Castiel receives the new commands in silence. He does not understand why his orders have changed, but it is not his place to question the will of the Lord God.
"You are the messenger, Castiel; this role should fall to you."
It would be sinful to protest. Gabriel has the right of it, and Castiel does not like to think of Uriel or any other member of the host carrying out this task. It is his right and his responsibility. He owes it to Dean.
"I am obedient to the Lord," he says, making the appropriate obeisance.
He has never seen the face of God, of course. God has not told him personally that these are His wishes. But clearly it must be so, and Castiel accepts his own ignorance and inadequacies. It is enough to serve. It would be abominable arrogance to expect God to explain His plans to His lowly servants.
This is another honour, although unlike the task of freeing a soul from the bonds of Hell, this one feels like an admission of failure. Castiel is conscious of the attention of seraphim and cherubim, of angels and archangels, of thrones, principalities and dominions. He has been singled out again, and he still does not know why God has chosen him, of all the other angels. He has never been amongst the most high. It ruffles his calm, very slightly. Almost, he is troubled.
"Dean Winchester has faith in you. He thinks you are his friend." Uriel's resonant voice expresses the full rich hilarity of Dean's folly. "Now isn't he in for a nasty shock?"
Castiel does not answer, but the words leave him feeling strangely bruised and tender. He bows to Gabriel again. "I must be on my way."
"I wish you swiftness and success." Gabriel has little to do with humans these days. He has none of Uriel's levity. "Praise be to God on high."
It occurs to Castiel, as he makes his way back out of the pure radiance of the assembly, that he has never particularly liked any of them.
He feels the being the Winchesters knew as Anna watching him closely as he departs.
Castiel does not go to carry out the orders directly. This is not disobedience, because there was no specific mention of a timeframe, and naturally he is going to obey the command. Still - he knows that Uriel would disapprove of his procrastination. He knows, really, that they expected him to act at once. But they did not tell him to act at once, so Castiel buys himself a little time to restore his equilibrium.
For no particular reason, he goes and sits quietly on an unremarkable park bench, watching human children play. He finds their heedless energy and their fierce passions oddly touching. The children run and tumble and jump and shout; they are fragile as the blue-shelled eggs in the nest high above his head, small and perfect and excruciatingly mortal, and quite oblivious to the harsh realities of their world. A tiny boy with sleek black hair and skin the colour of burnt sugar is hurtling back and forth on the swing, defying gravity, his small face rapt with the fierce joy of flight. Incapable of conceiving that his grip might falter, that he might be flung helter-skelter into the air, and smashed into the unyielding ground below. Castiel cannot decide whether this is ignorance or innocence, but he pities the child who has a lifetime of disappointments, shocks, disillusionments and agonies great and small stretching out before him in this life. And, quite possibly, in the next.
It is a beautiful Autumn day. Castiel finds all God's climes and seasons beautiful, of course - sunlight and snow and monsoon rains are all benedictions. Even the destructive force of the cyclone, the lightning, the tsunami, all show the hand of God. Change can be painful, but it is necessary for growth. Autumn brings its endings, with lush leaves withering on the bough and tumbling to the ground in a shower of crisp gold and amber and crimson to beautify the grass and fertilize the soil. They may leave the bereft branches bare and stark against the skyline when they fall, but they are still simple, needful deaths. The tree lives on. It is all part of God's scheme.
There is a mild breeze sending the fallen leaves scurrying around, catching some to whirl high up in the air like a flurry of fire-coloured feathers. For a time it seems as though they might fall up instead of down, vanish into the blue, weightless and brilliant and bouyant against the clouds. But it is always an illusion. They always sink back down to the earth once more, to be trodden underfoot, crushed into the mulch, their brave colours leeched away as they transform to something dirty and new and needful. It is the nature of things.
"You are procrastinating." Castiel had not heard Uriel arrive, and that alone speaks volumes about how distracted he has been. He swallows, conscious that he is failing in the spirit, if not the letter, of his instructions. Uriel eyes him narrowly. "You have let the apes corrupt you. You are wasting the Lord's time."
