Actions

Work Header

(Sound of) Something Good

Chapter Text

Dean was standing on the edge of a war. It felt like a solid porch, attached to a regular house in an ordinary neighborhood, but everyone knew the suburbs were the fringes. This was where it started: the slow slide into anonymity. Killers and convicts could disappear into the community and their neighbors would just coo and claim, “He’s such a nice young man!”

Sam would be quick to point out that Dean hadn’t been convicted of anything yet. They were both hoping to keep it that way, and if Sam’s strategy was a lot more mundane than Dean’s would have been, well. There was a reason Sam had his own front door to shelter behind and Dean had to borrow someone else’s.

He could have borrowed Sam’s. He could have crashed on any number of couches, except that Sam insisted a vagrant lifestyle was half of Dean’s problem. In an effort to get him off the criminal watch list, Dean was supposed to stay in one place, draw a steady paycheck, and lay low for once in his life.

The plan wouldn’t have flown with him if Bobby hadn’t shut him out. He still suspected Sam of getting to the man first, because by the time Dean called all he got was, “No one wants to work with the next big bust, Dean. Come back when you sound the slightest bit respectable.”

Bobby’s standards weren’t high, but Dean’s record set the bar pretty low. He’d need at least one good reference for any job that wasn’t jail, and if Sam was it then Sam was it. He knew someone, he said: someone Dean might even get along with if he could manage not to scare the kids.

Dean had exactly no experience with children. He thought the fact that Sam had set him up as a bodyguard for seven rich brats said more about Sam’s sense of humor (and the ultimate fate of his college-educated friends) than it did about Dean’s actual skills. On the other hand, it paid, it included room and board, and Sam said the job was his if he wanted it.

Dean didn’t want it. But Sam wanted him to have it, and Bobby wasn’t reassigning him until he proved he knew how to blend in with the masses, so. It looked like an enforced vacation for him.

He didn’t realize until it all went to hell that walking into this house wouldn’t mean leaving the fight. He was wading straight into the most violent fray of his life. The choice would have been more clear if it was an enemy he knew anything about.

“Can I help you?” The guy at the door didn’t look like he had seven kids. He wasn’t expecting Dean, either. So probably not Sam’s friend. Boyfriend? Boy toy? Moocher?

“Hey,” Dean said, eyeing him. “Here for Castiel. He in?”

The guy smirked at him. “How do you know I’m not him?”

“Are you?” Dean asked. He’d had a lousy week and he didn’t feel like playing games.

All it got him was a sigh and a shake of the head. “You’re no fun, Dean Winchester. I can already tell I’m not going to like you.”

So the guy was expecting him. He wasn’t Castiel, though: Dean knew Sam’s type, and this wasn’t it. “We don’t have to like each other to work together.”

“True,” the guy agreed. “Never worked with anyone I did like, actually. You might as well come in; I’ll tell the man you’re here. Don’t break anything, don’t wander off, and try not to do anything that would get the police called before I get back.”

Dean swung his duffel over his shoulder and stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind him. He made sure the guy was gone before he rolled his eyes. Sam didn’t take any crap, and Dean was pretty sure he wouldn’t have suggested someone who did.

Not that he’d really suggested it, in the end. Bullied, demanded, contrived, yes. Suggested? Not so much.

The house was stupidly huge. Dean tried not to care. The bigger the place, the better the pay, right? He still didn’t know what he was working for, but if it included room and board it probably wasn’t great. He wasn’t going to rack up a lot of hazard pay helping five-year-olds cross the street. The best he could hope for was that whoever was paying him was too rich to care.

The best he could hope for was that Sam would get over his self-righteous “clean slate” approach and help Dean with a better fake identity, but that didn’t look like it was happening this week. Maybe Bobby would work on him from the other side… all it would take was one good case. Some monster ate enough people and they’d be begging him to come back.

Not that he wanted monsters to eat people or anything.

“Hello, Dean.”

He hadn’t realized he was staring at an oversized canvas full of angels or saints or some other weird religious scenario until the voice interrupted his irritation. Because of course he was in a house like that. He hoped his disgust wasn’t obvious when he turned around.

The man standing at the bottom of the stairs shouldn’t have been able to get that close without getting Dean’s attention. How out of it was he, anyway? Those stairs led up to a wraparound balcony that was completely exposed. There was no way anyone arrived unnoticed short of a trapdoor.

“Hey,” Dean said warily. Sam wasn’t that pissed at him, right? He’d have mentioned if this was one of his creepy human integration projects? “You Castiel?”

“Yes,” the man said. “Your brother assures me that you are well-versed in the supernatural. Is this accurate?”

“Yeah,” Dean said. Well-versed didn’t really cover it. “It’s pretty accurate.”

“You are able to defend multiple persons against a variety of unconventional attacks?”

Sam hadn’t said there was going to be an entrance exam. “I’ve been defending people against unconventional attacks all my life,” Dean said. “It’s my job, and I’m good at it. You want a trophy?”

Castiel tilted his head, and Dean knew. Sam had lied to his face. This was one of his projects; he’d known Dean would refuse, so he’d kept his mouth shut until it was too late.

“That won’t be necessary,” the man – or whatever he was – said. “I’m aware of your reputation. And in light of that, I must clarify: my children are not entirely human. Will that be a problem for you?”

Dean stared at him. Yeah, it was a fucking problem. He was going to kill Sam for getting him into this. Because Castiel was a monster, and Sam had signed Dean up to protect his little monster babies from people like Dean.

“They gonna eat me?” Dean asked at last. Until someone got him out of here, he needed this job.

Castiel frowned. It was the first expression Dean had seen on his face, and it didn’t make him feel any safer. “No,” he said. Like the question was unreasonable or something.

“Then no,” Dean said. Sam was a dead man. “It’s not a problem.”

“Very well.” Castiel had an unblinking stare that added an extra creepy element to his non-expression. “You will sleep upstairs with the children. I prefer that you not bring guests into the house, but you may have two days off each week as long as you notify me in advance. You are not required to take meals with the children, but I will need you to accompany them whenever they leave the house.

“I will also need you to spend a significant amount of time with them while they’re here,” Castiel added. “Mostly in my absence, which is extensive. Any advice you can provide regarding the defense and protection of the house itself is welcome.”

“Yeah, okay,” Dean said, already looking around. A place like this would be hell to fortify, but he’d worked with worse. “What about school? You got clearance to post a guard in the hallways?”

“Yes,” Castiel said.

Dean looked back at him in surprise. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” Castiel repeated. “They attend Historia Waldorf. You will be provided with transportation and a detailed schedule of their activities. Monetary compensation is two thousand dollars per week, to be issued every Thursday evening. Is this an acceptable arrangement?”

Dean did his absolute best not to react. “Two thousand dollars?” he said evenly. “A week?” And then, because his absolute best wasn’t so great sometimes: “Are you kidding?”

“I am not kidding.” Castiel studied him. “Food, clothing, and other necessities will be paid for you, of course. Do you wish to negotiate?”

“No,” Dean said. Quickly. “That’s fine.”

That was fucking ridiculous. What the hell kind of enemies did Castiel have?

“You’ve met my butler already,” Castiel was saying. “Do you have other things you would like him to bring in?”

It slipped out before he could think. “Dude, that was your butler?”

There was that head tilt again. It didn’t seem as frightening this time, which couldn’t be a good sign. Money had never been enough before: no one bought his trust. So what was he doing talking like he had any right to criticize? Not human, he reminded himself. He didn’t know what this guy was, but he wasn’t human. No way was he safe.

“Yes,” Castiel said simply.

“Right,” Dean said. “No,” he added, when Castiel just waited. “I don’t have anything else.”

Castiel’s gaze flicked to his single duffel bag, but he didn’t say anything else about it. “I will show you to your room,” he said. “Is there anything else you require before you meet the children?”

“I’m good,” Dean said, picking up his bag again. “Lead the way.”

He didn’t have a room, it turned out. He had a suite. An actual suite, with no disturbing religious decorations or terrible wallpaper. It was too big, but hey. There was a bed. That right there was more than he asked lately.

“Will this be suitable?” Castiel asked from behind him.

Dean didn’t know what kind of game that was, the faux solicitousness, but for two grand a week he thought he could play pretty much anything. “Yeah,” he said, turning around. “It’s great. Thanks.”

Castiel raised an eyebrow, but all he said was, “I have a housekeeper. She does not clean the children’s rooms, but you are welcome to her services if you like.”

Of course he had a housekeeper. He had a butler, for crying out loud.

“I don’t like anyone else touching my stuff,” Dean told him.

Castiel just nodded. “As you wish,” he said. “The children must be welcome here, of course, but you may restrict them from your bedroom if you choose.”

Seven kids, Dean thought. How the hell did this humorless man have seven kids? And where were they? “Who’s watching them right now?” he wanted to know. They had staff, apparently. Maybe there was a nanny?

“They may be more loosely attended within the security of the house,” Castiel said. “If you’re ready, I will call them to meet you.”

“Sure,” Dean said. “Let’s do it.”

Castiel didn’t take his eyes off of Dean as he said, “Children. Come here.”

Dean felt his spine stiffen. Monsters. “Yeah,” he said aloud, staring at Castiel as adrenaline made his fingers cold. “I’m not gonna be able to do that.”

He saw the first trace of amusement on Castiel’s face. “The intercom is right behind you.”

Dean turned, taking a step back to keep Castiel in his field of view while he scanned the wall. Sure enough. Subtle, innocuous as a light switch but unmistakable now that he was looking for it. “Cute,” he said. “Voice activated?”

“After a fashion,” Castiel said. And who said that, “after a fashion”?

“The children will show you how to use it,” he was saying as the door to the suite swung wider on its hinges. “It does prevent a certain amount of mischief.”

Right. Never abused, of course. But the kids were filing in, and okay, they were older than he’d expected. Some of them. Hadn’t Sam said they were young?

Didn’t Sam think all kids were young?

The first girl in was sixteen if she was a day, all responsible mother figure on the outside and probably girl gone wild underneath. The boy behind her couldn’t be much different, and only younger assuming the oldest had come through the door first. They usually did, Dean knew.

The next two had to be pre-teen at least, but they were followed by a younger boy and two little girls. They would’ve been adorable if they smiled. And if Dean hadn’t known they were inhuman.

As it was they lined up in what he’d guess was age rank order and stared straight ahead. Wearing almost exactly the same thing. The boys had short hair, and all the girls had ponytails. It was probably less creepy when they weren’t all together.

“This is Dean Winchester,” Castiel said, and it occurred to Dean that he’d never actually introduced himself. Castiel hadn’t bothered to ask.

Which he figured was fair. They couldn’t have that many hunter-bodyguards on their doorstep. And who was he to complain about a little rudeness from his inhuman employer? If they’d met in an alley at night, Dean probably would have stabbed him first and asked questions later.

“You may give Dean your names now,” Castiel was saying, and yeah. Not complaining. The rudeness must be a personality trait.

“Maribel,” the oldest girl said.

“Adamel,” the boy next to her said.

The next girl in line said, “Wildfire.” Completely matter-of-fact, and no one batted an eye.

“Maia,” the other pre-teen said.

The little boy said, “Kumara,” but he was the first to hesitate.

The second smallest girl lifted her chin in a very defiant way and declared, “Saph!” Dean wanted to smile, but they all seemed very serious. It was a weird introduction.

The littlest girl didn’t say anything.

Finally Castiel indicated her and offered, “This is Dani. Sometimes she doesn’t speak -” And there was definitely supposed to be something there, but Dean didn’t get it because Castiel paused strangely. In the end all he said was, “I don’t know why.”

“Hi,” Dean said. He lifted a hand in their direction, but he didn’t bother to wave because they were just staring at him. “So all I get is your names?”

Now Castiel was staring at him too. “Do you want something more?”

What were they, barcodes? Or was he not supposed to have personal information? It sounded like he’d be spending all day everyday with them; he was going to end up with personal information.

“Favorite color,” he said. “Favorite food, do you have any pets, I don’t know. Whatever.”

He saw the oldest girl glance at Castiel, who nodded once.

And damned if they didn’t do the whole thing all over again. “Maribel,” the oldest girl repeated. “I don’t have a favorite color. I don’t have a favorite food. We don’t have any pets.”

“Adamel,” the boy beside her echoed. “I don’t have a favorite color. I don’t have a favorite food. We don’t have any pets.”

Dean didn’t roll his eyes when the next girl said obediently, “Wildfire. I don’t have a favorite color--” And he recited along with her, “I don’t have a favorite food. We don’t have any pets.” She didn’t stop, saying every word as he said it, and afterwards she just looked at him curiously like she didn’t know why he was talking.

Okay, so he was the bad guy here. That wasn’t totally unexpected. He hadn’t thought they’d be this obnoxious the first day - he hadn’t even told them they couldn’t do anything yet - but they obviously knew why he was here. He’d be pissed too.

“Maia,” the third girl said quietly. She hesitated long enough that he raised his eyebrows at her, and she added, “I don’t have a favorite color, but... I like to eat cereal?”

The first one to break ranks. Dean hoped the older ones didn’t get mad at her for it later. “That’s cool,” he told her. “I like cereal too. What kind do you eat?”

“Shredded wheat,” she said with depressing certainty.

Dean looked at Castiel. “What, do they not get sugar?” he asked. Meals were going to suck.

Castiel frowned. “Organic Autumn Wheat contains seven grams of sugar per serving,” he said, and who knew that off the top of his head? More importantly, who thought that was enough? What were kids doing eating shredded wheat?

“I eat Cocoa Puffs,” Dean told Maia. “We’ll have to trade sometime; try something new.”

Maia looked at her father before she answered. “Okay,” she said. She didn’t look enthusiastic about it, but it was more than he’d gotten from any of the others.

Then the boy who’d given his name as “Kumara” said, “I’m Maru. I like all colors. I don’t like food.”

Well, he was talking. Even if it didn’t make any sense. “You don’t like any food?” Dean couldn’t figure out what that was supposed to mean. “Not even pie or cookies or something?”

Maru did the thing where he tipped his head to the side, and he was probably eight and it still looked just like Castiel. It gave Dean a terrible feeling that maybe they didn’t even eat, not normal things like human beings but maybe blood or babies or something. He probably should have followed up the “Will they eat me?” question with “Will they eat anyone else?”

“I’ve never had pie,” Maru said, and that didn’t make Dean feel any better.

“Ice cream?” he asked. No one made it eight years without ice cream.

Maru actually looked interested at that, which had to be a first. “I had ice cream at school once,” he said. “I --” And he stopped and looked at his father. “It tasted good,” he finished, staring down at the floor.

Dean looked at Castiel too, but he couldn’t see anything disapproving about his expression. “I’m a big fan of ice cream,” Dean told Maru. “I think I’m gonna like your school.”

Maru looked up without lifting his head, and Dean thought it was the closest any of them had come to smiling yet. Except maybe Castiel, who had definitely wanted to laugh at him about the intercom. This family seriously needed to lighten up.

“I’m Saph,” the second littlest girl reminded him. “That’s not really my name, but it’s what everyone calls me.”

That was more like what he expected from a kid. He didn’t have any, no one he knew had any, and generally speaking he figured kids were better off doing what they were told. But this freaky conformity was a little much for him, and he was glad to hear “Saph” go off-script.

“Oh, yeah?” Dean said, smiling at her. Someone had to be the first. “Why does everyone call you Saph?”

“Because I told them to,” she said importantly. “I like the name Saph.”

“Me too,” Dean agreed. “Good choice, Saph.”

It worked, because she smiled back at him like she was an actual human kid and he’d said something to make her happy. He’d take it. He didn’t even bother asking about colors or foods. He’d gotten that message pretty clearly, and if Saph was going to smile at him then she could say whatever she wanted.

He looked at the last girl. She looked back at him.

Dean waited, mostly to see what would happen, and finally Saph jumped in again. “Dani likes bright light,” she said. “That’s her favorite color. And she likes snacks at school.”

“Is that what you were gonna say?” Dean asked the other girl. He probably shouldn’t encourage any of them to speak for her, but it was nice to hear someone talking.

To his surprise, Dani nodded.

“She means she likes other people’s snacks,” Saph said confidently. “Sometimes we trade. Like you said with the cereal.”

“So you give them your snack and they give you theirs?” Dean asked, watching Dani carefully. She didn’t seem mad about having her story told for her, but she didn’t seem shy about staring back at him, either.

Dani nodded again.

“That sounds pretty fair,” Dean said. “Good way to try new things.”

“I like new things,” Saph agreed. “Like you. You’re interesting.”

“Well, thanks,” Dean said, glancing at Castiel. “I think.”

Castiel caught his eye briefly. He seemed about as sure - which was to say, not at all - but he looked down without a word. Dean followed his gaze and almost took a step back.

Dani was standing right in front of him, staring up with big eyes and an entirely too shrewd expression. Dean hadn’t even seen her move. “Hi,” he said, looking down at her. “Something you want to say?”

She nodded.

“Out loud?” Dean added.

She opened her mouth and asked, “What’s your favorite color?”

He was so surprised he didn’t even think about it. “Black,” he told her.

Dani had the gall to frown up at him. “Black isn’t a color,” she said.

“Neither is bright light,” Dean replied.

Her frown deepened, and he had to feel bad. He had no business taking his frustration out on a little girl. She hadn’t even said “bright light;” Saph had offered that for her. And really, she could complain about black all she wanted to if she was gonna talk.

“But you’re right,” Dean said quickly, even though she wasn’t. Black was totally a color. “I said black ’cause my car’s black, and my car’s my favorite thing in the world. Except for my brother,” he added, which was only partly true right now. “Some days they’re closer than others, though, I gotta tell you.”

Dani hadn’t moved. “I don’t know what that means,” she told him.

Right, yeah. She was like, five or something. “It means I like my car a lot,” he said. “I like my brother a lot too, and usually I like my brother more than I like my car. But not always.”

“Oh,” Dani said. “I don’t know if I like my brothers better than your car. But I think I probably do.”

Okay, not five. Six? Could she be seven? What age did kids get smart?

“I think you probably do too,” Dean told her. “But that’s okay. Most people haven’t met the love of their life by the time they’re your age.”

Dani stared up at him like he was the strangest thing she’d ever seen.

“Is your brother the love of your life?” Saph asked curiously.

“My car is the love of my life,” Dean said. Kids were a lot quicker than he’d given them credit for. Maybe he was lucky the older ones weren’t talking to him yet. He’d need time to acclimate.

“That’s why you like black,” Saph said.

“That’s right,” Dean agreed. Here, at least, he was on solid ground.

“I like bright light,” Dani told him.

Dean knew he shouldn’t, but he couldn’t resist. “That the love of your life?” he teased.

Dani nodded solemnly. “The love of my life,” she repeated.

“We’re approaching supper time,” Castiel said. He didn’t sound disapproving or worried or even particularly interested, but all of the children straightened. Even the ones who hadn’t relaxed.

Castiel didn’t look at them, his tone still mild as he addressed Dean. “Tuesday is pizza night. Do you have a...” He paused long enough to make it obvious. “Favorite kind of pizza?”

“Anything with meat,” Dean said. Then he wondered if that was a bad thing to say, given their totally weird food issues. “I mean - you’re not vegetarian, are you?” He tried not to make it sound like the worst thing in the world.

“We are not,” Castiel said. “We’ll go downstairs and order the pizza, and you may make yourself at home here. Join us whenever you’re ready.”

As long as whenever he was ready wasn’t more than half an hour, Dean thought. Or less: who knew how far away the nearest pizza place was. He should probably figure out where stuff was in relation to this house, if he was going to be driving out of it five days a week. Or more.

Maybe he wasn’t even supposed to drive. Castiel might have a chauffeur. Seriously, who lived like this?

Dean walked the entire suite after they’d filed out - just as freakishly quietly as they’d come in - and decided that he was working for a criminal. Or a baby-eater. Probably both. He didn’t trust that intercom even a little, so he pulled out his phone and typed, YOU HAVE ME WORKING FOR MONSTERS, BITCH.

He wasn’t going to unpack. He’d been living out of a duffel bag most of his life; no reason to change now. Especially when a quick exit might be all that stood between him and becoming monster food.

His phone chimed during his second circuit of the giant room, giant bedroom, and attached giant bathroom. 1 New Message, it said. (Sam)

When Dean opened it, all the text said was: FRIENDLIES, JERK.

Oh, because that was an argument Sam got to make, after the last time. And the time before that. And also the time with the vampires.

Especially the time with the vampires.

Dean gave the intercom a suspicious look before he gave in and typed, WHAT ARE THEY?

He used the bathroom, washed his hands, and stuffed his duffel bag under the bed. He bounced on the bed experimentally and decided it was too soft. He counted the sigils burned into the walls around the windows, grudgingly impressed to find them reinforced by another line of protection etched into the floor.

By the time he decided Sam wasn’t going to answer, he was actually curious about the rest of the house. Whoever had drawn those sigils knew what they were doing. Dean had more than a passing familiarity with the language, and he could barely read them.

Plus he was hungry, so he stuffed his phone back into his duffel and headed downstairs. They probably had rules about phones at dinner or something. Although, pizza night. That sounded pretty casual, right?

If the door to the kitchen hadn’t been open, he never would have found them. They weren’t making any noise. They were one of those families that actually ate pizza off of plates, with silverware and everything, but they had all their place settings lined up on the kitchen counters with napkins and stools and it was a little strange. It was nowhere near as strange as the total silence they were eating in.

“Hey,” Dean said, because someone had to. “You got rules about talking at dinner, or what?”

“No,” Castiel said. He looked at Dean in the doorway, then at the island where they’d arranged their pizza. Three large boxes, covers open and folded back identically, and of course Dean hadn’t heard the doorbell. No wonder the man had a butler; he probably had to send mail from one end of the house to the other.

“Help yourself,” Castiel added. “There is one with meat, one with vegetables, and one with both.”

“Not purists, I see,” Dean remarked, picking up the one empty plate from the near end of a kitchen counter. “Smells good.”

He was hungry enough that anything edible would have smelled good at this point, but the pizza looked surprisingly decent. Not greasy fast-food fair, but maybe he should have expected that. They were eating off of plates, after all. They probably ordered hand-tossed whole grain organic pizza or something.

He looked at the crust warily, but it seemed normal. His first bite tasted normal. Better than normal, if he had to rate it. He almost said so aloud before he remembered the whole talking with your mouth full thing. Maybe that was why they were so quiet: they must have strict rules about something, right? Nobody’s kids were this obedient if they weren’t at least a little scared.

Dean sat down awkwardly at the end of the counter, finishing off half his first piece before he couldn’t stand it anymore. He made sure he swallowed before he said, “Did you get outvoted for plain cheese?”

Saph looked up at him with curious eyes. “I don’t know what that means,” she said.

She was picking the vegetables off of her pizza, slow and meticulous. She only ate from the part she’d already picked clean. And she had just repeated, word for word, what Dani had said when Dean stumped her earlier with the comment about Sam.

“They make pizza without anything on it,” he said, nodding at her plate.

Saph frowned.

“Cheese pizza,” Dean prompted. “No veggies? Do you like vegetables?”

“Yes,” she said uncertainly. Like she wasn’t sure it was the right answer.

“Well, okay,” he said. He was very aware that everyone else was listening to them. “But if you don’t like them on your pizza, most pizza places will split a pizza for you. In half, or something. So you could get some pizza without anything on it.”

Saph seemed to think about this. Finally, like she’d solved a great mystery, she said, “So I wouldn’t have to take the vegetables off.”

“Right,” Dean agreed.

All of the kids were watching when Saph turned to Castiel and asked politely, “May I have a piece of pizza without anything on it next time?”

Castiel blinked. It was more than just being surprised she asked, Dean thought. He didn’t know why he thought that except maybe he wasn’t the only one getting a hard time from the kids today. Maybe they were pissed at their dad for hiring Dean in the first place. Because Castiel looked like it hadn’t even occurred to him that one of them would think enough about the pizza to have a preference.

“Yes,” he said after a moment. If nothing else, his voice sounded as even as ever. “Of course.”

Dean decided maybe he should keep his mouth shut for the rest of dinner.

Figuratively speaking.

He didn’t manage to actually do it, but he didn’t get fired either. He was gonna call that a win.

Cleanup was left for the housekeeper, whom Dean still hadn’t met. Castiel spent the time after dinner drilling him in the kids’ schedules, while the kids themselves went to “do their homework.” Dean didn’t know what that was code for, but he couldn’t believe they spent all evening doing homework. Seriously? Even Dani?

He didn’t see them again until the next morning. Castiel had given him explicit instructions about driving the kids to school, introduced him to the Hummer, and then looked on in bemusement when Dean whistled. (“Dude,” Dean had said. “You have a Hummer.”) He got keys and a credit card for gas, which Dean thought was pretty damn trusting of him. It probably had a hundred dollar limit or something.

There was a text message from Sam on his phone that night. He saw it when he went to set his alarm, rolling onto a too-soft bed and staring at a blinding screen in the darkness. He was at least half-asleep already.

ANGELS, the screen said.

Dean squeezed his eyes shut, clenched the fingers of his free hand in the edge of his pillow, and typed back by feel. HA HA.

He was still holding the phone when the alarm went off the next morning. He figured he was lucky, considering he didn’t even remember setting it. But it was six am and the phone was vibrating in his hand. It was also playing some sort of electronic jingle, starting with the word “Victory!” which Dean had initially hated but had learned to tolerate. He had to, since he had no idea how to change it.

The best part of “Victory!” was that it reminded him where he was. He only heard the alarm when he was in weird (usually life-or-death) situations, because most of the time waking up at six-thirty was fine. Today, though, Castiel was supposed to be gone and Dean had no idea how the kids functioned without him.

Just fine, it turned out.

Dean managed to get through a shower, shave, and change of clothes by six-fifteen, and he didn’t get lost on the way to the kitchen so he was there by twenty past. No matter how self-reliant Castiel thought the kids were, Dean hadn’t expected to see them all sitting at the counter, dressed and quietly eating their own breakfast by the time he walked in.

He stopped and stared for a long moment. Because, okay, they had seemed a little weird yesterday. But they were all dressed exactly the same way today, and every last one of them was eating something that he had a horrible suspicion was shredded wheat. And they were staring back at him like he was the strange one.

“Morning,” he muttered at last. He was too human for this shit. None of them even looked tired.

No one answered.

Dean shook his head, reaching up to rub his eyes and changing his mind at the last moment. “Any coffee?” he asked, scrubbing his hand through his hair instead. “Your dad drink it?”

They just looked at him.

“Okay,” he said. “We’re on the road by seven-fifteen. Make sure you have your stuff together and meet me at the car by seven-ten.”

They’d all stopped eating, but he couldn’t decide whether that was more or less creepy when all they were doing was staring at him. He wouldn’t have been surprised if they ignored him. He was a little weirded out by the full-on silent treatment: not just of him, but of each other. What kind of kids didn’t whisper or whatever?

He started opening cupboards - he was hungry and he didn’t plan on shredded wheat for breakfast - and the first thing he found was a coffee maker. “Hey,” he said, pleased. “Now we’re talking.”

There were filters and coffee and everything, so he got it plugged in and percolating while he resumed his search for food. The cereal made him pause: shredded wheat, yeah, but also Cocoa Puffs. Weird.

He found bread and milk and eggs, ridiculous amounts of pasta, a refrigerator filled with fruits and vegetables. No leftover pizza. He wondered who had eaten that. He hadn’t seen the butler since he arrived and he hadn’t met the housekeeper at all: did they stay here too? He couldn’t picture Castiel coming to the kitchen for a midnight snack.

Looking around the kitchen again, he had to ask, “You guys eat cereal every day, or just when you’re by yourselves?” There was a lot of fresh food here for a family that lived out of boxes and cans.

There was a long pause, and he thought they were still on some kind of conversational strike until one of the pre-teens said carefully, “Who are you asking?”

Dean rolled his eyes. “All of you,” he said, setting the milk down on the counter to keep himself from waving it around in exasperation. “Any of you. I’m asking whoever wants to answer.”

It was Maia, he thought. The same one who had said she liked cereal the day before. “We don’t eat cereal every day,” she said.

“You always get your own breakfast?” Dean asked, putting the eggs down next to the milk and going back for vegetables. He’d have gone straight for sausage, but there wasn’t any meat in the refrigerator at all.

“Most of the time?” Maia said it like she wasn’t sure it was the right answer.

“Huh,” Dean said. He found a frying pan next to the stove and put it on a burner, wishing the coffee was ready. He didn’t want to sit around eating cereal and not talking, but actually making something to eat was a pain in the ass.

“So, no cook,” Dean continued, mostly for something to say. Not because he was disappointed or anything. “Your dad ever cook for you?”

“Sometimes,” Maia said. She still sounded tentative, like she wasn’t sure she was supposed to be talking to him at all.

He figured he better give her a break before she decided talking was scarier than not.

He broke and beat some eggs while he was waiting for the pan to warm up, then cut up a pepper because what the hell. The food was right there. He’d be stupid not to take advantage of it.

There was plenty of coffee by the time he was waiting for the eggs to cook, but finding a mug took some doing. It was like they only had them because people were supposed to have mugs. They were buried too deep in the cupboards for any of the kids to reach, and he’d swear every one of them was dusty.

Like he cared. He blew into one of them and nothing came out to choke him, so he rinsed it in the sink and poured it full of coffee to cool. Then he dumped the pepper into the frying pan, and when he looked down Saph was standing by the counter beside him.

“What are you doing?” she wanted to know.

“Making an omelet,” Dean told her.

She squinted up at him. “What’s an omelet?”

“It’s, uh, eggs,” he said. “And... stuff. Whatever you want, really.”

She didn’t look any less confused, so he added, “It’s like scrambled eggs. Except you don’t break ’em up, you fold ’em over. And you can put other stuff inside. Like peppers.”

“What’s scrambled eggs?” Saph asked.

How old was she? Seven? What seven-year-old didn’t know what scrambled eggs were? Wasn’t that, like, a basic food group or something? Classic baby food, at least?

“Go get your spoon,” Dean said, folding his omelet in half. Plenty of room, if he didn’t mess up flipping it. Which he probably would.

Saph was already gone, and he broke another egg into the bowl and beat it with his fork. When Saph appeared next to him again, she was watching with interest as he poured the egg into the clear half of the pan. Of course it wouldn’t stay where he put it, but whatever. Omelet, scrambled egg, it was all pretty much the same thing.

“A scrambled egg,” Dean said, because the silence in the kitchen was oppressive, “is just an egg you mix up and cook in a pan. Give me a second and you can try it for yourself.”

“Like your omelet,” Saph said. She looked like she was taking it all in, even though she couldn’t possibly see into the pan from that angle.

“Yeah,” Dean agreed. “Except you stir scrambled eggs while you cook them. You don’t stir omelets.”

“But you turn them over,” Saph said, watching him awkwardly try to flip an omelet in a half-full pan. It didn’t work. Some of the scrambled eggs stayed on their own side, though, and it wasn’t like he was feeding her an entire breakfast. There’d be plenty for a taste test.

“Uh-huh,” Dean said. “Get a chair if you want and you can watch.”

Saph didn’t move, and when he looked to see why her expression was... weird. “There aren’t any chairs in the kitchen,” she said.

Right, yeah. “A stool,” Dean said. Same thing. He didn’t dare step away from the stove while she was standing right there. “Maribel, you mind bringing her a stool so she can see?”

He didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t like he had a reason to think the oldest kid would help him, but he figured she might at least think about it if it was for her younger sister.

Only seconds passed between him asking and Maribel setting a stool down next to him. “Thanks,” Dean said, surprised. “Okay, Saph. If you want to see, you can climb up here. Just don’t touch anything.”

Saph didn’t move. “Anything?” she repeated, and when he looked down at her she had a wide-eyed expression that made him shake his head.

“Don’t touch the stove,” he said. “Or the pan. Okay?”

“But I can touch other things?”

“Yes,” Dean said, moving the eggs around instead of rolling his eyes. “You can touch other things.”

She climbed up on the stool and balanced easily without leaning on the counter. Little kids were monkeys; he knew that but it was different seeing it in action. “Some people like them less cooked,” he said, pointing at the pan. “You can eat ’em like this if you like them runny, but if you want them dryer you have to wait longer.”

Saph carefully considered an explanation he hadn’t figured she’d care about. He was just talking to have something to do, but she said, “How do you know which way you like them?”

Weren’t kids supposed to be opinionated? How come none of them had favorites, or preferences, or stuffed animals they wouldn’t let go of or special barrettes they wouldn’t take out of their hair? He was sure he’d heard stories of how hard it was to get kids to try new things, and here they were, curious about everything.

“You try them,” Dean said. “Here.” He separated out a couple of pieces and scooped them onto his plate, managing not to dump anything on the floor in the process. “Try that, see if you like it.”

He felt something brush against his other leg, and he looked down to see Dani patting his hip. “You want some too?” he asked.

She nodded, but she was spoonless, so he sent her back to get her own.

“What do you think?” he asked Saph.

“It tastes funny,” she said.

“Yeah, I like ’em dryer too. Here, push that over so Dani can try it and we’ll get you some of the more cooked eggs.” He wanted his omelet first, and he was going to run out of room on his plate. “You want to get me another plate?”

Saph hesitated. “That’s not a question, is it.” She looked very serious about it, which was the only reason he didn’t sigh.

“Sure it was,” Dean said, as patiently as he could. It wasn’t a surprise that they were all giving him a hard time, but it was kind of weird that they were all doing it exactly the same way. “I asked you to get me another plate. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but if I put my omelet on top of your eggs your taste test is gonna be a lot harder.”

“Oh.” Saph sounded uncertain, but she got down and went over to the pantry for a plate.

Maribel’s voice came from right behind him. “You told her to do something,” she said quietly. “But you asked if she wanted to do it. That was confusing.”

Dean glanced over his shoulder. She was still standing by the island, not eating, watching him talk to the youngest kids. Like everyone else, as far as he could tell.

“Look,” he said. “I’m not your dad. I’m not gonna come in here and tell you what to do unless it’s to keep you safe.”

Maribel frowned at him. He didn’t know she was doing it until her silence made him look back at her again, and as soon as he caught her eye her expression smoothed out. “Then how will we know what we’re supposed to do?”

He raised his eyebrows. She didn’t sound like she was being sarcastic, but she must be. “I’m sure however you usually know will be fine.”

This time Adamel spoke up. “Usually our father tells us.”

Dean shook his head, turning back to the stove before the eggs got totally out of control. “Finish your breakfast,” he said. He wasn’t playing stupid games this early in the morning.

Something patted his leg again, and how the hell was Dani that quiet? She was holding a spoon in her hand, and when he looked back at the stove he saw Saph hovering in his peripheral vision. On her stool. With a plate.

They were all that quiet.

“What are you, ninjas?” Dean asked, reaching out to take the plate from her. He put his omelet on it and pushed it back on the counter, adding the rest of the eggs to the first plate. “There you go,” he said, passing it to Saph. “Share ’em with Dani.”

Saph looked at the plate in her hand, then down at the floor. Apparently she could climb up on the stool with a plate, but not climb down. He smiled in spite of himself.

“Here,” he said, taking the plate back and setting it down. Then he turned to Dani and almost scooped her up before he remembered not his kid. “You mind being picked up?” he asked.

She stared at him, wide-eyed.

It was Saph who said, “She doesn’t mind.”

Yeah, Dean didn’t trust that big stare one bit. Kids screamed. Just because he hadn’t heard it yet didn’t mean he had no idea. “Nod if it’s okay for me to pick you up,” Dean told her.

After a brief hesitation, Dani nodded, so Dean scooped her up and set her on the counter next to the eggs. “There you go,” he said. “Share.”

He made sure the burner was off, pushed the pan to the back of the stove, and picked up his own plate. Saph had edged closer, sawing a tiny piece of egg in half before she put it in her mouth. Dani pushed the other piece around with her spoon until it fell on, and she got it to her mouth without it falling off, so.

Saph was looking at him again. “Are omelets your favorite food?” she asked.

The omelet was decent, if he did say so himself. But it certainly wasn’t the best thing he’d ever eaten. “Nah,” he said, careful to swallow first. He’d probably messed up all their table manners by putting Dani on the counter. “But you had eggs, so. Good to get protein at breakfast.”

“Why?” Saph wanted to know.

She didn’t, he noticed, ask what protein was or whether it was found in eggs.

“Because it gives you energy for the rest of the day,” he told her. “That’s what breakfast is for, right?”

“How do you know if you should decide because of what you like or because of what’s good for you?” Saph asked.

“Well, you have to balance them,” Dean said. “I like omelets, and they’re good food, so that’s pretty easy.”

She frowned. “But you said they’re not your favorite.”

“I still like them,” Dean said. “I like bacon more than I like omelets, but I like omelets more than I like cereal.”

He saw Dani eyeing his plate, so he held it out to her. She gave him a startled look.

Saph said, “We don’t have any bacon.”

“Yeah,” Dean agreed, reaching out to take Dani’s spoon from her. He scooped up a piece of his omelet and handed the spoon back. “I noticed that.”

“We could get some,” Saph said, watching Dani put the spoon in her mouth. “Father says we’re supposed to help you get whatever you want.”

Dean offered his plate to Saph. She took some of his omelet right away, and he figured they were making progress. “So we can order groceries? Or do I have to go get the stuff I want?”

“Kelly gets the groceries,” Saph said confidently. “She’s our housekeeper. Father says you can leave a list on the counter and she’ll get whatever’s on it.”

“Kelly, huh?” Castiel hadn’t told him that, and Dean had to wonder when he’d decided to pass instructions through his kids. “Haven’t met her yet.”

“We don’t see her much,” Saph said. “Father says she has lots of other things to do, but she always comes back here because she’s safe here.”

He should have pushed Sam harder about what exactly Castiel did.

“Well, this is a pretty safe house,” Dean told her. He’d gotten the rundown on structural defenses the night before, and he’d been impressed. He wasn’t easily impressed. “I can see why she’d feel that way.”

Dani was staring at him, so he tipped his plate toward her again. She smiled, scooting across the counter and stretching her spoon toward him. Yeah, he thought. Cereal was really their favorite food.

The older kids cleaned out their bowls, though, and if the girls helped him finish the eggs instead no one said anything about the food they left behind. On the counter again. They had a dishwasher, and he wondered why Castiel let them leave their dishes lying around if they weren’t allowed to have the housekeeper clean their rooms.

Dean opened the dishwasher himself and found it spotless. And dry. Like it had never even been used. “You guys use this?” he asked, since at least Wildfire was still in the kitchen. The others had scurried off to get bags or jackets or both: whatever kids needed when they went to school these days, he had no idea.

“No,” Wildfire said. It was the first thing she’d said all morning, but hey, he hadn’t heard anything from Maru either. “Kelly does our dishes.”

“Yeah, but does she use the dishwasher?” Dean asked.

It might as well have been the hardest question in the world. Wildfire looked honestly torn, answering at last, “I’m not usually here when she does the dishes?”

“Right, okay.” If she was giving him a hard time, she obviously felt bad about it. He wondered if it had been the oldest kids who’d told everyone to say as little to him as possible. He put his dishes in the dishwasher, because it was the polite thing to do, and then he turned back to Wildfire.

She was eyeing her own dishes like maybe she should imitate him, but he figured their cleanup habits weren’t any of his business. “Wildfire your real name?” he asked.

She looked surprised. “Yes,” she said.

Right.

“I like it,” Dean said. “Very cool.”

Wildfire tilted her head at him in that way they all seemed to have of imitating their dad. “Is it your favorite name?” she asked.

“I’m glad you think the favorite thing is so funny,” he said.

Instead of laughing at him, she frowned. They all frowned a lot, he thought.

“So it’s not your favorite name?” Wildfire said.

“My name is my favorite name,” Dean told her. “You got all your stuff for school?”

“It’s in the car,” she said.

He’d seen a backpack in there last night, but he hadn’t thought much about it. Other than, damn, that was one hell of a minivan substitute. “Okay,” he said. “What about a jacket? It’s cold out this morning, and I hear you have to walk.”

“My jacket’s in the car too,” she said.

Of course it was.

“All right,” he said, grabbing his own jacket from a stool and patting his pockets to check for wallet and keys. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

The rest of the kids were waiting by the car when he opened the door to the garage. Literally waiting by it, even though they’d opened the car doors. What was the point of that? If they wanted to mess with him, wouldn’t it be easier to just be late or something?

He looked at his watch. It read 7:09.

“Okay,” he said, shrugging to himself. “Everybody in. Maribel,” he added, when she went to climb in behind her brother. “Up front. You’re my navigator.”

She left her bag with Adamel, but she pulled open the front passenger door and got in without protest. The other kids slid down the long limo-like bench seats, bags and jackets and all, and Dean thought it must be like going to prom every day. Maybe it got boring after a while. They certainly didn’t act excited.

Maia and Wildfire were the last ones in, and Dean approved. Oldest first, followed by the youngest. Middle kids bring up the rear. He thought he’d have to teach them to circle the littlest ones, but it looked like they did it instinctively. Good for them.

Maribel didn’t say anything when he slid into the driver’s seat. “You gonna tell me if I make a wrong turn?” he asked, reaching up to push the garage door opener.

He started the car before she answered. “If you ask me to,” she said at last.

“I’m asking,” Dean said. The engine hummed as it engaged, and he couldn’t have asked an automatic to be any smoother. “Actually, if you could tell me before I make a wrong turn, that’d be great. You drive?”

She didn’t answer right away, and finally he gave her a quick glance. The garage door was rolling shut behind them - who even had a garage that fit a Hummer? - and the wheel was solid and steady under his hands. It was like driving power.

“I’ve never driven before,” Maribel said at last.

“How old are you?” Dean asked.

She hesitated, and he didn’t mean to sigh but he did. Why was every question he asked them so hard? “Look,” he said. “We don’t have to be friends. But I’m gonna need to be able to ask you basic questions and get answers. If there’s something you don’t want to tell me, just say, ‘I don’t want to tell you that,’ okay?”

This time Maribel didn’t pause. “I understand,” she said. “I’m not trying to frustrate you; I just don’t understand your questions.”

“The last time you had a birthday,” Dean said. “How many candles were on your cake.”

“I don’t know,” Maribel said. “We don’t celebrate birthdays.”

“Really?” That sucked. “Sorry to hear that. Are you old enough to drive or not?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m old enough to drive.”

“Do you have a license?” Dean wanted to know.

“No,” Maribel said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” Maribel said.

“Do you want one?” Dean insisted. Brief answers were annoying, but at least they were better than long pauses. The waiting drove him crazy.

“I don’t know,” Maribel repeated.

Maybe not that much better. “Okay, how is that a hard question?” he demanded. “Just say, ‘I don’t want to tell you that.’ Do we have to practice?”

“I know how to say ‘I don’t want to tell you that,’” Maribel said. She sounded irritated, which was a first and he was going to count it as a win. It was a break in the monotonous indifference, anyway. “I don’t know how to answer your question.”

“Yes or no would be enough,” Dean told her.

None of the kids were talking in the back. It would have worried him more if he hadn’t seen them do exactly the same thing at dinner and breakfast. Either they didn’t talk to each other, or they didn’t talk to each other in front of him, but their silence didn’t seem to be directly related to his conversations with any of them.

“In order to say yes or no,” Maribel said, in what was indisputably a testy tone, “I assume I would have to either want or not want to have a driver’s license. Since I don’t, the appropriate answer seems to be ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t understand why that upsets you.”

“You don’t know whether you want a license or not?” Dean repeated. They didn’t know what they liked for breakfast. They didn’t know what their favorite colors were. What if they were just telling the truth and this was some weird monster thing he hadn’t been briefed on?

“Do you want anything?” Dean asked, because he didn’t know how else to test that theory.

“Yes,” Maribel said. “I want you not to be frustrated with us.”

That was... creepy.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because our father told us to help you,” Maribel replied. “I don’t think that frustrating people and helping them are the same thing. You’re about to miss a turn.”

He wasn’t, but when he flipped on the right turn signal, she nodded.

“So you want to help me because your dad told you to?” Dean asked.

“Yes,” Maribel said.

“Well, you take it a little far,” Dean said bluntly. “What are you guys, anyway? Your dad says you’re not human.”

“I don’t want to tell you that,” Maribel said.

Dean raised his eyebrows. He would have liked to see her expression, but he wasn’t taking his eyes off the road right now. The Hummer had a great view, but he was a little concerned he might roll over someone by accident.

“Why not?” Dean asked. “Doesn’t answering my questions count as helping me?”

“We’re not supposed to say things that might compromise our identity outside of the house,” Maribel said. “And Father doesn’t want to give you any reason to kill us.”

He didn’t even feel his hands clench, but his fingers were white on the wheel and he tried to loosen them in case the baby monsters were looking that closely. “Why do you think I’d kill you?” It was the wrong question, all wrong, and he wished seen this coming somehow.

The question wasn’t, Why do you think I’d kill you. The question was, Why does your dad not care that I might kill you. Because Castiel obviously wasn’t stupid, but he’d left Dean alone with his children and that meant Castiel wasn’t afraid of him. And if he’d told the kids who Dean was, that meant they weren’t afraid of him either.

Dani wasn’t afraid of him. If tiny Dani wasn’t afraid, that meant that tiny Dani could defend herself. Which led him to wonder, among other things, just what exactly Castiel thought Dean was going to protect them from.

“You can’t kill us,” Maribel said. Her certainty was chilling. “Father just doesn’t want us to give you a reason to, because if you try, we won’t be able to have you around anymore.”

Nice, he thought. That was a really nice way of saying no one would ever hear from him again if he lifted a hand against them. “Why do you want me around in the first place?”

Still the wrong question, he thought. If they didn’t know what they wanted, they probably didn’t want him around. They just needed him. For something.

“Are you asking why Father hired you?” Maribel wanted to know.

“Yeah,” he told the windshield. “That’s what I’m asking.”

“To keep people like you from finding out that they can’t kill us,” Maribel said. “If you stop them, they won’t know that we could have.”

That was... actually pretty clever. Dean narrowed his eyes, wondering exactly how much this job was going to decrease his life expectancy. “I suppose I’m expendable,” he said aloud.

“Would you have given your life to protect us before?” Maribel asked.

“Before I knew you couldn’t die?” Dean retorted. “That’s the job, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” Maribel said. “Father didn’t tell us the details of your agreement. But if you protect us, we’ll protect you. It’s only fair.”

He couldn’t help but think, if he could trust anything she said, that this one offer was probably more valuable than anything Castiel had told him. “You’re on,” he said, taking his right hand off the steering wheel and holding it out to her.

The girl who didn’t have a favorite color or a driver’s license knew enough to put her hand awkwardly in his and seal the agreement with a handshake.

There was total silence from the back, but when he looked at them in the rearview all he saw was a bunch of too-obedient kids sitting quietly in their seats. He wondered if they were drones. Maybe they were robots. Maybe they didn’t know what they liked to eat or how to use a dishwasher because they didn’t actually need food.

“We can die,” Maribel remarked, as they went around another corner.

For once in his life, Dean’s brain-to-mouth filter kicked in before he said the worst possible thing. So instead of saying, How? he managed to come up with, “You can tell me that but you can’t tell me what you are?”

“Correcting your misunderstanding isn’t likely to make you want to kill us,” Maribel pointed out. “Is it?”

“No,” Dean said quickly.

When she didn’t say anything else, he said, “Wait, so after all that, telling me what you are might make me want to kill you?” More than the rest of it, he added silently?

“Father thinks it might,” Maribel said.

There wasn’t much he could say to that, but he wanted to. He wanted to say they were just kids, and he wasn’t a baby-killer, and if all they were doing was trying to stay under the radar then he got that. But he couldn’t promise them that he was okay with whatever they were. As much as he hated to believe it, they might get along better if he didn’t know.

“I do this to protect people,” he said at last. “Okay? Your dad hired me to protect you, and I guess he knows how far I’m willing to go. But I don’t kill people who haven’t done anything wrong. I kill things that are already killing - to stop them. To stop people from dying. Do you get that?”

“Not really,” Maribel said. “You killing people doesn’t stop the killing. It just adds to it.”

That was an argument he was still having with Sam, and he wasn’t about to get into it with a sixteen-year-old. “Look,” he said. “Have you killed anyone?”

“No,” Maribel said.

“Any of you?” Dean insisted.

“None of my brothers or sisters have killed anyone,” Maribel said.

He narrowed his eyes, because that was pretty specific. “What about your dad?”

“I don’t want to tell you that,” Maribel said.

“Okay, whatever.” It was still better than her not answering. “You haven’t killed anyone, I’m not gonna kill you. Try,” he corrected. “I’m not gonna try to kill you.”

“Okay,” Maribel echoed. “I understand.”

He didn’t ask her to tell him what they were again.

By the time they pulled into the Historia parking lot, he was half-convinced they were hopelessly lost. There was nothing here. But Maribel hadn’t corrected his directions, none of the kids looked surprised, and Castiel had warned him that they would have to walk. Dean had pictured a sidewalk or a long driveway or something, but no. Apparently the kids got dropped off in the middle of the woods and walked some crazy distance through the trees on a dirt path.

Must suck in the winter, Dean thought. Or when it was raining. They seriously made the kids do this when it was pouring? How did that instill peace or promote focus or whatever they were supposed to get out of this?

He slammed the driver’s side door and went around to help the kids unload. They were mostly out already, Adamel handing Dani her mittens though the back before he ducked low to climb out after her. She leaned on the door beside him, pretending to help push it closed, and Dean wondered how “not entirely human” they were. They acted human.

Kind of.

“Okay,” Saph said, skipping up beside him and taking his hand without hesitation. “I’m ready!”

He tried to hide his smile, fumbling the key tag that locked the doors. “Everyone else?” he called, then he remembered the Who are you asking? question. “Maribel?” he added. “Everyone ready?”

“Yes,” she said.

“What should we call you?” Saph asked. He felt another hand clutch his as soon as he dropped the keys back in his pocket, and now he had Saph on one side and Dani on the other.

“Dean is fine,” he said. He hadn’t thought about that, but it was a good question. If the teachers all went by their last names, he was gonna stand out.

He was gonna stand out no matter what. Might as well not feel stupid making them call him “Mr. Winchester.” He wasn’t even sure he’d answer to that in an emergency, and that would defeat the purpose.

“That’s his favorite name,” Wildfire’s voice said from behind him, and he rolled his eyes.

But Saph said, “Really?” like she was serious and that was the most interesting thing she’d heard since breakfast, so he nodded.

“Yup,” he said. “Mom gave it to me and everything.”

“You have a mom?” Saph said. “Is she nice?”

There were two other cars discharging kids as they crossed the parking lot, with more pulling in behind them. He could see colorful coats on the trail ahead of them. All the other kids were separating from their parents or drivers or whatever before they set out for the school.

“Dean?” Saph insisted.

“Yeah,” he said gruffly. “She was nice.”

“Oh.” Saph got it, but she didn’t ask. He thought that was strange for a kid, but what did he know? “You’re lucky you got to know her. I wish I knew more--” And there it was, the pause that was driving him crazy, but she finished with, “Adults.” It almost worked.

“What’s your teacher like?” Dean asked, hoping to distract her. “You guys all have different teachers?”

“Me and Dani and Maru have the same teacher,” Saph said. “Mrs. Knowles. She’s nice, but she says a lot of things I don’t understand.”

Yeah, Dean believed that, no problem. If they couldn’t answer “What’s your favorite color?” he couldn’t imagine how they fit into a classroom with regular kids. He wondered if the younger kids stood out more, or the older ones.

“Maia and Wildfire have Mr. B and Mr. Randolph,” Saph continued. “And Adamel and Maribel have lots of teachers. They go to school in the other building.”

Castiel had said that the kids would split up, and Dean was supposed to stay with the youngest ones. “Right,” he said aloud. “So you guys have phones, right? Maribel?”

“Yes,” Maribel said. “Father gave us your number.”

“I should have yours,” Dean said. “Call me, right now, and I’ll save your numbers.

“All of you,” he added, when he felt Dani tug on his hand. Because of course they all had their own phones. He wasn’t sure what good it would do if someone grabbed them from behind, but apparently they could defend themselves. He assumed that meant they could call him if they needed him to pretend to save them.

He had to wait until his phone stopped ringing to sort out their numbers. Dani pointed to hers when he held the phone down for her to see, and Saph narrated the rest of the list for him. He wondered if Dani talked in school. The younger kids’ school was closer. He figured that was fair. “Meet you at the car after school,” he told Maribel when he peeled off with the younger kids.

She nodded, catching Wildfire’s eye. The two of them smiled at the same time, and Dean wanted to ask. He wanted to ask a lot of things, but it wasn’t any of his business.

Dani led him into their school building, Saph still happily playing with his phone. Dani pointed when Wildfire and Maia started to walk away, and Dean called the same thing after them. “Meet you at the car after school!”

Wildfire waved over her shoulder, which was the first time he’d seen any of the kids do that. He figured it was good enough. They must have their own routine, right?

“Your dad usually meet you in the parking lot?” he asked Saph.

“Yes,” she said without looking up. “Wildfire and Maia wait for us. We usually see Maribel and Adamel on the path, but sometimes they’re too far ahead. They have longer legs,” she added, like he might need that explained to him.

“Good to know,” Dean said. He looked back, but Maru was still right behind them. He didn’t trail, and he didn’t look embarrassed to be left with the girls. Dean decided not to go looking for trouble by asking.

Mrs. Knowles wasn’t immediately obvious when Dani led Dean into their classroom. There weren’t any desks, which, okay. It was a Waldorf school. He didn’t know what that was, but he’d definitely heard the words “self-directed” and “educational play” when Castiel was talking about it, and possibly also “karma” which he’d been careful not to ask about. So they had tables - of different heights - and chairs and cushions, and at least half the kids in the room were on the floor. Dean wasn’t going to be surprised.

Until a well-dressed young woman stood up from one of the low tables and he was forcibly reminded that this was a rich kids’ school. Her blouse alone was probably worth more than he made in a week (okay, a day; Castiel paid a lot) and he didn’t want to think about how much a mugger could get for that necklace. It was his jeans that were out of place, while the kids’ quasi-uniforms suddenly looked a lot less weird.

“Hello,” the woman called, her eyes flicking to every kid who passed her and her hand reaching out to touch anyone who came close enough. But she was smiling at Dean, and she didn’t give his appearance a second glance. “You must be Dean Winchester. I’m Arcadia Knowles.

“Good morning,” she added, not missing a beat as Maru came up beside Saph. “Did Dean drive you to school today?”

“Yes,” Maru said.

“Good morning,” Saph said politely. She slid Dean’s phone back into his pocket without another word.

Dani didn’t speak and Dean thought, yeah. They were just as weird with an audience.

“Hey,” he said, offering her his free hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“And you,” she said warmly, shaking his hand without hesitation. “Castiel speaks very well of you.”

That was news to him, considering he’d just been hired yesterday. “Well, thanks,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound as awkward as he felt. “I’ll do my best to stay out of your way.” He’d love to know what Castiel had promised them to let him station a bodyguard in one of their classrooms.

“Oh, no,” she told him. “Please, be as involved as you like. I’ve spoken with all of the parents, and they’re happy to have someone with your credentials join our classroom.”

Someone with his credentials? What had Castiel told them about him? And when had he done it that she’d had time to talk to all of the parents?

The day only got weirder from there. Dani didn’t let go of his hand for the first hour and a half, and no one made any effort to separate them. Class started with singing - or at least, they all sang; he didn’t get that class had started until later - and then three of the kids told stories about what they had done the night before. None of his kids, which he figured was probably good, although he was a little curious about what they would have said.

They talked a lot about the weather, and it wasn’t until they went outside that Dani let go of his hand. Of course. As soon as it would have made sense for her to stay close, she struck out on her own, wandering away from Saph and Maru to follow Mrs. Knowles. (Mrs, Dean thought? Really? She looked like a college student.)

That was when the other kids started talking to Dean, which he definitely hadn’t expected. He felt bad that they kept asking him questions when their actual teacher was trying to tell them things about the clouds and the air or whatever, but she never tried to draw their attention away from him. She didn’t interrupt any of the kids talking to each other, either, just taught her lesson to whoever was listening and answered questions from anyone who asked.

They went back inside for snack time, which Mrs. Knowles ate with the kids. Dean lingered uncomfortably by the door, and when she offered him some of her “snack” - no kidding - he asked if anyone would mind him taking a look around the building. He expected to be told to wait until recess or something, but no.

“If any of the classrooms have closed doors,” she said, “you’ll want to come back to those later, but you’re welcome anywhere else. If office doors are closed, just knock. Whomever’s inside will be glad to show you around and answer any questions you have.”

That was considerably more freedom than he’d expected, so he thanked her and ducked out before she could remember any of the obvious restrictions. Her classroom door was open, he noticed. Maybe that explained why snack had one more kid than they’d had on their outdoor lesson.

His investigation of the building was comprehensive. Mrs. Knowles hadn’t been kidding: everyone he met seemed to know who he was, and they were all strangely accommodating. Several people offered to give him a tour, but the things he needed to know weren’t likely to be on the list of things staff thought were important.

He checked building layout, wall depth, and fire doors. Emergency exits were good, but reinforced wood and glass was better. There was a lot of wood and glass. He asked anyone near a window whether it opened, since the kids might be able to defend themselves but he wasn’t sure Dani and Saph could break glass in a hurry.

Interestingly, the only locked doors he found had big, colorful signs explaining why they couldn’t be opened. Two were janitors’ closets, one was an electrical room. One led down into the basement, and the sign said, Here’s where we keep our supplies! Sometimes we want projects to be a surprise for you or your parents, so we store things here until we’re ready to use them. If you need something from downstairs, please ask your teacher to accompany you.

He asked the first person he could find. Janey, it turned out. She worked in the library, and she let him down in the basement without question. She even came with him to open the door to the “battery room,” which had painted footprints on the floor and colored handrails around the batteries and vents.

“They’re photovoltaic cells,” she explained. “They store power from the solar panels on the roof. We use them to teach the kids about energy.”

Of course they did. They probably took the kids up on the roof to see the panels firsthand. She seemed reasonable, and she was only dressed twice as nicely as he was instead of three times, so he said, “Yeah, I can see you’re all about the experience here, but I gotta ask. Do you really make the kids walk up here in the rain?”

Janey laughed, and it was a nice laugh, so he thought he must not have blown his cover as a moderately respectable whatever-they-thought-he-was yet. “There’s a bus that runs from the parking lot to the front of the school when the weather’s bad,” she said. “It drops them off in the turnaround on the other side of the building.”

“I gotta tell you, that makes me feel a lot better about this school,” Dean said. He smiled at her, and she beamed back.

“It’s really a wonderful place to be,” she said. “Do you have any children, Dean?”

“Yeah,” he said, because he could be friendly but this had to be a bad place to flirt. It wasn’t like he could just get in his car and drive away if she turned out to have a boyfriend. On the school board. “Right now I’ve got seven.”

Her smile didn’t fade, so either she hadn’t been coming on to him or she was really graceful about being ignored. “The Castiel children are charming,” she agreed, and he did his best not to react. “Castiel” was a family name?

“I’m sorry you have to be here under such difficult circumstances,” she was saying. “But we really are glad to have you.”

Okay, he definitely should have gotten more of the story from Castiel. Apparently he had “credentials,” and “circumstances,” and did Castiel really not care that his children’s bodyguard was walking around a crunchy high-end school in jeans and flannel shirt?

“It’s tough for everyone,” he said, as vaguely as possible. “Everyone here’s been great. And the kids love it, so.”

“Do they?” Janey asked. “That’s good to know. It’s always so hard to tell with them.”

“Yeah,” Dean said, grinning before he could help himself. “I hear you.”

He’d expected the school to have a cafeteria, but it didn’t, and when lunchtime came he didn’t mind as much as he’d thought he would. It was pretty entertaining to watch his kids totally fail to interact with their food in a normal way - and have the rest of the room not notice. Maru left, so Dean didn’t get to watch the only one of them who knew how to trade, but Wildfire joined them and she attracted a small crowd of younger kids.

