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"So, what happened?" Sam asks when they're in the car, Meg and Crowley far behind them, and Cas ... well, as usual, Dean doesn't know where the fuck Cas is. "I mean, Cas touched the tablet and it reset him to his factory settings or something?"

"I don't know, and I don't care. All I know is that he's off the reservation with a—a heavenly WMD."

And damned if that doesn't sting. More than Cas's fist against his face, somehow, although Dean figures he's going to be feeling the ghost of that pain for some time to come.

That Cas needs to protect the tablet from Naomi, whoever the hell she is, is just good sense—Dean hasn't met the woman, and he already knows she's cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, but from Dean? Cas has to protect it from Dean? What the hell does that even mean?

*

Dean drives half the night just to put some distance between them and whoever might be looking. It's not much when you're dealing with angels and demons that can blink their way across planes of existence, but it still makes Dean feel better. It's the principle of the thing.

They grab a room at a roadside motel, argue about who's taking the bed closest to the door, and with some tricky manoeuvring on Dean's part, Sam doesn't seem to notice the stain darkening the collar of Dean's jacket. The least Cas could've done was miracle away the blood along with the broken bones and bruises. Dean's grateful Sam seems preoccupied by other things tonight, and they'd let the radio fill the silence for most of the drive. You can't lie when you're not talking, he supposes.

Yeah, Dean gets the irony of slamming Sammy about not being honest with him when Dean hasn't told him how things went down with Cas. But what's the point? It's done, and whatever got through to him, Cas seems to be in control of his own brain again. Sam might even understand given how he used Dean's face for a punching bag when Lucifer was on board, right before Sammy's trip down to the cage. Cas had healed him then, too, but Dean had been too busy being grateful Cas and Bobby were alive again to thank him for the save. Besides, Sam had been lost, so it hardly counted as a win.

Dean's so goddamn tired of all this. The last thing he wants is to try to explain to his brother why Castiel beat the crap out of him while Dean tried to reason with him. He's not even sure he can explain it to himself.

*

Even before he opens his eyes, Dean knows what he'll see. Cas never got the memo about how only creepers watch people sleeping.

"We've talked about this," Dean reminds Cas, not bothering to open his eyes. There's a non-committal sound from beside him, which Dean's pretty sure means Cas is going to keep on doing what he's always done. Creeper.

Dean sighs and opens his eyes, taking in the empty, unmade bed across the way. "Sam?"

"Gone to retrieve breakfast, I imagine," Cas says, his eyes making a slow circuit of Dean's face, as if looking for signs of damage.

Dean sits up, back against the headboard. "I'm fine. Turn your x-ray eyes on somebody else."

"I wanted to make sure." Cas's forehead is wrinkled with unhappiness. Guilt. "I hurt you, Dean."

"Healed up just fine." Dean's not exactly going to say thanks since it was also Cas's fault Dean needed healing in the first place, but he's not holding a grudge. Cas could've left him in a lot worse state than he did, and they both know it.

"I would've killed you."

"But you didn't," Dean points out. "You wouldn't."

Cas simply frowns harder. "Naomi has been training me to kill you. Her methods are highly effective."

"Not that effective. I'm still here."

"I've killed a thousand of you in practice," Cas says, letting the words sink in, and Dean's eyes go wide. "I never wavered from the mission. Not once."

"You were lulling her into a false sense of security. She thought she had your number, but—"

"She did, Dean. I wanted to obey. It would've been so easy—plunge the knife in, take the tablet—I'd done it before."

"Something got through, though. Something broke the hold Naomi had on you."

Cas nods, as he reaches out to examine Dean's right arm, the one that was broken. Dean rolls his eyes, but doesn't protest when Cas lifts his arm by the wrist. There's no pain at all now, nothing but the warmth from Cas's touch, and Dean tries not to think about how good it feels, how much he's missed Cas being around.

"You broke the hold," Cas explains, fingers trailing along the line of the bone, leaving a trace of heat behind. "She wanted me to kill you, and I—I couldn't do it. Not when it was really you, when I knew there wasn't just another copy waiting around the corner."

"Ain't nothing like the real thing," Dean says, stopping short with "baby" on the tip of his tongue. He doesn't think Cas will get the reference anyway.

