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In the darkness of the cave, Dean didn’t know the pit was even there until he stepped back and the world opened up beneath him.

He landed with a cracking of bones and an explosion of pain. His flashlight struck nearby, shattering at the impact and throwing his world into solid black.

Dean spent the next few minutes taking stock of how screwed he was. He didn’t know how many feet he’d fallen, but the moment of sickening freefall had been long enough that he knew it wasn’t good. His legs were broken in multiple places, and he wouldn’t be surprised if he’d shattered his pelvis or done something to his spine. It hurt to breathe, and Dean could taste blood in his mouth.

He couldn’t believe a damn wendigo got the best of him. He hadn’t even managed to kill the thing. It had been fast, keeping him moving through the twisting passageways. Dean hoped that Sam at least got the victims away without problems. Splitting up to deal with the civilians had been routine, especially when it had seemed like a straightforward kill. Sam would come back, but Dean didn’t know how his brother could get him out, let alone do it fast enough. However, he still started yelling for Sam at irregular intervals.

It was after several more minutes of lying in the pitch-dark that he noticed a faint light. At first Dean thought he was imagining it, but he quickly realized it was real, as well as what it meant. There had to be another exit. If he could get out from underground, he could get a signal and call Sam—his phone had miraculously survived in his front pocket. Sam might be able to get him back to the car if there was a way that didn’t involve a straight drop.

Dean rolled onto his stomach, gritting his teeth and slowly dragging himself in the direction of the light. Every inch of progress sent fire shooting through his body, but he tried to shut his mind off to it. He found himself going down a short tunnel that branched off from the main passage. The glow ahead gradually became brighter, but Dean stopped altogether when he realized the light wasn’t coming from the outside, but from a fire. He hadn’t considered that the reason the wendigo left him where he fell was because the cave had another occupant. After a moment of deliberation, Dean decided to screw it and continue forward. He was already fucked, and anything that was here knew where to find him from the yelling he’d done.

The passage ended in a circular cavern with no other exit besides the one he’d come down. Twenty feet in front of him, there was a man standing in a circle of fire.

Dean had to admit that whatever he might have expected to find, it hadn’t been that. He didn’t know what the thing was, but he recognized a supernatural trap when he saw one. The fact that the man was standing in the exact center of the circle was a dead giveaway.

But there was no way out past this cave. Dean groaned, putting his arm between his head and the cold stone as he took a breather. Dragging himself down here had taken its toll, and he knew he had to rest before he made his way back.

The thing in the circle was staring at him.

“So what are you in for?” Dean said.

There was a long silence. The man’s fingers twitched. “Release me, and I can help you.”

Dean chuckled. “Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.”

The man just watched him, gaze inhuman and unflinching. Dean frowned, looking him over. He was wearing a shapeless beige garment that went past his knees and was tied with a belt.

“Who are you?” Dean asked.

“Castiel.”

Dean paused, wiping some blood from his mouth. “And?”

That earned him a puzzled look. “And what?”

What are you?”

“I’m an angel of the Lord.”

Dean laughed. “Good one. There’s no such thing.”

The ‘angel’ tilted his head. “I see,” he said. “You have no faith.”

“I’ve got faith in things I’ve seen.”

“That’s not faith.”

Dean glared up at him. “Yeah? Well, I think you’re just some big bad demon that got himself stuck.”

“I am not a demon.”

“Christo.”

Castiel was indifferent. “God’s name won’t affect me.”

“Then you’re something else,” Dean said. “Doesn’t matter.”

There was a short silence, filled only by the sound of Dean’s labored breathing.

“What’s your name?” Castiel asked.

“What’s it to you?”

“You know mine,” he said reasonably.

“Dean,” he finally answered. Dean raised his head, inspecting Castiel and the fire circle again. “C’mon, I’m interested now. What are you, really?”

“I told you.”

“Sure. An angel. Well, you kinda suck at it, don’t you—getting yourself trapped here?”

Castiel’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t reply.

Dean turned his head in the other direction, and thankfully, whatever Castiel was, he wasn’t very talkative. After taking a deep breath, Dean slowly exhaled. This was a dead end. As soon as he could gather the strength, he was going back up the tunnel.

-----

The next time Dean opened his eyes, he knew he’d been asleep. He must have passed out—probably from the pain, if the way he felt now was anything to go by. Dean moaned and pressed the light on his watch. It had been three hours since he’d fallen. Shit. Sam could have passed right by the top of the pit, and Dean never would have known it.

But he didn’t think he could find it in himself to move. Dean knew without trying that he’d never make it back to the other end of the tunnel. He was going to die here, right here, and Sam would never know what had happened to him.

Only when he heard the crackling of the fire did he remember that he was sharing space. Dean turned his head and found Castiel watching him with a quiet intensity.

“You been doing that the whole time I was out?” Dean said.

“I’ve already looked at the rocks.”

Even though Castiel was confined, Dean didn’t like the fact that he himself had been unconscious for so long while in the presence of some thing.

“We rarely walk among you,” Castiel started. “Many human lifetimes go by in our absences. But we do exist.” He sounded like he’d spent the entire time that Dean was out of it deciding what he needed to say to get free.

Dean propped his chin up. “You think if you can convince me you’re an angel, I’m gonna let you out?”

“Why wouldn’t you?” Castiel asked, frowning.

Dean snorted. “So where are your wings?”

“My true form cannot be contained in this plane.”

“Right.”

“Nor can I open myself inside the circle.”

“Course not.”

“While trapped, I’m limited.” Castiel paused. “There was a battle, fought in many dimensions and all over the globe, between my brethren and those that would prevent Christ’s birth. I pursued a demon that fled and was led here and trapped.”

“Whoa, whoa, hold up. You expect me to believe you’ve been here two thousand years?”

“Yes.” Castiel’s fingers twitched again. “In the fire, we are cut off—unable to change anything beyond it, unable to find anything behind it. My brothers wouldn’t be capable of locating me. The demons never returned. I assume by now that they were killed.”

“You think?”

A second later, Dean found himself coughing, and he tasted more blood.

Castiel stared at him in the silence afterward. He actually hadn’t stopped staring. It was a little unsettling, though it wasn’t malicious. Dean got the impression that Castiel didn’t even realize he was doing it.

He sighed. “Look, I’m a hunter. I know you’re something, even if I don’t know what. That wendigo up there, it’s afraid of you?”

“Yes.”

“It know you can’t get out?”

Castiel looked as if he was seriously considering the question. “It objects to my presence,” he eventually replied.

Dean didn’t say anything else.

“I can heal you,” Castiel said.

“In exchange for what, my soul?” Dean scoffed. “Sorry.”

“I only require my freedom.” Castiel tilted his head, studying Dean. “If you don’t release me, you’re going to die.”

“Yeah, and if I do release you, I’m gonna die. Cause you’ll probably kill me.”

“I’m not what you believe.”

“Look,” Dean said, “if it was just me, I’d say what the hell. Nothing to lose—I’m screwed like this anyway. But anything else you do afterward, that’s all on me. And I can’t have that.”

“That’s honorable, but unnecessary. I’m an angel.”

“Right.”

“There is more in the world than what you hunt.”

“Not from where I’m sitting,” Dean said, directing a challenging look at Castiel. “Where were the angels when my mom died, huh? When my dad died? When my brother died?”

Castiel was unaffected. “You’re dying,” he said simply. “I’m here.” He took a step forward. “Dean, I can help you, but not from here.” A pause. “I am an angel,” he said again. Like if he repeated it enough, Dean would believe him.

The thing was, Castiel sounded so goddamn genuine. Nothing Dean had ever encountered had been able to fake that sort of sincerity.

“You are the first being I’ve seen in two thousand years,” Castiel said. “I need your help because you’re the only one who can help me. Please,” he added.

Dean closed his eyes. If Castiel was lying, he was the best liar Dean had ever met.

“Please.”

Maybe he would at least do what he said. Maybe he was the way out of this damn pit.

“Dean.”

“Goddamn it,” Dean growled.

He started dragging himself toward the circle. It hurt more to move his body than he ever imagined it could. When he reached the edge of the fire, he glanced up at Castiel. “Come down here.”

Castiel took another step forward and crouched. They were barely two feet apart, and Dean looked him square in the eyes. Castiel’s expression was vacant, and the orange firelight with its dancing shadows did nothing to disguise the fact that he wasn’t human.

“What is this stuff, anyway?” Dean asked.

“Holy fire.”

“Will it hurt me?”

“Only if you burn yourself.”

“Funny.” Dean reached into his jacket for a flask of holy water. He unscrewed the lid and splashed Castiel in the face.

Castiel seemed unimpressed.

Dean had a thin silver knife in his boot, but he knew he couldn’t twist to reach it. The holy water was going to have to be test enough. Damn it, he couldn’t believe he was about to do this.

“I won’t harm you or anyone else,” Castiel said, clearly sensing his reluctance.

Dean held his gaze. “And you’re gonna help me?”

Castiel’s head dipped in a minuscule nod. “I’ll heal you and return you aboveground.”

“Okay,” Dean said, more to himself than anything.

Castiel stood.

Dean realized he didn’t have a good way to put out the fire. There obviously wasn’t enough water in his flask, and the cave was smooth, with no rocks or dust that could be pushed to cover the circle. He didn’t have anything else on him that could work but his leather jacket. Dean grumbled and cursed, but he pulled the jacket off and slammed it down across the fire.

Castiel put one foot on it and stepped over the circle.

Dean hoped he hadn’t just made the dumbest mistake of his life. Still on his elbows, he craned his neck to look up at Castiel, who brought a hand down to Dean’s forehead. The next second, the hand was fisted in his collar, hauling him to dangle halfway off the floor, and Castiel was glaring at him with open condescension.

Fuck.

“What?” Dean asked, putting as much attitude into it as he could.

“You deal with demons. It’s written on your soul.”

Dean grasped at Castiel’s forearm, trying not to choke. “That a crime now?”

“Selling God’s gift to you?” he asked severely. “Yes.”

The cave was suddenly filled with light. On either side of Castiel were sweeping shadows, and there was a crackling sound like something being ripped open. Dean struggled, but he knew he wasn’t going to be able to get away from Castiel—not like this—

“But it matters not. Our business is done.”

Then there was nothing but blackness, and Dean was falling. He instinctively put his hands out before he hit the stone beneath him. Dean groaned and coughed.

A flashlight was instantly in his face.

“Dean!”

“Sam?”

“Dean!”

The light moved, and he could make out Sam above him. “How did you get down here?” Dean asked.

“Down— Dean, you fell out of thin air right in front of me. I’ve been searching in here for you for hours.” He frowned. “Man, are you okay? What happened?”

“Sammy, my legs are—” Not hurting, Dean realized. He moved experimentally. Nothing was hurting.

“They’re what?”

“Fine. I’m fine.” Dean got to his feet.

Sam seemed skeptical. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Well, what other people look like when they see ghosts. And did you get the wendigo? Because I haven’t seen it again.”

They were interrupted by a chilling shriek that echoed off the cavern walls.

“What the hell was that?” Sam said.

Dean knew without thinking. “The wendigo being killed.”

“By what?”

“Something old. We need to get out of here.”

“Shouldn’t we try to take care of—”

“We’re leaving, Sam. Before it changes its mind and smites us. Which way out?”

Sam pointed. Dean took the light and started walking.

A beat later, Sam asked, “Wait, did you say smite?”

-----

In retrospect, he never should have mentioned the word angel to Sam.

Sam got the same look in his eyes that he’d had when they’d been investigating the ‘angel’ at the church last year. He interrogated Dean about everything that had happened, and was still eagerly researching when Dean said that he was going to bed.

When Dean woke up the next morning, Sam greeted him with, “There’s a ‘Castiel’ recorded on this list of angels.”

“Great.”

Sam looked back at his laptop. “There’s no information on him, though. It doesn’t look like he’s done anything special. Not like Michael or Gabriel, though they’re archangels, so—”

“Awesome.”

Dean went into the bathroom.

When he came back out, he took a seat at the wobbly table across from Sam, who didn’t even glance up. “You do love your research, huh?” Dean asked.

“There’s so much lore on angels,” Sam said, like that answered the question. When Dean didn’t respond, Sam looked at him over the laptop. “How can you not be interested in this?”

“Because that thing was not an angel. And I’m not going to believe it was just because it said so.”

“Dean, I’m not saying we know for sure, but there’s nothing in other lore that matches what you told me. I don’t know what else he could be. And I’m trying to find what else he could be. Why can’t you even consider the possibility that he could be an angel?”

Dean leaned back in the chair, crossing his arms. “Don’t you think that if angels were real, someone would have seen one?”

“Not if they haven’t been on Earth for two thousand years.”

“And isn’t that convenient. That in the lore, too?”

“No, that’s what the angel said. The angel that you saw.”

“I did not see an angel.”

Sam was silent for a minute. Then he said, “Remember Providence?”

“What about it?”

“Well, you’re the one who wanted proof, said you needed to see it to believe it. And now you get handed an angel on a silver platter, and you’re still going to disbelieve him on principle. How many things have we seen? Why is this any different?”

“I know you’ve got faith, Sam—”

“This is becoming less about faith and more about proof,” Sam said earnestly. “Dean, you might have seen an angel.”

Dean slammed a hand down on the table. “Yeah? And I might have seen some unknown monster that’s now loose in the world, thanks to me.”

Sam paused, regarding him clinically. “Then why did you do it?”

“Huh?”

“I know you, Dean. If you really thought this Castiel was some horrible thing, why did you let him out?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Dean.”

“Drop it, Sam.”

“No.”

Sam stared him down. He clearly wasn’t going to leave it alone.

“I wanted to believe him, all right?” Dean said. “Not about the angel thing, but the rest of it. I had two fucked up legs and no way out. He said he could help me, and guess what, he did.” Dean glanced away, sighing. “I know I’m a shoot first, ask questions later kind of guy. But you didn’t see him. No, he wasn’t human, but there was something different.”

“Something… angelic?” Sam ventured.

Dean shot him a dirty look.

“You want to know what I think?”

“No,” Dean said.

“I think that when you just appeared in the cave, you were freaked out. You said there was an angel and we needed to leave before he decided to start smiting. I think some part of you does believe, even though you don’t want to. Denying that there might be angels is much easier.”

“You done?”

Sam just watched him. “Am I right?”

“I don’t know what Castiel is. He could have been anything. He still might be anything.”

“But?” Sam prompted.

There was a long pause. “But I keep asking myself, what the hell else but an angel would get that angry about me selling my soul?” Dean gave Sam a somber look. “And I keep coming up with nothing.”

Sam didn’t say anything.

“And so there might be angels?” Dean asked. “So what?”

“What do you mean, ‘So what?’”

“It doesn’t change anything. There are angels? Maybe a God? So? People are still getting torn to shreds down here. There’s just chaos and evil, the end.”

“It means there might be more than what’s here. We know Hell is a real place, so why not Heaven? Is that too much to believe?”

Dean chuckled mirthlessly. “Doesn’t matter if I believe it. I’m not gonna see it.”

Sam looked pained. “Don’t say that.” Then, “Dean, this could be good news. This could be the way to break the deal.”

“Forget it.”

“Forget it?” Sam asked, his voice rising. “You don’t think an angel would know something that we don’t?”

“It knows it doesn’t like me very much.”

“Dean, he saved your life.”

“Yeah, and then he nearly choked me to death for being a godless sinner,” Dean snapped. “Look, I’m sure you’re on cloud nine—what with having proof that angels are real. But if this is what angels are, they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, you can forget all that caring guardian crap. They’re not human, and they sure don’t act human. Castiel was as unnatural as anything else we’ve seen.”

Sam frowned. “I thought you said he was different.”

“He was, but he was still freaky as hell,” Dean said. “I’m just saying, I don’t exactly think angels hang around waiting to stop little Timmy from falling down the well. It sounded like this guy was killing demons for Jesus.”