Not because of her lunch, as far as Dean could tell. Just because they thought she was cool. He didn’t know if it was an age thing - she acted older than the other kids, but all of Castiel’s children were weirdly precocious when they weren’t demonstrating their inability to answer simple questions - or maybe just a “new to the room” thing. The other kid who’d come in at snacktime hadn’t drawn much attention.

After lunch, they had some kind of art time. Dean couldn’t figure out what the point was, but there were crafts everywhere and some of the kids seemed to be drawing pictures of the outdoors. Of weather. He finally got the weather thing after someone asked why their glue didn’t make good ice when they put it on cotton balls.

Arts and crafts seemed to double as nap time for some of the kids, but Mrs. Knowles didn’t try to wake any of them up. Maybe they were supposed to sleep, how did he know. Wildfire stayed and Maru came back, and none of Dean’s kids looked the slightest bit tired.

They went outside again in the middle of the afternoon. Dani was back at his side, but the other kids must have gotten tired of him because Mrs. Knowles had a bigger audience than she had that morning. It was, he finally noticed, most of the kids who had totally ignored her before.

There was more singing, another snack when they went in, and then the class got loud and he got a text from Maribel, of all people, so he didn’t pay much attention to what they were all shouting about. It didn’t seem to involve fear or danger, and that was good enough for him.

Wildfire says you didn’t eat at lunchtime, Maribel’s text read. Do you want me and Adamel to bring you something from the cafeteria?

Dean stared at his phone for a long moment before he realized he hadn’t seen anyone else holding one since the kids had all pulled theirs out to call him this morning. As far as he could tell the school ran on solar power and love. They probably had strict rules about electronic devices.

He looked up, but Mrs. Knowles wasn’t watching, so he headed for the door. Dani followed him. He had half a second to decide which would draw more attention: letting her walk out, or trying to get her to stay. He went with letting her walk out.

“What are you doing?” she asked, when he paused in the hallway just outside the door.

“Your sister sent me a text,” he said, squatting down beside her so she could see the screen if she wanted to. “Do you guys have rules about texting in class?”

Dani seemed to think about that. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “We’re not supposed to have phones at school.”

Well, that answered that question.

“Okay,” he said. “So that’s why I came out here. I didn’t want to set a bad example by breaking the rules in front of the other kids.”

“I think adults are allowed to have phones,” Dani said.

“Well, it’s not a good idea for us to do things we tell you not to do,” Dean pointed out. “Why should you do what we tell you to if we don’t even do it?”

Dani frowned. “Because you told us to,” she said.

Dean wondered if he had ever been that obedient.

No, he typed, careful not to use all caps the way he would have with Sam. Thanks. Will get something to eat back at the house.

“You have a phone,” Dani said as he pushed “send.”

“So do you,” Dean said.

“Father wants us to carry them,” she informed him. “His rules are the most important.”

“Oh yeah?” Dean tried not to worry about what Castiel did to them to make them so unquestioning. “Well, I’m glad I’m not breaking your dad’s rules, at least.”

His phone vibrated again immediately. I understand, was all Maribel’s second text said. He didn’t know whether to be more surprised by her regularly spelled, grammatically correct texts, or by the fact that Wildfire was apparently reporting on him.

He probably shouldn’t, but he replied anyway. There’s a cafeteria?

“We’re not allowed to go,” Dani said. She was still reading over his shoulder, and it suddenly occurred to Dean that he hadn’t seen a single book all day. He wanted to ask her how old she was, but he wasn’t sure it would go any better than it had with Maribel.

“The cafeteria is just for the big kids and the adults,” Dani continued. The other kids in her class said “grownups,” but she said “adults.” All of Castiel’s kids did. “But if we forget our lunch, someone brings us something from there.”

“That’s nice,” Dean said absently. The kids in the room behind him were singing again, and Dani looked over her shoulder like maybe she wanted to go join them. “Hey Dani? How old are you?”

She didn’t hesitate. “I’m five,” Dani said. “I’ve been five for a while. I’m going to go sing now.”

Really? She hadn’t spoken a word inside the classroom all day; he kind of wanted to see her sing. “Okay,” he said, just as his phone vibrated again. “I’ll be right in.”

You should come look at our building tomorrow, Maribel’s message said. At lunchtime. For security reasons.

He squinted at the phone for several seconds, but he couldn’t decide if she was being funny or not. Will do, he sent back.

Either way, he figured. Security, food, maybe both. Win-win.

Dani didn’t actually sing. He went back into the room in time to see Saph and Maru singing, with Dani sitting in between them. She looked as happy as any of them ever looked, as far as he could tell, so maybe that was all she’d meant: she’d be there for the singing.

There wasn’t any bell at the end of the day, but at that point it would have surprised him if there had been. Mrs. Knowles just told them what time it was, and some of the kids went over and got their jackets. Others were picking up projects or even snack leftovers, but Dean noticed that the messy stuff had already been cleaned up and put away. He wondered when she’d gotten them to do that.

Maru got Dani’s jacket for her, but not Saph’s. Saph didn’t seem to mind: she was the last one over to him, but she took his hand the same way she had that morning and announced, “Okay, I’m ready!”

“Did you say thank you to Mrs. Knowles?” he asked, since their teacher was standing right there. She glanced over at him with a smile, but she didn’t say anything.

“No,” Saph said, frowning up at him. “Should we?”

“Well, it would be nice,” Dean told her. “She probably put a lot of work into making sure you had a good day. Everyone likes to be thanked for the stuff they do.”

Saph looked over at their teacher, who waved. “Bye, Saph,” Mrs. Knowles said. “Have a good afternoon!”

“Thank you,” Saph said carefully. Then she looked up at Dean.

“Good job,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Thanks, Mrs. Knowles,” he added, lifting his chin in her direction since both his hands were now occupied.

She smiled back, but Maru said, “Thank you, Mrs. Knowles,” before she could answer.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, Dani said, “Thanks, Mrs. Knowles.”

Dean squeezed her hand too, and Mrs. Knowles waved at them again. “You’re welcome,” she said, still smiling. “See you tomorrow!”

The hallway outside their classroom was filled with kids who weren’t pushing each other, which wasn’t anything like what Dean remembered from school. They were all talking, of course; that was the same. The noise was loud and cheerful and he figured whatever kind of education they were getting, it couldn’t be too weird if they were this happy about it.

Maia and Wildfire met them just outside the building. The kids didn’t immediately stream toward the path, Dean noticed - well, his did, but some of the others were walking around the building and some looked like they were heading up toward the older kids’ school. He was surprised there didn’t seem to be a playground, but then, they hadn’t really had recess.

Not that they needed it, he thought. They’d pretty much done whatever they wanted all day.

They barely made it onto the path to the parking lot before Maribel and Adamel caught up with them. Serious as ever, but Maribel and Wildfire did put their arms around each other as they walked. That was more physical affection than he’d seen from any of them so far.

“You guys have a good day?” Dean asked, since it seemed like the thing to say.

“I don’t know,” Maribel replied. She was the only one who answered, and he wasn’t in the mood anymore, so he let it go.

They walked in silence the rest of the way to the car.

“Do you want me to ride up front again?” Maribel asked, when they got there.

“Not if you don’t want to,” Dean said, and she frowned. He wondered if that messed up her “want”/”don’t want” processing.

“I want to ride up front,” Saph declared.

Dean looked at her in surprise. He wasn’t the only one. “You do?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, suddenly looking less certain. She looked at Maribel, and then back at him. “Is that okay?”

“Yeah, of course,” he said. “That’s great. I’ll get your door.”

And he did, he held the door for her and everything, but the best part was the way she balanced precariously on the edge of her seat, almost at eye-level with him for once, and chirped, “Thank you, Dean.”

“You’re welcome, Saph,” he said with a grin. “Hands in, I’m gonna close your door.”

They didn’t say much on the way home, but that exchange made the whole day worth it.

Dean’s was the only car in the driveway when they pulled into the garage, so he thought it wasn’t totally unfair to be surprised when Castiel greeted them at the door. Or maybe “greeted” was the wrong word. The man stood just inside the house entrance from the garage, raking his eyes over each of the children as they passed, and said nothing until Dean stepped inside and closed the door behind them.

“Rachel’s waiting in the solarium,” Castiel said, staring at Dean. “Please go see her.”

Dean raised his eyebrows, because first off, which one was the solarium? Second... really? He couldn’t even say “hi” to his kids in front of Dean? Maybe there actually was a moratorium on talking in front of the hired help.

Then the kids started to file off, without a word, without even dropping their backpacks or taking their jackets off, and Dean got that Castiel had been talking to them. So why was he looking at Dean?

“How was school today?” Castiel asked.

Dean blinked. He looked after the kids, just to make sure, but no. They definitely weren’t waiting around. “Aren’t you asking the wrong person?”

“Rachel will debrief them,” Castiel said. “As you were the one responsible for their well-being, I’m asking you.”

Okay. That made no sense, but whatever. Also, who was Rachel?

“It was fine,” Dean said. “They all survived.”

“Good,” Castiel said. “I have some concerns. If you would come with me.” It wasn’t a suggestion, but Dean hadn’t really expected it to be. He didn’t know what Castiel was, but his kids were enough to convince Dean that he didn’t want to get on his bad side.

That was how he ended up in the kitchen, of all places, watching Castiel make a sandwich. Which, what? He had no idea what was happening. He just hoped he wasn’t working for the kind of monster that liked an appetizer before it ate you.

“Here,” Castiel said, a minute later. He handed the plate, sandwich and all, over to Dean. “Does this meet with your approval?”

Dean stared at it, then at him. “What?”

Castiel didn’t move, but Dean got the feeling he wanted to sigh. “Does it,” he repeated, “appeal to you. In a culinary sense. Is it something you might want to consume. I don’t know how else to ask the question.”

“And I don’t know why you’re asking it in the first place,” Dean retorted. “Why are you making me a sandwich?”

“Because Maribel tells me you did not eat lunch today,” Castiel said. “It is important to me that you function at your highest efficiency. Please eat.”

Dean narrowed his eyes. “I think I know how to function at my highest efficiency,” he said. “Thanks anyway. When did you talk to Maribel? She text you?”

“After a fashion,” Castiel said. “This does have bacon in it.”

Dean took a step back. Were they telling their dad everything he said? No wonder he wanted them to carry phones.

“Dean,” Castiel said. He sounded impatient, like Dean was the one being unreasonable here.

“Dude,” Dean said. “Stop trying to make me eat the sandwich.”

“Someone is going to try to kill you,” Castiel said. He set the plate down on the counter like they were discussing the weather.

“Story of my life,” Dean said. At this point he was just hoping the next sentence out of Castiel’s mouth wasn’t, And it’s going to be me.

“I have not been entirely forthcoming with you,” Castiel said.

Dean scoffed. He did it without thinking, without respect, and with less instinct for self-preservation than he usually prided himself on. But come on. Castiel was a monster. Dean didn’t need his good opinion, and he wasn’t going to stand here and be afraid of him.

Castiel tilted his head, and for a second all Dean could think about was Maribel saying, You can’t kill us.

Okay, fine. He was afraid. His back was against the wall and he could sense it, even if he didn’t know how or why. But damned if he was going to act like it.

“I told you what I thought was relevant to your role at the time,” Castiel said carefully. Like Dean was the wild card here. Like he might do anything, and Castiel had to be ready. “What I think is relevant has changed since yesterday, and some of the information may appear to contradict what you already know.”

“I don’t know anything,” Dean snapped. “I walked into that school today and no one even asked for ID. They told me I had credentials. What the hell did you say to them?”

Castiel looked surprised. “The school is irrelevant,” he said. “They allowed your presence; therefore, the children may continue to attend.”

“The school is--” Dean stopped. “Wait, is that how you got me in there? You threatened to withdraw all your kids?”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Castiel sounded frustrated. “If you have some concern about the safety of the school, I’m willing to entertain whatever solution you suggest. In the meantime, there is more you should know about our situation.”

“You know what I know about your situation?” Dean said. “I know my brother told me your kids needed a supernatural bodyguard. I thought that meant someone to protect them from the supernatural, but they told me they can’t actually die and something about them makes me believe it. So what exactly am I doing here?”

“You’re a decoy,” Castiel said tersely. “I need you to keep earthly threats from the children so that they do not draw attention by combating them on their own.”

“Because they could,” Dean said. “They’re not actually in any danger from anything I could stop.”

“No,” Castiel said.

“Okay,” Dean said. Perversely, that made him feel better. At least they had their stories straight now. “Fine. I’m listening.”

“There are threats that don’t come from earth,” Castiel said. “They’re after you now.”

“Why?” Dean asked.

Castiel paused. “Why?” he repeated.

Dean raised his eyebrows. “What, is that a weird question? Why are they after me? Be a lot easier to stop them if I know what they want.”

“They... assume you’re not human,” Castiel said. He was staring at Dean like looking straight through him would answer some question he hadn’t asked. “They suspect my children of being - like me. They do not believe I would have recruited anyone incapable of protecting them.”

If he was supposed to keep the kids from getting unwanted attention, Castiel must have thought that keeping them secret would protect them. He also must have thought he could keep them secret, which was strange in and of itself. There were seven of them.

“Why wouldn’t your kids be like you?” Dean asked.

Castiel blinked. “I am not - we don’t - propagate. Biologically. There is no reason for any member of my family to think I have done anything other than... adopt.”

His family? His family was after his kids? That was messed up.

“But they do,” Dean said. “They figured it out. You didn’t think they would; you hired me to keep it from happening, but it was already too late and you just found out today. Stop me if I’m getting it wrong,” he added.

Castiel shook his head once, a startled jerk that looked almost involuntary. “No,” he said. “You’re not wrong.”

“Maribel told me I can’t kill them,” Dean said. “I’m guessing your family can. Yes?”

“Yes,” Castiel echoed.

That seemed like a way bigger problem than having someone after him, at least for Castiel. Sure, Dean liked being alive - a lot - but Castiel barely knew him. What made him let the kids out of his sight, let alone spend time harassing Dean with sandwiches and unnecessary explanations?

“So why are you worried about me?” Dean asked, but the moment he opened his mouth he knew. “You don’t want your family to find out I’m human.” Castiel didn’t want him dead for the same reason he didn’t want the kids to fight: it would draw too much attention.

“It... serves my purpose,” Castiel admitted, “for them to think you are not.”

“And the purpose is?” Dean pressed.

Even without moving, Castiel managed to look awkward. “I am - largely outnumbered, at present. The illusion that I can spare someone to watch the children is... advantageous.”

Dean studied him. Castiel didn’t just look awkward, he looked downright uncomfortable. “I assume there’s a reason you’re telling me this, instead of just sending us all to hide on some remote island somewhere.”

“They’d find you,” Castiel said. The words were chillingly matter-of-fact. “And I will not risk your life without your consent.”

“The job is to risk my life,” Dean told him. He wasn’t stupid; he couldn’t leave now even if he wanted to. If he was marked, he had a better chance with people who knew what was coming for him than he did alone. “I didn’t sign on blind.”

“You agreed to the job as you knew it,” Castiel said. “It’s changed since then.”

Dean shrugged. “Doesn’t sound like it to me. You’re paying me to protect the kids. Staying alive; I throw that in for free. Always have.”

“Dean.” Castiel looked anything but convinced, and why was it so hard to make him accept a little help? Even if Dean got himself killed - which he had no intention of doing - it would slow them down, right?

“I am outnumbered,” Castiel said, staring at him like he could will some kind of fear into Dean. More fear. “You are outmatched. This is a fact, not a challenge, and I will not have you treat it like some kind of game.”

“Then don’t treat me like an idiot,” Dean snapped. “You say I can’t kill you; I figure that’s a polite way of saying you could snuff me by looking at me sideways. And there’s something after me that you’re scared of. I stand zero chance alone and I know it.

“Maribel says you’ll protect me if I protect you,” he added. “Great; I’m all for that. But don’t try to make me believe I have a choice here.”

Castiel didn’t look pleased. “I’ve drawn you into this,” he said, like he was just realizing it. “You had no stake in it, and I introduced you to a situation beyond my ability to control.”

“Yeah, that’s life,” Dean said bluntly. “Don’t get me wrong; I hate the cloak and dagger stuff. But I’m pretty sure whatever’s happening isn’t your fault, and I knew you had secrets when I took this job. I took it anyway. That’s on me.”

Castiel just stared at him. “You are very quick to absolve me of responsibility,” he said at last.

“I don’t pass the buck,” Dean said. “I knew what I was doing when I told you this wasn’t a problem, and I know what I’m doing now.

“You want to make it up to me?” he added. “Try telling me what the hell is going on.”

“You didn’t ask where the threats came from,” Castiel said. Dean frowned. “What?”

“I said, threats that don’t come from earth are after you,” Castiel said. “And you asked why. Not where they’re from.”

“Why is a little more important to me,” Dean said warily, because he hadn’t expected Castiel to actually do it. To tell Dean what he was and why his children were on his family’s to-kill list? That seemed... personal. And relevant, Dean reminded himself. It mattered; he should know if he was going to have any chance of helping. Even as a decoy. Definitely if he wanted it to be more.

“I’ve told you why,” Castiel said. “If I am to explain further, you’ll need to know what I am.”

“If you tell me,” Dean quipped, “will you have to kill me?”

Castiel only looked confused. “No,” he said. “Why would you think that?”

Dean sighed, scrubbing his hand through his hair for like, the twentieth time that day. “Look,” he said. “Maribel said that if you told me what you were, I might want to kill you. My day just turned bad fast, and I don’t really want to deal with having demons for allies. So maybe we both agree to look the other way and move on.”

He didn’t even have to look at the guy to recognize that surprised tone. “You would accept a demon at your side in times such as these?” Or ever, his tone seemed to imply?

“I wouldn’t be thrilled about it,” Dean snapped. “And if you tell me, I’ll spend most of my time trying to forget. So let’s just agree not to do that.”

“I’m not a demon,” Castiel said.

“Right,” Dean said. “That’s what I’m talking about. Thank you.” He didn’t want to think about what “adopting” meant to demons. He didn’t want to think about what not adopting meant to demons.

“Dean,” Castiel said. “I’m telling the truth.”

“You said your threat wasn’t from earth,” Dean reminded him. “You also said the threat was your family. That leaves hell and other planets, and I’ve never met an alien.”

“Not just hell,” Castiel said. “Heaven.”

“Oh, right,” Dean agreed. “How could I forget. Heaven. You saying that’s where you come from? Because I’ve used that pickup line and let me tell you, it doesn’t get the results you’re looking for.”

“I’m an angel of the lord,” Castiel told him. “We do not have children. Mine are either a sign of divine will or an abomination unto the host, depending on which side of the war one is on.”

Dean stared at him.

Castiel waited.

It crossed Dean’s mind to wonder how long he could stand there, just staring, before Castiel moved. Or said something. If he was the kind of monster that hunted live prey, probably a really long time.

“I’m not the kind of monster that hunts live prey,” Castiel said.

Dean didn’t flinch. “Can you do that at a distance?”

“Read your mind?” Castiel asked, though apparently he didn’t have to. “Yes.”

That explained how Castiel knew what the kids knew. But it didn’t, now that he thought of it, explain why none of them knew how to answer Dean’s questions. “So how come the kids never know what I’m asking them?”

“It’s not as helpful as you might think,” Castiel said. “Most human thoughts aren’t very clear.”

“You’re an angel,” Dean said.

“Yes,” Castiel agreed.

“Your angel brothers and sisters are hunting your kids,” Dean said.

“Yes,” Castiel repeated.

“And you want them to think I’m an angel too so it looks like you have more people on your side,” Dean said. “Can you even do that? Won’t they read my mind?”

“I could stop them,” Castiel said.

Dean snorted. “Well, that’s useful right there. Sign me up.”

“You consent?” Castiel asked.

“Yeah, I consent.” It would be the last time Dean said those words without asking for a lot more details first, because when Castiel walked up to him and pressed two fingers to his forehead it felt like the entire world exploded.

It was too bright to see and he was deaf with noise and he had to be falling. He had to be, because there a sense of pinwheeling motion and the utter certainty that he was going in the wrong direction. The only way it happened without falling was if Sam made him get on a plane.

You’re not flying. The words were in Castiel’s voice, and Dean jerked away instinctively. The only solid thing in the world disappeared until he slammed into something hard. It hurt. It hurt a lot, and the bruising pain flared familiar and real in the midst of chaotic sensation.

Dean opened his eyes, hand pressed against his side, fingers sharp and numb where he leaned heavily against the kitchen counter. “Don’t make me guess what you just did,” he ground out.

The look Castiel was giving him might have been worried. If he killed his own bodyguard, that would kind of mess up his plans for a pseudo-angelic gang, right? On the other hand, if he was a fucking angel couldn’t he just bring whoever he wanted back from the dead?

“Heaven does not look kindly on unauthorized resurrections,” Castiel said.

“Guess whatever you did doesn’t keep you from reading my mind,” Dean muttered. His fingers flexed painfully as he tried to straighten up. “Ow, by the way. Thanks for the warning about vertigo.”

Castiel tilted his head, and just like that, Dean knew. He knew Castiel was puzzled because he had issued no warning about vertigo, so why would Dean say that, and he knew the moment Castiel grasped the sarcasm behind his thanks. He knew - and the knowing wasn’t logical or studied or awesome in any way.

“Holy shit,” Dean blurted out, staring at his very own monster of the week. He didn’t know whether to start with angry or horrified or freaked out of his fucking mind. “I know what you’re thinking.”

“You’re behind the shields that keep my intentions from the rest of the host,” Castiel said. “It’s natural that there should be some exchange.”

“No,” Dean said. “No way, I did not sign on for this--”

“I distinctly recall hearing you say that you did,” Castiel interrupted.

“And you did not just use the word ‘natural’ to explain how I know you have no idea what I’m talking about!” Dean snapped. “What the fuck, man, that makes it really hard to be angry at you!”

Castiel frowned at him. “Yet you seem to be expressing yourself in a way congruent with anger.”

“You’re trying to calm me down,” Dean retorted. “That pisses me off.”

Castiel’s expression smoothed out, and behind the blankness Dean was sure the guy was laughing at him again. “How... contradictory,” he said.

“Yeah, laugh it up,” Dean said irritably. “Irritated” was suddenly the best he could do, and that was freaky all on its own. “Don’t lie: if I’d asked you what your method for keeping your family out of my head was, exactly, would you have told me?”

“Of course,” Castiel said. He sounded genuinely surprised by the question. “You did consent.”

“Because I didn’t know what I was agreeing to!” Dean exclaimed. “I still don’t know! You’re in my head with your stupid fluttery light and your freaky alien curiosity and I don’t know what that is! I can’t live with this!” He could, but he probably wouldn’t last long. It was distracting as hell. Everywhere he looked things moved, acted, reacted; things that shouldn’t be moving at all and the kitchen was filled with false alarms and ghostly impressions. It would get him killed if he tuned it out; it would drive him crazy if he didn’t.

“You will likely get used to it,” Castiel said. “You’re receiving a tiny and extremely muted amount of spillover from my own senses. As it will have no practical application for you, I expect that your human brain will compensate by learning to ignore it.”

“You mean I’ll stop seeing shit that isn’t there?” Dean retorted. “Or just that I’ll stop flinching every time a wall moves?”

“You’re not seeing things that aren’t there,” Castiel said. “Also, I hope that you will refrain from swearing around the children. I’m told that it is not socially acceptable for them to use profanity, and it seems unfair to ask them to refrain when we need not.”

Dean stared at him. “Wait, you don’t care if I swear? Aren’t angels supposed to be all...” He waved a hand. “Holy? Or something?”

He wasn’t sure if that actually made sense, or if Castiel just magically understood because he could fucking hear what Dean was thinking. Either way, he replied, “We are on earth. We will behave as those of earth do.”

Dean snorted. “Yeah, I hate to break it to you, but you’ve got a ways to go there.”

Instead of getting pissed or irritated or whatever - and Dean could tell, suddenly - Castiel just nodded. “Perhaps you will be able to offer some suggestions. In the meantime, the children would like to see you.”

Dean was instantly suspicious. “What? Why?” He’d driven them home not ten minutes ago; weren’t they enjoying bonding time with Castiel’s lady friend?

Castiel frowned, but he seemed more puzzled than upset. “Saph and Dani are concerned that you won’t like them anymore,” he said at last. “Maru wants to know if you’ll teach him to play basketball. Maia and Wildfire want to teach you knife-fighting. And Maribel is asking when she can get her driver’s license.”

Despite himself, Dean felt a grin threaten. Whatever the hell they were, they were still kids. Probably.

“Yeah,” he said aloud. “Fine. We can do that.”

The solarium, apparently, was the second one on the left. It was creepy to think that he would have gotten that wrong when Castiel first sent them off, yet now he knew without having to be told. He tried not to wonder what blanks Castiel was now filling in about him.

What blanks he’d been filling in all along, Dean reminded himself. The guy could read minds. There was probably a reason his “interview” had been so short, and it wasn’t just Sam.

Sam.

Holy shit. Sam had told him. Sam had texted him the answer, and he hadn’t listened.

Sam knew.

Maybe more importantly, Sam believed it. Right? He must, otherwise why would he have sent Dean here in the first place?

Then Dani curled her fingers around his hand, just like a human kid, and Saph was looking apologetic and excited at the same time and Dean stopped thinking about their family. Because family was what you made it; he knew that as well as anyone. And if they couldn’t trust theirs, well... they’d just have to find people to take its place.

“Dean, look,” Saph was saying. “This is Rachel. She’s our family more.”

“Your family more?” Dean repeated, eyeing the very silent woman standing the middle of the solarium. She reminded him strangely of Dani, but he couldn’t forget what Castiel had said about “propagation.” She couldn’t be.

Could she?

“Family plus?” Saph offered. “Because of what you were thinking, how our family isn’t really family, but she is. Like Father is. I think we should call them something different. The people who aren’t trying to kill us, I mean.”

Well, put like that, it was hard to argue.

“You could just stop calling the people trying to kill you family,” Dean said. He wondered where “angels” shopped, because Castiel dressed nicely enough. He played the part of professional businessman, at least with the couple of suits Dean had seen him in.

Rachel, on the other hand. She made casual clothes look twice as expensive. She could have been a model. Maybe she was; how would he know? They must do something when they weren’t fending off attacks from baby-killers, right?

He must have been staring at her, because it took him several seconds to realize that the older kids were staring at him in horror. Dean glanced at Castiel, who also looked disappointed. What, because infanticide wasn’t worth disowning someone over?

“Okay, sorry,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I didn’t mean to get all crazy with the suggestions.”

“It makes sense,” Wildfire said, drawing everyone’s attention. “Human families exist to perpetuate a genetic line. If someone threatens the survival of the line, expelling them from the group would be logical.”

How old were they, again? “Why do you even go to school?” Dean asked.

Wildfire blinked at him like she had no idea why he was asking. “So we can learn how to interact with humans.”

Dean snorted. “Use smaller words,” he said. “You’re like twelve. Talking about genetics makes you stand out.”

She just stared at him. “I’m the same age as Maribel and Adamel.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Yeah? Why don’t you go to school with them?”

She exchanged glances with the older kids, and he wondered how he knew what she was about to say. Obviously she was there to protect the younger kids. Was he just that smart, or was the freaky lightshow all around them cluing him in?

“We are the most angelic,” Wildfire said at last. “Saph and Dani are the least. It seems prudent - it seems smart,” she corrected herself, tipping her head a little, “to... keep an even balance of power. Where... we can.”

Holy shit, Dean thought, for the second time in as many minutes. He could hear the echo in his head: her voice, and what she was actually saying. Each pause was filled with intent, so that “maintain” came out as “keep” and “possible” came out as “we can.”

She was actively changing her vocabulary to follow his instructions. And he could tell. He didn’t know which part was more disturbing.

“This is the person you chose to defend them?” The voice could only belong to Rachel. She even sounded expensive, and he could practically hear her thinking, Your selection process is seriously flawed, Castiel.

Maybe he could hear her thinking that. Which made him want to think obnoxious things back at her, and he almost did except for two things: Castiel had asked him not to swear in front of the kids, and also, Castiel had supposedly shielded his thoughts. She wasn’t supposed to be able to hear him. So why would he hear her?

“He is righteous,” Castiel replied. “He is willing. He is believable. These were my criteria.”

And then, silently and more loudly than anything else in the room, You may be hearing what I hear. Does it overwhelm you?

He was hearing Castiel speak, and the man hadn’t opened his mouth. This was way beyond anything Sam did. Sam’s weird psychic shit didn’t make Dean hallucinate. It didn’t make Dean hear him when he wasn’t talking, and it definitely didn’t make the world look like a rave.

“Believable?” Rachel repeated. Her voice was way too skeptical, but seriously: that was what she objected to?

I can’t tell whether that’s a yes or a no, Castiel said. Your thoughts could use some discipline.

Dean glared at him. Fuck you, he thought, as clearly as he could.

Castiel gave him a half-smile, so he assumed that was better.

“Yes,” Castiel said. Then the room erupted in oranges and reds and he barely noticed Dani pressing herself up against his leg amidst the swirl of arching light and wing-stirred wind. His fingers clenched as he steeled himself against the dizziness and he felt tiny nails biting into his skin.

Dean released her hand abruptly, alarmed that he might have hurt her, but she didn’t let him go. Saph was on his other side, just like that, and she was totally immovable: a solid anchor when gravity changed direction on him all at once. Someone was shooting, maybe, or the room was on fire, but before he could react it was all gone.

“We have to go,” Castiel said into the sudden silence. And Dean knew that nothing had changed, that the room was exactly the way it had been before... that whatever he had just felt had been Castiel. Nothing more.

But Rachel looked sharp and worried and Castiel wasn’t anywhere close to smiling now. There was an emergency, and they were about to disappear. Dean wanted to close his eyes against knowledge he shouldn’t have, wanted to demand more, wanted to make this stop until he could figure out whether any of them were remotely safe to be around.

“Dean,” Maribel’s voice said. “We should teach you how to use a sword.”

They were gone. Dean couldn’t tell whether the room was weirder with them or without them. Now it was just the kids, and they had wings. But they weren’t talking in his head, either.

“Why do you have wings?” he blurted out.

Maia looked interested. “You can see our wings?” she asked, looking over her shoulder like she’d never noticed them before.

“That’s cool,” Maru added.

Dani tugged at his hand, and he looked down. Her wings were stupidly adorable, like someone had dressed their already too-cute daughter up as a cherub or something. The obnoxious almost-uniforms they all wore were less visible when they were overwhelmed by the lit surfaces of curling wings... and Dani’s curled all the way over her shoulders. Small and rounded and nestled tight to her body, they looked like a blanket she had wrapped around herself and refused to let go of.

Can you hear me if I talk to you for real? her voice whispered in his head.

Dean blinked, then looked around to make sure -

Well, he wasn’t sure what he was making sure of. That he wasn’t being pranked, that there wasn’t another small child with Dani’s voice standing right behind him, talking while she just stared? That Castiel hadn’t come back while he wasn’t looking, since it seemed ridiculous that the man who’d hired him was suddenly telepathic but it seemed even crazier that all of his kids could do it too?

“Why can I hear you talking?” he asked aloud. Which sounded stupid, but they all just looked at each other like it was the first thing he’d said that made sense.

Because Father likes you, Dani said. And we’re part of him.

“So you’re our family more now too,” Saph added. “Like Rachel.”

Dean wasn’t sure how much he liked being associated with their Rachel, but he was damn sure he hadn’t accidentally adopted a bunch of supernatural kids. So whatever their “family more” meant, it probably wasn’t real relative status. Maybe more like “probably not going to kill us” status. Which seemed reasonable, considering.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get a few things straight here. Your dad says you’re angels.”

He eyed them, but they just stared back at him. “Move your head up and down for yes or back and forth for no,” he told them.

They all nodded. He could even feel Dani’s head moving against his arm. Saph was holding his other hand now, but she wasn’t leaning on him quite as much now that the room had stopped moving.

Her wings were a pretty blue, and he wondered absently if that was where the name that wasn’t her name came from.

She beamed up at him, and he tried not to frown. “Can you all read my mind?”

Saph nodded enthusiastically, and when he looked up he could see the rest of them doing the same. Maybe not quite as vigorously. The silence: still creepy.

“We can answer aloud, if you want,” Maribel offered.

Dean raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, you didn’t look like you were gonna get there on your own.”

“We didn’t realize you were asking questions at first,” Maribel said. “You didn’t lift your voice the way humans do when they’re--” He heard seeking confirmation in his head, but what she said was, “Looking for an answer.”

“Why can I hear what you don’t say?” he demanded. “Cas said I was hearing you through him, but he’s not here.”

They were staring at him again. Maribel actually opened her mouth, like she wanted to answer but hadn’t quite found the words yet, and what finally came out was, “Cas?”

Right, of course, don’t nickname rich and powerful angels of the lord. “Castiel,” Dean said. “Your dad, he said he’d make it so no one could read my mind, but apparently what he meant was no one I’ve never met can read my mind but everyone else has a free pass.”

Maribel and Adamel looked at each other, and he had no idea what that was about. He felt Dani squeeze his hand. He knew she and Saph would have sad faces before he looked down, and what the fuck. If Castiel had done something to him, why didn’t it stop when he wasn’t around?

“You don’t want to know what we think?” Saph asked. She sounded more subdued than he’d ever heard her.

He had two seconds to decide whether or not to freak the fuck out at all of them and their glowy colored wings - and those two seconds were just enough. Enough for him to take a deep breath, to stop clutching their hands quite so hard, and remind himself that, to them, he was the alien. None of this was their fault.

Enough time to think another fervent Fuck you in Castiel’s general direction.

He thought he felt the faintest hint of amusement, and it might not have been totally his own. It shouldn’t have been his own at all; what was funny about this? But maybe, like the calm and the voices and the children leaning against his side, they were just trying to help.

Stop trying to calm me down, he thought as hard as he could.

“We’re not,” Saph whispered.

“No, not you,” he muttered, but he couldn’t even pat her shoulder because she and Dani wouldn’t let go of his hands. Even though they were obviously upset.

Geez, okay. So he couldn’t be pissed at one of them without being pissed at all of them. He was going to kick Castiel’s ass for not leaving him an instruction manual.

“Not you,” Dean repeated. “I’m not mad at you guys.”

“You’re angry at Father,” Maribel said.

“No,” Dean said. Trying to sound like he wasn’t angry. “I’m just... confused.”

“Distance doesn’t matter,” Maribel offered. Like it was the answer to something he hadn’t asked. “You can hear what he hears no matter where he is. So can we. We’re all behind the same shield.”

Or maybe like a question he had asked. Dean stared at her, his brain finally working for once because if Castiel could make it so his “family” couldn’t tell whether someone was an angel or not of course he would use it on his kids. Why had he had to be told that?

“Father thinks you’re smart,” Maia remarked, out of the blue. Her wings were weirdly ruffled, little wisps of light swirling into tiny half circles at the edges. “So do we. You know a lot of things we don’t.”

It took Dean a moment to realize that she was trying to make him feel better. So, good to know: it had just gotten a lot harder to lie to the kids. He tried not to think of anything he wouldn’t want them to know, because there was a lot of it and who knew how much they could pick up.

“You’re very hard to understand,” Adamel said.

“Okay,” Dean said aloud, because if he didn’t take control of this conversation they might just stand there and analyze every passing thought he had. “Let’s talk about what kind of danger we’re in. Your dad flew out of here pretty fast; I’m guessing that’s bad?”

He didn’t realize until after he’d said it that “flew” might have been literally true; Castiel’s wings had been a hell of a lot scarier than the kids’ cute little individual lightshows. He didn’t realize until after Maribel answered that the question had been too vague.

“It’s good that he left quickly,” she said. “That means he can deal with whatever’s happened immediately.”

“But you don’t know what’s happened,” Dean said.

He knew the moment she got it, because pretty gold and understanding lit up her wings even as she said, “It’s probably bad.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I figured. What about for us? Is it bad for us?”

Maribel frowned. “I don’t know.”

Dean reminded himself that all she’d done was answer the question he’d asked. “Do you think we’re in more danger now than we were in ten minutes ago?”

“No,” she responded immediately. “The house is safe, and if Father thought we were in trouble he wouldn’t have left.”

“Or he would have sent someone else,” Adamel added. “Rachel stays with him, but Balthazar would come.”

Dean guessed he didn’t really need to know who Balthazar was. He didn’t know whether to be relieved that Castiel had people he trusted with the kids, or worried that there were only two of them. The man needed more friends.

“Who’s Balthazar?” he asked, which wasn’t what he’d meant to say at all.

Maribel tilted her head, wings ruffling in confusion, but she replied without hesitation. “He’s the angel who will come for us if Father is killed.”

That was circular and kind of terrifying, and Dean told himself to let it go. Seriously. None of his business.

“Is he like Rachel?” Dean asked.

Maribel frowned. “No,” she said.

Saph came to his rescue. “He’s much nicer than Rachel,” she said, hanging on his arm and staring up at him with earnest eyes. “He’s funny. He doesn’t like humans, though.”

Well, that would be a problem. “Okay,” Dean said aloud. “Good to know. So you figure we’re safe here - is there anything we can do to help your dad?”

They were all staring at him again. Wordlessly. Because it was a human asking, he wondered, or just because they didn’t like to think about Castiel needing help? Was it possible he didn’t?

No, Dean decided. He must or he wouldn’t be scrambling to hide Dean. Or leaving his children in the company of a human babysitter while he went somewhere that apparently carried the risk of death.

“We can stay here,” Maribel offered at last. “And be safe.”

“Right.” Dean tried not to sigh. Of course they could. “So did someone say something about knife-fighting?”

It turned out that yes, someone had. Maia and Wildfire had brought it up, and Castiel had explicitly rejected the idea. The rest of the kids loved it. Maribel enforced her father’s will to the extent that there were no actual knives involved, but Dean did learn that they all had them.

Every last one of them, even Saph and Dani, apparently carried triple-sided blades on them at all times. They used wooden dowels to demonstrate how they were used, and wow: if they did that with sharp pointy things? They really could defend themselves. All supernatural enhancement aside (and he still didn’t know what exactly their superpowers were), they were fierce with fake knives.

Dean felt bad using his strength against them until he realized that he shouldn’t at all. They snapped a lot of sticks trying to teach him the basics - and he knew knife-fighting, damn it - but apparently one of their powers was mending broken dowels. So it wasn’t much of a loss.

It was Dani who remembered dinner and asked if he was going to make them something. Dean drew a blank, because why? Because he made eggs? He wasn’t exactly a cook, and he distinctly remembered Castiel telling him that he didn’t have to join the kids for meals if he didn’t want to.

Not that he didn’t want to, but having the option had to mean he wasn’t responsible for providing the food, right?

“What do you normally have for dinner?” he asked her.

Dani just looked at him, but Saph chirped, “Cereal! It’s not as good as your eggs. Will you make us eggs?”

Dean raised his eyebrows at her. “You don’t eat cereal for dinner.”

Her face fell. “You don’t? We didn’t know that.”

“Wait, what?” Dean had assumed they were pulling his leg, but her disappointment was real. “You actually eat cereal for dinner?” He tried not to sound as incredulous as he felt. It was a losing battle.

“Yes,” Saph said, back on certain ground again. “We have a lot of it.”

“Okay,” Dean said carefully, because Saph might be okay but Dani looked worried and the rest of the kids were whispering silently to each other whenever he wasn’t talking. It was a little creepy, actually, but he was trying to ignore it. “What else do you eat for dinner?”

“Pizza,” Dani whispered.

“Right.” Dean gave her shoulder an encouraging squeeze, trying not to think about the way his hand went right through her wing. The light played over his fingers, but he couldn’t feel it. Much. “Anything else?”

“Fruit,” Saph said. “And vegetables. And sometimes other people make us stuff, so we eat that. Kelly leaves things for us sometimes.”

The housekeeper fed them. But not every day? Dean stared at them - clearly not malnourished - and could only come to one conclusion. It seemed crazy enough that he had to ask: “Do you guys need to eat?”

“No,” Saph said confidently. “Angels get their energy from heaven.” She was so matter-of-fact that he didn’t bother looking at the other kids for confirmation. He could hear them, anyway: every time he stopped talking, their words drifted around him.

“Do you like eating?” Dean asked. He remembered Maru yesterday, saying he didn’t like food. Maybe he’d meant that literally - and maybe he wasn’t the only one. It seemed crazy to Dean, but so did “getting energy from heaven.” So he might as well ask.

“Yes!” Saph said.

Yes, Dani agreed.

“No,” Maru said. “Except for ice cream.”

Right, Dean remembered that. “So, ice cream for dessert,” he said aloud. “What about the rest of you?”

“I like to eat,” Maia offered, but the way she said it made him think that she liked it the way he liked a good movie: fun every now and then, but not something she’d miss if she didn’t do it for a few weeks.

“Me too,” Wildfire agreed. “But not every day. It’s boring.”

Of course it was, Dean thought, trying not to roll his eyes. If all they ate was cereal. There was actual food in the kitchen; he’d seen it, and they were going to make something.

“I don’t know,” Maribel said at last, when Dean looked at her and Adamel. “I’ve never really thought about it.”

Adamel shook his head in wordless agreement.

Dean glanced at Wildfire, and she stopped spinning her wooden dowel idly over her wrist. Her wing slid back from contact with Maia’s, sparkling light like a waterfall to the floor as they parted. She tilted her head at him like she expected an order.

“Let’s go see what’s in the kitchen,” Dean said. He knew there was bacon, at least, and some of those noodles had to be edible. He might be the only one, but he was starving.

He stopped the second they walked into the kitchen. The counter was clear. “Where’s my sandwich?” he asked aloud. Not because he wanted it - except maybe he regretted not eating it when he’d had the chance - but because he’d forgotten until it wasn’t there that it should have been.

Castiel hadn’t moved it before they left the kitchen. It had been sitting there, right there, and now it wasn’t.

“Kelly takes care of the food we leave out,” Maru said. “Did you leave your sandwich out?”

“Yeah,” Dean said, frowning around the kitchen. “Is Kelly here now?”

The kids looked around too, like they might see her and be able to answer the question for him. At this point he wouldn’t really be surprised if they said yes. Maybe they had an invisible ghost housekeeper.

“No,” Maribel said at last. “She must have cleaned up while we were in the solarium.”

That was the most logical thing anyone had said all afternoon. Which meant, unfortunately, that it sounded weird to him. He tried not to think about that.

Instead, he said, “Look. There are a few things I know how to make, and they’re not gourmet, but they’re better than cereal, okay? You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to, but I’m going to. So who wants food?”

They all wanted food. Dean didn’t know if that meant they all wanted an entire meal or they all wanted to try whatever he was eating, but at this point he didn’t really care. Whatever they didn’t eat he’d put in the refrigerator and hey, he’d have a lunch to take with him tomorrow.

“Noodles,” he said. “We’re cooking noodles, you can try ’em hot and cold, and we’ll put vegetables in them ’cause kids need vegetables. They have vitamins or something. I need someone to get out plates and silverware, someone to boil water, and someone who knows how to use a knife.”

Then he realized what he’d just said. “Someone who can use a knife to chop vegetables,” Dean added. “A cutting knife. Not a fighting knife.”

That narrowed down his options to Maribel and Adamel, as far as he was concerned. And maybe Wildfire, but she volunteered to get the dishes. So he set Adamel to boiling water, Maribel to chopping string beans and zucchini, and tried to keep the rest of the kids busy measuring pasta and mixing tuna when he found a couple of cans in the cupboard.

It was chaos. Dinner was more disorganized than anything he’d seen them do. They were louder, constantly calling for him to tell them what to do next - the little kids started it, but the older kids quickly realized that they got his attention faster if they didn’t just stand there and wait for the next instruction.

He really wished he’d eaten that sandwich.

Maia helped Maribel split the pasta in half: a hot bowl he set on the island as is, and a cold bowl they ran water over and dumped in with the tuna. Adamel added the chopped vegetables to both when Dean wasn’t looking, which was the most initiative any of them had taken maybe ever so Dean didn’t bother telling him they usually went in the casserole. Maru and Dani poured a jar of sauce into a bowl - which Dean really thought would go badly, but in ten minutes he’d already forgotten how strong they were - and Saph helped him get drinks. Just water, but when they added ice she beamed like she’d learned how to follow a recipe.

It was one of the best dinners Dean had ever had. They ate everything. Which was ridiculous, but kind of gratifying, and he guessed it at least meant something that they preferred it over nothing? Not a single one of the kids would say that they liked any of the food better than the rest: most of them just mixed it all together on their plate anyway, hot pasta and cold casserole together, but who expected kids to eat normally? It was probably one of the most human things they did, if it came to that.

“What about ice cream?” Maru asked afterward, while Saph was trying to convince him that they didn’t have to clean up because the still-mysterious Kelly would do it for them.

“Well, we don’t have any,” Dean began, intending to follow it with: so we’ll have to order in, but Maru interrupted before he could finish.

“Yes we do,” he said. “It’s in the freezer.”

Dean had been in the freezer for ice just before dinner, and he was sure he would have noticed something as important as ice cream. “This freezer?” he asked, pointing across the kitchen. Now he knew why they ate at the counter: it would have taken forever to carry everything into another room.

“No,” Maru said. “The freezer in the garage.”

Why was there a freezer in the garage, Dean wondered?

“It’s for our friends,” Saph said. “Father read that human children like to have snacks when they visit other people’s houses.”

He shouldn’t ask. He knew he shouldn’t, and he heard the words come out anyway. “Do you guys have friends over a lot?”

“No,” Saph said. “We don’t have any friends.”

She didn’t sound upset about it, but it made him think about Sam and he was suddenly, irrationally angry at Castiel. Just... angry. In a way he couldn’t do anything about. He was sitting in a quiet, empty kitchen with seven children hanging on his every word and he was the only responsible adult in the room.

All over again.

Saph was staring at him with wide eyes. Dani had pulled back, tiny lit wings pressed so tight to her body that it looked like her clothing was glowing. Maia and Maru were very still. It was Maribel who broke the silence by asking, “Have we done something to upset you?”

She sounded infinitely calm. She shouldn’t have to be their mom, and Dean swallowed a snarl that wouldn’t accomplish anything. He didn’t have any right to be this mad on their behalf; this wasn’t his life. It wasn’t his call.

“No,” he said, trying to sound like he meant it. “No, you guys are great.”

“But you are upset,” Maribel said, and fuck, they weren’t even whispering now. He’d stopped noticing the little tendrils of thought around them until they were gone: now everyone was waiting for him to speak. Only him.

“Not at you,” Dean said. “Sorry, I just--” He couldn’t even lie to them. Damn it.

“You reminded me of something else I’m angry about,” he said, because he had to tell them the truth and this was the best he could do. “It has nothing to do with you, I promise. Let’s go see what’s in the garage, okay?”

So they did, and Dani held his hand again, and he tried not to think about Castiel because Castiel wasn’t his dad and none of these kids were Sam. The ice cream was awesome. They ate it in the Hummer, which was fun and Maru and Saph both giggled so that made his night right there.

When they went back inside, the kitchen was clean. “Seriously,” he said, stopping to stare. “Kelly is here, right? How come I never see her?”

“She’s very fast,” Maia said. “We have to go do our homework now. Do you want to come with us?”

“I don’t think I’d be much help,” Dean said. Not that he thought they were learning higher math at a school where they started the day with singing, but he didn’t think he’d be any good at talking out his feelings or drawing pictures of bunnies, either.

They didn’t seem disappointed, so he added, “I’m just gonna turn the TV on for a little while. You guys can yell if you need me, right?” He might still be a little fuzzy on the intercom system, but after dinner he didn’t doubt their ability to get his attention if they needed it.

Can we watch TV with you? Dani asked.

“After you finish your homework,” Dean told her. “When’s your bedtime, anyway?” They’d eaten dinner late, and it wasn’t exactly high summer out there: the windows were already dark.

She just looked at him.

“Don’t tell me you don’t need to sleep,” he said.

When no one said anything, he realized he’d done it again. “Scratch that,” he said. “Do you need to sleep?”

“No,” Maribel said. “But Father likes for us to seek revelation at night - pray,” she added, and he couldn’t tell if she was saying it because she thought he might not get it or because he’d told Wildfire to use smaller words. “We’re supposed to be in contemplation by the end of the day.”

It took him a second to realize that she probably meant midnight. “And you...” He stopped. “Do you... pray until morning? Breakfast?”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s very enlightening.”

“Uh-huh,” he said. “That’s... okay.” He wondered if anyone ever answered their prayers. Probably, right? If they were angels?

He had a sudden image of angel bureaucracy, and he tried not to smile. “Well, you’ve got a few hours, then. You want company, you know where to find me.”

He didn’t know if any of them tried to find him. He figured out how to turn the TV on, but the fact that it had to scan for stations told him he was the first. Like the snacks in the garage, the TV was just for show.

He fell asleep on the couch, trying not to think about absent fathers and the friends they couldn’t have.

Chapter Text

Everything was too bright and strange and if he’d had amnesia he couldn’t have been any more confused. He might have amnesia. He knew what amnesia was; he’d probably just woken up, he wasn’t dead. No one was waving a weapon in his face.

That should have been his first thought. He’d really crashed. He was on a couch. Not a motel room. This was Castiel’s house, and it wasn’t morning.

Dean sat up. No one here would be fooled by him pretending to be asleep. The kids--

Castiel was collapsed on the floor by the front door.

“Shit,” Dean gasped, voice rough and adrenaline making his heart pound. He scrambled off the couch and lunged across the room, low and terrified, because if Castiel had told the truth then anything that could knock him down wouldn’t have to think twice about Dean.

“Dean,” Castiel whispered.

His knees slammed to the floor beside Castiel, splashing through sprawled wings and a dizzying circle of color. It took him too long to understand that the silver light bleeding out of Castiel’s chest was real, that it meant something, that it wasn’t part of the creepy angel vision that had gotten worse while he slept. He thought he’d dreamed in rave hi-def.

“They’re coming,” Castiel breathed.

“The kids,” Dean said, pushing himself up.

Castiel’s hand clamped down on his wrist before he could do more than get his feet under him. He was yanked back to the ground hard. “They’re safe,” Castiel whispered. “My friend has them.”

“Balthazar,” Dean said.

Castiel stared at him, confusion swirling in the colors around his face. “The children told you.”

“You’re sure they’re okay,” Dean said. It wasn’t a question, and his eyes went involuntarily to the silver light. Like blood, like angel leaking out, it couldn’t be good.

“No way to know now,” Castiel said softly. “He wasn’t--” His voice gave out and Dean heard the words in his head. Not deafening, too normal, quiet by Castiel’s standards. Not allowed to tell me, he said.

Dean put that together with “safe” and got, “You’re compromised.”

Will be, Castiel said. When they find me.

They could break him, he meant. He could give up information, no matter how valuable, and what the fuck. “Can I touch this?” Dean said, staring at the light. “This is bad, right? Can we stop it?”

No, Castiel said. His words were falling apart, conveying blood and fire and probably kill you enough for Dean to know that what he wanted to do was a really bad idea.

“Fuck that,” he said aloud. The day he let a guy bleed out in front of him was the day he turned in his humanity card for good. He yanked his shirt off over his head and rolled it into a ball, pressing it against Castiel’s chest with one hand.

If it burned his hand off, at least he’d still have the other one, right?

He would have admitted it wasn’t a great plan if he’d had time to think about it, but the thing was, he didn’t. He was going to staunch the stupid light and he was going to ignore Castiel jerking under the pressure and hopefully neither of them would die this minute. His damn amulet had come off with the shirt, and he could feel the burn where the cord had cut across his skin.

The fact that he could feel that and not his hand was a good thing, right? His hand was numb. But it was still there. He was looking right at it, and if it was going to fall off at least he wouldn’t know right away because he couldn’t feel it.

“Dean,” Castiel gasped, his hand coming down on top of Dean’s and he couldn’t help it. He slammed his other hand down to keep Castiel from yanking it away.

“Don’t move,” Dean growled. “Unless I’m making it worse, you don’t get a say.”

“Not,” Castiel managed. His fingers were hot through the numbness, and they didn’t hurt. Dean was gonna assume that was good. He had feeling back in his fingers, and it was feeling that wasn’t pain. Two for two.

“How did you--” Castiel began.

“No talking,” Dean snapped. “Blink once for yes and two for no: is this gonna kill you?”

Castiel stared at him for a long moment, then blinked. Twice.

“Is it gonna kill me?” Dean asked.

Castiel blinked twice, but Dean got the crazy incredulity swirling around him without needing more nuance than that. It should have, apparently. Castiel figured that if it hadn’t by now, it wasn’t going to. But he didn’t know why.

“Okay,” Dean said. “As far as you know, all the kids are somewhere safer than this.”

One blink. Castiel was very sure of this.

“Are we safe here?” Dean asked.

Two more blinks.

The ice was fading from his hands; the hand on top of Castiel’s felt totally normal and the one underneath was cold but not frosty. Warmth continued to soak through his skin from Castiel’s hand, but it didn’t feel as fiery as it had before. He couldn’t tell if he was just less cold, or if angel temperature went haywire when they were injured and maybe this was some kind of stabilization.

“Should we leave?” Dean asked.

Castiel blinked twice, and Dean didn’t bother to question it. They might not have time. “Someone’s coming for you,” he said. “Where’s Rachel?”

Castiel looked anguished, bad like worse than dying bad, and Dean didn’t want to ask but he had to. “She dead?” he asked gruffly.

I don’t know, Castiel’s voice said.

Great. So not only did they have to survive themselves, they had to mount a rescue mission. He should have taken his nap earlier. “We’ll find her,” he told Castiel. “You feel less weird. You getting better?”

“Yes,” Castiel said aloud. His hand wasn’t pressing down quite as hard on Dean’s anymore, and the cold had faded to cool like untouched metal. “You shouldn’t have been able to do that.”

“Not really our highest priority right now,” Dean said. “You got a sword?”

Castiel stared at him. “Yes,” he said.

“Give it to me,” Dean said. “You’re not gonna do either of us any good with it down here.”

“I can stand,” Castiel said. He still didn’t move. “I can fight.”

“Yeah, yeah, brave words,” Dean told him. “But you’re not getting up, and I don’t suck with a blade. Tell me what else I can do to defend you.”

“Nothing,” Castiel said.

“Then why am I still here?” he demanded.

“Because they will kill you faster if you leave,” Castiel said. His hand twitched, subtle command for Dean to move, and Dean loosened his grip a little. The flow of freakish silver light had stopped, but he didn’t dare move his shirt.

“Bullshit,” he said, letting Castiel push his hands away reluctantly. “Give me your sword.”

“No,” Castiel said. He peeled Dean’s shirt away without hesitation. No deadly silver glow burst out, and even as Dean watched, the tear in Castiel’s white button-down stitched itself back together over top of unbroken skin.

Apparently wooden dowels weren’t the only thing they could fix.

“Thank you,” Castiel said, going to sit up. He almost made it, except for the way his face went white and the colors around him went from bright blue to sickly green. His wings drooped so fast it looked like he was falling.

Dean caught him without thinking.

He wasn’t totally comfortable with his arms wrapped around a painfully pretty monster, holding the guy pressed against his bare chest while Castiel tried to catch his breath. Or whatever they did. If they didn’t even bleed, he figured they didn’t really need to breathe.

“I promise not to compromise your virtue,” Castiel whispered, and he sounded awful again. Dean wanted to roll him over and check for more... light leaks, or whatever, but he’d see it, right? He’d know if Castiel was hurt in a way that he could see?

“I’ll kiss you,” Dean told him, because he couldn’t lie and he might as well not make this worse by tiptoeing around it. “I’ll kiss you if you piss me off enough. That’s gotta be some kind of punishment for angels.”

“Yes,” Castiel said softly. “Signs of intimate affection are so difficult to bear.”

“Is that sarcasm?” Dean wanted to know.

“Yes,” Castiel repeated.

Dean found himself smiling. “You’re cute for an angel. I’ll give you that.”

“I can sit,” Castiel said. “On my own. Thank you.”

“Yeah, I’m not convinced,” Dean told him, but he let Castiel try. The house moved and he almost didn’t notice because Castiel was holding up his shirt and Dean didn’t really think he should be doing two things at once.

The amulet felt out of his t-shirt as it unfolded, bright and shiny gold, and it bounced when the floor shook underneath them. They’re here, Castiel’s voice said. Dean couldn’t tell if it was out loud or not: the noise of the house and the rumble in the room around him was enough to drown out almost anything.

“What do we do?” Dean asked. He couldn’t hear his own words.

He caught the glint of silver even before he saw the man standing in front of them. That must be Castiel’s sword, and he was holding the blade instead of the hilt because? Dean hated angels with the passion of someone who had spent his life defending against things he could see coming. This guy was old and slithery fast and Castiel couldn’t even hold his sword right, let alone stand.

“Get up,” the old guy snapped. His voice was high-pitched and shattering through the rumble that still filled the air. His wings weren’t white or glowy: they crackled grey with anger.

Dean snatched Castiel’s sword and whipped it around, clearing space for him to stand as he shoved himself to his feet. “Back off,” he snarled. “This one’s mine.”

His voice was nothing in the maelstrom, but the old guy must have heard it because he sneered. “And who are you?”

Michael, Castiel said. You’re Michael.

“Michael,” Dean said aloud. Then he felt Castiel’s hand on his ankle and the room lit up with a searing white that he couldn’t take. His arm came up to shield his eyes, already squeezed shut as tight as he could make them. He lifted Castiel’s sword instinctively, but the blow he braced for never landed.

The white was gone. The rumble had stopped. When he opened his eyes there was no one in front of him, but when he turned to Castiel there was blood on the floor. Actual, human-looking blood. Dean swore.

“What the fuck is wrong with you now?” He fell to one knee, a hand tight on Castiel’s shoulder to keep him from slumping back to the floor as Dean scanned the room. “Where’d the old guy go?”

“He’s gone,” Castiel whispered. “The blood sigil will banish him from our vicinity until it dries.”

“Great,” Dean snapped, letting Castiel’s sword hit the floor. “Give me your hand.”

Castiel was staring at it like he’d never seen himself bleed before. “It should stop,” he breathed. Dean could barely make out the words, but Castiel’s dismay was clear in his drooping eyes and slouched shoulders.

“Well, it’s not,” Dean said. “Give it to me.” He wasn’t stupid; he’d made the same guess about the amulet that Castiel had.

Castiel looked up, searched his expression, and nodded slowly. Dean dropped the necklace he’d worn since he was a child into Castiel’s outstretched hand. It fucking hissed, and he was about to jerk it away when Castiel’s fingers closed around it.

When he opened them, the skin was whole and unblemished. Just a whole lot of blood smeared around, darker in the lines of his palm but no longer dripping onto the floor. “Magical healing pendant,” Dean heard himself say. “Who’d have guessed.”

Castiel caught his eye again. “It’s never exhibited such properties before?” he asked. His voice sounded stronger, and Dean hoped he wasn’t going to try to stand up. The sitting had been bad enough.

“It’s never exhibited any properties,” Dean said, rolling his eyes. “I think I would have noticed something like that.”

“Yes,” Castiel mused, letting go of the amulet to offer its cord to Dean. Blood stains and all. “I think so too.”

Dean eyed him. “No offense,” he began.

“Yes, of course,” Castiel interrupted. Just like that, the pendant was clean again. Castiel’s hand was clean, holding the cord, but the blood stains on his shirt and pants hadn’t faded. The freaky blood magic on the floor was still bright and wet through the swirling colors of angel all around him.

“Thanks,” Dean said warily. He reached out to take the amulet, a little surprised when Castiel actually let him. No guarantees it even worked for him, and he’d seen how much it helped Castiel. Why give it back at all?

“It does belong to you,” Castiel said. “Does it not?”

“My brother gave it to me,” Dean said, vague with the memory because he didn’t want to think about it now. He’d worn it ever since. He’d changed the cord three times, but the little gold mask shape had never been lost.

“Just so.” Castiel watched him put it back on, then stared at his chest a moment. “Your shirt is clean,” he said at last. “If you would like it back.”