"I was only lost in contemplation of our Father's work," says Castiel, truthfully.
"Kill them," says Uriel, looking at him very hard. "Kill them now, or so help me I'll do the job myself."
"The host appointed me," says Castiel evenly.
"Then get on with it!"
Uriel departs, but his presence has shattered the fragile peace Castiel had built for himself. He is crackling with nervous energy, his mind a mass of unaskable questions. His borrowed heart beats too fast in his chest. What if they have misunderstood the instructions? What if this is a test? What if the Lord is mistaken?
He freezes, then tries frantically to unthink this thought. But it will not retreat.
What if the Lord is wrong?
He closes his eyes. The Lord cannot be wrong. Castiel's shame scalds him. He has delayed too long. Uriel is right; he has let these humans seduce him into sentimentality just as surely as Dean Winchester has let the demon Ruby seduce him into extending her his trust. They are not of the same element. There can be no understanding between humans and angels.
Castiel rises. He does not look at the bench where Dean Winchester once sat and listened to his confession. He does not indulge in hand-wringing or regrets. He wastes no more time. Instead he spreads his wings and hurls himself from this place to the next.
They are sleeping when he finds them. The ugly brown curtains have been pulled shut to keep out the bright light of the afternoon, and the brothers sprawl bonelessly on their respective beds, oblivious to the intruder in their motel room. Small wonder. Castiel knows they have had a scant handful of hours' sleep between them this past week, and their victory last night was a hard fought one. He is surprised either of them had the presence of mind to hang the 'Do not disturb' sign on the door of their dingy little room. Sam's shoes lie at the foot of his bed, but he has crawled under the covers fully dressed. Dean sprawls on top of the covers of his own bed, barefoot, his tattered t-shirt draped haphazardly over a chair. His jeans are encrusted with drying mud. The clawmarks on his naked back are fresh, and it looks like he fell asleep while Sam was tending to them. The Winchester boys always seem to have a fresh supply of bandages and bullets, whatever else they lack.
He should do it now, whilst they sleep. That would be best. Sam's powers are considerable, but he is exhausted and defenceless, and his demon lover is three states away. He should do it now, so he does not have to look into Dean Winchester's eyes and see the reflection of this betrayal.
Instead, Castiel sits down quietly on one of the ugly chairs, ignoring the mysterious stains in the upholstery, and looks long and hard at the two young men he has been sent here to kill.
Sam Winchester still disturbs him. The demon taint permeates his skin and bones and Castiel finds it difficult to look past that constant buzz of wrongness; and yet he knows that the boy is not to blame for his powers or his darkness, and he has watched Sam struggling to make something good out of his curse. It has frustrated and frightened Castiel, because the whole point is that Sam should try to live as a human, that he must not access that power – but he recognizes that Sam Winchester has been trying to do good. And he has heard the boy praying, albeit not lately. Not since he met angels in the flesh.
Uriel despises him. Castiel has begun, reluctantly, to pity him.
His gaze travels slowly, inevitably, over to Dean. The soles of his feet are calloused, and his muddy jeans are in desperate need of washing. The lean curve of his spine flexes gently with each slumbering breath, and a stripe of light from the gap in the curtains slides across his upper body, gilding his hair and skin in the places it alights. Castiel looks at the wings of Dean's shoulderblades and the gentle swell of muscles in his arms, at the bruised knuckles and torn fingernails of the hand that pillows his cheek and of the one clenched tight into the covers, and marvels again at how beautiful the human body is. What a wonder. What a fragile thing.
He can feel the dream from here: blood and screams and pain and shame. Hopelessness. Despair. Castiel does not understand, will never understand, why God sends His humans to suffer so in the pit. The only way the angel can endure this seeming senselessness is to have faith; to believe that there is a reason, that there is a plan. That the Lord's justice is beyond Castiel's comprehension. But the longer he has spent with Dean Winchester, the more Castiel has come to sympathise with Dean's sense of betrayal and anger at the Lord. The more he has come to treasure his moments with this man and the odd blend of suspicion, affection and camaraderie that Dean extends to him. He is touched by Dean's courage and his loyalty to his younger brother almost as much as he is frustrated by Dean's stubbornness.
