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In the Absence of Martyrs

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i.

Castiel is there the night Dean Winchester is born. He’s a breach baby, stubborn from conception, so they need to birth him via C-section. Castiel hovers in the corner of the room, invisible to the human eye, but the doctors and nurses can certainly feel the anxiety rolling off of him in waves. It would not be good for Michael’s vessel to be born imperfect.

The surgeon’s hands shake as they cut Mary Winchester’s stomach open, as John stands there with thunder in his face. Dean isn’t breathing when he’s pulled into the world. The doctor opens her mouth, probably to call for an incubator or something equally human and useless, but Castiel swoops through her before he can speak.

He lands in the fragile shell that sits between Mary Winchester’s legs. He stretches and wiggles its fingers, to get the blood circulating, and then he travels up the umbilical cord a ways and fetches the lagging soul. (I’m tired!) he complains, but Castiel ignores him and drags him until he can deposit it squarely in Dean Winchester’s body.

(And stay there!) he reprimands, before leaving and returning to his corner.

(Good job, Castiel,) one of his superiors says from Heaven. He preens under the praise, and watches Dean Winchester squall and shake his fists, already angry at the injustice of the world.


ii.

When he is almost four, Dean Winchester trips on the steps leading up to his friend Beth’s house. He hits his knee against the edge of the concrete porch, and it starts gushing blood the same moment he starts gushing tears. Mary Winchester, who is dropping her son off for a playdate, bends over to help him up. She props him on her hip, using her pregnant belly as a kind of seat as she wipes the blood from his knee.

Castiel roils in the branches of the tree next door. He should rain fire on the house for daring to harm Dean Winchester, but not while there are people inside of it.

(Not at all,) his superior cautions him. (We cannot draw attention to Dean Winchester, not before his time.)

(At least let me heal him,) Castiel protests.

His superior laughs. (Your Dean Winchester is going to suffer much more than a scraped knee before this is over.)

The tree feels too big. He needs to get somewhere smaller, where he can be closer to solid. He swoops inside the house, where Mary Winchester is placing a Batman band-aid on her eldest son’s knee. “See,” she tells him. “You’ve got to be strong, like Batman.”

Dean’s smile, small and hurting though it is, buoys Castiel so much that he rises through the ceiling.


iii.

Dean Winchester is at home when his brother Sam is born, under the tutelage of a neighborhood babysitter named Hailey. Dean Winchester hates her, because she keeps trying to make him color when he wants to play Batman outside.

Castiel watches from the corner as Dean Winchester systematically snaps the crayons into pieces. He’s not yelling or throwing things, but he does appear to be very consistently destructive.

Perhaps, Castiel thinks, that should not be an urge fostered in Michael’s vessel. None of his superiors are watching as he slides into Hailey’s head. (You should go play Batman,) he suggests, careful to keep his presence in Hailey’s subconscious. (If he tries it unchaperoned he may hurt himself.) He’s outside in the branches of the tree already by the time Hailey has ushered Dean Winchester outside.

He clambers up the tree and starts jumping from branch to branch like a fledgling owlet. Hailey stands below with her arms wide, ready to catch him if he falls, calling warnings every few minutes, but she needn’t worry. When Dean Winchester’s foot slips, Castiel secures it. When a branch snaps, Castiel wraps around it to hold it still. When Dean Winchester finally jumps into Hailey’s arms from the lowest branch, Castiel muffles his fall just enough that Hailey doesn’t stagger at the weight of him.

"Bye, Batman!" Dean Winchester calls at the tree as they go inside, and Castiel lets himself believe that the child is talking to him.


iv.

Castiel is there the night Dean Winchester’s house burns down. He’s in the corner of Sam’s room, standing guard as his superiors told him to, but they don’t let him move forward when the demon enters the room.

(This is how it is meant to be,) Zachariah tells him. (Remember, this is all to shape him to be a better vessel.)

Cas stirs uncomfortably as the demon drips its blood into Sam’s mouth. When Mary shows up at the door and recognizes it, he surges forward. Dean Winchester will lose his brother tonight, even though he doesn’t know it. He cannot lose his mother too.

His superiors form a barrier in front of him as the flames catch at the edge of Mary’s nightgown, even as he writhes and thrashes against them. (This isn’t fair!) he cries. (This isn’t fair! Let her go! This doesn’t need to happen!)

(Yes it does,) Zachariah says, with cold certainty. John shows up at the door, eyes wide in shock and horror, with Dean Winchester hiding behind his legs. When Dean Winchester peeks through, Castiel cannot even cover his eyes.

