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Like a Parched Land

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In an anonymous motel off the interstate, Anna steps into the shower and Castiel has a little time and a little peace to study the sigils on their ribs, if only to satisfy his own curiosity. He props the x-rays up against the desk lamp and copies the sigils down into his journal, trying to remember the Enochian Dean taught him.

Some of the symbols Castiel recognizes; he saw them written in blood on white walls and cracked mirrors to banish angels. Most are inscrutable. Castiel can decipher "holy, holy, holy" and he can pick out the signs for fire on his third rib, the sun on his clavicle, the devil (maybe?) on his breastbone, but Dean's Enochian bears only a passing resemblance to John Dee's constructed language, which figures. At most, John Dee was a self-styled eccentric overindulged by the court of England, and at worst, he - how did Hester put it? - deigned to play the role of court jester when it suited him. If John Dee ever did figure out a way to talk to angels, it's doubtful that any would have replied. Castiel has met a few of them after all, and they don't seem like the type to return phone calls.

Real Enochian seems to be a hodgepodge of dead languages of the kind found only in the dustiest of Joshua's books. Castiel thinks he sees hints of Sanskrit curlicues and something resembling the sharp jabs of Sumerian cuneiform, but it's hard to tell. It could very well be neither. Maybe "holy, holy, holy" here is actually "please, please, please" and perhaps "devotion" translates to "love". It would depend on how these accent marks are interpreted and how the glottal stops are marked.

The lights flicker. Castiel hears the rustle of wings and turns around.

Dean is sitting on the edge of the bed with his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands, and Castiel is struck by the humanness of the gesture. He looks as tired as any hapless man, and the only sign he isn't one is the simple fact that Castiel was alone in the room just a second ago. Dean comes and goes with the wind, as miracles do.

"Dean?" Castiel frowns. "How did you find us?"

"Asked Rachel," Dean mutters.

"Are you all right?"

Dean rubs his face and looks up at him with bleary eyes. He doesn't look the least bit all right. "I think he's dead."

*

No, not God. No, not any of Castiel's brothers, and Castiel resists the urge to call them to make sure.

"My vessel," Dean says, and his voice is distant with guilt and unease. "I think… I think when my Father brought me back, He didn't bring him back."

"It's better this way," Castiel guesses. "He's in a better place."

And Dean just gives him this look that Castiel thinks means either "I really want to believe that" or "what the hell is wrong with you?" He gets this look from Dean a lot. It used to unnerve him - has heaven judged him and found him wanting? - until Castiel realized that for all that he carries on about being a dutiful warrior of God, there are certain instincts Dean cannot ignore completely. He is speaking for no one but himself.

"Dude," Dean says, "a guy just died."

"I know," Castiel says. "But you're still alive."

"I think you're missing the point."

"I think you're not seeing the bigger picture."

"For a Righteous Man, you're pretty goddamn callous."

"For an angel, you blaspheme a lot. No one's perfect." Dean bristles, some cutting reply ready on his tongue, so Castiel hastily adds, "I'm glad you're okay, that's all."

Dean laughs. "I'm pretty fucking far from okay."

"I'm sorry about your vessel but I'm glad you're here," Castiel tries again, nearing impatience, but the angel's guilt is insistent as perhaps only an angel's guilt can be.

"It's weird not hearing him," Dean continues. "Or anyone. Not my vessel, not heaven. I'm cut off from heaven, did I tell you that?" And then he smiles for no reason Castiel can discern. It doesn't reach his eyes. "It's… I dunno. It's never been this quiet before."

"You don't hear anything?"

The expression on Dean's face is still one of discontent, but when he speaks again his voice is soft and wondering. "I heard your prayers."

Ever since Castiel was a child, the stories about angels emphasized their remoteness, their otherworldliness. Divinity separates angels from the dust of this world, and even their aegis manifests itself as a kind of distant benevolence. Dean is the opposite of all this. Castiel doesn't know what to do with that sometimes, with the leather jacket and the scuffed boots, and how everything Dean says is either a confession or a joke. Dean is divinity turned upside down. He has looked into Castiel's eyes on All Souls Day and admitted his doubt like anyone would who could no longer stand the burden of their own secret. Castiel was caught unawares. He is caught unawares now.

The shower sounds cease. Castiel hears the scrape of a shower curtain being pulled aside, and he glances over at the bathroom, sees Anna's shadow through the slats of the doorway. He looks back at Dean, but Dean is gone.

*

Father Virgil used to say they should send Castiel to the seminary. "The boy has the heart for it," he said to Hester as they bartered for bullets and charms in Uriel's kitchen. "It would nourish him."

"Even so, he's needed here," Hester said. "Stop poaching my family, padre."

"Stop showing up in my church only when you need more holy water," Father Virgil said, and Hester made a derisive sound.

To this day, Castiel still isn't sure if Hester and Father Virgil are really friends. Hester has a severe nature that doesn't invite friendship though it does inspire trust, and Father Virgil is pragmatic to the point of sociopathy. The two have struck an iron-clad relationship between them based on mutual paranoia and an impatience for stupidity, and are closer than some friendships Castiel has seen.

Castiel and Anna were in the next room when this conversation took place, sharpening knives and making salt rounds for an upcoming hunt. Anna said, "If you join the priesthood, I'll never speak to you again."