Dean wasn’t keen on reusing clothing that had been used to bandage wounds, but having Castiel stare at him like that might be weirder. He snatched his shirt up, trying to give Castiel’s blade a pointed look while he pulled it over his head. He failed, and he mumbled, “Sword,” in a way that was probably muffled by cloth and embarrassment both.

“Indeed,” Castiel said. “You were very smooth with it.”

Dean didn’t have to ask to know there was suspicion there. “They didn’t break out the knives,” he said, nudging it across the floor in Castiel’s direction. Now that it wasn’t his life behind the sword, it felt sort of electric to the touch. In a bad way.

In an “I’m going to kill you if you keep touching me” way, which no sword should be able to convey with a little shock. He decided to leave it alone anyway.

“But they did give me a lesson,” he admitted, lifting his gaze to Castiel’s again. “Wooden dowels. Play fencing. That’s all it was.”

“I told them not to,” Castiel said.

“We didn’t use blades,” Dean repeated. “They just showed me some forms.”

Castiel frowned down at his own blade. He reached for it at last, and the moment he touched it, the whole thing disappeared. Dean couldn’t muster up much surprise.

“Nice trick,” he commented. That explained how the kids carried them “all the time,” then.

“Yes,” Castiel said absently. “I believe I should warn my staff.”

“I believe your staff isn’t stupid,” Dean retorted. “If they were even here for the house-shaking thing, they’ve gotta be long gone by now.”

For the first time, Castiel ignored him. “Help me up,” he said, holding out his hand to Dean.

Dean sighed, but he crouched closer and lifted Castiel’s arm up and over his shoulder. “Ready?” he asked, turning his head just enough so it was obvious. Not enough so he could actually see anything.

Castiel sounded stunned when he said, “You’re helping me.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “You just asked me to, you crazy person.”

“Yes, but--”

Dean waited. When no more was forthcoming, he shook his head as best he could and said, “Come on, on three. One, two--”

Castiel was gone. Dean lost his balance and fell backward, staring up at him in surprise. “Okay, if you can fly again, why did you--”

“Dean,” Castiel said. That was all.

Finally, Dean held out his own hand. “A little help?” he said pointedly. He didn’t need it, but if Castiel was going to stand there and stare at him he could at least make it worth his while.

Castiel clasped his hand without hesitation, pulling him to his feet easily. Not creepy easy, just easy. Like he was strong, not like he was... whatever. It didn’t mess him up, either, so maybe that meant he was feeling better?

“You heal yourselves?” Dean asked. He let go of Castiel’s hand before it became clear Castiel wouldn’t, and he tried not to think about what that meant. Either he was being protected, he was being messed with, or Castiel didn’t get touching any more than he got the rest of the human experience.

Okay, so he couldn’t not think about it. Castiel was right. His thoughts didn’t really know how to toe the discipline line.

“Like you,” Castiel said. “We’re simply more efficient about it.”

Dean gaped at him for a long moment before he realized the remark wasn’t about what he’d been thinking. Probably. “Handy,” he managed. He gave the blood on the floor a quick look. “So I’m thinking we need to get out of here. Sooner rather than later.”

“No,” Castiel said calmly. “There is nowhere we can go that they won’t follow.”

“And?” Dean prompted, when that was all he said.

“And what?” Castiel asked.

“And, what are we going to do here that’s so great?” he demanded.

“We’re going to warn Kelly and Gary to leave,” Castiel said. “Then we will wait.”

“For the rest of your family to come kill us?” Dean asked. He didn’t even wait for Castiel to nod. “Forget it. You’ve got a friend out there who needs rescuing; if we’re gonna die, we might as well do it going for her.”

Castiel blinked. “Rachel?” he said, after an obvious hesitation.

“Who else?” Dean demanded. “You got a lot of other people you’re supposed to be rescuing right now? We may not have a lot of time; you’re gonna have to prioritize.”

“Dean,” Castiel said quietly. “Do you know how far I can fly right now?”

“At least three feet,” Dean retorted.

“About three feet,” Castiel said with a sigh. “I give the appearance of standing because my human form is upright, but I know you can see through this facade. I am barely mobile, let alone battle ready. It would be as much as I can do right now to take my own death as a soldier, rather than an invalid.”

Dean stared at him. “Okay, you’ve known me like a day,” he said. “So I forgive you for not getting this, but no one I’ve bandaged up with my own shirt is gonna lie down and die.”

“I just told you,” Castiel said. “I will not meet my death lying down.”

“And I won’t let you give up,” Dean snapped. “Your kids would kick my ass.”

“It’s unlikely that you will survive me,” Castiel said.

Dean rolled his eyes. “Not your most convincing argument, Cas. Tell me how to leave a note for your long-gone staff, and then we’re talking options.”

“The shopping list,” Castiel said. “In the kitchen. They both check it constantly; if they’re not here, they’ll see a note there.”

“Really?” Dean said. “Not the intercom?”

“You don’t believe they’re in the house,” Castiel reminded him.

“So what do I know?” Dean asked. “Might as well try it, right?”

He got the flare of impatience, no problem, but it still surprised him when Castiel muttered, “You are very aggravating.”

“Yeah, whatever, dock my pay,” Dean said. “You try the intercom; I’ll leave the note. Then we’re out of here.”

Castiel didn’t move, and Dean eyed him. “Can you walk?”

Castiel’s eyes closed. Dean knew he was going to fail before he was sure the man would try. “Okay, no, don’t,” Dean said, jumping forward even as Castiel took a step.

Almost took a step. Dean grabbed and held him, which, given how hard Saph and Dani could latch onto his hands he didn’t think he should be able to do. “Don’t move,” he said. “Sit down. I’ll do it.”

“Your instructions are contradictory,” Castiel whispered. He hadn’t opened his eyes.

“My instructions are fucking awesome,” Dean snapped. “Sit down before you fall. Head between your knees. I’ll be right back.”

“I don’t think you should leave,” Castiel said. His voice was almost inaudible. “I didn’t expect to survive this long. I think you may be the--”

And that was it. He crumpled where he stood, human form following the giant spill of light to the floor. Dean would have wondered if he was looking at a dead angel, except that he could still hear a whisper of something in his mind: relief.

No fucking way was that his. Therefore, Castiel wasn’t dead.

He hated that this was the decision he had to make, but Castiel had wanted his stupid staff warned. Apparently he and Dean weren’t going anywhere, which meant he and Dean were probably going to die. Dean could sit uselessly with him and maybe keep him alive another few minutes, or he could make sure Kelly and... Gary? Kelly and Gary got the hell out.

If they hadn’t already. No one answered the intercom, and Dean was sure he’d used it right, because he could hear it echoing in the kitchen. So he went after it, belatedly following his own voice to grab the grocery list from its permanent home on the counter.

All it said was more ice cream, so he added at the bottom GET OUT OF THE HOUSE. CAS SAYS IT’S BAD. GO SOMEWHERE SAFE. There was a little space left over, so he figured he might as well use it. (REALLY, REALLY BAD. NICE KNOWING YOU, ETC.)

He wanted to write something about not knowing Kelly at all, and was she actually an invisible ghost? But it didn’t seem relevant, and he didn’t want them taking that long to read the note anyway. Red alert messages shouldn’t get bogged down with details.

Dean didn’t know what he was going to find when he went back to the door. Castiel hadn’t moved - obviously - and he only realized after the fact that he’d written “Cas” in the note instead of “Castiel.” Whatever, red alert. Etcetera.

The blood on the floor didn’t look wet anymore. Maybe “tacky” was enough.

He stared down at what he didn’t want to call a body. He hoped Rachel wasn’t waiting for her partner somewhere. He hoped Balthazar knew what to do with the kids. He hoped that damn Waldorf school kept singing, because they didn’t deserve the ricochet of a supernatural war that would graze every class they had.

He hoped, more than anything, that Sam didn’t blame himself for whatever the hell happened when the creepy old guy with the crackling wings came back.

Dean.

Dean wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with dead people talking to him, which was probably the only reason he didn’t jump. “Yeah,” he said aloud.

Castiel’s human body didn’t move. Dean could see it very clearly, and it wasn’t breathing. Apparently that didn’t mean as much to angels as it did to mere mortals.

Do you know who Michael is?

Castiel still didn’t sound good. Which, okay, he was probably dead, so he shouldn’t, right? But if he was actually a... whatever, why...

Michael, Castiel prodded. Not ignoring him. He got that impression very clearly, that Castiel was paying attention and wanted to answer but couldn’t, was trying to focus on something more important. And Dean wasn’t helping.

“Michael,” he said aloud. There were three “Michael”s in his phone, but he figured they probably didn’t mean much to Castiel. “No?”

Touch the sigil.

He wasn’t really excited about that idea. “Why?”

He got the feeling Castiel didn’t have the energy to answer this either, which made him feel kind of like a bastard when he got two words anyway: It’s dry.

Dean swallowed. He looked around the room automatically, unable to accept that the fact they were alive - sort of - meant there wasn’t anyone else in the room. Maybe they were invisible. Like the housekeeper.

“Want me to redo it?” he asked. Because he had to offer.

No.

He thought there was more to it than that, but if Castiel couldn’t breathe, talking had to be pretty far down the priority list. “You want me to do anything?”

He didn’t get an actual yes, but he knew it was there anyway.

“What?” Dean asked. “I can guess, if you want, but we could be here a while.” He didn’t say they might not have that kind of time, because they shouldn’t have this kind of time. Why hadn’t the weird slithery guy come back yet?

Michael, Castiel repeated, and call him crazy but comprehension crashed home just like that. Castiel’s crazy angel gang. Castiel wanting him to pretend. Castiel telling him what to say.

Saint Michael?” he demanded. “You just made me impersonate Saint Michael the archangel? Is that more or less blasphemous than swearing in front of kids, because if you just signed my ticket to hell I think I should get a limo or something.”

Why? Castiel managed.

“To take me there,” Dean said. “Obviously. An angel sends you to hell, I think you should get special treatment. Also, why are you talking? You sound dead, man. You sound literally dead.”

He looked it too, but Dean figured that part was obvious.

I’m trying to stay here.

That sounded really ominous to Dean. “What - here, here? Like, alive here? You’re trying to stay alive? Can I help?”

Talk, Castiel said.

Dean snorted. “Sure you don’t want the magical healing amulet instead?” And hey, why hadn’t he thought of that? What the hell had Castiel been doing, giving it back to him when he was minutes away from dying?

“Is it weird if I put this on your dead body?” Dean asked, already kneeling beside him and geez, was a little carpet so much to ask in this house? It was weird. No question. But he’d been on a first-name basis with any number of corpses, and it wasn’t like Castiel wasn’t there.

He wasn’t sure if that made it more or less awkward, actually.

Castiel didn’t answer, so Dean slid a hand under his head and lifted. It was an easy motion if the body was recently... except it wasn’t. Not anymore. Castiel’s body was cool to the touch, yet his head lifted as easily as if he were conscious and helping.

“Dude,” Dean said, looping the cord behind his head and sliding it, finger by finger, through his own grasp. Castiel didn’t move, but he was a long way from stiff. “This is really not human.”

Dean lowered his head back to the ground carefully, letting the amulet rest against his throat. And then he heard Castiel say, I apologize for not dying humanly enough for you.

Dean grinned in spite of himself. “Just as well you didn’t,” he said. “You can come back from this, right? I mean... you’re not a ghost or anything?”

Castiel opened his eyes and Dean felt his heart seize. He almost dropped Castiel’s head. Which probably wouldn’t have hurt him, given that the back of Dean’s hand was on the floor at this point, and also, he was an angel.

“Holy fuck,” Dean blurted out. “Now you’re a goddamned zombie.”

Castiel’s gaze fixed on him, which was creepy as all get out. I’m not, he said.

“You’re not breathing,” Dean informed him. “You’re totally a zombie.”

Damned, Castiel said. I’m not damned.

“Right,” Dean said, frowning. “Obviously. Figure of speech.”

You’re uncomfortable, Castiel said.

“You’re a freak,” Dean retorted. “What does me pretending to be Saint Michael get us, anyway?”

So far, Castiel said, ten more minutes of life.

“Can you even die?” Dean wanted to know. “I mean, really? The important part of you? Which is looking pretty dim, I have to tell you. Wish I could plug you in somewhere, charge up your battery.”

Castiel didn’t say anything for a long moment, just lay there without breathing and stared with unblinking eyes. His live, unblinking eyes. His wings were like fog against the floor, but the colors still moved sluggishly as long as Dean didn’t look directly at them.

Thank you, he said at last.

Dean raised his eyebrows. “I’m not asking,” he said. “Just answer the question: can you die?”

Yes, Castiel said.

Damn.

“Well, don’t do it tonight,” Dean told him. “I’m too tired to deal with it, and I don’t think that slithery guy is gonna be too helpful either.”

Perhaps he will not return, Castiel said. He had a reason for saying it, Dean could tell, but it must have been too much work to share.

“Maybe I’ll be asleep by the time he gets here,” Dean muttered. He had to ease his hand out from behind Castiel’s head finally, not because it was creepy or his fingers were falling asleep but just because his back hurt and he needed to sit down. Really sit down. He wanted to lean against something, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen.

You should rest, Castiel said.

“You should not die,” Dean shot back. “Which of us is the higher priority, here?”

You’re the one protecting me, Castiel said. So I’m inclined to say you.

Dean opened his mouth, but he didn’t even know how to answer that.

Go, Castiel said. Lie down, at least. You’ll know immediately if someone arrives; there’s no reason to stay here. With me, he didn’t say, but Dean heard it anyway. And he heard how little Castiel believed it.

“I’m not leaving you alone,” Dean told him. “I’m sure as hell not leaving you collapsed on the floor while I sleep it off on the couch.”

I see no better alternative, Castiel said. Because he was stupid.

“The kids tell me you don’t sleep,” Dean said. “You got a bed?”

Yes, Castiel said.

And it was probably a mile away, Dean thought. “What about your couch?” he asked. “It fold out?”

This got nothing: no answer, no curiosity, no nothing at all. Dean grabbed his shoulder for all the good it would do. “Cas,” he said sharply. Fuck, he was doing it again. “Castiel. You still in there?”

For the first time in much too long, a breath shuddered through his body and Castiel’s eyes closed briefly before opening again. He blinked. Castiel had blinked, and he was breathing, and he refocused on Dean like the concern was amusing somehow. Yes, he said.

“Whatever,” Dean muttered. “If we’re not dying in the next ten minutes, I need a nap. And I’m not leaving you here on the floor, so tell me if it’s okay to move you.”

Will you listen if I say no?

“Rather not,” Dean admitted. “But yeah. Probably. You want me to just go get some pillows and camp out here?”

No, Castiel said. I can be moved.

“Wait here,” Dean said. Unnecessary, maybe. Polite? Well. He might as well be to an angel, right? “I’ll be right back.”

Considering the state the TV had been in - no longer playing, and he didn’t know what that meant since he was sure he hadn’t turned it off - he was a little surprised to open up the couch and find sheets on it. He wasn’t complaining.

“Okay,” he said, crouching next to Castiel again and trying to ignore the fact that his eyes were closed again. “Bedtime. I don’t want to drag you, but I will if I have to.”

I can help, Castiel said.

“Gonna hold you to that,” Dean muttered. He slid his arm under Castiel’s shoulders and went to scoop up his knees, because it wasn’t easy but he should be able to carry the guy if he had to.

Castiel’s hand grasped his shoulder. Dean couldn’t stop, but it startled him, and no less so when Castiel’s knees straightened and he put his feet down. Standing. Leaning heavily on Dean, but at least keeping himself vertical, and what the hell was that? He was barely breathing and he thought he was going to walk?

No, Castiel thought. You’ll have to hold me. Is carrying easier?

He might be exhausted, but he wasn’t that much of a jerk. “Nah,” he said aloud. “See if you can slide your feet. I got you.”

Castiel couldn’t slide his feet, but he wasn’t as heavy as he looked either. Maybe that was the weird angel mojo. They both managed to stay upright all the way to the couch, which was definitely a minor miracle, and Castiel collapsed on it without breaking anything or suffocating again, which might have been a major one.

“Gimme your shoes,” Dean muttered. He yanked them off without untying them. Mostly dead or not, no one needed to sleep with their shoes on.

“Don’t hog the blankets,” he added, dropping one of them on top of Castiel and throwing the other one onto the far side of the mattress. “I know you’re not really in any shape for pillows, but there’s one by your head anyway. Try not to die while I’m unconscious.”

I will endeavor to follow your instructions. The colors around Castiel didn’t look like nothing anymore, so hopefully that was good. His wings looked miserably twisted behind him, but he didn’t complain and Dean wasn’t sure he could bring himself to say anything.

“Your wings,” he blurted out, throwing himself down on the pull-out bed. So much for silence. “They look messed up. Can I--?” He had no idea what he was offering, but they just looked... really bad.

They are, Castiel said. They will recover with me.

It was the first time he’d heard Castiel say he was going to get better, and Dean would take it. “Okay,” he muttered. “Wake me up if anyone tries to kill us.”

Of course. Castiel sounded, of all things, amused. Which was a huge step up from dead, if Dean did say so himself. So he laid down, threw the blanket over his body, and tried to stop freaking out long enough to actually rest. Maybe sleep.

He was used to this, after all. They’d been doing it for thousands of years.

The color crept in behind his eyelids until it was the only thing he could see.

Dean was used to sleeping through noise. He was used to sleeping through pretty much anything. Zombies, werewolves... he’d slept through a ghost once. He was still proud of the zombies, but Sam brought up that damn ghost every time.

So he could have ignored the whispering, but he didn’t. Because it might want to kill him. Which, that was important. Castiel. Something had tried to kill Castiel - last night? Probably morning now. In that ridiculously huge house Castiel had.

Not his bed, though. He knew because if it was his bed there would have been a gun under the pillow. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep here - the couch? A sofa bed? Sheets, a pillow, it had to be a sofa bed, and those were the kids’ voices he was hearing.

Dean’s eyes snapped open, but he didn’t move. He definitely didn’t lift his head. Castiel had been lying next to him when he fell asleep, and he’d been in bad shape. If the kids were here, Castiel was either dead and they were prisoners, or--

“He’s awake!” Saph’s voice exclaimed loudly. “Dean! Are you going to take us to school today? Balthazar says you will, but Father says you’re too tired.”

Alternate reality, he decided, frozen where he lay. It was the most logical explanation.

That or he was mentally unstable and the whole thing wasn’t the most real dream he’d ever had: it was a vivid and freaktastic sensory hallucination.

“Saph.” That was Castiel’s voice. “Dean would prefer a moment to process his surroundings before you confront him with decisions. This is a common symptom of recent unconsciousness in humans.”

Dean rolled over, because apparently they all knew he was awake anyway and he wasn’t going to get the jump on potential hostage-takers at this point. “What,” he muttered, staring at Castiel. “Happened to you.”

Castiel looked fine. Better than fine; he looked awesome and Dean barely counted the extra person in the room because hey, Castiel was there. Looking fine.

But there was an extra person in the room. Castiel, all the children, and a man Dean didn’t know but somehow doubted was the housekeeper. Mostly because he wasn’t invisible.

Balthazar, his mind supplied.

Which, way to go, brain. Finally waking up.

“I was injured,” Castiel said. “I have recovered.”

Dean sat up, and look, there was a blanket over him and everything. He pushed it away. Probably not dreaming. This was detailed in all the wrong ways.

“You recovered?” he repeated. He had to force the words past the remnants of sleep, but the memory was coming back and Castiel had died last night. Now he was better?

“Yes,” Castiel said. “Dean, I have to go. You may stay here with the children or take them to school, but they may not go anywhere else without an appropriate escort. Do you understand?”

“School?” He stared at Castiel incredulously. “You want them to go to school after that?”

“It’s the safest place for them outside of this house,” Castiel said.

“He said,” Balthazar added, “it’s the safest place for them outside of this house.” The man gave him a patronizing smile. “I thought I’d save you the trouble of repeating it yourself.”

Dean narrowed his eyes.

“This is Balthazar,” Castiel said. “He will be accompanying me.”

Castiel didn’t say, He’s my children’s emergency contact. He didn’t say, He might as well be their second Dad. He didn’t say, He’s literally the only person in my family I trust to take care of them.

He didn’t have to.

So Dean didn’t say, He’s kind of a smarmy bastard, or, Your friends are really charming. He probably didn’t have to either; Castiel could read his mind. All he said was, “Accompanying you where?”

“Excuse me,” Balthazar interrupted, and hello, was Dean talking to him? “Is that really your business? You’re employed to defend the children, are you not?” The skepticism on his face made it clear that he didn’t understand why.

“Balthazar,” Castiel said. He sounded, of all things, irritated. “My business is Dean’s business, of course. Some basic level of courtesy from you would be appreciated.”

Which probably meant Dean wasn’t allowed to snap back at him. Dean settled for glaring at him instead. He hadn’t been here when Castiel was bleeding silver light all over everything, so as far as Dean was concerned, he could shut the fuck up.

“Cassie,” Balthazar said, and he sounded smooth and smug and suddenly intrigued. “Have you warded this one somehow?”

Castiel didn’t object to the nickname, but he didn’t answer the question either. At least, not Balthazar’s question. He told Dean, “We’re going to retrieve Rachel.”

Dean stared at him. Of course they were. Fuck. He wanted to help, and he knew how stupid that was - what could he do against an actual angel army? He didn’t know Rachel, but he knew Castiel. He knew what Castiel looked like beaten and broken on the floor, and he never wanted to see that again.

He wanted to miss it even less. They didn’t even know if Rachel was still alive. What if that was Dean and the kids tonight? What if they spent the night making pasta and cheese sandwiches not knowing if they’d ever see their dad again?

You are helping. It sounded like Castiel, only he wasn’t speaking, and Dean wondered what would make him go all psychic in front of Balthazar. By watching the children, you do us a service no one else can.

“You see,” Balthazar said, like anyone cared what he thought. “I’ve got nothing from that brain of his. And while I’m perfectly willing to believe it’s because there’s nothing there, you’re clearly reacting to something.”

“Of course I warded him,” Castiel said aloud. “He’s of little use to me in guarding the children if everything he knows is immediately accessible.”

That wasn’t the explanation Dean had gotten, and from the look on his face, Balthazar wasn’t buying it either. “He’s human,” Balthazar said. “How is he of any use at all? No offense,” he added, in a way that obviously meant, Take as much offense as possible.

“We don’t have time for me to justify every decision I’ve made,” Castiel said. More sharply than usual, Dean thought. Balthazar did too, if his raised eyebrow was any indication. “Dean, the children are very eager to go to school. If you’re not well enough, don’t let them sway you. They’ll be just as safe here for the day.”

Dean tried to ignore the “if you’re not well enough” comment in favor of the more important, “Won’t they be safer here?” He didn’t have any illusions about the house, not after last night, but he didn’t think they’d do themselves any favors by leaving for a less defensible location.

“The school is a fortress,” Castiel said. “As safe as any place on earth. And there are other defenders there.”

Were they talking about the same school?

“The school the kids go to,” Dean said, just to be sure. “The one I drove them to yesterday. There was singing, and snack, and field trips outside?”

Castiel frowned. “Didn’t you get a tour?”

Dean opened his mouth to say he’d looked around plenty, thank you very much.

“He was with us,” Saph chirped. “He didn’t have time for a tour!”

He closed his mouth. They’d offered him one, hadn’t they. But what could they possibly--

“The school is a fortress,” Castiel repeated. Which was annoying, because really? Now Castiel thought he couldn’t hear too? “You’ll be as safe there as you are here. You know how to reach me if anything goes wrong.”

No he fucking did not know how to reach him, and also, “as safe as you are here”? Not convincing. Not even a little bit, not after last night. But Balthazar was turning away and Castiel’s voice was in his head and he couldn’t get it together enough to interrupt.

We must go, Castiel was saying. There’s little time. Help Dean. I’ll be back tonight.

By the time Dean realized he was talking to the kids, Castiel was gone. He and Balthazar just disappeared, all pretense at doors and regular goodbyes abandoned. And, okay, one of their friends was in trouble; Dean got that. But he couldn’t help thinking it was no wonder the kids didn’t know how to talk to anyone.

“Dean,” Maribel’s voice said quietly.

He didn’t jump, but it was a near thing. The kids were gathered around him, suddenly much closer than they had been before, and it went without saying that he hadn’t seen them move. Of course he hadn’t. Because they could fly.

“What happened?” Adamel asked.

“Is Father all right?” Wildfire wanted to know.

“They didn’t tell us anything,” Maia said, and it was as close to a complaint as he’d heard any of the kids ever come. She didn’t sound petulant, but it was pretty obvious that none of them were happy about the situation.

“I don’t think they know where Rachel is,” Maru said.

“What if Father and Balthazar get separated?” Saph wanted to know.

Dani was tugging on his hand, and he could hear her voice whispering, My eyes hurt. He looked down to find tears welling up in her all-too-human eyes. They burn, Dani added, staring up at him while all her brothers and sisters stared back. I don’t like it.

What, had they never seen anyone cry before? Dean put his free hand on her shoulder and she leaned into him immediately. Something about hugging must be instinctive, he thought, even as Saph tried to press herself up against his other side.

“Okay,” he said aloud, patting them both awkwardly. “Okay, look--” He managed to ease them back far enough that he could crouch down and put his arms all the way around them. Both at the same time; they clutched at him hard and he squeezed back, pretty sure that he couldn’t actually hurt them.

“Your dad’s gonna be okay,” Dean said, looking up at the other kids over their shoulders. “He got into some trouble last night and he’s fine, right? He’s stronger than I expected, and I expected a lot. If he thinks he can do this? He can probably do it.”

“What happened last night?” Maribel asked.

“I don’t know,” Dean told her honestly.

“Tell us what you saw.” Maribel wasn’t going to be put off that easily. “Maybe we’ll know.”

That was kind of what he was afraid of. Castiel must have had a reason for not telling them, right? They could communicate psychically, almost instantaneously; what could have kept him from explaining what he’d been through?

Dean didn’t consider that Castiel might have been trying to protect them until later. His dad never had; it wouldn’t have occurred to him not to tell Dean and Sam about his latest brush with death. So Castiel must have been in a hurry, must have figured Dean would fill them in, must not have cared enough to do it himself.

Coward, Dean thought.

“He collapsed by the door,” Dean said. “I was asleep; I guess he flew in, fell over, looked pretty bad.” He paused, eyeing them, but none of them looked horrified. “I went over to see if I could help him--”

“But you were asleep,” Saph said, her voice muffled against his shoulder. He saw Maru’s gaze flick to her, then back to Dean.

“I woke up,” Dean said. “When he... landed.” He didn’t tell them about the silver light, because he wasn’t that much of a bastard. “Old guy showed up, tried to kill us. Your dad got rid of him.”

Zachariah, he heard one of the kids say. Or all of them. He thought Wildfire’s voice might have been the first, but Maia and Adamel both repeated it and he got general agreement on this from the others.

“He said you helped.” Adamel didn’t sound skeptical, or even surprised, and Dean decided Adamel was his new favorite angel.

“I waved his sword around threateningly,” Dean said. Mostly because they would know if he lied. “Congratulations, you taught me enough to look convincing. Bought your dad time to draw some kind of blood magic on the floor, and the old guy disappeared.”

“The banishing sigil,” Maribel said. “Do you know how to make it?”

“Pretty sure I could make something that looks like it,” Dean said. “Unless the order of the shapes matters; I didn’t get that part. I’m guessing it needs fresh blood?”

“Yes,” Maribel said. “We should show you. To make sure.”

“Hey,” Dean said, looking at his watch. “I’m all for that, but if you guys are serious about school? We need to get moving.” He couldn’t really imagine dragging them to school today, but he hadn’t been hired for his imagination. Probably.

He could feel Maribel’s silent question, felt it ping the other kids like she’d looked at them without anyone having to move. He knew what she was going to say before she replied, “I don’t think that splitting our forces is a good idea.”

Dean was surprised to feel Dani shake her head against his shoulder, like she was agreeing with Maribel, but it was Saph who pulled away from him to say, “We want to stay here with you.”

Dean eyed her. “I thought you told your dad you wanted to go to school.”

She pulled off a convincing pout. “No,” she said.

“Balthazar told Father we wanted to go to school,” Maru said.

“Father didn’t want to leave us,” Maia added.

Dean frowned. “He said he was going to get Rachel,” he said, as much to make sure he’d heard right as to explain it to them.

They just looked at him. He rubbed Dani’s back, trying to remind himself that they were actually communicating a lot better than they had yesterday. “Is he going to get Rachel?” he asked deliberately.

“Yes,” Maribel said. “We wanted to help.”

“Me and Maribel and Wildfire,” Adamel added. “Maia and Maru and Saph and Dani were supposed to stay with you.”

We wanted to help too, Dani whispered.

Yeah, Dean thought, unbidden. Me too.

Dani pulled away from him, and at first he thought she was just tired of being squeezed - which, finally, he couldn’t stay crouched like this forever - but no. She stared at him with wide eyes. She wasn’t the only one, either. Saph was looking at him curiously, and he could feel everyone else’s stares. Like that was new.

Then Dani said, You answered me.

“Of course I answered you,” he said, but it was automatic. When had he not answered her? They were kids; they had questions. He wasn’t a jerk to children.

“The way an angel would,” Maia said. “You answered her the way we would.”

They were impressed with him. He hated to undo that, but he had no idea what they were talking about. “What?” he said. “When?”

“You said you wanted to help too,” Saph told him. “We heard Father tell you that watching us was helping. He told us the same thing.”

That staying out of sight was helping, Dani said, still staring at him.

“We don’t believe it either,” Maru said flatly.

Dean turned a surprised look on him, because wow. That sounded almost resentful. Maru really was the rebel here.

“Of course we believe.” Maribel didn’t move, but Dean saw the force of her wing buffet the colors that swirled around Maru. Something passed between them, and Maru didn’t say anything else.

“We pray for Father’s safe return,” Adamel said, and it sounded easy. Comfortable. Like it was an expected answer he didn’t have to think about.

Rote, Dean thought. A kid shouldn’t have to say that once, let alone so many times that it became routine.

“He’ll be back,” Dean told them. “He always comes back, right?” His dad had always come back. Until the time he hadn’t, and Sam had had to physically stop him from following the man to his grave.

“Are you sad?” Saph asked. “How can you believe if you’re sad?”

It wasn’t like he could tell them he was angry and bitter. So he went with, “Yeah, I’m a little sad.” At her disappointed face, though, he couldn’t leave it at that. “That’s what believing in stuff is for, right? To make you feel better when you’re sad? You don’t really need it when you’re happy.”

Her expression turned puzzled in the blink of an eye. “What do you believe in? Father says humans believe in different things.”

If he got into a theological argument with a baby angel, he might as well kill himself now.

“I believe in...” Dean was about to say “family,” except look where that had gotten them. “My brother,” he finished awkwardly. “I believe he’s got my back, and that’s the most important thing, you know?”

“I don’t know what that means,” Maia said. “He’s got your back?”

“It means he’ll be there if I need him,” Dean said. “I look out for him, and he looks out for me.” Sam had stopped being a little kid to him the day he took Dean’s keys away from him and told him their dad’s self-destruction didn’t have to take Dean down too.

“You protect each other,” Maribel said.

“Yeah,” Dean said. “That’s what you do for the people you care about.”

“Do you care about the people you protect?” Saph asked, which seemed weird to him since they’d mostly stopped repeating the things he said.

“Yeah,” he said again. “Of course.”

So you care about us, Dani said.

It took her actually saying it for him to realize where they were going with that, and what could he say? “Of course I care about you,” he muttered.

The words were even - and he tried not to be so surprised by this that they could tell - basically the truth. He did care about these creepy non-propagated glowing stealth machines. Mostly because they were kind of cool, once you got past the staring and pseudo-silence and the lack of facial expression. Partly because they reminded him of a kid brother who’d long since grown up.

And maybe a tiny little bit because Castiel obviously cared about them, and the guy was a force of nature. Dean dared anyone to stand next to him and not feel at all different about the world afterwards.

“You like our father,” Dani said out loud, startling him.

Dean opened his mouth to deny it, automatic and unquestioning, too conditioned by years of a younger brother giving him hell at every turn. Too certain that no one around him was interested in what he felt, only in what he could do. Sam was the opposite of the world in so many ways, and Dean had never found any middle ground. It was all feelings all the time, or it was no feelings, ever.

So Dean had no feelings.

But the kids did, and before he could say anything he saw the relief on Maribel’s face. It was gone as soon as he registered it, and rare like the smile he hadn’t seen from her today, but he got it. This wasn’t about him.

“Yeah,” he said, when Dani tugged on his hand again. “I like your dad just fine.”

“Even though he makes you sad sometimes?” Saph asked.

It wasn’t really Castiel who made him mad, but to explain that would be awkward and probably painful and would definitely involve feelings. Feelings that were about him. So all he said was, “Yeah. Even though.”

“He likes you too,” Saph told him. “Sam told him he should trust you, but he didn’t believe it until he met you.”

Dean didn’t remember making a great first impression, but more importantly, “You guys know Sam?”

“Father does,” Saph said. She let him stand up, because he’d gone from crouching to kneeling awkwardly to either sitting or standing, and even Dani was taller than he was when he sat on the floor. “He told us Sam is a good person, but sometimes the people he trusts don’t do what he expects them to.”

Dean couldn’t quite work out whether it was Sam or Castiel doing the trusting, but he guessed it didn’t really matter. “You don’t have to trust someone who always does what you expect,” he said. “Right? If you know what they’re gonna do, you don’t have to trust them.”

Saph tilted her head, pretty blue sparkles falling around her shoulders as her wings moved. “Are you sure?” she asked at last.

Peripherally, he saw the older kids flinch. Not physically, but the swirl of red and orange was bright and impossible to ignore. Why was the light brighter right after he’d woken up, he wondered? Was it weirder today than it had been yesterday? Balthazar’s wings had shone a dull gold, nowhere near as fierce or intimidating as Castiel’s, and he’d figured he was getting used to it after all.

As long as he didn’t look at Castiel. But hey, trauma, right? Castiel’s wings would creep him out no matter what, because when he fell asleep last night he hadn’t been sure they’d ever fly again.

“Trust is about believing someone will do something,” Dean told her, because they knew about that. And also, he didn’t want to think about Castiel’s wings. “It’s not about knowing.”

Saph frowned at him. “What’s the difference?”

Dani’s eyes were wide, and Dean got that these weren’t questions they usually asked. He didn’t get why it freaked the other kids out so much, and he didn’t really get what she meant, either. But it was obviously important, so he asked, “What’s the difference in what?”

“Between believing and knowing,” she said, like it was obvious. “I thought it was the same thing.”

He stared at her, because shit. He’d walked right into that one. What had he just told himself about theology and baby angels? That’s what this was, right? This was them and God and faith, and he was so not qualified for this conversation.

Are you sad about us? Dani asked. And he didn’t think she said it, but he could hear the rest of them thinking that he still liked people who made him sad. Jesus. He didn’t know if they were creepy or heartbreaking, sometimes.

“No,” he said aloud. “You guys are great, okay? You’re not gonna upset me just by asking questions, so stop worrying about it.”

“We’re not supposed to ask questions,” Adamel said.

“About what?” Dean asked.

They all just stared at him, and he really hoped that didn’t mean what he thought it meant.

“Anything,” Maia said at last.

Yeah. That’s what he’d been afraid of.

“Father lets us ask questions,” Saph said quickly.

But we’re not supposed to, Dani added. We can tell.

“Rachel and Balthazar don’t like it,” Maribel said. “They think it’s unnatural.”

“Well, screw them,” Dean said without thinking. “Kids are supposed to ask questions. How else are you gonna learn anything?”

“We’ll be told what we need to know,” Wildfire said.

“Balthazar says angels don’t have to make decisions,” Maru added. He didn’t look convinced by this, which Dean thought was at least smarter than listening to Balthazar. “We just have to wait for instructions.”

“How come your dad let you decide whether to go to school or not if you’re not supposed to make decisions?” Dean wanted to know. They got to pick what they ate, and which seat was theirs when they rode in the car. They must choose their clothes, right?

Eyeing their outfits, as nearly identical to the day before as to make no difference, he decided maybe that last one didn’t count.

“Balthazar told him we were going,” Maia said quietly.

“So Balthazar decided,” Dean said, because yeah, okay. That didn’t surprise him, actually. Still didn’t disprove his point. “If he gets to decide, then angels must make decisions. Right?”

For a moment, there was no answer. Then Maribel must have realized one of them was expected to, because she said, “Right?”

“You don’t have to agree with me,” Dean told her. “I’m just saying, if angels get instructions, someone must be deciding what the instructions are.”

“Of course,” Maribel said. “They’re God’s will.”

He’d really been hoping not to go there with them. He still didn’t want to go there with them. But Castiel had told him - he’d said they were at war. Angels against angels. They couldn’t all be following the same instructions, could they?

“So why do you fight?” Dean asked at last. This was dangerous ground, and he really shouldn’t be on it. He should tell them to get some breakfast, maybe turn on the TV. Enjoy their day off. He need to go change anyway, get a shower. Not try to convince angels that they had free will.

“Because we’re soldiers,” Maribel said.

That wasn’t really what he meant, and he wasn’t sure he liked it as an answer. They were kids. What made them soldiers? Whose bright idea had that been?

They’d probably tell him it was God’s idea, he realized. Explained why he’d never liked the bastard.

“Aren’t angel soldiers supposed to be on the same side?” Dean asked. “Don’t your instructions say to love each other, or whatever?”

“Don’t yours?” Maribel countered.

He smiled, because what do you know. She did know how to argue.

“Humans make decisions,” Dean reminded her. “Sometimes we decide not to follow our instructions. You think maybe some of your angel buddies decided not to follow theirs?”

“I don’t know,” she said after a moment. Still honest, even when she was stumped. Not as defensive as her blank expression made her seem. “Maybe they’re getting different instructions.”

“Someone’s gotta be giving them, though, right?” Dean pressed. “Why would someone tell some of you to do one thing and then tell other people to do something else?”

“I don’t know,” Maribel repeated, but her conclusion was chilling. “Maybe we’re supposed to fight each other after all.”

“Maybe you’re supposed to decide not to,” Dean said without thinking.

She stared at him. “You don’t want us to fight?”

He’d said something wrong. Everything around them was messed up: the light, the urgency, even the sound of overlapping whispers he couldn’t quite make out. Something made him think he didn’t have time to figure it out.

“I want you to live,” Dean told her. “I want you all to live. So you can figure out what you want. My whole life is making sure other people get a chance to live theirs, okay? You’re kids. I want you to grow up, learn how to make decisions, and do what you think is right. That’s what living means.”

This didn’t actually seem to calm them down, but it did relieve the angry turmoil that had made him want to duck and cover. Seriously, pissed angel kids: something else on the list of things he wasn’t entirely sure he could survive.

“What if we have to fight to live?” Maribel’s wings were decidedly ruffled as she stared back at him, but she wasn’t holding a sword. Which they apparently all had, he reminded himself. There was probably a line, somewhere, across which he should stop treating them like the children they looked like and start respecting the threat they had to be.

But then there was Castiel, with his “affection is so hard to bear” comment, and Dean just couldn’t. He couldn’t get that out of his head. He couldn’t not think of it when Dani tried to hug him, when Saph asked him questions the others thought would get her in trouble, when all Maribel was trying to do was figure out who the hell she was supposed to be.

“You wouldn’t be the first,” Dean told her. “All I can tell you is that it’s always a choice. Letting someone else tell you what to kill for and when isn’t loyalty. It’s immaturity.”

Actually, Sam had called it “dickish obedience to a juvenile obsession.” Sam always did use too many words.

“Immature,” Maribel repeated. Like the word didn’t make any sense to her.

“Unfledged,” Dean said, a word of whimsy that came from he-didn’t-know-where. Saph smiled up at him when he tipped a hand through the ripple of her wings. Dani’s were still pulled close to her shoulders, but Saph’s curled upward at the touch. “You can fly, right? You can make decisions.”

He had no idea whether that was true or not. It wasn’t the “kid” part he had trouble with, exactly; it was the fact that he couldn’t really imagine a thirty-something angel. Which meant that Castiel couldn’t be the age he appeared - so why should they? Who knew how old they really were?

Well. They probably did. Maybe he was just too scared to ask.

“Angels are always mature,” Maribel said. “But we’re never old enough to ask questions.”

Dean was starting to think he might not be able to salvage this conversation, but he couldn’t just leave them there. “Well, maybe that’s why humans get to ask questions,” he said. “Because we have to go through growing up.”

It was a shot in the dark. He couldn’t even remember what he’d been trying to do with this conversation. All he knew was that they were hanging on every word, and he didn’t have anything that deserved that kind of attention.

Maribel, he thought, was staring at Dani.

Saph and Dani were the most human, they’d told him. He didn’t know what that meant, but all of a sudden he was willing to guess. He would guess that, of all of them? Dani was the most likely to have baby pictures.

“Funny,” a vaguely familiar voice drawled from behind him. “This doesn’t look like getting ready for school.”

Dean spun, but the kids weren’t alarmed and it clearly wasn’t a stranger. This was the smarmy butler who’d greeted him at the door two days ago and then disappeared. Seriously, did he even work here?

“That doesn’t look like answering the door,” Dean heard himself say, like it was important. Like it mattered. Castiel trusted the guy, he wasn’t dead, and who cared about the rest of it right now?

“Hey,” Gary said. “I can play hooky as well as the next person. No,” he added, lifting a finger and smirking like it was his job. “Actually, I play hooky better than almost all the next people on earth.”

Dean squinted at him. Was that leftover kid light sparkling around him? That didn’t make any sense; he hadn’t been anywhere near the kids until now. And since when was their light contagious? Dean didn’t have any on him and he’d been hugging them pretty much since he woke up.

“Gary,” Saph said, and she sounded curious. “Why do you look like an angel?”

The first thing Dean thought was, plant. Then body double, because no, Castiel would have known if he was a spy, right? Either way, he thought they were about to find out whether he knew how to contact Castiel after all--

Until he heard Maribel, clear as a bell. No, she said. Unlike their usual whispers this one was somehow intended for him. It’s Gary. He’s not going to hurt us.

Maribel didn’t strike him as the sentimental type, so he had no qualms about demanding, How do you know?

“Well, kid,” Gary was saying. “You might not know this about me, but I enjoy a good trick every now and then.”

He caught Maribel’s eye, and he thought she almost smiled. I don’t know, she said. He got the sense that what she meant was, she didn’t know how to explain it to him. I guess you’ll have to trust me.

That was when the old guy appeared again, and another old guy, and then the room was filled with so much light that Dean couldn’t have kept his eyes open if he tried. Except they were angels, they had to be, and this was the end of the line. Of course they’d waited until Castiel was gone. They’d probably grabbed him first to keep him from interfering.

He felt little fingers hot against his own, weirdly normal through the buzzing, and he heard Dani whisper, I can see. So can you.

Dean didn’t know what made him try, except that she sounded so damned determined.

When he opened his eyes they were swamped with a roomful of angels.

The butler was gone.

Maribel was staring at him with a look that said she was terrified.

The other angels, the angels who weren’t his kids: they were falling to their knees.

“Hey, guys,” Dean said, only he didn’t say it. He wasn’t talking. He could hear his own voice anyway, loud enough to shatter glass. A lightbulb burst on the other side of the room. “Good to see you again.”

Who, he thought? If it wasn’t him, then who? And who were they glad to see?

He could still feel Dani’s hand, but it wasn’t hot anymore. It was cool and bright and comforting, the way the touch of grace should be. His wings fanned outward, encompassing her and Saph both, brushing against the strange patchwork of Maia’s power.

Michael, he heard someone whisper.

“Got it in one,” he said, easy and hot and fucking possessed.

Dean was possessed by a heavenly soldier of God and he knew he hated that bastard. God’s kids were no better than demons. He couldn’t do anything, couldn’t make it stop, could barely even recognize himself when the words spilled out of his mouth.

“Here’s the thing,” he was saying, only he wasn’t. A window broke and no one so much as twitched. “Been watching these kids for a while, and I’ve decided, why not? Let ’em stay.”

Dean was going to kill this thing, and by the time he was done with it there wouldn’t be anything left to burn. It was using his body. It was touching his kids. He’d kill himself before he let it get away with this.

None of the damn angels were moving. He could see right through them, their names, their histories, their fledging and wow, he hadn’t realized how much that wasn’t a joke. He could also hear them agreeing.

It was the chorus of Yes, Michael, that horrified him on a rational level. He had the instinctive and visceral level covered like kings on a checkerboard, but Michael? If they were calling him Michael, then he figured that was his answer.

He’d been possessed by an archangel strong enough to scare the fuck out of Castiel.

An archangel he’d tried to impersonate, his mind helpfully reminded him. Limo to hell, Dean thought inconsequentially. Here I come. They probaby didn’t even have limos to hell. Or if they did, they were only stocked with those tiny water bottles that were good for like one sip.

Dean had no idea why he was still alive.

“I’ll need Cassie back,” he heard himself say. “I don’t babysit.”

Castiel was standing there in front of him, just like that. Just that easy. It crossed Dean’s mind to ask for a turkey sandwich, except that Castiel looked so horrified and also he couldn’t. He was incapable of moving, speaking, reassuring the man in any way. Castiel hadn’t been the only one with a sword.

“Michael.” Castiel said it flatly, but the power of his voice blew out another window. “You are not welcome here.”

“Aw, really?” Dean felt his mouth twist into something that definitely wasn’t a smile. “Bet you’d feel differently if you knew whose side I’m on.”

“I’ll kill you,” Castiel said. “For what you’ve done to them. I must. You know I have no choice.”

The last of the lights gave out and everything went cold and silver. “Dear brother,” the voice that wasn’t Dean said. “If you had no choice, none of us would be standing here now.”

Castiel lifted his sword too fast for a human eye to follow, and Dean didn’t even blame him. He also didn’t feel anything. Castiel was on the ground, sword clattering beside him - just out of reach.

Not that out of reach, Dean realized, watching his hands flex helplessly. He just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t move. Whatever was possessing Dean - Michael - had thrown him down and was holding him there without any visible exertion of power.

Dean couldn’t shift Saph when she didn’t want to be moved, and Michael could hold Cas down without even touching him.

“Now, now,” he heard his voice saying. “No reason to be rude.”

Dean felt Dani tug his hand, and all he could think was, Don’t. Don’t get its attention, don’t make Michael notice you... why was she still standing there? The older children looked as horrified as Castiel; why hadn’t Dani tried to slink away?

Whether she could or not was an open question. But he was pretty sure she hadn’t even given it a shot. Why?

Dean, she said silently.

“He’s listening,” he heard his own voice say. “The rest of you don’t need to be.”

The other angels were gone faster than he could blink. Or faster than he would have blinked, if he could have. He hoped angels who possessed people fixed whatever parts of their body they fucked up with their creepy nonhuman non-blinking habits.

Dean, Dani repeated. Are you okay?

Castiel was staring at him like the world was about to end.

“Of course he’s okay,” his voice scoffed. “He’s awesome, thank you very much. Not everyone who gets to be filled up with archangel.”

“Let him go.” Castiel’s voice was angry and strained and Dean couldn’t tell if he was supposed to be able to talk or not. He thought Castiel probably shouldn’t be drawing attention either.

He did at least get what “Michael” had done for them, even if his method sucked. He wasn’t at all sure they’d been saved for something better, though. It was possible they’d just traded one lousy ticket to hell for another.

“Oh, you are an ungrateful bunch of bastards, aren’t you!” His voice sounded more amused than annoyed, and Dean took no comfort in that. The ones who found you funny were always worse than the ones who found you obnoxious.

As if to emphasize that basic life lesson, the world tore away from him with a sickening schism of reality and rave. The light and color and heat that had finally made sense flooded back, stronger and less comprehensible than before, and sheer nausea forced him to his knees. The debilitating disgust made every part of him ache with weakness.

“Dean!” The shout was punctuated by shattered glass and an explosion of pain that could have been a headache if headaches had made him bleed.

He wished he didn’t know what it felt like to have blood leaking out of his ears.

“Yeah, he’s still human.” That smarmy voice was exactly the same, Dean thought, even when it wasn’t coming out of his mouth. He didn’t know how he hadn’t recognized it. “Might want to lower the volume a little.”

“Gary.” That was Maribel’s voice. If Dean had a view of anything, it was the floor, and he wasn’t even sure of that.

If he held totally still, maybe he wouldn’t feel more like dying.

“Well, kind of,” the butler’s voice replied. “Except not really. Thanks for hiding us, though. Figured we’d better return the favor.”

“Dean.”

Dani was still holding his hand, which would have been weird if he wasn’t one hundred percent positive that Castiel was whispering above him. He’d heard Castiel whisper. When he was dying, which was not at all a comforting association to have.

“Dude,” Dean managed, closing his eyes against the roll of his stomach. He could hear his voice rasp, but he wasn’t done, and Cas could stop freaking him out any time now. “You sound like that...”

He swallowed hard, because wow. He might actually throw up, and that would just be embarrassing. “Sound like that,” he managed, “and I think one of us is gonna die.”

“Oh, spare me the whining,” Gary’s voice complained. “You’d think no one had ever hosted an archangel before.”

“And lived,” Castiel said darkly. “No one has done it and lived.”

“Well, who did you want more?” Gary demanded. “Your kids or your bodyguard? Geez. You’re welcome.”

You lived, Dani said.

“I should--” Dean had meant his voice to sound stronger than that. He barely got his head up, squinting through the dizzying haze of color. All he could really see were Castiel’s terrifying wings. Everywhere. “Totally get to swear at him for that.”

“Dean lived,” Saph said. She sounded uncertain in a way Dani didn’t.

“You’re not Michael,” Maribel said. Dean had no idea what they were doing, where they were in the mess of color and light that seemed to begin and end with Castiel’s wings.

“Yes,” Castiel said. The word was curt and cold, and Dean was pretty sure it didn’t reassure anyone. “Dean lives,” he added. There was movement that might have been him lifting his head. “Through no design of yours.”

“Oh, please,” Gary said. “Do I look like the angel of mercy? No. This is the face of judgment. Hello! You think I just fly around intervening for the fun of it?”

“Gabriel,” Maribel said.

“Ding ding ding!” Gary exclaimed. “We have a winner! Turns out your dad did teach you something useful. Who knew.”

“Dean,” Castiel murmured, wings closing in until Saph and Dani were snug against his sides. Dean decided that as long as he didn’t have to look past them, the psychedelic angel vision wasn’t so bad.

Then Castiel’s fingers brushed against his forehead and everything went dark. Dean caught his breath, because - wow. It was like turning off the lights on a hangover. It still sucked, but it made the world seem a little kinder.

“Wait,” Dean said. “Wait, wait--” He wanted to glare at Maribel, but he wasn’t quite there yet. The room was less insane, but there was still something shielding his vision. Like he was trying to look through wings he couldn’t see.

He gave up on trying to find her. “Mare, you didn’t know who he was?”

“None of us did,” Castiel murmured. Dean appreciated the quiet because it didn’t make his ears bleed, but other than that it didn’t have much to recommend it. He was being babied and he knew it.

“Well,” Gary’s voice said. It sounded less echo-y now. “I did.”

“So how did you know we could trust him?” Dean asked, batting irritably at the invisible veil. The entire room was like a giant blind spot: it was there, he was looking at it, but he had no idea what was right in front of him.

His flailing hand hit something and he sucked in a breath. Air wasn’t supposed to feel soft. Wings weren’t supposed to feel like anything. He couldn’t have touched something that wasn’t even tangible, right?

Castiel didn’t flinch when his fingers clenched, but the room rippled and the light started leaking back into his vision.

“I didn’t?” Maribel sounded like she was asking, not answering, and Dean belatedly realized she was talking to him. He could see the rainbow flicker of her wings through the shadows of Castiel’s.

He let go abruptly, because what - that wasn’t - he couldn’t have been doing what he thought he was doing. The light didn’t fade when he pulled his hand away. He could see curls of color wisping over Saph and Dani’s shoulders. He thought he could make out Maru standing between him and Gary.

“I’m just that awesome,” Gary was saying. “Besides, if I’d decided to destroy you, there wouldn’t have been anything left for those clowns to find.”

“Send me back,” Castiel said.

Dean’s fingers closed over nothing.

“Excuse me?” Gary demanded. “I thought you just asked me to undo the awesome and incidentally soul-saving mojo that brought you here. Which seems not only ungrateful, but also... oh, right. Incredibly stupid!”

“I wasn’t alone,” Castiel said steadily. And Dean knew, with sudden and heart-sinking certainty, that Castiel was asking for exactly what it sounded like he was asking for: to leave them, to be sent back to wherever, to be left in turn.

Somewhere none of them could go. The kids because they were forbidden, Dean because it was physically impossible. The other side of the abyss, as far as he was concerned.

And Castiel wanted to go back.

“Forget it,” Gary said. “You got your miracle for the day. I’m out of here.”

“No,” Dean heard himself say. This time it really was him, but man, he needed to learn to shut his mouth. “Castiel’s friends are back there.”

“Big whoop,” Gary said.

“I want to go after them,” Dean said. Which was the opposite of true, except for the part where Castiel wanted them back, and Dean had a philosophy about leaving family behind: don’t do it.

“How nice for you,” Gary sneered. “Have fun dying.”

Dean could see him now, perfectly clear in a room full of lit wings and riotous color and thoughts that flew like whispers in the lunch line. Gary looked human, and Dean smiled. “Have fun judging,” he said.

Gary gave him a suspicious look, but he didn’t leave.

“Oh,” Dean added, the most obvious not-afterthought in the world. “Sorry, did you want your identity to stay a secret? Because my brother’s always telling me confession is good for the soul. I thought I’d give it a try.”

Gary stared at him. Only it wasn’t “Gary,” was it? It was Gabriel. Apparently it had been Gabriel all along. The fucking archangel Gabriel, arbiter of justice and betrayer of his own kind. Dean was happy to spread that knowledge around if it helped someone he cared about.

“Wait,” Gary - Gabriel - was saying incredulously. “Are you trying to blackmail me?”

Dean shrugged. “If you want to look at it like that,” he said.

“You arrogant bastard,” Gabriel said. He sounded admiring. “That’s so... what’s the word? Oh, right: like something I would do.”

“You can’t,” Castiel said. “Taking Dean will kill him.”

It was Gabriel’s turn to shrug, and Dean knew he was considering it. “Didn’t kill him last time.”

“He can’t pass heaven’s gate alive,” Castiel said. “Certainly not as host to an archangel.”

“I’m not going without him,” Gabriel said. “Hello, witness protection! If they figure out I’m alive, I have to fight, and that ain’t happening.”

“So disguise yourself,” Dean said. “Apparently you’re good at that.”

Gabriel rolled his eyes. “I did,” he said. “I go as Michael or not at all. Your choice.”

If Gabriel was offering to rescue Castiel’s buddies, Dean figured they wouldn’t get a better chance. “I’m in,” he said.

“No,” Castiel said at the same time. “You will not sacrifice yourself for my war.”

“Hey, I’m not excited about it,” Dean said. “But you can’t save seven kids yourself. You’re gonna need help.”

“I have help,” Castiel said. Like he didn’t have to think about it, like Gabriel counted - which he didn’t - or like he could pretend Dean had anything on two super-powered angels when it came to defending his brood.

“No,” Dean said. “You don’t. But you will.”

He wasn’t thinking, but not thinking was what he did best. Sam was the thinker. Dean did what needed to be done, and right now? Castiel needed those damn angels.

“Do it,” he told Gabriel.

I’m going with you, Dani’s voice said, and that was when the world went truly insane. All of it, everything he’d lost, appeared again like flicking a switch and for maybe half a minute he could even process it.

Castiel said no. Gabriel said sure. Dani thought she was going to protect him, and Dean would have laughed if he couldn’t see exactly what she was doing: her funny little half-human grace was acting as a capacitor; she was protecting him and the only thing he didn’t know was whether she was aware of it or not.

Saph tried to come too but they were gone before the rest of the kids could come up with any more brilliant ideas. The world was bright and deep and clear, unearthly and very much like home here on the far side of the gate. Dean had the briefest eternity to realize he was looking at something every other human in history had had to die to see.

Dani was in his arms. Gabriel’s wings were at his back. He was home, and nothing else mattered.

Except that there were angels in front of him. They were angels, and they were fighting, and nothing would ever be right again. We weren’t made for this, he thought, only it wasn’t really him thinking it. No angel was meant to be cast down.

What about me? That was Dani’s voice, and Dean could feel Castiel’s panic bursting into heaven behind him. Whether it was fear for his lost child, pain at tearing through a veil that had turned against him, or rage on behalf of his stricken friends, Dean didn’t know.

No, baby, Gabriel murmured. He ignored Castiel’s frantic presence. You’re not damned.

They were bowing again. Swords glinting as armies fell to their knees, recognition rippling through a heavenly host too shattered to obey a single order. Gabriel gave it anyway: in Dean’s voice, tired and uncaring on the verge of collapse.

“Cut it out,” he said. “This isn’t divinity.”

That was the last thing Dean knew before the roaring darkness swallowed him whole.

The roar stayed with him for a long time, but he wasn’t really aware of it until he realized he couldn’t see. He should be able to see. He should be able to hear. What was that, a train? The light on the front of a train. He needed to see.

Dean, a little voice said.

Someone was singing. The words made sense, they’d been there all along, they disappeared when he tried to listen. The stupid train; he couldn’t hear anything.

He needed to see.

Father says you shouldn’t move. The voice was the only thing he could make out through the unintelligible noise. Sam doesn’t want you to move either. He’s trying to talk to you. He doesn’t think you can hear him.

Sam. That didn’t - he should know - where was he? What was happening?

Who was he?

Dean, can you hear me? You could hear me before.

“Dani,” he gasped. It was Dani in his head with him, Dani who had held on while Gabriel’s power burned through him like the fires of heaven. He could hear Dani.

And Sam, she said. Sam’s here too. Can you hear him?

Shit. Sam was going to kill him.

“Is he talking?” Dean asked at last, because since when did Sam know how to shut up? He couldn’t hear anything except Dani, nothing else at all through the roaring that probably meant he was barely conscious.

He should be able to feel something. Okay, he couldn’t see. It was dark, he couldn’t move, and he could barely hear. What the fuck.

Please don’t move, Dani said. She was starting to sound worried. If you can hear me, you should do what I tell you. That’s what Sam says.

“I can’t move,” Dean said. He couldn’t hear his own voice, and that was getting more creepy by the second. “Why can’t I see anything?”

We’re holding your hands, Dani said. Father said not to let you move. He said you might hurt yourself.

“I can’t even feel my hands,” Dean said. He was talking to darkness, to silence, to fucking paralysis in the face of something he couldn’t even remember. Where was he? Why was Sam here?

I can, Dani said. I can feel one of them. Sam has the other one. We’re not supposed to let you move.

“I’m not moving,” Dean snapped. “What’s going on? Where are we?”

We’re home, Dani said. You’re in my room. It’s the most heavily shielded.

Wait, what?

You’re in my room, Dani repeated. It’s the most heavily shielded.

He was pretty sure he hadn’t said that out loud. On the other hand, he couldn’t hear himself talking, so he wasn’t totally sure he was saying any of it aloud. Dani, he thought carefully. Can Sam hear me?

He couldn’t stop himself from wondering, Why is Sam here? but it wasn’t like anyone thought Castiel was wrong. Dean’s thoughts were barely clear enough for telepathy; he knew that. That they could understand him at all was probably pretty crazy.

No, Dani thought. Father had Maribel call Sam, but we’re the only ones who can hear you.

She didn’t define “we,” but he got the distinct impression of “not-Sam.” Castiel and the kids, probably. So he wasn’t talking out loud. And he must be moving, his body must be doing something if they kept telling him to stop. They must be holding his hands to keep him down.

Dani, he thought. What’s wrong with my body?

We’re not sure, she said. You look like you’re asleep. Except you were trying to move, and Sam says that usually wakes you up. But it didn’t.

I can’t see, Dean said.

