English was imprecise. Castiel held multitudes, was seven contradictory things without stretching himself. In Heaven, she spoke with many voices and could hold the world in zir hands; he could dance on the head of a pin, clap with one hand, rebuild the universe according to the lines of her heart. Ze had changed in the years, learned so much since gripping tight one small and shining and broken soul and wrenching it from perdition. She'd learned the feel of a human body from the inside, constricted, confined, and constantly redefining zir sense of self. When he was resurrected for the second time, she'd been remade entirely, an archangel's wings heavy on zir back and God's mark branded deep in his soul, faith a familiar and welcome song on her tongue.
Even so, Castiel was Castiel was Castiel.
Dean Winchester didn't fall in love with the abandoned shell of Jimmy Novak; he didn't fall in love with a canvas trench coat, an off the rack suit, or a cheap tie mended from battle a hundred times over. He didn't fall for fair skin Castiel healed like the coat's bullet-holes ze disappeared with a thought or chapped lips that split open like shirt seams. The flesh Castiel clothed herself in on the material plane wasn't unattractive to Dean, but it wasn't what called Dean close and warm, wasn't what led to limbs wrapped together like starfishes clinging together until dawn. It wasn't what caused Dean's soul to flare bright when Castiel visited, and it wasn't what would one day precipitate Dean asking Castiel to stay.
It was for this reason that Castiel didn't understand.
"It's not you," Dean said, agonized, because wow, really, Dean Winchester? You're actually giving this speech? "It's me."
Castiel looked about as impressed with Dean and his words as Dean felt.
"Look," Dean said, "it's not that I don't—" Oh, that was going nowhere good. "That is, we can still be—" Fucking really? "—friends," Dean finished pathetically.
"Friends," Castiel said levelly.
"Friends," Dean confirmed, nodding desperately like a bobble head settled on the dashboard of a car with shit suspension. "Like, uh, like we are now."
"Do friends fuck each other?" Castiel asked, just as level, and Dean was going to die.
Dean cleared his throat and managed, "Some do, but—"
"Then how does this change things?" Castiel asked.
"I, uh, I thought we would stop," Dean said. Castiel stared expectantly, and seriously, death might be a mercy at this point. Dean clarified, forcing himself not to mumble, because there was no way he was repeating this: "Fucking."
Castiel stepped in close, so close Dean could feel every breath against his chin, could feel the heat emanating from Castiel's body. "It won't change how you feel."
This was obviously, painfully true, but Dean had thought Castiel would be decent enough not to mention it. Dean closed his eyes, suddenly tired, and the heat retreated. There was the sound of feathers on the wind, a faint breeze ruffling his clothes, and when he opened his eyes, Castiel was gone.
Sam, meanwhile, had gotten back from the beer run and was staring at Dean with a weirded out expression. "Are you . . . okay?" He was obviously unsure whether he really wanted to know the answer.
"Peachy," Dean said, snagging a beer. Then, "Is this microbrew?"
"You want something else, you can make the trip next time," Sam said, clutching the remaining bottles close to his chest.
This is how it began:
Two souls, locked in battle. One carried the chains of Hell threaded through its very being, had gouged and tattered itself on the barbed edges. The other had reached forward one burning hand, held on tight, and refused to let go.
The remains of Dean Winchester tired himself out fighting the very means of his freedom; the remains of Dean Winchester didn't believe he deserved it.
Castiel was implacable, uncaring of what Dean thought he did or didn't deserve. What was was, and Castiel had orders.
Some things didn't change.
(Some things did.)
Early on, sliding into Jimmy Novak was a blessing and a benediction. Jimmy's faith was warm, a comfort. In a world of confusion, Jimmy's soul was intent, sure that he was following the right course.
The second time, Jimmy's faith was broken, but his soul was just as unwavering, a mixed comfort. Claire had been a better fit, but Jimmy had asked, and Castiel had felt a building pressure of obligation that she clung to in the middle of all else, the only thing that made sense to him in a roiling storm of conflicting loyalties and obedience and doubt. The song of Jimmy's soul was a wavering and light whisper buried deep, a quiet reminder that this body was not Castiel's, that these weren't Castiel's limited hands and small shoulders and cramped figure.
When ze was returned from Raphael's banishment, the shell of Jimmy Novak echoed with the loss. Jimmy had gone on to his reward, and Castiel—Castiel was left stranded, trying to understand why God had brought her back alone. Trying to believe he wasn't alone at all.
It wasn't the guy thing.
Okay, it was the guy thing, but it wasn't just the guy thing. It was the angel thing, and the commitment thing, and the trying to convert what had been mostly theory into practice thing all rolled into one. Dean loved people, and they left him, and those were your run of the mill people (for a given of run of the mill that included hunters who were (mostly) human). Dean hadn't been able to hold down a relationship even following the heteronormative roadmap the world had laid out for him time and again. What made him think he could manage it with a dude-shaped angel who spent half his time in Heaven corralling other rogue angels?
