castiel didn’t reply “That’s not possible,” and he didn’t lie, because by now it wasn’t even a question. He just sighed, leaned into Sam’s strength, and smiled.
“Am I a zookeeper?”
Sam laughed a little, half breathless. “If you were you could lock them up to keep them out of trouble.”
Castiel stepped back, squeezed his shoulder, and let him go. “I promise, Sam.”
Sam looked at Dean, who shrugged.
“Don’t get killed,” Dean ordered, with the weight of everything else that didn’t need to be said behind it.
“Yeah,” Sam shrugged back, then punched Dean’s shoulder and grinned, sharp and bright. “I’ll do what I can.”
Then he turned his back and approached his other older brother, hips rolling easy and sure with the slow pitch of the deck. Walked away from them, out of their protection; and Castiel was struck by a sudden illogical dizziness. The emotions that came with a soul were strange and turbulent, and after several years he was still not quite familiar with their ways. It made no sense to fear this thing now, so abruptly and queasily, when he had previously feared it only as much the slight chance of failure deserved. He had no part in this battle – all he could do was protect Dean.
Castiel reached into the carefully folded depths of himself within his vessel and shook free his wings; just physical enough to be substantial, flushed with just enough grace to withstand the searing blast if something should go wrong. Dean, beautiful and human and raw beside him, squared his jaw at the sound, and shoved his shoulder in against Castiel’s.
Dean was his strength.
Sam stopped in front of Gabriel, reached out, and ran his hands up his arms. Gabriel looked at him, serious and tender and deep, and reached out to touch his cheek.
“Hey there, handsome.”
Sam grinned at him a bit, a deliberate little twist of the mouth and the bright flash of teeth. “We’ve been here before,” he pointed out, the shadow of a tease. “Panic room. Our first date.”
Gabriel made a shaky, dismissive noise. “Before I died. Doesn’t count.”
Castiel could hear the eye-roll. “First kiss?”
“Stull Cemetery,” Gabriel insisted promptly, and one of his hands crept up to fit over the handprint on the back of Sam’s neck as if he were the shell of an egg.
Sam leaned in to smirk against Gabriel’s hair. “Cheat.”
“Get on with it,” Dean muttered.
Sam flipped him off. Then he took Gabriel’s face between his hands, gentle, reverent, and bent his mouth inexorably down to kiss him.
Castiel turned to Dean, and wrapped him up safe in his arms and wings and determined love.
For a minute or two, there was nothing but warm darkness, the too-loud thud of his own heart against Dean’s, the damp living huff of Dean’s breath chased out and caught in again against Castiel’s cheek. He held on, fingers biting into Dean’s shoulder and arm a tight implacable band around his waist, burrowing into him and hiding in him in a way that he rarely allowed himself, and waited.
He could understand Sam and Gabriel taking their time here; wanting a minute, just a minute, for the closest thing they could get to privacy now. A minute, to be just them. To remember what it had been like before Gabriel had kissed Castiel, and Dean had kissed Gabriel, and over long nights of four to a bed the touches between Sam and Dean (accidental and less so) had crept gradually over the lines of brotherly touching to something far closer in intensity to that soul bond that they had always shared.
Then he heard – felt – Gabriel’s voice, as gentle perhaps as he had ever known him to be. “Hey. I got you.”
Then, light, the piercing absolute light of Heaven washing against his wings, caressing and encompassing them, warmer and much deeper and vaster than Anna’s had been. But Anna’s human body – and her soul, if she had had one then – had been destroyed by it, too much too fast. Sam was stronger than she had been, far stronger, and he could look on Gabriel’s true form without flinching; but so was Chamael greater than Hanael. The real difference here was Gabriel, and the patience with which he could feed Chamael’s essence, trickle by trickle, back into Sam’s soul.
Dean’s fingers were pressing four bruising points into the back of his neck. Minutes, whole minutes, slower than any in Creation, with Dean’s thigh cramping against his.
Then it was only sea air and sunlight warming his wings.
Castiel shook out his wings and let Dean loose, just as Gabriel said “Dean,” his voice rough and quick, and Castiel’s heart that didn’t have to beat stood still. Because – this human, this beautiful great soul who had done so much, loved so hard – no, just Sam. Dean crossed the deck in two strides to where Sam was kneeling with one hand pressed over his eyes, with both of Gabriel’s clamped around his wrists. The archangel’s eyes slid up over Sam’s head to lock on Dean’s face, and his voice was hoarse and empty like he had spent himself holding back the ocean.
“I need you to pull the rest of him through.”
Dean’s hands hovered, clenched and unclenched like he was forcing them not to break, then closed fierce and tight on Sam’s hunched shoulders. “How?”
Gabriel hissed, low and hasty, let go and stepped back, staggering with the roll of the boat. “It doesn’t matter how, just do it!”
Dean dropped to his knees with a jarring thud in front of Sam. He spoke firm and low, one jagged edge of sound. “Look at me, Sammy.” One hand swept up from Sam’s shoulder to span the side of his face, curling possessive around the corner of his jaw. “Look at me.”
And that was all. The touch of Dean’s hand, the sound of his voice, the tug of his soul, and something infinitesmal fell back into place. Sam raised his head and laughed, clear and happy.