The image of his mother burning will be branded inside both of them for a long, long time.


v.

John forgets Dean Winchester’s sixth birthday. Dean Winchester can hardly blame him. Sammy is one and a half, after all, an age which John terms “maximum mobility, minimum judgment.” Dean Winchester doesn’t know what those big words mean, but he does know that it means his birthday is the last thing from Daddy’s mind.

It makes Castiel rankle, though. Dean Winchester is still hardly a child, and John is already leaving him behind for days and with instructions to “Not leave the room for anything, not even if you need food. Daddy will be back soon.”

A week after Dean Winchester’s birthday, when Daddy has been gone for four days, the food runs out. Dean Winchester gives the last of it - half a Fruit Roll-Up - to Sam and curls up against the hunger pains that night. Castiel curves up alongside him and tries to breathe comfort into his mind, even though Dean Winchester doesn’t know he’s there. (It’s okay,) he says in light waves too long for the human eye to process. (I’ve got you.)

When Dean Winchester wakes up the next morning, there is cereal in the Lucky Charms box. It’s dry and tasteless, but it gets them through the next four days.


vi.

Castiel knows the instant Dean Winchester stops believing in God. He is nine and a half years old, and an old woman knocks on their motel door to kick them out for the day.

"You’re four bucks short of another night, kid," she says. "Is your daddy or mommy around?"

"Daddy’s in the shower," Dean Winchester says, straight-backed. Castiel turns the shower on to back him up. Dean Winchester jumps at the sound. "And I can have the money by tonight, ma’am." His voice is so small and high-pitched. He doesn’t know how he’s going to get the money.

Her face softens. “Okay,” she says, “but you need to have it by 8:00, okay?”

"Alright," Dean Winchester says, nodding. She shuts the door and he stands there. His faith in his father cracks the exact same moment his faith in God does.

It takes more out of Castiel than he should probably give up, but he manages to take four dollars out of a local bully’s pocket and slide it under the door of the motel room. John comes home the next day.


vii.

One week after the incident with the shtriga, Dean Winchester drops his seven-year-old brother off at school, walks back to the most recent motel he calls home, and aims a gun at his head.

Castiel was not expecting this. Dean Winchester must have buried these thoughts deep, for him to be unable to read them.

"I know you’re there," Dean Winchester says, voice shaky. "I don’t know what you are, but you’ve always been there. Stop me. Stop me now."

Before the words are out of his mouth, Castiel has thrown the gun out of Dean Winchester’s hand and all the way across the room.

"What are you?" Dean Winchester asks, still shaking. There are tears spilling from his eyes. Castiel does his best to gather them up and stop them from staining his shoes. "Tell me."

(I can’t,) Castiel thinks, but he curls up around Dean Winchester and combs his hair with invisible fingers. (It’s okay,) he says, loudly enough for Dean Winchester to hear. (It’s going to be okay.)



viii.

When Dean Winchester is fifteen years old, Castiel’s superiors start paying attention to him again. (You’ve gone soft,) they taunt, whenever Castiel tries to bring Dean Winchester comfort. (Look at you, already halfway fallen.)

When Dean Winchester is fifteen years and four months old, Zachariah finally takes him in for what the angels call, without any awareness at the irony, conversion conditioning. Castiel is too busy trying to keep an eye on Dean Winchester to really care about what they’re doing to him.

He can’t see Dean Winchester from up here, but he can feel his prayers. As time goes on, they get more and more desperate, until Castiel cries as much from Dean Winchester’s despair as from the angels’ idea of pain. They come to a head one night, and something in Castiel snaps in two.

They let him go abruptly, after that. Something has changed.

Castiel races to Dean Winchester’s side immediately. He’s in the bathroom of the latest motel, curled up on the floor, crying.

"I waited for you," he says, quiet and vindictive. "I waited and waited for the money and the food to appear, like they always do. They didn’t." He feels so betrayed, but he won’t say what happened, and Castiel can’t suss it out from his thoughts.

He puts it together the next night, when Dean Winchester leaves the motel room in Sam’s shorts and a too-old, too-tight T-shirt to wait next to a seedy gas station. He tries to intervene, but Dean Winchester won’t let him.

Dean Winchester doesn’t talk to him directly for a long, long time.


ix.

Two and a half years later, Dean Winchester brings Sam to a bar for the first time. “It’ll be great,” he says. He’s overflowing with money, now, his own money, hard-earned and secret. John doesn’t know about it, but Castiel does.

He can’t even look at the bills when Dean Winchester pays with them.