"Would it be easier if I reshaped this vessel?" Castiel asked, and Jesus, this was exactly why Dean didn't want to talk about it.
"It's not, uh—" Dean ran a hand against his face and wondered tiredly how he got himself into this shit. "You're still—you, under there."
Castiel's glare indicated that he thought that was kind of the point.
"And I'm still—" Fuck, Dean was not going to say it, not when he couldn't bring himself to act on it. Instead, he waved a hand vaguely and hoped Castiel got the message. "It doesn't matter what you look like." Dean paused, reconsidered. "Okay, if you looked like Claire or something, that would be fucked up and not okay. But—attraction isn't the only issue here, and it's not—I am, well—"
Dean hadn't felt so excruciatingly awkward since he'd made out with Bruce Meyers in the locker room when he was sixteen and stuck in some podunk Midwestern town and Bruce had pulled away to say, "But I'm not gay," despite initiating that first kiss.
"If it doesn't matter," Castiel said, looking all the more frustrated, "then why are you making this difficult?"
This is how they started having sex:
Dean was tired, and Castiel was angry, and they were both incredibly alone. For once, Dean didn't think it through, let it flow as smooth as a hundred hook-ups with strangers at a bar, at a club, at the end of a hunt. Castiel was already up in his space, maybe half an inch away, and Dean was sick of fighting, anyway. It was surprisingly easy to lean forward and let their lips slide together, to pull Castiel in until their hips aligned. It was surprisingly easy, Castiel's shift from arguing with his words to making his point with his hands and mouth, threading his fingers through Dean's hair and tearing at Dean's shirt. It was easy to stumble to the bed, to introduce Castiel to the joys of handjobs, to press his tongue into Castiel's mouth again, again, again. The fucking, that was incredibly, unexpectedly easy.
It was everything else that was hard.
Every angel, like every human, was unique. Castiel's entire garrison was comprised of warriors, but each was imprinted with more than the desire for battle. Uriel had a sharp tongue and was fiercely loyal; Anael was headstrong and insatiably curious; and for a long time, Castiel was the one that thought everything carefully through, could twist zir mind around bends and corners and corkscrews the way others walked straight lines.
Uriel lost faith and transferred zir loyalties to the fallen. Anael shed her responsibilities and leaped. And Castiel thought himself into corners, couldn't find her way out of a den of confusion and doubts before they dragged zir down.
"If you didn't want to go back to hunting," Sam said in an annoyed tone, "you could've told me."
"What are you talking about?" Dean asked, nearly fumbling the reload with blood-slick hands.
Sam swung the crowbar at the ghost, nearly clipping Dean's head, but it was better than being stabbed again.
"This is a cakewalk," Sam said, which, hey, Dean had been stabbed here. Cakewalk Dean's ass.
"Tell that to ghost Carey," Dean said, unloading a clip in the ghost's face and buying them another brief reprieve. "Seriously, I don't care how romantic that's supposed to be. There's something creepy about keeping a lock of your girlfriend's hair."
Anice yelled from the closet—and the next time Dean was settling for barricading the lesbian teens in the bathroom, because there was no way he was going through that shitstorm again—"Not everyone knows they're going to come back to try and kill your next girlfriend!"
The new girlfriend, Lauren—who'd finally said, "God, it's not like we can't come out again!" and actually picked Anice up and carried her over the salt line—yelled, "Stop distracting them!" A pause, in which Sam finally located the hair serving as a bookmark in a copy of a freaking dictionary, then, "And yes, it's creepy!"
Relationships, Dean thought, were definitely much, much more trouble than they were worth.
This is how Dean knew he was in trouble:
Lisa answered the door, but Dean was only a few feet behind, curious who would be calling this late and not ready to face the prospect of the guest bed and staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out his life if it wasn't structured around hunting down monsters and trying to hold his family, such as it was, together. It took Dean a long, long moment, not believing his eyes at first.
"Lisa," Dean said, drawing his gun and wishing he hadn't locked the majority of his supplies in the trunk of the Impala, "get away from the door."
"Dean, it's me," Sam said, holding up his hands.
Castiel stepped out from behind Sam, putting himself in the line of fire. "I'd rather not bring your brother back twice."
It was possible there were beings out there that could mimic Dean's dead brother and the best friend that had fucked off to Heaven, that could fool his brain into seeing the return of what he wanted most. It was easy enough to check.
Dean stepped forward, placing himself closer than Lisa, who was staring at the three with worry and edging toward the jug of holy water she'd started to keep on the entryway table. Castiel seemed largely unconcerned until Dean shot him twice in the chest.