“I know angels aren’t fluffy wings and harps, Dean. I’ve read the Bible.”

“Good,” Dean said, leaning forward. “Then we’re on the same page. Castiel is an angel, but that’s the end of it as far as we’re concerned. Maybe he does know something we don’t, but it doesn’t matter. Cause it’s beyond clear to me where he stands on the whole soul thing.”

“We can—”

“No. We have no idea what these things can do. So we should leave them the fuck alone and try not to piss them off.”

Sam glared at him.

“Sam,” Dean warned.

“Fine,” he ground out.

“I’m serious. Just leave it.”

“I said fine, Dean.” He closed the laptop with a bang.

Sam glanced out the window, still annoyed. But then he spoke again, his tone lighter. “Though I can’t believe no one found him before now. Those caves aren’t really worth exploring or mining, but you think someone would have been down there.”

“He was at the bottom of a pit.” Dean shrugged. “And the wendigo moving in probably helped.”

“True,” Sam said. Then he smirked. “But you were, y’know, touched by an angel.”

“Shut it, Sam.”

Sam snickered. “Did you have feelings of spiritual ecstasy?”

“I said shut it.”

“It’s okay.” Sam put his hand over Dean’s. “You can tell me.”

“I hate you.”

*****



Dean wouldn’t have thought that being trapped underground with a thing trapped in a circle was going to be an experience that would repeat itself, especially not just two weeks later. He did the trapping himself this time, and the thing that brought the basement roof down on them both was definitely a demon. Still, the whole situation had a peculiar feeling to it that he couldn’t shake.

“This is like déjà vu,” Dean muttered to himself.

‘Casey’ watched him from where she sat in the trap. She continued on, saying, “What you’ve done has amazed even us. It’s our turn now.”

“Look, I’m not gonna deny that the world’s full of violence and chaos. Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” Dean stood up. “But all you demons are right there in the thick of it. You’re certainly not better than us. Sorry, sweetheart, I’m not buying it. Demons lie.”

“Some do,” Casey said, standing as he walked around the circle. “But some are true believers in Lucifer.”

“The Devil?” Dean scoffed.

She shook her head. “Once, Lucifer was the most beautiful of all God’s angels. When God demanded that he bow before Man, he refused, and God banished him. They say that he made us into what we are and that he’ll return.”

Dean paused, resting against a column. “What do you think about angels?”

“What about them?” Casey asked, frowning.

“You believe in them?”

She laughed. “I kind of have to. Lucifer is an angel.”

“Think they look like regular folks? Or are they white light and wings?”

“The Bible says they walked among you. It also says they’re burning wheels and all-seeing eyes.”

Dean raised an eyebrow. “Thought the Bible was just a book?”

“It has some relevant passages,” she said with a smirk. Then she ran her hands over her figure. “Maybe they’re both. After all, I don’t always look this stunning myself.”

“So you’ve never seen one.”

“Nope.”

“Anyone you know seen one?”

“No.”

“Never?” Dean asked, pushing away from the column and starting to walk again. “How do you even know they’re real? That Lucifer’s real?”

“I’ve got faith.”

“Mm. I’m really more of a see-it-to-believe-it guy.”

“Why all the questions about angels, Dean?”

“Just thought you might know something I don’t.” He paused, looking up at the hole that passed for a window. “What do you think they do, angels?”

“These days? Not much. They say there were wars in the past.” She shrugged again. “But no one I know was there.”

“Maybe you don’t know anyone old enough.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” Dean said.

“Maybe no one remembers because the angels killed all of us who were up here.”

“Can’t say as I blame them.”

Casey made an amused noise. “Such a hunter, Dean.”

“But angels aren’t exactly the fluffy version everyone thinks of these days?”

She huffed again. “Angels are serious business. I haven’t heard much, but from what I have, they’re wrath and annihilation.”

Dean leaned against the wall. “Well, that’s what a demon would say.”

“Hey, you asked.”

“Anything work against them?”

“Not that I know. And that’s why we’re going to win when Lucifer returns.”

Dean looked at the window again, and then he glanced back over at Casey. This was almost civil, like they weren’t both waiting for their partner to show up and kill the other one.

He cleared his throat. “Speaking of things we’ve seen… what’s Hell like?”

“You’re not going to like it.” Casey stared at him. “But it’s a pit of despair. Why do you think we want to come here?”

Dean cleared his throat again. “Right. Didn’t figure it’d be sunshine and roses.” After a moment, he sat down.

“You’re not scared?”

“Course not.” Dean held her gaze until she looked away. “Hey, one more thing,” he said, breaking the silence. “So the Devil’s Gate opened, but I’m still not seeing much of a plan here.”

“After you did Azazel in, the plan fell apart. But Sam was the pick to lead the big army, and he hasn’t exactly stepped up. And now, you’ve got complete chaos.” She paused. “For the record, I was ready to follow Sam.”

-----

Which was ironic, because Sam gunned her down without a thought.

It made Dean wonder if there wasn’t something to what the Yellow Eyed Demon had said to him. Sam had been acting differently lately, though that didn’t mean that Sam was different. Bobby had a point—demons lied, after all.

“So Ruby fixed the Colt, huh?” Dean asked, changing the subject.

“Looks like it,” Bobby said.

Dean kicked at a rock on the sidewalk. “I have to meet this bitch someday.”

Bobby put a hand on Dean’s arm, stopping him from starting to walk.

“Dean, did you really see an angel?”

Dean groaned. “Damn it, I told Sam to keep his mouth shut.”

“You keeping secrets from me, boy?”

“No! I just don’t want to be ‘the guy who saw the angel’.”

“Cause I’m such a gossip.”

“Look, I don’t know. It happened, and that’s the end of it.”

“You know what Sam thinks.”

“Yes, I know what Sam thinks,” Dean said. “How do you know what Sam thinks?”

“When you two were at the house, Sam was loading up on books with angel lore. Wasn’t hard to get it out of him.”

“Great. If he manages to mess with the deal, he’s gonna die.”

Bobby gave him a shake.

“Hey!” Dean protested, stepping back.

“Do you wanna go to Hell?” Bobby growled. “It couldn’t hurt to at least ask the damn thing, could it?”

“What makes you think I could find the damn thing again, even if I wanted to? And did Sam tell you everything that happened? I don’t think my problem is going to be high on the angel’s list of things to help with.”

“It’s your funeral,” Bobby said. “Literally.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

There was a pause, and Dean glanced away, hoping they were done here.

“Well,” Bobby said, “what was he like?”

“He sure wasn’t Roma Downey.”

Bobby crossed his arms. “Seriously, Dean.”

“Inhuman,” Dean said flatly. “Cunning. Powerful.”

“So he’s dangerous. What else is new?”

“Are you trying to get me killed?”

“You’re already going to Hell. What’s the worst an angel could do to you?”

Dean scowled. “I don’t know—send me there faster?”

Bobby was silent for a moment. “Fair enough. It’s your call.”

“Wish Sam would get that.”

“He’s your brother, you idjit. You expect him to be just fine with you going to Hell?”

“I don’t care. I’m not letting him trade his life for mine, Bobby.”

Bobby sighed. “I don’t even know if the damn deal can be broken. Anything Sam does probably won’t make a lick of difference. What I do know is that if you die and Sam didn’t do everything he could to stop it, he’ll never forgive himself. And hell, who knows, maybe he’ll pull it off and save both your sorry asses.”

*****



Four states away from Ohio, they found a serious, though fairly straightforward, haunting. Dean spent most of the day doing legwork while Sam talked to the family. Hopefully, they would narrow things down enough tomorrow to torch some bones.

Once they were back at the motel for the night, Sam left the room in search of a better wireless connection, and Dean was taking advantage of his absence to enjoy the Magic Fingers without receiving weird looks. Quarter number three was in the machine, and he was blissfully settled in.

“Your brother is trying to summon me.”

Dean’s eyes shot open. Castiel was standing at the foot of his bed.

Dean was already reaching for his gun, but his hand froze halfway between the bed and the nightstand. “What?” he managed.

“Your brother is trying to summon me,” Castiel repeated. “He is two rooms over.”

“Well, go see him, then,” Dean snapped, kicking himself as soon as the words were out of his mouth. He should probably try to keep the smite-happy angel away from his brother with freaky lapsed powers.

“I do not wish to.” Castiel continued to stare down at him.

Dean grumbled about wasting his quarters, but there was no damn way he was going to keep lying there with some creature looming over him. He picked up his gun. Castiel watched, curious, as Dean stood and tucked the gun into his jeans. But there was also something detached about it, like he was amused by quaint human weapons.

“Why are you here?” Dean asked, facing Castiel.

“Your brother—”

“I got that part, thanks.”

“The ritual is basic, incorrect, and in the wrong language,” Castiel stated. “He merely added my name to it.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It doesn’t command my presence, but I would rather answer than have it continue to echo.” He glanced upward like the summons were floating around up there.

“But you’re not actually answering it,” Dean said. “You’re here, not there.”

Castiel looked vaguely smug. “Inaccurate as the words are, my physical location is open to interpretation.”

Dean grinned in spite of himself. Then he looked out the window, glancing in the direction Sam must have gone. “Damn it, Sam, I told you to leave it alone,” he muttered.

The minutes on Dean’s quarter ran out, and the room descended into complete silence. He was acutely aware of Castiel, who was still standing like a statue at the end of the bed.

“I came because I never thanked you for my freedom,” Castiel said. “I should have done so.”

Dean turned around. “Uh, don’t mention it. Just as long as we’re good.”

“Good?”

“Yeah, good,” Dean said. “Like you’re not gonna smite me?”

Castiel regarded him levelly. “You’re already damned. There’s no greater punishment.”

“You seemed ready to do the punishing yourself last time.”

“I was surprised. I did not expect it of you.”

“Well, you never can tell with us sinners, huh?”

Castiel simply stared at him.

Dean glared back, determined to hold his ground.

“My presence troubles you,” Castiel observed. He didn’t sound pleased or upset. He just said it.

Dean took a step forward, knowing he was about to do the exact same shit he’d warned Sam about, but screw it. Castiel had shown up in his motel room, being inscrutable and immovable, and he didn’t have to take it.

“I never expected to see you again, and I have no idea what the hell you want,” Dean said. “I’m not convinced that you being an angel makes you not a threat. And it certainly doesn’t put you on our side, like Sam seems to think it does.”

“I have no quarrel with you or anyone else.” Castiel moved, as if he had just realized there was a whole room behind him. “I find the Earth interesting,” he said, walking farther into the room. He paused by the table. “I haven’t been back to Heaven.”

“But you found the angels you got separated from?”

“There are no longer other angels on Earth.” Castiel’s back was to Dean as he inspected the items—mostly weapons—strewn over the surface of the table. “Inventive,” he commented, studying the salt rounds that they had been packing earlier.

“Yeah, inventive,” Dean said. The last of their wrought iron rounds were also sitting out. “Any of this stuff worry you, by chance?”

Castiel turned to face him. “Why would it?”

“Never mind.”

“As far as I can tell, none of my brothers have walked here in two thousand years. We have—”

“How do you even know English?”

“I had nothing to do during my confinement but listen to the world above,” Castiel said shortly. He clearly didn’t like being interrupted. “We have no business here,” he continued. “I would be forced to return if my survival were known.”

“That’s why you answered Sam’s messed up ritual.” Dean walked closer to the table. “You didn’t want anyone else to hear it.”

“Someone might wonder why I, specifically, was being called and investigate. I would be commanded home, and I couldn’t disobey.” He looked at one of the books Sam had left out, turning his profile to Dean. “But I would prefer to linger here.”

“So you’re not disobeying by being here now?”

“I was trapped before I was ever given orders to go back to Heaven.”

Dean chuckled. “You know, you’re kind of sneaky for an angel.”

Castiel glanced at him, a touch of amusement in his expression. “How many angels have you met?”

“Touché.”

Castiel was examining something, a piece of paper that had a design for a devil’s trap on it. Dean used the opportunity to take a good look at him. He seemed different in the dull light of the motel room—just an average guy with slightly wild hair. But he set off every hunting instinct Dean possessed. There was nothing about Castiel that was human. His movements were too precise, too stiff. And the way his expression went from blank to super focused in less than a second was particularly creepy.

Dean noticed that Castiel was still wearing the same weird robe that he had been in the cave.

“You wanna stay on Earth?” Dean said. “Free tip—get some new clothes. You look like you escaped from The Ten Commandments.”

Castiel looked up, puzzled. “What’s wrong with the Ten Commandments?”

“No, it’s a—you do know what a movie is?”

“Yes, I know what a movie is. What does that have to—”

“Never mind,” Dean cut him off. “All I’m saying is that people are going to notice you look like you came from a toga party.”

The frown was back. “This is not a toga.”

“That’s not the point.”

Castiel glanced down at himself. “I see.”

“Go crash a Men’s Wearhouse or something.”

“Men’s Wearhouse,” Castiel repeated, like it was a matter of grave importance.

Then he picked up a pen and quickly added angles and more symbols to the mock up of the devil’s trap. “It’s more effective this way,” he said, handing it to Dean.

Dean eyed the drawing skeptically. “I copied this straight out of the book.”

“I designed the original,” Castiel said, matter-of-fact.

Then he disappeared, vanishing between one blink and the next. The paper in Dean’s hand fluttered.

Dean wasn’t exactly sure how to process the last ten minutes. Castiel was something completely outside his experience. He was something older, stranger, and as much as Dean hated to admit it, something divine. But there was no making him out, and Dean didn’t like unpredictable, inhuman things, much less ones that carried around the sort of power Castiel seemed to have.

On the other hand, Castiel didn’t appear to have any agenda. He was summoned, but chose to stay and talk, even though he had no particular reason to explain himself. He also hadn’t seemed concerned with Dean’s business at all, which was a fucking first when it came to supernatural beings.

But all things considered, Dean could live without ever seeing him again.

At that moment, Sam walked in the door.

“Did it work?” Dean asked.

“What?” Sam said too quickly.

“The wireless.”

“Yeah. On the patio outside the office, the signal was much better.”

“Uh-huh.” If Sam wasn’t going to admit to summoning Castiel, Dean wasn’t going to mention talking to him. Dean pointedly looked at the laptop under Sam’s arm. “You know, if you wanted to watch porn, I would’ve given you the room. No need to scar passersby.”

“Ew. Dude, no. I wasn’t watching porn in a public place. I was researching.”

“We’ve got this case nearly shut. Researching what?”

Sam’s face turned hard. “What you won’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

It looked like Sam wasn’t going to answer, but then he said, “We could summon the crossroads demon and—”

“You shouldn’t be summoning anything.”

“—we can force her to let you out of the deal! Or how about we kill her? If she dies, the deal goes away.”

“We don’t even know if that will work,” Dean said, stepping closer. “It’s not even a maybe—you’re just throwing things out there!”

“Then let’s research it. If it looks like it might work—”

“No! You die if we screw with the deal.”

“And if we don’t screw with it, you die!”

“We’re not having this conversation.”

“Why do you get to decide?” Sam demanded. “You can’t stop me from trying to save your life, Dean. You might be fine with you going to Hell, but I’m not. I’m going to find a way. With or without you.”

*****



Sam snuck out with the Colt and killed the crossroads demon a month later when Dean wasn’t paying attention. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t accomplish anything besides starting another massive argument. The deal apparently couldn’t be broken, Sam was taking stupid freaking risks to break it, and the only lead on who actually held his contract was dead.

It wasn’t a very pleasant drive to Massachusetts.

Nor was it pleasant after they dealt with the ghost and Bela, because Sam immediately started right back in.

“That ritual we used, did you notice that Castiel’s name was in it?”

Dean didn’t look away from the road. “Can’t say that I did.”

“We should summon him.”

“You know how those spells work. You’ve always got a bunch of mumbo jumbo before you get to the part that does something.”