Castiel didn't need the threat, jest or otherwise. Father Virgil was not incorrect. Castiel tended towards austerity in all things, and there was something about its ritualization in monastic life that appealed to him. A life attuned, rarefied. To be in this world but not of this world. But Castiel was content where he was: fighting alongside his family and friends as they carried out a centuries-old war against the darkness. Rachel calls it their legacy, Inias calls it their destiny, and Balthazar calls it the family business, as if they might open a franchise on the east coast and serve toys with their kids meals. Whatever you want to call it, it has always been enough for Castiel. He saw no reason to wish for a world in which it was otherwise.

Fast forward several years to the end of days.

Unable to sleep, Castiel wonders about the world in which it is otherwise. Say he became a priest. Say Anna never ran away. Say Dean never gripped him tight and raised him from perdition, and say Castiel never gripped back and pulled him down. What if?

Anna snuffles in her bed when Castiel turns on the laptop to look for more apocalyptic omens. She rolls over when he starts to type, so he reluctantly shuts it down. He sits in the dark for a few seconds with his hand still on the computer, comes to a decision, and gets up and leaves the room. There's a gas station across the street, and Castiel strides across the empty road. He buys a pack of Camels.

He quit years ago.

This is how Castiel ends up sitting in his car with the windows down at two in the morning, indulging in a vice he promised Anna never again.

He wonders what Father Virgil would say if he could see him now.

He presses his fingers against the skin over his collarbone, feeling for the sigil carved underneath. The symbol for the sun, he thinks, or perhaps for flight. Dean is the only one he can ask, but Dean is off scouring the globe because God is gone and He hasn't been home for a while.

How would this language sound spoken aloud? Castiel tries to imagine Dean speaking it, but imagination fails him and instead conjures memories of Dean's smirk and gravelly drawl when he told Castiel that he was the one who dragged his ass out of hell. Memories of the hospital last year, after Alastair, the way Dean shrugged off his leather jacket and hung it on the back of the chair, as if he meant to stay here all night. An angel, Castiel thinks, should be more than the accumulation of human gesture, and yet.

That night still haunts him, and it's not just Alastair, whose shadow Castiel suspects he will never escape, but Dean sitting hunched in the chair by his bed, a plea in his eyes that Castiel didn’t understand. Castiel had nothing more to give. There is much he doesn't understand about Dean. Dean can be angry, he can be stubborn, he can ask Castiel to do the impossible, but all you have to do is look into his eyes. You have to look at how before he flew off again, Dean stood by his bed and hesitantly, as if this was another secret, touched Castiel's shoulder right over the scar. Castiel trembled as grace flowed, thrumming with the mercy that Castiel now knows the angels had forbidden Dean to give.

"I'm sorry," Dean said softly. His touch lingered, and the warmth of his hand followed Castiel into his dreams as he slept.

To the doctors' surprise the next day, Castiel got a clean bill of health.

Back in the present day, Castiel inhales his cigarette and closes his eyes, letting his arm dangle out the car window, cigarette pinched between forefinger and thumb. As he breathes out smoke, he prays. He used to pray for simple things, recited in rote like nursery rhymes from childhood. The prayers are changing. Castiel is not even sure if what he does these days counts as prayer anymore. It's just that some habits survive adaptation. Being dragged down to hell puts holes in a man's faith, but some needs are sturdier than doubt.

*

It's been three days since River Pass, Colorado, and the wound in his heart slowly erodes to resignation as he and his sister get farther away from each other. Castiel has been raised to put personal matters aside for the sake of the hunt, but every time Anna quits the life, he is left shaken. The past year has scarred them both, and though he agreed with her decision to leave this time, he is hurt and he is ashamed that he is hurt.

Move on, just move on, Castiel thinks to himself, so he is driving to the next hunt with an angel in the passenger seat, each of them lost in their own thoughts. God knows what Dean's thoughts are. The angel slouches against the window and watches the autumn scenery drift by, his expression opaque. Something has been set adrift in him ever since heaven cut him off. When Castiel is feeling generous, he regrets knocking this creature off its perch. Other times, he just tries not to think about it. The emotions that ride on the coattails of such thoughts never lead anywhere good.

"So you pray to me now?" Dean asks, apropos of nothing.

Castiel glances sidelong at him.

"'Cos like… you pray to me now."

Castiel tries to read his tone, but Dean is trying very hard to perform neutrality.

He hesitates. "Do you mind?"

"Whatever, I guess," Dean murmurs, "but like… Why?"

"I'm not praying to any of your brothers," Castiel says. "Heaven seems a poor place for the prayers of a man in need these days."

"What about God?"

Castiel raises an eyebrow. "Have you found Him?"

Instead of answering, Dean reaches under his shirt and pulls out Castiel's saint medallion, the one Anna gave to him after his confirmation. She said Joshua told her it was their father's, "But who knows anymore," she shrugged. "It's yours now."

Saint Anthony, patron saint of lost things. Anna laughed when Dean insisted on borrowing it. "A necklace will help you find God?" she asked. Dean said it's not the necklace, it's the saint, and Anna replied it never seemed to help Castiel find the car keys in the morning. That's different, apparently, and much to Anna's delight, Dean couldn't explain exactly how beyond pointing out that there is world of difference between their car keys and God.

The medallion glimmers coldly in the afternoon light, and Castiel misses his sister.

"This guy's no help," Dean mutters, flicking the medallion. "Is he supposed to help you find things or to keep them lost?"

"Can I have it back?"

"No." Dean tucks it back inside his shirt. "Not yet."