Well, your eyes are closed. She sounded very reasonable, and he wanted to smile. Or panic. Maybe both.

Is Sam still talking? Dean asked, trying to concentrate on something other than cold black nothingness. I can’t hear him, either.

Yes, Dani said. Are you cold? Sam says we can turn on another light, if you want.

He was cold, he realized. He was really cold. He wanted to think that was a good thing, except what if warming him up didn’t help?

Sam’s getting you a blanket, Dani said. Can I hug you? I feel warmer when Father hugs me.

He didn’t know whether it made him feel better to hear that Castiel did actually hug his kids, or worse to think that what they remembered about it was that it was good for warming people up. Then he realized, Wait, did you tell Sam I was cold?

Yes, she said. I’m telling him everything you say. Is that okay?

Uh, yeah. Probably. He wanted to be able to talk to Sam, but he wasn’t sure he trusted a baby angel’s discretion when it came to thoughts his brother shouldn’t hear. Not that he thought Dani should hear everything he was thinking, but he was damn sure it would mean more to Sam than it did to her.

Are you worried about privacy? Dani asked. Father told us we would have to learn that if we wanted to hide from our not-family-plus, but I’m not very good at it.

Her not-family-plus. Some concepts came through a little weird in his head. Or maybe it was her head; he couldn’t tell. But he guessed now he knew why they kept calling people who wanted to kill them “family” - they all knew what they meant. Or didn’t mean.

I can’t really understand you now, Dani told him.

You’re doing good, Dean thought. Because that was his job, he was the adult, he didn’t get to put his fears about Sam and Castiel and everything else onto her. Thanks for talking to Sam for me. Can you tell him...

That was when he felt it. That was when he realized he was feeling it: a warmth against his heart. It sounded stupid as soon as he wondered if Sam would hear that, but then he realized it was his shoulder. And his arm. And his hand.

The whole left side of his upper body was warm.

Dani, he thought.

She understood the impression before he could think the words.

I’m lying on my bed with you, she said. On your left side.

Just like that, he could feel her hand. Little fingers still clutched in his, like she hadn’t let go since... forever. What time is it? he wondered suddenly.

It’s nighttime, she said. We found Gabriel this morning. Without asking, he knew that “found Gabriel” meant the revelation that Gary wasn’t just their butler after all.

Sam says it’s six forty-two, Dani added.

Can you tell him I’m okay? Dean asked. He wasn’t sure what it meant that he could only feel one of his hands. Is he still here?

I told him, she said. The “yes” was implicit. He says you have a funny definition of okay.

He thought he was imagining his right hand at first. Dani got it anyway, and she said, Sam’s holding your other hand again. You’re not moving, though. I don’t know why he’s doing it.

Dean wished he could smile. Why do you hold my hand? he asked.

He could feel her thinking about it, remembering the times she’d held his hand and thinking about what had prompted her to do it. Mostly to get his attention. Sometimes to make sure he didn’t get lost. Twice because she thought maybe he could hear her more clearly that way, and she had something important to say.

Maybe he’s doing it to get my attention too, Dean offered. He could definitely feel someone holding his right hand. It wasn’t a kid’s hand. Even as he thought it, he felt the fingers clasped around his squeeze gently.

Hey, Dean said. I felt that.

Sam seems relieved, Dani reported. He’s asking if you want anything.

Yeah, Dean said. I want to be able to see.

He says stop whining, Dani told him. Maribel told him you might die.

I’m not gonna die, Dean said. Why’d she say that?

Father told her to, Dani said. So that Sam would know to come.

Oh, geez. Sam had gotten the “your brother might be dying” call again. What was this, the third time? He probably should have thought the whole field trip to heaven thing through more thoroughly. But Gabriel - capricious fucking archangel that he was - didn’t seem like the kind to wait around for a considered decision.

Sam doesn’t like Gabriel, Dani told him. He says he always knew there was something creepy about Father’s staff.

Yeah, how’d you end up with an archangel for a butler? Dean asked. Except she wouldn’t know, right? None of them had known who he was. He still around?

I don’t know, Dani said.

Dean understood that this was the answer to both questions, but he thought maybe he could feel his toes, so he was a little distracted. Where’s your dad? he asked. There were people they cared about more than Gabriel, after all. Did he get his friends out?

Father had things to do, Dani said. Rachel’s with him. He says she’s okay. Balthazar’s downstairs.

Dean thought about Castiel, hard and focused, before it even occurred to him how loudly he might be thinking. The thoughts tumbled over each other: Castiel’s battered ferocity, his fierce defense of his children, of Dean. Wings Dean shouldn’t be able to see, protecting him.

The feeling of another soldier at his back in heaven.

Your fingers are moving, Dani told him.

He needed to be able to see.

Father says he can come back, Dani said. Can you hear him? He doesn’t think you can; he says I should tell you-- The words broke down, and all Dean could understand was worry and a vague sort of fear.

Do we need him? Dean asked her. You’re right, I can’t hear him. He must be doing something important. It wasn’t an answer. It wasn’t even something he’d be able to say out loud without cringing, but it was what happened in his head when Dani asked.

He’s busy, Dani says. We’re not supposed to distract him unless someone is in danger of dying. He must think you are.

Great, Dean thought, and he didn’t mean for her to overhear but he figured she probably did. That was really reassuring. As usual. He had no idea how Castiel had managed to raise seven even passably normal children.

You think we can pass for normal? Dani sounded unexpectedly pleased.

You think I’m dying? he demanded.

If Father thinks so then you might be, Dani said. He didn’t want me to tell you that.

He wondered why she had.

Because you asked, she said. And also, he didn’t realize I was telling you until after I’d done it. I think he’s better at privacy than I am.

Dean really didn’t know what to think about that. He was pretty sure he shouldn’t be thinking anything about Castiel with Dani listening in, but maybe there would never be any way to avoid that. Maybe Castiel had chained him telepathically to this crazy family for the rest of his life.

On the other hand, it was possible Castiel didn’t expect him to live long enough for it to matter.

I don’t understand what you’re saying, Dani said.

Trying not to say anything, Dean thought. If he could sigh, he’d be doing it now. Maybe he was; how would he know? Hey, Dani, am I sighing?

I don’t think so, she said. Should I tell Father to come? He can hear you, but he doesn’t understand what you want either.

Right. That was embarrassing. If he lived, he’d have to get someone to explain the limits of this telepathy thing to him. If there were any.

I’m fine, Dean said. He wasn’t sure exactly who he was saying it to, but he figured it applied to everyone. He’s good, he can keep... doing whatever he’s doing. He could definitely feel his toes. That should keep him busy for a while.

Hi, a faint voice said.

Saph says hi, Dani offered.

Dean blinked. Or he wanted to blink. He had no idea how much of what he thought about his body translated, but he was guessing not much. Saph? he thought.

Hi Dean, the barely-there voice said again. Dani says you can’t hear us, but we can hear you. Most of the time.

“Okay, I can hear Saph,” Dean said. He tried to say it, instead of just thinking it, but he must not have been any more successful than before because he still couldn’t hear his own voice.

That’s good, Saph said eagerly. She still sounded quieter than Dani, which was weird, but he could feel Dani’s agreement that it was a good thing. Right? You must be getting less blind!

She thought in exclamation points, Dean thought. Of course she did. Maybe the strange thing was that Dani didn’t.

Dani wasn’t very excitable. Apparently it translated to her mind.

I’m exciting, Dani said.

“You’re awesome,” Dean told her. “You both are. How come I can hear Saph now?”

I don’t know, Dani said.

Maribel says you were overwhelmed with grace, Saph offered. She says maybe it’s taking a while for you to be able to sense it again.

Like lightning, Dean thought. It could literally blind you. The closer you were, the longer it took your eyes to recover. He’d been at ground zero for angelic grace - he should probably be grateful he could sense anything at all.

You can feel stuff, right? Saph sounded exactly like she did in person. What about your feet?

Dean felt something poke his foot, and he didn’t try to jerk it away but he definitely thought it should move. “Quit poking me,” he said, even though he didn’t mean it. Any contact with the rest of the world was good contact at this point.

Your foot moved! Saph sounded positively gleeful. Can you feel your ankle? What about your knee? She poked them each in turn, and he could tell exactly what she was doing even without hearing it in her questions.

“Don’t give Sam any ideas,” Dean told her, but he could already feel a large hand squeezing his wrist. Then his lower arm. His elbow. “Tell Sam I know what he’s doing. He’s gonna owe me dinner if he keeps feeling me up.”

He didn’t know how well that translated in angel speak, but Sam did quit it. Dean felt him pat his shoulder and that was it. Didn’t even go back to holding his hand. Which, no way was he gonna admit he missed that, but he was secretly glad Dani was still curled up next to him.

Or maybe not so secretly.

I’m staying, Dani told him. Sam says I should sleep. Can I pretend to sleep with you?

“You could just tell him you don’t need to sleep,” Dean said.

She did, Saph said. He didn’t have to strain to hear her anymore. Sam doesn’t understand. Not like you.

Yeah, well. Sam hadn’t had angelhood dropped on him quite so--

“Wait a second,” Dean said. “Sam knows you’re angels.”

Yup! Saph was getting the hang of answering things he didn’t ask, Dean noticed. He wondered if that had more to do with the telepathy or her adaptability to all things human.

“So doesn’t he know you don’t need to sleep?” Dean asked. What his brother knew about them - and since when - was a question Dean intended to get serious answers to in the near future. Not when the kids were around.

He says Father would want us to try, Saph reported. Saph was pretty emotional, relative to the rest of the kids, but Dean had never heard doubt like he could hear it in her thoughts right now. Father’s never told us to try to sleep before.

“He’s probably just confused,” Dean said. “Sam, I mean. Because you look so much like human kids, he thinks he has to take care of you the same way.” I know I do, he thought, and he was under no illusion that they didn’t hear him.

You ask us, Dani said. It’s different.

“Can you give him a message for me?” Dean asked. “Word for word, okay? Like I’m talking to him.”

Yes, Dani and Saph said at the same time.

“Just one of you,” Dean said. “It’s weird otherwise.”

Is that the message? Dani asked.

“No,” Dean said. “This is the message: Sam, their bedtime is midnight. It’s not even seven o’clock; leave them alone.”

Saph told him, Dani said. He says we had a rough day. And also, why is our bedtime midnight? He looks like he thinks that’s strange, but he’s not saying why.

“Because you look like you’re a five-year-old human child,” Dean said. “And five-year-olds don’t stay up ’til midnight.”

Oh, Dani said. I didn’t know that.

“Tell him it’s house rules,” Dean said. “Besides, if you guys leave me alone I won’t have anyone to talk to.” He really didn’t want to think about what that would be like. He could feel things now, which was a huge step up from total sensory deprivation. But it was a long way from hearing or seeing, let alone communicating with another person.

Saph told him, Dani said again, and suddenly Dean remembered what she’d said about privacy. He had a bad feeling about exactly how much Saph had told Sam.

“Okay,” he said. Partly because there wasn’t any point in getting mad at them, but mostly because he didn’t want to know. “You can stop telling him everything I think now.”

Can we tell him that you told us to stop? Dani wanted to know.

“Yeah,” Dean said. Literal, he reminded himself. Very literal.

At least he knew where they got it from.

He felt someone tap his right hand. At the same moment Dani said, You just moved your hand, except he didn’t think they were the same hand. He figured Sam was the one poking him now, and he was pretty sure Dani was lying on top of his left arm.

“It okay if I hug you back?” he asked, because you were allowed to ask kids embarrassing things you’d never say to anyone else. He thought he could even do it - he might already be, if she was feeling his hand curl against her shoulder.

Yes, she said. Sam is asking where Father is.

“Why’s he asking us?” Dean wanted to know. “We don’t know.”

Can I tell him you said that? Dani asked.

“Yeah,” Dean said. Because at some point he should probably just trust them. They’d been doing well enough without him messing them up before, right?

It occurred to him to wonder where Saph had gone. If Dani was really relaying all of this to Sam, she’d spoken out loud more in the last half hour than she had the entire time he knew her. Were the other kids with Balthazar?

That was when the whole damn world exploded into white. Again. It shouldn’t have been possible, he couldn’t see, how could the light even come close to overwhelming him? Were those fingers on his forehead?

His body jackknifed against restraints that fumbled, grasping at his hands and arms. The pressure on his face disappeared. This time when he stared straight ahead there was something there. He could hear voices.

Everything hurt, Dean realized. It was only adrenaline that gave him the strength to move. And he was moving; he’d jostled Dani and Sam was leaning across his body, trying to hold him down, demanding to know what Castiel had done.

“Sam.” His voice came out as a rasp, but he heard it, and it was weird that that was all it took. Dean relaxed abruptly, suddenly aware that he was fighting them, that they were just trying to keep him from punching someone’s eye out by accident.

“Dean?” Sam’s grip went slack, because he was a loser and too trusting by half.

“You suck at restraining people,” Dean muttered, the words harsh in the back of his throat. His throat hurt. His head hurt. There was an ache lancing through his body that made him want to curl up and go dark again - except that he could see.

He could see Sam. He could talk to him. He could feel Dani’s body pressed up beside him, instead of just warmth where his left side should be.

Everything was a lot dimmer than he’d like and it hurt a stupid amount, but at least it was there.

“You’re the worst patient ever,” Sam told him. “What kind of coma case talks telepathically through the nearest kid?”

“The awesome one.” Dean forced the words out because they were expected, and also because they were true. He was lying on a mattress. In Dani’s room, she’d said? He could mostly see the ceiling, which was boring, Sam’s face, which was a secret relief he’d never say, and weird shadows that were kind of creeping him out.

“What’s--” Pain washed through him, and he gritted his teeth. “What’s with the shadows,” he ground out. “Creepy as all get out.”

“What shadows?” Sam was looking around. When he pulled back enough for Dean to see Saph, his eyes widened. It didn’t help, but maybe he didn’t expect it to.

“Your wings,” Dean blurted out. He wanted to close his eyes, but he wasn’t eager to give up his newfound vision. Crappy though it was. “How come I can’t see ’em?”

“Wait,” Sam said. “What?”

Saph was giving him that wide-eyed look right back. “You can’t?”

He felt Dani move at his side, and then she was sitting up. She stared down at him like there was something wrong with him - and that was just great, now she thought there was something wrong with him. But she didn’t say anything.

“Dean.” It was Castiel’s voice, and Dean stiffened. He should have known there was another angel in the room.

Which, why? He’d had his magic angel vision for a day, maybe less - maybe more, but he wasn’t counting time he’d spent unconscious - and he already missed it? He distinctly remembered hating it at first. Now he couldn’t concentrate for knowing how much he wasn’t getting.

“I’m blocking the psychic bleed,” Castiel said quietly. “This should prevent you from... seeing things you normally wouldn’t.”

What the fuck. Dean didn’t even know where to start: Cas could take it away? Just like that? The lying bastard.

The fact that Dean wanted to bitch about not having it pissed him off even more.

His head felt like someone was banging on it from the inside, but he managed to crane his neck enough to see Castiel’s face. The small half-smile crushed any sympathy Dean might have felt for his exhausted expression. “Dude,” he growled. “You couldn’t have done that before?”

“It requires a considerable effort to both shield your mind and keep it separate from ours,” Castiel said. The smile was gone. “When the alternative is a temporary inconvenience to you, I deemed the trade-off acceptable.

“You did consent,” he added, when Dean opened his mouth. “It did not appear to hinder your ability to function until now.”

When he’d fixed it, Dean realized. Damn. That was a halfway decent argument, considering Dean really hadn’t objected.

“Is it permanent?” he heard himself ask.

“No,” Castiel said. “Your ability to process external stimuli was overwhelmed by Gabriel’s presence, ultimately shutting down all sensory recognition. If your cognitive function does not recover, I will have to find another way to shield you.”

Dean tried to sort through that without asking, but whatever block he was using obviously didn’t keep Castiel from reading his mind.

“Removing you from the family defense would be less energetically demanding,” he offered. “There might be other ways to ward your mind. Ones that don’t involve such egregious psychic intrusion.”

Or maybe he just looked that confused, Dean thought with a sigh. Seriously, didn’t they own any aspirin? Didn’t Sam carry some with him? Why were there no painkillers anywhere that he could reach?

“Sam,” Castiel said quietly. “Do you have any aspirin?”

“Uh,” Sam said, looking from one of them to the other. “Yeah. I think. In the car?”

Dean glared at Castiel as best he could. Which wasn’t very well, considering he was lying down. “Really not fair when it doesn’t go both ways,” he warned.

Castiel stared back at him. “I can’t keep myself from hearing you think, Dean.”

“Um,” Sam said. “So I’ll - go out to the car for a sec? You okay here?”

“I’m fine,” Dean snapped. He shouldn’t have; he wasn’t fine and Sam didn’t deserve his frustration, anyway. “I feel like I got run over by a truck, okay? I just... I’m sorry.”

It was better than he sometimes managed to do for Sam, and he could tell by the way Sam’s expression softened that it was enough. At least, it was enough for Sam, which wasn’t saying much. What the hell was he doing with kids again? Hadn’t he’d fucked up the first one enough for one lifetime?

He couldn’t feel Castiel’s sharp look, but he caught it out of the corner of his eye.

Don’t say anything, he thought as clearly as he could. Not to Sam. Don’t say anything.

It probably wasn’t fair, but Castiel kept his mouth shut and right now that was all Dean asked. He closed his eyes as Sam got up, but he couldn’t keep them that way. The darkness was too creepy after everything he hadn’t been able to see.

The ceiling wasn’t much better.

“You can’t hear me anymore,” Dani whispered.

She was still sitting next to him, and it wasn’t until he rolled his head to the side that what she was wearing registered. She had his long-sleeved shirt wrapped around her. Wearing it, as much as a five-year-old could wear a man’s shirt: sleeves bunched up all the way to her elbows and still sliding off her wrists, the collar hanging low against her shoulderblades.

“No,” he muttered, because obviously that was more important than what she was wearing. “Sorry, kiddo. I can hear you when you talk out loud, though.”

“You can talk to Sam this way,” she said sadly, and it was almost like he could still hear her because he knew what she meant by that.

“Dani.” He really needed some water. At the rate he was going, his voice wasn’t going to last much longer. “It’s not him or you, okay? I’d choose you both if I could.”

He heard a rustle, a whisper of air that had to be Saph moving, but neither of them said anything.

Instead, Castiel offered, “Perhaps you should rest.”

Yeah, like that was going to happen. He’d been unconscious all day, his head felt like it was going to split open, and he couldn’t close his eyes without feeling like he was falling. He didn’t think sleep was possible, let alone preferable.

“Forget it,” he gritted, trying to shift his arm away from Dani enough that he could get his elbows under him. “I need some water.”

“I got you some,” Saph chirped, suddenly beside the bed again. It wasn’t even half as tall as she was, he realized, finally getting his head and shoulders up. His first good look at the room was kind of underwhelming.

“This is your room?” he blurted out.

“It’s mine,” Dani said softly.

Right, that was what he meant. Except Saph had talked to him last, so maybe that was confusing for them. He was more worried about the fact that there was nothing here. Small, kid-sized furniture... and that was it.

“Where are your toys?” Dean asked. Even Sam had had toys.

Dani gave him a blank look. “What toys?”

The good news was that his head hurt less when he was distracted by a totally misplaced feeling of rage. Not Sam, not Sam, he chanted to himself. Over and over. These weren’t his kids, it wasn’t his fault.

Dani had slunk down next to him, little fingers white where they peeked out from under her ridiculous flannel sleeves. And why was she wearing his shirt? Didn’t that prove that they wanted things, that they associated material objects with feelings of comfort or pleasure?

“Castiel,” Dean said, as calmly as he could. He was obviously freaking them out - Saph looked terrified, and she hadn’t even set the water down. How had she known to bring him water? “Why don’t they have any toys?”

It was, he thought, a perfectly reasonable question. He couldn’t see Castiel’s face without turning now, and he wasn’t quite upright so turning wasn’t really an option. That was probably a good thing. He could picture the man tilting his head like such a crazy idea had never occurred to him.

“They have whatever tools they require,” Castiel’s voice told him. “What else do you feel would benefit them?”

They went to a school that was all about playing, and they didn’t own any toys. It was none of his business; why was he flipping out? Hadn’t any of their friends ever given them something?

No, Dean realized. Because they didn’t have any friends.

“Okay,” Dean said, forcing himself up into a sitting position. “Guys. Dani. Saph. I’m not mad at you, okay? This isn’t--” He waved a hand in the direction of his head and regretted it almost immediately. It made him dizzy on top of the pain, and he should probably reconsider whether unconsciousness was the better option.

“This isn’t about you,” he managed, just as Sam knocked on the bedroom door and ducked inside without waiting for an answer. Sam looked extra large in a room with such tiny proportions, Dean thought.

“Hey,” Sam said. “I got you some water, too - oh, hey,” he added, giving Saph a distracted smile. “Great minds, right?”

Saph looked from Dean to Sam and back again. She didn’t look very reassured, but she also didn’t look quite as frightened anymore. Sam frowned at Dean, like, what the hell happened?

“Because you got water too,” Dean told Saph. “You both did the same thing. There’s a saying, ‘great minds think alike.’ You heard that?”

She shook her head wordlessly. He felt Dani lean carefully, tentatively against his other shoulder. He braced his right arm so he could lift his left without falling on her, and put it around her shoulders just as gently. Sorry, he thought. In case she could hear it.

“It means you both thought of the same thing,” Dean said, “so you must be really smart. Smart people come up with the same good ideas, you know?”

“Oh,” Saph said. She sounded uncertain. “I didn’t think of it. Father told me to get it.”

Of course he did, Dean thought. “That’s okay,” he said out loud. “You’re all pretty smart. Thanks for bringing it in here.”

Saph nodded, like that of all things made sense. “You’re welcome,” she said. When he held out his hand, she gave him the glass with a smile.

Apparently that was all it took to be forgiven in Saph’s world.

Sam smiled at him too, which he really didn’t need, but he couldn’t grimace at his brother without the kids seeing. So he took the aspirin, finished off Saph’s entire glass of water, and carefully didn’t look at Castiel. The guy was doing the best he could. He obviously had other stuff on his mind. Things were tough right now.

The same excuses Dean had made for his own father all his life.

“I’m upsetting you,” Castiel said, when Dean set the glass down and motioned for Sam’s. “I should go. I can maintain the block for several hours; I’ll give you as much time to recover as I can.”

“And then?” Dean asked, forcing another push of cool water past the lump in his throat. It didn’t make his head feel any better, but he was sitting on his own - mostly - and at least that was an improvement.

“Then you will have a choice to make,” Castiel said.

He didn’t disappear. He just walked toward the door, the same way Sam had, and Dean watched him go. Dean had a bad feeling about the silence, but he couldn’t make himself look away.

Sure enough, the moment the door was clear, Sam asked, “What choice?”

Dean wondered if asking the kids to leave would upset them more than it was worth. Then he figured, if there were any kids he could actually ask, it would be them. “Hey, Dani?” he said. “Saph?”

Dani didn’t move, but Saph looked at him. He hadn’t asked a question, he realized. They were doing better at adapting to his style of communication than he was to theirs.

“I’d like to talk to Sam,” he said. “Do you want to stay, or would you be okay leaving for a few minutes?”

Saph frowned a little. “Does that mean we should leave?”

Too late, he realized his mistake. Yeah, they were freakishly smart and more self-aware than most adults. But they couldn’t tell him what they wanted to save their lives. By asking, he’d tipped them off that there was something he expected them to do, and they would try to figure out what it was until they got it or he told them.

“Just for a few minutes,” he said, resigned to ordering them around in spite of himself. “Is everyone else downstairs?”

“Maribel, Adamel, Wildfire, Maia and Maru,” Saph said without batting an eye. “They’re with Balthazar in the living room. Father’s in his room down the hall. You and Sam and Dani and I are here. We’re the only ones in the house.”

So Gabriel was still gone. Dean could only guess that was a good thing. He wanted to guess that, anyway, since there wasn’t anything they could do about it. He wondered what had happened to the housekeeper in all this mess.

“You should probably stick with Balthazar,” he said aloud. Not exactly his favorite angel, but then, none of them older than sixteen were. “Tell him to make you some dinner or something. Did you guys eat?”

“No,” Saph said, which didn’t surprise him. “We’ll tell him.”

She didn’t look very happy about it, but Dani was already peeling herself away from his side and sliding over the edge of her low bed. She was still wearing his flannel shirt over her strange angel-uniform, and he winced when she reached for Saph’s hand. He’d never seen the two of them hold hands before, but Saph took it like it was obvious and they slipped out of the room without looking back.

He felt like a total jerk.

“Wow,” Sam said quietly. What came out of his mouth next was nothing that Dean had expected. “They really listen to you, huh?”

Dean stopped staring at the door and turned his glare on Sam. “What kind of a thing is that to say?” he demanded.

Sam blinked, then held up his hands in surrender. “Okay,” he said, standing up. “Hang on.” He went over and closed the door carefully. Turning back, he added, “You want to try that again?”

“Yeah,” Dean said. “What the fuck, Sam. What made you think I’d want to be an angel babysitter?”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “The fact that you need the money? You need a reference who’s not homeless or certifiable? Honestly, Dean, what did you expect? Castiel’s the last one on a very short list of people I think can actually keep you out of trouble for any length of time.”

“I don’t need to be kept out of trouble!” Dean snapped. “I’m fine!”

“I’m not busting you out of jail!” Sam exclaimed. “You’re getting careless! If you don’t start cleaning up after yourself I’m not gonna be the only one who can track you across the country!”

His head throbbed, but something about the yelling kind of helped. That probably said something about how messed up he was, but it was distracting and familiar all at once. “So, what, you think I need angels to save my soul?” he demanded.

Unfortunately, it had exactly the wrong effect. Sam deflated, letting out an audible sigh as he ran a hand through his hair. “I think these angels have all they can do to save themselves,” he admitted. “I guess I figured, hey. If anyone could help them...”

Dean stared at him. “You think they need me?”

“I thought maybe you could help each other out,” Sam said, rolling his eyes. “What’s wrong with making a suggestion? You’re the one who agreed.”

That sounded annoying familiar. “I didn’t even know what I was agreeing to,” Dean growled.

“Yeah, well.” Once again, Sam failed to hold up his end of the argument, his eyes flicking over Dean with a troubled look. “If I’d known what I was suggesting, maybe I would have kept my mouth shut.”

Damn it. That effectively ended the argument, because the only thing Dean could think to say was, Shut up. He didn’t have a death wish, but he’d meant it when he told Gabriel to go after Castiel’s obnoxious angel friends. The fact that he was still here was probably more of a bonus than he deserved.

Castiel was down the hall?

Why had it taken until now for him to realize what Saph had said? Castiel was down the hall. What the hell was he doing here, in the house, without Rachel? Why was he avoiding the kids?

Dean hadn’t wanted anyone to pass a mesage to Sam before he stormed heaven as Gabriel for one reason: Sam would try to stop him. They were fast enough to convey the message instantaneously, and Dean didn’t want to hear Sam’s objections.

Because he knew they were true. They were right.

“Shit,” Dean said aloud. “Cas is alone.”

There was an intercom right there. On the wall beside the door. He was pretty sure he couldn’t tell Sam how to use it, but he thought he could hit the right buttons if he was standing in front of it. He just had to get there.

“What’s that mean?” Sam asked.

The only good thing about moving his legs was that they hurt almost as much as his head. He had no idea why, but it was distracting and it helped counter the dizziness, somehow. He thought the aspirin must be helping if he could shift toward the side of the bed at all. He wasn’t looking forward to standing.

“Whoa, what are you doing?” Sam’s question was mostly overwhelmed by the door opening - no knock, but that was no surprise. Dean wouldn’t think any of them knew how to enter or leave a room if he hadn’t seen them do it.

It was Castiel in the doorway. He did pause, like he was surprised to see them there or something, but Dean couldn’t tell what he was thinking and he looked weird enough that he forgot to wonder. Dean had seen him without a suit jacket once - the first night, when they were eating pizza - and now not only was it missing, but the rest of his outfit looked as rumpled as it had after he’d collapsed on the floor last night.

Except that he didn’t look hurt. He looked weirdly out of breath, hair crazier than usual and only socks on his feet, but he had a healthy flush that was... unfamiliar, actually. “Dean,” he said, and even his voice sounded different.

“Yeah,” Dean said. Because he had to answer, and he wasn’t staring. He was desperately trying not to stare. Nothing hurt quite as much as it had before, which as far as he was concerned just meant that Sam had given him extra strength aspirin.

Castiel’s gaze went to Sam, and it was so weirdly knowing that Dean frowned. This wasn’t what he’d expected. He’d thought Cas was down the hall getting ready to do something profoundly stupid. Yet here he was, looking all tousled and pretty--

And wow, Dean did not just think that in the presence of a mind-reading angel.

Again.

“Sam,” Castiel said, a smile curving his lips. It looked just as out of place as the pink in his cheeks, because Castiel didn’t smile. Not like that.

“Forgive me,” he added. “It is not my intent to traumatize you, though I’m sure you will assert otherwise when given the chance. But I must speak with your brother.”

“Um, right,” Sam said. He glanced at Dean. “Do you... want me to wait outside?”

Dean was about to say he didn’t have to - what did he think was going to happen? - when Castiel said, “Yes. Yes, that would be ideal.”

Dean frowned, but he waved off Sam’s concerned look. “Sure, we’re good.”

Sam got up to leave. Castiel didn’t wait, moving out of the way before Sam even reached the door. “Dean,” he said. “I must ask you to forgive me also. I think this is not the time you would have chosen, but I am assured it’s necessary.”

Dean saw Sam hesitate by the door.

“What’s going on?” Dean asked, frowning at Castiel’s speed. The man was bearing down on him like they were going somewhere and he didn’t have time to wait for Dean to find his feet. “Is everything okay?”

Then Castiel was sitting down next to him, folding his legs underneath him to roll onto his knees like he was a kid himself. Except there was nothing childlike in the way he looked at Dean. Sam was still watching, but Dean couldn’t look away.

“Dean,” Castiel said. “I can move through time. Time travel, you said. I’ve returned to this point in our history to deliver a message.”

“A message,” Dean said. He tried to sound skeptical, because obviously this was a joke, but Castiel was staring at him like he might shove Dean down on the bed at any second. It wasn’t his fault if that expression made it hard to breathe.

“Yes,” Castiel agreed, moving impossibly closer. Then he was kissing Dean, gently and so achingly soft that Dean forgot to push him away. Still waiting for the message, he reminded himself.

Obediently, Castiel turned his head and whispered, “You promised to stop me.”

Dean had no idea what that meant. He couldn’t make any of this make sense, so what the hell: he entertained the time travel story. It didn’t help much, except for maybe explaining why Castiel didn’t act the way he expected. Nothing Castiel had actually said became any clearer.

“Stop you from doing what?” Dean asked, and his voice was embarrassingly rough. Castiel smelled... warm. Not that it mattered.

“This is the night I meant to surrender myself to heaven,” Castiel murmured. “Gabriel’s actions granted us a reprieve, and forces on both sides stood down. I thought to perpetuate the armistice by turning myself in.”

“What?” That made Dean jerk away, though Castiel didn’t move. “What the hell does that fix?”

“My children are unique,” Castiel said softly. “None have seen their like since the early days of heaven. There are those who might accept a... a study, of me, as way to better know our Father.”

What?” Dean repeated.

Shockingly, Castiel’s gaze dropped to his mouth. “Would kissing you again offer a better perspective?” he asked.

“Dude, what’s with the kissing.” Dean stared at him, sure he should back off. Sit back, pull away, it was easy. He just couldn’t quite bring himself to do it.

Castiel lifted his eyes to Dean’s again. “I was told it would get your attention.”

“Who told you that?” he demanded.

In retrospect, he should have seen the answer coming.

“You did,” Castiel said.

“Of course I did,” Dean muttered. “In the future?”

Castiel just nodded.

“Next time you see me,” Dean told him, “tell me I’m a dick.”

Castiel reached for him, but all he did was lay his hand alongside Dean’s face and brush a thumb over his lips. “I will do this for you,” he said, “if you get up and leave this room now. You must find me and convince me not to go. I’m sorry to put this on you, but I’m not sure I would have listened to anyone else.”

“Why would you listen to me?” Dean was swearing in his head, but the words wouldn’t force themselves past Castiel’s fingers. “Let me send Maribel. Or Dani. That kid can talk you into anything.”

“Dean,” Castiel said patiently. “I’m telling you to do this because it’s already been done. It will work. All you have to do is believe.”

“How do I convince you to stay here?” he demanded. “You’re you, give me a clue.”

Castiel’s thumb trailed over his lower lip again. “I already have,” he said. “Appealing to my better nature will not win this argument, Dean.”

He leaned back before he disappeared, which was the only reason Dean didn’t lose his balance to the empty space that suddenly existed in front of him. “Fuck,” Dean muttered. His own fingers were pressed to his mouth before he realized what he was doing.

Yanking his hand away, Dean glared at the doorway. Sam was gaping at him, of course, but what he came out with was deceptively benign. “They time travel?” Sam asked. “Why do I feel stupid for not knowing that?”

“Shut up,” Dean grumbled. He braced both hands on the mattress, but he was definitely gonna need help. “You want to give me a hand here?”

Sam came over without another word, offering his hand like he was just pulling Dean up. When Dean staggered into him - the floor couldn’t be as uneven as it felt - Sam just clapped him on the shoulder and held on until Dean nodded. Unlike him, Sam occasionally let a mocking opportunity pass.

“Thanks,” he muttered.

“Sure,” Sam said earnestly. “You’d better save your strength for Castiel.”

Very occasionally, Dean thought, and this was clearly not one of those times.

“Sexual harassment,” he said, because it looked like he might have to lean on Sam all the way down the hall, and that meant no physical retribution. For now. “I’m sure people aren’t allowed to go around kissing their employees for no reason.”

“Oh, now you develop a conscience,” Sam said. He pushed the door open far enough that they could both get through, adding, “You sure you can do this? We could call him, make him come to you.”

Being on his feet wasn’t making him nauseous, so he figured he was doing better. “He said I have to find him,” Dean muttered, concentrating on something that was mostly like walking. As long as walking involved having your giant brother carry a good third of your weight.

“I hope he didn’t meant that literally,” Sam said. “You know where he is, right?”

He didn’t have handy angel vision to help him anymore, but yeah. He had a pretty good idea. He was mostly just glad that Sam grasped the whole war thing without asking for details Dean didn’t have. They’d all had a lot of time to talk while he was out - maybe he should be asking Sam.

“Saph says he’s in his room, I believe her,” he muttered. “You’re taking this well.”

Sam made a sound that was probably a laugh. “I was going to say the same thing about you,” he said. “Jesus, Dean, it’s only been two days. You got over your thing about flirting with single parents that fast?”

“I meant the whole--” Dean wanted to wave a hand, shove his brother, something. Anything to convey the insanity of the situation, which for the record was crazy enough without his time traveling boss kissing him like a virgin after he didn’t die.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “So did I.”

Dean was pretty sure he hadn’t, but he protested, “Dude, I like kids,” as a matter of principle. He had nothing against single parents. It was just that, considering his lifestyle, they usually had something against him.

“This is more kids than you’ve known in your entire life,” Sam countered. “And I’m not saying you’re not great with them; obviously you are. I’m just saying, there’s a difference between stopping stuff that wants to eat them and putting the moves on their dad.”

“I never put the moves on their dad!” Dean exclaimed. And maybe he shouldn’t have said that so loudly, because it was an open hallway, but apparently everyone in the house had a one-way psychic window on his brain so what did it matter?

“Right,” Sam said. “Because Castiel is known for his intimate displays of affection.”

Dean missed a step, stumbling against Sam and wincing in anticipation of renewed pain. He’d gotten the rhythm down, and the ache that went with it - but the interruption didn’t mess him up again. His head stayed steady, hurt but not lancing, and the rest of his body felt sore without being on fire.

“Why did you say that?” he asked, trying to concentrate on something other than relief at the mitigation of pain.

“It’s called sarcasm, Dean.” Even Sam’s answer sounded too familiar, and Dean frowned.

“No,” he said. “Why’d you say it like that? Those words in particular?”

“Because I saw you.” Sam sounded skeptical, like he couldn’t believe Dean was this obtuse, and he wasn’t getting it at all. “I saw the way he looked at you, and let me tell you, that’s more emotion than I’ve ever seen from the guy.”

“Okay, whatever, I don’t care about your psychological bullshit,” Dean snapped. “You just said something--”

“Dean.” Sam stopped, forcing Dean to stop with him, and he didn’t look amused. “It wasn’t just the kids holding your hands when I got here, okay? I don’t know what you did to him, or for him, or whatever, but he cares what happens to you. I’ve known him for three years, and I’m pretty sure he’d visit me in the hospital if I asked him to but he sure wouldn’t bring me flowers.”

Dean had no idea how this conversation had gone off the rails so quickly, but of course Sam wanted to lecture him on responsibility and meaningful relationships. Because apparently the kid’s law degree came with a certificate in marriage counseling. “I’m not his wife,” Dean said, just to clarify. “I’m his kids’ bodyguard, and I’d really like to know why you’re fine with his goddamned war!”

“I’m not fine with it!” Sam burst out. “I’m not fine with the way you drive around the country looking for monsters either! But you made the choice to risk your life to save other people, and maybe I think he can understand that!”

Dean stared at him, the pounding in his head subsumed by unwelcome revelation. “You bitch,” he said aloud. “This was your idea of a blind date.” His stupid fucking brother had almost gotten him killed because he wanted Dean to have flowers.

Sam held his free hand out to the side in a way that said he’d thought that was obvious. “You’re not easy to set up, Dean. The last guy you went out with turned out to be a siren. And you liked that one.”

“He was a siren; I was supposed to like him!” Dean snapped. “Seriously, Sam, what’s wrong with you?”

“Sue me for wanting you to be happy!” Sam exclaimed.

“No, really,” Dean said. “What’s going on?”

Sam glared at him. “You didn’t get yourself killed after Dad,” he said. “Not right away. I’m worried you’re still trying to do it, just... slower. I’d feel better if you had a reason not to other than me, okay?”

That was too much right now. Dean wasn’t even going to try. “Look,” he said, pulling away as hard as he could without falling over. “Try to mind your own business for two minutes. I’m gonna go talk to the monster you set me up with.”

“He’s an angel,” Sam said, watching as Dean caught himself against the wall. “Are you sure walking is a good idea right now?”

“Now he asks,” Dean grumbled. He didn’t bother trying to answer. It took most of his concentration to knock on Castiel’s door, and he wasn’t even sure whether he expected it to do any good or not.

He decided, when there was no response, that he hadn’t expected anything at all. He shoved his way inside anyway. He was a little surprised to see an exact mirror of his own rooms, but the sword Castiel was holding to the light took up most of his attention.

“Hey,” Dean said gruffly, because no way that was a good sign. “Put that thing away; there’s kids around.”

He thought maybe he meant it as a joke. When Castiel’s eyes found his, though, he was forcibly reminded of just what he was talking to. There was no trace of the warm, relaxed face that had vanished from Dani’s room just a few minutes ago, and seeing that alien gaze stare at him without comprehension - suit, tie, and shoes arranged like armor over his body - was somehow more convincing than hearing the story from his future self.

“Dean,” Castiel said. The sword disappeared, taking the flash of angel with it. The illusion of a tired man was the only thing left. “I’m pleased that you’ve recovered enough to stand.”

“Yeah,” Dean said, putting a hand on the nearest piece of furniture when the room swam in front of him. “Me too. Think I’ll celebrate by sitting down.”

The floor came up to meet him, but the wall was solid and unmoving at his back. He managed to keep his head up. The world felt a little friendlier from here. “Huh,” he said, squinting up at Castiel’s concerned expression. “That’s better.”

“You shouldn’t be moving around.” Castiel’s voice was suddenly reproachful, like he thought Dean had tricked him into welcoming his newfound mobility. “Did Sam help you out of bed?”

“You can’t tell?” Dean asked, gazing up at him. “Didn’t you hear us arguing in the hallway?” Seriously, could they read his mind or not?

“You are very difficult to understand,” Castiel informed him. His tone hadn’t lightened at all, and Dean felt like he was being lectured. When he held out his hand, though, Castiel took it without hesitation.

“Uh-uh,” Dean said, careful not to pull. He wasn’t in any hurry to be on his feet again. “You come here.”

Castiel frowned, but he took another step closer and now Dean couldn’t see his face at all. Castiel’s shoes were the safest place to look, so that was where he looked. “Sit,” Dean told them. “I don’t feel like staring up at you.”

“You’re lucky the feeling isn’t mutual,” Castiel said. His tone was flat, but he lowered himself to the floor without further complaint. He leaned back against the wall beside Dean, who glanced sideways at him.

“Sarcasm again?” Dean asked. He had a nice profile.

“No,” Castiel said. “To be sarcastic it would have to be the opposite of the truth, would it not? I do stare up at you a great deal.”

Dean was used to being taller than people; he supposed he didn’t think about it from the other point of view very often. He didn’t know what to say to that, so he said, “You know my brother set us up?”

His brain-to-mouth filter was working worse than usual today.

“Yes,” Castiel said, startling him until he added, “It was on his recommendation that I offered you this job. I said as much to you when we first met.”

“Yeah,” Dean said. “That’s not what I meant.” Why was he still talking? He hadn’t meant to say it in the first place; why couldn’t he let it go?

“Then I don’t know how to answer your question,” Castiel replied.

“Me neither,” Dean said with a sigh. He let his head rest against the wall, because if Castiel was going to sit with him then he obviously wasn’t going anywhere. As far as Dean was concerned, his work was done.

“I’m sorry I can’t block your pain,” Castiel said, from out of nowhere. “Or heal you. I would heal you if I could, but I fear the attempt would only make your condition worse.”

Dean turned his head to stare at him. “Did you just apologize to me for my own stupid decisions?”

“No,” Castiel said, but he was frowning. “I feel regret that I am unable to mitigate a condition you incurred in service to me. I understand that this is sufficient cause for an apology.”

Dean didn’t bother trying to understand why that was different. He didn’t feel like having that fight again anyway. “Why can’t you?” he asked, gaze sliding over Castiel’s neatly pressed suit. After seeing his shirt stitch itself back up last night, he supposed the constancy of the outfit shouldn’t surprise him.

It did remind him that his clothes were the same as they’d been yesterday too. Only his were a lot more wrinkled and probably less clean. Perks of being human.

“Your senses were overwhelmed by exposure to heaven’s grace,” Castiel said, like that was an explanation that made sense. “To introduce more, even in an effort to heal, would only push you back toward catatonia.”

Catatonia, Dean thought. Did angels all come with a dictionary built in? How come Gabriel talked like a normal human being and Castiel sounded like a prep school teacher?

“It would also destroy the psychic block I fashioned between you and the rest of the family,” Castiel said. “Potentially negating any good the healing might do, as you would no longer be conscious enough to appreciate it.”

“The block keeps your grace out,” Dean said, because see? He could say it in one-syllable words. “Thanks for that.”

“You’re welcome,” Castiel said, but there. That was sarcasm.

“I heard that,” Dean said. He just couldn’t figure out what it meant: he wasn’t welcome? His repetition was unnecessary?

“Your hearing is intact,” Castiel replied. “I’m pleased.”

Dean felt himself smiling for the first time. “You’re really kind of a jerk when you try,” he said. “You know I thought it was an accident, that first day? Then I thought you just didn’t care. Like you didn’t bother with being polite because it didn’t matter to you.”

He’d given up on staring at Castiel, but he thought he heard him sigh. “I confess that human standards of politeness often elude me. It is rarely my intent to offend.”

“So what’d you mean with the ‘you’re welcome’?” Dean pressed. It wasn’t like it mattered, but hey. He didn’t want to go back to bed, and Castiel was answering his questions. What more distraction could he ask for?

“You weren’t really thanking me,” Castiel said. “It seemed reasonable that I reciprocate.”

Dean frowned. “I wasn’t really thanking you for what?” Now he couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said. Something about the block, right?

“For disrupting your awareness of the children,” Castiel said quietly. “Though you objected at first, I am aware that you enjoyed being able to interact with them on a deeper level.”

The telepathy, he meant. Being able to hear Dani when she didn’t speak the way a human would. “Yeah,” Dean said without thinking. He just managed to keep himself from adding, You too.

Castiel didn’t say anything. Dean wasn’t sure if it was because he hadn’t heard, or if he was just pretending he hadn’t heard because Dean had snapped at him for it earlier. Either way, Dean figured, he’d probably said too much.

Then Castiel said, “You should go downstairs. The children will be glad to see you,” and Dean realized he hadn’t said anywhere near enough.

“Okay,” he said, “I’m not leaving. Did you not get that? Did you think I just walked down here for my health? Your house is huge, man. I’m not out for exercise.”

There was a brief pause. “I could assist you, if you feel physically incapable?”

It was only the questioning tone that kept it from being a threat.

“No,” Dean said. “I mean, yeah, if you’re coming, fine. But you just told me not to leave you alone, and if anyone knows what you’re up to, it’s gotta be you. I happen to know it’s a lot harder to give up when there’s someone looking over your shoulder demanding to know why.”

He couldn’t not think of Sam. It took him a second to realize that Castiel was staring at him, and another few seconds after that to figure out what he’d said. If anyone knows what you’re up to, it’s you.

So, maybe not his best explanation ever.

On the other hand, Castiel was still here, so he was doing okay so far. “I just saw you,” he said, before Castiel could ask. Or decide he didn’t care. “Not you, you, but you from the future.”

Which sounded really stupid, but definitely not as stupid as telling someone you were an angel. Dean thought he was totally ahead on this one.

“You saw me,” Castiel said. “Just now. Not here, I assume?”

The kids didn’t get it when Dean said things to check them, without making them an actual question. But Castiel actually spoke that way. How could they not recognize it? Did he not do it around them?

Why would he need to? He always knew what they meant.

“Yeah,” Dean said, when it occurred to him that Castiel was waiting for an answer. “I mean, no.” It would be really embarrassing to admit that sitting this close to Castiel was screwing with his concentration, especially after what Sam had just told him.

So he didn’t. He was in pain, and that made everything a little fuzzy. Except when it made things sharper. This obviously wasn’t one of those times.

“Dean,” Castiel said. “Why do you think I’m planning to give up?”

“Because you’re alone,” Dean said. “This house is full of people who want you around, and you’re hiding in here. So either you don’t know they want you - and I don’t think you’re that stupid - or you’re planning to do something they won’t like.”

There was a long moment where Castiel didn’t say anything. Dean didn’t wonder if he was wrong. He had the future on his side, after all. He did wonder if Sam had set him up for this too... because this must have been Sam’s role, right? Sitting next to Dean until he took his hand off the gun?

“You speak from experience,” Castiel said at last.

Dean snorted. “I guess I don’t really have to say yes,” he said.

“You seem unduly irritated when I respond to something you didn’t say aloud,” Castiel said. “Given this, I would prefer you verbalize as much as possible.”

“Well, back at you,” Dean retorted. “It’s not like you answered my question.”

“You didn’t ask a question,” Castiel said.

Dean frowned. That might actually be true. Which would mean he was being surly for no reason. “So you’re not going anywhere?” he asked. Might as well put it on Castiel. They could get this over with right now.

Except Castiel didn’t seem to agree.

“You understand, I think, the desire to protect others at your own expense,” he said.

Dean frowned. “Uh, no,” he said, which was a lie but that wasn’t the point. “Yeah, I get wanting to protect people. That’s what I do. But I’d prefer to do it without sacrificing myself, thanks.”

“But you are willing,” Castiel said. “When you feel your own sacrifice will yield the best chance of success.”

Dean didn’t want to answer that, and it was particularly aggravating to know he didn’t have to.

“I don’t have to know what you’re thinking,” Castiel said quietly. “You have demonstrated this quality several times since coming here.”

“Yeah, well.” There was no way out of that, and he knew it. “Sam’s trying to train it out of me. Why do you think I’m here?”

“Because you need my reference to get a better job,” Castiel said.

Dean couldn’t not laugh at that. “That what Sam told you?” he said.

He saw Castiel nod out of the corner of his eye, and he sighed. “You know what the worst part is,” Dean told him. “I don’t know if he was lying to give me a better cover, or if he really is that optimistic.”

“Why would he not wish for you to have something better?” Castiel asked. “I’m aware that positions like these are not highly sought after.”

Dean scoffed. “That’s ’cause people don’t know what you’re paying,” he said. “Trust me, you advertise that and it’ll be a different story.”

He could hear Castiel’s skepticism in his voice. “I don’t believe I would find another human so willing to lay down their life for my family, no matter how much money I offered.”

Okay, well, that wasn’t exactly what he’d meant. Before he could try to explain, Castiel pulled the rug out from under him by saying, “The least I can do is be equally willing.”

“Oh, no,” Dean said. “Hell no. You are not following my example. I’m a terrible example, Cas, ask anyone.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Castiel said. “Do you plan to shorten all of our names, or just mine and Maribel’s?”

It was so unexpected that it actually gave Dean pause before he realized what Castiel was doing. “You think distracting me will work?” he asked. “I know that trick. I know all the tricks. Believe me, no one knows how to evade a suicide watch like me. You might as well just give me your arguments, I’ll shoot ’em down, and then...”

He realized abruptly that what Sam had done at that point wouldn’t work on Castiel. There was no way Dean could stop him from doing something he’d decided to do. Castiel didn’t have to listen to him at all; why was he even still here?

“And then what?” Castiel asked. He didn’t sound incredulous anymore. He just sounded curious. Dean didn’t know if that was good or bad: genuine curiosity might be good, indulgent curiosity probably meant apathy. If Castiel didn’t care at all, Dean’s mission was in serious trouble.

He knew he should have sent Maribel.

Castiel had told him not to. Castiel had told him Dean was the only one who could convince him, and if he’d implied a “why” that Dean couldn’t quite believe, he still had Sam. What was the one thing Sam had told him Castiel didn’t have?

What was the one thing Castiel obviously didn’t have, the thing he’d cared enough about to be bitter over the night before... the thing Sam thought Dean needed to make sure he didn’t go off on one of these self-sacrificing jaunts himself?

“Oh,” Dean heard himself say. “Are we skipping to that part now?”

He wasn’t going to do this with an angel. His hands were cold, his pulse hammering in his ears, and he wasn’t even going to do it. No way. If Castiel’s future self wanted Dean to make him stay, he could send Dean’s future self back to do it.

Dean turned his head, letting his shoulder slide against the wall until it bumped into Castiel’s. The kiss he hadn’t meant to give landed on Castiel’s cheek. There’s your gesture of affection, he thought. Castiel was already pulling away.

Or turning, possibly turning toward Dean. Eyes wide, Castiel had started without flinching away. Dean put a careful hand on the other side of his face and turned him the rest of the way.

This time their mouths met. It was less nerve-wracking now, with Castiel staring back at him, and that was probably weird but Dean figured that weird was par for the course. He kissed Castiel’s mouth as gently as he could, because the slow sweetness from his future self couldn’t have been an accident.

If soft was what he wanted, then soft was what he was gonna get.

He had to let go eventually. “Gentle” wasn’t an obsession, though Dean thought he could easily make it one. It was a give and take that meant he didn’t get to just distract Castiel with kisses until he forgot what he was planning.

Not unless Castiel agreed.

“That’s your endgame,” Castiel said. His eyes were still wide and his voice didn’t get above a whisper. “Why?”

“Because I figure you already know everything else I’m gonna say,” Dean muttered. “Believe me, I’ve heard it all before too. They can’t do it without you; they don’t want what you’re giving them if you’re not here to share it, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth you.

“I know,” Dean added. “I get that it all seems kind of petty when you’re looking at the big picture. But I also know that without them there is no big picture, and if they want you, then they’re damn well gonna get you.”

“If I turn myself in,” Castiel murmured, “they won’t need me. They could be free.” He was staring at Dean like he’d never seen him before. “You could be free.”

“Okay, that’s pretty much never true,” Dean said. “I get where you’re coming from, and I get that it seems like there’s gotta be something we can do to make the hits stop coming. But there isn’t. The most we ever get is a temporary reprieve. We’ve got one now, and we should take advantage of it.

“Not by splitting up,” he added, before Castiel could say anything. “No matter what you do, there’s always gonna be something else out there in the dark. All we get to choose is who we face it with.”

He had no idea what Castiel was looking for when he stared like that. But he had even less idea what was going through his head when he looked away. “Why are you here?” Castiel asked the floor.

Dean frowned. “’Cause kissing you sounded like more fun than explaining to the kids why you weren’t coming back?” The words were flippant and unfocused and he knew it. There was only so much soul-baring he could do in any one conversation.

To his surprise, it made the corner of Castiel’s mouth quirk. It was dark humor if it was humor at all, but Castiel actually turned his head so Dean could see his expression. He didn’t lift his gaze, but he wasn’t hiding his face either.

“I mean,” Castiel said quietly, “you implied that your presence here had something to do with your penchant for self-sacrifice. A penchant with which Sam takes issue, if I’m not mistaken. Will you tell me how they’re connected?”

Of course he would just ask. Dean made a face, because it was his little brother and he was an interfering son of a bitch. But he must have been onto something, because now Dean was that son of a bitch and he was starting to have more sympathy for the role.

“Sam likes to set me up with his friends,” Dean said, letting his head fall back against the wall. Their shoulders were still pressed together, and it seemed like too much work to lever himself upright again. “I thought he realized I was onto him, because the blind date invitations stopped.”

Was he seriously going here, Dean wondered? But hey, he’d kissed the guy and he wasn’t fired yet. That he knew of. If Castiel could read his mind, he already knew every stupid thing Dean didn’t say anyway. So why not, right?

“I guess I was wrong,” Dean said. There was a dark blue swirl on the far wall, and for the life of him he couldn’t figure out why. “This--” He used his free hand to wave at the two of them. “Wasn’t just to get me a job.”

“I don’t understand,” Castiel said after a moment. “You’re indicating that Sam had a reason other than employment for suggesting that you and I meet?”

“You understand just fine,” Dean told the far wall. “Sam thought we’d be good for each other. Apparently he had some high hopes for us; you know, counteracting each other’s self-destructive tendencies.

“Shows how much he knows,” Dean added. “Your war almost wiped my brain like an etch-a-sketch, and all I managed to do was encourage you to throw yourself on your sword.”

They were a great combination, all right. Even if he convinced Castiel, what then? He wasn’t playing house with an angel, and he was pretty sure soldiers of heaven had better things to do than... well. Humans.

He was absolutely not thinking of flushed future Castiel, missing his shoes and jacket, and how fucking adorable he’d looked when he knelt on the bed.

“I think he was right,” Castiel said quietly. “I find I enjoy your presence more than I expected.”

Dean smiled. He couldn’t help it. “Don’t tell him that,” he warned. “He thinks you’re gonna start sending me flowers or something.”

There was a brief moment where Dean thought he wasn’t going to get away with it. He shouldn’t have tried to sneak that in, even as a warning. He should have just let it go like the impossible idea it was.

“Do you want flowers?” Castiel asked. He sounded puzzled. “I would hardly have to send them to you. You do effectively live here for the foreseeable future.”

Dean wanted to ask if Castiel thought he was going to stay after the Big Surrender. If he thought Dean would just adopt his kids and raise them like the normal human children they weren’t. Or maybe he’d made plans; that was probably it. Someone like Castiel didn’t do anything without plans.

He didn’t ask what the plans were or where he fit in them, because if Castiel wanted to pretend Dean was going to stick around then Dean was all for that. Anything that wasn’t about Castiel leaving. He remembered that from Sam’s stupid games: talk like there’s something else, anything else.

Anything at all.

“Fine,” Dean said. “Yeah. I want flowers. What’s tomorrow... Friday? Friday night is date night; you can give me flowers then.”

He didn’t expect Castiel to know what “date night” was. He was pretty sure flowers didn’t even mean anything to Castiel. Just another crazy human ritual, nothing to do with romance or angel love or whatever they got up to in heaven.

He was wrong.

“I should take you out,” Castiel said. “I understand dinner is customary. I’m afraid I must leave it to you to suggest an appropriate venue, as I have little experience in these matters.”

Dean didn’t move. “What?” he said. The wall was totally unhelpful here, but he didn’t dare look at Castiel. Who knew what he might see.

“I should take you out,” Castiel repeated. “On a date. Where would you like to go?”

“You’re gonna take me on a date,” Dean echoed dumbly. When had he lost control of this conversation?

“Yes,” Castiel said. “Is there some other phrasing I should use to make that more clear?”

That was worth sitting up for. Dean pushed himself away from the wall, angling just enough that he could stare at Castiel without craning his neck. The headache was dull and distant now, and his body didn’t protest the new arrangement. Much.

“You can’t go on a date if you’re in heaven,” Dean said.

Castiel tilted his head, but without lifting it from the wall the gesture looked lazy and fond instead of curious. “I could,” he said. “Hypothetically.”

“You can’t go on a date with me,” Dean clarified. “If you’re in heaven.”

“No,” Castiel agreed. “That seems much less likely.”

“Did you just agree to stay with us?” he demanded. And he hadn’t meant to say “us,” he’d meant to say “here,” because obviously Castiel was choosing between here and heaven, not--

“I will stay with you,” Castiel said quietly. “If I am to follow your example, after all, I should follow it in its entirety.”

Dean stared at him, sure he could see the shadow of Castiel’s wings against the wall. “What example?”

Castiel smiled, full and beautiful. “You’re still here.”

Chapter Text

Water. He needed more water. He wasn’t ready for whatever the hell was going on here, and water might at least make his throat start working again. He needed food, too. And a bathroom. A shave, a change of clothes… not necessarily in that order.

In short, he was a mess, and Castiel was looking at him like he was some kind of revelation.

“I’d say go,” Castiel said quietly. Still smiling. “But I’m not sure you can get to your feet on your own.”

Fucking archangels. “You all possess people like that?” he muttered, squeezing his eyes shut against the stupidity of the question. Why now? Why did he have to ask now? He’d said he was okay with demons; he had to be okay with angels.

He couldn’t not be okay with Castiel now. It was just… he couldn’t.

“No,” Castiel whispered. He didn’t sound like he was smiling anymore, but Dean didn’t dare open his eyes and look. “Some angels are able to manifest without… hosts.”

You would call them hosts.

Dean couldn’t have really heard that. He was thinking it, imagining it the way Castiel usually said stuff. Maybe filling in around the edges or something.

“What do you call them?” he asked. Not that it mattered. Maybe because it didn’t matter. He’d officially hit his quota on meaningful conversation.

“Vessels,” Castiel said. “I don’t have one.”

Like he knew Dean needed to hear it. Dean couldn’t even bring himself to question it: to ask how, or why, or what that meant. He just wanted to accept it.

“Okay,” he said, opening his eyes. The room looked darker than it had before. “Want to help me up?” A thought occurred to him, and he added, “Sam’s probably freaking out by now.”

Castiel put a hand on his shoulder – steadying him, making sure he wouldn’t fall when Castiel got up, something. “Sam doesn’t seem prone to freaking out,” he said. He stood carefully, and Dean didn’t miss that warmth at his side at all.

“Yeah, well, you didn’t see him after the epic Valentine’s Day disaster of ’07,” Dean grumbled. He held out his hand, grateful when Castiel didn’t yank him to his feet. Castiel grasped his wrist instead of his hand, waiting until Dean pulled to reach for his other arm and brace him as he swayed to his feet.

“Will you require assistance in the bathroom?” Castiel asked. He was effectively holding Dean up, and Dean didn’t blame him for ignoring the Valentine’s Day jibe. “I’m afraid I don’t have a razor, but I could retrieve yours. Along with a change of clothes, if you wish.”

“No,” Dean blurted out. He pulled away instinctively, because wow, serious psychic intrusion was right. “I’m fine. Tell Sam I’ll be right out, would you?”

Castiel tilted his head, and Dean knew he didn’t get it without needing to hear him. “Of course,” was all he said.