He’s so distracted that he doesn’t notice, at first, when someone slips something into Dean Winchester’s drink. It doesn’t really register until a woman, sharp-toothed and brown-eyed, leads Dean Winchester by his hand out to her car. He dithers for a minute, certain that Dean Winchester would want him to stay and keep an eye out for Sam - but Dean would never leave with Sam still at the bar. That’s how Castiel knows something is wrong.

The girl presses Dean Winchester up against her car, which is loud and angular and yellow. She claws at him, hungry in more ways than one, and Dean Winchester grins into her mouth.

Perhaps Castiel should go back to the bar.

But then Dean Winchester edges away. “My brother,” he says. “He’s still - “

The rest of his words are muffled by her kisses.

"No," Dean Winchester says, pawing at her fringe-covered jacket. "I’ve got to - my brother - "

"Shh," the woman whispers in his ear, so quietly Castiel couldn’t hear it if he weren’t bound so closely to Dean Winchester. "It’s okay. Let’s just go back to my place."

Fire flares in Dean Winchester’s belly, lust indistinguishable from anger, and Castiel feels it mirrored in him. He wants to kill the woman, burrow down her throat until she can’t breathe and chokes on him, because Dean Winchester is his, Dean Winchester is always his, Dean Winchester has always been his.

Instead, he pushes her away.

Later, after Dean Winchester has showered and tucks Sam in, he whispers “Thanks” into the dark air.

Castiel could live off of that word forever.


x.

The first and only time John Winchester hits his eldest son is after Sam leaves for college. That night, John beats Dean Winchester blue and bloody. Castiel tries to interfere, but he cannot touch John Winchester. He has never been able to touch John, but tonight is the only night that has ever mattered.

He curls around Dean Winchester afterwards, in his tiny one-bed motel room. He fills up the whole space, so Dean Winchester can’t breathe without feeling him. (I’m here,) he chants as Dean Winchester cries into his pillow. (I’m here, I’m here.)

Dean Winchester cries all night, and Castiel wipes away his tears in the morning, because they both know displaying weakness in front of John will only serve to worsen the situation.


xi.

Castiel is there the morning Dean Winchester wakes up alone in a motel that had his father in it the night before. He is there during the frantic phone calls and check ins with the front desk, there while Dean Winchester cries and stops crying and goes out to the Impala - his father left the Impala - and drives.

He is there when Dean Winchester goes to Stanford for his brother, and he is there when their world falls down once again.

He knows better than to try stopping Jessica Moore’s burning. It will only draw the attention of angels, attention that is better not drawn.

He stays by Dean Winchester while Mary’s death flashes in his dreams over and over again. It’s not until the morning rolls around that he realizes he’s almost physical, here in a bed with Dean Winchester. For the first time he can recall, he wishes he had a vessel.


xii.

Castiel does not interfere in the death of John Winchester. He watches when the man goes to Azazel, back straight and eyes proud, and he can’t help but feel vindictively glad as he’s sucked directly into Hell.

Even later, when Dean Winchester is falling apart in a hospital bed, Castiel cannot regret what happened. Dean Winchester is free now, and even though he doesn’t see it - has never seen it, will never see it - things are better.

That doesn’t stop Castiel from curling up around Dean Winchester like a cat, whispering comfort in his ear the way he has always done. Dean Winchester, in this moment, doesn’t push Castiel away. He leans deeper into the embrace, and Castiel supports him with his full heart.

(Thank you,) Dean Winchester says. His thoughts are loud and clear. He knows Castiel knows them, and he’s happy about it. Dean Winchester breathes out his sorrow and fury and terror and breathes in Castiel’s peace and presence. They are one person, twined here together, and despite all the grief of the day, Castiel is content.


xiii.

Heaven does not move when Dean Winchester makes a deal with a demon.

Castiel does.

He would have known the instant Sam was dead even if he weren’t watching it happen, because he feels Dean Winchester’s heart snap in two. He watches from the trees as Dean Winchester falls to his knees and sobs and rages and pounds his fists on the ground. He sends a tendril of himself down, to wrap around Dean Winchester and bring him a little bit of light. Dean Winchester gives his tree a knowing look.

He tries to stop Dean Winchester from making the deal, but he won’t listen, and Castiel cannot bring Sam back to life no matter how hard he tries. Some souls lay out of his reach.

(This is what Hell wants,) he says as Dean Winchester stands at the intersection of two gravel roads. (You are playing into their hands.)

Dean Winchester kisses a demon. He doesn’t sleep that night, even when Sam has fallen into deep slumber. “You won’t be able to follow me there, will you?” he asks aloud.

