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Hands, From Which All Things Are Built

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Cas travels.

He intends to stay "under the radar" which means sealing his mind off from heavenly chatter. Easily done; as soon as he was free from Naomi's command, his internal controls did that for him. No senses reaching out for his brothers or sisters, only a sense of vibration on a very low frequency. A constant scan for danger.

At first, it means no flying, too. He discovers that, with the weight of the tablet on his very being, he cannot fly far, anyway. As if it carries some latent sentience, the tablet is sure Castiel can keep it safe and seems to resonate some little instruction on how to do so. There is a certain feel to having the tablet in hand. A mild protective aura to it, or just some fading old feeling. Perhaps a worn-out blessing. It is hard to be certain of that, but Castiel thinks he feels it.

He boards a bus. One bus connects to another. He decides to take a train in yet another direction.

On the third day, he is at another terminal in Maine. He is waiting for the next bus and thinks to cross to the small park on the other side of the parking lot. He stops and watches a light rain crawl down the windows of a humble old car. He does not know what kind it is offhand, but he knows it is the kind a Winchester would drive, were a Winchester inclined to drive oneself.

There are other people milling about the parking lot. More gathered under a plastic citybus shelter to his left. A woman in a red sweater hugging a slim youth in front of the door of the terminal. Cas proceeds to the park.

It is nice despite being mildly wet. No bees; two dogs, their owners.

One of the dogs likes Castiel. His owner only lights a cigarette as Cas pets the long, gold hair of the animal and gets his hand licked, his knees knocked into.

That's how it is for a while. At one stop, a very young girl frets about crossing a large intersection. Castiel helps her cross the street. On one bus there is a woman with turquoise stones adorning nearly everything she owns and wears. Cas maintains a polite conversation with her, though he doesn't feel especially compelled to do so. He would be interested, but feels the burden in his bag and thinks it safer not to be too charitable with his conversation.

In a bus station in Virginia one night, there is a girl with a bruised, bloody soul and slow eyes. Her smile matches Meg's and she has the same tendency for attempting to elicit a blush from a soft-spoken, suited man whom Cas recognizes as mirroring himself in some ways. At least aesthetically.

Castiel has washed his sword in the blood of so many of his own kin.

Meg's loss is a throb in him – not that the boys would have appreciated the parallel – akin to losing Bobby Singer a second time. It is there, but the noise of this death just adds to the cacophony. Another long-awaited casualty. An expected, eventual fatality. Like his own. Like anyone's.

(Something will eventually kill Sam. Someone will eventually kill Dean.)

The tableau of the dark girl and her well-dressed companion compels Castiel to fake sleep in a pair of chairs while he waits for another ride.

«»

Castiel does not want company on this trek. He wants to think about finding suitable hiding places. He wants to make a lot of trips out of his way. He wants to confuse his trail. He wants to focus on doing this right.

But time goes slowly here on the surface of the earth. Time is so.
Long.

And people on busses and in trains, people hitchhiking or fixing flats on the sides of roads are all alone like him. But they've elected to be solitary. While Castiel feels he should be alone (in fact, he should probably be more alone, even when he's not toting around a holy tablet) he would not choose to be alone right now.

When people try to talk to him, it only feels worse. He has spent more than two weeks on his own, always on the move, or waiting to hit the road again. None of these people – whose conversation he cannot welcome for his own self-preservation, for the protection of the tablet – none of them know what he is. Who he is. What kind of great wars are waged in their blind-spots. They would have no love for any of the gruff, bloodstained hunters who have banished the demons who would rule their bodies or the monsters who would eat them given half a chance.

Pious people, like those who wander "saving" souls, with whispered songs and blissed-out expressions and multicolored pamphlets. They think on angels in no way that Castiel has ever felt; he knows no angel who would answer these particular prayers. If he were colder he might laugh at them. He sees himself, instead, as if from afar. When they start in on Jesus, he frowns and makes some escape. Begs off to use the restroom, or excuses himself as if he spotted a face he recognized.

Civilians, he can almost hear Dean say.

Castiel takes the widest possible route around the Winchesters’ last known location to move back towards the Rockies.

«»

HLN is a vile excuse for a news network. It's on in a large truck stop in Idaho. There are no details provided on a "bizarre killing" in Oklahoma that, even on the surface, smacks of demonic handiwork. The abrupt end to the string of murders also likely means hunter involvement.

Ultimately, it's not HLN's lackluster reporting that does it, but a family in the attached diner. Castiel is considering trying his hand at hitchhiking and he knows a truck driver would help him in his purpose.

He spots several lone candidates with nothing on their minds but the food and the road. Nothing untoward. Then from the parking lot there comes a man from his rig with two small sons. Rolled up jeans and branded hats of their own, making the most of their journey. Their father worn, tired, but smiling at them. The boys jockey for booth space like old hands and the older of the two lets his younger brother win the spot he wants.

Castiel is out of the building before he even knows it. He pauses to ensure that his compulsion to flight doesn't overtake his better senses and goes to sit down in the sun at an unused picnic bench across the lot.

He had emptied his pockets into a trashcan in Michigan over a week ago. He purchased a plain, middling-quality cell phone with no money at all on his next stop. He paid with Influence for his bus tickets. Suggestion. It was easy in the presence of the tablet. It took almost no convincing and precious little actual communication, which he was grateful for. The fewer words the better.

Until right this moment.

The phone flashes the time at him, almost midday.

He has seen billions of bees on his trip. He has listened to all the different birds sing in all the different states. He has met people and simply shared space with others. He misses his family.

Castiel types on his new phone.
A text message.

«»

Dean gets a text from an unfamiliar number:
i need to talk.

Dean frowns and closes the laptop. Sam glances up for barely a moment as Dean retreats towards their kitchen, then sinks automatically back into the book he's scribbling notes from.

Dean tries to call the number first. It doesn't pick up.
who is this? He texts.

i need to talk to you.

Wrong number, for sure, Dean thinks and snorts.
sure. what are you wearing? Dean replies flippantly. He's found that people tend to check the number they've dialed when they get dirty talk in reply.

the same thing i've been wearing since the day i met you.

This gives Dean pause. He knows who he wishes this was. He doesn't know who else this could apply to.

If. IF this is Cas. Then he's being vague for a reason. If he thinks it's his new mission in life or whatever to protect that damn tablet, then he's going to try to protect his information.

They should both protect their identities right now. Crowley's on their ass at every turn and new creeps have started to bubble to the surface. Possibly – probably – hitmen for Naomi. But Dean also needs to know. He has to know this is real.

prove it, he sends.

There is a long moment. Rather than doubt what he's got in his hand right now, he places the phone on the kitchen counter and starts idly pulling out bread and things for a sandwich. He comes back to the kitchen counter to hover over his phone. He doesn't get the plate or the ham or fuck around looking for mayo. He's got to know. He stands and waits.

The screen lights up.

this is your problem, comes the answer, you have no faith.

The reply is not immediate. Dean sweeps his palms dry on the seat of his jeans. He has to stop what he's typing and restart several times.
where are yo-
call me-
come meet-
are you okay?

He sends this.

The reply is a longer time in coming. Dean eventually puts his phone down, fills a glass with water, then retreats down the hall entirely to throw water on his face in the bathroom. He checks the phone multiple times, hopes it's because he's getting a long reply. He's to the point of halving his sandwich, over ten full minutes later when he receives the text.

no. i need you.

Then come home, is all Dean wants to say. Instead:
i'm here.

«»

Texting is still not something either of them are used to but it gets easier with practice.

Cas asks dumb stuff. Like how his brother is, what he's doing, all the vague little stuff he can, before they have to find a way to get into information that shouldn't be sent out floating the airwaves with names and locations attached.

Dean knows Cas won't answer if he asks, point-blank, where he is or where he's been or what his purpose is in leaving in the first place. He still wants to know why Cas thinks the tablet needs to be kept from them.

He dithers over some words, tries to figure out what the hell to even say. Eventually he puts the phone in his pocket, drops the sandwich down in front of Sam, and retreats to his own room. He sits poised on the edge of the bed, trying to think.

say something, he finally demands.

Cas says: there is a lot more road than i ever noticed before.

Dean wonders how Castiel is paying his way. Or if maybe this is obfuscation and he's actually holed up somewhere in hiding. All alone.

He considers commiserating about how lonely it is to be a wanderer, or providing tips, or asking if he's driving himself.

He can't. He can't humor this. The next message is constructed carefully, and, he thinks ruefully, still probably doesn't get his point across.

you don't have to do this on your own. we should be working on this together. we will be careful. everything goes faster when we work together.