“Dean, I know we weren’t actually invoking Castiel or those other two names tonight. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t.”

Dean shook his head. “Do you have any idea how bad an idea that is?”

“How is it a bad idea?” Sam asked, insistent. “How? Huh?”

“Because you never fucking summon anything you can’t control or kill! Did you not learn that? What if he doesn’t want to talk? You ever think of that?”

“He’s an angel.”

“Sam, that doesn’t mean anything,” Dean stressed. “I met him—you didn’t. And you’re probably the last person who needs to be summoning an angel.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Ever think that he might not be down with your mind thing? Or the fact that some demon wanted you to lead his army?”

Sam frowned. “Do you not want me to talk to him?”

“Damn it, I want you to stop!” Dean hit the steering wheel. “You need to stop, Sam. You just need to stop.”

Sam fell silent for a moment. “Stop trying to save you, you mean.”

“Yes, stop trying to save me.”

“No.”

“Sam.”

“Dean,” he parroted.

“Listen to me.” Dean took a breath and slowly let it out. “I want you to know that, uh, I understand. If the situation was reversed, I’d be doing the same thing. I know I would. But I see what you’re going through with this, with me going away.”

“Going away? Dean, could you choose words that are even remotely connected to what’s actually happening to you?”

Dean continued. “But you’ll be okay. You’re stronger than me—you’ll live your life. But I’m sorry, sorry for putting you through all this.”

“You know what? Go screw yourself. This isn’t about me. You need to worry about you, not me. I want you to give a crap that you’re dying, to fucking care!”

Dean stared straight ahead at the highway.

“That’s it?” Sam asked. “Nothing else to say?”

The silence dragged out between them. Dean gave a careless shrug.

“You check that map yet? How far to Atlantic City?”

-----

Dean left the casino with seven hundred dollars in his pocket.

He knew Sam was going to give him some disappointed look when he got back to the motel, a look that had nothing to do with blowing through Bela’s money.

The casino’s parking garage was full, even though it was almost five in the morning. Dean rode the elevator to the level that he’d parked on. As he made his way to the Impala, the fluorescent lights flickered once, then twice. The one straight overhead buzzed. Dean paused, scanning the area. When he turned around, Castiel was standing directly behind him.

“What’s wrong with you?” Dean growled, taking a step back.

Castiel stared at him, unfathomable.

Dean gestured between them. “It’s called personal space. Look into it.”

“Your brother—”

“Is trying to summon you?”

“Yes.” Castiel still hadn’t broken eye contact.

“Don’t suppose you’re going to go see him this time, either?”

“I would rather speak to you.”

Dean continued on his way. “Well, I’m leaving, so you’ll have to walk and talk,” he said, hoping that would deter Castiel. He really wasn’t in the mood for this.

Castiel, however, didn’t get the hint. “As you wish.”

He fell into step beside Dean.

Dean gave Castiel a sideways glance as they walked. “Where’d you get the new clothes?”

“Men’s Wearhouse.”

“Seriously?”

“Are these incorrect?” Castiel asked, touching the lapels of his coat.

“Not if corporate schmuck is the look you’re going for. You must have been a fun customer.”

“I acquired them after hours from the display.”

Dean snorted. “Angels steal trench coats from mannequins. Who knew?” Still annoyed, he added, “You know, I lost a perfectly good jacket because of you. My dad’s jacket.”

Castiel didn’t reply.

They reached the Impala, and Dean turned to unlock his door. He opened it to find Castiel already sitting in the passenger seat. Dean sighed, getting in.

“Dude, you wait for an invite before you beam into someone’s car.” He slammed the door. “Why are you here? Better yet, why won’t you talk to Sam? Cause let me tell you, it’d make my life a whole lot easier.”

Castiel regarded him impassively. “Would you like being summoned?”

Dean paused. It wasn’t something he had ever considered. “Probably not,” he admitted.

“Nor do I. And until a ritual is used that I’m compelled to answer, I’ll do as I wish.”

“So you wish to come talk to me, huh? The motel’s across town. I’m not exactly two rooms down from whatever Sam cooked up this time.”

“I did answer the summoning—”

“Without actually showing your face,” Dean cut in.

“—then I thought of you.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

“You’re a contradiction,” he said simply.

When Castiel didn’t elaborate, Dean sighed. “Gonna tell me how?”

Castiel glanced down before looking back at Dean. “When you encountered me, you were most likely going to die. However, your greatest concern was not what I could do for you, but what I might do in the world afterward.”

“So? I wasn’t gonna trade my life for all the innocent saps you might kill.”

“I’m an angel.”

“I’m a hunter,” Dean countered. “And you learn real fast not to trust what things say, especially when they want out.”

“You seem very dedicated.”

“It’s the family business.”

Castiel’s eyes narrowed in scrutiny. “Yet you sold your soul. You will deal with demons when it suits you.”

“Where the hell do you get off?” Dean demanded, leaning in. He realized even as he was doing it that intimidation didn’t work on Castiel, but he didn’t pull back. “You think I did it on a fucking whim? Did it to get money? Women? Some shit like that? I did it to save my brother’s life,” he said, his voice low. “He died in some demon death match, and I couldn’t—I just couldn’t, okay? And I gave that evil bitch what she wanted so she’d bring him back.” Dean pushed away, slumping in his own seat. “Guess that makes me a ‘contradiction’. We done here?”

Castiel didn’t give any indication that he was affected by Dean’s outburst. “You valued his life over your own.”

“It’s called loving your fucking family. Glad I could help with your Humanity 101 lesson today. Newsflash—lots of people would die for someone else.”

Castiel turned toward the windshield, staring blankly at the parking garage. “Considerably fewer would give up their immortal soul,” he commented. “It’s notable.”

“You know what, why don’t you go screw yourself? Find some other poor bastard to bother and leave me the fuck alone.”

Dean knew he probably shouldn’t antagonize Castiel, but right now he really didn’t care. He didn’t feel like indulging some thing’s academic interest in his life. It was none of Castiel’s damn business.

“So what now?” Dean said. “You satisfied? Got enough of the 411 to have your mind all made up?”

Castiel met his gaze again. “I’m not here to judge you.”

“Could have fooled me.”

“I was curious. Few things surprise me.”

“I surprise you? Man, you need to get out more.”

The corner of Castiel’s mouth turned up in a barely there smirk. “That was the problem.” He paused, before saying, “I didn’t expect you to be so unwilling to release me. Nor that someone like you would have sold your only true possession.”

“Someone like me?”

“A hunter, as you say. You had full knowledge of what you were dealing with and what a deal meant.”

“He’s my brother,” Dean said. He started to add something else, but when it came down to it, He’s my brother was the only reason he’d needed.

Castiel didn’t say anything.

Dean took a deep breath, shifting in the Impala’s seat. The squeak of the leather suddenly sounded loud. “Hey, uh, as long as you’re here, let me ask you something,” he said, not really looking at Castiel as he spoke. “I get that you’re probably not crazy about the whole helping the damned thing, but, uh, you wouldn’t know a way to break my deal, would you?”

“No.”

“No? Just like that?”

“You did it of your own free will. It can’t be undone.”

“That’s it? No loopholes? No angelic assistance? No way for me not to go to Hell? I mean, even if you won’t help, you can’t at least point me in the right direction?”

Castiel’s expression was stoic. “There’s no direction, Dean. Only Hell.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what I figured,” Dean said, quickly glancing away. “If breaking deals could be done, someone would have done it by now.”

“But you still try,” Castiel observed.

“Sam does, mostly. Right now he’s convinced you’re the answer.” Dean cleared his throat. “You’d probably like him, y’know. He’s big on angels and God and praying. Me seeing you just about made his day.”

Castiel seemed amused. “I did not ‘make your day’?”

“I didn’t even believe you were an angel.”

“But you believed I would get you out of the cave.”

“I didn’t want to die. I believed something.”

Castiel was silent again. Then he said, “I believe you made my day.”

Dean laughed. “Dude, I think I made your fucking millennium. You’d still be down there collecting dust if it wasn’t for me.”

“I would be,” Castiel said easily. It struck Dean that Castiel was looking at him in a way that could only be described as thankful.

“You were really down there all that time?”

Castiel nodded. “For two thousand years, I was cut off from the voices of my brothers and sisters.” He stared past Dean, reflective. “It was the first time since my creation that I had been truly alone.”

“Man, how do you even do that?” Dean shook his head. “Spend two thousand years by yourself without going crazy?”

“I listened to the voices of humanity. I have always believed that the people of this world are works of art. But I never stopped to know them before, or your world.” Castiel’s eyes slid in his direction. “Since the beginning, it has been my duty and honor to follow orders. This was the first time in my existence that I had no purpose—no task other than simply to be, no thoughts other than my own to occupy me. I believe it’s a singular experience for an angel. I feel… changed now.” He paused. “This world is my Father’s greatest creation, and I find myself reluctant to leave it. For two thousand years, I have listened. And now I want to see.”

Dean didn’t know what to say, and a heavy silence filled the car. But Castiel was clearly expecting some sort of reply.

“Well, good for you,” Dean finally said. “But it’s not so rosy when you’re down here in the thick of it. This messed up world is just a lot of bad things happening to good people. It’s nothing to write home about.”

Castiel tilted his head. “Maybe you need to get out more.”

Then he was gone.

-----

When Dean got back to the motel, it was nearly dawn. Sam was awake, sprawled out on one of the beds with his laptop on his stomach.

“Waiting up for me?” Dean asked. He didn’t see anything in the room that suggested Sam had been trying to summon angels.

“Something like that. Have fun throwing your money away?” There was the disappointed look.

Dean ignored it. “Seriously, you’re still up?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“Uh-huh.”

“What?”

“Cas says to stop summoning him.”

“Cas?” Sam asked, confused. “Wait, Castiel? He was here?”

Dean sat down on the other bed. “Well, he found me. Got himself some new threads. Looks like a damn tax accountant.”

Sam pushed his laptop aside and sat up. “You talked to him,” he said, incredulous.

“I did. And I talked to him last time, too.”

“Last ti—” Sam’s frown faded as he realized what Dean meant. “Oh.”

Dean’s brows shot up. “Oh? That’s all you have to say?”

“Why didn’t you tell me you talked to him?”

“Why didn’t you tell me you summoned him?”

“Because it didn’t work,” Sam said.

“Yeah? Were you going to shoot him like you did the crossroads demon? Cause we saw how well that worked.”

“Dean, I was not going to shoot an angel. That sounds more like something you’d do.”

Dean rolled his eyes.

“So what did he say?” Sam asked, leaning towards him.

“Stop summoning him, for starters. He really doesn’t seem to like it.”

“Why do you suddenly care what he likes?”

“Because I’m the one that has to deal with him, Sam. I’m the one he’s decided it would be fun to drop in on and have weird conversations with.”

Sam bit his lip, pensive. “Okay, I’m not seeing the downside of having an angel like you.”

“Oh, sure, it’s great having a rogue angel around.”

“Rogue?” Sam repeated. “You mean like Lucifer?”

Dean glared. “He is not like Lucifer. He just wants to stay on Earth, appreciate Creation or something now that he’s free.”

“How is that being rogue?”

“It doesn’t sound like angels really get time off. Or that they’re supposed to be down here.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Sam said. “But what else did he say?”

“That you don’t know shit about summoning rituals.”

“Dean, seriously.”

“He said I’m damned,” Dean said flatly. “Can we go to sleep now?”

“You’ve talked to him twice, and that’s all you have to say? He’s come to see you twice, and that’s all you have to say?”

“Seems like it.”

There was a momentary silence before Sam said, “Dean, are you worried about Castiel?”

“Worried?”

“He freaked you out before. You didn’t want to have anything to do with him. Are you still afraid he might do something?”

“First, I was not afraid. And second, we still have no idea what angels can do. Two thousand years of being trapped and doing absolutely nothing, and he killed a wendigo in five seconds flat when he got out. I bet he didn’t even blink an eye. If he did snap and go all Sodom and Gomorrah on our asses, I don’t think we could stop him.”

“We can figure out a way,” Sam said, shrugging.

“How’s that going so far?” Dean stood up. “You can’t even find a summoning ritual that he has to answer. Yeah, there’s a ton of lore on angels, but no facts. Even that demon chick in Ohio couldn’t tell me anything. There’s nothing solid on them because they haven’t been around in forever.”

“Point. But if he was actually going to smite you, I think he would have done it by now.”

“Probably,” Dean agreed. “Look, I don’t think Castiel’s gonna bother us. Good thing, too, considering you won’t quit ringing his doorbell.”

“Dean—”

“But he could have, Sam. He can probably do anything he wants, and I can’t forget that. Even though he seems perfectly happy to pop in for an existential chat and fashion tips, he doesn’t act human, and he doesn’t think human. So let’s not take our chances, all right? Quit while we’re fucking ahead.” Sam opened his mouth, but Dean cut him off. “He can’t break the deal, either. So it doesn’t matter.”

Dean crossed the room, going to the fridge to pull out a beer. He looked back at Sam, who stared at him, disappointment stamped across his face. Dean took a long swig from the bottle. “That’s what you wanted to know, right? Well, now you know.”

*****



The day they left Atlantic City, Dean found his leather jacket lying in the passenger seat of the Impala, no sign that it had ever been burned and left smoldering in a cave.

“What’s this, huh?” he asked, scanning the deserted parking lot. “Consolation prize? Sorry you’re going to Hell, here’s your jacket back?”

Dean scowled, but shrugged the jacket on anyway.

Sam came out of the motel room, bag slung over his shoulder. When he saw Dean, he said, “Hey, I thought you lost that.”

“Thought I did.” Dean slammed the trunk. “Now let’s get the hell out of here.”

 

 

*****

 

 

They were in New York when Dean started to worry about Sam again.

It was much easier than he expected to get Sam to agree that they needed to kill Gordon. Sam didn’t need any convincing at all, which was so not Sam that it bothered him a little. Of course, the point was moot after Gordon was turned.

After finding the vampire’s nest, they regrouped at the motel.

“You stay here,” Dean said, pulling the Colt out of his bag. “I’ll take care of it.”

Sam glared down at him. “Because you’re the guy with nothing to lose now, right? Damn it, I’m sick of this.”

“What do you want, Sam?” Dean stood up. “Want me to sit around writing sad poems about how I’m gonna die?”

“Dean, I don’t expect you to be all emo about it, or even to talk about it, if you don’t want to. I want you to stop acting like you’re not afraid.”

“I’m not afraid!” Dean moved away.

“You might as well drop the attitude. You’re scared because your year is running out. But I don’t understand why you’ve given up. There has to be a way to break the deal where we both live, Dean. Why won’t you at least try?”

“Because it doesn’t matter, Sam!” Dean said, spinning to face him. “There’s no way out! Even the angel says there’s not a way to stop me from going to Hell.”

Sam was quiet for a moment. “Yeah, that’s what you said. Is that just because of how he acted? I mean, did you straight out ask Castiel?”

“Yes, I asked him! He said no.”

“So you do want to find a way out of the deal?” Sam asked slowly. “You’ve been trying?”

“I asked one fucking question. You want to call that trying, fine.”

“But you did think Castiel could help?”

Dean slammed his hand against the dresser. “Damn it, Sam, what do you think? Of course I did! Kind of hard not to wonder if the angel could help, especially when you wouldn’t shut up about it.”

Sam was silent.

“Yeah, I thought about the deal. I also thought about his less than encouraging reaction to me selling my soul, and I sure wasn’t going to piss him off again. But you kept summoning him, and he kept talking to me. So I bit the bullet and asked. What with him being a goddamn angel, I thought maybe there was a chance I’d finally catch a fucking break for once.”

“And?”