Castiel looks at him for a beat, for two, and then looks back at the road. "So there you go."

"Huh?"

"God's absent, Heaven's gone mad, maybe has always been mad, the saints don't bother helping even an angel…" Castiel shrugs. "And that's why."

"Why what?" Dean asks.

"Why I pray to you." Castiel tightens his grip on the steering wheel. "You're the only thing I have left to pray to."

He doesn't look to see what Dean's reaction is. He doesn't want to look. Castiel ignores how loudly his heart is pounding in his chest. He can feel Dean watching him. Fine. Let him watch. Castiel has nothing to hide.

Finally Dean says, "What the hell is this crap anyway?"

"What?"

Dean gestures dismissively at the radio. "This crap. This music crap."

"It's not crap," Castiel says, indignant, but relieved at the subject change. "It's Debussy."

"I'm exercising angel veto power." Dean reaches for the dial.

"Do not touch that radio."

"Angel picks the music, human shuts his cakehole." Orchestral strings fritz to radio static as Dean changes the station. "Thus saith the Lord."

"I'm fairly sure the Lord didn't say that."

"It's in the deleted scenes." Dean pauses contemplatively on an enthusiastic guitar riff. "Hey, what's this one called?"

"This? Uh." Anna would've been able to name that tune in half a second. "Led Zeppelin. 'Travelling Riverside Blues'."

And Dean grins. "All right. This is more like it! Honestly, Cas, you people got thousands of years of music under your belt and your record skips on the least interesting part."

"It's called taste."

"It's called a stick up the ass."

Castiel rolls his eyes, but it's the first time Dean has smiled a genuine smile since… he can't remember when. So Castiel lets it play, watches Dean unwind next to him. Watches his fingers begin to tap in time as contentment eases his features. An angel, a creature thousands of years old who has seen the death of stars and the birth of oceans, nodding along to the classic rock station and asking if Castiel has any CDs of these guys.

"We'll stop at a Best Buy if we have time," Castiel replies, and Dean says, "Awesome."

Nothing at all like how Castiel thought angels would be.

*

A routine develops, as routines must, even at the end of the world.

Dean would appear out of nowhere with food he picked up from wherever he just came from - churros from Madrid, fried bananas from Jakarta - and he'd shove them under Castiel's nose and say, "Want some?" Castiel would decline more often than he'd accept, and then they'd get to work, Dean talking with his mouth full all the while.

One day, Castiel's cellphone beeps with a picture message from Dean, mostly of his nostrils, with the message "holy duck it does pictures". And then Castiel starts receiving the occasional picture message of snow-capped peaks and endless deserts and a food cart in some bustling downtown.

"nothin yet," Dean would text, "but these rice cakes r gr8."

Maybe it's the nature of angels to be so moved by humanity. Maybe it's just Dean. It's not that Dean never showed an interest in humanity before, but shaken loose from the bonds of heaven, he seems determined to embrace the trappings of this world. A sort of reverse monasticism, perhaps. Dean is not of this world, but he is in this world and he throws himself into it with more enthusiasm than Castiel has shown in his entire life.

"'Sup," Dean says, appearing in motel rooms on the sound of wings. His boots track mud from a tropical jungle and he smells like the salt of some distant sea. "Did I miss the season premiere?"

Castiel has become accustomed to doing his work while Dean watches television in the background and provides a steady stream of commentary on anything from the plot holes to the characters' life choices to the absurdity of commercials.

"Dude, you should take a break from the paper-pushin', come watch the tube. Dr. Wang is about to rip the douchebag intern a new one."

"Maybe later."

"All work and no play, Cas," Dean says in a warning tone.

"Yes."

There have been no messages or phone calls from Anna, but sometimes Castiel scrolls to her name in his phone just to see it and contemplate hypothetical scenarios. When Dean appears with a sixpack and a 'hey Cas', Castiel drops his phone and nearly jumps out of his skin.

Dean frowns and sets the sixpack on the table. "You okay?"

Castiel tells him he's fine.

But three beers in while Dean is still on his first, Castiel starts telling him about the time the family went to Cape Cod. He was just a kid, it was the height of summer, and there were people disappearing in Hyannis and showing up dead in the woods with their livers missing.

He remembers Anna running into the water, and Castiel abruptly abandoned the moat he was digging around Rachel's sandcastle and ran after her. He tackled her into an oncoming wave and they spent the next few minutes dunking each other until Uncle Zach yelled at them from the shore to cut it out. Castiel didn't go back to Rachel's sandcastle, where a bored-looking Hester had been recruited to continue the moat work, and instead he followed Anna to sit in the shade of the beach umbrella, where she eventually fell asleep with her head in his lap.

Even when they were younger, the instinct to follow Anna was strong, and was encouraged by the family when they nurtured her potential as a leader of the hunt.

"River Pass isn't the first time she's decided to leave," Castiel is saying, "and Joshua keeps saying the very thing that makes her a good a leader is what makes her falter at crucial junctures, but I don't-"

Castiel doesn't like how he was going to end that sentence, so he just stops talking.

Dean, in turn, tells him about Sam.

Dean hears whispers about more angels disappearing these days, cutting out their grace or going into hiding, or worse. The kingdom of heaven has been straining under the burden of its own conspiracies and factionalism for a long time, and now that the devil is risen, the instability has worsened despite the party line of the angels in charge.

"I'm not just looking for my Father," Dean confesses, fingering the medallion. "I'm looking for my brother too."