Dean pointed at the nearest door that didn’t lead to the hallway, and Castiel nodded. Can’t help hearing what you think, Dean reminded himself. He probably shouldn’t have pushed the man away before he’d actually made it across the room, but it was too late now.

He imagined he could feel Castiel’s eyes on him as he made his slow and stumbling way around the edge of the room – ready to grab onto the wall or the nearest available surface if he had to – but he couldn’t have. Because he heard the hall door open, and then he heard Castiel greeting Sam, and yeah. His brother had been standing out there the whole time.

What would have made him come in, Dean wondered? It was something to keep his mind off of other thoughts, things he really didn’t want being overheard right now, so he tried to guess. Yelling, maybe. The sound of weapons, definitely. Thumping? Would Sam assume Dean was falling, or trying to solve something with his fists if he heard thumping?

Bright light, maybe. Dean had no idea how much Sam knew about angels – any angels, let alone these angels in particular – but the kind of light they gave off when weird things happened probably would have shown under the door. That would’ve gotten his attention.

He couldn’t hear their conversation after he closed the bathroom door. He was seriously tempted to sink back to the floor, put his head down, and just stare at the tile for a while. Closing his eyes for an extended period of time still wasn’t very appealing, but neither was moving.

In the end, though, he made his painful way back out into the main room. He’d gotten some water on his face, at least, and if he looked a little scruffy, well. He wasn’t dead. He thought they could all appreciate that.

“Dean!” Sam was beside him before he could make it more than a couple of steps. Castiel must have let him in. He was standing in the middle of the room, watching Sam put an arm around Dean’s waist.

“Hey,” Dean muttered, and it wasn’t exactly a complaint. He didn’t like being propped up, but he liked falling over even less. “I’m hungry.”

“We’re having a late dinner,” Sam told him. “What do you want?”

Dean reached out to wave a hand in Castiel’s direction as they passed, but he missed and his hand landed on Castiel’s arm instead. “C’mon,” he said. “Not letting you out of my sight.”

Very well, he thought. He probably thought it because it was what he wanted Cas to say.

Castiel frowned, but he followed them to the door and Dean eventually remembered to let him go. “Cheeseburger,” he said. “And pie. Don’t forget the pie.”

Sam huffed a laugh. “Yeah,” he said. “Why do I bother asking. You want to eat up here?”

“What am I, an invalid?” Dean grumbled. “I’ll eat in the kitchen, like everyone else.”

It was only after he’d said it that he remembered no one else actually needed to eat. Except Sam, who’d been stuck in this fake lifestyle-magazine house all day and would have been lucky if he’d found anything normal enough to snack on. Let alone make a meal of.

“I should return to Rachel,” Castiel said.

Dean’s fingers clenched on nothing. “Dude,” he said. “What did I just tell you.”

He could picture Castiel raising his eyebrows without having to turn. “That you will eat in the kitchen,” Castiel replied.

“That you’re not leaving my sight,” Dean snapped. Maybe more irritably than he needed to. “Make Rachel come here.”

Not that he really wanted her around. It was probably kind of an obnoxious thought, but he was allowed to have those. They were supposed to be private, after all.

“Dean,” Sam said. “Try to be less of a jerk.”

“Shut up,” Dean retorted. “Shouldn’t you be getting the food?”

“Oh, you think you can walk on your own?” Sam didn’t sound impressed, which was wrong, because hello. Dean was completely impressive. “You walk downstairs by yourself, and I’ll go get the food.”

“Hello,” Castiel said calmly. “This is the Castiel residence. I require a delivery.” Dean managed to crane his neck far enough that he could see Castiel holding a cell phone to his ear, adding, “Someone else will relay the order for me.”

They hadn’t made it to the stairs yet, and Castiel made the handoff to Sam look almost planned. Sam shrugged a little, trying to resettle Dean’s hand on his shoulder while he used his own to hold the phone. “Hi,” he said, a little awkwardly. “Uh… can I get a couple of cheeseburgers?”

“And fries,” Dean said. “For the kids. Cas, are you paying?” It was rude to ask, yeah, but he’d had that kind of day. Screw polite and just say it.

“Of course,” Castiel said. “But the children do not require food.”

“Sure they do,” Dean said. “Sam, get fries and milkshakes for the kids. And chicken fingers, or nuggets, or whatever they have.”

Sam was talking over him, but they were good at that. He was already saying, “Okay, great, yeah. A couple of cokes and five large fries. Uh, seven milkshakes? I dunno, vanilla? Small.”

“You want anything?” Dean asked Castiel.

“Do you have chicken tenders, or anything like that?” Sam asked. “Yeah, good. We’ll take five of those too. You don’t have salads, do you?”

“I want you to recover,” Castiel said. He paused beside them at the top of the stairs, looking out over the empty hall below.

“To eat,” Dean said. “Do you want anything to eat, Cas.”

“No,” Castiel said.

“What about your friends?” Dean asked, trying to ignore Sam ordering salad from the local fast food place. He had no idea who Castiel had called, but apparently they delivered, and that was good enough for him. “Balthazar? Rachel? They eat?”

“No,” Castiel repeated.

“Okay, whatever,” Dean muttered. He really wanted to sit down again. “Your loss.”

“What about pie?” Sam was saying, and Dean silently thanked him. The day might still be salvageable after all. “Yeah, sure. That’s fine.

“No, that’s all,” Sam added. “Okay. Thanks.”

He lowered the phone, thumbing it before he reached around Dean to hand it back to Castiel. “Twenty minutes tops. Thanks, man.”

That was twenty minutes too long for Dean, but at the rate they were going it might take most of that time just to get to the kitchen. He wasn’t looking forward to the stairs. It wasn’t even the pain, at this point, it was the exhaustion. And the random dizziness. He didn’t know what the hell that had to do with anything.

“You good?” Sam asked, his arm tightening around Dean again.

“I’m fine,” Dean gritted out. “Quit asking.”

Sam didn’t answer, and they got down the stairs without either of them killing the other, so Dean figured they were doing well. Castiel looked baffled by the entire exercise, which probably came from being a freaking soldier of god: he considered death a temporary inconvenience. Dean was guessing he didn’t have a great grasp of pain and fatigue.

I don’t think you weak.

Dean’s head jerked around, and he lurched against Sam just for a second. More startled than dizzy, because that wasn’t his imagination. He was hearing Castiel in his head again. He shouldn’t be able to, but he definitely hadn’t thought that himself.

Castiel stared back at him. You shouldn’t be able to hear me.

Dean scoffed. “Tell that to my head,” he said.

“Does it hurt?” Castiel asked. He actually sounded worried, and Dean had no idea what that meant. “Are you seeing things as well? The block is still in place, but it clearly isn’t functioning as intended.”

“Um, guys,” Sam said. “You know only half of this is out loud, right?”

“Whatever,” Dean said. “We’re all tired; it’s fine.”

Then, to Sam, he said, “Did you know they could read minds before? Because if you did, we need to have a serious talk about sharing. And no one wants that.”

“I didn’t know,” Sam said. “I swear.”

“Wait a second.” Dean didn’t want to let it go that easily, but Castiel was right there. “I wasn’t supposed to hear that? You’re thinking things at me that you don’t want me to hear; what’s that about?”

Castiel frowned. “You think many things that you don’t want me to hear.”

“And you hear them anyway!” Dean exclaimed. “What’s fair about that?”

“I was not aware that you expected things to be fair,” Castiel said.

“Great,” Dean said, and he knew he shouldn’t but his filter was just gone, buried under the shit that had gone down today. “Thanks for sharing your parenting wisdom. Is hugging an advanced class, or did you just decide they don’t require it?”

“Dean,” Sam hissed.

It was Castiel’s stare that really got him. The total lack of comprehension made him think of dads who handed a gun to their kid because they were scared of the monster in the closet. He couldn’t watch that, not again. He couldn’t be the one to reassure another seven kids that their dad cared about them, really, he just cared about something else more right now.

“Dean,” Castiel said, very evenly. “I am not your father.”

“Stay the hell out of my head,” Dean snapped.

“Guys!” Sam exclaimed. “Chill, okay? Dean’s right; it’s been a long day. We could all use food and some sleep. Some of us more than others,” he added, glaring at Dean.

“Shut the fuck up,” Dean muttered. “Walking wounded, here. I want a damn drink.”

“You’re not drinking around the kids,” Sam said. “Where are they, anyway? With Balthazar, you said? Where’s he?”

“In the kitchen,” Castiel offered. “The children are preparing a surprise for you.”

“What is it?” Dean asked immediately.

Castiel fixed him with an unfathomable look. “It’s a surprise,” he said.

Of course it was. He tried not to think that if he still had his magical angel-whispering ability, he might know what it was. Because, for one thing, no he wouldn’t, and for another, he was the one pitching a fit about angel-whispering in the first place.

They all heard the doorbell, which proved that there was at least one place in the house it reached. Dean figured Castiel would have to wire it to the intercom or something, because obviously “Gary” wasn’t going to –

“Yeah, hello,” Gary’s voice said, and Dean would have looked at Castiel except he was already staring at him. Why was he still doing that?

More importantly, what the hell was Gabriel doing answering the door?

“Wait here,” that smirking voice instructed the visitor. “Don’t wander off, don’t break anything. Try not to do anything that would get the police called before I get back.”

That sounded awfully familiar. Did he really say the same thing to every person who knocked on Castiel’s door? How many people just “stopped by” a mansion, anyway?

“Hey, boss,” Gabriel called from the landing halfway up the stairs. “Rachel’s here. Front door and everything. You want me to send her in?”

“Gabriel,” Castiel said.

“Gary,” the man corrected. “Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Tick tock.”

“Yes,” Castiel said, after only the briefest hesitation. “Please let her in. And… thank you.”

“Sure thing.” The “butler” grinned down at them before disappearing again – not literally – and Dean wondered if “facsimile” meant “actual illusion” or if it just meant “human impersonation.”

“He let you in,” Castiel murmured, and Dean looked at him in surprise.

“What?” Sam asked. “Seriously, guys. Out loud.”

“That wasn’t –” Dean looked from Castiel to Sam and back again. “I didn’t get that either.”

“He made Rachel wait outside,” Castiel said quietly. “When Dean first arrived, he let him in while he alerted me.”

“Maybe he doesn’t like Rachel,” Dean said under his breath.

“Maybe he does like you,” Castiel countered, studying him again.

“I’m pretty sure I had to wait outside,” Sam said. “The first time I came to see you.”

“He doesn’t like me,” Dean said. “He said so the first day. He probably just let me in to keep an eye on me.”

“He spoke to you?” Castiel said. “Beyond his standard warning about law enforcement?”

Dean felt the corner of his mouth twitch. “He really says that to everyone, huh?”

Then Rachel’s voice came from the landing, saying Castiel’s name, and Dean was just some guy in the middle of an empty hall. Leaning on his brother because he couldn’t stand on his own. All of Castiel’s attention was on Rachel.

“The archangels want Michael back,” she was saying. “They will accept his word as the voice of our father, but only if he is there to deliver it.”

“Faith is accepting more than what is right in front of you,” Castiel said.

“I have faith,” Rachel said. Her gaze flickered to Dean. “I’m only telling you what the archangels are saying.”

Dean thought that was a terrible excuse, but it was overwhelmed by the thought that Castiel might not have told her. That was crazy, right? It had to be crazy. They were angels, they had a psychic connection, what one of them knew everyone else knew pretty much instantly.

Except Castiel was behind some kind of shield. And Rachel was staring at him like maybe she wasn’t supposed to be. She looked back at Castiel as soon as Dean caught her eye, and he thought, No way.

“I’m sure Michael is aware of the situation,” Castiel said.

Which didn’t help at all, because Rachel looked down at the floor and nodded. Just once. Like she was bowing. “Of course,” she said. And then, “Forgive me. I should return to heaven.”

Yeah, Dean thought. So I can ask your friend here just what the hell he’s doing.

“We’re having dinner,” Castiel said. “Perhaps you would care to join us.”

What, Dean thought, as clearly as he could. Are you doing.

“Of course,” Rachel repeated. And that was all she said, looking from one of them to the other – even Sam – like she was waiting for instruction. The skepticism from the day before was completely gone.

He couldn’t help noticing she looked more wary than starstruck, though. Apparently archangels ruled by fear. Heaven must be a charming place.

We need to talk, Dean thought, as loudly as he could.

“Sam,” Castiel said smoothly. “Would you mind showing Rachel to the kitchen?”

So he did know how to be polite. Dean wondered where Castiel got his particularly human phrases from. Most of the time he was too blunt or awkward or just off, somehow. Just strange enough to stick out. But occasionally he came out with something that was so easy it made the rest seem eccentric rather than out of place.

“You good?” Sam asked, before he pulled away. He said it quietly, but everyone could hear him.

“Yeah,” Dean muttered. He was good, he was fine, how many times did he have to say it? Except Sam didn’t have to be here, and Dean wasn’t going to tell him it mattered, so instead he managed, “Thanks.”

“Sure,” Sam agreed, like he heard everything else Dean meant even now. He let go of Dean and stepped away without making it look like he was just waiting for Dean to fall, but he did give Castiel a glare that Dean read loud and clear: Don’t mess him up.

Dean wasn’t sure Castiel got the message, but whatever. It was a brother thing.

“Hi,” Sam said, giving Rachel a smile. “I’m Sam. Dean’s brother.”

She eyed him. “Rachel,” she said, and hey, that was nicer than she’d been to Dean the day before. Probably because she was scared of Michael, Dean told himself. Not because Sam was cooler than him or anything.

“The kitchen’s this way,” Sam was saying. “I think Balthazar’s in there with the kids.”

“Yes,” Rachel said.

Castiel turned away from them, stepping closer to Dean as he did it. Dean couldn’t tell if he was actually encouraging human-style secrecy, or if he just thought Dean might need extra support without Sam to lean on. Either one was more physically aware than he’d ever seen Castiel be before.

“You want something to eat?” he heard Sam ask. “We ordered for us and the kids, but Castiel didn’t think you’d want anything.”

Dean heard Rachel reply, “I don’t require food,” before he realized Castiel was staring at him again. Right, like he was the crazy one here. Castiel was letting his friends think he had an archangel babysitting his half-human angel babies.

“Dude,” Dean hissed, glaring back at him. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Castiel’s voice was an angry whisper with the emphasis in all the right places. “I think I’m protecting my family.”

Dean could only stare. Just like that, all the fight went out of him, because yeah. He got that. “Okay,” he muttered, trying not to look over his shoulder. He was so going to hell for this. “What do you want me to do?”

He thought Castiel looked surprised, but geez, why? It was his idea.

“If you could refrain from swearing to God,” Castiel said at last. “That would be helpful. Otherwise, your usual behavior should suffice.”

Dean raised an eyebrow at him. He didn’t think he had to say anything, and not because Castiel could read his mind. He’d never been accused of being an angel.

Castiel actually shrugged. “You’re in disguise. ‘Gary’ has never behaved in a particularly reverent manner. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

He had a point there. Which led to a lot of other questions, really, but Dean figured now wasn’t the best time. Not least because he was starving. Seriously, the last time he’d eaten had been yesterday.

“There’s food in the kitchen,” Castiel said.

“Okay,” Dean said. “Get rid of that thing. The wall in my head; I’m tired of it.”

Castiel stared at him. “The block that shields you from our perception is the only thing keeping you conscious.”

“You think,” Dean countered. “Just do it.”

If there was one thing angels were good at, it was taking orders. Dean was gonna have to learn not to argue with them the way he argued with Sam, because hey. When he put his foot down? Castiel caved.

And the room fucking exploded.

He didn’t know how much time passed before he felt the floor grinding into his knee. The roaring in his ears was obnoxious, but he thought he could hear Castiel’s voice through the melee. It wasn’t saying anything, which was weird, because what was he hearing?

The blinding whiteness eased a little when he looked up. Castiel had done that before, he thought: shielding him with his wings from the things he shouldn’t see. But hey, he was moving. He’d definitely lifted his head, and he could feel the floor underneath him, so that was a start.

This is not safe, he heard Castiel say. It was loud, hammering inside his head, and he could tell it was nothing more than a whisper. He could feel Castiel worrying, and he tried to smile.

“That’s more like it,” Dean said.

And he heard it. He could hear his own voice, even through the crush of sound, so he was doing way better than he had been when he’d crashed on Dani’s bed. He tried again: “We still alone?”

“Yes,” he heard Castiel say quietly. “The children have been instructed to keep Rachel and Balthazar in the kitchen. They’ve enlisted Sam’s help.”

Shit. He hadn’t even thought about how it would look, Castiel’s super-powerful archangel blind and deaf and mostly on the floor. Castiel wasn’t even pissed at him – he could tell, which was what he wanted, but it made him feel kind of crummy.

Crummier than he felt already with the riot of light and sound battering at his brain.

Sorry, he thought, because he didn’t want to say it out loud.

I can hear you, Castiel replied.

He tried not to wince. He heard that, no question, and he didn’t know what it meant even with the angel-whispering switch flipped to on. He heard himself say, “That’s as quiet as you can be, isn’t it.” Which was really unnecessary, all things considered.

“Yes,” Castiel answered anyway.

His voice was different, Dean thought. Worried, yeah, and not just for Dean. Maybe not even mostly for Dean. But at the same time it seemed less… strained.

The block really was draining him.

“How much longer could you keep doing that?” Dean blurted out. The white was melting into lines, wings and color and he didn’t need three guesses to know what he was looking at. It had to be a sign of how tired he was that he thought Castiel looked prettier like this.

“I don’t know,” Castiel said, and hey, he knew what Dean was talking about. Score one for angel-whispering. “I’m not trying to keep secrets from you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not trying to be a jerk.” Dean reached out, stupidly curious, and there it was. His hand hit something soft and all the light he could see shivered. “Is this you?”

“Dean,” Castiel whispered. “If you touch me, everyone will know.”

Dean jerked his hand away, because wow. Way to make it sound like Dean was molesting him.

…Was he molesting him? What Dean knew about angels would fit on an index card. A small, one-sided index card. Maybe sticking a hand into the middle of their freaky lightshow was a huge violation.

In which case, Dean was gonna need a lot more detailed instructions before he was around the kids again.

You’ve done nothing wrong, Castiel said silently. The hint of amusement carried with the words was enough to make Dean close his eyes.

Nothing changed.

His eyes snapped open, because what the fuck. The room was exactly the same. Closing his eyes didn’t do any good, and he kind of remembered that but he’d written it off as a hallucination. He could see with his eyes closed.

You’re seeing as I see, Castiel said, the words drumming against the side of his skull. There was a funny kind of fondness that came with them, and Dean put his hands over his ears but of course it didn’t do any good.

This is what you object to? Castiel’s voice continued. Curious. Relentless. Not the intrusion, but the attention? Affection?

“Stop it,” Dean gasped. “Stop. Cas, stop.”

Darkness fell across his vision like coming in from the outside. It was heavy and thick and it muffled everything. Everything important: Castiel’s voice, his wings, the colors that made his eyes water and the feeling that he knew what an angel was thinking.

“That’s hard for you,” Dean said, the words dragging through a suddenly dry throat. Holding that line was harder than he’d ever realized. “I didn’t get how hard it is.”

He could see Castiel shrug, dimly. Just his human form, shoulders lifting in a way that shouldn’t look so normal on him. The cascading light of his wings was invisible to Dean once more, and he hated how dark everything looked without it.

“I’m stronger than you,” Castiel said simply. “I can keep you separately within our defenses for some time yet.”

Hours, he’d said before. A few hours. Given the kind of abuse Dean had seen him take, anything Castiel could only maintain for hours had to be an unbelievable strain.

“Sorry,” he said aloud. Because Castiel deserved that much. “I shouldn’t have asked you to do that.”

“No,” Castiel agreed. “But it did prove that you’re recovering. You were able to withstand the psychic pressure and still remain conscious. That’s very promising.”

“Yeah,” Dean said, eyeing him. From anyone else, it would have been condescension. But from Castiel?

Castiel was down on the floor with him. Actually kneeling, where Dean had managed to keep one foot under him, his arms braced hard against his knee to keep from going over. He had no idea how Castiel could balance like that for so long. Castiel’s wings were spread – Dean knew even without being able to see them anymore – but they weren’t real. They weren’t, what was it, corporeal. Right? They shouldn’t be able to hold him up?

He flies, Dean reminded himself. He fucking flies on those wings. They can do more than you think.

The doorbell rang.

Dean swore silently. He needed to be up, and he needed to be up now. On his feet, like a normal human being. Not like someone who would buckle under the overflow of magical angel vision.

“You brought food,” Gabriel’s voice said. “One hundred bonus points for you. Here, have a tip.”

“Can you stand?” Castiel asked, very quietly.

“Can you?” Dean grumbled, pushing against his knee. He forced himself to his feet and it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as he’d expected, but he wasn’t sure he dared help Castiel.

“My concern for you is not intended as an affront to your capability,” Castiel murmured. He stood without seeming to try. “You told the children you think I’m strong, but I don’t think you’d like to see me tested.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dean hissed.

At the same time, Gabriel called, “Food’s here! I’m not your delivery boy, so come and get it!”

That had to be directed at them. Someone in the kitchen probably wouldn’t have heard him, and Dean was sure Castiel had volunteered “Gary’s” services when he thought Dean might have more to carry than just a duffel bag. Which meant Gabriel knew where they were, and probably way too much about what they were discussing.

It didn’t stop Castiel from saying, “It means that I will care for you as I wish, Dean Winchester, and short of your resignation, your troubled human history will not stop me.”

Dean stared at him. Castiel gazed back, unruffled, maybe waiting for him to look away. He didn’t. So they kept standing there, and Dean thought this was the one thing that looked pretty much the same. Apparently Castiel didn’t spend much time staring at his own face, because whether Dean did or didn’t have angel vision, those eyes were still blue.

“Yo.” Gabriel’s voice was suddenly much too close. “He’s not actually an angel, bro. And falling for a human is painful all the way around.

“Trust me,” Gabriel added, smirking when Dean turned to glare at him. “I know.”

Castiel didn’t seem startled by the interruption, but when did he? “Did you love a human, Gabriel?” He either didn’t remember or didn’t care about protecting the archangel’s identity. Maybe both.

Gabriel scowled at him. “That’s Gary to you, kid. And none of your goddamned business.”

So, yes, Dean thought. So what? Really not relevant.

On the plus side, it looked like he didn’t need to worry about censoring his swears.

“You’re welcome to join us,” Castiel said. He moved to take the box from Gabriel, and Dean wasn’t chivalrous but seriously. That suit. Which Castiel could clean with the power of his mind, Dean reminded himself as he intercepted the box.

Whatever. It was food, it was his. End of story.

He didn’t remember until he was almost to the kitchen that it could have been the beginning of something very embarrassing if he’d stumbled. But hey, here he was: walking. On his own. While carrying something, no less.

It didn’t take much to remember Castiel saying, I’d heal you if I could, and draw the obvious conclusion. His headache was gone. Not partway, not mostly, but gone. Completely. And he was definitely walking like someone who walked again, which was even better than the missing headache.

He glanced back to see Castiel talking to Gabriel, low and intent, the way he talked to Rachel. Okay, the way Dean imagined he talked to Rachel. It didn’t mean anything, and it wasn’t like he had any right to care.

Sam had gotten the kids to set out plates and silverware on the counter. Dean found that kind of hilarious, considering what they were eating. It was still nothing next to the blank expressions on the faces of their angel guardians. Rachel and Balthazar looked like they were witnessing some kind of weird science project: they weren’t sure what it was, and they didn’t know whether they should be enthusiastic or alarmed.

Culture wars, Dean thought. They started at home.

“Hey,” he said, maybe a little too loudly. Maybe it just sounded loud because they were whispering, which was weird but he didn’t get why at first. “Food’s here.”

“Okay,” Sam said, also too loud while Dean set the food down on the island. “Everyone get a plate.”

Dean raised his eyebrows at Sam, who smiled innocently. Because making anyone use plates to eat fast food was totally normal. “Hey, Dean,” he said. “Where’s Castiel?”

The kids were silent again, and that was when Dean got it. They didn’t usually whisper out loud. The whispering had been weird because he could hear it. Now it was just the shush of their movements through the kitchen, which was less ninja-like than he was used to but they were carrying things. Maybe that made a difference.

“Talking to Gary,” Dean said. He shot a look at Rachel and Balthazar, who were both studying him with disconcerting intensity. Apparently the staring thing wasn’t just a weird quirk of Castiel. “What were you guys up to in here?”

“We were making you something,” Saph chirped, then instantly looked chastened. “Except I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.”

Right, his surprise. He’d forgotten about it already. “Didn’t hear a thing,” he assured Saph, trying not to be too obvious as he glanced around the kitchen. It looked the same as always. On the other hand, the “surprise” did explain the smug expression on Sam’s face.

“I said we’re making you something,” Saph told him. “Except I think I wasn’t supposed to tell you, because Maribel says –”

Maybe it was the fact that he was grinning at her, but she actually stopped what she was saying to frown at him. “What? Did I say something funny?”

He couldn’t tell if she sounded more like him or Cas in that moment. “Yeah,” he admitted, because it wasn’t like she couldn’t tell. “In a good way. It’s funny ’cause when I said I didn’t hear you, I was just pretending I hadn’t heard so that you wouldn’t get in trouble for telling. But you’re so –”

A dozen half-formed words flashed through his head, and he rejected them all. “Honest,” Dean concluded, “that you told me again. That’s pretty awesome of you.”

“Oh,” she said. Like she still didn’t really get it, but she was glad to be awesome. “That’s good.”

“Do I get a plate?” Dean asked, because he figured the answer was “yes.”

“Oh yes!” Saph exclaimed. “We all have plates. Except for Rachel and Balthazar, because they aren’t going to eat anything.”

Still asking the wrong question, he thought, and he was more amused than annoyed with himself this time. “Where’s my plate?” he asked, unstacking the cardboard cup holders and setting them out on the island. “Everyone take a cup; that’s your ice cream.”

“Your plate is on the counter,” Saph said, reaching for one of the cups. “Can I give Dani her cup?”

Because Dani couldn’t reach, and apparently Saph thought they were only allowed to take one. Dean had just opened his mouth to say yes when Maribel further complicated the instruction by observing, “There are only seven cups.”

“Yes,” Dean told Saph. “You can give Dani her cup, and when I said ‘everyone’ I meant ‘all the kids.’” His and Sam’s drinks didn’t fit in the holders, so he set one next to the box and held the other one out to Sam.

That was when he saw Sam’s expression. Seriously? he asked silently, and Dean shrugged. Angel English was more literal than normal language.

Sam took his drink without actually saying anything, so Dean figured that was a win.

“Okay,” he said, pulling out a mess of fry cartons and scooping a couple of loose fries into his mouth at the same time. “Here, anyone who has a plate, hold it out.” He could feel Sam glaring at him for talking with his mouth full, but whatever.

This got him seven plates: four extended over the island, one to his left and two to his right. Saph and Dani couldn’t really see where they were reaching, so he gave them fries first. “Perfect snack food,” he said, splitting one carton between them and then stealing back some of Dani’s for his own plate. “Okay, it’s not, it’s bad for you, so don’t eat too many.”

“Says the fast food king,” Sam complained, reaching around him to start distributing the rest of the fries. He split the next carton between Adamel and Wildfire, so Dean went with it. Half a carton to each kid.

“Why should we eat it if it’s bad for us?” Saph wanted to know, already chewing on one of her fries. She wasn’t the only one, either: they were all obediently eating french fries, and Dean realized his mistake.

“You don’t have to eat them,” he said quickly, and then, when no one stopped he added, “Guys, listen. Don’t eat because I told you to, okay? Just try one, and if you like it, you can have more. If you don’t like them, don’t eat them.”

Maru frowned across the island at him. “I don’t know whether I like them or not.”

“Then you probably don’t,” Dean told him. “Try the milkshake. Same rules: if you don’t like it, don’t eat it.”

“These are the milkshakes?” Maribel asked quietly, holding up her cup. And hey, look at her, making a statement into a question. Fast learner.

“Yeah,” Dean said. “It’s like… partly melted ice cream.”

“Also not that great for you,” Sam put in. “But it’s okay as long as you don’t have them for every meal. Dean.”

“Dude, when was the last time you saw me with a milkshake?” Dean countered.

“I can’t believe you’re trying to teach them like/dislike with fast food,” Sam complained. “Couldn’t you give them some fruit or something?”

“They already eat fruit,” Dean told him. “What if they go on a field trip and the bus stops at a burger joint? They should know what they like.”

“Their school bus isn’t going to stop at a burger joint,” Sam said, and okay. That was probably true.

“All the more reason they should be exposed to it at home,” Dean said. “We’re just filling in the gaps in their education.”

He almost said something when he saw Saph breaking a french fry into pieces and dropping it into her milkshake, but he closed his mouth and gave her a chicken nugget instead. He hated to think what she was going to do with that. On the other hand, he wanted them to see what they liked, so. If they liked fried food covered in ice cream, that probably just showed how good their taste was.

“Burger,” Sam said, handing it to him. “There’s pie, too, but you might want to wait.”

Dean paused in the act of opening the last box of chicken nuggets. “Why would I want to wait for pie?” he asked. It was totally beyond him.

“Just trust me,” Sam said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Eat your burger.”

Sam brought their plates over, which was the only thing that kept him from dumping his wrapper on the island. He would have anyway, except putting it on his plate meant that his plate couldn’t be used for anything else, which made Sam roll his eyes. Dean smirked, fishing the last of the fries out from under the wrapper before pushing the whole plate away.

“Dean,” Castiel said.

He didn’t jump, but only because he made a habit of hiding his surprise as much as possible. The damn angels could sneak up on him again, and he almost wished he hadn’t had a day to forget how annoying that was. “Yeah,” he said, but he swallowed first, because Saph was already showing signs of imitating his terrible table manners.

There was a pause. He almost turned around, but finally Castiel asked, “Are you feeling better?”

That was when he knew he should have looked at him, but it was too late now because Maia was asking if she could have another chicken nugget and Maru was eyeing Wildfire’s neglected milkshake and Dean was pretty sure Dani would have asked to try some of his burger if she was speaking. Really the only one Sam was qualified to deal with was Maia.

“Yeah, Cas,” Dean said over his shoulder. “You want something to eat? Guys, don’t take each other’s food without asking,” he added, just as a pre-emptive blanket statement.

Dani tugged on his t-shirt, and he knew what she was going to ask but he was busy snatching a ketchup packet away from Adamel before he did something truly regrettable with it. “Don’t eat things that are still in the wrapper,” he said, ripping the top open and squirting the ketchup over Adamel’s french fries.

“Dean,” Maru said. “May I have Wildfire’s milkshake?”

“Your burger is still in its wrapper,” Adamel said.

Dani tugged again, and Dean said, “Ask each other before you take their food; Maru, ask Wildfire. I’m not eating the wrapper, I’m only eating the burger. Maribel, could you get Dani a stool?

“Yeah, kiddo?” he added, stepping back to look down at Dani.

Unfortunately, Castiel was standing right behind him. Obviously the kids got their ninja ways from him, because Dean hadn’t had any idea he was that close. “No,” Castiel said, hands closing around his arms to steady him when he tried to lurch away. “I’m not hungry. And I’m not sure this is conducive to your recovery.”

It wasn’t like he could actually shrug Cas off, and it was lucky for him that he remembered before he tried. Dani was staring, wide-eyed as ever from him to her dad and back again. Like maybe she had done something wrong by trying to get his attention.

“It’s totally conducive to my recovery,” Dean said. “This burger is awesome.”

“You’ve had two bites of it,” Castiel said. “The children should not require your constant intervention.”

The kitchen was suddenly very quiet. Even Sam looked around when Maia stopped answering him, and that was when Dean noticed that Balthazar was gone. He didn’t really have a moment to spare to think, Good riddance, but he did anyway. It was just Rachel standing there by the refrigerator.

Watching.

“Cas,” Dean said, as evenly as he could. “They’re children. They require intervention.”

“They would not need to be supervised if you hadn’t directed them to engage in a purely human activity for which they are largely unprepared,” Castiel said.

“You’re raising them in a human world,” Dean snapped. “They need to know how to deal with food.”

He could feel Castiel’s fingers tighten on his arms – not painful, not yet, but noticeable. He had no idea what that meant. It wasn’t like Castiel communicated through touch. He barely communicated with language, Dean thought, and it was rude but it was supposed to be private. He was sorry if they could overhear every damn thought he had but that wasn’t his fault.

“I don’t feel that the children’s education is a currently our top priority,” Castiel said.

“Oh, right,” Dean said, before he could stop himself. “Well, just tell them to stop learning anything until you’re ready to teach them again. That should work real well.”

“You’re deliberately aggravating me,” Castiel said. He sounded uncertain, which was better than reproachful but still a long way from apologetic.

“You’re pissing me off!” Dean retorted. “Talking to your kids isn’t going to make me starve. Also, ow, let me go already. You’re cutting off my circulation.” He only said it because he figured Castiel would care, making it an effective if untrue complaint.

Castiel let go of him faster than he’d caught him in the first place. “I didn’t mean to injure you,” he said, and this time he did sound contrite.

“Then tell your kids it’s okay for them to keep eating,” Dean said. “Also, don’t argue in front of children; wasn’t that in your parenting school handbook?” He was probably a way worse offender, but hey, he wasn’t a dad. What did they expect?

“I didn’t go to parenting school,” Castiel said.

“Here,” Dean said, reaching for the remaining carton of fries. “Have a french fry.” He handed it to Castiel because it was that or walk away, and Castiel took it like it was some sort of waiver.

“You can have some of my milkshake,” Saph said. She sounded quiet and hopeful, and Dean thought she was the bravest kid in the room.

Don’t say no, Dean thought, as hard as he could. He stared at Castiel like that would help him hear what Dean wanted him to know. Don’t say no.

“Yes,” Castiel said slowly, still looking at Dean. He hadn’t eaten the french fry. “That would be… very nice.”

Saph beamed. Dean reached out and patted her ridiculously neat little ponytail, and she stepped forward, holding up her cardboard cup for Castiel to take. “It tastes good,” she assured him. “I like it.”

“You like it,” Castiel repeated, looking down at her with what was pretty clearly surprise. His expression was thoughtful, but Saph looked at Dean like she was worried about the surprise, too.

Like she was worried about the surprise, and she was looking to him for reassurance. Dean suddenly realized what he was doing and tried to bury the inevitable freakout for later. Saph was looking to him. She was looking like his opinion mattered, and fuck, what did he know about raising anyone, let alone baby angels?

What did Castiel know about it? It wasn’t like Dean was at a disadvantage; they were both equally clueless. And it was seven to two.

They were totally screwed.

“That’s a good thing,” Castiel was telling Saph, and somehow Maia was talking to Sam again. Maribel had snuck a stool up against the island while Dean wasn’t paying attention, which was what made Dean realize that Dani’s fingers were still clutching the bottom of his shirt, and when had everyone else decided they were okay?

He looked at Rachel, not because she mattered, except that she totally did because he figured she’d be the first one to betray them if Castiel actually went native. And also he had no idea where Balthazar had gone, so he thought maybe she would have disappeared too.

Rachel was staring back at him.

“Dean,” Dani whispered, and somehow he heard her over Sam and Saph and Wildfire, who was telling Maru to give her milkshake back now. He tried not to watch Castiel look from the french fry to the cup like he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with either of them, but it was a losing battle even as he patted Dani’s shoulder absently.

“Yeah, kiddo?” he said.

Castiel ate the french fry first, glancing back at him, and Dean looked down at Dani quickly. “What’s up?” he said, even as she held up her plate.

Right. She was standing there, not even half as tall as everyone else, trying to hold her plate and her milkshake… she couldn’t eat at all, could she? Not without somewhere to set them down.

“Here,” Dean said, reaching down. At the last minute he remembered not to do it for her. “You want to sit at the island? We can clear a space for you.”

She nodded, so he leaned over and elbowed Castiel. “Shove over,” he said. “Your daughter wants to sit there.”

“Don’t imitate that,” Sam told Maru. “Dean’s not polite. You can only get away with that if the other person really likes you.”

“I’m plenty polite,” Dean interrupted, even though he knew Sam was having some sort of conversation with Maru and Wildfire about the milkshakes. “Cas, am I polite?”

“I suspect not,” Castiel replied. He’d gotten out of the way anyway, and when he put Saph’s straw in his mouth and sucked, Dean’s protests dried up.

“Yeah, see?” Sam said. “Listen to your father.”

“Father likes Dean a lot,” Wildfire observed. The only thing that saved Dean from utter embarrassment was the fact that she looked at Maru and added, “I would like you more if you returned my drink when I asked for it.”

“You said I could have it,” Maru said.

Dean looked at Sam while he put the box on the floor – he took the pie out first, no matter Sam’s warning – and pushed his and Saph’s plates out of the way. “Here you go,” he said, pulling the stool Maribel had retrieved over to the edge of the island. “You want a boost up?”

Dani nodded again, so he reached down and scooped her up. She held onto both her plate and her cup without being told. He was ready for the french fries to spill when she lost her balance, but they didn’t, and he figured that marked her as an angel kid more than anything.

Sam was totally handling the discussion over “mine” and “not mine,” which Dean thought was pretty good considering none of the kids really seemed to own anything other than school supplies. And maybe clothes. The jury was still out on the clothes, as far as Dean was concerned. He’d never liked shopping, but he was about ready to turn the kids loose in a department store and tell them all to pick something.

With their dad’s credit card, of course.

“Dean,” Adamel said. “Are the chicken tenders yours?”

Dean decided to ignore the way Sam had turned them into “tenders” instead of “nuggets,” because really. One battle at a time. “Nah,” he said. “Got ’em for you guys. Just make sure everyone gets some if they want ’em.”

“Dean,” Dani murmured, just as he took another bite of his burger. Cas was right, not that he would admit it. It could take him the rest of the night to eat the thing, at this rate. “Is that burger yours?”

Oh, god. The kicker was that what one of them learned, they all learned. So it wasn’t like they got to mess up with one and then fix it with the others. He really hoped Sam knew that he was talking to all of them.

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing another bite. He drew the line at burger-sharing. “We’ll get another one next time for you to try, if you want.”

She nodded. If she was disappointed, Dean couldn’t tell, but he let Sam slip his pie into the refrigerator without complaint. Burger-sharing was one level of no. Pie-sharing was two or three times less acceptable: nothing was going to threaten his pie.

The french fries went faster than the chicken nuggets. Dean didn’t know what that said about the kids, except maybe that they really weren’t hungry? Or maybe they just liked french fries better? Geez, he was trying to analyze something that probably had no logic whatsoever.

He did know that all the milkshakes disappeared, even if he wasn’t totally sure who drank what. Luckily for his ability to focus, Castiel handed Saph’s back to her pretty quickly, but Dean figured he still set a good example. He could feel Cas hovering the entire time he ate, and he tried to think appreciative thoughts instead of bitchy ones for a change.

Who knew how well that went – it wasn’t like he had a lot of practice.

Rachel stood there and watched them the whole time, which was weird, but Dean was starting to expect that here. At one point Wildfire carried her plate over to Rachel and offered it to her, and Rachel stared at her like she was more insane than the rest of them. Wildfire glanced back at Dean, who stopped glaring at Rachel long enough to smile.

When Wildfire came back to the island, she stood on the other side of Dean and helped Saph and Dani sneak fries from the middle when Maru “wasn’t looking.” Dean thought angels were probably always looking, but the game seemed to amuse them and Maru pretended to ignore them, so he wasn’t gonna object.

Sam started to clean up as soon as the food was gone. Dean helped, and for the first time, Maribel started to do the same. As soon as she helped, Adamel did too, and then all the kids were dumping empty cartons and cups back into the box they’d been delivered in.

“Hey,” Dean said, mostly because he was too surprised to think of anything else. “Nice job.”

“Dishwasher?” Sam asked, looking around. “Oh, right. You guys want to pass your plates this way?”

He didn’t comment on how clean the dishwasher was. Dean didn’t know if that was because he was too “polite,” or if it wasn’t weird at all. Maybe Dean was just used to dirtier stuff than he was.

Sam’s dishwasher was probably spotless, Dean thought.

He didn’t notice when Castiel and Rachel disappeared, but they were totally going to talk about that. They knew how to use doors. He had proof; he’d seen them do it. What was with the randomly flitting off?

He cornered Maribel while Sam was trying to explain why plates were supposed to go on the bottom of the dishwasher instead of the top. “Hey,” Dean said quietly. “You know where your dad is?”

Maribel paused as soon as he spoke, which he figured meant she was getting used to his kind of conversation. “Yes,” she said. Which he figured meant, not that used to it.

Still. The knowing was the important part. “Is he with Rachel?” Dean asked.

“Yes,” Maribel said. Then, surprising him, she added, “He’s okay.”

“Yeah?” If it was that obvious that he was worried, he was probably in trouble. He wanted to ask if she could pass a message, except what would he even say? “Would you be able to tell if he was alone?”

“Yes,” Maribel repeated.

“You want to let me know?” he said gruffly. It was such a stupid thing to ask that he couldn’t bring himself to be literal. It was too embarrassing.

Maribel managed to get it anyway, and it was possible that he didn’t want to know how. “I’ll tell you if Father is alone,” she said. “Is that your intent?”

“Yeah,” he muttered. It didn’t even make sense when he asked for it out loud, and he wondered what good it would really do. It wasn’t like he could go to heaven and drag Castiel back. What would he even say? He didn’t know how he’d come up with something the first time.

“Thanks,” Dean added, and Maribel nodded.

“You’re welcome,” she said, perfectly polite.

“Dean, where do you keep the soap?” Sam called.

Hell if he knew. “Uh, under the sink?” Dean guessed. It wasn’t like he’d actually tried to run the thing.

Sam pulled open one of the cupboard doors and made a noise like, Aha. Which was just weird, since Sam actually had a house. And appliances. Where did he keep his dishwasher soap?

Sam was asking if any of the kids gathered around him knew what setting the dishwasher usually ran on, and they were giving him the blank stare of doom with which Dean had become very familiar. Under his breath he said, “Maribel, do you guys ever wash your own dishes?”

“No,” she said immediately.

In case he wasn't being all-encompassing enough, he tried again. “Have you or your dad ever used the dishwasher?”

“No,” she repeated. “Kelly cleans any dishes that we use.”

Which sounded pretty impressive, except that it did occur to him they might not use as many dishes as he was picturing. “When there’s no one in the house with you, do you eat anything?”

“Yes,” Maribel said. “If someone’s given us something that Father expects them to ask about later. He says it’s important to give an honest and accurate report on other people’s cooking so that they know what to improve.”

“Uh-huh,” Dean said. He was gonna go out on a limb and guess that they weren’t the most popular neighbors on the block.

And also, no. They probably didn’t eat a whole lot.

By the time Sam got the dishwasher going, Maia had confirmed that Saph was right when she said they had homework every night. Even on days when they hadn’t actually been to school. Dean was honestly too tired to ask what the homework was, and also, he wasn’t going to interfere with whatever education they were getting. So.

They watched the kids troop upstairs, and Sam said, “Homework? Really? It’s gotta be past Dani’s bedtime.” His voice was nowhere near quiet enough.

“I told you,” Dean said, because he hadn’t but he knew Dani had done it for him. “Midnight. They go to bed at midnight.”

“That can’t be enough sleep,” Sam said with a frown.

“They don’t sleep,” Dean said bluntly. “You want to stick around a while longer?”

He didn’t realize until later, when Sam shook him awake on the couch to say goodnight, that he was trying to avoid recreating the night before. He was halfway through getting up before Sam pushed him back down, smacking him with a pillow in the face when he tried to protest. “Don’t even get up,” Sam said. “I’m going. I can let myself out. Go back to sleep.”

Which meant that Sam thought he needed the sleep, because any normal person would have tried to make Dean go to bed. But Sam wasn’t normal, and he knew his freak of a brother too well. If Dean got up, it would be hours before he willingly laid down again.

“Whatever,” Dean muttered, pushing the pillow away. The couch was kind of comfortable. He just didn’t want to look around and see Castiel on the floor again.

“Seriously,” Sam said. “What’ll it take?”

Dean wanted to say, More than you’ve got, and he knew that was what Sam expected. But really: what was he gonna do? Go upstairs and annoy the kids? Haunt the kitchen in a crazy attempt to catch Kelly?

Pray?

“Turn off the TV,” Dean grumbled, letting his head fall back against the cushions. And then, partly because it was still funny and partly because he wasn’t a total bastard, he said, “Tell your girl ’m sorry for keeping you out so late.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. He clicked the TV off. “Call me tomorrow, okay?”

“Sure thing, Mom.” Dean closed his eyes again, following the sound of Sam’s fussing. The kid eventually found his way to the door, and Dean listened to him grapple with the locks before finally freeing himself.

Should have sent him through the garage, Dean thought. Faster.

Where was Gabriel, he wondered?

The next time he opened his eyes, Castiel was sitting on the couch next to him.

Castiel looked over at him the moment he lifted his head. The lights were off, but Dean thought he could see anyway. Just Castiel.

Because he was sort of glowing, Dean realized. He tried to sit up, and Castiel didn’t move. He just watched. Dean had a bad feeling about his silence, especially combined with the glow.

“Hey,” he whispered. Because it seemed like the sort of silence you whispered in. “I don’t need the block when I’m sleeping, right?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel murmured, and he sounded totally burned out. “I’m afraid we’re going to find out one way or another.”

Castiel couldn’t hold it any longer. Dean was getting that loud and clear. Or maybe bright and clear, he thought distantly. “You can cut me out if you have to, right? I mean, I’m not asking for it, but worst case. Right?”

There was a pause, a longer hesitation than he was strictly comfortable with, but then Castiel said quietly, “I don’t want to.”

Dean tried to relax. Not as good a way to wake up as he’d thought at first, but hey. The man was still here. “Me neither,” he admitted without meaning to. “I mean,” he added, since it had to be said. “Don’t get me wrong. The mind-reading drives me crazy. But the wings are pretty –”

He fumbled for something other than damn cool. He came up with nothing, so he finished awkwardly, “Cool. I guess.”

“I understand,” Castiel said. Like he didn’t at all.

They sat in silence until the seconds bled into a minute and Dean had to ask. “You okay? I don’t see anything.” Except the glow, and yeah, he kept squinting at that. Was it getting brighter?

After the first minute, Dean was still pretty sure it wasn’t.

“it hasn’t completely broken down,” Castiel whispered. “I can keep it in place a little longer.”

“No,” Dean said, surprising himself with his vehemence. He didn’t need that on his conscience too. “Cas, come on. Let it go.”

“You should go back to sleep,” Castiel said softly.

“I’m getting farther from sleep the longer we talk about it,” Dean informed him. “Hit me, Cas. I can take it.”

He had no idea what the holdup was until Castiel said, “Why would you tell me to strike you?”

Dean stared at him in the not-darkness while all the things he wasn’t going to say clamored for attention in his head. He hoped Castiel couldn’t hear them. Because Castiel didn’t act like a child, he didn’t seem like a child, Dean didn’t think of him like that – and he really hoped it wasn’t just because of how he looked.

None of them acted like children, right? Wasn’t that why they were weird? But none of them understood what he was saying, either, and at the end of the day what separated Castiel from any of the kids?

“We are none of us children,” Castiel murmured. The strain in his voice was terrible. “But they are my responsibility. We are of different generations.”

“You’re older,” Dean blurted out. Probably by like, hundreds of years, geez, he didn’t even want to know. Why did it matter? Why was he thinking about this?

“By your reckoning,” Castiel whispered, and he sounded so rough it took Dean several seconds to figure out what he’d said. “I could put you to sleep, if you wish.”

He sounded sort of desperate, and Dean didn’t like it. “Just do it,” he said. “Stop with the –” He waved a hand around his head, figuring Castiel could see him better than Dean could see him. “You know. Wall, or whatever.”

The darkness around him started to crack, colors flaring sharp and bright. The air started to whisper. Dean braced himself for an onslaught that didn’t come: it all sort of melted together, like traffic signals in the rain. The shush of the wipers, the spill of reflected light… like he was driving and the night just opened up.

It is a positive association for you, Castiel whispered, and it actually sounded like a whisper even though it was louder than his voice and totally unmistakable as the words soaked into Dean’s thoughts.

There wasn’t really anything Dean could say to that. Nothing that wasn’t totally embarrassing. He liked seeing those stupid angel colors again? He liked knowing the kids were upstairs, not because they’d told him they would be but because he just knew?

He liked the possibility of hearing Castiel think?

He was dizzy. He barely noticed it until he tried to lift his head, which was when he knew he’d leaned back in the first place. It wasn’t as disorienting as it had been before dinner, maybe because he was sitting down, maybe because it was dark… less chance of double vision?

“Dean.” Castiel’s voice already sounded better, if worried, and seriously, was Dean going to be the invalid around this house forever?

He could almost hear Castiel changing what he’d been planning to say – he could hear it, and it made him smile. Castiel had been about to ask if he was all right, but Dean’s flash of irritation made him say, “You’ve had experiences like this before.”

It had been one rave, back when Sam was in school and Dean had gotten bored five minutes into his visit. And how much trouble could his kid brother’s hippie friends be, anyway? One of the cute ones invited him to a party and he’d figured, hey. A little music, a little pot, a little distraction while Sam ignored him in favor of frantic studying.

The location should have tipped him off. Beatniks didn’t hold parties in warehouses. Curiosity and an ingrained sense of weird had driven him in anyway. The pills had been stupid, he’d known that even at the time, but it wasn’t like he had a well-honed sense of self-preservation.

The lightshow had been fantastic.

“Would you tell me that story?” Castiel said quietly. “If I asked?”

He huffed out a laugh, because of course Cas had gotten some of that. “It’s not a great example of good decisions and personal responsibility.”

“I require no further examples of those things,” Castiel murmured. “You have shown both in excess in the brief time I have known you. I wish to know new things about you.”

“You don’t have to listen to Sam, you know,” Dean blurted out. “He’s kind of a bitch. I told him to stop setting me up with people.”

“I find Sam to be intelligent and insightful,” Castiel said mildly. “However, if you would prefer my attention to be less…” He trailed off, and Dean tried to remember if he’d ever heard Castiel just stop in the middle of a sentence before.

“To be less,” Castiel repeated at last, like that was what he wanted to say after all, “then I might…”

He paused again, and Dean couldn’t stand it. “I’m not that interesting, Cas.” Certainly not to a hundred-year-old angel with seven kids and what was apparently a celestial army at his command.

“On the contrary,” Castiel said. “You are one of a kind. I’m one of many designed to be exactly the same. I assure you, there is nothing about you less interesting than everything I know.”

Dean wasn’t totally sure what that meant: it was weirdly worded and mostly what it screamed was, Cas is arguing with me again. “You know, for a soldier of god, you’re kind of…”

It was his turn to be at a loss, and Castiel’s turn to jump in.

“Disobedient?” he said. “Yes. It’s been said.”

Dean blinked. “Not exactly what I was going for,” he said. “But okay.” And then he found he couldn’t let it go at that. “Wait, how are you disobedient?”

Castiel was only silent for a moment before he offered, “There’s something humans say… you’ll have to tell me if it’s inappropriate.”

He got the uncertainty, that part could have been his own. Was it an okay thing to ask, was he about to be struck by lightning, that kind of thing. But he also felt an odd kind of exhilaration. And, okay, he secretly thought it was cool that an angel found him interesting; he was totally not admitting that aloud. This was more than that, though: the sense that he was about to admit something, something he’d never put into words.

That feeling had to be Castiel’s.

And Castiel just asked, in all innocence, “Have you met me?”

That was it. That was what he’d never admitted. What Castiel had never admitted, maybe even to himself: that no one who knew him would be able to question that he was disobedient.

Dean chuckled, and he felt Castiel relax. Without looking, without hearing it, he felt a little of the nervous tension bleed out of Castiel’s form. It was nowhere near as strange as it should be. It felt like being able to see again after a day in darkness.

“I didn’t use it inappropriately, then.” Castiel sounded like he would have made it a question if he thought Dean would answer, but he was willing to take it for granted if he had to.

“No,” Dean said, smiling in the unlit room. “You nailed it.”

“So you understand,” Castiel said after a moment. “That everything I do…”

“Isn’t very angelic?” Dean finished for him. “I get that that’s where you were going with it. And I guess, yeah. I mean, you live in a mansion with a bunch of kids. I guess that’s not exactly how I pictured heaven.”

“I lead a rebel army against the forces of heaven,” Castiel said matter-of-factly. “I’m a fallen angel, Dean. Many of my brothers and sisters have compared me to Lucifer.”

There was no way to make that not a shock. Dean knew he had to answer; he could feel Castiel waiting. “Yeah, well, don’t sugarcoat it,” he muttered. What the fuck did he know about angel politics?

There was a long pause. It had been the wrong thing to say.

Knowing didn’t help.

“Did you want me to make that sound less disturbing?” Castiel asked at last. “I thought words alone diminished the true weight of the issue.”

Dean wanted to swallow but he couldn’t. He wasn’t sure what his voice would do when he tried to use it. “What do you want me to say?” he whispered. It was loud and embarrassing and he had no idea what they were doing. What he was doing, sitting in the dark of some stranger’s house while said stranger told him he was basically the devil.

“I don’t know,” Castiel said. He sounded surprised, like he hadn’t really thought about it.

Dean found himself almost smiling in spite of everything.

“I suppose I want you to say that I’m doing the right thing,” Castiel said after a moment. “There is no one left to tell me, and hearing it would be meaningful.”

Well, that was… painfully honest.

“I don’t know what you’re doing,” Dean said. “How am I supposed to know whether it’s right or not?”

“We’re not made to question,” Castiel said. “If you told me it was right, I would believe you.”

Dean closed his eyes. He thought he could actually see better that way, which totally defeated the purpose. He couldn’t really be here: sitting next to an angel who needed reassurance so badly he was willing to take it from anyone. An angel who’d been told he was the devil.

An angel human enough to give up his own life to keep his children safe.

Monster, Dean reminded himself. Attribute human motivation to him all you want, he’s still something else. His kids could be demon incubators. Maybe he wants them alive so they can destroy the world or something.

“You said you would accept a demon,” Castiel whispered.

He sounded fucking miserable.

“Shit,” Dean muttered, lifting his head off the back of the couch. “Cas, I didn’t mean it. The stuff that happens in my head, that’s just… I can’t control it. I think of everything, okay? Doesn’t mean I believe it all.”

He was staring at Castiel, at the sad trails of light that fell across the cushions. God damn, Dean thought. If this guy was the devil then he was the worst Satan ever. He bought his kids ice cream sandwiches to share with friends they didn’t even have.

The kids had been making him a surprise, Dean remembered suddenly. How had he forgotten about that? And they’d just gone off to their rooms like it was nothing; like they didn’t care if he didn’t.

“I told them not to keep you up,” Castiel murmured. “They can give it to you tomorrow.”

“Dude, they made it today,” Dean hissed. “Way to make them feel like it doesn’t matter!”

“You were tired,” Castiel said. “I couldn’t let you collapse in front of Rachel.”

Then you shouldn’t have invited her, Dean thought. He managed to keep himself from saying it, but he knew that wasn’t enough. Castiel could hear everything he thought.

Dean tried not to think about kissing him and failed completely.

“I’m sorry,” Castiel whispered. “I understand that you feel my parenting skills are inadequate. There are things I must do to ensure their physical safety, and sometimes those things are not as conducive to their development as I might wish.”

Was he politely ignoring the whole… Dean tried to stop thinking about Castiel, about all the things he didn’t want Castiel to hear him thinking. He was fine as long as he avoided it completely, as long as he didn’t think about what he was thinking. But as soon as he was aware of it, it was like being aware of his tongue. He couldn’t stop noticing it.

He couldn’t stop thinking about what he shouldn’t be thinking about.

“I’ll go,” Castiel said. “Will that make you more comfortable?”

“Dude, look, you gotta stay out of my head,” Dean said desperately. “It’s not – I’m not trying to be such a jerk. It’s just – I have enough trouble watching what I say, right? I’m not even good at that. I can’t stop what I think for anything, but I don’t mean it.”

He thought Castiel was confused. “I don’t know what you’re thinking,” he said. “You’re angry with me over the children, and about Rachel, and that’s all I understand. I don’t see that this warrants labeling you a jerk.”

“Well, okay,” Dean said, because if he could just think about something else he might be all right. “It kind of does, but the stuff about you being the devil was worse, right? I didn’t mean that. You’re doing what you have to; I get that.”

“I don’t have to do this,” Castiel said slowly. “I’m not... under orders. That’s what makes me disobedient.”

“No one has to follow orders,” Dean said. “They choose to.”

“Angels don’t choose,” Castiel told him. “To choose is to disobey.”

Dean stared at him in the dark. Castiel looked sad and lost but not beaten down. Like the weight that had been keeping Dean separate was gone. Like he was just him again… and being him was a lot less fun than it should be.

“Wow,” Dean said at last. “Choosing… anything?”

“Yes,” Castiel said.

“Anything at all,” Dean said. “If you choose what to eat for breakfast, that’s like… disobeying orders.”

“No,” Castiel said, which was a relief. He really didn’t want to think he’d been giving the kids a complex every time he asked them a question. “When we’re given a task, the execution of the task is left largely to us. We are not ordered to turn left instead of right, when to walk instead of fly. So long as we think only of expediency, we may make decisions without question.”

“Expediency,” Dean repeated. “You mean… you have to decide to walk because it’s smarter. Not because you just, like… want to. Or something.”

“We don’t want anything,” Castiel said. “Except to carry out our father’s will.”

“But you do,” Dean said. “You want your kids to live.”

“I take no pleasure in seeing any of my brothers or sisters fall,” Castiel said. He sounded stiff, like Dean had accused him of something by singling them out.

Okay. Dean knew when to back off. He wondered if Castiel had wanted to kiss him earlier, or if that had just been expedient.

Shit. He’d been doing so well not thinking about it, too.

“You’re thinking about kissing me,” Castiel said. Like it was a revelation.

Dean twisted on the couch, putting his elbow on the back so he could prop his head up. He still felt light-headed, but that could have been the embarrassment. “I told you to ignore what goes on in my head,” he grumbled.

“I believe you indicated a preference for this state,” Castiel said carefully, “based partially on the fact that it gives you better insight into what I’m thinking.”

He bit back the urge to say, That’s different.

“Am I incorrect?” Castiel added.

There wasn’t anything he could say to that. Because no, obviously. He wasn’t wrong. He also wasn’t embarrassed. Castiel didn’t think stupid things, so it was totally different.

“Dean,” Castiel said. “I assume you know why my thoughts are shielded from the rest of heaven.”

“So they won’t find out about your kids,” Dean said.

“Because there is no privacy in heaven,” Castiel said. “I am cut off from my brothers and sisters because if I were not they would hear everything I think. And vice versa.”

“Great,” Dean said, before he could stop himself. “Sounds terrible.”

“It’s all I knew,” Castiel said quietly. “My world has been much smaller since we parted ways.”

He was saying it for a reason, Dean got that. He just didn't get what it was.

Until he did.

“Quieter,” Dean said. “Your head’s quieter without them?”

“It’s desolate,” Castiel said. He didn’t sound broken up about it, but there was a lonely echo behind the words that made Dean shift uncomfortably. “There’s nothing where once there was everything. My children may never know the voices that gave my life meaning.”

Which had to be better than knowing it and losing it. Dean didn’t like the idea of a hive mind, but fuck, Cas let him fill the kids up with french fries and chicken nuggets when he obviously couldn’t see anything good about it. If he was going to listen to Dean about food, Dean could at least try when it came to telepathy.

“They, uh…” Dean had no idea where to go with that. “You think they miss it?”

“Only through me,” Castiel said. “They feel my longing for it, of course. But as they have never experienced it themselves –” He paused, then added, “I’ve heard humans say, ‘You can’t miss what you don’t know.’”

“Okay, so some of the time you just say shit,” Dean blurted out. “And other times you’re like, ‘humans say,’ and ‘you have this expression.’ How come sometimes you act like you know what you’re doing and sometimes you don't?”