Castiel rustles his hair like a wind. (I will anyway,) he says, but Dean Winchester does not hear him. His soul has Hell’s mark on it. (I’ll never leave you.)

Even though Castiel knows he can’t hear him, Dean Winchester’s shoulders ease a fraction. That night in his dreams, Castiel lurks at the edges, pruning away the fear and planting hope in its place.


xiv.

Castiel watches as Dean Winchester’s soul bleeds from his body until the only thing lying on the ground is an empty shell. It’s the day he was born all over again, except now Castiel can do nothing, and Heaven - Heaven is not cheering for him any longer.

He feels everything that Dean Winchester feels down in the Pit, or at least a distant echo of it. He hears Dean’s screams in his mind, floating through him like Castiel once floated through Dean’s room.

When the angels finally, finally mount a rescue, Castiel leads the charge.

The closer he gets to Dean, the more he can feel his pain. Lyrael stops him after a particularly brutal flaying. (What’s wrong?) she asks.

(Nothing,) he says, pushing her away. (I merely find it wearying to see all the suffering souls.)

She flares sympathetically. (We are almost completed with our mission,) she tells him. (Soon we can see Heaven again.)

It’s not Heaven that Castiel wants to see, of course, but she can’t know that.


xv.

After decades of fighting both the demons of Hell and the demons inside Dean Winchester, Castiel finally finds his Righteous Man. In the time since Castiel has seen him last, his chin and nose have grown into a goat-like snout. Twelve horns of solid smoke rise from his head and down his neck in a crest to rival the proudest birds. His neck and limbs are much longer than they should be, and his too many teeth are sharpened like needles. He stands hunched over most of the time, knuckle walking like a gorilla.

He is absolutely beautiful.

He turns around from his victim when Castiel appears. (It’s you,) he says, conveying all his disdain and loathing and gratefulness in one phrase. He has mastered soulspeak while Castiel was gone.

Castiel doesn’t answer, just keeps his gaze on Dean Winchester, who is all the more beautiful for the distance between them. (Hello,) he finally says, and stretches a glowing hand out from the mass of himself. (I am here to take you home.)

Dean Winchester hunches his shoulders further. (I am home,) he says, with some confusion. (You’re here.) The flames of Hell flicker, throwing shadows of doubt on Dean Winchester’s face. (If it’s really you.)

Castiel reaches his hand further and grasps Dean Winchester’s shoulder. (It is truly I, Dean Winchester.)

Dean Winchester leans into the comfort of the hand the same way he used to lean into the entirety of Castiel. The Hell burns away beneath Castiel’s primordial fingers, leaking light and humanity from the edges.

(We have to go,) Castiel says.

(I don’t deserve that,) answers Dean Winchester, still stubborn and angry at the world. He tugs away from Castiel’s hand. (Leave me here.)

Castiel wafts forward and curls around Dean Winchester. (I have been with you since the day you were born, Dean Winchester, and I can assure you, it is only the first of the things you deserve.)

Dean Winchester tries to tug away, but Castiel curls around him tighter. He accepts the demon into him as it burns away, lets it warp him and shape him into a creature of both shadow and light, of both Dean Winchester and not-Dean Winchester.

(Come,) Castiel commands, and then he flies.


xvi.

Castiel is there the night Dean Winchester is born again. He starts as a pile of bones and half-rotted skin, curled on its side to fit in the pine box of its coffin. He ends as a creature of flesh and bone with a handprint on his shoulder, eyes still gleaming with both the flames of Hell and the light of an angel.

Days later, in an abandoned barn in the middle of South Dakota, Castiel walks human feet up to a human man. Dean Winchester looks at him and knows who he is; his face breaks into a smile at the sight.

"It’s you," he says aloud, at the same time his mind cries (It’s you!)

Castiel spreads the lips of his vessel into a smile. Even after all this time in his true form, the motion comes easy, a natural mimicry of the way he would curve behind Dean Winchester like a parenthese. He wraps his arms around Dean Winchester, and for the first time Dean Winchester grips back, solid and beautiful and everything Castiel has been waiting for. (You’re so beautiful,) he thinks to Dean, and he can tell by the way Dean smiles into his neck that he can hear him. (I love you so much.)

After a long, precious moment, Castiel steps back, though he doesn’t let go of Dean’s hands. He smiles again, sees it wrap Dean in warmth and comfort the way it always has.

"Hiya, Cas," Dean says, and Castiel’s smile grows.

"Hello, Dean."