"What happened to your brother?" Castiel asks.

"I don't know," he says uneasily. "The angels who went after me told me he went MIA during some skirmish outside of Calcutta."

Castiel raises his eyebrows. "And?"

"And I killed them."

Dean can't quite hide the crack in his voice, and even through the haze of tipsiness, Castiel notices the tightness in his jaw and the way he's white-knuckling his beer.

"I don't know, man," Dean sighs. "I mean, Sam and me, we were close, back in the day. Y'know? We always had each other's backs, it's just that he gets these ideas in his head sometimes. He just… I dunno. He goes a lot of places I can't follow."

If there's one thing Castiel understands, it's losing family to their own idealism, but that is exactly why he doesn't know what to say to Dean. There is no kindness in the world that can soothe the pain of losing family. Castiel finishes the rest of his beer in one long pull and says instead, "Sam and Dean are strange names for angels."

Dean scoffs. "You're one to talk, Castiel."

"It's a family name," he says defensively.

"Yeah? You were named after Great Grandpappy Cas?"

"I suppose there are angels in heaven named Joe and Susan."

"I don't know any Susans," Dean says. "There is a seraph who goes by Jo, though."

This doesn't surprise Castiel as much as it would have a year ago.

Days pass and they are both painfully aware that they're no closer to stopping the apocalypse and are quite possibly losing ground. Dean appears one night with a cut on his cheek, and when Castiel asks what happened and tips Dean's chin towards him to get a better look, Dean steps away and says, "Nothing." He heals the wound with angel magic, but Castiel notices it takes more effort now. Dean's face is ashen. His hands shake.

He shows up from the God search looking the worse for wear, less and less like some celestial warrior and more like a man who wandered in from the streets. There are tears in his clothes that he doesn't bother to fix anymore. There are dark circles under his eyes. Castiel understands now exactly what this means. Dean didn't just give up his family and his home when he rebelled against them. He gave up what he was. There is an angel sitting on Castiel's bed drinking his beer and laughing at the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and losing everything.

"Shit, man, I love this episode," Dean says, grinning.

Castiel smiles weakly and goes back to his research, and tries not to think about it.

*

It's half past eleven on a weekend night, and Dean appears mid-stumble in his room and collapses. Castiel is at his side in an instant, thoroughly ignoring Dean's rambling insistence of, "It's okay, I'm okay, just let me - I just need to rest, I'm fine."

"You're not," Castiel says, because his hands are wet with blood and Dean's shirt is only getting redder. "What happened?"

"Angels," Dean mumbles. "Cas, no-"

"Stay still."

"I can heal this."

"You don't need to. Save your power."

"Cas, come on-"

"I know you don't have much left."

That shuts Dean right up. He stares wide-eyed up at Castiel as if he doesn't know whether to hit him or fly away. Before Dean can come up with any sort of retort, Castiel says, "This is what first-aid kits are for. Get on the bed."

"You're not gonna buy me dinner first?" Dean says, but the tone is weak with posturing and badly concealed pain.

"Can you get on the bed by yourself?"

"Dude, I'm an angel."

"Dean."

Castiel ends up spending his Saturday night playing nurse to a fallen angel. On Castiel's orders, Dean shrugs off his jacket and shucks off his shirt, and once they get the wound cleaned up, Dean doesn't look so much like a crime scene victim anymore. The bedsheets are probably ruined, though.

Dean leans back against the headboard, putting pressure on his shoulder wound. The saint medallion hangs around his neck, offering nothing, not protection, not a clue. Castiel tries to thread the needle. He's having more trouble than usual because only fifty percent of his focus is on the needle and thread, and the other fifty percent is trying to ignore Dean's hitched shallow breathing and the way he squeezes his eyes shut against the pain. Angels are supposed to be made of stronger stuff than this, and seeing Dean vulnerable triggers cognitive dissonance in Castiel and the desire to set things right. Dean isn't like this. Dean should never be like this.

Castiel finally threads the fucking needle.

"This will hurt a little," Castiel says.

"That's funny," Dean says, "'cos I remember getting stabbed by an angel sword like fifteen minutes ago, so like, on a pain scale from zero to getting stabbed by an angel, what does-"

"Quiet."

Dean's body is pliant, giving way to the needle and Castiel's hands. Castiel works with concise steady movements and finds himself intrigued by how skin is only skin. The body is just the body, despite the angel contained within, and Dean is as beholden to it as it is to him. For once, the thought comforts Castiel. There are not many ways for humanity to protect an angel. There are so many more ways for humanity to corrupt one. But at the very least, Castiel can do this.

Dean's breathing relaxes under Castiel's ministrations, becoming slow and deep.

"Cas," Dean says softly, and Castiel looks up. Dean is watching him with something tentative and questioning in his eyes. Castiel's throat feels suddenly dry. How long has Dean been watching him like that?

"We're almost done," Castiel manages to say, with determination.

Maybe it was the wrong thing to say, because Dean smiles wryly and looks away, and Castiel feels momentum defuse that he didn't even realize was there in the first place. Well, it's true, they are almost done, and Castiel resists the petulant desire to emphasize the truth of this. Castiel knows he would be missing the point, though he suspects he doesn't understand why.

"I can heal this myself, you know," Dean says.

"You don't have to."

And then, as promised, the sutures are done.