It was clear Castiel hadn’t expected that. “I could ask the same of you,” he said at last. “Why are you certain of some things and not of others?”

Dean raised his eyebrows, which Castiel might not be able to see in the dark but he figured it didn’t matter. The guy probably knew more about how he reacted than he did. “Okay,” he admitted. “Good enough.”

Castiel sounded amused when he said, “I appreciate your approval.”

And the thing was, it should have been a joke. Dean even heard it that way at first, like his default assumption was that the world was mocking him. Except that Castiel had said I want you to say that I’m doing the right thing, and also signs of intimate affection are so hard to bear, and why couldn’t he stop thinking about that?

“Cas,” he said. “For what it’s worth… I think you’re doing a good thing here.”

There was absolute silence from Castiel.

Not even a thought, or a whisper of… anything. He might as well have disappeared. Except that Dean could see him still, sitting at the other end of the couch and staring back at him.

“I mean,” Dean added quickly, “I know, you just said –”

“Thank you,” Castiel said. He didn’t wait for Dean to finish, didn’t apologize for interrupting, and he didn’t continue. That was it. Thank you.

“Yeah,” Dean said. “Right. Uh. You’re welcome?”

Castiel didn’t answer.

On the other hand, what was he gonna say? What time was it, anyway? Dean tried to remember why they were sitting here, and all he could come up with was that he had fallen asleep when Sam left and…

He had no idea why Castiel was here.

He did; it was because of the thing. The block Castiel had put up to keep him from being overwhelmed by his crazy family. And now Cas was saying that something that loud was nothing to him, that it was like silence, and wow. Dean couldn’t do anything right.

Telling Castiel to stay out of his head was rude – if it was even possible – and letting him stay had to be just as bad: he didn’t really want to hear every stupid thing Dean thought, right?

“You could learn,” Castiel said, out of the blue.

Dean blinked at him.

“To control your thoughts better,” Castiel said. “If you’re interested. Some humans are very good at it.”

Dean tried not to hear that as you suck at it, because what else was he supposed to say? Some humans probably were good at it. Maybe it was even meant to be encouraging. But Sam was more about the visions than the mind-reading, so needing to think quietly around him had never been an issue.

“You don’t need to,” Castiel added. “I find nothing objectionable about the way you think. But you seem uncomfortable with it, and…” His wings did a funny thing, and Dean couldn’t help but stare. He didn’t continue, though, and it occurred to Dean that he’d never seen Castiel as bad with words as he’d been tonight.

Not that he was bad. Dean tried to think about it more positively, just in case. He’d never heard Castiel trail off when he was talking to the children, or to Sam, or to any of his angel friends. He only seemed to search for words when he was –

Well. When he was burned out and exhausted, bleeding all over the floor or slumped against the back of the sofa in the middle of the night. It wasn’t like Dean always saw him at his best. And hey, English probably wasn’t even his first language. Right? He probably spoke Angel or something.

“The children can hear you too,” Castiel said at last. “I think… sometimes you’re embarrassed by the things you think around me. Are you – would you have a similar feeling around them?”

Holy shit. And yeah, that was great, awesome, he was swearing in front of the kids without even meaning to. But it was way worse than that, and he wasn’t sure that was even what Castiel was implying: if he thought about climbing onto Castiel’s lap and kissing him back against the cushions, Castiel wasn’t the only one who would hear him.

“Oh, wow,” Dean groaned, turning his head into his hand to hide his eyes. They’d told him, hadn’t they. They’d warned him that even distance wouldn’t make a difference. “I am so screwed.”

“That seems unlikely,” Castiel said, and just for a second, Dean heard rejection disguised as a joke.

“No, right,” Dean said, squeezing his eyes shut behind his hand. Because geez, that was even worse; the guy could shoot down a proposition he hadn’t even made –

Except that Castiel was saying, “You meant something else by that, I think,” and he sounded uncertain, which meant that maybe he hadn’t been saying what Dean thought he was saying at all. And this might go on record as the most awkward conversation of all time.

“No,” Dean told his hand. “Nothing. I didn’t mean anything.”

When Castiel didn’t answer, Dean added, “I meant, yeah. You’re right. The stuff I don’t want you to know I’m thinking is stuff I don’t want them to hear me thinking either. You’re totally right.”

“I could teach you,” Castiel said. “Better discipline. Of the mind.” It was awkward and halting and Dean hated that the first thing he thought of when Castiel said “discipline” was definitely not telepathy.

Well, he didn’t hate it. He hated that Castiel could hear him think it. Even if he didn’t seem to understand what he was picking up on, and Dean was just fine with that. Hopefully no one else would get it either – but exposing the kids to this stuff was not okay, whether they understood it or not, so yeah. Maybe he should learn.

“How?” he asked. “I mean, how do you teach that?”

“By training your focus,” Castiel said, like it was the easiest thing in the world. “Look at me.”

Dean lifted his head without conscious thought.

“Now look away,” Castiel said.

Dean was pretty sure he’d played a sex game like this once. He was more curious about the next instruction than he was about remembering the game, so he looked away.

“Like that,” Castiel said. “When you can make your focus do what your eyes just did, you’ll be able to will your awareness in whatever direction you choose.”

Oh, right. Just like that.

“For instance,” Castiel said, and he sounded amused in a way that made Dean nervous, “you might try thinking of something other than skepticism. As a matter of practice.”

He thought of future Castiel, hot and flushed and stupidly gentle when he knelt on the bed next to Dean. It wasn’t a longterm solution, since thinking about Cas like a guy he could actually move on was the opposite of what he was trying to do. At least where anyone could hear him. Which was apparently everywhere.

“I think you might be thinking of kissing me again,” Castiel said carefully. “Is that what’s embarrassing you? It’s the same feeling you had before.”

“Hey,” Dean muttered. “It’s not skepticism.”

“You just agreed with me,” Castiel said. It didn’t sound like a question, but he said it like he was waiting to be contradicted.

Dean thought about telling him it wasn’t just kissing, but there wasn’t anything he could say that wouldn’t sound way out of line. So he settled for, “Yeah.” Which was bad enough, but it seemed to reassure Castiel.

“Think of something that makes you angry,” Castiel said.

He hadn’t realized they were still playing this game. “Demons,” he said aloud.

“Saying what you’re thinking will not advance your pursuit of privacy,” Castiel remarked.

It startled Dean into laughing. “Being around you won’t advance my pursuit of privacy,” he said, because it was true and he didn’t know what else to say. Times like this he didn’t even care.

“No,” Castiel agreed. “Yet you have chosen this.”

“Yeah,” Dean said, still grinning and a little high on angel light and midnight. Or whatever time it was. “Guess that makes me disobedient too.”

Castiel wasn’t smiling. He couldn’t say how he knew, any more than he could say what made it a good thing. “Then it can’t be the sin I’ve always believed,” Castiel said quietly.

Dean scoffed. “Dude,” he said. “I could show you sin.”

Castiel’s wings did that funny flickering thing, but his voice was perfectly even as he asked, “Would you?”

Dean tried to stop staring at his wings. “Yeah,” he said. Because that was what you said when an angel asked you to show him sin. “But I’m buying you dinner first. It’s only polite.”

This seemed to stump Castiel, and Dean let out a breath while he thought about it. He really shouldn’t be on a couch in a dark room with this man. He tried to think about something that made him angry, but right now? He couldn’t come up with a single thing.

“If it must be dinner,” Castiel said at last, “it will have to be Saturday night. At the earliest.”

Not a single thing.

“Okay,” Dean said. He didn’t even know what he was agreeing to, and he didn’t care. “Saturday night. You’re on.”

“And I have paid you,” Castiel added, as though that was a logical followup. If it was, they were in trouble. “At least, I’ve written out the check. I wasn’t sure if you would want it deposited or not, so I left it inside your door.”

“Money,” Dean said. “Not an appropriate part of this conversation. Just so you know.”

He could almost feel Castiel frowning. “Why not?”

“Because,” Dean said. He was too tired to deal with work relationships right now, and he really didn’t want to get into anything else. “It just isn’t.”

“But if you are to pay for my meal,” Castiel said, “is it not relevant that I have increased your available funds? Perhaps it is a matter of self-interest.”

“Are you joking?” Dean blurted out.

“Yes,” Castiel said. “Was it not funny?”

He couldn’t tell if it was surprise or relief that made him laugh. “Yeah, Cas,” he said. “You’re a funny guy.”

“I’m not sure you mean that as a compliment,” Castiel said.

“Everything about you is a compliment,” Dean said. He was making less sense the longer he talked. “I’ve gotta get some sleep. Like, non-unconscious sleep.”

He could feel the look Castiel gave him for that. “I’m given to understand that it’s not sleeping if you’re not unconscious,” Castiel said.

Yeah, see? Less and less sense.

“Sleep because I’m sleeping,” Dean clarified. “Not because I’m unconscious.” He pushed himself up, a little more confident in his ability to stand when the room stayed exactly where it was supposed to be. Just... superimposed with Castiel-colored wings and light.

“Very well,” Castiel said. He didn’t move. “I will take the children to school tomorrow.”

“You damn well will not,” Dean retorted, before he could think. Why had he even said that? What was Castiel doing? He wasn’t even sure what that meant: I’ll take them to school tomorrow. Castiel would drive them, or Castiel would haunt the school guarding them?

Could angels be invisible? They could mend clothes and read minds and travel through time, so why not invisibility? But then why wouldn’t Castiel have just done that to begin with? If he had so much else to do, why wasn’t he doing it tomorrow? And if it was important that their bodyguard be human, surely that requirement had disappeared along with that Zachariah guy?

Now Dean figured it was important their bodyguard not be human. He had fewer innate skills in that area, but he was giving it a try. “I’m on it,” he told Castiel. “I can take them. I was out of it all day, I’m gonna need something to keep me from losing it tomorrow.”

“You just told me that sleeping and unconsciousness aren’t the same thing,” Castiel said. “You need sleep, you don’t need babysitting duties. End of story.”

It wasn’t just the first time he’d heard Castiel say end of story. It was also the first time he’d heard Castiel refer to taking care of his kids as “babysitting.” And yeah, sleeping in sounded good now, but Dean had been him all his life. He knew perfectly well he was going to wake up in the morning with nothing to look forward to but going stir-crazy if he didn’t get out.

“We’ll discuss it in the morning,” Castiel added, proving that it wasn’t the end of the story at all. “Is that acceptable?”

“You command an army with those negotiating skills?” Dean wanted to know. “We won’t discuss it in the morning; we’ll discuss it now. How ’bout I sleep in. You feed the kids, I’ll take them to school. How’s that?”

“I will re-evaluate in the morning,” Castiel said. Evasively, but at this point Dean would take it. “To assess and take into account your physical condition.”

“Deal,” Dean said. “You gonna be okay here?” He needed to leave before he “took into account” Castiel’s physical condition right now.

“I’ll likely go to my rooms,” Castiel said. He didn’t answer the question, and Dean’s smile faded.

“Look,” he said. “Is tonight gonna be a problem? ’Cause we can forget it, or I can stay here and fall asleep on you, or pretty much anything in between. Whatever you need to stay functioning.”

“I have what I need,” Castiel told him. “Shall I accompany you upstairs?”

“No,” Dean said, taking an inadvertent step back. Geez. Like he needed any more temptation right now. What makes you angry, he thought, but it was a lost cause and he was left trying to think of things that made him happy instead.

It was silly, but it was also slightly easier. They managed to get through “good night” without any more horribly embarrassing moments, but Cas flew – to his rooms, presumably, hopefully – while Dean walked. Which meant that he hadn’t even made it up the stairs before Maribel appeared beside him and announced, “Father is alone.”

“Yeah,” Dean said with a sigh, surveying her school outfit. It was exactly the same thing she’d been wearing all day. Every day. “I think we’re okay with that now. When do you get new clothes?”

“At the beginning of the school year,” Maribel said, unfazed by the change in topic. “Or when we go to some human event that calls for a different form of dress.”

Apparently the moratorium on acknowledging what they were had been lifted. It made for unexpectedly less creepy conversations. “You know other kids don’t wear the same thing every day, right?” Dean asked.

“There are subtle variations in their attire, which we mimic.”

“Yeah, badly,” Dean said. “Do you know what pajamas are?”

Maribel tilted her head. “They’re clothes one wears to sleep in. We don’t sleep, so they seem unnecessary.”

“They don’t seem unnecessary to me,” Dean said. He didn’t know how to ask without asking what she wanted, which he didn’t trust any of the kids to answer at this point. “If I took you out to get some, would you be interested?”

“Yes,” Maribel said, surprising him. “Most things about humanity interest me.”

“Really,” Dean said. That could be handy. “Okay. How about this weekend? We can go –” He had no idea where to go to get children’s pajamas. “Somewhere,” he finished awkwardly, “and get something more comfortable.”

“All right,” Maribel agreed.

He started up the stairs again, and when she followed him, it occurred to him to look at his watch. It was twenty minutes after midnight. He had no idea why he didn’t feel more tired, but more importantly: “Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

“We’re expected to be in contemplation now,” Maribel said. “Yes.”

“But you’re not,” Dean said.

The patterns of light around him shifted, and he knew without looking that her wings had shrugged even if her shoulders hadn’t. He wondered if they’d picked that up from humans. He wondered what kind of body language angels had… especially if they didn’t always “manifest.”

He didn’t realize he was waiting for Maribel to add “no” until she didn’t. “Why aren’t you in contemplation?” Dean asked. It sounded weirder when he said it than when she did.

“Because Father is alone,” Maribel replied, “and you asked to be alerted.”

Right. Obviously.

“Well, you alerted me,” Dean said. “So. Thanks for that.”

Maribel didn’t answer.

“I mean,” Dean said, “you can… uh.” It really wasn’t his responsibility to send her to bed. At least, he didn’t think it was. He’d told them that he wasn’t going to tell them what to do unless it was for their own safety, but that was before he’d realized how totally helpless they were when it came to anything human.

“You told me,” he tried again, “so you can… go back to what you were doing. If you want.”

“All right,” Maribel repeated. And just like that, she was gone.

Dean thought they should have rules about flying in the house.

He meant to go back to his room and get some sleep. Or, if the inexplicable not-tired feeling persisted, a shower and a shave. Then sleep. But something made him keep going, past his own door, prowling the hall above the first floor and inspecting the kids’ doors in a way he hadn’t when it wasn’t nighttime yet.

He’d been convinced enough by the heavy warding in the rest of the house that he hadn’t insisted on seeing all their rooms the first day. Or the second day. After being unceremoniously introduced to Dani’s room, though, he was starting to think that was a mistake – and not because of security concerns.

They weren’t the same. Not the same as each other, and not the same as Castiel. Just walking down the semi-dark hallway showed cracks in their uniformity: Dani’s door was open a little bit, and Saph’s was open all the way. Maru’s wasn’t latched. There was a lightshow coming from behind Maia’s closed door that made Dean pause, until he realized that Wildfire’s room was suspiciously dark and quiet.

Their equivalent of whispering, Dean guessed. The bright light. He could feel them giggling together when he listened for it, gentle knowledge of happy angels in his mind, and he wondered how Castiel enforced that midnight “bedtime.”

Maybe he didn’t. Maribel had gone back to her room as soon as he told her to, no questions asked. Maybe Castiel just expected the kids to do as they were told – it wouldn’t be such an unreasonable expectation, from what he’d seen.

On the other hand, he didn’t know what “contemplation” involved, but it didn’t sound like Maia and Wildfire were trying very hard.

Adamel’s door was firmly closed. So was Maribel’s. Dean found himself standing almost back where he’d started: outside Castiel’s rooms, sure he should keep going. Your room is right there, he told himself. Just keep walking.

He knocked on the door instead.

“Come in,” Castiel’s voice called immediately.

Which, okay. This was stupid. Dean wished he could take the knock back, but once committed he wasn’t going to add to his embarrassment by hesitating. He pushed the door open and leaned around the doorframe. “You good?” he asked.

Castiel lowered his hand, sword disappearing behind his arm like the blade was an extension of his will. “I don’t understand the question,” he said. He, like Maribel, was dressed in the same clothes he’d worn all day.

And, okay, Dean had just seen him so that shouldn’t be so strange, but where else would the kids get their habits but from their dad?

“One,” Dean said, “what’s with the sword? And two, do you own pajamas?”

Castiel looked curious. “Which one of those is a translation of your original question?”

Dean wasn’t up for sorting out more angel-human misunderstandings right now. Castiel didn’t look suicidal. Hell, for all Dean knew, “contemplation” involved weapons. They were soldiers; maybe they prayed to their swords or something. He didn’t know.

“Never mind,” he muttered, catching the door again. “See you in the morning.”

“Dean.” Castiel stopped him before he could pull the door shut. Quick, awkward, suddenly less confident than he’d seemed when Dean looked in – almost like he wanted to ask Dean the same question. Are we good?

“Please come in,” Castiel said instead.

“I gotta sleep,” Dean told him. Because Castiel could probably talk all night, and Dean might not feel the exhaustion he thought he should but he was tired. He was tired of no one understanding: not him, not them… they should just start fresh in the morning.

“Sorry to bother you,” he added, but Castiel was already stepping forward.

“Sleep here,” he said. “I’ve never slept in my bed. Perhaps you could experience it as a human does and tell me if it’s appropriate.”

Dean stopped in the doorway and stared at him. Castiel looked stupidly earnest. “Do pickup lines like that actually work for you?” Dean asked.

Castiel didn’t look confused. He looked like he was considering the question when he said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever used that as a pickup line. Do you think it has potential?”

“No,” Dean said. He tried not to smile. “Take my advice. As someone who spends a fair amount of time in bars, I can tell you: that won’t work on anyone except me.”

An answering smile tugged at Castiel’s expression. “I see. Then, to answer your questions: I don’t know. Blade forms are an instrument of meditation, and no, I do not own pajamas. Do you feel this is a significant lack?”

Dean was left staring at him again. “If you know what I’m asking, why do you give me such a hard time about it?”

Castiel tipped his head slightly, and Dean wished that answered his question about body language. Did the kids really get it from him, or did they all get it from… somewhere else? Did it correspond to something else, like the wing-shrugging? Or was it just –

“I believe you already came to the appropriate conclusion,” Castiel said. “I’m kind of a jerk when I want to be, you said. Does that answer no longer suffice?”

“You said you didn’t mean to be rude,” Dean countered.

“I said I rarely mean to be rude,” Castiel reminded him. “Given the rest of my relatively polite existence, I would have to spend every moment of the next several centuries being excessively gauche in order to tip the balance.”

Dean scoffed. “Trust me, you are on the fast train to gauche-ville. Actually, you know what… who even says gauche? Where do you get these words? Can I count you using words no one else knows as rude?”

“You know it,” Castiel pointed out.

“I’m going to bed,” Dean told him. “Before I get into a stupid argument with you that makes me do ridiculous things to someone I’ve only known for two days.”

“Three days,” Castiel said. “And I would prevent you from doing ridiculous things.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Dean said. “You would totally encourage me. You’re encouraging me right now.” Seriously. He was either going to end up in bed with this guy, or so fired that they knew about it in Australia.

He’d never even been to Australia.

Castiel was studying him. “Are these ridiculous things intimate in nature?”

“Good night,” Dean told him.

He didn’t wait for the “good night” he got in return, but he was still thinking about that smile when he fell asleep. In his own bed, freshly showered and clean shaven, with his phone alarm reset. He didn’t think he’d need it.

Dean’s dreams weren’t bad. For once. Especially considering he’d been possessed by an archangel less than 24 hours ago. And six-thirty was a lot more reasonable than six o’clock: he was already squinting over at the window when his phone exclaimed, Victory!

He thumbed it off without looking at it. He couldn’t tell if the weird angel light was fainter in daylight, or just less noticeable when there weren’t any actual angels around. He’d been a little distracted the day before, but he figured he’d better start getting used to it.

Everyone else was downstairs already. In the kitchen. He spent his time in the bathroom trying not to think about Castiel, wondering instead whether he actually knew they were in the kitchen or if he just assumed they were after what he’d seen of their schedule. If they didn’t have to pretend to be human for him, why would they bother with breakfast?

It was almost seven by the time he made it down the stairs. There were six backpacks sitting just outside the kitchen, and he raised an eyebrow. So that was what they saw when he walked in – because every last one of them was staring at the door.

Dean stopped where he was. “Hi,” he said.

Dani was wearing his shirt over her clothes. Maribel’s hair was loose, the first time he’d seen any of the girls without a ponytail. The three youngest kids had what looked like scrambled eggs on their plates. And Castiel was holding a spoon.

That was all he had time to notice before Dani was breaking away from the island and making a beeline for him, his too-big shirt fluttering behind her like a blanket. “Dean!” Saph exclaimed, the first to break the silence. “Father says we can give you your surprise now!”

Right, yeah, his surprise. He didn’t bother to glare at Castiel, because Dani was wrapping her arms around his legs and Wildfire was waving at him from across the room. “Hey, great,” he said, patting Dani’s shoulder and waving back at Wildfire. “What is it?”

It’s pie, Dani’s little voice said.

And yeah, he’d missed being able to hear her.

“How are you feeling?” Castiel asked carefully. Like he knew the right words, but he’d never tried them out before. At least not in exactly that order.

“Pie?” Dean repeated. He was pretty sure his pie from the night before was still in the refrigerator, unless the mysterious leftover-finishing force had been through again. “Wow, you couldn’t have given me a better surprise.

“Better,” he added, nodding in Castiel’s direction. “Great, actually. Thanks for – you know. Whatever you did yesterday.”

It didn’t take a genius to guess Castiel’s role in his recovery.

“It’s fruit pie,” Saph was telling him. “With pudding. Mrs. Knowles taught us how to make it last week, and Sam said you like pie, so he helped!”

Dean had a bad feeling about any pie Sam had helped with, especially if they were calling it “fruit pie.” Sam would have called it what it really was if it was something recognizable. “That sounds pretty awesome,” Dean said, patting Dani’s shoulder again. “Hey, kiddo, you want to let me go?”

No, she told him. But she did, reaching for his hand as she let him go.

She couldn’t wear that shirt to school. Dean decided that was bad news for later. “So are we all gonna try this pie before we leave?” he asked. “You already cut it up?”

“No,” Maru said. And hey, look at that. Someone other than the girls could answer questions directed at the group. “Sam said everyone gets to pick the size of their piece.”

“Okay, well, let’s go,” Dean said, checking his watch. “Ten minutes.” He resisted the urge to add, chop chop, because it was silly and they wouldn’t get it anyway.

“Maribel,” Castiel said. “You may retrieve the pie from the refrigerator.”

“Everyone have plates?” Dean asked. “Forks? Do we need a knife to cut the pie?” He had no idea what to expect if pudding was involved.

“I’ll get forks,” Maia said.

“Mrs. Knowles used a knife,” Saph offered. “I’ll get one!”

Maribel was sliding something that did look like a pie tin onto the island. That was where the pie resemblance ended, though, and Dean tried not to look horrified. Come on, he told himself, tasty surprise made for you by the kids. Don’t think of it as pie. Think of it as…

Do you like it? Dani asked. She was staring up at him worriedly.

“Oh, yeah,” he assured her. He totally liked the fact that the kids had made him something. That was the coolest thing ever. He thought about how great they were for doing it, and how crazy it was that they’d learned to make food from their teacher when they hadn’t even known what scrambled eggs were, and finally Dani was smiling again.

Good, she said, apparently reassured.

Maybe there was something to this whole controlling his thoughts thing after all.

“How much do you want, Dean?” Saph asked. She had climbed up on a stool with the knife she’d gotten from the silverware drawer, and he really wasn’t comfortable with that.

She has a sword, he reminded himself, but no. That didn’t help.

“Here,” he said. “Can I have that?”

Dani was still holding his left hand, but Saph yielded the knife without protest. “Okay,” he said, looking around the room. Like he really needed to count. “There’s nine of us, right? So we’re pretty much gonna eat this whole thing.”

He cut it in half – it really was made out of pudding – then half again, and once more. Two big pieces and four small ones. “Okay, plates,” he said. “Big people first: oh, that’s me. And Cas. Cas, where’s your plate?”

Castiel gave him a strange look. “I believe the pie is for you, Dean.”

“Yeah, and I’m sharing it with all of you,” Dean told him. Wow, he wanted to see Castiel eat pudding. So not an appropriate thought right now. “Hold out your plate.”

Castiel did as he was told, and Dean scooped one of the small pieces onto it. “Enjoy,” he said. “Where’s my plate? Do I get a plate?”

“I’ll get you a plate,” Wildfire offered. She sounded like she was waiting for someone to contradict her. When no one did, she brought him a plate. In the meantime, he scooped two more pieces onto Maribel and Adamel’s plates.

“Thanks,” he told Wildfire, when she handed him his plate. He had to set the knife down to take it, because Dani was still holding his hand. “Hey, Dani? Can I have my hand, please?”

She let go without a word.

“Thanks,” he said again. “Okay, a piece for me – that looks great – and now we need five more, right? So Maia and Wildfire, you guys get half of this one.” The same size as everyone else’s. “And then we’re gonna cut this last piece into three, okay?

“Sorry,” he added, smiling a little at Dani’s expression. “Small people get small food; that’s the rules.”

He scooped one of the pieces of fruit from his one slice onto Maru’s, just to make it more fair.

Delicious breakfast dessert, he reminded himself as he took his first bite. They were all waiting for him, and he had a terrible feeling that they were going to watch him eat the entire thing. Good thing he’d divided it up.

As long as he didn’t pretend it was pie, it was actually pretty good. They’d used some kind of cookie crust, smeared pudding over the inside, and poured cut fruit on top. Cookies and pudding, really: what was not to like there? If he had to eat fruit to get them, he was okay with that.

He gave them a thumbs-up, swallowing enough that he could talk without sounding like he was messing up their manners on purpose. “Awesome, guys. This is really good.”

“Good,” Saph said, with obvious satisfaction. “We’ll tell Mrs. Knowles that you like it.”

“You should tell her if you like it,” Dean said, breaking off a bigger bite this time. “Everybody, dig in. Five minutes to loading time.”

No way were they gonna get all these dishes put away in five minutes. On the other hand, they supposedly had a housekeeper, so maybe they didn’t have to worry. He still felt like leaving stuff everywhere set a bad example, but it was for a good cause, right?

They could either clean up, or they could eat fruit pie. Eating had to win.

Dean finished his piece. Maru finished his too. They were the only ones, but Saph and Dani made a good effort and Castiel looked like he might come back to his when no one was looking. Dean grinned at him when Cas caught his eye, and Castiel tilted his head in question.

Dean actually felt like he could hear the question mark in his head. “Nothing,” he said, and only then did he realize he’d spoken aloud. He opened his mouth to cover, or apologize, or something, but none of the kids even looked sideways at him.

Then why? Castiel’s question was unfinished, but it did have actual words this time.

“Who made the eggs?” Dean asked.

He could swear every single one of them stopped what they were doing and turned to look at him. “Surprised” didn’t really do justice to those expressions. “What?” he asked. “What did I say?”

“I made the eggs,” Maru said. His voice was softer than Dean had ever heard it, and he gave Castiel a worried look – maybe even a frightened one – after he answered.

“Okay,” Dean said, glancing at Castiel. “Good for you.” He was too busy thinking what the hell? at Cas to imagine Maru, who would have had to stand on something to reach, stirring and cooking eggs after watching Dean do it once. From a distance.

You probably should have answered my question, Castiel offered. He sounded mostly confused when he added, “I think they’re upset because you –” He stopped. Dean heard disobeyed anyway, but he also got that Castiel didn’t say it for a reason. He didn’t think that was it.

“I don’t know,” Castiel said at last, studying each of the children in turn. “Maribel, why are you distressed?”

“Rachel says that Michael will ignore you,” Maribel replied. She looked from Dean to Castiel and back again, but her surprise was tempered by caution, not fear. “She says we’re to tell her if Michael shows any sign of wanting to take us away.”

“Dean doesn’t want to take you away,” Castiel said.

Dean raised his hand. “Uh, can I say something here?” They know, right? The kids could hear him, he knew that, but he couldn’t stop himself from thinking stuff at Castiel that he really should say aloud if he was going to say it at all.

“You guys know I’m not Michael, right?” He asked before Castiel could even answer, because he drew the line at pretending for them. “Gabriel took me over to protect you, and he lied about who he is so they wouldn’t come after him.”

Dean figured Cas would correct him if he was totally off about this, but he wasn’t going to lie to everyone. “Your dad is pretending what Gabriel said was true because he thinks it will make you safer. That doesn’t mean some archangel’s gonna come in here and start bossing you around.”

“No,” Castiel agreed, but he sounded amused. Dean couldn’t figure out what he thought was so funny until he added, “Not an archangel. Just a human.”

“Yeah, you’re real cute,” Dean told him. “Finish your pie.”

Castiel just looked at him, and Dean rolled his eyes. “Your loss,” he said.

“Perhaps,” Castiel said, “you could reconsider ignoring me in the future. I’m sure the children have enough to worry about already.”

“I didn’t ignore you!” Dean exclaimed. “What did I do? I don’t even know what we’re talking about now.”

“You didn’t answer when I asked why you were smiling at me,” Castiel said. Easily, without self-consciousness. Like it was a thing people said in front of their children.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Dean muttered. “I was just smiling! There was no reason. If I’d had a reason, I would’ve told you.”

“Maybe it was because you like him,” Saph offered. Her eyes were still wide, and not in a happy way, but she seemed determined to come up with something. Maybe because Castiel had asked.

“Yeah,” Dean said with a sigh. He didn’t mean to freak them out, but the fact that he did it by accident had to be just as bad. “That’s probably it.”

That’s good, Dani said. Don’t be sad.

There was no way a statement like that was going to turn his mood around. He sucked at this parenting thing. Not that he was trying to parent them. But someone had to, right?

“Dean is free to ignore me as he chooses,” Castiel offered. “I have every confidence that he does what he does for your safety and well-being.”

He looked at Castiel in surprise.

“I believe the appropriate followup is, ‘don’t get any ideas,’” Castiel added. “Tell me if I’m incorrect.”

Dean felt a smile trying to beat back his sigh. “Uh, no,” he said. “The appropriate followup is, ‘Thank you, Dean, for being so awesome.’”

“I have doubts that such a response would be correct in all situations,” Castiel replied.

“All situations involving me,” Dean said with a shrug. “Let’s go, guys, we’re done here. Get your bags, meet me at the car –” He was all ready to say five minutes ago, and he don’t know how he stopped himself. They might actually do it. “ASAP.”

It was possible that wasn’t any better, and it got a confused look from Maia. “As soon as possible,” he told her. “A-S-A-P, it’s the first letter of each word. Most adults know what it means.”

She nodded, like that answered whatever question she hadn’t asked, and he could hear the rest of them passing the information around. Silently. While they went for bags they’d left right outside, so wow. He didn’t have any extra time, here.

He lingered anyway, giving the kitchen a rueful look. “Sorry to just leave this,” he offered. “Feels wrong.” Not that he cared when he was alone, but he never left Sam’s kitchen looking messed up.

“Dean,” Castiel said. “I have a housekeeper for two reasons. This is one of them.”

He couldn’t not ask. “What’s the other one?”

“She needed a safe place to go,” Castiel said.

Something about that made Dean frown. Where had he heard that before? Had Castiel already told him that? Maybe that was it; it sounded familiar because it was. It wasn’t like he knew anything about about the housekeeper beyond what Castiel had told him, anyway.

“Right,” Dean said at last. “Sure. So, see you this afternoon?”

“This evening,” Castiel said. “Barring further revolution, I must be away today. At what time should I be ready for our date?”

Okay, so, Saturday was a separate thing. He hadn’t been sure.

“Uh,” Dean said. “Seven? I guess?”

“Very well,” Castiel said. “Please select an appropriate venue and I will arrange transportation. Also,” he added, and the look he gave Dean might as well have been stern. “Make time for a tour at the children’s school today.”

About to ask how Castiel would manage transportation if he didn’t even know where they were going, Dean managed a cheerful salute. “Right,” he agreed. “It’s like it’s already done.”

“Clearly it’s not,” Castiel said. “Or you would know something about the school’s defenses.”

“I said I’d do it,” Dean reminded him. “No need to get all snippy.”

“Did you?” Castiel eyed him. “I was unaware, but I accept your word.”

Which had what Dean was sure was the unintentional effect of irritating him more. He tried to tell himself Castiel meant exactly what he said, and he mostly believed it. But the words came out condescendingly anyway, and Dean had never dealt well with being patronized.

“So, just to clarify,” Dean said. He was sort of proud that he’d bit back a second version of the snippy comment in favor of this. “You’re just making an observation, right? Not actually trying to piss me off?”

Probably not the right thing to say if he was trying to defuse the situation, but Castiel just blinked. “Yes, I was making an observation. I certainly wasn’t trying to upset you.”

Okay, if he was trying to defuse any situation except one that involved an angel. An overly literal, honest-to-a-fault, angel. “Got it,” Dean said, letting out a breath. “Point to you.”

Castiel frowned, pointing to himself, and Dean felt a laugh escape without his permission. “No,” he said. “I just meant, you get the point. If we were playing a game where we got points, you’d get that one.”

“Why would I need it?” Castiel asked. Not “why would I get it,” just… why would I need it.

“You wouldn’t,” Dean said, smiling at him. “Trust me. You’re covered.”

“I see,” Castiel said. It was the tone of voice that said he didn’t.

“I gotta go,” Dean said. “The kids are waiting.”

“Dean,” Castiel said. He waited until Dean caught his eye again. “I will also be waiting.”

That was either romantic or vaguely threatening, and Dean was going to go with “romantic.” Because that was the kind of guy he was – even when he wasn’t that way on purpose.

“Yeah,” Dean said. “See you tonight.”

And Castiel smiled – actually smiled, like for real – and said, “Have a nice day.”

Dean couldn’t help laughing again at that, but not in a bad way. “Yeah,” he repeated, grinning at Castiel. “Yeah, you too. Have a nice day, Cas.”

Who knew he would ever seriously say that. To someone he knew.

The kids were all waiting by the car when he walked into the garage, and it took him a minute to remember why. “You can get in the car,” he told them. “You don’t have to wait for me to get in first or anything.”

“You said to meet you at or by the car,” Maribel reminded him. “Today and two days ago.” And hey, she was getting faster at volunteering information. He liked that.

“Right,” Dean agreed, waving them toward the car. “So, everybody in; we’ll talk about this on the way.”

Dean? Dani asked. May I ride up front today?

“Yeah, sure, it’s all yours,” he told her.

He’d gotten so used to it that he didn’t even realize he could ask until they were pulling out of the driveway. “Hey, Dani,” he said. “How come you talk…” He took one hand off the wheel and gestured at his head. “You know, up here. More than out loud.”

Because that’s how angels do it, she said.

He wasn’t sure what he’d expected her to say, but it definitely wasn’t that.

“You trying to be like other angels?” Dean asked.

I’m trying to be like any angel, Dani said.

There was silence from the back seat: not just a lack of voices, but quiet on a telepathic level that he was starting to associate with focus. They were all focused the same thing – him and Dani – and that made everything else almost unnoticeable.

He wondered if that was what Castiel was trying to get him to sound like. Shift your focus, Castiel had said. He could control what they heard by changing what he chose to be aware of.

Supposedly.

“Why are you still wearing my shirt?” Dean asked suddenly.

Dani wasn’t stumped. Because I like you.

“Are you trying to be like me?” he asked, watching her fold the sleeves of the shirt carefully in her hands.

This time she didn’t answer.

“What if I want to be like you?” Dean asked. “What should I do that would make people go, ‘oh, there’s Dean… trying to be like Dani.’”

They wouldn’t say that, Dani said.

“Why not?” Dean wanted to know. “Because I don’t know how to act like you? You should teach me. By the end of the day, okay, think of something I can do that’ll make me seem like you.”

“I don’t do anything,” Dani said out loud. That’s like me, was the unspoken message, and Dean got it loud and clear.

“Try,” he said.

This prompted a tentative whisper from the backseat. Dani didn’t answer him, but she didn’t ignore the rest of the kids, so the ride to school wasn’t awkwardly uncomfortable. The whispering was careful and curious, growing bolder when he didn’t say anything: what did he mean, what were they like, what was anyone like?

He got the gist, but if they didn’t ask him a direct question he wasn’t going to get in the middle of that conversation. Just getting Dani to take off his shirt was going to be challenge enough for the morning. He could tell her to do it and she would – just like he’d asked her to leave yesterday and she had. He was trying to avoid a repeat of that, if at all possible.

When they pulled into the school parking lot he found a space, turned off the engine, and opened his mouth. Dani pulled his shirt down over her shoulders and left it on the front seat without a word. He watched her climb out with a frown.

Had she done that because she’d decided that not wearing it was “like her,” as the other kids had suggested? Had she done it because she’d planned to all along? Or had she done it because she’d known he wanted her to, somehow?

“Hey, Dani,” Dean said, closing his own door behind him.

Dani was already waiting. “Yes?” she said aloud, looking up at him as she reached for his hand.

He took hers and gave up. There was only so much second-guessing a person could do and still have brainpower left over. Saph skipped over and took his other hand, and they joined everyone else converging on the trail to the school.

Before Maribel and Adamel broke off, Maribel remarked, “Dean, you didn’t bring lunch again. If you’re interested in the security of our building, we’ll be eating at 11:45.”

“Yeah,” Dean agreed, squinting in the direction of the high school. Or whatever it was they went to. “Don’t mind if I do. How do I find you in there?”

“We’ll be in the cafeteria,” Maribel said. “It’s the room with the glass wall on the far right side of the building. We’ll join you when you arrive.”

Dean thought this probably translated as we’ll find you. He figured that was fair. “Great,” he said. “See you at lunch.”

Maia and Wildfire separated from them once they were inside, and Dean watched them head down the hall in the other direction. They didn’t stand out from the other kids when they were walking, he thought. Not the way Castiel did when he just stood there, staring like it was his holy mission.

Saph and Dani kept him from bumping into anyone while he was distracted. He decided as he looked around again that having kids clinging to both hands wasn’t totally without advantages. He also decided that he should talk to Maru more. The kid had to be the odd one out in school.

“Maru,” Dean said, when first Dani and then Saph let go to shed their coats and backpacks. Their teacher was over by the coat hooks, and she was turning to greet them even as he asked, “Where do you think I should go to get an official tour of your school?”

“Good morning,” Mrs. Knowles was telling the girls.

“The office,” Maru said, then added, “Mrs. Knowles would know.”

But he was willing to guess. Dean thought that was interesting. Or maybe he wasn’t guessing, just stating two related facts?

“Know what?” their teacher asked with a smile.

“Their dad wants me to have a guided tour,” Dean said. “I blew it off on Wednesday; my bad. Didn’t realize it was such a big thing. Just wondering who I should talk to about that.”

She didn’t act like it was a big thing. “Maru is right,” she told him. “Anyone in the offices right now could help you. I’d ask Thanh, if I were you; she’s concise and very practical. She’s the first desk on your right if you head back toward the front of the school and enter the administrative area from this side.”

This turned out to be good advice. Thanh was blunt to the point of rudeness, and she could get a lot of information across very quickly. Like the fact that the school had been designed to harbor magical fugitives, fortified to protect their children, and since expanded to include a more diverse population.

“How diverse?” Dean asked.

The look Thanh gave him made him think that this was where whatever special privileges Castiel had gotten him ran out. “Very,” she said.

Okay then. He really needed to ask Castiel what he’d told these people.

Not just before he’d started, either: Castiel hadn’t mentioned any communication with the school yesterday or today, but no one commented on the kids’ absence the day before. At least not to Dean, or to anyone where he could overhear. Not even a “we missed you yesterday” kind of thing.

He found the cafeteria at the high school easily enough, which only made him more curious. There weren’t even any kids with him this time, yet he was allowed to walk right in and wander the halls at will. Several adults not only passed him but acknowledged him with a look or a nod.

As promised, Maribel appeared at his side within seconds of him walking through the door. “Hello, Dean,” she said. The imitation of her father was almost eerie. “Would you like some lunch?”

“Hey,” he said. She really shouldn’t be able to startle him like that in the middle of a crowded room. “Uh, yeah. Thanks.”

She led him through the lunch line, not taking anything herself, and for a minute he wondered if she and Adamel just didn’t eat when they were at school. He wasn’t the only adult in the line: apparently the high school teachers ate with the kids, which was kind of cool. And probably brave of them, Dean thought. Two of them introduced themselves, but they clearly knew who he was.

“Okay,” Dean said, when Maribel led him back to a table with four chairs. Adamel was the only other student there, but there were two trays on the table, and he figured that answered his question about eating. “How does everyone know who I am?”

“Everyone here knows each other,” Maribel said. “All visitors to the school have an escort on campus.”

Dean took the chair next to Adamel. “Hey,” he said, nodding to Maribel’s… twin? How literal was Wildfire being when she said the three of them were the same age? And if that was a stupid question, did it even mean anything when angels were the same age?

“Hello,” Adamel replied, looking at him curiously.

“So why don’t I have an escort?” Dean asked, digging in to his chili. “No one’s even checked my ID.”

“You’re not a visitor,” Maribel said. “And we all know who you are.”

Dean raised an eyebrow at her. “How?”

“The teachers always announce new staff,” Maribel said. “You’re treated like staff.”

That was more information than he usually got out of her at a time, and more helpful than he’d expected. “Okay,” he said, swallowing another mouthful of chili. He didn’t know how long their lunch was, but the food was great. “Why am I treated like staff?”

He’d figured he wasn’t getting the whole story because he hadn’t asked the right question. He was starting to get that they weren’t doing it on purpose; they really didn’t understand what he wanted to know until he asked. Until he asked literally enough for them to recognize the question.

This time, though, Maribel frowned slightly and looked over at Adamel. “I don’t know,” she said. “They treat all bodyguards like staff.”

“There’s more?” Dean said, surprised.

“Yes,” Maribel said.

“There’s three,” Adamel offered, when Dean almost managed not to roll his eyes. “You, Janey, and Caleb.”

“Janey?” Dean repeated. “Janey, who works in the library in the other building?”

“Yes,” Adamel said. “She’s the librarian’s bodyguard. Caleb works over here with Marusia.”

“Senior physics student,” Maribel added when Dean opened his mouth to ask.

So he changed questions. “Why do they have bodyguards?”

“We don’t know,” Maribel said, glancing at Adamel again. “The teachers discourage us from asking.”

“Uh-huh,” Dean said. “And gossip says?”

Maribel hesitated. “Would knowing things about our classmates make you more likely to kill us?” she asked at last. Perfectly matter-of-fact, like of course they weren’t past that by now.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Dean said, as quietly as he could without making it look more suspicious than they probably looked already. “If it’s a problem, don’t tell me. I’m not trying to get you into trouble.”

Marusia’s a fairy, Adamel said silently. We’re not sure about Ms. Sheldon.

The librarian, Dean thought. No wonder Janey was so helpful.

He wanted to ask, what, is there a bounty on fairies? But it sounded like they weren’t supposed to be talking about it at all, let alone in connection with bounties and killings. He wasn’t willing to assume everyone around them had human hearing anymore, either.

For once, he managed to let a subject go. He tried to project thanks as clearly as he could, but out loud he said, “You guys get good food here. How come you usually bring your own lunches?”

“Because Dani and Saph do,” Adamel said. “It makes us look more like a family if we all have the same lunch.”

It took Dean a moment to process that. “Wait a minute,” he said at last, because he still wasn’t sure he’d gotten it right. “Are you telling me that you’re all trying to look more normal by doing exactly the same things?”

They both seemed confused by the question, but Maribel said, “Father thinks we’re less conspicuous when we’re superficially similar, yes.”

“Wow,” Dean said, putting his glass down and staring at her. Then he stared at Adamel, just for some variety. They looked like twins, sitting there, hands folded in front of their identically arranged trays. “I think you’re gonna have to trust me when I say that’s so not true.”

They both tilted their heads at the same moment, and one, it was a tossup whether that was more funny or creepy. Two, it occurred to him that he might be asking them to disbelieve something Castiel had told them. Probably not a good choice.

“So how did you decide what to get for lunch?” Dean asked. He wasn’t sure that would change the subject, but if they were all imitating each other it was a valid question. Someone had to be making decisions.

“I took what the person in front of me took,” Adamel said.

“I took what Adamel took,” Maribel added.

Or not.

Students were swirling all around them, and Dean picked out the one who moved a little too slowly at the same moment Maribel looked up. The red-haired girl was definitely watching them. She was holding a book, but no lunch, and she looked awkward in the way that popular kids looked awkward: not shy, not intimidated, just trying to put an adult at ease with a non-threatening act.

Dean knew manipulation when he saw it, but he wasn’t going to warn a kid off for trying to socialize. “Hey,” he said, lifting his head when neither of his kids seemed like they were going to say anything. “You guys know each other?”

“Layla,” Maribel said. “We have Languages together.”

“Um, hi,” Layla said, waving a little. She glanced at Maribel, but her gaze kept coming back to Dean. “I know this is kind of weird, but my friend, um –” She wrinkled her nose, and Dean was struck all over again by how unexpressive his kids were. “She wants your autograph, but she’s scared to ask.”

“She wants what?” Dean asked. He couldn’t have heard that right.

“Could you sign her book?” Layla asked, giving him a teenage look of embarrassment. All for show, he was sure. “I told her I’d ask you.”

“You want me to sign a book,” Dean said. Seriously? He’d say she had him confused with someone else, except apparently the teachers had introduced him when he wasn’t listening. To every student in the school.

“Yeah, like, just the front,” Layla said, stepping close enough that she could slide the book onto the table beside his tray. He was aware of every movement her arm made, but she kept the rest of her body away from him even when someone in the aisle bumped into her. She stumbled into the table rather than actually touch him – or Maribel, he noticed.

She was very non-threatening.

“Right here?” Layla was saying. “I have a pen. It’s for Andi. With an ‘i’. But you can just sign your name if you want; she’ll think it’s awesome either way.”

He took Adamel’s pen instead, glancing around at the nearby tables. “Where is she?” Dean asked, tilting the book toward him. “Get her to come over here.” He should use his supposed fame for good.

He had fame. This school was weird. He still hadn’t made Cas share what he’d told them.

This is Andi’s book, he wrote, watching Layla wave urgently out of the corner of his eye. It’s awesome, because Dean Winchester said so. He signed his name underneath. It wasn’t quite the first autograph he’d given out, but she was the first civilian who’d asked for it. Usually it was some hunter’s relative with hero worship.

“Hey, so,” Layla was saying. “Me and Andi and a few other people are having a Star Races marathon tonight. Do you watch at all?”

Dean closed the book. She wasn’t talking to him anymore, so that had to be a good sign. And hey, the kid with the cornrows had to be Andi, right? He tossed Adamel’s pen down between their trays just as Maribel said “no” and Adamel, to everyone’s surprise, said “yes.”

Adamel shrugged when Maribel looked at him. “Desuhi watches it on his iPhone sometimes,” he said.

“Oh my god, Star Races?” The new voice belonged to the girl with the cornrows, and Dean looked down to hide a smile as he shoved the book across the table. “I knew he was – oh, thank you!” She snatched the book off the table and used it to hit Layla in the arm. “I can’t believe you stole my book.”

“Shut up, you’re so welcome,” Layla retorted. “Dean, this is Andi. Andi, Dean Winchester.”

“I am so excited to meet you!” She slid into the seat next to Maribel without asking, and she didn’t look at all shy to Dean. Not even fake-shy. She didn’t wait for him to answer, either, just turned to Maribel and hissed, “I can’t believe Dean Winchester is your bodyguard!”

Maribel looked at him. “Our father hired him,” she said.

“Your dad is badass,” Andi said, giving Dean a way too admiring look. “So are you coming over tonight or what? We’re watching at Layla’s and her mom lets us turn it up really loud.”

“You’re both invited,” Layla added quickly. “I mean, Adamel, you’re the one who watches it. So obviously.”

“I told you we should ask Desuhi,” Andi said. “And you can totally bring Dean; we heard about yesterday. Do you watch Star Races, Dean?”

“What did you hear about yesterday?” He tried not to look too threatening, but it clearly didn’t work.

“Oh, just –” Andi looked like she wished she could unsay that. “Nothing. We didn’t hear anything.”

“It’s just, you guys weren’t here,” Layla said. “And it’s not like you’re ever sick, so.”

“We can’t come over,” Maribel said.

Probably the best way to make an awkward situation worse, Dean thought with a sigh. Not that he wanted them visiting anyone tonight: he had to go with them when they left the house, right? He had plans tonight.

That was when inspiration struck. Babysitting, he thought, as clearly as he could. Tell them you’re babysitting.

Maribel frowned even as Andi said, “Yeah, that’s cool,” even though it clearly wasn’t.

“We’re babysitting,” Adamel said.

“Ohhhh,” Andi said, and just like that the awkwardness was gone. Like it all made sense now. “Sure, of course.”

“That sucks,” Layla said, but she seemed more relaxed too. Dean was going to have to teach the kids the art of letting people down easy. Which was ironic, he totally got that, but if it was him or nothing… Well. Nothing was probably worse.

“Maybe next week,” Andi said. “You don’t have to babysit every Friday night, do you?”

“No,” Maribel said.

“Great.” Andi seemed to think it was settled, which made Dean like her more and probably meant Maribel had no idea what had just happened. He tried not to smile when she added, “So do you guys want to eat with us? We can catch Maribel up on the show!”

“We’re eating with Dean,” Maribel said.

“He can come too,” Layla said. “We have plenty of room.”

Say yes, Dean thought impulsively. If there was one part of their tactical training that was obviously lacking, it was the part about how to blend in. How to use the crowd. Human cover.

“Yes,” Adamel said.

At the same time, Maribel said, Father says we shouldn’t put humans in danger.

It took him a second to be sure she hadn’t said that aloud. Since Andi was scrambling to her feet and Layla was grinning at them, he figured it had been between them. Not shooting, he thought, because it was really hard to concentrate on full sentences and look normal at the same time. Just talking. Crowds can make you invisible.

He wasn’t sure he’d convinced her, but Maribel went along with the “eat with other people” plan, and Dean slid in next to Adamel at what was definitely a girls’ table. “We’re outnumbered,” he muttered under his breath. Adamel gave him a non-comprehending look, and Dean made a mental note to ask later if they ever ate with anyone other than each other.

Adamel shook his head slightly, and Dean wondered if he’d gotten that from Dean’s thoughts.

Sometimes I understand what you’re thinking if I have context for it, Adamel’s voice said silently. And no. We always eat with each other.

“Hey,” Dean said, nodding when Layla named the rest of the girls at the table: Kate, Alexis, and Nevaeh. “Nice to meet you.” None of them giggled, which was a small mercy.

“Dean signed my book,” Andi said proudly.

“You’re welcome,” Layla told her. “Maribel and Adamel are gonna watch Star Races with us next week,” she added, and Dean wondered which of them was going to tell Cas about this. If none of them had any friends, had going over to other kids’ houses even come up before?

It must have, right? They had ice cream in their garage.

That they’d never used, Dean reminded himself.

“Why not tonight?” Alexis wanted to know. “It’s not like we don’t have room.”

“Babysitting,” Layla said.

“Oh, right,” Alexis agreed, but Kate looked at Dean.

“Do you have weekends off?” she asked. It took a second for Dean to realize the question was directed at him. Unfortunately, that was exactly enough time to get everyone’s attention.

“Uh, no,” he said. Which could have been more smooth, but it definitely wasn’t worse than adding, “Just tonight.”

“Ooh,” Andi said, grinning at him. “Do you have a hot date?”

“Oh my god, Andi, it’s none of your business!” Alexis exclaimed.

Andi rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t have to tell me!”

“Sorry, kids,” Dean said, because there was only one way he was getting out of this with his dignity intact. “Can’t divulge the schedule. Top secret and all that.”

This did make Andi and Alexis laugh, and maybe it was perilously close to giggling… but if they were going to let him get away with an answer like that? He’d take it.

“But you can come next week, right?” Layla checked for the first time, nudging Maribel’s arm in a way that clearly startled her. Maribel stared at her, and she added, “On Friday?”

Adamel looked at Dean. Dean’s mouth was full, none of them had asked Cas, and who had any idea where they’d be by next Friday. But he nodded, just in case Adamel was waiting for it, because come on. Even if they didn’t need friends, it had to help them stay under the radar. They’d make it work.

“Yes,” Adamel said, and Maribel turned her stare on him. “We can come.”

“Sweet,” Layla said. “Let me give you my address. And my phone number.”

“And mine,” Kate said. “For when Layla doesn’t pick up the phone.”

Dean smiled when Layla protested, ignored the silent conversation between Maribel and Adamel because it was way too fast for him to follow, and helped himself to Andi’s chips. “Hey!” she exclaimed. “Get your own!”

“Yours were closer,” he told her. He figured anyone who asked for an autograph deserved what they got.

“You owe me a cookie,” she said.

Dean scoffed. “You wish.”

She reached out and her hand stopped before it ever reached his tray. Don’t, he thought, but it was too late. Maribel was holding Andi’s wrist in what looked like an immovable grip, and Andi looked like she was trying to decide between offended and freaked out.

Maribel let go almost immediately – as soon as Dean thought “don’t,” he was pretty sure – but the damage had been done. “Tough week,” Dean said, looking at Andi and thinking as loud as he could, Say you’re sorry. He didn’t even care how it sounded; she needed to apologize. Fast.

“I’m sorry,” Maribel said. “Yesterday was difficult.”

Good job, Dean thought.

Out loud, he said, “We’re all kind of on edge.”

“Yeah,” Andi said, though she looked unnerved. “Right. Sure.”

“That makes sense,” Layla offered. “Do you guys all have self-defense training?”

“Yes,” Adamel said.

“Kicks in when the cookies are threatened,” Dean said.

It made Andi let out a breath and smile again, shaking her head. “Okay, hands off the cookies. Sheesh. You could have just said.”

“Hey,” Dean said, with his most disarming grin. “Tried to warn you.”

Apparently, the grin worked on teenage girls. He didn’t know whether that should be reassuring or disturbing, so he tried not to think about it. He caught Kate looking and he was seriously grateful when she said, “It’s cool that you guys all have each other. Are you, like, a family friend or something, Dean?”

He was a lot less grateful when Maribel replied, “He’s dating our father.”

“Okay, no,” Dean said, when four shocked and frankly gleeful faces turned from Maribel to him. Even the quiet one on the end, Nevaeh, had lifted her head to stare. “That’s not… exactly how I would describe it.”

Because what was he supposed to say? Maribel wasn’t technically wrong, even if he hadn’t expected her to get that phrasing right on the first try. “We’re not –” He stopped himself before he could make it worse. “Okay, you know what? This is off-limits. New topic.”

Layla immediately leaned over and cupped her hand to Maribel’s ear.

Maribel didn’t flinch, Dean would give her that. Apparently Layla’s “don’t surprise the hunter” instincts only applied to actual hunters. Even after seeing Maribel humanly handcuff her friend? That kid-like appearance obviously covered a lot.

“No,” Maribel said aloud, not even bothering to turn toward Layla. “They weren’t dating when Father hired him.”

Dean dragged a hand over his face, closing his eyes for half a breath. “First off,” he said, “you’re supposed to whisper back.” He gave Maribel a look, saw her gaze flick to Kate and Alexis now whispering across the table to each other.

“Second,” he said, because Andi was beaming at him, “we’re having dinner together to discuss security procedures. I wouldn’t call it a date.” Which was something of a stretch, and he definitely would call it a date, especially if he was a high school girl and he had the kind of normal vocabulary that would get a man into bar fights with demons.

“Is that why you’re babysitting?” Andi whispered to Maribel. “So they can go out?” It was a stage whisper. The whole table could hear her.

“Yes,” Maribel answered. This time she replied with the same volume Andi had used.

Layla laughed. “Well, if it’s for a good cause,” she said. She was so obviously enjoying herself that Dean was starting to regret the decision to join them, kids’ social skills be damned. “We could always come over and watch Star Races at your house.”

“I don’t think that’s safe,” Maribel said.

“We can totally lock the doors!” Andi exclaimed. “And we’re responsible, right, Dean? We won’t let the kids stay up all night!”

“Oh, what, you think I’m gonna help you after that?” He raised his eyebrows at her in disbelief. “Forget it.”

Andi and Layla exchanged glances. “We need to be more supportive,” Layla said.

“No,” Dean told her. “You need to stay out of it.”

“Right,” she agreed immediately. “That’s what I meant.”

Should I not have said that? Maribel asked.

His first reaction was no, she definitely shouldn’t have, and he tried to think about something else. No one had told her not to say it. She didn’t know how to pick her own lunch; he couldn’t hold her to the same standards as… well. Actually, Dean couldn’t think of anyone he knew who wouldn’t have blabbed something like that at the first opportunity. So.

It’s okay, he thought, as clearly as he could. Don’t worry about it.

“More importantly,” Andi was saying. “Who’s going to win tonight?”

Everyone except Maribel had an opinion on this: even Nevaeh, and more surprisingly, Adamel. If it meant that Dean’s plans for the night were no longer the subject of discussion, he wasn’t going to draw attention to himself again by questioning it. But he definitely listened when Andi asked.

Adamel shrugged. It was an easy gesture that the kids rarely seemed to bother with. “That’s what Desuhi says,” he told her.

Of course he did, Dean thought. Adamel didn’t have an opinion – but he did seem to know it was okay to volunteer someone else’s, so that was something. Maribel was forgiven for not having watched the show, which didn’t seem to bother her either way. And happily, their dad didn’t come up in conversation again. In any context.

Dean would have been relieved to be going back to the younger kids’ building after lunch except that he had a terrible feeling that the entire experience had been faithfully relayed to everyone else in the family. Including Saph and Dani, who probably had their own questions.

If he took the cowards’ way out and stayed for a tour of the high school instead, well. Castiel had asked him to.

He caught up with the younger kids outside afterwards. They were on their way back in, but Dani took his hand immediately and Saph crowed with delight. Maru was nowhere to be seen.

“Doing math with another class,” Saph said, when he asked.

Knitting, Dani added silently.

They weren’t contradicting each other, Dean realized, as Saph led the way back inside. They were both somehow telling him the same thing. Which, great, they made about as much sense as the high schoolers today. But at least they weren’t asking him about his date with Cas.

He should probably be asking them: what did their dad mean when he said “transportation”? But how would they know? Would they know?

Didn’t he know? Castiel obviously didn’t do anything small: the house, the car, the school… the kids. Hell, the army. If Castiel said he would arrange transportation, Dean should probably expect anything from a limo to a helicopter. And that was if he was lucky, if Castiel stuck with just the human options.

Dean had no idea how he would explain showing up somewhere by spaceship. Or, hey, maybe they would just appear, the way Castiel “flew.” He hoped there wasn’t any flying in his future.

Safest option, he decided? Not to take Castiel anywhere that knew him. That knew Dean, mostly, but yeah, probably not Castiel either. Not that he knew where Castiel usually hung out. If he hung out anywhere. When he wasn’t at home with his kids, he was apparently off fighting a heavenly civil war.

Not a restaurant. Castiel didn’t even eat, and Dean wasn’t going to watch him not enjoy whatever Dean was having. Which left the classics: movie, bar-hopping, lovers’ lane. All bad, as far as Dean was concerned. He wasn’t sure Castiel would get a movie, if there was even anything good out right now, and alcohol was probably about as shareable as food.

Although trying to teach Cas pool did hold some appeal. Or darts. He was probably awesome at darts. And air hockey. Anything that was purely a matter of aim and/or reflexes, Dean was going to lose.

They should stick to pool, he decided.

So, bowling, maybe? Like pool but without half the room hanging over their shoulders? Music that didn’t drown out all attempt at conversation… maybe that was more a minus than a plus, because what did they have to talk about?

What did they ever have to talk about. Yet somehow he still wound up, hours later, wondering when he’d have time to sleep. Fine, then. Talking was… at least a possibility.

Kissing would be better, an all-too-familiar part of his brain insisted. He hadn’t let go of the lovers’ lane idea. Cas would rock at parking. And wow, that was a totally inappropriate thought to be having in a classroom.