Dean waits. He opens another blank. Please. I need you here.

Before he can hit 'send,' there is a new message. He deletes his unsent.

i'm the only one who can do this part, Cas says.

No, Dean thinks. You're really not.

But he can't feel angry right now. It's just not coming to him. Dean palms his own jaw roughly, remembering the feel of it knitting back together under Castiel's hand.

be careful. call if you need backup. Dean doesn't know what else to say. He changes the last word to me. And sends it.

«»

Castiel doesn't know what else to say. He won't be calling. He can't. He turns off his phone for the day.

«»

Dean prefers to keep in touch with Cas on Cas's time. If he were to send a message that wasn't answered for a day he would end up feeling stupid. Stupid because he's begging for more attention from someone who never gets to be himself. Stupid because what he has to say is barely important. Stupid because an angel measures time and personal problems on a planet-wide scale and all Dean can do is worry about Sam and miss Cas.

It feels vain, but what more could he possibly do? How much more clear could he be? I need you, he'd said. He'd said it. He needs Cas and if that need means nothing to him, he can't push it, won't push it. If Cas doesn't need them.

If Cas doesn't need him.

Well, that's just that, isn't it?

«»

Castiel decides to go directly from one coast to the opposite. It takes a few days.

When they text next, Castiel is in Arizona and Dean's report of the weather implies that he's somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. They have to go see Kevin soon. he has info on what's behind door number two. Sam will soon have to complete another task.

Closing off hell is important. If Castiel finds a place to hide the stone slab he's carrying before Sam begins the third task, he can be of more use to the Winchesters. The demons will come after them with more intent than ever before and Sam will be even less able to defend himself after he goes through 'door number two.'

Crowley is one of Castiel's top priorities right now. He's been given too many opportunities to destroy the bastard without actually doing so. He swears he will follow through and soon. Creating chaos by eliminating Crowley's leadership will only make hell easier to defeat and eventually close off. Perhaps his first move, once the tablet is secure, should be to locate and monitor Crowley for a clear shot at a kill.

His eyes are turned blindly to the desert passing him by outside the train. Castiel has set aside the issue of the tablet's security for a while to focus on building up wrath against the King of Hell.

One delicate string of prayer crosses his mind. It is sent out with clear intent, specifically to him. Dean probably can't even help himself. Please don't let my brother be suffering.

An image of Sam Winchester passed out in the passenger seat. The fabric of his coat over the left wrist spattered with blood. The unhealthy rasp of breath that struggles out of his lungs in sleep.

But he doesn't know how to help Sam.

Castiel's palm falls to the flat top of his bag. The stone seeks his attention.

He lifts his hand. Looks down to the bag.

Who is in control of him now?

«»

"I thought we had a no-lies-no-secrets policy," Sam says, facing the passing countryside and not Dean.

Dean glances at him and back to the road. Sam's left knee is up, an old barrier, and he speaks to Dean as if the words will bounce back at him from the passenger-side window.

"You see me acting shady over here?"

"No, Dean, I see you checking your phone for a new text so often I'm thinking about hiding it to see if you go through the DTs."

Okay. So, Sam's right. He has to protect Cas's and his own identity on the phone. He's not even sure why, just that Cas seems to think it necessary. But he's got no reason to keep it from Sam.

He drives one-handed for a minute, digs out his phone, and waves it in Sam's airspace. He doesn't notice at first, not expecting Dean to actually give in on this without some fuss. But it's Winchester Honesty Hour for at least the next month. So it goes, he thinks.

Sam drops his knee and takes the phone.

"The number, that random 269 area code."

"Yeah?" Sam asks.

"Cas."

Sam doesn't say anything and Dean's busy trying to overtake a wide-load trailer. Sam reads for a while.

"Think he could possibly be any more vague?" Sam mumbles.

"Seriously. I think he's giving these mooks a little too much credit. I'm guessing he's the only guy in the garrison who even knows what texting is."

"Mm. Demons are a little more savvy," Sam allows. "If anyone could pick up tricks from Dick, it'd be them."

Sam keeps reading.

"You tried calling him?"

"At first. He won't pick up."

Sam drops the phone to his lap and thinks a minute, staring at the wide road in front of them.

"He said he couldn't trust you."

"No. No, he said he had to protect the tablet. From Naomi. And from me."

"From us."

Dean shrugs.

"Because we would use it to shut out heaven? Maybe? If that's even what it does."

"I don't know."

"Dean," Sam says and pauses again. "That tablet could send him home. To what would probably end up being an eternity of torture. Or it could seal us off from heaven. Leave him behind without the other angels. Or maybe kill all the angels. I mean, who knows. We need to know what it does."

"Sam. It's not like he's even giving me, like, code words to ask him about this shit."

"So ask point-blank."

"And have him never contact me again."

Sam tries to phrase this carefully. "We need him here."

Dean looks away from the road to shoot him an eye, like, Do you think I didn't tell him that?

"Oh, well, excuse me, Dean, for assuming that you're not conveying the entire message to Cas," Sam says, rolling his hands in front of himself. "Did it ever occur to you that your emotional constipation--"

"Wow. We are not talking about this. Gimme the phone," Dean keeps his eyes on the road and holds out his right hand.

"EITHER Cas trusts us or Cas doesn't trust us," Sam tries to spell out explicitly. "Are we gonna go 'round and 'round on this again? He can be with us, Dean. He's family, I know it. But if he doesn't trust us, how are we supposed to extend that trust back?"

"Hunt him. Are you saying we drop what we're doing when we're not closing hellgates and try to get his tablet? 'Cause I think we've got enough on our plates and I think he's drawing half the demons and probably all the angels off our tail while he runs around wherever."

Sam shakes his head. "Not that. No, not hunt him. But we need him here."

"Why?" Dean releases the wheel to throw his hands up for a second.

"You need him here."

Dean couldn't say anything to that if he wanted to. His throat closes up entirely.

"And to be honest it's got less to do with the tablets and more to do with the fact that you just need to know where he is at the end of every day. Man, he's on your radar like I am. Have you seen yourself without him?"

"I get it."

"Whiskey in every coffee. A beer in each hand."

"Yeah, I get it."

"You don't. You don't get it until you're both on the business ends of each other’s blades."

"Sam. Shut. Up."

"He needs you. Alright? How do you defend that, then? 'Are you okay? No, I need you,'" Sam quotes from the phone. "Man, he is out there, alone, trying--"

"Give me the fucking phone," Dean says coldly. Doesn't hold out a hand, just stone-cold stares at the road.

Sam swallows. He shakes his head. He could laugh at Dean. He could get him angrier. He could copy down the number, call Cas, and scream at the little shit for wringing his brother dry. He hands back the phone blindly. Dean glances at the screen before pocketing it again.

Dean checks it on the way into the diner. Dean checks it at the table during dinner once every four minutes. Every four goddamn minutes.

«»

Sam is smarter than him. Dean knows this in his bones. But he can't bring himself to demand that Cas call. He can't even bring himself to text out first.

The next morning he wakes up to two messages.

are you awake and i suppose you are not awake.

awake now, are you?, he replies to the last message, and gets up to dig in his bag for fresh clothes.

i am generally always awake.

Well, good morning, Dean thinks, what's for breakfast? because what even is the point of this if they're not sharing information?

is your brother alright?

Dean frowns. right now yes. he's sleeping. why? disturbance in the force?

i don't know that Sam could disturb mass and acceleration in such a way.

Wow. Math jokes. What the fuck.

are we going to talk about what is going on or not? Dean demands.

what about it, Cas fires back.

Dean sighs and sits back on the bed. about your mission. are you just travelling or looking for something?

Dean waits a minute until Cas replies, both.

we can help you. we have a car. we find stuff all the time, Dean finishes lamely. Sends it anyway.

I will handle it.

you shouldn't, Dean texts back instantly. And tacks on the next, you shouldn't have to handle it all on your own.

Dean waits several minutes. Assuming Cas has cut off communication because he's been pushy, Dean gives up and goes to take a shower.

Sam is up when he gets out, though barely. He looks pretty wrecked when he wakes up in the morning these days. Dean grabs his phone, wallet, keys and offers to go get them breakfast. Sam yawns wide enough to swallow the whole world and nods.

Dean starts the car with his other stuff thrown on the passenger seat next to him when his eye is drawn by the glow. because we are family, the screen on his phone says.

Dean blinks. Breathes. Yes.

He snaps up the phone. YES. he sends back.