"You're pretty good at this, Florence Nightingale," Dean murmurs as Castiel cups his face in his hands and tilts it up to the light, examining the minor cuts and bruises. "I should take notes."

"Like you said," Castiel says, "you're not here to perch on my shoulder."

"So, what," Dean says, "you're here to perch on mine?"

Dean's pulse beats delicately, faster than normal, at Castiel's fingertips. His throat bobs as Castiel touches his thumb to a bruise along Dean's cheekbone, and Castiel answers with the only truth he knows: "We're here to stop the end of the world."

Dean just stares at him, and then he laughs. "Okay. Okay, yeah, I guess we are."

*

On the nights Dean doesn't stop by, the absence is palpable. Castiel is alone with his thoughts and these days they have nothing good to show him. Solitude doesn't suit him. He grew up in a very large and very extended family, the kind where you’re used to calling people Aunt This or Uncle That and everyone’s a cousin, and it doesn’t matter which one of them are blood-related to you and which ones are comrades forged by favors and battlefield conditions. Everybody loved each other as vehemently as they hated each other, depending on the weather, and Castiel became so accustomed to the background noise of family upheaval that it unnerves him to be without it. On nights like this, Castiel puts the television on just to have something to ignore while he sharpens his knives. It's not yet time for Doctor Sexy reruns, but AMC is having a Back to the Future marathon and Dean has a soft spot for the one with the cowboys.

He checks his phone. No messages.

He hopes Dean is okay.

On one of these nights, Castiel ends up more drinks into a bottle of Wild Turkey than he's used to, hoping it would numb his restlessness and send him to sleep, but mostly it upsets him. Drinking alone while the television goes on about various kitchen appliances would do that to you, probably. Not to mention the apocalypse. Not to mention--

He calls Anna and gets her voicemail. He calls her again and hangs up halfway through the first ring. It doesn't matter.

So he prays, somehow, maybe. He feels like he's praying, and his heart is bowed in the same way, his faith is as wanting of mercy, but his thoughts ramble and bend and goes places where prayers usually don't. Less a prayer, more a confession, and Castiel imagines Dean on Everest, Dean by the Nile, Dean in the tundra with his wings outstretched, casting long shadows on the snow. Dean sighing under his hands, warm to the touch, yielding. The only thing Castiel has left to pray to.

The color of Dean's eyes and the red of his blood follow Castiel into his dreams, where they are stripped away. The human trappings of the angel fall away, and when Castiel wakes up tomorrow, he won't remember exactly what he saw, just that it was what he saw in hell. He will only remember how the sight made him feel, the cleansing fire, the awe halfway between terror and relief. The debilitating resonance of the voice that told him he was saved.

And then a curious thing happens, as they often do in dreams. Before the image of Alastair coalesces, a susurrus ripples over his mind, cooling and bright. Hell dissipates around him. All that's left is a steady golden glow. Castiel recognizes it.

Easy, tiger, murmurs a voice at Castiel's ear, and something as soft as feathers brushes across his cheek. He turns to that voice. He reaches out and calls its name, its true name that human throats will never be able to pronounce, but in dreams you can bypass such rules if the heart wants it enough.

It's okay. I gotcha.

There is a sound like birds taking flight, and Castiel falls into the light.

I gotcha.

He sleeps soundly for the rest of the night. He doesn't dream.

*

When he wakes up, there's aspirin and a water bottle on his bedside table, and voicemail on his phone. Castiel takes two pills, downs half the bottle in one go, and plays the message as he settles back under the blanket.

"Cas, hey." Anna's voice is hesitant, and the sweetest thing Castiel has heard in days. "Sorry I missed your call earlier, I forgot to take my phone off vibrate. It's good to hear from you. I hope you're doing okay." A pause. The sound of a drawer closing, of her quiet breathing. "So, um. I got a job! Nothing big, but it's something, I guess. If you, uh. If you stop by during my work hours, I'll let you have dessert on the house. The baked Alaska is amazing. So, y'know. Call me back sometime, I guess. I mean, if you want." The sound of a door closing, the rattle of keys. "Anyway, I gotta go now, speaking of work… so, take care. Okay? I miss you."

Castiel plays the message again. And again.

*

The motel table is covered with newspaper clippings and half-hearted research about cases of exsanguination out west, but it's all busy work. He misses the simplicity of one hunt following another, but the end of the world is a large and sprawling thing. Castiel just wants a clear goal.

As it happens, an archangel is walking the earth. In Maine, of all places.

"No," Dean says, "forget it, forget I said anything."

"When else will we get a chance like this?" Castiel demands, and Dean throws his hands up.

"Hopefully never!"

"This is a rare opportunity-"

"To die?"

"To interrogate him! I'm the Michael sword, and they won't harm me."

"They wouldn't kill you," Dean corrects. "There's a difference. Chances are, they'll just take you and put you in a box somewhere until the time comes for Michael to wear you to the prom."

"That won't happen."

"Yeah? Why won't it happen?"

"I won't let them."

"Well, if that isn't the most reassuring thing I've heard in my thousands of years of waltzing around the cosmos!"

"Don't you want some revenge against the archangel who smote you?"

Dean looks at him with that expression again where Castiel can't tell if he's mystified or angry. "Is that what this is about? Revenge?"

"No," Castiel seethes. "This is about information. This is about stopping the end of the world. You know. That thing you rebelled for."

Something changes in Dean's expression. Something reined in, but refusing to back down. Castiel doesn't back down either. Dean doesn't take his eyes off him, and for a moment Castiel sees in them the brightness and determination of a creature for whom love is the fire and faith is the light, and nary a difference between them.