"Shit!" Sam said, but Castiel just looked annoyed.
"Is this necessary?" Castiel asked.
"Yes," Dean said decisively. "Now you and Sam are going to step away from the house and keep going 'til you hit the other side of the street, and I'm going to retrieve some things from the car."
"Seriously?" Sam demanded.
"Seriously," Dean said. "Lisa—"
Lisa handed over the jug of water, eerily calm, and Dean was really glad he'd explained the whole angel thing when she'd gotten the story of the apocalypse that wasn't out of him. She said, quiet and for Dean's ears alone, "I'm going to take Ben to my mother's. Lock up behind you."
Somehow, Dean had the feeling she wasn't going to invite him back for more family dinners anytime soon.
Sam passed all the tests, wincing at cutting open his forearm with the silver knife, and Castiel, expression increasingly vexed, took the knife Dean handed him and stabbed himself in the heart. "Is this adequate?" Castiel asked. "Or will I be pulled away from my duties in Heaven by your brother's death again?"
Dean was too busy hugging Sam to reply. When he finally let go, Castiel had disappeared. He hadn't said goodbye this time, either, and it hit Dean, finally, that this was because Castiel had every intention of coming back.
"Sister," Anael said—or rather, not quite, because English was inadequate to convey the complexity of her words—the night before she fell, "what do you see when you look at the humans?"
Uriel sneered, but otherwise ignored the conversation.
"God's creations," Castiel said simply, wondering if this was a test. There were whispers, faint and unforgiving, of an angel balanced on the precipice.
"And us?" Anael asked, oddly wistful.
"We are also His creations," Castiel said. "And the instruments of Her will."
"Instruments," Anael repeated softly, the song of her soul subdued.
"We are no more and no less what He made us," Uriel said. "It's a pity for the humans Her best work came first."
At the time, looking down at the variety of life teeming on the Earth, billions of lives pushing and pulling and pressed up against each other, at the beauty in the chaos, Castiel had disagreed.
"What did you mean," Castiel said, voice careful and thoughtful, "when you said it's you?"
Sam took one look between them and said, "I'm going out," shamelessly stealing the car keys and abandoning Dean to death by embarrassment.
"It's, uh, it's the guy thing," Dean said.
(It wasn't the guy thing. It wasn't the guy thing, except how it sort of was.)
This is the first time Dean realized he was different:
He was fourteen, and Josh Burns had bent over to pick up the books he'd fumbled pulling from his locker, his jeans pulled tight across his ass. Never mind that Dean was in the middle of one of the busiest hallways during passing period, he was suddenly, embarrassingly hard. Sophie Park, one of those inexplicably sweet and popular senior cheerleaders, had leaned down to help Josh, and Dean was incredibly grateful, because Roger had noticed and elbowed Dean in the side, said, "Dude, she's out of your league."
"Yeah," Dean agreed for once instead of protesting his own inherent awesomeness, shifting his backpack in front of him. "Way out of my league."
Dean was already new and poor and a little bit off normal from being raised on the road, from living in a new state month to month. This was more than he could reasonably get away with, more than he should have to deal with on top of helping to raise his little brother and learning to train in a new weapon every week. They only stayed in Rhode Island for seventeen days, and Dean had never before been so happy to get the fuck out of town.
Castiel saw in more than four directions, could remember snatches of all possible futures, a number of impossible pasts. In her memory, she was stuck in a body with no wings and one inadequate voice, with two ordinary human hands that held pills and a gun and dried herbs rolled in thin slips of paper, with bony hips Dean's (not Dean's, not her Dean's) fingers dug into as she said, "I don't care anymore," before being suddenly released like her body burned half as fiercely as her cramped soul. In zir memory, ze knelt in Heaven and said, "I thought You would never return," every strand of zir being singing welcome and homecoming and unrestrained love. In his memory, Dean spoke, voice hoarse and hands shaking against Castiel's cheeks, "You have to know that I love you."
Sometimes, Castiel knew, it was better not to look.
Sam was pulling tight the makeshift belt tourniquet when Castiel appeared in Anice's living room.
"What the fuck!" Lauren shrieked and in the space of maybe half a second picked up the crowbar and swung it full-force at Castiel's head. The metal bent nearly in two, and Dean was never underestimating softball players ever again.
Castiel directed his annoyed expression first at her—and she shrieked again, diving for the canister by the couch—then at Dean, blinking unhappily at the sudden faceful of rock salt.
"That's a friend." Dean was torn between laughter, being impressed at Lauren's hunter instincts, and focusing on the pain that was demanding his attention now that the adrenaline was fading. Lauren looked from the bent crowbar back to Castiel, who was largely unscathed. Dean explained, "He's an angel."