No parking, he told himself. Bowling. Respectable, family friendly, G-rated bowling.

He couldn’t remember the last time “G-rated” had featured in his date planning.

He couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d planned a date.

He wasn’t nervous about this at all.

Chapter Text

On the plus side, both girls remembered to thank Mrs. Knowles before they left the classroom at the end of the day. Maru still wasn’t back, so Dean grabbed his jacket and asked Saph to find his bag. She seemed surprised by the request, and he wondered how they had so little concept of “mine” when they didn’t even want to touch each other’s stuff.

Maru turned up right outside the door to their classroom. Like he was on his way in, and he seemed just as startled when Dean handed him his jacket and backpack. “We got it,” Dean said, putting a hand on his shoulder to steer him after the girls. “Let’s go.”

He was sure he’d seen Adamel picking up things the younger kids had dropped. It couldn’t be that strange to them.

“May I ride up front in the car this afternoon?” Maru asked. He shrugged his backpack on over both shoulders, tugging his jacket through one of the straps. Dean raised an eyebrow until he realized the boy walking next to them had just done the same thing.

“Sure,” Dean said. “How was math?”

Maru seemed to consider this. “I made a scarf,” he said, just as Dani fell back and reached for Dean’s other hand.

“Dean,” she said aloud. “May I ride in the front of the car this afternoon?”

Dean felt like he should have seen this coming.

“Sorry, kiddo,” he said, squeezing her hand. “I think it’s Maru’s turn.”

She accepted this without a word, which didn’t surprise him but still made him feel sort of bad. “You want to call tomorrow morning?” he offered.

Dani looked up at him. He looked down just long enough to catch her eye, shifting to the right when Maru pushed into him: the kid was as good as Dani and Saph at keeping him from bumping into people. He patted Maru’s shoulder absently in thanks.

“I don’t know what that means,” Dani said, just as Saph came running back toward them. Dean had no idea how she darted through a crowd moving mostly in the other direction.

“It means if you ask first, you can have it,” Dean told her. “It’s called ‘calling shotgun.’ The first person who calls it gets the front seat.”

“Dean!” Saph said. If he didn’t know better, he’d think she was out of breath. “Maia and Wildfire didn’t wait for us!”

He didn’t even think about who might be listening when he said, “They’re out on the path with Adamel and Maribel.” Of course he could tell, and that was – wow. He hadn’t realized it would work from so far away.

“I know!” Saph exclaimed. She was staring up at him with wide eyes, and too many things occurred to him at once. Her wings twitched whenever someone got close enough to brush through them, which he had been successfully ignoring all day but all of a sudden he knew what it meant. He could tell where the kids were without knowing ahead of time or even being in the same building. And she wasn’t worried that Maia and Wildfire had left without them: she was alarmed that they had done something she hadn’t expected them to do.

“Okay,” he said. “Saph, do you think they’re in trouble?”

“No,” she said, ducking under his and Dani’s hands when he held them up. He felt her latch on to his belt as they made their way through the hall, and he figured at least it was better than his shirt.

He could tell none of the older kids were afraid, so he figured they were either talking about him or having some kind of teen angel pow-wow. Possibly both. “Dani, you want shotgun tomorrow morning?”

“Yes,” Dani said. Aloud again. That had to be progress.

“Maru,” Dean said. “Where’s your scarf? Do we get to see it, or what?”

“It’s in Mr. Randolph’s classroom,” Maru said.

“Why?” Dean asked, following him and Dani around the final corner at the front of the building. “Does it have to be graded or something?”

“No.” Maru sounded like he thought that was a pointless question. “I made it in his class, so that’s where it is.”

“So you can’t bring it home or anything?” Dean didn’t get this school at all. “How’s your dad gonna see it if you have to keep it here?”

“I don’t have to keep it here,” Maru said. “Do you want me to bring it home?”

He was pretty sure this was a trick question, but they were trying to get through the front doors without anyone losing their grip on anyone else and for four people it was something of a challenge. Dean saw the glow of Dani’s pressed-tight wings go right through the side of the door and then shiver away from another student. “Yeah,” he said. “I’d like to see it.”

Just like that, Maru had slipped out from under the hand Dean had on his shoulder. “I’ll be right back,” he said.

Dean tried to turn around, but Saph grabbed his now free hand and Dani was up against his other side so he had almost no maneuverability. “Doesn’t have to be today!” he called after Maru, but the kid was already gone. Dean hoped he hadn’t stepped on some sort of weird Waldorf tradition where the students left all their work at school or something.

“Dean,” Saph was saying. “Why would Father want to see Maru’s scarf?”

“Because it’s cool,” Dean told her, trying to steer the girls out of the heaviest traffic so they could wait for Maru in front of the building.

“How do you know?” Saph wanted to know.

“Because he made it,” Dean said. “That automatically makes it cool. Your dad definitely wants to see the things you make.”

“He does?” Saph was looking at him with wide eyes like she’d never heard that before. “He didn’t tell us.”

“It’s a parent thing,” Dean said. Dani was looking worried, and that couldn’t be a good sign. “How you doing there, Dani? You okay?”

“I didn’t show Father the bowl I made,” Dani said quietly.

“You made a bowl?” Dean repeated. “That’s cool. Where is it?”

She frowned up at him, clearly troubled. “In Mrs. Knowles’ classroom.”

Right, because that was probably where she’d made it. They were weird, but at least they were consistent about it. “We’ll take a look at it tomorrow,” Dean promised. The older kids were almost back to the parking lot by now.

“Did I do the wrong thing?” Dani asked. “I could go get it. Like Maru.”

“You didn’t do the wrong thing,” Dean said. “We’re just gonna wait here for your brother, and then we’ll head back to the car. I want to see your bowl tomorrow, though. I bet it looks cool.”

Dani was still frowning. “It’s not cool,” she said. “The colors didn’t come out the way I meant them to.”

“Sometimes things don’t come out the way you want,” Dean said. “Doesn’t mean they can’t be cool.”

Dani tilted her head, and seriously, this was more talking than he’d heard her do since the car this morning. “I suppose,” she said at last.

She supposed. Great. She was five, and she supposed that things could be cool even if they weren’t what she wanted. He had no idea what to do with any of these kids.

At least when Maru came back out, they managed to talk about his scarf and walk toward the path at the same time. The older kids were waiting by the car – by the car again, not actually in it, and he was about to complain until he realized they probably didn’t have keys. They should.

“Hey,” he said. “Do you guys have keys for the car?”

The car was a fortress on wheels. Castiel had shown him some of its defenses that first night, and since then he’d figured there had to be more. The kind of defenses you can’t explain to someone before they know you’re from heaven.

“No,” Maribel said.

“We don’t need them,” Wildfire added unexpectedly.

“You can get in without keys,” Dean guessed. “Show me.”

Maribel and Wildfire looked at each other, but Maia went around the back of the car and pulled it open. Normally, like a regular kid pulling open an unlocked door. Not bad.

“Not bad,” he said aloud. “So the only problem is if someone knows it’s locked and sees you do that.” He tried to decide if it would be weirder for each of them to carry a key for a car they obviously didn’t drive. Did normal parents give their five-year-old kids keys to the car? So they could… wait in it, or whatever?

Dean’s family had never passed for normal, so the fact that he’d had a car key since he was seven wasn’t evidence either way.

“They don’t have to see us,” Maru offered. And look at that, it must be “volunteer unsolicited information” day.

“Right,” Dean said. He still didn’t know how much “regular kid life” and “exceptions for supernatural danger” were going to overlap in this job: if this week was typical, Castiel wouldn’t have hired him in the first place, right?

He’d ask Castiel about it later.

“Okay,” he added. “Everybody in. Maru’s got the front seat. We’re gonna stop and get some food on the way home, that all right with everyone?”

No one answered, but he hadn’t really expected them to.

He was checking to make sure they were all in when his phone vibrated in his pocket. Sam calling, it said, so he flipped it open and pressed it to his ear as he climbed into the driver’s seat. “Hey, Sammy.”

“Dean.” That was Sam’s trouble voice, and Dean paused with his hand on the ignition. “Where are you?”

“Leaving school,” Dean told him. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t take them home,” Sam said. “10-55 yellow. Anyone there?”

Potentially life threatening fire. At the house? What the hell could burn a house like that? He’d seen the sigils himself; the thing was fire resistant enough that magical arson was his first thought.

“Staff,” Dean said. “Maybe, dunno their schedule.”

He let go of the keys carefully, aware of the silence around him. “Maribel,” he said. He didn’t move the phone; Sam might as well hear everything. “Would you be able to tell if someone had tampered with the car?”

“Yes.” She sounded very sure.

“Has anyone touched the car since we got out of it this morning?”

“Yes,” she repeated. Then, without him having to ask, she said, “Three people touched it. All students at the school. None of them affected the function of the vehicle.”

“Okay,” Dean said. That was handy. “You know anything about what’s going on at the house right now?”

She answered just as quickly. “No. But I could find out.”

“How?” he wanted to know.

“By going there,” Maribel said.

“No,” Dean said sharply. “No one’s going anywhere. Can you hear your dad?” He couldn’t, he had no sense of Castiel at all, and since when did he find that frustrating?

“Dean,” Sam said. “Are you in the car now? Is it warded?”

“Yeah, Sam.” He was watching Maribel in the rearview mirror. “We’re okay.”

“He’s busy,” Maribel said as soon as he stopped talking. “We’re not to disturb him unless someone’s in danger of dying.”

Yeah. Dean was starting to get that that was an actual alert level. One Castiel had to use too much for his peace of mind, but maybe he should be more worried that they’d already reached it. Multiple times.

Maybe not today, though. Not yet.

“Sam,” Dean said. The car might be relatively safe, but it was also conspicuous. “I’m gonna need help.”

“Yeah.” His brother’s voice was obvious and understanding all at once. “You know where to go.”

Dean hung up without bothering to say goodbye. No reason to think anyone was listening in. No reason to talk about something they didn’t need to discuss, either. He started the car, waited for a family crossing the lot behind him, and caught Maribel’s eye again.

“Fire at the house,” he said shortly, and she nodded. Whether that meant she had understood the Kansas first responder codes they still used, or she’d just read it from his mind while he was thinking about it, he didn’t know. “We’re gonna wait until we know more about what’s happening there to go back, okay?”

“Okay,” Maribel agreed. “Will stopping to get food give us enough time to get more information?”

He should probably ask them if they had their own emergency procedures. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what an angel considered an appropriate response to suspicious circumstances. “I think we’re gonna put the grocery shopping on hold,” he said, glancing at her in the mirror again. “You guys got any kind of emergency plans I should know about?”

He might not have any awareness of Castiel, but they all seemed very calm about this.

“In an emergency,” Maribel said, “we are to defend ourselves.”

“Of course you are,” Dean muttered. It wasn’t really meant for them, but they all heard him and he probably should have kept his mouth shut. “What if you can’t defend yourselves?”

“We call Father,” Maribel said. She said it like it was something they did, not something they’d been told to do. He didn’t know what to think about that.

“Okay,” Dean said, pulling into a left-turn lane. “Well, we’re gonna try to keep it from coming to that.”

They made it to the safe house that could hide a car without incident. He kept an eye out for tails for about a minute and a half before he realized any of the kids could probably do a better job than he could. He assigned the responsibility to Adamel and Saph, since they were the farthest back.

By the time he’d parked the Hummer underground, he still hadn’t come up with any bright ideas about shielding angels, but Sam met them at the car and passed beads through the window. “Have all the kids take one,” he said. “Trust me: they’re old, they’re holy, and together they give off about as much heaven as an angel who isn’t doing anything… well. Angelic.”

“Did I ask?” Dean split them up and passed them back over the seat, keeping one that he handed to Maru. “We okay to come in?”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “Probably best to stick close together, though. Those beads are more convincing when they’re –”

“Pretending to be a rosary,” Dean finished.

Sam shrugged. “Yeah, basically.”

“All right,” Dean said, pushing his door open. “Everybody stick together, let’s go. And hold onto those beads.”

Every single kid left their bags in the car without being told. Maru brought his scarf, which Dean didn’t even notice until they were inside. And Dani had somehow gotten his shirt back, clutching it to her side with one arm while Saph held her other hand.

“Okay, so,” Sam said. “Uh, the TV’s in here, there’s movies underneath… if you’re allowed to watch? And there’s snacks this way, if you – um, want something to eat? The bathroom’s through that door. Everyone doing okay?”

All seven of them stared at him in silence, and Dean tried to hide his grin.

Sam gave him a helpless look.

“Okay,” Dean said. “Let’s talk about babysitting. That’s what you’re gonna be doing tonight, right? Movies are a time-honored babysitting tradition, along with staying up late and eating things you’re not supposed to. Let’s practice that.”

His actual babysitting experience was limited to looking after Sam, but he figured that counted.

Dean, Dani said silently. Why are we here?

What’s a safe house? Maribel added.

“Out loud, guys,” Dean said. “You can trust Sam; he’s my brother.”

“What’s a safe house?” Maribel asked out loud.

“It’s a place to hide,” he said bluntly. Why did he try to keep things from them? They weren’t regular kids. “Sam says there’s a fire at your house, and I’m worried that means someone’s after you. So we’re going to stay here until your dad gets done doing whatever he’s doing and comes to get us.”

How does Sam know about the fire? Dani asked.

Dean didn’t think anything of it: Dani whispered in his head all the time, that was just what she did. He’d already answered by the time he realized the rest of the kids were staring at her. “Sam heard it on the radio,” he said. “He listens for emergencies all over town, just in case… uh, sometimes the regular police can’t do anything, right? Sam listens for those kinds of problems.”

It wasn’t his best explanation ever, and they all knew he was a hunter – he should probably just tell them what Sam did. They’d get it. But it wasn’t him they were staring at.

“I’m sorry,” Dani said, in a very small voice.

“Uh…” He should know this, but he didn’t. He glanced at Sam reflexively. “Sorry for what?”

“You told us to speak aloud,” Maribel said when Dani didn’t answer.

“Yeah, that’d be –” He broke off when he realized. Dani hadn’t. Dani had, as far as they were concerned, disobeyed a direct order. That was probably way worse than questioning things, right? He vaguely remembered talk of the devil and fallen angels and other things that sounded bad even to him.

For angels, it sounded like it might as well be the end of the world.

“That’d be great,” he said carefully, kneeling down in front of Dani. “I’d like it if you speak out loud, just for now, because then Sam can hear you, and he might be able to help you quicker than I can if you need something. But it’s okay if you forget.”

“I forget more than anyone else,” Dani whispered. Her wings were tight and blurry against her shoulders, and they didn’t look much like a blanket now. They just looked tense and miserable. “And I lose things. I’m not a very good angel.”

He heard himself say, “Kiddo, you’re a great angel,” before he even thought about it. He managed to stop himself before he gave her the “you’re special because you’re the only one like you” speech, because it hadn’t worked on him as a kid and he was pretty sure it would traumatize an angel.

Most angels. Castiel, at least, had managed to make one of a kind sound like a compliment.

Cas had also said that he wanted to hear he was doing the right thing.

“Repeat after me,” Dean said, before he could be paralyzed by an ethical quandary that no five-year-old needed to bear the brunt of. “I’m a good angel, because Dean Winchester says so.”

“I’m a good angel,” Dani repeated softly. “Because Dean Winchester says so.” She even smiled a little, which was rare for Dani, so he figured if he was warping her mind at least it had okay side effects.

“You got it,” Dean told her. “Can I have a hug?”

She stared at him. “From me?”

He managed not to make a joke of it. “Yeah, kiddo. From you.”

She came over and hugged him then, so he must not have broken her. Sam was right; he didn’t know a damn thing about kids. On the other hand, he was willing to bet no one knew a damn thing about these kids. Someone had to try, right?

“Um, so…” Sam sounded about as lost as he felt. “Cookies?”

“You get the cookies,” Dean said, patting Dani’s back as best he could. “We’ll go pick a movie.”

That was exactly the opposite of how they usually did it, and he could feel the look Sam was giving him without turning around. But hey, if Sam wanted to try to explain movies to angel kids, more power to him. Maybe he’d be better at it.

Dani wasn’t letting go of him, though, so he abandoned his half-formed plans to hijack the snacks. Adamel wanted to know what movies had to do with babysitting, and Maribel wanted to know if any hiding place was considered a safe house. Maru asked what kind of cookies they were having, so Dean sent him to help Sam instead.

“People like movies,” Dean told Adamel. “Get them interested enough in what’s happening on the screen, and they’ll stop bugging you until it’s over. Trust me, TV is a babysitter’s best friend.”

“Can’t you just tell them to stop bugging you?” Adamel asked.

“That doesn’t work so well with regular kids.” Or with any kids, Dean thought but didn’t say. He tried not to think about how he couldn’t just stop answering their questions, because A)of course he couldn’t, and B)they would hear him. “And no, a safe house is usually a hiding place you picked out ahead of time and kind of, you know. Got ready.”

He would change the topic if he had to. Wasn’t that what Cas had told him to do? Shift his focus?

Maribel was getting braver, because she asked what a safe house was ready for, and he managed to occupy her for two and a half minutes by telling her to look around, decide for herself and report back. Adamel, on the other hand, was interested enough in babysitting that he actually helped Dean pick a movie. Dean wanted to meet this Desuhi kid, because apparently all of Adamel’s pop culture knowledge – and he did have some – came from him.

Between the two of them, they got maybe half the kids settled in front of the TV. The other half weren’t, as far as Dean could tell, doing anything dangerous or destructive, so he left them alone. The cookies were good. Maribel was distracted and Dani wasn’t crying, so he figured he was ahead on both counts. Sam even stuck around, which was above and beyond but Dean certainly wasn’t going to complain.

Until a flash of angry orange and a swoosh of displaced air made him flinch: he had half a second to think Castiel’s name really, really hard – it was possible he said it out loud – before the light resolved into Castiel himself. The kids didn’t look alarmed, but Dean took some comfort in the fact that Sam had jumped too. He hadn’t covered his eyes, so apparently Dean was the only one who could see the explosion of wings.

He was also the only one getting backed into the wall as Castiel swept toward him. Personal space was important in front of other people, but Cas looked pissed. Dean could have done without the posturing.

“Way to make an entrance,” he said. His heel thumped against the wall behind him and there was nowhere else to go. “There a reason I’m on your hit list all of a sudden?”

“If someone is in danger of dying,” Castiel growled. “This is when you alert me. How many times must the children tell you before you understand?”

“I made a call,” Dean shot back. “We weren’t at that point; look around you! The kids are fine!”

“Of course they are,” Castiel said. “They’re angels. You’re human. You will not endanger your own life when there are acceptable alternatives.”

“Wait,” Dean said. “What?”

He could see Sam staring, but hey, Dean was right there with him. He wasn’t supposed to endanger his own life? He hadn’t, for one thing, and for another yes he was. That was the job, right?

“That is not the job,” Castiel snapped. “The job is to deflect attention from the children.”

“Yeah, well, consider it deflected,” Dean retorted. “You leave a message saying ‘do not disturb unless someone’s bleeding out’ and I take that pretty seriously!”

“If you need help I am available!” Castiel must have learned that glare from Sam.

“I didn’t need help!” Dean exclaimed.

He had needed help, but he didn’t need anyone yelling at him for making a perfectly good call given the information he’d had at the time. He wasn’t one of Castiel’s kids, and he wasn’t going to be treated like one. It figured that the only paternal instinct the guy had would be turned on the wrong person.

“Then why did you call Sam?” Castiel demanded.

“I didn’t need your help,” Dean snapped. “This is what I do, Cas. This is why you hired me. Don’t add me to your little clique of people you think you have to protect.”

“Why are you allowed to protect me if I may not do the same for you?”

Dean barely heard the question; he just knew he had to respond. He realized the words “Because it’s my job!” were wrong the moment they came out of his mouth.

“And I do it because I want to!” Castiel retorted. “If that is less valid then I can only assume I have learned nothing about humans at all!”

“Guys.” Sam’s tone was sharp enough to make Dean pause. “Cut it out.”

Dean looked at him – that was Sam’s “someone is in imminent danger” voice – and he had to stare past Castiel to do it. The guy was up in his space like he wouldn’t believe if he didn’t… well, know Castiel. It was weird to think he did. Kind of.

More importantly, he knew the kids, and they looked seriously worried. What had he told Castiel: don’t fight in front of the kids. And here he was, setting a great example.

“Cas,” he said, before he could think anything other than fix this. “Back off.”

“No,” Castiel said.

If he’d been able to process even one more thing, just one thing on top of how close Cas was standing and how intent he looked and how Sam was going to gloat and the fact that Dani looked like she wanted to disappear and Saph was terrified and Maribel and Adamel seemed to be trying to decide whether to separate them or back them, either of them, it might have occurred to him that Castiel’s refusal was a big deal. But he couldn’t process any more, so he didn’t realize, and all he knew to do was whatever he could do to make Castiel back down so the kids would stop freaking out.

“You’re right,” Dean said. It was a lie; Cas wasn't right, not about this. “I should have called you. I’m sorry. Okay? We’ll do it better next time.”

Castiel stared a him. His blank stare was almost as terrible as the kids’ fear. He wasn’t moving.

“Why would you say that?” he asked at last.

“Because you don’t fight in front of kids,” Dean said, as calmly as he could. “We can have this conversation later. Right now us yelling at each other is making them a lot more upset than whatever you’re supposed to protect them from.”

Castiel tilted his head, and Dean read it as a frown. He put a hand on Castiel’s chest and pushed, for whatever good it would do. Not much, it turned out – not at first. Until Castiel blinked, and stepped back like he suddenly understood what Dean was going for.

“Hi,” Dean said. Let’s try this again, he thought, and when Castiel actually did frown he thought maybe he’d been overheard. “Sam said there was a fire at the house. Figured it was safer to stay away.”

It sounded like the beginning of their argument all over again, so he gritted his teeth and added, “Thanks for coming to get us.”

Castiel stared at him. His wings were so bright that Dean wanted to squint, except even when he did it didn’t seem to do any good. It was just gold everywhere. Glowing and warm and gold.

Dean felt a hand slide into his, and he tore his gaze away from Castiel.

Maru stood next to him. “We can protect Dean,” he said. His young voice sounded very serious when he added, “We would have called you if we couldn’t.”

“It would have been too late.” Castiel was still staring when Dean looked back at him. Like Maru wasn’t even there. “Gabriel continues to interfere.”

“Gabriel?” He was pretty sure that anything Gabriel did was something he should know about. Considering. “What’s he doing now?”

“Setting the house on fire,” Castiel said, and a thread of annoyance made him look less intent for a moment. “For one. It didn’t burn, but you were right to stay away.”

It finally occurred to Dean that he had no free hands for a reason: Maru was holding one, but the other was still pressed to Castiel’s chest. He let go immediately, and for some reason that made Castiel take another step back.

“I’m sorry I confronted you so aggressively,” Castiel told him. “As you are all safe, clearly your assessment of the situation and subsequent response were adequate.”

Right. Because “adequate” was what he was going for. “Thanks,” Dean ground out.

It’s good, he thought. Saph looked less frightened, but Dani was clearly not reassured, and Dean tried to catch Adamel’s eye and point him in her direction. We’re all good here.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” he said aloud. He tried to sound totally calm when he looked back at Castiel, and he knew he failed. “Privately?”

Even Castiel looked apprehensive now. “What level of privacy do you require?”

“It’s just for a minute,” Dean said, trying not to sound as exasperated as he felt. “Three minutes, tops. Sam, can you stay with the kids? We’ll be right back.”

“Dean,” Maru said. He hadn’t let go of Dean’s hand. “Father didn’t mean to upset you.”

This was exactly what he was trying to avoid: they shouldn’t have to take sides. “No one’s upset,” Dean told him. Except he couldn’t lie to them, and when would he remember that before he opened his mouth?

“Okay, I’m upset,” he said quickly, because they actually seemed to worry more when he didn’t tell them the truth. “But your dad’s cool; I’m not mad at him. Or any of you. You’re doing great.”

Adamel was tugging Dean’s shirt tighter around Dani’s shoulders, and Dean couldn’t figure out what he was doing until he picked her up. It was the first time he’d seen any of them lift Dani, let alone hold her, and he wondered suddenly if he shouldn’t have done it himself. She’d let him, but what if that was a weird angel thing? Maybe there was a reason Cas didn’t hug them?

Dani’s wings shied away from her classmates, but they melted into Adamel as she buried her head in his shoulder. Like it was the most relaxed she’d been all day.

If there was a reason Cas didn’t hug them, Dean decided, it was a stupid one.

“Uh, what do you want us to do?” Sam asked. He looked like he couldn’t decide whether this was a great plan or a terrible one.

Dean figured he deserved a little discomfort. “Think of someone we can take shopping with us tomorrow,” he said. “They need clothes. Cas, c’mere.”

Castiel followed him without a word, even when Dean walked past the kitchen and into the garage. He closed the door behind them. Castiel’s wings weren’t gold anymore, and swear to god, if those things were some kind of cosmic mood ring he was going to decipher the code. Decipher it and use it.

“Can you keep them from overhearing everything we say?” Dean wanted to know.

Castiel just nodded.

“What happens if you do it?” Dean insisted. “Do they flip out ’cause they’re cut off from you, or what?”

“It’s like you,” Castiel said quietly. “Yesterday. I can block the connection enough that knowledge is no longer shared.”

“But it’s hard,” Dean said. “It hurts you to do it.”

“And it’s not permanent,” Castiel said. “They’ll know what we discussed as soon as I stop.”

“Okay, fine,” Dean said. “That’s fine, the whole point is to work stuff out. They can know afterwards. How bad is it for you? While you’re doing it?”

“A few minutes is not overly taxing,” Castiel said. It was an evasive answer if Dean had ever heard one, but really, what could Cas tell him that he would understand?

“You mind?” Dean asked.

Castiel frowned at him. “Mind what?”

“Will you do it,” Dean said. He could feel all of them, every question they were asking Sam, if he concentrated. They thought the clothes thing was related to the argument he and Cas weren’t having. He tried not to smile. Unexpected side benefit of putting Sam on the spot.

Then they were gone. His gaze snapped back to Castiel, the loss of the kids’ awareness harsh and alarming in its suddenness – but Castiel didn’t look startled. Obviously. Because he’d done it. He just looked resigned and maybe a little lost.

“Wow.” Dean stared at him, at his wings, and the words he could almost hear inside his mind without the kids to distract him. “That’s kind of creepy.”

“What do you wish to discuss?” Castiel’s voice sounded flat, and even his wings were sad-looking, which was stupid and Dean wondered if maybe he should have asked Cas to cut the two of them off, too. From each other.

“You’re asking me to deny myself the one comfort this world has to offer,” Castiel said. “I wish you would be brief.”

He couldn’t think of a damn thing that would make him angry at someone who looked like that. What the hell was wrong with him? The guy was doing the best he could, raising his kids in exile, and all Dean wanted was to separate them so he could yell at him in private.

“You’ll have to be clearer,” Castiel said tonelessly. “You’re angry enough to swear. That’s all I understand.”

“Why do you care what I think?” Dean wanted to know. “I’m a terrible role model, Cas; ask anyone. I don’t know why you even listen to me.”

Castiel frowned at him, and Dean got that he was defensive but he didn’t get why until something about his awareness of Castiel shifted. The weird awareness in his head, not what he could actually see or touch. He felt something change as Castiel tried to pull away, tried not to be so close – and he didn’t move. It was only in his head.

“Did you not request an audience with me?” Castiel demanded. “I can only give you what you ask for. It would be easier if your requests were less contradictory.”

“No,” Dean said quickly. “Okay, wait. That’s not what I meant.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Castiel snapped. “Humanity is largely incomprehensible to me, and you more than most. I find myself wanting to meet the standards you set, but I am at a loss as to how to do so.”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Dean said. “Why my standards? What’s so great about what I think? I don’t know what I’m doing; I wouldn’t be here if I did. Sam set us up because I’m a total fuck-up and he thought you’d be good for me.”

“Sam set us up because he knows I need you,” Castiel said. “Anyone who sees me with them knows it.”

Dean didn’t have to ask who “they” were. “That’s not true,” he said, but for once Castiel just spoke over him.

“I’m lost, Dean. That my children may be lost with me is the worst thing I can imagine.”

“You’re not lost,” Dean said, more forcefully. “We’re in this together. Tell me what pissed you off before, okay, ’cause we’re done talking about this.”

“I –” Castiel stopped almost before he started. “When?”

He was willing to be diverted, at least. Dean wasn’t talking about who was worth what and what it all meant; that lead to hangovers and guns and hunts gone wrong. “You came storming in here like the wrath of God,” he said instead. “Or whoever. You shoved me into a wall. What was that about?”

“I didn’t push you.” Castiel sounded startled.

Dean snorted. “Sure, whatever. Were you really that pissed that we didn’t call you? You gotta leave better instructions, man. Either it’s looming death or it’s not; make up your mind.”

“I didn’t –” The hesitation was briefer this time, and Dean thought he was looking for the word. “Understand,” Castiel said at last, “that the children would –” His gaze dropped, then returned, searching. “Defend you in return.”

Dean bit back a retort, because Cas had thought about that. A lot. It had been phrased very carefully to irritate Dean as little as possible.

“I trust them,” Castiel continued, when he didn’t say anything. “To recognize danger that requires my intervention. When it threatens them.”

“You thought they’d let me die?” Dean asked. He couldn’t even make it sound incredulous, because he remembered that first day in the car. If you protect us, we’ll protect you, Maribel had said. Like it was an actual deal. Like it had to be spelled out.

“I think you’d let you die,” Castiel said. It wasn’t an answer.

Except that it kind of was.

Dean drew in a breath and let it out, because his automatic, are you crazy? wasn’t fair and he knew it. Cas wasn’t crazy. Hell, Cas was right. Dean had as good as told him so.

But still: “I wouldn’t let myself die,” he said. “I’ll put someone else’s life before my own. You’re right about that, you know that. That’s why you hired me.”

“That is not why I hired you,” Castiel said. It came out sounding about as frustrated as Dean felt.

“Yeah, fine,” Dean said. “I get it; that’s why I –”

“I don’t think you do,” Castiel interrupted. “I need you. There is no one else like you. Sam must have known as much when he recommended you –”

“You don’t need me,” Dean said, not waiting to see if he was done. “That’s stupid, Cas; you’ve done fine all this time. The kids are fine.”

“But I’m not!” Castiel’s voice was loud, something that could have been a shout if it didn’t sound more like a growl.

There was nothing Dean could say to that.

“If you won’t be needed,” Castiel said, quieter but no less urgent, “you must let yourself be wanted. I want you. I don’t know how to stop.”

“Don’t say that,” Dean muttered. “I mean – to anyone else.” He couldn’t stomp all over someone else’s desperation. “It doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

“I’m familiar with the connotation.” Castiel hadn’t moved, but he somehow he felt closer than he had before. “It’s not inaccurate.”

Jesus. What the fuck was he supposed to do with that?

“Our three minutes are up,” Castiel said.

“Wait.” Dean ran through all the shit he didn’t want the kids to hear and tried to grab the most important. “I’ll yell for you if I think any of us are gonna die, okay? Including me.”

Castiel just looked at him.

“Do you believe that?” Dean insisted.

Now Castiel looked surprised. “Yes,” he said. “Of course.”

“Okay,” Dean said. “Can we try not to shout at each other in front of the kids? It makes ’em really nervous.” Probably an understatement.

“I will endeavor to disagree with you more calmly in the future,” Castiel said. “But it seems to be your displeasure they react to most strongly.”

“I don’t get mad at them,” Dean protested.

“No,” Castiel said. “Mostly you get angry with me. This is effectively the same thing to them.”

“Great,” Dean said. “That’s gonna be hard to fix.”

There was a knock from the other side of the door to the house. “Guys?” Sam’s voice called. “The kids tell me you’ve got a problem.”

The kids’ awareness flooded his mind again, like someone had opened a window, or a door, or a whole freakin’ wall and the light burst in to blind him. He didn’t realize he’d put a hand out until his fingers clenched in Castiel’s coat. The kids were worried, anxious, not in danger of dying.

Useful that that came through first, Dean thought.

They’re worried about us, Castiel said. That’s all.

Dean was worried too, because Castiel’s skin was hot through his shirt and he felt very human when he wrapped an arm around Dean to steady him. “I’m okay,” Dean muttered, opening his eyes again. It was just Castiel’s wings again, between him and whatever overwhelmed him. “Just wasn’t expecting it.”

“I should have warned you,” Castiel said.

“You did,” Dean muttered, and it wasn’t the light that was doing it. It was having Castiel right there and him still trying to think about something else. “Knew it was coming.”

“Do you…” Castiel sounded uncertain. “Require more privacy?”

He wanted to say no, because Cas wanted him to say no, but they were in his head and he was going to have to deal with this. “I really don’t want the kids to know what I’m thinking when you’re this close to me,” Dean blurted out. He wasn’t sure he wanted Cas to know, but the kids were the bigger problem.

“What are you thinking?” Castiel asked. Like that was fair. Like he couldn’t tell at all.

“I’m thinking I want you,” Dean snapped, and he didn’t mean to sound so short but he could only take so much prodding. “In ways kids shouldn’t overhear.”

“I think they possess a broader understanding than you realize,” Castiel said. “If you do not try to hide the knowledge, they will have no reason to look for it.”

“Hey, guys?” Sam’s voice was perfectly audible through the door, and he didn’t sound like he was trying this time. “We can actually hear you. Just so you know.”

Dean jerked away from Castiel and reached for the door. “Stop standing outside doors,” he said, yanking it open without a backward glance. Sure enough, they were all gathered around – little kids with big ones, Maru standing close to Sam.

“Hi,” Dean told them.

They just stared at him, and he sighed. “What do you think’s gonna happen if you leave us alone?”

It didn’t surprise him that no one answered, and he should have let it go. He knew he should even as he asked, “Maribel? What’s the worst that could happen?”

She didn’t hesitate. “You could kill each other.”

There was no good way to respond to that, because fuck. He was worried about oversharing and they were afraid he and Cas were going to solve their problems the angel way. He didn’t even have to look to know that Cas had flinched.

“Okay,” Dean said aloud. “Next time I say three minutes, I mean three minutes.”

It was the best he could offer, and it wasn’t much but Maribel nodded like it meant something. The rest of them just stood there, looking mostly reassured, except for Sam who just looked awkward. Finally Dean said, “So, Cas. Tell us what happened at the house.”

Sam gave him a look like seriously? for that. Dean couldn't tell if it was because Sam thought they should have already covered that, or if it was just because he didn’t think they should do it in front of the kids. Dean didn’t have time to worry about everyone in the entire world, so he ignored it.

“Two angels came to lay a trap for you,” Castiel said. “Gabriel trapped them instead.”

It didn’t get more straightforward than that. “Well, great,” Dean said. Gabriel managing not to be a complete asshole, that was a change. “What’s with the fire?”

“It kept your would-be assailants from escaping,” Castiel said quietly. “It also prevented them from reporting to their superiors. I can only assume that Gabriel is maintaining the fiction that Michael watches over us as part of his own cover.”

Dean almost asked, what’s keeping them from reporting now? Except that, yeah, obviously. Maribel had to get the idea that killing people was some kind of problem-solving strategy from somewhere.

“Good for us,” Dean said aloud. “What kind of damage are we talking about?”

Castiel seemed to consider this, and Dean wondered if there was any way to clear the doorway short of ordering everyone back to the living room. “The armistice weakens with each manifestation of Michael outside of heaven,” Castiel said. “That he will protect the children but not intercede in the war causes confusion in the ranks.”

Dean stared at him. “What?”

Castiel tilted his head. “You asked about the effects of Gabriel’s actions.”

“Damage, Cas,” Dean said. And, okay… Castiel thought that was damage, to his army’s reputation or morale or whatever. “Damage to the house. From the fire.”

Castiel frowned. “There’s no damage to the house.”

“It caught on fire,” Dean said, glancing at Sam for backup because, right? The whole afternoon wasn’t just some weird hallucination?

“Holy fire,” Castiel said. “It had no effect on the warding or structure of the house.”

“But people saw it,” Dean insisted. “Right? There were fire trucks and first responders and everything? Who dealt with that?”

Sam was nodding, so at least he wasn’t totally off base. If it had been on the radio, or wherever Sam was getting his news today, then other people knew about it. And if other people knew about it, someone was going to have to explain why a fire – any fire – hadn’t left some kind of… anything behind.

They were so going over what “holy fire” was later.

“Gabriel, I assume.” Castiel looked like he didn’t know why this was a problem. “There’s no one at the house now. Is that the intent of your question?”

“The intent of my question is to find out what’s going on,” Dean said irritably. More irritably than he had to, if it came right down to it. Castiel was doing the same thing the kids did: answering the question Dean asked. If he’d tried to guess what Dean really meant beyond that, that was good, right? That was… polite.

That was more of an effort than Dean was making right now.

“Which you don’t know,” he muttered, “I get that. So. Didn’t mean to snap at you.”

Castiel finally looked away, catching Sam’s eye, of all of them. “I think I’m starting to understand why you say he has trouble getting along with other people.”

Sam looked way too sympathetic, as far as Dean was concerned.

“Hey.” Dean glared at both of them. “I get along with people fine. Just because you freaks can’t hold a normal conversation to save your lives, don’t look at me.”

Castiel frowned, and Dean felt bad about it before he even opened his mouth. And he didn’t – he didn’t actually open his mouth. Castiel thought quietly, Is name-calling a good example for the children?

“Freaks,” Dean said aloud. “It’s like a… term of affection, okay? Sam, tell him.”

“Dean’s not very good with words,” Sam said. “You might have noticed.”

“Shut up,” Dean snapped.

“For what it’s worth,” Sam offered, “we really do call each other names because we like each other. I wouldn’t, you know… recommend it as a strategy for interacting with normal people.”

“Can we go now?” Dean was officially done with this conversation. “If the house is fine, I want to see it for myself. And Sam’s got, I don’t know, a life. Or so he pretends.”

“The house is safe,” Castiel agreed. “I will escort you there.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Dean said, because he wasn’t forgiving them for this. “Maru already called shotgun. You’ll have to ride in the back.”

“You’re sure this is a good idea?” Sam interrupted. “It sounds like you’ve got two sides fighting over the house right now and neither one of them is yours.”

“The house is protected by an archangel,” Castiel said. “Apparently. If it’s not safe, nowhere else will be. Sam, thank you for sheltering my family in their time of need. I trust we will see each other again soon.”

“Hey,” Sam said. He ignored the eye roll Dean gave him to add, “It’s my family too. We’ve got each other’s backs.”

“Yes,” Castiel said. “That is clear.”

“Okay, who left stuff in the house?” Dean didn’t need to be part of this conversation. “Anybody bring anything in with you that you’re not carrying now? ’Cause otherwise, we’re loading up the funvee and pointing it straight toward crazy town.”

The kids stared at him like they knew it was supposed to mean something, but he was using a language they didn’t know. “The Hummer,” he told them. “We’re taking the Hummer home. You need to get anything out of the house?

“Sam,” he added, like the afterthought it was. “You need help cleaning up?”

For once, Sam took pity on the fact that he had seven kids to take care of and shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “It’s just cookies and the movie; I’ll get it. Text me when you get in, okay?”

“Sure thing, Mom,” Dean said. “Everyone hand over your beads.”

Castiel ended up in the passenger seat beside him, and Dean didn’t even hear him make Maru move. He stared for a second before he decided it wasn’t worth it. If they were going to fight, he might as well know what they were fighting about.

It wasn’t until they were back on the road that Castiel spoke. “I will need to return to heaven,” he said. “As soon as you’re safe. I’m not inclined to trust Gabriel, but his actions so far have been… helpful.”

If there was a question there, Dean didn’t get it. “How’d you hire an archangel?” he asked instead. “Who does that by accident?”

“He came to me seeking protection,” Castiel said. “Or so he said.”

“Protection from what?” Dean wanted to know. “He took on all of heaven and won.”

“Yes,” Castiel agreed, staring straight ahead. “I’m afraid he was after something else.”

Dean opened his mouth – then he got it. He couldn’t tell if he’d figured it out himself, or if he was so far behind that Castiel was feeding him the information subconsciously. Who knew what angels could do.

Who knew what he’d let them do.

“Right,” Dean muttered, just so Castiel would know he’d caught up. Been watching them for a while, Gabriel had said. He’d been after the kids too. Like all the rest of them. But something had made him change his mind, and what a guy did was more important than what he said.

Gabriel was backing them. For whatever reason. From what he could see, Castiel had to take help where he could get it, and Dean wasn’t going to mess that up for him.

They were slowing to make the turn for a grocery store before Castiel asked, “Why are we not going directly to the house?”

“We need food,” Dean said.

Castiel sounded puzzled. “There is food at the house.”

“Specific food,” Dean said. “We’re making lasagna. We need stuff.”

Castiel was quiet long enough for Dean to pull in, which he figured meant they weren’t going to argue about this. One more thing he could check off in the “not fighting about it” column. Parking the Hummer was still kind of an adventure, so he didn’t get as close as he could have. The kids could help carry if they had to.

Actually, why was he even taking the kids inside? He could do this a lot faster if he just went by himself.

“We’re coming with you,” Castiel said firmly. “I can’t protect all of you simultaneously if you split up.”

“Okay, one, I’m not even sure that’s true,” Dean said, because talking was automatic when someone read your mind. Something he’d never had reason to know before he met Castiel. “Two, stop reading my mind.”

“I can’t,” Castiel said, calmly, like he’d said it before and knew he would say it again. “And it’s not entirely true, but it’s true enough that my statement stands. Kelly can get food for you if the terms are unacceptable.”

“Kelly isn’t here,” Dean told him. “We’re parked outside a grocery store; it’s faster for us to get the food. Especially since we’re going to use it as soon as we get home.”

Castiel was frowning, and Dean thought he knew why until Castiel said, “Will you and I not be eating together at seven?”

It surprised him enough that he almost said something he would have regretted. The afternoon had been filled with fear, hiding, and apparently threat of death, and he didn’t care whether the kids were used to it or not. They shouldn’t have to be. And they definitely couldn’t go back to school on Monday and tell everyone that they’d stayed home alone after their house burned while their dad took their bodyguard out to dinner.

“I see,” Castiel said.

Except that no, Dean was pretty sure he didn’t. Not unless he was a lot better at mind-reading than he’d let on. “We can’t,” he said aloud. “We can’t leave the kids alone after today.” Probably not after this week, but yeah, the fire had definitely driven it home.

If he thought about it, it said something that Castiel knew not to contradict him when Maribel didn’t. “We’re capable,” she said from the seat directly behind him. Castiel had probably assigned her as his bodyguard while Dean wasn’t looking.

“I know you are,” Dean said, and he wasn’t lying. “But the rest of the world sees you as minors under our protection. Cas is gonna look like a –” He stopped himself just before he would have sworn, but they probably heard “shitty” anyway.

“Terrible parent,” Dean said instead, “if he goes out and leaves you alone after this.”

The stricken silence from the passenger seat caught up with him a second too late, and he knew he thought oh fuck and he didn’t care. “For fun,” he added hastily. “To do something fun, with me, I mean – leaving to deal with other stuff is totally different.”

Because of course Cas had to go; he probably shouldn’t even be here with them now. He’d interrupted his “call if someone’s dying” business just to check on them and now Dean had roped him into grocery shopping. Dean had no idea what he was doing, but it was obviously important. The guy was trying to keep them alive, not be a magazine dad.

“You’re not doing the wrong thing,” Dean told him. “That came out wrong, okay, I was talking about – I don’t know what I was talking about.”

Castiel didn’t say anything and Dean felt like a jerk. A jerk who had lost control of the situation in under a minute. He didn’t know why they were here, he didn’t need to feed kids who didn’t even like to eat, and the guy who’d been ready to turn himself over to the enemy yesterday was looking at him like he wished he’d done it after all.

What business did Dean have telling any of them what to do?

Castiel’s phone rang.

He answered it like nothing was strange, like this happened all the time, but Dean could hear Gabriel’s voice from where he was sitting and that was just weird.

“I’m not babysitting your little friends.” The tinny speaker of Castiel’s cell was enough to broadcast the words to everyone in the car. “This isn’t a garrison, and I’m not here to fight.”

He had no idea why Castiel looked at him, but they were staring at each other even as Castiel thought, Rachel. And Dean knew without having to be told – unless Castiel was telling him, which, okay, maybe he was – that Rachel was in trouble. She must have gone to the house looking for him.

“I understand,” Castiel told the phone.

“You should go,” Dean said. Castiel was already putting the phone away, which gave him time to add, “We’re fine, Cas. We’ll call you if we’re not.”

“You are my priority.” Castiel meant all of them but he said it to Dean, and it wasn’t easy to keep from flinching under the weight of that stare.

“And we’re okay,” Dean said. “We got this. You get her.”

Those wings were gold and orange both as they flared around Castiel. When he disappeared, Dean put an arm over the back of the seat and looked at the kids. “What do the colors mean? In your wings? There any significance to ’em?”

They just stared at him.

Dean sighed. “Okay, I’m gonna go into the store and get a few things. Don’t leave the car. I’ll be right back.”

“Father would want us to go with you,” Maribel said.

“You’re safer here,” Dean told her.

“We’re safer together,” Maribel countered, and props to her for saying it in a way that didn’t make it sound like she was protecting him.

She totally was, of course. But it was nice of her not to put it quite that way.

“Fine,” Dean said, because he knew who would lose if they had this argument. “You guys know the basic rules of grocery stores? Don’t talk to strangers, don’t wander off, don’t steal things?”

“We’ve been grocery shopping before,” Adamel said.

“Yeah?” Dean eyed him, but no further explanation was forthcoming, so he shrugged. “Okay. Everybody out.”

It took him two and a half seconds from the time he slammed his door to the moment he realized they had zero useful shopping skills. The parking lot was the first problem: they were all standing a uniform distance from each other – a wingspan, his brain noted irreverently – blocking two full parking spaces and half the driving lane.

“Okay, no,” Dean said aloud. “Everybody touch the passenger door. Right now.”

Right now turned out to be an overstatement, because he didn’t even see all the kids move. But there they were, clustered around the passenger side… seven hands on the door. Right. Well, at least they did what he told them to.

“Okay,” he repeated. Except what was he going to follow that with? What did he know about taking kids shopping? “When I say stick together, I mean…” Sticking with him wouldn’t work. He knew it even before he said it. There were just too many of them.

“Maribel,” he said. “Adamel, and Wildfire. We’re gonna pretend you’re adults, okay? Each of you gets one kid. Pretend they’re your kid; they’re your sole responsibility in the universe. Don’t let anyone steal them, take anything from them, or give them anything.”

Are we the kids? Dani asked. She was staring at him, her wings relaxed and glowing with all of her siblings clustered around her. Me and Saph and Maru and Maia?

“Dani,” Dean said. “You’re gonna have to talk aloud while we’re in the store, okay? And yeah, you’re the kids. Stick with your pretend adult. Hold hands, walk around with each other, whatever. Don’t fly if you don’t have to, okay?”

“Who is my pretend adult?” Dani asked out loud. She didn’t seem upset about being corrected, or about being assigned to one of the older kids. He hoped the rest of them took it as well.

“Adamel,” Dean said. Making them decide would probably take longer than the entire shopping trip. He hoped. “Saph, stick with Maribel, and Maia, you want to go with Wildfire? Maru, you’re with me. Don’t walk in front of moving cars, don’t bump into people, that kind of thing. Let’s go.”

It wasn’t the disaster it could have been. They made it to the store without losing anyone in the parking lot, so that was a good start. Everyone he assigned to someone else actually did hold hands, which made them look… sort of adorable, not that he would say it out loud. And if it didn’t keep them in a totally cohesive group, at least it kept it from looking like they were about to forget Dani or Maru every time they turned around.

The store meant tighter quarters, and Dean decided as soon as they walked in that grocery stores were not designed for groups of eight. On the other hand, there were worse things than three pairs of remarkably well-behaved “children” trailing him up and down the aisles. He didn’t realize until the soup aisle that Dani was still wearing his shirt, but hey, Maru had his scarf on and that didn’t even look weird to him anymore.

Probably less weird than what they usually wore, Dean thought.

“Are you looking for something?” Maia asked, after they’d walked down the second aisle in a row without getting anything. He’d grabbed a basket when he came in, out of habit, but seeing a woman with a kid riding in a cart made his mistake more obvious. He was supposedly shopping for a whole family – and hey, he could fit at least two of them in a cart if he tried.

“Yeah, mushrooms,” Dean said absently. They’d passed cheese first thing, and he was finally on the right aisle for pasta and sauce. Better to keep moving: no one liked a shopper who stood still. Especially in a group.

“They’re on the back wall to the left,” Maia said. She and Wildfire were walking right behind him, talking to each other just enough that it didn’t look like he was leading a whole group of mute kids.

“Yeah?” So they really had been grocery shopping before. “You get mushrooms often?”

“I’ve never had mushrooms before,” Maia said.

“But you buy them?” Dean finally figured out what to ask and amended, “How do you know where they are?”

“I went shopping with Kelly once,” she said. “I memorized where everything is.”

Dean raised an eyebrow, even though he told himself he shouldn’t be surprised. “Everything in the store?”

“Everything in all the stores,” Maia said.

Dean decided he’d rather not know whether she meant all the stores she’d visited, or all the stores in the world. He figured either one was possible. “Great,” he said instead. “That’s… uh, helpful.”

Someone edged around them in the aisle without giving him a second glance. Apparently not the weirdest conversation people had with kids in public. Dean was almost glad when Maru asked if they could get more ice cream, even if they already had way more ice cream than anyone should need at home. At least the question sounded inconspicuous.

So they did. They got mushrooms and beef and then more zucchini as an afterthought, when Dean saw Saph giving the hamburger a sideways look. Then they got ice cream. Luckily none of the kids were willing to share opinions about ice cream flavors, because they could have been there all day. They got more of the same ice cream sandwiches they’d had two nights ago and headed for the checkout.

Trying to fit eight kids into the checkout line with him was hilarious. He finally shooed them through ahead of him, told them not to leave the store or harass the bagger or get in anyone’s way, and jesus, when did he become their parent?

Maru stuck with him, of course, and Dean saw him eyeing the candy. “You want M&Ms or something?” Dean asked.

“Sometimes I have Musketeers bars,” Maru said.

“You want one, put it up here,” Dean said, pointing at the conveyor belt.

Maru took a candy bar without a word and reached up to put it on the conveyor.

“Anyone else?” Dean asked. “Candy?”

“Yes?” Maribel said, like it was that kind of question. She was standing on his other side with Saph, who nodded enthusiastically.

“Musketeers okay, or you want something else?”

“I don’t know,” Maribel said, and Dean was going to take that as acceptance. They didn’t really have time for all the kids to debate the merits of each candy.

“Musketeers it is,” Dean said, grabbing two more candy bars. And then, because he wasn’t totally stupid, he cleaned out the rest of the bars in the box and sent nine of the things through checkout after their groceries.

He paid with the credit card Castiel had left in the Hummer for gas, and it actually went through. He must have looked harried enough that when he pocketed the card before they could check the signature they didn’t call him on it. Or maybe they had a higher limit on that stuff here; he didn’t know. He didn’t spend much time in chain stores that advertised “organic” and “free trade.”

All he knew was that when he got the receipt there were like, a dozen bags for one basket of food, and he didn’t get why until the bagger smiled at him. The fuck, Dean thought, I’m not carrying –

Then the bagger said, “Okay to pass the bags down?” And Dean realized she was waiting to hand Maia one of the bags.

“Yeah, sure,” Dean said automatically. “Thanks.”

Maribel took the next bag, and Saph reached up for the one with the ice cream in it, and Dean was only left with two – very lightweight – bags. Until Maru caught at his belt loop and asked, “Can I carry one?”

So Dean gave him the one with the candy bars, and the rest of the kids were gathered at the end of the checkout waiting. “Okay,” Dean called, because they weren’t going anywhere until someone started moving. “Don’t drop anything, let’s go. Hold hands in the parking lot.”

“Have a nice day,” the bagger told them.

This was actually his life all of a sudden, and the kids were listening, so Dean said, “You too,” and smiled at her again in thanks.

The parking lot didn’t seem so bad the second time through. Possibly because there were more people right in front of the store than there were farther out in the lot, so their brand of chaos blended better. By the time they got to the car they were walking in a straight line and even Maru and Saph were holding their bags high enough that they didn’t hit the ground.

The Hummer didn’t have a trunk, of course. Dean passed his bag into the back with them and told them not to kick the groceries. The younger kids looked like this had never occurred to them, and the older kids looked like they were filing it away for future reference.

Dean shook his head as he closed the door, but he couldn’t help smiling. He didn’t realize how strange it was until he climbed into the front and the passenger seat was still empty.

“Maru,” Dean said. “Still your turn to ride up front, if you want it.”

He didn’t know what Castiel had said to them before, but Maru appeared in the front seat the moment he’d finished speaking. Literally appeared. Dean had already put “talk to Cas about the kids flying” on his mental list, but it was below “talk to Cas about the kids’ clothes” and “talk to Cas about the kids’ art projects.”

All of those things were under “make Cas forget about the goddamned war for a while,” but he wasn’t sure that was even possible and he liked to set achievable goals.

“Angels don’t see colors the way humans do,” Maru said. “May I eat my candy bar now?”

“Yeah, sure.” Dean eased the Hummer through the parking lot – as much as a Hummer could “ease” anywhere – and asked absently, “How do you see colors?”

“Angels see all reflected radiation.” Maru turned under his seatbelt to peer into the back. “May I have a Musketeers bar, please?”

Dean wasn’t so distracted that he didn’t notice the candy bar had been “mine” before and now it wasn’t. Maybe they had “mine” and “yours” as a group, just not as individuals? That would kind of make sense. Things belonged to the family or they didn’t; they didn’t belong to certain members of the family.

But the swords must, right? They all had their own swords. Were those interchangeable too?

“May I have a candy bar too, Dean?” It was Saph’s voice, sweetly polite and probably just mimicking Maru. Or someone. They all had to be imitating someone. He didn’t hear Castiel saying “please” and “thank you,” and Dean definitely hadn’t taught them.

“Yeah, help yourself.” Dean glanced in the mirror. The other kids were just looking at each other, so he added, “All of you. If you want one. There’s enough for everyone to have one if you want it.”

“Do you want one, Dean?” Dani wasn’t even holding a candy bar, but Adamel reached for the bag as soon as she asked. Dean looked in the mirror again to see him holding up a Musketeers bar in what was clearly an offering gesture.

“Yeah,” Dean repeated. He tried not to think about having to teach angels to drive. It was probably going to be a disaster no matter what he did, so he might as well set a realistic example. “That’d be great, thanks.”

It was passed over the seat to him. Between the driving and the candy and trying to keep an eye on the kids to make sure they didn’t eat a wrapper or something, he forgot what they’d been talking about altogether. Until Maru remarked, “I think of wings as colored light too.”

Not only did it come back to him, but Dean suddenly understood what the conversation was about. It had been his question and now he wasn’t even paying attention to the answer. “So they are different colors?” he asked. “That’s not just, like, a weird human thing?”

Maru considered that, and this time Dean actually heard them all weighing in. A flicker at the back of his mind that was definitely the kids – all of the kids – trying to decipher his question. He’d opened his mouth to say it more clearly when Maru replied, “I don’t know.”

Not “I don’t understand,” or “I don’t know what you’re asking,” just “I don’t know.”

“If you mean, is it because you’re human that you see our wings as colors,” Maru added, “then I don’t think so, because we do too. But Father says we’re partly human, so it might be.”

Dean tried not to get stuck on that, because Castiel had told him: he’d said not entirely human. That wasn’t being polite, that was angel-style bluntness. They weren’t all angel, and Dean hadn’t had the courage yet to ask how something like that happened.

He glanced at the mirror again. “Hey, Saph,” he said. “Who gave you your nickname?”

There was the silence of uncertainty, and this time he did have to rephrase the question before they got it. “You said everyone calls you Saph,” he offered. “Is that because of your wings?”

“Oh!” Saph sounded like the whole conversation made sense to her now. “Yes. Father called me Saph because I’m so curious. I like it, so everyone else calls me Saph too.”

“Because you’re curious?” Dean repeated.

“Yes,” she said.

Well, at least they were getting the hang of confirming repeated statements.

“I thought ‘Saph’ was short for ‘Sapphire,’” Dean said. “Because your wings are blue.”

“Yes,” she repeated. “That’s true.”

They weren’t the only ones having trouble understanding, but Dean finally caught up. “So… do people who are curious have blue wings?” he asked carefully. For all he knew he was saying something horribly insulting in angel-speak, but it seemed like that was where she was headed.

“Blue means you’re interested,” Saph said. She sounded totally happy about it, so hopefully they were okay. “It’s really fast. It has a lot of energy. Like me.”

She had, far and away, the most consistently tinted wings of any of them. They were bright and solid and eye-catching in the midst of her siblings’ shifting colors. “How come yours don’t…” – change as much as the others, he wanted to say, but after Dani he was extra wary of drawing attention to differences.

“Change much,” he finished awkwardly.

“I’m very, very curious,” she told him. She sounded solemn, like she was explaining a great mystery, but it didn’t seem to bother her when she added, “Father says that’s unusual for an angel.”

So the blue overpowered the other colors, he wondered?

That was when it hit him: they really were a mood ring. The orange and the red wasn’t his imagination when things were going wrong; that was their wings. Reacting to… danger. Or alarm. Or something. He wanted to ask, but that was probably the wrong one to start with.

“So does yellow mean something?” he asked instead. “Bright yellow, like – gold, or whatever?”

“Oh, that’s Father’s color,” Saph said confidently. “His wings are always gold.”

Dean was pretty sure they weren’t always, but she was getting general agreement from the other kids. “I hadn’t noticed that,” he said carefully.

“They might not be to you,” Wildfire offered. “Sometimes Saph’s wings look bluer to the person she’s concentrating on.”

Dean wasn’t sure whether he should be more surprised by what she was saying, or by the fact that she was participating in the conversation. “So you see the colors better when someone’s talking to you?” That explained why Rachel and Balthazar had boring wings: they barely acknowledged his existence.

No. Wildfire didn’t say it aloud, but the intent came through clearly. “We think wings reflect what’s being directed at you. If Saph’s curious about something I’ve done, her wings look bluer to me than they do to Maribel.”

“The gold is because Father likes us,” Maru added, licking the remains of his candy bar off of his fingers. “You might not see it as much.”

“He likes you, though,” Maribel said. As though Dean might need reassurance. “Just not all the time.”

He had to smile at that, as stupid as it was. Because yeah. “Not all the time” sounded about right.

“I think Father likes him all the time,” Saph declared. “As much as he likes Balthazar.”

More than he likes Rachel, Dani added.

Or Gary, Adamel said.

Which seemed like an odd thing to say, but that had definitely been Adamel’s voice and Dean was pretty sure that if he asked questions they would just keep doing it. “Okay,” he said instead. “Back to colors. Is green bad?”

They shifted their focus like flipping a switch, and he had to admire their speed. He could actually hear them, all together, turning from who does Father like most to when are wings green? No wonder Castiel thought his mind was “undisciplined.”

“Green represents safety,” Maia said.

“Safety you don’t have,” Wildfire agreed. “It’s a way to hide.”

“A lot of living things on earth reflect green light,” Maru said. “We think green means you’re in trouble.”

That was the second time they’d said it that way: “we think” instead of “it does.” He wondered how much of this they were figuring out for themselves – and how much of it they had to. How did they know where everything was in the grocery store and not know why their own wings changed color?

“Like camouflage,” Maribel said. “The way we imitate humans.”

“Green is for when you can’t fight,” Wildfire said.

“Red is a fighting color,” Adamel told him. “That’s why Father’s wings sometimes look red when he leaves.”

There was something weird about that, but it got lost under the rest of their commentary. They all had something to say – and for once they were just saying it. Not waiting to see how he would react. Like they were talking to each other, except they weren’t. This was completely for his benefit.