Dean says, "I know what I rebelled for."

Something inside Castiel trembles at the surety of his words. He is still a believing man and Dean is still an angel, but he suspects neither of them knows what this means anymore. They are changing. They are changing each other. Dean's eyes flick down to his mouth when Castiel parts his lips, and Castiel says, "Do you?"

Dean opens his mouth as if to reply, then closes it again and appears to consider his words. When he does speak, his voice is as raw as Castiel feels. "I hope so."

*

"I was in Antarctica," Dean says.

"What?"

It's 2 AM and they're driving up the I-95 because Dean refuses to just fly them there. When questioned why, he just says why rush to meet death? He ignored Castiel's insistence that nobody will die, and declared that death will always find you anyway.

They haven't said a word since. He expected Dean to fly off looking for God again until Castiel reaches Maine, but Dean has not left his side nor made a sound, until now.

"Antarctica?" Castiel echoes. He flicks his eyes over at the passenger seat, where Dean is staring at the road ahead through hooded eyes.

"When I, uh. When I first heard your prayer."

"Oh."

And then more silence. Castiel wonders if either of them are equipped for this subject. Maybe he should turn on the radio.

"Some angels were after me," Dean says. "Found me trying to lay low in the Andes, so I ran, and I lost them somewhere past Tierra del Fuego, but I kept running, man. I mean. What else could I do? So I ran, or flew or whatever, and I started to get tired, which was weird, 'cause I'm an angel, I shouldn't get tired so easily." A pause. Dean shifts uncomfortably. "I'm an angel."

A car overtakes them. Castiel catches a brief glimpse of an old woman in the driver's seat, and two kids in the back, a boy and a girl, asleep.

"There's a place down there the snow doesn't stay," Dean continues. "You think of Antarctica and you think of this giant ice cube, right, but in this place, there's no snow, the winds are too harsh. It's just desert." Dean looks at Castiel. "You remember that documentary we watched about it?"

The documentary you watched about it, Castiel mentally corrects, and he says, "Yes," because he paid a little bit of attention to it, or at least to Dean watching it, and the contemplative look on his face, the habit Dean has of resting the lip of his beer bottle against his mouth. "The katabatic winds," Castiel says. "The dry valleys."

"The desert," Dean says, halfway between haunted and wistful. "That's where I landed. I couldn't fly anymore, I was aching all over. And that's when I realized something was wrong." Dean fiddles absently with a fraying hole in the knee of his jeans. "I couldn't hear heaven. My vessel wasn't stirring any. I was so tired, man, and everything was so quiet."

It's been a while since Castiel has gone to confession. The last time was before hell, so that's one year or forty depending on who's counting, and while he has missed its catharsis, he cannot bring himself to enter a church anymore. Not after everything. But this carries him straight back to the confessional. The darkness, the confines, the vulnerabilities you give to no one else. Dean brings Castiel back to his faith in unexpected ways.

"And I started thinking about the prophets, y'know," Dean continues. "I mean they go into the desert all the time, all those saints and the hermits and monks. They go into the desert to find God."

"They also say that demons come from the desert," Castiel says.

Dean snorts. "Naw, man, demons come from damnation. There's nothing in the desert. People don't go in there to find anything. They go there to lose themselves, and then God fills them, because God is everywhere."

"Ergo God is in the desert."

"What?"

"You said there's nothing in the desert, then you said God is everywhere. So, God must be in the desert too."

"Cas, you are like," Dean says, "the king of missing the point."

"Okay," Castiel says. "So what's your point?"

"I didn't hear anything," Dean bursts out. "Not home, not my family, not my vessel, definitely not God. But then," and he breathes in deep, "I heard you. Your prayers, loud as bells in the middle of absolutely nothing."

Castiel signals for the next exit. They're almost there.

"You say I'm the only one you have left to pray to," Dean says. "Okay, well, you're the only one I hear."

*

In the chill of a foreclosed house in Farmington, Maine, Castiel sets up devil's traps and pours salt across windows and doors, waiting for Dean to return. His mind is full of desert winds and second guessing. Of Dean, and how he surprises Castiel, always, at every turn. An ache coalesces in Castiel's chest that he leaves unexamined. It has been inchoate for so long, after all, and just because he can see the shape of it now, it doesn't mean there isn't an apocalypse to stop.

This plan of theirs to trap an archangel is unsound by all standards, but if necessity is the mother of invention, then desperation is its fraternal twin who jumps into the fray with a war cry and two bullets left. Last-ditch efforts have never been Castiel's strong suit. He likes to approach situations prepared whenever possible, but no one expects archangels in Maine.

After too long, Castiel hears the sound of wings and then the floor creaks under Dean's weight as he shakes sand out of his hair, back from Jerusalem.

"You're okay," Castiel says, and can't quite keep the relief out of his voice.

"Shit's hard to find," Dean says, and sets the amphora of oil by the doorway. "How're things here?"

"Fine."

But Dean hears the tone of Castiel's voice. He looks up at him and raises his eyebrows. "What's up?"

Nothing. Everything. It comes down to the end of the world. It's about the beginning of everything. It's about how as his faith began to break apart, an angel in scuffed boots and a leather jacket finished the job, then rebuilt it from the ground up.

"Hey," Dean says softly, and his hair is mussed and there are bags under his eyes, and he looks incredibly human, indescribably beautiful to Castiel.