There is no reply. There is no reply through the drive, his order, his wait, or his drive back to the motel. There's no reply through coffee or his breakfast burrito or the second cup of coffee. Sam watches him watching his phone.

"Shut up," he says to Sam before he can open his mouth.

Sam looks sadly at him and he doesn't want to hear it. "Don't you have a few jugs of holy water to make, lazyass?" Sam doesn't even debate it. He just gets up to go get the empty containers and rosaries out of the car.

Once Sam is out the door, Dean opens a new message, tries just one more time:

you're right. we're family. we can do this. He stares at the screen.
we need you. we miss you.

Dean doesn't send it. He stares at it until the screen idles to black. He stares at the amber gleam of the whiskey bottle sitting below the window. Nut up, Winchester. Fuck.

you're right. we're family. we can do this. we need you. i miss you.

He sends it.

«»

Texting with Dean teaches Castiel a very basic, human lesson: When you are lonely, you want to speak to someone, and then when you speak to someone, you are ready to be alone again.

«»

It is a week later and Castiel misses Sam and he misses Dean but he doesn't know what to say.

He tells Dean that Texas is everywhere and Dean commiserates that, yeah, it's the pits.

not that i'm in texas right now. it just feels as if everywhere is texas sometimes.

if you were in texas, what part of it would you be in? Dean asks.

utah, probably.

«»

my brother is broken.

Dean sits on the floor beside his bed and reads his own words and cannot send them. He keeps letting the screen time out and then lights it again to see the message. My brother is dying, he thinks of the black veins growing stark under the skin of his arms.

And he thinks of Balthazar of all fucking people– of all beings. Uriel. Samandriel.

Castiel has put down more of his own brothers than he'll ever even speak aloud. So it feels like Dean has no right to this grief in the face of that but the screen is so bright in his dark little room and there are tears building in his eyes anyway and it hurts this bad every time. Every time Sam goes through this. Has Cas killed as many brothers as Dean has seen his Sammy die?

The shaking in his thumb wins and the message zips out and away from him.

He only gasps once, sobs once. Then covers his face and wipes it dry with a hand. Breath may hiccup out of him but he's not fucking crying. Just not.

The screen glows, and it looks like it's calm and friendly or something.
Cas has replied:

tell me.

A huge breath erupts from him and he has to rest his head on a knee for a second. He carefully texts back Sam’s ailments as far as he knows them. Some he can neither see nor describe.

The pause is long. Of course, Dean thinks, because there's nothing Cas can do for him. He can't even lay hands on him and fucking try. He's too broken.

Instead a frigging page, a virtual wall of text pops up. Dean scrolls and reads for a moment. His naked feet nearly skid on the floor beneath him as he bounds up and out of his room to the library.

Messages keep appearing as he's running his hands down the spines of half the books in the room. He gathers a few of the vital ones and tries to keep up with the texts that are appearing. He scrawls a few of the names of protective symbols down, some ingredients. Cas types out some Enochian words phonetically that he can't convey otherwise that Sam will have to untangle in the morning.

There are a few wards, symbols that can be drawn on the skin to enhance strength. A few bags of herbs and things that can be worn around the neck to purify the blood and slow Sam's (they don't say "decay"). Prayers that can be recited and directed to Mary or the Saints to keep the angels from hearing them directly.

what about to you? Dean asks, hoping he hasn't been blowing up Castiel's spot by letting a prayer of his own slip through in the past few weeks he's been on the run.

But, i will always hear you, Cas assures him.

It's nearly sunrise when Dean unearths a restorative charm necklace from one of the boxes of objects the Men of Letters hoarded away. He saw the little picture in one of the books Cas had recommended and dove straight into the pile, knowing he'd come across it before.

He holds the thin chain up to the light and stares through the little Egyptian sigil. Awe and disbelief and pure, sweet relief at how even this little bit could help Sam stay alive. I love you, you son of a bitch, he thinks, before he can help himself.

The last text they exchanged was an hour ago. He's too tired to tell if he just aimed that thought at Sam or at Cas.

«»

One day, Cas texts him: where are you? I need you.

Dean almost texts back with an exact location before he pauses. Cas is running away from everyone in the universe. They've been working very hard to protect each other while they do this. And Cas is running away from him. From him and Sam.

will you really come if i tell you? Dean asks.

It takes a long minute for Castiel to reply.

no.

Dean hesitates for another very long moment.

i'll tell you if you really want to know.

All he can think of is passing right through a town and missing Cas by miles, by an exit, by a stoplight, by a single breath.

you shouldn't tell me, comes the reply.
Then a second later: it's okay.

"I don't want it to be," Dean says out loud to the empty motel room. (I'm a selfish fuck, Dean doesn't say out loud.)

After a whole hour of drinking and staring at his phone he texts, what if i needd you to be hree righ t now? willould you come?

you never have before.

bullshit, Dean replies. Wrong answer, Cas.

Dean passes out that night deep into a drunk, the alcohol absorption probably accelerated by all the pacing he does around the motel room floor before Sam gets back.

When Dean wakes up in the morning there's a missed call on his phone with no voice message. He tries to call back but the number is disconnected, not in service, every time he tries (and he tries, damn does he try). It's not like the first time Cas texted and he tried to call the number; the call doesn't even ring through now. He texts. Still nothing.

He calls and calls the old, familiar, anonymous number and he rages and almost throws his phone and then he puts the phone down carefully on the bedside table. Goes to shower. Seethes. So angry he could very nearly (fucking weep).

«»

No texts for two days. His guts twist up painfully. He's stuck in the motel that night, half-carrying Sam back and forth to the bathroom, when he realizes he just wants the time to wallow and that only makes him angrier.

When the texts finally come they start off like nothing at all. He blinks awake to the dull blue light of the phone illuminating everything. He can see the dingy popcorn ceiling by its light, knowing there was no sound to wake him. Wondering if he was really asleep at all.

new phone, the text says, from another strange number.

who are you? Dean almost sends this. Instead he retypes, specifically, who is this? That seems more normal for a text to a possible stranger.

There's a minute before a reply.

i tried to call. you needed me.

Dean lets go a breath he hadn't realized was building up in his chest with the tension. He rolls out of bed and looks across the room to Sammy. Always out like a light. Always sleeping now, exhausted just from being conscious. Burdened with further internal scarring from the second step in shutting hell down.

i can call you, Dean texts.

better not, Cas warns.

There are a hundred things, a hundred, Dean wants to say right now. Absolutely none of it cool. None of it okay for a text conversation and none of it okay to say to Cas, but he wants to say it all.

He pauses to shut the bathroom door behind him. Some small measure of moonlight in here from the tiny window above the toilet. when will this be over, he asks.

There's a five minute wait this time. He has no idea what to expect as an answer. None of them know how this current battle is going to end.

i can call you, cas finally replies.

please, Dean shoots off in reply. He folds himself down into the dry tub and he clutches his phone in his hands and waits. He stares at the screen. He hovers his thumb over where the green button will illuminate. He thinks about the sound of the phone buzzing and he's almost fucking light-headed. There's no movement on his phone for a long time.

He finally taps the screen. Full signal, set to vibrate. Nothing has changed. He texts, should i give you a number? Maybe a burner phone or the motel room phone-- no, no. Too close to home. He could find a gas station with an old payphone. He could do anything. He would stand on top of his car in the middle of a field if his fucking phone would ring.

Cas probably thinks it's not a good idea, Dean decides. He probably won't call, it's too dangerous. They can't do it. Or worse, Dean thinks, slumping: The moment he hit dial someone tracked Cas down, knocked his phone to the ground, and now he's fighting for his life while Dean sits in a corner and clutches his phone.

He resolves to get up. He decides that just when he stands up, Cas will call.
He decides to pull on his shoes and go out to his car. As soon as his shoes are on, Cas will call.
He will leave the room, next. He will get in his car and start driving. For what, he doesn't know. Maybe to find a payphone or a field or a crossroads for something to kill. He doesn't know. But as soon as he sits down in his car, Cas will call, anyway.
Cas will call.

He slumps down on the bed. Stares at the screen. His boots aren't even tied. He doesn't know what he's doing.

The phone begins to buzz. He darts a look to check that Sam is still asleep, grabs his keys and ducks out of the room.

He doesn't know how to say hello.

"Who is this?"

"I'd rather not say," says Cas.

ohthankfuck, Dean pulls his hand down his face and drops to the ground next to the Impala's front tire.

"How are you," he says, rather than begging, are you okay, please tell me you're alright, please tell me this isn't costing you your freedom.