"Indeed," Cas agrees, and Dean's pretty sure Cas is a hundred percent sincere. He's always been able to make Dean feel as if he's special. He hasn't felt like that in a while. Mostly, he just feels old. Used up.

"Wait, was she talking to you in the crypt?" Dean's eyes narrow with understanding. "Has she been talking to you since you got out of purgatory?"

"I believe so. There are ... gaps." Cas releases Dean's arm, refusing to meet his eyes. "There are things I've done—Samandriel—"

"Alfie." Dean nods. "Yeah, well, that bitch had her hooks in your brain, Cas. You weren't yourself."

"His blood is on my hands, Dean. I was everything I was intended to be. A soldier. Obedient. Servant of heaven." Cas's voice is soft and full of regret. Dean knows a few things about regret. He honestly never thought he'd have so much in common with an angel.

"So why didn't you kill me then, huh?" Dean asks. "You could've. You could've stopped me with one punch. Could've taken the tablet and bamfed outta there. You didn't have to listen to me, and I'm pretty damn sure Naomi didn't want you listening to me."

"I have always found you particularly difficult to ignore," Cas concedes with a mixture of fondness and resignation.

"I don't know, Cas," Dean says, knowing he sounds petulant, but not caring enough to stop. "You've been doing a pretty good job the last few months. Felt like I was talking to myself."

"I'm sorry," Now Dean really feels like crap because he knows Cas means it. Cas has never outright ignored him when it was important, when he had a choice. "I wasn't able to respond, but I heard you. I always hear you, Dean."

"Oh."

"Even when I don't wish to."

"Hey."

"No, I mean, you always say what you think, often without tact or respect. It's a quality I admire because you taught me to question rather than simply accept what I'm told."

"Rebel angel."

"It's likely what saved your life. You've only ever been honest with me, and I know you would not do something you didn't believe to be the right thing. You were willing to give your life to protect the tablet, but more than that, you didn't give up on me, even when you had no reason to believe I could be redeemed."

"You've done the same for me." Dean shudders to think about Hell, and how worthless he'd felt in the aftermath. Cas knew every terrible thing he'd ever done, and still he believed Dean was worth saving. It was humbling. "Some people are worth fighting for."

"You said I was family." There's a question in Cas's voice, clear in his hesitation.

"You are. I've got Sam, and I've got you. I'm not going to lose either one of you again without a hell of a fight. It always seems like I just get you back, and bam, something takes you away again."

Cas tilts his head, listening. "Sam is returning."

And just like that Cas is in the wind. Again.

"Thank you for proving my point!" Dean says loudly, counting on Cas to hear his sarcasm from wherever he's gone to roost.

Sam stares at him as he opens the door. "Were you talking to someone?" Sam asks, glancing around the empty room.

"No." Dean scowls and reaches for the grease-spotted bag Sam's carrying. "Gimme the bag."

*

They power through the breakfast burritos Sam's brought and the enormous cups of coffee. Dean falls back onto his unmade bed, stretches his arms over his head, then pats his stomach. Damn those hit the spot. He thinks he could use a couple of extra hours of sleep. Maybe they can afford to stay another night—the place isn't that bad, and Dean's pretty sure no one's on their tail. At the moment, they don't exactly have anything anyone wants.

"So, does this new policy on honesty apply to you too?" Sam asks suddenly, and Dean knows that tone of voice. He lifts his head so he can see Sam standing at the end of the bed, holding Dean's jacket by its blood-stained collar.

"Sammy."

"No, Dean. You can't have it both ways. We're either honest with each other, or we're not."

"It's nothing." Dean props himself up on his elbows, trying to look like it's all a big misunderstanding. "Does it look like I was bleeding? It's gotta be an old—"

"I washed everything last week, and we haven't been hunting since." Dean starts to open his mouth to respond, and Sam shuts him down with a glare. Laundry freak. "And it's not demon blood, Dean. I know the difference. Start talking."

Dean really doesn't want to get into this with Sam. He gets why Sam's not on board with trusting Castiel, and Dean can't say he blames him, considering, but the whole truth isn't going to help Sam-Cas relations any.