“And he said there’s only Hell for me.” Dean glanced down. “There’s no way out, Sam. There’s—there’s no point. I’m not gonna help you try a bunch of risky crap that won’t even work. I tried the only thing I’m gonna try. It was a long shot, but it didn’t pan out, the end,” he said, voice hard. “I got an angel on silver platter, and even it didn’t get me jack shit. So I’m done. Can we please go kill Gordon now?”

Sam shook his head, looking crestfallen. “But… angels, they’re supposed to care about people.”

Dean laughed without feeling. “Well, I kinda did this to myself.”

“That shouldn’t matter! They’re supposed to—to show mercy. They’re supposed to be different.”

“Castiel’s different all right.”

“I just thought…” Sam trailed off. “I was so sure that all we’d have to do is talk to him and he’d help us. But this is what angels are?”

Dean shrugged. “I don’t know, man. Looks like it.”

Sam stared past him for a minute. Then he looked back at Dean. “If this is how it’s going down, fine. You’re not going to look for another way out—okay, I will. But I need you stop acting like it’s no big deal if you die. Dean, I know you better than anyone else in the world. And this is exactly how you act when you’re terrified. And I guess I can’t blame you, but…” Sam swallowed. “But I need you, not this act. Because—just because.”

Christ, Sam was about to cry.

“All right, okay? All right.” Dean said. “We’ll hole up here,” he added, trying to change the subject. “Wait the night out.”

He turned away to let Sam get his shit together.

“I just want you to be my brother again,” Sam said from behind him.

Dean nodded. That, at least, he could do.

*****



His first meeting with Ruby finally happened one night months later on a deserted highway, where she had the nerve to announce her presence by making the engine on his car cut out. Then she ripped into him for not being there for Sam. Dean was completely justified in trying to shoot her. Sam thought he wasn’t justified, to say the least, and they argued about it all the way back to the motel.

“If she wants us dead, all she has to do is stop helping us!” Sam said. “Look, I know it’s dangerous, but she’s useful. We need to start looking at the bigger picture here. We’re at war.”

Dean moved away, walking over to the sink. He splashed water on his face, trying to shake the feeling that passed over him. “Man, what’s with you lately?” Dean turned around. “Because you’re suddenly just fine taking advice from a demon, and you seem less and less worried about offing people. You never go on about the sanctity of life and all that crap anymore.” He sat down on the bed across from Sam. “You haven’t been acting like yourself. It—I’m just worried, okay?”

“Dean, I don’t have a choice.” Sam looked him in the eye. “You’re leaving. And if I have to stay here and fight this fight, then I have to change.”

“Change into what?”

“You,” Sam blurted. “I gotta be more like you.”

Dean didn’t really know what to say to that, but he didn’t have a chance to say anything. He gasped, bending over as pain exploded inside him. “Son of a bitch,” Dean ground out. “Feels like a bunch of knives.” He sank to the floor, vaguely aware of Sam tearing the room apart around him as he sputtered up blood.

“Dean, I can’t find it,” Sam said, panicking. Sam was pulling the Colt out of his bag and heading out the door.

“Sam!” Dean called. “Sam!” He heard the engine of the Impala start. “Damn it.” There was no way Sam was going to get to the witches in time. After another minute of agony, Dean forced himself to his hands and knees. Fuck, he could barely move; he wasn’t going to be able to find the hex bag any better than Sam could. Another wave of pain hit, and Dean screwed his eyes shut.

When he opened them, a pair of dress shoes was in front of him. Dean looked up, already knowing what he was going to find. Flecks of blood spattered on the trench coat as he coughed.

“Cas.” It came out in a gurgle.

Castiel vanished.

“Fuck,” Dean choked. He dropped his head to the floor.

The shoes appeared again, barely an inch away from his head. And the pain was gone.

Dean moved back, sitting against the bed and watching Castiel. A hex bag was on fire in his hand, blue flames engulfing the bag and flickering around his fingers. He seemed completely unbothered by an object burning in his palm. When the fire went out, Castiel made a fist, crushing the rest into dust and letting it scatter to the floor.

Dean stood, still eyeing Castiel as he did so. He really should say something. If it had been Sam, he would have nodded, Sam would’ve nodded back, and that would be it. They saved each other’s asses enough that it didn’t even need mentioning.

“Are you all right?” Castiel asked.

“Yeah. Thanks.” Dean wiped the blood off his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You’re welcome.”

Dean shook his head. “Don’t say that. Say, ‘Don’t mention it’.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s what people say.”

Castiel nodded once, like he was filing the information away for future use.

Dean walked to the sink, washing off his face and rinsing out his mouth. He could see Castiel in the mirror, standing rigidly in the exact same spot. He seemed as unaffected as always, like he hadn’t just appeared to find Dean lying at his feet and coughing up blood on his shoes.

“Why are you here, Cas?”

Castiel looked in his direction. “I thought of you. I wondered how you were.”

“That’s it?” Dean dried off with a towel and turned around. “Cause this is the first time you’ve shown up on your own. And you’ve got some pretty nice timing.”

“I didn’t come here to help you,” Castiel stated.

“Right.” Dean didn’t want to contradict Castiel, but he couldn’t keep the doubt out of his voice.

Castiel tilted his head, managing to look unbelievably smug even though his expression barely changed. “Though once I arrived, I thought I might as well.”

“Uh-huh.”

Castiel had clearly turned up because Dean was about two seconds away from choking on his own insides.

“So what,” Dean said, “we’re even now? I let you out, you keep me from being hexed to death?”

A frown crossed Castiel’s face. “I believe we were ‘even’ when I healed your severe injuries and removed you from the pit.”

“Right,” Dean said, things snapping into place in his mind. “Then what do you want?”

“What makes you think I want something?”

“You show up here right in time to save me and you’re not after anything? That’s not how it works.”

“Why not?” Castiel looked genuinely confused.

“Because that’s never how it works! Things don’t just do nice stuff for people.”

“Things?”

“Supernatural things.”

Castiel’s eyes turned cold, and his expression went carefully neutral. “I understand. I won’t bother you again.”

Castiel disappeared.

Dean threw the towel in the sink. “Goddamn it.”

Not only had Castiel apparently not been trying to get Dean to owe him something, but now he was mad. The last thing Dean needed was a pissed off angel. But he didn’t have time for this. Grabbing what he needed from his bag, Dean headed out to find Sam and the witches.

-----

Ruby also found the witches, walking through the front door of the house at the crucial moment like she’d planned it. Though one thing she obviously hadn’t planned was what the demon let slip about her.

Dean saw Sam’s face as his brother quickly connected the dots, but neither one of them said anything. The drive back to the motel was filled with stony silence. Sam went inside the room without a word, and Dean decided he’d rather stand in the parking lot by himself than have that conversation anyway.

But when the lights flickered, he knew he was going to have company. Ruby was standing at the other edge of the lot.

“It’s a good thing for you the Colt’s inside,” Dean said.

She smiled, shaking her head. “Look at you, trying to be all stoic. Why don’t you just say it?”

“All right, I’ll bite. You were human once. And you went to Hell and became a demon?”

“Yep.”

He walked closer. “Yeah? Demons sure don’t act like they used to be human.”

“That what happens when you go to Hell, Dean. That’s what Hell is. It burns away your humanity and turns you into something else.” When he didn’t speak, she continued, “The answer is yes, by the way. It’s going to happen to you, too. It might take centuries, but it will.”

“You’re lying.” Dean stepped into her space. “About this whole thing, you’re lying. You haven’t done anything since the day Sam first saw you but screw with our heads.”

Ruby was unmoved. “You know I’m not lying, Dean. You can feel it. But hey, I can see why you’d want to think that.”

Dean looked away. When he glanced back, Ruby was still watching him. “There’s no way of saving me from the Pit, is there?”

“No.”

“So you lied to Sam. Nice.”

“I needed him to talk to me,” she said easily. “And I need your help to get him ready. He needs to be able to fight without you, and he’s never going to make it like this.” Then she turned, walking away from him. “I’m not like the others, you know,” she said, pausing. “I remember what it’s like, being human.”

Dean laughed. “Do you, now?”

But she was already gone.

He stood in the empty parking lot. Then he closed the distance between himself and the motel room door.

“I’m going for beer,” Dean said, barely leaving the door open long enough not to cut off his words, and not giving Sam time to respond at all.

Then he was sliding into the driver’s seat.

-----

For all that Dean had intended to go on a beer run, he found himself aimlessly driving the back roads after he left the store. When he hit a dirt road that was surrounded by farmland and was as deserted as it could possibly get, Dean cut the engine. He grabbed a beer from the pack he’d bought and got out of the car, leaning heavily against the door. Dean took a long drink from the bottle, feeling the night air settle around him.

Ruby could be lying. God, he wanted her to be lying.

On impulse, Dean stood up straight. “Castiel!” he yelled. “Castiel!” He felt stupid shouting at the sky, if he was completely honest with himself, but he kept going. “Hey, I want to talk to you!” Dean said, bolder, louder. “This might not be some fancy summoning ritual, but if you don’t answer me, I’m gonna scream until they hear me in Heaven! You want that? I’ll tell all your frat buddies that you’re nothing but a freaking draft dodger! Castiel! You gonna show your face? Huh? Don’t think I won’t stand here and yell about you!”

“Your praying leaves something to be desired,” came a terse reply from behind him.

Dean spun around. “Is it true? Am I going to turn into a demon? Is that what Hell does?”

“It is,” Castiel said. “Is that all you needed?” He was standing in the middle of the road, several paces away from the hood of the Impala, and several more paces away from Dean.

Castiel looked pissed, even in the faint light given off by the half-full moon. He was obviously only here so no one upstairs caught on to him, and he seemed like he was seconds away from taking off.

“Just—wait,” Dean said, stepping forward. “Look, I’m—I’m sorry about earlier.”

“Yes?”

Damn it, Castiel was going to make him say it.

“Sorry for figuring you had some motive, okay?” Dean sighed, pausing in front of the Impala and facing Castiel. “But you gotta understand, down here, it’s never something for nothing. And yeah, that goes double for things that aren’t human. You seem all right, but dude, are you ever not human.”

“Deeds do not always involve repayment.”

“That simple, huh?”

“I don’t understand.”

Dean absently brought a hand to his mouth as he shook his head. “Okay,” he said, glancing back at Castiel, “Level with me here. If you’d stumbled across me like I was in the cave and you hadn’t needed something, hadn’t needed me to let you out, would you have fixed me?”

Castiel looked down. He seemed almost apologetic. “Angels are agents of fate,” he started.

“Dude, that’s the PC way of saying, ‘I’d have let you die’.”

“Try to understand. This world must run itself. Our place is in Heaven.”

“So angels have never stepped in? Ever?”

“Only on orders from God.”

“Oh, right,” Dean scoffed. “Orders from God. You guys will fly down here for those.”

Castiel took a step closer, narrowing his eyes. “I do not get to ‘fly down here’ and decide who lives or dies, who to help or who to leave.”

“You know, you’re sure toeing the company line for a guy who’s doing everything he can to play hooky.”

“I admire this world. I wish to spend time in it.” Another step forward, this one putting him firmly into Dean’s space. “But that does not mean I’m going to stop being what I am. Angels are not intended to intervene.”

“Well, you did tonight,” Dean said, holding his ground.

Castiel was giving him a fierce glare.

“Sorry, was I not supposed to point that out?”

“I expected gratitude, not accusations.”

“Oh, so you were looking for a pat on the back.”

“I was looking for nothing,” he said flatly. “I’m merely commenting on your reaction.” Castiel glanced away. Even though he didn’t move back, he suddenly seemed less imposing. He actually looked a bit bewildered when he added, “I thought you would be pleased.”

“I—am,” Dean stammered. “But why did you do it?”

“I wanted to help you.”

The gravel under Dean’s feet crunched as he shifted. “Why?”

“Because I could. Though I believe I did it on a whim.”

“A whim. So if you’d had time to think about it, you wouldn’t have.”

“We’re not meant to intercede without orders.”

“Uh-huh,” Dean said slowly. “But you did.”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve never done that before?”

Castiel regarded him steadily. “I’ve never wished to before.”

“Uh-huh.” There was more going on here than Castiel being offended because Dean thought he wanted something. Dean cleared his throat, looking away. “Guess I’d be pissed, too,” he said. “First time you ever decide to hop off your cloud, and some ungrateful bastard tears you a new one for it.” That was as close as he was coming to apologizing again.

Castiel seemed to accept the words for what they were worth. However, he didn’t say anything.

Dean cleared his throat another time. “So, uh, we’re good?”

“Yes, Dean. We’re good.”

Dean fully expected Castiel to leave after that, so he was surprised when he didn’t.

Dean stepped back, leaning against the hood of the Impala and taking a long swig of his forgotten beer. Then he glanced at Castiel. “You keeping tabs on me or something?” He didn’t like the idea of being followed by anyone, whether they were helpful or not.

“Not consciously,” Castiel said. “Angels are multidimensional beings. We can be aware of a great deal at once.”

“And you were suddenly just aware that I was about to kick it?”

“We have a connection. Though slight, it’s greater than I currently share with anyone else on this plane.”

“And now I have to decide how disturbing that is.” Dean finished the last of what was in his bottle. “Guess you’re still having fun on Earth?”

“I am. Yes.” Castiel looked incredibly pleased, both with being on Earth and the fact that Dean had asked him.

“You see the sights, mingle with the natives?”

“I do not… mingle. I just observe.”

“But you do talk to people, right? Sometimes?”

Castiel’s brow furrowed. “A woman in a park asked if the seat next to me was taken.”

“That doesn’t count,” Dean said. “Seriously, there’s nothing you want to do?”

Castiel seemed puzzled. “I’m doing it.”

“Treating the whole fucking planet like a museum, you mean.”

“It’s an honor simply to be here. And I have nothing to say.” Castiel paused. “I speak to you.”

“Because I’m a contradiction?” Dean asked.

“Because I find I enjoy your company.”

Dean gave him a half nod before awkwardly glancing away. Castiel was still watching him. Dean moved around the Impala and opened the back door, grabbing another bottle. “You, uh, you want a beer or something?”

“No. Thank you.”

“Yeah, I didn’t figure.” Dean opened his beer and shut the Impala with a bang before sitting himself on hood. Castiel was standing in the dirt road like he was a permanent fixture there.

“You just gonna hover?”

“I was told one should wait for an invitation.”

Dean laughed, surprising himself. “Sit down, then.”

Castiel moved to lean against the hood without sitting on it, slowly settling himself like he wasn’t sure he was doing it right. He stared out at the road.

“You should live a little, y’know.” Dean tried to think of a suggestion for Castiel, but he came up empty. “Hell, go to an actual museum. Gotta be something there you’d like. There’s the Smithsonian, and that British one… um, Sam would know more. See the Wonders of the World, something.”

“I believe humanity is this world’s greatest wonder,” Castiel said, turning his head.

Dean took a drink. “Meaning you stand around people watching like a weirdo flasher.”

Castiel just stared at him.

“It’s a joke.”

“I know it’s a joke,” Castiel said. Though he clearly didn’t get it.

“You don’t blend in.”

“Ah.”

“Go check out Niagara Falls, The Grand Canyon.”

“I have seen those things.” The corner of Castiel’s mouth turned up. “They’ve been here a while. But thank you for the suggestions.”

There was a short silence.

Dean sighed, shaking his head. “Man, why don’t you want to go back to Heaven? I don’t get it. I mean, it’s Heaven, right?”

“Perhaps for your kind, it is a place of rest and contentment,” Castiel said. “And it is my home. But for us, it’s also unyielding and unchanging. I prefer to remain here. For a time,” he added.

Dean raised his bottle again, tipping his head back. Then he said, “Do you believe in Lucifer?”

“I remember Lucifer.”

Dean’s brows shot up. “You’ve met the guy?”

“Not as you would understand it,” Castiel said. “But every angel in Heaven knew of Lucifer. He was the brightest of us all until he fell.”