"I'm." Cas tries to decide what he is. "I needed to hear you more than I even knew," he seems to marvel.

Dean feels blank. He slumps against the car. "You don't have an audience, do you?"

"No. I can't– see anyone. Or anything. This is fine. I had to change phones, that was all."

"That was all," Dean breathes, remembering his fucking sheer panic/borderline mania from two mornings ago. "Warn a guy," he almost whines.

"I'm sorry."

Dean is so done with Castiel apologizing.

"No. You're right. You need to, randomly. On a non-schedule schedule," he remembers Frank's safe, snug brand of paranoia.

"I just want to come home."

Dean is surprised to hear Cas say that for several reasons. His own heart is in his throat with the breathy, broken-up way it sounded. He wants to be home in his room right now, too, but it strikes him that by 'home,' here, Cas means none other than himself. He means Dean.

Dean has to take a very long moment of pause, full of not saying all the things he wants to say.

"Yeah," he settles for. "You can. You can, any time." His throat is closing, he says it anyway: "I want you to. But. Would that be... right yet? Should you, yet?"

Cas hasn't found the right place to hide the tablet or he hasn't died protecting it yet. So that would be a 'no.'

He does not say, 'no,' he just sort of "nnh"s on the other end.

"It's okay," he-almost-says-Cas. "You'll... Well, we're..." Dean has no idea how to share all this unsafe information. No names, no places, no hint at their progress, on either end. Weeks of dancing around it via text and just hearing Cas's voice sounds like fucking freedom.

It's not. They have to be careful.

Shit. What can they even say? Should they talk about the weather?

Dean can hear, just barely, one miserable exhale on the other end of the line.

"No. No, dude. Fuck that. Forget what I said." Dean looks up. He can just see the stars past the ill glow of the nearest neon trim. He feels reckless, like normal. "Cas, come home."

There's nothing but a click.

«»

It comes to Cas very quietly in the night. He is sitting in the food court of a turnpike service plaza. He begins to wonder what would happen if he attempted to use the tablet.

Instead of attempting to hide it.

He could be imagining the menacing heat radiating from the bag at his hip. But angels don't imagine much.

He waits until the Burger King gets unlocked in the morning and then goes to stand in front of the gift shop. A tired family of tourists yawns nearby. One of their children is red and miserable, obviously in pain. A sunburn. He could casually walk by and brush a hand against the boy to fix it, but that would both be a rather obvious miracle and a chance to take with the father, who is already eyeing Castiel's heavy coat distrustfully. It's likely too hot in Florida for him to be wearing what he is.

When the store is unlocked, the tourists buy aloe gel and Castiel buys a new pay-as-you-go phone. (For a loose definition of "buy"; the cashier cheerfully bags the item for him without charging him a dime, a blank look in her eyes.)

Deep within an ancient swamp there is a small structure dating from the Seminole Wars, a protected place that he wants to try hiding the tablet in. Though the closer he gets to it, the further the tablet wants to be from it. This has happened with each protective place Castiel has tried. Only twice was there evidence that demons knew of the shrine or safe place, but still the tablet refused to be kept secret. It would only be toted.

How long would he carry this? (when will this be over? Dean asked. What if I needed you?)

On the next bus ride he turns his new phone on. He types in Dean's number but does not know what message to send. He wants, first, to apologize for being abrupt but that feels like it goes hand-in-hand with admitting that he doesn't need to be as cautious as he is being. That would lead to questions about why he was avoiding the Winchesters at all.

He doesn't know if he knows anymore. Maybe it doesn't feel right anymore.

Castiel opens his bag and stares down at the stone. It has connected to him somehow but still withholds the meaning of its words.

Perhaps it would not come to harm in the Prophet's hands. Perhaps the Prophet could tell him what to do with it.

Though Kevin would almost certainly tell the Winchesters that Castiel had arrived.

Castiel closes the bag and, for the first time since he had started, puts the bag down in the seat next to him and removes his hands from it entirely. No part of him touching it.

The influence does not dull. Maybe he is as chosen as Kevin and this connection is irreversible. Kevin would know what he should do, then. (Kevin will call Sam. Sam will show up with Dean.)

Kevin will know what to do.

«»

The stone leads him away from the direction he wishes to go. He visited Garth's hideout with Dean and that's where he would find Kevin, but now...
He can't go there.

He is incensed. And lost.

This feels like nothing more than another form of frigging control. As if he hasn't been yanked around by the neck enough.

He paces. He curses in an old Sumerian dialect under his breath. Then louder so he can really feel the venom hit the backs of his teeth.

When he hears the hiss of radios and begins to feel two tall figures in black looming, he remembers that this little breakdown is happening in public. Rather than be arrested, he opts to quiet down, leave the bus station, and go find a place to sit.

He stands, instead, in front of a pet shop with a large window. Puppies are obviously a main attraction. But there is a great red-and-green macaw off to the side, his wings long and pointed, his tail longer, neat and thin. Castiel observes the bird for a while. The macaw seems content to pick clean his feet, curl over his back and worry at his wing feathers. He cranes his head back and pulls at one long feather, sliding it through his beak in a great curve before letting it go. Picks a new feather, repeats.

Castiel sees no other large parrots in the shop. There are finches, spastic in a cage near the back. Parakeets and a few budgies. The macaw is alone, tall, quiet and caring for himself. It is disinterested at the puppy play below it and indifferent to the children who attempt to rile the dogs.

After a while the bird eyes Castiel briefly. It walks closer across its perch and pushes its dark beak to the base of one bar of its cage. The bird sliiiides his beak up, up as high as he can reach without moving. Then he turns and heads for the water dish.

Castiel had almost forgotten the bird was in a cage, content to simply be in its company.

When he turns away from the pet shop, it is to seek a train station. He obtains a new ticket and boards.

The car is crowded and Castiel finds himself packed in with plenty of other people. He holds his elbows tight to his body and types on his phone.

i was supposed to kill you, he sends, and waits a long time for a reply.

fuckn gool brb.

Castiel feels the bad timing keenly. He should not have attempted to begin a conversation with such heavy subject matter without knowing if Dean was, perhaps, in the middle of a fight for his life, first.

A half hour later he receives another message. *ghoul. i'm back. why are you killing me today?

not today. i was attempting to explain that such had been my given mission at the time, when we were in the crypt.

Castiel waits.

we're pretty tore up right now. rain check on this convo dude.

Castiel frowns to himself. let me know when you are available.

on the move. will be a while. And Cas would place a rather certain bet on the fact that Dean is attempting to evade him right now.

«»

are you there? Castiel sends this message four separate times over the next eight hours. He's somewhere in damned Texas again.

He is in the shower, comes a sudden reply. From Sam, then, obviously.

how are you? Cas asks.

He will be out in a while. I'll let him know you're asking.

you. you. how are you, Cas types frantically. It's the first he's heard from Sam in months.

Exhausted. Are you OK? Do you need help?

i am fine. is it getting worse for you? Cas asks.

Not all at once. The water is off. I'll let him know you're waiting on him.

Castiel trusts that Sam passed word to Dean. He is also pretty sure Dean does not want to have this conversation, regardless of Sam's intervention.

«»

It's past midnight and Dean's officially giving up on trying to get back to sleep. His phone glows in the dark again, but just slightly. It's face-down on the table.

Fuck.

He picks the damn thing up, shuffles down in the bed, and throws the sheet over his head to hide the light.

The latest text is actually from Garth. Some long ramble about a job. Before that is Sam's nosy conversation with Cas and Cas's multiple pleas for his attention.

Fuckity fuck.

so you were supposed to kill everybody to get to your brick, he sends, aiming for flippancy. He doesn't have to wait long for a reply.

no. you specifically.

That makes no sense, he thinks. The tablet wasn't theirs to begin with. His mission should have been to collect the angel tablet and report back. How could his mission be to destroy one Winchester?

it wasn't my brick. you could have beat us there.

not the point. i am trying to tell you that she trained me to kill you.

Dean stares at the words until the screen goes black.

Then he scrambles out of the sheets. He finds his jeans and throws them on and goes for the door and remembers to grab the key card and goes back to the door and remembers the phone and goes back to the door and stops again from sheer shock.

What the fuck.

He goes outside, shutting the motel room door as silently as possible behind him, suddenly realizing he's bare-chested and weaponless out in the wide world with only his motel room key and his stupid fucking phone that just–

He dials Castiel's current number.

"What the fuck," he says into the phone as it rings, "what the fucking fuck," he marvels.