"There was a minor disagreement over what to do with the angel tablet." It's the truth. Dean likes to think of it as the Reader's Digest version; he's giving Sam the main idea, after all. Dean stares Sam down and dares him to say otherwise.

"Since when do minor disagreements end in bloodshed?"

"Since he's an angel and I'm a sack of bones and blood?" Dean rolls off the bed, and grabs the offending jacket out of Sam's grip, stuffing it into his duffel. He knew he should've left the damn thing in the car until next laundry day. "Cas might punch like a girl angel, but he still hits harder than you, Sammy."

Sam looks suspicious, but kind of hopeful, too, as if he wants to be convinced. Dean tugs off his shirt, and turns around once, slowly, with his arms out-stretched. "Look, no blood. No bruises. It wasn't even worth mentioning."

"You're sure that's all there was to it?"

"Absolutely," Dean lies. "Like I said, minor."

The familiar displacement of air around them means all Dean's hard work quelling Sam's fears is about to go out the window in a burst of passive-aggressive angel guilt and honesty.

Castiel appears halfway between the two of them, turned towards Dean. His eyes are an unfathomable blue.

"As usual, Dean is prone to understatement when it comes to his own well-being."

"I told Sam you punched me. Which is the truth," Dean stresses. "Can't we leave it at that?"

"In the face. Repeatedly."

Dean doesn't like where this is heading. He's holding Cas's gaze and silently begging him to let the subject drop. "Cas, please."

Cas ignores him in favor of turning towards Sam, whose face is starting to harden into an angry wall.

"Eleven times to be exact, not including when I threw him against the wall, cracking two ribs."

Dean can see Sam's jaw clenching, hands balled into tight fists at his side. Dean steps around Cas to placate his brother. "Sam, it wasn't that bad."

"I broke his right wrist, right arm at the joint." Dean winces with remembered pain. Jesus, that had hurt like a sonofabitch. "He sustained a broken nose, severe subconjunctival hemorrhaging—"

"Whoa, whoa!" Dean wheels around. "I don't even know what that is."

"Eye damage," Sam provides, looking homicidal.

"—severe bruising and bleeding of the face."

Dean holds his breath waiting to see what else Cas is going to spew out.

"And why would you do that?" Sam asks, as cold and angry as Dean's ever seen him.

"I was supposed to kill Dean."

Dean closes his eyes as Sam barrels past him. He hears the instant Sam's fist connects with Cas's face, and the expected sound of pain comes from an unexpected source. Cas has retreated a step, blood trickling from a split lip. The second time Sam hits him, Cas drops to one knee, face upturned, nose bloody. He doesn't lift a hand in self-defence as Sam hits him again, and Dean can't let him do this. It's not going to make any of them feel better.

"Sam, stop it." Dean grabs Sam's arm mid-swing and hangs on, despite being dragged a step forward with Sam's momentum. "You're only hurting him because he's letting you. Just stop, okay? Both of you."

Sam whips around and takes Dean by the shoulders, looks his shirtless torso over for injuries that aren't there. It's embarrassing, but Dean submits to the inspection because it's easier than trying to fight it.

"He was still being controlled then," Dean says, knowing that's not going to be enough of an excuse for Sam. "And he healed me. I'm fine."

"Nothing about this is fine!" Sam yells. "He could've killed you, Dean. While I was standing outside! You didn't once think to open your mouth and call for help?"

Honestly, it hadn't occurred to Dean at the time, but he doesn't think he should tell Sam that. It was Cas, and if Cas wanted to kill him there wasn't anything Sam was going to be able to do about it except maybe add another body to the pile. If Dean couldn't get through to Cas, there wasn't anyone else who'd be able to either. That's all there was to it.

"There wasn't anything you could've done, Sam."

"Dean is correct. Had I not regained control, I would have simply killed you too."

Sam considers them in silence; Dean decides it's better than yelling. Cas is quietly bleeding from the nose and mouth, and Dean wants to tell him to just heal himself already, but he understands the instinct to punish yourself for hurting someone else. He understands Cas a lot better than he likes to admit most of the time.