"I was," Castiel begins, then again, "I don't," and again, "I didn't think--"

Dean crosses his arms, patient. Attuned.

"I used to pray everyday," Castiel says, and grabs the momentum, moving onward as if in a daze. "And then I went to hell. It's a strange progression, but I don't have any illusions about cause and effect on this one or, for that matter, on anything anymore. What's the point in believing if you've been there? None of the stories prepare you for this. Joshua says faith buckles under the weight of its own evidence. Well, it's not faith that I have for you, Dean. Or maybe it is, I don't know anymore. I don't know much. I don't have much to give back. Did you know what you were doing when you cast your lot with me? I helped end the world. I lose everything I love. Dean, I'm bad luck, I'm cursed."

"Cas--"

"I don't know why you--"

"Cas," Dean says, louder, shakily, and moves closer.

Castiel's heart pounds and he doesn't step away, as afraid of ruining the inevitable as he is of claiming it. There is something in the way Dean says his name that makes it difficult for Castiel to stand his ground, and something tremulous in Dean's expression that dismantles him.

"Hey," Dean says and, slowly, with an air of being ready to withdraw at the slightest warning, he cups Castiel's face in his hands and looks him in the eye. "I know why I fell."

Maybe it is given to angels to be loyal to the point of foolhardiness, just as it is given to humans to simply be foolhardy. Castiel doesn't know who moves in for the kiss first. It doesn't matter. All Castiel knows is how soft Dean's mouth is, how warm. Nothing of angels in the kiss except, perhaps, for an angel's devotion, which in certain ancient languages means 'love'.

If none of the stories prepare you for this, if they have no knowledge of how it feels to pull an angel close and kiss him deeper, or to have him murmur your name into your skin, then maybe it's time for new stories. You tear up the old one. You write what you know. Make sure this new story can contain you. Make sure it can keep safe that which you've learned to hold dear.

*

The rooms in this house are mostly empty save for scraps of random furniture - a chair here, an end table there, a lamp with no lightbulb, and upstairs in the corner of the master bedroom, a dusty mattress. Castiel is transported there in the blink of an eye and a rush of light, and gets the wind knocked out of him when Dean pins him down and kisses him again.

"Have you," Castiel says, between kisses. "Have you done this before?"

"Oh my god," Dean laughs, but he is blushing. "C'mere."

Dean's hands go to the buttons of Castiel's shirt, and Castiel cuts to the chase by just tearing it off, buttons and all. He has other shirts. Dean laughs again, then he sits back on his haunches and Castiel lives an eternity in the two seconds it takes for Dean to pull off his shirt and reveal the lean body and curves of muscle underneath. Dean inhabits his inherited body with fluidity and natural grace. He is in the world. He is of the world. In this body and of this body, and the careless way Dean imbues the divine with the grace of the mundane never fails to take Castiel's breath away.

He reaches out and touches Dean's abdomen, trailing his touch up and up, sliding his hand behind Dean's neck and tugging him down to kiss him again. Dean lets Castiel roll them over and kiss Dean's neck, down his chest as he undoes Dean's belt, and Dean clenches his fist in Castiel's hair and moans in anticipation.

The pants come off. For a few seconds, Castiel can do nothing but drink in the sight of him, the flush in Dean's cheeks and the unselfconscious need in his voice when he says Castiel's name, as if daring him to take it and to take it all.

Dean smiles. "You just gonna sit there all night?"

Castiel most certainly will not.

*

It's been a while. It's been a while since Castiel has had this kind of physical intimacy, and the sensation of wrapping his naked body around Dean's disarms him with a relief that breaks him open. He could drown in it. Dean is a creature who can destroy him a thought, and yet he yields to Castiel's touch and the pleasure it can bring. The thought is both humbling and terrifying.

"Dean," Castiel murmurs. "Dean, let me-"

And Dean lets him. Lets Castiel kiss his stomach, the line of fuzz that trails down from his navel, the crease between his leg and his hip, and then the base of Dean's cock, and Dean gasps his name. Castiel kisses a trail up of sucking kisses along the vein up to the tip, and Dean spreads his legs further as Castiel settles between them and takes it into his mouth, swirling his tongue as Dean clenches his fist in Castiel's hair and curses in a language Castiel doesn't recognize. Then, "Cas, jesus, I swear to god-" and Castiel slides his fingers around Dean's balls and Dean thrusts into his mouth.

It hurts. Castiel's eyes water with pain and surprise, but far from stopping him, it only galvanizes. He doesn't know what it is about this angel that calls forth Castiel's desire to give of himself, but Dean's broken moans also trigger the razor-edged need to claim, to possess. Castiel doesn't know which fuels him more. He sucks as he wraps a hand around Dean's shaft, Dean muttering profanity all the while, and then Castiel pumps his fist, finds a rhythm, and Dean's interjections become non-verbal.

Dean comes fucking Castiel's throat, rolling his hips as Castiel sucks him down with every thrust. His throat hurts, his mouth feels bruised, but he is fine, he feels grand. Castiel lifts his head and meets Dean's eyes, and Dean is panting, flushed, and covered in a sheen of sweat, just from that. The sight stokes some predatory hunger in Castiel. Seeing what he can do, he wants to do more.

"Holy shit," Dean says. "You are not such a good little Catholic boy after all."

Castiel kisses the inside of Dean's thigh, letting Dean's cock smear his cheek with come. Dean utters another curse.