“Lucifer’s really real?”

“As real as I am.”

“But what happened to him?” Dean asked.

“He’s locked in Hell,” Castiel said, like it was obvious.

“Demons sure don’t act like he’s down there. Some of them don’t even believe in him.”

“Lucifer is trapped in a cage where only he exists.” Castiel paused. “Lucifer used Hell specifically to corrupt human souls, making the first demon to revenge himself on God. When he was cast out of Heaven, he was thrown into the deepest part of the Pit. But the demons he created continued his work, and Hell itself continues to—”

“To churn out demons. You go to Hell, you become a demon. They sure don’t tell you that when they’re making the sales pitch.”

“Would it have changed your actions?”

Dean’s jaw clenched. “Screw you.”

Castiel frowned at him.

“What am I, your pet project?” Dean demanded. “Have to get inside my head about every little goddamn thing?”

“I was only curious.”

“Sure. Cause you’re equal parts ‘humans are God’s masterpiece’ and ‘what the fuck makes them work?’ This whole thing is just some big field trip to you, isn’t it? It doesn’t really matter—our lives don’t really matter.”

Castiel was unfazed. “What reaction are you trying to provoke?”

“I’m trying to get you to leave me alone.”

“Yet you keep calling me.”

“I called you once,” Dean said.

Castiel held his gaze coolly. “And I would come again if you prayed.”

“Prayed? What the fuck do you mean, prayed?”

“Dean, when you talk to an angel and ask for something, it’s called praying,” he said, amusement creeping into his voice.

“Right. I yelled and threatened for you to show up or else.”

Castiel turned back to the road. “I understand many prayers consist of nothing but cursing God.”

“What do you know, there’s a sense of humor hiding in there.” Dean snorted. “They don’t usually expect God to show up, though, do they?”

“Generally not.” Castiel was still looking straight ahead. “But you knew I would.”

Dean stared into the darkness. “I guess I did.”

A silence fell between them, only broken by the sounds of the nighttime insects. Castiel had gone eerily still and quiet in that inhuman way of his, but it seemed oddly companionable. Dean finished off his beer.

“I’ll see you, Cas.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

Then Dean was alone.

*****



Finding Sam drinking hard whiskey at two in the afternoon wasn’t a sign of anything good. Sam hardly ever drank whiskey. However, that’s what he was slouched over the bar doing, and he evidently had no intentions of going anywhere soon.

“I tried, Dean,” he said sullenly. “I tried to save you.”

Dean slid onto the stool next to Sam’s. “You’re drunk.”

“It’s bad enough that you’re going to Hell, but what you’re going to become…?” Sam trailed off. “And I don’t know how to stop it. Castiel can’t stop it,” he said, waving a hand in Dean’s general direction. “But I’m starting to think maybe even Ruby can’t stop it.”

Dean shifted uneasily, but Sam was too trashed to notice.

“Ruby’s afraid of Castiel,” Sam continued. “She says angels are dangerous, that it’s a mistake to have anything to do with them.”

“She’s a demon. What do you expect?”

“Dean, you said Castiel was dangerous.”

Dean cleared his throat, annoyed that he and Ruby agreed on something, even if his opinion had changed somewhat. “You talking to her about Cas now?”

“No.” He huffed. “She even got mad at me because I never mentioned him. But she saw him, or sensed him, or something. She came to the motel to help you against what the witches did, but he was already there.”

“Bet the bitch made a quick exit then.”

Sam focused on his empty glass. “She said it was stupid to think that an angel could get you out of a demon deal. But that’s what I’d thought, y’know? I had just hoped so bad in the beginning. Now I think… maybe no one can save you. But I don’t know how I can deal with that. I just… want to find a way. You want there to be another way, too. I know you do.” He looked at Dean. “Why won’t you help me find it?”

Dean was saved from the conversation by his phone ringing. But his face fell as he listened to the person on the other end.

“What is it?” Sam asked.

Dean shut the phone. “It’s Bobby.”

-----

They found Bobby in Pittsburgh in an apparent coma. The doctors said they had no idea what was causing it. Naturally, it turned out to be a mind-controlling dream walker. But they managed to get what they needed and bring Bobby back to the world of the waking. He was more or less fine.

Dean, however, was not.

“I still can’t believe you drank the beer, Dean,” Sam said.

“Don’t get mad at me.” Dean wasn’t in a mood to hear about it from Sam, Sam who had taken a nap because Jeremy didn’t have anything on him. “Bobby did it, too.”

“Yeah, well, I haven’t had to share space with a caffeine high Bobby for the last two days.” Sam paused. “Dude, are you sure I shouldn’t be driving?”

Dean glared. When he saw the next side road, Dean swerved the car, pulling off and cutting the engine. “I’m done with this crap,” he said, settling back in his seat. “I’m going to sleep. I’ll find him that way.”

“In your dreams?” Sam said. “Not alone, you’re not.” He reached over and pulled a hair from Dean’s head. “I’m coming in with you. I am,” he said, cutting of Dean’s protest. “At least that way, it will be two against one.”

“Son of a bitch,” Dean muttered. He leaned back and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he and Sam were still in the Impala.

After a moment, they both got out of the car and started walking into the woods. Dean didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. But when he looked over his shoulder, the clearing was lit. There was a picnic spread out, and Lisa was sitting in the center of it in a yellow dress.

“Hey, there you are,” she said with a smile. “You going to sit down?” Lisa reached for a wine glass. “Come on, we only have an hour before we have to pick Ben up.”

Dean found himself frozen in place. “I’ve never had this dream before,” he said. He could feel Sam staring at him. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“Sorry,” Sam mumbled.

Lisa was gazing up at him, a serene expression on her face. Dean made himself take a step back, glancing at Sam. “We’ve got work to do.”

He turned away from the picnic, only to be confronted a few paces later with an apparition of Castiel standing in a circle of fire. Dean’s first thought was that the fire circle looked out of place in the woods. His second thought was Sam.

“Let me out, Dean,” Castiel said.

“So that’s Castiel, huh?” Sam asked from beside him.

“I’ve never seen him before, either,” Dean snapped, thoroughly uncomfortable now.

Castiel tilted his head. “Release me, and I can save your soul.”

“And he never said that,” Dean said.

Sam cleared his throat, never taking his eyes off Castiel. “But you wanted him to say that?”

“Why don’t you think you deserve to be saved?” Castiel asked.

“Hey, I let you out,” Dean said, pointing at the circle and then beyond it. “So far, I’m not seeing any saving.”

“Maybe you’re not looking hard enough.” The fake Castiel had the nerve to look smug.

Dean decided he was done with this. “As much fun as it would be to stand here and argue with my subconscious, we have a job to do. C’mon, Sam.”

Dean moved past Castiel, walking around the circle. He snuck a look at Sam, who was plainly finding the whole thing fascinating, but was doing his damnedest to pretend that he wasn’t. He followed as Dean made his way farther into the woods.

“I’ll be here when you return,” Castiel said after them.

Dean refused to turn around.

“Any idea where we should start looking?” he asked. “Sam?” Dean did look behind him then, but Sam was nowhere to be found. “Sam?” And he was no longer in the woods, but was instead in a hallway covered with leafy wallpaper.

It was the motel, Dean realized. He walked farther down the hall. The door at the very end creaked open by itself as he neared. There was a man sitting at the desk, flipping the metal lamp on and off. He stopped when he heard Dean approach, pausing before he looked over his shoulder.

Dean’s breath caught in his throat.

The man was him.

-----

“Wake up,” Dean repeated to himself. “Come on, wake up.”

“You already tried that.” His doppelganger smirked. “You’re not going anywhere. And neither am I.”

“You’re not real.”

“Sure, I am. I’m you.” The other Dean spread his arms, gesturing to Dean with the sawed-off he held. “Though I have to say, it’s not like I want to be. Talk about hating myself,” he said, starting in on him again. “You’ve got nothing outside of Sam, nothing outside the soldier Daddy made you.”

“Just shut up.” Dean moved as they circled each other.

“And to think, you actually believed an angel would help you. Help you.” He laughed. “Like you were something special. You’re nothing. Dad knew you were nothing. Hell, Sam knows you’re nothing. Deep down, you know you’re nothing,” he said, stepping into Dean’s space. “Not really a life worth saving, is it?”

“You son of a bitch.” Dean shoved his double into the desk, where he landed hard. “You’re wrong about them and you’re wrong about me!” he said, snatching the shotgun and using it to strike once, then twice. “I’m not nothing, and I don’t deserve to go to Hell!”

He pulled back and fired the gun. The other Dean slumped lifelessly against the wall.

“Dean.”

Dean whipped around to find a Castiel standing in the opposite corner of the room. He raised the gun and fired again, shooting Castiel squarely in the chest.

“And you, what the hell are you good for? I tried, I asked, and you said no. I don’t want to go to Hell, but what the fuck else I am supposed to do—let Sam trade places with me? I’ll be damned if I let him try anything that he’ll take the fall for!”

Castiel merely looked down at his chest. Dean was about to fire again for the hell of it when a movement caught his attention.

His double sprang to life, sitting up and staring at him with full black eyes. “You’re gonna die, Dean. And this is what you’re gonna become!”

Castiel raised a hand, and the other Dean vanished.

Dean slowly lowered the gun to his side, eyeing Castiel suspiciously. “Wait—are you… are you real?”

“Of course I am.” He said it like it was obvious.

“Did you take the dream juice, too?”

Castiel gave a barely noticeable shake of his head. “I need no assistance to walk in this realm.”

“Was that you earlier, in the circle?”

“I only just arrived. Did you see me earlier?”

This was getting all kinds of uncomfortable. “I don’t have any control over what’s in my head,” Dean said defensively, hoping that Castiel wouldn’t say anything about what Dean had just shouted at him. “Why are you here?”

“You weren’t where you were supposed to be,” Castiel said, moving closer.

Dean pointed a finger. “See, things like that make you sound like a stalker.”

Castiel stared at him.

Dean sighed. “Okay, I give. Where was I supposed to be?”

“Earth,” Castiel said. Then he added, “It’s difficult not to notice a dimensional shift.”

“Touchy touchy.” He fiddled with the gun. “So what, you’re here to beam me back?”

“It’s not necessary, since you’re here of your own volition,” Castiel said, eyes sweeping around the room. “I thought perhaps you had been trapped in this place.”

“And you were gonna swoop in and rescue me?”

Castiel didn’t answer.

Dean hesitated. “Cas?” he asked. “I dreamed you could save my soul.”

Castiel looked at him, blank.

Dean woke up.

-----

They were packing up the Impala to go find Bela when Dean decided to bring up the subject. “Hey, Sam. When we were in my head, what happened? You know, when we got separated.”

Sam threw his bag in the trunk and turned to look at him. “I thought I saw something in the woods. I started after it, and then you just weren’t there. I guess Jeremy thought it was easier to pick us off one at a time.”

“Right.” He closed the trunk and moved to get in the Impala. Sam did likewise.

Dean sat in his seat for a minute, never reaching for the ignition. He stared out the windshield. “I don’t want to die,” he said. “I don’t want to go to Hell. I know it doesn’t matter, but I don’t want to.”

Sam looked pained. “Of course it matters, Dean.”

“I’m telling you because you’re my brother and I’m gonna be straight with you. I don’t wanna go to Hell. But I don’t think—I really don’t think there’s a way out of it, Sammy.”

“We’ll find a way,” Sam said. “You and me. Forget Castiel. Hell, forget Ruby. We can do it. Okay?”

Dean finally nodded. “Okay.”

He started the Impala.

“Dean,” Sam said, “what did you see in your dream?”

“Nothing. I was looking for you.” Dean forced a smile and lifted his foot off the brake. “It was just a dream.”

*****



Time came to a standstill when Castiel appeared in the diner. Dean and Sam sat in a booth by the window, frozen as everyone around them was. Castiel slowly approached them.

A man at the counter swiveled around on his stool. “Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in.”

Castiel froze.

“Gabriel.”

“That’s what they call me.” Gabriel casually leaned against the counter with one elbow. “Castiel, right?”

“Yes.”

Gabriel stared at him expectantly, like he was waiting for something before he decided whether or not Castiel was worth his time.

“Why aren’t you in Heaven?” Castiel ventured.

“Why aren’t you?” Gabriel said, raising an eyebrow.

“I haven’t been ordered to return.”

“Really.” Gabriel absently tapped his fingers on the countertop.

“It was possibly an oversight.”

“Why are you here?”

“Dean was not where he was supposed to be. I followed.”

Gabriel laughed. “You came in after these yahoos? Seriously?”

“Why did you think I was here?” Castiel asked.

“Thought I’d finally attracted some attention. So how do you know Dumb and Dumber?”

“Dean assisted me.”

“Huh.” Gabriel motioned to the empty seat next to him. “Take a load off.”

Castiel hesitated, watching Gabriel warily.

Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Would you sit down and stop acting like I’m about to fry you? As much fun as striking fear into the hearts of everyone I meet is, it got old a long time ago.”

Castiel moved to the counter, though he didn’t sit on the stool.

“I don’t care that you’ve gone AWOL,” Gabriel said.

“You’re an archangel.”

“Not anymore,” he said brightly.

Castiel frowned.

“Does anyone even know I left?” Gabriel asked. “Or are Michael and Raphael still telling the troops I’m around? I was gone long before that business with the Annunciation, y’know.”

“I couldn’t say. I haven’t been to Heaven in two thousand years.”

Gabriel looked surprised. “That’s quite a while to stay off their radar. I’m almost impressed.”

“I was trapped in a fire circle.”

“And now I’m less impressed. But if you want to keep avoiding the family, you might look into marking up that pretty vessel of yours with some Enochian.”

Castiel’s brow furrowed. “I never said I wasn’t going back to Heaven.”

Gabriel chuckled. “Kiddo, the fact that you didn’t fly back the very second you got out of that circle says it all.”

“I will return to Heaven.”

“Suit yourself. Earth is the happening place, though. What’s Heaven got?”

“God,” Castiel answered.

“Oh boy, are you barking up the wrong tree. Let’s just say I’m not the first one to disappear. And I know we covered that one up.” Gabriel shrugged to himself. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“I serve God.”

“Great. But God’s not home anymore.” Gabriel rapped his knuckles over the counter. “Why are you concerned with the boys over there?”

Castiel paused. “They’re interesting.”

“Aren’t they, though? Don’t worry, I’ll put all the pieces back together when I’m done.”

Castiel glanced at Dean, who had obviously been in the middle of a heated discussion with Sam. “What is your interest in them?”

Gabriel gave Castiel a sideways look. “You really have no idea, do you? Guess that’s what comes with being a red shirt. Oh, and Castiel?”

“Yes?”

Gabriel leaned closer, the cheerfulness in his eyes contradicted by a suddenly cruel smile. “If you tell anyone you saw me—anyone—I will find you,” he said calmly.

Castiel straightened. “Understood.”

Gabriel snapped his fingers, and then Castiel was outside the diner—the real diner, not the one in the mirrored town Gabriel had created. There was no trace anymore of Gabriel’s temporal displacement.

He wouldn’t be able to get back in.

*****



Dean saw Castiel on the Thursday after the Tuesday that wouldn’t end (according to Sam). He appeared beside the bed while Sam was out and while Dean was again unwinding by feeding quarters to the Magic Fingers.

Dean chose not to get up, but instead looked at Castiel from where he was. “This a social call?”

Castiel frowned down at him. “Is this customary?”

Dean gave him a lazy grin. “Only in the finest establishments.”

Castiel didn’t say anything else, and Dean wondered how long he would just stand there. But after another moment, the bed abruptly cut off.

“Dude. I know you did not just stop the Magic Fingers.”

Castiel’s expression said that’s exactly what he did.

Dean stood up, pointedly bumping Castiel’s shoulder as he pushed past. “You’ve got my attention, now what?”