Castiel’s breath deserted him in a heady rush, and he didn’t care.
Gabriel was cackling somewhere, hysterical and relieved, and Dean was swearing and punching Sam in the shoulder, and Sam’s wings were unfolding from the naked planes of his back. Reaching out across the deck, out beyond the rails on either side, and they were nothing like Castiel remembered. Nothing here of the stark angel of black and silver, not even the greys of that angel when he learned to doubt. These wings were all shades of bronze and tan and copper and cream and warm rich browns like suede. And rippling through it all, not merely edging the feathers as it did for Castiel and Gabriel, the bright golden hue of grace and soul combined.
Chamael. The fifth archangel, the boy with the demon blood, the man who had fought off Lucifer and stopped the Apocalypse, whole and beautiful. And now, suddenly and completely, Castiel let himself think of standing in Heaven with this brother at his side, of how magnificent he would be, how new. How much he could show them all, of what it meant to think and to choose, and to take responsibility.
For the first time in a long time, Castiel prayed, and gave quiet thanks.
“Cas, get over here,” Sam laughed, muffled like he had a mouth full of someone’s hair, and Castiel couldn’t see whose because they were a messy sprawl of limbs and wings on the deck. So he came over there, and went down on his knees beside them, and let himself be pulled into the tangled four-way embrace. Gabriel’s half-beard scraped over his forehead, and Dean’s hand was too tight on his thigh, and Sam’s ribs were heaving with breath and life under his arm, and someone’s knee was digging into his side, all relief and delight and trust.
Then Gabriel sat back on his heels, grinning like a lion, and pointed at Sam’s wings. “You two muttonheads are so freaking predictable. Mystery spot? I never stood a chance.”
Dean leaned back to look, blinked, then huffed out a breathless amused kind of sound. “Seriously, Sammy?”
“What?” Sam scowled half-heartedly, and craned his head around to look.
Nestled in the most sensitive inner curve of each wing, in the soft triangle between the wrist and Sam’s side, was the mark of a handprint in deep burnished gold. But these weren’t a match to the marks on Sam’s neck and hip, from where Gabriel had dragged him back from Lucifer’s cage – rather, they fit the white splotches that Dean was currently digging into Sam’s and Castiel’s thighs.
There was a moment’s silence. Then Sam said, resigned and a little awed, “You’re never going to let me live this down, are you?”
“Nope,” Dean confirmed cheerfully.
Gabriel ruffled Dean’s damp hair up backwards. “Goes both ways, tiger. No more demon deals for you. Now you’ve got two angels with markers on your soul.”
Dean swatted at him, tucked two fingers into the waistband of his jeans and tugged him into a kiss like a prayer and a duel until they were both out of breath. Then he grinned at him, a finger’s width from Gabriel’s lips, and growled in a tone that went straight to the most sensual pit of Castiel’s stomach, “Thanks.”
Gabriel’s eyes gleamed challengingly at him through the curtain of dark lashes. “Back at you.”
“Okay, so,” Sam put in plaintively. “Before you guys jump each other, there’s something I gotta do.”
“The reef?” Castiel asked softly, letting his lips drag across the velvet warmth of Sam’s collarbone. Because, considering its current state of crisis, that was what he himself would do in Sam’s position; and Sam’s sense of duty and imperative was only so far from his own as Dean’s sense of humour was from Gabriel’s.
Sam hummed agreement, nuzzled into Castiel’s throat for a moment, then rose to his feet in one easy, fluid movement. “Looked after me for close on twenty million years. Even by angel standards, that’s kind of a while. Least I can do is return the favour.”
He flexed his wings, wide and strong, stirred up the water around the boat with their passage, then held his hand out to Dean with that terrifying Winchester grin of I-just-dare-you that had got them all into so many ridiculous situations and prank wars.
Dean’s eyes went wide into his Oh hell no expression.
“Come on, Dean. You let Cas and Gabriel and you don’t trust me?” Sam’s whole face was lit up with his delight as he closed his hands around Dean’s shoulders.
Dean narrowed his eyes and lifted his chin like a challenge, even as he stepped in and slid his arm snug into place around Sam’s waist, as if it had been made to fit there. “If you drop me in the water, so help me, Sammy…”
The rest was lost in a rush of wings, then the boat was quiet.
Tomorrow would bring new complications, no doubt; a new chapter. A happy ending was a stagnant thing: real living never settled. But Castiel had lived stagnant perfection for billions of years, and learned nothing.
After a minute, Gabriel nudged his elbow into Castiel’s side. “Hey. You’re kind of awesome, little bro.” He paused, considering. “Like Teflon.”
“Thank you, Gabriel,” Castiel said gravely.
“Shut up. I’m trying to have a moment here.” Gabriel wrinkled his nose at him. “We’d all be a stupid mess without you, okay?”
Castiel tipped his head back, watched the sun strike copper fire through Samuel’s pinions as he tilted and slid sideways through the air, laughing into Dean’s neck.
“I think the same is true of each of us.”
“Sap.” Gabriel made a face, rumpled up Castiel’s hair mercilessly, and spread his great wings to the sky.