"No one's perfect," Castiel says.

And that is just the beginning.

*

Maybe you could call it a sacred kind of worldliness, to love God by loving the world God created, to embrace the here and now. It's a faith grounded in the wholly human, even if it's a faith that frays. Even if in the middle of a deep kiss, Dean goes, "Uh, hold on."

"Wh-"

Dean is gone.

Castiel blinks.

Dean is back. "Okay."

"What - Where did-?"

And Dean waves a bottle of something in the air. Castiel takes it and squints at the label. "Where-"

Dean is grinning. "Quick trip to CVS."

Castiel stares at him. "Did you just shoplift lube?"

"Yup."

"You're a terrible angel."

"Best angel," Dean corrects, then he kisses Castiel's jaw, the edge of his mouth, and Castiel obliges and kisses him long and slow, letting Dean pull him down to the mattress.

No man can own an angel, and to see an angel give of himself to a man ignites Castiel in a way he never knew. Dean arches his body against him and it is a question, it is encouragement, and Castiel moans into his mouth. He breaks the kiss and Dean rasps, "Cas," as if the world has been rarefied to this, to them, a newly forged locus wherein humanity is no longer profane.

Castiel slicks up his fingers, and when Castiel meets Dean's eyes, Dean is leaning up on his elbows looking equal parts undone and desirous. Castiel knows that look. It's how he feels. If there is anyone here who should look like they are on the verge of being overwhelmed by some great force, it is Castiel, but Dean looks equally disarmed.

"You should relax," Castiel says, and doesn't know whether he's addressing Dean or himself.

"I think relaxing's beside the point right now."

Dean's eyes flutter shut when Castiel rubs his fingers against his hole, and Castiel watches the stuttering rise and fall of Dean's chest. Castiel is gentle - too gentle, Dean says - and when his finger breaches him, Dean lets his head loll back, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down as he whispers, "Yeah… yeah… Cas-" and Castiel eases in another finger. Dean moans.

The sound sets Castiel alight, triggering a bone-deep ache. "Dean-"

"Cas," Dean rasps. "Do it. Fuck, ah, Cas, fuck me, do it-"

Castiel wastes no time. Dean is impatient, he is cursing and gasping, and when the tip of Castiel's cock pushes in, Dean cries out.

"No, don't stop," Dean rasps when Castiel freezes. "Don't. Don't you fucking dare."

"Are you-"

"Cas." Dean looks at Castiel and smiles, frail but genuine. "It's okay. You're not gonna hurt me."

Dean's voice guides, murmuring approval and various curses as Castiel slides in, groaning as he bottoms out. Castiel closes his eyes, digs his fingers into Dean's hips. It's almost too much, the tightness, the heat, this night and all it holds.

Castiel rolls his hips and Dean groans, "Fuck." He does it again and Dean breathes out, "Cas, Castiel," and then he isn't speaking English anymore. Dean doesn't want it gentle; he wants it hard and he wants it fast, and he cries out at every thrust, wanton and unrestrained.

As Dean comes undone, so does Castiel. He can feel the orgasm building and he slows his pace but thrusts harder. Castiel leans forward, on the verge, curling Dean in on himself. "Yeah," Dean gasps, "yeah, shit, Cas-"

Dean touches Castiel's face, slick with sweat. When Castiel looks at him, Dean's eyes are an anchor, containing both the fire and the light, the endlessness of angels. Castiel is riveted. Dean slides his hand from Castiel's cheek to his shoulder, over the handprint, and Castiel feels the spark of grace.

The orgasm shakes him to his core, the heat of it unfurling through his body. He might've cried out, he isn't sure. He might've dissipated into stars. Who knows? He's sure only of one thing: Dean's body beneath him, warm to the touch. The one who hears him, who heard him all this time. The one who brings him back to himself.

*

In the glow of the aftermath, they curl against each other, Castiel's back to Dean's front. Dean traces his fingers along Castiel's ribs from right to left because that is how his language is written, and recites the words along with his touch. It is as if language has an ability to transform the voice: Dean's Midwestern intonations are absorbed into something more acrobatic, the phonetic equivalent of cursive, guttural in places and lilting in others. Castiel is lost in the sound.

Dean rests his hand over Castiel's heart and Castiel closes his eyes, feeling his heart beating against Dean's palm.

"So what does it mean?" Castiel asks.

"The usual," Dean murmurs against his neck.

"What's the usual?"

"You know. Yay good, boo evil. All that crap."

"Sounds better in Enochian."

"It really does."

Castiel shifts and rolls over to lie on his back and look at Dean, who tips his head curiously. "You should teach me."

"Yeah?"

"Why not?"

And he smiles. "Quick course in conversational Enochian, coming right up."

"I'm not that interested in conversational."

"Cool," Dean says, sliding his body over Castiel's and nipping his jaw. "Me neither."

Castiel won't remember all the words, but he gets the gist of it. He remembers the important ones. The word for 'light'. The word for 'salvation'. Castiel tugs Dean closer and learns the word for 'more', the word for 'yes'. And then, as the peace of the night settles over them both, the word for 'love'.

Tomorrow will catch up to them both. Let it. Let archangels walk all over the earth. Castiel is as prepared as he ever will be, and more importantly he has Dean by his side, and that is enough. It's more than enough.

"A-plus," Dean says. "You pass."

Nothing at all like Castiel thought angels would be.