The call gets sent to voicemail with only a tone. He hangs up and texts, answer your fucking phone!

cannot answer at present.

why not? It's beginning to dawn on him to be fucking horrified at what Dean-specific killing classes could include.

i am in a public area.

Dean switches to all caps on this fucker: IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. ANSWER YOUR PHONE. He shoots off the text and dials again.

Castiel answers on the third ring, sighing. "This is in no way wise."

"What are you talking about–" he takes a deep breath. "What are you talking about, specifically. Dead me one-oh-one? S-seal breaking?" He stutters. "Or what? You can't just drop that on me like that!"

"I was trained," Cas pauses, "by her. To hunt you. And kill you. Specifically."

"Okay, me? Me how? Like, track down this d-e-m-o-n and pretend it's d-e-a-n?"

"This is hardly subtle," Cas complains.

"We'll DEAL with it. Now what do you MEAN?"

"Several scenarios were constructed in which I would track and hunt you, a facsimile of you, and end your life. I was made to do so until I could complete the task without hesitation."

Dean is silent.

"At which point I was considered fully trained, or in her words, cured. And deemed capable of completing the task in the real world. I was then sent to question– well, you were there for most of the rest."

"Yeah," Dean breathes. "And for the part where you didn't kill me."

Cas is quiet.

"How many times?" Dean asks. "How long did it take you?"

Cas is too quiet.

"How many times?" Dean repeats. "Did they make me fight you?" he forces himself to ask, thinking the ugliest fucking things possible.

"No," Cas replies, scratchy, as if from too far away. "You barely had a chance."

Little relief in that. Too little. "How many time–"

"Thousands," Cas says, and repeats it, quiet. "Thousands."

Dean crosses an arm over himself and stares out over the unlit highway.

"Guess it wasn't enough practice, you killing your brothers, your sisters. Huh?" He asks bitterly.

"That wasn't the point," Cas says sadly. "It was just you. I couldn't do it. Until I could."

"This is probably the last thing you want to hear but I'm gonna fucking kill her."

"It was me. I hit you. I hit you, I almost killed you," Cas whispers, horrified all over again.

"It wasn't you, it was her. It was a fucking brainwashing."

"I brutalized you," Cas hisses, his voice all kinds of fucked up on the other end.

"That wasn't you. Bottom line, that wasn't you. That was some program they had you running. You're my family; you never would have done it."

"I did," Castiel insists. "I did until I got it right."

"Before. In 'training.' You shook it off the one time when it counted. When it actually meant something."

"I almost killed you–"

"You fixed it."

"You thought I was going to end you, I saw that. You begged me not to."

"And you fixed me instead, it's okay. It basically didn't even happen!" Dean throws his free hand up in the air. "You're absolved, dude. Nothing that happens under brainwashing counts for shit, that's like rule number one!"

"I love you so much," Cas says and is silent.

Dean drops his arm. Lucky he doesn't fucking fall to the ground.

"I need you to come home," Dean says. "I need you here."

"I have to fix this," Cas insists. "As best as I can."

"Fuck, fix what, Cas? Please."

The click and the line falls dead.

"Fuck you, you paranoid ASSHOLE," Dean shouts into the phone. He does throw it this time.

«»

For a long moment on a Greyhound bus, Castiel feels like he is in the back seat of the Winchesters' car. He has tried each seat on these busses so far and the rumble under him is a far cry from the one the car makes but in one spot in particular, if you close your eyes, it feels right.

A man who got on the bus in Washington cried at the California state line. He was very quiet but Castiel saw him. There was a tiny picture in his palm and then a moment later it was gone and Cas only saw the back of the man's head as he stared out the window.

If he asks Dean where he is right now, he could go there and be with him.

There is nowhere else on this planet that he wants to be. No task he wants to do without them.

If he asks Dean where he is right now, and he goes, some angel might follow his flight to their location. Some demon might sense a sudden power surge in the area. Sam and Dean could get hurt because Castiel showed up.

If Castiel saw one of his brothers or sisters again, all they would wish to do would be to seal him away in heaven somewhere until he possessed the right ideas again. That is, if they did not want to outright harm him. Some of his brothers and sisters wished he were dead.

He may deserve death.

Dean does not think he deserves death. Sam asked about him. my little brother wants to know if you'll come around again, was the first thing Dean sent from his new phone. It was a transparent ploy. It was working just as well as everything else.

Castiel has one family who wants him to be something he is not: Dead or reprogrammed.
Castiel has one family who wants him. Just wants him.

He remembers Naomi in that moment, telling him to choose between us and them. It's abundantly clear that he doesn't want to choose one. No one who has made him choose so far has liked him afterwards.

But the Winchesters will accept him if he shows up. Stays.

All his brothers and sisters ask of him is to repent, to ask forgiveness of all of them, to comply with one great plan or another, to accept his role.

All Dean asks of him is to show up and have trust.

If he leads angels and demons to the Winchesters, they will fight. They may be injured or take losses.

Castiel turns his phone on.

«»

Dean is driving and his phone buzzes once. Once is a text. He digs in his pocket.

Sam rolls his head on the passenger side window.

"Text," Dean says.

"Don't text and drive," Sam replies like a goddamn commercial.

"Thanks."

At a glance it's Cas's new number. "Shit. Read this for me, then."

Sam takes the phone. "Aye-yi-yi-yi," he mutters and sighs and unlocks the screen. "It says. Um. I'm not sure what to do. I need help," Sam recites with disbelief.

"Ah, shit. Shit."

"Yeah. Pull over, Dean."

"Trying." Dean signals, switches lanes, gets honked at. At the side of the road, Dean takes the phone back.

what happened, he shoots off the text.

There's a long moment. Dean turns the car off and they listen to her ping under them, the trucks flying by them on the road.

"C'mooon," Dean growls.

Buzz.

what do i do?

"Jesus, Cas," Dean curses as he types. EMERGENCY??

no, Comes faster than before. Then, can you fight?

"The fuck does that mean, can I fight? We can fight."

"Dean?"

Dean texts back, yes. where? when?

if the whole garrison comes down behind me? if the others follow?

Dean looks to his brother slumped in the seat next to him. "Dean," he says again.

"We have to find a place for Cas to touch down. Someplace easy to defend in case everybody comes after him."

"Now? Does he still have the tablet?" Sam asks, the wheels already spinning in his head.

Dean frowns. now or do we have some time? will you be bringing – Dean thinks. will you be bringing all your STUFF with you? he types.

we have time if you need it, Cas says.
And then: tell me when you're ready.
tell me when I can come home.

"Dean," Sam says.

"Yeah. Yeah, we gotta find a place, Sammy."

"Sure. We'll... find a place out here. Put up some wards."

"No banishing sigils," Dean finally looks up from the unbelievable words on his phone. "We can't risk bouncing Cas out."

Sam blinks. "Okay. How much time do we have?"

"None. Not much. No, I want this done now. Let's go find a lot. I'll get off here up at the next exit. You drive around, find a place. Drop me off in town; I'll buy more paint..."

"Hey, we'll pull out some hex bags as soon as Cas gets here. That might hide us from the angels."

"Yeah." Dean stares at the road. Looks down to his phone.

Sam sits up further. "A couple hours, Dean. At most. And we'll have Cas back."

"Yeah. Unless he thinks it's too dangerous. Or he still can't trust us."

"But he just asked."

He's been asking, Dean thinks. And each time he knows he can't. What the hell would make this time any different?

He starts the car.

«»

It's an old farmhouse with only half a roof. Sam decides they can fall back to it if they need to. He puts all kinds of wards on the inside of it that can't be seen from the road. He puts one banishing sigil on a far wall. If the angels do show up, he'll have Cas grab Dean and they'll book it in the Impala while Sam sprints for the angel banishing sigil. It'll be their only chance to keep Cas under those circumstances but it kind of relies on Dean being willing to drive away and trust Sam to fend for himself for a minute. Unlikely.

So he palms two hex bags. One went into Dean's pocket already, one will be for himself, and he'll drop the third in Cas's coat as soon as he lands. And that's the plan.

Now they stand on the wide swath of asphalt out front of the farmhouse. On the ground around them is a red painted devil's trap covering the entire empty intersection. If any demons follow Cas and drop in right behind him, they’ll likely end up trapped. While Sam cleaned up the lines, Dean did nothing but pull out and put away his phone twenty times.

"Dean. You ready?"

Dean is silent, more grave than business, he almost looks nervous. He hands the demon-killing knife over to Sam while he texts. They'd decided an exact GPS location, just a string of numbers, would be vague enough to briefly confuse anyone watching the air. And Cas would probably get it. Maybe.