"Come on," Anice said, exasperated. "Like I'm going to keep some dude's hair."
"Doesn't mean some random guy wasn't killed by the last tenant and buried under your floorboards ages ago," Lauren said, but at least she didn't try to grab the shotgun from Sam's side and shoot Castiel.
"Two unrelated ghosts in one house is unlikely," Sam said in one of his more reassuring tones, "and we already checked for other suspicious deaths in the area."
"We could've used you ten minutes ago," Dean said when Castiel crossed to his side.
"I understood," Castiel said, eyes flitting to Sam, "that this was to be a cakewalk."
"It was supposed to be." Dean rubbed his unhampered left hand against the back of his neck, and Castiel's eyes softened.
"Allow me," Castiel said, brushing two fingers against Dean's forehead, the pain vanishing and the blood disappearing. Castiel brushed off Sam's assistance and undid the belt himself, his hands on Dean embarrassingly (welcomely) proprietary.
"Whoa," Lauren said. "Touched by an angel."
Anice snorted. "Bad touched."
"I don't know, it kind of looks like he likes it."
Castiel stared at Dean with the hunted expression of one desperately hoping to be delivered from teenagers. Dean could only helplessly relate.
"He does," Sam said in a confidential tone.
And also add annoying little brothers to the list.
This is how Castiel attempted to explain:
"I'm not male."
"Uh," Dean said, looking Castiel up and down.
"I told you," Castiel said. "I'm an angel of the Lord."
"I'd noticed." Dean leaned against the side of the Impala, seemingly willing to engage the topic while waiting for the tank to fill. "What with the appearing out of thin air and smiting and shit."
Castiel could follow twenty possible twists to the conversation the way humans who enjoyed chess could plot two or twelve moves ahead, but Castiel had no more idea how to herd Dean down the desired conversation path than the average chess player could plot and win a war.
"Was there a seal or something that needed our attention?" Dean asked.
Sam was contemplating a packet of honey roasted peanuts in the gas station, and Castiel had at least two minutes more of Dean's focus.
"My brother is calling," Castiel said instead. She changed tacks, tried again to intervene as best he could. "Attend to yours."
Uriel was unhappy that Castiel had been attending the Winchesters when Castiel returned to zir side, but Uriel had long been dissatisfied since Anael's fall. Castiel worried, sometimes, that it was because they (the entire garrison, Castiel included) envied her the freedom.
It didn't bother Castiel that only the once had he met Dean Winchester clearly soul to soul or that Dean himself had difficulty consciously remembering it. Dean carried Castiel's brand on his shoulder and in his mind, held the memory of Castiel at zir most angelic deep and unforgettable written in the notes of his soul. However Dean did or didn't respond, whatever Dean did or didn't want, the song of his heart called always recognition.
In Heaven, Castiel spoke with many voices and could encompass the world with one hand. Castiel molded shape and self to need and whim, rounding hairpin corners and pausing to stretch in the space between stars with barely a thought. Castiel could hold Dean's life with the tips of zir fingers, could see a million paths traversed and avoided and open yet to travel.
In Heaven, as on Earth, Castiel was Castiel was Castiel.
On Earth, Castiel spoke with one voice so Dean could hear her and encompassed Dean's body in the circle of zir arms; molded himself to the contours of this temporary vessel as another might shrug on a coat; reached out to Dean and took a step forward, forward, forward, caring less about the path and more about the destination.
All Castiel wanted was Dean.
"I'm not trying to be difficult," Dean said.
"If the issue," Castiel said, voice low, invading Dean's space again, "is as inconsequential as the flesh that clothes me, I can fix that." His hands gripped the lapels of Dean's jacket. "If the issue is that I am no more my vessel than you are the clothes you wear—" He released Dean suddenly, took a step back. "I can't change that." As if correcting himself, "I won't change that."
"Fuck, Cas," Dean said softly. He reached for Castiel with trembling hands, framing Castiel's cheeks with his fingers and palms, because who Cas was had never been the problem. "You have to know," Dean said, voice hoarse. "You have to know that I—"
Of all possible pasts and futures, this is never how it goes:
Everything was simple, falling together like puzzle pieces slotted into place. There was a first meeting, a kiss, a happily ever after—maybe a wedding (or maybe not). The past was the past, and it stayed there, didn't keep Dean up nights working through his shit. The question of Castiel's identity, the loyalties writ deep in zir soul, never came up, never conflicted with his time with the Winchesters or her position in Heaven. Dean never panicked; Castiel never doubted. Everything came easy, and they never fought, desperate and unhappy and overjoyed in love, for every inch of their lives together.
(This is how it does: Uriel fell for other angels, and Anael fell for life, and Castiel fell for humanity. Dean fell in love. None of it was ever easy.)