Castiel hesitated, as if he wasn’t sure how to say whatever he was going to say next. “How are you?”

“‘How are you?’ That’s what you flew over here to ask?”

“You were… displaced for a time.”

Dean shrugged. “Sam said we were stuck in some sort of time loop.”

“Yes. But you’re not harmed?”

“Sam says I was repeatedly harmed. But I don’t remember anything besides running into the Trickster. It was just another day at the office.” He chuckled. “Hey, too bad you weren’t around. I bet you could kick a trickster’s ass.”

“A trickster would pose no problem.”

Castiel didn’t appear to have anything else to say.

Dean smirked. “Don’t tell me you were worried about me, Cas.”

“I wondered how you were.”

“You think a run in with the Trickster is something we couldn’t handle?”

“Of course not.” Castiel glanced away. “I’ll leave you, then.”

He disappeared.

Dean was never going to get used to that.

The next second, Sam opened the door. “I got food.”

“Hey, you just missed Cas.”

Sam set the bags down on the table. “Yeah, I seem to do that a lot.”

“Huh?”

“Dean, are you sure that Castiel didn’t leave because I was about to come back?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” Sam said. “I thought I’d at least see him sometime. If I didn’t know he was real—I mean, don’t you think it’s a little strange that you only see him when you’re completely alone?”

“I think Cas is a little strange, period.”

“Even if he’s not—not what I would have expected, he’s still an angel, y’know? I kind of wanted to meet him.” Sam shrugged.

Dean seated himself at the table, reaching for the takeout. “What, you think he’s avoiding you personally?”

“When I summoned him, he came to see to you. Then he shows up on his own when you’re by yourself.” Sam sat down. “Sounds like he’s avoiding me to me.”

“Don’t get your panties in a twist. The angel doesn’t hate you.”

“Then why won’t he talk to me?” Sam said, looking sulky.

Dean paused, aware of how strange this conversation was getting. “I think I’m the only one he talks to.”

Sam laughed. “Dean, seriously.”

“Seriously. I asked him where he goes, who he talks to…”

“And?”

“And he came up with nothing. Hell, I’m still not sure what he actually does besides spend time here. You should hear him go on about it—he acts like the whole damn world is the greatest thing ever.” Dean chuckled to himself. “But all in a very serious way. Dude needs to learn how to live a little.”

Dean caught Sam giving him an odd look. “What?”

“Nothing,” Sam said, smiling a little. “It’s just, you didn’t even believe in angels, and then somehow you end up making friends with the only one on the planet.”

Dean snorted. “Friends?”

Sam made an amused noise. “Dean, what else do you call someone who shows up just to talk to you?”

Dean found he didn’t have an answer for that.

*****



They were between a rock and a hard place a few weeks later when Ruby turned up again. Dean suspected that she took equal pleasure in acting useful and chewing them out. But as far as he was concerned, she could take her version of help and shove it where the sun didn’t shine.

She was perched on a desk with her arms crossed. “Not only have you managed to get cornered by thirty demons, you lost the Colt, and you flat out refuse to do the only thing that could save you.” She threw her hands up. “I don’t know why I even bother.”

Dean surveyed the group assembled in the station’s darkened front room. Then he leveled a glare at Ruby. “Get this straight—we’re not sacrificing anyone. That’s not what we do.”

Sam cleared his throat, looking at the floor. “Dean, maybe we should talk about this.”

“Oh, you want to talk now? How about we talk about Lilith? Any other rivals for the throne I should know about? Huh?” Dean shook his head. “Nobody do anything,” he growled. Then he grabbed Sam’s arm and dragged him into the hall. “Don’t tell me you’re actually considering this! We’re talking about cutting some girl’s heart out.”

“We’re also talking about thirty people out there. They’re going to die, along with everyone in here.”

“The ends justify the means, is that what I’m hearing now?”

“Then what?” Sam asked, spreading his hands. “What do we do, Dean?”

Dean took a breath. “Give me a minute.”

“We don’t have a minute.”

“One freaking minute, Sam. Just—just give me one minute.”

Dean turned and went down the hallway, going into the nearest office and shutting the door.

Once alone, he said, “Castiel. Hey, you got a minute?”

A second later, he heard that peculiar rip in the air. Castiel was standing a few feet away.

“Yes?”

Before Dean could say anything, Castiel turned his head and peered at the wall like he could see through it. “What’s happening?”

“About thirty demons.”

Castiel didn’t respond.

“Don’t suppose you could help us out?” Dean asked.

“I see.” His face suddenly looked blanker than usual. “You called me here to do your bidding.”

“To help. We’re screwed here, man.”

Castiel glanced to the side. “And why would I do this?” he asked stiffly.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but you tend to show when shit’s going down. So, yeah, when I’m backed into a wall, the fact that I know an angel is gonna cross my mind. Especially when I’m not seeing a lot of other options.”

Castiel remained unreadable. “It’s understandable that you would think of me,” he conceded. “However—”

“Don’t give me that,” Dean cut in. “I know for a fact that Ruby’s scared shitless of you. There’s got to be a reason. You can kill demons?”

“Yes,” he said, looking put upon.

“Then what’s the problem? All that stuff about not interfering? Forget it. Who’s going to know? You say you like humans so much, why don’t you help, huh? We could—I could really use your help here, Cas. Please.”

Castiel exhaled. From anyone else, it would have been a massive sigh. “Very well.”

Dean found himself smiling, relieved. “Great.” They were all going to get out of here.

Castiel straightened. “Shut your eyes, and tell the others to do likewise.”

It was just as much the strangeness of the order as it was Castiel’s commanding tone that made Dean pause, drawing his hand back from the doorknob. “Why?” he asked carefully.

“Otherwise you’ll be blinded.”

Dean took a step closer. “Come again?”

“To dispose of that many demons, the area must be purified,” Castiel said, as if this were all business as usual. “Humans can’t comprehend the revelation of grace. It can be overwhelming to you.”

“Going blind is what you call overwhelming?” Dean waved a hand, gesturing toward the window. “And what about all the poor possessed bastards outside?”

“Their eyes will burn in their skulls.”

“Unbelievable,” Dean muttered. He shook his head. “No,” he said, looking back at Castiel. “Not good enough. You have to do something else.”

Castiel narrowed his eyes. “Do I?” he asked, an edge creeping into his voice.

“There has to be another way.”

“I understand this is regrettable—”

“Regrettable? This is crap. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or if we’re even gonna live through the night. But what I do know is that it’s about saving people. People. They come first.”

“There’s a bigger picture here.”

Dean sneered. “Right, the bigger picture. Kill the demons, no matter what the cost.”

“Angels are warriors of God.” Castiel leveled an unforgiving stare at him. “You knew as much, or you wouldn’t have asked for my assistance.”

“Fine,” Dean snapped. “Screw you, then. We’ll take care of it ourselves.”

Castiel remained where he was.

“Are you deaf? There’s the door,” Dean said pointedly. “Don’t let it hit you on the way out.”

Castiel took a step forward, his expression cold but angry. “You should show me some respect.”

Dean resisted the impulse to back up. “Is that right?” he challenged.

“I’m an angel—not your weapon,” Castiel said, his voice low. “You call me here, demand that I perform miracles, and then dismiss me when you find them not to your satisfaction.” Castiel was in his face now. “You should appreciate that I deign to answer your requests at all. You should appreciate,” he continued, “that I don’t proceed do what you asked of me, in spite of your current objections.”

Dean blinked, and Castiel was gone.

He let out the breath he’d been holding. Dean stood in the room alone for a moment before he ran a hand through his hair and opened the door. Sam was no longer in the hallway. Dean figured Sam must have guessed exactly who he went into the other room to talk to.

When he came back to the front, Ruby was giving him a look that would kill if it could. “You called that thing here, didn’t you?”

“What thing?” Henriksen asked.

“Dean’s got a pet angel,” Ruby said.

Henriksen turned to Dean. “You know angels?”

“Believe me, it’s not as great as it sounds,” Dean said.

“I’m not following.”

“Oh, yeah, it’s super.” Dean pointed at Ruby. “Her plan involves cutting a girl’s heart out. His plan involves permanently blinding everyone.”

Ruby shot a glare at Sam. “I told you.”

Sam ignored her, looking at Dean. “What did he say?”

“Apparently being a soldier of God involves not giving a shit about collateral damage.”

“What are we going to do now?” Sam asked.

“The only thing we can,” Dean said. “Not saying it’s a good plan, not saying it will even work.” He paused. “We open the doors, let them all in, and we fight.”

“That’s the worst plan I ever heard,” Ruby said. She glanced at Sam.

Sam was looking at Dean, resigned. “We’re doing it, Ruby,” he said.

“I can’t believe it—I’m actually disappointed.” Ruby hopped off the desk. “See you, boys.”

“Nice,” Dean said. “So you were going to let yourself be blown away before, but now you’re bailing?”

“Hey, I tried. My plan was tactical. But I’m not going down with this train wreck. Sam, let me out.”

“Ruby,” Sam started.

“No,” she said. “Let me out.”

“Screw you, too,” Dean said. “If we’re going down, we’re going down our way. Not your way, not his way—our way. We’re not going to throw away the rule book and stop acting like humans.”

Ruby shook her head. She looked almost genuine for a moment. “Let me know how that works out for you.”

*****



It worked out well, until they turned on the news the next morning.

Ruby gave them hex bags, told them off, and left.

Then they got the hell out of Colorado. Neither of them talked about it. There was nothing to say.

 

 

*****

 

 

It was over a week later when Dean was alone in the motel room that he thought about Castiel. They had just gotten done with a rough hunt, and Sam had gone for booze. Dean had insisted that Sam go for booze if Sam was going to stitch up this cut in his leg. Dean needed something stronger than beer.

He was currently lying on the bed, holding a towel to his thigh and staring at the ceiling.

“Cas,” he said. “Castiel?”

Dean sighed.

“Yeah, I figured you might not be taking my calls. And I’m still not down with calling this praying, by the way. But I, uh, I wondered how you were.” He paused. “You probably have some creepy way of knowing that I’m sitting here with a bloody gash in my leg, but I want you to know that’s not why I’m talking to you. Even if you show up, I’m not gonna ask you to fix it. So there.” He paused again. “I don’t want anything. But if you wanted to pop in, I wouldn’t care. Just, uh, don’t stay mad, all right?”

Dean didn’t really expect an answer, and he didn’t get one.

*****



He was sitting on the rocky beach of a lake that he was sure he’d never been to. Castiel was seated next to him in a wooden deck chair identical to his own, and he looked relaxed in a way that Dean had never seen. They were so close to the shoreline that the water almost lapped at their feet.

“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” Dean asked.

“Yes.”

It figured that Castiel could only look so comfortable in a place that wasn’t actually real.

“But you’re you, right? Or am I dreaming you?”

“I’m real.”

Dean smirked. “That’s what dream you would say.”

Castiel gave him an amused look. “You indicated you wanted to see me, so I came.”

“While I’m asleep?”

“You drank a great deal.”

“Yeah, I—had a thing.” Dean absently touched his leg, which was of course fine in the dream.

“You wanted to see me,” Castiel said again.

“Yeah. I did.”

Castiel looked at him expectantly.

Dean sighed. He gestured at Castiel, saying, “Dude, I know there’s more going on in there than a holy Get Out of Jail Free card. Believe it or not, I appreciate that,” he said dryly. “And yeah, I called you last time because we were screwed, but if you were just some jerk who could smite, I wouldn’t have bothered. And I sure wouldn’t shoot the bull with you in my dreams or let you sit on my car.”

Castiel didn’t immediately reply. Then he said, “You’re saying you enjoy my company.”

“Well, not if you’re gonna get all chick flick about it.” Dean looked out over the water. “But, uh, it’s good you stopped by.”

A silence fell, and Dean wondered how long Castiel would stay when neither of them had more to say.

Castiel shifted, leaning forward slightly and clasping his hands. He glanced at Dean again.

“Can I tell you something if you promise not to tell another soul?”

Dean nodded for him to continue.

“I have spoken to one of my brothers. An archangel.”

“Thought you were the only angel on Earth.”

“I was mistaken.”

“So, archangel. What’s he like?”

Castiel was silent. “Different,” he finally replied.

When he didn’t add anything to that, Dean asked, “And this is such a big secret why?”

“I believe it would end badly for me were I to bring any attention to him.”

Dean studied Castiel’s face. “Badly how?”

“It’s possible he would kill me,” Castiel said, turning his profile to Dean. “I assume it would depend on how much trouble my actions brought him.”

“Then why the hell are you telling me this?”

“Are you going to tell anyone?”

“No.”

Castiel gave him a justified look, like he hadn’t had any doubt of Dean keeping his confidence.

“Then you guys can die?” Dean said. “An archangel could kill you?”

“We can die. There are different ways.” He didn’t elaborate, but continued with, “However, an archangel could do it with a thought. Archangels are the most terrifying beings you could imagine. They’re absolute.”

“Did you piss this guy off or something?”

“No. I merely know that he exists. He left Heaven and is here as I am.”

Dean raised an eyebrow, leaning forward. “So there are two of you avoiding Heaven now.”

“It would seem.”

“What’s the deal, Cas?” Dean shifted in his chair again. He looked at the ground for a good skipping rock, but came up with nothing. “There’s more to this than you seeing an archangel.”

“Yes.” Castiel paused. “He said that God hasn’t been in Heaven for some time. He implied that the other archangels knew of this.”

“Hold up. Wouldn’t everyone notice God missing from Heaven?”

“Only four angels have ever seen the face of God.”

For a moment, Dean just stared at him. “You’re kidding me. How do you even know God exists?”

“Because I exist,” Castiel said, solemn.

Dean slouched in his chair, spreading his hands. “Hey, I exist, too,” he said easily. “Doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

“I’ve been here since the beginning, Dean. I was created.”

“If you say so. So if God isn’t in Heaven, where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel said. His gaze drifted to the trees on the other side of the lake. “Earth, perhaps.”

Dean chuckled. “Sounds like Earth is the place to be.”

Castiel gave him a strange look.

“What?”

“I recently heard something similar.”

Dean knew Castiel was talking about the archangel. He started to ask more, but Castiel evidently believed he shouldn’t even be saying this much. Despite the fact that Dean was becoming used to the guy, he still recognized that Castiel was something you didn’t want to screw with. He didn’t really want to contemplate something that Castiel didn’t want to screw with.

Castiel sat back in his chair, resting his hands on his legs. “It troubles me that God isn’t in Heaven.”

Dean shrugged. “Maybe this other angel is lying.”

“I don’t believe he cares enough to lie. His words were offhanded, and unprompted by myself.” Castiel fell silent for a long moment. He finally said, “I’m a servant of God. If God isn’t in Heaven, I have no reason to return.”

“I thought you didn’t want to go back to Heaven at all?”

“I intended to spend an interlude here, nothing more.”

Considering that Castiel had been in a cave for two thousand years and didn’t seem any worse for the wear, Dean guessed that Castiel’s definition of ‘interlude’ was longer than his own.

“Heaven is my home,” he continued.

“Well, if it’s your home, it’s your home whether God’s there or not.”

“You don’t understand,” Castiel said gravely, turning toward him. “Everything we do is in the name of God. Our only purpose is to carry out His will. But now I must consider that the orders I’ve followed have come from one of my brothers.”

“It’s still coming from Heaven. What’s the difference?”

“I don’t know. I have questions, questions that I would be punished simply for asking. If this is true, are we continuing to do what God wants?”

“Sounds to me like you don’t care what God wants.”

Castiel looked pained. “What makes you say that?”

Dean leaned on the arm of his chair that was closest to Castiel. “Even when you thought God was in Heaven giving the orders, you didn’t go back. It might not have been officially disobeying, but you knew exactly what you were up to.”

“I never thought I was doing anything God Himself would truly be angry over. How could He fault me for admiring His world?”