Instead of appearing, Cas texts back. now?

"Oh my fuck," Dean rolls his eyes and texts, YES NOW.

And the air rips open and Castiel appears in the middle of the devil's trap.

"Cas," Sam says, and tosses him the third hex bag.

Castiel snatches it out of the air. "Thank you, Sam. Hello, Dean."

"Hey. You hear anybody coming?"

Cas squints, looks to his left, right. He seems to be listening for a half minute, then he opens the bag he's carrying and drops the little leather hex bag inside of it. "Someone's not far off. They're groping, but they're not seeing us."

"Right," Sam says, "then let's stay a step ahead of them."

«»

The rear-view mirror is like the texting all over again; instead of checking his phone every four minutes, Dean's eyes are constantly darting up to the mirror to check that Cas is still in the back seat of the car. Other than that, he concentrates on driving. Fast.

"So where to, man?" Sam asks and looks back over his shoulder at Cas. "Which direction?"

Cas's mouth is a hard line. "To Kevin Tran. I've been unable to get near him myself."

"What do you mean?" Dean asks in the mirror.

Cas swallows and removes the strap of his bag from around his shoulder. He passes it up and over the seat. Sam reaches for it curiously.

"The tablet has an aversion to every single one of my plans. I can't figure out where it needs to go, how to hide it." He shakes his head. "I need help. I can't wander with it forever." Castiel nods to the bag. "Don't open that, Sam."

"Why? What'll happen?"

"I'm not sure. Just. Can you keep it with you for a while? For a few miles? Please."

"Yeah. Yeah, sure." Sam coils the strap around the bag and places it down between his feet.

"What, did it come with weird instructions?" Dean asks. "You can't understand it?"

Castiel shakes his head. "I am unable to read or interpret it, much as with the other tablet. But this one has come with some sort of ingrained," he searches for a word. "Blessing? Or charm? It has somewhat of a mind of its own. My attempts to keep it hidden have not agreed with it. Joining you," Cas gestures at them, "did not agree with it. But I am–" Cas stops.

Sam looks back at him, raises an eyebrow.

"Lost. Unsure. I don't know what to do with it. Or why. I need help."

"You came to the right place," Dean is quick to assure him, making eye contact in the mirror again.

"So it won't even let you go see Kevin?" Sam asks.

Cas half-nods. He does not know how else to describe it. A feeling of wrongness, a low-level heat that threatens to scorch. Truly, the tablet is not self-aware, but its instructions hold a certain direction. It's just one he cannot read.

"Do you even know what it does? Is it like the one that closes hell?"

"I am not sure, Sam. I can't read it. It can't be in anyone's hands. It simply," Cas shrugs, "must be protected."

"Well, that's unhelpful. It just wants you to haul ass back and forth 'cross-country or what?" Dean asks.

"I do not know. Perhaps Kevin will. I simply need to not get turned around on my way there."

Dean nods. "Alright. That we can do."

"Are you sure it doesn't... uh, want? To be near Kevin because there's some kind of threat there?" Sam looks between them. "Maybe we shouldn't be heading into that blind, with another tablet in hand."

Dean snaps his fingers. "Hey. Maybe one tablet can't be too close to another tablet. What if that sets off some kind of cosmic alarm?"

They are quiet for a collective moment while they ponder this.

"Where was Garth when you last heard from him?" Sam asks his brother.

"Um. I think not too far from Kevin. We could get him to turn around."

Sam starts pulling out his phone. "We'll get him to scope the place out for demons. Or. Whoever. And take Kevin's tablet away for the day. Maybe to the next state. It'll give the kid some rest before we get there and that way we won't risk having two tablets in the same place at once."

"What about his interpretation work?" Castiel asks.

"Trust me," Dean says, "the kid needs a rest. It's fine. We'll show up, get him to tell us what your tablet is even about, maybe tell us where we can stow it for a while, then let him get back to figuring out the third track on disk one."

Sam proceeds to have a long and rather confusing phone conversation with Garth. The point gets across, however, and Garth heads back to Kevin to pick up the first tablet. He seems to be confident that the area is clear of non-human activity, but will double-check.

Castiel, sick of watching the scenery pass by after months of it, leans against the door and keeps his eyes locked on Dean's mirror. Each time Dean looks up, their eyes meet. Eventually Dean even smiles at him. Winks. Then his eyes come up to search less often. Sam looks over once, and smiles at them.

«»

Garth needs time to get back out of the state with the first tablet and they're still plenty far away, so it's a motel room for the night. No matter how much sleep Sam gets, he's mostly in no condition to be the lone conscious driver. They'll just have to hit the road again early in the morning.

Dean gets two rooms for the three of them. Getting two beds for three guys would just be weird and the guy at the front desk had already been eyeing them suspiciously since they'd driven up. (Baby's a little menacing like that, a little loud, a lot big, a deep black. The Impala commands respect.) And probably, he thinks, Cas is used to being on his own now. But when Dean gives it to him, Cas handles the key with complete confusion. Shrugs, puts it in his pocket, and follows them into their room.

Cas has reclaimed his bag with the tablet and now he helps Sam and Dean haul their bags into the room for the night. Mostly he pulls things out of Sam's hands so he barely has to shoulder anything at all. Sam notices, but likes being doted on by angels, so he just smiles a little and thanks Cas.

Sam holds up his little keychain full of discount and points cards. "There was a Sweet Tomatoes down the road," he says hopefully.

"Oh my god no. No way am I going back to the salad trough to let you graze for two hours. That place is disgusting. I got food poisoning last time from the kids with their grubby fingers all over the soup ladles. Gross, Sam."

"There's like fifty kinds of salads, Cas, and like five kinds of soup and pasta and a fro-yo bar. The place is amazing."

"What are you trying to sell him on it for? He doesn't even eat! Fro-yo bar. Fro-yo bar. You friggin' fruit."

"Oh, and the fruit bar!" Sam remembers.

"Not just no but hell no, Sam," Dean slices his hand through the air. "We'll get you a salad at someplace that requires basic food-handling sanitation and no sneeze guards."

Sam frowns his puppy dog face.

"Yeah, no. Buffets breed bacteria."

Sam scowls but seems to accept the loss. "Gimme a few minutes and decide where we're going then. No burgers. You've ruined burgers for me." He slams the bathroom door shut behind him.

"How can you ruin burgers?" Cas asks Dean. "I recall them being rather pleasant."

Dean laughs. "Ah, he's spoiled is all. Back home I've been cooking for us and I'm so awesome I'm ruining his other dining experiences," Dean says proudly. He moves his duffle to the bed he wants and then motions for Cas to follow him back outside while they wait for Sam.

"Home?" Cas asks. "This is the 'home base' you've been referring to?" He follows Dean to the car.

"Yeah. It's really cool. You'll like it." Dean goes quiet suddenly. He leans against the driver-side door. The last time they'd been standing in front of each other, Cas had been winging off because he couldn't trust anyone. They'd been in the crypt. Cas had Dean's blood on his hands.

"I interpreted from the texts that this was in Kansas," Cas prompts.

"Yeah," Dean says. And doesn't know what else to say.

Cas moves the strap of the bag to cross his chest and then tucks his hands in his coat pockets.

"You don't have to see it," Dean says. "If you aren't going to stick around. If you've gotta take the tablet somewhere. You don't have to come."

Castiel is quiet and leans his head in that curious way.

"It's stupid, it's just this hide-out kinda bunker place. With books. Loads of books. Sam is thrilled. We've each got a room of our own." Dean doesn't specify that there's a room for Cas if he comes.

"That's the room you were in when you prayed to me," Cas says, as if reviewing a mental image of it. As if he can clearly see where Dean was expecting him to pop in.

Dean's mouth is dry. He nods.

Castiel waits for Dean to talk and Dean does not.

"Dean–"

Sam emerges from the motel room, pulling his jacket back on. Dean looks between his brother and Cas, then turns to open the back door for Cas to slide in.

"Someplace with fried chicken," Dean says.

Sam curses. "Seriously?"

«»

In recent months, Castiel has learned the value of coffee. You can sit down anywhere and order coffee and no one will stare at you like they're waiting for you to explode in a dangerous rage or glare at you for occupying space. He keeps a coffee in front of him at the restaurant while the Winchesters eat. Sam is intrigued and wants to know how Cas grew an affinity for coffee until he comes to understand that it is mostly decorative. Dean actually drinks the coffee for him and Cas has to order his first refill ever.