Dean's pretty sure they've taken a step down from Def-con 5, so maybe they're going to be okay. Sam's starting to unclench, and Dean really wants to put his shirt back on. It's cold, and he's starting to feel ... self-conscious. He wraps his arms around his chest, hoping Sam will take the hint. Instead, it's Cas who zaps Dean's shirt back on his body, which is a neat trick. Dean hasn't considered the practical applications of some of Cas's talents, and now probably isn't the time to be thinking about them.

Cas shrugs. "You appeared to be cold. I would have offered my coat, but I believe the recommended behaviour at times like this is to keep sudden movements to a minimum, correct?"

Sam laughs, and Dean realizes he's been holding his breath waiting for a comment about nipples. He wonders if Cas has finally learned what constitutes too much information. It's almost too much to hope for, and Dean knows he'd kind of miss Cas randomly embarrassing them all. He's missed Cas—he's missed him terribly for what feels like an incredibly long time, and he's not ready to let him go again. Nor is that something he wants to examine closely. For once, he just wants what he wants without having to explain it to anybody else.

"Look," Sam says. "We need to get back, check on Kevin, figure out what the next step is. Cas, I'm assuming you're not going to tell us what you've done with the angel tablet?"

Cas shakes his head. "It's safe."

"And what about you? Naomi's all-access pass to your brain?"

"I've taken precautions."

"I'm not sure that's good enough, Cas," Sam says.

"You're going to have to trust me."

Dean nods. They don't have a choice in the matter, and Sam knows it. "You want to give us a few minutes, Sammy?"

"I'll gas up the Impala. We've got a long drive ahead." Sam grabs his bag and the car keys, giving Dean a meaningful look before he leaves.

Actually, it's a relatively short drive, but Dean gets what Sam's trying to say. Don't give Cas too much information. He can't blame Sam for being cautious.

As soon as Sam's out the door, Dean feels Cas relax minutely. "Sam doesn't trust me."

"He'll come around."

"You shouldn't trust me either."

Dean begins gathering up his few things, making sure nothing's left behind. When he's double-checked the bathroom and under the beds, he stops in front of Cas, nodding towards his swollen lip.

"That isn't necessary."

"I hurt you. It feels as though some measure of penance is required."

"Not by me." Dean reaches down and brushes a thumb across the torn knuckles of Cas's right hand. "And I know you don't need the reminder in order to punish yourself."

As Dean watches, the bruises disappear leaving clean, unblemished skin behind. Cas's head is bent, his voice barely controlled when he says, "I'm so sorry, Dean. I never wanted to hurt you."

"I know. Sam knows that too. He's just ... protective."

"He's your family."

"So are you." Dean isn't sure when it happened exactly, but he knows it's true. When he said the words to Cas in the crypt, when he told him they were family, that he needed him, it was the absolute truth. "We don't give up on family, Cas. No matter what."

Cas raises his eyes, and Dean is struck anew by how blue they are. How easy it is to let himself look. "I will endeavour to justify your faith in me."

"I'm serious, man." Dean knows his tone is too serious, but he can't help it. He's lost too damn much, too many people he cares about, and he wants it to stop.

Without thinking, Dean wraps an arm around Cas's shoulders, hand clutching the back of Cas's trench and drawing him forward into a tight hug. He can feel Cas's hand on his back, its solid warmth, and Dean remembers why he's always avoided chick-flick moments like these. It's too hard to let go.

"Just don't disappear, okay?" Dean says. He doesn't think he can deal with Castiel dropping off the map again. "I can't—I need you to stick around."

"I will. I'll wait for your call."

Dean nods against Cas's shoulder, steps back without meeting his eyes. Dean grabs his duffel and turns to leave. Outside he can hear the familiar rumble of the Impala's engine rolling into the lot, and he knows it's time to go. He pauses, hand on the knob.

"For what it's worth, Cas," Dean says quietly. "I forgive you."

It feels as if it's important for him to say, and maybe it's just as important for Cas to hear. Dean ignores the hand that squeezes his shoulder, the shaky breath against his nape that whispers, "thank you." When the air shifts around him, Dean opens the door. The sun is warm, glinting off the clean lines of his baby. Sam gave her a car wash too. She looks good. Ready for anything.

"Let's hit the road," Dean says, deftly catching the keys Sam tosses over. He stows his gear and slides behind the wheel.

Today the future's looking bright again. It's a good day.

 

THE END