“Look, I don’t even know if I believe in God. I mean, I guess I should—you’re sitting right here. Though on the other hand, even you’ve never seen God. Hell, I don’t know. If God really isn’t in Heaven, it doesn’t seem to me like he cares what you do.”

Castiel seemed to consider this. “Even now, I don’t doubt God. It’s His prerogative to leave Heaven if He wishes, unannounced if He wishes. But I find myself questioning the actions of my brothers. I don’t know what’s correct anymore.”

“Man, this whole thing sounds above my pay grade.” Dean slumped back and kicked at a rock, sending it splashing into the surface of the lake. He glanced at Castiel. “So, you going back to Heaven to figure this all out?”

“I think not. Whether or not God is in Heaven, voicing such questions to my superiors wouldn’t—”

“End well for you?”

“No.”

“No offense, Cas, but Heaven kind of sounds like it sucks.”

Castiel made no comment. Then he said, “Regardless of where God is, serving Him might still best be done from Heaven. But I’m uncertain.” He seemed lost in thought as he again stared at nothing in particular. After another moment, he said, “For now, I will continue doing as I have been.”

“Hey, look on the bright side. If God’s on Earth, maybe you’ll run into him.”

Castiel made an amused noise. “Possible, but doubtful.”

Dean kicked at another rock. Then he gestured to the area in general. “Where the hell is this, anyway?”

“British Columbia.”

“Canada? Seriously?” Dean grimaced. “Dude, from now on, you keep my dreams to the U.S.”

Castiel almost smiled. “Noted.”

*****



When Dean stumbled into the bathroom in the early hours of the morning, it took him a bleary minute of staring at his leg while taking a leak to realize that the gash on his thigh was gone. The stitches Sam had put in were gone. There wasn’t even a scar.

Castiel, however, clearly hadn’t seen fit to fix his massive hangover. His head was killing him.

Dean flushed the toilet and staggered back to bed, falling face first on his pillow. “Thanks, Cas,” he mumbled.

He had the surprisingly lucid thought that Castiel wanted to be sought for nothing more than his company—not the miracles he could provide. He liked Dean and wanted to be liked in return. And Dean did like the guy, in a strange sort of way.

Huh. Sam was right.

Castiel was his friend.

*****



Nobody they had talked to in the last month could shine a light on how to break his deal. Predictably, the professor Sam just saw didn’t know crap. Dean got up from the bench he’d been waiting on. “Pack your stuff,” he told Sam. “We’ve got a case in Ohio.”

“What? Dean, we’re on a case. Yours. What the hell else have we been doing but trying to break your deal?”

“And how’s that been going? We don’t have anything. And until we do, I’d like to try actually doing my job.” Dean started to walk away.

Sam paused. “We should summon Ruby, then. She still said she knew how to save you.”

“Well, she can’t!” Dean said, turning around. “Okay? She can’t.” Then he sighed, putting his hands in his coat pockets. “Sam, she told me, flat out, that she couldn’t save me.”

Sam looked like he was torn between being pissed off and devastated.

It was a long drive to Ohio.

-----

Even in a town where the dead were calling the living, Dean never expected to get calls of his own.

Sam was less enthusiastic than Dean thought he should be. “Look, Dean, I want to believe this—”

“Then believe it!” Dean said, irritated. “What’s the problem? You’re the one who didn’t even want to hunt this case, and then we end up with a break that might get me out of my deal. You think you’d be happy.”

“I’m just saying it seems too good to be true.” He shuffled through the papers Dean had handed him. “The demon happens to be in town? Dad rattles off an exorcism that can kill it?” He sighed. “We’ve got no hard proof here, and we still have no idea what’s going on with these calls—which is what I’m trying to find out.” Sam put the papers down, glancing away before looking at Dean. “Just please, please don’t go anywhere until I get back.”

“Fine,” Dean ground out. “You go hang out with the jail bait. I’ll get the proof.”

Sam looked like he wanted to say something else, but he left all the same.

Dean glanced down at the exorcism in his hand. This was going to be his way out. If Sam needed some sort of guarantee, then Dean would get one. “Castiel.”

Castiel appeared by the door almost before Dean finished the word.

Despite his crappy mood, Dean grinned. “Wow, Cas, you must be having a slow day.”

Castiel seemed to smile without actually smiling. “You wished to see me?” he asked, moving closer.

“Yeah.” Dean held out the paper. “I thought maybe you could give me your, uh, expert opinion.” He hadn’t forgotten Castiel saying that he designed a devil’s trap.

Castiel took the sheet from his hand, quickly skimming it. “What would you like to know?”

“Will it kill a demon?”

“No.” Castiel frowned at him. “Why would it?”

Dean tried to ignore the way the words hit him. “Look again,” he insisted. “It has to.”

“This is a powerful exorcism. But that’s all it is.” He gave the paper back to Dean.

Castiel was still staring at him.

“Are you sure?” Dean said.

“Of course.” When Dean didn’t respond, Castiel asked, “Where did you get it?”

Dean resisted the urge to rip the exorcism apart in his hands. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, turning away. The motel room’s seating area was scattered with sheets documenting the omens that he’d spent the morning researching. He swallowed. “Is there even a damn demon in town?” Dean said, looking back at Castiel. “Can you tell?”

Castiel’s face went completely vacant for a moment. “There are no demons here,” he announced.

“Great. Just great.” Dean spun in frustration, sweeping his hand over the table and sending the papers flying into the air.

Castiel watched them scatter noncommittally. When the last scrap had settled, Castiel’s eyes were back on him and his expression was anything but indifferent. “Dean, what’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. I thought I’d caught a fucking break. Thought that the demon who holds my contract was in town, that I had a shot at killing the bastard and breaking the deal.”

“Ah.” Castiel suddenly looked uncomfortable and perplexed at the same time. He hesitated. “Dean, killing the demon that holds your contract wouldn’t stop you from going to Hell.”

An icy feeling settled in Dean’s stomach. “What do you mean?”

“You sold yourself to Hell. The demon is merely an entity. If you did succeed in killing it, the contracts would pass to the next in command.”

“No.” Dean stepped forward, getting in Castiel’s face. “No. I don’t believe you.”

Castiel stared back, somber. “I’m an angel, Dean. I do know something of Hell.”

He said it without pleasure, without any air of superiority. Castiel knew he was right, but he didn’t want to be.

Dean felt something inside him break. He moved away from Castiel, saying the first thing that came to mind.

“Well, you’re just full of good news, aren’t you? Exorcism won’t do shit, and hey, even if it did, it wouldn’t freaking matter.” Dean shook his head in disbelief. “You know, back there I actually thought about asking if you’d help me find the Colt.”

Castiel seemed confused by the turn of the conversation. “What’s the Colt?”

“It’s a gun that kills demons.”

“I see.” He paused. “Would it help you to have this item?”

Dean spread his arms. “Apparently not!”

“I could look, if you wish,” Castiel said, as if he was trying to find something Dean would like.

“What the hell does it matter?” Dean shouted. “Do you think that makes it better—bringing me jackets and guns?” He was close to breaking down, he could feel it, but he’d be damned if he was going to do it in front of Castiel. “I only needed the fucking Colt to kill the demon, to get me out of the fucking deal!” He turned, running his hands through his hair. “But now I’m just fucked!”

Although the room was silent, Dean could tell that Castiel was still behind him. But the last thing Dean wanted to do right now was turn around. He wished Castiel would figure out that it was a lousy time to be here and disappear already.

He didn’t hear a sound, but a moment later, there was a hand resting on his shoulder. Dean wanted to shove Castiel off, to yell, to ask how the hell this was supposed to help him, but he found himself simply standing there. Castiel didn’t try to get Dean to acknowledge him. He was just a steady presence at Dean’s back.

The seconds slid by.

“I’m sorry, Dean,” he said quietly.

Then the hand was gone, and so was Castiel.

-----

When his phone eventually rang again, Dean opened it reluctantly.

“Dean,” came his father’s voice.

“H-hey, Dad.”

“Do you have the exorcism ready?” The line hissed with static.

“It—it won’t work. I know you tried, Dad, but it’s not what you think.”

“Dean, the demon’s here. I know where.”

“It’s gone,” Dean said, sinking farther into the couch. “Or it was never here. Fuck, I don’t know.”

“You need to listen to me, Dean. We don’t have much time. I need you to come.”

An uneasy feeling passed over Dean. “Come where?”

“To where the demon is,” he said vaguely. “I’ll tell you.”

Dean gripped the phone harder, torn between what he was hearing and what Castiel had said. “How do you know all this?”

“I’m watching over you. You’re my son.”

Angels are watching over you. “Dad? What did Mom used to say when she tucked me in at night?”

Silence.

“What was Mom’s name?” Dean pressed.

There was an extended pause. “Mary,” the answer finally came.

Dean took a shaky breath. “You know what, I don’t think you’re really my dad.” Then his voice hardened. “But I’m gonna find you. Whatever you are, I’m gonna hunt you down, and I’m gonna kill you.”

The line went dead.

-----

Dean got to the phone company right in time to see Sam take down the creature.

Sam was breathing hard, but the thing was definitely dead. Dean skidded to a stop in the doorway. “What was it?” Dean asked.

“Crocotta.”

“Makes sense.” Dean nodded. “You good?”

“Yeah.” Sam walked over, and together they started out of the basement. When they reached the parking lot, Sam said, “I’m sorry, Dean.”

Dean shrugged. “Yeah, me, too. You were right.”

“I didn’t want to be. How did you figure it out?”

“Cas said the exorcism was fake. And that—that there wasn’t a demon in town.”

Sam’s eyebrows shot up. “You believed Castiel over Dad?”

“Wasn’t really Dad, was it?” Dean snapped.

Sam didn’t say anything.

“I just—I wanted to believe there was a way out of this so bad,” Dean said, staring past Sam. “I’ve got less than two months left. It’s real, and it’s closing in, and… I’m scared, Sam.”

“I know,” he said softly.

“And I’m screwed. I’m really screwed.”

“Dean, we’ll find a way.”

Dean shook his head. “There is no way.”

“Well, I believe there is. And we’ll find it,” Sam said firmly. “Did Castiel say anything else?”

Dean glanced down. “No. Nothing.”

*****



Sam was the one getting desperate as Dean’s date slid closer, that much was clear. What Dean thought was going to be a one off zombie hunt ended up being Sam chasing a creepy kind of immortality. Dean wasn’t having any of it. He was going to be human, or he wasn’t going to be at all.

He and Sam had ended up doing separate things for the day. Dean couldn’t say that tracking down a lead on the Colt was as important as it had been, but it was the principle of the thing.

Rufus leaned back in his chair, studying Dean. “You got three weeks left. Why you wasting your time chasing after that skinny English girl?”

Dean looked down at his glass. “How’d you know about my deal?”

“I know things about a lot of people. And I know ain’t no pea-shooter gonna save you.”

“Yeah? You know what else I got following me around besides hellhounds?”

Rufus didn’t immediately answer. “No,” he said, frowning.

“All right, then. Look, I know I’m screwed. I know the Colt won’t help me. But I want Bela. I want to look her in the eyes and ask her why.”

“Boy, I can tell you why. That girl don’t care about nothing or nobody but herself.” Rufus paused. “Hotel Canaan,” he finally said. “But watch your back. There are things about her that you don’t even know.”

-----

The meeting with Bela was unproductive. However, it also made everything she’d done snap into place, as well as what she was likely going to do to get out of her deal. The midnight phone call only confirmed it.

Dean slammed his phone shut at 11:59.

After a second, Sam said, “What about Lilith?”

“Bela says Lilith holds my contract. That she holds every contract.”

“Do we believe her?”

Dean didn’t look away from the road. “I don’t know.”

*****



Two days before his deal came due, they rolled into Bobby’s. It was late, and Bobby didn’t do much besides point them to where they could dump their stuff and tell them to keep the noise down.

A few minutes later, Sam was settled on the couch with his laptop open, and Dean found himself in the kitchen. He’d finished his beer right after he opened it, and it did nothing to take the edge off. Dean threw the empty bottle away.

“I’m gonna get some air,” he said.

“Okay,” Sam said, absorbed in whatever he was reading.

Dean went out the kitchen door and down the back steps. The night was cold, and he put his hands in his jacket pockets as he walked. Dean didn’t know where he was going, and he aimlessly wandered around the edge of the car lot. He ended up under one of the security lights by the east garage.

He wished he’d brought another beer. Dean stood under the light and looked back at the darkened shape of the house. He could make excuses about getting some air or taking a walk, but there was no question about what he’d come out here to do.

“Cas.”

The air shifted, and Castiel was standing next to him. Castiel surveyed the scrap yard with disinterest.

“I’ve got two days left,” Dean said, staring out at the cars.

“Yes.” Castiel clasped his hands behind his back. “I’m sorry.”

Dean turned his head. “Yeah, what are you sorry for? You knew I was a dead man walking since the day I met you.”

“I’ve grown to know you since then. I’m sorry it ends like this.” He sounded regretful, but that was it.

For a minute, Dean stared at him.

“That’s all you have to say?” Dean demanded. He moved, stepping in front of Castiel. “You know what, sometimes in there, I actually thought you were my friend. That in some bizarre way, you cared.”

Castiel suddenly seemed pained. “I do.”

There was no mistaking the way his expression shifted, though it was gone just as quickly. Castiel seemed determined to keep his guard up, like he was afraid of what might happen if he let it down.

“Do you want me to go to Hell?” Dean said.

“How can you ask that?”

“Then why don’t you help me? I know we’ve been through this, but I’m asking again. Hell, I’m begging. I’m—I’m scared, Cas. Please.”

Castiel turned away. “What would you have me do?” he said stiffly.

“Help me not go to Hell.”

“That’s not within my power,” he replied, his back still to Dean. “I’ve told you this.”

“Look at me, damn it!”

Dean reached out, grabbing Castiel’s shoulder and spinning him around. Castiel caught Dean’s hand on the end of the movement, his grip momentarily firm, then simply steady. He didn’t immediately let go, but Dean sensed that pulling away was only going to close Castiel down again. On impulse, Dean squeezed back.

Castiel looked surprised. He let go.

“I’m sorry, Dean,” he said softly, glancing at the ground.

Dean dipped his own head until he could catch Castiel’s eyes. Castiel reluctantly looked up, almost like he couldn’t help it.

“Cas, if there’s anything you can do, please—please, help me.”

“I can’t.” Castiel held his gaze for a long moment before he shook his head. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

Then he straightened his shoulders, his mask sliding back into place.

Something in Dean snapped.

“You’re a heartless, spineless bastard, you know that?” Dean sneered. “You think this is something that I just do? You think I like begging you? Is this how you get off, dangling all your power in front of poor saps like me and then refusing to use it? Waiting to see if I’ll fall on my knees?”

“You think I enjoy this?”

“I don’t know what to think. What the hell am I to you—your convenient tour guide to Earth? Just a thing in the dirt for you to play with and look down on?”

Castiel looked dismayed. “I imagined we were friends.”

“You fucking got the ‘were’ part right,” Dean said. “We’re done.”

“Dean—”

“We’re done.” Dean turned his back on Castiel. “I never want to see your face again.”

He felt a breeze a second later, and he knew Castiel was gone.

Dean hung his head. He felt exhausted in a way he couldn’t describe. He stood under the light, before settling on the hood of the nearest car and putting his head between his hands.

It was ten minutes later that Sam appeared carrying two beers. He wordlessly offered one to Dean. Dean opened it and finished half the bottle in one gulp.

Sam leaned against the car. “I saw him,” he said. “Castiel.”

Dean huffed. “You eavesdropping now?”

“No,” Sam said easily. “I was upstairs in the house. I looked out the window, and there you were, under the light.”

“And?”

“He left.”

“He’s not coming back, either,” Dean said, answering the unspoken question.

“Did you think he was? I mean, I thought Castiel already said he couldn’t help.”