Sam asks where Castiel has been, what he's seen all across the country. Dean asks what kind of trouble he ran into. When he tells them how he pays for his bus tickets, Dean sends him to the counter with the bill which gets mysteriously rang through as paid-in-full under the influence of the tablet. Cas returns to the table in time to see Dean drop a hefty tip, anyway. "Neat trick, Cas. Hey, lemme borrow that."

Castiel removes the bag and hands it to Dean. Dean returns to the counter and orders a piece of pie to go. "Oh, right," Sam rolls his eyes, "that's not abusing our privileges at all."

But the woman behind the counter doesn't stare through Dean with a vacant smile like she did with Cas and Dean gets charged for the pie. He hands the bag back to Cas as they exit. "It was worth a shot."

«»

Back in the motel parking lot, Dean has to shake Sam awake. It was barely a ten-minute drive but the fact that it is dark combined with the fact that Sam's been up for more than a few hours has him basically dead on his feet.

"Time for all good giant redwoods to head to bed," Dean points at Sam's hair, which sticks up on the side from being pressed against the window. He can't seem to stop yawning as he attempts to pat it down.

Dean hands Cas the styrofoam container with the pie so he can unlock their door.

Sam actually stumbles over to his side of the motel room, shedding layers and shoes as he goes. "’m I settin' an alarm?" he slurs.

"Nah, I'll get it, Sammy. Get some sleep." There's barely a moment between Dean's command and Sam's head hitting the bed. And then he's out.

"How often is he in this much of a... stupor?" Cas asks, drifting towards the far bed.

"Eh. Make him stay up for more than five hours and it's bad. Don't let him have a nap and after six hours he's basically useless. Not much change there," he jokes lamely, shoots Cas a really brief, anemic smile.

They stare at Sam. Dean is so worried he looks like he might be sick.

Castiel puts the pie down on Dean's bed and drops the bag with the tablet next to it. Sam hadn't even had time to crawl under the covers before he passed out again. Cas does not think Sam would appreciate being lifted, so he pulls the far end of the sheet over Sam as best he can and smoothes it down. He places two fingers to the side of Sam's head and sends his rest deeper.

Sam's very cells are rebelling. His muscles are weakening, even his bones protesting. Something within him is changing. Castiel doesn't know how to help him fight it. It might be that his body is the intended sacrifice to complete the tasks or that he is being saturated with hell's influence on a more physical level than ever. Cas can't even begin to pry apart the good from the bad inside of Sam's very organs. But he can make Sam's sleep more restful and restorative. More like a healing, meditative state.

When Castiel removes his hand and opens his eyes, Dean is closer, directly at his side by Sam's bed.

"I thought you said you couldn't fix him," Dean whispers.

Castiel shakes his head. "I will try what I can. The sigils you found to write on his arms, and the necklace. They're doing some good. All I can do is attempt to," Cas pauses and searches for the words, "force his cells to attempt to rest and heal."

Dean nods mutely, staring down at Sam.

Eventually Dean whispers, "These blankets are so yellow, you made him look like a giant taco."

Castiel attempts to convey distaste and confusion at the same time and whatever his face does at that makes Dean snort with laughter. "C'mon, Cas." Dean turns, scoops up the pie box and hands the bag over. "Take your brick."

They leave the room and walk to the next door. "Where's your key?"

Castiel digs in his pocket and comes up with the old-style key on its tacky lifesaver-themed ring.

"This is a motel room," Dean says, as if speaking to a child. "People sleep in these instead of sitting up all night staring at dudes they know while they attempt to sleep." They enter the empty room.

"I don't need to sleep, Dean."

"Then watch TV, but you're not sittin' in our room 'watching over' us because, seriously: Weird." The room is a single with one wide bed. Castiel lets the door close behind him as Dean settles on the end of the bed and opens his box of pie. "And since you're not gonna sleep, I'm eating this pie in your bed."

Castiel shakes his head. "Be my guest."

"Damn right. I paid for it anyway. Siddown, Cas."

Castiel places the tablet up by the pillows and sits on the other corner of the bed. Dean breaks open the plastic fork that came with his pie, turns to Cas and offers the container up. "Don't wanna try pie?" he guesses.

"No. Thank you."

Dean digs in.

"You can't think I'm going to try and steal your tablet and use it, okay?" Dean begins while chewing, "But seriously, what do you think it does? Shut down heaven?"

Castiel thinks. It had occurred to him that the tablet had to be hidden not only to protect all of the remaining angelic host, but possibly himself. He only shakes his head. "I honestly don't know, Dean."

"Well, if it does," Dean looks down into his pie, concentrates on making the perfect forkful, "if it seals off heaven. Do you get stuck up there, too?" His eyes stay down, "Do you think you have to go back?"

"I don't know."

Dean chews for a moment. "You don't know."

"I cannot so much as guess what would happen."

Dean eats some more. Castiel watches. "What do you want to happen?" Dean finally asks, toying with the final puffs of whipped cream and the crust.

"I don't know."

Dean eats the last bites. "You don't know that either," he finally says.

"No, Dean," Castiel admits.

Dean looks at him, assessing. He dumps the fork inside the box, closes it and nails the wastebasket with it in one well-aimed shot.

"You don't know if you want to get stuck here or get stuck there," Dean says.

Castiel blinks. "No."

"No, you donno, or, no, you have a fucking opinion on the matter," Dean demands testily.

"No," Castiel repeats, "I don't want to be 'stuck' anywhere."

Dean shrugs as if unsurprised. "Free to roam the universe wherever, whenever. Free to go back to those abusive bastards in heaven if you decide that's the nobler cause," he concludes.

Castiel shakes his head. "I very much doubt I can return to heaven without suffering major consequences for yet another disobedience."

"The tablet."

"You," Castiel corrects him. "If I had destroyed you, there's a much better chance I could have returned to the favor of my brothers."

Dean looks like the pie didn't agree with him.
"I'm sorry, Cas," he apologizes, and chokes on the words only a little bit.

"I don't know if I am sorry," Castiel returns. "Their ultimatum seems to be that one of my families dies in order for me to be accepted by the other."

"Those aren't our terms, Cas."

"I know," Castiel assures him. Dean still won't look him in the eye.

"I wish all your family had lived," and Dean gestures at the motel around him, the hideously-colored bedclothes, the tablet, the room next door, himself. "You don't deserve this crap, Cas."

It is a wonder, still, to this day, that such horrible things can happen to Dean and he can still want the ones who wrecked him to live full, happy lives. The kind of life he didn't get. Castiel can never turn against him again. No one deserves it less.

Castiel looks up near the headboard, at the bag which contains the tablet. "Whatever happens with those tablets, I want the outcome that will bring you all the most peace. You have been meddled with enough."

Dean is quiet for a long time before he rises.

"I'll come back early. Around six, six thirty depending how hard it is to get Sam to wake up. We'll head out to Kevin."

Castiel nods and watches Dean leave.

He pauses at the door. "Cas?"

Castiel nods.

"There won't be any peace if they take you away from here." Oh, but Dean is looking at him now. "If you don't want to be with us, I can understand that. We're pretty fucked. If that were your choice, that'd be one thing. If you want to be with us." Dean blinks, shakes himself slightly. "If– then you can't keep bouncing out on us if you think you actually do want to be a part of this family. Cas, we need you too much to keep watching you go."

Castiel rises. "I believe you," he says.

Dean can't believe he's actually standing here debating not ending this conversation. Not leaving. He should be fucking running by now.

He just needs to make a point. Is it not enough that they need him? Does there have to be more?

"We need you," Dean says again.

Castiel nods. "You need me."

"Want you," Dean rolls his eyes heavenward and licks his lips. "I want you here. Not because you're a tool we could use against anybody we wanted. Cas, if you weren't all powered up, I'd still want you here. We're better when we're all together. We can handle anything."

Castiel nods again.

"I told you I needed you," Dean says quietly. "You left anyway." He just stands there in the middle of the room, half-way between the door and nowhere in particular.

Castiel ventures closer, slowly, so as not to invade Dean's space all at once. "I did not know I needed you in the exact same way, Dean. I looked everywhere in the country and that's all I found." Cas pauses and searches Dean's sad gaze. "Will you trust me to be here in the morning? Six o'clock?"

"Yeah."

Cas smiles. "Will you trust me to come visit your home?"

"Yes."

"I would like your trust. I would like to be your family. You said we could handle this together and you were ready to assist me when I needed you today. I believe you."

Castiel reaches up to palm the side of Dean's face that he had not touched during their last conversation in the crypt. Dean is rigid, incredibly still. "I don't want to leave again. May I stay? With you?"