“Even when he’s not fighting you,” Dean blurted out, because that was it. That was the weird part. Their dad’s wings looked more gold to them because he liked them more; Saph’s wings looked more blue to people she was curious about. Dean had never seen more than the briefest flash of red in Castiel’s wings… so why did they?

“I don’t understand,” Maribel said.

He realized, too late, that he’d interrupted their conversation about purple or whatever. He’d been listening, but he’d never seen their wings go darker than blue so he didn’t really have a frame of reference. Apparently their wings didn’t do it alone anyway.

“The red thing,” Dean said. “How come they look red if it’s not directed at you?”

“Because it’s for us,” Maribel said.

“Father wouldn’t have to fight if he didn’t have us,” Adamel said.

This passed totally unchallenged: Dean had no idea whether contradicting them would help or hurt, even though his first instinct was to tell them it wasn’t true, and the other kids were – for once – eager to talk. Aloud. He’d never heard the car this full of chatter.

“Wings look green even when it’s not directed at us,” Maia remarked.

“I think we just see the things that are directed at us more strongly,” Wildfire said. “Like the way Saph’s wings are blue to everyone.”

“How come Father’s wings aren’t purple when he’s with Rachel and Balthazar?” Saph wanted to know.

Because they’re still alone, Dani said.

“How many people do you need to not be alone?” Saph asked.

Dani sounded as sure as any child when she said, I think it depends who the people are.

“Or orange,” Wildfire was saying. They could follow more conversations than he could, and Dean didn’t think it was because they weren’t listening to each other. “That even makes sense, because you don’t want to fight over things you don't care about.”

“Caring about things doesn’t mean you like them,” Maia said.

“But it means you like something,” Wildfire pointed out. “If you don’t like one thing, it must be because you do like something else.”

“Maybe enough to fight over it.” Maia sounded like she was finishing a sentence, not starting one, but Dean had definitely missed the beginning of that.

“Wait,” he said, glancing in the mirror again. “What’s orange? I only ever see orange with red.”

“Really?” Maru sounded surprised, and it occurred to Dean that they were – at least nominally, with the words they spoke aloud if not with their attention – doing the human thing where you talked more to people who were closer to you. “I saw orange when Father came to the safe house.”

“Me too,” Saph agreed from the back seat. “Not red at all.”

“Did he look red to you, Dean?” Maribel asked.

“No?” Dean guessed, trying to remember. The colors were fast and fleeting in his mind, mostly registering as “bright” and only secondarily as color at all. “I don’t know.”

I think he was worried, Dani said. Which, yeah. That had been pretty clear.

“Is orange worry?” Dean asked.

“It’s alarm,” Maia said.

“Like being afraid that something’s going to happen,” Saph added.

“Or ready for it,” Wildfire said.

In between liking and fighting, they’d said. The space where you decided to protect something.

“Yes,” Adamel said aloud. “It’s protection.”

He couldn’t keep them from doing it, so he tried to ignore the mind-reading. “So is green in between liking and being curious?” he asked. More because he thought it would distract them than because he meant it. Unless it helped him remember, in which case, he was all for the explanation.

“Yes.” Maribel and Maia spoke at the same time, and Dean thought that might be a first. Maia stopped, though, and Maribel went on. “It’s common to both humans and angels, I think, that there’s a desire to be like the things we love. Father would say that wanting to know why those things are the way they are is a… a natural next step.”

She’d started strong, but Maribel didn’t stammer much and her uncertainty was impossible to ignore. I want you to tell me I’m doing the right thing.

“Yeah,” Dean said. “He’s right; that makes sense.”

“Oh, good,” Saph said. Dean was pretty sure she’d just voiced what the rest of them were thinking. “I wish more people had wings,” she added unexpectedly. “So it was easier to understand them.”

“Hey, you understand me,” Dean said, smiling at her in the mirror.

“Not really,” she said. “But you explain things. Lots of people don’t.”

“Sometimes people try,” Dean told her. “It just… doesn’t come out the way they meant it. Or they don’t know how. That’s probably more common; that people just don’t know how to explain.”

“How can they not know how?” Saph asked.

He wanted to ask her something she couldn’t explain, but it wasn’t a lesson he was up for right now. “I don’t know,” he said instead. “You should ask Sam. He’s good at figuring out the stuff people can’t say.”

“Like why you get upset with Father?” Maru asked.

Dean didn’t want to guess what question he was asking there. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to know, but they were all waiting for an answer. “What do you mean?”

“Sometimes you get upset about something Father does,” Maru said, and he sounded careful now which meant Dean was not ignoring this as well as he wanted to be. “Or did. But you don’t tell us why. I thought maybe that was one of the things you can’t explain.”

And it was a problem. Even Dean could see that. He’d signed on to what was apparently a full-disclosure family, and if he thought wanting to date their dad was inappropriate, it was because he wanted it to be. He wanted that to be the biggest problem they had. Because he could handle inappropriate.

He wasn’t sure he could handle explaining his feelings. To anyone, let alone a bunch of children who wouldn’t have the first clue what he was talking about.

You think we wouldn’t understand, Dani said.

“We probably wouldn’t,” Saph said. She sounded sad, which was definitely the wrong reaction. She should be happy she wouldn’t get it.

“It’s not that I don’t think you’d understand,” Dean said. Because if he didn’t talk, they were just going to keep guessing, and that wouldn’t end well for anyone. “I think… you shouldn’t have to deal with it. That’s why I asked to talk to your dad alone.”

“He doesn’t like being alone,” Maribel said.

It wasn’t an observation. It was a criticism. Dean was positive he hadn’t imagined the disapproval in her voice.

“Yeah, well, I don’t like you guys seeing us fight,” he told her. “Especially if you think the logical outcome of a fight that lasts longer than three minutes is death.”

That was unnecessarily harsh, and he regretted it the moment the words were out of his mouth. This was why he couldn’t explain things to them: he’d just ended up saying something he didn’t mean. And as far as he could tell they didn’t forget anything.

“It wasn’t the fact that you were fighting that scared us,” Maribel said. “It was the fact that you didn’t come back.”

Yeah, he hadn’t realized how seriously they would take that “three minutes” thing. “That was my bad,” Dean said. “I should’ve kept a closer eye on the time.”

“You shouldn’t have separated us from Father,” Maribel said.

The car was quiet. The sound of the engine was the loudest thing: not even a window cracked open or a candy bar wrapper crinkling in the back. Everyone was waiting to see what happened to Maribel, he realized. And not in the usual “is she going to get in trouble for mouthing off?” way of kids, but more in the “is she going to be struck by lightning for disobeying Father’s orders” kind of way.

He figured it was typical that he’d finally learned to read kids, and they were so different from anyone else that it wouldn’t help him with other children at all. The same way being able to exorcise demons didn’t tell him how to act in church, and being able to track werewolves hadn’t helped him find his dad. His skill set was way too specialized.

“Okay,” Dean said at last. “I’m gonna assume you have a good reason for saying that. Since I’m pretty sure your dad told you to help me, I’m hoping you’ll tell me what it is.”

“An angel would understand,” Maribel told him.

“Well, a human would understand why your dad pisses me off,” he shot back. It had been a split-second decision between snapping and shutting down, and he couldn’t even remember making it. He should have kept his mouth shut.

On the other hand, she probably should have kept her mouth shut too, and so far no one was crying.

“Tell us,” Maribel said. “Maybe we can understand too.”

It wasn’t quite the last thing he’d expected her to say.

“Human parents are supposed to do certain things for their kids,” Dean said, careful to keep his eyes on the road. “Your dad doesn’t do that stuff.”

“He’s not human,” Maribel said.

“But you are.”

They didn’t contradict him, and he took a deep breath. If there were ever kids he could hurt – other than Sam – these were probably them. He needed to not do that.

“Partly,” he said. “Partly human. Which is cool. It’s just… your dad. Seeing him with you – he sometimes reminds me of my dad, okay? With Sam.”

“But you like Sam,” Saph said in a small voice.

“You’ve never mentioned your dad before,” Maribel said, before he could reply I like you too.

The words stuck in his throat. “Yeah,” was all he managed to get out.

No one else said anything. He couldn’t keep going, so even if he felt bad about the silence he figured it had to be better than saying the wrong thing. It sucked that the rest of the ride was like that – especially after their enthusiastic discussion of wings just a few minutes before – but he told himself it could be worse.

They could be talking about him.

He almost believed it, too, right up until they pulled into the garage and he turned off the engine and no one moved. Before he could push his own door open, he heard Dani ask, “Dean?”

He hooked his arm over the back of the seat and turned to face her. “Yeah, kiddo?”

“Do you still like us?” she asked.

She shouldn’t have to keep asking that.

Maybe it wasn’t Castiel that was like his dad after all… maybe it was him.

“I like you a lot,” he told her, as sincerely as he could. “I like all of you. And when I get… upset, with your dad? That’s not his fault. And it’s not your fault. And it doesn’t mean that I like any of you any less.”

“Oh,” she said.

“That was a good explanation,” Saph told him.

No, it wasn’t, he thought. It wasn’t an explanation at all.

“Look,” Dean said awkwardly. “My family was… not as awesome as yours, okay? When I was growing up. My dad was… he had a – a different kind of war. And he couldn’t – keep us out of it.”

He stopped, because he shouldn’t even be telling them this. They didn’t need to hear it.

“Father doesn’t want us to fight,” Maribel said. “But that’s what we were made to do. We’re soldiers. Just like him.”

“Yeah.” Weren’t they all just like their parents. “I know. My family was… kind of the same way. But Sam, he didn’t – he was more, you know? He is more. He cares about more than just the fight.”

Maribel didn’t answer, but Adamel asked, “Does he watch TV?”

Dean wanted to laugh, except god, Adamel watched TV. On his friend’s phone at school. The giant flatscreen TV in their house had never even been turned on.

“Sam…” Dean swallowed, because he hadn’t realized how hard this would be. “He likes the internet. And dogs. And arguing with people until they agree that he’s right.

“He’s good at fighting,” Dean muttered. “He just… wants to do other stuff, too.”

“Like you,” Saph said. “You make us food, and you teach us about being human.”

He tried to smile at her. He wasn’t anything like Sam, but he tried.

He thought their dad had tried too.

“Do we remind you of Sam?” Maru asked.

He’d basically told them that, hadn’t he. “The last time I –” took care of, he wanted to say – “did anything, with kids… I mean. It was Sam.”

“Does that mean that you get upset when Father does something you think Sam wouldn’t like?” Maribel looked curious. Not like it made sense, or even like it didn’t: more like it didn’t mean anything to her at all.

The swirl of color in her wings looked more orange than blue, but maybe that was his imagination.

“No,” he muttered. “I get upset when…” When he doesn’t hug you, he wanted to say. When he doesn’t tell you how great you are. When he doesn’t care about your projects, or buy you stupid shit just because you want it. When he doesn’t even ask you what you want.

“When he doesn’t do things you wanted your father to do for Sam,” Adamel said. His voice was quiet but not curious. He sounded certain.

Dean tried to look at him, but he ended up looking out the window instead. Or for me, he thought. That was way more than they needed to hear. That was more than he even got to say; his dad had tried and that should be enough. Dean should have been able to fill in the gaps.

“Father would do anything for us,” Saph said. Just as sure as Adamel.

“Yeah, I know.” She wasn’t wrong, either, and there was nothing in him to make them doubt that. “It just reminds me, is all. Sometimes humans get upset for stupid reasons.”

“Father doesn’t like to be alone,” Maribel said.

Dean didn’t get it. He was mostly grateful for the change of subject, so he just nodded to her. “Lucky he’s got you, then.”

“That’s why we were worried when you talked to him privately,” Maribel continued. “In the garage.”

She was telling him. He had told her what a human would understand, so she was telling him what an angel would understand: they didn’t like to be alone. “All angels?” he asked, just to be sure. “Or your dad especially?”

She frowned. “It’s just we who were worried.”

“All angels,” Adamel said. “If you’re asking whether any of us like to be alone, then no. We don’t. But we’re more used to it than Father is.”

Can’t miss what you never had. It came back to him all of a sudden, and he remembered Castiel saying there was nothing where there used to be everything. The cost of privacy. The cost of his secret, of the children he tried to hide from all of heaven: being alone.

The only good thing the world had to offer, Castiel had said. He wasn’t exaggerating, then. The kids were a tiny fragment of the family he’d given up. Without them, Cas was more lost than Dean had been after his father died.

Because he’d still had Sam.

“Okay,” Dean said. “I get it. Thanks.”

He meant it, too. Castiel had told him, but he hadn’t made it clear enough. Or maybe he just hadn’t said it with the conviction of a child.

Maybe Dean just hadn’t been listening.

Someone’s candy bar wrapper crinkled, and he straightened up. “Let’s get the groceries inside,” he said. No fire damage obvious from the outside, so he was going to assume they were walking into something livable at least. Maybe even unchanged, depending on how literal Castiel had been about the lack of damage.

Very literal, it turned out. Dean couldn’t bring himself to be surprised. He did cast a wary eye around for “Gary,” along with swords or blood or lingering heaven magic, but if it was there he didn’t see it.

So they made lasagna. Dean hadn’t expected the mood to improve, but apparently when angels agreed an argument was over, it was really over. If they had even argued. In retrospect, he wasn’t sure what it was, just that he never wanted to do it again.

Supervising seven kids who knew just enough about kitchens to get into trouble was enough to take his mind off of it for a while. He didn’t end up making any part of the lasagna, since it was all he could do just to keep them busy and uninjured. On the plus side, they were all disturbingly good at following directions with the stove, more familiar with knives than he wanted to think about, and probably capable of healing themselves if they actually made a mistake. So it could have been worse.

They divided the lasagna up into vegetarian and non, since no one seemed to know whether they wanted meat or not. Weirdly, they were all willing to try the mushrooms. They spent the first half hour of cook time cleaning up, because A)by now he wasn’t convinced Kelly even existed, and B)if they were going to learn how to use a regular kitchen, they needed to know how to clean it up.

The spent the rest of the time watching TV. Or rather, sitting on the couch learning how to use the remote control and discussing which shows were appropriate and which ones weren’t. He tried to explain that appropriateness varied with age, which they didn’t get at all, and also that certain shows should only be discussed in front of certain people, which seemed to make more sense to them.

“Some kids don’t tell their parents what they watch,” Maia offered. “If you can’t tell your parents, but you can tell other kids, then obviously the audience is important.”

“Right,” Dean agreed, because how did they pick that up without being able to wrap their heads around the difference between PG-13 and R? “That’s exactly it. Usually it’s a good idea to follow someone else’s example on that one. If other people are talking about it, you probably won’t be wrong if you talk about it too.”

“Unless it’s in the news,” Saph said. “The news isn’t rated, right?”

“Right,” Dean said, more carefully. “But… if you pretend that the news is like a movie, that might work better. At least in casual conversation. If it would have a high rating in a movie, it’s probably not news you should mention as an icebreaker.”

“Is PG-13 a high rating?” Maribel wanted to know.

“Depends whether the person you’re talking to is thirteen or not,” Dean said. “If they’re under thirteen, then yeah. Probably too high.”

“But R is 17 and over,” Adamel said. “Does that mean none of us should talk about R-rated things?”

“Yeah,” Dean said. “Well, no. At home it’s fine. It’s just with people you don’t know very well. Don’t get too intense with random people on the street, is what I’m saying.”

“Do ‘casual conversation,’ ‘icebreaker,’ and ‘random people on the street’ all refer to the same thing?” Maribel asked. “People you don’t know much about, and therefore can’t predict how they’ll react?”

Dean blinked. “Yeah. That works.”

“So things with high ratings are intense,” Saph said.

Dean had to smile, because she was totally serious. Of course she was; what did they know about slang? They were putting it together as he used it. That was sometimes more than he could do.

“Yeah,” he said again. “Intense things are like death and sex and violence. That’s a heavier conversation; probably don’t want to start that with someone who’s not already a friend or a family member.”

“Intense things are heavier,” Dani said. “Does that mean casual things are lighter?”

“You got it,” Dean told her. The music made him look up, and he saw the national news coming to an end. He frowned. “Is it seven?”

“It’s six fifty-nine,” Saph said helpfully. “Should we go check on the lasagna?”

“Sure,” he said. They should; it was probably almost ready to come out. He’d meant for it to be ready before seven, so he could make sure they were okay with food before he left, but they could cut and cook and clean. They could probably take a dish out of the oven without burning themselves.

He tried not to look at the clock while they got out plates and silverware. Normally he wouldn’t be so weird about the time. On the other hand, normally he wasn’t waiting for a soldier who was literally coming back from the front lines to spend time with him.

Dean didn’t make it past 7:04 without asking, “Is your dad ever late?”

They all paused, but it was Maribel who answered. “No.”

“It’s seven oh four,” Dean said. “Anyone know where he is?”

Maribel frowned. “He’s in heaven.”

“Is he in trouble?” Dean insisted.

“No,” Maribel said. “He’s with Rachel.”

He told himself that made him feel better, but it didn’t. Not really. “Why isn’t he here?”

The oven timer beeped. No one moved.

“Wildfire,” Dean said at last. She was closest. “Would you take the lasagna out of the oven?”

She did it without complaint while Maribel said, “I think he’s doing something important. Not fun. You told him not to leave us alone to do something fun,” she added, like she was trying to prove she remembered.

Or like she wanted him to know it was his fault. Which it apparently was.

He didn’t want to say anything, but they weren’t going to get anywhere if he didn’t. He would keep waiting around, and Castiel would keep not being there, and he probably couldn’t embarrass himself in front of the kids any more than he already had. “We were supposed to go out tonight,” he said.

Maribel didn’t say, you and Father? or you mean on your date? Either of which, if he’d thought it through, would have been what he expected as an answer. Instead, she just repeated, “You told him not to.”

“Okay,” he said with a sigh. Because that hadn’t been as painful as it could have been. “That’s what I was afraid of. Is he too busy to show up, or can I talk to him for a second?”

This time it was Wildfire who said, “We’re allowed to ask for him right now.”

He was gonna take that to mean, “even if someone isn’t about to die,” so he said, “Well, would you? Ask him to come here?”

Dean thought she nodded, but the rush of wings mostly distracted him. Castiel wasn’t subtle, he thought. And it was silly and unimportant and he only thought it to keep from being impressed, but somehow he knew that that was what Cas picked up from him first: that he wasn’t impressed. Instead of what he wanted to tell Cas, which was that he was overdue for some fun and Dean was kind of an idiot sometimes.

“Hi,” Dean said. Because apparently privacy was a thing of the past, and also, he was going to try to brazen this one out. “Pretty sure you were supposed to pick me up five minutes ago.”

Castiel raised an eyebrow at him. “I distinctly recall you saying we could not go out tonight.”

“Then you recall wrong,” Dean told him. “Because I remember saying that we can’t leave the kids alone, which is kind of a different thing.”

Castiel frowned, and Dean gave up on the brazen-it-out strategy. “I’m sorry,” he said bluntly. “If I pissed you off before, I didn’t mean to. I want to go out with you.”

He risked a look at the kids, which almost derailed him. They looked happy instead of worried, for once, so he must be doing something right. “We can’t leave the kids,” he said, “but we could ask ’em if they want to come with us.

“If you still can,” he added, looking back at Castiel. “I don’t know what’s going on in – you know. Where you are.”

“Nothing that can’t wait,” Castiel said. “I would very much like to spend time with you.”

“I want to go!” Saph exclaimed. “Are you going to ask us now? Where are you going?”

I want to go too, Dani said.

“Okay, hang on,” Dean said. He couldn’t keep from smiling, and the stern look he tried to give them was a total failure. “If we don’t get any privacy, you have to at least let us talk to each other.”

“You did talk to each other,” Maru said. “We all heard you.”

Dean ignored him in favor of asking Castiel, “How do you feel about bowling?”

“The only association I have with bowling is a positive one,” Castiel replied. “Because you mentioned it.”

It actually took Dean a second to decipher that. When he got it, though, he tried to hide another smile by asking the kids, “Any of the rest of you have opinions about bowling?”

“I like it,” Saph said promptly.

She was the only one who answered, and Dean looked at her. “Have you ever done it before?”

“No,” she said. “What’s bowling?”

He lost the battle with his smile. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll show you. It’s gonna be a little late, but it’s not a school night. Anybody too tired to go out?” He was so going to get in trouble for having Dani out on a Friday night. Hopefully the school would cut him some slack after the fire thing.

They all seemed very determined not to answer the question, so Dean assumed that was seven votes for bowling. Eight, counting Castiel. It was possible that none of them knew what they were signing up for, but at least bowling alleys were public and well-lit and relatively hard to get kidnapped from or ambushed in.

Dean made them all eat before they left. Partly because it was a shame to let hot lasagna go to waste, and partly because all he’d eaten so far was a candy bar and no one else knew what it was like to be hungry. He finally remembered to text Sam that they were good, and by the time they got to the bowling alley it was only half an hour later than he’d originally planned. They ended up getting a couple of lanes to themselves until nine.

Watching the kids try to bowl was hilarious. They were all of them, Dani included, perfectly capable of throwing a normal-sized bowling ball. With one hand. Which meant that Dean had to stop laughing long enough to make Dani, at least, hold the ball like a kid. It would have been more believable if Saph and Maru had rolled theirs two-handed too, but he let it go as long as they didn’t run with them.

During the very few moments when all the kids were entertaining themselves without terrorizing anyone else, he and Castiel talked. Mostly about what little Dean remembered of bowling, or whether or not what the kids were doing at any given time was remotely plausible. Usually it wasn’t.

Dean figured that by now anyone who was looking for the kids knew they were supernatural, and anyone who wasn’t should mind their own business.

The point was, he and Cas didn’t cover anything important, and Dean didn’t even care. When they got home and the kids wanted to show Cas how the TV worked, and the demonstration monopolized the rest of the evening, he still didn’t care. Because they were all there. They were all safe. And Cas was smiling like this was more important than anything

He didn’t care when the demonstration turned into a Syfy marathon, or when Cas nudged Dani and asked if she would make room for Dean between them, or when Cas didn’t say anything about Dean leaning on his shoulder. He didn’t care when he realized his eyes were closed and Dani was pressed against his arm the same way he was propped up on Cas’ shoulder. He didn’t care that Sam was right or that he was totally over Nick or that he was falling for a guy who paid him.

Because when he said he didn’t care, he cared a lot.

Dean didn’t hear the kids go to bed. Cas must have sent them, or maybe they just had magical clocks that told them when to do things. Midnight felt later than it used to, he thought muzzily.

Castiel asked him something. Probably. Dean said he didn’t want to go anywhere – or he thought he did – and Cas didn’t ask again. Everything got quieter, and darker, but that might just have been him falling asleep.

He dreamed that Gabriel was with them. Gabriel talked about heaven and armies and how nobody made good ice cream anymore. He perched on the coffee table and his wings were huge. Dean thought that it was weird how in his dream, Gabriel’s wings were orange… his subconscious must be trying to tell him something. Damned if he knew what it was, though.

“So what I want to know is, am I wrong?” Gabriel asked. “I know you’re listening.”

“He’s asleep,” Castiel said quietly.

“You think?” Gabriel said. “Because I thought you were crackers until he got out of bed this morning like nothing happened.”

“Dean,” Castiel said more firmly, “is asleep. He isn’t listening to you because he’s unconscious. I am reliably informed that this is characteristic of human sleep.”

“Humans don’t just walk away from hosting an archangel.”

“He did,” Castiel said. “I’m unwilling to question such a gift.”

“Great,” Gabriel said. “This is the thing you don’t question. You called him Michael first.”

“It was the only name I thought might offer us some protection,” Castiel murmured.

He was doing that thing, Dean thought. Where you tried to make the other person be quieter by being quieter yourself. Probably wouldn’t work on Gabriel. Didn’t work on most people, really. They always got louder to try to make you speak up again.

“He held your sword,” Gabriel said. “He held my grace. And when heaven saw me in him, they didn’t recognize me. They recognized my brother.”

“You’re a master of illusion,” Castiel said evenly.

“True,” Gabriel agreed. “Not my point.”

Dean considered telling Gabriel to shut the hell up. Cas was trying to shut him down and it wasn’t working. Not because Gabriel didn’t know what he was doing, either. Just because Gabriel had always been kind of an asshole, and Cas didn’t deserve this.

“Whatever he is,” Castiel said at last, “he’s vulnerable like this. I will not let you turn him into a figurehead.”

“He could win your war for you.”

Castiel was stiff against Dean, cold and uncomfortable and even his wings crackled a little. No longer soft and soothing like a blanket over his shoulders, but electric and dangerous. “My fight is my own,” Castiel said, very quietly. “I will not ask anyone to stand in my stead.”

Dean shifted, blinking his eyes to make sure they were open. Cas was pissed. And Dean was pretty sure he shouldn’t be able to feel those wings.

“Hey,” Gabriel said, and what do you know, he actually was sitting on the table. “That’s one definitely not unconscious… being, that I’m looking at.”

“Dean?” The crackle was gone, and with it, the weight of wings.

“You seriously don’t sleep,” Dean muttered, turning his face into Castiel’s shoulder. Because fuck them for waking him up, anyway. “You haven’t even tried it? How do you know you’re not missing something awesome?”

There was no reply, and Dean thought maybe he could just ignore them.

Then Castiel asked, “Do you like sleeping?”

“Sure,” Dean mumbled. Stupid question. He kissed Castiel’s shoulder through his shirt, just because he could. “Can do whatever you want when you’re asleep.”

Another long pause before Castiel replied, “I see.”

He could interrupt their conversation if he wanted to. They were the ones who’d decided to have it where he was sleeping. They could just deal.

“So,” Gabriel said abruptly. “I’m headed back to heaven.”

“You?” Dean said to Castiel’s shoulder. He didn’t need to see for this. “Thought it was gonna take an apocalypse to make you show your face.”

Gabriel didn’t pause this time. “They want Michael,” he said. “But I guess he’s busy, so.”

“Gabriel.” Cas sounded angry and menacing, which was a good sound for him when it wasn’t directed at Dean. Dean thought he should tell him that sometime. Soldiers probably liked that kind of thing.

“Figured I’d just pop home and tell everyone what he’s saying,” Gabriel continued. “That all right with you there, lover boy?”

“Depends what he’s saying,” Dean grumbled, not lifting his head.

“Apparently he’s saying fuck you, sassafras.” Gabriel didn't sound worried. “Thought I’d put it a bit more gently.”

Dean guessed when the silence lingered that some response was expected. “The soul of tact,” he mumbled.

He could feel Gabriel brighten. “That’s me,” he agreed. “So can I say I have your blessing?”

Dean considered flipping him off, but all he managed was waving a hand in Gabriel’s direction. “Blessed is God and his angels, or whatever,” he muttered.

There was enough time for him to think maybe Gabriel would actually go away before Castiel said, “Dean?” It was tentative and not followed by an actual question and Dean didn’t even know what they were talking about anymore.

“I’m sleeping,” he informed them both. “Go away.”

His fingers clenched in Castiel’s shirt when he started to move. “Not you,” Dean said. “I want you.”

Cas stopped moving, which was really all he asked. He probably said something, too – Cas did that – but he waited so long that Dean didn’t care anymore. He only half-heard the question, anyway. Or he thought he did.

He could have sworn he heard Cas ask, “Do you want me to want you?” except that was ridiculous. He’d seen it in a movie or something, his brain was mixing it up to make the dream more interesting, and what he really wanted was Cas with fewer clothes and and a bigger sofa. If his brain was taking requests.

It wasn’t, as it turned out. On the other hand, he did wake up with Cas Saturday morning, and that was worth something right there. He didn’t feel stiff, and he didn’t feel tired, even if having three kids whispering at the other end of the couch made him feel kind of old.

“You don’t sleep in on weekends?” he mumbled, and it came out clearer than it could have. Except, “Of course you don’t. Why did I even ask.”

“We don’t sleep,” Maru reminded him helpfully.

“Right,” Dean said, trying not to be embarrassed that he was stretched out on a couch with their dad. Or that their dad was sitting, leaving Dean in an undignified sprawl by himself. “You guys need something?”

“You said we were going shopping,” Saph offered. “Father said you weren’t ready yet, so we came down to see.”

Not to get breakfast, Dean thought. Because they didn’t eat. Eating and sleeping were so foreign to them that they thought it was fun to watch a human doing it. He assumed he was at least less interesting than the Syfy channel, but he couldn’t be sure.

“We can go if you want,” Dani said quietly.

Quietly, but not in his head. He didn’t miss the fact that the most curious kids were also the most eager to please. They might be the least obedient, but he didn’t think it was on purpose. He thought that, whatever Cas had done to hybridize little human-angel babies, he’d gotten better at it as he went.

Which was kind of a terrible thought. He hoped it didn’t leak past his early morning fuzziness. Cas said he was harder to read when he wasn’t thinking clearly. Dean figured that should cover him about eighty percent of the time.

“He doesn’t want us to go.” Saph sounded totally sure of this. “Father does, though. I think he wants to ask Dean something that we’re not supposed to overhear.”

Dean pushed himself up on his elbow and squinted at her. He didn’t know whether to be more surprised that she would stand there and comment instead of immediately doing whatever she thought Castiel wanted her to do, or that she’d only gotten that much of it. “You don’t know what your dad wants to ask me?” he said, just to be sure.

Saph shook her head. “He’s not telling us.”

Okay, creepy or not, he liked it when they volunteered information. Dean sat up the rest of the way and considered Castiel, rumpled in a way that was frankly charming and apparently… worried? Ready to be criticized? Who woke up next to someone else – fully clothed – and looked that wary about it?

“You may overhear,” Castiel said, awkwardly formal and definitely not getting any more relaxed. “I only thought to… pose a follow-up. An inquiry related to our conversation last night.”

It took Dean a second to translate that into morning language, and by then Castiel was adding, “If this is not a suitable topic for discussion, you have only to say so.”

“Wait,” Dean said, frowning at him. “What? What conversation?”

He was expecting something about TV, honestly. So he was surprised when Cas began, “Gabriel came to speak with me last night. On his way to… somewhere else.”

“Yeah,” Dean agreed, when Castiel paused. “He woke us up, didn’t he. Jerk.” Then he glanced at the kids and added, “I mean. That wasn’t, uh… It wasn’t very polite of him.”

Castiel didn’t say anything, and Dean looked back at him. “He say anything interesting? I thought most of that conversation was a dream. Actually what I heard might have been; I’m still not sure what the ice cream had to do with anything.”

“He promised to intercede in heaven,” Castiel said. “Potentially to our benefit. Such action from Gabriel is… at the very least, unprecedented in modern times.”

“Guy knows how to make an entrance,” Dean agreed. “I’ll give him that.”

“He indicated that he might speak on Michael’s behalf,” Castiel said carefully.

“Yeah, well,” Dean said. “Whatever keeps the crazy pointed in the right direction.”

“You’re not upset by this,” Castiel said.

“Do what you gotta do,” Dean told him. “Attaching Michael’s name to someone who won’t kill you has to be better than someone who will, right? And hey, at least I don’t have to go.”

“No,” Castiel said slowly.

“Gabriel went back to heaven?” Dani asked. She still had Dean’s long-sleeved shirt, trailing over her arm like a blanket. “That doesn’t sound like something he would do.”

“What was the question?” Saph added. “You didn’t ask one.”

“Sometimes Dean says things that are questions,” Maru said. “But they don’t sound like it.”

Dean smiled, because see? This was what trying to have a conversation around kids was like. This was actually better than most kids, from what he could tell, because at least they were focused. None of them were asking about breakfast or their hair or the thing they’d found on the floor.

The commentary didn’t seem to bother Castiel. He didn’t so much as glance at the children, and they didn’t press, and it occurred to Dean suddenly that maybe his head was like this all the time. Kids constantly clamoring for attention, their reactions and curiosity pinging his awareness more sharply than their emotions washed over Dean.

“Dean,” Castiel said. He wasn’t just not answering them, Dean thought. He was ignoring them in a way he usually didn’t. “Are you who you seem to be?”

Dean frowned, but Castiel just stared back at him and he had no idea what to do with that. The answer to questions like those was usually no. But he hadn’t expected to get it from Castiel, who knew everything about him and could basically look around inside his head whenever he wanted to.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “I guess that depends what you think I am.”

“I’ve upset you,” Castiel said quickly. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

He sounded disappointed. What the fuck was this conversation, anyway? Last night Dean had been ready to adopt this whole stupid family and never look back, and now Castiel was looking at him like…

Like Dean hadn’t pressed his shirt against a gut wound and threatened to kiss him at the most inappropriate time possible. Like he hadn’t turned himself over to Gabriel, a devil’s pact if there ever was one, for the sake of rescuing people he didn’t even like but Castiel needed. Like they hadn’t had a conversation about what made life worth living on the floor of his bedroom, or fought over who got to sacrifice what at the safe house the day before.

“You know who I am,” Dean said. He was tired in a way that had nothing to do with the time. He’d actually woken up feeling pretty good; he should have known it wouldn’t last. “I’m not complicated, Cas. What you see is what you get.”

The kids were curious. Not worried. Dean wondered what that meant.

“I don’t question what you’ve done,” Castiel said. His voice was quiet, but he hadn’t looked away, and just like that, Dean remembered. This is the thing you don’t question.

“You probably should,” Dean told him.

“Very well.” Castiel looked anything but obedient, and it was clear he was steeling himself for something he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “Why are you helping us?”

“Because I like you,” Dean snapped. “Jesus, people think I have trust issues. I’m here because I want to be and I’m not leaving just because of a few swords.”

“What if it’s more than a few?” Castiel asked.

“Then I’m gonna need some practice,” Dean said. “My sword fighting’s a little rusty.”

Castiel stared at him for a long moment. So long that Maru asked, “Can we teach you?”

“No,” Castiel said. It sounded more like a reflex than anything, but it was enough to keep Dean from saying “yes” without thinking.

“We should talk about that,” he said instead. “How much of angel sword fighting is improvisation?”

“None of it,” Castiel said.

“How much of their sword fighting is improvisation?” Dean asked, nodding at the kids.

Castiel hesitated, and that was an answer in and of itself.

“That’s why they should teach me,” Dean told him.

Adamel appeared on the other side of the couch, and Dean didn’t jump. He hadn’t known Adamel was coming, exactly, it just wasn’t a surprise. Still, he gave Castiel a look. “Can we talk about flying in the house?”

“They have few opportunities to fly in their daily life,” Castiel said.

Dean sighed. “Do you always know what I’m going to say?”

“No,” Castiel replied, but he sounded like he was trying not to smile. He sounded fond again, comfortable, and Dean hadn’t been able to identify what was missing until he had it back: Castiel’s trust. The wordless agreement that they were in this together, not because of luck or money or childish optimism, but because they’d both made choices that had led them to this.

And they chose to stay.

“Do you not like it when we fly?” Adamel asked.

“It’s fine,” Dean said, and it was. It was strange and unexpected, but Castiel was right: the kids lived most of their lives by human rules. They deserved whatever angel time they could get.

“Should we get breakfast?” Saph asked.

“Are we going shopping?” Adamel wanted to know.

Dean didn’t know which question was stranger. “Uh, sure,” he said. Then he added, “Breakfast, I mean, if you want it. Cas? What about shopping?” That was part of the long list of things he hadn’t gotten to talk to Castiel about yet.

The sound of his phone vibrating on the table was a normal thing made weird when Dani said, “Sam’s calling you.” She wasn’t looking at his phone.

“I don’t understand the question,” Castiel said.

“They need normal clothes,” Dean said, holding out his hand in Dani’s direction. She looked at it, then at the phone, and made the right connection. “Can I take them shopping?”

He picked up Sam’s call and added, “Hey, Sam.”

“For clothes,” Castiel said. “They already have clothes.”

“Hey,” Sam’s voice said. “You up?”

“Maribel says Dean promised to get her some pajamas,” Adamel said.

“Yeah,” Dean told his phone. “Barely. You?”

“Can I have a shirt like Dean’s?” Dani asked.

“I’m ready whenever,” Sam said. “We still a go? ’Cause I recruited some help.”

“Hang on,” Dean said. He turned the phone away from his face but it was a token gesture; he didn’t even know where the pickup was. “Cas? Can we get them some more clothes?”

Castiel didn’t look like he understood, but he nodded anyway. “If you feel they need them, yes.”

“We’re gonna need an hour or two,” Dean told the phone. “I’m not dressed, I don’t know where half the kids are, and Cas is looking at me like I’m crazy. You want to meet us somewhere at ten?”

“Sure,” Sam said. “Standard monster haunt okay? Or are you too classy for that now?”

“Shut up,” Dean told him. “We’ll be there.”

“See you,” Sam said cheerfully.

When Dean lowered his phone, Castiel said, “I don’t think you’re crazy.”

Maru added, “There’s more than half of us here.”

And it occurred to Dean that Cas didn’t have a problem with the kids’ constant interference because he was just like them. He responded exactly the same way they did. It was disconcerting and a little creepy, but no sooner had he thought it than Castiel said, “I’m not a child, Dean.”

Maybe it was the tone of voice, the way he sounded more amused than irritated, but it was even more convincing today than it had been two nights ago. To the point where Dean felt a little guilty thinking it, and he held up a hand to head off Castiel’s inevitable response. “It’s just a thing,” he said. “It’s not an actual observation. It’s just a thing my brain does. Making connections, or whatever.”

It was a terrible explanation if it was an explanation at all, but Castiel got it. “It’s the source of all human learning,” he said. “Categorization. Grouping like things. Instead of grouping me with human children, though, you might be better off to group my children with angels.”

Well, Castiel thought he got it, anyway. It took Dean a moment to catch up, and he might not have if he hadn’t had Cas in his head. The whole telepathy thing was surprisingly subtle sometimes. “You don’t ask questions like children do,” he said. “You ask questions the way angels do.”

“That was my intent,” Castiel agreed. “Although I wouldn’t put it quite that way, since most angels don’t ask questions.”

“Yeah, well, I like questions,” Dean said, because he wanted to say, most angels are boring, but Cas didn’t go around insulting his family, so. Maybe he should step up.

“Our curiosity is a result of not being human,” Castiel said. “Not lack of knowledge or capability.”

“Right,” Dean said, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Got it. So. Field trip?”

“Is that a question?” Castiel asked.

For a second, Dean wasn’t sure that it was. He was looking for something, but when pressed for what, he couldn’t come up with more than “a reaction.” Agreement, an okay, “I’ll join you” or “I can’t,” something along those lines.

“I’m asking how you feel about taking the kids shopping,” Dean said at last. “You can say whatever you want about it, I guess. Is it really okay with you, can I introduce them to some friends… do you want to come. Whatever.”

He didn’t want to ask about money, except that trying not to think about it made him remember, “Oh, hey, I used your credit card for groceries yesterday. The one in the Hummer. Sorry about that.”

“It’s there for your use,” Castiel said. “There’s no need to apologize.”

“Well, yeah, but you said it was for gas,” Dean reminded him.

“I said you could use it for gas,” Castiel corrected. “Or for anything else you need.”

Dean was pretty sure that hadn’t been part of the original instructions, but he wasn’t going to argue. If Cas had money, he might as well spend it on his kids. “Okay,” Dean said. “What about clothes shopping?”

“I said I would pay for yours,” Castiel said. “I will pay for theirs as well.”

“No, I mean –” That actually had been what he meant, kind of, but Castiel was more blunt about it than he was. Weird day when Dean was the one trying to smooth over awkward conversations about money. “You want to come? With us? Shopping?”

“Yes,” Castiel said, “but I may have duties elsewhere. It depends on what Gabriel has done, and what effects his actions have had.”

“Right.” Cas didn’t get the weekend off. Obviously. “Well, we’ll be… here, I guess. For a while. How do you feel about the kids hanging out with people you don’t know?”

“If you vouch for them, I have no objections,” Castiel said.

Dean didn’t know who Sam was bringing, but his brother wasn’t stupid. He was probably a better judge of character than Dean, so if he said they’d have help, Dean vouched for it. “Done,” he said. “What about if they want to split up? I don’t know if everyone wants to go shopping.

“You guys all coming?” he asked, looking around at the kids. Dani was sitting on the table. Maru was sitting on the floor. Saph was standing with a particularly non-kid-like stillness, but Adamel was fiddling with his phone and Dean thought that was the most like a teenager he’d ever seen any of them look.

They all said “yes” at exactly the same time.

Adamel didn’t even look up, and Dean shook his head. It wasn’t worth commenting on at this point. “What about the others?” he asked. “Maribel still want to go?”

“Yes,” Adamel repeated, still staring at his phone. There was a brief pause, and then he offered, “Wildfire and Maia assumed they were invited. They’re expecting to go with you too.”

“Great,” Dean said, because what else was he going to say to that? “Never mind,” he told Castiel. “Actually, what about in the store? How close an eye do you want me to keep on them?”

Castiel looked at him for a long moment, and Dean had no idea what he was thinking. Something about him, definitely. His friends. What Sam did, maybe.

“Don’t lose them,” Castiel said at last.

And that really said it all, Dean thought. That was how much Cas trusted him, right there in those three words. No rules. No ultimatums. Just an end result and whatever he had to do to get there.

“I won’t,” Dean said.

“Dean?” Saph asked. “Why does Maribel need pajamas?”

There were a lot of ways he could answer that question, but as he ran through them in his mind it came down to one thing. “She doesn’t,” he said. “But she might like ’em.”

Saph considered this, but it was Dani who asked, “Might I like them?”

He could tell them to tone their vocabulary down, but he wasn’t the guy to talk about grammar. He wasn’t even sure they should change the way they talked, not after Castiel had mentioned the lack of flying. So all he said was, “Yeah. You might.”

“I like your shirt,” Dani told him, and Dean had to smile.

“Yeah,” he said again. “I noticed that.”

The doorbell rang.

He and Castiel looked at each other. It was early for actual visitors. Right?

“I’ll get it,” Dean offered. “If you don’t mind –” He waved at himself. He’d fallen asleep on the couch and he probably looked like it.

“It’s Balthazar,” Castiel said. “I’ll let him in.”

“Hey,” Dean said, as Cas got up. “How come your friends don’t fly into the house?”

“I asked them not to,” Castiel said simply.

“Dean,” Saph said. She climbed onto the couch after Cas had left it, keeping him from asking the next most obvious question. “Breakfast?”

He was only distracted by Cas for a moment before he realized what she’d just done. He grinned at her. “Hey,” he said. “A one-word question. Good job.”

She beamed at him.

“You hungry?” he added, because even if he thought he knew the answer he might as well model normal conversation for them. Normal-ish. Since they were apparently listening.

“I could eat,” she said.

Dean laughed out loud. They weren’t just mimicking, they were mimicking appropriately. Honestly. It should probably frighten him, but mostly he was just impressed.

“Okay,” he told her. “Gimme a chance to get dressed. Then we’ll do food. Breakfast,” he corrected, since he should make more of an effort if they were going to copy everything he said.

Dean. It was Adamel’s voice in his head, but when he looked up, the oldest boy was still doing something on his phone. Balthazar is asking Father to come with him.

He still wasn’t sure how much he had to focus for them to “hear” him, but he did his best. Is that good or bad? Dean thought it was bad, obviously, but only because he’d rather have Castiel where he could keep an eye on him.

I don’t know. Adamel finally lowered his phone long enough to look at him. Something’s happening in heaven.

He didn’t have to force the concentration to wonder, Something dangerous?

Everything in heaven is dangerous, Adamel said. But I don’t think Gabriel wants to fight.

No. Dean didn’t think so either. There was a reason Gabriel had hidden with the leader of heaven’s rebel army. There was a reason Gabriel had protected Cas when push came to shove, and there was a reason he’d stepped out of the shadows now – during the first armistice in a generation.

Adamel looked surprised. You know Gabriel.

Dean looked away, deliberately scattering his focus. “We all do,” he said aloud.

“I’ve met him,” Adamel said. “You know him.”

Dean.

He was on his feet before he thought about what he was doing. Castiel said his name, he went. Was Cas actually calling him? Did it matter?

Yeah, he thought, except he was pretty sure that what Cas got out of it was: Coming.

“Stay here,” he told the kids. “If something goes wrong, tell Maribel to call Sam.”

Cas and Balthazar were at the door: it was open, but they were both inside, and Dean thought he should have been able to hear them talking from the couch. He hadn’t. Maybe it was an angel thing. But even if they were talking silently, shouldn’t he have been able to hear them in his head?

“Gabriel requires my presence,” Castiel said.

That was it. No greeting, no explanation, and Dean raised his eyebrows. “Gabriel requires your presence?” he repeated. “The messenger of God sent a messenger to tell you that?”

Castiel frowned. “Yes,” he said, but he sounded uncertain.

Balthazar, who’d been staring at the ground, looked up at that. His gaze flicked over Dean the same way Rachel’s had the day before. He didn’t say anything.

“Maybe I require your presence,” Dean said. Not because he wanted to blow their cover, or whatever crazy story Cas was telling today. Just because he didn’t like not knowing. How was he supposed to play along when he didn’t know what was going on?

Castiel’s wide-eyed look didn’t seem angry or afraid or any of the things Dean might have expected if he’d thought about it. Instead, he looked perfectly earnest when he asked, “Do you?”

Yes, Dean thought.

“No,” he said with a sigh. “Gabriel’s not gonna keep you all day, is he?”

“I –” Castiel glanced at Balthazar, who was staring back at him with his arms folded across his chest. “I am unaware of his plans.”

“Dearest Gabriel,” Dean said. “May we who remember you on earth feel the benefit of your patronage in heaven, at the side of our father, he who lives and reigns forever. Amen.”

Gabriel appeared on the other side of the open door, and Dean smirked. He totally listened when Sam told him stuff. He didn’t always think the practical application would be this relevant, but hey. He did listen.

“What?” Gabriel demanded. “I’m busy. If you hadn’t noticed.”

“So is he,” Dean retorted. “Day of rest, buddy. He gets it tomorrow or I’m kidnapping him myself.”

“Fine,” Gabriel said, rolling his eyes. “His army stands down and he’s gone. I’d exile him and Raphael both if I thought their soldiers knew how to follow orders anymore.”

“Already exiled,” Dean reminded him.

Gabriel shrugged. “Didn’t take. Can I have my generals back now?”

Dean waved him off, because what else did you do when an archangel asked you for something? However sarcastically? “Yeah, peace be with you, or whatever,” he said.

All three of them disappeared at once, and something made him call, “Be nice to have him back in time for dinner!” after them. He could feel Castiel’s fading reassurance in his mind.

Dean pulled the door closed because no one else was going to. Then he turned around and almost walked into Maribel. “Hi,” he said. Then he remembered his instructions. “I don’t think that technically counted as something going wrong.”

“You behaved as Michael might have,” she said. And yeah, he could see how that would count.

On the other hand… really? That was a weird way to say it. “How do you know?” Dean asked.

“I don’t,” she admitted, frowning at him. “I was hoping you’d treat it as a question and answer yes or no.”

“Oh.” He tried not to smile, because yeah, totally serious stuff here. “In that case, no. I behaved like me being an asshole. Which is pretty much my default behavior, so. That part was easy.”

“You did it on purpose?” she said. This time it was more clear that she meant it as a question.

“Yeah,” he said. “Based on my extensive observation of angelic behavior? I acted as much like them as possible. And hey, if you thought I sounded like Michael… it must’ve worked. Right?”

“Right,” Maribel said slowly. She was a natural at skepticism.

“If there’s a problem,” Dean said, “tell me. Apparently Gabriel will come when I pray for him, so. We can change this if we have to.”

“No,” she said. He got the feeling the offer had helped, though. “Father will send someone if there’s trouble.”

“Okay then.” Dean looked around, but they weren’t missing a single kid. Maia and Wildfire must have been drawn by whatever got Maribel’s attention. “So Cas is fine unless we hear otherwise. Sam’s expecting us at ten, so anyone who wants to go shopping? Be in the garage by nine-forty.”

No one moved, and he added, “I’m gonna go change. Breakfast in twenty minutes. Anyone need anything in the meantime?”

At first, he thought no one was going to answer. That was fine with him. Then Adamel shook his head, and Saph said, “No, thank you?” And that was more fine.

Dean smiled. “All right then. Good job, guys.”

They were all in the kitchen when he wandered in twenty-five minutes later. On the other hand, no one had flipped out that he was late and flown into the bathroom to check on him, so he figured that was a win. Maybe that only happened when someone was angry.

He made them french toast: not because he thought they wanted it, exactly, but more because they seemed like they wanted something and french toast was easy. Plus he didn’t worry too much about them trying to replicate it later. He was definitely having second thoughts about recipes that involved a lot of cutting and chopping.

No one had heard anything from Castiel by the time they left, and Dean told himself that was normal. That was fine; it happened every day. Cas went off to… do whatever he did, and he came back safe that evening. The kids’ emergency call buttons worked both ways, right? He’d let them know if something was wrong. The kids didn’t seem worried, which was the most reassuring part.

They actually made it to the superstore early. Dean blamed his freakishly organized brother for the fact that there was a welcoming crew there to greet them: Sam had brought Jess, who was a good choice, Jo, who was a hilarious choice, and Garth, who was fine with kids but definitely shouldn’t be giving anyone fashion advice.

The introductions lasted exactly as long as he’d expected. The kids memorized everyone’s name immediately. But there were more kids than there were adults, and Garth was the only one to get all of them right on the first try. Jess and Jo faked it fine, but Dean was pretty sure the kids could tell.

“So, what are we looking for?” Jess asked, as they headed for the clothing section in the middle of the store. Or, “headed” was probably the wrong word, given the size of their group. They moved with something that resembled intent. Maybe.

“Non-identical stuff,” Dean said. “Everyone leaves with something different than what they’re wearing now. That’s pretty much the only rule.”

“And it’s age–appropriate,” Sam said. “Rule number two?”

Dean shrugged. “Whatever, Sam can vet your clothes for ‘appropriateness’ before we leave. Jo, that means you.”

Jo smirked at him. “Dean Winchester, are you criticizing my clothing choices?”

He would have told her he loved her clothing choices, but he remembered the kids were listening before the words actually made it out of his mouth. If Maribel tried to dress like Jo, there’d be hell to pay. “Just saying,” he told her, “you’d be kicked out of school if you showed up looking like that.”

Dani tugged on his sleeve, and he looked down to find her staring up at him. She didn’t say anything, but then, she didn’t think anything at him either. He wasn’t sure total silence was an improvement, but he could guess what she wanted. “Dani wants a flannel shirt,” he said aloud, and she smiled.

“We don’t have any pajamas,” Maribel added, which was a clever way of drawing attention to something without having to say she wanted it. Dean nodded at her, and she tipped her head in return.

“Pajamas,” Garth repeated, like it was a foreign word. “No pajamas? Really?”

Or maybe not. That was what it took for Dean to see the weirdness of the pajama thing, and he exchanged glances with Sam. “Jess,” Dean said. “You want to help Maribel look for pajamas?”

“Sure,” she said, smiling. “Non-identical and age-appropriate, right? Anything else?”

“Me too,” Maia said unexpectedly.

Jess didn’t even wait for Dean’s okay, which was good because Maia looked like she wasn’t sure she was allowed to speak. “Great,” Jess said. “We’ll have an all-girl pajama party; it’ll be fun. Anyone else coming?”

“May I?” Wildfire asked.

She looked to Dean specifically, even when Jess said, “Of course!”

He nodded, then looked down when Dani squeezed his hand. “We’ll do pajamas together,” Dean told her. He figured little kid pajamas were safe enough. “Saph and Maru too, if they want.”

Jo went with Jess and her crew, and Garth trailed along after Dean and the rest of the kids. Except for Adamel, who looked at Sam until he shrugged. “Pajamas?” Sam asked.

Adamel shrugged back, and Dean figured Sam was a good enough role model for a teenage angel.

It turned out to be a good thing the kids had fixated on pajamas. They didn’t have to fit, and there weren’t a lot of questions about what was appropriate for public consumption. Dean did catch Jo’s attention at one point and mention sleepovers – he knew for a fact that Star Races didn’t end until eleven – which made her roll her eyes but she promised to pass it on to Jess.

He didn’t bother telling Sam. Sam was socially conscious, or whatever. He’d make sure Adamel knew what it would mean to be seen in whatever he chose. Better than Dean could, anyway.

Garth was surprisingly good at getting the younger kids to understand the difference between pajamas and normal clothes. Which Dean thought the rest of the chaperones should appreciate, even though he knew they wouldn’t. Tell one kid, tell ’em all.

It worked to get Dani away from real flannel shirts to a little checked blouse that was cuter than anything Dean would have gambled on, given what she was looking for. She was happy to have green flannel pajamas instead – because, as Garth said, she could wear those every night. She was only supposed to wear day clothes “once or twice a week each.”

Dean tried not to scoff at this, because teaching the kids good hygiene was important. Probably. Actually, he didn’t really know: did they get dirty? Or sick? After watching Castiel heal himself and fix his own clothes with a thought, Dean wasn’t sure of anything.

The other kids at school would notice, though. If Dani wore the same shirt every day. That was a fair argument, and one Dean didn’t try to get in the way of.

Maru asked if he could have “recess clothes,” which stumped Dean for longer than he wanted to admit. Basketball shorts, he meant. And a sleeveless shirt. Garth managed to decipher this while Dean took Saph and Dani to look at shirts with sparkles on them. They didn’t try any of them on – Dean had made that the unofficial rule number three, everything had to be tried on before anyone was allowed to go home with it – but Saph complained that they were all too small.

“They come in different sizes,” Dean told her. In case she’d somehow missed that during the pajama excursion.

“It’s not the size,” she said, frowning. “The big ones are like that too.” She pointed, running her finger in an exaggerated curve along the side of the t-shirt.

“You don't like the shape?” Dean guessed. They were very… girly. Especially for something aimed at five– and seven-year-olds.

She shook her head wordlessly.

Time for some gender-neutral t-shirts. He debated saying it out loud, but she would ask, and he wasn’t sure he was up for an explanation in the middle of a store. Monster haunt or not.

“Hey, Sam!” he called, catching sight of Sam and Adamel loitering at the edge of the floor. So, not shopping. Fair enough. He wouldn’t be either if he could get away with it.

When Sam turned, Dean added, “T-shirts that aren’t specifically for girls?”

Because it was Sam, he knew exactly what Dean was talking about. “Next to jewelry!” he called back.

“Seriously?” Dean turned to look where he was pointing, and yeah. He was right. T-shirts in colors other than pink and white. “Huh.”

“If they’re not for girls, does that mean they’re not appropriate?” Saph asked as they made their way over.

“Nope.” Dean wondered how none of the older girls had asked this yet. Jess and Jo had to better at explaining it than he was. “Some clothes are sort of… aimed at girls. Like, whoever makes them thinks girls will want to wear them more than boys? And some clothes are the other way around.

“You can wear whatever you want,” he added quickly, because he saw Dani frowning and he was afraid he knew what her next question would be. “Uh, mostly. If it passes the Sam test. But some clothes aren’t really aimed at girls or boys, so – like this, right?”

He pulled a Batman t-shirt off the rack and held it up. “Anyone could wear this. I mean. If it fit.”

“Does it fit me?” Saph asked.

What about me? Dani asked, and it was the first time she’d done that all morning so he thought that was pretty good. He also thought they hadn’t really achieved the goal of “non-identical” if all the kids ended up with superhero t-shirts, but whatever. If they liked them, they liked them.

They liked them. Each kid had pajamas and a superhero t-shirt by the time they left. Some of them had more, but Dean trusted Sam and Jess to have given the older kids’ stuff a once-over. He didn’t see what Garth let Maru get in between the pajamas and the t-shirt, but he watched it all go through the register and nothing jumped out at him as weird.

Dean took them for ice cream afterwards. He treated the chaperones too, because even if Castiel didn’t want to cover them Dean would do it. They deserved it. And he might be asking for their help again, so he’d better give them a reason to say yes.

Castiel was there when they got home. Dean knew before they even pulled into the driveway, because all the kids got quiet and he just knew. “That your dad?” he asked, just to make sure. What did he know about telepathy?

“He’s home,” Maribel said.

She didn’t say “at the house,” Dean noted. Castiel did. It was the first time he’d noticed.

“We should have brought him some ice cream,” Dean said, because that was the kind of thing you said when there was nothing else. If something had gone wrong, they’d already know, right?

“Why?” Saph asked. It took him a second to understand what she was asking.

“Because that’s what you do,” Dean said. “For people you care about, or whatever.”

“Bring them ice cream?” Maru suggested. He didn’t sound skeptical.

Dean relaxed, not bothering to hide his smile. “Do things with them,” he said. “Give them stuff. To make them feel like they were there even if they weren’t. Especially if they weren’t.”

“Is that why we should bring home the things we make at school?” Maia asked, and that was great, she hadn’t even been there for that conversation. “So Father feels like he was there?”

“Why would he want to be at school?” Dani asked. “He already knows how to talk to humans.”

Dean raised his eyebrows but didn’t comment. He even made an effort to think something other than, Good one. He was so distracted by the idea of Castiel being an expert on humans that he didn’t get the question until Adamel answered it.

“It’s not being in a specific place,” Adamel said. “It’s being with us.”

“Oh,” Dani said. She sounded doubtful, but she didn’t ask again.

“That’s why you carry Dean’s shirt around,” Maribel said. “Isn’t it? So that it seems like he’s with you, even when he’s not?”

Dean swallowed, hitting the control for the garage. He didn’t look back, even when Dani said, “Oh,” again. Like she meant it this time.

Maribel seemed to think that was enough of an answer.

“We could bring him some ice cream from the garage,” Maia offered.

“What if he doesn’t want it?” Wildfire asked.

“We can put it in the kitchen,” Dean said. “Sometimes it’s enough just to offer, you know?”

He thought they didn’t, not really. But they were learning.

He ended up being the one to bring the ice cream in, since Jess had impressed upon the kids the importance of carrying their own bags. Dean felt a little silly about it until he saw the flowers. There had to be a vase on every table in the house – one in the hall, three in the living room, two in the kitchen. Different flowers in each one.

He’d never seen flowers in the house before. He had a feeling this was going to end up being way more embarrassing than the ice cream.

Castiel was standing at the bottom of the stairs. The same place he’d been the first day Dean met him, only this time he was smiling. Dean tried to ignore the urge to grin back at him, because what the hell, right?

“Hey,” Dean said. As casually as he could. “You’re back early.”

“Gabriel’s giving a speech,” Castiel said. “I’m afraid it’s rather boring. I was dismissed.”

Dean could feel the kids gathering around him. “A good speech?” he asked. “Or a bad one?” It had to be good or Cas wouldn’t be here. He hoped.

“I don’t know,” Castiel said. “I didn’t hear it. I did get your flowers.”

“Yeah,” Dean said. He didn’t take his eyes off of Cas. “I see that.”

“I’m sorry they’re late,” Castiel continued. “I didn’t know what kind you’d like, so I asked Sam.”

“You asked Sam what kind of flowers I like?” Dean couldn’t believe he’d made it through the entire morning without hearing about this. From everyone. No way had Sam kept it to himself.

“He told me you don’t like flowers,” Castiel said. “I assumed, then, that the species would not matter, so I chose ones that I like instead.”

Dean couldn’t help it. He laughed, and he held up the ice cream at the same time so it wouldn’t be so blatant. “We got you something too,” he said. “We had ice cream after we got clothes, so. Surprise.”

Castiel raised an eyebrow at him. “That box appears to have come from the freezer in the garage.”

“Yeah, well.” Dean shrugged, because Castiel had gotten him flowers he didn’t even like. They might actually be okay together. “We didn’t know you were gonna be here?”

Castiel’s gaze softened, sweeping over each of the children before settling on Dean again. “I understand it’s important to be available to my family,” he said. “And I’m told it’s bad form to be late for two dates in a row.”

Dean smiled, squeezing Saph’s hand when he felt her fingers slip into his. “Not gonna argue with that.”

Castiel didn’t have to say it. Dean could see him thinking it. He could hear him thinking it, if it came to that, and he didn’t doubt the kids could too.

First time for everything, Castiel thought.