Dean Winchester took a tire iron to the demon Alastair, the face of his most hideous nightmares and most shameful recollections, while Castiel choked and squirmed on the ground with darkness seeping into his pores, and Uriel left him to his own devices.
Castiel likes Dean. He cannot call him a friend, because angels do not have friends, but Dean Winchester makes Castiel long for the luxury of friendship.
But that is pure self-indulgence, and quite beside the point. Castiel knows the will of God, and it is his honour to carry it out, regardless of how cruel or senseless it might seem. Regardless of how much he would like to flee. Regardless of how much he might personally want to give the Winchesters another chance. It is his duty, and obedience is what defines him. It is the purpose of his existence.
He is just telling himself that again, and steeling himself for the task ahead, when Dean opens his eyes and looks straight at him. Castiel sees Dean's face light up for half a second (despite his puzzled incredulity at having merited a guardian angel of his own, Castiel has felt the tentative blossoming Dean's underlying delight at having been found special. At being chosen. At being saved. Dean Winchester has begun to let down his guard) before the reflexive wariness kicks in.
Not wary enough, thinks Castiel, looking into the green-gold-brown of Dean's dream-blown eyes. The pupils are huge in the dimness of the room, but Castiel can still pick out every shade of early autumn colour in his irises, and can count the lashes that curl gently back onto his skin. He thinks about the little boy soaring back and forth on his swing in the park, and tries to understand how it is possible that by choosing again and again to stand between helpless souls and the forces that would wrench them apart, Dean and his brother have condemned themselves in the eyes of the Lord.
It makes him feel ashamed.
"I warned you what would come," he says helplessly, and Dean is sitting bolt upright in an instant, taking in Castiel's tone. "I said you had to stop it, or we would intervene." Sam is stirring sluggishly at the sound of his voice, but he is bone-tired and beyond, and anyway Castiel's attention is not on him. Electricity sparks from the light fittings and the curtains begin to flutter as Castiel gathers his strength. He sees understanding dawn on Dean's face too late, watches Dean plunge his hand beneath the pillow, pointlessly, to retrieve his precious blade, and Castiel wonders whether perhaps he can obliterate himself along with them.
Dean is standing barefoot between Castiel and Sam now, with the knife clutched uselessly in his fingers and an expression of naked hurt visible beneath his desperate bravado. But he does not look surprised at the betrayal. Castiel can hear the wild beating of Dean's heart and see the flutter of his pulse in the hollow of his throat, measuring out the moments of his life. Sam says something, begins to flail out from under the covers, but neither of them are listening; Castiel realises that Dean Winchester had never really believed himself worth saving, has always thought there must be some kind of mistake, some kind of catch, and it is that as much as Dean's hopeless determination to protect his little brother that finally undoes Castiel. He bows his head.
"I shall hold off the host of heaven for as long as I can," he says softly, feeling his universe begin to rupture at the words. "But make no doubt that very soon they will still come for you." This is utterly futile, he knows. This will buy Dean and his brother only a little more time alive, and it will cost him all that he is, or ever hoped to be. "You need to hide from heaven now in any way you can." He watches Dean's eyes widen in startled understanding.
Sam is on his feet now, standing next to his brother with one arm half-raised before him.
"Move!" snarls Dean, shoving Sam towards their bags, and it speaks volumes of their years together on the road that Sam does move, swiftly and without arguing. Dean is still staring at Castiel. "Is this because of last night?"
Sam stiffens, but continues with quick efficiency to stuff the few objects left unpacked into a bag.
"They all believe that Sam is lost," says Castiel. "And you along with him." He resists the impulse to sieze them both and stuff them into their car. "Go!" he snaps.
"Will you be okay?" asks Dean, and Castiel can see on his face that he knows the answer perfectly well. He wishes he could have had longer to know Dean Winchester. He wishes he had learned how to be a proper friend.
He looks away from urgent eyes the colour of the fall. "Go now," Castiel says, and hurls himself elsewhere.