“I don’t know what I thought.” Dean took another drink. “Sammy, there’s something you should know.”

“Yeah?” Sam asked quietly.

“Cas said that even if we could kill Lilith, it won’t get me out of my deal. He said it doesn’t work that way.”

Sam was silent for a minute. “Do you believe him?”

“I don’t want to.” Dean paused, staring into the darkness. “But it means there’s no point. I’m going to Hell no matter what we do.”

Sam put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s at least see what we can find tomorrow, all right?”

Dean silently finished off his beer.

*****



He was running through the woods. He couldn’t see what he was running from, but he wouldn’t—not until the second before it had him.

Dean pushed through the underbrush, looking behind him as he ran. Another five strides and the hellhound caught his leg, sending him sprawling on the forest floor. Dean put his hands up on instinct, but it already had a hold of him.

Backlit against the sky, Castiel stood, watching dispassionately as the hellhound tore him apart.

Dean jerked awake, finding himself sitting at a desk. Before he could decide whether the Castiel in his dream had been real or his own imagination, Sam walked in.

“Bobby’s ready with the ritual.”

Dean nodded.

Sam moved around the desk. “Look, we’re cutting it close, I know. But we’re going to get this done. I don’t care what it takes.”

Sam’s face suddenly distorted in a way that no face ever should. Dean knew it wasn’t real, but it was all he could do to say, “Yeah. Okay.”

-----

They were squatting in an abandoned house five towns over from Bobby’s. Apparently the ritual was very specific, even down to the sort of location it had to be done in. Dean had stopped paying attention when Sam and Bobby had been talking about running bodies of water and unmarked ground, but the end result was packing up their stuff from Bobby’s and heading out.

Bobby had done his homework, that was for sure. He had the whole table set up when Dean came in. “All right,” Dean said. “This thing good to go?”

“She will be,” Bobby said. He lit the last candle. Then he hesitated, looking at Dean. “I hate to bring it up, but since no one’s mentioned it, I assume you never found that angel again?”

“I found him,” Dean said evenly. “He’s not helping. In fact, he’s kind of useless.”

Bobby made no comment. But he found Lilith with what was, Dean had to admit, a kick ass ritual.

Sam was ready to jump in the car as soon as Bobby said New Harmony, Indiana.

“Whoa, whoa,” Dean said, holding up a hand. “We’re not even a hundred percent sure if Lilith holds my deal. On top of that, we’ve got no way to gank her, and this is the same Lilith that wants your head on a pike, remember? So we know where she is, but this is still going in blind.”

“Then what are we supposed to do?” Sam asked. “Just sit here? Wait for you to die?”

“I don’t know, okay? But did you forget what Cas said about how it won’t break my deal? Even if we kill her, I’m still checking out,” Dean said. He moved, taking a step away. “Just because I’m gonna die doesn’t mean you have to. I’m not gonna let you walk in there.”

“Dean, Lilith is going to come after me sooner or later. It might as well be now, when there are two of us, and when there’s still a chance to save you. It might save you!” he said, cutting off Dean’s protest. “It might!” Sam looked down, putting his hands on the table. “And we can kill her. All we have to do is summon Ruby and get the knife.”

“Damn it, Sam, no! She lied about my deal, she lied about Lilith—we can’t trust her!”

“Fine, she’s a liar.” Sam shrugged. “But she’s got the knife.”

-----

Sam summoned Ruby, just like Dean hoped he wouldn’t and knew he would. Picking a fight with her wasn’t hard. In fact, it was actually kind of fun. He managed to get the knife off her and angle her into the devil’s trap he’d painted on the ceiling.

“You stupid son of a bitch,” Ruby said. “You think this is going to help you? Your one shot at not going to Hell was Sam.”

“Right.” Dean waved the knife. “Cause you were about to show him how. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t believe you.”

“We need to—”

“We?” Dean laughed. “There’s no ‘we’ in this, sweetheart.”

“Sam, let me out.”

Sam looked away.

“You’re just going to leave me here?”

Dean spread his hands. “Looks like it.”

Ruby stared at the devil’s trap above her. A different expression passed over her face as her eyes swept over the pattern. “What is this? Where the hell did you even get this?”

“It’s nice, huh?” Dean said with a grin. “Learned that from Cas. I hear it’s an original design. Good luck on ever getting out. C’mon, Sam.”

They started up the stairs.

“‘Cas’, is it?” Ruby called after them. “Where’s the angel now, Dean? He can’t save you. The only thing that could save you is me! Are you too stupid to live?” she yelled. “Fine, then you deserve Hell! I hope you burn!”

Dean shut the basement door behind them. As they started getting their stuff together, Sam said, “Dean, what if she’s right? What if I can take out Lilith? What if I can save you? She said I was ready.”

Dean stopped packing his bag. “Ready for what, Sam? Ready to zap her with your psychic stare?”

“I don’t know what Ruby meant. Maybe we should ask her, just talk about it. If there’s a chance— Dean, we’ve only got one shot at this.”

“No. We’re not making the same mistakes all over again. We’re not playing some demon’s game. You know what that road is paved with.” Dean gestured to himself. “I’m not gonna let you end up like this. You wanted the knife, Sam, and I got you the knife. Now let’s take it and kill the bitch.”

*****



They managed to get into the house that Lilith was occupying thanks to the knife, Dean’s new ability to see demons, and Bobby’s creativity with a sprinkler system.

Sam started up the stairs alone with the knife as Dean took the man he’d just knocked out down to the basement. He got to the bedroom himself just in time to stop Sam from stabbing the girl who was no longer possessed. Dean moved on autopilot after that, getting the woman and her daughter to their feet and down to the first floor. Once the whole family was in the basement, he shut the door.

“Damn it, Dean, what now? Why did Lilith leave?”

“I don’t know,” Dean hissed. He started checking the rest of the house, Sam following behind him.

“I should have listened to Ruby,” Sam said, panicking. “We shouldn’t have just fucking left her in that basement!”

“No, Sam.” Dean stopped in the living room, turning to face Sam.

“I could have at least asked her what I had to do to save you! She could have helped!”

“Sam—”

“There has to be something! It—it can’t end like this!” Sam cried. “I was supposed to kill Lilith, and what, now she’s just gone? What’s going on? What the hell was all this for? I won’t let you go to Hell—I won’t!”

The grandfather clock in the living room started to strike twelve. Dean felt strangely resigned.

“You have to,” Dean said. He swallowed as the chimes rang out. “Sam, you have to.”

“Dean.” Sam was crying now. “No. What am I supposed to do?”

Dean tried to smile. “Keep fighting. Remember what I taught you.”

There was a growl from inside the house. Dean turned sharply, taking a step back when he found a hellhound in the dining room.

It was instinct to run, even though he knew he was only putting off the inevitable. Sam moved first, but before Dean got out of the room, he registered another movement in his peripheral vision. Castiel’s arrival was as dramatic as it was unremarkable. He was suddenly just there, standing in the dining room archway with the hellhound now dead at his feet. In his hand there was a bloody silver dagger that looked more like a spike than a sword.

“Whoa, Cas, you’re radioactive.”

That wasn’t what Dean had intended to say, but it just came out. Castiel wasn’t only glowing—light was spilling out his eyes and mouth, and he seemed to warp around the edges.

“You shouldn’t be able to see that.”

“Yeah, I’m seeing a lot of things I shouldn’t be able to see today.” Castiel like this was disconcerting, to say the least, but Dean couldn’t bring himself to care.

Castiel seemed to adjust something within himself, and the light stopped.

“Oh, my God,” Sam was saying.

Castiel spared him a glance, before moving to Dean. “More will come,” he said.

“You got a plan here?” Dean asked.

“I’m going to kill you,” Castiel said, businesslike.

Dean wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. “Wait, what?”

“You have to die.”

“Gee, Cas, with friends like you, who needs enemies?”

“You have to die,” Castiel repeated, “before I can raise you.”

Sam was standing next to Castiel now, looking desperate. “You can do that? You’d do that?”

Castiel met Dean’s gaze. “Yes.”

“Why didn’t you say anything before?” Dean demanded. Some part of his brain registered that he really shouldn’t be yelling at Castiel right now, but he couldn’t help feeling indignant.

“I told you the deal couldn’t be broken,” Castiel said, unfazed. “But a soul once in Hell can be retaken.”

“Right, and you only now decided to share that you can bring me back from Hell?”

“What I can do does not dictate what I will do.”

Dean shook his head. “You knew you could do this the whole time, and you let me just—”

“Reclaiming a soul from Perdition involves more than you could possibly imagine,” Castiel said, taking another step forward. His mouth twisted, and his voice was low. “The number of times angels have entered Hell can be counted on your hands. What’s more, raising you simply because I wish it goes so far beyond disobedience that it’s outright rebellion. Helping you could quite possibly undo my entire existence. I’m sorry if you think my being unwilling to risk the wrath of Heaven was done solely to inconvenience you. Even if I had reached such a decision earlier, I doubt you would have welcomed it as an option before this moment.”

Dean was slightly taken aback. “Sorry, all right? I get it.”

“Do you?” Castiel asked, getting in his face. “Do you think this is something that I simply do? That resurrection is a feat to be performed for anyone who happens to ask it of me? I do it for you,” he said. “And you alone.”

“Okay,” Dean said. “Okay. This is—it’s a lot, Cas.”

Castiel looked down. “You’re going to go to Hell, Dean. You’re going to suffer. I would give anything to be able to change that, to stop it here. But know that it won’t be forever.”

Sam, who had been doing nothing but gaping at Castiel and listening to their exchange, spoke again. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“How long?” Dean asked.

“Longer than you’d like,” Castiel said gravely. “I don’t know.”

“So you’re actually going to Hell?” Sam asked Castiel. “How does that work?”

Castiel turned to him. “I leave this vessel, force my way into Hell, and drag Dean out myself.”

“Vessel?” Dean asked. “Are you possessing someone?”

“Dean, we don’t have time for this,” Castiel said.

“And he still has to die now?” Sam said, his voice shaky.

“The hellhounds will never stop coming. If they keep being obstructed, enough will eventually be sent that even I can’t prevent them from succeeding. And Dean is expected now.”

Dean read between the lines. “Better not to tip off the guys downstairs that I’ve got an angel up my sleeve.”

Castiel nodded. “Though it’s not necessary for you to die that way.”

“Small mercies, huh?”

Castiel was silent, apparently ready to move on to what happened next.

“You don’t beat around the bush, do you?” Dean muttered.

He glanced to the side, sharing a long look with Sam. Sam didn’t say anything, but he tried to give Dean a smile. Dean couldn’t blame him; his brother was still about to watch him die.

Shit, he was still about to die. He’d been expecting to all day, but that didn’t make it any easier. This was it.

Castiel stepped closer, and Dean shifted back in spite of himself.

“I will come for you, Dean,” Castiel said, regarding him steadily. “I promise you.”

Dean managed to nod.

He had no idea how he’d earned an angel following him into the Pit. The thought came that he probably hadn’t. But he was going to receive it.

Castiel remained motionless. It occurred to Dean that despite there being no other options, Castiel wasn’t going to move against him without his permission.

Dean swallowed. Then he clenched his jaw and looked Castiel square in the eyes. “Do it.”

*











Epilogue



Hell was an eternity locked in an instant. It never changed.

Every day began anew with the promise of pain. Days upon days upon time until he stopped counting.

Then there was the day long after his last desperate hope had died.

It started with the hum, a sound that rose until it was like white noise dialed to infinity. Blinding fire followed, blanketing the firmament in every direction. Both intensified beyond all reason until the source was directly in front of him. It was a vortex of light and chaos and reverberation, and he only had a split second of clarity before it engulfed him.

Every atom of his being felt like it was vibrating apart. There was nothing but force. It was heat that burned cold and loud, energy folding in on itself even as it struck out. He was surrounded by something he was never meant to touch, locked into the embrace of a being that shook the world in its wake.

But there was no question of what it was.

Purpose.

Fury.

Absolution.

Castiel.

.
.

There was nothing but Castiel.

Then there was nothing.

.
.

The only noise he could hear was gasping, and it took Dean a second to realize that it was him.

He could feel boards beneath him, and his hands found boards above him. Dean frantically pressed against them. When he dislodged one, dirt dropped down on him through the crack. He pushed with all his strength, and was able to get free, at least from that. But he could only feel soil around him, and there was nothing to get leverage on.

Something moved against him in the dirt. Dean groped on instinct, and the next moment, a hand locked around his wrist and pulled. He found himself being lifted, the dirt giving way as he was hauled up.

He knew without thinking who the hand belonged to.

Dean broke the surface, and there was Castiel, effortlessly raising him from the earth with one arm. His back was straight as he drew Dean completely free and held him aloft, putting them face to face as all of Dean’s weight dangled from his grasp.

“Cas.” The name seemed to fall from his lips on its own. His voice was hoarse and scratched the back of his throat. The next thing he knew, he couldn’t stop coughing.

Castiel lowered him to the ground, and Dean fell to his hands and knees, gasping and trying to catch his breath. Even after he had it under control, he didn’t immediately stand. There was sky above him and grass beneath him, and his own open grave was behind him.

Dean looked at Castiel’s shoes. “What year is it?” he rasped.

“Only months have passed here.”

Months. Not years. Sam was somewhere, just like he’d left him.

“Sam?”

“He should be well. I spoke with him several times before I left to retrieve you.”

The forest around them was leveled. Every single tree he could see was uprooted like it had been struck down in a massive blast, and his grave was ground zero. Dean had always sensed there was something incomprehensible in Castiel, but nothing could have prepared him for the being that had come for him. That was what he’d truly been talking to all along. He never could have imagined that the angel was something so profoundly terrifying.

Yet somehow, Dean had managed to make a friend of him.

Castiel was his friend. Dean knew it without question. He couldn’t find the apprehension he realized should follow from knowing the reality of Castiel. The only thing he felt about being at Castiel’s feet was relief.

He craned his neck, blinking against the glaring afternoon sun. Castiel was a solid, patient presence above him. His head was tilted slightly, and he was gazing down at Dean as if he himself existed solely in this moment for anything Dean might need. He looked almost serene.

Dean pulled himself up, his eyes never leaving Castiel’s as he stood. “You came.”

“Of course.” He said it like there was no question of his ever doing otherwise.

Dean glanced away, self-conscious. “I didn’t think you were. Not that you—not that you weren’t coming, but that you couldn’t. You didn’t show for years. I just figured something had happened.”

“You were very well hidden,” Castiel said. “I never anticipated you could be lost to me for so long. I’m truly sorry, Dean.”

Dean laughed abruptly. Castiel was apologizing for not promptly arriving in Hell. “Guess they wanted me bad, huh?”

Castiel’s head shook almost imperceptibly. “Something’s happening. Dean, there’s more to this than I know.”

“Hey, right now I’m just glad I’ve got friends in high places.” Dean put a hand on Castiel’s shoulder.

Castiel looked at him warmly. It again hit Dean that he was only alive because the guy standing next to him had personally dragged him out of Hell. Dean realized he should say something else, but the reality of just being here was overwhelming. He hadn’t expected to see anything but Hell ever again, and Castiel had turned his existence on its axis in an instant.

To say that he owed Castiel his life didn’t begin to cover it.

On impulse, Dean moved completely into Castiel’s space, wrapping both arms around him and tucking his chin against Castiel’s shoulder.

“Really,” he said, surprised to hear his voice shaking. “Thank you.”

Castiel was rigid beneath his touch. Then his hands came up to rest against Dean’s back, hesitating before returning the embrace firmly. When he spoke, his voice was soft and right next to Dean’s ear.

“Dean,” was all he said.

Dean knew he should be letting go by now, but he didn’t care. The only word for what Castiel had done for him was ‘saved’. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to thank you,” he choked.

Castiel’s grip tightened. “Don’t mention it.”



—the end