Dean nods into his hand.

Cas pushes his fingers back to slide into Dean's hair and pulls his head forward. He presses his cheek to Dean's hair. "You should go sleep. I will see you in the morning."

Dean brings his hands up and twists them in the trench coat, pulling Cas forward. He curls his arms around the angel and holds him briefly before Cas untangles himself and sends Dean towards the door.

«»

Just after dawn, shadows cut through the light outside and fall across the shaded window of Castiel's motel room. He wasn't positive when he first started to feel it, but by now he can even taste the sulfuric residue in the air. He removes his overcoat, straps the bag with the tablet across his shoulder and chest, and pulls the coat back on over it. He transfers Sam's hex bag into his own pants pocket and draws his blade.

Castiel pulls himself outside his motel room and behind the two would-be intruders. They are crouched in a count-down to slam into the door of his room. 3-2-1--

When he appears behind them, one turns to look. He plunges the sword into her back. He puts his hand over the other one's face and attempts to slam him down onto the ground but the demon grabs his arm and throws him into the door. The demon shouts, hisses, and they scuffle until Castiel brings him down to the asphalt with both hands and burns the creature out.

Castiel looks around, feels the air. There are not human witnesses that he can see, no other demonic trails leading to here.

He's in the process of gathering both bodies in his arms when Dean slams out of his motel room door, gun drawn.

"Cas," he barks.

"Just two. I'll be back. One moment." He flashes away to remove the bodies to somewhere behind the motel complex, then flies directly back to Dean's side. He leaps a little in surprise, the gun springing back up and then down again.

"I'm guessing we got made," Dean says.

"I can't sense that anyone else is nearby, but we should leave immediately."

"When those two don't show back up," Dean gestures.

"More will follow," Cas concludes.

"Got all your shit?" Dean gestures towards the other room.

Castiel nods. "Wake Sam. I will retrieve your bags."

«»

They stay on the road straight through breakfast, but Dean is thrilled that Sam is awake enough to bitch about it.

"We'll get a big lunch and bring some back for Kevin, Sammy."

Yeah. Sam knows the drill, but they didn't even get coffee.

"Think they followed you and me, or Cas?" he wonders aloud.

"It doesn't matter," Dean says. "Cas ain't heading out on his own again. That's done. We're like an hour away from finding out what to do with his tablet. No point in bailing on us now."

"Speaking of bailing," Sam says, interest piqued, "what's the buzz like from the tablet right now, Cas? Is it trying to turn you around?"

Castiel hadn't even thought about it since yesterday.

"No," he says, openly confused. Since he'd been in the Impala, it seems the tablet has had no choice of its destination, or the direction is confused somehow.

"What's up with that? I thought it was being all demanding," Dean says.

"I'm not sure. Perhaps removing the other tablet from this state was the necessary action."

"Sum'abitch got Garth'ed," Dean says.

Sam groans.

«»

Garth brought groceries for Kevin so the bags they haul in are superfluous for the moment but eventually the kid will power through all of it. They also bring him a sub sandwich and, thankfully, he actually did sleep in his tablet-free hours.

Dean lets Castiel hand over the tablet once Kevin has finished half of his sandwich. He immediately begins blinking over it and taking notes. Sam retreats to the wall of information with some of Kevin's notes about the third task to try and piece some of it together for him.

Dean and Cas watch the geeks go at it for all of three minutes before Dean needs to "escape all the nerdiness," and they head outside to the deck.

The waterway here is slow and more than half-empty of other vessels. Castiel isn't sure he wants to stray too far from the angel tablet, so they lean against the walls and stare out over the river for a while.

"So what are you gonna go do after this?" Dean asks, crossing his arms over his chest. "Where are you gonna take the tablet?"

"That depends upon what it says. Anyway. I won't be going anywhere. It's where we will be taking the tablet."

Dean is quiet.

"You said I could stay," Castiel reminds him.

"Yeah, I know. You should," he affirms. "We're gonna be a team again."

Castiel turns to stare at him. "We're family."

"Yeah. Yeah, that's what I mean."

They are quiet for a while and Dean is doing an incredible job of pretending that Castiel isn't staring a hole in his head.

Finally he asks, "Why was this easier on the phone?"

"You have a problem with my staring," Cas states by way of explanation.

"Yeah."

"My family, Dean, the rest of heaven, they don't miss me. They want me dead or alive to some exact purpose. I love them and I miss them more than they will ever love me again. It has... occurred to me. That you may need me. Similarly, dead or alive to serve your purpose."

"Cas," Dean spits his name and looks at him, completely offended.

"Then, why?" Castiel asks at last. "Why do you need me?"

"We work best together."

"We often don't work together at all."

"But we're better together."

"Based on what overwhelming proof, Dean?"

"Gee, I donno," Dean gestures expansively, "does it look like the apocalypse out here to you, Cas?"

"You and Sam stopped that. I was a waste by the end. I only interfered afterwards. And that lead down a darker path. One you most certainly did not approve of."

"You did it for the right reasons."

"So you want me to be a part of your family because I'm the guy with great intentions."

"No," Dean sputters. "You're." He stops.

"You need me."

"Yes," Dean throws his hands in the air.

"I love you," Castiel says. "And I'm not your brother. I love you. And I want to be your family. Can we be that, Dean? Or do we need to redefine this right now?"

Dean is speechless. And then he's quiet for too long.

Castiel drops his head and shakes it. He attempts to move around Dean to go back inside the boat.

Dean lets him pass and then whirls around and yanks at his arm, hauling him back out. Dean looks at him, searching for words, but nothing comes. Castiel's expression gets cooler by the second.

Dean manhandles him back around and back onto shore and across the lot to the car. He can at least think by the car, with her strong metal under his hands. He puts his palms on the hood and leans over her slightly, then turns back to Cas.

"Yeah. I. You're my best friend. And I love you. And, man, I have missed you to fucking death. And I want you to come home with me. With us. With Me." Dean shakes his head. "And this tablet shit. Cas, we'll figure it out. I." He sighs and rolls his shoulders. "I don't know what else to say here. This is getting into, like, the romantic, and I'm not any good at that. I'm sitting here spilling my gay guts to you and that's fucked up, too. I just. Cas. I don't know how to do this."

"But you want me here," Cas doesn't-quite-ask.

"All the fucking time."

Castiel nods, one strong, solid nod. "Okay."

Dean laughs uncomfortably. Throws out his arms. "Okay."

Castiel is already so close to him it doesn't seem possible that he's getting further crowded up against the car door but then Cas has both hands on his face and Dean can't help if he startles a little bit at that again.

"I'm sorry," Cas whispers.

"Okay. It's okay," Dean says quietly. He brings his own hands up to cover Cas's.

"You're alive," Cas has to say. "All those times I had to. Had to kill you."

Dean nods under the combined pressure of their hands. "And when it counted, you didn't do it. I'm right here."

"I'm so sorry, Dean."

"Shut up."

Castiel presses his lips to Dean's, just once, and briefly.

Dean reels him in, then, and presses them tight.

"You really gonna come home with me?" Dean asks into his shoulder.

"This time, yes. Absolutely," he says, knowing Dean is remembering their last moments together in purgatory. Remembering them clearly, now. "I promise I'll be with you," he says into Dean's ear.

«»

This symbol is heading up a list of items which Kevin has no reference for. Sam swears he's seen it somewhere before but his own recent research is crowding up his head. The exhaustion is already setting in again, as well. He pulls his hand down his face and bites his lip. Between him, Dean, and Cas, they ought to be able to remember where he's seen it before.

Sam heads back towards where the door to the deck is propped open to let in the fresh air, but Castiel and Dean seem to be nowhere nearby. Sam turns to look out the window facing the lot outside to search for the car and–

Cas has Dean curled over himself, running a hand through Dean's hair slowly. Dean's pressed against the car, their knees locked together, cas-dean-cas-dean, and Dean is gripping Cas like.

Like he loves him.

And if this means Cas will stay, Sam is thrilled. But if this means Dean's got at least one more thing to live for, one more thing to not sacrifice himself for, to give up the constant pursuit of suicide runs. If this keeps Dean alive, and better yet, makes him want to live. If Dean can have this, his family, his best friend, and someone he loves.

Sam is so fucking happy. So relieved, and so happy.

Sam leans his head against the windowsill and smiles. He only takes one more look at the scene, Cas's dark head visible and not their faces, turned to one another.

He goes to head back below and pauses on the stairs. He prays to Cas to keep his brother. And descends.